Sunday, March 8, 2009

Smoking Can Be Deadly - Part 4

I arrived in Regency the next morning to find Sergeant Bishop waiting for me on the corner across from Pons and Swettloe. Neither of us remarked upon the previous evening’s exchange, and her greeting was slightly cool, although I noticed the sergeant was now sporting a pink hair ribbon and had taken care with her makeup so that the damage on the right side of her face was hardly visible.

“Shall we see what the shop can tell us?”

A small man wearing a dapper vest greeted us as we walked in. No doubt he received few female customers, and even fewer police officers. When he saw us, it appeared as though his enthusiasm was somewhat dampened, but he did his best to conceal the fact.

“How may I assist you, Officer, miss,” he nodded at each of us.

“I’m Sergeant Bishop of the Caledon police, and this is my…associate, Miss Rhianon Jameson. We’re hoping you can help us with some tobacco we discovered in the context of an ongoing investigation.” This piece of information did not seem to faze the small man, who turned out to be Mr. Swettloe (Mr. Pons having been deceased for several years, we learned). The sergeant again produced the tin in which she was keeping the evidence. Mr. Swettloe confirmed Mr. Wimsey’s identification of the tobacco as a blend from the Saint Kitt Islands.

“It’s exquisite,” he said, “but exceedingly rare. I am led to understand that this type of tobacco requires a particular kind of volcanic soil that is native to Saint Kitt, but Governor Shang would not approve of tobacco farming on the colony. Consequently, the area farmed is very small, and done sub rosa, under the guise of a scientific expedition studying the volcano. Very little is produced, but what does arrive makes excellent cigars.”

“And you stock these cigars here, Mr. Swettloe?” Sergeant Bishop asked.

“Whenever I can. Unfortunately, I am out of stock at the moment, and do not know when additional supplies might arrive. In fact, I rarely keep any new stock more than a few hours. One of my customers has a standing request that I call him immediately when these cigars arrive, and he buys whatever stock I have.”

The sergeant and I looked at one another. “What is the name of this customer?” she asked.

Mr. Swettloe looked nervous, and tugged on the bottom hem of his vest. “I’m not sure I am at liberty to say, Officer. My customers rely on me to be…discrete.”

“Come now, sir,” I sputtered, “we do not ask about illegal activities, business secrets, or even secret vices. There is no shame in buying a high-quality cigar, is there?”

“No, of course not.”

Sergeant Bishop interjected, “This is a police matter, sir. I could compel your records, but I’m sure we would both prefer to do this the easier way.”

Faced with the threat, Mr. Swettloe relented. “It’s Lord Rolfe, Officer. He lives nearby, and would buy even more of these cigars if he could.”

“Do you have any other customers for this particular brand?”

“It is possible that I have sold an individual box to two or three other customers some time ago, but it has been many months since anyone but Lord Rolfe has purchased one.”

I leaned in again. “Do you know if other tobacconists in Caledon would stock this brand?”

He gave a sly smile. “I have no doubt that one or two others would do so if they could. But the Saint Kitt tobacco leaf is not widely known, and the supply is so limited that I buy all that is offered to me – which Lord Rolfe, in turn, buys from me.” At a generous markup, no doubt, I thought. “I dare say that you will find no one else in the realm with such a supply.”

Thanking him, we bid him good day and departed. I restrained my enthusiasm this time, but it seemed as though the cigar ash was turning into an excellent stroke of luck. Sergeant Bishop wisely refused to take Mr. Swettloe’s word for it that no other shop stocked the brand, but was confident enough about what the investigation would discover that she set the three constables assigned to the case on it. “I think it is time I had a talk with Lord Rolfe.”

“I would very much like to accompany you on this interview,” I said.

We had a brief argument about the propriety of my doing so, but she recognized that she needed a second person present to corroborate her version of events, and ultimately concluded that the interview would have to wait until the constables finished their assignment unless someone available – that would be me – could attend. We made our way past several gated mansions until we reached Pemberley Street, where Lord and Lady Rolfe lived.

The house was of modest size, but ornately decorated, and the property was enclosed by a high, wrought-iron fence. Old-growth trees created a lush canopy over the property, and a flagstone path led from the gate to the front door. The family crest flew below the Caledon flag. We stood before a rococo door while Sergeant Bishop rang the bell. A butler, who identified himself as Neville, answered. The sergeant explained we were interested in speaking with Lord Rolfe about a police matter. Neville bowed and bade us wait in the front room while he spoke with his master. I could see a silver walking stick and top hat waiting on a table by the vestibule.

As we waited, an elegantly-dressed woman, as tall and broad-shouldered as a man, walked by the room and down the hall. She was, I dare say, quite unattractive, with a perpetual scowl on her face and thinning gray hair pulled into a shapeless bun. I surmised that was the lady of the house. Shortly afterward, Neville returned and said that Lord Rolfe had agreed to grant us an audience. We made our way down the hall – I could not help admiring the collection of Chinese vases that stood on various display tables, or the sequence of old paintings, no doubt representing generations of Rolfes, that lined the wall. At the end of the hall was a large oak door which, like the other doors we passed, was marked by an intricate design. Neville knocked and opened the door.

“Sergeant Bishop, of the Caledon police, and Miss Rhianon Jameson, to see you, sir,” he announced.

“Show them in, Neville, and then you may leave us.” Lord Rolfe rose from an armchair to greet us. He was a man of perhaps fifty years old, of middle height and build, but exuding both power and charm, though he was starting to go a little soft in the belly. He was attractive, I suppose, if one likes that sort of thing. Although the hour had not yet struck ten o’clock, when we came in, he laid down what appeared to be a large whisky in a crystal tumbler. He swayed slightly, and his words slurred as though this was not his first of the day.

“Ladies, how charming to meet you! Please come in and have a seat, and tell me what I can do today for the defenders of law and order. Big supporter of L and O, you know – contributed several hundred to last year’s Policeman’s Benefit ball. Or should that be Policewomen’s ball, now, ha ha? In any event, welcome to my humble abode.”

We sat on a couch facing him. He sat again, picking up his drink in the process in one fluid movement. “I’m forgetting my manners! May I offer you ladies anything to drink – Neville will bring it in just a moment. Sherry, perhaps?”

I detested sherry. While I was thinking through my dilemma, the sergeant replied, “It’s a bit early for us, sir.”

“Something else? Tea? Hot chocolate?”

She declined refreshments for both of us. “Let me get right to the point as to why we’re here. Are you familiar with a woman by the name of Nancy O’Reilly?”

Lord Rolfe sipped his drink and made a caricature of thinking. “O’Reilly, O’Reilly, let me see…I know an O’Melveny, and an O’Grady…O’Reilly, you say? Hmm, no, can’t say I do.”

I allowed an eyebrow to arch upward. Sergeant Bishop was more direct. “Are you sure, sir? I ask this because I have two witnesses that can positively identify some of your personal property at a flat Miss O’Reilly used.” I had to admire the nerve of the woman, as well as her ability to stretch the truth.

At that moment, the door was opened abruptly, and the gray-haired woman flew in. “Aloysius! What are you doing in here with these two women? My God, carrying on under my roof!” She appeared quite deranged, and, while we were clearly engaged in no improprieties, she did not seem prepared to accept our word or the evidence of the tableau before her. Her husband was unconcerned, however, and replied mildly, “Helga, my dear, these two young ladies are here collecting money for the Policeman’s Benevolent Society, as you can tell by Sergeant Bishop’s uniform.”

This went beyond stretching the truth, and I was bewildered as to why he would tell such a bald-faced lie to his wife. This response did not mollify the woman in any way, however, and she continued to speak of us in most unpleasant terms. As she ran out of invective, Lord Rolfe stood, and, walking to the doorway where his wife stood, grasped her firmly by the arm and guided her into the hallway. We could hear him speak in soothing tones. Eventually, we could hear her footsteps retreat down the hall.

He returned to his chair, an apologetic smile on his face. “Sorry for the disruption, ladies. Helga is…not well, and sometimes says things she doesn’t really mean. Very sad, really, as she was a talented amateur chef in her day. Since she became ill, she has had no outside interests. Now, where were we?” The aristocrat tapped an elegantly-manicured fingernail against his incisors. “Ah, yes, Miss O’Reilly. Nancy, of course! Yes, you’ve got me, madam. Indeed, I know the lady. But surely the police are not concerning themselves with my choice of lady…friends, are they?”

“Lady friends? Of course not, Lord Rolfe. Murder is our business, though. The lady in question was nearly nine months pregnant, subjected to horrible indignities, her unborn child killed, and then she, too, was murdered. I would say that constitutes police business, all right. What’s more, we think you are responsible.”

Lord Rolfe put his glass down with a bang. “What utter balderdash! I admit I knew the woman. It’s certainly possible she was carrying my child, though how anyone would go about proving such a thing, given her morals, is beyond me. But murder? What would I care if she had my bastard? What possible reason would I have to murder her?”

I leaned forward. “Perhaps she was blackmailing you, sir. It wouldn’t be unheard of.”

“No, certainly not. But…” He stopped his sentence entirely, paused, and then started anew. “Woman, do you have any idea who I am?” This seemed to be a rhetorical question, so I waited. “I am a wealthy man, which means I can afford what I want. I am a handsome man, or so I’ve been told, which means I can take who I want. And I have friends in government, but I care nothing for the public eye, which makes me blackmail-proof. As you saw, my wife is not well, and no doubt unhappy with my indiscretions, but her illness makes her incapable of stopping me. If Miss O’Reilly had tried to blackmail me, I would have had the police on her, and hang the consequences! If she had convinced me the bastard was mine, I would have provided her with a little income on the condition she never bother me again, and that would have been that. I certainly did not kill the unfortunate woman, or this child of hers.” With that speech done, he picked up the glass again and drained it, looking at the two of us with defiance in his eyes.

“That may well be,” Sergeant Bishop replied slowly. “Nonetheless, we know you visited her, as we have evidence your unique brand of cigar was smoked in her room. Residue from that same brand of cigar was found on the infant’s body. How do you explain that, my lord?”

At first Lord Rolfe looked contemplative, then puzzled, yet he made no reply. He rose slowly, causing Sergeant Bishop to assume a defensive posture – I could attest to the speed and strength of her mechanical arm, which was now hidden beneath her tunic – but he made no aggressive move toward her. Rather, he walked deliberately to his humidor and peered inside. He wrinkled his brow.

“Sergeant, Miss Jameson, would you excuse me for a moment? As you can imagine, this news is quite upsetting, and I need a moment to myself.”

The sergeant looked suspiciously at him. I could tell she was thinking I wasn’t born yesterday. But Lord Rolfe correctly interpreted her concern, and he assured her, “I am not trying to escape the clutches of the law, if that’s what you are thinking. I wish only to retreat to my private W.C., which is located next to the library, just down the hall, with no possible avenue outside the house. There I wish to splash some cold water on my face, and compose my thoughts, for I have no doubt you have additional questions for me.” My companion nodded warily at him – surely there was a trick awaiting. Lord Rolfe managed a ghastly smile in gratitude, picked up his walking stick, and made his way down a corridor, turning into an interior room. If my recollection of the design of the house was accurate, the only windows in that direction would look into the interior courtyard of the property.

Sergeant Bishop turned to me. “I feel confident our next journey will be back to police headquarters with Lord Rolfe in tow. Money and connections aside, he will be in a jail cell tonight.”

I was less certain. While we awaited the return of our host, I retraced his steps to the humidor in the sitting room and peered in. The humidor was a small one, holding up to twenty cigars in two rows, and had no lock. The top row had five cigars remaining, while the bottom contained nine. All appeared to be identical and, to the best of my recollection, appeared to be made of the Saint Kitts tobacco Harland Wimsey had enjoyed in my presence at the Burning Leaf. Still, I failed to understand the relevance of the humidor to Lord Rolfe’s state of mind.

As I stood there, we could hear a muffled gunshot. The direction appeared to be down the hall. The sergeant raced out of the room, and I followed more slowly – among other reasons, my thought was that, where one gunshot was heard, another could follow, and I preferred to remain out of the line of fire. Neville was also moving in that direction as quickly as his elderly legs would allow him.

Heedless of any possible danger lurking behind the door to the library, Sergeant Bishop threw open the door and quickly moved in. There was indeed a private water closet adjoining the library, but Lord Rolfe had not made it there. Instead, he had sat at a magnificent inlaid mahogany desk, pulled a pistol from one of its drawers, and shot himself in the temple. His body slumped forward onto the blotter, knocking a quantity of paper and two leather-bound volumes to the side. The gun lay on the floor.

Neville rushed in to tend to his master, but Sergeant Bishop stopped him with a look. “No one but the police is to come any closer. Neville, please send for Captain Armstrong and a squad as quickly as possible.” Ever the professional, Neville controlled himself, bowed, and left, taking a last look at his master.

“I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave as well, Rhianon. I don’t want questions about the integrity of the evidence.”

“I understand. Shall I wait in the sitting room?” She nodded, and I retreated toward the sitting room.

En route, my passage was blocked by Helga, Lady Rolfe, looking confused. “I thought I heard a gunshot? Was there an intruder?” She looked at me more carefully, and her eyes narrowed. “I know you – you’re the trollop who was with my Aloysius!” I looked down at my ensemble, and thought that, while I was perhaps a little on the daring side, I in no way resembled a trollop, and found her comment rather unfair. Before I could reply, Neville came hurrying back, having sent his boy with a note to police headquarters. Neville said soothingly, “Here, my lady, there is nothing to be alarmed of. It’s time for your laudanum. I’ll bring it to your room.” She nodded, turned around, and wandered back down the hall, to the staircase, and up the stairs. When Neville left, presumably to mix the tonic for his mistress, I went back to the sitting room.Despite the early hour, I felt as though I had earned a drink. Taking another of the crystal tumblers off the sideboard, I poured a generous helping of Lord Rolfe’s whisky, feeling confident he would not be needing it. I sat and pondered.

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