Inspector Lassiter eyed the steps up to the main house as one would regard an old yet familiar foe. She had been assured that her new chair could handle such a short flight of stairs – a mere half dozen steps at a low, steady rake – but she had yet to put the theory into practise, and she didn’t think a possible kidnapping was the right time for such experimentation. Who would trust a detective if the first thing they did upon arrival was go arse over tit on your front porch?
The inspector’s new chair had been the toast of the Great Exhibition of 1851. A new era in wheelchair design, it didn’t have any wheels for a start. Steam-driven and gyroscopically balanced, it had a dozen legs fore and aft to carry it forward, like the fingers of a hand clawing its way along the ground. Both fascinating and disconcerting in equal measure, the ride was remarkably smooth, especially over rough terrain. And whilst it did bounce around a little if you had to turn on the spot, the spring-loaded seat meant it was more amusing than anything else (although certainly not terribly dignified). All told it was turning out to be quite a decent bit of kit. So long as it didn’t explode any time soon, the inspector was prepared to give it her tacit approval.
A young constable – impressively tall, and thinner than an after-dinner mint – appeared by the inspector’s side. “The search is under way ma’am. We’ve got four men at the front of the house, and six in the grounds round the back, with two checking the house for any sign of a break in.”
“Thank you, Constable. I don’t suppose you happened to notice if there was a ramp at the rear of the house?”
The constable screwed up his face in concentration. “No, ma’am, I didn’t. But I do believe there’s a slight rise in the land back there, so I think you’ll find the rear entrance to be at ground level, or as near as makes no difference.”
“Excellent, O’Hara. Perceptive as always.” The constable blushed, but said nothing.
Constable O’Hara had only been with Inspector Lassiter for a short while, but so far she had been pleased with his performance. He did what he was told, kept his mouth shut and his ears open, and he’d never once tried to patronise or condescend to the inspector, a commodity that was in short supply in the Force these days. She liked to think it was out of deference for her age and wisdom, but she suspected it had a lot to do with the five sisters he had back home.
“Right, let’s get to it then shall we? If you would be so kind.”
“Certainly, ma’am,” said Constable O’Hara, hopping up the front steps to yank on the door’s bell-pull.
He stepped to one side as the door swung open. A portly butler with an unconvincing comb-over appeared in the doorway. “Can I help you, sir?” Constable O’Hara looked to Inspector Lassiter. The butler, following his gaze, managed to hide his confusion well.
“Good morning. I am Inspector Lassiter of Wainwright’s Yard. Would you be so good as to inform the master of the house that I am here.”
“Certainly, madam. At once. I, er…” He glanced from the inspector’s chair, to the steps, and back to the chair again.
“Constable O’Hara will accompany you to the rear door of the house. I shall meet you there.”
The butler was visibly relieved. “Of course, madam,” he said, with a slight bend at the waist. “At once.”
The reception room of the manor was exactly as you would expect in such a grand country house. From the expansive fire surrounded by an elegant marble fireplace, to the plush sofas so deep they threatened to swallow you whole, it all served to remind the inspector that if these were the Haves, then she was most definitely a Have Not.
The inspector positioned her chair facing the two sofas either side of the fire, ready for when the family arrived, with Constable O’Hara stood behind her, notebook in hand, ready to do his bit.
The main door opened and in strode Charles Whitcombe-Hayes, the master of the house. A captain of industry, and a close personal friend to the royal family, he was known as a man who did not suffer fools gladly. He was already scowling when he entered the room, and the tableau he was presented with did little to improve his mood.
Striding up to the inspector, she saw him briefly consider addressing the constable first, although whether that was because he was a man, or because he had full use of his legs, she couldn’t say for certain.
“Good morning. Thank you for coming, Miss…”
“Lassiter. Inspector Lassiter. How do you do Mr Whitcombe-Hayes?” The inspector thrust out her hand which the gentleman shook reluctantly. “I am sorry that we have to meet under such circumstances, but I can assure you that we at Wainwright’s Yard will do everything in our power to find your son.”
“Thank you. I’m sure you will.” He said the words, but the look in his eye said he didn’t believe it. “Tell me, what have you done so far?”
The inspector gestured towards the nearest sofa. “Why don’t you have a seat sir.”
“I prefer to stand, thank you. Have you begun a search of the grounds?”
“We have sir, yes.”
“How many men?”
“A dozen men, sir.”
“A dozen men! Is that all? Why so few? Are you afraid you’ll run out?”
“A dozen men is more than enough for an estate of this size, believe me, sir. Although more will be brought in should the need arise.”
“Yes, well, I wouldn’t worry about that. I’ve instructed the boys to prepare themselves for a search. They should be heading out shortly.
The inspector gripped the arms of her chair. Damn these rich folks. Why could they never leave well enough alone. “There’s no need for that, sir. Our constables are very good at what they do. If your son is within the house grounds they will find him, I assure you. And they will do so without destroying any evidence, should foul play be involved.” She hoped he would catch the hint, but he didn’t seem in the mood to listen.
“Evidence be damned. We need to find my boy, and the sooner the better as far as I’m concerned.”
The inspector took a deep breath. “To that end, sir, perhaps you can tell me about your son. Name, age, height, hair colour, that sort of thing?”
Mr Whitcombe-Hayes hesitated. “Oh, er, well he’s about six or seven, probably yay high.” He held his hand level with the inspector’s chin. “Brown hair, average size for a child. Not very serious. Prone to flights of fancy.”
“Flights of fancy, sir?”
“Yes. Frightened of the dark, that sort of thing. Keeps thinking there’s monsters under the bed. As I say, not a serious child at all.”
Nor should any child be, at that age, thought the inspector. “And his name, sir?”
“Thomas. His name is Thomas.”
“And when was the last time anyone saw Thomas?”
“I… I can’t say for certain. I was away last night. Came back early this morning to find the whole place in an uproar. My wife would know better.”
“May we speak with her please?”
Mr Whitcombe-Hayes pulled a velvet cord hanging by the fireplace. A bell rang somewhere below stairs.
“And where were you last night, sir, if you don’t mind me asking?”
Mr Whitcombe-Hayes avoided the inspector’s gaze. “Oh, I was, er… in town, over night, taking care of some business. It’s a long ride back to the house so I often stay at the club if I, er, finish late.”
The inspector remained impassive. “Of course, sir.”
The door opened and the butler entered. “Ah, Frobisher. Would you ask Mrs Whitcombe-Hayes to come in here a moment? The Inspector would like a word with her.”
“As you wish, sir.”
“And if it’s not too much trouble, could you show Constable O’Hara here young Thomas’s room?” added the inspector. She turned to Mr Whitcombe-Hayes. “I’d take a look myself but I assume, considering the lack of ramp at the front of the house, that you haven’t had a chance to have a lift fitted yet?” Mr Whitcombe-Hayes at least had the decency to look embarrassed. The Ingress and Egress Act of 1849 was a landmark piece of legislation that required all building owners to make their properties accessible to all. It had taken decades to get it through the House, and even though it had passed with a comfortable majority, many still took umbrage at its existence, refusing to comply unless absolutely necessary.
Mr Whitcombe-Hayes avoided the inspector’s gaze. “Old house… No room… Architecturally difficult…” he harrumphed quietly to no one in particular.
There was a knock at the door. A young woman in a pale blue dress, her eyes red from crying, came into the room. “Is everything alright, Charles? Frobisher said you needed help with something?”
“Ah, Amelia. Do come in. Inspector, this is Amelia, my wife. Amelia, this is Inspector…?”
“Lassiter,” the inspector finished. “Pleased to meet you, ma’am.”
“And I you, Inspector. Is there any news of Thomas?”
“I’m afraid not, Mrs Whitcombe-Hayes. It’s too soon for any news yet.” Mrs Whitcombe-Hayes slumped visibly.
“Amelia, the inspector has a number of questions about Thomas that I think you would be best suited to answer. That’s alright, isn’t it? I need to get outside and see to the boys anyway. That rabble isn’t going to organise itself you know.”
Mr Whitcombe-Hayes didn’t wait for an answer. He was half way to the door before his wife could mumble a weary, “I suppose so.”
“Mr Whitcombe-Hayes,” called the inspector. “I think it would be best if–” The slamming of the door cut off her protestations. She turned to Mrs Whitcombe-Hayes, who offered up an apologetic smile.
“Don’t take it personally, Inspector. My husband keeps his own council in all things.”
The inspector smiled at the poor, exhausted woman stood before her. “Have a seat, Mrs Whitcombe-Hayes.”
“Thank you, Inspector. And please, do call me Amelia. Mrs Whitcombe-Hayes can be such a mouthful sometimes.” She lowered herself down to perch on the edge of the sofa, her hands clasped in front of her.
“Thank you, Amelia, that is most kind. Now, please, if you would, tell me about Thomas. When he was last seen? When he was discovered missing? That sort of thing.”
“Of course. Well, I guess I was the last person to see Thomas. I put him to bed at around seven. He didn’t want to go, he never wants to go, but one must be firm about these things.” The inspector heard her husband’s voice in what she said.
“Why didn’t he want to go to bed?”
“Thomas is afraid of the dark. Terrified of it really. I have to read to him until he falls asleep, then I have to leave the door open so that some light comes in from the hallway. He screams the place down if he wakes up and he cannot see anything.”
“You don’t leave a night light on in his room?”
“No. My husband is scared he’ll knock it over and start a fire. Leaving the door open is our compromise.”
“And apart from the door is anything else left open?”
Mrs Whitcombe-Hayes shook her head. “No. Never. All windows must be firmly shut, the curtains closed, as well as all cupboards and drawers. Thomas has such a vivid imagination. He can’t abide places where anything could… get out.”
The inspector smiled. “I have a niece who’s just the same. Has to be tucked in tight as anything, and won’t go to sleep until someone’s checked under the bed.” Smiling in return, Mrs Whitcombe-Hayes seemed to relax a little. She stopped fiddling with her wedding ring and deliberately placed her hands flat on her lap. “And when was Thomas discovered missing, Amelia?”
“This morning, at around six. Nanny went in to get him ready for his bath and she found his bedclothes thrown aside and his room empty. She raised the alarm right away. That was when my husband came home.”
“And there were no signs of foul play anywhere in the house?”
“No, none. We’ve checked everywhere.”
“I see. And, if I may, do you or your husband have any enemies? Someone who might wish to do you harm? A disgruntled servant perhaps, who might have access to the house?”
“No. Nothing like that. We are a happy house, Inspector. Everyone who works here has been with us for many years.”
“And what about your husband’s business dealings? Any trouble there I should be made aware of?”
Mrs Whitcombe-Hayes looked away for a moment. “That is something you will have to discuss with him, Inspector. I’m afraid I don’t know about such things.” No, I’m sure you don’t, the inspector thought, watching Mrs Whitcombe-Hayes.
Constable O’Hara re-entered the room. Inspector Lassiter turned around to face him. “Well, Constable? What did you find?”
“Everything was as you’d expect, Inspector. No sign of a forced entry around the windows, no mud on the sill, or on the carpet, and the furniture was undisturbed. The bedclothes were pushed to one side, but that’s about it. It’s like the little lad got up to fetch a glass of water and simply never got back into bed again.”
“And the whole house has been searched? You’re sure of it?”
“I am, Inspector. Once by our lot, and at least once by the staff before we got here.”
“Very well,” said the inspector, turning back to Mrs Whitcombe-Hayes. She took a deep breath. This was where things could get unpleasant. “Amelia, forgive me for asking, but how are things between you and your husband?” Mrs Whitcombe-Hayes looked genuinely confused.
“Everything is fine Inspector. Why, what makes you think they wouldn’t be?”
“Oh, no reason. No reason in particular. It’s just that in my experience, when a husband makes a habit of being away from home over night, it’s not always for the reason he claims it to be, if you catch my drift.”
Mrs Whitcombe-Hayes’s confusion turned to surprise. “An affair do you mean?”
“That is most often the case, yes.”
Mrs Whitcombe-Hayes gave a wan smile. “Inspector, my husband has many faults, but philandering is not one of them. What he told you about being up in town on business is true, although probably not in the way that you understand.” She glanced at the door, then leant forward slightly, the inspector leaning in to meet her, as Constable O’Hara found something fascinating on the ceiling to look at. “In truth, all is not well at my husband’s mill. The recent downturn in airship manufacture has meant a drop in demand for canvas that he is finding hard to bear. He’s been working day and night to find new business – often sleeping on the couch in his office, not at the club as he likes to tell everyone – so that he won’t miss an opportunity should it come knocking. I would not say that he is in dire straits just yet, but another six months of this and he may need to start taking more drastic action.”
“I see. And who else knows about all this, may I ask?” People about to get laid off would have a powerful motive to take matters into their own hands. There could be a ransom demand on the way.
“Oh, no one Inspector. No one at all. Only my husband and his accountant, as far as I know. Even I do not know, officially that is. But I consider it a wife’s duty to know all that goes on in her husband’s life, don’t you agree?”
“A wise position to take,” the inspector agreed, nodding. Turning her chair towards the constable she beckoned him closer. “O’Hara, you’ve been through the house, was there nothing out of the ordinary that you saw? Nothing at all?”
“No ma’am, nothing. It’s very much your average country house, if somewhere like this could ever be called average.”
“And you’re sure nothing was out of place in the boy’s room?”
“No ma’am. Apart from an inordinate amount of toys I found nothing untoward there either.”
“What’s that you say?”
“Well, the young lad has quite a large toy chest at the foot of his bed, but still there were toys all over the floor. I didn’t count how many, but he’s got more toys than I’ve had hot dinners, I reckon.”
The inspector seemed to smile briefly. “Do me a favour, Constable. Go and look in the boys toy chest. I’m intrigued to know just how many toys the young lad actually has?”
Bizarre though the request was, Constable O-Hara knew better then to argue. Back up the stairs he went.
Inspector Lassiter turned back to Mrs Whitcombe-Hayes. “Tell me Amelia, what kind of a boy is Thomas? You say he has quite an imagination. Does he like playing games?”
Mrs Whitcombe-Hayes’s face lit up. “Oh, indeed he does. He’s always coming up with something fun for everyone to do. And he loves drawing, making things, playing out in the garden. He’s never at a loss for ways to amuse himself.”
“And I bet he enjoys all the usual games children play? Tag, hopscotch, ring-a-ring-a roses?” There was a commotion somewhere upstairs. “Hide and seek, perhaps?”
“Yes. All of those,” said Mrs Whitcombe-Hayes, glancing at the door. “I’m sorry, but is something going on up there?” They heard footsteps on the stairs, and voices shouting, although what they were saying was hard to make out. The door to the room opened, and in walked Constable O’Hara carrying a small boy still in his bedclothes.
“You’ve caused quite a kerfuffle you know. Your mum and dad were worried sick about you.” The lad’s head hung in shame.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to.”
“Thomas!” Mrs Whitcombe-Hayes leapt up and ran to her son, scooped him up in her arms. “Thomas, where have you been? We’ve been looking everywhere for you? Are you alright?” Behind her, a gaggle of maids and footmen had appeared in the doorway, smiles and tears all over their faces. Stepping out of the way Constable O’Hara grinned at the inspector, throwing her an ill-advised cheeky wink at the same time. The inspector was so happy to see mother and child reunited she decided to let it slide, for now.
“I’m sorry mummy,” the boy mumbled, his chin glued to his chest. “I heard a noise and got scared. I didn’t mean to do it.” Tears welled up in his eyes.
“Oh, it’s alright Thomas, really it is. So long as you’re safe that’s all that matters.”
At the back of the house a door slammed. The staff scattered. “Where is he?” Mr Whitcombe-Hayes yelled. He appeared in the doorway, his face like thunder, but one look at his wife and child and his expression softened – or, at least, softened as much as a face such as his could. He embraced his family briefly before turning to the inspector. “Where was he?” he demanded.
“Asleep in his toy chest,” the inspector replied. “The poor lad heard a noise in the middle of the night and hid. Then I’m guessing he simply fell asleep, and had no idea what was going on around him.” Mr Whitcombe-Hayes gave a confounded harrumph.
“His toy chest you say? Unbelievable. How did no one find him before? Did no one check?”
The inspector shrugged. “It seems that no one thought to look there. I’m guessing they assumed his room to be empty, and that is why the boy was not found. Not during our initial search, or indeed your own, sir.”
Mr Whitcombe-Hayes harrumphed a little more. “Yes, well, all’s well that ends well eh? Sorry to have dragged you out here and all that. Still, can’t be helped, eh? If there’s anything I can do, anything at all, please let me know. One good deed deserves another, what?”
“Well, since you mention it, sir, there is one thing you can do for me.”
“Oh yes? And what is that?”
“Get a lift fitted.”