Well, this is luxury. I’m in the back seat of a car appreciating the fine stitching on the initials “H.W.” emboridered into the leather, and I’m taking in a view of the countryside just outside the city. It’s raining, but then it’s always raining. Still, trees make a nice change from grey buildings and flickering lights even though I’m not sure I could stand it for long.
“Penny for your thoughts, Mister Rake?” asks Joseph. Joseph’s my driver; not long-term, of course. I haven’t suddenly come into a fortune while I’ve been away, no. Joseph was sent to fetch me at the request of his employer who right now and for a tidy little daily retainer also happens to be my employer.
“Just admiring nature, Joseph,” I tell him. “I had a potted plant once but this is quite different.” I can tell from his eyes in the rear view mirror that he’s smiling at that but he doesn’t say anything. We’ve already had a short chat on the drive out from the city so there’s not a lot else to say. Joseph’s young and friendly and has told me bits and pieces about life working up at the mansion but I figure it’s easier to not press him too hard and conduct my full investigation when I get there. And if that means the case takes a little longer, well, my wallet certainly won’t complain.
The mansion’s a little smaller and a little more rundown than I was expecting but Mrs Warmer is just the same as when she surprised me in the office five days earlier.
“Joseph!” she addresses the driver in her nasally voice. “Take Mister Rake’s bag to the guest room in the west wing after you’ve parked the car. Mister Rake,” she says to me, slipping a hand around the crook of my arm, “let me give you a quick tour and then you’ll want to freshen up I have no doubt.”
I hope she’s not making some comment about my suit because it’s the only one I’ve got so I just smile and nod and let her take me for a quick wander through the house. It’s your standard mansion layout with a large entrance hall and its obligatory black-and-white tiles and required-by-law impressively wide staircase. Doors to the left and right at the front of the building lead to drawing rooms and dining rooms while there’s a gentlemen’s room to the rear and the servants’ quarters along with kitchen and pantry too. Upstairs it’s bedrooms, a cloak room, and a small library with some nice views to the tree-lined drive we arrived by out the front and a modest, well-tended lawn out back surrounded by various bushes and a small building.
“Is that where the professor usually worked?” I ask, gesturing at the building at the far end of the garden. Mrs Warmer confirms that it was so I tell her that I want to take look.
“It’s raining quite heavily,” she tells me, reaching for a bell pull near the window we’re gazing out from. “I’ll get Joseph to fetch umbrellas and take you across.”
“No need, Mrs Warmer,” I answer quickly, stopping her hand gently. “Perhaps it will be best if I run across there on my own anyway.” She’s looking at me with a little suspicion in her eyes. I get that a lot – yeah, even from little, old, recently-widowed ladies – but I can be quite disarming when I flash my pearly whites. “I’m sure you’ve seen the lab plenty of times already.” She tells me Henry told her she was never to go in there and it holds no interest for her to disobey him now. “I just want to take a quick look and get a feel for the case,” I let her know and head off before she has a chance to drag Joseph into babysitting duty.
This definitely smells like a lab but it looks more like a private office so I’m trying not to drip too much on everything. There are a few beakers here and there and a couple of flasks of some liquid or another on shelves, plus some dangerous-looking copper wiring running up and around the walls which seems to be causing my skin to itch, but a lot of the building’s single room seems given over to books. I’m not completely stupid but I’m also not so smart that reading through this lot will give me much insight into whatever the professor was doing before his death. Still, the chalkboard mounted on the wall by the door catches my eye on account of the octagon outline, arrows, and odd markings on it. There are some words in educated-looking scrawl inside the diagram: “metathesis field”.
I pick up a couple of books and glance at the spines; yeah, there’s no way I’m reading these. I give them a shake just in case. I heard from a detective friend down on the coast a year or so back that a clue fell out of a book once when he did that. No such luck for me.
There’s the sound of splashing from outside and I spot Joseph running from the house along the puddle-covered path towards me. He’s got an umbrella up and another under his arm. Bless that old dear, but it’s not as if I’d be much wetter than I am anyway without it now.
“Hey! Mister Rake!” shouts Joseph, standing in the doorway a few seconds later. “Mrs Warmer said you needed some assistance getting back.”
“Thanks, Joseph,” I reply. “Call me Rick.” I get the feeling he probably won’t. I don’t think there’s anything obvious that’s going to help me here. I ask him if he wants to come in out of the rain but he shakes his head and tells me that Mrs Warmer would be happier if the people who knew Henry left this one place of his alone. I can think of better shrines. “I’ll just lock up,” I tell him and then something really quite strange happens.
“What are you doing down there?” asks Joseph. It’s a good question.
“That’s a good question,” I answer as I lift the startled-looking moggy off my chest and push myself out of the puddle and off the floor outside the building where I find myself laying. I’m now so wet that the umbrella Joseph hands me won’t make the slightest difference but I take it anyway.
“What happened?” asks Joseph. I buy some time trying to recollect and ask him to tell me what he just saw. “You came out of the lab and fell over while I was putting your umbrella up.” He looks confused and sounds unconvinced, but I might just be projecting.
“And then a ginger tom jumped on me,” I add slowly, watching it run across the grass towards the shelter of some bushes or just away from us. “Apparently. Did you see me fall over?” Joseph’s silence is all the answer I need. “Let’s get back to the house,” I say, and Joseph looks a little relieved to hear that. “I have got to get some dry clothes.” I can’t help but look back at the lab as we make our way to the mansion. Odd things happen in my line of work and I’m no stranger to them but this was peculiar even by my standards. I realise I never locked up, but who’s going to break in?
The bath’s helped me recover a bit but the need to borrow some of Professor Warmer’s clothes makes me feel a bit uncomfortable and not just because he was a couple of inches shorter than me. Mrs Warmer doesn’t seem to mind but she strikes me as one of those type of ladies who gets over tragedies quickly. I get a chance to talk to her when we meet on the landing and ask her to tell me what sort of man her husband was.
“Well, Mister Rake, Henry was a private man but he was a good husband. A little emotional,” she confides with a hint of a smile, “prone to blubbing, and dedicated to his work.”
“Work for the government,” she said quickly. “It’s no secret that’s who he worked for, although the specifics were never explained, and I never asked. I do know he’d recently completed something important.” I persuade Mrs Warmer to tell me about his death. “Gloria, the cook, found him in the smoking room. The police say he had been hit from behind with a metal pole but couldn’t determine who by and found no indication of an intruder or any sign that anything had been taken. They gave up on him. We were all questioned but I don’t believe anyone in this house was responsible.”
“And the government?” I ask. “If he worked for them did they get in touch?”
“Two men took some papers from his laboratory, but nothing more.” I can see her lip tremble a little so I decide to ease away from the conversation with one last question.
“Did the professor have any outside interests?”
“He loved his car, Mister Rake,” she says after the shortest of pauses. It’s a nice car, I’ll admit; the ride was lovely and it was well looked-after but that pause is more interesting to me.
I’ve got time for a quick meeting with Gloria before she has to prepare food for the evening meal. I’m a detective so I’m used to reading people quickly and Gloria is no exception; this is one dangerous lady. She’s got eyes that can pierce plate armour and the kind of lips that could be used as a life preserver if you ever got washed overboard at sea. Tall, slender, and dressed to accentuate the curves she’s got, she looks out of place here in the countryside when she could be breaking hearts and causing car crashes in the city. She’s also very flustered right now.
“Gloria, it’s okay,” I say, trying to calm her down but there’s a mix of fury and fear behind those long eyelashes. “I’m a man of the world,” I add. I’m not trying to hit on her, although the thought is somewhere at the back of my mind. Gloria struggles and pulls up her underwear underneath her skirt. “That’s a hell of a first impression to make,” I say with what I hope is a genuine smile and then try to introduce myself.
“I know who you are Rick Rake. We all know who you are.” A voice like smoke trapped in an ice cube. That reminds me: it’s been a while since I had a drink and I’m hoping the old professor liked whiskey.
She lights a cigarette and tries to calm herself. She’s not the friendly sort so I try to assert a dominant position. “Would you mind telling me why you were doing exactly what you were just doing?” I ask, and nod towards the small puddle on the hallway tiles near her feet.
Gloria’s not the sort to be dominated and she draws herself up, straightening her clothing. It’s a nice sight. “I have no idea,” she says in a matter-of-fact tone. “Perhaps we’re all still very stressed over Henry’s death.”
I tell her she’s probably right and ask if she’s happy to answer a few questions. She agrees so long as she can clean up the mess and water the plant in the window while I do so. I think it’s for the best that she does. I start by asking her about the day of the murder.
“I had driven the two of us into the city so that the professor could pick up some books from the library and I could pick out some new cutlery for the dining room. At around three I drove us back. I prepared food. I laid the food at six. The professor was not at the table so I went to look for him at Mrs Warmer’s request and that’s when I found him in the smoking room.”
“Do you often drive the professor around?”
“In the past year, yes.” I’m getting one of those hunches that occur whenever there’s wealthy men and stunningly attractive women on the scene so I ask her directly if she and the professor were seeing one another behind Mrs Warmer’s back. “Absolutely not!” Gloria hisses at me. She’s mopped up the floor now and I notice her glancing at the flowering thing in the pot in the window but she tells me she has to clean herself up before she prepares the late meal and leaves. She looks good leaving.
I take a quick look at the scene of the alleged crime but it’s pretty much exactly as I expected. A couple of leather chairs, a bookcase, a view out onto the garden through large, locked doors. I can tell where the body was found because of the familiar, dark stain on the floorboards behind the standalone bar. I’m more interested in the bar; it’s one of those highly-polished, rosewood jobs, curved and containing an assortment of bottles including an unopened, twenty-year-old single malt. I’m tempted to crack the seal but I don’t want to press my luck as it’s not often I have any.
I notice Joseph getting soaked outside, pruning some bushes back, and I see that he keeps well away from the professor’s lab. Something about the shape of that building starts nagging at me but I’m finding it hard to think straight. I figure I’m a little tired so I decide to take a nap before food.
I’ve just made a strange noise while sitting in a toboggan in my bedroom. You’re probably wondering why and, truth be told, so am I as I’ve got no memory of climbing the stairs and this wooden contraption certainly wasn’t next to my bed earlier. That’s twice now that something very odd has happened. No, I correct myself, three times if I include Gloria’s strange behaviour too. And just like that I think I’ve solved this case. Mrs Warmer’s not going to like it.
I’m sitting opposite Mrs Warmer in the dining room and Gloria’s just walked in with the bowls of soup that constitute our first course. Gloria does a good job of keeping her face neutral in my presence. Joseph had held open the door for her as her hands were full so I take advantage of everyone being present and ask him to step in. Mrs Warmer and Gloria look shocked and Joseph flinches but I beckon him in with a “please.”
“Mrs Warmer,” I start, “I’m afraid that your husband’s death was an accident.” I was right; Mrs Warmer doesn’t look like she likes this revelation.
“Mister Rake, if you are going to tell me that my husband accidentally killed himself with a metal pole then it would appear that your detecting skill may have been overstated by the inspector and I’ll get Joseph to drop you back to the city immediately.”
I make a mental note to thank the inspector for sending work my way but raise a finger to stop Mrs Warmer and Joseph who looked like he was getting ready to fulfill his employer’s wishes right that second. “Let me explain,” I say and then I throw a letter down on the table.
“What’s that?” asks Gloria but I can see she recognises it.
“That’s a letter of recommendation from the professor to his friend Harvey at the city planetarium. It’s recommending you and your cooking skills, Gloria. I took it from your bedside table before coming down here.”
“How dare you!” spits Gloria, reaching across for the letter and grabbing it. I let her have it.
“Mrs Warmer,” I say, addressing her face-to-face, “your husband was about to relocate as he had completed this phase of work for the government. Your husband had affections for Gloria here and wanted to make sure she had work to look forward to.”
“He mentioned it but there were no firm plans,” admits Mrs Warmer, and then looks at Gloria. “I can’t believe you’re saying that Gloria killed Henry because he confided in her that he wouldn’t take her along. I can’t believe that at all.”
“No,” I interrupt, before Gloria has a chance to reply in a way that will probably see her blacklisted from employment in the state for years to come. “Gloria’s not as innocent as you may think but she’s not guilty of any crime either. As I said: the death was an accident but this letter was the trigger. The professor was working on something called the ‘metathesis field’. More than that, he’d finished it and has it working right now in his laboratory. There’s a board on the wall by the door in there that shows a plan of the building and indicates that the wiring around it is generating this field right now. Anyone who goes inside it faces the risk of unpredictable metathesis events at any time.”
“Can I ask what this metathesis thing is,” asks Joe, looking decidedly confused but only a little more so than the others in the room.
“A metathesis event swaps sounds or letters around in sentences making entirely new events take place,” I explain. It’s the sort of explanation that’s lost on Joseph so I continue: “For example, when I went to leave the laboratory, do you remember what happened?”
“You fell over,” Joseph answers slowly.
“No, I didn’t,” I reply, standing up. “I had intended to lock up and place the key under the mat as Mrs Warmer had asked. What happened was that I suddenly found me under a cat. Do you understand?”
“That’s preposterous!” Gloria’s looking like she thinks she’s being taken for a fool and I know she’s got a bit of a temper so I need to persuade her most of all.
“You’ve been in the lab, Gloria, so you know exactly what I’m talking about. You’ve had some strange events happen to you too.”
Mrs Warmer starts to say that nobody was allowed in the lab but Gloria talks over her. “I have no idea what you’re talking about detective and I don’t like the insinuation.”
I sigh. “Fine, you pushed me Gloria. Mrs Warmer, Gloria and your husband were having an affair, probably for the best part of a year. The trips into the city were part of it but meetings obviously took place in the building in the garden too.”
“Do you have any evidence, Mister Rake? This is a horrible accusation to level at a good employee.” I like Mrs Warmer’s loyalty but it all has to come out now.
“When I first met Gloria, I’m guessing she had been intending to see to her plant,” I nod at the fiery cook. She nods back and I think I see a lightbulb switch on somewhere in the back of her gorgeous eyes. “Instead, I found her at a slant and, well, engaging in something a little unladylike.” Gloria stays silent, Joseph still looks confused, and Mrs Warmer might just be slumping a little in her seat so I press on and try to wrap it all up quickly for everyone’s sake. “A little earlier I felt tired and thought about having a short sleep in bed before dinner. I found myself instantly beeping in a sled. The metathesis field is affecting me just as it affected Gloria and, unfortunately, it also affected the professor on the day of his death.”
I walk around to Gloria and ask her to tell us the truth of that last trip into the city. Gloria brushes down her clothing – she looks so good doing that – and takes a deep breath before telling us all that she had fought with the professor when he had told her of his plans and handed her the recommendation letter. “I called him names,” she directs to Mrs Warmer, “and I’m sorry for that. When we got back he was upset and said he’d need time to make himself presentable so I left him in the car. That was the last time I saw him alive.”
“Mrs Warmer told me that the professor was an emotional man,” I say. “I’m afraid he blubbed in the car, and that’s what killed him.”
It’s taken a phonecall to the government office for which the professor was working to get them to come and dismantle his laboratory and they’re now giving me a lift back to the city as thanks for solving the mystery of why two of their field agents reported some rather odd events taking place following a recent visit to ensure sensitive material wasn’t lost. I don’t know why they were all working on this metathesis field but anyone who thinks governments work for the good of the people was probably dropped on the head as a kid. Best thing is not to dig too deeply, even if you’re a pretty good detective like me.
Joseph’s staying on with Mrs Warmer for the time being. She’s not hurting for money and he’s got a fairly cushy job that won’t tax his limited intellect. Gloria’s disappeared already, but dames like that will land on their feet somewhere in the city and I hope I bump into her sometime.
And me, well, I’m taking a last look at a bit of nature through rain-covered windows before I get back where it’s just as crazy but slightly more predictable. And I’m hoping I don’t receive a call from Mrs Warmer asking me to investigate what happened to her husband’s malt whiskey.