The Talon’s Grip

by Townsend Walker

 

prawled on the path, her pale skin, cherried lips, and ebony curls pressed against the green mossy stone. A lilac evening dress draped on her. I stared at the corpse. Turned, and saw the husband, seated nearby. A dark haired fellow, clothed in a silk dressing gown and velvet Albert slippers, appearing to enjoy the patter of rain, the scent of mown grass, and the blush of rose petals in early morning, only occasionally glancing at his wife’s body.

“Sir.” I tried to focus the man’s attention. “I am Detective Chief Inspector Turney.”

“Ironic,” Richard Carlyle said, “Irene dead, unable to share this splendid morning.”

An early call from the station had awakened me at home.

I tried again to shake Carlyle from his reverie, “Sir, when did you discover your wife’s body?”

“Oh yes, well I arrived home last evening before she did, woke to find her missing from her bed, searched the house, combed the grounds, then came out here. She rather favored this small garden, you know.”

Carlyle spoke little, perhaps mindful that when one speaks, one often says too much.

“Why hadn’t you come home together?”

“Happened often. Different tolerance for jollity, that sort of thing.”

There were no marks on Irene Carlyle’s face, hands or shoulders. The gown was not ripped or stained. Her face betrayed only an expression of slight surprise. The medical examiner peered closely, said, “Nothing to indicate violence or death by other than natural causes. We’ll know more, early afternoon.”

Carlyle pointed to a slate blue falcon resting on a post at the end of the garden. “Irene’s. Named her Mabel. I find few women are content without an interest, it matters little what—flowers, be they roses or hydrangeas; animals, horses or dogs; or friends, card playing or shopping—as long as pursued avidly. My wife found hers in falcons.”

“Excuse me sir, but your wife is dead, most unexpectedly. She’s lying here in front of you, and you are talking about birds.”

“Yes, the bird business started after she had been up to London one day. At the Wallace, she saw Vernet’s An Algerian Lady Hawking.” He turned toward me. “Have you seen it? Um, perhaps not.” I feigned indifference at the implied slight. “It portrays a woman in a flowing gossamer blouse, astride a magnificent white steed, seated on a crimson saddle, with a bird on the hand. This became Irene’s new self-image.”

There was little point continuing the conversation. Reality had slipped from Carlyle’s grasp. I told my men to trawl the house and grounds for clues. Carlyle requested only that they complete their work in the small garden first. He intended to do some pruning and talk to Mabel about the morning. “Figuratively, you understand, Chief Inspector.”

“I’ll be leaving one of my men here Mr. Carlyle, to keep an eye on things and see evidence is not disturbed.”

*      *     *     *     *

I returned to Pembroke Hall a little past one. In the house white flowers replaced the multi-hued ones there this morning. Carlyle was sitting at a small table nibbling on cheese and slices of cold beef. A bottle of claret caught the light, perhaps a glass left.

“Sorry to disturb your lunch, but I thought you would be interested in the medical examiner’s preliminary findings.”

“I was reminiscing about the times Irene and I vacationed in Morocco and India. That lovely hotel with the tiled arcade in Marrakesh, the chalk white inn above the caravan route at Ouarzazate, the palace in Jaipur with peacocks performing at breakfast and a subterranean blue and gold mosaic lined pool. One misses those things. Since the bird arrived a year ago, those adventures have been curtailed. Haven’t been anywhere.”

“Your wife died of asphyxiation. Most likely, someone smothered her. The examiner found some bluish discoloration around her mouth and nose, something we didn’t observe in this morning’s light. Also, congestion in the nose and sinus–typical in these cases.”

“So she stopped breathing.”

“Was stopped from breathing, sir.”

Carlyle nodded.

“And it seems she had consumed a considerable quantity of alcohol.”

“Not unusual.”

“May I ask about the relationship between you and your late wife?”

“We lived together.”

“Is that all?”

“What more can one say?”

I stared out the window and saw a deer crossing the lawn. This chap seemed two biscuits short of a tin. “Tell me, Mr. Carlyle who would want your wife dead?”

“I haven’t the faintest idea. None whatsoever.” Carlyle paused. “I don’t suppose that affair in London could have come back to haunt her. You remember, some ten years ago, the financier Sir George Bagot, Defense Secretary Thomson, and the showgirls. She was Irene Scarletti then.”

I did recall the scandal about government funds finding their way through a sham insurance company for a military project outside of Cairo. “We’ll look into it, but after this time, I’m sure most of the actors have moved on.”

I made to leave, put my hand in my pocket for the keys and came on some papers. “Oh, by the way, my people found these papers crumpled in the bookcase. Something from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Do you know anything about it?”

Carlyle turned, leaned forward, glanced at the paper, then shrugged. “Only that Irene was quite keen. I’ve never seen it.”

*      *      *     *     *

Carlyle’s preoccupation with the falcon was bizarrely out of place. I rang up a Mr. Elliott, a falconer of local repute. According to him, Irene Carlyle had devoted hours to Mabel: manning (acculturating to humans, becoming accustomed to the falconer, learning to associate food with the glove). Then training to hunt: the jesses and creances. Finally, she bought a telemetry transmitter for free flight hunting.

“She was uncommonly proud of that bird. When Mabel killed her first pigeon, her mistress had a taxidermist mount one of the prey’s wings. All that was left.” The disapproving curl of the lip was audible over the phone.

Elliott had been present at a recent meeting of the local chapter of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds when Mrs. Carlyle walked in. The plight of the northern harrier was being discussed. The impending loss of its habitat in Scotland to building speculators aroused the birding contingent.

“The lady pledged some millions of pounds against the purchase of land for a sanctuary. As if the sum were a pittance.” Days after the meeting, Elliott was still unable to recount the event without stumbling over his words.

Mrs. Carlyle, on the other hand, was promptly promised (“though not guaranteed,” Elliott noted) a presentation to the Queen and an O.B.E. for her generosity. Her Majesty is patron of the RSPB. After hanging up I put Sergeant Oliver Sellman, one of my brighter lads, up from Cambridge, on the trail of the Carlyle’s finances.

Next morning, I came back to the Hall with more questions. Could Carlyle prove he came directly home? Never left his bed until morning?

No, he could not corroborate his movements. He recited events as they occurred: he and his wife went to the ball. Sipped champagne. Danced. Dined on pheasant. Played cards (he, whist, she, bridge). Heavy stakes at the bridge table required she stay longer and so he left and went home to bed.

“The Moncrieff’s, I believe it was Sara, or perhaps Hugh, I’m not sure who, volunteered to bring her home.”

“Did you sleep soundly?” I asked, wondering how natural the reply might be.

“I did. I’d been riding earlier in the day with some younger fellows and they rather extended me.” Carlyle sat back in his chair, thinking I’d be satisfied with the reply.

“Their names, please.”

“What? You doubt me?” Carlyle sat up, as if on horseback.

“In cases like this, we need to verify everything. Speaking of which, as your wife seems to have been suffocated, we’ll be sending the cushions and pillows in the sitting room and library to the laboratory in London to examine them for fingerprints and fluids.”

“Why London?”

“Very special equipment. Quite new. The materials are placed in a vacuum chamber, gold is heated up and spread like a film over the fabric. Then zinc is heated. It attaches to the gold where there are no fingerprint residues. The fingerprints are revealed as the fabric. Somewhat like a photo negative.”

*     *     *     *     *

Sellman stumbled into my office, a jumble of chairs, filing cabinets, and chalk boards, all dominated by my large wooden desk piled high with folders and papers. The walls were covered with some of my water colors of the Lake District. I’m a keen hiker and amateur painter. Not poor, I’ll admit. A few ribbons at local shows.

“I persuaded Mrs. Carlyle’s solicitor to share with me the principal terms of her will.”

“Good show, Oliver.”

“A small annuity to Mabel. Jewelry to her sister. The flat on Eaton Place, number 31 (three units in addition to one under the stairs) and five million pounds in Treasury bonds were left to her husband. And, the contents of a safe deposit box and numbered account in a Swiss bank to a woman in Bologna.”

“Someone connected to the Thomson affair, I presume,” the Inspector mused.

“And I know you’re not interested and it’s probably not relevant,” Sellman rushed on, “But I found out that number 31 has a bit of a history. Alan Lerner wrote the lyrics for My Fair Lady in the maisonette on top and Jeremy Thorpe, the Liberal leader, kept the under stairs flat as a chamber close for his liaisons with other men.”

“No, not relevant, but an interesting sidelight, if one is fond of the West End, or politics.”

“Yes sir.”

“The amount on the RSPB pledge form would have left Carlyle a poor man,” I reckon. “I wonder if he could have held on to Pembroke Hall.”

“I suppose he was aware of the pledge.”

“Elliott, the falconer, was there when the pledge was made. He was under the distinct impression that it was a spur of the moment thing on her part.”

“So it would appear that since, or because of, the death of his wife, Mr. Carlyle is without a financial care.”

“It would.”

*     *     *     *     *

As I walked up the path to the Moncrieff’s manor, the scene of Mrs. Carlyle’s last party, I heard shouts and cries from inside. I rapped on the door, wasn’t heard over the barking man and bawling woman, rapped again, finally pushed the door, found it unlocked, and hesitantly stepped into the foyer. Sara and Hugh stood at opposite ends of the space framed by tall wooden arches, open mouthed, red faced, whirling their arms, hurling invectives at one another. As they caught sight of me, they quieted.

“Perhaps I should come back at another time?”

“Please, do come in.” Mrs. Moncrieff swept her welcoming arms towards a nearby room. “You’re here about our dear Irene, I’m sure.”

Sara Moncrieff was a tall willowy woman, chestnut hair, and freckled, more and more apparently as the angry red drained down to her neck and chest. I noticed her arms, the prominent musculature of a horsewoman. We went into the library where we sat another around a low mahogany table.

“Something to drink, Chief Inspector?” Moncrieff offered heartedly, as if to a long lost friend.

“Water will be fine.”

“A sherry,” she said.

Moncrieff returned balancing a tray with my water, his wife’s sherry, and a tumbler of whiskey. He offered a sharp contrast to his wife: short, stocky, bright blue eyes, and broken-blood-vessel ruddy cheeks.

“Before we talk of the night of Irene Carlyle’s murder, what do you know about them?”

Sara Moncrieff started. “I heard Richard found her somewhere on the Cote d’Azur, lying low after the scandal in London. You know the one I’m talking about?”

I nodded.

“It was the perfect match—she was pretty, vivacious and had a bundle, apparently a payoff. He was landed gentry in a quiet spot of the country, sophisticated, with a manor going . . .” she paused.

Her husband barged in, “Say it, dammit woman, Pembroke Hall was going to ruins.  The disgrace of the county.”

This confirmed what Carlyle told me and what I’d picked up from an internet search and talking to others in the village about Pembroke.

“The night of your ball, Mr. Carlyle said one of you offered to drive his wife back to Pembroke. He had left earlier.”

“You have it turned around, Chief Inspector,” Moncrieff said, “She left first. Richard wanted to stay on.”

“I see. But, which of you drove her?”

“Was it you Hugh darling?” with an emphasis on ‘darling’ that suggested the contrary.

“Don’t you remember, it was you, old girl?” he snapped.

“Why it was. I remember now. I had to help poor Irene up the stairs and ended up setting her down in a chair in the library. I simply couldn’t carry her further.”

“Did you see anyone?” I asked. “She was found in the garden.”

“I know, poor thing. No one, but then I’d drunk a bit more than usual.”

“Than what, darling?” he interjected.

“Than usual. So you see Chief Inspector, a thing or two may have escaped me.”

“Or many things,” Moncrieff added.

“Darling,” she insisted, “we have a guest.”

I stood up and walked about, to create a different mood. “So it appears you were the last to see her alive.”

“Oh dear, I hope I said something nice to her.” Sara Moncrieff twisted her hands as if perhaps she hadn’t.

“I’m sure you did,” her husband said. “You are always considerate and sweet tempered to the wives of your male friends.”

“Especially in these times,” she said.

“These times?”

I lost the thread of the conversation.

Moncrieff leaned forward, face flushed a second time from having consumed a tumbler of whiskey. “Our Irene had become quite batty these recent months.  First the falcon, then the affectation with all those gauzy dresses. She’d become one of those bloody 70s hippies, back to nature, communing with birds, money the root of evil sort of thing, except when it came to that damn falcon.”

“Poor Richard was beside himself,” Mrs. Moncrieff added. “The money to run Pembroke was hers, and though she put a million or so into it when she arrived, it forever needs repairs.”

“Ah yes, poor Richard, who must be at every function we hold, so extraordinarily handsome, such a conversationalist, life of the party, according to my Sara, who knows him intimately.”

She got up from her chair and walked to the end of the room. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“I’m not sure it is relevant to the Chief Inspector’s enquiry,” he said.

“What do you mean, Mr. Moncrieff?” I asked.

She offered, “What Hugh means is that he thinks Richard and I are having an affair.”

“And you’re not.” I said.

“The very idea!” she shot back, outraged by her husband’s insinuation, but not exactly denying it.

Moncrieff lowered his lids over his eyes, slumped in the chair, and mumbled.

“If there is nothing more, I’ll be leaving,” I said. “Please let me know should you decide to leave the county for any reason.

“Let me walk you out to your car, Chief Inspector.”

At the car, Moncrieff proffered, “Something you should know about Richard’s property deals. He’s a clever sort, especially at cards. He’ll be in the middle of recounting the most wickedly funny and salacious story, seemingly paying no attention to the game, and then turns five winning tricks in a go. But from what I’ve heard, he’s been terribly unsuccessful freeing himself from his dependence on Irene’s money. Never a detail man. He never says anything, but his type always resent relying on others.”

“His type?

“The land poor upper classes at middle age.”

*     *     *     *     *

I went over to Pembroke in the evening, finding only one of the servants about, a young maid named Mary, a rosy cheeked, fair complexioned lass. Carlyle explained that his wife was most keen on having staff live in the village, not at the Hall, but last night he’d been uncomfortable in the large house and proposed someone might stay a week or two while he became accustomed to the quiet.

“Everyone begged off the duty, except young Mary here.”

I’d seen Mary around town and overheard my young constables chatting about her. Last summer she’d blossomed. Noticeably. And her spending went more to lipstick and eye liner than larger blouses. When Mary brought us whiskey and sodas, Carlyle’s languid eyes, and her mincing step suggested there may have been more to Mary’s duties than answering the door and cleaning.

“One more thing before I go. The night of the party, the Moncrieff’s seem to think that your wife left first.”

“Curious. I looked around and someone that told me she was caught up in a game of bridge.”

“I don’t suppose you’d remember who told you?”

Carlyle cocked his head in a “no.”

I walked toward the door, and as a last minute thought, asked, “Tell me, what were the relations between Mr. Moncrieff and your wife? Anything more than good neighbors?”

“I rather had suspicions of something going on between them.”

“And you and Mrs. Moncrieff?”

“Really, Chief Inspector. You’ve been watching too much Downton Abbey.”

Mary showed me to the door. As she opened it, I asked her, “We understand from the RSPB that they sent a letter by Royal Mail Sameday to Mrs. Carlyle the morning she died. Did you see the letter in the post?”

“Well, the Mister was there beside me when the post arrived and took it, actually he more like grabbed it from me hand, said he’d deliver it to the Missus.” She reached for my hand, “Sir, about . . .” And then Carlyle called her from the library. “Later,” she said, in an urgent whisper.

*     *     *     *     *

The next afternoon, when I walked into the station, Sergeant Sellman was there typing up reports. “Oliver, grab a cup of tea, one for me and let’s see where we are.”

“So, who wanted her dead?”

“Her husband, so her money didn’t go to the birds.” Sellman knew me better than to add literally. “Add to that the RSPB pledge form he claimed he knew nothing about, despite having grabbed it from Mary.”

Sellman looked back at his notes. “Then there’s Sara Moncrieff, a rival for Carlyle’s affections who might have wanted her out of the way.”

“And/or might have wanted retribution for the alleged affair between her husband and Mrs. Moncrieff,” I thought. “Or, welcomed an opportunity to switch husbands and enjoy Mrs. Carlyle’s money. Hugh Moncrieff is a bully, in addition to being borderline alcoholic.”

Sellman looked up at the ceiling and shook his head, “You know, sir, I don’t understand these people, their affairs.”

“Simple, my boy. Life can be quiet in the country.  When we lot want a bit of fun, we go down to the pub for a pint or two. That lot, they go up to the bedroom for a shag.”

“Both of them had an opportunity to smother her. Didn’t take much, given her condition. But we haven’t found the cushion or pillow that was used. Those we sent up to London for testing came back with only the servants’ prints on them.”

“Oliver, talk to Mary. Find out if she found anything amiss the next morning during her cleaning rounds.”

“My pleasure, sir.”

“Not so fast. If you’ve noticed, and it’s hard to believe you haven’t, this young girl is aching to get out of the village. From my experience, there are two ways, the right way and the wrong way. She appears bent on the latter.”

*     *     *     *     *

Sellman later reported that he found Mary at the chemist’s. “May I ask you some questions about your former mistress?”

“It’ll cost ya a tea and scone.”

They went to Bea’s Tea Room. I know the place, cozy with lace curtains, butter yellow walls and floral print chair covers. Mary said the day Mrs. Carlyle died, as every day, she counted the pillows on the chairs in the main salon and found one missing.

“She was quite particular, was the lady, didn’t trust a soul. Thought everybody was out to pinch something from her. Such a habit counting I had, even though she were a gonner, I did it anyway.”

“And did you find it?” Sellman said he nearly leaped across the table with hope.

Justified, when Mary said, “It was days later, stuffed into the linen closet, of all places. So put it back where it belonged, didn’t I. Now the others were brought back.”

Sellman bribed Mary with another scone and she took him back to Pembroke to recover the pillow.

*      *     *     *     *

After the tests on the new-found pillow were in, Sellman and I drove out to Carlyle’s house at day end. No one answered our knock. We opened the door and went through the house into the garden. Carlyle was stretched out on the chaise with a drink, Mabel on his arm. The setting sun ignited the yellow roses climbing the east wall. The remains of a cold plate and bottle of wine were on the table. A man at his ease. We watched him savor his last minutes of freedom. As the sun fell behind the wall, a murmuration of starlings traced wide circles in the evening sky.

Mabel sounded “kak, kak, kak.”

Carlyle loosened Mabel’s jesses and flung the bird into the sky. She climbed slowly, high above the starlings, wheeled, then dove and struck.

___

Townsend Walker draws inspiration from cemeteries, foreign places, violence and strong women. A novella in noir, La Ronde, was published by Truth Serum Press in June 2015. Some seventy-five short stories have been published in literary journals and included in ten anthologies. He has received two nominations for the PEN/O.Henry Award; first place in the SLO NightWriters contest, second place in Our Stories contest. Four stories were performed at the New Short Fiction Series in Hollywood. He is currently writing a screenplay based on La Ronde and a novel based on original collage works of Beverly Mills. His website is www.townsendwalker.com


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