Here it is. I can honestly say that I learned a great deal in writing this piece. A big shout out to my friends at The Write Practice for all of the help polishing my numerous drafts. If you are looking for an online community, I highly recommend it.
It was during my early years working at Scotland Yard that I investigated one of the most extraordinary crimes of the day. The sensationalist newspapers called it The Case of the Gypsy Curse.
Hard upon the tragic death of Mr. Edmondo Zacchini, retired circus performer, came the murder of a mysterious American–both deaths occurring at Longmeade Manor, home to the Harlows, one of the wealthiest and most respected families in Devonshire Heath. The local police were baffled, and in due course; Lei Liang was called in—his success in another recent case having brought him increasing prestige and notoriety, despite Liang being newly appointed.
My uncle Albert, head of Scotland Yard at the time, received a specific request from Charles Harlow for the renowned Liang to be lead investigator on the case. Rumored curses are apparently bad for business, and Charles Harlow was considered a very astute businessman. My uncle, still dubious of foreigners and resigning the previous case’s success to be pure luck, was skeptical of Liang’s true capabilities, and assigned me to be his subordinate.
Our first encounter was at London Victoria station. We were to catch the 8:00 a.m. train that would take us to Devonshire Heath. I was searching through the crowd for a singular Chinaman, a most unusual sight at the time, and I was startled by a tapping on my shoulder. I spun around to meet a set of tiny, dark eyes studying me. He smiled and took a polite bow as I pondered his appearance, seemingly out of thin air.
“It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Inspector Higgins,” he said.
“How do you know who I am?” I replied, unsettled.
“You are the only person here searching for someone,” he said still studying me like an exotic bird on a perch.
“Yes. I suppose I am,” I said, giving him a cursory glance. Although he was middle-aged, his hair did not contain a single strand of gray. It was sleek and dark, shining purple in the sun like the wings of a raven. He wore a smart suit, ever so slightly snug in the middle. “I’ve been looking for you everywhere,” I said feeling a little annoyed.
“Many apologies. I was detained by a cheese danish,” he said, giving his tiny paunch a pat.
“I see. Try to be more punctual next time,” I replied, certain now that my Uncle’s skepticism had been well founded. Lei Liang was an odd bird, indeed.
The air was still crisp when we arrived in the sleepy town of Devonshire Heath. It was the kind of day when the sun is shines, but the cold bites one’s ears. I pulled up my collar as we headed straight to the office of Herbert Abernathy, town coroner. He was a very stern and serious sort of fellow. Elderly, he wore spectacles that magnified his eyes like enormous, blue marbles, but his faculties were razor sharp.
“I conducted an autopsy as soon as we pulled him out of the pond,” he said. “Cause of death was a blow upon the head. Most unsavory business.”
“Could it have been caused by a fall, perhaps?” I asked. “Hit a rock or something?”
“Certainly not,” Abernathy replied, indignant. “My best guess would be a hammer. The wound was very distinct.”
“What do the residents think happened?” Liang interjected.
“They think a tramp came along and did him in.”
“Does that seem likely?” Liang asked.
“No,” Abernathy said shaking his head. “This is a quiet community. If there was a tramp about, someone would have spotted him.”
“How long was Mr. Donaldson in the pond?” I asked.
“Oh, I’d say about three days, judging by the sight of him,” Abernathy said.
“He died a week ago Tuesday, then?” Liang said rubbing his chin.
“That Tuesday evening or Wednesday morning,” Abernathy said matter-of-factly.
“Do you know what his business was here?” Liang asked.
“No idea whatever. I only dealt with the body. The Harlows can tell you more,” Abernathy said, rising with an arthritic groan.
“What about the police?” I said.
“Police chief’s wife is having a baby. Dr. Weaver just left to deliver it. It’s Chief Chesterfield’s first. I’m sure he will be of little use to you right now,” said Abernathy waving us toward the door. We took our leave of the coroner’s office, my mind whirling as we walked along the street.
“If what he said is true about the lack of suspicious characters about–” I started.
“Then we are walking into the proverbial lion’s den,” Liang replied, finishing my sentence for me.
After a twenty-minute drive, the car we’d hired deposited us at the doorstep of Longmeade Manor, a sprawling estate which adorned the property in the grand fashion of a bygone era. The lawn looked meticulous, but one glance at the garden revealed signs of decline. It sat off to the side, mostly out of view, but one could tell that it was in desperate need of attention. Many of the wealthier families had been hurt by the economic collapse in the States, making these grand estates a burden, but old families held onto them out of pride. Human psychology seemed to dictate that one should hold on to what one knows at all costs.
I rang the bell and a well-dressed man who made too much use of pomade opened the door.
“My name is Reggie Castor. I am Mr. Harlow’s secretary,” he said as he bent down to pick up a watering-can from the front steps. “My apologies. The gardener is always leaving this lying about.”
“I am Inspector Walter Higgins, and this is my associate, Mr. Lei Liang of Scotland Yard,” I said.
“We have been expecting you,” Harlow replied, ushering us into the foyer. The smell of polished wood assaulted my senses, reminding me of boarding school.
“We will need to speak with the family,” Liang said.
“Of course. If you would just follow me,” Castor replied with a nod. “Terrible mess, this.”
“Could you tell us your impression of things?” Liang said.
Reggie Castor stopped and stared at Liang for a moment.
“Well,” he began, shifting his weight as he considered. “Mr. Donaldson showed up here unannounced on Tuesday, claiming to be a friend of Mrs. Zacchini. He begged to meet with her privately, and was invited to stay the evening. He dined with the family, but then took his things and left shortly before everyone retired. I offered to call a car to take him to the inn in town, but he declined. He said that he was meeting someone who would take him to town. He left and was not seen again until he was discovered in the pond.”
“Did you see a car come and collect Mr. Donaldson?”
“No,” replied Castor. “My quarters are on the rear of the house. I cannot see the road from my window.”
“Did he seem angry?” Liang said, studying Reggie Castor carefully.
“No. Not angry. More nervous I’d say,” Castor replied.
“Afraid of something, perhaps?” Liang quizzed.
“Perhaps. It is difficult to read a man’s mind,” Castor said as he resumed his task of guiding us to the drawing room.
“True,” said Liang, nodding thoughtfully.
Suddenly, a beautiful creature in black mourning garb appeared in the foyer, carrying a small, blond child of cherubic proportions. The child appeared to be just under a year old. A honeymoon baby, no doubt. Tear stains lined the mother’s cheeks, but she appeared otherwise together.
“Are these police?” she asked.
“Yes milady,” Castor said gently. “Would you like to sit down? I’m afraid that…”
“No need to worry,” she said. “Will you please collect my parents? Father is in the study, and I believe mother’s in the greenhouse.”
“Yes milady,” He said, finally retreating after a sorrowful glance resembling a puppy who had been scolded.
“My name is Amelia Zacchini,” she said, her dark eyes peering beneath long thick lashes. A specimen of the female form, even in widow’s weeds.
“I am Inspector Lei Liang, and this is my associate Mr. Higgins,” Liang said with a nod in my direction. “I am most sorry for your loss.” His eyes took a lengthy glance over the fair child with bobbing curls and a rosy nose. “What a handsome little boy,” he said as the nurse came in and carried the child off.
“Yes,” Amelia replied absently. “He is quite handsome. Just like his…,” She turned her face slightly, her lower lip quivering.
“There, there,” Liang said, offering her a handkerchief. “You have been through quite an ordeal.”
She nodded accordingly and was about to speak when a tall, slender woman with an intelligent face entered the room with her husband close behind. Jane Harlow commanded attention and I dare say, respect. She was wearing a smart wool skirt with sensible shoes, and her face was full of color. “Amelia?” she said, breathless.
“These are detectives Liang and Higgins,” Amelia said.
“Oh, I can’t tell you how glad I am you’ve arrived,” Jane Harlow said, waving a wisp of hair out of her face.
“This has all been terribly upsetting, as you can imagine,” said her husband Charles, indicating for us to take a seat.
Liang sat in a high back chair next to the fireplace and stared into the coals as if he were reading tea leaves. Charles Harlow looked puzzled as he studied the renowned investigator.
“Can you tell me what happened?” I said respectfully as I took my place on the settee across from Mr. Harlow.
“It’s just so dreadful,” Jane Harlow said with a cough.
“You alright, dear?” Charles said, feigning concern.
“I’ll be fine,” she said, looking at me with blue-green eyes that resembled a storm at sea. “I just need a moment to catch my breath.”
“You’ll have to excuse my wife,” Charles said. “She has a heart condition, and this ordeal has been a great strain.”
“Please continue, inspector,” Jane Harlow said as a servant poured her a glass of water.
“I just need a detailed account of Mr. Donaldson’s visit,” I replied.
“That’s easy enough,” Charles Harlow said, lighting a cigar. He was a competent sort of man—the type that succeeded in business and all facets of life. He exuded confidence as he puffed smoke into the air. “Mr. Donaldson showed up quite unannounced. I found him rather rude, to be honest.”
“Father,” Amelia interjected.
“I’m sorry, but he was really of no account. Amelia made excuses for him and insisted on seeing him as he was a friend of hers, so I agreed,” he said, pouring himself a Scotch to compliment his cigar.
“I’ve heard enough,” Amelia said, bristling, and rushed out of the room.
“Ah, she doesn’t understand. She is still very much like a child,” Harlow said, sipping his Scotch. “Her friend, Mr. Donaldson, pulled me aside and asked for several thousand pounds shortly after he arrived. I turned him down flat, and he had no reason to hang around. He took his leave shortly after dinner. That was the last we saw of him until…”
“Is there anyone you know that would have wanted to harm Mr. Donaldson? Did he mention any enemies?” I queried.
“No. He didn’t share anything personal, but who knows the sort of company he liked to keep? I tried to tell Amelia he was no good, but you know how children are these days.”
“He wasn’t as bad as all that, Charles,” Jane Harlow snapped.
“You were blinded by his good looks,” Charles said rolling his eyes. “A businessman like myself knows how to read a man.”
“It is odd that he chose to leave so late in the evening,” Liang interjected from his perch. I’d almost forgotten his presence, as had Mr. Harlow, judging by his startled grimace. “Did something prompt his swift departure? Something you are not telling us, perhaps?” Liang cocked his head, studying Charles Harlow now with his full attention.
“Look here,” said Charles. “Are you accusing me of hiding something?”
“Nothing you think is important, no. However, sometimes it is the tiny details that matter most. Something about Mr. Donaldson made you uneasy, did it not?” Liang said, his demeanor calm and unruffled.
“His behavior was peculiar,” Charles said slamming down the rest of his Scotch. “I didn’t like the way he looked at Amelia. It was obvious he was in love with her, and I’m afraid my daughter returned his affections. There. I said it.” He looked at Liang with defiant hatred.
“Charles!” Jane Harlow snapped.
“You don’t know what they talked about?” Liang pressed.
“No,” Charles said with vehemence.
“I see. And what of Mr. Zacchini? He died the very next day?”
“Yes. Tragic accident,” said Charles Harlow, shaking his head.
“Was it?” Liang said.
“You don’t buy into all this balderdash of a curse?”
“No. I do not believe in curses, but I do believe in evil, Mr. Harlow. Can you please describe for me the circumstances of your son-in-law’s death?”
“You really believe someone could have killed Edmondo?” Jane Harlow said, clutching her hand to her heart.
“Preposterous. It had to be an accident!” Charles roared.
“Just the same, could you tell me about it?” Liang asked, undeterred. I could feel the color rising in my cheeks. This case would be Liang’s last. Charles Harlow and my uncle would make sure of it. Of that I was certain.
“My son-in-law was formerly a circus performer,” Charles began through gritted teeth. “I’m sure that much you have ascertained.” Liang nodded earnestly for him to continue. “He dragged that silly contraption all the way across the ocean. He wanted to start his own circus, and wanted me to back him in the venture. I told him I’d have to think about it. I hoped he would drop the matter. Instead, he insisted on giving a performance. I dare say he thought that it would further encourage me.”
“Was this a spur-of-the-moment decision?” Liang ventured.
“No. Not exactly,” he said pouring another Scotch. “He announced it at dinner the night before.”
“The same night Mr. Donaldson joined you?”
“Had he perform this trick many times before?”
“Hundreds, to hear him tell it,” Charles said.
“But clearly he made an error. He had not performed it since they arrived last year,” Jane interjected.
“How did Mr. Zacchini calculate the trajectory?” Liang pressed. I felt a tight ball forming in my throat and took a deep breath as Charles Harlow rolled his eyes.
“He had a dummy specially made. It weighed the exact same as his own body. He was emphatic the weight had to be exactly right to the last ounce. Any difference could throw off things completely. It had an opening in its chest so that the weight could be adjusted.”
“He loaded the dummy into the cannon himself?” Liang asked.
“No, actually he was busy taking some measurements. He had Reggie hoist it in the cannon.”
“Reggie is a dear, though. He wouldn’t harm anyone,” Jane remarked
“Is there any way that we can see this dummy perhaps?” Liang said. At this remark, Charles threw up his arms.
“Oh, my,” Jane Harlow exclaimed gripping her chest suddenly.
“You alright, love?” Charles said with genuine concern this time.
“I’ll be fine. I just need to lie down a moment,” she said as Charles summoned a maid to assist them up the stairs. Reggie Castor appeared swiftly from around the corner where I suspected he had been eavesdropping. There was a definite uneasiness in his manner I had not seen before.
“If that is all at present,” Charles said with venom as he slid his arm around his wife.
“About the test dummy,” Liang reiterated as the Harlows started up the stairs.
“Take the damn thing if you please!” he shouted without turning.
Reggie Castor indicated for us to follow and didn’t say a word as he led us toward the east wing. A preponderance of dust indicated that this wing was little used and had been relegated to storage. Liang ran his finger along a piece of trim as we followed and gave a sigh of distaste. At the end of the hall, we were ushered to a room at the right full of odds and ends. Furniture that was not in use, old paintings, and a sterling tea set in need of polish all sat idle. In the corner sat the dummy in question. It was a doll the size of a man. The material was a thick blue cotton. A certain amount of skill had gone into its construction.
Liang examined the dummy for several long moments. He surveyed every inch of the doll’s body and finished his examination by unzipping the pocket and reaching inside.
“Was the test dummy always kept in this room?” Liang asked as he probed the dummy’s inner cavity.
“Yes. Mr. Zacchini was very particular about how it was stored.”
“Most unusual,” Liang muttered.
“What is that?” Reggie Castor and I asked in unison.
“We will need to speak to Mrs. Amelia privately right away,” Liang said, ignoring us both.
“Certainly,” said Mr. Castor with a smirk. “I will go and fetch her for you.”
Amelia Zacchini met us in the study. Liang shut the door and ushered her into a chair.
“I need perfect honesty from you Mrs. Zacchini. I am afraid. Yes, I am very much afraid that another death could occur.”
Amelia Zacchini stared at Liang opened mouthed.
“You don’t really buy into this curse business? It’s such rubbish.”
“It is not a curse that I fear, milady,”
“What do you require of me?”
“I assure you of the utmost discretion, Madame, but I need to know. Mr. Donaldson was the father of little Robert, was he not?”
Her mouth fell open, and she hesitated for a moment. “But how could you know that?” she said incredulous.
“I saw pictures of your husband in the newspaper. I knew the moment that I looked at little Robert that he was not a Zacchini. When you said he was handsome like his father you were referring to Mr. Donaldson—the real man you fell in love with in the States. He had come to claim what had rightfully been stolen from him. Am I correct?”
Amelia began to sob. “Yes,” she whispered. Liang offered her his handkerchief, which she gladly accepted as I sat dumbfounded.
“Patrick confessed to Edmondo that I was with child. Patrick was in a quandary; we were in a terrible fix. Patrick rushed off to his parents and told Edmondo to let me know he would return for me. He was so impetuous. He just took off and trusted Edmondo to tell me the truth. That horrible man convinced me that Patrick had run off. He offered to marry me to save my honor. You have to understand my life would have been ruined if I had come back home…”
“You have been through a great deal,” Liang said.
“He killed Patrick, didn’t he? Oh it’s all my fault,” she said stomping her tiny foot.
“You cannot possibly blame yourself. It is very difficult to stand in the path of evil.”
Amelia Zacchini gave a shudder. “But surely it’s over now. Edmondo is gone.”
“Yes. He is gone, but the evil that he brought with him pervades, I’m afraid. We must act quickly,” Liang said, rising. “Mrs. Amelia, you stay here.” She nodded like an obedient child.
I followed Liang out of the room, still in a bit of shock.
“So the dead man did Donaldson in right before he died himself?” I said, breathless.
“But of course–Donaldson threatened to upset all of his plans, and Edmondo Zacchini was a man of ruthless ambition.”
“But what do we have to fear now?” I asked, incredulous.
“The other murderer,” Liang said, reaching the top. “Or perhaps I should say, the murderess.”
“You can’t mean to say…” I was cut short as he knocked on Mrs. Harlow’s door.
“Yes?” Jane Harlow called as we barged into the room. Jane Harlow sat on a divan, staring. Her expression held equal parts contempt and admiration.
“What on earth do you mean by interrupting me here?” she demanded.
“You already know,” Liang said politely.
“I don’t know what you mean,” she said her eyes stormy.
“You are an astute woman. You knew the moment you saw Patrick Donaldson who he was and why he was here. Your husband may not have understood Mr. Donaldson’s intentions. He didn’t want to, but you saw it right away.”
“Yes. Of course, I saw it, but my hands were tied,” she said popping her medication and taking a drink of water. I detected a subtle tremble in her hands.
“You are the one that Mr. Donaldson was going to meet that night. You were going to give him money until a divorce was arranged.”
“Jane!” Charles said charging into the room. “Is this true?”
“Yes,” she whispered, “but Edmondo got to him first. “I couldn’t prove it, but I knew. You should have seen him that morning. He was so proud of himself. So smug. You saw him Charles.” Mr. Harlow stared at his wife still uncertain.
“You saw an opportunity,” Liang said with a nod of understanding.
Mrs. Harlow was breathing heavy now. Her face became flushed. “I couldn’t let Amelia be married to that horrible man,” she said, pounding her fist. “Reggie sat the dummy on the front step and went inside to do something. The watering-can was sitting right there in front of me.”
“Jane, you didn’t,” Charles said aghast.
Mrs. Harlow shrugged, leaning back on the divan. “Reggie came out a moment later and hoisted the thing up without a…” Her eyes fluttered, and she began to slide. Charles rushed to her side. Liang called for help. Reggie Castor rushed in with the maid on his heels.
“Her pills!” Charles called to the maid.
“She already took her pills,” the maid cried.
“Why?” Charles whispered as Amelia rushed in and took her mother’s hand.
“Promise me you will be happy,” Jane Harlow whispered closing her eyes.
“Mother! No!” Amelia cried.
“I will call for the doctor,” Liang said rushing out.
“Extraordinary,” I exclaimed following Liang. “I guess she couldn’t handle it.”
“That woman can handle most anything my friend. Once she knew that her capture was imminent she overdosed on her heart medication.”
“But how did you know?” I asked.
“With experience comes intuition,” he said staring at me with those tiny dark eyes.
“Such a sad business,” I replied shaking my head.
“Yes. However, I think Mrs. Zacchini will find the happiness her mother fought so hard for her to have.”
“Who would have thought it?” I said still aghast.
“One who seeks vengeance must dig two graves: one for his enemy and one for himself,” Liang replied as he dialed Herbert Abernathy’s office.
Sometimes about town, you can still hear people talking about the Gypsy Curse. As for me, I don’t believe in curses, but I do believe in the deductive reasoning of detective Lei Liang.