Three weeks later, London
Lawrence Kingston’s seven-room flat on Cadogan Square in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea would reveal few, if any, surprises to a first-time visitor who already knew something of the man. No abstract or postmodernist art, no plasma TV, high-tech gadgets, or sports memorabilia, nothing jarring or eccentric, nothing at odds with his personality, his days in the halls of academia, or his inerrant taste. Kingston’s pied-à-terre was the result of an endogenous process that had resulted in less a visual impression than a feeling, where comfort and livability trumped all else. What, to the uneducated eye, appeared to be a haphazard arrangement of furniture and furnishings, was, in fact, an intuitive marriage and placement of antiques, Oriental carpets and collectibles, a paradoxical blend of the timeworn and the elegant that interior-decorating consultants, no matter how skilled or how astronomical their budget, would find impossible to replicate.
On a drizzly late afternoon in June, settled in this sanctuary of quiet and familiar trappings, Kingston sat in his leather wingback, reading Country Life, an empty bone china teacup and saucer at his elbow. While many retirees were at a loss to find things to do on a rainy afternoon, Kingston rarely faced that quandary. To the contrary, he invariably had too many things to occupy his mind and his time. His circle of friends was quite small and he liked it that way. If he really found the need for company, he could always rely on Andrew, his friend and neighbor.
In the midst of an article on antique roses championing the romantic qualities of the Moss rose, Rosa William Lobb, his concentration was disrupted by the familiar sound of the letterbox flap snapping closed. He took his cup and saucer into the kitchen, then went along the hall to get the post. As he flipped through the half dozen or so letters and flyers on his way back to the living room, his eyes came to rest on a small, hand-addressed envelope. The ivory-colored paper was of fine quality, the kind used for special invitations. Placing the rest of the post on the coffee table, he opened the envelope and slipped out the one-page folded letter. Like the envelope, it, too, was written in longhand. Immediately he noticed that it wasn’t signed. Now he was really curious. He read it.
Dear Dr. Kingston,
We are acquainted, but for reasons I’ll explain later, I prefer to remain anonymous for now.
No doubt you’ll question why I’m writing in this clandestine fashion. I’ll come straight to the point. About three weeks ago, a crime took place on my property, which has left me deeply disturbed. As if the deed itself were not enough, a subsequent disclosure, related to the incident, has given rise to all manner of speculation as to its implications—too complex to explain in a brief letter.
These last weeks have been unnerving and vexing, and I’m deeply troubled that both my standing in the community and my business affairs may suffer adversely as a consequence. The police have been investigating the crime but have yet to come up with suspects or leads. Frankly, I am not satisfied with their progress, so I have decided to take steps to get to the bottom of it myself.
Aware of your reputation as an independent crime solver, I wish to retain your services to conduct a separate inquiry. Furthermore, I am prepared to pay, within reason, whatever it takes to put the matter to rest. Accordingly, I am requesting that we meet at 3 p.m. on Tuesday, June 8th, at the address below, to discuss the matter in further detail.
This is of paramount importance to me, and you are my last resort. I hope you will not let me down.
21 Chesterfield Street, London W1J
Kingston read the letter a second time, then placed it beside him on the sofa. He stared into space, thinking about the imponderability of it all. Who wrote it? What was the crime? What was the mysterious “subsequent disclosure”? If he and the writer were, indeed, acquainted, then why the secrecy? No point wasting time pursuing that line of thought, he decided. In Kingston’s case, the word “acquaintance” would cover countless people, many of whom he could no longer remember and a few he’d prefer to forget. The address offered no clues. He wasn’t familiar with Chesterfield Street but knew that the W1 postal code placed it somewhere in London’s West End. He glanced down at the letter. He knew little about handwriting analysis, but judging by the larger-than-normal letters and assertive strokes, it was an educated guess that it had been written by a man. He pulled on his earlobe, a habit. What else was contained in the letter that could divulge more about the writer? Referring to his “property” suggested that he owned more than just a semidetached. Perhaps the man was a landowner of sorts. That would explain his “standing in the community” comment. All the above, plus the fact that he was prepared to pay a tidy sum for Kingston’s services, indicated that he was a man of means. Last, was the proposed meeting time and date—no alternatives—take it or leave it? Whoever wrote the letter was confident in the knowledge that his was a gold-plated proposal, and he wasn’t prepared to take no for an answer from Kingston.
Kingston went to the bookshelf and pulled out a well-thumbed AA Route Planner. Chesterfield Street, he quickly discovered, was in Mayfair, a ritzy area of London behind Piccadilly. If this was the man’s residence, it supported his earlier contention that the man was well-off. Kingston had visited that neighborhood twice—on both occasions to purchase model lead soldiers from Tradition on Shepherd Street—and remembered it as a mixed-use neighborhood. It could easily be just an office address. He figured that there must be many hundred in that part of Mayfair.
He put the book back in its place, crossed the room to the window, and looked out. Gazing abstractedly at the rain-smudged scene of passing cars and pedestrians hurrying with slanted umbrellas aloft, he thought about the letter. Dwelling further on it and trying to unearth more about the writer was pointless. He could find out simply by showing up on Tuesday. He had nothing whatsoever to lose, and even if it resulted in his deciding to turn down the offer, it should certainly prove to be an interesting encounter, if nothing else. He had to admit, though, that if anything had tipped the scales, it was “I am prepared to pay whatever it takes.” It wasn’t that he had grave concerns about the torpor of his balance sheet but, as with most fixed-income retirees, his net worth had shrunk considerably over the last annus horribilis. Prior to the meltdown of the financial institutions, the housing crisis, and the resulting collapse of the markets, he’d come to rely on a steady stream of interest income from his savings and investments, to supplement his two pensions. For the time being, those days were gone. So the prospect of a new stream of income, most likely a generous one, was a blessing he wasn’t going to dismiss lightly.
He turned away from the window with an inexplicable feeling approaching ebullience, a sense of optimism that surprised him. So much so that he found himself wishing that tomorrow was Tuesday and not three days away.
Copyright © 2011 by Anthony Eglin