"Oh, Jingo!" I sighed--or I sobbed, I can't swear to it--and sat down hard at the base of a tree.
"Is it Lord Faringdon, my lord?" Daughtry came over and shone his own light on the body. The knife-handle glinted brightly, a fairly ordinary hunting-knife with the Levondale crest carved on the bone inlay.
"You'd better go back and call for the police," I said, trying to force my mind into the comfortable task of organisation, "And inform Lord Levondale while you're at the house. Ask him to inform Lady Faringdon and to set my man Pond to care for her and her servants. But nobody else can know yet, and please do not use the word 'murder' on the telephone or mention Lord Faringdon by name. Say 'death' or 'accident,' and 'a guest'; you never know who might be listening, and we don't want rumours flying ahead of an investigation."
"Yes, my lord," the stablemaster blinked at my sudden authoritative tone; he went back and remounted gracefully, but was reluctant to go, "Are you sure you should stay here alone, my lord? What if the killer is still about?"
"I'll be fine," I got to my knees and started examining the body--Jingo's body--as best I could in the lantern's light, "He's been dead for hours, the killer is long gone by now. Oh, go back by way of the river, would you? And bring the police here that way. We don't want a lot of traffic over that path we came in by, there may be clues."
"Very good, my lord," he submitted doubtfully, and went off through the willows to follow the riverbank out of the wood.
I knelt there for the longest time, my eyes darting around and recording evidence, but my mind reeling. I had been half-expecting to find a body from the minute Dotty came to my door, Jingo's criminal activities made it almost inevitable that he'd be murdered sooner or later. Besides, it had become such a habit with me to find bodies that it no longer surprised me.
But even half-expecting it, I was bowled over by the reality of it. I couldn't get over how similar this was to William's murder, the body in a similar position, the knife in a similar position, that same look of pained surprise on his face. And I really couldn't get over the fact that this was Jingo, someone I knew intimately, someone who'd been a major influence on my young life, someone I'd sort-of-loved once. That handsome face, that beautiful body, that rampaging sexuality, all that charm and all that wickedness, brutally snuffed out and gone from the world. I found myself weeping, it was just too terrible to be borne.
But borne it must be. After drying my eyes, I lifted Jingo's arm to test for rigor mortis; it was stiff but not yet immovable, which I knew meant he had probably been dead more than three or four hours but less than twelve; I'd seen him alive about seven hours earlier, so the time of death was sometime between noon-ish, when the hunt left this covert, and four o'clock. The front of his waistcoat and the top of his breeches were drenched in blood, in a pattern that suggested running downward, so he'd likely been standing when he was stabbed, and the amount of blood indicated that the knife had been twisted around or pulled partway out and pushed back in, allowing for a substantial escape of blood.
As Silenus had taught me, I stood and faced a tree, miming stabbing motions with a short stick to get an idea of where the killer had been standing, how tall he might have been, if he'd been left-handed or right, if he'd held the knife with his thumb on the hilt or on the pommel, in order for the weapon to be standing at the angle it was.
I decided that the killer was right-handed and about the same height as Jingo, a little taller than me; he'd held the knife with his thumb on the hilt, and stabbed straight forward into the center of the solar plexus, then twisted the knife upward and to the side to slice the lungs and pierce the heart. I further believed that the killer had held fast to Jingo's stock while he did this, as the white linen was wrinkled and creased in a way that suggested being crumpled in a fist, and the stock-pin was bent.
The knife was easily recognised, one of the dozen kept on an open rack in the gun-room, which was right next door to the ground-floor room where we'd had our hunt breakfast; anyone could have taken it during the meal, or even days ago; so unless the killer hadn't worn gloves, there was no clue there. The killer would have got a great deal of blood on him, though, so that might give us a lead if we examined people's clothes.
Getting up from my position, I replaced the blanket to what I hoped to be its original position, and went over to have a look at the horse and saddle. The reins had been tied to a strong branch of the tree with an ordinary slip-hitch, not a fanciful sailor's hitch or anything distinctive like that. The saddle was set neatly upright on the ground, the girth and stirrups tucked underneath--except for the left stirrup-leather, which had most likely held the stirrup we'd found outside the wood, and was fortuitously lying outside of the saddle so I could look at it without moving the evidence.
The leather strap was cut partway through across the underside, with a razor or a very sharp knife, and had torn the rest of the way to the surface. I didn't know how long it would take for a cut like that to pull apart during a ride, but it seemed the killer would have had to know that in order to be on the spot when Jingo's stirrup-leather broke. Could the killer have known exactly when the leather would break, though?
It seemed chancy to me, but it also struck me as a reasonable method to get someone to drop out of a hunt and loiter around in a predetermined range of space: one doesn't notice the underside of a stirrup-leather like one does a rein, and one doesn't pull hard enough on the reins for such a trick to work; and if the girth had gone, the victim would have fallen off and might have been injured, whereupon he'd be escorted back to the house. But a stirrup could go without your falling, you'd get down and have a look at it, and probably wouldn't notice the cut, only the tear; finding you couldn't fix it, anyone who stopped and asked if you needed assistance would be sent on, leaving you alone and on foot as the hunt disappeared into the distance.
To cut that stirrup, someone would have had to gain access to the stables sometime between the last time Jingo used the saddle, which would have been three or four o'clock the previous day (Jingo was a daily rider, like me, but always went out after lunch and returned before tea), and before Sirocco was saddled for the hunt. It would be easy to find it in the tack-room, since Jingo had brought his own saddle, custom-made and blazoned on both sides with the Ponsonby crest in enamel and gold.
But how to be in the woods during the hunt without arousing suspicion? That struck me as unlikely and difficult, everybody at Verevale was either in the house or on the hunt... or were they? That would be my first point of investigation, was there anyone unaccounted for between, say, ten in the morning, giving him an hour or two to get to the wood before the hunt drew that covert, and three-thirty, when we returned to the house?
A clever murderer wouldn't be so obvious, though, so I didn't hold out much hope for that avenue of investigation. But I had to think about something, for every time my mind paused it would fill up with Jingo's face, his mouth slightly open and his dead blue eyes wide in surprise and pain and even a little bit of pleading, as if to say No! Not me, not yet! If I didn't keep busy, the police would arrive to find me keening and wailing over the body like a Greek widow.
I was alone in that wood with a corpse and two horses for what seemed like the entirety of the longest night in the history of the world, but it was really only about an hour and a half later that I heard voices and saw a half-dozen strong lights bobbing toward me from the direction of the river.
"Viscount Foxbridge?" a man asked me in a gentle, cultured voice while flashing a torch painfully in my eyes.
"Yes," I replied, flinching and bringing up my hand to shield my eyes.
"I'm Detective Chief Inspector Netley," he told me, turning the light upward so I could see his face, which was nice-looking in a faintly elfin way, and pleasantly creased as if it was accustomed to smiling gently, "You are able to identify the deceased for us?"
"The Marquess of Faringdon," I told him as he walked over to Jingo's body and pointed his torch at the face, which one of the constables had uncovered, "James Ponsonby, everyone called him Jingo. We were at school together, and we're both staying with the Levondales."
"And how do you come to be out here, Lord Foxbridge?"
"Dotty, Lady Faringdon that is, asked me to look for him," I explained, "He hadn't come back from the hunt and she was getting worried."
"And why did Lady Faringdon ask this of you, rather than alerting her host, I wonder?" he walked back over and faced me, though he didn't shine the light in my eyes again.
"I have a talent for finding things," I offered lamely.
"And finding people?" he wondered, and even in the dark I could see his eyebrows lifted inquiringly.
"Occasionally," I said.
"I am extremely disturbed by what I find here, Lord Foxbridge," he pointed his torch at the ground between our feet and nudged the dead leaves with his toe, "You found another body with a knife in its chest, just two months ago? Lord and Lady Faringdon were staying in the same house that time, too. You don't find that remarkable?"
"Are you accusing me of killing Jingo?" I gawked at him.
"Oh, no, Lord Foxbridge, nothing like that," he smiled as gently as I'd thought he would, "But you must understand that one doesn't usually find quite so many stabbed bodies discovered by one young man, nor quite so many of the same names in such similar cases only two months apart, without there being a fairly staggering connection."
"Quite," I agreed, but had no idea what else to say. There certainly were connections between the cases, though I couldn't tell Netley about any of them before I knew I could trust him.
"Quite," he echoed me, the gentle smile falling down into an ironic smirk, "Why don't you tell me about your movements and your observations from the time you left the house up to the time my men and I arrived?"
I did so, sparing no details and even giving him the benefit of my theories, though of course I left out all of the emotional stuff and any hint of why I insisted on coming out alone with the stablemaster instead of instituting a proper search in the first place. He didn't write any of it down, nor ask anyone else to take notes, he just looked at me with his bright eyes and gentle smile until I ran out of words.
"Very lucid," he commented crisply after taking a moment to absorb it all, "I'll ask you to make an official statement to that effect later on. For now, though, I think you should return to the house. One of my men will accompany you."
"Thank you," I deflated a bit, not because he was dismissing me but because it had been an incredibly long day, and after that last bit of exposition I felt like a squeezed-out orange. In other circumstances I might have tried to stick around to watch the police at their work, but it was cold and dark and I hadn't had my dinner.
I followed a uniformed constable out of the clearing and along the river-bank to the bridge, where a tractor-truck that had been commandeered from the home farm was waiting to haul the policemen back and forth; not a very elegant form of transport, but I was in no mood to care, it was faster than walking or riding and all I wanted was something hot to eat, something even hotter (and preferably alcoholic) to drink, and a fire sufficient to toast my feet.
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