Email from Lady Susan Farleigh – Monday 10th November
Dear Mr D’Angelo,
Thank you for agreeing to meet. I have convinced my father that you may be able to help us. It has now been a year since Emma’s disappearance.
This Saturday would be convenient. Shall we say 10:30? Anyone in town will give you directions to Farleigh House.
Michael created a new folder titled ‘Emma Farleigh’ and moved the message into it, before putting the tablet into his coat pocket. He peered through the train window. Fine streaks of drizzle raced down the glass, and smudged pretty stone cottages dotting the landscape. Busy streets replaced country lanes as the train drew closer to Wolston.
Lady Susan’s email was brief. She’d been short on the phone, too. Her sister had gone missing, kidnapped probably. That was all she told him. He’d questioned her about why she wanted to hire him, surely it was a matter for the police, but she grew more reticent then, saying only that the police could not find her sister, and she had reason to believe that powers more “out of the ordinary” were at play. She refused to elaborate. Not on the phone, she’d said. That was the way of the aristocracy.
Michael remembered a case two years ago; Lady Victoria Caraway had a ‘presence’ in her attic. She’d been more concerned about scandal than any haunting. She even told her butler that Michael was simply a tradesman. That Michael looked more like – well, a priest – than a man who dealt in pipes and effluence didn’t deter her. But the butler didn’t blink.
The Farleighs sat even further up the chain of nobility than Lady Victoria. Susan’s father was Lord Edward Farleigh, the Earl of Wolston. They’d even attended royal weddings. Two days ago, while waiting for a haircut, Michael had flipped through an old magazine and seen the pictures for himself. Lady Susan was very attractive; his eyes kept returning to her mass of dark curls and her smile. Her father seemed stern with his deep frown. There’d been no pictures of Emma.
The train pulled in to Wolston Station and Michael strode through the drizzle to the taxi rank, pulling his coat tight. The icy air numbed his nose. He waved to the sole cab but a young lady jumped in front of him. He opened the door for her and waited in the cold, watching the taxi drive off and hoping the next one wasn’t too far away.
You’re too nice, Michael. A familiar voice came up from a dark well of memory, and Michael pushed it right back down again. He took off his spectacles and cleaned away the drizzle with a handkerchief. Another taxi pulled up and he opened the door before it stopped; he could drop the ‘nice’ when he wanted to.
“Good morning,” Michael said.
The driver nodded absently as he turned down the stereo and Michael was glad. High-pitched nasal Hindi was not a musical favourite.
“Could you take me to Farleigh House?”
The driver’s eyes quizzed him in the mirror. “The big mansion on the hill?”
“Ah, I think so. It’s where the earl lives.” Michael wondered if he should do a search on his phone, but the driver was fingering his GPS and in another second the taxi pulled out onto the road, cutting off a car. Michael took a sharp breath, remembering why he hated taxis.
It took twenty minutes and two near collisions before they pulled up beside a tall stone wall. Michael paid his fare and thanked the driver who turned up his Hindi pop song. The singing faded as the taxi accelerated into the drizzle.
Michael buttoned his coat, wishing he had worn a scarf. A large iron gate stood before him, a vast manicured garden beyond. A hedge-lined path led to the house. The cab driver had been right. It was a mansion, almost a castle. He eyed a turret in the grey skyline, and beneath it stood a small family chapel. He wondered if the Farleighs were religious. Would they know about his past?
He jumped and glanced around, feeling a little foolish when he saw an electronic speaker near the gate.
“Michael, it’s Susan.” She was laughing. A camera glared at him, just above the speaker; no doubt she’d seen him jump.
Michael’s face warmed. “Ah, hello? Yes, I’m Michael D’Angelo. I’m a little late. I’m sorry. I had to wait for a taxi and—”
“You need to push the button. I can’t hear you otherwise.” More laughing.
Michael squinted. There was a large white button next to the speaker. “Idiot,” he whispered to himself and pushed it. “Hello?”
“That’s it. Take the path to the right.” With a beep the gates groaned open. “I’ll meet you at the side entrance in a jiffy. It’s just past the conservatory.” She clicked off. He lifted his finger and wiped it on his coat.
Inside the gates he took the path to the right, his shoes crunching wet pebbles. Large elms and oaks lined the pathway, all naked now that autumn was nearly over. After a minute, the conservatory came into view. White wrought iron framed clear glass panels. Orchids and other exotics flowered inside. It would have been added to the house in the Victorian era, no doubt. Conservatories had been all the rage then. The chapel stood to the left of it. Michael adjusted his glasses. The little building seemed older than the rest of the house.
Its dark stone was almost black. Menacing gargoyles with pointed teeth and ears lined the roof. His fingers tingled and Michael wondered if the chapel had something to do with why he was here, rather than the police, or a private investigator.
He would have liked to walk over to it, just to confirm that tingling. But he was already late and a little nervous. Aristocrats made his stomach squirm. Especially the females.
He patted down the cowlick at the back of his head. It gave him a perpetual look of ‘bed-headedness’ he’d been told. She’d told him that. Judith. He frowned. It was the second time she’d popped out of his hidden memory vault that day. He pushed her back down and closed the lid, wishing he could lock the bloody thing and throw away the key.
A large white door marked the side entrance of the house. He raised his arm, but the door flung open before his hand met wood.
“Michael, hello. Come in out of the weather.”
Susan looked exactly as she had in the magazine. Even with all the makeup, she was a natural beauty. Porcelain skin, raven hair, all the right curves. She wore a classic fifties style dress, white with a red floral print. A thin belt showed off her slim waist and a well proportioned bust. He swallowed, muttered “thank you” and stepped inside.
“Can I take your coat? It’s too bloody warm in here. My father insists on having all the heating on. Refuses to admit he’s getting old,” she whispered.
“I see,” Michael replied, not really seeing, but wanting to be polite and not say anything stupid like he normally did when in the presence of attractive women.
“So, can I?” she asked.
“I’m sorry, can you what?”
“Take your coat?” She smiled, revealing perfect white teeth.
“Of course, my coat. Yes, please.” Michael took it off and handed it to his host, wishing again that he wasn’t such a natural-born dullard.
She put the coat in a closet then stepped into the hall. “Please follow me. My father is waiting in the library.”
Michael obliged, marvelling at the mix of old treasures decorating the place – portraits mostly. Susan’s perfume wafted behind her as she walked; a light floral scent that made him think of spring. He liked it.
“Father has not taken my sister’s disappearance well.”
“Understandable,” Michael said. “It would be difficult for any parent.”
“Yes, but he is often reluctant to talk about it, you see.”
“Are you sure he wants me to get involved?”
Susan slumped a little, distorting the perfect line of her shoulders. “It was my idea to hire you.”
“I see.” Michael looked to the marbled floor.
“I heard about you through a friend.” Susan reached out and touched his arm. “A Catholic friend.”
Michael’s face warmed. So, she knew about that. “Well, let’s meet your father.”
“Daddy, this is Michael D’Angelo. Michael, this is my father – Ted.”
The earl wore typical old British tweed and a frown. The same one he’d worn in the magazine. He would have been handsome, in his youth, but age now lined his face.
Michael stepped forward and held out his hand. A pause stalled them, just long enough to make Michael feel even more awkward, before the earl finally took his hand.
“My daughter tells me you are a priest.”
“Ex-priest.” So, they’d got to that already. The English were so blatant in their distaste of Catholics.
“Oh?” The earl put a hand in his pocket.
“Ah, yes. I left the church five years ago.”
The earl looked him over with a flick of his eyes. Was it satisfaction or disdain on his face?
“Your name, it is Italian.”
“My father was Italian. My mother, Irish.”
“Hmph. Little wonder you became a priest.”
Susan laughed, a little forcefully. “Now, Daddy, we didn’t invite Michael here to interrogate him. Shall we sit?” She gestured to the leather couch and they both sat. The earl remained standing by the window.
Portraits and shelves of books lined the library from floor to ceiling. A lazy fire burned in the fireplace, adding its warmth to the central heating. Michael pulled at his collar, glad that Susan had taken his coat.
“Well, Daddy, shall you tell it or I?”
The earl’s mouth drooped a little more; he turned to look out the window.
Susan sighed. “My little sister, Emma, was a conservator, and a good one. She had a situation at the Louvre in Paris.”
The earl tutted.
Susan looked at his back, frowning a little and continued. “Daddy didn’t want her to take the position.”
“She had a perfectly good job at the British Museum,” the earl interrupted.
Susan smiled. “Em was enamoured by France. She loved everything about it – the food, the language, the culture.”
“Pity about the bloody people.”
“Daddy, please! We don’t want to waste Michael’s time. Now let me tell him so he can help us.”
The earl sniffed, straightening his shoulders.
“Just over a year ago, Emma disappeared.” Susan’s voice wavered. “The police in Paris investigated for a month, then retired the case. Their evidence ran cold.”
“Their funding more like.”
Susan pursed her lips and gave her father a stare like a parent waiting patiently for a tantrum to finish.
“Their evidence?” Michael asked.
“She was seeing a man called Nathaniel Chartley. She didn’t mention him to us; we knew nothing about him. She had a good friend in Paris, Anais, who knew of him, but very little.”
“You suspect him of – something?” Michael adjusted his glasses. It seemed more and more to him that the family should hire a private investigator to deal with this. He would hear the rest of the story then delicately suggest it.
Susan looked down at her hands curled in her lap. “My sister has always been a quiet girl. As a child, she was happiest playing by herself, or reading. We used to holiday with our cousins – I’d love that, having more children to play with and boss around.”
Susan looked up and smiled, but her eyes were glossy and pink. “Em was always sneaking off somewhere. We’d find her in the tree house with her nose stuck in a book, more often than not. She’s grown into an independent woman now of course. She loves a good time with friends and family, don’t get me wrong. But there’s still something fragile about Em. Daddy and I have always looked out for her, especially since mother passed away. That was eight years ago. Emma was twenty then, still studying. She took it hard.” Susan wiped an eye with a finger, smearing a thin line of mascara.
Michael glanced at the earl. His shoulders were slouched now.
“She was a good girl. Sensible,” Susan continued, “but prone to dreaming. Perhaps her curiosity got the better of her. The police found her computer and discovered a strange blog.”
Michael squirmed. The case intrigued him, but he still failed to see how he could help.
“The blog detailed a secret quest she had embarked on. She’d come across an old artefact – a sixteenth century journal. One of her co-workers at the museum said it was a fake, but Emma decided to investigate for herself. For some strange reason she set up an anonymous blog to tell of her findings. As she translated the journal, the blog became more personal.”
“She wrote about her life?”
Susan nodded. “She changed the names of the people she worked with, but she didn’t change her own name. It sounds strange, I know, but I am not surprised. Emma loves a good story, especially a mystery. I think she thought it was a bit of fun.”
“And you think the blog and the old diary are connected to her disappearance?”
“Yes. You see in the blog she claimed the diary was not a fake. It was a genuine sixteenth century manuscript. And the man she was seeing, Nathaniel – well,” Susan looked up, “he was the man who wrote the diary.”
Michael frowned. There was no smile on Susan’s face now. “But that’s impossible.”
“We know.” The earl turned from the window to look at them. “Show him, Susan. Everything he needs to know.” He looked Michael in the eye. “Find out what kind of monster he is, and bring my daughter back to us.” The earl nodded, then marched out, leaving Susan and Michael alone.