Excerpt from The Dead Man's View , A Second Sons Inquiry Agency Mystery
date: October 2013
Available formats: e-book and trade paperback
When Eric Knibbs invites his second cousin, Prudence Barnard, to a house party, she’s pleased to discover that she has a family, even if it is a distant one. Since her father’s death, Pru has struggled to maintain her existence without the affection and support of relatives. Unfortunately, their reunion is cut short when Eric is found dead, hanging from a noose outside his bedroom window.
The coroner and his jury believe Eric hung himself, but Eric was afraid of heights and could never have committed suicide in such a manner. He won’t even allow the drapes to be opened in his bedroom, so how could he have jumped out of the window with a noose around his neck? After a quick examination of his room, Pru finds too many anomalies and can’t help questioning the positioning of the body outside his window, facing the hedge maze in his garden.
Pru doesn’t have any answers, but she knows her cousin was well-liked and generous, so she seeks help from her old friend, Knighton Gaunt of the Second Sons Inquiry Agency. Pru soon learns the maze had a dark past and neither Pru nor Knighton are prepared for the strange paths they must follow to discover what deadly truth lays hidden in the shadows at Kennington Manor.
Was the dead man’s view of the maze at the heart of the mystery or simply the killer’s ruse to suggest suicide?
The Dead Man’s View
A Second Sons Mystery
Featuring Prudence Barnard and Knighton Gaunt
“One to destroy is murder by the law.…” –Edward Young (1683-1765)
Friday, March 12, 1819, morning
“It is not possible and I refuse to accept such a notion.” Mrs. Pruett daubed her swollen eyes with a handkerchief. “My brother would never do such a thing, he would never do away with himself. Never!”
A bare hour ago, Mrs. Pruett’s brother, Eric Knibbs, had been found hanging from a rope. The valet had discovered him that morning and the initial conclusion of most of the inhabitants at Kennington Manor was that the master of the manor had committed suicide by knotting a rope around his neck and jumping out of his bedroom window.
“It does seem strange,” Prudence Barnard replied, trying to rationally consider Mrs. Pruett’s statement. Hanging did seem to be an odd and overly dramatic way for a hitherto quiet and very proper gentleman to do away with himself, but she did not know her second cousin well and hardly knew what to think. “However, a suicide’s mind cannot be considered sound, and we don’t know what drove him to take such an action.”
“He was always so happy and even-tempered, the soul of amiability. There should have been some sign if he were disposed to kill himself.” A sob broke from Mrs. Pruett’s throat and she pressed her handkerchief against her mouth to smother the sound as she swallowed repeatedly, trying to regain control.
Pru looped an arm around Mrs. Pruett’s shoulders and gave her a brief hug. “I am sure he had his reasons—”
“No. You must realize, must know he would never do such a dreadful thing. You do sense something, something wicked, don’t you?” Mrs. Pruett caught Pru’s hand in a clinging, desperate grasp, her reddened eyes searching her face. “Has—has his spirit spoken to you?”
“No.” Pru shook her head and gently released Mrs. Pruett’s cold hand. “No, he has not spoken to me, and I don’t sense any evil purpose behind this terrible event. Please don’t distress yourself in this way, it can serve no purpose. Rest assured, the coroner’s court will decide the matter fairly.”
“How can they? No one knew his character better than I and he did not do this thing, I tell you. Please, you must try to speak to my brother’s spirit. He would not have destroyed himself—he would not.”
Pru sighed. This was what came from agreeing to hold spirit sessions. The sessions were only meant to entertain and provide peace to those left behind, not solve all the mysteries of life and death. Even the ancient philosophers knew there were no answers, only more questions.
“I am so sorry, Mrs. Pruett,” Pru said. “It is truly a tragedy—”
Mrs. Pruett stood, her gray eyes wild. “You knew my brother—he was afraid of heights. He could barely look out a window above the ground floor and always kept the draperies closed to avoid the view from the upper floors. He could not have jumped, and if he did not jump, then he was murdered.”
“Mrs. Pruett, please.” Pru caught the lady’s thin wrist. “The coroner will be here soon. He will discover the truth—”
“No—he will not. Why should he?” She stared into Pru’s face. “You must go to my brother’s room while his spirit remains. Now!”
“Mrs. Pruett, I understand your concern, but—”
“Please, you must. He was your cousin.”
“Second cousin,” Pru corrected her mechanically. She wished she were more sure that she was correct in assuming the coroner and his jury would find the truth, but after her own brush with the officers of the law on a previous occasion, she had difficulty convincing herself that the coroner would indeed discover the truth and Mrs. Pruett’s logic did seem to have some merit.
Mrs. Pruett, noting Pru’s doubt said, “Do you want him buried at the crossroads, in unhallowed ground?”
“Of course not.” She hesitated and then offered a possible solution they could pursue if the coroner should indeed come to the conclusion that Eric Knibbs had hung himself despite his fear of heights. “We would never allow that to happen, I assure you. If necessary, perhaps we could convince them to permit us to bury him in the small plot next to the stables. Wasn’t great-great Uncle Lucius buried there?” She knew as soon as she’d said it that she had violated the family’s rule of secrecy and had been unforgivably rude. No one spoke about Lucius Barnard, ever. It simply wasn’t done.
Mrs. Pruett appeared too distracted to notice the solecism, however. She pulled Pru toward the staircase. “Please, please at least go to his room. See if he will speak to you and tell you the truth. Please.”
“Very well.” Resigned, Pru gathered her skirts and mounted the staircase. At least she could tell Mrs. Pruett that Mr. Knibbs had found peace, wherever he was. If a suicide can find peace.… Then perhaps Mrs. Pruett would begin to find some consolation at this terrible and tragic time.
Breathing harshly as tears coursed unheeded over her cheeks, Mrs. Pruett followed closely, twice stepping on Pru’s heels. When they reached the landing, Mrs. Pruett hurried ahead, halting in front of the footman who lounged on a chair next to the closed door of the master bedroom.
“Mrs. Pruett.” The footman leapt to his feet.
“Open the door, James,” she ordered, back stiff and chin tilted up.
“Are you refusing, James?”
“No—but I was told—”
Pru placed a hand on Mrs. Pruett’s forearm. “Perhaps—”
“I don’t care what you were told, James, open that door. Immediately.” Mrs. Pruett shook off Pru’s hand.
“I dare not, Madame. I am sorry, but I was told to let no one enter until the coroner arrives.”
“You will let us in this instant, if you please, and no more nonsense.”
Pru stepped between them and placed a restraining hand upon Mrs. Pruett’s arm. “We will not touch anything, James, and you can watch us from the doorway. You will be able to confirm that you observed us the entire time should anyone should ask. I am sure no one will object or blame you under the circumstances.”
Shifting weight from one foot to the other, he glanced from Pru to Mrs. Pruett’s mottled face before finally pulling a large brass key out of his jacket pocket. With obvious reluctance, he unlocked the door. However, before he could step aside, Mrs. Pruett shouldered him away, grasped the doorknob, and threw open the door.
Pru caught her wrist. “Please, will you wait here?”
The room had been locked to ensure nothing was touched before the coroner and his jury could arrive to view the scene. In Mrs. Pruett’s distraught state, she couldn’t be trusted not to accidentally move or change some aspect that would later prove critical.
“The atmosphere is … overpowering,” Mrs. Pruett whispered, twisting her hands together. “I will not disturb you—I cannot step foot in there, not while my brother lies inside.…” She shivered and rubbed her upper arms. “There is evil here, do you sense it as well?”
“Please.” Pru held up one hand. Mrs. Pruett was obviously too fond of gothic novels such as Mrs. Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho. Kennington Manor was not some remote, picturesquely decaying castle thronging with strange, evil-minded occupants. The house was well-built and comfortable with nary a ghost or dark, cobwebbed corner to be found.
Nonetheless no matter how prosaic her surroundings, Pru could not dismiss everything Mrs. Pruett said. The woman knew her brother’s strengths and weaknesses, and if she had doubts concerning his death, those doubts should be taken into consideration.
Pru studied the room, searching for anything odd, any anomaly that might provide insight into her cousin’s mood and final thoughts.
The heavy bedclothes were in disarray, suggesting he had hastily arisen and dressed himself. Without a valet? That in itself was odd. In fact, he had not rung for his valet and the servant had been the one who had discovered the body when he came to his master’s room at eight o’clock that morning, his usual time.
A crumpled nightcap lay wedged between two pillows on the bed, but there was no sign of a nightshirt. It seemed strange as well. She walked across the room and carefully leaned through the open window to glance down at the body, still hanging from a taut rope. Although Mr. Knibbs had pulled on long trousers and buttoned a waistcoat over his linen shirt, the rumpled state of the shirt seemed to indicate he was still wearing the one he’d worn to bed.
Well, some men wore their linen shirt as a nightshirt, although usually only when they traveled. Most men didn’t do so when they were home and had a wardrobe full of clean, freshly ironed shirts to wear.
Brushing a wayward curl from her forehead, she sternly reminded herself that a suicide could hardly be considered rational, so any peculiar actions might simply be an indication of his diseased mind. Nonetheless, she felt a feather-light touch of cold as if evil truly did swirl through the room like an errant draft, precisely as Mrs. Pruett claimed. She rubbed her arms just as Mrs. Pruett had earlier and stared at the golden light streaming into the room through the uncovered windows. Hadn’t Mrs. Pruett indicated her brother always kept the draperies drawn to avoid the view of the wide, green lawn and trees below his windows?
He didn’t like heights.
Uneasy, she turned away and out of the corner of her eyes, she noticed a pillow on the floor next to the bed. Bending closer, she saw the clear imprint of a man’s shoe, crushed into the center of the white pillowcase. She glanced out the window again, craning her neck to catch a glimpse of Mr. Knibbs’ feet.
His feet were bare of both stockings and shoes.
“What is it?” Mrs. Pruett called from the doorway. “Is he speaking to you?”
In a sense. There were signs that could speak to her if she were intelligent enough to read them. She walked back to stand a few feet away from the pillow. When had a shod foot stepped on that pillow? Whose shod foot?
His valet, the estimable Wickson? But why would he walk on the pillow? Wouldn’t he have picked it up and put it back on the bed? She knelt down and examined the marks more closely. A few strands of hair curled over the pillowcase. Expected certainly, but there was also the footprint and a faint gray area in the center of that print. Initially, she assumed it was dust or dirt from the sole of the shoe, but as she studied it, her doubts grew.
It looked faintly damp and the fabric looked oddly twisted or worn, almost chewed. Mr. Knibbs might have drooled in his sleep, although something about the moist area cast that thought into doubt. Of course, she could be making more of it than it deserved. The mark might be quite normal and attributed to nervous behavior caused by whatever worry had driven her cousin to take his life.
Or it might be an important clue to the events leading to his death.
She hesitated and glanced over her shoulder at the door. James eyed her, his expression tight with anxiety. She stood and sighed as she dusted off her dress. She dare not touch the pillow. Surely, someone else would notice the same things she had and both the footprint and the moist spot would be investigated properly.
Slowly, she stood and made a circuit of the room. There was nothing else out of place or disturbed that she could see, just the twisted covers of the bed and the pillow on the floor.
When she reached the writing desk, she paused, thinking that Mr. Knibbs would surely have written a note here to explain his actions. However, the inkwell was clean and dry. She leaned closer to examine the quills resting in a crystal holder. They were dry, as well. In fact, of the five quills, three had never been used. The other two had been sharpened and then never used for the sharp, cream-colored edges had never been stained by ink.
So he hadn’t written a note, at least not at this desk or with these quills. Her sense of something out of balance increased. For some reason, the fireplace drew her gaze. Something had been burned there recently. The black remains of a sheet of paper lay atop the charred wood stacked on the grate.
“Please, Miss, someone’s a-coming. You should not be in here.” James glanced over his shoulder and wiped the side of his forehead with a sleeve. Sharp lines ran from his nose to the edges of his mouth.
In the distance, she could hear the tramp of heavy feet on the wooden stairs. She got to the door before the first man appeared, Mr. Pruett. Mary Pruett’s husband caught Pru’s gaze. He looked from her to his wife before frowning at James.
“You there.” Mr. Pruett called. “I thought we ordered you to keep that door locked.”
“I am sorry, sir.” James took a step away from the two women, leaving them alone to face the consequences of their actions.
“It is my fault, Mr. Pruett. I sensed something, a message my cousin needed to convey before his spirit passed away completely.” She felt like a fool claiming anything of the sort, but at least it might explain her presence, and he would expect such a nonsensical reason from her so he would undoubtedly accept the excuse.
A condescending smile brushed away his angry expression and he raised one hand, palm up as the men behind him gathered in the hallway. “Of course. No harm done. I would not have expected you to understand the necessity of leaving the room as it is. However you should not have gone in there, Miss Barnard.”
“Yes.” She lowered her gaze dutifully. “I am terribly sorry. I fear I was not thinking clearly.”
The men shook their heads, but they accepted the excuse and exchanged knowing, indulgent smiles with each other, dismissing her as just another superstitious female exactly as she anticipated.
When she turned, James had disappeared, making good his escape before anyone could remember to berate him. Even Mrs. Pruett had vanished before her husband noticed her presence, appearing shrewd despite her grief.
The knot of men slowly unraveled to enter Knibbs’ suite, their hands clasped behind their backs, solemn-faced, and prepared to view the body in situ. Pru waited in the doorway, wondering if they would see the pillow and come to the same conclusion she had. Her second cousin had not killed himself, she was sure of it.
Her cousin had not worn shoes and therefore had not been the one to step on the pillow. Someone else had trod on it and that twisted, damp spot put a very ugly notion into her head.
The men filed around the room, dutifully observing the tangled bedclothes and peering over the window sill at the body hanging below. Or rather, dangling against the narrow portion of the wall situated between two of his bedroom windows. The rope had been looped around the solid wall, winding from one open window to the other.
He, or someone else, had obviously been concerned about anchoring the rope to something that would take his weight. There were no exposed beams in his chamber. None of the furniture was heavy enough to stay in place and not slide or break against the window when he jumped.
Or was pushed.
Shivering anew, she tried to imagine her cousin throwing the rope from one window to the other to loop around the narrow, two-foot expanse of wall between the openings. He’d tied a heavy knot and then made a smaller one to loop around his neck before jumping out of the window.
How could he have done that if he were truly afraid of heights? She couldn’t accept the notion now that Mrs. Pruett had pointed it out to her.
As she watched from the doorway, several of the men heaved the body up. The coroner, Sir Lionel Barnshaw, stood back, gesturing as he gave a series of convoluted orders that no one appeared to heed. A blond-haired man standing near the head of the bed roughly pulled the blankets straight and patted it to show it was ready to accept the body. As the other men prepared to deposit Knibbs on the bed, the blond man picked up the pillow from the floor.
“Don’t—” Pru held out a hand, afraid of losing the slim evidence she’d seen on the pillowcase.
Sir Lionel flashed her a disapproving look. “What are you doing here? This is no place for a lady.”
“I am sorry, sir, however I was worried.”
“No need. We are doing all that is right and proper under these tragic circumstances.”
The man holding the pillow shook it out and placed it on the bed, smoothing it with one hand to prepare it to receive Mr. Knibbs’ head.
She bit the inside of her mouth to keep from berating him. How could they be so blind? Once more, the memory of another tragedy returned, a time when she’d have been accused of murder if not for the efforts of an inquiry agent, Mr. Knighton Gaunt. If he were here, he wouldn’t have ignored the subtle signs that indicated Mr. Knibbs may not have ended his own life.
Knighton would never have picked up that pillow and shook out the footprint without even calling anyone’s attention to the strange marks.
“There was no note. I … I am not sure he would do such a thing. That is, jump from such a height with a rope around his neck.” She gestured to the window and shook her head.
“Are you suggesting murder?” Sir Lionel’s condescending smile made her stiffen.
“I am not suggesting anything.”
As she spoke, Sir Lionel leaned over the bed. He smoothed over her cousin’s jacket and dipped his fingers into the pockets. When he reached the inner pocket above the left breast, he removed a scrap of paper with a flourish. He read it quickly, showed it to the men crowding around the bed before waving it in her direction. “Here is your note, Miss.”
“Miss Barnard.” Even she could see the torn edge of the note. Why would her cousin tear a small piece from another sheet of paper when he had a sheaf of fresh paper in his desk? It was absurd. “A paper was burned in the fireplace, perhaps you should examine it.”
“This is difficult to accept, but this note confirms the obvious.” He straightened the scrap between his meaty fingers and read, “‘I am sorry. I wish matters had not come to this, but there is nothing else I could do. Your most humble servant, Eric Knibbs.’ There, you see? Tragic, but hardly mysterious.” He looked briefly at the fireplace. “I see nothing here that merits more examination, Miss Barnard. Perhaps it would be best if you rested. You have suffered a shock and must not give in to fancies created by your nerves.”
Despite Sir Lionel’s pleasure with the note, it seemed incomplete to Pru, confirming her suspicions. Where was the salutation? To whom had it been addressed? Why was it only a small bit of paper torn from a larger sheet?
“But you will investigate?” she asked, ignoring his suggestion that she retire.
“We will certainly convene an inquest, though the outcome is sadly obvious.” He slipped the note into his pocket and shook his head. “Self-murder.”
The men nodded their heads sagely, forming a wall of agreement around him.
They’d made their decision and if she couldn’t prove otherwise, Mr. Knibbs would be buried at the crossroads without a marker, forever disgraced.
Dare she write to Knighton and ask him to investigate? Even as she watched, the evidence was slowly being destroyed by the men who were supposed to evaluate it. They seemed oblivious to what they were doing, satisfied to conclude her cousin’s death was suicide, despite the signs that this might not be true. She had to do something, and she thought again of Knighton and his calm perceptiveness. If he were here now.…
Surely no one could blame her for writing to him and inviting him to visit her. She would be glad of a friendly face. She did not know anyone at Kennington very well and she felt isolated here, despite her efforts to be friends with Mrs. Pruett. For some reason, she simply did not feel comfortable with her.
Hopeful that Knighton would be able to travel to Kennington Manor, Pru returned to her room to write a letter addressed to Mr. Knighton Gaunt at the Second Sons Inquiry Agency in London.