“I don’t think I can do this.” I uttered with my voice trembling, ready to accept defeat.
“Noah Oliver Williams! Have you no dignity? After countless days of perfecting our techniques, staying late hours, and getting back up after failing multiple times, right when our efforts are finally about to bear fruit, you mutter such hopeless words?” The girl standing before me combed her fingers through her long ash blonde hair in frustration. “Come on, we’re so close! Just do it.”
She was right, I can’t chicken out now. I took a deep breath and started to move towards the top, my hands shaking with anxiety. The air was thick and the quaint room was quiet enough to hear a pin drop, but the only sound going through my head was the rapid thumping of my heart. I moved closer and closer and gently started to place the final pieces ever so slowly. Right when I could practically taste the sweet taste of victory, a voice shouts out.
“Please help! I’ve come to see Miss Rumour, this is an urgent matter!” A flamboyantly clad woman suddenly slammed open the aged wooden door which collided into the wall, causing my house of cards to instantly collapse on the walnut table right before my eyes. I sat there in shock, still gripping two cards in between my fingers as if I were to place them on top of the tower that had now fallen. Immediately after the horrific incident, a younger woman with blazing red hair arrived at the doorway. Her bright locks contrasted those of the brunette convict that she stood behind. Seeing my perished tower, I felt tears welling up but Rumour’s turquoise eyes on the contrary instantly lit up with excitement.
“Ah, I believe it’s me you’re looking for, Detective Rumour at your service! Come, come, have a seat! ” She beamed as she eagerly pulled out two wooden chairs for the guests. “Noah, put yourself to use and prepare some tea, will you? Oh and please clean up those playing cards while you’re at it.”
I grimly crouched down and gathered up the shattered pieces of my hard work that had been splattered across the burgundy rug like a bloody crime scene. One by one, I collected them but before I could reach the final card, it was picked up by a white-gloved hand. Looking up, I saw the auburn girl before me elegantly holding the card out with a kind smile to compliment her sympathetic expression. I took her offer and nervously gave a quick smile and nod in thanks before rushing into the kitchen to prepare some food and drinks for the guests. Luckily, our space was too small for walls and separate rooms so while I stood beside the stove, I was able to listen in on the conversation.
“Pardon my abrupt intrusion, but we really need your help right now. I’m Lydia Chapman and this is my daughter Annabelle Chapman.” The lady said with a stern look. “We’ve come to report a missing person.”
“Huh, that’s quite peculiar. I haven’t heard of such a thing happening in Ruthersford ever since I was born,” Rumour commented in surprise.
I had only recently moved here to get away from the hectic hive of people that is London. And unsurprisingly, such reports weren’t as uncommon there as they seemed to be here in the countryside. Anyways, I realized my mind had wandered so I took out the tea leaves from the wooden cupboard to my right and started boiling the water, returning to the task at hand.
Mrs. Chapman continued in response to Rumour’s comment, “Yes, which is what makes this whole case even more unbelievable!” Her eyes started to gloss over and her daughter quickly passed over a handkerchief before she continued. “You see, the person who has gone missing is my older daughter, Claudia Chapman. She’s been missing for about a week now.” She dabbed her eyes immediately after the trembling words left her mouth.
“I’m so sorry Mrs. Chapman,” Rumour took the words right out of my mouth. The sound of the whistling kettle now filled the room. “You must be worried that she’s taken her own life from the stress of the late Mr. Chapman’s death, aren’t you?” She added with her brows furrowed in a concerned expression.
The two ladies looked at her in shock.
I quickly chimed in after rushing over to set a tray of biscuits on the table, “My apologies, Rumour has a habit of saying these things that sometimes come off as insensitive but she means well.” I explained in hopes that they wouldn’t take offense.
Annabelle clear her throat.“Oh, it’s okay, no worries! And yes that’s exactly what we had in mind but how did you know about…well you know.”
“You see I wasn’t able to attend Mr. Chapman’s funeral three years ago because I was out of town, however thankfully, my assistant Noah was able to go in my place. It’s been over the time that a widow typically wears mourning but interestingly, there’s a black ribbon wrapped around your hair Mrs. Chapman which as I’m sure you know, is often worn in remembrance for those we’ve lost. Additionally, I happened to notice that an envelope addressed to you and your daughter despite not having any mailing address, is currently in your hands Miss Annabelle, and has already been opened. The most likely reason for why that might be would be that it was handed in person or rather, left in the house by someone who would’ve also shared the space. Although, with how this conversation has gone, I would’ve assumed that the letter was evidence that you had intended to present.” The detective answered before taking a sip from her cup.
“Well yes, you aren’t incorrect but the thing is, I just don’t believe it!” Mrs. Chapman proclaimed in obvious distress.
Annabelle put a hand on her mother’s, “I’m sorry, it’s a very hard time for us right now and whenever the note is brought up, my mom seems to be in denial. I mean, it was hard for me to let it sink in at first but as much as I’d like this all to be a lie, there’s no evidence that points to there being any other reason for this.” she said calmly.
“My daughter Claudia has always been a very strong emotionally, and she would always talk to me if there was something wrong. Something like this is just so unexpected, this just doesn’t make any sense!” The stressed mother cried. She put her hand against her temples and allowed herself to take a deep quivering breath before she continued. “It’s been a rough couple of years for all of us. Annabelle, Claudia, and I have all grieved about the loss of their father very deeply. It was never easy for any of us. I know that it’s taken a toll on Annabelle especially and obviously Claudia too but I never thought that she’d take her own life because of it! Listen, I know it seems like I’m just in denial and maybe there’s a possibility that I am but there’s something in me that tells me otherwise. Please, just look into the matter so I can be at peace.” The broken woman looked down and gripped the cloth of her dress as she shivered to the rhythm of her unsteady breathing.
“I understand,” Rumour spoke softly. “It’s a mother’s instinct, right? Of course I’ll help you.” She smiled gently at Mrs. Chapman.
At that moment, those words were exactly what she needed to hear.
“Alright well for starters, for the sake of the investigation, would you mind if I take a look at the letter?” The detective asked after a few moments of silence.
“Ah yes, sure.” Annabelle handed over the letter.
“Thank you, thank you. Oh, and by the way, I know this is a bit out of the blue but just out of sheer curiosity, have you been in a garden recently?” Rumour wondered out loud. I still don’t really understand how she comes to these conclusions but after being her assistant for the past few years, I’ve learned not to question it. Although coincidentally in that moment, I didn’t need to since someone else spoke up instead.
“Well indeed, that’s quite a strange question to ask. What made you think that?” Annabelle replied.
Rumour scratched the back of her head and explained, “I hope you don’t mind me pointing this out but it there appears to be some grass stains on your emerald dress. The rather yellow-toned splotches seemed a bit too arbitrary to be a fashion statement.”
The girl blushed in realization.
“I was just in our back garden because I needed some time alone.” She shyly uttered.
Her mother gasped,“Annabelle, didn’t you hear me last time? I thought I told you to stay away from that area of the house! Ugh, please tell me you at least went during the daytime.”
The girl’s silence was enough of a response.
“What’s wrong about the garden?” I asked, half because I genuinely wanted to know and half because there had already been enough awkward silences in this conversation and I wasn’t looking forward to another one.
“The tall hedges make it so it’s nearly impossible to see who’s in there and I’ve had some growing suspicions about this boy, Ben Richardson. He went to the same elementary school as Claudia and Annabelle and over the years I’ve grown wary of him after his constant loitering around the gates. But I specifically remember on the days following up to the night Claudia went missing, I saw a certain muddy brown head of hair sneaking out of the garden. When I called out to him, it wiped that idiotic little grin right off his face. Needless to say, I have a hunch that he has something to do with Claudia’s disappearance and until this matter is solved, the garden will be deemed a dangerous area. I’d rather die before losing both of my daughters.” Mrs. Chapman spoke solemnly with sharp yet dimmed eyes.
It seemed as if whenever one person implied something, Rumour was always thinking about the opposite.
“Why don’t we go and visit the garden right now?” She grinned and proposed with a twinkle of mischievousness in her eyes.
“I really don’t see why it was necessary for us to be here.” Mrs. Chapman grumbled as she trailed behind the rest of us.
“It’s always best to see the scene in-person, Mrs. Chapman.” Rumour said as a matter-of-fact while peering over her shoulder. She had a skip in her step and certainly was very excited to be investigating after many quiet weeks of just being stuck in the office and messing around with playing cards. Accompanying her was like watching a child run around at times like these. But Rumour was more like a 6-year-old with a magnifying glass who was stuck in an adult’s body. The ringlets in her hair would wisp up into feathery tendrils and her cheeks were coloured like the roses that had been climbing up the cobblestone walls around us.
I made eye-contact with Annabelle who was on the other side of the garden, resting on a polished stone bench. I noticed that she had been staring at me for a little while now and decided to politely wave to which she sheepishly waved back. The assortment of sweet-scented flowers and the lushness of the garden surrounding us created a very carefree and ethereal atmosphere.
“These annoyingly tall hedges really need a trim. Where are those gardeners?” Mrs. Chapman muttered.
Well, there was always that one party-pooper in a group. I sighed, the happy times were nice while they lasted.
“Actually, yes I have a few questions for them myself as well.” Rumour stated. She had now stopped rushing around and stood rooted peering over a patch of some plain white flowers.
“What’s the matter, detective? What are you staring so intently at?” I inquired.
“Don’t you see it, Noah? Look, isn’t that corner of the patch, oddly bare?” She pointed to said corner which indeed looked out of place compared to the rest of the flourished and almost overcrowded patch.
“Hmm, I suppose you’re right.” I heard my thoughts be vocalized but didn’t remember opening my mouth to say them or having such a high pitched voice.
“I’m friends with one of the gardeners. I’ll go talk to him about it.” Now that, I knew for sure I didn’t say. Briskly, I spun around and jumped back a little when I saw Annabelle on her toes, trying to peer right over my shoulder, a little too close for comfort. But before I could mention anything, she had already started running off towards a man who just started trimming one of the hedges.
Rumour stretched out her arms and yawned. “Alright, well I think I’ve had enough looking around here. Now, how about we find out a bit more about this Ben Richardson by paying him a little visit?”
“How do you know about Claudia?” Ben Richardson immediately asked us once Rumour and I sat down on an antique-looking navy couch in his living room. The Chapmans expressed how they’d rather not pay a visit to the Richardson house and stayed in their own residence.
Ben’s forehead shone from a bit of sweat but if one thing’s for sure, it was that his perspiration wasn’t because he was hot. The heavy curtains were pulled to the side and allowed the large windows to ventilate the space, the man didn’t have any other layers besides a simple white oxford shirt and black trousers which made it easy to see how his body was actually shivering, and it was the middle of autumn.
“Quite eager, aren’t we? Well, I’m not one who enjoys lying. I already explained to you that my assistant Noah and I are here for an investigation. If you’ve done nothing wrong then you have nothing to be scared of. Now that I’ve answered your question, I’ll expect you to do the same with mine.” Rumour smirked at the man who shrunk under her stare.
She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and continued, “Oh and just like how I choose not to lie to you, I also hope to be treated in the same fashion. But in the past, for whatever reason, even after I told this to others, they still did their best in attempting to hide. It’s quite a shame really, I sometimes wish that I could spend some time to visit them in prison just to check up on how they are. But alas, I’m busy with investigations and other tasks so sadly I’m unable to.”
At this point, I wondered if Mr. Richardson needed a towel or something and he did too. He gulped and wiped his forehead with the sleeve of his cotton shirt. Rumour smiled at this reaction. She could be quite intimidating when she wanted to.
“Ah but I’m sure we won’t have such an issue in the near future. How about you tell me about what your relationship is with Claudia Chapman?” She pressed in an overly sweet tone.
“Who would’ve thought?” I chuckled. After finishing up with Ben Richardson we now walked along the gravel street in the direction of the Chapmans’ house.
“Really? I thought that it was quite apparent from the start if you just looked at his hands, especially the left one.” Rumour nonchalantly replied as she filed through some letters.
“Of course you did, Sherlock.” I rolled my eyes at her.
“Elementary, my dear Watson.” Her clear eyes shone as they curved into a crescent-like shape and her signature smirk was plastered across her face.
The rays of golden light coming from the setting sun seemed to have cast a spell on the town. The individual straws on the thatched roofs of the various buildings started to glitter. Our heels clicked against cobblestone paths that usually appears dull and mundane, yet now, had a light warm glow reflecting off them. Something about the current lighting somehow made the fallen leaves that were plastered on the ground appear even more vibrant. Smells of spices and sweets snuck out of the houses we passed and intertwined itself in the crisp air. Everything felt like fall. We steadily walked in comfortable peace.
Suddenly, Rumour stopped in her tracks and shouted, “I almost forgot! Noah, go ahead without me and tell everyone to wait. I need to go to Union Square and gather a few final details. Ben will be coming over as well so please try to refrain Mrs. Chapman from giving us another reported murder to deal with. Oh and while you’re at it, can you pick me up an apple from one of the stands up ahead the road over there? A whole day’s worth of work can really take a toll on your stomach.”
I think I have a habit of jinxing every enjoyable moment I get.
“Yes, of course, your highness. Is there anything else you’d like served on your silver platter?” I monotonously replied with sarcasm.
“Oh actually now that you mention it, yes, I do. Be a dear and check up on the abnormal flower bed we saw earlier in the garden and bring it, will you?” Despite the fact that it was phrased like an inquiry we both already knew that it was not a request to be questioned.
“Your wish is my command.”
The comforting embrace of the golden sun was now replaced with the moon’s stark white luminescence. It shone a sharp spotlight which would soon be directed onto everyone within the Chapman’s household this evening. I sat in a plush red velvet upholstered chair as did an impatient Mrs. Chapman, an uncannily calm Annabelle, and an awkwardly sweaty Ben Richardson. He constantly wiped his palms on his trousers while shrinking in his chair under the hawk-like gaze of Mrs. Chapman. I tossed a ripe red Gala apple up and down in my hand and eventually stopped after repeating the cycle for the hundredth time or so. Instead, leaning back in my chair, I lifted my head up to look at the tall embellished ceilings and tried to find something that I could focus my attention on. It was really quite wonderful stewing in a room of tense stares and bitterness.
Instantaneously, Rumour bursted through the grand doors like a gust of fresh air to cut through the thick atmosphere. For once, my talent of jinxing things might’ve played to my advantage.
“Sorry I’m late, I was finishing up in the town library, such a wonderful hive of knowledge!” She beamed and gripped onto her encyclopedia-like book that she wrapped both her arms around. “Anyways, Noah, do you have that apple I requested?” She asked.
The fruit was tossed over to where she stood, at the head of the group of chairs.
“Perfect. Now, let’s get to the core of this mystery, shall we?” Rumour declared, with the sound of a crisp bite following immediately after.
“Alright, well by now I’m sure you all know that we have gathered here to talk about the murder of Claudia Chapman.” Her expression instantly darkened and a few gasps arose from the audience.
“I beg your pardon? The last time I checked, the death of my dear sister was on her own account. Let’s not try and start rumours now.” Annabelle who was agitated, stood up from her seat and gripped onto the fabric of the a new navy dress that she wore instead of the stained one from earlier in the day.
“No, no, Annabelle, sit down. Rumour is a certified detective, we should listen to what she has to say. I, too, have my own suspicions on who the murderer is.” She sat up straight with her fingers crossed as she sent direct glances askance.
With a slight sneer in addition to her crossed arms, Annabelle slumped down back into her seat.
“Ahem, yes thank you Mrs. Chapman, you have nothing to worry about. A good detective never presents their resolution without evidence. Today, ladies and gentlemen, I am here to reveal who the murderer is and how they did it. I should also inform you that the main suspects are in the room right now.” Rumour declared in dark playfulness. She was never one to miss the opportunity of causing a commotion and it appeared to be that the Mrs. Chapman wasn’t either.
“What do you mean suspects? It’s awfully clear that Ben Richardson was the murderer! Just look at him, he’s been sitting here like a scrawny chicken the whole entire time!” Mrs. Chapman shouted at the accused boy.
So much for “listening to what Rumour has to say,” I thought to myself.
“I understand where you’re coming from Mrs. Chapman but allow me to explain. Have you ever thought of a different possibility of why he might be so scared and intimidated besides your original presumptions? Perhaps the reason why you kept on seeing Ben Richardson near your house was because he was there to visit your late daughter, a friend of hers? Or maybe, just maybe, they were even lovers?” The detective revealed.
“Impossible! Don’t try to amuse me, Claudia would never be interested in such a disgraceful boy like him.” Mrs. Chapman said with extra venom or a little bit too much perchance. This provoked the serpent’s target to take the chance to show its own fangs.
“I have had enough of these unfounded accusations against me. Mrs. Chapman, you may not like me as a person, however, please understand that you do not speak for your daughter.” Ben Richardson finally stood up for himself.
“Well, I see that you are bearing a ring on your left ring finger yourself. Sickening to think that you would even suggest that my daughter would be interested in a married man.” The mother stubbornly pointed out.
“She is the bride!” Ben Richardson snapped. At this point, both debaters’ faces were red and the boy’s loud breaths filled the quiet while the woman fed it with her hands tightly formed into fists.
“Mother, it’s true. I also knew about this for a while.” Annabelle quietly added with her head ducked, avoiding any chance of eye contact.
“I can third that. You see Mrs. Chapman, here along with the suicide letter, we have all these letters to and from your daughter and Ben.” Rumour butted in. “They have been in contact for quite a few years actually if you look at the dates: July 30, 1925, February 16, 1926, May 7, 1926, to the most recent one dating to only a month ago, August 13, 1927.” She read out just a few of the many the dates while shuffling through the abundance of love letters.
Rumour started building a house of cards with the letters with great ease on top of the mahogany coffee table in the center of the room.
“You see, if you simply read the letters, it’s clear that the existence of their relationship is not a questionable matter.” She stacked the letters on top of each other at an impressive pace. “In fact, Claudia even mentioned how excited she was that her lovely sister was going to helping to arrange the wedding. And how it really pained her knowing that she wasn’t able to have her mother there because she knew that if she had brought it up, there wouldn’t have even been any wedding to attend in the first place.”
I was really starting to become jealous of how quickly Rumour has able to reach nearly finishing off the stacking.
“It was going to be a secret happily ever after.” She stated dramatically, resting the back of her hand against her forehead.
There was now only one more ‘v’ to be stacked on top. The final two letters were the suicide note and the most recent letter from Claudia to Ben. She placed them on top, finishing the house of letters.
“No, that’s too boring.”
Rumour snatched the suicide note from the tower, causing the whole construction to fall off balance and break apart into the mess of letters it started off as. Although, Rumour did not seem saddened in the slightest. No, it would’ve been foolish for me to think that she’d have any other reaction besides a smug sense of accomplishment.
“You see, what seemed off to me, was the inconsistency in writing between the suicide note and the rest of the letters. In the letter that Annabelle brought to us, all the letters were more close together, less swirly and whenever there was the letter ‘z’ there would be a dash through the middle. Coincidentally, when I went to library to sign out this book, England’s Most Dangerous Flora, it just so happens to be signed out two months ago with the handwriting identical to what was in the suspected letter. The book was signed out under the name, Annabelle Chapman.” The detective disclosed.
Annabelle sat quietly in her seat, not looking away at her feet.
“Interestingly enough, one of the flowers mentioned in here, the Anemone nemorosa or rather the Windflower, which can cause severe skin and gastrointestinal irritation, burning in the mouth and throat, and hematemesis, is growing within your garden, Mrs. Chapman. Although, one patch that’s supposed to be flourishing with the rest of the flowers, isn’t. It seemed as if the spot had been one filled with flowers but had been pulled out from the ground or snipped from their stalks. And what would be a more suitable purpose for that when acting with the intention to kill than including it in a bouquet which would’ve been the task of the wedding planner?”
Everyone including the frightened Mrs. Chapman now looked at Annabelle. Yet she still continued to show a stoic expression that was slightly hidden by the fact that her eyes were glued on her feet.
“And finally, within the envelope of the forged note, when I first read it, I saw a long strand of fiery red hair. I wasn’t too sure why it was there and decided to give the benefit of the doubt, however, seeing with all the other clues of the poisonous bouquet, the marriage of Ben and Claudia Chapman, and the differences in handwriting, all the signs point to say that Annabelle Chapman, you’re the murderer of your sister, Claudia Chapman.” Rumour finished with immense solemnity. At that moment, not one single person in the room knew how to react and decided to just direct their attention on the convicted murderer herself. The pressure must have sparked something.
All of a sudden, she vigorously whipped her head up, making her once proper and neat red hair tangle and stick out like a rat’s nest. Tears ran down her complexion like small rivers which contrasted the wide smile she plastered onto the face. Laughter was forced from her throat but was mixed in with the sounds of rumbling sobs and hiccups creating a screeching orchestra of sounds. Annabelle Chapman had snapped.
“Hey did you hear? Claudia Chapman got released from her 1 year sentence today.” A gruff baker in Rutherford’s city market whispered to the old merchant to his left.
“You idiot! Claudia’s the one that got killed! Don’t you remember her funeral that was held a few months back? It was her psycho sister, Annabelle that got let out. Tsk, for committing such a crime, on her own sister nonetheless, I think she should’ve stayed in there for the rest of her days!” The elderly woman replied.
“Well you know, I heard that it was all for love. She killed her sister because she saw a handsome stranger who came to her father’s funeral and was so infatuated with him that she thought the easiest way to meet him again was to host another funeral. Her sister was just the easiest target.” The nosy florist chimed in.
“Yeah well, that’s one messed up love if you ask me. Something must’ve gone off in her head after losing her father. Oh that poor widow, Lydia Chapman. I’m sorry but her daughter’s nuts!” The baker responded and waved his flour-dusted hands.
“But y’know I saw her visiting the cemetery yesterday, at least she’s paying her respects. She looked very tired and had a bouquet of flowers in hand. Maybe they were the same flowers she used in a bouquet a year ago!” The aged merchant announced to the rest of the group which gasped and chuckled in response.
“Gossip spreads like wildfire in Ruthersford, huh.” I said to Rumour as we walked passed the busybody staff on our way to the library.
“What’s new?” She responded, not slowing her pace.
I laughed, “Ah well, it’s been a while but if I haven’t already told you this, thanks for saving back there in the Chapman Case. When Annabelle just broke down and said that her motive was because she wanted to see me again, it explained why she was acting a bit strangely toward me throughout the whole investigation but I was too terrified to even move my mouth to respond.”
“Of course I’d speak up! As if I’d allow her to take away my assistant. There are still books that I need you to carry after all!” Rumour proclaimed with absolute genuinity. She marched on forward with an air of superiority and grabbed my hand and started dragging me along a familiar cobblestone path.
“Rumour has it, they just got in some first print edition copies of the Sherlock Holmes novels at the library. Let’s hurry!”