a mystery
Conspiracy at Cauldwell Creek
CHAPTER
1
Atticus Vernon, a tall and truly distinguished figure, strolls purposefully up the front doorsteps of the Cauldwell Creek Mansion. Donned in a dark brown coat and a black fedora, he has a thin face, piercing brown eyes, a pointed nose and a no-nonsense demeanor.
His partner, Faith Allen, stands beside him, an eager sidekick existing only in her superior’s shadow of sharpness and deduction.
“A new case from the Cauldwell family?” she asks in awe. “Why, they’re the wealthiest people in this part of the country!”
“They are,” agrees Atticus, “but they’ve run into a spot of trouble, it seems.”
“They want help from a private detective?”
“No, not just from a private detective,” says Atticus, straightening his collar. They want help from me.”
Cauldwell Creek Mansion stands four stories high, a prominent brick structure of the surrounding landscape— a black decorative fence and a small forest of trees leading to the main road.
He gives the doorbell a firm press. Seconds later, the door slowly swings open and a woman, who Atticus estimates to be in her mid-50s, peers out.
“Mr. Vernon. you’ve arrived!” she greets him. “Do come in!”
Minutes later, the two detectives are seated in the vast living room of the mansion, with soft leather couches, marble floors and a fire crackling nearby.
“My name is Rose Cauldwell,” she introduces herself. “I assume you know of our family, Mr. Vernon?”
“A very wealthy one, indeed,” recalls Atticus. “The Cauldwell family began many centuries ago, and since then, this mansion and the family’s riches have been passed down through the generations.”
“Exactly. As you probably know, the Cauldwells, ever since long ago, have been in conflict with another family known as—”
“The Mortons,” finishes Atticus.
“Yes. That feud officially ended tonight,” announces Rose proudly.
“I’ve read the story in the papers,” Faith speaks up. “The media is all over it.”
“Which is why I hired you, Mr. Vernon, a private detective. Can I expect the courtesy of discretion? What I’m about to tell you must be kept secret from the police, from the media, from anyone except the members of this family and the Mortons. Understood?”
“Yes, ma’am.”
“Good. Tonight a wedding reception was held here with several guests from both families present to symbolize the end of the long-running feud. My daughter, Helen Cauldwell, had just married Michael Morton, which triggered the events that eventually brought an end to the conflict. One of those events was me giving up my hold over the Morton family. You see, in the past, I had the power, influence and money to destroy the reputation of anyone of them I chose. That’s why they didn’t dare pick a fight with me. But in the spirit of moving forward peaceably, I terminated that power.”
“Admirable.”
“Thank you. A few days before, however, Helen told me in secret that she was pregnant with Michael’s child and planned to announce it at the reception.”
Rose pauses to wipe a tear from her eye.
“But right before the announcement was made, my sister, Paige Cauldwell, collapsed suddenly in the centre of the room. The party was thrown into disarray. Everyone surrounded her as some sort of unknown illness ravaged her body and put her in unbearable pain. I was distraught. I called my nephew, the family doctor, and he arrived in about five minutes.”
At that moment, another man enters the room.
“I just came back from the hospital,” he reports. “Paige should be fine, Rose. She’ll make a full recovery and return home tonight.”
“That’s wonderful!” exclaims Rose, smiling in relief. “Do join us, Eric.” She turned to Atticus. “This is my nephew. He’s the family doctor. He works at the local hospital.”
Eric sat down.
“Good,” says Atticus. “Perhaps, Eric, you could tell us what happened after Paige collapsed.”
“Paige had no history of physical illness, so her collapse was strange, indeed. But after I took her to the hospital, I realized she was drugged. If I hadn’t come when I did, she probably would have died.”
“Oh dear!” cries Rose.
“What happened next, Rose?” asks Atticus.
“After Paige was taken away, we noticed that all of a sudden, Helen was nowhere to be seen. We searched the entire mansion, but we couldn’t find her anywhere. No one at the party knew what happened. One minute she was there, the next minute she was gone. Michael was beside himself.”
“And where is Michael now?”
“He left with his brother, Neil Morton, immediately after to search the surroundings for his wife.”
“Is that all? You’ve left nothing out?”
“That is all that happened tonight. The guests have left and we’re the only people here right now.”
Atticus stands. “Then I shall start my investigation. Where was the party held?”
“In the main entrance hall. We passed it on the way to the living room.”
“Come along, Faith!” Atticus instructs, striding into the entrance hall. He then turns back to Rose. “Please don’t feel obliged to follow, Rose, given your condition and all.”
Rose seems taken aback. “How did you find out about my condition?”
“The way you opened the door when we arrived,” explains Atticus. “It was slow, almost as if it required much effort. Clearly, you have an illness which saps your strength.”
“It’s true. I diagnosed her,” confirms Eric. “I’ll come with you instead.”
Soon, Atticus, Faith and Eric were standing in the centre of the entrance hall.
“It’s quite obvious what happened to Paige,” announces Atticus, deep in his own thoughts. “Someone drugged her so she would collapse at the perfect moment, distracting all witnesses at the reception while our culprit kidnapped Helen. The only mystery is this: If Paige was only a distraction, why risk trying to kill her? Why not just render her unconscious for a few minutes? Also, where was Helen taken? Not out the front door. Someone would’ve seen.”
Atticus whirls towards Eric, pointing to the front door. “Is that the only exit?”
“Uh, no,” Eric says. “There’s another door.”
“Ah! Found it!” exclaims Atticus triumphantly.
He sways over to another single black door instantly, almost as if an invisible force were dragging him to the answers. Faith and Eric hurry after him and reach the door just as Atticus flings it open into the night. He marches down three steps and peers out into the darkness.
“This is the back of the mansion,” says Eric.
“Clearly,” replies Atticus.
The fence that surrounds the mansion continues around to this area. To the right, there is a small gate that leads into the woods.
“Do you think Helen was taken here?”
“I know she was,” states Atticus matter-of factly, jabbing his finger downward. “Look! Fresh footprints!”
On the dirt ground were two sets of prints. The detective whips out a flashlight to examine them.
“One pair is much larger than the other- they belong to a man and woman,” he observes. “The man wears size 12 shoes. The woman was wearing heels. This must be Helen and her abductor.”
“Eric wears size 12 shoes,” says Faith boldly.
The doctor gasps indignantly. “Are you implying that I did this?”
“No, we’re not,” answers Atticus, annoyed with Faith. “You’re obviously wearing size 11 shoes, not 12.” He turns to Faith. “Also, don’t wrongly accuse a suspect when he’s standing right there. Let’s follow these prints.”
The trio walks along the trail, which lead all the way to the fence and through the gate.
“The footprints show no struggle by Helen or her captor,” observes Atticus. “She knew her kidnapper. She didn’t even know she was being kidnapped. There’s also a slight disturbance around the ground of the man’s footprints which I can’t explain. Not yet.”
All three go through the gate in the fence.
“The fence is very beautiful,” says Faith to Eric, walking behind Atticus. “Especially the giant decorative balls at the top. Who designed it?”
“No idea. But it didn’t come with the house. I believe it was added recently.”
“Faith, less chatter, more investigating,” demands Atticus.
“Sorry.”
The footprints continue to lead the trio farther away from the mansion. Soon, they enter the woods surrounding the property. They walk a little way into the cluster of trees until they come to another trail branching off to the right.
“This trail,” says Eric, “leads back to the mansion.”
“The footprints stop here,” says Atticus. “But tire tracks begin. They lead further into the woods, probably all the way to the main road.”
He shines the flashlight towards the ground where, just as he said, a set of fresh tire tracks continued as far as one could see. He proceeds to examine the rest of the area, sweeping the flashlight’s beam in every direction. It falls on a tree branch lying a little way along the second path.
“A broken branch,” he murmurs. He looks up, and within seconds points to the tree of origin. “That’s where it fell from.”
He points to a tree to the left of the main path, singling out a specific spot where a tree branch clearly used to be. After, Atticus stoops down, examines the branch on the path for a while, then rolls it over, revealing a large, round impression on the other side.
“As I expected!” he triumphs, looking closer. “Obviously, the branch was used to whack Helen, rendering her unconscious. However, there are some mysterious black spots within the impression which I cannot explain. Not yet. But with a dent this size we must assume the worst. Considerable force was used. I’m afraid there is a good chance Helen Cauldwell may be dead.”
“Dead?!” Eric blurts out.
“Yes, and judging by the tire tracks, whoever did it put the body into a vehicle and drove off, perhaps burying the body elsewhere.”
Eric, shocked by the news, struggled to maintain his composure. “I-I must tell Rose at once! She’ll be distraught!”
The trio returns to the mansion just as a newly arriving car rolls into a parking space.
“That’s Michael,” predicts Eric.
A forlorn figure alights from the car, fancy clothes dishevelled from a frantic nighttime search. A second man, from the driver’s side, gets out and tries to comfort the distressed man. They both approach the group.
“No sign of her,” reports the driver.
“Mr. Vernon, this is Michael and Neil Morton,” Eric introduces them. “Let’s all go inside.”
As they enter the living room, Faith watches Atticus as he seemed to be fixated at something on the floor in front of him.
“Why’re you looking down at Michael’s shoes like that?” she asks quietly.
“Because they’re size 12.”
“You don’t think...?”
“I do,” whispers Atticus when the men are out of earshot. “There’s also some white dust at the edge of his pants near his heel. I believe it’s limestone. However, there’s no limestone area near here for at least several miles. His friend doesn’t have the same dust, which is peculiar as they arrived in the same car. Judging by the limestone inconsistency, they couldn’t have went the same places together, but I doubt Michael could sneak off with his wife’s body with his brother by his side. The absence of limestone on Neil’s pants also suggests that the two brothers aren’t working together, which means Neil is innocent from his brother’s crimes. Also, I got a glimpse of the tires on their car and they don’t match the tire tracks in the woods, which means that if Michael was the one who drove away with his wife’s body, he somehow ended up returning in a different car. Strange. I’m fairly certain Michael did it. I just cannot explain how or why. Not yet.”
Faith gapes at the detective. “You got all that from dust?”
Atticus clears his throat and says aloud, “Micheal, I’m terribly sorry for the awful night you’re having.”
“You’re the detective who’s gonna get my wife back?” he asks, a wretched figure of tears and ripped expensive clothing.
Eric steps forward. “I’m sorry, Michael, but—”
“She’s dead,” interrupted Atticus flatly.
“W-what?” he asks in grief-stricken disbelief.
Atticus stands stiffly, watching Michael intently. The man listlessly melts into a miserable display of hopeless sobbing. Eric wraps him into a hug.
Rose enters the room. “Is everything okay in here?”
Without answering, Atticus asks, “Is there anywhere Faith and I can talk privately?”
“You can use the hall.”
The detective pair disappears into the next room, leaving the world of pain and loss that is the living room.
“Aren’t you going to call out the husband on his little act?” Faith asks angrily. “He killed his wife!”
“Keep your voice down,” Atticus warns. “We need more evidence first. Let’s look at the case from a different angle. I believe I’ll start investigating Paige’s mysterious collapse next. Clearly, the two cases are connected.”
“Where should we start?”
“First, I’ll need to get my hands on Paige’s cell phone.”
“Why?”
“You’ll see.”
Minutes later, Atticus had been given access to Paige’s cell phone by Rose. He opened it and went straight to her call history.
“Aha! As I expected!” he smiles.
“What?”
“I thought it strange that after the collapse, after Rose had called Eric, he came within the space of a mere five minutes. The only explanation is that he was on standby. He knew something would happen to Paige because someone alerted him, and that person was Paige herself. She called him earlier- one hour before the reception even began.”
Faith knotted her brows. “Why would she do that?”
“Because she knew something would happen to her, which leads me to believe that Paige wasn’t originally supposed to die. Earlier I said she was just a distraction and I was wondering why someone would try to kill her if that was the case. Someone didn’t. Paige planned to make herself have a medical problem big enough to draw the attention to herself, but something went wrong, and she almost died.”
“Maybe something went wrong with the drugs she took.”
“Good theory, but a wrong one. Someone deliberately tried to kill her!”
“You just said that’s not what happened.”
“No, I said Paige didn’t intend for that to happen, but the person she was working with did.”
“You think she was working with someone?”
“Ugh, I wish you would keep up! Obviously! The medical emergency was a distraction for the kidnapper. Clearly she was working with him, but he double-crossed her, probably to tie up loose ends, and tried to kill her. But he didn’t count on Paige calling the doctor before the reception began and her life being saved. I also believe I know how he planned to kill Paige.”
“How?”
“At my request, a friend of mine that works in the police force informed me that two sedatives were stolen from the local hospital recently- one causes temporary unconsciousness and the other, with the right amount, causes a shutting down of internal organs which leads to death without immediate treatment. Coincidence? No.”
“So someone stole drugs from the hospital to use for tonight.”
“Precisely, but not just any someone. I believe that our thief is the same person who kidnapped Helen Cauldwell.”
At that moment, angry footsteps echoed crisply from the living room. They sounded louder and louder until a red-faced Michael Morton came storming into the room, enraged.
“You!” he screamed, jabbing his finger towards Atticus. “I’ll kill you! You piece of filth!”
With that, he lunged wildly towards the shocked detective and with a mighty swing of his arm, gave him a solid punch in the jaw. Faith screamed as Atticus reeled backwards and fell to the ground.
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