Chapter 1 - Endgame by A.J. Hall
“Yes, you can go in,” she said. “I’ll sit in. I warn you I’ll stop the questioning if I think he’s getting distressed, but otherwise I won’t say anything. Sir Anthony; as you’re the boy’s next of kin –” She felt herself flush at the slip, and bit her lip in annoyance. Unprofessional. “As the boy’s available next of kin, are you happy with those arrangements?”
The baronet nodded. “Happy with anything that gets this business cleared up. After all, however bad things look, Olivia’s entitled to a sporting chance, same as everyone, eh?”
“Entitled to have the prosecution prove its case beyond reasonable doubt,” the tall man corrected, almost absently.
“Well, she should have taken care to leave more doubt, shouldn’t she?” Sir Anthony snapped and then half-raised his hand, apologetically. “Sorry. But how’d you feel if it were your brother found stabbed to death and his wife’s thumb-print in blood on the wheel of her car?”
“My brother isn’t married.” The tall man’s lips twitched, as if at some arcane private joke. “Which may well be why I have yet to investigate his murder. Where’s the child?”
“In the Blue Drawing Room. He seems to prefer it there. Also, the windows overlook the walled garden. Less chance of the paparazzi getting an opportunistic photo. Miss Letheridge will take you through.”
Ms, she protested internally, for what felt like the hundredth time since entering the house. Nor am I your bloody parlourmaid. No point in saying anything, though. Nor in objecting to Sir Anthony’s pointed failure to introduce her to this detective person, or to the detective’s omission to introduce himself. Head-games. Whether in a council flat on Blackbird Leys or here, in the chilly Palladian splendour of Dunsford Park, always head-games from the families. The thing was to concentrate on the child, and let the rest wash over you.
“This way,” she said. In front of the closed door of the Blue Drawing Room she turned to face her companion.
“Look,” she said, “I know you’re being paid by Mrs Hellier’s legal team to try to find some shred of a defence –”
“Olivia’s an old college friend of my flatmate’s sister. I doubt the issue of payment will arise.”
She took in his appearance, from the hand-lasted shoes to the thousand-pound overcoat, and was hard put to it not to call him a liar to his face. “Never do owt for nowt, that sort,” Gran had said once. Nothing she’d experienced since had proved Gran wrong. She pasted an insincere smile on her face.
“Whatever. I can see you have to do the best for your client. As have I, for mine.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Clients? Is that what the child psychologists are calling kids these days?”
Oh. That sort. Thinks ‘childhood trauma’ is just woo-woo for ‘attention-seeking naughtiness’, and all any child really needs is a stern reminder from Nanny about the importance of the stiff upper lip.
Her face set, her voice sounded icy. “It is. In any event, I’m asking you to remember that Ricky has been under almost unimaginable stress. Also, while to a lay observer he may seem calm, even detached, to a trained professional his abnormally restricted affect is one of the most worrying symptoms he presents.”
“Abnormally? Tell me, what is the normal amount of emotional shut-down permissible to a nine-year old boy who comes into the kitchen for a glass of water late at night, only to stumble over the bleeding body of his dying father? Do you people have graphs for this sort of thing?”
She bit back a crude retort. Her hand was on the door-knob when he spoke again.
“Oh, and it’s Richard. His mother calls him Richard.”
She turned back, only to find him holding out an all-too-evidently -loved paperback copy of The Hobbit, barely held together with sellotape, the cover marred by purplish, sticky stains her experience identified as Ribena.
“Olivia asked me to find this and give it to him, if I got the chance. You might try reading the inscription.”
She flicked to the title page. “To Richard on his Eighth Birthday! Wishing you plenty of Adventures and lots of Treasure! Love Mummy and Daddy.”
A lump rose in her throat. For a moment it seemed impossible to speak. She pushed it back at him; he dropped it into one of his coat pockets.
“Perhaps you could give it to him when you’ve finished this questioning?” She ran harassed fingers through her hair. “Heaven knows, I’ve tried everything else. He doesn’t read – he doesn’t play. The only thing he’s done since he arrived here is to push chess pieces about. Not even a game – I offered to play him but he ignored me. Just dumping pieces onto the board at random.”
She pushed the door open, pointing across to the pedestal stand in the window. The elaborate ivory chessmen were in their usual place, mostly by the side of the walnut and mahogany inlaid board. The child did not look up as they approached; he prodded a pawn forward with one stubby forefinger.
“See what I mean?” she murmured.
“Alekhine/Capablanca. Buenos Aires, 1927. The eleventh game of the championship,” the tall man said crisply.
Ricky – Richard – spun on the spot, his voice shrill, almost accusing. “How did you know?”
He shrugged. “Four queens on the board in the end-game. So: Alekhine or Capablanca?”
“Alekhine.” The child’s voice was firm, unhesitating.
“Good man. Me too.” He must have felt her gaze on him because he glanced back at her. “Well? Try broadening what passes for your mind. If I’d said, ‘Spurs or Arsenal?’ you’d have been eyeing me up as potential husband material by now.”
In your dreams, sunshine.
“Football’s boring,” Richard announced.
“I couldn’t agree more. Whereas this chess set –” He circled the pedestal table, looking hungry, acquisitive; finger-tips outstretched to caress each exquisitely crafted piece. “This is something else again.”
“It’s mine. Uncle Tony gave it to me.”
“Wow.” His whistle of impressed astonishment brought a flicker of animation to the child’s face; she liked the man better for it. “Some present.”
Richard stood on one leg, the other curled around the back of his knee. “Mummy told him he shouldn’t.”
“When? Birthday, Christmas?”
“Christmas. We always come here for Christmas.” There was, she fancied, a slight break in his tone as the childish Always touched the prematurely adult Never Again.
“So what did Uncle Tony say to that?”
Richard’s soft, pudgy forehead crinkled. “He said it’d only been gathering dust in the attic since his grandfather came back from India in ‘48, and there was nothing wrong with giving it to someone who’d appreciate it. So she agreed in the end. But we had to leave it here, for the time being. Mummy insisted. In case of burglars. We’ve been burgled three times.”
“Most burglars of my acquaintance are as regular as London buses, yes. Don’t have one for ages, then three come along at once. What’s it like to play with?”
Richard shifted to the other foot, twisting his hands behind his back, glancing at those impossibly fragile bits of antique ivory, manners warring with honesty.
“Not a tournament set, of course.” Those cool, judicial tones sliced through Richard’s dilemma like honed steel cutting knotted rope. She could see the tension leach from the childish body. The boy nodded.
The man reached into the capacious pockets of his overcoat, pulling out a rectangular wooden box with a sliding top. It looked battered, ink-stained; its top bore a set of initials which seemed to have been scratched in with the points of a pair of compasses.
“This one is.” He reached into the other pocket, pulling out a rolled square of material. Unrolled, it revealed a chequer-board pattern. “Fancy a game?”
“Are you any good?”
Richard flopped down onto the hearth-rug. “That’s all right, then.”
“Indeed. I don’t care for wasting time, either.” He dropped the overcoat onto a convenient arm-chair, revealing himself to be wearing a surprisingly ordinary cable-knit navy-blue sweater and checked shirt beneath it. He stretched himself full-length on the floor on the other side of the board, propping himself up on his elbow, watching the child set up the pieces with a confident, practised air.
Richard held out both hands, clenched into fists, fingers downwards. With a detached formality which reminded her of a fencer bringing his foil to the salute, his opponent reached out and tapped the left one. Richard turned it uppermost, opening his fingers. A black pawn lay on his palm.
“Lucky. No need to swap sides.” The man thought for a moment, then reached out and removed both his own bishops, putting them neatly beside the cloth.
“Oh, goody.” Richard’s voice rang with passionate intensity; the most emotion she’d heard from him since she arrived. “You’re meaning to play to win.”
“Daddy,” Richard said, automatically. Then his face closed up; he struggled on, voice choked. “He always – used – to start with a full set. Then make idiot mistakes in the mid-game. I think he thought I didn’t notice.”
“And your Uncle Tony?”
“He plays to win. Gives me odds, same as you. Only he gives me rooks, not bishops.”
“And does he win?”
A brief, fugitive lightening of the child’s expression, quickly followed by a renewed shut-down. “Mummy says chess is ‘limiting’. She plays poker instead.”
“That sounds like one of Harry’s friends, yes.”
Amazing how a grin can transform a man’s face. And voice.
“I suppose – I suppose poker’s more use. In prison.” Richard’s voice trailed off almost to a whisper.
The man put his head on one side, considering. “Depends. I’ve been playing chess by post for the last five years with a lifer in Dartmoor. Never touched a pawn before I put him in there. One of the best players I know.” Perhaps he caught her intense, disapproving stare, because he added, “Anyway, there is such a thing as over-preparing for the worst. Your move.”
The game proceeded in silence. After a while she rose, selected a book from the shelves beside the fire-place, returned to her chair, kicked up her shoes and curled her legs under her. Neither of the players paid her the smallest attention. The stable clock chimed the hour, then the quarter past, then the half hour. Then the quarter to.
Sir Anthony’s going to wonder what the Hell we’re up to. And the questioning hasn’t even started yet.
From the far depths of the house came the sound of the front door bell pealing, and a brief flurry of activity. More of the County vultures, presumably; equal parts commiseration and fascination, just wanting their share of a sensational crime.
“Check. In fact, checkmate.”
Richard looked at the board, scrutinised it from all angles. His mouth drooped. After a moment or so he picked up the White King and, very carefully, laid it down on its side.
His opponent extended his right hand across the board. Oddly formal, the child slid his much smaller one into his, and shook.
“I thought I was going to get you. With that discovered check.” Disappointment infused his tone.
Mobile lips quirked in an amused, appreciative grimace. “You almost did. I didn’t work out what you were up to there from looking at the board, you know.”
“What, then?” Richard’s forehead creased with puzzlement.
“The way you held your head, as you waited for me to move. Too still. That’s what warned me to take a second look. You ought to ask your mother to teach you poker, one of these days.”
The child emitted a small, bitten-off noise, between a sob and a whimper.
You idiot! All that time, all that patience, all that progress, and all blown away for the sake of one smart-alecky comment.
The tall man stretched, limbs doubtless cramped from nearly an hour on the floor. “Which reminds me. I need to make a phone call. No need to have Olivia locked up an instant longer than she need be. Not now we’ve proved her innocence. Thanks for your help, there, by the way. It did make a difference.”
Richard’s eyes were wide, his face a blazing mixture of hope and fear. “Mummy’s coming home? Free?”
The man nodded, decisively, standing up in one swift movement and reaching for his coat.
“My word on it. Of course, it’ll take them some time to process her out and drive her over from Oxford, so you may want to have something to read while you’re waiting for her to collect you.” He reached into his pocket and held out The Hobbit.
Richard took it, tracing his finger over the cover, following familiar stains and scars. “They – the police, I mean – said we couldn’t have any of our things. From home. Not until it stopped being a – a crime scene.” He looked up. “How did you get it?”
To do him justice, the tall man looked almost disconcerted at the direct question. “Um. Well. Let’s just say – on some adventures, you need an experienced burglar to get anywhere, OK? Look, must dash. Be seeing you. But don’t think you’re getting better odds than a bishop and a knight on the rematch.”
He whisked through the door. She followed hard behind him.
“Well?” she demanded. “On what possible basis can you make that promise? Have you any conception of how much harm it’ll do if his mother isn’t released, after you’ve built up his hopes like that?”
“Not hopes. Certainties. Come with me, and I’ll show you. Just keep your mouth shut.”
The door to the little office off the main hall stood part-open. A tired-looking man perched on an uncomfortable-looking spindly chair just inside. His face brightened as he saw her companion, his warm, spaniel-brown eyes oddly affectionate.
“We found the bundle, Sherlock. Just where you said it would be. Duplicate keys and everything.”
Sherlock. A blog post suddenly became real before her eyes. She gulped. Beside her, the other two were still talking, matter of fact, businesslike.
“I know. I had my phone in my trousers pocket. John and I arranged a telephone vibration code, to let me know as soon as you’d secured the evidence. It made a difference to what I dared say, this end.”
“And? Did you get what you wanted from the boy?”
“Yes. Go right ahead. It’s solid.”
“What’s solid?” Sir Anthony, accompanied by his personal secretary, entered the office.
The spaniel-eyed man turned to him. “Sir Anthony Hellier? Detective Inspector Lestrade, Scotland Yard.” His voice speeded up, as if he feared interruption. “I am arresting you for the wilful murder of your brother, Ambrose Hellier. You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you say may be given in evidence.”
Sir Anthony’s face went dead white; his lips blue, veins on his forehead standing out. He whirled to face Sherlock.
“What the hell did Ricky say? What the hell did Ricky see?”
Sherlock shrugged. “He told me you gave him rooks, when you played chess at odds.”
Sir Anthony paused. Then, “You bastard.”
Inspector Lestrade reached out to grasp him by the elbow. “Now we’ve got that out of the way, Sir Anthony, you are going to come quietly, aren’t you? Because I’ve got two constables just outside, and I’d hate to have to put cuffs on you if I didn’t need to.”
Sir Anthony went quietly. Only when the door had closed behind them did she speak.
“Why do rooks make a man a murderer?”
“Rooks,” Sherlock repeated, as if she was pretending to be stupid, just to annoy him. “As a handicap. Against a child.”
“You gave him bishops. But rooks are more valuable –” Her mind went back to Gran teaching her chess, running through the relative worth of the pieces, using the set Grandad had carved in the camp, in Burma, from bones.
Sherlock clicked his tongue against his teeth. “Only in the mid-game to the end-game. But the weaker player needs the advantage in the opening. Otherwise, by the time they reach the mid-game, they’re already so far down that the other player’s inability to use rooks barely affects the outcome. Patterns. An extravagant, supposedly generous gesture which turns out, on close scrutiny, to be nothing of the kind.”
“But cheating a kid at chess – it’s pretty lousy behaviour, but it’s not a crime.” But she felt the untruth in her mouth as she spoke it, and knew that Sherlock knew it. His next words reflected that.
“Chess isn’t precisely a game for a kid like Richard. Somewhere between an obsession and the core of his existence. And Sir Anthony knows that. After all, he’d have been an international master himself, if his childhood talent had lasted.
An man who’s capable of violating such a trust is capable of anything.”
“Rooks versus bishops. I can’t see a jury going for that, though. Not with the kind of defence counsel Sir Anthony can afford.”
“Yes. But there is another supposedly generous gesture that will be easier for them to comprehend. The Mughal concentric-ball ivory chess set sitting in the Blue Drawing Room at the moment. Come to think of it, I’d better make sure Lestrade secures that bit of evidence before he leaves. Get him to make the receipt out to Richard. Possession is nine-tenths of the law. I’d hate to think of Sir Anthony rethinking his generosity after the event.”
“But that’s just reallocating an heirloom between family members. Didn’t even change its location. At a pinch, he could pass it off as a dodge to save inheritance tax.”
“It’s a family heirloom, all right. But not of the Hellier family. It came up for auction at Christies two years ago, when an old manor house in Northumberland was broken up. Purchased by an anonymous bidder. I saw it at the sale; I couldn’t be sure it was the same one until I saw it here. But it is. There can’t be another so perfect in the country. “
He glanced at the door of the study, as if his gaze could penetrate the warren of corridors and see through to the back room where a child sat, waiting for his mother, setting out chess problems with antique ivory pieces worth a Maharajah’s ransom.
“Properly directed, I’m sure any jury will appreciate that to justify an opening gambit so colossal, the endgame had to have been stupendous.”
“But what was the endgame?”
“You’ve still not realised?” He drew a deep breath. “Sir Anthony murdered his brother and framed his sister-in-law for his murder with one objective only. The chance to get control. To groom Richard as the youngest ever contender for chess champion of the world.”