"Lady Brandox on the phone, sir. She asked me not to say her name. She wants to surprise you." Wilson, the butler, allowed himself a conspiratorial smile.
George Stage was watching with apprehension a black dot on the leaf of one of his orchids, but the prospect of listening to the voice of Gloria made him forget all orchids.
"My, my. How did you know it was me?"
"Wilson told me that it was the voice of a woman. I don’t associate with any other woman."
“That Wilson is a traitor, one of your accomplices."
While Gloria played the jealous woman, George thought how little he knew about her.
Lady Gloria Brandox revealed almost nothing about her past, her life. She asked George to be sympathetic, not to ask her questions that would elicit memories. She confessed only to having lived for years in the Middle East, before returning to London driven by circumstances and nostalgia. George appreciated her way of life. She wasn’t one of those boring women who want to spend time at the theatre, shopping to buy any junk, showing the new hat at the horse races and always asking questions about this and that. To George, Gloria was a lonely woman, her maid and chauffeur her only apparent company. And she never asked about his family and George volunteered little information. Maybe one day they would talk about many things but not now. Finally, George was more interested in her long blond braid than in her past.
“I want you to see my new house tonight,” she was saying. “You'll appreciate my hidden and unexpected side. I’m a good cook, among other things. After dinner you can tell me about your adventures in South Africa. Of the time that the Zulu warriors surrounded you and you were about to be torn to pieces by their spears. Or were you surrounded by the dancers? Beware not to drop the ashes of your pipe on my Bukhara carpet, Mr Warrior.”
“Until tonight,” George said. If George knew little about Gloria, he was grateful that she knew even less about him, that she saw him as a country gentleman who spent his time idly, the ideal partner for Gloria at this point, a respected veteran of The Second Boer War, now over, in South Africa. George Stage, an army officer of His Majesty, returned to England, where he spent his time between his home in London and his estate in the countryside. A man for whom time went on pleasantly — long rides, hunting, meeting friends at the Club, reading newspapers. An avid reader of murder chronicles who made murder his favourite topic of conversation, debating such niceties as under which circumstances a man has the right to kill. Was a man betrayed by his wife and trusted partner, a man suddenly left without money, friendship or affection, entitled to kill? George Stage had asked himself and others that very question. His answer was that it was morally right to kill only when the victim was an enemy of the nation.
He would explain, if asked, that in this case the killing is not a crime but a moral duty. But did not know that soon he would have to answer the question in real terms.
It happened on the golf course. His opponent had listened with great interest to his theories about murder justified by the circumstances and then had words of appreciation for his steady wrist. They had become friends. Over time George had realized that his friend had a very important role in service of the Crown.
One day his friend asked, “George, I wonder if you would have interest in applying your theories.”
“What do you mean?”
And so, like that, he came to practise his moral imperative on double agents, financiers who acted dishonestly in favour of foreign countries, illegal weapon dealers, even corrupt bankers. People whom he could meet in his circles, study their habits and vices, without suspicion. He had learned to prepare the plans of a crime and to implement it without mistakes.
“Sir, a gentleman wishes to see you about a matter he claims is of great importance. I’ve let him into your office,” Wilson the butler said in his deep voice, a voice that matched his tall, muscular frame.
“Did you ask him what it’s about, Wilson?” George Stage asked.
In point of fact, Wilson was more than George Stage’s butler. He knew all of Stage’s business and enjoyed his complete trust.
“He seems like a gentleman difficult to figure, sir.”
“Tell him to come back another time. I’m going out, as you know. Lady Gloria awaits me. No, Wilson, I’m afraid that I can’t see him now. It’s quite out of the question. Tell him to return tomorrow.”
Wilson nodded. He was one of very few people who knew of the relationship between George Stage and Lady Gloria Brandox.
“Yes, sir. Anyway, here is his card.”
Wilson handed Stage a business card on a silver tray, a gift from the wife of the Minister of Foreign Affairs a few years earlier. On the back of the card was written, ‘Please give this friend, to whom we are indebted for valuable services, whatever assistance he requests. His gratitude is indispensable to us.’
Stage recognized the handwriting immediately as that of his golfing friend, the man who had harnessed George Stage’s moral imperative.
“Mustafa Seyun. Hmm. A Turk,” he said to Wilson.
“Yes, but his English is fluent. He acts composed but I sense an underlying agitation,” Wilson said.
“Damn it, I have to go out and I’m late. I’ve a date with Lady Brandox as you well know. I promised I’d see her. She wants me to see her new home and furniture. Wants my opinion on her taste. I’ll have to be careful with that, won’t I? You know how women are.”
Stage looked at the business card again.
“Very well, Wilson, let this Mr Seyun in. Let’s hear what he has to say. I suppose I can give him a couple of minutes.”
George Stage amused himself with thoughts of Lady Gloria Brandox while Wilson fetched their guest.
“Sir, Mr Mustafa Seyun,” Wilson said, letting their guest enter.
“Good evening,” Stage said sizing up Mustafa Seyun, a man of average height, muscle running to fat. A thin, pencil moustache adorned his upper lip.
“Good evening, Mr Stage. A pleasure to meet you. Thank you for seeing me on such short notice.”
“My pleasure. Please, have a seat” George Stage said, indicating a plump chair nicely tooled in brown leather. “By the way, allow me to compliment you on your excellent English. I see from your card that you are from Turkey.”
“I was born in Istanbul but I studied at Oxford and now my job is import/export especially with your country.”
Stage nodded and smiled.
“Forgive my poor manners. May I offer you tea or coffee or perhaps something stronger? And then please tell me what I can do for you. I have a previous engagement and I’m running a bit late. To tell you the truth, if it weren’t for our mutual friend I’m afraid I would have put you off until another time.”
“I quite understand,” Mustafa Sian said. “I’ll come straight to the point. I request use of your—how can I put it? — Your ‘special’ services.”
Mustafa Seyun smiled, revealing large white teeth.
“Mr Stage, I need you to terminate someone, to use the euphemism that is so commonly employed in these circumstances. Our friend says that you are completely reliable and, it goes without saying, completely confidential. Naturally, I’ll pay whatever you require. You name your price.”
“And who is to be the object of my special services, whatever it is that you understand them to be, Mr Seyun? And by what moral principles?”
“You have to kill my wife.”
George Stage laughed.
"Really? You want me to eliminate your wife? You insult me. Do you really believe that I would meddle in something so sordid and ordinary? And what would be the moral principles that justify the crime? Your wife is a bad cook?”
George Stage looked at the note on the business card again.
“Very well, Mr Seyun, I'll give you a chance, but if you aren't convincing, if what you ask me is contrary to my principles, I will have to disappoint you. Talk quickly then.”
“I really must give you a bit of a background. I met my wife in Istanbul. She was beautiful. She was playing poker every night and always losing money. She was trying to hide her irritation, but it was apparent that she was not pleased to part with the money. I am an experienced player. I immediately realized her inexperience. I wonder now if she were pretending. I had the intuition that the poker table could be the battlefield where to conquer her, but I could not offer her money so openly. It would be considered insulting. I always wondered where she got all that money she kept losing.”
“And so?” George Stage said, growing impatient.
“One of her opponents at the table was a friend of mine and I signalled that I wanted to take his place. A little later he got up and I sat in front of what looked like a helpless and naive player. I began to play so that luck was running to her side. She smiled smugly. Maybe she believed that she was becoming a skilled and not just a lucky player, maybe thanking me for having spared her more humiliating losses, perhaps playing a well-planned comedy. Today I wonder whether our meeting was really random. Soon I learned that she was penniless and had delinquent accounts to pay. I was happy to help her.”
George Stage breathed deeply, reigning in his impatience. The Turk seemed absorbed in his memories:
“She did not like to talk about herself, her past, only that she was born and lived for a long time in your country. Gradually she came into my life. I presented her to my family, who was fascinated despite her being a foreign non Muslim. The presence of a woman, of stunning refined beauty, increased the prestige of my
family. We are the richest family, I should say tribe, in Turkey, perhaps not only in Turkey. A wealth that I have difficulty in assessing, increased over the centuries by merchants who led a life often risky and often frugal, traveling in caravans and ships. The presence of this white queen, with blond hair, seemed to give us something that we were missing, people demanding from us. Our marriage seemed a natural event.”
“Come to the point, Mr Seyun, I pray you. The fog thickens.”
“For a time all went for the best. My wife had a strong passion for jewellery, that given my wealth I had no problem to gift her, from the private collection of my family and the best jewellers in Europe. I had many stones cut especially for her in Amsterdam. Then came the unexpected. Fate is always around the corner. As you know we are going through a period of turmoil in the Middle East. My family is concerned. Therefore, with great discretion, and thanks to our friends, we have converted to sterling and other prized currencies many of our properties. All the money raised is deposited in some banks in London under my name only. My family and I are the same thing. That money is not mine only. It also belongs to a few dozen of my relatives. Immediately after these financial transactions, my wife began to feel a great nostalgia for London. You know how these things go, the desire to see friends, to find places and resume old habits. In short, to see her smile, I rented her a house in London and she actually appeared to be very grateful. I let her move, with the agreement to visit her every month for a few days. That also allows me to take care of the family business. I could not do more for her. My wife brought with her all the jewellery, her maid and a driver, a certain Ali. Of course I was hoping that after a certain period the nostalgia would be over and she would return to Istanbul to our home there.”
George Stage looked at his watch. “Please, Mr Seyun. The point.”
“Yes, yes. Well, one day I received an envelope full of documents from the most famous and expensive law firm in London. My wife sought divorce. She complained of feeling lonely and neglected, of being unwelcome in my family. Accused me of having banished and sent her exiled in London. She claimed to be in serious economic difficulties after entrusting me with her dowry. And finally all the money of my family in the banks of London had been frozen and she was demanding half of it. I do not know how it could happen, but she knows every detail of my financial movements in London. I was probably naive and reckless. I would have never thought of her betrayal. That is my story.”
George Stage took a deep breath and got up from his chair.
“I’m afraid someone has given you the wrong idea, Mr Seyun. I am a servant of the government only. I don’t know what you’re talking about. I never get involved in private-party matters. Now, if you’ll excuse me, as I told you I have a previous appointment and I really must be going. Wilson will show you out.”
From outside the muffled sounds of traffic, hooves clattering, pushed against the windows.
Mustafa Seyun remained seated.
“Perhaps I haven’t made myself sufficiently clear, Mr Stage.”
He withdrew a black cloth sack from his pocket, opened it and poured its contents under the table lamp to his side. A mound glittered up at George Stage.
“First let me assure you, Mr Stage, that you are looking at genuine diamonds of the highest quality. Obviously I don’t expect you to take my word for their value. Our mutual friend will confirm their worth. These gems will make you a rich man indeed for doing a job that will require an hour of your time and no risk. My wife betrays me and is trying to steal from family. The situation is unbearable.”
“It sounds to me that you have a personal problem, Mr Seyun, and I sympathize but it’s not my problem. Please take back the diamonds.”
The Turk remained seated and with a slight smile handed Stage an envelope.
“What’s this?” Stage asked.
“Open the envelope and read the letter. Please.”
Stage did so, again immediately recognizing the handwriting.
‘Dear George, I imagine you have refused the offer of Mr Seyun. Therefore, I have to reveal that his unfaithful wife is not only an adventurer, but also a spy of a hostile nation. The poor Seyun told her confidential news. The perverse fascination of that woman has claimed the lives of two of our agents. I prefer that the Turk is unaware of the double life of his wife. Please find a decent excuse to take the job that he offers you. I presume that he has dazzled your eyes with his method of payment. I assure you that they are of the highest quality.’
Enclosed in the envelope a five-pound note, cut in two, replaced the signature. George Stage understood at once.
Stage put the letter in his desk drawer.
“Well, Mr Seyun, our common friend insists that I accept your assignment. I cannot disappoint him with a refusal. His esteem has a very high value for me. Suppose I accept the assignment. What’s the plan?”
The diamonds were left on the desk.
“This afternoon I invited my wife to the cricket club with a promise to discuss in her favour the requests for money she has advanced. I ordered her favourite cocktail and was able to slip something into it that ensured that would fall asleep when I brought her home. I left her lying on her armchair, her beautiful face wrapped in a burka that covers her body, her back to the hallway that will lead you to her.”
George Stage stroked his chin thoughtfully.
“What about the servants?”
“Out until morning. Let me add that they are not as faithful as she believes. They inform me of everything. Now, what do you say? You follow my car and then you can be on your way to wherever you are going.”
In the car in front, Mustafa Seyun’s driver navigated through the densest fog George Stage had ever seen. Stage knew quite well the streets of his city, but the fog made it difficult for him to distinguish where the driver was heading. He kept his eyes fixed on the car in front, certain that the driver was doing many turnarounds to confuse him. All the better if I don’t know where they are taking me, he told himself. Now the lead car slowed and then stopped to allow Seyun to step down and enter the lighted door of a club, just as he had told Stage he would do. Nice to be rich enough to hire someone to do your dirty work while you spend a pleasant evening playing games, Stage thought. The two cars resumed the journey and stopped again after a few minutes. George Stage could hardly see the driver stepping down and he stepped down too. In a coat pocket Stage held a red cord and two keys. In the other pocket was a black velvet bag with diamonds that he fantasized showing later to an astonished Gloria.
He approached Seyun’s driver. “I say, this fog is dreadful and I must confess I’m not sure where I am. You appear to know the city extraordinarily well. Might I prevail upon you to lead me to this address when I finish up my business here? I shouldn’t be but a few minutes.” He gave the driver Gloria Brandox’s address.
The driver smiled a wolfish smile. “Certainly, sir.”
Stage nodded and went to the door of the home through fog so thick he could almost swim in it. With one of the keys, he unlocked the door and stepped inside. He was in a dimly lit corridor. All was quiet. There was the faint smell of incense. He thought of the Turk’s instructions.
‘Walk to the end of the corridor and you will find my wife in the first room on the left. I assure you that the drug will have taken effect and she will be sleeping peacefully’.
At the door to the room on the left, Stage paused and then looked in. He could see the unmistakable form of a woman, curvaceous even though covered with a burka, lying in slumber and could hear her soft breathing. For several moments, he looked and listened and then turned and looked back down the corridor. He had never killed a woman and he wondered whether he had the right to under any circumstance. He took a step toward the door he had come in and then steeled himself with the thought that this woman was a danger to the state, had cost lives and would probably cost more if she were allowed to live. He slipped the red cord from his pocket and was grateful that the burka covered her face. Perhaps tomorrow he would see that face on the Stages of the newspapers but it was better not to tonight.
He went to the woman, did what he had to, and, when the task was finished, flung the red cord at the woman’s feet. Thank God she had been in the clutches of the drug. She had barely twitched or struggled as he had tightened the cord around her throat.
Back outside, he found Seyun’s driver seated in the car cocooned in fog.
“Thank you for waiting. Now if you’ll drive to the address that I gave you, I’ll follow. Please drive slowly. I’ve never seen a worse fog.”
As they drove, Stage felt that he was being led in circles but finally gave up trying to make sense of the direction Seyun’s driver was taking.
As he drove, George Stage imagined Gloria growing impatient over his delay. No doubt she would scold him. Dinner’s growing cold, she would likely say and she had been worried about him on such a beastly night. But he would smile, loving and mocking, and would tell her about their plans for the future. He imagined her surprise and how her angry eyes would become filled with honey when he showed her the contents of the little black sack.
Where the devil is this man taking me? he thought as he struggled to keep the car in front in sight. Finally, after many twists and turns, Seyun’s car stopped. The driver stepped out and came back to George Stage.
“There’s the address that you gave me, sir. Just ahead on the left. I’ll be on my way, sir. Good night to you.”
Stage nodded, stepped down from his car and walked toward the home Seyun’s driver had indicated. Gradually, as he approached the home, a doorway light poked through the fog and then, as he came to within a few feet, he stopped abruptly at the sight of a uniformed constable.
“Good evening constable. Something’s happened? A thief perhaps? It's an ideal night for housebreakers. I think they are all on duty. I'm sorry for you.” Stage smiled and kept his tone light.
“Good evening, sir. You have a business here, do you?” the constable said. His tone, not at all light, puts Stage on guard, but before he could reply the door opened and a man stepped out. He looked from the constable to Stage, his gaze settling on Stage.
“Inspector Blythe,” he said. He peered at Stage through the fog.
“I was asking the gentleman if ‘e ‘ad business ‘ere, Inspector.”
“Thank you, constable. And do you, sir?”
Stage and the Inspector stared at one another for a moment, trying to read and interpret expressions, a process made difficult by the fog.
Before Stage could reply, the Inspector said, “I’m afraid something terrible has happened here tonight.”
He moved closer and George Stage sensed the Inspector was trying to read his reaction. At all costs, he must keep his relationship with Gloria hidden. He would discover what had happened later.
“I’m sorry to hear that. I was simply on my way to my club but I lost my way in this horrible fog. I came to the door because I saw the light on. I was about to inquire directions.”
“And what club might that be, sir?” the Inspector asked. “Perhaps we can help.”
George Stage told the Inspector the name of his club. The Inspector nodded and said, “I know of it.”
He gave the directions and Stage went on his way, his heart filled with dread.
“The phone, sir,” Wilson said as George Stage brought a spoon of poached egg to his mouth. He had spent a night of troubled sleep. “I believe it is your golfing friend.”
“Thank you, Wilson.”
George Stage got up and went to the study to answer the phone.
“Hello, George. I’ve been reading the morning papers. I see that you had a successful evening.”
“Successful but not pleasant.”
“Yes. I’ve been reading about a strangling. A foggy night and a strangling. Apparently with a red cord. Weren’t you in the neighborhood, George?”
“Please. Spare me your irony.”
“You were lucky not to have run into the villain.”
“What did I just say?”
“All right, George. I apologise. Now, George, in all seriousness, I have to tell you something that you may find . . . How can I put this? Something you may find difficult.”
“I must tell you that nothing you tell me can be more difficult than last night. I mean, a woman.”
“George, Mustafa Seyun’s wife was Gloria Brandox Seyun.”
After a long pause, George said, “You bastard. You unremitting bastard.”
“I know this is difficult, George, but think of the moral imperative that we have discussed on more than one occasion.”
“You expect that I can think of moral imperatives at this moment?”
“Would you like to talk another time, George?”
“No. Let’s settle this matter now. What’s done is done. I assume you’ve been in contact with Scotland Yard.”
“I have. The crime is being attributed to a certain Ali, the driver and handyman of the victim. This Ali has gone, and with him all the jewelry kept in a safe according to the maid who come back early this morning. The case is over, I am informed by Scotland Yard. In their report, the detectives will confirm that
Lady Brandox found this Alì rummaging in her drawers. He was forced to strangle her and, in a form of Oriental respect for the victim, put her on the couch wrapped in a burka.”
“Scotland Yard appears to have told you a great deal.”
“As the Seyun family is involved in the crime. Scotland Yard informed our Foreign Office.”
“I understand. It seems that Mr Seyun had problems with some banks in London, following a legal action of his wife.”
“I don’t know. I don’t think that a bank would be interested in being involved in a murder case. I don’t expect any unsolicited statement. I congratulated Scotland Yard for the speed with which the case has been resolved. I suggested a career advance to the detectives who conducted the investigation. I should add that I am especially pleased. Mr Seyun has been working many years for our government with great results. He provides good information on the situation in the Middle East, thanks to his family’s friends. Often the reports that he sends us allow us to predict events.”
“Scotland Yard isn’t looking for Seyun? After all he was the victim’s husband. It seems really strange that no one is interested in him.”
“Mr Seyun lives in Turkey, travels a lot for business. It is not always easy to get in touch with him. The maid said that the relationship between husband and wife was good and that the two used to meet lately as friends to discuss the alimony demanded by Gloria at the request of divorce, nothing else. Gloria was a privileged woman thanks to the generosity of her husband and would remain so even after the divorce. Money cannot be considered a motivation for the murder. Because of the immense wealth of the family Seyun can afford a divorce. The offices of the border police have been alerted to put the driver Alì under arrest for murder. Maybe he has embarked under a false name on a ship. He had plenty of time to manage his plan, alone or with some accomplice.”
“Any relevant letters, documents in the victim's house? Her lawyers didn’t show up?”
“A law firm is interested in living customers, not in those who can no longer pay their exorbitant fees. For the rest, keep in mind that the investigation ended virtually in the morning, just after the maid came back, as she had been instructed the day before. Strangely no documents or letters or papers were found. Maybe they are kept in a bank deposit box, to come out who knows when. Maybe our Ali took them away and destroyed everything. The private life of the victim was virtually unknown to the circle of their friends. Apparently, Gloria was trying to avoid the company of her husband, nothing unusual before a divorce.”
“You knew about my relationship with Gloria Brandox, didn't you?”
“It has been a difficult and complex game. It was not expected that you would be part of the game. Our prey was Gloria, but she took us to you and your relationship with her. But not only that.”
“What do you mean? What else have you discovered?”
“The Turk Seyun too was aware of your affair with his wife. I used to invite him to dinner at an Italian restaurant. He is crazy about that cuisine. Of course dinner was a pretext for an exchange of information. The last few times he was absent minded, flashes of hatred in his eyes. I insisted that he talk, I sensed by his tone of voice that he had in mind to kill you. That is why
I sent him to you, and you were served a cold subtle and terrible revenge. We had to make a choice. Are you listening to me, George?”
“George, that woman held you in her clutches. Perhaps she had in mind blackmail. There is only one point left to clear, but it is of little relevance.”
“The case cannot be said to be completely solved, then.”
“Well, George, last night Scotland Yard received a frantic short phone call by an unknown man with a foreign accent immediately after the crime is presumed to have happened. Someone wanted to report that the crime had just been committed. Who knew about the crime apart from the murderer? An accomplice? Someone who arrived on the scene, while the murderer was coming out of the back gate? In this last case, the man who made the phone call, the guest expected or unexpected by Lady Brandox, had to have the keys to enter the house of Gloria, to be able to go up and find out the crime.”
“Her husband, possibly that driver Ali and the maid, had the keys.”
“That's right, George, and there are no signs of forced entry at the front door.”
“The murderer may have entered from the backside?”
“But even on that side there have been no break-ins.”
“The murderer had the keys then?”
“Exactly, George, the murderer had the keys and this only adds to the suspicions about that bloke Ali. And then there's the murder weapon, a red silk lace, not usual in our country. The murderer must have forgotten the lace in the excitement of the moment. Unless he left a hint on purpose. You were on excellent terms with Gloria Brandox, weren’t you?”
“Yes, really excellent, I would not find a better word.”
“I don’t think that Scotland Yard will ask you any question. Almost no one knows about your relationship with Gloria. The runaway of Ali and the disappearance of the jewels have solved everything. The call of the unknown man to Scotland Yard in the night has also allowed discreet and fast investigations. When the maid arrived, Scotland Yard issued an international warrant for Ali. There will be no further investigation in London. The case is over. Probably nothing will come out in the newspapers. Now forget everything. The murder of Gloria must have upset you. Maybe you should leave London, too many memories.”
“I suppose we will have no reason to meet again for some time.”
“A considerable amount of money will be deposited into your account for services rendered. You may give yourself a long vacation. Skip Istanbul. A turbulent and unpredictable city.”
George hung up and looked at a portrait of Gloria she had given him, hanging on the wall. Her smile was a mix of happiness, sadness and hope. Now he was sure she had wanted to start a new life with him in the Western Islands.