It was the call that had led Lynne onto the investigation of the disappearance of the Preston girls. The audio file was forwarded to her inbox and as she listened to the recording, she understood this was important. Something in her heart always stirred when she was presented with a case involving children. She looked up the area in which the family lived and measured the distance from the girls’ school and to their homes. It was a long walk and they had without doubt crossed through the country to get to the town faster. She paused, puzzled to see that the property of the Darklighter-family was right in the middle between the school and the town where the girls lived.
Could this be the final evidence she needed to pin down the fabled Matthew James Darklighter? Accusations had been made in the past; children had as a matter of fact disappeared more than once or twice in that forest. No evidence strong enough to convict him, no court daring to take up the cases when presented to it. Lynne had always been convinced that he was not as clean-cut as he appeared in public, and something told her that this was her chance to prove her worth and finally get to him and give the victims’ families some peace of mind. She had had the previous cases as well, but her partner Thomas, the sceptical, always proved to be right, that there was nothing to investigate and that it was all a set-up by Matthew Darklighter’s rivals. At least that’s how it always turned out.
But this case felt different. Maybe also because it had come straight to her, and Thomas was slightly astonished to hear of it when she briefed him and played the audio for him. He listened carefully before he looked at her, putting down the headphones.
“This is serious,” he said gravely and ran a finger along his bottom lip. “What do you make of it?”
“A distressed woman calling in because her daughters haven’t returned home after visiting a friend after school and a great storm raged the night before,” Lynne pushed her chair away from the desk and looked at Thomas. Her cubicle was plastered with diplomas for various memorable services in the police force. Around them the rest of the office buzzed quietly in its own tune.
Thomas leant against the desk, arms crossed and a frown to go with the dark voice. He was fairly young, but for an assisting officer, Lynne would have no other. They had begun their partnership a few years back when Thomas had been presented to the force and Lynne had just been promoted. Thomas was quite capable of becoming an inspector himself, but he said that he would have none of the responsibility. He liked working for someone who treated him respectfully and whom he could regard as a sort of mentor. Being in the lead was not his style.
Lynne had to agree that it was tough at times, but she was one of the few who had the privilege of solving more than seventy-five to eighty per cent of her cases, in her station at least. She hadn’t had any high-profile cases when she was first presented with a possible abduction case involving a seven-year-old boy. This was the first time she had met Mr. Darklighter, or Lord Darklighter as some preferred to call him, due to his family’s historical status and owners of their great property north of London. The land had been bought by the government during an uprising in the sixteenth century where the mansion had been abandoned, but when Matthews father, Something-Something Darklighter returned and showed papers stating his ownership, they were allowed back into their home.
Lord or not, Lynne had taken an instant dislike to the presumed nobleman and his lofty attitude, not only towards her but towards people in general. He appeared sleek and smooth on the outside, but listening to his voice with a fair amount of scepticism, one could clearly hear the condescending tones from a mile away. Thomas had been decidedly frightened and his mouth slammed shut like an oyster at their first visit in the Darklighter Mansion and encounter with the lord of the house. Like the next cases, the first one had been dropped, but ever since then, Lynne had vowed to discover the truth about what hid beneath the surface of the polished Darklighter façade.
“Have you talked to them yet?” Thomas asked.
“No, but I thought you could go and check on them and I’ll visit our friends in the mansion,” Lynne tapped her pen in the table-top before she rose and put on her jacket. “I called the office. Seems like Mr. Zacharias Darklighter is abroad with his master, but the secretary assured that they would be back by tomorrow. Until then I have to talk to whoever is in charge in that moral-forsaken house.”
Thomas nodded without a comment and went about his business. Lynne loved his loyalty and his attitude, how he just assumed whatever task she gave him and he performed them so well. Almost too well. She went through the station and came to the garage where she got into her car and drove off.
It was a clear morning with clouds bobbing along overhead as she hit the road out of London. The mansion could be seen far off as soon as she got north of Oxford, encircled by a large forest, a protective ring almost, surrounded by a tall wall with only one gate to pass through, and monitored by dark-clad guards. In the middle of the forest lay the mansion; its famed Darklighter Tower, raised above the main building and the two wings, could be seen furthest away above the trees. The view of the place had always been slightly unsettling to Lynne, as if the sky had a natural darkness above it, and the sunlight avoided it altogether. Or maybe it was merely her imagination, because of her aversion towards the family and everything it stood for. She knew they contributed to society in many ways and probably owned half the country.
She left the main road and drove down a gravelled path, which led to the front gate. She was greeted by two guards and she had to show practically all her credentials and threaten to call her superior before they let her through the gate. She drove under the trees and soon they parted to show the grandiose building with a circular, grassy plain in front where a marble statue, resembling an angel with a sword in the right hand and a globe in the left, stood erect. The most of the mansion itself was older than any building she knew. There had been two mansion, the first one erected in the 8th century but burned down two-hundred years later. A new one was erected and took almost four-hundred years to build. It stood abandoned from 1556 and to 1634, when the government bought it. It was restored in 1840, and approximately a century later it was bought by the Darklighters, whoever was in charge back then; in the 1990 a new, modern addition rose, as an extension to the west wing, where the family company was stationed. The new building was hidden, out of sight when you drove up and came to a halt in front of the broad stair leading to the massive entrance of the main building.
Her visit had without doubt been reported from the gate and to the mansion. When she slowed down and stopped, letting the engine die out, the enormous front door was opened far above and she saw three figures emerge. She exited the car and began ascending the stair where she met half-way up with the small retinue consisting of Isobel Stella Darklighter and Vladimir Konstantin Darklighter, the elder sister and brother of Matthew James Darklighter, and the secretary in charge while Zacharias was away, Marcus Darklighter, all of them formally clad. Neither of them extended their hands to greet her. Their faces remained friendly but the lack of appreciation of her presence was clearly visible. At least Isobel and Marcus kept it subtle; Vladimir was clearly the least happy about her visit.
“Mr. and Mrs. Darklighter?” Lynne asked. There was no need to, really, but formalities were clearly held in high regard by these people.
“Mrs. Wright,” Isobel smiled. “What pleasure do we owe your company?” she gestured for her to follow. Vladimir and Marcus remained a few steps behind, vigilant and cautious. Lynne acknowledged their presence with a short nod in their direction. Most importantly she had to regard Marcus as their witness if any accusations were to be announced.
“I’m here concerning a call we received yesterday afternoon,” Lynne answered. “I was hoping I could speak to your younger brother about the matter.”
“He’s abroad, unfortunately,” Isobel said as they entered the entrance hall. “Vladimir, my dearest, make sure to contact Matthew as soon as possible.”
“Right away,” Vladimir said and strode out of a door on the left, seemingly happy to be out of Lynne’s presence. Marcus, on the other hand, was forced to stay behind as he followed Isobel and Lynne up the broad stairs leading from the impressive entrance hall and up to the upper floors.
Lynne could only compare the size of the entrance hall to that of a cathedral’s nave, pillars stretching to a vaulted ceiling and the floor and walls set with such artistic skill, her head almost swam. She had heard that the entrance hall was the next biggest hall in the entire mansion, only surpassed by the great hall, which she had not seen. If anything was larger than the entrance hall, she could only imagine it would be St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
The upper floors of the mansion were held in a classic Victorian era style with panelled walls, thick carpets and brass lamps and chandeliers. She knew the mansion was open one week every month from May to September, for tours strictly booked online. If she hadn’t met Matthew before, she would definitely have booked a tour for herself and her husband a long time ago, but although the atmosphere was unique and everything was stylish and every detail taken care of, she would not freely put her foot across their doorstep knowing, or at least suspecting, what the family was really like.
They came to a circular room with couches and tables and a reception desk behind which sat a dark clad secretary, a waiting room for anyone seeking audience with the lord of the house. The grand office doors were on the right and Isobel had the liberty to use it as her own while Matthew was abroad. They entered and Marcus closed the doors behind them as Isobel settled down behind the desk and gestured for Lynne to take a seat opposite her. Somehow the room seemed less frightening without Matthew in the tall chair, and Isobel’s motherly smile removed some of Lynne’s natural reservation towards the family. She could suddenly see the benefits of living in a home like the mansion and being rich and adored. Or maybe she was simply jealous of the woman in front of her. She was the mother of four grown-up children who had splendid careers, and she, herself, was one of the faces of the family company fashion and beauty department. There was something divine about her, enthrallingly beautiful, but not only because of her physical appearance. Her face was charming, her smile warm and her green eyes kind and loving. Lynne found herself for a second drawn into a trance, which she quickly fought off as she corrected herself in the chair and heard Isobel addressing her.
“What has this call got to do with my brother?” Isobel asked.
“Well, it appears that two girls have gone missing in your forest – again,” Lynne said as offhandedly as possible. Marcus walked around the desk and stood beside Isobel, hands folded in front and eyes resting sharply on Lynne.
“Again?” he cocked an eyebrow as if he had been trained to mimic his master’s sceptical expression. Isobel raised a hand to silence him but her face presented the exact same scepticism.
“As far as I’m concerned, no child has ever vanished in our forest, Mrs. Wright,” she said. “Those are serious accusations – that it has happened, and apparently has happened once again.”
“The girls were last seen leaving the house of a classmate,” Lynne explained without answering. “This mate of theirs said, that they wanted to cross the countryside to get home faster, but a thunderstorm caught them unaware and they probably, most likely, sought shelter in your forest. As far as I remember, you have previously had problems with the masonry of your outer wall, am I not correct?”
“Perhaps,” Isobel mused. “But you’ll need a warrant to check.” She smiled thinly, knowing that there were very few, if any, judges who would give a warrant to search the Darklighter property. Lynne saw it; there was an impenetrable wall of alibis, lawyers and everything in between, to hold her off.
“Well, if you see them,” Lynne slid two photocopies of the girls across the desk and Isobel’s nails scraped against the paper as she picked them up to study them, “I would like a call. I may come back with further questions. Also, I’d like you to forward me the time and place of your brother’s arrival.”
“Yes, of course. I’m sure he’d be delighted to help,” Isobel said with a forced smile and glanced at Marcus, who took down a note.
“Thank you,” Lynne reciprocated the smile.
“Is there anything else then?” Isobel said, apparently concluding the conversation.
“No, I don’t suppose so,” Lynne rose and bade them both farewell before she left the office. Outside a servant waited to escort her out quietly.
Lynne left with a foreboding sense of danger lurking in the back of her head, making the hair on her arms stand up. She got a call from Thomas, saying that the girls’ classmate lived in the outskirts of town, and the shortest distance home was across the fields. She went straight back to the station and dug out the old case files from the archive. She found the old cases, and skimming through their details, she found likenesses to all of them. Most of the children lived near the mansion. Most were in their preteens, two slightly older.
Seven cases. Six of them dismissed due to lack of evidence, and now one on-going with the same prospect of being archived unsolved in the next day or two. Why did she even try? It was hopeless to swim against a current this strong and insistent, but her heart belonged to justice. Could she bring in Matthew for an interview, perhaps a psychological evaluation with his consent, with arguments based entirely on assumptions? Probably not. And he would only do it to play the game for a while until he would be released and the police ridiculed by the press.
But it would be a show, and she could play the game just as well, stir up the rumours and rattle the prison gates enough for the press to get suspicious. And the press was her ally in this game. She just needed the psychological profiling and evaluation and, of course, the interview. At the station. Not his office. She would lure him out onto the battlefield, away from his safe house. He wouldn’t be defenceless, not at all, but he would definitely be disarmed at level where she could do enough damage to his reputation to have struck him down. She confided in Thomas when he got back and his usual scepticism was replaced by a joyous grin.