Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, end of February, 1816
Alex felt like something hard and unforgiving was striking him full in the chest when he witnessed his wife sinking to her knees with a soft moan beside the body on the floor. At the same time, his protective trait hit him like lightning. There were too many witnesses in the room.
“Reverend Bonneville, I am very much obliged to you for bringing her ladyship here. In my haste, I confess I did not think of notifying her of what we found here. You may return home, now. I will take care of my wife,” Alex said, using his military voice. Not many of his men dared to disobey that tone.
The good reverend blinked in confusion but went on his way with a polite bow. Alex refocussed on his wife, deliberately ignoring Richard Orme’s raised eyebrows. He would deal with his friend later. Rowena, he saw, reached for Johnston’s bluish face, then seemed to recoil from the hideously distorted mouth with its protruding tongue. If he ever had doubts about the corpse’s identity, Alex was now absolutely sure who it was, for Rowena looked up at him with teary eyes.
“Oh, Alex, it is Peter! What happened? Oh, it is too distressing!” She grabbed one of the rigid hands and pressed it to her chest, and Alex winced at the sharp stab of jealousy deep in his chest. Bloody blasted hell, but she still loved the bastard. Well, he would not stand for it.
“Come away, madam,” he ordered coldly, taking her arm. “Dr Orme has not yet finished examining the body.” Vaguely aware of Richard’s astonished gaze, he tried to raise her from her knees, but she resisted.
“We must prepare him for burying, Alex. Will you allow to have him taken to Ketteridge House?”
Another stab, blast her. “I am afraid not, madam. This man has been murdered. There is to be an inquest at the village pub tomorrow. I will preside it since I am the magistrate here. It is best for you to return to the manor for now. You have done your part in identifying the victim, so I thank you. You are no longer needed here.” This time, he drew her to her feet and began tugging her from the room, painfully aware of the stunned stares Dr Orme sent him.
To his profound annoyance, she yet again bent over the corpse and picked something from the earthen floor.
She seemed to choke from lack of air, and Alex felt his gut clench in fear. “What? What is it?”
She held up her hand and revealed a small, silver button shaped like a prancing horse. A tiny ruby served as the animal’s eye. The craftmanship was exquisite.
Rowena looked up at him and barely audibly whispered. “This comes from a waistcoat I once gave my brother.”
The next morning, people flocked into the tap room of The Fox and Hare to attend the inquest concerning the dead man found in the smithy. Excitement vibrated through the throng, the room being packed to the rafters. Outside in the courtyard, people were straining their necks to glimpse some small part of what was transpiring inside. Nobody wanted to miss a second of the event, since inquiries were an exhilarating performance for those not involved in the case. So it was that heads reared and necks stretched in anticipation to watch the new earl of Ketteridge enter the room. Men grunted in approval and women sighed in adoration as Alex, dressed in formal black and fine frock coat, took his place on the dais behind a massive oak table.
Today was Alex’ first appearance as magistrate for this part of Leicestershire, yet he would have to relinquish his authority to another. He had not yet been handed his patent letters, confirming him as the earl of Ketteridge. Furthermore, he was very much a concerned party in this case. He was prejudiced as well, since the dead man caused harm to his lady wife, a fact he could not easily overlook. Every action on his part would be seen as revenge of some kind. So for the sake of true justice, Alex called upon a coroner from Leicester, a Dr Nicholas Pearson, who gladly accepted the task.
The man in question now entered the room and was welcomed by Alex, who vacated his seat to the coroner, to take one at the side of the dais.
“Dr Nicholas Pearson from Leicester will preside this inquest in his capacity as coroner in that city. Please, proceed, doctor.”
The coroner was a man in his early forties, with an air of quiet authority. He immediately turned to the order of the day by calling his first witness, the farmer Abe Carter.
“As I understand, Mr Carter, you are the man who found the victim. Tell us how this occurred.”
In his own, simple words, Abe Carter related the story as he knew it; Jeremy Turnbull screaming about a ghost in his father’s abandoned house and Abe and his farmhand gone to investigate. They found the body hanging from one of the rafters. Abe then sent Jeremy to Dr Orme and the reverend Bonneville. Dr Orme was the first to turn up and it was he who cut down the body, assisted by Abe.
Dr Richard Orme was then called to confirm Carter’s statement and recount his investigation of the body. He declared that he had never set eyes on the deceased and that the man had clearly been murdered by being hoisted up while his hands were bound. The time of death was set two days previous, on February 26, 1816.
Next came the vicar’s statement that he had gone to Ketteridge House to inform his lordship, upon which the earl had departed to see for himself. The vicar had taken Lady Ketteridge with him because she asked to accompany him.
The following part of the inquest would have to be Alex’ own statement, which would inevitably result in his having to confess he knew the dead man. However, revealing Rowena’s involvement was absolutely out of the question, but it had caused a large argument between Alex and his wife, the night before. Alex strongly objected Rowena being exposed as the dead man’s former lover, as it would damage his own name and that of his family. It had taken him much pleading before his stubborn wife conceded in staying far away from the events to come, but in the end, she reluctantly agreed.
“My lord Ketteridge,” the coroner began, ”I gather that you can enlighten us as to the identity of the victim?”
“I can,” Alex replied. “This man is without a doubt the honourable Peter Johnston, third son of the earl of Carlisle. We shall have to notify the commanding officer of the Household Cavalry Regiment at the Horse Guards Barracks in London. I assume they will take up the dismal task of informing his family.”
Dr Pearson nodded thoughtfully and frowned, as though he hesitated before he asked his next question. “May I inquire as to how you are so certain about this man’s identity, my lord?”
Alex had prepared himself for this development. “Peter Johnston was an acquaintance of my wife’s, Dr Pearson. She recognized him as one of her brother’s friends and had met him while she was still at her home in Cumberland at Daveston Hall near Carlisle.”
“Thank you, my lord, you may step down.”
The coroner cleared his throat. “We hereby declare the murder of the honourable Peter Johnston by persons unknown on February 26, 1816. A further investigation will be performed by the Leicester Constabulary. This inquest is concluded.”