Fire in the night
The hay smoked, kindled, caught, then roared to life in a great rush of red heat and death black smoke. The slim hand in the black leather glove bolted the stable door and stood back to watch the flames rise.
Next door in a small, pretty, white inn, guests and staff dozed, oblivious to the flames licking up the adjoining wall, all of them sleeping through the very last pain-free moments of their lives.
Jim Miller, the innkeepers youngest son, sneaked down into the inn’s snug little kitchen, his feet chilling quickly through his woollen socks. He had snaffled no more than a hasty mouthful of cheese before his nose caught the acrid, insidious smell of smoke.
In a flash he was ringing the heavy brass bell atop the bar screaming Fire! Fire! at the top of his lungs.
At the sound of footsteps hurrying and voices raised in alarm, the hand in the black leather glove tightened to a fist of frustration before disappearing into the shadows.
Later, when the fire was safely out, Jim’s mother collapsed into a chair near the hearth.
“Well thank God for your stomach Jimmy. Without your craving for cheese we’d all have been burned in our beds. But why would anyone set fire to the stables?”
Then the second cry of alarm of the night sounded. A high, terrified scream rang out in the smoky darkness.
Springing to her feet Mrs Miller followed the sound of the girl’s screaming to one of the guest bedrooms, nearest the stable.
Inside was a sight she would never forget. The dishevelled bed looked tumbled in and ravished, with sheets strewn about the place and smears of lipstick across the pillowcases. Lacy knickers dangled from a lightshade and an empty champagne bottle lolled decadently beneath them.
Then Mrs Miller saw a young woman in a white lace negligee sprawled on the floor, covered in thick gobbets of blood from her own slit throat. A crimson arc splashed gaudily across one whitewashed wall and a single black leather glove curled mockingly on one soiled pillowcase.
Mrs Miller backed slowly away from the sight, her hand covering her mouth, bottling in her scream. William, her eldest, was keeping the other guests from coming up the stairs to see what was going on. Their mounting hubbub mingled with Betty’s screams and the pounding of her own frantic heart.
Then, added to the melee, she heard footsteps making their way past William and up the stairs. What was William thinking? She’d have to summon a policeman, she decided.
Turning to make her way to the telephone she found herself facing two curious gentlemen, both still wearing pyjamas. One was tall and thin, with an apologetic smile, but the other was round like an egg and sported the most fantastic moustache Mrs Miller had ever seen.
He peered into the room and took in all with a sweeping glance.
“Ah, Hastings, the window is locked! This will be a most interesting challenge for my little grey cells…”