[“INVESTIGATIONS INTO THE MYSTERIOUS DEATH OF GEORGE WESTLEY HAVE BEEN CALLED OFF. FUNERAL ARRANGEMENTS WILL PROCEED IN THE COMING MONTHS.”]
I folded the newspaper in half to hide that headline from my sight, and took in the last moments of sunshine for the day. From where I was sitting, I could feel the warm glow of that sunlight hit my back from the wide window behind me.
The paper in my hands had stated that the infamous death of George Westley had been mysterious enough for many detectives to get involved. Even as a private investigator, I wasn’t wholly aware of all the details, because it seemed that most people outside of the investigation had been blocked from getting any sort of answers. The public was aching for leaks, though with the sudden announcement that the funeral would be soon, it was evident that the police had finally backed off the case and had now given up themselves.
The main reason why the death had received such attention was because of the deceased. George Westley was not named one of the most powerful men in the world for no reason—if I held that many organizations and businesses across the globe, even my own name would be splattered on the papers if I died.
Gingerly, I took the newspaper again, to witness the prominent ink of those pages I’d just read. They were filled to the brim with more pictures than words, because as I’d said before, the family hadn’t given much information out to the public, and nor had the detectives.
No one had come to me for any assistance either. But why would they? Among the many private investigators out there, there had only been a slim chance that someone would give me the responsibility of finding out what was really going on in that family.
One look and potential clients would see I was too young.
I sat back in my seat, to regard the small room. My desk barely fit amongst the many bookcases squeezed into the tiny office. Those books were the only thing I’d brought from my family home when I’d left. Detective stories that were far from the actual reality that I’d seen with my own eyes.
A knock at my door awoke me from my thoughts, and I sat up, placing the paper to the side of my desk as I shuffled even more documents to clean up. “Come in.” I called.
The door opened only slightly, to reveal my young assistant, “Sir, there’s a customer.”
I perked up at that. I hadn’t gotten much work since the newspapers had been covering only news of Westley. Petty crimes here and there were also a common occurrence, but nothing major had happened.
When I stood, I gave him a reassuring nod that he did well, “Let them in, Rangel.”
He bowed his small head before exiting the room. The door had been left open, but I sat down anyway, knowing it’d take a minute or so for the guest to come up. People had to enter through a narrow stairway and across an even narrower hallway to get to my office. The building was old, and in an impoverished area of the city. It was where I’d found Rangel.
My eyes landed to the newspaper once more, reading the name ‘Westley’. A well-known family, and very wealthy—if not the wealthiest one to make their mark on the world. There were others, but even they were all related in one way or another so . . . all in all the whole bunch were filthy rich.
My own family had a well-known name as well, even a strong business with a reasonable income, though to compare that to Westley would be idiotic.
I’d left that lifestyle behind for a reason, and hearing about George Westley had only brought on those memories of a devoted family and an inheritance. Perhaps that was why I hadn’t gotten much work. I’d been avoiding my past, in all forms.
When a minute had passed, I checked my watch. It was nearing five, way after our closing time, but that was fine. Late clients were usually the most interesting people to work with.
The door creaked, which made me automatically get up to dust myself off. After spending the entire morning and afternoon glowering over the headlines of newspapers, I was ready to take on a new task.
My arms waved to the available seat in front of my desk, though I stopped midway to examine the person who’d entered silently.
Rangel, my assistant, introduced the guest with hesitancy. “Mrs. Ledders, of the Ledders family, sir. She’s come to see you on important business.”
I sent Rangel another affirming grin to tell him that he did well, and I directed to the lady that she could sit.
She did not look at the state of my office, she merely stepped severely into the place and sat down just as quietly as she arrived.
It was impossible not to stare, not with the high collared white dress that reached past her shoes. The gown was dramatic, pristine, made for the cold elements of the Winter, along with that equally white umbrella in her white gloved hands. She held that accessory in front of her, clasping onto it as the silver tip of it dug into the hardwood floors.
As she looked at me, the brim of her hat raised to reveal the grey, tired eyes of a woman who appeared to be concerned, but also determined to get to the point. She reminded me of my own mother, who was just as strict in her features.
I didn’t know what to say, so I sat down as well and folded my hands across my desk, to make myself appear ready. I was not, well, not really. I assumed she was a lady of great status.
“Mrs. Ledders,” I said to her, “How may I assist you today—?”
She raised a gloved hand, to stop me suddenly. When she placed it back down atop her umbrella handle, I could see the huge diamond set into her engagement ring. She wasn’t going to mess around with idle chit-chat.
When she spoke, her voice cracked just the slightest bit, which indicated to me that she was more than troubled. It sounded as if she was crestfallen. “First, young man, I know who you are. Well, I partially do.” She revealed.
Her words made me choke up a bit.
I didn’t like others to be aware of my family, because it was inconvenient. I wanted to escape that life, to make a living on my own, and yet here was someone who had come to me for the opposite reason.
She definitely wasn’t there for some small task. “John W. Michael, yes?” When I nodded, she went on, “I know your mother through a short connection I had in the past, during my school years, but I was never fully acquainted with her son.” Of course, connections never failed in bringing our family good business. “But I’ve been made aware that you've chosen to be a private investigator now, which is something that has intrigued me, especially with the predicament I am in currently.”
Waiting for anything more from her, I leaned forward, to begin my own introductions, “Mrs. Ledders, I presume you are troubled by something. And now you are here because you can only rely on me to fix the matter.”
“I’m not going to trust a lowly private eye during this time, therefore I have to place my trust in you.” She stated, quite seriously. It was almost a demand.
In other words, she wasn’t about to spill her secrets to someone who didn’t know what it was like to handle private family affairs that could potentially be shared with the papers. But then again, my family wasn’t all that big either.
She must’ve been truly desperate for help.
“What do you need me to do, Mrs. Ledders?” I asked her.
The lady studied me for a solid second. I’d caught it, because her eyes had glinted with suspicion, before she deemed me somewhat trustworthy enough for her to place a single letter on my desk.
I took it, but did not open it. It was weathered, like it’d been passed from postman to postman from a great distance. Even the wax stamp, which must’ve been a beautiful royal blue before, was now turning grey.
It was addressed to a ‘Riley Ledders’. Her child? It could’ve been her spouse, or possibly a sibling.
“My son has been missing for a week.” She told me outright. “It is mysterious because his associates have also reported him missing.”
I did not want to jump to conclusions. People disappeared and returned without major issues. If her son was around my age, then it didn’t seem strange for him to go gallivanting on his own or with friends.
Even with this in mind, I went along with her worries, “Is it usual for him to leave like this?”
She shook her head, “He is a good boy, and he always reports to either me or his father.” As she said this, I took note of it all in my head. “It’s critical for our business that we keep in touch constantly. He’s never left us like this—”
The lady was saying it was impossible for him to get up and leave, but my own reality told me that it wasn’t suspicious. I too had left my family without a word, though not to the extent that they had to report me missing.
“Then, this letter is for him?” I guessed.
She shook her head for the second time. “No, that is not for Jack. It is for my eldest son, Rin.”
“Rin?” I questioned. It must’ve been a nickname for ‘Riley’. “Then why . . . ?”
“Read it.” She ordered. I obeyed. “It is an invitation letter that he received, around the time that my youngest son, Jack, had left for a business trip and disappeared. It was a business trip that he said would not last long, and now—now he has not returned.” The lady looked to the letter. “I believe he was invited to the same place as Rin, but since Rin had other responsibilities, he could not make it to the event.”
I skimmed the letter, getting the gist that it was some sort of invitation to spend the Winter months at an estate, to develop connections for business matters. It wasn’t uncommon to see that, even with times changing.
Reading over the fine penmanship, I listened to her as she continued to speak. “It is an invitation to our ancestral home, Modiano Manor, or as people more commonly call it now these days . . . Westley Manor.”
The mere mention of the name made me nearly drop the letter in my hands.
I was a fool for not noticing it earlier. The lady before me wasn’t a stranger, but a familiar face that I too had seen in papers from time to time. Even her name stood out, though I hadn’t thought to question her identity much, not since anonymous clients were common.
This lady was of the Ledders family. They owned a publishing house in the heart of the city, and were cousins to George Westley. If her son was missing . . . then . . .
“Our ancestral home is located on the shores in the West. You may have heard of it because part of it had been used as a boarding school too at one point. I believe your parents must’ve known about it during their school years.” She said. “It isn’t hard to locate, and I have tried to contact my family both in person and through post but to no avail. The manor has been locked down since the death of my cousin, therefore there was never a chance for me to see if my son had been there at all.”
If the lady had been having a difficult time entering her own home, then why would she assume that anyone outside of that circle would do better?
I’d guessed only an undercover investigator could do the job.
Letting some time pass, to register the information she’d given me, I waited until I saw that she had relaxed. It was barely noticeable.
“Your son, Jack Ledders, has been missing for a week.” I repeated her statement. “Has anyone else been reported missing?”
I wasn’t surprised when she answered, “Quite a few of the young men in our family have gone. Of course, it is not a concern for their own parents, but still . . .”
It’s still strange.
For many, it wasn’t hard to recall the names of those men. They were all fine heirs to their family businesses, and to have a gathering at Westley Manor was not suspicious. What was suspicious was the fact that they hadn’t been in contact with their family, a family who was still grieving the loss of their leader.
I was about to ask her if she had maybe thought that the death of her cousin was suspicious too, but I refrained. She wasn’t there for him, she was there for her son. If the death of George Westley was involved, then I’d have to question the direct heirs that he’d left behind.
“I know you are a son from a good background, John. So please, take this invitation and use it to gain access inside the manor.” She said calmly. “I’m not sure what is going on there, but I feel as if I won’t get answers unless I have someone undercover in that house.”
Without saying it directly, her words did express that there were some suspicions towards the death of her cousin. They were a large family, with lots of different branches that spanned the globe. If she could not trust her own blood, then it was likely she felt that she could only confide in strangers at that point. It was . . . pitiful.
It wasn’t my place to say that to her, though. If I wanted to get paid, then I would do whatever she assigned me.
I cleared my throat, and placed the letter in my jacket pocket. It felt heavy. “It seems that you do not feel safe entering your ancestral home without assistance.” I speculated. “If it will ease your mind, I will go there in place of your son and search for his missing brother. In the meantime, please wait for my message. I will let you know when all is well and answered.”
She did not move. She didn’t even have a single expression on her face. “Very well.”
It wasn’t a scary job. I’d done plenty before that were more terrifying. If the son stayed missing for much longer, then it’d turn into a matter for the police.
With the investigation of George Westley being called off, there was no indication that anything else had to be considered out of the ordinary. Jack Ledders could’ve simply been living his best life elsewhere.
But . . .
He also could’ve been in danger.
The men in general, the ones she had also mentioned were gone, could’ve all been in similar danger. I just had to find out.
“Westley Academy.” She said, out of the blue. “My family has made sure that you can only locate the manor through that name on maps, because it is harder for the press to consider that a proper home for our large family.” The lady explained, “People sometimes mistake it as a school still.”
I rose, “Then I will purchase a train ticket and set for that location first thing tomorrow morning, Mrs. Ledders.”
The privacy surrounding the entire assignment was nerve wracking. It was clear what I had to do, though I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I was going to walk into unknown territory, territory that I’d longed to figure out, but also avoid.
The Westley family mystery would be a great way to help distract myself from the coming seasons as well. Late Winter was approaching, and so was the inescapably ominous feeling that came from the thought of diving into the affairs of someone else.
Jack wasn’t the only one I had to look out for. There were other men. Far, far more missing men than I could handle. And yet, I knew I was capable of enduring whatever the case would eventually throw at me.
I had to get myself ready. I had to, because . . .
I could’ve possibly been the only hope left for them.