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Anthony Slayton

A Rather Dastardly Death (Ebook)

A Rather Dastardly Death (Ebook)

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Prologue. Death on the Blue Train

Afterwards, everyone agreed it was the soup that killed him. Although it must be said that even before his untimely demise, Lord Clarence Weatherford—owner and founder of the illustrious Weatherford Publishing House and onetime editor-in-chief of the London Chronicle—had not exactly been enjoying his dinner.

Well-known in certain circles—infamous even—for being a man of very particular gastronomical and dietary preferences, Lord Weatherford had recently been forced to limit his already narrow diet. His doctors were concerned about his weight, you see, or possibly his heart. But, as a spokesman for the Paris-Lyon-Méditerranée Railway Company later insisted, it was not the food itself which had spoiled His Lordship’s appetite. Certainly not! The world-famous Blue Train was the absolute pinnacle of steam-powered luxury, and its dining car—resplendent with bone-white china and extravagant five-course meals—was more than capable of meeting His Lordship’s exacting dietary requirements.

Indeed, in any other circumstance, Lord Weatherford might have allowed himself an audible sigh of satisfaction after that first spoonful. But not that night, alas! That night, he barely noticed the taste or the smell. Perhaps if he had paid closer attention, His Lordship might have caught the faint hint of almonds where no almonds should be.


* * *

As the first course was served, Lord Weatherford noted absently that the waiter—a young man of Swiss extraction—had ignored all his careful instructions and that the dish in front of him, while no doubt deliciously rich and creamy, would not have been approved by a single one of His Lordship’s over-priced doctors. Those fools!

Lord Weatherford scowled. He was fit as a fiddle! Healthier than many men half his age! Still, that was doctors for you—worriers, the lot of them. And Soupe à l'oignon Lyonnaise was a particular favorite of his.

Weatherford’s first spoonful left a bitter aftertaste in his mouth, but he paid no heed. Having indulged himself in this one small rebellion against the tyranny of the medical profession, he soon turned his mind to other matters.

A newspaperman by training and inclination, Lord Weatherford amused himself by listening with half an ear to the low murmur of conversation around him. Most of what he overheard was in English, of course. The Riviera was the preferred playground for the wealthiest of Weatherford’s countrymen, after all, but he also caught snippets of French and German and a few mutterings of Italian here and there.

From what Weatherford could tell, the favored topics of conversation appeared to be either the exploits of a gentleman thief known in France and beyond as La Chimère, or the newly christened “Trial of the Century”—the so-called Unsworth Murders.

Lord Weatherford scoffed into his napkin. Trial of the Century, indeed! In the past decade alone, no less than six different trials had earned that epithet, all forgotten now. In time, this one, too, would pass from memory, but until then, Weatherford could not help but feel a distant sort of sympathy for Lord Unsworth’s plight.

The two men had never been close friends, but in their youth they had both shared one or two interests in common. So, when asked, Weatherford had done his best to accommodate Unsworth’s secretary, a quiet, efficient little chap with an odd name—something to do with a bird, he thought—and had made sure the London Chronicle was comparatively gentle in its coverage. But only up to a point. People loved a good murder, after all.

It was funny, Weatherford reflected, how things turned out. Until recently, he hadn’t thought about Unsworth for years, and now the man was everywhere—plastered across Weatherford’s own headlines. It was as if all Lord Weatherford’s old ghosts were gathering at once.

Even being here on the train brought back memories. Once a regular visitor, Weatherford hadn’t travelled to the Riviera in years and, in truth, never thought he would again. But the summons had been urgent in its abruptness:


No one else on Earth could have dragged Lord Weatherford from house and home with such few words, but she had always been different. Always.

His Lordship sighed at the memory. Lady Rosaline Barrett De Marchi—the infamous Widow of Treville-sur-Mer—had been a penniless actress at some backwater theater when Lord Weatherford had first met her. But within a few short years, she had all but conquered the globe—dazzling audiences from West End to Broadway, from Salzburg to Paris. Until, suddenly, while still at the height of her success, she had abandoned the stage to embark upon an equally successful marital career—for a given definition of success.

Widowed thrice over since then, her trail of death, heartbreak, and scandal had been, at one time, the talk of Europe and fodder for countless headlines and gossip columns. Since then, her star had faded from public view, but unlike most of her former admirers, Lord Weatherford had never deserted her. Recently he had even agreed—against his better judgment—to publish her rather salacious memoirs. It was a prospect which had already caused a great deal of consternation in certain circles. Her old admirers may have forgotten her, but to their dismay, they discovered she had not forgotten them.

Indeed, not! Lord Weatherford had heard from several sources that Rosaline had begun sending out letters—hundreds and hundreds of them—to many of her former acquaintances, friends, and lovers, discreetly offering to either alter their names or remove them from her upcoming memoirs—all for a small fee, naturally.

Now, Weatherford had no personal qualms about blackmail. It came with the territory, but, in his opinion, Rosaline was being exceedingly reckless. After all, her old lovers weren’t the only ones with skeletons in their cupboards, not by a long shot. Her past, too, was a briar patch full of stings and nettles, and no one knew that better than Weatherford.

Distractedly ladling another spoonful of soup with one hand, Lord Weatherford found the other reaching into his left breast pocket almost of its own accord. And as his fingers brushed against the crinkling yellow paper inside, he breathed a quiet sigh of relief.

Still secret. Still safe.

He had committed every word of that ancient letter to memory. Of course he had. Its contents had changed the trajectory of his life along with so many others. And it was proof that long, long ago, the future Lord Weatherford had done the soon-to-be Lady Rosaline a great and terrible service, and now he feared they might both pay the price.

Lord Weatherford frowned suddenly. Something was wrong! He could feel a strange pain stabbing into his side, and when he brought his napkin to his lips, it came away bloody.

“Garçon!” he cried out, but the waiter’s back was turned.


The words choked in Weatherford’s throat, and he collapsed back in his chair, too woozy to think or speak. The dining car itself seemed to be spinning all around him, while the familiar clink of cutlery and tinkling of glasses echoed painfully in his mind, each noise sharp and dagger-like in his ears. And beneath it all came the constant rumbling of the train, thundering in time with the damnable pain in his chest.

He was dying, Lord Weatherford realized in an excruciating moment of clarity, and in those final moments, his hand made its slow, trembling way back towards his breast pocket and the letter within.

To have and to hold—

“Here, monsieur,” said a waiter, looming out of the spinning, swirling confusion. “Let me help you.”

* * *

Lord Weatherford’s death somewhere between Cannes and Nice caused something of an uproar in the luxury dining car. Two Russian princesses, a count, and an elderly Bavarian knight all fainted in the excitement, but the head waiter moved with admirable speed and efficiency to reassure the other passengers. Smelling salts were acquired, drinks were poured, and suitably salutary words were spoken—first in French and then in increasing accented Italian, German, and English.

A doctor came aboard at Nice, accompanied by a Commissary of Police, who together made quick work of the investigation but proved considerably slower when it came to the paperwork.

Lord Weatherford was determined to be a gentleman of elderly persuasion with a known history of heart troubles and a cantankerous habit of ignoring sound medical advice. In light of these facts, the soup was quickly considered the most likely culprit. However, in deference to the Paris-Lyon-Méditerranée Railway Company, the offending dish did not appear on any official report, and the cause of death was listed as a heart attack.

In the interest of thoroughness, however, it should be mentioned that the Commissary did, in fact, note that a telegram had been found in Lord Weatherford’s right jacket pocket. Its contents were dutifully transcribed by one of his deputies and filed in the appropriate manner. No mention was made of a letter, however, and when the jacket was returned to England—along with His Lordship’s body—the pocket in question was found to be entirely empty.

It would be several long months, and at least two more bodies, before foul play was even remotely suspected.

And that would only be thanks to the largely unrelated efforts of a certain quiet, efficient little chap with an odd name.

Something to do with a bird.

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