Mrs Bantam was a petite lady; short, slim and timid. She wore a black, high-collared dress and black veiled hat as a sign of mourning. Her hair was a dark, coppery colour. Small curls under a small black hat. Her hands were unfeasibly delicate. Her face wasn’t pinched, but it was compact. She occupied very little space, in every sense.
“I’m really not sure that I should be here. You seem a little young to help, you haven’t dressed and I thought that this was the address of Sher…” She spoke in short exhalations, each sentence pushed out in one breath so she could shrink back into obscurity as quickly as possible.
“Mrs Bantam, please do sit down,” said Hemlock, gesturing to a chair. She was smiling in an almost non-smug way, calm and reassuring. I’m not sure she meant it, but for a recently widowed woman in the wrong house, I don't suppose it mattered much.
Hemlock continued. “I understand that you were intending on visiting another address, but please let me assure you that you’ve come to the right place. The gentleman you were looking for is out of town at present, and I am certain that I will be able to help you.”
Mrs Bantam sniffed, producing a miniature handkerchief from a sleeve and dabbing her eyes. She perched on the edge of the chair.
Hemlock sat opposite and patted the small creature’s hand. “I can see that you are very distressed.”
“Have you read the paper this morning, Miss Jones?”
I was about to explain that we had been discussing Mrs Bantam’s terrible misfortune, but Hemlock cut me off. “No, I can’t say that I have. However, perhaps this will enable me to demonstrate that I can indeed help you.”
Mrs Bantam hesitated, then nodded.
“You are clearly in mourning, that much anyone can see. You’re young and very thin, with a wedding ring on your finger. As such, I would say married but without children as yet. I would say it is most likely your husband who has died recently, in the past day given that you are still crying,” here Hemlock paused to pat Mrs Bantam as one would a small dog, while forcing out a sympathetic, “you poor thing.”
“Oh, indeed Miss Jones, you are entirely correct! But, the reason I have come…”
“Is because, while the police believe it to be an accident, you do not.”
Mrs Bantam’s watery eyes widened. “No, I do not, Miss Jones.”
“Well, who would know better than his wife? If you wish to have my help, Mrs Bantam, in working out what happened to your husband, then you shall have it. For a modest fee, of course.”
“Oh, please, please help me find out what happened to George!”
“We will,” Hemlock replied. “So, tell me what you saw.”
Mrs Bantam blew her nose with a small noise. “We were having supper at The Fern restaurant in Green Park. We’d only had a few spoonfuls of the soup when the lights went out and this, this ghastly phantom appeared, huge and terrifying. It floated, floated through the tables and right towards us. There was screaming and shouting, but no one could stop it. It pointed at George and he clutched at his neck and… and…” Mrs Bantam wailed, “Right in to the soup!”
Hemlock’s expression was almost a caricature of gravitas. “I see. Can you describe this ghost?”
Mrs Bantam dabbed her eyes. “It was a horrifying creature in strange robes, surrounded by shadows. I could see through it. It had no face that I could see beneath its cowl, but it was monstrous with huge black wings. When it reached out a clawed hand it was as if it was the very Angel of Death, come to claim him.”
“And, did your husband – Professor Bantam – have any enemies? Anyone who might conceivably want him dead?”
“Enemies? Goodness no! George was a wonderful, kind-hearted man,” Mrs Bantam said.
“What business was he in? Did he have any professional rivals?”
Mrs Bantam nodded. “Yes. George is… was… a brilliant scientist. An inventor. For as long as I’ve known him, he’s been fascinated by lightning and its properties. He’d just secured a deal to develop a new kind of electric lighting in London. I don’t fully understand it, but it has something to do with a clever device that would send an electric charge through a house once every so often. He’d been working with another inventor – Lively is his name – who had been developing special bulbs that could store the electricity and release it as light over a period of time.”
“That sounds far less energy-intensive than Edison and Swann,” Hemlock replied, naming the two men famed for their development of electric lighting.
“That’s what George said. He believed the Bantam-Lively Light-bulb was to revolutionise lighting around the world. They’d met with Nikola Tesla, who George said was a true genius, and who had endorsed their research.”
“Who’s Nikola Tesla?” I asked
Hemlock turned to me. “He invented the Tesla Coil, an electrical device which generates tremendous amounts of energy. Or rather, takes a small amount of energy and turns it into a great deal of energy.”
“Quite so.” Mrs Bantam nodded. “He wanted to be involved in the development of the generator and storage device for the electricity that powered George’s light bulbs. It was very exciting.”
“So, what happened,” I asked.
“It was going so well. George and Mr Tesla had become the best of friends. Mr Tesla had come from America to work with them. But, George and Mr Lively fell out over the design of the bulb. George wasn’t sure that it was safe. Mr Lively was adamant that it was and that they should continue with installing it in various houses in the city. They stopped working together and began competing. It was really quite unpleasant. George wouldn’t even consider speaking to him. In all honesty, I’d say they detested one another towards the end. And of course when George won that contract and began to patent the idea for Bantam’s Bulbs, working with Tesla himself… well, Mr Lively was livid. But, I’m sure he wouldn’t…” Mrs Bantam again pressed her handkerchief to her eyes and resumed her quiet sobbing.
“No no, I’m sure he wouldn’t. Sounds like nothing more than professional rivalry to me,” Hemlock said, before pursing her lips and changing subject. “I assume the police cordoned off the area?”
The small creature seemed unable to speak, but nodded.
“Then we should leave as quickly as possible, before they destroy all the possible leads.” Hemlock smiled sympathetically. “We’ll find out what happened to George, Mrs Bantam. I have never failed to solve a case before, and this will not sully that record!” She raised a finger toward the sky, as if rallying the troops before a battle.
Mrs Bantam practically leapt from the seat to embrace Hemlock, who froze in place, one finger still pointed upwards.
“Oh, thank you! Thank you so much!” I could just about make out the words Miss Bantam sobbed in to Hemlock’s neck.
“Um, you’re welcome,” suddenly, Hemlock’s calm and pleasant demeanour dissipated. “Please get off me now,” she exclaimed with some annoyance.
Mrs Bantam detached herself from the young demystifier.
“I am confident that I can have this mystery unravelled within the week. If you leave your address with my assistant,” Hemlock gestured toward me, “then, with your permission, we will call on you when we have solved the case.”
“Oh thank you, thank you. I just want to know what happened. Someone killed him, I’m certain. I am a God-fearing woman, Miss Jones. I do not believe in ghosts, nor can I believe that the Angel of Death would come for George – he was a good man. A good man. But, something came for him. Please, I need to know what, how… I want justice for my poor George, Miss Jones. Justice.”
Mrs Bantam left in a diminutive rush, much as she had entered. I turned to Hemlock, finally finding my voice again.
“You tricked that poor woman!”
“Oh, Eddie, don’t be ridiculous.”
“It’s Edward!” I was fuming at this point.
“Fine, fine, Edward. I told her what she needed to hear so that we could get the case. I will find out what happened to him.”
I laughed without mirth. “Oh yes, because Hemlock Jones has never failed to solve a case?”
Hemlock wasn’t offended by my sarcasm. In fact, she looked bored. She waved a dismissive hand. “That’s right. Never.”
I crossed my arms. “And how many cases is that?”
Hemlock answered as she walked out of the door and towards her room. “Including this one? Two. The first was an odious little creature named after Bonaparte. Now get dressed, we have to bluff a lunch appointment at The Fern restaurant!”
“Have to do what? Absolutely not. No. There’s no ‘we’. I’m not going anywhere. This is a matter for the police. Not for two children.”
“Oh nonsense, Eddie! If you don’t come with me, you’re going to sit here, awkward and alone, wondering what adventures I’m having and how I am faring in unravelling this case. So, would you rather be here, alone and bored, or exploring a fancy restaurant with me?”
“Hemlock,” I began, searching for the words to reinforce my absolute unwillingness to have anything to do with her insane ideas. She looked at me expectantly, a look of smug boredom writ large on her freckled face. “You see. Well. Now, look here… I…”
“Exactly. Now put on some clothes. You’re coming with me.”