A note from the author: this short story is from a collection called Unbegun Tales Volume IV. However, due to copyright issues with some of the stories, I’m not sure when I will be able to publish it. Therefore I have decided to publish, for free, some of the stories which don’t have copyright issues.
This story features my characters John Briggs and William Prenderghast. It is set in very late Victorian times, in a gas-lamp fantasy world where Magick is real. John Briggs, however, comes from ‘our’ world, and, in a former life, he was a DCI in the Metropolitan Police, before journeying to the world of Prenderghast. Prenderghast, meanwhile, is a wizard and inventor, although nowhere near as good in those two fields as he thinks he is.
Briggs and Prenderghast, in a series of novels and short stories, have, many times, thwarted the forces of evil, of such characters as Rex Mundi, Jack the Ripper and the renegade wizard from Shangri-La called Dzinshung Tse. In this story they are having a short break in Oxford…
The River That Flowed Uphill
John Briggs stared down at the body of the dead man. It seemed that he could not even go on holiday without death following him around. A few quiet days having a look around Oxford, that was all that he had asked for, before going back down to the Smoke. But he had to open his big mouth, didn’t he, when he was walking past those men fishing a dead body out of the river. He had to tell them that he was a consulting detective.
Where was Inspector Morse when you wanted him?
Briggs had been walking along the banks of the Isis – as the Thames was known at Oxford – when he had seen the dead body being pulled out of the water. He had been taking an early morning walk; had he stayed in bed, or had had breakfast, he might well have missed it. But he had seen the corpse being pulled out of the water by the two young men, and he had had to interfere, telling them his chosen profession.
Briggs stared down at the dead man. The dead man was in his twenties. He had shortish blonde hair. He was wearing a striped blazer and white trousers. There were white plimsolls on his feet. It looked, very much, as though the dead man had been on some boating or punting trip.
It looked to Briggs like the man had drowned. But he would need to get a doctor to determine whether the lungs of the young man were full of water or not.
Briggs resisted the urge to search through the man’s pockets, to try to identify who the dead man was. That would have to wait until when the authorities were here.
“Go and get a policeman.” Briggs said to one of the two young men who had been fishing out the dead body as he had been walking past. The young man nodded, and ran off in the direction of the town centre. Briggs had no idea what the Oxford police were like in this period. But he bet that they had no idea of forensics. Prenderghast, with his magical abilities to detect things would be a lot more use, at the moment. But Prenderghast had claimed to be ill, that morning, when Briggs had gone out for a walk along the banks of the river. Briggs suspected that, in reality, Prenderghast had been a little bit hung over from the night before.
“What’s your name?” Briggs asked the young man who had remained with him, while his friend went to fetch the police.
“Dodds.” the man said. He was only in his twenties, and he was dressed like some manual labourer. Briggs would certainly have been surprised if he had anything to do with any of Oxford’s famous colleges.
“What do you do, Dodds?” Briggs asked.
“I work along there, at Miller’s.” Dodds said, nodding in the direction of upriver. Briggs presumed that Miller’s must be some sort of location of industry. Perhaps it was a mill. If he actually got to finish his walk he might check it out, just to find out precisely what it was.
For the moment, though, Briggs could do nothing but wait for the police. He waited, in silence, as Dodds did not seem to be the most communicative of people. But, then again, Briggs had introduced by announcing himself as a detective, and not everybody in the world trusted detectives.
A policeman strolled back down the banks of the river towards Briggs and Dodds. The policeman looked to be in no particular hurry.
He walked up to the body, and glanced down at it.
“Well, it’s him.” the policeman said, sounding a little bit surprised.
“Do you know him?” Briggs asked. Was it possible that the mystery would soon be resolved?
“Well, no, not by name.” the policeman said. “But he was reported falling in the river yesterday afternoon, out of one of those punts. I wasted all of yesterday afternoon looking for his body, and never found it. Didn’t find the punt, either, now I come to think of it. It must have floated off down the river.”
It sounded a little like a boating accident to Briggs. Briggs reminded himself that, in Victorian times, most people were unable to swim.
“So he fell in river here, did he?” Briggs asked the policeman. Briggs scanned the river. He had seen no sign of a punt, either. “Or was it upriver he fell in?” Briggs supposed that the dead body could have drifted down, overnight, before getting tangled up in the weeds at the edge of the Isis, only to be discovered by Dodds and his friend the first thing the following morning.
“No, it was down there that he was reported going missing.” the policeman said, pointing downriver, rather than up. “We searched all that area, but we didn’t find anything.”
“Are you sure that was the area where he went in?” Briggs asked, frowning. The policeman had to be wrong. Corpses did not float against the current. He must have fallen out of his punt further up the river. That was the only logical explanation.
But the policeman was sure that it had been down the river where the dead man had fallen out of his punt. The witness to the event had been the most reliable in the world, at least as far as this policeman was concerned, as it had been an off duty policeman on his way home.
The policeman, Sergeant Brooks, took over just then, thanking Briggs and Dodds, but saying that it was now a police matter; and that there was nothing for an amateur detective to do, as it was nothing but some tragic accident. There was nothing to investigate.
Briggs walked back to where he and Prenderghast were staying, to see if his friend was up. It was just them, at the moment – Briggs had convinced Prenderghast to give Vishwanath a few days off while the two of them were in Oxford. Prenderghast had gone along with that, albeit not with the best grace in the world.
Briggs had not bothered to continue his walk along the canal for the simple reason that he wanted to speak to Prenderghast, as he could not get out of his mind just where the dead body of the drowned man had been discovered. It didn’t fit. There was something wrong. Bodies do not float against the current.
Briggs found Prenderghast taking breakfast in the dining room of the hotel. His friend had a large plate of fried food in front of him: there was kedgeree, sausages, kippers, and fried mushrooms. Briggs stomach rumbled. His walk along the canal had left him with something of an appetite. And he had not yet eaten that morning, as he had decided to go for a walk first thing, while it was still fresh outside. Had he not done so he would never have seen the two men pulling the dead body out of the river; and he would never have had to ponder the mystery of how a drowned person might be discovered upriver of where he fell into the water.
“Good morning, my friend.” Prenderghast said. “How goes the world with you, this fine morning? Did you enjoy your morning constitutional?”
“You could say that.” Briggs said. “Do you mind if I join you?”
Prenderghast indicated that Briggs should sit down. Briggs ordered breakfast, glad that he had got back in time for some food. He ordered bacon, fried mushrooms, fried tomatoes, and two fried eggs, as well as some toast; and, as the coffee which Prenderghast was drinking smelled like real coffee, rather than some of the awful chicory-infused stuff which Briggs had endured since coming to Prenderghast’s world, he ordered some coffee, as well.
“I found a dead body.” Briggs said, keeping his voice down so as not to trouble any of the other patrons in the dining room.
“Briggs!” Prenderghast admonished. “I though we were supposed to be on holiday.”
“Yes, well I didn’t find it on purpose.” Briggs said. He explained how he had been walking along the banks of the river as the two young men had been pulling the corpse of the unknown victim out of the waters of the river.
“Yes, well, few people are able to swim.” Prenderghast observed. “I have encountered sailors who were unable to swim. I must admit to not being the greatest swimmer in the world, my friend, but with my adventures in Africa and elsewhere I have made sure that I am able to stay afloat, at least.”
“That’s not the point.” Briggs said. He was well aware that few people in Victorian times had learnt to swim. “The point is that there had been a witness on the previous day to the man falling into the river, a policeman who had just booked off duty and was walking back home along the banks of the river. He saw the accident, and the man go under. He went for help – I presume that he couldn’t swim – and the police spent the rest of the afternoon searching that stretch of the Isis. But, by then, of course, it was far too late, and the man had drowned. But they did not find his body. They did not even find the punt which he had been in, either. The body was only discovered this morning.”
“A tragedy.” Prenderghast opined.
“Not just a tragedy, but also a bit of a mystery.” Briggs said. “The corpse was found upriver of where the man fell out of the boat.”
“Ah, yes, I can see why that might be mysterious.” Prenderghast said, sagely. “Dead bodies tend to float down river, rather than up.”
“Tend to? I thought that they always did.”
“Perhaps the river flowed up hill.” Prenderghast said.
“Up hill?” Briggs asked, trying not to have too much sarcasm in his voice.
“Yes.” Prenderghast said. “Such things as rivers flowing uphill have been claimed, in the past, in areas of high Magick. Such instances have never been proven, as yet. Hm. Perhaps I could be the first person to prove such an instance? Yes, after breakfast we will return and examine the Isis, and I will see if I can detect any trace of powerful Magick. After all, it has been said that Oxford can be a Magickal place.”
Briggs sighed. He had hoped that Prenderghast might have come up with some explanation other than Magick. He should have known better.
After breakfast Briggs returned to the area where the dead body had been found. This time he had Prenderghast with him.
There was no sign of the two men who had found the body, or of Sergeant Brooks, or of the dead body of the man. They had all gone away. Briggs was not really surprised. It was clear that Sergeant Brooks had not considered it to be a crime scene, and that there was nothing suspicious about the fact that the dead body had been discovered upstream of where it had gone into the river. Even the bank of the river, where the dead body had lain while waiting for the policeman to arrive, had dried out in the morning sun.
Briggs wished that he had searched the body of the dead man. He did not even know the name of the drowned man.
“This was where the dead body was found.” Briggs said. Prenderghast sniffed the air, almost as though he might be able to smell Magick. Then he got out his mythometer and began casting a spell of detection. Briggs left Prenderghast to it, knowing that he should not disturb the concentration of his friend. Instead Briggs scanned the bank, left and right, looking for anything odd. But there was nothing strange to be seen.
“This is odd.” Prenderghast said, looking down at his mythometer.
“What is it?” Briggs asked. “Have you found something?”
“No, I have discovered nothing at all.” Prenderghast said. “There is nothing other than the natural, background Magick.”
Prenderghast let out a deep sigh and put his mythometer in his pocket. As far as he was concerned the matter was at an end.
“So, if it wasn’t some strange magical event, then how did the body end up floating upstream?” Briggs mused out loud.
“I do not know, my friend.” Prenderghast said. “Perhaps there are some undercurrents which run in the opposite direction?”
“I doubt it.” Briggs said. He should leave this matter alone. He and Prenderghast had come to Oxford to have a short holiday. And here he was, seeing a mystery where there probably wasn’t one. But Briggs could not get out of his head the fact that the dead body had been found in the wrong place. And, until he could explain how that came to be, he could not leave the mystery alone. Mysteries had to be solved.
“Come on.” Briggs said. He turned to go.
“Are we to return to the hotel?” Prenderghast asked. “It is a little early for lunch.”
“No, we’re not going back to the hotel.” Briggs sighed. “We’re going to the police station. I want to see if they have identified the dead man yet.”
Briggs, at the police station, found that the dead man had been identified as Mr Richard Thornton, a resident of Oxford. One of his friends had come into the police station that morning to say that he had been trying to contact his friend for the past day or so, but he was getting worried when Thornton would not answer the door. He had described the dead man; and, when shown the corpse, he had identified that as being his friend. Thornton, despite not being able to swim, had apparently been a fan of going boating on the river.
As far as the police were concerned, that closed the matter. They had identified the dead man; and cleared up a potential missing person case at the same time. They saw no reason to consider the matter further, not even when a fancy consulting detective from London said that they should. They did not want John Briggs’s aid; and they made it clear that they did not want him poking around in what they felt was only some tragic accident.
“Idiots!” Briggs muttered, as he and Prenderghast left the police station. “Can’t they see that there’s an inconsistency here? There’s no way that a body should have been found upriver of where it fell into the water. Rivers don’t flow uphill.”
“It would appear than you are not impressed by your fellow policemen.” Prenderghast observed.
“I’m an ex-policeman.” Briggs pointed out. “And I hope that I was never as blind as those policemen in there. Oh, I suppose that I can’t really blame them, not that much. All policemen want to be able to close cases, if they can. Anyway, at least I got the name of the person who identified Thornton.”
“Ah, yes, this Edward Jaspers.” Prenderghast said. He had actually been paying attention in the police station as Briggs had asked his questions.
“Yes, we should be able to get his address from the Register of Electors.” Briggs said. “I presume that there is one in you world in this period, anyway. I think that we should pay Jaspers a visit, and try to find out a little bit more about Richard Thornton. I’m sure that there is something going on here – either Thornton did not fall into the water as described by the policeman, or the body was moved afterwards, for some reason. And if the body was moved, taken further upstream for some reason, then I would like to know why.”
With assistance from Prenderghast Briggs managed to find the address of Edward Jaspers. He lived in the centre of Oxford, having rooms above a printers’, accessible by a narrow stair running alongside the printing establishment. Jaspers, though, was not in when Briggs and Prenderghast called around to see him.
“He is not in.” Prenderghast said, after Briggs had knocked on the door for the third time.
“No, he’s not.” Briggs sighed. “We’ll come back tonight.”
“We will?” Prenderghast asked. He had hoped that Briggs would have got bored of this thing by now. It was not really an adventure, as far as Prenderghast was concerned, not compared with some of the ones which they had had before. It was clear that the man had fallen into the river and drowned. Prenderghast did not really care that the body had been discovered upstream, after not being able to discover a mystical explanation for the anomaly.
“We will.” Briggs confirmed.
That evening, after they had dined at their hotel, they returned to Jaspers’ rooms in the centre of Oxford. This time they could see that Edward Jaspers was at home, as there was a light on in one of the rooms; although, with the curtains drawn, it was impossible to see inside.
Briggs went and hammered on the door to Jaspers’ rooms. The door was opened by a blonde-haired man in his late twenties or early thirties. He was clean-shaven, and he had one of those cleft chins which are always considered to be handsome.
He looked from Briggs, to Prenderghast, and back to Briggs, unsure as to why they were there.
“Yes, gentlemen?” Edward Jaspers asked.
“Are you Edward Jaspers?” Briggs asked.
“That is correct. But I am afraid that I do not have the honour of knowing your names.”
“My name is John Briggs, and this is Prenderghast. I was there when the body of Richard Thornton was discovered. I was hoping that I could ask you a few questions about him. He was your friend, wasn’t he?”
Jaspers, initially, looked taken aback. But maybe it was only the mention of his dead friend.
“Yes, of course, please come in.” Jaspers said. He raised his left hand, indicating that Briggs and Prenderghast should enter. Briggs walked in, Prenderghast a pace behind him.
The rooms were a little small, as far as Briggs was concerned. An estate agent might have called them ‘bijou’. A cat swung around would have had its head bounce off all four walls. But at least the room was cosy, with a log fire in the grate, and a few pictures on the wall; although Briggs did notice a discoloured rectangle, where the paint on the wall was a slightly darker colour, where a picture must have hung but which had been taken down. Briggs wondered what the picture had been. But he supposed that it did not really matter.
“Please, sit down.” Jaspers said, indicating a couple of armchairs not that far from the log fire. Briggs and Prenderghast sat in the chairs, while Jaspers leant against the mantelpiece.
“What was it that you desired to know about Thornton?” Jaspers asked. “Were you… were you friends of his?”
“No, the first time that I saw him was when he was pulled out of the river.” Briggs said. “Were you and he close?”
“What? Yes, of course we were, although I do not see how it is any of your business.” The tone of Jaspers had definitely changed since Briggs had said that he had not been an acquaintance of Thornton.
“Well, there are certain inconsistencies about your friend’s death.” Briggs said.
“Inconsistencies? I am sorry, but I do not understand. He was witnessed falling into the Isis by a policeman. The police told me that he drowned, after they recovered his body earlier today. I do not see how there could be anything inconsistent with that.”
Briggs, as Jaspers talked, glanced around the room again. He noticed that the mantelpiece only had a few of the knickknacks so beloved of the people of this period. There was a large, flat pebble, with a seam of white running through it, and a couple of old bookends. But there were no books between them. The armchairs were quite old; and a small table near one of the windows had been inexpertly repaired, a seam of glue obvious where one of the legs had broken at some time in the past.
“Well, there is really only one inconsistency.” Briggs admitted. “And that is that the body was found upstream of where the policeman saw your friend tumble out of his punt into the river. Bodies don’t float against the current.”
“Well, the answer is obvious.” Jaspers said. “The policeman was mistaken as to where Thornton fell into the river. He is only a policeman, of course.”
“Yes, I suppose that you must be correct.” Briggs said. He was not going to argue the point. “Is there anything that you can tell me about Thornton?”
“Apart from the fact that he was the best friend who I ever had?” Jaspers said. “I do not see how explaining his past can bring him back. Now, if you do not mind, I would prefer to be alone with my thoughts.”
“No, of course not.” Briggs said. “You must be very upset. Come on, Prenderghast, we’ll leave Mr Jaspers alone.”
On the street, at the bottom of the steps leading up to Jaspers’ rooms, Briggs looked up at the windows above, and was not that surprised to see Jaspers had pulled the curtain aside a fraction, so that he could look down on him and Prenderghast.
“Come on, Prenderghast.” Briggs said. “We’ll talk back at the hotel.”
When Briggs and Prenderghast got back to the hotel that night Prenderghast went straight to his room, and straight to his copy of Burke’s Wizardage.
“Jaspers, Jaspers…” Prenderghast muttered, as he turned over the pages. “Yes, I thought so, Briggs, Edward Jaspers is a wizard. Privately tutored, according to the entry – well, there are certainly enough wizards in Oxford who could have trained him. After London, and Edinburgh, there are probably more wizards in Oxford than anywhere else in Britain. I suspected that he might be a wizard, when he raised his left hand to indicate that we should enter his rooms.”
“Doesn’t being privately tutored in magic cost a great deal of money?” Briggs asked.
“Oh yes, Briggs.” Prenderghast replied. “Far more than if a person is educated at Glastonbury or Edinburgh.”
“Interesting.” Briggs said.
“Is it?” Prenderghast did not see what was so interesting about the high costs of becoming a wizard. He was quite aware of such things.
“Mr Jaspers is not a wealthy man.” Briggs said. “There is a picture missing from the walls, possibly sold. He did not have many mementoes or other items – bookends with no books between them, and so on. It looks as though he has fallen on hard times – I mean, he lives above a printers. I bet that gets noisy when the machines start going. But at least those rooms would be cheap, wouldn’t they?”
“I suppose so.” Prenderghast said.
Briggs pondered the matter. There was no evidence that a crime had been committed. But he still did not like it.
“I have Thornton’s address – well, where he used to live.” Briggs said, after a while. “I think that we should check it out. Bring your Clockwork Key.”
“What, we are going now?” Prenderghast asked. He had actually been thinking about going to bed.
“No time like the present.”
Richard Thornton had not lived in the centre of Oxford, but outside, in a lone house beyond Christ Church Meadow. Briggs and Prenderghast walked past the triangular meadow, and past boathouses and ornamental wooden barges, before turning away, down a narrow lane lined with hedges, on which Thornton’s house was to be found. The sight of the boats triggered something in Briggs’s mind.
“They never found the punt.” Briggs said.
“I beg your pardon?” Prenderghast asked. Prenderghast had not been thinking about the death of Richard Thornton, but about absinthe, and the fact that he still had some in his hipflask.
“When Thornton went into the river, he was in a punt, according to that police officer. But as far as I know the punt has not been found. It should have turned up somewhere. That’s another inconsistency.”
Richard Thornton’s house was a two storey building, set back from the lane, with no other houses close by. The house was in darkness, and Briggs understood that Thornton had not been married, and that he had not had any servants. Still, though, Briggs knocked on the front door, just in case there was somebody in the house. He did not want to be caught breaking and entering into the house. Nobody came to answer the door.
“It’s safe. There’s nobody in there.” Briggs said. “You can use your Clockwork Key.”
Briggs did not always approve of Prenderghast using this automatic lock-picking device; but, this time, it was overweighed by the fact that Briggs wanted to have a look inside the house, if only to put his mind at rest that there had been nothing suspicious in the death of Richard Thornton.
Prenderghast got out his device, wound it up, and attached it to the front of the door, over the lock. It took only a few seconds for the lock to be picked. The two adventurers entered the house, closing the front door behind them.
“Well, there are tall hedges at the front of the house, and no other houses close by.” Briggs whispered. “I think that we can risk a little light.”
Prenderghast got out his ever-burning taper.
“LUMEN.” Its ghostly green light lit up the front hall of the house. Briggs still did not like the light, but it was better than bumbling around in the dark.
“Right, let’s have a look around.” Briggs whispered.
“What is it?”
“If we are far away from other habitations that the light will not be seen, and there is nobody in the house, then why are you whispering?”
“Right.” Briggs said, in his normal voice. “I guess that we don’t need to whisper.”
They searched the house, being careful to leave the place just as they had found it. Briggs did not find any obvious sign that anything was wrong. The house had not been burgled, or anything like that. There was no real indication that it had been anything other than a tragic accident.
Except that Briggs saw a picture of Thornton and other boatmen, a sepia photograph on the wall, taken after one of the Oxford-Cambridge boat races. Thornton, in the past, had rowed for Oxford. A person like that should have known what he was doing when in a punt. It was another thing which Briggs did not like.
He and Prenderghast found the journals of Thornton. Well, it was actually Prenderghast who found the journal, hidden in a secret drawer in a bureau. Prenderghast was good at finding things like that.
The journal was very neat, with some of the nicest handwriting which Briggs had seen. Each entry had a date, and then the time, and then the journal entry itself. Briggs looked at the last entry. It was rather cryptic. Meeting at usual place, bet he wants another loan. No, I think not. I said so last time. There was a mark as though the end of the pen had rested on the paper. But there was nothing else. If Thornton had intended to say something else he had not done so.
“Interesting.” Prenderghast said.
“It was murder.” Briggs said, staring down at the entry.
“What?” Prenderghast said. “I think that you may be leaping to conclusions, my friend. Just because Thornton had a meeting with somebody does not mean that he was murdered.
“Remember how I asked all about the details of the accident down at the police station?” Briggs asked.
“I remember.” Prenderghast said. He had found the questions to be somewhat boring, and he had not rally paid attention.
“Well, Thornton was seen going into the Isis by an officer on his way home from work, one who had clocked off at five o’clock. It can’t be more than a fifteen minute walk from the police station to that area of the river, maybe less than that.”
“So?” Prenderghast asked. He could not see what Briggs was driving at.
Briggs’ index finger stabbed at the time of the journal entry: six PM.
“If Thornton was writing the journal entry at six o’clock at night then how did he come to be drowned three quarters of an hour earlier?”
And Prenderghast had no answer to that.
The journal was put back in the secret drawer, after Briggs had read backwards through the entries to see to whom Thornton had lent money. Briggs was not surprised to see that it had been Edward Jaspers.
Briggs and Prenderghast exited the house, leaving no evidence behind – Briggs hoped – that they had ever been there.
“I do not understand why we simply do not take his journal to the police.” Prenderghast said.
“We can’t use that as evidence, for a number of reasons.” Briggs said. “The most important of them being that I don’t want to be arrested for breaking and entering. No, if the journal is to be used, then the police must find it, in a legal search of Thornton’s house. And we don’t have any proof, yet, that he even was murdered. The police still think that it was nothing but an accident.”
“I have an idea as to how it might have been done.” Prenderghast said. “It is the fact that this policeman who saw the accident which concerns you, is it not? I examined where the body was discovered, and found no trace of any Magick. But I did not examine where the body allegedly went into the water.”
“You don’t think that he went in there, do you?” Briggs said, having been around Prenderghast for a while. “You think that it was an illusion which the policeman saw. It fits all the facts. The police aren’t going to have enough forensics to establish exactly how long the body has been in the water. They might not really have given it more than a cursory examination, if they think that it was only an accident. They would not doubt the policeman’s story, either. The illusion would establish a precise time for the supposed accidental death of Richard Thornton.
“But, in reality, while the police were searching the river for his body, he was still back at his house, not realising what was going on. Then, almost a couple of hours later…”
“He meets up with his killer, who drowns him in the river.” Prenderghast said.
“Drowns him, strangles him, or maybe just knocks him unconscious and dumps him in the river.” Briggs said. “He might have still been alive when he went in the water.”
“Briggs, it has now been over a day since the Magick was performed. Unless it was a particularly powerful Illusion, I may not be able to detect it.”
“Then we’d better get back down the river quick.” Briggs said. If Prenderghast could not detect any mystical emanations then there was no way that they would be able to say for certain that an illusion was involved in the death.
“Briggs, run back to the hotel and fetch my Magickal oscillator.” Prenderghast said. “I have an idea.”
A little later Briggs returned to the banks of the Isis, to see Prenderghast holding out his mythometer and pointing it towards the river. It was roughly the area where Briggs understood the young policeman had claimed to have seen Richard Thornton fall out of a punt and into the rivers of the Isis.
“Anything?” Briggs asked, as he held the tripod and the Magickal Oscillator which fitted onto the top.
“It was a powerful illusion, possibly programmed to occur when the policeman went past.” Prenderghast said. “I can detect it, but it has almost faded away. Let me see if I can reinforce it through the oscillator.”
Prenderghast quickly set up the Magickal Oscillator on its tripod, and turned it on.
“I hope the batteries do not fail.” Prenderghast said, as he trained the device on where the Illusion had been. Briggs watched, but nothing seemed to happen, at first. Perhaps they had been too late. Then, after around five minutes, Briggs saw a flickering image appear. It was not very stable, but it was definitely of Thornton, in a punt, going along the Isis. He punted along – then there was a section of the illusion which was missing – and there was the sight and sound of Thornton falling into the river.
“Briggs, I do not know how long I can retain the Illusion.” Prenderghast said.
“I’ll go and get the police.” Briggs said.
It was some time before Briggs returned, with a couple of police officers with him, including the young officer who had seen the illusion of Thornton going into the water. Prenderghast had stabilised the illusion a bit, the mystical emanations recovered and reinforced by the Magickal Oscillator. But it still flickered, and there was a section missing, where the Magick had totally faded away before Prenderghast could recover it.
It had not been easy for Briggs to convince the police to come and look along the river, and the young officer, by the name of Foley, had to be got out of bed.
Constable Foley, as soon as he saw what looked like Thornton punting along the river, walked forwards, and stared at it. Then the image flickered out for a few seconds, and when it came back ‘Thornton’ was falling into the water. Briggs, from where he stood, could hear the splash. If not for the flickering, and the missing bit, he would have been convinced that he was looking at real life. He could see how Constable Foley had been tricked.
“That’s it!” Foley said, pointing at the river. “That is exactly what I saw!”
Just then the image faded. The batteries in the oscillator gave out, and the illusion dissipated.
“The batteries have gone.” Prenderghast said.
“What’s going on?” the other policeman said. He was the duty sergeant, by the name of Baxter, and all that he had known about Thornton was that he had drowned. It had taken Briggs a lot of time to explain what was going on, and convince him to go and get Constable Foley.
“Like I said, Richard Thornton was murdered.” Briggs said. He sighed. Baxter was not the brightest officer who he had ever met. “This illusion was done so that it would look like Thornton had died because of an accident, rather than murder. Thornton was still alive when this illusion was going on. I suspect that the killer had set a programmed illusion, and that, at the time that Constable Foley saw this illusion, that the would-be killer was elsewhere, establishing his alibi. Thornton was probably killed a couple of hours later, the body dumped upstream, the killer maybe hoping that it would float down. Until what time did the search for Thornton’s body go on until, Constable Foley?”
“Until at least half seven.”
“Perhaps the killer had intended to put the body hear, but he couldn’t, because the search was still going on. So he dumped it upriver. But it got snagged on something, and did not float down, being discovered the following morning – but upstream of where it was supposed be. And bodies don’t float upstream.”
“So who killed him?” Sergeant Foley said, scratching his nose. It all seemed very complex to him.
Briggs paused. He could name Edward Jaspers, who Briggs suspected. But that might involve trying to explain why he and Prenderghast had broken into Thornton’s house.
“I don’t know.” Briggs said, winking at Prenderghast. “But you are looking for somebody who knew Richard Thornton, and had some reason to want to see him dead. And the person has to be a talented wizard, with a command of illusions. There can’t be too many of those in oxford. But if you want the advice of a former policeman, search Thornton’s house first. And now, I think, Prenderghast and I have interfered in police affairs enough. We still have a holiday to enjoy, after. Come, Prenderghast.”
Briggs and Prenderghast went back to the hotel before there were too many awkward questions that night. But there was one more thing which Briggs did that night – and that was to send an anonymous letter to the Oxford police, telling the police just where to find the secret drawer which contained Thornton’s journal, with the evidence that implicated Jaspers.
Briggs and Prenderghast spent two more days in Oxford and, perhaps surprisingly, they were not bothered by the police. But, on the second day, Briggs scanned the newspapers for indication of an arrest of jaspers. But there was nothing.
It was only three days after returning to London that Briggs read in the newspapers that Edward Jaspers had been arrested for the murder of Richard Thornton, and Briggs could eventually breathe a big sigh of relief, that justice had finally been done.