It was still snowing when the chief inspector’s carriage arrived at the Ashworth residence. The meagre crowd parted for him. Many of them were with the force, but several curious neighbours had also come out into the night, and Reverend Fletcher attended the mother. Aside from the whinnying of the horses, her wailing was the only sound in the cold winter night.
Thomas scanned the crowd, looking at each pale face. The people were murmuring, sometimes pointing to the Ashworths, and sometimes to their fallen children, but none met his gaze.
“Good evening, sir,” said inspector Powell, nodding respectfully.
“Inspector. Tell me; there are many people here – do we have any witnesses?”
“No, sir. At least, not among the crowd. The elder boy, Stephen, however, was able to tell me some things.”
“Yes, constable Robertson told me there was a survivor,” said Thomas. He took another sweep of the crowd. A lifetime of policing had made him an expert at reading people, and he looked for anything unusual. “This is the first time one of the children survived.”
Powell took a deep breath and studied his feet. “I’m afraid not, sir. The boy succumbed to his wounds in the end. He had a broken neck, and he was bleeding on the inside.”
“Oh God,” said Robertson, and he brought his hand over his mouth.
Thomas was about to say something but instead cringed when Mrs. Ashworth wailed once more.
“Constable,” Thomas said instead, “would you please take Mrs. Ashworth indoors? The street is hardly the place for a grieving mother, and it would not do for her to catch a cold on top of all else.”
“Yes, sir,” said Robertson, and then he departed.
“Inspector Powell, you mentioned you spoke with the boy before he… before he passed on.”
“What did you learn then? Do we have a suspect? How did these children come to lay in the street?”
Powell pointed to the third story of the Ashworth estate, where the children’s room window was wide open. “They fell from there, sir.”
“They fell? How do three children all fall at once? Were they pushed? Did they see who pushed them?”
“No, sir,” Powell hesitated. “They jumped.”
“Why the devil would they jump?”
Powell bit his lip and looked to the horses for help.
“Come now, inspector. If the Ashworth boy told you something, I want to hear it,” said Thomas.
“Of course, sir. He said… he said a man came into their room this night.”
“A man? What man?”
“Well, not a man. He said it was an elf, or maybe a goblin. An elf with a pointed hat, and very peculiar boots. They were black leather, very shiny and with toes curled into spirals. Also, they had golden buckles. He said that the elf convinced them they could fly if they flapped their arms like a bird, and so the children one by one jumped.”
Thomas glared at Powell, and the inspector had to turn away.
“An elf?” said Thomas. “An elf told them they could fly?”
“Yes, sir. That’s what the Ashworth boy said.”
“This is ludicrous. The boy fell on his head; he was dying. He clearly couldn’t remember what really happened.”
“Yes, sir, I agree,” said Powell. “However, it could be that there really was a man. A man, sir, not an elf or a goblin. A man could have been there, and he could have pushed the children out of the window. That’s much more plausible, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Thomas, and he tapped his lips with his finger three times. “It is. But it is not much to go on, if all we have is a pointed hat and peculiar boots.”
“Yes, sir, but it is something. There must have been a man. The people of this good city will not accept that children all around are simply throwing themselves to death.”
“Yes. Very well, we’ll do this then. Have another go at the crowd – in fact, ask everyone on this street – if anyone has seen a stranger about. If anyone has seen anything – anything, inspector – I want a list of the witnesses by morning. Also, post a constable with Mr. Ashworth, and see if he has any peculiar boots.”
Inspector Powell went to his men to carry out the orders. Thomas Burrows returned to the carriage. He was starting to tire of the cold, and decided he’d spend the rest of the night at home.