“The obvious solution,” Lady Markham said, “is poison. Preferably administered before he causes more inconvenience.”
Harriet Vane turned to her, smiling gently. “Are you referring to the Colonel or to Mr. Pemberton?”
“Mr. Pemberton, of course. A revolver will suffice for the Colonel.”
There was a deliberate pause as the waiter brought more cakes. Harriet and her companions, all writers of detective fiction, had learned that tempering their conversation spared many tedious explanations.
“Such a cliché,” Mr. Fox said with a superior sniff, as soon as the waiter departed. “Really, a crossbow would be far more interesting. So—unique.”
Miss Montague shook her head dismissively. “It’s been done.”
“It’s all been done,” declared Lady Markham. “Novelty is not to be pursued for its own sake. Regardless of the details, the deed must be carried out in an engaging and credible manner.”
“And with dispatch,” Harriet added. “Here comes Mr. Pemberton.”
There was a collective sigh at the table. Years earlier, while Harriet was still at Oxford, Lady Markham and a few colleagues had formed an author’s circle. From time to time, members of the circle collectively wrote a mystery novel. Each would write a chapter in turn, and submit a sealed envelope containing their solution to the crime. This year, eleven members had chosen to participate, and Harriet and her four companions had agreed to thrash out the final details of their work.
Lady Markham had suggested that a long weekend at a seaside resort would be an ideal venue to finish their novel: it would distance them from their daily responsibilities, pamper them with a soothing atmosphere and delectable food, and give them somewhere pretty to walk if they needed to exorcise a thorny plot complication. For publicity’s sake, there would be a brief interview with the press on the Friday, followed by a book signing. After that, the authors would be free to review the chapters and solutions submitted by their colleagues, plan a final chapter, and revise the extant chapters to produce a cohesive whole.
As Lady Markham had handsomely offered to pay everyone’s expenses, her suggestion had been accepted with alacrity. The hotel had proven to be comfortable without being overly ostentatious, the service unobtrusive yet attentive, and the food excellent. The hotel had even set aside a private parlour for their use. All would have been well save for the unwelcome intrusion of Mr. Pemberton.
Mr. Pemberton was a publicity agent wished upon them by the publisher, and the authors had taken an instant dislike to him. He was a middle-aged man with an ingratiating manner, a florid complexion, thinning hair, and a tendency to perspire. Although perpetually in a dither of activity, he accomplished very little, apart from putting people’s backs up. Harriet presumed he was a cousin or brother-in-law of someone highly placed at the publishing firm.
Mr. Pemberton seemed full of unnecessary and contradictory advice with regards to handling members of the press and the public, as if none of the authors had ever encountered such strange and unpredictable beasts. He was also eager to enlarge the publicity programme for reasons best known to himself. While he expounded uselessly on the importance of capturing just the right photograph, Harriet amused herself by studying her companions. There was Lady Markham, the Marchioness of Ashwood: a tall, angular woman in her sixties, long acknowledged as a grande dame of detective fiction. Despite her title, or perhaps because of it, she had no pretensions and was the most adept of them at handling Mr. Pemberton. Lady Markham nodded gravely at every thing he said, while blithely ignoring it all.
Mr. Rupert Fox sat to Lady Markham’s right. Harriet had noticed he always claimed that place during the circle’s monthly meetings and wondered whether Mr. Fox believed sheer proximity could confer talent and fame upon him. He was a short, slight man of twenty-five who had not yet learned to conceal his envy of others. His novels were hailed by some as fresh and experimental but reminded Harriet too much of the sort of poetry many second-years had composed at university: so self-consciously infused with Deep Meaning and Importance that they were stilted and lifeless. His sleuth appeared to be a thinly disguised and wildly glamorised version of himself.
Next to him sat Mr. Archibald Cuthbertson, a nondescript man of seventy and another founder of the author’s circle. Unremarkable both in appearance and manner, he was a retired police inspector who wrote about the less appetising aspects of London’s night life. Harriet found him to be well-organised and even in temperament, which she hoped would prove useful in coping with Mr. Fox’s more extravagant outbursts.
Miss Sylvia Montague was a round, contented woman of forty-five who’d had two husbands and countless lovers of both sexes. Self-educated, she was nonetheless well-read and clever. Despite her upbringing and unconventional lifestyle, her detective was a genteel spinster not unlike Miss Climpson, although with far fewer exclamation marks. Miss Montague’s face often wore an amused expression, as she derived enjoyment from the follies of others. Even now, she was smirking at Mr. Pemberton.
“And if his lordship would consent to join us for the interview, I’m sure the reporters will have a few questions for him,” said Mr. Pemberton with a hopeful expression.
Harriet came to with a start. Mr. Pemberton was looking at her expectantly. Belatedly, she realised that the lord being referred to must be her own. “Peter?” she said blankly. “He’s not here.”
“But surely,” replied Mr. Pemberton, “you are so newly married. To be apart from him… most irregular...” He produced a large handkerchief and mopped his brow before continuing, “the reporters will be particularly eager to ask his opinion of your books. I’m sure they’re rather expecting it.”
“I’m afraid you have a limited understanding of these matters,” said Lady Markham. “Indeed, the Marquess and I often lead quite separate lives, with no diminution of affection. And you should not be encouraging the reporters with tit-bits you have no way of producing. It’s annoying to them and unfair to us.”
“But if he could perhaps drive down tomorrow… just for a few hours,” Mr. Pemberton pleaded, with the air of a spaniel intent on a particularly juicy bone.
Harriet regarded Mr. Pemberton’s desperate eagerness and concluded that Lady Markham was right: he must have promised them Peter. “I’m afraid my husband is abroad on business, and not at leisure to return.”
“That should placate them somewhat,” said Mr. Cuthbertson. “If you’ll excuse us, we have some work yet to do before the interview.”
“It’s...” began Mr. Pemberton.
“We are aware of the time and place,” Miss Montague interrupted in a surprisingly severe tone. “Toddle off.”
Mr. Pemberton retired from the field in a state of confusion and unhappiness while Lady Markham frowned at his retreating figure. “Perhaps poison would be too slow. One doesn’t wish to be cruel, but the kinder, less detectable poisons aren’t immediately to hand.”
“Never overlook the possibilities of the blunt object,” said Mr. Cuthbertson.
“That’s another cliché,” Mr. Fox objected.
Mr. Cuthbertson eyed him steadily. “It’s common because it’s convenient. Also, effective and sometimes difficult to detect. A weapon that a murderer has gone to some trouble to obtain can all too often be traced back to the offender. Making use of available resources confounds that line of inquiry. If the worst happens and the killer is apprehended, he can always claim leniency for a crime of passion. Dashed difficult to do that with poison.”
Mr. Fox subsided with a sulky expression. Ignoring him, Lady Markham said, “Well, we shall be rid of Mr. Pemberton after the interview and the signing, whether he wills it or no. There shall be no last-minute additions to the schedule and I have firmly resolved to ignore any hints that he might attend our deliberations. We have got, after all, to do away with the Colonel.”
“My solution,” Mr. Fox began.
“Is fantastic,” said Miss Montague. “Or, rather, fantastical. A monkey trained to use a crossbow is unlikely to be believed by the readers.”
“The footprint, for one thing,” said Harriet. “The monkey’s presence is only deduced by the presence of a footprint in paint. Why should the Colonel or anyone else have left about an open pot of paint for the monkey to tread in? Why not summon a servant to tidy the mess? Why is there a pot of paint in the study in the first place?”
“What if it’s not paint, but India ink,” suggested Miss Montague. “And the ink is knocked over when the Colonel is murdered, so there’s no one to ring for a servant.”
After a lengthy dispute about the drying time of India ink, Mr Cuthbertson consulted his watch and said, “It’s time for the interview. In any case, I still doubt a monkey small enough to scamper down an unlit chimney would have the strength to release a crossbow. Leaving aside the likelihood of the Colonel keeping a loaded crossbow on his wall.”
In consequence of this remark, Mr. Fox was snappish during the interview, causing the reporters to take less interest in him than they might have done otherwise. The other authors fielded their questions with good humour, occasionally raising an appreciative chuckle from their inquisitors. Even Harriet was enjoying herself, despite the reporters’ obvious desire to obtain some sort of usable quote about her marriage.
“Miss Vane… it is Miss Vane?” asked a London reporter Harriet particularly disliked. Mr. Wilkins wrote for a London daily known for printing more gossip than news and had made a career of exploding tiny cracks into gaping chasms.
“In this context, yes,” Harriet replied. “In all other things, I am quite content to be Lady Peter Wimsey.”
“But doesn’t his lordship object?”
“Why should he? He’s sensible enough to realise it makes good business sense to carry on writing under the name my readers are familiar with.”
“What do you talk about?” asked a society reporter who seemed distinctly disappointed by Lord Peter’s absence.
“What does any couple talk about?” Harriet replied casually, while trying not to think about Europe. Everything seemed to be on the verge of going to blazes and Lord Peter had been called away to Rome yet again. “We’re renovating an old house in the countryside, so we spend a surprising amount of time discussing chimney pots and gardens.”
“I’m afraid we must be getting on,” said Lady Markham. “Terribly sorry, but we’re overdue for a signing party. So kind of you to come.”
“It always comes back to children,” Harriet thought with resignation, while signing novels for a surprisingly long line of people. The reporters asked, Peter’s brother Gerald asked, and her sister-in-law Helen assumed without even troubling to ask. Only the Dowager Duchess seemed capable of holding her tongue. Even the readers she was signing books for wanted to know whether she would have children, and how many, and how soon. After gently repelling the well-meant but tiresome inquiries of yet another stranger, Harriet found herself sighing heavily.
“Appalling, isn’t it? Being treated like a broodmare?”
Harriet looked up in surprise, to realise she recognised the young woman now in front of her. They’d been introduced a month ago at an interminable reception engineered by the Duchess of Denver. “Lady Celia,” she said, while accepting the proffered book. “What brings you down to Hastings?”
“I wanted to get away for the weekend. London’s very stifling just now, with my parents in Town. My problem’s much like yours. Family eager to increase its size, although there’s still the hurdle of a suitable marriage to be overcome. God save me from suitable young men.”
“I find the unsuitable ones far more entertaining,” put in Lady Markham, from the next table over.
“No doubt, but having one’s name in Burke’s is every bit as confining as a cell in the Tower,” said Lady Celia.
“Then you must search out a resourceful and unsuitable fellow to engineer your escape,” replied Lady Markham. “Or undertake it yourself. Being wholly disinterested in public opinion can be quite freeing.”
“Easier said than done. Thanks ever so much,” Lady Celia said, as Harriet returned her book. “I daresay my people will be inviting you both round next week. Do please come; otherwise it will be too ghastly for words.” She nodded to them and flitted away, leaving Harriet to wonder about the nature of prisons.
“Where did all those people come from?” Miss Montague asked, as they sat down to dinner that evening. “I’d expected a handful of readers at most. Perhaps Mr. Pemberton is capable of something, after all.”
“I’ve seen this before,” said Mr. Cuthbertson. “Sometimes, you’ll get an extraordinary turnout in the most unlikely places.”
Lady Markham nodded. “There are more people in London, of course, but also far more things to attract their interest. If you happen to strike a time when not much else is happening, it’s amazing who’ll come out of the woodwork for a signing. I once signed a book nearly twenty years old and falling apart at the seams. A woman had bought it and everyone in the family had read it, as was obvious by the stains.”
“Treacle’s the worst,” said Miss Montague. “I don’t mind signing old books unless they’re sticky. It’s rather gratifying to see one’s work read repeatedly. Does anyone know what’s become of Mr. Fox?”
“I believe he’s gone off to register a complaint with Mr. Pemberton,” said Mr. Cuthbertson. “Apparently, the signing failed to attract many of his readers.”
“I almost feel sorry for Mr. Pemberton,” said Miss Montague. “If Mr. Fox is too unpleasant, Mr. Pemberton might perspire himself into a life-threatening state of dehydration. Hang on, there’s a thought. Do you suppose?”
“No,” said Harriet. “That’s worse than the monkey.”
Mr. Fox put in a belated appearance at dinner, and was displeased to discover that his proposed solution had been set aside. “Why waste my time with this?” he said, while savagely attacking his roast saddle of lamb. “You’ve no interest in doing anything new or fresh. You may as well copy the crime from your last novel. Your readers are so thick they’d never notice. I’m off.” He stormed out of the parlour, slamming the door behind him.
“Oh, dear. We’ve upset the baby,” said Miss Montague. “He does have talent.”
“He does,” agreed Harriet. “But he often tries too hard to make a mark, at the expense of telling a good story.”
Lady Markham nodded. “He wants perspective, which may come in time. I rather had hopes of him, which is why I invited him along.”
“He cares too much for his own opinion, and too little for anyone else’s,” said Mr. Cuthbertson. “That’s a flaw occasionally mended by experience, but too often not. Now, about Mrs. Pettigrew’s solution, concerning the valet...”
Mr. Fox left for London the following afternoon, after curtly instructing Lady Markham to remove his chapter from the novel. She agreed without demur, reserving her pique for Mr. Pemberton, who insisted that a photographic session for publicity purposes was essential.
“Mr. Pemberton,” she said in frosty tones, after her first two attempts to dissuade him by gentler means proved unsuccessful, “our readers have no need to see us strolling along the seaside or play-acting at reconstructing the crime. They are readers, not gawkers, and would likely find that sort of thing rather juvenile and off-putting. We are here, at my expense, not the publisher’s, to finish a novel, and your continual efforts to wring one more publicity event from us are wasting precious time. We have met the commitments originally agreed to, and if you insist upon impeding our progress, I shall be forced to notify your superiors that we are unlikely to meet our deadline because of you.”
Mr. Pemberton shrank back in horror at this threat. However commonplace, failure to meet deadline is considered a tragic circumstance by publishers. That he should be blamed for it—unthinkable! He reached for his handkerchief while muttering his apologies, and hastily retreated.
“You could have done that when we first met him,” said Miss Montague. “Or just after the book signing.”
“True,” said Lady Markham, “although I loathe being disagreeable. Next time, we shall have to take a much firmer hand with him from the start. Well, that’s him and Mr. Fox disposed of. Do let’s see what can be done about the vicar’s alibi.”
The rest of weekend passed in a frenzy of activity. All of the proposed solutions were discussed, potential alibis were invented and discarded, and essential clues were identified and assigned their proper place in the narrative. By Sunday afternoon, the theory of the crime had been finalised and chapters of the book parceled out for revision. After agreeing to meet again in London in a fortnight, the authors celebrated their progress with an especially lavish dinner.
“Well that’s done, or as near as makes no difference,” said Lady Markham. “The revisions should take no time at all, and then all that’s left will be the galley proofs.”
“And the publicity,” said Mr. Cuthbertson, with a teasing smile. “We can look forward to seeing more of Mr. Pemberton.”
“I categorically refuse,” Miss Montague declared. “Let someone else in the group deal with him.”
“But think how entertaining it would be, when some reporter asks whether we have any ideas for the next book,” Harriet said. “You could give Mr. Pemberton a long, considering look and then turn to the reporter to say, ‘We’ve decided on a victim.’ ”
Miss Montague countered, “But what if they don’t ask?”
“They always ask,” said Lady Markham. “Just as they always ask whether your characters are based on actual individuals. I always tell them no, but occasionally it’s yes, although in a small way. I never write an entire person, but I sometimes give my characters odd little quirks I’ve noticed in people.”
Mr. Cuthbertson nodded. “I am continually amazed by the number of acquaintances I have who believe I am writing about them. The funny thing is that those are never the people I’m making use of. It must be awkward for you,” he said, turning to Harriet, “having married into a prominent family. Now I suppose everyone will assume you’re utilising your new relatives.”
“Yes,” Harriet agreed, “I’m afraid I shall be rather self-conscious for some time. My sister-in-law is just the sort of person to assume I’m referring to her or someone of her acquaintance.”
“You’ll get round it in time,” said Miss Montague. “If nothing else, your dreadful experiences after Philip Boyes’ murder should convince you that all manner of evil can be overcome.”
“I take it you’ve never met the Duchess,” said Lady Markham, much to Harriet’s amusement.
Harriet found it difficult to sleep that evening. For days, she’d been preoccupied with the business of finishing a detective novel. The idle languor which sometimes follows the conclusion of effort had taken hold of her, yet left her curiously restless. She wondered how Peter was getting on in Rome. She’d rather hoped he’d finish his task before she finished hers, but surely he would have wired to let her know he was returning?
She took up a book to read, but put it down again a few minutes later. What was the matter with her? The past few days had gone smoothly enough on the surface. The only off moment had been… “Lady Celia,” she remembered. “Something very wrong there. She feels trapped, and thinks I’m trapped, too. Am I?”
Was she? She’d married Peter with joy, without reservation, but was she suited for the life ahead of her? “It’s only the life I’ve always had,” she thought, but knew that was false. She had a certain status now, and servants, even if she’d left them behind in London. For the past few days, she’d been Harriet Vane, not Lady Peter Wimsey. But were they such very different people?
“They needn’t be,” she thought. “Peter doesn’t want that. He’d be horribly hurt to think I’d sacrificed myself for him. No doubt Helen expects me to be her idea of a proper lady, but Peter doesn’t. Well, Helen and the others can go hang. Lady Mary went her own way and she and Charles are very happy. There’s no reason Peter and I can’t do the same.” With resolution, she put out the light and curled up in bed. Slumber claimed her, but not before she remembered a critical difference between Mary and Peter: he stood second in line to a dukedom.
Monday dawned cold and blustery, but Harriet felt her mood much lightened. She was mildly embarrassed to recall the uneasiness of the previous night, then reminded herself that much in her life had changed since accepting Peter’s proposal. There was bound to be some settling in. Settling in! She wondered how the work at Talboys was getting on, and how soon the renovations would be done.
She went down to breakfast thinking largely of drains and had a peaceable meal with her colleagues. Their conversation was pleasant but somewhat disjointed. “We’ve already returned to our other lives in our minds,” Harriet thought. “This weekend might have been only a dream. Ah, well! That’s the nature of holidays, though I don’t suppose many would consider plotting a crime to be a suitable restorative.”
After making her farewells, she had her case brought down and someone sent to fetch her car. She’d thought of using the lesser roads on her return journey but with the weather turning colder, the prospect of taking in the scenery held less appeal.
She was mentally reviewing the fastest way to return to London when the porter opened the boot, then gave a shout while backing away smartly as a body tumbled out. It was Lady Celia.
In detective fiction, finders of corpses usually react to the unpleasant discovery in socially acceptable if melodramatic ways. Many of them shriek and utter variants of, “My God, Lord Thingummy’s dead,” as if there were some doubt about the matter. Others turn aside in revulsion, or sob, or faint. A few laugh hysterically.
Harriet looked on, disbelieving, and said, “Oh, not again.”
“Miss Vane? What is—? Oh.” Mr. Cuthbertson took in the situation at a glance, turned to the porter and said, “Fetch the police. I’ll see to the lady.” The porter, white and shaking, gave him a wild-eyed stare before nodding and staggering into the hotel. “Miss Vane. The wind is quite piercing. Why not step inside for a cup of tea? I can stay with the body until the authorities arrive.”
“No. Something’s off. Something… I need to think,” Harriet said, looking distractedly at the body. “Something here isn’t quite right.”
Mr. Cuthbertson looked at Harriet closely, but she seemed in command of herself. “About the body?” he said calmly. “Very well, then. Begin at the top or the bottom and tell me what looks wrong.”
Harriet forced herself to start with the head, although she shied away from looking too closely at the smashed-in remnants of a face. Why had her immediate impression been that she was looking at Lady Celia? The hair looked right, but chestnut curls weren’t uncommon. The blouse—she’d seen that blouse before, hadn’t she? Hadn’t Lady Celia been wearing it on Friday? That shade of green was out of the ordinary, and look! There on the right hand was an emerald ring she’d seen on Lady Celia’s hand. But there was something else…
The reception manager arrived, all of a dither. “The police will be here shortly. Please come inside and warm yourselves by the fire.”
“Not just yet,” said Mr. Cuthbertson. “Miss Vane feels there’s something odd about this body.”
“It’s a body,” said the manager in confusion, as his eyes flicked briefly downwards, then away again. Surely a dead body in a car boot was odd enough on its own? He shifted uneasily from foot to foot, watching Harriet study the corpse.
“It’s the fingernails,” Harriet said suddenly. “They’re not varnished. On Friday, they were elaborately decorated with tiny little paintings like a water-colour. I was about to remark on them when she went off.”
“You recognise this woman?” said the manager in alarm.
Mr. Cuthbertson silenced him with an irritated glance before turning back to Harriet. “Is there anything else?”
Harriet took a moment longer to consider the dark, well-cut skirt, the laddered stockings, the absence of shoes. “Where are her shoes?” she asked, peering into the boot. “Underneath her?”
“I don’t see them,” said Mr. Cuthbertson. “Let’s go in now, if you’ve quite finished.”
Harriet nodded, and turned to the manager. “I should like to have the same room again, unless it’s engaged. I should think I’ll have to stay on for the inquest.”
“Of course,” said the manager. “I expect the police will wish to interview both of you. The parlour you made use of this weekend is free. If you’d care to wait there, I’ll send someone along directly to bring tea and build up the fire.”
As they made their way to the parlour, Mr. Cuthbertson said, “It seems strange to be confronting an actual murder in the same room we used to plot out a fictional one. Who is the victim? From what you said outside, I gather you recognised her.”
“I spoke to her at the book signing,” Harriet said, then lapsed into silence. She’d stumbled across bodies before, but it had never been anyone of her acquaintance, however slight. What would the press make of it? Should she contact them?
Her musings were interrupted by the arrival of the police. Inspector Hamilton was a solid, bluff-looking middle-aged man who seemed out of his depth. Harriet suspected that bodies in boots were not part of his daily routine. “Miss Vane? And Mr. Cuthbertson. I’m Inspector Hamilton and this is Constable Williams,” he said, nodding towards the young man at his elbow. “I understand you discovered the body.”
“Miss Vane discovered the body. I arrived on the scene shortly afterwards,” said Mr. Cuthbertson. “She recognised the victim.”
“Oh?” said the Inspector, turning to Harriet with definite interest. “It would be a kindness if you could identify her and spare the relatives’ feelings.”
“I believe the victim is Lady Celia Dalrymple, the Earl of Hereford’s daughter,” Harriet answered. “We met in London about a month ago, and I saw her again at the book signing.”
“The book signing?”
Harriet briefly explained why she’d come down for the weekend. After taking down the authors’ names, Inspector Hamilton said, “What makes you believe the deceased is Lady Celia? The face was unrecognisable.”
“The body looks like her. The blouse appears to be the one I saw her wearing on Friday, and it’s an unusual colour. The ring on the right hand is one I’ve seen Lady Celia wear, both in London and here. The only odd thing I noticed is that the fingernails were unvarnished. On both occasions when I met Lady Celia, her nails were elaborately done.”
“Mm. Perhaps she was having them re-done and changed her mind. When you spoke to her at the signing, did she say anything about why she’d come? Did she happen to mention anyone she might be visiting here?”
“No,” said Harriet. “She gave the impression that she’d left London to get away from her parents, who are pressing her to marry. I’ve no idea why she chose this particular destination. I don’t know her at all well, but perhaps Lady Markham does. Lady Celia also spoke to her at the signing and they seemed to know each other.”
“Is Lady Markham still here at the hotel?”
“Yes,” said Mr. Cuthbertson. “She was planning to stay on until Wednesday. Shall I fetch her?”
“I’ll speak to her presently,” said Inspector Hamilton. “Miss Vane, when did you last open the boot of your car?”
“Friday morning, as I arrived here. A porter removed my luggage, then took the car away to the car park next door. I’ve been here all weekend and haven’t needed a car.”
“Was the boot locked?”
“I expect so,” said Harriet, “but I can’t be sure of it.”
“A boot lock wouldn’t be difficult to pick or force,” said Mr. Cuthbertson.
“True,” said Inspector Hamilton. “You were not present, sir, when the boot was opened?”
“No,” said Mr. Cuthbertson. “I was stepping outside just as it happened. I heard the porter cry out, but didn’t actually see the body fall.”
“And did either of you touch the body?”
“No,” said Harriet. “We stood there and looked at it for a good while, but didn’t touch it. I expect you’ll be taking possession of my car?”
“For a bit, miss. Likely, we’ll return it tomorrow after we’ve had a good look at it, but we’ll remove the boot and set that aside for the coroner. Both of you should stop here a few days longer; your testimony may be wanted at the inquest. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll find Lady Markham to see whether she can confirm your identification.”
“Of course,” said Harriet. She opened her mouth to offer assistance, then shut it again without speaking. Something about the Inspector’s demeanour during her explanation of the weekend’s activities told her he wasn’t the sort of policeman who welcomed input from authors of detective fiction, nor even from retired inspectors. She reminded herself firmly that this was not one of her novels, where all the suspects and their motives were known to her. This was not even Talboys, where she and Peter had blundered into the middle of a crime they were able to solve using the evidence and witnesses around them. She knew Lady Celia’s name, but little else, and what evidence was there? Where could witnesses be found?
Mr. Cuthbertson caught her eye, and nodded, saying, “I don’t envy you, inspector. Of course she may have brought her problems with her from London, but if the killer is someone local—someone with no ties to Lady Celia—you’ll be hard-pressed to find him.”
Inspector Hamilton bristled. “We’ll do well enough, provided there’s no interference from outside parties. I don’t tolerate members of the public mucking about in police matters.” He gave them both a pointed glare and took his leave.
Mr. Cuthbertson’s gaze followed him out of the room. “Ah, I was afraid of that,” he said, turning to Harriet. “I do hope he’s up to the task.”
“Yes,” said Harriet. “Perhaps a witness will come forward. If you’ll excuse me, I should send a wire to London, to say I’ve been delayed.”
At luncheon, Harriet learned that Lady Markham had also identified Lady Celia’s body. “The face was covered with a cloth,” she said, “for which I was most grateful, but that ring was unmistakeable. It once belonged to my dear friend Marjorie. Lady Celia’s her great-niece, and was given the ring as a present on her eighteenth birthday. I offered to accompany Inspector Hamilton to London, to smooth his way as someone known to the family, but was soundly rebuffed.”
“So you know the family well?” asked Mr. Cuthbertson.
“Only parts of it, I’m afraid. I’m not great friends with Lord and Lady Dalrymple; I find them absurdly old-fashioned and they find me entirely too modern for comfort. I was very close to Lady Marjorie—that’s the Earl’s aunt, rest her soul—and get on with the Dowager Countess far better than I do her son.”
“Did Lady Celia get on with her parents?” said Harriet. “Do forgive me if that’s too personal a question.”
“Not at all,” said Lady Markham. “There was definite friction there, although not outright hostility. If she’d been born a man, I doubt there would have been any trouble at all, but Lord Dalrymple has rather antiquated views about what constitutes proper behaviour for a young lady. Not Victorian, but definitely pre-war. He harrumphed a bit when she went to Oxford instead of finishing school, but he wasn’t adamantly opposed.”
“Lady Celia was at Oxford?” Harriet said, in some surprise.
“Yes, at Shrewsbury. She came down two years ago. I don’t think she cared a toss for it, but Lady Marjorie had established a trust for her, on condition that she attend university.”
“How generous a trust?” asked Mr. Cuthbertson.
“Generous enough to live in considerable comfort without working or marrying, if she chose.” Lady Markham hesitated, then said, “I suppose there’s no harm in telling you this, since the relevant parties have passed beyond the reach of malicious gossip. Lady Marjorie was married off quite young to a man twenty years her senior. He was not unkind, but it was not the life she would have wished for herself. When Celia was still a girl, Marjorie could see that she would very probably be unhappy with the sort of life her parents had in mind for her: a suitable but loveless marriage to someone of impeccable breeding. She wanted her to have enough money of her own to remain independent, and an education to occupy her mind.”
“So she could afford to refuse her parents,” Harriet said. “That’s why she left Town: to remind them that they had no hold over her.”
“That may be why she left London, but why did she choose to come here?” Mr. Cuthbertson asked, a question for which none of them had a satisfactory answer.
After a dispirited silence, Harriet declared, “This will never do. I refuse to spend the next few days in a fug. If Inspector Hamilton is determined to leave us in ignorance, so be it. I have revisions to take care of. Grappling with a murder I can solve is the most sensible course of action.”
She went up to her room and set to work. It was a rough beginning, but by late afternoon, Harriet was thoroughly immersed in the Colonel’s demise. She’d volunteered to write a chapter to replace the one withdrawn by Mr. Fox. The missing chapter had been a crucial one, describing in detail the scene of the crime. Originally, the room had been an unremarkable study, but it had undergone a radical transformation in the wake of Mr. Fox’s ill-tempered departure. An idle jest by Miss Montague had caught their fancy, and the Colonel’s study was now laden with obscure poisons and all manner of lethal weaponry. The challenge now before her was to describe it all without drawing undue attention to important clues.
Harriet was struggling with a description of the dumbwaiter when she glanced up from her work and saw that it was twilight. Self-reproach warred with a sense of accomplishment as she realised she’d spent the whole of the afternoon focused on the Colonel instead of Lady Celia. She had better unpack and change; Lady Markham and Mr. Cuthbertson would be expecting her at dinner.
She had just finished dressing when there was a knock at the door. It was Peter, looking tired and pale, but triumphant. Before she had a chance to say anything, he pulled her close and kissed her deeply.
“Had we but world enough… but no, one should not rush delights best savoured, and I expect Bunter will be along very shortly. I left him making arrangements for a suite. I say, you wouldn’t mind shifting rooms, would you? I suppose I should have asked instead of assuming.”
“Not at all,” said Harriet, although she’d only just unpacked. “Come in, darling, and sit down. You look all in. How was Rome?”
“Beastly. I’m not convinced I accomplished anything. Or that it’s possible for anyone to accomplish anything. Perhaps there’s no chance left for avoiding something rotten; the best that can be hoped for is a delay of the inevitable. Forgive me; I slept rather badly on the return journey, and we left London less than an hour after we arrived.”
Harriet felt a pang of regret. “Because of the wire I sent. I’m sorry, Peter. I wouldn’t have sent it if I’d known the effect it would have. So you know about—”
A deferential tap at the door heralded the arrival of Bunter, and any discussion of the body in the boot was put aside until more prosaic concerns could be addressed. After a brief consultation, it was agreed that Harriet should go down to dinner with Lady Markham and Mr. Cuthbertson and Lord Peter would join them as soon as Bunter declared him presentable.
Dinner was a constrained affair. Harriet had considered broaching the subject of Lady Celia, but when Lord Peter arrived, clothed in his favourite suit and a silly-ass-about-town manner, she realised he wished to avoid discussing weighty matters for the moment. “Too many ears in this dining room,” she thought. “It wasn’t nearly so crowded at luncheon. Half the people in here keep stealing glances at us. They probably wonder if he’s come down to investigate the murder.”
Her companions must have reached the same conclusion, because Mr. Cuthbertson made a polite inquiry about their somewhat-hasty wedding. Lord Peter obliged by regaling them with the story of their engagement and subsequent nuptials, a topic which entertained the eavesdroppers while thwarting their expectations.
“He does a devastatingly good impersonation of Helen,” Harriet thought, as he re-enacted the Duchess’ indignation at learning the wedding had been taken entirely out of her hands. “I wonder if she knows it. I rather hope not.”
As they finished dining, Lord Peter invited Lady Markham and Mr. Cuthbertson up to their suite. “I’m sure there must be whiskey and sherry, if there isn’t any decent port to be had,” he said, raising his voice slightly so that it easily carried to several nearby tables. “Or coffee, if you prefer. I’m most eager to hear about the novel you’ve been working on with Harriet, but I don’t suppose you’d care to spoil the ending by discussing it here.”
Lady Markham accepted his invitation with a knowing glance, and they soon found themselves ensconced in the suite’s sitting-room. “Lord Peter,” she said, once they had all made themselves comfortable, “I understand you have just returned from the Continent.”
“Yes, I’ve been flitting about, putting in a word here and there, and listening to what is said and not said. Most entertaining, if one doesn’t trouble to consider what’s at stake. I gather from my lady wife that you’ve had some excitement of your own?”
“Oh, yes: Harriet’s body.”
Harriet found herself smothering a smile as Peter quirked an eyebrow in her direction. He was too well-bred to say anything about finding Harriet’s body exciting, but she could see him thinking it all the same. A glimmer in Lady Markham’s eyes told her the remark had been intentional.
“Yes, my beloved wife does have a peculiar knack for turning up corpses. Fortunately, that reputation has not spread far and wide, or Mother never should have had any luck finding servants for our Town house. They seem to have weathered the shock of a body turning up in Harriet’s car rather well, which pleases me greatly. Given my own proclivity for investigating horrors, it wouldn’t do to have servants susceptible to fits of vapours.”
“If you were hoping to do some investigating here, I fear you shall be disappointed,” Mr. Cuthbertson cautioned. “The local police inspector is unlikely to welcome you. None of us have been able to get more than a few stiff words out of him.”
“I’ll not mourn, but stay my turn,” said Lord Peter. “The local police inspector may represent an immovable object at present, but an irresistible force is likely to overtake him.”
Lady Markham said, “I do hope he didn’t make a dog’s breakfast of contacting Lady Celia’s family. I offered to go with him but he would have none of it.”
“Ah, I can tell you something about that,” said Lord Peter. “I got back to Town and had no sooner taken off my coat and read Harriet’s wire than Lord Dalrymple rang up, all in a doodah about some oaf of an inspector who’d rung to tell him his daughter was dead and what’s the name of that brother-in-law of mine at Scotland Yard and couldn’t I look into things myself?”
“Peter,” Harriet exclaimed. She felt a bit shamed to realise she was excited by the possibility of becoming involved in the investigation, after all. How much of that was down to vanity and how much to a sincere concern for Lady Celia and her family?
He inclined his head and smiled at her, nodding. “With one thing and another, I expect Parker will be here in the morning in an official capacity and Inspector Whatsis will be most annoyed, so I thought I might as well push along to annoy him in an unofficial capacity.”
He rested his chin on steepled fingers, looking mischievous as he glanced around the room. “Tell all, children. Let us determine what we already know and what we must try to find out.”
Harriet began recounting the discovery of the body, with helpful interjections from Mr. Cuthbertson and Lady Markham. After they had finished, Lord Peter sat for a moment, thinking over what he’d just heard, and said, “Here are things as I understand them. We know that a body was put in the boot of Harriet’s car at some point over the weekend. What sort of boot is it, by the by?” he asked, turning to Harriet. “I confess that I have no clear recollection of it. Regrettably, my desire to venerate every aspect of your existence does not extend to your bootless boot.”
“It’s fairly nice, but of a common type,” said Harriet. “There’s a lid on the top covering a shallow tray meant for tools and torches and whatnot, and the front lets down on hinges so you can pull cases out more easily.”
“How was it attached to the car? Bolts, clips, straps?”
“It was attached to the luggage rack with two leather straps,” Harriet answered. “There aren’t any locks on the straps; just ordinary buckles. Oh! You’re wondering whether someone could have swapped out another boot for mine?”
“Disturbingly quick when it comes to subterfuge. I had best engage a food-taster, post-haste. Yes, my treasure; would you know if someone had exchanged their boot for yours?”
“Quite probably, as it has my initials stencilled on. There’s also a small split in the lining on the right side near the bottom of the boot. I managed to gouge a place there a few years ago.”
“It might be easier to unstrap the boot and replace it altogether,” said Mr. Cuthbertson, “but lifting a boot with a body in it would require some strength.”
“Thus implying the probable existence of an accomplice,” said Lady Markham. “So one of the things to be done is verify that the boot in question is yours.”
“Yes,” said Harriet, “and I suppose we should check with the hall porters to see whether my car was moved over the weekend. X—you don’t mind using the traditional appellation, I trust?—might somehow have driven the car to a remote location over the weekend and then returned it after committing the murder and loading the body.”
“About the body,” said Lord Peter. “Was it rigid? Did you have occasion to see how the blood had settled?”
Harriet thought for a moment and said, “It didn’t fall out in one big plop. That is to say, the arms and legs splayed out and the rest of the body followed, so the large joints must have been loose.”
“The arms were covered but the legs below the knee were visible,” Mr. Cuthbertson added. “They were quite pale. I’d hazard a guess that the body was put in on its back and the legs folded up after.”
Harriet nodded. “I recall some discolouration around the neck, but not anywhere else. I should think the body must have been put in the boot shortly after death and not moved.”
“And if rigor mortis had receded, then the crime would have taken place sometime on Friday night or Saturday,” said Lord Peter.
“But we already knew that,” said Lady Markham. “Lady Celia was wearing the outfit we saw at the book signing, Friday afternoon. I should think the murder must have occurred on Friday, as she would have worn a different blouse on Saturday. Unless, of course, she had two that are quite similar.”
“Oh. Oh,” said Harriet.
“Precisely,” said Lord Peter.
“Precisely what?” asked Lady Markham.
Harriet turned to her, looking stricken. “We’ve identified the body based on its overall type, hair colour, clothing, and an emerald ring.”
“I see that,” said Lady Markham, “but you must admit that particular ring is quite distinctive.”
“Yes,” said Harriet, “but if Lady Celia was done away with on Friday evening, when and why did she remove the varnish from her fingernails? And where are her shoes?”
“I made an inquiry at the reception desk earlier today,” said Mr. Cuthbertson. “Lady Celia was also a guest of the hotel. With the family’s permission, we should search her rooms for a pair of shoes.”
“But why?” said Lady Markham.
“To see whether the slipper fits Cinderella,” replied Lord Peter.
“You mean it’s not her?” said Lady Markham. “Oh. Oh, dear. Her poor parents.”
“It probably is her,” Harriet said quickly. “In fact, it’s almost certainly Lady Celia. But you must admit, it’s also possible that it could be someone who merely resembles her, dressed in her clothes and wearing the ring. The varnish is missing because it was never put on in the first place, or the victim’s nails were painted, but in an entirely different style.”
“And the shoes are missing because they didn’t fit the body,” said Lady Markham. “Surely not.”
“All of that is possible,” said Mr. Cuthbertson, “but it’s the sort of thing found more often in detective fiction than in real life. Nevertheless, we should ascertain whether Lady Celia’s shoes fit the victim.”
“I offer it as a possibility, not a likelihood,” said Lord Peter. “But we’ll have a much harder time finding the killer if we begin with the wrong victim.”
“Establish identity,” said Lady Markham, nodding. “Identify time of death and how the crime was perpetrated. If the car wasn’t moved over the weekend, how and when was the body put in the boot? Was the killing done in the car park or was the body transported from somewhere else? And if it was brought to the car park, then why?”
“I do hope you’re right about the Yard becoming involved,” said Mr. Cuthbertson. “I’m not sure Inspector Hamilton is capable of asking some of those questions, much less answering them.”
“I didn’t know you knew the Earl of Hereford,” Harriet said, after Lady Markham and Mr. Cuthbertson had said their good-nights.
“I don’t know him well,” said Lord Peter. “He’s closer to Gerald in age and disposition. I should think that if an unconventional thought ever entered his head, it would soon expire from lack of company, but he’s a decent sort all the same and terribly cut up about his daughter. And the Dowager Countess is one of Mother’s friends. I expect if Dalrymple hadn’t rung me up today then Mother would have tomorrow. I do hope Charles gets here soon. But come,” he said, turning to Harriet, “let us set aside the diversions of the day and pursue the infinitely more appealing diversions of the night. Come again, sweet love, to do me due delight. Not an exact quote, but I believe the sentiment is clear enough.”
“It is,” Harriet said, with a smile. She went to him, slipping out of the weariness of an unsettled day and into his warm embrace, where no visions of corpses nor portents of war troubled their rest.
Mr. Parker did not arrive until late morning, and immediately closeted himself with Inspector Hamilton. “The inquest is tomorrow,” he told Peter and Harriet, when he came to their suite that afternoon.
“Tomorrow?” said Harriet. “That’s quick.”
Parker nodded. “Lord Dalrymple has apparently been setting off rockets all round. On such short notice, the coroner won’t be able to do much more than declare the identity of the corpse and say it’s murder.”
“About that, Charles,” said Lord Peter.
“You don’t think it’s murder?” Parker said. “Not many people commit suicide and then neatly pack themselves away in a boot.”
“We’re not completely convinced it’s Lady Celia,” said Harriet.
He stared at her in surprise. “I’ve read your statement to the police. Unless the constable’s shorthand is very poor, both you and Lady Markham identified the body.”
Lord Peter explained about the missing shoes and nail varnish. “It’s not likely, old thing, but all the same, we should check one of Lady Celia’s shoes against the body before the inquest.”
Parker nodded and made a note. “I’ve spoken to the doctor who examined the body. Taking the weather into account, he estimates the time of death as anywhere from Friday evening to Saturday afternoon, with the most likely time being somewhere between midnight and four in the morning. Cause of death was strangulation.”
“Not the head wounds?” said Harriet.
“Those were post-mortem; either a sign of rage or an attempt to conceal the victim’s identity. The doctor thinks she was placed in the boot not long after death.” Parker gave Harriet a sideways glance, hesitating slightly, then added, “He also told me the victim had recently engaged in intimate relations.”
“Consensual?” asked Lord Peter.
“Yes,” said Parker. “There was some tissue underneath the fingernails, but the doctor thinks that likely happened when the victim was being strangled.”
“So X has scratches,” concluded Harriet. “Was she expecting a child?”
“No, although she might have misled her murderer on that point. As for your car, no one from the hotel shifted it between Friday and Monday. There are three entrances to that underground car park: two public entrances and a private entrance reserved for the exclusive use of the hotel. All of the entrances have doors which are locked when the car park is closed. The public entrances are open and have attendants on duty from 10:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. at this time of year; the hotel entrance is open from 7:00 a.m. until 10:00 p.m., although porters can unlock the doors at any time if one of the hotel guests requires their car. The number plates of all the cars entering or exiting are taken down by the attendants on duty at the hotel entrance; they’re supposed to do the same at the public entrances but Inspector Hamilton suspects that some cars go unrecorded when they’re busy.”
“Which they shouldn’t be, at this time of year,” said Lord Peter.
Parker nodded. “There’s no evidence of tampering on the locks, which were replaced during the summer, after a rash of thefts.”
“A car park seems a risky place to carry out a murder,” said Harriet. “Or even to shift a body from one vehicle to another. Someone could happen by at any time.”
“The only safe time to do it would have been when the car park was closed, which would tally with the most likely time of death,” Lord Peter observed. “But if that’s the case, how did X and his victim get into the car park? I think a closer look at who has access to those keys is warranted.”
“To do him credit, Inspector Hamilton had already thought of that,” Parker said. “All entrances use the same keys, which are kept by the reception manager.”
“In a safe or a drawer?” Lord Peter asked.
“On his person,” said Parker. “Not all of last summer’s thefts were minor. One of the guests had his motor-car stolen from the car park and it was most embarrassing for the hotel. After that, the locks were changed and new precautions were taken.”
“A locked-room mystery,” said Harriet. “Only it’s a car park.”
“Unless X was exceptionally bold, and lucky besides,” said Lord Peter. “I should like to take a closer look at your locked room, Harriet.”
“If you’ll excuse me, I’ll see about finding one of Lady Celia’s shoes,” said Parker. “We’d best make sure we have the right victim before the inquest.”
“I took the liberty of glancing over some of your work this morning while you were dressing,” said Lord Peter, as they made their way to the car park. “I must say, I was unsurprised by the Colonel’s demise, given the contents of his study. Indeed, with so many instruments of death at hand, it was a matter of like calling to like. I find it remarkable he had any houseguests at all. I should be rather wary of accepting hospitality from someone whose idea of suitable décor was so menacing. One would rather not speculate on the consequences of offending one’s host.”
Harriet chuckled. “It didn’t begin that way—all the guns and spears and blow darts and poison.”
“And the mace and hand-axe? And let us not forget the crossbow and the noose.”
“Those, too. Do you remember Mr. Fox?”
“Young fellow, rabbity-looking, consecrated to the service of Great Thoughts?”
“That’s the one,” Harriet said, and told Lord Peter about Mr. Fox’s abrupt departure. “We were annoyed at being left a chapter short, particularly such an important one. And since he’d withdrawn it, we felt obligated to minimise any similarities between the original chapter and its replacement. One of us made a joke about putting a lot of extra weapons in the study as they’d be no less improbable than the loaded crossbow and one thing rather led to another.”
“Which weapon is the culprit? Or did the murderer take an even-handed approach and use all of them?”
“It’s none of them,” she replied. “The whiskey in the decanter was laced with a sedative and then the murderer used a bookend to bash the Colonel.”
“And the dumbwaiter?”
“Red herring. The Colonel’s great-nephew… oh, hullo,” Harriet said, as they approached a pair of attendants. “Would you be so kind as to show us where my car was parked this weekend?”
They learned that the two elderly attendants had already been questioned by Constable Williams and Chief-Inspector Parker. After a lengthy discussion of the weather and the car park, including repeated assurances that the attendants never left their post unmanned, one of the attendants showed them Harriet’s car, which had only just been returned to the car park. Five minutes’ worth of additional conversation and an application of banknotes persuaded the attendant to point out Lady Celia’s car and leave them in privacy.
“I see your boot is gone,” Lord Peter said quietly. “Has anything else been taken away? Or added?”
Harriet approached her car with a certain reluctance. She disliked the idea that it had been involved in a murder and felt vaguely guilty. She looked over the car slowly, while Lord Peter produced a torch and began scrutinising the vehicle for clues.
“I don’t see anything unexpected,” she said, after a while.
“Nor I,” said Lord Peter. “If there was anything to be found, the police have removed or obliterated it. Look here, though,” he said, stepping several feet to the right, then kneeling. “I’d wager this is where your car was parked last Friday. There are faint stains on the pavement.”
He bent down to sniff at it. “I think this was blood, but it smells as if petrol or kerosene has been used to tidy things up. See this? There’s an cleanish bit in the centre and the stains around it form a U. I wonder,” he said, as he stood and shone his torch upwards. “Yes, I believe those are spatters on the ceiling. Something is always overlooked. I feel confident in stating that X put his victim down here and smashed the face just before hiding the body. But why your car?”
“Lady Celia’s boot is too small,” Harriet said, gesturing at the other car.
“Indeed it is,” Lord Peter said, as they crossed the short distance to Lady Celia’s car. “I’m not seeing anything here,” he said, carefully walking around it. “Do you know how to pick a lock, Harriet?” he asked, as he bent to unlock the boot.
“No,” she replied, “but you obviously do. I thought you were joking when you said one of our wedding guests was a reformed burglar.”
Lord Peter smiled at her as he opened the boot. “I never joke about crime. If you’d like, I can see to it you have pick locks of your own and lessons in how to use them. Given your talents for investigation, both might prove useful. Ah! And here we have—care to guess?”
“An empty petrol tin?”
“Full marks. A petrol tin is not that surprising, but an empty one? If she'd used it on the way here, why not tell the porter to re-fill it? And here's a tin of water, only a quarter full. Also a set of tools, all scrupulously clean. I note that the tyre iron smells faintly of petrol.”
“I wonder what he did with the rags,” said Harriet. “He must have carried them away with him, along with his bloodied clothes.”
“If they were bloodied,” Lord Peter replied. “The dead don’t bleed so freely as the living, and he might have removed his clothing after strangling his victim.”
“Or even before. If he’d arranged an assignation with the victim, they may have both been en déshabillé when he strangled her.”
“Well thought! How cold was it Friday night?” Lord Peter asked.
“It would have been chilly after dark, but not nearly so cold as it is now. The weather was sunny and mild when I came down on Friday, grew colder the next day, and was positively freezing by yesterday morning. So, it’s possible they met here for an assignation, but they would have wanted a rug.”
“I can’t see anything in the car. Let’s check the dickey,” Lord Peter said, while stooping to unlock it. After the spare seat was revealed, he crowed in triumph. “Another point to my lady. This rug smells foul.”
“As if someone had died on it,” Harriet said softly.
Lord Peter turned sharply, looking chastened. “Harriet, I’m frightfully sorry. Here I am barging about as if this were some sort of game...”
“Don’t be absurd,” Harriet said. “We both know it’s not a game. I’m just not accustomed to knowing the victim, to imagining them alive...”
“Do let’s get on. I shall be myself again in a moment,” Harriet said, feeling impatient with herself and him. “Look over there on the floor. Is that a cigarette case?”
“Indeed it is,” Lord Peter said, “and we’ll leave it for Charles to remove and test for fingerprints. I have no certain knowledge of Inspector Hamilton’s capabilities, but I’m surprised Charles hasn’t already seen this. Definitely not up to his usual standard.”
“He told me they’d gone over both cars thoroughly!” Parker said in annoyance, when they met just before dinner. “I’ve spent most of the day verifying everything Hamilton said, and it’s all been correct. It would be the one thing I hadn’t checked. Was there anything else?”
“No,” said Harriet. “Though it seems to me that if the murder occurred in the car park, it must have been at night. Those cars were too close to the entrance for X to have been unheard.”
“I agree,” said Parker. “Tell me, would there be enough space to fit a body in the dickey with it closed?”
“No,” Lord Peter answered, “and the boot is also too small.”
“So if Lady Celia was killed elsewhere, X would have needed to hide her body underneath a rug and hope no one looked too closely,” Harriet said.
“There’s no record of Lady Celia’s car going in or out of the car park by any of the entrances after her arrival on Friday,” Parker said. “Apparently, she was killed in the car park. And it was Lady Celia: the shoe I took was slightly too small, but the doctor believes decomposition would account for that, and what was left of the teeth tallied with Lady Celia’s dental records. As for nail varnish,” he said, turning to face Harriet, “he noticed at the initial examination that there were traces of varnish at the sides of the nail on several fingers.”
“What colour?” Harriet asked.
“Scarlet. Would that tally with your recollection?”
“Not at all,” she said. “Each nail was a scene of trees beside a pond. The background colours were largely blue and green; I don’t recall any red.”
“Hmph. Well, I don’t begin to understand when and why women change the varnish on their nails, so I’m not sure what to make of that. Blast! I’d better go see to that dickey seat straight away. We might get something useful from the cigarette case. Do go ahead and dine without me; I’ve no idea how long I’ll be.”
Once again, Lord Peter invited Lady Markham and Mr. Cuthbertson upstairs after an uneventful dinner. Parker had not yet rejoined them. “So it would seem our victim is indeed Lady Celia,” Lord Peter concluded, after summarising the afternoon’s discoveries.
“I am most perplexed,” said Mr. Cuthbertson. “The bloodstains provide a strong indication that the murder took place in the car park, but I am at a loss as to how and why Lady Celia came to be there. It seems an odd place for an assignation, especially when she had a comfortable hotel room nearby.”
Lady Markham nodded. “Even if we assume the assignation happened somewhere else and with someone other than X, why and how would Lady Celia have gone to the car park after it was closed? If she required her car, she would have sent a porter for it. And how did X come to be there after hours? Are we to believe he drove in by a public entrance and concealed himself in his car until after the hotel entrance closed?”
“I’m afraid that’s not possible,” Harriet said. “We had a lengthy conversation with the attendants this afternoon. Since last summer, the attendants go round the car park after they lock it, to see whether the cars staying overnight match their logbook. There were no cars at all left in the public area. All the ones in the hotel area belonged to various guests of the hotel.”
“How separate are the two areas?” asked Mr. Cuthbertson. “I came by train and haven’t looked at the car park. And surely there are stairs?”
“There are heavy wooden hurdles blocking off the area dedicated to the hotel,” Lord Peter replied. “It would take two men to shift them, but yes, one could pass between the two areas on foot. The staircase near the hotel entrance is always locked and the ones near the public entrances are locked when those entrances are closed. The staircase doors use the same key as the larger doors and can be opened from the inside, but since last summer, the attendants have been instructed to chain those doors shut when they close the adjacent entrance. I suppose it would be possible for X to have entered the car park when the public entrances were open and hidden in one of the cars from the hotel.”
“He’d be taking a chance that no one would come to fetch the car he'd hidden in,” Harriet pointed out.
“Not if X chose to conceal himself in Lady Celia’s car. Or perhaps he used a public staircase,” Mr. Cuthbertson suggested.
“Possibly,” said Lord Peter, “but how did Lady Celia get there? She might have been willing to enter by a public staircase before 6 p.m., but would she have been willing to remain hidden for four hours, waiting for the hotel entrance to close? Have we got the time of death wrong, or could she have been chloroformed, hidden, and subsequently murdered?”
“She couldn’t have gone to the car park before six,” said Lady Markham. “She was at the book signing, which started at six.”
“So how did she get there?” Harriet asked. “The only entrance open after Lady Celia left the book signing was the hotel entrance. She can’t have gone that way without being noticed. She can’t have used the staircase near that entrance because it was locked. Could she have picked the lock? No, I suppose the attendants would have noticed that, too.”
She glanced up as Parker was admitted by Bunter. “Charles. Allow me to introduce Lady Markham and Mr. Cuthbertson. My brother-in-law, Chief-Inspector Parker of Scotland Yard. Charles, we were just discussing how and when Lady Celia got into the car park and we don’t see how she could have managed it. How sure are we about the time of death? Should the attendants be trusted?”
“That is a problem,” Parker admitted. “The attendants are men of long service with good reputations, but one has to wonder whether they could have been distracted for a few critical minutes.”
Lady Markham said, “Perhaps we’re wrong to assume the body was put in the boot shortly after death. What if Lady Celia was murdered elsewhere between Friday night and Saturday afternoon, then put into a boot of similar size? Even if rigor mortis had set in, it might have been possible to transfer the body to Harriet’s car during the day.”
“That would be possible, but risky,” Lord Peter said. “X would have to use a public entrance, then carry the body across the barrier to the hotel side of the car park. And I doubt the blood would have splattered that much so long after death.” He turned to Parker and said, “What about the cigarette case?”
“It didn’t belong to Lady Celia,” said Parker. “It was inscribed with the initials ‘B.M.’ and cheaply made. It might belong to X, but we’ve no way of knowing how long the case was there. It could have been left by some legitimate acquaintance of Lady Celia’s, although the quality of the case would argue otherwise. There were several fingerprints on it, which should prove useful.”
“Were Lady Celia’s fingerprints on the case?” asked Mr. Cuthbertson.
“No; we compared them to fingerprints on a bottle of scent found in her room and there were no matches.”
“Charles, was any nail varnish found in her room? Or varnish remover?” Harriet said.
“No; I did look for that particularly because of what you’d said about her fingernails. We assume she had her nails taken care of elsewhere.”
“By whom?” said Lady Markham. “Even an indifferent manicurist would do a thorough job of removing old varnish.”
“Unless Lady Celia received an urgent summons and dashed out before the manicurist could finish,” Harriet pointed out. “And if that happened, surely there’s a manicurist somewhere nearby who’d remember it. If we knew the nature of the summons, or anything Lady Celia might have been chattering about while having a manicure, it might lead us to X.”
Any response Parker might have made was interrupted by the delivery of a note for Lord Peter. He scanned it briefly and said, “I’m afraid you’ll have to excuse me. Lord Dalrymple has just arrived and has asked me to call on him at once.” As he rose to leave, the others made their excuses and departed.
“Will there be anything else, my lady?” Bunter asked, after seeing everyone out.
“Some coffee, if you please, Bunter,” Harriet replied. “I believe I’ll try to get some work in while waiting for Peter.”
“Very good, my lady.”
Harriet sat down to review the revisions she’d made thus far, but her thoughts kept drifting away to Lady Celia. If she’d gone somewhere to meet a lover, why remove her nail varnish without replacing it? And why not change into evening clothes?
“Thank you, Bunter,” she said, when he returned with a tray. “Would you happen to know whether Lady Celia brought a maid with her?”
“She did not, my lady. I have taken the liberty of making discreet inquiries amongst the staff in the course of seeing that our needs are met.”
“Of course. Peter tells me you’re very good at chatting up servants.”
“Thank you, my lady. It can be something of a challenge in this sort of establishment, where the staff sometimes feel themselves superior to servants, but his lordship’s notoriety has often helped to bridge that gap. I trust I cause no offence by observing that my efforts have also been aided by curiosity about your ladyship’s work and your recent nuptials.”
“It’s quite all right, Bunter; I have every confidence you would never be improper or indiscreet. Surely you’ve heard most of what was said tonight and last evening. Have you discovered anything we haven’t turned up?”
“Very little, my lady. The staff scarcely saw Lady Celia on Friday, but retain positive impressions of her from a previous visit. She did not bring a maid with her on either occasion. I gather she was generous to the staff and not unreasonable in her demands. On her previous visit, she often went out walking alone. She did not have any visitors nor make any especial friends among the other guests, although she was pleasant to everyone.”
“When was she here?”
“She stayed for about ten days in July. She never mentioned knowing anyone local to the area, but the kitchen staff believe she must have known someone. On three occasions, she asked for a picnic lunch for two.”
“Oh! Any idea where she took it?”
“No, my lady. It was the subject of much idle speculation at the time, but all they knew is that Lady Celia drove away with a full picnic basket in the morning and returned with an empty one before evening.”
“That’s very intriguing, Bunter. I don’t suppose any of the porters noticed how far she’d driven?”
“Alas, no, my lady.”
Peter returned to the suite an hour later, looking pale and subdued. “Harriet,” he said, “if we should ever be blessed with offspring, I am determined to engage a veritable host of bodyguards. Or perhaps a tame lion.” He put his face in his hands and sighed heavily. “I never want to outlive one of my children. I’m beginning to understand why Gerald kicked up such a fuss when Jerry smashed up his car. At the time, I thought it was only about the money.”
“Peter, you great idiot, it was never about the money. Did you honestly think Gerald capable of saying he’d been frightened out of his wits at the prospect of losing his son?” She took his hand and sat down next to him.
After a long silence, he said, “Lady Dalrymple has remained in Town, so I suppose one should be grateful for that. And the press should stay away, too.”
“Mirabile dictu! How was that accomplished?”
“It’s not common knowledge, but Lord Dalrymple has invested a good bit of money in several newspapers. The inquest will be reported, but not on the front page nor in any detail. Not that there should be much of it: he’s also had words with the coroner. The manner of Lady Celia’s death will be described, but not that she’d had a lover. She’ll be identified, by your testimony and Lady Markham’s, and Lord Dalrymple will give testimony about the ring. Unless something unexpected happens, the coroner will put it down as an unlawful killing by person or persons unknown and adjourn until further evidence comes to light. I should imagine the whole thing will take less than an hour.”
Lord Peter was right. Harriet woke the following morning feeling vaguely unsettled, but the inquest proceeded smoothly. Before she knew it, she found herself once again bidding farewell to Lady Markham and Mr. Cuthbertson, while Lord Peter exchanged a few quiet words with Lord Dalrymple.
“That’s it, then,” Lord Peter said, as he came up to her. “Lord Dalrymple’s heading straight back to Town. Would you care to go, as well? We could have dinner at home.”
“I suppose so,” Harriet said indecisively. “What’s become of Charles? I rather expected him to be at the inquest, but I only saw Inspector Hamilton.”
“Charles was maintaining a gentlemanly reticence. It’s good for relations with local policemen. Even if he solves the case, he’ll likely let Inspector Hamilton take the credit.”
“That doesn’t seem very fair.”
“Perhaps not, but it does tend to soothe ruffled feathers, which makes his job easier. I expect he’s gone to ask Inspector Hamilton about the inquest, even though he could have got the same information from us. I say, I think I was wrong when I said X would need to carry the body across the barrier between the public and hotel sides of the car park. What if X were a guest of the hotel? He could have gone out for a drive, returned with Lady Celia’s body in his boot, had a porter park his car, and then used one of the public staircases to return to his car on foot. He’d have to be very quick and very lucky, but it could be done.”
“Would the blood spatters work out?”
“Dash it! Probably not. But wait! What if the blood is from some other event?”
“Such as a different murder which has gone completely unnoticed? Although I see no reason why X couldn’t have been staying at the hotel. I suppose the police have been looking into that.”
“Harriet?” Lord Peter said tentatively.
“How well do you know Mr. Fox?”
“Not very well, I’m afraid. Why? Oh! You think he…?”
“Could possibly be X? Perhaps. I keep trying to make sense of why Lady Celia was done away with and hidden in a car park. Surely a remote and sparsely populated location would have been more suitable.”
Harriet smiled. “One day, you should write a murderer’s Baedeker, indicating various points of interest, including all the choicest spots for the commission of crimes and subsequent disposal of remains. But seriously… Mr. Fox? Why?”
“Because he seems like a proud and somewhat intemperate man. I can imagine him as a spurned lover, strangling a woman who’s just wounded his vanity. Also, the circumstances surrounding the murder seem so contrived. What was his solution to the Colonel’s murder?”
“A trained monkey did it with a crossbow.”
“Hence the dumbwaiter?” Lord Peter asked.
“No that was put in later. The monkey was supposed to have climbed down a chimney.” A thought struck her. “Peter, underground car parks have ventilation shafts.”
He stared back at her in consternation. “We have been complete idiots.”
They returned to Harriet’s car in haste. “Nothing directly above us,” Lord Peter said, as he looked up. “Good; my powers of observation haven’t completely deserted me. But surely somewhere...”
“That way,” interrupted Harriet, pointing to a spot several yards away.
“Yes,” said Lord Peter, glancing upwards, “and it’s a big one. Large enough to accommodate a man, I should think. Let’s see what it looks like from the outside.”
After a brief search, they found a staircase and climbed to the open air. “Nothing remarkable here,” said Harriet. “Just the promenade and road with the seaside in one direction and the town in the other… oy! Could it be hidden in that bus shelter?”
They walked over to take a closer look at the shelter. It was a solid-looking rectangle with benches on all four sides and a roof which curved gracefully over the benches. Lord Peter craned his neck up, trying for a better view of the centre of the shelter’s roof, but failed to make anything out. “I don’t think I can get up there without a ladder,” he said. “The overhang is too deep. I’m afraid we shall have to return with reinforcements, Watson, but this is most promising.”
Three-quarters of an hour later, Bunter had secured a ladder and persuaded Lord Peter to change out of the formal suit he’d worn to the inquest. “Here we go, then,” Lord Peter said, as he climbed the ladder. Yes, there is a ventilation shaft in the middle of this shelter. Dash it all, why didn’t I think to bring a camera? Bunter…?”
“I have the small camera with me, my lord,” Bunter replied.
“Of course you would. Would you like to become a potentate, Bunter?”
“No, my lord. I am quite satisfied with my current situation.”
“Pity. You’d do a far better job of getting things done than half the supposed leaders the Foreign Office sends me off to jolly along. Let me come down so you can go up. I’d like you to record this.”
“Very good, my lord,” he said, as Lord Peter descended and they exchanged places. “What am I supposed to be photographing?”
“Exercise your powers of observation,” Lord Peter said, as Bunter began to climb.
After a moment, Bunter said, “The scratches, my lord?”
“Yes. The scratches.” Lord Peter turned to Harriet to explain. “There are several fresh scratches in the paint near the centre of the roof and some near the top of the ventilation shaft which are quite deep.”
“Not a ladder. A grappling hook,” Harriet concluded. She thought of Mr. Fox and the crossbow, and wondered whether he had a fondness for antique weaponry.
Lord Peter nodded. “This explains how X got in and out of the car park, although not why it was chosen as a crime scene.”
“It also means the murder was almost certainly premeditated,” said Harriet. “I had wondered, before now, whether the strangling might have been in a fit of rage, or even accidental—some people do fancy that sort of play—but how many people happen to have a grappling iron lying about?”
“Nor is it something likely to be found ready-made in a shop,” Peter replied. “It’s not like buying a packet of headache powder from the chemist. This required planning. Harriet, I believe we should mention Mr. Fox to Charles.”
“Yes,” she agreed. “If Charles hasn’t already been considering him, then he should.”
“A grappling hook?” said Parker, when he met them shortly after luncheon. “How absurd. Not that I don’t believe you, Peter, but what an extraordinary thing to do. Why would anyone go to the trouble?”
“Perhaps we’ll know that when we find X,” said Lord Peter. “As to that, have you been considering the hotel guests?”
“Of course, although I’ll confess I haven’t devoted any time to suspecting Harriet.”
“No doubt Inspector Hamilton will have seen to that,” Harriet replied. “What Peter means to say is that we’re wondering whether Mr. Fox might be worth investigating.”
“Mr. Fox? One of your colleagues? On what grounds?”
“We have no concrete evidence,” Harriet said quickly, “but he’s a vain sort of man with a fondness for locked-room mysteries.” She explained about Mr. Fox’s abrupt departure and the solution he’d proposed. “So, you see, he went off angry on Friday evening and we didn’t see him again until the following day.”
“It’s true he has no alibi,” said Parker. “So, you’re suggesting that he feigned his anger about the novel?”
“Yes,” Harriet said. “It would have given him the whole of Friday evening free, while providing an excellent excuse to leave well before the body was discovered.”
“That seems rather elaborate,” Parker said doubtfully, “but I’ll give Mr. Fox a closer look. And I’ll get one of the constables to have a go at climbing in and out of that ventilation shaft. I suppose I should have them try lowering a body. Getting a body to the top of the shelter and down the ventilation shaft wouldn’t have been easy.”
“Mr. Fox doesn’t look all that strong to me,” Harriet mused. “Could he have done it?”
“Perhaps he didn’t need to,” said Lord Peter. “Did he go out that evening?”
Parker nodded. “We haven’t interviewed him yet, but a porter said he called for his car at half-past eight and returned just after eleven. He seemed very short-tempered and agitated when he left, and said he was off to find himself some decent company.”
“When was Lady Celia last seen?” asked Harriet. “If you’ve been interviewing the staff, surely you’ve asked about that.”
“Of course,” Parker replied. “She went out shortly after the book signing, but didn’t ask for her car.”
“So Mr. Fox had the opportunity to meet her elsewhere, commit the crime, and bring the body back with him,” Harriet said. “If he drove back to the hotel as quickly as possible after the murder, and returned to the car park at midnight, he could have shifted the body before rigor had fully set in. Although there’s still the question of blood spatter.”
“Yes, we may eventually need to consult an expert about that,” said Parker. “I have other guests to interview when I get back to Town, but I’ll be sure to look up this Mr. Fox first. And there’s Lady Celia’s flat to be gone over. Inspector Hamilton will continue looking for witnesses here and in nearby villages. I’m not sure much will come of that, but it needs to be done and as a local man, he’ll likely make a better job of it than I can. Will you be returning to Town soon?”
“This afternoon,” Lord Peter answered. “I wouldn’t want to queer your pitch by being present when you interview Mr. Fox—there is a disadvantage of being married to you, Harriet, which is something I never thought I’d say—but I wouldn’t mind having a look in at Lady Celia’s flat.”
“I think I might go down to Oxford one day this week,” Harriet said. “Lady Celia was at Shrewsbury, and the Dean is a very perceptive woman. Perhaps she can give us some insight into Lady Celia’s character, which could lead us to X.”
Parker gave her a sly smile. “I thought you’d already identified X as Mr. Fox.”
“Not positively. I merely noted the possibility. Of course, if his book sales were impacting mine...”
“Not likely,” said Parker, and laughed.
“I’ve missed this,” Harriet thought, as she gazed at Peter’s strong, sure hands guiding Mrs. Merdle back to London. “There’ve been too many interruptions lately, and not enough time for just the two of us.”
“Is something wrong, Domina?” Lord Peter asked. “You seem quiet today.”
“I was thinking about how nice it is to be with you again, and that I hope you shan’t have to go away soon.”
“What a gratifying confession. When you mentioned Oxford, I found myself wondering whether you were making an excuse to escape my presence.”
“Peter! You thought no such thing.”
“Very well, then. I wondered whether you might be looking for an excuse to escape the Town house.”
“What?” Harriet said blankly. She felt a sudden chill and could see his hands tensing on the wheel.
“Well… it’s not what you’re used to, and I was concerned it might be… a bit much.” A shadow passed over his face, emphasising the tension in his jaw.
“Peter! No! It was a little overwhelming at first, but I expected that. It’s a lovely house and your Mother’s done a first-rate job with the staff.”
“Is it really all right? You seemed so affected by Lady Celia’s death that I wondered whether you’d been having second thoughts.”
“About marrying you? Not at all.”
“About something else?”
Harriet hesitated, then said, “I know it’s rather silly, but I worry about what happens the next time Jerry has a smash-up. If you should inherit—well, I can manage a house, given good servants, but I wouldn’t have the first idea of how to be a Duchess.”
“It won’t come to that, God willing,” he said. “Or, if it does, not for some years yet. By then you will have made friends with people who can advise you, if needed. Or if you thought you shouldn’t be able to stick it, I could let the title pass to a distant cousin.”
“I don’t believe you could,” Harriet said softly. “After seeing you at Denver, I don’t think you could pass that responsibility on to someone else, once it landed on your shoulders. But don’t let’s worry about that today. We have more pressing concerns.”
“Dinner? Or murder?”
“I was thinking of dinner. Let Charles make the running for a day or two on the murder. I should like to reacquaint myself with my husband.”
“Mm. I suppose if I start speeding now, Bunter would feel obligated to keep up with us.”
Harriet glanced back to see her car, now driven by Bunter, following close behind. “Yes, he would, and it would be silly for Bunter to receive a summons because we couldn’t contain our wanton lusts for a few hours.”
“Wanton lusts? That sounds most promising. Do elaborate.”
Harriet laughed and said, “You reprobate. I won’t. Do let’s talk of something else. We’ll be home soon enough.”
They passed the rest of the journey discussing the Colonel. Gradually, Lord Peter’s hands relaxed as he brought up a few points Harriet thought should be passed along to her colleagues for further discussion. “Another crisis weathered,” she thought. “Or has it merely been postponed?”
She woke late the next morning to find Lord Peter looking back at her. “You’ve been watching me sleep?” she said.
“It seemed a fair return,” he said. “Dieu! Qu'il la fait bon regarder. I am the luckiest man in Christendom and a fool for saying so. Such contentment invites doom. And there it is, bang on cue,” he added, as the telephone began ringing downstairs. “Knowing my foul luck, that will be the Foreign Office. Here’s your dressing-gown,” he said, passing it to her. “I expect Bunter shall be with us momentarily.”
He was, and it was, and two hours later Harriet found herself alone again, save for the servants. “Bother the Foreign Office!” she said, after Lord Peter and Bunter had gone off. “And bother the Colonel, too. I’m in no mood to deal with him today. I don’t suppose…? Well, there’s no harm in trying.”
She put in a call to Oxford, and was leaving London herself in a matter of hours. She drove automatically, with her attention more focused on the conversation to come than the scenery. Did anyone at Shrewsbury even realise that Lady Celia was dead? There had been a small item in the Times that morning, but it had been well-buried on an inner page.
It was dark before she reached Oxford and Harriet began to regret having come in such haste. She’d briefly considered making her inquiries over the telephone before deciding that it would be better to broach the matter in person, where she could judge nuances of facial expression. If the dons knew or suspected something indelicate about Lady Celia, she would be able to see their reticence, and press the matter.
She signed in at the Lodge, paid her respects to the Dean, and then hurried to a guest room set aside for her in Queen Elizabeth. She would have to change quickly to get to Hall on time.
There were no other guests at the High Table this evening, and Harriet found herself relaxing in the atmosphere of idle academic chatter flowing around her. She fancied that many of the same conversations took place year in and year out, with only the names changing: students who’d shown unexpected promise, students with obvious potential who neglected their work, students who repeatedly flouted College rules, ungraded essays which seemed to multiply the moment one’s back was turned, and scholarly articles which needed to be researched or finished or contradicted. Miss Lydgate’s book had just been published and its initial reception had been promising, and Miss Chilperic’s wedding planning had begun in earnest.
Harriet had expected to be questioned about her presence in Oxford, but apparently everyone at the High Table assumed she’d come down to do more research on Sheridan Le Fanu. As the meal concluded and the dons began dispersing their various ways, Miss Martin invited a few of them to join her for an after-dinner sherry in her rooms. “And you as well, Lady Peter.”
“With pleasure,” Harriet murmured, while wondering which of these dons had been Lady Celia’s tutor. Nothing had been said at table about Lady Celia, so she assumed they were unaware of her death.
“I must thank you once again for this lovely decanter set,” said Miss Martin, as she poured out sherries for all of them. “Frivolous, perhaps, but very much appreciated all the same. Well,” she said, taking a sip from her own sherry, “I take it none of you have read the Times today.”
“I glanced at the front page, but I rarely have an opportunity to read it in its entirety,” said Miss Hillyard. Miss Edwards and Miss Lydgate nodded in agreement.
“I take it that we ought to have read the Times?” Miss de Vine said. “What has happened?”
“One of our old students passed away quite recently, and the inquest was reported in the papers.”
“Which student?” said Miss Lydgate.
“Lady Celia Dalrymple,” Harriet said. “I’m afraid she was murdered.”
“Lady Celia?” said Miss Hillyard. “Is that why you’ve come?”
“Yes,” Harriet admitted. “I found the body.” She went on to describe the circumstances of the case, concluding with, “At this point, the police don’t have any strong suspects. I thought knowing more about Lady Celia might provide some clue to X’s identity. The police have already spoken to her people and will be searching her flat; I offered to come down to Oxford to see what you could tell me about her.”
Miss Lydgate said, “Poor thing! I can’t believe she’s dead.”
“I can,” said Miss Hillyard. “She wasn’t a nice person. It was only a matter of time before she got on the wrong side of someone.”
Miss Lydgate made a shocked protest, but Harriet ignored her. “In what way was she not a nice person? I met her briefly on two occasions and she was pleasant enough.”
“Her manners were excellent,” Miss Martin said, “but one got the impression that she used people. She was not the type of woman who has other women as friends.”
“And what is that supposed to mean?” cried Miss Lydgate. “She was friendly enough to me.”
“You were her tutor,” Miss Hillyard said.
“You had something she wanted,” Miss de Vine put in gently, before Miss Hillyard could make a rougher reply. “Obviously, I did not know Lady Celia, but I have seen the type. They can make themselves liked, after a fashion, but they lack warmth.”
“It’s true she didn’t have many friends, the way the other students do,” Miss Lydgate admitted, “but being an earl’s daughter does put one at a disadvantage.”
“I can think of many who wouldn’t have minded having such a disadvantage,” Miss Hillyard said sharply.
“Did she have any friends?” Harriet said quickly, before Miss Hillyard could upset Miss Lydgate any further. “Any at all?”
“There was Miss Horton. They were quite close,” said Miss Lydgate, with a defiant glare in Miss Hillyard’s direction.
“Miss Horton? Where might I find her now?” asked Harriet.
There was a brief silence, before the Dean said, “Miss Horton had a bad heart, and passed away during her final year.”
“I still think there was something wrong there,” Miss Edwards put in unexpectedly. At Harriet’s inquisitive glance, she added, “Miss Horton was a lovely girl, a true scholar, and very engrossed in her studies. Lady Celia was clever enough but put in minimal effort. I should say most of her hours were devoted to attending parties and pursuing male undergraduates.”
“They say that opposites do attract,” said Miss Lydgate.
Miss Hillyard gave a snort of disgust. “Whoever says that must be an idiot. Friendships are based on common interests. They had none.”
“Then how did their friendship begin?” Harriet asked.
Miss Martin said, “I should say the friendship was Lady Celia’s idea. She seemed to pursue Miss Horton. At the time Miss Horton was great friends with Miss Lawrence, but ugly rumours were circulated which put an end to that friendship. I’ve always thought Lady Celia had a hand in that, although I could never prove it, nor make out how it benefited her.”
“Some people do things simply for the sake of causing mischief,” Miss de Vine observed.
“They do,” Miss Edwards agreed, “but I don’t think that was the case here.”
“If not, then what did Miss Horton have which drew Lady Celia’s interest?” said Harriet. “Before pursuing her, what would she have known about Miss Horton?”
“That she was reading Science?” Miss Lydgate offered.
“That she had a bad heart,” Miss Edwards said. She turned to the Dean and added, “You know my views on this manner.”
“Indeed I do,” said Miss Martin, “but regrettably, there was no proof at the time and there is none now.”
“Proof of what?” Harriet asked.
Miss Edwards hesitated, then said, “Miss Horton took medicine for her heart, just as Miss de Vine does. She was found in her room, having suffered a fatal heart-attack which no one overheard. The medicine bottle found near her body was empty, and there was no spare.”
“And she always kept a bottle in reserve?” said Miss de Vine. “It’s a common precaution.”
“She might have mislaid it, or used it all and thrown away the bottle without having time to get another,” said Miss Lydgate.
“Or someone might have taken it,” Miss Edwards said, looking grim. “I wonder if I inadvertently had a hand in Miss Horton’s death.”
“That cannot possibly be true,” the Dean said, with definite firmness, as if to close the subject, but Miss Edwards shook her head, and turned to Harriet.
“As you know, I’m the Science tutor. Miss Horton’s heart condition was no secret, and it was common knowledge that she took medicine for it from time to time. One day, I was giving a lecture on the medicinal properties of plants and happened to mention that her medicine is derived from foxglove, which can be deadly in the wrong doses. Most of the students showed the sort of mild interest one would expect, but Lady Celia—there was something about her reaction that seemed… furtive, intense… I’m not sure what word to use, but the look she gave Miss Horton made me go queer inside.”
“You were being fanciful,” Miss Hillyard said scornfully.
Miss Edwards bristled. “When have you ever known me to be fanciful? And when did Miss Horton ever do anything so careless as losing a medicine her very life depended upon?”
“But why would Lady Celia have taken it?” said Miss Lydgate. “What could she have possibly needed it for?”
“I’m afraid we shall never know,” said the Dean.
Harriet returned to London the following day, unsure of what her journey had accomplished. The dons had certainly given her a different and wholly unexpected view of Lady Celia, but she wasn’t sure how what she’d learned fit into the puzzle of Lady Celia’s death. Further questioning had established that Lady Celia had gone about with several men at Oxford, but hadn’t stayed with any one of them for long. Although she’d probably left a few bruised egos in her wake, the dons were unaware of any major disturbances. It seemed unlikely that someone Lady Celia had spurned years ago would only now be avenging himself, but Miss Martin had promised to have a discreet word with her counterparts in the men’s colleges to see if they might know something.
When she reached home, she learned that Lord Peter had wired to say he hoped to return the following day. “At least his work is going smoothly,” Harriet thought, as she struggled once again with revisions. She’d finally declared herself satisfied with the replacement chapter she’d written and had moved on to touching up other chapters. They’d decided to enlarge the role of the Colonel’s great-nephew, Sebastian, and she was trying to make him appear to be the obvious suspect who is revealed early in the novel and then discarded, only to turn out to be the murderer after all.
While the forefront of her mind was focused on making Sebastian appear so guilty that no reader would suspect him, the back of her mind kept returning to the problem of Lady Celia. Was she truly as bad as the dons had supposed? It was difficult to tell with Miss Hillyard, whose view of the world had apparently been distorted by bitter experience, but Miss Martin was very sound and she, too, had mistrusted Lady Celia, as had Miss Edwards. Harriet found herself wondering what her detective, Robert Templeton, would have made of it all.
He would have understood it, she ruefully concluded, because she had made him entirely too good at everything. That hadn’t been a single, conscious decision on her part, but the cumulative result of too many occasions when she’d needed him to be accomplished at something to get himself out of a scrape or solve a crime. She was nearing the point where it was going to be difficult to create obstacles for him, and if he could solve any crime within the first five minutes, then what kind of plot could she have?
Perhaps she should abandon him and start all over with another detective. Of course, that wouldn’t keep her readers from asking after Robert Templeton, which would be tiresome. No, what she needed, or rather, what Templeton needed, was a good dose of amnesia. What if he were injured in an accident—no, better, attacked by a villain—and couldn’t remember his name, much less most of the things he’d once known? She could give him some physical challenges to overcome, as well, and perhaps he would never fully recover from the mental or physical damage. That should challenge him nicely, but how best to do it? He could be tossed off a building or struck by a lorry or shot in the head...
A car backfiring in the street startled her out of her reverie. Harriet belatedly realised she’d been wool-gathering, although it was some very interesting wool indeed. She jotted down a few rough notes that would later become her most popular novel and resolved to return to the problem of Sebastian. Only she hadn’t been thinking of Sebastian, had she? She’d been thinking of Lady Celia, and wishing she understood her better.
Lady Mary might understand her. Harriet decided to spend another hour besmirching Sebastian’s reputation before rewarding her efforts with a visit to her sister-in-law. Having settled on a course of action, she found herself able to focus once more on writing. In fact, things flowed so well that she continued working long after the appointed hour was over. “And now it’s too late to call without disturbing the children’s dinner,” she thought, glancing at the mantel clock. “I’d best wait a bit longer, until they’re tucked up in bed.”
Accordingly, she presented herself at the Parkers’ flat shortly after nine. “Mary. I hope it’s not too late to call, but I wanted to speak to you.”
“Come along in,” Lady Mary said, smiling at her, “but do keep your voice down. The little beasts should be asleep by now but I don’t want them to hear your voice if they aren’t; they’d be down here like a shot. Would you care for anything?”
Soon they were settled at the kitchen table, drinking coffee. Lady Mary sighed contentedly as she said, “You have no idea how wonderful it is simply to sit quietly at the end of the day. I love my children, but having a few minutes’ peace isn’t possible while they’re awake. What did you want to discuss?”
“You’ve heard about Lady Celia?”
“Yes,” Lady Mary said. “I knew her, of course, but not well. We don’t travel in the same circles. Were you hoping I could tell you something about her?”
“I was hoping you could help me understand her. We spoke briefly last week, and she was unhappy about her parents’ expectations. She felt that she was being treated like a broodmare.” Harriet hesitated, then softly added, “And that I was.”
“Do you feel that way?” Lady Mary said in surprise. “Surely Peter isn’t pressuring you...”
“Far from it,” Harriet said. “We’d both like to have children, and I expect that will happen in time, but everyone, even my readers, keep asking me about becoming a mother, and Lady Celia overheard...”
“And assumed your feelings would be similar to hers,” Lady Mary said.
Harriet nodded. “I gather she felt a prisoner to her breeding, and I’m not sure I understand why she felt so trapped.”
“But you thought I might. I suppose you’re right. When I was quite young, everyone assumed I’d marry well some day, and my life would consist of social events and charitable works and producing the next generation of Lord So-and-So’s family. As I grew older, I came to the realisation that I didn’t want that at all, but I didn’t know how to escape it.”
“But you did escape it,” Harriet said. “You married someone you wanted to, not someone your family had chosen.”
“It wasn’t quite that simple,” Lady Mary said. “Gerald controlled my trust. If he’d been a different sort of man, he might have insisted I marry Lord So-and-So or be cut off entirely.” Her shoulders sagged slightly as she admitted, “Some of my friends from finishing school were forced to marry in that way.”
“How are they now?”
“One of them is genuinely happy, I think,” said Mary. “Another one is desperately pretending to be happy, but I’d say she’s wretched. The other two have made their peace with it—they produce children and meet social obligations, as expected, but otherwise lead lives quite apart from their husbands. They… endure, and are carving out a space in their lives where they can be content. I suppose if I’d been forced to marry someone I didn’t care two pins for, I should have found a way to do the same, but I’m dashed glad I didn’t have to. All the same, my upbringing didn’t equip me for the life I have now, and it’s been a struggle at times. Still, I would rather be here with Charles than somewhere else with Lord So-and-So, even if marrying Charles had meant being cast out of the family.”
“I can see how that would be a daunting prospect for many young women,” Harriet said thoughtfully, “but Lady Celia had a trust from her great-aunt. Even if her father disinherited her, she would have had plenty of money.”
“Plenty is relative,” Lady Mary said, smiling. “The girl I was at eighteen would be astonished to learn how content I am with the modest income we have now. That will be Charles,” she said, turning her head expectantly at the sound of the front door opening.
A moment later Parker stuck his head into the kitchen, “Hullo, Harriet,” he said, while stooping to kiss his wife. “I rang the house and was told you’d gone out. Do you know when Peter will be back? He sent a note saying he’d been called away again.”
“Tomorrow, perhaps,” Harriet said.
“Are you hungry, darling?” Lady Mary asked.
“Famished,” he said. “It’s been a very full day.” As Lady Mary got up to warm his supper, Parker turned to Harriet and said, “I interviewed your Mr. Fox. What an insufferable wart!”
“Does he have an alibi?” Harriet said.
“None at all. Claims he was put out by how poorly this novel of yours is being handled and went out for a drive. He stopped for dinner at a pub, but can’t remember which village he was in.”
“Was he scratched?”
“No. He complained bitterly about being asked to remove his shirt, but he did it in the end, and there wasn’t a mark on him, which makes him less likely to be X. I’ve interviewed several other hotel guests and they don’t seem suspicious either, although I have men checking their alibis, and Inspector Hamilton is still questioning people at his end.”
“What about Lady Celia’s flat?” asked Mary. “Weren’t you going there today?”
“I did, and found a few things worth investigating. It’s a service flat, so Lady Celia didn’t have any personal servants, but I was able to interview the servants who work in that block of flats. She had few visitors, apart from her parents, and was seldom there. I took along one of Mr. Fox’s books to show the servants his photograph, but none of them had ever seen him.”
“Did she have any male visitors, apart from her father?” Harriet said.
Parker smiled. “One, and it wasn’t a man she wanted to be seen with. One of the maids saw Lady Celia speaking to him and heard her say, ‘Edward, I told you never to come here.’ When I asked the maid for a description of the man, she gave it and then told me that she’d seen him in a play once.”
“An actor,” Lady Mary said. “Lord Dalrymple wouldn’t have cared for that. Did she happen to remember the play?”
“No,” said Parker. “She couldn’t recall the title of the play, and her description of the plot would have fit any number of romantic comedies. She couldn’t even say which theatre she went to—she often goes out to plays and the cinema on her day off—but she was certain she’d seen the play on or near the August Bank holiday. I’ve already begun making inquiries.” Turning to Harriet, he said, “Have you been down to Oxford? I know you were considering it.”
“I went, but I’m not sure I learned anything that could help you,” Harriet said. “There was a general feeling that Lady Celia was the sort of person who takes advantage of others.”
“That’s something,” said Parker. “X may have been someone who objected to being used by her.”
“Such as an actor she didn’t care to be seen with?” Lady Mary suggested.
Harriet revisited what she’d learned over breakfast the following morning. Lady Celia had had a flat she’d seldom used. Had she traveled constantly, or had there been another flat somewhere—perhaps one where Edward the actor had been welcome to call? Had Lady Celia been in love with him? Perhaps that was why she’d been so reluctant to do her parents’ bidding.
Lady Celia had slept with someone shortly before her death. Had X been her lover as well as her killer? Perhaps she’d broken off their relationship and left London, only to be pursued by him. But would she have slept with him again if she’d been trying to be rid of him? Perhaps it had been the other way round. What if he’d tired of her and she’d threatened him in some way. Could he have come to her, pretending remorse, and killed her to remove the threat? If X and Edward were the same person, what hold could she have had over him?
It was easier to see what hold an actor might have had over Lady Celia. If X had threatened to tell Lady Celia’s parents she was seeing an actor, perhaps she would have slept with him to placate him temporarily. But if that were true, why had he killed her? Had he seen through the deception and strangled her in a fit of rage? If that were the case, why would he have had a grappling hook handy and how could he have known when the car park would be unattended? As ever, why take the body to the car park when it could have been tipped into the nearest ravine or tumbled off a cliff?
“Enough procrastinating,” she thought. “Once Charles finds this actor, we’ll likely know why the car park was chosen. In the meantime, there’s still Sebastian to be dealt with, and I really should pass along some of Peter’s suggestions to Lady Markham.”
She spent the rest of the morning composing a letter to Lady Markham and dealing with Sebastian. A brief review of her work told her she’d done a good job of making him suspicious; Miss Montague, who’d taken the next chapter, would need to introduce a little misdirection to make those suspicions seem unfounded.
Misdirection. Was the underground car park a misdirection? Had Lady Celia been left there to focus attention on the car park and not the actual scene of the murder? If so, that would mean that X had feared the scene of the crime could lead back to him in some way. Did Inspector Hamilton have anyone looking for it?
“Blast!” she said aloud. “I know enough about this crime to want to solve it, but not enough to actually do so. I wonder what Lady Celia did in Town?”
She was prevented from following this line of thought by the return of Lord Peter. “Hullo-ullo! See, the conquering hero comes,” he said, as he came over to kiss her.
“I take it this trip went better than the last one,” Harriet said.
“I believe so. I hope so,” he said, sinking into a nearby chair. “I should like not to be needed again for some time. Tell me, how go the murders, both fictional and factual?”
Harriet’s reply to that query took several minutes, during which Lord Peter leaned back with his eyes closed. As she spoke, Harriet noticed the tiredness in his face, particularly around the eyes, and wondered whether she could dissuade him from joining Charles that afternoon.
To her relief, after she’d finished recounting the events of the past few days, Lord Peter said, “I suppose I should be on the chase with old Parker-bird, but I haven’t the energy for it. I’m afraid I shall need to sleep for the next year. I trust you will excuse my bad manners and make good use of my absence. Perhaps by the time I’ve awakened, you will have finished another novel of your own.”
“Actually, I’ve had some ideas about that,” Harriet said, and her account of the difficulties presented by Robert Templeton’s competence carried them through luncheon.
“I can see the appeal of tarnishing your idol,” Lord Peter said, when she’d finished. “In some ways, it’s better than creating a new detective. If you made a new detective out of whole cloth who had all the aspects of Templeton you like best, some would accuse you of being unoriginal.
“I would advise you to be merciless in your pruning with respect to his abilities; if you later find you need some bit of him you’ve tossed away, he could experience a belated restoration. I’ve no idea whether that’s how that sort of thing works, but your readers would likely accept it. What would be much harder to bring off is a detective who forgets then remembers then forgets again.”
“Point taken,” Harriet said, with a smile.
Lord Peter yawned widely, then said, “Pray forgive me. I simply must have a lie-down. I don’t suppose I could entice you away from Sebastian for an afternoon? Embarrassing as it is to admit, I sleep more soundly when you’re there.”
“I’m supposed to be writing his confession,” she said indecisively.
“Bother confessions,” Lord Peter said. “Nasty depressing things. Usually, they’re filled with lies and self-pity.”
“I shall remember that when I compose Sebastian’s confession,” Harriet intoned. Lord Peter gave her a pleading look. “Later,” she added, with a smile.
Harriet rose after an hour’s nap, but Lord Peter slept throughout the afternoon. “Harriet! I awoke to find myself bereft of your divine presence. Are you casting me off for another man?” he asked, as he slipped into the drawing-room just before sunset.
“That happened some hours ago,” Harriet replied, looking up from a sheet of paper covered with scribbles. “Sebastian has told all. I only regret that someone else will have the privilege of describing his demise. I am currently dealing with something far more complex than Sebastian’s machinations.”
“Dinner invitations. Between your mother and Helen, we’ve been introduced to half of London, and dined with several of them. How and when do we repay their nosiness with an invitation? To be perfectly frank, some of them were unpleasant people I should be quite happy never to meet again, but I haven’t worked out which ones we can afford to offend. Even for the people whose company I enjoy, I don’t know whether they do or don’t get on with someone else we might invite. Where do I begin to sort this out?”
“Get Mother to help you. For politeness’ sake, we’ll have to entertain nearly all of them at least once, but Mother can tell you who’s compatible with whom. If you don’t want to be troubled with some of them again, Mother can likely tell you whom to invite in addition to the unwanted parties, to make sure the undesirables have a rotten time.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” Harriet said. “I’m supposed to invite them to be polite, but then do my best to make sure they’re unhappy?”
“While seeming oblivious to the unpleasantness you’ve caused,” Lord Peter said, nodding. “I should think Mother and one or two of her most trusted acquaintances would enjoy helping with that. Lady Mirabelle at the top of her form is something to behold. She knows where all of the bodies are buried going back several generations, and doesn’t care a jot whom she offends.”
“So this could actually be fun?”
“Only if you’re wicked,” Lord Peter replied, whilst contriving to look very wicked indeed.
At this moment, Mr. Parker was ushered into the drawing-room. “Wimsey! I’ve been wanting to talk to you,” he said. “When did you get back?”
“Late this morning, but I was exhausted, so I went to bed. Feeling nearly human now. Harriet’s told me everything you talked about last night. What else has happened?”
“Two very important things. First, we’ve managed to identify the actor seen speaking to Lady Celia at her flat. He is one Edward Sandborn, a mildly successful character actor and wholly unsuccessful playwright.”
“Oh, good show! That was quick work,” said Lord Peter. “And the other thing?”
“Dead?” said Harriet. “Was it murder?”
“Apparently, it was a heart-attack,” Parker answered. “One of my men went round, to take a statement from Sandborn as to his whereabouts last weekend. According to the landlady, Sandborn had been ill for a few days. She has the flat directly beneath him. She heard a loud thump yesterday afternoon and went upstairs to check on him. When there was no response, she let herself in with a pass-key and found him collapsed on the kitchen floor. He died in hospital last night.”
“The deadest of dead ends,” said Lord Peter.
“Not so dead an end,” Parker replied. “Sandborn had deep scratches on the left side of his face and the right side of his neck.”
“O-ho!” said Lord Peter. “It’s a pity he didn’t have that heart-attack a week earlier. Lady Celia might still be alive.”
“Has anyone gone through his flat?” Harriet asked.
“I have two men there, guarding the flat and taking photographs and fingerprints. I don’t have any specific reason to view this as a suspicious death, but I mistrust coincidences. Would you care to come along?”
Sandborn’s flat proved to be the upper storey of a dreary-looking Victorian terraced house. “A murderer lived here,” Harriet thought, and felt a slight frisson as she stepped over the threshold. She saw a threadbare rug and a sitting-room sparsely populated with cheap furniture. An overcoat had been carelessly dumped on the floor next to the front door and she could see a sliver of the kitchen, where a mound of unwashed crockery had been piled up in the sink.
“Not the tidiest fellow, was he?” said Parker.
“Which makes this all the more remarkable, sir,” said a sergeant who’d been meticulously brushing powder on the telephone. “There are no fingerprints here, sir, nor any on the other places I’ve tried, except a few smudges on the front door.”
“So I see,” said Parker, looking about the sitting-room. “Try the bedroom.”
“I’ve already done that, sir. There’s only the kitchen left undone.”
“Very well, then,” said Parker. “Carry on.” The sergeant nodded respectfully and left.
Lord Peter wandered over to examine a trio of photographs on the mantel above the sitting-room fireplace. “It appears you were right not to take things at face value, Charles. Is this Sandborn?” He was pointing to a photograph of a young man with dark hair and curiously penetrating eyes. “And this must be a relative—a sister or cousin,” he added, indicating a photograph where the young man stood next to a somewhat older woman with the same odd eyes. “And this—this is no sister,” he said, pointing to the third photograph, where the young man stood next to an attractive young woman with light brown hair.
Parker walked to the front door, where a young constable still stood on guard. “Ask the landlady to come up for a moment to see whether she can name any of the people in these pictures.”
“Are we allowed to touch things?” Harriet called from the bedroom.
“What do you want to look at?” Parker said, as he moved to join her.
“The wardrobe,” she said, indicating a scarred monstrosity near the bed. “I was wondering whether he’d kept any letters and he doesn’t have a desk, so I thought perhaps a drawer in the kitchen or something in this wardrobe.”
“Excellent thought,” Parker said. He opened the wardrobe door and lifted a box down from a shelf, but his examination of its contents was interrupted by the arrival of Mrs. Ross, a solidly built matron with a disapproving expression.
“Those?” she said, looking at the photographs on the mantel. “The man is Mr. Sandborn, and this one is him with his sister. I’ve never seen her in person, but Mr. Sandborn mentions her from time to time. She lives in York. That pretty one on the right is Miss Evelyn Waters. She’s a chorus girl, and no better than she should be, but Mr. Sandborn is soft on her. Was soft on her.”
“Did he have any regular visitors? Apart from Miss Waters?” said Lord Peter.
“I really couldn’t say; I don’t spend my time watching the comings and goings of the people on this street,” said Mrs. Ross in the sort of tone which told Parker that she probably sat by her front window, spying through the curtains, for several hours each day. “There might have been a few young ladies from time to time, but I don’t hold with anything improper.”
“Thank you for your time, Mrs. Ross. You’ve been most helpful,” Parker said. After she’d gone, he turned to Lord Peter and said, “Why the interest in Sandborn’s visitors?”
“I was wondering whether the good Mrs. Ross had ever seen Lady Celia.”
“Charles?” Harriet called. “I think you had better see this.”
Lord Peter and Parker went to the bedroom and saw Harriet holding a small pasteboard card. “It’s a solicitor’s card,” she said, “with the word ‘Will’ written on it.”
“A will?” said Lord Peter incredulously.
“You seem unduly surprised by that,” Parker said. “We know Sandborn had a sister. Presumably he was thinking of her when he made out a will.”
“Charles, it’s a commendable sentiment but rather peculiar, don’t you think, that a young man who hasn’t a bean should be so dashed conscientious about leaving everything he has—which is nothing—to his sister?”
“Perhaps he’d insured his life,” Parker replied. “Hullo; what’s this?” he said as he lifted another box from the wardrobe.
“Makeup,” Harriet said. “And hairpieces. Used for costumes.”
“Or disguises,” said Parker. “You never noticed Sandborn hanging about the hotel, did you, Harriet? Perhaps this is why.”
They continued their search of the flat but found nothing else of obvious significance. After promising to keep them abreast of developments, Mr. Parker left for Scotland Yard and Lord Peter and Harriet took a taxi home.
“Harriet?” Lord Peter said tentatively, as the taxi crept along icy streets.
“About those dinner-parties. If you’d rather not endure them, perhaps we could be rude and unconventional and leave off doing them altogether.”
“And miss the spectacle of Lady Mirabelle putting Lord Thrupwhistle in his place?” she said lightly. “Peter, stop trying to spare me the consequences of being Lady Peter Wimsey. I’m not that fragile. Anyone who’s unpleasant to us will not be invited again.”
“Yes, but I’d rather not give them an opportunity to take the first bite.”
“What do you imagine would happen? That I’ll be called a murderess or an opportunist? That would scarcely be a novel experience. If Lord Thrupwhistle says anything untoward, I shall give him a meaningful glance and suggest he take more of the soup.”
Lord Peter laughed and said, “I believe you would. Perhaps we shan’t need Lady Mirabelle’s help after all.”
The following morning brought a brief letter from Lady Markham thanking Harriet for forwarding Lord Peter’s suggestions. Harriet did a final review of her assigned chapters and then thankfully declared herself done with the Colonel and Sebastian. She found herself eager to re-make Robert Templeton along less heroic lines and spent the morning making a list of his attributes, along with arguments for discarding or retaining each of them.
She was so taken up with the question of whether or not Templeton should be skilled at judo that she did not hear the bell ring nor Mr. Parker being admitted, and was subsequently surprised when Lord Peter stuck his head into the drawing-room.
“Charles tells me there have been some interesting developments in the case. Would you like to hear them or shall I talk to him to the library?”
“Please, come in,” said Harriet, belatedly realising that Peter had left her to her own devices all day so she could get some work done. “I’m sorry; you could have interrupted me earlier.”
“And impede the fascinating renovation of Mr. Templeton? Perish the thought. Parker, old thing, have a seat and tell us all about this will.”
“Wills, as in plural?” Lord Peter asked. “Sandborn had written more than one? I fear I have done the poor fellow a disservice. Judging by the contents of his flat, I would thought even one will unnecessary, let alone two.”
“Only one of the wills was his,” Parker replied. “The other one belonged to his wife.”
“There’s a wife?” Harriet said. “Curiouser and curiouser. And who might this fortunate creature be? The chorus girl, Evelyn Whatsits?”
“Waters,” said Parker, “and no. His wife was Lady Celia.”
“What!?” Harriet and Lord Peter said in disbelief.
“Now we know why she was reluctant to marry,” Harriet said. “She already had a husband.”
“The wills were fairly straightforward,” Parker said. “Lady Celia’s left everything to, and I quote, ‘my beloved, Edward Tristan Sandborn’ and his left everything to Lady Celia and his sister.”
“Did he have money of his own?” Harriet asked.
“No. But the trust would have gone to Sandborn, as her husband.”
“Until he most obligingly popped off, leaving behind an incredibly lucky sister and an untidy flat suspiciously free of fingerprints. I do believe we should endeavour to make her acquaintance.”
“Only from a safe distance,” Harriet said. “If Sandborn was married to Lady Celia, why didn’t the landlady mention her? Did she have a second flat?”
“Yes,” Parker said, “or at least I believe so. I have a man checking the address listed in the will as their residence. There’s more—Lady Celia and Sandborn both had life insurance.”
“Oh! I begin to understand why Lady Celia ended up in your car, Harriet,” said Lord Peter. “Sandborn wanted the murder to take place well away from London to divert attention from himself. He couldn’t tip the body off a cliff because he needed to establish her death. So, the body must be discovered while still recognisable, but not so quickly that he couldn’t dash back to London to construct an alibi. I wonder whether he knew the car was yours—if Inspector Hamilton had been a more imaginative man, he might have suspected you and your colleagues of staging a murder for publicity’s sake.”
“But if Sandborn killed Lady Celia—and the scratches certainly suggest that—then who killed him?” asked Harriet.
“Perhaps he wasn’t murdered at all,” Lord Peter said. “The only indication we have of foul play is a curious lack of fingerprints. What if there’s another explanation for that?”
“Such as?” Parker said.
“The landlady,” Harriet suggested. “I got the impression she was jealous of Evelyn. If Edward was being unfaithful to Lady Celia with Evelyn, who’s to say he wasn’t doing the same thing with Mrs. Ross?”
Parker choked slightly at this suggestion, but Harriet soldiered on. “Yes, Charles, I’ll admit the landlady is hardly love’s young dream, but if Sandborn was enough of a rogue to cheat on his wife and murder her, it is so hard to believe he might try seducing his landlady when he was late with the rent? When Sandborn died suddenly, perhaps Mrs. Ross got the wind up and did a quick clean of his flat to remove her fingerprints.”
At this moment, Parker was called away to the telephone, while Harriet and Peter continued speculating.
“I’m still wondering about the nail varnish,” Harriet said. “Could Lady Celia have walked into town to have her nails done, and left in haste when she unexpectedly saw Sandborn? She seemed in a bit of a hurry at the book signing, as if she had an appointment somewhere. If her appointment was at a salon, who was she being made up for? If it wasn’t, why take time to have her nails re-varnished?”
Parker re-entered the room, looking strained. “We’ve got this wrong. Completely, utterly wrong.”
“Parker, what has happened?” Lord Peter said. “Was the address a false one?”
“No,” Parker said. “The constable I sent says that the landlady recognised both Lady Celia and Sandborn’s photographs. Lady Celia lived there, and Sandborn was a frequent visitor, although the landlady didn’t know they were married.”
“Then what’s wrong?” Harriet asked.
Parker shook his head, clearly annoyed with himself. “I also sent men to learn what they could about Evelyn Waters.”
“She is a chorus girl, and several of the women working at the same theatre recognised Sandborn as her boyfriend. Evelyn hasn’t been to the theatre since the Thursday before the book signing. She called to say she was ill the next morning, but no one has heard from her since. Her landlady also recognised Sandborn, but claims Evelyn told her they were married.”
“How many women has this Sandborn married?” said Lord Peter. “And how many of them has he murdered?”
“She has hair like Lady Celia,” Harriet said, in dawning horror. “That’s why the face was smashed and the varnish was gone and the shoes were missing. The body in my boot wasn’t Lady Celia at all. It was Evelyn.”
“We can’t be sure of that,” said Lord Peter.
“Look at it this way,” Harriet said. “Lady Markham identified the emerald ring, as did Lord Dalrymple.”
“You recognised it as well,” Parker said.
“Yes, but I’d only seen it twice. They’d seen it many times, and were therefore less likely to be mistaken. Can we assume for the moment that the ring found on the body was Lady Celia’s?”
“Yes,” said Lord Peter. “So either the body is Lady Celia’s, or she was somehow involved in the murder.”
“Unless the ring was stolen or taken from her by force,” Harriet countered. “And the clothing as well. But why would a thief go to such lengths to make it seem Lady Celia was dead? He’d be better off trying to sell the ring quickly, although that might have been difficult, since the ring was unusual.”
“The setting was unusual, but the stone could have been removed from the setting and sold separately,” said Lord Peter. “I think it’s safe to conclude that the ring wasn’t taken by a thief. Therefore, the body was either Lady Celia or someone we were meant to take as Lady Celia.”
“She wanted to escape,” said Harriet. “She used us. She came to the book signing so that Lady Markham and I could later identify the body. Once she was declared dead, Sandborn would be able to inherit her trust and collect the insurance money. A double payment, because it was murder.”
Lord Peter nodded. “But Sandborn died. Colossally bad luck for her, or murder?”
“Murder, I think,” Harriet said, and told them about the bottle of medicine and Lady Celia’s interest in foxglove.
“Why didn’t you tell us this before?” Parker demanded.
“I didn’t think it mattered much, since Lady Celia was dead, and things have been moving so quickly.”
Mr. Parker sighed. “I’ve already requested an autopsy for Sandborn. I’ll be sure to ask them about digitalis. I’ll need to do another search of Sandborn’s flat and both of Lady Celia’s flats. She might have left some evidence behind her. So if Lady Celia poisoned Sandborn, how can she collect? Surely she’s not in collusion with the sister?”
“The sister may be entirely innocent,” said Lord Peter, “and, if so, she’s in grave danger. I would think that Lady Celia’s next move would be to impersonate the sister, quite possibly after murdering her.”
“Knowing our luck, Evelyn Waters is the sister,” Harriet said morosely. “No; I forget; we’ve seen their photographs. What if we’re wrong about all of this? What if the body was Lady Celia and Evelyn’s simply run off with a new man?”
“It would be quite a coincidence that she’d do such a thing just before Lady Celia and Sandborn both turn up dead, although I suppose Lady Celia could be the corpse and Evelyn the one responsible for Sandborn’s murder,” said Lord Peter. “If it was murder. Have we any way of telling whether the corpse we have is Lady Celia? What about dental records?”
“The teeth were pretty badly smashed,” said Parker. “I’ll see about getting dental records for Miss Waters, although I don’t think that will be necessary.”
“Whyever not?” Harriet asked.
“Because Evelyn Waters was a stage name,” said Parker. “Her real name was Beatrice Mudge.”
“The cigarette case!” Lord Peter exclaimed.
Parker nodded. “The case found in Lady Celia’s dickey seat almost certainly belonged to Evelyn Waters.”
“That places her in Lady Celia’s car, but doesn’t tell us whether she was alive or dead at the time,” Harriet argued. “Or perhaps Sandborn borrowed the case and mislaid it. Or put it there to mislead us.”
“True,” sighed Lord Peter. “I wonder how long ago he married Lady Celia. I should like to see the wills and insurance documents. And we must find the sister immediately.”
Parker nodded. “She may need a bodyguard, but I don’t know whether I can justify protecting her from a dead woman.”
“Find her, and I’ll arrange the protection,” said Lord Peter.
Miss Katharine Climpson had grown accustomed to accepting unusual assignments on behalf of the Cattery. There were, of course, the ordinary requests for typing, and a few of her ladies were quite content to limit themselves to handling them. Over the years, however, she had noticed a definite increase in the number of employees who were not only willing but positively eager to undertake more challenging assignments.
This was definitely the oddest assignment of all, she thought, as she sped northward on a train. Lord Peter had come to her this morning, requesting her assistance in most urgent terms. Within the hour, she’d packed a bag and rushed to the station in such haste that she’d nearly forgotten her hat. So perhaps it was not too extravagant to be taking luncheon in the first-class dining car. After all, dear Lord Peter had positively insisted she travel first-class, and she could salve her conscience by making plans for the days to come while she rode in luxury.
Her quarry—oh, dear, weren’t quarries usually villains? Very well, her assignment was the sister of a young man recently deceased. Lord Peter and Chief-Inspector Parker had thought it entirely possible that the poor dear was completely unaware of her brother’s demise!! They had impressed upon her that Miss Mavis Sandborn was likely in very great danger from one of two possible suspects: Miss Evelyn Waters, née Beatrice Mudge, and Lady Celia Dalrymple. She had photographs of all three women pinned safely into her petticoat pocket, as it would not do for someone else to accidentally see them. Chief-Inspector Parker had learned through police contacts that Miss Sandborn was a librarian residing in a boarding-house. With luck, Miss Climpson would be able to take a room there. She had been sent to observe Miss Sandborn and the people around her and notify Lord Peter and Mr. Parker at once if she spotted either of the suspects.
Lord Peter had stressed that no expense should be spared and that she would likely need several women to assist her once she had assessed the situation. Whom should she send for? Miss Galworthy, perhaps: she was unflappable and much nearer in age to Miss Sandborn than Miss Climpson was, which might make it easier to gain her trust. If there were rooms to be had, Miss Galworthy should be placed in the boarding-house, although she must pretend not to know Miss Climpson. There would need to be others, too, taking it in turn to sit in the library when Miss Sandborn was working and discreetly shadowing her steps when she was not. Miss Mason and Miss Halifax would be good at that, and perhaps two others? Miss Cooper and Miss Yardley—no, Miss Poindexter? She should write to them in the morning and tell them to be ready to travel at a moment’s notice.
Miss Climpson smiled to herself at the notion of one spinster being unwittingly guarded by a half-dozen others. It was certainly novel. She hoped it would also be effective.
Her journey proceeded smoothly, and she arrived at the boarding-house by mid-afternoon. Miss Vinton, the proprietess, eyed Miss Climpson closely before admitting that she did have rooms to let. She showed her two rooms, and Miss Climpson promptly claimed the larger of the two, because it was on the first floor and commanded an excellent view of the street. She paid for a week’s stay without demur, unpacked, and went downstairs to await the arrival of her assignment.
Miss Sandborn returned shortly before the evening meal. Miss Climpson, sitting quietly in a corner of a parlour serving as a public room and reception area, looked up briefly from her knitting to see Miss Vinton hand her a letter. Miss Climpson forced herself to look down at her work: she must not be seen to be watching. She dropped a stitch while listening closely to the sound of an envelope being torn open. Risking a brief glance upwards, she saw Miss Sandborn’s face crumple and heard the tiny cry of distress.
“Miss Sandborn, whatever is the matter?” said Miss Vinton. Miss Climpson noted with approval a genuine tone of concern.
“It’s my brother. He’s dead,” Miss Sandborn said, as if she couldn’t quite believe it. “Please excuse me, I believe I’ll go to my room for a bit.” She stumbled toward the stair as if her feet belonged to someone else entirely.
“So,” Miss Climpson thought, “Miss Sandborn is still alive and truly did not know of her brother’s death. She would have to be a superb actress to have given that performance.”
Other residents of the boarding-house began trickling in as the afternoon light faded. Miss Climpson went up to her room to put away her knitting, then came down for the evening meal, deliberately arriving after the others had chosen their accustomed seats. She gave them a polite greeting as she took an empty seat. Moments later, Miss Sandborn came in, apologizing for her tardiness. Miss Climpson glanced casually across the table and nearly dropped her soup spoon.
It was her. It was HER! One of the suspects, Lady Celia, was seated on the opposite side of the table, two places to Miss Climpson’s left. Her hair had been dyed an attractive shade of auburn, but it was unmistakeably Lady Celia. Miss Climpson let her gaze slide smoothly past Lady Celia to take in the rest of the table. Dimly, she realised that Miss Vinton was introducing her. She must concentrate!
“And this is Miss Leighton, who joined us only yesterday.”
Miss Climpson forced herself to indulge in the usual pleasantries, while trying to decide on a course of action. From what she understood of the case, Miss Sandborn was probably not in immediate danger. Surely “Miss Leighton” would not try to dispose of Miss Sandborn here, where she was known and her death would be noticed and brought to the attention of the authorities?
“And Miss Sandborn, who recently received some very sad news.”
At this, several ears around the table perked up. News of any kind is a welcome diversion in a boarding-house, and sad news doubly so, provided it is about someone else.
Hesitantly, Miss Sandborn shared the news of her brother’s death, while Miss Climpson thought it most unfair for Miss Vinton to have hinted at it. Then again, perhaps it was best the matter was spoken of openly, since it would undoubtedly have been spoken of in secret, otherwise.
Within minutes, all of the residents had expressed their sympathy and professed themselves to be entirely at Miss Sandborn’s disposal. “I suppose I shall have to go to London,” Miss Sandborn said, “although I’m not looking forward to it. It is so terribly large and unwelcoming and I rather dislike trains.”
“Then you must let me help you,” said Miss Leighton. “London doesn’t bother me at all, and I have a little car that could take us there most comfortably.”
Miss Climpson was greatly alarmed by this suggestion. She was certain that Miss Sandborn's body would turn up in a ditch or a remote forest if she accepted Miss Leighton’s offer. She must act, and at once!
“Forgive me if I’m speaking out of turn,” Miss Climpson said, turning to Miss Sandborn, “but since you intend to have your dear brother laid to rest here, beside his parents, it might not be necessary to go to London at all. When my younger brother passed, he was far away from home—on the Continent, in fact. I was able to make arrangements to have him and his belongings returned to us.”
Miss Sandborn turned a bewildered gaze on her as if such a possibility had never occurred to her. “I wouldn’t know where to begin. Could you advise me? I beg your pardon; I shouldn’t impose on you in that way...”
“It would be no trouble at all,” Miss Climpson assured her. “I should be glad to do whatever I can to ease your burden.” She resisted the impulse to look at Miss Leighton, even for a moment. It would be a dire mistake for Miss Climpson to give any hint that she was deliberately thwarting Lady Celia’s efforts. She must be disregarded as an elderly busybody trying to be helpful.
“Thank you. That’s extremely kind of you,” Miss Sandborn said.
The conversation drifted into other matters. Miss Climpson parried the inquiries of the other guests with the practised ease of one long accustomed to boarding-house life. She explained that she had come north for a “change of scene” and mentioned that she had previously resided with a nephew about to become a father for the first time. She contrived, through an artful arrangement of sighs, pauses, and half-finished statements, to give the impression that she was no longer wanted at home and was trying to make the best of it.
After dinner, she went out for a brief walk, ostensibly to wire her nephew to inform him of her safe arrival. Following Miss Vinton’s instructions, she went to the nearest post office and sent off the brief letter she’d penned:
My dear Lord Peter,
I have obtained lodgings in the boarding-house where Miss Sandborn resides! Miss Sandborn is a quiet woman, pleasant but reserved, and after observing her reaction to the news of her brother’s demise, I am thoroughly convinced that she could not possibly have ANYTHING to do with it!!! LADY CELIA IS HERE(!!!!!) and did her utmost to persuade Miss Sandborn to travel with her by car to London!! It is with great pleasure that I report I have persuaded her to REMAIN HERE!!! I eagerly await the prompt arrival of Chief-Inspector Parker!
Most sincerely yours,
Katharine Alexandra Climpson.
She also sent a telegram to Lord Peter and Chief-Inspector Parker:
SISTER SAFE. LADY CELIA HERE. PLEASE COME AT ONCE.
Having done this, she scurried back to the boarding-house, afraid that Lady Celia might have changed Miss Sandborn’s mind in her absence. All was quiet. She fetched her knitting, and sat in the parlour engaging in desultory conversation while knitting tiny socks for the imaginary great-nephew or great-niece soon to arrive.
If her bedtime prayers that night were a bit more earnest than usual, Miss Climpson could scarcely be faulted. A great weight rested on her thin shoulders. If Chief-Inspector Parker should not arrive tomorrow, what then? If she went to the local authorities, would they believe her? Mr. Parker had promised most faithfully to contact the York police and explain the situation in full, but had there been enough time for that? And it was one thing for him to tell them what had happened and quite another for them to believe him, much less an elderly spinster. She eventually slipped into a troubled slumber and dreamt she was a girl again, playing with her friends. She had a special balloon someone had given her and the other children were chasing her and laughing, but the balloon wore Miss Sandborn’s face and all of the children carried sharp pins and looked like Lady Celia.
Miss Climpson found herself much relieved to see Miss Sandborn at breakfast the following morning, even if she looked to have slept not much more than herself. Upon inquiry, Miss Sandborn admitted to having rested very poorly the previous night.
Miss Leighton was quick to capitalise on this admission. “Perhaps you should not go to work today, Miss Sandborn. A lie-in and a bit of fresh air might do you good. Why don’t you go back to bed and perhaps this afternoon I can take you out for a drive?”
Miss Sandborn stared at Miss Leighton, frowning slightly. It had snowed heavily in the night and the windowpanes were frosted over; hardly suitable weather for a pleasure drive. “Thank you, no. I believe I’ll stay in today.”
Whatever reply Miss Leighton might have made to this was lost in the commotion of the sudden arrival of a strange man accompanied by a police matron. Miss Climpson gave a little sigh of relief while doing her best not to look Mr. Parker in the eye.
Asked to state his business, he said, “I am Chief-Inspector Parker of Scotland Yard. I’m terribly sorry to disturb you, but I’ve come to arrest Lady Celia Dalrymple for the murder of Edward Sandborn.”
As Miss Sandborn fainted, Miss Climpson realised it was probably a good thing she’d already paid to stay the week. She had been sent to look after Miss Sandborn, and her work was far from over.
Harriet hesitated on the threshold of Holloway Gaol. She had never expected to return. The frightened, confused person who’d entered these gates as a prisoner seemed like a stranger to her now. The relieved but equally confused person who’d left these gates a free woman, thanks to the efforts of the man she now called husband, was equally unfamiliar. Still—the prospect of stepping inside and hearing the doors shut behind her brought her out in goose-flesh.
So much had happened in the past few weeks. Lady Celia’s arrest had caused a sensation in the press. They had been willing to minimize the inquest at Lord Dalrymple’s request, but this was no longer a matter of declining to expose the foibles of a young woman dead before her time. An earl’s daughter, believed to have been murdered, was a murderer herself, and her secret husband was the victim! Newspapers sold almost as quickly as they were printed.
The trial had been avidly followed. Harriet, of course, had been required to testify about the body in her boot, now known to have been Evelyn Waters. That, too, had been difficult—to step into the witness box, feeling once more under scrutiny as she explained how she had come to mistakenly identify the body as Lady Celia—but this time she had been believed, and dismissed with the judge’s thanks.
The most sensational moments of the trial occurred when Lady Celia gave her testimony. Crown Prosecutor Sir Harold Cockburn was a deceptively amiable young man. Under his skilful guidance, Lady Celia told a story of being abducted by mysterious unknown individuals. She’d made her escape and changed her appearance and name in fear for her life. Such was the power of her tale that more than a few sympathetic sighs were heard in the courtroom and the less-experienced reporters wondered why he seemed to be making the defence’s case for them.
Having established Lady Celia’s story, Sir Harold set to work. “Lady Celia, when you were first taken up, you denied your identity.”
“I was afraid.”
“Of a police inspector? I believe everyone in this court has had a chance to observe Chief-Inspector Parker. One would scarcely call him a menacing individual.”
“It was different then. I’d been running for so very long.”
“Actually, Lady Celia, my understanding is that you’d been driving. You had a car in York, did you not?”
“And it was not the car you’d abandoned at the hotel?”
“No, it wasn’t.”
“When did you obtain this car?”
“I… I don’t recall.”
“I believe I can help you there. I have a witness prepared to testify that you purchased the car from him in North London last May. How did you know in May that you would need a second vehicle?”
“I didn’t. I just had the car.”
“A second car. Just as you had a second flat. And instead of going to the authorities after you’d escaped your kidnappers, instead of informing your grieving parents that you were not dead, you got into your second car and drove away?”
“I was very frightened at the time. I couldn’t really say what I was thinking.”
“Why did you not contact your husband after you escaped these unknown kidnappers?”
“I have no husband.” At this, there was a great commotion in the courtroom.
“Was not my husband. I never met him.”
“You shared a flat as husband and wife. I could summon many witnesses who saw you together as a couple.”
“They are mistaken, or lying. It must have been some sort of scheme to blackmail me.”
At this, Sir Harold produced a document. “This, I believe is a marriage-license for Edward Tristan Sandborn and Lady Celia Augusta Dalrymple.”
Lady Celia regarded the paper disdainfully. “That’s not my signature.”
Sir Harold smiled. “You are quite correct, Lady Celia; it is not. It is a forgery. I will shortly produce a witness testifying to that effect. I can also bring witnesses to testify that the woman who married Edward Sandborn in your name was Beatrice Mudge, also known as Evelyn Waters. This, however,” he said, producing another document, “is your signature. It is a will, signed by you, leaving all you have to Edward Sandborn, a man you claim not to know.”
Lady Celia hesitated, then said, “That’s not my signature, either.”
“I have an expert witness who will say that it is, and that you also signed the insurance documents where you were described as Edward Sandborn’s wife. The solicitor who wrote out the will you signed remembers you clearly and is also prepared to testify.”
Now there was frustration and apprehension in Lady Celia’s face, and a great murmuring in the courtroom. The judge called for silence, then Sir Harold continued, “We have heard evidence that Mr. Sandborn was poisoned with digitalis, which is derived from foxglove. The police found poisonous plants growing in your second flat. One of them was foxglove. Dried foxglove was found in a tea-tin in your second flat and in Edward Sandborn’s flat.”
“I wouldn’t know anything about that.”
“Actually, I suspect you know a great deal about that, as the same poisonous substance was found in a small tin in your room at the boarding-house in York.”
“I often take herbal tea for headache.”
“Lady Celia, I am prepared to call an expert who will testify that a single cup of this particular tea could have cured your headache in a most permanent fashion. Must we continue this farce?”
And still she would not yield. Sir Harold called all of the promised witnesses, and their testimony supported his claims. Despite Sir Impey Biggs’ finest histrionics on behalf of the defence, the jury returned a guilty verdict in less than an hour.
Harriet realised with some embarrassment that she’d been wool-gathering while standing there on the pavement. “Sir Impey. I hadn’t expected you to meet me.”
“I wanted a word with you before you go in.” Sir Impey hesitated as his glance drifted away to the Daimler where Lord Peter sat, patiently waiting. “I have defended many clients over the course of my career. On the morning of his execution, one of them told me he'd believed he could convince someone of anything, so long as he was allowed to keep speaking. The stories he had told in the past were irrelevant; the possibility that his words could be disproven in the future mattered not; winning the moment was all.
“Lady Celia strongly reminds me of that client. I do not know why she asked to speak to you. On rare occasions, I have had condemned clients who sincerely wished to apologise to those whom they had wronged. More often, I find, they offer information about their crimes in a last-minute attempt to postpone the inevitable or because they seek sympathy or notoriety.”
“And you believe Lady Celia is the latter sort?”
“I do. If she chooses to confess her crimes to you, she will do so for her benefit, not yours.”
“My husband once said that most confessions are full of lies and self-pity.”
“Lord Peter is indeed a man of the world. Be wary, my lady. Poison appears to be Lady Celia’s weapon of choice, and plants are not the only thing which can be toxic.”
“You think I ought not to go in?”
“I cannot presume to answer that question for another. I will only repeat this advice: be wary. She will attempt to use your words, as well as her own, to manipulate you. Give nothing away. Show no especial interest in anything. Every time you speak, you are possibly handing her a weapon.”
Harriet nodded gravely, thanked Sir Impey for his counsel, and steadily walked toward the entrance of Holloway Gaol.
“Lady Peter. How kind of you to come,” said Lady Celia, as Harriet stepped into a barren interview room. How strange it felt to be in this room once again, and to sit on the vistor’s side of the table!
“Sir Impey Biggs said that you’d asked to speak to me. I saw no reason to refuse.”
“Do sit down. I suppose you wonder why I’ve asked you to come.”
Harriet took a chair, thinking to herself that Sir Impey had been right. Lady Celia was already trying to dominate the conversation by behaving as if Harriet were a guest or subordinate.
“I expect you’ll tell me, in time.”
To Harriet’s satisfaction, Lady Celia frowned slightly, and hesitated. Apparently, she’d expected Harriet to beg for information.
“Don’t you want to know why I did it? I thought all writers of detective fiction were curious about that sort of thing. Has your new husband forced you to give up your work?”
“Not at all. The joint novel I was working on in Hastings has been sent to the publishers and I’ve just begun another Robert Templeton mystery. It’s true that my readers would be dissatisfied without a thorough explanation of a murderer’s motives, but I recognise that is not always possible in real life.”
“Then you don’t want to hear about the first person I killed?”
For an instant, Harriet almost blurted out, “Miss Horton?” but she caught herself in time. “That is entirely up to you, Lady Celia.”
“It wasn’t that wretched Beatrice—Evelyn, I mean. It was someone I knew at University. I didn’t mean her to die, of course.”
“She had a bad heart, and I took one of her bottles of medicine. I assumed she would think it lost and immediately get another, but the little fool never noticed. Cost her her life.”
“And the medicine? Did you require it for something?”
“I thought it would be useful to have, and it was. At first, I thought of it as insurance.”
“Insurance?” Harriet echoed.
“Daddy was being quite tiresome at the time about my marrying Lord Enderton’s eldest son and I didn’t care for him at all. I thought I might need the medicine to make away with myself.”
“Only I didn’t use it for that.” Lady Celia’s eyes took on a queer gleam. “There was a boy from Brasenose who wouldn’t let me alone. We’d been out a time or two and he’d been a bit of fun, but I wasn't interested in him any more and he wouldn’t go away, so I… well, you can guess,” she said, looking at Harriet intently.
“You helped him go away,” Harriet suggested. “Permanently.”
“Exactly! You do understand! Well, that worked fairly well, only then I hadn’t got any more medicine. It took me a while to grow the plants—I’d never messed about with gardening before, so my first attempt to grow foxglove was a dismal failure—but I soon figured it out.”
“And then I made my plan. By this time, I’d long since gone down from Oxford and Daddy was becoming terribly insistent about my finding a suitable husband. So I began looking.”
“Can’t you guess? For someone to take my place. It took months and months for me to find Evelyn. She didn’t always get work as a chorus girl, so she sometimes worked as a mannequin, and that’s where I first saw her—modeling clothes. We wore the same size and were about the same height with the same colouring, so it was perfect. In the meantime, I’d met Edward and found him ideal for what I had in mind. He was good at disguises and at taking care of things, so long as someone else made the plan and I’d already taken care of that.”
Here, Lady Celia paused, as if expecting some sort of comment, so Harriet said, “I see. What happened next?”
“You are interested, aren’t you!”
“You tell a good story.”
“Well, I told Edward to go along and meet Evelyn to see if he could seduce her. She was completely taken in by him and before long he said to her, ‘I used to go about with this woman who’s got an earl for a father, and her family must be rolling in it. Let’s blackmail her. Let's go up to Scotland and get married, only you pretend you're her. I'll shuttle along afterwards and tell her father that he'll have to pay to keep the marriage quiet. He'd be horrified if his Society friends found out his daughter had married an actor. It will be a laugh to watch him squirm and we'll be rich.’ ”
“What did Evelyn say?”
“She was greedy as well as thick, so when Edward said, ‘Let’s blackmail her,’ she agreed. So they toddled up to Gretna Green and got married, only she was pretending to be me. He didn’t blackmail anyone, of course, but Edward told her that he'd tried it on but my father had told him to go to blazes.”
“And then what?”
“Well, I’d already had this brainwave about the car park, so one day Edward said to her, ‘Let’s go away for the weekend’ and they took a car—the one I had in York, actually—down to Hastings. And when he got there, he said, ‘I have an idea. A friend told me Lady Celia would be staying here this weekend. Let’s sneak into the car park and make love in her car.’ ”
“Surely Evelyn was suspicious? Or jealous, perhaps?”
“I don’t know; Edward never said. What I do know is that late that night, they used a hook and a rope to climb up a bus shelter and down into the car park. And they made love in my car, then he strangled her. I wish I’d seen it.”
Harriet swallowed convulsively and said, “And then?”
“He dressed her in my clothes—I’d had a duplicate made of the outfit you saw at the signing and left it in my boot in a satchel—and put my ring on her finger and wiped off her nail varnish. I was most impressed that you noticed that, by the way. I'd known the nails would be a problem—she always had hers done in the most vulgar style—so I put some acetone and rags in my boot, along with the petrol and water.”
“What about the ring?”
“What about it?” Lady Celia said, cocking her head to one side.
“How did Edward come by it?”
Harriet began to feel the conversation was slipping away from her, but she said, “You contrived a meeting at some time after the signing. Perhaps you were in disguise and had agreed to meet at a public house in a nearby village.”
“Excellent. You do have the makings of a murderess. So Edward tidied up using the things I'd left in my boot, then gathered up the acetone, which most people wouldn't carry around in their car, and the rags, and Evelyn's clothing and shoes. My God, that woman had the most hideous footwear. I wouldn't be caught dead in them, so I wasn’t, ha ha! Anyway, he gathered everything up, put it in the satchel, climbed out of the car park, and went back to London, thinking that all he’d have to do is wait. My body would be found—well, Evelyn’s body—I’d be declared dead, and he’d inherit and collect the insurance money. And I did consider allowing things to happen that way at first, but I dislike untidiness.”
“And Edward was an untidy end.”
“Very much so. So I made him a cup of my special tea and left the rest in a tin, on the off chance that the first cup didn’t work. It’s not instantaneous, you know. Well, perhaps it would have been for Miss Horton. And then I traveled for a bit, waiting to see what was in the papers. Once I read about the inquest, I went to York to find Edward’s sister. She knew nothing about any of it, which made her the perfect foil. All I had to do was wait for her to inherit and collect the insurance money and then she would go on holiday with her new friend, Miss Leighton. Only, of course, neither of them would ever return. I’d take Miss Sandborn’s name and money and go to Canada.”
“But it didn’t happen that way,” said Harriet.
“It didn’t. I don’t understand how they found me so quickly. I say, you haven’t asked who Miss Horton is.”
Harriet was tempted to reply that she knew perfectly well who Miss Horton was, having already heard the story of the missing medicine, but Sir Impey’s warning stilled her tongue. She also forbore to elaborate on Miss Climpson’s role in apprehending her and on Lord Peter’s role in dispatching Miss Climpson to York. Instead, all she said was, “I suppose I haven’t. Tell me, why didn't you go to Canada in the first place? It would have been much simpler and you already had the trust from your great-aunt.”
“It's not much money,” Lady Celia grumbled. “Not nearly enough to have fun on. And I couldn't get any money from Daddy unless I married some dreadful wart, and if I poisoned him, Daddy would probably want me to marry again, and again, and I didn't want that, so I had to have the insurance money. Surely you understand?”
This, then, must be what Lady Celia had wanted. To be understood. To be told her actions had been clever and eminently reasonable. Harriet sighed in bewilderment and said, “I can't say that I do.”
Lady Celia’s expression turned petulant. “You imagine you’re clever; don’t you? Poncing about with that fool of a lord. Do you like your cage? Do you? You’ll never get out, same as me. At least my death will be quick, while you’ll be trapped there, year after year. You’re not one of us and people won’t accept you.”
Harriet remembered what Lady Mary had once told her and said, “That’s possibly true, but I would rather be with my husband than anywhere else.”
“You fool. You're all fools. You never even guessed what I’d done. And that sister—that whey-faced nothing—I’m glad she’ll get nothing from me.”
Harriet found herself on the verge of contradicting Lady Celia, but held her tongue with a great effort of will. “So I see. Good-bye, Lady Celia.” She stood up and left the room while Celia was still shouting at her.
“She made a complete confession,” Harriet told Lord Peter as she got into the Daimler.
“Was it beastly?”
“I wouldn’t say so. She’s definitely mad, though. And convinced she had us all completely fooled.”
“How did she reconcile that belief with her presence in gaol?” Lord Peter asked.
“I didn’t ask. Just as I said nothing when she claimed Miss Sandborn will inherit nothing from her.”
“That might be true. She and Edward made a false statement by claiming to be husband and wife when they applied for those insurance policies. The company may refuse to pay on those grounds.”
“True, but there’s always the trust she had from Lady Marjorie. If I remember correctly, Edward Sandborn was the only person mentioned in her will. There was no provision made for the possibility that he might die first.”
“True. Murbles would not have approved of such a slipshod document. But would that will be valid? Oh, it would, wouldn’t it? Harriet, you clever thing! The will doesn’t call him her husband, does it? She used the word ‘beloved’.”
Harriet nodded. “I thought it sounded rather goopy at the time, but it was a deliberate evasion on her part. Even if the forgery on the marriage-license was discovered, Edward would still inherit. Lady Celia would still have had the trust money she’d started with, if she stayed with Edward or succeeded in impersonating his sister.”
“Which means Edward’s estate will inherit when she’s executed,” said Lord Peter. “Did you tell her? She still has time to change her will.”
“I didn’t. Let poor Miss Sandborn reap a little happiness from this misery.”
“Is that what this has been to you? A misery?” Lord Peter said, looking anxious.
“No. I would call it an illumination. And I can see you worrying again about whether I regret marrying a duke’s son. I don’t,” Harriet said, and kissed him soundly to prove it.
A King's Counsel alighting from a taxi saw them embracing and mistook them for a couple celebrating a long-awaited reunion. He smiled and wondered whether the just-released prisoner would make a go of her new life. He rather hoped so.