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False Pretences

Chapter Text

 

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.