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False Pretences

Chapter Text

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.”

“Ah.”

“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.

“Yes?”

“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.”

“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.”

“And?”

“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.