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False Pretences

Chapter Text

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.