The Errant Killer
The superintendent had plenty of time to study the houses in the immediate vicinity: the barouche was going very, very slowly. Although the sun was shining, as yet it was giving off no warmth. Spring had reached London only a few days earlier, and although one could feel it in the air, a warming blanket over the legs was a wise precaution.
The horse stopped in front of a house that differed from those around it by nothing but the colour of its paintwork. This was a predominantly middle-class district populated by small businessmen, civil servants, the better-off staff of banks and multinational companies, and many small-scale rentiers.
But the superintendent’s destination was an exception to this. Although the house’s occupants were of the middle class in terms of their property, they had taken a fall from the upper. This terraced house in a quiet, rather dull street was the residence of a real lord, Sir William Port Grace-Harding. And the reason for the superintendent’s calling at his ‘seat’ was not social. It was murder.
The superintendent stepped from the barouche, passed through a tiny front garden and mounted five steps to reach the door. From a distance the house had looked slightly shabby, yet it had retained a certain antique charm. At close range it was poverty with a fresh coat of paint. His Lordship’s comings and goings through this door must have depressed, perhaps even humiliated him.
The superintendent lifted the knocker and – with great caution, as if fearing to inflict damage – gave three raps on the door, which opened immediately.
“Please come in, sir,” chirruped the maid, who looked as though she didn’t belong there. She was wearing a spotless, freshly starched apron and a pleasant smile. “The constable is waiting for you at the end of the hall.”
“Thank you,” said the superintendent, unconsciously returning her smile. Then he made his way down the hall and through the house.
A tall, thin officer introduced himself. “Constable Sandler, sir.”
“Superintendent Morrell. Good morning, constable.”
The constable cleared his throat while gesturing at the floor behind him.
“Is this your first murder?”
“Yes, superintendent, I’m afraid it is. Good morning to you, too, sir, although we can’t say the same for him.”
Routinely the superintendent bent over the corpse. The victim, who was lying on his front, was a grey-haired man in late middle age. He was wearing the kind of tailcoat worn only by servants and butlers. There was a large knife protruding from under his left shoulder.
“It seems that the perpetrator surprised him from behind. I see no signs of a struggle.”
The constable nodded.
“Do we know who he is?”
"Yes, sir. His name is James During. He was His Lordship’s butler.”
“And where is His Lordship?”
“In the drawing room on the first floor. They’re all there.”
“Whom do you mean by ‘all’?”
“His Lordship, His Lordship’s wife Lady Annabel, Lady Annabel’s baroness sister Victoria Anna, and His Lordship’s son, also called William Arthur Grace-Harding. And their maid.”
“The one who opened the door to me?”
“No, superintendent. We borrowed her from the neighbours.”
“I see. I could tell straight away that she didn’t belong here.”
“We’ve gathered all the suspects, meaning those who were in the house overnight, in the drawing room, under the supervision of one of our officers.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Has the coroner been yet?”
“Yes. The cause of death is quite obvious, so we’re more concerned with the time the crime was committed. According to the coroner the butler was killed yesterday between eleven and twelve p.m.”
“So he might have happened upon a thief.”
“Perhaps,” the constable conceded. “But if so, it was nobody local.”
“It’s general knowledge throughout the neighbourhood that His Lordship is penniless, I suppose.”
“Indeed, sir. It’s also well known in the criminal underworld.”
“So non-local thieves are out of the reckoning, too, eh?”
“In these parts everyone knows everyone else. A stranger would be spotted immediately. In any case, he wouldn’t come to a house like this in search of a rich nobleman. But it can’t be ruled out entirely, of course.”
The superintendent began slowly to look around. “What do you know about the dead man?”
“Not much, superintendent. Although he was in His Lordship’s service for many years, he kept himself to himself. In this he was like his master – he rather looked down on other servants in the neighbourhood who served only ‘ordinary people’.”
“His Lordship behaves in such a way to his neighbours?”
“He ignores them. He is perfectly proper, but he has nothing to do with them. He leaves the house as seldom as possible. As far as I know, he goes to a club that is not in this district and sometimes all of them drive out of London.”
“Might the butler have had enemies?”
The constable shrugged. “As I said, no one much cared for him, but I’d be surprised if anyone wanted to murder him.”
“What does His Lordship live off? How does he pay a butler and a maid? And it must cost something to maintain this house.”
“His Lordship has a small estate somewhere north of London. From what I hear, it’s not much more than a small farm. There’s a tenant there, but how much money it brings in, I’ve no idea. Not much, I suppose. A lady who lives across the street says that when they come back they always bring eggs, vegetables, sometimes even potatoes. So at least a part of the payment they receive is likely to be in kind.”
“I’m starting to feel almost sorry for His Lordship.”
“It’s an old family, mentioned in the oldest chronicles. There were times when they were very close to the royal family. His Lordship’s ancestors held many important offices.”
“Sad indeed. But it brings us no closer to our murderer.”
“Indeed not, sir. I should add that as far I know, His Lordship retains one permanent source of income.”
“Many years ago he lent his name to a certain whisky.”
“Of course! I was sure I knew the name from somewhere! Lord Harding whisky, eh?”
“You know it, sir?”
“I’ve heard of it, constable.”
“I once had occasion to drink it, sir. It was disgusting.”
“That bad, eh?”
The constable frowned. “It is. At least it was. Six months ago the distillery got a new owner. Who knows, maybe it’s better now.”
“So His Lordship gave his name to a second-rate spirit for the money, did he?”
“Undoubtedly, sir. It’s not even sold in this country, it’s for export to the colonies, where apparently it sells quite well. Thanks to His Lordship’s name. The natives love the feeling that they’re drinking something enjoyed by the aristocracy in Merrie Olde England.”
“While an Englishman would be so repelled by it he’d pour it down the toilet.”
“Where’s the distillery?”
“Not far from here. Down by the river.”
“Very well, constable. Pay them a visit and make an appointment for me with the new owner.”
“Meanwhile I’ll have a look around the house and exchange a few words with His Lordship and his family.”
“I should warn you, sir, that as yet I’ve failed to get a word out of them. They’re all as lofty as the leather bindings on the Encyclopaedia Britannica.”
The superintendent gave the constable a long, somewhat desperate look, letting him know that this was a case he could have done without. Then he waved a hand in resignation and set off on his tour of inspection.
Superintendent Morrell began his inspection in the company of the maid borrowed from across the street. His sole plan was to absorb the atmosphere of the crime scene. There was not a great deal to see: the house really was rather small. The ground floor comprised – apart from the entrance hall – only technical facilities, storerooms, a kitchen, and two small servant’s rooms. The whole of the first floor was taken up with a large drawing room and a small bathroom and toilet. On the second floor the lords and ladies had their rooms, which were little bigger than cupboards. The superintendent’s more or less perfunctory tour took him through the ground floor and then the second. On the first floor he at last prepared to enter the drawing room. The supervising policeman returned his salutation before opening the large, heavily ornamented glass door, then obligingly closing it behind him.
“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. I have been charged by the Chief Constable of Police to investigate this case. My name is Superintendent Rupert Morrell.”
To his surprise this announcement provoked no response. So thick was the silence in the drawing room, one could have cut it with a knife. His Lordship stood motionless at the fireplace. The ladies and the young gentleman were seated in deep club armchairs. The maid was standing by the window. All gave the impression of waxwork figures from Madame Tussaud’s museum.
“I would like to ask you a few questions.”
The only one to react to this was the maid, who winced slightly as if touched and turned her head to the window and the street beyond it. None of the others moved.
“Shortly before midnight yesterday James the butler was murdered. By the back door of the house. At that time all of you were in the house. Your statements on the matter are of great importance to me.”
Even now no one moved.
The superintendent thought it necessary to demand their attention by raising his voice. “A murder has been committed in your house!”
“Do you mean to say that we are under suspicion, superintendent?” said Her Ladyship, having roused herself.
Morrell didn’t care one jot for their hostile attitude. He decided to get tough.
“That’s right, Your Ladyship.”
“Did you hear that?” twittered Her Ladyship. The beginnings of a smile appeared on her face. “The superintendent suspects us.”
Now the others, too, were inclined to smile.
“You, for instance, Your Ladyship. Did you have a motive for the murder?”
“Naturally, superintendent. James was always making a mess of the tea, he kept confusing the titles of our guests, he never put the post in order of importance, date or colour, and his Scottish accent was an assault on the eardrums.”
“And he had no interest in cricket,” said the young man in support of his mother. “Whenever I asked him how our chaps were getting on, he could never say. Would you yourself not have killed such a man?”
“I can confirm all this,” said His Lordship. “He was awfully unsociable. He didn’t even bother with the Butlers’ Club.”
“Two days ago I asked for some thread,” said Her Ladyship’s sister, adding her tuppenceworth. “His tardiness was shameful.”
“Thread?” asked the superintendent, wide-eyed.
“Why, of course. I’ve made no progress on my embroidery for two whole days.”
“I reminded him about it several times,” said the maid keenly.
“He was unsuitable, you know.”
“He was what?”
“Unsuitable for these surroundings.”
The superintendent rubbed his nose gently. “Do you understand that murder is a capital offence?”
At that they all burst into laughter. Laughter? This was a veritable explosion of merriment.
“Murder is a capital offence!” Obviously disconcerted by their reactions, Morrell was repeating himself.
“You think we don’t know what punishment is? We’re imprisoned in this house. Within these four walls.”
“James is dead. Stiff as a board! Do you understand? And it’s my job to find out who killed him.” By trying to regain control of the situation, the superintendent succeeded only in increasing the overall merriment. “You,” he pointed to the maid, who continued to laugh for a few moments before pulling herself together.
“I think that Jim killed him, she said.”
“Three-fingered Jim. Jim Stuart. Hanged himself by his long johns in this very room. A hundred and fifty years ago. Been haunting the place ever since.”
“Of course! Old Jim!” His Lordship chimed in. The others nodded in agreement.
The superintendent looked around, helpless. And there was no help to be found.
“There’s a clue,” beamed Her Ladyship. “The murderer is the one wearing long johns.”
Her Ladyship’s sister expanded on this thought. “Unless he’s dispensed with the evidence already and is missing his underclothes.”
“You’re going to have to search us,” Her Ladyship rejoiced. “Let me be first.”
“Don’t scare the superintendent,” spluttered His Lordship. “Or he’ll run away and we’ll have to look for the culprit ourselves.”
“Did none of you hear anything suspicious in the night?” said Morrell in an attempt to get on with his work.
“Do you mean CRASH! BANG! or something like a thud?” replied the young gentleman.
“A scream, for instance.”
“James would never have screamed. At most he would have countered, ‘Now that, sir, is too much!’ ”
“Someone killed him! Tell me you understand!” shrieked the superintendent, surprising even himself.
“We know that, superintendent.”
“The question is who.”
“We all of us had a motive,” confessed His Lordship. “Thread, cricket, post in a mess. You’re going to have to choose.”
“You could do eeny-meeny-miny-mo,” Her Ladyship added. There followed another salvo of laughter.
“Perhaps we all killed him,” improvised the son. “But that’s nonsense, of course – he’d have looked like a pincushion. I think my aunt killed him. Because of the thread. One look at her embroidery would be enough to drive me to murder.”
His aunt grimaced at this. “The maid killed him, so that she could do the work of two,” she said.
The maid was obviously enjoying the situation: for the first and probably last time in her life she was on an equal footing with her masters. “I think it was suicide,” she said.
The superintendent could not believe his ears. “You mean to say he stabbed himself in the back, just below the left shoulder?”
“Why not? He practised yoga.” This was followed by a massive explosion of laughter.
“I suppose I shall have to take everyone’s fingerprints,” said the superintendent, his tone resigned.
His Lordship was quick to agree to this. “Of course, superintendent. But I shall want mine back. I have only one set, you see.”
“Who in this room was the last to see him alive?”
“The murderer, I expect.” This comment almost caused a riot.
Her Ladyship stood up. “For goodness’ sake, superintendent, arrest someone! Give us someone to envy!”
“Come on!” her sister joined in. “You have a body, a murder weapon and a house full of people without an alibi.”
“So he does!” said His Lordship. “Hercule Poirot would have had the culprit long before now.”
The superintendent was at his wit’s end. Although he could have expected many things of this company, the last exchange had thrown him quite off-balance.
“Perhaps the superintendent here killed him.”
“To give himself a case to solve.”
“But he doesn’t know how to catch himself.”
“Or prove his own guilt.”
The superintendent flapped his arms in a hopeless attempt to restore calm. “Has anyone ever told you that you’re a bunch of lunatics?”
This question showed itself to be his most amusing yet. The situation and its actors were now bereft of all seriousness. In chorus the suspects indulged in a belly laugh of the most raucous type. Standing in the midst of an apocalypse, the superintendent did not know how to go on. He was saved by the opening of the door and the appearance of the officer on guard.
“Could you spare a moment, superintendent?”
The superintendent muttered, “I’ll be back”, which provoked another gale of mirth.
On joining the constable on the ground floor, the superintendent said, “It’s incredible how much fun they’re getting out of James’s death.”
“I could hear it from here, superintendent.”
“It seems the chap never smiled in his life, was a dreadful killjoy, a knight of the order the bad mood and a slave to his grumpiness. But his death has some weird meaning in this house that I can’t get to the bottom of.”
“There’s nothing criminal about that, sir.”
“So what have you got for me, constable?”
“The murderer. Your intuition was right, sir. When I got to the distillery I found Mr Collins, the new owner, sitting in his office. He was quite beside himself and covered in blood.”
“Is he our killer?”
“Yes, sir. He confessed straight away and was obviously relieved to do so.”
“Money. But the death was a mistake.”
The constable reached into a large bag and pulled out a framed photograph. “Lady Grace-Harding and James in front of the distillery. Taken at a party of some kind. The former owner had it hanging on the wall of his office. The new owner has never met His Lordship. His contract stipulates that he must pay His Lordship a large share of his profits for as long as His Lordship is alive. He decided to kill him but mistook the man in the picture with Her Ladyship for His Lordship.”
“So we have our killer.”
"But it wasn’t as easy as he’d imagined. One wonders whether he’ll ever recover his wits.”
“Thank you, constable. Excellent work. You get things packed away here and I’ll go up and say my goodbyes. I don’t want to run away with my tail between my legs even though I’ve half a mind to.”
“I understand, superintendent. Those upstairs don’t treat you as their equal.”
When the superintendent returned to the drawing room the party was still in full swing. They were all standing in a circle in the centre of the room, chattering and laughing.
“Are you having a good time?”
“Never better, superintendent. So have you made your choice? Or should we draw straws for it?”
“I just came to say goodbye.”
“You mean you’re not going to arrest us?”
“I’m sorry to have to spoil your fun. The culprit has been apprehended and my work here is at an end.”
The babble and laughter died. They all froze, as if the life had gone out of them.
“It was nice to meet you and I hope that my presence in this house will never again be required.”
His Lordship was the first to recover.
“Thank you, superintendent, for the propriety and tact with which you have conducted this investigation,” he said in a chilling voice. He gave not the slightest hint of emotion. None of the others moved.
The superintendent turned on his heel and headed for the exit, leaving silence in his wake. A suffocating silence. On reaching the door he turned back and beheld again the frozen scene, his eyes resting in particular on His Lordship, trying in vain to meet his gaze. His Lordship did not even twitch.
“Would you not like to know, sir, who killed James and why?”
“No thank you, superintendent, there’s no need for that. I’ll read about it tomorrow. In my Times.”
|© Jan Váchal