A scream. The sharp clatter of a dropped tea service. The sound of soft sobs. A rush of footsteps up the stairs. The sight of a dead body. And then, silence.
“It’s murder, sir,” PC Connors spoke.
DCI Whitcomb eyed the constable wearily, sighing inwardly. He was tired already, and they had just arrived at the scene of a particularly bloody crime.
“For future reference, if we ever come across the body of an old lady sitting at her writing desk with a knife through her neck, let’s take it as read that it’s murder, Connors.” DCI Whitcomb sat in a chair and surveyed the room.
“Where is WPC Sanders? I need her eyes up here,” Whitcomb muttered the last sentence under his breath. He was a man who appreciated a woman on the police force, for she would often have a point of view that he would never see. She was certainly good at her job. She took excellent photographs, a new thing in police work. She also did a fine job with fingerprints, although Whitcomb had reservations about their usefulness.
WPC Sanders struggled through the door, laden with equipment. No one offered to assist her. She had learned not to ask. With brisk movements, she set up the equipment and started taking photographs. Whitcomb didn’t need to be there for this, but he stayed anyway. Connors stood by the door, shifting from foot to foot. DCI Whitcomb sighed again, this time audibly.
“Connors. Make yourself useful for once and gather the family downstairs. And make sure that blasted butler is there too.” Whitcomb didn’t like the fish-eyed butler at all. He looked suspicious. Why he looked suspicious was anyone’s guess, but Whitcomb had taken an instant dislike to the man.
Whitcomb poked around the old lady’s room for a few minutes, taking mental notes and nodding his head a few times. Sanders carried on silently. She knew better than to interject her thoughts, but she also knew that she would be asked about her views on the case in due time.
Satisfied, Whitcomb left the room, instructing Sanders to “get a wriggle on” and then meet him downstairs. Whitcomb tested the hallways and the stairs on his way down. Solid, every square inch. Anyone could creep about up here and not be heard, he mused.
The old lady had two sons and one daughter, all of whom lived with their now-deceased mother in the mansion. The three progeny were all sitting, and they seemed nervous to Whitcomb. Naturally, he thought. One of them is a killer.
“I need to interview all of you, separately. Once I have finished, I will send you back in here. There is to be no conversing between yourselves until I have finished. PC Connors will be here to make sure that you abide by my directive.”
“I say!” One of the men stood up, a small frown on his face and a rather large whiskey in his hand.
“The law,” Whitcomb said severely, “requires this, sir.”
The man sat down and said nothing more, but his face showed his displeasure. The woman scoffed, either at her brother’s reaction or the DCI’s statements. One just couldn’t be sure.
DCI Whitcomb pointed at the man who had stood up, gesturing for him to approach with the crook of his forefinger.
“You first, sir.”
The questioning went along normal, well-worn lines. Whitcomb saw no need to alter what had always worked. You found out where everyone was during the crime, you looked for corroboration, and you noted any strange behavior.
The stories were distressingly similar. Not to put too fine a point on it, the stories were exact. Everyone was downstairs, eating breakfast when the maid discovered the body. No one had seen their mother since 10:00 the night before. All retired to bed at roughly the same time, a little after midnight. The butler and the head housekeeper, a married couple who had worked for the murdered woman for over 30 years, retired to their rooms a little before midnight. All the door and windows had been shut and locked.
DCI Whitcomb leaned back and sighed. He had had to deal with two murders in his 30-year career before this one, and they had been straightforward. The guilty parties had been easily nabbed, the evidence had been plentiful, and the convictions had been a foregone conclusion. He thought of the men who had been hanged because of his efforts. He could still see them swinging slightly from their final earthly judgment at the end of a rope. With a slight shudder, he returned to his task.
“It’s a nasty business, sir,” PC Connors spoke up. Once again, he was standing in a doorway, shifting from foot to foot nervously. Whitcomb looked at him with some slight irritation. The man had a positive talent for stating the obvious.
“Why don’t you go get yourself a cuppa, see if the staff have anything to say about it all. Take your time, Connors. Maybe have a biscuit or two,” Whitcomb said. The sarcasm in his voice was completely lost on Connors.
Connors lost no time in doing so. The detective chief inspector made him nervous at the best of times, but on this case, he seemed positively put out. Besides, he was feeling a bit peckish and could do with a nice cup of tea and a bite to eat.
“Well, he’s good to have around when we need some muscle,” WPC Sanders commented graciously.
“Ha! And that’s all he’s good for. Still, he’s a good lad,” Whitcomb said. Whitcomb winced at the thought of Connors becoming a detective chief inspector in the future. The man had no business running an investigation. WPC Sanders would be a far better candidate, but she was a woman, and she would not get the chance to advance beyond her current status.
Whitcomb and Sanders went through the bedrooms of the siblings, and that of the butler and his wife as well, but success was limited. It would have been nice to find some bloody clothes tucked away somewhere, but this murderer wasn’t as obliging as the other killers he had faced in his career.
The evening was fast approaching on this October night. Soon, the sun would disappear and the night would be cold. It might even snow, Whitcomb thought. While he didn’t relish the thought of being stranded here, he also didn’t want to leave and allow a killer to escape. Whitcomb had the butler make up a bedroom for him. The man blinked rapidly behind his glasses and hesitated slightly before nodding and doing as he was told. Suspicious, Whitcomb thought again.
Whitcomb sent the other two home, instructing Sanders to develop the photographs and bring them back early in the morning. Connors was to fill the car’s tank with petrol and make sure the vehicle was equipped to deal with a tire puncture. Connor may not be a great copper but he was good with cars.
As he settled in for the night, Whitcomb thought of the suspects. They all had motive, and he knew that one of them had to be the murderer. The butler and his wife knew more than they were letting on, but they were guilty of no bigger a crime than loyalty to the family. The kitchen staff and maids were tight-lipped as well, but Whitcomb was sure that they knew nothing of the murder of old Mrs. Ainsley. Even the gardeners and the handy men had precious little to say about it all, probably because they had nothing of import to tell. Whitcomb sighed and turned out the light.
Whitcomb was up early the next morning, well before the three Ainsley siblings. He wandered into the kitchen to see about getting a cup of tea. He found Connors there, chatting amiably with the cook and the maids. They all quickly scraped back their chairs and stood up when Whitcomb entered.
Whitcomb waved his hand, gesturing for them to all sit down. He gave Connors an appreciative nod of the head. The man was not lazy, he thought.
“WPC Sanders is in the library, sir. She has those photographs,” Connors said. Whitcomb patted him on the shoulder and told him to ‘carry on,’ by which he meant that Connors should continue to have a chat and a cuppa, staying out of Whitcomb’s way.
WPC Sanders did not stand when Whitcomb entered the library. She was studying the panoply of photographs that she had laid out across the ventral table in an impressively large library. Whitcomb was slightly stunned at the sheer size of the room and the thousands of books it contained. Rich folk, he mused, lived much differently than he did.
“Good morning, dad,” Sanders said as she continued to scan the photographs.
“I am DCI Whitcomb when we’re working, young lady. I am your loving and generous dad when we are off duty. You would do well to remember that,” Whitcomb said with some asperity. He loved his daughter, but he didn’t like that she had to see such a gruesome sight yesterday. It made him testy. He didn’t like having to tell his wife that their daughter had seen a dead body. It made him testy. He didn’t like that his daughter had to go home and tell her husband that she had seen more blood than anyone should have to see. It made him testy.
“Sorry, dad. Uh…DCI Whitcomb. Sir.” Sanders looked up and grinned at her father and her superior at work. She was not above a little needling.
“Enough with the pleasantries. What do you see in these pictures?”
Sanders stood up and directed Whitcomb to a set of photographs near her.
“You can see that the old lady was killed at the desk. No blood trail, just splatters and spray. Except in this one area. Very little blood.”
“So,” Whitcomb said.
“So, the killer cut through the jugular and the blood spurted on him,” Sanders said.
“I don’t think it was a woman,” Sanders said. “It takes some strength to get the knife completely through the neck.”
Whitcomb looked through the photographs and nodded.
“Let’s sit down, have some tea, and go through the evidence,” Whitcomb said.
“Right-o DCI Whitcomb. And maybe a biscuit. I’m famished,” Sanders said.
DC Connors was instructed not to interrupt the other two officers while they were locked away in the library. He was to continue the all-important work of chatting with the help. Connors nodded seriously and did as he was told. He was especially interested in chatting with the maid who had found old Mrs. Ainsley. She was young, pretty, and available.
“Your thoughts,” Whitcomb started.
“William Ainsley. The eldest. He and his brother Rupert have a consulting business. Legal experts, they call themselves. They have a scrubby little office off of the high street, and they consult two times a week. They bring in less money than you pay me,” Sanders said, grinning at her dad.
“The queen pays you,” he said.
“Right. So. They basically live off of their trust fund while living here for free.”
“Estella. She was married for twenty years. Husband died in a motor accident three years ago. She also has a trust fund. She also lives here for free.”
“I have a feeling that the mother didn’t want them here,” Whitcomb said.
“Probably true. Look at these photographs. The mother didn’t have a picture of any of her kids, but she has several of her late husband. The kids all have a picture of their mother. It’s the exact same picture. Someone had copies made of a photograph, stuck them in nice silver frames, and hey presto! Job done.”
“One of them is a murderer.”
“True. I plump for one of the boys, dad. They have the muscle to carry it off.”
“I’m not your dad right now. Also, whoever the killer is has bloody clothes to dispose of and a guilty conscience to assuage.”
Sanders nodded, then looked at her dad. She knew what was coming.
“Did you ask them?”
“William claims that Rupert had to have done it. Rupert swears that Estella has a murderous streak in her and that she did it. Estella ‘knows in her heart’ that William is the type to kill the old lady.”
“Convenient,” Sanders said.
“So, we need to find some bloody clothes. Maybe try to get one of the staff to tell us more than they have so far,” Sanders said.
A voice spoke from the entrance to the library.
“I don’t reckon you’ll find any bloody clothes. Or the killer.”
Sanders and Whitcomb looked up, surprised. Surprise turned to amazement. DC Connors strode into the library and sat down, looking at his comrades.
“Explain yourself, Connors,” Whitcomb said severely. He didn’t like that Connor had come into the library unawares, and he especially didn’t like what Connors said.
Connors plopped a book on the table, leaned forward, and spoke.
“I was questioning that maid what saw the body. Jenny, you see.”
“Strolling through the garden. I saw you two lovebirds,” Sanders poked at Connors.
“Like I says,” Connors continued, unperturbed, “I was askin’ her about this and that. Lovely girl. We’re goin’ to the cinema Sunday afternoon. That’s her afternoon off…”
“Connors. Be a good lad and act like a copper,” Whitcomb said sternly.
“Right. So we get to talkin’ about books. She has this cracking good book here and she hands it to me. It’s a murder mystery set on a train. The Oriental Express.”
“The Orient Express,” Sanders said, reading the title.
“That one. Yeah. Anyway, what happened was, there’s a murder on the train. Turns out, all the people on the train had a hand in killin’ this bloke what killed a baby. This dandified detective figures it out. Frenchman, I think.”
“Belgian,” Whitcomb muttered.
“So there’s the story. The book belongs to the family. Jenny tells me that all the kids read it. The butler too. OK. So we continue to walk. I find a burn pile near the gardeners’ cottages. I dig through it and find burnt clothes. I tell her I got to get back and tell you, so we start back. Well, soon as we leave, I spot a gardener stoking up that fire again. I rush back, but it’s too late. Everything is ashes by now.”
“Uh huh. Continue,” Whitcomb said softly. He had a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach.
“Well, sir, then there’s the lawyer chap.”
“The lawyer chappy for the old lady. The old lady called him on the blower and told him to step on down here on Wednesday. She wanted to ‘stantially alternate her will.”
“Yes, sir. That one. The kids all were there in the living room and they all heard the call to the lawyer chap. So did the butler. And then the kids all go to the library and shut the door. They’re in there for a couple a hours. Which is strange, Jenny says, ‘cause they don’t really like each other all that much. So. That’s that.”
Whitcomb and Sanders nodded, deep dejection on their faces.
“They were all in on it, including the help.”
“Yes sir. Jenny tells me the old lady was miserly and didn’t pay them much at all, but the kids always gave them money to help ‘em out.”
“Jenny in on it, too?” Sanders asked.
“I reckon so, but I still like her. We’re steppin’ out and don’t try to stop me,” Connors said determinedly.
“She’s guilty of murder,” Whitcomb said.
“I don’t reckon she stuck the old lady,” Connors said.
“She knows who did it, boy.”
“I reckon I’m fine with that.”
“I have to let you go, then. I can’t have a man on the force who knows wrongdoing and lets it go.”
“I’ll work for my dad. Good money to be had in fixin’ automobiles.”
It all fit. Everyone colluded to kill the old lady. Everyone was guilty. Nothing, though, could be proven. The murderers were known, yet escaped the justice of the law.
They did not escape karmic justice, however. Within a year, all of the siblings were dead. Both boys died from eating tainted fish paste. The woman fell down the stairs at the mansion and died of a broken neck. All of the deaths were suspicious, but nothing could be proven.
Curiously, Jenny produced evidence in the form of letters from her father and her mother (a former scullery maid at the Ainsley residence) that showed she was the illegitimate daughter of the late Mr. Ainsley. These letters were produced a few days after the death of the last sibling. She inherited everything.
Jenny and ex-PC Connors were married soon thereafter. DCI Whitcomb and WPC Sanders did not attend the wedding, of course. They did not care to consort with murderers.