Shortly before she died, Clarissa Hamilton-Harvey announced, to a world which had largely forgotten, that she aimed to complete her last book before saying farewell to the life she had resigned herself to leaving. Once the darling of the tabloids, her reputation never fully recovered from that business at the turn of the millennium. And that, of course, was where I came in.
Even though she was bright, charming, witty, and extremely beautiful, I disliked her a great deal when we met. Eventually, I put it down to prejudice. At the dawn of celebrity culture, her reputation ran far ahead and I couldn’t see the point of her. I knew she lived somewhere nearby but never imagined our paths crossing.
That first meeting was not under the most auspicious of circumstances, neither was it designed to inspire warmth and friendship. Shortly before I arrived, half a dozen chinless Herberts were attending a party at her home. I was in the garden talking to her because only five of them were still breathing.
The one who wasn’t fell from a balcony overlooking the pool. The lady herself suggested perhaps he tried to dive in, but caught his foot on the railings, or misjudged the angle. It was a possibility I couldn’t fully discount, although the knife in his stomach suggested otherwise. When the coroner reported on the contents of his system, it surprised me that he got to the window from any part of the house, even before rogue kitchenware intervened.
Two other guests were also in a bad way, though entirely of their own making. While attempting to attract their host with charm and wit, they drank to relax and found their constitutions wanting. Both now slept in chairs in her late father’s library. I worked hard to make their lives uncomfortable, but, unfortunately, Miss Clarissa observed them in their respective states of unconsciousness just as the primary object of my attention took his fall.
Another two chinless wonders, talking at a small table nearby, heard a dull thud as their now late acquaintance demonstrated the effects of gravity just yards away. Both independently attested to their host announcing her intention to seek them out and rouse them with a jug of iced water, which, I deduced from their appearance, she did, at an altitude approximately ten feet above the victim’s current resting place.
Number six ran away, rarely a good sign after a murder, and only remained a free man until handing himself in three days later. He was, he said, high as a kite at the party, and remembered nothing for hours beforehand. His prospects didn’t look good. As it turned out, they weren’t. He served time for manslaughter while the others got on with their lives.
Most of the concerns who paid Clarissa Double-H well for doing nothing moved on. With only her wealth to sustain her, she found herself bored. Her father spent years researching their family history, focusing on his more disreputable and eccentric forebears. When he died, they found several suitcases crammed with research and fanciful speculation. Her mother wanted to burn the lot, but died, either of vodka or a broken heart, before getting around to it. Clarissa set herself to working out how to write a book and did an excellent job. The result sold in vast quantities and she followed it with many subsequent volumes, all further increasing her fortune. Since our paths first crossed, however, other than occasional book launches and interviews with tame journalists, she shunned the public gaze.
Spending my life nicking and banging up villains had less to do with any desire to serve society than my childhood discovery of the works of Agatha Christie. Each week, I borrowed a couple from the library and read myself to sleep, dreaming of opulent drawing rooms crammed with obliging suspects. Only rarely did any try to escape, and few raised more than token protest about being quizzed by a strange young chap with no authority to detain them, rather than being escorted from the scene by people like the man I became.
The setting was perfect. A slightly crumbling old pile with acres of grounds. Had the result of the case been in any doubt, I could have sat them all down and let them talk, found myself surprised when my prime suspect met a grisly end at the culmination of act two, and slowly peeled away layers of obfuscation before exposing the culprit and taking them quietly into custody.
I awoke just before the paper arrived. Her death only merited a small announcement, but she would have preferred it that way. Latterly, she valued her privacy more than ever, and those who noticed branded her a recluse.
Her passing was no surprise to me, of course. I missed her last breath but nursed her through her long illness and sat beside her in hospital for most of the preceding weeks.
I was, she said, the only man she'd met who wanted nothing from her. That was why she came looking for me after the fuss calmed down. With her book outselling all others for a fourth week, she arrived at my front door, knocked loudly, and didn’t wait for me to invite her in.
She claimed not a day passed since the murder when she didn’t think of me, and three times dreamed we were married. She thought it would be a good idea, and suggested I get on and propose - unless I’d rather it came from her. I told her she was crazy, but reluctantly let her take me to a place I couldn’t have eaten at if I’d saved for a year. At the end of the evening, she told me I’d never get a better offer, and I believed her.
We should allow ourselves a respectably lengthy engagement, of course. Or do it tomorrow. That was a bit soon, I thought, so we settled for the third Friday of the following month, exactly six months from her birthday, making it easier for her to remember. Being a detective, I wouldn’t need reminding, she said, since my brain ordered such things instinctively.
It was a quiet affair, just us and a couple of witnesses. Afterwards, we drove down to Burgh Island. Unknown to me, she had booked us into the hotel rooms built as a retreat for my beloved Agatha. It rained most of the time. We stayed a week, taking long walks, getting to know one another well, as we should have before marrying, wondering what to do with the rest of our lives. She had an idea for another book and asked if I minded her starting it there on our honeymoon. I could think of no more auspicious time or place. So she did.
On turning fifty, I took early retirement. After years of helping her deal with publishers, editors and so on, I knew how they worked and what she needed, so I became her agent. The books sold themselves. My chief function was to stop people she wanted to avoid getting anywhere near her. I was very good at it.
I’d kept the flat as it was convenient for the station. On my last day, I put it on the market and it sold so quickly I wished I’d asked for more. We earmarked some of the proceeds to build a summerhouse for her to write in, even though she could have built dozens without noticing the money leaving her account. Born unimaginably rich, she inherited the lot, then made more and more and more just by emptying the contents of her wonderful, inventive mind onto sheets of paper at first, then a succession of computers and, finally, when illness took hold, a voice-activated recorder which shut down in sympathy when she fell asleep. She did that increasingly often. Sometimes she became delirious and told me it was her punishment. She never remembered saying it afterwards and didn’t know what it could mean.
I adored her so much. Every morning I’ve woken up and pinched myself to see if I’m dreaming. People like her don’t happen to people like me, and I have no idea what to do now she’s gone.
After we married, she started visiting Jeremy.
He was a model prisoner. When they released him, he travelled to parts of the world where I wouldn’t want to go on holiday to work with the poor and hungry, in conditions which made prison appear luxurious by comparison. Eventually, he came home and took a well-paid job as head of an agency where his decisions might improve lives he struggled to change while living in remote villages without sanitation and access to medicine. His vision never tallied with those who controlled the budget, and he didn’t last long. He bought a ramshackle pile of bricks, described by an estate agent as a cottage, and put it together again while still campaigning for those worse off than himself. Which, of course, was almost everyone.
I became fond of him as well. My first response when the hospital called was to let him know. I knew it would hit him very hard. After our conversation, I opened a bottle of wine and thought about him. He swore off all intoxicants after that party; I trusted that even the death of the woman he loved, probably more than I had, wouldn’t drive him over that ledge again.
The day was unbearably warm and humid. It felt as if her passing drew all the air from the house in sympathy. I was in the library with the curtains drawn and the windows open, hoping to encourage any passing breeze inside to keep me company. The closeness reminded me of my first visit here, in the middle of a heatwave where even the early hours offered no respite.
Almost nothing had changed here since. We shifted the two heavy armchairs where the lightweights slumbered a couple of times a year, but only to clean underneath. Neither were comfortable, so I used the bigger one with the same white bedspread that covered it the first time I saw it. I believe it was the only item of furniture she’d ever moved since then, although it had settled into this corner by the time I moved in. I doubt anyone had ever washed the cover since.
Damn this heat.
I propped the doors open with the pair of stone cats she kept by the doors for days like this. The chair was on castors. We were both surprised when, back from our honeymoon, I accidentally released the brake and scooted across the polished floor into the bookcase behind. How she laughed. Later, I often kicked it off just to take a ride around the room, but only when she wasn’t watching. I didn’t feel like playing today. Maybe after the funeral.
The door to the main dining room never enjoyed staying closed, even on the latch. Looking through, I saw I’d forgotten to open the balcony windows. When I reached them, I stepped out and looked at the pool. I never got excited about swimming and, lately, Clarissa wasn’t able to. What would become of me and this place now? It was far too big for one, especially somebody who never forgot growing up in a terrace on the rough side of town.
Maybe I’d get somebody in to help clean the place. Already I was thinking of moving things around. I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving it as a shrine. Returning to the chair, I pulled off the cover. That could go in the machine. Or even the bin. They made those bedspreads to last, but this tatty object would struggle to survive even a delicates-wash. I saw now why the cover was put there. It obscured two rips in the back, one at shoulder height and another down to one side. They were about an inch and a half across, and both went in deep, looking like they were made by a large and well-sharpened knife.
Despite living there so long, I never noticed the perfectly flat and clear route between the library and the balcony, devoid even of the little wooden runners between the rooms on almost every other doorway throughout the house.
I poured a cup of tea from the pot I made earlier. There was little warmth remaining, but it would do. When I retired, my colleagues presented me with a special mug, bearing a double entendre at which even the producers of the Carry On films might have baulked. Clarissa always insisted on everything matching. She was prone to agitation whenever I used it, but not for reasons of taste. She always drank what I was having, and several times I saw her switch our glasses when she thought I wasn’t looking. I asked her about it once and she made light of it, putting it down to superstition.
One of the substances found in our victim was Rohypnol. I said at the time it seemed improbable anyone might want - or even need - to use it on him. I quickly learned that his lack of success with women was roughly proportionate to his desperation. The rich boys on the patio said he was drinking with them not long before, along with Clarissa. He knocked over her glass while messing about and she went to get the dustpan and brush, which she handed straight to him. He poured her another, topped up the rest of their glasses and started goofing around while sweeping up, which made them laugh. The boys, anyway.
I returned to the balcony and looked down at the table in question. If he was distracting their attention, nobody would have watched the glasses, all identical and newly filled. Shortly after, he said he felt a bit woozy and went to find the other chaps. Twenty minutes later, she went to get the jug of iced water with which to wake them, and, while she was away, their friend went over the balcony. Moments later, they heard someone, probably Jeremy, or maybe a cat, badger or fox, rustling through the bushes towards the road.
The dead man was big. While Clarissa appeared slight in photographs and on television, both still tended to exaggerate her stature. In heels, with her hair up, she could easily be mistaken for someone slightly over five feet tall, with the build to match. She wouldn’t have emerged well from a skirmish with someone more than twelve inches taller and almost twice her weight. Until now, I’d never considered the combined possibilities of a foiled date-rape attempt, unconsciousness and a makeshift trolley with a clear run through the house.
I flipped the brake and scooted the chair to the balcony. It glided silently, taking only seconds. A child could have moved a heavy adult with ease in the same time. I imagined pulling someone, dead or approaching it, from the chair and onto the railings out by their arms. Less than three feet tall, they were barely more than decoration. Once in position, a slumping body wouldn’t stay there long. I hardly needed to call on my detective training to imagine chinless wonder going over, with assistance, all those years ago. Half-leaning across the balcony, I kicked back against the chair. It scuttled through the dining room, stopping eighteen inches shy of its position when I first laid eyes on it. I guess it would take someone who knew where to find them two minutes at most to fetch and arrange a bedspread to hide the damage and the brake, then rush to the balcony, look down and scream, in case the others hadn’t spotted him already. And then, of course, ringing the police and ending up with me.
So, what is to be done? Clarissa’s gone. She didn’t believe in the afterlife. If she guessed wrong, she’ll be paying for it now. Otherwise, she got away with it.
Jeremy willingly sacrificed those years. His devotion undimmed, he remained convinced until her last breath she would realise her mistake and come around to him eventually. He claimed prison was the making of him and probably saved his life, a view supported by most of his friends. As an open-minded spiritual not-quite-agnostic, he’s probably hoping to win her next time. Even if I told him, he would neither believe me nor thank me for it.
Surely she didn’t marry me just to distract me in case I solved the case one day? Was she laughing at my ineptitude, overlooking clues day in, day out?
She could have sold up, burned the furniture, moved away. She never even replaced the big kitchen knife which we removed as evidence. I’d wager her - now my - entire fortune that, if I fetched it from the archive, the blade would slip straight into the holes in the back of the chair I sat in almost daily. Laugh, if you will, at the great detective, taking his ease.
It’s possible, of course, that my inner Agatha is playing tricks on me. She often does. By the time I was two-thirds of the way through her canon, I still failed to guess more than half of them correctly. One reason for my leaving the police were the daily reminders that I would never transition from the pedestrian Inspector Japp to the suave, unflappable Poirot.
I think it’s time to make some changes around here. I’ll call Jeremy and invite him on holiday. On me, of course. We’ll sit together at sunset and he can tell me the tales of growing up with Clarissa I never wanted to hear while she was alive. Perhaps I’ll gain some insight into the truth behind what happened during the last nineteen years. It’s too late now, of course, for both of us. All three, probably.
Now it’s me who needs a project. Perhaps I’ll write a book.