FOOTSTEPS TO MURDER

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CHAPTER TEN: MONSIEUR PUREE

The study door was opened and Bosworth, looking as impassive and unperturbed as ever, entered the room.

’Your ladyship, Monsieur Puree has arrived back from his walk about the island, and wishes to see you, and the other guests.’

’Good. Show him in will you, Bosworth.’

’Milady.’

Bosworth turned back to the door opening. ’If you’ll step this way; Lady Anne and her guests are waiting for you, Monsieur Puree.’

’Merci.’

A curious little man in his early fifties then entered the room. He was only a few inches above five feet in height, with a rather stout figure. He wore a double-breasted, pin striped suit, and waistcoat complete with watch and chain. He sported a rather fussy cravat, and wore a bowler hat on his head. He had a cheerful, round face, a strong nose, and a finely cut and waxed moustache. A pair of incisive, grey eyes looked out on the world through a pair of old fashioned, round lensed spectacles. His hair was meticulously combed, brushed and oiled, with hardly a strand out of place, and he had a pernickety little walk, like that of a penguin. It was clear to everyone, even before he opened his mouth, that he was a foreigner.

He was indeed the well esteemed, almost legendary, Gallic private investigator, Hieronymus Puree; a man known for his remarkable feats of detection, his awesome intellectual prowess, and his legendary intuition. He was the scourge of crime the length and breadth of the nation; and had brought many a murderer, master spy, international jewel thief and underworld crime tsar to book. And as such he had acquired a reputation, as a private sleuth, that was second to none.

’Could I take your hat, sir?’ said the butler.

’Of course.’

He gave Bosworth his hat which was then carefully placed on the hat stand.

’I think we’d better have some tea and refreshments, Bosworth.’

’Milady.’ The faithful retainer turned and walked out of the room.

Puree raised his arms and a great, affectionate smile lit up his face.

’Bonjour, Lady Anne. It is so good to see you again.’

’I can’t tell you how grateful I am that you took my invitation to come down here today.’

’How could I refuse such an entreaty from a person I regard so highly.’

And as if to emphasize his feelings he kissed her hand. Sir Stanley and his two business colleagues looked on with some distaste at that showy continental gallantry. The servants didn’t bat an eyelid. Brackenbeberry coughed rather impatiently.

’You flatter me, monsieur,’ said her Ladyship.

He straightened himself and turned to glance at the others present in the study.

’I’m sorry to have kept you waiting, ladies and gentlemen. But I have allowed myself the opportunity to, as you say it, study the lay of the land.’ He paused. ’It’s a most charming island, Lady Anne. Full of natural grandeur and picturesque prospects. Though a little off the beaten track, and perhaps rather too remote and isolated for everyone’s taste. How long did you, and your late husband, own this island?’

’We bought this old residence, Rose Manor as it’s known, as well as the island itself, from a wealthy recluse, nearly ten years ago. We didn’t live here on a permanent basis. We had other residences in Chelsea and the Home Counties; as well as one or two places abroad. But we always spent some of the summer months here. And it was precisely its isolation, its loneliness, its wild beauty and grandeur, that attracted us. And now I live here nearly all the time, Monsieur Puree, and spend only a few winter months in London.’

’A most enviable position, your Ladyship.’

There was a discreet knock on the door.

’Come in,’ said her Ladyship.

The door creaked open and Bosworth entered

’The refreshments, your Ladyship.’

’Ah yes. Leave them on the table, Bosworth.’

’Milady.’

Bosworth carried a large tray with nine cups and saucers, nine spoons, a teapot, some beakers of milk, a bowl of sugar, and a plate of selected biscuits, and deposited it on the desk in the centre of the room.

’I think I’d better introduce the rest of the party to you, monsieur.’

’By all means, your Ladyship.’

She pointed at each person in turn, guests and servants, and gave their names and occupations, for the benefit of the private detective.

’I’m delighted to meet you all, ladies and gentlemen,’ Puree assured them. He shrugged his shoulders. ’It is only a pity we couldn’t have met each other in more benign circumstances.’

’Terence, Freddie and Sir Stanley,’ her Ladyship continued, ’were all business associates my late husband. As well of course as being men of note and distinction in their own right. Indeed, Sir Stanley here had a spell in the Guards.’

’Indeed so, your Ladyship. I am well aware of their distinguished reputations in business and commerce.’

’And of course, Monsieur Puree,’ said Sir Stanley, with an intriguing smile on his face, ’you need no introduction at all. Everyone knows who you are. Our greatest and most noteworthy private investigator.’

Puree gave a Gallic shrug and smiled in a self-deprecating manner. ‘A most flattering observation. Yes, detection is my metier, monsieur. And though I have had my successes, I am not, alas, always as infallible as the popular press make me out to be.’

’Come now, Monsieur Puree,’ insisted Lady Anne, ’let us have no false modesty on your part. Everyone knows about your superlative record in the field of crime investigation.’ She paused. ’Now I suggest we partake of the tea before it gets cold.’

They all, servants included, made their way over to the desk, where Bosworth served them with cups of tea, and then filled a cup for himself. They scoffed some biscuits, and then, with cups and saucers in hand, resumed their former positions in the room.

Brackenberry looked at the others with some impatience.

’Well, let’s get down to business shall we? We haven’t come here for a tea party.’

’Indeed so, Monsieur Brackenberry; a most capital suggestion. Lady Anne; you invited me, over here, to Bone Island, on a matter, as you put it, of the gravest urgency.’

’Yes, Monsieur Puree, it is indeed a matter of the greatest importance, for all of us here today.’

’You insisted that I was to inform no one of my visit to the island. That even my dear assistant, Major Burbridge, who has accompanied me on so many cases, was to be left in the dark. And that I was to make the journey here under the cover of complete anonymity.’

’Yes. They were the requirements that I insisted upon.’

’I therefore told the Major, and my secretary, Miss Forthright, that I was about to go on a brief, walking tour in the Trossachs, by way of a timely break from my strenuous detective work. That my brief, solitary excursion was not to be disturbed, and that I would return in a few days, suitably refreshed and revitalized, to take up my investigative duties once again.’

Lady Anne smiled and nodded her appreciation. ’And we are most grateful for your cooperation, Monsieur Puree. Even though it entailed such a necessary deception. After all, it’s not often that one requires the services of the world’s foremost private detective.’

The detective looked through the window at the dark, grey sky that lowered threateningly over the island.

’I see that the sky is getting dark and heavy. It looks as though we could be in for a night of it, ladies and gentlemen.’

’Yes, in more ways than one,’ reflected Sir Stanley, rather gloomily.

’We haven’t come for a weather forecast,’ growled Lancaster.

’Of course, monsieur. We have, as you so charmingly put it, other fish to fry.’ Puree turned to his hostess. ’You invited me here, Lady Anne, with the permission of your associates here today, to investigate the singular murder which took place here, exactly one year ago. A murder that remains unsolved to this very day.’

’Yes. And a killer who remains undetected and unpunished.’

‘Quite so.’ Puree tuned to scrutinise the rest of the party. ’Now, all eight of you before me were on this island that very day, one year ago, when Sir Richard Third - your husband, Lady Anne - was done to death. He was sat in this very room, his study, when, at three in the afternoon someone entered, through the French windows, or so it has been surmised, shot him with five bullets from a revolver, then slunk away, leaving Sir Richard Third to expire on the floor.’

’That’s the long and the short of it,’ sighed Brackenberry.

’I have kept the room exactly as my husband, Sir Richard, had left it. Nothing has been moved or replaced.’

’In memory of your late husband, no doubt?’ said a tactful Puree.

Lady Anne merely nodded her head.

’Who could forget him,’ guffawed Brackenberry.

Puree turned to scrutinise the vast, commodious chamber he found himself in. In its size it reminded him of the reference section of his local library. He looked at the busts, statuettes, portraits and prints of dictators, military leaders, megalomaniacs and aggressive mythological figures; as well as the huge, over-dramatized portrait of Sir Richard himself that hung above the fireplace. He had often put it you himself, in the course of his investigations, that you could gain a great insight into a person by looking at the objects and bric-a-brac they surrounded themselves with. And he felt that he knew a little more about Third from seeing his study, than he did before.

’He was a one off, monsieur,’ added Lancaster. ’We can all vouch for that.’

A distinct though ambiguous murmur issued from the gathering.

’They broke the mould when they made him,’ said Sir Stanley.

’It’s a pity they didn’t break it earlier,’ said Lancaster, in a low tone, though with a palpable note of venom in his voice.

Lady Anne glowered at him icily and Lancaster blanched and looked away.

Sir Stanley nodded his head grimly. ’Yes, it was a terrible shock for all of us. Hearing the shots, then rushing down here and seeing him spread-eagled and dead on the floor.’

’What a horror; begorrah,’ exclaimed Mrs. Field.

’And then of course, after such a terrible occurrence, there was a police investigation,’ said Puree.

’Indeed,’ said her Ladyship.

’And from my acquaintance with this case, through the press and the broadcast media, no less a person than the redoubtable Detective Inspector Bill Moose was assigned to the investigation.’

’Yes,’ mused Brackenberry, ’he’s not a guy you can easily forget.’

A wry smile came to Puree‘s lips. ’I would have you know that I have the highest regard for Inspector Moose. Even if he has dropped the odd clanger, as you so charmingly say it, from time to time. Yes, we have met on several occasions, and I hold him in very high esteem. Unfortunately those sentiments are not entirely reciprocated on his part.’ He paused. ’But let us turn to the business in hand. You were all there at the time, ladies and gentleman. I wonder if one of you could describe to me, as far as you could perceive it, the salient details of Moose’s investigation?’

Sir Stanley volunteered himself for the task. ’Of course we were all well aware of the highly distinguished reputation that Bill Moose had at New Scotland Yard. And indeed for that matter the reputation of Detective Sergeant Clayton, who accompanied him on the investigation.’

‘Indeed so,’ mused Puree; ‘a most capable officer.’

’He was accompanied of course by a large police team. Fortunately, due to the isolation and remoteness of the island - as well as out of consideration for a grieving wife - the press was barred from the island itself, and had to report the goings on, at second hand, from Dundercliff.’

’Not a luxury that is afforded in every case,’ reflected Puree.

’The pathologist had earlier managed to establish the time and means of death, and informed the Detective Inspector of those details, before he came to the island. Moose investigated the scene of the crime, then looked about the island a bit - much as you have done, Monsieur Puree - and then interviewed us all, in turn. All eight of us who were there that day, when the murder took place.’

Puree took a last sip of his tea and put the cup and saucer down on an adjacent table.

’There was, Sir Stanley, something about a strange set of tracks as I recall from my reading about the case?’

’Yes. It was during my interview with Moose that he learned about those tracks for the first time. In the morning before Moose arrived I saw a set of footprints that made their way across the flowerbed of the terrace, just outside the French windows of this study,’ he said as he briefly turned and pointed at the windows in question. ’I informed Moose, of course. He immediately told Clayton that this could be just the break they were looking for. And they set of at once to trace the tracks to their source. The tracks led all the way from Crescent Cove, to the west of the island, right up to the French windows here. And another set of identical footprints led all the way back to the cove again.’

Puree nodded thoughtfully. ’Indeed. Very suspicious.’

’Moose had casts taken of the tracks,’ continued Sir Stanley. ’He then contacted us all again. This time as one group. He told us that they were going to compare those casts with the footwear, of all eight of us. And that if there was a match up, he would have his man, or woman, who was responsible for the crime.’

‘How like your famous pantomime, as I recall. Cinderella; with her glass slippers.’

’Yes; but no one was going to win the hand of Prince Charming,’ added Lady Anne, in a mordant manner.

’Our footwear was compared with the casts,’ added Sir Stanley. ’And not just the ones we happened to be wearing at the time, either. But to Moose’s chagrin no match was made.’

’And what did Moose make of this set back?’

’Moose and Clayton concluded,’ said Sir Stanley, ’that some mysterious outsider who had a particular grudge against Third---’

’There were no shortage of them, Monsieur Puree,’ interrupted Lancaster.

‘So I gather,’ muttered Puree.

Sir Stanley resumed his narrative: ’That some interloper had secretly landed at the cove, had stealthily made his way across the island, and sneaked into Third’s study, through the French windows, which he almost invariably left unlocked during the day. The interloper then shot him dead and in the ensuing melee sneaked back to the cove and got into a boat - perhaps some high speed power boat he’d purchased or hired - and sped away.’

Puree shrugged his shoulders. ’A plausible explanation I daresay.’

’Moose questioned us all again. He was getting a bit hot under the collar by that time.’

’Yes,’ nodded Puree, ’I have seen this short fuse go off before now.’

’Well Moose questioned us all as to where we were at the time of the murder. As chance would have it we were all at either different parts of the island or the mansion when those fatal shots were fired. So it couldn’t have been any one of us. And none of us had happened to see or notice this interloper, who had so sinuously sneaked onto the island, and then, his grim work done, sneaked off again. And so having drawn a blank, Moose, Clayton, and the rest of the team, gave up the ghost, and eventually left the island and returned to the mainland. Leaving the case still open and unsolved.’

‘Then this interloper must have been a most ingenious and elusive operator,’ observed Puree.

Brackenberry nodded his head. ‘You’ve heard of sneak thieves. Well this was a sneak murderer.’

‘Makes you wonder if he was some kind of professional, hired killer. Of the type you hear about in America.’

’That is I suppose a possibility, Monsieur Lancaster.’ The detective shrugged his shoulders. ‘It must have been a cause of much displeasure for the good inspector, to leave the island without reaching a successful conclusion to his investigation.’

’Which is precisely why you’re here, Monsieur Puree,’ added her Ladyship. ’It’s been a year now since the murder. No one has been brought to book for this ghastly crime, and the press still regularly point the finger of suspicion at us. Which is why we insisted on you’re arriving here under a cloak of anonymity.’

’A wise precaution, your Ladyship.’

’Indeed this whole scandal hangs around our necks like a millstone, and we’re unable to move on with our lives while this baffling enigma remains unsolved. Moose was unable to clear things up, and that’s why we sought your services, Monsieur Puree; so that you might use your incisive expertise to throw some light on this matter. We need to know the truth and lay this thing to rest, once and for all.’

’Indeed, your Ladyship; and I will do my best to solve this baffling mystery, so that you can all resume your normal lives again.’ There was a look of grim determination in his eyes. ’Yes, I will apply all my skills and expertise to this most singular case. When Hieronymus Puree gives his word, he sees it through to the bitter end.’

’Thank you, monsieur,’ said her ladyship.

’Is there anything that aroused your curiosity about this case, Monsieur Puree?’ asked Lancaster.

Puree took his time in answering that question; and in the expectant silence of the room, in which could be heard only the ticking of a clock and the splutter of the fire, all eight people looked avidly at him.

’Yes, monsieur, there is indeed something that did arouse my interest from the very outset.’

’Well?’

’There is a little matter that our friend, Inspector Moose, quite overlooked in his previous investigation. It concerns the mysterious tracks that led from Crescent Cove to the house, and back again.’

’What about them?’ queried Sir Stanley.

’The Inspector surmised from those tracks that someone had landed on Crescent Cove, made his way to the house, which I reckon is a walk of a mere mile and a half, killed Third in this very room, then headed back to the cove to board his vessel and speed away from the island.’

’We know that already, Puree,’ insisted Brackenberry, with some weariness.

’Indeed so, Monsieur Brackenberry. But facts can sometimes be more revealing than is apparent from first sight. Now all the evidence points to the fact that the murder took place at three o’clock in the afternoon. This is clear from the pathologist’s report, and from the testimony of those of you who heard the shots; particularly those members of the domestic staff, Mr. Bosworth, Mrs. Price, and Mrs. Field, who were in the house at the time.’

’It was three o’clock, the saints preserve us,’ said Mrs. Field. ’Who could forget it, in the name of Mary?’

Puree continued: ’There is also a peculiar circumstance of this case that further corroborates that time. One of the five bullets hit Sir Richard’s waistcoat watch, stopping the mechanism at three o’clock precisely. Thus it is beyond dispute that he died at three o’clock. There can be no doubt about that.’

’Well, so what?’ asked Sir Stanley. ’It’s common knowledge that he died at three o’clock.’

’Can’t you do better than that, Puree?’ fumed Lancaster.

Puree fingered his waxed moustache and assumed a thoughtful, almost meditative air. ’Before I came here, ladies and gentlemen, I took the opportunity to study the tidal and weather patterns around this particular island. Which I felt to be of particular relevance to this case. Between one thirty and three thirty in the afternoon the incoming tide is so strong that it would be impossible for anyone to land a craft on Crescent Cove, a quite narrow and precarious little place at the best of times, in order to make his way onto the island. It is my firm conviction that there was no so called interloper. No one landed on this island, and no one left it. And those tracks were deliberately made, by the murderer, who was already on this island at the time, in order to throw the police off the scent. To create the illusion that some mysterious, unseen outsider had arrived on the island to murder Sir Richard, and then speedily left again, into dark obscurity, his foul deed done.’

Silence, even more charged and expectant than before, enveloped the room again. Some anxious glances were swapped; though the great detective himself seemed utterly relaxed and imperturbable. He was clearly in his element.

’Maybe he landed earlier, before the strong tides; say at about one o’clock,’ suggested Sir Stanley. ’He might have kept his head down and hid somewhere; bided his time, and then made his way to the study?’

Puree smiled and shook his head, in an almost reproving manner. ’When the police investigated the scene they saw clearly that the tracks went straight from the cove to the house and straight back gain, with no shilly shallying about, as you call it. Besides, why should someone intent on such an horrendous and risky crime simply wait around for hours and watch a tide roll in that would prevent his speedy egress from the island, when his first instinct would have been to get the grisly work over and done with and escape without detection? This is a small, compact little island. It would be difficult, one might say almost impossible for a stranger to go undetected on it for any significant length of time.’

’It looks like the murderer is one step ahead of us,’ said Brackenberry.

’One step ahead, monsieur; but he may lose his footing before the day is over.’

’So you think that someone deliberately faked those tracks?’

’Quite so, Monsieur Lancaster. Indeed, those footprints in the flowerbed on the terrace outside the French windows aroused my suspicions from the outset. There was no reason to leave such prints there, when that person could so easily have just walked around the flowerbed to enter the study. And the only reason they were left there, was to deliberately draw attention to them. This mysterious, unseen person is a phantom of the imagination, who has no material existence. This creature didn’t give Sir Richard the coup de grace; because he didn’t exist in the first place. Logic points to one inexorable conclusion. One of you eight, stood before me, here, now, pulled the trigger of the gun that ended Third’s life. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the killer is stood before me, in this very room.’

Lady Anne shook her head. ’But the inspector, as we’ve already mentioned, took some casts of those tracks, and compared them with our own footwear. None of them matched.’

’Of course, Lady Anne, the killer wouldn’t incriminate himself by keeping the boots that made those tracks. They would be material evidence against that person. They were no doubt destroyed, shortly after doing their work. They could have been tied with weights and tossed into the sea, or cast into the fetid depths of Raven Mire. Or perhaps burned in an incinerator. The gun also no doubt would have been disposed of in a similar manner.’

’Be jasus!’ exclaimed Mrs. Field as she made a sign of the cross.

Bosworth looked on, expressionless and self-contained, as if listening to someone reading out a menu.

’Well this certainly throws a new light on things, monsieur,’ said her Ladyship, with a ghostly voice.

’Indeed so, your Ladyship. It may look as if the killer walked from the cove to the house and back to the cove again. And it is surely what the killer wishes us to believe. But it is my belief that the murderer – realizing that all the other guests and servants were either at different parts of the island, or the manor, and that there would be no one to act as a witness - walked from the terrace, outside Sir Richard’s study, to the cove, then back again, in order to enter the study, through the unlatched French windows, so as to shoot dead Sir Richard. It is also my supposition that he carried a bag or rucksack with him, with a pair of replacement shoes inside, so that he could swiftly swap his footwear after he had done the fatal deed. In the resulting melee which the fatal gun shots created the killer no doubt temporarily made his absence; perhaps using some tree cover near the house to conceal himself. Then he simply turned up with the others, and pretended to express shock and surprise at the murder. Just like the rest. A ruthless and resourceful individual, he would have singled out a place to hide his bag, with the incriminating boots and even the gun, in his temporary absence. And then no doubt the incriminating boots would have been carefully disposed of before the police arrived, along with the gun.’

‘In which case he was a good actor, as well as a coldblooded murderer.’ said her Ladyship.

‘And he’s still keeping up the pretense,’ said Sir Stanley, as he looked at the rest of the party. ‘Whoever he is?’

‘If the killer was a he?’ said Brackenberry. ‘The female of the species can be as deadly as the male y’know.’

‘I don’t doubt it, monsieur,’ said Puree. ’But with the size of the boots that were used I think we can rule out a femme fatale in this case. There is also, ladies and gentlemen, another peculiarity of this case which makes it quite exceptional in my experience. I notice that no one has an alibi for where he or she was, at the time of the murder. By an incredible coincidence each individual was isolated, in his or her own company, out of sight of and contact with the others, when the foul deed took place. You were either at separate parts of the house, or at different localities of the island. This being so, it follows that no one can corroborate or disprove the testimony of the others as to where they were at the time of the murder.’

A look of indignation settled on Sir Stanley’s face. ’You can take my word. I’m an officer and a gentlemen.’

’Wasn’t it indeed also remarkable that this mysterious and elusive stranger, which the good inspector subscribed to after seeing the footprints, should arrive on the island just when you were all separated at different localities, leaving Third dangerously exposed and isolated in his own study, with the French windows unlatched. How could anyone, who had just arrived on the island from some unknown locality, have had such uncanny foreknowledge of such an extraordinary set of incredible and propitious circumstances?’

’What are you trying to get at, Puree?’ queried Lancaster.

’That only someone who was already on the island at the time would have had that knowledge that alone would have given him the cover to carry out the almost perfect crime. And that therefore, perhaps one you was, as we shall say, a little more economical with the truth than the others, in the testimony he or she gave to Inspector Moose.’

’You mean that one of us was lying!’ blurted Backenberry.

’Since the mysterious stranger does not exist, and one of you was the killer, it inevitably follows that one of you must have been telling falsehoods to the police as to where you were at the time of the murder. Indeed one of you was in this very room at the time, with a loaded gun and murderous intentions.’

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