FOOTSTEPS TO MURDER

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CHAPTER ELEVEN: DRINKS ARE SERVED

’I need a drink,’ boomed Sir Stanley. ’A proper one this time. A good stiff whiskey. If you can do the honours, Bosworth?’

’By all means, sir.’

’And you can get me one while you’re at it,’ insisted Lancaster.

’Of course.’

’And me too; and make it a double,’ chipped in Brackenberry. It was clearly contagious.

’In which case,’ said her Ladyship, ’you’d better pour drinks for all of us, Bosworth. Yourself and Mrs. Field, Mr. Tower and Mrs. Prince, included.’

’Milady.’

Bosworth made his way over to the drinks cabinet, and opened it up, revealing a generous array of bottles and expensive glassware.

Lady Anne turned to the diminutive detective. ’I take it you won’t say no to some more robust refreshments, Monsieur?’

’A small sherry would be most agreeable, Lady Anne.’

’Good. And I’ll have a brandy, Bosworth.’

’Milady.’

Bosworth dispensed the drinks, put them on a silver platter, then walked over and placed the platter on the desk surface. From there he handed each individual his or her drink; including a tonic water for Mrs. Field, who was teetotal. He picked up his own glass of malt whiskey. Though he felt distinctly uncomfortable and ill at ease at this free and easy mixing between the servants and those they served.

Puree smiled and raised his glass. ’Your very good health, ladies and gentlemen.’

There was a general, though muted, response to that, in the shape of a few halfhearted murmurs and mumbles. Then they all took a measure of their drinks.

’By jingo I needed that,’ growled Sir Stanley, before wiping his lips.

Puree placed down his drained glass and turned to the others. ’I wonder if you could tell me, ladies and gentlemen, precisely where you were on the island, at the time of the murder?’

’I was polishing some silverware in the parlour,’ said Bosworth.

’I was making the beds, upstairs,’ said Mrs. Field.

’I was potting plants in the potting shed,’ said Mr. Tower, with his distinctive West Country burr.

’I was preparing the evening meal in the kitchen,’ volunteered Mrs. Prince.

’Though we had a strong downpour earlier that day, it all cleared up in the early afternoon, as I recall,’ said Lady Anne. ’And then we had a quite decent day. I went for a walk by the bluffs, on the south side of the island. There’s a noted bird sanctuary there.’

’Indeed so, your Ladyship,’ enthused the detective. ’I have seen it myself. The time I was here, over the missing diamond necklace. A most impressive sight, if I might say so.’

Lady Anne turned to the others. ’In fact we had television crew down here shooting a documentary about the bird sanctuary, last year.’

’Yes, I recall watching that very programme, Lady Anne,’ said a beaming Puree. ’It was most educational.’

Lancaster shook his head dismissively. ’Really. I just fell asleep.’

’I often go down there, weather permitting of course,’ continued her Ladyship, in a somewhat wistful, melancholy manner.

’This is all very informative, I must say,’ grumbled Brackenberry, with heavy sarcasm. ’But we’re not here to discuss ornithology. We have other things on our plate.’

Sir Stanley than added his contribution: ’I was examining the prehistoric burial mound by Crow Hill, where skulls of sacrificed victims were unearthed by an archaeological dig just before the Great War.’

’Mon dieu! What wonders are contained in such a small area of land!’ exclaimed Puree, with a tone of awe.

’I went on a walk round Raven Mire,’ Lancaster informed him.

’Ah, I have heard of this notorious Raven Mire.’

’Yes, it’s surrounded by a plethora of signposts, warning the wayfarer to be wary. One careless step and you could be sucked into its infernal depths never to see the light of day again.’

’I took in the sights of Step Cliff, to the north of the island,’ said Brackenberry, brusquely.

’Ah yes, the place that so resembles the Giant’s Causeway,’ the detective smiled and shook his head. ’One can only conclude, ladies and gentlemen, that if this island were not private property, it would have significant tourist potential.’

Lady Anne nodded her head. ’That’s one of the beauties of being excessively rich, Monsieur Puree. You can keep these things for yourself. And of course the pleasure of one’s acquaintances.’

’Now we know why, you, Lady Anne, were here, on the island, that day. You were after all the wife of the deceased. We also know why the butler, the housekeeper, the gardener and the cook were here. They were in the employ of Sir Richard Third. But why were these three gentlemen here?’

’As I alluded to earlier, monsieur, they were close business associates of my late husband. They were all members of the same business consortium. And they were here to discuss, later that evening - and no doubt over a few drinks - the future of the consortium.’

’Indeed so, your Ladyship.’ He paused. ’And who was he first at the scene of the crime? ’

’Being in the parlour, I was the one nearest the study,’ said Bosworth. ’I heard the shots and made my way down here at once.’

’I was also in the house at the time,’ said Mrs. Field. ’I was the next one to enter the room. And what a terrible sight it was to behold, to be sure.’

’I was the next to arrive,’ said Mrs. Prince.

’Then I came,’ said Tower.

’We also heard the shots, and eventually made our way down here,’ said her Ladyship.

The others murmured and mumbled their agreement.

Puree rubbed his chin and looked at the butler. ’Did you see anything suspicious at all, Mr Bosworth? Perhaps someone fleeing from the scene of the crime?’

’No. He’d obviously done the business and beat a hasty retreat before I arrived at the scene.’

’Were any doors, or the French windows left open; as if someone had hastily left the room?’

’No; the doors were shut; and the French windows also.’

’The killer must have shut them on the way out,’ suggested Lancaster. ’Seeing that Third would usually leave them open, when the weather was decent.’

Puree shrugged. ’Unfortunately he left no incriminating finger prints behind.’

’He must have been wearing skin gloves. The killer did a thorough job.’

’Indeed so, Sir Stanley. It must have been an unpleasant shock for you all?’

Bosworth nodded his head. ’It was indeed, sir. It’s not often you see your employer lying on the floor, in his own blood, after being shot dead. It was indeed a shock. Whatever the thoughts you had about him while he was alive?’

’I suppose you’re wondering, Monsieur Puree, why anyone would wish to kill Sir Richard?’

’Yes indeed, Monsieur Brackenberry. A most intriguing question; and one that goes to the heart of the matter in hand. I read the newspapers and am a little au fait with these things. Now as you all well know, Sir Richard Third wasn’t the most sympathetic and tactful of gentlemen.’

’You can say that again,’ spat Mrs. Field. ’He was the very divil himself.’

Puree looked up at the vain glorious portrait, then looked at the others. ’There was no element of joie de vivre about his life. He was cold, calculating, suspicious and distrustful, and left a trail of animosity and ill feeling throughout his life. He was a heavy drinker, a womanizer, a ruthless businessman, a noted miser; a man incapable of friendship and understanding.’

Heads were gravely nodded in agreement with those sentiments.

’We now know, since his demise,’ continued the detective, ’that he pilfered the pension funds of his own employees, that he fleeced his partners and associates, that he had his own executives spied on and followed, that he reneged on solemn commitments he had undertaken, and that he regularly defaulted on loans, even if it meant financial ruin for others. We know that he was cooking the books of his own company. And that consequently few of the people who had direct dealings with him had a kind word to say for him.’ Puree nodded his head, thoughtfully. ‘Indeed, did not one of your independent politicians call him the unacceptable countenance of capitalism?’

‘More like the unacceptable face of humanity,’ growled Lancaster.

‘I know from my study of this case,’ continued the sleuth, ’that each of you had reasons to hate and despise this person who died here one year ago. Lady Anne suffered abuse and humiliation from Sir Richard during the twenty years of their marriage. So much so that she sought some consolation in an affair with Sir Stanley, who was also outraged by the treatment that Sir Richard had meted out to her ladyship. Her ladyship was in mortal terror of her husband finding out about that relationship, and having one of his terrible temper tantrums. Though he would brazenly flaunt his own mistresses and fancy women before her eyes.’

Those liaisons of Third’s had invariably been short term, ephemeral affairs; especially after displays of temper and pathological suspicion soon replaced bouquets of flowers and boxes of chocolate.

’He was a heathen, through and through,’ said the Irishwoman. ’That he was, and no mistake.’

Sir Stanley swapped a guilty glance with Lady Anne. ’I don’t know if I like stuff like that being dredged up again, Puree.’

Puree shrugged his shoulders. ’But surely it has become common knowledge in the gossip columns since the death of Third.’

’Not half,’ blurted Brackenberry.

’I’m saying nothing that isn’t known to the public at large. Sir Stanley, Mr. Brackenberry and Mr. Lancaster, all had commercial dealings with Sir Richard. Indeed they were all members of the same commercial consortium. Which is why they were on the island. So as to have business discussions with Third, later that day. Each of them, because of these commercial contacts, had reasons to despise Third and his despicable business methods.’

There was a look of naked fury in Sir Stanley’s eyes. ’The man was a cheat, a twister, a bounder, a scoundrel, a cad, and a blackguard. We were going to put it to him straight, that day, and tell him in no uncertain terms, that unless he cleaned up his act, we were going to pull out of the consortium altogether. In fact some of us were thinking of taking legal action against him, for breach of contact. Indeed his death is no tragedy as far as I’m concerned.’

’But this little tete-a-tete never took place,’ said the detective. 'Someone decided on more direct and drastic action, earlier that day. Not taking him to the law, but taking the law in their own hands. But alas, my friends, murder is murder, whether it is the death of a saint or a sinner. And then there were the four servants. The butler, Mr. Bosworth; the housekeeper, Mrs. Field; the gardener, Mr. Tower; and the cook, Mrs. Prince. It is said that no man is a hero to his valet. And Sir Richard was certainly no hero to these four servants, who suffered the rough edge of his tongue on many an occasion, and who had to deal with many a drunken display of temper.’

Mrs. Field piped up again: ’The man was a proper eejit. He’d have tested the patience of a saint, he would.’

Even the otherwise impassive butler felt moved to comment: ’Yes, he was a damn swine. He treated us like dirt. And I’m glad he’s dead.’

’I never heard anyone who had a good word for him,’ said Mrs Prince. ’If you knew him, you hated him.’

’He was a shocker,’ said the lugubrious Tower.

’He used the strut around as if he was a king,’ growled Brackenberry.

’Aye, till someone decided to crown him,’ commented Sir Stanley.

’You don’t know the half of what Third go up to,’ said Lancaster.

’He looked down on us ordinary working class people as if we were the lowest of the low,’ intoned Tower.

Lancaster turned to Tower; a jaundiced look on his face. ’He looked down on everybody, Mr. Tower. Even his so called partners and associates.’

’Yes, ladies and gentlemen,’ said the detective, ’this was in its way a crime passionel; with raw hatred as its motive force.’

Puree walked over to the fireplace and looked up at the portrait of Third that hung on the wall. ’A most striking and singular countenance, if I may say so. There is an almost Shakespearean ambience about it.’

’Aye,’ chipped in Sir Stanley, ’and he was a hunchback as well.’

’Remarkable.’

’You’ve made a brilliant exposition of the case,’ said Sir Stanley. ’Though I would have expected nothing else from a man of your superlative investigative skills.’

’Thank you, Sir Stanley.’ He smiled rather complacently. ’I believe that we are starting to make progress with this investigation.’

Then the storm that had threatened to break for the last hour and more at length made itself felt. A fork of lightning ripped across the sky, lighting up the room with its momentary, brilliant incandescence, and even giving a strange demonic animation to the portrait of the late plutocrat on the wall. Rain fell from the sky in rapidly increasing intensity. It drummed a relentless, ominous beat on the sloping slate roof, and seeped down the window and the French windows.

’And me with no holy water on me,’ growled Mrs. Field, half to herself, in a strained, apprehensive voice.

’We had a storm like this on the day that Third died,’ Lancaster laconically informed the detective.

‘And it seemed such a promising day, earlier on, when Mr. Bosworth took me here by boat from that desolate strip of shore on the mainland.’

’Well that’s our English weather for you, monsieur,’ said Lady Anne.

’Yes, your Ladyship, I am well aware of its mercurial tendencies.’

Sir Stanley looked fixedly at the diminutive detective. ’I’d say that it was about time that we explained the real reason why we invited you here today.’

All the others turned to stare at the diminutive detective.

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