CHAPTER FOURTEEN: THE COUP DE GRACE
Sir Stanley turned to Puree. ’Of course he ranted and raved, in his demented way, when he knew that the game was up. But there was nothing he could do about it. Even a control freak can’t wish away a gun, or stop a bullet being fired.’
’He was shaking in his shoes; despite all his bluster,’ insisted Lancaster.
’There wasn’t an ounce of humility in him, even when about to meet his Maker,’ snarled Mrs. Field.
’Yes. I let the swine have it,’ said Sir Stanley, with evident pride.
’And good riddance,’ echoed Mrs. Field, with a tone of almost religious righteousness.
’Y’know; I was in the army for ten years; but I’ve never had more satisfaction in pulling a trigger. Yes, five bullets,’ he said with a note of pure wonderment, as if he had helped to exorcize a malign spirit, ’and that was the end of Third.’
A strained look appeared on the detective’s face. ‘Then you have solved the riddle for me. Even though I like to work these things out for myself.’
’Then the second part of our plan went into play,’ continued Sir Stanley. ’I phoned the police, in suitably agitated tones of course, and told them that Third had been killed. Then I set about to make the tracks which were to be such a critical factor in Moose’s investigation. We had taken into account the weather, in planning the murder, and we knew, from the forecasts that there would be a short but intensive shower about midday. And that this would be followed by a sustained dry period for the next few days, ensuring that the tracks I made would be still there when the police arrived on the scene.’ He briefly smiled to himself. ‘Being perhaps the weightiest person who was on the island that day I realised that my footprints would make the most marked impression on the wet soil. I put on a pair of gumboots, then set off from the manor to Crescent Cove. As you correctly surmised, Monsieur Puree, I carried a rucksack, with a fresh pair of shoes inside. And I must admit, monsieur, that I took little notice of the tides, having other things on my mind. I made those tracks from the house to Crescent Cove and back to the house again. I went to the terrace outside his study, and made sure that I planted some footprints in the flowerbed. Then I went through the open French windows into the study, so that traces of mud from my boots would be there, for the forensic people to see. Then I changed my foot wear again, and put the gum boots back into the rucksack.’
A bleak smile came to Puree’s dry lips. ‘It was no wonder you were able to point out the tracks to Moose, when you actually made them yourself.’
’Yes. I burned the gumboots in an incinerator in the cellars, and tossed the gun into Raven Mire. We had long concocted and memorized our phony alibis in advance and had them ready when Moose and his men arrived on the scene from the mainland. He fell for the tracks, hook, line and sinker, and, as you so poetically described it, monsieur, the phantom of this mysterious interloper; which effectively snarled up the whole case.’
Lancaster couldn’t resist a caustic smile. ’Yes; he thought they’d lead him straight to the killer. But they led him right up the garden path.’
’The good inspector would not be pleased by all this,’ reflected Puree.
’What you don’t know doesn’t harm you,’ replied Mrs. Prince, in a rather tart manner.
Sir Stanley smiled with a degree of self-satisfaction. ’We also realized that the police would check us all for gun residue. That’s why I managed to cajole Third, who liked nothing better than firing some shots off at a target, to organize a shooting competition, involving both guests and staff, and of course her ladyship, the day before he was killed. He didn’t realize that he was helping us to concoct the perfect crime; in which he would be the victim.’
’It seems that you have covered every angle,’ commented Puree.
’Oh yes,’ said her ladyship, ’we did a thorough job of it.’
’No half measures would do against someone like Third,’ concluded Lancaster.
Her Ladyship turned to the diminutive detective. ’We, and I believe I can speak for all of us on this point, regarded what we had done, not as murder, Monsieur Puree, but as justified homicide. We had destroyed a tyrant. And far from grieving over his death, we rejoiced at it.’
’The saints preserve us,’ came a familiar Irish voice.
‘We all toasted our freedom, with glasses of Bollinger,’ said Lancaster; ’her ladyship, guests and servants alike. There were no class distinctions in this matter. That was how we all felt about Third.’
’Hear hear,’ growled Lancaster.
A smile, like that of a naughty school girl, came to Lady Anne’s lips. ’We even managed to coax Bridget, here, into temporarily breaking her pledge, and having her first drink in years.’
Mrs. Field, however, was not amused. Indeed, she looked rather guilty; as if breaking her pledge was a far more serious and weighty issue, on her conscience, than being a part of the conspiracy to murder her employer. ’I said ten Hail Mary’s afterwards,’ she assured the rest.
’It was still a crime, and a capital one at that; whatever your particular feelings about it,’ insisted Puree.
‘You wouldn’t have said that if you’d have known Third the way we did,’ said Sir Stanley.
’He was executed,’ insisted Brackenberry. ’We were doing mankind a favour by getting rid of that monster.’
’Amen to that,’ added Mrs. Field. ’We all deserve a medal for what we did. The world is a better place without him, it is.’
’Unfortunately, madam,’ said the detective, ’the law takes a rather different view of the matter.’
’Then to hell with the law,’ boomed Lancaster. ’If it protects rogues like Third, and punishes those who fight against him.’
’Monsieur Lancaster, if we had the license to kill everyone we hated, or who had done harm to us, we would live in vastly depopulated world.’
’You didn’t know Third, directly, did you?’ asked Lancaster.
’No; our paths have never crossed. Though I believe that we were to have attended the same cocktail party in Hampstead, some years ago, at the invitation of Lady Golightly. But I happened to catch a nasty head cold and had to forgo the invitation.’ He shrugged his shoulders. ’So I didn’t chance to meet him.’
’Pity,’ mused Sir Stanley. ’It might have opened your eyes.’
’Hang on there, Monsieur Puree?’ insisted Lancaster. ’I thought you investigated a case of some missing jewelry, in this very house, some years ago?’
’Indeed so. But when I investigated the case of the missing diamond necklace, Sir Richard was temporarily absent from the island. I believe that he was on an extensive business tour around the Far East.’
’Well if you did know him,’ Lancaster went on, ’you wouldn’t talk about arrests and prosecutions. You’d say to yourself, thank God that swine’s out of the way. As we all do.’
’Amen,’ echoed Mrs. Field, who made another sign of the cross.
’I can assure you that in the course of my professional life I have come in contact with many appalling villains and evildoers, Monsieur Lancaster. People who are, as you so colourfully say it, nasty pieces of work. But I have never swerved from my unflinching belief in the rule of law, and the necessity of bringing malefactors to book, no matter who their victims, or what had motivated their actions.’
’As far as I’m concerned,’ reflected Sir Stanley, ’Third was an exception to the normal rules.’
’Yes,’ groused Brackenberry, ’he wasn’t a human being at all. He was some kind of alien creature, in human guise.’
‘He wasn’t normal; like other people,’ added Tower.
’Then perhaps you might plead these as mitigating factors when it comes to your trial?’ Puree helpfully suggested. ‘I’m sure that a sensitive judge and jury would take all this into account, and that it could have a material effect on the sentences. Indeed, perhaps on the verdicts.’
’What trial?’ said Lady Anne, with a mysterious, impenetrable smile on her face.
’There’s going to be no trial for this so called crime, Monsieur Puree,’ insisted Lancaster. ’We aren’t going to give ourselves up to the law. And no one is going to shop us, either.’
’Aye; I’m staying put on this island,’ insisted Tower.
’And me too, Mr. Tower,’ insisted Mrs. Prince.
Puree felt mingled emotions of anger and incredulity. ’Then why was I so urgently summoned to this island, to investigate the murder, and to seek to unearth the truth, when those who are responsible for the deed - all eight of you who are stood before me now - refuse to face justice? Is this all some strange kind of game on your part? I know you English can be eccentric creatures at times. But this goes beyond comprehension itself.’
’This is too serious a matter for playing games, monsieur,’ insisted Sir Stanley.
’We fooled Moose, but we knew that you’d be a different proposition altogether,’ said Lancaster; ’and that sooner or later you’d get around to examining the case. That you’d see through the ruse about the footprints and get to the bottom of things; and that eventually we’d be exposed as common murderers, our reputations ruined, and with only a messy court trial and lengthy jail terms to look forward to.’
’That’s why we invited you over here,’ said Sir Stanley, ’under those stringent conditions; to pre-empt such a dismal outcome occurring in the future. Ostensibly you came over here to investigate a murder. In reality, you walked into a trap of our own devising. No one knows, apart from we eight, that you are here, on this island, monsieur. Therefore if some unfortunate accident were to happen, and you went missing, this would be one of the last places they’d look for you. And we could all return secure to our humdrum little lives.’
’That’s why we decided to lure you here, like a fly into a spider’s web,’ said Lady Anne; ’with the promising inducement of a juicy murder investigation, which we all knew that you’d find difficult to resist. There’ll be another murder, today, in this very room where my wretched husband was given the coup-de-grace. But unfortunately, monsieur, this is a case you won’t be investigating. Since you’ll be quite dead.’
’So this has been a cold-blooded deception from start to finish.’
’If you want to put it that way,’ responded Lancaster, dryly.
’It was all a lie.’
’Yes. Though a necessary one as far as we were concerned,’ said Sir Stanley.
A malicious, heartless smile worked its way to Brackenberry’s dry lips. ’You may have a reputation as some hotshot sleuth, Puree. But as far as I’m concerned you’re nothing but a damn, greasy, little, interfering foreigner, always snooping about, digging up dirt, and sticking your nose into other people’s affairs. We’re best shut of you.’
’I say, that’s going a bit far, old man,’ Sir Stanley chided his colleague.
’Yes,’ insisted Lady Anne, ’that remark was quite out or order, Brackenberry. I’ve always had a soft spot for Monsieur Puree. He is a very talented and extraordinary individual.’ She sighed wistfully. ’It’s just a pity that it has had to come to this.’
Puree, clearly deflated by the sinister and unexpected course of events - and feeling himself less and less in control of his fate - shook his head and pursed his lips. ’This danse macabre you have led me on is hardly a shining example of your British fair play, I must say.’
Sir Stanley walked over to Third’s old desk. He opened a drawer, took out a pistol. He weighed it in his hand, then walked back to where Puree was stood.
’What are you doing with that gun, Sir Stanley?’
’I’d have thought it would have been obvious. You’re going to die on this very island, Monsieur Puree; in the very room where Third was slain. You’ll be shot; as Third was. Then we’ll tie your body up in a tarpaulin, attach weights to it, and dispose of it down Raven Mire, from where the dead never return.’
The great detective seemed now a shrunken, tremulous, helpless figure. Terror was evident in his drawn face and his fingers were seen to shake. He couldn’t take his eyes off the gleaming barrel of the gun that was pointed, ominously at him. Death, which had been his companion on many a murder case, though always at one remove, now seemed an even darker, more ominous presence.
’It seems a fait accompli, monsieur. Your scheme has been ingenuity itself. Though it was deplorably lax and remiss of me not to see its fateful possibilities from the outset.’ He briefly pointed a finger to the side of his head. ’Alas, the little grey matter has failed me on this critical account. When I needed it the most.’ He shrugged his shoulders; a strained smile on his face. ’But, ’cest lavie.’
‘It’s not every day you get to fool the most brilliant private detective in the world,’ said Lancaster.
‘You have been very clever, monsieur. But I can look myself in the mirror after I have investigated a case.’
’Nothing personal, old man. It’s just that we want to save our own necks.’
’Yes; by sacrificing mine.’
’The instinct for survival is a very powerful force,’ said Sir Stanley.
Brackenberry shook his head petulantly. ’Get on with it Buckingham; and spare us the philosophizing.’
For the first time Sir Stanley looked a little guilty and sheepish as he stared at the ashen victim.
’I’m afraid it’s au revoir, Monsieur Puree.’
He fired three shots into Puree’s torso. The detective gasped, looked at the others with horrid, dilated eyes, then fell, dead, to the floor.
A great peal of thunder reverberated and echoed over the island, as if the heavens themselves were registering a lament over the death of such a noted figure. Then an intense, charged silence fell over the room, as on that day, one year previous, when Third was done to death in the same chamber.
’Who could believe it!’ exclaimed Lady Anne, with a strained, emotional voice. ’Hieronymus Puree himself, the world’s most renowned private investigator, lain out on the floor there, as dead as a doornail.’ She shook her head. ’And the poor guy won’t even have a funeral.’
’I’ll pray for his soul, I will,’ said a tearful Mrs. Field.
’And pray for your soul as well, Bridget,’ muttered Bosworth. ’You’ve broken one of your own commandments.’
’Yes,’ Sir Stanley reflected, ’his sudden disappearance is going to cause quite a stir for a few months.’
’Especially in the Trossachs,’ added Brackenberry.
’Yes,’ said Lancaster, with just an undercurrent of malicious humour; ’they’ll search the place with a fine tooth comb.’
’It’s a good job I’ve got my holidays booked,’ said Lady Anne. ’I can’t wait to get away from here.’
’Aye; and I’m due on a business trip out to South America,’ said Lancaster. ’I need a change of scene after all this.’
‘And I need a stiff drink,’ said Sir Stanley, who made his way over to the drinks cabinet and fixed himself a generous whiskey.
’I’m going to put this house, and the island, on the market. It holds too many dark memories for me.’
’Yes, a capital idea, Lady Anne;’ said Sir Stanley. ‘Now we can both make a fresh start.’
Her Ladyship looked down at the impassive, redundant body on the carpet. A figure who would never investigate another case again. Whose brilliant career was over. Who would never again exercise that grey matter, or astound the public with his intellectual brilliance. She looked at the others and shook her head. ’Y’know, we’ve just killed a legend.’
Sir Stanley took a leisurely sip of whiskey then nodded his head. ’Yeah. Tragic; isn’t it?’
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