Dr Jellyfield got to his feet.
‘A bit of shrapnel, was it?’ asked Mr Gudgeon, looking at the sky as if he thought a German aircraft might appear and own up.
‘Where’s Constable Baker?’ said Dr Jellyfield. ‘No, Mr Gudgeon. This is not enemy action. This is plain old-fashioned murder.’
No one gossips about other people’s
At eleven o’clock in the morning, three days later, Harriet was not surprised to see Superintendent Kirk coming up the path to her front door, though she was immediately somewhat wary. She broke off her task – she had been making a selection of books from the Talboys shelves that could be donated to the ad hoc-library in the air-raid shelter – and welcomed her visitor in the drawing-room with the offer of sherry and biscuits.
‘I know it’s a little early for sherry, Mr Kirk,’ she said, ‘but alas, we have no coffee to offer you, although I’m sure we could rustle up a cup of tea.’
‘A sherry would be very welcome, Lady Peter,’ Mr Kirk said. ‘Thank you.’
‘You look rather downcast,’ said Harriet as she handed him his glass.
‘Downcast?’ he said. ‘I don’t know which way to turn, Lady Peter, and that’s the truth. There’s no news of Lord Peter, I suppose?’
He sounded so wistful that there was no difficulty reading him at all.
‘Will he turn up out of the blue and solve the murder for you, you mean? I wish I thought so. Of course there’s never any telling with Peter. But I’m afraid I don’t expect him, even if mony a heart would break in twa . . .’
A gloomy silence hung between them while Harriet poured herself a glass of sherry to keep him company.
‘Should he no’ come back again,’ he observed at last.
‘Spot on. I’m glad you’re not too oppressed to play the game.’
‘Not me! Don’t know as I’ve ever known who wrote it, mind.’
‘It was someone called Carolina Oliphant,’ said Harriet. ‘And not many people, I’m sure, know that.’ To mollify him, she added, ‘Seems harder to note the author if one just knows something out of a song-book.’
‘I suppose a song-book might be full of improving sentiments,’ he said. ‘Specially if it happened to be full of hymns. But a song-book isn’t a solitary pleasure, my lady, like the
. I can’t see myself a-singing in the fireside chair of an evening – Mrs Kirk likes to listen to the wireless.’
‘No one will reproach you for not being able to name Carolina Oliphant,’ said Harriet, smiling. She really did rather like the Superintendent. ‘You may leave the court without a stain on your character.’
‘What? Oh, I see what you mean. Very good. But, Lady Peter, I really am at my wits’ end. I’m so short-staffed, you see, what with running around looking for blackout failures, and watching the stations and bus-stops for suspicious characters, and checking up on these here new slaughtering licences, and all the black-market control jobs, as well as all the usual things we used to do in peace-time. A murder is the very last thing I need, leave alone the victim being a woman.’
‘I’m sorry you’re short-staffed,’ said Harriet. ‘I thought policemen were in a reserved occupation. But why is it worse for you if the victim is a woman?’
‘You’re quite right that policemen aren’t getting called up directly,’ said the Superintendent. ‘But stopping them as has a mind from resigning and then joining up is another thing. They are more than welcome in the military police, because of their experience. I’ve lost two young constables that way. And a woman constable too; she had to go home to look after her mother in Scotland, so she applied for a transfer, and I can’t replace her. And what chance do you think, Lady Peter, one of my men in uniform would have of getting information about a young woman out of her friends? People just don’t confide in police officers about that sort of thing.’
‘About what sort of thing, Mr Kirk?’
‘Troubles of the heart, you might say. Playing the field. Whatever it was that got someone worked up enough to kill her.’
‘What makes you think it was that sort of thing?’ asked Harriet.
‘What else could it likely be?’ he asked. ‘When a crime involves a woman it’s nearly always that. I heard about one case what was about the ownership of a plot of land; but that was the exception that proves the rule.’
‘Mr Kirk, if Peter were here, I know what he would say. He would say motives are moonshine. When you know how you know who. I’ve heard him say it over and over again.’
‘Well, this time there isn’t any mystery about how. I’ve got a preliminary post-mortem report. Someone met her in the street, and struck a violent blow to her chin, breaking her jaw in two places. Then he spun her round, put his hands round her neck, applied pressure to her carotid arteries, and kicked her in the back. She was dead when he dropped her.’
‘She was lying on her back, though?’
‘You’re a sharp one,’ said Kirk appreciatively. ‘Her assailant must have rolled her over – perhaps with his foot, like. She was as slack as a sack of potatoes by then, and that’s how come she looked quite natural when you got a sight of her.’
‘You know,’ said Harriet thoughtfully, ‘that sounds very expert to me. Not the sort of thing that just anyone could have done.’
‘Six months ago I would have agreed with you,’ he said. ‘Happy days! Only someone trained in the Great War, I would have thought. But now half the population of England is training to kill. ARP units, Home Defence units, hundreds of people. There aren’t any guns for them, so they are drilling with wooden rifles, and learning how to use their bare hands. I’m almost sorry for any German parachutist who runs into an average English villager.’
‘Well, we can be reasonably sure that Wicked Wendy wasn’t a German parachutist,’ said Harriet.
‘Is “Wicked Wendy” what they were calling her?’
‘I’m afraid so.’
‘Then it most likely was the sort of thing I was suspecting.’
Harriet couldn’t deny it.
‘In view of which,’ he added, studiously avoiding her eye, ‘and seeing as Lord Peter isn’t available, I was wondering if you would feel like lending a hand.’
‘At a bit of detecting? I’m a very poor substitute for Peter.’
‘Your books are very ingenious, my lady. You have the aptitude.’
‘Now you have surprised me, Mr Kirk. I never thought to hear a policeman express any sort of admiration for crime fiction. You have made a great concession.’
‘Do you think you could help out, as a kind of war work?’ he said. ‘I mean, we can’t let villains get away with murder just because there’s a war on.’
‘You’d have to be willing to put me completely in the picture, as you see it,’ said Harriet doubtfully.
‘Agreed,’ he said. ‘This isn’t the usual situation, I’m not a-going to insist on the usual procedures.’
‘Then I will stand at your right hand. What precisely do you want me to do?’ asked Harriet.
‘And keep the bridge with me!’ he said. ‘Macaulay, Thomas Babington. Oh, quite like old times, Lady Peter. I’d like you to find out all that you can about the girl. Her friends, boyfriends, background, that sort of thing. Was she walking out with someone? Could you ferret around for me?’
Harriet thought about it. ‘I could try. But not if it involves pretending that it wasn’t official. I would be open about who had asked me to ferret around.’
‘You wouldn’t like to be an undercover copper’s nark, Lady Peter? Well, I can understand that.’
‘Peter himself would never dissemble about that sort of thing,’ said Harriet firmly.
‘No,’ said Mr Kirk, ‘I don’t suppose he would. And you really have no idea when he will get back?’
‘That must be uncommon hard on you, I think.’
‘It isn’t easy,’ said Harriet, grateful for his flash of sympathy. ‘Standing in for Peter in various ways is what I seem to be for, at the moment. But I’d much rather he were here to play his roles for himself.’
‘And all these kiddies what you have under your wing?’ Superintendent Kirk was gazing out of the window at the riotous game being played on the lawn.
‘That’s my son Bredon, trying to hold the bat – he’s just three, and my second son Paul sitting watching in the push-chair. The others are my sister-in-law’s three: a boy and two girls. Charlie is quite a little grown-up at ten, and the other two are his sister Polly and his baby sister Harriet, my god-daughter.’
‘Have I seen that young Charlie at the Boy Scouts in Great Pagford? I was there the other day giving a police talk to help out the scout-master.’
‘You might well have done. He goes to Scouts with Sam Bateson, the neighbour’s little boy. We get them over there when we can, but we don’t always manage it.’
‘You must have your hands full; perhaps I shouldn’t have asked you . . .’
‘Rubbish, Mr Kirk, you shouldn’t worry on that account. I have a cook and a house-maid, and a nursery-maid, and all these children are in the family, more or less. The women in the village who are coping with the children of perfect strangers without a hand to help them are the ones we should be concerned about.’
‘You’re only too right there,’ he said. ‘The war gets into everything, doesn’t it? Change and decay in all around we see. You know, Lady Peter, we are fighting for freedom, as I understand it, and yet I’m expected to make sure that Aggie Twitterton doesn’t buy herself an egg while she is keeping them hens. I’ve become such a bully as I hardly recognise myself. Funny sort of freedom, if you ask me.’
‘It’s a very different kind of war this time,’ Harriet said. ‘It isn’t somewhere over there – the soldiers marching away, and coming back victorious or defeated from elsewhere. This time we’re all in it together. And cheer up, not all the news is bad. The news this morning says a whole squadron of the Canadian Air Force have arrived to help us.’
The Superintendent had picked up his hat, and was preparing to leave.
‘You’re a good trooper, Lady Peter,’ he said.
Harriet wondered where to start. She supposed, thinking about the land-girls, working hard all day getting hungry as hunters and far from home, that a cake might improve her welcome, so she wandered into the kitchen to see if Mrs Trapp could rustle something up. Mrs Ruddle’s voice at high volume drifted down the hall towards her.
‘I suppose, Mrs Trapp, this is the kind of thing we must expect,’ Mrs Ruddle was saying.
‘Good morning, Mrs Ruddle,’ said Harriet. ‘What kind of thing must we expect?’ Mrs Ruddle had been employed as a charlady when the Wimseys first moved into the house, and had never quite resigned the right to come and go there. She was seldom needed now, although very willing when she was wanted. She was now comfortably ensconced on the Windsor chair at the end of kitchen table nearest the fire, with a cup of tea in her hand. Mrs Trapp was kneading bread, turning and slapping the dough rhythmically on the other end of the table. Not for her a tea-break to keep her visitor company.
‘Getting murdered in our beds, Lady Peter!’ said Mrs Ruddle.
‘Who’s been murdered in their bed, Mrs Ruddle?’ Harriet asked.
‘That poor young woman . . .’
‘Murdered in the street, I think.’
‘Well, that’s even worse, isn’t it, if we can’t even walk down the middle of the street without being done for.’
‘It is horrible,’ said Mrs Trapp, cutting up her dough and twisting it neatly into the bread tins. ‘I don’t envy whoever has to tell her parents.’
‘But why should we expect it, Mrs Ruddle? I don’t understand you,’ said Harriet.
‘With all these German spies around,’ said Mrs Ruddle gleefully.
‘What German spies are those?’ asked Harriet. ‘Have you heard something I haven’t?’ Not that that was unlikely, she thought. Mrs Ruddle was at the centre of every web of gossip for twenty miles around – certainly for the entire area served by the local telephone exchange, at which her daughter worked.
‘Well, I can’t say exactly,’ admitted Mrs Ruddle. ‘But it stands to reason, Lady Peter. If there aren’t any German spies, what for are we taking down all the signposts? How come my Bert has got a job of work to do painting out the name of the village on the railway station? Answer me that!’
Harriet couldn’t think of an answer, and Mrs Ruddle continued. ‘You want to ask Mrs Spright – she says she’s spotted two or three of ’em around already!’
‘Do I know Mrs Spright?’ asked Harriet.
‘P’raps you don’t, Lady Peter,’ said Mrs Ruddle. ‘She used to be a dentist over at Broxford. She retired here to that house down Datchett’s Lane. Three year or more ago.’
‘If she’s seen any spies around, she ought to tell the authorities,’ remarked Mrs Trapp, spreading a floured cloth over her loaf tins.
‘That’s what I told her!’ said Mrs Ruddle. ‘I said, you ought to go tell one of them officers at the airfield, and get them arrested. She said she would tell who she felt like, when she was good and ready. She said as how you couldn’t necessarily trust a body along of ’im wearing a Nar A ef uniform.’
‘You should tell her if she knows anything, it’s no more than her duty, Mrs Ruddle,’ said Mrs Trapp. ‘She should tell the police.’
‘A lot of good that’ud do, I don’t think!’ cried Mrs Ruddle. Harriet remembered the Ruddle family’s long-lasting grudge against a village policeman who had been replaced some time back.
‘I suppose you must be very busy, Mrs Ruddle?’ asked Harriet mildly. ‘Everyone seems to have such a lot to do.’
‘What? Oh, yes, I can’t hang around like this gossiping with Mrs Trapp,’ said Mrs Ruddle, heaving herself out of her chair. ‘I’ll bid you good morning, and be off.’
‘Did she want anything in particular, Mrs Trapp?’ asked Harriet when the door closed safely on Mrs Ruddle’s back.
‘To borrow a mug of sugar, and to talk about the murder. A dreadful thing, I know, but . . . I’m afraid I told her, m’lady, that now sugar is rationed we didn’t have any to lend.’