Mrs. Jeffries and the Best Laid Plans (4 page)

BOOK: Mrs. Jeffries and the Best Laid Plans
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Witherspoon nodded dully. “Uh, is the body badly burnt?” He swallowed heavily, telling himself he must do his duty. He mustn’t be so squeamish. Looking at corpses was part and parcel of his position.
“No, sir. It’s hardly been touched. Which is a bit of a luck if you ask me,” Tucker replied. “See for yourself, sir.”
Barnes stepped through the door. Witherspoon steeled himself and followed.
Once inside, they stopped and gaped in amazement. On the right side of the room, most of the wall had been removed and the wood replaced with three very large windows. At the far end of the room behind the settee, there was a row of built-in cupboards. The body was on the settee, looking for all the world like a man asleep.
Witherspoon crossed over to the table on the far end of the settee and looked at the painting on the easel. It was singed a bit about the edges, but otherwise it appeared intact. Near the door, there was an old faded carpet remnant, now badly burnt and soaked with water, and beyond the rug, another smaller table with what looked like files piled atop it. He was surprised at how nothing appeared to be badly damaged. If it wasn’t for the water soaking everything, one would not even notice there’d been a fire.
Witherspoon stiffened his spine and turned to the body. He stood looking at for a long moment. “The body’s hardly been touched.”
Barnes eased in on the other side of the settee, directly across from the inspector. He reached down and grasped Boyd’s chin, gently turning the head to afford a better view of the back of the skull. “I can see why they called us so quickly, sir. His head’s been bashed in. That’s probably what killed him.”
Witherspoon swallowed the bile that rose in his throat. He took a deep breath and then wished he hadn’t as his nostrils filled with air smelling of harsh chemicals, smoke, and now, blood. He knew he was being fanciful; it was far too soon for the corpse to begin to smell, but nonetheless, he was certain he could sense it. He sniffed again, this time concentrating and trying separate out the different scents. “Do you smell that, Barnes?”
“Smell what?” Barnes sucked up air through his nose and then shook his head, his expression rueful. “I can’t smell much of anything, sir. I never could. The missus claims I couldn’t smell a dead skunk if it was lying two feet from my big toe.”
“It’s a chemical smell.” The inspector frowned. “You know, like creosote or lime water.”
Barnes noticed the tin of turpentine lying on the floor beneath the small window. “It’s turpentine.” He pointed at the tin as he came out from behind the settee. “The cap is off, sir.”
Witherspoon glanced around the room and spotted the cap on the table. “Someone deliberately took the lid off and spilled it about the room,” he concluded. “That tin didn’t fly from the table to the floor on its own. I expect the killer used the turpentine to try and spread the fire. Perhaps even cover up that the poor fellow had been murdered.”
“Surely no one could think this would be thought of as an accident?” Barnes said. “The poor man’s head has been bashed all to bits.”
Witherspoon thought for a moment. “Yet why bash his head in and then try to make it look like an accident? Why start a fire at all? No, the killer either started a fire to draw attention to the body, which I highly doubt as most people tend to want to avoid drawing attention to people they’ve just murdered, or the murderer wanted to cover up the fact that it was murder. If the fire had spread and the walls had collapsed, then the entire ceiling would have caved in. In which case, there wouldn’t have been enough of the victim left to give us any indication of how he’d really died.”
Barnes wasn’t so sure, but he said nothing. He didn’t have any better ideas himself.
Witherspoon moved over to the small window and turned to survey the room. He noted the position of the corpse, and on the floor, just below where the man’s fingers rested, he saw the burnt remains of a cigar. “And in case the roof didn’t cave in and only the interior of the room and the body were burned, the murderer tried to make it appear as if Mr. Boyd had fallen asleep while he was smoking,” he said, speculating. “That’s what the killer wanted us to think.”
“If the killer was trying to make it look like an accident, he botched it badly.” Barnes pointed at the burnt cigar stub. “The first thing that would burn in a fire is that bit there. There’d have been nothing there but ash.”
“True.” Witherspoon turned his head and glanced out the small window. Constable Tucker was trudging across the lawn. He carried a pair of scissors and a ball of twine and had a roll of brown paper tucked under his arm. “What’s more, people are afraid of fire. When they see smoke, they call the fire brigade. Surely the murderer must have known someone would get help and the ruse would be discovered.”
Constable Tucker popped his head into the studio. “May I come in, sir? I’d like to wrap up the evidence and take it down to the station.” He waved the roll of brown paper and grinned triumphantly. “I know all about your methods, sir, so I said to myself, ‘Tucker, what would the inspector do?’ So I marched right into the kitchen and asked the cook if I could borrow a few things. She was quite happy to oblige, sir.”
Witherspoon wasn’t sure what Constable Tucker wanted to do, but he didn’t wish to discourage the young man. “Certainly, Constable, come right on in. We’re almost through here.”
Tucker dashed across the wet floor, almost slipped, and then righted himself.
“Take care, Constable,” Witherspoon warned. His gaze shifted to the floor. Most of the water had seeped through the floorboards, leaving bright puddles and splashes of color, especially under the easel. “We don’t want you breaking a leg.” He turned back to Barnes and left Tucker to his evidence gathering, which looked to consist mostly of wrapping up Boyd’s painting. Witherspoon didn’t particularly see that as any sort of evidence. It wasn’t as if the man had written the name of the killer on the painting, but he didn’t wish to make Tucker feel like his efforts were unappreciated.
“Er, excuse me, Inspector, may I have a word with you?” The voice came from the open window.
Witherspoon turned and peered out between the remnants of the burnt curtains. A tall, gaunt-faced man dressed in an old-fashioned butler’s uniform stared back at him. “I take it you’re the butler,” he said.
“Yes, sir, I’m Leeson. I’m sorry to bother you, but the guests were wondering if they might leave. They’ve been here for several hours now and they want to go home.” Leeson struggled to keep his gaze on the Inspector and not the body lying on the settee.
“Guests? Mr. Boyd was having guests today?”
“Yes, sir, I tried to get word to all of them that the luncheon was cancelled, but they all arrived just as the fire brigade was leaving and then insisted on staying until they heard what had happened. But now they’d like to leave. Especially Mr. Glover. He’d like to go back to the office and let the others know about Mr. Boyd’s death.”
“No, I’m afraid the guests can’t leave,” Witherspoon said quickly. “Tell them we’ll be up directly to have a word with them.”
“But they weren’t even here when the fire started,” the butler protested. He knew that none of the guests were going to take kindly to being trapped here any longer. Besides, if they stayed much longer, they’d want tea and cook was already in a horrid mood. “No one was here but Miss Clarke and Mr. Glover.”
“What about the servants?” Barnes walked over to stand beside the inspector. “Weren’t they here when the fire started?”
“We were all at a funeral,” Leeson explained. “One of the housemaids died of pneumonia. Everyone except Mr. Boyd went to the funeral. The fire brigade was here when we got back.”
“But you were having guests for luncheon today?” Barnes pressed. “Who was doing the cooking?”
“It was already prepared,” Leeson explained. He looked nervously over his shoulder at the house, as though he were expecting a horde of angry guests to come streaming out the back door, demanding to be either fed or let go. “Mr. Boyd knew the staff wanted to go to Helen’s service, so he told cook to prepare a cold luncheon. Everything else was done; the table was set and the serving trolleys at the ready, so all we had to do was serve.”
“What about this Miss Clarke and Mr. Grover?” Witherspoon interjected. “Why didn’t they go to the funeral?”
“They’re not part of the household. Miss Clarke is a typist. She’s from one of those agencies. She came along to help Mr. Boyd catch up on his work. Mr. Glover brought some files over from Mr. Boyd’s office. Please, sir, can I go back to the house and tell the guests that they’ve got to stay for awhile longer? I do believe that some of them are going to leave with or without your permission.”
Witherspoon glanced at Barnes. “Constable, can you go along with Leeson and insure that no one leaves just yet. I’ll be in as soon as I’ve given the police constables their instructions.”
Barnes grinned broadly. “Certainly, sir. Come along, Leeson. Let’s go and take care of your guests.”
As soon as the two men had gone, Witherspoon forced himself to go back to the body. Tucker was putting another sheet of brown paper around the painting, but he stopped what he was doing and watched the inspector.
Witherspoon went behind the settee and gazed down at the back of the skull. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for, but he knew it was important to absorb as much detail as possible. Unfortunately, the ugly mangle of matted hair, blood, and bone told him only that the poor fellow had been hit with something very hard.
“Excuse me, sir, but what are you looking for?” Tucker asked.
“Anything that may help us solve the crime,” he explained. “I think our victim was hit with something very hard, something that killed him very quickly and that might become important evidence.”
Tucker reached for the ball of twine. “I don’t see anything in here that could be a murder weapon.”
“Let’s have a good look at the place before we make any assertions, Constable.” He surveyed the small room again. “The weapon would have to be something heavy, something that could be easily lifted by the killer and used to hit hard enough to break through hair and bone.”
“Right, sir.” Tucker wound the ball of twine around the painting. “There’s no metal doorstops or big brass candlesticks.”
“Let’s have a look at what’s in the cupboards.” Witherspoon opened the one nearest him and looked inside. The cupboard was wide and deep with two shelves. On the top shelf there were two fat sketchbooks and a box of charcoal. On the bottom shelf were three canvases stored sideways. Witherspoon pulled one out and saw that it was simply a painting of the sea.
“Did you find anything, sir?” Tucker asked eagerly.
“No, just art supplies and more paintings.” He shoved the last one back into the cupboard and continued his search. In the other cupboards, he found more paints and another tin of turpentine. But he found nothing that could be used as a weapon. “I’m afraid, Constable, that the murder weapon isn’t here. That’s going to make finding the killer much more difficult.”
“Not to worry, sir. You’ll catch the murderer.” Tucker lifted the painting off the easel. “You always do.”
Witherspoon wasn’t so sure. He was beginning to think that living up to his own reputation was becoming harder with each and every case.
“How much longer are we going to be kept waiting?” Walter Gibbons demanded. He glared at Constable Barnes, who stood solidly by the drawing room door, making sure that none of them actually managed to leave.
“I’m sure the inspector will be here shortly, sir,” Barnes replied easily. He stared at Gibbons curiously. He wasn’t an old man; judging from the smooth skin on his face, the constable would put his age in the mid-forties. Yet Gibbons’s hair was completely white.
“This is outrageous.” Gibbons, his hands behind his back, stomped back and forth in front of the fireplace and glared at Barnes. “Utterly absurd. You’ve no right to restrain any of us from leaving. I shall speak to your superiors; you can rest assured about that.”
“The constable was acting upon my instructions.” Witherspoon strode into the room. “So kindly direct your comments to me. If you’d like to lodge a complaint, the name of my superior is Chief Inspector Barrows. His office is at New Scotland Yard.”
“Humph,” Gibbons snorted. “Rest assured that I shall. Now, may I go?”
“No, I’m sorry, but you may not.” The inspector surveyed the small group of people in the drawing room. A well-dressed couple was sitting on the settee, and a lone young woman wearing a long-sleeved white blouse and a dark green skirt was standing by the window. A heavyset fellow was sitting next to a small table by the door at the other end of the drawing room, staring morosely at the floor. He had barely looked up when the inspector had come into the room. Witherspoon wondered if these were the only guests that had been invited for lunch or if some of the others had managed to slip away.
“I’m Inspector Witherspoon,” he said. “I’m sorry to have inconvenienced you, but we do have some questions for all of you.”
“Questions?” The man who’d been sitting on the settee rose to his feet. “What kind of questions? We had nothing to do with the fire, so I don’t see how we can be of any use to you, sir. When my wife and I arrived, the fire brigade was already here.” He was of medium height with brown hair, a square jaw, small gray eyes, and a stocky build. He wore a dark gray suit with a maroon waistcoat and a black-and-white striped cravat.
“It’s not about the fire,” Witherspoon said softly. He glanced at Barnes, who gave a barely perceptible nod. The constable hadn’t told them there was a murder. “Mr. Boyd’s death wasn’t an accident. It was murder.”
“Murder?” the woman on the settee gasped.
“That’s ridiculous,” Gibbons snapped. “The butler said he died in a fire.”
“Oh dear,” the fellow sitting at the table murmured.
The young woman by the window simply sighed.
BOOK: Mrs. Jeffries and the Best Laid Plans
11.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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