Authors: Roy Vickers
“That's a good point,” stooged Crisp. “But I expect it'll only give you another laugh at the expense of the poor policeman.”
“Oh come now, Colonelâwe are laughing together! We are jointly propounding absurdities in order to clear them from our path. On the indictment for conspiracyâpresumably with the same young coupleâwe encounter the difficulty of time and place. The remark about Miss Lofting's suitability as a bride was made in the study after lunch. Assuming that remark to have inspired the murder, we find that my master mind was not in contact with its subordinates until, approximately, one hour and a half
the murder had taken place.”
“Bravo!” applauded Crisp. He decided to take a risk. “Dammit, Mr. Querk, your evidence sweeps away all the cobwebs. It practically proves that there has been no murder.”
“A jest that contains a truth!” mouthed Querk. “In my opinion, there has been no such murder as we have been discussing. Our weak spot, Colonel, is to be found in our motivation. Almost as if we were of the common herd, we have allowed ourselves to be dazzled by money. We see a large fortune and we say: âThere is the Motive.' Now, I ask youâexcluding gangsters and other habitual criminalsâwhat proportion of murders are committed for money?”
Crisp glanced at his aide.
“In the case of persons not previously convicted of an indictable offence,” answered Benscombe, “the motive of gain preponderates in thirty-seven per cent of indictments for murder followed by conviction. I'm quoting the Manual, sir.”
“That's what it sounded like,” smiled Crisp.
“Less than forty per cent!” orated Querk. “I suggest that we entrench ourselves behind the sixty per cent, and search for a more subtle motive. We can safely exclude the motive of revenge. My poor friend had no enemiesâunless, of course, you feel you could count his disgruntled wife. HellâShakespeare tells us, Chief Constableâholds no fury like a woman scorned. Even though our suspicion of the unfortunate lady be at the moment purely Shakesperian, it could do no harm to check her movements at the relevant times. Where was Watlington's wife atâsayâfive-thirty-five this afternoon?”
So that was his first objective, thought Crisp. Incidentally,
he had made the tactical mistake, commonly made by murderers, of nominating a suspect
“I will give you her address,” offered Querk and dictated it to Benscombe. “Dear me! A quarter-to-eleven!”
“We are going back to Headquarters,” said Crisp. “You've given us a good deal to think over.”
Querk interrupted his own progress to the door.
“One little matter before we say goodnight. A trifle, but perhaps a tremendous trifle, my dear Chief Constable. Touching the doctor's statement as to the time at which death occurredâhave we asked the Exchange whether a call was in fact put through at five-thirty? And whether my poor friend answered it?”
“Thank you for reminding me,” said Crisp. “Benscombe, see to it, will you?”
In a spate of compliments to himself and the police, Querk bowed himself out.
In a few minutes, Benscombe returned.
“Trunk call from Edinburgh was put through at five-thirty-four, sir. It was not answered and the call was not charged.”
“Which very strongly suggests that Watlington was dead by that time, Querk caught us out there, Benscombe. Contact the caller and see if he can tell us anything.” Crisp went on: “Did you notice that, while talking like a blithering idiot, he actually shattered the case against himself as nimbly as a first-class lawyer? And did you notice that not a single platitude was wasted?'
“The only thing that feller doesn't know we know,” he continued, “is that the signet ring was removed from Watlington's finger after deathâand replaced. Go on from there, Benscombe.”
“The murderer destroyed the original envelope containing the Will. That is, he wanted to get hold of the Willâor put another Will in its place.”
“That didn't happen, boy! The Will we found was the Will Watlington read to the three of 'em in the study after lunch.”
“Then the murderer wanted something that was in the envelope with the Will.”
“That's more like itâat a guess, something about Miss Loftingâprobably those letters. I may guessâyou mayn't! But why all that how-d'ye-do with the wax and the signet ring? There was another empty envelope addressed to the solicitors. Good quality envelope. Good gum on the flap. If he felt he must use sealing wax, why add the family crest?”
Benscombe wrinkled his brow.
“I've got it, sir! Watlington sealed up the original envelope in the presence of the three of 'em as you say. So the substituted envelope had to be sealed too.”
“Again, why? No one outside those three knew that the seal had been used.”
“The answer to that one, sir, is Miss Lofting. She had seen the original envelope sealed. She would not have stood for murder, so sheâ”
“Nonsense! You must try to leave your incurable romanticism out of your work, Benscombe.”
“All right, sir! The inference is that the murderer acted on his own without consulting the othersâwhich lines up with their telling different tales.”
“You're getting tired, my boy, and a bit woolly. The inference is that there
have been one innocent person and that there
have been two. If there's one innocent person, the evidence to date indicates not Miss Lofting but Ralph Cornboise.”
Benscombe would have protested but was given no chance.
“Querk's evidence clears Ralph,” said Crisp. “It's corroborated in part by Watlington's wife and negatively by Ralph's own mis-statementsânotably the statement that he struck through the wig, which we know he did not.”
“Let's have the other half, sir! Suppose there are two innocent persons?”
“Most probably there are! There's the difference in their respective tales. And there's Querk's point that they had no time in which to conspire. YesâI think it'll turn out to be a one-man jobâor let's say one-person job.”
“You mean, sir, that Miss Lofting might have returned to the library after Querk left it?”
“She might have. We know only that she was having a bath, round about five-fifteen. What's a bath?âa couple of hours or a couple of minutes. She had opportunity plus motive. Querk had opportunity, but no motive, so far as we know.”
“All I can say,” announced Benscombe, “is that if Miss Lofting is the chief suspect, I'm ready to follow Querk and plump for Watlington's wife. That âwoman scorned' stuff!”
“Women get scorned every day, but they don't often commit murder about it. And don't forget the penknife and the signet ringâwhich becomes an elaborate and pointless act from the wife's point of view. To say nothing of ringing us up some hour and a half after the murder.”
“But we don't know that she did that, sir!”
“We don't. But it's a working hypothesis that the murderer did, so as to get us bogged up with all those guests. Something may have happened then, which you and I missed. There's a corker for you. But we don't want corkersâwe want facts. And we shan't get any more here tonight. Come along!”
As he gathered up the Chief Constable's personal paraphernalia, Benscombe harked back.
“I hope, sir, you don't take your own little joke seriously. Miss Lofting means nothing to me. I don't care tuppence whether she's innocent or guilty. I just feel sure that she isn't the type.”
“Oh, I feel that too! That's because we're human. But, you know, there's no such thing as a murderer type.”
In the hall, Claudia Lofting was waiting. As Crisp came out of the morning-room she approached him. She had discarded the evening dress, was wearing a morning frock and an apron, presumably borrowed from Bessie.
“Ralph is ill,” she said. “I want to take him away from here tomorrow. Is there any objection?”
“What sort of âill'?” asked Crisp.
“That confession! He's a bit delirious after his excitement. He keeps telling meâover and over againâhow he killed his uncle.”
Again Crisp lapsed into the perilous business of assessing a human being on appearances. If she had been putting on an act, that apron would be free from stains, which it wasn't. She looked tired and pre-occupied. So he took her words at their face value.
“I have no authority in the matter,” he told her. “I suggest that you leave the decision to the doctor. We've a lot of spadework to do yet. And perhaps it would be in his own ultimate interest if he were to stay close at hand.”
Claudia nodded. Some of her fatigue vanished and she smiled.
“And in my ultimate interest too, Colonel?”
“Since you askâyes. Goodnight, Miss Lofting.”
With Benscombe beside him, Crisp drove back with more dash than was decorous in a Chief Constable.
“Good women,” he remarked, “may conceivably commit crime for what they believe to be a good motive.”
Benscombe was irritated into an outburst of respectful agreement.
On the following morning, an hour before he was due to report at headquarters, Benscombe was knocking at Arthur Fenchurch's flat. Eventually, Fenchurch himself appeared, in a dressing gown which most courageous young men would have liked for their honeymoon, and pyjamas which had passed beyond effeminacy to surrealism.
“Only the police would dare!” he exclaimed. “Please come in. My flat is yours. I will give you a latch-key. What do you want of me?”
“Sorry to disturb you,” said Benscombe. “I want to see Mrs. Fenchurch.”
“How disappointing!” They were in the hall. Fenchurch raised his voice. “Glenda! Glenda, darling, damn you! A really nice policeman has called for you!” He turned to Benscombe. “I believe she's gone.” He opened the door of a bedroom. “Yes, she has. With suitcases. Come and see my studio before you go.”
It was a top floor studio flat. The studio impressed Benscombe. Against the walls was a litter of unfinished canvases, some upside down. Those that were right way up were all pretty portraits of women, except those which were pretty portraits of men. Prominent was a nude without a face. There was a general effect of studied bohemianism and a good deal of untidiness, but the divans were roomy and well sprung, and the screens worked on electric rollers, controlled from a panel built into the easel.
“Perhaps you would give me Mrs. Fenchurch's address?”
“I don't know it. I don't even know her name. I don't know when she went. I last saw her about midnight. After that, I heard her packing.”
“Then at least you knew she was going?”
“Because she was packing?” Fenchurch laughed. “Why, during the few months we've been together she must have packed dozens of times, just as noisily as that. It was a sort of last-word technique, after a row. Good lord, she hasn't left any coffee in the thermos! You'll have to wait while I make some.”
“Don't bother about me, thanks! I say, Mr. Fenchurch, this is on the serious side. We shall have to winkle her out.”
“What a pity! If you find her, please don't bring her back here. Frankly, the poor darling outstayed her welcome. Pray help yourself to any clues you want. I must heat up some coffee if I am to parry your deft questions.”
Fenchurch disappeared kitchenwards. Benscombe went to the room that had been Glenda's.
He was surprised to find it so tidy. And so empty. Except that the dressing table was fitted with side mirrors, there was nothing to indicate that the room had been occupied by a woman. Glenda had cleaned up thoroughly, presumably in order to remove the kind of evidence for which Benscombe was looking.
The scent of gardenia still hovered about the chest-of-drawers, which was as empty as the wardrobe. Sheets had been removed. The mattress was folded on itself. Through the springs, he saw, under the bed, a large cardboard dress-box, of the kind costumiers use to deliver dresses. He stooped down.
The box was larger than any of its kind that he had ever seen. It was tied with thick string and the knots were sealed. As he pulled it from under the bed, he perceived that it did not contain dresses.
He had left the door open. He could hear a faint, distant clatter of crockery.
“Funny how fond these chaps are of coffee!” he muttered, as he cut the string and removed the lid.
The next moment he caught his breath, but not as policemen catch their breathâif, indeed, they ever do.
“God, he can paint! You can recognise her at once, though it isn't really like her to look at.”
Claudia Lofting gazed at him out of the canvas. As a picture, it had nothing in common with the pretty portraits lying about in the studio. Benscombe, who knew nothing of art idioms, became aware that this artist could paint personality. Mood, too, subordinated to personality.
In the first, Claudia was gazing at him as if he were her lover. In the second, a full-length study, with an Italian background, showed her an attractive, everyday girl, thinking of amusing trivialities. Two more had the same kind of background: on one of them, which might have been symbolic, the words
were scrawled across the corner.
Casa Flavia sounded familiar. He closed his eyes, visualised the Chief Constable in the morning-room reading to Querk, from the typed sheet, a row of figures and words pencilled on Watlington's blotting pad.
Watlington â Querk â Fenchurch â Claudia â Casa Flavia? Work that out later.
The last of the canvases stung him to anger. Claudia in the nude! Some devilishly clever trick with shadow made her body seem hard as armour, her hands the hands of a strangler, while the eyes, indubitably hers, looked out of the picture with fierce contemptâas if at something she had killed. In the corner was scrawled:
âO madre mia.'
“Mothers aren't murderers. The thing doesn't make sense!”