Authors: Daphne Coleridge
Tags: #Traditional British, #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General
“Oh, good; it was vile,” retorted Samantha, and went to have her breakfast.
Laura and Rupert exchanged glances.
Delilah expressed more concern. “Oh, my God: gone! It was worth a fortune. I hope you are insured. Have you called the police?”
The look on Laura’s face instantly told Rupert that she had not got around to arranging any form of appropriate insurance.
“What about calling the police?” he urged.
“Not yet,” she said. “Let’s ask everyone if they saw or heard anything. After all, Floyd was in the room the entire time. He must have seen something.”
“I wouldn’t bank on it,” commented Rupert, looking at the still comatose figure of the artist.
By then, Simon, Conran and Samantha had joined them, all clutching bacon sandwiches and, in the case of the men, expressing surprise and dismay. At some point Floyd was stirred into a bleary consciousness and plied with coffee. His immediate response on hearing the news was to assure them that he had witnessed no intruders in the night, whilst admitting that someone could have probably stolen the building from about him and the clothes from his body and he would not have been aware of the fact.
“To be absolutely honest, I’m not feeling at all well this morning,” groaned Floyd, prising himself out of the chair and wincing. “I don’t wish to complain, Laura, but I’m wondering if there wasn’t something a little bit amiss with that whisky.”
“There was nothing wrong with the quality of the whisky,” Laura responded with mild indignation. “It was the quantity in which you imbibed it that was the problem.”
“You may well be right; but my insides are feeling awfully queer.” Indeed, Floyd looked both pale and sweaty with a greyish skin colour.
“Well, leaving Floyd’s insides out of it, perhaps we should all make a search of the house, just in case the toad was simply misplaced or to see if there are any signs of a break in. Whatever one’s artistic attitude to the object, it was valuable and we are going to have to call the police if we can’t sort this out ourselves,” insisted Rupert.
Everyone acquiesced to this plan and they all wandered off in different directions to search. Laura herself was rather dispirited; something told her that the “Pickled Toad with Diamonds” had disappeared for good and she was equally sure that, when the matter got out, it would be received with as much hilarity as sympathy. The fact that she had failed to insure the beastly thing didn’t help.
Sometime later the group reconvened, shrugging their shoulders and muttering about the skills of professional burglars. It was at this point that Floyd re-emerged, looking a slightly better colour but somewhat sheepish.
“I think I may be able to help you solve your mystery,” he began, delicately.
“Do you remember seeing or hearing anything last night?” asked Laura eagerly.
“Well, several memories are beginning to emerge, and none of them very pleasant. You have to understand, I wasn’t in a good way last night.”
“We do understand,” said Laura, with gentle encouragement. “Just tell us what you remember.”
“Well,” began Floyd, cautiously, “I think I must have been tired and fallen asleep. When I woke up, you had all gone and the fire had died down. The whisky had left me feeling slightly odd inside, but surprisingly hungry. I thought I’d look out a snack – something savoury to offset the over-sweet liquor.”
“You ate the toad!” exclaimed Laura with horrible realisation.
“I’m rather afraid I did, my dear,” said Floyd apologetically.
“But you were very drunk and your memory might be betraying you. Can you be sure you ate it?” asked Rupert.
“Regrettably, yes,” replied Floyd. “You see, feeling rather unsettled, I paid a visit to the bathroom. It was as I sat there that the memory seemed to float inexorably to the surface of my mind. Distressed at the loss to Laura I felt obliged to see if I could at least...retrieve the diamonds!” He opened his clasped right hand to reveal the two stones.
There was a stunned silence before Delilah said, “I really hope you washed your hands well.”
“I did. I am mortified at what has occurred. Of course the work of art cannot be returned to you, Laura. All I can do is to humbly offer to paint my own portrait of you in recompense.”
With the return of the diamonds and this generous offer from the great Floyd Bailey, Laura was feeling much happier. Perhaps she would even be able to see the funny side of events in due course. As for Rupert, he thought the replacement of the
Pickled Toad with Diamonds
by a portrait of Laura a definite improvement.
An Uninvited Guest
Of all the unwelcome guests you hope will not turn up at your wedding: ex-spouses, drunken relations and voluble friends in possession of all the facts about your misspent life, a corpse is amongst the most undesirable. However, on the day of the marriage of Rupert Latimer, the dazed and fortunate groom, and his very lovely and wealthy wife, Laura, they not only returned from Claresby parish church to find a corpse already in attendance in the Great Hall, set out as it was in full splendour for the reception, but that very corpse was seated at the top of the snowy clothed, flower bedecked table in the large oak chair predestined to receive the groom, its limbs spread-eagled in careless, slightly tipsy abandon. Worse still, after the screams and shrieks of one or two of the first ladies to arrive had been silenced, a helpful medical friend took a brief look at the unwanted guest and indicated that, far from being recently deceased, it was probably a day or so since it had breathed its last.
It was characteristic of Laura that, on entering to find this scene, rather than dissolving into hysterics or clutching herself to the manly, if rather bony, chest of her newly acquired husband, she lifted the skirts of her elegant satin dress, bent towards the offending figure, sniffed her delicate nose and said, “Typical!”
Once a semblance of order had returned and a number of guests, in need of reassurance, had made their way to the table set out with sherry and glasses, a few of the more sensible souls had emerged to take responsibility for the situation.
“Where were the caterers?” was the first question asked by Paul Mayfield, the doctor who had already made his assessment of the uninvited guest. “I tell you, that fellow did not make his own way over to the chair. Someone must have carried him in, and someone should have seen that happen.”
There were half a dozen caterers about the place for the occasion: two based in the kitchen preparing food, two girls to serve the food and drink, one to wash-up, and one in charge of the wine. They were not a large party for the wedding; only twenty guests, twenty-two to include the happy couple and twenty-three if you wanted to be particular and include the corpse. Certainly the two girls should have been on hand to start pouring the sherry when the guests returned from the church pretty much on time. As it was, the guests were proving themselves perfectly well able to pour their own drinks and the girls were only just emerging into the Great Hall from the kitchen, flush faced and flustered. There was a pause whilst they noticed the dead body, noticed that everyone was looking at them and became very nervous. Eventually one, a mousy, hesitant sixteen year old with a propensity to blush managed to answer the queries.
“Well, we’d set everything up, and Maureen told us to come into the kitchen. Then Ken suggested we all took a sip of the champagne, just to drink Miss Mortimer’s health, like... I mean Mrs Latimer...”
“I presume that the fellow in the chair wasn’t there when you finished setting up?” queried Rupert.
“No, he weren’t. I’d have noticed him for sure ‘coz he’s a funny colour.”
“How long were you out of the Great Hall for?” asked Paul Mayfield.
“Well, just a minute of two...well, maybe ten. We was all ready early. We meant to be back in by twelve-thirty when you was all due back.” The girl glanced awkwardly at the clock which showed twenty-five to one.
Rupert shrugged. “The DJ was here first thing to set up some of his equipment, but he won’t be back until this evening, so I doubt that he saw anything. Ten minutes is all it would take to lug a body in here, and if no one was about at that particular moment to witness the event then it’s anyone’s guess who it was that did the deed. The question is: why? And who is the fellow anyway?” He gazed quizzically at the corpse as if hoping it would deliver up an answer, his amiable, intelligent but rather ugly face expressing bemused interest.
The corpse itself, sprawled in ungainly but casual attitude upright in the chair suggested a tall, bony man of perhaps sixty. The face was discoloured and hideous in death and it was difficult to deduce whether or not the man had been more attractive in life. The clothes were of rather good quality tweed, the shirt fine linen, perhaps suggesting their owner had been a well-to-do man of decent taste.
The group of people-who-are-interested had been joined by sometimes lawyer, Simon Forrest, and a dishevelled looking man with a ruddy face.
“Have you solved the crime?” asked the dishevelled man, prematurely.
“Well, we don’t know a crime has been committed,” said Rupert, reasonably. “For all we know, he sat down feeling a little unwell and passed away.”
“Yes, but as I have pointed out,” said Paul Mayfield, “he may well have died of natural causes, but he didn’t do so in the last twenty minutes – that corpse is post rigour mortis, of that I am certain.”
“Perhaps someone put him here as a joke?” suggested the man with the ruddy face. “A rather black joke,” he added seeing the expressions on the other’s faces.
“Assuming he did die of natural causes,” Rupert said, turning to Simon Forrest, “what are the laws concerning the disposal of a dead body? Has a law been broken here?”
“Well,” said Simon, thoughtfully, “not really my area of expertise, but whilst it is generally recognised that a corpse has no rights, the failure to dispose of a dead body properly is an offense; there are questions both of what is decent and respectful as well as public health issues to be considered. Also, unless someone has already ascertained how he died, a post-mortem would be required. And,” with a spark of legal remembrance in his eyes, “it is a crime to hold a body as security for an unpaid debt!”
“The latter not an issue,” commented Rupert, “but we will need to call the police.”
“Is there any urgency? Can’t we stick it in the corner and worry about it after we’ve eaten?” suggested one heartless and hungry guest who had just joined the throng.
“Well,” said Rupert, “we could call the police but put him quietly in the study until they arrive...”
“You shouldn’t move...” began Simon; but no one was willing to attend to him. Two none-too-fastidious men were summoned to lift the chair bodily and remove it to the study whilst celebrations were resumed with the added relish of unexpected drama.
It was only when they had sat down to eat the hors d’oeuvre of smoked salmon with dill cream that the man with the ruddy face – coincidently the best-man on this occasion – commented to Rupert, “You know, the funny thing is that I was talking to that very man in the churchyard just before the wedding, and whatever your doctor friend says, he was very much alive then!”
A traditional English wedding follows a certain course, so notwithstanding the interruption, food was eaten, speeches were made (with humorous reference to “our friend in the study”), toasts were drunk in champagne and the triumph of white icing and marzipan flowers that was the wedding cake was cut with a Cromwellian sword, removed from its station over the fireplace by an enterprising guest and wiped thoroughly but covertly on a napkin by the bride. A couple of policemen moved discretely about the place, and as guests relaxed and mingled, formalities having been completed, they apologetically cornered Mr and Mrs Latimer.
“Well,” said a young, pink-faced policeman, “there is no sign of violence on the corpse, although we will have to wait for the coroner to tell us how he died; but we’ve not been able to establish his identity. We’ll have to question your caterers and the guests of course and I understand that you had someone setting up some musical equipment, so we’ll be talking to him. In the meantime, is there anything you can tell us about the man?”
Laura shook her head. “He was here in a chair when we returned from the church; nobody saw anything and nobody seems to recognise him. It’s a bit of a mystery.” She had removed her veil, but still wore a crown of tiny, white fabric flowers in her glossy auburn hair and this, coupled with her wide eyes and gentle expression gave her a look of almost conspicuous innocence. It made the young constable feel rather brutal as he revealed his next piece of news.
“Well, we do need to find out more about him, because while you were eating a discovery was made in the churchyard. I’m sorry to say that another dead body has been discovered there – and I don’t mean the usual kind, buried and all. This chap was slumped in the chair in the garden of remembrance.”
Rupert’s eyes started in surprise, “Do you know anything about that man? And are the two deaths connected?”
“Well, I couldn’t comment on any of that, sir. But, I’ve been down to the churchyard myself, and it would appear to be the same man as that one in your study, only fresher, so to speak!” He looked somewhat shocked, confused and out of sorts himself, so Rupert patted him reassuringly on the arm.
“If it is all right with you, I will come and look at the man in the churchyard; I’m beginning to have a worm of suspicion about the identity of these two men. Let me just have a word with my best man.”
The uninvited guest having been properly removed, the invited guests continued to enjoy the abundance of free flowing wine into the evening when the DJ arrived and the Great Hall was transformed into a disco. Rupert eventually returned from his foray to the graveyard and, whilst he said nothing to Laura at that time, she could tell from the set of his broad, ugly, but to her completely lovable face that he had found out some conclusive yet disturbing truth about the identity of the two dead men. As it was, they continued the evening as planned and only fell into the newly refurbished Elizabethan four-poster in the scarlet bedroom in the wee hours of the next morning. There were a handful of other guests spending the night there by arrangement and a few uninvited (but live) guests who crashed in corners, too drunk or tired to make their way home. It was only after they had explored one of the comforts of married life appropriate to their wedding night that Rupert and Laura lay in each other’s arms and Rupert told her what he had discovered.