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Authors: Charlotte MacLeod

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BOOK: The Plain Old Man
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“I shouldn’t have supposed so, but one never knows. Where did Charlie keep his?”

“Next to his bed, in a dry sink that belonged to his grandmother. It has a cupboard which was expressly designed for such a receptacle, contrary to what modern decorators seem to think. Where else could it be more conveniently got at when need arose? Have I made my point?”

“Unfortunately, yes,” Sarah had to answer. “Then you think what I—”

She stopped, but too late. Frederick caught the slip.

“Ah, then you agree with me that Charlie may have been done away with. May I ask why, other than the fact that you’ve been attracting foul play of late faster than a dog picks up fleas?”

“There’s that, I suppose. But the main reason is—and for heaven’s sake don’t breathe a word of this to a soul—Ernestina was stolen last night.”

“Ernestina?” Frederick yelped. “You mean the big Romney? How did it happen?”

“We don’t really know. She was gone when Heatherstone went in this morning to draw the curtains. A newspaper clipping about holding artworks for ransom was thumbtacked inside the empty frame. I found another ransom note hung on the library screen this afternoon. Aunt Emma doesn’t know about that one yet.”

Now that the cat was out of the bag, Sarah decided she’d better give Cousin Frederick a complete rundown. She told him about the Slepe-o-tite, and about what had been happening to her in the potting shed while he was being introduced to Charlie Daventer’s role.

“So you see,” she finished, “it’s simply too much of a coincidence that Charlie got killed last night.”

“But why Charlie?”

“I can’t imagine. However, he was at the house yesterday, and he did stay to dinner, along with Ridpath Wale. I forget how the talk got around to Ernestine, but anyway it did. About who she was, you know, and how valuable a Romney that size would be today. Then Charlie said Ernestine looked as if she could use a bath and Ridpath offered to give Aunt Emma the name of the person who’d cleaned his Sargents, but Aunt Emma said she didn’t want to be bothered until after she’d got the show over with. I know it doesn’t sound like much of a connection, but there it is.”

“How much of this does Emma know?”

“Just the part that happened last night. I wanted to call the police, but she wouldn’t let me on account of the publicity. She’s made up her mind to keep quiet about the whole thing until after the show. That’s why I got you to help me whip off that silly painting today, so people wouldn’t see the empty frame and start asking questions. Frederick, did you know she’d decided this will be her last performance?”

“Balderdash. Emma will go on forever.” But Frederick didn’t mean it, and Sarah knew he didn’t. Neither of them said much after that until they reached the huge brick house, long ago remodeled into apartments, where Charles Daventer had lived and presumably died. The place was all in darkness, as might have been expected at such an hour. Sarah looked up at the black windows with no enthusiasm.

“How do you expect to get in, Frederick?”

“With a key, naturally. Charlie gave me one quite some time ago. He liked company to help him pass the time while he was laid up, but it was agony for him to get up and open the door so he got me to have some duplicate keys made and hand them out to a few of his cronies. Emma has one, I know. She’s been going over every day with his meals packed in a picnic basket. Emma’s going to miss Charlie. So am I. Dammit, Sarah, it’s hell to get old. Too bad the two of them didn’t get married after Bed died.”

“Oh, I doubt if that would have worked. What about yourself, Frederick? Isn’t there some nice woman around you’d like to live with?”

“Me? I’m not the marrying kind. Anyway, who’d want a cantankerous old fogey?”

“You’d be surprised. Look at Dolph.”

“That was one for the book, all right. I cannot for the life of me see why a fine woman like Mary ever tied herself up to that pompous oaf. I expect I’m jealous because she didn’t pick me instead,” Frederick added with a shamefaced little smile. “Well, come on. Let’s get it over with.”

Luckily, Charlie had lived in a first-floor apartment with a separate entrance. The other tenants weren’t likely to hear them come in. Nevertheless, Sarah wasn’t liking this a bit. Today had been brutal, tomorrow would be worse. Now she was expected to discover whether a chamber pot with an illustrious background had been put to its appropriate but unattractive use and thus turned a regrettable accident into a possible homicide. After that, she still had to deliver Frederick and get herself back to bed before the neighbors phoned the police or Aunt Emma called out the militia.

After a little fumbling Charlie got the door open. He switched on a light, and motioned Sarah inside. Here was another old bachelor’s apartment, Sarah thought, though a far less austerely furnished one than her cousin’s. The chief ornaments were photographs: a large one of Emma looking regal, older ones that must have been Charlie’s parents and relatives, one of a young man in naval uniform. That would be his older brother, who’d gone down on a destroyer during World War II. Poor Charlie, he hadn’t had much left except his friendships. And his money, Sarah supposed. There seemed to be no lack of comfort here. No doubt Aunt Emma had taken a hand in the decorating.

Charlie had owned a number of fine old pieces, some of them as early as his
pot de chambre.
Sarah couldn’t stop to examine them because Frederick was hustling her into the bedroom. On their way they passed an open bathroom door that must have been where the cleaner found his body. Sarah noticed a fuzzy blue rug on the floor, rumpled into a heap. Nobody had bothered to straighten it after they took the body away. Probably the cleaner hadn’t wanted to go in there.

Somebody had made Charlie’s bed, though. When he saw that, Cousin Frederick uttered a word he must have learned from the boys at school. He knelt in front of the dry sink, opened the bottom cupboard, and drew forth the object of their search, lifted the heavy silver lid, and grunted with a sort of unhappy satisfaction.

“What did I tell you? Look here, Sarah.”

“Must I?”

“Don’t be squeamish. I want a witness.”

Sighing, Sarah obliged. “I do see what you mean, Frederick,” she had to admit. “Poor Charlie must have spent a restless night. Unless he’d forgotten to empty it yesterday morning.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Charlie was no damned yahoo. If he couldn’t manage the job himself, he’d have, got the visiting nurse to clean it. She’s been coming in every morning since his foot began giving him hell. Kept tabs on the medication, helped him shave, got him into the shower. That’s another thing, you know. Did you happen to notice that bathroom off the front hall?”

“Yes. I assume that’s where the woman found him.”

“It is, but it’s not the bathroom Charlie was in the habit of using. There’s another in the back hall. It used to be just a flush and a sink, but when Charlie got so he couldn’t climb in and out of the bathtub without banging his sore toe, he had a stall shower installed out there. He liked it better, anyway. Claimed it was handier.”

“But the other one is nearer.”

“No it isn’t. See?”

Frederick opened a door that Sarah had supposed must be a closet. Sure enough, it led to a fairly spacious back entry from which the kitchen and another room led off. Directly beside the bedroom door was the small bathroom no doubt intended for the use of the live-in maid who’d surely have been part of the original household.

“That does it,” said Sarah. “We’ve got to call the police.”

Chapter 8

“A
T THIS HOUR?” FREDERICK
protested.

“If we wait till morning, somebody’s likely to come in here and tidy up. If that pot gets emptied, you’ll have no case whatever. Who other than Charlie and yourself and perhaps the visiting nurse would have known he used it during the night?”

“That’s hard to say. I doubt very much he’d have told Emma. In fact, I don’t suppose Charlie would have told anybody at all if he didn’t have to. The only reason I found out is that I happened to be here one day when his foot was really giving him Hail Columbia. He heard the call of nature. I offered to help him to the bathroom, but he was just too miserable to make the attempt, so he asked me to hand him the pot. Charlie tried to make a joke of the performance, you know, but I could tell he was embarrassed. One doesn’t much like admitting one’s unable to cope with one’s bodily functions in the usual way.”

“Naturally not. Shall I call the police, or will you?”

“Young woman, with a bit more practice, you could turn into a worse nag than Cousin Mabel. I suppose I’d better do it. They know me down at the station. On a purely social basis, I hasten to add.”

There was a telephone beside Charlie’s bed, but for some reason Frederick didn’t want to use it. He left Sarah there to guard the evidence and went to the extension in the room out back that Charlie had no doubt called his den.

A car was there in less than five minutes. The Pleasaunce police must be as efficient as Aunt Emma claimed they were. They were intelligent, too; at least the one who showed up was. His name was Detective Sergeant Formsby, and he didn’t take a minute to grasp the significance of Cousin Frederick’s unlovely clue.

“I expect Mr. Daventer’d been having urinalysis tests for his gout. I’ll have this tested to make sure it checks out, and see what the visiting nurse says about when the pot was last emptied. But you know something, Mr. Kelling? I think we’re going to find you’re one hundred percent right and it doesn’t surprise me a bit. Frankly, some of us weren’t too happy with the accident finding. That was a mighty well-defined dent Mr. Daventer got in his skull, and there are no hard edges in that bathroom. Come on, I’ll show you what I mean.”

The three of them trooped across to where the body had been found. Formsby snapped on the overhead light. The bathroom was small and the arrangement simple. An old-fashioned iron tub with high sides and a rounded-over edge was set to the left of the door. A more modern porcelain basin, molded all in curves to look functional, stood beside it at the back, and the flush closet was tucked discreetly away at the far side. There wasn’t even a stool to trip over, and the wastebasket was a flimsy thing of blue plastic.

“We found the body right about here.”

Formsby obliged by flopping down on the crumpled blue rug with his head in the corner between the sink and the tub.

“Now you’ll notice what I said about no hard edges on the fixtures. The woman who found him testifies that he was lying on his back the way I did just now, with the rug wrinkled up under his feet. It looked as if he’d slipped on the rug and fallen as he turned to leave the room, presumably after having washed his hands, and whacked his head either on the sink or on the edge of the tub. The rug does have a rubber nonskid backing, but it’s a fairly flimsy affair, like all those washable rugs, and it will bunch up if you happen to kick it the wrong way. Tripped would be a better word than slipped, I guess, assuming he did either.”

“There was no mark of any kind on the fixtures?” Sarah asked him. “No trace of blood or hair?”

“Not a thing. The wound didn’t break the skin, though, and he didn’t have a heck of a lot of hair anyway, so that didn’t exactly count as a suspicious circumstance. As you most likely know, falls in the bathroom are a common cause of household fatalities. Mr. Daventer being alone in the apartment with his pajamas on, not what you’d call a young man and maybe none too steady on his feet from the gout, it was reasonable enough to consider the death accidental from the lack of any real evidence to the contrary. If we’d known about this—er—receptacle—”

“But you didn’t,” said Frederick. “Nobody can fault you for that. I doubt whether the cleaning woman even knew. If she did, I suppose she thought it wasn’t a nice thing to talk about. In any event, she must have known he’d been on the mend, so she’d have found it natural enough for him to get up and go to the bathroom. She might conceivably have wondered why he chose this one instead of the other, which he was more in the habit of using. Then again, she mightn’t. She’s not a housekeeper, you know, just somebody who came in by the hour to sling a mop around.”

“So she said,” Formsby agreed. “She didn’t seem to know much about Mr. Daventer as a person, just that he got mean if she didn’t dust to suit him.”

“There you are,” said Frederick. “Does that sound like a man who’d leave a pisspot unemptied?”

“Please, Frederick,” said Sarah. “You’ve made your point.”

Formsby smiled. “Miss Kelling, would you mind telling me how you happen to be in on this? Were you a friend of Mr. Daventer’s, too?”

“I’m Mrs. Bittersohn, actually,” Sarah corrected. “Mrs. Max Bittersohn. No, I wasn’t a friend of Mr. Daventer, but I did see him yesterday. I’m staying with my aunt, Mrs. Beddoes Kelling. She’s putting on one of her Gilbert & Sullivan operettas, and Mr. Daventer was to have taken part. He was at the house yesterday to rehearse, and stayed to dinner. He didn’t have too much to drink, I can testify to that. Not that he would anyway, I don’t suppose, but my aunt was keeping a sharp eye on him because of his gout, you know. She wanted him in good shape for the performance. I’m sure she also chased him home in time to get a good night’s rest, though I can’t say precisely when. I left about half-past eight, myself. To visit Cousin Frederick, as a matter of fact. Mr. Daventer was certainly gone by the time I got back, which was about eleven o’clock.”

“How did Mr. Daventer get back and forth? Did he drive himself?”

“I couldn’t say. I was out in the sun parlor painting scenery when he arrived. Some other people got to my aunt’s house at more or less the same time, so I suppose he may have got a ride with one of them. Ridpath Wale, who’s playing the Sorcerer, stayed to dinner also. If Charlie didn’t have a car, I expect Ridpath brought him home.”

“He wouldn’t have taken a taxi?”

“Never in a million years. If there’d been no other ride available, my aunt would have either brought him herself or sent him in her car with her chauffeur. I can find out in the morning, if you want.”

“I’d appreciate it. This Mr. Wale you mentioned, were he and Mr. Daventer on friendly terms?”

BOOK: The Plain Old Man
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