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Authors: Charlotte MacLeod

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BOOK: The Plain Old Man
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“That was my impression. I don’t know how much you know about the Pirates of Pleasaunce, but they’re mostly old friends of my aunt, or their children or nephews or whatever. Frederick, you can help Sergeant Formsby on this better than I. What he’s really asking is whether Charlie had any mortal enemies.”

“Other than Cousin Mabel, you mean?”

This was an exceedingly ill-timed jest. Sergeant Formsby pounced on it. “Who’s Cousin Mabel? That wouldn’t be Miss Mabel Kelling of 47 East Pleasaunce Drive?”

“Yes,” Sarah admitted. “Do you know her?”

Stupid question. Cousin Mabel called the police at least three times a week on the average, to complain about one thing or another.

“But she wasn’t Mr. Daventer’s enemy, Sergeant. Not more than anybody else’s, at any rate. My cousin was only joking. Weren’t you, Frederick?”

“That is correct, Sergeant Formsby. I was joking, in the same sense as one might joke about bubonic plague or the Johnstown Flood. If in fact Mabel Kelling ever did decide to murder someone, she’d be more apt to pick on me than on Charlie Daventer. Miss Kelling, who, I’m relieved to say, is not my first cousin but merely a third cousin once removed, which is less of a removal than I could wish, had a certain tendresse for Charlie.”

“A tendresse, eh?”

“The sort of tendresse a hungry tigress might entertain for a particularly toothsome gazelle,” Frederick amended. “That is an ungentlemanly statement, Sergeant. I propose to amplify it into outright caddishness. Mabel Kelling has the collector’s instinct. The one thing she has so far never succeeded in collecting is a husband. She looked upon Charlie as a collectible.”

“I see. Was there ever what you’d call a—”

Sergeant Formsby was clearly nonplussed as to what one might call it. Sarah, worn out as she was and worried as she well might have been, had to laugh.

“Sergeant Formsby, you’re not thinking about a
crime passionnel?
Can you picture Charles Daventer entertaining Mabel Kelling in his pajamas in the middle of the night? Let me assure you, it would never happen. Our cousin has never given anything away in her life. There’s no chance whatever she’d sell her virtue, assuming anyone wanted it, for less than full price. And Charlie wouldn’t have been willing to pay, because he was in love with my Aunt Emma.”

The detective smiled at that. “Name me somebody around here who isn’t. Your aunt and Mr. Daventer weren’t planning to get married or anything, were they?”

“Oh no, nothing like that. It was just one of those worshiping-from-afar things that had been going on for years and years. My aunt was fond of Charlie as a friend, but she never really cared for any man except my Uncle Beddoes. As for Charlie, I think hopeless adoration suited him just fine, if you want the truth.”

“Yeah, I can see where it might have its advantages. Then Mrs. Kelling must feel pretty bad about losing Mr. Daventer.”

“Oh yes, but she’s not one to give way to her feelings. The show will go on as scheduled, if that’s what you’re wondering.”

“Well, I was, kind of. My wife and I’ve had our tickets for quite a while. We always look forward to it. Have you got somebody to take Mr. Daventer’s part?”

“Me, unfortunately,” Frederick told him. “He was playing an old curmudgeon and I happened to be the only curmudgeon available at the moment, so Emma nabbed me.”

“How did you happen to be available at the moment? Does that mean you were present in the house?”

Sarah and Frederick refrained from catching each other’s eye. They had no definite reason as yet to link Charlie’s death with the theft of Ernestina. Emma Kelling had specifically insisted she didn’t want the police told the Romney was gone until after the show. It was her show and her Romney. Frederick told the truth, but not the whole truth.

“Sarah’s been painting the scenery. She’d called me over there to help her with a last-minute project. As it happened, she and I’d been working at the back of the house and were the last of the group to hear about Charlie’s death, though I don’t suppose that’s at all relevant. Anyway, I daresay Emma could have dragooned some fellow from the chorus to do the role, but that would have left them a man short, so she put the arm on me. Mine’s a smaller part than theirs, actually.”

“I see. Have you appeared in any of the Pirates’ previous performances?”

“No, and I don’t expect to be asked again.”

“What about Mr. Daventer? Was he one of the regulars?”

“I expect likely. He’d have walked across hell on a rotten rail if Emma asked him to.”

“He’d appeared occasionally in minor roles,” Sarah amplified.

“Was he well-liked among the cast? You don’t know if there’s been any ill feeling because he got the part somebody else wanted, or anything like that?”

“Sergeant Formsby, this isn’t grand opera. If they’d run into somebody else who wanted to look old and ugly and mumble a line or two here and there, I’m sure both Charlie and my aunt would have been quite willing to let him. As to fighting, there simply hadn’t been time, assuming my aunt would have stood for it. Charlie’d been laid up with gout, you know, ever since the first couple of rehearsals and everybody was relieved that he was well enough to show up yesterday. Rather than wanting to do him in, I should say every member of the cast was praying he’d be able to hang together until after the performance.”

“But you can’t say for sure.”

“No, I can’t,” Sarah had to admit. “I’ve only been out here since Monday and I’ve been busy with the scenery, so I haven’t had much time to socialize with the players. I’d met some of them casually over the years, and others, especially the younger ones, not at all. I’m only giving you my impression for what it’s worth.”

“Well, I’ve known Charlie Daventer all my life, more or less,” Frederick insisted, “and I’m fairly sure I’d know if he had a running feud on with anybody. Charlie and I didn’t exactly sit in each other’s pocket, but we’ve seen a fair amount of each other off and on, especially since he’d been laid up. I’d walk over to bring him his paper, pick up his mail, or just sit and yarn with him as old gaffers are far too prone to do.”

“How did you get into the apartment tonight, Mr. Kelling?”

“Charlie’d given me a door key so I could come and go without his having to get out of bed and answer the door.”

“That so? You don’t know if he gave keys to any of his other friends?”

“Emma Kelling has one. So does Jack Tippleton, and I believe Ridpath Wale.”

“What about Sebastian Frostedd?” Sarah prompted.

Frederick Kelling drew himself up to his full five feet six inches and gave her a schoolmasterish look. “I am quite sure Sebastian Frostedd does not have a key.”

“These men you mentioned, they’re all members of the cast?” Formsby asked.

“They are. They are also personal friends of long standing. To the best of my knowledge, they and Emma are the only people other than myself who were recently given keys. The cleaning woman may have had one. You’d know that better than I, since you’ve already talked to her. The only other possibility I can think of is the visiting nurse from whom he’d been getting daily attention. I don’t know her name, I never met her. I tried to time my own visits so that Charlie would be alone when I came. He may even have had a different person every day. I don’t know how these things work.”

“I can check it out with the Visiting Nurses’ Association.”

Sergeant Formsby wrote himself a note. He had a blue-covered memo book with a spiral binding, Sarah noticed. Just like Aunt Emma’s. She wondered if he kept the used ones in his wife’s cedar chest.

He was hesitating, his pencil still touching the blue-lined paper. “Miss Mabel Kelling doesn’t have a key, then?”

“Good God, no! Not unless she bullied it out of somebody else,” Frederick amended, “which she’s quite capable of doing. Come on, Sarah. Let’s go find out.”

“Cousin Frederick, we are not going to call on Cousin Mabel at this hour of the night. I’m dead on my feet, I still have to get you home, and get back myself before Aunt Emma wakes up and has a fit, if she hasn’t had one already. Good night, Sergeant Formsby. If you need us again, you know where to find us.”

“Thanks, Mrs. Bittersohn. Oh hey, your husband doesn’t happen to be the Max Bittersohn who cracked the Wilkins case?”

“Yes, he is. Do you know him?”

Formsby warmed up, as people were apt to do when they found out she was connected with Max. “We’ve met. He doesn’t happen to be with you in Pleasaunce, by any chance?”

“I wish he were. He might be back soon. In the meantime, though, I’m afraid you’ll have to make do with my cousin and me.”

“Well, you two are doing okay so far. Ever work with your husband on a case, Mrs. Bittersohn?”

“How do you think I met him in the first place? As a matter of fact, we work together quite a lot. I’m pretty good at the bits and pieces. And may I point out that in this instance, Frederick and I are more likely to make headway on gathering information than you are. We can be nosing around among Mr. Daventer’s personal acquaintances while you take care of the visiting nurse, the house-cleaner, and the neighbors. I’ll be greatly surprised if this turns out to have been an outside job.”

“What makes you say that?”

“It’s most apt to be our nearer and dearer who do us in, isn’t it? By the way, did you find Mr. Daventer’s own door key?”

“The cleaner found it on the dresser with his other personal effects. With so many copies floating around, though, I don’t suppose it would be hard for somebody to get hold of one long enough to have it duplicated.”

“Assuming it was necessary,” said Sarah. “Nobody’d take the risk, I shouldn’t think, unless he had some pressing reason to get at Charlie. Or unless he was absolutely bats, of course. Even then he’d have had to be connected with Charlie in one way or another, shouldn’t you think? One doesn’t go around pinching keys on the off chance he’ll find a door they fit, does one?”

“Who knows? Okay, Mrs. Bittersohn. See what you and Mr. Kelling can come up with, and we’ll take it from there.”

“We expect a favor in return, Sergeant Formsby.”

“What’s that?”

“No leaks to the press until after the show. As it is now, Frederick and I can grill the cast for all they’re worth. If it gets around that you’re investigating Charlie Daventer’s death as a possible murder, they’ll realize they’re all potential suspects and haul in their horns, and we shan’t get a yip out of anybody.”

“Wouldn’t you think they’d be willing to cooperate with the police like law-abiding citizens?”

Frederick Kelling emitted one of his more formidable snorts. “If you believe that, Sergeant Formsby, you’re far too naive to be a detective. To begin with, as Sarah mentioned earlier, most of that crowd have known each other since Hector was a pup. Half of them are related in one way or another, and they’d all close ranks on general principles.”

“Is that your only reason, Mr. Kelling? It wouldn’t be the unfavorable publicity you’re worried about, by any chance?”

“That’s part of it, certainly,” Sarah took it upon herself to answer. “All right, Sergeant, we’ll come clean.”

“Sarah,” Frederick protested. “You told me yourself Emma doesn’t want anybody to know.”

“One doesn’t hold out on the police, Frederick,” Sarah replied primly, even though she was about to. “The thing of it is, Sergeant Formsby, this is going to be Emma Kelling’s last performance. She realizes her age has finally caught up with her, and she wants to go out in a blaze of glory before her audience catches on. That’s in strictest confidence and if you breathe one word to a soul, I’ll go straight back to Boston and let you stew in your own juice. And I’ll take Cousin Frederick with me.”

Sergeant Formsby smiled. “Okay, Mrs. Bittersohn. Your aunt’s done enough for this town, I guess she’s entitled to a little consideration. You understand I can’t hold up the investigation, though.”

“We’re not asking you to. We’ve already said we’ll do everything we can to help. We’ll even tackle Cousin Mabel for you,” Sarah added recklessly.

“Now wait a minute,” Frederick gulped.

“I will not wait. You were all for it a moment ago. Frederick, you needn’t think you’re going to weasel out on me now that you’ve got me into this. Anyway, I’ve been here all week and haven’t so much as called her up yet, so I suppose I might as well try to get some good out of a visit if there’s any to be got. You’ll have to come with me and help me interrupt. You know one person alone can’t possibly stem the flow once she gets wound up.”

“Confound it, why did I have to remember that chamber pot? All right, Sarah, but on your own head be it.”

Muttering angrily, Frederick followed Sarah out to her car. She delivered him to his meager dwelling, sat outside with the car lights on till she’d seen him safely inside, then drove herself back to Aunt Emma’s.

She was ready with a glib, “Sorry to be so late. I stayed at Frederick’s and we got to talking,” but she didn’t have to say it. With or without the inducement of Slepe-o-tite, everybody seemed to be asleep.

A hot shower would have been welcome after so long and messy a day, but Sarah didn’t want to risk waking her aunt by running the water. She washed as quietly as she could, hauled her weary bones into bed, and started counting sheep. Worn out as she was, she had to prod upward of two thousand reluctant ovines over the pasture fence before her nerves quit jangling and let her drop off to sleep.

Chapter 9

G
IVEN HER CHOICE, SARAH
would have stayed in bed half the morning, but that happy fate was not for her. Soaring above her tribulations, Emma Kelling was projecting her still-powerful contralto like a call to arms as she sailed out of her bedroom.

“Wild with adoration! Mad with fascination! To indulge my lamentation no occasion do I miss. Good morning, Heatherstone. Isn’t that lazy niece of mine up yet? We’ll soon fix that.”

In self-defense Sarah shouted back, “I’m up.” She might as well be. Otherwise, Aunt Emma would be serenading her with Uncle Bed’s tuba.

At least she got her shower, or rather a hot wallow in the tub, taking a long time at it to soak out the leftover fatigue, giving herself a shampoo as part of the bargain. When she couldn’t decently stall any longer, she used her aunt’s hand dryer on her light brown hair, put on a denim skirt and a blue jersey, and went down.

BOOK: The Plain Old Man
13.89Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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