- Lord Benjamin Petty . . . master of Dungarees Castle
- Lady Henrietta “Hetty” Petty . . . his wife, a former movie star
- Worth . . . the butler
- Mrs. Jolley . . . the cook
- Peter Moss . . . the gardener
- Gladys . . . the housemaid
- Countess Sophronia Lancaster . . . eldest daughter of the castle’s former owner
- Diogenes Pratt . . . local pharmacist and Petty’s nephew
- Lucinda Leaharian . . . buxom owner of the local bookstore
- J.K. Diebehnkorn . . . American film director
- Greta Frink . . . Diebehnkorn’s secretary
- Rodney Lawrence Plum . . . literature professor at West Chiswick School for Boys
- Zuzana Materska . . . the Countess’ maid
- Mick . . . Moss’ friend
Dungarees Castle, Tuesday, 27 March
Lord Petty settles his plentiful form in a stuffed armchair, rests his feet on the stool and wiggles his toes before the fire. He sips his sidecar – no port or brandy for this gentleman; a passion for cocktails is one last vestige of his years spent in the States. He leans back in his chair and heaves a sigh of satisfaction.
What a lark it has been to stir the pot amongst his house party this evening. Somebody has been very naughty, he thinks to himself. But who? The moment he dropped his bombshell, everyone had looked guilty. Suddenly, the lights came back on, and he had let his gaze wander across the room: to Hetty and Diebehnkorn at the piano, their heads bent conspiratorially together; to the trio sitting on the floor, Diogenes’ arm draped protectively around Lucy’s shoulders, while the Countess sat apart, her intelligent eyes meeting his; to the Professor sitting erect on the sofa, looking avidly curious, with Miss Frink curled up next to him, looking bore
“I don’t get it!” Hetty had broken the silence. “Why would someone write down the name of our house?”
“I can think of two reasons, my dear,” Lord Petty explained. “Either they have set themselves to meet somebody up here . . . or they had been planning to come to Dungarees to stay.”
“One of the house party?” The Countess rose to face her host. “Are you suggesting that one of us – “
“Oh, not you, my dear, I wouldn’t imagine such a thing.” His Lordship chuckled softly. “I know most of you intimately – “ his eyes glittered as they met Lucy’s – “ and I would be hard-pressed casting one of you as a burglar . . . or a spy.”
Hetty brought both her hands down on the piano keys. “One of the servants, I’ll bet. All of them slinking around. You can’t trust ‘em.” She stifled a giggle as Worth entered the room. Whether or not he heard her spurious accusation, he made his way stiffly to the Countess.
“There is a telephone call for you, my lady,” he said.
“Who’s calling so late?” Lord Petty barked. Worth turned cold eyes on his master.
“They said it was personal, m’lord.” The Countess thanked him and left the room, which seemed to signal the end of the evening.
“I want you all to get to bed and have a good night’s sleep,” said their host jovially. “Don’t fret about this. When the authorities arrive, they’ll settle this matter for good.”
Lord Petty drains his sidecar and sets the glass on the table beside his chair. He had watched them all carefully – one person in particular – but nobody had given anything away.
“Not much of a sleuth, are you?” he mutters, then rises and walks to his desk. He has some interesting reading to do. As he pulls open the side drawer, the study door opens, and Hetty bursts into the room. He closes the drawer and sits behind his desk.
“Had your fun tonight, didn’t you?” Hetty slinks across the room and perches on the edge of the desk. “Don’t you look like the cat that ate the cream!”
“I’m looking after my sweet baby.” He smiles and holds out his hand. Hetty narrows her eyes a moment, then smiles, rises from the desk and comes to sit in his lap. “I want to make sure you and my guests are safe.”
“Yeah, well, one of them’s a rotten egg. Something funny’s been going on. Someone’s been going through my room, and – “
“My darling, why didn’t you tell me earlier? is anything missing?”
Hetty’s mouth snaps closed. She leans over and plants a chaste kiss on his cheek. He can feel her rapid heartbeat against his own chest. She gets to her feet and slowly glides to the door, stopping to look over her shoulder at him.
“Coming to bed?”
“Be up shortly. And Hetty, tell the girl to bring me another cocktail.”
“She doesn’t know how to make ‘em. I’ll fix you up one myself, just as you like it, and have her bring it to you.” Hetty winks and is gone. Lord Petty re-opens the drawer and considers the contents. What treasure is this that has been placed in his care?
* * * * *
J.K. Diebehnkorn slides the tie from his collar and flings it on the bed. He fumbles with his shirt and angrily pulls the garment apart. Buttons fly everywhere, and Diebehnkorn collapses on the bed.
All day he has felt like he was caught in a snare that was slowly tightening around him. His dream in life had always been to be the kind of man who takes what he wants and is beholden to nobody. He had burst free of that ignominious New England town of his birth, hitched rides and rode train cars to the west, done whatever it took to make a name for himself in Los Angeles. When that life had become too tame, he enlisted in the Army and spent two years fighting with honor and otherwise behaving dishonorably. The end of the war brought that life to a sputtering close and, with no other prospects, he had returned to California, prepared to make good.
And he had made a name for himself – but where has that landed him now? On probation with the studio until he proves himself, caught between Lord Petty and his wife, with no idea of how to resolve this headache. He can picture himself sitting at the piano, Hetty pressed up beside him, her hand gripping his leg and moving higher . . . Diebehnkorn shudders and sits up, pressing his palms hard against his eyes, trying to clear his head. Think! Have to think, man!
He raises his head as a tiny noise insinuates itself. Someone is tapping softly on his door. He staggers to his feet and hoarsely calls out, “Go away!” He kneels down and begins picking buttons up off the floor. The tapping persists. He groans, rises, and crosses to the door.
Greta stands there, blinking at him. “Will you be needing me tomorrow morning, boss? If not, I’d like to sleep in.” Behind her owlish glasses, her green eyes regard him. He stares at them, then lets his eyes quickly scan her admittedly fine figure.
“Go ahead. Sleep in.
“Bad night?” she asks.
“What do you think?”
“What do I think?” She smiles. “I think Lord Fatso is going to finance your picture. I think if you think Jack Warner will let her –“ Greta’s head gives a nod toward the hallway – “star in your picture, you’re a fool.”
“Well, like you said, it’s my picture.”
“I was being facetious.”
She laughs. He hasn’t heard her laugh before. It’s an attractive laugh. Her eyes travel down to his hand.
“What are those?”
He holds out the buttons. “I got into a tussle with a mannequin.”
She holds out her hand. “Give it to me.” He stares at her, then retrieves the shirt and drops the buttons in her hand. “I’ll have it ready for the next soiree,” she says. Then she steps forward and presses her lips against his. He feels the warmth between them spreading, and then she steps back.
She says to him, “Don’t let these people ruin everything for you, Jim.” With that, she gives him a salute, and is gone.
* * * * *
In his room across the hall, Diogenes lays stretched out on his bed, finishing his last cigarette, unable to shake the tremors that grip his body. Seared in his mind is the grinning face of that cursed devil, his uncle. The young man presses his hands to his ears, as if to ward off the memory of Lord Petty’s incessant yammering.
“When the authorities arrive, they’ll settle this matter for good,” the old man had said, and those piggy eyes had been fixed on him. “I can certainly vouch for Lady Petty and my staff on Thursday. We were in a dither getting the castle prepared for our guests. Oh, and Miss Leaharian was here already, hard at work in the library all day. I’m sure it will be quick work for the police to determine everyone’s whereabouts.”
An uncomfortable silence had followed, and then Diebehnkorn had spoken.
“Are we trading alibis? Well . . . Greta and I were disembarking from a boat. You’ll have to ask her how many trains we took from Southampton to get here, I lost track. For a small country, it sure takes a long time to get around here.”
From the sofa, Greta uttered a little snort. Then she raised her hand and said, “I’m prepared to testify to that effect.” Her eyes traveled to the Professor next to her, and everyone else followed, as if one explanation had inspired the whole group to confess.
“Well, I – I . . . let me see now . . .” Plum’s wisp of moustache quivered uncomfortably. “Thursday? I would have taught my sixth form class until four – we’re studying the Romantic poets, a great favorite of mine, but it can be a challenge getting the boys to engage. And there was a staff meeting until six, after which I dined with a colleague . . . “His voice had trailed off.
“It’s very good of you, Professor, but there’s no need,” Lord Petty had purred. Diogenes knew that there was a great need. Each of them would need to account for his whereabouts on Thursday. What on earth would he tell them?
His body is wracked by a violent shuddering, and he reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out a silver flask. Pull yourself together, he thinks. You’ve made a dashed mess of things, and you can’t fall apart now if you want to get out of this in one piece.
He feels the heat of the brandy trickle down his throat, warming him and soothing his shattered nerves. A gentle rapping brings him quickly to his feet. He stares at the door, picturing his uncle in the hallway, licking his lips in preparation for the final judgment. Diogenes’ eyes flicker around the room. There’s no way out.
The rapping persists, and he walks to the door and opens it. Miss Frink smiles at him coolly. A man’s dress shirt is draped over one arm.
“I’ve come to say good night.”
“You’ve come to- “ He stares at her. The light from his room shows off her lustrous hair, neatly pinned, her full figure. Even a dark night of the soul cannot prevent Diogenes Pratt from noticing a woman’s beauty, no matter how hard she tries to hide it. He smiles at her. “Is this a new service provided by the management?”
“I wanted to be sure you were all right.”
He leans in closer to her. “Since when have you been concerned for my well-being, Miss Frink?”
Her eyes blink slowly behind her spectacles as she raises her face to his. Her lips are full and pink.
“Since I saw you this afternoon, running out of the woods.”
He pulls back with a gasp. “Eh, what?”
“I was driving back from the village. Your butler had let me use one of the cars. I pulled in the gate, and that’s when I saw you in the distance, coming out of a grove of trees, the rain pouring down on you. You made a mad dash for the castle. You didn’t notice me pulling into the driveway?”
His stomach churns. He shakes his head slowly, back and forth. “I was – I was exercising.”
She smiles, and then surprises him by singing a snatch of a popular song:
“Through all kinds of weather/What if the sky should fall?/Just as long as we’re together . . . ” She presses her hand against his taut chest, leans forward and kisses him on the lips. She pulls back and regards him. “I admire a man who keeps fit.” Then she tosses the shirt she has been holding over her shoulder, turns and walks down the hallway toward her room.
Diogenes shuts the door and stumbles across the room, grabbing the basin on the dressing table and leaning forward to be violently sick.
* * * * *
In the drawing room, Professor Plum stares into the fire and weighs the risks and benefits of his presence at Dungarees.
When the authorities arrive, they are bound to regard the accident that left him stranded here as suspicious. Even though his bona fides will check out and his alibi for Thursday is genuine . . . well, there are things in every man’s life that he doesn’t want other people mucking about in. Even the police. Especially the police, he thinks with a sigh. He can only imagine their reaction if they uncovered his secrets. He sighs, wishing not for the first time that he had never crashed his car outside the gate at Dungarees. And yet . . .
And yet every event is a new opportunity. One can meet new people – his thoughts turn fondly to the Countess – and one can gather new information. And new information can be so helpful.
The Professor’s thoughts turn to the notebook hidden under his mattress upstairs. He abandons the warmth of the fire and heads off for bed. As he walks through the hallway toward the stairs, he hears a sound in the corridor leading toward Lord Petty’s study. He moves to investigate and sees a figure outside the study door.
The housemaid is leaning with her back to the door. A silver tray dangles loosely from one hand, while her other hand is pressed tightly across her mouth. As the Professor approaches, she looks up with a start. Her eyes are wide with emotion. Shock? Fear?
“May I help you?” he inquires in a soft voice.
“I – I . . “ Her eyes dart left and right, then fix at a spot on the floor. “I dropped His Lordship’s drink.” He looks and sees cocktail glass on the floor. Gallantly, he stoops and retrieves it, hands it to the maid, who replaces it on the tray with trembling fingers and hurries off down the hall without another word. Plum watches her disappear. He kneels and runs his hand along the carpet. The pile is dry. He stands and regards the door, reaches out and gently tries the knob. The door is locked.
He exits the corridor and makes his way up the stairs. He pauses before his bedroom door. The events of the night have emboldened him. He walks to the end of the hall and hesitates only slightly before knocking gently.
The door opens and the Countess’ maid regards him coldly.
“Good evening,” he says, suddenly wondering at his boldness. Sophronia appears behind the woman, a hairbrush in her hand. She smiles when she sees him.
“Oh, good! Let him in, Zuzana, and go to bed.”
Zuzana sniffs. “I will stay and chaperone.”
“You will not. Now go to bed!” Zuzana bows to her mistress, shoots a warning glare at the hapless Professor, and leaves the room. The Countess says with a laugh, “Zuzana has appointed herself to stand guard on my honor.”
“Well, she’s correct. My visit at this hour is most inappropriate.”
“Oh, don’t be silly.” She motions for him to sit in the armchair while she goes to the dressing table and resumes brushing her hair.
“I was concerned about the phone call you received.” Her hand stops in mid-air. She places the brush on the table and turns to face him, her expression solemn.
“Yes, the phone call. It was from Dr. Adair at the Gartnaval Asylum. He wanted to let me know that Nicholas has gone missing.”
“Good Lord! Did he say how long your brother has been gone?”
She shakes her head. “They have no idea when he left or how. This goes beyond carelessness. When we find Nicky, I shall – “ She gives a helpless shrug.
“You have every right to be upset. But – how did they know to find you here? I thought – I mean, with the power out, you couldn’t – “
“That’s the most extraordinary thing! The doctor knew where to find me because he had been told I was staying here.”
“Told?” By whom?”
“A woman called him earlier this afternoon. She claimed to be a reporter from the Times. She inquired about Nicholas, asked them to verify his whereabouts and state of mind. Of course, Dr. Adair refused to give out private information to her, but it set off an alarm. And when he checked with his staff, they discovered that Nicky was gone.”
“But my dear lady, I – “ The Professor stops, dumbfounded. “How can a patient be, well, mislaid? Particularly one with your brother’s, er, status?”
“Believe me, I shall get to the bottom of this. I blame myself for everything, for consigning my brother’s care to others and washing my hands of him as if – as if he were a stranger. That is over. When the police arrive tomorrow, I will tell them everything. We have to find my brother before he does any harm to himself or – or to others.”
She turns away from him. The Professor rises and comes to stand behind her. He places both hands on her shoulders.
“We will find him, Sophronia. We’ll make sure that he is safe.”
She meets his kindly gaze in the mirror. “I don’t know how I would get through this without you.” Her smile fades and she stares at her own reflection. Her face is troubled, careworn. She heaves a sigh. “How did the world turn upside down?”
* * * * *
By morning, the rain has stopped, leaving behind a monochromatic world of muddy fields and somber, gray sky. The guests enter the dining room one by one, offering muted greetings and picking at the food laid before them. Hetty is the last to enter, bracelets jangling in high contrast to their solemnity.
“Greetings, everyone!” she cries out gaily. “I don’t know about you, but I slept like a log. Just coffee, Worth.” The butler sets a cup down before her, and she takes an eager sip. She looks around the table and says, “When’s the arrest?”
Lucy leaps up from her chair. “Excuse me, everyone, but I really must get back to the library. Hetty, when His Lordship comes down, would you tell him I need his help with some decisions?”
Hetty smiles mischievously over her cup. “I’ll bet you do, dearie.” She takes another sip and sets the cup down. “You’ll have to find him yourself. I haven’t seen him all morning.”
“Maybe he rose early,” says Diogenes. “You know, to take advantage of this break in the weather and get away from – “ He stops and glances briefly at Hetty, “ – you know, to think.”
Hetty narrows her eyes at him, then she turns inquisitively to the butler.
“I have not seen His Lordship all morning, my lady,” says Worth. “I do not think he would risk riding in this weather.”
“Could he be in his study?” asks Lucy.
“Let me check.” With a bow, he leaves the room, only to return a moment later. “The study door is locked.”
“Locked?” Hetty snorts. “Benjy never locks the door. What is he doing in there?” She rises and leaves the room. Shortly, they can all hear her banging on the door and calling her husband’s name. When she returns, she stands in the entryway in a state of high emotion. “Something’s wrong, I know it. It’s not like Benjamin to lock himself away. I hope he’s all right. Do ya think -?” She presses her hands together. Diebehnkorn rises quickly and comes to her side.
“Now, now, Hetty, don’t get worked up. We’ll sort out what’s what.” He turns to the butler. “Can someone check the window outside the study?” Worth nods and leaves the room. “Pratt, you come with us. Let’s see if we can get that door open.”
The three of them exit, leaving the Professor facing the Countess and Miss Frink across the table.
“I suppose the best we can do is remain out of the way,” Sophronia murmurs.
“Oh, yes, indeed,” Plum replies. “That would be the wisest course.” The two exchange glances. Miss Frink rises, crosses to the sideboard and pours herself a cup of coffee. She adds a dollop of milk, two spoonfuls of sugar and then slowly stirs her coffee with the spoon. Then she sets the cup down.
“Shall we?” she asks. They all rise and cross the hallway to enter the corridor, where they find Hetty rapping on the study door and calling her husband’s name with rising hysteria. The director has his hands on her shoulders, either trying to keep her calm or to pry her away from the door. Diogenes paces nervously beyond them at the end of the corridor.
“Oh, he’s sick or something, I’m sure of it!” Hetty cries. She turns her head and sees the Countess approaching. She says accusingly, “This was your house! Surely you know where we can find a key.” Sophronia stares at her helplessly as Worth enters the corridor.
“There is only one key to the study, my lady,” he says. “The master’s strict orders.” He turns to the gentlemen. “I’ve checked the window. It’s locked and bolted, and the curtains are drawn.”
Diebehnkorn exchanges glances with Diogenes. “We’ll have to break the door down. Are you up for it?” Charged with something physical to do, the young man nods eagerly. J.K. firmly removes Hetty from the doorway and pushes her toward the Countess. Hetty shrugs off Sophronia’s gesture of comfort and stands alone between the two men and the others, staring fixedly at the door.
The hallway is narrow, but both men are strong. After a few tries, the jamb gives, and then, with a crashing thud, the door hurtles inward, leaving an open space out of which creeps a dim light.
With a cry, Hetty bursts forward, pushes the men aside, and enters the room. The brief silence that follows is broken by her screams. J.K.and Diogenes race into the room, while everyone else rushes forward and crowds into the doorway.
The Professor stands in the vestibule taking in the scene before him. He notices the two men standing by the desk, looking dumbstruck across the room. Hetty kneels beside the chair before the fireplace, animal sounds coming from her throat. She rises in a crouch, turns, and pushes her way past the others, down the corridor and up the stairs, her screams fading into nothing.
Professor Plum makes a tentative step forward, looking around carefully to note what he can. The fire has burnt to embers, but the lamp beside the desk sheds light for all to see by. He notices with dismay that the portrait on the wall which hid Lord Petty’s safe has been removed and that the safe stands open.
He steels himself and directs his gaze at the man in the chair. Lord Petty, still dressed in his evening clothes, half-sits, half-sprawls across the seat. His face is purple, his lips blue, his eyes – Professor Plum turns away, then redirects his attention to the man’s arm which he lifts so that he can feel for a pulse.
“Is he – “ Lucy whispers.
Plum sets the arm down gently, turns and faces the others.
That’s it! That’s the end of the story!
Oh . . . you want us to solve the mystery now? Okay, gimme a week, and then the investigation commences. And sorry for the late delivery. Blame it on Robin Hood!