- 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
- Inspector Oakleigh . . . of Scotland Yard
- Sergeant Albert Corn
- Dr. Chandler . . . local medico
Dungarees Castle, Wednesday, 28 March, 6:00pm
“But, gentlemen, don’t you see? I am Ruth La Pale!”
Professor Plum’s thin moustache quivers as he faces down the incredulous stares of both policemen.
“Ruth La Pale?” asks Inspector Oakleigh.
“The thriller writer?” Corn gawps.
Plum sighs. “Not thrillers, Sergeant – crime novels or, if you prefer, detective stories. The thriller, I am happy to say, is passé.”
Oakleigh stares at the tall, thin man before him. “You’re quite good.” A pink blush suffuses the Professor’s cheeks. “ You don’t always get the procedures right, mind you, but you have quite a hand at mystification.”
“My wife buys all your books, Miss – er, sir.” Now it is the Sergeant’s turn to blush. “But why the subterfuge?”
“Multiple reasons, gentlemen,” says Plum, with a pained look. “I have a long-standing reputation as an academic. I teach the classics. If my secret were to come out, I fear I would be made a figure of fun by my students and colleagues.”
Oakleigh strokes his jaw. “Sergeant, do you remember that matter of the silverware purloined from a baronet in Soho?” Corn shrugs. “That baronet writes mysteries under a pseudonym.”
Plum clears his throat. “Wade. Henry Wade.”
Oakleigh nods. “I had friend, a major in the army. Did some hush-hush work for M17. Now he writes crime novels. Uses the name of Rhode.” Oakleigh snorts. “You’re in good company, sir.”
The Sergeant barks, “Yeah, but they’re using blokes’ names. Why ‘Ruth La Pale.”
A sly expression crosses the Professor’s features. “I created that name as an anagram of an old school friend of mine from France, who also happens to be a writer. I also believe that the sales of crime novels by women outnumber those by men. In publicity for my books, I have been referred to as the Queen of Crime.” A strange light appears in his eyes. “It is a title to which I mean to hold on.”
His fervent stare softens and he looks pleadingly at both men before him. “I beg of you, don’t reveal my secret. It could cause a scandal in my life as great as Mrs. Christie’s!”
The Sergeant groans. “I spent eight days combing the countryside for that blasted woman!”
Oakleigh smiles. “As far as I can tell, your, ahem, secret identity has no connection with the case before us – unless there’s something more you would like to tell us.” He gazes benignly upon the professor/novelist, who squirms for a minute.
“I want to explain. I was indeed headed to London in my car to deliver my latest manuscript. That is completely true. As I was driving along the main road, I glanced up and beheld this imposing edifice perched on the hill above the village, and I thought: good lord! This could be the perfect setting for a new Gideon Kane mystery . . . The Crimes in the Castle! And so I decided to take a side route and investigate. I was so caught up in my first views of the walls of Dungarees that I didn’t navigate my car very well, and I . . . crashed.”
Oakleigh nods. “Well, that explains your presence here. And you gave your manuscript to Lord Petty for safekeeping?”
Plum shakes his head ruefully. “That was unnecessary, but I fear I was in such a muddled state after the accident. I regretted the act the moment I woke up in the morning. And when I entered the study today and approached Lord Petty in his chair, I noticed that the safe was open. I saw my satchel lying there, and I took it. It was unforgivable of me, I know, to tamper in any way with a crime scene.”
“I forgive you.” Oakleigh grins. “And I assure you, Professor, unless it becomes necessary to do otherwise, we will guard your secret.”
“Thank you!” Plum gives a great sigh of relief and turns to go, then stops, considers, and slowly turns around to face them again. “I wonder . . . “
“I know I have no right to ask this, but . . . “ Professor Plum licks his lips. “I wonder if I might in any way observe you during your enquiries. Oh, I know, I know – “ He raises his hands as he sees both policemen react. “Your work is confidential, and my presence would be most irregular. But, as you yourself said, I . . . sometimes get the procedural facts wrong, and it would be most helpful to see the proper way of doing things. Plus – “ He stops and blushes again. Oakleigh raises his eyebrows.
“Go on, Professor.”
“Well, I – I . . . “ The Professor emits a foolish little giggle. “I thought that maybe I could – could be of some assistance to you. I’ve taken notes,” he adds eagerly. “I’ve seen quite a lot over the past few days and I made some notes as background for a possible new book. Instead, however, I offer them to you.”
Oakleigh looks at Sergeant Corn, who levels a quiet glare that speaks volumes. Then he turns back to the Professor. “We would love to have a look at your notes!”
With a squeak of excitement, that gentlemen turns on his heels and scoots out the door. He returns moments later, clutching a large notebook bound in faded red cloth, and perches on the armchair facing the Inspector.
“This record provides an accurate timeline of events since my arrival – at least those of which I was witness. I think there are certain points of interest in here which would be worth investigating.”
The Sergeant rises to claim the notebook, but Oakleigh waves him back and turns to regard the Professor. “I’d be happy to look at it, sir, but why don’t you provide us with an overview?”
Professor Plum wriggles happily in his chair and opens the cover of the notebook.
“If either of you gentlemen have ever read a crime novel, you will understand that the house party affords the perfect scenario for a tale of murder: an ill-assorted group of people gathered together, ripe with secrets, passions at play. And whilst I would imagine that in real life these gatherings are, for the most part, quite amiable, I couldn’t help but notice, soon after my arrival, an undercurrent of tension that became quite palpable as the week wore on.”
“And could you determine the source of this tension?”
“Well . . . “ The Professor clears his throat, uncomfortably. “I don’t like to promote gossip – “
“Professor,” says Oakleigh with a wry smile, “if facts are the meat and potatoes of a police investigation, gossip is its gravy. Please go on.”
Plum considers for a moment, then continues. “Perhaps it was only natural that most of the drama should center around Lady Petty. Although she has retired from the screen, well – “ He shrugs. “Once an actress, always an actress.”
“I saw her in Trial by Fire,” says Corn, and sniffs. “Didn’t think much of the movie, but she had a certain . . . ” he reddens, ” . . . appeal.”
Oakleigh gives the Sergeant a warning look and then nods to the Professor.
“She never enters a room so much as she makes an entrance. She craves attention, you see, particularly from . . . er, men.” Plum blushes again and runs a finger through his collar.
“Did she shower you with attention, Professor?”
“Goodness no!” Plum titters. “I would say most of her – energies were spent on the film director, Mr. Diebehnkorn. I believe that they were once involved. That is, before she met her husband. However, it certainly seems to me that the lady still harbors feelings for her former paramour. The other night – “ And the Professor tells them about Hetty’s concert for the party from the night before last.
The detectives listen to his story carefully, the Sergeant jotting down notes. When the Professor pauses, Oakleigh asks, “Do you think Lord Petty was aware of these – feelings between his wife and Diebehnkorn?”
“Well, you know, it’s extraordinary, but I can’t see how he could not have known. But then, you see, I believe Lord Petty was rather fond of his wife’s drama. He had spent a number of years in the States – that is where he met his wife – and he spoke quite fondly of the time he spent there. He may have returned to his native country, bought this castle from the Lancasters, and established himself as a proper squire. But I think he rather missed the time he spent amongst the glittering stars of Hollywood. I also happen to know that he was negotiating a deal with J.K. for a film that could very well mark the return of his wife to the screen.”
“Did any of the three speak openly about this?”
“I gather it was the reason the director made this journey. I also happened to be present when Lord Petty and Mr. Diebehnkorn returned from a ride yesterday morning. It appears they had been discussing their deal at that time.”
“Did their discussion go well??
“That you would have to ask Mr. Diebehnkorn. When I arrived, Lord Petty regaled us with the story of how he came to Hollywood. And then we were interrupted by – “
His lips clamp shut. Oakleigh watches him closely.
“You were interrupted by . . . ?”
Plum clears his throat. “Inspector, I find myself in a peculiar situation. I want to tell you everything, but what I have to say will lead to certain . . . information that is quite personal in nature and involves someone of whom I have a great deal of respect and . . . and fondness.”
Oakleigh and Corn exchange glances, the Sergeant’s eyes rolling slightly upward. Oakleigh turns back to Plum and speaks gently.
“Professor, we certainly appreciate your sensitivity toward a friend. Unfortunately, that’s not how a murder investigation works.”
Professor Plum stares sadly at him. “Of course. I understand completely. It’s just that – well, you see, we were interrupted by a skirmish of sorts between two men. Lord Petty’s gardener – I believe his name is Moss – chased a man across the courtyard right to the stables and fell upon him, and – “ His voice trails off.
“Do you know the reason for their fight?”
Plum shakes his head. “I can’t be sure. It might have had something to do with the rabbits.”
Oakleigh scratches his head. “The – rabbits?”
“Moss had built a hutch of sorts in the barn and kept a dozen or so rabbits. I’m not sure if they were raised for food or more as companions, but he seemed inordinately fond of them.”
“Somebody killed the rabbits, Inspector.” Sergeant Corn utters an oath. “I gathered that Moss believed this other man was responsible. When they appeared, Moss was shouting the word “Killer!” over and over.”
“Does he offer any theory as to why the man might harm these animals?”
Plum sits very still for a moment. He sighs and says, “I really think you should speak to the Countess about this.”
Oakleigh stares at him. “The Countess Sophronia?
“Will she be able to explain the incident of the rabbits?”
Plum shrugs. “I think she has information about it. I’m not sure she knows the reason. But she can identify the other man for you. She knows him quite well.”
* * * * *
The Countess enters in a simple but becoming ensemble, the picture of morning elegance. Her carefully applied make-up makes her look fresh and unadorned, but Professor Plum can’t help but notice a haggard expression around her eyes. They exchange a brief smile as extends his hand to offer her his chair, then makes for the door
“Oh, please – “ Sophronia says. Plum turns to look at her, and she gazes with supplication upon the Inspector. “May Rodney – may the Professor stay with us?”
“Dear Countess, I’m afraid that is most irregular,” Plum begins.
“Not at all,” says Oakleigh. “We’re a bit short on chairs, but I have no objection to you remaining here, Professor.” Plum nods gratefully and leans his slender frame against the door.
“It’s a great honor to meet you, your ladyship,” the Inspector begins. “I bring you tidings from Sir Robert.”
Sophronia asks, with concern, “How is he bearing up after the theft?”
“Naturally, he is upset. Well, furious and upset.”
The Countess smiles. “Forgive me, but I can picture quite clearly dear Sir Robert his fury. Does he – do you have any idea who is behind this terrible affair?”
“Do you mean the theft . . . or the murder?” Oakleigh asks gently. Lines of concern appear on the Countess’ brow, but she says nothing. “I understand that this was your childhood home.”
“Yes, we’re a very old family who lived in this very old castle a very long time.” Sophronia shrugs. “And now . . . we don’t.”
Oakleigh nods. “I understand that these grand old places can weigh one down with expense. Not to mention the responsibilities to the community.”
“My parents enjoyed playing county squire and his lady. After the war, however, their hearts simply weren’t in it. And then, as you say, there are the costs of living in a castle . . . “ She sighs. “Mother and Dad are quite happy now, settled in France. I, however, didn’t have the heart to leave. Not entirely.” She gazes fondly about the room. “I bought a little place a few towns over. And I befriended the new owners – I’ll admit, for selfish reasons.”
“What were your impressions of the victim?”
She thinks for a moment. “I’m trying to find the proper balance between honesty and tact.”
Oakleigh smiles. “I would prefer honesty, if you don’t mind.”
Sophronia nods. “Well . . . I thought that, for a man who had lived quite an eventful and not unpurposeful life, Lord Petty seemed something of a fool. Oh, he was crafty – and I do believe he enjoyed making people squirm.” She turns to the Professor. “Do you remember the other night, Rodney? When he spoke to us about the theft in London. He was relishing every moment.”
“Yes.” The Professor nods. “He did seem to be enjoying himself. When he stared right at me, I felt uncomfortable.”
“Why is that, Professor?” asks Oakleigh.
“Oh . . . “ Plum blushes. “He seemed to be gauging the effect of his words on everyone. He wanted to watch us squirm. It was quite . . . sadistic.”
“I agree.” Sophronia sits back in her chair. “He really was an odious man. And yet – “ She smiles wryly. “There are many odious men in positions of power. My father entertained several of them through the years. They didn’t get themselves murdered. In fact, they did quite well for themselves, as a rule.”
“Why do you think this odious man was murdered?”
The Countess turns cool eyes on the Inspector. “Surely you must think there is a connection between Lord Petty’s death and the stolen plans.”
“That is definitely a possibility, and I will confide it is the reason that the Sergeant and I were sent here.” Oakleigh pauses and looks at The Countess, sitting almost regally in her chair, and the Professor standing loyally beside her. “Professor Plum has suggested another possibility. Something of a more – personal nature.”
Plum clears his throat. “I suspect that the marriage between Lord Petty and his wife was, er, complicated.”
Sophronia says, quite simply, “Oh, yes. But – which complication do you mean?” All three men look with wonder at her. “Are you talking about her dalliances – or his?”
Oakleigh looks aghast. “Could you perhaps speak more plainly, your ladyship?”
“You will want to talk to my maid, Zuzana. She found – “ Sophonia stops, thinks a moment and then sighs. “Well, there’s no way around it. She stole Lady Petty’s diary.” Sophronia gives a detailed account of the events of the first meeting, including the theft of her emerald and Zuzana’s subsequent actions in the housemaid’s room.
Oakleigh turns to Corn. “Sergeant, it’s imperative that we talk to that maid. Go see if the butler can round her up for you. I’ll take notes here.” Sergeant Corn nods, rises and exits the room. “You alluded to the possibility that Lady Petty was not alone in subscribing to, er, extracurricular activities.”
The Countess represses a laugh. “I did. Though why it should fall on me to discover all the sordid details of this house . . . “ And she proceeds to tell him of the conversation she had overheard two mornings ago, coming from this very room.
“And you’re sure that Lord Petty was the man?”
“Quite sure. And I am equally certain that the woman was Miss Leaharian.”
Plum gasps. “Lucy?” He places a hand on her chair to steady himself. Sophronia reaches over and pats his hand.
“I like her, too, Rodney. Although I can’t say much for her taste in men . . . “
Oakleigh jots a note on the Sergeant’s pad. “Countess, I want to thank you for speaking to me so frankly. You’ve given me several avenues to investigate. Is there anything more you wish to tell me?”
She places both hands on the arms of the chair and closes her eyes tightly. Plum stares at her with concern. In a move that astounds Oakleigh, the Professor kneels before her and places his hand over hers.
“My dear,” he says, with utmost gentility, “you must tell him everything.” She nods, opens her eyes and looks at her friend with gratitude. Then her gaze shifts to Oakleigh.
“Very well, Inspector, you shall hear everything.” She summons her strength. “It all began with the rabbits.”
“Ah, the rabbits. Yes, we have heard about the rabbits. The Professor has inferred that you might be able to tell us something about them.”
Sophronia nods. “I’m afraid I can. To do so – ” She looks to Plum for guidance. He nods at her. “Inspector, let me tell you about my younger brother.”
* * * * *
An hour later, Sergeant Corn returns to the parlor to find his superior scribbling steadfastly on the notepad.
“All finished here?” he asks.
“Finished? We’ve just begun.” Oakleigh thinks, jots down one more line, then sets his pen down with a sigh. “I have a feeling there’s more intrigue going on here than one would find in two Ruth La Pale novels.”
The Sergeant gives a snort, then looks about the room. “Where’s our junior detective?
“I let him escort the Countess back to her room.”
Corn scratches his head. “Aren’t we going about this all topsy-turvy, sir? Letting suspects communicate with each other? Letting them join our team??”
“I’ll admit we’re not going by the book here. However, nothing about this case seems ordinary. Here – he hands over the notebook to his sergeant – “I’ve composed a list of points of interest that we will need to investigate.”
Corn peruses down the list of items on the page.
“Affairs duh armor . . . ?
Oakleigh winces. “Oof, Corn, your French!” The Sergeant gives him a dry look and reads the list aloud.
- Is murder linked to stolen plans??
- Why was safe opened? Theft? Did Petty possess the plans??? If so, where did he get them?
- Method of poisoning – cocktail? Interview maid
- Reading glasses . . . what was victim reading?
- Affairs d’amour: Lady Petty and Diebehnkorn; Lord Petty and . . . who? Lucy?
- Affair d’argent: Petty and Diebehnkorn, movie deal
- Fight between gardener and N.L. – rabbits??
- Stolen emerald – interview the maid
- Diogenes Pratt
Corn blows out a long breath. “Well, we’ve got our work cut out for us, ain’t we?”
“That we have, Sergeant.”
“Did the countess tell you about the rabbits?”
Oakleigh nods. “It appears that Lord Petty was not the first murder victim!” He relates her story of she and Lucy discovering the grieving gardener in the barn, of the Countess’ interview with Mrs. Jolley in the kitchen, and of the subsequent fight near the stable.
Corn whistles. “Her own brother, eh? That’s a bit of a shock.”
“Ah!” Oakleigh hastily scribbles down another note. “We’ll want to call the asylum in Scotland. Find out more about this missing brother. And – “ He ponders a minute. “Somebody – a woman who claimed to be a reporter – called the hospital and asked about Nicholas Lancaster. Let’s see if we can discover who this reporter was and how she came upon this news.”
“So much to learn.” Corn rubs his temples and checks the list. He gives a contemptuous snort. “Diogenes Pratt. I didn’t like the guy, but why did you write his name down here?”
Oakleigh grins. “I didn’t like him either.”
They both laugh, and then Corn peruses the list once more. “Good God! A stolen emerald? What next?”
“It belongs to the Countess. It has been returned.” Corn looks at him quizzically. “For that, you will need to interview the Countess’ maid. A fiery Slav, or so I’m told. But you’re so charming with the servant class.”
“Very funny, sir.”
“Speaking of which – that housemaid seems to be up to her ears in this: it appears that she was the one who pinched the jewel, and the Professor saw her coming out of the study last night.”
“Do you think she did the old man in? Maybe he found out about her thievery. Or – “Corn’s long finger scrolls down to the fifth item. “Was little Gladys His Lordship’s affair d’armour??”
The Inspector shakes his head. “Unless that girl figured out how to kill a man and then close the door and lock it behind her – from the inside – I don’t see her as our killer. And I’d have to look at her before I cast her in the role of paramour. But it looks like she served our victim his final drink. And the Professor says she appeared badly shaken when he spotted her. No, Corn, I think she may have witnessed something that upset her badly. I have a feeling we’ll get some important information out of that girl. Yes, let’s get her in here and have a chat with Gladys.”
Corn pulls himself a bit more to attention. “I’m sorry, sir, but we can’t do that.”
Oakleigh pulls himself from his musings to look at the Sergeant with mild annoyance. “Eh? Why not?”
“I’ve had the men comb this house from top to bottom. We’ve also checked the grounds thoroughly. I’d stake my reputation as a Yard man that little Gladys is not anywhere near the castle!”
“She has vanished.”
Thank you for your patience waiting for this new chapter. Now that the school year, with its weird online component, is over, I hope to bring this to its conclusion at more regular intervals. See you (hopefully) next week!