DEATH WAITS FOR NO LADY
THE BOOK FOLKS
© James Andrew
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This book is written in British English except where fidelity to other languages or accents is appropriate.
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A scratching somewhere woke him, and he tried to place the noise, then realised it must be a branch against the bedroom window. He blinked as his eyes took in the grey of dawn, before he glanced at the dark, curly head beside him. He was pleased to see that Jean still slept. He tried to suppress a groan as he turned onto his other side to avoid the creep of light. He thought perhaps this would help his sleep return, but the branch still knocked, and his mind returned to that blood-sodden place it often lived in at this time of day. He possessed a high-sounding title, Inspector Stephen Blades of Yorkshire Constabulary, but, when waking, he was often a quaking wreck as his mind still gazed at that blood-soaked sand, and that rock.
His eyes began to concentrate on his surroundings. This bedroom reflected Jean, with that framed picture of a sunny meadow and those rose-patterned curtains, and he thought of the neatness with which clothes were arranged in drawers and hung in wardrobes. He was sure if she did not have him as calmly organized he would never get through anything; he was glad to be reassured by the steady sound of her breathing as she slept
His mind filled again with the rush of waves on shore and he could still feel the coolness of the breeze on his skin as he had stood on the sand gazing at the body on the blood-drenched sand, its auburn-locked head gashed by a rock. This had been the third corpse on that beach in a few months, and, as one of the investigating officers, he still felt responsible. They should have caught the murderer before then.
Blades turned to his other side, then back again, realised sleep was not returning, and rose, pulled on his dressing gown, then staggered to the bathroom where he relieved himself. Then, as he started on his morning wash, he reflected that the grey, anxiety-ridden face in the mirror was almost unrecognizable as his.
The murders had stopped. They never knew why, just as they had never found out who, and Blades still wondered whether he deserved to continue in his job. It was Chief Inspector Walker of Scotland Yard who had been in charge, with Blades seconded onto the investigating team for his local knowledge. After the investigation, Walker had been moved from the Yard to one of the local forces. Blades had felt the disgrace as well, but they had praised his conscientiousness. Blades supposed that one scapegoat was considered enough, continued with normal duties and hoped no major crimes would come along. He attempted to look sure of what he was doing though he no longer was.
Blades was tall and wide-framed, with a strong jaw and, normally, a naturally firm look in his eyes, had a reasonably quick brain, and possessed a bluffness in his manner which helped inspire confidence in others, so that, by putting one foot in front of another with contrived boldness, he got from the beginning of one day’s work to the end with surprising lack of incident and sometimes success. But he never forgot he had helped hang an innocent man.
After finishing his toiletries, he gave
the mirror a grimace which he corrected into the confident smile it was
supposed to be, then walked into the kitchen to put the kettle on for tea. He
discovered Jean there ahead of him, yawning and filling it with water. She
switched on the stove and put the kettle on the ring.
Mary was fourteen and had been in her job as parlour maid for only a few months. As she had been brought up in a smoke-blackened tenement, she was in awe of the house she found herself working in. Elmwood Hall was one of the best houses in Birtleby, with a seemingly endless number of rooms, and there were imposing bay windows that looked out over sweeping grounds which, as might be expected, were leafy with elm. The house required an endless amount of work from servants: Mary’s day lasted fifteen hours. She thought herself she was less of a parlour maid and more of a skivvy. Janet had told Mary that fifteen hours had always been normal for a parlour maid in that house though what did make things more difficult was that there were less servants than there used to be. And even though the staff had been reduced after Miss Wright’s father died, Miss Wright expected the house to be kept to the same standard.
It was one of Mary’s duties to polish furniture, which included the mahogany wardrobes, the four-poster bed in her lady’s room, the escritoire, and the bookcases, among many other pieces. Then there was the silver to be looked after, the cutlery service, the dinner service, the trays, and the silver-framed mirrors and candlesticks. This was on top of the normal housework she had anticipated, the scrubbing of floors and the beating of carpets. Mary had to learn the names of a lot of the furniture she looked after, and she still had no idea what some of the cutlery could be for. There was so much to learn for a girl who had been brought up in two rooms with only a kitchen table and some chairs in one room, and, in the other, a ‘set-in’ bed, a couple more chairs, and a blanket box. Entering service had been walking into a different world, and she had met different types of people there. Her mistress’s vowels had been as polished as she expected the silver to be. This was a world of backs held straight, and restricted displays of emotion. Miss Evelyn Wright was the first lady Mary had met and she still had not adjusted to her.
That morning, Mary had started at six, cleaning and blackening the kitchen range and lighting it, then whitening the front steps, and now she was clearing out and making fires in the rest of the house. Because she was doing the dirtier tasks, she was wearing one of her print dresses with a ‘morning apron’ of rough hessian, though she wore the usual goffer cap. Mary’s mother had scrimped and saved for Mary’s uniforms. The house was dark, and Mary drew back curtains and lit gas mantles as she went along. When she opened the drawing-room door, light filled it from the hallway so that when she entered that room she could see clearly, too clearly. She shrieked. She dropped the bucket she was carrying. Though this spilled ash over the floor, that did not merit a glance from her. She stood stock still, unable to move.
Stretched out on the Turkish rug in front of the black marble fireplace lay Mary Cunningham’s employer, Miss Evelyn Wright, or what had been her. The head was thrown back, bruised and bloody, with the still eyes protruding. There was a wound on her forehead and her nose was at an odd angle. The dark-green georgette dress was bloodied too. Mary stared at Miss Wright’s emerald brooch which still sparkled, and it seemed incongruous now. Mary gawped at her employer for a further long moment, before she forced herself into the only action she could think of and scurried off to fetch the housekeeper.
Mary had met death before. She had lost a
brother in infancy, and a sister had died of TB, but this was her first
acquaintance with murder. She was moving in different circles now.
As Inspector Blades stepped out of his car outside Elmwood Hall, he noted the elms, the yew hedge, and the ornate iron gates.
‘Bit of a change from the type of places we’re usually called out to,’ his sergeant, Aloysius Peacock, said.
‘Sometimes you state the obvious,’ Blades replied. ‘It’s one of the most selective areas in Birtleby.’ And definitely a better class of murder than the last one, he thought, as his mind returned to it. ‘I don’t suppose it makes any difference to the victim,’ he said.
As Blades and his sergeant strode up the drive to the door of a three-storied mansion, Blades glanced at the man beside him. Peacock belied his name with his flat grey cap and grey suit made of material of questionable quality and Blades was aware of his own rumpled suit and well-worn bowler. If he had known, he could have put on a dinner jacket.
The door was opened for them by a maid in her teens, whom they were to learn was called Mary Cunningham. Her face seemed to be competing with the whiteness of her cap, and the deep-brown eyes gazed at them with anxiety. Blades showed his card as he introduced himself.
‘Thank you for coming,’ she said, then paused. ‘Thank you so much. Please come in.’
They were ushered into the hallway, the servant disappeared, and a buxom, middle-aged lady appeared and introduced herself as Janet Farrell, the housekeeper.
‘It’s good to see you,’ she said. ‘We’ve been beside ourselves. That such a thing should happen, and to such a person. Miss Wright was quality. And I’ve known her most of her life, girl and woman. I remember her sitting dressing her dolls. I never expected her to meet her end like this.’ Then the words seemed to stop by themselves as she stood wringing her hands. ‘It’s a tragedy.’ She stood for another moment, then more words rushed out. ‘You’ll want to see where she died? Not that I can bear going there again, but we’d better get on with it.’
‘If you could show us there, we’d be grateful,’ Blades replied.
Janet unlocked the dining room door.
‘We haven’t disturbed anything,’ she said. ‘Who would want to and who would dare? Poor Miss Wright.’
‘Thank you,’ Blades said, as they entered. Both Blades and Peacock peered round.
‘And no one’s been in at all since the body was discovered?’
Blades looked at the corpse prostate on the rug, which suggested Evelyn had been standing in front of the fire when she was killed. He took in the angle of the head, arms and legs, and the position of the blows to the head. It was convenient to see what he took to be the murder weapon, a long-handled, brass, blood-spattered poker, on the rug beside her. Blades’ eyes continued round the scene. There was a book on the side-table by the settee and he supposed Evelyn had spent part of the evening reading it. Blades glanced across at Peacock as he saw him nod towards a glass on the mantelpiece, and Blades took in the one on the side-table as well. The glass on the side-table still held some port, though what had been in the one on the mantlepiece had been finished. Plates with sandwiches lay on a large table. All of this suggested someone known and welcomed into the home, and Blades wondered who it could have been. Signs of a struggle were obvious: a lamp and chair had been overturned. There was no indication of the theft of valuables, with items such as Miss Wright’s jewellery untouched. Blades supposed there had been an argument, and he wondered at the cause of it. He noticed the lid of the desk was open and he wondered if it had revolved around papers. He began by asking Janet his standard questions.
‘Do you see anything missing from the room?’
Janet’s eyes flicked about the drawing-room. ‘No.’
‘Is there anything you wouldn’t expect to see?’
Janet’s eyes scanned the room again. ‘No.’
That did not mean the visitor had left nothing of himself behind and Blades would make sure he found anything there was, fingerprints at least.
‘I take it Miss Wright didn’t smoke cigars?’ Peacock said. He looked in the direction of an ashtray.
Blades smiled to himself. No. Peacock wouldn’t miss that.
‘Oh, no, sir.’
‘Who was her visitor?’ Blades asked.
‘Mr Russell, the minister.’
‘And there was no one else?’
‘No.’ Blades noticed the effect the implications of that had on Janet.
‘Did you see him when he arrived?’
‘I opened the door to him, and I wish I hadn’t now,’ she said, gazing at the body. Her thoughts seemed to wander, then her face crumpled, and Blades waited for her to recover composure. ‘It would have been about eight,’ she said at last. ‘Miss Wright was expecting him and had me make cucumber sandwiches especially for him.’ She gestured to the table with its plates of food and decanter of port. ‘Mr Russell did visit sometimes; she said he was a comfort to her after the death of her father, and she didn’t like to be disturbed once I’d shown him up. But surely it wouldn’t be the minister?’
‘We consider anyone and everyone.’
Janet wrung her hands again. ‘It does look bad. Digby comes to visit and when someone next enters this room Miss Wright’s lying there dead. Who else could it have been?’
‘If the evidence points to him, then it does,’ Blades said, ‘though it might not continue to. We’ll see. About what time did Digby arrive?’
‘Let’s see. About seven.’
‘And could you say what time he left?’
‘No, sir. I couldn’t.
Blades turned to Peacock. ‘You’d better get the camera out and take the necessary photographs of the crime scene, the body, of course, the glasses, the table with sandwiches, and the open escritoire to start with.’
‘Yes, sir.’ Peacock set down his black leather bag and took out his bulky camera with its conspicuous flash bulb and began.
‘He was often round,’ Janet said. ‘She was in a right state after her father died. I didn’t think much of him myself. It would have been better if it had been the Methodist minister they always had to do with before, but she’d taken up with the Spiritualist church. I don’t believe in all those seances they go in for, but Miss Wright was convinced. And it seemed to help.’
As Blades considered this, he noticed Janet’s eyes hardly left the body, and it occurred to him she might be able to think more clearly if she were elsewhere. ‘We need to leave Sergeant Peacock to the crime scene,’ he said. ‘Is there somewhere we can discuss this?’
Janet took him into the dining room. The room was dominated by the well-polished mahogany dining table with its high-backed chairs with their velvet seats, and by a resplendent chandelier. Blades pulled out seats for himself and Janet. Seating himself opposite her, he smiled in as reassuring manner as he could. She looked taken aback at his self-confidence in Miss Wright’s dining room as she seated herself opposite him.
‘A dreadful shock for you,’ he said.
‘We’ll do our best to find your mistress’s killer.’
‘Thank you, sir.’
‘You heard nothing untoward, no loud voices, or sound of a struggle?’
‘No. Come to think of it I didn’t even show him up.’ Another anxious look came over her face as if she thought she had been derelict in her duties. Then she continued, ‘He’s been here so often before.’
‘Quite,’ Blades said.
‘I opened the door to him and he went straight upstairs, and he was just as normal. Relaxed and smiling, his smarmy self.’ And she gave an apologetic-looking smile as if embarrassed by the comment.
‘Oh, he’s charming. Too much so in my book, but I wouldn’t have said so to Miss Evelyn.’
‘And where were you during his visit?’
‘I was doing accounts in the housekeeper’s office.’
‘Which is situated where?’
‘In the basement.’
‘Well away from here. What time did Mr Russell leave?’
‘I couldn’t tell you. I wasn’t listening for him. He always showed himself out.’
‘Who found the body?’
‘Could I speak with her?’
Janet walked over to a bell pull beside the fireplace and rang for the maid. When Mary reappeared, Blades studied her. Mary was thin and underdeveloped, and he supposed her background had been impoverished. He hoped life in service would fatten her up a bit. She still looked as anxious as when he’d first seen her, with a remarkable number of lines on her forehead for such a young face.
‘You found the body?’ Blades asked, and Mary nodded.
‘It was a shock, sir. I was just coming into the drawing-room to do the fire, and there she was. Miss Wright was a proper lady. Who’d have thought anyone would do her in? I can’t credit it. I saw her just the day before and she was so full of life.’
‘What was she doing when you last saw her?’
‘What she did every morning, her piano practice. She did it regularly as clockwork and it was lovely.’ Her face looked sad as she said this.
‘What was your relationship like with your employer?’
Janet answered for Mary. ‘Mary’s only been here a few months so she’s still settling in, but she got on all right with her.’
‘Is there anything you want to add to that?’ Blades asked Mary.
‘There isn’t anything else she can tell you,’ Janet said.
‘Can’t she tell me herself?’ Blades asked.
‘I’m sorry,’ Janet said. ‘I shouldn’t have interrupted but she’s only a girl, and Miss Wright had very little to do with Mary. The mistress saw Mary on the day she arrived when she had her interview with her, but Mary gets all her instructions from me. If Miss Wright had a comment to make about the work Mary was doing, that was made through me.’
‘How old are you?’ Blades asked Mary.
Mary could have passed for twelve, Blades thought. Still, fourteen was young, even though it was the usual age girls started in service.
‘I got on all right with her, when I did see her. Not that she said anything much as Janet said.’
Blades studied Mary. ‘All right,’ he said. “Did you see Mr Russell last night?’
‘No. It was my evening off and I didn’t come back till ten.’
‘Did you see or hear anything then?’
‘We use the back entrance and stair, sir. I wouldn’t see anything that was going on at this end of the house.’
‘And you didn’t?’
Blades thought he had probably asked Mary enough questions for now but did not dismiss her. He looked across at Janet. ‘When was the last time you saw your employer?’
Janet considered. ‘She came down to compliment me on her meal. It was some time after six. Then she discussed the next day’s menus.’
‘And how did she seem?’
‘Her normal self. Nothing seemed to be bothering her.’
‘How long have you worked for her?’
Janet gave a long, drawn-out sigh. ‘About thirty-five years.’
‘A fair whack of time.’
‘I started here when I was twelve.’
‘So you’ll know everything there is to know about Miss Wright?’
‘She was a lady from a fine family, and she was a good soul. I felt sorry for her.’
‘Her father was a self-centred tartar and he clung onto Miss Wright so much after her mother died. She was a fine-looking woman, Miss Evelyn, and she had a way with her, so that we thought she would make someone a good catch, but her father saw off any young man who came to call. He wanted her all to himself.’
‘How did she react to that?’
‘How could she? It’s not as if she’d any independent money. Her mother arranged soirées so that Evelyn could be introduced to eligible young men. There was one we thought might have won her, a well-set up gentleman, Alex Forsyth, from one if the wealthiest families in Birtleby, but Miss Evelyn’s father set a private detective on him and found out he’d fathered a baby to another woman, so he forbade Evelyn from seeing him, which might have been fair enough. She’d have finished with him herself when she found that out about him, but it was the same with every young man who came to call. Mr Wright would make a point of finding out any faults or secrets, and make sure Evelyn knew. And who’s perfect?’
‘After Evelyn’s mother died, the soirées came to a halt, so her father had no more young gentlemen to see off, and he ended up with what he’d decided he wanted which was Evelyn all to himself. But Evelyn adapted to it. She did her good works on different charity committees – and comforted herself with her piano. She was never away from that. It was as if tinkling away on it was the only way she could express herself. And it was lovely to listen to.’
‘Then her father died?’
‘He was ill and became a bed-bound invalid for a long time, when he needed her even more, so that she got even less of a life.’
‘Did you like him?’
‘As an employer? He was no better or worse than any of his class, and who are servants to criticise them? But he led his daughter a difficult life.’
‘So how was she after her father’s death?’
‘Grief-struck. I thought she became a bit too fond of her own company.’
‘Then she found herself a young man, this Digby Russell?’
‘If he was her young man. He was her minister and a queer fish. He talks to the dead and gets everyone to believe him.’
‘Not a light-hearted, pleasure-loving young man?’
‘I wish she’d met one of those. Digby has a light-hearted way with him, but his eyes aren’t light.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘It’s hard to say. It’s as if he knows something clever no one else does, if that’s it.’
‘Is he ill-tempered at all?’
‘He’s charm itself. Some people talked about him and Evelyn because of the number of times he came around – and he was fifteen years younger than her. I thought if she did have a young man it would be a good thing. A bit of life was what she needed.’ Then Janet paused as if struck by a thought. ‘Not that a bit of life’s what she got.’
Blades noticed the poignancy but was aware he couldn’t allow himself to indulge it. Fortunately, Janet recovered her composure quickly. ‘Do you think there was a romance there?’ he said though his tone was gentle now.
‘It was all kept proper but who’s to say?’
Blades waited to see if Janet would elaborate but she did not. ‘Do you know anything about enemies Miss Wright might have had?’
‘I don’t know of anyone she might have disagreed with this much.’
‘Who did she have disagreements with?’
‘Not that anybody springs to mind at all. She was a good-natured soul.’
Blades looked carefully at Janet. ‘How did you find Miss Wright to work for?’
‘It was an old-fashioned family. They kept their distance from you. They thought you wouldn’t do your work properly otherwise, and Miss Wright was just the same as her father and mother. They’d have preferred it if a maid had been invisible. Mary’s work had to be done when Miss Wright wasn’t in the room. And Mary had never to show her back to her. Sometimes it meant leaving a room backwards. I don’t know how much you know of the ways of big houses, but that’s not uncommon.’
‘I’ve some idea. My mother was a housekeeper before she married, and she told us stories about it.’
Janet looked surprised. ‘Where was your mother in service?’
‘To the Lyons over at Fanthorpe. She was the housekeeper. She married the local grocer she did business with and left.’
‘Good for her,’ Janet said. A look that Blades couldn’t quite place appeared in her eyes, then left. ‘Janet’s not my name, you know.’
‘It’s what they always called the housekeeper in that family so it’s what they called me. Elizabeth’s my real name. Betty. Not that I’d probably answer to it now.’ She laughed briefly. ‘I came from an orphanage.’
‘So I didn’t mind. They were being ever so good to us in that establishment, so they said. All the girls were trained for employment, so they would be able to make their own ways in the world, and it was service they trained you for. I wouldn’t have minded meeting someone like your mother did, but it was difficult. They didn’t approve of followers.’
That look reappeared on her face, then just as quickly vanished again.
‘But I’ve always had a roof over my head – till now. And the Wrights were always decent people to work for.’
‘I expect you’ll find somewhere soon enough.’
‘Maybe. I’m not getting any younger.’
‘Was Miss Wright an only child?’
‘She had a brother. Not that he had anything to do with the business either.’
‘The Wright family. They owned Wright’s Biscuits. You’ll know of them.’
‘Oh, definitely, though I wasn’t sure whether Evelyn Wright was part of that family. They’ve that big factory outside Birtleby?’
‘That’s where the wealth came from, but the father sold it after he’d grown a bit older and got used to the fact his son wasn’t interested.’
‘Where does the son live now?’
‘Andrew has a place in Harrogate. He and Evelyn kept up with each other though I couldn’t say when he was last here, a month or so I suppose. His father settled money on him as he said he felt a man should have independence, so Andrew leads a leisured life, and he writes novels which are supposed to be well thought of, though I’ve never read them.’
‘A brother?’ Blades said. ‘We’ll make sure he’s informed. He and his sister were on good terms when they met?’
‘Reasonable. It was a brother and sister relationship. They knew each other inside out and weren’t slow to criticise. Andrew didn’t think much of Digby. That might be why he hasn’t been near the place so much.’
‘Where does Digby Russell live?’
Janet told him.
‘You and Mary were the only servants?’
‘There’s the kitchen maid, Katy, and a gardener, Charlie Falconer. He has a cottage in the grounds.’
‘She helps me in the kitchen. She’s been here longer than Mary. She came here about a year and a half ago. She was the parlour maid and then after Mary came she was promoted to the kitchen.’
‘Was Katy here last night?’
‘She’d cleaning up to do but she’d have finished about nine. She’d have been up in her room after that. Not that her room’s anywhere near where Miss Wright was. The maids are right at the top of the house. And the kitchen’s in the basement. She couldn’t have heard or seen anything.’
‘Still, she’ll need to confirm that. And there’s a gardener, you say? Would he have been around the house at that time of night?’
Though he might have seen someone in the gardens Blades reflected. He would question him, but not just now.
‘Can I talk to Katy?’ Blades said.
Janet walked to the bell rope and pulled it again. Blades supposed that everyone was summoned by the clanking of that bell in this house.
A well-developed girl appeared, frowned at Mary, glanced apprehensively at Janet and stared at him. Blades guessed she would be no more than sixteen but, with her build and self-confidence, looked older. Her maid’s uniform neither succeeded in disguising her voluptuous figure nor in dampening what looked like a fiery spirit Blades thought as he studied the imperious and questioning eyes. But there was some measure of nervousness there and a paleness of the skin that suggested the shock she like everybody else in this household must have felt.
He attempted to give her a reassuring smile. ‘Inspector Blades,’ he said. ‘I’m investigating your mistress’s death.’ Then he paused wondering how he should proceed. ‘Did you hear or see anything untoward?’ he said.
‘I’ve enough to do in that kitchen without paying any attention to what’s going on upstairs.’
And there was a boldness in the reply that made him think this girl might be less nervous than he had expected. ‘I suppose not,’ he said. ‘Though if you’d heard your mistress screaming because someone was attacking her you would have?’
Her veneer of self-composure was rocked at this and her reply gushed out. ‘I would then.’
‘What time did you finish in the kitchen?’
Now Blades noted that though she met his eyes fully, she shifted from one foot to the other. ‘About nine – and then my time was my own, so I wouldn’t be looking for Miss Wright in case she gave me anything else to do. I just wanted to get my feet up.’
‘So you went upstairs to your room?’
‘That wouldn’t take you past the drawing-room?’
‘We go up the back stairs,’ Katy replied but did not elaborate.
‘I suppose you do.’
‘I understand you’ve been working here about a year and a half?’ Blades asked her.
‘And how do you find it here?’
Katy glanced across at Janet. ‘It’s a good place. Lots of girls my age in service would be jealous of me.’
‘You were here when Mr Wright was still alive?’
‘Oh yes.’ There was a pause as Blades gave her the opportunity to continue. ‘He was a bit of a tyrant with Miss Evelyn I thought. He treated her as if she were one of the servants. He had her waiting on him hand on foot, but he was as could be expected with us. We are servants.’ At this she suppressed a laugh.
Then Janet interjected. ‘She was swallowed up by her father. It was a shame. He could be a selfish man. I knew what she felt.’
‘You did?’ Blades replied as Katy turned her head to look at Janet with a surprised curiosity. ‘What do you mean?’ Blades asked.
Janet who had not looked as if she intended to elaborate, now did, after a moment’s hesitancy. ‘My sister died.’
‘It was cancer and when she was nearing the end of her illness I wanted to go to her.’ She struggled with the thought. ‘They don’t mean harm, people of this class, but they don’t really see you if you’re a servant. They think they do right by you, but they don’t always. It was all right, Mr Wright said. I could go to my sister if she was ill. But I had to have my duties done first. And there were visitors that weekend and there was all the organizing to do and by the time they’d left, and I could go, she was dead.’
Janet sat in silence, and then tears started to stream down her face. After some time, she found what she could of her sang-froid, wiped the tears away, and pulled herself upright again, but Blades wondered how long the composure would last.
‘That must have been dreadful for you,’ Blades said, his voice soft.
‘It was. So I know how she must have felt. He was a selfish man. And now I grieve for Miss Evelyn.’
Then Blades swept his gaze over the three servants as he said with decisiveness. ‘You must all let me take your fingerprints,’ he said, ‘to compare with the others in the room. It’ll allow me to eliminate yours.’
They complied. Then, as he had nothing
more to ask them for the present, he dismissed them, saying that Peacock would
see them later to take their statements. It was time to examine that murder
‘That desk isn’t just open,’ Peacock said when Blades entered the room. ‘It’s been forced.’
‘Has it now?’ Blades strode to the escritoire and studied it but still without touching anything. ‘Have you started on fingerprints?’
‘I was about to.’
Peacock opened his black leather bag and took out boxes of French chalk and of lampblack, then started on the desk with white powder. It was covered in prints and prints on prints. Most were blurred but a few showed clear loops and whorls. ‘Miss Wright’s must be all over it,’ Peacock muttered.
‘And someone else’s?’ Blades asked.
‘Someone else with gloves on,’ Peacock replied.
‘I see what you mean,’ Blades said, studying them. ‘Try the poker.’
Peacock brushed chalk on, then took out metal pincers from his bag before turning the poker and trying the other side. When he had finished, Blades took the pincers from him and studied the poker. Just beside the bloodstain, just there, was a hair. Taking tweezers from his pocket, Blades picked up the hair to examine it against the light before putting it in an envelope.
‘A hair of Miss Wright’s?’
‘I would think so,’ Blades said. ‘And the poker was the murder weapon.’
‘Looks like it. Good prints on it too.’
‘Try the glasses.’
And there were clear prints on both of them.
‘Good. We can establish if the poker was wielded by her visitor or not,’ Blades replied.
‘When do you think he put the gloves on?’ Peacock sked.
‘After she was dead, and he wanted to rifle for the papers he wanted?’
‘Why didn’t he wipe the prints on the poker?’
‘A good question.’ Blades sighed, and a frown appeared on his forehead, that slowly deepened.
Peacock continued dusting to Blades’ instructions. Once he’d dusted everywhere, Peacock then proceeded to photograph all the prints.
As he did so, Blades busied himself. He had brought his bag with him from which he brought a powerful flashlight. With this he swept the room, examining every inch of the rug round the body to begin with, then outward to cover all the carpet, flooring, chairs and other furniture, finishing back where he started, where he began a study of the fireplace. When he was finished, he said, ‘The only traces of blood are centred round the body, which suggest the body hasn’t been dragged around and that the murder happened where she fell, which fits in with what we thought, a quarrel followed by a couple of quick blows. And, so far, it points to Digby Russell,’ Blades said. ‘He was the person last with her to our knowledge. He was shown up by Janet though not seen when leaving and the body was found next morning by the maid.’
‘Unless it was someone in the house,’ Peacock suggested.
‘Or someone else entered it unseen. The prints might tell us about that.’
‘What do we know about Digby Russell?’
‘Younger than Evelyn. Much. And he spent a lot of time in her company, providing spiritual support, we’re told. She was left on her own by her father’s death and presumably came into money, so there could have been other reasons. After all, her father defended her from any young man who ever showed an interest in her. At last she had the freedom to have a relationship with one and there was Digby Russell. She must have felt drawn to him.’
‘That sounds likely,’ agreed Peacock.
‘I wonder if he’s a man for the ladies among his flock.’ Blades was in full flow now and started to speak more quickly. ‘But if he had designs on her, why kill her? Did he move too fast on her and alarm her? Did he assault her? Or had she changed her will in his favour? Or was there insurance?’
‘Is that likely if they haven’t passed the stage of courting, or got to it properly yet?’
Blades nodded. ‘If we knew how well that had developed, it would help. Or might there have been something valuable in the desk?’ Blades continued to give that thought. ‘If it was something in particular the killer wanted he must have known it was likely to be there, so it was someone who knew her?’
‘Or just a quarrel?’
‘About what?’ Blades paused as he thought about this. ‘Though I don’t suppose that would matter with someone volatile if something arose. How volatile is Russell? A minister? You wouldn’t think he’d fit the bill. Still, as he was there, he’s the first suspect.’
Blades liked working with Peacock. He was a good person to bounce ideas off. Battle-hard and battle-bright were the phrases that came to mind when Blades thought of his sergeant. Peacock had also been a sergeant in the army during the war. A self-contained man, he never spoke of it, but Blades knew well enough from others the horrors he must have seen. Police officers were not conscripted though they were encouraged to volunteer, and Blades had felt he ought to do his bit, but Jean insisted he stay at home. She had lost her brother Tom at the Battle of the Somme and she did not want to lose her husband, so he had continued with his police work. Jean praised him to the skies for it, told him he was being equally useful as a policeman, as someone had to make sure people left at home were safe, but it rubbed at his conscience. While men like Peacock were at war, men like Blades, with less competition to face, gained promotion at home. Perhaps it was the guilt he felt, but, when he looked at Peacock, he had a sneaking suspicion Peacock might be more able than he was, and Blades often felt the need to prove something to him. He could not help remembering the man had won the Military Medal. Blades sometimes wondered if Peacock resented him though he did not appear to. Perhaps Blades just thought Peacock ought to. His sergeant was a resilient, spry sort of fellow who got on with his job with apparent stoicism and admirable competence. Blades watched Peacock as he busied himself with the camera. Peacock was a lean man with an unimposing manner, but he was not someone to be underestimated. Those photographs would be clear and comprehensive. The fingerprints would give all the information possible