Do you still think it was who you thought it was?
Episode Four: Suspects Galore
We had left the smoking room again and, keeping together, made our way to the lounge, where several cooling cups of coffee waited for us. DeLongue had somehow completely taken charge, although, considering his natural charm and strong personality, I supposed that wasn’t too surprising.
“I suggest a hunt,” he was saying. “The murderer is not confident of him- or herself physically, the intricate poisoning method proves that. Two strong men should be enough to overpower them, whoever they are.”
My heart leapt as he turned his head and indicated me. It was childish, I know, but for a man like him to deem me so necessary pleased me greatly.
“I shall need you, Mr Falconer. I hope you remember how to spar, if we should meet this villain.”
“It’s like riding a bike.” I replied.
We left the room, and I followed DeLongue through the hall, past the clockworks which we had admired before, and towards the stairs. On the way, we walked past several closed doors, though DeLongue did not try any of them.
“Shouldn’t we go room to room?” I asked.
“No, my friend. We are looking for a rug.” He began walking up the stairs.
“A rug. Not a murderer but a rug. Did you see the faint line on the ceiling? That chandelier was not re-hung, it was moved nine inches to the left. Someone had been planning this murder as far back as the seventh of October. Would such a person as that simply hide in a room and wait to be caught? Ah, here is the rug.”
“So, why are we looking for a rug?”
“That is not our goal, merely another point on the graph. And if I have as good a grip on the situation as I think, the rug will lie rather too close to a cupboard or some such thing.”
To my mounting astonishment, that was exactly what we found. The rug had seemingly been pulled across the hallway so that it lay at an angle, and was wrinkled at the foot of a cupboard.
“Open the cupboard and tell me what you see, Mr Falconer.”
I obliged him. The cupboard was a long, low piece of furniture with drawers on one side and a door in the other. It was made of a dark and expensive-looking wood, and locked with a key that was still protruding from the door. I turned it and pulled. Lying in the darkness inside was a small painted soldier. Without thinking, I pulled it out and showed it to my companion, dislodging in my haste a small rubber pipe, which flopped back into the gloom.
“It’s a clockwork,” I remarked.
It seemed I had piqued DeLongue’s interest. He held out his hand eagerly and I placed the toy into it.
“Have you ever seen the like, Mr Falconer?”
“Many like it, but none of the like, if I may be so vague.”
“Not at all, my friend. I, too, am certain that this one is quite unique, though that fact would be visible only to you, to me, and, I am quite sure, our Captain Turnbull.”
“There was a pipe, Mr DeLongue.”
“Oh, yes, naturally there was a pipe. How else would the poison be delivered under the rug and through the floor to the chandelier? And please, call me simply DeLongue. After you have said my name one hundred times this simplification will have saved you well over a minute and a half.”
“In that case, you had better call me Falconer.”
“Forgive my hypocrisy, my friend, but to you, the sound of those first two syllables is as much a part of your name as the last three, and I would be quite the ruffian were I to do away with them for simplicity’s sake.”
“DeLongue, I have just realised that you believe this clockwork to be a poison delivery system.”
“Quite so, Mr Falconer. And if you would be so kind as to help me with this rug, we will see – I am quite sure – a hole in the floorboards, through which this pipe feeds, and which is directly above the chandelier downstairs.”
Together, our fingers sinking deeply into the pile, we cleared the rug to the side, and saw that the pipe which I had so carelessly unplugged did indeed lead down through the floorboards. We left the heavy rug where it was and proceeded back downstairs, DeLongue holding the toy.
“Behold the murderer!” cried DeLongue, entering the sitting room with the soldier held before him.
“What do you mean?” asked Miss Peckerel.
“This toy was discovered in an upstairs cupboard, and we believe it was instrumental in the murder. What do you make of it, Captain?”
“I have never seen that before!” declared Turnbull as we presented him with our prize. Clearly he felt that the clockwork incriminated him in some way, until DeLongue appeased him, pointing out that there were three clockwork enthusiasts in the room, all equally implicated. Our attentions turned to the toy itself. It was passed from hand to hand, though most guests reacted with bewilderment before passing it on. Finally, it was back in Turnbull’s hands, and after peering closely at it, a sudden smile sprang to his lips.
“It’s a Benedict!” he cried. The complete lack of recognition on anyone’s face prompted Turnbull to continue. “C. Batch Benedict was an eccentric clockwork maker in the seventeen-hundreds. He was a genius, creating the smallest and most perfectly-running chronographs of that century. Indeed, Benedict’s designs are surpassed today only by the most skilled watchmakers in Switzerland.”
“He made watches?” asked Miss Peckerel.
“Is this a chronograph?” said Mrs Cooper, indicating the tin soldier.
“No, Mrs Cooper. Let me explain: Benedict was such a genius that some said his mind began to unravel. He embarked on strange projects with no clear purpose; chronographs with no means of reading them, or that ran precisely one second faster per year. The last of those finally broke late in the seventeenth century, with the hands whizzing round so fast it made the experts studying it quite dizzy.
“Later in his life, he must have turned his mind to toys, for this toy soldier clearly bears his makers’ mark – if you know what you are looking for, that is.”
Turnbull examined the little soldier more closely, turning it this way and that in his hands.
“What are you hunting for?” I asked.
“This panel,” he said, pointing. “Benedict was a notoriously proud man, and always included a way for people to study his handiwork.”
He popped a catch on the panel, which sprang open to reveal an intricate network of gears inside the soldier.
“Now that’s interesting,” he remarked.
“Have you found something, Captain Turnbull?” inquired DeLongue.
“Indeed I have, Mr DeLongue. This toy’s mechanism allows it to be primed for up to one hour before activation.”
“Whatever do you mean, James?” said Mr Cooper.
“Well, this bulb here –” he pointed to the back of the soldier’s rifle “– can be filled with liquid.” He re-closed the panel. “Then the key goes in here –” he pointed again, this time to an odd-shaped opening in the back of the panel “– and you turn the key. The maximum number of rotations allows for one hour before the liquid is ejected through the gun.”
O’Leary snorted. “That’s ridiculous! No child would wait an hour for his toy soldier to shoot a gun.”
“This piece was not meant for children, Reverend.”
“Then what is its purpose? Why make it?”
“He was quite mad, Reverend.”
DeLongue cleared his throat. The attention of the room turned to him.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, “unfortunately the presence of this toy changes everything. As I told you, this toy was found in an upstairs cupboard. Attached to the gun was a small rubber pipe, which ran underneath a rug and through the floorboards above the smoking room. I am quite sure that if we were to examine the reservoir on the gun of that toy soldier, we should find yet more cyanide crystals, and one of us knows how they got there.”
“What are you saying, Mr DeLongue!” cried Miss Peckerel.
“I am saying, Miss Peckerel, that we are once again all suspects in a case of murder. Someone in this room prepared this toy, wound it and hid it upstairs, knowing that it would, at some point in the next hour, drip its deadly cargo onto the cigar of the unfortunate Mr Nicholas Grimsby.”
Cooper’s face was red. It was clear he had had enough.
“Mr DeLongue! You have come into this house a guest, and you have shown nothing but the most barefaced effrontery with your continuous accusations of murder! My wife and I have been attending dinner parties at Downey Hall for years. James is Genevieve’s guardian, and Mr Grimsby has been courting her for months! One of your suspects is a Reverend, for God’s sake! A Reverend!”
“Control yourself, Owen!” commanded the Captain. “Mr DeLongue is my guest!”
“I will not! Who is this guest, to accuse us of murder? Who are you, Mr DeLongue? And while we are on the subject, who are you, Mr Falconer? I do not know you! How can I be expected to trust you?”
DeLongue’s voice was silk.
“Mr Cooper, you have hit the nail, as they say, right on the head. You all know each other. You all knew the deceased. Mr Falconer and I had never met most of you before tonight. Pray, where is our motive to kill poor Mr Grimsby?”
“You talk of motives, Mr DeLongue! Who among us had a motive? Me? My wife? We went to church with him every Sunday! Miss Peckerel was ready to marry the gentleman!”
“Be silent,” said Turnbull, in a voice dead of emotion.
“Where was The Reverend’s profit in murdering Grimsby, snake that he was?”
Miss Peckerel gasped.
“Be silent!” spat Turnbull. This time, Cooper was.
I had not trusted myself to say anything since the atmosphere had changed for the accusatory, but in some dimly-lit corner of my mind, a very small voice was commending Mr Cooper on his venturing from the land of the bland. I tried to focus on the room; Captain Turnbull was speaking again.
“Let us cease this charade. I am the only one of us with a motive for murder. It is no secret that I despised the man; he was only at my table at the insistence of my god-daughter, Genevieve. I have protested in the strongest possible terms against his courtship of Genevieve, so if anyone here should come under suspicion, it should be me. However, Mr DeLongue, this toy has a one-hour timing mechanism, which means it was wound sometime during dessert. Which of us left during dessert?”
My insides now felt as congealed as the strudel I had left cooling on my plate.
“I did,” I found myself saying. “I had to check the windows of my motorcar.”
“And I did,” said DeLongue. I was unimaginably happy for his support. “I lent Mrs Pott my umbrella so that she could reach her cottage in relative dryness. Mr Cooper, I believe you and your wife left to check the lock on your upstairs bedroom, no?”
Mr Cooper looked ready to explode.
“I had to wash my sleeve,” admitted The Reverend O’Leary.
Miss Peckerel’s eyes once again had that dangerous, stormy quality to them.
“I, too, left the table, to powder my nose,” she said, her eyes locked on her guardian. “And you left the table, James. You left the table to bring in the dessert. That was less than an hour before we went into the smoking room. You left the table, just like the rest of us.”
Turnbull sank into a chair. DeLongue took the toy from his unresisting fingers and examined the winding hole closely. At length, he spoke again.
“This winding hole is quite unique. I have never seen one like it. Mr Falconer?” He held it out to me. I took it, hoping I would not let myself down, but indeed, the winding hole was absolutely one-of-a-kind. The eyes of the room were upon me. I had never seen anything like it, and I said as much.
“It seems to me,” said DeLongue, “that if we find the key that fits this hole, we will find our murderer.”
“Why don’t we start with your room, James?” suggested Miss Peckerel sweetly. Her eyes had never left her guardians face.
“Now hold on,” said The Reverend, his palms outwards as if to slow the terrible pace that was building within the room.
“It would be quite the quickest way to clear your name, James,” continued Miss Peckerel unabashed.
“James, you have nothing to hide,” added Mr Cooper. His wife nodded reassuringly.
Turnbull appeared to consider for a moment, then nodded. He glared first at DeLongue, and then at me. My heart sank as he did so, and I knew that our budding friendship had come to an abrupt end. I wasn’t certain how it had come about, and I was sure it wasn’t my fault, but it was clear that this was the last of Captain Turnbull’s dinner parties I would ever attend.
The next few moments happened in a similar state of numb inevitability. DeLongue provided the plan: everyone would move together, and one person would search each person’s room, the volunteer being drawn by straw. In this way, nobody would be able to slip away, and nobody would be able to plant any evidence. Turnbull unlocked his door while we drew straws. A short moment later, Mrs Cooper and her short straw walked past a glowering Turnbull, apologising as she went.
We crowded in the entrance to the Captain’s room, a surprisingly sparsely furnished affair. A magnificent bed took centre stage, but aside from that the furniture was scant. Grand, but scant.
Mrs Cooper, looking increasingly flustered, was flapping around in the middle of the room, going first in one direction, then in the other, before looking to the spectators in the doorway for deliverance. Curse my soft heart, but I couldn’t bear her look of helplessness. I can only assume that this is what drove me to speak, while everybody else had the sense to remain silent.
“Under the bed?”
Turnbull glared at me. The more colourful phrases from my army days flared bright in my mind, repeatedly and in large letters.
Mrs Cooper hitched her dress in as ladylike a fashion as she could muster, and bent to peer under the bed. I averted my eyes from the sight of her hind quarters, but all civility was forgotten when I heard her gasp. The eyes assembled in the doorway ceased their roving and snapped as one to focus on Mrs Cooper. She emerged from under the bed and came up trembling. In her hand was a small, golden key.