Another late-in-the-week entry. There are no excuses, only laziness and distraction, but I hope you’ll agree that this chapter is certainly worth the wait. Will you change your mind again? Or did you know it all along? Well of course, you’re a clever little sausage. You knew it all along, didn’t you?
EPISODE FIVE: QUICK-DRYING PAINT
“This is impossible!” Turnbull roared. Miss Peckerel had burst into tears and The Reverend was silent. The Coopers were busy blustering and flapping in equal parts, starting many sentences but finishing none. My friend DeLongue observed the scene only, his eyes narrowed into extreme focus. Clearly, here was a man who missed nothing.
Suddenly Miss Peckerel turned to me and buried her face in my lapels. Through my jacket, I could feel the warmth of her face and the dampness of her tears, and I tentatively folded one arm around her, feeling this the proper reaction. Evidently this was the last straw for Turnbull, who stalked toward me with clenched fists.
“You swine!” he thundered. With Miss Peckerel in front of me, I could not hope to defend myself properly, but in her grief she had seemed to take root. Her tears soaked into my shirt, bitter tears which rolled from her cheeks and fed the roots that held her until she became quite immovable. The Reverend O’Leary came to my rescue.
“Calm yourself, James!” he said in a voice surprisingly stern, moving between myself and the Captain. At the sight of The Reverend, the fight went out of the stout Captain and he sagged before us, despondent. I had never before noticed how old he was, how deep the lines on his face. He seemed in that moment not the courageous Captain I had come to know, but an old man, utterly beaten. For a while, the only sounds were Captain Turnbull’s laboured breathing and the muffled sobbing of Miss Peckerel from within my jacket.
“I know how the key came to be under your bed, Captain Turnbull, and you did not put it there.”
I found myself wondering how DeLongue was always able to utter sentences such that the prevailing silence was not merely broken, but completely shattered. For a moment, those assembled were too stunned to react. Miss Peckerel left the safety of my lapels, though I noted that one hand remained on my coat-tail, in case circumstances forced her to once again take her damp refuge.
“I’m sorry I had to put you through this, Captain, but it was necessary to draw the real murderer out.”
“Whatever do you mean, DeLongue?” I asked, astounded.
“The chandelier was positioned perfectly to drip onto one particular brass holder. How was the killer to know that Mr Grimsby would sit in precisely that place?”
“He couldn’t!” gasped Mrs Cooper.
“On the contrary, Mrs Cooper,” replied my friend. “The killer could be fairly certain that the intended victim would seat himself in that chair…because the intended victim was Captain Turnbull!”
We all stared at him.
“The chair in which Mr Grimsby sat was your usual place, is that not right, Captain?”
“Why yes, but how did you know?”
“Until we saw your room, I could not be sure, but I suspected it from the start. The furniture that you choose to keep by you in your room, in style perfectly matched to the chair in the smoking room, confirmed my suspicions. Who would sit in the chair of their host? Therein, the killer made a mistake. For Mr Grimsby, unfortunately for himself, was also here, and for that rascal, nothing would have given him greater pleasure than to inconvenience the illustrious Captain James Turnbull, which he gladly did.
“However, my first clue was the faint line on the ceiling.”
“Which ceiling?” asked Turnbull.
“There is a faint line on the ceiling of your smoking room, Captain. The person that re-hung your chandelier also moved it, and covered their tracks with quick-drying paint that was not quite the same shade of white as the rest of your ceiling. Tell me, Captain, who was it that did this work for you?”
“It was my usual man, Irons.”
“Are you absolutely sure of that, Captain?”
“It was either Irons or his partner.”
“Irons has a partner?” asked Miss Peckerel. “I thought Irons worked alone. He always said he preferred it that way.”
Turnbull was beginning to turn red again. “When I telephoned Irons, he said that he was busy, but that either he or his partner would come to re-hang the chandelier, which had come slightly loose at one edge.”
“Could we call this man Irons, do you think, Captain?”
“What the devil do you mean, Mr DeLongue? It’s past midnight!”
“If you would please indulge me, Captain. I don’t believe Mr Irons will be much put out.”
“Call his bluff, James!” urged Mr Cooper.
Turnbull stalked over to the telephone by his bed and pulled a small address book from his jacket pocket. “I certainly don’t know why I am allowing myself to be bullied in my own home, but you say you can clear my name, Mr DeLongue.”
The dial clicked and Turnbull glanced from the book in his hand to his phone. Shutting the book with a snap, he held the receiver to his ear. He fumbled one-handed with his address book, attempting to replace it within his jacket, which had clearly decided not to co-operate. Presently, though, his hand fell to his side. The expression of indignation dropped from his face as he slowly turned the receiver to face us.
“There’s no signal,” he said. “Nothing. It’s as if the number doesn’t exist.” He replaced the receiver and carefully held his jacket open to accept the address book.
“But what has happened to this man, Irons?” I asked, bewildered. “A phone number can’t disappear.”
“Oh but it can, my friend. If the person were to request the number be removed from the exchange, it would cease to exist.”
“Mr Irons wouldn’t do that, Mr DeLongue,” said Miss Peckerel. “He relies on his telephone for business.”
“I’m sure he does, Miss Peckerel, but the number your guardian has just dialled is not the number of Mr Irons.”
Turnbull scrabbled in his pocket and produced once again the black book. He flipped through the pages and stabbed one of them with his outstretched finger. Then, he lifted the receiver and began stabbing the dial. After he had wrenched the dial round a half-dozen times he held the receiver out to us. We strained our ears to hear the sound of ringing, but nothing happened.
“You see?” he announced triumphantly, “I dialled that exact number, and there is no-one there.”
“May I?” asked DeLongue. The black book was placed upon his upturned palm. He turned to the relevant page and nodded. He turned the book so that we could see the number written in black pen. “This was rather expertly done,” he said, “but every deception leaves its mark. Can you see that this ‘eight’ has been altered?”
I had to admit, although not out loud, that I could not. However, Mrs Cooper evidently had very keen eyesight. I once again imagined her immaculate house; with the eyes of a hawk and a pair of rubber gloves I could see her obliterating all traces of dirt and dust with a wrathful fury.
“I see it!” she cried. “If you look at the very top of the ‘eight’ you can see that it used to be a ‘three’.”
“I see it, too!” Miss Peckerel added.
I peered a little closer, and then I saw it. A tiny slip had ruined an otherwise perfect work. I added my voice to the others, and Mr Cooper soon submitted that he, too could see the alteration.
“My final clue,” said DeLongue, ignoring the interlude entirely and continuing his explanation, “was what Mrs Cooper removed from underneath your bed. You were a Captain in the RAF, were you not?”
“Indeed I was.”
“Did you have a gift for strategy, Captain Turnbull?”
“Of course! They don’t allow any old fool to be a Captain in the RAF.”
“Precisely. Only a great fool would hide such a damning piece of evidence under his own bed. Captain, I am confident that you are not our murderer. You were the intended victim, and your would-be killer is a person who is on such familiar terms with you that they know the person you call to work in your house. They know of the book in which the number of that person is written, and they can enter your house without suspicion in order to alter that number. They are also foolish enough to believe that others are as foolish as them.”
“My word, DeLongue, do you know who the killer is?”
“I am about to prove it to you. Mr Cooper, please could you give your key to Mr Falconer?”
“Absolutely not! Are you accusing me, now? What is the meaning of this? This is an outrage!”
Mrs Cooper was trembling, and I felt terrible for her, however it seemed as if DeLongue was accusing the pair of murder, and I thought that if that indeed was his intention then I should show him my support, as he had supported me before. I drew myself up to my full height and held out my hand.
“The key, please, Mr Cooper.”
I was rather at a loss. If it came to blows, the portly Mr Cooper would surely be no match for my trained fists, but it was precisely that vulnerability that would prevent me from striking him. That, and the presence of his wife and the fair Miss Peckerel, not to mention the fact that in civilised society, a man should not have to start laying about himself every time a request is met with refusal.
Once again, the good Reverend acted the peacemaker. He crossed to where Mr Cooper stood and placed one hand on his shoulder, looking into his eyes. Cooper looked around the room for support, but found none. Turnbull’s face was dark; it was clear his suspicions had been awakened. Miss Peckerel, believing herself to have finally found the killer of her beloved, stared piercing daggers at him. Cooper looked as though he might try to make a bolt for the door, and I prepared myself to intercept him. The Reverend’s hand tightened, firmly but without violence.
“Owen. No-one has accused you. Mr Falconer needs the key if Mr DeLongue is to show us who the killer was. You want the killer found, do you not?” The unfortunate Mr Cooper was caught in a cruel trap of unassailable logic. Knowing that to act otherwise would only incriminate him further, Mr Cooper had no choice but to place the key to his room into my hand.
“I will need some witnesses,” said DeLongue. “Please, could you and your wife stay in this room with myself and the Captain? Thank you. And Mr Falconer, could you please go downstairs to the room of Mr and Mrs Cooper? I would like Miss Peckerel and The Reverend O’Leary to go with you, if that is possible. Thank you.”
Obediently, we all followed DeLongue’s instructions. Turnbull appeared to have forgotten his animosity towards my friend in his anxiety to apprehend the real killer. I could not think of anything to say as the three of us trooped downstairs to the Coopers’ room, directly below. A vision of the future began to form in my mind, but I hoped that this vision was false. I turned the handle and we entered the room.
This room was more comfortably furnished, alluding to a host who wished his main guest bedroom to be as cosy as possible. Having said that, Mrs Cooper’s eagle eye had seen to it that not one piece of luggage or item of clothing was out of place, neither was a single speck of dust to be found. In short, it was spotless.
“Can you hear me?” DeLongue’s muffled voice came through the floorboards.
“Yes,” I shouted.
“I’m going to knock on the floor. Do you think you can find the place where I’m knocking?”
“I’ll do my best!”
There followed a tedious scene which I do not deem necessary to recount in full. In summary, DeLongue knocked patiently from above, while I attempted to follow my ears to the source in the ceiling above my head. After one or two minutes, Miss Peckerel and O’Leary came to my aid, and eventually we tracked it down to a spot above a clear space of floor between the bed and the door.
“I’ve got it!” I called.
“Can you knock on the ceiling?” came DeLongue’s voice.
I cast around for something which could support my weight, and found a wooden chair by the desk which looked sturdy enough to stand on. Wobbling slightly, I climbed up and knocked on the ceiling.
“Yes, that’s it!” I heard DeLongue say.
I looked at my knuckles, which were covered with a curious white powder, but I didn’t have time to inspect further; DeLongue’s voice was coming through the ceiling again, demanding my attention. From on top of my chair, he sounded very close.
“Mr Falconer, I need you to push up very sharply on the ceiling.”
“Push as hard as you can, Mr Falconer.”
In the short time I had known him, I had learnt not to question the methods of Mr DeLongue. I pushed up against the ceiling as hard as I could, and to my surprise a neat section popped out and up, showering me with dust and white powder.
“Just as I thought,” said DeLongue. I could hear him quite clearly now. When I looked up, I saw his head in the gap where the ceiling used to be. “I think you all ought to come back up here,” he said. “It is now our duty to arrest Mr and Mrs Cooper, and Captain Turnbull and I may need reinforcements.”