Authors: Georgette Heyer
A Blunt Instrument
A breeze, hardly more than a whisper of wind, stirred the curtains at the long window,and wafted into the room the scent of the wisteria covering the wall of the house. The policeman turned his head as the curtains faintly rustled, his rather glassy blue eyes frowning and suspicious. Straightening himself, for he had been bending over the figure of a man seated behind the carved knee-hole desk in the middle of the room, he trod over to the window and looked out into the dusky garden. His torch explored the shadows cast by two flowering shrubs without, however, revealing anything but a nondescript cat, whose eyes caught and flung back the light for an instant before the animal glided into the recesses of the shrub. There was no other sign of life in the garden, and after a moment of keen scrutiny, the policeman turned back into the room, and went to the desk. The man behind it paid no heed, for he was dead, as the policeman had already ascertained. His head lay on the open blotter, with blood congealing in his sleek, pomaded hair.
The policeman drew a long breath. He was rather pale, and the hand which he stretched out towards the telephone shook a little. Mr. Ernest Fletcher's head was not quite the right shape; there was a dent in it, under the coagulated blood.
The policeman's hand was arrested before it had grasped the telephone receiver. He drew it back, felt for a handkerchief, and with it wiped a smear of blood from his hand, and then picked up the receiver.
As he did so, he caught the sound of footsteps approaching the room. Still holding the instrument, he turned his head towards the door.
It opened, and a middle-aged butler came in, carrying a tray with a syphon and a whisky decanter and glasses upon it. At sight of the police constable he gave a perceptible start. His gaze next alighted on the figure of his master. The tumbler on the tray shuddered against the decanter, but Simmons did not drop the tray. He stood holding it mechanically, staring at Ernest Fletcher's back.
PC Glass spoke the number of the police station. His flat, unemotional voice brought Simmons's eyes back to his face. "My God, is he dead?" he asked in a hushed voice.
A stern glance was directed towards him. "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord, thy God, in vain," said Glass deeply.
This admonishment was more comprehensible to Simmons, who was a member of the same sect as PC Glass, than to the official at the Telephone Exchange, who took it in bad part. By the time the misunderstanding had been cleared up, and the number of the police station repeated, Simmons had set the tray down, and stepped fearfully up to his master's body. One look at the damaged skull was enough to drive him back a pace. He raised a sickly face, and demanded in an unsteady voice: "Who did it?"
"That'll be for others to find out," replied Glass. "I shall be obliged to you, Mr. Simmons, if you will shut that door."
"If it's all the same to you, Mr. Glass, I'll shut myself on the other side of it," said the butler. "This - this is a very upsetting sight, and I don't mind telling you it turns my stomach."
"You'll stay till I've asked you a few questions, as is my duty," replied Glass.
"But I can't tell you anything! I didn't have anything to do with it!"
Glass paid no heed, for he was connected at that moment with the police station. Simmons gulped, and went to shut the door, remaining beside it, so that only Ernest Fletcher's shoulders were visible to him.
PC Glass, having announced his name and whereabouts, was telling the Sergeant that he had a murder to report.
Policemen! thought Simmons, resentful of Glass's calm. You'd think corpses with their heads bashed in were as common as daisies. He wasn't human, Glass; he was downright callous, standing there so close to the body he could have touched it just by stretching out his hand, talking into the telephone as though he was saying his piece in the witness-box, and all the time staring at the dead man without a bit of feeling in his face, when anyone else would have turned sick at the sight.
Glass laid down the receiver, and restored his handkerchief to his pocket. "Lo, this is the man that made not God his strength, but trusted in his riches," he said.
The sombre pronouncement recalled Simmons's thoughts. He gave a sympathetic groan. "That's true, Mr. Glass. Woe to the crown of pride! But how did it happen? How do you come to be here? Oh dear, oh dear, I never thought to be mixed up with a thing like this!"
"I came up that path," said Glass, nodding towards the French windows. He drew a notebook from his pocket, and the stub of a pencil, and bent an official stare upon the butler. "Now, Mr. Simmons, if you please!"
"It's no use asking me: I don't know anything about it, I tell you!"
"You know when you last saw Mr. Fletcher alive," said Glass, unmoved by the butler's evident agitation.
"It would have been when I showed Mr. Budd in," replied Simmons, after a moment's hesitation.
"I don't know - not for certain, that is. It was about an hour ago." He made an effort to collect his wits, and added: "About nine o'clock. I was clearing the table in the dining-room, so it couldn't have been much later."
Glass said, without raising his eyes from his notebook: "This Mr. Budd: known to you?"
"No. I never saw him before in my life - not to my knowledge."
"Oh! When did he leave?"
"I don't know. I didn't know he had left till I came in just now. He must have gone by the garden-way, same as you came in, Mr. Glass."
"Was that usual?"
"It was - and it wasn't," replied Simmons, "if you know what I mean, Mr. Glass."
"No," said Glass uncompromisingly.
"The master had friends who used to visit him that way." Simmons heaved a sigh. "Women, Mr. Glass."
"Thine habitation," said Glass, with a condemnatory glance round the comfortable room, "is in the midst of deceit."
"That's true, Mr. Glass. The times I've wrestled in prayer -'
The opening of the door interrupted him. Neither he nor Glass had heard footsteps approaching the study, and neither had time to prevent the entrance into the room of a willowy young man in an ill-fitting dinner jacket suit, who paused on the threshold, blinked longlashed eyelids at the sight of a policeman, and smiled deprecatingly.
"Oh, sorry!" said the newcomer. "Fancy finding you here!"
His voice was low-pitched, and he spoke softly and rather quickly, so that it was difficult to catch what he said. A lock of lank dark hair fell over his brow; he wore a pleated shirt, and a deplorable tie, and looked, to PC Glass, like a poet.
His murmured exclamation puzzled Glass. He said suspiciously: "Fancy meeting me, eh? So you know me, do you, sir?"
"Oh no!" said the young man. His fluttering glance went round the room and discovered the body of Ernest Fletcher. His hand left the door-knob; he walked forward to the desk, and turned rather pale. "I should shame my manhood if I were sick, shouldn't I? I wonder what one does now?" His gaze asked inspiration of Glass, of Simmons, and encountered only blank stares. It found the tray Simmons had brought into the room. "Yes, that's what one does," he said, and went to the tray, and poured himself out a stiff, short drink of whisky-and-soda.
"The master's nephew - Mr. Neville Fletcher," said Simmons, answering the question in Glass's eye.
"You're staying in this house, sir?"
"Yes, but I don't like murders. So inartistic, don't you think? Besides, they don't happen."
"This has happened, sir," said Glass, a little puzzled.
"Yes, that's what upsets me. Murders only occur in other people's families. Not even in one's own circle. Ever noticed that? No, I suppose not. Nothing in one's experience - one had thought it so wide! - has taught one how to cope with such a bizarre situation."
He ended on an uncertain laugh; it was plain that under his flippancy he was shaken. The butler looked at him curiously, and then at Glass, who, after staring at Neville Fletcher for a moment, licked his pencil-point, and asked: "When did you see Mr. Fletcher last, if you please, sir?"
"At dinner. In the dining-room, I mean. No, let us be exact; not the dining-room; the hall."
"Make up your mind, sir," recommended Glass stolidly.
"Yes, that's all right. After dinner he came here, and I wandered off to the billiard-room. We parted in the hall."
"At what hour would that have been, sir?" Neville shook his head. "I don't know. After dinner. Do you know, Simmons?"
"I couldn't say, sir, not precisely. The master was usually out of the dining-room by ten to nine." "And after that you didn't see Mr. Fletcher again?"
"No. Not till now. Anything you'd like to know, or can I withdraw?"
"It'll save time, sir, if you'll give an account of your movements between the time you and the deceased left the dining-room, and 10.05 p.m."
"Well, I went to the billiard-room, and knocked the balls about a bit."
"Yes, but my aunt came to find me, so I left."
"Miss Fletcher," interpolated the butler. "The master's sister, Mr. Glass."
"You left the billiard-room with your aunt, sir? Did you remain with her?"
"No. Which all goes to show that politeness always pays. I silently faded away, and now I'm sorry, because if I'd accompanied her to the drawing-room I should have had an alibi, which I haven't got. I went upstairs to my own room, and read a book. I wonder if I can have fallen asleep over it?" He looked doubtfully towards his uncle's chair, and gave a faint shudder. "No, my God, I couldn't dream anything like this! It's fantastic."
"If you'll excuse me, Mr. Glass, I fancy that was the front-door bell," interrupted Simmons, moving towards the door.
A few moments later a police-sergeant, with several satellites, was ushered into the study, and in the hall outside the voice of Miss Fletcher, urgently desiring to be told the meaning of this invasion, was upraised in some agitation. Neville slid out of the study, and took his aunt by the arm. "I'll tell you. Come into the drawingroom."
"But who are all those men?" demanded Miss Fletcher. "They looked to me exactly like policemen!"
"Well they are," said Neville. "Most of them, anyway. Look here, Aunt Lucy -'
"We've been burgled!"
"No -' He stopped. "I don't know. Yes, perhaps that was it. Sorry, aunt, but it's worse than that. Ernie has met with an accident."
He stumbled a little over the words, looking anxiously at his aunt.
"Try not to mumble so, Neville dear. What did you say?"
"I said an accident, but I didn't mean it. Ernie's dead."
"Dead? Ernie?" faltered Miss Fletcher. "Oh no! You can't mean that! How could he be dead? Neville, you know I don't like that sort of joke. It isn't kind, dear, to say nothing of its being in very questionable taste."
"It isn't a joke."
She gave a gasp. "Not. Oh, Neville! Oh, let me go to him at once!"
"No use. Besides, you mustn't. Terribly sorry, but there it is. I'm a trifle knocked-up myself."
"Neville, you're keeping something back!"
"Yes. He's been murdered."
Her pale, rather prominent blue eyes stared at him. She opened her mouth, but no words passed her lips. Neville, acutely uncomfortable, made a vague gesture with his hands. "Can I do anything? I should like to, only I don't know what. Do you feel faint? Yes, I know I'm being incompetent, but this isn't civilised, any of it. One has lost one's balance."
She said: 'Ernie murdered? I don't believe it!"
"Oh, don't be silly," he said, betraying ragged nerves. "A man doesn't bash his own skull in."
She gave a whimper, and groped her way to the nearest chair, and sank into it. Neville lit a cigarette with a hand that trembled, and said: "Sorry, but you had to know sooner or later."
She seemed to be trying to collect her wits. After a pause she exclaimed: "But who would want to murder dear Ernie?"
"There has been some dreadful mistake! Oh, Ernie, Ernie!"
She burst into tears. Neville, attempting no consolation, sat down in a large armchair opposite to her, and smoked.
Meanwhile, in the study, PC Glass was making his painstaking report to his superior. The doctor had gone; the cameramen had taken their photographs; and the body of Ernest Fletcher had been removed.