Authors: Suzette A. Hill
SUZETTE A. HILL
To the happy memory of Peregrine Blomefield
When Marcia Beasley was found dead, naked, and wearing a coal scuttle on her head eyebrows were raised and questions asked. Both were further raised when removal of the coal scuttle revealed a neat bullet wound in her left temple. Other than that defect all was seemly: toenails freshly painted, lipstick applied, and hair (except that disturbed by the ingress of the bullet) neatly permed.
When interviewed, her associates – friends would be an exaggeration – expressed surprise at the choice of headgear. ‘You see,’ said Amy Fawcett earnestly, ‘Marcia had an aversion to coal fires. There wasn’t a grate or fender in the house – all central heating, fearfully extravagant!’
‘But, my dear,’ said her mother, ‘she could afford it. The errant husband left her more than well endowed – although I have to say that was not always apparent!’ She spoke with some rancour, having once been invited to lunch by Marcia at Fortnum’s and then left to foot the bill while the other rushed off to ogle Frank Sedgman at Wimbledon. The wound had gone deep.
‘Well one thing is certain,’ opined her nephew, ‘the headdress would hardly have passed muster in the Royal Enclosure.’
His aunt regarded him coldly. ‘Can you think of nothing but horses, Edward? It wouldn’t be so bad if you won occasionally.’
Amy giggled. ‘I am not so sure about the hat – it’s amazing what they accept these days. Can’t tell you what an abomination Lily Smithers was wearing the other day – it was a sort of sick yellow and covered in masses of—’ The detective sergeant cleared his throat uneasily. The interviewing process was not going quite as he had envisaged. Clearly strong-arm tactics were required. ‘We don’t need to know those things,’ he said severely. ‘What I do need to know is when you last saw the deceased.’ His eyes swept Lady Fawcett’s drawing room and rested on a small man ensconced in a large chair. ‘For example, sir, when did you last see Mrs Beasley?’
‘Well that rather depends on what you mean,’ answered the metallic voice of Professor Cedric Dillworthy.
‘What I have just asked,’ replied his questioner evenly.
‘If you mean when did I last have contact with the lady, it was Tuesday evening via the telephone. Alternatively, if you mean when did I last physically see her … on the whole I try not to.’ He gave a thin smile. ‘Although as a matter of fact it was probably about three months ago. Not one of life’s more enlivening experiences.’
‘And why was that?’
‘Tight as an owl. In one of my lectures too! It was on board the
where I was one of the guest speakers. I was ten minutes into my topic – rock formations in upper Cappadocia – when there was a series of protracted yawns from the second row followed by a loud crash. She had
keeled over into the aisle and had to be carried out – soused in gin and mouthing obscenities.’
‘I see. Lecture not to her taste?’
‘Evidently not,’ replied the professor frostily.
‘So what was the phone call about?’
‘Delphiniums. I exhibit regularly at the Chelsea Flower Show. She wanted some seeds.’
‘Just typical!’ broke in Lady Fawcett. ‘Always cadging. And what’s more she would have upstaged you next year. I hope you didn’t offer her any, Cedric!’
‘Certainly not,’ was the indignant response.
‘I see,’ said the sergeant heavily. ‘And did anyone else see or
to her recently?’
There was a pause, and then Amy said brightly, ‘Actually, yes. I had coffee with her at the Duke of York’s last week. It was a matinee, a revival of Emlyn Williams’
Night Must Fall
– awfully good! I was supposed to be meeting a friend but she didn’t turn up; and I was hanging about in the foyer feeling a bit of a fool when I suddenly saw Marcia coming through the swing doors. She was on her own – although I did just glimpse some man with her on the pavement outside. Anyway, she came in, collected her ticket at the box office and then saw me. And as there was ten minutes to go before curtain-up we decided to have a coffee.’
‘You never told me this!’ her mother said.
‘Well no, Mummy. There are lots of things I don’t tell you. Besides it wasn’t an event that ranked very highly among the dramas of my life.’ Amy smiled sweetly.
‘So this person you saw her with outside the theatre, did you recognise him?’ asked the sergeant.
‘Not at all. But I can tell you one thing, it certainly wasn’t
the errant husband. This chap had a wooden leg … a war casualty, I suppose.’
‘What on earth was Marcia Beasley doing with someone with a wooden leg?’ exclaimed Lady Fawcett. ‘Mingling with the afflicted was hardly her forte.’
‘You are right there,’ the professor agreed, ‘her preferences were distinctly for the hale and loaded. Although,’ he added reflectively, ‘I don’t suppose that lifeguard on Bondi Beach was financially laden – but he was certainly extremely
!’ He gave a quiet snigger.
There was a guffaw from Edward. ‘So was old Taps Trotter but she did for him all right – snuffed out with a heart attack
in medias res
, or so they say.’
‘Be quiet, Edward!’ Amy’s mother said. ‘You will embarrass our guest.’ And she smiled apologetically at the sergeant. The latter looked grim, and enquired of her daughter whether she had noticed anything distinctive about the victim when last seen having coffee in the theatre.
‘Well she hadn’t been drinking,’ Amy volunteered. ‘And I did spy an enormous ladder in her stocking. It was her own fault; she was such a snob, always had to order them from Paris. The French ones are so much flimsier than ours. Swan and Edgar’s are far tougher.’
The sergeant sighed and explained he meant had she observed anything unusual in the lady’s manner or had anything been said to suggest that all was not well.
‘He means,’ interjected Edward helpfully, ‘did she give the impression of expecting to be found dead in her birthday suit with a coal scuttle on her head?’
‘Well no, not really,’ said Amy Fawcett.
As interviews went it was not among the detective sergeant’s better ones. In fact, he grumbled to himself, it had been
useless. Tiresome women, some cretinous ass, and a snide little pansy! He hadn’t much liked the sound of the victim either – clearly one of those toffee-nosed predators and a lush to boot. Not his cup of tea at all! Still, that was the job and he must get on with it, especially if there was a chance of promotion to be had at the end of it all. He consulted his notebook. There was only one entry:
the wooden leg
. Yes, well, he would do that, of course, but not before he had gone home for a nice bit of steak and onions and a game of darts.
He turned up his collar against the evening drizzle, and seeing a number 14 bus trundling past jumped deftly on to its platform. As he took his seat the naked image of Marcia Beasley came to mind, and he made a mental note to refill the coal bucket before going out for darts … That way the wife would have no excuse not to have the fire properly stoked for when he got home.
At least his scores had been good, Greenleaf thought that night as he lay in bed listening to his wife’s snoring and the rain pounding on the tool shed roof. Yes, he had a skill with the old arrows, no doubt about it; the team was lucky to have him. If only police work were as simple as hitting trebles he would be a chief constable by now, head of Scotland Yard even! As it was …
He frowned at the patch of dawn pushing its way under the curtains, covered his eardrums with the eiderdown and brooded on the fate of the Beasley woman. Why naked? Why downstairs undressed like that in the posh drawing room? And why, for God’s sake, sitting with her head in
that bloody bucket? ‘A fascinating conundrum’ his boss had called it. Fascinating? Plain daft more like.
The rain stopped abruptly, as did the snoring. Cautiously Greenleaf surfaced from the eiderdown, and turning on his side began to reflect upon the scuttle. It had obviously been imported specially for the job, for as the Fawcett people had observed, the grates had been bricked up and the house run on central heating. And apart from the smeared patches of blood and such it had also looked brightly untarnished, brand new in fact – what you might call a ‘special purchase’. Needless to say there had been no fingerprints, nothing discernible at any rate. The perpetrator must have worn gloves or made good use of a duster or handkerchief … But then why bother with the thing in the first place? If you were going to shoot someone and scarper quickly with minimum palaver, why complicate matters by messing about with extraneous household articles?
The rain started again but the snoring held off, and in the comparative peace Greenleaf’s mind moved from matters of circumstance to those of motive. The bucket feature would seem to preclude casual burglary, and besides, there was no sign of disturbance; and despite the nudity neither was there evidence of sexual ‘interference’ as the newspapers would so coyly put it. Nor had there been a violent attack or even a struggle. Indeed, apart from the ramming on of the helmet the dispatch had been executed with apparent ease, an almost modest decorum – something which suggested a person known to the victim and whose presence would not cause alarm.
He shut his eyes and cogitated. Such an acquaintance was unlikely to be the milkman (well, presumably not),
and in all probability came from among her own ilk – though not of the sample recently encountered – far too dippy. On the other hand he hadn’t much liked the look of that professor bloke: the others had gabbled on garrulously while he had sat silent and lynx-eyed, and from what little information he did yield it was clear he held no torch for the deceased. Greenleaf made a mental note:
And then he thought about the girl Amy and her tale of the man with the wooden leg. Had she really seen such a one? If so he shouldn’t be too difficult to trace – assuming she was telling the truth. But you never knew with these types, didn’t always take things seriously. He sighed. Yes, he would have to go back and quiz her a bit more. He could fit it in before the niece was questioned in the afternoon. With a bit of luck they might ferret out quite a few things from that quarter – assuming of course she was compos mentis!
With that in mind and suddenly lulled by the rain he lapsed into twenty minutes of blessed sleep before the clarion of the alarm clock.
‘This leg, then,’ he persisted some hours later, ‘are you sure it was wood? Metal is the more usual material these days.’
Amy reflected. ‘You are probably right, Officer. On the whole I would say it was a tin leg.’
On the whole
, Miss Fawcett?’ queried Greenleaf. ‘Are you by chance suggesting it was two-thirds metal and one part wood?’
‘No, of course not,’ replied Amy with a giggle, ‘the whole thing was tin … at least I assume so. I only saw the ankle part. He
wearing trousers, you know.’
‘And what else was he wearing?’
‘The usual sort of things … darkish overcoat and hat. I really can’t remember – oh yes, he did have a stick. Something to do with the leg presumably …’ Her voice trailed off, as gazing past the sergeant she made nonsensical eyes at a Sealyham sprawled stoutly on her mother’s sofa. ‘I don’t think you’ve met Mr Bones, have you? I know he looks terribly grumpy but he’s really very sweet!’
Bugger Mr bloody Bones, thought Greenleaf angrily. Was the girl really dim or just taking a perverse delight in obstructing police enquiries? Either way that was certainly the effect. He tried again. ‘Look, Miss Fawcett,’ he said patiently, ‘I don’t want to take up your time more than necessary, but do you think you could manage to recall what Mrs Beasley was talking about when you had coffee with her? You see it is quite important. As you know, the lady was found shot only forty-eight hours later. For example, did she say she was expecting a visitor in the next couple of days?’
‘Oh no,’ replied Amy firmly, ‘we talked exclusively about the coronation and how lovely it had been. As a matter of fact she was rather excited because somehow or other she had wangled an invitation to a royal garden party later in the season. I think she thought I would be impressed. But when I said I gathered that only mayors and headmistresses went to that sort of thing she seemed a bit put out … Oh well, doesn’t even have that dubious pleasure now, does she?’ For a brief moment a look verging on sympathy crossed her face, but it was replaced by a cheery smile. ‘I tell you what, though, he wore glasses – tortoiseshell.’
‘The chap with the wooden leg – he had spectacles. Wasn’t very tall either – though I don’t mean a dwarf, of course.’
Greenleaf nodded, and into his notebook under the heading of
glasses and not a dwarf
. And then feeling that nothing further could be gleaned from the Fawcett household he took his leave, and turning into South Audley Street retreated to the darkened sanctuary of The Volunteer. Here he meditated over a pint and a pork pie, assessed the case and came to no conclusion.