Half a Clue: A collaborative mystery


Half a Clue

A collaborative serial mystery written by Rebecca M. Douglass and Jemima Pett.

Part 1 (JP)
The last thing Scarlett expected to find that morning was a dead body.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the excitement of the previous evening she had not slept well. The stuffy old dinner party had turned out to be so much more. As usual, she had been seated next to the vicar, and his groping hands had strayed to her thigh on several occasions. Her mother had asserted some years earlier that little girls did not tell tales, especially about such a respectable person. On maintaining the truth of her allegations, she had been sent to her bed without supper for five consecutive days. She had learned to endure and avoid as a result.

The only person she had confided in was Alba White, the cook. To her immense relief, Alba just nodded. “Say nothing more,” she had advised, and gave her a signal to give to the butler. On the next occasion the vicar’s attentions became too intimate, Scarlett acted as planned, and the reverend was mysteriously taken ill after the sweet course. Last night it happened again, and Scarlett hoped the man of a different god than hers could see it was divine retribution.

She had thrown off that mischief after dinner. Russell Peacock, home from the war, and his mother had been the centre of attention. Russell only had five days leave, but he looked so handsome – and so grown up since their last meeting in the summer. They had known each other since childhood, of course, but there was something so different about him now, it made her heart fizz. Even their entrance had been exciting. Reeves had announced them, of course, but as Russell had shaken her father’s hand his eyes had turned to her, that sudden spark shooting through her, confirming his thoughts were on her as much as hers were of him.

He had done his duty to the rest of the company, of course, and he and Scarlett had only minutes together before dinner was announced, minutes that Scarlett had dissected and savoured in the early hours when she was trying to sleep. Of course, she also examined the scene that, having simmered throughout dinner, finally erupted afterwards. How dare the stuffy old Colonel disagree with Russell about his analysis of the Hun? What right had he to call Russell a ‘young pup’? Scarlett thought Russell had been most heroic in the way he controlled his rising embarrassment tinged with ire. The Colonel was drunk even before he arrived, or so she had heard the professor whisper as he gently led the old soldier onto the terrace after the meal.

Scarlett’s only regret about the evening was its premature ending; Russell and his mother had to return early to nurse his sick father.

So much for Scarlett to think about. No wonder she had risen early to see the dawn. It had just been the last thing she expected to find: Colonel Mustard, in the library, a revolver by his side.

Part 2 (RD)

Scarlett drew in a breath to scream, then thought better of it. A scream would draw the whole household, blustering or hysterical as their personalities dictated. She closed her mouth and rang for Reeves.

She met the butler at the door.  “It’s the Colonel.”

“Has he been taken ill, Miss Scarlett?”

“He’s been taken dead.” Surprised at her own calm bluntness, Scarlett stepped aside to reveal the corpse on the library rug. Reeves sniffed his disapproval, of bodies messing up his rugs and of young ladies finding them.

“You go to the kitchen, and ask Cook for tea. I will telephone the police.”

An hour later, Inspector Clueso had them all lined up in the lounge. A pair of policemen, or surgeons, or something, worked over the thing in the library.

Scarlett had blurted out the news as soon as they were gathered, of course. Colonel Mustard was dead in the library, with a revolver at his side. Speculation ran wild. Whose revolver? Had he shot himself? Had someone else shot him, and left the gun to make it look like suicide? Who could have hated the old army man that much? People got annoyed with the Colonel, with his rambling stories and his dogmatic pronouncements, but they didn’t generally care that much what he said.

Scarlett hadn’t mentioned what her quick look at the body had shown her: that the gun had not killed the Colonel. And she very much doubted he had killed himself. Not that way.

The Inspector looked over the household. Mrs. White managed the staff at one end of the room, while Reeves kept the family and guests comfortable in the over-stuffed chairs around the fire. “Is anyone missing who was here last night?”

Scarlett glanced at her mother. “There’s the Vicar,” she ventured. “Reverend Green.”

“But he went home after the pheasant, poor man,” her mother protested. “He said he felt rather ill, and I’m sure he looked it.”

Scarlett avoided looking at Reeves. She was sure the Vicar had felt very ill indeed.

The professor cleared his throat. “There was Mrs. Peacock and her son. They departed rather early, as the senior Mr. Peacock is ill. Young Mr. Peacock is home on leave from France.”

Scarlett glared at him. How dare Professor Plum hint that Russell could have had anything to do with it? She thought of the Colonel’s blustering dismissal of all Russell’s opinions about the war. But Russell had kept his temper so beautifully! And anyway, he and his mother had been long gone before this had happened. Well, the Inspector would have to figure it out. At least so far he’d been smart enough not to mention how the man had really died.

Scarlett glanced out the tall windows that opened onto the garden, and her heart began to pound. Russell Peacock was crossing the wide lawn, his cap pushed back and lips pursed as he whistled a tune she couldn’t hear, but imagined was “A Long Way to Tipperary.”

Part 3 (JP)
“I will need to question you all individually, of course. You will please all wait here while I interview each of you in the, er?”  Clueso looked at Dr Black enquiringly.

“My study, yes of course, Inspector. This way.”  Scarlett’s father led the inspector through to an adjacent room.  The company heaved a collective sigh of relief, while Clueso’s assistant, Harris, surreptiously took a seat at a side table behind the sofa, and appeared to study the morning’s paper, already laid out for the houseguests.

The study was lined with bound copies of medical journals, reference works, and his private collection of illustrated works stacked well out of normal reach.  The mahogany desk, inlaid with green leather, was equipped with inkwell, pens, blotting paper and seals, neatly arranged on the left hand side.

“May I?” asked Clueso as he ventured towards the formal chair behind the desk.
Dr Black neatly sidestepped to pull it out for Clueso.

“Perhaps you would be so good as to place a chair just there... a little more at an angle?  Yes perfect!” The morning light now fell on the interview chair without actually blinding the occupant.  “Now, Dr Black, what can you tell me about last night’s event?”

Scarlett’s father sat on the other side of the desk and explained the routine for a country dinner party at one of the grander houses of the district.

“How long in advance was it arranged?”

“Only one day.”

“Only? Was there any particular reason for the short notice?”

“Young Peacock came home on leave. I like to keep up with his adventures.”

“And your daughter, Miss Scarlett Black? She also...?”

“Likes to keep up with his adventures, yes.  They have known each other since childhood.  He’s a good type.  Shame about his father’s comedown; ruined his health as well as his wealth.  Young Peacock made a good choice to join the army.”

“Did you encourage him?”

“He did ask my advice, mainly on the regiment to choose, though.  I think his mind was already set.  Just wanted to talk it over.”

“I have already gathered that there was an argument between him and Colonel Mustard during dinner.”

“Well, a disagreement, a difference of opinion, rather than an argument.  Just over policy.  An old soldier’s view of the Hun versus the modern approach, you know the sort of thing.”

“So you do not think Russell Peacock returned after taking his mother home and strangled Colonel Mustard?”

“Good God, no.  What on earth would he have to gain by doing such a thing?”

“Indeed.  Thank you, Dr Black. Please send in Professor Plum. Oh, and please do not mention our conversation to your guests.”

Dr Black made his exit, and shortly there came a knock on the door.

“Enter!”

Professor Plum put his head around the door, sized up the room and stepped forward, sliding into the chair in a movement that reminded Clueso of a lizard he’d once studied on a hot rock in Provence.

Part 4 (RD)
The Professor’s quick, darting glances about the room appeared more inquisitive or habitual than nervous. He was a man used to assessing strange situations.

“You are Professor Ethelbert Plum?”

“But of course. Professor of Egyptology at Flamborough University in —.”

“And how did you come to be part of this house party in —?”

“Black and I go way back. Old school ties and all that. Since I spend most of my time in Egypt, I don’t maintain a house, just a room in College. Black’s been most kind in allowing me to stay here at need. In the Vacs, you know.

“You have no family?”

“No!” He answered with curious emphasis. “I consider this my home,” he added.

“I see. So you are well acquainted with the Black family and their friends.”

Professor Plum’s eyes darted for a moment to an odd stone god on the desk, as though seeking oracular guidance. “They are, for the most part, known to me,” he acknowledged.

“What is your opinion of young Peacock?”

“An intelligent young man, well-brought-up. Too sure of himself, perhaps, but he’s done well in difficult circs. Some over-confidence may be called for when climbing out of the hole one’s father has dug.”

“I see. And you knew the Colonel?”

“Yes. A neighborhood nuisance. Usually drunk, and full of outdated opinions. But harmless. I cannot understand this!” he added with uncharacteristic agitation. “The man was merely annoying. There was no logical reason to kill him.”

“And yet, someone did kill him. I understand young Peacock fought with him at dinner?”

Plum waved a dismissive hand. “Not a fight. They disagreed about their assessments of the Hun. Bah! Nothing to agitate one. Though Mustard did get a bit abusive, Russell handled it well. Never so much as raised his voice. No,” he added with renewed confidence, “he’d not shoot a man for being a loud-mouthed idiot.”

“Thank you. That will be all for now. Could you please send in Miss Black? And if someone could be sent to Peacock’s home, I would like to speak with the young man.”

“He is in the Drawing Room now, conversing with Miss Scarlett in a corner. She has no doubt told him of the tragedy.”

“Very well. I will see him after I speak to Miss Black. Please do not discuss our conversation with anyone.”

Plum went out, leaving Clueso to wonder what Miss Scarlett might be telling the soldier. He took another look at the evidence bag in his lap. The small, ornamental stone knife might be Egyptian, he supposed. Certainly it was not part of a soldier’s kit. But most probably it belonged to the house, whoever had used it. A dark stain outlined the carvings, highlighting the leering animal god on the hilt.

Across the room, Harris folded the paper and took up a book instead. He settled back and more or less vanished into the upholstery as the door opened.

Part 5 (RD)
First, I’m going back and deleting the last paragraph of the previous segment, just to make things match up.

At his side table in the lounge, Harris turned a page of his paper and glanced over it at Miss Black and Private Peacock. Their heads were tight together as though sharing secrets, but they didn’t seem to be in agreement. He watched the girl’s startled reaction when Professor Plum crossed briskly from the doorway and touched her on the shoulder.

“The Inspector would like to speak with you, Miss Scarlett. Are you well?” he added, at her start. “Do you need to lie down? I can put the Inspector off.”

“No, no,” the girl said quickly, with another look at Russell Peacock. She rose, pale but composed, and walked quickly to the door. Behind her Peacock made as though to get up, checked himself, and sat looking confused and helpless.

Scarlett pushed open the door of the study in time to see the Inspector put something into his lap. Her frown came and went almost too quickly to see.

“I’ve come to make a statement,” she announced.

“Yes?” said the Inspector, seeing she meant something more than that she had come to answer his questions. He waited in the quiet, attentive manner that often brought people to speak more freely than they had intended.

“I killed Col. Mustard.”

“Yes?” he repeated, hiding his shock at her calm declaration.

“He attempted to force his way into my room late last night,” she said. “I beat him off with the hearth-broom, but he threatened to come back with the means to force me to, to see him,” she faltered, unable to say more. “So I took up the poker and followed him, and”—her confession was cut off as the door slammed open.

“She’s telling a lie!” Peacock burst out as soon as he was inside. “She never killed that vile old man.”

“And how do you know that?” Clueso considered the young pair, each pale and desperate, and wondered for a moment if they had worked together to rid the neighborhood of an annoyance.

“She could not have killed him, because I did.”

That got Clueso’s full attention, but didn’t leave matters any clearer. “So you returned to the house and strangled the Colonel?” Clueso asked, watching closely for reactions. Miss Black drew in a breath sharply, but Peacock had already answered before she could speak.

“Yes sir, I did.”

“Why?” The Inspector silenced the girl with a look, though she now seemed to relax, as though reassured. He remembered that she had found the body, and may well know how he died. Apparently she hadn’t thought to tell her young man.

“He—I—” The young man floundered for a telling moment, and Clueso held up a hand.

“Never mind, Private. You make a poor liar.” He turned to Miss Black again. “And you? How did you kill the man? Though at least you appear to know why,” he added dryly.

“I did not kill him,” she answered promptly. Her confidence in Peacock restored, Clueso could see she no longer felt the need to confess. He opened his mouth to press her further, when the door flew open once again.



Part 6 – Finale (JP)

“Come quick sir, it’s the reverend!” Harris seemed in somewhat of a hurry, so Clueso obliged him by standing up.

“It would be best if you two stayed in the house, but not alone, and not with the other guests. Where would be best?”

“The kitchen?” asked Scarlett.

“Hmm. You feel safe there?”

“Yes, of course! And anyway, Russell will be with me.”

Clueso nodded his assent, and followed them from the study, watching them take the servants stairs to the kitchen.
“We have not yet questioned the servants,” he murmured to Harris. “Perhaps…”

“I’ll take you to the body, then return to the kitchen, sir.”

Clueso nodded. Body, eh? Always it was so in these country houses. One murder set off a chain of events. Where would it end this time?

Harris led his boss through the living room, where two of his policemen held Professor Plum and Dr Black back from the windows, corralled in the indoor space.

“Tell me,” Clueso said to Harris as they crossed the gravel patio.

“We heard the shot from the living room. I stood up but Dr Black just said ‘pigeon shooting’ and stayed in his chair. Something didn’t sound right to me, though. Sounded more like a revolver than a shotgun. Perkins was patrolling the grounds. Found him at the gate from the churchyard and called me over.”

By this time they were standing by the wall, gazing at the body of Reverend Green. The pathologist looked up at them.
“That was quick,” commented Clueso.

“I was coming back to tell you about Colonel Mustard. Perkins stopped me. This person’s been shot by a standard service revolver, judging by the size of the hole. Of course, that’s a guess, but the bullet’s still inside.”

“So he was shot from a little way away?”

“Yes, the edge of the copse, perhaps. Judging from the way he’s fallen, probably over there.” The pathologist pointed. Clueso nodded to Harris, who went there with Perkins.

“What were you going to tell me about Colonel Mustard?”

“It wasn’t the dagger that killed him. He had a large contusion on the back of his head. Hit with something hard and probably cylindrical. Traces of metal on the scalp – I’m having it tested. He was dead before the dagger went home, that’s why there wasn’t as much blood as you’d expect.”

Clueso sighed. “Thank you, Dr Popworth.”

He wandered over to where Harris and Perkins were examining the ground. “Anything?”

“Footprints, yes. We’ll get a plaster cast on them. Big feet, though.”

“Heavy as well?”

“No, not that heavy. Roughly my size.”

“Thank you. I will return to the house and continue the questioning. Would you care to join me?”

Harris followed Clueso as he plodded, eyes downcast, across the well-kept grass to the terraces below the living room, up the steps, and in through the French windows.

“Well, gentlemen,” he said to Professor Plum and Dr Black. “You were both in here at the time of the shot, Private Peacock and Miss Scarlett were with me, and so far as we know, Mrs Peacock is still at home.”

“I can vouch for my servants, sir. None of them would carry out such a dastardly deed!” Dr Black was adamant.

“Yet either one of them is not what they seem, or we have a random killer on the loose, my dear doctor. In my experience, these things are never the work of a random killer. Bring everyone up to this room, Harris, if you please.”

In only a few minutes Harris had assembled Reeves, Mrs White, Betsy the maid and cleaner, and Higgins the chauffeur and general factotum, who stood along the wall looking nervous, behind the settee where Scarlett sat close to Peacock. Dr Black paced by the windows, occasionally stopping and looking towards the vicarage, and Professor Plum took the over-stuffed armchair, crossing his legs and waggling one foot up and down.

“So, in the space of a few hours, two guests at a dinner party have been removed from the scene by person or persons unknown. It seemed to be a straightforward case of eliminating a person who has aroused antipathy. Then it became necessary to remove a second person who has caused, shall I say heartache and disgust, but who may have had valuable information about the first murder. Everyone’s movements have been accounted for, since my younger police officer has already spoken to the staff. Harris here has been observing everyone else.

“Miss Scarlett and Private Peacock have been, what you call, ‘set up’ in this matter. I am satisfied they have nothing to do with it. The spotlight might fall on any of the household, knowing as they do the reputation of Reverend Green, a reputation that the gentlemen around here seem to be at pains to deny.” Dr Black shifted at this, but said nothing.

“When you, Professor Plum, and you, Dr Black, collude with each other over antiquities and suchlike, you fail to recognise a syndrome which I shall call the ‘cosiness factor’ – neither of you are willing to take any action, but are delighted to plant all the misleading evidence. What none of you know, is what I have been investigating for many years, and that is the connection between a band of army chums who served together in Egypt, and the civilian staff who worked on the archaeological studies there.

“One of you is now in great danger…”

Clueso’s words were halted by a strange gurgling noise, emanating from the overstuffed armchair. All eyes in the room turned to Professor Plum, whose eyes appeared to be popping out of his head, and his tongue, protruding from between his teeth, was turning black.

“NO!!”

Clueso leapt to his feet, flew to the back of the chair, and grabbed at a rope leading out into the garden. He was too late; however it was being tightened, it reached the point where it dragged the now-deceased Professor Plum over the back of the chair. Private Peacock produced a pocketknife and slashed at the rope, which whipped back through the window and up towards the windvane, spinning sturdily in the breeze. The ladies screamed, fainted or stood stoically through the commotion.

“Dr Black, we must all crowd into your study, if you please.”

They left the scene of the third murder and crammed into the former interrogation room. Clueso resumed his speech.
“Alas, I should have foreseen an attempt to remove the professor as well. If I am right, only one of you is still in danger. Dr Black, please would you remove that candlestick from the cupboard behind you and place it outside.”

“I’ll help you with that, sir,” Harris said as he opened the door for Dr Black.

“I think not, Harris,” interrupted Clueso. “Stay where you are, or my very small pistol that you laugh so heartily at will demonstrate its power. Your hands up, if you please!”

“Have you gone mad, sir?” asked Harris, maintaining his hold on the doorknob.

“No, Harris. It was you who hit Colonel Mustard over the head with the lead piping in the library, before allowing Dr Black to carry out the ritual knifing. You were the one who slipped out to waylay the Reverend Green, in full view of Dr Black and Professor Plum, your partners in the conspiracy. They were there as your alibi the whole time, were they not?”

Harris pulled the door violently, grabbed the candlestick from Dr Black, swiped it across his face with the full force of his shoulders, and ran down the corridor. Dr Black dropped to the ground, his head lolling. Mrs White bent to him.
“I’m sorry, his neck is broken.”

Clueso had pulled a silver whistle from his waistcoat pocket and blown it with full force, yet no-one had heard a sound. What they did hear, in the distance, was the yelping of dogs.

“He won’t get far. I am sorry you had to witness that violent finale. I was never sure of Harris’s past, and once the Professor had spoken so eloquently about his finds, I realised that this was a long-developed plot to secure the futures of certain elements of a conspiracy. Now all are dead, except Harris and one other.”

“Which other?” asked Peacock.

“Your father, I am afraid. We do not need to worry too much about him, though, since his end is very near. I am sorry to have to break this to you. But this is the end of a story of greed and treachery, all the conspirators are accounted for, and you are free to marry Miss Scarlett, if that is what you both wish.”

“Scarlett, will you marry me?”

“Oh, Russell! Yes, yes…”


©Rebecca M. Douglass & Jemima Pett, 2014






4 comments:

  1. If you're desperate, you can read the final part here: http://jemimapett.com/blog/2014/10/16/half-a-clue-finale/

    ReplyDelete
  2. And I'll add that last chapter in a day or so :)

    ReplyDelete
  3. Just found this! Jemima is a good friend and blogging sister.Thanks for following my blog!

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