Authors: Emily Brightwell
WHAT WOULD SCOTLAND YARD DO WITHOUT DEAR MRS. JEFFRIES?
Even Inspector Witherspoon himself doesn't knowâbecause his secret weapon is as ladylike as she is clever. She's Mrs. Jeffriesâthe charming detective who stars in this unique Victorian mystery series. Enjoy them allÂ .Â .Â .
The Inspector and Mrs. Jeffries
When a doctor is found dead in his own office, Mrs. Jeffries must scour the premises to find the prescription for murder.
Mrs. Jeffries Dusts for Clues
One case is solved and another is opened when the inspector finds a missing broochâpinned to a dead woman's gown. But Mrs. Jeffries never gives up on a case before every loose end is tightly tied.
The Ghost and Mrs. Jeffries
Mrs. Jeffries may not be able to see the futureâbut when the murder of Mrs. Hodges is foreseen at a spooky sÃ©ance, she can look into the past to solve this haunting crime.
Mrs. Jeffries Takes Stock
A businessman has been murderedâand it could be because he cheated his stockholders. Luckily, when it comes to catching killers, the smart money's on Mrs. Jeffries.
Mrs. Jeffries on the Ball
A festive Jubilee celebration turns into a fatal affairâand Mrs. Jeffries must find the guilty party.
Mrs. Jeffries on the Trail
Who killed Annie Shields while she was out selling flowers so late on a foggy night? It's up to Mrs. Jeffries to sniff out the clues.
Mrs. Jeffries Plays the Cook
Mrs. Jeffries finds herself doing double duty: cooking for the inspector's household and trying to cook a killer's goose.
Mrs. Jeffries and the Missing Alibi
When Inspector Witherspoon becomes the main suspect in a murder, Scotland Yard refuses to let him investigate. But no one said anything about Mrs. Jeffries.
Mrs. Jeffries Stands Corrected
When a local publican is murdered and Inspector Witherspoon botches the investigation, trouble starts to brew for Mrs. Jeffries.
Mrs. Jeffries Takes the Stage
After a theatre critic is murdered, Mrs. Jeffries uncovers the victim's secret past: a real-life drama more compelling than any stage play.
Mrs. Jeffries Questions the Answer
Hannah Cameron was not well liked. But who wanted to stab her in the back? Mrs. Jeffries must really tiptoe around this timeâor it could be a matter of life and death.
Mrs. Jeffries Reveals Her Art
Mrs. Jeffries has to work double time to find a missing model
a killer. And she'll have to get her whole staff involvedâbefore someone else becomes the next subjectÂ .Â .Â .
Mrs. Jeffries Takes the Cake
The evidence was all there: a dead body, two dessert plates, and a gun. But Mrs. Jeffries will have to do some snooping around to dish up more clues.
Mrs. Jeffries Rocks the Boat
Mirabelle had traveled by boat all the way from Australia to visit her sisterâonly to wind up murdered. Now Mrs. Jeffries must solve the caseâand it's sink or swim.
Mrs. Jeffries Weeds the Plot
Three attempts have been made on Annabeth Gentry's life. Is it because her bloodhound dug up the body of a murdered thief? Mrs. Jeffries will have to sniff out some clues before the plot thickens.
Mrs. Jeffries Pinches the Post
Harrison Nye had dubious business dealings, but no one expected him to be murdered. Now Mrs. Jeffries and her staff must root through the sins of his past to discover which one caught up with him.
Mrs. Jeffries Pleads Her Case
Harlan Westover's death was deemed a suicide, but the inspector is determined to prove otherwise. Mrs. Jeffries must ensure the good inspector remains afloat.
Mrs. Jeffries Sweeps the Chimney
A dead vicar has been found, propped against a church wall. And Inspector Witherspoon's only prayer is to seek the divinations of Mrs. Jeffries.
Mrs. Jeffries Stalks the Hunter
Puppy love turns to obsession, which leads to murder. Who better to get to the heart of the matter than Inspector Witherspoon's indomitable companion, Mrs. Jeffries?
Mrs. Jeffries and the Silent Knight
The yuletide murder of an elderly man is complicated by several suspectsânone of whom were in the Christmas spirit.
Mrs. Jeffries Appeals the Verdict
Mrs. Jeffries and her belowstairs cohorts have their work cut out for them if they want to save an innocent man from the gallows.
Mrs. Jeffries and the Best Laid Plans
Banker Lawrence Boyd had a list of enemies including just about everyone that he ever met. It will take Mrs. Jeffries' shrewd eye to find who killed him.
Mrs. Jeffries and the Feast of St. Stephen
'Tis the season for sleuthing when wealthy Stephen Whitfield is murdered during his holiday dinner party. It's up to Mrs. Jeffries to solve the case in time for Christmas.
Mrs. Jeffries Holds the Trump
A very well-liked but very dead magnate is found floating down the river. Now Mrs. Jeffries and company will have to dive into a mystery that only grows more complex.
Mrs. Jeffries in the Nick of Time
Mrs. Jeffries lends her downstairs common sense to this upstairs murder mysteryâand tries not to get derailed in the case of a rich uncle-cum-model-train-enthusiast.
Mrs. Jeffries and the Yuletide Weddings
Wedding bells will make this season all the more jolly. Until one humbug sings a carol of murder.
Mrs. Jeffries Speaks Her Mind
When an eccentric old woman suspects she's going to be murdered, everyone thinks she's just being peculiarâuntil the prediction comes true.
Mrs. Jeffries Forges Ahead
A free-spirited bride is poisoned at a society ball, and it's up to Mrs. Jeffries to discover who wanted to make the modern young woman into a postmortem.
Mrs. Jeffries and the Mistletoe Mix-Up
There's murder going on under the mistletoe as Mrs. Jeffries and Inspector Witherspoon hurry to solve the case before the Christmas Eve eggnog is ladled out.
Mrs. Jeffries Defends Her Own
When an unwelcome visitor from her past needs help, Mrs. Jeffries steps into the fray to stop a terrible miscarriage of justice.
Mrs. Jeffries Turns the Tide
When Mrs. Jeffries doubts a suspect's guilt, she must turn the tide of the investigation to save an innocent man.
Mrs. Jeffries and the Merry Gentlemen
When a successful stockbroker is murdered just days before Christmas, Mrs. Jeffries won't rest until justice is served for the holidaysÂ .Â .Â .
Mrs. Jeffries and the One Who Got Away
When a woman is found strangled with an old newspaper clipping in her hand, Inspector Witherspoon will need Mrs. Jeffries' help to get to the bottom of the
Berkley Prime Crime titles by Emily Brightwell
THE INSPECTOR AND MRS. JEFFRIES
MRS. JEFFRIES DUSTS FOR CLUES
THE GHOST AND MRS. JEFFRIES
MRS. JEFFRIES TAKES STOCK
MRS. JEFFRIES ON THE BALL
MRS. JEFFRIES ON THE TRAIL
MRS. JEFFRIES PLAYS THE COOK
MRS. JEFFRIES AND THE MISSING ALIBI
MRS. JEFFRIES STANDS CORRECTED
MRS. JEFFRIES TAKES THE STAGE
MRS. JEFFRIES QUESTIONS THE ANSWER
MRS. JEFFRIES REVEALS HER ART
MRS. JEFFRIES TAKES THE CAKE
MRS. JEFFRIES ROCKS THE BOAT
MRS. JEFFRIES WEEDS THE PLOT
MRS. JEFFRIES PINCHES THE POST
MRS. JEFFRIES PLEADS HER CASE
MRS. JEFFRIES SWEEPS THE CHIMNEY
MRS. JEFFRIES STALKS THE HUNTER
MRS. JEFFRIES AND THE SILENT KNIGHT
MRS. JEFFRIES APPEALS THE VERDICT
MRS. JEFFRIES AND THE BEST LAID PLANS
MRS. JEFFRIES AND THE FEAST OF ST. STEPHEN
MRS. JEFFRIES HOLDS THE TRUMP
MRS. JEFFRIES IN THE NICK OF TIME
MRS. JEFFRIES AND THE YULETIDE WEDDINGS
MRS. JEFFRIES SPEAKS HER MIND
MRS. JEFFRIES FORGES AHEAD
MRS. JEFFRIES AND THE MISTLETOE MIX-UP
MRS. JEFFRIES DEFENDS HER OWN
MRS. JEFFRIES TURNS THE TIDE
MRS. JEFFRIES AND THE MERRY GENTLEMEN
MRS. JEFFRIES AND THE ONE WHO GOT AWAY
MRS. JEFFRIES WINS THE PRIZE
MRS. JEFFRIES LEARNS THE TRADE
MRS. JEFFRIES TAKES A SECOND LOOK
MRS. JEFFRIES TAKES TEA AT THREE
MRS. JEFFRIES SALLIES FORTH
MRS. JEFFRIES PLEADS THE FIFTH
MRS. JEFFRIES SERVES AT
An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014
MRS. JEFFRIES WINS THE PRIZE
A Berkley Prime Crime Book / published by arrangement with the author
Copyright Â© 2016 by Cheryl Arguile.
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eBook ISBN: 978-1-101-62435-7
Berkley Prime Crime mass-market edition / March 2016
Cover illustration by Jeff Walker.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
For Ella and Ethan Mauerâthe next generation of
“Thank goodness that tiresome woman finally left. Some people simply have no sense of appropriate behavior. I invited her to luncheon, not to waste my whole afternoon.” Helena Rayburn glared at the double oak doors and crossed her arms over her chest. Although she was well into middle age, what gray she had blended easily with her blonde hair, making her appear younger than her years unless one were close enough to see the crow's feet around her blue eyes and the disapproving lines bracketing her thin mouth. She was tall and her ramrod-straight posture made her look even taller.
“Now, Helena, she didn't stay that long. It's only half past two. Besides, we're all still here. Do you want us to leave?” Althea Stanway, known as “Thea” to her friends, rose to her feet and put the delicate gold and white teacup on the trolley. A petite woman, she'd retained her girlish
figure and privately hinted that she wore only the lightest of corsets. But the gray threaded through her curly brown hair and the slight sag beneath her chin betrayed the fact that she was no longer a young woman.
“Don't be ridiculous, the two of you are old friends and you're always welcome, you know that. But she's an entirely different matter. Your problem, Thea, is that you're too kind,” Helena said. “You've always been that way, even out in India. As I recall, you were the one that encouraged the rest of us to befriend that woman even though she was nothing more than a governess.”
“She's hardly a governess now.” Isabelle Martell, who'd been sitting on the settee, got up and began pulling on her beige kid gloves. Slightly chubby but smart enough to pay the finest dressmaker in London to help her conceal her unfortunate shape, Isabelle was also a blue-eyed blonde. Her face was round as a pie plate and her features unremarkable, yet she carried herself with a confidence that convinced people she was not only attractive, but also witty and poised. “From what I hear, she paid cash for that huge house in Mayfair and she's buying a country estate as well.”
Helena snorted. “Just because she's rich now doesn't mean we have to accept her as an equal. As far as I'm concerned, she's no better than a jumped-up little shopgirl.”
“Then why did you invite her to luncheon?” Thea asked.
“I wanted to determine how serious she is about orchids,” Helena said. “Unfortunately, she is very serious indeed. It was bad enough that she used her money to worm her way into the Royal Horticultural Society, and because of that, we've had no choice but to let her into our club.”
“We didn't have to let her in,” Thea laughed. “We may all be members of the Royal Horticultural Society, but our local group has no official affiliation with them. The Mayfair Orchid and Exotic Plant Society is completely independent.”
“Lady Prentiss asked me to approve her application for membership,” Helena argued. “I had no choice. Her husband is one of the governors of the Horticultural Society.”
Isabelle picked a piece of lint off the cuff of her sleeve. “So you acceded to Lady Prentiss' wishes because you want her to use her influence with Lord Prentiss to get you that spot on the Narcissus Committee.”
“Don't be ridiculous, I did what she asked because I didn't dare refuse. If you'll remember, she and Lord Prentiss are both judges in our orchid show next month and we don't want to offend them,” Helena retorted. “And because we've had to let Chloe Attwater in, none of us will have a hope of winning this year. You heard her bragging about what a beautiful conservatory she has and how she already has her gardener working on acquiring the best specimens possible so she can enter them.”
“There's nothing wrong with a bit of healthy competition,” Thea pointed out.
Helena snorted. “It's nothing of the sort. None of us can compete with the financial resources she has at her disposal.”
“Speak for yourself, Helena.” Isabelle grinned broadly. “I certainly intend to give all of you a good run for your money. This year my orchids are superb and I fully expect to take home a ribbon.”
“Mine are excellent as well,” Thea added. “And I, too, fully expect to take home a prize.”
The drawing room doors opened. Mrs. Clemment, the housekeeper, hurried into the room. “Mrs. Rayburn, you'd best come. There's something terribly wrong in the conservatory.”
Helena sighed irritably as she got up. “Whatever are you talking about, Mrs. Clemment? I've still got guests.”
But for once, Mrs. Clemment wasn't going to be bullied by her employer. “I'm aware of that, ma'am, but it doesn't matter. This is urgent. You'll see when you get there, ma'am, it's difficult to explain, but you'd best come right away. There's big trouble.”
Taken aback, Helena blinked in surprise. Her servants
talked back to her. But then she noticed that Mrs. Clemment's hands were clasped together tightly and her face was white as a sheet. “Very well.”
Mrs. Clemment turned and charged back through the still open doorway.
“Perhaps I'd better come with you.” Isabelle quickened her step to catch up with Helena, who was already heading for the hall. “Mrs. Clemment isn't one to exaggerate or get upset.”
“I'll come as well,” Thea offered.
Mrs. Clemment didn't wait for any of them. She raced down the long corridor so fast the other three had to almost run to catch up with her, and they were out of breath as they reached the end of it.
The cook, the scullery maid, and the upstairs maid stood by the open door of the conservatory. Their eyes were wide, glassy with shock, and their faces fearful. Mrs. Clemment stopped, pressed her hand against her heart, took a deep breath, and pointed inside. “There, it's in there.”
“For goodness' sakes, Mrs. Clemment, what's in there? What's going on?” Helena demanded. Despite trying to sound authorative, there was a tremor in her voice.
“It's not for me to say, ma'am.” Mrs. Clemment took another breath, lifted her chin, and met her employer's gaze. “You'll see for yourself when you go inside.”
The housekeeper stepped back so the mistress could enter and then turned to the staff. “Everyone, get back downstairs and wait for me. I'll be down soon.”
Huddled together, they scurried down the narrow hall that led from the main corridor to the back stairs.
Helena was now deathly afraid but determined not to show it. She straightened her spine and stepped through the open door into the conservatory. Isabelle and Thea followed behind her. As soon as the ladies were inside, Mrs. Clemment stationed herself against the doorjamb again.
Built of glass, the conservatory was connected to the first floor, not the ground floor of the house. The space was almost as wide as the house itself. To the right of the door stood a series of tall cupboards filled with gardening tools, pots, vining wire, and everything else needed for growing plants. In the two corners opposite the cupboards dwarf fruit trees were planted in huge pots. Along one glass wall stood a trellis covered with exotic-looking climbing plants, some of which had brightly colored yellow, orange, and red blooms. On the opposite side of the room, a long black tarpaulin hung suspended from the glass ceiling. A center aisle bisected the conservatory and ended at a door that led out to the back garden. Four long rows of tables, two on each side of the aisle, filled the remainder of the space. They were covered with trays of seedlings, exotic cacti,
and blooming plants in every imaginable color. Outside, the sun went behind the clouds, plunging the normally bright room into a temporary gloom.
Seeing nothing alarming, Helena relaxed and moved farther down the aisle toward the door. “I don't see anything,” she muttered.
“What's behind that?” Thea nodded at the tarpaulin.
“Nothing of importance,” Helena said quickly. “There's a plant bed behind there, that's all.”
She started to turn so she could ask Mrs. Clemment what was going on when suddenly Isabelle said, “Look, what's that?” She pointed to the end of the closest aisle where a large brown mound of something suddenly shifted into view. Isabelle had poor eyesight, and in the dim light, the details were very difficult to see.
“I've no idea.” Helena moved toward it and the other two were right on her heels. Her vision wasn't that much better than Isabelle's and both women were too vain to wear spectacles. “It looks as if Tufts hasn't cleared awayÂ .Â .Â .” Her voice trailed off as she got closer and she realized the heap wasn't a sack of dirt, but a person in a brown coat. He was slumped over with his head resting on his chest. A bowler hat was lying on the floor.
“Oh my good Lord,” Helena exclaimed. “It's Mr. Filmore. What on earth is he doing sitting in my conservatory? Mr. Filmore, Mr. Filmore, explain yourself please. Are you drunk?”
Thea, who had the best eyesight of the three, spoke up. “I don't think he's going to answer you, Helena. Something is wrong.”
Helena and Isabelle both craned their necks forward
and squinted into the quickly darkening gloom. Neither woman moved and it was little Thea who stepped around them toward the very silent Mr. Filmore.
“Don't get too close,” Isabelle ordered.
Thea ignored her and pointed toward Mr. Filmore's chest. “Oh dear, you'd best come take a good look, Helena. There's blood. Lots of it.” She shifted her gaze to her friend. “If I were you, I'd send for the police.”
“The police, but why? Shouldn't we just get him a doctor? He's had some sort of accident.”
Thea was now standing directly in front of the mound that was Mr. Filmore. “He hasn't had an accident.”
“How on earth do you know?” Helena demanded. “He obviously came in here andÂ .Â .Â . andÂ .Â .Â .”
Thea ignored her and kept on speaking. “Not unless you accidentally stab yourself in the heart.”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Mrs. Jeffries, housekeeper to Inspector Gerald Witherspoon of the Metropolitan Police Department, took her place at the head of the kitchen table. She inhaled deeply, filling her nose with the fragrant scent of freshly baked bread. “That smells wonderful, Mrs. Goodge.” She smiled at the portly, gray-haired cook.
“Let's hope it tastes good as well.” The cook put the loaf on the table next to the teapot. Four pieces of the lovely brown bread were already sliced off the end. There was only the two of them for afternoon tea today so she'd not bothered with anything elaborate. Wiggins, the household footman, was having his afternoon out, and Smythe, the coachman, had gone to the stables. The maid, Phyllis, was out on a household errand.
The housekeeper was an auburn-haired woman of late middle age. Short and slightly plump, she had a ready smile, brown eyes, and a kindly disposition. She hadn't been a housekeeper all her life, but had come into service in London after the death of her husband, a Yorkshire policeman. Reaching for the teapot, Mrs. Jeffries poured two cups of the steaming brew while Mrs. Goodge arranged the bread on their individual plates. She slid one of them toward the housekeeper. “I do hope that Phyllis will get here while this is still warm.”
“She should be back any moment. I only sent her to the draper's to pick up the curtain rings I ordered last week.” She reached for the cut glass jar of gooseberry jam, took the lid off, and slathered a spoonful on her bread.
A strand of white hair slipped out from beneath the cook's cap as she bobbed her head. “Too bad Wiggins won't be back while this bread is still warm. You know how he loves warm bread. He's a good lad. Mind you, he's not really a lad anymore, he's a fully grown man now.” Over their years together in the household, she and the footman had become quite close.
She'd spent her life in service and had once felt that taking a position with a policeman was a terrible way to end her career as a cook. After all, she'd reigned supreme over some of the finest kitchens in England, and when she'd come to London, her food had graced the tables of cabinet ministers, captains of industry, and a fair number of aristocrats. But when she'd been sacked from her previous position for being “too old,” she'd had no choice but to accept a position in the Witherspoon household, and it had changed her life. She had a family of sorts now, and when
she wasn't cooking, she and the others in their circle were busy doing the most important work possibleâserving justice.
“I know.” The housekeeper grinned. “He gets a bit stroppy when we treat him like he's sixteen. But then again, to us, he'll always be just a young lad.” She turned her head as Fred, the household dog, got up from his rug by the cooker. Tail wagging, he trotted out into the hall, his nails tapping merrily on the wooden floor as he headed for the back door.
“Goodness, that can't be Wiggins, he never comes home this early from his day out,” Mrs. Goodge muttered.
“Hello, old fellow,” Wiggins' voice came a second before they heard the door shut. “I'm glad to see you, too. Come on then, let's go to the kitchen, I've got news, important news.”
Both women went still as they heard that special tone in the footman's voice.
A second later, Wiggins, with Fred bouncing along beside him, came into the kitchen. He whipped off his blue tweed cap as he moved, revealing a headful of thick, dark brown hair that had a tendency to curl. His eyes were blue, his skin fair, and his cheeks still as ruddy as when he was a wee one, but his face was now narrower, manlier, and less like a young boy. His lanky frame had filled out as well.
“What kind of news?” Mrs. Goodge demanded.
Wiggins tossed his hat on an empty peg of the coat tree, hurried to the table, and sat down. Fred flopped down next to him. “Give us a minute.” He took a deep breath. “I've run like the very devil was on me 'eels.” He reached down and petted the dog's head.
Mrs. Jeffries had already poured his tea. She slid his mug toward him as the cook put a slice of bread on an empty plate and shoved it under Wiggins' nose. “Catch your breath and have your tea, the news will keep a moment or two.”
“Ta.” He took a quick drink of tea and smiled his thanks. “Cor blimey, that tastes good. I was parched and I've 'ad a good two pints to drink, but when ya run as fast as I did, ya run it off. But I do 'ave news.”
“Yes, we know.” Mrs. Jeffries tried not to sound as impatient as she felt.
“As you can see, I've come home a bit early. Generally, I 'ang about with Mickey Deals on my day out, and we usually go to the pub over by Shepherds Bush Station, The Bedford Arms, and 'ave a pint and talk football. But 'e didn't want to go there today. He insisted we go to the Admiral Nelson on Ladbroke Terrace, which is just 'round the corner from the inspector's station. Mickey's sweet on one of the barmaids that works there.”
Mrs. Jeffries nodded. Inspector Witherspoon was assigned to the Ladbroke Road Police Station. “Yes, we all know where that pub is located.” She tried to keep her spirits dampened, but it was impossible.
“Go on, Wiggins.” Mrs. Goodge leaned toward him. “Stop keepin' us in suspense.” Like the housekeeper, she, too, was trying to keep her hopes in check.
“After lunchtime, the place began to clear out and the barmaid come over to 'ave a chat and I'm not thick or anything, so I knew that Mickey wanted to have a chance to talk to 'er without me sittin' there gawkin' at the two of 'em, so I left. But it was still early so I decided to go over
to the Golden Goose and see if Tom Whittle was there, that's 'is favorite pub and 'e's generally there in the afternoons. 'E's a bit of a blowhard, but 'e knows ever so much about football.”
“Yes, yes, I'm sure he knows an enormous amount about the subject,” Mrs. Jeffries agreed quickly.
“I'm only tellin' you about Tom so you'll understand why I was walkin' by the police station, it's the fastest way to the Golden Goose. I'd just gone past the station when Constable Griffiths come barreling past me so fast he didn't see me. He skidded to a halt when I yelled his name but said he had to hurry, they'd got a call for more constables at a house on Bellwood Place. The inspector and Constable Barnes was already there and had sent back to the station for more men. They was goin' to do a 'ouse to 'ouse.” He paused dramatically. “And we all know what that means.”
“It means we have a murder,” Mrs. Jeffries said.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
“Murder is never nice, but this one seems particularly gruesome,” Inspector Gerald Witherspoon said to Constable Barnes. They were standing just inside the open door of the conservatory. The inspector was deliberately looking toward the garden instead of in at the corpse being examined by Dr. Procash, the police surgeon for this district. Witherspoon's normally pale complexion was so white it came close to being greenish in tone. His thin lips were compressed together, he'd run his hand through his thin brown hair and it now stood in tufts round his head, and his deep-set hazel eyes were troubled.
“It's an ugly one,” Barnes agreed. The constable was a
tall man with the posture of a battlefield general, curly iron gray hair under his policeman's helmet, and a natural ruddy complexion. He and the inspector worked together on murders, but unlike Witherspoon, he'd been on the force and on the streets longer and wasn't as upset by blood and gore as his superior. “He was coshed on the head first, then he was stabbed. This killer really wanted the poor man dead. He or she used a fancy pair of garden shears as the murder weapon.”
They'd examined the corpse upon arriving and Barnes had watched the inspector valiantly do his duty. Witherspoon was known to have his “methods” in solving murders, and one of those methods was to carefully examine both the death wounds and the way the body lay in relation to the immediate environment. At least that was how the inspector had explained it when he was giving a training class to new recruits. The constable was one of the few people who knew that, in reality, Gerald Witherspoon was squeamish and hated the sight of blood. Which was one of the reasons the constable admired himâno matter how distasteful or awful a corpse might be, Witherspoon put duty and justice before his own feelings. He'd carried out a thorough examination of both the body and the scene before allowing the police surgeon or anyone else near the body.
Witherspoon took a gulp of air and then glanced over his shoulder into the conservatory. The police surgeon stood up and waved at the constable standing across the room by the door leading into the house. “Send the lads here with the stretcher,” he ordered. “Have them come around the
side of the house. It'll be easier to get the body out the garden door.”
“Let's move out of the way.” Witherspoon turned and moved outside onto the staircase. He took a deep breath before heading down to the back garden.
“Should we go into the house, sir?” Barnes went after him. “The ladies who found the body are waiting for us.”
“They're the ones that identified him?” Witherspoon's voice trailed off as he reached the bottom step. He stopped and stared at the row of ferns lining the far side of the herringbone walkway. “I wonder what that is?” He pointed to a patch of red visible beneath the overhanging fronds of the largest fern. “And look, see, there's a trail of dirt across the walkway.” He studied the thin line of soil and saw that it didn't end at the bottom step, but continued up to the conservatory door. Annoyed, because he should have noticed it earlier, he made a mental note to be more observant. “Someone carried something down these steps.”
Barnes shoved past him, bent down, and moved the fronds back far enough for them to get a good look. A squashed bulb and the scattered crimson blossoms of a flowering plant lay on a mound of fresh dirt which spilled out of a crumpled burlap bag. “This must have been it. They brought down a plant, the kind you buy at a florist or a proper nursery. It looks like someone's just smashed it and then chucked it under here.”
Witherspoon thought for a moment. “You're a keen gardener, Constable, do you know what kind it is?” He'd no idea why that was important, but the question had popped into his head.
“No, sir, I just know the common ones, but I've not seen one like this before in an English garden. Though it does look a bit like some of the exotic ones the missus and I saw at Kew last summer.” He stood up and dusted off his hands. “Should we ask the lady of the house if she can identify it before we take it into evidence?”
“That's a good idea. Surely she'll know what sort of plants she has in her greenhouse.” He turned as the gate squeaked and two constables with an empty stretcher slung between them rounded the corner of the house. “Let's go and have a word with the ladies.” He moved out of the way to let the constables pass. “Then we'll come back and do a proper search of the entire place, including the mews. Let's walk around to the front door; it'll give us a chance to have a closer look at the property.”
“And a nice piece of property it is, sir.” Barnes surveyed the area with a practiced eye as the two men started for the gate.
“Indeed it is,” the inspector agreed.
Leafy ferns and shrubs stood in a row along the walkway that curved to the tall wood fencing surrounding the property. Flowerbeds brimming with brilliant pink azaleas, red and purple rhododendrons, lilacs, and roses in every hue imaginable were planted along the two sides of the long garden between which was a perfect emerald green lawn. A white painted wrought iron table and chairs stood in the middle of the garden, and at the far end, a wide bed of ivy ran along the back fencing which separated the property from the mews. Barnes, who was a few feet ahead of Witherspoon, stopped suddenly. “They take their gardening seriously here, sir. The lawn is perfect and the
conservatory is twice the size you generally see attached to a private house. The only jarring note is that.” He pointed back the way they'd just come, to the staircase. The space under the conservatory was open to the elements and dim, but there was enough light getting in to see all the wooden supports holding up the conservatory. Piles of old wood, mounds of dirt, broken bricks, and crumbling stoneware pots were scattered haphazardly along the uneven dirt surface. Along the wall of the original structure, a stack of lumber, a wheelbarrow, and extra bags of peat and soil were propped up for storage.
“Yes, that's odd, isn't it,” Witherspoon agreed. “But perhaps the owners are so used to the sight, they don't realize how much of an eyesore it is.”
“Or perhaps they've put off doing anything about it until the weather gets cooler. That stack of wood in there by the wheelbarrow might be for a trellis.”
“How very clever of you to think of that, Constable.”
“Not so clever, sir.” Barnes grinned. “I've got a stack of lumber just like it in my back garden and Mrs. Barnes is fit to be tied that I've not put it up. She wants to do some sort of climbing vine but it's been so warm lately that I've put it off until the weather cools down.”
They continued around the house to the entrance, where a police constable stood guard. He nodded respectfully as he opened the door. “I'm glad you've come, sir. The mistress of the house is getting very upset. She's been out here twice demanding to see you. She's in the drawing room with the other ladies.”
“Where are the servants?” Barnes asked as he stepped inside.
“Downstairs in the kitchen, sir. The housekeeper's made them tea.”
“Thank you, Constable,” Witherspoon murmured. “Go around to the back, please. There's a smashed plant under a shrub by the walkway and we'll need it. It's evidence so keep it in your possession here until we call for it.”
“Yes, sir.” He nodded smartly and hurried off.
Witherspoon stepped over the threshold and came to a full stop. He blinked as his senses were overwhelmed by the colorful and exotic dÃ©cor. The walls were papered in a brilliant crimson with a pattern of golden interlocking curlicues. A gold statue of an Indian dancer sat atop a green, red, and blue silk tablecloth on the table next to the staircase. An oriental carpet of maroon, cream, and cobalt blue covered the floor and continued up the stairs. The room was unnaturally bright and it took the inspector a moment to understand why: Two mirrors, both with ornate frames of carved gold leaf, were on the wall behind the table and angled so they'd catch the light from the overhead transom. “This is a most unusual entryway,” the inspector murmured.
“Of course it is.” A woman stepped out of the first door in the corridor and came toward them. “These things are from India, and the wallpaper, carpet, and statue were gifts from the maharaja to my late husband. But you're not here to evaluate my dÃ©cor, sir, but to take care of that nuisance in my conservatory,”
“By ânuisance,' I assume you mean the dead man.” Barnes didn't crack a smile as he spoke.
The woman didn't even bother to acknowledge his presence; she kept her attention on the inspector. “I'm Helena
Rayburn and I take it you're in charge of this investigation?”
“That is correct, ma'am. I'm Inspector Witherspoon and this is my colleague, Constable Barnes.”
She barely nodded in the constable's direction before turning on her heel and stalking back toward the open door. “We're in here,” she snapped. “Do be quick about it, please, I need to get back into my conservatory and have a good look around to see if anything of value is missing.”
They followed her into the drawing room, where two other women sat on a sofa. The smaller of the two gave them a shy smile while the other merely stared at them.
Witherspoon glanced around the large room and noted the influence of India was even more prevalent here. Two bronze elephants the size of Saint Bernards flanked the green marble fireplace; every table, cabinet, and bookcase was covered with brilliantly colored cloths and runners. A collection of brass figurines, all in the same or similar shapes as the big one on the foyer table, filled three shelves of a huge armoire. Exotic flowers, none of which the inspector could identify, filled half a dozen large blue and white ceramic pots along the wall facing the windows.
“Please sit down,” Helena ordered.
Barnes fixed her with the stare that had sent more than one criminal running for cover when he was patrolling the streets. “I need to interview your servants. I understand they're in the kitchen.”
She visibly drew back at his tone and then caught herself. “The back stairs are at the end of the corridor.”
Barnes nodded politely to Witherspoon, who'd just sat down, and then left.
“I take it all of you were here when the body was discovered?” Witherspoon waved his hand to include all three of them.
“We were. This is Mrs. Stanway”âHelena pointed to the small, curly-haired woman perched on the edge of the seat and then to the other womanâ“and this is Mrs. Martell.”
“Who discovered the body?” the inspector asked.
“My housekeeper, Mrs. Clemments,” Helena continued. “Luncheon was over, and we were having coffee when Mrs. Clemments came and said there was a problem in the conservatory. We went out to have a look.”
“Who is âwe'?” he interrupted. He'd learned it was very important to keep the sequence of events straight in his own mind.
“All of us. Mrs. Stanway and Mrs. Martell accompanied me. When we got to the door of the conservatory, the rest of the servants were standing there, but Mrs. Clemments shooed them down to the kitchen. The three of us went inside and found Mr. Filmore. I sent one of the maids for the police.”
“Hiram Filmore,” she replied. “He has a shop in Hammersmith and sometimes supplies me with plants.”
“What did you do once you'd sent for help?” he asked.
“We closed the door and came back up here and waited, Inspector,” Helena replied.
“That's not quite true, Helena.” Isabelle Martell spoke for the first time. “You looked around the conservatory to see if any of your plants were missing, remember.”