Hello, and welcome to my 2023 A to Z Blogging Challenge! For a detailed explanation of what I’m up to this year, see my Theme Reveal. But basically, I’m taking all the suspects I made up for my A to Z last year (with help from several commenters!) and putting them all into an actual murder mystery. See the sidebar for links to last year’s posts; if your device doesn’t display sidebars (if, for example, you are visiting on your phone), the links will be under the comment section, right under my A to Z 2023 participation badge.
Chapter Eleven: Kathy
Mug held the flask up to his ear, and shook it. “Sounds like there’s still something left in there to send to the analyst,” he said with satisfaction.
Crowner viewed his subordinate with pardonable curiosity. “Why are you knocking the public about, Sergeant?” he asked.
“Sorry, sir. It was when Lady Annabelle screeched, sir. It startled people. It startled Cecil into dropping his flask on the floor. Next I saw of the thing, Kathy had it in her hands, and she was fiddling with it. Then she returned it to him—slipped it back onto his lap. And he was just about to drink from it when I realized what I’d seen her do with it. She’d opened it, Sir, and I think—yes, I’m almost sure—she slipped something into it.”
“Well, as you say, there is enough left to send to be analyzed. Of course,” said Crowner, eying Cecil impartially, “if you’d just let him drink it, we’d know a damn sight sooner than that if the thing was poisoned.”
Mug grinned. “Sorry, sir.”
“These humanitarian impulses, Mug.” And Crowner shook his head in mock sorrow. Then he turned to Kathy. “Well, madam? Did you try to poison this man?”
Cecil had also turned to look at Kathy. “You wouldn’t!” He cried, helplessly. “It…isn’t right!” His alarm seemed to sober him considerably.
Kathy cackled again. “I’ve just given the old gent some of my nice herbs. Good medicine, good for the liver.” And she resumed knitting
“You know, we are going to test the contents of this flask,” said Crowner. “We’ll know if it is poison.”
“I hope you have a fine day for it,” said Kathy, smiling at him over her flickering needles.
Cecil stared wild-eyed at Kathy for a long, silent moment. “I don’t believe it,” he said finally. “She wouldn’t. Would she? Would you?”
“Would I what, dear?”
“Well, now—of course I might. Mankind is a fallen creature. Might get up to anything.” And she nodded.
“I thought we were friends,” Cecil said, sounding genuinely upset. “I thought you liked being neighbors. That elderberry wine you’re always giving me. Oh my god, was that poisoned too? Is it one of those accumulative things? I’ve heard—can’t you do it with arsenic? Slow poisoning—”
“I may be an indifferent doctor,” said Dr. Daniel, “and I appear to have been a fool in almost every way, but I can tell you that, whatever other problems you’ve had lately, slow arsenical poisoning isn’t one of them.”
Struggling to keep to the point, Crowner turned back to Kathy. “You contend,” he said, “that you were merely taking a kindly interest in Cecil’s health? Treating him with some homemade medicine?”
“Fixes what ails you,” said Kathy. And she cackled again.
“Why would you give it to him without his knowledge?”
“People don’t always like taking medicine,” said Kathy.
Crowner stared at her, genuinely baffled. He’d heard rumours—or rather he’d noticed a pointed absence of comment—about the death of Kathy’s husband many years ago. Had she, in fact, poisoned her husband? Had she tried to poison Cecil just now? And, most relevantly for the moment, had she poisoned Sir Adam? She surely wasn’t strong enough to throttle Miss Polly—or was she? Crowner looked at the knotted hands, knitting endlessly. No tremor there. And he’d said himself that Miss Polly’s murder might be unconnected to Sir Adam’s. Did he believe that, though?
“What were you doing, madam, on the night of Sir Adam’s death?” asked Crowner.
“What night would that be, dear?” asked Kathy, blinking up at him.
“The night of the fire,” said Crowner.
Kathy smacked her lips. “Ah,” she said, seeming to glow slightly with reminiscent pleasure. “The fire, now. I like a good fire. Exciting. That young man did a fine job. Not everyone knows how to start a fire, these days.”
“Young man?” Now Crowner was thoroughly alert.
“Well, not so young, not to you. He’d be older than you, by a good way. But when you’re my age—not that I plan on telling you what that is, because that’s no business of yours—lots of people seem young.” And she looked at Crowner with innocent mischief in her eyes, as if fully aware that she’d left his main question unanswered.
“You say that the fire was set? By a young man?”
“As I’ve said, no. Not young. You’d call him old, I expect.”
“Madam,” said Crowner, “tell me about the young man. Please. Where did you see him, and what was he doing?”
“Well, now. It was getting towards sunset, and I’d been by the kitchen garden at the Court. I like to look in at the kitchen garden, sometimes, to make sure everything’s been picked proper and nothing’s going wasting.” And she smiled wickedly. “Terrible sin, letting good food spoil on the vine. So I sometimes help ease the load of sin in the world by helping myself to this and that. Well, that evening I hadn’t found much—I suppose Cook’d been more thorough than usual, seeing as there were people in for dinner—so I was heading up the hill towards the woods—often good pickings in those woods, and no-one but me to know what’s wholesome and what isn’t, so again I have a duty—when I saw this man come running out of the most ruined part of the Elizabethan wing. I’d seen him around before, mind. Knew he’d been sleeping rough somewhere about the place for the past week or more. That evening, he bolted past me into the woods like the Devil himself was after him. Being a curious old woman, I went to see if I could figure what’d frightened him. But when I smelled the smoke—and not nice smoke, neither, but the smoke of things burning that shouldn’t burn—I knew what he’d been at.” And she nodded solemnly.
“You knew the house was burning, and you didn’t do anything about it?” Crowner stared at the old woman in fascination.
Kathy smiled. “Do you think an old lady like me is ripe for fighting a fire single-handed?”
“You could have told someone at the house.”
“They don’t encourage visitors. Not of my class, anyway.”
“They could have all been burned to death,” said Crowner.
“No business of mine if they had,” Kathy said. “Not that I hold any grudges, mind, against the young ladies or the guests. But the Elizabethan wing is where that Ulric lives, and the sooner he burns up the better.”
Ulric made a terrible face at Kathy. “You knew my wing was burning, and you didn’t lift a finger? Hey? Nasty old witch—I know who needs burning up, and it isn’t me!” His face blazed a bright red.
Dr. Daniel took one look and was up and fussing round the old man. “Now, now,” he said. “Your blood pressure. Take this!” And he fumbled out a tablet.
Ulric just stared at it. Then he stared into Dr. Daniel’s face. “Lots of talk of poisoning, just now,” he said. He did not move to take the pill.
Dr. Daniel sank down into a chair with a groan. “This is insupportable,” he said. “Crowner, please God solve this mystery, whatever it takes. We can’t function as we are. If my patients won’t even trust me to medicate them… no, it can’t go on.” Then, with an angry gesture, he swallowed the pill in his hands. “There, you old reprobate!” he said to Ulric. “Now we’ll see if you can trust your doctor. Of course, I haven’t got high blood pressure, but I think I can take the effects of a drop. If not, I beg that you will do a post-mortem. I won’t have people saying I poison my patients! I won’t!” And he seemed on the verge of hysteria.
“Quite so, Doctor,” said Crowner. “This is why it is so very important to solve murders, when they happen,” he explained to the room at large. “The doctor is right. It isn’t so much that spilled blood cries out for justice, or anything romantic like that—it’s more that the people near a murder can’t get on with their lives until the thing is cleared up.”
“And it sounds,” said Eli, “that our story of a tramp in the woods has received a bit of corroboration, doesn’t it?”
“Yes yes yes,” said Crowner. “But as I already believed you about the tramp, that isn’t so terribly important to me as some other aspects of Kathy’s story. Let’s just finish this up, though. What did you do after you saw the tramp, madam?”
“I went home, Inspector. I didn’t fancy the woods so much, with that man flapping about in it. Not that I thought he’d likely do me harm, but what I find is, you never know.”
“Went home and stayed there?”
“Until I saw from the smoke and the sounds of bother over at the Court that the fire’d got exciting. Then I went to have a look.”
“You could have slipped into the study through the rose garden and poisoned the whiskey decanter?”
“Oh, yes,” Kathy nodded. “If I’d known where the gent kept his whiskey, and if I’d happened to have something with me that would do for him, I might have done it. Oh, yes. Capable of any wicked act, I am. Being only human.”
“You’re saying that you didn’t do it?”
“As it happens, mine wasn’t the hand that felled Sir Adam. But I had the will. We’re all guilty creatures, seems to me, and you might as well just choose a party to hang and get on with it, like they did in the old days. And of course, I see how I’d do for the part. Wicked old woman, lives alone, interest in herbs—as Ulric says, burn her up!” And she nodded her approval of this drastic solution.
“Well,” said Crowner, staring at the old women in bemusement, “now we’ve got that out of the way—Mug, tuck that flask away somewhere safe, we really must have it analyzed—I think we’d better hear from Leonard, about all of this embezzling and so on.”
And everyone turned to look at Leonard.