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 Fifteen: Ollie
Crowner smiled his irritating smile. “The mysterious tramp, I presume,” he said. “I was just telling these people that I rather thought you had nothing to do with the case, and that you’d probably left the district. Now it turns out that you’re here after all, and that Ollie, at least, thinks you are the killer. What is your name, sir?”
The tramp growled. “What right does this oaf have to grab a fellow? I was minding my own business—good policy, I recommend it!—when suddenly this fool clapped a gun to my back and told me to march. Well, I marched, but I intended to complain to the first responsible party I found. And here you are, asking me nasty suspicious questions! It isn’t right! I was manhandled!” His accent was upper-class, but he was trying to hide that.
“He wasn’t manhandled,” said Ollie. “He got caught trespassing, is what, and I asked him in a civil manner to come along and explain himself.”
“You see, there’s been a murder,” said Crowner to the tramp. “Two murders, actually. So of course we’re interested in any lurking strangers about the place.”
“Nothing to do with me,” said the tramp.
Now Crowner addressed the room at large. “Could everyone please take a close look at this man? You all knew Sir Adam, and between you, you have probably seen at least glimpses of most facets of his life. Does this man fit into any of them? Is his a familiar face?” Crowner surveyed the room. He noticed, without being seen to notice, Cecil and the tramp exchanging alarmed glances. Interesting. And Stella opened her mouth as if to speak—and closed it again. Good. Two people, at least, had an idea about the identity of the tramp. He’d give them time to decide to tell him about it. No need to bring any pressure to bear—yet. It was enough to know where he needed to apply pressure later, if it became necessary.
“For the moment, perhaps we’d better go over your story, Ollie,” said Crowner.
“I didn’t have any hand in this crime,” said Ollie, shocked. “Why, hadn’t I just found that Sir Adam was my own half-brother? I’m no Cain.”
“Yes, but you’d also tried to get Sir Adam to acknowledge the relationship, and he’d fired you and told you to leave his property,” said Crowner.
“Brother?” asked Gregory. He looked closely at Ollie for a moment, then nodded. “Yes. I see the family likeness, now I know to look. What did you want done about it?” he asked, as if too exhausted by the buffetings of Fate to be anything but direct.
“I’d like to send Seb here,” and Ollie gestured at his son, “to a proper school. I’m not much for gentleman-ing around the place, wouldn’t hold any interest for me, but I’d like to see the boy treated right. Recognized. And from what I see—meaning no disrespect, sir, and without in any way meanin’ to threaten you—my mother was the one who properly married your father, and so I’m owed something. But I’d like to stay on as gamekeeper, myself. I like the work, and wouldn’t know how to do anything else. That agreeable to you, sir?”
“Yes. Certainly. Oh, certainly!” Gregory looked dazed. He turned as if by instinct to Leonard—and then, as if remembering recent developments, turned away. Leonard, seeing his advice unsought, gave a little agonized whimper. “I suppose the boy—Seb, that is—should move up to the house,” Gregory continued. “I will look into adopting him as my son. That should make things simple. We’ll put him up for somewhere as soon as I get things settled.” And he smiled at the boy. “How would that be, my lad?”
Seb looked around the splendid room with awe, then looked at his father, then looked at Gregory. “I’d like to go to a good school, sir. Would I still see dad, though?”
Gregory smiled down at the boy. “Young gentlemen often have a great deal of fun, being instructed in various matters by the head gamekeeper. I did, myself. Old Amos was quite the father-figure to me, when I was a lad.”
Seb looked uncertain, but Ollie nodded. “Aye, that’ll do. Don’t worry, boy! Your old dad will be here when you want him. Adoption was just the understanding I’d hoped to come to with Sir Adam.”
“I really suggest—” began Leonard.
“My affairs,” said Gregory coldly, “are no longer your concern. I could forgive embezzling, seeing as my brother was blackmailing you—though you didn’t know it was him doing it when you stole the money. But I can’t forgive your treatment of poor Rita. Was she not good enough for you? She may have been from an inferior branch of the family, and fallen on hard times, but she was a Clutterbuck, after all! A Clutterbuck! And any Clutterbuck, however fallen, is too good for any—Toogood!” Gregory’s eyes danced with the madness of family pride. “And if Seb here is my nephew—a Clutterbuck, sir! A Clutterbuck!—he’d better take his proper place in society as soon as possible.”
Gregory seemed, Crowner considered, a little out of date in his notions—but he was doing as well as he could for the child, by his own lights. Which Ollie might have counted on, of course.
“Yes yes yes,” said Crowner to Ollie. “But let’s just make sure you’re not a murderer, shall we? Sir Adam wasn’t receptive to your notions about Seb’s future?”
Ollie shook his head. “Turned me out,” he said. “Said I was a liar. That wasn’t right. Why, you can see by my nose I’m a Clutterbuck.”
“But he died before you’d actually packed up and left?”
“You were fighting the fire the night of Sir Adam’s death?” asked Crowner.
“It doesn’t seem right,” said Ollie, “to ask a man who has always been upright if he’s maybe killed his own kin lately. Besides, you know my tale. I’ve told it you before.”
Crowner smiled at Ollie. “Yes, I know. But I’m asking everyone here to tell their stories, publicly, so we all know where we stand. You’re not being singled out; everyone’s going through it. Do you mind?”
“Mind? No, not if it’s everyone. Only fair, really.” And he took a deep breath, as if uncertain where to start. “Young Seb here is a favourite with both lots of servants. But himself, he’s always liked best the dour ol’ sour-faced housekeeper of Ulric’s, a Mrs. Harshaw. Don’t know why, but the boy just took to her. Well, she died two weeks ago. Hadn’t the heart to break it to Seb, kept putting it off.
“When he saw Ulric’s servants all out and fighting the flames, he thought Mrs. Harshaw was still inside, because she wasn’t with them. I didn’t know any of that, at the time, but he explained later. At the time, I only saw my boy running into the burning building, and I went after him—but I couldn’t find him in the smoke. Turns out he’d run right back out again, because he got scared—but I was still in there when the roof collapsed.
“Somehow, I wasn’t hurt, but I was pinned under some rubble for a few hours, until they dug me out. That was in the early hours of the morning, after Sir Adam had fallen from his window. I remember seeing a body, all covered in a blanket, and thinking someone’d burned to death. Knew it wasn’t the boy—too big—but it gave me a turn anyway.”
“That was brave, lad,” said Gregory, looking at Seb with approval. “Running into the building to save your friend.”
“It was a damn fool thing to do,” said Ollie. “He should’ve let someone know his notions. What could he have done for her if he’d found her?”
And Gregory and Ollie looked at each other for a moment.
“Of course, it was brave of the lad, come to think of it,” said Ollie.
“And it was, upon reflection, extremely foolish,” said Gregory.
Crowner smiled. “Good! Good. And when Miss Polly was killed, you were…”
“Why, taking tea with Kathy, there,” said Ollie. “I often visit, that time.”
“Brave man,” muttered Cecil.
“Was that the evening of Miss Polly’s death, now?” asked Kathy, smiling her crooked smile. “Why, yes. Yes, I think it was. I’d forgotten.” And she cackled.
“Well, that all seems clear enough,” said Crowner, eying Kathy doubtfully.
Everyone looked round at everyone else, not really sure where the conversation should go next.
“And now, Inspector,” said Stella, “I really think you might tell us a little bit more about Miss Polly. You seem to know quite a lot about her, that you’re not telling.”
And Crowner nodded. “Fair enough.”