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 Five: Eli
“The good doctor came to see me at the Inn the night after Sir Adam’s murder. He knocked at my door at a little after two in the morning, and he kept knocking until I was awake. I let him in, and he entered like a conspirator in a play. Sorry, doctor, I know you meant well, but you have to see the thing from my perspective.
“He came in, said “my boy” a couple of times, looking at me with great sadness and horror, and then he finally told me what was on his mind. He knew, you see, that on the day before Sir Adam’s death, Sir Adam had told me he planned to ruin me. And so the doctor rather thought, on the whole, that I’d be happier on the Continent somewhere, possibly under another name. I tried to tell him I hadn’t killed anyone, but it was no good.”
“I see,” said Inspector Crowner. “And now, if you could just tell us a little about this interview with Sir Adam?”
Eli nodded. “A little background first. Ingrid and I met two years ago at a party in London, and we fell for each other at once.”
“It took me longer than that, dear,” said Ingrid demurely. “Much longer. At least fifteen minutes.”
Eli raised an eyebrow. “How deflating. But anyway, a few months later, I proposed and was accepted. We thought Sir Adam might be sticky, but we hadn’t quite realized how badly he would take the thing. I’m Jewish, you see, and he seemed to consider that an absolute and insuperable bar to my marrying into his family. Things got… very unpleasant. I won’t go into that, but it was horrible. And he wouldn’t even come out and say that he wouldn’t have a Jewish son-in-law. That particular objection never arose, it was merely obvious. He hemmed and hawed about my finances—but I am a successful barrister, and I make quite enough for us to live on comfortably. He said he didn’t know my people. I said they’d be delighted to meet him, but that was somehow not what he meant. Finally, he just took to forbidding our marriage absolutely, saying that he’d found someone else for Ingrid to marry, and that he refused to listen to any further arguments. And he really thought that would work.”
Eli sighed and continued. “Of course, the legal situation is difficult. Ingrid is Sir Adam’s ward until she’s twenty-one, and she’s only nineteen now. So that means that she actually can’t marry anyone without her father’s permission for two more years.”
“I can’t say we liked waiting that long,” said Ingrid, “but we were prepared to do it. No patricide required. Though I could cheerfully have killed him quite often this past year, I have to say.”
Eli eyed his fiancée with rueful dismay. “As a barrister, I officially deplore your frankness on that point, my love. As a man, however…” he grinned. “Anyway, it was when the old so-and-so realized that we were willing to wait him out that he got really nasty. First, he told us that he’d disinherit Ingrid if she married me. But we persisted in our engagement anyway, and that really made him mad.”
Ingrid nodded. “He didn’t like being defied, and he didn’t like pulling a string without results. He liked to think of himself as a man for whom the puppets dance.” She shrugged helplessly.
“And so we come,” said Eli, “to our last interview, the day before Sir Adam’s death. He sent me a curt note summoning me to Clutterbuck Court. He received me in the formal office. There is a very big desk, in there. He was sitting behind it, looking solemn as a hanging judge.
“At first, it was the old stuff. He’d disinherit Ingrid, all that. I told him to go ahead and do it, if he was so set on it, I could easily support a wife on the money I made at my profession. And then he got very grave. Said I wouldn’t be making any money at that soon, not if he had anything to do with it. He told me he’d ruin me. He didn’t want to do it, as it would mean going up to London and working at it, but he would if we persisted in what he termed our disobedient folly.”
Eli looked solemn. “I know we’ve been treating him as a bit of a comic turn, here. That is a habit Ingrid and I got into when he first started being beastly, because it helped us face it, and because he really was absurd when viewed from a certain angle. A pompous, self-important windbag who was much less clever than he believed himself to be. But I can’t say his latest threat didn’t worry me at first, or that his whole attitude wasn’t horrible and upsetting. I stormed out of that meeting in a rage, I admit it. If Sir Adam had been found stabbed with a letter-opener that day, I’d probably have been the guilty party.”
“But then we talked it over,” said Ingrid. “And felt less worried. My father was dangerous, yes. He seems to have hurt quite a lot of people in his time, and we were quite sure he’d try to ruin Eli too. That would be horrid—but it would also almost certainly fail. Here, he knew everyone’s secret, and he had connections. But the only people father knew in London were a couple of elderly gentlemen at his club. He tended to think of them as very important, and to think that his little corner of clubland was the beating heart of London Society. He’d go up to London, and say nasty things about Eli at his club, and think he was setting the Thames on fire. It wouldn’t work. He had the malice, all right, but not the connections.”
“It wouldn’t work for him,” said Eli, sounding depressed. “Someone else could do it. And someone else may try. Sure you want to marry me?”
“Quite sure,” said Ingrid. “Would next week be too soon?”
Eli looked up, surprised. A smile tugged at his face. “Much too soon,” he said cheerfully, “with your father only recently dead. Let’s do it anyway.”
“This is all very sweet,” said Crowner, trying not to look sentimental, “but let’s talk alibis just for a moment, before you order your trousseau. Where did you two go after Lady Annabelle shooed you out of the barn?”
“We frankly lurked,” said Ingrid. “We knew that if Father caught sight of Eli, there’d be an awful scene. So we took a stroll in the woods. There was a full moon that night, and there’s a decent path. We went into the woods near the barn, and up the hill, and eventually we popped out on the road by Miss Polly’s house. I think we made the road at just on one in the morning, as we weren’t precisely hurrying. Then I walked Eli to the Inn, and went home, expecting a row with my father. But… he was dead.”
“And I take it you didn’t run into anyone on your stroll who can corroborate this?” asked Crowner.
“Well, it’s a funny thing, but we almost did,” said Ingrid, looking puzzled. “That is, there was someone else in the woods, and I believe we startled him.”
“Yes—that was odd! I’d forgotten all about it, what with one thing and another,” said Eli. And they looked at each other, wide-eyed.
“It really was rather strange,” said Ingrid. “I mean, it wasn’t Ollie or his son—they were fighting the fire. In fact, whoever it was, he hadn’t any business being there, because he bolted like a rabbit as soon as we got near. Probably just a tramp, I suppose, only those aren’t exactly common in these parts.”
“I see,” said Crowner, filing this away for thinking about later on. “But besides this mysterious tramp, you didn’t see anyone who could identify you? Cecil, for example? You must have passed him, digging up Wilhelmina’s roses.”
“I can only say we didn’t notice him,” said Eli.
“By one in the morning,” said Cecil, “I was at home. But as it happens, my cottage looks out on that road, and I did see two people sneaking out of the woods at about the time they say. Can’t say for certain it was these two, but one of ‘em was a girl. Don’t think I would have noticed them, if she hadn’t been dressed in white. Looked like a bally ghost. Disconcerting. Thought of taking the pledge.” And he grinned at Dr. Daniel. “Now I don’t have to. Good.”
“I notice,” said Eli, “that the part of our alibi that Cecil has confirmed isn’t for the relevant time. We certainly were in the woods during the half hour or so during which the whiskey seems to have been poisoned, but unless we can find our tramp, we can’t prove that.”
“No, but it helps a bit, to know that at least part of your story is true,” said Crowner. “And now, young man, in the spirit of full frankness, and because it is the whole point of this little gathering—whom do you suspect? Let’s have it.”
“Actually, it is odd, because I have no idea. And Ingrid and I tried our hand at a bit of amateur investigation, so you’d think we’d have something, at least,” said Eli.
Crowner rolled his eyes slightly. “You were underfoot rather, yes. But surely you’ve at least noticed something a bit odd, or something that puzzles you.”
“Well, there is one thing that strikes me as a bit rum,” said Eli, rather unwillingly. “But—”
“Yes yes yes. Let’s have it.”
Eli took a deep breath. “Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter anyway. Fred is absolutely cleared for Miss Polly’s murder—Ingrid and I are his alibi. And I’m quite sure Fred didn’t kill Sir Adam, because the timing of that makes no sense. If you’re taking cocktails with a man you hate, that is the time to slip him the poison, if you are going to poison him. You don’t wait until a totally unexpected alarm of fire interrupts your dinner plans to do it. So I’m just going to mention the one thing that really does puzzle me, just to get it out in the open.” He turned to look at Fred. “Why on earth, sir, did you accept a dinner invitation from Sir Adam? You two were very public enemies. It doesn’t make sense to me.”
And Fred, suddenly the center of attention, laughed awkwardly and cleared his throat.