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 Nineteen: Stella
“Yes!” Stella rose in a swirl of the assorted draperies she always seemed to wear somewhat at random about her person. “I am your mother, my dear. Or perhaps—you think I have no right to that title?” and she smiled shyly at Ingrid, an expression rather at odds with her usual air of detached interest.
“My mother,” said Ingrid, dazed. “She’s my mother,” she said to Eli. “You left me,” she said to Stella. In her tone there was more puzzlement than anger. “Left me to be raised by my father.”
Stella sighed and sank back into her sea of fabrics. “I know,” she groaned, her rich contralto throbbing with contrition. “But I’d better tell you about it. I was going to tell you, after this murder fuss died away. I think I would have told you. I wanted to tell you ever since I came to live here.”
“That time I came to tea,” said Ingrid. “That’s why you were so insistent about the invitation. You wanted to tell me.”
“I wanted to see you,” said Stella. “That’s why I came back to this village. But perhaps that sounds strange to you, after so many years away?”
“Why did you go?” Ingrid still seemed more puzzled than angry. Crowner wondered how long that would last.
“I had to,” said Stella. “The wretched man tricked me.” She sighed. “Our early married life,” she said, “was a time of great disillusionment for me. Your father had just published his paper, and I was naïve enough to believe he was really the author, and that he must be a genius, and that certain unlovely traits could be forgiven in a genius. So I married him, and he turned out to be a beast, of course. And then I had you, my beautiful baby girl, and I felt that I could be content.
“And then Adam—‘Sir’ sticks in my throat—made his little suggestion. He said that we weren’t happy together—which was true, we weren’t—and that we should enter into a gentleman’s agreement, each allowing the other to have discreet affairs, while remaining nominally married for the sake of the child. I agreed. He had several affairs in quick succession. I had evidence of these affairs in my hands at various points over those few years, but I never held onto any of it, because I was honouring our agreement. And all the while, he must have been waiting for me to put a foot wrong.
“The funny thing is, I was happy he was having affairs. He was easier to deal with around the home. And I thought we’d settled in comfortably to our arrangement. I never actually thought I’d take Adam up on the license our agreement gave me to have affairs myself. But then I met—well, it doesn’t matter who. Another man. We were happy, for a time.
“And then Adam sued for divorce. He had evidence of my affair—well, I’d seen no reason to hide it from him. But I hadn’t any evidence of his affairs, and so he got full custody, and I got nothing. I lost all rights to you, lost all rights as a mother.
“He—the other man—did the honourable thing, and married me. We were in love, I think. There was a chance for us to start a new life on the Continent, and so we moved to a little village in France. I wrote my first novel that year. If you remember, the victim in that was rather like Adam. The critics said it had a wonderful depth of feeling and a true sense of moral complexity. I’m not surprised. I was writing from my heart. And my heart was very bitter. But then I wrote a second novel with the same detective, then a third. And I’m afraid I was contented. I’m afraid I tried to forget. I was happy.
“And then the Great War came to our little village.” Stella paused, as if struggling to go on. “He—the other man—died. It was a time when everyone seemed to be dying. I was sure I’d die, myself, but I didn’t. When the war ended, it was a shock to discover myself still alive. And then I caught the influenza, and I thought that was rather funny, really. But again, I didn’t die. And the question of what to do next became relevant again for the first time in years.
“And, for the first time since my divorce, I was wealthy. Detective fiction, I expect you’ve noticed, has become very popular since the war. Mine started flying off the shelves. That, and some of my late husband’s investments, which had been a bit limp pre-war, were suddenly very valuable. He always said that someday they’d pay. I wish… but never mind my wishes. They can’t bring the dead back to life.
“And so,” said Stella, “I came back here. I didn’t think Adam would recognize me—I’m not the bubbly, pretty little thing I once was—in fact, I’m shocked that this gentleman—” she gestured at Ravi “—managed to do it.”
“It was the eyes,” Ravi said. “Perhaps. They are very vividly blue. But I think it wasn’t just that. It was the whole person. I only know that I saw your face, and thought, that is Sir Adam’s wife.”
“All those war years, with all their suffering and privation,” she marveled, “and someone still saw Sir Adam’s wife in me. How curious. I thought she was quite gone.” She shook herself. “As I said, I came here. I… wanted to see how you were doing, Ingrid—to be nearby in case you needed me. I knew I’d left you to be raised by… well, ‘monster’ is the word that occurs to me, but perhaps that is extravagant. I felt that I’d done you a mortal injury, but that perhaps I could make up for my wrong, in time.”
“Well, as for mortal injuries,” said Ingrid briskly, “I came out of it all right, I think. And it doesn’t sound like the old beast left you much of a choice. You had to leave me.”
“I could have groveled. That might have worked. Or I could have stayed nearby, and perhaps have seen you in secret sometimes. But…”
“But when the thing became impossible, you left,” said Ingrid, nodding. “Staying nearby and trying to see me in secret would have been miserable and unsatisfactory, and I expect you saw that. And, though I’m sure my father would have liked you to grovel, I doubt it would’ve done much good.” And then she smiled, and looked quite shy. “That’s all right… Mother.”
For a moment, Stella looked like she was going to cry. It was all, Crowner thought, incredibly touching. And, if the woman didn’t have an alibi, horribly damning, as well.
“Please tell me,” he said, genuinely pleading, “that you have an alibi for Sir Adam’s death.”
“I don’t. But I do have something that might do just as well,” said Stella. “You see, I planned to kill him. And I can prove it.”
Another wave of shock ran through the room.
“Locked in a closet in my house,” said Stella, “is a hunting rifle. During the war years, I learned my way around a gun. Lately, I’ve been taking long walks into the country, carrying a golf bag with me, on the excuse that I wanted to practice my wretched drive where no-one could see how bad I was. Well, I practiced with something, where there was no-one to see or hear, but it wasn’t with my clubs. I can show you the places in the deep woods where I’ve practiced, show you the bullet holes. I’ve become quite a good shot. And I knew that Adam liked to take a gun out with him on his walks about his estate, in case he had a chance at some birds. My plan was to wait for him to take one of his walks with his gun, shoot him, and replace his gun with mine. I’d taken the trouble to purchase the same type of rifle that he generally took with him on his walks. I’d take his rifle away with me, and if all went well, it would look like he’d had an accident.”
“But,” said Crowner, staring in fascination, “if you shot him from a distance, that would be obvious to any investigator. You must know that. I’ve read your detective novels, and the author of those would never ignore such a fact.”
“Of course I was going to shoot him up close,” said Stella, sounding slightly flustered. “Practically in contact. I’ve only given you the bare outline of my scheme. If you want specifics… there was a stile he often climbed over, with cover on one side. I would be in that cover, and I would shoot him as he crossed. That would mean the range would be right, and it was also the most likely place to have an accident with a gun. I’ll show you the place I mean, and then you’ll see. I think it would have worked.”
“A shot like that,” said Crowner, “wouldn’t require much skill. The practice…”
“Partially to get comfortable with the weapon,” said Stella, “and partially to experiment with angles and things. And, of course, if I’d somehow missed my first shot, and he ran, I’d want to bring him down anyway. He’d have seen me, in all likelihood, and at that point, I’d have better odds of getting away with it, even if he was shot in the back, than if I let him get away. So I did practice some distance shooting, as well.”
“Your argument, then,” said Crowner, “is that, as you can prove that you planned to kill Sir Adam in quite a different way, you are, in effect, cleared of this crime? It is… quite a novel defense.”
“And there’s another point in my favour I’d like to bring to your attention,” said Stella, her usual detachment asserting itself. “If you’ve read my detective novels, I hope you credit me with more caution than the author of this crime seems to have had. Caution, I mean, for unintended casualties. Poisoning a decanter of whiskey? That would be horribly, filthily risky. Why, we know that Dr. Daniel and Ulric must have drunk from that decanter mere minutes before the poison went in. What if they’d had their drink a minute or two after, instead? It is sloppy, and speaks to me of a disordered mind. Or possibly—could it have been an impulse? And I am not impulsive, and my mind is very tidy.”
Crowner, thinking of the timetable work in Not A Penny The Wiser, and of the neat way the murder was committed in The Dance of The Legless Dolls, and of the method of detection employed in The Least of His Crimes, had to agree: the woman had a tidy mind.
“And your motive for murdering Sir Adam was, of course…?” he asked, just to get things quite clear.
“My daughter,” said Stella, with a voice she seemed to be purposely keeping very flat and emotionless, “was being forced into a disastrous marriage. Please don’t think,” she turned to Quinton, “that I mean anything offensive. I am far from wanting to condemn you for… anything. As I’ve said, I’ve seen a lot, in my time. But a marriage, between my daughter and a man whom she did not love, and who would never love her, was abhorrent to me. I’d been in a loveless marriage, myself. I’d heard rumours about young Eli, too, and he was so obviously right, so obviously the man my daughter had chosen. I felt that, after so many years of doing nothing for the girl, I should do quite a big thing for her now.”
“Gosh!” said Ingrid. “Thanks, Mother!” She seemed quite impressed by this evidence of maternal devotion. “We need to make room for her in the wedding party,” she said to Eli.
“I’m sure my parents will be delighted to meet her,” he murmured, seeming a bit dazed himself. “Perhaps we won’t mention the intended murder to them, though. They are a bit conventional.”
Stella looked sandbagged by joy. Her eyes were bright and seemed to sparkle. Crowner wondered if she looked so different, just now, from the bubbly girl Sir Adam had married. But when she spoke again, though her voice was charged with emotion, she spoke on a totally unrelated topic. “And now, and while we’re identifying old familiar faces—hallo, Timothy. Glad to see you’ve lived so long, I think. And of course, now Adam is dead, you’ll be quite a wealthy man—provided they don’t hang you for his murder. Sorry to expose you and so on, but you’d better go through it, like everyone else.” And she turned a beaming smile on the tramp.