A Word of Explanation
Last year for my A to Z, I invented 26 (ish) suspects and a murder victim (Sir Adam Bracegirdle Clutterbuck). I had help doing this, by the way, from several commenters (thanks especially to Susan Ranscht and Anne Nydam, who gave me ideas and feedback every single day).
This year, I’m taking those suspects (or most of them—I killed one off, because second murders in mystery novels are fun) and putting them all in one giant Drawing Room Scene, in which they will tell the story of the murder. And, by the end of this A to Z, the killer will be revealed!
If You Weren’t Here Last Year…
A friend of mine asked me the other day if she needed to read through all of my 2022 A to Z before starting this one. My reply was, “I sure hope not, that sounds like a lot of work!” My suggestion here for people who didn’t follow along last year is that you glance at the 2022 character sketches when and if you feel like it.
I have made that easier for you by making a menu of links to my 2022 entries; you’ll find that in the sidebar (or, if you are using a phone or something else that doesn’t display a sidebar, it will be underneath the comment section, right under my 2023 A to Z participation badge). The sidebar itself has very short, fairly un-spoiler-y (if that is even a thing here?) descriptions of each character; if you click on “Dramatis Personae,” it will take you to a page with fairly short but more revealing descriptions of the characters; if you click on a character’s name, you will go to last year’s entry on that character, with all their secrets exposed!
So, there are lots of levels of engagement available here, from “deep dive” to “casual skim.”
Without further ado…
CHAPTER ONE: ANNABELLE
“Yes, Inspector, I know that in cases of murder—especially poison—the wife is often the main suspect. Dear Stella tends rather to harp on that point in her dreary little detective novels. And I know that many people here—” a flick of her free hand seemed to encompass everyone in the room “—would be so very pleased if I turned out to be the guilty party. More than one of you would probably spend the day I was hanged swilling champagne, thinking how much nicer the world is going to be, now I’m not in it. Well, well.” Her teeth snapped together in a snarl. “I’d like to see most of you hang, too, so that’s fair enough.” She took a deep breath as if to calm herself, and presently her face smoothed out into a beautiful blank. “But of course—quite inconveniently, perhaps—I didn’t do it.”
“Can you prove that?” asked Inspector Crowner.
“Well, now, let me see,” mused Annabelle. “From what I understand, the poison that killed my husband was put in the decanter of whiskey in his study some time on the 10th—the day of his death.” She glared into her Martini. “Let me just say that I resent that, very much. I drink from that decanter myself. Not that, as far as I know, anyone knew that. Sir Adam certainly didn’t. Or if he did, he was wise enough not to complain of it to me. I should have made his life Hell if he had.”
“Making lives Hell seems to be quite a sport of yours,” growled Gregory, with a protective glance at Meghan.
Annabelle opened her eyes in mock innocence. “My dear Gregory—my very dear Gregory—I am in Hell myself; why should others not join me?”
“In Hell?” Gregory practically shouted. “No, Annabelle—you are Hell. You’re not in it; it is in you.”
Annabelle’s eyes flashed. “My sweet, what a touching tribute! I didn’t know I still had the power to stir you in that way. Or is it the sufferings of poor little Meghan that agitate you? I see that it is. Well, well!” She smiled synthetically. “Why don’t you marry her? You’ll be bored of her characterless spinelessness in a fortnight, and then you can be unfaithful to her with me. I’ll be in the Dower House, right at hand. Terribly convenient.”
“You will not be at the Dower House. Not if I have anything to do with it,” said Gregory.
Cecil, who’d been dreaming in his chair, opened his eyes. “If by ‘Dower House,’ you mean my little cottage,” he said, “you certainly won’t live there. Sir Adam willed it to me. And you’re a dashed good-looking woman and all that, but you’re not my type.”
“I doubt you have a ‘type,’ in effect, anymore. I expect the last little vestiges of manliness left you years ago. All that drinking, you know, will do that.” Annabelle took a deep draft of her Martini. “Some other bijou residence about the place, then,” she said, indifferently.
“You will not live anywhere in my gift,” said Gregory.
Annabelle turned, perhaps, a little pale. Crowner couldn’t be sure. Her only certain reaction to Gregory’s remark was to raise a single eyebrow.
“Turned out into the snow!” She said, with tragic satisfaction. “It really doesn’t look, does it, Inspector, as if I had much of a motive for murdering my husband, after all. Of course, I expect I get—something. Probably quite a little something, knowing Sir Adam. But back to the night of the murder. I drank—generously—from that decanter at a quarter to six, or thereabouts. No poison in it then. As you know, we had people to dinner that night. Our guests were all here by 6:30—cocktails in the drawing room.” She looked startled for a moment. “In this room, in fact. Looks so different with this mob cluttering up the place. Anyway, someone might have slipped out to the study to poison the decanter then, while we were all milling about in here.” Crowner, who knew that the whiskey hadn’t been poisoned until rather later than this, remained silent. He wanted everyone here to do as much talking as possible, and the dinner party interested him. Lots of tensions at play there. He wanted, if possible, to hear about it.
“But Inspector—” began Dr. Daniel.
“Yes yes yes. Don’t interrupt the lady,” said Crowner. “Please go on.”
Annabelle sighed, clearly bored with the whole subject. “Dinner was served at eight, and was interrupted by the alarm of fire at about nine. That came as a relief, I can tell you. Sir Adam was making clumsy, lumbering passes at that bat Wilhelmina—oh, hello dear, are you here?” Annabelle smiled at the glaring widow in the window seat, who had given an outraged squawk at Annabelle’s last remark. “I didn’t see you; all that black you wear makes you just blend right into the shadows, doesn’t it?”
“A moment, Lady Annabelle,” said Inspector Crowner. “Did anyone see you drinking from the decanter at a quarter to six?”
“As I kept it quite a secret that I drank from it at all, I seriously doubt it.”
“I smelled it on her breath when I came to help do her hair,” said Meghan. “I often do smell it on her. That night it was especially strong or I mightn’t have remembered it specifically. It—scared me, rather. I don’t like people to be drunk. They act so differently then. Like they’re suddenly strangers.”
“She doesn’t like people to be drunk,” mimicked Lady Annabelle, looking at Gregory with malicious pity. “Oh, marry her, by all means. She sounds like such fun.”
Meghan turned to look at Annabelle then, but any expression she might have had was obscured by the lamplight reflecting in her glasses. “I wish you wouldn’t go on about my marrying,” she said. “It’s silly.”
But Annabelle was looking at Crowner. “So my little companion creature says that I smelled of drink. Is that evidence enough?”
“It is evidence of a kind,” said Crowner. “Not without value, but not absolutely conclusive, either. You might have smelled of alcohol on purpose, even. Either for some sinister reason of your own—for example, so that Meghan’s story would support yours in this moment—or simply because you know the smell upsets the girl. You seem to like upsetting her.”
Annabelle’s face flushed a violent red. “Watch your tongue, you interfering little upstart, or I shall make a complaint about you at the highest level. Don’t think I can’t—or that I won’t!” She hissed.
“Yes yes yes,” Crowner clucked. “I know you can do it. I know you would do it. In fact, I know that you have already done it. The Assistant Commissioner showed me your letter to him. He thought it would amuse me. And, in a way, it did. Though I think you dwelt on my physical peculiarities rather more than was necessary. And we were both a little disturbed by your almost obsessive hatred of my nose. It may be a touch larger than the dead average in the nose line, but it isn’t so very unusual, and we felt that it must be a serious handicap to you in your everyday dealings, if you are regularly thrown so extravagantly off-kilter by little things like that. He recommended psychoanalysis; I had… other ideas.” Drowned in a gunny-sack, he refrained from saying. “Were you very drunk by the time your guests arrived?” And Crowner smiled his irritating smile.
“No. I knew there would be cocktail hour, so I got only moderately drunk beforehand. By the time we sat down to dinner, though—yes, I was.”
“Who was at dinner, exactly? It will be as well to get that firmly established.”
Annabelle sighed. “Very well. Me, my husband, my husband’s mistress—or is it ex-mistress?—Josephine, Josephine’s husband Fred, my step-daughter’s suitor Quintin, Wilhelmina because my husband hoped to seduce her—I take it he didn’t succeed, dear?—no, I don’t suppose he did… let me see, who else? Gregory of course, and Hattie, and Ingrid. Oh, and my husband’s cousin Xavier, who was also staying in the house at the time. Ten people—five men and five women. Sometimes we ask Bruce or Meghan to join us, but we already had an even table, so we didn’t bother. The dinner was very tedious. I was thrilled to hear that the house was on fire. That came, as I said, at about nine o’clock. There was a certain amount of confusion, as you can imagine. But we all ended up standing around on the crest of the little hill at the back of the house eventually, watching the Elizabethan wing burn to the ground. I suppose someone could quite easily have popped into my husband’s study and poisoned his whiskey in the confusion.”
“Speaking of coming and going,” said Bruce, “you did quite a lot of that yourself during the fire. And you made Meghan do it, too. Running in and out of Clutterbuck Court, when for all you know the fire might have caught and consumed the place any time. It—wasn’t right.”
“My dresses,” Annabelle said, “are worth a little risk to save. They are all quite expensive, and quite irreplaceable. Whereas Meghan could be replaced quite easily, just by applying at any orphanage or women’s prison.” She looked as if a sudden idea had come to her. “Gregory, my sweet! If Meghan won’t marry you, you could simply contact one of those places for a wife. I’m sure they’d find you someone equally suitable.”
Gregory leapt to his feet. For a moment, he stood over Annabelle, looking down at her, his hands in tight fists, his body shaking, too angry to speak. “If you don’t stop this, there will be another murder,” he said at last.
“Very understandable, I’m sure, Sir, and we all know that you’re not admitting anything, or really threatening to murder the lady—merely expressing yourself in a natural way,” said Crowner. “But if we could try to stay focused on the facts, for the moment? I want to know more about this garment rescuing.”
“But Inspector, we’ve been over this before,” said Annabelle, looking at Gregory still, as if unable to tear her eyes away from him. “I don’t see why—”
“Yes yes yes. But I want to go over it again. In public. Just in case anyone has an interesting comment. That’s what this little gathering is about: eliciting interesting comments. Please go on.”
“Very well. It must have been around ten o’clock when the wind shifted and it looked like the main house might catch. I instantly thought of my dresses. I have not been on friendly terms with my husband for years now, and I didn’t think he’d spring for a whole new wardrobe for me if this one got burnt. And the smell of fire is so hard to get out of some fabrics, anyway. I grabbed Meghan, who’d been standing around being useless as usual, and told her that she’d better hop to it and get my dresses. The minx had the impertinence to tell me that she wouldn’t enter a burning building. Quite reasonably, I pointed out that the building wasn’t burning yet, that was the whole point. She said she wouldn’t go alone, and so I was forced to take an active part in the rescue operation. We went in together, grabbed up some of my choicest things, and ran outside with them to a disused barn, where we hung them from the hayloft. In the barn, we found Ingrid and Eli in a very compromising position—”
“Hoy!” cried Ingrid. “We were sitting on a hay bale, holding hands. Nothing to get the censors upset about.”
“Our behavior,” confirmed Eli, with a twinkle, “was perfectly decorous throughout.”
“When a girl is engaged to another man,” said Annabelle, “holding hands in a barn is a very compromising position.”
“I’m not!” cried Ingrid.
“She isn’t!” cried Eli.
“Oh I say!” cried Quinton. “That isn’t still on, is it, m’dear?” And he looked at Ingrid appealingly.
“Of course it isn’t,” Ingrid soothed.
“Engaged to another man,” repeated Annabelle. “Soon to be married. And in the barn with an unsuitable young nobody, like a common trollop.”
“Your notions,” said Crowner, “are…interestingly at odds with the consensus.”
“I think you’ll find that my version is correct,” said Annabelle, staring with concentrated hatred at Ingrid.
Ingrid looked back, puzzled. “I don’t see it,” she said eventually. “I don’t see how you even have a hand in this game.”
“These vulgar card-room metaphors,” said Annabelle, “are evidence of Eli’s bad influence, of course.”
“Actually, Quinton taught me poker,” said Ingrid. “It was something to do, whenever Dad boxed us in a room together with the idea that we’d start making love. But, if you are holding any cards, I can’t make out what they are.”
“You’ll find out when I’m ready, my dear,” Annabelle said. “For now, Inspector Crowner wants to know all about my heroic rescue of my poor, defenseless dresses. Meghan and I took a load into the barn, arriving there at perhaps ten minutes after ten. I chased Ingrid and Eli out of the place and got things tidied away while Meghan went in for a second load. She wasn’t quite back to the barn yet when I was done in there, so I went back to the house for more clothes, passing Meghan somewhere on the way, I think. We continued to go back and forth between the house and the barn for the next two hours or so. I know I’d just hung the last of my dresses up in the barn when I heard the village church bells toll out the hour of midnight. And shortly after that, of course, we all saw my husband fling open his bedroom window—he would insist on retiring to bed as soon as he was sure the house wouldn’t catch, it was just his style of showing off—cry “Gak! Poison!”—and tumble to the terrace below. So unnecessarily dramatic of him, I think. But then, that was him all over. Could never do anything quietly—not even die.”
“You and Meghan weren’t in each other’s presence continually, then?”
“Barely at all. We passed each other sometimes, usually in the house, but I was always coming while she was going.”
“Did anyone see this parade of finery?” Crowner asked, looking around the room.
Fred chuckled. “Damnedest thing I ever saw,” he said. “You’d look up sometimes, and see this moving, diaphanous form, sort of flowing down the hill from the house, like a bally ghost. The dresses, you know, which I suppose were being held above the ladies’ heads, to keep ‘em from trailin’ in the dirt. And that is all one saw: the dresses, movin’ as if by themselves. Spooky.”
“Spooky indeed. And interesting. You couldn’t tell which lady you were seeing at any given time?”
“No, totally indistinct. Could’ve been anyone.”
“Ah,” said Crowner.
Annabelle rolled her eyes. “Yes, I see that I remain a suspect. But I’m in good company, as you know full well. And I have really quite a good alibi for Polly’s death—I was in London that day, taking tea and things with some tedious yet respectable people who will no doubt confirm my presence there.”
“You say you’re in good company. Who would you say is with you, on the suspect list?”
Annabelle looked around the room. Then she raised an eyebrow at Crowner. “Well, now. I’d say—almost everyone. But I think I lean towards those people who had secrets that my husband knew about. He would be very ruthless, with other people’s secrets. And he liked knowing secrets about people. He liked pulling people’s strings, you see, and seeing them jump.
“For example, my husband knew some horrible secret about his secretary, Bruce. In fact, he had a little pet name for Bruce. Anthony, he called him. And it made Brucie shake horribly whenever he said it. It was rather sweet, really. Quite unmanned him. Not that he’s a particularly manly fellow anyway. Cheap-looking, only good enough for little shopgirls. Of course, I do think that Meghan is rather running after him—but that’s probably just to keep Gregory interested. She knows she could never keep him on the merits of her charms alone, so she makes up a sordid little intrigue with a secretary to drive him wild.” Annabelle shrugged. “Good technique, if a bit crude. But what can you expect from her type?
“Anyway, I expect Bruce killed my husband. He certainly hated him, and he’s just the type to use poison. Of course, Bruce isn’t the only one my husband knew things about. There’s—”
Hastily, as if to forestall further revelations, Bruce rose to his feet and hurried into speech.