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 Seventeen: Quinton
Quinton nodded. “I showed my father and Philip. They both thought I should keep mum.”
“You should have,” said Philip. “One of the people who got that letter is the killer. I don’t believe this stuff about Miss Polly being Sir Adam’s murderer, and I doubt the Inspector does either. You should have kept your mouth shut.”
Quinton smiled at Philip and shrugged. “Too late, Phil.”
“We know that at least two innocent people got the letter, too,” said Crowner. “So I wouldn’t worry too much. But now that we’re on the subject, Quinton—tell us what you were doing during the fire, the night Sir Adam was killed. We know from Gregory’s testimony that you were searching the area across the stream from the village, looking for Fred’s horse Nightmare, when Miss Polly was killed, and that doesn’t exactly eliminate you—there is a place where you could have slipped back across the stream near the church, and Gregory says that the search party was spread out quite a bit. Can you prove that you didn’t poison Sir Adam?”
Quinton looked thoughtful. “Not absolutely, I think. I was firefighting. And that was such a mess—all the coming and going and the smoke and the chaos—that I really don’t see how I can prove I didn’t slip away for a moment and poison Sir Adam’s whiskey. I didn’t do it, though.”
Annabelle stirred. “Firefighting,” she sneered. “Should’ve been attending to your fiancée, keeping her out of barns with other young men.”
Quinton whipped round to stare at Annabelle. “She isn’t my fiancée,” he said. “We’ve been over all that. Ingrid’s a good sort, but she doesn’t want any part of me, and I don’t want any part of her. You must know the marriage wouldn’t be suitable,” he said, passion and anger breaking through his carefully controlled tone. “Why do you keep harping on it?”
“She doesn’t want any part of you,” said Annabelle. “But she likes you a great deal. Don’t you like Quinton, Ingrid, my pet?”
“Oh, rather. He’s tops,” said Ingrid.
Annabelle smiled a spiteful smile. “She’d hate to see anything horrid happen to you, I expect,” she said.
“What are you talking about?” asked Ingrid.
“Later, my sweet. Later. You’ll see. Little Annabelle may not be so harmless as you think.”
Quinton shot to his feet, his face red and his hands working. “Do you have those damned photographs?” Quinton blurted, furious.
“Quint—come on. Now is not the time. Awfully public.” Philip squeezed Quinton’s arm in a quick, reassuring, accustomed sort of way. Quinton slumped back into his chair and looked at Philip sheepishly.
“I know. I know. I’m an idiot. But—” his anger blazed again. “No. I want to know. She’s been hinting and hinting all evening. She might be planning—anything. She might not wait for a private moment to do it in, either.”
“I also,” said Crowner, mildly, “want to know if you have those photographs, whatever they are. And how you got them.”
Annabelle smiled. “What photographs?”
“Mug, go search her room,” said Crowner. Mug left on his mission.
Quinton looked warily at Crowner, opened his mouth, and closed it again.
Annabelle laughed. “Temper, temper,” she taunted. “Now you’ve made an issue of it, and everything’s bound to come out. You really should have listened to Philip, you know.”
“Why?” Ingrid exploded. “Why would you want me to marry Quinton? What does it have to do with you?”
Annabelle smiled cynically, her eyes suddenly blazing. “Oh, I act from hate alone, my pet. You and Eli are so young, and so good-looking, and the world is so very much at your feet. I’d like to see you and Quinton marry, and watch you and Eli come to some sordid little arrangement. I’m sure you will, too. Being so very much in love.” The sneer was audible.
Ingrid, Eli, Quinton, and Philip all stared at one another, utterly at a loss, their youthful joie de vivre snuffed out like a candle.
Annabelle continued, spitting out each word. “You thought I was such dirt, marrying a man because he was rich. You’ve never had to make a hard choice, never come up against it, in your easy little life. Well, now you’ll see. I’ve hated you, little Ingrid, ever since you were an adorable golden-haired moppet, looking in horror at me as I walked down the aisle. That expression on your face that day. I’ve always remembered it. And I’ve always sworn I’d pay you back, in kind.”
Quinton looked at Lady Annabelle with disgust. “I don’t believe it,” he said flatly. “I think she’s just saying she’d quite like to force us into marrying to increase the pressure, so that when she does start blackmailing us, we’ll be more willing to pay and pay high. She’s desperate, you see. Sir Adam probably didn’t leave her much in his will. And this is a colossal bluff. ‘Oh, yes, I’d actually rather use this to hurt you… no, I don’t want money, I want to see you suffer… oh, if you’re offering that much, perhaps I will just consider it.’” His voice was a savage parody of Lady Annabelle’s. “That’s her strategy. But now I’ve put Crowner onto it, and God knows what will happen.” And he buried his face in his hands. Philip looked helplessly down at the arch of his back.
Mug bustled back into the room. “Here are the pictures I found in a hatbox on the shelf of the lady’s closet.” He handed Crowner a little pile of photographs. Lady Annabelle looked triumphant.
“And here are the ones I found under a false bottom in the lady’s top drawer,” Mug continued. Lady Annabelle’s triumph dissipated slightly.
“And here,” said Mug, unfurling a third packet, “is the set I found concealed in the lining of a really very fine silk dress that I unfortunately had to rip a bit, in order to extract them.” Now the lady looked both deflated and full of rage.
“You had no right! That dress was very expensive! I’ll—”
“I wouldn’t press the issue of the dress, I really wouldn’t,” said Crowner. “Or I’ll instruct Mug to go search your room again, even more thoroughly. I’m thinking you’d like to keep at least some of your dresses intact?”
“What Quinton and Philip are doing in those pictures is illegal, and now you’ve seen them,” said Annabelle, looking defiant. “You’ll have to act, now.”
Crowner tucked the packet of photographs into his jacket. “Unless these pictures turn out to be relevant to my case, my official opinion is that they are too blurry and indistinct to form the basis of any action in law.” He smiled, falsely apologetic. “Blackmailing photographs tend to be too blurry for use in a courtroom, I often find.”
The Vicar, looking confused, suddenly exclaimed. “But—what crime are these two young men accused of committing? I don’t…” He seemed to speak out of sheer exasperated mystification.
“Shoplifting,” said Crowner, gravely.
The Vicar stared at him. “I don’t entirely believe you. Still…” he caught Stella’s eye. “Ah. Yes. I’m sure you have your reasons for discretion. Of course. Terribly sorry. Carry on.”
“Thank you, sir. Lady Annabelle, tell me where and when you got these photographs,” said Crowner, looking, he hoped, like a man who would accept no evasions.
Annabelle suddenly slumped. “I took them out of Sir Adam’s safe,” she said in a flat voice, “as soon as I saw that he was dead. Everyone was still gathered round him. I said I felt faint and went inside. I went directly to his office and opened the safe. The photographs were lying on top of the other things, and I grabbed them at once and put them down my dress. I was about to have a look at the rest of the papers, to see what else I wanted, when I heard someone at the door. It was Bailes, the butler. Dr. Daniel had sent him to check on me—and to lock up the office in case the police wanted to look at Sir Adam’s papers. I barely had time to lock the safe and sprawl down on the divan when he came in. He then—politely but firmly—escorted me out.”
“How on Earth did you get into Sir Adam’s safe?” asked Crowner, genuinely startled for once.
Annabelle shrugged. “I guessed the combination. It came to me as I was standing there, in the crowd, peering down at Sir Adam’s dead body. 5656. Fifth June is his birthday, and he was fifty-six years old when he had the safe installed. He was making a huge to-do about the 5/6-56 coincidence, just then, so it seemed likely he’d use it. And his memory was very bad. It would have to be something simple, or he’d never remember it.”
“Let’s get this absolutely clear,” said Quinton. “As long as you’re satisfied that I didn’t commit either of the murders you’re investigating… the photographs…”
“I’ll give them to you,” said Crowner. “And you can put them on the fire, if you like. In fact, I’d advise doing just that.” He looked round the room. “That goes for all the blackmailing materials we found in Sir Adam’s safe as well. As soon as I’m sure they aren’t the motive for a murder, back they go to the persons concerned. So,” and he grinned at Leonard, “more than one person in this room can relax.”
Quinton looked at Philip and raised an eyebrow. “Then, as I didn’t happen to kill anyone, everything will be just fine.” He grinned.
Philip let out a long breath. “You were still ridiculously reckless, you know.”
Quinton just smiled. And Crowner wondered. Quinton’s game was poker. That meant that he liked to gamble. Had he made a gamble on Crowner, just now? Had he charged publicly into the perilous topic of the photographs because he’d lost his temper—or had it been a calculated risk? Crowner had just said, minutes before, how much he hated blackmailers. Had Quinton decided that the best way to get the pictures out of Annabelle’s hands was to get Crowner interested in them? Crowner’s blood ran cold, thinking of what some of his colleagues would have done with those pictures. Young Aristocrats Arrested For Acts of Gross Indecency—some of the Yard boys he knew would smack their lips over that chance.
“Of course,” said Crowner, “if these photographs were in Sir Adam’s possession—and if he was trying to use them to force you into marriage with his daughter—you did have a motive for the murder.”
Quinton shook his head. “Not unless I had a way into his safe also. What would be the point of killing Sir Adam and not retrieving the photographs? And speaking of that safe,” said Quinton. “Funny thing about it. The night of Sir Adam’s death, I wandered off during the cocktail hour. I was bored, and anyway… well, yes. I wanted to get into that safe. I made a habit of popping in, every opportunity I could, to see if he’d left it open by accident. Not that that was likely, but there was just a chance. That night, there had obviously been someone there before me, and on the same mission. The safe was usually tucked behind a false panel. Now, the panel was open, though the safe was still locked up tight—I checked. And on the floor was a piece of paper with lots of scribbled four-number combinations on it. It looked to me as if someone had been in there, trying to open the safe, that evening. And the window was wide open. I wondered—”
Ravi stirred. “That was my work, I’m afraid,” he said mildly.