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 Six: Fred
“See your point,” said Fred, nodding slowly. “It must have seemed odd, us showing up at Sir Adam’s table. But when we received the invitation, we rather thought that it might be an olive branch, and that it might even possibly mean that he was interested in resuming negotiations. That land sale, you know. But it turns out—we got onto this later on—that Lady Annabelle had made the guest list, and just hadn’t twigged that there was any real coolness between Sir Adam and myself.”
“Oh, she hadn’t twigged, had she? Pah!” cried Annabelle. “I’d twigged all right. But it was going to be such a dull party otherwise. I thought a quarrel would liven things up.” She shrugged, looking sulky. “It didn’t. You just sat there, looking stuffed.”
Freddie looked at Annabelle with real dislike. “Yes, dull. That brings to mind my other reason for accepting. Things are awfully dull down here for my poor wife, who is used to London and parties and all that. Thought it was only right to accept any invitations that came our way. She hasn’t had much fun since we came here.
“That’s one reason I want to sell up, you know, so she can return to the social swing of London. So that we can return to all that, really. I wasn’t exactly raised on the land myself. When my father was alive, I spent as much time as possible away from the farm, first at school, then in the War, then in London. It was only when my father and older brother died in a boating accident that I was landed in it. Thought I owed it to their memory to try and make a go of the place. Stupid of me. I had no business tryin’ to farm. Drove the place into the ground. With my game leg—old war wound, you know, and it seems to get worse every year—I couldn’t do much farmin’ myself, even if I’d known how. And I’m a poor manager. Not a country boy at all. Why, I can’t even ride worth a damn.”
Gregory stirred. “Come, now. You’re a fine horseman. I’ve seen you take fences that I wouldn’t dare to try, and I’m no slouch, myself.”
Freddie smiled ruefully. “If I’m so very good, why did I lose Nightmare like that? You saw what happened. The horse not only threw me, she bolted so successfully that she only wandered home yesterday. And—again because of my game leg—I can’t really get about without her. I’ve been stranded at home this past week, more or less. Our rotten old pile is up on a hill, you see, and so if I go anywhere on foot, I have to climb to get back home. And that really is rather beyond me just now. Took a trip to the village to get some baccy t’other day, had to sit and rest five times comin’ up the drive. Took me three hours, just to get from the main road to my dear old moldy front door.” He looked somberly into the fire for a moment.
“Yes,” he continued, his woes seeming to pile up in front of him as he spoke, “Should have sold the bally place at once, when it was worth at least a bit. But no, I waited, and now the orchard is infested—did you know, I’ve actually had to quarantine the damned thing? Can’t even go into my own orchard.
“You see why I was so frightfully bucked when we got the offer for the place from that school. The money they dangled in front of me would have been enough for a little establishment in London, where I could get off my legs and where Jo could see the bright lights a bit. Would’ve been the making of us. And all I needed from Sir Adam, to close the deal, was for him to sell me a little chunk of field that he didn’t want or need. He was perfectly willin’ to do it, until he found out it would let us sell up to a school and move away. Said he didn’t want a school as a neighbor, and that on the whole he’d rather keep us. And that was that. Ingrid and Eli have the old man exactly; he liked power, and he liked keepin’ people on hooks. Playin’ ‘em like fish.” He shook his head. “I didn’t kill the man, but I can’t say I’m sorry he’s dead.”
Gregory came up to Fred and clasped him on the shoulder. “If that deal is still open, old man, I’ll sell you that field. If, that is, I inherit the place, as I think I will.”
Fred went rigid all over. His face showed clearly as if it had been written there that he hardly dared to believe what he’d just heard. “You’re sure about that, old boy? Because if you’re not, I’d rather not hear about it. It…means too much.” And he almost looked like he might burst into tears.
“Quite sure,” said Gregory, settling back into his chair.
Fred let out a long breath and turned to Josephine. “Hear that, old girl? We can go back to London!”
“London,” breathed Josephine, ecstatically.
“Another happy ending,” said Crowner, smiling, “provided neither of you gets hanged. But let’s just review your alibi, shall we?”
Fred looked thoughtful for a moment, but then his whole face seemed to brighten. “Why, I really believe, now that I think about it, that I’m in the clear for both crimes. Didn’t think so, because I hadn’t realized how narrow the window was for the whiskey-poisoning. If it happened between ten-thirty and eleven, more or less, I really think I’m clear. I was sittin’ on a garden bench—on the crest of the hill, looking down into the ornamental lake—in view of several people, for the whole of that time. I’d tried to help with the firefighting at first, you see, and that had been a mistake. Leg acting up. Had to take a breather.”
“As for Miss Polly’s death…” and he looked somewhat embarrassed. “Well, I believe Eli and Ingrid heard me and the misses having a bit of a row when that was happening. A bit awkward, what? Don’t like knowin’ there were people listenin’ while we were slanging each other. But it clears me and the old girl, all right. Still, shockingly bad form, havin’ a tiff where others could hear it. Sorry.” And he looked remorsefully at Eli and Ingrid.
“And when did you fall off Nightmare?” asked Crowner.
“Didn’t I say?” Fred looked startled. “I fell off Nightmare… let me see… the day before Miss Polly’s murder. Gregory and I and a couple of the chaps from neighboring estates were having a bit of a gallop together. Not a fox hunt, because we don’t have any foxes about just lately, but a sort of meet, to keep the old skills ticking over and all that. It’d been arranged for months in advance, which I expect is why Gregory didn’t cancel it, even in view of his brother’s death. Some of the chaps who turn out for these things rather count on them. Breaks up the monotony. Fell off in front of everyone, just about. And off Nightmare goes before anyone can stop her. Don’t know where she’s been since, I’m sure. She came back last night, lookin’ thoroughly ashamed of herself.”
“And your leg, never very reliable, has been worse after your fall? Such that, what with that and the absence of your horse, you’ve been stuck inside?”
“Except for my little strolls, and my one attempt to walk into town, that’s right.”
Crowner breathed a long sigh of relief. “Then it really seems,” he said, “as if we can eliminate at least one person from our list of suspects. It is so dauntingly enormous that every little bit helps.”
Fred smiled vacantly at the Inspector. “Happy to help, I’m sure,” he said. Then another thought seemed to strike him. “But speakin’ of that dinner, I thought Sir Adam was a bit odd in his manner. Gregory, old boy, didn’t you think he was a bit off? Off-er than usual, I mean.”
And everyone turned to look at Gregory.