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 Twelve: Leonard
“Before you begin,” said Crowner, “may I say that I am here to investigate murder, and that I’m not interested in other things—unless I find that I am. I’m not here to arrest you for embezzlement, or for whatever crime it was that Sir Adam was blackmailing you for. Unless that crime relates directly to Sir Adam’s murder, it isn’t my business.”
“It wasn’t a crime! It was merely immoral,” said Leonard. “There was a young woman… and really I should have behaved quite differently… but I was young, too, you see.” And he blinked around the room, appealing for sympathy. “But, though what I did wasn’t criminal, it would certainly ruin me, as a solicitor. The details—so sordid! And my business is confined to this village, for the most part. If the details got out here… people are easily scandalized. Why, I’d cut me, myself, only—you see—I can’t.” And he looked very miserable indeed.
“I see, sir.” Crowner wondered about the young woman in the case, and whether she, too, was now a respectable old party—or if things had gone rather differently for her. His sympathy was therefore tinged with severity. Still, it had been a poor show, to blackmail the old goat, and out of sheer spite, too. Sir Adam certainly hadn’t needed the money. “Tell us about it. The blackmail, I mean. When did it begin?”
“Begin? Oh yes. Begin. I see.” Leonard was still lost in a personal world of misery. He hardly seemed present in the room. “It was five years ago. A letter, unsigned, left at my home. There was an odd design—a heart—on the outside of the envelope. My housekeeper teased me about it. Said I must have an admirer. I learned to fear that heart.”
He took a deep breath. “I think I know why he did it. I’ve been sitting here, trying to understand. I think it was a conversation we had about—well, he wanted to alter his will, to benefit a lady who wasn’t in any sense his wife. She was someone else’s wife, in fact. They have since left the district, and he took the clause out of his will long ago. But I remonstrated with him at the time. He stormed out of my office. But next time we spoke, he was perfectly cordial, and seemed to have forgotten the incident. I thought he’d forgiven me. But it was just that he’d found a secret way to punish me for my frankness.” And he stared in bewilderment at the company in general.
“Recently, he asked me to draw up a new will for him, one that cut his daughter Ingrid right out of it. I tried to convince him not to do it, but I couldn’t move him. Well, I’ve known Ingrid since she was a little girl. I warned her what her father was planning. I knew he regularly threatened to disinherit her, and I was afraid that she wouldn’t realize it was serious, this time. She was very calm, and said that she was prepared. There was a hard glint in her eye, that I remembered later.
“But I’m getting ahead of myself. A few days before his death, Sir Adam told me that he knew I’d been indiscreet with Ingrid about his will, and demanded an audit of all the accounts I managed for him. He said if he couldn’t trust me not to blab, he couldn’t trust me not to cheat him. And all the time… he must have already known what he’d find, during the audit. He’d known, perhaps, all along. Had he? Had he just waited for the right moment, to punish me for my… financial peccadillo?” And he turned to look at Josephine, a dreadful curiosity on his lined, worn old face.
“Well, I don’t know,” said Josephine. “I thought he’d just found out, because he seemed so excited about it. But actually, I suppose he didn’t say he’d just found out. I think I put that part in, by accident.” And she smiled apologetically.
“He knew all along,” said Leonard.
“We don’t know that, sir,” said Crowner.
“I’m sure of it. Oh, that beast! That cat, playing with me like a mouse, waiting to destroy me until he felt so inclined.” The old man took a long, rattling breath. “I didn’t kill him. Now I rather wish… but that is futile, isn’t it?
“I didn’t go to the fire,” Leonard continued. “I saw the smoke, but I couldn’t face seeing Sir Adam. I went to bed. My housekeeper may be able to testify that I didn’t leave the house that night. And, as you know, the Vicar and I discovered Miss Polly’s body together. Committee business. We were to meet at her house. I’m not sure that absolutely clears me, but it may go some way to doing so. I fell down in a faint upon seeing the lady. Not exactly the action of a hardened killer.”
“I see, sir. Is that all?” Crowner knew it wasn’t all.
“No,” said Leonard. “I have a further confession. You see, I thought—poor little Ingrid had looked so grim, so resolute, when I’d told her about the new will. And it hadn’t been signed by the time of Sir Adam’s death—our little tiff, you know, delayed things. I suppose his next step would have been to get another solicitor—only he didn’t have time.
“May I say that it is a habit of mine, when I find any litter, to pick it up or, if I have the tools handy, bury it on the spot. So, when I found a vial,” And Leonard peered with extreme caution at Crowner, “inadequately buried in the woods, I naturally re-buried it. After wiping it, of course. It was rather dirty. I didn’t mention it, at the time.”
“Because you thought Ingrid had done it?” asked Crowner.
“Let us say, because I didn’t think it was relevant. But I’m mentioning it now, as I have come to believe that it may be relevant after all. And I know now who did the murder, and it wasn’t Ingrid. Ingrid would have had, perhaps, some excuse. But I’ve been through some of Sir Adam’s private papers since his death, and things have become terribly clear. It was Meghan. That sly, secret creature, Meghan. She’s killed before, you see. Killed an innocent child given over to her protection. What more likely than that she should kill again, and kill a man who, knowing her horrible secret, still consented, from kindness and family feeling, to give her a place in his household, a roof over her head? The serpent who has turned once against her family will do so again.”
“Kindness? Kindness!” Meghan exploded.