X is for X, The Identity Of. X is the murderer, and his (or her) identity will be revealed in this post! If, dear reader, you are joining us for the first time- may I advise you not to read this post yet? It is, I fear, taking a Liberty; however, if you will allow me- here is a fine Introduction– always an excellent place to start, I think. Or, if you are feeling Adventurous, we have a Table of Contents as well. If you are not sure whether or not you are interested in reading Alas!: A Complete Mystery Novelette in 26 Alphabetical Installments, perhaps a few Illustrations will whet your appetite. If so, may I direct you to the Additional Character Pictures page? A word of explanation about this last offering: every day this April (except on Sundays- otherwise the numbers don’t work out!), I have dressed up as the character featured in the post I have written for that day. I have taken many pictures of myself in each costume, and in the Additional Character Pictures page, I have posted several of these. This gallery is, as yet, not complete, but more pictures will be added. And if you like your mysteries to come with a map, with an X marking the spot where the body was found, here is a fine example, hand-drawn by yours truly.
Ahem. Thank you for your patience. Without further ado…
Well, Inspector Crowner thought, here they all are, all of the suspects in this irritating case, plus some supernumeraries (witnesses, Interested Parties, and a couple of people who seemed to have simply wandered in) and a few assorted officers of the law. They were all crammed into the drawing room of Cadblister Hall, and they were all waiting for him to begin.
There, on a makeshift bed, sitting up now, was Richard Crabtree, aka Herman T. Ermyntrude. He was weak, from blood loss and from the poisoning, but he was Not Dead, which was something. On a second cot lay Aunt Theodolinda, now out of her coma and taking a lively interest in the proceedings. Between these two invalids, Doctor Brandwood sat on a chair he had personally raided from Cadblister Hall’s beautiful dining room, his medical kit open on a table before him, Ready for Anything. Mrs. Goodkind the witch, whom no one had quite dared to eject, sat complacently in an armchair by the fire, sucking at her horrible pipe and blowing, now and then, a smoke-ring.
Crowner’s eye travelled to the back of the room. He’d positioned Constable Wilkins in front of the entrance to the secret passage, and if anyone got past him, Crowner would personally flay Wilkins and then take his badge. Constable Wilkins had been apprised of this, and he watched the proceedings with a look both alert and alarmed, ready to thwart all Funny Business.
Also at the back of the room were several representatives of the Servants’ Hall. Kate, the intelligent kitchen maid, was present, to reward her for helping the police. Alfie the Boots, on the other hand, was present because he’d been such a nuisance that even now suspicion that he’d murdered Lord Cadblister hovered nebulously in the minds of certain dim-witted persons – for example, the Chief Constable. Finally, Sneakfork was present, presumably as a sort of ambassador from Below Stairs. About him hovered, at any rate, a sort of aura of officialdom, and Crowner was not inclined to attempt to dissipate this. All three servants stood, having refused the seats that Crowner had arranged for them. Some sort of etiquette, Crowner surmised, made it unthinkable for the servants to sit in the presence of their employers. Well, he could stand their standing if they could.
At the drawing room door, Sergeant Mug stood guard. He looked resolute and disinterested, but this was merely Wearing the Mask. Crowner was certain that Mug was inwardly doing cart-wheels and clapping his little hands together in girlish glee, at the Drama that was about to unfold before his eyes. Well, Mug was a good sort, and, if he could take pleasure in this sort of thing, Crowner wasn’t the man to object. In fact, Crowner occasionally had the uncomfortable feeling that he sometimes played up a bit to his Sergeant’s tastes. He was such a good audience, and really, he didn’t ask for much, when you looked at the thing squarely.
Colonel Crabbit, the Chief Constable, had positioned himself, Crowner suspected, with some care. The Colonel sat with Mrs. Merriweather, Miss Bantree, and Miss Bantree’s niece, the little journalist creature. In other words, Crabbit had planted himself firmly amongst the Gentry, and thus had avoided alliance either with the noble Crabtrees, around which much suspicion had lately gathered, or with the police, who might shortly be arresting the Colonel’s lady-love, the Countess. Yes, it seemed a deliberate move, and a bit unchivalrous. Could the Colonel, perhaps, have gotten a glimpse of the Countess’s true character? If so, he was a brave man not to run screaming out of the country, Crowner considered.
On a sofa sat the Vicar, his daughter Verity, and Randall Grudge. Verity looked profoundly unhappy, and no wonder, thought Crowner, if the rumours about her almost-engagement with the Viscount were true. She certainly wasn’t almost-engaged to him now. Randall, perhaps aware of this discomfort, or perhaps simply because he was aware of his status as an outsider in what had been the home of his father, looked defiant. The Vicar looked benevolent and mildly interested in the proceedings.
And finally Crowner looked towards the western wall of the room, where the three Crabtrees sat in an almost regal isolation, in three chairs that were built into the paneling of the room. There was a fourth, empty chair, next to the Countess. Few of the people in the room met the eyes of these three stately, miserable figures. The Countess had drawn herself up straight, and her eyes of ice glittered haughty disdain behind her widow’s veil. Odd, that, Crowner reflected. Most women, he believed, would, when inside, put the veil up. But perhaps this particular widow had much she wished to keep secret. The Viscount frankly squirmed in his throne-like chair, like a small boy sitting through a long sermon. And Lady Belinda slumped in her chair, and stared in front of her with misery writ plain upon her face, for all to see.
Outside, the night was very dark. Clouds had been gathering all through the afternoon, and now, not a single star shone in the heavens. Soon, it would snow, and snow hard- if it had not started to snow already.
And now Crowner, satisfied with the suspense he’d generated by his long scrutiny of the room and all of its occupants, stepped forward, to stand in front of the fire.
“X,” he intoned, dramatically. “You are here to discover the identity of X, where X is the murderer of Lord Cadblister and of Miss Madeline Grudge. I shall reveal to you who X is presently. But first- what was X’s motive?”
No one said a word. Good.
“Money!” Boomed Crowner. “X killed Lord Cadblister for money. Does that surprise you?” It did surprise some of the people in the room, and more pretended to be surprised, for obvious reasons. Only Randall Grudge made no pretense of surprise; he stared at Crowner, his eyes glittering as they reflected the flames of the great fire in the fireplace. “What money, you ask? Yes. Good question. For what money had Lord Cadblister? It seems as though he had none, save the little that was entailed, over which he had no control. Why else would he have mortgaged the village, his only personal asset, and then defaulted on the loan? Because,” said Crowner, “he hated all of you. Or he hated everyone here but you.” He pointed to Randall. “He preferred you to his legitimate son. It galled him that all that was his would be conferred upon the Viscount at his death. But to you, Randall, he wished to give his kingdom. So he mortgaged the village to build a little kingdom for you in Argentina. And that kingdom remains, shining, magical, and rich, in this far-away land. It is a beautiful dream, is it not?”
“And now, a little matter of times. When was Lord Cadblister killed? It seems as if that must have happened at 12:30, since before 12:30 there was no body in the lane, and at 12:30 there certainly was a body. Alfie tells us that it appeared, that the air shimmered and there it was in front of him. He attributes this to the supernatural power of Christmas Eve, and many policemen would therefore dismiss much that is, in fact, vital in Alfie’s statement.”
“At 12:30, Miss Meadows and the Viscount were together, and throwing snowballs at the head of the lane. They would seem to be out of it therefore.” Crowner paused. “Which is in itself extremely suspicious.”
“And why, after smothering Mad Grudge, did X burn down Rose Cottage? Why, indeed? I suggest that there were two reasons for this. The first reason is that X hated the other occupant of Rose Cottage very much- but then, most people seem, somehow, to dislike you, Mr. Grudge, so perhaps that is not a good eliminating factor. But X hated Randall sufficiently to risk his perishing in the flames, and perhaps even hated him sufficiently to hope that this would happen. The second reason, I posit, is the fear of leaving fingerprints that amateur criminals- and murderers are usually amateur criminals, that is, they are not habitual or knowledgeable criminals- seem of late to be afflicted with. To burn down a crime scene is to obscure any fingerprints one might have left behind one. Clever, in a way. Our X is clever, in a way. He- or she- is both very clever and very stupid. An interesting combination, but not unusual in murderers.” Crowner looked around at his audience. “Is X starting to sound at all familiar? Like anyone you know? Like someone in this room? No? Well, I shall continue.”
“And let us return to the question of times. If Lord Cadblister died at 12:30, what was he doing between 11 O’clock, when he left Rose Cottage, and 12:30, when he was killed? Sergeant Mug asked me that, and I found it quite illuminating. Was Lord Cadblister, an old man, standing in the snow and courting pneumonia? Had he found shelter somewhere? Did he return to the house and go out again? What on earth was he up to in that hour and a half? Well, I will tell you. For most of that hour and a half- he was already dead.”
Someone in the room let out a little cry, quickly smothered. Crowner smiled grimly.
“And now, the weather,” he continued, his voice now full of fierce jolliness that many criminals had learned to fear in him. “At 11 O’clock, it had started to snow. By 12, it was snowing quite hard. That is a point to keep in mind. For, you see, I have it on good authority that the Viscount’s car doesn’t handle in the snow. And yet he asks us to believe that on Christmas Eve, he drove for an hour in the snow without disaster. Well, it is possible. The Viscount is a man of many unusual talents. Isn’t he, Lady Belinda?”
“What?” It came as a plaintive, desperate cry.
“I understand,” said Crowner, “that you and your brother go sledding together sometimes. I understand,” he said with gravity, “that he has an almost supernatural ability to push a sled in such a way that it goes exactly where he wants it to. He, by some strange effort of calculation, exactly estimates slope, force, etc., and can ensure that his little sister makes it to the bottom of a hill that is chock-full of obstacles in safety. Is that correct?”
“I – I don’t understand,” said Lady Belinda. “What-”
But the Viscount understood, even if his sister did not. There was the sound of screaming hinges, and suddenly his throne-like chair had disappeared into the wall behind him.