W is for Witch. Mrs. Goodkind is a witch. She lives in a cottage in Yeoman’s Woods.
Old Mrs. Goodkind looked towards her cottage door. She knew that quite soon she would have a visitor, though the identity of that visitor was unknown to her. She was, she allowed, mildly curious.
The knock came at the door.
“Come in,” she croaked. “Ah. Mr. Randall Grudge, the Crabtree bastard! Do you think, child, that the Yeoman will walk upon the day that you die?”
Randall grinned unpleasantly. “I have never considered that aspect of my bastardy,” he said.
“Nay, only all the others.”
“Perhaps so.” Randall sounded surprised.
“It is so. But you have news for me, I think,” said the old witch.
“Richard Crabtree is not dead.”
“He rents a room at the inn which by rights he owns.”
Randall raised his eyebrows. “Yes. But my point is, he’s not at the Inn at the moment. He is, at the moment, up at the Hall. He has been stabbed, and then someone poisoned him.”
“Poisoned him, child?”
“That is what Sergeant Mug said to Inspector Crowner at the Vicarage this morning. Doctor Brandwood says that he is going to die.”
“Does he, now?”
Randall turned to go.
“When is your wedding to be?” The witch asked his back. He turned.
“How on earth did you know that?” He demanded.
Mrs. Goodkind just grinned. It was not a pleasant grin. Randall found that he had broken into a light sweat.
“June,” he said. “We’re thinking of June.” And he was gone. The old woman sat for a few moments in thought.
“The Countess has not obeyed my summons,” she said aloud, to the air, or to someone or something not visible to mundane eyes. “And here be a Crabtree, dying up at Hall. Did she, I wonder-” and she fell to muttering.
Presently, she rose from her chair by the fireplace and went to the cupboard under the stairs. She selected various items from this repository and placed them all in a small sack, which she tucked away somewhere in her skirt. Then she left her cottage and made her way through the woods to Cadblister Hall.
Inspector Crowner was, for the moment, personally guarding Richard Crabtree. Doctor Brandwood had been called away to a confinement that had turned tricky down in the village. Mug was back at the station, tying up some loose ends. Constable Wilkins was still sleeping off the drug that had been slipped into his coffee.
Crowner had welcomed this solitary vigil. He had much to think about. Outside, the last light of the afternoon was fading on the frozen landscape. Inside, the house was very quiet. Beyond Crowner’s own occasional shuffling movements and the rattling breaths of the dying man, no noise came to his ears.
The problem was now one of proof. He knew who the murderer was, because only one theory fit all of the facts. But juries liked proof. And what proof did Crowner have? None to speak of. Or, rather, he had plenty of circumstantial evidence, but he had no Fatal Fingerprint with which to cinch the thing. In fact, Crowner had nothing that couldn’t be torn to bits by a good defending Council.
This third murder – for he was already thinking of Crabtree as a murdered man- was a bit of a puzzle. In fact, he suspected that the poisoning had been done by- well, by someone other than X. And Crowner thought he could put a name to that someone. Again, though, evidence was a bit thin on the ground. If the poison was arsenic or something, he might get onto the purchaser by checking poison-books at local apothecaries…
Somewhere in the house, a woman screamed.
The Countess was in her boudoir, quietly giving way to Nerves. She paced the floor, her hands always in motion, worrying at her widow’s veil or pettishly pulling apart any small and frangible thing that came within her reach. When would that wretched man downstairs die? Why hadn’t he died yet? Had he, in fact, died? Would she be notified when this event occurred? If he died without speaking, all would be well. If not… if not… but she would not think of that. She must wait, and while she waited, she must maintain a rigid control, must keep her brain clear and sharp, for the questions that would come. She must wait. And though it was agony to wait, she knew that when the waiting was over, she would have to face a new terror.
She was in the center of the room when she idly looked at the full-length mirror in the corner.
And saw Mrs. Goodkind, staring at her out of the mirror like a bad conscience.
Crowner threw open the boudoir door, braced against whatever ghastly sight might meet his eyes. But all he found was the Countess, standing in the exact center of the room and screaming her head off. Crowner took the police-whistle out of his pocket and blew it. That, at least, got her attention. She turned wide and frightened eyes towards him.
“Why,” he asked, keeping himself rigidly under control, “were you screaming?”
“In my mirror- a face- in my mirror.”
“Was it your face?” Crowner believed in beginning with the basic questions.
“No- no- oh God I hope not!” And the Countess threw herself down onto a chaise lounge and began to sob. Crowner watched this impassively for a moment. Then he moved to the center of the room and looked at the mirror. From this angle, the mirror showed the room’s central window. He went to the window, opened it, put his head out into the cold December air, and looked down. A wide ledge ran along the outer wall just a foot or so below the window. Perhaps someone had stood here, peering in at the Countess. Perhaps. He left the Countess without another word. Halfway down the hall, he started to run.
As he burst into the drawing room, he prepared himself for all of the horrors of violent death. But Richard Crabtree’s breathing was regular; his colour, which had been graying steadily, had now a faint flush of pink. He checked Crabtree’s pulse, and found a healthier rhythm there than when he’d last checked. None of which made any sense. Crowner frowned.
From behind Crowner came a wet sucking noise. He knew that noise. Only one thing made it- a horrible old woman smoking a pipe. Crowner turned.
“You’d be Inspector Crowner, I’m thinking,” said the horrible old woman with the pipe. “I’m Mrs. Goodkind.”
“You’re the witch,” said Crowner. “I’ve heard about you.”
“Oh, have you now? And who has been speaking of me?” Something dangerous flashed in her eyes.
“You. You and the Countess got me out of this room. Together. You are her accomplice, in fact. What have you done to Richard Crabtree?”
“Aye, I got you out of this room. And the Countess helped in that, though I do not think she was meaning to. As to what I’ve done to Richard Crabtree, that you can see for yourself, if you’ve got sight as well as eyes. He is sleeping where before he was dying.”
“You want me to believe that you have saved him? Why would you do that?”
Mrs. Goodkind smiled. Crowner shivered.
“How,” he asked, “did you get back to this room before me? How is it I didn’t see you?”
“How does anyone get from one place to another?” As she said this, she leered with horrible suggestiveness. “That is a question as the police ought to interest themselves in, I’m thinking.” And she watched him, waiting for him to grasp the inwardness of this remark. Crowner looked steadily at the witch; the witch looked steadily back at Crowner.
“I see,” said Crowner, finally. “I think I see.” He nodded. “I,” he said, with an entirely assumed calm, “must ask someone a question. Could you watch over this man until I return?”
“Aye, I’ll bide here,” said the old woman.
Harry the chauffeur was in the garage, tinkering with the engine of a gigantic Daimler.
“Is that the Viscount’s car?” Asked Crowner, casually.
“It is not,” said Harry, snorting. “This one’s his late Lordship’s car, and just as good as the day she was made. That old pile of junk” and he jerked a thumb towards a small vehicle in the corner “is the Viscount’s car. He don’t take proper care of her; he never has, and he never will. A crying shame, I call it.”
“But I suppose either vehicle would get me to London in one piece,” said Crowner, as if idly continuing an argument simply for the pleasure of arguing.
“Well, you’re wrong there, then!” Harry’s face expressed deep scorn. “That wreck,” and again he jerked a thumb towards the Viscount’s despised vehicle, “doesn’t handle on snow. You’d be off the road and in trouble the first real bit of snow you struck.”
“Oh, would I? How very interesting. Thank you, Harry.” And Crowner walked back to the house.