Murder At St Marmaduke’s #23

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Chapter 23

Thursday 7th November 1985: 09.15 – 10.00

Ernie Bulstrode was definitely, definitely, definitely not missing young Dawson.

He glared into the wreckage that was the caramel wafer cupboard. Not only had date order gone out of the window in the two-and-a-bit days since the Diamond Crescent debacle, but even the various manufacturers had become mixed in together, so that with all the different colours of wrapper, the cupboard now looked like an explosion in a Lego factory.

Dawson, Hampshire and Chowdhary, all on the list of suspects, were suspended – all on full pay, Ernie had insisted on that in Dawson’s case; he didn’t see why the lad should suffer because of his keenness. Due to the so-called complexity of the case, Charlie Meredith had made clear he couldn’t spare another constable. So once again, to his horror, Ernie found himself facing the great unwashed and their petty problems.

Already in the quarter of an hour since he’d come on shift, he’d had to deal with two enquiries from visiting motorists. Both had wanted to know how to bypass the Camtown Bypass, given that rather than fulfilling the role expected by its title, it actually led straight into the middle of town. Added to that, it happened to be a one-way road, so once it had led in, it didn’t lead out again, and neither did any other road they could find.

To one, he’d advised, ‘Go round to the station, kiss your car goodbye and take a train out.’ To the other, he’d said, ‘If I were you, sir, I’d bypass somewhere else rather than here.’ For some reason, both motorists had left in a bit of a huff.

Some woman with a tin had also wandered in, collecting for Romanian orphanages. He’d politely informed her that he didn’t have any orphans to spare at the moment, thank you, and even if he did he doubted they’d fit through the slot.

Due to all this non-stop activity, his mug stood forlornly empty on the counter, and Busty lay forlornly unleafed-through below it. Much more of this, he’d go out, drag in the first living thing he came across, jam a helmet on their head, and point him, her or it in the direction of both the kitchenette and the stack of complaints forms.

He was just composing a rational explanation to give Charlie Meredith for doing this, and more importantly, waiting for the kettle to boil, when the front door pinged opened again.

Muttering a very rude word, he left the kitchenette. Five old women were walking in, and he girded his lions, or whatever those things were that you girded, to deal with whatever the bugger was wrong with them.

And then he looked again, did a mental double-take, and checked his arithmetic.

Three. There were three old women, not five. Why the hell had he thought there were five?

They approached the counter, then stopped a little way off. All five. Three. Five. Ernie went cross-eyed trying to sort out the number, and all of a sudden there were six. Or ten.

‘Can I help you, ladies?’ he heard himself say.

There was a pause, during which they looked at each other as if uncertain whom he might be calling ‘ladies’. Then one of them stepped up to the counter, and he realised they’d actually been silently electing a spokesperson.

‘Yes, dear,’ the duly elected one said. She was possibly the oldest, although they were all so wrinkled you could have hidden them in a box of prunes. ‘We’d like to know if you’ve caught him yet.’

‘Him, madam?’

‘Yes, dear. The man who murdered poor Hettie.’

Hettie. Oh, right – the Harriet Foster woman.

‘We phoned with a description on Monday evening, after she told us she’d been killed.’

Ah. That phone call.

He hadn’t taken it himself, of course, having been on the scene trying to sort out who the hell had done what when. But he’d had the displeasure of trying to decipher Fred from the night shift’s hieroglyphics on Tuesday morning.

‘Ah, yes, the description. Very useful,’ he said, as if he hadn’t screwed up the offending piece of paper and chucked it in the bin as soon as he’d worked out what the hell it was going on about. ‘That was you, was it?’

‘Yes, dear.’

So this was the old woman who reckoned she’d had a call from the other old woman describing who’d just murdered her. Not who was about to murder her – or was attempting to murder her – but who actually had murdered her.

He’d laughed so much at first, he’d nearly choked on his cuppa.

But then… It was a fact that he’d heard that voice from nowhere; he’d swear to that on page 23 of Busty. (Smokin’ Sarah’s Ten-a-day Habit. With pictures of the withdrawal symptoms.) Who was to say what other supernatural shenanigans might have been going on at the same time?

He drew a notepad towards him, and hunted round for a pen. Dawson normally had one to hand. Now where was…?

Ah. He found it on the floor, neatly bisecting two caramel wafer wrappers.

‘Maybe I can take some details,’ he said, once he’d managed to straighten up from retrieving it. ‘Can I take your name, madam?’

‘Certainly, dear,’ the woman said. ‘I’m Miss Marple.’

Oh. Bugger. It was already one of those days. Now it was going to turn into one of those days.

‘Miss – Marple.’ He wrote it down, nice and slowly. Then he realised that for some reason, he’d already written ‘Woman Number Two’ on the line above it.

He stared at the words. What the bloody blue blazes was going on this morning?

‘Yes, dear,’ the woman was adding. ‘Miss Lavinia Marple.’

Well, thank sod for that, anyway. He scribbled out the ‘Woman Number Two’ and added ‘Lavinea’, taking a wild guess at the spelling.

‘And yours, madam?’ he said to one of the others, all of whom – er, both of whom – were still hanging back a little. ‘Woman Number Four’, he wrote.

Shit! He scribbled that out as well.

The woman approached, rather diffidently. ‘My name? Miss Marple, dear,’ she said.

He counted ten, then raised his eyes to look at her.

‘I’m sorry?’ he said.

‘Miss Marple, dear,’ the woman repeated. ‘Miss Lily Marple.’

He bent his gaze back to the notepad. ‘Lily Marple.’ He wrote it down.

‘Yes, dear.’

He looked up again. ‘You two related, are you?’

The women stared at each other, then back at him. ‘Oh, no, dear, of course not,’ Number – er – the first Marple said, as if it was the most stupid suggestion she’d ever heard. ‘Except going back to Adam and Eve, of course.’

Ernie felt an attack of aggravation beginning to creep up like a 100-metre world champion would. ‘Adam and Eve,’ he said, trying not to grit his teeth. ‘And they are?’

He waited, pen poised. The women’s eyebrows rose.

Number Lavinia opened her mouth. Before she could say anything, one of the remaining women – er, the only remaining woman, that was – Number Five…
Er…

He gave an internal shrug. Bugger it. Number Five she was, for now. He’d sort out what the hell was going on later.

Woman Number Five, then, stepped forward and nudged Lavinia Number Two. ‘Excuse me, dear,’ she said. ‘Do we believe in Adam and Eve? I’ve forgotten.’

Lavinia Number Two frowned, and appeared to consider the question. ‘I think we do, dear’ she replied. ‘I’m sure Hettie did, so I suppose we must do as well.’

‘Oh.’

‘Perhaps we ought to ask Father Rawlings,’ Lily Number Four chipped in, an uncertain frown on her face as well. ‘Only Hettie might have been wrong, you know.’

Lavinia Number Two’s head shot round so fast Ernie thought it might well snap off the geriatric shoulders and fly into the distance. ‘Shhh!’ she rasped. ‘She’ll hear you!’

Lily Number Four’s hand shot to her mouth, and her eyes widened. ‘Oh, dear,’ she whispered.

Hang on. Wasn’t it the dead woman they were talking about? Ernie stared over them to where the final two – er, no, the final none…

Bugger and damn it!

The profanity rang through the reception area, leaving a shocked silence hanging in the air once it had died, and all however-many women’s eyebrows literally disappeared into their hairlines.

Ernie closed his eyes and counted to whatever number came between sod all and something higher.

‘I’m so sorry, ladies,’ he said. ‘I seem to be having some kind of breakdown; I can’t think why.’

He turned to Woman Number Five. ‘Now you, madam. Would your name happen to be Miss Marple as well?’

The woman smiled; rather a pitying smile, he thought. ‘No, of course not, dear. That would be silly.’

Well – thank all buggery for that. He repoised his pen.

‘I’m Mrs Marple,’ she said. ‘Mrs Daphne Marple.’

Slowly, Ernie pushed the notepad to one side.

‘Well, thank you for coming in, ladies,’ he said, in as bright a fashion as he could manage. ‘We have, of course, circulated the description you gave us. As soon as we find the killer we’ll let you know. Now – if there’s nothing else…?’

Fortunately for what remained of his sanity, the women – however many of them there were – took the hint, and with a last, ‘Thank you, dear – it’s so nice to know you’re here doing such a good job’, shuffled out.

Ernie took several deep breaths to slow his pounding heart-rate and bring his blood pressure back to somewhere below boiling point, then turned back towards the kitchenette. Bugger anybody who came in in the next five minutes. He wasn’t moving from beside the kettle till he’d had five caramel wafers of whatever ‘best before’ date, and at least two cuppas, with another one in the mug ready to chase them all down.

As for the description the woman had phoned in with…

He frowned, and wondered if, for once, he’d gone too far when he’d binned it. But he hadn’t seen any other option at the time.

The killer, according to the description Harriet Foster had supposedly given the Marple Number Whatever woman, could only be the Makumbo lad. And that would have made Defective Inspector Hampshire’s day, week, month, year and lifetime all rolled into one.

And Ernie was buggered if he was going to give the prat that kind of satisfaction.

End of Chapter 23

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