Another whole chapter today, in two bite-sized bits.
I’m sure that those of you who’ve been with me all the way thus far (and thank you again for being so) will know and ignore this link to what’s gone before: St Marmaduke’s Chapters 1-41.
Now please read on…
Wednesday 13th November 1985: 16.25 – 17.05
‘Now,’ Meredith said, as the elderly women (the three that were breathing, that was) disappeared through the church door. ‘Shall we all take a seat and decide what the hell we should do from here?’
He’d packed the three off as soon as it seemed Lavinia Marple would probably make it as far as the nearest home before keeling over. ‘I’m sorry I can’t call up a squad car to take you,’ he’d apologised to them. ‘Unfortunately, the BBC asked us to recreate a chase scene for Crimewatch, and due to a little over-enthusiasm it turned into a scene from The Blues Brothers. The admin people won’t order replacements until we’ve arrested two men named Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, which is proving to be rather problematic.’
He’d already dismissed Joseph Makumbo by that time, with instructions not to leave the country, the town or a two-yard radius of his flat until given permission to do so, on pain of being hunted to the ends of the Earth by extremely large dogs with even larger appetites.
The youngster hadn’t gone without several very significant glances at DC Chowdhary, he’d noticed. That might or might not be an interesting development, depending what facts he could untangle from all the fantastical happenings lately.
There was a nervous cough from — well, not from Mabel Cartwright’s mouth, of course, but inside his head. It was the oddest feeling, being spoken to by his own thoughts in somebody else’s voice. ‘Please don’t use that word, Inspector.’
Word? He ran through what he’d just said. Oh. That word. The ‘H’ one.
‘My apologies, Miss Cartwright.’
The others were forming a rough circle of chairs, and he smiled thanks at Clarissa Rawlings for handing one to him.
He’d tried to insist that she and her husband should leave — despite their sterling work in talking the dead woman down from her murderous intent — as this was now strictly a police matter. But he’d found, to his consternation (turning to admiration and amusement, he had to admit to himself), that where he could be insistent, Mrs Rawlings could be INSISTENT — capital letters in bold italics, and probably in a different font as well to make sure the message came across.
‘Not goin’ to take this to the station, sir?’ Ernie Bulstrode said as they took their seats.
Meredith shook his head. ‘No. I think Miss Cartwright here deserves a little more respect than a stark interview room and the pressure of a formal interview, after all she’s been through.
‘Besides,’ he added, giving a wry grin, ‘I’m not sure that if we did go through all that, we’d be able to capture your voice on the recorder, Miss Cartwright. You do seem to have a peculiar way of communicating.’
‘Speaking requires breath, which I no longer have, of course.’ That was bloody disconcerting, too. A dead person admitting to you that that was what they were, and doing it so matter-of-factly it sounded like they were discussing the weather.
‘Dawson — why don’t you do somethin’ with that, instead o’ cradling it like it’s a newborn?’ Ernie Bulstrode grunted.
The constable’s face registered confusion as he looked down at the corpse’s right arm, still in his care. He looked at Mabel Cartwright, then down at the arm again, and Meredith could see he was clearly wondering if he could reattach it somehow.
There was a smile in the old woman’s thought, if that wasn’t his imagination. ‘Just put it on the floor, Constable. I don’t really have a need for it any more.’
With his face the colour of a salmon that had been caught kissing a beetroot, Dawson hurriedly set the arm down under his chair, then straightened himself so rigidly, it looked like he was sitting to attention.
‘So — Miss Cartwright,’ Meredith said, trying not to laugh at both the constable’s discomfiture and Ernie Bulstrode’s exasperated headshake. ‘Why don’t we start with the morning of the 4th? The day you were killed…’
He listened to the tale the old woman unfolded. It was incredible — and yet, he couldn’t help but believe it. Why, after all, would a dead person lie?
‘So Harriet Foster did murder you,’ he said, as Miss Cartwright finished telling them about the end of the prayer service. ‘And all this time, we’ve been running around like headless chickens trying to work out who else could have done it. So much for detective work.’
And so much for Jack Hampshire, he added silently. Both murders accounted for now, impossible as the scenarios appeared to be. Though knowing the detective inspector, he’d carry on gunning after Makumbo for the robbery; that was still to be one hundred percent positively solved. And if not that —
Well, there’d be something that Jack Hampshire would find to give the young black man grief for. Like eating a cheeseburger on a Sunday within a mile of the High Street after dark, for example.
That was a point. Now the murders were solved, particularly the Foster one, there’d be no bar to reinstating the DI and the other two. Good in many ways, particularly in the case of young Chowdhary, but…
The old woman was continuing, and he dismissed his worries over the detective inspector. Time enough for that later. ‘I came to suddenly, and was, as you can imagine, rather surprised to do so. At first, I thought I must still be alive; but then, I realised that I couldn’t feel my heartbeat, and that my brain was much sharper than I’m afraid it has been for a number of years now. Not to mention that my eye was on fire, metaphorically speaking.
‘And then I discovered that the reason I’d woken was because someone was nudging me with their foot. And after that, they proceeded to go about some rather nefarious business around me, I’m afraid.’
‘Hold on! You mean that the robbery was taking place?’
‘That’s right, Inspector.’ (He hadn’t bothered to correct her about his rank. There didn’t seem much point, given that she’d hopefully be returning to the morgue sometime soon. Mind you — in her present dead-but-alive state, it was likely she’d need some persuading on that score. And he didn’t think she’d really go for being stuffed back into one of those refrigerated drawers. Maybe a comfy dissecting table instead?)
The things you had to worry about as a senior officer…
Father Rawlings was leaning forwards, the excitement on his face that of a man who, Meredith thought, was realising he might soon be reacquainted with the candlesticks he was so fond of. ‘Do you know who was carrying out the robbery, Mabel?’
‘Oh, yes, Father Rawlings, I opened my eyes and was able to see him. It was a young man.’
Ah! Now they were coming to the crux of it! Meredith leaned forwards as well, and kept his gaze on the old woman. ‘This is very, very important, Miss Cartwright,’ he said slowly. ‘Was the young man Joseph Makumbo?’
He held his breath. If Hampshire was right about this, if not the murders…
‘Oh, no, Inspector. It was certainly not Mr Makumbo; I’m sure he couldn’t even contemplate such an action. It was a young white man. Rather a greasy one, too. Spoke with a most peculiar accent after he nudged me. Something about, “Yo moost be kiddin’.” I supposed he must be French, or German.’
‘I knew it!’ Ernie Bulstrode exploded. ‘Darren bloody Chafford! When I get hold of him and that dad of his…’
Fortunately, the sergeant didn’t expand on what he was likely to do in that circumstance. And we still need positive proof, Meredith thought. A vague description given by a corpse wouldn’t hold up as admissible evidence.
However… ‘Thank you, Miss Cartwright,’ he said. ‘That is most useful.
‘And now,’ he continued, ‘I have to ask you one final question, for formality’s sake. Do you, in front of these witnesses, confess to the murder of Harriet Foster?’
There was a slow nod of the old woman’s head, and her answering thought carried every evidence of satisfaction. ‘Oh, yes, Inspector. I certainly do, and I do not regret it one bit!’
He stood. ‘Very well,’ he said. ‘There only remains, then, the question of what to do about it. And I think I need to have a think about that, if you’ll all just excuse me.’
Indeed he did. Could you really arrest a corpse for murder? How did you handcuff her, her only having one arm now, for a start? And could you bring a case like this to court? Never mind whether she could go to Heaven or not, could she actually go to jail? And would the broken-off arm have to go with her, since (he assumed) that was the one she’d used to wield the fatal hatpin; so effectively, it was as much of a murder weapon as the hatpin itself? And supposing other bits of her started breaking off while she was in there? Wouldn’t the other prisoners revolt out of revulsion? And wouldn’t the papers have a field day if they got to know about it all?
And why wasn’t his retirement a hell of a lot closer? Like, the next five minutes?
He suddenly realised that the old woman’s voice was going off in his head again. ‘I’m sorry, Miss Cartwright? I’m afraid I missed that.’
‘I said, “Just before you go off to have a think, Inspector…”’
‘I’m afraid I also have to ask you to take a serious assault into consideration as well.’
Oh, was that all? ‘I know about the attack on the lady here, Miss Cartwright. I’ll take that into account, of course.’
‘Oh, no, no. Not that, Inspector. I’m sure that dear Lavinia won’t want you to press charges; she was never as vindictive as Hettie was, just too much under her thumb. No — the assault I’m referring to happened shortly before I killed Hettie. I’m afraid I attacked a postman.’
He landed back on his chair so hard, he thought for a moment he’d sprained his backside. ‘I beg your pardon?’
The satisfaction had gone from Mabel Cartwright’s thoughts. ‘I’m afraid so. A young man called “Spiky”, I believe his name was. I don’t know why — but I was told I should take revenge on him for someone else.’
Oh, for pity’s sake… ‘You were told to do it, Miss Cartwright? Who told you?’
‘As to that, Inspector, I’m afraid I have no idea. It sounds most peculiar, I know — but a voice spoke to me as I was making my way to Hettie’s, and told me where I could find this Spiky, and what I had to do. I didn’t want to assault him, I can assure you. But I felt compelled.’
Ernie Bulstrode had let out one of his trademark explosions of breath, and now he added, ‘That bloody voice again! If ever I find out what that’s all about, I’m going to —’
‘Thank you, Sergeant!’ Meredith hastily interposed. It sounded as if Ernie was going to expand on his intentions this time, and knowing Ernie, those intentions were probably not something to be discussed in mixed company, especially when one of that company was a clergyman’s wife.
‘Well, I…’ A quiet muttering started, most of which was indistinguishable apart from parts containing lots of ‘B’s and ‘F’s.
‘Well — thank you for confessing that, Miss Cartwright,’ Meredith said, leaving the sergeant to his diatribe. ‘I take it you didn’t actually kill this postman?’
‘Oh no, Inspector. The voice didn’t tell me to do that. I imagine he’s had difficulty carrying out his duties since, though.’
‘I see. Well — I’ll take that into account, as you ask.’ He stood again. ‘Now, I think I’m going to go and sit in one of the pews until I can work out what to do about all this.’
He made to go, and there was a gentle cough — one made by a mouth, this time — from one of the seats opposite. Father Rawlings, slowly nodding his head, said thoughtfully, ‘I think, Chief Inspector, that if you’d allow us — Clarissa and I might be able to help concerning that.’
‘I do hope they don’t do anything bad to poor Mabel,’ Lily said.
The three friends were shuffling away from the church, Lily and Daphne steadying their still wobbly friend between them. Both of them frequently turned their heads to stare behind, as if afraid to see a semi-armless corpse bearing down, very likely with a pointy object somewhere about its person.
Lavinia gave a loud harrumph. As far as she was concerned, her much-too-close encounter with Mabel Cartwright’s hatpin had left her with thoughts that weren’t quite so charitable.
Lily seemed to read her mind. ‘You mustn’t blame her, you know. We did rather let her down, didn’t we?’
On Lavinia’s other side, Daphne nodded. ‘That’s right, Lavinia dear.’
‘I suppose so,’ Lavinia acknowledged, though not without making sure a large amount of the word ‘grudgingly’ was attached.
The three plodded on in silence for a while. Then Daphne said quietly, ‘Do — do you think that Hettie will go to Hell, like Mabel prayed? After all — she did kill quite a few people, Mabel included, while she was alive.’
Lavinia sighed. ‘Oh, I don’t know, Daphne. I suppose we’d better look in the Good Book. If Hettie were here herself, she’d be able to tell us straight away, quoting chapter, verse, and probably what colour underpants the Lord was wearing when he said it, too.’
There was a gasp from Daphne. ‘Lavinia — surely that’s blasphemy!’ Lavinia couldn’t help noticing that there was a slight giggle in her friend’s voice, though, as if the comment was as funny as she’d meant it to be acerbic.
She slipped out from between the two, and leaned against a garden wall that had conveniently stopped beside them. It was a chilly afternoon, and twilight was coming on fast; the fright of being attacked by somebody she’d previously thought wouldn’t harm a fly, even if she’d had the wits to register its presence, was still having its effect; she felt incredibly weary; and she knew that the weariness came from a last few decades of being helpless in the face of extreme Hettieness. The others were looking at her, concern still on their faces.
‘You are right, of course, dears,’ she said. She shook her head, partly in sorrow, partly to clear the fog of all those years. ‘We were far too much in thrall of Hettie, for far too long. It got so we never saw things except as she demanded we do.’ Unexpectedly, and completely against eighty-odd years of inbuilt stiff-upper-Englishness, she reached out and gave her friends’ shoulders a squeeze. ‘But from now on, perhaps we should put all that behind us and begin to think for ourselves.’
She righted herself and began to walk on, the others again flanking her. Suddenly, though, her legs were fine, and her weariness was gone, as if washed away in a shower of decisiveness. ‘And as for whether Hettie will be going to Heaven or Hell,’ she said, ‘I think that that’s a matter for the Lord to decide, not us. We can rest assured that his decision for her — as for us, when our times come — will be the right one; and nothing for us to worry about.’
Together, they walked on, back to their homes and out of the story.