An Extract from the Files of George Whitby, Investigator: A Clue Fan-Fiction Story
(The following story was inspired by the game of CLUE . . .)
You’re tangled in your latest murder file when the telephone begins to shrill and rattle against the hook like a panicking bird. Reluctantly, you pluck up the earpiece and pull the receiver to your mouth.
“George Whitby, investigator,” you answer mechanically.
“George.” The familiar voice startles you and pulls your brain somewhat from the fog of clues and anticlues. In all your years of friendship, rarely has Lord John Somerton sounded so excited—or uneasy. “George,” he repeats, “I need you to come up to Hightower as soon as you can. This evening.”
The line crackles and you press the earpiece harder against your ear. Sweat pricks under your arms.
“What’s going on, John? Is something wrong?”
“Remember the Rutherford case, twenty years back?” He sounds out of breath: whether from alarm or excitement, it’s impossible to tell. “I’ve unearthed some new evidence surrounding it. Well, an amateur’s hunches, really. Just come round soon as you can, will you? I can’t say more now.”
As soon as the words reach you, a different receiver clicks somewhere along the line. Apprehension swims in the back of your mind, but then your eyes fall to the file below you and you know you can’t do anything for John until you’ve plowed through this monster.
“I’ll come when I can,” you say. “Just don’t do anything foolish.”
“Thanks, George. G’day,” John says, his tone lighter. His earpiece clicks against its own receiver. You return to dissecting the details of your case, hoping John Somerton’s new findings on the Rutherford affair can suffer to wait for the rest of the day. For a moment, you consider stuffing the file into the nearest drawer and indulging your friend while giving your brain a much-desired rest.
But . . . You force realism upon yourself. This file won’t fit in any drawer you have.
A harmless closed case like Rutherford’s will just have to wait. And so will John Somerton.
Hours later, you step out of your motorcar and stride up the stone walk to Hightower Manor, squinting at the house lights blazing high against the darkening sky.
Your tired grip sweats as you lift the heavy bronze doorknocker and let it fall twice.
The door swings open in an instant.
Light, a babble of voices, and high, hysterical sobbing flood out into the soft evening, drowning out the peaceful rhythm of crickets. Your stomach turns over on itself as you wonder if you indeed should have come earlier.
The footman who opened the door, a dark silhouette against the strong light, peers out at you.
“Oh, step right this way, sir,” he says in a young, strained voice. He extends his hand. “Name’s Moseley. Footman.” As you enter, he glances over you with bright blue eyes and rubs a hand over his blond hair. “You’re Lord Somerton’s friend?”
“Yes,” you say uneasily as the door bangs shut behind you and you’re both enclosed in the stuffy, carpeted hall. The distant sobbing from beyond suddenly peaks and you survey the young footman with unchecked anxiety. “What’s happened here?”
Moseley furrows his brow, glancing over his shoulder with eyes both desperate and confused, and your stomach twines into a sick knot as you await his answer, which comes slowly.
“It’s Lord Somerton, sir,” he says. “Someone tried to murder him over an hour ago.”
After ascertaining what little you can about John’s condition—he was immediately transported to the nearby hospital and he appears to be stabilized for the moment—you weave through the policemen and detectives clustered in the entrance hallway and accumulate information.
The footman Moseley had found Lord John unconscious with head trauma in his study. On the floor by his desk had been a bloodied marble bust of Caesar. It appears to have been hurled at him from behind and then abandoned without any effort at concealment.
And that is it for evidence.
One of the detectives, a heavily built man with thinning, mousy hair, recognizes you and strides forward in the dim light, wiping perspiration from his face. “Ah, George Whitby,” he says with a sigh. “Thank heavens. I’d heard Lord Somerton had asked you here.”
“A real muddle, I take it,” you reply.
“A real muddle,” he echoes. “What evidence we have seems so contrived it’s almost past believability. Bloody statue right on the scene of the crime . . .” He wags his head. “And nothing else.”
“Have you spoken with the guests at all? What about the servants?”
The detective rolls his eyes. “Well, the servants have all given decent alibis. Most were in bed. As for the guests, we can’t get them to shut their gobs. It’s all one great hullabaloo in there.” He motions down the hall, towards where the sobbing is growing louder. “The women all in hysterics. Maddening. And none of them seems to know anything. As I said, if Lord Somerton hadn’t been whacked, I’d think the bloody bust was just eccentric decor and certainly not evidence.” He dabs sweat from his face again, considering for a moment. “If I may say so, sir,” he says finally, “you’re legendary in this business. Want to give it a go?”
You grimace a little, seeing where the flattery is headed. But you’re determined to make it up to your ill-fated friend. “You want me to show off?”
“That’s what legends are for. If you don’t mind.”
“Not at all,” you say firmly. You turn to Moseley, who is hovering anxiously at your elbow. “Let’s be off, then.”
Six guests, clustered in the central hall under the light of two massive crystal chandeliers, indeed making “one great hullabaloo” as they react to the trauma that has befallen their wealthy host. Setting aside the gnawing concern you feel for your old friend, you snap into the no-nonsense attitude of the face-reader you are. You gather the names quickly from young Moseley, who has appointed himself as your serviceman, and you note the traits of Somerton’s guests in silence.
Miss Jade Fitzgerald. A stunning young woman with wide hazel eyes and ebony hair. She clutches a crimson evening wrap around her slender form as she sobs profusely into the shoulder of her elderly French maid, Blanche DuBois. She seems quite overwrought and you wonder if you’ll be able to ascertain anything coherent from her.
James Forrest, clergyman. Of about fifty years, tall and impossibly thin with long, bony fingers and a balding pate. As he attempts to comfort the two women, his brown eyes look at you wildly from a rather sedate, thin-lipped, sleep-pinched face.
Colonel Gilbert Golding. Retired from His Majesty’s Army, with a bristling pair of creamy moustaches and a glistening pair of tiny round blue eyes. His flushed face looks positively apoplectic as he brandishes a fist and roars against the outrage of the murder attempt.
Azure Singh, a prince from the Far East. Even to you—and you’ve seen many foreign specimens in your time—he is mesmerizing and utterly aloof from the hysterics of the English. Taller even than the Reverend Forrest, dark-skinned and thick-browed, inscrutability shrouds him. Only the barest flicker of uncertainty touches his otherwise stony face. His hands hang perfectly still at his sides.
Colonel Golding, still roaring, jabs his index finger at young Moseley. “He was the last person seen with Lord Somerton! He is the assailant! Arrest him, sir!” he bellows to you. “This is positively monstrous!”
Moseley turns white in the space of a second. “I would never harm Lord Somerton,” he says thickly. “I would never try to kill anyone. I swear it.”
You turn to Moseley. As you do so, you notice the sixth guest: a short, scowling red-haired young man dressed in a drab-colored suit, standing in the shadows of his other five companions. But you ignore him for now.
“You were the last with him?” you ask the young footman.
Moseley nods, licking his lips nervously. “Y—yes, sir, that’s right. Lord Somerton was in his study. I was getting ready to retire. I dropped in to see if he required anything. Just like I always do.”
You flick out a pad and scribble down this testimony. “And how long ago was this?”
“Two hours, I think. Anyway, I went in. Lord Somerton asked me to stay at the front door and wait for your arrival,” Moseley explains. “So I left his study directly and took my place at the front door. I waited there, but soon after I heard some kind of loud argument railing on. It seemed to end abruptly, so after a moment I came here into the hall and looked about. There was no one in sight, but Lord Somerton’s study door was open, and I’m sure I left it shut. I poked my head in.” He hesitates. “Lord Somerton was collapsed across his desk. Someone had hit him on the back of the head, and he was bleeding badly.”
You wince at the apparition the words create.
“So I called an ambulance,” Moseley continues. “But I swear I had nothing to do with it.”
The Colonel snorts. “I don’t believe a word. The little mongrel makes a good story.”
“Thank you, but the authorities will do the incriminating,” you say firmly. “No one has been proven guilty, and it will remain that way for young Moseley unless the evidence proves otherwise.” You turn back to Moseley. “Do you have any idea who this argument was between?”
Moseley chews on his lower lip, blue eyes faltering. “No. No, I have no idea.”
“Did Lord Somerton seem ill at ease when you went to see him?”
“He was quite absorbed in what he was reading. He barely noticed me.”
You note this down and turn from Moseley, back to Somerton’s guests. Again, your eyes fall to the scowling red-haired man in the drab suit who seems to prefer the shadows behind his peers to the direct light of the chandeliers. You recall what Moseley told you of him.
Edmund Baxter. Professor of Literature at Magdalen College. Around thirty to thirty-five years, flushed at the cheekbones, with spectacle imprints denting either side of his nose. A permanent wrinkle hovering over his eyebrows attests to long hours of reading. Somehow, amid Golding’s bellows and Jade Fitzgerald’s sobs, he seems the angriest of all. It’s a fierce but silent anger.
You step away from the group and motion Moseley to follow you into the library, which is further down the hall. The young footman is still blanched from Golding’s accusations but waits faithfully in front of you as you sink down into a leather-upholstered armchair.
“Will you show the guests in to me, one at a time?” you ask calmly.
Moseley nods and leaves.
You sigh and brace yourself for the separate interviews.
“Prince Singh,” you say, “thank you for honoring me with a few minutes of your time. I’m sure that we’ll have this mess cleared up shortly. If you’ll allow me to pose a few questions…”
Azure inclines his head graciously and waits for you to continue, his dark embers of eyes gazing at you levelly.
You clear your throat and reference the notes you made. “Prince Singh, can you describe the events of this evening to me, in your own words?”
He clasps his large hands over one knee. “Lord Somerton did not appear at dinner this evening,” he begins slowly in a voice spiced with the accent of the East. “He sent his excuses to the party, saying he had business which he must attend. Immediately afterwards the Reverend, the Colonel, and I played in the billiard room. It was quiet a while later when the young footman came to us with word of the assault on Lord Somerton.”
The sound of your pen scratching the paper fills the small room. You glance up at Azure. “And how did young Moseley seem when he told you?”
“Highly upset. He was almost unable to speak, and then he ran to telephone for an ambulance.”
You jot his words down quickly and tap the tip of the pen into your inkwell. “You, the Colonel, and the Reverend were all at billiards since dinner, until Moseley came to you. What of the other guests?”
“I believe Lady Fitzgerald soon went to bed with her maid.”
“And Professor Baxter?”
“He did not care for billiards. When we first arrived last week, Lord Somerton offered the free use of his library to the Professor. So perhaps he was—” he raises his hands to gesture to your surroundings— “here. I did not see him after supper until everyone was in the hall.”
You study his face, the portrait of calm and gravity. No guilt or even discomfort eats away at the corners of his wide mouth. Carefully, wondering if his dignified indifference is a bit of an overdone cover-up, you lean back and cross you ankle over your knee. To ease the tension of the moment, you close your notebook.
“What of Lord Somerton himself? When did you meet the gentlemen?”
“Two summers past. We were acquainted in Bombay. His late father had owned estate there, and he had traveled down to sell it. I purchased the property from him.”
“Have you been invited to Hightower before?”
“I am sure that Lord Somerton places a high value on such a friendship,” you offer, gesturing towards Azure.
For once, his eyes falter. He nods, pressing his lips together in the silent grief that you yourself feel. It seems to speak broadly of his innocence, and a warmth flickers in your instincts.
“Just one more thing, Prince Singh. Are there any particular impressions or suspicions of the other guests that you could provide?”
He looks back up at you. “The Reverend I trust; a deeply spiritual and giving man. The Colonel is, if you will forgive me…quite British.” He flashes a very white, apologetic smile and taps the side of his head. “Loud and rather dense.”
You cannot suppress a laugh. “All Brits are this way to you?”
He raises a hand in deference, still smiling. “I know very little of the Professor, or of the maid. Lady Fitzgerald is quite fickle. Emotional. But perhaps all women are this way. I had noticed,” he leans forward, “a certain attachment that I could have imagined between Somerton and Lady Fitzgerald, throughout the holiday.”
Really? Attachment? If so, Somerton never breathed a word of it. Frowning in surprise, you scratch a few more notes and nod, leaning forward as well to shake his hand. “Thank you, Prince Singh.”
Loud and rather dense indeed.
Glancing up at the grandfather clock, you see you’ve already spent a quarter of an hour listening to the blusterings of Colonel Golding, mostly on his suspicions of young Moseley, which have managed to put you in a state of acute agitation. You heave a sigh, massaging your temple with one hand, and decide that aggression is the only way.
“Thank you, Colonel Golding,” you interject firmly, halting him mid-sentence. “Your suspicions will be filed away and considered carefully by the detectives. Now, can you furnish me with any information regarding any of the other guest’s whereabouts after dinner?”
“Aye,” Golding sighs, obviously disappointed in your disregard of his suspicions. He goes on to state the same story Azure gave you, “…and that young footman, as I said, when he came to tell us…”
“Yes, I’ve noted your suspicions,” you add quickly. “Now, what can you tell me of Professor Baxter? Have you met him before?”
The Colonel shrugs. “Never seen him before in my life. He’s quiet, but you should hear him when he pipes up! Heaps of brains, that young fellow. Rather useless, if you ask me. But he and Lord Somerton had long talks together—about goodness knows what—over the holiday.”
“Tell me, did the Professor ever seem angry? With my Lord or any of the party?”
“He seemed to be brooding at dinner…more than usual… and when everyone was together after the attempted murder, he seemed very angry. But at whom—or what—it’s most difficult to say.”
You smile and shake his hand, trying not to wince at the strength of his massive grip. “That it is. Thank you, Colonel.”
“And where were you, Mrs. DuBois, after dinner this evening?”
The tiny, white-haired, ashen French maid toys with the lace on her dressing gown, peering up at you from dark, decidedly troubled eyes. “I wasn’t feeling well, Monsieur. Miss Fitzgerald said I might retire early, so I went upstairs to bed.”
You smile to reassure her; after all, she seems quite shattered by the events of this evening. “In Miss Fitzgerald’s rooms?”
“Did you go to sleep?”
“No, Monsieur. You see, Miss Fitzgerald came up soon afterwards, into the room adjacent to mine. I believe she was on the—how do you say it?—telephone, with her mother. She has spoken several times with her over the holiday. She seemed upset. That’s what kept me up, but I think I must have dozed off. When I awoke, I heard footsteps below, and voices—I could have dreamed it, but I’m sure I was awake—and it must have come from the hall.” She pointed towards the door, indicating beyond.
“Loud voices?” you inquire.
“Oh, yes, yes. I was frightened—it sounded like arguing, so I got up and went out to look down. From upstairs you can see the hall, and I thought I saw a man—with red hair—storming across the hall towards the conservatory. Then it was quiet. I tried to go back to sleep.”
You let the silence stretch for a moment, studying the fine wrinkles, dark eyes, and frail hands of Blanche DuBois. She is frightened and unsettled, you can see plainly, but her eyes meet yours constantly, almost as though she finds you a comfort—and no murderer could possibly find comfort in a detective.
You stand up and take her cold hand, steadying her as she rises. “Thank you, Mrs. Dubois. I promise that everything will be sorted out soon.”
“Oh, thank you, young Monsieur. You are most kind.”
Reverend Forrest seems most upset as he sinks into the armchair opposite you. “What a horrible calamity,” he whispers, twining his long white fingers together. “Who knew such a thing could happen?” He exhales, rubbing at his sunken eyes. “God help us all.”
“I surely hope He will,” you reply, and he nods disconsolately.
Thanks to the Colonel’s and Prince’s testimonies, you are more than sure that the Reverend didn’t stir from the billiards room and that his response to the obvious questions will invariably match his companions’. So, indulging a sudden whim, you try a different tactic.
“Reverend,” you say, “what do you know of Miss Jade and Lord Somerton’s relationship?”
He looks up from his fingers, more than a bit startled. He replies with blank hesitation. “I—I believe there is none, sir. But if you mean Professor Baxter—he is the one who is deeply in love with Miss Jade, and has been for months. He practically followed her here.”
You lift your eyebrows in surprise. “He confided this in you?”
The Reverend nods. “This morning. We were alone. He asked my advice as to how to approach her about marriage. If he should at all.” He trails off, looking more than a bit bewildered. “I’m sorry, but how is this relevant to the murder attempt on Lord Somerton?”
“Don’t worry,” you say, “I’m no Cupidite. I’m merely curious. Is Baxter an erratic sort of fellow?”
The Reverend chews at the inside of his cheek. “Not that I’ve been able to tell. His love for Miss Fitzgerald strikes me as most constant. In any event, I advised him to ascertain Miss Fitzgerald’s feelings towards him. He said he knew she loved him. But he also said Jade had alluded to the fact that her mother would be against any kind of union. He seemed most hesitant about carrying things any further, because of that. I highly doubt he’s spoken with Miss Jade.”
“Did Baxter and Lord Somerton seem to get along over the holiday?”
At this, Forrest grimaces. “Well, not exactly. Both seemed a bit snappish towards one another. And—just now I remember this—Lord Somerton took him aside one morning after Baxter had been conversing with Miss Jade, and they were long in his study. Things seemed to deteriorate from that point on. In fact, I could have sworn that Miss Jade was paying more attention to Lord Somerton than she was to Baxter. She often asked him about his pursuits and pastimes, and such. But none of it seemed to be born of any romantic inclination. Nevertheless, perhaps her interest could have incited the Professor.”
You nod, unsure of how to balance all this hearsay of Baxter and Jade Fitzgerald. You come to the final point. “Did you, by any chance, overhear anyone arguing this evening?”
Forrest shakes his head. “No. Not at all. As I’m sure the Prince and the Colonel have told you, I was playing billiards with them all evening, directly after supper. I did not leave the room once. And I heard nothing.”
“I see. Thank you.”
Forrest untwines his fingers and leaves the room.
By now Baxter is a most enigmatic case—one that intrigues you enormously—, but something in your stomach persuades you to save him for last.
And that leaves Jade Fitzgerald.
She clutches her night robe around her throat, her face tightly drawn, even sunken. She is still wiping at the rims of her eyes.
“So you retired shortly after your maid, Mrs. DuBois?” you inquire finally. “And you heard nothing at all?”
She nods, averting her gaze. “I told you that. Yes.”
You sigh outwardly, hoping she assumes you are disappointed with her most bland testimony. Jade Fitzgerald seems to lack even the remotest power for observation—her strength, rather, seems to lie in ambiguity. Had she seen or heard anyone arguing with Lord Somerton? “She—well, no, she didn’t think so. How could anyone have a row with him, anyway? He was the host, after all.” Were the other guests all easy to get along with? “She guessed so. The Colonel rang her ears out, though.”
A concrete sense of dread for the nature of women pumps hesitation into your next, inevitable, question. “How well acquainted are you with Edmund Baxter?” you ask.
She stiffens, clutching the collar of the robe more tightly around her throat. “What do you mean?”
You begin to wonder if this particular tactic is too tenuous for your own good, but you come out with it. “Has he asked you to marry him?”
She gapes. “You have no right to pry into my personal affairs!” Her cheeks are aflame as she rises from the chair and stalks across the room, her words jerking with every step. “If these are the only questions you can think to ask me, I’ll have no choice but to leave.”
Ah, results. You can easily see you’ve hit upon a sore spot—a freshly sore spot. You are beginning to doubt Reverend Forrest’s assumption that Baxter hasn’t already spoken to Miss Fitzgerald. But you have no wish to press her any more. You need to be left alone with your new suspicions.
“It’s quite alright,” you say. “Please forgive my insensitivity, Miss Fitzgerald. You may go.”
She reaches for the doorknob, but the door bursts open from the outside and she backs away with a frightened yelp. You can hear Moseley’s apologies, but all you see is the irate countenance of Edmund Baxter, glaring directly at you from the door.
“What have you been asking Miss Fitzgerald—” he spits the name out with acute bitterness— “about me?” He pauses for breath, long enough to glare at her, then continues heatedly, “Have you learned all the details from this fickle woman? I had no idea you were a counselor in league with that reverend, Forrest, but since you are, do you have any recommendations on how to make Miss Fitzgerald accept me? Or have you figured out that I tried to murder Lord Somerton?” He falters slightly, then mutters, “I’m sure that’s what everyone has informed you, especially this fickle woman. The mysterious, suspicious Baxter, come to exact a pound of Somerton’s flesh for some unknown grievance.”
“Edmund!” Jade Fitzgerald sounds almost panicked. “Stop it! I never said anything of the kind! How could you even think that? Why would I try to incriminate you?”
Moseley manages to elbow past the fuming young Professor. “My apologies,” he says breathlessly, “I couldn’t stop him.”
You wave a hand. “It’s all right, Moseley. But since Mr. Baxter is so anxious to see me, I think now is the time.” You look to Baxter. “Don’t you agree?”
Moseley ushers a now sobbing Miss Fitzgerald from the room. You and the raging Edmund Baxter are left alone.
More than an hour later, you gently close the door to John’s study, where after your interview with Baxter you had retreated to look through your old friend’s personal papers and to review the evidence there.
The hall is dark now, except for a few flickering tapers set at intervals on the polished wood tables. Moseley having finally managed to usher the guests back to their rooms, you have a moment to draw breath and think—alone. Rolling your shoulders, you cross the carpeted hall to stand before one of the tall, west-facing windows.
From your aching brain, voices roll out and fill the hall you’re standing in, the moonlit garden outside, the library where you just interviewed six suspects, and the study where one faceless villain tried to murder your closest friend.
“He was the last person seen with Lord Somerton! He is the assailant! Arrest him, sir!”
“I know very little of the Professor, or of the maid. Lady Fitzgerald is quite fickle. Emotional. But perhaps all women are this way. I had noticed,” he leans forward, “a certain attachment that I could have imagined between Somerton and Lady Fitzgerald, throughout the holiday.”
“Tell me, did the Professor ever seem angry? With my Lord or any of the party?”
“He seemed to be brooding at dinner…more than usual… and when everyone was together after the attempted murder, he seemed very angry. But at who-or what-it’s most difficult to say.”
“From upstairs you can see the hall, and I thought I saw a man — with red hair — storming across the hall towards the conservatory. Then it was quiet.”
“Did Baxter and Lord Somerton seem to get along over the holiday?”
“Well, not exactly. Both seemed a bit snappish towards one another. And — just now I remember this — Lord Somerton took him aside one morning after Baxter had been conversing with Miss Jade, and they were long in his study…
“In fact, I could have sworn that Miss Jade was paying more attention to Lord Somerton than she was to Baxter. She often asked him about his pursuits and pastimes, and such. But none of it seemed to be born of any romantic inclination. Nevertheless, perhaps her interest could have incited the Professor.”
“Or have you figured out that I tried to murder Lord Somerton?
“I’m sure that’s what everyone has informed you, especially this fickle woman. The mysterious, suspicious Baxter, come to exact a pound of Somerton’s flesh for some unknown grievance.”
You moan through your teeth and begin to pace up and down in front of the door. With a thousand guesses gnawing at one side of your mind and your worry for John eating the other, it’s nearly impossible to clear your thoughts. All of it seems to revolve around this mysterious romance between Jade Fitzgerald and Edmund Baxter…but how could it possibly be connected to the murder attempt? Throughout your interview with the Professor, Baxter hadn’t given you anything other than cryptic statements filled with bitter resentment. He seemed fixed on the idea that he was about to be convicted. But when everything points so obviously to Baxter, why is your gut pulling in a different direction? Or what if you are completely wrong? Images of even the peaceful Reverend or the timid Blanche whacking your friend over the head begin to filter in to your mind.
“Come on, George,” you mutter, clenching your hands behind your back. You have to get a hold of yourself, or it will be too late. John’s assailant will never be extracted from this muddled mess—or an innocent will be accused and a murderer left to roam free.
Your thoughts wander back to all of John Somerton’s papers scattered across his study desk, which you spent a good hour laboriously going through. There had been nothing in terms of Somerton noting his suspicions on who was about to murder him—not that you had expected that much. Still, it certainly would have helped. But there had been plenty of notes about the Rutherford case he had been so eager to speak with you about.
The Rutherford case was a well-known scandal concerning a Mr. Robert Rutherford. Some twenty years back, he had committed a series of thefts against Miss Jade Fitzgerald’s father, Charles. Publicly, Rutherford and Charles had always been intimate friends, so the drawn-out crime had been nothing short of shocking, and Charles had died shortly afterwards. Rutherford had been convicted and imprisoned. That was well known. But Somerton had evidently found great interest in Jade’s rather nondescript mother, Patricia. He had noted her name several times, alongside Rutherford’s.
The thought of Patricia Fitzgerald arouses your memory of Reverend Forrest’s brief mention of her, back during the interviews.
“Jade had alluded to the fact that her mother would be against any kind of union. Baxter seemed most hesitant about carrying things any further, because of that. I highly doubt he’s spoken with Miss Jade.”
You idly consider this rather random link between Baxter and Jade Fitzgerald’s ill-fated romance, and John Somerton’s private notes. But how could Patricia Fitzgerald possibly fit in? You’ve never even met the woman. You realize you must be in dire need of a glass of wine and a cigar. You’re going down rabbit holes.
And, out of all people, that’s when you remember meek little Blanche DuBois.
“You see, Miss Fitzgerald came up soon afterwards, into the room adjacent to mine. I believe she was on the — how do you say it? — telephone, with her mother. She has spoken several times with her over the holiday. She seemed upset. That’s what kept me awake.”
A wild new idea enters your head — another tenuous tactic you’re so famous for, one that has stuck itself to you like feathers to tar.
One, you’re sure, that will reveal the final answer.
You quickly summon Moseley and ask him to bring down the guests, along with the policemen and other detectives, for the end of the guessing game. And for the first time in this whole blasted evening, you smile.
“I knew it!” thunders Golding in his night robe and slippers, pumping his fist in the air. “You narrowed it down to that Mossy fellow, didn’t you? I knew it! Well, what are you waiting for, bring out the manacles!”
“My name is Moseley, sir,” the young footman points out with admirable patience. You sigh, wishing somehow the apoplectic Golding would actually have a minor stroke—not a fatal one, mind you—but enough to put a temporary end to his constant bellows.
“I would like to pose a story to you all,” you say, puffing on a cigar that good young Moseley fetched you. You feel quite in your element again. “I hope you have some patience left to listen after tonight’s trying events.”
The guests mumble agreement but stare at you in confusion. You take another puff at your cigar, study the tear-stained face of Jade Fitzgerald and the grim one of Baxter, and begin.
“My story begins twenty years ago, with a certain Mr. Robert Rutherford, who—contrary to popular opinion and judicious ruling—I believe was unjustly convicted of theft and sentenced to prison.”
Jade looks up. “What are you saying?” she snaps. “Rutherford is a criminal. He stole priceless articles from my father and drove him to a premature death. It was the most famous criminal affair of its time. What is unjust about his sentence, sir?”
You raise a placating hand. “Let me continue, please. As I said, he was unjustly sentenced. In fact, an entirely different and inconspicuous person, whose name I shall avoid for the present, framed him. But this same person is viciously determined to protect their claim of innocence. They learned through various means that Lord John Somerton—who has an amateur’s interest in investigating old cases such as this—was beginning to discover the lack of evidence for Rutherford’s guilt, and in fact was on the correct criminal’s trail. Consequently, the guilty party began to blackmail a member of their own family, hoping to bring about permanent silence from Lord Somerton through the object of their blackmail.” You pause, continuing to study the faces of Jade Fitzgerald and Edmund Baxter. “Is everyone following me so far?”
“Perfectly,” says Reverend Forrest.
“As well as I can understand the ways of the English,” comments Azure Singh.
“I still don’t understand what this has to do with that culprit Mossy,” grumbles Golding.
“That shall be cleared up presently,” you continue. “In any event, this same secret criminal who framed Rutherford sent the object of their blackmail here, to Hightower, to confirm the suspicions surrounding Somerton’s leads, and then to take action against him.”
“What do you mean by blackmail?” Jade Fitzgerald asks stiffly. “What kind?”
“The blackmail revolves around marriage,” you say, smoothly, addressing the crowd in general. “The object of blackmail desired to be wed, and the criminal who framed Rutherford refused to allow this marriage unless their object of blackmail followed through with the murder attempt.
“Unfortunately for Lord Somerton, passionate love prevailed over justice, and now I must accuse Mrs. Patricia Fitzgerald of committing theft towards her husband, framing Mr. Robert Rutherford, and designing the murder attempt on Lord Somerton. I must also accuse Miss Jade Fitzgerald for executing it, all for the love of a certain Edmund Baxter.”
Jade Fitzgerald’s face is ashen. A moment of silence, and then she explodes into wrenching, guilty sobs that fill you with grim satisfaction.
Baxter wheels on her, speechless, the anger draining from his face, replaced by pure shock.
And the rest of the guests back away as if the two carry a rare form of plague.
“It’s all true,” sobs Jade into her hands. “God forgive me, it’s true. Mother said I could never marry Edmund if I didn’t follow through. Tonight on the phone, she told me it was my last chance to target Lord Somerton if I wanted to be with Edmund at all. She said they would never suspect me. She said I would be safe.” She dissolves into a fresh batch of sobs. “Oh, God forgive me, it’s all a stupid waste now. All a waste.”
Edmund Baxter takes her into his arms and tries to shush her. Azure looks on with pure, although aloof, bafflement. Golding is fingering his moustaches. Blanche DuBois tremulously strokes her mistress’ shoulder. The police and detectives who have been listening to your revelation speech now close in in a loose circle around the scene. Slightly amazed that your whim was proved entirely correct, you withdraw. Your work is now over. You ask Moseley to show you out, and he does.
“Thank you, sir, for clearing my name,” he says gratefully, leading you into the entrance hall. “I do appreciate that.”
“Wait! Wait a moment!” From behind you, Edmund Baxter pants up the hall. He rounds you and Moseley — the latter retreats a little, and you draw the red-haired professor aside. Quietly, with his eyes lowered, Baxter asks you, “How did you know it wasn’t me?”
You consider this. “Instinct, I suppose,” you say finally. “I’ve yet to meet a criminal who declares I think they’re guilty before I even interview them. Usually, they’re as lamblike as one can be.”
A smile twitches across Baxter’s face. There’s a gentleness in his eyes that you feel sure Jade is attracted to. “Thanks,” he says. He hesitates again. “Is there any hope for Jade? Any hope at all?”
You sigh. “Well, she was acting under coercion, so that will help some — especially since her mother will take the spotlight for this whole affair, thanks to her involvement with the Rutherford case. But I can’t say definitely.”
“I knew something was amiss,” Baxter admits. “But she never breathed a word. I — I thought she hated me all of a sudden.”
“You asked her to marry you, earlier this evening. Didn’t you?”
He nods. “I suppose that was the argument everyone was hearing,” he says sheepishly. When she threw the proposal up in my face . . . I lost my head. I thought she had moved her eyes to Somerton.”
The last puzzle piece falls into place for you. “Somerton took you aside a few days ago and warned you not to get involved with the Fitzgeralds.”
“Precisely. And I began to think it was all a ruse, to get me out of the way. But now I see the truth of everything.” He hesitates again. “I’ve you to thank for that.”
You nod. “I do hope things work out for you both, in the end.”
Edmund Baxter twitches a smile, gives you a small bow, and leaves.
Meanwhile, the mousy-haired detective you spoke with earlier approaches you, shaking his head, wiping new perspiration from his face. “When I said show off, Whitby, I didn’t mean for you to whip up a saga about the most famous criminal case of the century, and then just happen to be proven right about it all.”
You frown. “What do you mean? After this, I’m immortalized.”
The detective nods emphatically. “I know. And from now on, everyone will be expecting miracles.”
You sigh, your frazzled nerves contemplating a whole box of cigars and a bottle of wine, thanks just to this day’s events. And then your thoughts return to that monster of a file still waiting for you on your office desk.
“I think I might resign, then,” you conclude with a tired grin.
By Mary Faustina & Clare Therese