I know a lot of you have been impatiently waiting for more Bethancourt and Gibbons; most of you have probably given up by now. I want to apologize for not having a new novel for you. Real life has caught up with me in a myriad of ways and my time for writing has become extremely limited. But I am working on the fifth book and someday I will self-publish it.
Meanwhile, I thought I’d put out some of the short stories, which were written before the novels, and which some of you have also asked for. This is the first one. It was published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, edited at that time by Cathleen Jordan, whom I remember with great fondness. She was a lovely person, and not just because she published my stories.
As you will see, the story is now rather dated. There are no cell phones, or Google searches, or any number of other technologies I now can’t believe I lived without. The writing also adheres more closely to an older, British style if you care about that sort of thing. But it’s still great fun, or at least I think so. I hope you do, too.
“Come to lunch, Jack,” said Phillip Bethancourt.
Detective Sergeant Jack Gibbons cradled the phone against his shoulder and cast a cautious glance at the clock on the nightstand. The hands pointed to eleven-thirty and he lay back on his pillows with a sigh.
“When?” he asked suspiciously.
A note of amusement crept into Bethancourt’s voice. “Why, Jack,” he said, “did you tie one on last night? You sound a bit foggy.”
“I am a bit foggy,” admitted Gibbons. “In fact, you woke me up.”
“Well, rise and shine. It’s a beautiful, sunny Sunday—probably the last we’ll have, and it’s no good wasting it in bed. Marla and I have planned lunch in Kew Gardens. She’s got one of her model friends coming along and we want to make it a foursome. We’ll pick you up in half an hour.”
Gibbons thought that the sun, while undoubtedly bright, would hardly be warming enough for lunch in the Gardens and said so.
“Nonsense,” replied Bethancourt. “I tell you, we’re having a heat wave. We’ll be round at twelve.”
Gibbons started to protest and found himself doing so to a dial tone. Cursing, he peeled back the covers and made for the bathroom.
In half an hour, he had showered, shaved, and drunk two cups of coffee. He was not yet dressed, but that hardly mattered. Phillip Bethancourt was never on time for anything and when accompanied by his girlfriend, Marla Tate, he was always twice as late as usual. Marla, one of the top fashion models in England, was punctual at work, but that seemed to put such a strain on her that she found it impossible to be punctual for anything else. What Gibbons, who was never late himself, couldn’t understand was why they were always later when together.
Thus, he was not really surprised to hear the phone ring at twelve-fifteen, heralding, he supposed, an announcement of a delayed arrival.
This, however, was not the case. The voice at the other end was not the voice of Bethancourt, but the voice of Scotland Yard, reminding him that he was on call.
Mrs. Delia MacGruder had been found dead. Under suspicious circumstances. Would Sergeant Gibbons please go over to her townhouse immediately.
Gibbons sighed and said he would.
In ten more minutes, the doorbell rang and Gibbons opened the door to admit a young man unremarkable in appearance. He was a little over average height, fair and slender, with good if somewhat delicate features and mischievously bright eyes behind tortoiseshell glasses. He was accompanied and utterly eclipsed by a tall, slender woman with an abundance of copper-coloured hair, flawless, creamy skin, and a face of undeniable beauty. High cheekbones slanted down to full, rosy lips, the nose was straight and fine, and above all reigned enormous jade-green eyes.
Behind them followed by far the most dignified member of the party: a large Russian Wolfhound.
“I’m sorry,” said Gibbons. “I tried to call, but you’d already left. I can’t go.”
“Not even,” said Marla enticingly, “to meet Janet?”
Gibbons shook his head. “I’m afraid not. The Yard called and I have to go look at a murder. Wealthy woman apparently killed in her townhouse. It’s a bloody nuisance.”
“It sounds rather interesting,” said Bethancourt, who was an avid amateur sleuth. “Who was it?”
“Don’t know her.” He shook his head regretfully. “Still, it sounds intriguing. Look, we’ll run you over there—”
“Phillip,” said Marla sharply, “we still have to pick Janet up.”
“Damn, that’s right. Look here, darling, you take the car and collect Janet and go on ahead. Jack and I will take a taxi and meet you as soon as we’re done.”
Marla’s look was frosty. “You can’t just cancel on lunch like that.”
“But I’m not canceling, Marla, I’m merely running a little late. Now, you go ahead and Jack and I will catch you up in no time. Here are the keys. Come, we’ll all go down together.”
Marla, splendidly arctic in her anger, stalked from the flat. Downstairs, she gave Bethancourt a look that boded him no good when she did see him again, climbed into the grey Jaguar, and drove off at something approaching the speed of light.
“My,” said Gibbons, who never failed to be impressed by Marla’s fits of temper. Then, “She’s left you with the dog.”
“That’s all right,” said Bethancourt. “Cerberus is quite well-trained. He’ll wait outside for us. Come along, let’s find a taxi.”
In their Oxford days, Bethancourt and Gibbons had had a nodding acquaintance with each other. But it was a chance meeting in a London pub a year or two after they had come down that was the real basis of their friendship. On a typical raw November night they had come across each other, Bethancourt gloomy over a girl would had just shown him the door, Gibbons even gloomier over a difficult murder case at the Yard. His superiors could make nothing of it and had been taking it out on their subordinate, who could make nothing of it either, but who was the more distressed as he felt that this was his opportunity to distinguish himself. Over the whiskies, Bethancourt found himself forgetting about the difficulties arising from infidelity as he became fascinated by the tangled threads of the case, which seemed on the face of it almost impossible to unravel. Gibbons, for his part, discovered it made his own ideas clearer to talk the thing out with someone uninvolved with the case in any way.
The next day, Bethancourt rang Gibbons, deprecatingly putting out a few thoughts which Gibbons found very illuminating indeed. It was not long before the case was solved and Gibbons was on his way to promotion on the strength of it. The celebration attendant on the solving of the case had cemented their friendship, and the whole episode had given Bethancourt a new hobby.
So they came now to the scene of this latest crime without having to explain Bethancourt’s presence and without Gibbons’ having to warn him to stay out of the way and keep quiet.
The dead woman’s dressing room was small, but very nicely appointed. Beside the single window was a dressing table and a stool. The police photographer was pressed against the opposite wall in an attempt to get a full view of the scene.
Delia MacGruder had been seated at the dressing table, applying make-up after apparently taking a bath. She had been clad in a dressing gown, a small, slight woman of about fifty—still attractive of face and figure if one was to judge by the picture in a silver frame on the table. The face of the body was too contorted from its death throes to judge anything of the kind. The little drawer of the dressing table was slightly open, and scattered over the table top were various bottles and compacts. To one side stood a cold cup of coffee, half-drunk, with the cream congealing on the surface. On the thick carpet by the dead woman lay an ornate hand mirror and another compact—open—apparently dropped by the victim.
The corpse lay sprawled by the stool, the face swollen and bluish. Bethancourt shuddered and back away after a single glance. The doctor looked up at him and grinned. Bethancourt, incapable at the moment of smiling back, stooped and began to peer beneath the dressing table.
“What are you looking for?” asked Gibbons, coming up on his other side.
“That,” replied Bethancourt, pointing to a small, slender brush lying neglected against the wall. “She must have dropped it when she died. Or she might have knocked it from the table.”
“What is it?”
“An eyeliner brush. That’s the eyeliner on the floor over there. Her face is awfully discoloured, but as far as I could make out, she’d actually put on all the stuff that’s on the table. And she’d started on the eyeliner. Mascara, blush, and lipstick are missing, so I presume they’re in the drawer.”
Gibbons walked over to the drawer and opened it farther. Within was a jumble of boxes, pencils, and small bottles. He looked at Bethancourt.
“There,” said that young man, pointing. “Mascara, blush, and a plethora of lipsticks.” He grinned. “Dating a fashion model does give one an edge in these situations.”
Detective Chief Inspector Carmichael came in from the hallway.
“Hello, Bethancourt,” he said pleasantly, as was appropriate to the son of an intimate friend of the head of New Scotland Yard. “Following the footprints with us again, are you?”
“I thought I’d just come and have a look, sir, since Jack here did me out of a lunch.”
“Well, splendid to see you. Gibbons, the doctor definitely says poison. Make sure the crime scene people put the coffee in for analysis, and have a look round for anything else edible. You might check the bathroom and bedroom as well.”
Gibbons nodded and set about it, while Bethancourt drifted away, wandering out of the room and into the bedroom next door. The bed was unmade, but otherwise the room was in perfect order. Finding nothing of interest, he wandered farther, into the next room, which was a gentleman’s dressing room. Here a closet door stood open and a sweater had been thrown negligently over an armchair. Bethancourt peered into the closet, took note of the suits and jackets hanging within, and then turned to the bureau. He eased open the top drawer and found an orderly array of socks. The next drawer held shirts.
“There you are.” Gibbons stood in the doorway. “Looking for anything in particular?”
“No, just being nosy.” Bethancourt poked under the shirts.
“I’m going downstairs to interview the maid,” said Gibbons. “I thought you’d like to come.”
“Of course. Wait a moment—what’s this?”
He withdrew his hand from beneath the shirts and held up a photograph of a young woman. A very beautiful woman in a revealing dress.
“My,” said Bethancourt. “‘Oh, my America, my new-found land.’”
“Let’s have a look.” Gibbons took the photo and gave a low whistle.
Bethancourt grinned. “It’s remarkable,” he said, “how quickly one’s mind can revert to the baser instincts.”
“Still,” said Gibbons regretfully, “it doesn’t necessarily mean anything. Lots of men have mistresses and don’t murder their wives.”
“True,” said Bethancourt. “Or it could be even more innocent that that—a niece or what have you. Well, let’s see what the maid has to say.”
The maid, a plump woman of about forty, was in tears. The policeman who was with her gave her name for her and it was with great difficulty that Gibbons succeeded in eliciting the information that she had worked for the MacGruders for five years. Bethancourt sat beside her and patted her hand.
“Now, now,” he said soothingly, “you must try to be brave. You must try to help Sergeant Gibbons here so he can find out who did this dreadful thing.”
The maid hiccuped, choked out that it was indeed a dreadful thing and she just couldn’t believe it had happened, that poor Mrs. MacGruder was gone all in an instant, just like that. She didn’t see how a body was to bear it. Bethancourt patted her hand again and looked helplessly at Gibbons.
“Now, Mrs. Andrews,” said that young man, “my men tell me you said Mr. MacGruder left the house this morning at nine. Was anyone else in the house after that besides yourself and Mrs. MacGruder?”
Mrs. Andrews shook her head vehemently and sobbed.
“Does anyone else usually reside here?”
Another shake of the head.
“No? The MacGruders had no children then?”
Mrs. Andrews sniffed and hiccuped. “Mrs. MacGruder had two sons by her first marriage,” she managed.
Apparently the thought of these two now motherless boys was more than she could bear, for she burst into fresh sobbing, adding that the sons did not live in the house.
“Very well, that’s very good,” said Gibbons encouragingly. “They don’t live here. Just so. Where do they live?”
The response was unintelligible.
“I think,” said Bethancourt, “she said Cirencester.”
“Not in the immediate neighbourhood then,” said Gibbons. He returned his attention to Mrs. Andrews. “Now then,” he said, “I’m going to ask you to be very brave and remember about this morning.”
Mrs. Andrews’ sobs acquired new vigour.
It was at this point that Bethancourt sat up and said, “Tea!” in a very firm manner. Both Gibbons and the policeman stared at him. Even Mrs. Andrews cast him a startled glance. Bethancourt, ignoring them all, leapt from the sofa and strode out of the room.
Gibbons shook his head and sighed. “Now, Mrs. Andrews,” he began again.
Ten minutes later he had gleaned the bare information that Mr. MacGruder had left the house at nine to catch a train to the suburbs and play golf with some friends who apparently were also a business connexion. Mrs. Andrews was dabbing ineffectually at her tears with a tissue when Bethancourt returned, bearing a tray.
“Here we go,” he said in an unnaturally cheerful voice. “Here’s some nice hot tea for you, Mrs. Andrews. Now you blow your nose and have a sip of this—it’l put you right in a moment. Milk or sugar?”
Mrs. Andrews looked at him gratefully and said she’d like milk. “You’re a nice lad,” she added.
“You mustn’t flatter me, Mrs. Andrews,” said Bethancourt, beaming as if the queen had just announced her intention of knighting him. “And don’t forget to blow your nose—it’s a very important part of the process. Doesn’t that feel better? Good. Now, when did you say Mr. MacGruder left the house?”
The tea had an almost magical effect. Mrs. Andrews, although still sniffling and dabbing her eyes, now managed to give a coherent account of the morning. Delia MacGruder, having seen her husband off, had remained in the dining room reading the paper. At about ten-thirty she had gone upstairs to bathe and change prior to taking the twelve sixteen train to meet her husband and his friends for lunch. At about eleven she had come down for more coffee and returned upstairs. Mrs. Andrews had heard a thud from upstairs some twenty minutes later, but just assumed Mrs. MacGruder had dropped something.
“I was hoovering,” she said tearfully, “just doing the living room once over lightly, when I noticed it was a bit past twelve and I thought to myself, Mrs. MacGruder will miss that train if she don’t hurry. And then I thought I’d just step up and remind her, thinking maybe she’d got the time mixed up, though that’s not like her—always very punctual she was, thinking it rude to keep people waiting. So I go up and knock on her door, but there’s no answer and then I get scared, but I open the door anyhow and there she was, oh, what a horrible sight…”
“Very horrible,” agreed Bethancourt with some feeling. “So you ran out and called the ambulance? Or did you go in, try to revive her?”
“I should have done,” wailed the woman. “But she looked so awful, like something out of one of those horror films, I just ran straight downstairs with my heart in my throat. I was all a-tremble, just shaking like a leaf, so bad I could hardly dial the phone…”
Here she burst into sobs again. Bethancourt patted her hand and Gibbons murmured that she needn’t answer any more questions just now. Then he and Bethancourt withdrew.
“They’ve removed the body, sir,” said a policeman who was waiting for them in the hall. “And we’ve got hold of the husband—he’s on his way back. Should be here any minute.”
“Have they finished upstairs?”
“Just about, sir. The fingerprint men are packing up, and the chief says we’re to seal the room once they’ve gone. He said he’d be down to meet the husband and you should wait for him here.”
“Very well. I’ll be here if Mr. MacGruder arrives before the chief comes down.”
The policeman nodded and moved off. Gibbons looked round for Bethancourt, found him across the hall in the study, riffling the drawers of the desk. There was a hard look in his eyes behind the glasses.
“There’s a back door in the kitchen,” he said, “but it’s locked and bolted.”
“I know,” said Gibbons. “My men checked it out.”
“Then you realize that, if the poison was in the coffee, only the maid could have put it there? To get upstairs from the kitchen, you have to pass through the dining room and the living room, where Mrs. Andrews was cleaning. There’s no back stair.”
“No,” said Gibbons, “I hadn’t realized.” Then he added, “But we don’t know there was anything in the coffee.”
“That’s true.” Bethancourt paused and withdrew a handful of letters from the desk. “Here we are,” he said. “Letters addressed to ‘Dear Mum’, signed by ‘Tom’. Return address in Cirencester, last name is Follett. And here’s another one, different street but still Cirencester, signed ‘Bill and Annie’.”
“Probably a wife,” said Gibbons. “Well, we’ll have to find out if they were in Cirencester this morning. There—that must be Mr. MacGruder arriving.”
David MacGruder was a well-preserved man of something over forty. He was very pale and held himself in tight control. He was accompanied by his wife’s solicitor, with whom he had been playing golf. The solicitor was an older man in a pair of highly regrettable plaid trousers.
Gibbons spoke with them briefly, saying the Chief Inspector would be down presently and would Mr. MacGruder wait for him in the drawing room? As he ushered the pair in that direction, he explained that the body had been taken away and that he had sealed up the dressing room and was leaving a man there. MacGruder nodded dully, accepting everything without question.
Gibbons found Bethancourt outside, sitting on the front stoop with the dog, Cerberus.
Bethancourt glanced at his watch. “A quarter to three. I expect we’d better run up and find the girls,” he said, without much enthusiasm.
“You’d better,” retorted Gibbons. “I’ve got to go to the office and write a report. I’ve got to make sure the coffee analysis is marked down for first thing in the morning. I’ve got to put someone on the track of those two sons in Cirencester. There are dozens of things I’ve got to do and somewhere in between them all I may find time for a ham sandwich.”
“See here,” said Bethancourt, alarmed, “you can’t leave me to face Marla’s wrath alone.”
Gibbons grinned ruthlessly. “Oh, can’t I?” he said. “Anyway, it’s your own fault. You knew she’d be angry when you insisted on coming with me.”
“Ah, well, I thought it would be worth it. And it has been. It’s a very interesting problem and I’m going to enjoy working it out for you. Come, Cerberus,” he added, ignoring his friend’s protests. “It’ seems we are being deserted in the face of the enemy. Into the breach, old fellow.”
Jack Gibbons, having had a very long and busy day, leaned back comfortably in one of Phillip Bethancourt’s roomy armchairs, planted his feet on one of the several coffee tables in the room, and took a deep swallow of single malt scotch. Bethancourt occupied a spacious and very comfortable flat, if a trifle oddly furnished. It had been decorated solely by its owner, who had money enough but a very eccentric taste. He was very fond of coffee tables.
He emerged now from the kitchen, a cigarette between his lips.
“The lasagna is in the oven,” he said. “It should take about half an hour.” He turned to the bar to replenish his drink.
“I would have thought,” ventured Gibbons, “that you would have been busy with Marla tonight. After yesterday, I mean.”
Bethancourt made a face. “She’s angrier than I gave her credit for,” he admitted, seating himself in one corner of the sofa. “She didn’t go to the Gardens yesterday—she took the car all the way to Brighton just to make sure I wouldn’t find her and would spend a lot of time looking. We had a beautiful row last night,” he concluded glumly.
“Yes, it was rather.” Bethancourt shrugged and turned to other things. “What did the post mortem find?” he asked.
“Delia MacGruder died of cyanide poisoning.”
“In the coffee?”
“There was nothing in the coffee but cream. Neither was there anything in the pot, which figures, as the maid had also been drinking out of it.”
“But it would be very easy to poison one cup and then, once it had done its work, take it away, wash it out, and fill it with fresh coffee.”
“It would only be easy if you were the maid, as you pointed out yesterday. And if she really did do it, why should she claim to have been in the drawing room, making it impossible for anyone else to get to the coffee? She could just as well have been cleaning the study or the bathroom or anywhere else in the house.”
“She could be shielding someone else,” suggested Bethancourt. “Possibly she let someone into the house.”
“Possibly. It’s also perfectly possible that someone else came in through the front door.”
“What about MacGruder?”
Gibbons shook his head regretfully. “He would be a beautiful suspect, but his alibi had been confirmed. He left the house at nine and caught the nine eighteen from Victoria. We know this because the solicitor met him at the station. They proceeded directly to the golf course, where they met a third man and went out to the links. They finished about half twelve and went to the clubhouse to meet their wives for lunch. Instead they met a policeman who informed them of Mrs. MacGruder’s death.”
“Well, he’s out then.”
“Yes, and it’s a pity because he’s the only one so far with a motive. In fact, it’s classic. Mrs. MacGruder’s first husband was a wealthy man with a thriving business. He died eight years ago in a car accident, leaving everything to his wife. Mrs. MacGruder, who already had money of her own, met and married David MacGruder almost six years ago. Prior to that he had been a businessman earning a good salary, but by no means a spectacular one. He retired after his marriage. And he’s eight years younger than his wife was.”
“But he couldn’t have done it.”
“No. No one could except the maid. Who else could walk in on her whilst she was dressing and not be immediately challenged?”
Bethancourt leaned back. “A lover,” he suggested. “Or her sons. Or another woman.”
“Well, we haven’t finished checking the sons’ movements yet. And I suppose they might have had keys to the townhouse. Another woman would have had trouble getting in.”
Bethancourt lit his cigarette and sipped his whisky. “Not if she had a key,” he said. “And it’s really amazing how many people do have keys to other people’s flats. A neighbor, for instance, who was asked to look in occasionally when last the MacGruders were travelling. But by far the easiest solution is the maid.”
“No,” said Gibbons, frowning. “It doesn’t feel right to me. Where would she get cyanide to begin with? And if she did get it, why wouldn’t she put a nice, big dose into the coffee? Mrs. MacGruder had taken a very small dose—that’s all it takes, of course, but most people don’t know that. In nine out of ten poison cases, you get an overdose. Moreover, why would she do it at all?”
Bethancourt waved a hand. “A million reasons. A deep-seated hatred of her employer. Maybe Mrs. MacGruder left her a fortune in her will. But,” he added, “I’ll grant you it’s not likely. Unfortunately, if you do away with the maid, you also do away with the idea that the poison was in the coffee. And that leaves us with another problem.”
“That someone popped in on her while she was in the middle of dressing and making up, just after breakfast and not anywhere near lunch or even elevenses, and got her to eat something. I mean, what does one say?”
“One says, ‘Hullo, I can see I’m interrupting, but I just wanted you to taste these marvelous chocolates.’”
“Possibly,” admitted Bethancourt grudgingly. “But I’ve just thought of something else. Say Mrs. MacGruder puts down her hand mirror and makeup and eats a chocolate or whatever. It kills her and in falling, she knocks the hand mirror and the makeup she was just using off the table, but nothing else.”
“Perhaps she had put them down on a different part of the table.”
“Why should she? She put everything else as she finished with it right above the drawer. Habit is very strong, Jack. I invariably put the shaving cream down on the top of the sink, to the right of the tap. It’s routine—I always do it. When interrupted in the act of using it, habit takes over and I still put it in the same place. But it has to be something really important to interrupt me at all. Haven’t you ever noticed how women hate to be interrupted in the middle of putting on makeup? They look silly half made-up and then know it. What would you do if someone popped in on you while you were shaving?”
“I’d say, ‘Excuse me—you don’t mind if I just finish up here?’”
“That’s all very well, Phillip, but it must have happened that way. Maybe Mrs. MacGruder had an overpowering passion for chocolates.”
“No,” said Bethancourt. “It just means that there’s something about it we haven’t figured out yet.”
“Not to mention who it was that fed it to her.”
“There is that. Anyone else on your list of suspects?”
“The family seems like the best bet. After all, she did have money to leave, and ten to one she left it to her husband and sons. But we don’t know about that yet. Otherwise, we haven’t uncovered anyone else with motive so far.”
“What about the girl in the photograph?”
Gibbons grinned. “I asked about that. Mr. MacGruder claims she’s an old friend of the family’s. I said that in that case, there was no reason we shouldn’t have her address and he more or less had to give it to me. Her name’s Sarah Duncan and she says Mr. MacGruder is just a friend with whom she dines occasionally.”
Bethancourt fetched the bottle and topped up both glasses while he thought about this. “Does she have an alibi?” he asked.
“Not exactly. She’s an actress. She was at an audition that morning, but it was a cattle call and she didn’t get onstage until one. She was definitely seen there, but times are hazy. She could have slipped out and come back. But if she was MacGruder’s mistress, she obviously wouldn’t have known his wife. If she had suddenly appeared in the dressing room, Mrs. MacGruder would hardly have been likely to stop to eat anything Sarah gave her. Besides, it would all be a bit awkward, don’t you think?”
“Just a bit,” agreed Bethancourt with a grin. “Still, Miss Duncan might be worth looking into. I’ll do that if you like. As soon as I manage to make up with Marla.”
“What do you mean?”
“What budding actress wouldn’t jump at the chance to become friends with Marla Tate? Marla runs in the right and very elite circles.”
“That’s true. All right then. And meanwhile, I’ll find out about the sons. After all, it’s only been twenty-four hours. Tomorrow may turn up a lot.”
“Tomorrow may turn up a lot for you,” said Bethancourt. “I’ve got to spend the day making up to Marla. And if there’s any time left after that, I’m supposed to be writing an article.”
Gibbons grinned. A generation ago, a young man possessed of as much family money as Bethancourt would have been expected to do very little beyond upholding the title of “gentleman.” Now, however, society dictated that one should not be idle, and various projects had been suggested to Phillip by his parents upon completion of his education. None of these had had any great success, Bethancourt being disinclined toward organization and regular schedules. No compromise was reached until he wrote an article for a criminology magazine and was pleasantly surprised to find it accepted for publication. He immediately sent copies to all his relatives, wrote a second piece which was also published, and thereupon called himself a writer. He turned out an article on an average of every six to twelve months, just often enough to appease his parents. Gibbons, who had to work for a living, was not in the least sympathetic towards the problems of this so-called career.
“You’ll get it out all right,” he said now, draining his glass. “And if you don’t, it won’t matter much.” Bethancourt glared at him, and he laughed.
“I think,” said Bethancourt, with a great deal of wounded dignity, “that it’s time I got the lasagna out of the oven.”
He retreated to the kitchen while Gibbons chuckled.
Phillip Bethancourt lay propped up in bed two mornings later, a cup of coffee balanced on his stomach. Marla had been appeased for his neglect and now he was leisurely watching her put on makeup. He had never really followed the whole process before. In a moment or two, Marla noticed his watchful gaze and looked up from her mirror.
“Is there something wrong?” she asked.
“No, no,” he assured her.
He had an idea. Setting aside the coffee, he rolled out of bed and went to the kitchen. In a moment he returned, munching on a piece of cheese.
“Mmm,” he said, as casually as he could. “Really delicious, this.”
Marla threw him a startled glance. “Is that cheese?” she said. “First thing in the morning?”
“This is something special,” he assured her. “Have a taste?”
“In a minute, darling.” She drew a pencil line along her lid, and smudged it expertly with a finger.
Bethancourt wandered back to the bed, absently laying the cheese on the nightstand. Of course, Marla rarely ate anything in the morning. Still, she liked cheese. And Delia MacGruder had just finished breakfast. Even if one really liked something, would one be quite so eager for it directly after a meal? Still, people were odd about food. Mrs. MacGruder had been slender; perhaps she was on a perennial diet…
Marla set aside her mirror and rose. “Aren’t you ever going to get up?” she asked as she moved toward the bathroom.
Bethancourt shrugged for answer. Then there was the matter of the keys. He no longer had keys to own parents’ house; was that unusual?
“Marla,” he called, “do you have keys to your parents’ house?”
She emerged, drying her hands, and gazed curiously at him. “They live in Kent,” she said. “Why on earth should I have keys to a house in Kent?”
She shook her head and left the room.
His downstairs neighbours had keys to his flat, and so, of course, did the charwoman. It might not be too difficult to abscond with a set of keys long enough to have copies made. No, keys were not the problem.
“Phillip,” said Marla from the doorway, an exasperated look on her face, “what on earth is wrong with you this morning? That cheese in the kitchen is the same stuff we were eating two nights ago when you said you knew a place we could get better.”
The phone rang that evening as Bethancourt, true to form, was emerging from the bath some ten minutes after he had been appointed to leave the flat.
“I’ve been to Cirencester,” said Gibbons cheerfully. “The sons are shaping up nicely. As you so cleverly deduced, one of them is married—the younger one, although they’re much of an age: twenty-five and twenty-six. The younger one is William and is married to Annie. Tom, the elder, lives alone and I think he’s gay.”
“That,” said Bethancourt drily, “does not mean he’s a murderer.”
“True,” said Gibbons, still cheerful, “but listen to this: he’s got his own small antique shop, which he runs with the help of an assistant. He was not there on Sunday morning.”
“Why on earth should he be?” asked Bethancourt. “Does he break the Sabbath by having his shop open on Sundays?”
“No, but evidently he usually spends Sunday mornings there going over inventory, leaving around eleven to have brunch with his brother and his wife. Last Sunday, however, he drove to Windsor to have a look at some antiques a gentleman there was selling.”
“And did he indeed arrive in Windsor?”
“Oh, yes, dead on time for his appointment at one-thirty. He had plenty of time, especially since a neighbour says she saw his car leaving about eight.”
“Eight?” mused Bethancourt. “That’s pretty early to be starting for an appointment at half one. It’s about an hour and a half from Cirencester to Windsor. You might spend two hours at it if you dawdled or ran into an accident.”
“He says he stopped by the shop, just to look in and make sure everything was all right. No one saw him, however. He also claims to have stopped at a pub for an early lunch before keeping his appointment, but no one at the pub remembers him either. We’re in the midst of looking into his finances to see if he was in need of money. Antiques is not a cheap business, you know.”
“So I do. What about the other brother?”
“Bill was at home with his wife. They had brunch alone, since Tom wasn’t coming, and were having a perfectly normal, uneventful Sunday until they heard the news from MacGruder. Bill works with an investment firm in Bristol. Oh, and his wife is pregnant.”
“Life and death,” commented Bethancourt. “How poignant.”
“Well,” said Gibbons, ignoring this, “I think that’s the crop. Except that neither brother thought much of their stepfather. They’d heard rumors that he cheated on their mother.”
“Virtuous man that I am,” said Bethancourt, “I am just about to venture out and either prove or disprove that rumor. Sara Duncan is performing in a disreputable little showcase, to which Marla has ungraciously agreed to go.”
“In return, no doubt, for some favour on your part. Really, Phillip, sometimes I wonder why you put up with her.”
“Take a good look at her the next time you’re round,” retorted Bethancourt. “The answer should be fairly obvious. I’ll report tomorrow.”
“That,” said Marla, as they emerged from the theatre, “was dreadful. And that woman was particularly dreadful. I really don’t see why I should make up to her.”
“You should make up to her,” answered Bethancourt, “because I, the beloved object in your life, have asked you to. Besides, I’ve promised you that necklace you’ve taken a fancy to if you do. Come along, the pub should be just around here.”
“Don’t be silly,” said Marla. “We can’t go to the pub yet—they’ll all still be at the theatre, changing. If we’re to do this properly, we have to make an entrance.”
“Oh. Quite right, my love.” Bethancourt looked about. The weather was still remarkably mild, but a fine rain was falling. “There,” he said, pointing. “That restaurant looks fairly expensive—too expensive for anyone in that play to be in. We’ll go there and have a drink while we’re waiting.”
Accordingly, they made their way across the street, re-emerging some forty-five minutes later to proceed to the pub frequented by the cast and crew of Doing the Bunk.
Marla’s presence in the audience had been duly noted by both these parties, who were avidly discussing it when she swept in, shaking the rain from her famous coppery hair. She regarded the assembled group with something of the attitude of a queen surveying a not very promising group of peasants until Bethancourt poked her in the ribs. Suddenly she smiled.
“Ah!” she exclaimed. “Look, Phillip, we’ve stumbled on the cast of that delightful little play.”
Then she waded into them, effusively commenting on the play and their performances in it.
This, naturally, was well-received. Bethancourt steered her steadily toward Sarah Duncan, who had changed her rather skimpy excuse for a costume (in Bethancourt’s opinion the sole highlight of the play) for a black jumper and skirt. Marla did her part magnificently, complimenting the girl and initiating a conversation about acting and the difficulties of getting started. It was all going quite well until Bethancourt noticed the danger signs: Marla was getting bored and there were three young men bearing down on her other side, vying for her attention. In no time at all she had abandoned her escort and Sarah Duncan and was happily exchanging quips with her circle of admirers.
“She’s marvelous,” said Sarah with a sigh. “Even more beautiful than her photographs.” She looked at Bethancourt. “Do you think she’d mind if I asked her how she got started? I’ve tried to do some modeling, but you need really good pictures before they’ll even look at you.”
“Marla always had the best pictures she could get,” lied Bethancourt. “But, you see, she also had me.”
Sarah looked at him questioningly.
“Well,” he said modestly, hoping fervently that Marla was not listening, “I happen to have a bit of money, you see. Having a sponsor,” he added, “always helps. But I’m sure you don’t find that much of a problem.”
“No,” she answered. Then, in a burst of confidentiality, “Of course, I do have someone and he’s been helpful here and there. But he’s not really connected to any theatre people.”
Bethancourt laughed. “And I didn’t know anyone in the fashion industry,” he said. “I learned quick enough. You should have him take you round to the right places, buy a few drinks for people.”
She frowned. “That’s not always possible.”
“Ah,” said Bethancourt with quick understanding. “Married, is he?”
“Well, yes.” She set her empty glass on the bar.
“Here, let me get you another. Barman, two pints of bitter here.”
Sarah drank deeply.
“Married men are difficult,” went on Bethancourt. “Or so I’ve heard. I’ve never been one myself.”
She giggled a little at that and then sobered, frowning. She looked up at Bethancourt. “Actually,” she said, “I’m in a bit of a pickle with my married man. You see, he isn’t married anymore. His wife died just the other day—rather horrible it was, really. But you see my problem is, well, what if he asks me to marry him now? I mean, I like him well enough, but he’s a bit older than me and, well, I don’t really think I want to marry him.”
“That’s difficult,” said Bethancourt, trying to stifle any signs of delight at this confidence. “But of course the sea is full of fish, don’t you know. And he’ll have to wait at least a little while anyway, if his wife’s just died. Did she go suddenly?”
“Oh, very. In fact,” Sarah lowered her voice, “they say it was murder.”
“How dreadful!” exclaimed Bethancourt, feigning astonishment. He was just about to ask if she harbored any suspicions of her lover when Marla cut into their conversation like a buzz saw into a tree trunk. She had suddenly noticed that if several men were paying court to her, Phillip had become involved in a tête-à-tête with a woman whose breasts were far too perfect to be safe. Marla’s own breasts were on the small side and she was correspondingly sensitive to the size and shape of breasts that might be superior to her own. Sarah’s endowments had been rather prominently featured in the play and Marla had no doubts about them or the rest of the girl’s features: far too pretty for Phillip to be trusted with.
“Darling,” she said, expertly wrapping herself around him, apparently overcome with affection, “I’ve finished my drink. Don’t you think it’s time we were getting on?”
Bethancourt considered rapidly. He doubted he would get anymore out of Sarah Duncan now, and he had only just made up with Marla yesterday. To risk another bout with her mercurial temper could be dangerous.
“Absolutely, my love,” he said.
Bethancourt found Gibbons in his office the next afternoon surrounded by photographs of the crime scene and various forensic reports.
“Usefully employed, as always,” said Bethancourt cheerfully, shedding his Burberry and slumping into a chair. Cerberus followed his master in and arranged himself elegantly at his feet.
His friend shot him a harried look.
“Carmichael’s been in twice this morning to ask how it’s going,” he said with a groan. “The press is having a field day, and MacGruder, now he’s over the shock, is making a fuss. And I’m more confused than ever.”
“Oh?” asked Bethancourt, lighting a cigarette, unmoved by this panoply of catastrophes. “I thought the sons were shaping up nicely.”
“I’ve got the preliminary report on their finances back,” said Gibbons, searching amid the mass of papers on his desk. “And it’s exactly the opposite of what would make me happy. To top it off, we haven’t had an ounce of luck in tracing cyanide to anyone.”
“What’s wrong with their finances?” asked Bethancourt, lifting a stack of photographs in search of an ashtray.
“Tom, son number one, has a hefty bank account,” replied Gibbons. “He’s invested wisely and his antiques business is booming. He buys nothing he can’t afford and sells everything at a goodly markup. However, over the past few months there have been fairly hefty withdrawals.”
“Aha!” said Bethancourt, pleased. “Blackmail, perhaps?”
“Not unless it’s his brother who’s been blackmailing him,” said Gibbons. “The withdrawals are all in the form of cheques made out to his brother. So we turn to brother Bill’s affairs, and find he has made some very risky investments lately and is presently almost broke. He’s been borrowing from his brother to meet his household expenses and there are still outstanding bills. Big ones.”
“Well, there’s a motive for you at any rate,” said Bethancourt. “It could be he’d appealed to his mother for money and she’d said no. Possibly his brother was cutting him off as well.”
“Don’t flick your ashes in the wastebasket; it’s full of paper.”
“You’ve buried your ashtray so deep a gravedigger couldn’t find it.”
“It’s right there, fathead.”
“Where? Oh, I see, under the desk. Of course, how silly of me.” Bethancourt retrieved the ashtray and returned to the subject at hand. “There,” he said, “all right and proper. So, suspicion lifts itself from Tom and fastens itself firmly on Bill.”
“That’s just what it doesn’t do,” said Gibbons gloomily. “Bill, as you will remember, was at home on Sunday morning with his wife.”
“The pregnant one,” supplied Bethancourt. “I remember perfectly. But husbands and wives have been known to become accomplices before.”
“Not when they’re innocently sitting at home. Their neighbour spent the morning washing his car in his driveway. It took him a couple of hours all told, and he swears that from ten to twelve Bill’s car was sitting empty in the drive.”
“That comes a bit awkward,” said Bethancourt. “Because I can’t see Tom murdering their mother for Bill’s benefit, especially not if he was cutting off the loans.”
Gibbons snorted. “Not bloody likely. Anyway, they’re reading the will at four o’clock and I’m going down to hear it and talk to Bill about his financial problems afterward.”
“Then you’d better hurry,” said Bethancourt. “It’s a quarter to now.”
“Good Lord, really?” said Gibbons, springing up.
“Here,” said Bethancourt, “I’ll go with you. We’ll take a taxi and I can tell you all about Sarah Duncan on the way.”
“Oh, right, I’d forgotten about her,” said Gibbons, grabbing his raincoat. “What did you find?”
“She was definitely having an affair with MacGruder,” answered Bethancourt, following him with Cerberus at his heels. “But she doesn’t want to marry him. I think she was telling the truth, which means she didn’t do it. Cerberus, watch your tail.”
Gibbons shook his head.
“It’s a funny case,” he said. “All our leads seem to just peter out.”
“Because we haven’t got hold of the right one yet,” said Bethancourt, ushering him out the door.
Delia MacGruder had left a bequest of one hundred thousand pounds to each of her sons. There was a small bequest of five hundred pounds to the maid, Mrs. Andrews. The rest of the estate, including investments and real property, was left to her husband. Nobody in the solicitor’s office seemed surprised or upset by the will. They were all dressed somberly, as befitted the occasion: MacGruder and his stepson Bill in charcoal grey suits and dark ties, Annie and Mrs. Andrews in black dresses; Tom was not present. Bethancourt had an instant of wishing he was not wearing a tweed jacket and khakis.
The reading of the will did not take long. The family expressed thanks to the solicitor, who had abandoned his plaid trousers for a dark blue pinstripe. He explained that of course probate would be held up while the police concluded their investigation into this tragic occurrence. Everyone seemed united in ignoring the presence of the police in the room. Gibbons finally approached the solicitor and asked if there was a room where he could speak privately with Bill and his wife.
“That’s ridiculous!” snapped MacGruder before the solicitor could respond. “Perhaps if the police would stop plaguing my family, you’d be able to concentrate on finding my wife’s murderer.”
Gibbons shot him a cool stare, but, “Just doing my duty, sir,” was all he said.
“We’re happy to help,” said Annie quietly but firmly. She was six or seven months pregnant and her paleness was emphasized by the black of her dress.
MacGruder snorted. “It’s stupid to think you had anything to do with it,” he said belligerently. “And I resent it, I resent it very much.”
“It seems to me,” said Bill with a glint in his eye, “that it’s for us to resent, not you.”
“You can use the conference room,” interrupted the solicitor hurriedly. “My secretary will show you.”
MacGruder stormed out and the others followed him more quietly.
They settled at one end of the oval oak table, Gibbons introducing Bethancourt as his colleague.
“What a beautiful dog,” said Annie, holding out a hand to Cerberus who deigned to sniff it politely.
“Thank you,” said Bethancourt. “His name’s Cerberus.”
She shot him a startled glance.
“I’m sorry to have to trouble you again,” Gibbons was saying to Bill, “but there are just a few things that want clearing up. I understand, Mr. Follet, that you had been borrowing heavily from your brother to cover your debts.”
“What?” Abandoning Cerberus, Annie sat up straight and stared at her husband. “What does he mean, Bill? What debts?”
Follet turned to her with a miserable look in his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said hopelessly. “I—I didn’t want you to know. Really, sergeant, couldn’t you have asked me in private?” he demanded, turning to Gibbons.
“I’m very sorry, sir,” said Gibbons, somewhat taken aback. “I had no idea your wife didn’t know of your financial affairs.”
“But what’s wrong?” asked Annie. “We were doing so well. You said so when we—when we planned the baby.”
“I’m sorry,” said Follet again. “It was the Conglomerated options. It—it looked like such a good thing, Annie. You know I told you about it—”
“I remember,” she said, a little dazedly. “You sold off some of our other investments to go into it. But it was doing well, Bill. You said it was.”
Follet gulped. “I’m afraid I lied. It was so totally unexpected. But, well, I lost everything we put into it. Everybody did. And now I owe on the options. And, Annie, I put our savings into it as well.”
Her eyes widened. “Our savings?” she whispered. “Bill, how could you?”
“I didn’t use all of it,” he said. “But the rest went when I had to pay on the options. God,” he shook his head. “I should have known. But everyone at the office seemed so sure…”
Gibbons coughed diplomatically. “I’m very sorry, ma’am, to have been the cause of such news.”
“No,” she said softly. “It was better that I should know.” She was staring dully at her belly, one hand resting on the bulge, while her husband gazed helplessly at her.
“We’ll be all right,” he said reassuringly. “I’m afraid I haven’t been any too smart with the money I borrowed from Tom, but with mother’s inheritance I can at least replace our savings and use the rest to get us back on our feet.”
“Yes, of course,” she said, not looking up. Cerberus sniffed and gently put his nose in her lap. She smiled a little at him and rested one hand on his head.
“Good lad,” muttered Bethancourt under his breath.
Gibbons was clearing his throat again. “Your brother wasn’t here today, Mr. Follet?” he asked.
“What?” Follet turned his attention back to the detective. “No, he wasn’t. His assistant had an accident this morning—broke his arm falling off a ladder—and had to go to hospital. Tom didn’t want to close the shop and, anyway, we all knew what was in the will. This was just a formality. I said I’d give him a full report.”
“I see,” said Gibbons. “Now, about this money, sir. Your brother had full knowledge of what had happened?”
“Yes, of course. Tom’s careful; he wouldn’t have lent me that kind of money if I hadn’t explained.”
“He did not himself lose any in this investment?”
Follet gave a dry laugh. “Not a penny. He wouldn’t touch it. He’s a very conservative sort of man with money, sergeant. I suppose I would have done well to follow his example.”
“And had you applied to your mother or stepfather for help as well?”
Follet looked surprised. “Of course not. I think I told you, sergeant, that I don’t much care for David MacGruder. And I didn’t want mother to know any more than I wanted Annie to. Mother was so proud of me. Of both Tom and me. Tom’s always been her favorite, I suppose, but she was proud of me, too. I couldn’t bear to let her know how I’d mucked up.”
“I understand, sir. You said just now that your mother’s inheritance would help you over the bad times. What, may I ask, did you plan to do before her death occurred?”
“Borrow more from Tom, I suppose. There wasn’t much else I could do. He’s have given it to me, but the devil of it was, I couldn’t see my way to paying him back. I mean, with the baby coming and all, there just wasn’t much chance I would have any extra money for years.”
“Your brother understood this?”
“Oh yes. He wasn’t too pleased, mind. Talked to me pretty sharply the last time I had to ask him for more. Said if I was going to borrow any more, he wanted to see to it that I didn’t invest in anything foolish. I couldn’t very well argue with him.”
“Naturally not,” agreed Gibbons. “Just one other thing, sir. I noticed your car when I visited you before. A Ford Fiesta, I believe. Do you have a second car for your wife?”
Follet looked puzzled. “Yes,” he answered. “A Mini. It’s rather elderly; we bought it when we were first married.”
“But it wasn’t there on Monday when I visited you.”
“No,” broke in Annie. “It was in the garage. Don’t you remember, Bill? It broke down on me on Saturday. We didn’t get it back till Wednesday.”
“I see,” said Gibbons. “What garage do you use?”
“Gleason’s, on the corner of our lane and the Chedworth road,” answered Follet. “But what on earth does that have to do with anything?”
“We just like to verify everything, sir. You know the police—everything has to be confirmed.” Gibbons smiled.
“But I don’t understand. Is there something wrong with the car? They said at the shop the alternator bolt had sheared.”
“Ah, was that it? That’ll stop a car dead, sure enough,” said Gibbons. “Well, thank you very much for your time. And, again, I’m very sorry to have been indiscreet.”
He and Bethancourt extricated themselves with some difficulty, emerging eventually into the street with the dog at their heels.
“Well,” said Gibbons, “that was worse than expected. And now I’ve got to run all the way over to Cirencester and talk to the mechanic and the brother again. And I might as well see that neighbour while I’m about it.” He glanced at his companion. “I don’t suppose,” he suggested, “that you would want to give me a lift?”
“To Cirencester?” Bethancourt considered. He was really more the armchair sort of detective; he greatly preferred to let Gibbons do all the grind. Still, he had to admit that meeting the people concerned was often helpful. And Tom Follet was still the prime suspect. “I suppose I could,” he said.
“It would provide the only bright spot in my day if you did,” said Gibbons persuasively.
“By all means then. Every day should have a bright spot.” He hailed a passing taxi. “We’ll have to go round to the garage to get the car. MacGruder’s quite the obnoxious one, isn’t he?”
Gibbons grunted as he got into the cab and made room for Bethancourt beside him. “I’ve talked to some of the MacGruders’ friends,” he said. “They all seemed agreed that the marriage was a happy one, and that MacGruder is a charming fellow.”
“Yes, he evidently got on with almost everyone except the stepsons. Still, I suppose having your wife murdered is something that could adversely affect your temperament.”
“I expect so,” said Bethancourt thoughtfully.
Gleason was just closing up shop for the day when they arrived, but he appeared willing enough to answer their questions. Yes, the Mini had been towed in on Saturday and put in the lot. Well, no, he hadn’t got a chance to look at it on Saturday. In fact, he hadn’t done anything with it till Monday afternoon—he was a busy man. But there wasn’t much wrong, really. The alternator bolt had sheared and dropped out, and that caused the alternator to drop, and that meant the connections had come loose and there was no electricity. Can’t run a car without electricity. He had started to fix it on Tuesday, but then there was that Mercedes that came in and what with that and another thing, he didn’t get the job finished till Wednesday morning. No, of course he didn’t work on Sundays. Well, he supposed someone could have come in then, but they would have had to pick the lock on the gates and it had looked all right to him when he opened up on Monday. Yes, someone might have borrowed the Mini, or any other car for that matter, but they would have had to fix it first. It stood to reason he didn’t have running cars here—people didn’t bring in cars that worked all right.
“But you don’t know for certain that anything was wrong with the Mini before Monday afternoon?” asked Gibbons.
Gleason snorted. “Of course there was something wrong with it,” he said. “It died, didn’t it? George had a look at it when he went to tow it and if it had been a little fiddling thing he would have put it right on the spot.”
“I see. Well, thank you very much, Mr. Gleason.”
“Where to now?” asked Bethancourt once they were back in the Jaguar.
“I guess we’d better go see if Tom Follet’s still at his shop. Take a right at the corner.”
Bethancourt eased the car out into traffic and followed directions. “Well,” he said, “it doesn’t look too promising, does it? I somehow doubt that a well brought up Englishman like Bill Follet knows how to pick locks.”
“No, and it doesn’t seem as if he could have got hold of a copy of a key either.” Gibbons sighed.
“Cheer up,” said Bethancourt. “You’ve still got one son who doesn’t have an alibi and who was in the neighbourhood of the murder.”
“And who apparently has no motive.”
“One hundred thousand pounds is plenty of motive,” replied Bethancourt. “Oh, I know he was doing well enough, but he’s in antiques. Supposing there was a particularly juicy piece he desperately wanted? Something really magnificent that costs a bundle. He could have developed a mania or what have you for it. People have done murder for less.”
“I guess so,” said Gibbons, not much comforted by this flight of fancy.
Follet’s Antiques was a small shop but very well-appointed, with every piece set off advantageously. There was a goodly mixture of styles and periods, but none of it seemed to clash. Bethancourt peered closely at an exquisite Chinese vase.
“That’s the best piece in the shop,” said a voice. “Good afternoon, Sergeant Gibbons.”
Tom Follet was a tall, thin young man who looked very different to his brother. He was much darker in complexion and his face was longer. He smiled at them.
“I take it,” he said, “that I inherited enough today to make me an even better suspect?”
“Yes,” said Gibbons frankly, “if only there was some evidence that you needed it.”
Follet shook his head. “If I had needed it, she would have given it to me. My mother was a generous woman and I loved her deeply. She was really a rare person. Everyone who knew her loved her—except, of course, for my stepfather.”
“Why not him?” asked Bethancourt curiously. “He married her and it seems the marriage was a happy one.”
“He married her for her money and he cheated on her,” said Follet shortly. “She knew he had other women, too, but she wouldn’t listen to a word about it. Said she was getting on and she knew he loved her. She’d just never run into someone who didn’t love her before, that was all.”
“But they were happy?” persisted Bethancourt.
“I suppose they were. Why shouldn’t they be? He had the money he wanted and she had him. He was very charming and she loved him. And, really, Bill and I never made much of a fuss about it. She was desolate when our father died and I think we both felt that she deserved what happiness she could find. So long as she remained deluded about MacGruder, what was the harm? And he’d never leave the money.”
“But you don’t think he killed her?”
Follet’s face darkened. “How could he have?” he asked. “He was miles away, playing golf, wasn’t he?”
“Yes,” said Gibbons, “I’m afraid his alibi is confirmed in every particular. But I really came today to ask you about your brother.”
“Bill? I hope you’re not suspecting him now. He was with Annie all day anyway.”
“That’s true,” said Gibbons. “No, it’s another matter. I understand you made several cheques for rather large sums out to him over the past four months. Why was that?”
“He needed money,” answered Follet promptly. “He’d made some very foolish investments and overextended himself as well. I warned him against it at the time. Frankly, I would have been inclined to lend him very little, as a lesson to him. But there was Annie and the baby to consider.”
“Did she ask you for money, too?”
“Oh, no, she knew nothing about it. Bill was quite anxious lest she find out—he didn’t want her to be disappointed in him. I told him it would be better to let her know what had happened, but he would have none of it.”
“Do you know if he applied to his mother for loans as well?”
“No, he didn’t. The same went for her as went for Annie. I said he was silly. Mother had enough to completely restore his losses, and she would have given it to him if it took all she had. But he couldn’t bear the thought of her knowing what a fool he’d been, so I helped him out as best I could.” He grinned. “I suppose I was just as silly. I could have told mother I’d spent a lot on a fake and had her give me the money to give to Bill. But I didn’t want her thinking less of me any more than Bill did. It’s not that she would have complained, or been anything but sympathetic, mind. But there it is. We wanted her to be proud of us.”
“And of course,” said Bethancourt, “there was no reason that she should be disappointed in you. It’s hard to lie about something like that.”
“Yes, it is.”
“This is a delicate question, Mr. Follet, but I do need to ask it. Was your mother aware that you are gay?”
“Yes,” said Follet unemotionally. “She knew.”
“And how did she feel about it?”
“We didn’t discuss it much. It wasn’t what she would have wished for, but my mother was good with unpleasant facts. Like David’s infidelity. If there was nothing to be done about it, she just left it alone.”
There was a pause and then Gibbons asked suddenly, “What do you do if you find a piece you can’t afford but would like to have?”
“I don’t buy it,” answered Follet. “Everything in the shop is for sale, sergeant. If I had a hankering after, say, a Faberge egg, it would be pointless to go into debt for it just to sell it to someone else.”
“But if you wanted it for yourself?”
“That,” said Follet seriously, “would be even more foolish than Bill and his investments.”
The Foxes lived next door to Bill and Annie Follet. Mrs. Fox, a woman of about sixty, opened the door to them.
“No,” she said when asked, “Jim isn’t back yet. Don’t get home for another half an hour or so.”
“We just wanted to go over what he told the other policeman,” explained Gibbons.
“Oh, about the car,” she said. “Well, he was washing and polishing for a solid two hours, I can tell you that. I brought him out some tea once, and a beer a little later when he was almost done.”
“And what time would that have been, Mrs. Fox?”
“He went straight out after breakfast. We have it late on Sundays, so it might have been ten o’clock when he started. Maybe about half ten I came out with the tea. And then I did up the kitchen and went to make the bed and have my bath. It was when I came down and found him still at it that I brought out the beer. Must have been getting on for noon. Yes, it was, because I asked him, would he be done in time for lunch and he said yes.”
“And the Follets’ car was parked in their driveway both times when you came out?”
“His car was. The red one. I don’t remember seeing her car.”
“Thank you very much, Mrs. Fox. Do you know the Follets well, by the way?”
“I see them often enough, but we don’t have them over, nor them us. We’re a bit elderly for them.”
“Have you ever seen Mrs. MacGruder, Mr. Follet’s mother?”
“She’s been down once or twice. A very nice woman, and I was awful sorry to hear about her being killed like that. Annie spoke of her often—always said what a wonderful person she was. Really fond of her, she seemed, and that’s not always the case with mothers and daughters-in-law. In fact, I think on Sunday as ever was, Annie said her mother-in-law would be coming down when the baby was born and how glad she was about it.”
“You saw Annie on Sunday?”
“Oh, yes, I went out back after breakfast to feed the dog and they were both out in the garden, looking at their herbs. I waved and we just passed the time of day for a minute or two.”
“What time would this have been, Mrs. Fox?”
“Well, let’s see. It was before I took Jim the tea, so it must have been around ten-fifteen.”
“Ten-fifteen? Well, thank you very much, Mrs. Fox. You’ve been a very great help.”
“Isn’t that just the way of it?” grumbled Gibbons when they were back in the car. “If I’d gone to see her first, I needn’t have bothered with Gleason at all. Or if the bloody police out here had thought to talk to her as well as her husband.”
“Yes,” said Bethancourt absently. “You know, Jack, I think we’ve got the wrong end of this case altogether. Look at what we’ve got so far: a dead woman with three people who stood to gain by her death. Two of them couldn’t possibly have murdered her, the third could have, but has no motive. I expect you asked the solicitor whether she had any intention of changing her will?”
“I did. She didn’t, at least as far as he knew.” Gibbons was thoughtful. “I think it’s time we had another talk with Mr. MacGruder.”
MacGruder did not look pleased to see them but, when pressed, invited them in. He led the way to the living room, but did not offer them seats.
“Well?” he demanded. “What is it now?”
“We wanted to ask you some questions about your stepson Tom,” said Gibbons.
“Still harping on the family? Well, go ahead.”
“Did your wife know he was homosexual?”
“Of course,” grunted MacGruder. “There was no secret about it.”
“Did they ever quarrel about it? Or about anything to your knowledge?”
MacGruder started to reply in the negative, and then stopped himself. “Well,” he said reluctantly, “there was some kind of row that last time he visited.”
“When would that have been?”
“A month ago, maybe. I don’t know what it was about. I know she had been worried about him—all this AIDS going around, you know. She might have said something that set him off. Anyway, she was pretty upset after he left. Said he was unreasonable and he had better get over it.”
“Did she suggest she might want to change her will?”
“Change it?” MacGruder looked startled. “Never. Oh, you mean Tom. No, she never said anything, although she might not have. It would be like her to take care of it herself and then tell me afterwards.”
“She didn’t see Tom again before she died?”
“No. She went down to Cirencester about a week before she was killed, but Tom had gone to an auction that day and wasn’t around. She was back for dinner that night, as I recollect.”
“But you didn’t hear what the argument was about?”
“No,” said MacGruder irritably. “Didn’t I just say I hadn’t?”
“Just so,” said Gibbons soothingly. “Thank you very much, Mr. MacGruder. We won’t take up anymore of your time.”
“That’s the first decent bit of information I’ve had in a long time,” said Gibbons. “Can you drop me by the Yard? I’d like to call the brothers again and get some corroboration, if any.”
“His times are right.”
“What? Oh, yes, you mean about the visits. Yes, that all works out well enough. And it’s fortunate that Bill and Annie saw her after Tom. She may have said something to them about the argument.”
“They may not be very willing to tell you if she did,” said Bethancourt. “I imagine their loyalties lie with Tom rather than with MacGruder.”
“Well, I have to ask, don’t I? If they won’t say anything, perhaps one of her friends will—there’s that widow she was such great friends with. I’ll also be interested to see what explanation Tom Follet gives for the row.”
“Yes,” said Bethancourt. “I’ll be interested in that, too.”
Marla was asleep. Bethancourt slipped out of the bed and stood a moment looking down at her. They had had another argument that evening when they had returned home to find a message from Gibbons on the machine and Bethancourt had insisted on ringing him back. They had made up, more or less, but she was sure to be sulky in the morning.
He turned and, wrapping a heavy silk dressing gown about himself, crept from the room. In the study, he switched on the lamp and poured himself a scotch. He could not sleep. Cerberus, wakened by the absence of his master, padded quietly into the room and sat at Bethancourt’s knee. Bethancourt fondled his ears and then picked up one of the police photos provided by Gibbons. There was something wrong about this case. Gibbons had reported that the Follets were united in denying that Tom had any kind of argument with his mother before her death. That could mean only one thing, but Bethancourt was at a loss to explain it. He stared at the photograph. It was all there: the body sprawled on the floor, obviously fallen from the stool; the hand mirror and eyeliner compact to one side, the brush cast to the other side against the wall. The dressing table itself, otherwise undisturbed. The larger mirror on the wall, a small clock to one side of the table with the cup of coffee next to it, and a picture of the MacGruders in a silver gilt frame on the other side. In the space between lay a small bottle of foundation, two cases of eye shadow, and a brown pencil, all set out in an orderly fashion.
Bethancourt sighed. There was something missing, he could feel it in his bones. But he could not think of what it was.
“Really,” said Marla, “every time one of these cases comes along, you become totally preoccupied. It’s worse than when you’re writing. At least then you admit that you’re preoccupied.”
Bethancourt shifted uncomfortably behind the steering wheel. Marla had many virtues, but he had often had cause to wish that her temper was more restrained. He apologized, knowing it would do him no good, and it did not. She went on about his disgraceful behavior the evening before until he pulled up outside the studio where she was working that day. There was a parking space out front so he pulled into it and offered to come up for a few minutes—another conciliatory gesture and one which Marla accepted in better spirit. With Marla, actions spoke louder than words.
The studio was a bustle of activity. Marla was whisked away almost immediately to be fussed over by the fashion editor and the makeup man. Spencer Kendrick, the photographer, whom Bethancourt knew and liked, stopped to chat but was then appealed to by several people to “come look at this.”
Left alone, Bethancourt cast an eye over the clothes and accessories (hastily being arranged by the stylist) to be shot, idly watched a harried assistant setting up another light, and finally wandered over to where Marla was having her face administered to by the makeup man.
“I may push off now,” he announced. “What time shall I pick you up?”
Marla cast a jade green eye up at him, started to reply, and was promptly hushed by the makeup artist. Obediently, she closed her eyes and held a finger up to Bethancourt. The makeup man didn’t spare him a glance. Expertly, he added colour to Marla’s lids, licked a finger to smudge the edges, smeared a line of colour beneath her eyes, and turned momentarily back to his paraphernalia.
“I have to stop by the office tonight,” said Marla. “How about meeting me there at six?”
“Six it is.”
“Hold still,” said the makeup man, taking her chin in one hand.
Marla touched her finger to her lips in the motion of blowing a kiss and then closed her eyes again. Bethancourt started to turn away and then paused to watch the makeup man draw the moistened brush along Marla’s lashes, leaving a thin black line behind. He dunked the brush in a cup of water, dabbed it in the liner and repeated the performance on the other eye.
Bethancourt forced himself to turn away, thinking to himself that that was what Delia MacGruder was doing when someone came in and murdered her. She had painted one line on her right eye and was about to do the left when she stopped. She stopped to eat or drink something someone handed her, and she died.
He proceeded to have coffee with his agent in an attempt to pacify the man, who was irate about deadlines and Bethancourt’s failure to meet them. Bethancourt reflected that everyone was releasing their frustrations this morning by yelling at him. He went home, ostensibly to write an article, actually to sit in an armchair and stare out at nothing until the telephone rang.
“If she had a fight with her son, she didn’t tell anybody,” said Gibbons gloomily.
“Then maybe she didn’t have one.”
“But why would MacGruder lie?”
“Maybe he killed her. He did have the most to gain.”
“Don’t be silly, Phillip,” said Gibbons irritably. “He was playing golf with two other men when she died.”
“That’s true,” said Bethancourt meditatively.
“I hate it when you’re calm like this,” said Gibbons. “Here I am, practically foaming at the mouth and you’re sitting at home in perfect peace. Why is that?”
“Because you have ambition and I don’t,” replied Bethancourt. “You have a job and you want to do well and rise up through the ranks. Whereas I would like to be able to discover who killed Delia MacGruder, but if I don’t, I reckon someone like you will. It’s true that you have to work for a living and I don’t, but you enjoy your work and take pride in it, while I don’t take pride in much of anything.”
“That’s not true, Phillip,” said Gibbons. “What you do, you do very well. And you know about a lot of different things that I don’t. You just don’t care particularly what anybody else thinks of you. I have to care. At least, I have to care what Carmichael thinks.”
“How is he today?”
“Ready to roast me. Well, that’s not entirely true. He did allow as how I had followed up all leads admirably, only he wants to know why they don’t go anywhere. God knows I don’t know why.”
“I do,” said Bethancourt. “I told you: we’ve got hold of the wrong angle somehow. Go back to the beginning, Jack. That’s where we went wrong. There was something odd about the dressing room, and I’d give a hundred pounds if I could just remember what it was.”
“So would I,” said Gibbons, “and a hundred pounds is more to me than it is to you. Look, I’ve got to go give Carmichael today’s agenda and hope it cheers him up. Ring me if you have any new thoughts.”
He hung up the receiver and found Cerberus at his side.
“Time for your walk, old fellow? All right, let me get my coat.”
Cerberus followed him to the door in a dignified manner that managed to convey a discreet pleasure in the coming outing, but no particular anxiety. They were across the river in the meadows of Battersea Park, turning for home, when the answer came suddenly to Bethancourt. He stopped dead and the dog looked around curiously at him. In his mind’s eye he was reliving that morning, seeing the makeup man’s every move with crystal clarity. He saw the contorted face of the dead woman and the complete inventory of the dressing room. And he saw what was missing.
He took Cerberus home at a run. He hardly needed to consult the police photo for confirmation, but he did so anyway. Then, jubilant, anxious, full of the news, he dialed Scotland Yard. But Jack Gibbons was out to lunch.
Gibbons was enjoying the cottage pie in a pub two blocks from his office. His cohort, Chris O’Leary, was having sausage. Between bites and sips of beer, they discussed the MacGruder murder and their superior’s eccentricities. It was with some surprise, therefore, that Gibbons felt his shoulder taken in a strong grip and heard a familiar voice saying,
“Jack! Thank God I’ve found you—I’ve been to three pubs already. Tell me—what did you take away from the dressing room?”
“Take away?” asked the detective in surprise, setting down his fork.
“Yes, yes,” said Bethancourt impatiently. “Take away, impound as evidence. The coffee, of course, but what else?”
“Oh.” Understanding dawned. “Not much. Just the makeup on the table—”
“Including the eyeliner on the floor?”
“Yes, that and the hand mirror and the little brush.”
“Thank God.” Bethancourt sank down on a stool with relief.
“Look here, Phillip, what’s this all about? Have you had an idea?”
“I’ve figured it out,” Bethancourt announced, taking off his glasses and polishing them on his pants leg. “The cyanide was in the eyeliner.”
Both Gibbons and O’Leary frowned. “But that’s much slower,” said Gibbons. “And I think it would have blinded her first—”
“No, no,” broke in Bethancourt. “You don’t understand. That sort of eyeliner needs water to be applied. You have to wet the brush first. But there was no water on the dressing table. Therefore,” he paused significantly, “she must have licked the brush to wet it. And the brush, of course, had cyanide all over it by then.”
Back at Scotland Yard, Bethancourt repeated his explanation twice—once with pantomime—while the eyeliner was analyzed and found to contain cyanide.
“The eyeliner is bung full of it,” said the chemist with satisfaction. “And the brush is covered, too. Only about twenty milligrams, but that’s all it would take for someone as small as she was.”
“That leaves little doubt,” said Gibbons. “It had to be the husband. Who else would know that she habitually licked the brush?”
“That’s a point,” said Bethancourt. “It will still be tough going in court. Any decent defense counsel will manage to explain why twenty other people would know.”
“And would have the opportunity between one morning and the next?” said Gibbons. “And it will be cinched if we can trace cyanide to his possession. We’ve not done much about that—thinking, you see, since he had an alibi, there wasn’t much use in it. We’ve a good chance of turning something up. After all, cyanide isn’t an easy thing to get hold of.”
“If you can do that, the case is sewn up. As it is, it’s not bad—not with that motive tacked on.”
Gibbons grinned. “You’ve been brilliant, Phillip. As usual.”
“It came to me watching Marla being made up this morning,” Bethancourt began and then he stopped with an anxious expression. “My God, what time is it?”
“Just on six.”
“Lord!” Bethancourt leapt from his chair. “If I hurry I can manage only being ten minutes late. Damn rush hour traffic! No, bless it—I can tell her I got caught in a jam. I’ll ring you later, Jack. Cerberus, come.”
Gibbons, with an amused grin, watched his friend careen out the door and down the hall.
Some weeks later, Jack Gibbons shed his overcoat in Bethancourt’s hallway and proceeded to the living room, where he was met by the agreeable sight of both Cerberus and Marla curled up together before a roaring fire.
“Whisky?” suggested Bethancourt, and Gibbons nodded and followed him to the drinks cabinet.
“They got a conviction this afternoon, you know,” said Gibbons in an undertone.
“I heard on the radio,” said Bethancourt, pouring. “I wanted to be there, but Marla only just back from that ski shoot this morning and she didn’t want to go.”
Gibbons glanced back at the girl beside the dog and at the firelight glinting in her hair.
“They said on the radio the jury didn’t take long.”
“No, once we had traced the cyanide to his possession, it was pretty clear-cut. They were back inside of two hours.”
“Then here’s to us.”
“We make a good team,” nodded Gibbons, knocking his glass gently against Bethancourt’s.
The Bethancourt & Gibbons mysteries are a series of traditional British cozies in a modern setting. Phillip Bethancourt is a wealthy man-about town and amateur sleuth. His best friend is Detective Sergeant Jack Gibbons, a rising star at Scotland Yard. Together they can suss out even the most complex cases. The Dressing Table Murder is the first short story in the series, originally published in Alfred Hitchcockâ€™s Mystery Magazine. There are also four novels published by St. Martinâ€™s Minotaur. â€œLiterate and charming mysteries.â€ â€”Booklist â€œAn enjoyable outing into Dorothy Sayers territory.â€ â€”Publishers Weekly â€œThe author tells a tale that is part crime story, part family drama, part buddy flick, and part love story---a combination that makes for enjoyable reading.â€ â€”School Library Journal