“So, what do we do while waiting?”
“One more round of drinks, but just one.”
“Brenda, your sister is sounding her old self.”
“I was just about to say the same thing, Brenda. A real transformation. The old Naomi is back.”
“And very much in charge, it would seem.”
“Thanks, everyone. Things really are looking up. The treatments seem to be working as hoped. But I know she’d hate to be talked about this way…you know…as a patient this way. Let’s just get those drinks…”
“Is it permitted to listen at the door. Well, Winston?”
“Strictly forbidden by Wiltshire rules for Body in the Library. Naomi is allowed ten minutes of full privacy to arrange the crime. She’s had all day to prepare clues outside the room, but she only gets the ten minutes within…”
“How do we know she hasn’t been in the gallery already today, fixing things up?”
“Proprietor’s privilege, nothing to do with me. I am only a humble and dusky physician, and my office is to hold on to this key and watch that nobody approaches that door till the ten minutes are up…Brenda, why are you looking so grave?”
“Winston, did you have to encourage her to drink? And even take another later?”
“Would I have got far by arguing? Any further than I can get by arguing with you now? We all know even these mountains bow low to the Berger ladies.”
“I just wish…Oh, never mind. Let’s get drinks. Everybody! We have Great Western, Reschs, Pimms at the bar. No spirits till after the game. And, before you ask, that is also a Wiltshire rule. It seems an old vicar at St Albans broke his leg on a staircase following clues once. Sounds like a story, but there really was a vicar playing Body in the Library. And please do watch the parquetry in the gallery, especially if you have heels.”
The angular and athletic Miss Cynthia Hobbes-Talbot – Tally to friends – had done nothing but peer at the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms watch which she was a bit too smug about owning.
At last she raised a fist in the air and, still with her eyes on the dial, began to count down, raising one finger after another. The crowd chanted along.
“Five…four…three…two…One! Open! Open up! Winston!”
With a smirk and an air of mock authority, Winston Pereira approached the gallery as he jangled a hefty key ring. The others milled behind him.
He unlocked and opened the door.
The first thing they all saw was Naomi Berger, sprawled face down on the floor, a puddle of dark liquid near her head. The scene she had set was much more than any had expected. Immediately, her sister, after a gasp, pushed past Winston Pereira, muttering “too much, this is too much…”.
“This has gone far enough. Naomi, so please get up! Tell her, Winston! You’re a doctor, aren’t you? This can’t be healthy. Naomi, the point’s made, the joke’s been had. But please, this is too much…for me, in any case. The rest of you please stay back. Don’t encourage her…
“Naomi, we can have our game without all this…disturbing stuff. Tell her, Winston…Naomi, please get up…”
The obvious fury of Brenda caused the others to stay back and silent.
“Please, for me, Naomi…just get up and clean up.”
Her sister did not move.
“Naomi, I’m not criticising…But do this for me. You know I worry about you. It’s all I’ve done lately. This is no joke for me…It might be a joke for you and the others…Naomi…”
As her voice trailed off she moved closer to her sister.
Being careful of any fake blood, she crouched and inspected her still unmoving sister. Next she took hold of a wrist, as if to feel for a pulse.
“Winston! Winston! What’s wrong with her? Why isn’t she…?”
The doctor moved forward, waving at the others to stay back.
He crouched down and felt the wrist then the bloodied neck of the woman who still had not moved.
“I…I’m afraid…I don’t see how, but…Mr Marley, could you please assist Brenda away from here?”
“No! I’m not leaving my sister! What is it? Why is she not moving? Did something or someone cut…No! She can’t be…You have to look harder, Winston!”
“I will, Brenda, I will…but I need you to move away…Everyone back, please, except Mr Marley.”
The elderly lawyer moved forward and looked in bewilderment at his client’s unmoving body in the puddle of what they had all assumed was fake blood. Then he drew Brenda up by an arm and led her gently toward the door.
The doctor placed a hand below Naomi’s jaw without changing her position. The hand and sleeve he raised were soaked in red. He turned to the others and shook his head.
“I’m afraid…I’m afraid she’s gone. There a deep cut across…across the throat. Somehow…her throat’s been cut!”
“I don’t know, Brenda…Surely she wouldn’t…She seemed so well…”
Winston Pereira beckoned to the local alderman, who was also the local pharmacist.
“Mr Collins, there must be a knife or blade. There’s nothing in her hands. Best we look under the body without changing its position. As I lift, I need you to look. Don’t stain yourself. I’ll handle the side where there’s blood.”
The two men performed the operation with great care, lifting one end of the body, then the other.
“There’s nothing, doctor. No blade.”
“Then how…or who…Unless…Quick, check the windows, Mr Collins…Could you help him, Tally? But touch nothing!”
Alderman Collins and Miss Hobbes-Talbot began to patrol all the windows in the gallery.
“These are locked, and the bars are all in place…”
“No, this one has no bars and the window isn’t locked.”
“What? Are you sure, Tally?”
Miss Hobbes Talbot was standing by a window which looked east into the valley.
“Yes, and there’s a high ladder right up against it. Shall I check…?”
“No, touch nothing. But someone has obviously taken the trouble to close it again from outside so as not to draw our attention to it. Brenda, did you know there were no bars on that window?”
Still slumped against the family lawyer, she managed to reflect between sobs:
“The bars were unbolted and removed, just for a few days…We’ve had to fix the lintel…it was rotten. The ladder is ours. Roland must have left it there overnight…But why did you let her take the drink, Winston?”
“Brenda, one Cinzano had nothing to do with it. You sister has been…well, obviously she’s been murdered. Murdered by someone who must have entered and escaped through that window…”
“The Guerard! It’s missing!”
Miss Hobbes-Talbot was pointing to a small rectangular area on the wall where a painting had obviously hung for a long time.
“That’s what they were after: the Guerard. Somehow they knew the gallery was unsecured at this window, noticed the ladder and bars missing. Naomi must have surprised them…But why didn’t she scream?”
Brenda Berger whined as Mr Marley was trying to draw her out of the room.
“If she hadn’t drunk the Cinzano she might have been able to scream, defend herself…something…”
Winston Pereira raised himself up, blood on his knees, blood all over his hands and arms. He was trembling in his helplessness.
“Just ring the police…I’ll wait by her…But get the police.”
“Who are you to give orders here? You’re not in Ceylon with your servants now. If you had just been responsible enough to give one sensible order to Naomi…”
“But, Brenda, how could I control her? She could have been drinking all day for all we know.”
“She might have listened to you, if not to me. Instead you let her walk in here alone and half drunk…”
“All right, all right. But please go with Mr Marley for now…Nobody touch anything. Everybody out. Mr Collins, could you arrange to get me some towels?…Please, take everyone away, Mr Marley. Nobody needs to look at this, nobody must touch anything. I’ll wait here till the police come, but please fetch me towels for all this…this blood. It’s on my shoes as well…Perhaps if you could close the door behind you…or just leave it ajar…Nobody should have to see this.”
Minutes later, it was Mr Marley returned with the towels, having left his client in the care of the pharmacist. He found Winston Pereira still standing by the body, hands outstretched to keep from smearing more blood on his clothing. The normally confident, even cocky, Ceylonese had the expression of a baffled child.
“I…I could do nothing for her. She was my friend, both sisters were good friends to me. I couldn’t argue with Brenda in her state…but there was nothing I could do to control her sister. I’m not a psychiatrist. I’m simply caught in the middle, Mr Marley.”
“I think we all understand. So will Brenda when she’s over the shock. We need to put the blame on whoever did this, nobody else. If the criminal was surprised he’s probably left a trail behind him in his panic. The painting won’t be easy to dispose of profitably. We’ll track down whoever did this…Dr Pereira, when you’ve got your hands and legs wiped down, would you like me to stay by the body so you can clean up?”
“Do you mind? I feel awful standing here with Naomi’s blood all over me.”
“No, I don’t mind. Go and freshen up. The police will be here soon.”
Pereira threw a bloodied towel flat on the floor and wiped his shoes hard on it till it stopped transferring.
“Thank you, Mr Marley. So much blood…I shouldn’t be surprised, as a doctor…but there’s just so much of it.”
“Was it at least quick for her?”
“Yes, I’d say instantaneous. That’s one good thing. The only good thing.”
Brenda, Mr Marley and Winston Pereira sat facing the young man who looked both too young and too small to be a policeman, let alone a detective.
“As I think I mentioned on arriving, my name is Clive McGroder. I’m from the Western District detectives. I’m sorry I was so late in coming after the local police, but I live some distance away…”
“McGroder? Son of the late Arch McGroder?”
“Yes, Mr Marley, my father was Chief Inspector McGroder. I’m sure you would have known him.”
“Knew him well. Fine man.”
“Thank you, Mr Marley. I’m the runt of his litter, so the physical resemblance isn’t strong…Now, there are a few matters I’d like to raise with the three of you while my men interview the other guests and the one or two staff who were around today. Well, it’s just the one matter for the moment, since it’s such a puzzling one.
“Dr Pereira, you say there was no weapon, no blade, near the body?”
“As far as I could tell.”
“Well, we’ve now been able to inspect more closely and there was, in fact, no cutting implement of any sort on or near the lady’s body. There was no sort of ring or key or piece of jewelry which could have inflicted the wound…”
“Well, obviously the thief took the blade with him.”
“In fact, we don’t see how.”
“But it’s obvious…”
“Miss Berger, you mentioned to the local police that your handyman, Roland Cassin, had been working on a new lintel for the window, and that was why the bars and mesh had been removed? The work required him to get access to the outside of the window by means of a very high ladder?”
Brenda nodded weakly.
“The reason for the sturdy bars and mesh, as well as the heavy entry door to the gallery, is the value of the paintings and books kept there?”
“Yes. Especially the von Guerard, the work that was stolen. I don’t see why it’s a puzzle…”
“Miss Berger, would you describe your handyman, Roland Cassin, as a careful, conscientious type?”
“Till now I would.”
“Till now…I would have said so.”
“From my brief contact with him by telephone tonight I got the same impression…”
Pereira cut in:
“Where is this taking us? Nobody has accused Roland or anybody…”
“Dr Pereira, the thief, the killer…if there was such a person…”
“Of course there was!”
“Let me finish please, Mr Marley. I was saying that, if there was such a person, he could not have entered or left the gallery through that window.
“You see, on Friday afternoon, before knocking off work, the careful and thorough Mr Cassin, aware of the need for security and without having to be asked, neatly drilled into the window frame at two inconspicuous points and screwed it shut. He then took the ladder back to the workshed. There is no sign of interference with the screws, and anybody wanting to screw them back in place, even roughly, after removing them would need tools, time, and a powerful light…and would not be escaping the scene of a murder in darkness and in panic.
“Which means nobody could have entered or left the gallery by that window, despite the fact that the ladder had been put back below it. We inspected the other windows and their grids were all bolted into the brick and undisturbed.
“Now, since nobody could have entered through the locked door by which you were all standing and waiting, and since the completely open floor plan of the gallery would have made it impossible for someone to conceal himself there; since a first inspection reveals no hidden panels or openings in the solid walls of the gallery, no crawlspaces of any useful sort on, in or behind the pictures, cabinets and shelves; and since it seems that Miss Berger could not have inflicted such a wound on herself…
“You see, we really do have a puzzle on our hands.”