A Village Tragedy
Raymond Nardgarbles was staying with his friend Colonel Mustard-gas at his home near the little village of Shyte-on-Thoste. On coming down to breakfast, he almost collided with the maid at the foot of the stairs. She was rushing from the breakfast room, evidently in a condition of high distress.
Colonel Mustard-gas was sitting at the table, smiling to himself in a satisfied way. The Colonel was a big Leonine man of aggressively military demeanor, with yellow side whiskers turning to grey. He wore a monocle on a length of black ribbon. His faded tan safari coat had more pockets than a billiard table.
"Morning, Nardgarbles," he beamed at Raymond. "Beautiful day outside. Help yourself."
Raymond took his seat and started in on the plate of kidneys and gall bladder. "Morning Colonel. What was that all about?"
Mustard gas chuckled: "Oh, Dolly? She's a bit upset this morning."
"Did you make her swallow again?" asked Raymond.
"Yes, just now," said the Colonel, with a grin. "Completely surprised her and she bumped her head on the bottom of the the table."
"Well, I guess she had it coming," said Raymond with a straight face. They both had a chuckle at this.
Mustard-gas gestured to the paper at his elbow. "I say, bit of news this morning. You know Emmott? Otter Emmott, who keeps the Blue Balls?"
"Oh, yes, I know him, a little. What about him?"
"It's his daughter," said Colonel Mustard-gas. "Pretty girl. Got herself into trouble, let some sod into her knickers. The usual story. You know how modern women are, no French letters for them, it's either go in bareback or stay home and shoot off in your hand."
"Er, I suppose." Raymond briefly wondered what would happen if the Colonel's opinions were printed in the paper.
Mustard-gas went on. "Oh yes, Girls know what they're about these days. Fellow who seduces a girl round these parts is better off putting his john-thomas in a bear trap. S'too bad for young Steakfart."
"Steakfart the boy who got up the girl's skirts?"
"It's what I've heard. Of course I don't know anything personally," said the colonel. "That part's all gossip and nosy-parker talk. You know how the village is. And one should be careful in what one says. You know, inquest and all that."
Raymond stopped eating. "Inquest? For getting knocked up?"
"Oh, sorry, girl drowned herself. Forgot that bit."
"There's a nasty business," mused Raymond.
"Poor thing. Her father's a hard man from what I hear. Probably turned her out of the house and she just couldn't go on."
"Where did she drown herself?"
Mustard-gas snorted. "In the river, where d'you think?" He grinned at Raymond to show he was just having fun. "Just below the falls where the current runs fast. Near the footbridge that goes across. Inspector Monkeyhump thinks she threw herself off that. I'll know more by this afternoon, lunching with him."
And with a rustle, Colonel Mustard-gas opened his newspaper and proceeded to distract his mind from the world by reading the funny-pages.
Raymond was only mildly interested by the village tragedy. After breakfast, he took his pipe to a sunny back patio. There, in a reclining lawn chair, he tilted his hat over his eyes and contemplated the insides of his eyelids.
It was about half past eleven when a housemaid roused him. "If you please, sir, You have a visitor."
"Who is it?"
"It's Miss Marble, sir." there was a touch of fear in her voice.
"Yes, sir. She's in the parlour."
Raymond sat up and adjusted his tie. The name surprised him. He vaguely remembered Miss Marble lived someplace near Shyte-on-Thoste. He had heard the rumors. Everyone in these parts understood that she was a retired London gangster. And at one time, during the turn of the century, she controlled the biggest organization of London's many gangs. Her gentle old-fashioned ways fooled many a sorry character who crossed her. She was sharp as a scalpel and could be just as ruthless. People around these parts still carried a deep respect for Miss Marble. He wondered what had brought her to see him.
Miss Marble was sitting in the parlour drawing-room, a gaily coloured market basket beside her. She stood up as he entered.
"Raymond Nardgarbles, I am so glad to meet you. I just happened to hear that you were staying here ... I do hope you will forgive me ... "
"It's my great pleasure," said Raymond, taking her hand. "I'm afraid The Colonel is out."
"Absolutely," said Miss Marble. "I saw his cook talking to Mr. Netherscrub, the butcher, on my way here. Scrumper was run over yesterday, that was his dog. One of those nasty rat-terriers. Netherscrub is having a sale on dog parts. You're going to have terrier stew tonight."
Raymond arched his eyebrows. "Indeed?"
"Yes, the Colonel's breakfast maid is also cook's daughter." She dismissed the topic with a tiny movement of her hand. "Actually, it's you I wanted to see. About this sad affair."
"The dog?" asked Raymond, slightly bewildered.
Miss Marble gave him the hairy eyeball for a long moment. "Of course not. The Emmet girl, Twitch. You've heard?"
Raymond nodded. "Oh, yes. Mustard-gas was telling me; very sad."
She paused and looked very directly at Raymond. "I think that if I were to give you some information you would keep it in confidence?"
There was an emphasis on the word 'you' and Raymond understood why she called when Mustard-gas wasn't home.
"Of course," he said gently.
"Mister Nardgarbles, this girl, Twitch Emmott. She did not drown herself, she's been murdered. And I know who murdered her."
Raymond was taken aback for a long moment. Miss Marble's voice had been perfectly normal. She might have been talking about her knitting for all the emotion she showed.
"That's a very serious statement to make, Miss Marble.
She nodded. "That's why I have come to you."
"But, why me? I am merely a private individual. If you have knowledge of murder, you must go to the police."
"I'd rather not do that," she said.
"But why not?"
"Well, I have my reasons. The authorities and I have never been able to see eye-to eye. They take a dim view of me at the best of times. Besides, I've taken some small steps on my own this morning."
"What? What steps?"
She waved a hand in dismissal. "It's not important, just the loan of a personal item. If I were to tell any of this to Inspector Monkeyhump or the Colonel, well, they'd be less than pleased by my interfering."
Miss Marble smiled a little. "So it's to you that I entrust this information."
"Well, thank you for your trust, Miss Marble. But I still don't see why you have come to me."
"I've thought about it," said Miss Marble. "What I'm asking is for you to interest yourself in this matter or Twitch Emmott. Mustard-gas would be most flattered, I am sure. And, of course, Inspector Monkeyhump would be more than willing."
"Alright, I can do that. Whom do you suspect?"
"I'm going to write a name on a piece of paper. Then if you decided that this person is not involved in any way, well, I shall have been quite wrong."
"And if you're right?"
"If I'm correct I would ask that you please send me the bill for your new suit, it's the least I can do."
"New suit? What...?" cried Raymond.
Miss Marble held up a finger and looked at the closed door to the hall. Her voice dropped to little more than a whisper. "I may be wrong, but I don't think so. Inspector Monkeyhump is a nice man, but he's only got a limited intelligence. I daresay it won't take him half far enough. And the Colonel.. I doubt if he could find his way out of a paper sack with both hands and a torch."
Miss Marble opened her bag and took out a little silver notebook with matching pencil. She wrote a name on one leaf and tore it out. she folded the paper in two and handed it to Raymond. He opened it and read the name. It meant nothing to him, but his eyebrows lifted a little. He looked across at Miss Marble and tucked the piece of paper in his coat pocket.
"Well, well," he said. "Rather an extraordinary business, this. I've never done anything like it before."
"I believe you have experience and discretion enough to see it through properly."
She stood up to go and laid a hand on his arm. "Do take care, and please, return any of my things if you get the chance."
He was about to ask her another question but she held up a hand.
"I expect you'll call on me later with any news. I live at Pondicherry Grove cottage. Don't forget. Good day, Raymond Nardgarbles."
And with that she took her leave. Raymond watched her go, thinking deeply.
That afternoon Raymond found himself sitting in Inspector Monkeyhump's small office. Colonel Mustard-gas was in a chair next to him. The office bottle stood open on the file cabinet nearby.
"I really do feel I'm butting in," said Raymond.
"Nonsense, my dear fellow," said Mustard-gas. "We're charmed. It's a compliment."
Inspector Monkeyhump turned a sly smile and cut his eyes at Mustard Gas. "Bored to death at the Colonel's, eh? Old man abusing the servants and passing gas at table?"
"I say," countered Mustard-gas. "Your mother doesn't complain of boredom when she's at my house. Of course she can't talk much with my trouser snake down her mouth."
They both roared with laughter at this.
"Er, quite," said Raymond. He finished his drink. "Anyway, what inroads have you made, inspector?"
Monkeyhump blew his nose. "Well, Doctor Fukstikk's a careful fellow. He spotted a bruise on the back of the girl's head during the autopsy. Caused before death, just where a fellow would have knocked her senseless before he flung her in."
"Would that require much strength?"
"Not really. A walking stick would do it. The girl wouldn't be expecting it. It's a narrow footbridge and only one handrail. Easiest thing in the world to knock her one and pitch her over."
"You're sure that the tragedy occurred there?"
"Yes. We've got a boy, Jimmy Brown. He was in the woods on the other side. He heard a scream from the bridge and a splash. It was dusk, difficult to see anything. He saw a body floating in the water and he ran and got help. They got her out but it was too late to revive her."
Raymond nodded. "I see, the boy didn't see anyone around?"
"No. But as I tell you, it was dusk, and there's mist from the falls always hanging about there. We're going to question him later. He assumed that the girl had pitched herself over. Everybody did."
"But we've got the note," said Mustard-gas.
"What note?" asked Raymond.
"Note in the dead girl's pocket," said Monkeyhump. "All of a sop but we managed to read it."
"And what did it say?"
"It was from Steakfart. It read: 'All right, I'll meet you at the bridge at eight-thirty. R.' Well, it was near as might be to eight-thirty or a few minutes after, when Jimmy Brown heard the cry and the splash."
"I don't think you've met Steakfart," said Colonel Mustard-gas. "He's been down here about a month. One of these modern day architects who build peculiar houses. He's doing a house for Harvey Wallbanger. God knows what it's going to be like, all full ,of new-fangled stuff, I suppose. Ec-lectricity and tele-o-phones and running water. Rubbish! Give me candles and a sturdy chamber pot any day. But that's neither here nor there. It just shows you the kind of chap Steakfart is. You know, no morals, like a rabbit."
"It's an ugly business," said Monkeyhump, "but plain. This young Steakfart cats around and knocks the girl up. Then he's all for clearing off back to London. He's got a girl there, I'm told. He's engaged to her. Well, if she hears of it his goose is cooked, good and proper. So he meets Twitch at the bridge, it's a dark evening, no one about. He hits her on the head and heaves her in. A proper young swine and deserves what's coming to him. That's my opinion."
Raymond was silent for a minute or two. He perceived a strong undercurrent of local prejudice. An architect with modern ideas was not very popular in the conservative little village. If Monkeyhump had his way, Steakfart would be burned in effigy at the next full moon.
"There is no doubt, I suppose, that this Steakfart, was actually the father of the child?" he asked.
"Oh, he's the father all right," said Mustard-gas. "Twitch Emmott dropped her knickers in a hurry when she heard he was rich. She tried to trap him good and proper! The little fool."
"Dear me," said Raymond. "It sounds like a melodrama. Gold digging local girl gets her self knocked up, the hep-cat swinger from London, the betrayal, we only need the village lover."
"Ah, you mean Joe Dirtbag," said the inspector. "Good fellow, he is. Local handyman. She should have stuck to Joe."
Colonel Mustard-gas belched and nodded approval. "That's right. Stick to your own class," he snapped. "That's the proper way."
"How did Joe take this affair?" asked Raymond.
"Nobody really knew," said the Inspector. "He's a little soft in the head. Anything Twitch did was right in his eyes."
"Couple of hand-jobs in the back room of the pub and she'd have him on a string," mused the Colonel.
"I'd like to see him," said Raymond.
"Yes, we're going to look him up," said Monkeyhump. "I thought we'd see Otter Emmott first, then Steakfart, and then we can go on and see Dirtbag. That suit you, Colonel? Nardgarbles?"
They found Otter Emmott tending bar at the Blue Balls. He was a big man, in his middle years. Iron grey hair and a face weathered from pub tending for more than half his life.
"Good morning Colonel, gentlemen. You've come about Twitch? Come back in here and we can be private. Can I offer you anything? Whisky?" He produced glasses and poured out three tumblers. They drank.
"She was a good girl, Twitch was. Always was till this bloody swine, beg pardon, but that's what he is, till he came along. Flashed his money at her and she just dropped her knickers. Just like her mother. Bringing disgrace on all of us. My poor girl."
Inspector Monkeyhump said, "Your daughter told you that Mr Steakfart was responsible for her...er,." He waved a hand in a vague manner.
Colonel Mustard-gas harrumphed. "Did she tell you they boned?"
Otter snorted. "She did. In this very room she did. She showed me her roast beef, if you take my meaning."
"And what did you say to that?" asked Raymond.
"I told her to pull her skirt back down, what d'you think." The man seemed taken aback.
"You didn't threaten to turn her out of the house? did you?" asked Raymond.
"Course not! I was a bit upset, that's only natural. I'm sure you'll agree giving it away to a stranger before family is right bad form. But I didn't turn her out. I wouldn't do any such thing." He assumed virtuous indignation and pointed a finger at Monkeyhump. "No, it's that bastard's fault, he's the one. He's got to pay. Make him swing!"
He brought his fist down on the table with a crash, slopping whiskey from their glasses.
"When did you last see your daughter?" asked Mustard-gas.
"Yesterday, tea time."
"What was her manner then?"
"Well, more alive than she is now."
There was an embarrassed silence. Inspector Monkeyhump coughed into his fist. "Well, yes. Thank you for your time, Emmott. We'll be off now. Have to have a word with Mister Steakfart next."
On their way out of the pub Otter Emmott called to them. "Do me a favor Colonel, and kick him one in the pills for me."
"Well, he hardly creates a favourable impression," said Monkeyhump as the three men walked down the lane to Steakfart's house.
The Colonel nodded agreement. "Bit of a blackguard, I'd say. He'd have used his own daughter to bleed Steakfart dry, given half a chance. I'm wondering if he put her up to it."
After a few minutes walk they found themselves entering Rex Steakfart's house and studio. Steakfart was very unlike the picture Raymond had formed of him. He was a tall young man, fair and thin. With blues eyes and long hair. They talked in his studio.
Inspector Monkeyhump introduced himself and his companions. Then passing straight to the object of his visit, he invited the architect to make a statement as to his movements on the previous evening.
"You understand," he said." I can't compel a statement from you. However, any statement you do make may be used as evidence against you. I want that to be quite clear to you."
"What are you saying? I don't understand," said Steakfart.
"You understand that Twitch Emmott drowned last night?"
"I know. It's so distressing, really. I haven't slept a wink. I've been incapable of any work today. I feel responsible, terribly responsible." He ran a hand through his hair. "I never dreamt she'd kill herself."
He sat down at a table and looked glum.
"Mr Steakfart, are you refusing to make a statement as to where you were last night at eight-thirty?"
"What? No, certainly not, I was out. I went for a walk."
"You went to meet Miss Emmott?"
"No. I went by myself. Through the woods."
"Then how do you account for this note, sir, which was found in the dead girl's pocket?" Inspector Monkeyhump produced a damp note encased in a plastic bag and held it out to him. "Do you deny that you wrote that?"
Steakfart looked at the note and sighed again. "I suppose it would be wet. Yes, I wrote it. Twitch asked me to meet her, she insisted. I didn't know else to do, so I wrote that note."
"Ah, go on," said the Inspector.
Steakfart looked up. "But I didn't go. I thought it over. I'm leaving for London tomorrow and it made more sense not to meet. I intended to write her from London and make... some arrangement."
"You are aware, sir, that this girl was with child, and that she had named you as the father?"
Steakfart simply groaned.
"Is that true, sir?"
Steakfart palmed his face and groaned again. "She wasn't even that good. She was pretty and everything. And - and she made a dead run at me." he looked up at them. "Before God, it's true. She wouldn't let me alone. All day long it was: 'bone me, bone me, ride me like a pony.' And what could I do? As I say she was pretty and she liked my bollocks bobbling on her chin and all that." His voice died away.
"And then this happened. She wanted me to marry her, take her away from this country shite-hole. That was her goal from the start. I didn't know what to do. I'm already engaged to a girl, in London. If she hears of this, well it's all up. She just won't understand. And I'm an ass, of course."
"I'd say more like a shit," muttered Mustard-gas.
Steakfart just looked at him. "I didn't know what to do. I avoided her. I thought I'd get back to London - see my banker - make arrangements about money for her. God, what a fool I've been!
Inspector Monkeyhump cleared his throat. "Did she ever threaten to take her life?"
Steakfart shook his head. "No. She wasn't that sort."
"What about Joe Dirtbag?" Asked Raymond.
Rex looked up. "The handyman fellow? Why would she want to take his life?"
"No, I mean, do you think he might have been jealous?"
"Oh. I suppose he could have been, a bit."
"Now about this walk of yours, "continued Monkeyhump. Is there anyone who saw you last night?"
"I don't know. I don't think so. As far as I can remember, I didn't meet anybody."
"That's a pity."
Rex furrowed his brow "What do you mean? What difference does that make?"
Monkeyhump leaned close to Steakfart. "She didn't drown herself," he said. "She was thrown in deliberately, Mr Steakfart. It's murder."
"Whaaat?" It took him a second or two to realize the implications. "Murdered? My God! But who? Why?"
Inspector Monkeyhump took on a more formal voice. "That's what we're going to find out. You understand, Rex Steakfart, that you are on no account to leave this house. We'll be back after we make further inquires."
Rex made no response, his face was haunted. The three men left Steakfart brooding at his work table.
Outside, Mustard gas and Monkeyhump exchanged glances.
"That's good enough for me," said Monkeyhump.
Mustard-gas nodded. "Yes, you better make out a warrant."
"Hold on a moment," said Raymond. "Perhaps we ought to have a look at this other fellow, Dirtbag, before we do anything drastic. Pity if you made an arrest that turned out to be a mistake. After all, jealousy is a pretty good motive for murder, and common, too."
"True enough," said the Inspector. "But Joe Dirtbag isn't the type. The man's half soft. He wouldn't hurt a fly. Why, nobody's ever seen him out of temper."
"Still, I think we'd better just ask him where he was last night. Just to cover all the possibilities."
The Colonel shrugged and consulted his pocket watch. "He should be at home now. He lodges at the widow Chowderbush's."
Monkeyhump grunted. "Probably the only lodger she could get, with her history."
"What's her history?" asked Raymond.
"Oh, it goes back some years. They say Roger Chowderbush came back from the war soft in the head, some kind of shell shock. Mrs Chowderbush took care of him for a long time, but they say she killed him in the end. There was an inquest but no proof. Most of the villagers, the older ones, keep clear of her. She still carries on the business though.
They made their way to the outskirts of the village. The house they came to was clean and neat. A big stout woman of middle age opened the door to them. She had a pleasant face and pale blue eyes.
"Good morning, Mrs. Chowderbush," said the Inspector. "Is Joe Dirtbag here?"
"He's come in not ten minutes ago," said Mrs Chowderbush. "Step inside, will you, please, sirs."
Wiping her hands on her apron she led them into a front parlour filled with stuffed birds, china loons, stuffed cats and several useless pieces of furniture that had stopped in for a visit and never left. She bade them sit down and called down the hall:
"Joe, there's some gentlemen wanting to see you."
A voice from the back replied:
"Alright. I'll be in after I've washed up."
Colonel Mustard-gas beckoned to Mrs Chowderbush. "Do you find Joe a good lodger?"
"Couldn't have a better, sir. A real steady young fellow. Never touches a drop of drink before five. And always kind and helpful about the house." She pointed to the far wall where some ceramic figurines sat drunkenly on a tilted, splintered board. "He put up those shelves for me, and he's fixed up my new shrub buggy. And any little thing that wants doing in the house why, Joe does it and won't hardly take thanks for it. There aren't many young fellows like Joe, sir."
"It'll be lucky days for some girl," said Mustard-gas as he polished his monocle on a handkerchief "He was sweet on that Twitch Emmott, wasn't he?"
Mrs Chowderbush sighed. "It made me tired, it did. Him watching her go by out the window with his trousers down around his ankles, spanking the bishop. And all the time her not caring a pudding's fart for him."
"Where does Joe spend his evenings, Mrs Chowderbush?" Asked Monkeyhump.
"Here, sir, usually. He does some odd piece of work in the evenings, sometimes, and he's trying to learn proctology by correspondence."
"Yes, sir, he's up to the self-examination part now."
"You're sure, Mrs Chowderbush?" asked Monkeyhump.
"Quite sure, sir. I've smelled his fingers."
"Well I'm glad he's washing up then." The Colonel stopped polishing his monocle. "He didn't go out at all, did he? For instance, somewhere about eight to eight-thirty?"
"Not at all, sir. "He was studying his colon nearly all evening."
Raymond looked at her smiling face and felt his first pang of doubt. A moment later Joe Dirtbag entered the room. He was a tall young man, good-looking in a country, rustic way. He had quiet, blue eyes that displayed just a little extra chromosome. Mustard-gas opened the conversation and Mrs Chowderbush stepped back into the kitchen.
"Hello Joe. We are investigating the death of Twitch Emmott, You knew her, yes?"
"Yes." He hesitated, rubbing the palm of one hand on his coveralls. "Hoped to bone her one day. Poor lass."
Monkeyhump looked hard at Joe "You've heard of her condition, then?"
"Yes." A spark of anger showed in his eyes. "everyone did. He used her, he did. That bleeding sod. She should have come to me when this happened. I'd have looked after her."
"In spite of..." Monkeyhump waved a hand towards his stomach.
Joe snorted. "Tweren't her fault. He led her on with his loads of money and his fancy black underthings. Mine aren't half black, yet. Oh, I heard all about it. But she'd no call to drown herself. He weren't worth the spit on me boots."
"Where were you around eight-thirty last night, Dirtbag?"
"I was here. Doing me correspondence homework. I was in the kitchen with Mrs C. You ask her. She'll tell you."
Raymond sat up a little. He was too quick with that, he thought. Out loud he asked: "Thank you Joe. Can we have a look at this kitchen?"
Joe pointed. "It's right back there, sir. I'm going upstairs to change."
Monkeyhump, Mustard-gas and Raymond went to the kitchen. Mrs Chowderbush was busy at her shrubbing table. She looked up with a pleasant smile. A mail order textbook was on the table with several brown smudges on the open pages.
"That's what Dirtbag was working on last night?" asked Raymond, looking at the graphic illustrations.
"Yes, sir, all bent over with his little hand mirror. He'll be a very clever proctologist one day, Joe will."
Turning suddenly, the Colonel fetched up against a wheeled contraption. It was a horrible cross between a baby buggy and a wagon. It crashed into the wall and knocked a picture down.
"Whups! Sorry about that," he said, bending down to replace the frame. "Glass isn't broken."
Raymond looked at the wheeled thing. One wheel was larger than the rest and it had a crude handle made of old rags.A crude hand painted sign on the side proclaimed 'shrub work for hire." "Is that your shrub buggy?"
Mrs. Chowderbush laughed. "yes, sir. I do shrubbery for some folks, sir. That buggy's what I use for to carry the shrubs. Joe made it for me, as I said earlier."
"You kept on with your husband's business after he died?" asked Raymond.
"Yes sir. Roger the Shrubber they called him. The best shrubber in these parts. He was a good man, he was, especially on toast, with syrup."
Raymond said on an impulse: "Mrs Chowderbush, you knew Twitch Emmott. Tell us what you really thought of her."
She looked towards the hall. "Well, sir, I thought she was a low type. But she's dead now, and I don't like to speak ill of the dead." She lowered her voice to a hoarse whisper. "She was a bad lot. I wouldn't say so before Joe." She shook a bony finger at Raymond. "She lured him in good and quick, sir. Her kind can trap a man worse than the Rumpurt Mire, if you take my meaning, sir."
The Colonel nodded. "Yes, we've heard as much."
The three of them left the cottage. Raymond felt baffled. He was up against a blank wall. Joe Dirtbag had been indoors all yesterday evening. Mrs Chowderbush had actually been there with him. Could one possibly get round that? There was nothing against it, except that too-quick reply from Joe Dirtbag.
"Well, Monkeyhump," said Mustard-gas, "that seems to make the matter quite clear, eh?"
"Yes it does," agreed Monkeyhump. "The thing's as plain as daylight. The girl set out to blackmail him from the start. Steakfart didn't want the matter to get back to his fiancee. He was desperate. What do you say, Nardgarbles?"
"Well, it seems so," admitted Raymond. "But I can hardly picture Steakfart committing murder."
"Any animal is capable of desperate actions when cornered." said Mustard-gas.
Something was bothering Raymond, something he couldn't put his finger on. "Still, I think we should talk to the boy," he said. "The one who heard the cry."
Jimmy Brown proved to be an intelligent lad, rather large for his age, but a sharp, cunning mind. He was eager to tell his tale and was rather annoyed by the interruptions from the Inspector.
"Yes, yes, we know all that, sonny," said Monkeyhump. "Now, You were on the other side of the bridge. Across the river from the village. Did you see anyone on that side as you came over the bridge?"
"There was someone walking in the woods. It was that Mr. Steakfart, the poufter who's putting up the queer house for Mister Wallbanger."
The three men exchanged glances. "When was that?"
"I dunno, before I heard the scream."
"Did you see anyone else on the village side of the river?"
"Joe Ditbag was over there."
"Hang on," said Colonel Mustard-gas, "How did you see who it was. It was dark and there was mist."
Jimmy looked annoyed. "I didn't see him, I heard him. "Joe Dirtbag always whistles the same tune, 'Bend Me Over in the Clover', it's the only tune he knows." He spoke with the scorn for the half-retarded.
"Anyone might whistle a tune," said Raymond. "Was he going towards the bridge?"
"No. Other way, to village."
Monkeyhump reflected. "So you heard the cry and the splash and a few minutes later you saw the body floating downstream and you ran for help. You didn't see anyone near the bridge as you ran?"
"No sir. Mr. Gobblecock's place was closest, so I ran there."
"You did well, my boy," said Mustard-gas.
"Thank you, sir." Jimmy hesitated. "Could there be a shilling it it?" he asked with hopeful eyes.
Mustard-gas twinkled back at him. "Could be, my boy. Could be. But that's for later, after all is said and done. You understand don't you, Jimmy?" He ruffled the boy's hair. "Come round my house in a couple of days."
"Yes, sir, thank you sir!"
Raymond was silent, thinking. His fingers found the slip of paper in his pocket. He took it out, looked at it and shook his head. It still didn't make any sense. He decided to pay a call on Miss Marble.
She received him in her drawing-room.
"I've come to report progress," said Raymond. "I'm afraid that things aren't going well. They are going to arrest Steakfart. And I must say I think they are justified."
She looked perplexed. "Perhaps I really was wrong. You could tell, couldn't you?"
"Possibly," said Raymond, "but we're up against an unbreakable alibi. Joe Dirtbag was corn-holing himself in Mrs. Chowderbush's kitchen all the evening and Mrs. Chowderbush was with him."
Miss Marble leaned forward. "And you believed them?"
She gave him a shrewd look. Raymond stared back at her. He remembered Jimmy's story of a whistling man. Miss Marble saw the look on his face and nodded. Raymond frowned down at his shoes. At last he said: "Yes, you may be on to something. I think I'll need to have another word with Mister Dirtbag." He stood up quickly. "Thank you Miss Marble."
"You're very welcome, Mister Nardgarbles. I shall await your results."
By the time he got back to the Chowderbush cottage it was almost full dark outside. Raymond confronted Joe Dirtbag in the little parlour among the china loons.
"Oh, back again?"
"That's right, Joe, Now listen, I'm going to be frank with you. the Inspector and the Colonel aren't here. You lied to us about last night. You weren't in the kitchen, knuckle deep in your studies. You were walking along the path by the river towards the bridge when Twitch Emmott was murdered."
Joe's eyes widened, he shook his head in mute protest.
"We have a witness, Joe, you were seen."
"She weren't murdered, she weren't," Joe sputtered. "She threw herself in. She was desperate like. I wouldn't have harmed a hair on her head. I wouldn't."
"If that's so, why did you lie earlier?" asked Raymond.
Joe's eyes shifted towards the doorway. He murmured, "Mrs C. saw me around there and when we heard what had happened, well, she thought it might look bad for me. So we fixed up a story, just between us. I'd say I was here and she agreed to back me up." He looked at his fingers. "I even rubbed fresh...well, Mrs. C, she's been real good to me."
"Yes, I'm sure she has, Joe."
Without a word Raymond left the parlor and walked into the kitchen. Mrs Chowderbush was by the sink, filling a tin shrub-bucket with dirt. She looked up as he entered. "Hello Mister Nardgarbles, back again so soon?"
"That's right," he said. "I know everything. I think you have something to tell me. Unless you want Joe Dirtbag hanged for something he didn't do, but I don't think you want that."
She stopped, her hands clutching in the black soil. There was a cold look in her eyes that Raymond didn't like. "What do you mean, Mister Nardgarbles? Speak plain."
Raymond took a breath. "You weren't here last night like you said you were. You were making your shrubbery deliveries and you came across Twitch Emmott by the bridge. Everyone thought she'd given Joe the chuck-over and was taking up with this London Steakfart. Now she was in trouble and Joe was ready to come to her rescue, marry her if need be. He's lived in your house for years and you've fallen in love with Joe, haven't you. You hated this girl, this worthless little slut. She was going to upset your cozy little home here. She was going to take away your man with the brown fingernails. So you hit her, and pushed her over into the river, nothing to it. A minute later you met Joe on the path. After the news broke you told Joe that he might be suspected so you concocted an alibi for him, but the alibi for really for you."
Raymond paused and waited.
She stood before him, letting the dirt trickle through her fingers, then, slowly she looked at Raymond.
"Cunt," she said at last, in a quiet but dangerous whisper. "Shameless cunt, that's what she was. My dead husband was a poor lot after he came home, soft in the head from the war. I looked after him. Then he died. And then Joe came here to lodge. Joe's one in a thousand. He's like a child, so gentle and believing."
She pointed a dirty finger at Raymond, her eyes like blue radio tubes. "She shan't take my Joe from me. He's mine, mine to look after! And that little..." She swallowed, checked her emotion. She stood up straight and looked down at her bucket of dirt. "I'll confess sir. We'll go now to the police station. Let me get my shawl from the closet."
She took two steps and opened the closet door. Raymond was just a little too slow to react. She reached in to the top shelf and pulled something down. Spinning fast, she pointed a large old fashioned revolver in Raymond's face.
"Mrs. Chowderbush!" gasped Raymond.
"Just up with your hands, mister man. Quick now!" The hard glint was back.
Raymond slowly raised his hands. He voice shook a little. "You can't get away with this."
"We'll see about that," she said in an odd voice.
"Think about it," pleaded Raymond. "Even if you do get away you'll still lose Joe. You'll have nothing."
"I know what I've got. Now turn around."
Raymond half turned slowly, watching her, his hands at shoulder height. He twitched involuntarily. He waited, sweating.
Suddenly the lights in the kitchen went out. A moment later there was a flash and roar from the garden door. His ears ringing, Raymond subconsciously recognized the sound of tinkling glass. He found himself on the kitchen floor, having no memory of getting there. He realized suddenly that he was wet. He scrambled towards the hall but his feet slid out from under him and he landed on his stomach.
A second later the lights came back on. Raymond's eyes were inches from a pair of work boots. He looked up and saw Joe Dirtbag, one big hand on the light switch, his eyes all saucers. "Whazza! You shot her!" he cried! You shot Mrs. C!"
"Not I," Raymond gasped. "She was going to shoot me." Slowly he stood up.
"Oh god, look at her!" Joe began to retch.
Mrs. Chowderbush was a mess. The slug had taken the top of her face off and she had fallen over her shrub-bucket, spilling dirt, blood and brain matter all over the kitchen floor. In the dark Raymond had tried to scramble away and had slipped. He looked down at his trouser knees and saw globs of grey stuff that looked like cheese. Without any warning at all Raymond suddenly threw up all over himself. Joe Dirtbag joined him.
A minute later, his stomach still heaving, Raymond went out the garden door for fresh air. he stood on the porch step, taking great lungfuls of cool night air. A glint of metal caught his eye. Something down beside the step. He bent and and slowly picked it up. Heavy. A gun, still warm. It was a silver plated automatic with pearl handles. It had just been fired.
On an impulse, Raymond pocketed the gun. He gulped air for another minute then went back into the kitchen carnage. He avoided looking at the remains of Mrs. Chowderbush.
"Joe, when you're able, you'd better go fetch Inspector Monkeyhump."
A week later Raymond was sitting in Miss Marble's parlour. A silver tea service sat between them on the low table. The pearl handled pistol lay beside the teapot.
Miss Marble spoke over the rim of her teacup. "Thank you for returning my property, Mister Nardgarbles. I must say your new suit is very becoming."
"Thank you. It just arrived this morning."
"Good Lord and Taylor are the best in London. A shame about your old suit though."
"I had to burn it, I couldn't wear it again and the...stains would never have come out."
"As I imagined."
Raymond put down his teacup next to the pistol. He paused, he had about a dozen questions running through his head. "Miss Marble, how did you know?"
Miss Marble sat back in her chair. "It's all because Roger Chowderbush was in the great war," she said. "I guessed that his service revolver was still in the house, and that Mrs. Chowderbush would use it, if provoked."
Raymond shook his head. "Inspector Monkeyhump said that if she tried to fire it would have blown her hand off. That it hadn't been cleaned in years."
"Obviously she knew nothing about firearms."
"The official verdict will be suicide by self-inflicted gunshot. Joe Dirtbag will keep his mouth shut, I think. I talked to the Colonel and Monkeyhump and we decided it was the easiest way to close the case."
Miss Marble nodded. "Agreed. She was quite insane you know. She wanted to kill Twitch. She wanted it very badly. I doubt she was rational enough to know if she threw Twitch in the river or not. It doesn't matter now, let's say she did it."
Raymond gave her a puzzled look. "But she confessed to me. You mean she was innocent?"
"Well, in the eyes of the law she was, but that means very little now."
"But hang on, if Mrs. Chowderbush didn't push Twitch Emmott in the river, who did?"
Mrs. Marble gave Raymond a confidential smile. "It was Jimmy Brown that pushed Twitch, Mister Nardgarbles."
Raymond's jaw fell open. "Jimmy Brown?"
She nodded. "It was quite easy for him, he's a strong boy. Nobody would suspect him. One quick bash on the head and push her over. Then run to me for help."
Jimmy Brown? All this time? And you knew? You helped him!"
"You couldn't know it, but Rex Steakfart's fiancee is Jimmy's older sister. She moved to London two years ago." Her smile turned downwards. "Inspector Monkeyhump couldn't be bothered to find that out, could he. I told you he was only half smart. Young Jimmy took it upon himself to protect his sister and brother-in-law from the scandal of Twitch's condition."
"But you told me... I mean, you wrote Mrs. Chowderbush's name on that piece of paper. Why did you do that?"
She looked at him as if explaining a simple math problem. "Why Mister Nardgarbles, someone needed to be the scapegoat. We certainly couldn't have a twelve year old boy hanged for being loyal to his sister, could we? Mrs. Chowderbush would do. I knew she couldn't stand the scrutiny. I knew if someone, someone like yourself, pressed her she'd crack and go round the bend."
Raymond's mouth dropped open. "You played me. You played me the whole time."
"Like a proverbial fiddle." She smiled at his expression. "It's no use being upset now, Mister Nardgarbles. Besides, Jimmy was there to protect you."
"Yes, It's why I loaned him that gun. I had him following you from the moment I asked you to become involved. I knew Mrs. Chowderbush would snap under questioning, it's why I gave you her name. I explained as much to Jimmy. He promised to take care of Mrs. Chowderbush. And he did, didn't he. Did you know she ate her own husband after he died?"
"My God, that was true?"
Miss Marble nodded slowly, "Just like a black widow spider, Mister Nardgarbles. A very dangerous, insane woman. Just one small crack in her facade and who knows what she would have done. It's a good thing that she's no longer a danger to everyone. One should never trust the insane. Particulalrly at breakfast time."
Raymond was still somewhat overwhelmed. he frowned at his tea and looked up at Miss marble's pleasant face. "But... that makes Jimmy Brown a twice over murderer and the boy is only twelve years old."
"Yes, I believe he's coming along nicely, don't you think so?"
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