Jiggles and the Black Shaft – 15

The lake may have been ornamental, but it was too deep for anyone to simply wade out to where the body floated, face down, toward its middle. Arthur had to go and rouse Clive and the footmen, so that they could break out the dinghy used when they cleared weeds from the waters. They clumsily launched it from the beach at the far end of the lake, where the stream from the generator flowed in. Arthur rowed, and Clive steered, whilst Lynes stood in the prow, giving directions.

Almost the entire household had gathered on the shore to watch the recovery attempt. Melissa had been wobbly after the revelation, and Donald had insisted on escorting her to her room to lay down and recover. Toby had made a detour via his office, to call the local Police station. Everyone else watched, silently.

Lynes knelt in the boat as it approached the body, giving instructions to Arthur and Clive. As the wind blew across the lake, ruffling up little waves that broke against the objects floating in it, snatches of what Lynes was saying drifted to the watching crowd.

He held up his right hand, and they distinctly heard him say, “Stop.”

Arthur planted the oars into the water, and gave a fractional stroke against the direction of travel. The boat pulled up within reaching distance of the body. Arthur drew the oars in, then scrambled forwards to help Lynes. As they leant over the front of the boat to pull up the soaked rag doll, Clive moved to act as a counterweight at the stern.

With their unpleasant cargo aboard, Arthur turned the boat with a few strokes of the oars, an Clive pointed it toward the beach again. Lynes sat on the front bench seat, not looking at the body. As one, the crowd on the shore moved toward where the boat would land.

Godfrey took long, fast strides to get ahead of everyone else, then turned and held up his arms. “Okay, everyone, we can’t all gawp at the poor girl. We need to show her some respect. I will wait with her until Lord Toby arrives from his telephone call, then Lynes and I will work with him to see what we can learn about how she ended up in the lake. Miss Jiggleswick, and Ginge, would you help us with that? Excellent, thank you. Now, erm, Erin and Ally, would you go to her room, and see what state it is in. Perhaps you can find something suitable for her to be laid out in, once the Police doctor has had a look at her. Eileen, can you get the key to her room, and show Ally and Erin around? Thank you. We’ll meet in Toby’s office, to, erm, discuss matters. Once we’re done here. Everyone else, I know that this is going to be hard, but if you could return to your posts, that really would be for the best.”

Nobody questioned Godfrey’s sudden decision to lead. He had the air of someone who knew what they were doing, and enough darkness left of his hangover to appear too volatile to annoy. The crowd broke up, and went its various ways.

Toby passed through the dispersing group as he walked from the house. He didn’t ask what had happened to send them away, as Godfrey, Jiggles and Ginge fell into step with him. “I’ve called the local station. Both the officers will be here as soon as they can. They’re going to wake old Doctor Potts on their way, so he can do an examination, and work out cause of death. Do you want to call any of your people, old chap?”

Godfrey made a low ‘hmmm’, then said, “Not yet. They would take an age to get here, and, between us, we have quite a talented team, if we have to investigate anything suspicious arising from the dear’s death. Of course, it could just be an unfortunate drowning, and we’re all jumping to conclusions of foul play because we’ve all read too many murder mysteries.”

They had reached beach now. Arthur and Clive were lifting the body from the boat, whilst trying to avoid looking at it. Lynes directed them to lay it down on a section of tarpaulin stretched out over the pebbles.

It was Maude, for certain now. She wore a long night dress, which had been partly torn from her right shoulder. Her face and limbs were paler in death, and her blonde hair darker because it was wet. An expression of surprise was frozen on her features, eyes still open and staring at whoever had left a long knife embedded in her chest.

“Or we could have been right to expect foul play.” Ginge said.

* * *

In the short hallway between the kitchen and the pantry, there was a shallow cabinet attached to the wall. Eileen opened it, and ran her fingers across and down the rows of hooks that held spare keys for all the interior doors with locks. “It should be that one.” she said, pointing at an empty space.

“Well, that is suspicious.” Erin said. “Could it be on one of the other hooks by accident?”

“That has happened before. They’ve all got a number scratched into them. Let me have a look.” Eileen worked her way from the top down again, staring closely at each of the keys. She passed the empty hook, and carried on all the way to the bottom before shaking her head. “No, these are all on the right hook.”

Erin reached over Eileen, to pick up three odd looking keys that were laying in the bottom of the cabinet. “These have the look of skeleton keys. Let’s go up to her room, and use these if we need to.”

The staff quarters were in the basement. They each had a small room, rather than having to share with others, which was more civilised than the conditions Ally had heard about in other houses. Eileen led her and Erin to Maude’s room.

They stared at the door for a moment. “Which of the skeleton keys do you think will open it?” Ally asked.

“It’s always a good idea, before you use the keys, to check the door isn’t already open.” Erin announced, depressing the handle and pushing.

The door opened. “Voila!” announced Erin.

The light from the corridor spilled across the threshold, to show a room in serious disarray. Clothes were scattered over the floor and furniture, and every single drawer had been pulled out and emptied.

“Oh dear.” said Eileen.

“I think we know why the key was missing. Someone wanted to go through her room.” Ally said.

“I wonder if they found what they were looking for?” Erin stood on the threshold. She reached inside the door, and found the switch for the light. The mess appeared even worse when illuminated by the bulb hanging from the ceiling.

Erin looked at Ally. “Godfrey said that Jiggleswick Air were experts in this sort of thing. What do we do next?”

“We’re more adventurers than investigators. What we do now is a mystery to me.”

“My Dad used to read lots of murder mysteries. That’s the nearest I’ve come to anything that looks like this.” Eileen confessed. “Should we leave it for the Police, or have a look, and see if we can guess what they may have been after?”

“I’m too impatient to wait for the Police. And I think that Godfrey sent us here expecting us to find something to investigate. If he wants us to have a snoop, I say we have a snoop.” said Erin. She still couldn’t bring herself to step inside, though.

It was Eileen who made the first move into the room. She took a few of steps, carefully avoiding clothes and clutter, until she stood at the foot of the bed. “They’ve gone through the drawers and cupboard, obviously. And look, the mattress is skew. I think they lifted that, to get a look under it and the bed. They were hunting for something they were sure she had hidden.”

“Does this room have a secret compartment? Did they look inside that?” Erin asked. She and Ally crossed the threshold, and followed a similar route to Eileen’s through the mess.

“A secret compartment?” Eileen was surprised by this suggestion.

“Oh, yes. My room has one. And I remember finding them all around the house when I visited as a child. I wouldn’t be surprised if all the rooms have at least one.” The room was so small that Erin could reach almost from side to side. She tapped at the panelling on the nearest section.

“I never knew there were secret compartments. If we find one in here, I’ll have to go over my own room.” Eileen’s eyes were wide as she watched Erin tapping along the wall. They went wider still, somehow, when Erin’s knuckles raised a hollow sound from a section.

“It’s hardly a surprise, if you think about it. You do run up and down the Black Shaft to get to and from without being spotted.” Ally said. “Or to have sex in the middle of the night.”

Eileen went pink. “I’ve never done that. I mean, I know that lots of the others do. Mister Lynes runs the lottery for all those who want to play in the Shaft.”

“I’m sure Toby would be interested in joining you, if you ever wanted to.” Ally put an arm across Eileen’s shoulder, and gave her a quick hug.

“Let’s see what’s behind the mystery door, before we go off to make love on a staircase.” Erin kidded, pressing at the panelling until there was a click. The edge of the panel section popped out, and she hooked a nail under it to tease it open.

“I’m going to my room and tapping all the walls as soon as I can.” Eileen muttered.

“You and me both.” Ally agreed. “What’s in there?”

Erin reached into the compartment, making interested noises. Eileen offered palm up hands to take whatever was passed out.

The first item was a hardback note book or diary, tied up with a shoe lace. Then Erin passed out a small green bottle with a cork stopper in it. Eileen craned her head to read the label on the bottle. “Spanish Fly?” she asked.

“I’ve heard of that. It’s supposed to give a man a raging erection that just won’t go down.” Erin said.

“It’s very painful though, from what I’ve heard, and not good for the chap’s health.” Ally added.

“No-one is taking any of it, then.” Erin pulled out another diary, and a bundle of letters tied up with a bow.

“Is that everything?” Ally asked.

Erin stood on tiptoe, and stared into the very back of the compartment. “It is. Unless there’s a secret compartment inside the secret compartment.” She pressed at all the internal walls of the hidden box, deciding that her idea might not be all that silly. “Nope, nothing.”

“Do you think this is what they were after? Whoever it was that tore up the room?” Eileen nodded at the objects she and Erin held.

“Either that, or whatever they were looking for was in the very last place they checked. They went through every other place that anything could have been kept in.” Ally spotted a canvas shoulder bag amongst the debris. Picking it up, she checked that it was empty, then held it out for Erin and Eileen to put the finds into.

“This must prove that Maude ended up in the lake due to foul play, mustn’t it? And whoever did it was searching for something she was hiding, presumably what we just found.” Erin said thinking out loud.

“If it was the same person who did this, and threw her in the lake. In the murder mysteries, this kind of thing is often a red herring.” Eileen suggested. She took the bag from Ally, and hung it from her shoulder.

“Let’s go to the office, and read these books and letters. Perhaps they can tell us something important. I doubt we’ll find anything else of use in this mess. I wish we had the key though, we could lock it up again until the Police arrive.” Ally said, leading them from the room.

“Perhaps one of these will work.” Erin produced the skeleton keys.

“It can’t hurt to try to find out.”

Erin closed the door to the room, then knelt before the handle and lock. She studied the three keys, picking the one that appealed the most, and sliding it into the lock. Holding the door firmly in place, she turned the key. It went a short way, then stopped. She wiggled it back and forth, testing the turn every time, but it still didn’t go any further.

Giving up on that key, she tried the next. It didn’t work on the first try, but, when she drew it out a little, it turned all the way around, and locked the door. “I may have to keep these. For now.” she announced as she stood up.

They were surprised to find Toby, Godfrey, Jiggles and Ginge already in the office when they went upstairs. The serious expressions all round confirmed that Maude’s death had not been an accident, and only became more grim when they learnt of the state of her room. In return, Godfrey confirmed that she had been stabbed before entering the lake. A quick examination had found two open wounds, and one with the knife still stuck in it. The doctor, when he arrived, might be able to find out more.

The office was a large room, converted from an earlier lord’s study and special library. There were still shelves full of books along two of the walls, though some of them were now ledgers. Toby’s desk was at one end of the room, with the telephone on it, and a view that took in the drive and one end of the runway, whilst the lake was hidden by trees. A long table took up most of the room. Occasionally used for meetings away from the many factories the Carstairs family operated, it was the perfect spot for the items from Maude’s room to be laid out.

As they stood around the end of the table, looking at the books, letter and bottle, Godfrey straightened, and announced, almost formally, “Now, this is a murder investigation. I hope you do not mind my taking the lead, but it is close to what I already do, professionally. I asked all of you to help me with this, not just because I trust you, but because I know that you were all, ah, otherwise engaged for all or most of last night.”

“Do you now?” Erin replied.

“You weren’t the person in the bushes by the hangar were you?” Toby wanted to know.

“I was definitely not in any bushes last night. But do tell me more. It might have some bearing upon….”

As Toby took some time trying to formulate the best explanation, Eileen jumped in for him. “There was someone watching last night, when we….” she indicated Ally and Toby, as well as herself. “We heard them, and chased them away. But we were naked, so we couldn’t really make the chase last.”

“Well, that is interesting. Rest assured, that was not me. I would either not have given myself away, or stepped up, and offered my congratulations. In fact, I feel I should offer them now. Toby is a very lucky chap, Eileen.” Godfrey gave a little bow in Eileen’s direction, and she went several shades of pink.

“As you’re writing people out of suspicion because they were too busy making love, I am sure that I can vouch for Lucy, and, I think, Clive. As well as being able to explain what the ghost really is.” Ginge offered.

“Very good. Of course, you’ll all have to trust me when I say that I’m not the murderer, either, because I have no witness, the way you all do, to say that I was in the games room, and, briefly, in here, making a telephone call to the office. I hope you can do that.”

“If we can’t trust a spy, who can we trust.” Toby joked.

“Precisely. And, of course, this means that everyone else in the house is under suspicion. Which we must not let on.” Godfrey delivered the last sentence quickly and quietly, as the door opened, and Lynes entered.

He was carrying a rectangular box, covered with what appeared to be crocodile skin, and with brightly polished hinges and clasps. He looked at the evidence already laid out on the table, curious but feigning indifference, and placed the box beside it. His thumbs flipped the catches open, and he hinged the lid up.

Inside the box were three knives- a very large carving knife, medium sized filleting blade, and a smaller filleting blade, mounted so that they rested sharp edge down, with handles angled slightly upward for easy gripping. There was an empty slot between the carving knife and the larger of the filleting blades. Each knife’s handle was dark, almost black, wood, with three parallel swatches of mother of pearl inlaid.

“I recognised the handle of the blade that was…. in poor, dear Maude, and had to go and find the set to check.” Lynes announced.

Toby turned the case so that he could look more closely at the knives. “I believe I have seen these being used at some of our larger dos. To slice up roast ham and beef. Papa got them from one of his business partners or suppliers, I think.”

“My father had a set just like that.” Eileen said, quietly. “He had to sell it. After the business went under. But I don’t remember where he got them from.”

“I doubt their provenance has much bearing upon the choice of the knife by the murderer. I suspect that it was just easily to hand. Where are these normally kept?” Godfrey asked.

“Downstairs, sir, with all the other cutlery and crockery.” Lynes was holding himself perfectly upright, but his eyes kept dropping to the paper, and the bottle, on the table. Occasionally, they danced to Eileen, and noted the way Toby stood close beside her, as if they were offering each other moral support. His expression didn’t give any hint of how he felt about that.

“And who has access to the cutlery and crockery?”

“Everybody sir. Well, all of the staff, and anyone else who knows where to look.”

“It would take me a little while to get my bearings, but I could have found that box, if you’d asked me.” Toby confirmed.

“Unless the cupboards been moved right across the house since I was a kid, I could as well.” Erin added.

“Well, that doesn’t narrow things down as much as I would have liked. Thank you, Lynes. I think you had best go and see that the staff are coping.” Godfrey tried to be subtle as he sent away someone he had earlier admitted was a suspect.

“They should have the day off.” Toby suggested. “Unless, of course, you feel that having something to do will be better for them, as a means of distraction.”

“Very well, sir. I will endeavour to give them all some time to collect their thoughts. But I suspect they will want to make sure that your meals are still served, and that the house does not fall apart.” Lynes gave the slightest of bows, turned sharply, and walked from the room.

When the door had closed, Godfrey gestured at the table’s contents. “Well, we have the murder weapon, for what little it tells us. And, I suspect, we have clues toward the motive. The local Police, and the doctor, should be here soon. I’m going to try to pull rank on them, and get some chaps up from London, who have more experience in this sort of thing than they will. Meanwhile, all this paperwork, and whatever is in that bottle, needs to be guarded at all times. If someone was going through Maude’s room to find it, who knows whether they would take a chance to get at it again.”

Eileen made a little exasperated gasp, and thumped the table. When everyone looked at her, she twisted her face into an apologetic grimace. “I’m sorry, I drifted off there, when Godfrey mentioned what happened to Maude’s room. My room is right beside hers, and Lucy’s is directly opposite. Annette sleeps like the dead, so she wouldn’t have noticed. But, if Lucy and I hadn’t been…. enjoying ourselves, we might have heard what was happening in Maude’s room, and been able to put a stop to it.”

“Or you might have ended up just like her.” Godfrey pointed out. As Eileen paled at that thought, Toby put a comforting arm around her shoulders.

“How about we start reading through these diaries and letters?” Ally suggested. “If you and Toby talk to the Police, and find out what the doctor has to say, the rest of us can stay up here and see if we can find a clue.”

“That is a very good idea. But do you mind if I ask Jiggles and Erin to accompany us? At least at first. We can use the force of numbers, in case the local Peelers don’t want to recognise my, ah, authority.”

The members of what would be the two investigating teams looked from one to another, then nodded agreement at the plan. Almost perfectly on time, Lynes knocked, then entered. “The Police are coming up the drive now, sir.” he told Toby.