MURDER IN THE SPANISH BARN
It is 1928, and the well-known local mystery writer Eliza Ashcroft has been invited to dinner with friends at Torre Abbey. But no sooner has she arrived than her host, Victor Crosby, is found dead in the Spanish Barn, shot in the head.
The killer is one of her fellow guests – but who? None of them lie, but are they telling the whole truth?
A dark green Morris Cowley drew up before the steps of Torre Abbey, and a slim, fair-haired young woman climbed out.
“Eliza!” Her hostess, resplendent in a purple sack-dress with feathers in her hair, hurried down to greet her with a brief air-kiss. “How delightful you could come.”
“Violet, darling, of course I’d come. How do you like the house?”
“It’s perfectly marvellous – and such a grand view of the sea. It was simply divine of you to persuade the Carys to lease it to us for the summer. But come on inside. I’m afraid we’re in a bit of an uproar at the moment – Victor has done one of his disappearing acts, and left me to entertain our guests by myself. I swear I could just kill that man…”
They both turned sharply as a loud shout erupted from the Spanish Barn, fifty yards away. A tall figure in a brown pin-stripe suit burst out of the wide double doors. Instinctively the two women ran towards him. “Freddie – whatever is it?” Violet demanded, shaking his arm.
“It’s… Victor. He’s shot himself.”
Eliza hurried into the barn. A body lay sprawled on the floor next to Victor’s prized Duesenberg. A Webley Mark IV service pistol lay beside him, and an ominous dark stain spread from beneath his head. And when she stepped closer she could see a small round wound in the very centre of his forehead.
Crouching beside him, she touched his forehead very carefully, then examined her fingers. Just a couple of grains of gun-shot residue clung there. The body was still warm, and a touch of his arm indicated that rigor mortis had not yet begun.
Glancing around, she surveyed the interior of the barn. It had been used as a garage for some time - as well as the gleaming new Duesenberg there were two other cars parked there. On a table against the wall had been dumped various tools and polishes, and a one-gallon petrol can stood on the floor beneath it – a small spill on the ground beside it gleamed iridescent in a shaft of sunlight from one of the long slit windows high in the wall.
“I… just popped over to… I thought he might be in here,” Freddie stammered, his eyes wide. “And there he was.”
His shout had brought others running from the house. “Great Scott! What’s happened?” Harold, Victor’s brother, was ahead of the pack.
“It’s poor Victor.” Violet produce a lace handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes with it. “He’s…”
“Not…?” George – Major George Benning – took one look at the body and quickly tried to usher the ladies back from the sight.
“I’m afraid it looks like he is.” Maud Wilmott stepped past the Major and drew on her cigarette through its long ebony holder. “Thank goodness he did it out here and not in the house – he’s making a terrible mess on the floor.”
“Maud!” her husband protested. “You might think of poor Vi.”
“Oh, come on, Morrie. And Vi, please put that silly hanky away – everyone knows you wouldn’t shed a single tear for Darling Victor. I can’t imagine there are many people who would.”
“You’re saying that because he dumped you,” sneered Lady Florence, Lord Freddie’s pretty young wife.
Maud shrugged her slim shoulders. “Last I heard he was getting ready to dump you too,” she returned spitefully. “Gladys, darling, that’s a simply divine perfume you’re wearing. What is it?”
“Oh… Thank you.” Gladys smiled a little uncertainly. “It’s called Shalimar – it’s a new one from Paris. I was afraid it might be a little too strong for the afternoon.”
“Not at all.”
“My dear, must you insist on being so trivial in every circumstance?” demanded Maurice, thin-lipped. “It’s hardly the appropriate behaviour for the wife of an MP.”
“But I’m afraid she’s absolutely right about Victor.” Walter Pickering, limping in behind the others on his club foot, piped up. “You won’t find many people to mourn his death. Certainly none of us here. He was an absolute cad.”
“He was always horrid to you,” agreed Hilda. “And to poor Harold, too.” She linked her hand through her husband’s arm. “And he was his own brother.”
Maurice laughed without humour. “Well, you’ll certainly have reason to celebrate,” he said. “He’s been threatening to cut you out of his Will – now you’ll inherit a tidy sum.”
“You’ll be celebrating too,” Harold threw back at him. “He was threatening to spill the beans on that old bankruptcy of yours at the next Party meeting – that would have sunk your chances of being selected as our candidate for the next election.”
“Ladies, gentlemen, please.” Eliza rose to her feet. “I think we should all go back up to the house, and ask Collins to call the police.”
They all turned to stare at her.
“I’m afraid Victor didn’t commit suicide. He was murdered.”
There was a stunned silence, then a chatter of voices.
“How do you know? How can you be sure?”
“Because suicides usually shoot themselves in the mouth or the temple – not through the middle of the forehead, which would have been a very awkward angle. Also there is very little gun-shot residue around the entry wound, which indicates that the gun was fired from at least eighteen inches away. It would have been quite impossible for him to shoot himself like that.”
Harold stepped gingerly towards the body. “Yes, I see…” He nodded. “But that’s his gun. It’s his old service pistol. He kept it in the drawer beside his bed.”
“Who else apart from you would have known that?”
“Well… Vi, of course.”
“Are you accusing me of killing him?” Violet protested sharply. “I’m sure I’m not the only one who knew. He couldn’t have resisted showing off about it to his paramours.” She slanted a sneering glance towards Maud.
“Not me, I’m afraid,” Maud declared. “He knows… knew how I hate them. Nasty noisy things. But don’t tell me he didn’t tell you,” she added to Florence.
Florence glared back at her. “Why would he?”
“He did,” Hilda insisted. “I heard him talking about it at the Simmondson’s house-party last month.”
“So you knew too,” Eliza said softly. “Who else?”
“I certainly didn’t,” Walter asserted. “I’m really not interested in guns - I dislike them quite as much as Maud.”
“What about you, Morrie?” Harold demanded. “Did you know?”
“Not me, old chap – we never got along well enough for him to tell me his little secrets. Though George might have guessed. Probably a habit of you old army chaps, eh?”
“Not a habit of mine,” the Major responded stuffily. “Besides, the key point surely is who would have had the opportunity to get hold of it, let alone use it?”
“Well, if we’re going to work that out, we’d need to have some idea when he might have been shot,” Harold pointed out. “When was the last time anyone saw him?”
“Not since lunch,” Freddie said. “Walter and I went into the library to read the newspapers. We were in there all afternoon, until Vi came looking for him.”
“Oh my goodness!” Hilda put her hand to her mouth. “We heard the shot, didn’t we George? Remember? I was in the drawing room as you came down the stairs. I never thought of it being a gun-shot – I thought someone must have dropped something, but you said it was probably a car back-firing.”
“How long ago was that?”
“An hour, no more,” George said. “Gladys and I had gone up to change for dinner.”
“Well, that lets us out,” Morrie declared with what could only be described as relief. “We only got here… what, half-an-hour ago?”
“So far as we know,” remarked Harold pointedly.
“And what exactly do you mean by that?”
“Well, you could have arrived earlier, slipped into the barn and done the deed, then toddled off without being seen, to drive up later in style with the perfect alibi.”
“Oh, that’s ridiculous. Besides, how could we have got hold of the gun?”
“Good point,” Harold conceded, somewhat reluctantly. “Vi, was the gun always in the bedside table?”
“Yes. In fact he was cleaning it just before lunch, and I saw him put it back there. And before you ask, of course I could have taken it, but I didn’t. And anyway, I had no idea how to use the stupid thing – Victor would never show me. He was convinced females would have hysterics if they ever got one in their hand.”
“And besides, Vi was far too busy to have the time to slip out and shoot him without being noticed,” Hilda insisted. “She’s been bustling about all afternoon, playing the hostess.”
“And where were you, Harold?” Morrie demanded.
Harold’s eyes took on a suddenly wary look. “I?”
“Yes, you. You’ve been keen enough to quiz everyone else. Where were you when dear Victor was shot?”
Harold hesitated for a brief second. “I was... showing Florence the gardens. Wasn’t I Florence?”
“Yes.” The girl had tilted up her pretty chin, though there was a noticeable blush of pink in her cheeks. “They’re really very lovely, Vi.”
“Yes,” agreed their hostess, sounding a little doubtful. “They were one of the things that drew us to the house. Though… I didn’t see you when I came out to cut some roses for the dining room.”
“Perhaps that was while we were in the walled garden, or the Palm House,” Florence suggested brightly.
“Yes – of course. That must have been it.”
“Well, that seems to be everyone accounted for,” Harold surmised, his mouth a grim line of dissatisfaction. “I suggest we should do as Eliza recommended and go up to the house while we wait for the police. Perhaps one of the under-gardeners could be set to guard this door?”
As they followed their hostess, Harold moved discreetly into step beside Eliza. “I think there’s something you should know,” he murmured. “Our brave Major Benning? Not a Major at all – not even an officer. And certainly never served at the front.”
Eliza slanted him an enquiring look.
“Corporal in the Pay Corps. Never got nearer the fighting than the South Downs. Complete fraud.”
“How do you know?”
“Victor told me. Got it from an old pal who knew Benning back then. It was one of the few things poor old Victor and I actually agreed on – man’s an absolute rotter.”
“Did George know that Victor knew?”
“I daresay he might have done. You know Victor – never one to let an opportunity to torment someone pass him by. Just as he was with Walter, always ribbing him about not being fit to join the army because of his foot.”
“Yes…” Eliza nodded thoughtfully as they climbed the front steps and entered the house.
“I’ve asked Collins to bring sherry,” Vi announced as they all assembled in the drawing room. “Or perhaps some of the gentlemen may prefer brandy?”
As Eliza took a seat on one of the sofas she found the elegant Maud settling herself beside her. “You know, of course, about Harold and Florence?” she enquired, leaning over to speak quietly in her ear. “They’re having an affair.”
Eliza glanced at her in surprise. “I thought Florence was having an affair with Victor.”
“She was. But you know Victor – give him a couple of months and he starts to get bored. He was already casting his sights elsewhere. So she decided to move onto the other brother.” Her dark eyes glittered with malice. “Of course, it doesn’t mean she wasn’t simply furious with Victor for dumping her.”
“What are you implying?”
Maud waved her cigarette holder in an elegant circle. “Oh, I’m implying nothing, darling. I leave that to clever people like the police.”
Hilda had caught the last words of the conversation. “And I do hope they’ll be able to find out quickly who did it. It’s simply horrid to have such a thing hanging over one.”
Eliza smiled. “Oh, I think they will,” she responded. “I don’t think it will take them very long at all.”
They all stared at her. “Do you know who did it?” demanded Harold.
“I think so. And the police will be able to prove it.”
“It’s really quite simple. The person who fired the gun will have particles of gun-shot residue on their hands. They’re really quite tiny – almost invisible. Some people believe that washing your hands, or rubbing them with petrol or paraffin, will remove all traces, but I’m afraid that isn’t so.”
She glanced around the room, satisfied that her small lie had had the desired effect – a tiny twitch of a guilty hand, almost infinitesimal, had confirmed the conclusion she had already reached.
Collins, the butler, appeared at the door. “Inspector Jenkins is here, Madame,” he announced.
“Thank you, Collins. You may show him in.”
The detective, a thin, solemn man with a grey moustache, walked into the room, flanked by two constables. He glanced around, and smiled in recognition when he saw Eliza.
“Ah, Miss Ashcroft. I’m pleased to find you here. This is a puzzle, and no mistake.”
“It is indeed,” Eliza conceded. “However, I believe it can be unraveled very quickly."
“But… You know who did it?" demanded Freddie, wide-eyed.
"I do." Eliza took a sip of her sherry, and set it down on the table beside her. “There were a number of clues which pointed inevitably to the culprit. First, we must listen to the voice of the victim.”
“Victor?” protested Harold. “But how…?”
“The victim always speaks,” Eliza asserted. “You saw the way the bullet entered – square in the centre of his forehead. As I mentioned at the time, the small amount of gun-shot splatter indicated that the gun was fired from about eighteen inches away. Now why would a man stand still and allow someone to point a gun at him, at almost point-blank range? Only if he strongly believed that they would never have the nerve to actually pull the trigger.”
Vi gasped. “You’re right. I can just see him, laughing at the mere thought that…” She stopped abruptly, realising that she could be talking herself into a noose.
“Quite.” Eliza nodded. “I felt that would immediately eliminate Maurice and Harold, and probably George and Freddie too. I’m sorry, Walter, but I wasn’t sure about you. But it seemed to indicate that the killer was most likely to be a woman.”
“Surely not!” Maurice protested, shocked.
“Oh, Morrie – you’re quite as bad as Victor,” Maud declared. “Of course a woman could have done it. But do go on, Eliza – I’m quite fascinated.”
“As to motive – well, I think it’s clear that everyone had a motive of some sort. Most of them you will already be aware of – there were his affairs, his taunting of his victims…”
“Well, yes, but…?” Morrie glanced at Gladys and back to Eliza.
“Harold, perhaps you could explain?” Eliza suggested.
Harold slanted a glittering glare at George. “Or maybe you could tell us – Corporal Benning of the Pay Corps?”
George’s gaze was fixed on his feet, and his only response was a slight nod of his head. Gladys slanted him one cold glance of mingled contempt and fury.
“And of course, you had the opportunity,” Hilda exclaimed. “I never thought of it before but… When I saw George coming out of your room, I just assumed that you were still inside getting dressed. But you would have had plenty of time to slip along the corridor into Victor’s room to steal his gun, and then down the Chapel steps to the side door.”
“Exactly.” Eliza nodded. “And George, you will recall, never actually denied that he knew where Victor kept his gun – merely that it was not his habit to keep a gun of his own in his bedside table. The final clue was the petrol.”
As she had expected, that caused considerable puzzlement.
“I noticed in the Barn that there had recently been a small spill of petrol. Now, when a person fires a gun they will inevitable get a small amount of the gun-shot residue on their hands. As I said earlier, a lot of people believe that you need to use petrol to clean it off. I’m afraid I was slightly dishonest there,” she acknowledged with a smile. “Petrol would certainly remove it, as would simply washing your hands. Of course, the difficulty with wiping your hands with petrol is that the smell will tend to linger.”
Maud's eyes widened, and she turned to Gladys. "So you tried to smother it with perfume,” she exclaimed with a sardonic laugh. “Shalimar! I thought it smelled a bit off – I assumed you must have bought a cheap fake bottle from some spiv selling on the street.”
Everybody stared in shock to where the Bennings sat side-by-side on a sofa near the window. Gladys was gripping her husband’s hand so tightly it looked as if she would break his fingers. Her face had paled, and then turned a virulent, angry crimson.
“Well, you’d know all about that,” she countered spitefully. "Anyway, he deserved it. I’d do it again, any time. I don’t care if I go to prison.” She turned to the detective. “Please get me out of here.” She rose to her feet with sublime dignity and held out her hands, wrists together. “I assume you’re going to clap me in handcuffs?”
“I don’t think that will be necessary. Gladys Benning, I’m arresting you for the murder of Mr Victor Crosby. You do not have to say anything unless you wish to do so, but what you say may be given in evidence."
No-one spoke as the Bennings were escorted from the room. Then Maud broke the silence. “Well! Vi, do pass the sherry around – I think we could all do with a drink.”