It was a sultry, autumn evening with a rumble of distant thunder in the heavy air. Most of the people in the drawing room of Ashbury Lodge, hereditary home of the Barons Chobbing, were in an evil temper. One of them was a murderer, a ruthless killer with bizarre extermination tastes, who was on the point of being unmasked by the great consulting detective Charters Mainwaring. The rest had been under both police guard and suspicion for a week. Everyone resented being dragged back to the scene of four horrible murders on the orders of Chief Inspector Cornwallis of Scotland Yard.
Charters Mainwaring; comfortably middle-aged, round, bland, yet strangely magnetic; was in full flow under the impatient eyes of six guests and four policemen, two of them in uniform. Eight other constables and a sergeant were positioned strategically around the house.
Mainwaring was pacing before the ranks of chairs, gesturing with an empty pipe with a metal stem and amber mouthpiece – his trade-mark. He was taking an age to saunter through the evidence. Suspicion shifted from one member of his unwilling audience to another, like the bouncing ball of a cinema song.
Chief Inspector Cornwallis was impatient to make his arrest. His wife would give him hell if he was late home on the night of their fourth wedding anniversary. But he knew that the great consulting detective had to have his say in full. Charters Mainwaring became suddenly forgetful and downright unhelpful if mere coppers dared to hurry him. He reached his solution in his own way or not at all.
A gust of wind puffed a heavy curtain at the french windows, which were supposed to be locked. Everyone but Mainwaring had their back to that wall. He was consulting one of his leather-bound notebooks at the time, taking pleasure in the elegant handwriting. Citrine, the butler, had drawn all the curtains on Mainwaring's orders. Tall, thin and looking distinctly guilty, the butler was perched uneasily on a straight-backed chair on the fringe. He was not used to sitting in the presence of his master, Lord Chobbing.
Suddenly, the lights went out. Almost at once, a bright muzzle flash seared across the room for a stroboscopic second. Something heavy fell to the floor. A strange, unhuman voice gasped and squealed. A solid object crashed over; one of the tables.
"Oh, sod it!", Chief Inspector Cornwallis muttered through the tedious chorus of screams and shouts.
For the ninety-ninth time that evening, he wished that the bloody little man would get on with it. Just the same, he was looking forward to the trial, to seeing his picture in the papers, to receiving congratulations from his superiors following the inevitable conviction. Amateur or no, Charters Mainwaring had a one-hundred per cent record when it came to spotting how and by whom a crime had been committed.
A cigarette lighter flared into life. Then it went out. The flint sparked again uselessly.
"Oh, sod it!" Cornwallis repeated the phrase aloud. He had glimpsed a shape on the carpet.
The trial was off. The murderer had decided to do the great consulting detective out of his moment of triumph. Cornwallis assumed that the rotten sod had committed suicide and the police would receive the blame for failing to stop him; or her.
Another lighter flared and moved over to the ornamental candles on the sideboard. Chief Inspector Cornwallis sat back in his extremely comfortable armchair and waited to find out which of his six suspects was lying lifeless on the floor, their blood ruining an expensive carpet.
Cornwallis freely admitted to himself that he was baffled at this stage of the investigation. Charters Mainwaring, evidently, had stumbled across a piece of evidence that had, as yet, failed to make an impression on Cornwallis. Perhaps it was something odd in a photograph, a piece of physical evidence in the wrong place or a slip made in an apparently harmless conversation.
Then there was enough light to show the people in the room clearly. Chief Inspector Cornwallis groaned aloud. The six suspects were still in their chairs. Charters Mainwaring, the great consulting detective, lay crumpled on the carpet, his once pure-white shirt front stained a bright red. Cornwallis groaned again. He now had a fifth murder to solve and he knew instinctively that a search of the drawing room, the rest of the house and its grounds would fail to turn up the murder weapon.
And to add to this troubles, his wife would send him to Coventry for at least a fortnight if he missed a fourth out of their four wedding anniversaries. With a feeling of utter dejection, he began to pick up the pieces. ■