Brilliant August sunshine poured down from a perfectly blue sky. The Kent countryside basked in the heat of a still, summer morning. Perfumed air from the rose garden drifted through french windows into the library. Desmond ffolkes was preparing to enjoy his first Sunday as master of Halton Hall. He was just scrunching a bottle of Veuve Clicquot from the reserved end of the cellar into the silver ice bucket, when Jeffcoat tapped deferentially on the oaken door.
"Come!" called ffolkes regally.
"Two policemen are here, sir." The butler's tone disapproved of both the Sunday invasion and his master's airs.
"Show them to the small reception room. And tell cook that brunch may be delayed," ffolkes added regretfully.
Two detectives were running professional eyes over a display of mediaeval weapons in the hall, as if looking for an excuse to arrest the owner. The older detective was about forty. His suit looked as if it had been through a domestic washing machine and then pressed by someone in a hurry. The sergeant was young, blond and wearing limp jeans and a purple sweatshirt. Both looked hot and tired.
"Mr. ffolkes will join you in a moment." Jeffcoat, sleek and sixty, extended a hand toward the waiting room.
A minute or so later, the detectives heard a report. It was harder and louder than the plop of a released champagne cork. Inspector Hepworth replaced an ivory figure on the mantlepiece and moved to the doorway. Another door opened. The butler stared at him suspiciously from across the hall, accusing him silently of breaking something.
Inspector Hepworth tried the library door. It was locked. With a shout to summon Sergeant Tomasik, he sprinted for the side of the house. He was breathless when he turned the key to let his sergeant and the butler into the library, having scrambled in through an open window.
Desmond ffolkes had slumped sideways in a wing chair. The hand with the pistol had dropped to his lap. He had fled beyond the reach of the law. There was an expression of annoyance on his young, pale face. Ambition had overreached itself at the age of twenty-eight. Vain to the last, he had shot himself tidily through the heart instead of the head.
An ambulance left the house three hours later, taking the body on a five-minute journey to Canterbury for the routine of a post mortem examination. The ice bucket contained a shallow puddle of water. Jeffcoat had returned the unopened bottle to his personal corner of the wine cellar. The police presence had been reduced to just uniformed men at the gates to keep reporters out of the grounds and the two detectives in the library. Alylwyn Baxter, the family solicitor, had been dragged off a golf course to join them.
"Tragic business," murmured Baxter for the umpteenth time. "What brought you here in the first place, Inspector?"
"That reminds me, I have to establish one last link in the chain." Inspector Hepworth took his notebook over to the surround of the french windows and held it behind each of the bull's eyes in turn. "You'll notice modern bull's eyes don't focus light. The sun shines directly on his window and there's a risk of setting fire to the curtains. Ah! But this one does have a focus of sorts."
Sergeant Tomasik and the grey-haired solicitor moved closer to see the diffuse image on the notebook page.
"Note that this bull's eye is hidden if the curtains aren't fully drawn, as they are now," said the inspector. "The curtains are a good foot from the glass but there's a rough focus at about two inches, so there's no fire risk."
"How interesting," Baxter drawled in a 'so what?' tone.
"And vital to my investigation of the murder of Sir Edgar ffolkes, the uncle of the deceased," said Inspector Hepworth. "You'll recall he was shot in this same room last Sunday, which was as sunny as today."
"By an intruder, whom you've failed to catch thus far," prodded Baxter, dabbing a red face with his handkerchief.
"By an assassination device that was as ingenious as the Crundale Decapitator's." The inspector dropped the name of the case that had put his face on the front pages of the national newspapers. "It was planted by a member of the family."
"By Desmond?" Baxter said incredulously.
Inspector Hepworth refused to be hurried. "You recall Sir Edgar believed he'd found an ideal place for every stick of furniture in the house, including his chair? And he carried a tape measure to make sure the cleaners put everything back in that precise spot? Recognize this book, Mr. Baxter?"
Sergeant Tomasik took a book in a plastic bag from a briefcase. The bag was large enough to allow Baxter to open a leather-bound book and gape at the interior.
"Good Lord! This was a first edition of Bleak House."
"And now it's just a shell with the pages cut away to take the barrel of a .22 pistol and an electromagnet, which operates a lever with a firing pin. A single cartridge was inserted at the rear of the barrel. When the circuit to the battery was completed, the magnet smacked the firing pin onto the cartridge to fire it. This book was chosen because of its position in the bookcase facing Sir Edgar's chair."
"But how was it fired?" said Baxter. "By a switch outside the library?"
"On the contrary. The switch was right here. The murderer taped a strip of polythene film to the window frame. It hung in front of this bull's eye. The focussed rays of the sun heated the plastic, softening it until it stretched. A small metal weight attached to a length of thin wire was fastened to the bottom of the strip of plastic. When it stretched, the weight made contact with a brass strip on the floor, to which another wire was attached, completing the electrical circuit and firing the bullet in the book-gun.
"We know Sir Edgar entered the library at ten-thirty every day to read his paper. You could set your watch by his routine. The fatal shot was fired ten or so minutes later. Arranging the timing was just a matter of experimenting with various thicknesses of plastic film. Desmond ffolkes and his brother Andrew had been playing billiards for about twenty minutes by then. A gardener outside heard them arguing over the score all through the match.
"There was a lot of confusion after they found the body. Andrew took a shotgun and a posse of servants to chase the intruder. Desmond stayed to call the police. It would have taken two minutes at most to remove the book, the wires and the plastic strip. As you can see, the bookcase isn't full. Slide the others along the shelf and there's no gap when Bleak House is removed.
"There's absolutely no evidence that someone marched in here and shot Sir Edgar. Considering motive took us to the council tip. The dustmen called here on Tuesday. One black plastic bag among anonymous thousands must have seemed a perfect hiding place to an intelligent murderer, who was fond of gadgets and lazy. A fair description of Desmond ffolkes?"
"Moderately," Baxter admitted reluctantly.
"We found the right bag yesterday. There was nothing in it to tell us where it had come from – no discarded envelopes with a name and address, for instance. And no fingerprints on the murder weapon, of course. But we did find some on tins in the bin-bag, belonging to Mrs. Wilmer, Halton Hall's cook.
"Desmond was known to be unhappy about his uncle's increasingly quirky behaviour – maybe worried the Halton Collection of paintings would be given to a good cause. Sir Edgar was in his early sixties. Sound in body and good for another ten or twenty years. It's likely Desmond wanted his inheritance while he was still young enough to enjoy it. That's why we called today – to ask him some further questions. A guilty conscience seems to have answered them."
Inspector Hepworth could not have been more wrong. The first shock came when the firearms expert at the forensic laboratory phoned him. The bullet removed from Desmond ffolkes had not been fired by the gun that he had been holding when the inspector had found him. That bullet had the domed nose of a .38-calibre round, not the more pointed nose of a 9 mm parabellum round, as used by the dead man's pistol. Its rifling marks were also different from those on a reference bullet fired from the 9 mm pistol.
The call helped to clear up a small mystery in the photographs of the library. A cartridge case from the 9 mm pistol lay on the carpet to the right of the dead man. If the gun had been pointing at Desmond ffolkes' body when it had been fired, the case should have been ejected to his left.
Inspector Hepworth had assumed that the case had bounced off an adjacent table, but if Desmond had fired forward at someone standing in front of him, then the case was in the right place.
Andrew ffolkes was the logical suspect. He would receive £250,000 from his uncle's estate. Desmond's death put him in line for ten million – less two helpings of death duties. His brother's behaviour could have told Andrew that Desmond knew more about Sir Edgar's death than he was saying. Andrew's motive could be greed, or self-defence if he thought that Desmond wanted his quarter-million too.
Inspector Hepworth's reconstruction brought Andrew into the library through the french windows. He had shot Desmond with a silenced weapon at close range, causing flash burns to Desmond's clothing. Desmond had surprised him by drawing a pistol. If Desmond's bullet was not in the library, it had passed through the open french windows, which Andrew had locked while making his getaway. The pathologist had confirmed that Desmond might not have died instantly and he could have managed to get off a shot at his attacker.
Instead of unscrewing the silencer from his own weapon and placing the murder weapon in his dead brother's hand, Andrew had fled. He had escaped while Inspector Hepworth had been trying to close a murder case with the suicide of the chief suspect. Andrew had said later, during routine questions, that he had been in bed at his flat in Canterbury, alone and oversleeping, at the time of his brother's ‘suicide'. Andrew had assumed, in his arrogance, that he did not need an alibi.
Andrew ffolkes was out when police officers sent to pick him up arrived at his flat. Inspector Halton received the bad news just after he learned that six paintings, which were insured for over £300,000, had were missing from the Halton Collection. He ordered the arrest on sight order for Andrew ffolkes to be circulated to Interpol members and returned to his office to get up to date with the mountain of paperwork that the case was building.
When the detectives had gone, Gordon Jeffcoat returned to the butler's pantry. He worked the cork out of a bottle of iced champagne with a phut and a thread of vapour. There was never a vulgar bang and a flood of bubbles when he had charge of the operation. Desmond ffolkes had been looking forward to drink this same bottle when he had been shot.
Jeffcoat was still celebrating his escape from the petty obsessions and deathly dull routines of Sir Edgar ffolkes, who had kept a steel ruler and a thermometer in his bathroom to measure the depth and temperature of his bath water, and who had carried a tape measure around to make sure that everything in the house remained in its appointed place.
Jeffcoat, invisible when not summoned by the master, had just walked into the library, shot the old fool with a .22-calibre pistol and walked back across the hall to his pantry. He had removed the barrel and assembled the solar-triggered book-gun after the police had gone. He knew that Inspector Hepworth kept an eye open for infernal devices after his success in the case of the Crundale Decapitator. Fortunately, Hepworth had been suspicious enough to search the refuse tip without prompting via an anonymous phone call.
Andrew ffolkes had cadged a bottle of something decent to take home on the evening before his brother's death. Good old Jeffers had slipped him a bottle of claret, into which he had injected a sedative through the cork. The arrival of the police, just as Desmond was getting settled in the library, had been a nuisance that he had turned to advantage.
After showing the police officers to the reception room, Jeffcoat had gone back into the library and turned the key silently in a well-oiled lock. He had shot Desmond from close range, shaken a cartridge case onto the floor from his handkerchief and pressed another pistol into Desmond's dead hand. Both weapons had come from Sir Edgar's illegal collection. Jeffcoat had fired the 9 mm weapon an hour earlier, in the woods.
He had left the library by the french windows, locking them after himself, and slid back into his pantry through the window – in nice time to make an entrance into the hall as Inspector Hepworth had been investigating the shot. Persuading Andrew ffolkes to run for it had been an easy task. If his brother had killed their uncle by remote control while playing billiards, Andrew could believe that diabolical Desmond had made his own suicide look like murder.
Jeffcoat refilled his glass and drank good-riddance to Desmond ffolkes, who had given him notice to quit after thirty-two years of loyal service while being taken for granted. An obnoxious boy had grown into an overbearing adult. They had always been enemies.
Andrew ffolkes was in hiding in Halton Hall's secret room with the six paintings as that moment. In due course, old Jeffers would sell a painting, as he had several times in the past, and sneak young Mr. Andrew out of the country. He would not have to buy a fake to fill an empty space in the gallery this time. Sir Edgar had been more concerned that his pictures were hanging level than that they were genuine. Talking about giving away his collection, and exposing the fakes that replaced Jeffcoat's sales to the scrutiny of experts, had hastened his death.
A man is entitled to security of employment and a generous parting bonus after thirty-two years, Jeffcoat thought as he refilled his glass again. He was assured of both now. Baxter, the solicitor, would have to keep the estate ticking over until the legal position was sorted out, and that meant keeping the staff on to care for the house and its grounds. Jeffcoat's position would be even more secure if Andrew ffolkes ever plucked up the courage to return to England to clear his name. He would be very grateful to old Jeffers, who had supported him faithfully through his darkest hours.
As he drank another toast, Jeffcoat told himself that even if Sir Edgar had been a troublesome old fool, his taste in champagne could not be faulted. And what could be more pleasant than a properly chilled bottle of The Widow in historic surroundings on a hot, peaceful, summer day in England? ■
Editor's Note - the adventure of The Crundale Decapitator has been written - back in 1987 - and it may well appear on the website at a future date if the author is feeling generous enough.
And he doesn't think he can unload it on someone else who will pay for it.