History (part 1)

- Excerpts from Gin and Daggers by Donald Bain, adapted and expanded by Anne

 

In the course of every life there are a handful of days when everything changes suddenly, dramatically, irrevocably. Mine is no different. My life changed the moment I realized I was in love with a fiery red-haired woman named Kathleen Driscoll. It changed again when Kathleen, by then my wife of many years, died in a senseless auto accident on the streets of London.

It changed yet again on a Sunday morning in June, when the case file regarding the murder of Miss Marjorie Ainsworth crossed my desk.

            It came as no surprise to me that New Scotland Yard should take an interest in the Ainsworth murder case. The tragedy was being played up by the British press, which always resulted in a certain amount of pressure for the Yard to step in and clear the matter up quickly. That the local inspector currently in charge of the investigation was the notoriously inept Montgomery Coots had only strengthened the argument for the Yard becoming involved.

            The reason the murder had caused such a sensation was that Marjorie Ainsworth was a celebrated mystery writer, considered by many to be of near-equal caliber to Dame Agatha Christie. The night she died there were several guests staying at her manor house outside the little village of Crumpsworth, some of which were luminaries in the world of writing and publishing in their own right. One of them had driven a dagger through Miss Ainsworth's heart, and in doing so also broken the hearts of untold numbers of the reading public.

            I was not familiar with Miss Ainsworth's work myself: when your occupation deals with crime, reading murder mystery novels does not represent a pleasant diversion. Consequently, none of the people present at the manor that weekend were familiar to me by name. Besides Jane Portelaine, Miss Ainsworth's live-in niece who looked after her elder care, the guest list included her sister Ona Ainsworth-Zara and her husband, the Italian Count Antonio Zara; Sir James Ferguson, the producer of a long-running play based on an adaptation of one of Miss Ainsworth's books; her British publisher Archibald Semple and his wife; and William Strayhorn, the well-known book critic for the London Times. Clayton Perry, Miss Ainsworth's American publisher, was present with his wife Renee, as was Bruce Herbert, the late author's New York agent.  There were two authors on the invitation list as well - Jason Harris, an aptly-described "brooding young man" who was Miss Ainsworth's protégé, and the American mystery writer JB Fletcher, listed as a friend of the deceased.

            When the story of Miss Ainsworth's murder first broke, much of the attention focused on JB Fletcher as the most likely suspect. It had been she who had discovered the deceased's body in the middle of the night, and the early reports mentioned a pendant belonging to her being found under Miss Ainsworth's bed.  Predictably, the rampant speculations of the salacious press did not include any plausible theories as to what motive Mrs. Fletcher might have had for killing her friend and colleague. As far as I could tell she had none, unless Miss Ainsworth's death, and the notoriety surrounding its circumstances, could somehow boost the sale of her own books.  It seemed unlikely she would need to take such drastic measures, however: by all accounts JB Fletcher's books were selling very well on both sides of the Pond.

            Still, there was certainly enough circumstantial evidence to justify viewing her as a person of interest in the case, if not an actual suspect.  There was also the lady's uncanny knack for attracting trouble: according to the rumors circulating the corridors of the Yard she was a frequent bystander to murder, and she had a reputation - apparently not undeserved - as being something of an amateur detective.

            I decided to investigate her role in the unfortunate proceedings first, in no small part because she was currently the chief suspect. But even if she wasn't guilty of the crime, her observations of the scene and the other people involved would probably prove valuable to me. She had the potential to be a veritable font of information - provided, of course, that it was not her hand that had guided the dagger home.

            The first step was to learn a little more about her. The information I found was straightforward enough: she was British by birth, but had emigrated to America with her family at the start of World War II. Most of her life thereafter was spent in Maine, where she had been a high school English teacher. Her husband, Frank Fletcher, was a former Air Force pilot who had died at a relatively young age from unspecified causes in 1982. After his death his widow had continued to teach, but also started to write; after the publication of her first novel in 1984 she had retired from teaching to write full-time.  Since then her books had earned her widespread acclaim in literary circles.

            Armed with this background knowledge, I placed a call to her at the Savoy Hotel where she was staying and found, to no surprise, that due to the overwhelming number of nuisance calls from the press, all incoming calls were being impounded at the front desk for her to sort through and return at her discretion. I left my name and a brief message along with my office phone number at the Yard, and settled back to wait.

            She returned my call promptly - more promptly, in fact, than I would have expected given the stressful circumstances under which she had undoubtedly been placed. It cannot be easy to be the prime suspect in the murder of a literary icon.

            "Mrs. Fletcher, it's good of you to return my call on Sunday," I said to her.

            "Well, sir," she said courteously, "you called me on Sunday. Besides, I would never hesitate to return a call to a chief inspector from Scotland Yard."

            "Good of you to say so, Mrs. Fletcher. It won't come as any surprise that I'm calling about the unfortunate demise of Marjorie Ainsworth."

            "No, of course not. How may I help you?"

            Her willingness to cooperate was refreshing; not everyone involved in murder cases such as this one was as forthcoming. "I'm not quite sure, but I would appreciate the opportunity to explore some possibilities with you."

            "Anything you say," she said.

"Would you have some free time this afternoon?"

            "I'll see to it," she replied readily.

            I had given careful consideration to the setting in which to meet with her, and decided that afternoon tea would serve my purposes best: formal enough to fit the seriousness of the situation, but casual enough, I hoped, to put her at ease in my presence. "It would be my pleasure to treat the eminent Jessica Fletcher to tea, if you wouldn't think it too personal."

            She did not think it too personal; the suggestion of tea was readily welcomed. We agreed to meet at Brown's Hotel in Mayfair, and left the matter until then.

 

            The photo that graced the dust jacket of JB Fletcher's books was inadequate to prepare me for meeting the actual author in person. The black-and-white image, I realized as my stomach (or was it my heart?) did an unexpected flip, did not do the lady justice.  She was taller than I imagined her to be, her carriage self-confident and erect.  Her rich golden hair caught the sunlight, bestowing a certain glow about her that made her look younger than I knew her to be. But by far the most captivating feature about this woman was her eyes - they were large, bright blue, and brimming with expression, eyes that you could lose yourself in very, very easily if you chanced to meet them in an unguarded moment.  Needless to say, I was unaware of the danger I was in, and my guard was most definitely down.

            Once we were settled in at a small table in Brown's tea room, she gazed around at our beautiful surroundings and sighed happily.

            "It's just as I remembered it," she said to me. "A friend of mine told me he'd assumed everything had changed since it had been taken over by Trusthouse Forte. I don't see any changes." She fixed me with those piercing blue eyes. "Do you?"

            "No, I can't say that I do. I've had an affinity for Brown's since moving here from Edinburgh, and it seems to have stayed a steady course since I first set foot in here fifteen years ago."

            She smiled. "That's comforting."

            I smiled back. "That's England."

            As pleasant as it was to simply sit and chat with the lady, at last I decided that it was time to address the reason I had asked her to meet with me in the first place. Once the tea service had arrived I said, "Well, Mrs. Fletcher, I would be delighted to hear from you about what happened at Ainsworth Manor."

            Her eyes darkened with suspicion for an instant, and I worried that despite introducing the topic as gently as I could, she had seen through my words and sensed the beginning of an interrogation. After a moment, however, she seemed to make a conscious decision to trust me and my motives, and began to tell her story.  She told it well, omitting nothing but not embellishing her account with unnecessary details either.  I listened closely as she spoke, her voice quiet but clear as she laid before me the events surrounding Ms. Ainsworth's murder as she had observed them.  And from what I was hearing, she had observed them very well.

            When she was finished, I said, "Mrs. Fletcher, I am well aware of your reputation in the literary field.  I have also heard from sources I can't quite remember that you don't confine your solving of mysteries to the printed page."

            She laughed a little, a faint blush of color rising in her cheeks.  She was modest about her achievements, it seemed, and this alone told me volumes about her character.

            "Now that the Yard is involved with the murder of Marjorie Ainsworth, and I have been put in charge of the investigation, I'm eager to get to the first step."

            "Which is?" she asked.

            I grinned. "Seek help," I replied forthrightly.

            "That sounds like a very sensible first step to me," she said, smiling.

            "It's always worked for me.  At least it buys me a few days to think while my 'help' gets the ball rolling."

            She seemed distinctly relieved. "I have to admit I'm pleased that you and Scotland Yard are involved, Inspector Sutherland," she told me.  "Frankly, I was dismayed that this brutal murder of a friend and a revered writer would be left in the hands of ..."

            She paused, clearly unwilling to say anything unkind about my rural counterpart.  "Mrs. Fletcher, it's admirable that you don't wish to be harsh on Crumpsworth's Inspector Coots, but your unspoken instincts are correct," I reassured her.  "Inspector Coots ... well, how shall I say it? ... Inspector Coots is ... the inspector of Crumpsworth."

            This made her laugh again.  "Your discretion is admirable, too, Inspector Sutherland," she said.  "I get the picture."

            "Yes, well, with that out of the way, although I must say Coots is not out of the way - he insists upon continuing his investigation and is entitled to do that - let me ask my first helper her thoughts on the murder of Marjorie Ainsworth." I poured myself another half cup of tea and waited for her reaction.

            Her first response was to check her footing with me. "I take it, then, that I am your helper, not a suspect."

            "Despite what the papers say, you are not a suspect on my list, Mrs. Fletcher," I replied. Not my official one, anyway. "But, as I told you before, I do need help. You were there and obviously have a trained eye. Tell me, what is your response to the possibility raised by Coots that the murder might have been an intruder from outside, and not one of the weekend guests?"

            She thought about the question for a moment before answering. "Highly unlikely to me," she said at last. "An intruder, unless a bumbling one, would not choose a night when the house was filled with guests to break in. No, I think the killer was someone who was in the house by invitation."

            A well thought-out answer, by anyone's standards. "Are you ruling out household staff, then?" I asked, hoping to put a finer point on it.

            "No, by 'invitation' I mean someone who was expected to be in the house, either as a guest or because they were employed."

            "Care to venture a guess?"

            Her answer was unequivocal: "No."

            "Surely, Mrs. Fletcher, you must have had some thoughts about people attending the party," I said, determined to pursue the issue. "Let's begin with the most basic question. Who would gain from Marjorie Ainsworth's death?"

            "What about her will?" she asked.

            "Aha, a good question," I said. "Her solicitor is to deliver it to me in the morning. That might shed some light on motive. Financial gain always heads the list."

            She cocked her head. "I'd not put it at the top, although it certainly would rank high."

            "What would be above it?" I asked.

            "Pride, I think, possibly followed by lust and, in third place, money."

            "Interesting, Mrs. Fletcher," I said. I wasn't sure I agreed with her, but then, her experience with the world of crime was far different than my own. "Let us put the will and the question of money aside for the moment. Whose pride at the party would have been enhanced by having Miss Ainsworth dead?"

            "I don't know, Inspector Sutherland; perhaps someone who was in trouble and might be bailed out by Marjorie's death." I could tell she had more specific thoughts in mind than what she had spoken aloud, but caution - or perhaps a reluctance to point fingers at anyone unjustly - made her reluctant to say any more than she had. "I hope you don't think me uncooperative, Inspector Sutherland," she said apologetically, "but I think it would be terribly premature for me to speculate on people I met for the first time at Ainsworth Manor. You understand, I'm sure."

            "I must. You said lust ranked second on the list of motives. Somehow I can't see where that would enter the picture."

            "Because Marjorie was … old?"

            I smiled guiltily. "I suppose so."

            "You're right, unless the lust had to do with being free to pursue a lustful venture once she was out of the way."

            "Interesting," I said again. "Was someone there that weekend who would fall into that category?"

            She shook her head. "Not that I know of. I'm not being evasive, but I don't know enough about anyone who was there to make such a judgment."

            I took a notebook from my pocket, flipped it open, then put on my reading glasses. "Tell me about Miss Ainsworth's niece, Jane Portelaine."

            "I really don’t know what to say about Jane. She's been devoted to her aunt for many years, and Marjorie always acknowledged that, right up until the end. She's a seemingly cold and unhappy woman, but that's a value judgment that I promised years ago not to make about people." She paused, waiting for a reaction from me, perhaps, before continuing. "There was a certain tension between Jane and her aunt," she admitted. "I can't deny that. Are you looking at Jane as a suspect?"

            "No, just curious," I said, knowing that was not wholly the truth. "She seems so obvious, but that's because that type of woman, in that sort of situation, is always obvious. A red herring, I think you mystery writers call it."

            "Yes, we do. Every good mystery will have a red herring or two."

            I suddenly sat up straighter in my chair. "Do you know the origin of the term 'red herring,' Mrs. Fletcher?" I asked her.

            "No, I don't," she said.

            "It goes back to the seventeenth century, perhaps even earlier. Animal activists who were dismayed by the senseless killing of foxes for sport would smoke herrings, which turned them red, and then drag them through the fields. The smell of the fish was so strong that it disguised the foxes' scent - making it possible for them to beat a hasty retreat while packs of confused hunting dogs sniffed around in circles. It was a simple and effective ruse."

            She listened to my explanation with obvious interest. "That's fascinating," she said. "I will now inject red herrings into my books with greater respect."

            Now it was time to touch upon more delicate subjects. "The business of your necklace, Mrs. Fletcher, about which so much has been made in the press. You obviously dropped it when you discovered the body."

            I expected her to deviate from her original sworn statement and latch on to my alternative - and wholly plausible - explanation as a means of exoneration, but she surprised me by rejecting my suggestion utterly. "No, I don't think I did. I would have heard it drop," she said with certainty. "The only sound I heard was when I kicked it under the bed. It obviously was there when I entered the room."

            "Do you have an explanation for that?"

            There was no other way to phrase the question that didn't make it sound like a question posed to a suspect. A look of dismay crossed her features. "I have no idea how it happened, although I did leave my bedroom prior to going to sleep. I went to the bathroom for about ten minutes. It's possible someone came into my room during that period, took the necklace, murdered Marjorie, and, in the process, dropped it."

            "Deliberately, of course," I supplied.
            "Of course."

            "Perhaps the intruder theory isn't so farfetched," I ventured. "A thief enters the manor, goes to your room first and takes your necklace, goes to the next room - I understand your bedroom was next to Miss Ainsworth's - proceeds to steal from that room, is startled by Miss Ainsworth awakening, drops your necklace in the confusion, and, in order to silence Mss Ainsworth, rams a dagger into her."

            She shook her head. "No, Inspector Sutherland, I think that is farfetched. I believe someone placed my necklace there to cast suspicion on me." Clearly, the ramifications of the necklace had not been lost on her, nor was she afraid to articulate what those ramifications were - a true sign of courage, at least in my opinion.

            I nodded and finished my tea.  "Mrs. Fletcher," I said, "I have found this to be extremely interesting and pleasant." My next words were purely spontaneous; I have no idea what possessed me to say them.  "You are ... well, may I say, you are an intelligent and attractive woman."

            She glanced downward shyly and blushed again.  "Thank you."

            "I was quite serious when I said I was looking for help," I told her.  "I know that you have been restricted to Great Britain, at least for a period of time.  I would be most appreciative if you would use some of that time to confer with me, to give me the benefit of your insights.  I was not at the manor when Miss Ainsworth was killed.  You were.  In effect, you could be my eyes there, which would be especially helpful considering that your eyes are obviously observant."

            Wariness battled with the genuinely warm and trusting nature that I sensed in her; in the end, warmth and trust won out. "Well," she said, "I'll try to make myself available to you, anytime that you need me."

We exited Brown's, but before parting I took her slender hand in both of mine. "Thank you for a most pleasant afternoon, Mrs. Fletcher," I told her.  "You'll be hearing from me soon."

There was an awkward moment as we stood and looked at each other, until I made the move to leave.  Looking back I saw her wave, then turn to walk away. With a sinking feeling I realized that I might just have experienced that phenomenon the poets call "love at first sight."  If that was so, it complicated things to no end: my assurances to the contrary to her aside, she was, after all, a suspect in Marjorie Ainsworth's murder.

 

I arrived at the Yard early the next morning, intent on catching up with any new developments in the Ainsworth murder case. There were a few, and I was in the midst of reviewing the information, when I was interrupted by a knock on my open office door.

            "Sir?" I looked up and saw a constable standing in the doorway. "I was told to bring you a copy of this report. Apparently one of the suspects in the Ainsworth murder ran afoul of a mugger last night down in the East End."

            I had left word that any incidents involving the guests from Ainsworth Manor should be forwarded to me immediately, and it seemed that my strategy was already paying off. "Really? Which one?"

            He handed me the file. "Jessica Fletcher, the American writer."

            Startled, I immediately opened the report and scanned the details. It had happened on Pindar Street, in a notoriously crime-ridden area of the city. What she had been doing in that section of London late at night I had no idea. She'd been lucky; she'd lost her purse to the bleck who attacked her but escaped with only minor injuries. Knowing that area as I did, it could have turned out much, much worse for her.

            I called the Savoy straightaway and left her a message to call me back at her earliest convenience.

            When she returned my call, I asked, "Mrs. Fletcher, how are you?"

            She was remarkably calm, given what had happened to her the night before. "Fine, thank you."

            "I received a report about what happened to you last night.  Dreadful shame."

            "It was terribly upsetting at the time, but I'm feeling better today," she said.  She paused, and then asked pointedly, "With all due respect, Inspector, I find it curious that the report of a run-of-the-mill mugging should cross your desk in particular."

            "Insightful of you to question that, Mrs. Fletcher.  The fact is I have made it known to the authorities that I have a special interest in Jessica Fletcher, and that I am to receive any news regarding you during your stay."

            I knew that this admission might put her on her guard with me again, but to my relief she opted to let the matter drop.  Instead she asked, "Anything new on Marjorie Ainsworth's murder?"

            "As a matter of fact ..." I paused.  How much should I share with her? Well, in for a penny, in for a pound.  "Miss Ainsworth had two Spanish gardeners working on the grounds.  One of them tried to see a wristwatch to a jeweler in Crumpsworth.  It belonged, it turns out, to Miss Ainsworth."

            "That's very interesting," she said, "but it wouldn't necessarily mean he killed her.  He obviously had access to the house and might have picked it up from a table where Marjorie had inadvertently left it."

            Her read of the situation was astute; I only wished I had more tangible information to give her.  "My sentiments exactly, but you did ask if anything was new, and I'm afraid that's all I have to offer at the moment."

            "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to be discourteous."

            "Mrs. Fletcher, I seriously doubt whether you even possess the capability of being discourteous," I assured her.  "I would like to 'touch base' with you again, as I believe you say in America.  Would it be possible for me to drop round sometime later this afternoon?"

            A sigh on the other end of the line.  "Inspector Sutherland, I would love to meet with you again, but I wonder if we could make it another day, perhaps tomorrow.  The conference I came to attend starts this evening, and I am the opening speaker.  You can imagine the case of nerves I'll develop as the day progresses."

            I couldn't help but chuckle as I imagined myself in her shoes.  "Yes, I can well understand.  I've faced many difficult situations in my life, including hardened criminals hell-bent on doing away with me, and seldom flinched.  But having to get up and speak to a group of people would reduce me to jelly, I'm afraid."

            Thus reassured, she promised to call me the next day, once the ordeal of the speech was safely behind her. 

            Later that day I was notified of another interesting development in the case.  A young woman named Maria Giacona who claimed to be the girlfriend of Jason Harris, Miss Ainsworth's brooding young protégé, had filed a missing person report at an East End police station. It seemed that Mr. Harris had disappeared. The address she gave was Number 17 Pindar Street, and I suddenly understood why Jessica had included that section of the city on her list of places to see.

 

That evening I found myself drawn to the Savoy, to hear Jessica's speech for myself.  Given the sudden disappearance of Jason Harris, following so soon after the death of his mentor Miss Ainsworth, I did not go alone.

            I took up a position in a corner at the back of the large room, where I thought I would be inconspicuous. However, she spotted me immediately as she mounted the podium and scanned the room with her eyes.

            The speech seemed to be progressing nicely, when all of a sudden there was a disruption: a man in a black raincoat and tweed cap burst into the room from the direction of the kitchen, shouting incoherent words and wielding a sword as he charged for the front of the room, intent, it seemed, on running Mrs. Fletcher through with it. I was too far away to be anything more than a helpless spectator; fortunately one of the audience members - I recognized him as Jimmy Biggers, a somewhat shady private investigator - tripped the man and leaped upon him as he fell. Montgomery Coots, of all people, was the first to assist him at the scene, if standing and looking at the flailing man in shock could be called 'assisting.'  It was two of my own men in plainclothes who truly saved the day; they soon had the madman handcuffed and led him out of the room.

            To her credit, Mrs. Fletcher gamely finished her speech as soon as order had been restored to the room, though I could tell she was shaken. Once she had finished and Mr. Darling had announced the schedule for the rest of the conference programs, there was a receiving line of sorts that she had to endure. I knew without actually being next to her that everyone who shook her hand was looking for her reaction to the events of the evening, and that she would just as soon put the matter behind her.

            "Excellent speech, Mrs. Fletcher," I told her when she was finally able to mingle and I caught up with her.

            She gave a long-suffering sigh. "I'm glad you thought so," she said. "It's good to see you here. Those men who helped Mr. Biggers subdue the swordsman - your officers, I presume?"

            I nodded. "Dreadful incident," I said. "The city is crawling with daft people like that. Sorry one of them had to decide to do away with you."

            She gave a nervous laugh. "I'm just pleased that he didn't accomplish his mission."

            "So am I. Might I get you a coffee, or would you prefer to slip away from your adoring public for a drink at the bar?"

            The relief in her eyes at the latter suggestion was evident, and she graciously accepted my invitation, asking only for ten minutes to wrap up her duties for the evening before joining me. As I turned to go I saw her approach Jimmy Biggers, the private investigator who had intervened in the mad swordsman's charge for the stage, no doubt to thank him for his help.

            Ten minutes later she found me in the bar, true to her word.  I bought her a glass of white wine, and for the next hour we completely avoided the topic of crime. Every now and again I saw a wary flicker in her eyes, as though she was periodically reminding herself that we were potentially on opposite sides of the Ainsworth murder case, but as she became more comfortable in my presence these became fewer and farther between.

            As the evening progressed she asked me about my background.

"There isn't much to tell, really," I told her. "I was born in Wick, a fisherman's son. My father fished herring mostly, and when the herring disappeared, so did his livelihood.  We fell upon hard times, then, in the harsh environment of Scotland's northernmost shores, but our family was close, and so long as we had each other we felt no lack.

"I graduated from the University of Edinburgh with a degree in psychology and put it to use as a member of the Edinburgh police force; it was while I was working my way up the ranks that I met Kathleen. We married, and moved to London to be closer to her parents, who lived in Oxford. After a year with the London Metropolitan Police Department I transferred to New Scotland Yard.  We never had any children - but again, so long as he had each other we felt no lack.  Everything was idyllic - or at least it was, until Kathleen was killed."

Jessica looked at me with deep sympathy and placed her hand on my arm. "How did she die?" she asked.

"Car accident," I replied heavily. "That was seven years ago.  Since then I've managed to pick up the pieces, even if the void Kathleen left can never be repaired."

For a long moment we were both silent, until I shook off my melancholy and asked Jessica about her own life story.  Although told in simple terms it was a fascinating tale. She had been raised on the coast of Maine after her early flight from England with her parents and older brothers. She met her future husband Frank while in college, and married him shortly before he was drafted to serve in the Air Force in the Korean conflict. Upon his return from active duty they had settled in Cabot Cove where she taught high school English. They had no children of their own, but had raised their nephew Grady as their own upon the death of his parents. 

Frank's death had left Jessica shattered with grief. Healing had come in the form of writing, which she had always loved but never pursued in any serious way. It came as a surprise to me that she originally harboured no ambition to be published: that had been Grady's idea, when he happened to stumble across her finished manuscript and spirited it off to a publisher in New York. The book became a best-seller, and Jessica, once the initial shock had worn off, adapted to her new identity as an author.

"I'm glad that Grady stole your manuscript," I said.

She looked at me. "You are?"

"Indeed. If he had not found it and taken it, you would not have become the well-known mystery writer you are today. And if you had not, you never would have befriended your colleague Miss Ainsworth. Had you not become her friend, you would not have become wrapped up in her murder. And you and I would not have met."

"I follow your logic," she said, "but I still wish we could have met under better circumstances."

"Without doubt," I said as I drained my glass. "Still, as they say, 'every cloud has a silver lining.'"

            We left the Savoy bar and stood in the lobby.  "Good night, Mrs. Fletcher," I said, raising her hand to my lips and kissing her fingers with just a touch of gallantry.  "It is always a pleasure."

            "I might say the same thing, Inspector," she replied.

            Before letting her go, there was one bit of business I felt the need to address: "I saw you speaking with Jimmy Biggers."

            "Yes."

            "He's notorious, you know, definitely aff the fuit."

            She looked at me quizzically, puzzling over my words. "Pardon?"

            I smiled broadly and explained, "An old Scottish expression for morally unfit.  Just be careful, that's all."

            "I will," she assured me. "Thank you for the warning, Inspector."

            "Call me George, please."

            "If you'll call me Jessica."

            I looked at her thoughtfully. "I assume your friends call you Jess."

            "Yes, my ..." she paused - "my close friends do."

            "And I?" I asked, moving a little closer to her.  "Shall it be Jessica or Jess?"

            She smiled up at me shyly. "Whatever pleases you," she said.

            I could think of a number of things that would please me, but didn't speak of them now. "One thing, before we end this evening," I said.  "It seems to me it might be a good idea for me to assign permanent protection for you while you remain in London."

            She shook her head. "Oh, Inspector ... George, I don't think that's at all necessary."

            "May I be the judge of that, Jessica?"

            She relented, sensing perhaps my genuine care for her. "Yes, if you wish."

            "Good.  I'll arrange it.  Thank you once again for sharing some time with me," I said.  "Good night ... Jess."

 

That night I tossed and turned in bed, unable to get thoughts of Jessica out of my restless mind. The attraction I had for her was undeniable - and if the gleam in her eyes this evening was any indication, reciprocated. Never, not even in my youth, could I remember falling so hard for a woman so fast. But it caused no end of woe for me: she had not been cleared from the list of murder suspects, and I was the lead investigator assigned to the case.  The conflict of interest this attraction raised, to say nothing of the impropriety of it all, called into serious doubt my fitness to continue in that role. 

I rolled over for perhaps the hundredth time and groaned. Should I recuse myself from the case, and hand over the investigation to someone with no personal bias? The problem with that course of action was that it would set the investigation back days at the very least. It would take time to brief a new inspector and bring him or her up to speed on all the intricacies of the case, and that extra time might be all the killer needed to cover their tracks or flee the country. No, that simply wouldn't do.

Where did that leave me, then? Right back where I started, it would seem, with the troubling question of how I could effectively investigate this murder while falling in love with the prime suspect.  Even now as I debated this question I felt my thoughts drifting back toward her. I imagined dancing with her in the ballroom of the Dorchester, holding her in my arms, with the light of the crystal chandeliers glinting in her eyes and in her hair.  I imagined what it would feel like to kiss her in front of a roaring fire on a chilly evening, or make love to her by moonlight on a warm summer night …

I flung back the covers and got out of bed. "Pit the peter on this (put a stop to this), Sutherland!" I told myself angrily as I stalked to the bathroom to splash some cold water on my face. "Pull yourself together, steik yir hert (harden your heart), and get some bloody discipline!"

I vowed then and there to keep Jessica Fletcher at arm's length henceforth, no matter what the personal cost.

 

"Unto Almighty God we commend the soul of our sister departed, Marjorie, and we commit her body to the ground ..."

The weather was bloody awful the day they buried Marjorie Ainsworth, a hard rain driven by a cold and heartless wind. It matched my mood perfectly.

I had shown up at the funeral not for personal reasons, but professional. Murderers will often attend the burials of their victims. The more cold-blooded ones go to savor the final note of revenge. Those whose hearts are less black but no less guilty go to avoid the appearance of "skipping out." Thus I was there to take note of who was there, and who was not.  Crumpsworth's Inspector Coots was present as well, but I doubted he had the same motive in mind as I:  I suspect he was there because in his close-knit community, Miss Ainsworth was a neighbor.

Someone had the foresight to keep the press well away from the graveside; they huddled together under umbrellas watching the dreary proceedings from perhaps a few hundred feet off. I scanned the crowd for Jessica and spotted her among the mourners. Huddled in a trenchcoat buttoned all the way up to the throat in an attempt to keep warm, she was one of the few people in attendance who looked genuinely distraught over the loss of her friend.

The service came to a conclusion and everyone headed back to where the cars were parked.  I saw the producer, Sir James Ferguson, catch up with Jessica, and engage her in conversation.  From the bounce in his step and the eager look in his eye, I suspected that he had more on his mind than merely offering his condolences.  She stopped and smiled at him, and appeared to be giving him her full attention. It made my heart ache to watch this exchange, even though rationally I knew it would be better for all concerned if she developed an interest in someone besides me. And why not Sir James? He was admittedly handsome, accomplished, charming, and shared her literary interests …

… yet it was clear that he was failing miserably in his quest. Although she smiled and was obviously being pleasant to him, her eyes were absolutely flat. Despite knowing her for only a short time, I knew that look meant that Sir James would get nowhere with her.  When I saw his face fall in disappointment, my suspicions were confirmed. I felt an odd feeling of relief.

This did not change my resolve to maintain a strict barrier of cool professionalism between us.  As she walked past me I acknowledged her with a polite nod, nothing more. I saw the look of hurt and confusion she gave me in return, but did not relax my stance. Still, as she rode away with Lucas Darling I couldn't help but stare after them, wondering if after all I was doing the right thing.

 

Barely a day had passed since the burial of Miss Ainsworth when word reached me that the body of a man had been pulled out of the River Thames in the Wapping district.  Jason Harris had been missing for three days now, so the possibility existed that the dead man was he. I say possibility - there was no way to tell for certain, because the victim's face had been beaten so badly as to be unrecognizable. A previously unknown stepbrother had come forward to identify the remains. So had Jessica, according to the constable in charge of the Wapping station.

It seemed that she had shown up unannounced with Harris' purported girlfriend Maria Giacona, and requested to view the body herself. By now my sources were reporting the rumor that Jason Harris had claimed to be the actual author of Marjorie Ainsworth's final novel Gin and Daggers lending credence to the possibility that their deaths were related, but it surprised me that Jessica would go to such drastic lengths to follow up that lead.

"Did she say if she thought it was Harris or not?" I asked.

"No, sir," the Wapping constable replied. "When she left the station with Miss Giacona, I heard her say that there was no way of telling."

"Interesting," I mused. "It makes one wonder how Mr. Harris' stepbrother could be so certain of his identity."

            The release of Miss Ainsworth's will the next day proved to be something of a watershed event, if only for the emotions it stirred up among the principles in the case.  Some were gratified by the bequests they received - Jane Portelaine received a quarter of the estate, the critic William Strayhorn received twenty thousand pounds, and Sir James Ferguson got to keep all future royalties for plays based on her books.

Others were infuriated. Ona Ainsworth-Zara and Antonio Zara, for instance, received nothing. This came as no surprise to Ona but was received with less grace by her husband, especially when he found out Miss Ainsworth was handing back to him the bills for all the luxuries he had allegedly bought on her credit.  Miss Ainsworth openly accused her publishers, Clayton Perry and Archibald Semple, and her agent, Bruce Herbert, of stealing from her by underpaying her royalties. The fact that Semple also received twenty thousand pounds and Perry had a large debt to his company forgiven did little to soothe their bruised egos.  In addition, the generous bequest to an unnamed paramour of Miss Ainsworth's generated more controversy, especially among those who felt they had been shortchanged.

Jessica fell somewhere between the pleased and displeased, according to my sources. She was given a quarter of Miss Ainsworth's estate but reportedly wanted no part of it. Her intent was to turn it over to the Marjorie Ainsworth International Study Center that had been established with half of the departed author's estate, but that did not diminish the accusations leveled at her that her financial gain from Miss Ainsworth's will represented a plausible motive for murder.  Knowing her as I did, I found the notion that Jessica would kill for simple greed laughable.

I continued to keep tabs on Jessica's movements, and was aware when two friends of hers from Maine - Seth Hazlitt, a doctor, and Mort Metzger, the sheriff of her home town - arrived in London to lend her their support. That they should be willing to do this spoke volumes to me about her character. I tried to tell myself that having the faith of such friends, one of whom was in law enforcement, was merely another interesting fact to consider in the case, and not of any personal interest to me at all.  But the simple truth was that in the ensuing days since the funeral Jessica had hardly left my thoughts, and I would be less than honest to attribute those thoughts to anything except personal interest.

 

The day after the reading of the will I was paid an unexpected visit by Ona Ainsworth-Zara, the sister of the deceased. What she had to tell me was significant: "I am convinced that Jason Harris murdered my sister in order to benefit, in some tangible way, from his involvement with Gin and Daggers." Furthermore, she firmly believed that Harris and Miss Ainsworth's niece Jane Portelaine were lovers, which added another wrinkle to the case.

            Once Mrs. Ainsworth-Zara's had gone, I sighed and rubbed my temples. The trouble with the information she had given me was that interesting though it was, it could not be taken a face value. Ona Ainsworth-Zara had an axe to grind - several of them, in fact - and there was a distinct possibility that everything she had told me was tainted by her personal agenda.  There was no way for me to know how much of what she said was unvarnished truth, and how much merely spiteful gossip. I needed a second opinion on what I had just heard from someone who knew the people involved but was unbiased in reading them.

There was no help for it.  I had to call Jessica.

            She picked up on the fifth ring, just as I was about to give up. "Mrs. Fletcher?" I asked.

            "Yes."

            "George Sutherland.  Am I catching you at a bad time?"

            "No, I just walked in." If she was put off by my behavior at the funeral, she allowed no indication of it to colour her tone, which was as pleasant as always.

            "I've been meaning to call you, but life is so busy and ... well, as my father would say, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions."

            She laughed, which reassured me that I hadn't loused things up, at least not completely.

            "The reason I'm calling, Jessica, is to invite you to dinner this evening.  I know this is terribly short notice, but ..."

            "Yes, it is short notice, but that happens not to matter," she hastened to reassure me.  "I am free this evening, and would very much enjoy dining with you."

            I gave a heartfelt sigh of relief.  "I have a favorite restaurant in Central Market called Bubbs that I thought you might enjoy," I said.  "It tends to be somewhat masculine, but the food is quite good and I'm comfortable there."

            "Then I'm sure I will be, too."

            "I'm afraid I'm going to be running late here at the office," I said.  "Would you consider it discourteous of me not to pick you up, to ask you to meet me there at eight-thirty?"

            "Absolutely not."

 

Jessica was just getting out of her taxi in front of Bubbs as I approached; perfect timing.  "Please, let me," I said, paying the driver her fare.  "Shall we?"  I offered her my elbow, which she took.  "I prefer upstairs, if you don't mind," I told her as we entered the restaurant.  "Not as fancy as down, but more conducive to serious eating.  The food is good, and plentiful."

She deferred to my preference, and after greeting the familiar members of the staff, we were shown to a comfortable booth in a corner of the upstairs dining room. 

"Wine?" I asked.

"Yes, please."

"It won't be a fancy vintage," I warned her. "The owners are rather bourgeois for Frenchmen in London."

The sommelier brought us a bottle of wine and offered me a taste of it, but I insisted that Jessica do the honors instead. "Never sure what I'm supposed to look for," I said, laughing, "except a large piece of cork floating in it."  Jessica tasted the wine and approved it, and I nodded to the sommelier to leave us the bottle.

            Once I had filled our glasses, I raised mine in a toast.  "To Jessica Fletcher, who seems to be in the midst of murder no matter where she is."

            She made a wry face.  "Frankly, I could do without that characterization."

            "Yes, I'm sure you could." I sat back, feeling relaxed for the first time in days amidst the familiar surroundings. "Your friend Mr. Darling convinced me to conduct a panel tomorrow for your society."

            "Really?" she said in surprise. "That wasn't on the schedule."

            "No, a last-minute whim of his, I suppose. I thought you might join me on it."

            Jessica looked intrigued by the unexpected invitation. "What's the subject?" she asked.

            "Contemporary investigative techniques," I said.

            She smiled modestly. "I'm afraid I wouldn't be qualified."

            "I think quite the opposite," I assured her. "It's at eleven. Will you?"

            "Yes, all right," she said, giving in with little persuasion. "I'm flattered. Lucas must consider having you speak to be the coup of the conference."

            "He's a pleasant fellow, quite a fan of yours." I paused, the said, "I have something to show you that might be of interest." I handed her the arts and entertainment section of that day's London Times.  "Read the 'Book Notes' column," I suggested.

            "What am I looking for in this?" she asked.

            "Read a bit and you'll see."

            The column, written by the critic William Strayhorn, stated that in addition to claiming Gin and Daggers to be his own work, Jason Harris had four previous books published to his name.

            "Fascinating," she said when she had finished reading and handed the paper back to me. "I had no idea Jason had written four novels."

            "Either he has, or there is a room filled with writers turning out prose to bear his name, and to capitalize on small mentions of his murder in the local press," I said.

            Jessica shook her head. "That doesn't make any sense to me. Does it to you?"

            I shrugged. "I'm afraid I'm out of my element when it comes to the publishing world."

            "How's the investigation into Marjorie's murder going?" she asked, shifting the subject to a related topic.

            Ah, the opening I was hoping for.  "Mrs. Ainsworth-Zara, the deceased sister, has come forward with interesting information that I wanted to share with you," I said. "I was eager not only to have you hear this information, but to benefit from your evaluation of it."

            Jessica gave me an appraising look, as though not quite certain of the sincerity of my words. Apparently she liked what she saw, because she invited e to continue my tale.

            "She came to me this morning," I said, once again taking out my reading glasses so I could make better sense of my scribblings. "I made notes during our conversation."

I related to her the story of how Marjorie's sister, Ona Ainsworth-Zara, had come forward to tell me that her husband had returned to Capri (a violation of the condition laid down that all who were at the manor the night of the murder remain in Britain), and that in her opinion Jason and Jane had been lovers.  Jessica seemed skeptical about this last bit, but before I could probe her thoughts on the matter any further, our waiter approached us and asked if we were ready to order.

"Time for a break, I think," I announced, removing my glasses for the time being. After having a look at the menu I chose roasted partridge; she a less exotic main course of fish. The green salad garnished with venison was a long-standing favorite of mine; I didn't quite convince her to try one for herself, but she did agree to share a bite or two of mine.

"Can't shake my Scottish love of game," I said as we handed the waiter our menus.

"One of my friends from Maine had hare with a chocolate and raspberry sauce the other night at La Tante Claire," said Jessica.

Chocolate has never been the obsession with me that it is with some people; quite the opposite, in fact. "That might be a bit much for this Scotsman," I said with a laugh. "It's the chocolate that would do me in."

The topic of our conversation drifted away from the murder once the salad arrived, and I was pleased to see that Jessica enjoyed the combination of venison and fresh vegetables more than she had anticipated. Only when our waiter cleared the empty plate away did we return to the subject of the case.

"What else did you and Ona discuss?" Jessica asked. "In particular, how did you react to her suggestion that Jason Harris stood to see the most benefit from Marjorie's death?"

"I told her that since Harris is dead, I would hardly consider him to have benefited from anything," I replied. "Her response was that his death might have been nothing more than an unfortunate coincidence that robbed him of the opportunity to gain whatever benefit he was seeking."

The notion that Jason Harris' murder was nothing more than happenstance ran squarely in the face of Jessica's sense of logic - from the way she was frowning it was clear that she no more believed it than she believed that I was the Queen of England. I shared her sentiments; the idea was simply preposterous.

"She told you she'd seen them in the garden when Marjorie was out of the house," she said, picking up the thread of Jason and Jane Portelaine's alleged relationship. "I wasn't aware she ever left, at least not in recent months. She needed a wheelchair. Where did she go? Was this an isolated instance of her leaving the manor, perhaps to see a doctor?"

"I asked the same question. Mrs. Ainsworth-Zara told me that her sister left Ainsworth Manor more than people realized," I said. "Evidently her chauffeur, Wilfred, took her out on a regular basis."

"How regular?" she asked.

"Once every two weeks, she told me."

"Had she ever asked Wilfred where he took Marjorie on these regular outings?"

"As a matter of fact, I did ask her that, Jessica," I said, pleased that she seemed to be following the same track of reason as I. "We think very much alike, it seems. She said she'd tried to talk to him once, but failed to learn anything. As she told me, Wilfred is much the archetypal chauffeur, deathly loyal to his employer. She told me, 'It would take a severe form of Oriental torture to make him even admit he'd taken her anywhere.'"

The arrival of our main courses once again called a halt to the proceedings. I scanned the room as we ate - force of habit, I suppose - and noticed that we had not gone completely unnoticed by our fellow diners.

"Those people at that table in the corner obviously know who you are, Jessica," I said to her in a low voice. "They've been looking in your direction and commenting all evening."

She stole a quick glance in the direction I indicated. "How unfortunate," she said, the mildness of her words belying the flash of irritation I saw in her eyes. I couldn't help but smile at her attitude, and obligingly turned our conversation toward more neutral subjects.

Once our table had been cleared by our waiter, I sat back, took a sip of my wine, and said, "Well, Jessica, what do you make of all this?"

Her thoughts had clearly been elsewhere, as it took her a moment or two before she answered my question. When she did, I could clearly read the indecision in her features, and I was not at all sure that the conflict she was experiencing was wholly due to the details of the case.

"What do I make of it?" she said, and sighed. "I don't know. I was thinking of how angry Tony Zara was when he left the reading of Marjorie's will."

I raised an eyebrow at this remark. "Are you suggesting he might have murdered his wife's sister?"

"No," she said, "but his suddenly leaving the country must raise some questions with you."

"That occurred to me, of course. Here we go again, Jessica, thinking alike," I said, chuckling. "I raised that with Mrs. Ainsworth-Zara, and she did not offer the expected defense of her husband. Quite the opposite, I would say. She actually seemed pleased that I was thinking along those lines. She told me that her husband was awfu' upset because Marjorie often made a fuss over him, enjoyed calling him her … what did she say? - her 'Little Mediterranean Darling' … her 'Italian duckie' … something like that. He assumed he would be included in her estate, according to his wife, and was furious when he wasn't."

Jessica looked confused. "Awfu'?"

I smiled. "Did I say that? You can take the Scot out of Scotland, but you can't take the language out of him. Awfu'. It loosely means 'very' … 'very upset' … 'awfu' upset.'"

She tried the new word on for size: "This meal is awfu' good," she said.

"Not quite the proper usage, I'm afraid," I told her lightly. "Getting back to my meeting this morning, I asked whether she was angry at being left out of her sister's estate. She said that she wasn't even surprised because, according to her, her sister had never forgiven her for marrying an Italian. He's a count?"

"He bills himself as such," she said.

Our waiter placed an after-dinner menu on our table. "Dessert?" I offered.

"No, not for me, thank you," said Jessica. "This has been lovely, and I'm very pleased to see you again, but I can't help but question the purpose of it. Clearly, you've gained nothing of substance from me."

            "Well, Jessica, perhaps now is the time for you to provide such substance," I said.  I looked at her closely, but she didn't catch my hint - either innocently or by design - and shrugged.

            "Please explain," she said.

            "You've been doing as much investigation as I have, according to my sources.  You've engaged the services of the inquiry agent Mr. Biggers, have made contact with Jason Harris' stepbrother, are the only person who had a look at Harris's body other than his stepbrother, and, in general, seem to have been devoting considerable time to this effort, at least according to Mr. Darling."

            "According to Lucas?"  Her countenance darkened, and I suspected that Lucas Darling would catch it the next time she saw him for informing on her. 

            "I was chatting with him about this panel discussion tomorrow, and happened to ask how much participation you've given the convention. He said you've barely taken part."

            "Which means I've decided to enjoy London," she said stubbornly. "I've done some wonderful walking and sightseeing."

            I wasn't about to let her off the hook that easily. "Undoubtedly you have, Jessica, but I also have the feeling … no, to be more accurate, I have had information given me to support my feelings that you've possibly been learning things that would be of interest, and of use to me and the Yard in this investigation. Would you share what you've learned with me now?"

Once again I sensed her debating how much to trust me, but once again trust carried the day.

            "George," she said, "I have run across some information that might possibly be of interest to you where Marjorie's murder is concerned, but it must be kept …" She smiled. "It must be kept awfu' private."

            "Of course," I said, inclining my head.  "Let me drive you back to the hotel, and you can tell me on the way."

            As we went, she explained what Renée Perry had told her about the missing manuscript, and her accusation that Bruce Herbert had killed Marjorie.

            "Does Mrs. Perry hold any particular credibility with you?" I asked her when she had finished.

            "Frankly, no," Jessica replied, "and when I asked her directly, she admitted she had no proof."

            "What about her husband?  We've done a considerable background check on him.  It seems he heads a publishing company that bears his name and is in precarious condition."

            "Yes, I've heard that."

            "And Miss Ainsworth charges in her will that he'd stolen money from her, and that she had loaned him a considerable amount to keep the company going."

            She nodded. "I was at the will reading and heard those things.  As far as stealing money from her, Marjorie wouldn't be the first author to make such claims against publishers and agents without evidence to support it.  Writers are ... writers, and by the very nature of what they do and how they earn a living, sometimes become distrustful and paranoid.  I remember touring Dickens' house on a previous trip to London. I jotted down the contents of some of his letters that are on display, letters to his agent and to his publisher humbly requesting money with which to live and, without actually stating it, implying that there might be some hanky-panky going on with their accounting of royalties." She laughed. "I even committed one of those letters to memory. He'd written it to his publisher, Chapman and Hall, in 1836: 'When you have quite done counting the sovereigns received for Pickwick, I should be much obliged to you to send me up a few ...'" She delivered the lines with an authentic British accent, which surprised me until I recalled that even though she was an American she had, after all, been born in London.

            "The same with all writers, I take it," I said with a smile.

            "Yes, but I'm not sure I would put much credence in Marjorie's claim of having been cheated either by Perry House or by her British publisher, Archibald Semple," Jessica pointed out.  "The loan is another question.  I wondered whether there had been papers drawn when the money had been given to him."

            "I questioned Mr. Perry yesterday," I said, "and asked him about that.  He said there never had been papers, and he characterized the loan as being of a very small amount, nothing of the magnitude Miss Ainsworth indicated in her will."

            "When Mrs. Perry was telling me her story about the agent Bruce Herbert, I actually wondered …" Here Jessica stopped herself, but I knew what she was thinking and I gave voice to the theory she was reluctant to speak aloud.

            "It occurred to me as you were telling me of Mrs. Perry's accusation that she might be attempting to divert attention from her husband as a suspect," I said, and saw from the look of surprise and relief on her face that I was correct.

            When we reached the Savoy I offered to accompany her inside to buy her a nightcap.  She declined, but before we ended the evening she asked why I had seemed so cold toward her at Miss Ainsworth's burial service.

            I sighed, not really wanting to address this question but unable to deny her the explanation I knew she was owed. "Can I be brutally honest with you without offending, Jessica?"

            "Yes, by all means."

            I paused for a moment then said, "Any good law enforcement officer knows that the biggest mistake he can make is to become emotionally involved with someone in a case, and I must admit I developed feelings for you from the first moment we met that could easily violate that principle."

            The shock that registered on her face told me that of all the explanations she had expected to hear, this one was not on the list. 

            "I've been tempted to call you every day to invite you for lunch or dinner, perhaps a stroll through the park, a ride in the country, but I've managed to hold myself in check," I continued, figuring that nothing less than full disclosure would do.  "As long as I am confessing such things to you, Jessica, I might also say that it is my wish that when this whole nasty matter is resolved, you allow us the opportunity to explore the potentials of a relationship."

            She was clearly taken aback by what I had said, but thankfully didn't dismiss my words out of hand.  "I ... you're a very kind and attractive man, George, and I am flattered by what you've said," she said.  "In the meantime, although I am not a police officer, I suspect I, too, would be better served keeping my natural and very human instincts in check while we seek the murderer of Marjorie Ainsworth.  After that ... well, after that we can discuss it further."

            "Of course, Jessica.  It was good to see you again tonight.  I must, however, pick up on something you've just said."

            "Which is?"

            "You talk of us trying to solve the murder.  Might I make a suggestion to you?"

            "Of course."

            I took a breath - I had already figured out that Jessica had an adamantine will, so what I had to say now had to be phrased very carefully.  "I know you are a skilled author, and because of the nature of your books you write, you have an insight into crime and the criminal's mind.  However, we're talking here about a very dangerous situation, and I urge you to confine your interests to the conference and leave this investigation to me."

            "I thought you welcomed my observations," she said.

            "I do, but observations are one thing, active involvement is another."

            As I had feared, the look of determination in her eyes did not fade in the slightest.  "I know that you mean well with that suggestion, George, and I will give it serious consideration.  Good night, and thank you for a lovely evening."

            Ah, well, at least I had tried.  I came around and opened the door for her.  For a long moment we looked at each other, and then to my complete surprise (and utter delight) she kissed me lightly on the cheek before turning to go into the hotel with deliberate haste.

 

I saw Jessica the next morning at the panel discussion arranged by Lucas Darling. As I had predicted, despite her different qualifications on the subject of investigative techniques she held her own among the other speakers and was as warmly received as the rest of us. Afterwards there was a half hour opportunity for the panel members to mingle informally with the attendees, and we had a chance to talk in relative privacy. She had been thinking about the subject of Miss Ainsworth's mysterious lover, and asked my opinion on whether he could be considered a suspect.

            "I called Miss Ainsworth's solicitor, Chester Gould-Brayton, and asked if he could provide me with any details about the chap's identity. Predictably, he invoked the solicitor-client privilege and told me he couldn't divulge his name." I sighed, recalling the telephone conversation: another dead end, though instinct told me that it probably didn't matter in the greater scheme of things. "Frankly, Jessica," I said, "I really would be quite surprised if this unnamed romantic interest of hers had anything to do with her murder, although we intend to keep the option open."

            I'd been invited to lunch with the other members of the panel by Mr. Darling, but unfortunately had to beg off on account of the busy schedule I had in store for the afternoon. Jessica, too, had a prior noontime commitment, and we left the conference room together.

"Have a most pleasant remainder of the day," I said as I escorted her through the hotel lobby. At the entrance I paused. "I - erm, I hope you were not offended by what I said to you last night," I told her awkwardly. "Sometimes I am a clod when it comes to finding the proper words, and I had no wish to make you uncomfortable."

            "Quite the contrary, George," she said, placing a hand on my sleeve. "I was flattered."

            "May I call you again?"

            In response Jessica looked at me coyly, and sure enough her answer was neither 'no' nor 'yes:'  "I thought we decided to postpone any personal considerations until Marjorie's murder was solved."

            "Yes, and I consider myself a man of my word, but there have been times - rare, I admit - when I have been an outright liar, and," I continued, smiling as I looked in her eyes, "this might be one of them."

            We both laughed, and he left the hotel.

 

Not much happened the next day; not much, that is, until I received a phone call at home that evening after dinner. To my surprise and delight, it was Jessica who was calling.

"Jessica!" I said, striving to keep the eagerness out of my voice. "How delightful to hear from you."

"I'm so sorry to call you at home," she said apologetically, "but there's something I need to discuss with you. It's important - could we meet someplace and talk?"

My heart leapt - could it be that she was ready to start a relationship? "I know just the place," I said.  "The Punch and Judy - it's a quaint little pub in the heart of Convent Garden. Their upstairs room is quiet and private, and they have a wonderful variety of beers on tap.  I can meet you there if you'd like …"

"That sounds perfect," she said. "See you there."

She arrived first and was waiting for me at a table. Even from across the room I could see that she was practically humming with nervous energy.  I sat down opposite of her, my own anticipation barely contained. Nevertheless, I managed to wait until after we had ordered our drinks - an old tawny port for her, a Courage best bitter for me - before asking, "Well, Jessica, to what do I owe this unexpected pleasure?"

Her eyes were bright with excitement. "George," she said, "I've figured out how to draw out the murderer of Marjorie Ainsworth."

"Ah," I said, feeling instantly deflated. "That's, er, wonderful."

Jessica saw my face fall - I was trying hard to mask my disappointment, and failing. "Oh, no," she gasped as she recognized the reason for my let down. "When I called and said I had something important to discuss … you had no way of knowing … you must have assumed I meant … oh, George, I am so sorry!"

"It's all right," I said, pulling myself together and taking a sip of my bitter for fortification. "It's not your fault. It was improper of me to make such an assumption in the first place."

"But still …!  Can you ever forgive me?" She looked practically distraught at the notion that she might have hurt my feelings. It was touching, really, and I couldn't help but smile.

"Dear lady, there is absolutely nothing to forgive," I told her warmly. "Now - tell me about this plan of yours to flush out Miss Ainsworth's killer, and what I can do to help."

An hour later our plans were set, though not without some misgivings about them on my part. Still, I had asked her to trust me enough already; it was only fair that this time I should trust her. I drove her back to the Savoy - before getting out of the car she scanned the area for signs of the press or anyone she knew, then darted inside before she could be spotted or waylaid.  I watched her go reluctantly and then headed for home myself. 

If things went off according to plan, tomorrow promised to be an interesting day.

 

The next morning the shocking news was splashed across headlines all over the city: "Ainsworth Murderer Nabbed."  The ensuing article detailed how I had managed to collect enough evidence to charge the famous author's brother-in-law Count Antonio Zara in her death, and was even now arranging for his extradition from Italy.  The excitement my announcement generated made for a wearisome day; I hoped that Jessica was right, and that my trouble would be rewarded a hundredfold by the end of the day. I would get my chance to find out that evening.

I was in Crumpsworth at the appointed hour, driving up the manor's long drive accompanied by a contingent of seasoned Scotland Yard bobbies.  After directing half of the men to fan out around the building to cover the other exits, I approached the massive front doors and gave them a solid rap with the heavy metal knocker.

The butler, Marshall, opened them after a minute or so. I pushed past him without sparing any time for formalities and headed directly for the dining room.  Jessica was there, facing down Jason Harris while the other members of the conspiracy she had described to me looked on with pale faces. The constables who had come inside with me quickly surrounded the dining room table, taking particular care to apprehend Jane Portelaine, who Jessica had indicated was the one who actually murdered her aunt in a fit of pent-up desperation and rage.

            "You know, Jason, you're absolutely right," Jessica was saying, in reply to something Harris had said to her. "The public loves a name embroiled in scandal.  The problem is you don't have the talent to give the public what it will expect of you.  Then again, you'll have plenty of quiet time in the penitentiary to sharpen your literary skills.  Some pretty good books have been written by lifers."

            Her words had the effect of wiping the smug look off of Harris' face. She turned away, accompanied by her friends Seth and Mort, and left the room, leaving the cleaning up to me and my men.

 

            The following morning was typical London: chilly and damp. Jessica was in my office, accompanied by her friends from Maine and Lucas Darling. We were discussing the aftermath of yesterday evening's arrests over tea I'd purchased for everyone downstairs.

            Jessica, who had not gotten off on the right foot with Crumpsworth's Inspector Coots and had not improved her opinion of him since then, was indignant over the thrashing the Yard was receiving from him. "I can't believe that dreadful man Montgomery Coots," she said.  "There he was on TV this morning, claiming he knew all along it wasn't Count Zara who'd killed Marjorie, that it was Jane.  The nerve of him to talk about how Scotland Yard almost derailed the investigation by accusing Zara."

            I laughed gently.  "I think we can withstand the attack on our reputation by the Crumpsworth inspector," I assured her.  I leaned forward and added, "I must admit, Jess, that when you asked me to announce we'd identified Zara as the murderer, I came this close -" I held my thumb and finger barely a hair's breadth apart - "to denying you.  But I must admit it was effective.  Obviously, Harris, Ms. Portelaine, and the others felt confident they were off the hook."

            She smiled at me, and I wondered if she was aware that I was incapable of denying her anything. "Well, George, all I can say is that I appreciate your going along with me for twenty-four hours."

            Lucas Darling shook his head and scowled. "What an evil woman," he said.

            "Jane?" Jessica said to him in response.  "I don't think she's evil, Lucas.  I'm not excusing her for having killed Marjorie, but there is a mitigating factor, I think."

            "Which is?" I asked her, curious.

            "A lack of premeditation," she replied.  "The others were involved in a classic conspiracy.  For Jane, ramming the dagger into her aunt represented extreme frustration and fear.  I suspect she'd never had a relationship with a man before, let alone with such a handsome, dashing, and supposedly talented one as Jason Harris.  She would have done anything to keep him."

            "Ms. Giacona has been very cooperative," I said.  "According to her, Harris had Marshall, the butler, planted the silver pendant your husband gave you in Miss Ainsworth's bedroom to cast suspicion on you, Jessica."

            Jessica touched her necklace and sighed.  "If Inspector Coots had his way, I'd be defending myself in the Old Bailey right now.  I don't wonder that Maria is being cooperative, after taking Jane's blows," she continued.  "When I saw that girl's face - and I am not excusing her, either, for having been part of the scheme - I knew deep inside that Jane had killed Marjorie.  Until I saw how capable she was of physically venting her anger, I would have dismissed the notion."

            "Any word on the Maroney fella?" Mort asked. Maroney was Harris' Pindar Street neighbor, drawn into the conspiracy simply for his brutal strength and complete lack of morals.

            I shook my head. "We'll find him."

            Jessica looked sheepishly at me.  "I certainly was wrong there," she admitted.  "I assumed it was Maroney who'd been killed and dumped in the Thames, but then I thought back to when I'd seen the body. It was such a fleeting glance, but the head was too small."

            "Harris was certainly effective at getting others to do his dirty deeds, wasn't he?" Seth said. "He got Jane to kill Marjorie, and then convinced - or paid off - Maroney to find a drifter down by the docks, kill him, and disfigure him so that he was unidentifiable, then dump him in the river."

            "Yes," Jessica said, "and that would never have been established had Maria not been there when that deal was made with Maroney."

            "I'm intrigued with this Dr. Glenville Beers," I said. "Miss Ainsworth and he had this intimate relationship all these years, and no one ever knew about it?"

            "Wilfred, Marjorie's chauffeur knew," Jessica said. "She trusted him implicitly, and for good reason."

            I stood from behind my desk and reached for my jacket. "Ready for your tour?" I asked.

            The others nodded and rose from their chairs, and I led them to the Yard's infamous 'Black Museum.' "We moved into this glass and concrete edifice in 1967," I said as we went. "The previous headquarters on Whitehall was built on the scene of an unsolved crime."

            "How'd that happen?" Lucas asked.

            "They were digging the foundation and discovered a woman's body. Her head and arms had been severed. They tried their best to find the murderer but never did. Somewhat unpleasant having police headquarters constructed there."

            It is a privilege reserved to members of the upper levels of Scotland Yard to take civilians through our Crime Museum (called by some the 'Black Museum'), and the group was appreciative as well as fascinated by the collection that has been accumulated over the decades.

            "That was quite a tour, Inspector," Mort Metzger said after we'd left the museum and were back in the Yard's main lobby.

            "Yes, we're quite proud of it," I said. "We use it in our training of senior detectives." I turned to Mort Metzger and asked, "Do you have a crime museum back in Cabot Cove, Sheriff?"

            He shrugged. "No, not enough happens there for a museum, unless we display tires that were stolen off Detienne's truck, or the picture window that got broke in Miss Boonton's house."

            I turned to Jessica and said, "I'd say your sheriff is a modest man, Jessica. I've heard about murder cases you've had a hand in solving back home."

            Mort looked pleased; Jessica merely sighed. "Just a few, George, just a few," she said.

            "Well, shall we go to lunch?" I asked. "I thought that in honor of our distinguished American visitors I would treat you all to lunch at Joe Allen on Exeter Street. Rumor has it that they serve the best hamburger in London, if not in all the British Isles."

            Jessica and Lucas exchanged a look, and I could tell that they at least would have preferred something more traditionally English. But Seth and Mort looked positively delighted by the prospect of some real American food, so on the whole my suggestion was well received.  As I had hoped it would be: ever since I had introduced myself to them, they had been eyeing me suspiciously. Doctor Hazlitt in particular seemed to view me with the same mistrustful look as a father would level upon a young man of questionable repute asking to take his daughter out to a dance.  It was clear that he viewed himself as something of a guardian to the fair Jessica; anything I could do to win my way into his good graces was worth some minor sacrifice.

            I asked a member of my staff to drive us to Exeter Street in an unmarked car.  Although I maintained a cheerful façade, my heart was heavy: after lunch, our next destination was Heathrow, where Jessica, Seth, and Mort had reservations on a British Airways flight bound for Boston.  Although the case was officially closed I'd had no opportunity to get Jessica alone to talk to her about relationships and other topics of that ilk, and now she was about to fly away, out of England and very possibly out of my life: who knew if I would ever see her again?

Sometimes, though, Fate has a way of intervening when we need it most. As we were getting out in front of the restaurant we became aware of a sudden commotion at the corner: a lady was shrieking, "Grab him, somebody grab him - he stole my purse!"

            A young man, part of London's punk scene by the looks of his hair and attire, burst free of the gathering crowd and ran in our direction. As he did, Jessica paled and clutched my arm. "Oh my God, it's him," she said.

            "Who?" Seth asked.

            "Him, the one who mugged me."

            Before I could say or do anything Mort Metzger grimly said, "I'll get him," and threw a well-placed block at the fleeing purse snatcher as he ran by. The young man fell sprawling to the pavement, stunning him just long enough for Mort to leap on top of him and twist his arms behind his back.

            "Are you sure this is the one who mugged you?" I asked Jessica.

            "Yes, positive. How could I miss anyone who looks like that?"

            Aided by my constable, the sheriff soon had the young man back up on his feet and restrained against the wall, where the constable efficiently handcuffed him.  I looked at Jessica and grinned. "If you press charges, Jessica, you'll have to return to testify at his trial."

            "I will?"

            "Afraid so."  Me, harbour an ulterior motive? Perish the thought …

            Jessica looked doubtful at first, but as she gave the prospect due consideration a smile appeared as the idea grew on her. "It would be a great inconvenience, George, and I know my schedule won't allow it, but there is my civic duty to consider, isn't there?"

            "Yes, most definitely," I said with as much gravity as I could manage.

            She glanced at the young man and then looked up and met my eyes. "Well then, book the bloody bloke!"