“I suppose you’re all wondering why I’ve gathered you here,” said Inspector Trottitt of Scotland Yard. He looked sharply around the room as if expecting an answer.
One man, in an overstuffed chair, shook his head slightly, causing the inspector to frown.
“Well, I shall tell you,” he continued. “After a thorough investigation, I have determined that one of you … is the murderer!”
Three constables stood behind him at the closed door, keeping watch on everyone. Trottitt began to pace around the room. As he did, he took a cigarette case from his jacket pocket and selected a smoke. The cigarettes were an expensive brand, distinguishable by the gold, silver, and black bands ringing the center. Trottitt came to a halt in front of Miss Wensley and lit his cigarette. Then he pointed at the man seated next to the young woman.
“Mr. Haversham! You stand to profit greatly from Mr. Haddock’s demise. The business is now in your hands alone. Such an opportunity has driven many a man to murder.” Haddock opened his mouth to protest, but Trottitt kept talking. “But His Royal Highness has vouched to me that you were in his company on the evening of the murder, and his word is, naturally, unassailable.”
“I should think so, too,” said Mr. Haversham.
The man in the overstuffed chair sighed loudly and repositioned himself. Trottitt took note of it and began pacing again.
“Mrs. Cravat! As his longtime housekeeper, you stood to know all of Mr. Haddock’s secrets. Perhaps he learned one of yours, too, and you killed him to keep him quiet.”
The housekeeper sniffed. “I have no interesting secrets.”
“I don’t believe that for a minute,” the detective snapped, “but you also have an alibi, having been at the church jumble sale at the time the murder was committed. The vicar has said as much.”
“Of course he has.”
The man in the overstuffed chair groaned softly. Trottitt whirled to confront him.
“Mr. Reed! Does the unveiling of a murderer – someone who is so anti-social and depraved as to kill a fellow man – bore you?”
“Not at all,” Mr. Reed said. “But your theatrics do. Couldn’t you just make an arrest and bugger off?”
One of the constables snickered but had regained his professional face by the time Trottitt had turned around to find the guilty party. Trottitt glared at all three for good measure and returned to Mr. Reed.
“I have my methods, Mr. Reed, and I will keep to them.”
“I hope you keep to your methods in the courtroom. And that the judge fines you £5 for delaying the trial.”
Trottitt fumed silently. “While we are dealing with you, Mr. Reed, your company has been losing money hand over fist to Mr. Haddock’s.”
“That’s putting it nicely. My company is all but bankrupt. But do tell the room why I didn’t kill Haddock.”
Inspector Trottitt smirked. “Your stature, of course. You are – ha! – shall we say, too slender a reed to have done the deed.” Reed rolled his eyes. “The murderer is possessed of much greater physical strength. Which means it was you, Mr. Soames!”
In the space of a thought, Soames leaped from his chair and flung himself on the detective, working to crush Trottitt as he had Haddock. The constables were jarred from their reveries and joined in the fray. They pried the murderer from their boss and laboriously handcuffed him.
“Take him downstairs, men,” Trottitt ordered as he regained his breath. “I’ll be along shortly.” Two constables pulled Soames out the door. The killer left a stream of invective in his wake.
As he straightened his tie, Trottitt stared hard at Mr. Reed.
“I took note during our earlier interviews that, curiously, you keep a small gun up your right sleeve. It is on a rail and may be produced quickly. May I ask why you did not employ it in my defense just now?”
Reed shrugged. “Soames is going to hang for one murder. I didn’t mind if he were to hang for two.”
Mrs. Cravat and Miss Wensley gasped at the rude reply.
“May I inquire, Mr. Reed, what I have done to earn the enmity we have seen you display this evening and that I saw privately on earlier occasions?”
Reed sat up in his chair. “Really? Something the great Inspector Trottitt doesn’t know?”
“How could I?”
“You could think back to your school days. The days when you were a bully without a badge.” Trottitt’s eyebrows began to climb. “The days when you would put firecrackers down the pants of someone like Jerry Whitsun, who couldn’t possibly fight back. The days when you would shoot peas at someone like Billy Street as he battled his stutter to recite a poem before the class.”
“Reed,” Trottitt whispered.
“Yes, and you called me a slender reed in those days, too. I’d have thought you’d have recognized your own pitiful joke. I still remember the awards day ceremony when you tripped me as I went to collect my award for top speller. I went down on my nose and lost my moment in the sun before my peers and my parents.”
The others in the room frowned at Trottitt.
“Well, Reed, that was a long time ago. Water under the bridge, eh? Boys will be boys?”
Reed stood and began to pace the room in imitation of Trottitt.
“Oh, I let all that go. But then you did something unforgivable: you married Maisie Andrews, the prettiest, most vivacious girl in the class. Why her father pushed her into your arms I never knew and never shall.”
“And you are upset with me over my choice of wife?”
“Not for my sake, but for hers. She deserves better.”
Trottitt pulled himself up haughtily. “I think she is well satisfied as my wife.”
“I know you think so. That, in addition to your not recognizing me after two private interviews and this gathering, tells me you’re not at all the detective you believe yourself to be. Maisie is miserable as your wife. You’re scarcely home, and when you are you treat her like a servant. You insist that she remain in when you’re out. You’ve had her locked up like a princess in a tower.”
“Everything I do is for her particular benefit. This is none of your affair,” Trottitt said.
“Actually, old bean, it is my affair. My affair with your wife. We had a chance meet one day when she disobeyed your order to stay home. We’ve been meeting ever since, and I’ve been giving her some of the joy you otherwise take from her.”
Trottitt’s face reddened.
“You have been meeting with my wife? Behind my back?”
“More like under your ruddy nose, you twit. There’s been no great need to be careful about it as you pay her no mind. Oh, yes, you caught a murderer today, but for all intents and purposes you lost your wife ages ago without having a clue.”
Trottitt now imitated Soames and leaped onto Reed, forcing him to the floor. The detective beat his wife’s paramour savagely. It took the remaining constable and Mr. Haversham together to pull Trottitt off of Reed, and their hold on him was shaky.
Reed flexed a muscle in his right arm and produced the little gun Trottitt had mentioned. The sight of it in Reed’s hand froze Trottitt in place.
“What wonderful headlines I can see,” Reed said. “ ‘Cuckolded Detective Pummels Smaller Man,’ perhaps. Or ‘Yard’s Finest Bloodies His Wife’s Lover.’ Something along those lines. Maybe ‘Inspector Fails to Detect Trouble at Home.’ That’s got a nice sound to it.”
“I will kill you, Reed.”
“First he batters me and now he threatens murder. Constable, I want this dangerous man arrested and charged.”
The constable pulled on Trottitt’s arm. “Come along, Inspector, before more harm is done.”
“He can’t get away with this!”
“Inspector,” the constable said quietly, “you’ve got a murderer downstairs to deal with. Plenty of good headlines in that. This bloke can wait.”
Reed stood. “You’re all witnesses. He struck me. He threatened me. I demand justice!”
The constable kept a snarling Trottitt moving, and they left the room.
Mrs. Cravat produced a small cloth for Mr. Reed, who applied it to his bleeding face.
“I agree, Reed, that we’re witnesses to what he did to you,” Mr. Haversham said, frowning sternly, “and that police officials have to set the standard for good conduct. But I don’t know that given the circumstances a judge will have much to say about it.”
“No, likely not,” Reed agreed. “But Maisie, at least, will get a divorce from that rotter. He won’t keep her, now.”
“That’s a rather callous way to talk about a woman, Mr. Reed,” Miss Wensley complained.
“Oh, fear not, Miss. I’ll make an honest woman of her again. We’ve already discussed it. Tonight, I’d better go see her safely away from her home, in case Trottitt would decide to stop in and confront her. I’ve a friend who will put her up.”
“Yes, that would be best,” Mrs. Cravat said.
Mr. Haversham turned to Miss Wensley. “I beg your pardon for asking, Miss, but why were you considered a suspect in Mr. Haddock’s murder?”
“Oh, that’s easy. He and I had been secret lovers. I’m from the wrong side of town, so he was never going to marry me, and he had just spurned me for another woman. I suppose Inspector Trottitt had thought I might want to kill him for that.”
“Oh, I see,” Mr. Haversham said, coloring at the sound of still more improper carnal activity.
“I would have, too, but Mr. Soames beat me to it. Lucky for me, really.”
Mr. Haversham looked at the floor.
“One last thing, Mr. Reed,” said Mrs. Cravat. “Did you consider killing Mr. Haddock?”
As the late Mr. Haddock’s partner, the question caught Mr. Haversham’s interest, and he studied Reed’s face.
“Goodness, no, Mrs. Cravat. My business is failing because I’ve been ignoring it to be with Maisie. My fault entirely, not poor Haddock’s. And I’m getting into a new line of work soon.”
“What line is that, Mr. Reed?” Miss Wensley asked.
“Those fancy cigarettes of Trottitt’s? My brother’s firm makes them, and I’m going to work for him. So every time Trottitt lights one up, I’ll be getting part of my salary paid.” Reed smiled. “I’ve got a feeling that the way his nerves are, business will be good.”