Authors: Caroline Graham
Derek stopped his pacing. Thunderstruck, his face suddenly gray, he turned on Simon. Clutching at his chest, he gave a broken cry, followed by a long feverish moan. He swayed, his knees folded, his eyes crossed.
“Ay up!” Fred leaped to the rescue. “He's going.”
Sheila also rushed to her husband's side. Together she and Fred lowered Derek into a chair and watched, dismayed, as he seemed to fight for breath.
“Put a key down his back.”
“That's for nosebleed, silly.”
“Put his head between his knees.”
“Put a ferret down his trousers.”
“Sshâ¦he's saying something.” Sheila stopped fanning her husband and put an ear to his lips. “What is it, dearest? Tell Sheila.” She listened, frowning, then relayed the vital information. “Waterâ¦he wants some water.” Laurie fetched the siphon and a glass. “Honestly, Simon,” Sheila continued crossly. “What did you have to say something like that for?”
“Well, how was I to know?” Simon looked put out. “He didn't react like this when he thought I was trying to kill him. Where's his sense of perspective?” he added, forgetting that a prerequisite for a sense of perspective is a sense of humor.
Derek absorbed several swallows of water and slowly returned from his near-death experience. He got triumphantly, if shakily, to his feet and curled his lip at Simon, no doubt to push home the intelligence that this further attempt at permanent dispatch had been no more successful than the first, before launching once more into his imaginative reconstruction of the crime.
he cried dramatically, repositioning his paperback,
“on the Nile
. I'm sure you are all familiar with the plot.”
“I saw the film,” said Violet. “That Maggie Smith. She can't half wear clothes.”
“She don't wear clothes,” corrected Fred. “That were Diana Rigg.”
“He's right,” agreed Rosemary. “Maggie Smith wears those awful cardigans.”
“I didn't reckon much to Albert Finney.”
“It weren't Albert Finney on the Nile”âViolet neatly evened the scoreâ“it were Peter Ustinov. Albert Finney were on the Orientâ”
pay attention,” glowered Derek, “otherwise I shall lose my thread. Hardly had I started to peruse the book before the whole thing came rushing back to me. Simonânote the similarity of nomenclatureâSimon Doyle having been âattacked'”âDerek hooked quotation marks out of the air with his index fingersâ“was seemingly incapacitated by a gunshot wound when the murder of his wife took place. He was, of course, faking, using red ink for blood. A clever alibi brilliantly conceived. Now”âhe gazed at them fiercely in turn, imprinting his convictionâ“for red ink read tomato sauce. And for the other vital propertyâa clean white shirt hidden in the wardrobeâreadâ¦this!”
They all stared at the garment that Derek, with a stagy gesture, whipped from beneath his jacket and waved aloft like a banner. “Rolled up and hidden behind a cushion on the settee.”
Laurie said: “But that's my gardening smock.”
“I leave it in the conservatory between visits. Sometimes when I prune things they're full of sap. And then there's the spraying. It can make quite a mess so I like to wear a coverup. It's usually hanging behind the door but it was so grotty I decided, as we were having guests, to tuck it away somewhere.”
“Oh.” Derek looked down at the smock. “I thought it was a shirt.”
“If you'd unrolled it and had a good look,” said Simon, “you would have seen that not only is it not a shirt but that it is far too small for any man to get into. Or be put into.”
“You say that now”âDerek was already bouncing backâ“but by your own admission you have no interest in horticulture. How would you know that it was merely a gardening smock?”
“I've never heard such a load of old claptrap,” returned Simon. “First I plan it all so brilliantly that I leave you shut up with precisely the book that gives the whole game away. Secondly the shirt, so crucialâalthough God knows whyâ to the success of this farcical enterprise is found, on close examination, to be fit only for a midget.”
“Take that back!” Martin leaped to his feet and Laurie pulled him down again.
“Yes, what is the point of the shirt?” cut in Violet. “It's so long since I saw the film.”
“The one stained with tomato sauce, in other words, the one that gives my wife and her lover their alibi, must obviously be removed once the real stabbing is perpetrated. It wouldn't do for the police to see it, after all. A clean one then has to be put on the body. Elementary.”
“The only thing elementary about that tortuous bit of deduction,” said Simon, “is the level of intellect that could dream it up in the first place. You haven't got the brains of a wombat.”
“Now,” said Derek, still mountebanking about, vain and unperturbed by insults, “we come to your third mistake.”
“I have only made one mistake, Derek, and that was accepting your check in the first place. Three weeks ago when Sheila told meâ”
“Aha!” Derek stopped dead in his tracks. White-faced, nostrils fluting at the sweet smell of success, he almost snorted in triumph. Then he recommenced his perambulations, walking in a slow, stately manner to the fireplace, where he leaned his arm across the mantel.
“I think you all heard that, ladies and gentlemen. âSheila told me.' Yet ten minutes ago, in this very room, you heard that man say he had met neither of us before yesterday in his life. A fatal slip, Hannafordâ” Here Derek's elbow came off the mantelpiece and he repositioned it before concluding. “I rest my case.”
“She rang up.”
This was the second time Laurie had cut the ground from under Derek's feet. He frowned at her, then transferred this expression of displeasure to Simon and Sheila as if suspecting a mass conspiracy. “Quick thinking, I must say.”
“I took the call myself,” continued Laurie. “She asked a bit about the house and grounds, and about the menus. As it was so expensive I think she needed reassurance that it would be money well spent. Then she wanted to know about the murder game, how it would be set up and all that, so I put her on to Simon.”
“I in my turn,” said Simon, “explained that everything would be done to create an atmosphere of sinister intrigue and chilling authenticity. It seemed plain to me that she had got in touch solely to establish that the whole experience would be the sort of thing that you”âhe looked unpleasantly at Derekâ “would really enjoy. And look at the thanks she got. I wouldn't like to have your conscience.”
conscience we're discussing here,” shouted Derek. “If we can find it.”
“Lookâsupposing,” said Gilly, “potty of course, but just supposing you're right and all this elaborate setup was to give Simon and your wife a watertight alibi, who was supposed eventually to have committed the murder? After all, with a real body the police are going to investigate pretty thoroughly. They're not going to give up and go away just because we all say we have alibis.”
“Precisely. And here is my third point. This is where the mythical intruder comes inâ”
“Hark who's talking about mythical,” cried Fred. “You were the one who said you'd actually seen him.”
“Ah, yes.” Derek rosied up a bit at this admission. “I was deceived by shadowsâit was quite dark because of the stormâand by my wife's conviction. It wasn't until the following morning, checking the terrace and finding no disturbance in the earth, that I realized this man did not exist. In other words
my wife was lying
. Nowâif this were not part of some prearranged plan, why on earth should she do such a thing?”
“But that's my character.” Sheila fumbled in the pocket of her linen dress, produced a card and read: “âLorelei is a neurotic and hysterical woman in pursuit of Kit.' I thought screaming and carrying on was the right thing to do.”
“It was that,” agreed Violet. “Got us off to a flying start.”
“Then why”âDerek keenly closing inâ“if it was merely part of the game, did you keep it up when we were alone?”
“Because you were so happy, darling. You loved itâyou know you did. You couldn't wait to get out there with your little magnifying glass and look for clues and footprints. How could I tell you I was just pretending? The whole weekend was for you.” Sheila wrung her hands and said, running the words together into one long wail, “I wish I'd never comeâ¦”
“Jolly handy,” chipped in Gilly, “her drawing just the right sort of characterâ”
âNom d'un nom!”
exclaimed Derek, disconcertingly switching role models in mid-denouement, “d'you think such a crucial detail could be left to chance? Sheila scrapped the card she drew, then wrote out the necessary alternative.”
“I didn't!” Sheila thrust out the card. “Look, if you don't believe meâthat's not my writing.”
“In that case”âDerek roamed, thinking on his feetâ “your loverâ¦wrote the cardâ¦andâ¦and slipped it to you after dinner. Of course! That's it. Probably in the library when my back was turned.” Satisfied, Derek beamed proudly round the room. “I now approach my conclusion.”
“Thank God for that,” said Simon.
“The Murder in the Locked Room.”
“Of course. The murder in the locked room.” Simon's voice had a gentle lunatic-harboring tinge. “Why didn't we all see that? It's so obvious. I think I'm going to cry. Or get drunk.”
His eye homed in on the decanter. “Probably both.”
“And its inevitable corollary, the secret passage.”
“Definitely both.” Simon reached for a glass and prepared to further soothe his shattered nerves.
“There isn't one, Derek,” said Laurie. “Really there isn't.”
“It leads,” said Derek, swanking splendidly, “from the Degas room to the conservatory. Hence their decision that I should be murdered there. My body would be spirited away up the staircase.”
Simon groaned, drank deep and groaned again. Rosemary, defensive on his behalf, said: “That's absolutely mad. If Simon knew about the secret passage, why did he keep going in and out through the conservatory door?”
“That was a red herring”âDerek almost hugged himself with satisfactionâ“to put you all off the scent.”
“Excuse me,” said Martin quietly. “But I think you're making a terrible mistake.”
“Oh?” Derek, having handled the warp and woof of the summing up to his entire satisfaction, frowned at this attempt to introduce a knot in the cloth.
“Your theory's very ingenious but it can't possibly be true.”
“What?” Derek did not look at all pleased at this suggestion that perhaps his wife was not, after all, trying to coax him into an early grave. “And why not, pray?”
“Because if you remember, at your own suggestion, Simon shuffled the cards in the bowler hatâa perfectly ordinary hat as I'm sure you will agree, having examined it most carefully afterwardâbefore he passed it round. We all saw him do it. And he didn't touch the hat with his other hand. Indeed, if I remember correctly, he held his hand in the air as he went round, actually making a joke about it. âNothing up my sleeve,' I think he said. So how could he or anyone else be sure that you would draw the victim? And without this assurance, the whole elaborate plan which you have just, I may say quite brilliantly, described”âhere Martin paused for breath, whereupon a spattering of admiring applause on Derek's behalf broke outâ“could simply not get off the ground.”
There was a long pause while the ripples from Martin's quiet, reasonable, authoritative speech spread and spread, touching and impressing them all. Sheila spoke first. She cried out: “Of course,” and clapped her hands like a child and her tears, like a child's tears, dried immediately on her cheeks. She sounded quite giddy with relief and ran over to her husband, blinking her puffy eyes, grabbing his arm. “You do see Martin's right?”
“Of course he's right.” Simon put down his glass and smiled widely. An expansive smile with, it seemed to Derek, an infuriating hint of forgiveness lurking round the edges. “In fact, I was about to mention that very thing myself.”
“Oh, Simon.” Laurie sounded cross at this attempt to muscle in on her loved one's sharp perceptions.
Derek stood in the center of the room, his face a tormented mask. Rage, disbelief and bitter disappointment fought for supremacy. So might a drowning man look finding a perfectly strange life flashing before him. His shoulders drooped, his mouth gathered into a sour twisty pucker. How could they (his whole mien put the question) do this to him? How could they, with one tweak of a single loose end, so casually unravel the wonderful construction of tortuous deceit he had so zestfully compiled? He had offered them complex corruption of the deepest dye; they had shown him sunny lack of complicity and guile. What ingrates. Resentment springing from hurt vanity welled up in Derek's heart and he hated them all.
“You're not the first person,” said Simon kindly, “to have mistaken theatrical simulacrum for the real thing.”
“How dare you patronize me!”
“That wasn't my intention, I assure you.”
“There we are then,” cozied Violet. “All's well that ends well.”
Fred said it had been a lark and no mistake. Gilly that it was all just too Sunnybrook Farm. Laurie and Martin held hands and Rosemary gave Simon a smile so full of western promise it was all he could do not to leap across the room and carry her off upon the instant. An end of term, jamboree-like atmosphere prevailed.
“We can start all over again now,” said Simon. “We've still got our scenario. All we need is a volunteer to be the victim and Derek”âhe beamed even more forgivingly across the roomâ“can set to and solve it.”