Read The Scent of Murder Online
Authors: Felicity Young
Her question, luckily, diverted Sir Desmond from his probable course. He took several strides into the gloom towards the door at the far end of the tunnel and rattled the handle. ‘Ah, good. Still locked. Can’t have the locals helping themselves to my game.’ He ambled back to the tables, tapping his riding crop against one of his high leather boots. ‘Well, how old is it, then?’
‘I can’t quite tell yet, sir. As you can see, the skeleton still needs to be fully assembled.’
His eyes skated over the bones. ‘I’ll warrant this’ll put Dawson’s find to shame.’
Dody remained silent. She did not care to be alone in the woods with Sir Desmond when she broke the news that the police would have to be summoned.
‘How was the hunt?’ she asked.
‘Splendid, splendid. Though I think your sister might think twice about joining us again.’
‘Florence? Is she hurt?’ Dody said with alarm, stepping from the mouth of the tunnel.
‘Not in the least. Hasn’t the stomach for blood sports, that’s all.’ He hummed again. ‘Well, if you’re sure I can’t be of any assistance, I suppose I’d better let you get on with it. We can announce the exciting news tonight over dinner.’ He called to the dog, its nose still twitching excitedly at the table’s edge. ‘Come on, Mr Cole, we know when we’re not wanted.’
He mounted with a creak of leather, calling again to his dog, not the most obedient of creatures.
Silence fell once more over the wood, save for the tremor of trees in the wind and the gentle tap of rain upon the bracken.
Dody returned to the shelter of the tunnel and continued to piece together the skeleton. The bones of the pelvis were smaller and less dense than Fred’s. The open circular pelvic inlet, broad sciatic notch and the wide angle where the two pubic bones met also indicated they belonged to a female.
The cartilage of the epiphyseal plates had not quite turned to bone, suggesting the young woman was no more than sixteen years old when she died. Dody measured the entire skeleton with a tape measure and found it to be approximately five foot two inches in height. There were no signs of rickets, deformities or any injury apart from the greenstick fracture.
It was time to see what the skull could tell her.
Dody swished it around in the water to dislodge the mud and dried it thoroughly with a rag. The top jaw contained a full set of adult, minus wisdom, teeth, reinforcing Dody’s theory that the girl was in her mid to late teens when she died. Two of the back molars had deep cavities: the poor child must have suffered from terrible toothache.
As Dody continued to polish the cranium with the rag, she detached a clod of earth from the occipital region at the back of the skull. The dirt had been blocking a small, neat hole. Pulse quickening, she scrabbled again in the filthy water until her fingers closed around something metallic. Holding it between thumb and forefinger under a lantern, she found it to be a piece of lead. A bullet.
The fire had been stoked to a roar in Florence’s bedroom, the perfume-heavy air uncomfortably warm. Dody found her sister lying on her four-poster bed wearing nothing but her combinations, her lower legs lobster-pink from a recent bath. Annie was bustling about the room picking up discarded riding clothes and linens, mumbling to herself about what needed washing and what could get away with just a thorough brushing.
‘Your white stock’s ruined, miss,’ she said. ‘The jacket should be all right, though; the bloodstains won’t never show.’
‘I don’t care for it any more, Annie. Get rid of it, please.’
The maid looked shocked; theirs did not tend to be a wasteful household.
‘Ask around, Annie,’ Dody said. ‘One of the servants is sure to know someone in the village who would appreciate it.’
‘Brand-new, that were, and ever so smart.’
‘Just do it,’ Florence snapped.
‘Itches gone, Annie? Everything all right now?’ Dody asked quickly to defuse the unusual tension between the pair.
‘Yes, Miss Dody.’ Annie glanced at Florence on the bed and nibbled her lip. ‘But if you don’t mind, there is something …’
Dody touched her arm. ‘Certainly, in a minute. Right now I need to talk privately with my sister.’ Whatever Annie wanted could not be as important as what she had to tell Florence.
‘Yes, miss,’ Annie said with a sigh of resignation. ‘Can I get you some more tea, Miss Florence?’
Florence rolled onto her side and buried her face in the pillow. ‘Lor’s sake, Annie, please, please, just go away.’
The maid huffed from the room.
‘Really,’ Florence said, ‘sometimes that girl just doesn’t know when to leave one alone. Perhaps, as our family’s critics say, we
let our servants get too close.’
‘I take it the hunt wasn’t everything you expected it to be,’ Dody said, sitting on the edge of the bed.
‘It was ghastly, Dody, simply awful. The poor fox didn’t stand a chance. And then what those horrible men did to me with the paw at the end of it …’ She shuddered. ‘Barbaric.’
‘They call the fox’s paw a pad.’
Florence flexed her hands as if resisting the urge to throttle her sister.
‘Surely you expected a blooding,’ Dody added, hiding her smile.
‘I didn’t realise they still did it. I thought it was a thing of the past. Tristram was marvellous, though, and did his best to stop it. He brought me back here afterwards and told me to rest. But he’s gone out again, gone to have one more look at that trench, see if he can find anything else. I mean, really …’
‘Florence, there’s something I need to tell you and there’s no easy way to say it.’ Dody paused to make sure she had her sister’s complete attention. ‘Those bones you and Tristram found are not old at all; in fact, they might have been in the ground for as little as ten years. They belong to a girl of between twelve and sixteen, and she was murdered.’
Florence sat up in bed and crossed her hands over her embroidered neck line. ‘Oh, my, that’s terrible! What will Tristram do? He was so excited, so sure he would make his mark with the discovery—’
Dody’s patience failed her. ‘Forget Tristram. Do you not hear what I am saying? The girl was murdered and I am obliged to inform the police.’
Florence put her hands to her mouth. ‘Of course. Oh, dear, I am sorry. I’m such a goose sometimes. What should we do?’
‘Inform the police, as I said.’
‘But Sir Desmond won’t want that. You know what it’s like in the country. Having police crawling all over the estate would be humiliating, scandalous for a family that’s trying so hard to be accepted and respected—’
‘If Sir Desmond is so concerned about respect, he ought to work out a way of earning it. I will speak to him now.’
‘Indeed, I will not.’ Dody had planned on changing from her work clothes — sensible skirt, blouse and tie — but her sister’s pleading tone brought out the contrariness in her nature. Florence might have to tread carefully with her beau’s family, but Dody had no such obligation. In fact, she was sick of toadying to them. If she had not been so desperate to see Pike tomorrow, she would even have considered taking the evening train back to London.
She regarded her sister, face pale against the pillow, a crust of blood on the edge of her ear that the flannel had missed, and immediately felt guilty. No, she couldn’t desert Florence, not just yet. She would have to play the ridiculous game a bit longer, at least until she had talked things over with Pike. They now had a murder to solve.
Dody found Sir Desmond in his study, still wearing his blood-spattered hunting clothes, the odoriferous labrador lying at his feet. He was sitting behind his desk, but rose eagerly, snapping closed a book on bloodstock he had been reading when the maid showed Dody in.
He extended his arms. ‘Welcome to the engine room of the estate, Doctor McCleland, my favourite room in the place, my sanctuary. Even Lady Fitzgibbon leaves me alone in here — ha!’
He took up a perch on the edge of his desk, chubby leg swinging nonchalantly, and gave Dody time to take in her surroundings. On the wall behind the desk there was a photograph of her host in shooting regalia, a pile of dead animals at his feet — a leopard, long-horned antelopes and several tigers. The rest of the study was resplendent with heads, horns and antlers: a veritable shrine to male virility. No wonder Lady Fitzgibbon kept her distance.
How different, Dody thought, from her own father’s study, with its rows of leather-bound books, Grecian statuettes and vases, and Aunt Emily’s portrait of the Russian waif with dancing eyes and a jaunty cap. She felt a sudden surge of homesickness and it was only good manners that compelled her to respond at all.
‘The view from the French windows is magnificent, Sir Desmond,’ she said.
The smile on his face faltered. ‘Yes. Right,’ he said with affronted dignity. He had doubtless expected her to comment on his hunting prowess. He slid from the desk and clapped his hands as if to restore his spirits. ‘Well, then, tell me all about the bones. How old are they? Can we give Dawson a run for his money?’
‘I’m sorry, Sir Desmond, but the bones aren’t old at all,’ Dody said, glad to get to the point. ‘I suspect they have been interred for as few as ten years. May I please use your telephone? The police will have to be informed.’
Sir Desmond collapsed into his ram’s head chair. There was disappointment in his face, but not the anger she had expected. Perhaps it registered with him that the remains — those of a recently living human being — could no longer be viewed as a prized trophy, or perhaps he was disappointed that he would no longer be able to give Dawson a ‘run for his money’. He stared into the fire and rubbed his toothbrush moustache, apparently deep in thought. ‘Are you sure?’
‘I am certain.’
‘And you think they might have belonged to someone from around here?’
‘I would think it more than likely.’
‘I’ll telephone the police, then,’ he said in a tone of defeat that, had he been a different person, might have stirred Dody’s sympathy. ‘I’ll have the footman put the bones in one of the empty stables. There’s more room to move there than in that cramped tunnel, and it’s more respectful too.’
Since when had Sir Desmond been concerned about anyone’s respect but his own? Dody wondered. What a strange, contradictory creature he appeared to be.
‘But I thought Lady Fitzgibbon, her nerves—’
‘Let me worry about Lady Fitzgibbon’s nerves.’ He cut her off with a wave of his hand. ‘The police will probably take the bones away, anyway.’ He reached for the telephone on his desk, but stopped when he saw Dody had not moved. ‘Yes, Doctor McCleland? Is there anything else?’
‘I would like to talk to the police when they arrive.’
‘I can’t see any of the Uckfield plods coming out tonight, I’m afraid. And it’s not as if the body will be any more dead by tomorrow, what? I expect someone will call around in the morning.’
‘I have an appointment in Brighton tomorrow.’
‘Ah, women and shopping. If Sergeant Berry wants to question you, I’ll tell him you will be back by evening.’ He attempted an ingratiating smile. ‘Now, if you don’t mind, Doctor McCleland, I think we should both dress for tea, don’t you?’
Dress for tea? Shopping? Dody silently moaned. ‘Yes, Sir Desmond,’ she managed.
She closed the study door none too gently behind her, turned in haste and almost crashed into Annie.
‘Miss Dody,’ the maid said, gripping her arm. ‘There’s something you
need to see.’ The young woman’s determined expression told Dody she would not be fobbed off this time. ‘Follow me, miss. Please.’
Annie led the way across the stone-flagged front hall and through a discreet door, hidden by a hanging tapestry, that opened into a narrow corridor. They were now in the servants’ part of the house. The aroma of freshly baked bread filled the air, and they followed its trail down stone steps to a huge tiled room dominated by a chaotic kitchen table. A flabby-armed cook pounded at pieces of raw meat amid puffs of flour, mumbling obscenities as colourful as any Dody had heard in the Women’s Clinic. A kitchen maid stood slicing vegetables at the other end of the table. Timothy the footman, wearing a green apron, sat in the corner of the room cleaning knives, a tall tin of Wellington Knife Polish on the bench next to him. Another even younger footman staggered past with two coal buckets. ‘Wanna change places?’ the youngster called good-naturedly to Timothy.
Pans bubbled on the stove, maids thumped up the stairs and clattered about in cupboards. The room was a hive of activity. Forget Sir Desmond and his pretentious study; this was the true powerhouse of the estate.
Annie tentatively approached the cook. ‘Excuse me, Mrs Plummer, where’s Edith? Only Doctor McCleland needs to talk to her.’
The cook stopped her pounding, wiped her hands on her apron and regarded Dody through suspicious eyes. It wasn’t every day that someone from upstairs, not to mention a guest, requested an interview with the lowliest servant in the house. More often than not, guests were barely aware of the servants’ existence. Even if they were to pass on the stairs, etiquette demanded the servant step aside and lower their eyes. If, heaven forbid, a servant was ever to find themselves in the same room as their betters, the servant was required to scuttle out in as unobtrusive a manner as possible: in other words, to be neither seen nor heard.
Dody stepped in to offer Annie, clearly intimidated by the cook, her assistance. She drew herself up to her full five foot four. ‘It is a personal matter, Mrs Plummer, and one that I am not at liberty to discuss with anyone else,’ she said.
Her regal tone worked. ‘You’ll find Edith in the yard, miss,’ the cook said. ‘Annie knows the way, I’m sure.’
‘This way, Miss Dody,’ Annie said, a note of triumph in her tone.
They found Edith sitting on an upturned tin bucket in the far corner of the yard, leaning over a floppy-necked duck and yanking out great tufts of feathers.
The girl was even more startled at their approach than the cook had been. She leaped to her feet and knocked over a sackful of feathers, which fluttered like a snowdrift around the cobbles. The terrified girl backed into the brick wall until she was literally cornered.