Tagged: Chapter 1 Black Cat Murders
18th January 2019 at 4:52 pm #79991
‘Rather an unlikely murder weapon,’ I remarked. ‘A Soprano.’
‘Well, yes, yes,’ I heard Cyril Fletcher bluster despite the crackles on the line, ‘the circumstances were peculiar. Actually, the whole damn event was peculiar, although Earls are like that.’
I had sympathy with the sentiment, but Cyril Fletcher, our family doctor since before I saw the light of day, wasn’t making any sense at all.
‘Why were you there, Cyril? You hate Opera as much as I do,’ I asked, not unreasonably.
‘Invited of course,’ his voice rose in indignation as he recounted the incident. ‘Virtually ordered to go by the Earl. Forced to sit through hours of Tosca, with all the bells and whistles.Then just as the Soprano burst into some sort of tortured lament over Crispin Gibbons, who was lead tenor, the trap door collapsed under their combined weight and they vanished from sight with an ear shattering shriek. And it had already been uncommonly ear shattering up to that point, let me tell you, Lennox.’ He paused, having got quite het up, then continued. ‘And then there was the usual call for a doctor in the house and everybody immediately looked at me, so I had to go and officiate. The lady had landed on Crispin and was only shaken. He, on the other hand, was flattened and quite dead.’
‘I assume said Soprano is built on traditional lines then?’
‘Very much so, and Crispin was no beanpole either. Rotund sort of chap, bit like an overgrown cherub actually,’ Cyril replied.
‘But what on earth makes you think this could be a murder?’
‘Because they’d been prancing around the stage all week, having rehearsals and dressing up and what-have-you.The full show was put on in the evening for invited guests, me included, and it was only at the very end of the whole rigmarole that the trap door failed. At first I took it for a simple act of misfortune and told the police so, but now I’m not so sure,’ his voice tailed off in doubt.
‘Well, it probably failed because they’d been bouncing around on it, Cyril.’
‘Yes, Lennox, that’s what everyone says and I’d agree with you if it wasn’t for the strange commotion with the cat just before it all happened. And I was the one that picked up the body,’ he let out an exasperated sigh. ‘The more I think on it, the more convinced I am that there’s mischief afoot’
‘But it’s too random,’ I mused over the run of events. ‘The lady could have toppled first and he’d have just bounced off.’
‘Exactly! So nobody would know who was to be killed.’ Cyril exclaimed – as if this made any sense at all. ‘You have to go, you know.’
‘Cyril, I am most certainly not going to gatecrash the Earl’s country pile and snoop on his guests. Particularly based on such a hare-brained notion as you’ve just told me.’
‘Lennox, Don’t you ever read your correspondence?’ Cyril retorted snappily. ‘You were invited ages ago – it’s Caroline’s marriage.’
‘Oh Hell, really?’ I’d heard some vague rumours about Caroline, but I had better things to do than listen to tattle about weddings and whatnots.
‘The nuptials are next weekend and the Earl has laid on another full blown production on the Eve of the ceremony.’
‘Good Lord! It sounds appalling. Why the devil is he inflicting Opera on people?’
‘Because he’s determined to hand his only daughter over in style and the bridegroom is obsessed with Opera.’
I raised my brows in incredulity. ‘I can’t imagine Caroline marrying someone who even listens to Opera.’
‘Well, there you are. No accounting for the tender heart, is there?’ Cyril said.
‘Doesn’t happen to have a lot of money, does he? This groom?’ I asked.
‘Of course he does, and the Earl needs every penny of it. Now get a move on, Lennox, you should be there already. I’m surprised you haven’t had reminders already – you know what the old man’s like. Not to mention Caroline.’
I knew exactly what they were like. Lord Neville, Earl of Bloxham, known to the commonality as his Lordship, General Bloxham, had never really left army life behind him. His only daughter, Lady Caroline was a no-nonsense country girl whom I had known virtually since the cradle.
‘Oh very well, I’ll go if I must and you had better be there to point the way, Cyril, because the idea of murder by opera singer sounds ridiculous,’ I warned him.
‘Ha, not a chance. I’ve got better things to do than have my ears scourged by any more caterwauling. I’ve already given my regrets to the wedding party, I’m off to Tuscany, see you after Easter. Good luck, old chap.’ He rang off.
I placed the receiver back on its candlestick stand and stood irresolute with my hand to my chin. Doctor Cyril Fletcher had officiated at my birth over thirty years ago. And he’d done his best to prevent my lamented parents from falling off their respective twigs – although in the end they’d both succumbed. Nevertheless, I considered it entirely infra dig to call me up and demand I go off and detect a murder, even though no one thought it was a murder, and then declare he was shoving off to Italy.
It’s not that I wasn’t keen on detecting, quite the reverse actually. I’d developed a certain taste for sleuthing last Christmas when I’d been accused of murder by Chief Inspector Swift – a man whose path I hope never to cross again – and had to track the murderer myself. That had taught me the rudiments, and I’d invested in a couple more volumes of Sherlock Holmes to expand my knowledge. But I had no desire to go anywhere near a society wedding – even if the bride were a childhood friend.
Spring had finally sprung after a long cold winter and I wanted to make the most of the bright sunny days, shooting and hunting here at my home, the Manor, near Ashton Steeple. I’d been out every day for almost a week shooting pigeon in the woods with my dog, Mr Fogg. I admit I may have been rather slow to pick up my correspondence and might have overlooked the odd missive, but I really did have more interesting things to do.
I stuck my hands in my pockets and with my thoughts perturbed I went off to my library. It was looking particularly spruce today as the maids had been spring cleaning and all the leather bound books gleamed; smelling of lanolin and neat’s foot oil and I could barely make out the usual whiff of damp, mould and must. The grate had been emptied, the fire set but not yet lit, for in spring we only had fires in the evening. I rifled through the stack of papers the maids had put in a wicker basket on my desk and found a telegram that must have arrived a few days ago.
To Major Heathcliff Lennox. STOP. Where are you? STOP. Come now! STOP. General Bloxham. Bloxham Hall. STOP.
Must say, it was hardly the sort of invitation you’d expect to a wedding although old man Bloxham was known to be on the eccentric side.
Just as I was quietly contemplating the turn of events, my aged retainer walked in with the dinner gong. He bonged it three times then turned to leave. He’d taken to doing that lately and it was becoming quite annoying.
‘Greggs, will you stop that and come back here,’ I called after him.
He returned slowly and stood in the doorway – straight backed, paunch to the fore, togged in his usual butlering outfit of black tails, dickie, starched shirt and collar, with an expression of weary patience as though I were being entirely unreasonable.
‘Why don’t you just announce the meal, as usual?’ I asked.
‘I am saving my voice, sir. For the singing,’ he intoned.
‘Gilbert and Sullivan, sir. I have joined a group. I am a Tenor,’ he said with some pride.
‘Good God, not you too, Greggs? What is this passion for opera?’
‘Operetta, sir. It is amusing, sir.’
‘Unlike the real thing?’
‘Seems I should be at some wedding beano. Didn’t happen to see an invitation did you?’
He looked meaningfully at the mantelpiece where a fancy gold lettered envelope rested against the clock. ‘I placed it in plain sight, sir.’
‘That clock hasn’t worked for decades, Greggs, what’s the point in putting it there?’
‘Because you never look at the papers on your desk, sir.’
‘Yes, well, never mind that,’ I snatched the invitation up and tore it open, muttering to myself. ‘General Bloxham invites…. wedding…Lady Caroline…Mister Hiram Hoover.’ What sort of name is Hiram? I mean, is it a name?’
‘I suppose it must be. Look, packing required Greggs. Load up the old trunk with the stiff rig would you? It’s going to be fancy. And I’m told there may be some detecting involved, so I’m going to need jam jars, tweezers and a magnifying glass.’
‘Certainly, sir. May I remind you that your dinner is waiting to be served.’
He turned and left as I looked after him. His lack of curiosity was out of character, and his usual hangdog demeanour held a hint of quiet amusement — he was hiding something. I followed briskly in his footsteps to the dining room, where he had raised the silver domed lid from a plate of roast spatchcock pigeon and waited for me to sit. Which I did, because it was the pigeon I had shot that very morning and it smelled delicious.
‘Wouldn’t you like to know why?’ I quizzed him as he spooned overcooked sprouts onto my plate.
‘Would it be concerning the death of Sir Crispin Gibbons?’
‘How the devil did you know about that?’ I spluttered. ‘Were you listening in on the telephone again, Greggs?’
‘No, sir. I have received certain information. Excuse me, sir, I will commence with your trunk now.’
He departed the room as he said this, leaving me to chew over his insinuation with the pigeon. I hastened my dinner, excellent though is was and skipped pudding to track him down in my bedroom where he was inspecting the open wardrobe.
‘What information, Greggs?’
He placed a couple of formal suits into my packing case and straightened up to brush a few flecks of dust from his waistcoat.
‘My nephew, Richard Dicks, is a junior footman at Bloxham Hall, sir,’ he intoned.
‘Is he? Excellent! What did young Dicks say?’ Ha! I thought – this could help me slay the doubts of the doctor before I’d even left the Manor.
‘I couldn’t possibly say, sir.’
‘Yes, you can, Greggs. Come on, spit it out.’
‘The information was given in confidence, sir.’
‘Nonsense. If I do have to carry out any detecting, I need all the help I can get.’
‘I’m sure you do, sir.’ He carried on emptying drawers and folding shirts.
‘This is about that bottle of Jameson, isn’t it?’
I received no reply. He slid my indoor shoes into a canvas sack then wedged them tightly in the bottom of the trunk as he held me to ransom.
‘Damn it, man. That whiskey was a gift from my Uncle Charles,’ I argued. ‘I was saving it for the grouse season.’
Nothing. Not even a sniff of disdain. He carried on gathering up the small stuff and whatnots and stowing them into the side pockets of the trunk. We’d been through the Great War together, Greggs and I; he’d been my batman while I’d flown aeroplanes into battle against the Boche. We’d had spells on the front line too, which had gouged deep scars. It was mostly thoughts of this old place, and the quiet country life here that had kept us going. When we’d returned wearied and troubled, Greggs had taken a liking to good Irish Whiskey, and I knew he’d had his eye on my bottle of Jameson.
‘I haven’t even taken a sniff at it yet,’ I objected and sank onto the edge of my four-poster bed. Once he had something in his sights, Greggs could be as dogged as a hound. And he’d probably help himself to the stuff once I was out of the door anyway.
‘Oh, very well, Greggs, it’s yours. Spill the beans, and it had better be good.’
He stopped folding handkerchiefs and drew up his paunch in a dignified manner.
‘Sir Crispin was squashed, sir.’
‘I know. Doctor Fletcher told me.’
‘By the leading lady.’
‘Yes, I know and…’ I waved my arm around to try to jolly him along.
‘Sir Crispin was the head of the Noble House of Opera singers, an amateur group who perform renditions for gentlefolk at homes of distinction.’
‘You mean they troop around the country singing for their supper at uppercrust shindigs.’
‘Only the Cotswolds, sir. There are sufficient estates surrounding Oxford to keep them engaged.’
‘Very true,’ I muttered, knowing full well the place was awash with nobs/grandees.
‘The unhappy event happened during the recital the night before last. Tosca is a tragedy, sir and Sir Crispin lay as dead on the trap door, the good lady then stepped onto it, this being the designated spot for the scene, and the door promptly gave way.’
‘And he fell, and she fell and that was the end of him?’
‘Yes, I know all this, Cyril Fletcher already told me. That bottle is not going to be forthcoming unless you’ve got something more enlightening, Greggs.’
‘There is more, sir. The staff were of the opinion that there was something fishy about Sir Crispin.’
Greggs paused as he spoke, cloths brush in hand, then recommenced carefully whisking dust from my best black tail coat.
‘Is that it?’ I asked sharply.
‘If only it were, sir.’
‘Ah.’ That made me sit up. ‘Do go on.’
‘There is lurid talk.’
‘Really? Lurid eh.’
‘Sir Crispin had a habit of dressing up, sir, and not just for the Opera. He was known to attire himself in frocks. Ladies frocks,’ he nodded for emphasis.
‘Good Lord. And this wasn’t connected to the Opera?’
‘It was not.’
I frowned at him. I got the impression it came as no great shock to him – sometimes butlers know a lot more than you’d expect.
‘Why on earth would he want to dress in frocks?’
‘He had a peculiar penchant for such things, sir. The Opera singers are housed in the old Dower House on General Bloxham’s estate. Apparently, he would dress himself up, apply maquillage and rouge and depart surreptitiously by one of the rear gates, then later in the evening, he would come back again. He was observed a number of times by the staff, sir.’
Well, this did add another complexion to the story, perhaps he was murdered after all, probably by someone who didn’t like men in frocks. Although it did seem rather extreme – a quiet word in the ear would probably have done the trick.
‘This investigation could be a tad on the racy side, Greggs.’
‘Indeed, sir. Will you be requiring a hat?’ he asked, reaching to the top shelf of the wardrobe.
‘Yes, the Topper and fedora.’
‘Not a Deerstalker, sir?’
‘Very amusing, Greggs,’ I retorted and strode off in the direction of
Mr Fogg was curled up in the kitchen where he’d retired after our long day out, pigeon shooting. Fogg had an aversion to anything dead so I’d had to pick up my own birds while he gambolled in the green sprung woods. An undersized golden spaniel, Fogg led a dog’s life of treats, walks and sleep and was my closest companion. I knelt beside him, gave him a treat, patted his head and ruffled his fur. He gazed at me with chocolate brown eyes full of affection and wagged his stump of a tail. It didn’t take much to persuade him to leave the comfort of his basket and join me for an evening stroll in the calm of my overgrown gardens, where strange puzzles, such as fellows in frocks and mischief and murder, are best contemplated.
19th January 2019 at 1:58 pm #80068
A few Karen. First thank you for all the time you take giving feedback here.
I like the writing and the stories with these characters and have noted a few points but it will be easier to show in word doc tracking so you can see . Not sure how to send it as this will remove the formatting. You can e-mail me on firstname.lastname@example.org and i’ll send the file. (unless you know a better way.
19th January 2019 at 2:07 pm #80069
Much thanks for your kind remarks, the book is very much a work in progess.
No, I don’t know a better way of sending files!
I’m very grateful for the time you’ve taken to contact me.
I’ve emailed you!
ps book one, Murder at Melrose Court is on amazon here…
22nd January 2019 at 6:03 pm #81735
I would like to echo the thanks for all the feedback you give. I really like your opening and the characterisation is great. I love the dry humour. I don’t have many things to say, just a few sentences that could be tightened up a bit.
“At first I took it for a simple act of misfortune and told the police so, but now I’m not so sure,’ his voice tailed off in doubt.” – drop in doubt, we can tell from what he said.
“‘Lennox, Don’t you ever read your correspondence?’ Cyril retorted snappily.” – I’d get rid of snappily, retorted tells you that anyway.
“I raised my brows in incredulity.” – no need for in incredulity, the raising of the brows tells us that.
“Now get a move on, Lennox, you should be there already. I’m surprised you haven’t had reminders already” – two already’s too close together.
” I rifled through the stack of papers the maids had put in a wicker basket on my desk and found a telegram that must have arrived a few days ago.” – I would just say he rifled through papers, the maids and wicker basket don’t really need to be there.
“I got the impression it came as no great shock to him – sometimes butlers know a lot more than you’d expect.” – I’d drop butlers know more than you’d expect. This is a given since he’s got all the info and your audience probably know that anyway.
Just a few little things. In general it’s looking great. Hope I’ve helped.
22nd January 2019 at 6:44 pm #81737
Terrific, much thanks. This is a draft, as you have figured and I’m really grateful for the suggestions. It needs work, but it helps if you think the basics are sound.
24th January 2019 at 9:45 pm #81936
Almost finished your first novel, so feedback on that one soon.
Just a small point here, but are you aware that readers of a certain advanced age will remember the name Cyril Fletcher as a a real life early BBC television ‘personality’ in the 1960s? Not a big deal, but just thought you should know.
25th January 2019 at 8:23 am #81955
Much thanks, no I was too young in the 60s but it’s amazing how the brain stores things. I think I’ve just imagined something then it turns out that it’s a triggered memory. Very strange.
I do try to use easy to remember names, I get very confused when reading if the names aren’t fairly notable.
Hope you’re enjoying the read!
25th January 2019 at 10:47 am #81970
Finished now. Amazon review should appear shortly.
Back to the real world now!
25th January 2019 at 10:56 am #81971
Haha, much thanks for kindness and support – who wants the real world, we read and write to escape it!
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