Abridged version published in Robbed Of Sleep, Vol. 2, Troy Blackford, Editor
In 1976 Mr. Oliver Savage bought 43 West Cherry Street in the civil parish of Bradford, South Yorkshire for 104,000 pounds. It was the birthplace and early childhood home of the famed and highly esteemed mystery writer, Joan McCulloh. To say Mr. Savage made this purchase based on his being a mere fan of the late great author’s many books and plays would be a statement buried so far beneath the truth that if one were to attempt to say it the very words would not come out of one’s mouth.
After the purchase of 43 West Cherry Street, Mr. Savage then bought and levelled every single structure within a three block radius until only the McCulloh home remained. He spent the next four years closely supervising the construction of an elaborate ten story mansion with 43 West Cherry Street housed safely within its immense centre rotunda, above which was erected a magnificent dome of elaborate stained glass. The morning sun and late evening moon served as natural spotlights, illuminating the old historical brick house. He named the entire property Nottington Hall, after a setting from his favourite McCulloh mystery. An exuberantly wealthy man, he spared no expense when decorating the new mansion. He hired ancestry detectives who scoured Scotland, the originating country of the McCulloh family bloodline, to purchase tapestries, ironwork, furniture, cutlery, ceramics, and lavish woodwork.
Upon the mansion’s completion, Mr. Savage’s next order of business was forming The League of Aficionadi. Its purpose, which he had carved into the mansion’s exterior stone wall, blasted out then re-carved three times until the stonecutter got it perfect, is:
To study, preserve and revere the work of
the great and venerable Joan McCulloh, whom we hold in
eternal exquisite esteem.
The League, with Mr. Savage at the helm of course, has been in existence for the past 35 years and has only seven members at any given point in time, all living comfortably within individual quarters of Nottington Hall. Their average collective age is 63. Once a current member dies a new member is promoted to his seat from atop a waiting list only after passing a severe interrogation by the remaining six and undergoing an initiation that makes The Free Masons’ ceremonies look like something designed by The Girl Scouts.
Several years ago there was a widely publicised case in which a member was strangled to death by the next in line on the list. This act prompted the introduction of a new bi-law, stating:
In the event of the murder or mere suspicion of murder
of any League member: a.) The next three candidates will be
permanently, irrevocably removed from the waiting list.
b.) The precise order of those remaining on the list
will be dissolved. c.) A new potential member
will be selected at random.
There have been no more murders of League members since. The danger of nepotism promoting the ill-achieved advancement of new membership in The League of Aficionadi simply does not exist because the majority of its members, although held in high regard by one another, are viewed by and large by their families as bona fide lunatics.
The League spends most of its time re-reading and discussing all of Joan McCulloh’s books, short stories, essays and plays, dissecting and studying miniscule details with much pleasure. They dine on the choicest foods and partake of the finest drink. For an entire summer they debated and theorised over McCulloh’s use of the word cataract within a poem written by her beloved Detective Jean Dubois in her third best-selling novel. Imminent political unrest? Oppression of the innocent? Inflation? Cousin Amelia’s most recent grandchild?—all subjects considered too droll for discussion. Who was Joan McCulloh’s favourite childhood playmate and why? What song was heard over the radio while she was caught kissing the town’s shoe shine boy and what subliminal role did it play in her future writings? Why were the roses white in the love scene from The Corpse Was Late to Dinner? Now THOSE were worthy topics of lengthy ongoing conversation.
However, last Wednesday morning there came to The League’s attention a current events story so shocking, so completely absurd and all mind-encompassing, that it ceased their usual activity. The members were seated in Nottington Hall’s vast posh dining room, enjoying a light breakfast of fresh mango, apple strudel, brioche French toast, eggs Benedict, croissants and espresso, when Mr. Savage’s trusted steward, Gilbert, nervously brought the front page of the Bradford morning newspaper to the man seated at the head of the table.
Mr. Savage first read the headline to himself then quickly arose and spat it aloud for all to hear:
Joan McCulloh’s beloved detective, M. Jean Dubois, rises from the dead!
“That’s not possible!” exclaimed Mr. Pemberton.
“Surely it’s a misprint,” said Mrs. Fairchild.
“Is this a joke?” asked Mr. Dabney and Mr. Butler simultaneously.
“I don’t think so. Listen to this:” Mr. Savage cleared his throat then read the words printed beneath the bold black and white banner.
Cloister Publishing is proud to announce the return of everyone’s favourite flatfoot, Detective Dubois. Public Relations representative, Miss Melanie Lynwood, states, ‘Joan McCulloh’s grandson, 75 year-old Will McCulloh, is slated to authorise the Publishing house to allow Hilda Sweet, author of The Dartmouth Killings, to pen a new Detective Dubois murder mystery. The anticipated novel is expected to be in stores by Christmas.’
“Sheer madness!” shrieked Mr. Jekyll in horror.
“It’s in such bad taste,” stated Miss St. John. “Joan politely bumped off Dubois at the end of her second to last novel. She had grown tired of him and never would have wanted a thing like this to happen. The Times even printed his obituary!”
“It made the front page as I recall,” stated Mr. Butler as he took to his pipe.
Mr. Dabney couldn’t stop shaking his head back and forth, partly from expressing disagreement, partly from Parkinson’s disease. “Wrong, wrong, wrong! It’s beyond insulting!”
“Why did they choose the deceased Dubois? She never killed off Miss Milburn, they could’ve chosen her to be the sleuth,” commented Mrs. Fairchild.
“Because Dubois is a man, and I’m sure a man at Cloister is behind this ridiculous idea,” answered Miss St. John.
Mr. Savage crinkled his forehead. “Who the devil is Hilda Sweet?” But no one at the table knew the answer.
The steward politely stepped closer to his employer. “Pardon me sir, but Hilda Sweet is a popular contemporary writer. She writes poetry, children’s books, mystery, fiction and some horror.”
“Thank you, Gilbert. I’m sure Cloister’s put her up to this, but still, no author worth his salt would dare touch Joan McCulloh’s work. Miss Sweet should’ve politely refused.”
“Politely refused then contacted us!” added Mrs. Fairchild.
“Exactly!” Mr. Savage slammed the newspaper down on the table. “This is outrageous and I simply refuse to stand for it!” He sat down hard in his high-backed chair, carved from wood he had salvaged from Joan McCulloh’s childhood schoolhouse just before its demolition.
Mr. Pemberton motioned for the maid to bring more espresso then firmly grabbed Mr. Savage’s wrist in a solemn appeal. “Oliver, we cannot allow this to happen. Something must be done.”
The two men stared each other in the eyes then casually glanced around to the others at the table. A few moments of pondering silence dominated the room, allowing the ticking of the grandfather clock (Joan McCulloh’s actual grandfather’s clock) to perform its metronomic soliloquy.
Slowly Mr. Savage arose, tightened the sash on his elaborate bathrobe that would’ve made Hugh Hefner pea-green with envy then announced, “For the rest of the day we shall each retire to the solace of our individual quarters to meditate on this difficult and unsettling situation. This evening at dinner we’ll reconvene to discuss what actions to take. Agreed?”
“Agreed,” all responded in unison.
Although The League of Aficionadi could never be accused of dressing casually, they rarely donned uppermost formal attire for dinner. But on this particular evening, without conferring amongst one another, the men chose to wear tuxedos; the ladies wore their best evening gowns. For when one has matters to discuss of epic importance fashion does indeed count.
As the soup was being served Mr. Savage officially opened the table for discussion of the dreary matter circling their collective mind.
“Let me start by saying that I tried my best to acquire Cloister Publishing this afternoon. My accounts manager informed me that even if such an acquisition were to occur, the paperwork would more than likely not go through before Will McCulloh makes the deal authorising Hilda Sweet to write the new Detective Jean Dubois novel. At that point even if I owned Cloister and refused to publish the book, Sweet would still have legal permission to write, molesting Dubois into whatever plot she has in mind. She could take the finished manuscript to the publisher of her choice and they would of course, publish it.”
“Good heavens!” exclaimed Mr. Pemberton.
A smiling Mrs. Fairchild suggested, “Perhaps we should invite Will McCulloh to dinner tomorrow so we can discuss the matter with him in person.”
“Why?” huffed Mr. Jekyll. “So he can refuse us yet again?”
Mr. Dabney shook his head. “He wouldn’t come, he doesn’t like us.”
“Doesn’t like us? That’s putting it mildly,” said Miss St. John. “He loathes us and holds us in the highest contempt!”
“Why is that again?” asked the frail Mrs. Fairchild, who for the past six months had been displaying dawning symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
Mr. Butler answered, “My dear lady, don’t you remember? Many years ago Oliver sent an entourage of skilled negotiators to visit Will McCulloh in hopes of purchasing the rights to Joan’s repertoire. The man wasn’t even polite enough to send back a response. Every year for 24 consecutive years Oliver continued his annual offer, each time significantly raising the price in hopes the man would accept. Upon the twentieth year an official personal plea in calligraphy from the Queen herself accompanied Oliver’s emissaries in hopes of settling on terms.”
Mr. Savage stared blankly at his cooling bowl of lobster bisque. “At one point I offered him all my holdings in India and half of my African ones in exchange for his shares in his late grandmother’s company, and still he didn’t reply.”
Mr. Butler continued his recollection. “Well, eventually a response finally came on the 25th year of Oliver’s efforts. But it was so rude that—”
“I don’t want to talk about it!” blurted out Mr. Savage.
“It was such an unpleasant thing to do,” remembered Mr. Jekyll.
Mrs. Fairchild couldn’t bear the suspense of what she’d been there to witness but had subsequently forgotten. “Well, tell me… what happened?”
Mr. Butler paused, looked to Mr. Savage, apologised then finished his story. “A response came but not directly from Will McCulloh. An index card sent C.O.D. arrived by carrier pigeon to The League of Aficionadi, Oliver Savage presiding, at Nottington Hall. On the card, in lime green crayon were the following scribbled words:
It was formally signed:
The deceased flea that fell from the headless one-armed ragdoll
clutched by the drooling mentally challenged grown child
of the ageing parlourmaid of Mr. Will McCulloh
Mrs. Fairchild gasped then covered her wrinkled lips with gloved fingertips.
“Bloody philistine,” murmured Mr. Dabney.
As The League somberly finished their soup, various opinions were voiced as to how to handle the matter, some of which included: signed petitions objecting to the new Detective Dubois novel, official appeals from The International Writers’ Guild, organised global protests, hiring street gangs to incite riots, even burning the paper mill responsible for supplying Cloister Publishing with its stock was proposed as an idea. But upon closer examination of each suggestion came the realisation of just how long each effort would take including the interminable tedium surrounding it, until the members became sick with an overwhelming empty feeling of hopelessness.
Mr. Savage dabbed the corners of his mouth with his napkin. “Unfortunately the only logical solution is the most obvious one.” He paused before uttering his next sentence and everyone at the table held their breath. “Unfortunately in the interest of time and simplicity, I think the only reasonable course of action to prevent this abominable novel from coming into existence is for us to facilitate the death of Mr. Will McCulloh.”
All heaved a collective sigh of relief.
“My sentiments exactly!” said a grinning Mr. Jekyll.
“Just what I had in mind, old boy!” said Mr. Dabney. “This afternoon I paced endlessly, wrapping my head around the situation 50 different ways and kept coming back to the same conclusion.”
“Here, here!” Mr. Pemberton raised his Waterford glass of Bolly.
Miss St. John laughed as she twirled the emerald pendant adorning her neck. “And to think I was afraid I was the only one who had been thinking it!”
Mr. Savage rang the bell at his right hand and Gilbert entered the room.
“Gilbert, get me a legal pad and pen. In fact get legal pads and pens for all of us—it’s going to be a long night!”
Over salad they discussed poisons. During the entrée they chatted about the discretion of various private mercenary companies. Mr. Jekyll preferred using the Italians while Mr. Dabney insisted on hiring the Scottish underground to do the job. Mr. Savage, although a stickler for keeping true to the McCulloh heritage and while agreeing that the hiring of Scots was in theory, an appropriate notion, believed that when in doubt, it’s best to go with the Italians.
By the time dessert and coffee were served the atmosphere in the room was jollier than it had ever been.
“This is so much fun!” exclaimed Mr. Savage. “I don’t know why we haven’t done this sort of thing before!”
Everyone laughed and agreed, during which time an agitated Gilbert swiftly entered the room, walked to his employer and whispered an urgent message into his ear.
“The police?” asked Mr. Savage aloud, causing the merriment at the table to quiet.
“Speak up, Gilbert, what’s happening?”
Gilbert, hands clasped behind his back, sweat forming upon his brow, stated in a low baritone, “The police are here and wish to speak with you, sir.”
“There’s been a death, sir. It’s all over the television and other news feeds.”
“Mr. Will McCulloh.”
“But that’s impossible. How can he be dead? We’re planning his murder right now!”
“Yes, of course, sir. But apparently his body was discovered two hours ago.”
Slowly the members of The League of Aficionadi placed their legal pads full of potential dire deeds underneath the fine linen napkins covering their laps.
Mr. Savage downed the last of the Port in his glass then directed Gilbert to show the police into the dining hall.
Everyone at the table assumed the composure of Grecian statues and clothed themselves with an air of proper aristocratic poise affordable only to those of impeccable breeding. The sound of three men’s footsteps swiftly making their approach came from one end of the room while the sound of a nervous maid dropping a tray of dishes in the kitchen came from the other. In a moment two men in stiff black official uniforms entered, led by a man who to the majority of the populous may look intimidating, but to the keen observant eyes of The League members, his ill-fitting trench coat and scuffed worn shoes were viewed as inferior and unkempt. The lines on his face screamed the personality of an ego-driven know-it-all who probably got everything wrong but was greatly skilled on the sell, hence making the majority believe what he said.
Miss St. John wondered how many innocent men had been unjustly accused by this man’s incorrect assertions and testimony while Mr. Pemberton pondered why it seemed the latest trend that the higher the rank, the more slovenly the dress. That sort of thing never would have been acceptable in his day.
“Which one of you is Savage?” asked the trench coat.
“I’m Oliver Savage, and you?”
A polite appropriate handshake was not offered by the intruder who instead chose to meander around the table, examining the long dining hall as if it were a crime scene. “I’m Inspector Triggs. I’d like to ask you a few questions about your whereabouts earlier in the day.”
“Certainly, but may I enquire as to why?”
“There’s been an incident uptown. Mr. Will McCulloh was found dead in his luxury penthouse apartment a few hours ago.”
“Yes, my steward just informed me of the terrible news. But what does that have to do with us?”
“That’s just what I’m trying to figure out.”
“I don’t understand. What are you implying?”
Inspector Triggs allowed his fingertips to glide over various decorative items in a manner more suited to that of a petty thief than an official Inspector. “I’m not implying anything. I’m an Inspector. I inspect.”
Had Detective Jean Dubois been a real person and not already dead, he would’ve easily crushed this mountebank into a fine powder.
“Has a cause of death been determined?”
Inspector Triggs lightly laughed as he answered, “Causes, more like. Let’s just say it does not appear dear old Will left this life in a natural fashion.”
“Do you mean foul play is suspected?”
Inspector Triggs suddenly coughed that sort of smoker’s cough that takes a while to recover from as it forces the body to double over. When the fit had passed he wiped his mouth with his sleeve, ignored the question then asked, “So where were you, Savage, earlier in the day?”
“Earlier in the day I was seated in this very chair, eating my breakfast along with my colleagues.”
You all ate breakfast together?”
“We usually do.”
“Uh huh. And what happened after breakfast? What did you do then?”
“We spent the day in our usual routine: researching, reading, studying and commiserating on the works of the late Will’s grandmother. But I suspect you already know that, given the engraving on this house by the front door through which you entered. We had our tea in the afternoon then later we gathered together for dinner this evening.”
Inspector Triggs stood in front of the sideboard above which hung a large portrait of a young Joan, age ten. He lifted the lid on a crystal candy dish, helped himself to chocolate-covered almonds then turned around and spoke with a full mouth while gesturing with the crystal lid.
“So all you people are fans of this mystery writer, eh?”
Mr. Savage’s left eye twitched upon hearing that hated f-word. “We are refined literary connoisseurs, Inspector—the world’s leading experts on Joan McCulloh’s writings. We are not fanatics.”
Inspector Triggs lifted the bowl of chocolate-covered almonds and carried it with him as he again wandered aimlessly around the dining table. Miss St. John dug her fingernails into the palms of her clenched fists. She had purchased that candy dish from an auction at Sotheby’s after engaging in a vicious bidding war with the widow Fontbona, and had presented it to Oliver Savage as a gift upon her induction into The League. It had been passed down through four generations of Chisholms—the lineage of Joan McCulloh’s maternal side.
“Rumor has it you folks didn’t get along with the recently deceased.”
Mr. Savage forced his lips into a smile. “Now that’s an unfair assertion. I don’t believe any of us ever had the privilege of actually meeting Will.”
“Barely anyone had, seeing how he kept to himself the majority of his life, rarely leaving his penthouse. He spent most of the past fifty years working on watercolour paintings of Siamese cats walking across nighttime city skylines.” He lightly tossed the crystal lid in the air then caught it. “They look like rubbish to me, but then I’m no expert.”
“He was eccentric with very particular tastes.”
“Don’t know if particular’s the right word, Savage. More like downright weird.” Inspector Triggs again tossed the lid into the air but this time it missed his fingers upon its descent and it tumbled to the Turnberry rug below his feet. “Whoops!”
Miss St. John dove from her chair down to where the piece had landed. Gently picking it up, she examined for flaws and thankfully found none. She remained on the carpet, clutching the lid close to her chest as Mr. Butler swiftly darted over, offering his assistance.
“It’s okay, Emily. It’s fine. Give me your hand.”
Mr. Jekyll, who occupied the seat next to Miss St. John’s, cautiously retrieved the woman’s fallen napkin and legal pad from the floor then concealed them underneath his own napkin.
Mr. Savage arose from his chair, fluffed the tails of his tuxedo, stood to full height then walked towards the intruder and reclaimed the candy dish. “Inspector, on behalf of The League of Aficionadi, I thank you for taking the time to personally stop by this evening to inform us of this tragic news. Your concern for our group is appreciated. Please let us know if we can be of any assistance in the near future.”
“Are you trying to get rid of me?”
“In the most polite way, yes.”
“Well that isn’t gonna happen just yet.” He walked to the end of the table and cleared his throat as his demeanour now changed to that of utmost seriousness. “I need to discuss with all of you the manner in which Will McCulloh died. It was only after a thorough examination of the crime scene did I find it necessary to come here this evening.”
The League members were struck with curiosity. Sure, they had just been plotting Will McCulloh’s demise but that ambition was in its beginning stages. Nothing had been born from such plans nor could anyone beyond the mansion’s walls have been aware of their objective.
“Mr. Savage, earlier you asked if I knew a cause of death.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Well it’s safe to say I do.”
“Well, what was it?”
“The body is currently being examined in detail by the coroner, but it’s safe to say the cause of death was overkill.”
“What does that mean?” asked Mr. Dabney.
“Is it an official police term?” asked Mrs. Fairchild.
“It’s not an official term, madam,” answered Inspector Triggs. “It’s just the word I’m using to sum up this particular case.”
The League members were confused.
Mr. Pemberton said angrily, “This is absurd. Overkill cannot be a cause of death.”
Inspector Triggs pulled a small notebook from his pocket and began relaying detailed notes. “I think it can in this case. At approximately 5 p.m. a waiter from the kitchen staff at the Barney Street Luxury Apartments delivered dinner to Will McCulloh’s penthouse. The order had been placed earlier in the day around 7 a.m. along with a list of items for breakfast, as was Mr. McCulloh’s custom. He rarely ordered lunch. The waiter knocked on the apartment door and upon receiving no answer, let himself in with his master key as he often did when serving Mr. McCulloh. Upon entering the apartment the 23 year-old young man observed the lifeless body of the victim hanging from the middle of the living room ceiling. He immediately left the apartment, returned to the kitchen and informed the chef. The chef then called the police. Although the exact time of death cannot be determined, we believe it occurred sometime between late morning and mid-afternoon. There is also evidence suggesting Will McCulloh’s skull was fractured.”
“How dreadful,” said Miss St. John.
“In addition he was stabbed five times, shot twice, and strangled.”
“Good Lord!” exclaimed Mr. Pemberton.
“The light scent of bitter almonds coming from his lips was suggestive of cyanide poisoning although the official forensic report will not be available for some time.”
“Nasty business!” said Mr. Dabney.
“Due to his clothing being drenched with water we cannot at this time rule out an additional suspicion of drowning.” Inspector Triggs closed his notebook.
The room was quiet save for the grandfather clock’s ticking as all sat in profound shock until Mr. Savage, carefully pulling from his deepest depths of propriety and summoning to his voice the upmost amount of reverence for the condition of the deceased, dared to say, “I hate to ask in light of this dreadful news, but I do believe you were going to inform us as to the reason which led you to grace our doorstep this evening?”
The Inspector sighed heavily then replied, “I assume all of you have heard of the new Detective Dubois novel that Cloister Publishing and Will McCulloh were negotiating into existence?”
Mr. Savage answered with a slight nod.
“I expect you League members weren’t too pleased with the idea?”
Again Mr. Savage answered with another slight nod. “We only heard the news this morning at breakfast. True, we weren’t thrilled, but we hardly took it seriously.”
Mr. Savage swallowed hard. “Will McCulloh was a gentleman of more class than to allow his grandmother’s work to be sullied. We all concluded the story was a mere publicity stunt by the people at Cloister. Actually, we had a good laugh over the whole article, didn’t we?”
“Yes, yes, of course!” unanimously chuckled Mr. Butler, Mr. Dabney and Mr. Pemberton.
“Some pre-Christmas season advertising, that’s all,” added Mr. Jekyll.
The expression on the face of Inspector Triggs was not that of amusement. It was as if his ears were built-in lie detectors and were now reacting to a needle violently shaking back and forth inside his brain. His voice became louder, more accusatory.
“Standing below the body was a life-sized cardboard cut-out of the fictional character, Detective Jean Dubois. Wrapped around one of his cardboard fingers was the end of a guitar string. The other end of the string was tightly wrapped around the corpse’s neck.” He turned his attention to Mr. Butler. “As I understand, Mr. Matthew Butler, you used to play electric guitar, isn’t that right?”
“I—I—still do, as a matter of fact, but not often. Certainly you don’t think I would have done such a heinous thing!”
“And you, Mr. Seymour Pemberton…”
“Me? I don’t play guitar.”
“No, but you do own a Murdoch Highlanders pistol, do you not?”
“Yes, but I haven’t shot the piece in years!”
“Where is the pistol now?”
Mr. Pemberton stared at the man in disbelief of the impertinence of what he was suggesting.
“Well, where is it?”
“It’s in my bedroom.”
“We’ll need to verify its location.”
Mr. Pemberton rolled his eyes in contempt as he summoned the nearest maid. “Hannah, would you please fetch my pistol? It’s in the drawer of my bedside table.”
The maid nodded, and the Inspector added, “Take Samuels with you. He’ll collect it for evidence.”
“Evidence?” questioned Mr. Pemberton.
“We need to determine if it’s been recently shot.”
“This is outrageous!”
“The murder of Will McCulloh is what’s truly outrageous!”
The maid led the officer away from the dining hall.
The Inspector walked towards Mr. Dabney then extended his hand for a handshake. “According to public records you used to box, is that correct?”
Mr. Dabney laughed as he shook the man’s hand. “Never professionally, no. Only during college but that was nothing—lots of men boxed. It was more popular on campus back then than it is today.”
“I’ve heard that once during a match you nearly killed a man with one blow.”
Mr. Dabney lowered his head. “He didn’t die.”
“No, but he was in a week-long coma.”
Inspector Triggs bent closer to their clasped hands and examined the shaking knuckles for marks of recent bruising. Finding none, he released the wrinkled hand from his grasp and next turned his attention to Mrs. Fairchild.
“Mrs. Harlow Fairchild…”
“Is it correct that you had a career working for the Phipps and Kline Pharmaceutical Laboratory between the years of 1969 and 1982?
The old woman tilted her head back and counted on her fingers. “Yes, I believe those were the years.”
“So it’s safe to say you have an extensive knowledge of various types of poison?
“Absolutely,” she blushed and grinned, not realising she wasn’t exactly being complimented.
“Mr. Terrance Jekyll, I understand you found your calling as a weightlifter?”
“That is incorrect.” The accused removed his glasses and cleaned away their smudges with his handkerchief.
“Excuse me, but I was informed you were the Cambridge University champion weightlifter of 1971.”
“Indeed I was.”
Inspector Triggs frowned. “Then why are you denying being a weightlifter?”
“Because you propose it as my trade and that is false. I made my money in textiles. I weightlifted for just two years and did so only to gain the affection of the woman whom I later married, spent 28 glorious years, then sadly buried.”
Inspector Triggs was unmoved by sentiment of any kind. “But you remain a man of strong sturdy build.”
“I suppose so. What are you driving at?”
“You could easily have hoisted Mr. McCulloh to the noose that was found dangling from the meat hook placed in his ceiling.”
Mr. Jekyll thought about the circumstance for a few seconds. “Yes, I suppose I could have… but I didn’t.”
“Miss Emily St. John…”
“Oh come now, Inspector, you hardly think I had anything to do with this!”
“Miss St. John, before joining The League of Aficionadi you belonged to another league, did you not?”
“Yes, I suppose, but it was many years ago and not anything major. I mean, it was just a college swimming league, and an alumni league at that. We would get together from time to time to sharpen our strokes. We did it purely for the exercise, not for any organised competing purposes or anything of that nature.”
“Therefore you are well acquainted with water and despite the delicate lace on your fancy dress, have considerable upper body strength.”
“Considerable enough to hold a man underwater in a bath until he drowns?”
Mr. Dabney spoke in her defence, “Now see here, Triggs, Miss St. John’s no murderer! Why, none of us are! These accusations of yours are ridiculous! Besides, we were within these walls all day long!”
Unaffected, the Inspector turned to the man seated at the head of the table. “And you, Savage. You collect swords, correct?”
“I collect many things.”
The remaining uniformed officer slowly moved towards Mr. Oliver Savage as the Inspector specified, “Including an extremely rare antique 18th century Ceylonese sword from Sri Lanka?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact several years ago I acquired that particular sword, why do you ask?”
“Because the stab wounds inflicted upon the body of Mr. Will McCulloh were caused by such a rare weapon.”
Mr. Savage remained calm as the policeman continued his approach. “And how were you able to come to such a conclusion? I’m sure the post-mortem has yet to be completed.”
“That’s what I thought. Those boys down at the morgue work fast but not that fast.”
“We arrived at the conclusion that it was an antique 18th century Ceylonese sword when we noticed the weapon still protruding from the victim’s dead body.”
Audible gasps were heard from around the table as each League member tried his best to remain composed. The officer pulled handcuffs from his belt as Inspector Triggs announced, “Mr. Oliver Savage, I’m placing you under—”
“It couldn’t have been my sword,” Mr. Savage laughingly interrupted as he calmly remained seated. “My sword is hanging where it’s hung for the past decade—up high on a wall in my kitchen. Go and have a look if you like. It’s right through that door. Gilbert?”
“Show this officer the Ceylonese sword in the kitchen, would you?”
“Of course, sir.”
Gilbert lead the officer into the adjoining kitchen as Mr. Savage continued, “You see, Inspector, “I adore Kotthu Roti. I adore Kotthu Roti so much that I hired Athula, my chef, from Sri Lanka. At first he was reluctant to come to this country so I sweetened the deal by showering him and his family with many treasures. The sword was one of them. It was a gift for him.”
Inspector Triggs, an advocate of swift justice, was visibly upset. He was even more upset once his officer came back from the kitchen confirming the existence of the sword.
The footsteps of Hannah the maid were followed by the footsteps of the first officer who reappeared, holding an evidence bag.
Mr. Savage said, “Surely you don’t really believe we had anything to do with this crime. After all, we were all here, all day. Despite, or because of the bizarre appearance of the crime scene you described, have you considered the possibility that perhaps someone may be trying his or her best to frame us? It certainly feels that way to me.”
“That’s one theory. Still, there were essentially seven different causes of death and there are seven corresponding League members. Coincidence?”
“Look, we didn’t pull off some sort of re-enactment of Murder on the Persian Mainline if that’s what you’re suggesting.”
Mrs. Fairchild giggled. “Of course not. We performed the stage version of that story at last year’s annual fete. It would be stupid of us to do it again so soon.”
Inspector Triggs wasn’t amused. “All of you stick around. Don’t be leaving on any prolonged absences any time soon, alright?”
“You have my word,” said Mr. Savage.
Just before exiting the dining hall Inspector Triggs stopped and spun around. “One last thing, Savage. Shouldn’t it be The League of Aficionados instead of Aficionadi?”
Mr. Savage’s eyes widened and his nostrils flared with anger. “It’s hypercorrect!”
Inspector Triggs rolled his eyes and chuckled. “Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m getting at.”
Shortly after the unexpected interrogation the exhausted League members retired to their individual quarters. But as they lay their heads upon their pillows, the words of Mr. Savage to Inspector Triggs refused to stop ringing in their ears…
We spent the day in our usual routine: researching, reading, studying and commiserating on the works of the late Will’s grandmother…
The echoed words of how they had spent the greater part of their day commiserating with one another caused the members to sleeplessly toss and turn in their fluffy goose-down beds because of course… they hadn’t.
Miss Melanie Lynwood nervously took two deep cleansing breaths then pushed her glasses further atop the bridge of her nose as she readied herself to exit the tall midtown corporate office building. She placed her right hand on the doorknob, tightly gripped the manila folder in her left, closed her eyes then forcefully turned the handle and exited. Bright morning sun, the clicking of high speed cameras, and journalists shouting out a barrage of disjointed questions all assaulted her at once.
Miss Lynwood did her best to walk gracefully to the podium set up a few feet to the right of the front entrance then aligned a microphone to her height.
She started speaking immediately in hopes it would quiet the din of the throngs of reporters lining the stone steps leading up to the building. “My name is Melanie Lynwood, Public Relations, and I’m here to read a statement on behalf of Cloister Publishing.”
Most of the questions ceased as she pulled a single piece of paper from the manila folder. “Yesterday at 5 p.m. Mr. Will McCulloh, age 75, grandson of the famed late mystery writer, Joan McCulloh, was found dead in his Barney Street penthouse apartment. His body was discovered by a staff member delivering room service. Although a cause of death cannot at this time be confirmed, foul play unfortunately is suspected. All of us at Cloister are deeply saddened by the untimely demise of such a wonderful man. Will McCulloh will lovingly be remembered for generations to come for his philanthropy, sincerity and generosity. He will also be forever held in high regard for his dedication to preserving the legacy of his grandmother and her colourful literary characters who continue to entertain millions of readers worldwide.”
Miss Lynwood placed the statement back in its folder. “I will now take a few questions from the press.”
“Miss Lynwood! How soon will the cause of death be determined?”
“We’re not sure, however the coroner’s office has been working overnight and their preliminary investigation should be completed by tomorrow at the earliest. Toxicology reports will of course take longer.”
“Miss Lynwood! Does Cloister have any speculation on who might’ve wanted Mr. McCulloh dead?”
“We cannot speculate on such a question at this time and are relying on the local police department to field that investigation.”
“Miss Lynwood! How does Mr. McCulloh’s death affect Cloister’s plans to put out a new Detective Dubois novel?”
“Our legal department is currently dealing with that issue.”
“Miss Lynwood! How will Hilda Sweet overcome the fact that Detective Dubois died in his last novel?”
“Miss Sweet plans to simply write from the perspective of a time prior to Dubois’ death.”
“Miss Lynwood! Who do you think killed Will McCulloh?”
She closed her eyes and looked as if she were fighting back tears. “I dare not speculate on how anyone could do such a thing to such a great man. That’s all for now, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you.”
The following morning at breakfast the restless League members sat quietly, casting curious glances and subliminal doubts at one another as they allowed their suspicions to dance around their consciousness. Any one of them could have sneaked out of Nottington Hall, committed the crime then sneaked back.
Surely no one hated Will McCulloh more than Mr. Savage, but the existence of the sword in the kitchen confirmed that it wasn’t the particular weapon plunged into Will’s body. They all knew Mr. Pemberton had two Murdoch Highlander pistols—one registered, one unregistered. He could have easily shot Will then hidden the guilty gun and handed over the innocent piece to the police.
The likelihood of Mr. Butler using a guitar string to strangle the victim seemed ludicrous. Why would he directly incriminate himself? And yes, Miss St. John, the youngest member, had considerable upper body strength, but did that necessarily mean she would have used it to drown the man? True, Mr. Dabney had been an accomplished boxer years ago, but the effects of Parkinson’s disease had made him most unsteady in recent years.
The thought of Mr. Jekyll lifting Will to a noose hanging from a meat hook in the living room ceiling was laughable to everyone. Being a huge fan of all things Medieval, he would never have killed anyone by a mere hanging. Burying a man alive would be more his style. Somehow the thought of Mrs. Fairchild poisoning Will McCulloh seemed the most reasonable to them all. She had a devilish side and although 70 years-old, the act of administering poison doesn’t require much strength. She could have gone to his penthouse under a false pretense or even a false name then slipped the poison into his drink. It would have been so easy, so simple a thing to do. Still, the fact that Will McCulloh had been killed by not just one method was the most troubling problem to deal with. Why seven different causes of death when one would have sufficed? It didn’t make any sense.
“This whole thing doesn’t make any sense,” voiced Mr. Oliver Savage aloud as he stirred cream into his coffee. “I don’t believe for a second that any of us had anything to do with this murder. Gilbert?”
“Yesterday, were any of the cars taken from the garage? Specifically, after breakfast and up until dinnertime?”
“I don’t know sir, but I can ask the driver.”
“Ask the mechanic as well, I want to be thorough.”
“Clearly someone is trying to frame us, dear friends—that’s exactly what’s happening. Please don’t entertain thoughts of malice coming from any particular person in this room. I don’t believe for a moment that any one of us would have committed this crime.”
Simultaneously they dropped their forks and stared at him.
“Yes, yes, I remember what we had been plotting, but it never came to fruition. And we certainly wouldn’t have chosen such ridiculous methods nor would we have incriminated ourselves in the process. No. Someone is obviously attempting to frame us and unless we are able to figure out who is actually behind this murder, I’m afraid we may end up facing charges unjustly.”
“Who do you think could have done it?” asked Mr. Butler.
“I don’t know.”
“Look, all we have to do is determine who benefits from his death,” said Mr. Dabney. “That’s the simplest solution.”
“Exactly!” Mr. Savage’s eyes brightened.
“Do you know who inherits?” asked Miss St. John.
Mr. Savage stroked his beardless chin. “Let me see… of course I’m familiar with the conditions of Joan McCulloh’s will. She had formed a private company, Joan McCulloh Limited, and shortly before her death sold 64% of it to the Reilly Publishing Company. Over the years and subsequent financial difficulties, the shares have been sold several times over and have since been divided up into various trusts, foundations, annual literary awards and charitable organisations. The estate itself and the remaining 36% of Joan McCulloh Limited had, until yesterday of course, been owned by Will McCulloh, who also served as the Chairman of the Board. He died childless, and although I’m unfamiliar with the conditions of the man’s will, they shouldn’t be that difficult to ascertain.”
“Should we contact our solicitors as a precaution?” asked Mr. Jekyll.
“Earlier this morning I alerted them regarding our rude late-night interrogation so they can be at the ready in case Inspector Triggs tries anything presumptuous again.”
Mrs. Fairchild applauded in the manner of a little girl.
Gilbert re-entered the room with news that none of Nottington Hall’s vehicles had been removed from the garage the day prior.
“See?” said Mr. Savage, “I knew none of us had done it!” He heaped orange marmalade atop a fresh piece of toast. “Of course there will be the problem of convincing Inspector Triggs of our innocence. After all, he’s bound to doubt everyone in the household’s statements, including those of the staff, thinking we’ll all just cover for one another.”
“As of course we all would,” said Mr. Dabney.
Mr. Pemberton said, “In that case I’m glad our solicitors are informed of the situation. So now what should be our next step?”
Mr. Savage grinned. “I think we need to take an unconventional approach to this matter. Well, unconventional for us.”
All were intrigued.
Miss St. John asked, “What do you have in mind?”
“I propose we hire a computer hacker to prove our innocence.”
“Really?” asked Mrs. Fairchild.
“What good would that do?” asked Mr. Dabney.
“My dear man, computers, acting as would cockroaches, have infested every single facet of life! There’s got to be some sort of electronic evidence proving who committed this crime and I’m confident an ingenious hacker can sort it all out.”
“It’s certainly an interesting approach,” said Mr. Butler. “But do you know of any such people?”
Mr. Oliver Savage, a man of extreme ingenuity and so detail-oriented he’d put Mycroft Holmes to shame, stared blankly at Mr. Butler, not bothering to directly answer the question. He blinked several times then said, “He’s joining us here tomorrow afternoon for tea."
Sitting in an uncomfortable wooden chair inside the law offices of the legal firm of Greeley and Sons, Caroline Humphrey closely clutched her headless one-armed ragdoll while staring blankly into space and chewing on her upper lip. Seated next to her was Agnes, her mother. Behind a large oak desk sat Mr. Lewis Greeley, Jr. who had just finished reading aloud the last will and testament of Mr. Will McCulloh. Although the ageing parlourmaid didn’t understand much of the legal jargon she had just heard, she did recognise her own name and the money amount left to her by her former employer. It wasn’t a large legacy but would be substantial enough for her and her daughter to live off of and pay for Caroline’s ongoing care upon Agnes’ eventual death.
After finishing his last sentence and laying down the will upon his desk, Mr. Lewis Greeley, Jr. noted the quizzical expression on Mrs. Humphrey’s face. Her mouth gaped open and her brow was furrowed.
“Is there some confusion, Mrs. Humphrey? Would you like me to read through it once more?”
The woman closed her mouth then opened it again, allowing one word to fall from her lips in the form of a question. “Cats?”
“Yes, madam, cats. Siamese cats to be precise. Are you surprised?”
She blinked as she processed the information. “A little. Of course he loved Siamese cats, but obviously I had no idea as to how much.”
“Apparently a great deal.”
“But to give his grandmother’s estate and the rest of his Trust to Siamese cats seems excessive, don’t you think?”
“Not to the felines directly, madam. He willed the estate and the bulk of his assets to The International Siamese Cat Association—a reputable institution founded over 20 years ago.”
“So the estate is to become a… excuse me… what did you call it?”
“Sanctuary. The mansion and its 258 acres, once sufficiently fenced-in of course, are to be considered a safe haven for Siamese cats along with several breeds derived from Siamese cats. They’ll all be able to run and play, relax and sunbathe while receiving the best of everything. There are provisions for live-in caretakers and veterinarians to be on site at all times. Mr. McCulloh also requested that an accomplished pianist play the grand piano in the music room for at least an hour every afternoon so the cats have something pleasant to which to listen. However he has specified that no Rodgers & Hammerstein songs be played.”
“That’s not surprising. He loathed them.”
“How can anyone loathe Rodgers & Hammerstein?”
“I don’t know, sir, but he did. What about breeds of cats other than Siamese?”
Mr. Lewis Greeley, Jr. took a few moments to glance over the documents in front of him. “Let’s see… Siamese, Balinese, Himalayan, Ocicat, Snowshoe… it appears loving resources are available only for those of the Siamese breed and those derived from said breed. So I suppose if there were a wounded Tabby cat in distress waiting at the gates to the estate he’d be better off seeking a different sanctuary.” The solicitor grinned at his own joke.
Mrs. Humphrey nodded slightly as her daughter began making a droning humming sound and rocking back and forth. This was her usual modus operandi when agitated. Most likely the unyielding firmness of the wooden chair was aggravating her sciatica.
“I should get going now, sir,” said Mrs. Humphrey as she arose then took a handkerchief from her handbag and dabbed the corners of her daughter’s mouth. “I have an appointment with the funeral home in half an hour.”
The solicitor stood and extended his hand. “Again, I’m sorry about your employer’s passing, Mrs. Humphrey. You have my and the firm’s deepest condolences—you were with him for quite some time.”
“Thirty-seven years, sir.” She shook the man’s hand. “Thirty-seven long years.”
Not about to divulge his real name, the computer hacker only wanted to be known as Action. Upon his arrival to Nottington Hall, a house maid showed him into the drawing room where the members of The League of Aficionadi were anxiously waiting. Action was immediately taken aback by the stark immensity of the room with its detailed floor to ceiling murals. Each wall depicted a different scene from some of Mr. Savage’s favourite Joan McCulloh mysteries. A most celebrated, highly in-demand French artist chosen for the task had been flown in from Paris and had exercised great care in how he blended everything together so the room looked cohesive from scene to scene, wall to wall.
Just as Action was taken aback as he entered, The League members were surprised as well. The young man was not at all what they were expecting. The erroneous image held in their collective mind was that of a grown man in a neatly pressed expensive suit—a James Bond type, perhaps carrying a shiny leather briefcase. But Action was quite the opposite. He was all of sixteen years, with dishevelled greasy blond hair. He wore baggy blue jeans, dirty sneakers, and a black T-shirt depicting the logo of whichever horrid band that was currently being pushed by music industry dealers. The drawing room was witness to an instant of raw juvenescence meeting refined age. Bubble gum meets caviar; soda pop meets Dom Perignon.
Mr. Savage greeted his guest, “Hello, Action, we were just about to have our tea. Would you like a cup?”
“You got any Red Bull?”
“Yeah. If you don’t, that’s cool. I’ll take any kind of energy drink.”
Mr. Savage turned to Gilbert. “Gilbert, please go to the kitchen and see what Athula has to offer as energy drinks.”
After proper introductions of all League members were made, Mr. Savage directed the hacker to be seated in an ornate Celtic oak chair.
“Thank you for coming and allowing us to place our problem in your hands, so to speak. Shall we review what we discussed over the phone?”
Action looked confused. “Why?”
“To come to a mutual understanding of the situation and what we are looking for.”
“We can if you want but I already understood you yesterday. You want evidence showing you guys didn’t kill that man over in them posh apartments on Barney Street, right?”
“Yes, that’s essentially the gist of the matter.”
“That’s what I thought. Here’s what I found out.”
From his right jeans pocket, Action pulled out a disc along with two folded pieces of paper torn from a notebook then handed them to his host.
“You mean you’ve done the work already?”
“Impossible!” said Mr. Pemberton.
“You must’ve worked non-stop since receiving the call,” said Miss St. John in disbelief.
“Nope. It only took 20 minutes.”
“Atta-boy!” Mr. Dabney chuckled.
Action winked. “WYIM.”
“What does that mean?” inquired Mr. Jekyll.
“What… you haven’t heard that before?”
“What’s Yours Is Mine.”
Mr. Savage opened the pages and began reading them silently. Towards the middle he laughed and by the end of the second page he leaned back in his chair and heaved a huge sigh of relief.
Action stood up. “All the video is on that disc. Are we cool? I don’t wanna rush this, but I’m hosting an online match in an hour.”
“Yes, Action, we’re cool.” Mr. Savage smiled as he rose and shook the young man’s hand. “Gilbert?”
“Yes, sir?” The steward re-entered the drawing room with Athula’s version of an energy drink: a concoction of green tea, cold tomato juice and honey, garnished with a slice of fresh pineapple.
“Please get Action his cheque.”
Action shook his head. “Sorry—I don’t do cheques.”
“Please pay Action from the petty cash vault.”
“Right away, sir.”
Five days later Hilda Sweet stood in front of her bedroom mirror, not knowing whether to wear her hair up or down. Funerals were such somber occasions and with her many devil-may-care curls, perhaps up was the better option. She was excited to wear her new black dress. After all, it was Chanel. Thankfully she hadn’t had to pay for it—it was a gift from Cloister Publishing.
A limousine arrived at the home of Miss Melanie Lynwood where she stepped into the long vehicle to join her co-workers. She was the last to be picked up in this group of passengers proceeding on a course to the Behler Brothers Mortuary.
Reporters lined the exterior of the funeral home where they snapped pictures and took video of those who somberly entered the large limestone building. Only a few seasoned members of the press were officially permitted inside to report on the actual proceedings.
The members of The League of Aficionadi arrived in three separate limousines but all walked in together, holding their heads high despite the raucous energy of the press around them. Questions, some quite rude, were shouted from all directions at the men and women whose clever solicitors had temporarily shielded them from being officially charged with murder despite substantial circumstantial evidence. Many had speculated whether or not The League would even appear at Will McCulloh’s funeral, but their arrival obviously put that question to rest. Inspector Triggs himself held open the funeral home’s door for them to enter. He then followed and purposefully seated himself in the row directly behind theirs.
Various large flower racks and stands lined the front of the Mortuary where the open casket was centered. Meticulous make-up application and careful lighting made the deceased appear untroubled and carefree—at peaceful rest, giving no hint of the tragedy which befell him a few days earlier. Several of Will’s paintings were placed on easels around the room, and a large screen hanging in the center of the front wall showed still pictures and video from the man’s 75 years on this Earth.
By the time the service began, there was standing room only. A minister from the Church of Scotland officiated over the services. Puccini’s aria, Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore, was sung by a very talented local soprano, after which a few hymns were sung by all. The eulogy was of a respectable length, giving highlights from Will’s life including his years at prep school, his time spent at Oxford before quitting, his gift for painting with watercolour, several names of his beloved Siamese cats, and of course reference was made in regard to his famous grandmother.
As is customary in such services, a portion of time is set aside for attendees to come to the room’s podium and pay personal homage to the man of the hour with special memories, parting poems, etc. Three women who professed to having had close relationships with the deceased came forward one by one, offering tearful words of love, devotion, and endearment. At the conclusion of such testimonies the minister walked to reclaim his initial position, but simultaneously Mr. Oliver Savage arose from his seat and cleared his throat.
“Excuse me, minister. I’d like to say something.”
A few gasps arose from the crowd but the minister kindly motioned for Mr. Savage to come forward. Inspector Triggs smirked as the tall slender 73 year-old well-to-do bachelor graced the podium with his presence.
This is how I’m gonna get him, thought Inspector Triggs. He’s gonna incriminate himself, I just know it!
“For those of you who don’t know, my name is Oliver Savage, presiding member of The League of Aficionadi. The League was founded 34 years ago in order to preserve and revere the work of the great and venerable Joan McCulloh. On behalf of my fellow League members and myself, I wish to extend condolences to all of you who knew and loved dear Will McCulloh. Despite recent unsavory rumours, The League maintains its innocence in not having anything to do with his untimely demise. We are not in the habit of committing crime or obstructing justice… that is of course, until a few days ago.”
Murmuring spread from pew to pew as Inspector Triggs thought, This is it—the old coot’s gone mad!
A young intern from the IT Department of Cloister Publishing shouted, “Confess!” as an even younger intern seated next to him tightly wadded up his memorial programme, readying himself to toss it at the man behind the dais. If only I were a few feet closer, he thought.
Mr. Savage politely motioned for the room to quiet. “For the past few days we have been guilty of withholding certain evidence that probably would have served the investigation well. We apologise for our transgression and now wish to hand over said evidence to the proper authorities. I confess it was in my own selfish interest to hoard it until today. For you see, good people, The League knows upon whose shoulders the weight of this crime rests.”
The room silenced. The intern dropped his wadded-up programme and Inspector Triggs dropped his smirk.
Mr. Savage continued, “After hearing the tragic news of Will’s death along with the manner in which his body was found, we at Nottington Hall speculated as to who benefitted from framing us for the crime. Upon the disclosure of the murdered man’s last will and testament, we learned that The International Siamese Cat Association benefits the most. Since ‘clawing to death’ was not one of the means by which the victim lying before you met his demise, we safely assumed a human being or beings were behind the scheme. But who?”
In the crowd he located the face of Cloister Publishing’s PR representative and addressed her directly. “Miss Melanie Lynwood—in your press conference the day after the murder, when asked who you personally thought could have committed the crime, you stated that you dare not speculate on how anyone could do such a thing to such a great man, did you not?”
Surprised and unprepared, the woman struggled with her words. “Yes, that’s what I said. And I still can’t believe it happened in the first place.”
“Yes, of course, really.”
“Let me assert that the answer you gave to the press last Thursday morning was false.”
Miss Lynwood blushed as necks pivoted in her direction. “Whatever do you mean?”
“I mean that at the time you were asked that question, you positively did know who was behind this murder!”
Amid quiet exclamations from the attendees, Cloister’s Senior Production Editor arose to protest. “How dare you falsely accuse Miss Lynwood of having such information! It’s preposterous and considering the setting, downright disrespectful!”
Mr. Savage ignored the man and next turned his attention to another young woman’s face amidst the crowd. “Miss Hilda Sweet, were you excited about writing the new Detective Dubois novel?”
Miss Sweet quickly tucked a fallen curl behind her right ear. “Of course I was. Any author would be.”
“I emphatically disagree. High caliber authors would have refused such a task, allowing the late Joan McCulloh to retain her literary dignity. They wouldn’t have cheated a fellow member of the craft out of her right as a writer to choose how to end her character’s life at the end of his career, just as she herself was approaching the end of her own life and career.”
Miss Sweet wasn’t about to be publicly shamed. “The new book deal had nothing to do with disrespect. This is just how business works!”
“Dirty business, that is. Just as dirty as the business of your knowing the precise details regarding the murder of the grandson of the woman from whom you were stealing!”
Inspector Triggs had had enough of what he considered to be a long-winded attention-seeking show. “Look, Savage, unless you can produce some actual evidence, perhaps you should just sit down.”
Half of those in the mortuary applauded in agreement.
But the confident man at the podium waited for the noise of his audience to lull. “You’re quite right, Inspector.” Producing from his pocket a small remote control, he clicked a button and instantly the video of a young Will riding a pony disappeared from the large screen above their heads. What appeared in its place was the image of a handwritten letter. It was addressed to: The bastards at Cloister and read as follows:
No deal. I told you guys I was still thinking about it. But now it’s in the newspaper that it’s official? You preemptive curs! Every one of you can go to the devil for all I care!
“Ladies and gentlemen, this letter from Will McCulloh was faxed to the Cloister Publishing Company early last Wednesday morning, after which several more letters were faxed exactly every half hour until the time of his death. All subsequent letters were identical and this is how they read:” He pressed the remote’s button for a new fax to be viewed. It contained only two words which were in large bold print, taking up the entire page:
The audience stared at the screen and held their breath as they waited to hear more. Their interest was definitely piqued.
“Where did you get those letters?” shouted Miss Lynwood as she jumped up from her seat. “That’s private property—you must’ve broken into the corporate offices and stolen them!”
“I assure you I did nothing of the kind. But your swift acknowledgement of their being private property gives them validity, don’t you think?”
The man seated next to the flustered PR representative, and who served as Cloister’s Marketing Coordinator, quickly pulled on the young woman’s hand, forcing her to be seated.
Mr. Savage continued addressing the room. “You see, good people, Will McCulloh had gone back and forth in his mind whether or not to allow Cloister to produce a new Detective Jean Dubois novel. Various other recently discovered letters of correspondence show that one day he was for, the next day he was against the idea. In fact, his back and forth indecision had gone on for the past ten months. This was frustrating for Cloister Publishing because despite strong efforts to maintain a vibrant appearance to the public, the company has been on a downturn for several years.
“There’s something fundamentally wrong when a publishing company, whose business is publishing books, doesn’t want to hear directly from writers. Years ago, Cloister, along with most other major publishing companies, made the decision to stop receiving submissions, relying instead on private agents to bring them new work. Over time this move has in turn, irritated authors, who in the past could submit manuscripts directly. Now instead they are forced to write endless query letters and synopses while following increasingly more stringent guidelines. They’re building platforms, maintaining blogs, websites, etc. all to impress agents—complete strangers, procurers, in hopes their books will somehow, someday have a slim chance of being dangled in front of the big houses’ noses.
“These authors, having fully recognised the conventional publishing world’s overwhelming brush-off, are choosing more and more to self-publish or go through smaller alternative presses… and are slowly and steadily becoming successful in their endeavours. So Cloister has been losing money and been in dire need of a best-selling miracle. A new Detective Jean Dubois novel would have been indeed such a miracle.”
A click from the remote control brought a new image to the screen—that of a young red-headed girl, but another click paused the video before it could continue. “Most of you will be unfamiliar with a young lady named Windermere Van Hecht. She is a 14 year-old who enjoys making informative videos on make-up application and teen fashion then sharing them with the world on YouTube. Unfortunately for Windermere, she’s just starting out in broadcasting and lacks subscribers. But fortunately for us, the dear child lives in the high rise apartment building across the road from the Barney Street Luxury Apartments. Her bedroom window just so happens to be positioned directly across the way from Will McCulloh’s penthouse. On the Wednesday afternoon of Will McCulloh’s murder, while his maid and her daughter were away visiting relatives, Windermere used her webcam to shoot her latest instructional video. Unbeknownst to her was what was taking place over her shoulder in the apartment across the street. Brimming with confidence in her filming abilities, she did not bother editing her video and posted it straight away. What you’re about to see has been on YouTube for several days but since Windermere lacks subscribers, has largely gone unnoticed.”
Mr. Savage pressed the remote control’s play button and on the screen a smiling 14 year-old girl began speaking. “Hello, and welcome to Wednesdays with Windermere! Today I’m going to teach you how to put on false eyelashes. The first step is choosing the right type of lashes for the right occasion.”
The girl continued through her video but as directed, the audience in the mortuary paid attention to the clearly-viewed scene unfolding over her right shoulder, through her bedroom window and into the window of Will McCulloh’s living room across the street. (Incidentally, expecting what was to come and not being a fan of violence, Mrs. Agnes Humphrey opted to pay attention to Windermere’s tutorial as she had always been curious as to how to apply false eyelashes and had never once in her life received proper instruction.)
The rest of the audience chose to watch the final moments of Will McCulloh’s life. Upon opening the door to his luxury penthouse apartment he was instantly accosted by seven people—all wearing rubber gloves. The Chairman of the Board of Cloister Publishing violently knocked him on the head with a large decorative garden rock. Dazed, Will McCulloh staggered towards his coffee table upon which lay a phone. But before he could reach it the Senior Production Editor tightly wrapped a guitar string around his neck. Will fought back and managed to break free but it was no use. The Children’s Paperback Publishing Manager pulled a gun with an attached silencer from his coat pocket and fired two shots into Will’s chest. The 75 year-old-man fell dead to the floor.
Next Hilda Sweet poured a bucket of water onto the body from head to toe while Miss Melanie Lynwood kicked aside a few Siamese cats as she pulled a vial of liquid and a white handkerchief from her handbag. She dabbed some of the contents from the vial onto the handkerchief then applied it to the inside and outside of the dead man’s mouth. Hilda Sweet quickly prepared a tight noose and handed it to the Chairman of the Board who had just finished securing a meat hook to the ceiling. Together the Executive Vice President and the Senior Production Editor lifted the body and fitted its head into the noose. Finally, the Marketing Coordinator stabbed the newly deceased five times, leaving the blade in the victim’s body upon the fifth thrust.
Sighs and vomit-withholding lurches echoed through the mortuary as Mr. Jekyll whispered to Mr. Dabney, “That’s why you hire a private mercenary company.”
Mr. Dabney nodded in agreement. “Scottish or Italian, they both would’ve been smart enough to close the bloody blinds.”
The prompt arrest of the parties involved in the recently viewed murder should have been a smooth process since they were all seated in the same row. But petty cries of protest erupted from the different men while culpable sobs spewed forth from the women. It came as no surprise to Miss St. John that Inspector Triggs seemed more upset at being wrong about The League’s guilt than being satisfied about apprehending the proper people involved.
During the hubbub of excitement, Gilbert, as previously instructed, nimbly set up a portable record player close to the coffin and placed its needle onto side A of the soundtrack to Carousel, the musical. A few minutes into the haunting lilt of the signature Carousel Waltz, Gilbert’s employer lightly tapped him on his shoulder.
“Gilbert, I’ve thought about it and changed my mind. It was a good idea back at the mansion, but now that we’re actually here I guess I’m feeling a bit guilty. Please change the record. I don’t think we should add injury to interment.”
While relaxing in the warmth of the blaze coming from the fireplace in the library of Nottington Hall and enjoying bowls of Athula’s Kotthu Roti, the members of The League of Aficionadi discussed the sensational story that had dominated the front page of the Bradford morning and evening newspapers for the past three weeks.
“It’s quite funny, really,” said Miss St. John.
“Hilarious,” agreed Mr. Jekyll.
“Historical,” said Mr. Pemberton. “The case marks the highest amount of members from the same corporation being put on trial for conspiracy and deliberate murder.”
The lengthy article of the day mentioned newly uncovered corporate correspondence and notable events leading up to Will McCulloh’s murder. Countless employees were involved—from the Head of the Maintenance Department to the CEO and every single Board Member. An array of charges had been filed, several involving various conspiracies.
“Are you still facing charges yourself, Oliver?” asked Mr. Butler.
“No, Inspector Triggs has wisely dropped them due to his belief that despite illegally obtaining Cloister’s official corporate documents, I’d more than likely be pardoned by any judge for providing the necessary information to prosecute the guilty parties involved.”
“Hiring that hacker was genius, Oliver, sheer genius!” said Mr. Dabney.
“I’m still amazed he found that girl’s video on YouTube!”
“Even without Windermere’s telling tutorial, Action had footage of the murderers entering the Barney Street Building. The Marketing Coordinator got past the front doorman disguised as a messenger then once inside, he let in his co-conspirators through a back entrance. Shortly after committing the crime, Cloister’s IT department was clever enough to hack into the building's security system to alter its stored footage, hence erasing all evidence of any employee being at the scene. But thankfully Action had had a tap already running, recording the live feed coming from the building’s surveillance system.”
“Are you saying the boy had previously set up his own independent tap?” asked Mr. Dabney.
“Before you’d even hired him?”
“That’s what I asked, and he answered that this sort of thing happens more often than we realise. He currently stores recorded live feeds of several prominent buildings in the area.”
Miss St. John stretched her long legs as she lay atop a soft leather divan. “I still can’t get over how careless that Lynwood woman was.”
Mr. Savage used an iron poker to nudge at a log in the fire. “Yes, well that’s what happens sometimes within these big companies. There’s miscommunication between departments. The right hand knows not what the left hand is conspiring. Melanie Lynwood had received a report from her assistant that Will McCulloh had finally agreed to sign release forms. In her haste to create a publicity buzz regarding the new novel she forgot to verify the information. Of course he had agreed, but then once again he’d changed his mind, withdrawing permission. The PR representative was too hasty in her publicly announcing the new book.”
“A resulting lawsuit would’ve wrecked what remained of their finances,” said Mr. Pemberton.
“Yes, but it was still so rude. Too swift,” said Mrs. Fairchild. “I’m sure if they would’ve reasoned and apologised kindly, Will would never have pursued such a suit over a misunderstanding.”
Mr. Dabney disagreed. “We’ve been over this before, Harlow. They were already planning on killing the man. Don’t you remember the documents uncovered from Cloister’s legal department?”
The elderly woman pouted as would a child. “No I don’t. Why didn’t anyone tell me about such documents?”
Mr. Jekyll patted the woman’s bony shoulder and soothed, “We’re sorry, my dear. I guess we forgot. Matthew, why don’t you explain what was found.”
Mr. Butler leaned closer to the attentive Mrs. Fairchild to reiterate for the third time the evidence Action had discovered that served as the final nail in Cloister’s coffin. “On the eve of the murder, Cloister had just completed the fabrication of a codicil to Will McCulloh’s last will and testament.”
“A fake amendment?” said Mrs. Fairchild with wide-eyed surprise.
“That’s right. It was the legal department’s answer to the problem of Will McCulloh’s cruel on again, off again release form game-playing. Evidence shows they planned on having it discovered amongst his personal papers in his penthouse. A close review of Windermere Van Hecht’s video shows the Marketing Coordinator planting the document inside a roll top desk just after the Children’s Paperback Publishing Manager fired two shots into Will McCulloh’s torso. Although they weren’t foolish enough to make themselves the direct beneficiary of the man, they did structure the document to give Cloister permission to produce not just one new Detective Dubois novel, but ten such mysteries.”
“I’m just glad the entire thing has ended,” said Mr. Pemberton. “It will be nice to have things get back to normal again.”
“Let’s have some champagne to celebrate!” suggested Mrs. Fairchild.
“Capital idea,” said Mr. Savage. “Gilbert?”
“Be a dear and bring us a bottle, would you?”
“Of course, sir.”
The League sat quietly for a while, hypnotised by the licking flames of the fire. Collectively they enjoyed a well-needed time of comfortable peace. They were in no more danger of being falsely tried, the new novel would not be written, and Joan McCulloh’s great work wouldn’t be needlessly sullied.
Late that evening after all in the mansion had settled down for the night and were safely asleep in their beds, Mr. Savage sneaked from his quarters, tightened the sash around his dressing gown and tip-toed down a dark hallway. Silently he descended the cascading carpeted staircase. He could have used the elevator but didn’t want to bring attention to his movements. Quite nimble for a man of his age, he systematically made his way downwards until his bare feet touched marble floor. Underneath the domed stained glass ceiling, moonlight graciously illuminated the rotunda as he walked towards the structure known as 43 West Cherry Street.
From his robe’s pocket he produced a key. He unlatched the front door and the fragrant smell of lilacs instantly met his nose as he entered. Making a quick light inspection of the first floor, he made sure all was in its usual order. As was his custom, he ran a fingertip over the surface of the sitting room’s mantle. Upon finding no dust, he smiled, pleased with his staff for being above board in maintaining the historic brick home. Next the bachelor ascended the narrow staircase to the second floor where he inspected the cleanliness of two bedrooms then entered a nursery. He felt the soft lining of the crib’s bedding then knelt to smell a fresh bouquet in a vase sitting atop a dresser. Of late, this had become his favourite room in the old house.
But scrutinising the preservation efforts of his top-notch housekeeping staff were not the purpose for this late night visit. He descended the narrow staircase back to the first floor, walked through the dining room to the kitchen where he unlatched the door to the basement. He went down its wobbling worn wooden stairs and walked towards an electrical panel affixed to the foundation’s stone wall. Inside the panel was a high level security keypad upon which Mr. Savage typed a code and pressed the enter button to reveal a hidden elevator whose existence he had managed to keep secret from his other League members. He entered, sneezed from the basement’s dirt floor, and selected a button from the elevator’s panel. It was a smooth descent to Nottington Hall’s underground world where Mr. Savage’s Junior League of Aficionadi conducted research and went about completing various assignments. Upon reaching the third level below ground, the elevator door opened to a well-lit modern scientific arena.
“Good evening, Mr. Savage,” said Jenkins, the Floor Supervisor.
“Good evening. And how is our newest trial-member doing?”
“He’s doing very well, sir, and might I say, pending the probation period and initiation, he’ll make a wonderful addition to The League. He’s already increased our computer system’s efficiency by 16%!”
“Fantastic! Where is the young lad now?”
“Right over there, sir, taking a break at the end desk.”
Mr. Savage walked to where the latest pending-member of his Junior League lounged in front of a large monitor, thoroughly absorbed in his online play. “Good evening, Action, how are you settling in?”
“Good, thanks.” The teen tried his best to sound respectful without bothering to turn around lest he miss something in the game.
“Wonderful! Sounds like you’re fitting in quite nicely. Let Jenkins know if you need anything.”
“Yes, Action. Cool.” Mr. Savage smiled and marvelled at how youth can be so innocent yet so guilty at the same time. It’s the only point in one’s life when such is the case.
“Jenkins, have the Junior League members assembled?”
“Yes, sir. They’re all ready for you.”
“Well let’s not keep them waiting.”
Jenkins led the way to a large underground conference room and opened the door for his employer. Six young men who were seated around a custom made oval black granite table arose from their chairs and did not resume sitting until Mr. Savage took his place at the table’s head chair.
“Good evening everyone,” he addressed the room.
“Good evening, sir,” all responded.
“This will be a quick meeting tonight, boys—touching base on a few issues then I’m off to bed. Quigley, how are the folks at the Joan McCulloh Foundation coping with recent events? What’s the general feeling over there?”
“It’s all business as usual, sir. Daily operations haven’t been disrupted, although they did observe a moment of silence when the news was announced confirming Will’s death. Only two requested off for the funeral, and of course permission was granted.”
“Were they paid for the time off?”
“I don’t believe so, sir.”
“Make sure they get compensated. We’re not heartless, Quigley. What about the grants—who are we considering this year?”
“The Foundation has narrowed in on ten people, sir. I’ve prepared a list with their names and platforms for your review and think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with most of their proposals.”
“Are there any archeological digs in the mix?”
“Of course there are, sir—four of them.”
“Good work! Joan adored archeology.”
“Eccleston, how do the prospects look for the annual literary awards?”
“Honestly, we’re having some trouble this year, sir.”
“What kind of trouble?”
“There are differences of opinion regarding the awarding of cash prizes to student writers of primary schools. As you remember, last year was the first year they were added as a category.”
“I remember, and as I recall some of our favourite work came from that group. Sure their grammar and punctuation needed improving, but what is the concern this year?”
“There is fear that some of the parents may be aiding their children in writing in order to win the prizes.”
“Ah, I see.” Mr. Savage reclined in his high back chair and swivelled from side to side as he thought. “This year ask the teachers to nominate their best student writers. Then within a day or two we’ll sequester the chosen children. While under heavy surveillance they can write new stories for submission.”
“Won’t their parents protest to such an arrangement?”
“Use the word ‘invite’ instead of ‘sequester’ and book the ballroom of a lovely five-star hotel. We’ll provide a hearty free luncheon for both the children and their parents. Have commemoratory pins made up for each child just for participating in the exercise. That should add a touch of dignity to the occasion.”
“What about the candidates for the other literary awards?”
“We’ve narrowed it down to eight, sir—four short stories and four novels. As we speak their pages are being bound in preparation for your reading and final determination of the winners.”
“Excellent! I’m looking forward to the enjoyable task. Kirby—how is the fencing-in of the grounds of Joan McCulloh’s estate progressing?”
“The work is a slow-going, sir—258 acres is a large project.”
“Is chain-link being used?”
Mr. Savage shook his head. “I don’t like it.”
“Excuse me, sir?”
“Cats can easily climb a chain-link fence. If they get out they’re bound to cause issues in the surrounding area.”
“What do you propose, sir?”
“I say we erect a brick wall encompassing the entire property and cut back any ivy growth that would aid in cat-climbing. I still can’t believe Will actually left everything to Siamese cats, but at least I was correct about predicting the likelihood of his doing so.”
“Again, might I say, sir—that notion was truly brilliant!”
“To thine own enemy be true.”
Mr. Garrod quickly snapped fingers then said, “From Murder on the Rocks, Joan McCulloh’s fifth novel. Am I right, sir?”
“Right you are, Garrod! Right you are.” The 73 year-old grinned and sat comfortably, choosing to reminisce for a few moments. “Fellas, the world’s two greatest motivators are hunger and anger. Although being fortunate to never experience the former, I assure you I’m well acquainted with the latter. Twenty-nine years ago after Will McCulloh first refused my lucrative offer to buy his stake in his grandmother’s legacy I thought I’d merely increase the amount the following year. When that didn’t work I increased my annual offer yet again. After five years of Will’s lack of acquiescence I decided to take a different approach—one whose chief requirement for success was my outliving my opponent.”
“You’ve done that, sir!” said Mr. Dalton.
“True, but that was the end point of the game. First, I had to learn all I could about the man and use it to my advantage. Second, through slow methodical legal steps and painstaking tedium I arranged matters to secretly be on every single Board of Trustees for each of the many Foundations and Charitable Trusts stemming from Joan McCulloh Limited after the Reilly Publishing Company sold off their shares. This was no simple task and sometimes I was forced to use false identities and wear disguises to major events or appear at important meetings via video while feigning illness.”
Mr. Dalton laughed. “Remember that time when you had to dress as a woman? That was so much fun.”
“Fun, yes, although I still can’t believe those other Board Members bought it!”
“Of course they bought it—you hired the country’s top drag queens to fix you up!”
“They certainly were perfectors of their craft. I received dinner invitations from three extremely wealthy eligible bachelors that evening. But what do you think I want you all to learn from this story?”
“The importance of focus?” suggested Mr. Kirby.
“Never give up on revenge for the process can take a while?” offered Mr. Garrod.
“There’s more than one way to—never mind,” said Mr. Quigley.
Mr. Savage responded, “All of the above! Steadily, year after subsequent year and through layer upon thick layer of asset protection I’ve finally managed to control it all. And today, although I’ve always considered myself a dog person, I must admit that since forming The International Siamese Cat Association, over the years I’ve come to tolerate and actually enjoy the company of the furry things.”
“Will you be visiting the estate any time soon, sir?” asked Mr. Kirby.
“No. Now, onto new business! Mallory, how are things progressing with Operation Lilac?”
“Quite well, sir.”
“Glad to hear it! Despite my current good health I won’t go on living forever, and there’s really only one person I truly trust to ensure no further unscrupulous publishing companies or writers will again make such deplorable attempts. Next time I fear there may not be a fortunate denouement as the one enjoyed at Will McCulloh’s funeral.”
Oliver Savage arose, clasped his hands behind his back and started slowly pacing around the table. He cleared his throat and lifted an authoritative chin as he continued to address the room.
“Gentlemen: Mary Shelley was an accomplished novelist, essayist, and biographer. When recalling the summer of 1816, spent at Lake Geneva, where she penned the most brilliant of dark masterpieces, she stated that it was a time, ‘when I first stepped out from childhood into life.’ Today, men, through Operation Lilac we shall use modern-day science, pioneered in Scotland, of course, to step into childhood to bring about life. Since it’s too late to go the Frankensteinian route, we shall have to go about the process the long way around… Mallory, I trust the discrete exhumation went smoothly?”
“Good. What’s the ETA on dear Joan’s DNA samples?”
“Approximately a day or two more, sir.”
“And the stem cell acquisition?”
“A little trickier, sir. They’ve been successfully acquired, but we’re anticipating a slight delay with the border patrol—but nothing we can’t manage.”
“Fantastic! Garrod, how is the new medical team settling in?”
“Very well, sir. But they’re requesting a few more pieces of equipment for the lab.”
“Get them whatever they need. What’s the status on the project’s surrogate?”
“She’s on schedule and will arrive from New Delhi two days from now.”
Mr. Oliver Savage, who rarely smoked, lifted a Gurkha Black Dragon cigar from a hand-carved box sitting atop the table. “Brace yourselves men… the next nine months are bound to be exciting! Who’s got a light?”