Roger Butters

Murder for Murder

Extract:

         A single security light came on as I crunched across the gravel to the main porch. Another light just inside illuminated the steps. I’d half expected the heavy oak door to be locked, but in fact it opened without trouble. Inside it was stygian, nor was the light switch in any obvious place. I hadn’t previously noticed where it was, so had to prop the door open while I groped for it. After that it was easier. The corridor leading to the library forked off to the right. I followed it and pushed open the door.
         The light wasn’t on there either. Evidently Bracknell hadn’t arrived yet. The Range Rover must have belonged to a member of the Earl’s family or staff. The door was hinged to the left, so that the switch should be on the right. And it was.
         My hand had just reached it when I fell over something and fetched up head-first on the library floor. I swore, turned round to get at the switch, slipped and fell over the same thing again. Why anyone should have left anything in such a stupid place I couldn’t think. Immediately inside the door it effectively formed a booby-trap, especially at night. Taking pains to avoid it this time I groped for the switch. The light came on. Then I swore for the third time.
         Huddled on the floor was the body of a middle-aged man dressed in a long overcoat covering a crumpled grey pinstripe suit. He lay face-down against the bottom shelf of the bookcase, his hands pronated forward beside his head, as if to break his fall. The back of his skull had been pulped into a mass of blood and bone. There was also a depressed wound to the top of his head, evidently caused by impact with the bookcase. He could not have been dead more than a few minutes, for the blood on his raincoat and the floor was not fully congealed. Some of it had transferred itself on to my jacket as I fell.
         It was of course Bracknell.

*

         My first thought was that it was fortunate Judy had accompanied me, otherwise I could have been suspected myself. As it was, asking her to wait in the car might have been construed as suspicious. It then occurred to me that this was the second time in my life that I’d come across a murder victim within minutes of his being killed. Not quite in the Philip Marlowe class, but decidedly unusual.
         The weapon was obvious. Just behind the body and to the left lay the huge knobkerrie which had occasioned so much amusement at the last rehearsal. The business end was clogged with hair and blood. Unless the killer had been imbecile enough to leave prints, it would be little use as evidence. Anybody in the company could have got his hands on it. And most of them, certainly any of the men, would have been capable of striking the fatal blow.
         I examined the body closely without touching it, though in effect I’d already done so twice inadvertently. The major area of damage was to the right rear of the skull, so it hardly took a Holmes to work out that he’d been struck from behind. Deeming it inadvisable to touch the murder weapon, I mimed striking the blow with a spectral club. In all probability Bracknell’s assailant had been right-handed, standing behind him to the left, and wielding the knobkerrie more or less horizontally, in the manner of a baseball bat. There was a small quantity of blood on the bottom shelf of the bookcase, but none higher up. He must have staggered forward as a result of the blow to the back of his skull, and hit his head just before his fall was complete. The floor was bare-boarded and hadn’t been polished recently. So far as I could tell it hadn’t taken footprints. Pity.
         Belatedly it occurred to me that I might be at risk myself. And Judy too. Unlikely, though. The murder weapon had been abandoned. Nevertheless I kept a sharp lookout as I made my way back to the car. To my relief Judy was still sitting in the passenger seat, unscathed.
         ‘That’s quick,’ she said briskly. Then as she noticed my expression, ‘What’s the matter?’
         ‘You’ve got a mobile, haven’t you?’ I may have mentioned before that I’m the only man in the world still without one. I can’t get on with the things at all.
         ‘Sure,’ she said, taking it out of her bag. ‘What’s up?’
         I dare say Marlowe could have thought of some crack, but I just told it straight. ‘Bracknell’s in the library with his head bashed in. Recent, from the look of it.’
         Judy’s naturally pale face turned a little whiter, but she said nothing and tapped out 999. ‘Police, please,’ she said briskly ‘… I’m speaking from Shadwell Hall. A murder has just been committed here.’
         A pause. ‘Where was that?’
         ‘Shadwell Hall.’
         A longer pause. ‘Did you say a murder?’
         ‘Yes. A few minutes ago. The body is in the library. A middle-aged man. His name’s Bracknell, a journalist with the Castletown Chronicle.’
         ‘I see,’ said the female telephonist. ‘Can I have your full name?’
         ‘Judith Melissa Hare.’
         ‘Is that spelt H-a-r-e?’
         Judy sighed and glanced to heaven. ‘Yes.’
         ‘And your address?’
         ‘Stupid bitch,’ I muttered.
         ‘Is that Mr … ah … Bracknell I can hear with you now?’ asked the intellectually challenged female at the other end.
         ‘Of course not. I’ve told you, he’s dead.’
         ‘How do you know? Have you seen the body?’
         I grabbed the phone. ‘I have seen the body. My name is Danzig, that’s D-a-n-z-i-g, and I’m an enquiry agent. The man I found in the library is called Bracknell, B-r-a-c-k-n-e-l-l. His head, spelt h-e-a-d, has been reduced to a pulp, spelt p-u-l-p, by a blow from a club, c-l-u-b, and he is therefore dead, that’s d-e-a-d. Please send someone out to Shadwell Hall at once.’ I didn’t know how to ring off, so just handed the phone back to Judy, who pressed something.

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