John Rebus finds the truth behind a festive parlour game in this short story, written exclusively for Country Life by Ian Rankin.
‘So the body was found in the billiard room?’
‘Exactly.’ Tom Thackeray leaned back in his chair. He was seated at the head of the table in the dining room. Opposite him sat his wife, Helena. Two couples made up the other diners. The women knew each other from their health club. This gave them the air of a close-knit gang, with the men slightly more tentative and awkward. Well, John Rebus certainly felt tentative. He didn’t suppose he could speak for Gerry Carswell, who sat diagonally across from him, his hand entwined with that of his partner, Sara.
Rebus noted that Deborah Quant’s hand rested on her right thigh, as if inviting a similar show of affection, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to comply. Touchy-feely just wasn’t in his nature. Instead, his hands were clasped in front of him on the table, between the expensive-looking cutlery.
There were silver candlesticks placed centrally, either side of a floral display. Polished oak surface. Auction-bought chairs dating from the 19th century, pewter beakers for the water, heavy German wine glasses, the wine itself served from a decanter. ‘Grand Cru, 1982,’ Tom had announced on pouring, just as he had detailed the background information of practically every item in the room.
– – –
They’d had pre-dinner drinks, during which Tom had led both male guests out to the garage to inspect his restored DB5 and his latest toy, a Tesla sports car, which sat plugged into its charger. Gerry had come up with the expected purring praise as well as a slew of questions and had been persuaded into the driving seat, an offer rejected by Rebus with what he hoped wasn’t too insulting a shake of the head: ‘I don’t want to be tempted.’
‘Never too old, John,’ Tom had responded, flagging up that Rebus was a good couple of decades older than the two other men. ‘What do you drive yourself?’
‘A Saab. Of pensionable age, just like its owner.’
They’d found the women in the modern kitchen, inspecting gadgets. ‘Helena’s very proud of her coffee machine,’ her husband had announced, while his wife gave an embarrassed smile. Rebus would have put money on Tom having made every buying decision, down to the cutlery and decanter.
– – –
‘Bludgeoned,’ Tom announced now, as they sat around the dining table. Small folders had been handed out, inside which were a dozen sheets of paper, including photographs. Rebus, the former detective, had been asked if the dossier did justice to a real-life CID enquiry.
‘Not bad,’ he’d felt compelled to lie.
One of the photos showed the victim, Lord Trumpton, lying on a wooden floor. It was recognisably Tom himself, although dressed in plus fours and tweed and almost unable to hide a smile as he lay splayed with drops of red paint around his head. The other photos showed the suspects and the murder weapon.
‘So thrilling,’ Sara had gasped. ‘And you’re Lady Trumpton!’ She had waved the relevant photo at the hostess, who had blushed and lowered her eyes. There were other characters – the house staff, the local church minister, a gillie, a poacher, Lord Trumpton’s brother, the brother’s lover. Then there was the murder weapon, a bronze bust of an owl. Rebus had seen this in the hallway near the bottom of the imposing staircase. Four closely typed pages of case notes detailed the complicated lives of the characters, their relationships and possible motives.
‘Bloody clever,’ Gerry said in a congratulatory tone. His face was reddened by wine; nor was Sara holding back. Rebus remembered Deborah saying something about how sessions at the gym would be followed by wine in the health-club restaurant. Perhaps a glass or two more than strictly advisable. Deborah was a forensic pathologist and knew from intimate inspection the damage alcohol could do. As a result, she didn’t drink much and had nursed a single glass of Meursault all evening, despite teasing and cajoling from the host.
‘Surely you don’t expect to be summoned to the mortuary on a night this close to Christmas!’
‘I’m on call,’ she’d replied with an apologetic shrug.
This wasn’t even a partial truth, as Rebus knew, but it was a line she’d used before, and one people tended to accept.
– – –
‘I love charades,’ Sara Carswell was telling the table.
‘That’s not what this is though,’ the host corrected her.
‘Charades is where you tell a story without saying it out loud.’
‘I think it was the gardener,’ Gerry announced with a flourish as Tom began circling the table, topping up glasses.
‘Not that you’re one to make snap judgments, eh, Gerry?’ he chuckled. ‘Look to John for inspiration – quietly studious, weighing everything up. That’s how proper coppers operate. Tell me I’m wrong, John.’
‘You’re probably right.’
Sara waved her folder in the air. ‘This must have taken ages. I’m so impressed. Did you both take turns?’
‘It’s all Tom’s work,’ Helena said quietly.
‘Not quite true, darling,’ her husband grinned. ‘You took that charming photo of my corpse.’
‘Did you get the idea because you knew John was coming?’ Deborah asked.
Tom laughed. ‘I’d no idea John was a detective – Helena kept that to herself.’ He was standing behind his wife and squeezed her shoulder, causing her to flinch. ‘I only found out when John told me.’
– – –
That had been over the initial drinks – the usual Edinburgh middle-class game of introductions. If you were a rugby man, it probably meant a fee-paying school. Your neighbourhood was a further indicator, followed by: ‘So how do you earn a crust?’
Gerry and his wife owned a B&B as well as a flower shop, both in Stockbridge. Tom, on the other hand, admitted that he’d married into money, he and Helena having met at Edinburgh University. ‘I’m from the Lanark-shire coalfields,’ he’d boomed, puffing out his chest. ‘Porridge and potatoes.’
Helena had grown up on a hunting estate of several thousand acres, the family’s money having been made in 19th-century shipping.
‘Was it love at first sight across a crowded lecture theatre?’ Sara had asked.
‘Not quite,’ Tom had responded with a wink.
‘Tom was a friend of my brother’s,’ Helena explained quietly.
They made an interesting couple, Rebus thought. Tom was tall and had probably once been stick-thin, but now boasted a protuberant stomach that his dark-blue velvet jacket couldn’t quite hide. He ran a company that advised other companies – he’d explained it a bit in the garage, but Rebus had been only half-listening.
Helena was probably no more than 5ft tall, a good 12in shorter than him. Her shape probably hadn’t changed since university. There were streaks of grey in her ash-blonde hair. She styled it in a centre parting, pushed behind both ears. Her face was narrow and angular, her eyes milky blue. She seemed to prefer making eye contact with the middle distance rather than her guests, or even her husband. When describing her to Rebus, Deborah had commented that she’d been slow to come out of her shell. ‘I get the feeling she’s new to mixing, or even getting out of the house.’
The Thackerays had no children, but the Carswells had no fewer than five. ‘Don’t ask how we got the time or energy,’ Gerry had chuckled, squeezing his wife’s hand.
Rebus had admitted to one daughter, now a mother herself, from his long-defunct marriage.
‘Well,’ Tom had said, ‘no need to ask how you two met. Not so much the crowded lecture theatre as the ice-cold slab, eh?’
– – –
‘Why the gardener?’ Deborah was asking Gerry.
‘Stands to reason,’ he replied. ‘He was in cahoots with the poacher. Lord Trumpton was onto the poacher, so it was only a matter of time before he rumbled the truth.’
‘Plus,’ Sara added, ‘he was maybe the one stealing from the wine vault. Those bottles are worth a pretty penny.’
‘Would he know who to sell them to, though?’ Deborah interjected. ‘The church minister might. And he’d been given a tour of the cellar.’
‘Plus the church roof needs fixing and there isn’t the money,’ Gerry added, nodding to himself. ‘Means, motive and opportunity – that’s what they say, isn’t it, John?’
‘They do,’ Rebus agreed, although he only half believed it. Sometimes, crimes happened just because. No rhyme or reason, but a sudden motiveless act the perpetrator couldn’t explain afterwards except in the vaguest terms – a rush of blood, the red mist, possession by some outside force.
‘What about the brother?’ Tom proposed. ‘No love lost since Lord Trumpton came into the family fortune.’
‘His lover could have decided it was time for payback,’ Deborah argued. ‘Maybe the two of them in cahoots?’ She turned towards her host. ‘Be honest, Tom – could we be looking for more than one culprit?’
‘No clues, Deborah.’ Tom had settled on his chair again, while his wife fetched the Stilton from the sideboard. ‘And a splash of Port?’ he suggested to the Carswells. Neither of them refused, although both were beginning to look the worse for wear. Rebus had been drinking slowly but steadily. He knew he’d feel it in the morning – the mix of drinks if not the quantity consumed.
‘If anyone prefers bread, there’s some granary in the kitchen,’ the hostess offered, to shakes of the head.
‘I’m stuffed as it is,’ Gerry announced. ‘Shouldn’t even be having this.’
‘There was supposed to be pudding,’ Tom apologised. ‘But it didn’t quite go according to plan, eh, Helena?’
The colour rose even further to his wife’s cheeks. ‘Meringue,’ she muttered.
‘Oh, I can never get those to work,’ Deborah confessed. Rebus had no idea if she’d ever even tried making them, but saw it for the act of kindness it was.
‘Means there’s quite a lot of whipping cream in the fridge, if anyone wants to take some home with them,’ Tom said coldly.
‘So what’s everyone doing for Christmas?’ Gerry interjected. ‘If you’re short of company, please take one or more of our kids.’
There was laughter around the table. ‘Buying gifts for all five must present some headaches,’ Helena said.
‘I leave that to Sara.’ Gerry patted his wife’s hand. They had temporarily stopped being joined at the wrist so that both could attack the cheese. ‘Just one of the myriad things women are better at, isn’t that right?’
‘I’m not so sure about that,’ Tom said. ‘Helena’s always terrified she’s going to make the wrong choice. She goes into a shop, then freezes, don’t you, darling?’
‘But often enough, eh?’
Gerry cleared his throat. ‘You’re saying you buy all the presents?’
‘And the food shopping, too. Saves a lot of time, believe me.’ Tom raised his Port glass as if in a toast to himself.
Rebus could feel Deborah stiffen a little and remembered their conversation on the way to the party. ‘She doesn’t speak about Tom much. I get the feeling he’s one of those controlling types. Maybe that’s why she likes the health club so much – a bit of breathing space…’
– – –
‘Finished already?’ the host was saying, passing the Port towards the Carswells.
‘A lovely drop,’ Gerry answered, his voice nasal, eyes glassy.
‘We’ll polish it off, then retire to the sitting room for coffee.’
‘But we need to solve the murder first.’ Sara enunciated each word with the slow deliberation of the inebriated. ‘Is it too obvious if it’s the butler?’
‘Maybe they all did it – like in that Agatha Christie film,’ her husband offered.
‘The post-mortem report would have been helpful,’ Sara proffered.
‘But I knew we’d have a pathologist in our midst and I wasn’t sure I’d be able to conjure something up that would pass muster. But now that you’re here, Prof Quant…’
Deborah took a moment to gather her thoughts. ‘We’re probably looking at blunt-force trauma. That would be the straightforward explanation.’
‘Well, an autopsy might reveal other evidence. Say he’d already been poisoned. Whoever attacked him might not have known that. The blow to the head concussed him, but it was the poison that actually killed him. There may be wounds on the body that we don’t know about or suspicious contusions. Or he may have died of natural causes – a heart attack say. It could be entirely coincidental that he’d also been given a blow to the head.
‘And we’re blithely saying the statue is the chosen weapon because it’s lying next to him, but that could be a red herring. Close investigation would show if it’s his DNA on the statue, and whether any indentation on the skull matches up with a specific area of the statue.
‘If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s to take nothing at face value. A healthy scepticism is your friend in my line of work – as in police work itself.’ She paused. ‘Having said all of which, most often the obvious deduction turns out to be the truth.’
‘Interesting,’ Tom drawled, rubbing his hands together. ‘So are we closer to an answer or has Deborah added an extra quantum of doubt?’
‘All I know for sure is, that was a bloody good dinner and I’m no detective.’ Gerry rose uncertainly from his chair.
‘Nearest loo is behind the staircase on this floor,’ Tom said, but, realising his guest’s condition, he got to his feet and took Gerry by the arm. ‘Best if I show you, eh? While Helena gets the coffee brewing in her laboratory…’
His wife watched the two men leave, then made to get up. ‘Sit a minute longer,’ Deborah suggested, ‘so we can tell you how lovely it’s all been.’
‘Hear, hear,’ Sara added, head drooping, eyes narrowed to slits.
‘Well, mostly it was Tom’s doing…’
‘I don’t believe that.’ Deborah was smiling, but her eyes were fixed on the hostess. ‘And it was lovely of you to invite us.’
‘That really was Tom’s idea – he was keen to meet my new friends.’ I’ll bet he was, thought Rebus. ‘He says he might even join the club, now he sees how much fun it is.’
‘Really?’ Deborah’s mouth became a thin line.
‘Men always try to spoil our fun, don’t they?’ Sara pouted. Then, to Rebus: ‘Present company excepted, obviously.’
‘Kind of you to say so, Sara,’ he responded. He watched as she folded her arms on the table. For a moment, he thought she was about to rest her head on them, but, instead, she leaned towards him.
‘Go on then – tell us who it was. No point having a detective in the room and not using all that expertise. Or has retirement made you rusty?’
Rebus smiled at her. ‘Real life isn’t always like a whodunit. Most murders are what we used to call “domestics” – committed by your loved ones rather than some bogeyman who leaps out from the dark.’
‘So that means either the doting wife or the predatory brother?’
‘Or Lord Trumpton’s lover,’ Rebus suggested in return.
‘He had a lover?’ Both of Sara’s eyebrows shot up.
‘No reason why the brother’s squeeze couldn’t have been playing both sides, as it were.’
Sara sat back, digesting this new theory. ‘Or maybe,’ she said, ‘Trumpton was secretly gay – that brings in the gardener and the minister again!’
‘Why those two in particular?’ Deborah enquired.
‘The poacher, you mean? Or the butler? But Trumpton would want someone younger, wouldn’t he?’
Sara sighed and closed her eyes. ‘Are you dropping off?’ Deborah asked.
‘Better not – I’m driving us home.’
Helena, Deborah and Rebus shared a look.
‘That’s not going to happen,’ Rebus stated.
– – –
Tom put his head around the door. ‘John? Got a minute?’
Rebus removed the napkin from his lap, grazed Deborah’s thigh with the back of his hand and followed him out into the hall.
‘Bloody Gerry’s passed out,’ Tom announced tersely.
‘Sara’s not much better.’
Tom locked eyes with him. ‘Well, at least there are some of us here who can hold our drink. What are we going to do?’
‘Call them a taxi and pour them in.’
‘I just tried that – nobody’s answering the phone.’
Rebus checked his watch. ‘Ten o’clock on the last Friday before Christmas.’
‘All those boozy office parties and such like,’ Tom said with a nod of agreement.
‘We can keep trying.’ Rebus was interrupted by Gerry’s appearance. His shirt was mostly tucked into his trousers, the trousers themselves buttoned, but not quite zipped. He staggered a little, holding onto a bannister for support.
‘Bit too generous with the measures,’ he muttered.
‘You could always have declined.’ Tom’s anger was barely suppressed. ‘I can’t stand it when people lose control.’
‘What’s happening?’ Deborah had appeared in the hallway.
‘Walking wounded,’ Rebus replied. ‘How’s Sara?’
‘Give her two more minutes and she’ll either be singing the old songs or sound asleep.’
‘Lovely singing voice, my wife.’
‘I tried the cab companies,’ Tom explained, ‘but they’re not answering.’
‘Quant Cabs to the rescue, then. This time of night, it’ll take me 20 minutes each way at most.’
‘That would be good of you,’ Tom said, propping up Gerry as the man’s knees failed to lock. ‘But do you know the address?’
Deborah nodded and walked to the coat rack. ‘Getting them into my car may be the hard part.’
‘John should go with you to help at the other end,’ Tom suggested.
‘Deborah will be fine,’ Rebus retorted, earning a scowl from her. He didn’t meet her eyes, heading instead to the dining room to help Helena get Sara to her feet. ‘But we haven’t solved the case,’ she complained loudly as she was led into the hall.
‘It can wait,’ Tom snapped, busy with Gerry.
‘And besides,’ Rebus said, ‘it was Lady Trumpton.’
Tom barked out a laugh. ‘Quite right, John! But how did you know?’
‘I need to hear this,’ Deborah said. ‘Wait until I’m back before you spill the beans.’
‘We’ll have the coffee waiting,’ Helena promised. ‘Deborah, are you sure you don’t need any help?’
Deborah was looking at Rebus again. She knew there was something happening here, something she could only be part of by stepping away and letting him do his thing.
‘Just keep the coffee hot,’ she said, as they began the process of pouring both Carswells out of the door into the crisp night air and the waiting car.
– – –
The sitting-room again, calm restored, Tom pouring three measures while his wife brought in a tray on which sat three china cups that were already filled with coffee and foamed milk.
Helena accepted her tumbler of malt without appearing enthusiastic. Rebus had just settled himself on the sofa when he rose again and left the room, reappearing with the owl statue, which he placed on the occasional table.
‘Ah, the murder weapon,’ Tom exclaimed. ‘Does it play the crucial role?’
‘In a sense, yes,’ Rebus admitted.
‘And do we have to wait for the esteemed pathologist to return before we hear the case for the prosecution?’
‘It’s more a theory than anything else,’ Rebus said, after a sip of whisky. It was good stuff, of course, not that he was going to give his host the satisfaction of hearing him say as much.
‘Which means I fell into a trap when I admitted you got it right.’ Tom chuckled as he pinched the bridge of his nose. Helena meantime was sitting rigidly in her chair, shoulders back, face impassive.
‘I suppose you did,’ Rebus agreed. ‘Although you fell into the trap long before that, even though you’d set it yourself. That was particularly clumsy of you.’
Tom’s eyes narrowed. ‘We’re not going to wait for Prof Quant, are we?’
‘Probably best if it’s just the three of us,’ Rebus concurred.
‘Out with it then, Monsieur Poirot.’ Tom leaned back, unbuttoning his jacket and resting his arms along the chair.
So Rebus obliged. ‘It had to be Trumpton’s wife, because you wanted to send a message to your own wife.’
‘I’ll get to that. But first we need to talk about three women who start to become friends after meeting at their health club. Helena has just joined. It was a big deal for her. She’s never really had any friends or any real sense of freedom. But, just lately, she’d begun to chafe at everything tying her down. She likes the club and she likes her new friends. Her husband notices. Is he jealous? Maybe just a touch.’
Rebus held up a finger to silence him. ‘The friends are invited to dinner because her husband wants a look at them, at this threat to the cage he’s built around his wife.’ Rebus risked a glance at Helena, who appeared not to be listening. Instead, she was staring fixedly at the floor, as if counting the threads in the antique rug. Rebus wondered if it was from her family’s home. He doubted it. Tom had probably made her sell the lot, buying his own taste instead. His taste, her money.
‘What the husband does next is particularly cruel. He plots a murder mystery, one in which the wife is the killer. He wants his own wife to remember.’
‘Please don’t say it.’
Rebus realised Helena had spoken. Her eyes were focused on him, a pleading look in them, so he took a breath and decided the story could be told at a tangent.
‘When Deborah started telling me about Helena, she mentioned a high-born background and the maiden name Rampton. Not so dissimilar to Trumpton. The name meant something to me. The internet is a wonderful thing, although not ideal for ancient history. However, a day in the library with old newspapers on microfiche… well, you know where I’m headed.’
‘Thirty years ago,’ Helena whispered.
‘Your 15th birthday. There was a party on the family estate. A few dozen of your friends and some of your father’s friends, too – business acquaintances more likely. I might have resented that, if it was supposed to be my party. I didn’t work the case – there was never much of one to work. An accident. Men who drink too much, they fall downstairs all the time, don’t they? Men like your father, Helena. Forceful men, men who don’t know how to treat young women. And with your mother dead from the time you were 12…’ Rebus paused.
‘I didn’t work the case, never went anywhere near that part of the world, but in the police force, stories tend to be told, tongues wag, rumours take on a life of their own. The housekeeper spoke about a statuette that had suddenly gone missing from the upstairs landing. Not an owl, but a bust of your father. I managed to track down
a detective constable who’d been attached to the inquiry. He’s long retired but his mind is wonderfully sharp.
‘The housekeeper’s story was dismissed because she was rumoured to have been climbing into her employer’s bed of a night and, as you slept under the same roof, I’m guessing you’d have known. You and your brother. It was your brother who eventually introduced you to your future husband. Tragically, not long before he died in a motorbike accident. But by then, he’d done the damage.’
‘What damage?’ Tom spat. ‘Damage? How dare you! I’ve loved and cherished my wife for almost 30 years!’
‘You’ve certainly had her under your control that long. You told me you don’t like it when people lose control, but I reckon the opposite is the case, because then you gain control over them.’ Rebus paused. ‘But loved? Cherished? Maybe you need to ask Helena about that. About her lack of friends, her eventual bid for freedom of a sort and your ferocious need to rein her in again.’
‘I can’t listen to…’
‘I’m sorry, Helena, but I think you need to hear me out. It might be the end of something or the beginning. Not much longer now either way.’ Rebus took another deep breath.
‘A controlling father, a tyrant in his children’s eyes. An embarrassing drunk at his own daughter’s 15th-birthday party. He turns his back on you and you strike him with an object. It sends him tumbling down those steep stairs. Just the one witness – your brother. He understands. He helps you. It’s all a terrible accident. Besides which, he’s going to inherit. He does inherit, until that accident brings everything he had your way.
‘Now, I’m not clear of the chronology, but, at some point, your brother confided in Tom and he began to woo you. Maybe a rough wooing at that, as he had that power over you. He knew the secret you were keeping. So you caved in to him, married him, handed your money to him. And he flourished. But always fearful that he might lose that power, might lose all that control. No friendships could get in the way. You had to be reminded, by way of a pretty clumsy party piece – a murder mystery.’
Rebus turned to focus on Tom. ‘All because you were worried you were losing her. Did I look like a bonus when I walked through the door? An actual detective – wouldn’t that put the fear of God into her? But you didn’t know I’d done my homework. Your little power play was just a bit too obvious to anyone who knows the back story.’
– – –
Tom had drained his glass. He held the tumbler up and made a show of examining it. ‘I’m wondering, John, how much of this you think you can prove?’
‘I said at the start, it’s conjecture based on everything I knew when I walked in here and everything you’ve shown me since.’
‘Meaning there’s nothing you can do with it? It’s as much an invention as my own little drama.’
‘Would anyone like more coffee?’ Both men looked at Helena. A tear had trickled down each cheek and she seemed to have aged a decade since the start of the evening.
‘Nobody wants any of your bloody coffee,’ her husband snarled, bounding to his feet and pouring a fresh glass of whisky. There was no offer to Rebus.
‘You could tell your story,’ Rebus said to Helena. ‘I’m not saying you wouldn’t go to a prison, although I’m sure a good lawyer could secure you minimal time. At least you’d be free of the cell you’ve been kept in all these years.’
‘Don’t listen to him, Helena. In fact, why the hell am I letting you sit here in my house? You can wait for your bloody woman outside on the street.’
He rounded on his wife. ‘Since when do I listen to you? Shut up and let me take care of this – the way I have to take care of everything!’
Helena flinched, not at his words but at the sound of the doorbell.
‘Sounds like your lift has arrived. We’ll let you see yourself out,’ Tom growled.
Rebus sat for a moment, his eyes on Helena. When he got to his feet, she rose too, taking his hand in hers and giving it a squeeze.
‘It was nice to meet you,’ she said quietly. ‘Deborah warned me you were… different. Thank you for coming.’
– – –
Rebus tried to tell her something with his eyes, but she refused to meet them, so, instead, he nodded slowly and made for the door. It was indeed Deborah on the front step. ‘How did it go?’ he asked.
‘I managed. Is everything all right here?’
‘I’ll tell you on the way home.’
‘I should go and say goodnight.’
‘I’d leave it if I were you.’
She stared at him. ‘What have you done?’
‘I promise I’ll tell you all about it. Just not here.’ Deborah started marching towards her idling car, its headlights still on. Rebus pulled the front door closed and followed.
‘At least neither of them threw up,’ he said, sniffing the car’s interior.
‘They actually sobered up a bit as we got to Stockbridge. Wanted to know how you figured out it was the wife.’
‘That’s part of what I’m about to tell you.’
‘If it’s cost me my new friend, it’d better be bloody good. But God, isn’t her husband a prick? What did she do to deserve that?’
– – –
The car had reversed to the end of the driveway when Rebus caught a glimpse of illumination. The door to the house had been thrown open and Helena was standing on the threshold. There was something dangling from one of her hands. The owl statue. And Rebus got the feeling something was dripping from it, something viscous.
‘Deborah,’ he cautioned. ‘We need to hang on a minute.’
‘Because you might not have been joking after all when you said you were on call.’
Deborah looked baffled until she followed his gaze.
‘And Merry Christmas to you, too, John. This had better not be all you’ve got me.’
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
By Ian Rankin © John Rebus Limited 2017. Illustrations by Fred van Deelen.