Margaret Starling wasn’t the sort of woman anyone expected to be murdered. She was on the advisory board of the London Angel Alms Society, she was an active member of St. Peter’s Church, and, best of all, she was always willing to lend a hand to a friend or a neighbor in need of advice. She was also a wealthy upper-class widow. But money alone won’t protect you when someone decides it’s high time you met your maker.
Margaret’s next-door neighbor considered her an odious busybody, the Reverend Reginald Pontefract wished she’d never set foot in St. Peter’s, and half the advisory board of the London Angel Alms Society heartily hoped she’d come down with pneumonia before the next quarterly meeting.
All in all, Margaret wasn’t as well regarded as she’d always thought she was. But Mrs. Jeffries and Inspector Witherspoon know that justice isn’t a popularity contest, and they won’t rest until they sift through the suspects to catch a sinister scrooge.
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Darkness could conceal numerous sins, but on this December night the killer needed it to hide only one. The traffic from the busy street outside the five-story house would cover any noise the victim might make, and she was the only one to worry about; the servants were gone. She was alone and that wasn't just luck, either. It was good planning.
The assailant glanced to the right, confirming that the house next door had already closed the curtains for the evening. Again, good planning.
Moving faster now, the murderer hurried down the cobblestone walkway and into the garden proper. It was black as sin, but that was of no concern. The slayer had been here many times before.
The garden was huge, especially for a London house. It was separated from its neighbor by a hedge of now barren gooseberry bushes. A strip of grass stood between the shrubbery and an old uneven cobblestone path that ended at the edge of the small kitchen terrace. Across the lawn were two huge oak trees, now bare and stripped of their leaves, and a seven-foot-tall statue of an angel with outstretched arms. Rosebushes, cut back for the winter, stood sentinel at the far end of the property next to a garden shed. Stopping at the edge of the terrace, the killer put down the sack.
Giving the burlap a well-placed kick, the murderer laughed as an enraged series of shrieks and screeches came from the depths of the bag. Good. That should get the old witch outside. The air had turned colder and it was well past time to deal with the matter at hand.
The cat would be released when it was finished. It was important that "Gladstone" be alive in the days to come-not that the murderer cared whether the foul-tempered feline lived or died, but it wouldn't do to have anyone notice the animal had gone missing only this morning. The police weren't complete fools, and the plan could go awry if they managed to connect Gladstone's disappearance with tonight's task.
Catching the creature had been easy: The kitchen door was always held open with a brick. The miserable cow didn't care that her servants might freeze, but she did want her ill-mannered cat to come and go as he pleased. Only minutes after the scullery maid had propped open the door early this morning, a few ounces of fresh fish on the side of the terrace had done the trick.
Gladstone loved to eat-loved it so much, it barely registered when he was scruffed, picked up, and tossed into a heavy burlap potato bag. The catnapping had been done early enough to avoid anyone on the street noticing a wiggling sack or hearing Gladstone's furious screams.
The trespasser stared at the kitchen door and, when it didn't open, leaned to one side and administered another kick, this time hard enough so that the yowls of the enraged tom could be heard halfway to Westminister.
Light appeared in the kitchen door window, and the intruder picked up the sack and raced across the dead winter grass to the statue, dumped it onto the ground, and then ran to the other side of the garden shed, where a heavy shovel was propped up and waiting. Grabbing the handle, the attacker hurried back to the statue, stood behind the wide base, and waited for the victim.
"Gladstone? Gladstone, is that you?" Margaret Starling stepped out the kitchen door holding an oil lamp. "Gladstone! Come on, darling. Mama's been worried. Where are you?"
There was a pathetic meow as the cat heard her voice.
"Oh, my goodness, Gladstone, where are you?" Holding the lamp high, Margaret crossed the terrace and stepped onto the lawn, moving as fast as her arthritic old legs could carry her. "Please, sweetie, Mama's been so worried. Where are you?"
Gladstone meowed again piteously.
Margaret, whose ears were still sharp, stopped across from the tree. "Gladstone?"
Come on, come on, get closer. The visitor gripped the handle tightly before moving farther out of her immediate line of sight.
"Meow, meow!" The cries turned into a wail. Margaret squinted and stepped onto the lawn. "Oh, my gracious, Gladstone, are you in there?" She hurried toward the burlap sack, which was now shaking, twisting, and wiggling as the animal responded to his mistress.
"Who could have done this?" she muttered as she knelt down on the cold ground, wincing as her sensitive knees settled into the dirt. She put the lamp down and reached for the rope holding the top of the bag shut. "I'll bet it was that disgusting Mrs. Huxton. It's the sort of petty nastiness she'd indulge in just because you chased that stupid spaniel of hers out of the yard." But the rope wasn't tied-it was threaded through the top of the material-and her hands, like her knees and ankles, were riddled with arthritic inflammation.
Gladstone meowed once more, this time less loudly but equally piteously.
"Don't worry, my darling, it won't be much longer. Mama's going to the kitchen to get the scissors . . ." She started to get up. But suddenly there was a whooshing sound cutting through the air and then a searing pain in the back of her head. Then another blow came, and another, but by this time Margaret Starling was past hearing anything. Her body slumped to one side, almost cradling the sack against her middle.
Her killer took a deep breath, hurried to the angel statue, and leaned the shovel against the cold stone base. Moving fast, the murderer stepped around the dead woman, bent down, and grabbed the top of the bag.
Gladstone started screeching again, only this was no piteous meow now: The animal was righteously enraged, kicking and clawing at the burlap and shrieking at the top of his lungs. Ignoring the cat's complaints, the assailant picked up the moving sack and hurried to the back door. As expected, it was unlocked. Opening it, the killer knelt down and tugged at the ends of the rope, untying the knot quickly. The top of the bag drooped to the ground, and Gladstone, ears back and teeth bared, leapt out and flew at his captor.
The murderer tried to protect his face by jerking the arm up, but Gladstone, obviously out for revenge, wasn't deterred in the least. He clasped all four paws around the flailing appendage and held tight. The attack was sudden, vicious, and so strong that the surprised killer scrambled backward. But the cat was relentless, digging his claws into the thin material of the catnapper's coat as the killer frantically flung his arm in a circle in a futile attempt to dislodge the furious beast.
The murderer had picked the garment because it was working-class and ordinary, and would be easily overlooked when the escape was made. But that had been a terrible mistake. The threadbare material was no protection against sharp claws or teeth. For one long, eerie moment the assailant wondered if the cat was wreaking havoc to take revenge for the death of his mistress, but that was impossible-this wasn't a dog protecting its master; it was a damned cat. It should be running by now.
But Gladstone wasn't going anywhere. He worked his way down the assailant's arm until he could sink his teeth into the flesh. Gasping now in pain, the killer banged against the partially open kitchen door, finally dislodging the animal. But Gladstone wasn't finished. He stood there for a second, ears flattened backward, hissing, and then gave a mighty leap toward the assailant, landing on a shoulder but close enough to deliver a stinging attack to the killer's exposed neck and dig his claws in deep enough to draw blood.
The visitor twisted hard to one side, trying desperately to move the cat while at the same time keeping fingers, arms, and hands away from the piercing claws and bared pointed teeth.
Gladstone took one more swipe, aiming for the assailants chin but missing before he leapt off and disappeared through the kitchen door.
The killer got up and debated pursuing the animal and beating it to death, but suddenly a light went on in the house next door.
Taking care of Gladstone would have to wait for another time.
Mrs. Goodge, the cook at Upper Edmonton Gardens, home of Inspector Gerald Witherspoon, put the pan of bread in the oven, and closed the door. ÒDid the inspector say what time heÕd be home tonight?Ó she asked the housekeeper, Mrs. Jeffries.
Mrs. Jeffries looked up from the household accounts ledger. She was a woman of late middle age, with auburn hair turning to gray, freckles sprinkled across her nose, and warm brown eyes. "He said nothing one way or another, so I expect he'll be home at his usual time. Why do you ask?"
"I'm wondering whether or not to make a lamb stew or to use up that beefsteak." The cook straightened and pushed a lock of white hair back under her cook's cap before adjusting her spectacles. "I'm thinking we'll do better with the stew, I've a feeling the inspector will be late tonight."
Mrs. Jeffries glanced back at the open ledger, more to hide a smile than to return to the task at hand. "That sounds lovely."
"What sounds lovely?" Phyllis, the housemaid, asked as she carried the inspector's breakfast dishes into the kitchen.
"Mrs. Goodge is going to make a lamb stew for dinner tonight," the housekeeper said.
"Good. With this miserable weather, we need something to stick to our ribs." Phyllis put the tray on the counter by the sink and placed the dirty plates into the hot, soapy water. The few bits of food the inspector hadn't eaten had already been scraped into Samson's bowl. The cat sat on a footstool on the far side of the room, next to the pine sideboard, his attention drifting between the cook, whom he adored, and the food dish, which he wanted as full as possible. Everyone except the cook hated the cat, not because they weren't animal lovers-no, they all adored Fred, the household dog, who was currently having his morning walk with Wiggins, the footman. Samson was disliked because he had a nasty disposition with everyone except Mrs. Goodge.
"True, but that's not why I'm doin' the stew." The cook sent an irritated frown at the housekeeper.
"Then why are you cooking it?" Phyllis put the last dish into the water, picked up the dishrag, and scrubbed the wooden tray.
"Because I've had one of my feelings." Mrs. Goodge went to the table, pulled out a chair, and sat down next to the housekeeper. "We're going to get us a murder. I know it; I can feel it in my bones."
Mrs. Jeffries shut the account book. She didn't dismiss the comment out of hand because the truth was they ended up with a murder every Christmas. But she also knew that ever since Mrs. Goodge had attended that silly lecture about awakening one's psychic powers, she'd been given to ominous pronouncements and sage words of wisdom. Oh, well, the housekeeper thought, it was harmless. "You're probably right. But let's hope we don't."
Phyllis crossed to the cook's worktable and put the tray on the bottom shelf. "I don't know . . . they always make the holidays a bit more exciting."
"Yes, but this year, our little one is old enough to really enjoy herself." Mrs. Jeffries declared. "That will mean so much to the inspector and Luty."
"And to me," the cook added. "I'm a godparent as well."
They were referring the daughter of Smythe, the inspector's coachman, and Betsy, his wife, the former housemaid. Amanda Belle was the goddaughter of Inspector Witherspoon, Luty Belle Crookshank, and Mrs. Goodge.
"Of course you are," the housekeeper soothed. "But I'm being silly. I'm not going to worry about anything except enjoying Christmas."
"And even if we get a murder, we'll still be able to spend time with the little one," Phyllis said. "We always have before."
Mrs. Jeffries glanced at the maid. When Phyllis first arrived at the household, she'd been a frazzled, slope-shouldered mess of a girl, terrified of her own shadow and so afraid of losing her position and being tossed in the street that she'd refused to help on the inspector's murder cases. Now she was a vibrant, confident young woman with excellent posture, a porcelain complexion, and dark blonde hair that highlighted her sapphire-blue eyes. "Still, we mustn't wish for a human being to die just so we have a murder."
"I'd never do that, Mrs. Jeffries." Phyllis pouted as she joined them at the table. "It's just, well, we are good at it, and we've not had a decent one since February."
"We had that one in June," the cook reminded her.
"But it was nothing; the inspector didn't need us at all. The wife confessed she'd stabbed her husband the minute he started asking questions."
Mrs. Jeffries nodded in agreement. She knew what Phyllis meant and she was quite sympathetic to her point of view. Still, she couldn't condone wanting someone to lose his or her life. On the other hand, if a homicide occurred, it was a good bet her employer would catch the case, especially if the victim was someone important.
Inspector Gerald Witherspoon had solved more murders than anyone in the history of the Metropolitan Police. What most people, including the inspector, didn't realize was that he had a great deal of help with his investigations.
Mrs. Jeffries, the widow of a Yorkshire policeman, had started it off years earlier when she'd first come to Upper Edmonton Gardens. Witherspoon had been in charge of the Records Room at Scotland Yard, but when those horrible Kensington High Street murders began, she'd encouraged him to ask a few questions in the neighborhood. Not only that, but she'd made sure the household staff was out and about, asking questions as well, her excuse at the time had been "curiosity." Naturally, Smythe and Betsy, who hadn't been married then, figured out what she was doing. It hadn't taken Wiggins or Mrs. Goodge long to suss it out, either.
Witherspoon had ended up catching the killer, saving several lives, and had been promoted out of the records room to the Ladbroke Road Police Station. Since then, they'd added several trusted friends to their small band of sleuths and took great pride in working for justice. Naturally, the inspector had no idea he was getting assistance.
The back door opened and slammed shut, and then footsteps and the clatter of paws pounded up the corridor. Wiggins, a handsome young man in his early twenties, burst into the room. A brown, black, and white mongrel dog was at his heels. "I've just run into Constable Griffiths and he was on his way to Putney to join the inspector and Constable Barnes."