Tuesday 4 – Friday 7 June 2013
Penelope Wharburton sat alone in the grand ballroom, mourning the loss of her husband. His body had been removed earlier that morning, despite her pleading with Detective Chief Inspector Cranbourne to have him collected the night before. She didn’t think it was at all hygienic or ethical to sleep in a house where she knew a corpse was laid out in the ballroom, let alone the fact that it was her husband of nearly thirty-five years. Worse still, she fretted all night that she would be murdered in her bed, because clearly somebody in the house was a killer. The stress of losing her husband and her distinct lack of sleep was etched upon her face, which was now pallid and reflected her full sixty-two years of age.
Never one to pick up the subtleties in life, her son, George, stomped his way through the ballroom and threw himself into a chair opposite her. He sighed loudly several times in an attempt to gain his mother’s attention, but she was too lost in thought to notice. Childlike, he pouted and kicked at the floor beneath his feet before deciding to try clearing his throat to get her attention.
‘George, dear George,’ she whispered.
‘That Detective Chief Inspector was watching me play tennis this morning,’ he replied.
‘I’m sorry, George?’
‘The police man was watching me.’
She frowned, not entirely sure she was hearing him correctly.
‘Mother, what are you going to do about it?’ George demanded.
‘What am I going to do about what, George?’
‘That damned DCI.’
‘I’m going to let him do his job and find out who killed my husband,’ she snapped back.
‘But he was watching me.’
Before he could fully speak the words, Penelope reached across the gap between the chairs and slapped George firmly across the cheek, startling him so much that he let out a girlish squeal of surprise. As Detective Chief Inspector Cyril Cranbourne entered the ballroom, he caught the tail end of the slap and George’s recoil away from his mother. He briefly made a note of the incident in his notebook prior to announcing his presence.
‘May I have a moment of your time, Mrs. Wharburton?’
Penelope flicked her head towards to door and offered a weak smile. George immediately stood, hoping to make his getaway.
‘Mr. Wharburton, I’d appreciate it if you’d stay right where you are. May as well get your questioning over and done with.’
‘Indeed, a good idea, Detective Chief Inspector,’ Penelope said. ‘Sit down, for heaven’s sake, George. Shall I call for refreshments?’ She looked at Cranbourne for a response.
‘Thank you, Mrs. Wharburton, that would certainly be appreciated.’
‘George, ring for Arden,’ she ordered her son. ‘Please, have a seat, Detective Chief Inspector.’
He smiled and took a seat next to the grieving widow.
George rose from his chair again and walked over to the statuesque fireplace towards the middle of the room, Cranbourne watching intently. George pulled an ornate cord that was hanging from the wall, and Cranbourne could hear a bell ringing in a distant room. He had only once before seen the antiquated system of signalling to the staff that they were required in another room, but was aware that the pulley and bell system was once widely used by aristocracy with oversized homes.
Within moments of George settling back in his chair, the man Cranbourne assumed was Arden the butler slipped into the room via a door cleverly painted and hidden in plain sight as a part of a feature wall of angels and cherubs.
‘You rang, ma’am?’ Arden asked.
‘Tea, cake and an assortment of sandwiches, thank you, Arden. I’m sure the Detective Chief Inspector would benefit from some of Mrs. Tully’s excellent home cooking,’ Penelope replied.
‘Immediately, ma’am.’ Arden nodded and disappeared the same way he had arrived.
‘Now, Detective Chief Inspector Cranbourne, what would you like to discuss?’
Cyril scratched his head, a nervous habit he’d discovered that he was afflicted with when he first met his wife.
‘Well, to start with, it’s Cyril. Or just Cranbourne, Mrs. Wharburton. Seems like Detective Chief Inspector might just be too much of a mouthful in regular conversation,’ he replied.
‘Very well, Mr. Cranbourne. Do continue.’
‘I know that it seems quite inconsiderate to ask, but it’s important that I have a clear picture of where everyone was yesterday. You understand, of course, that I need to ask you where you were when your husband’s body was discovered.’
She was quick to reply without any malice or hint of irritation at being questioned.
‘I was entertaining some of our guests. Lord and Lady Finch, and their daughter Olive, and I were in the library. We had earlier been at the tennis court with George and another guest, Christine Jefferies, but retired to the library for a quiet drink. Not long after we went to the library, Christine joined us. Apparently, George had been trying to cheat at tennis and she wasn’t having a bar of it.’
Cranbourne looked at George for a reaction. The younger Wharburton shrugged his shoulders.
‘Well, we can’t all be as good as tennis as Christine is. I desperately needed an advantage, Detective Chief Inspector. I was being beaten by a girl, a girl I tell you. Oh, the shame of it!’
Cranbourne looked back at Penelope Wharburton and noted the hint of disgust that was spreading across her face.
‘George, really, you are unbelievable,’ she snapped. It was clear to Cranbourne that she wanted to continue berating George, but was distracted by Arden’s return. The butler approached the party of three and set the refreshment tray on a small table to the left of Penelope’s chair.
‘Thank you, Arden. That will be all for now,’ she smiled as she spoke to him. He nodded in reply and turned to walk away.
‘Before I go, if I may, Mrs. Wharburton, might I address the Detective Chief Inspector?’ Arden asked.
‘Certainly,’ she replied, curious to hear what the faithful butler had to say. He pivoted around on his heels and faced Cranbourne.
‘With regards to the death of Mr. Wharburton, Detective Chief Inspector Cranbourne, I have some information.’
Cranbourne sat alert, notebook open and pencil at the ready.
‘Do go on,’ he urged the butler.
‘I was present when Mr. Wharburton was killed.’
Penelope audibly gasped on hearing Arden’s information. George melodramatically leapt from his chair and fronted up to the butler, poking him in the chest as he yelled.
‘You were there? When he was killed? And you didn’t think to say anything until now? What the devil is wrong with you, man? It was your duty to inform the police earlier than now. Are you an imbecile, Arden? I always told father that there was something about you that I didn’t like –’
‘Mr. Wharburton!’ Cranbourne raised the volume of his voice to just above that of Georg Wharburton’s. ‘Sit back down. IMMEDIATELY, or I’ll have you arrested for obstructing justice.’
Deflated, George plopped back down in his chair, lips still flapping as he tried to force more words of disgust through his mouth.
‘Not another word, Mr. Wharburton,’ Cranbourne snapped. ‘Mr. Arden, we’ll get to the exact details in a moment, but for now, I require you expand your statement. When you say you were present, do you mean that you were actually in the room with Edward Wharburton when he died?’
‘Yes, sir. That’s what I mean. But to be precise, I was the one who killed him.’
As much experience as Cranbourne had in extracting confessions from criminals, Arden’s confession shocked him into silence.
‘Allow me to explain, Detective Chief Inspector,’ Arden continued.
. . . To be continued . . .