Chapter Nine – Strawberry Pies and Assistand Detectives

It was not all that late once we arrived back at my aunt’s home, seeing as the ball had ended rather early due to the events taking place. Even so Phyllida did not want to disturb the cook so she put water on the stove for tea herself. I was only momentarily surprised she was planning the tea superintendent Darby had suggested, but then remembered she had resided in this country for quite some time. She was bound to take after one or two customs, at least she chose a pleasant one. To my annoyance the thought of Darby had a much too intense effect on me and I told myself to get a grip.

While the water was boiling my aunt rummaged through the cupboards and produced several kinds of sweet treats. There were a couple of kinds of biscuits and pieces of pie in a metal tin, as well as what looked like a marvellously tasty pudding. My stomach rumbled a bit and I was reminded that there had never been any dinner served at the ball, though I did feel a bit bad about how unappreciative I was of the fact.

‘Hah!’ I could hear her muttering as she put the treats on the table. ‘I knew there would be more cakes hidden in here, even if the cook swears she has cut down on the baking. Though I have no idea why someone would want to do that. I was certainly not the one to order her do any such nonsense. When has some cake hurt anybody?’

I could do nothing but agree and to my delight Phyllida also found some sandwiches lurking about, with my favourite chicken and mayonnaise filling. My mouth was watering at the sight of them and I had to restrain my hands in order to not tuck in at once. It would be rather rude, I thought, without the tea finished and my aunt seated. Luckily, in a few minutes a steaming cup was set before me and the rich aroma from it even made me draw a breath of pleasure. I had come to appreciate the near instantaneous sense of comfort a well-brewed cup could bring, and splashed a bit of milk into it. With a tiny shudder I took a sip and immediately became aware of how tense I was. It did not surprise me and so I let it be even if I longed fiercely for my bed, or rather the one aunt Phyllida provided me. I did not, however, wish to lie down in it with an empty stomach. With grateful abandon I picked up one of the sandwiches and took a large bite.

‘My my my,’ my aunt exclaimed softly while sitting down opposite me, watching me chew. ‘I didn’t expect that to happen, at least not during your first ball.’

‘Did you expect it at all?’ I asked, rather incredulous, once I had finished my first mouthful. I felt better already, and was to my surprise not particularly affected by the murder, at least not appetite-wise. Just then I heard a soft padding and suddenly felt something wet being pressed against my calf. I jerked back and looked down to see a pair of glimmering eyes. Little Sigurd stared back at me, sleepy but intent on remaining at my side. I picked him up and placed him on my lap, where he happily curled up and fell asleep, uttering a sigh of contentment.

‘Ah, that is the dog the staff mentioned when I brought home the car?’ Phyllida leaned forward to try to get a better look, which was not the easiest of tasks. A black dog is not soon spotted in a darkened room, and at the moment there were only a couple of candles lit at the table.

‘Yes, I found him down by the river today. The poor thing, somebody had just left him there inside a sack. If it wasn’t for Patrick I don’t think I would have noticed it at all. Where is Patrick, anyway?’

‘Oh, I expect he’s upstairs sleeping. He has never been very fond of drama. Bless him, he has always been a wise dog, that one. As to your other question,’ she continued while leaning back again. I took the opportunity to take another bite of my sandwich and could see Sigurd sniff after it in his sleep. ‘No I hadn’t exactly expected something like this to happen. One must at least have faith that an evening can progress without incidents such as this. However, this area seems prone to various mysteries taking place, though I have to say an actual murder is rare. Usually people are just missing, or some property is gone and similar. Perhaps there is something in the air which make people prone to conducting horrible acts? Though, a dead body is… uncommon indeed.’ She took a sip of her tea, looking rather thoughtful though that might just have been a trick played by the flickering candlelight.

‘So what about superintendent Darby’s idea that it was Delia who committed the ghastly crime?’ I asked while nibbling on a ginger biscuit, the worst of my hunger stilled by the sandwich. Sigurd’s nose moved again in his sleep, no doubt catching the scent of this as well.

‘It’s ludicrous, I tell you,’ she said with a sniff. ‘He has agreed to marry her, indeed even proposed it by the sounds of it, so why on earth would she kill him?’

‘Jealousy? Maybe he did have something going on with miss Murdoch? She was awfully fond of him, at least.’

‘How do you know?’ she gave me a sharp stare.

‘She was already in the room with the dead body when I arrived there, asking herself something about what she had done. When she spotted me she ceased it at once, and looked rather ill-at-ease, if I do say so.’

‘I can imagine, that is most peculiar, but Delia committing this sort of crime out of jealousy?’ Phyllida slowly shook her head. ‘No, even if he had I think there needs to be much more at stake for a pregnant woman to up and risk everything. Maybe if her child was threatened…’

‘Though why would he threaten her child? It’s a bit too late for that, everyone already knows it’s his. Wouldn’t it be a bit too conspicuous?’

‘Perhaps he wanted her to have an abortion?’

I stared at Phyllida in shock. ‘Surely not!’

‘You never know, some women do, as is their right. However, the man shouldn’t decide things like that. It could make any woman furious, though I still don’t think she did it, even if he would be that cruel.’

‘How so?’ After all, my aunt had just come up with a rather plausible reason why she could have done it. Now, however, she merely shrugged before she spoke.

‘She’s pregnant. Do you honestly think she would skulk around the country-side, chasing down her husband-to-be to murder him? If she really wanted it,’ she said and tucked into a piece of strawberry pie, ‘she would have done it in the comfort of her own home. Then she could have returned to her tea and cake afterwards, instead of yet again skulk back home. Pregnant women, dear niece, are pragmatic. A dreadful lot of energy is needed to sustain the child inside them, they won’t waste it willingly. At home she could have passed it off as anything from food poisoning to a heart attack or stroke.’

‘Perhaps not…’ I was not convinced. If I was pregnant and found out my husband or husband-to-be had been unfaithful or was threatening me, then surely I would stop at nothing to solve the problem, pregnant or not? Hopefully I would not resort to murder, though.

‘No, believe me on that one.’

‘So what do we do? If Delia didn’t murder him, then who did?’ I asked while stroking Sigurd’s back. He nestled closer to me.

‘Not much we can do, openly. Tomorrow I think we should visit Delia, and if she didn’t do it, well… it’s impossible to know at this stage, I suppose, who would have done it otherwise. There might have been people with a grudge toward her fiancee, I’m thinking. Would that be enough to kill somebody? In any case, she might know about these possible grudges. Also, I am curious of miss Murdoch’s reaction, and it would be rather neat indeed to find out the cause of it. That is, if you are willing to help? After all, you indicated just this morning that nobody should play detective…’

My cheeks burnt at her reminder and of course she was right. I had no knowledge how to solve crimes, so it was only reasonable that I should stay well out of it instead of running around making a mess of the entire thing. She was the professional, not I.

‘You are right, aunt,’ I said with a sigh. She snorted and I looked up with surprise. That was when I spotted the glint in her eye.

‘Don’t be stupid, Matilda, dear. I’m not upset, or anything. You are more than welcome to join me, as my assistant. I won’t let you do anything on your own initiative, but if you like, well,’ she shrugged, ‘you can stay here a while, and become a detective under my tutelage. You would be the first one I pass any knowledge on to. What do you say?’

I stared at her, utterly lost for words. It was an offer I had never thought I would receive in all my life, and completely outrageous. I should be focused on finding a husband and starting a family, not running around the countryside searching for clues. Then again, my heart shuddered at the thought of going back to New York and face the humiliation of having been cast aside before my marriage even began, and what else could I do? I doubted another man in the same social circles would want to enter the holy matrimony with me and choosing someone else would mean I had to marry beneath my station, as everybody was, well, beneath my family. It was too late to apply for the universities for the upcoming autumn and I had never been good at being still and doing nothing. At least this would distract me from any pain I might have still felt. Though of course there was very little pain, if any at all.

All of that only truly took me a few seconds to think through, because I had already more or less decided what I wanted to do. With determination I looked back to my aunt and nodded.

‘Yes, please, and thank you. I would love to become your assistant, and maybe, in time, I would have my own bureau!’

She grinned back at me in response.

‘I knew you were a go-getter, dearest niece. You’ll see how splendid this is, it takes you around the world!’

I yawned at her and realised how terribly tired I was, shattered even. It was no wonder, considering the evening’s events. Phyllida saw this and nodded toward the kitchen door.

‘Go upstairs, girl, we’ll start the real work tomorrow.’

With a smile I cuddled Sigurd securely in my arms and went upstairs, my head filled with images of my mother’s scandalised face as I notified her of my new occupation. I could not help but feel pleased at the prospect, and warmer at heart. This was the first time I had had something completely of my own like this, a dream, a goal that was just mine. Burying my nose in the fur on Sigurd’s head I pushed open the door to my bedroom.

I gasped in shock at my things being strewn over the floor. Someone had been there.

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