The Dressing Table Murder, p.1Cassandra Chan
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The Dressing Table Murder
I know a lot of you have been impatiently waiting for more Bethancourt and Gibbons; most of you have probably given up by now. I want to apologize for not having a new novel for you. Real life has caught up with me in a myriad of ways and my time for writing has become extremely limited. But I am working on the fifth book and someday I will self-publish it.
Meanwhile, I thought I'd put out some of the short stories, which were written before the novels, and which some of you have also asked for. This is the first one. It was published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, edited at that time by Cathleen Jordan, whom I remember with great fondness. She was a lovely person, and not just because she published my stories.
As you will see, the story is now rather dated. There are no cell phones, or Google searches, or any number of other technologies I now can’t believe I lived without. The writing also adheres more closely to an older, British style if you care about that sort of thing. But it’s still great fun, or at least I think so. I hope you do, too.
The Dressing Table Murder
"Come to lunch, Jack," said Phillip Bethancourt.
Detective Sergeant Jack Gibbons cradled the phone against his shoulder and cast a cautious glance at the clock on the nightstand. The hands pointed to eleven-thirty and he lay back on his pillows with a sigh.
"When?" he asked suspiciously.
A note of amusement crept into Bethancourt's voice. "Why, Jack," he said, "did you tie one on last night? You sound a bit foggy."
"I am a bit foggy," admitted Gibbons. "In fact, you woke me up."
"Well, rise and shine. It's a beautiful, sunny Sunday—probably the last we'll have, and it's no good wasting it in bed. Marla and I have planned lunch in Kew Gardens. She's got one of her model friends coming along and we want to make it a foursome. We'll pick you up in half an hour."
Gibbons thought that the sun, while undoubtedly bright, would hardly be warming enough for lunch in the Gardens and said so.
"Nonsense," replied Bethancourt. "I tell you, we're having a heat wave. We'll be round at twelve."
Gibbons started to protest and found himself doing so to a dial tone. Cursing, he peeled back the covers and made for the bathroom.
In half an hour, he had showered, shaved, and drunk two cups of coffee. He was not yet dressed, but that hardly mattered. Phillip Bethancourt was never on time for anything and when accompanied by his girlfriend, Marla Tate, he was always twice as late as usual. Marla, one of the top fashion models in England, was punctual at work, but that seemed to put such a strain on her that she found it impossible to be punctual for anything else. What Gibbons, who was never late himself, couldn't understand was why they were always later when together.
Thus, he was not really surprised to hear the phone ring at twelve-fifteen, heralding, he supposed, an announcement of a delayed arrival.
This, however, was not the case. The voice at the other end was not the voice of Bethancourt, but the voice of Scotland Yard, reminding him that he was on call.
Mrs. Delia MacGruder had been found dead. Under suspicious circumstances. Would Sergeant Gibbons please go over to her townhouse immediately.
Gibbons sighed and said he would.
In ten more minutes, the doorbell rang and Gibbons opened the door to admit a young man unremarkable in appearance. He was a little over average height, fair and slender, with good if somewhat delicate features and mischievously bright eyes behind tortoiseshell glasses. He was accompanied and utterly eclipsed by a tall, slender woman with an abundance of copper-coloured hair, flawless, creamy skin, and a face of undeniable beauty. High cheekbones slanted down to full, rosy lips, the nose was straight and fine, and above all reigned enormous jade-green eyes.
Behind them followed by far the most dignified member of the party: a large Russian Wolfhound.
"I'm sorry," said Gibbons. "I tried to call, but you'd already left. I can't go."
"Not even," said Marla enticingly, "to meet Janet?"
Gibbons shook his head. "I'm afraid not. The Yard called and I have to go look at a murder. Wealthy woman apparently killed in her townhouse. It's a bloody nuisance."
"It sounds rather interesting," said Bethancourt, who was an avid amateur sleuth. "Who was it?"
"Don't know her." He shook his head regretfully. "Still, it sounds intriguing. Look, we'll run you over there—"
"Phillip," said Marla sharply, "we still have to pick Janet up."
"Damn, that's right. Look here, darling, you take the car and collect Janet and go on ahead. Jack and I will take a taxi and meet you as soon as we're done."
Marla's look was frosty. "You can't just cancel on lunch like that."
"But I'm not canceling, Marla, I'm merely running a little late. Now, you go ahead and Jack and I will catch you up in no time. Here are the keys. Come, we'll all go down together."
Marla, splendidly arctic in her anger, stalked from the flat. Downstairs, she gave Bethancourt a look that boded him no good when she did see him again, climbed into the grey Jaguar, and drove off at something approaching the speed of light.
"My," said Gibbons, who never failed to be impressed by Marla's fits of temper. Then, "She's left you with the dog."
"That's all right," said Bethancourt. "Cerberus is quite well-trained. He'll wait outside for us. Come along, let's find a taxi."
In their Oxford days, Bethancourt and Gibbons had had a nodding acquaintance with each other. But it was a chance meeting in a London pub a year or two after they had come down that was the real basis of their friendship. On a typical raw November night they had come across each other, Bethancourt gloomy over a girl would had just shown him the door, Gibbons even gloomier over a difficult murder case at the Yard. His superiors could make nothing of it and had been taking it out on their subordinate, who could make nothing of it either, but who was the more distressed as he felt that this was his opportunity to distinguish himself. Over the whiskies, Bethancourt found himself forgetting about the difficulties arising from infidelity as he became fascinated by the tangled threads of the case, which seemed on the face of it almost impossible to unravel. Gibbons, for his part, discovered it made his own ideas clearer to talk the thing out with someone uninvolved with the case in any way.
The next day, Bethancourt rang Gibbons, deprecatingly putting out a few thoughts which Gibbons found very illuminating indeed. It was not long before the case was solved and Gibbons was on his way to promotion on the strength of it. The celebration attendant on the solving of the case had cemented their friendship, and the whole episode had given Bethancourt a new hobby.
So they came now to the scene of this latest crime without having to explain Bethancourt's presence and without Gibbons' having to warn him to stay out of the way and keep quiet.
The dead woman's dressing room was small, but very nicely appointed. Beside the single window was a dressing table and a stool. The police photographer was pressed against the opposite wall in an attempt to get a full view of the scene.
Delia MacGruder had been seated at the dressing table, applying make-up after apparently taking a bath. She had been clad in a dressing gown, a small, slight woman of about fifty—still attractive of face and figure if one was to judge by the picture in a silver frame on the table. The face of the body was too contorted from its death throes to judge anything of the kind. The little drawer of the dressing table was slightly open, and scattered over the table top were various bottles and compacts. To one side stood a cold cup of coffee, half-drunk, with the cream congealing on the surface. On the thick carpet by
The corpse lay sprawled by the stool, the face swollen and bluish. Bethancourt shuddered and back away after a single glance. The doctor looked up at him and grinned. Bethancourt, incapable at the moment of smiling back, stooped and began to peer beneath the dressing table.
"What are you looking for?" asked Gibbons, coming up on his other side.
"That," replied Bethancourt, pointing to a small, slender brush lying neglected against the wall. "She must have dropped it when she died. Or she might have knocked it from the table."
"What is it?"
"An eyeliner brush. That's the eyeliner on the floor over there. Her face is awfully discoloured, but as far as I could make out, she'd actually put on all the stuff that's on the table. And she'd started on the eyeliner. Mascara, blush, and lipstick are missing, so I presume they're in the drawer."
Gibbons walked over to the drawer and opened it farther. Within was a jumble of boxes, pencils, and small bottles. He looked at Bethancourt.
"There," said that young man, pointing. "Mascara, blush, and a plethora of lipsticks." He grinned. "Dating a fashion model does give one an edge in these situations."
Detective Chief Inspector Carmichael came in from the hallway.
"Hello, Bethancourt," he said pleasantly, as was appropriate to the son of an intimate friend of the head of New Scotland Yard. "Following the footprints with us again, are you?"
"I thought I'd just come and have a look, sir, since Jack here did me out of a lunch."
"Well, splendid to see you. Gibbons, the doctor definitely says poison. Make sure the crime scene people put the coffee in for analysis, and have a look round for anything else edible. You might check the bathroom and bedroom as well."
Gibbons nodded and set about it, while Bethancourt drifted away, wandering out of the room and into the bedroom next door. The bed was unmade, but otherwise the room was in perfect order. Finding nothing of interest, he wandered farther, into the next room, which was a gentleman's dressing room. Here a closet door stood open and a sweater had been thrown negligently over an armchair. Bethancourt peered into the closet, took note of the suits and jackets hanging within, and then turned to the bureau. He eased open the top drawer and found an orderly array of socks. The next drawer held shirts.
"There you are." Gibbons stood in the doorway. "Looking for anything in particular?"
"No, just being nosy." Bethancourt poked under the shirts.
"I'm going downstairs to interview the maid," said Gibbons. "I thought you'd like to come."
"Of course. Wait a moment—what's this?"
He withdrew his hand from beneath the shirts and held up a photograph of a young woman. A very beautiful woman in a revealing dress.
"My," said Bethancourt. "'Oh, my America, my new-found land.'"
"Let's have a look." Gibbons took the photo and gave a low whistle.
Bethancourt grinned. "It's remarkable," he said, "how quickly one's mind can revert to the baser instincts."
"Still," said Gibbons regretfully, "it doesn't necessarily mean anything. Lots of men have mistresses and don't murder their wives."
"True," said Bethancourt. "Or it could be even more innocent that that—a niece or what have you. Well, let's see what the maid has to say."
The maid, a plump woman of about forty, was in tears. The policeman who was with her gave her name for her and it was with great difficulty that Gibbons succeeded in eliciting the information that she had worked for the MacGruders for five years. Bethancourt sat beside her and patted her hand.
"Now, now," he said soothingly, "you must try to be brave. You must try to help Sergeant Gibbons here so he can find out who did this dreadful thing."
The maid hiccuped, choked out that it was indeed a dreadful thing and she just couldn't believe it had happened, that poor Mrs. MacGruder was gone all in an instant, just like that. She didn't see how a body was to bear it. Bethancourt patted her hand again and looked helplessly at Gibbons.
"Now, Mrs. Andrews," said that young man, "my men tell me you said Mr. MacGruder left the house this morning at nine. Was anyone else in the house after that besides yourself and Mrs. MacGruder?"
Mrs. Andrews shook her head vehemently and sobbed.
"Does anyone else usually reside here?"
Another shake of the head.
"No? The MacGruders had no children then?"
Mrs. Andrews sniffed and hiccuped. "Mrs. MacGruder had two sons by her first marriage," she managed.
Apparently the thought of these two now motherless boys was more than she could bear, for she burst into fresh sobbing, adding that the sons did not live in the house.
"Very well, that's very good," said Gibbons encouragingly. "They don't live here. Just so. Where do they live?"
The response was unintelligible.
"I think," said Bethancourt, "she said Cirencester."
"Not in the immediate neighbourhood then," said Gibbons. He returned his attention to Mrs. Andrews. "Now then," he said, "I'm going to ask you to be very brave and remember about this morning."
Mrs. Andrews' sobs acquired new vigour.
It was at this point that Bethancourt sat up and said, "Tea!" in a very firm manner. Both Gibbons and the policeman stared at him. Even Mrs. Andrews cast him a startled glance. Bethancourt, ignoring them all, leapt from the sofa and strode out of the room.
Gibbons shook his head and sighed. "Now, Mrs. Andrews," he began again.
Ten minutes later he had gleaned the bare information that Mr. MacGruder had left the house at nine to catch a train to the suburbs and play golf with some friends who apparently were also a business connexion. Mrs. Andrews was dabbing ineffectually at her tears with a tissue when Bethancourt returned, bearing a tray.
"Here we go," he said in an unnaturally cheerful voice. "Here's some nice hot tea for you, Mrs. Andrews. Now you blow your nose and have a sip of this—it'l put you right in a moment. Milk or sugar?"
Mrs. Andrews looked at him gratefully and said she'd like milk. "You're a nice lad," she added.
"You mustn't flatter me, Mrs. Andrews," said Bethancourt, beaming as if the queen had just announced her intention of knighting him. "And don't forget to blow your nose—it's a very important part of the process. Doesn't that feel better? Good. Now, when did you say Mr. MacGruder left the house?"
The tea had an almost magical effect. Mrs. Andrews, although still sniffling and dabbing her eyes, now managed to give a coherent account of the morning. Delia MacGruder, having seen her husband off, had remained in the dining room reading the paper. At about ten-thirty she had gone upstairs to bathe and change prior to taking the twelve sixteen train to meet her husband and his friends for lunch. At about eleven she had come down for more coffee and returned upstairs. Mrs. Andrews had heard a thud from upstairs some twenty minutes later, but just assumed Mrs. MacGruder had dropped something.
"I was hoovering," she said tearfully, "just doing the living room once over lightly, when I noticed it was a bit past twelve and I thought to myself, Mrs. MacGruder will miss that train if she don't hurry. And then I thought I'd just step up and remind her, thinking maybe she'd got the time mixed up, though that's not like her—always very punctual she was, thinking it rude to keep people waiting. So I go up and knock on her door, but there's no answer and then I get scared, but I open the door anyhow and there she was, oh, what a horrible sight…"
"Very horrible," agreed Bethancourt with some feeling. "So you ran out and called the ambulance? Or did you go in, try to revive her?"
"I should have done," wailed the woman. "But she looked so awful, like something out of one of those horror films, I just ran straight downstairs with my heart in my throat. I was all a-tremble, just shaking like a leaf, so bad I could hardly dial the phone…"
Here she burst into sobs again. Bethancourt patted he
"They've removed the body, sir," said a policeman who was waiting for them in the hall. "And we've got hold of the husband—he's on his way back. Should be here any minute."
"Have they finished upstairs?"
"Just about, sir. The fingerprint men are packing up, and the chief says we're to seal the room once they've gone. He said he'd be down to meet the husband and you should wait for him here."
"Very well. I'll be here if Mr. MacGruder arrives before the chief comes down."
The policeman nodded and moved off. Gibbons looked round for Bethancourt, found him across the hall in the study, riffling the drawers of the desk. There was a hard look in his eyes behind the glasses.
"There's a back door in the kitchen," he said, "but it's locked and bolted."
"I know," said Gibbons. "My men checked it out."
"Then you realize that, if the poison was in the coffee, only the maid could have put it there? To get upstairs from the kitchen, you have to pass through the dining room and the living room, where Mrs. Andrews was cleaning. There's no back stair."
"No," said Gibbons, "I hadn't realized." Then he added, "But we don't know there was anything in the coffee."
"That's true." Bethancourt paused and withdrew a handful of letters from the desk. "Here we are," he said. "Letters addressed to 'Dear Mum', signed by 'Tom'. Return address in Cirencester, last name is Follett. And here's another one, different street but still Cirencester, signed 'Bill and Annie'."
"Probably a wife," said Gibbons. "Well, we'll have to find out if they were in Cirencester this morning. There—that must be Mr. MacGruder arriving."
David MacGruder was a well-preserved man of something over forty. He was very pale and held himself in tight control. He was accompanied by his wife's solicitor, with whom he had been playing golf. The solicitor was an older man in a pair of highly regrettable plaid trousers.
Gibbons spoke with them briefly, saying the Chief Inspector would be down presently and would Mr. MacGruder wait for him in the drawing room? As he ushered the pair in that direction, he explained that the body had been taken away and that he had sealed up the dressing room and was leaving a man there. MacGruder nodded dully, accepting everything without question.
The Dressing Table Murder by Cassandra Chan / Mystery & Detective have rating 2.5 out of 5 / Based on15 votes