"Wow. Impressive," I said with an approving nod as I looked up in wonder at the mansion looming above me. I was no expert in architecture, but I had to admit, this house was a beautiful structure, antebellum, I believe. It was three stories tall and sported four massive columns holding the porch canopy above my head. Perched on top of the house, as I'd seen on our drive up, was a cupola, which I could only assume was used as an attic space. However, with the sun setting the way it was now, the house was thrown into shadow, making the façade dark and rather sinister-looking.
Beside me, the local chief of police, Chief Henry Bale, snorted. "Mrs. Fletcher," he said with the unmistakable air of someone who was struggling to retain patience, "we are not here to admire the house. We're here to investigate murder."
"Oh, you're quite right," I agreed, nodding and smiling agreeably. "I was just making an observation, Chief. That is what you brought me out here for, isn't it?"
He glared at me. "Observations about the case, not the architecture," he said gruffly, and he led me into the shade of the porch, knocking three times on the massive oak front doors. There must have been someone waiting on the other side, because they opened almost at once, and I was led into the cavernous foyer.
If I'd thought the exterior of the house was magnificent, it was nothing to how the interior looked. The front hall was two stories tall, and a long balcony with intricately carved railings ran around three sides of it with a curving staircase at either end. Directly ahead of me and under the balcony was a set of double-doors, and there were two more on the walls on either side of me. A suit of armor stood in one corner, an ancient grandfather clock consistently counting the time in the other. Directly over my head was a spectacular crystal chandelier, the likes of which I had only seen in movies up to this point.
My awe must have shown on my face, because Chief Bale sighed impatiently. "Yes, yes, I know," I said before he could speak. "The case, not the house."
Bale nodded and led me to the right, where the door stood ajar. He opened it fully and motioned for me to enter, which I did with a little trepidation. The room beyond was a parlor or sitting room. There were four couches that were lined up in a vaguely square pattern in front of the fireplace and a number of cozy-looking armchairs in various places around them. The room was empty except for five people, all seated on the couches except for one man, who was obviously a butler, who stood silently in the corner, awaiting instruction. Upon my entry, everyone looked up at me with mixed expressions.
Chief Bale stepped forward. "Everyone, this is Jessica Fletcher," he said coolly. "She's a mystery writer from Crab Apple Cove, Maine…"
"Cabot Cove," I corrected immediately. "It's Cabot Cove, Maine."
Bale glared at me and I fell silent. "She's a mystery writer who makes a hobby of solving crimes when she's not writing her books."
I wanted to interrupt, but I figured that I was already making enough of a nuisance of myself, so I kept quiet.
"Why did you bring her here?" asked one of the people, a tall, skinny man in his early twenties with sharp features and a shrewd expression. "You've already grilled us all. Do you think you might have missed something?"
Bale's face reddened slightly. "As I said, she tends to solve murders in her spare time. I knew she was staying at a local inn, so I called in a favor."
He didn't mention how he'd been so rude as to let himself into my room and wait for my return from the shopping trip I'd taken that afternoon with a friend. I'd been scared half out of my mind to find a man sitting on the edge of my bed, a feeling that hadn't waned much as he'd told me of the murder he wanted me to help him solve.
The young man who'd asked of my reason for being here sank back into the seat cushions and scowled at the police chief, as though furious with his decision. "It was none of your concern to bring in an outside party," he said. "If this police force can't figure it out, then…"
"Then you'd be well-advised to listen to what I say," Bale growled.
The young man snorted and muttered something that sounded like "Incompetent."
I wanted desperately to take a step away from Bale but knew I couldn't pull it off without being rude. "Now, Mrs. Fletcher is going to ask each of you a series of questions, and you are to answer them honestly, as though she were part of the police force, got it?"
Everyone nodded, though I sincerely doubted that any of them would treat this like a formal interrogation. It's not exactly protocol when an out-of-town writer becomes the lead detective in a murder case (although it seemed to happen to me disturbingly often).
Bale motioned for everyone to leave the room except for the young man who had been so harsh with the chief, and I was soon alone in the room with him. I must admit, I felt a little overwhelmed by the situation. He gazed at me for a moment, and then heaved a sigh and said, "Okay, Mrs. Fletcher, what do you want to know?"
I breathed out slowly. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad. "First of all, call me Jessica," I said. "There's no need to be so proper. Second, you can start by telling me your name and your relation to the deceased."
"Stephen," he replied. "Stephen Sutton. I was his son."
"Oh," I said, uncomfortable again. "I'm so sorry."
Stephen snorted. "Don't be," he said, much to my surprise. "The world is better off without him."
When I just sat there with raised eyebrows and didn't say anything, he allowed himself a small smile. "My father, Michael, was not exactly well-loved. Not by anybody. Well, perhaps the butler, but then again, my father was the one to sign his paychecks."
"And what about him made him so…dislikable?" I asked gently.
Stephen let out a cold, mirthless bark of a laugh. "It would take a lot less time for me to tell you what was likeable about him. One word: nothing. He was a drunk, cheap bastard who got his kicks abusing all of us."
"Abuse?" I asked, trying to read him without hurting him. "What kind of abuse?"
"Verbal, for the most part," Stephen answered. "To me, at least. I don't think he said a single kind word to me in all my life. It was always criticism. 'Can't you hit that baseball like a man?' 'Don't you know how to read?' 'Can't you ever do something useful?' 'Can't you do anything right?' It was endless."
He shook his head and was silent for several minutes. I didn't say anything. I knew he would continue when he wanted to.
"It was worse with my mother," he finally said. "He actually hit her. Pretty regularly too. And over the littlest things. If dinner wasn't on time, if something fell over, if she dropped something, if she forgot to lay his clothes out for the morning…"
He paused, and I took the opportunity to say, "Stephen, what can you tell me about the murder? When was it?"
"Last night, around this time," Stephen replied. "I was sitting with Angela – my cousin, she's visiting for the weekend – in the guest bedroom upstairs. I was trying to comfort her, you see. She…she'd had a bad experience with my father, you see. Anyway, we were together when we heard my mother scream. We ran downstairs to see what was wrong, and there he was. Lying on the study floor, a knife stuck in his back…"
At that precise moment, we heard a crash from the room directly above us. We both looked up at the same time, surprised. Then Stephen called, "Angela?" and got up, heading toward the door. I followed him into the foyer, up the stairs down one end of the balcony, and into a long hallway. The door at the end was slightly open, and Stephen barged in without knocking, with me not far behind.
We had entered a small bedroom, occupied by a young woman. I guessed she was around Stephen's age, twenty-one or twenty-two. She was a lovely girl with a pretty face and long brown hair that fell to her shoulders. I could tell she'd been crying; her eyes were red and puffy, and her cheeks were streaked with tears. On the floor at her feet were the shattered remnants of a vase that had obviously fallen from its perch, the source of the crash we'd heard downstairs.
"Angela, is everything okay?" Stephen asked, slightly apprehensively. I supposed it was because, like a lot of young men, he didn't know how to deal with a tearful woman, even if she was his cousin.
Angela nodded and said in a shaky voice, "Yeah, I…I knocked the vase over. Clumsy."
I stepped forward and started picking up the shards. Straightening up with a handful, I said, "This is a lovely room."
It was. Small, yes, but quite nice all the same. There was a double bed in the corner, opposite a bureau and a mirror. A small table along the wall next to the bed supported a variety of trinkets and knickknacks. The single window overlooked the front lawn of the house and, even though night had fallen, I could distantly make out the lights of the nearby town in the distance.
Angela smiled slightly and murmured, "Thanks."
"I'm Jessica, dear," I said, holding out my hand. "Jessica Fletcher, and I am so sorry about all this."
"Not your fault," she said. Then she looked me in the eyes and said, "Please find out who did this, Mrs. Fletcher. Find the monster that killed my uncle and put them away!"
"I'll do my best, dear," I said soothingly. "I was just finishing asking Stephen about what had happened yesterday evening. I know this will be hard, but could you tell me about your uncle, and about what you know of last night's events?"
She took a deep, steadying breath that seemed to do no good for calming her shaking shoulders and said, "I was his niece. His only niece. My father said he had to see Michael for something about the business, and we came down together for the weekend."
"Your father?" I asked.
"He's here, too," Stephen spoke up. "His name's Carl, and he was my father's younger brother."
"Oh," I said, and then turned back to Angela. "So you came down for the weekend with your father. Did anything happen?"
At this, Angela looked over at Stephen, an expression of worry teetering on fear in her watery eyes. "Go ahead," Stephen said calmly. "Tell her."
I watched this exchange silently, patiently waiting for one of them to explain. At length, Angela did. "It was yesterday morning. I had just woken up and was going downstairs for some coffee, and I met Uncle Michael in the kitchen."
She closed her eyes, and a rather pained expression crossed her face. "He spoke very kindly to me and handed me a cup of coffee that he'd prepared. I thought he was just being nice, and I drank it. I thought it tasted a little odd, but I didn't think anything of it at the time…"
She was starting to cry. Stephen wrapped an arm around her shoulder comfortingly and whispered, "It's okay. You can do it."
Angela nodded and took a deep breath before continuing, "I started to feel dizzy and disoriented. I think I must have collapsed because the next thing I know, I'm on the floor, and Uncle Michael is kneeling over me, and he was unzipping his pants…"
Now she was crying in earnest. I found myself shocked to the point of speechlessness. I truly felt pity for this poor girl.
Stephen picked up the tale. "He didn't actually have time to do anything. I walked in the kitchen at that moment and caught him. Angela was already in a daze by this time and my father, well, you get the idea."
I nodded once. I already had a vivid picture in my mind, and I didn't care to hear about it.
"Well, we argued about it, as you can imagine," Stephen continued. "I threatened to tell Carl about it, and Mother as well. But then he turned the tables on me." He smiled humorlessly. "He threatened to tell the police it was me that had tried to rape her. He said they'd believe him over me any day, and I didn't stand a chance with them. I was furious, but I knew there was nothing I could do, so I escorted Angela back here and sat with her until the drugs wore off. I explained what had happened and tried to comfort her as best I could. That was all I could do," he finished bitterly.
Looking at Angela I gently asked, "Where were you at the time of Michael's murder, Angela?"
"I…I was here," she replied, trying to control her sobs. "With Stephen. We were watching the sunset and discussing my legal options. We knew Uncle Michael meant what he said about lying to the police, and I didn't want to tell my father. Well," she added with a small, humorless smile, "I suppose it hardly matters anymore, does it?"
I spread my arms in an "I don't know, I suppose not" gesture and said, "Well, that's all I needed to know. Thank you for your time."
And I left the room.
Downstairs, I met with the victim's widow, Gloria. She sat down on the edge of her seat and studied me nervously, as though gauging whether I was liable to hit her. I smiled, trying to ease her discomfort. "Good evening, Mrs. Sutton, I'm Jessica Fletcher," I said.
"Yes," Gloria replied softly. "I know. I've read some of your books. They're nice."
"Oh, why thank you," I said, putting as much sincerity in it as I could. "Gloria, I know this will be hard, but I'd like for you to tell me about your relationship with Michael, and about the night he was killed."
Gloria nodded. "Of course. Well, Michael and I were married for twenty-four years. Only one of those years was even remotely happy. Then the abuse started."
She gazed intently at her bracelet. "Every day, it was the same. He hit me over everything I did wrong, whether it was overcooking dinner or being unable to fix something that had broken. You'd be surprised how many times I was beaten over something like a broken water pipe. Somehow, it was my fault."
Her voice had taken on a bitter, sarcastic edge.
"When we had Stephen, I thought maybe he would stop for the sake of the baby. I was wrong. If anything, it got worse. And he started abusing Stephen, too. Nothing physical, thank God, but verbal."
"Yes, I've heard," I said patiently. "It was terrible for him to treat you both so badly."
Gloria smiled slightly, and then her face turned somber again. "I thought about leaving, but Michael was a powerful man. I was terrified that he would find us. And if he had…"
She shuddered and did not continue.
"What happened last night?" I asked.
Gloria looked up at me and sighed. "I wish I could say I have an alibi," she said. "But I don't. I was in the bathroom with, well…digestive problems. When I came out, I went to the study to see if Michael needed anything, and he was dead." Her voice broke on the last word and she put a hand over her mouth. I reached out comfortingly and took her other hand.
"I'm sorry," she said. "But…despite everything, I still loved him. I guess that's another reason I stayed. Even though he hurt me, I couldn't imagine life without him. Mrs. Fletcher, I didn't kill him! I would never have done anything like that! I could never do anything to harm him!"
She started crying, and I got up so that I could sit beside her, wrapping my arm around her comfortingly. She started crying into my shoulder. "It's okay," I said. "I know you're hurting, but I promise, things will get better in time."
Gloria sniffled and said, "Thank you, Mrs. Fletcher."
"Please, Gloria," I said with a small smile, "call me Jessica."
"So this is where he was found?" I asked.
Gloria nodded, a handkerchief pressed against her mouth. She was sitting on the corner of Michael's desk. The study was rather dark; the lone lamp on the desk was hardly adequate to illuminate the entire room. It was obvious that Michael had been meticulously tidy, as there was not a single aspect of the room out of place. My gaze was set on the floor in front of the desk. There was no blood, which fit the description I'd received of Michael's body. He'd been stabbed in the back and had landed on his stomach when he fell, so the presence of blood would have actually been suspicious. But I had no need to worry.
"Hmm," I said, staring at the patch of floor where, twenty-four hours ago, Michael Sutton's body had been splayed.
"What are you thinking?" Gloria asked, sounding as if she wasn't sure she wanted to know.
"Nothing right now," I replied. "As he was stabbed in the back and fell forward, then there's a chance he didn't know who attacked him. On the other hand, he landed with his head toward the door, implying that the killer was already in the room. Perhaps Michael was even showing him or her to the door when they made their move. But either way, he left us no clue to his killer's identity. What was the murder weapon?"
Gloria took a deep pull on her cigarette and replied, "Michael's letter opener."
I looked up at her. For a moment, I had forgotten that it was the victim's widow and not an investigator that I was talking to. "I'm so sorry," I said. "I didn't mean…"
"No," said Gloria, waving her hand. I thought she looked rather shaky. "I mean, you're investigating his murder. I want to help. I want you to find who did this to my husband."
I nodded, unsure of what to say, and returned my attention to the floor. However, before I could investigate further, someone walked into the room, and I looked up. It was a well-dressed man of about forty-five, and I could only assume that this was Carl Sutton, Michael's younger brother and Angela's father.
He looked rather surprised to see me, as though he'd forgotten that I was here. Then he recovered and said, "Good evening, Mrs. Fletcher. Didn't mean to disturb you."
"Oh, not at all," I said with a pleasant smile. "And it's Jessica, please."
"Jessica, then," Carl said with a small smile. Then he looked over my shoulder and added, "Gloria, I need to speak to you."
"Oh?" Gloria asked, raising her eyebrows. "And what about?"
Carl looked in my direction, and I said, "If this has anything to do with Michael's murder, I think you should tell me, too."
Carl shook his head. "No, it's about the business," he said. "Now that Michael is dead, the business belongs to me, and I would like to discuss some matters with Gloria. Private matters."
"I see," I replied, "but before you discuss this, may I ask you a few questions, Mr. Sutton?"
Carl looked rather surprised for a moment. Then he composed himself and said, "Yes, I suppose I should have seen this coming. What would you like to know?"
"What was your relationship to the victim?" I asked.
"Michael was my older brother," Carl replied. "And I guess I'd better go ahead and tell you, we didn't get along at all. In fact, we hardly ever exchanged any nice words. I came down here for the weekend to pretty much demand that I be allowed a bigger role in the family business. Of course, as you can imagine, that didn't go very well."
"I imagine not," I said. "I've heard that Michael was not a very pleasant man."
Carl laughed once without any humor. "That's the understatement of the year, Mrs. Fletcher. Excuse me," he added quickly, "Jessica. Yes, my brother was a heartless ass, if you'll pardon my language."
I nodded once. "May I ask where you were last night when Michael was killed?"
Carl replied, "I was angry that he had refused to hear my case, and so I went into town to see some old friends. We spent several hours at Hardy's bar. I can give you the number, if you'd like to verify, along with those of my friends."
"That won't be necessary," I replied with a smile. "I assume the police have already checked that?"
"Then I see no reason to bother you any further," I said. "Excuse me. I still need to speak to the butler."
I found Lionel Reeves, the Sutton family butler, busy in the kitchen when I went looking for him. "Ah, Mrs. Fletcher!" he said jovially as a peeked into the room. "What a pleasant surprise! Shall I fix anything for you? A drink, perhaps?"
"No, thank you, Mr. Reeves. And please," I said for what felt like the hundredth time that night, "call me Jessica."
"Then call me Lionel," the butler replied. "And I would be happy to assist you in any way I can."
"Wonderful," I said. "Please tell me about your employer, Michael Sutton."
"Ah, yes," Lionel said, his smile fading. "Michael. A terrible man by all accounts. He abused his wife and son in equal measure, and I understand that he was a ruthless businessman as well. But I personally had no issue with him. He was not at all unkind to me. He even included me in his will."
"Really?" I said, interested. "What did he leave you?"
"A handsome amount of money," Lionel replied. Then he quickly added, "Of course, don't get me wrong, Jessica. Having money is nice, but I much preferred to have a steady job. I had no motive to kill him."
"Oh, I wasn't trying to suggest that you did," I reassured him. "Just covering all the bases, you understand."
"Of course," the butler replied. "Is there anything else you'd like to know?"
"Yes. I have another question for you. It's just routine, of course," I said, hoping he wouldn't get too nervous. "Where were you last night when Michael was killed?"
Lionel's face fell. "I'm afraid I have no solid alibi," he said. "I was in here, preparing drinks for Mr. Sutton. You see, he had Gloria fix his meals because I'm a terrible cook, but he had me fix his coffee and drinks. He usually has a glass of wine after dinner, and I…"
He broke off suddenly, and it wasn't hard to figure out why. A sudden outburst of yelling had started from a room nearby. It sounded like it was coming from the study, where I had left Gloria and Carl to discuss their "private business."
"What in heaven's name is that about?" Lionel asked no one in particular.
"No idea," I replied. "Well, thank you for your time, Lionel. Excuse me."
He nodded and I left the room, walking briskly up the hall toward the study. Gloria and Carl's voices became much more distinct as I drew nearer.
"…don't care if you run the business now, Carl! You can't simply cut us out! For God's sake, we are your family!"
"I can do whatever I want with this business now!" Carl yelled. "That includes taking it away from my brother's killer!"
There was a long silence. Then Gloria said in a tone of shocked rage, "You think I killed Michael? You think it was me! How DARE you!"
"If the shoe fits, wear it," Carl retorted. "You may have Mrs. Fletcher fooled, Gloria, but I know the real you, the you who hated Michael's guts and couldn't wait to get away from him! You sure aren't playing the part of grieving widow, if you catch my drift, Gloria."
I heard the sound of storming feet and ducked into a room on my left as Gloria walked briskly down the hall, huffing in fury. She was gone in moments, and I stood there, thinking hard.
"So, any ideas?" Chief Bale asked me as I continued to pace the parlor.
"No, nothing new since the last time you asked me five minutes ago," I replied, trying to retain some semblance of patience.
Bale snorted. "Everyone down at the station thinks I'm mad for bringing you into this," he remarked. "And maybe they were right after all."
I ignored this. "Michael was killed last night at sundown in his study, stabbed in the back with his own letter opener," I said.
"Thank you, Captain Obvious," Bale said sarcastically.
I ignored him again. "They all have a motive to kill him, and except for Gloria and Lionel, who were reportedly alone when he was killed. But Lionel's motive is questionable. After all, he didn't have much to gain if his employer was killed."
"What do you mean?" Bale asked, not sounding like he really cared. "He got a bunch of money out of the deal, of course he had motive."
"True," I conceded, "but he lost his job, unless Gloria is willing to keep him on as butler. But with Carl inheriting the business, she might not be able to. No, it would have been too risky for him."
"Well then, who?" Bale asked.
"I don't know," I admitted. "There's something I'm missing, but I just can't figure it out."
"If I may say so, Mrs. Fletcher," Bale said, "I think you're looking for shadows at noon. The butler did it, I'm sure of it."
I froze in mid-step, my mind suddenly whirring. I turned to face him. "What did you say?" I asked.
"I said the butler…"
"No, before that," I said.
He must have seen something in my face, because he looked at me with a confused expression as he answered, "I said you were looking for shadows at noon. It means you're looking for something that isn't there."
I slapped a palm to my forehead. "Of course!" I said. "Of course! It makes perfect sense now! Why didn't I see it before?"
"Uh…see what?" Bale asked.
I didn't answer his question. "I need you to gather everyone in here now, please. I know who killed Michael Sutton."
Do you know? The clues are all there. Was it Michael's angry son? Or his abused wife? Or his neglected brother? Or what about his niece? Or was it Lionel the butler after all? Jessica is gathering the suspects together, and she will soon reveal the killer's identity.
Have you figured it out as well? If you have, or if you just have a guess, let me know in a private message. I appreciate reviews, but PLEASE don't give away any possible solutions in a review, it might spoil the ending for everyone else! I'll post the solution soon, once you've had time to riddle everything out.