IN PART One, Sister Modwenna and William Ross overheard Lady Burton and friends protesting about the Statutes Fair, before Ross and his wife witnessed the shooting of Robert Bletchingley, whose body then vanished.
THE next morning, with the town still in uproar over the previous day’s events, Sister Modwenna kept her promise of visiting William Ross at his blacksmith’s yard.
There was no question of what the hot topic was, with all other issues put to one side as they focused their attention on the shooting.
“So, the way things sit at present, sister, we don’t know whether we are dealing with a murder, an abduction or simply a prank,” Ross was saying.
“Indeed,” replied the nun, “although my inclination would be towards a foul deed of some sort.
“Why else would the fellow with the gun call out a name which would mean nothing to most of the crowd assembled there?
“If it were merely a joke of some sort, then it would have been better to wait until this Mr Bletchingley was on stage — then the shooter would have had a captive audience to amaze with his disappearing trick.”
“On stage?” queried Ross.
“Oh yes, I have discovered some facts about the missing gentleman.
“Robert Bletchingley was a stage conjurer, part of a double act with his lifelong friend Samuel Meddings and their assistant Sarah — who is also Mr Bletchingley’s wife.”
“Or perhaps widow.”
“We certainly cannot discount that possibility.”
“If the poor chap was murdered, who are the prime suspects?”
“Well, for once we will not have to look far to answer that question, as it seems there are any number of people who wished Mr Bletchingley ill.
“He was by all accounts something of a troublemaker, and along with Mr Meddings, would bring uproar and scandal to whichever town they were entertaining with their travelling show.”
“What sort of scandal?”
“Mostly of an inebriated kind — destroying property, fisticuffs, bawdy comments, you know the sort.”
“Aye, I do — precisely the sort about which Lady Burton and her cronies were complaining yesterday.”
“Indeed, and that group, venerable as they are, should not be precluded from our enquiries.
“While murder might seem an over-reaction to the petty crimes these two gentlemen have committed, it is likely that Lady Burton’s petition to have the fair cancelled will carry more weight now that there has been a possible death.”
“Mr Ross, do not dismiss the strength of feeling which boils away under the wrinkled surface of ladies who have reached a certain age.”
“But surely that would not, could not lead to murder?
“And brief as our glimpse of the assailant was, they did not look nor sound like Harriett Georgina.”
“I accept that, but it is also my belief that the person in question was hired for the foul purpose.
“Again I draw your attention to his calling out of his victim’s name.
“That was surely to pick him out in the crowd, and make sure he was shooting the right gentleman.
“If he was a hired assassin then I am sure Lady Burton had the resources to engage him, and even to do so without anyone knowing.”
Ross nodded and there was a moment’s pause while the two friends took a sip of the tea Mary Ross had supplied them.
“What do the police think?” continued the blacksmith.
“You can ask them yourself,” replied Modwenna, “for I fancy that is the sound of Sergeant Harris’ police wagon coming to a rest outside as we speak.”
“How the deuce did you know that?”
“The police wagon, being used to transport prisoners, contains a lot of metal and so is significantly heavier than other carts.
“Thus it makes a different noise as it travels across the ground.
“In addition, I know that Sergeant Harris, in his eagerness, often alights the vehicle before it has come to a halt, giving little regard to the leg injury he picked up on military service.
“So I can only assume that the heavy thud and brief exclamation of pain signalled the arrival of our favourite officer.”
“Astounding,” smiled Ross, and made for the door to admit the policeman (for it was he), who hobbled inside and gratefully accepted the seat offered to him.
“Sister Modwenna, Mr Ross, the vicar told me I would find you here.”
“And find us you do, Sergeant Harris.”
“I will come straight to the point, as I sure you have guessed why I am here.”
The nun and the blacksmith nodded, but remained silent.
“This case is proving to be a thorn in my side, and I currently find myself exceedingly short-staffed.
“I’m sure I would have gotten around to asking for your help soon enough anyway, as this case shows no signs of having a simple solution, but would you mind accompanying me to the yard?
“We have the cart which serves as the crime scene there and I’d be much obliged for your second opinion.”
Modwenna readily agreed, and turned to Ross to see if he would join her.
“I wouldn’t miss it,” he said, “I have no urgent customers scheduled to come into my smithy today, and I can ask Mary to tell those minor cases I do have to either return tomorrow or go to Old Watkins in the town.”
Ross stepped out of the room to pass on these instructions to his wife and then met his colleagues outside, quickly jumping up into the police wagon where they were seated.
Once underway, Harris filled them in on the investigation.
“There’s no shortage of suspects, and we’ve got motives coming out of our ears, but the name that keeps coming to the top is that blasted Lady Burton.
“Trouble is, the brass above me aren’t letting me do my job.”
“You mean you want to arrest her ladyship, but they won’t let you,” offered Ross.
“Quite the opposite, Bill.
“The upper echelons of the Burton constabulary would like nothing more than to see Lady Burton behind bars, or at least have her name dragged through the mud, but I simply don’t think the old bag had anything to do with it.
“You can say what you like about her, and plenty of people have, but at heart she only cares about the interests of the town.
“But she’s too liberal, too forward-thinking and too much of a reformist for my bosses.
“I’m under pressure to at the very least bring her in for questioning, and they’ve given me until the end of the day to offer up a realistic alternative suspect.
“In the meantime, they want the fair to go ahead — again to spite Lady Burton — but the stipulation is that all our officers are brought in from days off and holidays and stationed around the town to make sure there’s no more trouble.
“That means our investigative powers have been somewhat limited, so I am dragooning you two to help me out.”
Modwenna fell silent at this point, a sure sign that she was mulling over the problem, and so Ross and Harris passed the rest of the journey in idle chat.
When they arrived at the police yard, Harris directed his driver to proceed directly to where the cart from the previous night was.
Alighting, Harris stepped into the station, while Modwenna and Ross began examining the vehicle — rather a large affair, with considerable storage space below, presumably for the magicians’ equipment.
They soon found the bloodstain, which had pooled in front of the boxseat on the cart.
The nun studied this for several minutes, before moving onto the seat itself.
“Do we know who was in the cart, besides the unfortunate Mr Bletchingley?” she asked.
“Harris was telling me on the way here that he was in the back with Sarah, while this Meddings fellow was driving,” Ross replied.
“Hmmm,” said Modwenna, and resumed her forensic work, which now took her to the driver’s seat of the cart.
After a few more minutes poking the nooks and crannies therein, she returned to Ross, a playbill in her hand.
“Mr Ross, would you be so kind as to assist me?”
“Of course sister, what can I do?”
“Nothing more than accompany me on this seat for a moment.”
Ross frowned, but readily agreed and the two friends sat side-by-side.
“I believe I may have a theory, but I would like to conduct one small test first,” said the nun, before standing up quickly. As she did so, Ross found the seat below him suddenly disappear, and he plummeted down into the darkness of the cart’s depths before the seat closed again above him.
Unperturbed, Modwenna stepped off the cart and said “I trust you are not hurt, Mr Ross?”
Ross, who in truth had fallen no more than a couple of feet, had nothing hurt but his pride, and that had only taken a minor knock.
“I am not sister, although I am left wondering if there were not some other way of testing your theory.”
“I am sure there was, but I wanted to recreate the circumstances surrounding last night’s events as closely as I could.”
As she explained, Modwenna lifted a door at the base of the cart, and Ross gratefully climbed out of his temporary prison.
“So,” he said, “what exactly happened then?”
“It seems that Mr Meddings and Mr Bletchingley’s devices of illusion are not restricted to their stage act.
“The seat of this cart, as you have discovered, has a collapsible bottom, triggered when a certain board is stepped upon heavily, as I did when I stood up just now.”
“Well, that explains the disappearance of the body. And as we know that Sarah was sitting alongside Bletchingley, I assume she is the suspect?”
“You are half right Mr Ross. I believe that she and Mr Meddings conspired to murder Mr Bletchingley.”
“You mean conspired to have him murdered, surely? For they hired the man who fired the shot.”
“No, not quite. I do believe that they hired the shooter, but I do not think that Mr Bletchingley was killed by a bullet.
“You see how the blood is only in front of the seat? Well, ballistics may not be my area of expertise, but I would have thought that a bullet passing through the body would cause bleeding on both sides.
“Of course, it is possible that the bullet lodged inside Mr Bletchingley, but I fancy that the size and shape of this blood stain indicates a knife wound.”
“A knife?” exclaimed Ross. “Then you think the chap was stabbed, not shot.”
“Indeed. Here is my version of the events. Mr Meddings and Mrs Bletchingley want to dispose of Mr Bletchingley, and though they have the stomach to do it themselves, they want to make sure that no blame is attached to them.
“They cannot afford a real assassin, but they can easily afford to hire someone to pretend to shoot their friend and husband, while simultaneously committing the actual murder with a knife.
“Then comes the question of disposing of the body. This they do with the use of the contraption I have just demonstrated, which drops Mr Bletchingley’s body into the luggage compartment below.”
“But the body is not still in the cart — I can vouch for that — and the vehicle was brought here straight from the incident,” said Ross.
“I assume that they were allowed to remove their belongings first, as there is nothing here now, and I know from this playbill that their act involves a box, from which one of our magicians vanishes.”
“I think I see. So Bletchingley’s body dropped into this box, and then Meddings and Sarah took it away with them to dispose of later.”
“That is my theory. I presume that the police made a cursory search of the items which were taken away, but the box would have had a secret compartment, and unfortunately our diligent officers did not consider that possibility.”
“Speaking of which, here one of them comes now.”
Sergeant Harris had indeed returned, saying as he approached: “Any luck sister?”
“Possibly, although I would like to make more enquiries. Do you know where I could find Mr Meddings and the widow Bletchingley?”
“Well, I’ve not been able to get hold of them yet as they claim they’re distraught and have locked themselves in their dressing room at the hall where their show is still going ahead.
“But it appears they are well enough to put on a show this lunchtime, so you could go along there and hopefully you can collar him afterwards.”
Modwenna and Ross agreed, and the sergeant invited them to join him on his cart for a lift back to town.
The small room was packed — despite the early hour of the show — as evidently word had spread around of Meddings’ connection to the deceased and ghoulish curiosity had drawn a crowd.
Sergeant Harris flashed his badge at the doorman and ushered the pair inside, where the ushers grudgingly allowed them to squeeze in at the back.
They had barely bid Harris goodbye when the three lanterns which hung above the stage to illuminate it were lit and a figure strode onto the boards.
This was clearly Meddings, and he was joined by a woman who they guessed to be Sarah.
That hypothesis was soon proved correct as Meddings introduced himself — as the Great Medici — and his assistant.
He then launched into a grandiose preamble, impressive if a little cliched, in which he ‘warned’ the audience of the great spectacle they were about to witness, promising an evening of delight and wonder.
Then, just as a hush descended on the audience, a voice rang out from the back of the auditorium.
The conjurer looked up, as did Ross and all of the audience, to behold a hooded, masked figure dressed in black who appeared at the side of the stage.
He raised his hands, which contained a rifle, and quickly shot twice in the direction of the stage.
The first bullet hit the middle lantern, plunging the centre of the stage into darkness, but the second clearly found its mark, as there was a curtailed scream, and then silence.