THE ST. PATRICK’S DAY
By Percy Spurlark Parker
It was St. Patrick’s Day and a murder had been committed at the O’Bransion mansion. Out of all the suspects the only person I checked off as being in the clear was Professor O’Bransion himself. Not that the old boy wouldn’t normally have been included, but since he’d been bedridden for the past six months hooked up to a couple of IVs, and breathing tubes down his nose, there wasn’t much more he could do but lay there whizzing, punctuated by an occasionally fart.
Mrs. Ivory, his live-in nurse, was a plump, white haired woman with a wide pleasant face and just the slightest hint of a cleft chin. She’d been his nurse ever since a stroke put him flat on his back. She stood stoically at his bedside as I attempted to question him. Withered and sunken into his pillow, the old boy had managed a few nods and head shakes before we both gave up trying, and I went into the library where the rest of the suspects were gathered.
I’m Sergeant Paul Dobley by the way, and catching this murder was just another in a long line of cases that had me questioning myself on why I joined the force in the first place. Actually, I had high hopes in the academy. I was going to have a wall full of accommodations and sail my way up the ranks with ease. Making commissioner one day wasn’t out of the picture. But so far, all twelve years on the force has gotten me are long hours and at times some pretty weird cases.
The library was what you might expect in an old East Side mansion, floor to ceiling book cases interspersed by dark oak trim and heavy looking ceiling beams. There was a musty scent hanging in the air that I’m sure came from the various books cramming every inch of shelf space. A cursory inspection revealed a thin layer of dust on most of the shelves. It’s just a guess, but it didn’t look like the library got much use.
Yeah, I know, Professor O’Bransion has been stuck in bed for six months. Which is true, but the victim, Collin Musgrave also shared the mansion.
They’d been a twosome for years, both in their professional and personal lives. When the state relaxed the laws on gay marriages, they were one of the first couples in line. Professionally, the team of Collin Musgrave and Professor Warren O’Bransion have produced some of the more notable plays of the past couple decades. O’Bransion had been a professor of English at Cambridge, and had hung onto the title.
I’d brought Mrs. Ivory into the library with me to complete my circle of suspects. There were four of them including her. Roger Forest, a stocky six-footer with a boyish mug, stood by the patio doors shifting from one foot to the other, a cigarette dangling from his lips. Gladys Pigeon, a pinch nosed woman of forty or so sat more in, than on, a high-back over-stuffed reading chair. And lastly, Scarlet Reardon, her long flaming red hair befitting her name and topping off a slick, well proportion body.
I’d used the word weird before, well it wasn’t done lightly. With the exception of Mrs. Ivory, who was a nurse and wearing a white nurse’s uniform, the rest were actors, all wearing shades of green, all hired by Collin Musgrave to show up and celebrate St. Pat’s Day with Professor O’Bransion.
An act of deep love and compassion, Mrs. Ivory had assured me. An effort on Musgrave’s part to bring some joy into the Professor’s failing life, and a slim hope that maybe it would be the spark to turn him towards recovery.
But something had gone wrong. Instead of a reenactment of St. Patrick dispatching the snakes out of Ireland, someone had dispatched Collin Musgrave, with a knife, in the dining room. It was the carving knife that was to be used to slice the corned beef, and someone had rammed it up to the hilt into Musgrave’s back.
Mrs. Ivory found him draped across the dining room table.
Inspecting the body was the first thing I did when I arrived. He’d made a mess when he landed on the table, knocking over glasses, candlesticks, spilling ashes from an ashtray, his face resting in an up-turned bowl of cabbage.
I noticed one of the napkins from the place settings was missing, and guessed the killer used it to wipe his or her prints off the knife handle, then took it in an effort not to leave any DNA evidence around.
“How long are we going to be here?” Forest asked, stepping away from the patio doors. He was wearing green knee-length shorts, wide green suspenders, a green derby and pasted-on pointed ears. I guess he was supposed to be disproving the myth that leprechauns were little people.
I’d left a couple of uniforms cops in the room just to make sure no one would get it into their head to walk off. When Forest moved, one of the uniforms moved also, and he stopped, took a step back.
I glanced over the room. “Look, I can’t say how long this will take, but I thought you’d rather have the interviews done here than go downtown.”
“I for one appreciate the thought, Sergeant,” Scarlet Reardon said, with a flip of her lush hair and a cherry lipped smile.
“Thanks for your cooperation, Miss Reardon. If you don’t mind, I’ll start with you?”
We went across the hall to the study, a smaller version of the library with just as much dark oak trim and ceiling beams. The furnishings contrasted the stuffiness of the room however. There was a fifty-five inch flat screen hanging on one wall, and a computer resting on the small glass top desk that sat in the center of the room.
I seated myself behind the desk and took out my note pad and pen.
Scarlet Reardon made a production out of crossing her legs as she sat across the desk from me. When she finally settled, the hem of her satin green spaghetti strap dress was just above mid-thigh, a very well shaped thigh. We’re trained to ignore obvious attempts at distractions. I let my eyes wander a good minute or so and then got to my questioning.
“Now, as I understand it everyone was in the lounge when Mrs. Ivory discovered the body?”
“Yes. Collin left us there with a bar full of Irish whiskies and green beer, while he went to prepare dinner. Everything was going fine until we heard Mrs. Ivory scream and we ran to see what had happened.”
“Did you see anyone leave the lounge between the time Mr. Musgrave left and Mrs. Ivory Screamed?”
“I guess we all took turns going to the washroom. There was a lot of green beer.”
I wrote GREAT on my note pad. Everyone had an opportunity.
“Tell me, Miss Reardon, when Mr. Musgrave’s body was discovered, did anyone think about leaving?”
“Truth is, the subject did come up. But we hadn’t been paid. Collin had promised us dinner and five hundred dollars cash each at the end of the evening.”
“And with him dead, you still expected to be paid?”
“I couldn’t see it happening if we left. Waiting around was our only chance.”
I checked my note pad. There had only been fifty-seven dollars found in Musgrave’s wallet. That left fifteen hundred dollars unaccounted for. Could this be a simple robbery – murder? I hoped so; it would make things a hell of a lot easier. Find the money, and I’ll have my guilty party.
“Had you worked for Mr. Musgrave before?”
“I auditioned for him and the Professor a couple of times. Never got a call back.”
“What happened this time around?”
She shrugged, one of the straps slid off her smooth shoulder. “Don’t know,” she said, pausing long enough to replace the strap. “He stopped me when I was leaving the union hall, asked me if I had anything lined up for today.”
“What about the others, did you know each other before this?”
“I did a play with Roger about a year ago. Way off the main drag. Three weeks of rehearsals. It closed after the second performance. I believe Roger was one of the writers. Gladys and I don’t really know each other, but we were part of a crowd in a soap commercial once. And, well…”
“Mrs. Ivory…” She shrugged again, and as if on cue both straps slid off her shoulders this time. It was like her dress was shrinking before my eyes. “I can’t swear to it, but it seems like I’ve seen her someplace before.”
I was tempted to keep her there just to see how small the dress would get, but I reminded myself that this was a murder case, and regardless of how enticing Miss Scarlet Reardon looked, she could’ve been the one who made Musgrave into a pin cushion.
I escorted her back to the library and asked Mrs. Ivory to join me in the study.
“I don’t know what more help I can be to you, Sergeant.”
“A lot of time people know things they don’t realize they know, Mrs. Ivory.”
She seemed to think that over a bit, nodded. “I see. Very well then, I’ll help as best as I can.”
“Good. First of all, did Mr. Musgrave happen to mention anything negative about any the people he hired for today’s festivities?”
“No. As far as I know he was very pleased with the way the evening had gone.”
“And, exactly what went on this evening?”
“The Professor has always been a big St. Patrick’s Day enthusiast. Big party every year. Once he flew a group over to Ireland to kiss the Blarney Stone. And another time he had a float in the city’s parade. He was good for doing things like that. Really a fun loving person. Well, as I told you before, the Professor wasn’t getting any better. And Mr. Musgrave wanted to do something really special for him. They all gathered around his bed singing Irish songs and telling jokes. It was all scripted out like a mini play.”
“As best he could. There were a few smiles, but he’s pretty weak.”
“Would it be fair to say the party idea was more to ease Mr. Musgrave’s conscience, seeing as though the Professor really couldn’t enjoy it?”
“It’s a simple concept,” I explained, in an attempt to show I hadn’t slept through all my psych classes. “Mr. Musgrave, knowingly or unknowing, feels guilty that it’s the Professor who’s sick and not himself. Thus the party, in a way, was more to ease this guilt he had, than for the Professor’s benefit.”
“I doubt that very much. Mr. Musgrave simply loved him, and wanted the professor’s last days to be joyous.”
“It was just a thought,” I said, taking a moment and then asked, “You discovered the body, could you run the sequence of events by me?”
“Of course. I’d made the Professor as comfortable as I could. I knew Mr. Musgrave was setting the dinner table and I went to help. He was a marvelous cook. Practically a master chef. He never catered the parties he and the Professor threw, people would line up for invitations. He wasn’t in the kitchen when I went in there, so I looked into the dining room,” she paused. “I’m afraid I must have screamed.”
“When everyone rushed into the dining room in response to your scream, did they all arrive at the same time?”
“Have you crossed paths with any of the actors before? Miss Reardon feels she recognizes you but she can’t recall from where.”
She shook her head and a strand of hair dangled over her left ear. “I have no idea where that comes from, Sergeant. This is the first time I’ve seen Miss Reardon or Mrs. Pigeon. Mr. Forest however, has been a visitor here at the mansion three or four times in the past two weeks. He and Mr. Musgrave co-wrote this evening script.”
I could collar Forest then and there, I thought. The opportunity to shorten the evening’s work seemed to’ve presented itself. I was tempted, but I’ve gone off half-cocked before and have learned it’s best to cover all bases first.
I decided to interview Mrs. Pigeon next.
Her costume consisted of dark green tights, upturned green shoes, a pale green blouse, and a large green bow tie.
She sat up straight in the chair in front of the desk, her legs crossed at the ankles, her hands clasped together in her lap.
“At the moment, Mrs. Pigeon, everyone’s a suspect.”
“But I was just here for a job. I had no reason to kill Mr. Musgrave. In fact, I was hoping if I did well enough tonight, he might put me into one of his plays.”
“Do you think everyone else had the same aspirations?”
“Could be. That’s why you take these kind of way out jobs. I mean, the money’s nice. But you hope for something else down the road.”
“Had you worked for Mr. Musgrave before?”
“I had a walk-on in his and the Professor’s second play. One line. Nothing to build a résumé on.”
“Know of any reason why any of the others might’ve wanted to harm Mr. Musgrave?”
“I find it hard to believe you don’t have any opinion, after sitting in the library watching the others all this time. It’s only human nature to guess.”
I didn’t think it was possible but she sat up a little straighter. She clasped and unclasped her hands then intertwined her fingers. “I,” she started, licked her lips. “I don’t want to accuse anyone unjustly.”
“Go on, Mrs. Pigeon, take a guess.”
“Well… When Mrs. Ivory went to call the police and we were deciding whether to stay or leave, Mr. Forest was all for leaving. I think he only stayed because Miss Reardon and I did. I thought then that, well, you know, if he didn’t have anything to be guilty about, why not stay?”
It was a damn good question, and one I decided to ask Forest myself.
“I don’t do well around these type of situations,” he said.
I’d offered him one of the chairs in front of the desk but the big derby wearing leprechaun preferred to stand, or rather pace.
“So you’ve been involved in a murder before?”
That stopped him, from pacing that is, he couldn’t keep his hands still though. They kept waving about as he talked. “A murder, no. I… ugh, walked in on a robbery at a gas station once. The robber pointed his gun directly at me. I just knew he was going to shoot. I must admit I had a problem with my bladder.”
“Understandable,” I said.
The longer he talked the higher his voice had gotten. He started pacing again, making larger circles this time. “I had trouble sleeping for weeks. And now this…”
“You and Mr. Musgrave were friends?”
“But you worked together on this evening’s program?”
“Huh? Well yes. But that was just business.”
“I don’t know, Mr. Forest, it just feels like you’re lying.”
“Me? No?” He glanced longingly at the door.
“You do realize I can put a bullet in your leg before you can get that door open?”
Sometimes a mild threat can help get at the truth.
“I wasn’t going to leave…” He fumbled in his pockets for his cigarettes, stuck one in his mouth but then couldn’t find his lighter.
“You want to tell me why you killed him?”
He got all wide eyed then, grabbing the sides of his face. “I didn’t. It wasn’t me.”
“You’d better sit down, Forest. You’re having too much trouble trying to think on your feet.”
“Now.” I put a lot of command in that one word.
He came timidly over to the desk and sat.
“You were in the dining room with Musgrave.”
“No, I wasn’t. I only went into the dining room after Mrs. Ivory screamed.”
He took the cigarette out of his mouth, crushed it in his fist and dropped it to the floor. He slowly raised his head, sighed, his eyes beginning to water. “Okay, yeah, I was there. I slipped away from the others to meet him. But he was alive when I left to go back to the lounge.”
“You got to do better than that.”
“Look, I couldn’t harm him. Collin and I loved each other. I was going to become his new writing partner, and we were going to get married.”
“Aren’t you forgetting something? Musgrave was already married. Gay or not, bigamy is bigamy.”
“The Professor wasn’t going to live forever.”
“Could you really count on that? There’s always a chance he could get better.”
“Well, sure, I mean I know that but Collin said…” He was sweating now. He sat his derby on the desk, wiped a hand over his thick locks bending one of the tips of his pointed ears.
“What did Musgrave say?”
“Nothing. He didn’t say anything.”
“Have it your way,” I said, reaching for my cuffs as I stood. “Roger Forest, I’m placing you under arrest for the murder of Collin Musgrave. You have the right to…”
“No, no, wait. I’ll tell you everything.”
I stood there looking down at him. “Well?”
He started, stopped, started again. “Later tonight, after we’d all gone, Collin was going to kill the Professor. I didn’t want him to, but he said there was no other way for us to be together. He said for me not to worry, he would take care of it himself. Said it would be easy; he’d just turn off the respirator.”
I reseated myself. “So you discussed the Professor’s murder and went merrily back to the lounge?”
“You make it sound so awful. But it was like Collin said. The Professor has had a full life, and it was cruel to let him just waste away. It would be quick and painless.”
“Well, I guess that makes it alright?”
He didn’t respond and I let him stew for awhile. I was inclined to believe what he’d told me, keeping in mind he was a writer and an actor and could’ve been feeding me a load of bull. I could slap the cuffs on him, but the only thing I could prove was that he’d been in the dining room. As for him implicating himself in a murder plot, he was sure to change his story once he got down to the station house. And there was still the missing money.
“Musgrave was to pay the ladies five hundred dollars for tonight’s work. What about you?”
“I was to be paid just like the others.”
“Even though you co-wrote tonight’s program?”
“Collin didn’t want Gladys and Scarlet to know there was anything between us. He was going to pay us all at the same time. So it would look like I was just another actor hired to do a part.”
Okay, so we’re still talking about fifteen hundred dollars in cash flowing around.
I got a couple of female police officers and had them regroup the ladies in the study for a thorough search. Another officer took Forest into the billiard room for his head to toe, while I and the uniforms in the library gave the place the once-over just to make sure one of our suspects hadn’t stashed the money and the missing napkin in there. We came up empty on all counts.
Since the Professor’s illness, Musgrave had moved out of the room they shared and had been using one of the guest rooms. A search there totaled another zero.
That left me with one last place to check out.
The Professor seemed like he’d sunken further into his pillow, his pale face thin and wrinkled. The breathing tubes coming out of his nostrils trailed down the sides of his face, clipping under his cleaved chin before extending to the pump at the side of the bed.
Looking around the room there were photographs just about everywhere, walls, mantels, nooks. Most of them were of the professor through the ages. An earlier one was clearly of him as a child with his mother and father, and his six siblings. Only two of the children had been able to escape their father’s wide cleft chin face, favoring their mother’s more petite features.
There were a number of photographs with the Professor and Musgrave together, one which was surely from their wedding day. The Professor stood with his arm around Musgrave. They were both in tuxedos, both smiling proudly at the camera. Musgrave, almost a head shorter than the Professor was holding a garden of brightly colored flowers. Naturally, the Professor had been much healthier then. Strands of white hair brushed the tops of his ears, his clean shaven face fuller, his cleft chin prominent.
Clues, clues, and more clues, if I could just connect the right ones.
I turned back to the Professor. The only noise in the room was the muted thump of the pump shooting oxygen into his lungs.
I tried the obvious place first, I checked under his pillow. The missing napkin and the fifteen hundred dollars were there, neatly tucked away.
I took a hard look at the Professor as he lay there, eyes closed, a slight twitch in his left cheek. Had his illness been a shame all along?
No. The old boy couldn’t raise his head let alone stab someone.
But I wasn’t disappointed, I knew who the guilty party was.
“Which is it, older or younger sister?”
“Younger,” Mrs. Ivory said, without hesitation. “When my brother became ill I left my position at the hospital to be at his side.”
I should’ve picked up on it sooner. She knew too much about the Professor and Musgrave to have only been with them for six months. And there was her cleft chin. It was why Scarlet Reardon thought she knew her. She’d subconsciously recognized the family resemblance.
She took a couple of breaths and then gave me the whole story. When she’d gone to the kitchen to help Musgrave with dinner, through the door leading into the dining room she’d overheard him and Forest plotting to kill her brother. She’d gotten so enraged that when Forest left the room she’d grabbed the carving knife and put an end to Musgrave’s plan. Taking the money was done in an effort to confuse things, which for a time it had.
I called the paramedics to transport the Professor to the hospital. They arrived as Mrs. Ivory and Forest were being lead out to separate squad cars.
“I knew it was something but I just couldn’t pinpoint it.” Scarlet Reardon said, after I’d given her and Gladys Pigeon a quick overview. I usually don’t give out any explanations but it gave me a little more time with Scarlet. And she seemed to be hinting at a pleasurable evening. She tossed her red hair back and batted her dark eyes up to me as she smiled.
“Brother and sister, huh?”
“And you’ve got our money?”
“Yes, but I’m afraid it’s got to be held for evidence.”
The smile went away faster than it had appeared. “Then I’m wasting my time here. Come on, Gladys, we’ve got to find ourselves a lawyer. Goodnight, Sergeant.”
I watched them march out of the room without the slightest look back. I couldn’t time it exactly, but it was right up there with one of the fastest brush offs I’d ever had.
Percy Spurlark Parker is a published mystery writer (since 1972), a former MWA V.P. and a current member of PWA. His stories have appeared in Ellery Queen, Alfred Hitchcock, Woman's World, and several anthologies. His short story “Clowning Around” appeared in omdb! in July, 2013 and "Plus One" appeared in omdb! in November, 2012.
Copyright © 2015 Percy Spurlark Parker. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!
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