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Chapter 4 - Lilies at the Funeral by A.J. Hall

After the histrionics of Larch Hill, Lisa Clare’s home struck Sam with profound relief. “The sober certainty of waking bliss”, he thought, finding a proper use for that quotation at last.

When the maid showed him in there were three people sitting around the dining room table, over the remains of a cold-beef-and-salad lunch: Lisa Clare herself; a colourless man who reminded Sam of newspaper photographs of Trotsky, minus the goatee; and a short, energetic-looking man in his early thirties.

“My husband, Rupert,” Lisa said, indicating beardless Trotsky. Sam muttered something incoherent. In the capitals of Europe Rupert Clare’s name was rumoured to give certain politicians sleepless nights. He had expected the man himself to be more prepossessing.

Fortunately, Lisa Clare didn’t seem to notice anything amiss. She waved her hand towards the third person.

“And this is Ben Carley, Hilary’s solicitor.”

“Oh, thank God,” Sam said with feeling. There was absolutely nothing of the hayseed about Carley; his sharp, pin-striped suit said as much. If he had not just left the overbearing, exquisite taste of Larch Hill Sam might have been tempted to call the suit “flashy”. Now it looked reassuringly citified.

Carley grinned. “Nothing like flattery to bring the best out of your legal team. Something you’ll soon find out for yourself, if you haven’t already. Mrs Clare tells me you’re an articled clerk. Herbert Smith, isn’t it?”

“For my sins,” Sam said.

Carley rolled his eyes heavenwards. “They must have been good ones.”

They exchanged a quick grin of professional camaraderie.

“Anyway, that should make it a great deal easier to get you a pass in to see Dr Mansell. Tomorrow, not this afternoon, I’m afraid. The mills of Gloucester Prison grind slow. So, in the meantime, have you got any suggestions for me? You’ve just come from Larch Hill?”

Sam opened his mouth, but before he could say anything the doorbell rang. Lisa looked up in surprise.

“Oh, I do hope it’s not the man from the local paper again.”

“Probably just another of Hilary’s patients exercising morbid curiosity under the guise of wanting to be helpful,” Clare said.

The maid opened the dining room door and, after a doubtful glance across at her mistress, looked at Sam.

“It’s the lady you telegraphed about, sir. She’s here, and she really thinks she ought to see you at once, sir.”

“Lady?” Lisa’s brows had drawn together in puzzlement.

“I don’t — ” Sam flapped his hand, seeking enlightenment. Then it came. “That is — you can’t possibly mean Miss Marple?”

“That was the name she gave, sir. Should I take her through to the front parlour, ma’am?”

Lisa looked at the wreckage of lunch on the table, and nodded.

“Yes, of course. Tell her Mr Mansell will be with her as soon as he can. Can you rustle us up a pot of tea, please?”

The dining room door had barely closed behind the maid when Ben Carley let out an impressed whistle. “You dark horse, Mansell. How on earth did you bring that one off?”

“I’m sorry.” Rupert Clare didn’t sound so, in the least. “Who on earth is this woman and why’s she here?”

Carley grinned. “Why she’s here I’ll leave to Mansell. But who she is — the best amateur sleuth alive, pretty much. Remember the Warminster poisoner?”

“I think I may have been abroad. Also, I don’t tend to keep up with police court news. Some of the other chaps cover that for the paper.”

“Pity. It was a good case. Lovely performance by defence counsel, and he was up against the best, too. Neil Francis appeared for the Crown, and you’d have to go a very long way to spot any flies on him. Nonetheless, he was struggling from the start. You could almost see the defendant planning what he was going to do with his aunt’s legacy, when he stepped from the dock a free man at the end of the week.”

Sam’s nails bit into his palms. “And then?”

“On the close of the second day, just as I was leaving court, I spotted a little old lady talking with Francis. And Francis looked as if he could see the gates of heaven opening. Next morning I made some excuse to the senior partner and was back in court, bright and early. And so was the little old lady.”

Carley took a deep breath.

“Well, Francis changed his strategy. He had the defendant recalled to the witness box for re-examination, and went to town on the medical stuff. They’d gone into all that on the previous day, and the defendant had managed to put up a pretty good show of total ignorance of poisons. ‘Ah,’ says Francis, when they’re half way through the same charade and the judge is getting restive, ‘but surely when you were working as a pharmacist’s assistant in Plymouth —’. That’s when I knew the Crown had him. His head went back and he stared up at the public gallery, looking for someone.And he spotted her — the little old lady, sitting quietly knitting. As soon as he did, all the fight went out of him. I doubt the jury were out an hour, in the end.”

“And that was Miss Marple?”

“It was indeed. May I join you?”

Miss Marple was exactly as he remembered her from Bertram’s Hotel, if a little pinker about the cheeks. She burst straight into speech as soon as they entered, without waiting for introductions.

“Mr Mansell, do forgive me if I’m seeming to impose, but really, when I got your telegram I realised there was not a moment to lose. I’m staying at the vicarage — the dear vicar was a curate at St Mary Mead when we had that very unfortunate business with the Archdeacon’s cufflinks, and he most kindly offered to put me up while I was in the district — which reminds me. Sally — his wife — is having one of her coffee mornings tomorrow and she very much hoped she might see Mrs Clare.”

Sam gulped. “I’m not sure vicarage coffee mornings are quite Mrs Clare’s sort of thing —”

Miss Marple regarded him severely over the top of her glasses. “That, Mr Mansell, is entirely besides the point. Murder, you know, changes everything. Keeping aloof simply doesn’t do in these circumstances; it encourages speculation to run riot. It will do Dr Mansell a great deal of good, and, I might add, it will also starve the gossip-mongers of material. Can you imagine the sort of treatment your aunt’s reputation will get over the coffee cups if someone from her side is not present?”

Sam muttered something about “seeing what he could do.” Whether or not that satisfied her, it at least moved her to change the subject.

“I understand you’ve just come from Larch Hill, Mr Mansell.”

He blinked, but cautiously admitted that was so.

“And how did you find Mr Fleming?”

Sam gave a succinct, unvarnished account of his meeting, including Fleming’s theory that somehow his mother had contrived to poison herself with eau de noyau.

“Oh. I see. Eau de noyau — a liqueur of which she was particularly fond. How interesting!”

Carley, who had been growing visibly restive throughout his account, slammed his empty cup down into his saucer. “Interesting? It’s a complete taradiddle from beginning to end!”

Miss Marple turned her full attention to the little lawyer. “Quite so, Mr Carley. That’s the most interesting thing about it. I’m sure you must have found, in your legal practice that while, I’m sorry to say, people tell all sorts of lies for a wide variety of reasons, examining the kind of lies they tell produces some fruitful leads. Here, for instance, we have Mr Fleming claiming to have been responsible for his mother’s death, albeit in a clearly impossible manner. As I said, very interesting indeed.”

She paused, as if awaiting a response, but both Sam and — he was relieved to see — Carley had had the wind knocked out of their sails. After a moment Sam gestured for her to continue.

“Of course, eau de noyau does indeed contain a tiny proportion of cyanide — that’s what lends it flavour — and over the years one or two very unfortunate accidents have arisen as a result. Due, in the most part, to adulteration by tradespeople or over-indulgence on the part of the victims. But of course, Elaine Fleming could never have died in such a way. To begin with, that sort of person always buys wines and spirits from some very respectable firm with whom her family has dealt for generations. Then again, she sounds not at all the type to over-indulge. And, given she was fond of eau de noyau and had drunk it on many previous occasions, it could not be a case of a particular idiosyncrasy. In any event, cyanide is a very fast-acting poison. Any reaction to noyau would have made itself apparent in the drawing room, and that very intelligent young maid would have noticed something, and said so.”

Miss Marple drew a deep breath.

“No; I’m sorry to say that the noyau idea is really very silly. Quite over-dramatic. Mr Fleming may possibly believe it to be true, but the results of the Home Office analysis are bound to prove him false. And, Mr Carley, I very much advise you to be prepared for whatever that analysis may reveal, and to prepare your client.”