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Chapter 9 - Lilies at the Funeral by A.J. Hall

“Yes; here would be an excellent place to dispose of a body, Fleming.”

The cavern’s natural acoustics amplified Rupert’s voice. On the edge of the smooth expanse of water that filled half the great rocky space, Fleming turned. Rupert gripped the revolver. Its solid weight in his hand was comforting, even though a detached part of his mind reproved himself for melodrama.

The boy paused before responding, his timing just a shade too self-conscious. Maliciously, Rupert thought his reputation as an actor might be a trifle overstated.

“Clare, isn’t it? I find that comment in remarkably poor taste, given the circumstances.” His voice was a County drawl, exaggerated to the point of insolence. Doubtless it played well in Gloucestershire.

“You’ll have to forgive me, Fleming. Perhaps I’ve spent too long on the Continent. Dealing with Hitler’s thugs and party lackeys tends to coarsen one to the niceties.”

“I’ll say.” Fleming laughed: mirthless, affected and scornful.

Rupert flicked on the safety catch and dropped the revolver into his coat pocket. His hands held out so Fleming could see they were empty, he stepped forward into the light.

“Look, Fleming, do you care two straws about Hilary?”

“Of course I do!” His voice resumed a more conversational register, with a note of self-pity Rupert judged equally natural. “She’s the only good thing that’s ever happened to me! If only mother hadn’t — “

Regrettably, he checked himself before revealing more.

Rupert exhaled. “Then why the devil, Fleming, don’t you do the decent thing and go to the police?”

“I’ve tried with the police. They didn’t listen —”

“That’s because you came to them with a cock-and-bull story about eau de noyaux and an accidental cyanide overdose, which would have sounded pretty thin even if it weren’t straight out of a shilling shocker. To say nothing of being flatly contradicted by all the evidence. All you managed to do was give the Superintendent the idea that you thought Hilary was guilty and were nobly covering up for her. Whereas if you went back with the truth —”

“What truth? Look here, Clare, have you been talking to that old tabby who seems to be hanging around with Hilary’s nephew?”

Rupert’s world swung, abruptly, askew. “You’ve spoken to Miss Marple?”

“Is that what she’s called? I can’t stand these dried-up spinsters who just want to devour every bit of gossip. They’re vampires, all of them.”

No reason to interrupt him when he was so close to revealing himself.

“She came up to me after church — I can’t pray, not properly, not in church, only here — but I thought if I missed communion, people would say things worse than they’re saying already, and it wouldn’t do Hilary any good. And I even asked the vicar to read the banns — we’re engaged, you know, we should have been married already, if Hilary hadn’t had silly worries about people thinking we had to, but I didn’t want people saying we were some sort of hole-in-corner Rattenbury business, but he told me the police had told him not to — how could they do that?”

Could any man genuinely be so naive? Of course the police would have told the local vicar not to read the banns. Spouses are forbidden to give evidence against each other. Fleming’s attempt would only have confirmed their suspicions.

“What did Miss Marple say?”

“What? Oh, a lot of rot. About some simple-minded gardener in her village, who’d had an over-protective mother and laid her out with a navvy’s beetle when she’d found him walking out with the cook at the Hall, and then tried to fake a burglary but got it all wrong. But it’s the way she said it; like she was looking into me all the time. Tell me, Clare, did they teach you the classics at whatever school it was you went to?”

Westminster, as a matter of fact: they’d parted with mutual loathing and a mutual desire never to meet again.

“They might have done, if I’d been paying attention.”

Fleming’s stance relaxed, minutely. “Well, it probably wouldn’t mean much to you, then, but she put me in mind of one of the Furies, in a rather experimental German production I saw last year.”

So, so, close to a confession — provided one could rely on a jury of Gloucestershire locals being familiar with the plot of the Oresteia.

“You know, Fleming, hyoscine’s tomfool stuff to use. Outside the big ferry ports chemists tend not to stock it routinely. Also, it’s not something like cyanide or nicotine that a lay-person might have for photography or getting greenfly off the roses. A doctor’s poison, too. Everyone over forty thinks of Crippen when they hear the word hyoscine. Did you intend to sacrifice Hilary to keep your yellow neck from the gallows?”

Fleming swung a wild haymaker punch at him, almost losing his footing on the wet rock. Rupert dodged back, out of range, and pulled out the gun.

“Not a stage prop, I assure you. So don’t make me do something we’ll both regret. Go on, Fleming. We’re almost there. Confession’s good for the soul, they tell me.”

“It’s no use, I tell you.” This time the desperation in Fleming’s voice sounded wholly genuine. “I’m no good — I should have known that from the start — I’ve got bad blood and everything I touch turns rotten. Mother knew that from the first. It’s not her fault, it was my father, he was an awful man and she was terrified I’d turn out like him, and so I have. But the other Friday I told her I didn’t care what she said, I was going to marry Hilary and that was that. So that made her mind up. She’d said it before, but then I hadn’t believed her. But she was really going to do it; she was going to get hold of this Harley Street man who specialises in nerves, and have me sent away for my own protection — oh, she called it a rest-cure or something, but it was obvious what she meant, and even if I’d gone along with it, and it really had been only for a few weeks it would have ruined everything.”

“Why?” The question came out without conscious thought. Rupert cursed himself in case he had broken the spell. Luckily, in the luxury of pouring out his feelings, Fleming was too far gone to notice.

“Why? Good God, man, you can’t expect Hilary to put up with being tied to a man who’s publicly been labelled a lunatic, can you? And another thing — I’ve not told anyone else this — that very day I’d had my papers for the RAF (I was in the Squadron at Oxford, but I never told Mother) and they absolutely won’t let you fly if you’ve ever been diagnosed with anything of that sort, even small stuff like getting into a funk over Finals and landing in the Warneford for a week.”

Rupert, who had been in Guernica during the raids, privately thought it an odd scruple that the minds directing aerial bombardment insist their hands be sane. This time he managed not to express his feelings.

“So, you see, I was completely out of options. I had to do something. I’d stolen the hyoscine weeks ago, from Hilary’s surgery. She didn’t see. A stage magician I’d happened across at Oxford taught me how to palm things. I thought it might come in handy for Prospero or the Erl King or something. With everything going on, it was comforting knowing I’d got it, if you know what I mean.”

Rupert did. Rather better, he suspected, than Fleming himself.

“I didn’t intend to use it on Mother, not at first. I fobbed her off — said at least I’d talk to this London man, and that while I hoped she’d come round to my marrying Hilary, I wouldn’t press the point until I’d seen him and heard what he had to say. And she agreed — called the maid for coffee and so forth. But she looked at me. She has — had — a way of doing that. So I knew I’d not got away from anything, just postponed it. So it had to be that night. You see why, of course?”

Fortunately, Fleming galloped on without expecting Rupert to respond. There were some hypocrisies no man should be expected to manage.

“I managed to put quite a lot of the sleepy stuff she normally uses into her coffee — the palming trick again, of course. And I talked her into having a liqueur —eau de noyaux — and letting me top it up. Twice. That’s supposed to make the sleepy stuff more effective. But when I went into her bedroom to see her, later that night, she was perfectly all right, asleep, on her back and snoring, like some fat tripper in a Bank Holiday excursion carriage.”

In other circumstances, Fleming’s discombobulation at having surprised his mother in an inelegant attitude might have been funny. Rupert’s spine crawled.

“So—?” he prompted, as the pause dragged on.

“So I went and found a syringe Mother used for neuralgia — filled it with the hyoscine and injected it under her hair, behind her ear.”

He gave a disconcerting little giggle. “Not into the ear, of course, though you couldn’t have told differently, even from the front row of the stalls. The play’s the thing — After that, it seemed to take hardly any time. I waited until her breath didn’t show on her compact mirror and then went back to my room.”

The drip, drip of water from the roof of the cavern intruded itself on Rupert’s hearing for the first time. Once heard, it could not be shut out. The small, regular, relentless sound added a touch of horror to proceedings. Fleming seemed oblivious of it.

“I’d arranged to go riding next morning because I knew Mother planned to sleep late. So I threw the syringe into a ditch on my way over to Pascoes and went out for my ride. I thought that would help, if anyone suspected anything, behaving normally and so forth. In Notable British Trials, they always seem to make a point of the — of the person who did it not wanting to be alone, afterwards.”

Thank God for the dim light in the cavern. Rupert’s mind was working furiously, running on verification and corroboration. When had Fleming read Notable British Trials? And where? Booksellers and librarians had sharp eyes and retentive memories. That man Carley would know whom to ask. And searching the ditches. A horrible job, but a possible one. Thank God for the dry weather.

Fleming continued on.

“Oh, yes, I forgot — after the ride I rang Hilary, from Pascoes. Naturally, I wasn’t going to tell her anything — that old cat at the exchange always listens in — but I thought it might be useful if she remembered us having had a perfectly ordinary conversation, in case anyone asked her, later. But the maid at her digs told me she’d gone up to London, without telling me anything about it.”

He sounded like a child about to stamp its foot and declare something, “Not FAIR.” Rupert reflected how lucky Hilary had been. Had she not been away in Town — if the maids had discovered the body earlier — Fleming would of course have summoned her at once. Had she once entered Larch Hill that morning, not all Miss Marple’s ingenuity could have saved her from the suspicion that it was she who had abstracted the hypodermic to cover her tracks.

“So I went home, the slow route. But they still hadn’t found her — I think one of the maids had looked in, thought she was asleep and decided she must be having one of her headaches, so everyone was tiptoeing around. It completely put me on edge, but I don’t think anyone noticed. Anyway, I said to tell her when she woke up that I’d gone over to Oxford, so I drove over there and caught up with some of the Squadron people and they finally got a telegram through to us at the Randolph. The police were at the Hall, and I could tell what they were thinking — it was all going to be all right, just as I’d planned it would, and then — “

He fell silent at last.

“And then they opened the post-bag,” Rupert concluded, with a tinge of malice.

“Look, how could I have known Mother had already written to the Harley Street man? You’d couldn’t have told that from how she acted over coffee.”

“Perhaps you get your talents from both sides of your family, Fleming.”

Somehow, that got through when everything else had broken on the man’s utter self-absorption. He backed away, towards the time-sculpted pillar of rock dividing the inner from the outer cave. Rupert kept him covered. He had the confession he had come for, if by methods which would doubtless have the likes of Miss Marple reaching for her sal volatile. Getting him out of the cave — for the first time Rupert started to think of that as not just possible, but almost easy. All the fight had gone out of the boy. Another step back and he would be literally against the wall. He was reaching behind him for its support even now.

The cave exploded into dazzling light: reds, greens and the vividest possible blue for the lake. Julian Fleming stood illuminated in the full blaze of the floodlights, entranced and entrancing, a lord in his own domain.

The image hung in his vision for one eternal second. Then darkness descended.

He must have cried out in shock.

He fired: a desperate, instinctive, useless reflex. The muzzle-flash spiralled across his vision in an agony of stars; the blast echoed on and on, reverberating off the cavern walls.

Fleming grabbed his right wrist and twisted. His fingers opened involuntarily, releasing the gun. He heard a faint splash as it hit the water. Then wiry hands found his neck.

The boy had the strength of youth, of madness and of utter desperation. He forced Rupert backwards, step by step. God, the pressure on his neck — if he blacked out now he was a dead man — Lisa would never forgive him and Fleming would get away — oh, but the rock floor was so slippery underfoot, the must be on the very edge of the water: a last chance, a fool’s chance, a dead man’s chance —

With the last of his strength Rupert hooked his foot round the back of Fleming’s knee, and, at the same time, headbutted him as hard as he could. He caught a muffled yelp as his forehead connected with something soft — nose, probably — and Fleming’s chokehold broke. But it was too late; they were falling, unstoppably, but Fleming was underneath —

The shock as they hit the water drove every breath from his lungs. Cold pain spiked through face and temples, a toothache writ large. His heart felt about to burst.

He clawed at the boy’s collar, got purchase and broke the surface long enough to gasp a vital lungful of air. Fleming’s arm flailed up, hitting Rupert’s nose. They went under again.

The dark backward and abysm of time.

“Up” and “down” lost all meaning. He struck out with feet and hands, and found neither bottom nor wall. Fleming clung round his body, still as a corpse, but for his relentless grip. Were they sinking or floating?

Up above, far above, the lights came on. Their faint yellow glow — the sun, as if seen from Pluto — filtered down through unimaginable fathoms of water. Hope. Something to aim for. He kicked, once, twice. Fleming caught at his legs, but that feeble effort to retard him redoubled his strength. Five strokes — three - one. He broke through the surface, spluttering, and somehow floundered into the shallows, where he lay panting, gasping and utterly spent.

From somewhere above his head came a confusion of voices and the sound of running feet.

“No, don’t try anything!”
“He’s gone, no-one could live long in water that cold.”
“Banged his head, diving under, most like, and knocked himself out.”
“No-one’s come back up our way, sir. I’ll swear to that. He’s a goner for sure.”

Rupert, his ears ringing, tried to sit up.

“Don’t try that just yet, that was a nasty bang you took.” A second later a tweed-clad man strode into his line of sight. “Dermot Craddock. CID. Sorry I couldn’t get to you sooner, but that light trick caught us on the hop.”

He sounded rueful. “Not that it should have done, Miss Marple dropped us a broad enough hint Fleming might try something of the sort. She and your wife have been up at the farm with Mr Mott, standing over the fuse-box like two mother hens with one chick.”

Lisa. Rupert let his head drop back and shut his eyes. Only that pestilential ladder to navigate — doubtless the police had ropes and perhaps a stout constable or two to help him up it — and then he would be with Lisa, holding her in his arms, and able to rest at last.

“You were most foolish, Mr Clare.” Miss Marple looked sternly at him over top of her knitting. “Dashing off like that to confront a murderer. Most irresponsible for a man in your situation. You have three people to consider now, you know.”

She looked fondly at Lisa, who was curled up like a cat on the sofa, her hands clamped round a mug of cocoa.

Clare blinked. “It’s hardly as if I have the safest of jobs at the best of times. And I can’t simply chuck that in because of the baby.”

“Indeed not, Mr Clare. It would be quite wrong of you to do so. The world needs brave journalism like yours. But, if I may say so, I don’t suppose you would have gone rushing into a confrontation with one of Herr Hitler’s thugs, or one of Signor Mussolini’s without telling anyone where you had gone, and you certainly wouldn’t have allowed them to get close enough to disarm you. Or throw you in a lake, for that matter.”

She put down her knitting and took a sip of tea. “But I am very much afraid, Mr Clare, that because Julian Fleming was what in my day we thought of as a ‘greenery-yallery’ sort of man, you underestimated how dangerous he might be when cornered. Nevertheless, he was a murderer, and murderers of whatever stripe are very dangerous people.”

Lisa raised her head from her mug. “That’s telling you, Rupe.”

He stretched out and stroked his hand down the back of hers.

“I’ll make sure to bear it in mind. Go on, Miss Marple.”

She favoured the company with an indulgent smile. Sam — torn between the impulses to leap up and kiss her or bursting into tears with sheer relief — got up and made rather a business of attending to drinks. Clare accepted a large brandy, Miss Marple allowed him to pour her a small crème de menthe, Lisa gave him a smiling dismissal and he, for his own part, shot a generous measure of whisky into his glass.

“Well, you see, I spoke to some of the people from the Amateur Dramatic Society. One of the things I’d noticed, almost what you might call a motif running through this whole business was the notion of acting and the theatre.”

She gestured with the knitting needles.

“Practically the first thing you told me about Julian Fleming was that you remembered him from OUDS; your aunt said something similar, too.”

Sam nodded. “He was a very big star, in Oxford terms. Bigger, really, considering he always played character parts, not romantic leads, so he had to work harder to stand out.”

“Did he, indeed? Most suggestive, yes. And I gather he told your aunt he’d ambitions to play Iago.”

Miss Marple looked expectantly at her audience, as if that explained everything. They plainly failed to come up to her standards. She gave a little “tsk” and resumed.

“Then there was that letter Elaine Fleming wrote to the psychiatrist, the evening of her death. That very nice, very sensible Detective-Constable Craddock did let me take a look at that, and one of the things that struck me was the way she had written the word ‘stage’ — she’d pressed down so hard, her nib had broken through the paper. Suggestive again, of course.”

“Suggestive of what?” Clare took a swig of brandy and grimaced.

Miss Marple’s faded, forget-me-not blue eyes opened very wide indeed. “As I said, Mr Clare; a motif. You will, of course, recall Greek actors always wore masks to perform, and even now the comic and tragic masks are used on theatre façades and so forth, as decoration. Well. Julian Fleming was a very good looking young man — indeed, it was the first thing anyone ever noticed about him. Almost to the exclusion of anything else; I don’t suppose anyone bothered to ask what he was thinking very often.”

“I don’t think he was thinking very often.” Sam was still bitter about how close Hilary had come to death, even though Carley was on his way over to Gloucester to fetch her home at this very moment.

“That, if I may say so, Mr Mansell, is the mistake many people made.” Her eyes twinkled. “The mask again, you see. His mother, I gather, picked up on that very early on — I had some most enlightening talks with her sister, Mrs Lamington. Oh, of course Andre O’Connell, Julian Fleming’s real father, treated Mrs Fleming atrociously and I’ve no patience for people who excuse that sort of thing on the grounds that it was all for love. But her objection to her son having anything to do with the stage was much more practical than an irrational horror of his father’s profession.

“Mrs Lamington told me her sister Elaine had, from a very early stage, been very distressed not merely by her son’s facility for getting out of trouble by trading on his looks, but by his ability to stage manage situations to his advantage. There was one phrase which Mrs Lamington used which was quite telling, what was it? Oh, yes, ‘When Julian set out to tell a lie, he lived it utterly.’ The way a very good actor inhabits a part, you see.”

Sam made a quick, silent prayer of thanksgiving that Fleming had taken the coward’s way out. Even given the confession Clare had extorted, a man with those talents might still have bedazzled a jury.

He rose to refresh his glass from the bottles on the sideboard. Still with his back to the assembled company, too low to be heard above the buzz of conversation, he murmured,

He said, ‘He has a lovely face. God in his mercy lend him grace.