Myrtle Shaw sat on a well-cushioned folding chair, sipping champagne. It was six o’clock in the evening but the sun was still quite high, casting a comforting summer warmth over the thin crowd of spectators. To her back was a wall of the ancient stone church, St. Mary’s, and in front of her, white-costumed figures stood, ran, and enacted their roles on the smooth grass.
“Ooh, this champagne’s going to my head.”
“That’s the idea!” laughed Major D’Arcy-Smith, her erstwhile companion and ever-hopeful suitor. “Would you like some more?” He took a heavy green bottle, glistening with water droplets, from an ice-bucket.
Myrtle was in her seventies, but sprightly, her skin well-toned, and her brown hair still its original colour, untinged by chemical potions. Her eyes were green and she only wore glasses for reading, and, of course, for examining clues. “Just a drop, Tom.”
A cheer went up as a young man from the home side threw himself along the ground to catch a ball.
“By Jove, Myrtle, did you see that? Young Bill Smethurst made a magnificent catch!”
Just then, the peaceful summer’s evening at Saltby St. Mary’s cricket pitch was shattered by a scream, as Millicent Dawson appeared from the church. Her face was red and her eyes were wet. “Oh my God, Myrtle. Reverend Hughes has just been … just been murdered!” She began to sob.
‘Carpe Diem,’ thought Myrtle jumping to her feet. The champagne effect cleared instantly. “Tom, look after Milly, will you?” She put down her glass and headed through a gate in the wall, past rows of haphazardly-leaning and undecipherable gravestones, and through the vestibule into the cool, silent depths of St. Mary’s.
Coloured light, filtering through the stained-glass windows above the altar, played on the upturned face of the Reverend Nicholas Hughes. She felt for a pulse and lifted an eyelid. No sign of life. Blood still seeped through his cassock, forming a sticky red pool on the ancient stone floor. He appeared to have been stabbed. She searched his clothes. Nothing out of the ordinary and no sign of a weapon anywhere.
She heard the door open, and heavy footsteps.
“Hello Myrtle.” It was Inspector Jack Johnson from Thicksby. “I was just passing when I got a call on the radio. Quite fortunate as it happens … He hasn’t been dead long, by the looks of things.”
“No more than half an hour, I’d say,” replied Myrtle.
“Probably a kitchen knife, but no sign of it.”
“I see, how many ways into the church are there?”
“Well, unless someone climbed over the wall, and it’s about five feet high all the way round, there are just the two gates, and I’ve been sitting by one for the last hour. I don’t recall anyone going past me, just Milly coming out, but then I was watching the cricket. Some of the time, anyway.” She smiled wryly, barely disguising her lack of enthusiasm for the game.
“The crime boys will be here in a minute. They’ll seal everything off.”
The next day, Inspector Johnson stood in Myrtle Shaw’s drawing room. Antique furniture graced an emerald-green Axminster carpet. A bookcase stood against one wall, whilst Regency windows looked out onto manicured lawns.
Johnson perused the bookcase. There were several shelves of detective stories. Agatha Christie, Phoebe Atwood Taylor, Ngaio Marsh. Why was it always damned women who wrote detective stories? “We’ve taken statements from everyone there. Three people are reported to have entered the church in the previous forty-five minutes.”
“Well, Johnny Hughes – the reverend’s son, your friend, Millicent, and an unidentified chap, middle-aged, unshaven and of scruffy appearance, apparently. All three were seen entering through the gate by the road. The men left the same way.”
“I see, and have you interviewed them?”
“Yes, Millicent said she’d gone to see the reverend to discuss the music for the flower festival, she’s the organist there as you know. Johnny had gone to ask his dad for money. He was quite upset. Apparently, he hadn’t seen his father for three years, but says he’s fallen on hard times. Reverend Hughes didn’t see eye to eye with him, though, and wasn’t forthcoming with any cash.”
“Hmm. Not very Christian!”
“No, so he had a motive, of sorts. They’re searching his house today.”
“Mm. What about this ‘unidentified’ chap?”
He was reported by Milly’s sister, Doris. She’d been waiting for a bus, saw the chap go in and come out a few minutes later. She thought he seemed in a bit of a hurry. Walked down to the Green Man car park, got in a car and drove off.”
“Description of the car?”
“Is that all?”
Myrtle had arisen at eight, somewhat late for her, and after tea, toast and marmalade, her unskipable morning routine, she sat in the study, feeling the warm sun through the windows on her arms as she wrestled with the Times’ crossword. Seven across. ‘All flats are available on such a scale.’ Nine letters, second letter H, penultimate letter I. Hmm. She chewed her pencil. Ah-ha! The answer came to her practised mind. She filled it in with satisfaction. Then a thought took hold, a thought that grew and grew, until it would not go away.
“Good morning Madam, I’m afraid no one’s allowed in the church. That’s why there’s all this tape around it,” the policeman said, barely suppressing his sarcasm.
“Yes, I’m perfectly well aware of that, constable, but I’m a friend of Inspector Johnson, and I’m sure he won’t mind me taking a peek. I’m Myrtle Shaw.”
The constable’s demeanour changed instantly. “Oh, in that case madam, I think it could be permitted. But be sure not to touch anything. Please,” he added, obsequiously.
“Of course not,” said Myrtle, intending to do just as she pleased.
Once inside the quiet, cool interior of the church, she approached the organ and turned it on. She began a chromatic scale, playing every note on the higher of the two keyboards. Up and down. Then the lower keyboard. Almost immediately, she smiled. She continued to the highest note, then back down to the lowest note, nodding to herself in approval.
Just then the door opened. “Hello Myrtle, I just had a call to say you were here.” It was Inspector Johnson. “I heard you playing. Not very tuneful, if I may say so!”
“Hello, Jack, actually it wasn’t supposed to be.”
“Well, we’re no nearer solving the crime. We can’t trace the man Doris claimed she saw, and the reverend’s son is sticking to his story. We’ve found nothing to implicate him from a forensic point of view. What about you, Myrtle, I don’t suppose you’ve had any ideas?”
Myrtle smiled. “Well, actually, Jack, I remembered seeing the reverend taking tea with Dora, the lady who does the church flowers, last week at Meryl’s Cafe. They were holding hands under the table. I thought it most improper! Then I realised that Millicent Dawson had been spending an inordinate amount of ‘practice time’ here in the church, allegedly working on Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony, for a performance later this year.”
The inspector looked perplexed. “All very good, Myrtle, but where exactly is this leading us?”
Myrtle reached out to the keyboard and played a low E flat. Along with the sonorous note there came a slight, almost imperceptible rattling sound. She smiled. “It was a crime of passion, Inspector. My friend, Milly … Millicent, and the reverend, they were, er …. Anyway, I think you’ll find this organ pipe worth looking into!” She held down the note once more until a metallic rattle became quite audible, then launched into Bach’s Cantata and Fugue in D minor.
The inspector gasped. “Myrtle, you never cease to amaze me!”
Featured in the book, To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. II: 88 Little Stories
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