Once again, death has spoiled the fun of those in Pontisbright—a fictional village located in the seaside county of Suffolk.
Just days after the suspicious death of a beloved local, tax collector Leonard "Little Doom" Ohman is found murdered—a bronze bead lying suspiciously near his corpse. But while the crime has left the locals shaken (and spoiled a highly anticipated party), this English village has a colorful history. Most notable of all are the stories surrounding The Beckoning Lady, a small estate not far from the crime scene. For as long as anyone can remember, it has only been owned by women—though various men, so enchanted by the property, have tried to wrest it away.
In this excerpt from Margery Allingham's The Beckoning Lady, Albert Campion and his team investigate Ohman’s murder—starting with an interrogation of the Lady's owner, Minnie Cassand. As they soon learn, Minnie met Ohman 25 years prior, the pair striking up a friendship when he offered financial counsel on the sly. But when Ohman proposed Minnie divorce her irascible husband, Tonker, to save money on taxes and pay off her debts, not everyone was keen on the idea. Is it possible that Tonker killed the Ohman in a fit of rage, or is a larger conspiracy at work?
Read on for an excerpt from The Beckoning Lady, and then download the book.
"When he put up this idea, didn't you feel very annoyed with him?" Superintendent South was getting ready to pounce. Mr. Campion glanced at Minnie nervously. She appeared to be considering the question.
“No," she said at last, "I don't think so. I think I realised he was only being dead keen. I was a bit startled by the law. I mean, Income Tax is one thing and if you owe it you must pay it, but I don't think they ought to corner one into abandoning one's marriage. It's so highhandedly inefficient, isn't it? It can't be what they want."
South retired to wait again, and Luke continued cautiously.
"According to this statement, Ohman told Angel that he had 'had it out with you, and had warned you that he intended to appear at your husband's party on Saturday to make certain of catching him. His idea was to put this proposal before him at a time when he would be compelled to listen.' Is that so?"
Minnie laughed. "Poor little man, he did have horrible ideas," she said. "I told him I'd kill him if he—hullo, darling?”
The final question was addressed to Annabelle. The little girl had come dancing along the brick path from the kitchen. She shot a sidelong glance at the visitors and went on up to Minnie.
"Uncle Tonker has sent these down to you," she announced, handing her a slip of paper. "He says don't over-exert yourself, but if you happen to spot the answers will you please let him know, because the problem is holding him up."
Minnie took the note and the policemen on either side of her craned their necks. Obligingly she leant back so that they could both see.
"One," she read aloud for Mr. Campion's benefit, "flatulent statement, novel aftermath. Four-four-three-four. Two, typewritten exercise, tail tip. Three-two-three-five. Bless the man . . . All right, Annabelle. I'll see to it. You go and collect the vases for Miss Pinky, who should be here at any moment. Off you go, my pet."
As the child trotted away, Minnie returned to Luke.
“They're cross-word puzzle clues," she explained. "They're a fearful waste of time, but if you want to see Tonker we ought to do them, because he won't get up until he's finished The Times. Let's see now——"
"No," objected Luke firmly. "Let the gentleman rest. You were telling me, Mrs. Cassands, that “you told Ohman you'd kill him if he—"
Minnie stared at him in scandalised amazement. "I didn't kill him, if that's what you mean," she protested. "Good heavens, how dreadful! You can see how valuable he was to me. I haven't worried at all since he appeared, except over this divorce business. I was very grateful to him, and quite dependent on him. He worked like a beaver and loved it. Do you know," she went on, shaking a pea-pod at him, "that there's a cupboard in this house ten feet by seven which is absolutely chock-full of carbon copies of letters written by Little Doom? He loved his work as much as I do mine."
"When did you see him last, if you please?" Luke was completing his notes.
Minnie considered. "About a fortnight ago, when he 'had it out', as he called it. But he was over here last week on the Thursday.”
“How do you know?"
"Because he brought his portrait back, or someone did. I borrowed it from him to show on Saturday, and when I saw it just inside the studio I knew that he had been, but I thought he must be still angry because he didn't wait."
"I see. Was your husband in the house that day?"
"Yes, I think so. In fact I know he was. He took two days off down here, working on a scheme they're getting out for some margarine people. They may flavour it and sell it in different colours—honey, clover, paprika, cheddar and so on."
"Wouldn't he work in the studio?"
"No. Little Doom wouldn't allow that. It was something to do with heat and light and expenses. Tonker had to work in the drawing-room."
"Could he have seen the man without your knowing?”
“I don't think so. He'd have mentioned it. You must ask him."
Luke smiled. "I hope to. First of all, though, I want to see a Mr. Jake Bernadine. We hear from Angel that Ohman didn't like him.”
“Well, naturally he wouldn't." Minnie looked embarrassed. "Jake threw him into a beehive and the little man didn't know it was empty."
"When was this?"
"Oh years ago, last summer. Little Doom kept bothering to know if they paid me any rent. He wouldn't believe me when I said they didn't and so he went and tackled Jake, which," she added in sudden apprehension, "is never a very wise thing to do, so be careful. Look out for the donkey, too. He doesn't kick, but——"
"I know," said Luke, getting up, "he bites."
When the two senior policemen had vanished round the side of the house, Mr. Campion remained where he was.
"They'll be back," he ventured at last.
"I know they will." She raised a worried face to him. "My goodness, what a mess, Albert. Can you get us out of it?”
“I don't know," he said honestly, "it rather depends."
She looked out over the river, her eyes sad.
"I'm so sorry. The man was absolutely invaluable, and in a way I'd got to like him. He did take the problem seriously. Still, that can't be helped. Oh Albert, no one could have murdered him. It's fantastic!"
Mr. Campion ran a finger round the inside of his collar.
"Minnie," he said, "when exactly did you spring all this on Tonker?"
She did not answer immediately but sat looking at him, making up her mind.
"I had to tell him," she said at last. "It was getting so near the party. I wasn't sure of Doom. He did some very tactless things. It was on the cards that he really would turn up and try to start something.”
“The thin man shook his head. "I know why you told him, my dear. I said, when?"
"On the Wednesday night. Tonker was livid, quite furious. One of his Grade-A rages. But we made it up in the end, Albert, we did really. We swore that whatever happens we won't split up, and that is what has cheered me so. I'd been scared to death, wondering what his reaction would be. After all, they can send him to jail when we get old and can't pay, can't they? I mean, I knew he was very fond of me but I felt it was testing it somewhat."
There was a long silence after she had spoken and presently she leant forward to talk earnestly.
"Albert, this is the literal truth. This morning, at six o'clock, Dinah came up to tell me that the dead tramp was Little Doom. I was horrified and I woke Tonker and told him, and he said 'Damn!' And I said 'Good heavens Tonker, you don't know anything about it, do you?' He turned over and said 'Clear your mind. I'm not round the bend. But what an unholy nuisance just now, just before the party. Otherwise, jolly good show, of course.' So that really is all right. He wasn't lying. I always know when he is.”
“How?" enquired Mr. Campion, who had known Tonker for thirty-five years.
"I can't tell exactly, but I do." Minnie spoke with deep conviction. "Probably he smells differently. I was reading somewhere that everything is smell. Anyway, Tonker wasn't lying and he would know if he'd killed somebody, wouldn't he? Besides, he wouldn't do it. Tonker wouldn't really kill anybody. He might give them a tap, but he wouldn't kill them. Don't be silly."
Mr. Campion swallowed. "How angry was he with the man?"
Minnie shrugged her shoulders. Colour had appeared on her cheekbones and her eyes were flickering.
“He was very cross with everybody, including me. He says there's a general feeling against marriage just now, and of course he's quite right. Look at Dinah."
"Miss Diane?" Campion was diverted in spite of himself. "She says she's not married."
"She was once. I remember her in Clerkenwell twenty years ago. She used to clean the offices opposite the studio. She was married to an absolute horror who used to wait outside on a Friday and collect her earnings and knock her about. I don't suppose she ever saw me but I recognised her. Early in the war she turned up here as a single woman who had lost her identity card and ration book. She got new ones at the Food Office and I think she took the opportunity to change her name. I imagine that she saw her chance and just ran away from the old brute. I never asked her or let her know I knew her."
"Where does Old Harry stand in all this?"
"Oh well, she just moved in on him in the modern fashion. Even if her husband is dead, she'll hardly marry him. If they stay single they get just enough to live on when they're old, but once they're married, fifteen bob is knocked off her old-age pension.”
A new possibility occurred to Mr. Campion. "The wages of sin, fifteen bob," he remarked absently. "Very modest. But if her husband is still alive and drawing a pension, while she is taking a single woman's pension down here, she's probably committing some sort of offence. Little Doom came from Clerkenwell. Could she have known him in London? Could he have recognised her if he saw her down here?"
Minnie hesitated. "She was remarkably clever if he didn't know her," she admitted grudgingly. "As I keep telling you, he was the rent collector. But don't you go getting any frightful ideas about Dinah having killed him, Albert," she commanded. "That woman is the only professional help I've got, and there are quite eighty-five people coming to dinner tomorrow, if something terrible doesn't happen to stop them. Oh my dear, don't make things worse."
There was a somewhat helpless silence between them and eventually Minnie took up the sheet of cross-word clues.
“Of course Tonker is naughty," she observed placidly. "This is the sort of thing that can cause an awful lot of trouble. See what that first clue is? Flatulent statement, novel aftermath: that's 'Gone with the wind', isn't it? And the other, 'typewritten exercise': that's 'Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of the party', and the 'tail tip' is 'aid of the party', so Tonker's message to me is 'Gone with the wind. Aid of the party.' Tonker's gone off. He borrowed a car to come home with last night and left it at the end of the lane. I saw the message at once and I heard the car go off when Annabelle was here."
Mr. Campion was staring at her in horror. "D'you mean to say he's cleared out now, at this moment?”
“I'm afraid so." She took up yet another handful of peas. "He didn't come into the drive at all, so he avoided the police cars altogether. He is a cad. He's just thinking of his old party, and he's relying on us to keep these police quiet. He's worried that there may be awkward publicity on this 'Death of an Income Tax Man' angle, and is afraid it may spoil the show. I wonder how he'll get round that one."
"He won't." Mr. Campion, who was deeply shocked, spoke with conviction.
"He'll think of something," said Minnie sadly. "Let's hope it's not one of his clangers. Of course he's only gone to London. How was he to know the police might want to see him? They didn't ask to. And even when I suggested it, they brushed it aside as unimportant. You fix it for me, Albert. Go up and telephone the office, and tell Wally he must make Tonker call us back the moment he gets in. He's trying to save the party, and doesn't see how it may look.”
“Mr. Campion rose unhappily. "This is going to be very difficult," he said. "A murder has been committed . . ."
"Oh, I know." She sounded utterly exasperated. "But you're mad to worry about Tonker. If anybody killed Little Doom intentionally it must be that man Smith."
"My dear girl!" Campion was aghast. "How can you make such a wild accusation? Why Smith?"
"Because," said Minnie unreasonably, "he's got the face for it, and nobody else has. Find out what he's been up to, and while you're about it, discover why on earth he wants my house. I had a note from him this morning confirming that I'd invited his friends to the party, and asking me if I'd ever thought of going to live in Eire or the Bahamas! I think everybody has gone quite mad. Call up Wally soon, please dear. I don't want those policemen to misunderstand Tonker."
At that moment a shadow fell over the stone and they turned to see Superintendent South coming back, his little box in his hand.
"I forgot to ask the lady," he said, twinkling at Campion. "Look ma'am, have you ever seen this bead before?”
“Minnie peered into the box and her eyes were sharp and interested. Presently she took up the bronze bead and held it in the palm of her hand, while she turned it over with an exploring finger.
"Why yes," she announced with great satisfaction. "Where did you get that? Don't lose it. We must put it back. That's off Tonker's party waistcoat.”
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