Extract: Murder Has A Motive by Francis Duncan
When Mordecai Tremaine emerges from the train station, murder is the last thing on his mind. But then again, he has never been able to resist anything in the nature of a mystery – and a mystery is precisely what awaits him in the village of Dalmering. Rehearsals for the local amateur dramatic production are in full swing, but as Mordecai discovers all too soon, the real tragedy is unfolding offstage. The star of the show has been found dead, and the spotlight is soon on Mordecai, whose reputation in the field of crime-solving precedes him.
With a murderer waiting in the wings, it’s up to Mordecai to derail the killer’s performance – before it’s curtains for another victim.
Read on for an extract from Murder Has A Motive – and if, like us, you love what you read, then you’ll be delighted to hear that there are three more Francis Duncan books being reissued this month: So Pretty A Problem, In At The Death and Behold A Fair Woman.
Murder Has A Motive
Lydia Dare was dining with a murderer.
If she was afraid there was no trace of her fear in the hazel eyes which were regarding her companion across the snowy table with its scintillating burden of silver and glassware, polished and displayed, as she knew, in her honour; nor was there any tremor of the surface of the liquid to betray a nervous unsteadiness of the slender fingers in which she held the glass she was raising to her lips.
She sipped appreciatively and turned the glass against the light so that golden pin-points of reflection danced in her eyes.
‘There are people who say that champagne doesn’t deserve its reputation,’ she observed, ‘but this would make them all converts, Martin. It makes you feel light and gay as though you were walking on air. How on earth did you manage to find it?’
That the man facing her was delighted with her praise was evident, but he strove to conceal his pleasure with an exaggeratedly deprecating shrug.
‘I moved mountains,’ he returned lightly. ‘After all, champagne is for special occasions, and for very special occasions there should be a very special champagne.’
‘I can’t think, my dear,’ he added quietly, ‘of any occasion more special than this—to be here alone with you, even if for all too short a time.’
Lydia’s eyes softened. Impulsively her hand reached out to his.
‘Sometimes, Martin,’ she said, ‘I think you’re the nicest murderer I know.’
Martin Vaughan smiled.
‘It’s been fun, Lydia. I didn’t think I could have enjoyed anything so much.’
He did not have the appearance of a murderer now. Or rather, since murderers are found among all sorts and conditions of men, and are not as a rule marked out from their fellows by any definite peculiarities of form or features, he had the appearance of a very boyish and yet distinguished-looking one.
Boyish on account of the air of enthusiasm which he had momentarily acquired and which had smoothed the years from his brow; and distinguished on account of the wide proportions of that same brow and of the slightly greying although still thick and crisply curling hair which was brushed back from it.
Martin Vaughan was proud of the fact that his age was not visible in his face—unless one took account of the tiny wrinkles around the blue-grey eyes which had looked out upon forty-five years of existence—and that his thick-set frame and heavy shoulders had not degenerated into the fleshy obesity of that dangerous combination middle age and success.
Rigorous exercise and the near tropics had preserved his waist-line. Archæology and the study of ancient civilizations were his hobbies, and he had made a number of extensive tours of Mesopotamia and the Eastern Mediterranean. Several works he had published on the difficult and skilled task of locating and excavating age-old cities and burial grounds, and of extracting their story from the mists of unrecorded history, had become recognized as standard treatises and had gained for him the reputation of being an authority in such matters.
He had been able to indulge in his hobby because success had come to him early. Gold, South Africa, and a forceful, adventurer’s personality had been the rungs by which he had climbed. Not a great deal of gold as vast fortunes are reckoned, but he had sold out his holdings at a figure which had enabled him to choose his own way of life.
Something of his past was still evident in him despite the conventional evening clothes and the subdued but undoubtedly expensive comfort of his surroundings. The adventurer was lurking yet in the depths of the blue eyes which seemed to hold a hint of storm-lashed seas; in the powerful lines of a jaw which appeared to be thrusting itself forward a little more pugnaciously than was really necessary; and in the thick, confident fingers of his powerful hands.
Studying him, Lydia was lost for a brief space of time in a panorama of boom towns and lusty, crowded, tempestuous days in which a man’s fists had to act as his claims to life, and in which humanity was a raw thing pulsating near the surface of existence. She found herself thinking, as though she had not really known him before this moment of instinctive comprehension, that Martin Vaughan could be ruthless; that what he wanted he would take, and that his revenge could be a dreadful thing. Ten years in the peaceful beauty which was the south country village of Dalmering had given him background, but had merely overlain, without removing, his primitive beginnings.
Her eyes must have betrayed her thoughts. Her companion’s somewhat wry chuckle broke in upon her involuntary musings.
‘So you think I am capable of murder, my dear?’
‘Of course not,’ she said hastily, but with the very spontaneity of her answer and the quick flush of colour giving her the lie. ‘I was just—just thinking how exciting your life must have been before—before—’
She broke off uncertainly, but he was aware of her discomfort and went to her aid.
‘Before I turned myself from a rough diamond into a gentleman of leisure?’ he said, amused. ‘You blush charmingly, my dear, but you don’t lie very well. As a matter of fact, you’re quite right. I’ve been in unpleasant places where I’ve had to be a little—unpleasant—myself. At least, if I wanted to go on living—as I usually did. Perhaps,’ he added slyly, ‘that’s why I make such a good murderer!’
‘Now you’re developing the immodest ego of the successful actor,’ she returned accusingly, but her attack left him unshaken.
‘I believe I am,’ he told her. ‘And speaking of murder, I’ve an idea that Pauline Conroy was near it at yesterday’s rehearsal.’
‘She thinks you’re deliberately trying to act her off the stage and steal her thunder.’
‘Poor Pauline! As the only professional of us all she takes herself very seriously! She certainly seems to have her mind set on making a success of the play. She’ll probably have half the critics in London down for the opening night. Maybe she imagines she’ll be able to persuade them to believe that they’ve found a Sarah Bernhardt in a village hall!’
‘When you say the “opening night” I take it you mean the only night! Seriously, though, Martin, acting in a murder play can’t really be much of a consolation for you. Don’t you get bored with living here? Don’t you find it horribly dull?’
‘Why should I?’ he countered. ‘I lead a very comfortable existence. I’ve all I want—books, music, my researches. And an occasional trip abroad when I feel in need of a change.’
‘A trip for what? To dig up mouldy old bones in a desert?’
Vaughan leaned back in his chair and his deep voice was vibrant with genuine enjoyment.
‘I believe you’re trying to prise the oyster out of his shell. I like digging up mouldy old bones in a desert. It’s my idea of enjoyment. Anyway, bones are interesting things. They can tell fascinating stories. They can tell of what the poet called “old, unhappy, far-off things, and battles long ago.” They can tell of thieves in the night, willing to risk desecrating a tomb in order to make themselves rich, and of great kings, buried with their courts around them and all the things they might need in the after life placed ready to their hands. But don’t think, my dear, that I’m just an old fossil too, only interested in the dust and ashes of a few thousand years ago.’
He rose to his feet, and, crossing to the window, drew back the heavy velvet curtains. Through the darkness, as though they were bright stars sprinkled down out of the skies at random, they could see the lights of the little group of period houses which had been scattered—for profit, but by a builder with at least a lingering respect for the decencies—among the
beauty of Dalmering.
‘No one could be dull—or even a fossil—with so much to see and hear and study. Look—behind all those lighted windows there are living people. There’s Pauline Conroy’s window, for instance—since we were speaking of her just now. I wonder what she’s doing at this moment? Perhaps she’s rehearsing her lines in front of her mirror. And there’s a light in the house to the left where Karen Hammond lives all the week—and where Philip Hammond lives at the week-end when he can get away from business. What is she doing now? Is she trying on the new hat her husband bought her in town this morning?
‘How do any of us know what strange creatures our neighbours become when they go into their houses and shut their doors upon the world? How do we know what people are thinking and saying behind all those innocent-looking façades? There’s the very stuff of drama lying all about us—a score of human beings, all loving, and hating, and laughing, and crying, just as those other humans who once animated those mouldy old bones you were decrying did in their lifetimes ages of time ago.’
Lydia was looking at him wonderingly, her lips slightly parted, held by his air of elation, deliberately half-suppressed though she could tell it to be. She had never seen him in quite such a mood before.
‘The oyster didn’t need much prising, Martin. You’re almost lyrical.’
‘It was my speech for the defence,’ he said, drawing the curtains again and turning to her. ‘The bones are only part of the story. Remember Pope—“The proper study of mankind is man”.’
‘“The glory, jest and riddle of the world”,’ she added.
‘Not really much of a riddle, my dear,’ he said, and now his voice held a serious note which had not been evident before.
‘The same old emotions are still running around loose. You asked me if I found it dull here in Dalmering. It hasn’t been dull here for one moment. Of all the places I’ve ever known Dalmering is the loveliest. You know why, Lydia. You’ve been here. You know—you know that I’m in love with you?’
‘Yes,’ she said quietly. ‘I know. I’m sorry, Martin—’
There was a look of contrition on his face at that.
‘I don’t want you to be, Lydia. I didn’t intend to be the skeleton at the feast. It was just that—just that I couldn’t help myself. I didn’t really intend to say anything—except that I think Farrant is a lucky man and that I hope you’ll be very happy.’
‘You’re very generous, Martin.’
Vaughan made a visible effort to make his voice sound normal.
‘Nonsense, my dear. It isn’t really surprising that you preferred not to spend the rest of your life tied to an old roughneck like me. I’ve been smoothed out a little, but I’m still liable to revert to type at awkward moments! And I appreciate your coming here tonight—especially as you knew all about my hopeless passion.’
‘It was the reason I came,’ she said, admiring his attempt to speak lightly, and with a little ache at her heart because of the misery in his eyes which he could not conceal.
‘I hope Farrant won’t mind your being here.’
‘Of course he won’t. Gerald knows we’re old friends. Besides, I’m thirty-five. I’m an old woman, not an inexperienced young girl whose honour is in peril!’
The big man took her right hand in his own powerful one, and, stooping, kissed her finger-tips with a gallant little gesture which seemed oddly out of keeping with his heavy frame.
‘As long as you look as beautiful and charming as you’re looking now,’ he said, ‘you’ll never be an old woman, Lydia.’
He added, after a pause:
‘It’s the conventional thing to say on these occasions, but you know that I’m in earnest. If ever you need me, if ever there is anything I can do, you have only to ask and I’ll be there.’
It was clear that Lydia was conscious of the strained situation between them. Conscious of it and of the dangers it possessed, and anxious to bring it under control before it proved to be beyond her power.
‘I won’t hold you to it,’ she said jestingly. ‘I don’t want to embarrass you when you meet the only girl in the world.’
‘I’ve already met her,’ he responded quickly, and then, as if he, too, realized the strength of the emotions which were beginning to ride perilously near the surface, he went on, ‘I suppose it means that you’ll be leaving Dalmering?’
‘Yes. Gerald has to live in Edinburgh.’
‘I was afraid of it,’ he said, with mock resignation. ‘It means I’ll have to go searching for some more old bones. Lions in Africa for some, deep-sea fishing off Florida for others, and bones in the desert for me!’
But it seemed that his efforts were wasted and that Lydia was not listening to him. A queer, puzzled frown had come into her face.
‘I used to think that I would hate having to leave Dalmering,’ she said slowly. ‘But now I’m glad I’m going. Martin, have you noticed anything about this place lately? Has it seemed—different?’
Vaughan’s attention was caught by the oddly urgent note in her voice. He looked at her curiously.
‘I can’t explain it,’ she said helplessly. ‘It’s just that there’s a strange feeling in the air—a horrible sort of feeling, as though everybody is frightened of everybody else, and people are watching each other, waiting for some dreadful thing to happen.’
‘Nerves,’ he told her. ‘You’ve been overdoing things—worrying about details and letting all the excitement get you down.’
But the idea had gained too firm a root in her mind for her to be so easily comforted.
‘No, it isn’t nerves. There’s something wrong. Things aren’t normal any more.’
‘You aren’t going to tell me that there’s something rotten in the state of Dalmering!’
A little to his dismay she took him literally.
‘There is, Martin! Something—something rotten. Something ugly, and horrible, and obscene. And I’m afraid. I know it sounds stupid and hysterically feminine of me, but sometimes I wake up at night panting and terrified, feeling that there’s some awful black power brooding over us all, just waiting for an opportunity to strike.’
A ragged note of fear had crept into her voice and Vaughan’s big hands went out protectingly to her shoulders.
‘Steady, my dear—we can’t have you going to pieces like this! You’ll have me beginning to blame my champagne!’
He refilled her glass and she took it from him with a half-ashamed little smile which was the product of a determined effort at self-control.
‘Sorry, Martin. I’m the skeleton at the feast now. Perhaps it is the excitement. I’ll be giving way to schoolgirl giggles next.’
The glass was part way to her lips when she shivered involuntarily.
‘Cold?’ he said quickly. ‘I’ll switch the fire on for a few moments.’
‘No, I’m not cold,’ she told him. ‘Just frightened.’
It was the truth she was speaking, for there was momentarily a sheer panic fear frozen in her eyes. She emptied her glass mechanically, as though she was not tasting the sparkling liquid.
‘There were icy fingers on my spine,’ she said, with an attempt to regain her composure. ‘I’d like another, please, Martin.’
‘Of course, my dear.’
There was a watchful, somehow guarded look upon the big man’s face as he took the glass and refilled it. He had seen that fleeting betrayal of her inward terror and it had left him disturbed and uncertain.
But despite its apparent intensity her emotion seemed to have been a transient one for it did not recur. The pallor left her cheeks. She became the gay, charming companion he had always known.
They had many things to discuss and time became of no importance—until Lydia looked down at the tiny gold watch gleaming against the white of her slender wrist, and gave an exclamation of dismay.
‘A quarter to eleven. I’ll have to fly, Martin.’
‘Does Cinderella have to be back so early?’
‘I promised Sandy I’d be in by eleven. She’ll be waiting up for me.’
‘Patient Sandra! She’s going to miss you, Lydia.’
‘Not so much as I’m going to miss her,’ returned Lydia. ‘She’s been my fairy godmother and guardian angel combined.’
Vaughan fetched the short evening cloak she had brought and placed it about her shoulders with just a touch of possessiveness.
‘I’ll see you back to the house.’
‘No, Martin,’ she said quickly. ‘I’d rather you didn’t. After all, there are the proprieties to think about—even in Dalmering. People will probably talk enough as it is about my coming here alone. Besides, it’s only a few minutes’ walk; it isn’t worth dragging you out for such a short distance.’
She saw that he was going to raise objections and her voice became coaxing.
‘Please, Martin. Just this last service—to round off a perfect evening.’
He was unwilling to acknowledge defeat, but defeat it was. He shrugged his shoulders in helpless acceptance of it.
‘When you attack me like that you leave me no defence.’
‘Thank you, Martin,’ she said softly. ‘For tonight—and everything.’
For several reasons Lydia Dare was glad that she was alone on the short walk back to the attractive half-timbered cottage she shared with Sandra Borne. Her mind was a confused tangle of impressions which she wished to sort out and label before their chaos overwhelmed her.
It was not that she had any doubts as to the wisdom of her marrying Gerald Farrant in preference to Martin Vaughan. She had known that Vaughan was in love with her before she had accepted his invitation to dine with him. As she had told him, it had been one of the reasons why she had gone.
But now she was not quite certain whether her action, which had sprung from a vague desire to make things easier for him—some kind of repressed maternal instinct she told herself wryly—had been a wise one. She had under-rated the situation. She had imagined it to be perfectly simple and easy to handle, and instead it had proved to be bristling with psychology.
Martin Vaughan was not a stranger. She had known him for so long that she could anticipate his ideas and his moods and the way in which he would react. At least, so she had believed. Now she was not sure.
She had become aware that his was a powerful personality; that although his strength might be latent, concealed beneath the veneer of a placid existence in a small country community, he could be masterful and dominant—all those things, in fact, which women are reputed to desire in men.
She was conscious of a disturbed, unsettled feeling, a sensation of disaster in the air. She hesitated and looked about her, as if to gain comfort from her surroundings.
It was a quietly peaceful early summer night. There were still odd lights dotted here and there to reveal that Dalmering was not yet wholly abed, but most of them marked the homes of the colony.
Dalmering consisted of the old village, with its tiny cluster of houses and its handful of miniature shops, lying along the main road; and a much more recent outcrop of larger houses which were the homes of its temporary residents, the weekenders and the city businessites who had discovered its
unspoilt beauty. It was in these latter that the lights were to be observed. The older Dalmering, the true Dalmering, which had endured through the centuries with an impassive tranquillity, facing birth and death and the catastrophes of war and nature with equal undismay, was already enveloped in darkness and sleep.
Even the moon seemed to be aware of the division. Motionless banks of cloud hung in the sky, obscuring its rays from certain angles, so that whilst the newer houses were clearly outlined, as though to indicate that their inhabitants were in no hurry to retire, the old village was an undisturbed pool of ink in the midst of the radiance.
The sighing rustle of the waves on the shingle came plainly to her ears. The sea was no more than a mile away, and although the air was almost still, the salty tang and feel of the water was all about her.
Beauty was about her, too. Dalmering typified the real loveliness, the unbearable heartrending beauty of England—a beauty of flared sunsets and silver sea; of lonely moors and winding, dusty roads; of shady lanes, straggly roofs and scented hedgerows—a beauty which she could feel and which rose in her throat like a sweet agony and yet for which she was without words.
To reach her destination she had first to cross the open ground rather like an extended, haphazardly shaped and uneven version of the ancient village common, around which Martin Vaughan’s and the other houses were placed, and then walk along the narrow but well-worn pathway which traversed a small copse about twenty or thirty yards in depth before it made contact with the roadway leading to the old village—and, incidentally, her cottage.
She made her way at a quicker pace down the slope leading to the wooden bridge over the stream which zigzagged an apparently aimless way across the common, and in a few moments had reached the copse.
As she entered it the moonlight ceased and the shadows rushed upon her. The first few steps she took were blind and hesitant. Although she had trodden the path countless times before it was as though she had walked into an unknown world of darkness in which she was lost and alone.
Something rustled close at hand. So close that it startled her and she stopped abruptly, her heart thudding.
Her first reasoned thought was that Vaughan had followed her, after all. She knew that he had not been behind her as she had crossed the common, but although he would have had a greater distance to cover it would have been easily possible for him to have gone round by the roadway and reached the copse before her.
‘Is that you, Martin? You shouldn’t have bothered.’
She tried to speak casually, but her voice was unreal and a little desperate. It surprised her with its shrill uncertainty.
There was no sound in reply. All around her it was still and somehow dreadfully silent.
And now there was fear at her side. The darkness was becoming less intense, but the shadows which were detaching themselves from the deeper blackness were grotesque and ugly and menacing. They were no longer the shadows of friendly things, but were alien and distorted, reaching up to her, stretching out greedy fingers to drag her down.
She knew that it was a lie born of an imagination no longer under her control but momentarily she was incapable of restoring her conscious reason. She gave a stifled sob and began to run.
It might have been the signal for all the power of the evil she had been secretly fearing for so long to rise up against her. For suddenly she was no longer alone on the path.
She turned against her will to see that horror was there. A twisted, devilish horror, with insatiate eyes in the impossible mask of a fiend. An incredible horror, which paralysed her body and which her mind refused to believe.
And as she stared, incapable of movement, it resolved itself into a searing, sharp-edged pain—a pain which both pierced her through and enveloped her in its intensity. It screamed through her nerves to a fierce and terrible climax, and then there was no feeling any more—no pain, no fear, only a great, embracing silence, in the soft arms of which she lay utterly still.