“No, not at first. But never fear,” some demon of mischief prompted him to add, “it grows easier with practice.”
A dull red suffused her cheeks. “Insolent man! I daresay you will expound this absurd theory to George!”
“No, for I expect he has already guessed. Besides, I am more interested in your movements afterwards. What did you do with the money?”
“You may search the house, if you wish,” declared Mrs. Bertram, gesturing expansively. “You will not find the missing notes anywhere on the premises.”
“No, for you went out again, did you not? And what, pray, was your errand? Did you call in Berkeley Square, by any chance?”
“Or perhaps you hired a henchman to speed your husband to the succession by killing his cousin? Sixty-five pounds seems a rather low price for a viscountcy, but perhaps your cohort was as much a newcomer to murder as you were to burglary.”
“I tell you, no! I confess it was I who broke into George’s strong-box, but not for any nefarious purpose. In fact, I did it for poor Harold!”
“Harold?” echoed Pickett, all at sea.
“My eldest son. He is presently at Oxford, and—well, you should know what young men are, Mr. Pickett, being so young yourself. They need the wherewithal to amuse themselves without being beholden to their parents for every last farthing.”
Privately, Pickett felt that sixty-five pounds might amuse any number of young men for a year or more. Aloud, however, he merely said, “Surely you cannot expect me to believe that you traveled to Oxford and back in the space of less than two hours!”
“No, no, of course not! But I had to get the money out of the house before George returned, and it was far too late to catch the Mail. So I took it to my dear friend Clara Beauvoir, whose husband is just as clutch-fisted as George, and who would naturally sympathize with a mother’s need to provide for her child, no matter how great the risk to herself.”
“And where does Mrs. Beauvoir live?”
“Why, here on Half Moon Street, only two doors down.”
Alas, when, immediately upon leaving the Bertram domicile, Pickett attempted to confirm Mrs. Bertram’s extraordinary tale, he met with a blank wall: Mrs. Beauvoir, as her butler informed him in no uncertain terms, was Not Receiving. This constituted no small setback, as Pickett’s efforts on Lady Fieldhurst’s behalf would have been aided considerably by Mrs. Beauvoir’s vehement denial of a story which, it must be said, seemed too far-fetched to be believed.
Unfortunately, Pickett could not shake the lowering conviction that it was probably true.
John Pickett Pays a Call
“It won’t do, John,” the magistrate said some time later, when Pickett’s findings were presented to him. “You know it won’t. Good, solid evidence is what you need, and you haven’t a shred of it.”
Pickett leaned against the railing that separated the magistrate’s bench from the rest of the room. “Not yet,” he confessed reluctantly. “But the porter at White’s can’t recall seeing Mr. Bertram leave the premises, and Mrs. Bertram turns out to possess a ruthless streak that wouldn’t stick at much. And both of them had sufficient reason to want Fieldhurst dead. As for Sir Archibald Stanton, I don’t know yet what his motive might be, but I’ll be bound he never stole that letter out of pure gallantry. Her ladyship is not the only possible suspect.”
“But it was she who discovered the body.”
“Exactly!” Pickett came up off the railing like a rifle shot. “Why should she bring a lover to the very bedchamber where she knew her husband was lying dead?”
“I should rather ask, why should she succumb to Lord Rupert’s advances on this particular night, when she had steadfastly resisted up to this point? Perhaps because she knew she would not be obliged to go through with an illicit union? Perhaps because she wanted a witness present to attest to her shock and