Elimination of a Suspect
After his shower, Monty headed away from his rooms towards the balconied main entrance hall. As he reached the balcony, he met Florence coming the other way.
“There you are,” said Florence. “I was beginning to wonder if you’d fallen down the plug hole.”
“My dear, sometimes you are positively unkind,” replied Monty with a smile. “Now, it seems to me that we really need to talk more closely with Miriam Davies and Rahul Anand.”
“I agree, but Miriam is still off on her walk, and Rahul is floating around the lake in his boat. When I saw him, he appeared to be asleep.”
Monty nodded to himself and leaned on the railing of the balcony. “Ah, well. Did the Engineer finish with the… arrangements to ensure that people couldn’t leave the estate?”
“Oh yes, she came back a little while ago. She’s down in the kitchens now.”
“Really? What on Earth is she doing down there?”
“Attempting to grow chocolate crystals. I am led to believe that it is a difficult process as there are six different crystalline forms of chocolate.”
“This isn’t about that chocolate steam engine thing, is it?”
“She is very tenacious when faced with a new problem and has an unconventional outlook.”
“Yes, I recall. Frustrating that we know so little about her. You would think that as a major Avatar of one of the largest transport systems we would have her full biography by now.”
“We knew the full biography of the last Railway Engineer, and precious little good it did us,” remarked Florence.
Monty nodded. That had nearly been a total disaster, and it was only because a certain Runaway called Mark had risen above himself in an extraordinary manner that the situation had been saved.
“Still,” continued Florence, “I can tell you her name. Sophia.”
“I’m impressed,” said Monty, and he was. This Engineer had been very close-lipped about her past. Granted, no normal person hands out copies of their autobiography, but generally a few details emerged. The Engineer – Sophia – was a master of deflection on questions of history. It seemed that before arriving at the Railway, she simply didn’t exist.
“You know, I really quite like this balcony,” said Monty. “It lets you see everyone entering and leaving without being too obvious. See – isn’t that Morton Ainsworth down there?”
“Mr Ainsworth,” agreed Florence, “Director of the Residual Properties Board, appointed three years ago. He had been lined up for a similar position with the Academy, but the late Alan Droightman took a dislike to him, so Residual Properties got him instead.”
“All of which puts him firmly on our list of potential murderers of Alan Droightman, so let us go and talk to him.”
With that, Florence took Monty’s arm, and they descended the stairs towards Morton Ainsworth.
Ainsworth had just sat down on a sofa when Monty and Florence reached him, but he immediately stood up. He was a somewhat portly man, and looking at him, Monty reflected that something about the transport systems encouraged people to dress as if they were from the late 19th or early 20th centuries.
“I was wondering when you’d want to talk to me,” said Ainsworth.
“And why is that?” asked Florence.
“It’s not impossible for someone who runs five miles a day to have a heart attack, but it’s not common. Droightman did have a thing for chocolate, but otherwise, he was sensible. I don’t know why he died, but it wasn’t his heart.”
“And how did he come to die, then?” asked Monty.
“I don’t know. Poison, perhaps? But it’s common knowledge that I dislike the man… disliked the man, which is enough reason for you to want to talk to me.”
“Are you suggesting that he was murdered?”
“If he wasn’t, we wouldn’t be having this conversation”
“You’re being unusually abrupt,” said Florence.
“And you’re not contradicting me,” said Ainsworth. “Look, I’m pretty good at seeing how things stand.”
“And what happened to the charming man that I was talking to earlier?” asked Florence. “At the buffet you were quite the pleasant fellow.”
“That was social, this isn’t.”
“Yes, quite,” interrupted Monty, “but what did happen between you and Droightman?”
“Oh, it was simple enough,” said Ainsworth, sitting down on the sofa again. “Droightman hadn’t produced anything new for a few years, which was strange for someone in his position at the Academy. Most of them publish a paper a year, regular as clockwork, just to make sure that they get noticed professionally. Not Droightman. It looked like he was just resting on his laurels.”
“So what happened?” prompted Monty again.
“I made an ill-judged joke about how he’d have to wait for a student to come up with something new for him to put his name on.”
Monty winced. “How did you ever think that would be an acceptable joke to make to an academic?”
“His attitude that day had been especially offensive, even for him. He’d been spoiling for a fight. I gave it to him. What I hadn’t counted on was his influence with the Academy selection panel.”
“Which is why you’re now with Residual Properties?”
“A better position for me, as it turned out. But here’s the strange thing…” Ainsworth leant forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “I looked into things a bit more, and you know, I’m not sure that he didn’t ‘borrow’ his theories from a student.”
“Any student in particular?” asked Florence.
“Yes, she was here earlier. Miriam Davies.”
Monty and Florence had been together too long to give the game away by exchanging significant glances. Instead, they thanked Morton Ainsworth and moved on. Exiting the entrance hall to the terrace that overlooked the grounds, they walked, enjoying the sunlight.
“Nice place Helen has here,” commented Monty.
“Indeed. Do you fancy a stroll down to the lake?” asked Helen.
“Catch up with that Rahul fellow, you mean?”
“Yes. I am thinking that perhaps it might help to talk to him first.”
Gently, they strolled down towards the lake, arm in arm. The lake was artificial, the creation of massive landscaping like most of the estate. It was fed on one side by a similarly artificial river which drained from the far side. Offset from the centre, there was an island, large enough to have a pavilion for more intimate parties with carefully selected guests.
“I say,” said Monty, “Isn’t that Aubretia down there?”
“Aubretia Williams?” asked Florence, “Yes, you’re right. I’d been thinking of talking to her later, but if she’s here now…”
“Then there’s no time like the present,” agreed Monty.
They had been walking towards the boat house, but now they angled across the lawn slightly, to where Aubretia was sitting on a bench, looking over the lake.
“Lady Williams,” called Monty as they approached.
Aubretia Williams turned and smiled when she saw who it was.
“Monty, how many times have I told you to call me Aubretia?” she asked. “And Florence, you’ll have to forgive me for not making time to talk to you before this unpleasant business with Alan Droightman.”
“Do not concern yourself. I should have made more effort too,” said Florence.
Aubretia waved the matter away as Monty and Florence joined her on the bench.
“You know why we’re here, of course,” said Monty.
“Indeed. As the Air Baron, I know exactly what your position is, unlike most people.”
“Yes, weren’t you a friend of Helen’s father?”
Aubretia nodded. “That’s why I’m here. After his death, I kept contact with Helen. It seemed the right thing to do.”
“And by the fact we’re taking an interest, you know that it wasn’t a simple heart attack that killed Alan Droightman.”
“Special Envoys without Portfolio from the Board of Transport don’t take an interest in natural deaths.”
“And you wouldn’t be who you are if you let our friendship get in the way of an investigation.”
“Aubretia,” said Florence, placing her hand on Aubretia’s arm, “although we have to talk to you, I really don’t think that you will have had anything to do with it.”
“Really? And why’s that?”
“Because you knew we were here,” said Monty. “If you’d wanted to kill him, then you’d have bided your time and done it when we weren’t around. Besides, your disagreement with him was years ago. If you wanted him dead, then something would have accidentally fallen off a plane from ten thousand feet and hit him on the head long before now.”
“Yes,” agreed Florence, “You don’t become a Baron by being inefficient. What was the problem you had with Droightman? For once, a bit of scandal has passed me by.”
“Oh, there was no scandal,” said Aubretia, “At least, not as far as I was concerned. It’s about the girl he keeps around.”
“Miriam Davies?” asked Florence, and Monty raised his eyebrows.
“Yes, that’s the one,” continued Aubretia. “He was keeping her on as a ‘Research Assistant’, long hours, low pay, doing all the boring work for him.”
“So why did she stay?”
“That was what the row was about. However foul Droightman may have been, he did have a certain charisma. He persuaded her that he could push forward her career, help her make a name for herself. There was a long stream of supposed positions that she was eligible for, or grants that she might get with his patronage.”
“She doesn’t sound too bright, then,” said Monty. “From what I can see, she’s been his Research Assistant for years.”
“Oh, she’s very clever,” said Aubretia. “Very clever indeed – as long as you’re talking about Interfaces between Transport Systems and their orthorhombic lattice structure.”
“That’s like crystals,” Florence said to Monty in a loud stage whisper.
“Yes,” said Monty, resting his chin on his swordstick. “So very clever as long as she doesn’t have to get involved with people, but rather naïve to be dealing with someone like Droightman.”
“Well,” said Aubretia, “I don’t like to see people treated like that. As a Baron, I often have to make hard decisions, but I balance that up by being absolutely fair, and treating people properly. Droightman was just using Davies as his servant, and I didn’t like that. So, I said so.”
“And how did Miriam Davies take this?” asked Florence.
“She refused to listen to me. She was convinced that Alan Droightman could do no wrong, and that he would ensure she had a glittering career. After that, there wasn’t much more I could do. And now Droightman has found another young person to do his bidding.”
“His new research assistant, Rahul Anand?”
“Yes, that’s him. He went out on the lake earlier in a boat. Look – there he is. Looks like he’s asleep. Funny that he should be able to sleep considering what’s just happened to his boss.”
“I think,” said Monty, peering at the figure recumbent in the boat, “That people generally don’t fall asleep in pools of blood.”
“Oh, well,” said Florence. “That’s one less suspect.”