Christmas, Corpses, and Clockwork Kittens: a Kate and Ada Christmas Mystery
by L. A. Nisula
copyright (c) 2016 L. A. Nisula
When it happened, I was leaning in the shop window, trying to repair Father Christmas. If one runs a tinkering shop in Mayfair, one does not advertise it with a sign, no matter how discrete or respectable. So my partner, Ada, and I had to rely on the display in our window to draw in shoppers, particularly at Christmas. Ada had come up with the idea of wrapping some of our kits in holiday paper ready for last minute shoppers to dash in and purchase, but I was convinced that a steam driven Father Christmas with the gears showing to the street was just the thing to draw in the last minute gift seekers. Unfortunately, it wasn’t working quite as I had hoped.
Ada had taken one look at the result of my efforts and insisted that he looked arthritic, which I had denied until she dragged me into the street and made me look at him from the outside. I had been forced to concede that, while I still did not think he appeared arthritic, he did seem to have had a hard night and lifted too many heavy parcels into his sleigh. I’d immediately gone inside and adjusted the steam drive, but now he looked like he was performing some particularly vigorous slimming exercises.
“Kate dear, I’m going to get some more silver paper.”
“And I thought some gold ribbon.”
I grunted. While I had been working on my mechanical Father Christmas, Ada had spent the last few hours on her idea, wrapping some of our more adorable kits–the ones to build steam-driven sheep who wound balls of yarn and mechanical kittens that stirred tea–in holiday papers with the idea that they would appeal to young men looking to impress their young ladies with their creativity and appreciation of the lady’s intelligence while not offending the gentleman’s sensibilities– or those of the young lady’s father–with some of our more interesting kits like steam power-velocycles and mechanical window lifts–sold strictly for fire safety, of course, any other use was not sanctioned by us. I had promised to help her with the project, only Father Christmas was proving more stubborn than I’d anticipated.
“And I’m planning to bring back an elephant to deliver them.”
I knew she was merely trying to determine whether or not I was listening to her, but I had just gotten some teeth knocked out of the gear. Unfortunately, they were in the wrong location, so he was hesitating as he bent, and I didn’t need Ada to tell me that it made him look both arthritic and overworked. I was trying to figure out how to re-attach the gear so he would pause correctly without having to make an entirely new one when I heard Ada make a stifled sound rather like a scream. That distracted me. When a rat had attempted to take up residence in our bins, I’d found Ada lecturing it quite firmly while she chased it away with the broom. As the rat hadn’t returned, it seemed effective. It also meant that a scream was a sign of something far more serious than a rodent and worth investigating.
I found Ada standing by the front door. She had gotten as far as opening it, but she had stopped when she’d noticed there was someone slumped on the front step. A young man, blond hair artistically long, wearing a suit with a subtle check pattern under his brown coat. And he was very still. Too still.
Ada was staring down at the body. “He appears to be dead. I didn’t feel a pulse in his neck, but I didn’t want to search further and disturb any evidence.”
I nodded. “Always a good plan. And he definitely appears to be dead.” I tried to distract myself from his very still face. “Seems his pin wasn’t very lucky.”
Ada glanced at his tiepin. “Well, he got it wrong; that only has three leaves, he should have sprung for the four-leaf variety.”
I leaned in and noticed she was correct. “I suppose he must have been too cheap. Was he warm when you touched him?”
“Slightly, and not stiff. So this was recent. And he certainly wasn’t here when I went to purchase the green wrapping paper, and that wasn’t more than two hours ago.” She straightened up. “I saw Constable Polwarth pass by when I was finishing the kittens. He can’t have gone far. I’ll go find him. Unless you’d like…”
I didn’t particularly relish the idea of watching over a dead man, but Ada had found the body and checked for a pulse, so it only seemed right to let her choose which task she preferred to perform next. “Just try to hurry back.”
“Of course.” Ada buttoned up her coat again. “And I’ll bet they won’t even clean up the mess when they’re done. If Mrs. Donovan doesn’t quit over this, it will be a Christmas miracle. We should give her a bit more on Boxing Day. Bodies do seem a bit beyond her normal duties.” She didn’t wait for an answer but marched out the back door. I turned back to the front step and held my wrench at the ready, just in case anyone decided to come back to interfere with the body. Not that I would need it; there was no one on the street who seemed likely to even notice our unusually still visitor. I glared at the Moresons’ mutt just in case, but he was far more interested in the cat who lived in the bakery than our unwelcome guest. Not that I blamed him; our charge wasn’t very interesting. Although I did wonder how he came to be on our doorstep. I glanced down at the corpse to see if I recognized him.
I didn’t, but I did notice that Ada’s worries about our charwoman seemed a bit premature. As I bent over the body, I realized there was very little blood. And that seemed unusual. Unless he’d been strangled. I leaned in a bit more to check his neck, and instead found what was quite clearly a bullet wound in his shoulder, hidden by his hair. There was blood on his jacket, on the front, but not particularly noticeable, so I assumed that it was the entry wound. That meant there should have been a puddle of blood on the step under him, but I didn’t see anything.
Of course, now that I was thinking about it properly, he couldn’t have been shot here. We would have heard. Even I don’t get interested enough in my tinkering to ignore a gunshot, not when it’s something like my Father Christmas anyway. The self-illuminating goggles would have been another matter entirely. I looked for anything else that might identify him. He was clutching a calling card of some sort in his hand, but I couldn’t make out what it said without touching it. I was prevented from investigating further by the arrival of Constable Polwarth.
“Guarding the victim?”
“See anyone suspicious? Other than that fine spaniel-terrier mix over there.”
“Just a very dodgy looking cat. Do you need us for anything?”
“Do you have anything to add to the witness statement?”
I shrugged. “Ada opened the door and found him. I found her.”
He nodded. “I’ve sent for an inspector. He’ll probably want to hear it again when he gets here. I’ll take over guard duties until then.”
I was more than happy to leave our unwelcome guest to him. I closed the door and went back to the window where I could watch the street while pretending to disable Father Christmas. He seemed a little too cheery under the circumstances. It also meant I was in the perfect position to see the arrival of a hansom cab which stopped much too close to our front door to be anyone other than the police. I could hear Ada poking around in the storeroom. I called to her, “They’ve arrived.”
Ada came out of the storeroom with the two large baskets we used for making deliveries. “Constable Polwarth said he’d tell them to hurry so we wouldn’t be closed for too long.”
I left Ada to her project and turned back to the window to watch a lean, dark-haired man get out of the cab and scan the area. If I hadn’t already known him, I would have thought he was annoyed at being called out during the holiday season, but every time I had seen him, Inspector Wainwright looked as if he were accusing everyone around him of conspiring to commit a murder for no reason other than to inconvenience him. “It seems we’ve drawn Wainwright.”
Ada didn’t look up from the basket she was filling. “Constable Polwarth said that was a possibility. Would you give him the key?”
I assumed she meant Constable Polwarth. “Do you think he’ll need it?”
“Just to be safe as we won’t be here.”
“Where will we be?”
“Trying to get our neighbors to help us by selling some items on commission while the police are here blocking the front door.”
That explained the baskets. “So we’re investigating then?”
“Certainly. Having a body on our doorstep will not be good for the Christmas sales, and having Inspector Wainwright there will positively destroy them. Would you come looking for a present for a young lady here if you had to get past Wainwright first? It would make her father seem a positive delight.”
I couldn’t argue with that. I watched from the window until Constable Polwarth was standing by the front step and Inspector Wainwright was looking away from it, then I opened the door and handed Constable Polwarth the key while explaining where we’d be.
Ada was already waiting for me at the back door as I pulled on my coat and gloves. We cut through the alley behind the next two shops and came out near the music shop three doors down. I assumed we would split up at that point and cover both directions at once. I glanced back towards the shop. It would be possible to avoid Inspector Wainwright by crossing the street, but I thought Ada still deserved first choice after finding the body. “Do you want to go left or right?”
“We’ll both go right.”
“But if we split up….”
Ada tucked her basket in the crook of her elbow. “He had to have come from the right. You’d have noticed a man carrying a dead body past our shop no matter how difficult Father Christmas was being. And besides, no sensible murderer would walk past the window with you sitting in it. And to reach our door without passing the window, he had to have been coming from the general direction of Regent Street. So we go right.”
“And no Inspector Wainwright. Very sensible. Where should we begin?”
“He had a card for Winkleman’s Patented Hair Restoration Clinic. I saw Constable Polwarth remove it from his hand. Clearly he didn’t need it. So where did he get the card?”
I shrugged. “I suppose he could have been getting a present for someone else.”
“Hair restoration? For Christmas? Not much of a present. How would you like me to get you a slimming regime or a course of Mrs. McCleary’s Patented Freckle Remover for Christmas this year?”
I sighed. When she put it like that, it didn’t seem particularly likely. “So you think the killer put it there? Why?”
“To replace something that he was holding when he died?”
“Something that would connect him to the crime? Makes sense. So where are we going?”
“To Mrs. Gilington.”
Mrs. Gilington sold tea and imported sweets down the street from us. She also had the well-earned reputation as the finest gossip in our little corner of Mayfair. “Why would she know anything about hair restoration?”
“That body was still warm when I saw it. He had to have been killed somewhere nearby. That means the card is from somewhere nearby as well.”
“And if anyone knows who in the area has been getting their hair restored, it will be Mrs. Gilington.”
With our destination set, we took off at a brisk pace.
Mrs. Gilington looked up when we entered her shop but didn’t stop knitting the muffler she had in her lap, “Hello, girls, I would have thought you’d be busy selling things to young swains looking for unusual Christmas gifts.”
Ada went straight to the point. “We were intending to, but the dead body on our doorstep seems to be discouraging customers.”
That made Mrs. Gilington stop untangling her yarn and give us her full attention. “Gracious me. That can’t be good for business.”
“And to make it worse, Inspector Wainwright was assigned to it, so we’re trying to place some of our items with other shops in the area and salvage something of the season.”
Now that she knew we were not particularly upset about the death, Mrs. Gilington got down to some proper gossip. “Do you know who the man–I’m assuming it was a man–who the man was?”
“We’d never seen him before, but he was young, dressed in a checked suit, taupe and maple I would say, or maybe caramel, and a dark brown coat, clutching a business card for Winkleman’s Patent Hair Restoration.”
“Well, I hope he didn’t want his hair back. Mr. Milroy tried them when he was engaged to Miss Halco at the post office. She got it for him as a gift.”
I resisted the urge to poke Ada in the side at that.
“And he ended up with less hair than when he started. And by the time he was done with the course of treatment, Miss Halco had moved on to Mr. Anderson at the bank. He had a fine head of hair, although he wore it scandalously long.”
Ada nudged me.
“And then Mr. Anderson was accused of skimming funds and…”
I could feel a long session of gossip beginning. As interesting as Mr. Anderson’s crimes sounded, the one on our doorstep was more pressing. I began scanning the room looking for inspiration. Ada didn’t need inspiration. She pulled out one of the models from her basket–the sheep who wound a ball of yarn–and set it working. Mrs. Gilington noticed it at once.
“That’s adorable. Is that what I’m selling for you?”
“The kit to make it, yes.”
“Oh, they’ll sell even better than the chestnut caramels Mrs. Calahan brought in yesterday.”
“Then we’ll leave ten for now and check back tomorrow. Here’s the commission agreement. I trust it’s satisfactory?”
I had no idea when Ada had written that up, and I certainly wouldn’t have thought of it, but Mrs. Gilington read it over and nodded while Ada stacked boxes on the counter.
When we were safely on the street, several shillings poorer and with three boxes of chestnut caramels added to our basket, Ada sighed. “I don’t want to believe Mr. Milroy is our killer.”
I shook my head. “Neither do I. But we don’t need to give his name to Inspector Wainwright. Just because he was given hair restoration as a present at some point….”
“Certainly not until we’re certain. But he was the first person she mentioned when we started to describe the victim. I think we should see if he’d sell some of the kittens.”
As Mr. Milroy owned the butcher shop, I wasn’t quite certain how we would explain the kittens, but with a dead body on the front step, that seemed to be the least of our worries.
Mr. Milroy had made an effort to decorate the butcher shop for Christmas with a few pine boughs and a holly wreath over the door. They seemed out of place among the chops and joints filling the counter, but it did make the room smell nice. I tried to avoid looking at anything which reminded me of the corpse we’d left behind on our doorstep, but it wasn’t easy with a row of Christmas geese hanging like murderers at Tyburn in the front window. I was resolving to turn vegetarian when Ada decided to speed things along by calling, “Mr. Milroy?” as she looked around the shop and even behind the counter. “He doesn’t seem to be here.”
I turned my attention to her. “That’s odd. How can he have the shop open but not be here? And at Christmas?”
Ada glanced at the door to the back office. “Maybe he stepped out for a moment?”
I followed her gaze. “That’s possible.” I made for the door. Ada followed. The door was locked, but I had it open in a few seconds with a few handy bits of stiff wire from my pocket.
The office was empty. Ada and I exchanged a glance and split up at once. Ada went to the desk while I looked over the carpet and walls.
We worked in silence for a few moments, until spotted a bottle. “There’s hydrogen peroxide here. Or at least an empty bottle of it.”
Ada looked up. “Is the floor wet?”
“Not here.” I felt around the carpet. “Under this chair, there’s a wet patch. If that’s where he poured the hydrogen peroxide, then there might have been blood here.” I knelt down and examined the carpet. “I think this chair has been moved. You can see the marks in the carpet where it used to be.” I pointed to the dents a good foot away.
“And he has a tray of business cards here on the desk. They don’t seem to be for the shop. Could he reach them from where you are?”
I leaned back to test the theory. My fingers were able to brush the edge of the desk. If I stretched, I could feel the edge of the tray. “Yes, barely. Or easily if he had slightly longer arms than I do.”
“Then this is probably where the killer got the card in the victim’s hand.”
“So then it was Mr. Milroy? I can’t quite believe that.” I looked around the room, hoping for some other explanation
Ada stared at the desk. “I suppose we could be wrong. The hydrogen peroxide might have been for something else. It is a butcher’s shop; there’s bound to be perfectly innocent bloodstains.”
“But not innocent holes in the wall.”
Ada looked up. “Holes?”
“Just the one, actually.” I pointed to what was clearly a bullet hole in the wall a few feet above the chair. I automatically began calculating angles in my head.
“Don’t touch it,” Ada warned.
I very much wanted to slip a pencil into the hole and try for an exact reading of the angle, but it wasn’t my first crime scene. “I know better than that. But I suppose we have to tell Wainwright.”
Ada nodded. “Is it the right angle?”
“I think so. But if I’m right on the height of the man on the steps and the angle of the hole, Mr. Milroy would have had to be standing on something to make the shot.”
“How high a something?”
“A few inches. Six or so.”
“Then let’s look for the something.”
We searched the room but couldn’t find anything both sturdy enough to hold Mr. Milroy and the height needed. “Maybe I got the angle wrong. I’ll take a better look.”
“Did you bring your gloves?”
I reached into my pocket to show her, only to realize they were my fingerless working ones.
But Ada was distracted by something stuck in the carving on the edge of the desk. “Look at this.” She held up a strip of paper with a three leaf clover on it.
“That’s the same symbol on the victim’s tiepin. Do we know what that is?”
Ada turned the paper so I could see what was on the other side. The wrapper from a stack of bank notes.
“That’s from a bank? So he worked in a bank? You don’t suppose…”
“I can’t see Mr. Milroy involved in bank robbery. Although Mrs. Gilington’s description of that Mr. Anderson could have fit our body.”
“Mrs. Gilington’s description could fit almost anybody.” I leaned over to look at the bullet hole more closely. If the gesture acted as an end to the argument, that was certainly not my intention, although a nice side effect.
But I didn’t get very far in my search. I had barely gotten positioned well enough to see into the hole when we heard someone opening the door. We both turned expecting to see Mr. Milroy. Ada even had her hand on the basket of mechanical kits, ready to explain our presence, when a younger man walked in. He was a good six inches taller and twenty years younger than Mr. Milroy.
I moved away from the bullet hole as subtly as I could. Ada stormed across the office and marched up to the man. “Who are you and what are you doing in Mr. Milroy’s shop?” She stared at him as if we had every right to be there.
He looked at us, clearly confused by our presence but not willing to question Ada. “I’m Thaddeus, his nephew.”
“I see. Is he upstairs?”
“I… I think so.”
“Then go upstairs and tell him that Miss Ferris and I have some things for him to take on commission.”
Thaddeus looked at Ada, then at me, then his eyes darted to the spot where the bullet hole was. I was careful not to look at it, to act like I hadn’t seen it at all. I tried to look at anything else in the room. Unfortunately, my gaze landed on Thaddeus’s tie, more specifically his tie clasp. Before I could tell myself to look away, I had seen what it was. A three leaf clover. Just like the bank notes. Just like the victim’s pin. I tore my gaze away.
“What are you staring at?” So he had noticed.
Since he’d noticed, I might as well try to learn something about it. “That’s an interesting tie clasp.”
He glanced down like he didn’t know what I was talking about. When he realized what it was, he snatched it off. “It’s from my last job. I shouldn’t be wearing it.”
I tried to think of a way to distract him, but it was Ada who marched forward. “Young man, what on earth are you talking about? I’ve had enough of this nonsense. March upstairs this instant and get your uncle.”
I edged towards the back door. If I could get to the alley outside, I could run for help. Ada seemed able to handle Thaddeus for a few minutes anyways.
Thaddeus reached behind him. Ada grabbed his arm and snapped it forward before he had a chance to react. He was holding a small revolver awkwardly. Wherever he’d been hiding it, he hadn’t been able to grip it properly when he drew it. Ada snatched it out of his hand. “Young man, really. Does your uncle know you’re carrying this around?” Ada unloaded the gun and tossed the bullets behind the file cabinet. “I will be certain to have words with him about this.”
While Ada insisted on being shown to Mr. Milroy so she could detail Thaddeus’s behavior, I kept creeping towards the back door. It seemed like it would work until I brushed against a crate of rolled butcher paper making it crackle. Thaddeus saw what I was doing at once. I tried to make it to the door anyway, but Thaddeus wasn’t hampered by skirts and caught up to me before I could manage it. He twisted my arm behind my back and marched me to the center of the office. “You are going to stand here while I find some rope.”
As soon as his back was turned, I glanced around the room. Ada wasn’t there. She must have dashed out the office door while Thaddeus was distracted by me and gone for help. I just had to stay alive for a little while.
And that seemed less likely when I realized Thaddeus wasn’t looking for rope, or if he was, he was doing it remarkable close to where Ada had dropped his bullets. I didn’t have Ada’s schoolmarm-ish knack for intimidating people. Our basket was within reach. I grabbed the nearest box out of it and waited until Thaddeus was bent over the file cabinet, rattling it and making enough noise that I could creep across the room. He looked over his shoulder as I approached. I darted forward and slammed the box over his head before he could straighten up. It was one of the ones that contained a tea-stirring kitten, which had a steel base that filled the bottom of the box. It didn’t knock him out, but it did make him stagger back and crash into a wall of shelves. I hit him again on the head, then a few times in the right knee since it was in a better position for me to reach.
I was moving on to his left knee when I heard voices outside. “Thaddeus, what in the world is going on?” The door opened. “Gracious. First you go inviting that no good friend of yours that got you fired from the bank to stay in my spare room–incidentally you can tell Mr. Anderson that he owes me 9 and 6 for the whiskey he drank last night. Now I find you crashing around back. What if we had customers out front? Do you think anyone would buy a Christmas goose with this going on in the back? And what on earth are you doing to Miss Ferris?”
“Looking for bullets behind the file cabinet,” I told him so he would know only extreme provocation would lead me to attempt to break someone’s kneecaps.
Thaddeus tried to scuttle away from me. He dragged himself to his feet. I held the box ready to strike again if he should try to go for the door or the bullets. “You don’t understand, Uncle. She just went crazy and….”
I never got to hear the end of his lie. Constable Polwarth burst through the door. He yanked Thaddeus’s arms behind his back and cuffed them in place. Inspector Wainwright pushed around Mr. Milroy, who didn’t seem the least bit surprised to see him, and went to see to the prisoner. Ada came in behind him. I hurried over to make certain she was all right.
“That was very fast.”
“I found Constable Polwarth just down the street.”
Constable Polwarth looked up from his prisoner. “I lost you two by Mrs. Gilington’s when she stopped me to ask about a dead body someone had told her about.”
“Lost us. You mean you were following us?”
“That’s right.” He glanced over his shoulder and saw that Inspector Wainwright was deeply engrossed in studying the carpet where I’d found the remains of the hydrogen peroxide stain. “Inspector Wainwright told me to. Well, he said the two of you could get in almost as much trouble as Miss Pengear and needed to be protected from yourselves, but it amounts to the same thing.”
“It amounts to him knowing we’d solve his case for him.”
Mr. Milroy shook his head. “Well, it’s lucky Thaddeus didn’t manage to reach the bullets, or you could have been in serious trouble.” It seemed Ada had related the entire story to all three of them as they were coming for Thaddeus.
Inspector Wainwright looked up from the carpet. “That is why investigation is no place for amateurs who are liable to get shot or worse.”
Ada shrugged. “There was no danger of that.”
“I appreciate your confidence in Miss Ferris’s abilities, but…”
Ada slipped her hand into her pocket and produced a handful of bullets. “You certainly don’t think I was foolish enough to leave these bullets where he could find them, do you? I take it our body was this Mr. Anderson? Then they were both involved in the robbery Mrs. Gilington mentioned?”
Inspector Wainwright glared at her.
Mr. Milroy answered, “So that’s why I found all the deliveries he was supposed to be making behind the sitting room drapes.”
“It was self-defense,” Thaddeus yelled. “He said the bank knew we’d been taking the money, so he was going to go to the police and return it with some story, but I knew he was going to blame it all on me.”
Ada shook her head. “You have an odd notion of what constitutes self-defense.” She dropped the bullets into Inspector Wainwright’s hand. “And you’ll find a wrapper for the bank notes on the desk. I trust these will help you to tie up the loose ends. Come along, Kate. We’d best see if we can salvage any of the Christmas sales. You can keep that particular kitten, Inspector.”
I handed over the box I’d been battering Thaddeus with and enjoyed the look of irritation on Inspector Wainwright’s face as we swept past him and out to the street.