As we could hardly leave the body of Miss Bent hanging from the tree like a giant flesh-coloured banana, I engaged Billy Blah and Dilip Lombardi to assist me in cutting her down and conveying the body to the icehouse. This brick-built structure was located on the north side of the island on the edge of a small wood that peppered the area behind the main house. Utilizing a wooden wheelbarrow dutifully provided by Rogers, we were able to complete the quarter-mile journey in a few minutes, then, girding our collective loins for the task, hoisted the corpse onto our shoulders as if it were a roll of carpet and began to hump her down the steps.
“Flippin cold in ‘ere,” muttered Blah, backing through the door.
“Better to be cold than hot and smelly,” I countered, spying a low bench along the back wall of the icehouse.
Sliding Miss Bent’s body across the rough surface, I found a piece of tarpaulin underneath the bench and covered her over to preserve what little was left of her dignity.
“Bit of a contradiction in terms, don’t you think?” said Mister Lombardi.
Turning to look at him, I saw he was leaning against the door post, panting a little, his face furrowed in thought. “How’s that?” I said.
He waved a hand in a general sort of way at our surroundings. “Just that there isn’t any ice.”
Taking care to keep my head down due to the low roof, I stepped back and rotated myself through three hundred and sixty degrees. The structure had been sunk into the earth a good four feet and I could already feel the cold seeping through the bare earth into my patent-leather Oxfords. With a floorspace of no more than ten feet square there was barely room to swing a muffin. Apart from shelving on two sides and the rough bench against the rear wall which now held the dead woman, the icehouse did not appear to contain anything.
“Well,” I said, “perhaps the kitchen has some kind of new-fangled cooling mechanism. Mister Owen clearly has plenty of cash.”
Billy Blah sniffed. “No. I arsked Rogers for a whisky on the rocks after lunch and he told me the house don’t have no means of storing ice.”
Lombardi laughed. “And yet we’re standing in an icehouse.”
“I don’t suppose they get many visitors,” said I, tapping my fingers on the walls the way Holmes does when searching for hidden compartments. “But you’re right – it does look very much like what it is: an icehouse without ice.”
“Doctor Watson,” said Blah, “I ‘ope you don’t mind me saying, but were you aware that Miss Bent wasn’t…you know…?”
“That she was a man?” I nodded. “Mary and I found out a little while ago. I don’t believe it’s significant. In relation to the murders, I mean.”
“Huh,” muttered Blah. “Speaking as a former police inspector, I’d say every bloody thing means something in relation to the murders.” He gave me a gentle punch on the arm. “I’ll bet your Mister Holmes would say the same.”
He was right. Holmes never allowed even the smallest detail to go unexamined. But for the life of me, I couldn’t see any clues in our present surroundings.
Back outside in the sunlight, I gazed across at the house. Mary was standing talking to General MacArthur and Vera Claymore. There was no sign of the servants or Justice Warmonger. If this ridiculous affair were running true to form, Warmonger would prove to be the killer, which might also mean that he was Mister Owen.
“There’s something I need to check,” I said and warned my two companions to stay with the others. Then, hurrying across to where Mary waited, I signalled her to come with me.
“No ice in the icehouse?” she whispered as we hastened around to the front of the house.
“No,” I said. “And I think I know why.”
Taking the stairs two at a time, we headed for the judge’s bedroom at the end of a long corridor. Leaving niceties at the door, I burst into the room.
“Oh, Christing hell,” said Mary, clinging to my arm. “Is he…?”
Justice Warmonger lay on his bed, hands crossed over his chest in the style so revered by undertakers. A cardboard Agatha Christie mask had been positioned over the man’s face. Removing the disguise, I examined him closely. His eyes were shut, his mouth a thin pale line turned up at one side as if in a deathly sneer. Holding two fingers to his carotid artery, I discerned there was no obvious pulse. Finally, lifting one eyelid, I saw exactly what I’d expected to see.
“He’s dead.” Leading my wife back out into the passage, I gave her a rapid explanation of my theory and we hurried down to the kitchen to find Rogers and his wife.
The kitchen itself was markedly free of servants. A quick check of the larder and scullery also proved fruitless.
“Where can they be?” said Mary, peering out of the window.
“Think,” I said. “Where would you least expect a servant to be during the time they would normally be on duty?”
Mary shrugged. “In bed?”
Hurrying back upstairs and up to the top floor, we located the two rooms given over to Rogers and his wife. The first door stood open and led into a living room, sparsely decorated with tatty furniture including two armchairs and a table. The second was closed. I knocked and went in. The bed, and indeed the room, were empty.
“Johnny…” Mary had moved across to a window that overlooked the rear lawn. “Look.”
Standing behind her, I followed her gaze. A lone figure strode across the lawn towards a wooden shed on the south side of the house. It was Rogers. In one hand he carried what looked like a brown sack. In the other, a large kitchen knife that glinted in the sunlight. The expression on his face was not pretty. It was the look of a man who intended to do harm.
“What’s in that shed?” said Mary.
“I don’t know for sure,” I said, “but I’ve a nasty feeling that’s where Holmes is hiding.”