MURDER IN THE MUSEUM

a short story about a gruesome lantern slide presentation



The latest lantern slide show was in full swing, its reflected light flickering around the room. The darkened corners of the old and ancient school hall showed just an occasional slight movement as someone carefully adjusted their seat, but by and large, the packed audience were enthralled. Not a soul had fallen asleep, as in some previous presentations. The reason was patently clear. The large hanging screen flickered with a light that reflected around the room as the slides told their own dark and gruesome story. Now and then, as flickered light came and went, could be seen a sea of eagerly upturned faces, sometimes open-mouthed in astonishment at the gravity of the images shown.

For they were, for the most part, truly shocking.

Some sixty or more people of all ages, but mostly older folk, were gathered in the old village school, now used as a folk museum, to see this presentation of ancient glass slides compiled around the subject of old and unsolved local murders. Folk history in the raw, you might say. And many of those folk could well remember many of the cases and a sporadic "aahh" would be emitted from the gathering as a particularly memorable or gruesome case was displayed. It was indeed surprising just how many murders there had been in such a small place. The old school, being used as a museum, did seem to enhance the atmosphere of a gruesome presentation such as this. It had a strange atmosphere, and today, even this afternoon, it had a funny smell to it. A smell of history, perhaps.

In some ways, the audience could be said to be especially distinguished. Amongst their number present, along with their wives, could be counted, as well as the esteemed professor presenting the show, a doctor, an army colonel, as well as an array of local factory managers and foremen. The lord and lady of the manor had put in an appearance, seated naturally at the front, and there was even a vicar. Oh yes, the great and good of the village were in rapt attendance. But none had any idea of what was going to happen next.

Professor Cherry was just coming to the end of the first part of the show, before the tea interval, when it happened. Well, when it was discovered what had happened, for no-one could then be sure just when the awful occurrence had .. .. occurred.

The professor liked to enliven his shows by encouraging a certain amount of audience participation, and to that end, an extra bit of fun had been scripted into the show to bring alive the exitement of sudden and murderous death.

For a professor schooled in the science of forensic medicine, and experience gained through a career in crime, he was more jovial than your usual professorial character. He was showing his lifetime's collection of slides, and he had a plan. But what he had planned, in all innocence, is not what took place. It is not the done thing to discover a real murder had taken place at an advertised murder presentation.

It may be better now to acquaint the reader with some idea of who was there, who comprised this so attentive audience. As has been said, Lord and Lady Jasmine were there, sitting next to Colonel Coleman and his lady wife. Doctor and Mrs Plaque were next, along with the Reverend Brown and Mrs Goldfinch, widow of this parish, and then Miss Peuse at the end of the row. The several other rows consisted of sundry villagers and parishioners, intermingled with notable figures, such as the Misses Quince and Miss Rise, Mr & Mrs Redhead, Rosie Kayla, Mrs White - another widow - and a newcomer to the area, Mr Steiff.

The latter was a quiet man, who spoke with a hesitatingly mid-European accent, convivial enough when engaged in light conversation. But most villagers would say that they barely knew him really. For the most part, most locals considered that this newcomer almost ignored them. If they spoke or waved to him in the street, he barely acknowledged them. He was an odd fish. Mr Steiff sat right at the back of the hall, almost all by himself, and being so far from the actual lantern projector itself, in almost total darkness, as were all those sitting in the rear rows of seats, could be barely discerned in the dark-curtained gloom other than for his tradmark white silk scarf. A man of taste, was Mr Steiff.

Indeed, some folks had noted on arrival that Mr Steiff was so keen to see this presentation, he was just about the first one there. He had already taken his place long before anyone else. But, why oh why on earth didn't he take a better seat and sit near the front.

So there we have the scene, a scene of folk so assidous in their attention to the show, you could have heard a pin drop.

Professor Cherry showed one last slide, so gruesome that Colonel Coleman remarked to his wife that it was as well that the slide was not in colour, considering that they were now about to repair to the dining hall for tea and cakes. No one would relish a jam and cream doughnut having just viewed in colour a crime scene such as that.

Dr Plack, of course, thought no such thing. His head tilted slightly to one side to better take in the full meaning, and he listened with extra attention to Professor Cherry's fascinating description of how he had examined the victim. For a victim the victim most certainly was.

Another member of the audience, previously unmentioned, was Sergeant Blueitt, the long-standing village bobby who these days could boast the assistance of a couple of constables to work with him. They were doing duty this weekend, so he could have his weekend off. Indeed, they worked most weekends. He, too, looked with narrowed eyes as he tried to discern how the victim met his end. With the amount of gore to be seen, there could be no doubt that it was his end.

Professor Cherry, with a few well-chosen words of humour, to lighten the atmosphere you understand, brought the first part of his presentation to its end, to which there was a spontaneous outbreak of noisy applause. This was followed almost immediately by instant brilliance as all the lights came on and an even noisier scraping and shuffling as the audience, almost as one, rose to their feet to make at once for the dining hall. At once, if not sooner. There are few stronger pulls on an Englishman's nature than the promise of a cup of tea, and the neat rows of polite audience seemed to coalesce and gell around the door near the front of the hall like leaves and debris around a drain as storm water slowly gushes it away.

The crowd had almost succeeded in pushing through the doorway, when Miss Peuse, who was almost the last to leave the hall, turned to see if she had left her gloves on her seat. She noticed one lone figure right at the back, head bowed as if almost asleep, and realised it was Mr Steiff, sitting in a lone chair, almost in the far corner. Ms Peuse's first thought was that he must be cold, as he had his white silk scarf wrapped over his coat collar and right around his neck. She turned to Widow White, who would have been the last to leave the hall, and tapped her on her shoulder, pointing down the room to Mr Steiff as she did so.

Both ladies looked intently, instinctively wanting to wake the sleeping Mr Steiff, but also reluctant to miss their place at the back of the tea queue. But as they looked, an astonishing thing happened. Mr Steiff appeared to stirr, to come to life, he moved, but it would soon become clear that all life was extinct in Mr Steiff. For at that very moment, he lost his unequal fight with gravity and rolled very quietly, and very slowly, out of his seat and onto the wooden floor, which he connected with making a rather more heavy thump than one would normally expect when a body slides onto a floor.

It was clear that all was not well. The two ladies, perceiving that Mr Steiff had perhaps expired after all, did as most ladies would do on witnessing such an occurance. They screamed. A doubly-loud and piercing scream such as had not been heard in that hall in many a year.

The contents of the audience, now almost entirely within the dining hall, and not yet being appraised of what had just happened in the main hall, froze as one. All conversation paused, though tea pouring continued for another several seconds. And then, even that stopped. It was Ms Peuse that uttered the first words, aimed at those nearest to her at the back of the queue, "Golly Gosh! I say, I think he's dead!"

The Widow White exclaimed, "By Jove, I think you're right!" and started to move in the direction of the back of the hall. All thought of tea for the moment was on hold, and almost as one, the rest of the audience made to move towards the door to see what was afoot and why all the fuss. It's a serious matter to interupt the pouring of tea at a village event, no matter what has occurred. For hardly anyone had had the chance to even have a bite of a bun, let alone a mouthful of tea, when all refreshment activity came to an abrupt stop.

Above the general hubble and bubble were first heard the words of Dr Plack. "Make way! Make way, let me through, I'm a doctor, you know."

He was followed by a quickly awakening Sgt Blueitt, "Me too, me too, I'm a police officer!"

Squeezing out through the small doorway, almost twice as fast as they had ever squeezed in, followed the rest of the audience, or most of them.

Ms Peuse and Widow White were, by now, at the back of the hall, and having arrived there, were confirmed in their first thoughts that there was nothing to be done for Mr Steiff, lying crookedly, as he was, on the hall floor where he fell from his seat, his head back, eyes wide open, and tongue partially protruding from his mouth as if his last moments had been spent in fighting for his breath.

For indeed he had, been fighting for his breath. Both Dr Plack and Sgt Blueitt arrived barely seconds later, and Dr Plack immediately knelt down and quickly put his fingers to the side of the victim's neck to feel for any sign of residual life. The doctor looked up to Sgt Blueitt, and shook his head. "I'm afraid he's dead."

"I was afraid of that," muttered Sgt Blueitt, quickly visualising the masses of paperwork this latest occurance would entail. "I think I'm going to have to report this."

Now other members of the audience had pushed to the back of the hall, and loud gasps of astonishment told of the general horror and disquiet at what had occurred. Lord and Lady Jasmine were, for once, speechless, but Colonel Coleman found enough breath to say, at first, just one word. "Lummee!" Followed a few seconds later by, "Cor, blimey, what's that smell."

Professor Cherry, despite having a hot cup of tea in one hand and a cherry bun in the other, had managed to be hot on the heels of the first arrivals at the scene and came up with a start as he took in the view. He was lost for words, but did manage to exclaim, "Blast! I forgot my camera."

Sgt Blueitt determined that he should, in some way, secure the crime scene. He would have to improvise. To that end, he pushed past the body of the definitely deceased Mr Steiff in order to get a coil of rope left at the back of the hall by last week's scouts. It would have to do for now until he could get back to the police house and get his official crime scene tape to mark the area off. It was always an annoyance to be caught without his crime scene tape.

As he came back with the rope, his foot caught Mr Steiff's foot, splayed out as it was across the floor. It became instantly clear that Mr Steiff's foot, and indeed his leg, both legs even, were almost immovable. Indeed, his whole body appeared to be rather set, and as Dr Plack knelt down again to further examine the body, it became even clearer that rigor mortis was, even now, well set in.

Oh dear, Mr Steiff had been stiff for quite some time. It was as that point that the doctor noticed the tightness of the scarf around the neck, and so first concluded, given the wide, staring eyes, and protruding tongue, that the cause of death had been strangulation.

Sgt Blueitt uttered an understanding "Aaahh". He instantly realised, being no slouch when it came to the uptake in these matters, that this would mean double the paperwork, for it would seem that if the cause of death was strangulation, then unfortunately for Sgt Blueitt, who was on his weekend off, this may well be a case of murder. This was not good. Procedures had to be followed, and he did wish he had his crime scene tape. And his notebook.

Many of the audience, now well aware of what had occurred, and realising that this occurrence was not the one that was planned to occur, had now started to leave the hall, many disappointed that the rest of the show appeared to be cancelled.

Several had already done so, but Colonel Coleman, who had an instinct for taking charge in these situations, said loudly that he didn't think anyone should leave just yet. The Misses Quince and Rise asked Professor Cherry, if they had to stay, would he be performing the second part of his slide presentation, though naturally, they understood it would be rather late given the circumstances. They suggested that perhaps the rear half of the hall could be curtained off.

Someone asked the Reverend Brown if he thought he should say a few words, for the soul of the now departed. He replied that those that had already left could well look after themselves and if they wanted their souls remarking on, he'd see them in church on the morrow. But for now he had to look for his wife, before she departs.

Someone else suggested that, given the shock, perhaps strong tea was required after all, but Mrs Goldfinch doubted that tea would bring the departed Mr Steiff round. Unless it had plenty of sugar in it, of course.

It was at that moment that Dr Plack, still on his knees examining the body, gave out a loud exclamation.

"My word! Have you seen this, Sgt Blueitt?"

"No doctor, what have you found." Sgt Bluitt realised that he really would have to find his notebook, not with him today by virtue of being off duty, but he would need to remember any new clues that he or the doctor may discover. He fumbled in an invisible pocket for his invisible notebook.

"What's that, what is it, doctor?"

"This here, on his ear."

"What is it?" asked Sgt Blueitt again.

"It's a button. It looks like a button," muttered Dr Plack. "Why on earth would he have a button in his ear, I wonder."

"That's easy to answer," spoke up Mrs Goldfinch, who considered herself something of an authority on such matters. "It's because he's a Steiff!"

She gave a sort of throaty chortle. You don't hear much of people chortling these days, do you. But folk used to do it often at one time, a bit like etiquette. That's another thing not often heard today, but when chortling and etiquette were performed together, it was almost an art form.

"I know he's Mr Steiff," said both the doctor and Sgt Blueitt almost in unison. "What's that got to do with it?" asked Doctor Plack as he further examined the body. He frowned, and looked up at the police sergeant. "You know, if I didn't know better, I'd say he's been dead for quite some time. Rigor Mortis is quite well set in, you know."

"Do you mean," asked the sergeant, "he might not have died . . . this afternoon," he added, after a short pause for thought. He often paused for thought, and sometimes it helped.

"Quite!" said the doctor. "I wonder if he even died today. He really is quite stiff."

Sgt Blueitt paused again, and fumbled once more for his missing notebook. His fingers itched for a pencil. "Are you suggesting he was murdered before we got here, or even murdered before he was here, if you see what I mean."

"Yes, good sergeant, you've got it. Whoever did this, they may not even be anyone that's here now." Doctor Plack rose to his feet, and gestured to his wife. It was time to leave, he had done all he could here. Things were best now left to the good offices of the law. He could see that Sgt Blueitt had things well in hand. Or he would if he could find his notebook.

"Oh Lord!" muttered the sergeant. He not only had a mysterious murder on his hands, the body may well have been here all day, maybe even all night, and was probably here when he himself arrived and took his own seat. Mr Steiff had looked alright when he arrived, though perhaps . . . a little pale maybe. He certainly looks ill now, but he would, lying down like that. Sgt Blueitt sighed, and wished he could lie down. His weekend off was seemingly more remote by the minute. But, then he had a thought. Occasionally, they helped too.

"When was this room last used?" Sgt Blueitt asked in his most authoritive tone of voice, aiming his question almost randomly at the gathered crowd.

"Why, that, that would have been, let me think, ah, last Friday, when the museum was open," explained Mrs White, who was one of the organisers of these events. "And straight after that, there was the scouts," Mrs Goldfinch added. "Yes, it would have been the scouts."

Oh no, Sgt Blueitt despaired. That's all he needed, a murder in two places, perhaps a week apart, sixty-something potential witnesses, or the same number of suspects, oh Lord Almightly, and masses of paperwork. Oh, the paperwork. His bosses would want a full explanation as to how all this could happen when he, the village copper, was actually present. He'd be writing for ever!

It was clear, there was not going to be a resolution to this case tonight, no quick and easy arrest and feathers in caps for him. This was going to take some time. He'd have to find his notebook, and quick. Bosses always liked notebooks full of, well, notes. Scribbles, jottings, anything, so long as it wasn't noughts and crosses, or hangman. That was the worst, to be caught with a notebook full of hangman. Oh yes, that put a finish to many a copper's hopes of making sergeant. Yes, there was a lot to think about.

And just what was the significance of that tiny, dull-coloured button in the lobe of his ear. Yes, he thought, tapping his imaginary pencil on his imaginary notebook, he did think that could possibly bear further investigation.

And there, dear reader, we will have to leave the case of the unsolved murder in the museum. It was unsolved then, and it's unsolved now. Maybe a call to the New Tricks cold-case team will help … somehow, I doubt it.

But my feeling is, it was the scouts that done it.

And a good job too. Most probably, with the rope that Sgt Blueitt was now using to secure his crime scene.



AND THAT MAY WELL BE THE END OF THIS STUPID BLACK COMEDY OF A TALE . . . .



unless perhaps you know different. Dib dib dib.
Go on, have a go at solving this one, I did give you at least one major Clue, do give it a go.