An Unsuitable Job for a Woman (4 page)

BOOK: An Unsuitable Job for a Woman
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“That’s all right. I don’t like talking when I’m travelling either. I’ve got Hardy’s
Trumpet-Major
—I always have a paperback in my bag.”

After Bishop’s Stortford they had the compartment to themselves but only once did Miss Leaming look up from her work to question Cordelia.

“How did you come to be working for Mr. Pryde?”

“After I left school I went to live with my father on the continent. We travelled around a good deal. He died in Rome last May after a heart attack and I came home. I had taught myself some shorthand and typing so I took a job with a secretarial agency. They sent me to Bernie and after a few weeks he let me help him with one or two of the cases. He decided to train me and I agreed to stay on permanently. Two months ago he made me his partner.”

All that had meant was that Cordelia gave up a regular wage in return for the uncertain rewards of success in the form of an equal share of the profits together with a rent-free bed-sitting room in Bernie’s house. He hadn’t meant to cheat. The offer of the partnership had been made in the genuine belief that she would recognize it for what it was; not a good-conduct prize but an accolade of trust.

“What was your father?”

“He was an itinerant Marxist poet and an amateur revolutionary.”

“You must have had an interesting childhood.”

Remembering the succession of foster mothers, the unexplained incomprehensible moves from house to house, the changes of schools, the concerned faces of Local Authority Welfare Officers and school teachers desperately wondering what to do with her in the holidays, Cordelia replied as she always did to this assertion, gravely and without irony.

“Yes, it was very interesting.”

“And what was this training you received from Mr. Pryde?”

“Bernie taught me some of the things he learnt in the CID: how to search the scene of a crime properly, how to collect exhibits, some elementary self-defence, how to detect and lift fingerprints—that kind of thing.”

“Those are skills which I hardly feel you will find appropriate to this case.”

Miss Leaming bent her head over her papers and did not speak again until the train reached Cambridge.

Outside the station Miss Leaming briefly surveyed the car park and led the way towards a small black van. Standing beside it as rigidly as a uniformed chauffeur, was a stockily built young man dressed in an open-necked white shirt, dark breeches and tall boots, who Miss Leaming introduced casually and without explanation as “Lunn.” He nodded briefly in acknowledgement of the introduction but did not smile. Cordelia held out her hand. His grip was momentary but remarkably strong, crushing her fingers; suppressing a grimace of pain she saw a flicker in the large mud-brown eyes and wondered if he had hurt her deliberately. The eyes were
certainly memorable and beautiful, moist calves’ eyes heavily lashed and with the same look of troubled pain at the unpredictability of the world’s terrors. But their beauty emphasized rather than redeemed the unattractiveness of the rest of him. He was, she thought, a sinister study in black and white with his thick, short neck and powerful shoulders straining the seams of his shirt. He had a helmet of strong black hair, a pudgy slightly pock-marked face and a moist petulant mouth; the face of a ribald cherub. He was a man who sweated profusely; the underarms of his shirt were stained and the cotton stuck to the flesh emphasizing the strong curve of the back and the obtrusive biceps.

Cordelia saw that the three of them were to sit squashed together in the front of the van. Lunn held open the door without apology except to state: “The Rover’s still in dock.”

Miss Leaming hung back so that Cordelia was compelled to get in first and sit beside him. She thought: “They don’t like each other and he resents me.”

She wondered about his position in Sir Ronald Callender’s household. Miss Leaming’s place she had already guessed; no ordinary secretary, however long in service, however indispensable, had quite that air of authority or talked of “my employer” in that tone of possessive irony. But she wondered about Lunn. He didn’t behave like a subordinate but nor did he strike her as a scientist. True, scientists were alien creatures to her. Sister Mary Magdalen was the only one she had known. Sister had taught what the syllabus dignified as general science, a hotchpotch of elementary physics, chemistry and biology unceremoniously lumped together. Science subjects were in general little regarded at the Convent of the Immaculate Conception, although the arts were well taught. Sister Mary Magdalen had been an elderly and timid nun, eyes puzzled
behind steel-rimmed spectacles, her clumsy fingers permanently stained with chemicals, who had apparently been as surprised as her pupils at the extraordinary explosions and fumes which her activities with test tube and flask had occasionally produced. She had been more concerned to demonstrate the incomprehensibility of the universe and the inscrutability of God’s laws than to reveal scientific principles and in this she had certainly succeeded. Cordelia felt that Sister Mary Magdalen would be no help to her in dealing with Sir Ronald Callender; Sir Ronald who had campaigned in the cause of conservation long before his interest became a popular obsession, who had represented his country at International Conferences on Ecology and been knighted for his services to conservation. All this Cordelia, like the rest of the country, knew from his television appearances and the Sunday colour supplements. He was the establishment scientist, carefully uncommitted politically, who personified to everyone’s reassurance the poor boy who had made good and stayed good. How, Cordelia wondered, had he come to think of employing Bernie Pryde?

Uncertain how far Lunn was in his employer’s or Miss Leaming’s confidence, she asked carefully: “How did Sir Ronald hear about Bernie?”

“John Bellinger told him.”

So the Bellinger bonus had arrived at last! Bernie had always expected it. The Bellinger case had been his most lucrative, perhaps his only, success. John Bellinger was the director of a small family firm which manufactured specialized scientific instruments. The previous year his office had been plagued by an outbreak of obscene letters and, unwilling to call in the police, he had telephoned Bernie. Bernie, taken on the staff at his own suggestion as a messenger, had quickly
solved a not-very-difficult problem. The writer had been Bellinger’s middle-aged and highly regarded personal secretary. Bellinger had been grateful. Bernie, after anxious thought and consultation with Cordelia, had sent in a bill the size of which had astounded them both and the bill had been promptly paid. It had kept the Agency going for a month. Bernie had said: “We’ll get a bonus from the Bellinger case, see if we don’t. Anything can happen in this job. He only chose us by picking our name from the telephone directory but now he’ll recommend us to his friends. This case could be the beginning of something big.”

And now, thought Cordelia, on the day of Bernie’s funeral, the Bellinger bonus had arrived.

She asked no more questions and the drive, which took less than thirty minutes, passed in silence. The three of them sat thigh to thigh, but distanced. She saw nothing of the city. At the end of Station Road by the War Memorial the car turned to the left and soon they were in the country. There were wide fields of young corn, the occasional stretch of tree-lined dappled shade, straggling villages of thatched cottages and squat red villas strung along the road, low uplands from which Cordelia could see the towers and spires of the city, shining with deceptive nearness in the evening sun. Finally, there was another village, a thin belt of elms fringing the road, a long curving wall of red brick, and the van turned in through open wrought-iron gates. They had arrived.

The house was obviously Georgian, not perhaps the best Georgian, but solidly built, agreeably proportioned and with the look of all good domestic architecture of having grown naturally out of its site. The mellow brick, festooned with wisteria, gleamed richly in the evening sun so that the green of the creeper
glowed and the whole house looked suddenly as artificial and unsubstantial as a film set. It was essentially a family house, a welcoming house. But now a heavy silence lay over it and the rows of elegantly proportioned windows were empty eyes.

Lunn, who had driven fast but skilfully, braked in front of the porch. He stayed in his seat while the two women got out, then drove the van round the side of the house. As she slid down from the high seat Cordelia could glimpse a range of low buildings, topped with small ornamental turrets, which she took to be stables or garages. Through the wide-arched gateway she could see that the grounds dropped slowly away to give a far vista of the flat Cambridgeshire countryside, patterned with the gentle greens and fawns of early summer.

Miss Leaming said: “The stable block has been converted into laboratories. Most of the east side is now glass. It was a skilful job by a Swedish architect, functional but attractive.”

For the first time since they had met her voice sounded interested, almost enthusiastic.

The front door was open. Cordelia came into a wide, panelled hall with a staircase curving to the left, a carved stone fireplace to the right. She was aware of a smell of roses and lavender, of carpets gleaming richly against polished wood, of the subdued ticking of a clock.

Miss Leaming led the way to a door immediately across the hall. It led to a study, a room book-lined and elegant, one with a view of wide lawns and a shield of trees. In front of the French windows was a Georgian desk and behind the desk sat a man.

Cordelia had seen his photographs in the Press and knew what to expect. But he was at once smaller and more impressive than she had imagined. She knew that she was facing a man of authority and high intelligence; his strength came
over like a physical force. But as he rose from his seat and waved her to a chair, she saw that he was slighter than his photographs suggested, the heavy shoulders and impressive head making the body look top-heavy. He had a lined, sensitive face with a high-bridged nose, deep-set eyes on which the lids weighed heavily and a mobile, sculptured mouth. His black hair, as yet unflecked with grey, lay heavily across his brow. His face was shadowed with weariness and, as Cordelia came closer, she could detect the twitch of a nerve in his left temple and the almost imperceptible staining of the veins in the irises of the deep-set eyes. But his compact body, taut with energy and latent vigour, made no concession to tiredness. The arrogant head was held high, the eyes were keen and wary under the heavy lids. Above all he looked successful. Cordelia had seen that look before, had recognized it from the back of crowds as, inscrutable, they had watched the famous and notorious pass on their way—that almost physical glow, akin to sexuality and undimmed by weariness or ill-health, of men who knew and enjoyed the realities of power.

Miss Leaming said: “This is all that remains of Pryde’s Detective Agency—Miss Cordelia Gray.”

The keen eyes looked into Cordelia’s.

“We take a Pride in our Work. Do you?”

Cordelia, tired after her journey at the end of a momentous day, was in no mood for jokes about poor Bernie’s pathetic pun. She said: “Sir Ronald, I have come here because your secretary said that you might want to employ me. If she’s wrong, I would be glad to know so that I can get back to London.”

“She isn’t my secretary and she isn’t wrong. You must forgive my discourtesy; it’s a little disconcerting to expect a burly ex-policeman and to get you. I’m not complaining, Miss Gray; you might do very well. What are your fees?”

The question might have sounded offensive but it wasn’t; he was completely matter-of-fact. Cordelia told him, a little too quickly, a little too eagerly.

“Five pounds a day and expenses, but we try to keep those as low as possible. For that, of course, you get my sole services. I mean I don’t work for any other client until your case is finished.”

“And is there another client?”

“Well, not just at present but there very well could be.” She went on quickly: “We have a fair-play clause. If I decide at any stage of the investigation that I’d rather not go on with it, you are entitled to any information I have gained up to that point. If I decide to withhold it from you, then I make no charge for the work already done.”

That had been one of Bernie’s principles. He had been a great man for principles. Even when there hadn’t been a case for a week, he could happily discuss the extent to which they would be justified in telling a client less than the full truth, the point at which the police ought to be brought into an inquiry, the ethics of deception or lying in the service of truth. “But no bugging,” Bernie would say. “I set my face firmly against bugging. And we don’t touch industrial sabotage.”

The temptation to either wasn’t great. They had no bugging equipment and wouldn’t have known how to use it if they had, and at no time had Bernie been invited to touch industrial sabotage.

Sir Ronald said: “That sounds reasonable but I don’t think this case will present you with any crisis of conscience. It is comparatively simple. Eighteen days ago my son hanged himself. I want you to find out why. Can you do that?”

“I should like to try, Sir Ronald.”

“I realize that you need certain basic information about
Mark. Miss Leaming will type it out for you, then you can read it through and let us know what else you require.”

Cordelia said: “I should like you to tell me yourself, please.”

“Is that necessary?”

“It would be helpful to me.”

He settled again into his chair and picked up a stub of pencil, twisting it in his hands. After a minute he slipped it absent-mindedly into his pocket. Without looking at her, he began to speak.

“My son, Mark, was twenty-one on the 25th April this year. He was at Cambridge reading history at my old college and was in his final year. Five weeks ago and without warning, he left the university and took a job as gardener with a Major Markland, who lives in a house called Summertrees outside Duxford. Mark gave me no explanation of this action either then or later. He lived alone in a cottage in Major Markland’s grounds. Eighteen days later he was found by his employer’s sister hanging by the neck from a strap knotted to a hook in the sitting-room ceiling. The verdict at the inquest was that he took his life while the balance of his mind was disturbed. I know little of my son’s mind but I reject that comfortable euphemism. He was a rational person. He had a reason for his action. I want to know what it was.”

BOOK: An Unsuitable Job for a Woman
5.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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