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Authors: Nancy Buckingham

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Cold Coffin

BOOK: Cold Coffin
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COLD COFFIN

 

Nancy Buckingham

 

Chapter One

 

Mid-July, hot and sunny for once. Saturday afternoon. Thudding hooves and the thwack of polo sticks on wooden ball, the laid-back voice of the commentator echoing over the public address system. The polo ground at Dodford was magnificently situated, its wide expanse of flat turf ringed by oak and beech, an artful gap in the trees affording a view of the Elizabethan manor house set on a rounded knoll.

Detective Chief Inspector Kate Maddox, comfortably relaxed in one of the two folding chairs her Aunt Felix had brought with them in the car, reflected that this was as pleasant a way as any to spend a few off-duty hours. The standard of play was high, even if Dodford wasn’t in quite the same classy league as Windsor, Cowdray Park or Cirencester. Neither Prince Charles nor his papa before him had ever felt enticed to pay a visit here, not even as a spectator.

The chair beside Kate was temporarily vacant. Her aunt was on the prowl with her telephoto-lensed Canon, hoping to catch some good action shots. Casting her gaze around, Kate spotted Richard Gower standing over by the scoreboard, and waved to him. At once he started moving through the throng lining the ropes to join her. As he drew near she noted that the habitual limp which marred his ruggedly athletic appearance was more marked than usual. Reaching Kate, he sank into the chair beside her with a grunt of satisfaction and rubbed his left knee.

“Leg playing up today?” she asked  sympathetically.

“A bit. Just to remind me that it’s there.”

Kate knew that he still suffered a lot of pain from the injury he’d received four years or so previously when he’d copped a stray sniper’s bullet while working as a war correspondent in the Middle East. Months of hospitalization later, Richard had faced the fact that his roving career was at an end. Rejecting the soft option of a newsroom desk job, he’d taken on a new sort of challenge.

The only thing impressive about
The Marlingford Gazette, Chipping Bassett Courier and South Cotswold Post and Times
was its title. Small and ailing, on the point of folding altogether, the local weekly newspaper had been going cheap. Even so, it had taken the limit of Richard’s credit potential to raise enough to purchase the premises, the ancient plant and machinery; and, as he put it, the bad will. Ten years hence, with a lot of work and a lot of luck, he might actually be turning a profit.

His first encounter with Kate had been inauspicious. Richard Gower was the prime suspect in a hit-and-run murder case ... Kate’s baptism of fire after coming to the Cotswold Division as a newly promoted Detective Chief Inspector. In nailing the real culprit she had established Richard’s innocence, and their initial relief had firmed into friendship.

“Got a good lead story for next week?” she asked him.

“I’m praying for a major disaster.”

“Gower,” she said, “you’re a ghoul.”

“I’m a newspaperman.”

“Richard Gower,” a voice rasped from behind them, “you’re barging in on my territory.”

He stood up to greet Kate’s aunt as fast as his injured leg would allow. “Sorry, Felix, I didn’t realize you were back. I was only borrowing your perch for the odd minute.”

“Oh, stay put, man, you’re welcome to the chair. It’s that thing you’ve got hanging round your neck I object to. I’m the official photographer around here, and don’t you forget it.”

Richard patted the camera suspended on a leather strap. “Not to worry, Felix, this is for snapping spectators, not players. You know the sort of thing. Seen at the polo final on Saturday ... a few local nobs. Every mugshot I can cram in sells three or four extra copies.”

“Just so long as you don’t tread on my toes. Talking of nobs, where the dickens have the Kimberleys got to? They’re supposed to be presenting the gold cup again this year, and the third chukka has already started.” Looking around the picturesque scene, she spotted a metallic blue Audi that was just turning in through the entry gate. “Ah, good, it looks as if they’re arriving now. I must go and have a word with them about the presentation photographs. And you keep out of it, Richard. If you want a picture of the award-giving for the
Gazette,
I expect you to buy it from me.”

Felicity Moore went striding away, a large ungainly woman with a surprisingly light step. Careless about her appearance (a tent-like cotton dress in a drab tone of beige today), her hair bundled anyhow on top of her head and barely restrained by a mass of pins, she was nevertheless an impressive and formidable figure.

Richard lounged back in the canvas chair. “Any news about that cottage you’ve got your eye on, Kate?”

“I’ve been bloody gazumped again. Honestly, the property owners around here are an unscrupulous lot.” She rumpled her short black hair impatiently. “Some of them belong behind bars.”

“So why don’t you put  ’em there, the bastards?”

“I intend to, the moment greed is declared illegal.”

“So that means you’re stuck with living at Felix’s awhile longer?”

“She makes me very welcome, bless her. I could all too easily give up the fight and stay at Stonebank Cottage permanently. But that wouldn’t do at all. I need my independence, Richard, and so does Felix. I’ve disrupted her quiet lifestyle for quite long enough. Oh ... well played!” Kate joined in the ripple of applause for a brilliant goal.

Her aunt was back again. “Kate, come and have a word with Vanessa Kimberley, will you? She’s dreadfully worried about Sir Noah. He seems to have disappeared.”

“What the heck does she expect me to do about it?” asked Kate, not budging. “Her husband’s probably in the marquee knocking back a large Scotch.”

“No, I mean really disappeared. Vanessa was singing at a gala in London last night, in aid of the Children in Need Fund, and she stayed over at a friend’s house. She arrived back this morning in time for lunch and Noah was missing. Apparently he went out last night after dinner, and didn’t return. The housekeeper went to bed early and it wasn’t until this morning that she realized he hadn’t come home. Vanessa is desperately worried, naturally, so I said I’d ask you to come and tell her what she ought to do.”

Kate shook her head. “It’s not a police matter, so I can’t get involved. Sir Noah Kimberley is a grown man and he’s entitled to absent himself for a few hours without starting a hue and cry. If he’d had an accident last night the police would have informed Lady Kimberley by now.”

“Well yes, of course, and I’ve already suggested to her that no news is good news. But you know how devoted those two are. They’re both meticulous about letting the other one know if they’re going to be delayed. She said Noah would never let her worry about him unnecessarily.”

“Maybe,” put in Richard, “as Lady Kimberley was away from home last night he didn’t think it mattered. Or maybe he tried to phone and the housekeeper wasn’t around.”

“Even so, he’d have phoned again by now, surely? It’s really very strange. You must admit, girl, that Vanessa has cause to be worried.”

“Sure I do. It’s tough on her. But husbands go temporarily missing all the time. He probably met some woman last night who was so entrancing that he’s completely lost track of the passing hours. Pound to a penny he’ll be back very soon, full of apologies and with some complicated story that his fond wife will finally swallow because she doesn’t want to have to face the truth.”

“Oh, Kate, you are a cynic.”

“Not a cynic, just a cop. All my rosy illusions about people were shattered years ago.”

“Well, you’ll just have to sound sympathetic and concerned when you come over and talk to Vanessa.”

“But I’ve just told you, there’s no justification for police action. There’s nothing I can do.”

“I suppose not, but you can make the right sort of noises, can’t you? I
promised
Vanessa.”

“Dammit, Felix, you had no right to drag me into it.” But remembering the stack of favours she owed her aunt from over the years, Kate lumbered to her feet. “Okay, you win. Lead the way.”

“Mind if I come too?” asked Richard.

“Yes, I do mind.”

“But there might be a story in it.”

“Listen, I’m not doing a double act with the press. See you later.”

Lady Kimberley was hovering close to her Audi; keeping, she explained, within hearing of the car-phone in case her housekeeper rang with news of Sir Noah. She had about her the queenly presence, the slightly imperious manner, of the prima donna she’d once been. Yet despite that she possessed immense charm. She was a tall woman of generous proportions, with magnificently expressive eyes. If she gave the impression of always playing to an audience, that was forgivable in someone who was the focus of attention wherever she might be. For this afternoon’s ceremony she had chosen a fuchsia-coloured silk dress with trails of floating chiffon, and a huge cartwheel hat. By rights, she should have totally eclipsed Felicity Moore in her beige tent, but somehow she didn’t. Felix carried her own brand of charisma.

Kate had already met the Kimberleys, at a cocktail party. They’d been married only a couple of years; she for the first time, he for the second after a lengthy widowhood. It had been the romantic story of the week in all the Sunday papers. World famous soprano’s hand finally won by devoted admirer who for years had trotted the globe just to hear her sing. Dame Vanessa Logan would be renouncing the operatic stage forthwith in favour of domestic bliss as Lady Kimberley. Sir Noah, whom Kate recalled as an ascetic-looking silver-haired man, was a biochemist of high standing in his field. He owned and ran Croptech, a small firm at nearby Little Bedham that researched into agricultural and horticultural chemicals.

As Kate and Felix approached, Lady Kimberley dismissed the inevitable gaggle of admirers with a regal sweep of her hand. She greeted Kate dramatically, in a voice that was husky with emotion.

“Mrs. Maddox, how
extremely
kind of you to come over to me. I dare not leave the telephone, d’you see.
Please
tell me what I should do. I am utterly
distraught.
My darling Noah has
vanished,
and I am dreadfully afraid.” The time bell sounded and there was a round of applause, with cheers from the supporters of the winning team. Lady Kimberley seemed totally oblivious.

“There’s probably a very simple explanation for your husband’s absence,” Kate said.

“But what explanation, Mrs. Maddox? What, other than
disaster,
can possibly explain it?”

Skate around the obvious, Kate, and scrape the barrel for a few innocuous possibilities.

“Some arrangement that has slipped your mind. Or perhaps he intended to tell you about it, but forgot. I’m sure it will turn out to be a misunderstanding of some kind.”

“But he should be
here.
For the presentation of the trophies.” Lady Kimberley coughed and adjusted the trailing chiffon about her throat, lifting it higher. When she continued speaking she was suddenly husky again. “We do it together, you understand. How can he
possibly
have been confused about that?”

“Well, I expect you’ll hear from him very soon. It’s far too early to start being seriously worried. Tell me, would your husband be driving? Did he take a car, I mean?”

“Well, yes, he must have done. His Saab is not in the garage.”

“Can you give me details of his car? The colour and so forth.”

“Let me see, it’s dark green. And quite new. He bought it about three months ago.”

“An F registration, then. Can you remember the actual number?”

“I’m afraid not. Is it important?”

“Never mind. We’ll check it out.” To damp down further alarmed questions, Kate dispensed soothing syrup. “I’ll have all possible enquiries made, Lady Kimberley. You can rest assured that we’ll be in touch with you the moment we hear anything.” With relief she saw that one of the officials was hovering agitatedly. “I think you’re needed for the presentation now.”

“Oh dear, I ... I don’t know
how I
can go through with it,” Lady Kimberley said, one hand pressed to her throat. Then she braced her shoulders theatrically and her voice dropped to a brave whisper. “I suppose I shall have to manage
somehow.”

The show must go on.

Six paces from her car, Lady Kimberley paused and addressed the crowd at large, supremely confident of being obeyed. “Somebody must stay by my car, and bring me any telephone message at once.
At once!”

Kate took the chance to escape. Lacking her own transport (they’d come in Felix’s sedate old Rover), she walked over to a police patrol car that was drawn up by the ropes further along. The two young officers inside were slumped comfortably in the front seats with their cap peaks tilted forward to shade their eyes. At her approach they glanced up casually, did a double take in unison, and snapped to an upright position.

“Oh ... Chief Inspector, ma’am. We were just ...”

“On the alert to quell an outbreak of public disorder? Very commendable. But the crowd here seems fairly placid at the moment, so you can run me to the Chipping Bassett nick instead.”

BOOK: Cold Coffin
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