Authors: Nancy Buckingham
Tags: #British Mystery
Kate went back to her own office upstairs and rang the Incident Room at Aston Pringle to tell them where she’d be. Then she headed her car for Milford Grange. Okay, she understood that Jolly Joliffe felt obliged to send the highest ranker available to the scene of the crime. Otherwise, he’d have the Chief Constable breathing down his neck. Under the law of the land, everybody was equal. And a judge would be the last person to demand favourable treatment ... but he’d still expect to get it. So a mere murder investigation would have to wait its turn.
As a residence, Milford Grange wasn’t in the same enviable category as the Kimberleys’ house. Standing in grounds of two or three acres, shielded from its neighbours on either side by woodland, it was in the worst tradition of Victorian Gothic Revival ... quaint and rather amusing in a town, perhaps, such an edifice looked ridiculously out of place in a rural hamlet. It could be that Mr. Justice Tillington felt at home there because it reminded him of London’s Law Courts.
A young uniformed PC at the gates saluted alertly as Kate turned into the driveway. A second PC ambled lazily down the front steps to meet her as she got out of the car. He owed it to his male dignity, she guessed, not to kow-tow to a bloody woman. A cigarette was (barely) concealed in his cupped palm.
“Good morning, Constable. Is Inspector Trotton here?”
“Er, yes, I think he’s somewhere upstairs.”
“Well, fetch him down, please,” she said briskly. “And put that cigarette out. If I ever catch you smoking on duty again, my lad, you’ll be in for it.”
In the arched and columned hallway Kate waited impatiently until the tall figure of Don Trotton appeared at the head of the staircase. He came running down to her lightly, the performance of a man who wanted it noted that he was in the peak of condition.
“Aha, the brains have arrived.” He came up to where she stood, quite close, and treated her to a slow smile. “Not that brains are all you’ve got to offer a grateful world, Kate, my sweet. There’s a delectable body hiding beneath that severe item of ladies’ suiting you’re wearing.”
“Now where did I last hear that line? Oh, I remember, a sixth-former at my school who thought he was being a real devil.”
Don wasn’t the least abashed, not that he let show. “Co-ed school you went to, then? Mine was boys only. What a time those lads must’ve had, the lucky swine.”
This was standard routine to Don Trotton. A year or two younger than Kate, undeniably good-looking, he cherished the firm conviction that there wasn’t a woman alive who wouldn’t instantly come running if he crooked his little finger at her.
“Let’s get on, shall we, Don?” she said tiredly. “Put me in the picture about what’s been happening here.”
“Amateurs,” he said contemptuously. “The alarm was set off at nine-eleven this morning, reported by neighbours on both sides. Looks as if chummies just grabbed what was handiest, then scarpered. They smashed open a splendid antique desk, presumably looking for cash. If they’d taken away the desk itself, it would have made more sense. Bleeding amateurs. A blue Peugeot estate seems to have been their vehicle ... one was seen careering through the village a few minutes later, two youngish chaps inside. Poor descriptions, though.”
“I gather from Jolly that there’s difficulty establishing exactly what was taken.”
“Sure is. The Tillingtons are in New Zealand, and we can’t contact them at the moment. They’re touring with their daughter and son-in-law in Mackenzie country, wherever that is.”
“South Island,” Kate informed him. “It’s remote highland country where there are more sheep than people. Keep trying, Don. What about other relatives here in Britain?”
“None, apparently, according to our local chap. The Tillingtons shut up house completely for the twelve months they reckoned to be away. There’s a part-time gardener comes in to keep things tidy. The two cleaning women aren’t expected to do anything until just before the owners return, when they’ll come in and get the house ready for them.”
“That must mean those two women have access to the house,” said Kate sharply. “Are they in the clear?”
“They’re being investigated. But if they were in on it, wouldn’t chummies have known there was an alarm? Obviously they didn’t. They broke a window to gain entry, which set it off.”
“Good point, Don.”
“Oh, I’m not just a gorgeous hunk, Kate.”
Ignoring that, she continued, “Can’t the cleaning women help over what’s missing?”
“They’re upstairs right now, we fetched them straight away. But they’re a dead loss. They can’t seem to agree about anything.”
“There must be friends of the Tillingtons who could help us. Or their solicitor. There’s most likely an inventory somewhere, for insurance. We’ve got to show some brisk action on this one, Don, or heads are going to roll.”
“There’s no need to get heavy with me, Kate,” he said sulkily.
She cocked an ear, listening. From upstairs there came a faint mumble of voices, but everything was quiet on the ground floor, except for a low-pitched humming sound, very faint.
“What’s that, Don?”
“That humming noise. Seems to be coming from the rear of the house.”
“I can’t hear anything.”
Kate’s own hearing was very acute. She’d noticed before that she responded to sounds that other people didn’t pick up. She walked across to a door at the back of the hall and opened it. “It’s coming from here, all right. Surely you can hear it now?”
Don Trotton listened a moment, then gave a bright smile. “That’s the deep-freeze. You probably noticed when the compressor motor cut in.”
She frowned. “I don’t understand.”
Patiently, he explained technicalities to the feminine mind. “When the temperature inside the deep-freeze cabinet rises above a certain level, there’s a thermostat which automatically switches on the current. The compressor starts operating and hey-presto, the temperature is brought down again.”
“I meant,” Kate said irritably, “why is the freezer left on when the owners are away for such a lengthy period?”
He still didn’t get her drift. “If it wasn’t left on, the stuff inside would have thawed out and gone bad.”
“But a lot of freezer foods don’t keep indefinitely. Not without deterioration. Most people going away for a whole year would empty the freezer beforehand. Use up the contents, or give it away to friends.”
“The Tillingtons obviously didn’t.”
“I think we’d better take a look,” said Kate. “There’s something odd here.”
“Is this your idea of brisk action?” he enquired derisively, then hefted his shoulders. “Okay, you’ve got the pips. Let’s go open the box.”
Don led the way to a small utility room down a passageway leading off from the kitchen. The freezer was set against one wall. It was the chest variety, six feet wide with access from the top. As they entered the room, the thermostat cut out with a soft click. Don laid a hand on the lid, and paused for effect.
“What’ll it be, a packet of fish fingers, or a nice bit of fillet steak?”
“Open it, Don.”
He did so with a flourish, smirking with delight because this damned female DCI was about to look foolish. Glancing down casually, he did a double take.
Kate said the same thing, but inaudibly. Crammed into the otherwise empty freezer was the hard-frozen body of a man.
Did you have a premonition, Kate?
The body, prone and fully clothed, was that of Sir Noah Kimberley. He’d been a tall man, and to fit him into the confined space of the freezer, his head had been twisted on its neck, so that the fine grey eyes stared up at her in mute agony. His silver-grey hair was dishevelled, frozen now in grotesquely icy spikes.
Instantly, automatically, Kate had switched into action. Orders were issued and delegated down the line; due processes were set in motion. Dr. Meddowes arrived and superfluously confirmed that life was extinct. As people came and went, Kate overheard every possible variation of the “frozen stiff” sort of wisecrack. To the general public they’d have sounded unfeeling, but she knew that such jokery was a safety valve for men who had a difficult and unpleasant job to perform. In this instance, though, she found their flippancy hard to take. She had met Sir Noah socially, and she had liked what she’d seen. He’d impressed her by his dignified bearing, by his somewhat old-fashioned charm as a host, by his obvious devotion to his wife. Now, she had to make an effort to appear calm and detached, for any sign of emotion on her part would be regarded as feminine weakness.
Dr. Meddowes remarked morosely, “He’s going to take hours to thaw out enough for a post-mortem to be performed.”
“We could always pop him in a microwave,” a Scenes of Crime man quipped over his shoulder. “Set it to Defrost.”
As soon as Kate felt able, she left the scene. Her next task was to obtain authority to enlarge her murder squad to cope with this second killing. With Superintendent Joliffe away for the day, this entailed contacting the Assistant Chief Constable. She then had a conference with the office manager of the Incident Room to get things set in motion. She was glad to have Inspector Frank Massey working with her again. A former colleague on Wye division, Frank was thoroughly capable and reliable, with the necessary streak of toughness running through his mild manner. Unambitious for further promotion himself, he bore no resentment of Kate’s senior rank. In that, he was damn nearly a one-off policeman.
Just as she was due to leave for Radlett to break the news to Lady Kimberley, a call came through from London. Sir Noah’s nephew, Aidan Kimberley, was asking to speak to her.
She picked up the phone. “Good morning, Mr. Kimberley. I expect you’re calling me because Lady Kimberley told you I’d be wanting to speak to you. Is that right?”
“Yes. I was talking to her last evening and she told me the shocking news about Dr. Gavin Trent’s death. Murder, she said. Can that be true?”
“That is what we believe.”
“It’s quite appalling, especially coming on top of my uncle’s disappearance. My wife and I feel we should be with my aunt at this distressing time, and of course there is Croptech to be considered. I’ll get away as soon as I possibly can, but I’ve been abroad for the past month and—”
“Mr. Kimberley,” Kate cut in, “you had better come at once. I am afraid there has been a further development.”
“A further development,” he echoed faintly. “How do you mean?”
“I am sorry to have to tell you that your uncle, too, is dead.”
There was a shocked silence. Then, “You are presuming he’s dead, I take it you mean, now that so many days have passed without news?”
“No, I don’t mean that. Sir Noah’s body has been found. This morning.”
“His body? But ... but where? How?”
“I won’t go into that on the phone,” she said. “I’m just this minute setting out to break the news to Lady Kimberley. I think it’s important that you should be with her as soon as possible.”
“Yes, of course. Of course. I’m at my office, but I’ll collect my wife and we’ll drive down right away. But you must tell me, Chief Inspector, how did my uncle die? When?”
“Those facts are still to be established. I must go now. I’ll be in touch later.”
Fortunately, Kate still reached Lady Kimberley before anyone else had got to her with news of her husband’s death. That was evident from Mrs. Byworth’s demeanour.
“Oh yes, Dame Vanessa is in. She’s hardly left the house these last few days, poor thing. She’s still hoping the phone will ring and it will be Sir Noah. Oh dear, I wonder if it ever will be.”
Kate made no comment.
“She’s got Lord Balmayne with her just now,” the little woman went on. “Oh, he’s been such a comfort to her in her hour of need. He’s a good friend, always has been, and now he’s rallying round something wonderful. I’ll just go and tell Dame Vanessa that you’re here, Chief Inspector.”
Kate wasn’t left to wait in the hall for more than a few seconds before the statuesque figure of Vanessa Kimberley appeared at the drawing room door.
“Chief Inspector, what brings you? Is there news? Come in, do come in.”
A tall man standing by the open French windows swung round as Kate entered. Though elderly, in his mid-seventies, he held his lean frame erect. Kate hadn’t matched a face to his name when it first cropped up in this case, but now she recognized him from newspaper pictures. He was attired (the word seemed to fit him) in lightweight grey suiting, and he sported a blue silk bow tie. His eyes were bright and piercing, and both his hair and his small pointed beard were elegantly white.
Vanessa performed hasty introductions, and asked again,
you news, Chief Inspector?”
“I think perhaps we should first sit down, Lady Kimberley.”
She looked bemused, as if wondering whether she was being criticized for lack of courtesy, but Kate saw that Lord Balmayne had instantly grasped the significance of her suggestion. Crossing swiftly to Lady Kimberley, he took her arm and led her to one of the sofas. With a gesture inviting Kate to be seated wherever she chose, he sat down himself beside Vanessa Kimberley, holding one of her hands in both of his.
“Yes, Lady Kimberley,” Kate said. “I do have news of your husband. Bad news, I’m afraid. I have to inform you that Sir Noah is dead. We discovered his body this morning.”
Lady Kimberley gasped a juddering breath and her whole body slumped. Lord Balmayne, also seeming deeply shocked, supported her as best he could, slipping an arm around her shoulders.
“There, there, my dear. You must be brave.” He glanced across at Kate. “You had better tell it all, Chief Inspector. The ... the details. How did poor Noah die?”
“We don’t know that, sir, not yet,” she said, watching both their faces carefully.
This was something Kate always hated, the need at such a moment to reserve a degree of suspicion concerning people who probably merited nothing but the deepest sympathy. But it had to be so. In a case of murder, the spouse was automatically suspect. And in this instance, the question mark had to include the “dear old friend” of that spouse. She’d have to get someone to probe into their past association, to try and establish if there’d ever been anything closer than friendship between them.