Authors: Nancy Buckingham
Tags: #British Mystery
Five minutes later, from the grubby and Saturday-empty CID room at the small police station, she made a call to Divisional HQ at Marlingford.
“Sir Noah Kimberley, the boss of Croptech, seems to have gone missing since last night. You haven’t heard anything, I suppose, Bob?”
“Not a whisper, ma’am. Want me to ask around?”
“Well, nothing heavy. We don’t want to get too involved in what’s likely to end up as just a run-of-the-mill domestic situation. On the other hand, we want to look willing. He was driving an F reg. dark-green Saab. Check the licence number, will you, and see if it’s cropped up in any kind of incident.”
As she put the phone down, the door opened to admit Sergeant Boulter. Kate was surprised to see him here on a quiet Saturday afternoon, but Boulter didn’t look surprised to see her. The man at the desk downstairs had obviously tipped him the wink.
“What devotion to duty is this, Tim? Something new I ought to know about?”
He hefted his broad shoulders moodily. “Nope. I just wanted to get the hell out of the menagerie at home. Half the kids in the street are round at our place, all yelling and shrieking in the paddling pool. I stood it as long as I could.”
Did the silly sod imagine that desertion like this would do anything to assist his crumbling marriage? It was the demanding hours of his job that caused most of the friction between him and his wife. Julie Boulter, unlike Tim, had nowhere to run when things got on top of
at home. She was stuck there with their two young children, all day and every day, an intelligent young woman smouldering with resentment at her lack of personal fulfilment. But Kate held back from pointing this out to the sergeant. She’d poked her nose into the Boulters’ problems once before, and got no thanks for her pains.
“Now that you’re here, Tim, there’s something I want to ask you. It’s about Sir Noah Kimberley. What kind of man is he? Julie worked at Croptech, didn’t she, before Mandy was born?”
He nodded. “Lab assistant, she was. She didn’t have much contact with Sir Noah, of course, but she always said he was a decent enough old boy. Why, what’s up?”
“He didn’t come home last night, that’s what.”
Boulter cocked an enquiring eye at her. “And what makes that a police matter, guv?”
“Nothing, officially. But ... his wife’s upset.”
“She’ll be a helluva lot more upset when she discovers he spent the night with a lady friend.”
“Why should you say that? Is he known as a womanizer?”
“Not that I ever heard. But I’d give you outsider odds it’s the explanation.”
“That’s the trouble with being coppers, Tim, it makes us think the worst of people. Just ask around about him, will you? But discreetly, mind.”
“Trust me. My middle name is tact.”
“I thought it was Cuthbert.” She’d been saving that little gem for the right moment, ever since she’d spotted it in Records.
Boulter paled a few shades. “Who told you?”
“A little birdie.”
“Well, for God’s sake, guv, don’t spread it around.”
“Trust me, Cuthbert.” She stood up. “Before you do anything else, you can run me back to the Dodford polo ground. Most people will have gone by now, but my aunt and I went there together and she’s probably still hanging around in her car wondering where I’ve got to.”
* * * *
On Sunday evening Kate had a dinner date with Richard Gower, postponed from Thursday owing to other commitments. They usually met about once a week if they could manage to find an evening when both were free. They liked each other, and neither tried to hide the fact. On the other hand, they were allowing their friendship to coast along nice and easy; experience had made both of them only too aware of the dangers of rushing into relationships.
This evening they went to the Black Swan in Chipping Bassett, famed locally for its good food. Their window table overlooked the river, turned now to a thousand golden ripples in the dying sunlight.
“I went to see Lady Kimberley this morning,” Richard said as they studied their menus.
Kate felt a prickle of irritation. She asked coolly, “Why did you do that?”
“There might be a story for me, that’s why.” The look he shot her was challenging; but also, she thought, a mite defensive. “It happens to be the function of the press to provide news, Kate. Lady Kimberley was in a real state about her husband. She still hadn’t heard a word about him.”
“I know. Felix phoned her earlier. Poor woman, I feel sorry for her.”
“Yet there’s nothing you can do about finding out what’s happened to Sir Noah?”
“I’m doing all I can—which doesn’t amount to much, I admit. Just making a few discreet enquiries here and there. But if I tried to utilize police manpower in a big way, my superintendent would have me on the carpet. And he’d be justified. A kid going missing is another matter, but if we set up a major enquiry on every missing-from-home adult, we’d have no time left for anything else. Besides, it’s a matter of freedom of the individual. An adult in this country has a perfect right to take himself off if he chooses, without leaving a forwarding address.”
“Yeah, sure. But I doubt if Vanessa Kimberley will ever see it. She feels very disgruntled that you seem to be doing nothing about her husband. She muttered about hiring a private detective.”
“She might not like the answer he comes up with.”
“Do you really believe that the old boy has hopped it with a woman?”
“No, I don’t, as it happens. But I’m trying to keep an open mind. I’ll tell you one small thing that goes counter to the other-woman theory. Sergeant Boulter’s wife used to work at Croptech. He phoned me this morning and said that Julie was adamant that no way could Sir Noah Kimberley be regarded as a skirt chaser. She rather jumped on Tim, apparently, when he took the cynical view. Her ex-boss was always the perfect gent with the female staff, she insisted, and his longstanding devotion to Vanessa Logan was well known. They all thought it was rather sweet.”
Richard nodded. “I looked up the Kimberley story in the
files, to remind myself. They appear to have been a couple of real lovebirds. Still, marriages can quickly go sour—as I well know.”
“The explanation for his taking off doesn’t have to be a sex-related thing, Richard. It could be anxiety of some kind. About health or money, for instance.”
“Neither of which seems to apply in this case. Although ...”
“Lady K. did say that he seemed a bit put out by a phone call he received shortly before she set out for London. That was Friday lunch-time, prior to her charity gala in the evening. She and the housekeeper were busy with her last-minute packing when the phone rang, and her husband answered it. Afterwards, he looked a bit upset and thoughtful, she told me, but when she asked him about the call, he said it was nothing of consequence and he’d explain when she got back on Saturday. Then he went on to wish her good luck with the gala, and she dismissed it from her mind. Now, though, she’s beginning to wonder about that phone call.”
“She still doesn’t know who it was from?” Kate asked.
“Nope. She’s blaming herself for not pressing him to tell her. But she was probably too concerned about how her threatening sore throat would affect her performance.”
“Sore throat? I noticed she was a bit husky when I talked to her yesterday, but I put that down to emotional strain.”
“No, it was the real thing. Laryngitis. Apparently her throat got progressively worse during Friday afternoon and in the end there was no question of her singing. She had to back out of the gala at the last minute.”
“Really? How strange she didn’t mention that to me. Not even to Felix on the phone this morning. I wonder why.”
“She’s got something a lot worse on her mind now. What are you eating, Kate? Have you decided yet?”
“Is it my turn to pick up the tab tonight?”
“In that case, I’ll have the filet mignon with scampi.”
He chuckled. “Thank God for plastic money. As a matter of fact, I filled in my afternoon by doing a spot of sleuthing on Lady Kimberley’s behalf—with her full permission, before you start in on me.”
“Oh? Like what?”
“Like talking to various people who work at Croptech. Lady K. had already spoken to most of them on the phone. She was desperate, and rang everybody she could think of.”
Kate laid aside her menu and gave Richard her full attention. “What did you discover?”
“Nothing very helpful, I’m afraid. But I know a whole lot more about Croptech than I did.”
“Okay. I suppose you might as well tell me.”
“Well, first I drove to the Croptech premises and saw the caretaker, who has a bungalow in the grounds. He’s an odd sort of chap, name of George Jessop, not at all what I’d have expected in a caretaker. Anyway, he swears that Sir Noah didn’t show up at Croptech on Friday evening. He insists he’d have known if he had. And he couldn’t suggest any reason for Kimberley’s disappearance. Next I went to see Kimberley’s secretary, a girl called Sandra English who lives with her parents at Great Bedham. I asked if she’d noticed her boss looking worried on Friday afternoon—or at any time before that. She’s a timid sort of girl and I couldn’t get much sense out of her. She was very much on the defensive and seemed to imagine that I was accusing her of something.”
Kate grimaced. “That’s a reaction the police have to contend with all the time. Who else did you see?”
“There are fewer staff at the firm than I’d imagined. Only about thirty-five all told. It struck me that the whole caboodle is very much dependent on Kimberley himself, and even when he takes a vacation he leaves careful instructions about what’s to be done. The chief clerk, McEvoy, is a bit of a fussy old woman. An over-precise civil-service type. I got the impression that the thought of taking any responsibility or making a decision scares him half to death. Kimberley’s nominal deputy is the senior biochemist in the laboratory. Dr. Gavin Trent. He’s a bit of a weirdo, too. Very highly strung, a bag of nerves. He lives in a remote cottage not far from Croptech, and there was no way I could get past his front door. However, it was a different matter with his next in line.”
“It’s a Dr. Miller. Dr. Cheryl Miller.”
“And how! I’d met her once before, actually, at somebody’s wedding. She’s the sort of woman that once seen a man doesn’t forget. Not young, fortyish, and a real looker. Very sexy.”
Kate felt slightly miffed. “Are you talking generally, or personally?”
“Sexy is sexy. Cheryl Miller is very passionate on the subject of feminism, and very articulate with it. She had some hard words to say about Kimberley’s attitude to women and their capabilities.”
“Could be that she has a point,” Kate put in dryly. “Did she tell you anything else about him?”
“She had no theory to explain his disappearance—nor did she seem to care a lot. A bit of a hard bitch is putting it mildly. From her I learned that there’s a nephew of Kimberley’s in the picture. It seems that Croptech was started by Sir Noah’s father, who left it to his two sons on a fifty-fifty basis, and the nephew inherited
father’s share. Name of Aidan Kimberley. But he’s making a killing in London as a financial consultant and he’s not interested in Croptech except for the profits. He has a weekend home near here, at Inchmere St. Mary, but he’s been abroad for the past month. Due back tomorrow from Hong Kong, I gather. His wife has been around, though, but Lady K. couldn’t get her on the phone until last evening. She failed to rush round offering solace and support as Lady K. obviously expected, but muttered something vague about having to get back to London first thing in the morning.”
“Actually, I tried to contact her myself a couple of times this afternoon at her London number, thinking that maybe she could tell me more about Sir Noah than she was willing to tell Lady Kimberley. But there was no answer.”
“Anyone else you talked to?”
“One or two. Having started probing into the mystery, I thought I might as well stick at it. But as I told you, no one came up with any viable suggestions as to why Kimberley should have gone missing.”
Kate could feel her own interest rising and firmly put a damper on it.
“It’s all very peculiar, Richard, but like I said, there’s nothing to justify police attention.” She picked up her menu again, and frowned. “I’ve gone off the idea of having a steak. I’ll try something lighter. Poached salmon, perhaps.”
concerned about Kimberley, aren’t you, Kate?”
“Of course I’m concerned. I’d be damned unfeeling not to be. That poor woman must be going through hell at the moment. Unless ...”
For God’s sake, Kate Maddox, must you always dig for dirt? But like it or not, her thoughts raced on remorselessly.
“I’ve met Vanessa Kimberley a couple of times now,” she said slowly. “Once at a cocktail party a few weeks ago, and then at polo yesterday. Both times she gave me the impression of putting on a big performance. I suppose it’s in the blood, after all those years on the operatic stage. Every word and every gesture she makes is a lot larger than life. It’s probably that she just can’t help herself.”
“Or ... your guess is as good as mine. I just got the feeling that things aren’t quite as she’d have us believe. But I’m not going to let this business spoil my sleep. There’s no case for me here, Richard, and no story for you.”
He eyed her shrewdly. “Is there going to be, d’you think?”
“How the hell should I know? I’m not clairvoyant. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
They didn’t, as it turned out, have all that long to wait.
Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday chanced to be quiet days for Kate, while the spell of hot weather continued. Needing to escape from deskwork in her stuffy office at DHQ, she dredged up reasons to visit some of the division’s outlying police stations. At least it gave her the chance to get better acquainted with her CID personnel, some of whom she’d hardly more than met as yet. Since her promotion to Chief Inspector and her transfer to the Cotswold Division of the South Midlands force, a heavy workload had kept her under constant pressure. But at last she felt she had time to breathe. As she drove through the Cotswold countryside in her silver Montego, a summer haze lay over the landscape, muting colours and softening the outlines of the hills.
Life could be a whole lot worse, Kate, all said and done.