Authors: Nancy Buckingham
Tags: #British Mystery
“For God’s sake, you can’t honestly believe that we—”
“What I happen to believe is beside the point. I still have to conduct this investigation strictly according to the book. That means following up any inconsistencies that show up, and each and every new lead, however come by. If I didn’t, I’d be putting my head on the block.” Kate grinned wryly. “There’s quite enough hassle in this job without asking for trouble.”
Cheryl Miller let out a long sigh of resignation. “Okay, you’ve made your point, but you’ll find out I’m telling the truth.” She looked at Kate with her head tilted to one side. “Being a high-level cop must be a tough job when you’re female.”
“It isn’t easy. But then maybe I wouldn’t want it to be easy.”
“You like the challenge? The chance to prove yourself against men?”
Cheryl’s mouth twisted angrily. “It doesn’t matter how bloody good you are, the male establishment has always got the whip hand. We’ll never overcome that.”
Maybe, Kate thought, her passionate feminism could be turned to good use. “You know, you might be in a position to help me quite a bit. That is, if you choose to.”
“Oh? How’s that?”
“You knew both the murdered men, and a lot better than most people did. Especially Gavin Trent. You can probably tell me something about them that might give a new slant to the investigation.”
“I can’t imagine what.”
“Think carefully. Did you notice any change in their manner towards you latterly? Or towards anyone else? Did you get the slightest hint that something might have altered in their lives? Were you told anything about either of them that might give me a lead? Or overhear anything?”
Dr. Miller was already shaking her head. “As far as Kimberley was concerned, I had very little to do with him. Deliberately. I felt pretty fed up with him ever since he appointed Gavin Trent over my head. As for Gavin ... well, we’d reached the stage of hardly being on speaking terms unless it was directly discussing work. And even then it took all my self-control to be civil to the man. If you really want to know, he was a total shit. Apart from work, I scarcely ever saw him. So sorry, glad as I’d be to help, I honestly can’t think of a thing.”
“I understand that last Monday Trent lost his temper with Roger Barlow when a glass retort got smashed. Was that worse than usual?”
“I suppose it was, really. Gavin nearly went berserk. Come to think of it, the atmosphere in the lab during the previous few weeks had been marginally less poisonous than we’d all grown accustomed to. I don’t mean that Gavin was any nicer to work with, but he seemed a bit less ... how can I put it? He seemed more wrapped up in himself, and less bothered about what other people were up to. Less interfering, less ready to find fault. Am I making any sense?”
“You might be making a lot of sense. Can you amplify a bit more?”
Dr. Miller’s hands clutched at the air, as if trying to grasp something intangible. “There was a sort of inner triumph about him. Smug satisfaction. As if he knew something the rest of us didn’t know. As if he’d got something over other people. No, this is crazy. I’m imagining things. I’m too prejudiced against Gavin Trent to judge his behaviour impartially. Why don’t you ask Violet Sneddon? She’s the level-headed sort, and she’d tell you better than I can. Oh, I’ve just thought, you could ask the woman who cleaned house for him. She might know something.”
“Dr. Trent didn’t have just one woman, he used a contract cleaning service. They sent different people, whoever happened to be available on the day, so no one was able to tell us much about him.”
“I’m talking about
that, a while back. It was a Mrs. Parkes. Joan Parkes, I think. She quit because she had to go and look after her grandchildren while her daughter was in hospital. She’s back home now, though. I bumped into her in a shop the other day—on Friday—and of course she wanted to have a good natter about Gavin being murdered, and how terrible it all was.”
Kate was cursing inwardly. As Chief Investigating Officer, the responsibility for the slip-up was hers. Which wouldn’t prevent her tearing a strip off the two detectives assigned to interviewing the various cleaners, who had failed to elicit the fact that the domestic cleaning service had been doing the job at Trent’s cottage for such a short time.
“Do you happen to know where this Mrs. Parkes lives?”
“Sorry. It’s somewhere around Aston Pringle, but I’m not sure just where.”
“Not to worry. We’ll find her. Thanks for this.”
“Will it help?”
“Could well do.”
“I’m glad. Will you have a drink with me now?”
Kate suddenly recalled the Tom Jones tape that Trent’s sister had brought to her. The fingerprints on it had to be identified, and Cheryl Miller was one of the people to be checked on. She put it humorously. “D’you mind if we take a set of your dabs?”
Cheryl paused in the act of opening the drinks cabinet. “Hey, what is this?”
“We have a whole mass of prints from here, there and God knows where that we haven’t yet pinpointed. We’ll be asking a number of people to co-operate, so they can be eliminated.”
“And I’m at the top of the list?”
the list. There’s no order of precedence.”
“It would be a waste of time asking who the others are?”
“A complete waste of time. Whisky, please, if you have any. With soda. Don’t drown it.”
Cheryl filled the glasses for them both, handed one to Kate and raised hers.
“Cheers,” said Kate, and sipped her whisky appreciatively. She had to admit that she liked Cheryl Miller. Much of the woman’s abrasive style was explained by what she’d just revealed about her life. But a liking for Cheryl wasn’t sufficient reason to put her in the clear as a suspect.
* * * *
It was exactly the sort of assignment that DC Bell (Ringer to his mates) delighted in. A pleasant half day’s outing (to London on this occasion) and a chance to use the shrewdness he’d developed in sixteen years as a detective constable. The job appealed to the actor
“We’re treading delicate ground here, Graham,” DCI Maddox had warned when she’d briefed him that morning. “If we put a foot wrong, Lord Balmayne could make big trouble for us.” She told Bell the general line his questioning should take. “But nothing heavy, mind. I just want to have your impressions. I’m leaving the approach to you.”
Bell took a train to Paddington and a tube to Warwick Avenue. Emerging to daylight, he first paid a courtesy visit to the local copshop to explain his intrusion onto their territory, and gladly accepted the offer of a mug of coffee and a sticky Danish. Forty minutes later, armed with directions, he found the address he sought. Little Venice, they called the area. A proper Millionaires’ Row, by the look of it.
His ring was answered by a man so excessively short that Bell had to adjust his gaze to a sharply downward angle. Grey-haired, wrinkle-faced, he was dressed in black trousers and a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbow. Bell introduced himself, flashing his warrant card.
“Would this be the residence of Lord Balmayne?”
“It’s his lordship’s London residence.”
“And you’d be, sir?”
“I am Jefferies, his lordship’s manservant. If you’re hoping to talk to him, you’ve made a wasted journey. He’s presently staying at his home in Gloucestershire.”
Bell knew this, but hid the fact. “Oh, dear. Perhaps I could have a word with you, then, Mr. Jefferies.”
“I suppose so, though I can’t imagine why.” He stood aside for the detective to enter.
“To tell you the truth,” said Bell with an air of confidentiality, “I can’t see a lot of point in it myself. Still, it’s not for the likes of us to question what our bosses want, is it?” He followed Jefferies through the hallway to a small sitting room at the rear of the house that overlooked a pretty latticed patio. “It’s in connection with the death of Sir Noah Kimberley. I expect you’ve heard about that?”
“Yes, but what’s it got to do with—”
“Not a blind thing, probably. This is just a matter of police routine. Somebody claims to have been at a certain place at a certain time, and we poor footsloggers are expected to check it down to the last tiny detail. In Lady Kimberley’s statement she mentioned that she was staying here overnight when her husband first disappeared, and I’ve been sent all this way to verify that fact. My report will get fed into the computer and probably never see the light of day again. Hot today, isn’t it? If you were to suggest a cup of tea, I wouldn’t say no.”
Jefferies caught on. “Or a nice cool glass of beer?”
“You’ve twisted my arm,” said Bell, and made himself comfortable in an easy chair. In a few moments Jefferies, too, was seated. They raised companionable glasses.
“Mud in your eye,” said Bell, and took a long swallow. “That’s laid the dust very nicely. You’ve got it comfortable here, I must say, Mr. Jefferies. This’d be your room?”
A nod. “And upstairs I’ve a nice-sized bedroom with my own bathroom. You couldn’t want a more considerate master than Lord Balmayne.”
“Worked for him for some time, have you?”
“Nigh on twenty years, now.”
“You’ve seen a few interesting things, then?”
A slight show of reserve. “I’m not one to talk about my employer.”
“No, of course not. Naturally. I just meant ... well, working for a leading public figure like you do, you must’ve met all kinds of top people in your time.”
“My word, haven’t I just! Politicians, show biz people. And pretty well everyone who’s anyone in the opera and music world.”
“Lord Balmayne does a lot of good work, I believe. Holding concerts to raise money for charity and so on.”
“Indeed he does. His lordship is still financially involved in a number of operatic productions, of course, but he says he’s past all the hassle of being a major impresario any more. These days he devotes more of his time to charitable work. He’s always flitting around, here, there and everywhere.”
“You don’t go with him on his travels?”
“Not usually. I stay here. He likes to keep his various homes ready for instant occupation. He has a house in Paris, too, you know, as well as the one in Gloucestershire.”
“Very nice for them as can afford it.”
A couple more cans of cool beer were produced, poured and reflectively imbibed.
“He and Lady Kimberley have known each other for a long time, I believe?” Bell resumed.
“Oh yes, years and years. Back before my time, even. Of course, in those days she was still Vanessa Logan. Then she was made a Dame. I still call her Dame Vanessa when she’s staying here.”
“Comes often, does she?”
“Most times when she’s in London. And Sir Noah, too. Well, he
I wonder if it’ll be back to the old days, now.”
“The old days?”
The wrinkled eyes became reminiscent. “She was a damn fine-looking woman. Still is, of course, but ... well, you know ...”
“They got together, did they?”
“Well, off and on. He’s always been quite a one for the ladies, but she’s very special to him.” Jefferies looked like a man who was suddenly afraid he might have said more than he should have done. He added quickly, “Mind you, there was none of that went on after Dame Vanessa was married. Definitely not. Oh, my word no!”
“You’d think they would have got hitched to each other. Or does he already have a wife somewhere?”
Jefferies shook his head. “A lifelong bachelor, the master is. Just not the marrying kind, I suppose.”
The two men sat ruminating in silence for a bit. Then Bell pulled himself upright. “Well, I’d better get moving. This bit of nonsense that brought me here, can we just get that tidied up? The Friday of the gala, that’s last Friday week ... Lady Kimberley arrived here sometime in the afternoon, intending to take part in the show, but then she found that her throat was bad, and she couldn’t sing after all?”
“That’s right.” But there was a sudden wariness in the little man’s eyes.
“So instead she stayed put right here, nursing her sore throat, all through the evening and night. Have we got it right?”
“Correct.” The confirmation was fast and emphatic.
“Nasty business for a singer, I should say, a throat infection. And coming just at the wrong time, too. It must have been very distressing for her.”
Jefferies wasn’t meeting Bell’s eyes. He gave close attention to a speck on his trousers, picking at it with his fingernail.
“Very distressing, poor lady. She would have sung if she possibly could, I know her well enough for that. She’d hate to disappoint her public. But her throat just seemed to get worse and worse till she was really croaky.”
“Lucky for her it didn’t last long, wasn’t it?” Bell squared up to his notebook again. “So, I’ll just put down here that she arrived at ... what time, exactly?”
“Let’s see, it would have been about three-fifteen. Then she and his lordship went straight off to the theatre for the rehearsal, and they were back here at about five forty-five for some tea. It was then that Dame Vanessa finally realized that she’d never be able to sing that evening.”
“I see. And from then on she didn’t leave the house until ... when would it have been?”
“Not until the next morning—Saturday. About ten-thirty.”
“She was well enough to drive by then?”
Again a sudden wariness. “Well ... I mean, a bad throat wouldn’t stop her from
would it? She wrapped up well, of course. A scarf round her neck and so forth.”
“What about his lordship’s movements that evening? The Friday.”
“His lordship? Oh, yes, well ... he went off to the theatre for the performance. I mean, he had to put in an appearance, naturally. It was about seven or just after that he left the house. But at the interval he came home again, to be with her. Got here just after nine, I’d say.” Jefferies pondered, then added, “They’d planned to go for a late supper at a restaurant after the gala, but in the circs I cooked them something light—just a soufflé.”
“And he didn’t go out again?”
“Oh no, he was at home all the time. They sat in the drawing room listening to music until Dame Vanessa went up to bed about eleven-thirty.”