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Authors: Nancy Buckingham

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BOOK: Cold Coffin
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“I suppose that’s a good idea.” A tortured smile gave forewarning of an equally tortured witticism. “No doubt the brilliant Chief Inspector Maddox is aiming to dazzle us all with a speedy solution.”

“If I don’t, sir, it won’t be for want to trying.”

By God, she was going to try. Another case briskly solved might put an end to the patronising attitude she’d met with from her superintendent and all the rest of the bloody male establishment ever since her promotion. But as she left Jolly’s office, a stray thought made her wonder if putting her on her mettle wasn’t the old bastard’s deliberate intention. He hadn’t got where he was without being astute.

She grinned to herself wryly. What the hell?

 

Chapter Three

 

The Kimberley residence was separated from the pretty village of Radlett by the breadth of two meadows and a grove of young oaks. Belonging to the village community, but nicely set apart from it. Wide and low-built, the house was English domestic architecture of the cry-your-eyes-out-with-envy variety. Elegant, gracious, charming, a picture of serene tranquility. Its creeper-clad stonework had weathered over centuries to that unique Cotswold tawny-grey. At one side, French doors stood open to a paved terrace and smooth, sunlit lawns. A Chief Constable might have afforded such a house at a pinch, Kate reflected, but never, ever, a mere Detective Chief Inspector.

Her ring was answered by a pink-overalled woman so tiny that at first glance Kate almost took her for a flaxen-haired child. Far from it. Her silver-white hair and seamed face betrayed three score and ten; her bright blue pebble eyes looked alert and wily.

“I’m Detective Chief Inspector Maddox, to see Lady Kimberley,” Kate announced. “I telephoned to say I’d be coming.”

“Oh dear! I’m afraid Dame Vanessa isn’t ready for you yet. She’s been doing a bit of gardening this afternoon, you see, to occupy her mind, and she’s upstairs now getting showered and changed.”

“Don’t worry. I know I’m a little earlier than I said to expect me. You’d be her housekeeper, I imagine?”

“That’s right. Mrs. Dorothy Byworth. Dame Vanessa always calls me Dotty. I was her dresser for years and years, went everywhere with her. Then when she married Sir Noah and retired from the stage, she wanted to keep me on, so I came here. And thankful I am to be with the poor love at this dreadful time.”

They were standing in the hall, where sunlight made diamond patterns on the red turkey carpet. Antique oak shone with the elbow grease of generations of Dotty Byworths.

“Such a terrible thing to have happened,” the little woman ran on. “The phone’s hardly been quiet for a single minute, and people keep calling round all the time. They mean to be kind, of course, but all these anxious enquiries only upset poor Dame Vanessa still more.”

Throwing open a door, she ushered Kate into the drawing room. It was pleasantly spacious and cool-looking, plainly two of the original rooms of the house made into one. The oak-beamed ceiling was low, but not uncomfortably so, the walls painted pristine white. A full-size grand piano occupied one corner of the room, leaving ample space for the three large cushioned sofas in deep rose velvet. Above the carved stone fireplace was a portrait of a much younger Dame Vanessa as Violetta, painted by Annigoni.

“If you’ll just take a seat, Chief Inspector, I’m sure Dame Vanessa won’t keep you long.”

Kate seized this opportunity. “Before you go, Mrs. Byworth, I’d like a word with you. About Sir Noah, I mean. In the period of time before his disappearance, did anything strike you as unusual? Did he seem at all upset? Or worried about anything?”

“Oh, yes. Dame Vanessa told me since that he was really out of sorts about a phone call he took just before she left for London.”

“And how about you, Mrs. Byworth? Did you yourself notice anything unusual in his manner?”

“Well, I can’t say I did, not particular. I just put it down to him not being very happy about Dame Vanessa being away. But if she said it was the phone call that upset him, that’s good enough for me.”

“What other phone calls were there that Friday?” asked Kate.

She considered. “Only the one other, that was just before dinner.”

“Who was it from?”

“I don’t know. I was in the kitchen, dishing up, and Sir Noah called to tell me not to bother, he’d answer the phone.”

“And afterwards, did he seem upset, preoccupied ... anything like that?”

A shake of the head. “Like I said, he wasn’t very cheerful, with Dame Vanessa being away. Leastways, that’s what I thought it was. He ate his dinner—not very much, I seem to remember, even though it was one of his favourites. Steak and kidney pie and butter beans. I thought it would comfort him, like. I cleared the dishes and gave him his coffee, and a bit later on I heard him leave the house and drive off.”

“He didn’t tell you he was going out?”

“No.” She stiffened, her pride at stake. “There was no reason why he should have done. I’m off duty after dinner.”

“Yes, I understand. But perhaps, while you were serving the meal, Sir Noah might have said something about his intention of going out later.”

“Well, he didn’t. Not a word.”

“Could you make a guess where he might have gone?”

“It could have been anywhere. Sometimes of an evening he’d go back to his office at Croptech to finish something he was working on. I don’t know.”

“Did Sir Noah take any clothes or personal belongings with him? His shaving things?”

“No, nothing. I looked special, next morning, when I realized he’d never come back home. And Dame Vanessa has looked, too. There’s nothing gone, nothing at all. Just the clothes he stood up in.”

“What was it he was wearing that evening?”

“Oh, one of his grey suits. A pinstripe.” She screwed up her face, remembering. “White shirt ... he always wears a white shirt, and his tie was ... red and black, striped. He’s a neat dresser, Sir Noah. He doesn’t care much for casual clothes.”

“You said just now that he wasn’t very cheerful when you served his dinner, which you took to be because his wife was away. It’s well known that he used to travel all over the world to hear her sing, so I’d have thought he would have gone with her to London.”

The bright blue eyes clouded over. “I thought we’d all three be going, as per usual. But Dame Vanessa said no, Sir Noah was staying home this time, and I ought to be here to look after him. She could easily manage dressing herself this once, as it was just going to be an evening gown she’d be wearing.”

“Did Lady Kimberley happen to say
why
Sir Noah wasn’t going with her?”

Her mouth tightened. “She just said it wasn’t convenient.” Clearly the woman felt hurt and resentful about her exclusion. Possibly she still hankered for the days when her mistress had been an international star, and this gala would have been a highlight in the quieter life she now led. Kate found it curious that Lady Kimberley wanted neither her husband nor her dresser to be with her that evening.

“Going back to that phone call earlier in the day, Mrs. Byworth, just before Lady Kimberley left for London. Is there anything more you can tell me about it?”

“Well, not really. I did hear the phone ringing, just as Sir Noah was about to fetch the car round the front for Dame Vanessa ... he was always like that, so attentive. But I was busy with last-minute packing for her, so he answered it.”

“And you’ve no idea who the caller was?”

“No idea at all. Could have been anyone. He gets lots of phone calls.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Byworth, that’s all I want to ask you. Perhaps you’ll just make sure that Lady Kimberley knows I’ve arrived.”

Sitting alone in the silent room, Kate had an odd feeling of being on stage, waiting for curtain up. After a couple of minutes came the sound of firm footsteps on the stairs, then Lady Kimberley made her entrance. She was wearing black velvet trousers and a marigold yellow top with a cowl neck and floppy sleeves. Her hair and make-up were immaculate.

“Chief Inspector, I am so sorry to have kept you waiting,” she said graciously, in her richly beautiful voice. Her face changed, with anxiety showing in every line of it. “You said on the phone that you have no word of what has befallen my husband, but in that case why are you here? Is it bad news? Please, you
must
tell me the truth. Without any
prevarication.”

“No, really, Lady Kimberley, I have discovered nothing to explain Sir Noah’s disappearance. It is, in fact, more about Dr. Trent than your husband that I wish to speak to you. No doubt you have heard of his death? That we suspect murder?”

“I have heard.” The magnificent figure sank down onto a sofa, with a gesture inviting Kate to resume her seat. “Has the same horrible fate overtaken my darling Noah ... that is the thought which
terrifies
me.”

“There is no evidence to suggest that, and I sincerely hope not. However ...”

“However?”

“I have to consider the possibility that Dr. Trent’s death and Sir Noah’s disappearance might be in some way connected.” Kate paused a moment, then asked quietly, “Lady Kimberley, why didn’t your husband accompany you to London for the gala?”

A sharp gaze from her fine violet eyes met Kate’s briefly, then slid away. “It was ... decided that he shouldn’t, on this occasion.”

“By your wish? Or his?”

“Really, what
does
it matter? I thought you said it was about Dr. Trent that you wished to speak to me.”

“But first, please bear with me and clarify this point. Wasn’t it normal for your husband to go and hear you sing, wherever it happened to be?”

“Good heavens, it isn’t an
invariable
rule. We just decided that this time he would remain at home.”

“I believe, in the event, that you didn’t actually sing. You were prevented by a sudden throat infection?”

A fraught silence stretched through fifteen seconds. Then, “That is true.”

“But you still stayed overnight in London?”

“Well, yes. I thought it would be unwise to drive back at night, in the circumstances. Besides, it would have seemed discourteous towards Lord Balmayne, the organizer of the gala. I was a guest at his home in London. He has been a very dear friend of mine over many years.” A tiny pause. “A dear friend of us
both.”

Tuck that pause away for future consideration,

“Now, Lady Kimberley, about Dr. Trent. How well did you know him?”

“Naturally I met him from time to time as he was in a senior position at Croptech. My husband had a high opinion of his professional competence.”

Kate scented an evasion. “And as a person?”

“Dr. Trent was a man who kept himself to himself, Chief Inspector. He possessed none of the social graces. To be frank I found him somewhat
boorish.”

“Your husband, too?”

“In many ways, I think, Gavin Trent was a disappointment to Noah, though he tried not to admit it. He’d been hoping to see qualities of leadership emerge in Gavin, ready for the day when he himself relinquished the reins. But Gavin never showed any signs of that. Somehow he couldn’t inspire liking or even respect in the people working under him. On the contrary, he usually managed to
antagonize
them.”

“I see.” That widened the field of possible suspects. “Can you think of any disagreements or upsets occurring recently that might throw some light on Dr. Trent’s death?”

Both hands played in the air in protest. “How could I?”

“Your husband might have mentioned something to you.”

She shook her head. “Croptech is like any other organization, I suppose. There are personal differences, little
undercurrents.
But nothing, I am sure, that could account for anything so dreadful as ... as ...” She baulked at uttering the word.

“Can you fill in some background for me, to get a clearer picture in my mind. The people who worked most closely with Dr. Trent, for example. Who are they, and what sort of relationship did he have with them?”

“Surely you should address that question to his colleagues on the staff.”

“I would greatly value your views, Lady Kimberley.”

She sighed on a descending note. “I will do what I can, of course. Let me see ... the only person of comparable rank working with Dr. Trent would be Cheryl Miller.” Was there a touch of distaste in her voice?

“Dr. Miller is also a biochemist, I believe?”

A nod. “Noah would not normally have engaged a woman in such a senior scientific position but he said that
academically
her qualifications entirely justified it. They were higher than any of the other applicants for the vacancy.”

“When was she appointed?”

“Oh, you’ll have to consult the records. About six or seven years ago, I’d say. She worked under Dr. Lintott, who afterwards took up a post in the United States. Gavin Trent was engaged in his place ...
much
to Cheryl Miller’s fury. She thought that she was altogether better qualified than he was for the senior post.”

“But your husband wasn’t willing to appoint a woman to such a top position?”

“Noah believes”—her voice wobbled noticeably over the tense of that verb—”that women are
emotionally
unsuited to a career in the sciences. When it comes to the arts, of course, it is an
entirely
different matter.”

“And does Dr. Miller still feel resentful, do you think?”

“Definitely. She never misses an opportunity to make that plain.”

The telephone rang outside in the hall.
On cue, Kate, like a stage effect.
Why did that thought come to her? There were muffled sounds of the housekeeper answering it. Then the door opened and the child-size woman peered in.

“It’s Lord Balmayne, Dame Vanessa, phoning from Paris. Shall I plug the phone in here for you?”

“Er ... no, Dotty, I’ll take it outside.” She rose to her feet, pridefully elegant. “If you’ll excuse me, Chief Inspector.”

The door, though, was left ajar. Accidentally or on purpose? Whichever, Kate could hear every word uttered by Lady Kimberley.

“Oh, my dear Gerald. Yes, it’s too
dreadful
for words. I wondered if the news would reach you. No, there’s nothing further been heard of Noah ...
nothing.
I am quite
distraught.
Oh, but I cannot expect you to ... well, if you
insist.
You are such a dear, kind man. I admit that having you near at hand just now would be a
great
blessing.” The talk gushed on in similar vein for several more minutes.

BOOK: Cold Coffin
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