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Authors: Nancy Buckingham

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BOOK: Cold Coffin
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Lady Kimberley returned, closing the door this time. She resumed her seat. “I apologize for the interruption, Chief Inspector. Lord Balmayne is an old and very dear friend of ours, as I’ve said.”

“I believe I heard it mentioned that Lord Balmayne has a country home near Cheltenham.”

“Yes, indeed, a
beautiful
house. He is in Paris at present, on business, but he telephoned because news had only just reached him that poor Noah was missing. He is returning at once ... so
extremely
kind of him, so as to offer whatever help he can at this terrible time.”

“Lady Kimberley, I know this is very distressing for you, but in view of what has happened, I want you to answer very carefully. In the past few days have you been able to think of anything that could explain your husband’s disappearance?”

“No, no, it’s a complete mystery.”

“You and he hadn’t had any kind of quarrel? Or disagreement?”

“Noah and I? We have
never
quarrelled.
Never!
We are utterly devoted to one another.”

“And you can’t suggest any reason to link his disappearance with Dr. Trent’s death? Any possible reason at all.”

“Certainly not,” she said disdainfully. Then she put a hand to her mouth, stifling a sob. “But somehow I feel even more fearful about Noah now.     Please, Mrs. Maddox, can’t you do
something
to find out what has happened to him?”

“I will do all I can,” Kate promised, knowing how little that could be. Jolly Joliffe had warned her off pursuing Sir Noah Kimberley’s disappearance too ardently. Despite her own instincts, she still lacked sufficient evidence to justify a widespread search for Sir Noah.

“Can we go through exactly what happened that last day,” she went on, “so that I have the details clearly in my mind? I understand that when Mr. Richard Gower came to see you at the weekend, you told him that just before you set out for London after lunch on Friday, your husband received a phone call that seemed to upset him.”

“That is correct. But Noah said I wasn’t to worry and that he would explain all about it when I got home. And as I was already somewhat later setting out than I’d intended, I didn’t press him. If only I
had.”

“You still don’t know who the caller was?”

“I haven’t the
faintest
idea. I’ve phoned everybody I could think of, to ask.”

“What time was this phone call, exactly?”

“It must have been ... somewhere between twenty and a quarter to two. I’d intended to leave at half-past one, d’you see.”

Kate kept her talking, probing her memory for details, but little more emerged than she’d already learned.

“Before I leave, Lady Kimberley, there is one other point. With things as they are, who will be in charge at Croptech during Sir Noah’s absence? Will Mr. Aidan Kimberley step in? I believe he is an equal partner in the firm.”

“That is true, yes. But Aidan has never played an active part in the business.”

“Might he not have to now, though, with Dr. Trent dead? Decisions will need to be taken, and someone must assume the responsibility.”

“I see what you mean.” She frowned, looking burdened by this new anxiety. “How much time Aidan could spare I really don’t know. He is only just back from a month in Hong Kong. He’s an investment counsellor in the City, you know, and he told me on the phone that he’s simply up to his eyes with a backlog of work. And on top of that his wife has flu. But Aidan did promise to come down to see me the moment he can get away.”

“When was it he telephoned?” Kate asked.

“Er ... Monday evening. Paula ... that’s his wife, had gone back to London on Sunday, d’you see, to get their flat in Sloane Street ready for his return. They have a weekend cottage at Inchmere St. Mary, and she’d been staying there for most of the time Aidan was away. She’s an interior designer, which means she can continue with her work—quite a lot of it, anyway—wherever she chooses to be.” Lady Kimberley sighed. “It would have been nice if Paula could have stayed on down here, so I’d have someone in the family near me, She knew how desperately worried I was about Noah, because I told her so on the phone on Saturday evening. To be candid, Mrs. Maddox, I felt rather
hurt
that she didn’t even offer to come round to see me on Sunday before driving back to London. However, from what Aidan said she was already sickening for flu then, so I suppose Paula didn’t feel up to it. Of course she told Aidan what had happened the moment he arrived home from the airport on Monday, and he rang me straight away. He was
most
upset about Noah. He has phoned me each day since, to enquire if I’ve had any more news.”

“Have you informed Mr. Kimberley about Dr. Trent’s death?”

“Well, no. He hasn’t phoned yet, today.”

“When you do speak to him, will you please say that I shall want to talk to him sometime in the near future.”

“To Aidan? For what reason, may I ask?”

“In pursuing my enquiries I shall need to talk to everyone who is even remotely connected with recent events.”

“Oh, yes. I see.”

“Lady Kimberley, another thing Mr. Gower mentioned to me was that you were considering engaging the services of a private investigator. Have you done so yet?”

The question seemed to take her by surprise. “Well ... no, I thought I would leave that ... for the moment. You had said, had you not, that you would do everything possible to discover what had happened to my poor Noah. And ... well, Mr. Gower promised to ask in his newspaper for anyone with information about my husband to come forward. It was in the
Gazette
today. Did you see it?”

“I did. Let’s hope that it produces something useful.”

* * * *

From the Kimberley house, Kate headed for the Croptech premises, where Boulter had gone ahead of her to make arrangements for interviews. The narrow by-way meandered, dipping and rising through the wooded countryside. Amber sunlight slanted down through branches that met and tangled overhead. Who but a disillusioned copper would see death and villainy lurking beneath the surface of this tranquil landscape?

She almost shot past the entrance to Croptech Agricultural Research and Development Limited, only at the very last moment catching sight of a discreet bronze name plaque on one of the two stone pillars that flanked a pair of particularly fine wrought iron gates. These, newly painted black and tipped with gold leaf, stood open to allow free access. A tarmac driveway was flanked by wide grass verges. On either side lay test grounds sown with crops, bordered by miniature box hedges.

The drive ended at a group of buildings linked by paved walkways. Architecturally non-attributable, Kate gauged, but easy on the eye. Nothing stark, nothing vulgar, everything low key.

Boulter’s dark blue Escort was parked outside the office block at the end. As Kate drew up beside it, the sergeant’s stocky figure appeared at a doorway and he came over to meet her.

“Did you get anything useful from Lady Kimberley, guv?”

“Precious little. I’ll fill you in with the details later. Did you manage to see Sir Noah’s doctor and his bank manager?”

He nodded. “You said they wouldn’t be very forthcoming, and you were dead right. But I think we can take it that Kimberley has no serious problems, healthwise or financial, that would have caused him to head off into the blue yonder.”

“If he went voluntarily, how is he living? Is the bank manager going to tip us the wink if Kimberley cashes any cheques or uses his credit card?”

“Cheques, yes—he agreed reluctantly, with much persuasion from me. As for credit cards, it seems the old boy has never possessed one. Doesn’t hold with them; says they encourage thriftless spending. Lady Kimberley has several, but apparently her husband always carries largish sums in cash to cover his day-to-day expenditure. He cashed a cheque for three hundred the day before he disappeared, which was his usual sort of amount.”

“Three hundred wouldn’t last him long. He’d need to cash further cheques quite soon. Unless the disappearance was premeditated, of course, and he’d salted cash in readiness. Or is he being staked by someone? Or— and I feel increasingly certain of this—he didn’t disappear willingly. Either he’s being held somewhere against his will, or he’s dead. Now, Tim, what have you done here so far?”

“I’ve fixed a room for us to use for interviews. It’s Kimberley’s secretary’s office. She’s moving out, pro-tem.”

“Right. His secretary could be very useful to us, regarding both men. What’s she like?”

“Younger than I’d have expected, hardly more than twenty-two, and she’s worked for Kimberley for just under eighteen months. Sandra English. Lives with her parents in Great Bedham. She’s not what you’d call overflowing with zip and competence.”

“Did she have anything useful to tell you?”

“Not really. She was a bit on the defensive, but that could have been just nerves. The last she saw of Kimberley was when he left at five on Friday. He said goodnight and wished her a pleasant weekend, though when I pressed her she did think he’d seemed rather preoccupied all afternoon, as if he had something on his mind.”

“The result of that mysterious phone call? We’ve got to find out who it was from, Tim.
Was
it a woman?”

“Sandra seemed horrified when I hinted that maybe Sir Noah had woman trouble. He was always the absolute gentleman, she insisted, just like my wife said. Sandra’s not bad looking in a quiet sort of way, and I put careful feelers out that he might have made a pass at her now and then. She got quite upset at the mere suggestion. As for Trent, she hadn’t really seen him all this week, though her boyfriend told her he’d been in an even worse mood than usual these past few days.”

“Her boyfriend?”

“Roger Barlow. He’s one of the scientists in the lab.”

Kate nodded. “I hope you’ve made it clear, Tim, that nobody is to leave the premises this evening until I give the okay?”

“Crystal clear, guv.”

“So lead the way and we’ll get started.”

The secretary’s office was small, but adequate for their purpose. The girl behind the desk jumped to her feet as they went in, and seemed about to slip away in silence.

“Thank you for giving up your office, Miss English,” said Kate pleasantly. “Another police officer will want to take a written statement from you sometime, probably tomorrow. If I need you for anything, where do we find you?”

Boulter was right about her. She was pretty ordinary, or ordinarily pretty, with undistinguished features. Nevertheless there was a certain glow about her. The glow that came from being in love, perhaps. She had a clean, wholesome look, with neat fingernails and even teeth. Her newly washed hair, a warm mid-brown, she wore fluffed around her face almost like a halo.

“I’ll be in the general office. Extension five.” She pointed at the intercom on the desk, a typed list on a card beside it. “You can get through to anyone else you need, too. The numbers are all there.”

“Thank you. I gather from the sergeant here that you can offer no suggestions about what might have happened to Sir Noah?”

“No.” Her expression became sombre. “It’s a complete mystery. Do you think he’s all right?”

“Let’s hope so, Miss English.”

In addition to the typist’s chair that went with the desk, two others had obviously been brought in ... one placed the same side, one opposite. There was very little spare room left. Kate sat down and took a notebook and pen from her shoulderbag. The sergeant also prepared himself for taking notes.

“Who’s first?” asked Kate.

Boulter studied a list he’d made. “The chief clerk, I’d say. Name of Duncan McEvoy.”

“Right. Buzz for him, will you.”

McEvoy answered the summons immediately. An extremely thin man, his narrow bone structure made him look rather taller than he really was. He was as precise in dress as in manner ... a charcoal grey suit, white shirt and dark tie. Pale blond hair was brushed flat against his head, and he wore half-lens spectacles with thin gilt frames.

He glanced around the small room with a critical frown. “If I’d been given warning, Chief Inspector, I could have accommodated you somewhere better than this.”

“This will do very well, Mr. McEvoy. Won’t you sit down?”

He did so cautiously, lowering his narrow frame into the dead centre of the chair. Kate sat quietly while her sergeant dealt with the preliminaries. Duncan Alexander McEvoy lived with his wife and two teenage daughters in one of those prim and proper semis that lined the Cheltenham Road in Marlingford. A prim and proper little family, by the sound of it. He’d worked at Croptech from the time he left school, edging his way up from junior clerk to his present position.

“What was your relationship with Dr. Trent?” Kate intervened briskly.

“My
relationship?” The
word seemed to shock him, offend him. “Why, I hardly knew the man, except just for work. And I had very little contact with him even here. He and I worked in quite distinct departments.

Normally, I had little reason to speak to Dr. Trent at all, apart from saying ‘Good morning’ and so on.”

“It sounds to me as if you didn’t like him very much.”

“Well, nobody ...” McEvoy stopped short, and after an embarrassed pause, continued, “I neither liked nor disliked Dr. Trent.”

“When did you last see him?”

“Er ... yesterday evening. I passed him at the gates as I was driving out. That would have been about ten past five.”

“You passed him? He was walking, you mean?”

“Yes. He always walked. Once when it was raining I stopped and offered him a lift, but he was quite short with me. He’d have used his own car to come to work, he said, if he’d wanted to drive.”

“So when did you last see Dr. Trent to speak to, Mr. McEvoy?”

He didn’t need to search for an answer. “On Tuesday. He came to my office demanding to know what was happening about a new centrifuge he wanted for the laboratory. I told him that Sir Noah hadn’t yet given his authorization, and that for such an expensive item of equipment I couldn’t possibly act without it. That should have been quite obvious to Dr. Trent, but he wouldn’t listen to me. He became very angry and called me a petty-minded bureaucrat. He said what made me think Sir Noah was ever coming back. We just had to accept what had happened, and carry on without him. And we might just as well get a few sensible things done like ordering new equipment before his successors or whoever moved in and started wanting to reorganize everything.”

BOOK: Cold Coffin
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