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Authors: Nancy Buckingham

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BOOK: Cold Coffin
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“And you could do with minding your own business, Sergeant.”

You bloody idiot, Kate!
Why the hell did she have to slap him down like that when he was just being friendly?
Admit it, you like it when Tim fusses over you a bit.

Although the burly sergeant had initially been resentful about acting sidekick to a female—and probably still was, deep down—Boulter had reconciled himself to the inevitable, and he worked with her conscientiously. He was a fine detective and together they made a good team. Once, she walked in on one of those “that bloody woman” harangues at the Chipping Bassett nick. It had instantly dried on her entry, but she’d known that Boulter had been defending her. Exactly as he might loyally have sprung to the defence of his guv’nor, if male, but with maybe a touch of chivalry, too. And she hadn’t minded that. In her daily work she demanded (and was rarely granted) total equality with her male colleagues. But she
was
a woman, for God’s sake, not some tough-as-old-boots unisex creature.

“Sorry, Tim. But Richard Gower is after getting a story out of me. He still acts as a stringer for the national daily he used to work for, and he’d pick up a nice fee for any inside info on the Trent murder.”

“Well then, d’you feel like having a drink with me instead? I reckon we both deserve one.”

She could certainly use a drink; but more than that, it was good strategy to accept the well-intentioned invite from her sergeant.

“Okay, just the one. And then it’s off home for us both. Tomorrow’s going to be another heavy day.”

Even though they stayed only twenty minutes at the pub, it was past nine when Kate got back to Stonebank Cottage. Her aunt was in the living room, talking on the phone.

“Well, you’re in luck this time. She’s just walked in the door.” Felix held out the phone to Kate. “It’s Richard. The third time he’s rung in the past hour.”

“Damn! Tell him I can’t talk now.”

“Tell him yourself, girl.”

“Oh, all right.” Kate took the phone. “Now look here, Richard, it’s not a bit of use your pestering me. I haven’t anything to tell you.”

“I suppose it never occurred to you, Detective Chief Inspector Maddox, that
I
might have something to tell
you.”

“Oh? Well then, out with it.”

“Where do we meet?”

“No, Richard. If you’ve something to tell me concerning the Trent case, get on with it. Don’t play about.”

“It’s nothing to do with Trent. Remember the piece I printed in today’s
Gazette
about Sir Noah Kimberley going a’missing?”

“What about it?”

“It’s borne fruit, that’s what.”

“How?” She felt a mixture of both excitement and dread.

“Meet me at the Wagon and Horses in ten minutes and I’ll reveal all.”

“No, I—”

“See you,” he said, and hung up.

“Bloody man,” Kate muttered darkly.

“What’s up, girl?”

“He says he’s got some information, and he wants me to meet him at the pub.”

“Nothing wrong with that. Have you found time to eat this evening?”

“Not yet.”

“Well, they do nice bar meals at the Wagon. I’ll contain my curiosity until you get back.”

Richard was at the bar, chatting to the landlord. “Whisky?” he queried as he turned to greet Kate.

“Just a small one. I’ve already had a drink with Tim Boulter. Now then, what’s this all about, Richard?”

“I shall want a
quid pro quo.”

“What you want and what you get are two different things.”

He grinned at her. “Wait till you hear. This’ll soften your hard police person’s heart. I had a call this lunchtime from Giles Lambert. He’s a car dealer in Marlingford. I know him quite well. He’s a regular advertiser in the
Gazette.”

“Get on with it.”

“Have patience. Giles read my piece about Kimberley and it jogged his memory. Last Friday night, sometime after midnight, he and his wife were driving home from some trade do or other. The roads were pretty deserted, but at that T-junction where the road from Great Bedham joins the main Marlingford road, he came up behind another car. Taking the turn, the driver ground the gears horribly, which made Giles look more closely. He couldn’t see a lot, but his headlights showed it was a woman at the wheel.”

“So?”

“It was Noah Kimberley’s car, Kate ... the dark green Saab that Giles had sold him only three months ago.”

“How could he be sure of that? One dark green Saab is very like another.”

“The number plate told him. It was one of the batch of registration numbers allocated to his firm.”

“I’ll buy that. Was the woman alone in the car?”

Richard nodded. “Not a vestige of Sir Noah.”

“Have you told Lady Kimberley this?”

“No. I thought you should be the first to know. And if you hadn’t been dodging me all day, you’d have known it hours ago.”

 

Chapter Five

 

First thing Friday morning Kate went to see the car dealer. Checking by an early call to his home that he’d be at his showroom by nine o’clock, she drove straight to Marlingford and managed to arrive on the dot.

The showroom was immaculate. Selling both new cars and quality used cars, Giles Lambert had built himself a reputation in the district. A sleek young salesman who’d been alerted to look out for Kate’s arrival escorted her directly to the boss’s office.

Giles Lambert was a smooth businessman, but not so smooth as to make her doubt his honesty. His dark grey suit was discreetly expensive, his shirt and tie total perfection. He was maybe ten years older than Kate. A slightly thickening waistline was kept in check with, very likely, energetic games of squash. She found herself liking him. As they shook hands, he met her gaze with a pleasing candour, with no hint of the male condescension she encountered so often in her job.

“Good morning, Chief Inspector. Do please sit down. You drive a Montego Mayfair, I noticed. Quite a nice motor car. I trust you’ll be coming to me for its successor.”

“I’m not in the Saab bracket, Mr. Lambert. Not yet.”

He smiled at that, then became serious. “You want to talk to me about my seeing Sir Noah Kimberley’s car on Friday evening?”

“Mr. Gower passed on to me what you told him, but this could turn out to be very important so I’d like to hear it from you myself.”

“I understand.” He leaned forward attentively from his executive chair, fingers laced together on the desk top. “A wretched business about Sir Noah. And now this murder of his top scientist.”

Kate took him through the details of his sighting, establishing the exact spot at which it had happened, the time as precisely as possible. “You said it was a woman driving. It was dark, so how can you be sure?”

“It certainly wasn’t Sir Noah. At the time I took it to be Lady Kimberley. I remember thinking he’d be horrified at the way she’d crashed his gears. It was only yesterday, when I read in the
Gazette
about her staying in London the night he went missing, that I realized it couldn’t possibly have been Lady Kimberley.”

“You’re quite positive it was a woman?”

“Oh, yes.” He spread his hands apart in an assessing gesture. “How is it one can be positive of such a thing? She had longish hair, quite a lot of it, though I can’t say as to the colour.”

“This may sound silly to you, but is it possible it could have been a man wearing a wig? Or a man with long hair, come to that.”

Lambert shook his head. “There was something more than just the hair that conveyed the feminine to me. The set of the shoulders, perhaps, the way she held her head. I don’t know exactly, but I
am
sure it was a woman.”

“You said she was alone in the car. But if there’d been a passenger, are you certain you’d have seen him? Or her?”

“Unless they were deliberately hiding, I would have.”

“I know your headlights would have helped you, but you could only have got a fleeting glimpse.”

Lambert ruminated a moment, running his thumbnail along his lower lip, then he nodded with conviction. “There’s an illuminated traffic sign at that point. As the Saab passed it the light shone clean through the car’s side windows. I saw a silhouette of the driver, and no one else.”

“Your wife was with you, I understand. Would she be able to confirm any of this?”

He smiled ruefully. “I’m afraid not. When Barbara and I go out for an evening, we take turn and turn about to either drink or drive. In my trade I’ve seen the result of too many accidents to think it’s possible to do both —as doubtless you have too, Chief Inspector. It was quite a party we went to that night, someone’s retirement, and on the way home my wife was ... well, let’s say inclined to be dozy.”

Corroboration would have been useful. All the same, Kate felt sure that Lambert was a reliable witness. He’d told her what he’d seen, and what impression it had given him, without any embroidery.

“Thanks very much, Mr. Lambert,” she said, making to rise.

“Won’t you stay for a cup of coffee?”

“I’d love one, but I can’t afford the time.”

Lambert escorted her out to her car. “You’re quite a subject of conversation, you know, in the local watering holes.”

“Oh? Why is that?”

“Come, come.” He wagged a finger at her. “A woman, and a damned attractive woman if I may say so without offence, in such a high-ranking position. You’ve put more than a few noses out of joint, I hear, and it’s whispered that you’re running rings round some of your male colleagues. Sides are being taken, Mrs. Maddox.”

“And which side are you on, Mr. Lambert?”

He threw back his head and laughed at her. “My wife, whom I love most dearly, is no old-fashioned
hausfrau
herself. She runs her own business, and a thriving concern it is, too. I daresay you’ve noticed her shop here in town, Acme Office Supplies. In addition to the retail sales, she handles typewriter servicing on a contract basis—including, in fact, for the local police. The motor trade has its ups and downs, but with Barbara there’s only one way—up. I think you and she must be two of a kind, Mrs. Maddox, so there’s no need to ask me which side I’m on.”

Kate looked in at divisional headquarters on her way to Aston Pringle, to see what had accumulated on her desk there. She dealt quickly with a couple of routine matters, and then, as she was on her way out of the building, she bumped into Superintendent Joliffe in the corridor.

“Mrs. Maddox.” He sounded suspiciously jovial. “Just the person I wanted to see. Come into my office.”

Inside the spacious room with windows overlooking the municipal gardens, he indicated that she should be seated. He didn’t, on this occasion, ring for tea to be brought.

“I have a little job for you,” he said. “Milford Grange was broken into this morning. You probably don’t know the place, as you haven’t been working long in this division. It’s a large rambling house on the outskirts of Milford belonging to Mr. Justice Tillington and his wife.”

Kate waited in silence, reserving judgment.

Jolly Joliffe rubbed his hands together, a rare sign of nervousness in him. “You’re aware, of course, that Judge Tillington has considerable influence. He’s renowned for speaking his mind, and his quotes get a good deal of media attention. Anyway, he and his wife are away just now on a lengthy visit to their married daughter in New Zealand. The judge is convalescing after major heart surgery.”

“Whom have you sent there to handle things, sir?” Kate could scarcely believe the way things were pointing.

“Well ... Inspector Trotton is at the scene. But where people like Mr. Justice Tillington are concerned, it is prudent for us to show action at a higher level. So I’d like you to look in at Milford Grange this morning, to see what’s what and nudge Don Trotton in the right direction.”

“Sir, can it have escaped your attention that I’m just at the start of what looks like becoming a major murder enquiry? Surely I can’t be expected to drop everything and go haring off on some piddling little break-in?”

His expression grew pained. “Hardly piddling. We suspect that a number of valuable items have been stolen. The trouble is, with the owners away we can’t know precisely what
is
missing. Look, I’m not suggesting you should waste a lot of time on this. Just drop in and wave the flag a bit. You know the sort of thing I mean, my dear.”

My dear!
Kate’s fuse had burnt too short to snuff it out. She exploded. “I’d be grateful,
sir,
if you’d stop patronising me with that expression. I have a name, and I have a rank. Address me as you wish, formally or informally ... Mrs. Maddox or Kate, I don’t mind which. Or Chief Inspector.”

The superintendent was gaping at her. “What on earth are you talking about?”

You went over the top, Kate, but you can’t back down now.

“You are always calling me ‘my dear’ sir. I find it very offensive. It’s sexist.”

His eyes were cold with anger. “You’re making rather a fool of yourself, Mrs. Maddox, over a mere trifle.”

Trouble is, Kate, the man’s got a point there. If you go and lose your cool over something small like this, you ‘re giving him ammunition for claiming that you’re not sufficiently balanced emotionally for the rank you hold. She’d won a Pyrrhic victory. Jolly wouldn’t call her “my dear” again in a hurry, but it wouldn’t upgrade his respect one iota for her.

Fortunately, Superintendent Joliffe (wise man that he was) decided to make a joke of the incident. With a hollow little chuckle, he went on, “If I were to call you by some of the ripe epithets I use on your male colleagues, you’d have reason to complain. Now then, Mrs. Maddox, about this break-in. Just pop in for half an hour, so Judge Tillington can be informed that there is high-level attention being given to this case. Believe me, I’d go myself if I could possibly manage it. But I’m completely tied up today. I’m just about to leave for a CID symposium at Scotland Yard—a gathering of superintendents and upwards, organized by the Home Office.”

Oh, what the hell.
“I hope it’s a slap-up lunch, sir.”

He smiled thinly. “They usually do us quite well on these occasions. We’ll have a talk about the Trent case tomorrow. Hopefully, you’ll have some progress to report by then.”

BOOK: Cold Coffin
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