Authors: Daphne Coleridge
Tags: #Traditional British, #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General
“Perhaps, if this carries on, I ought to make more effort to come along to church: but I don’t want to look like I’m interfering, just give a bit of moral support.”
“Why not come and sing with the choir? We are one alto down, and I know how nicely you sing. Martin Gordon from The Claresby Arms is just starting, so you could learn the ropes with him.”
“Martin! I never thought of him as a church goer. More beer and birds, if you know what I mean.”
“Word is that he has set his sights on Veronica,” replied Wendy with a wink. “Being a bit of a Romeo he finds the village girls too easy a conquest.”
“Surely not Veronica’s type? Anyway, she would have to be daft to go anywhere near him if people are already questioning whether or not she is a femme fatale. Which reminds me, what is behind the rumours about her and Strider? I’ve met him once or twice in the village and he would be a fine looking fellow if he wasn’t so unkempt. I take it he has drink problems?”
“Well, I can promise you that they are not romantically involved,” said Wendy with the ghost of a smile.
“Why?” asked Laura suspiciously.
“Because he is her brother! It isn’t even a secret. Everyone knew in her last parish; it’s just that the facts haven’t followed Veronica as fast as the rumours.”
“Why doesn’t she tell everyone and stop the tittle-tattle?”
“Like I say, it isn’t a secret. I told Anne Jones and she said – “So she says!” – Even if the vicar put a notice about Strider being her brother in the parish magazine, people would still think whatever they wanted.”
“I suppose you are right,” said Laura, pouring more coffee into their cups. “Oh, well – I’ll show my solidarity by joining the choir.”
There was a hint of spring in the air on the Saturday morning when Laura made the walk of a mile or so to Claresby Church. There were carpets of crocuses in the woods and around the church and the daffodils were promising a good show to come. As the low Saxon tower of the church came into view, Laura pondered the fact that it must have weathered its share of controversy over the centuries. Like Claresby Manor, the church was mentioned in the Domesday Book. It had been built in the tenth century and there was a list of incumbents from 1254: she reckoned they could tell a tale or two between them. The church was entered through an arched doorway and the interior was cool and exuded a feeling of mellow contemplation, despite recent events. The dozen or so members of the choir were mostly present and Wendy gave Laura a welcoming smile and beckoned her over.
“I hope you are in good voice? We are just going to sing a couple of favourite hymns to see how your voice and Martin’s blend in. We’ll start with Blake’s “Jerusalem”. It will have to be a quick practice because Veronica wants to fit in a wedding rehearsal before lunch. Ah, here’s Frank; it’s unusual for him to be late.”
Frank Bowler, the organist, was a tired looking man in his fifties. He came in looking flustered, but smiled when he saw Wendy and Laura.
“Small catastrophe at home: the washing machine was leaking. Just a matter of tightening a few things up and a bit of mopping, but it threw me out.”
“I had that a couple of months ago,” said Wendy. “But it was only a small leak and the first thing I noticed was a damp smell. It’s hard keeping on top of everything about the house.”
“Especially now I’m on my own,” commented Frank. His wife had died a couple of years previously. “Ah well, we better make a start. To be honest, I have my doubts about Martin. I do wonder if he will be reliable. Having said that, has anyone seen him this morning?”
As if on cue, Martin Gordon came through the door at that moment, dazzling them with a white smile. He was just short of six foot tall with a lean, fit physique. He habitually wore jeans and white shirt with a tweedy sports jacket which had a couple Rolling Stones badges on the lapel as a permanent fixture. Laura knew him well enough from the pub and, whilst having nothing specific against him, had never particularly taken to him.
“Morning all,” he said. “Where’s Veronica?”
“The vicar doesn’t attend choir practice,” said Frank, coldly. “But if you are ready, we don’t have much time this morning.”
Martin winked at Laura and Wendy behind Frank’s back and they all made their way to the choir stalls. After leading them through some warming up scales, Frank sat at a small piano whilst they began on “Jerusalem”. After a bit he stopped them.
“Too powerful, Martin,” he said. “You are drowning out the others. Control your voice, there’s no need to belt it out.”
They tried again. In the second verse Frank stopped them for a second time.
“Still too loud, Martin. Your voice isn’t quite good enough for a solo! Lovely, Laura; you are blending in nicely.”
They had moved on to “All Things Bright and Beautiful”, with Frank making only a couple more snippy comments at Martin, when Veronica came in. She waited until the singing stopped and then said,
“Sorry to interrupt, but I’ve got to ask if any of you have seen Monty? His wife called me this morning. He didn’t return home last night.” She looked tired and took in the shakes of their heads and general mutterings of “no” rather despondently.
“Did Molly say where he had gone last night?” asked Wendy.
“She said he was slipping down the pub for a nightcap at about half past nine.”
“Well, he didn’t come in for a drink last night,” said Martin, the landlord of the local pub which was Monty’s regular watering place.
“I was going to ask you that,” said Veronica. “Well, Molly has called the police, Monty’s disappearance being so entirely out of character. Let’s hope he turns up fit and well.”
“Would he have been over at the church yesterday?” asked Laura.
“There wasn’t much going on,” said Veronica. “We had our coffee morning in the James Mortimer Rooms, but as far as I know everything was locked up after that and I don’t think Monty had any reason to come back.”
The James Mortimer Rooms were a small extension on the northern corner of the church which provided a space for Sunday school and other church related events and incorporated kitchen facilities and toilets. It had been built about ten years before with a bequest from Laura’s own father. She now regretted that she had rather resented the money at the time, Claresby having been left in such a parlous state, and still thought the room spoiled the external harmony of the church, although it had been sorely needed. They trooped down and searched the room and toilets, but found nothing untoward.
Choir practice having been effectively abandoned, the search for Monty was extended from his familiar haunts around the church to the short walk between his house and The Claresby Arms. The police arrived, at first gently inquiring, but gradually more insistent in their searches and questions; but there was no sign of Monty Howard. It was as if he had disappeared off the face of the earth. In the course of the next few weeks there was some speculation that he had “done a Reggie Perrin” and gone off to start a new life somewhere else, but this was largely dismissed. Then the story made the national news and press speculation included reference to the death of Veronica Dahl’s first husband and the fact that she had been referred to within the parish by the sobriquet, “The Black Widow of Claresby”. Then there was an interesting interlude when Strider was arrested on suspicion of murder.
Wendy, sharing a glass of sherry before a Sunday lunch at Claresby filled in details of this incident.
“The trouble started because Ian and his wife were suspicious of Strider. They can see his caravan from the farmhouse and thought he had been acting oddly the day of the disappearance, although they didn’t say how. Anyway, there were no lights on in the caravan that night and they were left with the impression that Strider didn’t come home on the Friday evening in question. Strider’s real name, by the way, is Arthur Dahl. Like everyone else, they suspected him of having a drink or drugs problem and just being an all-round dodgy character.”
“I assumed he had a drink problem,” admitted Laura.
“As a matter of fact, Phil has seen him a couple of times at the pub and he has only ever ordered lemonade. No, Veronica hasn’t been very confiding, but I gather that her brother has learning difficulties and is not really able to hold down a job. She has supported him since their parents died, but he refuses to move in with her – for some reason he is happier in the caravan. Veronica cooks him food and lets him use her bathroom; he’s there most days. I’ve bumped into him and he is really rather sweet; only a bit lacking, if you know what I mean. He also has a mild form of epilepsy and was not well the evening of the disappearance.”
“He has an alibi, then?” queried Rupert. “So why did the police arrest him?”
“Well, Ian was wondering whether he should tell the police about his suspicions when he saw Strider setting off with a rucksack late in the afternoon the day before yesterday. Then he jumped to the conclusion that Strider was making a run for it, so he called the police and said goodness knows what. The police turned up and tracked Strider down making his way out of Claresby. He was confused and panicked and tried to run away from them. They assumed the worst and arrested him.”
“Poor chap,” said Laura.
“Unfortunately they couldn’t get hold of Veronica that evening – there wasn’t any sign of anyone at the vicarage, so he spent the night in the cells. Once they got hold of her, sometime after ten in the morning yesterday, she explained that he had been unwell the day Monty disappeared and she thought he might have had a fit. She had taken him in to casualty and they kept him in overnight for observations. He was at the hospital from seven and Monty was last seen at about nine. To my mind it is just as well that it wasn’t Veronica alone providing the alibi – she said the police seemed a bit mistrustful of her until the hospital corroborated the story.”
“So where had he been going with the rucksack?” asked Laura.
“To visit his parents.”
“I thought you said they were dead?”
“They are, but from time to time he forgets that.”
“I see. So does that mean that Veronica has an alibi for that Friday too?”
“Well, no. She took her brother to the hospital, waited with him, but had left by nine.”
“And why couldn’t they get hold of her the evening that her brother was arrested,” pursued Laura.
“Ah, well that I don’t know,” replied Wendy. “I have a sneaking suspicion, but wild horses won’t drag that out of me in case I’m wrong.”
“Nothing the police should know?”
“Like I say, it is my suspicion; I don’t actually know anything.”
“Oh well, let’s hope the police find out something concrete soon. We could all do without any kind of suspicion hanging over us.”
But the police made no headway at all and the disappearance of Monty Howard remained a mystery. Without a body there wasn’t even any evidence that it was a case of murder. A new churchwarden was appointed in the shape of Bill Smith, a mild mannered man of gentle artistic temperament who nonetheless had the organisational abilities to make him an efficient if lower profile successor to Monty. It was hard to tell if the Reverend Dahl benefited or not from the disappearance of her chief antagonist. There was no doubt that the vocal opposition of the old-guard was reduced to the faintest murmur and a handful simply defected to the church in the neighbouring parish. Certainly all the writing on the walls and other obvious manifestations of hate ceased. Whether this was because Monty had been solely responsible, objections had lessened, or Monty’s disappearance had frightened others into silence was anybody’s guess. On the downside, Veronica was now routinely described as “The Black Widow of Claresby” – in local press articles and even at the pub. Laura was actually impressed by her fortitude throughout and her apparent ability to carry on working for the good of the parish despite many awkward moments. When she gently complimented Veronica of this, she merely replied,
“Worse things have happened to me: I can cope with this.” But she was beginning to look her age, even if her natural beauty was untouched.
Easter came in the latter half of April and Laura took it into her head to take some flowers to the church to help Veronica decorate for the Easter Sunday Service, particularly since she would be singing in the choir that year. She and Rupert had put a dozen flat boxes full of blooms in the back of the car and she was carrying the first of these up the path to the church when she was surprised to meet a sour-faced Anne Jones marching in the opposite direction.
“Are you helping with the flowers too?” asked Laura.
“No I am not!” came the swift response. “I was here to tell the vicar that if she had any decency she would not conduct the services tomorrow and telling everyone else that it was their Christian duty to refuse to attend.”
“Oh,” said Laura, slightly taken aback by the vitriol evident in this declaration.
“And you of all people should set an example. It is a positive disgrace, with parishioners disappearing and the police at their wits end, for people to continue to show support for that evil woman.”
“Parishioner,” corrected Laura rather coldly.
“Oh, so you haven’t heard? We’ve had another disappearance. Martin Gordon hasn’t been seen since yesterday afternoon and that woman who lives with him over the pub says the last she knew he was heading for the church. It is common knowledge that he was having an affair with the vicar. How many more deaths do we need before she is made to leave? Everyone knew what she was when her first husband was killed.”
“You should be careful not to make accusations like that,” warned Laura. “Her husband died of natural causes.”
“Oh, you’re just like the rest of them; you won’t see the truth!” And with that the woman stormed off.
Laura carried on to into the porch and through the low arched doorway. It was news to her that Martin had gone missing and news too that he was thought to be romantically involved with Veronica. She would have thought it very improbable had not she recalled what Wendy had said about Veronica being missing from the vicarage one night and the fact that she had “suspicions”. But it didn’t make sense that she had spent the night with Martin, who already had a partner – unless she had been away that night for some reason.