The Corpse with the Silver Tongue

BOOK: The Corpse with the Silver Tongue
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This book is dedicated to:

My Mum and Dad—who taught me that giving one hundred per cent was all that mattered, whatever the outcome.

My Sister—who loves and always supports me in spite of all my faults.

My Husband—the love of my life, and a man with a good deal more patience than his Wife.

Friday Evening

THE CHATTER AMONG THE DINNER
guests was bubbling along nicely, when Alistair Townsend suddenly clutched at his chest, made gurgling sounds and slumped into his bowl of escargots. Reactions around the table varied: his wife told him to stop messing about, one of his guests looked surprised, one a little concerned and a couple were quite cross. All of which led me to suspect that “How to react when one's host drops dead at the dinner table” is
not
tackled in any modern etiquette books.

I was the only one who leapt up, rushed to Alistair's side, and shouted that someone should call an ambulance. Silly of me, really. Any fool could have seen that he was dead before his face hit the garlic butter. I felt I had to do
something
, because everyone else was glued to their seats, agreeing with Tamsin Townsend that her husband was putting on some sort of attention-seeking show for us all.

Gerard Fontainbleu was the first to pick up on my concerns, and he moved to the telephone as quickly as his bowed octogenarian legs would carry him. He barked instructions into the instrument “requesting” that action be taken. The seriousness of the situation only gradually dawned upon the rest of the group.

Admittedly,
my
first thought upon seeing Alistair's rather alarming face-plant into the snails was “heart attack.” Alistair was over sixty, overweight and overindulgent. He smoked several fat cigars each day and apparently thought that exercise consisted of meandering from one bar on Nice's famous Promenade des Anglais to another. He was the personification of “a heart attack waiting to happen.” Now, it seemed, the waiting was over.

When Alistair's ethereally blond, twenty-eight-year-old trophy wife, Tamsin, finally realized that her husband wasn't “messing about,” and was in fact dead, she began to act very oddly. Trust me, I'm a criminology professor, so I have a pretty good idea of what constitutes “odd” under these circumstances. Everyone acts and reacts differently to a sudden death, of course, but what
she
did took even
me
by surprise—which takes some doing. She rushed from the table and returned moments later with a bunch of smoldering twigs in her hand, which she proceeded to waggle around her late husband's body. To “ease the path for his departing soul,” she said. She chanted to some ancient gods with guttural names as she brushed “evil spirits” toward the open windows with the smoking twigs. See what I mean?

Understandably, my fellow guests removed themselves, rapidly, from their seats and scuttled away from the table. Before dinner we'd all gathered on the large balcony that led off the apartment to admire the view of red-roofed Old Nice below us and the glittering Mediterranean beyond. Now the balcony offered an attractive alternative to sitting in a room with a corpse. Not a difficult choice, I suppose. Given that the only person I'd known at the table before the party was now slumped dead in his chair, I hesitated before making any suggestions about what we should do while waiting for the sadly unnecessary attendance of the paramedics. But I know from experience that at such a time
someone
has to take charge.

“Does anyone know if we're supposed to call the police, too?” I thought I'd better check. I know only too well what happens in the event of an unexpected death in Britain, my old home,
and
in Canada, my new one. As a visitor to Nice, I wasn't sure if we needed to make an extra call, of if the French police would automatically show up along with the ambulance.

“We will not require the police, Professor Morgan,” replied Madelaine Schiafino in her delightfully formal English. I'd gathered from the introductions over pre-dinner drinks that Madame Schiafino had been a lawyer in Cannes for decades, and that one pronounced her name “Sha-feeno.” Now over ninety, she was a frail, bent woman, but she managed to maintain a dignified air, despite the unnatural darkness of her hair.

“Please, it's Cait.” Away from my academic life at the University of Vancouver, I don't care much for “Professor.” It makes me feel like some crusty old has-been who decorates her office walls with diplomas and degrees. I'm not crusty; I don't think that forty-eight is old, and I like to think that my best is yet to come. However, I
do
have my degrees hanging on my walls—in my defense, it's the sort of thing that students expect.

“We will not require the police,
Cait
,” said Madelaine Schiafino, smiling and nodding: her dark, intelligent eyes twinkled quite cheerfully, given the morbid circumstances.

“I 'ave tell them to send the police,” announced Gerard Fontainbleu gravely as he joined us on the balcony. His weathered complexion and gnarled hands bore testament to his almost seventy years of tending the gardens that surrounded the Palais du Belle France, where we were all gathered.

Madelaine “tutted” and rolled her eyes, as Chuck Damcott snapped, “Madelaine says we don't
need
the police, Gerard!” He sounded cross, impatient with the old gardener, unfairly, I thought. A tall, slim, sandy-haired American in his late forties, Chuck Damcott had been living in Nice for ten years. Our host had seated him next to me at dinner. After all, why
wouldn't
an American spy novelist, now living in France, and a Welsh criminology professor, now living in Canada, get along? To be fair we hadn't had a bad evening, until Alistair had dropped dead, of course. Chuck had been attempting to “entertain” me with stories about how the Palais du Belle France had been Gestapo headquarters for the area during the Vichy years. He'd apparently been delighted to be able to buy an apartment there, it being so well known among World War Two espionage aficionados. Odd though the topic had been, he'd been engaging and almost charming in his childlike enthusiasm. His rather acid rebuff of the aged gardener was, therefore, all the more unexpected.

By way of a reply, Gerard Fontainbleu shrugged slowly. When he spoke, it was disdainfully.


Whatever
Madame Schiafino might say, it is better to 'ave the police. Otherwise they think we do something wrong. Monsieur Townsend, he is English
and
he is rich. There will be an investigation.” Gerard spoke with all the authority that his presence at the Palais allowed.

“If
you
think so, Gerard,” was Madelaine Schiafino's polite yet curt reply. All through drinks and dinner I had noticed the body language between these two: they didn't like each other, and they weren't new to the emotion.

Doctor Benigno Brunetti was the next to offer an opinion. His rich, Italian baritone made Chuck Damcott's high register sound positively nasal. “I, too, think it is better to call the police. Alistair's death is a shock, but we have our reputations to consider.”

Beni, as he'd jovially insisted we call him, was the head of the nearby Cimiez Museum of Roman Antiquities. Somewhere in his mid-fifties, he possessed perfect English, perfect white teeth, perfect olive skin, and probably, knowing my luck, a perfect wife. He was obviously well educated as well as charming, witty, and heart-achingly good-looking, with dark eyes that bored into your very soul. Well, they bored into mine, anyway.

“But Beni,” cooed Madelaine, “it is clear that Monsieur Townsend has suffered a heart attack. It was not unexpected. He was an unhealthy man.” Madame Schiafino was echoing my own initial thoughts, but she was doing so with all the coquettish charm that a woman in her nineties could muster. Beni Brunetti smiled graciously: I suspected he must have grown accustomed to women of all ages batting their eyelashes at him.

“What do you mean, Madelaine? Alistair was hale and hearty,” Chuck Damcott whined, as though he had suffered a personal slight. “He loved his life here in France and took an interest in everything around him. Why, he initiated the whole idea of the swimming pool just so he and Tamsin could exercise right here at the Palais without having to go to one of the local hotels.”

“Tsst! The swimming pool . . .” Madelaine hissed angrily at the American.

I'd caught something earlier on about a swimming pool that was about to be dug into Gerard Fontainbleu's beloved gardens, but the topic had been abandoned at Tamsin Townsend's request. She'd said that it was too “divisive” for her birthday dinner. Frankly, I'd been surprised at the time that she'd even known that the word existed. Alistair hadn't dropped the subject without making a final snide remark about “good things coming to those who won't wait.”

Typical of Alistair, of course. Selfish bugger. He always
had
to have the last word. As I looked out again over the city beneath me and the sea beyond, I wondered whether I was even sorry that he'd died. I know they say you shouldn't speak ill of the dead, but I'd never had a good word to say about Alistair when he'd been alive, so it would have been hypocritical of me to start now that he was gone. It was best to say nothing.

You see, before I'd gone off to get my master's degree in criminal psychology, I'd worked at the London advertising agency that Alistair had owned. He'd certainly earned his industry-wide reputation as a pompous bombast who specialised in finding timid clients with huge budgets—clients who could be talked into spending more than was really needed on a campaign. Somehow, he'd also managed to coax great work out of several of the most famous creative prima-donnas in the business, so his agency didn't just have huge billings, it also had an awe-inspiring array of creative awards from around the world. I'd worked there for a few years, but, honestly, I'd hated the man (no one says you actually have to
like
the person who pays your salary, do they?) and I could quite happily have lived the rest of my life without seeing his florid face ever again.

Which was why I'd been so dismayed when he'd unexpectedly accosted me as I was relaxing outside a bar in Nice's beautiful Cours Saleya earlier that very day.

“Good heavens, it's Cait. Cait Morgan!” He'd cried out so loudly that everyone relaxing at the bar had turned to look at us. “What brings
you
here? I expect you're surprised to see me! What? What?”

Surprised? I was speechless. A condition which, for me, might last a whole second. I'd closed my eyes, hoping I was imagining the whole thing. But when I opened them again, he was still there. Beaming. Effervescing with fake bonhomie.

“Hello, Alistair.” I sighed, resigned to his unwanted presence. “How are you?” Like I cared.

“Top hole. Top hole.”

I'd forgotten he did that—talked like some Hollywood version of an Olde English Squire.

“What brings you to our fair Cote d'Azur? Eh? Eh?” he quipped, with a wink. Ugh!

BOOK: The Corpse with the Silver Tongue
5.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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