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Authors: Charlotte MacLeod

The Plain Old Man (19 page)

BOOK: The Plain Old Man
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“Hello, Mrs. Heatherstone. Would I be in your way if I made myself a sandwich?”

“After that big lunch at Miss Mabel’s?” Mrs. Heatherstone smiled as she slid a tray of patty shells into the oven. “How about a slice of the roast lamb we had last night? It might go good with a little chutney. Or I could heat you a bowl of soup.”

“Lamb will be fine, thanks. Please go on with what you’re doing. I understand my aunt got carried away with the guest list.”

“She generally does, but I don’t mind. It sort of makes up for us not having the cast party. What did Her Majesty give you to eat, may I ask?”

“A sardine.”

“A whole one, all to yourself? Getting reckless in her old age, isn’t she? I suppose Miss Mabel was pretty cut up about Mr. Daventer.”

Sarah shook her head. “If she was, she didn’t show it. As a matter of fact, she was downright bitchy.”

“That’s a switch. Any time I ever saw them together, she was all over him like poison ivy on a stone wall. Want a cup of tea to wet your whistle? The kettle’s just on the boil.”

“If you’ll have one with me.” Sarah knew her old friend ran on frequent cups of tea, the way a racing car has to keep getting refilled with gasoline.

Mrs. Heatherstone filled two of the old Dedham Potteries mugs, decorated with bands of white rabbits on a blue ground, handed one to Sarah, and sat down with the other at the end of the kitchen table, slewing her chair around so she could keep an eye on the oven.

“Have to watch those patty shells like a hawk,” she remarked. “My land, it’s nice having you here, Sarah. Just like old times. Remember how you wouldn’t drink your milk unless I gave it to you in one of these bunny mugs, as you called them?”

Sarah laughed. “Wouldn’t I? I’d never have got away with that at home. You spoiled me rotten out here, and how I loved it. I do remember crying when Father came to get me. He was none too happy about that, as I recall.”

“I don’t suppose he was happy about much of anything just then.” Mrs. Heatherstone took a dainty sip of her tea. “You haven’t had the most cheerful life in the world yourself, have you, Sarah? But you’re all right now?”

“Oh yes. Being married to Max is—I can’t tell you what a difference it’s made.”

“Too bad he has to be away so much.”

“Cousin Mabel said something to that effect, only in a different tone of voice. But I get to go with him quite often, you know, and that’s glorious fun. I never traveled before. And when he has to go by himself, he brings me lovely presents. Horrid thing to say, isn’t it? But you know my parents never went in for such frivolities, and neither did Alexander. He used to buy me Milky Ways sometimes.”

Sarah fell silent, thinking about the last time Alexander had bought her Milky Ways. Mrs. Heatherstone leaned across the table and patted her hand.

“There, there, dearie. Alexander was a fine man and I know you were the apple of his eye, but being married to your father’s best friend was no life for a pretty young thing like you. I still say it happened for the best, and so does Mr. Heatherstone. How about a cookie?”

“I’d love one. I’ll take it with me and let you get on with your work. Don’t fret, I was well taught not to strew crumbs around the floor.”

Sarah gave Mrs. Heatherstone a light kiss on the cheek and went out. So many memories. Those of the times she’d spent in this house had been among the happiest, until last summer. Maybe she’d drop into the dining room and say hello to the lions for auld lang syne.

Oh, for heaven’s sake! How blind could a person be? Sarah blinked, and started to run. Seconds later, crouched under the dining-room table, she was gazing up at forty-eight square feet of dirty old canvas.

She couldn’t see Ernestina, but Ernestine was there, hidden by the table’s deep apron, her wide stretcher propped up on top of the massive brass crank handles that had to be turned to open the top and insert the extension leaves. It was so simple, so obvious. It was ridiculous. Sarah began to laugh.

Heatherstone heard her, all the way from the butler’s pantry. He came in, still clutching his silver-polishing chamois.

“What’s so funny, Sarah? Whatever are you doing under that table?”

“Saying hello to Ernestina. Scrooch down and have a look.”

Carefully inching his trouser legs up over his knees, the elderly manservant obeyed. “Well, I’ll be darned! Can you beat that? I’d never have thought of looking there in a million years.”

“I should have thought of it sooner, considering how many times I’ve parked Uncle Bed’s detective stories under here so Aunt Emma wouldn’t see what I was reading. Mrs. Heatherstone and I got to reminiscing, and it must have jogged my brain. Come on, let’s tell her. She can’t leave her patty shells.”

“She’ll leave them for this. Wait, now, don’t try to get Ernestina down by yourself. Elsie! Elsie, come here, quick.”

This was the first time in her life Sarah had heard either of the Heatherstones use the other’s first name in the presence of a Kelling. She laughed again, though softly, because she wouldn’t have hurt their feelings for the world.

“What’s the matter, George?” His wife hurried in, bringing no trace of the patty shells with her. She’d even whisked off her apron, though she’d forgotten to put it down. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine. Sarah’s found Ernestina.”

“Where? Show me, so I can believe it.”

“Right under here,” Sarah called from her lowly roost. “Up against the bottom of the table.”

“Well, did you ever?” Mrs. Heatherstone squatted and peered. “If that doesn’t beat all! And to think I dusted this table myself, only this morning. Whatever possessed you to think of looking there, Sarah?”

“You and the bunny mugs, I suppose. Do you think you two could steady the stretcher while I ease her off these handles? I don’t want her to come crashing down on my head, and wind up wearing her for a collar.”

“All right, we’ve got her. Just take it slow and easy.”

They must look awfully silly, Sarah thought, the three of them hunkered down underneath that enormous table like three toads under a mushroom, but they managed together to free Ernestine and lower her gently to the carpet.

“Must have taken a flock of monkeys to put her up there,” Heatherstone grunted as he straightened up and dusted off his trousers. “Let’s have a look at her. She didn’t get scratched?”

Newspapers had been carefully laid over the face of the painting to protect the surface. Wednesday’s Pleasaunce
Pathfinder,
Sarah noticed. It must have been lying around the living room the night Ernestine was taken down. She gathered up the sheets and laid them aside.

“Not a scratch as far as I can see. They took good care of her, at any rate. Do you suppose the three of us could get her back into her frame?”

“If you don’t mind, Sarah, I don’t think we’d better try,” Mrs. Heatherstone objected. “Mr. Heatherstone’s not supposed to do any heavy lifting these days on account of his blood pressure, though he won’t thank me for telling you. I vote we leave Ernestina right where she is till we can get somebody in who knows how to handle her. Nobody’s going to step on her under the table, and we can always say we put her there ourselves, which is true enough as far as it goes, if anybody happens to notice.”

“You’re right,” Sarah admitted. “I just thought it would be a nice surprise for Aunt Emma to come home and find her hanging back where she belongs.”

“If you ask me, Mrs. Kelling’s had about all the surprises she needs for a while. Besides, she likes that one you did of her better. So do I. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to get back to my patty shells.”

“And I to the silver,” said Heatherstone. “Oh, there goes that darned phone again. Answer it like good girl, will you, Sarah? It’ll be somebody for Mrs. Kelling.

It was, but the caller was quite willing to unburden herself to Sarah.

“This is Marcia Pence. Parker’s mother, you know. I’m sorry to bother you with such a tiny problem when you must be up to your ears about tonight and tomorrow. The thing of it is, my mother’s living with us now. She’s not too well, and can’t get around much. She sent a little token to Mrs. Heatherstone a few days ago—they’ve always been special pals for one reason and another, and she hasn’t been able to get over there because of her infirmity. Mother was rather expecting Mrs. Heatherstone would give her a ring or drop a note. You know how old people are, little things become so important. Anyway, since she hasn’t heard, she’s dreadfully upset for fear Mrs. Heatherstone didn’t get her present. I’m sure it’s just that Mrs. Heatherstone’s been too busy to bother, with the show and everything.”

“No, she’d have taken time to acknowledge a gift, no matter how busy she was. Could it have been held up at the post office, I wonder?”

“It wasn’t mailed. I’d meant to run Mother over in the car so she could deliver it in person, but she’d been having one of her bad days and Jenicot Tippleton happened to be here with Parker. She mentioned to Mother that she and Parker were on their way to Emma’s for a rehearsal, so Mother asked them to take her package along. It was just a box of candy, actually.”

That rang a bell. “Not liqueur cherries, by any chance?”

“Why, yes, as a matter of fact. That was a little standing joke between Mother and Mrs. Heatherstone, that they both adore liqueur cherries. Mother had her birthday last weekend and she got no fewer than four boxes of them, so she thought she’d like to share her loot. Then Jenny did remember to take them?”

Sarah hedged. “I’m afraid what happened was that Mrs. Heatherstone got her cherries all right, but didn’t realize they were from your mother. I believe they were handed to her just about the same time as Aunt Emma was telling her there’d be extra guests for dinner, and things got a bit confused. I’ll explain the situation to her right now, shall I?”

Marcia Pence said that would be wonderful and that she’d be seeing Sarah at the performance but didn’t suppose they’d have much of a chance to chat, especially since she’d have a flute to her mouth. She moaned a bit about not being able to have the usual cast party after the show but quite understood how Emma felt and promised they’d be over tomorrow afternoon unless Mother took a turn for the worse. Sarah said something polite and hung up, much puzzled.

Whatever had possessed Jenicot and Parker to hand the cherries over for Sebastian Frostedd to bring? He’d got here before the young hero and heroine, she recalled, but not all that long before. Maybe they’d planned to stop for some errand on the way and hadn’t known how long it would take, but what difference would it have made whether Mrs. Heatherstone got her present right away or a little later?

But what a mingy, contemptible trick for Sebastian Frostedd to pull on Mrs. Heatherstone, taking credit for her sick old friend’s gift. Max would call him a lousy bastard, Sarah thought, and Max would be hitting the nail smack on the head. She went out to the kitchen and delivered Marcia Pence’s message, trying not to let her own opinion of the episode color her speech.

Mrs. Heatherstone took a different view. “Imagine that. Mr. Frostedd must have thought I was making an awful fuss over him just for doing a little favor. I suppose he didn’t want to embarrass me by pointing out my mistake. Dear old Mrs. Sabine, wasn’t it sweet of her to think of me? I’ll whip up a few fruit tarts and get Mr. Heatherstone to swing by on our way to the show so we can drop them off. Mrs. Sabine always loved my fruit tarts.”

So that little matter was taken care of, and Sarah had further proof that Sebastian Frostedd was the rotten apple everybody claimed he was. She wondered even more now whether Sebastian had paid a late call on Charles Daventer. He could easily have thought up an excuse to stop by and wangle a nightcap; he’d know Emma wouldn’t keep her old friend up late. Maybe he’d even helped Charlie into his pajamas before clubbing him over the head and staging the accident.

But that would mean Sebastian’s having faked Frederick’s prize evidence, too, and why ever would he have done that? Did he have that crazy a sense of humor? And would he have hung around the scene of a murder he’d just committed long enough to provide so copious a clue?

On the other hand, he could have stayed drinking with Charlie long enough to make sure the man was thoroughly fuddled, borrowed Charlie’s door key, then sneak back later and kill him in his sleep. But why kill him at all? Why should he or anybody want Charles Daventer dead?

Why keep asking herself stupid questions? Why didn’t she sit down calmly and reasonably, and try to sort out the facts?

Chapter 16

A
LL RIGHT, THEN, WHAT
did she know? Little enough. She knew Ernestine had never left the house. She knew there were at least two people involved in the abduction. No, she didn’t know that but she thought it was a safe assumption. Balancing the huge painting on those four brass crank handles without ruffling up the smooth layer of loose newspapers that had been laid over the surface would be tricky enough for a team, and surely impossible for a person working alone.

She further surmised at least one of the thieves must be well acquainted with her aunt. Otherwise how could they have known the dining-room table had an apron deep enough to hide the painting, and cranks underneath that could be used to hold it out of sight? Granted, guests didn’t go crawling under their hostess’s dining tables as a rule, but one might always drop a napkin or something, happen to notice the hardware while picking it up, and file away the information in one of those odd mental corners from which things pop out when they’re wanted. And there were the jugs of Slepe-o-tite too. Yes, that could count as a known.

She knew also that five separate ransom notes—Sarah supposed they might as well be called ransom notes—had been delivered in various melodramatic ways, that none of them had given any usable information except the one that mentioned a ridiculously small ransom with no instructions about paying it. All that cloak-and-dagger correspondence to so little purpose was perhaps the oddest part of this whole affair. It looked as if the extortionists were more interested in boiling the pot than in skimming off the cash. Was Ernestina only a means to some other end? A harassment campaign against Emma Kelling? A plot to drive her out of her house? What made them think she’d ever knuckle under?

BOOK: The Plain Old Man
7.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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