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Authors: Charlotte MacLeod

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BOOK: The Plain Old Man
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Emma was noted in the area for her generosity. She might have preferred to handle her philanthropies privately and discreetly like Frederick, but she was too good a showman to underestimate the drawing power of Mrs. Beddoes Kelling’s name on a list of donors. She was always throwing her home open for functions in aid of one cause or another. That meant she’d been invaded by any number of strangers along with her friends and acquaintances. Anybody who really knew her ought to have sense enough to realize Emma Kelling could never be pried loose from a cent by threats or coercion. Those who didn’t might see only a lone woman with pots of money and what looked like a sure-fire way of getting some away from her.

However could they have got at the Romney, though? Emma had had an elaborate burglar-alarm system installed around the time she’d got rid of her shrubberies. Both she and Heatherstone were punctilious about locking up and making sure all the switches were properly set. Even if they’d both slipped up for once, the security people who were allegedly sitting downtown somewhere monitoring the alarms, not to mention the local police who kept coming around all night in their prowl cars, ought to have known something was wrong.

And why the Romney? Emma Kelling had lots of treasures, including a Monet and a Renoir that Uncle Bed’s parents had had the good sense to acquire in Paris back when the Impressionists were going cheap. Neither was large. A thief could have made off with both of them single-handed. They’d have been far more valuable, and infinitely more resalable in case the ransom attempt didn’t come off.

So maybe the thief didn’t know much of anything about paintings, but had assumed since the Romney was the biggest that it must be the best, and that since Ernestina was a family portrait, she must sit highest in Emma Kelling’s regard. Not a very well-informed crook.

Crooks. A theft such as this could not possibly have been a one-man job. Merely to lift the picture down from the wall would have taken the strength of at least two, and perhaps a third up on a ladder to release the chains that held it to the wall from the hooks that held the chains while the others took its weight from below. Then there’d have been the job of unscrewing Ernestina from her frame and hanging the frame back over the mantel.

Why had they bothered to do that? It seemed an unnecessarily time-consuming piece of bravado. Sarah would have thought they’d want to do the job and get away as fast as possible without tacking on any frills. Weren’t they afraid of getting caught?

Evidently not, and now that she was getting her wits together, Sarah knew why. That disgusting Slepe-o-tite must have been spiked with something to make sure she and Aunt Emma did indeed get a sound night’s sleep. One of the oldest tricks in the book, and she’d swallowed it like a lamb. How would she ever tell Max?

“Aunt Emma,” she asked, “how many people know you drink Slepe-o-tite every night when you’re doing a show?”

“Sarah dear, this is hardly the time for irrelevancies.”

“This isn’t one. Don’t you recall how drowsy you were last night when you went upstairs?”

“Was I?”

“You were yawning your head off. So was I, even though you’d been saying just a little while before what a fidget I was in, which I was. That’s why you gave me a cup of your Slepe-o-tite. And we both thought it tasted worse than usual. You said Mrs. Heatherstone must have scorched the milk, but can you actually imagine her doing such a thing? And I don’t know how that stuff is supposed to work, but I was out like a light from the moment I hit the pillow until you and Heatherstone woke me just now.”

“Come to think of it, so was I, and that’s not usual at my time of life. Heatherstone, did you have any trouble waking me?”

“I did, Mrs. Kelling. It may interest you to know that Mrs. Heatherstone also had a hard time waking me. Furthermore, she was complaining that she herself had overslept. She said she was up barely in time to let in those young fellows who came after the scenery, and you know that’s not like her.”

“She still goes to bed at half-past nine?” Sarah asked him.

“Regular as clockwork, “Heatherstone assured her. “Me having to be up later, she lets me sleep on till breakfast time, then rings me on the house phone. She claims she had to let it ring and ring this morning till she’d begun to wonder if something had happened to me before I answered.”

“Did you and she drink Slepe-o-tite last night too?”

“We did. Mrs. Heatherstone fixed a jug for us when she did Mrs. Kelling’s, and carried it across with her when she quit for the night.”

“Did she do that last thing before she went, or would the jugs have been left to sit for a while?” Sarah asked him.

“Seems to me she always scalds the milk while she’s still working around the stove, which means she’d mix the Slepe-o-tite as soon as it’s hot. That way she doesn’t wind up with an extra pan to wash after everything else is redded up. Mrs. Heather-stone’s a great one for making her head save her hands, you know.”

“There you are, Sarah,” said Emma Kelling. “We’ve all been doped like a stableful of race horses. I daresay I shall find it an interesting experience if I ever manage to get rid of this headache. Heatherstone, would your wife have any undrugged coffee available?”

“I hope so, ma’am. I just drank some of it myself.”

“You don’t feel sleepy?”

“Just a bit logy, as you might say.”

“Then bring us some in the boudoir. Come along, Sarah. We’d better go upstairs and make ourselves presentable before any more burglars pop in.”

“Mrs. Kelling,” said Heatherstone, “should I call the police before I bring the coffee, or would you rather I waited till after?”

“Don’t you dare call them at all. I don’t want a word of this breathed to anybody till I’ve had time to think about it. Please tell Mrs. Heatherstone I said so. Not that she would, of course,” Emma added hastily, for this was no time to get the cook’s back up. “Sarah, I suggest you take a cold shower to wake you up, and get dressed as quickly as you can. Then come to the boudoir. We need to talk.”

Chapter 4

T
HEY’D NEED TO DO
more than talk, but Sarah could see why her aunt might hesitate about calling in the police. Aside from the Heatherstones, assuming a pair of faithful retainers well into their sixties were physically able, much less criminally inclined to juggle that enormous painting around, the likeliest suspects were Emma Kelling and Sarah Bittersohn.

It wouldn’t be much good arguing to even a reasonably astute patrolman that Emma Kelling could not possibly have stolen her own Romney. A sizable percentage of Max Bittersohn’s large yearly income was derived from insurance companies whose clients had staged burglaries to collect the premiums.

Even if Emma Kelling could prove she didn’t need any more money, she’d have a hard time persuading the authorities that she hadn’t thought it might be nice to get some anyway. Even if she got her minister, the Town Counsel, and every single member of all her committees to swear to her strict moral probity, there’d still be those who doubted. Too many people knew too much about Emma Kelling’s propensity to take a shot at whatever was going.

Emma scorned the vulgarly exhibitionistic and the blatantly spectacular, but not many of the Fairy Queens who’d played
Iolanthe
since its premiere on November 5, 1882, had been swung down from the flies in a bosun’s chair wearing blown-up canvas water wings instead of the usual gauzy alar appurtenances. It was not so much the bustle she d be wearing as the high-wheeled bicycle she planned to ride up to Sir Marmaduke’s mansion that would tend to set Mrs. Kelling apart from other Lady Sangazures.

Emma had been up in a balloon and down in a bathysphere. After she had spearheaded a drive to buy Pleasaunce a new fire engine, she’d insisted on taking the vast machine for a trial run herself and personally climbed the eighty-foot extension ladder all the way to the top before she turned over the check to pay for it, not to gain publicity but simply to make sure the town was getting its money’s worth. Nobody who knew her could ever suspect Emma Kelling of stealing her own painting for an ignoble purpose, but neither would they be able to envision her hanging back if she should happen to think of a noble one.

Trying to get her thoughts straight, Sarah stayed under the shower longer than she’d meant to. By the time she’d got her clothes on and waded through the deep golden plush of the hall carpet to her aunt’s blue and cream boudoir, she found Emma minus her chin strap and cold cream, dressed for action in one of the self-effacing beige and gray outfits she affected. For camouflage, Cousin Frederick said. Her face was discreetly made up and her pale blond hair in impeccable order.

Sarah knew how that elaborate coiffure had been managed so quickly. Emma had five more just like it, all lined up on wig blocks in her closet. She really was a marvelous organizer. If Emma Kelling ever did take a notion to perpetrate the perfect crime—but that was nonsense. She and Sarah had both drunk from the same jug. Sarah herself had fetched the tray and poured out the drink. There was no way on earth the drug could have been slipped into her cup, assuming Aunt Emma would ever dream of doing such a thing.

She could have been drugged some other way, of course. Whatever had made the Slepe-o-tite taste so particularly awful last night might in fact have been only scorched milk, or something equally innocent. The sedative could have been slipped into her bedside carafe, or sprayed on her toothbrush. Or injected by a snake trained to slither into her room via the hole in the floor where the radiator pipes came up and give her an only mildly venomous bite. Sarah sat down on one of the blue velvet slipper chairs and took the cup of coffee her aunt had poured out for her.

“You know, Sarah,” said Mrs. Kelling, “I’ve been thinking.”

“As well you might,” Sarah replied when her aunt didn’t say any more. “Would you care to tell me what about?”

“It’s just that I can’t for the life of me see how anybody got at Ernestina. Heatherstone says he went around and checked all the locks before he came to tell me she was gone. He swears there’s no sign of a break-in anywhere.”

“The burglar alarm must have been off, though,” Sarah pointed out. “Mrs. Heatherstone would have had to throw the switch before she let in Guy and his crew to get the scenery, wouldn’t she? Unless it was off already.”

“If it was, I can’t think why she hasn’t said. Unless Heatherstone never thought to ask her.”

Emma Kelling jotted a reminder in the brand-new blue memo book she had lying in front of her on a slim-legged gilt and cream writing desk. Emma’s little blue notebooks were a legend around Pleasaunce. She always started a fresh book for any project she embarked on. A stack of crisp new ones were kept on hand in her desk, and a pile of used ones were heaped up in her great-grandmother’s wedding chest that sat just outside the boudoir door, each of them dog-eared from being carried around, filled with memoranda written in her clear, square hand, each item meticulously checked off as she’d dealt with it. How like Emma, to start a notebook for Ernestina. Sarah hoped she wouldn’t have to put in many entries.

“Well, naturally we can rule out the Heatherstones,” Sarah said. “Nevertheless, it does seem as if this had to be something in the nature of an inside job. There’s that business of the Slepe-o-tite, for instance. You still haven’t told me how many people know you take it.”

“Oh. Well, I suppose quite a few. People get keyed up, you know, and come to me complaining that they haven’t been getting their sleep because they’re worried about coming down with a cold or fluffing their lines or whatever. So I tell them about Aunt Emma’s own special soothing syrup. I even have Mrs. Heatherstone keep a few extra jars on hand so I can dole them out to extreme cases.”

“Would these people know the Heatherstones drink Slepe-o-tite, too?”

Emma shrugged. “I shouldn’t be surprised. I take a certain amount of teasing about my old-fashioned patent remedies, you know. People tell me it’s all in the mind, and ask Heatherstone if the stuff really works or if I’m having pipe dreams. I suppose he assures them that he knows it does because he and his wife take it, too. You know Heatherstone, he’s not precisely your stiff-upper-lip British butler. In the first place, he’s no more British than you or I. His people came from Connecticut. And he’s certainly no mere butler, more like a resident guardian angel. I couldn’t possibly manage without the Heatherstones, and that’s one reason I don’t want to call the police. Rather than have them accused of pinching the Romney, I’d sooner let them keep it, supposing they had. But they didn’t, I’m positive. Why should they?”

“I can’t imagine. Medical bills?”

“Never. I pay their medical insurance myself. Furthermore, they’re both old enough to qualify for Medicare if they needed it, which they don’t. As for the son, he has a marvelous job and his whole family’s on some unbelievably comprehensive master plan. They even get their teeth fixed without having to pay.”

Sarah had no desire to play devil’s advocate, but she supposed they might as well settle the point once and for all. “Maybe one of the grandchildren’s in a jam.”

“They don’t get into jams. They’re all Eagle Scouts and win scholarships to the most prestigious schools. Sarah dear, you simply must not waste your time suspecting the Heatherstones.”

“I wasn’t. I was just clearing the air. Then that leaves your two housecleaners and the members of the cast.”

“Yes, I’m afraid it does,” Emma agreed. “That’s the other reason why I can’t call the police. They’re terribly efficient around here. They’d probably find the culprit right away, and then where would I be? I’m sure it’s not Mrs. Knowles or Mrs. DeWitt. They’ve been with me for years and they’d know enough to steal something more portable than Ernestina if they were going to steal anything at all, which they never have so far, so why should they take a notion to do it now? So that leaves the cast, and can’t you just see the headlines?
KIND AND REVEREND RECTOR TURNS ART THIEF.
What good would that kind of publicity do us, and whom could we get to fill his part? I can’t imagine the police would let him perform, can you?”

BOOK: The Plain Old Man
12.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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