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Authors: Charlotte MacLeod

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BOOK: The Plain Old Man
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That was fine with Sarah. She loved her new husband’s position. The relatives she cared about were accepting Max either for her sake or for his own, and the rest could go scratch themselves.

She’d forgotten what an intriguing place the potting shed was. Here was where Hosbin had been wont to whack Aunt Emma’s rootbound plants out of their pots and put them into bigger ones, or else pick up a big knife and chop the root ball into sections to create a whole family of plants where one had been before. He’d explained at vast length why a good potting soil should contain both rich humus and sharp builder’s sand. Sarah had never been able to figure out why he’d called sand sharp. To her, it was plain gritty.

She went rummaging through the drawers Hosbin had always kept so tidy, finding lots of staking twine and plant labels but no small squares of glass to protect the ransom note. Here was a notebook he’d recorded his bulb plantings in, she could slip the note between the pages. French hyacinths had been his main preoccupation in 1952, evidently. She was trying to read the neat handwriting by the dim light that filtered through the small, high, none too clean windows when the sack went over her head.

At first she thought it was just a blueberry net that had fallen off an overhead shelf. As she tried to push it away from her face, though, the cloth was yanked down over her arms, her hands grabbed from behind and tied together somewhat ineptly because she was putting up the best fight she could manage. She did land one good kick on her assailant’s shins, but she had her old sneakers on so it couldn’t have hurt much. All it accomplished, apparently, was to annoy her attacker. He, or a pretty strong she, grabbed Sarah by the shoulders, spun her around till she was dizzy, then suddenly let her go.

She didn’t fall, but she staggered and gave her knee a crack on the drawer she’d left open. By the time she got her balance, she’d heard the door slam and realized she was alone.

Of all the hackneyed, melodramatic tricks to fall for! It must have been the writer of the note who trapped her, but why? An amateur, surely. Her wrists weren’t even tied tight, she could wiggle them back and forth. Some of that old staking twine, she’d bet. That shouldn’t be hard to break. She felt around till she encountered a tool of some kind—a hoe, she thought—and rubbed the strands against its sharpened edge until they parted. Then she pulled off the sack and tried the door. It didn’t budge.

That didn’t surprise her. She’d left the key lying on the counter, having retrieved it in the first place from its not very inspired hiding place on a nail around the corner. Sarah hoped her assailant had left it sticking in the lock outside instead of chucking it away in the compost heap or somewhere. Getting the locksmith out here to cut another would be a nuisance and an expense. She was Kelling enough to mind such things.

As to getting out of the shed, that was no great problem. Hadn’t her jailer thought of the windows? They were inconveniently high, to be sure, and pretty narrow but then so was she. Sarah got the ladder she’d just brought back, set it against a window that she was almost sure didn’t have raspberry canes planted underneath, and went to work.

The window was the kind that swings open from the bottom on hinges and gets propped up with a plant stick on hot days. This one clearly hadn’t been opened since Hosbin retired and went home to die some fifteen years ago. Aunt Emma was still mailing his pension checks to a village in the Cotswolds and still getting back notes saying hers of recent date had arrived safely and hoping she was well with respectful compliments. Sarah blew about half a swarm of dead bees off the narrow ledge and climbed back down to find something to pry with.

It wasn’t much of a struggle, actually, though she felt like a letter going through a mail slot. She did lose a few square inches of skin from her back when her jersey rode up as she squirmed her way over the sill. She’d been right about the raspberry canes, fortunately, but the ground was harder than she’d anticipated and she landed with a jolt that rattled her teeth. All things considered, though, her adventure had cost her little except a loss of temper and time.

Wrong. She’d also lost the ransom note. Was the key in the lock? Yes, it was. She opened the door and went back in, not without a qualm. No, the note was no longer on the counter where she’d put it down. It wasn’t inside Mr. Hosbin’s bulb book. It wasn’t on the floor. It wasn’t anywhere here. Her assailant must have taken it away. But why?

Because she was the wrong person to have found it? Because he’d found out how much Ernestina was worth and wanted to up the ransom? Because he’d remembered a trifle too late that paper can take fingerprints and that even calligraphy might be distinctive? Its very ineptness might be a clue. Suppose the one who did it was known to be starting a course, for instance, or had been seen buying the right sort of pen at a local stationer’s. Or suppose he happened to be an art student.

Sarah wished she could be sure whether it had been one person who attacked her in the shed. It almost seemed as if there must have been two, one to drag that sack over her head and one to tie her hands. But it had been such a sloppy job. That business of spinning her around to make her dizzy so whoever it was could make a clean getaway hadn’t been so sloppy, though, amateur or not. As for the careless tying-up, perhaps it hadn’t been meant as anything more than another delaying tactic, to make doubly sure she didn’t escape from the potting shed until her assailant or assailants could get back to the house and mingle with the rest of the cast.

It had been somebody from the house, Sarah was convinced of that. She must have been under surveillance while she was up on the ladder getting the note off the screen, maybe even earlier while she was prowling through the house. She didn’t think she’d been followed, though. It was far more likely somebody had been keeping an eye on the note from the sun parlor. Like most houses of its period, Emma’s had a good many nooks and jogs. From most angles the library windows couldn’t be seen, but there was one at the far end that gave a clear view, and having the buffet table out there provided a perfect excuse to hang around, or at least pop back and forth. If two or more people were involved, maintaining a lookout would be no great trick at all.

She thought it would be safe to rule out the orchestra. Sir Arthur Sullivan’s scoring wasn’t complicated enough to allow for the musicians’ mysterious backings and forthings that used to bewilder Sarah when she was twelve and using up the remains of her mother’s last season’s ticket at Symphony. They simply came in together, sat down together, played together until there was nothing left for them to play, and then went out together.

With the cast it was a different story entirely. Even a member of the chorus could be involved, Sarah assumed until she got back to the house and found Lady Sangazure and Sir Marmaduke just beginning their duet. That meant the entire chorus, both men and women, had been hard at work hailing the betrothal of Alexis the brave and the lovely Aline while she was skinning her wrists on that hoe and her back on the potting-shed windowsill. Aline and the girls would have come in first. Jenicot would have sung “Happy Young Heart,” then the male chorus must have ushered in Alexis so that the lovers could fling themselves into each other’s arms with whoops of rapture. Jenicot and Peter were still together, not embracing but standing quietly under the mock portrait waiting for their next cue.

“Welcome joy, adieu to sadness! As Aurora gilds the day, so those eyes, twin orbs of gladness chase the clouds of care away,” Jack was informing Emma, who was taking it calmly. He wasn’t flushed or panting, either, not like a man who’d just been tearing across the back lawn locking his fair lady’s niece in the potting shed.

Both Sebastian Frostedd and Ridpath Wale, on the other hand, might have been doing whatever they chose. The rector had gone offstage some time ago, and the Sorcerer didn’t even make his appearance until after the duet, the ensemble, and the solo in which Alexis proclaims his love for the love that loves for love alone.

Gillian Bruges hadn’t had anything to do for quite some time, either. She was leaning against the door to the sun parlor, looking slightly annoyed, presumably because Jack was perforce giving his attention to Emma instead of to her. Sarah went over and spoke to her.

“Not getting along terribly fast, are we? What happened?”

“Oh, weren’t you here? They ran into problems with the ‘Happy Young Heart’ number.”

“You mean Aline’s solo? Jenicot was all right yesterday.”

Gillian shrugged. “Maybe your aunt was hoping she could be a little better than all right today. I thought Mrs. Kelling was being rather hard on Jenicot, myself. You can’t expect a person to give more than she’s got, can you?”

Sarah didn’t know what to say to that, so she only smiled and went back to watching Aunt Emma and Jack Tippleton. They were a pair of polished old stagers, all right. Still, she could hear the little cracks in Emma’s voice, and the notes that didn’t quite get reached. This year she’d get by on personality and savoir faire. Emma knew it, Jack knew it. Next year the audience would have known it, and would have given their applause out of kindhearted pity for the old girl who didn’t know when to quit. Sarah clapped like anything when they’d finished the duet, and ran over to hug her aunt in defiance of protocol.

Now came Frederick Kelling’s big moment. He cleared his throat, adjusted his pince-nez, and announced if not in tune at least in time with the music that all was prepared for sealing and for signing. He was going to be fine. Sarah still had her arm around Aunt Emma, and could feel the older woman’s muscles relax. From then on, there was no letdown. Emma drove her cast, not precisely without mercy because she’d never have been capable of that, but with a brisk efficiency that would have suited the proprietor of a ladies’ seminary she’d been mistaken for in
Iolanthe.

By the time they started the second act, Mrs. Heatherstone had gone over to the carriage house. Sarah was kept busy brewing fresh pots of coffee and tea and. refreshing the buffet, which continued to be visited by players whom nervousness had turned into constant nibblers, by those who’d been too keyed up to eat earlier and were hungry now, and by those who just wanted an excuse to hang around on the fringes and unload their personal critiques into a sympathetic ear. Her biggest job, actually, was providing the requisite ear. It wasn’t always sympathetic, but she’d had plenty of experience soothing ruffled feathers at family gatherings and knew when not to tell the truth without having to lie.

All in all, it was an exhausting business and it went on a long, long time. Sarah was ready to faint with relief when at last they polished off the finale to Emma’s modified satisfaction, found their wraps, and cleared out. All but Cousin Frederick.

Chapter 7

“C
OME ON, SARAH,” HE
yipped like a fussy old terrier, “you’ll have to drive me home.”

“So late?” Emma protested. “Can’t you stay here, Fred? I’d be glad to give you a bed.”

“Emma, I do not want your bed. I want my own bed. Get your coat, Sarah.”

Arguing with an elderly relative who’d made up his mind to do as he chose regardless of what another elderly relative thought was best for him would be, as Sarah knew from bitter experience, a totally hopeless waste of time. She got her coat and found her car keys.

“Please don’t wait up for me, Aunt Emma. I can let myself in.”

“All right, dear. I have had rather a long day. Drive carefully.”

Emma kissed her niece and went upstairs. Sarah and Frederick went out to the car. He didn’t say anything till they’d got out to the main road, then he barked, “Turn left.”

“But your house is to the right,” Sarah objected.

“We’re not going to my house. We’re going to Charlie’s.”

“Charlie Daventer’s? Whatever for?”

“Because in spite of all that yammering about micturitional syndrome Sebastian Frostedd was getting off back there, I know damned well Charlie did not get up last night to go to the bathroom, become dizzy upon voiding, and fall and whack his head on the bathtub, that’s why.”

“Cousin Frederick, how could you possibly?”

“Sarah, kindly remember that Charlie and I were closely acquainted for approximately sixty-eight years. I believe I can safely say I was as much in his confidence as any person now alive, your Aunt Emma not excluded. I know he’d been suffering badly from gout even before he became actually incapacitated. I know his kidneys were in the usual condition for a man his age, which is to say that he had to pass water too damned often for comfort. I also know how an old man feels when he has to leave his warm bed and stagger to the bathroom at least twice a night before his bladder pops. Add these factors together and what do you have?”

Without giving Sarah a chance to do so, Cousin Frederick delivered the answer. “You have an old man who has to pee and is reluctant to get up, do you not? You also have an old man, although perhaps you didn’t know this, who has inherited a solid-silver
pot de chambre
with matching lid, said to have been sat on by no less a personage than General Lafayette on his return to the United States of America as guest of the nation in 1784. Charlie came to the conclusion some time ago that what was good enough for Lafayette was good enough for him. Not to put too fine a point on it, Sarah, I want to see what’s in that pot.”

“Oh, Frederick! What a revolting idea. Surely it would have been emptied now in any case.”

“By whom?”

“Wasn’t it the cleaning woman who found the body?”

“That is my understanding, but what makes you think she’d have done any cleaning today? She’d have been too busy calling the police and having palpitations. Furthermore, why should she work when her employer was no longer alive to pay her? And lastly, what makes you think she’d know the pot had been used? You must realize, Sarah, that a man resents having to give way to his infirmities and that a chamber pot, regardless of its intrinsic value or historical associations, is not the sort of article a person of taste parks on the mantelpiece.”

BOOK: The Plain Old Man
4.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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