فصل 04

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فصل 04

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CHAPTER FOUR

Family problems

Later that afternoon I drove to Marlow to talk to Inspector Honnister. He looked at me curiously and a little unhappily.

‘One of your people has been on the phone to tell me that I mustn’t talk to anyone about you. There was no need to do that - I’m a policeman, so I know how to keep secrets.’

I cursed the stupidity of someone in Ogilvie’s office who had tried to interfere, and said to Honnister, ‘Look, forget all that nonsense. Last night I told you I had nothing official to do with Ashton. It was true then, but it isn’t true now. My office now has a definite interest in him. I’m going to need your help.’

‘I’ll be happy to give it - as long as you don’t try to hide things from me. What do you want to know?’

‘First of all, how’s the girl?’

‘We’re not allowed to talk to her, so she must be bad,’ he replied. ‘Her sister’s been at the hospital most of the day.’

‘Have you spoken to Ashton?’ I asked.

‘Yes. He says he can think of no possible reason why anyone should attack his daughter in that way. He told me nothing of any use,’ replied Honnister.

‘I’ll see both of them later,’ I said, ‘and I’ll try to get more information. I want to catch that man with the acid.’

‘Does Ashton know who - and what - you are?’ asked Honnister.

‘No, he doesn’t; and he mustn’t find out, either.’ I replied.

‘That’s going to give you an interesting life, with you wanting to marry his daughter, too.’

I smiled. ‘Where did you find that information?’

‘I’m a good policeman. One of the servants in Ashton’s house was quite happy to talk about you and Miss Ashton.’

‘All right. Tell me a few secrets about Ashton.’

‘We’ve got very little. Some time ago one of our policemen talked to him about safety and how to protect his house against burglars. A waste of time. Ashton’s house was already almost as well protected as the Bank of England.’

That was interesting to know. What did Ashton have that was so valuable?

Honnister went on, ‘Don’t forget it wasn’t George Ashton who was attacked. It was Gillian Ashton. An acid attack on a woman always makes me wonder about another woman. Could it be a jealous wife getting her revenge on Gillian?’

“I’ve thought of that, too. Penny says it’s impossible - Gillian isn’t that kind of woman.’

‘She may be right, but you never know. It’s one of the possibilities I’ve got to try to find out about,’ said Honnister.

‘Of course. But I don’t think it’ll lead you to the man who threw the acid.’

‘You could be right,’ he replied. ‘Somehow I don’t think we’re going to find this man easily.’

‘I’m going to talk to Penelope and her father,’ I said. ‘Shall I meet you later on and tell you what I’ve learned?’

‘Yes, I’d like that. I’ll be in the bar of the Coach and Horses between nine and ten o’clock. See you then.’

When I arrived at Ashton’s house, the gates were closed and I had to ask a guard to let me in. Neither Ashton nor Penelope was at home, but Benson told me that Penelope had telephoned to say that she would be home quite soon.

‘This is a very bad business, sir, very bad.’

‘How does Mr Ashton seem after the attack?’ I asked him.

‘He’s upset, of course, sir, very upset. Bur he seems to be taking it very well. He went to his office this morning as usual. Can I get you a drink, sir?’

It was clear that Benson did not want me to ask him too many questions about Ashton, so I asked him to bring me a whisky. He did so, and left the room. Penelope arrived before I’d finished my drink. She looked very tired and pale.

‘Oh Malcolm,’ she cried. ‘How good to see you.’

‘How’s Gillian?’ I asked.

‘A little better, I think. She’s getting over the shock.’

‘I’m very glad to hear it. I talked with Inspector Honnister, the policeman in charge of the case. He’d like to talk to Gillian as soon as possible.’

‘Oh, Malcolm; she isn’t ready for that yet. It’s too soon.’

She came close to me and I put my arms around her.

‘Are her injuries that bad?’ I asked.

She put her head on my chest for a moment and said, ‘You don’t realize how bad this sort of thing is for a woman. Women care much more about their appearance than men. Gillian’s got to get over two bad shocks - a psychological shock as well as a physical one.’

‘Yes, I can understand that. But Honnister needs to know anything that Gillian can tell him. At the moment he knows nothing, not even if the attacker was a man or a woman.’

Penelope looked surprised. ‘I hadn’t thought of that. And Gillian hasn’t talked about it. We’ve kept off the subject of acid-throwing.’

‘When you go to the hospital tonight, could you see if she can remember anything, anything at all, about what happened? We’ve got to find this person, and it’s probably better if you talk to her than if Honnister does it. But he really does need to know what happened. Maybe Gillian can remember something about the acid- thrower!’

‘I’ll try, but I can’t promise that she’ll be able to tell me anything useful.’

Penelope went to get dinner ready and I walked around in the garden until Ashton came home. He looked worried and tired, but there was more than that; he had the look of a small boy who has just discovered that the world is an unjust place - the look of a boy who has been punished for something he hasn’t done.

‘Gillian’s blind,’ he said shortly.

‘Oh no! I’m so sorry,’ I replied. ‘Does she know? Does Penny know?’

‘Neither of them knows. And I don’t want them to know until Gillian’s strong enough to take the shock. So don’t tell Penny.’

‘I won’t tell her, but she might find out for herself. Don’t forget she’s a doctor.’

‘Well,’ he said, ‘I’d rather they knew later than sooner. What a terrible thing this is, Malcolm. I just can’t understand it.’

‘Don’t you have any ideas at all?’ I asked. I had to start to do my job as a policeman. I could also see that Ashton was now carrying a gun in a pocket under his arm, but I could hardly ask him about that. ‘Could there be something in Gillian’s life that you don’t know about? Could she have become involved with some unsuitable friends?’

He became angry immediately.

‘Impossible!’ he said very sharply. ‘Gillian’s always been such a good girl. I’ve never had any problems with her. She’s never done a thing wrong. Penny’s different; she can be very difficult at times. You’ll find that out if you marry her. But Gillian’s never been any trouble at all.’

When Ashton said this, I understood the pain parents feel when their children are sick or when they get hurt in an accident. Then Ashton asked me if I’d thought any more about asking Penny to marry me immediately and go to Australia. I told him I hadn’t changed my mind, that it was the wrong moment to present Penny with new problems.

‘I suppose you’re right,’ he said in a disappointed voice. ‘Are you staying to dinner, Malcolm?’

‘With you permission, I replied politely. ‘I’m taking Penelope to the hospital afterwards.’

He nodded. ‘Don’t tell her about Gillian’s eyes. Promise me that.’

‘I already have.’

He didn’t answer that, but turned on his heel and walked away towards the house. I felt very sorry for him. Whatever the information about him in the computer, I could see in his eyes the deep pain that he was suffering.

Penny and I went to the hospital and I waited for an hour while she talked to Gillian. Then we went to meet Inspector Honnister and I introduced him to Penny.

Thank you for coming, Miss Ashton,’ he said. ‘We re doing the best we can in this case, but we need information and we haven’t got any.’

‘I understand,’ she replied. ‘I’ve got some news for you, but I don’t know how much it will help you.’

‘Well, Miss Ashton, let’s hear what you’ve got,’ said Honnister gently.

‘Gillian says it was a man.’

‘Ah!’ said Honnister with satisfaction. A little more than half the population of Britain had just been dropped from his list of possible suspects.

‘What sort of man? Young? Old? Anything you can tell me will be of value.’

He led Penelope through Gillian’s story several times and each time managed to get a little more helpful information. Gillian had walked back from church and had seen a car parked near the entrance to the drive leading to the house. Someone was bending over the car, looking at the engine.

She thought the car had broken down and went over to offer to help. As she came up to him, the man turned and smiled at her. She had never seen him before. She was just about to speak to him when he threw the acid into her face. I le didn’t speak at all, but she could remember that he was about forty, with pale skin. She couldn’t really say anything more about him.

After Honnister had left us, Penny and I talked a bit more about what we had learned. Then we fell silent.

‘What are you thinking about?’ asked Penny after a few minutes.

Automatically I said what was in my mind. ‘I’m thinking it would be a good idea if we got married.’

‘Malcolm!’ she said, with surprise, shock, pleasure and sadness all mixed up in that one word.

‘Don’t you think it’s a good idea?’ I said and watched her try to find words to reply. ‘But don’t say, “This is so sudden!” ‘ ‘But that’s exactly what it is, so sudden,’ she said, ‘and here, of all places!’

‘Does the place matter?’

‘I don’t suppose it does,’ she said quietly. ‘But the time does. Why now?’

‘I suppose I could have picked a better time,’ I agreed. ‘But the question just jumped out of my mouth. You asked me what I was thinking about. Actually, I’m not the only one who thinks it’s a good idea. Your father does, too; he wanted me to ask you last night.’

‘So you two have been discussing me behind my back. I don’t know that I like that.’

‘Don’t get angry. It’s traditional - and polite - for a man to talk about his plans with his probable future father-in- law.’

‘What would you have done if he had been against it?’ asked Penelope.

‘I’d have asked you just the same. I’m marrying you, not your father.’

‘You’re not marrying anyone - yet.’ She laid her hand on mine. ‘You idiot - I was beginning to think you’d never ask.’

‘I was going to, but other things got in the way.’

‘I know,’ she said sadly. ‘I’ve been so unhappy today, thinking about Gillian and seeing her in so much pain. And Daddy - he doesn’t say much, but I think he’s going through hell. And now you come and give me more problems,’

‘I’m sorry, Penny. Perhaps I should take the question back. Forget about it for now.’

‘No,’ she said. ‘You can’t ask a question.’ She was silent for a while, and at last she said, ‘I will marry you, Malcolm - I’d marry you tomorrow, but that can’t be. I don’t know when it will be. We’ve got to get this business with Gillian sorted out first. Can you wait?’

‘Of course,’ I replied happily.

As we drove to her home, my heart was like a singing bird and I realized the truth in all that the poets say about love.

‘I think we should tell your father. He seems to be worried about you,’ I suggested, just before Penny went in.

‘I’ll tell him now,’ she said as she gave me a goodnight kiss.

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