فصل 03

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فصل 03

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Help at Hand

James Hudson was enjoying a late breakfast. On weekdays he was usually in the office by 8 o’clock - at least when he wasn’t out in the field solving one of the more spectacular crimes that were making life difficult for his boss, Sir Reginald. He glanced at the headlines of the Saturday paper as he took another mouthful of scrambled egg. Mmmm - just the right consistency. What do the French - or is it the Italians - say? A1 dente? No, that’s something to do with salad! But there could be no doubt that Miss Paddington was the ideal housekeeper. She was an excellent cook and thoroughly organized, so much so that Hudson rarely had to make any decisions concerning the running of his flat in Baker Street. He stared at a picture of the Prime Minister and his wife.

“Well, if they’re on holiday again”, he murmured, “there can’t be much going on in London.”

He poured out another cup of tea and began to plan his day. A trip to Southend, perhaps? That’ll mean filling up the Bentley, of course. He felt a twinge of regret that he’d bought the car in the first place - but that had been years ago when petrol prices hadn’t been a consideration. And he couldn’t part with the old girl now, no matter how much fuel she guzzled. It might help if the Metropolitan Police were to bump up his pay. They say that wonders never cease. Or if Sir Reginald were to take early retirement. Hudson was fairly sure that he was next in line for promotion. On the other hand, Sir Reginald would probably go on for years. Hudson buttered another slice of toast. Marvelous, he thought. Peace and quiet.

The doorbell rang. Hudson took a gulp of tea and went to the hallway. This must be bad news, he thought, opening the door. But it wasn’t.

“Hello, James. Hope I’m not disturbing you at such an early hour.” The clock chimed ten as Hudson adjusted his tie.

“Why, Elvira! What a pleasant surprise! I haven’t seen you since that last case we were involved in. Come in, I’m just finishing breakfast.” Elvira gave Hudson one of her most winning smiles and marched into the kitchen.

“Miss Paddington not here?” she asked brightly.

“No, she made breakfast and then went off shopping. Portobello Road. She has to visit an old friend this weekend and wanted to find something that would buck up her spirits. I did suggest a much simpler solution - a bottle of sherry - but she wasn’t amused. Now, what can I do for you? Or is this a purely social visit?”

Elvira arched her eyebrows and sat down.

“James, I’ve interrupted your breakfast. Do carry on. Do you want marmalade on that piece of toast? Or strawberry jam? I see Miss Paddington has given you a choice.”

Elvira knew from experience that James Hudson was a confirmed bachelor Nevertheless, she always enjoyed making him feel slightly uncomfortable, just to see his reaction. In fact, whenever they met, she experienced certain “vibrations”, probably due to the fact that he was an experienced police officer with a reputation and she was “only” an insurance investigator with a couple of cases behind her. She admired Hudson but she couldn’t be quite sure what he thought about her. Was she, in his eyes, just an irritating interruption in daily life - or did he appreciate the fact that she had helped him solve a rather unusual case of blackmail? What she did know was that she must already have a bigger bank balance than James Hudson of the Yard. Involuntarily she compared her sports car with the ageing Bentley parked outside.

Hudson shuddered slightly.

“Aaah, yes!” he exclaimed. “That happens to be one of Miss Paddington’s tricks. I’ve seen through it of course. I always take the marmalade. Comes from a top quality retailer, you know. I think the strawberry jam comes from the supermarket round the comer. Would you like a cup of tea?”

“Not if it’s that ghastly Earl Grey brew, thank you very much. Coffee would do fine.”

Hudson took the put-down in his stride.

“I’m afraid we don’t have coffee here, Elvira. Miss Paddington disapproves.”

“Then nothing, James. Listen to me! I think I’m onto something. A serious theft, perhaps even murder!”

Hudson raised his hands, both palms outward, shaking his head. He glanced at the toast - the butter - the marmalade - and the pot of tea. Weekends, he thought, are sacrosanct. Unless, that is, Sir Reginald rings up.

“Elvira”, he said, rather pompously, “the dividing line between murder and imagination is very, very thin and has never been defined, at least not in my experience. But why don’t you continue, whilst I finish my breakfast.”

Elvira rattled off the facts as Hudson drank his tea.

“As I understand it, Elvira, you believe that A: Mary Bruton did not die of natural causes resulting from a fall down the stairs, B: that certain books etcetera have disappeared from her property, and C: that somebody deliberately killed her in order to come into possession of the same?”

“James, that’s exactly it.” Elvira crossed her legs, looking directly at Hudson.

Hudson shifted the plates on the table. It was an interesting hypothesis. But apparently the old lady had died as the result of an accident. He looked at Elvira, a little more sharply than before.

“And these missing books and manuscripts - how much are they worth?”

Elvira paused - she knew that Hudson was a little naive in financial matters.

“Not too much, James, but at least a million. I checked it out with our valuers - and the books were not insured. Nobody even knew they were in Challingstead Hall.”

Hudson buried his face in his hands and then looked at the young insurance expert almost reproachfully.

“Elvira,” he sighed. “You have just ruined what could have been a perfect weekend.”

A couple of hours later, both he and Elvira were sitting in Jonathan’s flat.

“You realize, Mr Keeble, that I can’t do anything officially until I’ve squared everything with my boss - and I won’t be able to see him until Monday morning, assuming he’s back in the office by then.” Hudson knew that Sir Reginald usually spent the weekend at his country cottage and, if the weather was good and no spectacular crime had been committed, he often took a day or two of “spontaneous” leave. As a Chief Superintendent at the Yard he would simply give his secretary a call.

Jonathan nodded. He was already impressed with the way Elvira had managed to persuade Hudson to even consider the case. After all, there was no real evidence to believe that Aunt Mary’s death had not been the result of an accident. Except, of course, for the missing collection.

“Inspector Hudson, it’s very good of you to even bother yourself with the matter. In the normal course of events, I might never have contacted the police. It’s only because of Elvira…”

“I’ve worked with Miss Elliot on a couple of occasions,” interrupted Hudson. “And I’ve discovered that she has a keen sense for when a crime has been committed. She has the makings of a very good policeman - sorry, policewoman - or perhaps I should say policeperson, in these days of political correctness.”

Elvira blushed and lowered her head. Not on the pay the London Met offers, she thought!

“Well,” she said. “Now that the introductions are over and all the facts are on the table, what are we going to do?”

“Make enquiries?” suggested Jonathan, grinning ironically. “Exactly!” said Hudson. “That’s exactly what we’re going to do. And I suggest the following. First of all, you give me everything you have concerning the contents of the Hall - oh, and the death certificate, the will and so on. I can go through it all this evening and then tomorrow we’ll drive down to Challingstead. That’ll mean contacting Mrs Smith, of course.”

Hudson looked at Jonathan.

“No problem,” he said. “She’ll give us all the help she can. She was devoted to my great-aunt.”

“Good,” grunted Hudson. “Whilst you two”, he nodded to Elvira, to indicate that she was also included in the Sunday outing, “keep Mrs Smith busy, I’ll take a closer look at the cabinet and its surroundings. I assume that the local police weren’t too interested after the doctor had certified accidental death.”

“I don’t think they were even involved,” murmured Jonathan.

“So much the better,” said Hudson. “Nobody, neither Mrs Smith nor the vicar nor the local police, should have the faintest idea that a crime has taken place. You can pass me off as a junior colleague of Miss Elliot - you know, an insurance value.”

Elvira blushed even more. Inspector Hudson as one of her junior colleagues! If Miss Paddington had heard this conversation there would have been an outburst of protest. James Hudson a subordinate of this young, inexperienced “poppet”? Impossible!

“And that means, for the time being, you address me simply as Mr Hudson. OK?”

Jonathan stood up.

“Fine by me, Inspector - er - Mr Hudson. I’ll get in touch with Mrs Smith straight away. What time should we say we’re arriving? On a Sunday it’ll only take about an hour to get to Challingstead, and I’m sure Mrs Smith will attend the church service in the morning.”

“Well, if it’s all right with Elvira, I suggest that we leave around midday. I’ll need some time to go through the papers. I’m sure there’s a pub in the village where we can get some lunch. Ask Mrs Smith if she can meet us at the Hall around two.”

Jonathan quickly put the relevant papers together and the three of them went downstairs to the front door.

“Where shall we meet? Here? I’ll drive, of course.”

“No,” said Hudson. “Elvira will come to my flat and then we’ll pick you up.”

“Right, then that’s all taken care of,” said Jonathan. “I’ll reimburse any costs, of course.”

Hudson waved his hand as he slipped into Elvira’s car.

“No need to worry about that, Mr Keeble. The old girl needs a bit of exercise. The drive will do her good.”

Jonathan closed the front door and went back to his flat. Old girl? What on earth did Hudson mean?

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