فصل 04

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فصل 04

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A Day in the Country

The weather on Sunday was perfect for a drive down to the country. An azure-blue sky, a light breeze - and the thermometer had already hit 22 degrees when Hudson saw Elvira pull up outside the flat.

He opened the window and bellowed, “Drive into the courtyard! It’s all no parking here!”

Obediently she reversed into the car park behind the house and by the time she’d collected her lip-gloss, handbag, sunglasses plus peppermints, hairbrush and mobile, Hudson was standing impatiently next to the Bentley, ostentatiously looking at his watch.

“I make it 11.46 precisely,” he said. “I thought we said 11.30.”

“Sorry, James. Rather more traffic than I’d bargained for.”

Hudson accepted the excuse with a slight smile. Women, he thought! Particularly young, attractive women who spend half an hour fiddling around with their hair when a potentially serious crime has to be solved. Miss Paddington would have blown her top.

It took them about 15 minutes to reach Jonathan’s flat. He was already standing on the pavement and flagged them down. “Morning, Elvira. Morning Mr Hudson,” he said, stressing the “Mister”, as he slipped into the back seat.

“I contacted Mrs Smith and she’ll be waiting for us in front of the house. Hope the documents and so on didn’t keep you working for too long.”

Hudson pulled out onto the main road.

“We’ll talk about that later. I’m afraid I have to concentrate on the traffic at the moment.”

There was an awkward 30 minutes or so as Hudson, patiently and politely, cursed various traffic lights, elderly pedestrians and other drivers heading towards the country. Finally they were on the motorway. The Bentley, in top gear, was now purring at 70 mph and, turning to Jonathan in the back, Hudson said, “Yes, Mr Keeble. Now where were we?”

“The documents. They didn’t keep you up too long, did they?”

“Certainly not,” replied Hudson. “Everything was in tip-top order. Of course, I’m not an expert in the field of antiques and so on, but I did have the feeling that those missing books might well be worth more than my monthly pay-cheque.” He glanced at Elvira, who was fiddling around in her handbag. “James! I told you - about a million pounds!”

“Ah,” smiled Hudson. “You see, Mr Keeble. That’s what we’re paid for at the Yard. To trace millions and be rewarded with pennies. It’s a hard life, you know.”

Jonathan felt slightly embarrassed. A change of subject was necessary. “You know, Hudson, yesterday you had me worried when you mentioned the ‘old girl’. I now see what you meant. This really is a most splendid car. How did you come by it?”

“That”, said Hudson, “is a long story, to be related after we’ve found out what happened that night in the Hall.”

Soon they arrived in Challingstead. The village was the stereotype that every tourist expects of England. A large, undulating green with a pond. Two swans gliding gracefully towards the shade of a huge willow tree. Half-timbered cottages with mellowed brickwork and rose bushes, not yet in bloom, around the front doors.

“My God!” exclaimed Hudson. “I thought all of this had vanished after the war! Where’s the urban sprawl they’re always talking about?”

“Hasn’t got this far - yet!” said Elvira, emphatically. “But the government’s working on it. I’d give Challingstead about 15 years. By then you’ll be able to access the M4 on a dual carriageway with no bends, no hedges. Within half an hour you could be in the City.” It was evident that Elvira felt strongly about urban sprawl.

Hudson spotted an old man sitting on a bench. This is unbelievable, he thought. Tweed suit, checked shirt, woollen tie, smoking a pipe and two golden retrievers lying peacefully on the grass! Fleetingly he felt he was in a time-warp. He wound down the window.

“I say, excuse me, but can you tell us where the pub is? Just come down from London.”

Hudson was quite good at affecting accents and idioms. At the Yard he was sometimes referred to as “the chameleon”, which he took as a compliment rather than a criticism.

True to form, the old gentleman looked rather startled, obviously offended by this sudden interruption. Pointing with his pipe down the road, he said gruffly, “Straight ahead, first right.”

Hudson thanked him profusely and chuckled as he imagined the comment that would follow. Bloody yuppies, why don’t they leave us in peace!

Straight ahead and first right took them into the courtyard of “The Red Lion”. Hudson’s old Bentley was not totally out of place. Two classic Jaguars lay in wait, but most of the parked cars were of German manufacture: limousines and the 4-wheel variety. What do they call them in London, thought Hudson? Ah yes, Chelsea tractors. Good name! He grinned as he remembered a newspaper report about how you could now buy artificial mud to spray over the bodywork - to show that you really needed such an off-road monster in London. The world is fickle, yes, it really is. But then why did he want his Bentley, his “old girl”? Too complicated, thought Hudson. Let’s solve the case first. He felt a burst of exhilaration. It was a beautiful, English spring day, the village was exactly as it should be - something out of Agatha Christie or the like - and, to boot, he sensed very keenly, in fact he knew, that something serious, and criminal, had taken place in these idyllic surroundings.

Jonathan pushed open the door to the saloon bar. Elvira and Hudson followed him through.

“What’ll you have, Elvira? And you, Mr Hudson?”

Jonathan ordered the drinks and some sandwiches. They moved to a comer table and sat down. The other guests continued to talk.

Nobody had registered their arrival, apart from two young men standing at the bar, drinking whisky. One had nudged the other and then they had both looked at Elvira for a second or two.

“You’ve made an immediate impact,” said Hudson.

Elvira’s eyes glazed over.

“James”, she said, taking a very delicate bite of the ham sandwich, “don’t I always?”

Hudson raised his glass of bitter in mock salute. This young woman could do well in the Yard. Probably too well!

“Cheers,” said Jonathan, unaware of the undercurrent. “Where do we go from here?”

“The plan hasn’t changed,” said Hudson. “We meet Mrs Smith at two and then I’ll look around whilst you keep her occupied with other things. Before we leave here, though, I want a word with the landlord.” He went over to the bar, ignoring the two young men, and rapped on the counter.

“I say,” he shouted. “May I have a word with the landlord?”

The other guests looked up for a moment and then carried on talking. The two young men sauntered off. The barmaid appeared, looking slightly worried.

“Mr Dickinson ain’t available right now. What’s the problem, sir?”

“Oh, no problem, no problem at all.” Hudson smiled broadly. “I’d just like to know whether you do bed and breakfast. You see, I’m looking for a little pied a terre in the country and Challingstead seems to fit the bill.”

Elvira winced, as did Jonathan. The barmaid didn’t. She disappeared and suddenly Mr Dickinson, the landlord, was there!

“Bed and breakfast, sir? No problem. Double, single?”

“Single,” said Hudson. “Probably for Tuesday - but I’ll confirm. Here’s my card.”

They talked a little longer while Dickinson noted the details.

“James,” said Elvira, as Hudson returned. “What on earth are you up to?”

Jonathan looked equally surprised.

“Nothing to worry about,” said Hudson. “Just a hunch of mine.”

Mrs Smith was waiting at the Hall when the Bentley drew up. After the introductions, they all trooped into the house. It was a large, rambling 17th century building, solidly built with several rooms on either side of the main hallway. As they passed the foot of the staircase, Mrs Smith caught her breath sharply. Jonathan nodded to Elvira and Hudson.

“This is where Mrs Smith found my aunt. I think I mentioned to you that she died as a result of falling down the stairs.”

“Yes, what a shame. How old did you say she was?” inquired Elvira. “She would have been 75 in July,” said Mrs Smith. “But she was as fit as a fiddle. I can only think that she tripped on the carpet up there. In fact, I often mentioned that it was a hazard but she was very attached to it. She and her husband had bought it in India or somewhere, when they were on holiday. But you’ll want to look around, won’t you. I’ll go and make a pot of tea. If you’ve got any questions, I’ll be in the kitchen. This and that still needs cleaning.”

When she’d gone, Jonathan turned to the other two.

“Well, Mr Hudson. Perhaps Elvira and I should take a look at the downstairs rooms, whilst you tackle upstairs. Those books and manuscripts I told you about were kept in a cabinet in one of the spare rooms. You can’t miss it, last one on the left.”

“Good idea,” replied Hudson. “See you in a bit.”

He went up the stairs slowly, pausing at the top to inspect the carpet. Quite true. It wasn’t anchored to the floor in any way. If someone were moving a little too fast, they could easily slip and fall. But then Mary Bruton had obviously been aware of the danger. She would have been careful, would probably have held on to the banister rail as she turned the corner. Hudson began to check the various rooms. The bedroom was spacious with a large window looking out onto the lawns and a walled garden. Along one side there were several sheds. She must have had a gardener, he thought. You can’t look after that lot by yourself, not at 75. He turned and studied some of the pictures. There was nothing of any real value; most of them seemed to be family photos. One of them showed a man and woman with a young lad, standing next to a Rolls Royce; no doubt Mr and Mrs Bruton - and the boy? He looked more closely. Yes, there was a definite likeness. It must be Jonathan.

Hudson continued his tour of the rooms until he came to the one he was most interested in, the last on the left. It had obviously served as a study. There were several bookcases, a bureau and three chairs, and the cabinet Jonathan had mentioned. The key was in the lock of the glass doors. The drawers underneath were closed. Hudson pondered for some time before putting on a pair of latex gloves. Who knows, there may be other fingerprints besides those of Mary Bruton, Mrs Smith and Jonathan Keeble. He opened the drawers carefully. Empty. He turned his attention to the bureau, which was open, lid down. The usual office equipment - envelopes, stationery, a pair of scissors and a small, elegant tray with four fountain pens, all of the same make. Hudson picked one up, expensive, no doubt. He noticed that they all had the same monogram engraved on the clip, CEB. Probably Mary Bruton’s husband. He replaced it and started to leave the room when something else caught his attention, something silvery next to a sheaf of papers. A cigarette lighter, also expensive by the looks of it. He picked it up, very carefully. On the underside there was a hallmark, indicating that it was solid sterling silver. It also had a monogram engraved on it - not CEB but PWM.

“Well, well,” murmured Hudson to himself. “I wonder who this belongs to.”

His thoughts were suddenly interrupted by a call from downstairs. “Mr Hudson - we’re finished down here. Do you want a cup of tea?” He was about to put the lighter back on the bureau and then hesitated. No, no! Intuitively he knew that this lighter did not belong in the house. He slipped it into his pocket and went to the staircase. Jonathan was standing in the hallway with Elvira.

“A cup of tea would go down very well,” shouted Hudson. “Preferably Earl Grey!”

“Afraid I can’t guarantee for that. But I do know that Mrs Smith’s scones are absolutely superb.”

They headed for the kitchen.

The tea was a disappointment for Hudson. Tea-bags! Of the worst kind! The scones, however, were remarkably good and he made a mental note to get hold of the recipe for Miss Paddington. When they had finished, Jonathan escorted the others to the front door.

“Thank you so much, Mrs Smith. It is very kind of you to help me out. It’ll take a while until everything is sorted, of course - and I do want you to keep an eye on things. But we arranged all of that on the phone, didn’t we?”

“No problem, Mr Keeble,” said Mrs Smith. “You know how grateful I was that Mary - I’m sorry - we were on first name terms…”

“My dear Mrs Smith,” said Jonathan. “Let’s not worry about formalities. To me she was Aunt Mary - to you just Mary. That’s fine by me.”

Hudson coughed, looked at his watch and then towards the Bentley. “Your scones, Mrs Smith, were excellent. Perhaps you can give me the recipe some time. We must be going, though - we have to report the details to the company tomorrow. I don’t think there’ll be any problems, will there, Miss Elliot? You had a good impression of the downstairs and I’ve made a list of what’s important upstairs.”

Turning to Jonathan, he added, “We should be able to give you an estimate for the insurance premium fairly soon, Mr Keeble. If necessary, we’ll pay another visit to check up on any particularly valuable items. The alarm system is still switched on, of course? Oh, and I didn’t notice any smoke detectors. If you decide to sell up, you should get those installed. Always makes a good impression on prospective buyers. I suppose your aunt didn’t smoke…”

“Oh no, Mr Hudson,” said Mrs Smith. “As far back as I remember neither Mr Bruton nor Mary ever smoked. Nasty habit, they said.”

As they went out and got into the Bentley, Hudson waved his hand towards the house.

“You know, Mr Keeble. You’re a lucky man to inherit such a marvel-lous property. Beautiful gardens. Mrs Bruton must have had a gardener. Surely she didn’t do everything herself?”

Mrs Smith chimed in once more, glad to be of further assistance. “Certainly not. Patrick was always in and out, whenever anything needed to be done.” Mrs Smith smiled. “Yes, Paddy Morgan will be only too pleased to continue. I’ll take care of that, Mr Keeble. He’s done the lawns and garden for years.”

Hudson stiffened. Paddy Morgan?

“Was he often in the house?” He bit his lip. That was the sort of question asked by police officers, not insurance valuers.

“Not that I know of,” replied Mrs Smith. “You see, he’s got his ‘den’ - that’s what he calls it - next to the potting sheds. The lawnmower, all his tools. When he’s finished he stretches out on the deckchair, looks out over the lawn and smokes a couple of cigarettes. Whenever I come by he says, ‘Y’know Mrs Smith, dis is my kingdom’ - he’s an Irishman through and through, you see. My stock reply is ‘Yes, Paddy, but if you drink any more of that Irish whisky you won’t be able to enjoy it much longer.’ He’s a good worker, though, been here for years.”

“Salt of the earth,” said Hudson and ushered the others into the car. “My grandfather was Irish, you know. When I was a lad he always told me that Hudson was an old Viking name. Son of Hud and all that. Well, it’s been a great pleasure talking to you Mrs Smith. Perhaps you can pass on the recipe for the scones to Mr Keeble?” He turned to Jonathan.

“I’m sure Redfearns will make you a good offer for the insurance. Let’s talk about the details on the way back.”

With that, they swung out of the drive and headed back towards London.

When they were on the motorway again, Elvira looked round to Jonathan, who had taken the back seat again.

“What do you think, Jon? Does Inspector Hudson owe us an explanation?”

“Indeed he does. I have a very strong feeling that he’s privy to information that we are unaware of, Elvira.”

Hudson chuckled.

“Now, now, boys and girls. No need to raise your hopes. It’s just that I’ve come across two pieces of information that might, possibly, indicate that Mary Bruton did not die as a result of tripping on that carpet. By the way, it was Persian, not Indian.”

Elvira looked straight ahead and said, in a rather icy tone, “James, stop playing around. Where do we go from here?”

The man could be absolutely infuriating at times!

“OK,” said Hudson. “What we do is the following. You, Elvira, will find out tomorrow, through sources that I do not wish to hear about, whether any of the books or manuscripts have been sent to auction. Remember, Mrs Bruton may well just have given them away - as she did with the bible. You do have contacts to auction houses, I assume?”

Elvira flicked her hair. She resented Hudson’s implied criticism. Of course she had contacts, more than he could imagine!

“Yes, I do.” The tone was even icier than before.

“And you, Mr Keeble, will simply do nothing for a couple of days. That is, apart from obtaining Mrs Smith’s recipe for the scones.” Hudson was really enjoying himself. He had a couple of clues, not much, but his experience told him that a serious crime might well be solved in the next few days. His only worry was that Sir Reginald might not take advantage of the good weather and decide to return to the Yard on Monday at 8 a.m. precisely.

After they’d dropped Jonathan off, Hudson drove on with Elvira to his flat. As they pulled into the courtyard, he saw a curtain drawn back.

“Miss Paddington’s taken possession again. I wonder what her weekend was like?” he said.

Elvira slid into her car before Hudson had time to invite her in. She liked Miss Paddington but she also knew that the housekeeper was trying very hard to “arrange” something for HER James. Rather like an ageing mother would do for her favourite son. Elvira’s intuition told her to play it “cool”. There were much more important matters to contend with at the moment. Smiling politely, she thanked Hudson for the “day out in the country”.

“As soon as I have any news, I’ll be in contact. Would it be inconvenient if I rang you up at work?”

“Quite OK,” replied Hudson. “I’ve finally found out which buttons to press on the mobile, so you can always reach me on that. As I said, I can’t possibly do anything officially at the moment - no crime has been registered. So it all depends on you, Elvira - and your contacts. I’ll be in the office from 8 onwards - huge backlog of paperwork to sort out.”

Elvira revved up the car, slid open the window and waved farewell. Paperwork, she thought. That’s something Redfearns isn’t really interested in. What they want is results, and if Jon gets his books and manuscripts back, and Hudson and Co. apprehend a criminal, then the company will have found a new customer. As she drove back to her flat, she idly wondered what sort of insurance premium a millionaire like Jonathan Keeble would be prepared to pay.

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