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Authors: Stella Bingham

Charters and Caldicott

BOOK: Charters and Caldicott
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Stella Bingham
Charters & Caldicott

Whatever happened to Charters and Caldicott, that pair of cricket-mad ‘solemn asses' from Alfred Hitchcock's classic suspense movie
The Lady Vanishes
?

Fast forward about fifty years. The world has changed beyond recognition, but not Charters and Caldicott. A little longer in the tooth, perhaps, they remain dedicated to the manners of the old school, enjoying lunch at their gentlemen's club and afternoons watching Agatha Christie movies. They are however entirely unprepared for a whodunit of their own, when the dead body of a young woman is found in Caldicott's flat, stabbed with a Malayan paperknife. 

Pitched on a trail of unexplained deaths (‘are you keeping count of all these, Charters?') and dogged by the fastidious Inspector Snow, they attempt to unravel the mysteries around them. Why were the handbags switched? What does the cryptic message ‘Mix Well and Serve' mean? And why does the enigmatic Venables, a fellow clubman, turn up at every twist in their journey?

This tale of Nazi gold, murder and deception features effervescent dialogue and delightful characters – especially the eponymous heroes, relics of an England already out-of-date by the 1930's but none the less charming for that.

Charters & Caldicott
is a comical, lighthearted but lethal treat of a whodunit, in which our heroes take their responsibilities seriously – but somehow always find as much time for lunch, tea or a cocktail as they do for detective work.

 

CHAPTER 1

It was the first Friday in June. As on all other first Fridays in the calendar, Hugo Charters was listening to Radio News-reel on the World Service of the BBC on his ancient, bakelite wireless while he made ready to leave for Town. His country cottage, complete with beams and diamond-paned windows, was unmistakably Home Counties but his furnishings spoke of years of service in the Far East. Trophies and mementoes from long-free colonies were arranged fussily on the bamboo dressing table and rattan whatnot. On the wall hung a framed and faded photograph of Charters in a white dinner-jacket arm-in-arm with a lady at some outpost-of-the-Empire function long ago. Charters himself, even in retirement, gave the bristly impression that, if called upon, he would have taken command of a small court of inquiry or a large gin sling with equal aplomb.

His toilet complete, Charters, a prudent man, picked up his hat, raincoat and umbrella and went out, double-locking the front door behind him. He walked briskly to the main road and raised his umbrella imperiously, as if to hail a taxi. The approaching Green Line bus came obligingly to a stop.

In his flat in Viceroy Mansions, an imposing Edwardian block near Hyde Park, Giles Caldicott was also tuned in to the World Service. Compared with Charters' neat taste in interior design, the Caldicott residence was bachelorish, almost Bohemian. A clutter of pipe-racks and cricket prints, well-read detective novels and curios from round the world crammed the living room and overflowed into the bedroom where Caldicott was examining himself critically in the mirror. Satisfied that his hair lay smooth and his jacket was entirely free from fluff, he went into the sitting room, filled his cigarette case from an onyx box, collected his hat and brolly, turned off the radio and left the flat. An ancient lift took him down to the lobby where he found the porter polishing the brasswork.

‘Morning Grimes.'

‘It's a very good morning, Mr Caldicott. If you're walking as far as. Niceprice, sir, I'm told they've got teabags on special offer.'

‘I think not, Grimes. Besides, this is my first Friday.'

‘Course it is, sir. With Mr Charters. So you won't be back?'

‘Until sixish, thereabouts. Why do you ask?'

‘The young lady, sir. If she calls again.'

‘Oh, Miss Beevers. Look – if she
does
come back, see if you can't worm a phone number out of her. Better still – if she calls before three and cares to wait, let her into the flat, then ring me at the Club at once.'

‘Would that be all right, sir?'

‘Good heavens, yes. Known her since she was so high.' Caldicott set his hat on his head at a slightly rakish angle and strode off towards the park.

Charters arrived first in St James's and, to his annoyance, was accosted outside the Club by a pretty young woman selling flags for Petunia Day. He paid up with poor grace and permitted a flag to be pinned to his lapel. Caldicott, coming along shortly afterwards, responded in an altogether sunnier fashion. The flag seller and a young, uniformed chauffeur who had been lounging against the bonnet of a Jaguar reading the racing pages during these transactions both watched, with keen but covert interest, as Caldicott climbed the steps and vanished through the doors. Satisfied that both men were safely inside the Club, the pair behaved in a curious fashion. They threw the chauffeur's cap and the flag seller's collecting tin and tray onto the back seat of the car, climbed into the front and the Jaguar screeched off down the street.

Caldicott came across Charters in the Club cloakroom, a marble and bronze monument to Victorian plumbing.

‘There you are. I see they nobbled you, too,' said Charters, looking up from washing his hands.

‘What's that, old boy?' Charters indicated the petunia flag. ‘Oh, Petunia Day. Good cause, Charters. Nannies out to grass, what?'

‘Not the point,' Charters grumbled. ‘Petunia Day was last week.'

‘So it was. Two bites at the same cherry, eh?'

‘As it happens, they don't clash with any other charity but I don't mind telling you, Caldicott, had today been Lifeboat Day I should have declined that petunia. Shall we go in?'

They began their lunch in comfortable, companionable silence, their small talk exhausted years before. The Club dining room, dark-panelled, high-ceilinged and still fairly empty, was not, in any case, conducive to idle chatter. Only when the meal was ordered and the first course disposed of did Caldicott move on to the business of the day.

‘Well, Charters, have you studied the form?'

‘Yes. I thought that thing at the Curzon.'

‘It's in French,' Caldicott protested.

‘Is it? The title's in English.'

‘They do that nowadays. That's how they catch out our country cousins.'

Charters was wounded by the slur but before he could come up with a suitable retort a fellow member paused by their table. Although Venables looked every inch the typical clubman, there was something elusively mysterious about him. Little was known about his background and even his occupation was a matter for speculation.

”Morning, Caldicott,' he greeted Charters. ‘Charters,' he nodded to Caldicott.

Charters looked peeved. ‘No, he's Charters, Venables,' said Caldicott. ‘I'm Caldicott.'

‘Of course you are,' said Venables amiably and drifted off to his own table.

Charters glared after him then transferred his ire to Caldicott. ‘He knows very well which one of us is who. Why do you always rise to the bait?'

‘Hardly worth taking issue with the man, old chap. One has to be civil.'

‘That's a matter of opinion.'

‘Well, back to the agenda. What do you say to that thing at Plaza One?'

‘I've already seen it,' said Charters, getting his own back at last. ‘At the ABC, Reigate. We're not entirely out of touch in the country, you know, Caldicott.'

While Charters and Caldicott were squabbling over their afternoon's cinema viewing, a taxi drew up outside Viceroy Mansions and decanted an attractive young woman, smartly dressed in a grey suit. As Grimes had half anticipated, Jenny Beevers had called to see Caldicott. .

‘You've missed him again, I'm sorry to say, Miss,' Grimes told her, not best pleased. ‘I believe I
did
mention – his first Friday.'

‘First,' said Jenny, dismayed. ‘I thought you said third.'

‘First. Never misses – noted for it. He
did
say could you leave a number, where you could be contacted, style of thing.'

Jenny Beevers hesitated. ‘No – I'm moving about. I'll try to come back. Will you let him know?'

‘I'll put a “While You Were Out” slip in his pigeon-hole.' Grimes went behind his desk to scribble the message. ‘Shall I say you hope to make contact later?' Jenny nodded. ‘I'll see he gets it.' Jenny watched Grimes put the note in Caldicott's pigeon-hole on the wall behind the desk, smiled her thanks and moved off as Grimes's telephone rang.

‘Porter. Yes, Mrs Brinovsky... Oh, yes?... I expect he's after a pigeon, madam – it has been known with cats... Yes... Yes...' Grimes yawned and shifted his weight from one leg to the other, resigned to its being a very long call.

Meanwhile Jenny, pressed against the wall out of sight of Grimes, waited.

Charters and Caldicott eyed their main course critically. ‘Two lamb cutlets, you'll notice. It used to be three,' Charters grumbled.

‘In days of yore. Say this for 'em – they are keeping prices down.'

‘Two lamb cutlets for the price of three isn't keeping prices down, Caldicott. It's fifty per cent inflation.'

Caldicott attempted a spot of mental arithmetic. ‘How do you make that out?' he asked, giving up.

‘It's perfectly obvious. Starting with three lamb cutlets we reduce the quantity by a third while keeping the price constant. Hence a fifty per cent increase in real terms.'

‘But fifty per cent is a half, old man. Even I know that.'

‘What's that got to do with it?'

‘Whereas we've reduced our lamb cutlets by a third. How can a third be the same as a half?'

‘I don't think you're getting the hang of it at all, Caldicott,' said Charters, readily donning the mantle of instructor. ‘Look, may I?' He reached across to remove one of Caldicott's cutlets and put it on his own plate. ‘Here are three lamb cutlets. Now let us say they cost...' He rummaged for change. ‘Have you a tenpenny piece?' Caldicott, totally baffled, produced one obediently. ‘For the sake of simplicity 

and purely for the purposes of demonstration, let us say they cost thirty pence. Or ten pence each. Are you with me so far?' Charters laid the three coins down on the table.

‘Ten pence each,' said Caldicott, adding knowledgeably, ‘That's not in real terms, of course.'

‘Quite. Now I remove one lamb cutlet...' Charters laid it back on Caldicott's plate ‘... while not altering the price. See the coins. The cost is still thirty pence, but for two lamb cutlets instead of three. Thus we are paying fifteen pence per cutlet instead of ten – an increase, in other words, of fifty per cent. Now do you follow me?' Charters slid two of the ten pence pieces into his palm and would have removed the third had not Caldicott pressed his finger firmly on it. ‘Ah,' Charters apologised.

Caldicott frowned down at his own plate, then across at Charters'. He was still not satisfied. ‘There's just one thing, Charters.'

‘Yes?'

This isn't my cutlet. Do you mind?' To Charters' irritation, Caldicott returned one cutlet to his plate and removed a larger one that he believed to be his own.

Yes, madam,' said Grimes, yawning again. ‘Yes, madam... no, madam, I think you'll find cats
don't
fall off balconies as a general rule, Mrs Brinovsky... All right, madam, if it makes you happier in your mind...' Sighing, Grimes replaced the receiver, pulled down the security grille over the desk and left his cubby-hole, checking that the door was securely locked behind him. When she heard the lift doors close, Jenny emerged from her hiding place, pushed up the grille which Grimes had omitted to lock, hoisted herself up onto the counter and jumped down the other side. She took Caldicott's spare key from the pigeon-hole where she'd seen Grimes leave her note and dropped it into her handbag.

‘By the way, I've been meaning to ask you, Charters,' said Caldicott, looking up from the remains of his second lamb cutlet, now unappetising and cold as a result of its contribution to higher mathematics. ‘H.L.C.?'

‘Come again?'

‘Your initials.'

‘You know perfectly well they're my initials. Dammit, you saw me carve them on a school desk.'

‘I meant in
The Times
.'

‘Oh,
The Times
!' Charters placed his knife and fork neatly together on his empty plate. ‘My little appreciation of Jock Beevers. “H.L.C. writes...”'

‘Well put, I thought, Charters. Caught the spirit of the man in a few well-chosen phrases.'

‘Did you think so, old chap? Thank you. Thank you very much. I value your opinion. One did feel a need to add to the obituary. It didn't quite do justice to the Jock Beevers we knew.'

‘Quite. I've been meaning to tell you. I think his daughter came to see me.'

‘I didn't know she was in England. What do you mean, you “think” she came to see you?'

‘I was out. It does sound like her, though, doesn't it?'

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