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Authors: Nancy Buckingham

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Design for Murder

BOOK: Design for Murder
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DESIGN FOR MURDER

 

Nancy Buckingham

 

Chapter 1

 

The first Wednesday in July seemed like winter, it was so cold and depressingly wet.

When I drove back from Cheltenham through the Cots
wold countryside, heavy grey clouds were sagging down to fill
every hollow of the hills with clammy mist. Wishing that I’d
worn something warmer, I switched on the car radio and listened resentfully to a transatlantic report about the heat wave that was engulfing the U.S.A.

I reached the by-road for Steeple Haslop, and turned and
dipped downhill through the beechwoods into the village. The
wide main street, flanked on one side by the river, was rainswept and deserted. Yet the scattered cottages and early-Saxon
church, all built of locally-quarried limestone which had
mellowed over the centuries, still managed to exude a warm
and friendly charm.

At Millpond Lane I was tempted to make the short diver
sion and stop off at my own cottage to change my clothes, but
I was already later than I’d planned to be. As I turned in at
the wrought-iron gates of Haslop Hall just up the hill beyond
the village, the newscaster gave a time check. Twelve-fifteen,
and I’d told Oliver to expect me at about eleven-thirty at our
studio-cum-office-cum-workshop that adjoined his flat above
the old Coach House. I’d been doing various things in Chel
tenham, chief of which was selecting fabric samples for the
Design Studio’s latest commission—a complete new decor for
Mrs. Cynthia Fairford’s drawing room at Dodford Old Rec
tory.

The long driveway curved through sheep-grazed parkland
towards the ancient manor house, now half-obscured by drift
ing mist so that it was merely a looming grey outline. At the fork, I swung right and continued along a narrower, laurel-lined drive to the stable block. I drove through the archway beneath the clocktower into the paved courtyard, and when I
switched off the engine the country quiet was accentuated by
the hiss and drip of rain. But then I heard a scurry of movement. Not, it seemed to me, of a horse stomping restlessly in
its stall, but of hasty human footsteps.

Or was that only what I afterwards imagined it to have
been?

As usual, I entered through the glazed door at the side of
the Coach House which led by way of a boxed-in staircase
directly up to the workshop. The door at the head of the
stairs stood ajar, and as my eyes came level with the studio
floor I saw, lying there, a huddled dark shape silhouetted
against the light from the window. I bounded up the last few stairs. Then I stopped short, frozen with horror.

Oliver was lying between the desk and the table, on his
side, with arms and legs splayed out. The longish black hair
at the back of his head was bloody, and an oozing stain was spreading on the mushroom-coloured carpet. Fighting an im
pulse to shrink away, I crouched down and put out my hand
to touch his cheek. Though it was still warm, the skin felt life
less, and I knew with a terrible certainty that Oliver was
dead.

A yard from his head, near the cabinet in which we stored
rolled-up drawings, lay a heavy bronze statuette ten inches
high that usually stood on top of the bookshelves
...
it was
an African fertility-god with its grotesquely outsize phallus
which Oliver delighted in keeping on full view, largely, I suspected, to upset his father.

Instinctively I reached out and picked up the statuette.
Then it occurred to me that I shouldn’t be touching what was
obviously the murder weapon and hastily dropped it. At the
same moment I heard footsteps outside. The downstairs door opened and someone started to come up.

It was Tim Baxter, and I realized I was very glad to see
him.

“Oh, hallo Tracy,” he began. “I just wanted to ...” Tim
broke off as his gaze dropped to the body on the floor. “Good
God, what’s happened?”

I shook my head helplessly, unable to speak. Tim went
down on one knee and felt Oliver’s pulse ... needlessly.

“He’s dead! What happened?” asked Tim a second time,
rising to his feet.

“I
...
I just walked in a minute ago and found him ...
like this.”

Tim gave me a hard, steady stare, looking as if he won
dered whether or not to believe me. Then his expression
relaxed a bit.

“It can’t have happened long ago,” he said. “He’s still
warm.”

“I know.”

“You’ve touched him?”

I nodded. “I wasn’t sure if he really was dead.”

“Did you touch anything else?” Tim’s glance went to the
bronze statuette.

“Yes, I did pick up the statuette,” I admitted. “But then I
realised that I shouldn’t have done and I dropped it again.”

“Too right you shouldn’t have picked it up. With your
fingerprints all over it, you’d have a hell of a lot of explaining
to do.” He drew out his handkerchief and reached for the stat
uette. He gave it a good wipe, careful not to touch the
bloodied end, then he replaced it on the carpet.

“There, that’s safer,” he said. “Now we’d better call the police.”

“Safer for whom?” I burst out before I could stop myself. It had suddenly occurred to me that perhaps Tim Baxter was
taking this chance, using this excuse, to wipe his
own
finger
prints
off the murder weapon.

I watched Tim’s brown eyes flare as he realised what I was
thinking. To cover up, I said quickly, “Don’t you see, you
might have wiped the murderer’s fingerprints off too.”

Tim pressed his lips together, his expression thoughtful. “I doubt he’d have been so careless as to leave any.”

“I might have disturbed him, though,” I pointed out. “I thought I heard footsteps when I arrived.”

Tim had picked up the phone, but he paused and gave me a sharp look.

“Any idea who it was? Did you get a glimpse of him?”

I shook my head. “I’m not even certain that I did hear anybody.”

But I
was
fairly certain. Could it have been Tim? If so, it
was clever of him to return to the scene immediately after my arrival. It would explain his presence in the neighbourhood of
the Coach House if anyone else had chanced to see him, and it would account for any other fingerprints of his that might be found in the studio.

He said, “Was it a burglar, do you think, whom Oliver sur
prised? Is anything missing, Tracy?”

I glanced around the room. Everything appeared to be in
its usual place, with no sign that a search had been made. The
hexagonal desk was untidy, but that was quite normal; Oliver
always managed to create chaos when he opened the morning’s mail. There was a catalogue beside the telephone, a roll of Sellotape, a selection of coloured ball-points, and ...

“It doesn’t look like it,” I said. “Not that there was any
thing much to steal in here—nothing particularly valuable, I
mean. And Oliver never carried a great deal of money on
him. He preferred to use his credit cards.”

“He’s still wearing his wristwatch, I see, and a signet ring.”
Tim was fiddling with some of the loose papers on the desk,
and I said uneasily, “You shouldn’t move anything, you
know. The police will expect to find things exactly as they
were.”

I’d left myself wide open to a comeback from Tim about
me
having picked up the statuette, but he just nodded and dropped the sheet of paper he was holding. Then he dialled
999.

“Oliver’s father will have to be told,” I said.

“Shall I go?”

“No, I’ll do it.” I didn’t care for the thought of being left
here on my own with the body. “I’ll go now, before the police arrive.”

I slipped out while Tim was talking into the phone. Once through the courtyard archway I turned left along an avenue
of horse chestnut trees, which a month ago had looked
magnificent with their creamy white blossom but today
dripped forlornly in the rain. Then out into the open across
neat lawns and well-tended rosebeds towards the house.

Originally built in the fifteenth century, Haslop Hall had been added to over the centuries before architecture became an exact science. It was a happy hotchpotch of pitched roofs
and pointed gables, of leaning chimneys and mullioned win
dows eccentrically positioned. It was listed as a landmark
building, as it well deserved to be.

I entered beneath the Gothic-arched portal and tugged the
iron bell handle. After quite a wait my summons was an
swered by Grainger. He and his wife ran the domestic side of Haslop Hall, with the aid of a couple of daily women, one of
whom doubled for Oliver in his flat.

“Miss Yorke. Good afternoon.”

“Is Sir Robert at home, please?”

“I think not, miss. I believe that the master is still out
around the estate somewhere. But if you will take a seat, I
will enquire. Or Lady Medway, perhaps, if she is now re
turned from riding?”

It wouldn’t be right for me to break this dreadful news via Oliver’s stepmother, his father’s glamorous third wife. “No, it
must be Sir Robert himself. There’s been an accident, you
see. I mean
...”

Grainger gave me a startled look from beneath his bushy eyebrows. He was a short, thickset man, and stood with his arms hanging, palms forward, which gave him an almost
apelike appearance.

“An accident, miss? To Mr. Oliver?”

“Please,” I begged, “try to find Sir Robert for me. He must
be told immediately.”

I waited impatiently in the Great Hall, not sitting down but pacing around beneath the gilt-framed portraits of the family
ancestors, which Oliver, to annoy his father, insisted on
calling the Rogues’ Gallery. It was nearly five minutes before
a door leading from the rear regions opened and a tall,
stooped figure came through.

Sir Robert Medway, though nudging sixty, was still a hand
some man, but problems with his heart had marked him,
leaving him a shade too spare of flesh. An unhealthy pallor showed from under his summer tan. He came to me, his walk
ing stick hooked over an arm, still wearing a dripping rain
coat and muddy Wellingtons, careless of the mess he was mak
ing on the priceless Bakharan carpet.

“Miss Yorke, what is this I hear from Grainger? How badly is Oliver hurt? Where is he?”

I felt terribly nervous, wondering how he would take the news. He and Oliver had been at loggerheads for years, but
even so Oliver was his son and heir,  and it would be a terrible
shock.

“I’m dreadfully sorry, Sir Robert, but I’m afraid that Oliver
is
...
dead.”

“Dead?” A tremor shook his body. “What happened, girl? Tell me!”

“I don’t really know what happened, Sir Robert. I’ve been in Cheltenham all morning, and I arrived at the studio just a few minutes ago and found Oliver lying on the floor. He’d been hit on the head.” Better to get it over with in one go.
“There seems no doubt, I’m afraid, that he was murdered.”

“Murdered? Oh, my God! Are the police there? Is that
what they say?”

“No. We’ve called the police, of course, but they haven’t arrived yet. There hasn’t been time.”

“We?” he asked sharply.

“Tim Baxter happened to come by
...
just after me. He’s
waiting there with Oliver.”

Sir Robert’s agony showed in the look he turned on me. Usually so self-assured and confident, he seemed lost now.

“Hadn’t we better get over there?” I suggested gently.

“Yes ... yes, you’re right.” With a visible effort he pulled
himself upright and marched towards the outer door.
Grainger suddenly appeared from nowhere and I guessed that
he’d been eavesdropping.

“Sir Robert, what am I to tell her ladyship when she arrives
back?” he enquired anxiously.

Sir Robert’s stick fell to the floor, and Grainger dived to re
trieve it. “Tell Lady Medway nothing. I’ll be back as soon as
I can.”

Sir Robert was already through the front door and heading
across the lawn towards the chestnut avenue, taking such long
loping strides with the aid of his stick that I had to trot to
keep up with him. It was raining again, and the slashing
raindrops struck through my cotton blouse and made me
shiver.

BOOK: Design for Murder
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