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Authors: Catherine Aird

Losing Ground

BOOK: Losing Ground
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LOSING GROUND

ALSO BY CATHERINE AIRD

The Religious Body

Henrietta Who?

The Complete Steel

A Late Phoenix

His Burial Too

Slight Mourning

Parting Breath

Some Die Eloquent

Passing Strange

Last Respects

Harm’s Way

A Dead Liberty

The Body Politic

A Going Concern

Injury Time

After Effects

Stiff News

Little Knell

Amendment of Life

Chapter and Hearse

Hole in One

LOSING GROUND

Catherine Aird

This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

LOSING GROUND
. Copyright © 2007 by Catherine Aird. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

www.minotaurbooks.com

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Aird, Catherine.

Losing ground / Catherine Aird. —1st U.S. ed.
p. cm.

ISBN-13: 978-0-312-36889-0

ISBN-10: 0-312-36889-5

1. Sloan, C. D. (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 2. Crosby, Detective Constable W. (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 3. Police—England—Fiction. 4. Manors—Fiction. 5. Art thefts—Investigation—Fiction. 6. Arson—Fiction. I. Title.

PR6051.165 L67 2008
823′.914—dc22

2008013020

First published in Great Britain by Allison & Busby Limited

First U.S. Edition: July 2008

10   9   8   7   6   5   4   3   2   1

For Peach, Plum and Henry
with love

LOSING GROUND

CHAPTER ONE

‘There’s something I want, Stu,’ said Jason Burke, indicating a piece of paper he’d just tossed on the table in front of Stuart Bellamy. ‘Get a load of that.’

Bellamy picked up the paper and read out slowly, ‘A view of Tolmie Park near the market town of Berebury photographed from the air.’

‘That’s right.’ Burke strummed a few notes on a guitar. ‘It’s over Calleford way.’

Bellamy peered at the picture more closely and said warily, ‘Jason, this is a picture of a socking big country house in the middle of a large park.’

‘That’s right.’ Jason bent more carefully over the guitar and twanged the same notes over again. And again. ‘It’s in the middle of nowhere, actually.’

‘A country house that looks as if it’s falling down,’ pointed out Bellamy.

‘It does, doesn’t it?’ agreed Jason, reaching for a sheet of music. ‘I expect it is, too. It’s pretty old.’

‘It looks it,’ said Bellamy, adding studiously, ‘Jason, you’ve got a house already. A nice one.’

‘Sure,’ said Jason agreeably, ‘but I want this one, too.’

Stuart Bellamy said nothing for a moment. Working as the
manager of Jason Burke, who was known to the wider world of Pop Music as Kevin Cowlick, had already led him into the wilder areas of finance – ones that had not been covered by his own accountancy apprenticeship. Actually, Bellamy hadn’t completed his apprenticeship to become a fully qualified accountant – not that Jason cared about that – but every now and then he wished he had. This was one of those times.

Eventually, sounding as if he understood his employer’s way of thought, he said, ‘Of course, it’s bigger than this one you’ve got now.’ He waved towards the forty-track synthesiser at the other end of the room. ‘And there’d be much more room for extra equipment.’

‘Oh, it’s not that,’ said Jason casually, his hand straying to the lock of hair that fell across his forehead and was the inspiration for his stage name. ‘It’s for sentimental reasons. That’s why I want it.’

‘Ah…’ murmured Stuart Bellamy.

‘First big bike ride me and my mate took out of Luston – we were only nippers at the time – we fetched up at this Tolmie Park and I thought that if I got to be rich and famous that I’d like to live there.’

‘I see,’ said Bellamy. And he did. Jason was not the only young man to have spotted a goal early in life and used it as something to aim for or to lay at the feet of some lady. The difference was that Jason was still young…and so far there was no lady.

‘And now I’m rich and famous,’ said Jason simply, ‘I’m going to have it.’ He resumed playing his guitar.

‘That may be easier said than done,’ pointed out Bellamy cautiously. ‘Whoever owns it may not want to sell.’

‘Every man has his price,’ responded Jason. This was one thing that success and its consequent great wealth had already taught the young pop star.

‘True,’ said Stuart Bellamy, ‘very true, but don’t forget it may cost.’

Jason Burke let his glance travel meaningfully over a rack of albums all with the name of Kevin Cowlick on them before he said again ‘I want it.’

‘Sure,’ said Bellamy.

‘So go get it for me, Stu – oh, and Stu…’

‘Yes?’

‘Get me another djembe, too.’

‘Okey dokey.’ Stuart Bellamy thought how like Jason it was to want him to buy for him both a vast country estate and a new drum in the same breath. ‘Will do.’

‘It’s an outrage,’ spluttered Marcus Fixby-Smith, curator of the Greatorex Museum in Granary Row, Berebury. ‘An absolute outrage.’

‘It would appear to be a case of theft,’ pronounced Detective Inspector CD Sloan, rather less emotionally. He was head of the tiny Criminal Investigation Department of F Division of the Calleshire County Constabulary. As such almost all matters that could not be diverted to Traffic Division or the Family Case Officer landed up on his plate.

This was one of them.

‘Robbery with violence,’ insisted the curator, pointing to the damaged glass top of a showcase.

‘Breaking and entering,’ countered Sloan briskly, indicating the smashed window of the gallery and broken glass.

The museum curator tossed his long hair out of his eyes and said, ‘Inspector, the thief, whoever he was, as well as stealing a portrait, did violence to this show cabinet and quite possibly to the exhibition pieces on display inside it.’

‘I can see that that is very likely, sir,’ agreed Sloan, peering at the damaged piece of museum furniture and its disarranged contents.

‘He must have gone through the glass top while he was standing on it to reach up to get at the portrait,’ declared Fixby-Smith.

‘You could well be right about that,’ said Sloan equably. ‘Where would this showcase have been standing in the ordinary way?’

Marcus Fixby-Smith waved a hand and pointed to the middle of the room. ‘Just over there. Easy enough to drag it up against the wall and hop onto it.’

The museum curator had at his side his assistant, an intelligent and able young woman wearing glasses, called Hilary Collins. Her low-key sandy-coloured blouse and skirt were in direct contrast to the flamboyant clothes of her boss.

Detective Inspector CD Sloan, known to his friends in the Force for obvious reasons as ‘Seedy’, had not been quite so fortunate. He had with him at his side at the museum as his assistant Detective Constable Crosby, dressed – at least in theory – in what was officially described in police circles as plain clothes.

Crosby, though admittedly young, was not really up to being at the cutting edge of detection. What Superintendent Leeyes had said when the call from the museum had come through was: ‘Take him with you, Sloan. He can’t do any
more damage there and he might even learn something.’

Seeing the constable advancing at the double on the broken glass of the show cabinet now, Sloan wasn’t so sure of either the premise or the possibility. ‘The Scenes of Crime Officer will want to examine that first, Crosby,’ he said swiftly, motioning him back.

All four of them were standing immediately under the place on the wall of the museum where, until recently, had hung the portrait of Sir Francis Edward Petherton Filligree, 4th Baronet, of Tolmie Park, near Berebury. The oil painting had been cut neatly from its ornate gilt frame. Along the lower edge of the frame was inscribed in black letters the subject’s name and dates. Above this now in the place of the portrait was just an old wooden backing board.

Detective Inspector Sloan turned over a new page in his notebook and wrote down the place, date and time. ‘Would this have been a particularly valuable painting, sir?’

The curator threw out his chest. ‘We have many more important pieces here in the museum naturally, but any portrait by Peter de Vesey has its own value.’

‘Who he?’ asked Detective Constable Crosby insouciantly.

Marcus Fixby-Smith favoured him with the pained expression of an expert talking to a total ignoramus. ‘A well-known local artist, very popular with the eighteenth-century landed classes of Calleshire.’

‘He painted most of them in his day,’ put in Hilary Collins helpfully. ‘We’ve got several more works by the same artist in our collection here and there are some others over in the Calleshire museum and Art Gallery.’

‘We have the best ones, though,’ put in Fixby-Smith quickly.

Sloan, who could recognise a turf war as well as the next man, tried another tack. ‘Would you care to put a value on what has been stolen?’

‘Impossible,’ declared Fixby-Smith histrionically.

‘Not easy,’ explained Hilary Collins. ‘De Vesey portraits so seldom come on the market these days. Families that have them do like to hang onto them, you know.’

‘Ancestor-worship,’ said Detective Constable Crosby under his breath.

‘So why haven’t the Filligrees still got Sir Francis?’ enquired Sloan mildly.

‘I think it could just be because there aren’t any of them left. Filligrees, I mean,’ said Hilary Collins. ‘But I don’t know that for sure.’

‘Perhaps they were broke and had to flog him off,’ put in Crosby. ‘Like selling the family silver.’

The museum curator grimaced. ‘Worse, we might even have been given him. Then we’d have had to have him – I mean, it – whether we liked it or not.’ Since this didn’t quite accord with his earlier stance he added hastily. ‘Of course, we’re always pleased to have anything by Peter de Vesey. Naturally.’

More practically, Hilary Collins said, ‘I turned up our Accession List before you arrived, Inspector, and it looks as if the portrait came into our collection at some time in the late nineteen-thirties. We have it in our records as having got it on long term loan from the family.’

‘There would have been very little market for this sort of work just before the war,’ put in the museum curator authoritatively. ‘Things were very flat in that field then.’

‘They were hard times,’ said Sloan, who had his
grandparents’ memories of those years to go on.

‘And I believe the Army requisitioned the house in the war…’ said Hilary Collins.

‘Harder times still,’ said Sloan. That he’d learnt from his own parents.

‘Then after the war,’ she resumed, ‘I understand the authorities used it for a while to house delinquent children…’

It would be a toss-up, thought Sloan, whether they would have done more or less damage than the rough soldiery. ‘And then?’ he asked.

‘I have an idea tat at one time someone wanted to carve the place up into self-contained flats but keeping the façade and the style,’ replied Hilary Collins. ‘That was after the delinquent children.’

‘You know the sort of thing, Inspector,’ the curator interrupted her, ‘grand country house living without having to worry about the roof or the drive all on your own.’

‘I do,’ said Sloan. They knew all about the aspirational society in the criminal investigation world, too.

‘Delusions of grandeur, if you ask me,’ muttered Crosby.

‘And then there was a rumour about having a golf course there.’ Hilary Collins frowned. ‘I rather think something went wrong with a bank loan at that stage but that was only hearsay. I’m not sure.’

‘So?’ asked Sloan, mindful of more important problems than a break-in and the history of an old building awaiting him back at the police station. Bank loans that had gone wrong were not exactly hot news there either.

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