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Authors: Caroline Graham

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BOOK: Murder at Maddingley Grange
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“Deadwood,” snorted the old lady. “Some folks got that between the ears.”

“Aces are low,” persisted Mrs. Saville, biting back her natural response and willing her body to remain seated. She continued her explanations and the ladies played four games, Mrs. Gibbs, in casually audacious style, winning three.

“That was rather naughty,” said Mrs. Saville, fizzing with exhilaration. “Pretending you hadn't played before.”

“I ain't played it afore. And I ain't playing it again neither.”

“Very well.” Although the old lady was obviously lying, Mrs. Saville had no intention of being forced into a quarrelsome position. She could see the thread of Mrs. Gibbs's attention was a grudging and slender one, ready to snap at the slightest hint of adverse criticism. “Perhaps there is something
would like to play?”


“I'm not sure…?” Mrs. Saville tailed off, hoping she was not about to be exposed to the lurid history of some swarthy ancestor.

“Vanty Oon.”

“Ah, yes—I've played Vingt-et-Un. But it is usual,” she continued with a nice hesitancy (after all, the old lady looked as if she didn't have two pennies to rub together) “to play for a modest stake. Nothing too high of course. At home we usually—”

“Yeh,” said Mrs. Gibbs. “I'll hack that.” And reopened her bag.

Mrs. Saville brought out a soft chamois drawstring purse full of fifty-pence pieces, without which she never traveled, and put it on the table. Mrs. Gibbs produced a thick roll of grubby notes held together by an elastic band. The outside note was a twenty pounder, and when she removed the band and bent the wad backward to make it lie flat, it became plain that the rest were as well.

Mrs. Saville's heart stopped, gathered speed and thundered on. How common, she thought, feeling quite dizzy at the sight of such purse-proud insolence. How incredibly vulgar. Confident though she was of her ability to trounce all corners, Mrs. Saville had no intention of contending with such lubricious display. She said nothing but tugged open her leather sac and tipped out a little heap of coins. She was stacking them in a tidy pile when, fatefully, she glanced up and caught Mrs. Gibbs's eye. What cold contempt. What sovereign disdain. And more, and worse. For surely there lurked also in that glance a trace of disappointment. As if she, Laetitia Saville, had been tried against who knew what arcane, piquantly crackpot ideal and been found wanting. How dare she? An old gypsy woman.
How dare she?
Pallid with anger Mrs. Saville removed the coins and put a checkbook in their place.

“Woss that?”

“It is a checkbook,” said Mrs. Saville, speaking very distinctly and thinking to forge ahead in the “who's looking down on whom” stakes. She then brought out her Mappin and Webb gold propelling pencil with the jeweled initials. The old lady picked it up, held it to her ear and rolled it between her fingers as if it were a cigar. She nudged the checkbook with it.

“Lay paper.”

“I bank,” said Mrs. Saville icily, “at Coutts. They are the nonpareils of the financial fraternity. Their checks are honored throughout the world by all right-thinking people.”

Mrs. Gibbs laughed then, a corvine squawk. “Crazy as coots,” she cried, livery wattles flapping.
“Caw, caw, caw.”

“And I am not so familiar with vingt-et-un that I am prepared to play for stakes like that.” She pointed at the greasy wad of notes.

“And I ain't playing that daft gin.”

“We could have a nice game of casino.” Seeing that the cawing and wattle-shaking were about to start again, she added quickly: “What do you suggest then?”



“You can tickle that, can'cha?”

“Naturally.” Mrs. Saville sounded defensive. It was true she had played the game in her time and with considerable success, having by nature the precise expression—impassivity lightly laced with disbelief—that the successful poker face must necessarily command. But although she found the suggestion exciting (already her palms felt slightly damp) she had far rather Mrs. Gibbs had chosen a more salubrious option. Poker to Mrs. Saville's mind had a definitely sleazy image, conjuring up a ring of stout perspiring men, shirt sleeves high and gartered, wreathed in smoke and surrounded by beer bottles. A nice game of casino would be much more to the mark. She said so.

“Draw poker. Joker's wild.”

“I don't care to be railroaded, Mrs. Gibbs.”

The old lady picked up the cards, halved and quartered them and then, with a crisp snap and flutter, made the pack whole and pushed it back. “Cut. Aces high.”

Mrs. Saville took the pack and pointedly shuffled once more. Although she had seen no evidence of chicanery, she found the very speed at which Mrs. Gibbs moved highly suspect. She shuffled again, tapped the cards neatly into shape and placed the pack in the center of the table. The old lady curled her lip back, exposing a yellow snaggletooth, and nodded a directive.

Mrs. Saville cut. The king of hearts! Advantage Laetitia, she thought triumphantly. Mrs. Gibbs reached out and turned over the top card. It was the ace of spades. There was a long silence while Mrs. Saville took in this flukey quirk of fate. Because, of course, that's all it was. These things happened sometimes. Foolish to regard them as omens. And after all, she was not committed to any definite number of games. She could stop playing anytime she chose. It was not likely that the old lady, who had been dragooned into participation, would object.

“Very well, Mrs. Gibbs,” she said, making her second mistake. “Draw poker, Joker's wild, it is.”

Chapter Sixteen

erek produced his pencil torch and shone it into the cavity. The door opened on to a cemented area about five feet square from which steps went steeply down. The wall, originally whitewashed, was now gray with cobwebs. Derek hesitated. Didn't some spiders bite? He cleared his throat warningly before stepping into the passage.

No sooner was he there than a further and much more alarming supposition came to mind. This was the getaway route. Chummy's retreat. What if he had not got clear of the house last night? What if he planned to make a further robbery attempt?
What if he was still in there?

Derek stepped back again. Naturally he must explore this new discovery. He had no intention of being cheated of the boost to his pride the telling of such an exploration would bring. But it was the height of folly to do so unprotected. Holmes armed himself as a matter of course when embarking on a hazardous mission (“the Eley's Number Two I think Watson!”) and was an excellent shot, as the state of Mrs. Hudson's walls could testify. Even the faithful doctor had been known to carry an old army revolver. Derek looked around for a weapon.

The fireplace first. A pretty affair of primrose and leaf-green William de Morgan tiles with a tiny little basket of a grate filled with dried flowers. But no poker. He scouted farther afield. The heaviest item that was anything like portable was the old lady's hairbrush. Derek seized it and, facing the bathroom mirror, narrowed his eyes and made a couple of savage swings and chops. Not good enough, especially as he could not count on the element of surprise. It was his opponent, already
in situ
, who would have that advantage. Derek put the brush down and returned to the bedroom.

And then he remembered. “Fool that I am!” he cried aloud, pulling from his pocket Gilly's gun. Here was protection indeed. His imagination waxed fat, exchanging his previous modest fantasy for one vastly more grandiose. Far from just announcing his discovery of the secret passage, Derek now saw himself emerging at the other end, chivvying before him a cringing hoodlum. That would show them all, and no mistake.

Derek moved boldly forward, the gun warm and heavy in his hand. He pictured the miscreant cowering, hands aloft, on seeing his approach. “See this, you villain!” he would cry, waving the pistol. “This is a Major Fontaine Thirty-four. Short range, detachable box and radial lever. One blast from this and you won't know what hit you.”

Fortunately there was a wooden handle on the inside of the door so that Derek was able to close it behind him. He did not wish to leave it ajar, possibly alerting Mrs. Gibbs should she return. This was his tunnel and he would spring it on the startled and admiring assembly when he was good and ready.

Once the door was closed darkness was complete. Derek directed the thin beam of his torch to the edge of the first step and began, very carefully, to descend. High above his head were the beginnings of the final roof-support beams. He thought he heard a bit of scuffling up there and pointed his torch, hoping it wasn't bats. Bats bit you. And drove you mad if they got in your hair. He couldn't actually see any but that might be because his light wasn't too strong.

Derek stood very still and listened, gammony ears alert. He had definitely not imagined the scuffling but now it seemed to be coming from a much lower level and some distance ahead. He redirected his torch. Rats. More biters. But at least they would not (unless he had chanced on an astonishing new strain of
Rattus decumanus)
be flying into his hair.

Derek kept a firm grip on his gun and crept on, hugging the dusty wall for there was no handrail on his right-hand side. Just a sheer drop into darkness. The air was cold and clammy and malodorous. Derek wrinkled his nostrils. Most unpleasant. Musty, like mildewed paper or rotting fabric. Perhaps—for it seemed to be taking him forever to get anywhere—the steps went down not just to the ground floor but beyond. Right under the house to the cellar. Maybe that's where the smell was coming from. They probably stored unwanted furniture and other rubbish down there. Or—Derek suddenly stood quite still—it might be a crypt! He wished now he'd paid attention when Simon was talking last night about the layout of the Grange. Did the late Victorians have marble-effigy tombs beneath their manor houses? Perhaps this was where Mrs. Gibbs's ghost hung out. Consoling himself with the thought that, if this proved to be the case, at least it would be way beyond the stage where biting strangers might appeal, Derek, the huge hump of his shadow behind him, began once more to descend.

But then something awful happened. A horrible clinging moist thing stretched suddenly across his face. Derek cried out and, flinging his arm up to brush it away, dropped his torch. It rolled and clattered to the bottom of the steps, where it lay, glowing up at him out of the humble dark, like a tiny Cyclops. Pulling off the threads of cobweb, Derek gave himself a moment to recuperate then, feeling the way with his now trembling left hand, rapidly covered the remainder of the steps.

He picked up the torch that had rolled against a wall fitting almost flush to the last stair, and quickly discovered a handle, twin to the one he had left behind. He put his ear against the outline of the door but could hear nothing. Derek felt cheated. He had been hoping for voices. A gathering of the clans. Never mind. He would not let a shortage of spectators detract from his satisfaction. Even if he had not successfully apprehended the intruder he had still successfully traversed the unknown and was about to emerge victorious. Nothing could take that triumph away. He turned the handle and pushed.

Something was in the way. He pushed harder and whatever it was shifted slightly. He put his gun down on the bottom step and, gritting his teeth with fervid determination, almost threw himself at the door. It opened about a foot and immediately masses of shiny green fleshy leaves thrust themselves into the gap. He was outside. Something quite unexpected. Derek pushed a little harder and heard a dragging, bumping sound as of a heavy object being propelled over a hard surface. One more big heave should do it. And so it proved. The heave was followed by a tremendous crash. The door flew open with such force it nearly came off its hinges, and Derek stepped out into the conservatory.

It was very quiet, flooded with the most extraordinary light. The roof was sea green curved into ribs, and through this the sunshine poured, subdued and distorted by the thick glass, becoming soft, luminous and wavery. The air was very hot and damp. Hoses snaked about the floor and water trickled and hissed. Just behind his exit door an enormous terra-cotta jar lay on its side in several pieces. Its occupant, the plant with the shiny leaves, reclined in loose mounds of earth. The exposed roots were most unpleasant, hairy and with great rosy carbuncles that looked like lumps of raw flesh.

Derek closed his secret door, leaving a barely visible gap, and was just about to rush off and impart his thrilling news when he was halted by a sudden recollection. In the excitement of his discovery he had quite forgotten his arrangements with Sheila. He had certainly been successful at keeping out of everyone's way. In fact, so engrossed had he become in his investigations that he was now left with—a quick glance at the half hunter—less than ten minutes to get himself murdered in.

Martin and Sheila met head on crossing a tiny conceit of a bridge in the shrubbery. Nothing more than six arched planks and handrails of peeling bark. A willow-pattern bridge, beneath which ran a trickle of crystalline water bobbing over spotted stones.

BOOK: Murder at Maddingley Grange
10.99Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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