No Cooperation from the Cat (4 page)

“Yes.” Teddy flinched, but recovered. “Yes, I daresay she has.” With his wife, he was accustomed to female snubs.

“That reminds me—” Nigel was as easily diverted by food as Cho-Cho, possibly with better reason. The first pangs of hunger assuaged, he was reviving. He fished in his jacket pocket, triumphantly retrieving a small grey blob which he swung enticingly in Cho-Cho’s direction. “Come and see what Uncle Nigel has found for you.”

Cho-Cho swayed back and forth as the scent of catnip warred with the haddock for her attention. The catnip was closer and won.

“Very kind of you,” Teddy said grudgingly, obviously wishing he had thought of it.

“Not at all.” Nigel laughed, allowing Cho-Cho to capture the catnip mouse. “My pleasure.”

And Cho-Cho’s. She tumbled across the room in mock battle with her prize.

Even Evangeline smiled with the rest of us. Only Teddy seemed a bit put out.

“More coffee?” Jocasta refilled Nigel’s cup approvingly. We were all so relaxed that no one turned a hair when the doorbell rang again.

“That will be Cecile,” Evangeline said.

“I’ll go.” Martha sauntered down the hall. We heard the familiar voices greeting each other and the footsteps coming towards us.

Jocasta set another cup and saucer on the table, smiled a welcome at the doorway—and screamed.

Teddy dropped his cup. It crashed to the floor, the dark brown liquid spreading out from it.

“I’m so sorry—” Teddy leaped to his feet, cringing. “I can explain—” He broke off as he discovered the woman entering behind Dame Cecile was not the woman he feared. He owed this one no explanations. He had never seen her before. None of us had, except—

*   *   *

“Edytha!” Jocasta choked. “What are you doing here?”

“Edytha is in Ibiza,” the woman said coldly. “I am Isolde.”

“Yes, yes, of course. I’m so sorry!” Jocasta burbled. “It’s just that you both look so much alike. And it’s been a while since I’ve seen you—either of you.”

My mind divided into two reactions. One said: you mean there can be two of them? The other said: Edytha’s in Ibiza? Beatrice Lillie or Joyce Grenfell could have done something clever with that.

“I thought she was with you,” Martha said accusingly to Dame Cecile.

“We came up together in the lift,” Dame Cecile defended herself. “I thought you were expecting her.”

I took a deep breath while Teddy reseated himself and guiltily ran one foot through the brown puddle on the floor, as though by spreading it he could make it disappear.

Jocasta had backed into a corner and obviously wanted to disappear herself. Eyes wide, she stared at Isolde as though waiting for a fatal blow to fall.

“Banquo is back!” Isolde’s gaze skewered poor Jocasta. “Early!”

“Y-yes, I know.” Jocasta’s voice was barely audible. “He came here … looking for
her
…”

“What did you tell him?”

“N-nothing. I … I hid.”

“Very wise.” Isolde nodded. “Fortunately, I always screen my incoming calls. When I heard his voice, I didn’t pick up the phone.”

“Then you haven’t told him, either? He still doesn’t know?”

“Just let me get this straight—” Martha interrupted. She had begun hyperventilating. “Do you mean to say that you have known for months that this woman had died—and you didn’t even bother to inform her husband?”

“Banquo was fully occupied in crossing the frozen tundra.” Isolde turned and raked Martha with an icy gaze that lowered the entire room’s temperature by about twenty degrees. “There was nothing he could have done about it—and we didn’t want him distracted from his quest. The poor darling had quite enough to contend with braving the elements of nature as it was.”

And possibly they were afraid to break the news because his whole project and the prospective book deal would be jeopardised if he rushed home before he had attained his goal. More than possible. Cold-blooded calculation was written all over the woman.

If Isolde was anything like the rest of his family, no wonder the Arctic wastes held no terror for Banquo—they must seem just like home to him.

“Quite understandable.” Teddy had decided to agree, even though he had no idea what he was talking about. It was obviously a reflex action of long standing, prompted by his association with the difficult woman he had married. Always agree, temporise, pour oil on troubled waters … anything for a quiet life.

His contribution was greeted by a barrage of cold-eyed stares. He quailed visibly, but it was no more than he was accustomed to.

“I mean—” He tried to retrieve the situation. “I only—”

“And
who
—?” Isolde demanded icily. “Are you?”
And what business is it of yours
hung in the air.

Meanwhile, all culinary activity had halted. Cho-Cho looked around at us and chirruped questioningly.

There was an answering “
Yip!
” from Dame Cecile’s direction and a minor convulsion in her capacious handbag, from which a small bundle of black fur erupted and her toy poodle tumbled to the floor to be greeted rapturously by her buddy Cho-Cho. They touched noses then, chirruping and yipping, suddenly went into a wild game of chasing each other up and down the hallway.

“Aren’t they cute?” Teddy looked after them, his previous train of thought easily derailed. “Wouldn’t it be great if everyone could be as carefree as they are? So sweet and innocent.”

“I don’t like useless animals,” Isolde stated, quite as though anyone had asked her opinion. “Guide dogs, guard dogs, huskies trained to pull a sledge are all right—they have some purpose. The rest shouldn’t be given the space they waste. And cats! Cats are utterly useless!”

“Cats catch mice,” I defended.

“Oh, yes?” She looked at me with cold disdain. “And how many mice do you get up here in a penthouse?”

“Rats
are
more usual.” Evangeline joined the fray. “Especially two-legged ones.” The look she gave Isolde was pointed enough to pierce metal armour.

“Frou-Frou is
not
useless!” Dame Cecile had been marshalling her arguments. “She is a valued friend, a delightful companion. She amuses me, comforts me, cheers me—”

“Stop it! Stop it! All of you!” Martha’s precarious composure snapped. She rounded on Jocasta. “Who is this awful woman? How dare she force her way in here and begin insulting everyone? She’s your friend—make her go away! We have our work to do!”

“Martha…” I reproved gently.

“She’s
not
my friend!” Jocasta cried. “I hardly even know her. She’s Banquo’s cousin—”

“I don’t care if she’s Banquo’s ghost! Send her away!”

Chapter Four

“Er, perhaps I ought to leave, too.” Preternaturally sensitive to an atmosphere, Teddy took every complaint and rebuff personally, not least the one from his former cat. “Cho-Cho doesn’t seem to have time for me right now. I can come back tomorrow.”

“That might be best,” I agreed, a split second before Evangeline’s elbow connected with my ribs and I realised I had just given tacit permission for him to return almost immediately.

“Perhaps I should come back at another time, as well.”

“She didn’t mean you, Cecile,” Evangeline said quickly.

Nigel’s plate was empty and, as it was obvious that the promised kedgeree was not going to materialise at any time in the very near future, he was already sliding towards the door without a word.

The only one impervious to hints, insults, and direct orders was, of course, Isolde. I had the impression that it would take a stick of dynamite to shift her. Maybe several sticks.

Teddy followed Nigel, more slowly, as though hoping someone would change their mind and call him back. No one did. There was silence as he and Nigel walked to the door, their footsteps quickening as escape came closer.

Then there was an explosion of sound: a startled bray of female laughter, the ever-ready apologies from Teddy, and a discreet murmur from Nigel. The female laugh brayed out again, with words that were noisy, but not quite distinct.

Cho-Cho flicked her ears irritably; she hated loud noises. I didn’t blame her; I did, too. Especially from a female voice that sounded like that of an overbearing first-class troublemaker.

“Aaah!” Only Isolde seemed pleased to hear the disturbance. “Here’s Valeria now.”

“Valeria?” Jocasta seemed to shrivel. “What’s she doing here?”

“I told her to meet me here. We need to have a serious consultation and decide what we’re going to do.” Isolde frowned. “It’s a shame Edytha couldn’t get back from Ibiza in time for it.”

“I-sol-de…?” The bray turned into a yodel.

“In here, Valeria,” Isolde called.

Heavy footsteps charged down the hallway towards us and a sudden rush of air seemed to gust through the doorway, the way it does when you’re standing on the Tube platform and the oncoming train pushes a blast of stale air ahead of it just before it comes into view and slows to a stop.

Jocasta swayed visibly, as though struggling to stand upright in the path of a hurricane. She shrank back, staring with trepidation at the doorway. When a figure abruptly filled it, she could not choke back a whimper. She might have been facing King Kong come to carry her away.

Yet Valeria wasn’t that big. Isolde was bigger. It was the force field surrounding her that trumpeted that Valeria was a force to be reckoned with. That and the deep commanding voice that now announced:

“You’ve found her! What’s she doing here?”

Jocasta couldn’t back away any farther; she was up against the fridge. She looked so desperate that I wondered for a minute whether she was going to open the door and try to crawl inside. But that would have meant that she’d have to turn her back on the two Furies. I wouldn’t want to do that, either.

“I suppose—” The newcomer swept Jocasta with a scathing glance. “I suppose she’s wimped out!”

“We knew she would,” Isolde said.

“It’s not good enough! She’s
got
to!”

“She will,” Isolde said. “That’s why we’re here. To talk to her and make her see reason.”

Jocasta whimpered: the prisoner listening to the torturers discussing the best instruments to use on her. She looked from Isolde to Valeria and back again, her face a mask of anguish.

But it was Martha I was really worried about. My darling had huddled into herself, only her lower lip protruding mutinously, the way it did when, as a child, she had been about to fly into a tantrum.

“Easy, darling.” I moved over to stand beside her and put an arm around her waist, as much to try to hold her back as to comfort her.

“It’s all right, Mother,” she said tensely. “Don’t worry. I really want to hear what they’ve got to say.”

So did I—and I wasn’t the only one. Evangeline was grinding her teeth together and making an obvious effort to keep a low profile.

Dame Cecile wasn’t quite sure what was going on—but she was all agog. The emotional temperature was rising into the stratosphere and I suspected she was taking mental notes for future roles.

“You—!” Valeria accused. “We’ve been trying to get in touch with you for weeks—but you’ve been avoiding us!”

“No, no, not really.” Jocasta gasped. “It’s just … I’ve been so busy…”

“Doing what?” Isolde challenged. “Your job was to assist Melisande. Without her, you had nothing to do!”

“That isn’t true!” Jocasta began to show signs of fight and I mentally cheered her on. “My job is with the Glorious Gourmand Press branch of Perfection Publications. They’re publishing
One for the Road
and it’s been my project ever since the Lady Lemmings approached us with the idea. I was there before Melisande and—”

If Cho-Cho or Frou-Frou had been unmannerly enough to utter such a sound, I’d have called it a snarl. As it uncontrovertibly issued from my darling daughter, I groped for another word that might give her the benefit of the doubt.

I wasn’t the only one lost for words. It stopped Jocasta cold. Startled, she looked down at the floor, only to see Cho-Cho and Frou-Frou looking back at her with placid interest. Another menacing growl snapped her head up and turned it in the direction of the sound.

“No one ever mentioned Melisande to
me
!” Martha gritted out between clenched teeth.

“Why should we?” Jocasta defended. “She has nothing to do with the cookbook anymore.”

The hiss came from another quarter.

“How dare you!” Isolde blazed. “That book was Melisande’s creation—her baby! The one she’ll never give birth to now. The child Banquo will never have.” She paused to consider this and added, “At least, not with her.”

“Was she pregnant?” Dame Cecile was trying to make sense of all the rhetoric being tossed around, but it was a losing battle.

“Not physically, not yet,” Valeria said. “But it was only a matter of time, once Banquo got back from his expedition.”

“Oh, stop!” Jocasta gave a muffled sob. “This is—”

“The book was her surrogate child!” Isolde declared. “She shall not be denied it. No one else’s name must be on the book.”

“It’s
my
book now!” Martha snapped. “I’ve put in weeks of work pulling it all together and testing recipes. There was practically nothing to it when I took over.”

“That’s right.” Jocasta backed her up. “Melisande talked about it a lot, but she hadn’t got round to going through the hundreds of recipes the Lady Lemmings had sent in. I did all the preliminary work, winnowing out the ones that would be practical and have ingredients you could find easily. Melisande hadn’t a clue. She was a typical spoiled little rich girl. She had no idea of life in the real world, what it’s like for people who have to earn a living.”

Isolde and Valeria each took a step forward, prepared to battle to the death. Jocasta’s death, that is. Sensing it, she looked around wildly for help.

TAA-Tat-Ta-Ta-TAH!
A trumpet fanfare rang through the kitchen. The sort that announces the arrival of the U.S. Marine Corps with John Wayne leading the charge. Only they use bugles, don’t they? This sounded more like the arrival of the pharaoh, or the queen of Sheba, or something vaguely operatic, where you just knew that everyone in the production was doomed.

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