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Authors: R.T. Raichev

The Death of Corinne

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The Death of Corinne

Also by R. T. Raichev

The Hunt for Sonya Dufrette

THE DEATH
OF CORINNE

R. T. Raichev

Constable • London

Constable & Robinson Ltd

3 The Lanchesters

162 Fulham Palace Road

London W6 9ER

www.constablerobinson.com

First published in the UK by Constable,

an imprint of Constable & Robinson Ltd 2007

Copyright © R. T. Raichev 2007

The right of R. T. Raichev to be identified as the author of this work has been identified by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

All rights reserved. This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

A copy of the British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data is available from the British Library.

ISBN: 978-1-84529-525-7

Printed and bound in the EU

For Francis Wyndham

Author’s Note

This is a work of fiction. All the characters are imaginary and bear no relation to any living person.

R. T. R.

Prologue

She lay sprawled on her back, the black beret still incongruously
on her head. The ugly lopsided face was the colour of tallow,
which is also the colour of tripe. I remembered that in France
tripe soup was a favoured dish, and for a moment I feared
I might be sick. I breathed in and out deeply, but my eyes
remained
fi
xed on her face. It was frozen in a ferocious grimace:
eyes bulging, mouth open, teeth bared. One received the impression
she had been snarling when death found her. Her tongue
protruded between her teeth and it looked completely black, but
that was probably due to the poor light in the greenhouse.

She had been shot. A lot of blood had oozed from the round
hole in the side of her neck

it looked as though some monstrous
wasp had stung her there. The bullet seemed to have hit the
jugular. Her jacket and the scarf round her neck were stiff with
blood and there was more, a congealed pool, surrounding her.
The blood too looked black. It was obvious that she had been dead
for several hours. Her mobile phone stuck out of a pocket in her
breeches. The electric torch and the niblick we had seen her
brandish the night before lay beside her, respectively on her left
and her right sides. I found myself staring at her hands. On her
right she wore a glove, but her left hand was bare. Her nails were
long and scarlet and she wore two large-stoned rings.

It was then that I noticed the freakish detail. The little
fi
nger
of her left hand was as long as her index
fi
nger. In some way
I knew that to be important, extremely important, only I couldn

t
think how.

I started feeling nauseous again and looked away from the
corpse. That was the
fi
rst time I had been inside the greenhouse.
I saw shrubs and plants, some as tall as trees, whose names I did
not know. Some of the plants were in a state of decay. I remembered
Lady Grylls saying she couldn

t afford gardeners. Empty
pots

blue-and-white Chinese containers

censers

garden tools.
A garden bench. A rickety-looking bamboo table with a matching
bamboo chair. A mobile phone lay on the
fl
oor beside the chair.
I blinked. A second mobile phone? Whose phone was that?

I felt a violent tug at my arm. Nicholas. I had completely
forgotten about him.

Miss, look! Over there
–’

Antonia stopped writing and looked up with a frown.

I am making it sound like a
story
, she thought. She was writing in her diary, but it didn’t read like a diary entry at all. It read like a detective story . . .
Death at Chalfont
. . . Some such title.

She knew the significance of the long little finger. The reason for the death had been fully explained. She knew how the killer had got hold of the gun. (All right, not for certain, but they had a viable theory.) Most importantly – the identity of the killer was no longer a mystery. The whole enigmatic affair had been elucidated, yet, when she wrote in her diary about it, she indulged in deliberate obfuscation and set out to create suspense . . .
Miss, look!
Over there
– Why, she had even broken off on a cliff-hanger! It was almost as though she were writing for an
audience
.

Antonia bit her lip, at once amused and annoyed with herself. She couldn’t help it, she supposed. Well, once a detective story writer, always a detective story writer, but then how many detective story writers got involved in real life murder mysteries? Not many, to her knowledge. In fact she couldn’t think of a single one outside fiction.

Her thoughts turned back to the fatal night . . . Dinner over, they had sat in the drawing room, sipping coffee.
Rich and dark as the Aga Khan
, Lady Grylls said. Hugh started describing some money-spinning
son et lumière
venture with Chalfont at its centre – an ingenious installation involving wires and cables and hundreds of lights, all controlled from one point – wouldn’t his aunt consider it? Then the phone call had come.

What would have happened if they had called the police immediately after? That would have been the logical thing to do, wouldn’t it? Corinne had said they would do it the following day – but what if they had done it that same night? (Antonia couldn’t resist what-if questions.) Well, the police would have searched the grounds and they’d have managed to catch Eleanor Merchant without much difficulty. What then? Well, then there’d have been no murders.

No murders . . . Was it really as simple as that? What would have happened next? Antonia tapped her teeth with her pen. That poor girl’s misery would have continued and intensified and, sooner or later, she would have run away with the man she loved. Or would another murder attempt have been made
before
that?

It was the afternoon of 5th April and they were still at Chalfont. Antonia was sitting at the oak desk in what had once been Lord Grylls’s study. Her eyes passed absently over the ancient tobacco jar with a picture of a grouse in languid flight, the fleur-de-lis paperweight, the several outdated copies of
Punch
, the stamp albums bound in red vellum,
The History of Quadrupeds
and a book with the tantalizing title,
Making Friends With a Badger
. She glanced out of the window at the magnolia tree covered in unfurled buds, at the iron-grey sky above, then across at the yew-hedged garden, misty and dreamlike in the drizzle . . .

Looking down at her diary, Antonia started turning over the pages, going back. The funny thing was that she hadn’t
read
what she had written – not from start to finish. She was curious about the manner in which she had recorded the sequence of events leading up to the murders. She went back four days, to the first day of the month.

April Fool’s Day.

That was when it had all started . . . They had had no idea at the time how appropriate the date would turn out to be.

1

A Murder is Announced

‘Somebody wants to kill her?’ said Antonia with a frown, her eyes on the photographs on the mantelpiece.

‘Well, she’s been receiving death threats through the post. She sounded absolutely terrified. I knew you would be interested, my dear. This is up your street, isn’t it?’ Lady Grylls wheezed and she adjusted herself in the large chintz chair to hand Major Payne his cup. ‘
Quite
up your street. Do have some cake. You investigated that extraordinary business of the lost child together, didn’t you? That’s how you met. Talk about whirlwind romances!’

‘I wouldn’t call it investigating. We just went nosing around, asking questions. We were curious,’ Antonia said lightly. It had been more than mere curiosity on her part, at least at the start. She had been racked with guilt. A totally irrational reaction, she had realized soon enough.

‘Do you think you might use all that as “copy”? Not necessarily for your next novel but one day?’

‘I don’t think so.’

‘Really? Not even if you changed all the names and the setting? Poor taste, I suppose. Pity. It’d make a marvellous book. One of those that keep you up all night. Why do extraordinary things happen to some people while others lead such perfectly dull lives? I know I may live to regret my fatal craving for the picturesque and yet I can’t help myself. The tea’s not too weak, is it, Hughie?’

‘It’s just right, Aunt Nellie,’ Major Payne reassured her.

Lady Grylls was his late mother’s sister. He had five other aunts, all of them alive, though in various stages of decrepitude. Lady Grylls was his favourite and, despite failing eyesight and a bad smoking habit, the one who was in the best of health and displayed the liveliest of spirits. He directed an affectionate glance at her across the tea table. Seventy-three if a day, pug-faced, compact and stocky, though with remarkably elegant ankles, she was clad in a tweed two-piece that was a bit too tight for her and bulged in unexpected places, a fact that didn’t seem to bother her in the least. She wore a single string of pearls around her neck. Her hair was bluish-grey and carefully coiffed and she wore thick bifocal glasses, which kept sliding down her nose.

There had been only the slightest hesitation on his and Antonia’s part when Lady Grylls had suggested that they spend the last leg of their honeymoon at Chalfont Park. After the faded glitter of Monte Carlo and Cap Ferrat – which hadn’t been as louche as they’d expected – Shrop-shire was just what they needed.

Chalfont Park was a moderately large house and in average working order, seventeenth-century in origin, eighteenth-century in atmosphere, gently Gothicized at the turn of the nineteenth by a Grylls who, one imagined, had got bored with the Palladian decorum around him, or found it too overpowering. After visiting the house in the thawing slush of 2nd March 1942 James Lees-Milne had described it in his diary as ‘pleasantly unstuffy – something tongue-in-cheek about it – not really suitable for the National Trust, due to the various alterations’.

Major Payne looked round the spacious drawing room with its shabby chintz sofas and chairs, occasional tables, 1930s cocktail cabinets and pictures in gilded frames on the walls, a Moorish Riff knife with an ornate handle and a long slender blade casually lying on the blood-red speckled marble mantelpiece, its point pressed against one of the two photographs of Corinne Coreille, his aunt’s French god-daughter. Payne smiled. It did seem the perfect setting for some old-fashioned detective drama. He knew Antonia didn’t like him saying things like that, so he didn’t.

‘Back to
l

affaire
CC,’ he went on. ‘Why aren’t the police involved?’

‘Good question. They should be, shouldn’t they? Well, when I asked Corinne, she got worked up. Said it would be bad for her career, the wrong kind of publicity, couldn’t I see? I don’t know what to make of it.’ Lady Grylls shook her head. ‘It’s so
unreal
, if you know what I mean. First Corinne’s call from Paris. Out of the blue. Her first call in years, saying someone wants to kill her! I had to pinch myself. Then, only a couple of minutes later, another phone call, would you believe it? This time from some private detective agency acting on Corinne’s behalf.’

‘French detectives?’

‘English. The call came from London. Corinne hadn’t so much as mentioned them! An elderly duffer’s voice. A Mr Jonson. Droning away. Mademoiselle Coreille had employed their services before. Mademoiselle Coreille was a highly valued client. By that,’ Lady Grylls added with a sardonic curl of her lip, ‘he must mean that the silly gel paid him a fortune in fees.’

How many people still said ‘gel’ instead of ‘girl’? Antonia wondered about the vagaries of upper-class pronunciation. ‘Could the whole thing be some elaborate hoax?’ she suggested. ‘Today is 1st April after all.’

‘April Fool, eh? Of course it is. That’s the kind of thing Peverel would do.’ Peverel was Lady Grylls’s other nephew, the one, she had told Antonia, of whom she was
not
fond. ‘Oh well, I’d be only too glad if it turned out to be a hoax. But somehow I don’t think it was. The poor gel sounded genuinely frightened.’

‘Hardly a gel,’ Major Payne said. ‘She is fifty-five. I am only two and a half years younger than her. Am I a boy to you?’

‘Of course you are, darling. You’ll always be a boy to me. Though I must admit it is easier with Corinne. You do look grown-up, you see, while she – I mean, look at her.’ Lady Grylls waved her hand towards the mantelpiece. ‘In one of those photos she is twenty-five, in the other forty-six. Can you tell which is which?
I
can’t. Not without looking at the dates on the back.’

‘She looks the same age in both,’ Antonia said. ‘No more than twenty-something.’

‘Precisely my point, my dear. Twenty-something. Extraordinary, isn’t it?’

‘Perhaps she’s had plastic surgery.’

‘I wouldn’t be in the least surprised. She might even have had it several times. They do, don’t they? Show business people. Entertainers. Singers and actors and suchlike. Especially those with trademark faces. Corinne’s trademark is her fringe, of course. She’s had her fringe since she was thirteen.’

‘When was the last time you saw her?’ Antonia asked.

‘The week after Rory’s funeral. Goodness, how time flies. We met in Paris. At a café overlooking the Jardin du Luxembourg. Thirteen years ago, that’s it. People stared at her the moment she entered. Started nudging each other. They recognized her at once, despite the fact she had enormous dark glasses on. Corinne had a minder tagging along after her – is that what you call them? Some pasty-faced woman in a trouser suit and a cloche hat, who sat discreetly at another table, ordered a brioche and coffee, and pretended she was on her own. It was a lovely day. Paris is at its best in spring. I needed to take my mind off things, you see. Rory had left his affairs in a mess. You couldn’t come, darling, could you?’ She turned to her nephew. ‘Or could you? I don’t mean Paris – your uncle’s funeral.’

‘I couldn’t. I was in Kabul.’

‘Oh yes. One of those hush-hush jobs. Tracking down drug traffickers, I suppose. Now of course it would be terrorists.’ Lady Grylls took a sip of tea. ‘Corinne nibbled at a meringue. What did we talk about? I think I moaned about Chalfont and servants. I told her about Rory’s funeral and she was sympathetic, but what she wanted to know – what she
really
wanted to know about were the floral tributes. She kept asking a lot of rather odd questions. Had there been delphiniums? Had there been orchids? What about tiger lilies?’

‘Is Corinne – odd?’ asked Antonia after a little pause.

‘Well, when she was a child she sniffed at a cat and nearly died of it. Came out in the most dreadful red blotches. And when she became famous she put two portraits of Napoleon on her bedroom wall, apparently. No one would have thought she had an authoritarian bone in her body! Well, she’s had an illustrious career and made pots of money – but that was all thanks to her clever impresario, I think. Mr Lark. All Corinne’s ever done is sing. She’s never had to do anything else. What was that cliché that’s always used to describe somebody like Corinne?’

‘She’s led a hothouse kind of existence?’ Payne suggested.

‘Completely out of touch with reality . . . People say that about the upper classes, don’t they, so tiresome – the Queen never using credit cards and wearing such ludicrous hats –’ Lady Grylls’s hands sketched an improbable shape above her head – ‘but heaven knows it’s
performers
, actors and singers and suchlike, that are the real oddballs. I mean, who’s more peculiar, tell me quickly – poor old Prince Charles or that very strange boy who can’t make up his mind whether he wants to be black or –’ Lady Grylls broke off. ‘You know the one. He’s had an awful lot of trouble. He denies it all of course.’

‘We know the one,’ Payne said. ‘Well, darling, I’d say both are equally peculiar . . . So, what’s happening exactly? Corinne’s coming to England in her jet and landing on your croquet lawn –’

‘They wouldn’t be able to find my croquet lawn even if they tried, it’s so terribly overgrown. Gardeners cost the earth. She didn’t mention a jet. She might have one, mind. She’s terribly rich. I wish I were as rich. Her sales in South Korea alone have made her a millionaire twice over – and that was back in 1981, I read somewhere . . . She proposes to stay with me, yes. She seems to believe that Chalfont will make a good bolt-hole for her. She’s coming the day after tomorrow, 3rd April.’

‘For how long?’

‘She didn’t say! Till this thing blows over, I suppose, if that’s the right way of putting it. She didn’t even ask whether it would be
convenient
.’ Lady Grylls gave a mirthless guffaw. ‘She seems to be taking it for granted that it will be all right. She’s got houses all over the place – Florida, Geneva, a villa in Antibes, and I don’t know where else – yet she’s coming to Chalfont.’

Antonia murmured, ‘She clearly believes she will be safest here. A haven of peace in the midst of turmoil.’

Payne nodded. ‘
Pax in bello
.’


Pax in bello
be blowed! Why should she believe any such thing? Yes, yes, she’s been here before, but she was only three or four then – her mamma brought her. She’s seen photographs of Chalfont, of course. What I mean is, the house is jolly isolated,’ Lady Grylls went on. ‘There’s no moat or wall – no barbed wire – nothing to deter intruders – no armed sentinels. If someone wanted to cut her throat or shoot her, there’d be no way of stopping them, would there?’

‘Perhaps she’ll bring her own bodyguards.’

Lady Grylls groaned. ‘Her entourage. What
am
I going to do about her entourage? She mentioned a Maître Maginot. I am sure there will be others.’ Lady Grylls counted on her fingers. ‘Her personal maid, her make-up artist, her masseuse – um, what else is there?’

‘Fitness instructor – nutritionist?’ Antonia suggested.

‘Yes . . . Her personal chiropodist too, as likely as not – these people are so spoilt – or do I mean chiromancer?’ Lady Grylls frowned.

‘She probably has one of each.’

‘You are
such
a comfort, Hughie . . . Yes, the likes of Corinne usually travel with a retinue. I’m sure they’ll be an extremely disagreeable bunch . . . She never said how many!’

‘I don’t see why you should let that worry you, Aunt Nellie. Plenty of room here.’

‘Servants, darling. Servants.’ Lady Grylls shook her head. ‘The bane of my life. I have the most awful struggle, keeping this place together.’

‘There’s old Hortense. And Provost. And Nicholas.’

Hortense was the cook, Provost the butler, while Nicholas, Provost’s teenage son, was learning to be a footman.

Lady Grylls stared at her nephew owlishly. ‘As you say, Hughie, there’s old Hortense, Provost
and
Nicholas.
Precisely
my point. Chalfont’s getting more and more uncomfortable and harder to manage – I don’t suppose it’s only me entering a particularly morose and acrid dotage, is it? I find the draughts are getting worse, the hot-water system less reliable, the dogs less clean –’

Major Payne put down his cup. ‘You haven’t had dogs for ages, darling.’

‘Kept chewing the carpets, that’s why I had to get rid of them. Chalfont will be the end of me. We might have been able to pull it round while Rory was alive – there was still money in the kitty then – but he got this apoplectic look whenever I suggested renovation! I might have been saying, what a pity the
jacquerie
didn’t succeed, or do let’s join the Labour Party, or some such thing. Rory seemed to equate shabbiness with “good form” . . . You aren’t warm enough, are you?’ She cast a jaundiced glance at the ancient two-bar electric heater that hissed and crackled in front of the fireplace, giving off a slight odour of burning dust. Pointing towards the high ceiling with her forefinger, she observed that
that
was where all the heat went.

‘No doubt most country house owners are similarly handicapped,’ said Payne soothingly.

‘Don’t I know it! Why d’you think I avoid Adela de Quesne and that old stick Bobo Markham like the plague? All they do when they manage to get hold of me on the blower is moan about damp and dry rot and trespassing ramblers claiming the right to long-forgotten footpaths and how
everything
is at near-perdition point.’

Trying to catch her husband’s eye and failing, Antonia said they could always leave, if indeed there were going to be a lot of people coming.

‘Leave? Is that some sort of a joke, Antonia?’ Lady Grylls said sternly. ‘You can’t leave now. I need you here! Goodness. Peverel isn’t any good in a crisis . . . I don’t think such a thing as “trend-spotting” exists, do you? I am sure he made it up. The way he went on about it last night. Gave me a headache. Too bloody fond of the sound of his own voice.’

‘He promised he’d set his net scouts the task of finding out as much as possible about Corinne –’

‘Ha – net scouts! All bosh, if you ask me, my dear. I wouldn’t believe a word of what Peverel says. He can’t possibly issue commands to anybody simply by sitting in his room and pressing the buttons of his laptop, or whatever that thing’s called – can he?’

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