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Authors: Martha Grimes

The Old Contemptibles (26 page)

BOOK: The Old Contemptibles
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“Shut up and help with this damned tie.”

“I prefer to drive, as per plan, in a chauffeur-driven Daimler.” Her fingers tapped the purse again.

“Sissy.”

“Adam, ‘make a rumpus’ has little finesse. I heard about your excursion in the laundry van. That one apparently you thought through to its rather absurd end.”

He wheeled round to face her and gave his version of a giggle. “Got me to Boone, didn’t it? Got me to the Old Contemptibles.” He wheeled back again to face the tie.

“You’re not a prisoner. You could zip out the front door.”

“Who wants to? Why should that toby jug of a Maltings see where I go. In that black dress and with her knitting she reminds me of the little ladies who guarded the door in
Heart of Darkness.
Two of ’em make a good team: Kojak and Kurtz. Now,
there
was an adventure for you. Wouldn’t you love to go straight down the Amazon in some little tug, far as you could, and fight cannibals?”

“No. I can simply go to the Swan and fight the tourists for my tea.”

“I’d have thought
you
of all people would have more taste for adventure. Does this look all right, this bloody tie?”

It was lopsided. She didn’t care. She smiled at him in the mirror. “Ah, you think I have none?” She opened her purse, drew out what looked, in the mirror, like paper squares, and tossed them right into his lap.

“What the hell’re these?”

She sighed. “What on earth do they look like?”

“Letters.”

“You’re bright.”

He forgot about the tie and wheeled over to her. “They’re to
Jane.”
He stared up at her, his mouth working. “Where in God’s heaven did you get letters to Jane?”

She lit a Black Russian with her lately acquired black lighter. “I wouldn’t call it God’s heaven, actually. On Dr. Kingsley’s shelves. In a hollowed-out book. A fake book. He has several where he keeps his liquor.”

Adam could only gawk, look from her to the small pile of letters clamped together with a large clip. And shake his head. And sputter. “Eh . . . but . . . well? Did you read ’em?”

Her eyes widened. “Certainly not. I might be a thief, but I am not a nosy Parker.” She snapped shut her purse. “I don’t believe in prying into others’ affairs.” Her eyebrow arched. “I’m glad you’ve got your teeth in because your mouth is open. Please close it.” She stubbed out her cigarette.

“How?” It came out in a sort of squeak. “How’d you find these in his office? Why were you going through his things?”

She sighed in exasperation. “Adam, I do not go through people’s things. You recall I had an appointment with him this morning? Yes. Well, I spied—something—then. When he told me he wanted to see me again tomorrow at ten, I was only too willing to agree, but suggested we begin immediately, this afternoon. It was during this second appointment that I managed to get at the hollow book. Oh, never mind, never mind. It was scarcely more clever than your linen van trip.”

“Well? What did you ‘spy’?”

She checked her circlet of a watch. “Isn’t it time for that Daimler?”

“You can’t see
through
book spines, at least I don’t think you have x-ray vision. So how’d you know?”

Distant footsteps reached them. “That’s probably Mrs. Colin-Jackson coming to—”

“Forget Kojak. How?”

“They were tied up.”

He leaned forward, waiting.

“Oh, very well. You get the letters, but I—” She opened her purse again. “—get this!” It was a length of narrow red ribbon, mussed where it had been clearly tied, as around a package.

Now he was openmouthed again, staring at the ribbon that curled round her finger and dangled down. There was a heavy-knuckled knock at the door.

“Put them away,” said Lady Cray. “In a drawer, somewhere—”

“The hell with that. I’m not leaving them here.” He thrust them back at her. “In your purse. Go on!” He cleared his throat. “Come!”

Mrs. Colin-Jackson opened the door and stuck her flushed face
round it, gave them a wide, lipstick-smeared smile and said, “Car’s here!”

The announcement was as smeared with gin as her mouth was with lipstick. Letters popped into purse, wheelchair aimed at door, Adam Holdsworth and Lady Cray followed a weaving Mrs. Colin-Jackson down the carpeted hall, past the Wedgwood-blue dining room, the richly painted walls, antiques and portraits—through the splendid ambience of Castle Howe.

31

It was Alex’s night.

Everyone deferred to Alex except for a few who fortunately had remembered that the reason for the boy’s return was not the reason for the return of the Prodigal Son. And that the lavish dishes served up were really the funeral baked meats, although the funeral was yet to come.

Cocktails had been taken in the library, where Crabbe Holdsworth had held forth on Southey and Company. The disarray—the stacks of books off the shelves and on the floor—only seemed to whet his appetite for discourse on the Lake poets.

Hawkes had moved amongst them with plates of skewered oysters and sweetbreads on small picks, which were utterly delicious. Crabbe Holdsworth was an oyster addict, apparently. Melrose remembered there had been many plump ones in the delicious mutton and oyster pie served previously. Millie would one day be chef at the Dorchester or Ritz if she kept this up.

 • • • 

Melrose wondered who had chosen the wine and wouldn’t have been surprised to find out this was Millie’s duty also. But apparently the key to the cellar was held in the large hand of Hawkes, and he chose himself or followed Genevieve’s instructions. There were three wineglasses—one white, one red, one dessert—suggesting a decent meal,
which it indeed was, though the amalgam of dishes was unusual: the guests were being treated to anything that had once swum, leapt or flown.

There had been potted Silloth shrimps to start, followed by a game mousse that simply misted on the tongue, it was that light. George Holdsworth assured them that the pheasant had been hanging for some weeks, the duck had been shot out of the sky only yesterday, and the guinea fowl’s neck wrung just this morning (or that’s the way he made it sound). They washed down the mousse with a superior Chablis Grand Cru.

They were now on to their jugged hare and the story that went with the stalking of this wily animal. Melrose was happy to miss most of this account, since his concentration was fully on the Château accompanying the dish. It was a Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, ’55. If this didn’t attest to the wealth of the Holdsworths’ cellars, nothing would. Polite attention was paid George, his turgid accountings met, even, with relief. Kingsley and Fellowes had been half drunk upon arrival; Kingsley was getting drunker and Fellowes soberer.

Madeline sat beside Melrose taut and smooth. She joined in without much enthusiasm when the talk got round to Crabbe’s book.

The seating arrangement had presented Genevieve with a problem, there being more men than women. She had at least had the sense to seat Alex next to his great-grandfather, whose wheelchair had been placed strategically to her right. But she was having precious little luck drawing either Alex or Adam into conversation, and going little better with Adam’s friend, Lady Cray, who seemed to want, judiciously, to hold her tongue and listen to others.

Adam Holdsworth’s friend fascinated Melrose. He thought her an altogether singular—and secretive—woman. She was elegant and extremely intelligent, attested to by her holding her tongue amongst strangers. She had an odd gesture of raising her arm across her breast so that the hand fell slightly over the opposite shoulder. It was as if she were handing back information to some messenger who would spirit it away. He could barely see the silvery irises of her eyes in the light from the candelabra; it was the jet beads of her pupils that looked as if they were boring straight through him. Lady Cray would look, look away, look, look away. It occurred to him that she (like Millie) knew he was not what he said he was.

Melrose had been surprised to find himself allocated the seat on
Genevieve’s left, he, bespectacled, cramp-necked cataloguer of books, until he realized during the mousse course that she apparently found him if not absolutely attractive, at least new. It next occurred to him that Genevieve might be on to him, too, for she had raked her eyes more than once over the silk wool suit. You could take the label out of Armani, but you couldn’t take the Armani out of Armani, and Genevieve Holdsworth was anything but blind to fashion. That cream-colored viscose gown she was wearing hadn’t come off the rack, that was certain. Why had he thought that going northward meant he was going frump-ward, to a place where all the women knew only muslin and macs and Wellington boots? Or that a comfortably loose cut would be taken as a baggy old suit? He made a rotten mole.

His only dissatisfaction with the seating was that it put Dr. Helen Viner on the other side and at the other end of the table next to Crabbe Holdsworth. They had had an interesting discussion about the creative process (a spin-off from Crabbe’s brief commentary on “Kubla Khan”) that Melrose had only half heard because his mind was so busy with trying to sort out what it was about her that so attracted him. Genevieve was far sultrier, Madeline far prettier. But Dr. Viner was one of those people one felt one knew instantly—at first glance or first touch, the rare sort one met as one meets an old friend.

In an odd way, she was, since Alex had told Melrose about his talk with her in the maze. That he, Alex, had felt upon watching her walk away a sense of unease. Had Alex thought she was
lying
to him? No. Well, she could have been, could she? What had they talked about except (the absurd, to Alex) notion of her as a possible suspect and then about his dream. She had an alibi, Melrose told Alex. Indeed, she was the
only
one who absolutely did.

Melrose could understand how Alex felt drawn to Helen Viner. So did he. She was more than receptive; she was a receptor, a receptacle into whom one could pour one’s thoughts with no fear that one would neither quantify nor qualify; she would not make one feel one should be more, or less, or other. He felt, when he suddenly thought of the phrase “ideal mother,” a terrible jolt. It felt like aftershock. She reminded him of his mother and he felt ashamed. But when he looked over and met Alex’s eyes, the feeling passed and the blush
receded. And there was Millie. He was furious that someone could possibly have been the cause of their losses.

The featherweight wineglass broke.

He had been increasing his hold on both bowl and stem to the point that the stem snapped, making a straight shallow cut across his two fingers. Never had he done anything like this before; he laughed and responded to the several concerned voices that it was nothing as he wrapped his napkin round the fingers; Hawkes was sent for sticking plaster; good old George bellowed down the table that not a drop of wine was spilt—ah, that was the thing!

Did anyone else but Melrose see that Lady Cray turned chalk-white? Her own fingers, as if in sympathetic response, tightened on the edge of the tablecloth as if she’d pull the whole lot to her lap and the floor. It took her less than five seconds to regain her composure completely, for the color to return to her cheeks, for the hand to cross over her breast and rest on her shoulder handing back that message to the past.

Melrose saw that Helen Viner was looking at him, and even from this distance he could read her expression.
Never mind. We all do it.

Although two doctors were present, Genevieve delighted in playing nurse and applying the sticking plaster. The tiny line of blood had been so thin, the cuts had all but disappeared anyway. The little accident was forgotten and conversation resumed over the citron soufflé and Sauternes.

But if the talk seemed fairly ordinary, dinner-table talk, underlying it all through the meal had been a pervasive sense of dread. Not even the half-dozen bottles of wine they’d consumed eased the high-wire tension round that table.

Melrose saw that everyone was watching everyone else. Only Crabbe and George were truly finding themselves more interesting than they found the others. Whenever Kingsley, Genevieve, Madeline, Helen Viner, Fellowes—and especially Adam and Alex—made a remark, Melrose felt small
frissons
of anxiety, as if a little tearaway spark from a log hitting the carpet had caught fire to each of them, which took another dull anecdote from George or Crabbe to stamp out.

Naturally, there was a lot of conversation about nothing at all to avoid the
something
on everyone’s mind: there were an uneven eleven of them; there should have been twelve; there should have been Jane.

When he shifted his eyes from Alex to Adam to Lady Cray, their own eyes responded. Ever-so-slightly, they nodded. Melrose could have sworn the three of them were in collusion.

Banquo’s ghost could appear at any moment and bring the house of cards tumbling down.

2

He did not have to rout her from the middle of the coffee and port and walnuts in the drawing room after dinner. To what he thought was his great good fortune, Helen Viner approached him.

She did it adroitly, in a slow movement from Francis Fellowes to old Adam, and seemed to end up at Melrose’s side merely by accident. He would not have called it “adroit” had he not noticed that Lady Cray was following Dr. Viner’s movements. And his. Although she appeared to be listening to Madeline Galloway, she was watching them as she lit a cigarette with a black lighter.

“Mr. Plant, could we talk for a moment?” Helen Viner had a lovely smile.

He would have liked to have been able to help her into this new dimension of their relationship; he found, however, that she was perfectly capable of handling it on her own. She even suggested that they go for a little walk. “You’ll need a coat,” he said.

“I need nothing.”

He wondered if she ordinarily used this elliptical or ambiguous way of talking. Perhaps it was the psychiatric training, the listening ear that resulted in this moderation of her own speech.

There was no patio, only a few steps leading down from the french windows to the wet grass. Their feet were lost in ground mist as they walked the weed-choked path toward the kennels.

BOOK: The Old Contemptibles
13.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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