Read The Old Contemptibles Online
Authors: Martha Grimes
Solemnly, Jury shook his head. Fiona might be dying one thousand deaths, but she was a stand-up woman. Fiona was—he had never thought of it before—an inspiration to anyone in an impossible situation.
“It’s a collagen treatment. Does wonders for the skin. Tea?” she asked calmly, as the tissue-thin paper shifted round her mouth.
“Absolutely. Where’s our chief?” He sipped the milky tea, watching Cyril who, apparently realizing no more paper wads were coming his way, swayed off toward the “chief’s” office.
“Ever know him to be here before nine? Ha! Not that one.” It was difficult drinking with the paper squeezing round her mouth, but she managed. “Not since we had that redheaded typist.”
He remembered. The poor girl had lasted a week and spent most of her time walking quickly down the hall away from Racer.
“Think he had a casting couch, wouldn’t’ya?”
Jury watched as Fiona brought out the heavy ammunition: mirror and makeup kit. She extracted from the kit about the same number of items Wiggins had from Natural Habitat. Only with Fiona, Nature could go hang; she herself had a much finer hand. She sat smoking her cigarette; she couldn’t peel off the paper mask with Jury sitting right there.
“I think I’ll have a word with Cyril. Haven’t seen him for several days.”
Fiona called to Jury’s departing back: “Mind you don’t let him make a right mess in there!”
• • •
All Jury could see of the cat Cyril were his eyes and ears projecting above the top of Chief Superintendent Racer’s desk, which denied, as always, that anyone worked here. No messy papers or files. Pristine pen in shining holder. Pristine blotter with another travel brochure
wedged into one of its corners. Racer, of course, accounted for this near-virginal state of his work area by dwelling on organization. Organization was something Jury didn’t understand (according to Racer). The organized man looked as if he hadn’t a thing to do. In Racer’s case this was true.
Cyril looked at Jury, blinked lazily and returned to his morning job of emptying Racer’s middle drawer of its little belongings. It hadn’t taken much practice for Cyril to learn how to fit his paw in the brass ring and pull. This once done, he could set about the inside.
“How’re things, Cyril?” Jury heard little rasps and lisps of what were probably clips and pins, and then Cyril raised his head, blinked again at Jury in a gesture of camaraderie before the head disappeared once more.
From the six little nooks in the front of the drawer, Cyril was dishing out paper clips, pencils, Sellotape, drawing pins, and other oddments. Then there was the rattle of paper, which Jury knew would be pushed over the lip of the drawer to flutter to the floor.
Cyril was apparently finished, for he raised his head, yawned as if the task were boring, slid down and reappeared, blinking at Jury.
For all of this work, Cyril expected at least an inspection of the damage.
Jury went round to the other side of the desk: drawer open, everything out except the mousetrap Racer had fitted with a sardine. Oil stained the wood.
“Great job, Cyril. Smells, too.”
When the outer office door opened, Cyril’s ear perked and he made a hasty move to the urn used for holding umbrellas. From this vantage point he could observe without being observed. Racer stopped long enough to vent his spleen on Fiona for making teabag tea.
He marched into his own office, took one look at Jury and said, “You’re a mess.” Sartorially perfect in his silk shirt and hand-built suit, Racer doffed his outerwear and walked round his desk, where he saw a far greater mess. As if he meant to smash it to pieces, Racer hit the intercom and yelled,
“Miss Clingmore! Get in here and clean up the carnage and if the rat-catcher does this one more time it’s not only his
job!” He glared at Jury and said, “Every effing thing except the damned sardine.” He tossed the mousetrap on his blotter. “And you, you’ve probably been sitting here watching all the
time. I swear I’m getting a couple of priests in here for an exorcism.” His head swiveled. “Where is that ball of mange?
A completely refurbished Fiona Clingmore sighed her way into the office and set about collecting the clips and pins.
Totally rattled, Racer went to his drinks cabinet for a reviver. “That damned cat is pure distilled cathood. He’s one hundred ninety proof. He’s the only animal Noah let on the Ark by himself.” He slugged down a finger of Rémy.
Said Jury, “I believe I’m being reinstated.”
“Sir Peter-bloody-Apted called the Commissioner.” Racer was still scanning the room for Cyril. “If I see those yellow splinter-eyes just one more time . . . Haven’t you cleared up, Miss Clingmore? Get out and look for him.”
Fiona winked at Jury as she walked past the umbrella urn.
“Pete, not Peter,” said Jury.
Racer caught Jury in his cat-scan and went on. “So now I expect you’ll want to stick your nose into ‘P’ Division’s case.”
But he didn’t appear to be as massively irritated with his nemesis, Jury, back on the job as Jury would have thought. Indeed, Jury thought he detected some relief. “Well, it’s caused
a lot of personal grief. If it’s all right with Kamir, yes, I’d like to talk to the Holdsworths.”
Racer waved him down. “You could do with a bit of patience, Jury. The world doesn’t step to your time. If it weren’t for you, this mess wouldn’t have landed on my platter.”
“Sorry about that. But it’s made a bigger mess of
platter, wouldn’t you say?”
Hell, of course he wouldn’t say.
“All right if I take Wiggins?”
“Take him.” Racer smiled meanly. “The weather up there might clear out his mind.”
• • •
Sergeant Wiggins, although delighted to see Jury back in their office, didn’t agree. Worse than Yorkshire, it’d be. Rain. Wiggins fiddled with his pills, washed down several just thinking of bogs and mosses and wet as Jury was stuffing Melrose Plant’s faxed reports and his own notes in a case, and talking to Wiggins about Wordsworth, about his heavenly walks across the heavenly fells, soaking up blue
lakes, daffodils, mountains, and even reciting “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.”
“Do I look like a cloud, sir?” Grimly, Wiggins shoveled a dozen vials of something into a bag.
The Wiggins suitcase, clothes be damned.
It was true that Thomasina Thale lived in a “grand” house—at least it was a formidable brick residence in one of the better squares in Earls Court—but she didn’t own it. She did not even own the small part of this house in which she lived, a second-floor, walk-up flat.
This was not the only part of Plant’s report that diverged from the truth: “Aunt Tom” was not an elderly, “Victorian” lady. She was probably in her midthirties, with a pretty unmadeup face, lovely chestnut hair and (Jury saw when she preceded them down a short hall) a leg in a brace. She had to drag it.
People called her “Tommy.” As she indicated chairs for Jury and Wiggins to take in her front room, whose windows overlooked a little park, she laughed at the sobriquet her niece had chosen.
That was not all she laughed about. When Jury (truly dumbfounded) reiterated the description that Plant had put in his report—a description of a starch-bosomed, nail-eyed old lady who had (literally, it seemed) a whip hand—Tommy Thale laughed even harder. It was a rich, honestly rollicking laugh, wonderful to hear coming from someone who must be facing a life of denial and privation. Yet, as Jury looked at the room, the warmth that came from the fringed-shaded lamps and the two-bar fire, the embroidered cushions and needlepointed chairs, he thought that Tommy Thale was one of those people not easily disheartened, one who would see the glass as half full and be happy simply not to die of thirst.
She was wiping the tears of laughter from her eyes with the heels of her palms. “Well, she had to, I expect.
certainly have sent her up. To London, you know, to live with me. It was a story invented for old Adam’s ears, probably. Millie’s a favorite, perhaps second only to Alex. He’d never let
lay a hand on her.”
“The Holdsworth family. Have you met them?”
She laughed again, her hand twisting the cane back and forth, and said, “I couldn’t have done, could I? Not without my high-buttoned boots and whip. Sounds a bit S-and-M-ish, really.”
“I beg your pardon, miss?” Wiggins looked puzzled.
“Oh, yes. Being homicide, we’re not much into that.”
“I hope not.”
Jury smiled at her attempt to keep her own face straight. It was, he thought, the first time in days he honestly felt like truly smiling. Her own refusal to give in to her fate diminished his own unhappiness.
She went on: “But I know about all of them from Millie’s letters. She’s quite a letter-writer—who knows if they’re the truth?—and from Annie. When she was alive.” Tommy looked considerably sadder, as if there were other fates much worse than hers.
“Why wouldn’t she prefer to live with you, though?” asked Jury. “Why want to stay in a place where she does all of the work—at least according to what my friend tells me—and is treated rather basely by the rest of the staff,
has no affection for the family. Except for the old man and . . . Jane Holdsworth’s son. Alex, I think his name is.”
“That’s why you’re here, I expect. About Jane Holdsworth? I read about it and, pardon me, but hadn’t you something to do with her?”
“Yes.” He couldn’t keep the blunt, hand’s-off edge from the word.
Wiggins looked up rather sharply, then returned to his notes.
Tommy Thale gave him a long look. “Sorry, I expect you should be asking the questions, not I. Millie, then. Millie stays because of her mother. My sister, Annie. You know something about that, I expect?” Jury nodded, and she went on. “Everyone told Millie it was an accident, that drowning, though I doubt anyone, including police, believed it. Millie’s determined to stay.” Her eyes flicked over to a picture-grouping on a round table covered with a lace cloth. “Poor thing. Like a little ghost who haunts the place of suffering. Still, I
think her reason is more than that; I think she’s determined to find out what happened.”
“Do you think it was suicide?”
She did not answer immediately; she was thoughtful. “It’s hard to believe.”
“Was your sister like you, temperamentally?”
“I’d say so, yes.”
“Then it’s very hard to believe.”
Tommy smiled at him. “That’s a compliment?”
“Absolutely. But that leaves only murder, Miss Thale.”
“Tommy. Yes, I expect it does. And
anyone did that, and
Millie finds out, that person had best watch out. My niece is ferociously loyal. Quite fierce. I sometimes think of her as sitting in the eye of her own storm. She can give the impression she’s cool, quite calm. She isn’t calm; she’s braced. Braced against whatever particular horrors come her way.” Tommy smiled again. “And a first-rate cook, like her mother . . . Oh! Wouldn’t you both like some tea? I forgot. . . .” Laboriously, she made to rise from the sofa.
“My sergeant is a first-rate tea-maker. And I’m sure he’d love a cup. Right, Wiggins?”
Wiggins rose quickly. “Are the things ready to hand?”
“Yes. The kitchen’s just through there.” To Wiggins’s retreating back she called, “Tea’s in a canister, so’s the sugar, pot’s on the counter.”
Wiggins was, Jury imagined, dying for his cuppa.
“What does Millie know about her father?”
Tommy shook her head. “Nothing, except she hasn’t one. Nor do I know anything, if that’s what you’re hoping.”
“Did you ever speculate that it might be someone up there? In the family, perhaps?”
“Oh, yes. But I doubt it; Annie went around with one or two men here in London.” She leaned forward, her hands cupping the cane’s handle. “There’s one person I know it
Graham Holdsworth. Annie was terribly upset when that rumor got started. The thing was, see, I think she was really in love with him. But he wasn’t, with her. He’d talk to her, though. Quite a lot. They’d be together, alone, say, in the kitchen, or even out walking on the property, and people knew it.”
Jury paused. “Can you be sure? I mean, perhaps she only wanted to protect him.”
“Then she wouldn’t have gone so far as to tell me he was gay, would she?”
Jury did not so much sit back as fall back against his chair. And what else did Jane not confide in him, if this were true? “Graham Holdsworth was homosexual?”
“Yes. Annie couldn’t believe it. She said she’d simply never have guessed, never thought that—well, isn’t there some sort of chemistry? Can’t a person
“Sometimes, sometimes not. Go on.”
“He told her it’s what broke up his marriage. He was finally getting some therapy, apparently. He told Annie it was what probably kept him from marrying Madeline Galloway in the first place. For some reason, though, he seemed comfortable enough with Jane. . . .” She shrugged. “It’s complicated. Of course, this is hearsay, but, believe me, Annie never lied, never. She was afraid that realizing this about himself was what made him do it. Kill himself, I mean.”
“In these times? My God, the closets are nearly empty.”
“Not for the Graham Holdsworths. And he’d tried before, you see, when he was twenty or so. Some people just aren’t on the side of life, are they? He’d had a hard-enough time accepting himself, Annie thought, without these feelings surfacing. He was—she said—rather weak; that sounds cold-blooded, but you know what I mean. After all, he’d been coddled all of his life, never had to work, not really, and treated as a ‘poet’ and ‘painter’ with the attendant privileges for a special gift.” Again, she shrugged. “But he was very nice and kind, Annie said. Gentle.” Her smile was the mere ghost of her other smiles as she looked up at the mantel-arrangement. “Took her rowing once, on Windermere. That’s what his doctor thought Millie should do, go out on one of the lakes, she thought that it might help Millie over her . . . obsessions. Not rowing on Wast Water, of course.” She smiled bleakly.