A year after a body presumed to be that of her missing husband turns up, someone breaks into Meg O’Hara’s flat and leaves her a shocking message. Is it a horrible trick? Or is Robin O’Hara still alive? The British intelligence agent vanished the same day Meg asked for a divorce. With the appearance of more cryptic messages, Meg is certain that someone—perhaps her husband—is trying to make contact. But no one believes her.
Except Bill Coverdale. Deeply in love with Meg for years, he sets out to get to the bottom of things. His only lead is the mysterious woman with zinnia lipstick he saw getting into a taxi with O’Hara shortly before the disappearance. According to Frank Garrett of the Foreign Office, O’Hara was on the job at the time. And now Coverdale has just narrowly dodged an attempt on his own life. But it’s Meg who’s plunged into peril when a mysterious packet surfaces. Mired in a morass of blackmail, forgery, and murder, she must battle a chameleonlike enemy who’s following in the footsteps of an unstoppable criminal mastermind.
Bestselling British crime writer Patricia Wentworth spins a tangled web of romance and deception in this thrilling crime novel.
Dead or Alive is the 1st book in the Frank Garrett Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
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Dead or Alive
By Patricia Wentworth
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1936 Patricia Wentworth
All rights reserved.
It was the middle of October when Bill Coverdale came back. One year in South America looking for a big engineering contract for his firm, and now home again. England felt very good after Chile. London felt good. The astonishingly fine summer still held. There was a blue sky, a clear sun, and a light breeze. He was going to see Meg O'Hara. Everything was very good indeed.
He was walking, because in town you had to get your exercise when you could, and also because now that he was really going to see Meg again, he wanted to get himself in hand and be sure of just how he was going to meet her. You can't be away for a year without a change in every relationship. Sometimes absence makes the heart grow fonder, and sometimes it doesn't. Mostly it doesn't. Growth, change, and development go on. If two people are in constant touch with one another, they adjust themselves to these changes instinctively, and often without realizing that there are any adjustments to be made. But a year is a long time to be away.
Bill Coverdale told himself all these things. He had loved Meg for so long that he did not believe that he would ever stop loving her, but when he left England Robin O'Hara was still alive. Now that Meg was a widow, there was change between them whether she herself had changed or not. Change between them. ... But just what sort of change? What was he going to be? Just the old friend of the next-door days in the country, when she was fifteen and he was twenty, and he had begun to love her? Or was there going to be a chance for him at last? He had stayed her friend because he would rather have Meg's friendship than any other woman's love. He had stayed her friend for ten years, and then she had married Robin O'Hara. That meant she was going to want a friend very badly some day. He wondered whether she had broken her heart when Robin died, or whether it had been broken before. Meg wouldn't let anyone know. She'd keep her head up whatever happened.
He walked up fifty stone steps and rang the bell of Meg's flat. He felt a kind of triumphant excitement because the year was over, and he was here, and Meg was free, and then a sudden black stab of fear lest, in the night since he had telephoned, something, anything, should have happened to set them apart again. And with that Meg opened the door.
All the things he had been thinking about went out of his head — change, fear, triumph, and Robin O'Hara — leaving just Meg, the most dearly familiar thing in all his world, the most settled, the most stable.
They came through a square yard of passage into the little sitting-room of the flat. The sun slanted in at the one window and showed how shabby everything was, but if the furniture and chintzes had been falling to bits, Bill wouldn't have noticed them, because he was looking at Meg. The trouble was that Meg was shabby too. He saw that. He had seen her pale often enough — far, far too often in the six months before he had gone away — and he had seen her tired, and had hated Robin O'Hara very fiercely, but he had never seen Meg shabby before. She had on a washed-out cotton frock. She was much thinner. There were dark shadows under her eyes. She was pale and she was tired. He loved her quite unbearably, but all he did was to hold her hand as if he had forgotten to let it go, and say,
"What have you been doing to yourself?"
It was Meg who pulled her hand away. She hadn't any intention of telling Bill what she had been doing. The last two years had been a nightmare, but when Bill was there she could wake up — not for long, not altogether, but just whilst he was there. Solid, darling old Bill. It was just as if he came crashing into the very middle of the bad dream and broke it round her. She took a long breath and said,
"Oh, Bill! Lovely to see you! And you're going to stay — you're not going out again?"
"No — I'm going to be here. My uncle's retiring, and I'm getting his place on the board."
"Oh Bill — how nice! And you're looking splendid. Did you like it out there?"
"Hated it like poison."
"I just did. England's good enough."
Meg laughed, her own old laugh. It made him love her terribly.
"Bill — how insular! I'd love to travel."
Bill put that away for future reference. He had an orderly mind. If Meg wanted to travel, she should. It was going to be his business to see that she got what she wanted. Always. He looked at her with a frown and said,
"You didn't answer my question. What have you been doing to yourself?"
It wasn't only his question. It is every man's question, and Meg gave him every woman's answer.
She thought, quickly and bitterly, "Why do people always say that? You don't do these things to yourself."
Bill was frowning at her.
"It's been very hot."
"You've got thin."
"It's the fashion to be thin."
Bill went on frowning.
"I don't like it."
Meg leaned back in the corner of the sofa. Her dark blue eyes held a sudden sparkle and there was a little colour in the cheeks that had been too pale for Bill's taste. What, after all, had it got to do with Bill? She said in her sweetest voice — and Meg's voice could be very sweet —
"I know, darling, I'm looking hideous. But need you rub it in?"
Bill relaxed into a grin.
"Now you're angry."
"Well, you were rubbing it in — weren't you?"
He was grave again, but not frowning now.
"Meg — won't you tell me what's the matter?"
Her colour died. The sparkle left her eyes.
"It's hot — I'm hard up — I've had to stay in town. I'm all right, Bill."
"You don't look all right. Why are you so hard up?"
"Nothing coming in. I had a job for a bit, but it petered out in July."
"I thought you'd come in for some money — you wrote and told me you had."
Meg laughed a little.
"Bill, that was really funny. It was old Cousin Felicia, and she left quite a lot to be divided up amongst her female cousins, but when they came to hunt them up, how many do you suppose there were? Fifty-six. So what I got wasn't worth writing out to you about, and anyhow I haven't got it yet." (And now he'll want to lend me money, and if I don't take it he'll be miserable, and if I do — )
The sparkle came back into Meg's eyes. You can borrow money when you've got it yourself, but if you haven't any — and no one but Meg knew just how little she had — why then you begin to lose things that money can't buy — pride, courage, and self-respect. Before Bill's tentative "Meg —" was well across his lips, she had shaken her head.
"Nothing doing, darling. But I'll lap up a job if you can find me one. I can type. I suppose your firm does have typists?"
Mr Coverdale was sharply revolted.
"But look here, Meg, what about the Professor? He can't know. Have you told him?"
"Darling Uncle Henry? Have you ever tried to talk to him about money? Robin did when we were first married. He said it was perfectly ridiculous Uncle Henry having no relations but me and a flourishing banking account, and the two things being so to speak insulated. He thought it would be an awfully good idea for Uncle Henry to give me an allowance, and when I said I couldn't ask him he said he'd do it himself. Well, he did it quite beautifully. We were having tea in the garden, and honestly, Bill, I thought he was going to pull it off. He led up to it in his most charming manner, and Uncle Henry sat there beaming and drinking his tea. He liked Robin when he noticed him, and he is fond of me — he really is. But just when Robin thought it was all over except the 'Henry Postlethwaite' on the banker's order, Uncle Henry put his cup down three inches off the edge of the table and said, still with that pleased sort of smile and without noticing the crash, 'Yes, yes, my dear — and I think if you don't mind I will leave you to make a note of it. These trains of thought are very elusive, but Hoppenglocker will be bound to admit the force of this.' I took hold of his arm and I said, 'What are you doing to make a note of, darling?' He looked over the edge of his spectacles at me and said, "My reply to Hoppenglocker, — but I'm afraid you wouldn't understand it, my dear.' So then I said, 'Did you hear what Robin was saying just now?' and he shook his head and said, 'No — no — I'm afraid not. Some other time, Margaret,' and off he went. And Robin said he did it on purpose, but he didn't, you know — he's like that."
Bill sat large and immovable. Meg was trying to put him off, but it wasn't any use, he wasn't going to be put off. He would much rather help Meg himself, but the Professor was the proper person to do it. He was glad she had mentioned Robin, because Robin had got to be mentioned, but he wanted to straighten out this business about the Professor first. He just waited till she had finished and then asked what he had planned to ask.
"Have you written and told him you're hard up?"
"Yes, I did. He didn't answer the letter. Bill darling, what's the good of looking like that? He doesn't answer letters — he just doesn't — and he's in the middle of another book."
"Have you seen him?"
She shook her head.
"No. He's on his island. I told you he'd bought an island to write this book on, so that he could get right away and be quiet — no dogs, no motor horns, no nieces, no anything except a bird or two. You can't get away from birds."
The Professor appeared to be a wash-out, for the moment at any rate. But Bill was not prepared just to leave it at that. Even the most absent-minded professor on the most secluded island can be made to realize his responsibilities. Perseverance would probably be necessary, but perseverance was one of Bill's strong suits. The snag was that perseverance takes time, and meanwhile here was Meg looking as if she was living on buns and or whatever it was that women did live on when they were hard up. Something had got to be done about that here and now. He said abruptly,
"Meg, how much money have you got? Didn't Robin leave anything? His affairs must be settled up by now."
He thought Meg looked at him oddly. Then she looked away. Then she said,
"No — they're not settled."
"But the lawyers would advance you something."
She got up and went to the window. When she moved you could see how thin she was. The blue dress that had lost most of its colour made her look like a ghost. Meg used to look so pretty in blue. It wasn't only the dress that had lost its colour. She stood with her back to him, and the sun touched the ends of her dark hair with gold. She looked at the ugly houses opposite and felt her heart knock against her side. It would be better if Bill went away, but she couldn't make him go. She said with an effort,
"Bill — who told you about Robin?"
Bill Coverdale had turned in his chair and was watching her. He was wondering if she was broken-hearted about Robin O'Hara. It didn't seem possible, but you never could tell. She had married the fellow. He answered her with a puzzled note in his voice.
"Garratt wrote and told me."
"What did Colonel Garratt say?"
Quite impossible to tell Meg what Garratt had really said. Garratt didn't mince his words, and he didn't like O'Hara. A free translation was necessary.
"He said Robin had taken on a dangerous job, and when he didn't turn up, they were afraid something had happened. And then —"
Bill didn't go on.
"Please, Bill — I want to know what he said."
"Well, he said that a body had been found in the river, and that there wasn't any doubt —"
"And then you wrote to me. It was a very nice letter."
"You didn't answer it," said Bill Coverdale.
"And so you wrote again!"
"And you didn't answer that."
"I don't think Robin's dead," said Meg O'Hara.CHAPTER 2
As soon as she had spoken, Meg turned round. She had said it, and saying it had broken something. It had been terribly hard to say. It had taken every bit of her strength, and now that it was said she felt weak and shaken. She came back to the sofa and sat down on it, leaning forward with her elbows on her knees and her chin in her hands.
Bill was looking at her in a shocked, incredulous manner.
"Meg, what do you mean? Garratt said there wasn't the slightest doubt."
Her mouth twitched a little. She made no reply.
"Garratt said his wallet was found in the river."
She said, "Yes —"
Bill got up and began to walk about the room.
"But what makes you think — Garratt said —"
Meg lifted her lids as if they were heavy, looked at him for a moment, and then looked down again. It was a hurting, wounding look. It set Bill a long way off, beside Garratt who talked about things of which he had no knowledge. Colonel Garratt, the efficient head of the Foreign Office Intelligence, might have been grimly amused. Bill Coverdale was sharply hurt, and, being hurt he was angry. He said, with the warmth of that anger in his voice,
"I'd better go — you don't want me!"
And with that Meg lifted her eyes again. The wounding look had gone. They were the eyes of a child afraid in the night. The blue of the iris was almost swamped. They were black with fear. If Bill went away and didn't come back, the nightmare would close down again. She put out her hand as if she would hold him. But there was no need for that. The fear in her eyes wiped his anger away. He took her hand and kissed it gently.
"Meg — what's the matter?" And his voice was gentle too.
Meg O'Hara drew a long breath.
"I thought he was dead —"
"And why don't you think so now?"
She said, "I'll tell you, but you must sit down. I want to tell you, Bill."
He had been holding her hand, and now he let it go and came back to the shabby armchair which faced the sofa. The pattern on the chintz had been a winding stem entwined with peonies and pomegranates. There had been little blue birds amongst the branching fruits, but the peonies were drab and the birds were grey, and all the colour and the bloom was gone. Meg sat there as colourless. The hand which he had kissed was in her lap. The other hand covered it in a straining grip. She said,
"I did write to you."
"I never got it."
"No — I tore it up. I wrote three letters. I tore them all up."
"I'm going to tell you. It isn't easy, but I can't go on — I must tell someone." She looked at him for a moment, a quick frightened look that glanced from his and was veiled by the down-dropped lids. She said, "It's so difficult," and her voice had an exhausted sound.
Bill held himself where he was. What had been happening whilst he was away? Whatever it was, he had got to know. He said,
"Meg, do tell me. What is there that's so difficult? if you mean you weren't happy with Robin, I knew that all along."
She took this with a kind of shock of relief. Then she drew a long breath and said,
So it had been as bad as that. ... His little Meg — his darling little Meg. ... He was physically incapable of speaking for the moment, and Meg went on:
"I can't talk about it — but if I don't, you won't understand; besides, some of it must have been my fault. If I knew whether he was dead or not, it would be easier."
Bill sat there big and solid. He said in a rough, commonsense voice,
"I don't see what that's got to do with it. If he didn't treat you properly, he didn't."
Meg looked up for a moment.
"He didn't beat me — it wasn't anything like that. It was partly my fault. I'm stupid — it's easy to hurt me —" She stopped suddenly because she couldn't go on. By some horrible illusion it wasn't Bill sitting there, with his big frame, fair hair, and rugged features, but Robin O'Hara, dark and slim, with the air of charm which had stolen her heart and the bright cruelty which had broken it. The eyes smiled behind their black lashes — beautiful grey Irish eyes, looking at her as if he loved her, whilst he stabbed with bitter words. He had known just how to strip her of her defences and strike suddenly and deep. He had known how to betray her lightly with a kiss. But how could she tell Bill these things? She couldn't. With an effort she controlled the trembling of her body, but her mind shrank and all her thoughts were quivering with pain. She said in a small quiet voice,
"No, we weren't happy. Just at first —" Just at first she had been in a fool's paradise and had taken it for the truth. Just at first Robin had been the dream lover of the most beautiful dream in the world — just at first. ... She went on as soon as she could. "It's difficult. He thought Uncle Henry would give me an allowance. I can see his point of view. I was living in the house — like a daughter — there was lots of money. He thought it would come to me — some of it at once, the rest later. I suppose it was natural if you didn't know Uncle Henry. When I told him, Uncle Henry would leave all his money for research work, and that that was all money meant to him, research, it — I think it was a most awful shock. I'd got so used to Uncle Henry's point of view that I never thought about it. I've tried awfully hard to be fair, and I think some of it was my fault because I didn't explain, and some of it was his because he took to much for granted."
Excerpted from Dead or Alive by Patricia Wentworth. Copyright © 1936 Patricia Wentworth. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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