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In his pied-à-terre above the Elder and Dupré literary agency, Charles Elder was tucking into his favourite breakfast: devilled kidneys with toast and coffee. It was a meal fit for a king and set him up nicely for the day; sometimes, after such a breakfast, he had been known to forego lunch ... though not often. Meals, for Charles Elder, were one of the delights of life, together with the very best novels and poetry. Fine meals and good books, and friends with whom to share these, were the necessities of life – which, all things considered, had been kind to him of late.
In Albert he had a faithful and considerate companion, and in Maria Dupré not only a brilliant colleague but a trusted friend. The agency was ticking over very nicely, with fifty authors whose books, both novels and non-fiction, ameliorated the cultural climate of the land. At fifty-six he was in tolerable health, though his doctor had recently suggested that he shed a few pounds. He was, he admitted, rather on the large side. Over lunch last week, one of his authors had commented that the size of his girth made his feet appear so tiny that he resembled a spinning top.
A spinning top, indeed!
His housemaid bustled into the room. 'That's me, Mr Elder. I'll be back at six. Sirloin with potato dauphinoise and honey-glazed carrots for dinner.'
'Sherry trifle suit you?'
'That sounds a delight, Mrs F.'
'Ta-ta for now, then.'
Not that life was all blissful contentment at the moment. There was always a fly in the ointment, and this particular fly was sorely vexing him. Last week, he'd received an unwelcome letter from an old school friend, the novelist Denbigh Connaught. The writer had sacked his agent and wished to appoint Charles to look after his literary affairs. Moreover – and this was what pained Charles – Connaught wished to apologize for something that had occurred during their schooldays almost forty years ago.
Charles had not deigned to reply. The missive had brought back a slew of painful memories. Almost as bad as those memories, however, was the niggling voice in the back of his head which insisted that he ought to accept the novelist's apology and agree to represent him.
He finished his coffee and gazed through the window overlooking the lawn at the rear of the premises. It was a fortnight until his annual garden party, and he must really draw up a guest list. His mind whirring over whom to invite, and whom not to, he moved to the bathroom, attended to his toilette, then descended to the agency. It was ten thirty, and his working day was under way.
Molly was tapping away at her typewriter in the reception area and smiled as he appeared. 'Morning, Mr Elder.'
'Good morning to you, my dear – and a fine one it is, too. The sun shines and all is well with the world. Post?'
She indicated two piles on the desk beside her, a tottering tower of manuscripts and a smaller stack of letters.
'Would you be a darling and go through the manuscripts? Unsolicited in one pile, agency authors in the other. I'll take the letters now.'
He picked up the letters and moved to his office.
'Oh,' Molly said, 'Albert rang. He took the car into the garage yesterday, and it's bad news. It's something to do with the carburettor, and they won't be able to supply a replacement until next week.'
'Botheration! Very well, I'll phone Albert later.'
All weekend, Albert, sweating and covered in grease, had toiled like a trooper beneath the Bentley, before admitting defeat and calling the garage. That was one of the many things he admired about the young man: he could turn his hand to anything, and more often than not was successful. That he occasionally admitted his limitations was only, as far as Charles was concerned, an admirable trait.
He had hoped to drive to the coast with Albert on Saturday, but now they would have to entertain themselves at home.
The door to Maria's office stood open, and Charles paused. She sat at her desk, her red lips skewed into an amused pout as she read a manuscript. Oh, how his heart surged when he regarded her like this, in her unguarded, unselfconscious moments. Charles thought of Maria as the daughter he had never had, and was fuelled by the foolish but heartfelt desire to cherish and protect the woman.
She looked up and blessed him with her heart-warming smile. 'Charles ... You're looking well.'
'Never better, my dear. Something amuses you?'
'Nevinson's latest. He really gives Wodehouse a run for his money.'
'Excellent. I look forward to reading it in due course.'
'Donald sends his regards,' she said.
'I really must take you both out for dinner. It must be at least two weeks since I had a good heart-to-heart with Donald.'
'That would be lovely. He's putting the finishing touches to his latest.'
'Excellent news. I shall look forward to reading that one, too.'
He was crossing to his office, leafing through the correspondence, when his gaze alighted on the return address of the uppermost envelope. He stopped in his tracks, feeling suddenly dizzy.
'Charles?' Molly said from her desk.
His hand trembled as he ripped open the letter. He read the single sheet of notepaper, felt decidedly ill, and gave Molly a wan smile.
'That dreadful man Connaught again,' he murmured.
'Perhaps Maria or I should write to him ...' Molly began tentatively.
'I wouldn't dream of it, my dear. I shall deal with him myself.' He crossed to the staircase. 'I think I'll go and lie down, Molly. I do not wish to be disturbed, there's a good girl.'
Clutching the letter and murmuring imprecations, Charles hurried up the stairs.
Two miles across London, in Knightsbridge, Lady Cecelia Albrighton was taking her daily constitutional.
It was her habit to take a turn around the park every day after breakfast, come rain or shine, buy a Daily Mail from old Billy on the corner, then return to her apartment and peruse the news over a cup of lapsang souchong. Today, however, such was the state of her thoughts that she sailed right past Billy, halted only by his cry of, 'Here! Lady Cee! Wot's up, luv? Somethin' I said, is it?' 'Why, Billy ... How remiss of me. I was miles away.'
She retraced her steps, bought a paper, and turned to go.
'Here, you OK, luv?'
She forced a smile. 'I am very well, thank you, Billy.'
The old newspaper vendor nodded, unsure, and Lady Cecelia hurried away.
Back at her tiny apartment overlooking Hyde Park, she made herself a cup of tea and sat at her escritoire beside the window.
For perhaps the tenth time, she reread the letter she had received that morning – the second from Connaught in two weeks. Then she laid it aside and stared around the spartan but impeccably furnished room.
She led, in the circumstances, a satisfactory life; she had her little routines and a select circle of friends, and she enjoyed living in London. A little more money would have eased her circumstances somewhat, but she could not complain. There were many people in more reduced circumstances than her. She had made it a rule of life never to succumb to self-pity, and never, ever, to regret what might have been.
The letters, however, had thrown her into such a state of confusion that she had found herself not only looking back but pitying the woman she had become.
She was sixty, though sometimes she felt older, and she was lonely. Friends were all very well, but what a woman of her age needed was a life companion: a husband, preferably, but a lover if a husband was not to be found – at any rate, a strong man on whom to unburden oneself from time to time, and with whom she could share the trials and tribulations of existence in this uncertain age.
She shook her head, remonstrating with herself: she really must not slip into the slough of self-pity.
Phrases from the letter surfaced unbidden in her mind.
I am deeply sorry for what occurred all those years ago ...
I was a fool, and only now, with age and experience, can I admit as much ...
I would very much like to make reparations, if that would be at all possible, and therefore extend this invitation: Please, Cecelia, do me the honour of being my guest at Connaught House ...
Along with the pain provoked by the letter, however, Lady Cecelia admitted that she felt also not a little frisson of excitement.
She picked up her pen, pulled a sheet of Basildon Bond towards her, and began to write.
Dear Denbigh, I would be delighted to accept your invitation ...
Fifty miles from London in the sleepy Hampshire village of Coombe Lacey, Colonel Haxby set off from his thatched cottage on the stroke of eleven, bound for the Horse and Hounds.
He was nothing if not a creature of habit. His all-too-brief enlistment in the 11th Hussars had instilled in him a military discipline, a respect for order and the acceptance that one must abide by the rules. Rommel might have put an end to his army days in 1941, but in the fifteen years since then he'd prospered by living life on strictly martial lines.
He rose every day at seven, bathed and shaved, and breakfasted at seven thirty. At eight he spent an hour reading the Express, and at nine attended to his correspondence. At ten he read a volume of military history. At eleven, the Horse and Hounds opened its hallowed portals and he arrived on the dot of five past for two pints of Mackeson with whisky chasers, followed by lunch, which set him up nicely for his afternoon nap at three. At five thirty, he tucked into whatever his housemaid, Edna, had rustled up, and at seven it was back to the Horse and Hounds for an evening session. However fine the whisky, and however good the company, it was his rule to be back home by ten. It didn't do to burn the candle at both ends, and after all he had to be up at the stroke of seven every morn.
His Mackeson and whisky chaser was waiting for him on the bar, as ever, and he ferried the drinks to his armchair before the mullioned window.
'How are we this morning, Colonel?' Lilly the barmaid called out.
He imbibed the milk stout, smacked his lips, and stretched out his artificial leg beneath the table. 'Terrible, if y'must know.'
She blinked. His usual response to her greeting was, 'Fine, fine. And all the better for seeing your smiling face, Lilly.'
'Oh, and why's that, Colonel?'
'Spectre from the past.'
'Y'know how it is. You fight the battle and forget about it, hmm? Put it behind you and get on with life. Don't blubber over spilt milk.'
'Ye–es,' she said.
'Nothing worse than an old soldier who bores people with talk of past battles, what?'
'Then something like this comes out of the blue – a spectre from the past.'
He took his first mouthful of Scotch and closed his eyes. Oh, bliss ... Heaven!
Lilly leaned over the bar. 'What happened, Colonel?'
'Fell in with a rogue in 'thirty-three. Should've known better. I was a bloody fool.' He fell silent.
'Who was that, then?'
'Nasty piece of work – not that I knew it at the time. Only later, a year later. Cad did the dirty. Left me high and dry.'
'I'm sorry, Colonel. Best to forgive and forget, though?'
'Forgive?' he grunted. 'Never! Especially ...'
'Chap's written to me – twice, would you believe? After all these years. Bold as brass. And what's more, he claims he's sorry. Sorry? After what he did? As if mere words might atone ... Wants me to pay him a call, stay for a weekend, so that he can apologize face-to-face.'
'Well,' Lilly said, 'are you going to go?'
The colonel didn't hear the question. He chewed his moustache, rearranged his false leg and finished the Scotch.
'Same again, Lilly, there's a good girl. And make it a double whisky this time.'
She poured the drinks and carried them across to his table. 'Well, are you going to visit him, or what?'
He thought about it, then said, 'Yes, Lilly, I am.'
He'd go down to Cornwall, he decided, and shoot Denbigh Connaught through the ruddy heart.
Back in London, Pandora Jade was in the throes of creation.
She regarded the naked girl who was lying on the bed with her bottom in the air. 'Head a little further up. Stop! Wonderful, darling. Hold it there.'
'But it's uncomfortable!' Nancy protested.
'Almost done, darling. Two minutes.'
With a palette knife she applied impasto daubs of sienna acrylic to the canvas and smeared it in an impressionistic approximation of her lover's perfect body. She worked fast, her eyes shuttling between the girl and the canvas. As ever, when painting, she felt as if she were on another plane, the cares and concerns of daily life temporarily forgotten.
She stepped back and regarded the painting. Another session tomorrow and it would be finished. She was excited, as ever at this stage of creation; the image before her caught the essence, she thought, of Nancy Carter.
'There. You can relax now, darling.'
'Phew! What I do for art,' the girl said, swinging her legs off the bed and massaging the feeling back into her arms. 'Can I look now?'
'Come on, then.'
The naked girl padded around the easel and stood beside Pandora, staring at the canvas.
'And that's supposed to be me?' Nancy said, indignant.
'Well, an abstract representation of you.'
'And what's that mean in plain English?'
'It means, it represents what I feel is the essential you.'
'But ...' Nancy pulled a sulky face. 'I mean, my bum doesn't look like a cardboard box, does it? And why is my head so big? You've made me look ugly!'
Pandora slipped her arm around Nancy's waist and kissed her cheek. 'Cubist convention,' she whispered. 'It's meant to represent not so much your physical beauty as your inner strength, your determination.'
'My strength?' the girl said dubiously.
'That's right, your indomitable spirit.'
Nancy turned to her and grinned. 'You and your big words!' she laughed, then fell silent. At last, wonderfully demure, she asked in a small voice, 'Do you love me, Dora?'
Pandora had been smitten by Nancy ever since she'd clapped eyes on the girl over the counter of the butcher's shop in Bow three months ago. Nancy's blonde curls, her china doll face, her fetching shyness ... Over her purchase of half a pound of chopped liver, Pandora had dreamed. On her next visit, she'd given Nancy her card and asked if she would care to earn a 'little extra' as an artist's model.
She kissed the girl again. 'Climb into bed, my darling, and I'll show you how much I love you. Just give me a minute to get cleaned up.'
Pandora crossed to the screened-off area of the studio and scrubbed her hands with turpentine.
She was about to rejoin Nancy when her gaze fell on the letter she'd flung aside that morning.
She picked up the single sheet of notepaper and reread the missive.
The infernal cheek of the man – three importuning letters in a fortnight, and after all these years! And what the hell did he mean when he said that he wanted to apologize? She sighed, torn between ignoring this summons, as she had the first two, and satisfying her curiosity by accepting the invitation to spend a weekend at his pile in Cornwall.
She wondered if Annabelle might still be living with him.
If so, did she really want to see the girl? Come to that, did she want to renew her acquaintance with the egotistical Denbigh Connaught? She detested the man – though, she allowed, he had done her a favour all those years ago: their brief fling had put Pandora off men for life.
'Dora!' Nancy called out. 'Are you coming, or what?'
Pandora returned to the studio, undressed, and climbed into bed with the girl.
Monty Connaught came to London as infrequently as possible, but when he did so, he invariably stayed at the Travellers Club on Pall Mall. It was one of the few oases of civilization in this metropolitan hellhole; the food was above average for a country that had emerged from rationing just two years ago, and the wine cellar was excellent. This evening found him enjoying a postprandial port in the library, wondering whether to push off first thing in the morning or spend another day in London visiting friends.
Yesterday he had delivered the manuscript of his latest travel book, White Sails in the Sunset, and in order to kill two birds with one stone had mooted a couple of future titles to his editor: Blue Sea, White Sands, an exploration of the Adriatic islands, and By the Caves of Hercules, a voyage along the coast of Morocco. Old Gilby had jumped at the latter and offered a three-hundred-pound advance. Connaught was delighted. In a day or so he would put this dreary city in his wake and head for the sunny climes of the Mediterranean.
Excerpted from "Murder Takes A Turn"
Copyright © 2018 Eric Brown.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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