Sunday, 3 February 2013

Not February already!

In other words, December and January slipped past unnoticed. Well, almost. I remember vaguely that I regretted not having a whole turkey to go at. I also remember visiting old (and I mean old) friends in south-east England, a former fellow student and his friend. They've been together now for over 40 years - that's far longer than the average marriage or partnership (including mine, which in retrospect was the marriage to end all marriages). They struck gold with their enterprises and reside appropriately. All very feudal and overwhelming. 
Two weeks ago I risked a glance in a mirror and immediately sped off to the hairdresser's, where I caught a dreadful cold from whose shadows I am just about emerging! That more or less brings me up to date. 
Not really. I braced myself and repaired some of the fauxpas in the novel I'd written and finished (theoretically) for nanowrimo in November 2012. As a way of keeping going, I'd posted each writing session (numbered) to a blog made specially for it and the book has gained about 10 thousand words since then as a result of detail and corrections. In the wee small hours of today (Sunday Feb 3rd) I had untangled the web I wove in haste and hope I've straightened it all out. I've posted a text version to my kindle (not via Amazon) and will read it before publishing it for dissemination at Amazon.
That's all, really. I'll add the first few pages here to start you reading the book, which bears the title "Finch's Folly" and uses some of the characters from a book I still haven't published because it keeps on growing!
The dilemma of this start to the book arose because although I know the characters, no one else does, so I found myself filling in information, as any author does to recap a previous book in a series. So I should give the first book an airing. And I'm doing that in a different blog - again, to organize my writing. The new dilemma is that the first book did not start out as a crime novel, but developed that element quite naturally as the book proceeded. You can read the first half, or is it the first of the series of books about the village of Upper Grumpsfield. The next problem is where to cut off in that book, which is far too long as it is now (145 thousand words!). That's the position at the moment. The small print saves space. If you need it bigger, mark the text, hold control down and press the + sign!

If Cleo Hartley had been hoping for a smooth start to her new enterprise, she was in for a surprise. After months investigating small mysteries and solving most of them, she had decided it was time to take the job seriously, rented the small shop down the road from her friend Robert Jones’s butcher’s shop, handed over her job running Middlethumpton library to her former assistant’s husband, and after extensive renovations and suitable equipping she was ready to move in.
Someone had once told her that Britain was a nation of shopkeepers. Running a business in a shop would just about qualify. In Chicago, where she had grown up, things had been quite different. She wouldn't have dreamt of opening a detective agency there. But the English half of her had always seemed stronger than the American, though her skin was not pink but olive, and her figure not slender but sturdy. Gloria, her mother, now ran a studio for ethnic dancing in Middlethumpton, the market town just down the road from Upper Grumpsfield. She was proud of her African heritage and a born showgirl. Cleo was quite the opposite. She took after her staid English father, whom she had never known, but who had sent money for her support and education. John Hartley’s affair with Gloria had started once evening after he had done something he never usually did. To pass the time in London, after his business partner had stood him up, he found himself in the West End, bought a ticket for a review, and reflected that it couldn't be worse than watching TV in a hotel room. He had not been able to take his eyes of Gloria. He was smitten. At his age, fortyish with thinning hair, falling in love at first sight with a girl in the chorus line was something he had never reckoned with.  

Gloria had been more than willing to spend an hour at the bar rather charming English Gentleman. She was flattered that he had behaved like a gentleman and had not made any attempt to seduce her, which was quite the opposite from Gloria’s normal experience with older men. She was genuinely attracted to John Hartley, earning smirks and unkind cracks from her fellow chorus colleagues. Inevitably, their romance, secretive to start with, turned into something bordering on subterfuge, to accommodate the disapproval of John’s obnoxious relatives, who took an instant dislike to Gloria, which made John even more determined to intensify the relationship. Eventually, Gloria left the chorus line and moved into the tiny box room at John Hartley's cottage. To avoid tittle-tattle, they made out that she was ha housekeeper. Of course, no one believed that story. The Hartley’s were shocked that John could get mixed up with an Afro-American showgirl. He usually only spent odd days between business trips at the cottage, and now he needed a housekeeper? They had mobbed her mercilessly. She had not complained, but one day, when John was safely away attending a conference, she packed her belongings and slipped out the cottage never to return. She did not even leave a note.
Gloria had ditched her job to be with John, but the relationship was gradually crushed by parochial conventions. Gloria did not fit into the village landscape and was certainly not the wife the Hartleys wanted for their son and heir. John, who had turned a blind eye to Gloria’s victimization by his family and friends, was at first bemused that she had left, then angry, then frustrated. The next contact with her was many months later when she sent him a photo of baby Cleo, who definitely took after the Hartley family except for her darker complexion. John Hartley was horrified and enchanted at one and the same time. After being jilted - for whatever reason - he was too proud to beg her to come back to him or even to take a plane to Chicago to try for reconciliation. He did not tell his family about the existence of little Cleopatra Hartley, or even ask how she had come by that surname though Gloria was not married to him. 
John Hartley never rid himself of his guilt towards Gloria, who had thrown in her lot with his only to discover that he could be thoughtless and selfish and worst of all, was a coward, unable or unwilling to tell the truth about his relationship with Gloria. He never married. Apart from business trips he spent most of his time alone remembering the light and spirit Gloria had brought into his life. A few years later he became ill, died prematurely and bequeathed all he had to his daughter, including the cottage. Many years later, Cleo came to Upper Grumpsfield after her marriage broke down, found the cottage in an advanced stage of neglect and made it her mission to restore it alongside the name of Hartley, which had never recovered after the shame of that show girl episode.
Now Cleo’s life was near perfect. She was loved by and in love with a wonderful guy, respected and accepted by everyone in the village and close to fulfilling her ambition to be a latter-day Miss Marple.
As luck would have it, someone was waiting outside Robert’s shop a bit further down the street. Since he would have to deal with whatever had brought such an officious looking person to the door, Cleo would have to start her professional life as a consultant for mysterious and unsolved events without the support of the man in her life.
She turned the latchkey of her new premises, stepped inside and bent down to retrieve the letters that had been pushed through the flap below the thick security glass of the door. She had expected mail to be waiting for her, but not the shadow that fell on the wall between her and the window behind her desk. It looked as if someone was lying prostrate there.
Startled, she straightened up and tried to decide what to do. Was anyone else there? Had she disturbed someone? There was a small utility room and a toilet behind the main office, but she could not get there without crossing the room and passing whoever was lying there. This was something Miss Marple had not had to contend with. Realizing she was alone in the office with someone who should not be there and certainly not lying flat out on her carpet, Cleo took her mobile phone out of the pocket of her jacket and pressed the quick dial spot while she approached the body lying on its back and half hidden by her desk.
‘What is it, Cleo?’
‘You won’t believe this, but I’m looking at my first professional corpse, Robert.’
‘You’ve only been in business five minutes, Cleo. Are you sure it’s a corpse?’
Cleo knelt by the body and checked its pulse.
‘There’s no heartbeat, Robert. She’s dead.’
‘She? Who is it?`
‘It’s Laura. Laura Finch.’
‘Good God. How the hell did she get in your office?’
‘I’ve no idea. You’ve got the second set of keys.’
‘Well, I didn’t let her in. You’d better call the police, Cleo, and don’t touch anything. I’ll phone Phillis. If she can come in, I’ll leave her in charge and come over.’
Phillis was Robert’s part-time sales assistant. She was always glad of extra hours’ work.
Cleo dialled emergency services. They would be there as soon as possible.
Then she sat on the chair designed for clients and tried to come to terms with the situation.
The paramedics drew up to the shop in their ambulance and minutes later Detective Inspector Gary Hurley arrived on the scene.
‘I wasn’t expecting such high-powered attention,’ Cleo said.
‘After that business with your mother, I thought it better to turn up myself.’
‘Well, Gloria’s safely back in Chicago now.’
‘I’m glad to hear that, Miss Hartley. She was quite a handful.’
‘But she couldn’t have known how dangerous the situation was.’
‘Miss Hartley. Normal people don’t wander off to a strange city to hunt someone down. She stole that address book. Normally she should have been charged.’
‘Why wasn’t she? That might have cured her meddling for all time.’
‘She hadn’t committed a serious crime, and her interference led us to several criminals we’d been trying to pin down for some time.’
‘What happened to that ginger haired guy? Gregor, I think his name was.’
‘No charges. Worked for the Rossi woman. All highly secretive. ’
‘She worked for Interpol, didn’t she?’
‘Yes. Incognito. Like Gregor. I’ll tell you about it some other time.’
‘Fair enough.’
‘Let’s look at this little problem now, shall we?’
‘I don’t think it’s that little. Laura Finch was not clear cut, or simple-minded. I think she had several skeletons in her cupboard.’
‘Now how should I understand that, Cleo? Don’t talk in riddles!’
‘Something happened recently that led her to drinking herself into a coma and having to be hospitalized.’
‘Go on.’
‘I’d been looking into why her ladies’ chorus had mobbed and then deserted her.’
‘Did she ask you to?’
‘Not directly. But I felt sorry for her and thought that was what had made her turn to drink.’
‘And did you find out anything useful?’
‘To a point, but now she’s dead it’s taking on an entirely new dimension.’
‘We’ll get the forensics done and the corpse collected by pathology, and then you can tell me what you found out.’
‘OK, Gary. I can call you Gary?’
'I don't see why not. I'm only a copper, really, and I’ve got a feeling we’re going to see quite a lot of each other now you are an investigator.’
‘We could drink to that. I’m Cleo. I think there’s a bottle of something in the back room.’
Not exactly tactful under the circumstances, but Laura Finch could hardly protest. By the time Cleo had fetched the cognac and a couple of glasses, the forensic experts had arrived and the paramedics had fetched a steel coffin from their ambulance. Laura Finch was examined rapidly by the accompanying doctor. The position she lay in was marked with chalk and numerous photos taken using markers to show the position of the body before it was dumped unceremoniously in the coffin, leaving a trail of blood in its wake. The blanket she had probably been transported in nowhere to be seen. Cleo thought she had been transported face down then rolled out of it onto the carpet. She winced involuntarily, not least because her newly laid velour carpet was ruined. She knew she should be feeling sad and emotional, but she didn’t.

‘She must have been stabbed in the back,’ said one of the team. ‘But there’s no sign of a weapon. I think she was killed somewhere else and then brought here.’

The doctor agreed. There were three deep stab wounds, any one of which might have been fatal. The post mortem would probably confirm that. Someone had had it in for Laura Finch. And whoever it was knew his job.

‘It was probably a man,’ he said, gathering up his equipment ready to move on to the next incident. ‘The wounds are deep and were inflicted with venom.’

‘Someone wishing me luck for my new enterprise,’ remarked Cleo.

Gary Hurley wasted no time in picking up that comment.

’Do you know anyone who might have done this to spite you?’
‘No, and certainly not by disposing of a corpse in my office. It’s the sort of thing my late husband might have done. But he died in a brawl last year.’
‘I suppose that rules him out. Unless….’
‘He died in a prison in New York, Gary. I have the confirmation and death certificate.’
I suppose that takes care of that, then. Did you ever have the feeling of being stalked, Cleo?’
Cleo looked startled. Shouldn’t nascent detectives notice things like that?’
‘Are you connecting it with my mother’s case, Gary?’
‘We can’t rule anything out.’
In the meantime the forensic team had made a thorough search of the premises, taped fingerprints, and looked for clues. One of them called to the others to take a closer look at the old sash window in the utility room. It was about a yard wide and the window pane pushed up and down without any noise, so that it was theoretically possible to get in and out that way unnoticed after dark. It was now open a fraction. Since they were on the ground floor it was a viable means of entry. And there were only garages opposite.
‘We’ll check the yard and access immediately,’ they decided. ‘Good job it hasn’t been raining.’
Cleo could not remember if she had checked the window latch before leaving. There were no signs of the window having been forced, but it opened far enough for the logical assumption that the earthly remains of Laura Finch had been pushed through that window.
‘There must have been two of them,’ Gary said. ‘There are no blood stains between the window and where she was found.’
‘She would still have been wrapped in that blanket,' said Cleo. ‘And rigor mortis would make her stiff for long enough to finish the job.’
‘Good God, Cleo' exclaimed Gary Hurley. 'You are well informed. But rigor mortis would not be a help when pushing her through the window, so let's assume that happened immediately after death.'
'And that means she could have been killed in the yard outside,' said Cleo.
'But surely you were here yesterday,' said Gary.
'Only early evening to check that everything was OK,' said Cleo. 'I didn't look out of the window.'
Gary told the team to check for plastic, foil, or other material that the corpse could have been wrapped in. There could be signs of it on the rough pebble dash of the wall under the window.
Then he gave instructions on his mobile phone for an immediate search for witnesses.
The doctor was sure she’d been dead for about twelve to fourteen hours. That would mean she was killed round 9 p.m.  
‘What if whoever brought her here was waiting for me to leave, Gary?’
‘Be thankful they did wait. At any rate, you know you weren’t a target for murder.’
‘That’s a great comfort. Can we get out of here now?’
‘When did you leave last night, Cleo?’
‘About nine, and no, I didn’t check any windows.’
So it was still quite light. After a brief word with the team Gary announced that they would go to headquarters.
‘We’ll have to seal the place off,’ said one of them. ‘But we’ll release it as soon as possible.’
‘There’s no hurry,’ replied Cleo. ‘I’m really not sure I want to come here again.’
’You’ll get over this,’ said Gary. ‘And think of all the publicity!’
‘Of course not. You couldn’t have a better advert for your business.’
‘I wish I could believe that.’
‘You should.’
‘I’ll phone Robert and tell him where I’m going to be for the next hour or two. He needn’t leave the shop. I can get a bus back.’
‘Or I can drive you, Cleo.’
‘Not in a police car. Too conspicuous.’
‘No problem. I use a normal car.’
'Better leave the cognac bottle sealed, Gary.'
'You're probably right, though you look as if you need a double.'
Fortunately, Gary had an efficient coffee-maker in his office. Cleo felt much better after drinking a mug of the aromatic brew.
You really should have had some of that cognac, Cleo.’
‘I’m OK. Just shocked at what happened to Laura.’
‘Do you feel up to third degree?’
‘Sure. We have to get at the truth, whatever it costs.’
‘It won’t cost you your agency, Cleo.’
‘All I wanted to do was help people out of tight corners, find errant fathers and partners, collect evidence of fraud. Things the police can’t do inconspicuously. Murder was not on the menu.’
‘Well it is now. You knew Laura Finch. There must be something you can tell me that will help. Something that made her chorus ladies ditch her, perhaps?’
‘I think she was too bossy for them. Nothing definite. Just personality clashes. But some of those women had delusions of grandeur.'
'That doesn't surprise me. Women do tend to show off to one another.'
'They certainly did. I didn’t like her much, but didn’t want her to end up like that.’
‘Better just think of her as someone in the wrong place at the wrong time.’
‘She was certainly that. I’m not sure if that isn’t the story of her life, Gary.’
‘Keep going. I’m listening.’
‘I’ll start at the end of her story.'
‘Just tell me what you think I need to know now.’
'That's a tall order.'
'But there may be something to go on.''
'When I last saw her she was unconscious.’
'Sounds ominous.'
'I'll have to tell you the whole story of my involvement, though it's been very marginal compared to Julie's.'
'Who's Julie?'
‘Robert's daughter, born in New Zealand after his young wife Rita was all sent there by her father to live with some distant relative or other. And that's a tale worth telling.'
'I'm listening.'
'Robert never knew about the child, either. Rita's mother left her husband soon after and joined Rita in Auckland. I think she suspected what had actually happened and wanted to support her daughter. All this was nearly thirty years ago and she never came back.’
‘So is it really relevant?’
‘I think so. Background information can sometimes help to solve an immediate problem like the one we have now.'
So how did you meet Julie?'
Rita came back to settle her father’s estate in Wales and that was actually the first Robert knew about a daughter.’
‘Sounds like something out of a women's weekly mag.’
‘Too dramatic. Rita had been told by her father that Robert was dead soon after she got to New Zealand. And Robert was told that Rita's mother had gone to New Zealand to bury her!’
‘How bloody-minded….’
‘... Rita's father he had not known that his daughter was married to Robert. He thought he’d got to Scotland in time. And his estranged wife did not put him in the picture.’
‘Gretna Green!’
‘After the initial shock of having someone march into my nuptials and announce that the man I was about to marry had a wife and a grownup daughter, I got on fine with Rita and Julie. In a bit of happy-ever-after, Rita and Robert are getting an amicable divorce, then Rita can marry her partner in Auckland and I can marry Robert.’
‘A happy end at last. No that is women's weekly stuff.’
‘Julie found a job working for a photographer in London, and when Robert told her about the drama we’d had finding Laura half dead in her bed, and knew of no other relative than Jason, Laura’s son, whose exact whereabouts were unknown to us, she offered to look for him.’
‘But surely you could have simply asked Laura Finch.’
'Quite apart from her medical condition, I didn't know if Jason was at the root of her drink problem, Gary. I just wanted him to know what had happened.'
'Or find out, you mean.'
'Well, Gary, someone had to do something. We assumed Jason was back in London, but we couldn’t find any address or phone number for him. And of course he might have gone back to the Caribbean.’
‘I remember him well. A tall, dark-skinned young man with a beautiful tenor voice.’
Not that young. Mid-thirties.’
‘How old was Laura Finch, Cleo?’
‘Over sixty, but very vain about her appearance. You’ll have to ask Dorothy Price about her, but her passport will be among her papers, won't it.’
‘Of course. You mean Dorothy Price. That busybody who fussed around a lot at the talent show. Wasn’t Mrs Finch part of the organization?’
‘You were there?’
‘Yes, but with my wife and daughter. Off duty. I saw Mrs Finch looking around a lot. She looked quite anxious, I remember. I didn't know who she was then, but having seen the corpse…'
'Jason, whom she insisted was her nephew, turned up very late. I think she'd given him up. And considering the way she'd praised him at the meetings, I could understand why she was upset.'
'But he did turn up after all,' Gary commented.  'I thought the finale was brilliant.’
‘You mean Robert, too?’
‘Of course. Jason seemed quite cut up that he hadn’t won outright.’
‘Blame that on his aunt, or rather, his mother. She’d given him the impression that it was going to be a pushover. I think that was how she'd got him to come, actually.’
‘As if winning a village competition means anything.’
'It did to Robert.'
'Sorry. I didn't mean it that way. But Jason is a professional singer.'
‘To be honest, I think he was doing his mother a big favour and had really come to straighten things out between them. Playing the nephew game must got on his nerves. He probably had no intention of continuing to support Laura Finch's unblemished character.’
‘I would have felt the same. A thoroughly unlikeable woman.’
‘He might have wanted revenge, of course. Revenge for being pushed out of her life as a small boy. Revenge for not having known the truth about his parentage.'
'Which was?'
'That the colourful woman who visited him now and again was his mother, and that the person she paid to say he was his father was not.'
'It's all very dramatic and could even be a murder motive, Cleo. But how do you know all this?'
'Because after Jason had the big row with his mother after the show he stayed the night at my cottage, made his peace with Robert, and told us a bit about Laura Finch.'
'Information that could be relevant now,' Gary conjectured 'So how did Robert's daughter deal with her mission?’
‘Julie soon found out where Jason was living and took turns with artist friends to watch the house round the clock from where they could not be seen. They were in luck. Jason was usually on his own coming and going, but one afternoon he arrived together with a young woman. ‘
‘That sounds harmless enough.’
'She looked a bit like him and the guys investigating speculated about whether it was his wife or a relative, as her skin colour was similar to Jason's.'
Now Gary was giving the account his full attention.
‘But they were only in the house for at the most half an hour. Then they came out and went different ways without any visible sign of affection between them.’
‘Has Julie found out who the woman is?’
‘Not yet, Gary. That was only three days ago, and she did not put in another appearance.’
‘Well, tracing persons is something the police can do. Jason is an immigrant, I assume. Must be registered somewhere.’
‘Maybe that's where Julie started. She's an immigrant, too.'
'But her father is British.'
'She had to go through the routine, however. It all takes a long time. I know that from experience. I had a British father, too!'
'You'll have to tell me your own story one day, Cleo.'
'Come to dinner! It's quite a long saga.'
'Good idea! But you'd better call Julie’s observation team off now. The police can take over.'
Cleo left a text on Julie’s mobile.
‘I’ll explain why when she phones back,’ she told Gary.
‘Don’t say anything about Mrs Finch's murder. We need to have a free hand. The press will find out soon enough.’

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