A winning combination of both intricate plotting and nostalgic post-WWI English country setting, Frances Brody's A Woman Unknown will appeal to fans of both classic murder mysteries in the vein of Agatha Christie as well as readers of historical mystery series set in 1920s England, two popular subgenres.
The Woman Unknown: Deirdre Fitzpatrick is married to a man who wants to know where she really goes when supposedly taking care of her sick mother and calls on the expertise of Kate Shackleton, amateur sleuth extraordinaire to investigate.
The Gentleman: Everett Runcie is a banker facing ruin and disgrace. His American heiress wife will no longer pay for his mistakes, or tolerate his infidelity, and is seeking a divorce.
The Murder: When a chambermaid enters Runcie's hotel room, she is shocked to find that he is alone - and dead! Suddenly Kate is thrown into the depths of an altogether more sinister investigation. Can she uncover the truth of her most complex, and personal, case to date?
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A Woman Unknown
A Kate Shackleton Mystery
By Frances Brody
Minotaur BooksCopyright © 2012 Frances McNeil
All rights reserved.
Ten days earlier
My name is Kate Shackleton. I am a private investigator, drawn to the work almost accidentally through trying to discover what happened to my husband, Gerald, last seen towards the end of the Great War. I received the usual telegram: missing presumed dead. Part of me has gone on hoping he will still be alive. After five years, hopes dim, but occasionally some odd story from the newspapers, or a Chinese whisper of survival, wafts hope to life.
At half past six on an August evening, I was picking out a new tune on the piano, and deciding it was time to send for the tuner, when I heard a familiar rat-a-tat-tat at the backdoor. I closed the piano lid. My ex-policeman assistant does not usually sidle up to the back door in his size tens. He is a front door person.
Walking along the hall, I wondered what brought him here at a time when he would usually be at home with his wife, Rosie, and their children.
Mr Sykes pressed his nose against the kitchen window. I opened the door and stood aside to let him in.
He whipped off his trilby. 'Sorry to call out of the blue, Mrs Shackleton. I'd just sat down for my tea when someone turned up on my doorstep in a right state of agitation, asking for our help. Told him I couldn't make any promises till I'd talked to you.'
'Who is he?'
'Mr Cyril Fitzpatrick.' He spoke the name meaningfully in his this-could-spell-trouble voice.
'And what have you done with Mr Fitzpatrick?'
'He's sitting on your front wall. I told him to wait there while I spoke to you.'
'What does Mr Fitzpatrick want?' I led the way into the dining room that doubles as my office.
'He's concerned about his wife. What she might be up to behind his back.' Sykes parked his trilby on top of the Remington typewriter. 'I'll feel responsible if Mrs Fitzpatrick has gone dancing down the wrong path. You remember how we got her out of trouble last year?'
I liked his royal 'we'. Sykes had been on store detective duty in Marshalls when he spotted Mrs Fitzpatrick slipping a bottle of perfume into her shopping bag. He challenged her. She burst into tears. He led the distressed damsel to the manager's office. She explained that only the day before she had called the doctor to her mother and learned that there was no hope. The tissue paper-wrapped bought-and-paid-for length of flannelette was to make a nightdress for her mother. Mrs Fitzpatrick had been preoccupied by bad news, leading her to be absent-minded about the expensive perfume.
Sykes had felt sure she was honest. I guessed that she must be young and good looking.
'Let me guess. Mr Fitzpatrick suspects his wife is shoplifting again?'
Sykes sighed. 'He claims she's up to something, and he doesn't know what. Says he's at his wits' end.'
'If every wits-end husband and wife came a-calling, they'd queue all the way to Woodhouse Moor.'
'That's as may be. But if she is shoplifting, letting her off won't do my reputation any good.'
'You sit down. I'll let Mr Fitzpatrick in.' I turned back at the dining room door. 'Is there anything I need to know before we see him?'
Sykes shook his head. 'He'll have plenty to say for himself.'
Sykes had met both Mr and Mrs Fitzpatrick. I had met neither.
As I looked at the man who stood inches from my front step, gazing at me expectantly, a frisson of uneasiness made me wish he had found his way to someone else's door. He looked at me from desolate brown eyes, whipping off a brown trilby to reveal thick dark-brown hair, tinged with grey, glistening with hair oil, and combed straight back from a low forehead. He smoothed a nervous finger over his neatly trimmed moustache. In the lapel of his brown striped suit, he wore a Sacred Heart pin. Over his arm he carried a brown overcoat, in spite of the warmth of the August evening. His brown boots shone from spit and polish. The image that came to me was of a wounded seal, washed up and losing its gloss.
'Mr Fitzpatrick? Please come in. I'm Mrs Shackleton.'
His damp handshake strengthened my notion of his likeness to a seal.
Sykes had been gazing out of the dining room window and turned as we came in.
Sitting at the top of the table, my back to the window, I felt the warmth of the last rays of the evening sun on my head and neck. Shafts of light played across the table. Fitzpatrick took the seat to my right, opposite Sykes.
'It's about my wife,' Fitzpatrick said, without waiting to be asked. 'As I explained to Mr Sykes, Deirdre disappears for days at a time. She has me frantic with worry. I want to know what she's up to.'
I groaned inwardly. This was the kind of request I dreaded.
'Mr Sykes may have explained that we do not take on matrimonial cases.'
'This is not what they call a matrimonial case, Mrs Shackleton. There's nothing wrong between us. I only want to know where she is going, what she is doing.' He flashed an appealing glance at Sykes. 'She could be up to her old tricks. If she's caught again, she won't get off so lightly. It will be prison, shame, disgrace.'
Sykes could not have shut his trap more tightly if he had uncorked and swallowed a bottle of glue, but his concern was obvious.
'Can you be more precise, Mr Fitzpatrick, about what gives you cause for concern?'
I almost said 'suspicion', but chose my words carefully so as not to fuel his anxieties.
He placed his big hands flat on the table. 'Sometimes I wonder has a person got a hold over her, to make her do things she wouldn't do, or is getting money out of her.'
'You speak as though you believe there is extortion of some kind, or that your wife is being blackmailed. Do you have grounds for such fears?'
'The word blackmail has come to me but I don't know from where. I just know she's up to something. I feel it in my bones.'
I resisted the urge to ask which bones, knee bones, funny bones, skull, but nodded encouragement. 'How long have you been married?'
Be careful, Kate, I told myself. Next I would be saying they should talk it over, and spend a weekend at Blackpool, just the two of them, while the weather held.
'Six years. We married at St Anne's in 1917.' He produced a wedding photograph from an inside pocket and pushed it across the table towards me.
The photograph had been removed from a frame. The bride looked happy and confident. She was petite, with wavy hair, high cheek bones and an infectious smile. The groom looked as though he had bet on the wrong horse and lost his wages. 'What age was she when you married?'
'Eighteen.' He shifted uncomfortably in his chair. 'I'm going on forty-five. She has twenty-four summers but looks like spring. Why wouldn't she? I've given her an easy life. She doesn't work. We have no children.' His lower lip quivered. 'And now she's off all hours.'
Fitzpatrick seemed a kindly man. His uneasiness was palpable. 'Have you asked your wife where she goes?'
He frowned. 'She tells lies. Short of locking her in the house what am I to do? I have to work. I did try locking the door once, when we'd had words, but she climbed out of the window. And there's always a plausible story. Her mother is ill. Her aunt at the convent has invited her on a retreat. Another man would beat her over it, but she is so ...' He turned to Sykes. 'You know how exquisite she is. I could never raise a hand to her.'
He spoke as if we had suggested such a thing. 'Perhaps she is telling the truth,' I said.
'Oh she is always partly telling the truth. Since she found out last year that her mother is not long for this world, she's there all the time, at the house she grew up in, on the Bank, and you know what sort of area that is.'
I knew the Bank only by reputation. A poor area of the city, situated between the railway line and the river. It was said that the police rarely ventured there.
The sun on the back of my head made me feel a little dizzy. I moved my chair.
He sighed. 'I'm a compositor on the local paper. When I married, I was earning four pounds, one shilling a week. Since then, we've had nothing but wage cuts. I'm down to three pounds, eight and six.'
Sykes raised an eyebrow. This was still a good wage, given the hardship of our times.
Fitzpatrick drummed his fingers on the table. 'I've borne a wage reduction of twelve shillings and sixpence, but have I cut her housekeeping? No, I have not. I took her out of poverty. Now she wants more than I can afford. Is she giving someone money?' He leaned forward, making fists of his hands. 'When I refused her a guinea, she said she didn't care, and it would come from somewhere else. That is what made me wonder, is she out stealing?'
I had the impression that he was stressing the possibility of shoplifting only because this was what most disturbed Sykes.
He coughed, and said apologetically, 'Sorry. Weak chest.'
When he had recovered, I asked, 'Regarding your suspicions about your wife stealing, have you noticed any items in the house that you have reason to believe were obtained dishonestly?'
'I came home a month ago to find her dancing like a dervish to the latest music. She had this gramophone, and no explanation of where it came from. And now it's gone. She says it's being repaired, but she's sold it, or pawned it. Well where did it come from? Who carried it for her? She has an old sweetheart who hangs about, making himself useful to her mother.'
'I don't see how we can help, Mr Fitzpatrick.'
He touched the Sacred Heart badge in his lapel. 'She could have got in with some shoplifting gang.'
Sykes's jaw tightened. He said nothing. For a moment, the three of us sat in uneasy silence. Was Fitzpatrick here to admit that his rage was about to explode, that he might do who knows what if he did not find some explanation that satisfied his doubts, and jealousy?
Fitzpatrick hunched, drawing his arms into his body. 'I have a house that was my parents. They are both gone to their eternal rest. I promised Deirdre that she would want for nothing. And I kept my promise. But I think she was disappointed that I did not agree to bring her mother to live with us. Perhaps I should have, only ...'
'Only what?' I prompted.
'When I first said no, she said that I would say that wouldn't I, because people would think her mother was my wife, and she was our daughter. She can be very cruel. Last year, when I knew how ill my mother-in-law was, I said to invite her. But then she wouldn't come, said she knew when she wasn't wanted.'
Sykes finally spoke. 'Would it hurt,' he said, looking at me, 'to see that Mrs Fitzpatrick is coming to no harm? After all, I was the one who ensured no charge was brought against her.'
'I'll pay, of course,' Fitzpatrick said, hand to his inside pocket, ready to bring out his wallet then and there.
I told him our daily rate, and that if we took on the case, he would be billed in the usual way.
His lip twitched. 'Please don't send an invoice to me at home. If Deirdre sees it, she'll wonder what I'm up to.'
I glanced again at the wedding photograph. This seemed such an unlikely coupling.
It was against my better judgement, but looking from Fitzpatrick to Sykes, I decided that it would not hurt to take a closer look at this young woman who aroused such strong emotions.CHAPTER 2
Deirdre sat next to her mother's bed in the small white-washed room, with its familiar damp amber patterns on ceiling and walls. The room smelled of camphor, essence of violets and boiled cabbage from last night's supper. She smoothed the familiar tufts of the counterpane.
Mam had dozed off. In her sleep she murmured. Her eyelids twitched dreams. She would be back in the misty Ireland of her childhood, a place about which Deirdre heard endless stories but had never visited.
What convinced Deirdre that her mother must leave this house was the time the rat came down the chimney. Now she spotted another bloody flea on the bed sheet. She snapped it between expert fingers, and then dropped it in the chamber pot, the only way to deal with the little devils. They lurked in cracks in the walls, planning torments. You could murder half a dozen in a minute; there would still be a small army waiting to drop from the ceiling. There'd be none of that in the nursing home.
Sometimes Deirdre transported a flea or two home in the seams of her dress. Fitz would complain that she came back stinking of poverty and trailing disease. He worried about his health and his weak chest.
Her mother opened her eyes and gave a gummy smile. 'I thought you'd gone home.' Her body might be wasted, but her mind was sharp as ever. 'What time is it?'
'It's twelve o'clock. I've brought you calves foot jelly. While you eat it, I've summat to tell you.'
A spark of hope lit her mother's eyes. 'You've heard from Anthony?'
'No.' It took a few moments for Deirdre to raise her mother up and prop her with pillows. She placed a towel under her mother's chin, and handed her the spoon and dish.
Her mam swallowed a mouthful of the jelly. Then she said, 'I dreamed Anthony came. I'm sure he's on his way.'
She wanted to see her son once more, before she died. She had dictated a touching note to the little boy who had left for New York twenty-three years ago. The words had made Deirdre squirm.
'Don't get your hopes up, Mam. He hasn't written.'
'In the dream he was just the age as when he left. His locks hadn't been shorn. Your uncle did that, took the scissors to make a big boy of him.'
Deirdre said nothing. She had written to her brother Anthony every year since she was ten, and in a decade and a half had received two brief replies. Two months before marrying Fitz she developed cold feet and wrote to Anthony. Would he send the fare for herself and Mam to go to New York? Answer came there none. She married Fitz.
'Mam, I'm making an arrangement for you to be more comfortable.'
Her mother dug the spoon into the jelly and left it there. 'I'll accept nothing from Fitzpatrick.'
'There's this lovely place, run by a woman whose grandmother came from Kilkenny. You'll build up your strength. There's a garden to look out on.'
'I won't accept that man's charity.'
'I'm paying for it. I have a job, working for a solicitor.'
* * *
Even before she reached Leeds Bridge, Deirdre caught the tang of the River Aire, a sharp, foggy, back of the throat smell. Lucky river, winding to sea. On this hot August Friday afternoon, wouldn't she love to be flowing in that direction herself? She ran her hand along the ironwork bridge, and for her pains muckied the creamy fingers of her glove.
Below, two bargemen called to each other. Looking along the riverbank, she saw Calls Landing, its name painted in glory-of-God-size lettering on the side of the building. It was grand to be in the town with its hustle and bustle. In the distance, the protestant parish church stood smug and certain, sharp against the sky.
A used-up creature shuffled towards her. He caught her eye, as though one person with no legitimate business would always recognise another. The sole of his left shoe flapping, he sidled out a little to give way. He was a man down on his luck, passing the time until nightfall when he would be let in to some lodging house, or the Salvation Army hostel. Deirdre dipped her hand in her pocket and slipped him a coin.
And then she saw the man: Giuseppe Barnardini, lithe, lean and looking not a day over thirty. There was something comical and unmistakeable about him as he lolled over the bridge, bantering with the bargemen.
This man was different from her previous two encounters. The first boy-o had been a will-o'-the-wisp fellow with a shocking cough. The second, a stout chap of few words, half-heartedly asked her to name her price for something extra. He did not take it amiss when she declined.
And now Barnardini, who was gazing at her, in something like wonder.
She heard herself say, 'Are you the man himself?'
He raised his hat, and gave a slight but stately bow. 'If you are the lady herself, then yes, I am he.' He reached to take her bag. 'May I?'
She did not release her grip on the overnight bag. 'No need.'
For a moment, he looked ready to argue his gallant point, and then he shrugged. 'You know the rules. I abide. Shall we begin our adventure, Mrs Fitzpatrick?'
'Why not?' She looked beyond, along the bridge. Their destination, the Adelphi Hotel, lurked just out of view. 'If we are to do this properly we had better call each other by our Christian names.'
'Of course. I'm Joseph Barnard. Call me Joe. Giuseppe Barnardini is my stage name.'
Excerpted from A Woman Unknown by Frances Brody. Copyright © 2012 Frances McNeil. Excerpted by permission of Minotaur Books.
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