For days she has been terrified that the phone will ring. Whenever she picks it up, the voice is there—breathing, cursing at her, terrifying her with words alone. Tonight, though, it isn’t the phone that rings, but the doorbell. A man has come to inquire about buying her dresser, but as soon as he opens his mouth, she knows he is the man who has been tormenting her—and they are all alone in the house. Though best known for intricately plotted mysteries starring the brilliant Inspector Cockrill, Christianna Brand was equally adept at crafting short fiction. These eighteen tales run the gamut of genre and mood. There are stories of travel, crime, and desire—and even a depiction of the birth of an infamous historical figure. Throughout, Brand’s talent illuminates the darkness that lies coiled within daily life.
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About the Author
Christianna Brand (1907–1988) was one of the most popular authors of the Golden Age of British mystery writing. Born in Malaya and raised in India, Brand used her experience as a salesgirl as inspiration for her first novel, Death in High Heels, which she based on a fantasy of murdering an irritating coworker. The same year, she debuted her most famous character, Inspector Cockrill, whose adventures she followed until 1957. The film version of the second Cockrill mystery, Green for Danger, is considered one of the best-ever screen adaptations of a classic English mystery. Brand also found success writing children’s fiction. Her Nurse Matilda series, about a grotesque nanny who tames ill-behaved children, was adapted for the screen in 2005, as Nanny McPhee. Brand received Edgar Award nominations for the short stories “Twist for Twist” and “Poison in the Cup”, as well as one for her nonfiction work Heaven Knows Who. The author of more than two dozen novels, she died in 1988.
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A Collection of Stories
By Christianna Brand
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1974 Christianna Brand
All rights reserved.
The Niece from Scotland
'WELL, FANCY MEETING YOU again!' cried the pleasant stranger, all flattering astonishment. ('And about time too, old girl!' he thought to himself. Kept him hanging about a solid two hours for this chance encounter.)
Gladys had first met him last week here in the Green Man at the top of the cul-de-sac. She'd been sipping a dry sherry before going home to cope with her ladyship and he'd happened to sit down at the same table. Such a nice man! He'd seemed so much interested in her, thought her far too good to be just a housekeeper, wanted to know all about where she worked and for whom. She'd soon found herself pouring out all her little personal troubles; if Gladys had a fault it was perhaps that she was rather too unreticent about the problems of life with Lady Blatchett. And now here he was again, just dropped in for a quick one and insisted upon her joining him. 'Well, all right, but I must be home on the hour. If I'm not, she locks the door and then she hides the key and by the time she's had a couple of drinks, she can't find it again and I'm done for.'
'Surely there must be other ways you could just nip in? You've got the run of the place. You could leave something unlocked ...'
'Unlocked! She goes over every door and window even when I'm there; you never know when she'll go round, checking. If I wasn't there ...! I tell you,' said Gladys, 'the house is like a beleaguered castle.' Guilelessly she described its inner fortifications. 'She lives in terror, poor old thing, especially after dark.'
It was all on account, it seemed, of Lady Blatchett's Past. She'd done something shady, fiddled a Trust or something; and so all the family money had come to her and now she went in fear of vengeance at the hands of cheated relatives. 'Especially one of them. "My niece from Scotland", she calls her. It must have been she who would have had most of the money. She's built up this niece into some sort of terrible ogre; I really think she believes she'll be murdered in her bed.' She supposed, said Gladys, that that was what had turned her to the drinking.
'A proper old lush she sounds to me. I wonder you stay with her,' said the sympathetic stranger.
A new look came into Gladys's sad, middle-aged eyes. 'I get very good wages. And I've got my poor brother, you see. I'm not having him put in any public institution. With his background—living with a lot of patients beneath his proper station ...' She was back on a well-worn hobbyhorse. Mr. Smith looked at his watch and warned her that the hour was approaching.
Patsy was waiting for him when he returned from seeing Gladys safely in at the front door of Number 20, down at the bottom of the cul-de-sac. She looked—exhilarated. Her blue eyes were shining, her feather-cap of dusty gold hair seemed to be standing on end with excitement and gaiety. 'You look somewhat lit,' he said, climbing into the driving seat of the little car.
'Oh, Edgar, he's such a pet! And fallen like a ton of bricks; poor lamb—quite defenceless.'
'You are speaking of Dr. Fable I take it,' said Edgar, not quite so pleasant now.
'At Number 10—slap opposite Lady Blatchett's. We did agree, dear heart, that I should get to work on him?'
'Well, you did get to work then? And it went off all right?'
'Like a bomb. I was the last patient, all as arranged. "Stay and have a glass of sherry, my dear Miss Comfort?" "Hey, hey," I said, "watch your doctor-patient relationships: they're slipping!"'
'Despite all this wit, however, you stayed for the sherry?'
'Yes, I stayed. And who else do you think stayed too? The Desiccated Receptionist. Now—wasn't that a masterstroke? I made her join us; and now I've got not one of them eating out of my hand, but two.' She wriggled down complacently into her seat. 'So how's about the housekeeper?'
Edgar retailed his own news. 'It's true all right, blast it! The place is like a fortress. Bolts, keys—I heard the very rattle of the chains as the drawbridge went up. And what's worse, they've got it so fixed that once inside you can't get out again. Self-locking doors and what not. You have to have special keys.' Though why anyone should want to cage themselves in with thieves and murderers, he couldn't imagine. 'I tried advising dear Gladys to leave a few orifices open, but she literally dare not. The old woman lives in terror.' He dilated upon her reactions to the Niece in Scotland.
'Oh, well—revenge is sweet, no doubt,' said Patsy equably. 'Personally, I'll be quite contented with Auntie's pearls.'
'You'll have to; anything else she's got is kept in the bank,' said Edgar.
Their plan went into operation the following evening. Gladys, patently rattled, answered the front door and beheld the friendly stranger from the Green Man. 'Do forgive my disturbing you at such an hour—'
'You shouldn't be calling here at any hour,' said Gladys, glancing fearfully back towards the closed drawing-room door.
'It was only that I mislaid my lighter last night. Sentimental value, you know; I couldn't bear to lose it. I wondered if by any chance you'd happened to notice—'
'I noticed nothing,' said Gladys, beginning to close the door.
'It's nowhere in the pub. I suppose ...' He had unconsciously moved a step forward so that she could do nothing without physically pushing him backwards. 'You couldn't possibly have picked it up, without thinking, and dropped it with your other things into your handbag?' In his anxiety, the gentleman had begun, quite unconsciously again, of course, to raise his voice. Gladys glanced back over her shoulder again. 'No, no, of course not: no such thing!'
'If you wouldn't mind just looking? So sorry to trouble you.'
'Please keep your voice down; she'll be coming out into the hall.' She dithered doubtfully. 'Well, I'll just go and make sure.' She hurried off towards the kitchen, in her agitation never thinking to ask him to wait on the step outside. And extraordinary to relate, what he had suggested must have happened after all; for here at the bottom of her neat leather handbag was a rather cheap silver lighter. He thanked her effusively and went away. She listened for a moment at the drawing-room door, but except for the clinking of glass against bottle, all was peace. Her room was on the second floor; her ladyship never came up so far, couldn't manage the stairs these days, and one way and another she'd got it very comfortable and cosy. With an occasional glance down from the top landing to see that all was well, she spent the rest of the evening with her knitting and the television.
Patsy slipped out of the dining-room, once Gladys had gone and went quietly up to the first floor. She located her ladyship's bedroom—really, the amount Edgar had got out of that housekeeper!—and inspected the others. There were two unused rooms, their keys in the doors. She chose the more remote, went in, locked the door behind her and put herself very comfortably to bed. There'd be the whole night to wait; and who looks into a locked spare room?
At midnight Lady Blatchett, propelled by the patient Gladys, reeled uncertainly up to bed. She would remain there—so Gladys had confided to her sympathetic friend in the pub, ('She never thinks that I've got to get up, after waiting up for her till all hours!')—till lunch-time. Patsy did not hear them. She was snuggled up under the spare-room eiderdown, deep in untroubled slumbers.
At eleven the next morning Gladys, according to custom, inched open the bedroom door and peeked in, before retiring to the kitchen for coffee and a biscuit. Lady Blatchett was still fast asleep and snoring. The pearls were kept under her pillow but in her late evening condition, her ladyship hadn't been too clever about concealing them: Gladys could see their gentle gleam, tumbled half out from under the crumpled linen. A choker of pearls, not many of them and not very large—but perfectly matched, they said, of a wonderful quality and worth a small fortune. At that moment she heard the milkman's knock and went down to the hack door. Patsy had checked on this being settling-up day. Gladys would be kept occupied for several minutes.
She came back into the house to hear muffled squeals and the sound of her ladyship's bell, violently ringing. Lady Blatchett had been shocked awake to find her head and shoulders enveloped in a tangle of black draperies; and by the time she got free to summon help, the front door had closed and the pearls were gone.
Gladys spent what time she must in calming her ladyship's agitations, which centred largely upon the threat of the Niece from Scotland; and then telephoned the police.
The station was at the corner of the cul-de-sac, just opposite the Green Man; and a constable on duty outside was able to report that though many people had gone in and out of the cul-de-sac in the course of the morning, in the few minutes since the theft of the pearls, not a soul had left it. Unless egress had been effected through one of the other houses, therefore—which on a rapid mental reconnaissance seemed unlikely—it was safe to assume that both plunder and plunderer were still safely bottled up inside. A police officer made good time to the scene of the crime.
Patsy, meanwhile, had trotted calmly out of the front door of Number 20 (now, being daylight, with its defences down) and across to the front door of Number 10.
The Desiccated Receptionist was all of a flutter. 'Oh, Miss Comfort!—you're early.'
'Am I?' said Patsy. 'That's not like me. I'm usually late.'
'Well, you aren't due today until half past eleven.'
'Oh, aren't I?' said Patsy. 'Well, never mind. I'll just have to sit in your lovely waiting-room—and wait.'
She was at leisure, therefore, to observe the antics of the patient who emerged from Dr. Fable's consulting room, five minutes later; and could describe them in full when the police subsequently made their enquiries.
In the interim, however, she had been in to see Dr. Fable and assure that infatuate practitioner that her headaches were, alas! no better. He showed no marked distress at this information and agreed that she'd have to come back several times—several times—for more treatment. Meanwhile: 'Have you got another box of the pills for me, like you promised? Oh, you are a sweetie!—lovely sample ones again so I shan't have to pay for these either?' He handed them over in their round, white cardboard box, faintly rattling, plastic covered and sealed. 'It'll have to be a prescription after this, I'm afraid,' he said. 'That's the last of the lot they sent me. Let me know next time how much good they've done you.'
'I'll make it an evening appointment and scrounge another drink off you,' said Patsy, cheerfully withdrawing. 'With you and your niece Miss Hodge,' she added, just loud enough for nice Miss Hodge to hear.
What with putting down her gloves on Miss Hodge's desk while she ruffled through her handbag for her diary, and riffling through the diary, once found, for a suitable date for the evening appointment—it was not surprising that when at last she departed in a near hysteria of jokes and farewells and thank-yous, Miss Comfort should have forgotten to take her box of pills with her. She was making such good time up the cul-de-sac that Miss Hodge could not catch up with her. She put the box on her shelf where it merged in very nicely with the clutter of professional samples common to any doctor's surgery; and forgot all about them.
The police intercepted Patsy at the mouth of the cul-de-sac. She was highly entertained to learn of the theft of pearls from the house opposite the doctor's: just like the telly, she said—weren't they all thrilled, right here under the nose of their own dear little police station, in their own dear little cul-de-sac? Was she a suspect? Were they going to search her? She simply longed to be searched, only promise not to tickle! The police compromised by inviting her into their own dear little station where a somewhat butch young policewoman obliged as to the searching. Neither Miss Comfort's charming person nor her handbag offered up anything of interest; except that, mixed up with the exotic clobber in the latter, there appeared a round white box of pills. The police broke the seals and glanced at the pills, even breaking one or two of them across: but they were just pills. Since they showed so little eagerness, Patsy apparently thought it not worth while to mention that while one pill box now appeared in her handbag, another had been left behind on Miss Hodge's desk. Instead she trailed a pretty little red herring. 'I suppose the thief must have been the funny little man with the medicine?'
What funny little man with what medicine?
'Well, he came out of Dr. Fable's room while I was waiting, but instead of leaving he sat down while Miss Hodge was busy with the next patient (a very preggers lady: a quickie, no sherry for her!) and pulled a bottle of pink medicine out of his pocket and started taking it. I mean poured it down his throat straight out of the bottle.'
Police interest perked up. The little man was still elsewhere in the station, having just emerged—unscathed—from a fairly thorough searching.
'Yes, and then he jumped up and went over to one of the pictures and began looking at it, terribly intently—I mean sort of looking at the frame and feeling behind it in a funny sort of way. A frightful picture; personally I think Dr. Fable's got it upside down, poor love! Perhaps the little man thought so too? Anyway, he took some more medicine and went away.'
The officers went away too, legging it down the cul-de-sac as fast as they could go. The picture was there all right and, upside-down or not, simply covered with glove-prints, the gloves having been liberally dribbled over with the pink medicine. Apart from these, however, it proved unrewarding.
There seemed little doubt about the genuineness of Lady Blatchett's loss. The police went about the busy elimination of suspects. Gladys the housekeeper had an unsullied ten years' record and a further twelve years to her credit of faithful if not devoted service to her ladyship. Dr. Fable appeared to be a blameless practitioner and, successful, debonair and extremely well-to-do, hardly susceptible to suspicion of elaborate and well planned theft. Desiccated Miss Hodge had been twenty years in the service of this doctor or that, without a blot on her escutcheon. Enquiries in neighbouring houses were in progress, of course; but meanwhile all that remained was the little clutch of patients. And one was Miss Comfort—limpidly innocent—one, the ultra respectable mother-to-be from an address in Kensington; and the third the funny little man with the bottle of pink medicine. The police may be forgiven for concentrating with some intensity upon the little man; and since he had not gone at all into Miss Hodge's office, for leaving this sanctum to the last in their investigations of Dr. Fable's premises.
Miss Comfort slid up close to Miss Hodge as they sat awaiting dismissal from the police station. 'I say, Miss Hodge, it's a little bit awkward. I left my pills in your room.'
'Yes, I found them,' said Miss Hodge. 'I put the box on my shelf.'
'The thing is ... It's because of Dr. Fable,' said Patsy, raising troubled blue eyes to Miss Hodge's sharp grey elderly ones. 'I mean, they're—well, you know, sort of pep pills. I don't think he really ought to have given them to me only I—I pleaded with him. I'm trying to fight it; I told him the tale a bit, he doesn't know I'm not supposed to be on them.' She insisted: 'It would be so awful if through helping me he got any—well, any kind of horrid publicity. You know how ugly it can be and the press will be swarming around here soon.'
'What can I do about it?' said Miss Hodge.
'If you just wouldn't mention my having left them? Could you perhaps sort of whisk them out of sight before they start looking round your office? It's for his sake. I do like him so much. And I think you do to?' said Patsy, half tender, half teasing.
'I'll see that it's all right,' said Miss Hodge gruffly.
'And not say a word to him? I swore to him I wouldn't tell a soul, not even you.'
'I'll keep it to myself,' said Miss Hodge.
A further examination, increasingly penetrating, produced nothing in the little man that might have been 'taken internally' along with the pink medicine. His fingerprints on the other hand were highly revealing. For Mr. Smith, the agreeable stranger of the Green Man, proved to be none other than Edgar Snaith, jewel thief, with a long and unbeautiful history behind him. He appeared to have arrived but recently in London, though a familiar face—and set of finger-prints—further up north. Usually worked with accomplices, varying them frequently. Certainly was not known ever to have associated with Dr. Fable, Miss Hodge, the pregnant lady—or Miss Comfort. Did prove, however, to have scraped acquaintance with the now deeply penitent Gladys (currently under notice of dismissal) and had certainly elicited from her a great deal of information about Lady Blatchett's ménage and regime. Witnesses attested to his having been seen at her front door on the previous evening; but agreed with Gladys's indignant avowal that he had been (almost) immediately sent away; and both Gladys and Lady Blatchett herself could testify to the pearls having been in her ladyship's possession long after he had gone. He had turned up at Dr. Fable's two mornings earlier, declaring himself the victim of mysterious pains, his regular practitioner having been left behind when he came south. Had been a little insistent upon a second appointment being fixed for eleven o'clock this morning.
Excerpted from Brand X by Christianna Brand. Copyright © 1974 Christianna Brand. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsThe Niece from Scotland,
A Miracle in Montepulciano,
Such a Nice Man,
I Will Repay,
How the Unicorn Became Extinct,
A Bit of Bovver,
How Green Is My Valley!,
Bless This House,
Murder Hath Charms,
An Apple for the Teacher,
Madame Thinks Quick,