Madeleine Severn is a tutor at the Garrettway School of Languages, she has a young outlook on life and is proud of her looks. Eighteen-year-old student Paul Grigson idolises Madeleine and during a date of his own he sees Madeleine with the married Bernard Hopkins. When Bernard arranges to meet Madeleine again, he feels jealous, but like most teenagers, Paul's moods change like a chameleon's. This is a romantic triangle surely destined for disaster and death. Simon Brett is the winner of The CWA Diamond Dagger 2014.
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By Simon Brett
Severn House Publishers Ltd.Copyright © 1985 Simon Brett
All rights reserved.
There was no telephone at the cottage, so Mrs Rankin had to drive three miles before she could inform the police of the murder. The concentration required by driving had calmed her a little, but her hands were still shaking so much that she misdialed three times before she got through on the 999 call.
When asked which service she required, she was surprised how steady her voice sounded as she replied, 'Police.'
She didn't use the word 'murder'. She just said that she had found a dead body in the bedroom of Winter Jasmine Cottage.
Prompted by the impassive voice at the other end of the phone, she identified herself as Beryl Margaret Rankin, of 43, Thorley Drive, Shorton, West Sussex. No, she was not the owner of Winter Jasmine Cottage. The property was owned by Mrs Ivy Waterstone, who lived in Kensington. She gave the address and phone number. No, Mrs Waterstone was rarely at the cottage. Most of the time it was let out, by the week or fortnight, to holiday-makers. It was Mrs Rankin's job to move in between lets, clean up and check the inventory of contents.
The name of that weekend's tenant was Mr Edward Farrar. No, she hadn't met him. No, she didn't have an address for him. She was sure Mrs Waterstone would, though.
Was the cottage open? Oh dear, yes. She had been in such a state when she rushed out that she had not thought to lock the door.
Yes, if the police insisted, she would go back to the cottage and wait for them. But she would wait outside.
They would be there within twenty minutes.
'Fine,' she said. 'See you then.'
The incongruity of that final chattiness hit Mrs Rankin as she walked away from the phone-box, and a gasp like hysterical laughter almost winded her. When breath returned, she was trembling uncontrollably. She opened the car door on her fourth attempt and, shivering in her seat, tried to collect herself sufficiently to drive back.
But the image she had forced out of her mind returned with reinforced clarity. She was not an imaginative woman, but she did not need imagination. She had seen the reality too recently.
She closed her eyes, but that only seemed to make the picture more vivid. The sour, animal smell was in her nostrils, and she could see the tangle of sheets, crisp new sheets with the neat lines of their packaged folds still showing and their regular design of green and brown sprigs on a beige background disrupted by random smears of brown blood. She could also see the naked body, unseamed by a long frontal slash, whose edges of drained flesh gaped to show a glimpse of discoloured bone. It no longer had any human characteristics; it was like a carcass hooked up on a butcher's rail. But that did not make it any less shocking.
She could also see, too vividly, the new nightdress that lay beside the bed, its crisp white linen crumpled and its pleated front stiff with dried blood.
It was a quarter of an hour before she had stopped shaking sufficiently to turn the key in the ignition. She drove badly, twitching at corners, starting at the whiteness of the lines on the road. And the only thought that could move the body from the centre of her mind was of her job, the cleaning of Winter Jasmine Cottage. That thought steadied her a little, rationalised the death, made it part of normal life.
She didn't think any blood had gone on to the carpet. The sheets obviously would have to be destroyed, surely even the much-advertised biological washing powders wouldn't shift that lot. But then the sheets didn't belong to the cottage; it was one of the conditions of the rental that the tenants should bring their own; so that wasn't her problem. Still, the wooden headboard of the bed would have to be swabbed down and polished. And maybe there had been a few splashes on the wallpaper. That might wash off – would wash off if it was a vinyl wallpaper like Mr Rankin had just put up in their kitchen. But she didn't think it probable that it was vinyl in the bedroom of Winter Jasmine Cottage. Then of course there was the mattress.... With that amount of blood, some must have seeped through into the mattress. It might wash out, or maybe it could be steam-cleaned.... At worst it could just be turned over. But that wouldn't really do ... other tenants might turn it back ... you never knew what the tenants were going to get up to when they were alone in the place....
Obsessive concentration on such details got Mrs Rankin back to the cottage in relative safety. As she turned into the drive, she saw blue light from a police car flashing intermittently on the shiny leaves of the high laurel hedge. They had got there before her.
In fact, by the time she had brought her car to an untidy, jerky stop beside a brown Austin Maxi, the police had already looked at the body in the bedroom. They had looked at the blood-stained, black-handled sheath-knife that lay on the floor beside the bed.
And, though they did not know the details of the clash of two virginities which had led to the crime, the police were in no doubt that they were dealing with a case of murder.CHAPTER 2
Madeleine Severn rang the bell again. Really, it would be a bit much if Aggie was out. Madeleine had often said that her sister should give her a key because she was round there so often, but Aggie had always resisted the suggestion. In Madeleine's view, this resistance probably came from her new brother-in-law rather than from her sister. Keith still seemed insecure about the two-year-old marriage and would no doubt regard Madeleine's having a key as some obscure assault on his masculinity.
She knew she was earlier than she had said, but her class had been cancelled. Her pupil, an eighteen-year-old Iranian who was being crammed for A-level English, had apparently developed mumps. Madeleine did not believe that missing a few classes would make much difference to the outcome of his examinations. He had hardly mastered the rudiments of the English language, let alone the refinements of its literature. Still, she felt appropriate mild sympathy for the mumps. Could be nasty for men, she knew. And have long-term effects.
She thought she heard a vague movement from upstairs and rang the bell again. She turned her back to the door and looked down through the jumble of roofs and television aerials to the grey October sea. It always depressed her slightly, this part of Brighton. Seemed to have all the disadvantages of the suburbs with none of the compensations of the town. Always made her feel glad of her own neat little house a few miles away in Kemp Town.
Unconsciously, Madeleine ran her hands down the sides of her peat-coloured overcoat, from the line of her brassière over the indentation of her waist to the soft swell of her hips. It was a characteristic gesture, an expression of well-being. And it was rarely that Madeleine Severn did not experience a feeling of well-being.
The skin that glowed through the wool under her hands was, she knew, smooth and unblemished. Unconsciously, her right hand moved up to feel the softness of her cheek. The seaside air gave her face a rosiness that stayed all the year round and, though spider-lines now gathered round the eyes and marked the creases from her nose to the corner of her lips, she was confident that she looked younger than her thirty-seven years. Her eyes, which John Kaczmarek had described all those years ago as 'forget-me-not wedded to violet', still sparkled, their colour seemingly intensified by her recent adoption of contact lenses. And the red-gold hair remained her chief glory. Though a few individual white strands sprayed out from the parting, these seemed only to set in relief the brightness of the rest. That day she wore it up. It was a working day and her hair showed her to be a working woman. It had been artlessly whipped into an untidy roll at the back, slackly pinioned by a slide of dark wood and leather.
The door behind her opened, and Madeleine turned to look at her sister. As ever she felt an access of pity. Though three years younger, there was no question that Aggie had worn less well. She had started with less natural advantages, and the events of the last twenty years had not enhanced those she did possess. Her black hair was lank, the skin beneath her mouth ragged with the traces of spots. Her customary pallor was at that moment gone, but not to rosiness, more to a kind of flush. And the depradations of childbearing on her figure were accentuated by the dressing-gown pulled loosely around her.
Madeleine raised an eyebrow. 'Just got up?'
'I thought you said you wouldn't be here till six.'
'A class got cancelled. Aren't I welcome?'
'Of course.' Aggie drew back untidily to let her sister into the hall. Then, in response to Madeleine's continuing quizzical expression, she mumbled, 'I was just, er, having a bath.'
Madeleine moved through into the cramped sitting room, as ever inwardly wincing at the dralon three-piece suite and the veneered oval coffee table. 'I thought you were a late-night bather.'
'Yes. Ideally. Matter of when I can fit it in, really.' Aggie hovered uneasily in the doorway.
'Don't let me stop you if you want to get dressed.'
'Yes, I'll.... Well, I'll make some tea first. Would you like a cup of tea?'
'Heaven.' Madeleine flopped on to the dralon settee. As ever, she was surprised at how comfortable it was. It just looked awful. Keith's taste, she felt sure. Left to her own devices, Aggie did not have a bad eye for design. But she was always so influenced by her various men. Subordinated her own tastes to theirs, even when, like Keith's, it was disastrous.
Aggie was visible through the hatch, filling the kettle at the kitchen sink. Madeleine pitched her voice up. 'When'll Laura be in?'
'Oh, she's not coming,' Aggie called back.
'Not coming? Why?'
'Some new boyfriend. Terry. She's going out for a meal with him.'
Madeleine was piqued. She felt a proprietorial interest in her sister's eldest child. Laura had been Aggie's first major mistake, an unwanted pregnancy at the age of seventeen by a married man who subsequently emigrated and never saw his daughter. Madeleine felt that she had helped her sister and parents through that crisis. She had given Aggie a lot of time during the pregnancy and then, when the baby was born, had been a more than dutiful aunt. Even during her last year at Oxford, when heavily under stress from approaching exams, she had made a point of going to her parents' home most weekends to help with Laura. And, as the child grew older, she had always been there, a sympathetic aunt – no, more a friend, she liked to think – the fixed emotional point that Aggie's own erratic life could not provide for her daughter. Madeleine and Laura had always been very close – closer, it was generally recognised, than Aggie and Laura. Until recently. Recently Laura had become less dependent on her aunt's advice, less interested in her aunt's opinions. Madeleine found it mildly hurtful. She knew that children must grow up to independence. She could project herself very effectively into the maternal role and understand the inevitable pangs caused by the weaning away of their young. She just wished Laura would realise that she, Madeleine, was not a mother, and that the girl could still benefit a great deal from her aunt's knowledge of the world.
But the hurt was only mild. Madeleine was confident; she knew that Laura would come back to her and that their unique bond would be restored.
'Ah. Madeleine. Hello.'
She was surprised to see Keith standing in the doorway. She had not heard the front door. He must have come from upstairs.
'Keith. I didn't know you were here.'
'No. I.... Well, got home from work early.'
As always, Madeleine was struck by the unattractiveness of his voice, its slack South Coast vowels. And again by his very ordinariness. He was not particularly good-looking. Tall, stooped in the doorway, his thinning hair ruffled as if he had just got up. He wore a grubby T-shirt and jeans, his working clothes. He was a plasterer by trade, and his large hands were permanently cracked and scored with engrained dust.
As always, Madeleine tried to smother her reaction to him, smother the feeling that Aggie had married so far beneath herself, that she had taken irreversible steps over some Rubicon of class. Aggie had perhaps not been in much of a position to make choices. With the stigma of Laura and the two children of her failed first marriage, perhaps she should have been grateful to find anyone willing to take on such a full family package. And Aggie herself never complained, never seemed struck by the incongruity of her situation, by the disparity between her education and that of her husband. Maybe, in some way Madeleine could not understand, Keith made Aggie happy.
'Came home and found your wife in the bath,' said Madeleine, with a little giggle.
'Er, yes.' Keith flushed, and turned abruptly away towards the kitchen. 'You making tea, sweetie?'
Madeleine winced at the endearment.
Aggie confirmed, unnecessarily, that she was indeed making tea. Keith hovered in the hall, uncertain where to go.
'Do come in and sit down,' said Madeleine.
Awkwardly, as if he were not in his own house, Keith obeyed. He flashed a brief, meaningless smile at his sister-in-law, but said nothing. He was not a talker, Keith. It was always Madeleine who had to make the effort to get any sort of conversation started.
'Oh, you know. All right. Doing a new block of flats down Lancing.'
'Ah yes.' The conversation swirled in an eddy. Madeleine always had difficulty in finding follow-up questions on the subject of plastering. She had tried in the past, but found the attractions and satisfactions of the job so alien to her that she never got far. She also got the impression that Keith had no particular desire to talk about his work, anyway, which made her efforts a little dispiriting.
Fortunately, before Madeleine forced herself into some redundant enquiry about the merits of plasterboard, Aggie came in from the kitchen with a tray of tea. She poured it in silence, knowing well the milk and sugar requirements of the other two. Madeleine took a sip and, as ever, tried not to recoil at the taste. Keith liked his tea Indian and strong, and so that was how tea was always made in his household. 'Workman's tea.' Madeleine could not stop the phrase from forming in her mind.
Aggie did not sit down with her cup. 'I'd better go upstairs and get dressed after my, er, bath.'
As she spoke, she flashed a smile, almost a wink, at her husband, and Keith's lips seemed to twitch. Madeleine did not enquire; she was uninterested in their private jokes.
She made a couple more valiant efforts at conversation with Keith, but the feedback she received was so minimal that soon silence had reasserted itself. After a couple of minutes of this, Keith drained his cup noisily and rose to his full height. 'Snooker tonight. Got to check out my gear.'
And he went out through the kitchen to the shed in the back garden.
Madeleine lay back on the sofa and stretched out her toes. She felt tired, but it was a warm, cosy tiredness. There was something warm and cosy in her mind too, a glow of thought that every now and then flared into a little jet of excitement.
Aggie had cooked goulash. She had two completely different styles of cooking, the traditional English meat and two veg. that Keith favoured, and a more interesting repertoire that came from her home background and her more middleclass former marriage. Apparently without strain or awareness of any incongruity, she would switch from one to the other according to her company. Because Madeleine was there on her own, Aggie had cooked goulash. Had Keith also been present, they would all have eaten chops with mashed potatoes, carrots and peas.
As Madeleine had this thought, she realised how rarely she and Keith actually were there together for a meal. Whenever she was round, he seemed to be off somewhere ... snooker, darts, the pub. It was an arrangement that suited her well, but for the first time she wondered whether he deliberately avoided her. This raised the question of Keith and Aggie talking about her together, actually discussing her. She did not like the idea and put it from her mind. Some things she preferred not to think about.
She watched Aggie as her sister cleared the plates and went out to the kitchen. Again the pity welled up. Life seemed to have dealt Aggie such a lousy hand: first, her unexceptional looks; then, the illegitimate daughter; continuing problems with unsuitable men. Even the pregnancies, the fruits of her relationships, had not been trouble-free. A baby lost at four months; an incompetent cervix, the doctors had said. And the two children of her former marriage only born after seven months of lying on her back (during the second of which periods Aggie's first husband had found time for a new distraction, a dental nurse, for whom he left her). Aggie's seemed to be a history of gynaecological disaster. She had even reacted badly to the pill, and been taken off it after an alarming rise in blood pressure.
As ever, by comparison, Madeleine felt herself privileged. She also felt something else, an emotion she did not choose to define, but which in her rare moments of introspection threatened to be identified as glee.
Excerpted from Dead Romantic by Simon Brett. Copyright © 1985 Simon Brett. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Charles Paris Mystery Series,
Part One: The Murder,
Part Two: Before The Murder,
Part Three: After The Murder,