Bea Abbot doesn’t do murder. The modest agency she runs from her Victorian home in Kensington is better at finding good domestic help and the best caterers. Yet how can she turn away her oldest friend? Velma’s prodigal stepson Philip has vanished. So has a valuable pre-Raphaelite painting from the home of Philip’s eccentric godmother, Lady Lucinda Farne. Seeing that Lucinda’s been stabbed to death, she can’t possibly clear Philip’s name. But Bea can. At least that’s what Velma hopes.
Now Bea must locate a runaway bad boy, track down a valuable Millais, and solve a deadly crime. Of course, if Philip didn’t do it, that means Bea and her young and wily new undercover assistant will be tangling with someone far more dangerous—a professional well-schooled in the art of murder.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
An Abbot Agency Mystery
By Veronica Heley
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2008 Veronica Heley
All rights reserved.
'We're a domestic agency, Velma. We don't do murder!'
Velma wasn't listening. 'I'll tell you all about it when we meet. Lunch at Harvey Nichols, on me?'
Bea Abbot was desperate to get away from the paperwork on her desk, but hadn't considered getting out of it to investigate a murder. She'd answered the phone with her mind on a communication from the Inland Revenue.
'The Abbot Agency. How may I help you?' The tax bill was horrific!
'So you're not dead, then? I was beginning to think I'd have to report you as a missing person. Didn't you get my messages? I've tried and tried ...'
Bea rummaged in the labyrinth of her mind and came up with the name of one of her oldest friends. 'I'm sorry, Velma. I've been at my wits' end to—'
'Don't talk to me about wits' end. I've been tearing my hair out ...'
She hadn't, of course. Nothing would cause Velma to disturb her beautifully cut blonde mop. Bea ran her free hand up and through her own short, ash-blonde hair, realigning her fringe so that it lay at an angle.
Velma was in a state, but that was nothing new. Velma was always in a state about something. No, that wasn't fair. Or true. Bea knew she was being catty but couldn't help herself. However much did the tax people want?
'Then I thought you were the only person I could talk to about it. I'm desperate. Sandy's so scared. I mean ... murder!'
Bea was impatient. Sandy was Velma's second husband whom Bea considered solid, in the nicest possible way. Velma, on the other hand, was somewhat given to exaggeration. 'We're a domestic agency, Velma. We don't "do" murder.'
Velma wasn't listening. 'No, I can't believe it, either, except that ... oh, I'll tell you when we meet. Lunch at Harvey Nichols, on me?'
Was this an excuse for Bea to avoid dealing with the paperwork on her desk? 'I really can't spare the time.'
'All right, then. Patisserie Valerie at the bottom of Church Street, one o'clock. It won't take an hour.' She rang off before Bea could object.
Bea pulled a face at the receiver and put it down. She'd wanted a respite from paperwork, and she supposed this could be it. She picked up the tax bill. It appeared that the agency owed the Inland Revenue an enormous amount of tax for the last three years, which corresponded with the time that Bea's husband had been ill and left the management of the agency in her son's hands. Under that missive was more bad news, including a solicitor's letter from a disgruntled client.
Her dear husband was lying in his grave on the other side of the world, she felt every day of her sixty years, she owed the taxman more than she could pay, the agency rooms needed to be rewired and replumbed, and it looked like rain. She got her hands around the untidy pile of paper on her desk and tipped it into the wastepaper basket.
There! She felt better. Guilty, but better.
She knew she'd have to fish it all out in due course and deal with it, but for now it was off her desk, she was going to have lunch with one of her oldest friends, and she'd feel all the better for the break when she came back.
She checked to see if her cream T-shirt and dark chocolate trousers were reasonably crease free, renewed her lipstick, took her reading glasses off, put them into her handbag, and looked around for a jacket to wear. High summer it might be, but there was a nasty chill wind around.
She put her head around Oliver's door on the way out. 'I'm meeting someone for lunch. Back in an hour, right?'
Oliver didn't bother to take his eyes off his computer, but lifted a hand in acknowledgement. Bea wanted to tell him to get away from his computer and get a life, but restrained herself because he was practically carrying the agency at the moment. Oliver was a computer geek who'd only just left school and apparently needed only the slightest exposure to daylight.
Maggie was not in reception as she ought to have been, and as Bea climbed the stairs from the agency offices in the basement, she could hear nothing but the buzz of a pneumatic drill in the road outside. If her second assistant and house guest had been around, the house would have been full of Maggie's braying laughter set against a background of radio, television, phone, coffee grinder and food processor. Irritating girl. Maggie was obviously out.
Wait a minute; wasn't she having a driving lesson that morning? How many times had she taken the test? Bea shuddered. She felt sorry for the instructor.
She took the smartest of her umbrellas from the stand in the hall, and let herself out into the road.
He called himself Rafael. Behind his back, they called him Raffles, the master thief, because he notched up one art theft every few months. He'd never been suspected of the thefts – or of the murder. Make that murders, plural. Was it six or seven by now? He'd lost count.
On this last one, the old woman had opened the door, no problem. He was so small, so unremarkable that no one ever found him threatening – at first. One thrust with his knife and she'd fallen like a rag doll, legs all over the place, blood spurting. He'd jumped back, but not quickly enough to avoid getting some of her blood on him. Annoying, that, for it meant another dry-cleaning bill.
The grandfather clock had ticked on, and on. Nothing had stirred, not even a mouse. On with the latex gloves.
The flat was crammed with valuables but there was no point in being greedy; the collection of snuff boxes was what he'd come for. He slipped each one into a padded envelope and fitted them into his briefcase, lingering only over the plainest one, which really appealed to him.
She'd left the letter making the appointment with him on her desk, which meant he had no need to search for it. Good. He took the letter, checking that she'd not entered anything in the diary beside the phone. She hadn't. Empty diary, empty life. She was better off dead. It was the quiet hour, when no one was around to see a stranger leave the block. He dropped the briefcase into Zander's office to take home for him. He never risked carrying the goods himself.
The Patisserie Valerie was one of a chain which aimed for a Continental atmosphere. No minimalism here, but excellent cakes, coffee and snacks. It was the sort of place where you could just about find room on the floor for your purchases from Harrods and Harvey Nichols before making your appointment at the salon round the corner to have your hair done for Ascot, or Glyndebourne.
Not that Bea had ever been horse-racing, nor to Glyndebourne, either. She'd always been too busy. Sometimes she thought she'd missed out on things, having had to work so hard all her life. Her darling Hamilton hadn't been keen on horse-racing or the arts, really, with the exception of a routine visit to the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy. He liked that because he appreciated the eccentric, wherever it was to be found.
Bea pushed her way into the café, saw that Velma hadn't yet arrived and snaffled a table for two in the window. The place was filling up, the windows misting over. The cake display was fantastic, as usual. Bea ordered soup and a quiche which she knew would be well cooked and nicely presented. The food came and Bea started on it, knowing that Velma would probably be late.
She was only ten minutes late, and for once not entangled with shopping. In fact, she looked as if she'd lost weight recently. Alarming. Velma had always appeared young for her age but now it looked as if time were catching up on her.
'Sorry, sorry,' said Velma, diamond rings flashing as she threw a cashmere and silk wrap over the back of her chair. 'Sandy was on the phone, he's none too well, and I ... but I must order something, I've not eaten properly for a couple of days. We had some seafood a couple of nights ago, it was the calamari, I think, and we were up half the night, didn't feel much like eating yesterday, though that was probably the worry of it all. Anyway, I think I could fancy a little something now.' She looked distractedly around for the waitress.
Bea suspended operations on her quiche. 'Are you all right, Velma? You look—'
'Frazzled, my dear. Totally and utterly. My dear Sandy is usually such a rock, and to see him fall apart like this ... though I do agree that the seafood experience has probably not helped.'
'Calm down, dear, and tell me what's happened. You mentioned a murder, but I don't suppose you really—'
'What it is, we want you to investigate, or at least find out if Philip is involved, which we think he must be, though he couldn't have done it. You do agree, don't you?'
'You've lost me, Velma. Who's Philip?'
'Stepson, Sandy's boy.' Velma pushed her hair back off her face, looked up at the waitress with a smile, said, 'Something plain. Soup, a salad. Oh, I'll have what my friend's had, right?'
The waitress smiled, and nodded. Most people smiled and nodded when Velma wanted them to do something for her. She had a wistful air which captivated people into thinking her a beautiful woman, although in fact she was – as Hamilton had pointed out when he first met her – a nice woman who used her large blue eyes to good effect. Bea had known Velma since they'd been at school together, but even she was not impervious to her friend's charm.
'Black coffee for me,' added Bea to the waitress's back. 'Now, Velma; you know perfectly well that the agency doesn't "do" murder. Tell me what's happened in words of one syllable.'
'You were away when I got together with Sandy, weren't you? Well, the thing is that after my dear first husband died, rest his soul, I didn't quite know what to do with myself. After all, he'd been ill with this and that for so long and naturally I'd done what I could to help him look for cures and monitor his pill-taking so I'd grown used to not going out much. Then he had that totally unexpected heart attack and there was I, oh, terribly sad, of course, but a bit ... well, I'm not sure quite how to put it.'
'Let out of school early? Not sure who to play with?'
Velma laughed. She had a pretty laugh, and a prettier blush which proved she wasn't wearing a lot of make-up. 'Something like that, yes. You were off with Hamilton on his dream trip around the world and then he died, of course, so sad, dear, and knowing you and him, it wasn't like me and my first, was it? I mean, you really did grieve, whereas I ... well, of course I did grieve, but in some ways, though it sounds awful to admit it, and I could only do so because you are my oldest friend, but there was a certain sense of relief.'
Bea nodded. Velma's first had been a horrible man; a manipulative, selfish hypochondriac who'd kept her at his beck and call. 'So there you were, a wealthy widow looking for a new playmate, and ...?'
'All of a sudden I was popular, being asked here, there and everywhere, and not everyone wanted me to back their financial propositions or get me into bed – though most of them did, I agree. Sandy helped me out when a particularly nasty specimen tried to drag me into his car. Sandy bopped him on the nose, and of course I asked him to see me home, knowing I'd have to make the running, because he's quite a shy old thing, you know. He's from a good family, not much money, works for a charity. I asked him to stick around and well ... it wasn't long before ... you know. So we got married. Sandy is a darling.' The waitress brought Velma's food, and got a dazzling smile of thanks in exchange.
'My coffee?' asked Bea. The waitress shrugged, and disappeared again.
Velma picked up her spoon and took a sip of soup but didn't seem hungry. 'I haven't any children, of course, my dear first wasn't able to, or I wasn't – it doesn't matter which now. I'm well past it, thank goodness. Sandy has a son by his first wife, a woman I've never met because she went off to live in Scotland somewhere with the intention of saving the planet, which is all very worthy though it's not clear how she meant to do it. Philip chose to live with his father and not his mother. Public school, not the tops because Sandy hadn't the money to do that and the boy is not exactly academic. A decent sports record, trials for the county, good enough to get him a job working in some television company, support procedures or something like that. You do see, don't you?'
'Not quite. Why do you think Philip has committed a murder?'
'Oh, he hasn't. Of course not.' But Velma's colour had faded and she looked more than her age, her pencilled eyebrows standing out against her fair skin. She pushed her half-finished soup aside and looked Bea full in the eye. 'It's just that he's got one of his godmother's pre-Raphaelite oil portraits – a Millais, would you believe? – which is worth hundreds of thousands which he says she gave him for his birthday which was yonks ago. Only, Sandy happened to see it in on the floor in her flat a fortnight ago, because it had fallen off the wall when the wire broke, and he offered to replace the wire and she said he wasn't to touch it because he'd only do it wrong. She was like that, you know, most ungrateful for anything he tried to do for her. She told him to put it in a cupboard in her bedroom, and that's what he did.'
'Oh,' said Bea.
Velma's face puckered as if she were going to cry. 'I know it looks bad, but I'm sure there's an explanation somewhere. Philip could have called in to see her because he is her godson after all. She didn't have many visitors. She hates – hated – people going into her flat, taking up her time. You know how old people get, a bit suspicious, not wanting to let anyone in and probably quite right, too, seeing what's happened. She is – was – a hoarder, you can hardly move in her flat, she never opens the curtains, you wouldn't believe what she's got in there – two Lawrences, a Romney, and a Fuseli for a start and some miniatures in her bedroom, not to mention her diamonds and a string of pearls which went right down to her waist, believe it or not. Sandy was always on at her to put the best stuff in the safe, but she said she couldn't because she'd forgotten the combination, and when he said he'd get someone round to see to it for her, she refused because it would have cost money.'
Bea nodded. Her coffee came. Black. She stirred sugar into it.
Velma's eyes went all round the shop, back to her food, looking anywhere but at Bea. Bea thought, What are you hiding, Velma? You do think he did it. Whatever it is. 'Her name ...?'
'Lady Lucinda Farne. As in the island of Farne. Notorious in her day.'
Bea half closed her eyes, remembering a newspaper item about the woman's death a week ago? Longer? Now what did she remember about it? Yes; Lucky Lucinda, they used to call her. She'd been a famous model who'd gone on to become the long-term mistress of an international financier and married him when he was in his dotage. Her husband had left her a title, his money and a considerable collection of pictures and objets d'art from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The newspapers had put her age at eighty-five.
'How come she was Philip's godmother?'
'Sandy's first wife went to art school, the Slade. Lucinda had given up being a model by then and was very wealthy, so she was one of the patrons. Sometimes she took an interest in the next generation, letting them fetch and carry for her, that sort of thing. Though why she would be interested in Sandy's first wife is a mystery, since she's a selfish bitch – pardon my language but she is, always taking advantage of his good nature. She thinks of nothing but how she can "fulfil" herself, that sort of thing. Almost the only thing she did for her little boy before she drifted out of the marriage was to get Lucinda to act as his godmother, thinking, I suppose, that she'd leave him some money when she died.'
'So how come Sandy visits Lucinda?'
Excerpted from False Picture by Veronica Heley. Copyright © 2008 Veronica Heley. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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.