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Malice in Miniature
A Dorothy Martin Mystery
By Jeanne M. Dams
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 1998 Jeanne M. Dams
All rights reserved.
It was a wet, blustery Monday afternoon in early November, the gray sky full of scudding clouds, leaves rushing through the air and sticking to the windows as the chill wind flung them there. I sat snugly in front of my fire, drinking tea in the cozy comfort of central heating and close-fitting windows and doors.
"They've made a good job of the house, Dorothy," said Alan, echoing my thoughts, as he so often does. It isn't unusual, after years of marriage, for a couple to communicate without words — but Alan and I, for all our gray hair and creaky joints, had been married for only a little over a month.
To each other, that is. I thought about my dear Frank, who had always known exactly what I was about to say, and smiled. I could remember him without pain, now. Our many wonderful years together would always be a part of me, a part, even, of my relationship with Alan. Like Tolstoy, I hold to the theory that all happy marriages are alike. Because Alan and I had each been happily married, we had been able to settle into the new bond with scarcely a ripple. Even the renovations to my seventeenth-century house, now (mercifully) nearly finished, had scarcely disturbed our bliss.
Secretly, foolishly, I tapped the wooden leg of my chair, just in case it was tempting fate to be so happy, and grinned at my new husband. "They've done a good job so far. At least the weather stays outside now. No floods in the upstairs hall, no gales through the parlor. Now if we can come up with a true miracle, an English plumber who understands something about showers ..."
"Ah, yes, the standard American complaint about our plumbing. What's wrong with a proper English bath, I'd like to — What was that?"
Both cats woke from their sound sleep on the hearth, four ears swiveling in unison, four eyes wide with alarm as the pounding continued.
"Sit still; I'll go. Probably Jane, as it's the backdoor, though what she'd be doing out in this weather I can't imagine." I struggled out of the embrace of my favorite chair and hurried through the kitchen. The loud knocking sounded frantic. "All right, all right, I'm coming!"
I opened the door on the wettest, most bedraggled-looking human being I've ever seen. "For heaven's sake, Ada Finch! Come in, come in, and we'll get you dry. What brought you out —"
"Oh, madam!" she said, interrupting me. She leaned against the door frame, panting to catch her breath, one hand pressed to her ample bosom. "Oh, madam, 'ee never done it! You've got to find out 'oo did, so as they'll let 'im go, which they'd never a took 'im in if they'd 'ad so much sense as they were born with, but them p'lice — savin' yer presence, sir —"
The last remark was addressed to Alan — Alan Nesbitt, chief constable for the county of Belleshire and hence the city of Sherebury, who had joined me in the kitchen, looking mildly astonished. He now came to the door and ushered in the dripping Mrs. Finch, who allowed us to take her coat and then dropped into a chair at the kitchen table, still talking.
"— and if 'ee did 'ave it in 'is pocket, 'ee never put it there, did 'ee, which 'ee told 'im, over and over again, but 'ee wouldn't listen, not a nob like 'im, all 'igh and mighty, I'll 'igh and mighty 'im, I will —"
I opened my mouth, but Alan shook his head slightly. "Better let her get it out of her system, whatever it is," he murmured under Ada's unceasing flow of words. "She'll run down eventually, and then perhaps we can get some sense out of her. Meanwhile ..."
His head tilted toward the Aga, the vast kitchen range I was learning to use, and I obediently moved the kettle to the hottest burner. Alan was quite right. Whatever ailed my voluble friend, a cup of tea would help.
"— and wot I want to know is, wot are you goin' to do about it?" Ada stopped talking at last, skewered me with a fierce glare, and then dissolved into sobs, her head on her arms. I patted her shoulder, uttered meaningless, soothing noises, and, when she began to quiet, put a cup of strong, sweet tea in front of her as Alan pushed one of his man-sized handkerchiefs into her hand.
She raised her head and sniffled. "Ta," she said to both of us impartially, blew her nose, and took a large gulp of tea.
"All right, now, Ada, I'm afraid we didn't get quite all of that; you're a little upset. Could you start over again from the beginning and tell us everything? It's Bob in trouble, isn't it?"
It was a reasonable guess. Not only is her grown-up son, Bob, the only important "'ee" in Ada's life, but he and trouble are not always strangers. Bob's an honest man, but his drinking, which cost him his marriage and brought him home to Mum, still leads him into difficulties from time to time. This one must be a doozy; I'd known Ada to break down in tears only once before, when she discovered a dead body in the Town Hall — which circumstance, it must be admitted, might shake even the most stoic of us.
She put down her teacup and glared at me again. "It's not 'is fault this time!"
"Of course not. Now tell us, slowly, with all the details."
She hesitated, looking from me to Alan. Well, he can be tactful when required.
"So glad you're feeling better, Mrs. Finch. Will you excuse me? I have — er — some letters to write." He winked at me and disappeared.
"Which it's not," said Ada with a hint of her usual manner, "that I don't trust 'im, but once a p'liceman always a p'liceman is wot I say, and wot 'ee don't know won't 'urt 'im. Nor yet it won't 'urt me nor Bob."
I shook my head at that. "I tell my husband most things, Ada. If there's something you don't want him to know ..."
She shook her head. "No matter. Wot you tells 'im, as from 'is wife, is different to wot I tells 'im. I'm the public, and 'ee'd 'ave to take notice, official-like. Wiv you it's" — she eyed me coyly — "only pillow talk."
I couldn't help laughing at that piece of Jesuitical reasoning, and we both relaxed a little. "Okay. Just as long as you don't expect me to keep things from him. Now, to be perfectly honest, I didn't follow a single word of what you said before, so you'll have to start all over."
She was collected now, and paused for thought before she began. "The short of it is, Bob's been 'ad up for stealin'."
I stared at her, genuinely shocked. "But he'd never do such a thing! Even if he was — umm —"
"'Ee could be drunk as a lord, and 'ee'd never take nuffink as didn't belong to 'im," said Ada flatly. "You know it; the 'ole town knows it. But they found it on 'im, y'see, and then that old —" She stopped abruptly, seeking a euphemism for whatever scathing epithet she considered unfit for my ears. "'Im wot runs the place," she finally amended, "'ee said as 'ow 'ee'd 'ad 'is eye on Bob, an' 'ee thought 'ee'd been pinchin' this and that for weeks."
I waved a hand in the air, confused. "Wait a minute, Ada. I'm still not sure I know what you're talking about. Was it someone Bob works for who made the complaint?"
Bob is a jobbing gardener who works for a number of households in town, mine included. He's a hard worker with true genius for his job; it took him only a few months to transform the weed patch in back of my house into the beginnings of a dream garden. But when he goes off on a toot he often comes back, sober and repentant, to find that some of his employers have lost patience and hired someone else.
I hired him when I lived alone, and I still need him badly. No matter how hard I try, I can't make anything grow except couch grass and dandelions, and Alan is too busy for dedicated gardening.
"The 'All," said Ada obscurely, in answer to my question.
"Brocklesby 'All. 'Is new job. Didn't 'ee tell you?"
"He doesn't talk much when he's here — except to tell me I'm watering too much, or not enough, and ask what to plant." The latter was purely a formality, though I didn't tell Ada so. Bob intends to plant my garden with whatever he wants, and quite right, too, but he is always punctilious about consulting me. I gravely agree to his suggestions; he then puts the already purchased seeds or plants in the ground. We both enjoy the ritual.
Ada nodded, poured herself another cup of tea, and settled back to explain in full. It took a while, what with my interruptions for clarification and her elaborate digressions, but what it amounted to in the end was simple, mystifying, and somewhat disquieting.
Brocklesby Hall, it turned out, was a big country house a mile or two outside Sherebury; I vaguely remembered hearing the name. As these things go in England, it wasn't an old house. There had been a very old manor house on the site, some parts of it pre-Conquest — "built before the Frenchies come and took us all over" was Ada's way of putting it — but when that family died out in the early nineteenth century, the land was bought by a nouveau riche merchant named Brocklesby. "Beer" was Ada's brief explanation of his wealth. He had proceeded to tear down the old house, leaving only a few picturesque bits of wall for instant ruins, as was the fashion in those days. In its place he had erected a fantastic testimony to what bad taste, allied to a huge bankroll and a monstrous ego, could perpetrate.
Not that Ada put it that way, of course. She had long admired the place as the grandest house in the neighborhood, bigger and more elaborate even than the manor house where the ancestral squires of Sherebury had lived, and when Bob went to work at the Hall she had basked in reflected glory and acquired guidebooks and a set of postcards, which she now proceeded to take out of her carryall and show me. I got the idea very quickly.
The house was built with fifty bedrooms (pure ostentation, that sounded like; Ada said Brocklesby had been a bachelor who almost never entertained), countless drawing rooms and ballrooms and galleries and halls, and one bathroom. Nobody, except possibly the servants who had to look after them, had counted the fireplaces, or the windows.
Every surface, every angle that could possibly bear carvings or embellishments had been so adorned; those that couldn't had been painted or gilded. Ceilings were fitted out with carved plaster and peopled with hovering nymphs and cupids cavorting among painted clouds. Staircases, inside and out, were guarded by lions — stone ones, and wood, and plaster. Nowhere was the eye allowed to rest and draw breath, so to speak; everywhere it was urged on: Yes, but just look at this!
"It's — amazing," I said weakly, when she had finished showing me the pictures, head cocked to one side to invite comment. "I can't imagine how I've missed seeing it."
"You want to go out in the summer when the gardens is at their best. At least ..."
She trailed off, her face threatening to crumple again, and I hurried into the breach. "Yes, well, so Bob got a job there. Who does he work for? Who owns the house now?"
"It's a Brocklesby, still, though I don't know as 'ee didn't change 'is name to that when 'ee come into the inheritance. 'Ee's a cousin of a cousin or somefink. The old geezer wot built it never 'ad no children — wot 'ee would own to — so it went to 'is brother's son, and it's been like that, down the years. 'Ardly never passin' straight down, but sideways, like. They don't run to marriage in that family. They all 'as their peculiarities, like, and this one — Sir Mordred, 'ee is — 'ee's the most peculiar of the lot."
Mordred? What a very odd name. Perhaps I'd misunderstood; Ada's accent broadens under the influence of stress. I'd ask Alan later; just now I was more interested in Sir Whatever's eccentricities. "Peculiar how?"
"'Ee plays with toys. A grown man, and 'ee's sixty if 'ee's a day, spending all 'is time with fiddly little bits o' dolls' furniture and that. That's wot 'ee does to keep the 'ouse runnin'. They all 'as to 'ave somethin', don't they, to draw the tourists. They turns it over to the National Trust, or builds a zoo on the grounds, or claims it's 'aunted so the coach tours'll come. And Sir Mordred, 'ee 'as this collection of dolls' 'ouses, so when 'ee comes into this 'uge old 'ouse, 'ee brings 'em all in and sets up a Miniature Museum, and charges five quid a 'ead to see 'em."
"Five pounds! That's a lot, just to see a few dollhouses."
"Well, and there's the 'All itself, isn't there? And it ain't only a few bits. 'Ee 'as 'undreds of 'em, I reckon, all with furniture, and rugs and curtains and crockery and that, and some with dolls, too, queer stiff little 'uns. I seen some of 'em. Bob showed me. They was out in one o' the barns, where the old — where Sir Mordred was workin' on 'em, repairin' 'em and that. But we never touched nuffink, and Bob, 'ee don't know 'ow that tea set come to be in 'is pocket!"
We had come to the crux of it, finally. "Ah,' a tea set. That's what Bob is accused of stealing, then? It seems like they're making a lot of fuss over a toy."
"It's old," said Ada. "Couple of 'undred years. Severs."
I blinked. "What severs what?"
"Severs china. You know. French."
It took me a moment, but I got it. "Oh, Sèvres! My word, you mean a miniature Sèvres tea set? I didn't know they ever made miniatures. How small?"
"I only seen it out in the barn, that once. It were in a 'ouse wot was being worked on. I'd reckon the tray is so big." Ada held her fingers about three inches apart. "And there's a china pot and sugar bowl and milk jug and all, and cups and saucers and even little silver spoons."
"Hmmm. Well, it sounds interesting, anyway. And it was found in Bob's pocket? What made anyone look?"
"I dunno. 'Ee didn't tell me when 'ee rung me up. 'Ee just said they found it, and said as 'ee were pinchin' it, and called the p'lice. But 'ee never!"
"Well, that's all right then," I said briskly. "You don't need to worry. We know Bob didn't really take it, so he'll be fine."
"But 'ow did it get in 'is pocket?" Ada wailed. "'Ee says 'ee never put it there, and 'ee's never lied in 'is life. 'Ee 'as 'is faults, as I won't deny, but a liar 'ee ain't."
"That's the question, isn't it? And, Ada, I hate to say it, but the only answer I can think of is, somebody wanted to get Bob into trouble. So the question really is, who? And why?"CHAPTER 2
That doesn't necessarily have to be the case, you know," said Alan. We were sitting at the kitchen table that evening, finishing pie and coffee and rehashing Bob's dilemma.
I had finally managed to reassure Ada, promised I would look into Bob's difficulties as soon as I could, and sent her home somewhat comforted. I had offered to drive her, but she had refused.
"You 'ates to drive; I'll be all right on me own."
"Maybe Alan —" I began, but she shook her head.
"Ta, but I don't want me neighbors to see me comin' 'ome with a p'liceman. It's one thing for Bob to be in jail. 'Ee's been there before now, sleepin' it off. But I never had no truck with no p'lice, and when all's said and done Mr. Alan's a p'liceman, even if 'ee is ever so high up."
Alan, although as high in rank as one could get in police administration, and very near retirement, is indeed a policeman. I smiled now, thinking of Ada's equating him with a constable on the beat, likely to disgrace her by association — Alan, who was on a first-name basis with the Dean and the Lord Mayor, among other Sherebury luminaries.
"What's funny?" he asked.
I told him, and he smiled, too. "She's right, though. A policeman I am and a policeman I remain, no matter how many years I've spent away from a beat. And I say again, you may have got hold of the wrong end of the stick. It's far more likely that someone else was stealing the tea set, had it in his hand, lost his nerve for some reason, and shoved it into Bob's pocket."
I frowned. "Alan, I really don't think so. Did I forget to tell you the thing was out in one of the barns? Apparently Brocklesby has set up a sort of workshop out there for repairing the houses and furnishings. They'd need work constantly, I should think, as tiny and fragile as they must be. But the thing is, what would anyone who didn't belong there be doing in the barn? The security must be pretty good, if the collection has any genuine value. The insurance people would require it, or they would in America, anyway."
Excerpted from Malice in Miniature by Jeanne M. Dams. Copyright © 1998 Jeanne M. Dams. 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.
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