The last thing London debutante Gay Hardwicke wants is to become involved in another one of her cousin’s messy jams. But Lady Sylvia Colesborough is in over her head this time: She claims she’s being blackmailed by the mysterious Mr. Zero. If she doesn’t steal important government papers from the safe of her politically connected husband, the distinguished Sir Francis, her gambling debts will be exposed. Gay’s reluctant attempts to help Sylvia backfire when a murder raises the stakes—and Gay’s boyfriend, Algy Somers, becomes the prime suspect.
Enlisting the aid of her society friends, Gay races to clear Algy’s name and catch a cagey killer before her own days are numbered.
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By Patricia Wentworth
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1938 J.B. Lippincott Company
All rights reserved.
The telephone bell rang, and went on ringing. Miss Agatha Hardwicke kept her instrument in the front hall where everyone could hear every single word that was said. If the postman came while you were talking, or a caller, or an errand boy, he, she or it was also included in the audience. And if you happened to be in your bedroom five floors up, you had to run all the way down and arrive breathless.
Gay Hardwicke arrived breathless. "If it's anyone else about that blighted bazaar, I'll smash you!" she said, and jammed the receiver against one ear. With the other she heard the kitchen door open at the foot of the basement stair. That meant that Mrs. Hollings was listening in. She always did when Gay telephoned, and Gay didn't really mind, because Holly was an old pet and so passionately interested in her affairs. She probably wouldn't listen for very long this time, because it was a female voice that said,
"Miss Hardwicke — can I speak to Miss Hardwicke?"
"Miss Hardwicke is out, I'm afraid."
Why Aunt Agatha couldn't be at home to take her own blighted calls about her own blighted bazaar instead of having them just when one was half way through washing one's hair —
But the telephone had suddenly become eager and explanatory.
"Gay — darling — is that you? Your voice sounded all woolly —"
"So would yours if you had to run down five flights of stairs every time Aunt Agatha's League of Help thought of a new pattern for a pincushion."
"My poor angel — how grim! It's Marcia Thrale speaking."
"Yes, I got that. Where are you?"
"Well, it's too marvellous — darling, I must see you — I'm at the Luxe."
"What on earth are you doing at the Luxe?"
Well, it's simply too marvellous. You know my Uncle George?"
"Is that the one in Java, or the one who could never keep a job in South America?"
"No, that was Denis. He's Mummy's brother — on the other side. This is the one in Java, George Thrale, and he's got pots of money, and he's my godfather, and after sending me a christening mug three years running he stopped doing anything about it till a fortnight ago, and then he sent Mummy a cheque for three hundred pounds and said, 'Get her all the proper clothes and let her come out with my friends the Middletons who are sailing on the fifth of Feb.'"
"But, Marcia, that's tomorrow!"
"I know, darling. And that's positively all there was in the letter, except 'Dear Mary' at the beginning and 'Cable reply. Love. George' at the end. Gay, I must speak to you. What are you doing?"
"Well, I was trying to wash my hair. It's dripping all over the hall table at this minute."
"Darling, how grim! Jane told me you were with your Aunt Agatha — but why? The last I heard, you were going to Madeira."
"It wouldn't run to it," said Gay mournfully. "Daddy and Mummy had to go because someone's started a lawsuit about Mummy's property out there. If it doesn't come out all right, there'll be frightfully little money, so when Aunt Agatha offered to have me they said 'Thank you very much, kind sister' and dumped me."
"Darling, how utterly grim!"
Gay sparkled at her end of the line. Even with her black curls wet and dripping and an old school dressing-gown pulled hastily round her, she didn't look at all like the sort of girl who would sit down and play Cinderella whilst her parents basked in the sun. Aunt Agatha was a bore, and bazaars were a bore, but there were compensations. She said,
"Oh — well —"
"What does that mean?"
Gay made a little impudent face. Her nose wrinkled and her dark eyes danced.
"Very kind-hearted people sometimes take me out," she said.
"Don't I know it! You're that sort, you little wretch." Then, with a sudden change of tone, "Get your hair dry and come round. I've got to see you."
Gay drew back an inch or two. Something said, "Don't go." The words were so loud and distinct in her mind that she very nearly dropped the receiver. She stood there frowning at it, her gay, bright colour gone as if a puff of wind had blown it out — a wind of fear — a cold, cold wind of dread.
"Gay — where are you — are you there?"
Gay said, "Yes." The wind went past her and was gone. The fear was gone. Her colour came back.
"Gay — what's the matter? You sounded — funny."
Gay laughed her own gay laugh.
"I went all cold. There's a beast of a draught under Aunt Agatha's front door. Why do you want me to come round?"
"Darling, what a thing to ask! I want to see you of course."
Gay frowned again.
"Why do you want me?" Marcia didn't, unless there was something you could do for her.
Marcia stopped giggling. She said imploringly.
"Oh, Gay, do come! It's about Sylvia — she's in an awful jam."CHAPTER 2
"Sylvia's such an idiot," said Marcia Thrale with a giggle.
"She always was," said Gay. She didn't giggle, she frowned. She was remembering all the different times Sylvia had been an idiot, and had got in a jam, and had had to be hauled out again. And it wasn't Marcia who had done the hauling, though she was her sister, it was nearly always Gay Hardwicke. And a jam at school was one thing, but a jam after you are married and ought to be living happy ever after was quite another. Her frown deepened, and she said impatiently, "What on earth has she been doing now?"
They were in Marcia Thrale's bedroom at the Luxe. It was a riotous orgy of pink. Everything that could be pink had been painted, upholstered, or draped in that colour. Mercifully, a good deal of it was obscured by the boxes, the dresses, the hats, coats, shoes, stockings, and gloves which Marcia was taking to Java. Gay had firmly made a place for herself on the edge of the rose-coloured bed, Marcia, in a pink satin dressing-gown, having already annexed the only armchair. Marcia was like that. It ran in the family, because Sylvia was like it too — only more so. But then Sylvia was a lovely, and everyone had always spoiled her. Marcia wasn't bad-looking when you saw her away from Sylvia, but nobody would ever look at her if they could look at Sylvia instead, so Marcia hadn't really got the same excuse.
Gay tossed back her damp black curls and said,
"What on earth is it this time?"
Marcia spoke comfortably from the chair.
"Well, you know what Sylvia is. She never writes — at least only postcards to Mummy, because if she didn't do that, she'd have Mummy ringing up every other day to know if she was dead."
"Yes?" said Gay. You couldn't hurry Marcia, but you could try.
"I don't think I've had a single letter from her since she was married, and that's just on a year ago. And I've only seen her at home, when she rushed down for about half an hour, and of course Mummy was there the whole time. But I lunched with her yesterday — to say goodbye, you know — and she told me she was in this awful jam. She really did look pretty ghastly. I mean she'd got on the wrong stockings for her dress, and her lipstick all crooked, so I think things are pretty grim."
"What is it?" said Gay, in a resigned tone.
Marcia waved a newly manicured hand.
"Darling, she never told me. We only had about ten minutes after lunch, and the moment she began I said quite firmly, 'Well, my dear, it's no good your asking me to do anything, because I'm absolutely up to my eyes and sailing day after tomorrow at some ghastly hour like cock-crow.' And she was just beginning to go all orphan-of-the-storm, when Francis came in, and she dried right up and got rid of me as soon as she possibly could — I can't think why. I wouldn't have married Francis if he'd been fifty times as rich, but we've always got on all right."
"Considering Sylvia had only known him for six weeks before they got married and you were away for quite half that time —"
"It didn't give me a chance, did it? But I really wouldn't have married him even if Sylvia hadn't got off with him first."
"Well, I've only seen him twice. He seemed all right. Isn't he being nice to Sylvia?"
"Oh, I don't think it's that," said Marcia. She got up, stretched herself, and gathered the pink dressing-gown round her. "Darling, I've got one last fitting. Such a bore! It's the pink crepe. Mercifully, I tried it on when it came at lunch-time, and the hem is crooked. I told Madame Frederica exactly what I thought about it on the telephone, and she fairly crawled, so she's sending a girl to do it here, and Mrs. Middleton says I can use her room, because it's got a much better glass than this." She got as far as the door, yawned, and said over her shoulder, "So you can see Sylvia here."
Gay leapt from the rose-coloured eiderdown, caught Marcia by a pink satin shoulder, and shook it vigorously.
"Sylvia? My good girl, what are you talking about?"
Marcia's rather light blue eyes opened widely.
"Darling, didn't I tell you? She's coming here on purpose to see you. That's why I wanted you to come."
"Sylvia's coming here to see me?"
"Yes, darling. Didn't I tell you?"
Gay stamped an angry foot.
"You know very well you didn't! It's a plant! You're wriggling out and landing me with Sylvia exactly like you always did at school!"
Marcia giggled faintly.
"Darling, somebody's got to help her, and I'm going to Java."
Gay let go of the pink shoulder and stood back.
"When is she coming?"
Marcia looked at a new wrist-watch.
"Well, she's due now, but she's always late."
"Why is she coming here? If she wants to see me, why can't she come and see me? Why drag me here?"
"Really, darling — drag! And we had to get you here because of Francis! You see, even Francis couldn't think there was anything odd about Sylvia coming to say goodbye to me before I go to Java. At least, I think he might if he knew her as well as we do, but I don't suppose he does — not about things like that. Now look here, she really does rely on you to help her, because when I was coming away yesterday she simply gripped my hand and said, 'Where's Gay? I must see her. Do let me know where she is.' And she couldn't say any more than that, because Francis was there, but she pinched my hand till I very nearly screamed, so I thought I'd better find you and let her know. And the minute she heard you were coming, she said she'd dash round in a taxi — and I expect that's she."
The telephone bell rang from the pink pedestal beside the bed. Marcia took up the receiver, listened for a moment, and spoke into it.
"Lady Colesborough? ... Oh, yes, I'm expecting her. Please send her up." She turned to see Gay reaching for her hat.
"You can see Sylvia yourself, Marcia."
Marcia's colour rose.
"Darling, you can't go — you can't! She's come here on purpose to see you. You can't!"
"Watch me!" said Gay. She snapped out the words, shut down her lips in a determined scarlet line, and pulled up the collar of her dark grey coat.
Something in Gay said, "Run for it!" and she ran. But before she had taken a dozen steps along the corridor she was pulled up short. Sylvia Colesborough was coming towards her — Sylvia pale and lovely, with her golden hair under a little grey cap, and a pale grey squirrel coat falling open over a dress of pale grey wool. She said, "Oh, Gay!" in her lovely helpless voice, and Gay knew that it was too late to run away. Whatever Sylvia Colesborough's trouble was, it was going to be Gay Hardwicke's trouble from now onwards.
She went back into Marcia's room with Sylvia, and found it empty. A little bright flame of rage flickered up in Gay. It burned in her cheeks and set a dancing spark in her eyes. She looked at Sylvia in the pink brocade chair and said,
"What on earth have you been up to?"
Sylvia Colesborough was taking off her grey suede gloves, frowning a little because the third left-hand finger had caught itself up on the big diamond in her engagement ring. It was a very big diamond, a single stone surrounded by fine brilliants. The gloves were very expensive gloves. Sylvia laid them in her lap and folded her hands upon them. She was wearing a pale rose lipstick and nail-polish, and green eye-shadow, but she had the sense to leave her eyelashes alone. Nature had painted them a full six tones deeper than her flax-gold hair, and, lavishly generous, had tipped the curling ends with gold. It was these lashes and the almost midnight blue of the eyes they screened which gave to Sylvia's beauty a certain exquisite strangeness.
She lifted those lovely eyes and said,
Gay tapped with her foot upon the rose-coloured carpet.
"That gets us a lot farther, doesn't it!" she said.
"But, Gay darling, Marcia said —"
"Marcia would! She always did fob you off on to me when she got half a chance!"
A sweet, fleeting smile touched Sylvia's lips.
"Darling, you were so clever. You always got me out of things. I've always said you're the cleverest person I know. You will help me, won't you?"
Gay leaned against the ornamental rail at the bottom of the bed, a rail of rose-coloured enamel with bright gilt knobs.
"Now look here, Sylvia, why should I help you? We were at school together, I was your bridesmaid, and you're some sort of fifteenth cousin. You've never written me a line since you got married, you've never been near me since I came to London, and I've never been inside your house —"
"Oh, but I didn't know —"
"Oh, yes, you did, because I wrote and told you — I told you Mummy and Daddy were going to Madeira and marooning me with Aunt Agatha. And did you rally round? Not a rally! Did you take the trouble to lift the receiver from that mother-of-pearl telephone thing you had for one of your wedding presents and coo into it, 'Darling, do come round and see me'? You know you didn't. Sylvia, if you look at me like that, I'll throw something at you — I really will!"
Sylvia's lovely eyes had widened piteously. A clear, round tear brimmed gently over and rolled quite slowly and with immense effect down a faintly tinted cheek. Gay's little angry flame burned higher. If Sylvia would only get cross — but Sylvia never got cross. You might call her the most awful names, and she didn't resent them, or hate you. She just cried, and made you feel what a brute you were. She was making Gay feel like that now. A tear rolled down the other cheek too. She didn't wipe either of them away, she just let them fall on to the pale grey gloves, and said in a lost-child sort of voice.
"I know — I've been horrid. There isn't any reason why you should help me, only — I'm so frightened, and I don't know what to do — I don't indeed." The tears were falling faster now. They welled up, ran over, and fell. They kept on falling. They put out Gay's little angry flame. She would have to take a hand. She had known that all the time of course. You can't just let an idiotic creature down because it doesn't know enough to come in out of the rain. She tossed back her hair and said,
"Oh, I'll help you. You always knew I would. Stop crying, Silly Billy baby, and tell me what it's all about. Whatever have you been and gone and done?"CHAPTER 3
Sylvia drew a long sighing breath, Dabbed her eyes with a mauve handkerchief, and opened a grey suede bag with a diamond initial on it.
Gay cocked her eye at it.
"Wedding present?" she enquired.
"No — Francis — for Christmas. Rather nice, isn't it?" From an inner pocket she produced a scrap of newspaper. "There — you'd better read it."
The piece of paper was about five inches long and two inches wide. It looked as if it had been torn off the edge of the Times. On the blank margin there was scrawled in pencil:
"Same place. Same time. Same money."
The words stood one below the other like the rungs of a ladder, the letters coarsely printed with a blunt blue pencil. Gay frowned at them:
"What does it mean?"
"I didn't go," said Sylvia in a tired voice. "Then I got this one."
She fished out another piece of newspaper. A tear splashed down on it and smudged the blue pencil, but it was legible enough. In the same coarse scrawl Gay read:
"Tomorrow without fail, or your husband will know."
Excerpted from Mr. Zero by Patricia Wentworth. Copyright © 1938 J.B. Lippincott Company. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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