Ellie is desperate to find someone to look after their elderly housekeeper, whose health is failing. But employing a carer found by Ellie’s difficult daughter, Diana, proves to be a mixed blessing when Ellie returns from a trip to America to find that carer Claire has implemented a number of bizarre changes to the Quicke household routine.
Claire, is heavily involved in ‘the Vision’, a local church with a charismatic, powerful pastor, who – seemingly coincidentally – is looking to Ellie for financial help in his current project, housing reformed addicts. But Ellie is suspicious – and more so, when details of Claire’s chequered past comes to light. Can Ellie trust Claire and Pastor Ambrose?
Ellie investigates and doesn’t like what she finds . . .
About the Author
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Murder by Suspicion
An Ellie Quicke Mystery
By Veronica Heley
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2015 Veronica Heley
All rights reserved.
Monday, early evening
When she got there, the cupboard was bare.
In other words, the house was empty.
'Hello-o! I'm back!'
Almost, Ellie panicked.
She'd travelled back alone. She was worn out after the long flight. She felt dizzy and sick. A headache threatened. Some people could cope with jet lag, but she couldn't. She needed to shower, get into comfortable clothes and eat something light. Then catch up with the news ... slowly.
But, there was no one at home, and there should have been, shouldn't there?
Ellie's oldest friend, Rose, had taken it upon herself some time ago to act as housekeeper for Ellie and Thomas, but she'd become frail and hadn't stepped outside the house for months. Rose spent most of her time dozing either in her big chair in the kitchen, or in bed with the television on and the sound turned low. When Ellie had rung to say she was coming back a day early, she hadn't expected Rose to answer the phone, but she had expected Rose's new live-in carer to do so. The carer was supposed to listen to voicemail messages every day, and Ellie had spoken slowly and clearly, so the woman would know that Ellie was about to return.
But, Rose was nowhere to be seen. She wasn't in the kitchen, nor in her room. And neither was her carer. Had Rose been whipped off to hospital? The doctor had said that if Rose were to have another attack of bronchitis or a fall, it would be best to call an ambulance. If that had happened, surely the carer would have left a note to that effect?
What was the woman's name?
Ellie squeezed her eyes shut in an effort to remember. An old-fashioned-looking woman, appearing older than she really was. Dumpy, bad skin, dressed in black ... which was a bit odd these days, but beggars couldn't be choosers and she'd come highly recommended. What was more, Rose had said she didn't mind having her around, which had been the clincher.
What was her name? Claire? Yes, Claire.
Ellie clutched her head. She was too tired to think straight. The plane ... ugh! And jet lag!
The house was neat and tidy, but looked different. The venerable grandfather clock in the hall had been moved from its usual place by the door to the kitchen quarters and was now standing by the door to the conservatory. Goodness! Why? And it had stopped. Well, it would, wouldn't it? Ancient clocks don't take kindly to being moved.
The house felt chilly. Almost, clammy. The central heating had been turned right down. Well, it was the end of July, though there was nothing warm about it. Ellie turned the thermostat up, and the boiler responded. Good.
There were no flowers on the chest in the hall. Ellie always liked to keep a vase of flowers there. She would do something about that soon.
Once she'd found out what had happened to Rose.
Ellie shed her coat and made herself think.
Make a cup of tea. Sit down. No, change her shoes and then sit down. Rushing around the globe had taken it out of her. She wondered how Thomas was getting on. They'd gone to Canada on holiday to see his family by his first, long-dead, wife, and then he'd gone on to take part in a seminar in Chicago, all very high powered and way above Ellie's head. She knew it had been a privilege for him to be asked. She'd said she'd go along with him to do some sightseeing and window shopping during the day and meet up with him in the evenings.
To tell the truth – and she was really rather ashamed of herself for thinking that way – she'd had enough of hanging around waiting for Thomas to stop being an important personage and return to being her very own love, which of course he always did, because he was a good man and a wonderful, caring husband. It was all right for him to be busy at home in London where she had plenty to do. More than enough to do, in fact. But this business of being at a loose end in a foreign country was, well, a teensy bit boring. And, let's face it, she'd been worried about leaving Rose for so long. So she'd decided to take the first plane home.
Actually, she'd been lucky and got an earlier flight than she'd expected ... only to arrive jet-lagged and weary to find no one at home.
Claire, the Carer; anxious eyes, swollen ankles.
To tell the truth, Ellie's ankles weren't much better at the moment, though she'd worn the special stockings that were supposed to prevent such problems.
WHERE WAS ROSE?
Ellie went into the kitchen and opened the fridge. She wasn't quite sure why, as Rose, though tiny, could hardly have fitted in there. No Rose. Plenty of fresh milk, green veg, yogurt and salads. The fruit bowl on the table was well filled, too. At least Claire had been feeding Rose healthy food. Except, of course, that Rose didn't enjoy healthy food. She liked fish and chips, and cottage pie, and lasagne and anything that didn't put too much of a strain on her dentures. As the doctor had said, at her advanced age, why not give her whatever she fancied to eat?
Ellie checked the freezer. It was well stocked with ready meals of the vegetarian variety. Claire hadn't mentioned being a vegetarian at her interview, but there was the evidence to prove it. No roasts but nut, soya sausages instead of chicken. A couple of fish pies. All bought from the supermarket. Nothing home-cooked.
Ellie was dying for a good cup of strong, breakfast tea. It felt like the middle of the night to her but, glancing at the clock, it was only supper time back in the United Kingdom. She switched on the kettle.
Now, how could she find Rose? Who should she ring? The police, to report her missing? No, no. That would be an overreaction. There would be, there must be, some explanation for her absence.
Perhaps Ellie's last phone call had not been recorded properly? She played back the messages on the phone in the hall and had the eerie experience of hearing her own voice. Yes, her message had been recorded, and Claire ought to have picked it up.
Ellie could ring her busy daughter Diana, who had originally engaged Claire to look after Diana's lively toddler. Claire hadn't been able to run fast enough to control the little imp, and so Diana had passed Claire on to Ellie rather as one passes on second-hand goods, saying: this doesn't fit me any longer, but it might do for you though it's past its sell-by date.
Or, Ellie could ring the doctor and ask if Rose had been taken to hospital. No, that was daft. If Rose had been taken to hospital, there would have been a note left for Ellie to see. Wouldn't there? She could ring the local hospital herself and ask ...?
Diana might be able to think where Claire had taken Rose, perhaps in a wheelchair? Rose couldn't walk far nowadays.
Ellie told herself that she was not afraid of Diana. Not at all. Diana couldn't hurt her. Diana was ambitious and a career woman, and looked out for herself. It was perfectly understandable if she became somewhat terse when contacted at work.
Ellie made herself a cuppa with the last of the tea-bags, noting that they were also out of biscuits and instant coffee among other staples, and took it into the sitting room. She experienced a moment of dislocation. The room shifted around her. No, it didn't. That was nonsense. She was suffering from jet lag, that was all.
She went to the window to look out on to the garden. It was raining. The roses needed dead-heading. The lawn needed mowing, so the gardener couldn't have been that week. Or perhaps he had, but it had been raining and so he hadn't been able to cut the grass?
Don't put off ringing Diana. Ellie forced herself to sit down. Her head swam. Something was the matter, it really was. The chair, the high-backed chair that she always sat in beside the fireplace, wasn't there. She was sitting on someone else's chair, Thomas's beloved La-Z-Boy chair, which had been substituted for her own. If she sat on her own chair, which had been moved to the other side of the room, she'd be nowhere near the table with the phone on it.
How ridiculous! The agency must have sent a new cleaning team, who'd switched the chairs round. Well, they were too heavy for her to lift. She'd deal with the matter tomorrow. She moved to the edge of Thomas's chair and drew the telephone towards her. The place was neat and tidy. If Thomas had come back with her, there'd already have been newspapers strewn around and an empty coffee mug and ... Well, he was probably addressing the delegates at this very moment. Or not, if she'd miscounted. Had she gone backwards or forwards in time? Or even lost a day? What was the time in the UK? Her watch wouldn't help. She looked at the clock on the mantelpiece. Nearly seven in the evening. What day of the week was it? Monday? Probably.
Diana must have left the office by now. Ellie keyed in Diana's home number. It bothered her that she had to sit in Thomas's chair, which didn't suit her behind. And there were no flowers in the room ... As if that were important at the moment.
'Mother? You're back early. Something wrong?' A sharp voice, reminding Ellie that her daughter was too busy a woman to be interrupted by trivia.
'No, not really. I was worried about Rose and Thomas is tied up with work, so I decided ... Diana, I'm home safely, but there's no sign of Rose or Claire.'
'Really? Well, I suppose they've gone for a walk.'
Ellie told herself not to shout at Diana, though she felt like it. 'Rose hasn't been out of the house for ages. You know that. That's why you passed Claire on to me, to look after her while we were away.'
'Well, you can't blame me for that!' Angry and defensive. 'She came highly recommended.'
Now what, exactly, did that mean? With an effort, Ellie made her voice calm. 'How much do you know about Claire? Could she have taken Rose to her own home? I have a feeling she was living somewhere locally, but I can't remember where.'
'How should I know? If you're so worried, you should ring the police. They might be able to ... They know where she lives, anyway.'
Ellie had a horrid thought. 'Are you suggesting that Claire has been in trouble with the police? Why didn't you warn me? I would never have entrusted Rose to her care if —'
'It was nothing. She had nothing whatever to do with the girl's disappearance. And it wasn't murder. The police admitted as much. A storm in a teacup.'
Murder? Ellie clutched the phone harder. 'You mean the police suspected her of —'
'No, no. It wasn't murder. They ruled that out. Honestly, Mother. Rose is perfectly safe with Claire. Anyone would think ...! I expect she'll turn up soon. Now, if you don't mind, I have people coming in for dinner!' Down went the phone.
Ellie cradled her receiver. She was shaking. Cold. The central heating had come on, but it was raining and she still felt cold. She could ring Thomas and ask him ... No, she couldn't interrupt him in the middle of a speech – or the middle of the night if it was night over there. He was going to ring her at his lunchtime, but she couldn't work out when that would be. She could ring the police. She was on friendly terms with someone at the local nick, and she could ask her ...
Yes, but in the meantime, where was Rose? Perhaps she had been feeling so much stronger that she'd gone for a walk ... but surely not in driving rain?
Ellie decided that if Rose weren't back in fifteen minutes, she'd ring the police.
Meantime, she would force herself to be practical. She would take her bag upstairs to unpack and freshen up.
She was halfway to the stairs when she heard a car draw up in the driveway and a key turn in the front door lock.
'Here we are, home again!' An over-hearty voice. Claire entered the hall, backwards, helping a large black woman to bring Rose in out of the rain. Rose was in a wheelchair. A wheelchair? Where had that come from?
'Rose!' Ellie dropped her bag and flew back down the stairs. 'Where have you been? I've been so worried about you.'
Claire started. 'Oh, Mrs Quicke. How you startled me. I didn't expect you back till tomorrow.' She didn't sound pleased about it.
'But I rang yesterday to say —'
The black woman beamed at Ellie. 'Hi, there, sister! Nice to meet you. We've been to a healing service, haven't we, Rose? We enjoyed it ever so much. And now we're all ready for a rest.' She lifted Rose out of the wheelchair and made sure she was balanced on her own two feet. Then she collapsed the wheelchair and took it away under her arm, shutting the front door behind her.
'Rose, are you all right?' Ellie got her arm around Rose's shoulders. Oh, how fragile she felt! Like a little brown sparrow. 'Where did you get the wheelchair?'
'I'm fine,' said Rose, in a tiny voice. 'Just a bit tired.'
Claire beamed at Ellie. 'She didn't want to be left out, did she, so we borrowed a wheelchair to get her to the service.'
Rose's face was a mesh of wrinkles and her eyes were weary. 'Lovely singing.' She patted Ellie's cheek. 'Glad you're back. I am a bit tired, yes, but it's a good tiredness. I'll sleep all right tonight.' Her voice dragged.
Ellie noted that Rose had lost weight again and her colour was worse than before. How old was she now? Eighty-eight? Or nine? 'Straight to bed, eh?'
Rose said, 'I can walk, if you give me your arm.' With Claire on one side of her and Ellie on the other, Rose tottered along the passage to her own quarters.
Some time ago, when Rose had begun to find the stairs too much, Ellie had contrived a large bed-sitting room, shower room and toilet for her off the kitchen quarters. The television was always on there, the sound turned low. It was still on now.
Claire said, 'Tck!' and turned it off. Claire gave Ellie a sharp look, which Ellie returned. Ellie opened her mouth to say something, but closed it again when Rose made a feeble movement.
Claire sounded over-hearty. 'There, there. Soon have you in bed, Rose. Mrs Quicke, why don't you let me see to Rose, while you get out of your travelling clothes? We didn't expect you back so early, did we, Rose? And, by the time we've freshened up, there'll be some supper on the table.'
Rose added her voice. 'Yes, you do look tired, Ellie.'
That did it. Telling someone they looked tired was guaranteed to make them feel a hundred and ten. Ellie decided to put Rose's welfare before having an argument about the unwisdom of taking an elderly, frail woman out of the house in the rain. Besides which, she had to admit that she herself was in no shape for a confrontation with Claire.
'Very well. I won't be long.' She dragged herself upstairs only to find her bed, the bed in which she and Thomas slept, had been moved to stand under the windows which overlooked the back garden.
Oh, really! But she was too tired to make a fuss tonight. She unpacked, showered and changed into a warm skirt and jumper. When she descended to the kitchen again, there was no sign of Claire, but some home-made soup had been heated up and left warming through on the hob, a nut roast was cooking in the oven and some vegetables were steaming on the side. A note on the table said that now Ellie had returned, Claire had gone out for the evening but would be back later.
Well, perhaps it was just as well to postpone the unpleasantness.
Ellie ladled some soup into a mug and took it through to Rose, who had drifted off to sleep but woke with a start when Ellie sat down beside her bed.
'What time is it, Ellie? It's lovely to have you back.'
'Supper time. I haven't a clue which day of the week it is. Let's sit you up so you can have your soup.'
Rose took a sip of soup. Her hand was shaking. 'Nice soup.'
'There's a nut roast for afters.'
'I'll just have the soup. I lost count of the days, kept asking Claire when you'd be back. She's been very good to me, you know.'
'She's looked after you well?' Ellie didn't mean to sound doubtful, but she could hear the reservations in her voice.
So could Rose. 'I think so.' Again, her voice dragged. Then she made an effort. She pulled herself up the pillows. 'She's done her best. She's been sleeping in my old room upstairs, so that she could hear my little bell ring if I needed her in the night. Which I haven't. Don't be too hard on her. She's had a difficult time with her family and all.' Her hand in Ellie's was warm enough. Perhaps she hadn't taken any great harm by the outing. Her eyes closed.
Excerpted from Murder by Suspicion by Veronica Heley. Copyright © 2015 Veronica Heley. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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