Getting Involved

 

Section Eleven

"Where is Margaret?" asked Poppy. "She never came back." It was taking quite long for her absence to be a mere visit to the lavatory. At first she thought she had won the battle, but now that her prey did not return she wondered if it had escaped her.

Edwin sighed tiredly. "You don't like Margaret. Be happy she's not here to taunt you." It was odd. Poppy did not usually like to speak or think about someone else for so long. She was unusually focused.

"I don't trust her. What if she's talking to the police?" She hoped this would frighten someone.

He shrugged. "Let her." As far as he knew, Sebastian was talking to them right now. Margaret would be doing something else. She was perfectly capable of entertaining herself -- and what could she possibly tell the police? They had been questioned last night already. If she had had anything to say she would have done so then, or even when she had been questioned.

"She might be incriminating all of us."

"Poppy, really," Clarissa said in annoyance. She was glad her own daughter was not like this. She had brought her up with better manners. Now that Nigel was no longer with them, she could vent some of her irritation at last. Nigel had never liked criticism on Poppy. He had always thought she could do no wrong. Saying that all of them could be incriminated was simply ridiculous. Someone ought to stop her from saying such stupid things.

"Poppy, Maggie is a friend of mine. I'd really like you to stop talking about her," Edwin said and he meant it. "Both of you are friends of mine. I am not going to take sides here, no matter what you say. I've known her for ages. You can't change my opinion of her, no matter what you invent."

"Unrequited love is really pathetic," Poppy answered. She was not very pleased with his answer. How could she be? He did not prefer her over Margaret. How could he not? Margaret was so old that she had presented a children's programme when Poppy had been young enough to watch. She would like to think of that period as very long ago, because she had been an adult for eons. Edwin had presented the show too, but it was different for men. Women went downhill after their thirtieth birthday, if not before, whereas men gained an extra attraction with all their experience.

And honestly, Maggie had no experience -- she had failed to become a woman of the world. Still invariably single, she had to Poppy's knowledge never tapped into the abundant supply of desirable men that were available to a television personality. Never had she excited the fancy of even the most boring of them. Poppy viewed it in smug contempt. She would be different. She would be celebrated. She would have the most gorgeous men by her side as she graced premiere after premiere with her presence.

Margaret did not deserve to be on TV. She did not care. She did not avail herself of all that was on offer. It was not fair. She had a big mouth; that was all.

Edwin glared at Poppy, but figured that denying anything she said was useless. Poppy was a bad listener. She was too focused on making her own point and she did not know what love was, let alone unrequited love. Fortunately nobody was interested in the conversation at all.

"You can have any woman except her. That must be tough." Her tone was almost sympathetic, but it was too sweet to be sincere. She was never sweet.

If Margaret had not once said something along the same lines in Poppy's presence that she had evidently memorised, Edwin might have felt impressed by the observation. Now he merely shrugged. He knew precisely what Margaret had meant when she had spoken those words. It had not been tough at all to hear them. In some matters Maggie and he were complete opposites, but that did not mean they could not get along and people who got along could say anything they liked to each other.

"I'm convinced you don't really like her." Poppy sounded satisfied with her own conclusion. "I'm convinced you like someone else." She looked at him, expecting some confirmation. He should say that he liked her and everybody should hear it.

Edwin looked at the floor, deliberately, although it appeared as if he had not heard her.

"Does anyone know when we'll be released?" Clarissa inquired to change the subject before Poppy could repeat herself. She knew there had not been any information on this matter yet and no one could know more than she did, because they had all been kept in here. "I have to get back to work on Monday and I really have to, because I've run out of days." Nobody would care how many days she still had, but it at least it provided something for people to respond to. Arthur might.

"I have an important meeting on Monday as well," said Arthur, who sat up straighter when he heard work being mentioned. Work was important to him and he was important to his work. "I'm going to have to speak to the police about that. They're going to have to wrap this up before then."

"That policeman is kind of cute," said Poppy. "But he's a bit arrogant. I'm sure he plans to wrap it up really soon." But he would be wrong there.

"I thought he was rather nice," Anna spoke up in a tentative voice. "On TV they're always ugly old men." Although this one was clearly older than she was, he was not ugly. He would not spend his lonely nights drinking strong liquor in a dark pub. She imagined that he was quite normal. He would be going to a neat and tidy home.

"With a drinking problem," Edwin added. "Or some kind of problem at least. I suppose that's done to make them more human, because they're always hideously clever, of course. Most people don't like other people who are hideously clever." He glanced at Poppy, but she did not understand him. "So they have to have a flaw." He did not care what the policeman's particular flaw was as long as he solved the case, but perhaps it would keep some conversation going. "Maybe his wife divorced him because he worked too much -- or because he likes his Sergeant."

"She's married," said Clarissa. Although that did by no means preclude that the Inspector liked the Sergeant.

"How do you always know that?" Edwin wondered. "Does everyone tell you everything?"

"People wear wedding rings." She always took notice of those. Never get burnt twice.


DCI Scott had finished the last of the preliminary interrogations. Earlier, he had been informed that Miss Maxwell had abandoned the rest, but he had not considered that important enough to interrupt the flow of the interviews, or even to tell Randall about it immediately, for she would surely have insisted that they go up and drag the lady downstairs.

However, it was his duty to check on all suspects and he went up to Miss Maxwell's room, after he had told Randall to question the house staff. He had ignored Randall's quirky smile and he did not ask himself why she had not expressed more indignation at not having been told about Miss Maxwell's desertion.

Randall, like any junior police officer, ought to focus on the responsibility she was given and question the house staff without her superior being there to guide her. He was confident that she would be able to handle this, no matter how convenient it was.

He would inform her later. First he would speak to Miss Maxwell.

 

 

Section Twelve

To Scott's secret relief the bedroom door was wide open and Margaret Maxwell was there, typing away at a laptop. She gave him a quick nod to acknowledge his presence, but continued her work. "A favour, Detective Chief Inspector," she said when she looked up again, tucking her hair behind her ears. "Would you allow me to leave for half a day?" She had been thinking of making the request for while, but she had not yet been able to imagine what his response would be. Now that he had come to her she had to give it a try. He had not addressed her about going upstairs yet. He seemed a patient and thoughtful man. Not afraid of her like the young policeman below -- she could tell the difference.

Scott had been watching her, playing with his pen. He put it down on the dresser to think about the question. "Where do you want to go?" First she went upstairs without permission and now she wanted to leave? There was an end to his permissiveness, or at least there should be. If Randall did not speak up in this case, the other suspects certainly would. Half a day. That meant she was going to return, although nobody bent on fleeing would say she was not going to come back.

Margaret inhaled deeply for courage. What she was about to say was difficult, so she spoke fast to get it over with. "To my daughter's school. I had been hoping we'd be released this morning -- before the end of the school year, but that didn't work out. I was scheduled to leave this morning. It all fit. Now it doesn't." Because someone had to start murdering, her entire life was in chaos. No, that was something a dramatic person would say. She would sort it out calmly with the Inspector here. He came across as a reasonable man. He would understand.

He stared at her for a few seconds. "Your daughter, Miss Maxwell?" She had a daughter? That was more than surprising. She had told him she was Miss Maxwell, but he also recalled her telling him that Anna Edmondson was illegitimate. What significance had that remark had? Had it been ironic, given that Margaret was an unmarried parent herself? He had initially interpreted her comment as disapproval. Perhaps that had been wrong.

She swallowed upon hearing the emphasis, knowing perfectly that he was referring to her own words, but she did not flinch. She did not want to explain, even though she saw his curiosity. First she had to solve this problem. "Yes. She finishes school today -- this afternoon. I need to pick her up at a certain time. I cannot arrange for anyone else to do so." She gestured at her mobile phone. "I've tried." She tried to look as if he had no choice but to allow her. Of course he did. He could refuse to grant her permission. But how could he do that to a child?

"Half a day?" He still needed to come to terms with the fact that she had a daughter. And he remembered that Edwin Symonds had mentioned that Margaret was originally going to leave today, so it was true and not an invention to get away from the inquiry.

She sensed he was not unwilling to grant her the permission and she relaxed. "It's a bit far, so I need a few hours. And I need another favour. I need to bring her here. She's too young to go home alone." And she was too young to stay alone. The murder inquiry had upset all her plans. "She can sleep in my room and she won't be in your way. I'll keep her busy."

"A child? Here?" Scott frowned. "Do you think that advisable?"

"No, but I have no choice. My regular babysitters are abroad. All of them." She looked piqued at his question and she spoke rather snappily. No, of course she did not think a murder investigation an ideal setting for an eleven-year old, especially not this one. How could he even ask her that question? "What do you take me for? If I thought it advisable I would have come here next week and brought her with me."

He did not take her for anything bad. "Apart from the possible danger, I doubt the atmosphere and the guests here would be good for a child, whatever age she may be." Scott examined quickly what they could do instead. She would need a safe and friendly environment, not one with a murderer on the loose. It was not her mother's responsibility -- he was responsible for keeping her here. It was his duty to solve this problem now.

"You're not suggesting I'd let a little girl use public transport on her own, with heavy luggage, very little money and very little idea of where to go?" Margaret looked appalled. She could immediately imagine what might happen and it was very scary. "You're a policeman. You of all people should know there's a considerable chance that she might not even arrive at her destination!"

"I know that." He was not going to let that happen.

"Then let me go and let me bring her here." She disliked herself for having to resort to pleading and her face was distorted into a frown. "Sending a policeman won't work. I've taught her not to believe strange men. Any freak could say he's a policeman."

"Miss Maxwell ... have you heard me say that I'm not allowing you to go?" As far as he was concerned, not saying no right away meant that he was going to say yes.

That was right, she had not heard him say that, but she was still anxious. "No, but I've not heard you say that you are allowing me to go either."

He knew where to find a safe place. It was the first thing that had come to his mind, but it might very well be perfect. "I was still thinking."

"Please think out loud," she snapped at him, less anxious but still concerned.

That almost made him smile because it reminded him of Randall, who regularly said similar things when she was frustrated with his silence. "I may have a solution," he said tentatively.

"What is it?"

He was a bit hesitant about revealing it already, however. "You'll see. I'll have to make some inquiries first, though, and I'll need to come with you." He had to think of good arguments first before he could tell her about it, arguments she could not find fault with.

Margaret was relieved enough not to start questioning right away. She devoted some effort to getting back into her habitual untouchable role, leaving this short spell of weakness and vulnerability behind her as quickly as possible. It was very annoying that all her friends were away, that she had very few people she trusted with her daughter and that she should have to reveal all of this to this man right now, when it was none of his business to wonder how many friends she had, how much she allowed them to do for her, or even that she had a daughter in the first place. All of this fell under personal information that Margaret Maxwell did not like to share.

He studied her face, where relief and embarrassment fought for prominence. "You didn't like telling me that, did you?" It was interesting how she was not afraid to speak her mind in general when there were some things she was reluctant to mention -- a smokescreen perhaps? It meant almost certainly that he had been correct in thinking she had more to say about the case. Asking her directly was not going to work. He would perhaps need to enlist Randall's help to see what she could discover in a woman-to-woman chat.

"Are you surprised?" she uttered in his direction without looking at him.

Not really. But that made sense, given how hesitant he was to reveal his solution. "Oh," he said as an afterthought, picking up his pen again. He pulled a graver face for the message he was about to convey. "I told the policeman downstairs that if you felt like ignoring my orders again, he should tell you to come and inform me of that personally."

To his surprise she began to laugh, happy that confession time was over because he seemed to guess even what she did not say. "I like your sense of humour, Detective Chief Inspector Scott. He would not dare! I frighten him. However, I hope the young fellow told you why I had to leave the room and I hope that after conducting all the interviews you're able to imagine the general atmosphere in that room and why I had to leave." She came to stand before him, her hands on her hips. "Believe me, if I had wanted to ignore your orders I would not have asked your permission to leave. I would have told you after my return."

"Do you think there would have been any need to? I would have driven right behind you." He could play that game too, even though he did not place his hands on his hips.

Her eyes widened at being challenged. "That sort of nonsense pollutes the environment. We would have carpooled. I would have spotted you before I was on the road and I would have suggested that you park your car. Men have this objection against driving behind a woman, you know. You would have succumbed to your primitive urge to overtake me even before the first twist in the driveway and I would have seen you."

"Never heard of a rear view mirror? That first twist is after about a quarter of a mile of open country. There is no way I would have got into the car with someone who doesn't even know she has a rear view mirror."

"Primitive. I rest my case."

He folded his arms. "You lost. That's why you rest your case."

"No, I said before the first twist, not at the first twist. It might have been the moment you drove off."

He could still reply something to that. "How on earth could you allow me to get into my car? Weren't you looking?"

She made an impatient movement with her hands. He was a respectable opponent. "I'd like to end this discussion -- right now. It's just too ridiculous for words that you assume that you occupy such an important place in my thoughts that I would actually be looking over my shoulder during everything I do just to see if you were not following me."

"If you were trying to evade me because you hadn't asked my permission, it seems logical that you would." He smiled.

"That is a very superior smile," she chided when she could not think of anything else to reply. "You have not met me properly yet if you still dare to do that." He frustrated her. She was usually better able to stand her ground. With very little effort she could frighten people and they stayed away. It did not work on this one.

"We'll see about that. I wonder if you'd still dare to say such things after you've met me properly," Scott said politely. If her words had as much value as his, they ought to get along perfectly. But she was not a lady who gave in easily, was she? She would not let him be. It unnerved him that he had got caught up in a battle of wills, especially with a suspect. He should keep his distance.


"But Sir..." said Randall when she was confronted with the plan. Her boss could never plan on accompanying every suspect out of town. He would have no time left to run the investigation. It should not be allowed.

She knew he would not do this for every suspect, but he should not be showing such a preference for Miss Maxwell. Of all the suspects it figured that she was the one who needed a special favour. Randall wondered if the woman had sensed that Scott's partiality was something of which she could take advantage.

She wondered whether the young police officer in the hall had told Scott the same story he had told her. She had of course gone to inquire what exactly had happened when Scott had failed to tell her more than the basics. Her boss was a brave man to face the vixen who had nearly knocked the policeman onto the ground -- if the vixen had indeed done that. She did not think Margaret Maxwell had to resort to physical intimidation to have her way. A few well-chosen words would suffice. Even to the DCI. She shook her head in disbelief.

"Yes, Sergeant?" His mind was made up. None of Randall's doubts could alter that. Besides, a lengthy chat with Miss Maxwell was bound to teach him some more about the other guests. She was a keen observer with a quick mind. It would also be useful to go with her.

Randall wanted to bring up that the lady was a suspect, an unlikely candidate for the murder, but a suspect nonetheless. "But sir!"

"Yes, Sergeant?" he answered, excruciatingly friendly. He knew what she was going to say.

"You cannot do this!"

"I cannot do what?"

"You cannot allow ... every suspect -- she's probably leading you on! You won't even tell me why she feels she needs to go." Randall's exasperation was evident. The fact that he refused to tell her was significant. She knew the reason would not stand up to scrutiny.

"I appreciate that you're trying to protect me from wicked women, but I'm old enough to know when someone is leading me on. She is not leading me on. She told me why she was asking permission to leave and I thought that a good reason."

"But why do you need to go with her!" It was one thing to allow her to leave, but it was another thing to accompany her as well. He had forgotten that he was working and his primary concern should be the investigation.

"I have to do something for her."

"Of course!" She was all sarcasm, forgetting that she was speaking to her boss. "She would know how to ask you for a favour, wouldn't she? And it's definitely suspicious that you won't even tell me what she needs to do. If it's something personal that I'm not allowed to know about, what business do you have with it? You have no business at something like her grandmother's funeral."

It was all the more frustrating that Randall was right. "Lisa Randall! Please act more responsible during the time I am gone and you are in charge of the case at this end." He was not going to tell her about Miss Maxwell's personal business, even if she asked for it three times. He had been told in confidence and he was not going to betray that.

She sighed. His word was final because he was still her boss, even if this was a sort of blackmail to appease her. His intention was not to leave to give her the opportunity to prove her abilities, but he was using that excuse because it was convenient. He knew she had no choice but to assume the responsibility and take charge if she took her job seriously. "I'll phone if anything odd comes up, sir." She did not look very pleased with herself or with him. She had made herself clear and she should not push things too far. It was fortunate that he was so easy. Another superior would not have allowed her to speak her mind at all and she knew it.

That was what he had wanted to hear. "Put the locals to work in the meantime, Randall." There were reports and statements to be typed out and phone calls to be made.

 

 

Section Thirteen

The two detectives had taken their lunch together in the study. Nobody knew whether they were really working or only keeping their distance and nobody except the waiting Margaret really cared. The others would have felt too observed under their scrutiny.

Scott had briefed Randall and the local policemen on what they should do while he was away and they had had to make a few phone calls. Things had to be checked with various phone companies and banks. There was plenty to do. Someone had to question the gardener too. He might have seen something suspicious in the grounds.

"Real beauty does not kill," Scott murmured as he stood gazing out of the window at those same grounds, from where an intruder might have come to commit the murder. That was what people always hoped -- an outsider had come and done it, and not someone they liked or respected. People they were acquainted with could and would not have done it. Unfortunately in most cases they were wrong. He might be wrong. Someone he liked might kill, yet he believed that something ought to show in behaviour and expression.

In the same vein goodness, he thought, could not be hidden, and real beauty was its visible expression. A real beauty was good and would not kill.

Randall stared at him when she caught his murmur. "Excuse me?" Her boss had never betrayed any poetic inclinations. To hear him utter such a line was absolutely incomprehensible. Real beauty did not kill -- and why on earth not? Real beauty did not exist. It was a subjective qualification.

"What I said," he answered curtly. It was nothing strange.

She had never known him to be poetic. A moment's thought did not convince her that he had suddenly become poetic either. He might think someone a real beauty and he might think she would not kill, but that was all. He would never think beauties were exempt, simply because he was not that shallow. "Are you thinking of anyone in particular?"

He wished she had never overheard. "No, it's just an observation of people in general."

One she would disagree with, if only because they would never consider the exact same people beautiful. "Not of the thorny rose?"

It was his turn to stare now. "I beg your pardon?" He was perhaps a bit transparent that she so quickly linked it to that particular person and that he even understood directly which person she meant. The thorny rose.

"I was only trying to speak language you could relate to," she explained with glee, certain she had guessed correctly. He was too touchy. "Roses are beautiful, they say. This one has thorns. You have to take care when you handle it."

"Give up on the imagery, Lisa." He had understood her point. There was no need to press it further. He might be tricked into saying something he did not want to say.

He practically never called her Lisa on the job and this was the second time today. Lisa was even worse than Lisa Randall. She realised this was a topic close to his heart, or was she merely imagining that? "Uh oh. But yours was not imagery? You weren't talking about a real person?"

"No, that was an objective comment."

As much as she disagreed with that, she rested her case. She could not get it out of him at this moment. "I can only hope you won't be proved wrong then. Sir."


While waiting until the Inspector found the time to accompany her, Margaret grew quite bored. She had no time to start anything new because he might come for her any second, yet it might take so long that she would have to do something anyway.

The guests were not allowed to leave -- or kindly but unmistakably ordered not to -- and lying by the pool seemed the only option if she did not want to set herself apart from the other guests. If she spoke too much to the police, the others might think she was a spy and she was merely an observer. They might stop talking to her and she was still trying to find out who the murderer was. It was difficult to accomplish if no one wanted to speak to her.

She came down the stairs and found the housekeeper talking to Clarissa. She could not help but overhear that the topic was dinner, or rather the time it was usually served.

"Do I have to take orders from that girl?" the housekeeper asked in disgust. "She cannot make us work an hour longer. That's impossible. Does everybody really want dinner to be shifted to eight fifteen?" She sounded sceptic.

"Not me, certainly," said Clarissa.

"Nor me," Margaret called from the stairs. She figured her interruption was welcome here. She joined the two. "What is this nonsense?" It sounded as if Poppy was being a pain.

"Miss Hargreaves ordered dinner to be served at a quarter past eight because seemingly it was what all the guests requested. Do I take orders from her now, Miss Edmondson?" the housekeeper addressed Clarissa, assuming the eldest female might have some authority.

Clarissa looked at Margaret and then back at the housekeeper. "No, Mrs. Prescott. My daughter and I won't eat at that hour, neither will Mr. Symonds and Miss Maxwell. I suggest you ignore Poppy until it's clear that she's the new owner. Until then we should do as we always did. I don't see why anything should be changed. Send her to me if she has any problems with that."

Margaret shook her head and walked on. Nigel's body might not even be cold yet and the girl was already taking on airs, but that was hardly surprising. It was more surprising that Clarissa could speak so decidedly and ask for Poppy to be sent to her if she was displeased. She had not known anyone else here had the nerve to take on Poppy. It was certainly interesting to see Clarissa in this new light, so much less passive than she had always appeared. If she could do this, what else could she do?


Margaret spread her towel across a sun bed and made herself comfortable. She could be dressed relatively quickly, because she had laid her clothes out on her bed already. There would not be much of a delay when the Inspector finally appeared and he should not leave that too long, for her skin did not allow for unlimited sunbathing. Neither did her disposition.

"No book?" Edwin asked lazily. Margaret usually had to occupy her mind in some way and she could not just lie still the way the rest of them could. She did not often join them when they were sunbathing, preferring physically and mentally more active pastimes. Perhaps the others never realised how briefly she stayed if she had no book or ball to amuse herself with.

He was the one she could bear best of all. Anna was all right, but Poppy and Sebastian bordered on the insufferable. Edwin and she went back a long way, ever since they had presented a programme together. "What are you up to, Edwin?" she asked softly, instead of answering his question.

She had not been told whether she could let the rest know she was allowed off the premises, under close supervision of the DCI himself, but definitely off the premises. Perhaps he would not want her to spread that news, as the others might put in requests to be escorted as well. Would he escort them? Part of her wanted that question to be answered with a definite no, but on the other hand that implied she had been granted a favour that made her uncomfortable.

Edwin was after something, but what? She did not think he was a murderer, but he was devious nevertheless. He could discuss the murder with her sensibly, but then go off to do something senseless that he had planned to do all along.

"Me?" he asked, presenting a perfect image of charm and innocence.

"Remember that I know you. Neither the innocence nor the charm work on me." She was immune to either, in most men but especially in Edwin.

"Don't I know that, Maggie! What do you think I'm up to?" he teased, turning onto his side in order to see her better and to keep his eyes out of the sun.

"I have my suspicions." It might have something to do with Arthur's fabulous scheme. Margaret could put two and two together. Even though Arthur had not told her everything, the concept had sounded perfect for Edwin and she could not imagine that he did not know about it yet, especially since he had now hooked up with such a rotten girl as Poppy, the proposed star. That was too much of a coincidence.

Arthur had to have approached him the way he had approached her, especially because she had not expressed any interest in the show and he would have needed another candidate. Arthur had a good nose for these things. He would know who would be good. Whether they were also willing to do it was another matter.

She could see how Arthur would have jumped at the chance to come here if Nigel had casually dropped that she and Edwin were here. Presumably Nigel had wanted to show how much Poppy had progressed so they could almost close a deal, but Margaret was not going to participate in such a scheme by giving him favourable reports of her abilities.

If Edwin was here and she was here, Poppy would have feared the danger of being left out. That explained the presence of the other people, she supposed.

"Are they good? Or bad?" Edwin inquired.

"What do you think?" They were bad -- they usually were.

"Knowing you, Maggie, they'll be bad. Give me the moralistic treatment, sweetie. I love it when you do that to me." And he loved making Poppy jealous. He had already seen her lift her head a little and from behind her sunglasses she was probably glaring. Edwin Symonds belonged to no one except himself. He had the right to say anything to any woman.

"I'm older now. I've realised that the moralistic treatment only makes you worse." She had been quite vehement in the past, but at some point she had given up. It was no use. Hers was only one of the many truths that existed in this world. Edwin had his own. Several contradictory truths, in fact.

"I may sleep with others, but I only care for you, Maggie." He knew what ticked her off. It always had and it still worked. He could see that and he never failed to derive enjoyment from it.

Margaret was not impressed. "We both know that the only person you truly care about is yourself. Tell me why you think that such a line should convince me?" She was genuinely curious whether anyone ever fell for it. She would never. Perhaps other women were suitably flattered to hear only they were loved, but she preferred to hear that from someone who meant it and who did not sleep with anyone else.

"Doesn't everyone like to hear that another loves them madly?"

Not everyone did. "Not really. It may be amusing when it's not true, but if it were true I'd hate to hear it. It always comes from the ones you don't want to hear it from." Margaret chuckled in pity at certain cases that stood out in her memory. Losers tended to favour such lines. She never took them seriously.

"It may be useful even then."

Useful! That was not a term she connected to love. "That's where we differ." She would never take advantage of an admirer. Edwin did it all the time. She could see Poppy's assets, but Clarissa's? Clarissa was not there, so it was difficult to study her. Margaret had never really paid much attention to her. After discovering Clarissa was born as Ethel she had always looked a bit mockingly at the other woman. She looked mockingly at far too many people, but at least she never claimed to be a flawlessly impartial observer or judge.

The conversation soon sizzled out and Margaret was left to ponder Clarissa as a choice for Edwin. She could not really make sense of it and when the sun burnt too much on her skin, she used that as an excuse to go back inside. Everyone could see she was too fair-skinned to stay out too long. She went up to her room to get dressed.

 

 

Section Fourteen

 

Scott and Randall had checked Arthur Moss' computer in the man's presence. Moss had indeed sent the emails he had mentioned. Theoretically he could have taken a few minutes off to visit Hargreaves' room, but for the remainder of the time he had been busy. Emails, some referring to his phone conversation, had been sent intermittently until close to seven o'clock. It appeared as though he had spoken the truth.

There was one more computer to check. Randall was stunned when her boss opened the door to Miss Maxwell's room without hesitating when there was no reply to his knock. "Sir!" He could not do this, not without her knowledge.

"What's the problem?" he inquired, pretending not to know.

"She's not here!"

"So I see," he answered after looking around the room unnecessarily. He knew she was by the pool. He had seen that from one of the windows -- a black swimsuit. "We need to look into her computer. She said we could."

"She did not say we could do so without her." As far as Randall was concerned they could only be allowed to see the files that proved Margaret had been using the computer, nothing else. It was none of their business what else she used her computer for. And she should be there. Her boss was deliberately provoking the woman for some reason.

He did not reply to that, but switched the laptop on. He watched the screen as it booted up, not caring what Miss Maxwell might say if she came in. He would be able to handle that.

Margaret proved to be a disorganised computer user at first sight, but an easy one to spy on. All her documents were saved in the same folder and they all bore mysteriously short titles, either nouns or names. The most recently saved was Suspicions.doc, but he did not look into it, tempting though it was. It could only be connected to the investigation, but not to her alibi.

Some of the files that had been saved in the critical period yesterday had second versions to which the number two had been added in the file name and those versions had been last saved today. He could see that she had obviously expected him to check and he admired her solution. She would have been able to continue working on them today without disturbing the evidence.

Ailsa.doc had been saved at 16:35. He wrote down the time. "See that she must have got here at least at 16:30. It takes a few minutes too boot the thing up and I suppose it would also have taken some time to edit the file or create it." Poppy's lesson had not taken longer than half an hour.

"It's a very small one, though," Randall observed. It would not have taken that much time.

"Still, we could say she got here around the same time that Arthur Moss left Hargreaves and she couldn't have been Hargreaves' visitor." If he intended to speak to her only briefly he would not have needed to set a time for an appointment.

The file was followed by Maggie.doc at 16:44 and Party.doc at 16:49. He noted those two filenames and times down as well. "Remember that she said she took a bath. Would it have been ready by now?" It had been about twenty minutes since coming in. There was a gap here until the next file had been saved. Arthur.doc had been saved at 17:31, a large file. She might indeed have bathed in the meantime.

"Did she bathe for half an hour?" Randall asked. "Or did the Arthur file take her a longer time to work on?"

"There's an Arthur2.doc," Scott noticed. "It's not much bigger than plain Arthur." But that of course did not mean a thing. He did not see why she could not have bathed for half an hour. One did generally not fill a bath to sit in it for five minutes only and dinner was at a quarter past seven. She had had plenty of time to relax.

"So between roughly 16:50 and 17:30, Margaret was in or around the bath. When did she hear those sounds? Was that before or after her bath?"

Scott suddenly came up with another option. "Or did she get in the bath to block them out?" He wondered if one heard less in the bathroom. It seemed plausible, if the door was closed. That would mean the activity in Clarissa's room had taken place before five o'clock. He still had to ask Margaret about the time it had occurred.

He glanced at the next file in the list. Story.doc had been saved at 18:54 and it was a large file. After this, only three small files had been saved, the last of which at 19:00 precisely. "These files do not prove that she stayed here all this while. There's an hour and a half unaccounted for." Yet if it was a story she had been writing, it might be likely that she had spent a long time on it before she saved the latest version.

"And wet towels, sir?"

"Wet towels?" He looked at Randall uncomprehendingly.

"I forgot this isn't a hotel, but wouldn't the staff pick up the towels? We could ask. If she didn't take a bath, her towel wouldn't have been wet."

"It would dry very quickly in this weather, especially if she cared to hang it out." If a chambermaid had picked it up in the morning it would have been dry already. "Didn't Moss say she emailed him last night? How do we get into her mailbox?" Scott began to click on icons. There was a chance that she had been emailing in the afternoon as well.

"You can't do that!" Randall was shocked again. "That's her private correspondence. Do we really know that it has any bearing on the case? She might file a complaint." The DCI had to reckon with that possibility, even if they both suspected Miss Maxwell would prefer to rage directly at the perpetrator and not vent her displeasure via circuitous routes.

"Send her to me if she complains. I'm not going to read it. I just want to see when it was sent, just like we did with Moss." He was pleased to find Margaret did not use webmail, but that he could easily access her mail. The inbox did not interest him, so he closed it, mostly so Randall would see he was handling this appropriately. He only wanted to see her outbox.

Margaret was an active emailer. She had sent several emails that morning, but he skipped those. He also ignored the ones sent late the night before. Only the period between four and seven should hold his interest. He was pleased to see that she had been sending out emails during this time too, but the split screen that allowed him to read what she had sent was less pleasing to him, because of Randall's reaction. Fortunately an innocent email was displayed in the bottom half.

An email with an attachment and Party! as subject line had been sent out twice, at 16:50 and 16:51. He could guess that Party.doc, created at 16:49, was the attached file. A second later he noticed that it had been sent a third time, at 17:07. That was strange, if she had been in the bath at that time. He could not resist clicking on it to see if there was any mention of the bath.

Sorry for the quick note, but I was in the bath & just remembered I had to send you this. Further info is in the attachment. M.

"Sir," Randall said disapprovingly, but the damage was done. They had both read it.

Scott shrugged. "She was indeed in the bath." He almost sounded happy. Things were almost too easy.

 

"You cannot put in your report that you checked a suspect's private mail without a warrant and without her knowledge to clear her." Or could he? Randall wondered about it. They could check phone bills too.

 

He ignored her again. He was not afraid of Margaret Maxwell and if she had not done anything she would not be afraid of him either. "She cannot have left the room between 16:51 and 17:07. Or at least, she could not have had much time to do so if she was taking a bath." But that still left them the frighteningly large gap between 17:31 and 18:54. She had claimed to be working on the computer in her bathrobe.

 

Scott scrolled to the other emails. 17:32, 17:46, 17:47, 17:52. He began to feel more reassured, especially when he continued scrolling. 18:02, 18:10, 18:15, 18:38. The last one, 18:51, was one with a large attachment and Finally finished as a subject line. 18:38 had been Almost finished.

It did not look as though Margaret Maxwell had left her room. That was a pleasant conclusion to reach, especially for Scott -- and they had not been disturbed by her either.

 


 

The DCI was not trying to find out who did it, but that Margaret Maxwell had not done it. DS Randall shook her head in dismay. She had always worked together perfectly with her superior, but he was not showing his most professional side right now.

 

She wondered what would change now that he seemed convinced that Ms Maxwell could not have done it. Perhaps he would approach the case from the proper angle -- if the woman did not distract him by wanting time off again tomorrow.

 

She had nothing against Margaret, really she did not. In fact, she had quite liked the other woman's quick tongue so far and some of the opinions she had voiced. She could laugh at what she said, although she did not yet know if the woman had a good character. But it was downright unprofessional of the DCI to let his preferences influence him.

 

So much for Scott's warning that she ought to see celebrities as suspects, though. He was not really taking his own advice himself. He was even going with her, as if she could not drive on her own. Randall did not for a minute believe that Scott thought Miss Maxwell was going to run off. And going with her to hear her out was nonsense. That could be done here as well. He was going with her because he wanted to spend time with her.

 

She hoped nobody would be murdered in his absence, because then he would really have some explaining to do. Suppose he was away and he would not be able to justify his absence. What would happen if the Superintendent found out the DCI had been accompanying an attractive female suspect on some unnecessary trip?

 

Randall hung about near the back staircase when Scott had gone upstairs to change. What sort of a sign was that? Which man would change before taking a woman out on some secret business? His suit and tie were obviously not good enough. It remained to be seen what other clothes he had brought that could top that, however.

 

She wanted to catch Miss Maxwell before she left, to see if she could find out any information via that route. Eventually she was rewarded for her patience, because the woman indeed came down the back stairs, as if she did not want to be seen leaving. "Right," Randall mouthed to herself, taking note of Margaret's clothes. Another one who had dressed up. Interesting. "Are you taking the DCI for a ride?" she called.

 

"He's driving," Margaret said with an innocent smile.

 

"You're all dressed up."

 

"Maybe I have somewhere to go where that is required of me. It doesn't make much sense that I'd dress up after I've obtained permission to leave, does it?" Margaret looked up the stairs to see if Scott was coming yet, since he was obviously finished with DS Randall. As long as he was not in sight she might as well chat to Randall.

 

"Where are you going then? Do you have to do a show?" It would absolutely vile if Margaret was to do a show and Scott had been tricked into attending it for free. He had never had any interest in television.

 

She chuckled. "Of sorts." She indeed had to dress up a bit before picking her daughter up from school. They had only ever seen her dressed up there.

 

"Where?"

 

"Detective Sergeant Randall, if you'd been the senior officer on this case I would have needed your permission and I would have told you in order to obtain that permission. I have a tendency to be reserved about my private life and to take people into my confidence only when I absolutely need to." She was quite friendly about that, but at the same time very determined. Besides, she did not know where they were going yet. It was not her task to reveal their destination and it was not desirable for her to reveal that she had no clue where she was going to be taken.

 

"Why does Scott have to go with you if this is a private thing? Or is he now part of your private life?"

 

The tenacity of the girl amused Margaret. There were disadvantages to curiosity that just had to be accepted or circumvented. It was never bad to have one's actions evaluated by someone who saw them from a different angle. She was never easily cornered or insulted by genuine curiosity and she could handle it calmly. "I have a problem, he has a solution and he won't tell me what it is." That was an easy step around her private life.

 

"Of course he would say that so he can go with you." It was very obvious to Randall that there was no real need. She would have been informed of any real need.

 

"So he's taking me for a ride, rather?" Margaret raised her eyebrows. "Well, so be it. My back is against the wall. I'm in no position to protest."

 

Randall did not believe that. Margaret would probably not allow herself to be cornered in the first place. "I never thought you'd be a submissive female."

 

"We can only wish that we never become one, but inevitably we must." She did not like begging for favours that proved her life as a single mother was not impeccably organised, but could be disrupted by a murder. She had often needed help, but she had always been able to predict and plan it, such as by sending her daughter to a boarding school. This murder had taken her by surprise.

 

"Excuse me!" Randall had no plans in that direction.

 

Margaret shot another glance up the stairs. Scott was not in sight. She moved closer to Randall so she would not be overheard by someone appearing at the top of the stairs. "It bothers me no end that I have no idea what his solution is, but I have no choice. I have to surrender to whatever plan the man has in mind and I can't help that he's a man."

 

"I'd find a solution on my own." Randall could not imagine Scott as some last resort saviour. What could he do that nobody else could? There had to be other, independent solutions.

 

"I'd love to, but I have to admit that I couldn't, not in the space of time that was left to me. He assured me that it would have been impossible for me to flee the house because he'd see me, for instance. I dislike submissive females. Really, I do. But Sergeant," said Margaret when something amusing occurred to her. "Are you actually trying to convince me that I should have ignored the DCI's orders just because he's a man? And that I should have engaged in some civil disobedience to protest against male dominance? I'd be rebelling against what you stand for as well."

 

"It figures that you'd twist the argument so it works against me," Randall said in dissatisfaction. "I'm not advocating that you go against the police." She had ranted herself into a corner there, despite having seen so often on television that Margaret was very good at making people do that.

 

"You have to take orders from a man as well. How is that?"

 

"Usually it's all right, but what he's doing now is really not..." She shook her head. It was unprofessional and unwise. She was determined to be a little more circumspect about what she said, so as to prevent Margaret from twisting her words.

 

"Not usual?" Margaret was interested in hearing what he was doing that was not usual. Apparently he did not often do people favours.

 

"Definitely not."

 

"I am happy to hear it, though it was by no means my intention to make him do unusual things. Blame that on the murderer. If there hadn't been a murder I would have been out of here today and I wouldn't have needed to ask permission to leave for a few hours."

 

"It doesn't really speed up the investigation much if you take him away."

 

"But you're in no position to protest," Margaret nodded. "He's your boss and you think he's being stupid for letting himself being twisted around my little finger." She supposed that something like that was the issue here. She might even have thought that too if she had not been involved -- and innocent.

 

"Yes." It was easy to admit that if Margaret did not appear vulnerable to insults. You could say anything to her and she could say anything to you, although Randall assumed that even Margaret would have her limits.

 

"Only I didn't do anything." She held up both of her little fingers.

 

"You're dressed up." That was something.

 

"That's not for him. That's for the people who don't know me any other way. I think it's beneath me to dress up for a man." Margaret wondered if Randall was jealous or merely appalled at the uncharacteristic behaviour her boss was exhibiting. Given that Randall did not appear to hate her, she guessed that Scott was probably being extremely odd. She had no idea how he behaved when she was not there. He had been very normal to her, but she understood Randall would have some problems with not being told what he was about to do if they were investigating as a team. She would too.

 

"But what a nice coincidence that you look more impressive this way."

 

Surely an intelligent man would be above all that. Margaret wrinkled her nose at less than intelligent men. As Randall's agitation was both amusing and understandable, she tried to reassure the girl. "Look, Sergeant. I'd prefer to go alone and let Mr. Scott do what he needs to do around here. I don't need him. It's just that he implied he has a solution that will be better than mine. Because he is kind enough to allow me to go, I am willing to give him the benefit of the doubt with regard to his solution. He's not coming along to play my servant or to boost my ego and if he opens any doors for me, I will kick him."

 

"This is so wrong from a professional point of view," Randall maintained gruffly. "Especially because he...when I protested he blackmailed me with the argument of responsibility and showing my abilities when he is away." She would have liked to be given the responsibility without any disturbing influences, so that it was not an excuse but a real choice and a sign of confidence on his part.

 

Margaret could not help but chuckle at the younger woman's expression. "Indeed! It's not very nice of him to use that to his advantage. Now you never know if he really has a good opinion of you, especially if you think what you seem to be thinking, which is that I'm going to abuse him terribly for my own selfish and wicked purposes, so much that the investigation will suffer."

 

"I'm not thinking that."

 

"It's what you should be thinking."

 

Randall stared at her. "You know, I can't make sense of you."

 

"You don't have to." Margaret enjoyed it when people could not place her. They were often confused when she changed directions. It did not always have very much to do with the real her. Often it was nothing but a game to keep her sharp.

 

"I do. You're taking my boss! I have to know what you're up to." They were here to work, not to socialise. And perhaps her boss needed some protection. Men were not always very wise when it came to women.

 

"He's taking me and you're not worried about me at all." That was unfair, really. Women were always far more at risk when they consented to get into a car with a man they did not know very well. He might turn out to be nice. Margaret snorted at herself. That was something she could never say out loud.

 

"I know him. He wouldn't lay a finger on you." The DCI was a decent man. He would not do anything unless he was tempted and perhaps even then he would control himself.

 

Margaret changed directions again. "But I would? Dressed up well-known female is equivalent to seductress? I should have borrowed some clothes from Poppy, don't you think? Maybe that half-hearted attempt at a skirt she was wearing yesterday?"

 

"You're taking up too many positions," Randall said accusingly. "You agree with me and then you don't. You tell me I should consider you dangerous and when I do, you ridicule me. Are you setting people up to ridicule them?"

 

Margaret looked thoughtful. "Yes, I do." She decided that Randall was a nice and clever girl.

 

"Why?"

 

She shrugged. "We must all have a flaw."

 

Randall supposed they did, but she also supposed people should not exploit their flaws or revel in them. Then again, Margaret was older than she was and it was hard to judge her without knowing her precise history. She changed the topic to something easy. "But I agree with you about that skirt. It was pink! It was a bit too festive, don't you think?"

 

They spent an agreeable few minutes talking about Poppy's attire and its intended effect, notably on the men that were currently staying in the house.

 

 

Section Fifteen

Margaret had not been able to pry any information loose from the taciturn Detective Chief Inspector after he had driven off. She suspected he had some safe house or elderly WPC to host her little girl, about which she could have asked him directly if she had wanted. There was no fun in that, though. She preferred to find out another way and she tantalised herself by not asking.

She gave him some covert glances. He had changed out of his suit into more comfortable looking jeans and a shirt with short sleeves, which had changed his appearance somewhat. When he was not questioning anyone, he turned out to be quite silent. But as he also turned out to be quite good-looking, she did not mind just glancing at him occasionally.

This was an insane mission at the end of an insane week. Margaret wondered just why she had agreed to tutor Poppy, the only reason why she had got caught up in this madness. She could not walk away. Even if they had not all been grounded like naughty children, she would have felt the need to solve the mystery. That was really a troublesome character trait that she could not blame on her parents.

Contrary to him, she had dressed up and pinned up her hair. Scott suspected that what he saw now was the image that thousands of people were familiar with. Neat, stern and untouchable -- he wondered what she was hiding from the world and why the world was not allowed to come closer. It was too stereotypical a role, but she played it well without overdoing it. Her intelligence put her a touch above the rest, but she did not mind staying up there.

He corrected himself and decided he should not be looking for excuses for her reticence. It was not his fault that something had caused her to become like this. If she was as intelligent as he presumed, she ought to have come to that conclusion as well and if she was at all nice she would tell him what she had been suspecting.

"Your daughter cannot be very old," he said, after having driven for an hour in almost complete silence apart from an occasional question about the route they were taking. He had planned to chat with her, but she had not initiated much conversation and he had not known where to start. He had questions to ask her, but he had not wanted to spoil their trip by starting out with a cross-examination that might make the rest of their interaction strained and uncomfortable.

Her daughter had to be young if she could not stay home alone -- not that he approved of even older children staying home alone while their parents were away. He wondered if this meant that there was no partner, no father who could take care of the child. She had mentioned babysitters, not partners.

Margaret scratched her head, postponing an answer. Perhaps she should tell him. He had battled his curiosity long enough and he proved enough of a gentleman to guess her to be too young to have an old daughter. "It is not a story I tell often," she said hesitantly. "For her sake. But if you promise me that you'll keep it to yourself, I'll tell you some more about her."

"You don't know if I'm going to keep my promise." He had to tell her that, although he very much wanted to hear the story. The fact that there was one was intriguing in itself. One confidence often led to more.

"No." She looked out of the window. "I know. Most people won't keep their promises. That's why I don't usually tell them. It's not really a secret. It's just an explanation I'd much rather not give, because..." Because it would tell people too much about herself and they might do things with the information that she did not like.

"Does it reflect badly on you?"

"No, rather well, I suppose, although it depends what you focus on. That's why I don't want it to leak out. I imagine that it would be just the sort of story to be described in great detail in the press. That's all very well if it's just me, but I have a child to think of. If you had a child in your care I'm sure you'd be cautious as well." Margaret wondered whether people would call her obsessed, but everyone had to have an obsession.

Scott found the phrasing somewhat peculiar. "In your care? That sounds as if she isn't actually your child." It was not good of him to prefer that. Primitive, she had said. Primitive it was. She had not lost his approval after confessing she had a daughter, but now there was a chance that it might not be her own child, he had to fight the wish.

"She isn't mine, really. Biologically she's my sister's, but my sister had no time for her." She paused for a few seconds, wondering how much he would know about her family history and how much she would still have to explain.

He said nothing, but he was thinking all the more. He was glad it was her sister's child, for some primitive reason. Then he wondered why the sister had no time for it.

"You might have heard of my sister. She won an Olympic medal, Catriona Maxwell?" She saw him nod and continued. "The pregnancy that ensued from the afterparty was very inconvenient. She managed only just, but the sponsors insisted that she ... well, long story that I shan't bore you with, but anyway, she gave the child away. Or rather, I took it and she didn't object." That short summary had to sound very strange to other people. They would wonder why her sister had allowed her to take the child. Margaret considered another way of phrasing it, without going into the boring details and without making herself sound too much like a saint. She was not. Anyone who had heard the rows and insults being flung back and forth could attest to that.

He gave her an interested look. He had read about Catriona Maxwell, her medal and her suspicious death, although he had never realised that they were sisters. Or had he known this anyway in a distant corner of his brain? The pregnancy and the child were new to him. There had been no mention of a child at any time, because it would have been such a juicy detail in an already scandalous story that he would certainly have remembered. Very likely there had not been a steady boyfriend involved either, or he would have taken responsibility for the child.

It was hard to imagine that someone could give up her child, but it was easier to see how Margaret had taken it into her care and why she would prefer to remain silent about it. The child's real mother had died a notorious death. There would be plenty of reasons for the media to pursue the story of the poor child, or even that of the noble aunt.

He was curious, though, because she had said the sister had not objected, so she must have taken the child before the sister's death and she must have been taking care of it almost since her birth. He would say that made her the mother, especially since the scandal had not taken place after either of the two previous Olympics, if he recalled correctly. If that had been the case it would have been fresher in his memory. That made it twelve years ago. Sixteen years ago Margaret might not yet have come of age. It was a bit hard to tell, but the fact that she had spoken about a little girl more or less ruled out that the girl was fifteen. She had to be eleven.

Margaret was used to people who asked questions, not to people who digested this information in silence without letting her know their reaction. She spoke on as if he had reacted nevertheless. "I had to take it, even though I wasn't ready. Never make a child suffer for the character of its parents." Some behaviour could still make her angry. "But you shouldn't think I sweetly told her I'd sacrifice my life so she could train for her next medal because that was much more important."

Scott glanced aside again. "No regrets?" She had just said she had not been ready for a child and she looked as if she was about to become upset with something or someone. The sister, perhaps, or the parents, who could never have been too old to raise an orphaned grandchild. But the sister and the parents had apparently been happy to step aside to let the inexperienced Margaret take the responsibility.

Margaret bit her lip to keep her facial expression blank. "Can't have those. Look ahead. Don't look back. There was nothing I could change. I suppose it did make me slightly cynical towards others, notably people with ruthless ambition. It doesn't often get them anywhere. My sister is a case in point." She was now dead.

"Was that the result of her ambition?" he asked. It was not that far-fetched to imagine a connection between ambition and a suspicious death. The things that people did to achieve their goals were not always safe.

"I suppose so. Heart failure during practice. Forbidden substances in the blood." Margaret spoke in a clinically analytical voice, as if she were discussing a stranger and not a close relative. It had happened long ago. She could distance herself sufficiently from that now.

"I remember that. There were suspicions." People had mentioned performance-enhancing drugs in the media. He did not recall whether anything had been proven, but the suspicions had definitely been there. It sounded as if the suspicions had been founded. Margaret, who had to know what people had been thinking, did not contradict anything. She did not defend her sister, which would have been logical.

"Yes. Most people were appalled at my coldness, though some old men liked my snappy replies enough to offer me a TV job. I am rumoured to have said it was her own fault. I don't remember, but I can imagine that I did. I still would. You're not meant to take that stuff. If you do, you have to be aware of the risks. Don't ever believe that there aren't any risks. You might be lucky and not have any repercussions, but ... Sorry, am I ranting?" Suddenly she wondered if other people cared about the subject at all. It was not likely. She should not bore them as if she were obsessed and thinking of this daily. She was not. It only came back to her when she told someone.

"Not at all." It was perfectly understandable for her to have an opinion and he did not mind that she vented.

"Do you think I should be more emotional about it?" She would not have much faith in a denial. It might be mere politeness, so why was she gauging his feelings? Because he did not judge immediately, she supposed. Maybe that was his job, but at any rate it was very pleasant. He had not said her opinion was wrong, or that her emotions were. Most other people thought they ought to speak up right away, to offer some unwanted comfort or some equally unwanted disapproval.

"I thought you were quite emotional already." Controlled, but emotional nonetheless.

Compared to him, everyone would be, Margaret was tempted to say. She bit it back because he had not been unkind and she guessed him to be an intelligent listener, even if he did not display much of a reaction to anything. "But about losing my sister?" she pressed. People had accused her of too little feeling, when in actuality she felt quite strongly -- about the entire subject, just not about her sister in particular. They had never been close. She could not feign a bond in retrospect, nor could she feign grief.

"You did not lose your sister when she died. You had lost her long before."

Margaret turned her head towards him in recognition. There had not been a definite moment, but it had happened gradually and painfully. It was the first time that someone had actually said something helpful. "I believe you're right. Thank you. That makes me feel better."

For a brief moment he smiled and then his face resumed its usual stern expression. "Not that you need people's approval." She exposed herself on TV without caring what people thought of what she said. He did not think she was keen on always making a good impression, or to have people think well of her all the time, but perhaps she wanted approval for the truly important things, the essential Margaret. An image on television had very little to do with that.

"No, but I like it all the same. It's a nice counterweight when the critics are harsh. Shocking, isn't it, that I could be sensitive to approval and comprehension." She studied his profile. "I suspect there's some sensitivity under your mask as well." That smile had disappeared so quickly -- on command. He was less guarded with his sense of humour, she had noticed, though for many people humour was a mask as well. She fled behind it too at times.

Even that remark could not elicit much of a reaction. He remained as impassive as ever. "But of course. I am only careful to whom I show it." He was showing more to her than to most.

She studied him for another few moments. A policeman had to remain imperturbable, she supposed, but a little empathy went a long way too sometimes. She had not yet needed empathy and he had not yet needed to give it, or had he? He was subtle. "Where does your job figure in this?"

He shrugged. "I don't know precisely where." He did not want to talk about it, yet he could not help but think about it now.


They pulled up outside a large edifice built in red brick, looking very obviously like a school. That would have been evident even without the great numbers of parents and girls in uniforms. "This is it," said Margaret superfluously, to introduce her next comment. "Do you want to wait in the car while I fetch Ailsa, or..." she left it to him to finish that sentence. He might want to get out to walk around and stretch his legs.

"Ailsa?" he asked, remembering the file on her computer. Ailsa. Party. Birthday? It was a logical sequence.

"Indeed. Now do you?" She assumed he would prefer to stay outside. Most men would if they were not picking up a child of their own. There were too many girls inside who made too much noise. She could see many more men hanging about on the steps than women. "I can imagine that you wouldn't want to," she said so he would not feel obliged to come with her.

He was not daunted a by a building full of girls. "I'll come. I've never been inside such a school."

"You're kidding," she decided after a quick glance. He had to have some education going for him to be DCI at his age. "Oh well. You're never going to tell me. Don't say I never offered you the escape option."

He would never say that. "That's not my style and anyway, I could always go outside should it prove too much for me." He doubted that. This was merely a school full of well-behaved girls.

"Or so you think," Margaret muttered as she led the way. Perhaps he merely wanted to keep an eye on her to make sure she did not leave through another exit. How ridiculous. She was not a murderer and the proof was inside this building.

Inside there was a flurry of cheerful activity as parents, girls and teachers mingled while saying their goodbyes. Margaret observed the crowd for a second and then stood still. There was a slight problem that she had not wanted to reckon with yet, but that had to be dealt with now. "I have no objection to your accompanying me, but I suddenly wondered what I should say if someone asks me who you are. I cannot say that I'm a murder suspect half under arrest, now can I?"

"Why not?" DCI Scott said amiably. Her train of thought amused him, although he had already been wondering what she would tell the girl about him. The truth? Or would she omit certain facts? "No one would believe it anyway." She had never been a real suspect.

That did not reassure her. "But Ailsa will never get invited anywhere again because these people are very cautious about such things and I need her to get invited to people for the holidays, because I occasionally have to work." If people thought she associated with murderers, they would not want their children to play with Ailsa. They would not care if she had not committed the murder herself. These were picky parents. The smallest blemish could disgust them.

He understood. Some people here did not send their children here because they wanted them to come into contact with all kinds of other people. No, for them the contact should preferably be limited to people of their own kind. He wondered why Margaret cared about them, since there were undoubtedly normal parents here as well. Then he remembered she would probably not want to blame Ailsa's friends for their parents' beliefs, nor deprive Ailsa of friends because their parents were idiots. "I'll be your brother. Lead the way."

She walked on, shaking her head. Would people know whether she had a brother? If it was only herself involved here she would not care, but there was Ailsa to think about. Some of the parents here were very conservative. She understood them perfectly. Did he sound like her enough to pass as her brother?

Margaret led him through the crowd and up an impressive staircase, skirting girls and fathers with suitcases. "Oh," she said and stopped halfway to look at the fathers. "Excellent." And she continued on without an explanation.

"Excellent?" Scott asked when he had caught up with her upstairs. He would like to be informed of a change of plan.

"We now have a man to carry her suitcase. We no longer need to throw it down the stairs. Everyone will be happy. Occasionally it took some people with it, you know."

Scott gave a brief snort, not knowing whether to believe that.


They found Ailsa in a spacious dormitory, talking to several other girls, some of whom had their parents with them. "Mummy!" she cried, throwing herself into Margaret's arms for a hug. Only then did she notice the stranger who had followed and she gazed at him with frank curiosity. "Who's that?"

"Iain," he answered before Margaret could, taking a good look at the girl. One would never know she was not Margaret's real daughter. They looked sufficiently alike and had the same colouring.

He could see Margaret cringe at the upset of her plans. If he were to play her uncle, Ailsa was supposed to know him and not ask who he was. He had just been branded as male friend of Margaret's, not a relative. Margaret would love that -- but not as much as the other parents would. "I've come along to carry your suitcase." Perhaps an assistant would be better. Would she have one? Perhaps people would believe that she did. "Your mother hurt her back and she asked me to do it."

"Cool," Ailsa said with a giggle, accepting his explanation without questioning. "It's on my bed." She gestured at it.

"But Ailsa, shouldn't you ask him to carry it first?" Margaret admonished. Contrary to appearances, she had taught Ailsa manners and the girl was not used to having servants -- other than Margaret, of course. She was glad DCI Scott was such a quick-witted man. He had saved her life just now. They might just get away with this explanation.

Ailsa was surprised. "Why? He said that that was what he was for." She was still looking at him curiously.

The parents of the other girls looked interested, even though they were a bit too far away to overhear things properly. Of course they were interested. Margaret had not expected otherwise. She tried to ignore them, but that was difficult. So much for the plan of making him her brother. The other parents would only assume it was a euphemism for lover. That was just as bad as revealing she was actually a murder suspect under close police scrutiny, or perhaps even worse.

The excuse about her back might not convince them, so she pressed a hand against it with an absentminded look on her face, as if she was unaware that people might see it. Then she realised it might be mistaken for the posture of a pregnant woman and she winced.

She would have to tell him that Ailsa's future alone was evidence that she had not killed Nigel. How could she let the girl be abandoned? Again? She had to tell him she would never ever do anything like that.

"Quite right, Ailsa, but next time you have to ask me." Scott winked at her. He thought they had better leave the dormitory as soon as possible and he moved closer to the bed without seeming in too much of a hurry.

Ailsa giggled again. She liked this fellow. He was funny. It could be interesting to have him carry the suitcase. What else was he going to do?

He picked the suitcase off the bed. "Ready to go?" Some parents were displaying too much interest in Margaret and her daughter and consequently in himself. He could imagine what they were thinking and he wondered if Margaret was doing the same. There was a crease in her forehead that indicated that she was not completely at ease. Something was the matter. This was not the same as being outdone in the mutual vexing competition.

"Bye! Bye! Bye!" Ailsa whirlwinded across the room, taking leave of everyone. Margaret gave polite nods and smiles to parents she was acquainted with and then left the room as quickly as she could.

"How is your back?" Scott smirked. "You looked pregnant there for a second." As wrong as it was of him, he was amused by how her gesture had possibly had the wrong effect, although he would never tease her about that in company.

"Impossible," Margaret snapped and felt her back again. "Have I ever mentioned your sense of humour?"

"I believe you have," he said, frustratingly polite. "I'm not always in control of it." If there were ironies he sometimes had to share them.

"Funny how you're in control of everything else." It was far less funny that she was not.

"Not this conversation." The domestic nature of the scene was surreal. There were also other things he was not in control of.


"That's not your car, Mummy," Ailsa noted when she was being led to a strange one by the man called Iain.

"That's right. It's Detective Chief Inspector Scott's car." That was two explanations in one go, very efficient. She hoped she sounded as efficient as she felt.

"Who's that?" Ailsa had not seen anyone in uniform. She wondered if it was Iain. It had to be. He had the key, but he did not actually look as if he agreed that he was Detective Chief Inspector Scott.

"Me," he replied.

"Where's your uniform?"

"I don't have one." He put the suitcase in the boot and opened the car door for her.

"Then you are like a TV policeman and not a real one. You also don't have a panda car," she noted critically, before getting in.

He was amused by her analysis. "Well, there's no need. You aren't a criminal. Or are you?" he asked.

"You don't need one for me. You might need one for Mummy, though," Ailsa said cheekily. She laughed at the idea.

"Is she a criminal?" he asked in an interested voice. Children were often great sources of information. She might be able to tell him things Margaret could not.

"Inspector, I notice that suddenly you speak a bit more," Margaret cut in sharply. "Ailsa doesn't know whether I'm a criminal. There's no need to pump her for information." Actually, Ailsa spoke a lot more than she usually did as well. Either she had become cheekier at school or it was all the Inspector's fault. She settled for the last, because that was easiest.

"Hee!" Ailsa snorted. "What are you afraid of? That he will arrest you?"

"By the way, Ailsa," said Scott, judging that a change of topic might be welcome. "You are not going home."

There was a cry from the back seat. "Where then? Why not? Are we going to an amusement park? Or to the police station?"

"No. You're not going home because I'm not at home," said Margaret. She could hardly say she did not know where they were going either. That would look stupid. Mothers should know where they were going, or else they were up for some serious questioning.

"No, you're here in the car."

"I'm on an investigation." She wondered what the DCI would reply to that, but she enjoyed provoking people now and then. What did he really think? He was accompanying her for a reason. Did he not trust her? Did he think she would not come back if she went alone?

You are?" he inquired. "I thought I was." He remembered Suspicions.doc and wished he had looked into it. What was she up to?

"I didn't do it, so I have nothing to do except to find out who did. Maybe Nigel found out Clarissa's passport actually has her down as an Ethel. She's quite keen on keeping that a secret."

He wondered how Margaret had come by that information then, but he did not ask her if she had been snooping. He had another question. "You don't suspect Poppy?" That was the probable heiress, after all. So far he had not come across any other compelling motives. Margaret ought to share this opinion.

"Maggie!" Ailsa cried. "Where are we going?" She wondered if she was to have any say in it. Probably not. And what investigation? It sounded totally cool to take part in one.

"Ailsa, will you please not interrupt us when we are speaking?" Margaret said irritably. "That's not polite." She feared her entire life was going to be revealed and she would no longer have any control over what was private and what was not.

"But I don't know what you mean. Who's Poppy? Where are we going?"

"I wasn't talking to you." She had been talking to Iain. She liked how informally he had introduced himself to Ailsa. "Iain ... is taking you somewhere. I don't know where." He could react to that if he liked. She had to call him that, did she not? It was how Ailsa knew him.

Scott did not react to her using his first name. He would never have given it if he had minded. "It's a surprise, Ailsa, but you might like it." Even if she did not like it, she would not have much of a choice. Her mother and he both seemed to agree that the Hargreaves house was not the right place for her. He realised his error in not consulting Margaret, though. He should have taken the risk that she turned down his suggestion, rather than have her demolish him for not having told her beforehand. "Ouch," he muttered.

Margaret was upon him in an instant. "For?"

"For things to come."

 

2004 Copyright held by the author.

 

Next

 

Back

 

Back to Novel Idea