Read Murder Offstage Online

Authors: L. B. Hathaway

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Cozy, #Action & Adventure, #Women's Adventure, #Culinary, #Nonfiction

Murder Offstage

 

MURDER OFFSTAGE
-A Posie Parker Mystery-

L.B. Hathaway

WHITEHAVEN
MAN PRESS
London

 

 

First published in Great Britain in 2014 by Whitehaven
Man Press, London

Copyright © L.B. Hathaway 2014

(
http://www.lbhathaway.com
,
email:
[email protected]
)

The moral right of the author, L.B. Hathaway, has been
asserted.

All characters and events in this publication, other
than those clearly in the public domain, or specifically mentioned in the
Historical Note at the end of this publication, are fictitious and any
resemblance to any real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

All rights reserved.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored
in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the
prior permission in writing of the author, nor be otherwise circulated in any
form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a
similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent
purchaser. Sale or provision of this publication by any bookshop, retailer or
e-book platform or website without the express written permission of the author
is in direct breach of copyright and the author’s moral rights, and such rights
will be enforced legally. Thank you for respecting the author’s rights.

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from
the British Library.

ISBN (e-book:) 978-0-9929254-0-6 (Mobi)
978-0-9929254-1-3 (ePub)
ISBN (paperback:) 978-0-9929254-2-0

Jacket illustration by Red Gate Arts.

Formatting and design by J.D. Smith.

 

 

For Marco

 

 

Monday 14th February, 1921

(Valentine’s Day)

 

 

One

The man’s body lay exactly where it had fallen, his
head quite shot off.

He was dressed in a carefully pressed black tuxedo, and a
sticky puddle of his blood oozed out over the smart tiled entrance hall of
London’s Ritz Hotel.

If you had looked very closely you would have seen that the
cuffs of the man’s black jacket were just a little too shiny and threadbare for
him to have been a regular hotel guest, and a snob would have said with a sharp
intake of breath that the cut of the dinner suit was not quite
the thing
anymore. It was at least twenty years out of date, in fact. Posie Parker
noticed all this and more.

‘Get out! This is a murder scene,’ shrieked the nervy Hotel
Manager, flapping his hands ineffectually at the small mob of newspaper
journalists who threatened to engulf him. Policemen were dancing around too,
adding to the confusion. All the way up the Grand Staircase guests stared down,
clutching their sour-apple Martinis in disbelief. A flashbulb went off
suddenly, blinding them all. The tang from the flash was strong and it wafted
heavily in the air like a poisonous chalky fog.

‘OUT! OUT!’

‘Who is he, guv’nor? Give us a name!’ shouted one of the
journalists, a stocky fellow with an insistent manner. But the Hotel Manager
could only shrug, for no-one knew who the dead man was.

In all of the chaos no-one noticed a slim, well-dressed
brunette in her very late twenties push her way through the revolving glass
door and step inside, out of the whirling February snow-storm.

She looked around with the eye of an expert and located her
target.

‘Rufus!’ she called brightly. Tucking her enormous carpet
bag under her arm, she hitched up her pencil skirt and stepped calmly over the
headless body, judging it correctly as the quickest way to get to her old
friend. She made for the crowded Grand Staircase, floating upwards on a cloud
of parma violet.

She found him at the very top, leaning theatrically over the
bannister, cigar balanced precariously in one hand, emerald-coloured drink in
the other, surveying the scene below. She tapped him on the shoulder.

‘You called me. And here I am!’ Posie declared, in as
enthusiastic a manner as she could muster.

‘You didn’t tell me it was going to be a full-blown murder!
A professional job too, by the look of things; a very good shot. I thought you
said something about a diamond in the message. Perhaps the messenger-boy got it
wrong?’

Rufus turned to her at last, and Posie saw at once that he
must have been drinking all day, perhaps all of the previous night too. He
seemed to have terrible trouble focusing on her.

‘Ah! Nosy Parker. What ho! Good of you to come.’

Posie swallowed down her anger – she hated this old nickname
– but Rufus was her elder brother Richard’s best friend from Eton, and her only
link to her brother since he had been killed in the Great War three years
earlier. Besides, Rufus was rich, and she hadn’t had a paid job at the
Detective Agency in more than three weeks. Better take anything, she’d said to
herself as she changed into her heavy black boots and made herself ready for
the snow, setting off at a brisk half-run from her office in Bloomsbury twenty
minutes earlier.

Gently she prised the vicious-looking green drink from his
hand.

‘By jove, it’s all my fault. All of this,’ Rufus was
motioning to the floor below him. ‘A fella’s dead, and all because of my girl.’

Posie led him to a comfy-looking red velvet armchair tucked
into a shallow recess on the landing. She squatted down next to him, moving a
potted aspidistra out of the way first.


What
girl? Last time we met you were bemoaning the
lack of a good woman in your life – and that was only about a month ago. We met
at the theatre, remember? That silly play with all those poor girls dressed as
dancing caterpillars? You invited me. Remember?’

A look of fondness spread over Rufus’ face briefly like a warm
fug.

‘How can I forget, Nosy? That was where I met her!
Afterwards, in the Circle Bar. You dashed off to feed your cat or something.
Minsky? Minky?’

‘Mr Minks.’

‘Mnnn.’ Rufus flicked his long fair fringe from his eyes and
seemed lost in another world for a minute. He took a drag on his cigar. Posie
gave him a short sharp dig in the ribs.

‘Anyway, it was love at first sight, Nosy. The most
beautiful girl I’ve ever clapped eyes on. We’ve been living here in my rooms at
the Ritz ever since. I got her to give up the caterpillar job at once.
Demeaning stuff for a clever girl.
My
girl.’

Posie stared at Rufus in horror.

‘Obviously it was all top secret,’ and here Rufus tapped his
nose and gave Posie a wink. ‘You know,
hush hush
and all that. We were
having a fine old time. I was buying her clothes every day on Bond Street,
jewels too; taking her to all the best places. I wanted her to be in the best
possible state before she met my father.’

Posie gulped, a sickening fear spreading over her. She
remembered the Earl of Cardigeon of old, his temper was the stuff of legends.
He was known to be a real old monster.

‘Your father, Rufey? Was that a good idea? Why on earth?’

Rufus looked at Posie in sheer amazement.

‘She was going to be my wife, you idiot! I thought I’d get
the old buffoon used to the idea in good time.’

Posie cursed. This all spelled disaster. She’d never
normally have thought of Rufus as a sitting duck, ripe for the picking by any
pretty girl who fancied a free ride for a while. But, well, things had changed.
Rufus had never been quite the same man since the Great War, and what with his
infernal drinking…she’d been a bad friend, she should have looked out for him
better.

‘What happened? Today? What happened with the girl?’

Rufus held his head in his hands a moment before answering.

‘I proposed, of course. At lunchtime. Over a bucket of
champagne in the Palm Court.’

‘Why?’ wailed Posie.

‘Call yourself a detective?’ snapped Rufus nastily. ‘It’s
Valentine’s Day, you noddle! A perfect day for it. Dash it all, I don’t know
why I bothered to call you here if you’re so slow.’

Posie sighed: it was all too clear what had happened.

‘You called me because she’s run off. Let me guess: you gave
her some priceless engagement bauble you had bought on Bond Street, and then
she disappeared for a while to powder her nose. You thought she had been gone a
long time and when you went to look for her in your rooms you found she had
miraculously disappeared. Including the ring! No note. She had disappeared out
of a back exit. Am I correct?’

Rufus squirmed beneath her gaze.


Almost
correct. Sorry for being mean just now, Nosy.
I’m just rather strung out.’

‘I’d say,’ nodded Posie calmly. ‘So what did I get wrong
then?’ She hated being wrong. Even in the middle of a crisis.

Out of the corner of her eye she noticed an elderly Butler
in the hotel’s smart livery approaching them. He shuffled to a stop, and
presented a silver tray to Rufus, on which two cream-coloured telegrams rested.
Rufus ripped them open half-heartedly. He groaned and turned his face into the
velvet of the armchair. Posie grabbed the two telegrams from his quivering hand
and read them quickly.

The first read:

GOT YOUR TELEGRAM. COMING TO LONDON ON NEXT TRAIN.
IDIOT BOY – THAT DIAMOND IS A FAMILY HEIRLOOM. IT WAS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY TO
KEEP IT INSURED AND IN THE SAFE AT THE BANK. IT HAS A CURSE ON IT; I’LL DO MORE
THAN CURSE YOU WHEN I GET TO YOU TONIGHT, I’M WARNING YOU.

YOUR (DEEPLY UNHAPPY) FATHER.

P.S. THANK GOODNESS FOR BRIGG & BROOKS. AT LEAST
WE MIGHT GET SOME INSURANCE MONEY OUT OF THIS DAMNED MESS. PERHAPS I’LL GET THE
ROOF FIXED AT REBBURN NOW.

Posie sank back on her haunches and wrapped her arms
around herself. She whistled softly under her breath. She stared at Rufus in
amazement.

‘I know, I know! Don’t tell me. I was an idiot! A fool. She
took me for everything.’

She flicked to the second telegram quickly. It read:

BRIGG & BROOKS OF LONDON CONFIRM THE VALUE OF THE
MAHARAJAH DIAMOND IS LISTED AS SEVEN HUNDRED THOUSAND POUNDS. IT IS UNINSURED.
AS YOU WILL RECALL YOU HAVE NOT KEPT UP WITH THE ANNUAL PREMIUMS FOR THE LAST 2
YEARS, DESPITE FREQUENT REMINDERS.

BEST OF LUCK.

She looked up at Rufus, gobsmacked:

‘What happened? I thought you had plenty of money. Why
didn’t you keep up the premiums, Rufey?’

‘I forgot! I just forgot! There was so much else going on!’
he wailed through splayed fingers, covering his face.

Posie chewed her lip worriedly: more likely Rufus was so
addled by drink over the last two years he hadn’t got a clue what was going on
in many aspects of his life.

‘But why on earth did you want to give her that
particular
diamond? A family heirloom? Surely a girl like that would want something newer
– something flashier – in a modern style?’

‘I told her about the Maharajah diamond when we first met,’
Rufus groaned. ‘She was fascinated by it. She kept asking me about its history,
its story. It has quite a scandalous tale behind it, you know. Eventually I
took her to see it at the bank. Got them to open up the safe specially and she
held it, and held it, as if it were magical or something. As if she were under
a spell.’

‘Almost a million pounds’ worth of diamond can do that to a
girl,’ Posie muttered.

‘In the end we went every day to see the stone. She couldn’t
get enough of it. You know, I think the Bank Manager thought I was touched in
the head or something.’

Posie declined from commenting, and waved him on in
encouragement.

‘Eventually I got the idea of having it mounted into a ring,
and giving it to her as an engagement gift. I kept imagining the pure pleasure
on her little face! The Maharajah diamond glittering away on her finger! I
never thought for a minute this would happen. I’m in for it now, Nosy.
Uninsured, and my father coming down here to boot! Be a brick – tell me, what
should I do?’

Posie was just summoning up the energy to speak when she
caught sight of a number of people heading along the narrow landing in their
direction. Several policemen were bobbing along subserviently behind a tall
important-looking man in a homburg hat and a beige trench coat. He looked like
he meant business.

‘Heigh-ho, Rufey,’ Posie muttered, and got to her feet.
‘Looks like Scotland Yard have sent their finest. That was quick! Did
you
contact them? Perhaps it was your father?’

Rufus just curled up even more into the armchair and started
a low, steady groaning sound.

‘Lord Rufus Cardigeon, I presume?’ the Inspector addressed
the armchair in a loud, carrying sort of growly voice which made Posie
immediately feel guilty of something, but of what she couldn’t say. The groaning
continued. A crowd of guests had now turned from watching the gory murder scene
below and were edging around them in a tight circle.

‘I am Miss Parker, sir.’ Posie stood as tall as she could,
and squared up to the man, extending her gloved hand. The Inspector looked
bemused for a minute, then took it gingerly.

‘Inspector Oats, Miss. From Scotland Yard.’

‘I thought as much. Have you come about the missing
Maharajah diamond? Lord Cardigeon here is very shaken by it, sir. It seems he
has been duped by a chorus girl who stole the diamond not more than an hour
ago. Thank you for coming so quickly.’

‘A diamond? What diamond? And who is this Maharajah you’re
talking about? Some foreign chappie, is he?’

The Inspector stared at Posie with a look of total incomprehension
in his trouty pale blue eyes. She stared back.

‘Report it to one of my men if there’s been a theft. I’m
here on serious business.’

With this the Inspector turned to one of his men, nodded and
shouted in a dramatic fashion: ‘All right, boys, let’s be ’avin’ ’im.’

Two burly policemen jumped on Rufus and sat on him in the
armchair while a third came forwards brandishing glittering silver handcuffs.
There was a sharp dramatic intake of breath from the crowd. The handcuffs were
snapped on and Rufus, from underneath the two policemen, could be heard
wailing.

‘Lord Cardigeon, I am arresting you on suspicion of being an
accomplice to the murder of the as – yet – unidentified gentleman lying in the
hallway downstairs. You do not have to say anything, but what you do say may be
taken in evidence…’

‘Hang on, hang on a minute,’ Posie jumped in front of
Inspector Oats. ‘You’ve got this all wrong. My friend here is the victim of a
crime, a THEFT! He’s certainly not involved with the murder here.’

‘Come on, lads,’ said the Inspector, and the policemen
dragged Rufus to his feet. The Inspector turned to Posie, and said in his
carrying voice:

‘I’m afraid it is
you
who have this wrong, Miss. I
have a hotel full of guests willing to swear on their lives that your friend Lord
Cardigeon has been living in sin here for the last few weeks with a well-known
gangster’s moll. She’s called Lucky Lucy Gibson. She’s on the most-wanted list
of criminals in London. She’s famous. It was her who took a pot-shot at our
dead friend in the hall here and was last seen jumping into a black cab outside
with a smoking gun. What with all the snow, she’s disappeared! Vanished!
Why
she killed the chap downstairs is what I want to ask your pal here about – I
think he may have been in on it too.’

‘Lucy?’ Rufus mumbled. ‘I don’t know anyone of that name. My
fiancée was called Georgie. Georgie le Pomme.’

Posie groaned in exasperation. She wanted to slap Rufus.

‘That must have been her stage-name,’ she hissed at him.
‘But is it true – what the Inspector said – that Lucy, Georgie,
whatever
her
name was, killed the man downstairs?’

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