Small Town Suspicions (Some Very English Murders Book 3) (6 page)

“Crikey. The dodgy things that police officers have to keep
in their pockets!” Penny said with a laugh.

“These are my home clothes,” Cath pointed out. “I’ve got
the gloves because I have messy small boys, pets and a husband who …”

“I don’t want to know any more, thanks.”

“Come on, then.”

The front door opened into a hallway that ran right down
the centre of the house, from front to back. The floor was tiled and cold. A
staircase led up to the rooms above. Cath led her first into the room to the
left, which was a general sitting room, with old-fashioned wing-back chairs
that were threadbare and uncomfortable-looking.

“No television?” Penny said.

“Nope. Just a big old radio, and lots of books.”

The room was lined with shelves and it smelled like old
paper. There were, remarkably, no pictures on the walls. It felt bare and
unloved.

“Now come and see the kitchen,” Cath said. The way she
smiled gave Penny a clue that she was in for a surprise, but even forewarned,
she was still taken aback when she entered.

“Goodness.”

“It’s something else, isn’t it?” Cath said, grinning with
delight.

Penny shook her head and stared around at the shiny white
surfaces and pristine gadgets. It was the sort of kitchen that she’d only ever
seen in glossy magazines, and occasionally when she’d been to exclusive dinner
parties in London, when she was young and easily impressed.

Who was she kidding? She was
still
impressed. She
walked around the central island. “He seems to have been a real foodie,” she
said. “There are things here that I don’t even recognise. Is that some kind of
fancy coffee percolator, do you think?”

“I reckon so.” Cath pointed at the rows of jars and
packets. “He looks to have been a real coffee snob.”

Penny peered closely at the labels, keeping her hands by
her sides. “He didn’t just buy these down the mini-market,” she said. “These
are imports and all sorts.”

“You didn’t expect a kitchen like this, did you?”

“No, not at all. I’m stunned, to be honest.”

Penny and Cath walked slowly around. She was itching to
pick things up but she had to be content with studying things as closely as she
could. “There’s a label on this packet of coffee with the price only in
dollars,” she said. “Cath, where
did
he buy all this from?”

“He must have got it all off the internet,” Cath said.

Penny pursed her lips. “Hmm. So he doesn’t have a
television but he does have the internet?”

“That’s getting more common, isn’t it?” Cath said. “When we
deal with younger folk now, like at the university in Lincoln, they tend not to
have tellies because they can watch whatever they want online.”

“Is it upstairs?”

“What?”

“His computer. Because there was nothing in the studio or
in the other room and there’s nothing in here, is there?”

Cath and Penny considered one another. “Now you mention it
… no. We can have a peep upstairs but there was nothing remarkable. I don’t
remember any kind of computing device being logged, not even a smartphone. But
come on, let’s get your fresh eyes on it.”

But Cath was right. They gazed around the two bedrooms and
small bathroom, and Penny saw nothing but the same mess and disregard for
housework that was evident in the living room. It was as if the kitchen belonged
to someone else entirely.

And crucially, there was no sign of a computer, laptop,
tablet or anything.

“Does he have a landline?” Penny asked.

“Yes.”

They found a yellowed plastic handset in the hallway. Once,
it had been white, but sunlight had aged it. They traced the cable back to the
main socket on the outside wall.

“No kind of modem or router,” Cath said.

“There’s the public computers in the library, and the
sessions that Reg runs at the community centre,” Penny said.

“Reg? Not Reg Bailey?”

“The very same. He does these courses for ‘silver surfers’
now. They’re free. He was always into local history, apparently, and he has
started up some kind of website.”

“That’s cool. I’ll get someone to pop into all the local
libraries and ask them. You use the one here in Glenfield – have you seen Alec
there?”

“Never,” said Penny. “But he might have travelled out of
town.”

“He really was an odd one,” Cath said. “But what would make
someone want to kill him?”


If
he was killed,” Penny pointed out. They wandered
back into the kitchen. It was the only room that didn’t feel sad and unloved.
“What was it that killed him again? The poison, I mean?”

“They said it was an alkaloid, that it would have tasted
very bitter, and he had had such a large amount of it that they are uncertain
that it could have been accidental. It’s still possible, though. Or suicide,
but as you say, it’s a strange way to do yourself in. I think we’ll know more
when the final results come in.”

“I don’t really know what an alkaloid is,” Penny said. “The
opposite of acid? Or am I thinking of alkali? We did that at school but I was
sitting near a mean girl called Karen and so I didn’t get much work done in
chemistry because she was always passing me nasty notes.”

“Why did you read them if they were nasty?”

“I don’t know. Because I was a teenage girl? Who knows why
we do what we do.”

Cath shook her head and rolled her eyes. “I am glad I’ve
had boys. They are so much easier. Anyway, the boffins did explain alkaloids to
me. They are mostly from plants, and fungi and stuff. That’s why we considered
accidental overdose, you see.”

“Ahh. He’s obviously a foodie, so eating the wrong sort of
mushrooms, that sort of thing?”

“Exactly.”

Penny stared again at the coffee. “Coffee is bitter,” she
said, slowly, as she felt her way along the thought process. “If you wanted to
poison someone with a bitter-tasting thing, you’d hide it in something that was
also bitter…”

Cath nodded. “Yeah …”

“But, as you say, until we know more …”

“Yup. It’s all speculation. Come on, let’s get going.
There’s still some cake left at your house, and I’ve heard that it can go
mouldy very quickly in this weather. Like, within minutes. Let’s not take the
risk.”

“You’re right. We had better get back.”

 

* * * *

 

Francine looked surprised that Cath came back into the
house when they returned. All three sat in the kitchen, having another cup of
tea, until Francine pointedly yawned and took herself off to bed. Cath left not
long after that.

Penny cleared away the plates, and took Kali outside for
her regular night time sniff-the-plants routine.

Did Francine’s bubbly exterior mask some other problems?
Penny realised that she had been so caught up in her own feelings that she’d
never actually bothered to ask. She was increasingly sure that there was
something else going on.

She leaned on the doorframe and stared up at the myriad
stars above. Tomorrow, she resolved she’d ask. She’d be a better person.

Starting tomorrow.

Chapter Five

 

 

 

Penny was startled awake by her mobile phone ringing, and
she knew it was impossibly early because usually Kali was staring at her by
seven in the morning, trying to wake Penny by the power of her glare. She
groped for her phone and didn’t recognise the caller’s number.

She answered it anyway. Her parents were getting on in age
now, and their jet-setting lifestyle of endless cruises and city breaks
couldn’t last forever. If the call turned out to merely be a telemarketer, however,
they were going to regret disturbing her this early in the morning.

It was someone else; and it was someone entirely
unexpected.

“Penelope? It’s Ariadne. Are you there? Is this still your
number? Er …”

Penny sat up straight and rubbed her eyes with her free
hand. She hadn’t heard her younger sister’s voice for two years.

“Penelope?” the voice said again. “I’m sorry … who am I
talking to?”

“Hi. Yeah, this is Penny. Ariadne …”

“Oh, thank goodness! Penelope … I’m sorry to ring so
early.”

“Is everything okay with mum and dad?” Penny’s adrenaline
was on overdrive straight away.

“Yes, as far as I know. Sorry. Yes. This isn’t an
emergency, really. I just wanted to say … hello. That’s all. It’s been too long
since we’ve spoken. And I couldn’t let that carry on, you know?”

“Right.” Penny realised that Kali was staring at her in
concern, and she patted the bed beside her. She took a deep breath. “It’s
okay,” she whispered to the dog. “Come on up … good girl.”

“Am I disturbing you? Do you have someone there?”

“Just Kali. It’s okay. Let me move over for her.”

“Oh! Penelope! I … I never realised …”

“She’s my dog.”

“Of course. Oh. Right.”

There was a silence, and Penny knew that she was expected
to ask about Ariadne’s husband and children. She remembered the previous
night’s vow to be a nicer person, and so through gritted teeth, she said, “And
is everything okay with you and yours?”

“Mmm. Owen’s still, well, you know. He’s just the same as
always. Everyone’s finding it hard with jobs, though, aren’t they? It’s not
just him. Oh, Star was eighteen last week.”

The accusation fell like lead. Penny hadn’t sent a card.
“Oh,” she said, and then in a rush, “I’m sorry. I am.” It wasn’t the kid’s
fault, was it? “I should have sent something,” she admitted. “I
am
sorry. How are the others?”

“Destiny’s looking forward to being able to leave school.
It was never her thing. She’s too much like her dad. Wolf, on the other hand,
is top in everything. I don’t know where he gets it from!” Ariadne laughed, and
to Penny’s ears it sounded false and brittle.

There must be another reason for Ariadne to call her. They
had never been close sisters, with eleven years between them. “Are you happy,
Ariadne?” Penny asked, impulsively. “Is something wrong?”

It was not the right thing to ask. Ariadne shut down
immediately. “I’ve got a family and I’ve got love,” she said. “I was calling to
see if
you
were all right. Are you still single?”

“Mostly,” she countered, “as is my choice. I didn’t mean–”

“You did mean,” Ariadne said. “London makes everyone mean.”

“I don’t live in London any longer. I’m in Lincolnshire.”

“When?”

“Ah. Three months ago, or so.”

“I didn’t know.” And this time the accusatory silence cut
into Penny because she knew she should have told Ariadne. After all, she only
lived about an hour away, over the county border in Leicestershire.

“I thought mum and dad would have told you,” Penny said.

“They probably assumed it would be down to you. Ah, one
minute–” Ariadne’s voice became muffled, and Penny heard her swear. Suddenly
Ariadne said, “Look, have fun in Lincolnshire. I’m glad to hear you’re all
right. Gotta go–”

And that was it. The phone beeped and the static dial tone
came on.

Penny put the phone back on the nightstand and absently
stroked Kali’s head and shoulders. Why would you call before even seven in the
morning?

When you didn’t want to be overheard.

Why call someone you had only ever argued with?

When you had no one else left to call.

Penny felt heavy and sad as she got out of bed, stretched,
and made her way to the bathroom to start the morning.

 

* * * *

 

“No,” she told her own reflection. “I am not a
moping-around sort of woman.”

“No, you’re not,” said Francine, appearing on the landing
and speaking through the slightly-open bathroom door. “You’re someone who gets
things done. Hey, do you remember when we were in Sydney, and we hired that
crane but it got stolen in the night and those kids went on a joyride and we
were on the news and everything?”

Penny spun around. “Er…”

“Because the executive producer had that massive meltdown
and you stepped in, even though you were only an assistant back then, and you handled
the television interview even though you’d just had that terrible haircut and
everything?”

It was hardly the worst experience I’ve ever had,
Penny thought. But it was one of the defining moments in her early career. “I
remember.”

“You didn’t mope around then, even when the exec came and
bawled you out for overstepping the mark and exceeding your authority.”

“Well. No, I didn’t mope. But what else was there to do?”

“Exactly,” Francine said in triumph, as if she had just
unfurled a great insight for Penny and was now simply awaiting her gratitude.

“Well, quite. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Shall we go out for a walk?”

She had to say yes. “Okay.”

 

* * * *

 

They took the dog and it gave them something to talk about.
Francine was also reminiscing about the past, and sharing some tales about
mutual friends and colleagues that Penny hadn’t heard before, or had forgotten
about.

They laughed and they giggled.

It was fun.

By the time they got back, at midday, Penny felt a lot
better. In a bid to continue being a “nicer person” she impulsively grabbed her
phone and called Drew, taking the conversation out into the back garden while
Francine settled in the living room with a book.

As usual, he was dashing from place to place. “I’ve just
finished a session up at Acorns,” he said apologetically, referring to the
special school for children with behavioural problems. “I’m shattered. Those
kids have enough energy to power a city. I don’t know how the teachers do it
all day. And I’ve got half an hour before I have to be back at the hotel to
take a party of accountants out this afternoon. I’m supposed to teach them how
to light fires.”

“Why do accountants need to learn that?”

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