It was no wonder that Cleo’s trip to Middleton library to look at back numbers of the Gazette did not reveal much. Bertie Browne, editor in chief and owner of the twice weekly freebie, published all sorts of stuff that was long on padding, but short on information and mostly independent of accuracy. Hot air and fake news were good enough to fill the pages that were not devoted to price-slashing (if you can believe that) offers of cars, cats and cucumbers. The Fargo family did not merit a single mention.
“Here for old times’ sake?” asked Karl von Klippen, once civil servant at Vienna’s town hall and now chief librarian in Middlethumpton thanks to overwhelming family ties remarked to Cleo, coming round the counter to kiss her hand and bow charmingly.
Cleo noted that Karl’s Viennese accent was as strong as ever. His oldie-worldie manners were quainter than any Cleo had come across before, even in tradition-soaked England. Karl, brother-in-law of the ill-fated Edith Parsnip and happy to be among books even if they weren’t in German, was happy in Cleo’s old job. His research into the history of Middlethumpton absorbed him whenever time allowed him to stop taking care of readers to delve into ancient tomes, including a few hundred musty books bequeathed recently by the estate belonging to the Marble family, whose elder statesman had met his maker sometime previously.
“How are the twins?” Cleo asked.
“Terrible-terrible wild,” he said, pronouncing wild as if it started with a ‘v’ for victory and leaving off the adverbial ending as if German did not use endings all the time, “but now they are at kindergarten they can fight it out between themselfs.”
Cleo had long since given up on Karl’s English grammar.
“How is Clare?”
Clare was Edith Parsnip’s twin sister.
“Expectant again,” said Karl “Cake in the oven.”
“I think you mean expecting, Karl and it’s buns not cakes in the oven.”
“Another two buns,” he said.
“Gary is coping well. I think you will, too,” said Cleo. Small talk with Karl was normally more difficult and usually fraught with mixed-up adages. But today he was preoccupied with the thought of another couple of years raising twin babies with the added stress of the two who were already there.
“Vat is it zat you vont?” he said now, spitting out his Germanic consonants.
“Research on a family called Fargo,” said Cleo.
“Ha! Zee old guy they killed dead then found it wasn’t he after all?”
“Yes, Karl, but who do you mean by ‘they’?”
“Family,” Karl said. “It happens in Austria all the time.”
“Hurrying the old people along.”
“Along where?” said Cleo, knowing exactly what Karl, meant but storing up the account for future telling in his words rather than hers.
“To the Grab,” said Karl, who filled in with German words if he could not think of the English ones.
“You mean grave, I expect.”
“Expectantly!” the librarian nodded.
“Exactly!” said Cleo. “Do you know the Fargo family, Karl? Do they come here for books?”
“Frillers mostly,” said Karl, nodding wisely.
“Really,” said Cleo. “Some thrillers are full of instructions on how to get rid of unwanted persons.”
“I can’t ask people if they want to learn how to do their relations in, Cleo. I run a library not a police station.”
“Don’t worry about it, Karl. It was just a thought.”
“I won’t worry, but thoughts are things, Cleo. Mrs Fargo borrowed a book on cooking with herbs and mushrooms. I looked it up. It’s overdue. Has she poisoned someone?”
“That’s a very curious thought, Karl. Maybe someone should go there and ask for the book because it has been ordered by someone else.”
“But it hasn’t,” said Karl, looking in his database.
“Yes it has. By me,” said Cleo.
“Ahahaha,” said Karl. “Zat is clever, and you have my blessink.”
“Just tell me the exact title of the book, please.”
Karl looked in his database for the appropriate entry.
“’How to tell which herbs and fungi are edible’,” he read.
“Wow, Karl. I’ll get onto it right away.”
“Happy cooking!” said Karl.
If Cleo had been looking for an excuse to call on the Fargos, she now had it, though she was far from sure that hunting down a library book was a legitimate excuse for calling on people you didn’t know. She decided to consult Gary although she had a pretty good idea what he would say when he had finished laughing.
Catching up with what the children had been up to took up the first hour or so of Cleo’s evening. Grit had everything under control as usual and the two older girls had joined all the twins in the playpen. You couldn’t have asked for better baby-sitters. Charlie and Lottie never got tired of playing with Teddy and Tommy. The babies, Max and Mathilda, were content to lie wide-eyed and kicking.
The supper table was laid and the smallest fry bathed and ready for bed even before Gary and Dorothy arrived. Dorothy immediately volunteered to put the little boys to bed. Gary checked Charlie’s and Lottie’s homework. Joe, Gary’s lost-and-found twin brother, Lottie’s father and now editor of Cops’ Corner, Police HQ’s twice monthly insider magazine, would be late home, since the next publication date was dangerously close.
“You aren’t cooking, Ladies!” said Gary. “I’m so hungry. Do I have to make myself a sandwich?”
“Don’t bother, Sweetheart,” said Cleo. “The food will be here by seven thirty.”
“Not Chinese again,” said Gary. “We had that last week.”
“I can’t cook and run my agency,” said Cleo. “I did the only sensible thing. I called Romano. He does excellent takeaways,” said Cleo.
“So he does,” said Gary.
“That means you approve, I hope.”
“I suppose I do, if only your mother had not jilted him for his brother. I don’t want to talk to him about that.”
“Then don’t. I can’t see why my mother’s behaviour should be allowed to influence our diet, Gary, and he may not come himself.”
He did. Poor jilted Romano arrived at the same time as Nigel, who had had to sort out one or two things at HQ before driving to Upper Grumpsfield. He now showed Cleo some new data on her laptop while Gary helped Romano with his delivery.
“Mamma Mia,” the Italian restauranteur said as he deposited the evening meal on the kitchen worktop. “I’m getting old. This is all so heavy.”
“It looks like an awful lot, Romano,” said Gary.
“For ten as usual, my friend: Cleo said to bring plenty,” said Romano, looking around rather anxiously.
“Don’t worry, Romano. Gloria is not here!” said Gary.
“She betrayed me!”
“If it’s any comfort, she also betrayed your brother, Romano,” said Gary, and Romano’s face lit up. “She’s back in my old flat in Middlethumpton.”
“Is she living with your mother?”
“No, Romano. My mother lives next door now with Roger Stone.”
”That sounds more civilized,” said Romano. “You have interesting women in your family – except for Gloria.”
“I agree. How much?”
“It’s on the house,” said Romano.
“No it isn’t,” said Gary. “Is 30 enough?”
“That’s too much!”
“You took time off and drove here, Romano. I’m not paying for charity. I’m paying for the best pasta this side of the Alps.”
After much embracing and thanks, Romano took his leave.
“That’s taken care of him,” said Gary. “Dinner is served!”
“What did you tell him?” Cleo asked.
“That Gloria is back in my flat. He seemed gratified.”
“I’ll go home now,” said Grit. “Roger should be back soon and it’s our jazz night.”
As usual, it was a self-service affair at the cottage. Nigel was very taken with the idea. PeggieSue sat in her high chair having her pasta before the grownups. Lottie and Charlie helped her, so in the end it took much longer. It was altogether a rather rowdy meal, but eventually all the children were in bed and the agency business could be taken care of.
“I’m going to visit the Fargos tomorrow,” said Cleo, having decided that she would get a better response if she did not tell Gary on his own.
“What the hell do you want there?” he said now.
“Their library book is overdue,” said Cleo. “I’m going to get it from them if they are at home.”
“What?” said Gary. “You don’t read books unless you’ve downloaded them.”
“When you know the title you’ll know why I want to get a closer look at those people.”
“OK. Spill the beans!” said Gary.
“Spit it out,” said Dorothy.
“’How to tell which herbs and fungi are edible’” said Cleo.
Dorothy immediately stepped in with an explanation.
“That tramp was poisoned, wasn’t he?” she said. “Could it have been a do-it-yourself toxin? That’s the perfect solution. There’s no record of poison being bought; you take a walk in the woods to collect some of those nasty toadstools; a quick brew and you have your perfect murder.”
“Isn’t that a bit farfetched, Dorothy?” said Gary.
“Why else would the Fargos borrow that book?”
“You’d better not accept a drink when you go on your wild goose chase then, Cleo,” said Nigel.
“I’ll go,” said Dorothy. “It’s much more appropriate to have an old girl fussing about the book than you, Cleo.”
“I agree,” said Gary. “But we don’t yet know exactly what poison was inflicted on the tramp, do we? You’d better go along, Nigel.”
“That’s a good idea,” said Cleo.
“Are you inviting me?”
“So that’s what Gary said you wanted to talk to me about,” said Nigel.
“You have my blessing,” said Gary. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
“You didn’t warn me, Gary.”
“I’m warning you now. Those women are slave-drivers.”
“Be on time,” said Dorothy, giving Gary a disapproving look. “I’ll be at the Agency office by ten to make a note of any information we have on the Fargos.”
“By then Chris might be able to tell us which toadstools were used,” said Cleo.
“I know there are 10 types of poisonous mushroom growing in this country,” said Dorothy.
“How on earth do you know that?” said Gary.
“If you have a garden you need to know,” said Dorothy. “One’s called ‘deathcap’.”
“I suppose you know the Latin name, too,” said Gary.
“Amanita phalloides,” said Dorothy. “I have a book on them. I used to collect mushrooms in Monkton Woods.”
“Wow,” said Cleo.
“I’m surprised you survived, Dorothy,” said Gary.
“I might not have if they had got into my saucepan,” said Dorothy. “Some of them look really appetizing, but you only need 30 grams of deathcap to kill a human and you can’t destroy the poison by freezing or cooking.”
Nigel looked horrified.
“Only recently, a gardener killed herself eating canned soup laced with deathcap,” said Dorothy.
“I’m glad we had pasta,” said Nigel.
“I’ll phone Chris right now,” said Cleo.
Chris had compiled his report on Toby Bates’s autopsy and would have sent it the following day.
“Dorothy has had an idea,” said Cleo. “It’s about mushrooms of all things.”
“She’s on the right track,” said Chris, “unless I’m very much mistaken.”
“Are you sure?”
“Definitely an amatoxin, probably a-amanitin,” he reported. “Deadly stuff. Can’t be destroyed by heat or cold. Same as in that soup I got to analyse anonymously.”
“Since when do people send you anonymous soup, Chris?”
“”Ask me another.”
“Could that be soup from the chorus rehearsal, Chris?” Cleo asked.
“Eaten by chorus members now on the intensive care list,” said Chris.
“I have not heard about that,” said Cleo. “The plastic bowls had lids. I expect some of the singers took theirs home to eat later.”
“They should be warned,” said Chris.
“We don’t know who they are, Chris.”
“It’s probably fake news,” said Chris. “You know how things get around. I expect it tasted horrible. I’ve no idea how many tried it.”
“I did,” said Cleo. “No, I didn’t .The smell put me off.”
“What a good job,” said Chris.
“What can I do about it?”
“Wait and see. I assume you didn’t bring any of it home.”
“No, but Jane Barker took her pot home and I don’t think it was empty.”
“You’ll have to warn her, Cleo.”
“If it isn’t too late.”
The speakers had been on so the company heard that dialogue. When had the poison got into Jane’s soup? Was it sabotage in the church hall?
“All we need to do now is prove that the Fargos brewed the toxin and killed their relative. They then used that tramp as a stand-in,” said Dorothy.
“Find Fargo, dead or alive,” said Cleo. “He may have died the same death as the tramp.”
“Not to mention Jane Barker’s soup,” said Dorothy. “Though I could well believe that she thought the toadstools were champignons and there for the taking.”
“Search party tomorrow,” said Gary. “I’ll need you, Nigel. There’s no question of Dorothy going to look for that library book at the Fargos.”
“I can see your point,” said Dorothy.
Later that evening, Fred Bradley alias Brass decided to close his sub-police station an hour early. He had entered himself for the afternoon to evening shift and had to admit that by nine p.m. most of Upper Grumpsfield had either retired for the night or was indulging in some sort of entertainment at home or abroad, so closing at nine would probably not even be noticed. It was justified, he told himself.
Brass had not had any romantic involvement for a long time, but since his unexpected escapade with Edith Parsnip he had thought of nothing else. Was it only last night that he had thrown caution to the winds and himself into what he could only describe as the love-making of his life? He had phoned Edith that afternoon and checked that she was expecting him to call. He was not quite sure what would happen at the vicarage, but if it went the way he thought it might, he would suggest meeting at his bungalow next time, as long as the children were not there. This weekend he was a free man and they could get to know one another better outside the confines of a vicarage.
Shortly before nine, Brass closed the office window, smartened himself up, shaved meticulously and patted a fragrant aftershave into his chin, locked up the premises and hurried to his date.
Edith was waiting. She explained that Mary Baker and her boyfriend had gone to the late showing at a cinema in Middlethumpton and would not be back until midnight, so they could make a noise if they wanted to.
“What kind of a noise do you mean, Edith?” Brass asked.
Edith drew Brass into the hallway.
“Later,” she said. “First I want to show you the book.”
She led Brass into what she called her boudoir and produced what her Romeo judged to be x certificate illustrations of all sorts of things lovers seemed to enjoy and a whole lot he never knew existed.
“Now you see what I mean,” said Edith, letting her flimsy negligée fall to reveal her nakedness.
“Where did the vicar get that book?” Brass stammered. He was genuinely shocked.
“I expect he ordered it on the internet.”
“But surely you didn’t … “
“Mr Parsnip was not into the practical side of love-making after helping to make five sons,” she said. “Are you afraid of having more children?”
“I hadn’t thought about it. My wife is dead.”
“You don’t just have children with marriage partners,” said Edith. “For instance, we could have a baby together, couldn’t we?”
“Oh no, Edith, I don’t want that,” said Brass.
“But I might,” said Edith.
“I think I’d better go home,” he said, horrified at the idea that Edith could drag him into a relationship he did not want.
“Why don’t you just relax now you are here, Brass,” said Edith, stripping Brass off as she got into her seduction routine. “We won’t make a baby. I’ve taken care of that.”
“Well, if you are sure,” he said.
“Of course I’m sure,” said Edith. “This is just a game and we don’t have to follow the pictures in that book, either.”
It must be said that Brass enjoyed the ‘game’ for as long as it lasted, which was most of the night.
“I can walk with you to your house if you like. We can get some fresh night air. I love the fresh night air,” said Edith.
Brass found it impossible to refuse Edith’s offer. A brisk walk later they were brewing tea in Brass’s kitchen.
“You can start this time if you like,” she said.
“Start what? Aren’t you going home now?”
“Do you want me to?”
Brass was silent for a moment. He felt bad about letting Edith get into the bed that he had shared with his wife until her cancer was so bad that she had gone into a hospiz and never come home again. While he was thinking, Edith had held his hand and led the way into the master bedroom.
“My wife slept in this bed,” he said. “It’s her bed.”
“But she is dead, Brass and I’m alive. She is only a memory and I am real.”
Edith faced Brass and told him to put his arms round her so that he could feel her reality. All the rumours he had heard about Edith’s nympholepsy came back to him, but at that moment he ceased to believe them. She was not a woman who ravished men and did not care about them. She had been wronged and he would put that right.
“Will you marry me, Edith?” he said, listening with astonishment to his words.
“Yes,” she said as if she had been waiting for his proposal.
“When you are my wife we can get into that bed, can’t we?”
The logic of those words was not entirely clear to Edith, since a bed was just a bed and she needed no other reason to get into it than to make love and perhaps get some sleep, but Brass’s proposal was loud and clear. As if to confirm that he meant what he said, he undressed and lay down on his side, gesturing to Edith to join him.
“I will be a good wife to you, Fred,” she said now as she lay close to the man she had decided to wed though she hardly knew him.
“Do you really want to marry me?” she said.
“Yes Edith, I’d like that, and if we make a baby that will be just fine.”
They both lay on his side of the marriage bed just looking at the ceiling for quite a long time. Then their hands sought one another, they embraced as lovers do and consummated their new status. And not once did they stray onto the unoccupied half of the bed.