A breakfast brain-storming was an unusual feature of the Hartley Agency business practice. Normally, Cleo and Dorothy had a second breakfast together early in the week to talk over agency cases and procedures, but Saturday had revealed the urgency of getting things done, especially for Dorothy, who had created quite a stir with her report on Eve Bates.
If Ed Fargo was the real villain in the piece they would need firm evidence as to what he had done before they could hold him responsible, and that would require Dr Fargo to be found, dead or alive. Until then, the couple was to be kept under arrest.
Dorothy did her weekend shopping and was glad to be home. As usual, she would cook and eat lunch, making sure that her cat Mimi got her share, and then put her feet up for an hour before devoting herself to one of Beethoven’s trickier sonata movements. Today it would be the so-called Moonlight Sonata, which, after a soothing first movement and an almost singable second one, settled for advanced finger gymnastics in the third movement.
But it was not to be. Dorothy was awakened from her siesta by the phone. It was Lisa Keys, the new director of the Finch Nightingales.
“What a nice surprise, Lisa.”
“Not so nice, Miss Price. I’m in hospital.”
“Did you eat something indigestible, like Jane Barker’s soup?”
“No. I’m not into soup, Miss Price. I have appendicitis.”
“Oh dear, you poor thing.“
“I feel a bit better now, but they’ll probably have to operate and I don’t know what to do about the next rehearsal.”
“Why don’t I just get on a bus and visit you, Lisa? We can talk much better head to head.”
“Do you want to do that?” said Lisa. “I’m so sorry for disturbing you.”
“No problem,“ said Dorothy, sensing that Lisa had more than one problem she needed to discuss. ”I’ll be there in about ninety minutes, Lisa. The bus drives as far as the hospital. That’s a relic from the days when visiting was only once or twice a week and no one had a car.”
Niceties over, Dorothy could hardly wait to get to the core of her visit.
“Don’t worry about the rehearsal, Lisa. I don’t suppose many of the women feel much like singing. Most of them landed in hospital with food poisoning, and two are dead, but I suppose you know that.”
“Dead? I heard a rumour, but I didn’t take it seriously.”
“One died of heart failure, possibly brought on by the poisoning stress. The other lady was smothered.”
“Who would murder those women except for their singing?” said Lisa, and Dorothy immediately heard warning bells.
“The smothered one was Eileen Norton. Do you know which one that is? You haven’t had much time to learn names.”
“Enough time to know most of them, Miss Price, and Eileen Norton is or rather was a typical hanger-on. She was eager to please, but very timid with a tiny voice. She was also easily influenced by what is going on around her. There’s at least one in every chorus.”
“A third chorus member is also dead,” said Dorothy.
“You mean the woman found dead among the marigolds, I expect.”
“I got an anonymous phone call about that a day or two later.”
“Anonymous? Did you tell the police about it?”
“No. Should I have?”
“On reflection, I agree, though I thought it was a prank at the time.”
“Murder is not a prank, Lisa, and telling someone over the phone about a murder is very fishy indeed,” said Dorothy, who wondered if Lisa Keys was as naïve as she presented herself. “Did you recognise the voice of the caller?”
Dorothy mused silently that if it was Knowles who had phoned, she probably had not killed Margie. But somebody must have seen it happen and phoned for some other reason. On the other hand, if the call was a day or two later, it could have been anyone with thirst for some kind of sensationalism. Whatever the motive, it was someone who did not want to come forward, but hoped that Lisa Keys would.
“Eileen Norton was pally with the big prize-fighter woman with a voice like a Friesian cow,” said Lisa.
Dorothy could not help laughing. Knowles was not the only Friesian cow in that chorus, but definitely the loudest.
“It was an unlikely friendship, I thought,” Lisa continued. “The women were more interested in passing pills around than in singing, Miss Price.”
“Did you ask what was in them?”
“Yes. I was told that they were throat lozenges recommended by Mrs Finch.”
“Did you ask for one?”
“No. I wasn’t singng.”
“Was their source the big woman, the Friesian cow they call Babsi?”
“I think so.”
“Did you notice anything else, Lisa?”
“Funny you should ask that. At the last rehearsal we had a second short break before taking one final run at the song I was trying to teach them. The Friesian cow and Margie had been hissing at one another. They went out through the back entrance to smoke, and the big woman came back alone and said that Margie had gone home with a headache. Since the two of them had quarrelled before and gone outside to smoke at every rehearsal, I didn’t bother about it.”
“Margie would certainly have had a headache. Lisa. She fell or was pushed into the rockery and suffered fatal head injuries. She must have died almost instantly.”
“Do you think the phone-call about the accident was from that big woman?”
“Possibly, except that we do not know if it was an accident.”
Dorothy thought it wiser not to mention Gary so she explained about the Hartley Agency.
“That big woman they all call Babsi is under suspicion.”
“That’s terrible, Miss Price.”
“It seems like a continuation of the mobbing to which poor Laura Finch was subjected. Miss Knowles was always the leader of the pack, Laura told me in those days. But she had disciplined her a few times and the woman was resentful,” said Dorothy. “You should know that Laura Finch had a vicious tongue and hated anyone to stand up to her.”
“So you are saying that Laura Finch was mobbed by a chorus consisting of a gang of Friesian cow acolytes. I should never have taken them on. You should have warned me, Miss Price.”
“From what I have heard, they like you as much as they liked your brother Lester. Don’t give up yet,” said Dorothy, thinking with horror that she might end up having to take rehearsals herself.
“Lester would not notice corruption if it was waved in front of him, Miss Price. He thinks everyone is good at heart.”
“Couldn’t you get him to take the rehearsal if you can’t, Lisa?”
“That depends on his commitments. My Tuesdays are out for 3 weeks at least,” said Lisa.
“I’ll get a notice put in tomorrow’s Gazette that the rehearsal is cancelled,” Said Dorothy. “Then everyone will know.”
“No. I have other commitments,” said Dorothy, deciding that a little white lie was appropriate.
“There’s something else, Miss Price, but I’m not sure I should tell you.”
Dorothy thought with satisfaction that her hunch had been accurate.
“You can rely on me, Lisa,” she said. “Tell me what is troubling you. It might help our case, too.”
Lisa reached to her cupboard for her handbag and took an envelope out. It had no address on it, but Lisa’s name was on it hand-written. She handed it to Dorothy who opened it and took out a letter-sized sheet of paper on which, as in all crime novels where a typewriter with faulty letters is not available or the computer is down, there was a message written in words cut out from a newspaper or magazine.
‘Shut your face or I’ll shut it for you’ Dorothy read.
Later, clutching her handbag with its precious cargo of the anonymous letter together with a sample of Lisa’s handwriting hastily pressed with licked fingertips onto a blank sheet out of Dorothy’s notebook and folded and tucked into the envelope by Lisa herself, Dorothy was riding on the bus back to Upper Grumpsfield, deep in thought about the letter, the anonymous phone-call and not least the idea that Lisa Keys could even be in danger, since the chorus director could not think of anything she should be keeping a secret, though somebody obviously thought she was.
Dorothy mused that Gary would say that an anonymous letter was not necessarily based on fact. Dorothy would reply that there was no point in waiting for facts to appear if a human life was at stake.
Hastily attired in his jogging pants and hoping for a relaxing evening at home, Gary welcomed Dorothy’s unexpected arrival with as much grace as he could muster. Dorothy sensed that her timing was inconvenient and would have explained in a few words, handed over the anonymous letter and left, but Gary did not let her. Dorothy had a reason for coming and she might as well say what it was rather than involving a long phone-call later. He knew her too well to think that she was visiting just for the hell of it.
“Are we expecting you?” he said.
“No Gary, but I had reason to visit Lisa Keys in hospital and have some new information.”
“Don’t say any more, Dorothy. Come all the way in and have supper with us.”
Toni was playing with PeggySue, Tommy and Teddy outside in the back garden, which was really only a walled-in patch of shaved grass.
“Just excuse me while I see to the sleepers,” Gary said. “Cleo was having a rest.”
“I should have phoned. I’m sorry to have disturbed you.”
“Well, you’re here now, so make yourself at home.”
While Gary went to get Cleo, Max and Mathilda up, Dorothy made coffee, took a mug of coffee out to Toni, a plate of biscuits for everyone, and hugged all the children, wishing as usual that they were hers, especially now there was an au pair to share the work.
If Cleo was sorry that her siesta had been disturbed, she tried not to show it. Dorothy never came uninvited, so she must have a good reason now.
“I thought the piano had priority on Saturday afternoons, Dorothy,” she said, “but it’s OK. Gary’s grumpy because things are not going the way he’d like, are they, Sweetheart?”
Cleo glided across the room to Gary and kissed him full on the lips while letting her hands wander down his torso.
“Put some more clothes on, Cleo,” he said. “That kimono is not warm enough.”
“I’m warm enough, Gary,” said Cleo.
Dorothy was not happy to witness what she decided was an erotic exchange between her two friends. She watched the children playing outside.
“Lisa Keys phoned from Middlethumpton General to tell me that she has appendicitis and can’t do next week’s rehearsal,” she said, not turning round.
“Did I break off my siesta for that information, Dorothy?” said Gary.
“Wow! So you’ve been to see her, I guess,” said Cleo, ignoring Gary’s comment.
“Yes, and I have something to hand over to you, Gary.”
“You can look now,” said Gary, amused as ever by Dorothy’s determination to ignore any intimacy with Cleo, however harmless it was.
Dorothy went to where she had deposited her handbag, opened it and gave Gary the evidence, explaining about the fingerprint sample.
“Respect, Dorothy!” said Gary, “but why did she not get in touch with the police?”
“Receivers of anonymous letters usually stay away from the police and go to private detectives instead. It’s in all the crime thrillers I’ve ever read and Lisa has probably read them too,” said Dorothy.
“Would she have come to you rather than Cleo if she needed the agency?” said Gary.
“She phoned me about the chorus, Gary, and I knew immediately that she was worried about something more than her appendix. The warning I have here was not uttered in jest.”
“It’s the old story. Crime thrillers are often casual about threats and warnings,” said Gary. “People enjoy those novels and wish they could be private eyes. But the investigators are sent into wasps’ nests with unfailing regularity.”
“I won’t be, Gary. I’m reporting Lisa’s problem even if she doesn’t want to,” said Dorothy, who was now wishing she had gone straight home.
“What has your theory got to do with a chorus director, Gary?” said Cleo. “There’s Miss Keys lying in the hospital wondering what to do. A private eye is not as suspicious as a cop and danger is part of our job, after all.”
“I’m not sure that Lisa knew I am a private eye,” said Dorothy.
“All the better,” said Cleo. “Whoever sent the warning does not know that you have taken it on yourself to report it.”
Gary fetched latex gloves from the kitchen so that he did not add his own fingerprints to the contents of the envelope.
“A somewhat uncouth turn of phrase,” he commented after reading it aloud.
“Double Dutch,” said Cleo, reading ‘Shut your face or I’ll shut it for you’ again. “It’s not an American way of saying things.”
“Or it’s someone uneducated,” said Dorothy.
“Or it’s someone at pains not to reveal their true identity,” said Gary.
“I never thought of that,” said Dorothy.
“Well I’ve never heard of that turn of phrase,” said Cleo. “It really is rather nasty if it means what I think it means.”
“A sender with slightly more culture could have cut out the words ‘Dear Madam. We are coming to knock your block off if you say anything about … dot dot dot’,” said Gar, “but I’m not sure I would prefer to read that. Quite apart from the unfortunate literary style, I’d like to think it was an idle threat.”
“What if it isn’t?” said Dorothy.
“Exactly,” said Gary. “I’ll get a heavy guard put on Miss Keys, just in case.”
“She isn’t in a private ward,” said Dorothy.
“She’ll have to move, Dorothy. We can’t keep an eye on the whole hospital.”
“I’ll leave you to decide and go back home to Beethoven,” said Dorothy, deciding that Gary was treating the warning with too much frivolity. “Call me if you need to know more.”
“Is there more?”
Gary dropped the fooling around and looked sharply at Dorothy. Noting the sudden change in Gary’s attitude, Dorothy repeated the relevant parts of her conversation with Lisa Keys. Gary declared grudgingly that he would have to talk to her himself. Cleo agreed.
Dorothy said she had leftovers from the previous day to eat up and left, having no wish to prolong her visit. Gary had a knack of making her feel uncomfortable when he had a mind to. He had not really taken anything she said seriously. Dorothy had not wanted to disturb their siesta (rightly assuming that the jogging trousers and naked torso indicated that he had been forced out of bed) and was again irritated by Cleo’s desire to get back to it (siesta being synonymous with …). I really am an old woman, she told herself as she hurried up Monkton Way.
Hardly had Dorothy hung up her hat and coat when the phone rang. The little LED screen on the handset divulged Cleo’s cottage number. Dorothy ignored it and went her piano instead. She had had enough of the Hurleys for one day.