False Step by Victoria Helen Stone
Bea Abbot, sixtyish and widowed but coping pretty well with life, answered the phone by saying, ‘Abbot Agency. How may I help you?’
The voice at the other end quacked away.
Bea recoiled. ‘We are not that kind of agency. We do not supply girls for … no, certainly not!’ She put the phone down with some force.
Oliver, her teenaged assistant, turned a guffaw into a cough. Prompt on cue, the builders started hammering away downstairs.
Bea winced. How much longer were the workmen going to be? ‘You can take that grin off your face, Oliver,’ said Bea. ‘We are a reputable domestic agency, supplying staff to reputable clients. We are not, repeat not, in the business of supplying girls for A-list parties.’
Oliver was feeling chirpy. ‘But we have dealt with the odd murder.’
Bea took off her reading glasses to glare at him. ‘That’s different. That was an accident.’
‘Two accidents, and we got well paid for each of them.’
‘Never again.’ Bea replaced her glasses and picked up the top letter of the morning’s post. While the agency rooms in the basement of her Kensington house were being replumbed and rewired they were trying to work in her living room, surrounded by banks of office furniture, filing cabinets, printers and computers. Highly inconvenient.
The phone chirruped, and this time Bea listened to the excited babble without interrupting. ‘Calm down, Florrie. Yes, of course it’s distressing to find someone dead. Where are you?’ Bea scribbled an address on the back of the topmost letter in the pile before her. ‘I can get to you in five minutes. Just keep calm, right?’
She set the phone down, took off her reading glasses and put them in her handbag. What else did she need? Mobile phone, car keys, purse.
Oliver cocked his head. ‘Florrie in trouble? The unflappable Florrie Green of the Green Girls Cleaning Company?’
‘She’s found her client dead to the world. No, what I mean is … he’s dead!’
‘Another murder,’ said Oliver, full of glee.
‘Certainly not! Natural causes, I’m sure.’ Was it raining? Did she need her umbrella?
‘Can I come, too? I like murders.’
‘You’ll be the death of me.’ Bea checked that it wasn’t raining, picked up the letter on which she’d written the address, and left. There were days when young Oliver was morose and couldn’t be prised away from his computer, and others when he was overly bright and cheerful. Bea didn’t know which was worse.
It wasn’t murder, exactly. It was suicide. Sort of. The note proved it was suicide, anyway. Things hadn’t exactly gone to plan, no. But with some improvisation here and a little imagination there, the outcome was satisfactory. Or it would be in due course.
They were still short of cash. It hadn’t been advisable to remove all the money from his wallet, or the police might have suspected a burglary. Fifty pounds each wasn’t much to keep them going. They’d have to sell the car. The key was on his key ring which now resided in her purse.
It was annoying that they hadn’t found his spare set of keys.
The address Florrie had given Bea was not far away in the tangle of small streets which echoed medieval Kensington. Her own house lay in a terrace of early Victorian property, all cream stucco and large sash windows. The one she’d been directed to was a higgledy-piggledy sort of house, with a front door tucked into a recess, and windows of all shapes and sizes. There was no front garden, but there was a light well to a basement and, possibly – here she craned her neck to see – a roof garden?
Early nineteenth century, with later additions? It was a one-off in a road of what had once been workmen’s cottages but which were now so gentrified as to command prices that only a millionaire could afford.
Bea had half expected to find a doctor’s car in front of the house, but there wasn’t one. Only the usual residents’ cars, neatly ticketed to show they had paid for the right to be there. And Florrie’s Mini.
Bea drew her jacket close around her throat. She ought to have picked up a scarf since the day was decidedly chilly. She pressed the doorbell.
Florrie must have been waiting for Bea to arrive, since she opened the door without delay. A spacious hall, panelled and painted magnolia with curving stairs on the left going up to the first floor and down to a basement. A not-too-modern landscape in oils on the wall over an oak chest.
Florrie Green was sixty, aimed to look forty and succeeded reasonably well. She had short, dyed blonde hair, a strong, muscular frame and dressed for work in teenage and boys’ clothing. Today she was wearing a bright green cropped T-shirt over a slightly longer red one. Her jeans were low slung, showing a hint of red thong.
‘Sorry to trouble you,’ she said, ushering Bea into the living room. ‘I totally lost it when I saw him.’ She was nervous, her hands fussing with two fine gold chains around her neck.
Bea looked around but there was no corpse to be seen in the slightly over-furnished room. The day was overcast and though there were small windows front and back, the place seemed dark. ‘A terrible shock. Did you get yourself a nice hot cup of tea before you rang for the medics?’
‘I didn’t bother. They came and said he was dead, which of course I could see for myself, and then they said they didn’t take bodies away, which I knew, really, only I’d forgotten for the moment. Then I looked by the phone and there’s his telephone book open with a number for his daughter and I rang her because she’ll have to make all the arrangements only there was no answer so I left a message on her answerphone. There’s no mobile phone number for her. Then I remembered I was due to meet the girls at the Mansfields’ up the road at twelve, and although I texted Yvonne to say I’ll be late, it’s a big house and it has to be the four of us or we’ll never get it done in time.’
Florrie Green and her three friends had formed themselves into a cleaning company known as the Green Girls. They undertook contract cleaning for schools, office blocks and large premises of all kinds.
Florrie wasn’t meeting Bea’s eyes. ‘So I thought, seeing as how you’ve got the builders in, you might be happy to get away for a while, just till the daughter turns up …’
It was understandable that Florrie didn’t want to hang around in the old man’s house while paid work was waiting for her, but Bea was taken aback by the assumption that Bea had nothing better to do than hang around waiting for a dead man’s family to surface.
The day-to-day business of running the agency could of course be left in Oliver’s hands; a computer geek who knew more than most IT professionals, he was more than capable, even if he was only eighteen. Her other live-in assistant, Maggie … Well, Maggie might not be gifted at office work, but she had turned out to be a good project manager with a gift for dealing with workmen. At the moment she was overseeing the redecoration of a client’s flat, supervising the work downstairs in the agency rooms, and running the household with a twitch of her little finger.
But sit with a corpse? No way.
‘Couldn’t Yvonne or one of the others stand in for you here?’
Florrie gave Bea a look, indicating exactly what she thought of foolish people who didn’t know what they were talking about. ‘Like I said, we need four of us to get through the work in time. We have to start cleaning the school at five, remember.’
‘Perhaps I can find someone else to help you out?’
Florrie wasn’t waiting around for Bea to find another solution to the problem. She shrugged herself into a blue denim jacket, and picked up the canvas bag in which she toted around her belongings. ‘I’ve left the keys on the table. He’s upstairs on his bed and won’t be needing anything. The daughter’s number is in the phone book. The page is open and her name underlined.’
‘See you, Mrs Abbot. Can’t let the girls down, can I?’
Florrie whisked herself out of the room and Bea heard the front door bang.
‘Well!’ On the other hand, would it be a hardship to be out of the office for a bit? It was so confoundedly noisy there. Bea switched on the centre light, which didn’t do much to repel the gloom. She tried a couple of side lights. Yes, that was better. There was indeed an address book by the phone, open to a page where ‘Daughter: Damaris’ had been pencilled in, with a West London number. Bea tried it. There was still no reply. She left another message, not doubting that Florrie had done the right thing but, well, making sure.
She set her handbag down on a nearby table, and dropped into an elderly Chesterfield chair which had seen much use in its time. Its rounded arms and thick cushions enfolded her in comfortable fashion. The left-hand arm was stained; coffee, probably. Or dirt from the garden. She thought of its dead owner, who would never sit in his chair again, and nearly found another, but didn’t. He was past caring, and she wasn’t going to stand up for an hour, or however long it took.
The room was large and oddly shaped with unexpected recesses and niches. It had character. She decided she rather liked it. But oh, for a cup of coffee!
She got out her mobile phone and rang home. Oliver must deal with the morning’s post himself. The phone rang and rang, and it wasn’t Oliver who answered it, but happy-go-lucky Maggie.
‘Hi, Mrs Abbot. Did you want Oliver? He’s having a row with the electrician, something to do with the computers. I don’t know what, but I do know I can’t sort it. Will you be back for lunch? I thought I’d make a chicken and mushroom pie with the leftovers from the roast last night. Will that do you?’
‘Can you take a message, Maggie? Tell Oliver I’m held up here but he can reach me on my mobile if anything happens. Don’t bother with anything else. I may be some time so we’ll have the chicken pie tonight, right?’
‘Oh, Mrs Abbot, before you go, there was something Oliver said before he disappeared downstairs … now, what was it? Oh, I know. He said you’d turned your mobile off and Mr Max had rung, wanting to speak to you, but he’s going to ring back later. I think that’s everything.’
Now what did her self-important – though of course very much loved – son want? Max was inclined to think he could call on her to sort out every trivial little crease in the rose petal of his life, despite having successfully managed to get into Parliament and to marry a blonde trophy of a wife. Max could wait.
Bea left her mobile switched on, just in case.
Somewhere in her files at the office – now stowed in piles around her living room – there was a leaflet telling you what to do when a person died. She must look it out sometime. But Florrie seemed to have taken the right steps, so she might as well relax. Try the daughter every half-hour till she answered. Make herself at home.
She took off her jacket and went in search of a cup of coffee. A door at the end of the room let her through into a modern kitchen, where French windows gave on to a large, flagstoned patio. There was no garden as the patio was enclosed by the backs and sides of other houses, but the walls had been painted apricot, a wrought-iron Edwardian bench sat on the tiled floor and there was an elegant sufficiency of plants sitting around in tubs. Scarlet geraniums cascaded from pots on the walls. The geraniums were still in full flower even though it was now autumn. In that sheltered position, they might well survive the winter.
There were no breakfast dishes in the sink; the man must have died some time in the night.
A hoover had been left half in and half out of a broom cupboard. Bea shook her head. Florrie should have put that away before she panicked and rang for help.
Bea filled the kettle and stood admiring the pretty patio till it boiled. Tea bags were on the counter, as were tins of sugar and coffee. Milk – she sniffed at it to make sure it was fresh – in the well-filled fridge. She made herself a cup of instant, pushing aside an unwashed mug half full of cold coffee. Florrie must have had a drink after all, before she went upstairs and found the corpse.
Odd, that. Florrie never usually stopped for a coffee break. She toted her own flask of special tea around with her, and occasionally sipped from that. So whose coffee mug was that on the side?
Oh, it must have been Florrie who’d had it. She’d been in shock. Hadn’t known quite what she was doing. Or maybe it had been a late night cuppa for the man upstairs. Only …
Bea took her coffee into the sitting room and drank it, letting her eyes rove around. The furniture in here was not new, not valuable antique, but anything up to a hundred years old and in good condition. There was that quintessential piece of twentieth century furniture, an upright piano, in one corner of the room – if you could call it a corner when there were only angles between walls. There were William Morris tiles around a simulated log gas fire. The carpet was one of those all-over Turkish patterned affairs that didn’t show the dirt but there was a distinctive trail of cigarette ash on the floor by the fireplace, although there was no ashtray in sight.
Ah, yes. One was on the floor under a Parker Knoll chair, upholstered in a good quality, but rather worn moquette. 1960s style. Bea sniffed the air. Was that a trace of cigarettes she could smell? Had the man been a smoker? Two cigarette butts, no lipstick. As the man of the house would presumably sit in the big Chesterfield, the man who’d sat in the Parker Knoll chair opposite would have been a visitor.
He was going to get a shock when he discovered what had happened, wasn’t he?
There were some faded photographs on the mantelpiece, family pictures, snapshots. Two faded pictures of elderly people – presumably his parents? – and some snapshots of a nice-looking fair-haired man with friends and family. No dust. Or hardly any. The television set was not new but still in use to judge by a copy of the current Radio Times sitting on top of it.
There was a well-filled rack of DVDs and CDs nearby and a pair of speakers which were rather too large and modern to blend into their surroundings. Music, presumably, had been important to the occupant. And books, lots of them. Mostly travellers’ tales. Sea stories. A lot of them looked Victorian and might or might not be valuable.
A china cabinet held some porcelain figures which again were not new, but might fetch a good price at auction. Everything was slightly shabby. Dated, but comfortable.
An elderly gentleman, then? Possibly living with inherited furniture?
Bea looked at her watch. Time was passing. She tried the daughter’s number again; still no reply. She finished her cup of coffee and thought she might like to visit the loo, which meant finding a bathroom. She explored the hall – no loo. She didn’t really feel like going upstairs but needs must, even if it did feel as if she were invading the dead man’s privacy. Which was absurd, of course.
The house was very quiet.
She held on to the banister, as the stairs curled up to the first floor. This was a surprisingly large house for its narrow frontage; an estate agent might describe it as ‘characterful, needing some modernization’. The ceilings were low, and there probably wasn’t a straight wall or right angle anywhere.
On the first floor landing sat a large plastic box containing cleaning materials, with several aerosols sticking out of it. Florrie must have brought it upstairs meaning to do the bathroom and on discovering the corpse, had forgotten to remove it.
The room straight ahead was a double bedroom, the window overlooking the patio below. More magnolia paint, cupboards built into the wall. Light and airy, Laura Ashley and Sanderson furnishings. A guest bedroom, not often used by the look of it.
The door to the master bedroom was on the right. It was ajar, but Bea avoided looking at it as she went into the bathroom on the left. Again, everything was dated, but functioned. There was an old-fashioned, claw-footed bath but the owner had installed a shower. Towels had been thrust at the rail, wedged in rather than folded and hanging free. There was a noticeable rim around the bath and one around the washbasin as well. The soap was dry.
Bea washed her hands, thinking it was a shame that Florrie hadn’t got around to cleaning the bathroom before she discovered the body. A selfish thought, perhaps.
The stairs went on upwards and Bea, bored with waiting, ascended them up to the second floor. Another double bedroom, also painted in magnolia, furnishings ditto. A small bathroom. Then came a tiny square room which contained nothing but garden furniture, including a table and a parasol. This room’s windows were barred. There was a locked door, whose window was also barred, which led out on to the roof garden. Presumably the bars were to protect against burglars getting in over the rooftops. Sensible.
Bea peered out of the window. The roof garden was laid out with apricot tiles on the floor, more tubs, and a hammock shrouded against wind and rain. The sun was out, for a miracle. The rooftop must be a regular sun trap in the summer.
Oh well. What now? She wished she’d brought something with her to read. Perhaps she’d borrow a book from the shelves below while she was waiting.
She went down to the ground floor and then, having nothing better to do, continued down into the basement. Opening a door at the bottom of the stairs, she got the shock of her life, as a ghostly figure swam out of the darkness to meet her.
She pulled the door shut and fell back, hand to heart. Who …? What …?
There wasn’t anyone else in the house, was there?
Ridiculous! She’d have heard, if there had been.
Dear Lord, from ghosties and gremlins and things that go bump in the night, please deliver us. Or words to that effect. She couldn’t remember exactly how the prayer went, but the sentiment was spot on. Dear Lord, deliver us.
Calming her breathing, she told herself that what she’d seen was just a trick of the light. There was nobody else there. Full stop.
She thought of going back upstairs and waiting till the daughter could be contacted. She shouldn’t have explored, anyway. It was not right.
She took a deep breath, pushed the door open and called out, ‘Hello there?’
The ghostly figure was still there, one hand holding open the door, facing her. It was dressed in a pale-grey trouser suit, and had short, ash-blonde hair. In other words, she was looking at herself in a mirror! The relief was so great that she sagged at the knees. She told herself that this was all very amusing and some time or other it would make a good story.
The room was in darkness. There ought to have been a window in it, because she had noticed a light well for the basement when she arrived. She found a light switch and shut her eyes momentarily as glaring neon strips came on overhead.
Whatever she’d expected – a playroom with billiard table, a junk room? – it wasn’t this. The window had been blacked out, and all around were wardrobes and cupboards, some of metal, some of wood. She took one step more into the basement and recoiled again, for every wardrobe door had a mirror, and everywhere she looked, she saw herself. The room was cavernous and she experienced a moment of disorientation.
She shaded her eyes against the dazzling strip lights. Opposite was an up-to-the-minute computer set-up, with an adjustable typing chair in front of it. Laptop, printer, fax, telephone … everything that a man might need to run a small business. A set of large speakers, a ‘desk’ such as DJs use, with microphone, etc. Had the man been in the music business?
Nearby was a mirror surrounded by light bulbs with a wide ledge under it, and a stool in front. An old-fashioned tin box sat on the ledge, next to a box of tissues. She’d seen something like that before, somewhere. But where?
What was this place? As she stepped forward, a floorboard shifted, and one of the mirrored doors swung open. A sunburst of colour met her eyes. And glitter. Women’s clothes, not men’s.
She pulled open the door of the nearest cupboard, to reveal ranks of shoes in a large size. The following cupboard was dedicated to wigs of all colours and lengths; some on stands, others on what looked like balloons.
She realized that the ‘desk’ was for theatrical make-up. The box would contain the tools of his trade, perhaps.
Whatever had been going on here?
There was one way to find out. She put her head out of the door to listen for the noises of someone arriving, but there was nothing. She told herself that curiosity killed the cat, but yes, she was curious. Who wouldn’t be?
She went to the computer desk and pulled out drawers till she found some business cards. All had ‘Magnificent Millie’ written on them. A woman? Bea had formed the impression that Florrie’s client had been male. Whatever was going on here? Ah, underneath the flourish of the words ‘Magnificent Millie’ was some small print. ‘Matthew Kent’, followed by a phone number, website and email address. Was Matthew Kent the same person as Magnificent Millie? Did he do a drag act for the clubs, perhaps?
Bea pocketed a card, switched off the lights, shut the door to the basement, and climbed the stairs to the first floor, to the master bedroom. She really must catch a glimpse of the man or woman who had owned all this. Was he a transvestite, perhaps? Getting his kicks out of dressing as a woman?
She pushed the door of the main bedroom open but all was dark within, so she groped for a light switch … and took a hasty step back.
In front of an enormous old mahogany bed were a pair of shoes such as Bea had never seen out of the theatre or cinema. They reminded her of Dorothy’s shoes in The Wizard of Oz. They were bright red, with a small heel. They were covered with sequins and finished off with stiff bows, also in red.
Bea blinked. Was she really seeing what she was seeing?
She lifted her eyes to a tide of scarlet and gold. Spread over the bed was a travesty of a woman’s eighteenth-century costume in red and gold. The overskirt was of scarlet satin, frilled, ruched and garnished with gold bows. The padded petticoat was of gold silk, trellised with black ribbon. The bodice was of scarlet satin, low-cut in front with sleeves to the elbow, finished with falls of lace.
It reminded Bea of the costume for the Pantomime Dame in the last act, where he-cum-she descends the stairs to thunderous applause from the audience. It covered the body on the bed almost completely. The corpse wasn’t actually wearing it, but was covered by it, as it were by a blanket.
Was it a man, or a woman? If it was a man, then he’d been made up to look like a woman, with lipstick and rouge, eye shadow and grotesquely painted-on eyebrows. A wide hairband such as tennis players wear was around his or her head, almost completely covering the hair, waiting for the wig to be fitted. The wig was still on a stand beside the bed.
Man or woman? There was only one way to find out. Bea twitched up the dress to inspect the body beneath. So it was a man after all.
Hand to throat, Bea said, ‘I don’t believe it! I simply cannot be seeing what I am seeing.’
She looked around the rest of the room. The walls were a pale grey-green. The blinds and curtains, closely drawn, had been made to match. Restful. The rest of the furniture matched the bed, being Victorian and well-polished. On the bedside stand was a bottle of wine, an empty glass, and a packet which had once contained sleeping tablets. Plus a note.
This wasn’t – couldn’t be – a death by natural causes. Bea’s mind whirled around what Florrie had told her about her client having died of natural causes. What had Florrie actually said? Not much, really.
Natural causes, my foot!
Florrie had taken one look, realized this must be a suicide, and … and what? Had she even phoned for the medics? Because if she had, wouldn’t they have done something else, phoned for the police, the doctor … whatever?
Bea leaned back against the bedroom door, which shut with a click, startling her. Getting over the shock, Bea began to get angry. How dare Florrie drop Bea in it like this!
That note … what did it say? The whole set-up screamed of suicide, but … perhaps a closer look …? She unglued herself from the door and rounded the bed, careful not to brush against the overhanging dress.
The note was a mere scrawl. It said ‘Sorry.’
So it was a suicide after all. It must have been, mustn’t it? Hadn’t Florrie seen the note? What on earth was the girl playing at?
Bea went downstairs to phone the police.