The Heir Hunters' Bad Day
For three ladies in Hitchampstead it was going to be one of those days when things don't go as planned. Two of them were going to have life-threatening experiences, and the other would be the one doing the threatening .One of the first two was Maggie Berry, a divorced blonde in her mid-fifties. She had three interesting part time jobs, and she was working on one of them today.
The firm of Saunders and Saunders, probate lawyers, employed a small team of part time investigators who operated all over the East of England, so it wasn't often that two of them travelled together. However, unknown to the partners, there were two who often did so. It meant that, while claiming for two sets of expenses, they were actually only incurring them once. Today was one of those times, so retired teacher Hugh Pearson was dropping off his fellow investigator Maggie, just outside the shopping centre at Hitchampstead.
“I'll be back at this lay-by at half past two" she said. "I'll kill time and have a bite to eat in town after getting the old lady to sign up."
"See you then, I'm bound to be finished before two. Wait around if I'm not here" Hugh waited for the line of traffic to move before pulling away himself.
Watching her from behind as she walked away, Hugh wondered why she was still unattached two years after her divorce. She was no stick insect; there was something to get hold of, as they say. She had nice legs and she usually wore a skirt. She wore glasses but she always chose a design that complemented her round face and collar-length bobbed hairstyle. He would have advised her that her brown eyes would look just as lovely without the eye make up but he knew she didn't welcome other people's advice. Hugh was gay, but he thought that most men her age would find her attractive. But what do I know, he thought whimsically as she disappeared into a doorway.
In a Victorian terraced house not far away the day was taking an unusual turn for two other women. The previous afternoon, 88 year old Florence Meynell had told her niece Mrs Davina French about a telephone call that she had received that morning, from Maggie's employers.
"Well, there are these people called probate detectives. Have you seen that TV programme that’s on in the morning, called "The Heir Hunters?" They look for distant relatives of people who have died without making a will. And what do you think? Can you believe what's happened?"
Davina had been sinking into boredom, but at the mention of wills, her interest suddenly revived.
"What has happened? You've already made a will. How does it concern us? They aren't trying to get you to change it, are they?"
"No, of course not, let me explain. Maybe I'm going to inherit something. Lots of money. Listen to this. "
Davina listened while the old lady rambled on, knowing that she would eventually get to the point. She had expected this to be one of her aunt's boring anecdotes, and was disturbed to find that it contained some news that could seriously affect her own future. Apparently her grandfather, her aunt's father, had a half brother that he didn't know about, from his mother’s first marriage. Nobody knew about that, either. The long-lost relative had made money and left it to his only son, who never married and had now died, leaving no will. So apparently Aunt Florence could be on the verge of inheriting a six-figure sum. Davina knew that she was going to inherit the old lady's estate, but that consisted of this hundred-year old semi in a back street, and the state it was in, it wouldn't fetch a high price. Davina had no real affection for her aunt or anybody else, but she did like going on cruises, and her aunt's house would pay for quite a few of those. That's if the old bat does not outlive me, she thought uncharitably. Davina had already been taking a keen interest in her aunt's medication, and thought that she knew which permutation of pills and potions might have fatal results. She frequently helped the old lady to load up her weekly pill dispenser, and often her aunt couldn't remember whether or not she had taken them. So giving her a double dose might be judged to be an accident by a court, she thought
There wasn't going to be much actual cash in the estate, she thought resentfully, because her aunt was a sucker for good causes. She only had to hear of an earthquake or a famine somewhere and out came her cheque book. On a recent occasion, Davina had arranged for the cheque book to be lost, and had promised to send one of her own cheques to help the disaster fund. Of course, she didn't really send one, but when the book was found, Auntie had written a cheque to her niece, to recompense her.
Yes, Davina could see that a cash inheritance could all too easily be dished out to the wrong people. She wouldn't be able to divert it all her way. Perhaps it was really time that Auntie got her medication muddled up. Now that she had worked out how this could happen, why not just go ahead. It would be murder, but in Davina's skewed view of the world, her aunt had enjoyed a good innings. Her niece could make much better use of her money, especially as Auntie was now losing her marbles.
"And they are sending a lady to see me, at 11.o'clock today, just to finalise it all" said Auntie excitedly. "Wouldn't it be good to use some of it to help those poor people in that volcano eruption?"
You bet, thought Davina. Time for thinking on her feet. "Today’s the outing. Remember, lunch then the theatre matinee."
Her aunt looked bewildered. "Outing. What matinee? No, I don't remember that. Oh dear, I'm really starting to lose my grip, aren't I"
"Never mind, I'll phone the lawyers and rearrange the visit. Have you got their number?"
Later that morning, at 11 o'clock Aunt Florence was sitting on a coach heading for the Blue Lakes shopping centre. She would arrive about 12.00. Her niece had been intending to travel with her but had been unexpectedly called away. She was so annoyed, but it was unavoidable. Something to do with her work at the charity shop. She was going to arrive by car and meet her aunt for lunch at the shopping centre.
Davina had called the probate people, that morning and delayed the meeting by half an hour, to give her enough time. She had to get the woman inside, find out what she knew, and keep things under control. It was probably going to be the day of decision, she thought.
Maggie Berry sat down with a cup of tea in a small teashop, round the back of the high street, not far from the house, when her mobile phone rang. Mrs. Meynell was delayed and would meet her half an hour later. Funny, she thought. The woman didn't sound as old as she was meant to be. She was apparently 88, but her voice sounded more like a woman of her own age.
She had some time to kill. In the High Street she found an antiques centre. They were always good for making time fly by. She found a Victorian paper knife with a serrated edge. It would come in handy for opening letters. She had always used kitchen knives or just ripped them open in the past. She was amused at the conscientious way that the shopkeeper wrapped it in tissue paper and sellotaped it thoroughly. Health and safety nonsense again, but I suppose I might accidentally stab myself, she thought.
Half an hour later, after calming her nerves with a glass of Martell, Davina French opened her aunt's front door. She guessed it was the woman from the probate lawyer. An attractive woman in her fifties, quite businesslike in her dress, as befitted someone in her kind of work. She could lose a few pounds, but then so could I, she thought. Davina instantly disliked the woman, who was her age, but was so much better presented. Davina looked a mess even when she tried, so this woman in her black trenchcoat, mauve woollen scarf, black knee-length boots, topped with fashionable streaked blonde hair and spectacles, reminded her of everything that she wasn't. The woman held out a business card. "Maggie Berry, from Saunders and Saunders" she announced. She flourished the little brief case. "I have all the details in here" she said. "You are Mrs Meynell, aren't you?"
"Yes, you're the heir hunter, aren't you? Or is it an heir huntress? Come on in." Davina confirmed herself as Florence Meynell and led Maggie through to the large kitchen at the back of the house. "Let's start with a cup of tea, you've come a long way" she said. "Do you take milk and sugar?"
"Just milk, and not much, thanks". Maggie didn't elaborate on her journey. Fiddling their expenses was not something they told everybody about. When Davina asked where she had parked, as there wasn't a car outside, she said it was in the lay-by where Hugh had dropped her off. She had no idea of why the woman wanted to know where her car was parked.
In the dingy living room, Maggie draped her raincoat over the back of an armchair, sat down and opened the brief case. "I need to read all this to you, even if some of it's a bit boring. But it's a small price to pay for the inheritance involved."
"No problem" said Davina."I'm all ears". She sat watching attentively as Maggie read the contents. Her visitor looked quite the self-important officious little business person, with her tinted specs, black and grey pin striped skirt, purple button-down blouse buttoned at collar and cuffs, the leather brief case, everything about her was just what she disliked in people. She had good legs for her age, and the black leather boots made them look better still. Even her generous breasts hadn't gone south the way that Davina's had. But the main thing was, she was sure she could easily overpower and restrain the woman. That was good because, the more she thought about things, the more obvious it was that Maggie was glancing around uneasily. She decided to be proactive. You won't be so confident when you’re tied up and locked in the cellar, she thought. She had added some brandy to her tea, and it was helping her to see things clearly. She reasoned that if this woman vanished, and her aunt died, the whole process would begin again, but then she herself would be the only heir.
She had frequently come off worst in her encounters with what she perceived as officialdom. To her, this visitor personified that officialdom and was going to be the scapegoat who paid the price for those past indignities.
For her part, Maggie, while she was reading was summing up the alleged Mrs Meynell. She was sure this woman wasn't over 80, more like 60 she was sure. The woman looked as if in her youth, Janis Joplin had been her role-model, and nobody had told her it wasn't a good look on a sixty-year old. That wild, frizzy grey hair. What was she thinking of. Eventually the morning's business was done, and Davina had signed all the relevant documents. Maggie observed this with some trepidation. She was more and more certain that she was an impostor. But I'm not the police, she thought, and if there's a fraud being committed it's a matter for them. She would take these forgeries back to the office and tell Mr Saunders what she thought, then events could take their course.
As Maggie was putting her coat back on the alleged Mrs Meynell surprised her with a suggestion. "Well, you certainly brought me, er us, something to celebrate, Mrs Berry. Why don't you choose yourself a bottle of wine from the cellar. Anything you like, I've been building it up for years."
"Are you sure? You've got a wine cellar?" said Maggie doubtfully."I'm just doing my job, strictly speaking I shouldn't take gifts". She had noted the remark "me, er us" and thought that her worst fears were confirmed. She just wanted to leave, as soon as she possibly could, but without letting on that she was suspicious.
"Don't worry. Just go down and choose one. It's the least I can do. In fact, I insist. I'll just turn the cooker on, then I'll come down" She opened the door in the hallway.
"Well thanks, it's very nice of you" said Maggie. The sooner she was out of here, the happier she would be. She had a definite feeling of clouds gathering over her. She stepped through and came to some steps. "Is there a light switch? "She asked, She was feeling uneasy at the thought of being in a cellar with this weird woman, who seemed really on edge, but the sooner the wine was chosen, the sooner she would be away.
"Inside the door, on the right" Maggie was feeling inside on the wall for the switch when a blow struck her in the middle of her back, propelling her headlong down the steps. She experienced that awful feeling of tumbling forward into darkness, and put her hands out to steady herself but nevertheless landed face down on the dusty floor. She momentarily wondered what had happened to Mrs French, then realised her assailant was Mrs French. She felt pain all over, but as she heard her attacker coming down the stairs, she realised it might be best to pretend she was unconscious.
The light came on. A hand roughly turned her face sideways, but she kept her eyes shut. "Seems as if I've got time to take some precautions, at least. You won't be blabbing things to my aunt. I'll just make sure you can't get up to anything while I'm away." Maggie suppressed a groan as Davina placed a knee on her backside. She felt her ankles being bound, some kind of cord was wrapped round them and knotted. Now she was really disadvantaged. She guessed the woman was not just going to tie her ankles, but her best chance of survival lay in playing unconscious till the woman had gone.
The cord was pulled tight and knotted, then Davina turned herself round, grabbed Maggie's hands and forced them together behind her back. Her wrists were tied just as thoroughly as her ankles had been, and it seemed like even more knots were used. She stifled a sigh of relief as the woman got up and lifted her weight from Maggie's hips. Perhaps she was leaving now. But not quite. She heard tape being pulled from a roll ,and scissors cutting, snip, snip, snip. Davina knelt by her face. Three strips of tape were pressed firmly over Maggie's lips, two in an X shape, then the last one horizontal.
"I know you’re awake" she hissed "but it doesn’t matter. You aren't going anywhere, are you. I've got to attend to some business, but I'll be back. You won't need these" So saying she removed Maggie's spectacles and put them in the pocket of her jacket.
She got up and climbed the steps, shutting the door behind her. Maggie heard the key turn in the lock. At least the light is still on, she thought. She lifted her head and glanced around. Was there anything in the filthy cellar that she could use to cut through her bonds. She tugged against the cords, but it didn't seem to make any difference. She pulled this way and that, but soon realised that as the cord was round her wrists, chafing her skin, not round her shirt cuffs, it could get painful. At least her ankles were protected by her boots. She rolled on her side to give herself a better field of vision. Why on earth did she take my glasses, she wondered. She noticed with some irritation that there wasn't even any wine. She had been fooled on that issue as well. I'm really a stupid cow, she thought. I had my suspicions but I let her trick me into coming down here. Now I'm all tied up and heaven knows what's going to happen to me
There were old armchairs, covered up with sheets, some very old looking kitchen cupboards, an ancient fridge. It looked as if everything in the house that had passed its time of usefulness had been dumped in here, till somebody got round to dumping it. With a shiver, she realised that might be true of her as well. There were old garden tools, a rake, a spade, one of those rakes that you use for leaves, a broom, even an axe with a long warped handle and a rusty blade. There were hooks on the wall with saws and things hanging on them. She remembered her fleeting view of the garden. It had received no attention for a long time. No wonder, all the tools were down here. She thought, at least if I'm left trussed up in here with the light on, there's a few things I might be able to cut myself free with. Her fear was starting to die down and she was thinking rationally again. She tried pulling against the cord or whatever it was binding her. She didn't seem able to loosen the bindings at all, although the woman had tied her quite hastily.
I must be right about her, she thought. She isn't Mrs Meynell, whoever else she was. So why is she here. She's met me, she's signed the forms, she's lied about who she is. But then she's tied me up and put me down here. It wasn't rational. She smells of drink as well, at this time of day. Where's Mrs Meynell, is she still alive even. And what's she going to do with me?
Maggie didn't like to dwell on that. She should use her mobile phone, but it was in her brief case up on the table. No use up there, and if anyone called her this woman would know. Then she remembered the paper knife that was in her coat pocket. It was lucky that she hadn't buttoned her raincoat when she put it back on. Even with her hands tied behind her back, she might be able to pull it out of her pocket. She was able to grasp the fabric of the raincoat between the fingers of her left hand and pull it back, a little at a time. Eventually she was able to push the fingers into the pocket and move the knife. This seemed to take forever, what with losing her grip twice and having to start again. Bit by bit the knife began to emerge from her coat pocket. She gave it a final tug and it dropped out on to the floor, behind her. She couldn't see it, but she fumbled around and soon got hold of it. Once she had the tissue paper off it she would cut herself free. Then she would be out of here and down to the police station.
But it wasn't that easy. The sellotape was really tight, and to pull it off needed two hands, preferably with longer fingernails. With hands bound behind her back she just could not get enough leverage. In despair she let the knife drop to the floor. Tears of frustration rolled down her cheeks. Why isn't real life more like the films, she thought. In a TV thriller the heroine always got loose easily. Her self pity was interrupted by the sound of the cellar door opening, and the footsteps of her captor coming down the stairs. She rolled over to face her, momentarily forgetting about the knife. She had assumed that the woman had gone out, or she wouldn't have begun the long task of trying to free herself.
"My, haven't you been busy. Good thing I came to check on you before I go out" Davina exclaimed, pouncing on the knife, "I wonder how long it would be before you got this unwrapped. Still, since you’re so resourceful I better make sure of you before I go."
Maggie didn't like the sound of that. Was the woman going to bash her over the head or worse. She was relieved, considering the alternatives, to see Davina take a length of twine from a hook on the wall. She unceremoniously rolled Maggie over, face down, and began to wind the twine round and round her bound wrists, before knotting it. Maggie's first instinct was to resist or protest, but she realised there was no point. Nobody would hear her, she would just annoy her captor. But why tie me up any more, she wondered. She hadn't really been resourceful, all she had done was to give away the fact that she had a knife. It hadn't helped her to escape. And now she was being trussed up thoroughly and enthusiastically by this madwoman. The binding continued, the woman passed the cord between her arms and body, above the elbows twice and pulled it tight, pulling Maggie's arms backwards. She felt a blouse button pop open between her breasts. Then the final touch was added, more binding round her wrists, then her feet were pulled up behind her, she felt the rope being threaded between her bound ankles, round the cords binding them and pulled tight. Now she couldn't even straighten her legs. She wasn't even going to be able to roll about, she realised.
"Now I've got things to attend to. I'll be back in a couple of hours though. Then I'll deal with you. Sorry but I can't let you go. When I come back you'll have to be killed. But there's no need to rush things, just in case things don't go according to plan. It's only fair to tell you why, I suppose. If auntie gets her hands on this money, she'll give it all to some third world ne'er-do-wells. Believe me, I've seen it happen so many times. And if she dies I'll be the one next in line. And you, you'll just have vanished before arriving here. Some mugger or rapist must have taken you. Or maybe you just ran away. I've got no record, they'll never suspect me. "
Maggie listened in horror while the woman surveyed the contents of her aunt's cellar. "Lots of things here I can use to dispose of you, aren't there. There are these sacks, and the cement over there. Or there could be a fire. Oh, look at that axe. How about that." She looked down at Maggie with a malicious smile ."A historical re-enactment will be fun. You can be Anne Boleyn and I'll be everyone else. Like Henry VIII, and the executioner. A suitable punishment for an interfering busybody, don't you think? They say that beheading is instantaneous. Rather you than me though. But there are other possibilities, if you don't like that idea. There's more than enough rope left to hang you with. Plenty of time to make up our minds. Anyway, your execution is scheduled for four o'clock. " She laughed. Maggie realised that her captor had been drinking, and it was impossible to predict what she would do. She really didn't want to still be lying here, bound and helpless, awaiting her fate, when this madwoman came back. There were too many instruments both blunt and sharp that could be used on her.
"I'll be back before you know it" She turned away and hurried up the stairs. This time there was no sound of the key turning in the lock. She's forgotten to lock it, Maggie realised. Fat lot of good that is while I'm all tied up like this though. But there must be something here, among all this junk, which I can cut through the ropes with. Two hours, she thought. She glanced around and spotted the axe. My last two hours, she thought with a shiver, if I can't get out of here. But then she realised, it had a blade, and that blade was on the floor, where she would be able to reach it. It was on the other side of the room, but she had to wriggle her way over to it. It wasn't going to be easy, trussed up like this, but she didn't like to think about the alternatives. She knew or at least hoped that the talk of beheading her was just the woman's way of bullying and frightening her helpless prisoner, but nevertheless, being the captive of a possibly insane and drunk woman was likely to be an unpleasant experience.
Mrs Florence Meynell had been waiting a long time and was beginning to wonder if her niece was going to turn up at all. She had drunk too much coffee, bought and almost finished reading a magazine, when Davina, flustered and red in the face, appeared. "Can I get you another drink? Sorry I'm late. Those idiots can't handle anything on their own." Once they were both seated, and Davina had told a few boring lies about the reason for her delay, she played what she thought was her master stroke . "You didn't take today's tablets, Auntie. Look!" She flourished her aunt's pill dispenser "Today's are still in here"
The old lady had taken her daily dose, but her niece knew that without the dispenser, she would easily lose track. The prescribed dose was four tablets of different types each day. Davina had refilled it with a new mix of four of one type. The type that would kill if taken in excess, her aunt had told her this herself. Aunt Flo looked at the dispenser in amazement. "You know, I could have sworn I took them this morning. I'm so lucky to have you looking after me, aren't I."
"You were probably thinking of yesterday" said Davina innocently. "Never mind, you've got them now. I'll get you a glass of water." She went to the cafe counter and begged a glass of water from the waitress. Soon her object had been achieved, her Aunt had swallowed the tablets, they had drunk their coffees and ordered another one and were chatting about the matinee performance that they were going to see. Davina hadn't really bought any tickets of course, but her aunt wasn't going to be around to find out. She could do with the black coffee herself, she knew she had been overdoing the brandy and needed to drive again soon. But it wasn't every day that you had to kill somebody, especially your aunt. She would need more of the stuff once she got home. There was that woman tied up in the cellar to deal with. If only she could be disposed of with a handful of pills as well. She glanced at her watch. She would have to go soon, before those pills took effect. She wasn't completely heartless and part of her felt she should say some kind of goodbye to her aunt. But her other self thought, what good will it do, you have murdered her anyway. She put such thoughts out of her mind, and pulled a phone from her pocket. "Another text!" she exclaimed with false irritation. Her aunt looked puzzled."It's on silent." she explained."I just feel a vibration when a text comes. Would you bloody believe it! There's been a theft at the shop. Stealing from a charity, eh, some people. Afraid I've got to pop back there. I'll be as quick as I can".
"Yes, do" said her aunt in an uncharacteristic querulous tone. "We don't want to be late for the theatre".
In her car, Davina resisted the temptation to take a swig of brandy. If she hit something on the way all her plans would unravel.
Maggie Berry had squirmed across the filthy cellar floor to where the axe leaned against the wall. She had done this partly by drawing her knees up and pushing forward on her front, and partly by lying on her side and rolling, then turning over. She got there, but lying on her side and looking at her clothes, she saw that she had got herself properly messed up. There was dust all over her skirt and blouse, her tights were torn at both knees, and another blouse button had come open. She could see her bra and cleavage, and there was nothing she could do about it. Her overcoat had slipped back off her shoulders. She was very fastidious about her appearance and she was mortified to think she was probably going to be discovered in this dishevelled state. Twice she had heard her phone ringing, ever so faintly, inside her brief case. Probably Hugh, wondering why she wasn't back at the lay-by. But for now, the question was what exactly was she to do with the axe. How was she going to hold the axe against the ropes? If she could hold the handle with both hands, she might be able to saw through the binding round her ankles. That would be a start.
She tentatively stretched her legs to see how much room she had. Amazingly she felt the material round her ankles loosening. She couldn't see it, but the cord linking her hands to her feet was tied to the ankle bonds, rather than round her ankles, so her struggles had almost pulled it undone. A surge of excitement, she might soon be free! She jerked fiercely against the cords and felt them part gradually. Soon her feet were free at last. She straightened her legs and lay there thinking. She was sure the door was not locked. She could try to free her hands but how easy would it be? She could be wasting valuable time trying that. It might be a better idea to get to her feet, get up the stairs and run away. Away into the street, or next door, anywhere where that crazy woman couldn't get her. She decided on that course of action. She squirmed into position next to one of the old chairs, to lever herself into a kneeling position, and then to stand up, when she heard movement upstairs in the house. It must be that mad woman come back. Best to pretend she was still thoroughly bound, for the time being. A chill ran down her spine as she remembered what the woman had said about four o'clock. She had no way of knowing what the time was. She rolled over on her side, facing the steps, and drew her feet behind her back out of sight. It was the best she could do. She just hoped the woman didn’t come down yet. If she realised that Maggie's feet were free, she would soon tie them up again, and no doubt her victim would endure even more thorough binding afterwards.
And then her prayers were answered. She heard the distant sound of the doorbell. The cellar door slammed and she was alone again.
She listened, and heard voices up above. She cautiously got to her feet, unsteadily at first, and stood still for a moment, wondering how easy it would be to go up the stairs with her arms bound behind her back like this. But then she thought, everybody goes up stairs without using their hands sometimes, if they are carrying something. She walked across the cellar then gingerly climbed the stairs. She made her way quietly to the door and listened. She could hear Hugh's voice, and other male voices. She wondered for a moment if the woman had accomplices. Maybe, instead of Hugh coming to her rescue, he was also being captured. And then the sound of her own phone ringing. She shouldn't wait any longer, they could all leave and never know she was there. She gave the door a forceful kick, and then another.
Davina was relieved to get back to her aunt's house. It wasn't until she started the drive back that she realised how much brandy she had drunk. Then she slipped into that ultra-cautious mode of drunk drivers, ponderously slow and trying so hard not to make any stupid mistakes. She had been hooted at by impatient motorists twice on the journey. She had almost stopped at a green traffic light. But at last she was here. Now first she had to check that her captive was still where she had been left, then she would have another black coffee.
She opened the cellar door and peered down the stairs. Yes, Mrs Maggie Berry was still there, lying on her side staring up at her. The tape was still in place over her mouth, her hands and feet were still bound together behind her back. She looked quite dusty and dishevelled now. She had an anxious, worried expression. And well she might. Being bound and gagged in a filthy cellar for a few hours was just the thing to bring an officious little yuppie down to size, she thought with a smile. She closed the door and filled the kettle. She was starting to realise that she hadn't thought things through. The documents she had signed, forged her aunt's signature on, were here in the woman's brief case. It had to be got rid of, like its owner.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the doorbell. She peered out of the living room bay window, without getting too close. A middle-aged man, quite smartly dressed. Dapper was the word that came to mind. Probably a salesman. He rang the bell again. She noticed a car parked outside, a red Ford Focus. It hadn't been there when she had returned home. He could be looking for that woman, and if so, feeding him some lies was probably the way to get rid of him. She took some deep breaths and opened the door to him.
"Mrs Meynell?" he asked.
"Er, yes, that's me" she had momentarily forgotten about that. Dangerous, she told herself. No more mistakes. She wished she had left the brandy alone now.
"What can I do for you?"
"A colleague of mine visited you I believe, I thought she may still be here. A Mrs Berry." His manner was very formal. He was glancing around the room. He was making her feel uneasy, or was it her guilt.
"Oh yes. That lady with the news from the lawyers. Do you come from them as well?"
"Yes. I better introduce myself. Hugh Chadwick. We were going to meet up after she had left here".
"That's funny" said Davina, doing her best to sound concerned. "She left here ages ago. She didn't say anything about where she was going afterwards. I hope nothing has happened to her. She brought me some very pleasing news". She suddenly realised that Maggie Berry's mauve woollen scarf was draped over the back of a dining chair, by the table, and that her new visitor was looking straight at it. And at the other end of the table, that brief case. He wasn't looking at that, but how long before he saw it? They were both distracted by the doorbell ringing again. Davina went cautiously over to the window and was surprised to see two young policemen standing at the door. She realised they were probably coming to tell her about the demise of her aunt. As she went into the hallway she prepared herself to break down in tears, on cue.
As she opened the door one of them spoke. "Mrs French?
"Yes?" replied Davina, trying her best to look surprised. In the living room, Hugh pricked up his ears.
"May we come in?"
Once inside, they followed Davina back to the living room. She turned to Hugh and remarked abruptly "Well, you can leave now, I’m sorry I can't help. I'm sure she will turn up soon". However, one of the policemen turned to Hugh and asked "Is that your Focus parked on the double yellow line?"
"Yes. Sorry but I was ......"
"Well, don't leave yet sir, please. We will discuss that in a minute" He turned back to Davina. "We are here about a Mrs Meynell, she is your aunt if I'm not mistaken"
"Yes she is. Oh dear, please tell me she is all right"
Yes, she will be all right. She is in hospital. It seems that she was violently sick in a cafe at the Blue Lakes Centre. She was apparently asking for you, and seemed to think you were there with her"
Hugh interrupted "Excuse me officer, but this lady told me that she is Mrs Meynell. I'm looking for a colleague who was with her this morning. I think that's her scarf on the chair"
Davina rounded on him "Rubbish. It's my scarf. On my chair, in my house. What are you on about?"
One of the PCs turned to Hugh. "Why don't you phone your friend again, sir. Perhaps she was out of signal range for a moment."
"Why don't I?" said Hugh. He hoped that was the explanation, but this woman had definitely said she was Mrs Meynell. He pulled out his phone ,scrolled down to Maggie's number and clicked. From the brief case on the dining table an annoying but distinctive ringtone rang out. "Bohemian Rhapsody. That's Maggie's brief case. Her phone's in it. So where is she?" He turned to the policemen, then they all turned to Davina, who stood open-mouthed and speechless. Suddenly there was a banging sound, repeated, from behind the cellar door. The policemen looked at Davina.
"It's my dog" she said feebly. He's very big and won't behave. I put him in there if people come in." There were three more blows on the door. Her expression changed to one of despair.
"Funny dog, knocks the door and doesn’t bark or growl" burst out Hugh, walking over to the door.
"Now just a minute, sir" but Hugh pulled the door open. For a second all four of them stood amazed as a bound and gagged Maggie stumbled into the room. Davina was of course less surprised than the three men were. While Hugh and one of the police men hastened to help Maggie, and sit her down in an armchair, the other one had the presence of mind to grab Davina by the wrist.
Davina's mind was racing. Surely she could still talk herself out of trouble. She suddenly stared at Maggie and exclaimed "Who is she? What's she doing in there?" then turned to Hugh and asked" Is this your friend?"
"Yes. What do you mean. You’ve seen her today, haven't you?"
"No, I never saw her before, really. I've been with my aunt at Blue Lakes all day. Why do you think I would have seen her?"
Hugh thought for a moment. "Well, here she is, in your house"
Policeman #1 was peeling the tape form Maggie's mouth, as gently as possible. Nevertheless she winced with pain as each strip was removed. She licked her lips. "I'd really appreciate a glass of water, before anything else" she said. The PC looked round and went into the kitchen. Hugh took over the task of untying Maggie's hands and arms. "Do the one round my arms first, that's really pulled tight" she said, trying her best to put on a brave smile. After a few minutes trying to unpick the knots Hugh admitted defeat.
"There must be a sharp knife here, need to cut this, otherwise it will take all day"
"Kitchen draw to the right of the sink" said Davina "Now will you believe I had nothing to do with this. Perhaps she came in and got attacked by a burglar."
"Stay there" said Policeman #2, who had been holding Davina. He went to the kitchen, as his colleague returned with a glass of water.
"Where are your glasses?", Hugh asked suddenly having just noticed Maggie wasn't wearing them.
"She took them" Maggie stared accusingly at Davina. "She pushed me down the steps, then she jumped on me and tied me up. Then she took them."
"Right" Policeman #1 decided to intervene. "How well can you see without your glasses? If they were taken at the same time as you were tied up, can you be sure that it was this lady who did those things? You see, she says she has never seen you before. Tell us what happened before you were attacked."
Hugh had been holding the glass for Maggie to take some sips of the cold water. "Thanks. Look, is anybody going to untie me?" . She caught Hugh's eye and looked down at her slightly exposed cleavage. After a moment's puzzlement, he got the message and buttoned her blouse front up. She had noticed Policeman #1 gazing too intently at her bust for comfort. The second policeman had returned with a steak knife, but had been listening to the conversation. He positioned himself behind her, took hold of the arm-binding twine and began to saw at it. "Thanks, it's about time" she said impatiently. "I have been trussed up uncomfortably for hours, I would have thought you would see it as a priority." She was looking over her shoulder addressing him directly.
"We are here because Mrs Meynell was taken ill. And there's an illegally parked car out there. There are several priorities requiring attention."
This was meant to placate her, but failed miserably. "You mean what happened to me is only like someone parking on a yellow line! Look, I've been in that cellar since morning. Gagged as well. That bitch was down there threatening to chop my head off with an axe that's in there"
They all turned questioning looks to Davina. She shook her head slowly and rolled her eyes upwards, as if to indicate that the speaker had finally gone mad. "Poor cow. I'm sorry what's happened but it wasn't me. Sure there's an axe, all the garden stuff is down there. I've been out with my aunt all day"
"How can you be sure it was her? Is she dressed the same? I mean, you have lost your glasses, you can't be too sure what you saw."
Maggie raised her voice again, almost tearful in her indignation. "All that's happened to me, why won’t you listen? I've been attacked, bound and gagged, locked in a cellar, threatened with murder. Nobody seems to care. You aren't even in a hurry to untie me"
Davina, thinking that the spotlight was no longer on her, became overconfident. Her natural bullying instinct manifested itself. "It sounds like we need a few more strips of my tape. I'll get it, it’s only on the kitchen table" she said with a sarcastic laugh. As the words left her mouth the mood changed and all eyes were on her. She realised the implication of her remark. "I mean, of course I have some tape, I was joking. I mean, isn't she going on about it" she stuttered, but it was too late, the cat had left the bag.
Policeman #2 quickly retrieved the roll of tape from the kitchen table. "Looks as if it's the same tape all right" he said.
"There, what was I telling you " shouted Maggie in exasperation, as the last cords were cut away from her wrists. She suddenly spotted something that triggered her memory. "She was wearing that jumper, hanging on the door" She pointed to a long grey thick-knit cardigan. "She put my glasses in the pocket. My letter opener as well probably!"
The constables were quick to search the pockets and pull out the missing items, their manner having changed in an instant. Maggie and Hugh had both noticed from their body language that they were starting to believe Davina, until she blurted out her wisecrack about the tape. Now all that had changed, they both seized Davina.
The magic words “You do not have to say anything. But it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence.” were spoken, while her hands were being cuffed behind her back.
"Getting your come-uppance now, then" Hugh said to her. "How do you like it? And you two" he addressed the policemen. Better call an ambulance for Mrs Berry, after the time she's had".
"Thanks. And then I'll have to make another appointment, with the real Mrs Meynell". Maggie glanced contemptuously at Davina French."That creature won't be spending it for her. And I won't be going in any cellars for a while".
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