Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Eleven - Albert's secret

Friday October 30

Cleo and Gary made the most of their free hours, but once Charlie arrived home later than usual because she’d been to hockey practice you could say that the honeymoon was over for the time being. Charlie’s knees were bloody and she was dishevelled.
“Didn’t you take some extra clothes, Charlie?”
“I forgot, so I had to wear my everyday uniform.”
“I’ll get you a mobile, Charlie, then you can let us know if that happens again,” said Gary. “Did you have a good practice?”
“Super. Can you come to the match tomorrow, Daddy?” Charlie wanted to know. “Or are you still taking a holiday?”
“Of course I can, Charlie, if Mummy lets me.”
“Why shouldn’t I let you, Gary? You really are a pain sometimes!”
“But a loving one,” retorted Gary. “Je t’aime, Charlie!”
“Moi aussi,” said Charlie. “You too, Mummy.”
“I’ll do even better than that,” said Cleo, pulling Gary out of his chair and enveloping him in an embrace that only fell slightly short of one designed for lovers. Charlie looked on benevolently.
“What about me?” sie said.
”You too,” said Cleo, openin her arms. “I love your Daddy. That’s why we hug so often.”
“The match starts at 12 o’clock…”
“We’ll be there, Charlie. Shall I drive you to school?”
“No thanks, Daddy. My friends will be on the bus.”
Gary was delighted that his little girl had settled in so well.
“Mummy, are you going to bring PeggySue?”
“Of course. We’ll all come and cheer you on.”
That was another reason Gary was happy. Charlie really thought of Cleo as her Mummy, though she had a photo of her birth mother pinned up on the wall in the room she shared with PeggySue.
“Where is the new baby going to sleep?” Charlie asked, rubbing Cleo’s tummy very gently. “It isn’t jumping around much.”
“I’ll let you know next time,” said Cleo. “It’s asleep now.”
“Where IS the new baby going to sleep?” said Gary.
“I think we are going to make the cottage bigger by then,” said Cleo.
“We’d better make a start then,” said Gary.
“Can I still be friends with Cedric and the others? Mr Parsnip hasn’t turned up and Edith doesn’t want him to.”
“Who told you that?” asked Gary.
“Albert. Mr Parsnip was a rotten father. Robert will move in and be a better one, Daddy, but not like you.”
“I’m glad to hear it, Charlie,” said Gary.
“Can we have another hug now?” said Charlie.
“A short one. I have to go,” said Gary. “ You can have a long hug with Mummy.”
“I’ll do that, Charlie, and PeggySue can join in.”
“Where are you going, Daddy?”
“Yes, where are you going?” Cleo asked.
“Not far,” said Gary enigmatically.
Cleo had no idea what that meant.
“Edith’s going to turn Mr Parsnip’s study into a bedroom for the new vicar,” said Charlie, “and Robert is going to sleep in Mr Parsnip’s bed,” she added. “It’s all a bit funny at the vicarage.”
“Just don’t think about it, Charlie,” said Cleo. “Grownups do funny things sometimes. They stop loving some people and start loving others.”
“I’m glad I’m home,” said Charlie. “We all go on loving all the time, don’t we?”
“Yes Charlie, we do, and you don’t have to go to the vicarage at all if you don’t want to,” said Gary.
“The boys need me,” said Charlie.
“Well, just tell us when something bothers  you, Charlie,” said Cleo.
“Something is bothering me now,” said Charlie. “Everyone at the vicarage has secrets. Even Albert has a secret, but he told me.”
“Do you want to tell us?”
“He made me promise not to.”
“But you need to tell someone, right?” said Cleo.
“Yes. You won’t tell on me, will you?”
“Of course not, Charlie,” said Cleo.
“Albert said he knows where his father is,” said Charlie.
“What? Did he say where?” said Gary.
“No, but I can ask him.”
“You should not be using Charlie as a spy, Gary,” said Cleo.
“I promised not to say anything,” said Charlie. “And now I’ve broken my promise.”
Tears started rolling down the little girl’s cheeks.
“Don’t worry, Charlie. We won’t give the game away,” said Cleo, comforting her and wiping away her tears. “I’ll talk to Albert today, but I won’t tell him you have told me. I’ll get him to tell me the secret.”
“I’ll be here this evening, said Gary. “Do you need my car?”
“Wow, Gary. I call that love. Sharing toothbrushes and cars is a very positive sign.”
“I don’t use your toothbrush, Cleo.”
“You don’t need to. You have one of your own.”
“Can we all have another hug now?” said Charlie.
Gary gathered PeggySue in his arms and they all hugged for a minute or two. It was a meditative moment for all of them, even PeggySue, who patted Cleo’s and Gary’s heads and gurgled contentedly.
“Anyone seeing us now would think we were slightly crazy,” said Cleo.
“Only slightly?” said Gary.
“I love you all,” said Charlie, “even if you are a bit crazy.”

Since there would be no for a visit to the vicarage before leaving for the hockey match next morning, Cleo took Gary up on his words and drove to the vicarage that evening. She parked carefully and went round the back of the house to the kitchen. Robert would still be making his weekend deliveries so he woiud not be there. Cleo asked Edith if she could have a chat with Albert on his own and the boy was summoned. Edith would dearly like to have known why Cleo wanted to talk to him but did not ask.
It took Albert quite a long time to get to the dining room, where the chat was to take place. He put his mobile phone down on the table. He would not be parted from it for a second. After a minute or two he broke the silence.
“She told you, didn’t she?” he said. “Little sneak.”
“Told me what, Albert?
“That I know where my father is,” said Albert, without meaning to.
“Now you’ve told me. Is that the secret you imposed on Charlie, Albert?”
“Yes, Miss.”
“I thought we were friends,” said Cleo. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because my father made me swear not to tell anyone.”
“But he must know that we are all very worried.”
“I don’t think he cares, Miss Hartley.”
“How did you find out where he is, Albert?”
“I don’t know exactly where he is. He’s staying somewhere in the snow.”
“In the snow?”
“I think that’s what he said.”
“So he contacted you a second time?”
“Yes. He was sorry he could not meet me. He said he had borrowed the phone from the man who was taking him to the airport. I know it was a mobile phone this time because it was one of those sorts of numbers.”
“Can you remember it?”
“He told me to delete the call.”
“Did you?”
“No, Miss.”
“Good boy. Can you load the call now?”
Cleo listened to Parsnip’s call and was sure it must be genuine. He had asked after the boys, but not mentioned Edith..
The easiest way to get a copy of the call was probably to record it with her own mobile phone, so she did just that and made a note of the phone number. There was a chance that Parsnip’s whereabouts could be traced via the phone, but it was also possible that the phone had in the meantime run out of juice and he had no connector to recharge it.
Cleo thanked Albert for having confidence in her. When asked what they had talked about, Albert was to say it had been about him doing an internship with the agency with a view to doing one with Gary when he was old enough. At 13 Albert was already quite grownup and an intelligent boy. There were plenty of tasks he could do at the agency. Cleo gave him a key of her office. He could use the computer at any time. Together they thought up a password so that he had his own private network. Albert was thankful and relieved that he was no longer burdened with the secret of his father’s whereabouts.
On the short drive back home, Cleo realised that none of those involved had bargained with Frederick Parsnip’s presence of mind, since that was a quality no one thought he possessed. Grisham had had no personal form of identification on him because it had been removed by the killer who could have been Parsnip. It is possible that Grisham had given him the cell phone to hold, so strictly speaking the vicar would not have stolen it, but only taken it with him. Had Parsnip moved the corpse to the passenger seat? Had he put the dog-collar on Grisham? Had he emptied Grisham’s pockets?
It was vital that they talk to Parsnip. But what if he had killed Grisham after all? Why would he kill the person who was driving him to a new life in Africa, to the life he had been dreaming of, to the escape from family and job responsibilities, in one word: to freedom?
Later, Gary had supper with the girls. Charlie had showered off the hockey-practice grime and was sitting at the dining table in her pyjamas colouring monsters in really ghastly colours. Gary put PeggySue in the bath with loads of bubbles and then in her bed before putting his feet up and  snoozing contentedly in front of the TV, which was showing about the 33rd repeat of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Cleo hugged Charlie, kissed Gary on the forehead, peeped in PeggySue, who was fast asleep, and went into the kitchen to make nightcaps. Some time later, the lovers would find his way to bed and their evening would end with passion well into the early hours, when they would fall asleep entwined.
Charlie started nodding over her pencils, so Cleo added cold mlk to cool her cocoa and then helped her to go to bed. Gary went to sleep on the sofa. Cleo covered him with the plaid and kissed his brow.
“Come into bed now, Cleo,” muttered Gary, pulling the sofa plaid up to his chin. “I’m cold.”
“You’re not in bed, Gary, and you won’t be going there for some time.”
Gary straightened himself up and reached for the TV remote.
“Those movies always put me to sleep,” he said apologetically.
“Drink some coffee,” she invited, handing him her beaker. “We have things to discuss.”
“What things? I don’t think I want to discuss anything now. It’s weekend and I need you and my duvet.”
“You won’t when you’ve heard Parsnip’s phone call to Albert, Sweetheart.”
Cleo went into the kitchen to get herself some coffee. Gary followed her and wrapped himself around her from behind, His physical nearness almost made her forget the urgency of what she wanted to say. Almost.
“Forget Parsnip. Do you think anything Parsnip does is going to warm me up more than my wife and my duvet?”
“No, but let’s get our priorities right.”
“Now you are being a pain,” said Gary.
Cleo ignored that comment.
“On second thoughts, I think Dorothy should be here,” said Cleo. “We need some brain-storming.
“Not now, Cleo. Let’s go to bed. Dorothy is probably asleep.”
“Gary, it’s only eight o’clock.”
Cleo took no notice of Gary’s unmistakeable line of attack.
 Dorothy said she would come when Breakfast at Tiffany’s had finished in about twenty minutes if she really had to.
“I’m cold and you are heartless,” said Gary. “We need us, not Dorothy.”
“I’ll put a log on the fire and then I’ll warm you up a bit,” said Cleo.
“What will you do?”
“Warm you up…platonically.”
Gary did not believe Cleo, but she stuck firmly to her intention.
Half an hour later Dorothy was standing on Cleo’s doorstep.
“Come in. I want to play you the recording I copied from Albert’s  mobile phone an hour or so ago,” Cleo announced and Dorothy looked puzzled because she knew nothing about Charlie’s confession of Albert’s secret.
They all listened to the recording.
“So what do you think, Dorothy?”
“It’s definitely Frederick,” said Dorothy.
“But he said he’s in the snow,” said Gary. “I can’t make head nor tail of that, unless he’s in Scotland on Ben Nevis or gone to Europe and hidden on a snowy European peak.”
“Let’s listen to that part again, “ said Dorothy. “I have a hunch.”
Gary thought that it would be a crackpot idea, but since he’d thought Dorothy’s hunches had been silly before and then had to eat his words, he would go with the flow.
Cleo looked at Gary with a mischievous smile on her face. From being drowsy and longing for bedtime, Gary was now awake enough to realize that he was in at the deep end of whatever was going on. From forbidding the two sleuths from having anything to do with the Grisham case, Gary was now faced with yet another theory concocted by one amateur sleuth and backed up by the other. It was going to be either a monumental success or a monumental flop.
“I think Albert really must have thought his father was in the snow,” Dorothy started. “But what if Parsnip had merely left off the word ‘flat’? I certainly didn’t hear it.”
“I can’t see that it would make any difference,” said Gary, who now thought Dorothy was being tiresome.
“A snow house is an igloo, isn’t it?” she continued. “If he’d been in one of those he would have used that word.”
“I supposed he would,” said Gary.
But what if he was referring to snow with a capital “S”?”
“Go on,” said Cleo.
Gary yawned.
“Couldn’t it be Miss Snow’s house in Huddlecourt Minor?”
“Who’s Miss Snow, Dorothy?” Gary asked.
“Someone whose dog we found,” said Dorothy.
“I never met her, Gary,” said Cleo. “She had lost her dog and asked the agency to find it. Dorothy obliged.”
“Miss Snow wanted to be friends with me, but I did not want that because the little dog I once found in Monkton Woods was probably also hers and had run away, and after meeting Miss Snow I could understand why.”
“I wanted to ask you to do a photo montage for Dorothy, but there hasn’t been time yet,” said Cleo.
“What kind of montage?”
“A strange dog to replace the one Dorothy used to have.”
“It’s all as clear as mud,” said Gary. “Can I go to bed now and talk tomorrow?”
“You can read the case account in my records, Gary. Go on with your hunch, Dorothy. I know Gary wants to hear it, don’t you, Sweetheart?”
Gary resigned himself to Dorothy’s new grim fairy tale.
“When Miss Snow opened her door I was amazed to see that she looked exactly like Laura. What if the vicar got to her house on his way home, saw her and thought it really was Laura?”
“You mean a reincarnation?” said Gary, starting to get intrigued by this idea.
“Frederick Parsnip had a soft spot for Laura Finch, Gary. She had confided in him about her past, but had not told him that her father had at least 3 love-children dotted about the neighbourhood,” said Dorothy.
“Good heavens!” said Gary.
“I think Flora Snow would have read or heard that the vicar had gone missing, judging from the speed at which things get known around here.” Dorothy continued. “I was baffled myself and shocked by her looks when I first set eyes on her, until Miss Snow explained. Believe me, Flora Snow really is the spitting image of Laura Finch.”
“This is an awesome hunch, Dorothy. I’d like to pick holes in the idea, but I can’t think of any,” said Cleo.
“Although Miss Snow would probably have taken anyone in who was needy because she fancied herself as a good soul, she recognized the vicar and when he called her Laura she could have had a brilliant idea,” said Dorothy. “She might even have blackmailed Edith. She probably knew Robert and Edith had got together and was getting moiney from Edith not to reveal where Frederick was.”
“I think your hunch is getting out of hand, Dorothy,” said Gary.
“But surely Miss Snow would not blackmail Edith,” said Cleo. “No one mentioned trying to blackmail anyone yet.”
“Not that we know of, Cleo, but Edith has proved to be something of a dark horse!” said Gary.
“So you think my hunch could be a good one, do you, Gary?”
“I’ll reserve judgement, Dorothy,” said Gary, unwilling to acknowledge that at least the first part of her theory could explain the vicar’s continued disappearance. “That’s a clever idea with the double, Dorothy.”
“I’ve never met Flora Snow,” said Cleo. “I wonder if Edith would be open to blackmail? She might, if getting rid of Frederick was uppermost in her mind. He could stay away for ever if as far as she is concerned.”
“It’s all pretty sordid,” said Dorothy.
“She even shocked me, Dorothy,” said Cleo. “She must have seduced Robert. He would never have had the nerve."
“She did!” said Gary, wondering if he should say that in Dorothy’s presence.
“How do you know that,  Gary,” Dorothy asked.
“He told me.”
“Perhaps she had never been drawn to anyone before,” said Dorothy.
“That is sad, but it would not surprise me,” said Cleo.
“So what do you think really happened, Dorothy?” said Gary.
“I don’t think Miss Snow did anything,” said Dorothy. “I think the vicar told her that he was in love with her, thinking it was Laura and airing a fancy he had had for some time.”
“Are you sure about that fancy, Dorothy?” said Cleo.
“Didn’t you watch him at those meetings in the vicarage, Cleo? He fawned and gushed over Laura like a slobbery Labrador. Let’s assume that he had not had the courage or even the opportunity to declare his intentions before. If he thought it was Laura and he had left all his family and work obligations behind, he might have been glad to talk about his infatuation at long last. We know his declaration would not have been to a reincarnation of Laura, as he believed, but to Flora Snow, a woman edging 60 who would have no qualms about playing along.”
“This is quite a story,” said Gary, “always assuming it’s what happened.”
“There’s only one way to find out, Gary.”
“Can I go to bed first, please?” said Gary.
“Of course. We can’t do anything at this time of night and since Frederick must have been at Miss Snow’s house for some days, he won’t move on yet, if ever,” said Dorothy. “He might even be imprisoned.”
“There is a downside to all this, of course,” said Gary. “If it’s all as you say, Dorothy, Miss Snow might well be harbouring a killer. We’ll pay her a visit tomorrow.”
“But not till after the hockey match, Gary. You promised Charlie.”
“I shouldn’t think that matters. Miss Snow is  more likely to be home in the afternoon, isn’t she?” reasoned Dorothy. “If there are two of them, she’ll need to do some weekend shopping. Frederick has to stay hidden and they both have to eat.”
“I wonder what he’s planning to do next.” said Cleo. “He can’t hide in Huddleton Minor for ever.”
“There’s no point in speculating, Ladies. The hunch is still only a hunch. I’ll walk up the road with you, Dorothy. The fresh air will do me good.”
“And I’ll take a shower and slip into my kimono,” said Cleo.
There was nothing particularly symbolic about the kimono for Cleo, but Gary saw it with entirely different eyes and Cleo teased him about it. Cleo had bought the garment cheaply many years before at a Chicago street market. She wore it as a dressing gown, a bath-robe and between going-out outfits. Kimonos are wonderful garments. You can tie yourself into one with an obi or a simple belt, or you can let it hang open and drift about in it. The drifting was what interested Gary.”
Escorting her home. Gary had tried to get more information out of Dorothy. Did she know where Laura's other siblings were? Somewhere in Middlethumpton, Dorothy thought, but did not know their surname, and ther had been a legitimate brother. He was probably named Finch. Laura had never mentioned him. It’s possible that he was dead. Laura had apparently been a legitimate heir to the family house along with her legitimate brother and had not shared her inheritance with anyone, as far as Dorothy knew.
"I'll put a patrol team on Miss Snow’s house," said Gary when he got back to the cottage.
"Don't let Miss Snow see them," advised Cleo. "She's a wily old bird, according to Dorothy."
“Then she’s a good match for the vicar,” said Gary, “though he’s a bit young for her.”
“Not necessarily. She could fall in love with him.”
“At her age?” said Gary.
“At any age, Gary.”
"I'll get Greg onto it," said Gary. "Greg is reliable. They'll stay out of sight, but if Dorothy’s hunch is correct, Parsnip is in there and we don't want him to get away, do we?"
Cleo drifted into the bedroom.
"Duvet time," she called.
"I'd like one of those kimonos," said Gary. "Then we can both drift around."
"I'm sure you know what you're talking about," said Cleo, knowing full well what he meant.
"It's remarkable how energizing an evening walk is."
"I'll take your word for it," said Cleo.
“You can slip out of the kimono and under my duvet now.”
“Still cold, Gary?”
“That’s not exactly how I would describe myself…”

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