Monday October 26
Although the five Parsnip boys would brag at school about their hero of a father going to Africa to convert the pagans, they were not sorry to see him go.
Albert 12, Bertram 11, Cedric 10, and the twins, Daniel and Edmond 8 had never had the kind of father they really needed. Frederick Parsnip did not understand children, did not want them near him and avoided even his own offspring whenever he could. He was sure it would be a blessing not to have to chide and discipline them or even talk to them. We cannot add praise them, because he never did. The vicar thought that games and even football were a waste of time.
Albert and Bertram attended Middlethumpton Comprehensive and this term Cedric joined them on the school bus every morning since he had graduated from primary school and was going to the big school instead. The boys didn’t think much of girls, but had made an exception for Anna, who had once been found on the vicarage kitchen doorstep went to primary school with Daniel and Edmond, and Charlie, Gary’s daughter, who had learnt Spanish in Spain, where she had been taken with her mother, but was allowed to return home to her delighted father.
Once the boys were out of the house that Monday morning, some time after the vicar had left with Mr Grisham, it was time for Edith and Beatrice to discuss the new family situation. The boys had been disturbed to see their father apparently getting on with Mr Grisham like a house on fire, because Mr Grisham was an unpleasant kind of person. Edith had assured them that Mr Grisham was doing their father a big favour by taking him to the airport. It would have cost a fortune to take a taxi, and Frederick Parsnip had not been inundated with other offers to give him a lift. In fact, most of his parishioners were disgusted that he should leave them in the lurch. They were going to hold a meeting to choose a deputation to go to the bishop and tell him not to let the vicar come back.
Edith had not been invited to the meeting. On reflection, it has to be said that Edith would probably have supported the deputation except that she was going to live on Frederick’s salary.
Beatrice made fresh tea and scrambled eggs.
“We can’t have you falling apart,” she told Edith, who was battling with her conscience about Robert. “We’ll get this place tidied up and move the beds together in the master bedroom, then you can invite Robert to stay.”
“I can’t do that. What would the children say?”
“You’ll have to tell them, Edith. You can’t enter into a cloak and dagger affair. “Tell the older boys first and then they can tell the young ones.”
“If you think so, Beatrice. Can’t you tell them?”
“Edith, it’s your love affair. You tell them!”
With those words, Beatrice got up from the table and took her crockery to rinse at the sink.
“Leave that, Beatrice,” said Edith. “Mrs Cagney is coming to clean. She can do the kitchen.”
“I’ll help you over this domestic hump by staying tonight, Edith. Oscar will understand.”
Oscar Pope was Beatrice’s long-suffering husband. They had celebrated their silver wedding recently. Beatrice always did exactly what she wanted to and Oscar kept the home fires burning. It was a good arrangement.
Frederick Parsnip had not approved of his sister’s life-style. That was almost like a blessing coming from him. Edith had always been envious of her sister-in-law. She was big-mouthed and big-bosomed, but unlike her brother she was also big-hearted. Frederick shrank in her presence. He had always done that, even as a little boy. Beatrice had had to take him to places in his short flannel pants. His nose ran constantly and he was invariably sullen. Later, Beatrice maintained that she was to blame for him becoming a vicar. She was not sure why, but at least he had some authority in that job. Not much, but some. she had to admit.
Edith was still sitting at the kitchen table when the phone rang.
It was Cleo.
It was nearly midday morning by now.
Edith and Beatrice had moved to the sitting-room for morning coffee so that Mrs Cagney could clean the kitchen. The phone was in the hall, so Beatrice could not quite hear what was being said.
“Cleo,” said Edith, remembering that she had seduced Cleo’s husband the previous afternoon and had slept with him all night. Now she was panicking. Had Cleo caught up with her and was not really separated from Robert?
“Have you been listening to the radio?” Cleo asked.
“A plane has come down in the Alps, Edith.”
Edith was relieved.
“Is that all!” she sighed, much to Cleo’s astonishment.
Cleo thought that Edith should at least be sad enough about Frederick’s departure to show some sign uf unease. She could not know that Edith was relieved that her night with Robert had not been the reason for Cleo phoning.
“I don’t want to worry you, but it was a flight to Africa. When did Frederick leave?”
“About seven hours ago, Cleo. You don’t think…”
“Never mind what I think. He could have been on the plane then, couldn’t he? I mean, he left home in plenty of time, I suppose.”
To her shame, Edith could not remember exactly where the vicar’s plane was heading or even the exact time his plane was leaving.
“I suppose so, but I don’t know.”
“Find out, Edith. There were no survivors.”
“Oh God,” said Edith.
“Never mind God,” said Cleo, who had no time for mythical super-beings. “Ring the airport. The boys will find out about the plane crash somehow and you really should be a step ahead.”
Beatrice had listened into Edith’s half of the dialogue and was now standing next to her.
“Give me the phone. I’ll talk to her,” she said, grabbing the handset.
“What is it, Cleo?”
“There’s been a plane crash in the Alps, Beatrice. The plane was heading for Africa. Frederick could have been on it. There were no survivors.”
“Oh dear. That is bad news. I should deal with it immediately,” said Beatrice.
“I have an idea,” said Cleo. “Since Edith seems to be in an odd frame of mind, find the flight data and I’ll sort it out. I hope he was insured.”
“That’s probably the least of our worries, Cleo. I’ll find the flight documents and call back.”
“OK. Good luck!”
Edith was quite unable to say anything. Her guilty conscience rather than grief that she might have lost Frederick was choking her.
“Pull yourself together and come with me,” said Beatrice.
Edith followed Beatrice like a zombie as she led the way into Frederick’s study, where Beatrice combed through the contents of the in-tray, the out-tray and the see-to-it-later tray. The filing system was a mess, if you could call it a filing system, but Beatrice found a flight confirmation in the see-to-it-later tray,
“Thank goodness,” she said, waving the document around. “I’ll phone Cleo back now.”
Beatrice went back into the hall and pressed the button with ‘Cleo’ written on it.
“Here it is, Cleo. Flight Number BA 1358 to Nairobi, leaving at 10:15.”
“OK,” said Cleo.” I’ll find out if your brother was on the plane, but it’s strange that you have not been notified if he was, Beatrice.”
“We haven’t heard anything, Cleo.”
“Well, he could have missed the plane if you have not heard from BA. Let's hope he did.”
There was hope in Beatrice’s heart as she went back into the study to tell Edith of the possibility that Cleo had suggested.
Edith was sitting on Frederick’s swivelling chair sobbing.
“He’s getting a divorce, Beatrice,” she said, handing a document to her sister-in-law. “He signed the papers before he left. All I need to do is get to a lawyer and I’ll be free.”
“I thought that is what you wanted,” said Beatrice.
“But not if Frederick dies for it.”
“He was alive when he signed the divorce papers, Edith."
“But he’ll never know if his divorce went through.”
“It won’t go through if he’s dead."
"Of course not. Silly me," sniffed Edith.
“Where did you find those papers, Edith?”
“On his desk, under a pile of sermons.”
“Well, you won’t need divorce papers if he was on that plane,” said Beatrice callously. “That solves one problem, doesn’t it.”
“I suppose it does.”
Beatrice decided that any further attempt to talk to Edith would be futile.
“I think we should wait until Cleo phones back,” she suggested.
“I think I’ll phone Dorothy,” Edith said. She knew that Beatrice was upset, but her rough manner of dealing with the situation was hard to bear, and Edith could not think of any appropriate words to comfort her sister-in-law.
Both women knew that it wasn’t love of Frederick that had kept Edith at the vicarage, but love of her children and the kind of loyalty many women experience though the object of that loyalty does not deserve it.
“Dorothy, have you heard the news?” Edith sniffed into the phone.
“What’s the matter, Edith. No I haven’t,” said Dorothy.
“Frederick has been killed in a plane crash,” said Edith.
“What? That’s terrible. Do you want me to come over?”
“Yes, please,” said Edith. “I’m sorry to bother you.”
“It’s no bother at all. I’ll be over as quickly as I can.”
“You shouldn’t have told her that, Edith. We don’t even know if he was on that plane,” said Beatrice.
“I can’t think of any reason why he wouldn’t be,” said Edith.
“We were going to wait for news from Cleo,” said Beatrice. “Now you’ve upset Dorothy.”
“She would have wanted me to tell her, Beatrice.”
“But you don’t know, Edith.”
Beatrice was getting exasperated. Up to now she had been patient and kind during this visit, but she did have a sneaking understanding for her brother’s attitude to his wife.
The phone rang. It was Cleo again.
“Listen carefully, Edith,” said Cleo. “Better still, give me Beatrice.”
Edith handed over the phone obediently.
“No need for hysteria, Beatrice, that’s why I’m telling you. Frederick did not check in at the airport so he was not on that plane. Look at the confirmation in case it’s in a different name.”
“Why would he use a different name, Cleo?” said Beatrice.
“Don’t ask me.”
“Just a minute. Edith can get it.”
Beatrice held her hand over the phone speaker and instructed Edith to fetch the flight confirmation. It was definitely in the name of Frederick Parsnip.
“Cleo? Still there? The confirmation is in my brother’s name. No doubt about that.”
“Then you can assume that he is alive and well and will probably turn up in Upper Grumpsfield shortly.”
“He’s not dead,” Beatrice whispered to Edith.
Into the phone she said “That’s good news, Cleo. He can get his divorce after all.”
“You don’t say he’s actually getting a divorce, Beatrice,”said Cleo and added suprisingling “Edith will be thrilled.”
“I don’t think she will, Cleo, but it might explain why he did not get on that plane,” said Beatrice.
“There’s no point in speculating,” said Cleo.
“You’re right, Beatrice. Dorothy’s on her way. I hope she deal with Edith’s strange reaction to it all.”
Cleo and Beatrice were puzzled that Frederick would go to such lengths to leave and then not leave after all.
“Edith might know when she calms down,” said Beatrice.
“Not that it really matters,” said Cleo. “Phone me back if you need to contact the flight company, Beatrice, but they apparently do not know why he did not check in.”
Dorothy arrived just at that moment, so she was greeted with the good news.
“I don’t believe it. He was dying to get to Africa,” she said.
“Or he was dying to get away from Upper Grumpsfield,” said Beatrice.
“Does he have a reason, Edtih?” Dorothy asked.
“Well, I…” Edith started and shut up when Beatrice gave her a very angry look.
“So where is he now?” Dorothy asked.
“We don’t know,” said Edith and Beatrice together.
“Didn’t he drop any hints? He must have had a plan.”
“Perhaps he had a car accident,” said Edith, suddenly convinced that that was what had happened. “Mr Grisham is odd.”
“I wouldn’t get in a car with him,” said Dorothy. “And I’m over seventy.”
“It was kind of him to give Frederick a lift,” said Edith. “No one else wanted to.”
“That’s as may be,” scoffed Dorothy. “We are sure that Mr Grisham would have taken the most direct route since he would not want to be late, so we’ll phone the police and ask if there’s been a car accident. Did Frederick wear his dog-collar to travel, Edith?”
“Oh yes, Dorothy. He always wore I mean wears his dog-collar.”
“Then it should not be difficult to identify him, even if he is dead,” said Dorothy.
Edith howled. She sounded like a paid mourner. Beatrice was disgusted with the blatant histrionics. Edith had spent the night having sex with someone and now she was wailing about a man she was only too glad to see the back of. What hypocrisy!
“Unless he removed it,” said Beatrice. “The dog-collar, I mean, and stop howling, Edith!”
“Why would he do that?” Dorothy asked, also thinking that Edith was exaggerating her grief beyond tolerance level, especially as she now knew that the vicar had by default survived.
“Search me,” said Beatrice.
Dorothy got on the phone to the police. Had there been an accident between Upper Grumpsfield and Heathrow airport?
“Now you’re asking,” said a rather cocky operator. “Do you know how many car accidents there are in a day, Miss?”
“I didn’t ask how many. I just need to know about one,” said Dorothy.
“Car registration?” the operator asked.
“I don’t know, but a Mr Grisham was driving our vicar to the airport,” explained Dorothy.
“Driver and passenger, then,” said the operator.
“Yes,” said Dorothy.
“Hold the line, please,” Dorothy was instructed.
“About 25 repeats of the standard waiting jingle later, the operator called out “Still there, then?”
“You told me to wait,” said Dorothy.
“No accident like the one you described, Miss. Will that be all?”
“I suppose so,” said Dorothy as the line went dead.
“No accident,” repeated Dorothy.
“They can’t have disappeared into thin air,” said Beatrice.
“Can’t they?” said Dorothy. “We’d better get Gary in on this. I’ll phone Cleo and she will get things moving.”
“Thank you, Dorothy. What would I do without you?” said Edith.
“Start thinking, Edith. Think what could have happened to Frederick.”
Chief Inspector Gary Hurley of Middlethumpton police was having a relaxing Monday morning at Cleo's cottage. His job would have required him to be at HQ had he not had his efficiant assistant Nigel to take care of office business. Gary had loads of reports to write and could do that at home. The main reason for preferring home to HQ was the novelty of living in perfect harmony with the woman he declared to be the love of his life, who had now signed the divorce papers organized by Robert and was waiting eagerly for the day she and Gary would be free to marry. What had started out as a flirt and become an intermittent affair was now an established status quo.
Cleo was in something of a quandary, not because of Frederick’s apparent failure to carry out his plan to fly to Africa, but because she had received an anonymous phone call quite early that morning. She had been nestling in Gary’s arms at the time, so it was really odd timing to hear from the anonymous caller that Edith had spent the night with her ex husband. While being glad that he was now concentrating on someone else rather than being resentful to her, Cleo could not really believe that Edith would have done such a thing the night before Frederick left, if at all.
Robert would surely not have encouraged Edith, but Cleo people don’t always do what one has mentally planned for them or even what they have planned for themselves, she reflected. Cleo wanted Robert to be happy and she wanted Edith to be happy. But did she want them to be happy together? Was a good idea for them to even try? When she tried to discuss with Gary who could have made that phone call, he told her he had better things to do than talk about her ex and could she please shut up and come back to bed.
The indulgence of an hour or two spent making love rather than working on crime files on a Monday morning was rudely interrupted by the announcement of a plane crash in the Alps that had interrupted the mood music on the radio and startled Cleo into jumping out of bed. Slipping into her genuine Japanese kimono, she got the espresso machine going in the kitchen and phoned the vicarage to forewarn them that something terrible had happened.
She was glad Charlie was on the way to school and PeggySue was gong to the nursery. She could at least offer Edith support, although the idea that Edith and Robert had spent a clandestine night together seemed rather a strange thing for Edith to do, and as it transpired, appalling timing, in her opinion. Edith had waited long enough for Frederick Parsnip to leave for Aftrica. Surely she could have waited another day.
Gary gave up trying to sleep in his lonely bed and took a hot shower. Eventually he drifted into the living-room with his bath towel wrapped Egyptian style round his haunches to find some coffee and bite of breakfast.
“I really like that shower radio,” he said. “I can sing much better if someone else is playing the tune.”
“I heard,” said Cleo, refraining from telling him that his singing had not improved at all. He was not to know that she had bought the shower radio to discourage his singing rather than to encourage it.
“You look like the Egyptian soldier in Charlie’s history book, Gary.”
“I’m not wearing a helmet or carrying a spear,” he protested jokingly. “And I can’t look sideways if my eyes are looking to the front.”
“I expect that can be arranged,” said Cleo.
Gary flicked through the pages of the history book that hd been left on the dining table.
“I’m really quite glad I’m not in a coffin like those in the British Museum. I’d like to know why they print such gruesome pictures in books for 11 year olds.”
“Education,” said Cleo. “They keep away from photos of skulls and bones for a while longer.”
“I could leave the towel off, of course,” said Gary.
“It’s too cold for that,” said Cleo. “I don’t want to have to nurse you through pneumonia.”
“I’d like that,” said Gary.
“Charlie asked me if I would mind being her other mother now we are a family.”
“She can hear PeggySue intoning ‘Mama’,” said Gary. “I’d love you to be her mother, Cleo.”
“I love Charlie, Gary. I’ll adopt her as soon as possible.”
“I want PeggySue to be mine, Cleo, if she isn’t already.”
Cleo had already decided to get a DNA test. She would ask Chris Marlow, the head of the forensic department at HQ. Roger Stone, Gary’s boss, had once suggested it and now she and Gary were living together it was really important to know. PeggySue didn’t really look like any of them except that her skin was darker than Charlie’s, but considerably lighter than Cleo’s.
It was not until Cleo had established that Frederick Parsnip had not been on the Africa plane that she and Gary had time to talk about it. They came to no conclusion other than that the vicar had by some stroke of fate (or was it luck or even good management?) missed the connection. Gary thought was quite likely that missing the plane had been deliberate. Frederick Parsnip was jittery and inconsequential.
“I called the traffic police,” she said. “There was apparently no accident involving a parson on the route to the airport. I just wondered if Gary could check on that.”
“He’s sitting right here,” said Cleo. “Would you like to talk to him?”
“Not necessary,” said Dorothy. “But it might be a good idea to call Grisham’s wife and find out if Grisham has returned home yet.”
“That’s a good idea, Dorothy. I’ll do it now.”
“Call me back, Cleo, but on my mobile. I’m going to the vicarage to take some of the pressure off Beatrice.”
“Dorothy has put more thought into this than we have, Gary,” said Cleo as she kneaded Gary’s hunched-up shoulders. “Sit up straight or you’ll be hobbling like an old man soon,” she told him.
“Dorothy is closer to Frederick than we are,” said Gary, ignoring Cleo’s comment, but enjoying the fuss she was making.
“But he annoys her and I’ve heard her scolding him.”
“People do that and stay friends,” said Gary wincing as Cleo kneeded his neck muscles. “You boss me around sometimes, Cleo.”
“Do I? I don’t mean to.”
“But you can’t shake me off. I’m here to stay.”
“I’m counting on that,” said Cleo, massaging Gary’s shoulders even harder.
“The good thing about pain is that it’s great when it stops.”
“You could put some clothes on while I phone Mrs Grisham,” said Cleo.
“I’ll think about it,” said Gary. “Next time you decide to knead something, why don’t you make bread?”
“There’s nothing erotic about bread, Gary, and I love massaging your shoulders.”
“I did notice. All the better to hug you with.”
“Not now, Gary!”
“I’ll give you exactly 7 minutes,” he said.
Cleo found Grisham’s phone number and dialled. Someone with a very high voice answered.
“This is Polly Grisham,” it announced.
“Can you get your mummy to the phone, dear,” said Cleo.
“I am the mummy,” said the squeaky voice. “What do you want?”
“Sorry,” said Cleo. “Is your husband at home?”
“I don’t know. He lives downstairs and I live up.”
“Oh. Could you check?”
“Who are you?”
“I’m Cleo Hartley of the Hartley Detective Agency.”
“Are you? What do you want, Miss Harley?”
“Hartley. I just need to know if Mr Grisham is at home.”
“Has he been out?” said Mrs Grisham.
“He took the vicar to the airport, Mrs Grisham,” Cleo explained, surprised that there seemed to be no communication between the Grishams even though they lived in the same house.
“I don’t know anything about that,” said Mrs Grisham. “ Mr Grisham doesn’t tell me what he’s doing, and I don’t tell him, for that matter.”
“Can you do me a favour, Mrs Grisham?”
“Can you check if his car is in the drive or the garage?”
“I’ll do that. Just a minute.”
Polly Grisham went to the front window and looked.
“Are you still there, Miss Harley?”
“Hartley. Is the car there?”
“No, it isn’t, and it can’t be in the garage because that’s where he plays with his trains, Miss Harley.”
“Hartley. I won’t keep you any longer, Mrs Grisham.”
“Good. I have better things to do than wonder what Malcolm is up to.”
“That was a really odd phone-call,” she told Gary, who had returned to the warmth of his duvet. “The car belonging to that guy who took Frederick Parsnip to the airport has not returned home. There may have been some kind of accident after all.”
“I’ll get onto it,” said Gary sighing. He wassigned to having to take an interest in what was getting Cleo quite worked up.
“We don’t have the registration number,” said Cleo.
“No problem,” said Gary. Within minutes he had had both the car registration and information that an incident involving that car had been traced. Gary was a lot more serious when he told Cleo what he had just heard.
“You aren’t going to believe this, Cleo, but that car did not even reach the motorway. It was found in a lane a few miles down the road half an hour ago.”
“Oh, my goodness. What about the passengers?”
“They only found one. It was someone wearing a dog-collar.”
“That must be Frederick.”
“The man was dead, Cleo.”
“Oh no. That’s all we need.”
“They’ll need witnesses. I think we should get there. I might be able to do something useful.”
“Why didn’t they phone the vicarage? Mr Parsnip must have had all his documents with him.”
“They can’t have found any,” said Gary.
“It sounds odd,” said Cleo. “Presumably Frederick was on the front passenger seat, so where is Grisham?”
“I expect they are looking for him. I think the problem is that the guy they found had been dead for hours.”
“So the Grisham guy might have been able to get out of the car and wander off.”
“He may have had concussion, Cleo. Let’s get going. We’ll learn more on the spot.”
Gary rang the road patrol to say they were on their way, ascertained that no ID documents had been found, got a description of exactly where the car was and checked that someone responsible would be there waiting. The car was not to be moved until they had identified the vicar.
“That’s fine by me,” said the patrol officer.
“I don’t think we should tell Edith just yet,” said Cleo.
“You’re right, though what we know already is pretty conclusive.”
Cleo rang Gloria to get her to pick up PeggySue from nursery school and be at the cottage in case Charlie came home before they did. Gloria asked a lot of questions, none of which Cleo answered.