18 March 2017

5 - Hilda joins the team

Tuesday August 5

Hilda Bone is never late. She is one of those people who never have enough time for anything, so running late would be borrowing time from the task designated to follow the one being tackled now. It’s a bit like living in the future, but since living in the past is not an option, Hilda makes the best of things.  
Hilda’s best of things includes shopping for bargains, cooking for one and looking out of her parlour window through the binoculars left to her by the late Mr Bone. It was that activity that was of interest to Cleo now, though Hilda’s observations were as often as not interspersed with theories and conclusions that Cleo could well do without.
***
As arranged, Hilda arrived at Cleo’s office bearing the digital camera Cleo had given her in the only case in which Hilda had been involved. She had also remembered to bring the page-a-day diary she had inaugurated to keep track of her many and varied observations and explanations thereof. She had left Mr Bone’s binoculars at home. They were seaworthy of the captain status that the late Mr Bone had once awarded himself, but too heavy to carry around.
Cleo was waiting. She had provided breakfast, lunch and dinner teabags and fresh milk since Hilda had been brought up on teabags and never drank milky coffee when she could get milky tea instead.
“Where is your husband?” Hilda asked, looking around the office.
“He’s at HQ, Hilda. He’s a Chief Inspector and has an office of his own. He is not part of my agency. He doesn’t work here.”
“Oh, I thought …”
“No, he does not work for me, but I work at HQ a few hours a week, Hilda, as a sociologist in a sort of customer-care capacity.”
“I don’t know what that is,” said Hilda,” but it’s quite nice here. I see that you have a nice carpet. Where is the blood stain that Mrs Finch left?”
“That was ages ago, Hilda, and she did not leave a blood stain. She was dead when she got here. The blood was from stab wounds and this is a new carpet, but you’ve seen it before.”
“I don’t remember,” said Hilda. “It must be nice to have an office with the police next door. I’m sure you feel safer now.”
“Sure,” said Cleo. Sergeant Bradley and I cooperate where we can.  Not wanting to be subjected to stream of questions from Hilda Bone she hastened to get back to the reason Hilda was there.
”What I had in mind might be too difficult for you after all,” she said.
“I don’t see why. I’ve managed up to now,” said Hilda, a little frostily. “What do you want me to do?”
“Well, if you are sure…”
“I’m quite sure. I’m better at sleuthing than Dorothy Price, and younger, too.”
Cleo had no intention of discussing Dorothy with Hilda.
“I want you to remember who came and went to Mr Kelly’s farm in recent weeks.”
“Is that all? I’ve made a list in my diary, Miss Hartley. I need to keep track of the odd bods who go past my house.”
“That’s brilliant, Hilda, and do call me Cleo. I thought we were on first name terms.”
“Were we?” said Hilda. “Do you want to see my list?”
“Do you have it with you?”
“It just so happens that I do, but let’s start at the end, shall we?”
Hilda took a large diary out of her very large handbag.
“Which end, Hilda?”
“To put it bluntly, at Mr Kelly’s end. It was him in that ambulance yesterday, wasn’t it?”
“It was, Hilda.”
“Did he survive?”
“Survive what?”
“I don’t know what, but he had a visit from someone.”
“Do you know who?”
“Well, actually, I do. I happened to be in my gardenaand the man asked me about that jeweller man who once lived in the barn.”
“But that was ages ago.”
“I told him that.”
“He said he had to talk to him and when I asked him why, he told me to mind my own business, Cleo. Just like that. In those very words.”
“That was rude of him, Hilda. So you didn’t tell him that the jeweller man was dead.”
“No, I didn’t. Serves him right!”
“I don’t suppose you asked him for his name either, did you?”
“No. He was rude and I don’t need to know the names of rude strangers.”
The sleuth in Hilda was restricted to what she deemed sleuth-worthy, Cleo mused.
“Did you enter him in your list, Hilda?”
“I may have.”
Cleo decided that Hilda’s curiosity was definitely not based on the principles of detection, which was to note everything about an incident, but on her personal vanity, curiosity and not least, animosity.
“Anyway, I went back into the house and watched the farm from my window. The man got back in his car and drove up the road to the farmhouse. He parked it where I could see it and walked the rest of the way.”
“Do you remember any detail about the car?”
“Not really. I took a photo, but it doesn’t show much.”
“Have you printed it, Hilda?”
“I don’t print. I haven’t got a printer.”
“We’ll have to change that, won’t we,” said Cleo.
“I’m not buying one.”
“I’ll buy you one, Hilda.”
“I’d rather have the money,” said Hilda.
“You’ll be paid for investigating, Hilda. The printer was to be an extra.”
“Oh.”
“How long was the car parked in that road to Kelly’s farm?”
“It had gone next morning.”
“So it was there all night, was it?”
“It might have gone and come back again. I do go to bed at night, Cleo.”
“Do you remember when the man stopped by your house, Hilda?”
“Let me see … It must have been last Saturday afternoon. I’d been weeding my garden and he shouted over the fence. The weeding is why I was outside, I remember now.”
“The man can’t have been worried about being seen then, can he? Would you recognize him again?”
“I didn’t know I would have to.”
Hilda looked nervous and her eyes darted around as if the stranger was somewhere near.
“You probably won’t, so you need not be scared,” said Cleo who had already decided that the stranger was probably not interested in Paddy Kelly since he had been gone a day before Kelly was shot and if he had returned, Hilda was likely to have seen him.”
“I’m not afraid. What makes you think that?”
“Just a thought,” said Cleo. “Did you see Kelly after the rude stranger in the car had gone?”
“Oh yes. He was counting his sheep in the front field. He does that every Sunday afternoon, but he won’t do it again if he’s dead. Is he dead?”
“Yes, Hilda. He’s dead.”
“Did someone kill him?”
“He’s dead, but that doesn’t mean he was murdered.”
“If he wasn’t murdered, why are you interested?”
Hilda paused. Cleo waited. Hilda’s logic was infallible for a change.
“You are still into crime, aren’t you,” she said, “even with all those babies to look after.”
“My mother-in-law lives next door, Hilda. She’s a tremendous help.”
“What about the man staying there? I heard that he is the spitting image of your husband.”
“He only arrived yesterday.”
“He must be related.”
“He’s my husband’s twin brother.”
“Amazing. I hope you won’t get them mixed up.”
“No, I don’t think I will. My husband is very special to me.”
“That’s a lovely way of putting it. Mr Bone was special to me - in a way.”
“I suppose you saw the Gazette yesterday, didn’t you, Hilda?”
“Of course. Your husband was in it, wasn’t he?”
“That’s just the point, Hilda. It wasn’t my husband. It was his brother.”
“Did your mother-in-law lose him?”
“He was stolen. The whole story will be in the Gazette on Thursday, Hilda, but that’s not why I’m here. Tell me more about recent events at Kelly’s farm!”
Hilda had not known any of Kelly’s infrequent visitors except for a woman who had been there often in recent weeks and the usual stream of other women she did not take note of. There was also a stream of men going to the farmhouse, but they were locals, she insisted, so they did not count as suspicious.
“Who was the woman who visited Mr Kelly regularly, Hilda?”
“I shouldn’t tell you that,” said Hilda. “I don’t usually gossip.”
“I think you should tell me,” said Cleo, an unwanted suspicion crossing her mind.
“I think it was…”
“Edith Parsnip?” Cleo chipped in.
“How did you guess?”
“Just a hunch, Hilda.”
“I think a vicar’s widow should behave with dignity, Cleo.”
“I agree, but we don’t make the rules,” said Cleo, her mind going back to the troubled expression on Robert’s face as he delivered the steaks. Did he know just how depraved Edith had become? She would hardly have visited a guy like Kelly to pass the time of day.
After making sure that Hilda would go on observing the Kelly Farm, Cleo left. She wanted to think about Edith and her own view that someone who has killed once will have no scruples about killing again.
Cleo felt uneasy about her decision to let Hilda help solve the case of Kelly’s murder, but Hilda’s observation that Edith had been one of Kelly’s visitors was useful even if it was causing the alarm bells in Cleo’s head to ring very loudly. That was really a feather in Hilda’s cap.  How else would she have found out about Edith before the scandal was bandied around the village? Cleo wondered why Hilda had kept that observation to herself. What would Dorothy think about Edith’s activity? She knew what Gary would say, and he did.
***
“Trouble, Cleo?” he greeted her when she rang him after Hilda had gone home.
“What do you make of this, Gary? Hilda Bone saw Edith going in and out at Kelly’s farm.”
“I wonder if Robert knows?”
“Exactly.”
“That would make him a suspect, wouldn’t it?” said Gary. “Motivated by possessiveness and even jealousy.”
“That’s what I think too. Ballistics will have to identify the gun that was used as soon as possible.”
“They will. Does Robert have a gun?”
“I never saw one, but it’s possible, isn’t it?”
“Not really. People don’t run around armed here, Cleo. This is not Chicago.”
“If Robert has a gun to defend his business, it would be registered. He’s very particular about being on the right side of the law.”
“He wasn’t particular about the law of decency and fairness in a marriage, was he?”
“Don’t ride that wave, Gary. He was afraid of losing me to you.”
“Don’t defend him, Cleo. He’s a skunk.”
“I’m going home now,” said Cleo, ignoring Gary’s comment on Robert, which she knew to have more than just a grain of truth in it.” Will you be having lunch with us?”
“Try and stop me.”
“I’ll go shopping on the way home and get something tasty before I collect PeggySue.”
“Are you going to ask Robert about his alibi, Cleo?”
“How can I do that before I know when Kelly met his death?”
“Exactly.”
“He was alive on Sunday afternoon.”
“Did Hilda tell you that?”
“Yes. Kelly counted his sheep every Sunday afternoon.”
“I don’t suppose he counted sheep with Edith,” said Gary.
***
Colin Peck, a young lawyer and partner of Julie, Robert’s daughter from a teenage marriage, whom Robert had only met 29 years later, was employed in the archives at HQ. Part of his job was to digitalize old files, but was working backwards so that the oldest cases were left till last.
Colin had spotted hundreds of mainly legal howlers in the files he had dealt with, indicating that the cases had often been closed prematurely and unsolved or not even taken seriously enough to warrant an investigation. That was before Gary’s time, but not before Roger Stone’s. It was all a bit embarrassing, but Colin was tactful. He was employed to clear up the mess and it was not his job to pick holes in the documents he was handling and forced to evaluate, though he had dropped hints to Gary more than once.
Cleo now rang Colin. She needed to know more about Kelly’s colourful past. Colin would see what he would find but was there any particular reason?
“They found Kelly shot dead yesterday on the Common, Colin.”
“That Common of yours gets its fair share of corpses,” comment Colin. “I bet Chris Winter was overjoyed.”
“I think the forensic van finds its own way to Upper Grumpsfield now,” said Cleo. “But I’m worried for a different reason.”
“Go ahead!”
“I think you should know, but maybe not tell Julie just yet, that her father is a possible suspect.”
“Never,” said Colin.
“You know about his dilemma with Edith Parsnip, I suppose.”
“Julie told me. A pretty awful woman, by all accounts. I understand that she went for Robert like a dog with a bone.”
“Not just once, Colin, but I think he’s fond of her and that’s the problem now.”
“Go on.”
“Edith was seen visiting Kelly on his farm.”
“But he’s a retired pimp, isn’t he?”
“He presumably has other charms.”
“From the sound of your voice, I’d say you did not find him charming,” said Colin.
“What if Edith had been going there to satisfy her unhealthy sex drive, Colin? Kelly ran a bordello there. Fresh eggs and customer service as a bonus, though I don’t think the fresh eggs were the main attraction.”
Colin was amused. Cleo’s turn of phrase was blunt and direct. She pulled no punches.
“You detectives always think the worst, Cleo. Perhaps she went there to clean up now and again.”
“I’ll have to ask her, won’t I?” said Cleo. “I know she’s quite hard up these days.”
“With five boys to rear, that’s understandable.”
“She doesn’t rear those boys, Colin. Their custody was awarded to the vicar’s sister and they live with Beatrice and Oscar now.”
“So Edith is footloose,” said Colin. “You can’t really blame her for keeping herself occupied, Cleo, and if that included cleaning clad only in an apron, it’s not our business.”
“Put like that, it’s logical,” said Cleo. “But what if Robert decided to put an end to that arrangement by doing away with Kelly?”
“Isn’t that a bit drastic?”
“Is it?”
“Does Edith live with Robert?”
“No. The bishop instructed our new curate to let her go on living at the vicarage. She now has the room downstairs that used to be the vicar’s study and her utility room upstairs, where she seduced Robert and tried to commit suicide. She shares the bathroom and kitchen. Apparently it all works well.”
“I would not want to use a room in which I had tried to kill myself, Cleo.”
“She probably does not remember. The balance of her mind was definitely disturbed, Colin. That’s why she was released on the understanding that she would have therapy and take pills.”
“So she can come and go as she wishes,” said Colin. “I don’t suppose the curate has time to keep abreast with Edith’s activities.”
“The only relevant point is whether Robert knew where she went, Colin.”
“I could ask Julie, but I don’t think he would have told her,” Colin said, “and I’m not sure that she needs know that her father could be in deep water.”
“The fact is that if Robert thought Edith was messing around with Kelly, it might be a motive to kill him in her defence because I’m sure he still felt responsible for her.”
“I’ll look through the old files, Cleo. He may have old enemies or someone has caught up with him. The paper files are in alphabetical order so it should not take too long. I’ll get back to you.”
You’ll need to look up the Marble files, too,” said Cleo. “He was his solicitor.”
“OK.”
“Thanks, Colin. I appreciate your help.”
***
By the time Cleo got home with PeggySue, it was high time to feed the twins. Grit was already anxious that Cleo had stayed away for a full two hours.
“You can’t go away for hours and leave them to starve, Cleo.”
“I would never neglect my children, Grit.”
“You’ll have to wean them then I can feed them and you can stay away longer.”
“You’re right, Grit. They can start with a little baby porridge today and we’ll try them on that powdered milk stuff.”
“I’m glad you are sensible about it, Cleo.”
***
Cleo fed the babies and got them ready for their siesta. In the meanwhile Gary turned up.
“Where’s Joe?” he wanted to know.
“Roger called him and invited him to go in for a chat about his new job,” said Grit.
“He did not tell me," said Gary. "What a sly old fox he is.”
“I think Roger is fascinated by the idea of having you both at HQ. It should cause quite a lot of confusion,” said Grit.
“Did he tell you that, Mother?”
“Just a hunch,” said Grit.
“He’ll have to wear those ghastly checked shirts and incur Nigel’s scorn,” said Gary.
“Be serious for a moment, Gary. I’m not sure that Robert can cope with what has come to light.”
“I’m serious about those shirts. Is Edith his problem again?”
“Not again, Gary. I don’t think he ever stopped seeing her, but she was two-timing him with Kelly of all people, not to mention all the other ocals who turned up at Kelly’s bordello.”
“So you believe Hilda’s story.”
“Why would she make that up?”
“You’re the sociologist, Cleo. I have no idea what goes on in that woman’s head, if anything.”
“I wonder if Dorothy can find out more. There must be witnesses. Somebody always sees something.”
”If you want my advice, get her onto it,” said Gary.
“That’s exactly what I’m going to do right now,” said Cleo.