Lower Bar, Scotland, May 1934
Anna McHugh glared through the prison bars at the sprawling body. When the figure did not immediately acknowledge her presence, she aimed a kick through the bars at the foot hanging off the end of the narrow cot.
‘Hey, idiot! I haven’t got all day to wait around for you, so let’s get going.’
The figure on the cot stretched and yawned in a leisurely manner, as if awaking from a deep refreshing sleep. He got to his feet and gave her what he clearly believed was a cheeky smile, but she glared at him again and turned on her heels. ‘If you’re no’ in the street in one minute, you’ll have to walk back.’ She returned to the waiting area at the front of the police station, saying to the officer behind the desk, ‘He’s ready to leave now, if that’s all right.’
The police officer gave her a grin as he turned to fetch the keys out of a cupboard behind him. ‘Just out the three days, isn’t it? I know you said he was at home with you all night. But we all know it was him that took that deer from Barr Hall. And the laird is a very good friend of the procurator. So maybe try and keep your man home at night, m’dear, if you don’t want him to go straight back to prison, this time for a wee bit longer.’
She watched him go through to unlock the cell door. ‘He’s no my man,’ she said softly. Her man was at home, behind the bar of his public house, and he would be ready with his belt when he heard she’d given William Hardy an alibi for the previous night. Her heart felt heavy, she dreaded going home. But what else could she do? She couldn’t let Will go back to jail for the one crime he hadn’t committed. She went out into the sunshine to the little car she’d borrowed from the pub.
It seemed everything she did for Will got her into trouble. How could he have given up her name like that, even to get himself out of a tight spot? Surely he knew by now the price she would pay for that? Her mind whispered that her mother would have said a gentleman never betrayed a lady’s confidence. But William Hardy was no gentleman, and she doubted he would say she was a lady, either. Why did she let him do this to her? If she could only get him out of her life—and her heart—perhaps her husband wouldn’t find so much fault in her. Which would mean far fewer bruises.
She sat behind the wheel, waiting. And waiting. She told herself she’d just give him another minute, then it became two more, and then another five. Finally after almost fifteen minutes the man appeared, swaggering as he came, proud as punch of his exploits. Along the street someone cheered, and Will raised his fist in a gesture of triumph. Anna sighed. How was another night in the cells anything to be proud of?
The same day, London.
Mrs Carmichael’s funeral was every bit as awful as Dottie had feared. A sea of black-dyed ostrich-plumed hats hid the front of the little church from view, and the stench of hot-house flowers threatened to overwhelm the senses. Two ladies had prolonged sneezing fits due to the pollen and had to be led outside to wait in the entryway.
The rain—having held off for several grey days—descended now in torrents, reducing the graveyard to little more than a bog, which was why the service had to be held inside. Dottie never actually did catch sight of the coffin, even though, due to the size of the lady reposing inside it, she somewhat irreverently assumed it to be a large one.
Mrs Carmichael had been horribly murdered just a few weeks earlier, and her fashion warehouse was silent, in a kind of limbo, with no business being done. Like the other mannequins, Dottie had no idea what was going to happen either to her job or the warehouse itself, or to the half-planned autumn-winter collection. The place just wouldn’t be the same without the large, formidable woman shouting orders in her strident East London accent, scattering the girls here and there. Dottie found she just couldn’t picture a future for the warehouse her late employer had spent her whole life building up single-handedly.
It was terrible. She couldn’t bear to think about Mrs Carmichael being pushed down the stairs of her own home in the middle of the night. In recent months Dottie had known of several people who had died unpleasantly. But the death of Mrs Carmichael, who had been a friend as well as an employer, had hit her hard and she found herself continually on the verge of tears, not wanting to think about it, yet finding it was all she could think about.
The only bright note in an otherwise miserable day was when Police Inspector William Hardy entered the church. She caught his eye immediately and her heart sang when he smiled and came to sit beside her.
The large congregation, for once, did justice to the demands of funeral hymn-singing, and Dottie’s clear contralto blended well with Hardy’s robust baritone. For several minutes she was so thoroughly immersed in the pleasure of singing with him that she completely forgot the sad occasion.
At the end of the service, it was still too wet for either coffin or congregation to proceed into the graveyard, and so after hanging about for half an hour, conversing in muted tones, the mourners dispersed, dashing outside under large umbrellas to step thankfully into cars. Dottie’s parents, her sister and brother-in-law began to make their way to their own vehicles. Dottie held back, wanting to spend a few more minutes with William. But she was disappointed.
He walked with her as far as the church door, then looking about and seeing no one watching, he dropped a self-conscious kiss on her cheek and said, ‘Sorry, I’m afraid I must dash. I have an appointment I mustn’t miss. May I telephone you?’
‘Of course you may, but…’
And he was gone, waving regretfully over his shoulder. Damn the man, Dottie thought furiously, with scant regard for the hallowed place in which she was standing. Every time she thought she’d finally got a few minutes with him, he ran off! At least he had kissed her… in a manner of speaking.
An hour later, at the premises of Bell, Bray and Mower, Dottie was shown into the office of a Mr Bray. As she followed the bald young man who was Mr Bray’s secretary, she collided with a tall, lean figure. Glancing up on hearing someone say her name, she saw William Hardy standing there.
She felt flustered at coming across him so unexpectedly. Was this the appointment he had mentioned? Why was he there? He appeared equally uncomfortable. But she had only time to say, ‘William! What on earth…?’ before she was chivvied into the room he had just left, and was more or less herded into a leather armchair. The door closed as William glanced back through the gap of the closing door and gave her an apologetic shrug.
Mr Bray, introducing himself, wasted no time before straight away embarking on a long speech about his role as Mrs Muriel Carmichael’s legal representative as it related to her last will and testament.
Of course, thought Dottie, her mind still fixed on William Hardy. He’s probably had to come here on a police matter—his work was all about the minute detail of legal proceedings. No doubt he was here in an official capacity, looking into something or other to do with Mrs Carmichael’s murder.
She was mulling these thoughts over, pleased with the idea that it was ‘only’ work that kept William from her side, when it gradually dawned on her that the other occupant of the room had fallen silent. Mr Bray had talked at length and then stopped, and she had no idea what he had said.
She gazed at him with her lovely hazel eyes. Mr Bray, a mousy, insipid bachelor in his mid-fifties, was very fond of dark-haired girls with lovely hazel eyes. It was fortunate he was, because he now had to say everything again. Normally Mr Bray was not a patient man, but with her eyes upon him now, he happily told her the good news all over again.
‘Muriel Carmichael thought of you not only as an employee but as a friend. As such, and in view of your dedication, hard work and commitment to your position in her warehouse, coupled with Mrs Carmichael’s lack of close family, I am instructed to hand over the entirety of Mrs Carmichael’s assets to you, with three notable exceptions.’ Dottie couldn’t begin to understand what Mr Bray was telling her. What assets? What could he mean?
‘There is a requirement that must be fulfilled before those assets can actually become yours. I hope that you will not find the demand placed on you too onerous.’ He gazed upon her pleasing features. He knew she worked as a mannequin in Mrs Carmichael’s fashion warehouse, and certainly he could see why she was so valued by his client. He hoped—fervently—that she was not grasping. She was lovely, to be sure, but he had met ladies before who were lovely on the outside only. Sometimes, outer beauty, brittle and hard as a mask, concealed the inner ugliness of a hard, grasping heart. The love of money…
‘A requirement?’ Dottie repeated. ‘And assets? What assets?’
‘Everything Mrs Carmichael owned is now yours…’
‘…apart from three properties she has disposed of elsewhere.’
Dottie was staring at him without comprehension. Mr Bray, being an old-fashioned sort of chap, was hopeful that Dottie was, as befitted a true lady, in need of guidance in these complex affairs.
‘Mrs Carmichael left the business to me!’ Dottie exclaimed to her sister, Flora, before she even entered the house. Greeley, Flora’s butler, ushered her into the hall with an expression of undisguised interest.
Flora was every bit as astonished as Dottie had hoped, and never one to be concerned about keeping private things private from her own staff, she immediately began to cross-examine Dottie about it. ‘The whole business? The warehouse too? And the designs?’
‘Everything!’ Dottie said. She was dizzy with trying to take it all in. ‘Not the house in France—can you believe she had a colossal fortune? She even had a house in France! That’s to go to her maid, Pamphlett! And the house where she lived, she’s left that to someone else too. I don’t know who. I know it’s none of my business, but all the same, I should have liked to know. And there’s a little cottage somewhere, I forget where, down on the south coast, that’s gone to someone else again. And then, it turns out she had several cars, they’re garaged in a mews not far from her house, and are to go to yet another person. It really is very frustrating not knowing who these people are, not that I care a fig about cars, though I do want George to teach me to drive… Where was I?’ She paused for breath. Flora—and Greeley—were still staring at her. ‘Oh yes, everything else—savings, stocks and shares, investments, and her personal items: jewellery, furniture, and then there’s the warehouse, the designs, all the stock, the orders, it’s all been left to me, lock stock and barrel! A small apartment in Covent Garden. Another little house somewhere, I can’t remember where. It’s all so—I don’t know…’
‘Exciting?’ suggested Flora.
‘Wonderful?’ suggested Greeley.
A light went out in Dottie eyes. She leaned forward and in a sober voice, she said, ‘It’s almost a million pounds. It’s all too much, how can one person own so much? It’s jolly scary actually. It seems like a huge responsibility.’ She slumped down in an armchair. ‘I can’t seem to take it all in.’ She looked up at Greeley, hovering in the doorway, her coat and hat still in his hands. ‘Could I please have a cup of tea, Mr Greeley?’
Greeley collected himself. He had been drinking in every word. ‘Oh yes, of course, Miss Dottie.’ And he hurried away, eager to share the latest news with his wife, who was Flora and George’s cook, and the maid Cissie.
Below stairs, whilst waiting for the kettle to boil, they toasted Dottie’s good fortune, Greeley adding solemnly that she deserved it, she’d been so very fond of the old woman.