This is a sneak peek of the first three chapters of my soon-to-be published novel The Mantle of God: a Dottie Manderson mystery. This is the second book in the series, and is scheduled for publication on December 15 2017. Like all my novels, The Mantle of God will be available in all major digital formats and also in paperback. Happy reading!
Hertfordshire, November 1605
As soon as the sound of horses reached her ears, Lady Gerard knew her greatest fears had become a reality. She fell against her husband, half-swooning, clutching at his coat with trembling fingers.
Sir Gerard was a man of courage and action. He had planned for this day, though hoping it would never come. It was a vain hope however, and he spared a brief second or two to be thankful that he had not only planned for this event, but had the support of his loyal staff to help him see it through. He shouted for the servants, and even as they came running, he was leading Lady Gerard up the broad staircase, calling for the children to be brought down from the nursery, and giving instructions to each man or maidservant as they appeared.
‘Garnett, send a man in first with the children. The nurse shall follow behind Greene with Lady Gerard and a lantern. Beyond all else, you must get them away safely as we arranged. You know how I depend upon you both. Maria, help Lady Gerard. Constance, bring candles and her ladyship’s cape.’
The servants, white-lipped and terrified, nevertheless hastened to do his bidding without hesitation. He could smile, even at such a time, that he was so fortunate in his companions.
Through the window they could see the first of the horses entering the long carriage drive. They had a bare minute, no more.
‘My dear,’ Gerard said to his wife, and his voice was sharp only to stir her to action. ‘We cannot delay,’ and by now they had reached the upper hall. ‘There is not a moment to lose.’
‘I will not leave you…’
‘You must.’ Pausing, he took her face in his hands, and kissed her for the last time. Looking into her eyes, he insisted gently, in a half-whisper, ‘You must, Katherine, my love. Think of the children, I beg you.’
There was silence. She nodded, a tear spilling over onto her cheek, and she said, ‘I know.’
‘Mama, what’s…?’ asked their eldest daughter, but was instantly shushed. The panel in the upper hall was opened, and two menservants stepped through, and others immediately thrust the four children, their nurse and a female servant through the gap after them without pausing to light torch or candle. One child whimpered, fearful of the darkness. My little Roland, thought Gerard with a pang.
But here was no more time for partings, and he pushed his wife through the entrance, handing her the precious wooden box. ‘Keep it safe, and may the Holy Mother watch over you all, my love.’
From the downstairs hall came a shout. Gerard quickly closed the panel, the suit of armour was returned to its position, and by the time the soldiers broke down the door and burst into the house, Sir Gerard was sitting calmly at his desk, reading from his prayerbook. He had dismissed those few servants who remained, fervently hoping they would get away to safety; they had been loyal beyond anything he could have asked or hoped. How he hoped they would not pay for that loyalty with their lives as others had elsewhere. As he himself was certain to do. So many things to hope for, he thought, at the very time when hope seemed least of his commodities.
The charge was read out by the captain even as the soldiers grabbed Sir Gerard by the arms and hauled him to his feet.
‘Where is your family?’ the captain demanded.
‘They are gone to the south coast for their health, we have all suffered so much from the influenza this past spring.’ He got a slap across the face for that, and the men were despatched to search the house.
‘Tear it apart if you have to! These papists have so many secret places in their homes. Rip up the floors, tear down the walls, smash out the stones of the fireplaces.’
Sir Gerard felt no fear for his family. The passage would be found eventually, but the men would never be able to open it. By the time the soldiers had taken an axe to the panel, his family would be long gone, and both family, treasures and the precious relic would never be found.
‘You will end your days in the Tower,’ the captain told him with a smirk, ‘and in great agony, I’ve no doubt.’
‘If God wills it,’ Sir Gerard responded with calm. ‘And afterward I shall be received in heaven.’
The captain spat at his feet and turned away. His men searched for the remainder of the day, and even returned the next, but they found neither Lady Gerard, nor her children, nor the famous Gerard relic.
Two weeks later, when the cold blade of the axe was laid upon his neck, Sir Gerard died secure in the knowledge that all was well, and that neither plans nor friends had failed him.
London, February 1934
‘Do sit down, Mr—er—Inspector. How nice to see you again.’
‘Thank you, Miss Manderson. It’s been a couple of weeks since we last met, I’m very glad to see you looking so well recovered.’
‘Would you like some tea? Or perhaps you prefer coffee?’
‘Thank you, a cup of tea would be most welcome.’
Dottie crossed the room to ring the bell. She moved slowly, mainly because part of her was astonished at how she, how both of them, managed to keep up this polite banality, when their last meeting—the one he had referred to—had been so…so…She fought to find the right word. Dramatic was not nearly dramatic enough. It had been chaotic, hellish, something from a nightmare.
Resuming her seat, she turned a polite smile on him. He seemed to have run out of small-talk. His right knee bounced nervously. He was trying not to stare at her.
The door to the morning room opened and Janet the maid came in almost at a run and bobbed to a halt in front of Dottie. Of course, Janet had probably opened the door to him, and taken his coat and hat. No doubt the tea had already been made downstairs, just waiting for her to ring. Dottie smiled at Janet and said, ‘Please could we have some tea?’
‘Yes’m, right away,’ said Janet, flashing a look and a quick smile at her favourite policeman as she went out. Janet had hopes of a match between Dottie and Inspector William Hardy. Although admittedly she harboured hopes of each and every man who might whisk Dottie away to a life of excitement and adventure, not only because she wanted Dottie to be happily married almost as much as Dottie’s mother did, but also because Dottie had promised that when she did eventually marry, Janet could go with her to her new home. Janet’s main goal in life was to be the housekeeper of a large and beautiful home in what she termed a ‘nice’ part of London. Briefly Dottie wondered whether Janet would insist on looking over any future marriage proposals to ensure the most suitable establishment was chosen for herself, rather than for Dottie. Certainly it was likely be a toss-up to see if it was her mother or her mother’s maid who had the final say in whom Dottie accepted.
The door closed softly behind the maid, and Inspector Hardy again tried to bring himself to the point of asking Dottie whatever it was he had come there to ask.
He complimented her for a second time on her healthy appearance, then cast about him for something else to say. Dottie, often the despair of her mother in social situations, simply leaned forward, fixed him with her large, hazel eyes and said, ‘What’s up?’ in the modern manner her mother would have deplored.
‘Ah, well, I—er…’
‘It’s no good pretending, I know you wouldn’t have called on me unless you simply had to. So, as I said before, what’s up?’
He gave her a grin, cheeky and almost boyish, and just for a few seconds, the grave policeman persona was gone. ‘I might call on you, especially if I thought your mother might be out.’
‘She’s not,’ Dottie said, ‘she’s upstairs bullying my father who is in bed with a cold.’
He looked uncomfortable again. ‘Ah, oh dear, then I’d better…’
‘Be quick? Yes, you better had.’
‘I was going to say, I’d better ask you to give both your parents my best wishes.’
The door opened.
‘Tea,’ said Janet and she set down a tray. She seemed to take an age to pour out a cup of tea for the inspector only, then she performed an odd hybridised bow-curtsey and, cheeks flaming, left the room once more, leaving Dottie to pour her own drink.
‘I’m sorry there’s no cake,’ Dottie said, ‘Mother’s put Father on a diet, which means none of us gets any treats at the moment. Cook’s under strict instructions.’
‘Never mind,’ he said. He clutched his cup and saucer. Perhaps having something to do with his hands gave him courage, for then he said, ‘Do you remember when Archie Dunne died?’
Dottie raised an eyebrow. ‘I’d hardly forget,’ she said, ‘seeing that it was I who found him bleeding to death on the ground. And it was only a couple of months ago.’
‘Ah, oh yes, indeed. Dreadful business.’ He allowed the clock above the fireplace time to loudly tick four times before adding, ‘I have been wondering if he said anything to you that night. Anything that might have slipped your mind?’
‘No,’ Dottie said, and watched him closely. What on earth did he mean?
‘Oh? And you’re quite, quite sure about that?’
‘Quite sure, thank you. If he’d said anything other than just singing those few words from that song, I would have told you.’
‘Well, if you’re sure…’ he repeated doubtfully.
‘I think I would have remembered,’ she replied somewhat waspishly. Then, curiosity getting the better of her, she added, ‘Surely this is all old news? I thought that case was all finished with? Why do you ask?’
He poured himself another cup of tea, stirred in milk and one teaspoon of sugar. Her mother wouldn’t like that, Dottie thought. As far as Mother was concerned, the milk absolutely had to go into the cup before the tea. There was a pause. The clock ticked loudly. She began to think he wasn’t going to reply. He gulped down at least half his tea before finally saying, ‘If I was to say to you ‘the mantle of God’, what would that mean to you?’
She shook her head. ‘I’ve never heard that before. What does it mean?’
‘It doesn’t mean anything to you? You’ve never heard anyone say those words?’
She shook her head again. ‘I told you, no.’ She blushed a little as in her mind’s eye she saw a kind of gigantic shelf over a huge fireplace in Heaven, and a clock and a few photos in silver frames sitting on the shelf. She pushed the image aside and told him firmly, ‘This is the first time I’ve ever heard those words, and I can’t imagine what they might mean.’
He said nothing, but drank the rest of his tea. Two can play at this game, Dottie thought, irritated, and forced herself to hold back any more questions that might be begging to be asked. She sat back in her chair, her arms folded, and regarded him in silence. Silence filled the room. Silence and the ticking of that dratted clock on the mantelpiece, she thought. She looked at his face. She saw now how pale he was, and that great hollows lay beneath his eyes. He looked as if he hadn’t slept for a week. She wanted to reach out to him, comfort him, help him in some way. She poured him another cup of tea, adding milk and sugar as he had done, and passed him the cup and saucer.
‘Tell me about it, if you like,’ she said gently.
He drank his third cup of tea in two huge gulps and set down his cup on the table. He ran a hand over his eyes and forehead as if trying to wake himself up. Dottie wondered what he would do if she were to go over to him and sit on his knee and stroke his tired face. But no doubt, she reminded herself sternly, if I did such a ridiculous thing, that is precisely the moment Mother would walk into the room, and she’d have forty fits and pack me off to a convent. Dottie therefore remained where she was, her hands neatly folded in her lap.
He cleared his throat. He offered her a crooked smile.
‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘we’ve got so many cases on at the moment, yet all can I think about is this—this conundrum.’ He sighed, and she waited. In his own time he would tell her, she realised.
‘I don’t know if I’m cut out to be a policeman,’ he said suddenly, and very quietly. She looked at him in astonishment. That was the last thing she had expected to hear. Before she could comment, he continued, ‘I can’t remember the last time I slept for a whole night. We’ve had a suicide, two armed robberies, an attack on a pr—er—on a good-time girl, a domestic battery, a kidnapping, and three break-and-enters in the last two weeks. You’d think that would be enough to keep me busy. But no, all I can think about is this wretched thing.’
He took a small brown envelope from his inside pocket and handed it to her. ‘It’s quite all right, you can open it. Have a look at what’s inside.’
She pulled up the flap, peered inside and saw a tiny scrap of fabric, badly faded, no more than the length of her little finger and only twice or three times the width. There was a line of stitching across one corner. There was also a small piece of paper which had once been folded over and over to create a parcel around the scrap. She smoothed out the paper on her knee. There were words printed in scrawly black ink: ‘the mantle of God.’
She stared at the items, then looked up at him questioningly.
‘The scrap of material was wrapped inside that piece of paper to make a little package as you can see. And this little package was found by the police doctor when he examined the body of Archie Dunne. It was tucked in the inside pocket of his evening coat. Officially it’s been set down by the chief superintendent as ‘of no significant value’ in the investigation. But yet…’ He rubbed his face again, this time with both hands.
‘The mantle of God,’ Dottie repeated, pondering the meaning. ‘Mantle as in a cloak or something? An ancient word for a coat or something similar.’
He nodded. ‘I assume so, but…’
‘Shall I ring for some more tea? Or what about a sandwich? Are you hungry? You look completely…’
‘I’m sorry, I really must be going. Thank you for your time.’
She held out the scrap of fabric and the paper but he shook his head and gestured for her to keep it.
‘Will you do me a huge favour? Will you see if you can find out anything about it? As a mannequin, you must come into contact with dressmakers, costumers, people who might know a bit about dress materials. I really can’t afford to spend the time on something my superiors have already dismissed as of no importance. And at the moment I don’t have any free time or I’d try to do some research myself. It’s just that—it feels significant in some way I can’t understand, or at least, relevant, but I haven’t the proof to justify the manpower or the time…’
He was on his feet, heading for the door, when he recollected his manners and came back. He shook her hand, and then seemingly on impulse, bent to kiss her cheek.
‘Bless you,’ he said, and squeezed her shoulder before leaving.
Dottie sat and gazed into space. She felt on the verge of tears, suddenly, and wanted so much to call him back. The front door banged. She heard the sound of his feet hurrying along the street. The room seemed full and highly charged, yet at the same time, strangely empty.
She looked at the fabric again. Going to the window, she couldn’t resist looking down the street in case she could still see him, but he had gone. With an effort she ignored the unsettled state of her emotions, turning her attention to the scrap of fabric, holding it up to the natural light and examining it. The material was badly faded and worn, but a few traces remained of some variation in the surface texture.
The scrap felt warm and butter-soft in her hand, and had no great weight or stiffness to it. It was a sort of faded greyish green colour, but here and there in the less-worn places, there was a trace of a deeper emerald shade, with more—she couldn’t quite think how to describe the texture—it was denser, plusher.
The stitches were a pale warmish colour like that of oatmeal or old stalks of wheat. They were worked close together, with no discernible fabric showing through. At one end of the piece of fabric, where the line of stitching reached the edge, a short length of thread hung loose, perhaps an inch and a half in length.
She sighed. She still knew nothing. It was the kind of scrap that one would normally throw away, or a very thrifty housewife might save to add to the stuffing for a new cushion or a child’s toy. Insignificant. Worthless. Yet it meant something to William, as she privately called him, and so if it was important to him, she would find out everything she could about it.
The hall clock chimed the hour, and Dottie, suddenly panicking, swept up the packet he’d given her with the mysterious writing, and ran upstairs to get ready. She had to be at Carmichael’s for a late afternoon show, followed by a cocktail party for the firm’s best clients.
She was almost late. A road accident held up the bus she was in, and she sat there, hands gripped tightly in her lap, as the precious minutes ticked by. Inside the bus it was stuffy and musty-smelling, whilst outside, a chilly rain fell upon the now-dark streets. How she wished it were Spring. She longed for lighter evenings and sunshine.
The bus showed no sign of moving, stuck as it was in a crowd of traffic at a junction. Up ahead, there was shouting and a glare of lights. Dottie brought her thoughts back to the scrap of fabric and the enigmatic words on the paper it had been so carefully wrapped in.
What could it mean, she wondered. The mantle of God. She smiled as she recalled her first mental image of a crowded overmantel. Wrong mantle, she thought. This clearly referred to a garment, not a piece of furniture. But how could God wear an item of clothing. Then again, she thought with a smile, what would God want with a mantelpiece?
The bus lurched forward suddenly as the road ahead finally cleared, and it was all she could do not to shout, ‘Hurrah!’ She mused on the words ‘mantle of God’ again.
What kind of garment would God wear? She thought of the statues in churches, of the paintings she had seen in galleries and museums.
Usually the Christ-figures in those were shown on the cross, clad only in a modest cloth, or if depicted in other scenes from the Bible, speaking to crowds for example, wearing long robes covered by a cloak…
…A cloak. That had to be it! The cloak. Was this anything to do with the Daughters of Esther and their gold cloaks? Dottie’s thoughts leapt from the memory of the gold cloaks to Leonora and her bloody knife, to Susan Dunne, sitting dead in her armchair, her eyes wide and staring, her throat ripped apart and gushing blood.
Nausea passed over Dottie and she shivered with it. The plump matron beside her patted her knee and said, ‘Never mind, Dearie, we’ll be there in a minute, and you can get yourself warmed up with a nice cup of tea.’
The show went well. Dottie moved and turned mechanically, her mind busy on the puzzle of the fabric, her body well-versed in the movements required to show the gowns and costumes to the small eager group of Mrs Carmichael’s exclusive clients.
Everything went without a hitch, and when the show was over, the food and drink was carried in and set out upon tables in the long room. The mannequins went backstage to change into their ordinary clothes, and the few of them favoured by Mrs Carmichael were invited to join the great lady and her client for the cocktail party.
Dottie, a glass of sherry in her hand, stood in the middle of the room and wondered where to go. Mrs Carmichael didn’t like her girls to huddle in a corner and chatter: they were still at work, so she expected them to be out in the room, circling, smiling and talking to the clients. Now that the show was over, some of the ladies had been joined by gentlemen, and more than one man looked hopefully in Dottie’s direction, far too openly admiring her tall slender figure, dark hair and eyes, and her smooth fair skin.
Avoiding those she already knew to be insufferable, she wandered aimlessly about the room, a smile fixed on her face, occasionally nodding to someone or calling out a non-committal, ‘Good evening, so lovely to see you again.’
Mrs Carmichael was in full flow with a group of people, three ladies and a gentleman gathered about her like chicks around a plump hen. One of the ladies was clearly hanging devotedly on Mrs Carmichael’s every word, the others appeared merely polite, not really attending to everything the great woman was saying, just content to bask in her rough-diamond glory.
Dottie smiled to herself as she heard Mrs Carmichael’s robust East End tones outlining all the advantages of natural fibres over the new man-made artificial fabrics. Certainly Mrs Carmichael knew her stuff when it came to fabric and style, which was to be expected, as she had often told Dottie she started in the business ten years before the Great Victoria had passed away.
A thought now came to Dottie. She made her way over to join the group. Standing at Mrs Carmichael’s elbow, she seemed to see her employer anew, now recognising for the first time the knowledge and expertise contained behind the vast bosom and the unflattering spectacles that reposed thereupon on a beaded ribbon, ever ready to decipher the ridiculously tiny writing everyone seemed to employ these days.
When there was a lull, and Mrs Carmichael’s admirers had turned away to greet friends, Dottie said, ‘Mrs Carmichael, please could I have a few moments of your time after the party?’
Mrs Carmichael cast a practised eye over Dottie.
‘Well, you’ve not got yourself into trouble, I know, so you must be going to leave me to get married.’
‘Not at all,’ Dottie responded, blushing furiously, ‘I just want to ask your advice about something.’
Noticeably relieved, Mrs Carmichael told her to come along to the office once everyone had gone. Pleased about that, and confident she was going to make some progress, Dottie felt lighter and happier, and applied herself vigorously to socialising with the clients and enhancing Mrs Carmichael’s considerable reputation for quality garments and exclusive designs for the discerning lady.
Mrs Carmichael, ushering Dottie into the little windowless room she called her office, began to divest herself of the less comfortable parts of her attire: first, the tight, high-heeled shoes, then the heavy necklace and earrings, then the tiny hat was yanked off and flung on the desk, followed by the silvery stole, the heavy gold bracelet and the spectacles on their beaded ribbon. Mrs Carmichael, much lighter and more at ease, sat, and invited Dottie to do the same.
‘Takes it out of you, all this socialising. At least it does when you get to my age,’ she told Dottie. She stretched out her stockinged feet with an expression of blissful relief, wiggled her toes and rotated her ankles several times in each direction. ‘Coo, that’s better. My poor feet. The things we do to sell a few frocks.’
Mrs Carmichael waddled over to a drinks cabinet and poured herself a neat gin, then quirked an eyebrow at Dottie who hastily declined.
‘I’ve been meaning to have a chat with you, Dot,’ Mrs Carmichael said as she returned to her chair and sank into it once more with a groan. ‘I can’t tell you how worried I was when you said you wanted to talk to me. I made sure you was going to say you was getting married or had got yourself in the family way.’ She glanced at Dottie’s hot and embarrassed face again. ‘But there, you’re a good girl, and a sensible one. Now I’ve been approached by a friend of mine who works for a big studio. They need some girls to help out. There’s a picture being made, it’s about a mannequin who falls in love with a duke or something, and all set in the fashion world. I was thinking of you. Oh, it’s all perfectly decent,’ she added, seeing Dottie’s expression, ‘nothing nasty. It’s a proper film, with some well-known people in it.’ She reeled off a few names, and Dottie recognised two of them. ‘The money will be very good, I should think. They need a couple of girls, as I said, for background scenes, catwalks, a few tasteful dressing room scenes, no nudity, nothing riskay. Just girls in outfits patting their hair or putting on lipstick, that sort of thing. What do you say? Shall I put you forward, or do you need to check with Dear Mama?’
Mrs Carmichael was a clever woman. A clever, self-made woman. There was no Mr Carmichael. There never had been. Like many women of her time, she found it expedient to adopt the Mrs, it lent an air of respectability and wisdom to her business. She had worked her way up from scullery maid for a designer at age 12—she’d lied about her age—to where she was today: owner of her own fashion house, owner of her own home in London, possessor of cars, jewels, furs, servants, and a holiday villa on the south coast. All the girls who worked for her, including Dottie, would have been surprised to know she was a self-made millionaire, and that was entirely due to her own good sense and understanding of others. And nothing could have been better calculated to push Dottie to make the required decision than her last comment, Or do you need to check with Dear Mama.
Dottie, blushing, immediately said, ‘No, of course I don’t. I’ll do it, Mrs Carmichael. Please put my name forward.’ She paused then added, leaning forward, and speaking softly, ‘and you’re quite sure it is perfectly—respectable? I couldn’t do anything…’
‘Nor would I ask you to, Dottie, dear. No, take it from me, it will be perfectly respectable. Leave it with me and I’ll get in touch with them. No doubt but what they’ll be in touch with you in a week or so. Now I just need to think of one or two more to send them.’
‘Gracie?’ Dottie suggested.
‘Bless you, dear. You haven’t heard, then? Got herself into trouble. That boy from the docks. He’s a bad ‘un too, I told her when she first started seeing him. Men are all the same, only interested in one thing.’
Her face crimson again, Dottie tried to nod sagely, feeling quite proud of herself for discussing such a topic so matter-of-factly. ‘Oh dear, poor Gracie. I wonder what will happen?’
‘Well that mother of hers is a poor stick, so it’s hardly surprising. And I don’t s’pose as how the mother’ll make him marry her,’ Mrs Carmichael said.
‘Things have been very difficult for Gracie and her family since her father died, it must be two years ago now.’
‘Must be. As you say, poor Gracie. These girls will fall for a smooth-talker who takes ‘em out and splashes the money.’ She finished her gin and set the glass aside, along with poor Gracie and her predicament. Mrs Carmichael looked at Dottie and said, ‘No young man in your life?’
‘Oh no,’ Dottie replied hastily.
‘Good thing too, don’t want to throw yourself away too young. Not that you’ll need to. I expect they’re queuing ‘round the corner to take you out dancing. Did I hear your sister’s had some good news?’
‘Yes, um—Flora is expecting a baby. She’s delighted, of course. In fact, we all are.’
‘Very nice too. Is she keeping well?’
Dottie affirmed that Flora was well apart from a little nausea now and again. She sensed the time had come. ‘Mrs Carmichael,’ she began, ‘I would like to ask you something. Do you know much about fabric? I mean, not about patterns or fashions, but the material itself?’
‘Well, a bit more than most, I daresay,’ Mrs Carmichael admitted, and her interest was definitely piqued.
Dottie carefully extracted the tiny scrap of fabric from the paper wrapping. She held it out to Mrs Carmichael, who took it, and after a glance. She laid it on her desk, turned on the desk lamp, and opened a drawer to fish out a magnifying glass. She turned the cloth this way and that under the lamp as she examined it carefully for several minutes.
When at last she handed it back to Dottie, she seemed a little put-out, or—well, Dottie wasn’t sure what Mrs Carmichael was—she could only sense that there was a change in the room and the change came from Mrs Carmichael herself, and it wasn’t a happy change, nor an interested change. It was a tense, angry, odd change and the room felt unfriendly.
But Mrs Carmichael simply shrugged her shoulders and speaking over her shoulder as she turned to put off the lamp and put away the glass, she said, ‘Well it’s not much to go on, is it, just an old bit of something, I suppose. What did you want to know about it?’
Dottie was watching her closely, feeling rather puzzled. ‘What sort of fabric is it?’
‘Don’t know. Could be cotton, I suppose. Looks like it’s been in the wars a bit.’
‘Yes, it is a rather tattered,’ Dottie agreed. She put the fabric away again inside its much-folded paper. There was a flash of the writing, but Dottie hoped Mrs Carmichael hadn’t seen it. In spite of William Hardy’s request for help, she wasn’t sure how much to say.
‘So, where did you get it?’ Mrs Carmichael asked. ‘What’s it from?’
Dottie smiled. ‘Oh, it’s just something I found. I just wondered what sort of fabric it was. Thank you so much for your time, I mustn’t keep you any longer. I think the party went well, didn’t it?’
Mrs Carmichael seemed to have to pull her attention back to Dottie from a long way off. As Dottie stood, and made her way to the door, Mrs Carmichael was still nodding her head and putting out her hands to heave herself onto her aching feet once more.
‘Well if there’s anything else,’ she said, but Dottie simply made herself shake her head and said no thank you, then with a bright smile, she added, ‘Well, goodbye!’
Dottie turned and hurried away, banging the street door a moment later as she set off for the bus stop.
Behind her, alone in her big warehouse, now all in darkness save for the single electric lightbulb burning in the little back office, Muriel Carmichael sat deep in thought for a few moments. She came to herself after a while, gave herself a little impatient shake, then picked up the phone and got through to the operator. She asked for a number. At the other end of the line, down the miles and miles of cable strung along the streets, twisting and turning across the vast busyness of London, she could hear a bell ringing, one, twice, four times, six, before the receiver was picked up and a refined voice said, ‘Mrs Gerard’s residence, this is Aitchison speaking.’
‘It’s Muriel Carmichael. I must speak with Mrs Gerard immediately. If not sooner.’ Muriel Carmichael bellowed, being of the generation for whom the telephone was less of an instrument of communication and more of one of torture.
The butler ahemmed politely and said, ‘I’m afraid Mrs Gerard has not yet returned from her trip. I expect her back in a few days. I shall inform her that you rang.’
The butler then hung up the receiver and left Mrs Carmichael swearing furiously and in a most unladylike fashion at her own now useless apparatus.
It was Flora’s idea to take the scrap of fabric to the London Metropolitan Museum. Dottie had her doubts, and tried to insist they would be wasting everyone’s time.
‘They’ve all sorts of costumes and things,’ Flora had said, ‘they’re bound to have some kind of crusty old fossil who is the world’s expert on tatty old bits of cloth.’
The crusty old fossil was gazing at Dottie now. There was a quality in the gaze that reminded her of the cook’s dog when it spied a string of sausages. Dottie wondered what her own expression revealed, because certainly, the LMM’s tapestry, textile and costume consultant was worth looking at.
He couldn’t be more than thirty-two or thirty-four, she thought, and he was easily six inches taller than her own five feet seven. He was more thin than slender, had eyes of a piercing blue over which his fair hair repeatedly flopped, requiring him to push it back continually. His fingers were like paintbrushes, long, thin and pointed-looking, yet as he took the scrap of fabric from her hands and turned it over to study it, his touch was that of a mother with her newborn child.
Dottie exchanged a look with her sister. Flora’s eyes were wide and amused, making Dottie blush, and turning her back on her sister Dottie began to apologise to Dr Melville.
‘I’m afraid it’s probably nothing of interest. I’m afraid we’re simply taking up your valuable time, I’m sure you’re exceedingly busy…’
‘Nonsense,’ he murmured but didn’t take his eyes off the greyish piece of stuff.
‘Perhaps we ought to just…’ Flora offered, but he ignored her completely. Silence seemed to envelop them. Dummies stared from behind glass screens. All of life seemed to pause, waiting on his pronouncement. Flora fidgeted, bending forward to relieve her aching back. Her tummy was a little larger now she was well into her fourth month of pregnancy, and her back sometimes complained.
At length, the museum’s expert on tapestries, textiles and costume indicated he was ready to deliver his verdict. Flora and Dottie regarded him with bated breath.
‘Perhaps you’d like to come this way? I need to look at this properly,’ he told them, and now Dottie was able to register his soft Scottish accent, which added to his many other attributes. Without waiting for them to respond he strode away, bearing Dottie’s fabric scrap in his right hand.
They quickly lost him. Turning this way and that between the displays, they came face to face with a door marked ‘Private’ which was just closing.
‘Well, go on, you ninny,’ Flora said. Dottie hesitated.
‘It might not have been him who just…’
‘He said, ‘come this way’,’ Flora pointed out. ‘He’s not here, so we need to find him. There’s a jolly good chance he went through there. If he didn’t, we’ll just apologise like sensible human beings and come out again.’ She turned the handle and bundled a still-hesitating Dottie ahead of her through the door.
Beyond the door, the corridor was long and dark, lit only from the opposite end where a single door stood ajar, allowing a combination of electric light and daylight to spill out into the darkness and chase away the deepest shadows. All the other doors were closed. They made towards the light. But before they got that far, a face peered out at them and an impatient Scottish voice said, ‘Oh there you are. Do come along.’ And suddenly Dottie didn’t think him so very attractive after all.
An irritated, ‘Well, shut the door, then,’ welcomed them into his inner sanctum. They entered the room that seemed so bright after the dim hallway, but found he had already turned his back and was bending over a microscope, the scrap of material on the specimen glass between two thin glass slides. Dottie felt an urge to snatch the fabric back, but held herself in check, waiting, her foot tapping on the tiled floor, for his verdict.
It was a long time coming. Flora seated herself on a convenient chair, exchanging eye-rolling with her sister.
‘Hmm,’ he said. They waited for more, but nothing came. The two sisters exchanged another look of annoyance mingled with amusement.
Dottie looked about her. It was an office not unlike that of experts and academics up and down the country; books were piled on shelves that vied for living space with stands, cabinets and table-tops. An attempt—no doubt when the present incumbent had first moved in—had been made at some kind of order, as the book case nearest the door contained books arranged in neat rows, clearly in a particular sequence but further along these neat rows gave way to tottering stacks, and other items had been introduced: the handles of scissors, knives and other tools poked out here and there; small items of historical clothing were displayed on wire figures or preserved beneath dusty glass domes. Drawing closer she saw that there was a little group of clerical vestments in miniature—tiny wire priests stood ready to offer sacraments and prayers. Another shelf held the more prosaic examples of everyday dress of older centuries, again all perfectly replicated in a tiny scale, as if designed for the doll of the most pampered, indulged of royal offspring. A far cry, Dottie thought, from the rag doll her nurse had made for her some fifteen years earlier. Anna-Maria still sat on a chair in Dottie’s room, in her patchwork shawl, cotton frock and the uneven petticoats sewn by Dottie’s own childish fingers.
Beneath the book shelves, on both the right and the left-hand walls of the room, were many, many shallow drawers, some half-open and stuffed with envelopes and packets from which spilled threads, ribbons, small samples and great swathes of fabric, all labelled in the same small, neat hand. Dottie was about to pick one up to get a better look, when Melville’s voice suddenly bellowed:
‘Don’t touch that, it’s priceless!’
Jumping half out of her skin and biting back the retort that perhaps, in that case, it ought to be more carefully stored, she instead offered an apologetic smile and folded her hands in front of her.
He turned back to the microscope and said, ‘Hmm,’ once more. Then queried, ‘Where did you say you found this, again?’
Flora stifled a yawn. Caught off-guard, Dottie wracked her brains to think of something plausible. ‘Er, well I didn’t say. I—er—that is to say, we—um…’ She directed a look of sheer panic at Flora, shaking her head as if to say, I don’t know what to tell him.
‘We came across it in our granny’s attic. She recently passed away and we’ve been clearing out the house so it can be sold,’ Flora said, and she managed to inject a note of boredom into her tone that was not entirely fictitious. But not for the first time, Dottie wondered whether she should be concerned over her sister’s ability to lie so convincingly and without the least qualm.
‘I see. Just this tiny scrap? On its own?’ He sounded politely disbelieving.
‘It was part of a larger piece of fabric,’ Flora said.
‘How large exactly?’ He turned to stare at Flora with those beautiful blue eyes. Dottie had the feeling he was still peering through the microscope at a specimen, trying to discover its secrets.
‘It’s hard to say,’ Flora hedged, ‘it’s so dark in granny’s attic. And it was amongst lots of bits and bobs in a trunk.’
‘Hmm,’ he said and turned away.
There was another long silence. Dottie’s attention was beginning to wander again. She looked at the desk beside the table which bore the microscope. It was a very neat desk. No typewriter, no papers, no photographs of a loving wife or doting parents. There was a neatly folded length of black silk, and a pair of dressmaker’s shears. It was the only tidy space in the whole room.
He straightened and turned away from the microscope. ‘I’d like to keep this, if I may, and run some tests.’
‘What kind of tests?’ Dottie asked.
‘Oh, well it’s rather complicated to explain to the layperson,’ he told her with a patronising smile, ‘but to put it simply, I shall combine microscopic samples of the cloth with various solutions, and these will help me to learn more about the nature of the fabric.’
‘But surely…’ Flora began, and at the same time, Dottie said, ‘But surely that will destroy this piece of fabric?’
There was an odd still moment that seemed to stretch between them like a taut wire. No one spoke, or even seemed to breathe. Then he looked from one to the other of them and he flashed Dottie another smile, this time more charming, ‘Well yes, but at least then we’ll know what it is. You still have the rest of the fabric in granny’s attic, after all.’ His tone was gentle, persuasive, almost teasing. Dottie felt like an unreasonable child.
‘But I don’t want…’
‘Look, you asked me to help you,’ he said with a touch of asperity, ‘that’s all I’m trying to do.’ He raked a hand through his floppy fringe.
‘I realise that,’ Dottie said in a small voice, ‘and I’m sorry to have wasted your time, but I don’t want you to cut this up into tiny pieces. I thought you’d just take one look at it and say, ‘oh yes, that’s 18th century Indian cotton’, or something like that. I don’t want it destroyed.’
‘You’ve got the rest of the fabric,’ he pointed out again, and his tone was sharp with annoyance. Dottie felt herself blushing. She felt embarrassed for having taken up his valuable time with her childish errand then refusing his help when he offered it.
‘I’m terribly sorry,’ she said repeated, ‘please let me have it back. I’m afraid we have to go now.’
He stared at her for a few seconds, jaw clenched and lips pressed together. Dottie felt he was going to be very angry, but finally he simply took a little inward breath, then smiled and said, ‘Certainly,’ and he removed the scrap from the microscope slide and put it into her hand.
She felt an unaccountable relief to put the scrap back into its paper and safely away in her handbag.
Without quite noticing how, she realised they were walking along the dark hallway again, back to the public gallery of the museum and as he held the door open for them, he smiled once again, and in a warm, friendly voice, said, ‘Do forgive me, I’m afraid we academics are rather prone to getting wrapped up in our work and have a tendency to forget about social pleasantries. I’m afraid I got a little carried away. Sorry for trying to cut up your fabric—I forgot myself there for a moment.’
There in the brightly lit colourful gallery, it was easy to relax and feel that she had imagined that odd moment in his office. Dottie smiled back at him and told him he was forgiven. Flora was looking at some royal robes in a nearby glass case, and when she ventured a comment about them, he hurried to her side to explain. Dottie drifted after him.
He really was so very—intense. Physically attractive, yes, but on top of that he had a kind of magnetism that sparked her interest. He turned, caught her staring at him, and she blushed and turned away. For another ten minutes they followed him around as he pointed out some of his favourite exhibits. As they were about to leave, he held out his hand to Flora who shook it, and then to Dottie, who did the same, but he trapped her hand between both of his and said, ‘I’m really so sorry about my madness earlier. Please let me make it up to you. Will you allow me to take you to dinner?’
Surprised, flushed, Dottie answered a shy ‘yes’, and gave him her address and telephone number which he scribbled down in a tiny notebook with an even tinier pencil stub, then he promised to call for her the following Wednesday at seven o’clock.
‘Well!’ said Flora, when they reached the chilly street.
‘Oh dear!’ Dottie groaned, ‘do you think I should have declined?’
‘Don’t be silly, he’s gorgeous!’ Flora told her with a laugh, ‘even if he is a bit—how did he put it? Academic?’
‘Hmm,’ Dottie said, wrinkling her nose. ‘I can’t picture him making polite conversation with Mother, can you?’
‘It’s only dinner,’ Flora reminded her. ‘You don’t have to marry him. You realise we still know nothing about that dratted bit of fabric?’
‘It’s odd,’ Dottie said coming back to her main concern, ‘As I said in there just now I really thought that, being an expert, he would take a look at it and immediately know exactly what it was. I really thought he would just shrug and say “oh yes that’s cotton from somewhere-or-other” and that would be it. But no, he had to try and turn it into a chemistry experiment.’
‘Your face! I thought you were going to slap him, or burst into tears, or wrestle him to the ground for it. I hate to think how possessive you’ll be over something really important, like a baby or a wedding ring!’
Dottie halted in the street, and had to turn to apologise to two people who cannoned into her. She bit her lip. ‘I wish I hadn’t said I’d have dinner with him.’
‘Don’t be silly, he’s very charming when he puts his mind to it. I’m sure you’ll have a lovely time, and if you don’t, well, you don’t need to see him again.’
‘Dottie! Come along, and stop worrying. It’s only one dinner. Dinner with an extremely handsome—and, no doubt, interesting—man.’
‘I know,’ Dottie said, and they continued on their way. It was only dinner, that was all. Not a life-sentence. She would have to keep reminding herself.
William Hardy was on his way out the front door of the police station when a call came through to the front desk and the duty sergeant called him back.
Hardy leaned against the tall counter with a sigh and waited for the sergeant to write down the particulars and end the call.
‘Another robbery?’ Hardy said as soon as the sergeant had hung up the receiver.
‘Yes sir. Kensington. Here’s the address. The home of Mr Ian Smedley-Judd. Was having a dinner party; said they’d barely had time to take their seats when masked men burst in, holding them at gun point and demanding all their valuables. Said the men left within ten minutes of their arrival. All very polished and well-rehearsed.’
‘They would be, it’s not the first of these we’ve had. Right, call Maple and get him to meet me there. And as many uniformed constables as you can find.’
‘And the fingerprint chappie?’
‘Yes, though I doubt he’ll find anything. It seems all criminals these days know to wear gloves. It’s such a shame there are so many novels to teach crooks how to run the show!’ Hardy began to turn away and then turned back to offer a wry grin to the desk sergeant. ‘And please telephone to my mother and let her know I won’t be home for dinner.’
The sergeant sketched him a salute. ‘Very good sir. I’m afraid this latest bunch don’t much care if people get their dinner.’
‘No, indeed. And I don’t know which is worse, the robbery they’ve committed or them keeping me from my evening meal. Goodnight Sergeant.’
Thank you for reading this sample, I do hope you enjoyed it. The book is currently available to preorder as an eBook, and will also (eventually) be available in paperback form.
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