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‘We’re very grateful to you, Miss Allingham,’ said Sir Gerald Unsworth courteously, ‘for opening the fete and signing your books.’
‘It’s not every day we have a distinguished crime writer in our midst,’ said Lady Unsworth. ‘Everyone here in Bishop Somerton was so excited to meet you.’
‘I’ve enjoyed myself enormously,’ said Margery, smiling amiably at her middle-aged hosts.
‘It’s been our most successful fete in years,’ said Sir Gerald, rubbing his hands together. ‘The takings are marvellous. May I top up your sherry glass, Miss Allingham?’
The conversation was taking place in the Tudor drawing-room of Unsworth Chase. Sir Gerald was a genial host who went out of his way to impress his guests and make them feel welcome while his wife was possessed of a more astringent charm owing to the fact she always put her husband’s wishes before her own. The couple were incorrigible snobs and clung to the cherished memory of their elite pre-World War II existence. The Unsworths’ only daughter, Cynthia, was a big-boned girl with untidy chestnut-brown hair. She spoke to their guest in a breathless rush, reminding everyone present of a friendly cocker spaniel that yearns above all else to be loved unconditionally.
‘My father and I admire your books so much. I was thrilled when you agreed to open our fete. I honestly thought I was going to burst with happiness.’
Although Cynthia’s untidy appearance belied the fact she was a qualified physiotherapist, she certainly had no difficulty in holding the interest of the personable young man sitting opposite her. Toby Russell was employed as Sir Gerald’s estate manager, secretary and general dogsbody all rolled into one.
‘We’re wondering what it must be like for you steeped in crime, Miss Allingham,’ he said. ‘Do you base your characters on real-life people?’
‘Oh, not at all,’ said Margery with a chuckle. ‘I’m dreadfully unobservant. I rely on my imagination.’
‘As I expect you know, my father retired from the bench last year,’ said Cynthia. ‘Toby has been helping him write an account of his life as a High Court Judge.’
‘An interest in criminology runs in our family,’ said Toby. ‘My biography of Dr Crippen has received several excellent reviews.’
‘Father is constantly singing Toby’s praises,’ said Cynthia, blushing happily. ‘He’s extremely talented.’
Unless I’m mistaken, thought their guest, she’s sweet on him. But she doesn’t know how to tell him.
Toby gave his cousin a look of unabashed admiration, then said to Margery, ‘Cynthia and I are curious to know if you’ve ever met a real-life murderer.’
Cynthia’s mouth gaped open in surprise. ‘Toby, you can’t ask Miss Allingham that!’
‘Well, yes, I have actually,’ said Margery matter-of-factly. ‘I can honestly say it was one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life.’
They stared at her in surprise.
Cynthia struggled to find her voice. ‘What happened—?’
While they were talking to their guest, Lady Unsworth murmured to her husband, ‘If this headache of mine gets any worse, I may have to go and lie down.’
‘Would you like another aspirin?’ asked Sir Gerald solicitously.
Lady Unsworth shook her head and smiled wanly. ‘I’m all right for the moment.’
There was a creaking sound from the room above their heads and Lady Unsworth glanced upwards at the ceiling.
‘Parfitt is late turning down my bed,’ she said disapprovingly.
Meanwhile, Cynthia and Toby were listening with rapt attention to their guest.
‘Naturally it never crossed my mind I would one day come face to face with a killer,’ Margery was saying. ‘As a crime writer, I’ve created lots of memorable villains, but the reality of witnessing a murder was far more disturbing than I could ever have imagined. It all came about because I was suffering from over-work. My husband Pip suggested we take a holiday after The Tiger in the Smoke was published. I’d always had a hankering to see Ely Cathedral. It was as magnificent as I’d been told and our stay at the Royal Clarence Hotel was thoroughly enjoyable. There was a good mix of young and old guests, too, as well as a first-rate cabaret on the weekends.
‘One night in the dining-room, my attention was drawn to a middle-aged couple sitting at the table next to ours. Pip and I got to know them quite well. They were a Mr and Mrs Lester. The husband was a retired naval officer. His wife was an amiable soul if a little on the dull side. Of course, I had no way of knowing then that Mr and Mrs Lester were destined to become embroiled in a murder.’
‘Aha!’ said Toby. ‘Am I right in thinking one of them murdered the other?’
‘If you want to find out, stop interrupting,’ chided Lady Unsworth with a flash of impatience.
‘Oh, no, of course not,’ said Margery. ‘What transpired was a good deal more sinister than that. The couple were dining with Mrs Lester’s niece. Janice Holland was a painfully shy, dowdy girl who was a librarian. Uncle Frank and Auntie Iris, as she called the Lesters, doted on her. But somehow I didn’t feel as warmly towards Janice as they did. There was something about her. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Losing her parents during the war had come as a great a shock and had left its mark on her for the worse. People like Janice Holland can become so bitter and twisted. It never occurs to them that others have suffered, too, and prefer to look to the future rather than brood over the past.
‘One day I had a conversation on the hotel terrace with Mrs Lester which was to bear fruit much later. We were alone – just the two of us – having afternoon tea together when the conversation turned to post-war taxation. Mrs Lester confided she and Mr Lester had been hit hard like a lot of people. Her husband had come out of retirement to sell second-hand cars. Apparently, he’d taken out a lease on a small lot where he kept them. The business turned over a steady income, but I gather it wasn’t exactly thriving. They could still afford to go on a modest holiday once a year but money on the whole was rather tight. They had a rich relative who was tight-fisted and ignored their appeals for help. It seems there had been a falling-out some years before. At the end of the week, Mr and Mrs Lester, along with Janice Holland, left the hotel. Naturally, Pip and I assumed we had seen the last of them. We returned home to Tolleshunt D’Arcy at the end of our fortnight feeling thoroughly invigorated.’
‘But I thought you were going to tell us how you’d met a real-life murderer,’ blurted Cynthia.
‘Oh, but that came much later,’ said Margery. ‘Meeting the Lesters was simply the beginning.’
‘Meaning it was first act of the drama?’ interjected Toby.
‘Yes, that’s a good way of putting it,’ said Margery, sipping her sherry. ‘The meeting with them and Janice set the scene for what followed.’
‘There’s another two acts to go,’ said Sir Gerald appreciatively. ‘Let’s give Miss Allingham a chance to tell her story.’
‘Pip and I promised ourselves we’d go away on holiday the following year. But owing to a number of unforeseen circumstances it was another two years before we visited St. Ives in Cornwall. It wasn’t as heavily commercialized then as it is nowadays and still retained a great deal of charm. I went there as a child with my parents and always promised myself I’d go back one day. Our holiday gave us what we needed most – sun, sea and sand. It was extremely relaxing and helped ease my rheumatism.
‘By an extraordinary coincidence, we saw the Lesters and their niece. I say coincidence, but in retrospect I can’t help feeling that it was providence. If we’d gone to London and seen some shows like Pip had suggested, we would have missed out on becoming eyewitnesses to a murder. It happened on the second-last day of our holiday. The weather was slightly overcast and there weren’t as many holiday-makers about as there had been on previous days. Pip and I were walking along the promenade when we saw Mr Lester and a distinguished old man taking a stroll. They were in a relaxed mood and were clearly enjoying each other’s company. I doubt if they even realized we were there although we were only a few feet away from them. As Mr Lester knelt down on the pavement to double-tie his shoelaces, the old man stepped out into the middle of the road. He was knocked down by a passing motorist who drove off at high speed and didn’t bother to stop. It gave Pip and me a nasty shock, I can tell you. We both recognized the driver at once. It was Janice Holland.’
‘Good gracious!’ exclaimed Lady Unsworth. ‘What did think she was doing?’
‘Anyone with a shred of humanity would have stopped,’ said Cynthia, looking appalled.
‘It was a damn callous thing to do,’ said Toby.
‘Oh, I couldn’t agree with you more,’ said Margery, nodding vigorously. ‘I felt so sorry for Mrs Lester who was sitting in the front passenger seat of the car. If I close my eyes now, I can still see her holding a small make-up mirror to her face and applying lipstick moments before Janice lost control of herself and ran the old man down. Mrs Lester screamed in horror and pressed her hands to the sides of her face. I’m a good lip-reader and I could see she was begging Janice to stop. But the girl drove off instead, screaming abuse at her aunt and slapping her around the head. It was a classic case of road rage.’
‘What a foolish child,’ murmured Lady Unsworth. ‘Did she honestly expect her aunt to keep quiet about what she’d done?’
‘Some people may think the girl panicked and lost all sense of reasoning,’ replied Margery. ‘But Pip and I knew better. Janice had meant to kill the old man. As soon as he had started crossing the road, she had deliberately accelerated and run him down.’
Sir Gerald frowned. ‘People don’t behave like that without a reason.’
‘Ah, you’ve come to the crux of the matter,’ said Margery. ‘The old man was, in fact, Janice’s rich grandfather Ambrose Delaney. He had a well-established routine of going for a walk each day before lunch. On this occasion, he had invited Mr Lester to accompany him. By the time Mr Lester looked up and saw the speeding car, it was too late for him to call out to Mr Delaney to return to the safety of the pavement. It was Mr Lester’s belief that Janice had done it on purpose, then sped off in a fit of rage. ‘Janice isn’t right in the head,’ he told me later. ‘Ever since she was buried beneath the rubble of a house during the Blitz, she hasn’t been the same. She’s become downright peculiar in recent weeks and flies into the most awful rages.’ Needless to say, Mr Lester was aghast at what Janice had done. Not to mention desperately worried about his wife who was an unwilling passenger in the hit-and-run car.’
‘Am I right in thinking Ambrose Delaney left all his money to Janice in his will?’ asked Toby with an excited gleam in his eyes.
Margery nodded. ‘Every last cent so it happens,’ she said grimly. ‘Ambrose Delaney owned the Grand Hotel across the road from the promenade. He’d lived there in one of the suites for several years. It was his habit to go for a walk along the promenade each morning before returning to the hotel at midday for lunch. Janice was a distinctly neurotic girl. After she ran down Ambrose Delaney, I expect she thought she could bribe the Lesters into keeping quiet. But her malicious actions horrified the couple and they told the police everything they knew.’
‘A sad and tragic business,’ observed Sir Gerald.
‘How on earth did Mrs Lester escape from the moving car with her homicidal niece behind the steering wheel?’ asked Lady Unsworth.
‘As you can imagine, Mrs Lester was deeply traumatised by the episode,’ sighed Margery sympathetically. ‘In the immediate aftermath of the hit and run, Mrs Lester made the mistake of telling her heartless niece exactly what she thought of her. After her offer of a bribe was declined, Janice became hysterical and begged Mrs Lester not to tell anyone what she’d done. When Mrs Lester refused, Janice threatened to drive them both over the edge of a disused quarry. But luck – or rather providence – was on Mrs Lester’s side. The car broke down along the deserted track leading to the quarry some four or five miles outside St. Ives. A terrified Mrs Lester managed to escape – quite literally – from her niece’s homicidal clutches and hurried across country to the nearest police station. She arrived there in a bruised and dishevelled state, poor woman.
‘Later, Mrs Lester wept a great deal as she confided in me. “I can’t believe I’m still alive,” she said. “When Janice realized she couldn’t bribe me to stay silent, she went berserk and tried to throttle me. It’s a miracle I managed to get away from her. My husband told me months ago Janice ought to be institutionalised. I was a fool to ignore Frank’s warnings. But I couldn’t bring myself to believe my sister’s only child was mentally deranged.”
‘By the time the police located the car, Janice was nowhere to be found. According to the Lesters, Janice had recently fallen in love with an Australian who had been holidaying in St Ives. Her grandfather had antagonised her by refusing to give her any money so she could go out to Australia to be with him.’
Lady Unsworth shook her head disapprovingly. ‘I might have known there was a man involved. Repressed girls like that don’t become violent unless they’ve been thwarted in love.’
‘I’d say the chap had a lucky escape,’ said Sir Gerald. ‘Going back to Australia is the best thing he could have done.’
‘Far and away the best,’ agreed Lady Unsworth.
‘It’s obvious the bomb blast caused some form of brain damage,’ said Cynthia, flushing deeply. ‘Under those circumstances, I don’t think Janice was fully responsible for her actions. Her grandfather doesn’t appear to have considered her feelings for a moment. There she was separated from the man she loved by a lack of money.’
‘She could easily have waited for her grandfather to die of natural causes,’ objected Toby. ‘It’s not as if she didn’t have a job as a librarian to support herself.’
Cynthia shook her head decisively. ‘No, that’s where you’re wrong,’ she said. ‘There was a very real chance the fellow might fall for another girl on his return to Australia. Janice had to act fast to prevent that from happening. Something in her must have snapped the day she saw her grandfather crossing the road. A good barrister could have got the charge of murder reduced to manslaughter.’
‘Not if I’d been the judge presiding over the court case,’ growled Sir Gerald robustly.
Margery sighed. ‘As so often happens in cases like this, Janice was overwhelmed with guilt and remorse. A pile of clothes and a suicide note were found on a nearby beach. After swallowing some barbiturates to dull her pain, she swam out to sea. Her body was washed up further down the coast a few days later and identified by dental records.’
Cynthia shivered. ‘It’s horrible how love prompted her to commit such a terrible murder.’
‘Not all love affairs end in tragedy,’ said Toby gently. ‘It wasn’t love that incited her to murder her grandfather.’
‘What do you mean?’ asked Cynthia.
‘Any feelings she had for Ambrose Delaney had long ago turned to hatred when he refused to give her some money to go after the Australian fellow.’
‘So far we’ve become so caught up by this wretched girl’s actions,’ said Lady Unsworth, ‘that we’ve forgotten to ask what happened to Ambrose Delaney?’
‘Sadly, he never regained consciousness after being run down,’ sighed Margery. ‘He lapsed into an irreversible coma and died six weeks later.’
Egan the butler entered. ‘Miss Allingham’s car is waiting, Sir Gerald.’
Margery rose and exchanged goodbyes with her hosts.
‘Thank you for making our fete such a success,’ said Lady Unsworth graciously.
‘We’re very grateful to you,’ said Sir Gerald.
‘We had no idea your life has been as adventurous as your books,’ remarked Toby.
‘I can’t help feeling sorry for the Lesters,’ said Lady Unsworth. ‘It must be terrible living with the knowledge that someone in your family has murdered another member.’
‘I wouldn’t advise you to waste your time feeling sorry for the Lesters,’ said Margery briskly. ‘They inherited Ambrose Delaney’s fortune as his next of kin – after they both murdered him and Janice.’
Sir Gerald stared at her in astonishment. ‘What?’
‘I don’t believe it,’ exclaimed Toby.
‘But how could Janice have been innocent?’ blurted Cynthia. ‘You saw her kill her grandfather.’
‘The Lesters were far more ruthless than anyone imagined,’ said Margery gravely. ‘I was almost completely taken in by them. After I returned to Tolleshunt D’Arcy, the terrible business preyed on my mind. When you think about it, providence and coincidence played an extraordinary part in the drama.’
Lady Unsworth stared at her. ‘I don’t see how.’
‘If Janice had been determined to kill old Ambrose Delaney, would she really have done so with her aunt sitting next to her in the car and with her uncle standing nearby on the pavement? Mr Lester’s actions, in particular, troubled me. What reason could he have for double-tying his shoelaces when they were already tied together? Only one logical answer came to mind. He wished to avoid crossing the road at the same time as Ambrose Delaney.’
‘But I still don’t see how the Lesters could have murdered him,’ objected Cynthia.
Margery smiled. ‘The same question baffled me until the vicar’s daughter told me she’d been taking driving lessons.’
‘Driving lessons,’ repeated Toby bewilderedly.
Margery nodded vigorously. ‘In a specially designed car owned by the local driving school.’
‘What sort of car?’ asked Cynthia.
‘One with a second set of brake and accelerator peddles located in the front passenger’s footwell. The pedals are there so the driving instructor can over-ride the actions of a nervous driver if they make a critical mistake. Mrs Lester was giving Janice a driving lesson on the day her grandfather was run over.’
‘Good God!’ muttered Toby.
‘It was Mrs Lester who accelerated as Ambrose Delaney stepped off the pavement,’ said Margery triumphantly. ‘She completely deceived me with her charade of holding a mirror up to her face and applying lipstick. The hit and run was perfectly timed with Mr Lester’s help. As the car sped away, Janice lashed out at Mrs Lester. She was outraged by what her aunt had done and was powerless to stop her. Onlookers like Pip and myself were convinced Janice was a vicious hit-and-run killer when it was all Mrs Lester’s doing.’
‘But the police later found the car abandoned near the quarry,’ objected Lady Unsworth.
‘Oh, I’ve no doubt the Lesters arranged for an identical-looking car to be found there. It would have been simple enough swapping over the number plates on the cars so no one would be any the wiser. He was a second-hand car dealer, remember.’
‘Did you confide your suspicions to the police?’ said Sir Gerald.
‘Naturally,’ said Margery. ‘They were grateful for my help and duly arrested the Lesters. It emerged Janice was drugged before her body was dumped into the sea. There was only ever the Lesters’ word that Janice was in love with an Australian. At the risk of sounding a tiny bit conceited, I’ve never regretted the part I played in bringing them to justice. My husband Pip accuses me of being too fond of sticking my nose in other people’s business. But thanks to me a pair of vicious killers were hanged.’
Sir Gerald frowned. ‘I don’t remember hearing about the case. As a former judge, I usually get to hear of most things.’
‘It was all a long time ago,’ said Margery. ‘Naturally I’ve changed the names of the people involved as well as the locations. Modesty has always prevented me from wanting the wider public to know the part I played in bringing that wicked couple to justice.’
‘I really must go and lie down,’ murmured Lady Unsworth after the celebrated crime writer had departed in her chauffeur-driven Daimler. ‘Margery Allingham is clearly a woman of many talents, but listening to her hasn’t improved my headache…’
As the distance between Unsworth Chase and the second-hand Daimler lengthened, the middle-aged female passenger asked, ‘What took you so long?’
‘I had difficulty cracking open the safe in Lady Unsworth’s bedroom,’ replied the man claiming to be her chauffeur.
The woman removed her wig and the passing resemblance to Margery Allingham immediately vanished. ‘Everyone in the drawing-room could hear the floorboards creaking under your feet. Lady Unsworth thought you were her maid. You wouldn’t believe the cock and bull story I had to tell to keep everyone in the drawing-room.’
‘All her ladyship’s jewellery was there. Just as you said it would be. Along with the takings from the fete.’
‘Over ten thousand pounds.’
‘Did you leave a rose in the safe?’
‘Yep, a red one. Just like you asked. You haven’t told me why, though.’
‘Call it poetic justice if you like.’ The woman spoke with a flicker of a smile. ‘Margery Allingham once wrote a newspaper serial called The Darings of the Red Rose. I came across it in her publisher’s archives. As the mysterious Red Rose, Betty Connolly struck fear into the hearts of each of the eight financiers who had destroyed her parents’ lives. At the scene of each coup d’état, she left behind a signature red rose.’
The man frowned. ‘What did Sir Gerald do to you?’
‘Years ago, he sent my father to prison. Daddy swore he was innocent until his dying day. Mummy was so grief-stricken she followed him to an early grave.’
The man’s voice softened with tenderness. ‘How come you’ve never told me this before?’
The woman’s expression was tense and enigmatic. ‘There’s a lot you don’t know about me.’
‘One day I intend to even the score properly with Sir Gerald,’ she added with a curious inflexion in her voice.
‘Don’t be too harsh on yourself. You did a fine job intercepting the letter he sent to Margery Allingham care of her publishers.’
‘My days of being a publicist for them are well and truly over,’ said the woman happily. ‘From now on we’re going to live the high life!’
‘And not before time!’
After a pause, she added softly, ‘Cynthia and Toby are clearly in love. I pity her having such snobbish parents…’
‘I’d give anything to see the expression on the Unsworths’ faces when they realize they’ve been robbed,’ chuckled her companion. ‘Fancy imagining a writer as famous as Margery Allingham would open their fete…’
Read more about author Jared Cade here.
Joining the CRA is FREE. There are no lengthy forms to fill out and we need nothing but your email. You will receive a regular newsletter but no spam.