Read A Nice Class of Corpse Online

Authors: Simon Brett

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Mystery & Detective

A Nice Class of Corpse

 

CHAPTER 1

MONDAY

4
MARCH
– 7.15 a.m. –
I have decided today that the only way to get out of my current difficulties is by murder. It is really rather a surprise that I had not come to this conclusion earlier, since it will so simply and immediately resolve the problems that have been aggravating me for some time.

Having reached the age I now have, I know myself well enough to recognise that the crime will give me no moral qualms. And as for the other great traditional deterrent to murder, the fear of being caught, that again does not operate with me. Indeed, arrest and trial might add a welcome excitement to the few years, or possibly only months, that I have left.

CHAPTER 2

The diarist lived in the Devereux Hotel, Littlehampton, whose sea-front position was, according to the brochure, 'unrivalled'. However, few brochures were ever sent out; the clientele of the Devereux tended to arrive by personal recommendation.

There were only eight guest rooms; each was occupied by a long-term resident. And when, as was inevitable given the average age of those residents, a room became vacant, the hotel's proprietress, Miss Naismith, an unnervingly refined lady in her early fifties, had no difficulty in finding a new occupant.

In the early days, she had advertised in
The Lady
, but word of mouth from the established residents and their friends soon made such expenditure unnecessary. Miss Naismith always had a waiting list of elderly people eager to replace those who had moved into nursing homes (or taken a more permanent form of departure from the hotel), and she enjoyed assessing the suitability of these candidates. She felt confident in her ability to ensure that every resident of the Devereux remained 'a nice class of person'.

But when Mrs Pargeter arrived at the Devereux in the middle of the afternoon of the 4th of March, Miss Naismith wondered momentarily whether her judgement might for once have been at fault.

She should perhaps have insisted on an interview, rather than conducting the arrangements by letter. It had been unfortunate that the proprietress had not been present on the day when Mrs Pargeter had inspected the premises. The new resident had, of course, impeccable references, but no reference can pin down that indefinable quality of class, and Mrs Pargeter made no pretence of being the genuine article.

For a start, there was the time and manner of her arrival. Miss Naismith had firmly suggested in her letter that two-thirty p.m. was the ideal moment for Mrs Pargeter to appear, so that she would have time to settle her belongings into her room before the ritual of meeting the other residents at the Devereux's four o'clock tea, served in the Seaview Lounge.

Mrs Pargeter, however, had chosen to appear at a quarter to four, making no secret of the fact that she had, 'on the spur of the moment', decided to stop for 'a self-indulgent lunch' on the way. Miss Naismith, whose orderly mind was shocked by the concept of doing anything 'on the spur of the moment', also rather beadily received the impression that Mrs Pargeter's self-indulgence had extended to the wine list as well as the menu. There was no question that the new resident was drunk; but she was certainly more relaxed and cheerful than might be thought appropriate to someone entering the portals of the Devereux for the first time.

Then there was the manner of Mrs Pargeter's arrival. Miss Naismith had no objections to wealth – indeed, it was an essential qualification for her guests – but she did have an in-built resistance to displays of wealth. And to her mind, the hiring of a chauffeur-driven limousine was such a display. So was the amount of patently genuine jewellery that Mrs Pargeter wore over her silk print dress.

So, particularly, was the liberality with which Mrs Pargeter tipped her chauffeur and – worse – the Devereux's porter-cum-barman-cum-handyman, Newth, who appeared on cue to remove the profusion of suitcases from the limousine's boot.

Oh dear. Miss Naismith was beginning seriously to wonder whether Mrs Pargeter really did belong to the elite who could be described as 'a nice class of person'.

The subject of her anxiety, however, either did not notice it or was unworried by it. Mrs Pargeter was a widow of sixty-seven, imperceptibly on the move from voluptuousness to stoutness. The golden hair, which, in an earlier existence unknown to Miss Naismith, had turned many heads, was now uniformly white, but the clear skin, which had also been the subject of much compliment, still glowed with health. The backs of Mrs Pargeter's hands bore the tea-stain freckles of age, but her rounded legs, beneath their grey silk stockings, remained unmarked by veins. Mrs Pargeter, it could not be denied, was a very well preserved lady.

As she concluded her lavish tipping of the chauffeur and waved the limousine away, Mrs Pargeter looked towards the steel-grey line of the English Channel and took in a lungful of seaweed smell. She nodded approvingly. 'Good. The air's wonderful here.'

'Oh, certainly, Mrs Pargeter,' Miss Naismith agreed in a voice of daunting gentility. 'One of my residents, a Brigadier Fulton, once said that every breath of this air added five minutes to his life.'

'Very nicely put. I'll look forward to meeting Brigadier Fulton.'

'I'm afraid that won't be possible.' Miss Naismith coloured. 'The Brigadier wasn't, er, with us very long.'

'Oh?' Mrs Pargeter cocked a quizzical eyebrow.

'He passed on,' Miss Naismith explained hurriedly, vexed at having to spell it out. 'Ah.'

Miss Naismith changed the subject determinedly. 'I do hope you'll be very comfortable with us, Mrs Pargeter. I am happy to say that here at the Devereux I have very few complaints. Many of my residents do stay for a very long time.'

'Except for Brigadier Fulton.'

Miss Naismith did not like the smile of mischief with which Mrs Pargeter spoke; it did not augur well for their relationship. 'I can assure you, Mrs Pargeter, that the Brigadier's death was not caused by anything he contracted at the Devereux. Without informing me, he actually arrived here with a serious heart condition,' she added, in a tone of righteous betrayal.

And indeed she had felt betrayed. One of the other qualifications for her residents, clearly spelt out in the rarely despatched brochure, was that they should be 'active'; in other words, in good health. Though Miss Naismith offered service and care to her elderly residents, she was very insistent that what she ran was a Private Hotel. There were Homes for people who needed Homes; but within the confines of the Devereux, serious ill health could only be considered an unpardonable lapse of taste. And death was a social misdemeanour without parallel.

'Dear, oh dear. Some people just don't think, do they?' Once again Miss Naismith caught an unwelcome glint of humour in Mrs Pargeter's eye as she spoke. 'Still, you needn't worry about me on that score. I went to my chap in Harley Street last month. Had the complete MOT. Some parts a bit worn, he said, as you'd expect in a machine of my age, but generally good for another twenty years.'

'That is encouraging news.' The glacially serene smile returned. 'And to what would you attribute your good health, Mrs Pargeter?' (The 'what' was heavily aspirated. Miss Naismith always gave full value to any 'h' following a 'w'.)

The new resident sighed. 'Well, I suppose while Mr Pargeter was alive I would have said, "Regular servicing", but I can't really use that joke now, can I?' She smiled sweetly at her landlady. 'Just go and freshen up upstairs.'

And she marched determinedly up the main staircase in the wake of Newth, who was carrying two more suitcases. Miss Naismith's smile remained frozen in position.

By five to four all of the other residents of the Devereux were gathered in the Seaview Lounge. The tables were laid with crisp white linen; they awaited only the arrival of the chambermaid-cum-waitress-cum-skivvy, Loxton, with her trolley, bearing its load of silver-plate tea services, each pot carefully prepared according to the unchanging specifications of its destined drinker.

There was a considerable degree of interior speculation about the new arrival, but the residents of the Devereux were all far too genteel to voice any of it.

In the bay window, Colonel Wicksteed peered out to sea through his binoculars. He stood resolutely upright, daring age to curve the line of his spine. By the Colonel's side, stacked into an armchair under a tartan rug, Mr Dawlish vaguely followed his companion's gaze.

'Tanker, is she?' asked Mr Dawlish.

'No question.' There never was any question in Colonel Wicksteed's mind. When he pronounced a vessel to be a tanker, it was a tanker – even if subsequent evidence proved this not to be the case. Fortunately, in Mr Dawlish he was blessed with the mildest of associates, into the cobwebs of whose mind the thought of disagreement never entered.

'One of the big jobs,' the Colonel continued. 'Liberian.'

'Oh. Now where is Liberia?'

'East Africa.'

Mr Dawlish let out an inane chuckle. 'Funny, isn't it, to think of that boat out there, not so far away, full of people speaking Liberian.'

'No, no, Dawlish. Wouldn't come from Liberia. Just a flag of convenience, you know.'

'Ah. Yes.' Mr Dawlish nodded sagely, as if he did indeed know.

'Not even sure if Liberia does have its own language. No doubt a lot of tribal dialects. There are any number of them. Came across a good few while I was in Africa.'

'Did you learn any?'

'Few words. Smattering.'

'I mean, could you write a letter in them?'

'Hardly. Many of them don't have a written tradition, anyway. Just oral.'

'Carried in the mouth, you mean?'

'Yes, Dawlish.'

'Like teeth, eh?'

Colonel Wicksteed pursed his lips and once again raised the binoculars to his eyes.

At the other side of the lounge, Lady Ridgleigh, tall and bony, perched on a tall and bony chair like a vulture over her tea table. Strings of undoubtedly genuine pearls hung from the tendons of her neck; below them was a classic grey silk dress, here and there over-shiny from careless or excessive ironing.

She condescended a smile across to Mrs Selsby, an even thinner old lady, who was propped up on a sofa in the posture of a folded garden chair and half-heartedly fingering a copy of
Country Life
.

'You'll find there's a very stimulating article in there, Mrs Selsby, about the hare.'

'The animal, you mean?'

'Yes, Mrs Selsby. Most stimulating.'

Lady Ridgleigh, feeling she had discharged a social duty, relapsed into silence, and Mrs Selsby obediently turned to the magazine's contents page and, peering through thick glasses, attempted to track down the recommended article.

On another sofa, near the bar, Eulalie Vance sighed audibly over a pile of yellowing letters. Though she believed she still looked as sylph-like and alluring as she had in the last publicity photographs taken of her some fifteen years earlier, an outside observer would have seen a thickened face and neck, framed in coils of greying hair, which was gathered at the back into an elaborate system of combs. The outsider would also have observed a spreading body, ill-camouflaged by an Indian print dress and a confusion of shawls and scarves.

And, if the outsider were so reckless as to enquire the cause of the heavy sighs that racked Eulalie's frame, he would receive a long monologue on the subject of her past love affairs. The other residents, who had all, at one time or another, been incautious enough to make the enquiry, now kept their mouths resolutely shut. Miss Wardstone, a beady tortoise of a woman who sat nearby, did not disguise her contempt but greeted each deep sigh with a sniff of disapproval.

Sigh, sniff, sigh, sniff. The rhythm was as regular as the ticking of the grandfather clock over by the door.

On her own, looking as if she might at any moment sink under and be overwhelmed by the cushions of her armchair, slumped Mrs Mendlingham. Her eyes were unfocused; she had increasing difficulty these days in bringing them to bear on the reality that surrounded her. And focusing her mind was an even greater problem.

Her cardigan was buttoned wrong, and she wore odd slippers.

Only the regular shallow rise and fall of her chest showed her to be alive.

As the grandfather clock whirred a deep breath prior to striking the hour, the door of the room was opened by Newth, who ushered in the tea trolley, propelled by Loxton.

'Ah,' said Colonel Wicksteed, waggishly turning to focus his binoculars on the trolley (as he did every afternoon). 'Tea.'

'Tea,' Mr Dawlish agreed.

' "Tea, although he's an Oriental," ' the Colonel continued, misquoting Chesterton (which he also did most afternoons), ' "is at least a gentleman." '

He let out his customary bark of laughter, and Lady Ridgleigh (as she usually did) vouchsafed the witticism a smile of acceptability.

Loxton moved the trolley round its unchanging circuit, delivering the correct trays to the residents. Earl Grey for Lady Ridgleigh, served first by unquestioned precedent; Lapsang for Miss Wardstone and Mrs Selsby; peppermint tea for Eulalie Vance; weak Indian for Mrs Mendlingham, who would have drunk anything put in front of her without noticing; strong Indian for Colonel Wicksteed; and the same for Mr Dawlish, who was, as ever, happy to agree with the Colonel.

Loxton felt mildly disconcerted that Mrs Pargeter had not come when she was meant to. Loxton liked to have everything prepared well in advance, and the uncertainty over the sort of tea that the newcomer might require was unsettling. She bent down to retrieve plates of scones and cakes from the lower deck of the trolley.

As she did so, she was unaware of Mr Dawlish's admiring eyes watching the outline of her buttocks strain against the black material of her uniform. His eyes appeared habitually hooded, half-asleep, but they took in a great deal more than the other residents of the Devereux realised.

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