Read Murder Fortissimo Online

Authors: Nicola Slade

Murder Fortissimo

Murder Fortissimo

Nicola Slade

As
Murder Fortissimo
is a work of fiction,
Firstone Grange
is not based on any real establishment, nor are its staff, residents or their guests based on real people. Some of the places mentioned, however,
are
real, such as the glorious Winchester Cathedral, along with its crypt, and while the village of Chambers Forge is fictitious, it does share a geographical location with its
near-namesake
, Chandlers Ford, near Winchester.

I’m very grateful to everyone who kindly read this book in its various stages, and for their helpful comments: Olivia Barnes, Ruth Beaven, Charlotte Buxton, R J Frith, Linda Gruchy and Joanne Thomson.

MURDER FORTISSIMO
Principal Characters
 
At Firstone Grange
 
 
 
 
 
GUESTS
 
 
 
Harriet Quigley
A retired headmistress who thinks she could be Miss Marple if only she had learned to knit
Christiane Marchant
A Frenchwoman who knows many secrets and gloats too much
Ellen Ransom
Remembers the good times in the war but wishes she didn’t
Fred Buchan
Remembers everything all too well
Tim Armstrong
Has difficulty, some days, remembering anything
 
 
 
 
STAFF
 
 
 
Pauline Winslow
A moral matron with a mission
Mrs Turner
A housekeeper with an economical habit
Gemma Sankey
A willing worker with a risky secret
 
 
 
 
FAMILY & FRIENDS
 
 
 
Canon Sam Hathaway 
Harriet Quigley’s cousin and sounding-board
Alice Marchant
A daughter who is a drudge
Neil Slater
An estate agent who sometimes wears leather shorts
Doreen Buchan
Who knows that a family history is not always ‘a good read’
Vic Buchan
Don’t tell him about ‘female troubles’
Ryan
A nasty little scrote
Kieran
A lumpen slowcoach
Gemma’s Mum
A woman of perception who knows a scumbag when she sees one

Wheee!!! Kapow!!! Splat!!!

Harriet Quigley’s hand flew to her mouth to stifle an involuntary whimper but the cartoon image froze on her retina. In the appalled silence an action replay rolled inside her head. The ludicrous object falling, falling, falling as she, and everyone else, stared in horror, unable to do anything. The moment of impact – oh God, that
sound
– a collective shudder and then the … mess. The second shameful thought that crowded into Harriet’s mind, despite her horror, was: Jesus, the tabloids will have a field day with
this
.

From
The Fryern Courier

FIRSTONE GRANGE

Firstone Grange, which opens its doors soon, combines top class hotel facilities with discreet nursing care in a brand-new concept. The first establishment of the kind locally, Firstone Grange aims to provide relaxing convalescent care together with short breaks for the over sixties.

Matron and proprietor, Pauline Winslow, says Firstone Grange offers an excellent home-from-home for the independent retired person who wishes to convalesce away from catering and household cares. ‘We also aim to provide respite breaks for families who will be able to relax knowing their older relatives are happy and comfortable while the younger members of the family take a holiday.’

Miss Winslow continued: ‘Nowadays people are discharged early from hospital and not everyone has family at hand to help during convalescence. At Firstone Grange we can provide that security in the setting of a beautiful country house.’

Firstone Grange is independently owned but is next door to Hiltingbury House, a purpose-built facility comprising a residential home together with sheltered housing in a separate block. The proprietors declined to comment on a rumour that they had concluded a deal with Miss Winslow to build further sheltered housing on some of the land belonging to Firstone Grange. Firstone Grange was built in 1900 and stands in two acres.

Firstone Grange was soon fully booked … but the incoming guests brought secrets with them. And among them was someone who found out all those secrets, grave and trivial, someone who knew that power comes from knowing what others do not know. Someone who needed to be eliminated.

For two pins, Harriet Quigley sighed inwardly, she could go to sleep. Only good manners, combined with the hope that her host would soon top up her glass with some more of that extremely good Merlot, stopped her from dozing off. She could feel her eyes beginning to glaze over as she listened politely to her hostess’s monologue about the expense of moving to the new house. ‘You wouldn’t credit, Miss Quigley, how much it cost to curtain this dining-room, with those three floor-to-ceiling windows.’

‘Please call me Harriet,’ said her guest, casting what she hoped was a look of admiration at the beige velvet curtains. Dull, she sighed, very dull, but then the whole place has been neutralized. The previous owners had obviously watched all those programmes about how to sell your house and decorated accordingly and the interior designer who furnished the house, hired by Doreen who had no confidence in her own taste, had followed suit. This dinner party was pretty dull too, she thought, as she stifled another sigh. It was Neil Slater’s fault, getting her into it, but her covert glare at him turned into a smile instead. Serve him right finding himself stuck, on either side, with Doreen Buchan’s incredibly dull neighbours and for landing her, Harriet, with Doreen’s husband Vic on one side and on the other a second dull man, one of a pair from Winchester. At least he required no effort, intent as he was on
his dinner, showing no resentment that Doreen had been talking across him.

‘Firstone Grange?’ Doreen looked up as someone mentioned the name, breaking off from listing her expenses. ‘Firstone Grange is where Vic’s father has just gone to give it a couple of months’ trial. He’s getting on a bit and rather frail so it seemed a good idea. Of course, you do have to be so careful these days with old people’s homes, you hear such awful things. But Firstone Grange is very select. And very expensive.’

To Harriet’s relief nobody picked up the conversational ball and the topic was dropped. She shot a sidelong glance at her cousin Sam Hathaway, sitting diagonally across the vast polished table. Had he noticed her involuntary reaction when Firstone Grange was mentioned? I bet he did, she thought, even though he looks as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth at the moment, which is more than I can say about this piece of gristle in mine. Wonder if I can slip it on to my plate somehow? Some quick sleight of hand and it was nestling under her fork. I haven’t lost my touch, she thought, after all those years of slipping bits of disgusting school dinners into my gymslip pocket. Pity I can’t.… She contemplated her blue woollen dress from Phase Eight and thought better of it.

‘Er, well, Harriet,’ Doreen Buchan managed the name with a bashful stammer. ‘I just wondered, at least I didn’t catch.… Is Canon Hathaway your brother? You do look very much alike, both of you tall and fair; and the way you talk is similar too.’

‘Sam’s father and my mother were brother and sister,’ Harriet explained. ‘So we’re first cousins and we were brought up together, next-door neighbours as it happens. But I’m shocked to hear you say you think we’re alike, it’s always been a great comfort to me that I didn’t inherit the Hathaway nose.’

She grinned across at Sam, who frowned slightly at her
through the glasses perched on the imposing Hathaway beak. He looked puzzled and shook his head as Harriet’s impish grin morphed into a bland smile, but went back to nodding sympathetically at Vic Buchan’s complaints about red tape and bureaucratic interference in his building company.

When Neil Slater had called her in desperation she had, as his old friend and childhood babysitter, agreed to his plan with reservations. ‘Look here, Harriet,’ he had wheedled. ‘Vic and Doreen Buchan have just moved in to White Lodge and Doreen’s really anxious to meet people. They moved here from Portsmouth and since I made a stonking amount of money in commission from the people who sold them the house I feel I ought to make an effort.’

‘No,’ she had pointed out tartly. ‘You feel I should make an effort. What do you want, Neil? Coffee morning or something?’

‘Dinner party,’ he said, adding hastily: ‘No, no, you needn’t glare at me like that, Harriet.
You
don’t have to cook, Doreen wants to have a dinner party and invite some locals. She needs to invite her neighbours who are stupendously dull – ditchwater has nothing on them – and I said I’d rustle up a couple more. If I still had a wife I’d have no need to bother you, but now I’m single again I’m a bit stuck. Please, Harriet. If you come and maybe you could persuade Sam to come as well; it’ll be bearable and Doreen will be dead impressed too. A canon from the cathedral and a retired headmistress, you’ll be bound to add lustre to the proceedings.’

And now Sam, who knew far too much about his cousin, had, she was quite sure, spotted her startled expression at the mention of Firstone Grange; there was no way he’d leave it alone, he was much too nosy. Curiosity was a family trait, she admitted with a sigh.

‘An Oompah Band?’ The startled query from Vic Buchan roused Harriet from brooding on the folly of letting old friends
blackmail you into tedious social entanglements. ‘What on earth is an Oompah Band?’

‘You might well ask,’ Harriet began to laugh, then hastily primmed her mouth. Vic seemed pleasant enough in a
brick-shaped,
brick-faced, moneyed sort of way, but his wife was looking po-faced, and as their conversation had revealed no glimmer of humour, Harriet thought she’d rather not alienate the woman with laughter that was sure to be misunderstood. ‘It’s Neil’s latest adventure,’ she explained. ‘He’s only recently joined the band; you’d better get him to explain.’ When Neil shook his head she continued. ‘It’s a Bavarian beer cellar act, all brass and oompah-oompah, and knee-slapping. It sounds pretty awful but honestly, it’s great fun. Neil forced me along to a session last month. They treat the audience with a mixture of insults and comedy, all in dreadful cod-German accents.’

Sam Hathaway was intrigued. ‘Last month? This must have happened when I was away, christening my new grandson in Melbourne,’ he said. ‘So where do you come in, Neil? I thought you were a serious musician?’

‘So I was when I was still married,’ Neil explained. ‘And in some respects I still am, but I don’t have to keep up someone else’s standards any more, so this is just for fun. If you recall, I play the clarinet and I’ll have you know I look very fetching in my leather shorts and little feathered hat. We’re booked to play at Firstone Grange in a couple of weeks or so.’

‘Really?’ Doreen sounded perturbed. ‘But are you sure it’s suitable for old people? It doesn’t sound quite the thing.’

‘I don’t know,’ Neil was clearly nonplussed. ‘What do you think, Harriet? Sam? You’re both about the right vintage.’

Harriet stifled a giggle as she caught Doreen’s scandalized expression at this studied insult. Neil knew perfectly well that she and Sam were barely into their sixties and that she at least was vain about her youthful looks, but she addressed the
question seriously. ‘You have to remember that Firstone Grange
isn’t
an old people’s home,’ she said thoughtfully. ‘It’s a kind of hotel for older guests who might be convalescent or just want some peace and quiet and a rest from looking after themselves. And as the Baby Boomers are all turning sixty now, things are changing. Didn’t you read that article claiming that sixty is the new forty? An Oompah Band won’t faze any of them, after all, they survived the Swinging Sixties and there are plenty of people around who coped with much worse in the war, not to mention a few still who were around during the First World War, just about; as children anyway. Older people are usually pretty resilient and not easily shocked, you know.’

‘Quite right,’ Sam barged enthusiastically into the conversation. ‘However old and frail you are you could still take part. How about beating time with your zimmer frame? Or slapping your knees even if you can’t get up and dance around? Imagine an impromptu roll of drums created by two spoons and a bedpan.’ He bowed, acknowledging the laughter with a twinkle, then continued. ‘Anyone else get an invitation to the champagne reception to launch Firstone Grange? I can’t go, got a meeting that night. I expect you’ll be going, Harriet?’

Damn, all eyes were on her now. ‘Nope, I’ll be away for a couple of weeks,’ she announced firmly. ‘I’m trying a retreat.’

As she’d hoped, this silenced the company apart from Sam who, under cover of the renewed buzz of conversation, leaned across the table. ‘What do you mean a retreat? That’s not your kind of thing at all. What’s up, Old Hat?’

The childhood nickname nearly broke down her resolution, but not quite. Sam really didn’t need to know. ‘I’m just tired,’ she confessed. ‘Really, really worn out. This last year has been pretty hard going, Mother dying in the spring and her house to sort out, then the sale and the move to the cottage. A couple of weeks of peace and quiet suddenly seemed a good idea.’

Sam’s concern made her feel even more guilty about lying to him but beyond the steadily munching man beside Harriet, Doreen was looking anxious and Harriet turned to her with relief.

‘I’m a bit worried about this Oompah thing,’ her hostess fretted. ‘I really thought, what with the price they charge, that Firstone Grange would be five star, really exclusive. Don’t you think this concert sounds a bit … well, a bit
common
?’

As Harriet soothed and reassured she shot a considering glance at her hostess. Seldom had she come across anyone quite so lacking in confidence, so anxious about the social niceties. Doreen Buchan was a tallish, raw-boned blonde with naturally curly hair that she kept cut short. Were curls common too, Harriet wondered? In her late forties, married to a successful, wealthy older man, recently moved into a large imposing house in one of the most sought-after villages in one of the most beautiful and historic parts of southern England; two children doing well, the boy recently qualified as an accountant and the girl a beautician at an exclusive health hydro a few miles north of Winchester. With all these trappings of success Doreen still came over as a woman with an outsize in inferiority complexes, but why?

As for Firstone Grange, Harriet pursed her lips. I’m almost beginning to regret what I’ve done. Too late now though.

 

Ideal Starter Home.
Ideal
Starter Home. Ideal Starter
Home
. Alice typed the words over and over again, the rhythm hammering into her brain, I-
deal
star-ter
home
, dum-dum,
dum-dum
-
dum
. Suddenly jerking awake from automatic pilot she stared at the words in front of her.

Oh, I wish, Oh God, I
wish
.

The anguished whisper bounced back at her, echoing round the empty office then, with a shiver of guilt, she deleted what she had typed and forced herself back to work.

‘Range of fitted floor and wall units, inset one-and-a-half bowl sink unit with mixer taps, wall-mounted gas boiler’ and so on, including the estate agent’s old favourite, ‘deceptively spacious’ which in this case was close to contravening the Trades Descriptions Act, describing as it did the one and only bedroom, a deceptively spacious eight foot six by eight foot (just).

To Alice it sounded like heaven, even the ‘easily managed garden’ with ‘decked area and laid to lawns’. Correctly interpreting this as meaning that the garden was barely larger than the bedroom she heaved a wistful sigh at the thought of mowing a handkerchief-sized bit of grass rather than having to struggle with an acre of tangled shrubbery,
wantonly-spreading
mildewed roses and vast expanses of decaying herbaceous borders. You wouldn’t even need a lawn, she gave a sigh of pleasure, it could all be decking.

She expanded her theme. Not to have to lay coal fires, carry heavy scuttles, rake out cold ashes; no scrubbing of stone flags in the Edwardian kitchen and scullery, home to black beetles in spite of her best efforts. No miles of threadbare carpet to hoover with an asthmatic ailing vacuum cleaner that had been new before Alice was born; no monumental pieces of mahogany furniture that needed endless polishing and feeding with wood restorer. The blissful castle-in-the-air sustained Alice through the drudgery of her days and the very fact of daydreaming was usually enough for her.

Today for some reason it was more like a knife, a goad, a whip applied to her shrinking flesh. This perfect little house, ideal for just one person; say, for instance, a 39-year-old spinster living alone, this little house was everything she dreamed of. On second thoughts make that a single woman, a career woman not a spinster, definitely living alone and not, absolutely not, living with her mother.

Alice’s afternoon job, where she inefficiently typed out details of houses for sale and to let at Williams’s estate agency, was the means of her salvation, her only escape into the outside world; without it she thought she would dissolve into a wistful wraith.

Predictably her mother hated it. ‘I think you might have some consideration for
me
, Alice,’ she had complained only this morning, a discontented note in her light pretty voice, with the lingering trace of accent from her long ago Breton childhood. ‘You know how much I need constant care; it’s really too selfish of you. After all, you won’t be troubled by me for much longer.’

The sweetness and light phase currently in vogue was always fairly short-lived, to Alice’s relief. It was much more trying than when Christiane was in full flood as a bullying monster. The sweet little old lady pose, oozing exhausted, neglected resignation was too much like hard work for Christiane, she was too much Ghengis Khan and not enough Mother Theresa to sustain the performance. And that was what made her dramatic acceptance of Firstone Grange all the more mystifying. Alice had shown her mother the newspaper article with no real hope of persuading her to try the place, but what could possibly have made her so suddenly amenable? The anticipated tantrum had never materialized and the sneer, that initial curl her of her lip, was replaced by a gleeful, mischievous smirk which was new to Alice, something she had never witnessed. But what did it mean? Nothing good, that was certain, and Alice found that Christiane’s quiet, satisfied complacency was proving much more alarming than a torrent of abuse.

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