Read The Old Contemptibles Online

Authors: Martha Grimes

The Old Contemptibles (3 page)

Vivian was not a stupid woman; indeed Melrose wondered if she hadn’t been suspecting something even at the beginning with the lorry accident. Trueblood, unfortunately, embroidered his tales as he did his clothes and a few unlikely threads had been woven in.

Thus, a little help from Scotland Yard (they decided) would not come amiss either.

But they weren’t getting it from Richard Jury.

No, he would not make up some bloody cock-and-bull story about an ax-murderer slipping through a police cordon at Heathrow and hopping a plane to Venice. . . .

“Why would I need to? You two just made it up yourselves,”
Jury had yelled at them over the phone.

This had occurred three weeks before:

A conference call from Trueblood’s Antiques in Long Piddleton. Marshall had every British Telecom convenience known to man and God—conference-calling, call waiting, call forwarding (“call-pretending,” Jury had offered) and the two of them had been sitting in the shop, punching buttons to New Scotland Yard.

 • • • 

“Don’t you
Trueblood had whined to Jury. “Don’t you care if she becomes one of his brides and wanders round Venice in a white nightgown looking for victims?”

“Oh, shut up,” said Jury. “Look, this is
life, not yours, although I’d never know it to hear you two talk.”

 • • • 

“We’re trying to save her from herself; or from some idiotic notion that just because she’s been, well, going back and forth between Italy and England for all this time she’s somehow obliged to marry the man.”

“Up to her, isn’t it?”

Plant thought there was an uncharacteristic edge to Jury’s voice.

Jury went on: “And what about Ellen Taylor? Thought you were off to the States. New Yawk. Or Baltimore.”

“I am. As soon as Vivian’s out of danger.”

“ ‘Out of danger.’ God. Why don’t you wake up?”

Trueblood lit a green Sobranie and stuck his feet up on one of his priceless fauteils as Melrose frowned. “Wake up to what?”

No reply. “Richard? Are you there?”

“Unfortunately, yes.”

“Good. Now, listen. You’re the only one who can stop her. For you, she’d come back.” For some reason, he hadn’t liked saying that. “Don’t you remember that morning at Victoria?”

Pause down the line. “Yes.”

“Remember how ravishing she looked? That creamy dress, that browny red hair—”

“Yes. And don’t
remember when we all first met. Ten years ago that was. Long Piddleton. She was almost married then, too.”

“Well, good Lord, that’s no compar—”

“You think she wanted to marry

Melrose stared up at Trueblood’s ceiling. Cobweb garlands held by plaster angels. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

A long pause, long sigh from the London end. “No, you’re so blind you probably don’t. Seen Polly Praed lately?”

“What the hell’s she got to do with it?”

“I don’t know.”

“We’re talking about

A chair creaked back in London. “And?”

“Well, you must have been thinking
when the Orient Express pulled out of Victoria.”

Another long pause.

“ ‘Agnosco veteris vestigia flammae,’ ”
said Jury before he hung up.


The Gritti Palace, although certainly a handsome hotel, was not as large or resplendent as Melrose had pictured it. The bar was empty but for one elderly lady whose powder was too white and cheeks too pink. She reminded Melrose of Mrs. Withersby, given the way she slugged back her Sambuca and tapped her glass on the table to get the bartender’s attention. Between drinks she would stare out at the Grand Canal. A gray fringe of hair stuck out from under a brown hat with a molting bird ornament on the band.

Probably a millionaire. Or a countess. Or both. Melrose thought if he and Trueblood sat there long enough for their hair to turn white and their teeth to fall out, everyone with any claim to fame would go strolling by.

Trueblood, usually fastidious to a fault, was stuffing nuts in his mouth. He did not give the impression of someone who’d just escaped from the Grim Reaper in an automobile accident.

Between mouthfuls he explored various possibilities: “Good Lord,
old sweat, we’ve got to decide on which story. I still favor the one about her being burgled—Vivian must have at least a million quid’s worth of antiques in there.”

Melrose shook his head. “Too big a job for us and we’d have to do it at night. People would talk. And, anyway, supposing we got her home, how would we get the stuff back?”

“I see what you mean. Well, then, what’s wrong with Ruthven going mad and having to be put away? Vivian’s always liked Ruthven.”

“She’d send her abject apologies, but I doubt she’d put off the wedding. It’s not the same as you or I going mad. And we can’t pretend anything more is the matter with us. And Ruthven couldn’t do it, anyway, even if he wanted to.”

“Then what about making her think that Venice is a dangerous place to be?” Trueblood chewed another handful of nuts, his eyes bright. “Remember that business about the crazy dwarf? We might be able to convince her he or she’s loose, running round stabbing people.”

Melrose shook his head. “No, no, no, no! If a dwarf was doing that, it’d be in all the papers:
‘Killer Dwarf On Loose.’
Anyway, that was supposed to be Jury’s idea—” Melrose stopped. “I’ve got it!”

“Here she comes!”

The Venetian Vivian stood before them looking gorgeous as she always did under the Italian influence: beautiful and awfully fashionable, her clingy, tiny-pleated dress seeming to have a mind of its own. Melrose preferred the good wool skirts and cardigans she always wore at home.

She embraced each of them, gave each a kiss, and sat down.

Said Trueblood, “You took my advice and bought Utrillo! The lines are wonderful.”

“No, I took my own and bought a Dickens and Jones. On sale.”

A look of loathing passed over Marshall Trueblood’s face.

“Both of you are pale. Marshall has hardly any color at all.” She frowned.

“We’re much better, really,” said Melrose.


“You both also look guilty.” Vivian leaned across the table, eyes narrowed.

“Let’s get you a drink, Viv-viv.” He caught the waiter before he attended to the elderly lady.

“If you’ve come all this way to see me, I’m certainly flattered. The wedding was put back another two weeks. A gin and orange, please,” she said to the hovering waiter.

“Well, if you
know,” said Melrose, “there’s something about Richard Jury.” Pause. “He’s getting married.”

Trueblood stuffed a few more nuts in his mouth as he nodded and nodded his head.

Vivian’s eyes opened wide. She had a stricken look on her face as if the killer dwarf had just got her in the back. She opened her mouth and shut it at least three times before she could bring herself to utter a strangled “to whom?”

“Her name is . . . I can’t remember. Can you?”

Trueblood feigned an effort at remembrance and shrugged. “You don’t know her.”

“Well, have you
her, then?”

“Oh, yes,” said Melrose. He turned to Trueblood.

“Good-looking, wouldn’t you say?” Trueblood took another handful of nuts.

Vivian looked at the drink the waiter had set before her as if it were hemlock. “He might have told me,” she said in a woebegone tone.

Melrose essayed the sadness and said, “He wants you to be there.”

She looked up in surprise. “When’s this wedding to be?”

“A week.”

“Two weeks.”

Melrose and Trueblood answered together. Trueblood quickly corrected himself. “That’s it. In two weeks time.”

“But that’s when Franco and

“Well, Franco wouldn’t mind waiting just a tad longer. He’s been so patient all of these years. Must be a very understanding chap.” Melrose smiled brilliantly.

Vivian looked morose. “What does this wonderwoman look like?”

“Auburn hair, hazel eyes and heart-shaped face.” He had just described Vivian, for God’s sake.

“How did he meet her?”

Melrose thought. “At one of my parties.”

“You never give parties.” Her glance was scorching.
said Vivian’s eyes. “What does she do, anyway?”

As Vivian seemed to be oozing farther down in her chair, Marshall Trueblood said, “She’s a writer.”


“Um-hmm. Writes sort of biographical fiction, as I remember.”

Melrose looked doubtfully at Marshall Trueblood. He might be putting too fine a point on things. After all, one might easily make a mistake on the color of a person’s hair. But one could hardly manufacture a book.

Vivian looked more and more flattened by this news. She picked up her gin and drank half the glass at once before she banged it back on the table, bouncing the nuts. “I expect she’s famous?”

Just as Trueblood opened his mouth to embellish, Melrose said, “No, no, absolutely not. You’d never have heard of her. As a matter of fact, I’m not sure she’s a writer anymore, is she?” He kicked Trueblood under the table.

“Definitely not.” Trueblood snickered. “Just one of those nine-day-wonder sorts of things. Think she might actually be on welfare.”

“She sounds,” said Vivian, “just the ticket. Attractive, brainy and bookish. And in need of help. The perfect woman for Richard Jury.” Her tone hovered between sarcasm and despair.

Trueblood was now taking his own line. “She likes Rimbaud. Or is it Verlaine?”

Melrose gave him a black look as Vivian sat up straight in her chair. “Perfect. When she isn’t sitting home darning socks she can visit you and talk about the French Romantics. Get another drink!”

Trueblood limped off to the bar.

“See, he’s still favoring that right leg.” But Vivian didn’t seem to care if it had been amputated at the knee.

She said nothing until Trueblood put her drink before her and (having had time to embellish the tale) said, “To tell the truth, Vivian, about this woman’s being ‘just the ticket’ as you put it, well, we’re not all that sure.”

“So what?” Vivian snapped. “You’re not marrying her.”

“The point is, we’ve been gently suggesting to him that she really isn’t the right one for him.” Trueblood did not meet Melrose’s eyes.

“You’ve just got through
the right one.”

Marshall Trueblood extracted a pink Sobranie from his cigarette
case, lit it and sat back. Melrose was stepping on his foot. “This won’t go any farther, will it, Viv? We both of us would be in the soup.” He put his hand on Melrose’s arm.

What in hell was he doing? Vivian wasn’t
naïve. On the other hand, when it came to Richard Jury, she’d probably believe stars had fallen in a fountain. At least, Trueblood had exacted a promise not to tell . . . tell what? Melrose was as curious as Vivian, now.

“The kiddies . . .” Both Vivian and Melrose were hanging on Trueblood’s every word.

“To marry a woman with three—or is it four?—children, two still in babies’ school—doesn’t seem realistic. And the teenage son . . .” Trueblood studied the nut bowl. “Did a newsagent’s, nearly landed in the nick.”

Vivian flushed and then went white. “Is he crazy? He spends his life chasing crime. Does he have to marry it?”

“We’ve tried to persuade him, but . . .” A sad little shrug said Trueblood too was at a loss.

Melrose gave his shin a kick. Good Lord, after all the stories they’d made up about the Giappino family, how could she be credulous enough to believe

Apparently she was. “It’s that savior complex of his. For a detective he certainly gets messed up in other people’s troubles!”

“The point is, we were hoping you might be able to dissuade him. You know how fond he is of you.”

“No, I don’t.” She made wet rings with her glass on the table.

An uncomfortable, confused silence descended on the group, with Vivian doing what she could to keep busy—opening her bag, snapping it shut, taking another drink, going for what nuts were left in the dish. Then she said, her voice tight, “All I can say is he must be besotted with her if he’d take on three or four children. All he needs is a teenager selling crack.”

Melrose and Trueblood laughed. “The whole situation is beyond us. I can’t think of anything worse than our superintendent’s back bent under the weight—”

Melrose kicked him again.

“So he wasn’t intending to come to my wedding?” The skin puckered between her eyes and she pulled at a thread from her Dickens and Jones dress. Melrose watched the hem of the sleeve unravel.

Trueblood said, “Oh, I’m sure he was. With the family, of course.”

Melrose hid his eyes with his hand. The original pitch had merely been to get her back to Northants. Now Trueblood seemed to be breaking up a union between Jury and his intended—Oh, Lord, he was beginning to believe it himself!

Vivian didn’t know where to look—at them? at the sleeve? at the ceiling? “I’ve got to go. Franco’s waiting for me.”

“It’s been wonderful seeing you. You look radiant. Franco must be very good to you.” Trueblood smiled.

That would really throw her off guard, thought Melrose. Not once had they referred to coffins, Transylvania, sharpened stakes or mirrors.

“Oh. Yes, yes he is.” She looked puzzled by this new twist on the count. She rose.

“We’re at the hotel on the Lido if you should change your mind,” said Melrose, looking downcast.

“ ‘Change’ it? I haven’t even made it up yet.”

“All the better.” He held Vivian’s hand in both of his. Watching them go would probably be more than she could bear.

They all left the Gritti Palace together. She looked pale and terribly confused. “When are you going back?”

“In a few days. Not sure, really.”

“It was nice of you to come. And tell me what happens. You know.”

As they walked off in different directions, Trueblood said, “That was quite brilliant.”

Said Melrose, sourly, “The only problem is that he’s
getting married.”

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