Read The Old Contemptibles Online

Authors: Martha Grimes

The Old Contemptibles (5 page)

Jane smiled. “How very true. Speaking of meeting—you have to meet my son.”

“Good Lord!” Jury pulled a pillow over his head. “I’m going to have to pass the scrutiny of a teenager!”

“He’s not your standard teenager.” She laughed.

 • • • 

As Jury chucked a pile of papers into the waste bin, Wiggins said, “You’d ought to be careful; you never know but there might be something the guv’nor’s routed to you.”

Jury squeezed his eyes shut. “Wiggins, if I hear you call Racer that one more time, I’ll take away your atomizer. There! All shipshape and so forth.”

Wiggins gave Jury’s desk a baleful glance. “You won’t know where anything is, now, sir.” He pinched something out of a small tin and put it up his nose.

“I didn’t know where anything was before.” Jury looked at Wiggins and looked again. “What are you doing with tobacco up your nose?”

“It’s not tobacco, it’s rue.”

“Rue. Well, that explains it.”

“It’s very good for bronchitis; Mrs. Wassermann told me to try it. She’s quite an expert about herbal medicines—”

“Mrs. Wassermann? If you say so.” The only thing Mrs. Wassermann ever prescribed for Jury was a hot broth that tasted vile. Perhaps it was full of rue.

When the telephone rang, Wiggins came to attention and grabbed the receiver. “Wiggins, here.” He relaxed. “Oh, it’s you . . . what? . . . but he’s got to be around somewhere.”

Even from this distance, Jury could hear the wire throb from hysterics. “What’s wrong?” he mouthed to Wiggins.

“Yes, yes, yes! We’ll be there in a tic.” He hung up. “Fiona can’t find Cyril.”

Jury was out of his chair. “Let’s go. But I’m not walking through the halls of the Yard with somebody who’s got rue up his nose.”

 • • • 

Fiona, a towel pinned to hold back her hair, was tossing things about, looking in the waste bin, opening drawers. “He’s gone, I shoulda known what was happening.”

Wiggins handed her the holy icon—his handkerchief—with which she wiped away the tears.

“He’s probably just sleeping somewhere.”

Fiona wiped the back of her hand across her cheek and sniffled. “He could be now he’s had his tuna. He gets awful sluggish. . . .” More tears fell.

“You know the way he likes to make himself invisible. Remember when he managed to get on the window-washer’s scaffold that time? And all of those daredevil stunts like squeezing himself out on the ledge and mashing his face against the window with Racer looking every damn place he thought Cyril could be—”

All of this remembering only brought a fresh onslaught of tears from Fiona.

Jury himself felt his throat tighten up, whereupon he turned and went into Racer’s office to check up: he looked into the umbrella stand—an urn that Cyril was fond of as long as the umbrellas weren’t wet; he bent over and opened the drinks cabinet; and he pulled out Racer’s desk chair. Cyril was a master of hiding in plain sight.

Fiona was calling to him impatiently: “Don’t you think I’ve already looked in there?” Back in the outer office Fiona was snuffling and talking to Wiggins. “. . . when he brought in that box, something was wrong. But he’s always carrying things around. So somehow, the Super got Cyril into it!”

“Okay: assuming he took Cyril, where would he take him?” He was really talking to himself, but Fiona wailed an answer.

“Dropped him in Blackheath and the poor cat don’t know where he is!”

Wiggins tried to soothe Fiona by bringing up a film he’d seen years
“Incredible Journey
that was about a cat and two dogs that somehow got lost when the family was moving and traveled
a hundred miles,
Fiona, and found their family.”

“But they
wanted those ones back.” She blew into the handkerchief.

Again Jury said, “Where would Racer have taken a cat?” He was scanning the yellow pages. He found what he wanted in the telephone book, tore the page out and then in three pieces across, gave one to Wiggins, and one to Fiona. “Let’s start calling.”

“RSPCA? Animal shelters, sir?” He frowned. “Superintendent Racer doesn’t strike me as the man who would see to it an animal was taken care of. He’s much more the shove-’em-in-a-sack, toss-’em-in-the-Thames—” Wiggins stopped midsentence when Fiona wailed again.

“Stop talking and start calling. I’ll use Racer’s phone.”

They were all talking at the same time and saying almost the very same things.

“. . . copper coat and he’s very agile.”

“. . . kind of orangey. With white paws. Brought in probably this morning . . .”

“. . . beautiful cat, intelligent . . . probably last night? No? All right, then, thanks.” Wiggins rang off.

“Stubborn? Hunger strike? Got the door of his cage open?” Jury was getting out of the chair while saying. “That’s him. My name’s Richard Jury. That’s J-U-R-Y. We’ll be right over to collect him.”

Jury went to Fiona’s office and smiled brilliantly. “Got him, Fiona.” She banged down the receiver. Her smile was sunny. “Get us a car; this shouldn’t take long.” As he was going out the door, he added, “And send that tuna to forensics.”

 • • • 

One of the ladies minding the desk showed Jury and Wiggins to the rooms in which the cats were kept in numbered cages. Cyril was in cage eleven.

“Well, I’m ever so glad you’ve come to collect him. He sits that way all the time, hasn’t touched his food and sometimes I think he hasn’t slept a wink.” She moved to a cage on the end with a mother tabby cat and one kitten. She shook and shook her head, sticking her fingers through the wire. “These ones’ll be put down tomorrow. When people bring in mother cats and kittens it’s all I can do to hold
my tongue. See, they’ve got less chance to be adopted because all people want is kittens.” She was trying to stroke the cat through the metal webbing. “It makes me sick, it does.” When she turned back to Jury and Wiggins, she made quite a fuss over both the cat and his rescuers. Cyril watched them. “You can tell he was feeling hopeless. But he’s putting up a good front.”

It was not a “front.” Cyril’s pose and slow-blinking eyes suggested that what the Fates had in store for him had better be reevaluated. And what the empathetic young woman had taken for stoic suffering Jury knew was simple disdain. Cyril was an adaptable animal, obviously, if he could put up with Racer. Even here he did not appear unduly upset by this new, restrictive environment, for he knew rescue was at hand. He sat in that statuesque pose that cats do, paws neatly together, tail wrapped around him like the robes of state. He yawned. It was only to be expected:



They had returned Vivian-less.

Well, thought Melrose, so had Lambert Strether returned Chadless. Except that Strether had seen through a miasma of social pretension and moral decay. Melrose could not lay claim to any Jamesian refinement of sensibility. He found that, somehow, irksome. He’d told Ruthven to stuff that white Armani suit somewhere that he’d never see it again.

Still, it was heartening that Vivian would reschedule (yet again) her own wedding in order to come to London and talk Jury out of his. Trueblood had put on a first-rate performance, at one moment beating back real tears. The henna-haired woman was bad enough, given her seedy past. But the four children—well, that was not to be borne.

They had been back from Italy for two whole days before Agatha got wind of it, but here she was this afternoon jamming up a scone while Melrose was trying to read his book and listen to his music.

The new sound system was wonderful, including a Meridian 208 CD player and Spica loudspeakers. He had listened all of yesterday to Lou Reed ricocheting from windows to walls and back again while Lou really hammered on New York City:

Get ’em out

on the Dirty Boulevard

Occasionally, Melrose sang along with him, punching his fists in the air for emphasis, and startling Mindy awake.

Today, it was the Doors. Jim Morrison was a Rimbaud fan. Now,
was strange. Morrison’s grave was in Paris and his death a mystery.

“Are you listening to that maniac again?”

“No. This is a different maniac.” Ah, it was to be yet another viva voce afternoon with Agatha.

“They all sound the same to me.” She was topping the jam with double cream.

He didn’t answer. He was thinking again of
The Ambassadors;
Lambert Strether hadn’t told Chad Newsome that he, Strether, had been hit by a lorry or that the young man’s best friend had terminal pneumonia.

And Melrose and Marshall hadn’t rung Richard Jury because they hadn’t yet made up the story they were going to tell him. Melrose only hoped that Vivian wouldn’t make a rash trunk call before they managed to disengage Jury from the woman and her intractable tots.

“I cannot
all of this racket!” Agatha was giving the silver tea service a rest by putting her hands over her ears.

Melrose reached over and turned the volume down. The speakers were adjusted so that the music would explode in Agatha’s face.

He returned to his book on Palladian architecture. Since his Venetian journey he had dipped into Ruskin, Henry James and several other writers on the subject of the buildings of that glorious city. Now, he was sharpening his knowledge with books on architecture in general. “This is interesting.”

“What is?”

“Palladio thought that on every estate there should be an old ruin.” He stared over his glasses at Agatha.

“You look quite pale,” she said, by way of answer. “I warned you about taking that trip so soon after that nasty bout of pneumonia.”

. . . the illness that never was. But Ruthven had done a masterly job of convincing his aunt of its existence during the two weeks when Melrose was supposedly “laid up” before he’d gone to Italy.

How Melrose longed for those Agatha-less days: for two whole weeks he and Mindy had sat in front of the fireplace dozing, drinking port, eating. Melrose had directed Mindy’s bowl be brought out so she wouldn’t have the bother of taking the long walk to the kitchen.
Both of them were besotted with the quiet, the fire, the drinks, the food. Ruthven was delighted to act as general factotum. He made it clear to Lady Ardry that His Lordship was to have no visitors.

“Not even family? That’s absurd!”

“Nonetheless, those are the doctor’s orders,”
Ruthven had said with his foot in the door.

“What doctor? The one from Sidbury?”

“No, madam.”
Ruthven paused.
“From London. A specialist.”

 • • • 

Melrose didn’t bother commenting; he continued reading his book.

“And with Marshall Trueblood, of all people, the silliest person in the village. He’s been a bad influence on you, my dear Plant.” She paused to defrock a fairy cake. “He’s making
silly. You with your aristocratic background—”

He sighed. “Kindly
introducing me as the eighth Earl of Caverness, fifth Viscount Ardry, et cetera.”

He raised his book so he wouldn’t see her.

“You’re just going through an identity crisis.”

That was a new one, he thought.

“—so you’d better take life more seriously.” She sipped her third cup of tea.

Hell’s bells. He would have to take action just to shut her up. He rose, went across to his desk, took out his keys and used a very small one to open the middle drawer. Inside was a document. Melrose drew it out and returned to his chair, beginning to read the page intently. Occasionally, he would stop and purse his lips. It was a long and addlebrained bunch of nonsense drawn up by Melrose’s ninety-year-old neighbor (acres away) about the branches of His Lordship’s beech trees straggling over the neighbor’s stone wall.

“What are you reading?”

“My will.”

stopped her hand on its way to the cake plate. “What are you doing that for? Is something wrong? Was that bout of pneumonia more serious than we thought?”

Did she sound the least bit hopeful? “You told me to take life more seriously; I assume that means death, too.”

“Really, Plant, you are a ghoul.”

Melrose frowned at the page. “Humph!”


“I don’t think Ledbetter is right about that. . . .” He seemed to be speaking to himself.

“About what? Simon Ledbetter? The Ledbetters have been our family’s solicitors for fifty years.”

Melrose loved that

“If I know you, Melrose, you’re probably leaving something to Ada Crisp’s rat terrier.”

“No. But I am to Ada.”

“Really, Melrose.” This was accompanied by an artificial little laugh. “And that Withersby person, too, I expect. What are you writing there?” A hint of hysteria crept into her question.

“Rectifying Simon Ledbetter’s error regarding the bulk of my estate.” He was drawing a cow on the paper.

She opened her mouth, but before she could gear up again, Ruthven swanned into the room with his whiskey and soda tray and set it within easy reach of the wing chair.

“Thank you. Perhaps you could get Simon Ledbetter on the phone for me. Ring him tomorrow. Early.”

“Yes, my lord.”

Melrose sipped his drink, said
and went back to the cow’s hooves. He studied the cow and started to draw in a nice shade tree.

“Why are you—or Simon Ledbetter—writing up codicils?” A sort of breathlessness accompanied this question as if she might strangle over the answer.

Melrose had drooped the branch over a stone wall. Before he could answer, Ruthven came back into the living room to tell him the superintendent was on the line.

“Jury?” Oh, my God! Here he’d been drawing a cow when he should have been thinking up a story.

 • • • 

Melrose’s tone, naturally, was injured. “I’ve been trying for two days to get hold of you. I had two or three interesting conversations with Miss Palutski, who wondered when I was coming to visit, told me about her job and asked me what sign I was born under. The Jack and Hammer, I told her. I
you’d be eager to hear about Vivian.” He chewed his lip and hoped Jury wasn’t.

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