|Primary Characters:||Barnaby, Troy|
|Warning:||adult themes, murder|
|Description:||Barnaby and Troy are investigating a murder. A witness turns out to be strangely alluring. But she has a secret that Troy isn’t ready for.|
Gavin Troy rushed up to his superior, Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby, not really late, but as Barnaby liked to arrive early, it invariably made Troy look bad. Uncomfortably aware of his disadvantage, Troy coughed nervously to clear his throat.
“Yes, Troy. Slow down. He isn’t going anywhere.”
Barnaby was pointing at the reason for their presence in the splendid bungalow at 6.30 a m. The forensic team and the pathologist were just finishing up, and the two police officers moved closer to take a look for themselves.
The murder victim was lying face down on a Persian carpet. A large stain had seeped into the fabric, marring the pattern. It was a middle-aged man, fully dressed, and if it hadn’t been for the knife protruding from his back, it would have seemed as if he’d fallen asleep on the floor of his own study.
Until the pathologist had performed the post-mortem, the scene of the crime didn’t tell Barnaby much more than his initial impression. This was no burglary gone wrong. Whoever had killed the owner of the house must have been invited in or at least held a key. He turned to the uniform in charge to make further inquiries.
“Not exactly, but there was a guest here last night.”
“What about neighbours? It looks a bit isolated.”
“There a two, one on each side, and perhaps one on the other side of the road, where they might have seen or heard something. My men could -”
“Yes, but I think we’d better take a look for ourselves. Troy. Would you see if the neighbours are up yet?”
“What about that witness?”
“A ms Cynthia Ashley. The housekeeper had her address. Here.”
The uniform handed over a piece of paper torn from a notepad. Barnaby squinted to make out the handwriting, which seemed to have been jotted down in a hurry. From what he could make out, the address indicated a house not far from the one he was standing in. Barnaby decided that meeting with this guest was next on his and Sergeant Troy’s agenda.
When the younger officer returned, Barnaby informed him of their next stop. Just like Barnaby had expected, the house they were standing outside was similar to the one where the victim had been found. By now, it was getting on for 7.30, and he hoped the lady they wanted would be awake.
There was only one way to find out, so he raised his hand and knocked on the door. He couldn’t hear a thing from inside the house. Again. Perhaps no one was in. Interesting. He was just making up a hypothesis about the whereabouts of his witness – guilty? – dead? – on the run? – when there were sounds of high heels walking along the hallway.
Seconds later, the door swung open to reveal a tall lady, with a heavily made up face. Full warpaint at this hour? Unusual. Barnaby’s wife certainly didn’t go to all that trouble at 7 in the morning. Or had the lady never been to bed at all? All kinds of possibilities occurred to Barnaby.
The voice was low and husky and Barnaby noticed that his partner’s face was looking rather flushed. So the lady had made a conquest already. How typical of Troy. Always making a fool of himself over a pretty face. Barnaby didn’t have time to waste on making observations of that nature, so he returned to the matter at hand.
“You were a guest at mr Howard Grant-Thornton’s house last night?”
“I’m afraid that your host, mr Grant-Thornton has been found dead. I’m Chief Inspector Barnaby. This is Sergeant Troy. May we come in and ask you a few questions?”
There was a pause, while ms Ashley pondered their request, or rather, Barnaby fancied, the information they had brought. He used the interval to study the witness further. Tall, elegantly dressed. Heavily made up. Her scent was luxurious, expensive, he was guessing, but he wasn’t really an expert at women’s perfumes.
What he did know was that it was very early in the morning for such a getup, and the whole impression was a rather elaborate one for a place like this. Around here, people didn’t usually look like they were on their way to a banquet unless they were. Again, this was a fact that was unusual, and anything unusual interested Barnaby. Especially at this point in the investigation.
She turned gracefully and began walking down the hall, leading her visitors into a pleasantly furnished sitting room. Barnaby couldn’t help noticing how Troy’s eyes were glued to the elegant apparition, especially the long, slender legs. Shaking his head to himself, Barnaby decided not to comment.
As long as Troy did his work, he could stare at what he liked. He was only embarrassing himself. Though their hostess was no doubt a striking looking woman, she was far too garish for Barnaby’s taste. And, appearing to be in her late 20’s, she was also quite a bit too young for Barnaby.
“Please, have a seat.”
Their hostess was frowning, as if not fully focusing on their presence.
“Ms Ashley -”
“Sorry. I was -”
“You don’t look surprised.”
“If you don’t mind my saying so, you do not seem exactly surprised at this revelation. That your host has met with an unfortunate end?”
“Mm. You’re right. I can’t say that I’m exactly surprised. It’s distressing, of course.”
“Yes? I’m listening.”
“Alright. You see, Howard had received death threats from his ex-wife.”
“Oh? Do you know why?”
Ms Ashley smiled enigmatically. Troy’s face took on a little more colour. This really was getting annoying. At least Barnaby thought so. He made an effort to concentrate on the case, not on his awkward partner. It was time that young man met a woman. Then maybe this nonsense wouldn’t keep coming up every time they interviewed an attractive female between 20 and 40.
“I’m afraid that was due to our meetings. She just couldn’t handle the fact that Howard was seeing someone else.”
“I see. Do you have any idea of the nature of these death threats?”
“Not really. Howard didn’t elaborate. In fact, I suspect he wouldn’t have told me about them at all. I simply happened to be present when he received one of those letters.”
“Very well. Let’s go over last night now. When did you arrive?”
“Around 8 p m. We had dinner. Spent some time – talking, in the sitting room. Then I excused myself and left.”
“At what time did you get back here, ms Ashley?”
“I said -”
“Yes, I heard you. At what hour did you leave mr Grant-Thornton?”
“At almost exactly 11 p m.”
“Can you explain why it took you five and a half hours to get to your own house when it took us less than 15 minutes to drive here? Even if you went on foot, surely it wouldn’t take you that long?”
“As it happens, I did not walk. I have a car of my own.”
“Then how do you explain that discrepancy?”
“It’s very simple. I didn’t go straight home.”
For some reason she found this statement amusing. Her mouth twitched at the corners. As if she was enjoying some private joke behind their backs.
“If you ask me, I will know better what it is you wish to know, Chief Inspector Barnaby.”
Barnaby stared at her in confusion. There was something about this lady –
“By all means. Where did you go after you left mr Grant-Thornton?”
“I visited another friend.”
“And when did you leave this friend?”
“At ten or fifteen past 4.”
“May I ask about the name of this friend?”
Ms Ashley appeared to be hesitating. Thoughfully, she let one delicate finger slide across a very deep red lip. Troy shifted uneasily on his chair, getting his feet entangled. This made a bit of a noise, and pulled Barnaby’s attention away from the interviewee. That boy really needed to get a grip. When finally order was restored, Barnaby turned back towards ms Ashley.
“If you must. You see – he’s married.”
“I’m afraid we can’t take that into account. But if it helps, I can promise you we won’t reveal this information to the public, unless it’s pertinent to the investigation of the case.”
“You leave me no choice. His name is Owen Travis. I suppose I shall have to provide you with his address and phone number. Please be careful what you say if his wife has returned from visiting her sister.”
“Believe me, ms Ashley, we don’t make a habit of handling delicate matters insensitively.”
“That sounds reassuring. If that would be all, perhaps you will leave me now, to get my beauty sleep?”
“Certainly. We’ll get back to you, if we have any more questions. And – don’t leave the area without informing us.”
“Chief Inspector Barnaby, am I under suspicion?”
“At this point, this is just a routine inquiry.”
“I see. Thank you for pointing that out.”
In one graceful movement, she got up to show them out. Again, Troy’s eyes glazed over. This was pitiful. The boy really should get a life, before he ended up permanently warped. Ms Ashley showed her two visitors out, then firmly shut the door behind her. Barnaby began descending the stairs, only to realize that his partner hadn’t moved an inch. He was still staring at the now closed door, a dreamy look on his face.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Troy. Is there something the matter with you?”
“I said, what’s wrong with you?”
Troy’s face took on even more colour.
“Sorry, sir. I’ll be right with you.”
In the car, Barnaby turned and faced Troy, a look of disbelief on his face.
“I take it you’re quite partial to ms Ashley?”
“Uh – well – you have to admit, she’s a striking looking lady.”
“Perhaps. But try to retain your professional detachment. The lady is a suspect in a murder case, don’t forget that.”
“No, sir, I won’t.”
“Good. Shall we?”
Since Barnaby was the one behind the wheel, Troy’s consent wasn’t of the utmost importance, and naturally Barnaby’s question had only been rhetorical. He soon turned his attention onto the road ahead of them, leaving Troy in peace to sort out his own impressions.
Humiliatingly, Barnaby was right. Troy didn’t think he’d ever seen such an attractive lady. Especially not in real life. She was easily the most intriguing, elegant, sophisticated lady he’d met as well. Around Midsomer, there couldn’t be that many women of her kind. Certainly, Troy hadn’t been fortunate enough to run across them.
But if Barnaby had noticed the spectacle his younger partner made of himself, there couldn’t be much doubt that ms Ashley would also have noted his awkward performance. Even now, Troy’s cheeks were burning uncomfortably.
If he could hardly manage to get an ordinary girl to go out with him, how would this stunning apparition ever pay attention to him? Miserably, Troy continued to dwell on this dilemma, while Barnaby conveyed them back to the station to make the report about their initial findings.
“I’ve gone over the statements from the neighbours and I feel that we’re getting nowhere. The only person who seems to know something about anything pertinent to this case, is ms Ashley. We need to talk to her again.”
“Don’t look so elated, Troy. Need I remind you that we’re still dealing with a suspect? At this point, she seems to be our only suspect.”
“Sir – What about the ex-wife?”
“Yes, those death threats. Unfortunately, ms Grant Thornton – oh, I mean ms Neville – she seems to have been in a hurry to regain the use of her maiden name – Well, whatever her name is, she is still not back from Madeira, and with what little we have to go on, it’s better to let her return on her own. From what her housekeeper could tell us, and this was corroborated by the rest of her staff, ms Neville will return on Friday. That gives us another three days to come up with more evidence.”
“Yes, sir. But -”
“I would have thought you’d be pleased to meet ms Ashley again.”
“Me, sir? Aren’t you coming with me? Do you have a new lead?”
Barnaby looked slightly less superior as he recalled the reason why he was delegating this particular interview to Troy. And it wasn’t such a problem, he tried to tell himself. Troy only needed a bit of guidance and he’d make a reasonably good officer. In fact, more than reasonably good. The boy had potential, as long as he started paying more attention to what he was doing.
Suddenly, Barnaby wished he could have sent Troy to buy the tricky gift for his wife’s 50 birthday. But if he himself couldn’t think of anything after nearly 30 years of marriage, then how could Troy? With a sigh, Barnaby forced himself to tell Troy the reason for his absence.
“Joyce – My wife – You see, her birthday is coming up and – I’m buying her a present. It can’t wait, I’m afraid. I’ve already put it off for far too long.”
“I see, sir. When is this celebration taking place?”
Again, Barnaby made an effort to subdue his own spontaneous reaction and simply convey Joyce’s invitation to his young partner.
“Next Sunday. 3 p m. At our house. You’re – welcome. Joyce told me to invite you especially. Cully will be there and – If you can make it, we’d all be pleased to have you.”
Barnaby tried to make his face match the expression of approval. He didn’t particularly like having Troy around the house. The boy was taking an interest in Cully that didn’t seem to have much to do with her talent for acting.
What was worse, was that both his daughter and his wife tended to side with the young man whenever Barnaby felt it necessary to put Troy in his place. On seeing the young man’s face light up, Barnaby felt a minute stab of guilt, but he managed to subdue it.
“Thank you, sir. I’ll be there. What should I bring?”
“Well, it’s customary to bring the hostess flowers, isn’t it?”
“Oh. Absolutely. Nothing else?”
“Thank you, Troy, but I think we have it covered.”
With a shudder, Barnaby remembered all the tiresome preparations being made around the house. For weeks now, he’d found himself unable to walk around freely in his own house and his own garden.
“Now shouldn’t you get going? Before ms Ashley visits another of her – friends.”
Troy’s face blushed hotly, and for a second, Barnaby regretted taunting the boy. He’d learn soon enough that though inevitably there would be witnesses, or even perpetrators who caught your eye during the course of an investigation, the key to solid police work was not allowing yourself to be distracted.
“Yes, sir. Right away.”
Nearly stumbling over his own feet, Troy pushed back his chair and made his way out of the office and to his car, which was parked in the parking lot out back. It was just his usual luck that another car had stopped right in the middle of the driveway, and the driver seemed to be nowhere in sight.
This minor inconvenience took him nearly twenty minutes to sort out and by the time he was on his way, he was irritable. He’d better not make such a fool of himself this time. What would the lady think of him?
Finally, he was on his way. With his luck, he was sure he wouldn’t find the lady at home after all. But he was wrong. She opened the door on his second ring, as if she’d been listening for the doorbell. Was she expecting company? If so, her welcoming smile didn’t give any hint of it, and again, Troy felt himself go hot all over.
“Sergeant Troy? What a pleasant surprise. Do come in. I take it this isn’t a social call?”
“Uh – no – I mean – I have a few additional questions for you, if it isn’t inconvenient -”
“Please, come in. Can I get you anything? Coffee? A drink?”
“No, thank you.”
This time, ms Ashley led Troy into another room, less lavishly furnished. There was a piano by the wall, several sketches and water colours on the walls, and the large windows faced the garden. It was a very comfortable room. Troy found himself thinking that he’d like to stay here, and just sit and chat. This was only partially due to the presence of the hostess.
With an elegant gesture, she encouraged him to sit down, in one of the extremely comfortable armchairs standing by the right wall. The armchairs were grouped with a small table, and were placed side by side. Sitting there, Troy found himself in close proximity to ms Ashley. Though this was what he had secretly wished for, he found that in reality, the closeness was intimidating.
“Well? What was it you’d wanted to ask me?”
Distracted by the lady’s scent, Troy blurted out the first thing that came into his mind.
“Do you play the piano?”
Ms Ashley smiled pleasantly, but the smile held a touch of the predator. Especially, there was something rather enigmatic about it, as if somehow, she was smiling at Troy’s expense. But all this all but escaped Troy’s notice.
“A little, yes. Would you like to hear something?”
Without waiting for a reply, ms Ashley rose gracefully and walked over to the piano. She played something classical that Troy believed he had heard before, but he was too distracted to really pay attention. The music continued for a while longer, and though it caressed Troy’s ears, it was his eyes that really took in most of the data he was processing. Finally, there was silence, and ms Ashley returned to the chair by his side.
“That was beautiful.”
He wasn’t quite sure if he was referring to the music or the player. It seemed she was able to read his thoughts and again, she smiled. Her face turned to him, as if expectantly, but Troy was having a hard time remembering his original assignment.
“These paintings and sketches -”
“Yes, I made them. Do you like them?”
“Very much. You have a wonderful talent.”
“Thank you. I have always felt a need to express myself in various ways. Art, music – it all makes life much more enjoyable.”
“Now, what was it you wanted to ask me?”
At last, Troy’s mind was recalled to business. Ms Ashley appeared eager to answer all his questions, and the interview was over far too soon, in Troy’s view. But he couldn’t think of any excuse to delay his departure any longer, so reluctantly, he got up to leave.
“Thank you, ms Ashley, you’ve been most helpful.”
“It’s been a pleasure. Do let me know if I can be of any more help.”
“Uh – yes, of course.”
Without quite knowing how he’d ended up outside, on ms Ashley’s front steps, Troy suddenly realized that he must have spent far longer than he had intended inside that house. It was getting dark, and he realized that Barnaby would be wondering where he’d gone off to.
“Ah, there you are, Troy. Any new findings you’d like to share with me?”
It was 8.30 and Troy had just walked into the office, to find his boss already there.
“No, sir. Nothing I didn’t mention in my report last night.”
“I see. Well, I have some news for you. The art gallery is giving a banquet the day after tomorrow, and guess who’s going to be there?”
“Sir? Mrs Barnaby?”
“No, Troy. Ms Ashley. And the happy widow, ms Neville. Which means we shall have to be there as well.”
It was hard to tell which one of the men who was more uncomfortable with the idea of putting on a suit and forcing themselves to endure another night of extreme boredom. All for the sake of solving one case.
“Oh. Alright. If you feel it’s necessary for us both to be there -”
“I do, Troy. I most certainly do. This case is puzzling me beyond anything I could have expected. And it looked so straightforward from the start.”
“Yes, sir. I see.”
The only consolation Troy could think of was the fact that he would once again be seeing ms Ashley. Although, under the circumstances that was a very slight comfort. Among all the situations that made Troy feel out of his depth, a banquet or similar function was by far one of the worst.
The night of the banquet came, and Troy had reluctantly squeezed himself into a suit he hadn’t worn since his graduation. He felt as if his tie was strangling him, and he knew the jacket was too tight.
If he hadn’t been quite as uncomfortable, he might have noticed that his superior’s suit was every bit as tight. In fact, more so. The food at the police canteen, which Barnaby favoured over his wife’s cooking tended to stick to an older man’s midriff in a way that the older man in question forced himself to ignore.
“There you are, Troy. Try to stick close to ms Ashley tonight. Unless you’d prefer to tackle the happy widow?”
Barnaby was fairly sure of what his sergeant’s reply would be, but it amused him to tease the boy over his infatuation with the mysterious witness.
It seemed Troy was well aware of Barnaby’s amusement, and it added to his discomfort. His ears heated up, and he looked down at his shoes.
“Whatever you think is best, sir.”
“Excellent. Then I think we should split up. If you can, try to ask discreetly about the victim as well. This was his crowd, so to speak. Perhaps someone knows something that might be useful to us. There. I can see ms Neville over there.”
In a way, it was a relief to see the last of Barnaby. On the other hand, now Troy was alone among people he didn’t know, people among whom he felt as a fish out of water. He could hardly have been dropped right in the middle of a group of people he was less suited to tackle. But a job was a job. Sooner or later ms Ashley would show up. He had no idea why he was so sure of that, but he was.
In the meantime, he might as well do as Barnaby had ordered him to. Question the members of the art gallery society.
It was nearly twenty minutes later that ms Ashley finally put in an appearance. She certainly knew how to make a sensational entrance. Among these people, who were dressed to kill, in a manner of speaking, she stood out as the one most elegant and striking. Everyone’s eyes trailed her across the floor. Whispers followed in her wake.
Troy wasn’t close enough to catch anything, but he certainly didn’t marvel at the stir ms Ashley was causing. Though he was nervous, he also felt some anticipation. He was the one who would need to stick to her throughout the evening. After all, orders were orders.
But it soon became clear that he would have to wait in line. Most of the men seemed to wish to pay their respects and ask the lady to dance. Troy thought ms Ashley had noticed his presence, and though it might have been his imagination, she appeared to have raised an eyebrow in his direction, as if in recognition. She remembered. And it didn’t seem as if she was dismayed at his presence. Thus encouraged, Troy had no difficulty waiting his turn to approach the popular lady.
He used the waiting time to enquire about the victim. It appeared the man hadn’t been as popular as he had first appeared to be. But no one seemed to wish to enlighten Troy as to the cause of this. This was suggestive, but did nothing to move their case along.
Eventually, Troy’s turn came and he was allowed to escort ms Ashley to a conveniently located settee where the lady could catch her breath. While seated, she looked up at Troy from under thick, dark lashes, causing a flutter to appear at the base of his stomach.
“Sergeant Troy. We meet again. Tell me, what do you think of this banquet?”
“Oh, well, banquets are hardly my scene.”
“I see. You poor thing.”
“Still, a job is a job. Now, can I ask you something, ms Ashley?”
She smiled enigmatically, and inclined her head. Again, Troy felt his heart take a leap in his chest.
“May I have this dance?”
This time, it appeared the question had caught her offguard. She hesitated, and there was a strange look in her eyes. Troy experienced a sinking feeling. Why would a lady like this wish to dance with someone like him?
There was an odd note in her voice, one that Troy couldn’t quite interpret. But she didn’t seem to be about to change her mind, so he ignored this new mystery concering an already deeply enigmatic lady. Not that Troy ever found it easy to understand women.
She was an excellent dancer. Troy didn’t think he’d ever danced with anyone quite that good. It even seemed as if she was able to smooth over his all-too-frequent mistakes. Once, he stepped on her toes, but all she did was smile indulgently.
The night was proving far more enjoyable than Troy had expected. He had noted early on that Barnaby didn’t take the rule about no drinking on the job as seriously tonight as he usually did. Taking that as encouragement, Troy had fortified his nerves with some champagne.
By now, it appeared to have gone to his head. After the dance was over, Troy noticed that ms Ashley looked rather tired, and he offered to take her home. With a smile, she declined his offer.
“Perhaps some fresh air?”
“Why not? You are a very gallant policeman, sergeant Troy.”
“Gavin? Oh. Then you must call me Cynthia.”
Cynthia. Even the name was pure poetry.
Barnaby was involved in a highly interesting conversation with ms Neville when he caught sight of his sergeant leaving the room, with his arm around ms Ashley. With a barely concealed smile, Barnaby considered going to Troy’s rescue, but decided that he was a big boy and could look after himself. Instead, he chose to pursue the interview with the widow.
“May I ask how you discovered this – information about your husband’s – friend?”
“Certainly. When I realized he had taken up with that bitch, who incidentally is – dating – half the parish, including dr Harmon. You’d think that a doctor would notice something like that – unless -”
Barnaby coughed delicately. Quite. You certainly could expect as much.
“I see. Did you – confront your husband with this information?”
“Sure I did. I asked him if he knew that his bitch was really a man.”
“And? What did he say?”
“Not much to begin with, I can tell you. That seemed to shut him up pretty efficiently. Then I knew that he already knew. He knew about it, but didn’t care. I’m not surprised though. That old goat could never get enough. I expect another man will have more – stamina – If he could stomach the old hog.”
Again, Barnaby coughed. This was proving far more educating than he’d expected. It was a while before he realized that he’d discovered a new potential motive for the brutal killing of mr Grant-Thornton. By then, he’d decided that the questioning of ms Neville had gone on for long enough. Any more probing might cause her to suspect his interest was more than casual.
Outside, Troy was more involved in the study of ms Ashley’s eyes, than the study of the case he was investigating. There was something about the way those eyes caught the moonlight and reflected it, that was strangely moving. Her heavily made up face took on a new expression, one at once softer, yet also more intense.
Troy could have no way of knowing that it was the nearly full moon that was causing this look, not his own presence. By then, the champagne had loosened his inhibitions considerably, and he’d forgotten all about his work, Barnaby and everything except this lovely apparation standing so close to him he only needed to reach out and pull her into his arms –
“Sergeant Troy – Gavin.”
With far more force than Troy had anticipated, ms Ashley strenuously pushed him away.
“Forgive me, Cynthia – ms Ashley. I -”
“It’s alright, Gavin. I’m not offended, but I think you’ll thank me in a minute when I’ve had time to explain – Do I have your word that what I am about to tell you remains our little secret?”
Thinking that somehow the revelation would be connected with the case, Troy struggled to clear his head and regain his professional detachment. It was far from easy. How could he have been so foolish? So –
With increasing bewilderment, Troy listened to the explanation. At first, his mind was an absolute blank. What? No. He couldn’t possibly – Was this a sick, twisted joke at his expense? But with an effort, he controlled himself, by reminding himself that he was, despite everything, a police officer, with a job to do. Stiffly, he excused himself from ms Ashley – or whatever the pervert called himself – and turned to leave.
He fervently hoped that Barnaby would never learn about what a fool he had made of himself tonight. As far as he was concerned, the banquet was over. He needed to be on his own to come to terms with this – disaster.
Why did something like this have to happen? He could just imagine Barnaby’s condescending grin turn even more smug if he ever found out what had almost occurred – no, it was no use denying the humiliating fact – what had occurred between him and this – mockery of a woman, if only briefly.
Troy was making his way over to his car, forgetting about the champagne he had recently consumed. For the moment, he felt cold, stone sober.
Suddenly, there was the squeal of brakes and a car was swerving madly in the direction from which Troy had just come. His policeman’s instincts took over, and he ran after the careering car. He was just in time to see ms Ashley frozen in the harsh light of the headlights of the car. It looked like it was going to hit her – him – head on.
Troy didn’t even think. He just launched himself through the air, and somehow, he was able to pull the intended victim out of harm’s way. The impact threw them both to the ground, Troy on top, winding them effectively. It was a while until either one of them was able to move.
Troy was the one who recovered first. Self-consciously, he got up, brushing nervously at his suit, to avoid looking at what had been the object of all his longing, only minutes ago. Finally, when the silence began to feel oppressive, Troy turned and faced ms Ashley – what was his name really? – who was picking herself – himself – off the ground.
“Thank you, sergeant Troy. It appears I owe you my life.”
For the first time since Troy had met this strange creature, he noticed some signs of a crack in the seemingly unperturbed facade. But, he told himself, that was only natural. A close brush with death could have that effect on anyone.
“Just doing my job. And hearing how standoffish this sounded, he amended his statement.”
“Are you alright?”
“Yes, thank you. I can’t believe this. Who would want to kill me?”
Troy could think of a few reasons for that, but wisely, he held his tongue.
“I think we need to go down to the station -”
But perhaps it was a bit late in the evening for that. And Troy wouldn’t mind a couple of more hours to collect himself before filling out a report. By now, though, the decision had been taken from him. The upheaval near the parking lot had caused a number of people to stream out of the banquet hall to investigate the cause of the noise. And there was the person Troy least wished to meet at the moment. Barnaby.
“Sir. I -”
To avoid the gaping banquet guests, Barnaby grabbed his sergeant by the shoulder and towed him out of the way. Calling out over his shoulder, he tried to disperse the crowds.
“Thank you. We’ll take it from here.”
His peremptory voice finally managed to discourage the audience.
“Not you, ms Ashley. I think we need to talk.”
If Troy had hoped to return home to lick his wounds, he was sorely disappointed. It was to be another five or six hours, before he finally was allowed to make his escape. By then, he had formed the opinion that his superior had not only known about ms Ashley’s true identity most of the time they’d spent investigating the case, but also enjoyed a good laugh at his expense. Barnaby thought he could guess the reason for Troy’s glum expression, but in reality his guess was just a little short of the truth.
The following morning, Barnaby realized that his partner had done something he’d never expected to catch him doing. Troy had called in sick, without actually being ill or injured. This more than anything proved to Barnaby how badly poor Troy had taken the entire incident. Still, Barnaby had no idea he was being blamed for the whole thing.
By Friday, the Barnabys had received a note where Troy excused himself and declared himself quite unable to attend the birthday reception. This became the reason for yet another quarrel in the Barnaby household that evening. Joyce, who was going through an age crisis, took this new example of her husband’s insensitivity as an excuse to go on the rampage. To Barnaby’s dismay, his daughter Cully, who normally took his side in every argument, suddenly turned on him, joining her mother in what proved to be the worst argument yet.
“Really, Tom. What have you done to poor Gavin this time?”
“What? Why do you automatically assume I’ve done something to him. As it happens -”
“I think I know what’s bothering him. And it’s got nothing whatever to do with me.”
“You know the case we’re working on?”
“The one with the murdered man? You’re suspecting the widow, aren’t you?”
“Yes. But you see -”
The second intended victim was the murdered man’s – uh – lover.
“And? What does all this have to do with Gavin?”
“The – uh – lover -”
“Are you developing a stutter in your old age?”
“Joyce, please. If you’d let me finish -”
“I have done nothing but wait for you to get to the point all evening. Go on then.”
“The lover is really a man. A – what’s it called – drag queen. Or is that transexual?”
“Don’t ask me. You’re the policeman. And you still haven’t made it clear why Gavin would be feeling this upset.”
“He was – how do I say this – smitten with this ms Ashley.”
“The drag queen? And you did nothing to explain the situation to him? Really, Tom. Then this is your fault, just as I thought.”
“That’s unfair. How was I supposed to -”
Cully, who had been reading a magazine, recognized the hint of an argument in the air and looked up.
“What’s poor old dad done this time?”
“Your poor old dad has let poor Gavin go on believing a – lady – he was attracted to was – a lady.”
“What was she? A prostitute?”
“She wasn’t a she at all, apparently. She was a he.”
“A drag queen? Really, dad. How could you? You ought to have explained to Gavin right away. The poor thing. He’s so uptight, I can easily imagine how he must be feeling. I wonder if I should call him and -”
“Not now, darling. But perhaps I should. I’m sure that if I ask him nicely, he’ll come to the party.”
“If you’d give me a chance to explain, then maybe you’d stop casting me as the bad guy.”
Both women stared coldly at Barnaby who shrunk under their hard gazes. He’d never before faced this type of joint opposition from the women in his life.
“I – uh – I didn’t get it either. Not until the widow – the suspect – pointed it out to me.”
Joyce frowned every bit as disapprovingly. His attempt at explaining himself had apparently done nothing to get him off the hook. And Cully didn’t seem any more benevolent towards her father either.
“I’m sure that if you’d wanted to, you could have made an effort. Really, Tom, you can be so callous at times.”
“Oh, yes he can. What is it about poor Gavin you don’t like?”
“I – uh -”
With one last scalding look, the women left him.
They were being unfair to him. How was he supposed to have known? The man had looked exactly like a woman. Not that Barnaby had been looking that closely. Women like ms Ashley – like the kind of woman ms Ashley seemed to be – were not his type at all. And if Troy had been using his professional detachment, none of this would have happened.
Somehow, Joyce Barnaby was able to persuade Troy to show up on the day of her party, despite everything. He arrived late, because he had to sit in his car for nearly half an hour to gather his courage, but he’d bought the hostess lovely flowers. And he was wearing a new suit. Cully and Joyce both agreed that Troy was looking quite handsome. Both women had surprises prepared for Barnaby’s partner, but fortunately, he had no idea of that the moment he walked into the house.
“Gavin, I’m so glad you decided to join us.”
“And what lovely flowers. I suppose they are for me -”
“Oh, yes, mrs Barnaby. I – couldn’t think of anything else to bring, but -”
“Don’t be silly. I’m just glad you’re here, and the flowers are absolutely lovely. Orchids. My favourite. Excuse me. I’ll just go and put these in water.”
“Gavin. Let me introduce you to a few friends of mine.”
Expecting Cully’s boyfriend, Troy awkwardly followed the vivacious girl. This time he wouldn’t make a fool of himself whatever happened. But the friend was a girl of about Troy’s own age, every bit as beautiful as Cully herself. After having made the introductions, Cully promptly disappeared, leaving Troy to get acquainted with her friend. She happened to be single and on the lookout for eligible bachelors.
For a while, the party looked very promising for Troy. That was the moment Joyce Barnaby chose to show up again. She’d been drinking a little too much, and early on she had determined to make up for her husband’s callousness.
To achieve this, she picked the method of attaching herself to Troy’s side, effectively pushing Cully’s friend out of the way. As the afternoon wore on, Joyce inbibed ever larger amounts of champagne, and consequently she became more and more amorous towards her husband’s young partner.
Cully had retreated to a more private spot to commune with her boyfriend, and Barnaby himself had retired into a remote corner of the garden. When finally the situation became clear to the host and his daughter, they closed in on Joyce. Barnaby managed to lure his wife into their bedroom and suggested that she have a little rest after all her hard work. Fortunately, she was tired enough by then to accept his suggestion without too much protest.
In the meantime, Cully was able to calm Troy down. He’d been fearing his superior’s retribution, though he could hardly have been said to have encouraged Joyce’s advances. Now Troy had had enough of banquets and parties alike. All he wanted was to have some peace and quiet far away from women and what looked like them. After reassuring Cully that he wasn’t in any way offended by her mother’s behaviour, Troy beat a hasty retreat into his car.
At first he intended to hide away in his own home, but when he passed the nearest pub, the Midsomer Arms, he decided to seek refuge there.
After the slanting sunlight of late afternoon, the almost complete darkness of the low-ceilinged room felt soothing. It was unlikely that he’d find anyone he knew in there. He walked up to the bar and ordered a Lager. The landlord wasn’t the talkative kind, fortunately.
Troy was beginning to relax. Then he turned to his right and caught sight of a young man who seemed vaguely familiar. The man noticed his look and raised his glass in silent salute. Who was he? Troy couldn’t remember.
“Hello. I see you don’t recognize me, Sergeant Troy. Chris Megson.”
“I just took the dog for a walk and decided to have a bit of rest. My wife’s got her friends over to discuss the baby.”
“You’re expecting a child?”
“Congratulations. Landlord. What are you having, mr Megson?”
“Guinness. Please, call me Chris.”
“Chris. Another for my friend here. And my name’s Gavin.”
After about twenty minutes, Troy was feeling more at ease, until Megson mentioned that he’d seen Troy at the banquet. A deep brick red suffused Troy’s face and he looked away. Apparently there wasn’t one single place in the entire county where his humiliation wasn’t known to the locals. Megson appeared to notice Troy’s discomfort and for a while he didn’t say anything else. Then Megson put away his empty glass and faced the police officer again.
“You know – I never guessed either. Of course, that night, ms Neville told everyone about it. I couldn’t help overhearing. But I don’t blame you for being taken in.”
“Uh – yes.”
“Well, this was nice. We have to do it again some time, but I really should get going. It’s getting late. The girls will be leaving for home any time.”
“Yes. See you around.”
“Come on, girl.”
The retriever on the floor jumped to her feet and headed for the door, her tail wagging enthusiastically in anticipation of the walk ahead. Troy was glad to be left alone in a manner of speaking. Finally. He needed to think. Why had he made such a fool of himself? Because he was a pathetic loser when it came for women, that was why. If he wanted that to change he’d have to learn how to face women, instead of staying at home in the evenings.
In any case, it was time he went home. Unless he was going to call in sick again, he’d be expected at work in the morning, no matter how he felt. To his utter amazement, a car was parked outside his house. For a second, Troy worried that his visitor might be the homicidal widow, or – almost as bad, ms Ashley, but as soon as he’d stepped out of the car, the visitor stepped out of his. It was Barnaby.
“Sir? What’s wrong? Any leads on the Grant-Thornton case?”
“No, not at all. Relax, Troy. This is personal.”
With a sinking feeling, Troy remembered how mrs Barnaby had attached herself to him, earlier in the evening. He hadn’t in any way encouraged the not too subtle attention, but how could he be sure that Barnaby wasn’t here to settle a score? Those older men could be really jealous when it came to their wives. This had been proven to Troy over and over again in his line of work. Not that he feared that his superior would wish to take violent revenge, not exactly. At least he hoped so. After the series of disasters that had hit him lately, he wouldn’t be too surprised at anything.
“Sir? I – suppose you’d better come inside.”
If Troy had been paying attention, he might have noticed that Barnaby appeared to be almost as self-conscious about the meeting. But Troy was still dwelling painfully on mrs Barnaby’s behaviour.
Once inside, Barnaby seemed to find it exceedingly hard to think of the words needed to express what was on his mind. He walked restlessly around Troy’s house, staring rudely at the young man’s possessions, hardly aware of what he was doing.
“Sir? I just want to say that I didn’t – I mean, mrs Barnaby’s a very attractive lady, but I wasn’t “-
Finally, it seemed to dawn on Barnaby what effect his unexpected visit to Troy’s house was having on the young man.
“Oh. Right. I have apologize for that. Too. Mrs Barnaby – she’s been working very hard lately, and – anyway, naturally, I don’t blame you for that.”
In fact, Barnaby had thought the spectacle of his wife flirting with Troy had looked like something out of a particularly mad comedy. To think that Troy actually had expected him to come here and – That was simply too hilarious for words. With an effort, Barnaby controlled himself. The reason for his visit wasn’t to make poor Troy even more uncomfortable.
“Actually, the reason I came here – Sorry to disturb you on a Sunday evening.”
“That’s quite alright, sir.”
Troy’s response was automatic. Perhaps there was something else he ought to do, like offer his boss a drink or – But at the moment, his mind was working sluggishly at best.
“Well – You see, Troy – Gavin, if I may call you that?”
By now, Troy was wondering what on earth was going on? His mind was toying with ideas more and more absurd. Was Cully pregnant? Did her boyfriend refuse to marry her? Was Barnaby here to ask Troy to take the responsibility for that? Or – was Barnaby tired of his wife and was trying to check out Troy’s interest in taking mrs Barnaby off his hands – or – Troy was searching his mind for a likely explanation, but was drawing a blank.
“Right. Gavin -”
At last, Barnaby told himself to get on with it. He didn’t want to spend the entire evening at Troy’s while Cully was struggling to sober up her mother.
“Listen, I’ve come here to apologize. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to warn you about – ms Ashley, but I really didn’t know until that night, and you weren’t nearby so I could tell you. Anyway, I’m sorry. If it’s any consolation, I thought she – he – was a woman too. Really quite remarkable if you think about it. Oh, well – I should get going. I need to see to mrs Barnaby.”
“Yes. Thank you, sir. I did think that perhaps you did know early on and was just enjoying a joke at my expense.”
Barnaby stared at Troy in amazement.
“Good heavens, no. Why would I do that to you? Look, here, Gavin. My wife and Cully seem to have got it into their heads that I somehow – What I mean to say is – Uh – Troy, I wouldn’t want you to form the opinion that I don’t appreciate working with you. Just because I don’t always say so in so many words -”
“Well, now that this is sorted out, I’ll just go home. See you tomorrow at work?”
There was a hopeful note in the question, that sounded almost pleading. Now it was Troy’s turn to be amazed.
“Yes, of course. And sir -”
“I’m sorry about mrs Barnaby. I’m sure she’ll be feeling better in the morning.”
“Well, I’m not. She’ll no doubt be feeling far worse, but that’s just to be expected. Still, I fervently hope that this – age crisis – will be over soon. I can’t bear any more aerobics sessions or weight lifting or what-not she’s imposed on me.”
“Oh. Well, anyway -”
“Yes, quite. No hard feelings then, Troy, I mean, Gavin?”
“No, sir. Of course not.”
“And you – I suppose that – yes, why don’t you call me – Tom?”
“Oh, go ahead. Why not?”
“Alright. Tom. And thanks.”
“What? Oh. Don’t mention it.”
This was totally unexpected, but no less sweet because he hadn’t seen it coming. For years now, ever since they’d begun working together, he’d looked up to his boss, and he’d been hoping that Barnaby would at least to some extent appreciate his work. Finally, after all this time, he knew that this was the case.
When Troy went to bed that evening, he felt more peace of mind than he had for a long time. Just before he drifted off to sleep, he realized that they must have solved the case. In the middle of all the upheaval, this had slipped his mind, but as soon as the widow could be found, he was betting the case would be closed. Though it might have been more satisfying to have solved the case through hard police work, or – a guy could always wish, couldn’t he? – a touch of brilliance.
But Troy knew that just as often that was just wishful thinking. Some cases were solved because the perpetrator made a mistake, or simply through sheer luck. Discouragingly many cases were never solved at all. Still, all the more reason to savour the satisfaction of a job successfully concluded, whenever he had the chance.
Mrs Barnaby’s unsettling behaviour was soon forgotten. His own performance too, would eventually be forgotten. After all, it wasn’t the first time he’d made a fool of himself, and sadly, it most likely wouldn’t be the last. In the meantime, he might as well use the opportunity Cully had given him, and call Tina the next day. Hopefully, she was still looking for a date. Even if she wasn’t miss Right, it would be fun to go out with an actual girl once in a while.