Shattered, p.9Dick Francis
“I heard my aunt telling my mother.”
“How did your aunt know?”
“My aunt knows everything.”
I began to lose faith in his common sense, and I remembered him saying he was playing a game.
“What is your aunt’s name?” I expected nothing much: certainly not the breath-taker that came back.
“My aunt’s name is Rose. She keeps changing her last name. She’s my mother’s sister.” There was barely an interval before his next remark. “I’d better log off now. She’s just come!”
“Wait.” Stunned by that revelation I rapidly typed, “Do you know of a thin old man with a white beard?”
A long time after I’d settled for no answer, three words appeared.
“Doctor Force. Good-bye.”
To my considerable delight Catherine Dodd again stood her motorbike by my curb and pulled off her helmet before walking across the sidewalk to the door I held open for her. It seemed natural to us both to kiss hello, and for her to stand in front of the soaring flight of wings that I had barely finished lighting.
“It’s tremendous.” She meant it. “It’s too good for Broadway.”
“Flattery will get you an awfully long way,” I assured her, and took her into the workshop, where it was warmest.
The sheet printed of my e-mail conversation with Victor lay folded on the marver table and I passed it to her to read. “What do you think?” I asked.
“I think you need better painkillers.”
“No ... Think about Victor.”
She sat this time in the armchair on my promise that on the next day I would walk down the hill looking in secondhand and antique furniture shops to buy another one.
“If,” I amended to the promise, “if you will come and sit in it.”
She nodded as if it were an “of course” decision and read Victor’s e-mail. When she’d finished she laid the sheet on her black leather-clad knees and asked her own questions.
“OK,” she said. “First of all, remind me, who is Victor?”
“The fifteen-year-old grandson of Ed Payne, Martin Stukely’s racetrack valet. Ed gave me the videotape that was stolen from here, which you came to see about. Victor sent this letter to Martin.” I gave her the letter to read, which raised her eyebrows in doubt.
“Victor said he was playing games,” I acknowledged.
“You can’t believe a word he says!” Catherine agreed.
“Well, yes you can, actually. He’s made a game of actual bits of fact. Or anyway, he’s done what everyone does at some point—he’s heard one thing and thought it meant another.”
“The wrong end of the stick?” Catherine suggested. “How about the right end?”
“Well... the stick as I see it, then.” I stopped for a minute or two to make coffee, which in spite of her being off duty she said she preferred to wine. No milk, no sugar, cool rather than hot.
“Have to begin with a ‘suppose,’ ” I said.
“Start with a white-bearded man who looks like a university lecturer and who might be called Doctor Force. Suppose that this Doctor Force has somehow got to know Martin. Doctor Force has some information he wants to ■ put into safekeeping so he takes it to Cheltenham races and gives it to Martin.”
“Crazy.” Catherine sighed. “Why didn’t he put it in a bank?”
“We’ll have to ask him.”
“And you are crazy too. How do we find him?”
“It’s you,” I pointed out, smiling, “that is the police officer.”
“Well, I’ll try.” She smiled back. “And what then?”
“Then Doctor Force went to the races as planned. He gave his tape to Martin. After Martin crashed, our Doctor Force must have gone through a lot of doubt and worry, and I’d guess he stood around near the changing rooms wondering what to do. Then he saw Ed Payne give the tape in its brown-paper parcel to me, and he knew it was the right tape as he’d packed it himself.”
“You should join the police,” Catherine teased. “So OK, Doctor Force finds out who you are and takes himself here to Broadway, and when you leave your door unlocked for a spell in the new-age air, he nips in and takes back his own tape.”
“And steals your cash on impulse.”
“Right. But up to that point he hasn’t realized that there is someone else in the depths of the shop; and that’s Lloyd Baxter, who proceeds to have an epileptic fit.”
“Upsetting for Doctor White-Beard Force.” She spoke dryly.
I nodded. “He did a bunk.”
Catherine said thoughtfully, “One of our detective constables interviewed Lloyd Baxter in hospital. Mr. Baxter said he didn’t see anyone at all come into the showroom.”
“Lloyd Baxter didn’t care about getting the tape back, nor the money either. He did care very much about keeping his illness as private as possible.”
Catherine showed irritation. “However can we solve cases if people don’t give us the facts?”
“You must be used to it.”
She said that being used to something wrong didn’t make it right. The starchy disapproval common to her profession had surfaced briefly. Never forget, I told myself, that the inner crime fighter is always there, always on duty, and always part of her. She shook herself free of the moment and made a visible gear change back to a lighter approach.
“OK.” She nodded. “So Doctor Force has his tape back. Fine. So who squirted anesthetic at the Stukelys and took their TVs, and who ransacked your own house, and beat you up last night? And I don’t really understand how this boy Victor got involved.”
“I can’t answer everything, but think Rose.”
“Rose. She is Ed Payne’s daughter, and Victor’s aunt. She’s sharp-featured, sharp-tongued, and I think is on the edge of criminal. She jumps a bit to conclusions, and she’s all the more dangerous for that.”
“For instance... I’d guess it was she who stole all the videotapes in Bon-Bon’s house and mine because they could possibly have been mixed up with the one I brought from the racetrack.”
“But heavens!” Catherine exclaimed. “Tapes do so easily get mixed up.”
“Rose probably thought so too. I would think it likely that Rose chatters to her sister (Victor’s mother) quite a lot and I think it’s fairly certain that Victor did overhear her when she said she knew of a tape worth a fortune.”
If only Martin had explained what he was doing! There was too much guesswork, and definitely too much Rose.
Sighing, Catherine gave me back Victor’s printout and stood up, saying with apparent reluctance, “I have to go. I was so glad to find you here, but I’ve promised to be with my parents tonight. I was wondering, though, if you by any chance want to go to your house now, then—um—you don’t need a license to ride pillion.”
She necessarily shed the police half of herself. I got on the bike and clasped her close around her waist, having more or less strapped on her spare helmet, which was too small and into wobble. We set off insecurely, but the bike had guts enough to take us both up the hills without stuttering, and she was laughing when she stopped by the weedy entrance to my drive.
I thanked her for the ride. She roared off still laughing. I was conscious of wishing that Worthington, or failing him, Tom Pigeon and his Dobermans, were by my side, but there were no thorny briar Roses lying in wait this time. When I unlocked a side door and let myself in, it seemed that the house gave back in peace the years the Logan family had prospered there, father, mother and two sons, each in a different way. I was the only one left, and with its ten rooms still filled with sharp memories, I’d made no move to find a smaller or more suitable lair. One day, perhaps. Meanwhile the house felt like home in all senses: home to me, the home of all who’d lived there.
I walked deliberately through all the rooms thinking of Catherine, wondering both if she woul
No, we don’t think.
I knew that several people considered me heartless. Also promiscuous, also fickle. Catherine would be advised not to get herself involved with that fellow whose reputation was as brittle as his glass. I knew quite well what the gossips said, but it wasn’t going to be to please any gossip that the house and I one day would settle on a mate for life.
The burglars who’d taken all my videotapes hadn’t made a lot of mess. There had been television sets with video recorders in three rooms: in the kitchen, and in each of the sitting rooms in which for nearly ten years my mother and I had lived our semi-separate lives.
As I hadn’t yet done anything about the rooms since her death, it seemed as if she would soon come out of her bedroom, chiding me for having left my dirty clothes on the floor.
There wasn’t a single tape left anywhere that I could find. My parent had had a radically different taste from me in films and recorded TV programs, but it no longer mattered. Out of my own room I’d lost a rather precious bunch of glassblowing instruction tapes that I might be able to replace if I could find copies. I’d been commissioned to make some of them myself for university courses. Those courses were basic and mostly dealt with how to make scientific equipment for laboratories. I couldn’t imagine those teaching tapes being the special target of any thief.
In the kitchen there had been game shows, tennis, American football and cooking. All gone. The police had suggested I list them all. What a hope!
There wasn’t much left to tidy, except for patches of dust and a couple of dead spiders here and there, where once the TVs had stood.
With the Rose-induced bruises growing gradually less sore, I slept safely behind bolted doors, and in the morning walked (as usual while sans car) downhill to Logan Glass, getting there before Irish, Hickory and Pamela Jane. Relief was the emotion I chiefly felt about the soaring wings; relief that somehow someone hadn’t managed to smash them overnight.
Irish’s pedestal and my lighting system had combined to make accidental breakage very difficult, but one couldn’t easily guard against hurricane or ax.
I made a fleet of little ornamental sailing ships all morning and bought a comfortable armchair at lunchtime which minimized every remaining wince. Followed by a brown-overalled chair pusher (with chair), I returned to Logan Glass and rearranged the furniture. My assistants grinned knowingly.
I straightened out the worst of Hickory’s growing hubris by giving him a sailing boat as an exercise, which resulted in a heap of sad lumps of stunted mast and a mainsail that no breeze would ever fill.
Hickory’s good looks and general air of virility would always secure him jobs he couldn’t do. In less than the first week of his attractive company I’d learned more of his limitations than his skills, but every customer liked him and he was a great salesman.
“It’s all right for you,” he now complained, looking from the little boat I’d made in demonstration to the heap of colored rubble he’d painstakingly achieved, “you know what a sailing boat looks like. When I make them they come out flat.”
Half the battle in all I did, as I tried to explain to him without any “cockiness” creeping in, was the draftsman’s inner eye that saw an object in three-dimensional terms. I could draw and paint all right, but it was the three-dimensional imagination that I’d been blessed with from birth that made little sailboats a doddle.
As Hickory’s third try bit the dust amid commiserating murmurs from the rest of us, the telephone interrupted the would-be star glassblower’s explanation of how drops of water had unfairly fallen on his work at the crucial moment and splintered it, which was definitely not his fault....
I didn’t listen. The voice on the line was Catherine’s.
“I’ve been a police officer all morning,” she said. “Did you really get another chair?”
“It’s here waiting for you.”
“Great. And I’ve collected some news for you. I’ll be along when I go off duty, at six o‘clock.”
To fill in time I e-mailed Victor, expecting to have to wait for a reply, as he should have been at school, but as before, he was ready.
He typed, “Things have changed.”
There was a long gap of several minutes.
“Are you still there?” he asked.
“My dad’s in jail.”
E-mail messages crossed the ether without inflection. Victor’s typed words gave no clues to his feelings.
I sent back, “Where? What for? How long? I’m very sorry.”
Victor’s reply had nothing to do with the questions.
“I hate her.”
I asked flatly, “Who?”
A pause, then, “Auntie Rose, of course.”
I itched for faster answers but got only a feeling that if I pressed too hard I would lose him altogether.
Without the tearing emotion I could imagine him trying to deal with, he wrote, “He’s been there ten weeks. They sent me to stay with my uncle Mac in Scotland when the trial was on, so I wouldn’t know. They told me my dad had gone on an Antarctic expedition as a chef. He is a chef, you see. He got sent down for a year, but he’ll be out before that. Will you go on talking to me?”
“Yes,” I sent back. “Of course.”
A long pause again, then “Rose sneaked on Dad.” I waited, and more came. “He hit Mom. He broke her nose and some ribs.” After an even longer pause, he sent, “E-mail me tomorrow,” and I replied fast, while he might still be on-line, “Tell me about Doctor Force.”
Either he’d disconnected his phone line or didn’t want to reply, because Doctor Force was a nonstarter. Victor’s silence lasted all day.
I went back to the teaching session. Hickory finally fashioned a boat that might have floated had it been full-size and made of fiberglass with a canvas sail. He allowed himself a smirk of satisfaction, which none of us begrudged him. Glassblowing was a difficult discipline even for those like Hickory, who apparently had everything on their side—youth, agility, imagination. Hickory put the little boat carefully in the annealing oven, knowing I would give him the finished ornament to keep, in the morning.
By six I’d managed to send them all home, and by six plus twenty-three Detective Constable Dodd was approving the new armchair and reading Victor Waltman Verity’s troubles.
“Poor boy,” she said.
I said ruefully, “As he hates his aunt Rose for grassing on his pa, he might not tell me anything else himself. Sneaking appears to be a mortal sin, in his book.”
“Mm.” She read the printed pages again, then cheerfully said, “Well, whether or not you have Victor’s help, your Doctor Force is definitely on the map.” It pleased her to have found him. “I chased him through a few academic Who’s Whos with no results. He’s not a university lecturer, or not primarily, anyway. He is, believe it or not, a medical doctor. Licensed, and all that.” She handed me an envelope with a grin. “One of my colleagues spends his time chasing struck-off practitioners. He looked for him, and in the end he did find him.”
“Is he struck off?” It would make sense, I thought, but Catherine shook her head.
“No, not only is he not struck off, he was working in some research lab or other until recently. He took a lot of finding, because of that. It’s all in this envelope.”
“And is he fiftyish with a white beard?”
She laughed. “His date of birth will be in the envelope. A white beard’s expecting too much.”
I suggested food from the takeout; she offered another pillion ride up the hill: we saw to both. I’d left central heating on for comfort, and Catherine wandered all over the house, smiling.
“I’ve been warned that you’ll dump me,” she said casually.
“Not in a hurry.”
I still held the envelope of Doctor Force details, and I opened it then with hope, but it told me very few useful facts. His name was Adam Force, age fifty-six, and his qualifications came by the dozen.
I said blankly, “Is that all?”
She nodded. “That’s all, folks, when it comes to facts. As to hearsay—well—according to a bunch of rumors he’s a brilliant researcher who has published star-spangled work since his teens. No one could tell my colleague about a white beard. He didn’t speak to anyone who’d actually met the subject.”
I asked, “Does Doctor Force have an address?”
“Not in these notes,” she answered. “In the Who’s Who we used, it gives only the information provided by the people themselves. Those reference books leave people out if they don’t want to be in.”
“No, very annoying.”
She didn’t sound very annoyed, however, as she knew all about the Internet The next morning, she decided, we could catch him on the Web.
We ate the takeout food, or a little of it, owing to a change of appetite, and I switched up the heating a little in my bedroom without any need for explanation.
She’d shed somewhere in her life whatever she had ever suffered in the way of overpowering shyness. The Catherine who came into my bed came with confidence along with modesty, an intoxicating combination as far as I was concerned. We both knew enough, anyway, to give to each other as much pleasure as we received, or at least enough to feel slumberous and fulfilled in consequence.
The speed of development of strong feelings for one another didn’t seem to me to be shocking but natural, and if I thought about the future it unequivocally included Catherine Dodd. “If you wanted to cover the pale plain walls with brightly patterned paper, go ahead,” I said.
Shattered by Dick Francis / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes