1930. Frances Black is worried – divorce proceedings are under way and her solicitor has learnt of a spiteful letter sent to the court claiming that there is more to her friendship with her sleuthing partner, Tom Dod, than meets the eye.
Fran takes Tom’s advice to get away, travelling down to Devon to help the Edgertons with their family mystery. After meeting the charismatic Eddie Edgerton and arriving at their residence, Sunnyside House, Fran soon learns that Eddie’s grandfather, Frederick Edgerton, died in mysterious circumstances when his wheelchair went off a cliff. Was it really an accident? And what happened to Frederick’s precious diamond which went missing at the time of his death? As Fran investigates, she uncovers family scandal, skulduggery and revenge, but can she solve the mystery of the missing diamond?
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'Mr Long will see you now.'
'Thank you.' Fran took a firmer grip of her handbag and entered her solicitor's inner office, feeling absurdly nervous. She could not help suspecting that the letter she had received the day before, requesting her to make an appointment, was not going to be good news.
'Good morning, Mrs Black. Very good weather we're having for the time of the year, don't you think?'
Mr Long always remarked on the weather. It was his standard form of introduction, while holding out the high-backed chair, with its rather worn leather seat, one of the pair that stood before the enormous desk which took up most of the space in the room. You could almost have had a game of billiards on it, Fran thought, as Mr Long moved in a sedate half-circle in order to gain his own side of the giant fixture. The second chair on her side of the desk was always empty during these consultations regarding her divorce. It felt symbolic.
'Now, you will be wondering, I am sure, why I have asked you to come in.' Mr Long settled himself into his own, rather more comfortable-looking chair as he spoke. 'I have received notification that the court is in receipt of a letter which suggests that you, the petitioner, may be ... ahem ... enjoying some kind of liaison with a man. Now as you are aware, the court must be absolutely convinced that you do not have an ulterior motive for ending your marriage. Divorces cannot be granted for the mutual convenience of both parties. There has to be one guilty party and another who is completely innocent.'
Though he had spoken gently, Mr Long's eyes were on her face and Fran was conscious of the colour rising in her cheeks at the slight emphasis on completely. She hoped he would interpret it for the annoyance she undoubtedly felt.
'Mr Long, it is an incontrovertible fact that my husband left me for another woman almost three years ago and has been living with her ever since. The woman is now expecting his child. I, in the meantime, have lived alone. There has not been any impropriety with another man. May I ask the name of this other man, with whom I am supposed to be enjoying a liaison?'
'Of course. The man's name is Tom Dod – I see it is spelled with only one d at the end – probably a mistake on the correspondent's part. The authors of this type of anonymous missive are often barely literate. Please don't think that I am accusing you of any inappropriate conduct at all. It is simply that we are asked to respond to the allegation, and a simple statement to the effect that you are not even acquainted with a Mr Dod – with or without the double d – will no doubt suffice.
'In all likelihood the letter will not be taken seriously,' he went on, adopting his most reassuring tone. 'It is extremely brief and offers no particulars, merely saying ...' He paused to glance down at the relevant sheet of paper on his blotter. 'In the matter of Black v Black, someone might care to ask Mrs Black about her friendship with Mr Tom Dod.'
Fran knew that her cheeks were positively burning. 'I do have an acquaintance called Mr Dod,' she said. 'And as it happens he does spell his name with only one d at the end, so the author of the letter must know him reasonably well. However, there has never been anything improper between myself and Mr Dod.'
'I see.' Mr Long hesitated for a moment. 'Again, you must understand, Mrs Black, that I do not doubt you for a moment, but we might have to exercise ... shall we say, a certain amount of discretion in presenting this friendship to the court. May I ask you how well you know Mr Dod? Is he a close friend? Have you ever been in a situation with him which is open to misconstruction? We must choose our words very carefully.'
Fran thought quickly. The letter to the court had evidently been sent out of spite. Apart from her best friend, Mo, who was above suspicion, the people most likely to know both herself and Tom, and to be aware that Tom's name was spelled with a single d at the end, were probably fellow members of the Robert Barnaby Society, where she and Tom had certainly made one or two enemies in the course of the Linda Dexter affair. Fortunately their involvement in neither that case nor the more recent murders at Durley Dean had made the papers.
Mr Long took advantage of the pause to speak again. 'We must be careful not to make any statement which is open to challenge. For example, saying that Mr Dod has never spent the night at your home – however innocently – if in fact he has. The court is rather good at digging out the facts, you see, if they decide to take an interest. And, of course, you could be called into court and questioned on oath.'
'I can assure you, Mr Long, that Mr Dod has never spent the night in my home, or even eaten a meal there. I became acquainted with him because we are both members of a literary society which celebrates the life and work of the author Robert Barnaby. At one time we were both on the committee which manages the society and Mr Dod has sometimes been kind enough to give me a lift in his motor car, as I do not have a motor myself. However, I have not seen Mr Dod, or had any communication with him whatsoever for three ... no, almost four months, because he has not been at any of the recent Barnaby Society meetings.'
Mr Long, who had been scribbling on his pad, looked up and said, 'Excellent, excellent. Would you describe Mr Dod as a friend?'
'A friend? Yes, I would. But he isn't what you would call a close family friend.' Though conscious of the little stab in her heart, she did not pause. 'I have never met his wife, for example, though I believe her name is Veronica. They have a boy.'
'Does he live in this area?'
'No. I can obtain his exact address from the Barnaby Society handbook, if it is needed, but I hope he won't get dragged into this. That would be most unfair, since he is an entirely innocent party.'
'Of course, of course.' Mr Long was at his soothing best. 'The court is very often satisfied by the response of the petitioner in cases where the allegations are as vague as this. Now let me see' – he was still writing as he spoke – 'suppose we say, "I, Frances Black, am acquainted with Mr Tom Dod owing to our mutual membership of the Robert Barnaby Society. I have, therefore, often been in Mr Dod's company at society meetings and we were at one time simultaneously serving members of the society's management committee, but as of today, I have not seen or communicated with Mr Dod for almost four months."'
'Yes,' Fran said. 'That is all absolutely true.'
'Very good, very good. In that case I will incorporate this into my response and my secretary will type this up for you to sign. No need to do it now. We will keep it ready for the next time you come in, so that we can have it on file, in case of need.'
'The court doesn't require an actual copy of a signed statement immediately?'
'No, no. It hasn't come to that yet, and it probably won't – don't trouble yourself about it, my dear Mrs Black. A great many of these cases go through without any trouble at all. The sheer volume of divorce cases coming before the courts these days prevents them from giving too great a scrutiny to the vast majority.'
But it would be just my luck for them to pick on me, Fran thought, as she made her way back to the bus stop. It was not that there had ever been any adulterous carryings-on between herself and Tom, or even that she was obtaining a divorce in order to be free to marry him, but sometimes it was hard to prove a negative and there had been occasions, particularly last autumn, when she and Tom could have behaved badly if they had chosen to do so. If the court began to suspect that there was something going on between her and Tom, they might refuse to grant her divorce and she would end up shackled to Michael for all eternity. How very fortunate that she had broken off all communication back in November, when Tom had sent her a letter about a possible investigation for them down in Devon and she had written back with a polite but firm refusal. Since then she had been to a couple of Barnaby Society meetings, but Tom had not been at either of them – perhaps because he was avoiding her, or more likely because he was genuinely otherwise engaged elsewhere – and this had now proved most fortuitous as it had enabled her to state in all honesty that she had not had any communication with him for several months.
After the whirlwind events of the previous year, when they had been in almost constant touch with one another, it had been very difficult to come to terms with the fact that this would be the way of things from now on. Of course, there would be nothing to stop them from picking up the threads of their old friendship when she had her decree absolute, but perhaps by then Tom would have decided that it was better not to do so.
She glanced at her wristwatch, which confirmed that it was another five minutes before the bus was due. Too little time to usefully accomplish anything in town, but a bit too long to stand about in the February chill. She adjusted her gloves to ensure that they met the ends of her jersey sleeves.
She missed Tom horribly. Missed his cheery voice on the telephone, his kind brown eyes meeting hers to share a joke. Of course, the whole situation was made far worse by the absence of her best friend, Mo, who had given in to the imprecations of her mother-in-law and her husband, Terence, and gone out to spend a couple of months with him in Malaya. Letters with exotic postmarks had been arriving from each of the ports where her ship had called, full of Mo's exploits playing bridge and deck quoits, coupled with hilarious descriptions of her fellow passengers. As she read them, Fran could hear Mo's distinctive voice and hearty laugher. She had written back, so that replies awaited Mo's arrival each time the ship docked, but the time lag between their receipt meant that it was necessarily two one-sided conversations and, worse still, reading about her friend's adventures only tended to increase Fran's sense that life was passing her by.
The grim little ritual of Christmas with her mother had come and gone, with its Christmas Day visit to lay a wreath of evergreens on the village War Memorial, because not one day can ever go by, Fran thought bitterly, when I am allowed to forget that my brothers are gone, while I, the second-rate daughter, am all that is left of our family. As she stood at the bus stop, joined now by a ruddy- cheeked woman carrying a wicker basket and an upright old gentleman with a bowler hat that had seen better days, Fran reflected that perhaps she and Tom had even more in common than they thought. Poor Tom who must, she supposed, be reminded of his own dead brother every day. He too must feel second best. The younger son, who had married his dead brother's sweetheart out of duty, knowing all the time that she had really wanted his older brother.
Tom who had once told her that if they were both free ... but she must not think about that. She could not think about it, because thinking about it only broke her heart all over again. She might be free of Michael soon, but Tom would never be free of Veronica and her son. I have to make a new life for myself somehow, Fran thought. A different life which doesn't involve hankering over what I can never have.CHAPTER 2
The Robert Barnaby Society were holding a regional meeting in Liverpool the following Saturday, where it had been arranged that Professor Cyril Draper, who was an authority on poetry in the modern era, had agreed to address them. Fran had already written a note to the organizer, signalling her intention to attend, but thanks to her interview with Mr Long she spent a good deal of time during the intervening days agonizing over it. Ought she to go along, with this thinly veiled accusation regarding herself and Tom hanging over her head? If Tom turned up, she might be able to tip him off about the anonymous letter, which she felt almost duty-bound to do. Then again, if some spiteful person saw them talking privately together, that might generate a second letter to the court, which would surely be taken more seriously than the first? On the other hand, if she cried off unexpectedly, might that not be open to accusations of a guilty conscience? Of course, if Tom did not attend, then her being there without him could be taken as another sign of their complete innocence? Oh dear! If only Mo had been there to advise her. Though of course Mo would probably say to heck with it and go to the meeting anyway – that was her style.
She could have telephoned Tom and asked whether or not he was going, but they had agreed that there should be no more telephone calls, for trunk calls were far too easily remembered by the operators, particularly operators who worked in small exchanges like Newby Bridge. Goodness, last year there had been dozens of phone calls to and from Tom Dod. Suddenly one's perfectly innocent actions could be thrown in one's face and all sorts of misconstructions put upon them. She would just have to pray that the nasty prying court officers never became interested in her telephone calls. Sending Tom a letter was also out, because that would have to be admitted if there were further questions about any recent communications between them.
Fran eventually decided to attend. She wanted to hear the professor and it was absolutely ridiculous to shut oneself away like a hermit on the strength of one anonymous letter. She took the early train from Haverthwaite, which meant two changes and got her to Lime Street Station a good hour before the meeting was due to start. She had originally planned to walk to the venue, but a chilly wind combined with thin, slanting rain soon decided her otherwise and pushing the expense to one side she took a cab, which delivered her to the church hall where the meeting was to be held rather earlier than expected. However, Miss Winterton, the organizer of the day, was extremely pleased to see her, particularly when Fran volunteered to help with setting out chairs.
'Vivian Blakemore promised to come early, but now he has cried off with the flu. It's probably no more than a cold in the head,' Miss Winterton sniffed, 'but you know what men are like.'
Having something to do was good, Fran thought, because it took her mind off the Tom problem, and for once she did not even mind that Ruth Winterton, the retired headmistress of a rather prestigious girls' school, tended to order one around as if dealing with a recalcitrant member of the lower fourth.
After the chairs had been positioned exactly as Miss Winterton had decreed they should be, there was a display of books to be arranged on the special tablecloth which a member of the society had embroidered with scenes from Robert Barnaby's books. Fran was just adjusting the final couple of volumes when she heard a distinctive burst of laughter from the other side of the room and realized that Tom had arrived. There had been a time last year when they'd felt so out of sorts with the Barnaby Society that both of them had decided not to continue as members, but in the end they had gone back on the decision and the sound of that hearty laugh made Fran glad of it. Whatever problems were facing her, the prospect of Tom's company could not help but lift her spirits. She realized too that he had instinctively avoided the trap of coming across to greet her immediately. Good, she thought. If they were being watched by someone with malicious intentions, then that person had been given nothing to fuel their accusations. It would, however, be equally suspicious if two people who had always been friendly at meetings suddenly began to ignore each other, so Fran waited until there were two other three other society members standing with Tom before she strolled across and joined the group.
'Hello, Mr Wheaton, Miss Snell. Hello, Tom,' she said. 'We missed you at the Christmas meeting.'
'Competing commitments, I'm afraid,' he said. 'I nearly didn't make it today, but I particularly wanted to hear this chap Draper.'
'I'm afraid the weather may put some people off,' Miss Snell put in, and this of course was a signal for everyone to comment on the way the temperatures had plummeted again and whether or not they could expect more snow.
'Can people begin to take their seats, please?' Ruth Winterton called fussily from the platform. Fran carefully managed not to be sitting immediately adjacent to Tom, instead sitting nearby and starting up a conversation with someone else. Tom, she noticed, had similarly engaged one of his immediate neighbours. How horrid it was that they could not even sit next to one another as they had done so often in the past. Even small pleasures were to be denied her, thanks to the nasty, suspicious minds of others.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Missing Diamond Murder"
Copyright © 2019 Diane Janes.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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