Early next day Simmonds tightly strapped two suitcases to the boot of the tourer: One large (hers); one medium (his). As they were uncertain as to the potential length of their stay at The Lynn (Simmonds had telephoned ahead and booked a suite on a night-by-night basis), Piccolo had packed accordingly to avert the risk of any lack of à la mode. Piccolo drove, she always drove. She raced along the country lanes. She was an excellent driver, and had even competed at Brooklands (not many women had), but Simmonds was a bad passenger and he gripped his seat tightly.
Bessingham was the county town. It spawned the ennobled family of that name centuries past, when someone raised troops and sided with some monarch in some battle and helped bring some victory. Such were the spoils of war – the gift of land and title, the practice being such a part of English history so as to be almost commonplace. Bessingham was a pretty town, strategically situated on one of the rare pieces of high ground in those parts. Its fortune had ebbed and flowed but had latterly enjoyed something of a renaissance due to a pleasing countenance and a fashion for holidays by the sea. The Bessingham family had fuelled this business and benefited greatly from it by substantial investment in property. The Lynn Hotel was part of their portfolio. It was the principle high-class lodging in the town, warmly recommended by all the discerning guidebooks. In the winter tourist off-season it was the haven for balls and parties. Piccolo parked the car directly outside the hotel’s entrance – it afforded an impressive facade. Seagulls squawked overhead in the milky mid-morning sunlight.
Before they got out of the car Piccolo asked ‘So what’s the plan?’
‘Let’s check in’ said Simmonds ‘and then I’ll head up to the Hall and speak with the family. That’s the official police bit so you’ll need to stay behind’.
‘Spoil sport’ said Piccolo in a joking manner. ‘I’d promise not to be any bother’.
‘Nice try, but you’d just ask some clever questions and make me look like an ordinary plod’.
‘Darling! As if I would’ Piccolo teased.
‘You sniff around the hotel’ said Simmonds. ‘See if you can discover anything about the party, the Bessinghams in general, or Margaret in particular’.
Simmonds borrowed a car from the main police station. He also collected a lecture from Chief Inspector Dawson as to how ‘sensitive’ the case was, and how it was crucial to handle matters ‘with tact’. Lord B was, after all, a ‘personal friend’ of the Chief Constable.
Had Simmonds known anything about architecture as he navigated his way along the sweeping carriageway up to the Hall, he would have identified the ornate chimneys as being definitive of the Elizabethan Age. Here was privilege and wealth in bricks and mortar.
The grandiose bell-pull soon brought the Butler, and Simmonds was led into the Hall and along a dark corridor. ‘Police Inspector Simmonds’ announced the Butler, ushering him into the Billiards Room. ‘My dear Inspector’ said Lord Bessingham, every inch the fine figure of English nobility. ‘Thank you for coming’. This was the famous stiff upper lip, treating the arrival as more of a social event than the beginnings of an inquiry into the murder of a beloved daughter. ‘My Lord’ said Simmonds somewhat unsure as to the correct form of address.
‘Do you play?’ asked Bessingham.
‘Sadly not, sir’ came the response.
‘Pity’ said his Lordship. He continued to knock balls around the table. There was a ‘crack’ when they collided and a ‘thump’ when they bounced off a cushion. The walls of the room were as green as the baize, the paintings exclusively of hunting and horses. ‘I know about the post-mortem’ Bessingham said almost matter of fact ‘Your boss was kind enough to telephone me last evening. Is there anything else I need to know at this stage? Simmonds was rather caught off guard, he’d not anticipated this interaction. ‘Nothing, sir. No’ was his rather feeble response.
‘Thought not. You’ll keep me informed though’
‘Any questions for me?’ asked Bessingham.
‘When was the last time you saw Lady Margaret, sir?’
‘Around seven. She was just heading off to a party. Some chap had come to pick her up’.
‘Do you have his name, sir?’
‘No idea. You might ask Charles … her brother … seem to recall they are friends’
‘And Lady Margaret was fit and well and didn’t have any particular problems or worries?’
‘If she did I wasn’t aware of them Inspector. Look around – she wanted for nothing’. Simmonds didn’t doubt it.
‘And sorry, I have to ask, but you were here all that night?’
‘No apology necessary Inspector, and yes I was along with her Ladyship and all of the servants. No doubt we can all vouch for each other’. Bessingham missed a shot and cursed himself. He put the cue back in the rack. ‘You’ll want to meet the others’ he said ‘They’re in the Chinese Room. Not my cup of tea – a little over ornate’. Lord B led the way: ‘I understand you saw action at Jutland’ he stated rather unexpectedly en route. ‘I did indeed’ said Simmonds. It was ten years past and not a place he wanted to revisit.
‘Good man’ said Bessingham. ‘Good man’.
The Grandfather clock chimed noon as they made their way to the Chinese Room.
There were three people in the room: a middle-aged woman in a wheelchair; a younger woman who was clearly the elder’s attendant; and a rather flamboyantly dressed young man. They each had the appearance of being posed in still-life, totally oblivious as the two men entered. Only when introduced in turn did they look up and make eye contact.
‘This is Inspector Simmonds’ said Lord Bessingham. He made the introductions. ‘This is my wife, Lady Eleanor. Her nurse, Mary. My son, Charles’. These were social circles Simmonds was unaccustomed to. He wondered if this apparent bizarreness passed for normality in such refined air.
‘Please permit me to extend my condolences’ said the Inspector, embarrassingly recalling that he had failed to express them when he first met Lord B.
‘Thank you, Inspector’ said Lady Eleanor wearily. She held a rosary. Mary adjusted the old woman’s tartan blanket and was told to ‘stop fussing girl’.
‘You’ll see we’re all in a state of shock, Inspector’ said Charles, dusting a lapel with the back of his hand. Simmonds saw nothing of the sort.
‘Well, I’ll let you get on with it’ said Bessingham. ‘Things need sorting at the hotel’. Bessingham turned to leave, and was immediately followed by Mary calling ‘Could I have a quick word, sir?’ The rest of the interaction took place out of sight and sound, but in those few passing moments Simmonds formed a pleasing picture of the nurse. She was plain looking and simply dressed but had intriguing features, a soft Irish accent adding an ethereal quality.
‘Your Father tells me that Margaret was collected by a friend of yours and taken to The Lynn Hotel for a party’ said Simmonds, diving straight into Charles.
‘The night she was murdered’ said Charles.
‘Charles!’ said his Mother.
‘Sorry, Mother’ said Charles. He paused before proceeding. ‘That is correct, Inspector’.
‘And this friend’s name, sir?’
‘George Whittle. Old school chum. Lives out in Marwich’ The Inspector made notes.
‘And were you at this party, sir?’
‘I was indeed. Never one to miss a party’ Simmonds had no trouble believing that.
‘Did you see your sister leave?’
‘No I didn’t’
‘Anything unusual happen that evening? Any arguments? Anyone acting out of character?’
‘Not that I can remember, but it was a party, they can get rather … fun’
Simmonds knew a brickwall of indifference when he encountered one.
‘Did Margaret have a best friend?’ The Inspector asked, directing himself this time to her Ladyship.
‘Well that has to be Edith’ Lady Eleanor replied. ‘Oh dear, of course she won’t have heard’.
‘Edith?’ asked Simmonds.
‘Edith Holloway’ interjected Charles ‘A cousin visiting from Australia’
‘Staying with you here?’ asked Simmonds.
‘Naturally’ said Charles ‘but she’s been up in London Christmas shopping. Back today. I’m picking her up from the train station at two o’clock’.
Mary then came back into the room. She was rather flushed. Charles snorted knowingly.
Simmonds proceeded to ask a few more questions but learned nothing of importance, excepting that apparently the victim was known as ‘Midge’. Perhaps not bringing Piccolo was a mistake – her interrogation technique may have proved more fruitful.
As Simmonds drove back to town to file his report the almost surreal nature of the encounter with the Howard family gnawed at his brain. He knew better though to assume that their strangeness had any more significance than an inherited trait. He was however certain of one thing: that he needed to speak with Miss Edith as soon as possible.