The usually lively public house on the corner was quiet as I turned and flicked a hand at the driver of the Chevrolet. Death could have been driving that hearse and I wouldn’t have known. Behind its smoked glass, the occupants were a blank. I crossed the road and the hearse revved impatiently at my heels – the only sound in an empty street.
Sloman had been unable to keep the girlish bubble of excitement out of his voice when he had telephoned. There is something about the prospect of appearing on television that makes the most sober of men go daffy. I could not have cared less, except that she would be there.
The outside lights of the hotel next door were turned on, ready for the influx of lonely conference attendees seeking drunken solace in a stranger’s arms. Reflecting the hot pink sign and the twilight of the day’s sun, the granite cobbles of Museum Yard glowed like the tops of a whore’s well-corseted breasts after a steam bath. I lingered for a moment. I was in no hurry to get to my appointment.
The museum was a grey, concrete-rendered monument to some merchant’s slaughter of cod off the North American Atlantic coast a long time ago. The house no longer had the stink of brine about it, but smelled of one hundred years of furniture polish, and well-bleached lavatories, and groups of children sucking fruit drops.
The sliding doors used by the visitors were locked for the night so I tried the old blue side door, thickened by layers of gloss paint. I let it thud softly behind me.
The gardien must have heard the door and appeared in the passageway before me. A champion weightlifter in his younger days, his shoulders and neck strained at the confines of his shirt collar, and his thighs filled the tops of his denim trousers. It was impossible to imagine him ever falling over. He said little and thought a lot.
“In his office.” He jabbed a thumb towards the stairs.
Angus nodded his sandy head as I put my hand on the insane brass flower that some Victorian had thought would suffice as a door handle on the great arch that kept the servants away from the family upstairs.
Cool indigo from the security lighting coloured the corridor outside the administration offices. A yellow gash cut through the blue indicating Sloman’s room was occupied and his door ajar.
Before I reached his office, I recognised her voice. Not as assured as in her films, softer and more feminine, but the round, smoke-edged tones that had seduced thousands, maybe millions, of men on screen, and a hundred off it, were unmistakeable for all that.
“I am tremendously excited to see what your detective can uncover, Mr. Sloman.”
She stopped as Sloman and the other man registered my presence in the doorway. For a moment, the only sound was the whirr of the fan on Sloman’s desk.
“You’re late,” growled Sloman.
Most likely he had been forced to make small talk to cover my absence.
It was a lie. Not wanting to appear too eager, I had parked the car away from the museum and, listening to a man on the radio talk about blight in tomatoes, had killed the minutes until five past the hour, before strolling to the museum.
“Arty, this is Mr. King and, Miss Valentine, I’m sure you recognise.”
Sloman was being creepy.
King extended a perfunctory hand and looked with undisguised disdain at me. He was a little man, in every sense of the word, who played the part of an obnoxious V.I.P. with ease. I suspected him of being a lightweight who desperately wanted to make costume dramas, but, disliked by management, was destined to make cheap one-trick television shows. He had a small pinched moustache and a way of standing that gave the impression he was homosexual. I’ve been wrong before and he could have just been around homosexuals too long. In his line of business, it was possible.
Helen Valentine stood and held out a strong hand with short unvarnished nails, manicured not bitten. She was all of the six foot two she was reputed to be. Her hand held mine briefly, but firmly. She smiled sweetly.
“Please call me Helen.”
Like great malt that has the underlying hint of oaken sherry barrel, her R.A.D.A. smoothed voice had not quite lost its northern accent. I cursed my weakness for good elocution.
I think I said, “I’m Arty. Arty’s just fine.”
Helen’s only concession to her forty-something years might possibly have been her hair colour, but this could equally have been chosen for the part she was next to play. This evening, she was blonde; a pale, lemon blonde, not quite platinum. She’d been a brunette streaked with grey in her last part. She looked younger in Sloman’s office, an impression assisted by the fact that today she was not playing mother to some twenty year olds and she was wearing one of those off-the-shoulder, Dior-cut dresses in pale grey silk. It was the kind of dress that husbands in the 1950s would have been proud to show off. I thought of the cobblestones outside.
“Arty is our senior genealogist. If anyone can find out what happened to your grandmother, Miss Valentine, Arty will.”
“I hope that your senior genealogist won’t pull too many skeletons out of my family closet, Mr. Sloman.”
If her remark was loaded, it was difficult to tell. She may have just been being charming.
“Well, I think we are done and you must be dying for something to eat. I have a prior engagement, but I took the liberty of booking a table for you.”
Sloman was being very creepy.
“If it is all the same to you, we’d prefer to go back to the hotel.”
King nodded at Helen who smiled at Sloman. Sloman looked disappointed momentarily.
“Of course. I’m sorry. I’m sure you’re tired from your flight. Arty will drive you back. I cannot leave you in a more capable pair of hands.”
He could. A chauffer’s would have been more capable, but that wasn’t the point. I’d been promised dinner by Sloman when he’d telephoned and, instead, I’d got to use up a tank of petrol.
“We’ll get something to eat there,” said King, stuffing his notepad into a leather satchel.
That was more like it. I was going to dine at the television company’s expense with one of the most beautiful women in show business and some television producer with an inferiority complex. In my experience, there’s always a price.
Copyright © 2012 Liberation Publishing (www.liberationpublishing.co.uk)