The butler said he was very sorry, but Mr. Kubelík wouldn’t be able to see anybody this afternoon because he had, regrettably, passed away in the night.
Harry raised his eyebrows a shade and drew a sharp little breath. Maybe that explained why it had taken two long rings on the bell before the guy had come to the door. The laziness of grief. “And I’m very sorry to hear that,” Harry said, feeling the rain, caught in a gust of wind, hit the back of his neck. “Please extend my condolences to Mr. Kubelík’s family.”
Nothing from the guy except a slow bow of his head. Then he looked up, cleared his throat and said he would, of course, pass on his commiserations, adding that if he had any outstanding business with Mr. Kubelík, Mr. Kubelík’s personal secretary would be in contact as soon as circumstances allowed.
“Much appreciated,” Harry said. “It’s Novák. Harry Novák.” He was already holding a calling card, the one that said he dealt in art and antiques and gave the address of his parents’ gallery in Prague, and handed it to the man, who studied it, head down, frowning. Harry said, “His personal secretary? Is that Miss Gough-Hetherington?”
Another pause, then the man’s eyes were on his again for a moment or two before he said yes, that was Miss Gough-Hetherington’s position.
Harry took a longer look at the guy. A black tie, white shirt with a high collar, gray vest, long black jacket and gray striped pants. Pretty much the kind of outfit he supposed a butler would wear. But on the man’s feet was a pair of what looked like suede sneakers. And the guy’s slightly tousled blond hair was in need of a comb and a touch of the old pomade. And somehow too young for a butler, Harry thought, though he was maybe just in his forties. And not quite as cool and collected as the one on that bullshit Downton Abbey show that Olga, Harry’s wife, lapped up like premier cru.
The butler said, “Will that be all, sir?”
A faint accent. Not English. German, Scandinavian perhaps. It was a pity that Olga, the old soak, had decided to stay in The Mitford Arms, telling him she’d rather get plastered on gin cocktails than stupefied by a couple of art bores. She would have picked out the man’s provenance, no sweat.
Not that it mattered.
Harry said yes, that would be all, and it was very sad news indeed about Mr. Kubelík.
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. Good day, sir.” And he closed the door, but just a tad too quickly – well, without the kind of measured dignity Harry expected – anxious perhaps to get away from the cold and the wet and back to polishing the silver in time for the funeral supper. Through the thick panes of crown glass in the door, Harry watched the man drag himself across the hallway, like he had a nasty case of lumbago, open the oak door on the right and disappear, imagining he could just hear the squeak of the guy’s sneakers on the parquet.
He went back to their Hertz rental – a Volvo S60 that Olga had nominated most dullsville car of the year – parked on the gravel of the carriage sweep. The joint was that grand. Mid-to-late seventeenth century, with a line of moss-mottled busts of Roman emperors in recesses in the brick facade, gazing across the acres of lawn and toward the village, the imperial boys looking stoical despite the lousy weather.
Sitting on the tan seat of the Volvo, listening to the spring rain splattering the roof, he looked at the hills behind the house, wondering if they were part of the Cotswolds. The patchwork of fields, the sheep with their lambs, the hedgerows, the occasional dry stone wall. Picturesque in any weather, he supposed. His gaze went back to the building, and he was surprised to see a woman looking down at him from one of the sash windows above the Romans. In a tweed jacket, a string of pearls around her neck. And as blonde as the butler. Quite a bit younger, though. Pretty, too. No, pretty wasn’t the word. A handsome woman. That was it. But with a buttoned-up demeanor, severe almost. Her eyes on him and the Volvo for a second or so longer, Blondie then looked away and out across the grass, checking perhaps to see if the rain was perking up the rhododendrons.
Harry’s phone went: Mancini’s “Baby Elephant Walk” telling him he had an SMS coming through. He took it out of his inside jacket pocket. Looking at the display, he saw the message was from his mom: Answer your frigging phone! I called 4x this morning, left messages. I know I said I wouldn’t bother you, but this is V important. We have a big problem. YOU have a big problem.
Yes, Mother. She couldn’t trust him to do the simplest of tasks without sticking in the proverbial oar. And the last time he’d been working for them and she pestered him with something “urgent,” it turned out to be that Dad couldn’t find his dentures. Whatever it was, could keep till later.
He started the Volvo and went back along the drive, through the entrance, with the high brick posts and the white gates, and then the picture-postcard village. The immaculate houses, most of them thatched, a bright red pillar-box on the green, between a chestnut tree and a sign saying that Haddington had been named the best-kept village in England for three consecutive years: 2006 to 2008. Still a very tidy place. Certainly uncluttered by people.
Waiting to turn onto the Stratford-upon-Avon road, he glanced at his rearview and saw a gray Audi, not far behind and coming slowly over the bridge. Very slowly. As if it was quite deliberately keeping its distance. This was even odder than a butler in suede sneakers. He was sure he’d seen the vehicle before: behind him and about twenty minutes ago as he was going through Shipton on his way from Marchton, where Olga was waiting at the pub. Maybe it was just similar, he thought, watching the Audi inching toward him. But no. It was definitely the same car. And the same driver.
He took a left and cruised along the road a stretch, keeping to just under forty mph. Passing the sign that announced this was now Shipton, he looked again in the rearview, checking to see if the Audi was still there, and then headed down the hill and, opposite the local hospital, turned off the main road into a street lined with what looked like some very decent public housing: neat little brick homes, each with its own lawn.
The Audi followed.
Harry reduced his speed to little more than a crawl, glancing from one side of the street to the other, making like he was looking for an address. The Audi eased up, and Harry slowed down some more, as if he was about to pull up, and the Audi accelerated and passed him on the road, fast, allowing him only a split second to get a last look at the driver: a big guy, denim jacket, a deep tan and a full head of curly brown hair, who hung a left at the intersection up ahead.
Harry let the motor of the Volvo idle awhile, then drove up to follow, looking along the street in the direction the Audi had gone.
But there was nothing and nobody.
Just before Olga got to the bar, she heard the dishy male barkeep with the buzz cut and the pert behind say something in Polish to the female bartender, a tall one with very big hair: “It’s that mouthy Yank again. Your turn.”
And Big Hair said to him in Slovak, “We taking turns now?”
Olga looked at Nice Ass a moment and then at Big Hair. Around six feet, in beige pants with fancy pleats and a red vest that enhanced her figure, accentuating the narrow waist and the kind of rack that would make a parson fumble for his beta-blockers. She had a name tag. Zuzana. Big old Zuzka and her beehive hairdo. A long way from Bratislava.
“Another gin, please,” Olga said in English. She turned back to Nice Ass and, reading his name tag, said in Polish, “Hey, why not have yourself a drink, Radek? On me. A drink with the noisy Canadian.”
The guy’s mouth dropped open, and he said, “Sorry. I didn’t…”
“Don’t start apologising,” she said, wagging a finger and giving him the reproachful eye. “Things will only get worse.” Then she said to Zuzana in Slovak, “Ever been to Banská Bystrica?”
Zuzana smiled, but looked puzzled, confused. “You from Slovakia?”
“From Montreal originally, hence the North American twang when I’m speaking the English. But I’m Czech, too. Czech as a log. We live in Prague.”
“I’ve not been there for an age,” Zuzana said. “How’s it doing?”
“Same as for the last five hundred years.”
Radek said, “I thought you were Polish there. Your Polish is perfect.”
“I’m Canadian, sweetheart,” Olga said. “Don’t you pay attention?”
“You sounded just like you’re from west Poland,” he said. “Wrocław maybe.”
“Well, for the moment, let’s pretend I’m from Dryville, Pennsylvania. Fix me another one of those sloe gin fizzes, honey, and you’ll never have to apologise to me again. But hang on a second ...” She watched him wait and, talking to them both now, trying to adjust so that it was a kind of Polish-Slovak melange, picking out common Slavic words, cognates, guessing that this was how they’d communicated with each other when they first met, she said, “Tell me, why is it that everyone who’s served me in a bar in this part of Olde England seems to be from my part of the Continent?”
Zuzana said, “Money’s good here.”
“And the work’s okay,” Radek said. “And I quite like the English.”
Olga said, “Aren’t a lot of them stuck-up types in this swanky joint?”
“Some are. But most are okay.” Radek turned and moved off to the far end of the bar to make her cocktail.
“Nice,” Olga said, nodding at his rear end.
“Yeah,” Zuzana said. “But he’s gay.”
Olga said, “Thought so.”
“You with that guy I saw earlier? The one in the gorgeous tweed suit? Don’t tell me he’s gay.”
“Nah,” Olga said. “That’s my hubby.”
“He was … really nice.”
Olga smiled, nodded. “Not bad, eh?”
“Not too shabby at all,” Zuzana said. “You on vacation?”
“Honeymoon. Though I’m working as well.”
“Honeymoon,” Zuzana said. “Lovely. That’s really lovely. Where you staying?”
“Calls itself a boutique hotel. Very fancy. A pub, too. Out near – what’s it called? – Long Compton.”
“The Eagle and Child?”
“That’s the joint.”
Olga cocked her head. “Pardon me?”
“You said you were working, too.”
“Oh, yeah. Sorry. At the Cheltenham Jazz Festival. But not till next week.”
“You a musician?”
“Piano,” she said. “But mainly I sing.”
“Yeah? What’s your name?”
“Olga Bradová. My stage name. And maiden name. On a couple of albums, though, I’m billed as Olga B. Especially when I’m backed by Max Brouk and His Swinging Syncopators. My lovely boys. Hands off, ladies.”
Olga watched Zuzana think about it for a moment, the blue eyes narrowing in her olive skin, the fetching mole on her right cheekbone. “I don’t recognize you. Sorry.”
“Nobody knows me outside of the Czech jazz scene.”
“But you gotta be good if you’re playing at Cheltenham. Not that I know anything about jazz.” She leaned a little closer now, dropped her voice. “So, how’s the honeymoon?”
“Like honey, honey. Sweet. Sweeter maybe ... Bliss.”
“Pity about the weather you got. Last week was gorgeous.”
“We don’t go out much.”
“Lucky you,” Zuzana said, giving her a look.
Smirking, Olga said, “Mmmmm.”
Radek came back with her gin cocktail, in a highball with a bendy straw and garnished with neat little quarter slices of orange and lemon. Olga told them to put her drink on the tab. And a couple for them, too – whatever they desired.
She went back to her table, sat down and picked up her book: that old dog lover Pat Highsmith’s Strangers on a Train. How many times had she read this? It was undoubtedly a work of genius from the great misanthropist, but it wouldn’t be such a bad idea if she tried something new fiction-wise, weaned herself off the lurid stuff, or got a better handle on her Brit slang words and phrases from that chunky volume she’d found at Blackwell’s in Oxford. Such a cool store.
She looked around the bar, thinking that she could get pretty comfy and cosy here, nice and warm and dry, stay till closing time. The wainscoting all buffed, burnished, a line of hunting prints hanging from the picture rail, a big log fire blazing away, crackling and popping. A couple of old ladies in hats covered in flowers and veils over by the window drinking afternoon tea, the rain streaming down the pane behind them, leaning toward each other, obviously chewing the local fat, shooting the breeze. And a guy by the fire in a raincoat on the fat leather couch who must have come in while she was chatting to those two at the bar. He was leafing through a newspaper, one he’d maybe taken from the rack by the door that displayed most of what she guessed were the Brit conservative dailies, and a stack of those country mags that were ninety percent real estate. He glanced her way. She flashed him a smile, and his eyes went straight back to the paper, looking at it over the top of his black-framed glasses. Dark hair, but bald on top, not a single strand or wisp of anything, making the guy a dead ringer for Phil Silvers. Sgt. Ernie Bilko sitting there studying the Daily Racing Form, planning his next scam. But she was sure that the guy wasn’t really concentrating on the paper at all. He was just killing time, waiting ...
The outside door of the pub creaked open, long and loud, and someone came along the corridor, with the red plaid carpet and the hunting trophies, and she saw Harry step into the room. He took off his raincoat and hung it on the high hatrack with the big curly hooks in the corner.
He looked over, gave her a smile. “Drink?”
“Thanks, mister,” she said. “But I just got one.”
He said okay and turned to ask Zuzana for a coffee. She said certainly, sir, right away, and poured him a cup from the pot on the sleek red and chrome machine behind the bar, and handed it to him with a big warm smile, almost giving him a wink there. Olga watched him come over, the broad shoulders and the slinky walk, and lean across the table to kiss her on the mouth, nice and sloppy, a big hand gently holding the back of her head, his face wet with rain. Hitching up his pants at the knees, he then eased his matchless behind onto the seat opposite.
“You’re soaked,” she said. “And why back so soon? I thought you’d be gone for a week.”
“Kubelík can’t see me today,” he said.
“You said you had an appointment. A big deal. Lots to discuss.”
He looked at her for a couple of beats, doing his serious face, and said, “He’s dead, Ollie. Died last night.”
She gasped a little and gaped at him. “God, H. No. That’s terrible. Jesus.”
Harry shrugged. “He was pretty old. And never very well.”
“Terrible,” she said again. She was quiet for a while, then stirred the sloe gin with her straw and sucked some up. Delish. “Didn’t you want to buy some of his stuff? Is that chance gone now?”
“His PA will get in touch, they said.”
“They got a butler? I didn’t know he was that loaded. I should’ve gone with you. God, I’d love to have seen a real butler. What was his name? Mellors?”
Harry sipped his coffee, made a face. Why did he order coffee all the time and never like it? “And something funny happened on the way back.”
“Funny ha-ha,” she said, “or funny weird?”
“Funny weird,” he said, putting down his cup. “I was followed.”
Staring at him, she said, “You shitting me?”
He told her that it’d been an Audi, a gray Audi A6. That he was pretty certain it’d been with him before he got to Haddington Hall, but he’d shaken it off in Shipton, the town between here and Haddington. And then he’d driven around for a while, trying to find it again. But no show.
“Wow,” she said. “You sure?”
“Sure as eggs is brown.”
She frowned and started to scratch her jaw, slowly, thinking about it. “You said Kubelík had a thing about privacy. Maybe he’s got like security people watching the place.”
“Possible,” he said, raising a lovely eyebrow. “But why follow me? And maybe they followed me from here, too, from Marchton.”
“What the hell for, honey?”
Her right hand drifted up to play with her left ear a moment or two, giving it some more thought, smiling. “That’s very interesting, H.”
“Interesting?” he said. “What I think you want to say is that it’s … exciting.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Very exciting. Giving me a buzz, baby.” She reached across the table and took one of his hands, slipping a long nail in between his thumb and forefinger, rubbing gently. “It’s such cruddy frigging weather, H. What about we … ?”
“Go back to the Eagle?”
“I’m a little … drowsy with the gin,” she said. “Wouldn’t mind a siesta.”
“Me too,” he said, his voice low, husky. “And what about a bath?”
“A bath would be …”
“Just the ticket?”
“Mmmm,” she said, narrowing her eyes. “A big soak. A long soak. Big and long and hot. I could maybe scrub your back for you. How’s that sound?”
“Nice.” His eyes, so big and brown, and the leanest of jaws. Her own private Superman, with a Cary Grant cleft in his chin that was quite the most gorgeous epidermal dimple a man ever had. A naughty smirk from him now. “I gotta get my pants pressed, too,” he said.
“I can do that. Press your gorgeous pants.”
“Did I ever say that you’re a very fine pant presser?”
“You did. Herr Gott, you did. The best, you said.” She gripped his hand, tight, sinking in her nails, seeing him do a sweet little wince, loving it, and felt their fingers interlock ...
“Excuse me, sir, madam.” They both looked up to see the guy who’d been reading the paper near the fire was now standing by their table. “Mr. Novák?” he said.
“Yes,” Harry said. “How may we help you?”
And the guy opened a leather wallet and flashed a big star and crown. Briefly and discreetly, holding it in the palm of his hand. Gloucestershire Constabulary. Police ID.
“Graham. Detective Inspector Graham,” he said. “May I sit down a moment?”
“Sure,” Harry said.
The copper pulled out a chair and dropped onto the seat. Harry took his hand away from hers and turned to the guy. “What’s the problem, Inspector?”
“I’m very sorry to bother you, sir, madam.”
“And,” Olga said, glaring at the cop, “I’m sorry that when you watch people you don’t do much of a job of pretending to read the paper. And shouldn’t you get yourself a drink if you’re staking out a bar, and take off your coat, make like you were a customer, less conspicuous, and not like you’re creeping around?”
Harry said, “I hope you haven’t been bothering my wife, Inspector.”
She pointed at Harry, saying, “Can it, H. I can cope.”
Inspector Graham said, “I’m sorry, madam, if I’ve distressed you at all. It’s your husband we should like to talk to.”
“Calling me madam is nice, cool, Inspector, but what about you tell us what’s going on?”
“I don’t think this is a terribly good place to talk,” Inspector Graham said. “Perhaps we could do so at the station.”
“Assisting you with your enquiries?” she said.
“We don’t call it that any more, madam.”
“What do we call it, Inspector?”
“Ollie,” Harry said, “it’s okay, sugar. It’s just questions.” He looked at the copper again. “Isn’t it, Inspector?”
Inspector Graham paused a moment, and pushed the bridge of his Bilko glasses back up to his eyebrows. “If it were anything more than that, I would have said so. We’d simply appreciate some help.”
“Well, I’m coming, too,” Olga said, getting to her feet. “Just give me a moment. The girl needs to powder her nose.”
She picked up her satchel from beside the seat and, feeling inside for a business card, went to the bar and beckoned to Zuzana, who came over, frowning.
“What’s up?” Zuzana said. “Who’s the bald guy?”
“You’re telling me where the restroom is. Then I’m going there for a minute or two to cogitate. Baldy’s a cop. Here,” she said, sliding the card across the bar counter.
Zuzana stared at it, picked it up. “Novák and Nováková … A detective agency. But I thought you were a singer.”
Olga put a finger to her lips. “You got a cell phone?” Zuzana nodded. “Good. Wait until we leave. Then call me or text me. I won’t answer. I only want your number. Just in case.”
“In case of what?”
“I wish I knew,” Olga said. “Look, if you’d rather not get involved, honey, please just say no.”
Zuzana started to smile. “I don’t think I can. This is kind of … thrilling.”
“Are they looking this way?” Zuzana said they were just talking, and the bald guy had his back to them. “Fine,” Olga said. “Now, put the card in your vest pocket. Call or text me in a while. I’ll get back to you.”
Olga shrugged. “Not a clue.”
Zuzana cocked her head a little and said, “Okay.”
Olga winked at her and then when to the restroom and sat on the wooden seat in one of the stalls for a couple of minutes, staring at the hook on the back of the door. Maybe Inspector Graham wasn’t much of a stakeout artist, but he had the air of one of the heavy brigade. This was serious. The man wasn’t staking the place out. He was waiting for H. And the copper had something on his mind. Something pretty bad. Something to do with Kubelík? Dammit, she knew nothing about Kubelík. Taking only a passing interest in Harry’s art biz was a deficiency that had to be rectified, and soon. Herr Gott, but this felt nasty. Had someone bumped Kubelík off, whacked the guy?
Her head was working overtime now, buzzing.
She flushed the toilet, and checked herself in the mirror over the sink before she went back to the bar.
Jesus, her hair looked like a drowned rat’s ass.