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Edward Marston

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Beschreibung

1917. The Lotus Hotel offers sanctuary for its exclusively female clientele, attracting the cream of London's society. But a dead body found in one of its rooms is hardly good for business, and when it is discovered that the woman was neither a guest nor a member of staff, the Lotus's reputation as a safe haven is cast in doubt.Inspector Marmion and Sergeant Keedy are dispatched to look into the events at the hotel and soon suspect foul play. Tangling with a forgetful widower, a wily competitor and the haughty hotel owner, the pair will have to delve into the past to solve this crime in the present.

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The Unseen Hand

EDWARD MARSTON

CONTENTS

TITLE PAGECHAPTER ONECHAPTER TWOCHAPTER THREECHAPTER FOURCHAPTER FIVECHAPTER SIXCHAPTER SEVENCHAPTER EIGHTCHAPTER NINECHAPTER TENCHAPTER ELEVENCHAPTER TWELVECHAPTER THIRTEENCHAPTER FOURTEENCHAPTER FIFTEENCHAPTER SIXTEENCHAPTER SEVENTEENCHAPTER EIGHTEENCHAPTER NINETEENCHAPTER TWENTYCHAPTER TWENTY-ONECHAPTER TWENTY-TWOABOUT THE AUTHORBY EDWARD MARSTONCOPYRIGHT

CHAPTER ONE

Autumn, 1917

Millie Jenks was in agony. After six weeks as a member of the hotel staff, she was still plagued by uncertainty. Desperate to retain her job, she was terrified by the thought that she might make a mistake that led to her dismissal. All that she had to do that morning was to obey an order. What would have been a simple task to any other employee was to Millie a crushing responsibility. It gave her a sleepless night in the cold, tiny, airless bedroom she occupied in the basement. An hour before she was needed, she was dressed and ready, one eye fixed on the clock. When there were still ten minutes to go, she made her way silently up two flights of stairs and stood outside the appropriate door, counting the seconds as they ticked past in her head. In her palm was the master key she’d been given in case the guest couldn’t be roused by a sharp knock. She moved it nervously from hand to hand.

At what she felt was the exact time specified, she took a deep breath then rapped on the door. There was no response from inside the room. When a second knock failed to awaken the guest, Millie inserted the master key and opened the door slowly. The bedside lamp was on, creating a pool of light. On the carpet was a sight that made her gasp in surprise. Expecting to wake an elderly lady, she was instead looking down at a much younger one, fully clothed and stretched out on the floor. When she bent down to help the woman up, she saw the tortured expression on her face.

Millie froze in horror.

CHAPTER TWO

As the police car sped through the streets in the gloom, the detectives sat in the rear seats. London was slowly starting to wake up but Marmion and Keedy were still half-asleep. They were responding to a phone call from Scotland Yard and it had robbed both of them of any breakfast. It put them in a resentful mood.

‘Where are we going, Harv?’ asked Keedy, sourly.

‘The Lotus Hotel.’

‘I’ve never heard of it.’

‘Neither have I, Joe.’

‘Where the hell is it?’

‘It’s somewhere in Chelsea.’

‘And what are we supposed to find there?’

‘Your guess is as good as mine,’ said Marmion through an involuntary yawn. ‘All I can tell you is that there’s been an unexplained death. According to Chat, the man who raised the alarm was in a real panic.’

‘I don’t blame him. I’m always in a panic when I speak to our beloved superintendent.’

‘It seems that the woman who died is a complete stranger. She wasn’t a guest at the hotel.’

‘Then what was she doing there?’

‘That’s one of the things we need to find out, Joe.’

Harvey Marmion had mixed feelings about the telephone that Superintendent Chatfield had had installed in the inspector’s house. It meant that he could be summoned from his bed at all hours. At the same time, it enabled his wife to contact him at Scotland Yard in an emergency and allowed him – in defiance of the superintendent’s orders – to ring her when he was at work. As he yawned again, Marmion decided that, on balance, the telephone was more of a blessing than a nuisance.

‘So Chat rang you in person, did he?’ asked Keedy.

‘Oh, yes. I’d never mistake that voice of his.’

‘He spends more time in his office than he does at home. Doesn’t he ever go to bed?’

‘He has four children, Joe, so he must have climbed between the sheets at some point in time.’

Keedy laughed. He was about to make a ribald comment but decided against it. Engaged to Marmion’s daughter, he had to be careful when indulging in coarse banter in case his future father-in-law got hold of the wrong idea. As it happened, there was no time to poke fun at the superintendent’s private life because, after turning a corner, the car slowed down and pulled up outside the hotel.

They got out of the vehicle to find that they were in a quiet backstreet in one of the more prosperous parts of Chelsea. The Lotus Hotel had a relatively narrow frontage and looked at first glance to be identical to the houses either side of it. Marmion’s first impression was that there was something almost apologetic about it, as if it was concealing its real identity. A small brass plate bearing its name was the only indication that it was actually a hotel. Before they could go into the building, someone came out to greet them. He was a tall, slim, excessively well-groomed man in his forties who seemed to glide along.

‘Thank goodness you’re here at last!’ he said with evident relief. ‘I’m Rex Chell, the manager. Please come inside.’

He hustled the pair of them into the lobby as if anxious to get them out of sight. Once inside, they realised that the hotel was an optical illusion. It seemed to grow in size before their eyes and open out in all directions as it incorporated adjacent buildings. There was a pervading air of opulence. While Marmion performed the introductions, Keedy was appraising the manager. Poised and well spoken, Chell was quite immaculate. He explained the situation smoothly and succinctly. Marmion took over.

‘So it was Miss Jenks who actually made the discovery?’

‘Yes, Inspector,’ said Chell.

‘Where is she now?’

‘The girl is in my office, still shaking like a leaf, I daresay.’

‘We’ll need to take a statement from her in due course – and from the night porter. He was the person who contacted the police.’

‘When he’d done that, he got in touch with me.’

‘What did you advise?’

‘The first thing he had to do,’ said Chell, sternly, ‘was to pull himself together. Then he was to console Miss Jenks. I got here as quickly as I could to deal with the emergency. Restoring calm was my first priority. We can’t possibly have turbulence at the Lotus.’

‘You may not be able to avoid it, sir.’

‘Nothing must damage our ethos.’

‘A Home Office pathologist will be arriving soon,’ said Marmion. ‘Unless you sneak him in through the back door, someone is going to notice him.’

‘Can’t you just spirit the body away before the guests start to wake up properly?’

‘We need to establish the cause of death first, sir.’

‘I can tell you that, Inspector. The woman died of natural means.’

‘How do you know?’

‘I examined her myself.’

‘Are you a qualified doctor?’ asked Keedy, pointedly.

‘I was very thorough, Sergeant. There’s not a mark on her.’

‘I beg leave to doubt that, sir.’

‘Why don’t you let us be the judges?’ suggested Marmion. ‘I suspect that we’ve had a lot more experience of dealing with dead bodies than you have.’

Chell gave a reluctant nod of agreement, then led them upstairs and along a corridor. There was no danger of their waking other guests because the pile on the carpet was thick. Using a master key, the manager let them into the room, then locked it behind them. Marmion and Keedy had their first look at the woman who’d deprived them of any breakfast that morning. Pale, lean and well dressed, she was still stretched out in the undignified position into which she’d fallen. Only one side of her face was visible. Keedy knelt down to examine her, moving her slightly from time to time.

‘You see?’ said Chell as if he’d been vindicated. ‘No blood, no sign of injury, no indication of anything untoward.’

‘I’m afraid that you’re wrong,’ said Keedy.

‘What do you mean?’

‘Look at her face.’ He turned her over gently so that they could study her properly. Though she’d been an attractive woman, her features were now distorted. ‘I’ve seen expressions like this before.’

‘The sergeant used to work in the family undertaking business,’ explained Marmion. ‘He knows what to look for.’

‘My immediate suspicion is that she was killed by some sort of poison. We just need to find out how it was administered.’

Removing her jacket with a care that bordered on tenderness, Keedy exposed a silk blouse. He undid the button on one wrist and peeled back the sleeve. A thin, pale, blue-veined arm came into view, but it had no marks on it. When he peeled back the other sleeve, however, there was clear evidence of a recent injection. Keedy looked up at Chell.

‘Well,’ he said, ‘we’ve now got some idea of how she died. The question is this – are we looking at a case of suicide or of murder?’

CHAPTER THREE

The pathologist soon arrived and was whisked upstairs by the woman acting as Chell’s deputy while he was busy with the detectives. The manager was glad that the man came alone without any uniformed policemen in tow. He still nursed the faint hope that the crisis could somehow be hidden from the guests. Marmion shattered that hope. While the pathologist conducted his examination, the inspector took the manager aside.

‘I’m afraid that your ethos is in danger, sir.’

‘It’s something we pride ourselves on,’ said Chell, stiffly.

‘You won’t be able to do that any more. The Lotus Hotel has become a murder scene.’

‘Surely not! The sergeant thought it might be a case of suicide.’

‘That was before I had a good look around the room,’ said Keedy. ‘If the deceased had injected herself, where’s the syringe? I can’t find one. The only explanation is that the killer took it away.’

Chell was shaken. ‘Things like this just don’t happen at the Lotus.’

‘What was the name of the guest staying here?’ asked Marmion.

‘Lady Diana Brice-Cadmore.’

‘Then why didn’t she spend the night in this bed? Clearly, it hasn’t been slept in. And your guest would surely have brought luggage, wouldn’t she? What happened to it?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Let’s go back to what you told us earlier,’ said Marmion. ‘Lady Thingamajig had asked to be awakened early so that she could leave the premises at 6 a.m. Is that correct?’

‘Yes,’ said the other. ‘A taxi was booked.’

‘What happened to it?’

‘Oh, it arrived on time, Inspector. By that stage, I’d got here and taken charge. I told the driver that there’d been a change of plan and that he was no longer needed. When he’d rid himself of every expletive in the English language, he went off in a rage.’

‘Who can blame him?’ said Keedy.

‘What sort of person is the lady who was here?’ asked Marmion with a glance at the bed. ‘Is she in the habit of reserving a room and not sleeping in it?’

‘She’s been a model guest, Inspector.’

‘Not the kind to make a moonlight flit, then?’

Chell was offended. ‘Our guests tend to come from the upper echelons of society,’ he said, haughtily. ‘Their conduct is always above reproach. Our clientele is exclusively female. They appreciate our high standards.’

Marmion bit back the ironic observation he was about to make. Seeing that the pathologist had finished his preliminary examination, he asked the manager to take Keedy to his office so that the sergeant could question Millie Jenks and the night porter. After a rueful look at the body, Chell led the way out of the room and closed the door softly behind him. Removing his spectacles, the pathologist got to his feet. He was a short, stubby man in his fifties with a puffy face. Over the years, he and Marmion had met at several murder scenes.

‘You’ll have trouble solving this one, Harvey,’ he said.

‘None of them is ever easy.’

‘The sergeant’s guess was right. In all probability, the woman was poisoned. I can’t tell you exactly which poison was used but it was a fatal dose. When we’ve opened her up and had a proper look at her,’ he went on, airily, ‘we may have to call in a toxicologist.’

‘The sooner we have the post-mortem report, the better.’

‘These things can’t be rushed.’

‘Do you have any idea of the time of death?’

‘She was killed at some time in the night. Rigor mortis hasn’t occurred yet and that can start to manifest itself as early as four hours after death in some cases. Let me have a closer look at her and I might be able to narrow it down a little.’

‘When it’s been photographed, I’ll get the body moved.’

‘You’ve now got the problem of identifying her.’

‘We have one useful clue,’ said Marmion. ‘She’s wearing a wedding ring and the other rings on her fingers look as if they cost a pretty penny. That tells me she has a rich and indulgent husband. He’ll soon report her missing.’

‘It looks as if we’re pioneers,’ the other remarked. ‘The manager said that this hotel caters only for women. That means we’re probably the first men privileged to get inside one of these rooms – apart from the killer, that is.’

‘How do you know the murder was committed by a man?’ asked Marmion. ‘Women can use a syringe just as well – even in the upper echelons of society.’

 

When he was conducted to the office by the manager, Keedy made the acquaintance of Millie Jenks and Leonard Rogan, the night porter. As the newcomers entered, Millie was sobbing into a handkerchief, but she put it away when she saw Chell and sat up straight. Rogan was already on his feet, shaking hands with the sergeant when introduced and showing the same deference towards the manager as his companion. The night porter was a short, balding, straight-backed man in his fifties in a smart uniform. He turned to Chell.

‘I’ve tried to calm her down, sir,’ he said, ‘but she’s too upset.’

‘I’m all right now,’ claimed Millie, bravely.

‘Mrs Gosling is the best person to look after her.’

‘Don’t presume to tell me my job, Rogan,’ said Chell, acidly. ‘I’d already made that decision of my own accord. Before I summon Mrs Gosling, I’d prefer to let the sergeant question the girl.’

Rogan was quashed. ‘Very well, sir,’ he mumbled.

‘I’ll leave the pair of them to you,’ Chell continued, looking at Keedy. ‘Guests will begin to stir from their beds fairly soon. They’ll become aware of the commotion. I need to be there to reassure them. Don’t snivel,’ he warned Millie. ‘Try to maintain some dignity.’

He swept out and closed the door behind him. Keedy took a quick inventory of the room, noting its generous size, the large desk, the gleaming furniture, the thick carpet and the well-stocked bookshelves. The office belonged to a man who loved order. Nothing was out of place.

He produced his notebook and smiled at Millie.

‘If it helps,’ he said, gently, ‘feel free to use your handkerchief. I know how much of a shock you must have had.’

‘Thank you, sir,’ she said, pathetically grateful.

‘In your own words, tell me what happened. There’s no rush. I won’t hurry you along. I just want the facts. If you need to stop at any point, I’ll be happy to wait until you start again.’

‘You’re very kind, Sergeant.’

He opened his notebook. ‘I’m ready when you are, Miss Jenks.’

It took her some time to compose herself. Then, after clearing her throat, she told her tale. It was garbled for the most part but Keedy was able to pick out the salient details.

‘Thank you,’ he said. ‘This is all very helpful.’

She was still apprehensive. ‘I won’t get the sack, will I?’

‘I shouldn’t think so. You’ve done nothing wrong.’

‘The manager made me feel as if I had.’

‘You were simply obeying a request, Miss Jenks.’

‘My name won’t be in the papers, will it?’

‘It’s highly unlikely,’ said Keedy. ‘From what I’ve seen of him, I think that Mr Chell will give reporters a bare minimum of information. He’s keen to protect the reputation of the hotel. For our part, we always exercise discretion when dealing with the press.’

‘See?’ interjected Rogan. ‘It’s like I told you, Millie. You’re in the clear. So am I. We’re not at fault.’ He grinned helpfully. ‘Is it my turn now, Sergeant?’

Keedy nodded. ‘My pencil is poised.’

The night porter not only had his story ready, he had clearly been rehearsing it. Summoned by Millie, he’d gone to inspect the body, then contacted the police and the manager. Rogan stressed how quick and resourceful he’d been, pointing out that he’d rung Scotland Yard rather than the local police station because he knew that Chell would hate the idea of uniformed officers arriving at the hotel. Though he was grateful for a coherent recitation of the facts, Keedy felt that there was something missing.

‘How long are you on duty, as a rule?’ he asked.

‘It’s usually around ten hours,’ replied the other.

‘How do you manage to stay awake?’

‘I make myself, Sergeant. Besides, it’s not as if I’m entirely alone. I often have to let in guests who come back here late – after midnight, in some cases. Then, of course, we have the kitchen staff. They have to be up at the crack of dawn if anyone wants an early breakfast. Millie and the other girls must be on duty to serve it.’

‘That’s right,’ she said. ‘Mrs Gosling expects us to be out of bed by six o’clock. The guests’ needs come first.’

‘Do you like working here?’ asked Keedy.

‘I did until today.’

‘What about you, Rogan?’

‘It’s a privilege to work at the Lotus,’ he said, loyally. ‘There’s nowhere quite like it. The guests are always so well behaved. That’s not been the case in other hotels where I’ve worked. I’ve had to deal with some very nasty situations, I can tell you. Some men get completely out of control when they’ve had too much to drink.’ He lowered his voice. ‘Then there are those who think the female members of staff are there for them to take liberties with. We’ve never had that kind of problem here.’

‘And we’ve never had anyone die at the hotel,’ Millie piped up, ‘as that poor woman did this morning. What on earth was wrong with her, Sergeant? Did she have some terrible disease?’

After looking from one to the other, Keedy inhaled deeply.

‘There’s something you both ought to know …’

CHAPTER FOUR

Having her daughter at home for a whole night was a treat for Ellen Marmion. Since she didn’t have to go on duty in the Women’s Police Force until a later shift, Alice was able to have a long, lazy breakfast with her mother. They had something important to celebrate. After months of prevarication, Joe Keedy had finally agreed on a date for the wedding. It was to be in the following June. Though they’d talked about it at length the previous evening, the women returned to the subject with renewed gusto.

‘We’ll have to speak to the vicar,’ said Ellen.

‘There’s no rush.’

‘The church has to be booked and the banns have to be read.’

‘Not for a long time yet.’

‘We must do everything properly, Alice.’

‘We will, I promise you. Joe and I don’t want anything too fancy, by the way. Tell Daddy that we’ll be happy with a quiet wedding. We’ll have to be more careful with money from now on because we’re saving up to buy a house.’

‘If all else fails, you can always move in here.’

‘No,’ said Alice, firmly. ‘That wouldn’t work at all. We’d get under each other’s feet and there’d be no real privacy for any of us. By next June, we’ll have found a place of our own.’

‘Make sure that it’s somewhere close to us.’

‘We’ll have to take what we can get, Mummy. Our main worry is that the war will still be going on. Joe seems to think it will be finished by spring of next year, but I don’t share his optimism.’

‘When it started,’ recalled Ellen, gloomily, ‘we thought that it would be over and done with by Christmas. That was three years ago.’

‘I prefer not to think about it. I don’t care if German bombs are dropping all round the church. Now that we’ve finally fixed the date, I intend to get married on that Saturday afternoon, whatever happens.’

‘Have you discussed the guest list with Joe?’

‘Yes, it will be on the short side.’

‘We can’t scrimp on everything, Alice. Why don’t I get pencil and paper and jot down the obvious names?’

‘I’d rather do that nearer the time, Mummy.’

‘It won’t hurt to start right now.’

‘Yes, it will.’

‘Why do you say that?’

‘It’s because one name will be missing off that list.’

Ellen was jolted. While enjoying the prospect of her daughter’s wedding, she’d forgotten all about her son. Paul Marmion had been injured at the Battle of the Somme and invalided out of the army. He’d been so disruptive at home that his mother was unable to cope with his shifting moods and bad behaviour. When she least expected it, Paul had run away and made no attempt to contact anyone in the family. An intense search by his father had proved fruitless and they’d begun to think he might no longer be alive. To their relief, they discovered he’d been working as a labourer on a farm in Warwickshire but, when they went to see him, they learnt that Paul had been sacked from his job. Once again, they were completely in the dark.

Alice made an effort to be positive about her wayward brother.

‘You never know,’ she said. ‘He may be back home by then.’

‘I doubt that somehow.’

‘Things will be different when winter comes. Paul will start to have second thoughts about living hand to mouth. Having a roof over his head will become much more important to him.’

‘I don’t want him driven back here because of bad weather,’ said Ellen, baulking at the idea. ‘I’d like him back because he’s missing his family.’ She pursed her lips. ‘That may be too much to ask.’

‘Paul’s my brother. He ought to be there for my wedding.’

‘How can he do that if he doesn’t even know when it is?’

Alice was deflated. ‘That’s a fair point.’

‘If he had any intention of coming home, he’d have turned up months ago. We have to be realistic, Alice. He’s gone for good.’

 

When he’d assigned the case to Marmion, the superintendent had reminded him that he expected to be kept informed of developments at every stage. Once he’d gathered enough information, therefore, the inspector was driven straight back to Scotland Yard so that he could report to his superior. Seated behind his desk, Claude Chatfield listened with interest to what the detectives had found at the Lotus Hotel. The manager had given Marmion a plan of the property. He now opened it in front of the superintendent.

‘How did the murder victim get into the building?’ he asked. ‘That was my first question. The second one is linked to it: how on earth did Lady Diana Brice-Cadmore, who occupied that room, leave the hotel with her luggage without being seen?’

‘How many exits are there?’

‘Three, sir – there’s one at the front and two at the rear.’

Marmion used a finger to indicate each in turn. Chatfield pondered.

‘A hotel employee must be involved,’ he said at length.

‘That was my feeling.’

‘How reliable is that night porter?’

‘Sergeant Keedy said that he seemed alert enough when he was questioned, and the manager spoke up for Rogan. Including Mr Chell, there are four male members of staff at the Lotus, but the manager is the only one who has any real contact with the guests. The others are largely invisible. One of the attractions of the hotel to prospective guests is that it’s run by and solely for women.’

Chatfield frowned. ‘Does that mean it’s a haven for suffragettes?’

‘It’s a place that offers respectability and a degree of luxury. That was how the manager described it. Until today, it also provided a guarantee of safety for its guests.’

‘They won’t be feeling very safe now.’

‘Mr Chell will be working madly to placate them.’

‘What’s your next step?’

‘Lady Brice-Cadmore lives in Berkshire. The house has no telephone, apparently. I’ll go by train to Didcot then take a taxi out to the estate. If she’s there, I’d like to find out why she made a sudden exit from the hotel. I’m also hoping that she may have some idea of the identity of the woman who was in her room.’

‘What about the sergeant?’

‘I left him at the Lotus, taking statements from all and sundry. I can’t believe that it was so easy for one woman to leave unseen and for a complete stranger to end up dead in her place.’

‘I agree. Somebody must have seen something.’

‘If they did,’ said Marmion, confidently, ‘then Sergeant Keedy will soon get the truth out of them. He’s very thorough.’

 

Keedy had taken so many notes that his hand was beginning to ache, but he forced himself on, talking to each person – guest or employee – in succession. He always felt uneasy in the presence of wealth and it was very much on show. Accommodation was very expensive and the exquisite jewellery worn by some of the women he interviewed told its own story. In a previous case, he’d visited another London hotel and immediately fallen out with the manager. His first impression of Rex Chell was that the man was cut from the same cloth – proud, arrogant, authoritative and more concerned in protecting his hotel from damaging publicity than in helping to solve a murder. On closer observation, Keedy had to revise his judgement. Chell turned out to be a master of diplomacy, quiet, patient, watchful, sympathetic and able to smooth the most ruffled feathers. Watching him in action was an education. Angry guests who came to hector the manager went away with contented smiles on their face. Those who threatened to leave instantly were somehow persuaded to stay. Chell had undeniable charm.

Bracing himself, Keedy began yet another interview.

‘How long have you worked here, Mrs Gosling?’ he asked.

‘I started at the Lotus when it first opened.’

‘When was that?’

‘It must be all of five years ago,’ she said.

‘And where were you before that?’

‘I was the housekeeper at the Belfry in Leicester Square.’

‘That’s a much bigger hotel, isn’t it?’

‘I prefer to work here, Sergeant.’

‘Why is that?’

‘Well, there’s the manager, for a start. It’s a pleasure to work for Mr Chell. He makes you feel appreciated. Also, I have much more of a free hand here. I like that.’

Lena Gosling was a plump, motherly, middle-aged woman with red cheeks and sparkling eyes. Keedy warmed to her at once. He knew that she’d been comforting Millie.

‘How is Miss Jenks?’

‘She’s still badly shaken,’ she replied, ‘but I’ve managed to stop her blaming herself for what happened.’

‘It wasn’t her fault,’ said Keedy.

‘I kept telling her that.’

‘The manager said that you’d taken her under your wing.’

‘She needed someone to look after her,’ said Mrs Gosling. ‘Millie has never been away from home before. The Lotus can be a bit scary to someone like that.’

‘What do you know of Lady Brice-Cadmore?’

‘She’s stayed here once before. She is a very nice woman, though she can be fussy about her food.’

‘Was her behaviour in any way erratic?’

She gave a shrug. ‘I don’t understand.’

‘Leaving the hotel without notice was very impulsive of her. Did she seem like the sort of person to do something like that?’

‘No, she was far too considerate.’

‘Why did she ask Miss Jenks to wake her this morning?’

‘Millie had been looking after her room.’

‘Yes, but she’s the most junior member of staff. Why pick on her when other people would have seemed more reliable – Mr Rogan, for instance. He told me that he’s often had to wake guests up early in the morning. Has Miss Jenks ever done that before?’

‘No,’ she said, thoughtfully. ‘She hasn’t.’

Keedy sat back in his chair. ‘I’m told that you keep this place working properly behind the scenes.’

She laughed. ‘That’s not true at all.’

‘I think you’re being modest.’

‘I simply do my best.’

‘Tell me a little more about yourself, Mrs Gosling.’

‘Oh, I’m not important.’

‘I think you are.’

Encouraged by his interest, she launched into her life story. It was tinged with sadness. London had a sizeable population of war widows and she had a special reason to understand the plight of those who’d lost their husbands in action. Her own tragedy had occurred during the Boer War when the man she’d recently married was shot dead in a skirmish. Though Lena Gosling had been deprived of the chance to have the children she’d coveted, she didn’t descend into self-pity. She simply threw herself wholeheartedly into her work and built up a reputation for reliability and diligence. Over a period of years, she’d earned a series of promotions in various hotels. She had now ended up at the Lotus with responsibility for the housekeeping.

‘Girls like Millie Jenks are my family now,’ she said, fondly. ‘They come here as complete innocents and need someone to look out for them.’

‘You obviously do that job well.’

‘I don’t see it as a job, Sergeant. It’s a treat.’

‘How do you get on with the manager?’

‘We get on very well. I have no complaints about Mr Chell and I make sure he has none about me. He’s the person who makes this hotel run like clockwork.’

‘I can imagine that.’

‘And he’s such a handsome man. The guests adore him.’

Keedy was quizzical. ‘Don’t you think it’s rather odd?’

‘What is?’

‘Well, in a hotel where the vast majority of people are female, most men would feel out of place. I certainly would.’

‘Mr Chell would be at his ease anywhere. It’s a gift.’

It was not one that Keedy possessed. Talking to hotel employees like Lena Gosling, he was completely relaxed. It was a different matter when he’d had to question some of the guests. They came from a world of wealth and entitlement. Keedy would never aspire to such things. In their presence, he was made to feel that he belonged to a lower order of creation and it rankled with him.

Mrs Gosling looked him in the eye and wagged a finger.

‘Can I make one thing clear?’ she asked.

‘Yes, of course.’

‘You think a member of staff was responsible, don’t you?’

‘It’s a possibility we have to explore,’ he said.

‘Then let me save you a lot of wasted time, Sergeant. I know every person who works under this roof and I can vouch for each one of them. None of them would dream of doing anything that would cause trouble to the Lotus. We’ve bonded together here,’ she said, grasping his arm. ‘Don’t treat us as suspects. It’s unfair on us and it will mislead you. We’d die rather than let this hotel down.’

Keedy was taken aback by her passion and forthrightness. He was also glad when she loosened the tight grip on his arm.

‘You like it here, don’t you?’ he said.

‘I love it, Sergeant. This is my home.’

CHAPTER FIVE

After responding to the crisis at the hotel, then delivering his report to the superintendent, Marmion was glad to have time to review the situation. Though he was in a full compartment of a train to Didcot, he was able to block out the sound of his fellow travellers and concentrate on the case. Questions proliferated. Who was the murder victim? What was she doing at the hotel and what possible motive had prompted someone to kill her? Where was Lady Diana Brice-Cadmore and why had she left the hotel without any kind of warning? Was there any connection between the two women? Could it be that the missing guest was implicated somehow in the murder? That seemed inconceivable. Rex Chell had described her as a model guest and hotel managers tended to be shrewd judges of character. It was part of their stock-in-trade.

Marmion was baffled. He was confronted by a grotesque conjuring trick in which a live guest disappeared from the stage in a flash to be replaced by a dead stranger. Such an extraordinary act of deception needed careful planning and an intimate knowledge of the Lotus Hotel. The more he thought about it, the more convinced Marmion became that his starting point had to be Lady Brice-Cadmore. Having ordered a taxi for 6 a.m., she had instead left the hotel by some other means during the night and headed for an unknown destination. Marmion hoped that she’d gone home to the address he’d found in the hotel register, but that was by no means certain. The fact that her luggage had vanished with her suggested that she would have needed help. Did that come from a friend or an accomplice in a murder?

The key element in the investigation was the Lotus Hotel itself. It was comparatively small, highly exclusive and tucked away where it would attract little attention. What was the rationale behind it? Why was it frequented by a particular clientele? Gentlemen’s clubs abounded all over London – one had featured in a recent case handled by Marmion and Keedy – but similar establishments for women were much less common. Why had the Lotus come into being? Was it satisfying a need for a privileged sector of the female population? Who exactly stayed there and why did they prefer it over the countless other hotels in the capital?

Marmion accepted that he and Keedy were at a disadvantage because of their gender. While they could subject the Lotus to close scrutiny, there were aspects of its operation they might never uncover. Not for the first time, he wished that Scotland Yard could see the value of having female detectives, able to elicit information out of other women in a way that was beyond their male counterparts. But the Metropolitan Police Force was far too hidebound even to consider the idea. Marmion’s daughter, Alice, a prime candidate for promotion to detective status, was not allowed anywhere near investigations into serious crimes. They were a male preserve. The Women’s Police Force was kept firmly in its place. Marmion and Keedy would have to do without the insights that only a woman could bring. As they had done for centuries, male values and attitudes would continue to dominate law enforcement.

Marmion racked his brains until the train juddered to a halt in Reading Station. Another question then pushed itself roughly to the front of the queue.

What had Lady Brice-Cadmore been doing in London?

 

It was a paradox. Alice Marmion arrived at work with wonderful news yet was unable to pass it on. Bursting to share it with a friend, she was held back from doing so by an invisible hand. After being given their orders by the imperious Inspector Gale, she and her beat partner, Iris Goodliffe, set off on their shift. They lapsed into inconsequential chatter. Since Iris was her closest friend in the Women’s Police Force, she ought to be told that a date for the wedding had finally been decided, and she would initially share Alice’s joy. But her pleasure would be edged with pain because Iris would be reminded how empty her own private life was. Alice was being tactful, knowing that her delight would throw Iris’s misery into sharp relief.

Unlike her shapely friend, Iris was a big, chubby, plain young woman, highly conscious of her lack of appeal to the opposite sex. When a man had finally taken an interest in her, the relationship had ended in disaster. Iris had been badly wounded by the experience. As a result, a bubbling extrovert had been turned into a morose and fearful young woman. Out of consideration for her friend’s feelings, therefore, Alice decided to hold back her good news. She was not allowed to do it for long. In spite of her many faults, Iris had keen instincts.

‘Something’s happened, hasn’t it?’ she said.

‘No,’ replied Alice, ‘nothing in particular.’

‘You’re positively glowing.’

‘I spent the night at home, that’s all.’

‘Then it must be something to do with your brother. Has Paul been found?’ Alice shook her head. ‘You only ever go to see your mother when you have a good reason. What was it this time?’

‘It was nothing particular.’

‘You’re a terrible liar, Alice Marmion.’

‘No, I’m not.’

Iris snapped her fingers. ‘So that’s it!’ she said, face igniting. ‘You’ve twisted Joe’s arm and got him to set a date at last.’ Alice couldn’t resist beaming. ‘I’m right, aren’t I?’

‘Well …’

‘Oh, this is so exciting!’ said Iris, stopping to embrace her friend. ‘When is it? What are you going to wear? How many bridesmaids will you have? You’re going to invite me, aren’t you? Will you and Joe have a proper honeymoon?’

The questions eventually gave way to envy and regret. Happy for her friend, Iris was depressed by her own situation. They walked on in silence for several minutes. Alice could sense that Iris was suffering. Wanting to cheer her friend up, she couldn’t think of a way to do it. Iris suddenly broke the silence.

‘I never told you what happened between Doug and me, did I?’

‘It’s none of my business, Iris.’

‘I’ve kept it bottled up all this time.’

‘You were hurt,’ said Alice. ‘That was obvious. The last thing you needed was someone trying to pry.’

‘I closed down,’ admitted Iris. ‘I was so ashamed that I didn’t want to talk about it to anyone. Can you understand that?’

‘Yes, I can.’

‘But I’m wondering if it was a mistake.’

‘Only you can decide that.’

‘After that last evening with Doug, I was badly bruised. I kept blaming myself for … what he did. But the bruises are slowly disappearing now. I’m getting over it.’

‘That’s good to hear.’

Iris came to a halt. ‘Do you mind if I talk about it now?’

Alice could see the mingled fear and embarrassment in her eyes.

‘Perhaps you should,’ she said.

 

Superintendent Chatfield had already released a statement to the press and reporters were now baying for detail. He was therefore pleased when Keedy returned from the hotel to pass on the information that he had gathered there. In spite of his reputation for impatience, Chatfield was a good listener, waiting until the sergeant had finished before making any comment.

‘You’ve done well,’ he said.

‘Thank you, sir,’ said Keedy.

‘The only things you haven’t provided are names of possible suspects.’

‘It’s too early to do that.’

‘A member of staff has to have helped.’

‘I agree, sir, but that person doesn’t necessarily have to be still working at the Lotus. It could be a disgruntled employee who left under a cloud.’

‘Good thinking.’

‘I had a list of former members of staff from the manager.’

‘How many of them are there?’

‘Only four,’ said Keedy. ‘That tells you something about the place. It inspires loyalty. Most of the people who’ve worked there enjoy it enough to stay. Mrs Gosling is a case in point. She’s the mother hen of the hotel. According to her, none of the staff would do anything to cause problems for the Lotus.’

‘What did you make of the night porter?’

‘Rogan seems to be efficient enough, but I had a feeling that he was holding something back from me. He’d repay a second visit.’

‘Make it fairly soon,’ advised Chatfield, ‘and away from the hotel. You might get more out of him if he’s in his own home.’

‘That’s a good point, sir. When I questioned him, he always spoke as if afraid that the manager was listening as well.’

‘Is Mr Chell such a tyrant?’

‘He’s one of those people far too aware of their power, sir.’

Chatfield’s eyes flashed at the perceived criticism of him. Marmion and Keedy didn’t hide their view of the superintendent’s despotic inclinations. It was a constant irritation for Chatfield. Before he could chide the sergeant, however, he was interrupted by a knock on the door. He looked up as a uniformed officer entered.

‘Yes?’ he snapped.

‘Someone is insisting on seeing you, Superintendent,’ said the newcomer. ‘It’s to do with the murder at the Lotus Hotel.’

‘Then he’ll have to wait until I’m ready.’

‘I’m not waiting for anybody,’ said an angry voice.

And a big, handsome, middle-aged woman in a tweed coat, skirt and hat stormed into the room and confronted Chatfield. She adjusted her monocle so that one gimlet eye focused on him.

‘I am Griselda Fleetwood,’ she declared.

‘And what’s your interest in the Lotus Hotel?’ he asked.

‘I own it.’

 

Living and working in the capital had spoilt Marmion. When he had no access to a police car, he knew that he could always summon a taxi. Assuming that he’d be able to do the same in Didcot, he had a rude awakening. All that the town offered him by way of transport was a horse and trap. Inevitably, it was a slower and less comfortable means of travel, but he had no choice. Clambering up beside the driver, a pimply youth with a mouth permanently agape, he gave directions then put a hand quickly to his hat as a gust of wind threatened to dislodge it. There was an immediate problem. While the driver had heard of Elmstead Manor, he’d never been to the house before and was not quite sure how to get there. The journey was therefore punctuated by occasional stops to ask directions from random people. On the ordnance map that Marmion had consulted beforehand, it had looked fairly close to East Hagbourne, a village within easy driving distance of Didcot, yet in reality Elmstead Manor turned out to be farther than anticipated. Marmion began to despair of ever reaching his destination. His eye then fell on a fingerpost.

‘Stop!’ he yelled.

‘Why?’ asked the driver, hauling on the reins.

‘We’ve just passed a sign to the house.’

‘I didn’t see it, sir.’

‘Well, I did. Turn round and go back.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘And be quick about it, please.’

‘Very good, sir.’

Tugging on the reins, the driver did as he was told. When the trap was eventually pointing in the right direction, they found themselves bouncing and swaying along a rutted track. Autumn leaves rustled on either side of them as they rode through an avenue of trees. Marmion got his first fleeting glimpse of the house through the branches of an old oak. It was a large, rambling, half-timbered Tudor building set in broad acres of parkland. The track soon opened out into a wider drive, giving them a clearer view of the manor. As he studied it, Marmion’s hopes of finding Lady Brice-Cadmore there began to fade very quickly. Something warned him to brace himself for disappointment. His journey could be in vain.

The trap pulled up in front of the house and he got down onto the gravel. As Marmion approached the front door, it opened before him and a manservant came out to greet him.

‘Can I help you, sir?’ he asked.

‘Yes,’ said Marmion. ‘I’ve come in search of Lady Brice-Cadmore.’

The man was taken aback. ‘There must be some mistake.’

‘I can assure you that there isn’t. I’m Inspector Marmion of Scotland Yard and I’m here in connection with a crime that was committed in the Lotus Hotel in London. Until last night, Lady Brice-Cadmore was a guest there.’

‘That’s impossible, Inspector.’

‘I’ve seen her signature in the hotel register.’

‘I very much doubt that, sir.’

‘Isn’t her ladyship at home?’

The man’s voice lowered to a whisper. ‘No, she isn’t.’

‘Then can you suggest where I might find her?’

‘Did you come through East Hagbourne, sir?’

‘Yes, we did.’

‘Then you passed the parish church of St Andrew,’ said the man, solemnly. ‘Lady Brice-Cadmore was laid to rest there three years ago.’

CHAPTER SIX

Keedy and Chatfield took time to acclimatise themselves to their unexpected visitor. When she’d first burst into the room, she dazzled them. There was a potency about her that was almost intimidating. Chatfield offered her a seat with exaggerated politeness as if in the presence of minor royalty. Keedy, meanwhile, was marvelling at her compound of power, determination and good breeding. Neither of them had met anyone quite like Griselda Fleetwood before. Her manner was haughty, her tone peremptory.

‘I’ve just come from the hotel,’ she said, ‘and was told that an Inspector Marmion was in charge of the case. He is not available, it seems, so I was advised to speak to Superintendent Chatfield.’

‘That’s me,’ he said before indicating Keedy. ‘And this is Sergeant Keedy, who is also working on the investigation.’

‘The manager mentioned you,’ she said, eyeing Keedy with clear disapproval. ‘He found your questioning intrusive.’

‘That’s in the nature of a murder inquiry, madam,’ explained Keedy. ‘We had to probe deeply in order to build up a detailed picture of how your hotel operates.’

‘Mr Chell could have told you that. He didn’t see the need for a cross-examination of each one of our guests, and nor do I. When they stay at the Lotus, they rely on us to protect them from any interference. You broke the contract we have with our patrons, Sergeant.’

‘With respect, Mrs Fleetwood, it was the killer who did that. Had there been no crime on the premises, Inspector Marmion and I would never have been to the hotel.’

‘Don’t quibble, young man.’

‘My detectives are known for their meticulousness,’ said Chatfield, trying to establish his authority, ‘and they followed recognised procedure. It has already produced results.’

He went on to describe the steps that had been taken, the evidence gathered and how he’d given the press a description of the murder victim so that an appeal for information could be made to the public. Chatfield felt certain that they would soon have the name of the unknown woman found dead at the hotel. What he couldn’t guarantee, he admitted, was a quick solution to the crime because they had, as yet, no definite suspects.

‘One of them must be employed at the hotel,’ said Keedy.

‘I was just about to say that,’ added Chatfield, treating him to a glare. ‘Inside help was vital to the killer, Mrs Fleetwood.’

‘Well, it didn’t come from any member of my staff,’ she asserted.

‘I beg to differ.’

‘The people we employ are above reproach.’

‘Then perhaps you can suggest who did commit this murder.’

‘That’s exactly why I’m here, Superintendent. Your men are clearly looking in the wrong direction. The Lotus is not like other hotels. It has unique qualities that sets it apart. We cater for ladies of high society who – when they visit London – prefer to stay in a place that offers an essentially feminine atmosphere. There’s no political significance in that,’ she stressed. ‘The Lotus is not a suffragette citadel. Indeed, our guests deplore the activities of those desperate women who caused so much wanton damage in the name of equality.’

‘To be fair,’ said Keedy, ‘the suffragettes have abandoned their campaign for the duration of the war.’

‘That’s immaterial. They continue to bring shame on our sex.’

‘I agree,’ said Chatfield, jumping in before Keedy could say anything else. ‘But – if you would, please – I’d like you to justify your claim that we’re looking in the wrong direction.’

‘Your detectives are unaware of our record of success.’

‘That’s not true,’ argued Keedy. ‘The manager boasted of it.’

‘Yes, but he didn’t tell you what the consequences have been. Success always invites envy,’ she said, ‘and that has so far been confined to sniping at us in the newspapers. When that failed to dent our popularity, our rivals resorted to nastier methods. This latest outrage is the culmination of a sophisticated battle that’s being waged against us.’

‘What are you telling us, Mrs Fleetwood?’ asked Chatfield.

‘The murder took place at our hotel for a reason.’

‘And what was that reason?’

‘Sabotage.’

 

Alice Marmion was horrified at the story she heard. It took a long time for the full details to emerge because they were on duty and had to deal with a number of minor incidents as they strolled side by side around their beat. There was also the problem of Iris’s sense of shame. It meant that her account was halting and apologetic. Alice was roused.

‘Stop doing that!’ she said, coming to an abrupt halt. ‘None of this was your fault, Iris. He must take full responsibility.’

‘Without realising it, I must have led him on.’

‘That’s nonsense.’

‘I simply can’t believe that Doug would have done that unless I’d given him … the wrong signals.’

‘Stop taking his part,’ said Alice, vehemently. ‘You’re the victim, not PC Beckett. When you escaped from his clutches, you should have reported him.’

Iris shuddered. ‘Oh, I couldn’t do that.’

‘Why not?’

‘I felt so guilty,’ said the other, ‘and so stupid. Because Doug was that much older than me, I thought that I was completely safe. I now see that I trusted him far too much.’

‘It’s not too late to make him pay for what he did.’

‘I’m too frightened to do that.’

‘Do you want him to get away with it?’ asked Alice. ‘If you hadn’t stopped him, he’d have …’

‘Don’t say that word. I can’t believe that Doug would have gone all the way. He’s a policeman whose job is to help people.’

‘Well, he certainly wasn’t trying to help you that night.’