Unforgettable, p.23

Unforgettable, page 23

 

Unforgettable
 


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  If it was true there could be deeper connotations. Mary Rawling’s scrap of blackmail note had stated that Ch— was known about. Ch— must surely have been the Chester in the photo. A man living as a woman would want his secret kept at all costs. Dorrie could imagine Esther Mitchelmore being the sort of person unafraid to take a gun to a pair of cold-hearted blackmailers, but the killer had been a paid thug. That didn’t seem Esther’s way somehow. Could it be Honoria’s? Seeing things as she now did, Dorrie saw that Honoria was staunchly protective of her sister. Honoria was known to have mixed in unsavoury circles. She could be a very dangerous woman.

  If all these terrible conjectures were right then it would be a terrible thing to allow Camilla – always on the outlook for society tittle-tattle – to meet Esther Mitchelmore and Honoria Sanders.

  Thirty-Two

  Dorrie made her way to Sawle House, her tummy burning with sickly acid, keeping her ears as sharp as Corky’s for danger, and her nerves stinging as if attacked by a swarm of wasps. She felt she was about to dangle herself on the edge of a precipice. She was en route to see Honoria Sanders and she must be vitally careful how she broached ‘the matter’ with her.

  As fate would have it Honoria was walking away from her high wooden gates, striding out in slacks and brogues, silk headscarf, white-blonde curly fringe and pouting scarlet lips. She had a Morris Eight but loved to walk.

  ‘Hello Dorrie,’ she waved. ‘Isn’t it a lovely day? I love all these scrummy yellow and brown leaves blown about everywhere, don’t you?’

  Dorrie enjoyed crunching through dry late autumn leaves and hearing them crackling underfoot but today the sweeps of leaves alongside the bottom of the hedgerows were soggy from the recent downpour of rain and she was watching her step.

  ‘Hello Honoria, I’ve set out to see you actually.’ Dorrie forced her reply out cheerily – after all, she could be facing a murderess.

  ‘How nice. Shall we walk together? Along here – I so love being in among the trees, especially those around Merrivale.’

  ‘You do?’ Dorrie knew stabs of alarm.

  ‘Why, of course, and I know why you’ve come to see me.’

  Honoria’s usually warm eyes narrowed to slits sparking with malice.

  Dorrie tried to turn and run but her feet felt iced to the ground. Her heartbeat thundered as if it would explode against her ribs.

  From her coat pocket Honoria whipped out a handgun and shot Dorrie cleanly between the eyes.

  Dorrie awoke with a loud cry, slapping her hand up to the chillingly real piercing pain in her forehead. Wiping the perspiration off her face and neck she reached, trembling, to sip from a glass of water. A previous nightmare had featured Esther shooting her dead in a busy Faith’s Fare, after curling up her lip and screaming at her, ‘Traitor! I thought you were my friend.’

  ‘I am your friend, Esther,’ Dorrie had whispered through the night, while gripped with the horror of her dreamt death. ‘That’s why I’m seriously considering getting a warning to you somehow. If the world, through Camilla, was to find out you are really a man, your life would become unbearable. You’d be hounded out of everywhere you go. You would probably go to prison for tricking Sedgewick Mitchelmore into a sham marriage and inheriting his estate.’

  Now, having suffered a second nightmare, Dorrie knew she must steel herself and go ahead and try to save her friend from unimaginable torment – Esther could be thrown into a male prison.

  Putting aside the possibility of endangering herself (her suspicions might be wrong after all – and she hoped they were) she was sure it would be best not to approach Esther but Honoria, in a roundabout way using natural chit-chat; Dorrie now saw Honoria as the driving force between the sisters. The following mid-morning she set off for Sawle House.

  Honoria’s long-serving maid-of-all-work showed her into the spacious, rather sumptuous and sensually endowed drawing room. ‘I’ll fetch Madam down from upstairs. We’ve been packing for her long winter trip.’

  ‘Thank you, Letty. So you’re wintering in sunnier climes? I know Mrs Sanders finds English winters wet and dismal.’ There was always a sense of pleasure within Honoria’s home and Dorrie felt soothed. Surely she had been letting her imagination run away; surely her presumptions about both sisters were absurd.

  In a wrap of sultry perfume Honoria entered the drawing room. Every muscle in Dorrie’s body tensed. Honoria was wearing the exact same clothes as in her nightmare. Dorrie slapped on her friendliest smile. ‘I’m sorry to interrupt you, Honoria. You see, I’m feeling at a loose end . . .’

  ‘Darling Dorrie, you could never be an interruption,’ Honoria purred effusively, kissing Dorrie heartily on both cheeks then folding her in a warm hug. Dorrie felt crushed by her friend’s heaving bosom. Bracelets jangled on both of Honoria’s wrists. Dorrie laughed as she always did at these times but the embrace today unnerved her. ‘Letty can carry on without me. I only get in her way really and she’s sweet enough to tolerate me. She’s my absolute treasure.

  ‘Let’s have a large drop of rum to clear the tubes, just the ticket for these colder days. My second husband, or was it my third, was a great believer in it warding off the evils of colds and ’flu. So you’re feeling a bit low, poor darling. Has it something to do with the recent stay of your sister-in-law? I’ve heard via the jungle drums that she’s a bit of a nightmare.’

  The last word, apt to the present situation, unsettled Dorrie but Honoria had offered the ideal opening. ‘You’re correct on both counts actually. I do find Camilla very trying.’ While sipping the rum, the exotic smell and taste of the strong nectar giving welcome warmth to her shaky insides, Dorrie sat on the end of one sumptuously plump sofa next to the crackling grate. Honoria lounged like some smouldering screen siren, her feet in fluffy slippers, on the sofa opposite.

  Dorrie gave an account of Camilla’s views of Verity’s future, Jack and the wedding. ‘It was such a relief that she’s leaving the arrangements to us, although I have the sneaking suspicion that when we get nearer the date Camilla will come down and interfere with everything. When I mentioned as much to Verity, she scoffed and said her mother had just better not dare do any such thing. I suppose I’m just being silly but I do want Verity to have the perfect day.’

  ‘You’re never silly, Dorrie. You’re a brick and the most wonderful person. Thank God Verity had you and Greg to turn to when her parents threw her out. In my opinion parents should accept their children exactly as they are and support them through thick and thin.’ Dorrie felt that last was said with feeling. ‘Just make it clear to the old bat that every arrangement made is set in stone and non-negotiable.’

  ‘Well, I could do but I’m not sure I have the right. Verity is not my daughter.’

  ‘You’ve been her mother for the last few months and this Camilla has gladly left the wedding schedule to all of you here, so of course you’ve got the right.’ Smoking from a jet cigarette holder, Honoria grinned catlike, with relish. ‘Put the bitch thoroughly in her place. I would. You try to, Dorrie, go on, I dare you.’

  Dorrie smiled at the other woman’s mischievous expression. ‘Verity will have the wedding she wants, I swear on that. You’ve encouraged me; I always get a lift from you, Honoria.’

  ‘It’s what friends and neighbours are for. Another tot of rum, darling?’

  ‘Just a tot, please.’ While Honoria was reaching for the rum decanter, Dorrie plunged in. ‘Actually, Camilla said that during the war she was with friends in the Dorchester and one of them knew you, mentioned something about you and a relative – um, Chester, I think it was. I can’t say I recall you or Esther mentioning a Chester. Camilla is a prying woman, if she were here she’d question you like a dog gnawing at a bone. I hope I’m not speaking out of turn – I thought perhaps you and Esther might have suffered a sad loss . . .’

  Honoria passed over Dorrie’s replenished glass, looking strangely solemn and very sad. She was silent for a while. Dorrie could see she was chewing over somethi
ng in her mind. Honoria exhaled so deeply Dorrie grew anxious she would pass out, and on that melancholy sigh Dorrie knew she had nothing to fear from her friend.

  Honoria shook her head resignedly. ‘I knew this day would come, but at least I know I can trust you, Dorrie. I’m going to reveal something to you that I trust you to take to the grave. There was a Chester. He wasn’t a blood relative. He was Esther’s first husband, and quite frankly, he was an evil bastard. It’s to my lasting sorrow that I introduced him into Esther’s life; he was my lover and when things between us fizzled out he swept poor Esther, who had fallen for him, off her feet. Our parents adored him, he had such charm, and they called him the son they had always hoped for.

  ‘I didn’t know for years he was cruel and controlling to Esther, and that he was free with his fists. She put a brave face on things and he was very careful not to leave a visible mark on her. Poor Esther thought if she bore him a son he’d change and respect her but when she had finally conceived he beat her in one of his drunken rages. It brought on a late miscarriage. She was nearly seven months along, and not only did she lose the child she also lost her womb and nearly her life. It left her terribly physically and emotionally scarred. Now she can’t stand the thought of anyone seeing her disfigured body.

  ‘She came to her senses and came to live with me. It was a relief when Chester was killed in a motor accident some months later. It meant dear Esther didn’t have to go through the trauma and indignity of a divorce. You can understand why he has never been mentioned. Esther had quite successfully shut that part of her past out of her mind. Then she met Sedgewick Mitchelmore and made a new life for herself. As you can imagine, Dorrie, I’d do anything – anything – to stop her being hurt in any way again.’

  ‘Oh yes, absolutely, Honoria, because Greg and I feel the same away about our family members, and you have my word that this confidence will never pass from my lips. I’ve forgotten about it already.’ Dorrie downed the last of her rum, angry with herself. How on earth could she have thought Esther was really a man? Dorrie might be the reliable, down-to-earth one in her family but she had also been more than a little shameful . . . But there was the matter of whether Honoria had paid a thug to kill the two young blackmailers for Esther’s sake. She would think it all through on the walk home. ‘Tell me, dear, where are you off to for the winter?’

  Thirty-Three

  Finn had a visitor. ‘Your mum said it was all right to come up. See you’re drawing again and got the baby with you.’ Sam stood awkwardly in the doorway, gazing at Finn who was on his bed, back against the pillows and headboard, sketching Eloise who was perched against his drawn-up knees. Sam never knew how to take Finn nowadays. Finn had not been to The Orchards for ages and he no longer asked after his parents – well, his mother – as he used to. Sam felt he must have offended Finn but Sam didn’t know what he had done.

  ‘Looks like it, doesn’t it? Sit down then, don’t dawdle in the bloody doorway,’ Finn grunted. As it happened he didn’t have any issues with Sam but he preferred, when he had the time, to be with Eloise and to have her all to himself. It was going to be a horrible wrench leaving her throughout most of each week when he started at the art academy.

  ‘I’ve managed to get hold of a couple bottles of Coca Cola,’ Sam said, flopping down in the tub chair, which was liberally covered with Finn’s cast-off clothes. ‘It’s handy out on the rounds, you can swap anything for some extra fruit or veg.’

  ‘Great,’ Finn said, reaching out a hand for the opened drink without tearing his eyes away from his sketch of Eloise shaking her rattle. She made a grab for the bottle. ‘No, no, sweetheart, you can’t have this. You finish off your own bottle.’ Tucking Eloise into the crook of his arm he put her bottle of diluted rose-hip syrup to her eager lips. All three in the bedroom glugged down the drink in their own bottles.

  ‘I got these as well.’ Sam thrust back his shoulders in pride as he threw three little packets on the bed.

  Finn picked them up. ‘Rubber johnnies! What do you want those for?’ He was suddenly contentious. ‘You better not be hoping to get fresh with Jenna. She’s a decent girl.’

  ‘Course not!’ Sam coloured in guilt but hoped Finn would think he was merely embarrassed. He gathered up his trophies. Jenna was refusing a repeat of their love-making unless they got engaged, but Sam only wanted some fun and sex now, not his future mapped out for him. ‘I’m thinking of looking around, and hopefully the johnnies will come in useful.’

  ‘Things fizzling out between you and Jenna then?’ Finn looked Sam steadily in the eyes. ‘Tilly says Jenna’s been quiet about you lately.’

  ‘I like Jenna, but she’s just my first girlfriend. I’m not ready to settle down yet,’ Sam said, mildly desperate. ‘You do understand, Finn? Can you say something, please? You look like a ruddy judge.’

  ‘Have you told her?’

  ‘I’ve been trying to but I don’t want to hurt her. She’s a lovely girl but not the girl for me.’

  ‘She’s going to be hurt, can’t be no other way, but she’ll be more hurt if you keep her wriggling on a line. You chased after her, not the other way round, and you owe it to her to tell her properly and clearly. You’re doing nothing now, why not get over to By The Way and speak to her privately. Don’t be a bastard and keep her hanging on. Girls hope for more than us.’

  ‘But it’s Saturday, all the kids will be home from school and Denny tends to be in the yard. Jean will invite me inside and I’ll be surrounded by Vercoes.’ Sam cursed himself for it gushed out of him as a pathetic wail.

  ‘Are you a man or a mouse?’ Finn growled, dumping his drink down with force. ‘Or a chicken-hearted ninny or a nasty bastard?’ Like your shitty father.

  ‘All right, I’m going.’ Sam sprang up and scooted for the door. ‘See you.’

  Sam wasn’t sure if he would try to see Finn again. His parents had for some reason turned against Finn, murmuring that he wasn’t what he seemed. Sam decided he had no clue as to what Finn was really like; he was not a good friend to him anyway, that was certain. Finn was surly and confrontational. It was time to break with him too.

  As Sam clattered down the stairs, Finn cuddled Eloise, delighting in her making bubbles on her rosebud lips. ‘Hopefully that’s the last we’ll see of that crummy idiot.’

  ‘Come down here, old girl – you too, Verity!’ Greg bawled excitedly up the stairs.

  ‘We’re busy, Greg,’ Dorrie called down from the landing. ‘Verity is about to try on the wedding dress. I take it your exuberance has something to do with the phone call just now?’

  Greg pounded up the stairs like a man half his age. ‘Certainly was. That was a reporter I was speaking to, not one from the local rags but a top national. They’ve got word of how quickly the community here rallied together and built the new hall. They want to cover it, come down with a photographer and make a big thing of it as an encouragement to the whole country. They want to interview the main organizers and speak to the children who will officially open the hall. Said if we want to rethink it they could organize a VIP to help open the hall. They suggested a member of the Guinea Pig Club, a badly burnt war hero, as we’re not interested in dignitaries and film stars. Just think of that, what an honour! What’s the betting the next phone call will be from the venerable Mistress of the Manor organizing an urgent committee meeting?’

  Greg was right in a way. The telephone rang almost immediately from Petherton but it was from Honoria, not Esther. She asked to speak to Dorrie.

  ‘Dorrie, I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news. Esther hasn’t been well for the last few days. She’s been having terrible stomach pains and I’ve been staying with her. She collapsed this morning. I’m so worried I’m driving her up to Harley Street without delay. Somebody or other rang a little while ago about the village hall but I fielded him over to Greg’s capable hands. Sorry I can’t stay and chat, have to get on. I’ll ring you from London.’

  Before Dorrie could say how sorry she wa
s about the news, Honoria said goodbye and cut off the call.

  ‘Problems?’ Greg asked.

  ‘What is it, Aunt Dor?’ Verity said. ‘You look upset.’

  ‘I’m taken aback. That was Honoria. It seems Mrs Mitchelmore is seriously ill and Honoria is about to take her up to London to see a top specialist,’ Dorrie explained. She wasn’t really surprised. She was pretty certain this sudden onset of illness of Esther’s, who hadn’t been seen out and about for a while, was a cover story. Through Dorrie’s disclosure to Honoria, she was being faced with the prospect of her first marriage becoming known. Esther would be invited to Verity and Jack’s wedding, and if not before, she would be bound to meet Camilla who might spill the beans. But why be so worried about it? From a scrap of paper, two people had apparently somehow discovered ‘the truth about Chester’, had tried blackmail and had been put to death for it – the most extreme measures for Esther or Honoria or both of them to take (if they really had) over a case of domestic violence? Esther had been a widow when she married Sedgewick Mitchelmore, all decent and above board; no bigamy. It would be painful but not crushingly humiliating to become known as a battered wife. But Esther had suffered an even more painful event. One of the most excruciatingly painful things to happen to a woman, Dorrie knew, was to lose her child. Esther’s husband had viciously beaten her child out of her body. She might have been able to live with her husband beating her but perhaps not with him being responsible for the death of her child. Could Esther have wanted revenge? It was understandable. Could she have killed Chester by design or perhaps unintentionally in heartbreak or temper? Had Chester really died in a motorbike crash? Had the crash been faked? Dorrie would never know for certain; she had no intention of looking into the man’s death. She might have been silly in believing Esther was really a man, but she felt it was not fanciful to wonder if the facts pointed to Neville Stevens, a sneak thief, discovering some sort of evidence that Esther had murdered Chester. That he had told his lover Mary Rawling, that together they had made a blackmail bid, all leading to Honoria, through her dubious connections, to hire a professional assassin. It seemed a likely explanation to Dorrie for the manner of the couple’s deaths, rather than them falling foul of a black-market gang.

 
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