Melrose was more than halfway through Polly Praed’s latest novel, Three Dead Canaries, and had yet to spot a canary, living or dead. Perhaps Polly meant canary to be a hardboiled allusion to singing, as in someone who provided information to the police? Given more bodies had piled up in 190 pages than in the last act of Hamlet, it could prove quite the challenge to pick out the three referred to in the title. Then again, perhaps the title was an homage of a kind to John D. MacDonald’s series about Travis McGee, where there might or might not be A Long Lavender Look in the story.
Or possibly Melrose was giving Polly entirely too much credit and she had simply had her cat pick slips of paper out of a bowl to come up with a title.
He held his place with a thumb for a moment to enjoy some tea, count the number of fairy cakes left on the plate—blessedly down to two—and check the progress of Agatha’s plans for their winter holiday. Melrose had no intention of going anywhere with her on holiday but he liked to know where her thought processes were headed.
“…and then Teddy told me about this place called the Seashells that might be just the thing…”
The Seashells? “The Seychelles?” Furthermore, what had become of Majorca and Santorini before that? Did Agatha see them venturing out on an around the world journey the likes of which would make Phineas Fogg’s head spin? “They have pirates.”
“Who has pirates?” Agatha paused with a fairy cake halfway to her mouth to fix him with a quizzical look. This was made all the more dramatic by her use of a lorgnette, remarkably like the one Marshall Trueblood said had gone missing from his shop.
“The Seychelles. Over from Somalia. Did you pay Trueblood for those?” He indicated the lorgnette.
“Why should I pay that person for property I already own? These were a gift from your dear mother.”
Melrose doubted that very much. If Trueblood couldn’t keep better track of his inventory, however, that was his problem. Polly Praed could write the matter up as The Five Missing Fairy Cakes. When wickedly clever Inspector Pritchard (Pritchard = Richard?) finally assembled all the pieces of the puzzle, only then would it be revealed that all the mayhem was because somebody’d nicked a lorgnette that once belonged to Lady Emma Hamilton. Killers and victims alike would all have the madcap idea that Nelson’s secret plans to surrender to Napoleon at Trafalgar were tucked into the hollowed out ivory handle. All of Polly’s books took a sinister, conspiratorial tack lately, with Illuminati and menacing clergyman lurking around every corner. Any day now he expected her to have Inspector Pritchard reveal secret wizardly powers. Or would he turn out to be a vampire? Whatever the case, missing fairy cakes would likely feature no more prominently than dead canaries in the current book.
He decided he could stand the suspense a little longer and shut the book. Besides, he spied Ruthven headed his way and anticipated a rescue from Agatha was at hand.
“It’s the gentleman about the dog, sir,” said Ruthven, with his customary adroitness.
“The dog?” Agatha peered through her lorgnette at Mindy, stretched out before the fire and occasionally twitching to show she still lived. “Are you finally going to have that creature put down, Melrose?”
“No. But I’m considering it for you, Aunt.” Melrose left her to examine that comment and followed Ruthven to the telephone.
Richard Jury watched as Wiggins methodically assembled his days’ ration of arcane nostrums and anodynes. There was something almost soothing in the regular, never hurried, rhythms in which Wiggins laid out his collection of cure-alls. He sometimes wondered where his sergeant came by such obscure items. He had an image of Wiggins making his way along twisting alleyways in a forgotten corner of London until he reached some eldritch, dusty shop where an ancient and gnome-like apothecary, ensconced there since the days of the first Elizabeth, would painstakingly assemble Wiggins’ order eye of newt, tree moss, and spider web. Thus, any alteration in the ritual was of note.
“What’s that then?” Jury asked and indicated the additions.
“This here’s agrimony, sir. Good for sending negative energy back where it came from.” Wiggins pointed to the next item. “Hyssop’s for purification, and this dragon’s blood resin,” he picked up the vial with the kind of reverence someone else would reserve for a sacred relic, “this protects you against dark powers.”
“Dark powers.” Jury nodded. “Dare I ask who put you onto this?”
“Carole-anne. She’s got this book she’s loaned me, all about herbs and crystals and how they can fix up your chakras.”
Chakras, right. And of course Carole-anne would have a book like that.
“This is amethyst.” Wiggins held up a silver chain with a Celtic knot pendant, set with a pebble of purple stone. “It’s good for warding off negative energy,” he said and slipped it over his head, the pendant tucked into his shirt.
“How is it for warding off Racer?” Jury asked and watched Wiggins ponder the question with all due gravity.
As if the utterance of the name had stirred something in the air, Jury watched as a coppery paw slid under the door of his office and groped around as though in search of some secret, hidden catch. If anyone could find such a thing, it would be Cyril.
Jury got up to open the door and let Cyril slip inside. He watched as Cyril jumped up on Wiggins’ desk to inspect the array of pots and vials. The cat’s upper lip curled back as he caught a whiff of something unusual and he pounced on the agrimony. Wiggins rescued his potions and put the cat back down the floor. Cyril promptly jumped back and proceeded to circumnavigate the office without setting paw to carpet, until he finally reached his desired destination. With a cocked-eared look around, Cyril curled up on top of a shelf near the door and proceeded to disappear, Cheshire Cat-like, behind the philodendron Fiona had placed there. Only the twitching tip of a tail betrayed him, and that was just barely visible from Jury’s vantage point.
“Jury!” Racer’s bellow preceded him into the office. “Macalvie wants you, can’t think why. Where the hell’s that cat? I saw it slither in here.”
As though Cyril would ever stoop to slither. Racer’s idée fixe about Cyril explained his setting foot in Richard Jury’s office, however. The more usual procedure would have been a demand that Richard present himself to his superior for a thorough dressing down before Racer happened to mention Brian Macalvie. Racer’s obsessive—and eternally thwarted—persecution of Cyril had, of late, been amped up as a result of Cyril’s own fascination with Racer’s hairpiece.
“What does Macalvie want? Sir.” Jury watched Cyril uncurl himself and stretch out as Racer paused right in front of the philodendron.
“To ask you to go dancing.” A look of primal unease crossed Racer’s features for a moment as though he sensed his jeopardy. “Deveraux case. Cornwall. Says you’re connected. Where’s that cat?”
The Deveraux case? Jury shared a look with Wiggins. “In Cornwall?” Jury was the very picture of innocence even as he watched Cyril inch forward just a microscopic fraction more, one paw extended.
Tone dire, Racer informed him, “Your friends are lying if they tell you you’re amusing, Jury.” As though sensing something, he whirled to look behind him, at the spot where Cyril had been ten seconds before. His mission accomplished, Cyril was already gone, his tail just slipping out the door and not a trace of him to be found as Racer cast a suspicious look all around the office and over Jury and Wiggins, too. “If I find you're harboring that creature, Jury,” he warned with ominous, if vague, intent. “Get onto Macalvie and see what he wants, then I want you on the Wu case,” he barked in conclusion as he strode through the door.
He couldn’t know the effect was ruined by Cyril having surreptitiously, and with admirable precision, knocked his handsome hairpiece ever so slightly askew. Jury trusted Cyril would be safely hidden away by the time Racer found a mirror.
“The Deveraux case, sir? Never thought there’d be a break in that one,” Wiggins said.
Jury had thought it unlikely, but where lesser policemen faltered Brian Macalvie forged on with a relentlessness that would have exhausted Inspector Javert.
As Jury had been on the Wu case for what seemed like forty years, and would likely be on it unto eternity, he pulled his phone over and checked his wristwatch as he dialed. If all Brian Macalvie wanted was a quick word, he could still be on the road to Ardry End before the forecasted Christmas storm of the century kicked into full gear.
On the other hand, when had Brian Macalvie ever just wanted a quick word?
“Wiggins,” he said as the phone rang on the other end, “give me some of that dragon’s blood.”
“Ruthven,” Melrose placed the phone back in its cradle, “pack my bag, would you? And please tell Martha there has been a slight change in plans.”
“Very good, sir.”
“I don’t have to ask you not to breathe a word to certain parties, of course?”
“Indeed not, sir. May one inquire if any special costume will be required?”
“Hmm? Oh, no; no agent provocateur role for me this time.” In fact, as it happened Richard hadn’t requested his presence at all. There was every possibility his presence would be viewed as a nuisance, in fact. Yet somehow he didn’t think so.
Richard had spoken lightly enough, telling him how Brian Macalvie had solved a three-year-old cold case they had worked together (sans Melrose), and wanted Richard to come along to Cornwall to be there for the grand finale. Macalvie, unlike others, had no other plans for Christmas, and a policeman’s lot is not a happy one. After all this time, however, Melrose believed he could pick up on the things Richard left unsaid, and his friend’s disappointment had come through loud and clear.
There was a degree of projection, granted. While Richard was no stranger to Ardry End throughout the year, there was something uniquely special about his coming to stay during the holidays. Maybe it was the sentiment and romance of the season. Melrose would have shied away from admitting that once, even to himself. Richard had changed that as well.
Struck by inspiration, Melrose resolved to follow through on it before he could lose his nerve. “Actually, Ruthven, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, could you and Martha pack a hamper that I can take with me?”
“No trouble at all, sir.”
“Thank you.” After all, just because Richard couldn’t come to Christmas didn’t mean that Melrose couldn’t bring Christmas to him.
Three years ago, Cassandra Deveraux’s body had been discovered at the foot of the grand staircase at Cliff House. Her neck had been broken and her skull fractured in the fall. There had been a number of bruises on her body that argued in favor of there having been in a struggle. It had been deemed equally feasible, however, that all of her injuries had been sustained when Cassandra fell down the stairs.
If she fell. Or was she pushed?
That had been the question Jury and Macalvie faced, and they had both inclined toward the belief that she had, indeed, been pushed to her death. With no conclusive evidence of murder, however, and with the prime suspects—Simon Deveraux, the (not very) grieving husband, and his estate manager and best friend since boyhood, Arthur Jenkins—falling all over themselves to provide alibis, the case had reached a stalemate.
Brian Macalvie, of course, did not recognize a stalemate and had bided his time. Quite by accident (not that Macalvie believed in those, either), a tidbit had fallen in his lap.
“I had this perp in for questioning, person of interest in another case, and he starts in about how everybody’s got a double out there.” Macalvie peered around the table at Jury, Melrose, and Wiggins as if daring them to endorse this patented nonsense. “Why he’d just run into Dottie Andrews up at Cliff House, he says, only it turned out he’d made a mistake. It was Mrs. Ashbrooke he’d met. Dead ringer for old Dottie, though.”
“All of this to encourage you to believe he hadn’t done the crime, it was his evil doppelganger?” Jury asked.
Macalvie nodded confirmation. He gave them all another look that challenged one of them to ask if he had fallen for this ruse. No one took the bait and he continued. “It got me thinking, though. You remember the Ashbrooke woman?” he asked Jury.
Jury did. Daphne Ashbrooke, born into a genteel family that had fallen on hard times, had nearly been another in a long line of women he looked back on with regret. Something lost and enigmatic woven about her, she had eluded him like a will-‘o’-the-wisp. If the case had developed more fully, he suspected he would have pursued her and tried to save her. The pattern was a familiar one by now. Too familiar, and rapidly losing its allure. The definition of insanity, Plant had pointed out to him once, was doing the same thing over and over with the expectation of a different outcome.
He glanced at Melrose, seated beside him in this snug corner of The Old Reliable, snug enough their shoulders kept bumping, and reminded himself that some surprises were good ones. Whatever had prompted his friend to leave the comfort of Ardry End and drive all the way out here, Jury was glad of the impulse.
“Dottie turned herself into Daphne?” Melrose said.
Macalvie nodded and told them the rest of it. How Dottie had worked up at Cliff House and fallen in love with Simon Deveraux, just the way it happened in all of her favorite novels. If plain Jane Eyre could land Mr. Rochester, surely Dottie Andrews could win Simon. What Dottie couldn’t know was that Simon had already given his heart away—to his boyhood friend, Arthur Jenkins.
“What about this Cassandra then, the wife?” said Wiggins. “She was a beard?”
They all stared at him. After a moment, Macalvie said, “I doubt anyone put it that way, but yes, for all intents and purposes. It was put to Simon that he’d better marry and produce an heir or the purse-strings would be cut. He went along with it, and the wife fired Dottie—something about catching Dottie trying on her things—and the last thing anyone hears about her is that she’s landed a job as cleaning woman in London.”
“For the real Daphne Ashbrooke?” Melrose asked. “Do we know what happened to her?”
“We can speculate. I found a friend of Mrs. Ashbrooke’s, the real one, who had an idea Daphne had just up and decided she needed a change in her life. She started disposing of all her property and there was talk of an around-the-world cruise, and the friend just assumed Daphne must have met someone and remarried and was living in Australia or somewhere now.”
“No one ever checked?” Jury said. “No one ever wondered what became of Dottie?”
“Why would they? It’s not a crime to sell off your property and take a cruise. And Dottie wasn’t someone you ever noticed or kept track of.”
Jury nodded, the whole setup, as Macalvie laid it out, as sad and pathetic as it was terrifying. A doppelganger, indeed, perhaps remarking on the coincidence of shared initials and then beginning to speculate and turn over the what-ifs until it became an obsession. Daphne Ashbrooke could win Simon Deveraux. She could be exactly the kind of heroine to win a Mr. Rochester or Max de Winter. All Dottie had to do was get people out of her way and transform herself.
After a little time had gone by, Dottie had presented herself at Cliff House, utterly transformed, and applying for the post of private secretary to Simon. She must have slipped up somewhere, though. Had Cassandra caught her mooning over Simon, or walked in to find Dottie playing dress-up with Cassandra’s clothes and jewels again? Had Cassandra vowed to fire her, but not before all her secrets came out? Had she taunted Dottie about her passion for Simon and told her why nothing would ever come of it, no matter who Dottie pretended to be?
It was easy enough to picture now. A fight, there at the top of the stairs, and perhaps murder had not been the intent. Perhaps Dottie had accidentally pushed Cassandra and sent her tumbling down the stairs. Perhaps she had hurried down to check if Cassandra still lived, and when she found a pulse Dottie picked up the nearest blunt object and bashed Cassandra’s head in to make sure.
“Still not a lot of evidence,” Jury pointed out.
“Enough,” Macalvie countered. “She’ll cave when we tell her what we know.”
Jury didn’t care for that ‘we,’ but found it rankled less with Melrose there. “Not the Christmas Eve I had in mind,” he murmured as he stood up and reached for his coat, his scarf falling to the floor.
“Come back after,” Melrose said. “Maybe we can salvage something.” He picked up Jury's scarf, dusted it, and wrapped it around Jury's neck. "What I'd like to know is why on earth Dottie would stay up at that house. It must be agonizing for her, now that she knows everything she did was in vain and this Simon will never be hers."
"Knowing and believing can be two very different things," Jury said as Melrose tucked the ends of his scarf into his coat.
"And romantic delusions can be the hardest to let go of," Melrose said, somethng thoughtful in his green eyes as he looked at Jury.
Jury nodded. "They can," he agreed. He knew a little something about that. “This shouldn’t take long,” he said and Melrose patted him on the shoulder in acknowledgment.
"Good; I drove through a blizzard to get here."
Jury smiled and raised no objection to the hyperbole.
Macalvie and Wiggins watched them curiously; Wiggins still puzzling something out while Macalvie had beaten everyone to the finish line again.
“Come on, Wiggins, you can ride with me. I’ll drive you to the train station after,” Macalvie said as they headed out the door.
Jury stood in the cold as snow swirled all around him, and watched Macalvie and Wiggins drive off into the night.
Everything had gone off as Macalvie predicted, and it was all just as sad as Jury had anticipated. Sometimes he wondered if he was in the right line of work, given how seldom he found any satisfaction in the solution of a case. When it was nothing but murder for the sake of it, that was one thing; it was gratifying to snap handcuffs on a killer like that and get them off the streets. Too often, though, he ran into cases like this one where so much could have been avoided, so many lives salvaged, if someone had just spoken up and told the truth when it counted.
Nothing good ever came of secrets. You were always found out in the end.
He exhaled a deep sigh and watched it turn to fog on the icy air. Face tilted up to the snow for a moment, he caught a glimpse of the window of his room here at the pub, and frowned. That window should have dark and empty. Instead it glowed with warmth and twinkling color.
Not sure what to expect, afraid to anticipate anything at all, Jury went inside and climbed the steps to the third floor. Light crept from underneath the door, too, and as he drew closer he could hear music; a quiet, jazz instrumental recordings of I’ll Be Home for Christmas. For the longest time, the holidays had been a source of dread for him. All of those reminders of home and family, someone to come home to, only highlighted everything he didn't have. Yet somewhere along the way that bleakness had lifted. Somewhere along the way he had discovered a place he belonged, a place he was welcomed. The only mystery was that it had taken him this long to figure that out.
Hand on the knob, an idea starting to form of what he would discover inside, Jury hesitated. He would have to learn a new pattern; a new way of doing this—and forever let go of the old. For an instant he wasn’t at all sure that he could. He wouldn’t have to do it by himself, though. That made a difference. And there would be an end to secrets—knowledge hidden so well he had barely ever glimpsed it himself, until tonight.
He wondered how long Melrose had known.
…I'll be home for Christmas,
If only in my dreams…
Not this year, he realized. Never again, he decided, and opened the door.
Melrose looked over as Richard Jury walked into the room and stood there just inside the door, taking it all in. He could imagine how it all looked through Richard’s eyes. There was the small Christmas tree, the only one Melrose could find at this late date that wasn’t completely pitiful, with its twinkling competing with the fire and candles to illuminate the cozy room. And there was the midnight feast spread out, picnic fashion, on a blanket on the floor.
He could imagine how it looked to Richard. He couldn’t tell what his friend thought about it.
Nervous, and out of things to fiddle with, Melrose said, “We’ve spent nearly every Christmas together since we met.”
Richard nodded and came closer. “I had noticed, actually.” He was still looking around the room, gray eyes too enigmatic for Melrose’s liking. “I didn’t know there were jazz Christmas albums.”
Melrose shrugged. He didn’t want to talk about music. “I couldn’t find one by Lou Reed.”
Richard smiled then, whether at him or the idea of a Lou Reed Christmas album, Melrose wasn’t sure. Not for about ten seconds, fifteen, twen—Yes, Richard had been smiling at him, Melrose realized as his friend stepped close and kissed him.
“I forgot to bring your present,” Melrose murmured.
Richard smiled. “No you didn’t,” he said, and kissed him some more.
Amazing, really, Melrose thought in a vague and hazy way as coherence slowly fled, how he and Richard had wanted the same thing for Christmas.