Hilda knocked gently on Evadne’s bedroom door.
“Evadne? Are you there?”
Evadne’s voice sounded somewhat harried. ”Yes! What is it, Hilda?”
Hilda opened the door. “I’m just off to the shops and I was wondering if you wanted to come along and— Good heavens.”
Evadne’s room was in complete disarray, with books, papers, letters, photographs and assorted knickknacks strewn everywhere.
Hilda pursed her lips. “Evadne. Have you been playing around with your tallboy?”
Evadne turned from where she was sorting through her chest of drawers and frowned. “I was trying to find my old scrapbooks, dear. The ones from the early part of our career.” She turned back and began rooting again. “I’ve been chatting with Mr. Butler about our days with the Rosa Charles company and I thought he might be interested in seeing them.” Evadne sighed. “He might be surprised to see I actually was once young and glamorous.”
“Well, young anyway…” Hilda murmured.
“Did you say something, dear?” said Evadne, looking over her shoulder.
“Oh, just agreeing with you,” said Hilda quickly. “I’m sure Mr. Butler would love to see the photographs of our opera days.” She looked wistful. “Me in the spotlight; you down in the pit…”
Evadne raised one eyebrow. “I did occasionally get out of the orchestra pit and have my picture taken too.”
“Of course you did, dear.” Hilda gestured at Evadne’s assorted belongings. “And I’m sure the scrapbooks will turn up eventually—you mustn’t get so wound up. Why don’t you leave all this for the moment and come to the shops with me?”
“No, I’d rather keep on, if you don’t mind,” said Evadne, turning back and beginning her search again. “I won’t be able to think of anything else until I’ve found them.”
“Well, all right, dear,” said Hilda. “I’ll see you later then.” She closed Evadne’s door and went downstairs to get ready to leave.
Turning out into the road, Hilda immediately saw a little van waiting to go up the drive.
“Well, speak of the devil!”
She slowed down and waved at the driver.
“Good morning, Mr. Butler!” She smiled and pointed back at the house. “You’ll find the Doctor at home. D’you know, she was just thinking about you—I’ve left her rummaging in her drawers.”
Mr. Butler raised his eyebrows. “Indeed, Dame Hilda?”
“Yes!” Hilda beamed. “I believe she was hoping to pull something out that might surprise you.”
Mr. Butler smiled weakly. “In point of fact, I have come for exactly the reverse reason: I have brought something to show the Doctor. Actually, I think you too, Dame Hilda, might wish—”
But Hilda cut him off with an apologetic gesture. “I’m afraid I’m just nipping down to the shops to top up the supplies.” She began moving off again. “But I’m sure the Doctor will tell me all about it later!”
And with another wave she was away.
After parking in the centre of Stackton, Hilda made for the butcher’s.
“Good morning, Mr. Ptolman,” she called cheerily.
Mr. Ptolman turned from where he was cutting up chops and carefully limped over to the counter.
“Mince!” declared Hilda.
Mr. Ptolman gave her a hesitant smile. “I beg your pardon?”
Hilda giggled. “Oh no, dear. Not you. I was just wondering if you recommend the mince today.” She gestured discreetly at Mr. Ptolman’s leg and lowered her voice. “I did notice you’re having a bit of trouble there though. An accident, was it?”
“Not exactly,” said Mr. Ptolman. “I foolishly turned out for the Ditherers last Sunday, and I was the victim of a rather aggressive tackle from a member of the opposing team.”
Hilda was vaguely studying the display of meat. “You know, I think I might push the boat out and get a leg of lamb.” She looked up at Mr. Ptolman. “Oh, how awful. No lasting damage I hope?”
“I’ve only got one leg left,” said Mr. Ptolman.
Hilda stared at him wide-eyed. “Good gracious—that was an aggressive tackle!”
Mr. Ptolman smiled weakly. “One leg of lamb, Dame Hilda.”
“Oh, I see!” Hilda laughed with relief. “I thought you meant…”
She gestured at Mr. Ptolman’s legs while he watched with bewilderment.
“Yes, well, it doesn’t matter,” said Hilda, pulling herself together. “I’ll take the leg of lamb, please.”
“Lovely.” Mr. Ptolman weighed the meat and began to package it up. “Anything else today?”
“No,” said Hilda, consulting her shopping list. “No, I don’t think so. I think that will be all.”
“So that’ll be £3.46, please,” said Mr. Ptolman.
“Put it on my account, will you, dear?” said Hilda, tucking the joint into her basket. “I’ll settle up at the end of the month as usual.”
Hilda looked up to see Mr. Ptolman looking somewhat embarrassed.
“Is… something wrong, Mr. Ptolman?” asked Hilda.
“It’s just…” Mr. Ptolman cleared his throat. “I would rather you paid immediately. If you don’t mind.”
Hilda stared at him for a moment. Then her expression cleared.
“Oh, I see!”
She leant forward and lowered her voice. “Cash flow problem, is it? I completely understand.” She got out her purse and opened it. “£3.46, I think you said it was?”
“Well, actually,” said Mr. Ptolman. “I was wondering…” He squared his shoulders. “I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind settling your entire account today. £20.68 in total.”
Hilda looked up at him, startled. “Well, if it’ll help you, dear.”
She reached into her handbag and brought out her chequebook.
“I would prefer cash, Dame Hilda,” said Mr. Ptolman, very flustered now.
“Cash?” Hilda frowned down into her purse. “I suppose I’ll have enough…”
She began counting out the money into his hand.
The next stop was the baker’s.
“A large white loaf, a small brown…” Hilda gazed at the array of cakes. “Oh, and four of those little blackcurrant tartlets! They look delicious.”
The lady assistant packaged everything up, and Hilda loaded them into her basket with the meat.
“Put them on our account, please. Is that all right?”
The assistant hesitated. “Well, if you wouldn’t mind… That is, maybe if you could...”
Hilda wrinkled her brow. “Not you as well? Having money problems I mean.”
The assistant looked down. “Something like that.”
“You’d like me to settle up for the month as well I take it?” asked Hilda. “And in cash?”
Still looking downwards, the assistant nodded and Hilda sighed at the contents of her purse.
The next stop had to be the post office.
Luckily there wasn’t a queue, and Hilda was able to go straight to the counter. She discreetly handed her pension book over to the postmaster and smiled awkwardly.
“I’m running a little short on cash. Thought I’d better pick up this week’s.”
The postmaster frowned down at the pension book, and then looked up to frown at Hilda.
“I wouldn’t have thought you’d need this,” he said. “Not with that big house of yours.”
Hilda raised her eyebrows. “I beg your pardon..?”
“I expect you and Doctor Hinge have quite a bit salted away, haven’t you?” said the postmaster.
Hilda straightened her shoulders. “Mr. Jenkins, I really don’t think our finances are any of your business.”
“I’m not so certain about that,” said the postmaster pointedly.
Hilda stared at him, and reached out to take her pension book back. “I think I might come back another time, Mr. Jenkins. When you’re feeling a little more pleasant.”
“If you like,” said the postmaster. And ignoring Hilda, gestured to the customer behind her to come forward.
Hilda stepped aside, feeling greatly unsettled.
“Evadne?” called Hilda from the kitchen. “I’ve had the strangest morning. Mr. Ptolman and the cake shop wanted paying immediately. In cash.”
She made her way into the living room.
“And then Mr. Jenkins was most unpleasant when I went to collect my pen— when I tried to withdraw some money. I don’t know what on earth is going on…”
Evadne was sitting on the settee studying a newspaper. She looked up at Hilda and held up the paper to show her. “I think this might explain things to you.”
Hilda settled herself down into her armchair. “That’s not the local paper, is it, dear?”
“No, it’s The Chronicle—Mr. Butler brought it round earlier. He thought there was something in it we should probably have a look at.” Evadne stood and brought the paper over to Hilda. “You’d better read it for yourself. It’s in the Arts section.”
Hilda cautiously took the paper and turned her attention to the article on the open page.
She abruptly smiled.
“Oh, but it’s about Rosa Charles! I thought it was going to be something terrible.” She gazed down at the page. “‘Though the once well-known opera company is sadly now defunct, this year marks one hundred years since its formation…’ Good heavens, how lovely to see it being remembered. I would have thought everyone would have forgotten about it by now.”
“If only…” muttered Evadne.
“I wonder if we’re mentioned,” said Hilda. “Oh, well, we must be!” She looked up at Evadne. “You’d think they would have come and interviewed us, wouldn’t you?”
Evadne sighed. “Just read it, Hilda.”
Hilda reached for her reading glasses and popped them on. “Now, let’s see… ‘Begun in 1885 by Miss Rosa Charles, a skilled professional.’ Well, she knew her way round a horn, of course...” Hilda scanned the page. “This looks more like it! ‘In the mid-fifties, after the owner Herbert Micklethwaite—the great-great nephew of Miss Charles—was incapacitated for several months…’” Hilda looked up. “Oh, yes—nasty accident that. I don’t think it ever hung straight again afterwards.”
“Eh?” said Evadne.
“The safety curtain at Crewe, dear. Mr. Micklethwaite grabbed it as he fell.”
Evadne looked thoughtful. “Oh, yes…”
Hilda continued reading. “...was incapacitated for several months, leading lady, Hilda Bracket—now Dame Hilda Bracket—and conductor-in-chief Doctor Evadne Hinge took over the running of the company temporarily and—”
Hilda stared at the page. “Oh.”
“Yes,” said Evadne. “Oh. Go on.”
“...and after financial irregularities came to light during a routine investigation by the Inland Revenue stood trial for theft and fraud. After the trial was abandoned due to a technicality—” Hilda glanced up briefly. “That was because they couldn’t fit your full name on the charge sheet.”
Evadne scowled. “Just go on, Hilda.”
“... due to a technicality, they attempted to recoup the missing money through multiple performances of Gilbert and Sullivan classics but eventually left the company under something of a cloud.” Hilda set down the paper. “No wonder no-one will give us credit. They all think we’re untrustworthy when it comes to money.”
Evadne came and collected the paper and sat down again, glaring at it. “I don’t understand how they could print something like this. I shall send in a letter of complaint immediately!”
Hilda shrugged. “Well, it is all true, dear. We can’t argue with any of the facts. At least they mentioned we were found innocent.”
“It’s mentioned that the trial was abandoned!” Evadne threw the paper down onto the settee. “This sort of thing travels like wildfire. Everyone in Stackton will know about it by now and they’ll all think we’re guilty!”
Hilda put away her glasses. “You mustn’t worry yourself, dear. I’m sure there’ll be a few days of fuss and then everyone will forget about it again.”
Evadne stared at her. “Hilda, you’ve come home early because shopkeepers we’ve known for years won’t offer us credit. Do you really believe it’s just going to blow over?”
“I’m sure no-one will really believe it once they’ve thought it over properly.” Hilda got up. “I’ll go and make us some lunch. We’ll feel better after.” She went over to Evadne and patted her on the arm. “Just give it a few days and things will be back to normal. You wait and see.”
After lunch they made their way over to the church hall for the monthly parish meeting. Where things proceeded much as usual.
“See?” whispered Hilda to Evadne as the meeting reached its end. “The vicar and Joan Shanks are treating us exactly the same as before. Nobody who knows us well will be swayed by that article for a minute.”
“I think you may be right,” whispered back Evadne.
They smiled at each other and began to gather their belongings together in preparation to leave.
The vicar cleared his throat. “We do have just one last item on the agenda, ladies.” He looked briefly and rather anxiously at Joan Shanks.
Hilda and Evadne paused.
“Oh, yes?” said Hilda.
The vicar hesitated.
“It has been brought to my attention that you and the Doctor have been our treasurers for some years now and we’ve never actually had a vote on it.” He smiled weakly. “So I thought this might be the time to make it official.”
“A vote now?” Evadne raised her eyebrows, and threw a quick glance at Hilda. “What curious timing, Donald.”
He gave a little embarrassed shrug. “It is just a formality.” He gestured round at them all. “So may I have any nominations..?”
Evadne gave him a very hard look. “I nominate Hilda.”
“And I nominate Evadne, of course,” said Hilda.
“Thank you, dear.” Evadne nodded at the vicar. “Shall we proceed to the vote then?”
Joan Shanks held up a hand. Or at least attempted to. Her cast impeded this action somewhat. “Wait a moment. I believe there is one last nomination..?”
“Oh, yes.” The vicar looked away. “I nominate Mrs. Shanks.”
Hilda and Evadne both turned to stare at him.
The vicar didn’t quite make eye contact. “Time for the vote. The usual rules apply—you may vote for yourself if you so desire.” He picked up a pen. “Votes for Doctor Hinge?”
Evadne resolutely held up her hand.
“One vote for Doctor Hinge,” said the vicar, making a note of it. He looked up. “Votes for Dame Hilda?”
Hilda raised her hand with dignity.
“One vote for Dame Hilda,” said the vicar. “And votes for Mrs. Shanks?”
Joan Shanks held up her uninjured arm.
“And that’s one vote for Mrs. Shanks.”
Evadne rolled her eyes. “Well, I think we could all have guessed we were going to end in this position.” She gave the vicar a pointed look. “I believe you have the deciding vote, Donald?”
“Yes. Yes, that’s right.” The vicar cleared his throat vigorously. “And I vote for… Mrs. Shanks.”
Joan Shanks beamed, while Evadne and Hilda stared at the vicar.
Evadne rose from the table. “Et tu, Donald?”
And without a backward glance, she stalked from the room. Hilda got up and hurried after her.
The vicar caught up with them just outside the hall. “Please, Dame Hilda! Doctor! You must see my point of view. I cannot afford even a hint of scandal when it comes to church funds. I believe in your innocence completely but—”
“Do you?” said Evadne icily. “It rather appears that you believe us to be guilty, like the rest of this town.” She turned to Hilda. “Come on, dear. We’re clearly not welcome here.”
“Ladies, please!” said the vicar.
But Evadne and Hilda strode away.
They walked back together into the centre of Stackton.
“The wretched man!” said Evadne. “I have never been so humiliated!”
“It was awful of Donald,” said Hilda. “When I think of all we’ve done for St. Oswald’s…” She sighed. “But don’t work yourself up so. It’s only been a couple of days. It will all sort itself out.”
Evadne glared at her. “So you keep saying. I find it very hard to believe though.” She threw up her hands. “We’ll be laughed at and talked about behind our backs wherever we go. We’re going to have to move!”
“Come on, dear. You’re being a little bit melodramatic.” They were in the midst of the shops now, and Hilda pointed towards the tea room. “Look, we’ll go and have a sit-down. A pot of tea and a nice cream cake, and you’ll be right as rain again.”
In the former Di Stefano's tea room, now known as Dodie’s Pantry, they were shown by a polite young waitress to a quiet table for two and left to study the menus.
“So what do you feel like?” asked Hilda. “A chocolate eclair?”
Evadne made an attempt to smile. “That does sound nice, I have to say.”
Hilda waved at the waitress to came over. “Two chocolate eclairs and a pot of tea for two, please. Thank you so much.”
The waitress left them and they sat in silence for a moment.
“Feeling any better, dear?” asked Hilda.
“Yes, I think so.” Evadne sighed. “I suppose I did overreact a little. Donald is within his rights to have anyone he likes as treasurer. And it has to be admitted that accounts aren’t my forte.” She winced. “As we found out at Rosa Charles.”
“Well, he could have gone about it in a better way,” said Hilda. “I mean, you’d think by now he’d know he could trust us.” She smiled up at the waitress who’d returned with a tray. “Thank you, dear.”
The waitress moved the cakes and tea things carefully from the tray to the table, and then stood hovering.
Hilda looked up at her. “I… think that’s all, dear. We don’t want to order anything more at the moment.”
The waitress looked embarrassed. “No, I’m supposed to ask you… Would you mind settling the bill now?”
Hilda’s smile became a little fixed. “The bill..?”
The waitress blushed. “Yes, if you don’t mind.”
Hilda’s smile had become completely frozen. “Why, of course not, dear.” She reached into her handbag for her purse. “£1.25 is it?”
She handed it over but the waitress continued to hover.
“People usually… add a tip?”
Hilda stared at her. “Of course.” And she handed over another coin.
The waitress left, and Hilda exploded. “Well, I have never..!”
“You see?” Evadne looked at her. “This is what it’s going to be like from now on.” She glanced over to where the manageress and the waitress were talking quietly together—the manageress looking at them with suspicion, the waitress looking embarrassed still.
Evadne turned back to Hilda. “I certainly hope it’s the management that came up with that idea. I can’t see Dodie and Courtney approving of their business treating loyal customers this way.”
“Well, yes,” said Hilda. “They more than anyone would know we couldn’t possibly be guilty of theft.”
Evadne leant forward. “You know, this has brought it home to me. We are going to do what we should have done at the time.” She brought her hand down on the table. “We are going to investigate the ‘financial irregularities’ ourselves!”
“After thirty years?” Hilda raised her eyebrows. “Anyway, wasn’t it all a mistake? We just weren’t very good with money, were we?”
Evadne inclined her head. “I agree neither of us was particularly adept at bookkeeping, and we were desperately moving money about trying to keep the company afloat.” She sighed. “But the police investigation did conclude money had gone missing.”
Evadne sat up straight and looked intently at Hilda.
“No, we’re going to do what we should have done at the time. Find out who the true thief was. And you know, Dodie and Courtney might be a very good place to start.”
“It’s very good of you to drive us to the station, Mr. Butler,” said Evadne, as Mr. Butler’s van made its sedate way towards the railway station. She gave an uncomfortable smile. “Foxfield’s Taxis were being a bit awkward about accepting us as customers.”
Mr. Butler looked across at Evadne in the passenger seat and nodded in acknowledgement. “It is my pleasure to assist, Doctor. And don’t worry—while you and Dame Hilda are away, I will keep an eye on the house, and on Sandy and Tiddles, of course.”
Hilda leant forward from the back seat. “I’ve left full instructions by Sandy’s bowl, Mr. Butler. Just as an aide-memoire.”
“Thank you, Dame Hilda.” Mr. Butler looked anxious for a moment. “I won’t have to clean out his bowl, will I? I don’t have much experience with fish.”
“Oh, no!” said Hilda. “We shall probably only be gone a few days. We’re just… visiting friends. From the old days.”
Hilda exchanged a quick look with Evadne. Evadne frowned at her, and there was a short silence in the van.
Mr. Butler cleared his throat. “I don’t know if I’m speaking out of turn, ladies…” He paused. “But I am of course aware there have been certain rumours going around the town recently. And…” He hesitated again.
“You wish to know if we’re actually guilty,” said Hilda.
“Hilda,” muttered Evadne.
Mr. Butler’s eyes were wide in the mirror. “No, indeed, Dame Hilda. I could never believe you and the Doctor were capable of dishonesty.” He turned a little to Evadne. “I was simply hoping that this… passing bit of unpleasantness isn’t the cause of your going away.”
“Well…” Evadne hesitated in her turn. “I will just say, Mr. Butler, that we are not running away. But there are perhaps matters that we can look into concerning our situation.”
Mr. Butler nodded. “I quite understand.”
He pulled into the station car park and brought the van to a halt. He regarded Evadne solemnly.
“I just want to say that you and Dame Hilda have my full support. And always will do, Doctor.”
Evadne smiled. “Thank you, Mr. Butler.”
On the train, Evadne finished stowing her suitcase above their seats. And then began work on stowing Hilda’s large suitcase, her small suitcase, her other small suitcase, her holdall and her vanity case.
Evadne sat down and caught her breath. “Great heavens, Hilda. You can’t possibly think you’re going to need all this just for a couple of days.”
Hilda tilted her head and gave a little shrug. “You never know. If you’re right, and Dodie and Courtney are able to tell us something… Well, then—this might be just the start of our investigations.”
“Yes…” Evadne looked thoughtful. “Yes, I suppose you're right, dear.”
“Though I can’t say I’m very hopeful they’ll know anything useful,” said Hilda. “I mean, I know Courtney worked in the company’s accounts department but he and Dodie left months before we took over the running of the company.”
“But they may still have noticed someone acting suspiciously—Dodie knew everyone.”
Evadne rummaged in her handbag, pulled out a folded sheet of paper and straightened it out.
“Dodie gave me directions over the phone on how to get to their B&B.” Evadne studied the notes she’d made. “It looks like it’s not that far from the hotel we stayed in last time—their friends’ place.” She looked up. “I don’t think we’ll have any trouble finding it.”
Hilda sighed. “Do we really have to stay with Dodie and Courtney? Can’t we just go back to the Grand?”
Evadne frowned at her. “We’ve told them we’re coming now—it will look dreadful if we go somewhere else. And they probably wouldn’t be so keen to help us in our investigations, if we did.”
Evadne folded up the directions and popped them back into her bag.
“I’m sure we can put up with them for a few days—just until we find out what we want to know.”
When they arrived at Westport Bay, they took a taxi to the B&B.
“Oh, look, Hilda,” said Evadne, as the car drew up outside the front door. “It really doesn’t look that bad.”
She leant over to pay the driver, and then both ladies stepped onto the pavement.
“It does look rather smart,” said Hilda. She turned towards the horizon, raising her hand to shield her eyes. “And it’s in a lovely position—wonderful seaview.”
“Of course…” Evadne gave Hilda a sideways glance. “...we haven’t seen the inside yet.”
“No…” sighed Hilda.
The driver came over to her. “I’ve got all of the bags out of the boot, and taken them up to the front door for you.”
Hilda beamed at him. “Thank you, dear.”
The man smiled politely. “All six bags.” He raised his eyebrows. “All six heavy bags.”
“Oh!” Hilda searched in her handbag and brought out a coin. She handed it over proudly. “There you are! There’s your tip, dear.”
The driver looked at it doubtfully.
Evadne sighed and dug in her own handbag. “And here’s the rest of it.” She passed over a coin of somewhat higher value, and the driver took it gratefully.
“Thank you, ladies! Enjoy your holiday.”
He got back in the car and drove off.
Hilda and Evadne approached the front door and rang the bell.
It was Dodie who answered the door. “Hilda! Evadne!” She held out her hands. “How wonderful to see you both!”
“Well, it’s lovely to be here,” smiled Hilda.
“Thank you for managing to fit us both in at short notice,” said Evadne.
“Oh, anything for old friends!” said Dodie. She gestured at their luggage. “I’ll just get Courtney to bring that in for you.” She turned back into the house. “Courtney, dear! Hilda and Evadne are here!”
Courtney appeared from out of one of the nearby rooms. “Ah! Excellent. You found us then.”
Dodie indicated the bags. “Would you mind taking those up to their rooms?”
Courtney paled slightly. “Of course, darling.”
“And I’ll just give Hilda and Evadne the tour until you’ve got their belongings upstairs and they can unpack.” Dodie beckoned to Hilda and Evadne, and they followed her into the first room.
“This is our dining room,” said Dodie proudly.
“But it’s lovely,” said Evadne in surprise.
Hilda gave her a significant look and Evadne quickly recovered.
“I mean, how lovely!”
They moved via the hall into another room.
“And this is the communal sitting room,” said Dodie.
“How elegant!” said Hilda. “I love the colour scheme.”
“Thank you, Hilda.” Dodie inclined her head. “I must admit it’s not quite to my taste—I find it perhaps a little bland…”
“Yes…” said Hilda, gazing at Dodie’s vivid orange ensemble and trademark ocelot ankle boots.
“...but we hired an interior decorator, and she insisted that it would be best to have something that would appeal to the widest number of people. And we bowed to her greater knowledge. She has a wonderful reputation—she really knows what she’s doing. Her services aren’t cheap but you’ve got to spend money to make money, haven’t you?”
“Well, I think it was worth every penny, Dodie,” said Evadne. “Your decorator has done a marvellous job.”
“Actually, it’s not quite finished yet,” said Dodie, “but we’re almost there.”
They came out into the hallway and found Courtney waiting for them.
“The bags are in your rooms, ladies,” he said.
“Thank you, dear,” said Dodie.
She began leading Hilda and Evadne up the stairs.
“Look at that wonderful carpet! Gorgeous pattern,” said Hilda. She smiled at Dodie. “You really do have a lovely place here.”
Dodie beamed. “It is nice, isn’t it? Quite our little pride and joy.”
They all stepped onto the landing.
“And business is good. I must admit we’re thinking of selling Dodie’s Pantry and sinking our little nest egg back into this place. Or even buying somewhere bigger!”
“Well, that’s splendid,” said Evadne.
Dodie stopped at a door. “Now this is your room, Hilda.”
She opened the door wide, and they all peeped in. The room was decorated in warm, welcoming colours. There was a huge double bed, a thick carpet on the floor, a spacious wardrobe and—
“Oh, what a beautiful view of the sea!” said Hilda.
Dodie nodded and smiled. She turned to the opposite side of the landing and opened another door. “And this is Evadne’s room.”
Evadne beamed and went forward to have a look.
There was a single bed, peeling wallpaper, a rather threadbare rug—and a view of a brick wall.
Dodie raised her shoulders apologetically. “I’m afraid that’s one of the rooms we’re still working on.”
“I see,” said Evadne.
She glared at Hilda, who was attempting to stifle her giggles.
They went out for their evening meal so they could talk in private.
“I can’t believe Dodie gave me that terrible room!” said Evadne. “I always seem to draw the short straw.”
“They probably just assigned them at random, dear. You mustn’t take these things so personally.” Hilda sighed. “And aren’t we getting off the topic a little? We’re supposed to be discussing how we’re going to talk to Dodie and Courtney about Rosa Charles.”
Evadne nodded. “Yes, you’re quite right, Hilda. The room doesn’t really matter.”
She leant forward over her soup.
“I was thinking we should try and speak to Dodie and Courtney as soon as possible. After breakfast tomorrow perhaps.” She looked about cautiously and dropped her voice. “I told Dodie over the phone that we were looking into what happened at Rosa Charles, so I think they’ll understand we’ll want to talk to them immediately.”
“But do you really think they’ll know anything, dear? said Hilda. “The more I think about it, the less likely it seems.”
Evadne gestured with her spoon. “I do believe, if anyone knows anything, it’ll be Dodie. She used to help out everywhere. Well, with her voice it wasn’t a good idea to actually let her on the stage…”
“Yes…” Hilda nodded ruefully.
“I mean, she understudied the singers, she helped out in the office, she assisted the wardrobe mistress.” Evadne raised her eyebrows. “She even helped out in the orchestra from time to time.”
“Did she..?” said Hilda, furrowing her brow.
“Yes, used to help some of the gentlemen polish their instruments.”
Hilda rolled her eyes and looked away. “I see...”
“So,” said Evadne, scooping up another spoonful of soup. “We’ll have an early night. And in the morning, once they’ve finished serving the breakfast, we shall ask if we can have a quick word.”
“But then what?” asked Hilda.
Evadne shrugged a little. “Who can say? We shall just have to see where the information leads us, won’t we?”
And so the following day found them all having a mid-morning cup of tea in Dodie and Courtney’s private sitting room.
“Thank you, dear.” Dodie took the cup from her husband, and looked across at Hilda and Evadne. “Such an awful newspaper article—we were shocked, weren’t we, Courtney?”
“Yes, indeed,” said Courtney. He sat down next to Dodie.
Dodie inclined her head. “I’m not really sure how we can help you though.” She glanced at Courtney. “Courtney and I left the company a few months before you took over the running of it, if you recall.”
Evadne smiled and held up a finger. “Ah, yes. But you might have noticed something before then. Someone behaving oddly, perhaps.”
Dodie shifted in her seat. “It was a very long time ago, Evadne…”
“I know—but I am determined to get to the bottom of what happened.” Evadne gestured between Courtney and Dodie. “Any scrap of information you give us would be most appreciated.” She glanced across at Hilda. “I won’t rest until our names are cleared and we can hold our heads up again in Stackton.”
Dodie still hesitated. “I really don’t want to get anyone into trouble…”
Hilda set down her own cup of tea. “Oh, you won’t, Dodie. Honestly, we’re just looking for possible leads.”
“Well…” Dodie glanced across at Courtney. “I suppose… I suppose you might look towards the orchestra.”
Courtney’s eyebrows rose. “Dodie..?”
“Oh, I’m not accusing anyone.” Dodie gave an uncomfortable smile. “But there was always a rapid turnover of members in the orchestra. You barely knew someone before they were off again.”
She gestured towards Hilda and Evadne. “Well, you know—they didn’t have the same kind of loyalty towards the company as the singers.”
Courtney cleared his throat. “Dear, I really don’t think though…”
Dodie shrugged and gave Hilda and Evadne a little smile. “I’m just saying it’s a possibility to look into.”
“Well, that was a waste of time,” said Evadne, as they strolled along the beach. “You were quite right, Hilda—of course Dodie and Courtney don’t know anything.” Evadne’s shoulders slumped. “‘Look towards the orchestra.’ I mean, where on earth does that leave us?”
Hilda came to an abrupt halt. “Boothby!”
Evadne stopped too, and looked back. “What?”
Hilda beamed at her. “Boothby, dear. Boothby Pagnell. He was in the orchestra for years, of course. What about talking to him?”
“Oh, yes…” Evadne began to look interested. “You know, it might be worth a try. He might have had his suspicions about someone.”
“And we know he and Nunton are still in Billericay,” said Hilda, excitedly. “Instead of going straight home we can make a detour there—have a little chat.”
“Yes… Yes!” Evadne smiled. “That sounds like a very good, Hilda!” She gestured back in the direction of their B&B. “If we pack at once, we should be able to get the next train!”
Boothby opened the door, and looked cautiously at the two ladies smiling on his doorstep.
“Hilda… Evadne…” He glanced at their many bags. “Are you… thinking of staying long?”
“What..?” Hilda giggled. “Oh, no!” She waved dismissively at their luggage. “No, we were just passing on our way home, dear.”
“Is this a bad time?” asked Evadne. “I apologise—we should have telephoned first.”
“No, it’s fine,” said Boothby, a little more cheerfully. “Please—come on in.”
He helped them to bring the bags into the hall and then led them into the living room. “It’s Hilda and Evadne, Nunton!”
“Good heavens,” beamed Nunton, standing as the ladies entered. “Two visits in thirty years. It’s becoming quite a habit with you two.”
Hilda and Evadne smiled in embarrassment.
“Oh, stop teasing them,” scolded Boothby. He turned to the ladies. “What can I get you to drink? Tea all right?”
“Oh no, I’m fine, dear,” said Hilda, holding up a hand.
“Yes, we had something on the train.” Evadne gave a little shrug. “To be honest, Boothby, we were just hoping to have a quick word with you.”
“With me?” Boothby glanced over at Nunton, who raised his eyebrows.
“Yes.” Evadne hesitated. “Well, it’s about the business at Rosa Charles.”
“Ah,” said Nunton. His face cleared in understanding. “That article.”
Evadne nodded, her expression becoming more serious. “It’s simply… I can’t bear everyone thinking we were guilty. I want to find out who was actually responsible.”
Hilda patted Evadne on the arm, and Nunton looked at them in sympathy. “Well, perhaps we’d better all sit down then, so we can discuss things properly.”
“Yes, that’s a good idea,” said Hilda to Evadne. “Come on, dear.”
Once everyone had found a seat, Boothby spoke up. “So are you saying you think I might have information?” He furrowed his brow. “Evadne, both Nunton and myself spoke to the police at the time. We really didn’t know anything.”
“But we’re just looking for general suspicions,” said Evadne. She leant forward in her chair. “Anything that struck you as out of the ordinary, however small.”
“And we wanted to talk you especially, Boothby, because, well, you were in the orchestra—there were always musicians passing through. Not staying for very long.” Evadne looked embarrassed. “Was there anyone you think might have…”
“Been stealing from the safe?” Boothby looked uncomfortable. “Evadne, I really don’t think…”
“Please,” said Evadne. “If there’s anything you can tell us.”
Boothby’s discomfort seemed to grow. “Well, I suppose there was…”
“Ken Wilson?” said Nunton.
Boothby nodded. “Yes, that’s who came into my mind too.”
Evadne frowned. “I’m not sure I remember him.”
“Trumpet player,” said Boothby. “So-so talent. Was with us… oh, nine months, probably. Left while we were doing all those shows—trying to recoup the missing money.”
“Yes, it’s coming back to me,” said Evadne. She wrinkled her brow. “What made you think of him? From what I remember he seemed pretty decent. Charming even. Turned up on time for rehearsals and performances.”
“Well…” Boothby hesitated. “He was charming. And quite nice in his way.”
“But he was a liar,” interrupted Nunton. “Could never quite be trusted.
Boothby nodded. “He’d cheerfully admit he was a liar—made no bones about it. And it was amusing sometimes watching him in action, when you weren’t the person being lied to. But… there was something else as well.”
Boothby smiled awkwardly.
“It was when the money had gone missing and we were all worried about our wages…. Well, he was all right.”
Hilda frowned. “‘All, right’, dear?”
“I know how weak it sounds,” said Boothby. “That’s why I didn’t say anything to the police. It’s just… everyone seemed to be constantly on their last penny, and Wilson was comfortable. I thought maybe he’d got a second job but we were doing two or three shows a night already…” Boothby shook his head. “But he only had a bit of extra money. It wasn’t as though he was chucking cash about. And it was a huge amount that had gone missing from the takings.”
“Still…” Evadne was thoughtful. “It is suspicious. He could have been being careful about showing how much money he had. Yes, I think this might be worth following up.”
“Are you sure?” Nunton looked at Evadne with concern. “Wouldn’t it be better to let it go? If you go accusing Wilson and he’s innocent, solicitors might start getting involved. And if he’s guilty…”
“I will go carefully, I promise.” Evadne inclined her head. “One step at a time—I have to find him first. I don’t suppose..?”
Boothby shook his head. “When he left Rosa Charles that was the last we saw of him. But perhaps… Sybilla Strang might have kept in touch with him.”
“They were thick as thieves at one point.” Nunton grimaced slightly. “If you’ll excuse the expression.”
“Sybilla Strang!” said Hilda. “Now that’s a name I haven’t heard for a while. I don’t suppose you’ve got an address for her, have you?”
“Oh, yes.” Boothby got up and retrieved a small address book from a side table. “She’s just moved. Well, in fact, she’s just remarried—we went to her wedding.”
“Good heavens!” said Evadne. She looked at Hilda. “You would have thought that she might have invited us.”
“Well, yes,” said Hilda, affronted.
Nunton grinned. “You know Sybilla though. If you’re out of contact with her for more than six months, she assumes you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil.”
Boothby flicked through the pages of the address book and then handed it to Hilda, open at the right page. “There you are. Her new number is there too.”
“Thank you, dear.” Hilda got out her own address book and began copying the information over.
“So what’s next?” said Boothby to Evadne. “I take it you won’t want to go straight to Sybilla’s today. You’re welcome to stay here tonight, if you like.”
“Are they?” said Nunton.
Boothby raised his eyebrows a little.
“Yes, of course they are,” said Nunton. He smiled a little too broadly at Evadne.
Evadne smiled weakly back. “That’s very kind of you both. But I thought we could stay at our club in Rowan Square.”
She looked at Hilda, who was putting her address book away again. “A little treat to take our minds off things for a while. What do you think?”
“Oh, that’s a splendid idea!” said Hilda. “We haven’t been there in ages!” She looked at Boothby and Nunton. “You know our ladies club, don’t you? Queens of the Theatre?”
Evadne rolled her eyes. “Of course they don’t, Hilda. Why would Nunton and Boothby be familiar with a place for queens of the theatre?”
“Yes. That’s right...” said Boothby, faintly.
It was just a short journey of a train and then a taxi to get to the club.
Hilda pushed through the revolving doors, Evadne struggling on behind with the luggage—which she gratefully dumped as soon as they were inside.
“Gracious,” said Hilda, as they walked together across the entrance hall. “It really has been a while since we’ve been here. Looks like they’ve refurbished the whole place.”
Evadne furrowed her brow. “Do you think the system has changed—should we have telephoned ahead? What if they don’t have any spare rooms?”
“My dear,” said Hilda, “I am Dame Hilda Bracket. I am sure that they will be only too keen to make room for us.”
They reached the reception desk, and a smart young woman smiled at them. “Can I help you?”
“We’d like to sign in,” said Hilda. She gestured between herself and Evadne. “Dame Hilda Bracket. And Doctor Evadne Hinge.”
The young lady’s eyes went wide. “Oh, good heavens! It’s really you.” She blushed and waved a hand. “I’m so sorry—it’s just I’m such a fan.”
Hilda smiled graciously and inclined her head.
“I so admired your interpretation of the Grieg Piano Concerto at the Stackton Tressel festival, Doctor Hinge.”
“Oh, you’re too kind—” Hilda stopped. “Doctor Hinge..?”
“It was terribly moving,” said the young lady, earnestly. “Truly it was.”
Evadne smiled girlishly and giggled. “Oh, I say—how lovely. Thank you very much.”
The receptionist indicated the signing in book. “If you’d like to put your name in there, Doctor. And is there anything else I can help you with?”
“Well, we were wondering if you might have a couple of members’ bedrooms available,” said Evadne. “Just for tonight. Nothing fancy.”
The receptionist held up a hand. “Of course, Doctor! I’m sure we can accommodate you and Dame Helga.”
There was a pause.
“That’s… Dame Hilda,” said Hilda.
“Oh, yes. Sorry,” said the receptionist. She turned and took two keys off the wall, and handed them over to Evadne. “You’ll be on the first floor in 11 and Dame Hel—”
The receptionist caught Hilda’s expression.
”Dame Hilda will be in 12.”
She beckoned to a young man, who flinched slightly when he saw how much luggage there was.
“If you’ll just follow Duncan then, ladies,” smiled the receptionist.
And they followed the heavily laden Duncan to the stairs, his staggering and heavy breathing barely noticeable.
Hilda looked round at her room and beamed. It was magnificent. Queen size bed, plush dark curtains, thick carpet on the floor, tasteful striped wallpaper.
She packed away her clothes into the wardrobe and chest of drawers, admired the room once again and then made her way to Evadne’s room.
“Better commiserate with her a little,” said Hilda to herself. She giggled a little. “I doubt hers is as impressive as mine...”
She tapped on the door. “It’s me, dear!”
“Come in, Hilda!” called back Evadne.
Hilda opened the door and entered a pleasant but rather modest little room. She looked about. “Oh, yes—this is nice, isn’t it.”
Evadne looked up and gazed about vaguely. “Yes, I suppose it’s all right. Well, for—”
“It’s bijou. Compact. Cosy.” Hilda gestured delicately.
Evadne frowned a little. “Hilda, I really don’t understand why you’re so interested in my—”
“That’s a gorgeous little escritoire.” Hilda held up a hand as something struck her. “But where’s the bed, dear?” She looked at Evadne. “I really think you should complain about not having a bed.”
Evadne rolled her eyes. “I do have a bed, dear.”
Hilda looked round the room again. “But where is it?”
“It’s in here, of course.”
Evadne went over to another door, opened it and stepped inside.
Hilda followed her. “Don’t tell me they’ve got you sleeping in a cupboard. That would really be too—”
She stopped short.
She was standing in a bedroom that was twice the size of hers.
“I was trying to tell you,” said Evadne. “That other room is just the anteroom. This is the room I’ll actually be sleeping in.”
Hilda’s eyes were huge. “It’s enormous!”
“Isn’t it though?” said Evadne. “Would you like the tour, dear?” She turned towards a set of French windows. “Shall we start with the balcony?”
“You’ve got a balcony?”
“Oh, just a little one,” smiled Evadne.
She led them out into the fresh air, and they both stood and looked down into an elegant little paved garden.
Hilda frowned. “But I haven’t got any of this. An anteroom, a balcony.” She waved towards the garden. “A lovely view.”
“No? Well, I doubt it was anything personal, dear.” Evadne looked perhaps just a tiny bit smug. “I imagine the rooms were assigned completely at random.”
Evadne went to phone Sybilla Strang, and then came to join Hilda at their dinner table.
“It’s all sorted out. Sybilla has said we can come and visit tomorrow morning.”
“She doesn’t mind?” said Hilda.
“No,” said Evadne. “Though apparently she was a little surprised to hear from us.” She shook out her napkin. “Thought we were both dead.”
They turned to see a tall woman in a stylish, delicate pink trouser suit coming towards their table.
“Mabel!” said Hilda in delight. She gestured to a chair. “Can you sit down for a chat?”
“Well, just for a minute.” She beamed at the two ladies. “Sharon on reception told me you were both here. It’s been far too long!”
“Yes, it has!” Evadne was smiling. “I must admit though I’m a little surprised to see you still here. You’ve worked so hard on this place—I thought you’d be off enjoying your retirement now.”
“Oh, I could never give up working,” said Mabel. “And to be honest, I can’t face handing the old place over into someone else’s care. And why would I want to give up bumping into old friends every day? I couldn’t live without my daily dose of gossip.”
She raised an eyebrow at Hilda and Evadne.
“So why are you both staying overnight in London then? You’re not seeing a solicitor, are you?”
Hilda’s eyes widened. “What makes you say that, dear?”
Mabel hesitated. “Well, I must admit I read that article about your trouble at Rosa Charles.” She tapped her fingers on the table. “It seemed to be sailing a bit close to the wind in its suggestions I thought. I wondered if you might be consulting a solicitor about it.”
“Does everyone know about that wretched article?” sighed Evadne.
Mabel looked apologetic. “I didn’t mean to upset you. But you know what the grapevine is like in our profession.”
“We do indeed,” said Evadne. “In fact, that is the reason we’re in London. We’re doing a little investigating—seeing if we can clear our names. We’re visiting Sybilla Strang tomorrow, see if she can tell us anything useful.”
“Investigating the mystery of who stole the money! How exciting!” said Mabel. “And Sybilla Strang! I remember her.” She looked thoughtful. “Fancy her living in London now—she hasn’t been in here for years. Kept a very low profile.”
A smart young woman came up. “Miss Rivington, I’m sorry—could you…”
Mabel rose and gave Hilda and Evadne a smile. “Sorry. Duty calls. It was lovely to see you both again though. Please make sure you say goodbye before you leave tomorrow.”
In the morning, after a splendid breakfast, the two ladies got ready to make their way over to visit Sybilla Strang.
Hilda frowned as Evadne eventually came away from the reception desk to join her.
“You’re not supposed to sign out yet. We are coming back.”
“Oh, I know,” said Evadne, adjusting her gloves. “Actually, I was just signing an autograph.”
And she swept out.
Hilda glared at her back and followed on behind.
As they travelled in the taxi, Evadne frowned down at the address she had made a note of the evening before. “It’s rather a well-to-do area.” She glanced across at Hilda. “Perhaps they’re living in a tiny flat somewhere.”
“Well, what exactly did Sybilla say?” asked Hilda.
“Mount James House. She didn’t give a number.” Evadne shrugged. “We’ll just have to hope there’s some kind of attendant to tell us.”
“This is it, ladies,” said the driver.
“Thank you so much,” said Evadne.
She handed over the fare and the tip and joined Hilda out on the pavement.
“Oh, good heavens..!”
Hilda nodded in agreement. “It’s enormous, isn’t it?”
Evadne’s eyes were wide. “We’ll just have to hope to goodness that there is someone to tell us where she is. Otherwise we could be searching all day.”
They approached two large wrought iron gates, which Hilda pushed at but couldn’t open.
She tried again. “I think they’re locked!”
“Let me try, dear.” Evadne rattled at the gates and then looked at them a bit more closely. “You know, I can’t see any lock or catch. Is there a switch or something that opens the gates?” She gazed about. “Look, Hilda.” Evadne gestured over at the gate post. “Little buzzer… speaker … thing. Try that.”
Hilda made her way cautiously over. She stared at the panel and then tentatively pressed a button. “Hello..? Anyone there..?”
“Good morning,” came a male voice. “How may I help you?”
Hilda laughed. “Oh, thank heavens!”
“Madam?” said the voice.
“It’s just that we’re getting a bit frustrated, dear. We’re looking for some form of release,” said Hilda.
In the background, Evadne raised her eyebrows.
“Some form of release..?” said the voice.
“Yes, that’s right,” said Hilda cheerfully. “So we were wondering if you might be able to give us a hand.”
There was a slight pause.
“If you could just give me your details…” said the voice.
“Of course, dear,” said Hilda. “We are here to visit Sybilla Strang—”
Evadne waved at her. “It’s Mrs. Branford-Smythe now,” she whispered.
“Oh, yes,” said Hilda. She returned her attention to the speaking area. “We’d like to visit Mrs. Branford-Smythe. That is, Dr. Evadne Hinge and myself—Dame Hilda Bracket.”
“Ah, yes, she is expecting you,” said the male voice. “I shall just release the gate now.”
The gate began opening slowly.
“These personal services are wonderful, aren’t they?” beamed Hilda, as they began walking down the drive towards the house.
They reached the front door, and a smartly dressed man let them in even before they had time to knock.
He bowed his head. “Dame Hilda. Dr. Hinge.”
“Oh, you’re the voice!” smiled Hilda.
The man lifted one eyebrow.
“On the intercom thingy,” said Evadne.
“Yes, indeed, madam,” said the man.
“Now,” said Hilda gazing about the entrance hall. “What number is she in?”
The man looked puzzled for a moment. “Number, madam?”
“You know, which floor is she on?” said Hilda.
The man hesitated. “Mrs. Branford-Smythe is in the morning room.” He gestured. “If you would like to follow me.”
And he turned. Hilda and Evadne exchanged looks and shrugged, and followed on after him.
The man knocked on the door, and from inside came the call of “Enter!”
He opened the door. “Dr. Evadne Hinge and Dame Hilda Bracket, madam.” The man stepped aside and allowed the ladies to enter.
The former Sybilla Strang rose from her armchair. “Hilda! Evadne! How wonderful to see you again after all these years.”
She held out her hands to Hilda, and kissed her on both cheeks, and then repeated the greeting with Evadne.
She turned to the man. “If you’ll just ask Helena to bring in the tea now.”
The man bowed and withdrew.
Sybilla indicated the sofa. “Won’t you both sit down?”
Hilda and Evadne looked tentatively at what appeared to be an extremely expensive item of furniture and then gingerly sat down together.
“Well!” said Hilda, brightly. “They certainly look after you well here.”
“They do indeed,” smiled Sybilla. “We have wonderful staff.”
“How marvellous,” said Evadne. She looked around. “Beautiful room.” She looked at Sybilla. “This is a common room I suppose?”
Sybilla looked a bit thrown. “I’m sorry..? Common..?”
“So where exactly is your flat?” asked Hilda. “Which floor?”
Sybilla continued to look bemused. “Do you mean my bedroom..? That’s on the first floor. I don’t have a flat.”
“Oh…” Evadne nodded and looked sympathetic. “I see.” Her voice dropped a little. “Is this more of a… home?”
“I…” Sybilla appeared to have completely lost the thread of the conversation.
Hilda leant forward. “An old fo— a home for retired people?”
Sybilla shook her head. “I’m not quite sure what you’re getting at. This is my home. Mine and my husband’s.”
Hilda stared at her. “This whole house belongs to you?”
“Well, yes,” said Sybilla.
Hilda and Evadne exchanged glances.
“We bought it just before we got married,” said Sybilla. “Graeme and I.” She stood up and looked out through the French windows. “Look, there’s Graeme working in the garden. We’ve got gardeners, of course…”
“Of course,” said Evadne, her eyebrows high.
“...but he does so adore getting stuck in himself.” She waved and a short, overweight, rather plain man waved cheerfully back.
Hilda rolled her eyes and leant over to whisper to Evadne. “If she wanted to marry him, then he must be rich.”
“I’m sorry..?” said Sybilla turning to them.
Hilda smiled weakly. “I was just saying he must be rich, your hubby. To afford such a lovely place for you both.”
Sybilla laughed a little. “Graeme is comfortably off but I don’t think anyone could ever say I married the dear man for his money.” She came and sat down again. “No, the bulk of the money for the house came from me.”
Evadne frowned. “Really?”
Sybilla smiled. “I know it’s surprising. But I was bold with my investments over the years and it paid off.”
A young woman in uniform knocked and entered with a tray. She placed it on the table in front of Sybilla.
“Thank you, Helena. That’s all for now.”
Evadne raised her eyebrows and mouthed discreetly at Hilda: a maid too!
The young woman left again, and Sybilla started pouring out the cups of tea. She handed the first to Evadne. “So you wanted to talk about that nasty business at Rosa Charles.”
“Yes,” said Evadne. “Yes, that’s right.” She stirred her tea. “I suppose you know about that dreadful article. We just want…”
“To clear your names. Put it all to rest.” Sybilla handed a cup to Hilda, and started pouring one for herself. “I completely understand.”
She settled back in her chair with her own tea.
“But I’m not really sure how I can help you.”
Evadne sighed. “It is a long shot I suppose. But we’re following up a lead.”
“Someone who can help you in your enquiries?” smiled Sybilla.
“Perhaps,” said Evadne. “It’s Ken Wilson. We were wondering if you remembered him.”
Sybilla looked a little taken aback. “Ken Wilson? Yes, I remember him. In fact, we’re still in contact.”
Evadne gave Hilda a quick smile of triumph.
“Well, I say we’re in contact…” Sybilla frowned a little. “He sends me the odd postcard from here and there. I don’t have a permanent address for him.”
Evadne’s face fell. “So you don’t know where he is at the moment?”
“I’m afraid not,” said Sybilla. “He could be anywhere to be honest. He’s still working, you know—touring with whatever band or orchestra will have him.” She took a sip from her cup. “Well, he was never very good with money—spent it as soon as he got it. That’s why things were never that serious between us.”
She turned to smile fondly in the direction of her husband.
“I was so lucky to meet Graeme. I know I can always rely on him for support.”
Duncan came puffing down the staircase laden with bags, and staggered over to where Hilda was waiting in the entrance hall.
He set the luggage down with some relief.
Hilda beamed at him. “Thank you, dear.” She discreetly handed over a coin. “Here’s a little something for you.”
Duncan stared dubiously at the offering, and smiled politely. “I’ll just go and find you a taxi then, Dame Hilda.”
“That would be lovely, dear. Thank you.”
Duncan disappeared out through the revolving doors and Hilda was joined by Evadne.
“That’s us signed out and our keys handed back in then,” said Evadne.
“Excellent,” said Hilda. “And Duncan is just sorting us out a taxi to the station.”
“Lovely,” said Evadne. Her shoulders slumped a little and she sighed. “Actually, not lovely. It just means we’re off to Stackton Tressel, right back where we started.”
Hilda gave her a sympathetic smile but she sighed too.
Mabel came hurrying over.
“You bad girls! I thought you were going to say goodbye before you went.”
“Oh, yes.” Evadne gave a little apologetic shrug. “Sorry—we completely forgot.”
Mabel gave them a considering look. “I take it things didn’t go well at Sybilla’s?”
“We’re no further on, really...” said Hilda.
“I suppose I was being ridiculous,” said Evadne. “Thinking we could suddenly solve the mystery after all this time. Of course nobody is going to know anything.”
Mabel rolled her eyes. “For heaven’s sake, Evadne Hinge! What kind of talk is that?” She leant forward and spoke a little more discreetly. “Look what do you need to know? Maybe I can help.”
“Well…” Evadne hesitated. “We’re trying to track down Ken Wilson. He was a trumpet player with Rosa Charles for a while.”
Mabel grinned. “Is that all?” The grin got broader. “Good heavens, with my contacts, no-one can stay hidden!”
Duncan came back into the entrance hall and addressed Hilda. “Your taxi is outside, madam. Shall I take your bags out?”
“No!” said Mabel.
Startled, Hilda and Evadne stared at her.
“Take their bags back up to their rooms,” said Mabel.
Duncan muttered what sounded like “Oh, dear God” but picked up all the bags and began hauling them towards the stairs.
Mabel smiled at the ladies. “You’re staying here until I track down this Ken Wilson. And then you’re going to go and solve this mystery.”
In the little paved garden, Hilda and Evadne sat together on a bench, enjoying the morning sunshine.
“It is nice, having a few days away, isn’t it?” said Hilda. “A chance to get away from it all, look around the shops. And that new musical last night wasn’t bad, was it?”
Evadne sighed. “I’m just wondering how much longer we can justify staying here though. It has been over a week now.”
“Yes,” said Hilda. “I had to talk Mr. Butler through how to change Sandy’s water over the phone.” She held up a hand. “Never again—that man really isn’t a fan of fish.”
“Maybe we should go home and wait there.” Evadne sighed again. “Or give up on finding Wilson altogether. I mean, I know Mabel seems confident but…”
“O ye of little faith...” Mabel strode into the courtyard and beamed at them. “I know where Ken Wilson is.”
“Really?” said Evadne in delight.
“How on earth did you find him?” said Hilda.
Mabel gestured airily. “I simply spoke to as many musicians as possible. Who spoke to their friends and colleagues, who spoke to theirs.” She sat down next to Hilda. “I told you—the grapevine is astonishing in our profession.”
Hilda raised her eyebrows. “You didn’t tell everyone why we were looking for Wilson, did you?”
Mabel laughed. “Of course not! I was very discreet—just said that two old colleagues were trying to track him down. Which is perfectly true.”
“So where is he?” asked Evadne. “Is he in the London area? Could we go and see him today?”
Mabel gave her a rueful smile. “I’m afraid you’re going to have to go a little further afield than that. He’s in Italy.”
Evadne looked somewhat taken aback. “That is a bit further than I was expecting us to have to go.” She turned to Hilda. “But we could manage it, couldn’t we? Ask Mr. Butler to send our passports to us?”
“I don’t see why not,” said Hilda.
Evadne turned back to Mabel. “So where exactly is he living in Italy?”
“In a little town near Pienza. But he’s not living there permanently. He’s out there on a lengthy tour with an orchestra.” Mabel looked between Hilda and Evadne. “But he’s forever moving about, so this might be your best bet for a while to catch up with him and talk to him.”
“Well then,” said Evadne. “That’s settled. It looks like we’re off to Italy.”
The next day, Duncan once more staggered into the entrance hall, weighed down with a great deal of luggage.
He deposited it heavily in front of Hilda, Evadne and Mabel.
“Thank you so much,” smiled Evadne.
“Yes, thank you, dear,” said Hilda.
Duncan nodded in acknowledgement and turned to Mabel. “I wonder if I might take my break now, Miss Rivington. I’m feeling a little unwell.”
“Of course, Duncan,” said Mabel. “I can help with getting the bags into the taxi.”
Duncan nodded again and disappeared on rather unsteady legs.
Mabel watched him go with concern, and then turned back to Hilda and Evadne with a smile.
“So, I’ll wish you the best of luck then. You must stop off here afterwards and let me know how things went.”
The flight went smoothly and a few hours later Hilda and Evadne were in Florence airport, hurrying to get the bus for Firenze, with their luggage piled high on a trolley.
Hilda glanced across at Evadne. “You know, I’m not sure coming here was such a good idea, dear.”
“Bit late to get cold feet, Hilda,” said Evadne. She frowned. “You know, you really should have left some of this luggage back in London.”
“I like to be prepared!” said Hilda. “And to be honest, at the moment I don’t feel prepared at all for what’s coming! Here we are in a foreign country, to speak to a man we don’t know, so we can accuse him of theft. It just all seems… a bit foolish.”
“Well, we’re here now.” Evadne looked at Hilda. “And surely it’s not that foreign a place to you—all those years you lived here.”
“But that was quite some time ago,” said Hilda. “And I was mainly concentrating on my vocal training.”
“Well, do you still remember enough Italian to be able to ask the driver if this is the right bus?” said Evadne, nodding at the vehicle they were fast approaching.
“Yes, of course I do,” said Hilda with dignity.
She reached the bus, and leaving Evadne in charge of the trolley, stepped aboard to address the driver.
“Son da tutti disprezzata. E vecchietta disperata. Mi convien così crepar.”
The bus driver looked utterly bewildered.
Hilda looked over at Evadne. “Well, what’s up with the chap?”
Evadne sighed. “Hilda, even I know that you’ve said: ‘I am despised by everyone, and a desperate old woman. I might as well kick the bucket.’ That’s the end of Berta’s aria from ‘The Barber of Seville’!”
“Oh, dear... I got a bit confused there thinking back to my training.” Hilda turned and gave the driver an embarrassed grin.
The driver gave her a worried look and smiled cautiously back.
“Right,” said Evadne, as they came out of the Santo Antonio Hotel. “First of all we need to track down the theatre where the Dilworth orchestra are playing for the next week.”
She consulted her map.
“It doesn’t seem to be far. We can easily walk there.”
She pointed out the direction, and they started off.
“Now, dear,” said Evadne. “You know what to do once we’re there?”
“Yes,” said Hilda. She emphasised each point with her hand. “I tell the manager you’re Wilson’s sister and you don’t speak any Italian. Wilson’s wife is dangerously ill—you have to find him to tell him to return home urgently but you don’t know exactly where he is.” Hilda looked at Evadne. “But surely the manager isn’t going to know the address of every single member of the orchestra?”
“Of course not,” said Evadne. “But he will be aware of all the local digs for musicians. We just then go round all the most likely until we track Wilson down.”
She pointed down the road at a shabby building.
“There’s the theatre.”
Hilda made a face. “It doesn’t look terribly impressive.”
“Well, it doesn’t sound like a terribly impressive orchestra,” said Evadne. “It looks like Wilson has fallen on hard times.”
“Yes…” Hilda frowned. “He doesn’t really sound like someone who stole thousands of pounds, does he?”
“He wouldn’t be the first to waste his ill gotten gains,” said Evadne. “What did you expect? That he’d invest it and live off the proceeds?”
Hilda shrugged. “I can’t say I have a great insight into the criminal mind, dear.”
“Well, the fact he’s poor now tells us nothing. He might still be our man.”
Evadne stopped outside the front of the theatre.
“Come on,” she said. “Let’s go and talk to the manager.”
The main doors were closed but they found a side door and knocked.
A young woman came to the door, Hilda explained in Italian why they had come and the girl disappeared again.
A middle-aged man soon appeared in her place.
“Buona sera...” began Hilda but the manager interrupted her. “You’re English, aren’t you? I can speak English if you prefer.”
“Oh, wonderful!” said Hilda. “Yes, that would be best. My companion doesn’t speak any Italian.”
The manager looked from Hilda to Evadne. “How can I help you, ladies? Is it about the performances?”
Evadne gave a loud sob and Hilda looked at her worriedly before realising it was just acting.
“It’s about my poor brother,” whimpered Evadne. “I need to trace him. His wife is very ill—we don’t expect her to live much longer…”
Evadne began to wail and Hilda discreetly rolled her eyes. She patted Evadne’s hand. “Perhaps I’d better do the talking, dear.”
She gave Evadne a significant look and Evadne nodded.
Hilda turned to the manager. “My friend’s brother is a trumpet player in the orchestra. We knew he was here in this town but he didn’t give his family his exact address and we wondered…”
The manager appeared thoughtful. “Trumpet player? It’s not Ken Wilson you are looking for, is it?”
Hilda was taken aback. “Well, yes—that’s him. How did you know?”
The manager grinned and then seemed to realise that was a little inappropriate in the circumstances. “Everyone knows Ken. He is rather… a character.”
Hilda and Evadne exchanged glances.
“I am so sorry to hear about his wife. He talks about her all the time.” He frowned. “He did not mention she was ill though.”
“Well, no,” said Hilda quickly. “It’s a very recent illness. He doesn’t know anything about it.”
“The poor, poor man.” The manager shook his head. “At least I know his address and so you can go and fetch him immediately.”
“Oh, do you?” said Hilda. “That’s splendid.”
“If you and and your friend will just come inside and wait a moment…” The manager cast a sympathetic glance at Evadne, and disappeared further inside.
Once the man was out of sight Hilda groaned. “I feel absolutely dreadful now. Pretending his wife is at death’s door! It feels like we’re tempting fate.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Evadne. “It’s just a little white lie that means we can find out where Wilson is.”
The manager returned and handed Hilda a piece of paper. “Here is the address and directions.”
Hilda studied the piece of paper. “It seems quite a way. Is there a bus?”
The manager checked his watch. “In about an hour I think…”
“Oh, well, that’s fine. Thank you for all your help,” said Evadne. She and Hilda turned to go.
“Wait a moment.” The manager looked concerned. “I don’t like to think of you waiting all that time. You will want to speak to your brother in person as quickly as possible, will you not?”
Evadne hesitated. “Well… Yes. Yes, I do.”
The manager beckoned. “Please. Follow me.”
Hilda and Evadne exchanged a look. Hilda shrugged and they followed the manager further into the building.
He led them down a corridor and out through an exit into a courtyard.
He turned his head and addressed Evadne. “Can you ride a bike?”
“Well, I have a tricycle…” said Evadne.
They all turned a corner, and the manager stopped and pointed proudly.
“There you are!”
The ladies stared at a small blue scooter.
“A Vespa!” said Hilda. “Oh, I haven’t been on one of those for years!”
“I have two helmets,” said the manager. “And there is room for a passenger behind.”
Evadne looked most uncertain. “I don’t know. Perhaps it would be better to wait for the bus…”
“It is perfectly safe,” said the manager. He frowned. “And don’t you want to reach your brother as quickly as possible?”
“Yes, I suppose I do.” Evadne gave Hilda an anxious glance, and turned back to the manager. “This is most kind of you. Are you sure you don’t mind..?”
“Absolutely sure,” said the manager, smiling.
Evadne had already strapped her helmet on and taken her place on the Vespa. She looked at her friend in some irritation.
“Hilda, will you stop fussing about and get on?”
Hilda finished adjusting the strap under her chin but continued to hesitate. “I’m not sure I can get my leg over. Not in this outfit anyway.”
Evadne sighed. “Well, sit sidesaddle then. Like Audrey Hepburn.”
“Oh, yes…” Hilda gave a little smile and settled herself on the pillion in a gracious fashion, before settling her hands round Evadne’s waist.
Evadne turned her attention back to the controls. “Right…”
“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” asked Hilda.
Evadne didn’t look up. “If I can drive that wretched sit-on mower backwards without incident, I’m certain I can manage a scooter that’s going forwards.”
“Well, just try not to mow anyone down,” said Hilda.
“Very amusing, dear.” Evadne stared at the controls. “Now let me see. I turn that and press on that… I release the brake and…”
Evadne guided the Vespa slowly out of the courtyard gates and onto the road.
The road was empty as they began their journey. Evadne was still tense at first though, concentrating on navigating the Vespa and resolutely ignoring all attempts at communication from Hilda. However, after a quarter of an hour with no mishaps, she began to relax.
“I think I’m getting the hang of this now!” she shouted back to Hilda.
“Dear, I really think…” came the muffled reply.
But Evadne was staring down at the speedometer.
“Twenty-five kilometers an hour…” She furrowed her brow. “Divide by 2 and add…”
“Hold on a minute, Hilda!” Evadne raised her eyebrows in disbelief. “So that’s about 15 miles an hour! Gracious, perhaps I ought to slow down a little and…”
“Evadne!” shrieked Hilda.
Frowning, Evadne looked up at the road ahead.
There was a car coming straight at them.
“Oh, dear God!”
Evadne swerved violently out of the way but then managed to right the Vespa.
“Heavens, that was a near—!”
Another car was coming at them.
Evadne swerved again.
Another car appeared, and then another.
“Where are they all coming from?!” yelled Evadne.
Shoulders forward, she swerved in and out, while Hilda hung on and screamed her lungs out.
Eventually though Hilda started banging on Evadne’s shoulder.
“Look! A sign!” she yelled. “There’s the boarding house! Pull over! Pull over!”
Evadne got into the side of the road and gradually slowed the Vespa to a stop, as the traffic continued to whizz on past them.
Hilda quivered for a moment before managing to remove her hands from Evadne’s waist.
“Thank heavens that’s over,” she said, beginning to take off her helmet.
Evadne removed her own helmet and swivelled round. “Well, I don’t like to generalise, dear but I have to say the Italians do seem to deserve their reputation for reckless driving.”
“Oh, I don’t think they can take all the blame,” said Hilda, as she watched her hands shaking.
“No?” said Evadne.
Hilda handed her helmet to Evadne and dismounted.
“I rather think you should have been driving on the righthand side of the road.”
And leaving Evadne with a somewhat frozen expression, Hilda headed for the boarding house and knocked on the front door.
“Well, you could have told me!” said Evadne, catching up with Hilda.
But Hilda was already smiling politely at the elderly lady who had opened the door.
Evadne turned her attention to the lady and smiled too.
“Ken Wilson?” asked Evadne. “We’re… dall’Inghilterra.”
The lady nodded cautiously and saying something in Italian, disappeared again.
Hilda looked at Evadne worriedly. “Really, are you sure..?”
Evadne frowned at her. “Just follow my lead, Hilda. We’re not going to directly accuse him of anything. Just let’s see how things go.”
She turned back her attention back to the doorway just as a man approached.
He looked at them blankly.
“Yes?” he said in a London accent.
Evadne smiled briskly. “Mr. Wilson? I don’t suppose you remember us.”
Wilson smiled back. “No, I’m afraid I don’t.”
“We were at the Rosa Charles company together,” said Hilda. “Just for a short while.”
Wilson laughed a little. “Seems a bit of a long way to come for a reunion. I’m sorry—I don’t quite…”
“Evadne Hinge and Hilda Bracket,” said Evadne. “Does that ring a bell?”
For one moment, what looked like anxiety showed on Wilson’s face before disappearing again. “Perhaps you’d better come in.”
Evadne’s smile didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Thank you. That’s very kind.”
The boarding house’s communal living room was empty. Wilson gestured at the chairs, and they all sat down.
“So,” he said. “What’s this all about?”
Evadne elegantly crossed her legs and rested her hands on top. “It’s about what happened at Rosa Charles while Dame Hilda and myself were left in charge.”
Wilson glanced at Hilda and then back to Evadne.
“Look, I wasn’t there very long and…”
Evadne gave him a tight smile. “But you were there when all that money went missing.” She looked him in the eye. “The fact of the matter is, Mr. Wilson—” She paused dramatically. “We know what happened!”
Wilson stared at her, apparently unconcerned. “Do you?”
“And… we’re thinking about taking that information to the police,” said Evadne.
Wilson looked unruffled. “I really don’t think the police are going to be interested in the events of thirty years ago.”
“Maybe not. But what about your wife!” said Hilda.
Wilson visibly flinched and Evadne looked at Hilda in surprise.
Evadne quickly got back into character. “Well, Mr. Wilson?”
“Yes, yes. You’ve made your point.” He glared at Evadne. “You are not to bother my wife with all this. I’ll put my hand up to everything I did if it’ll make you happier.”
Evadne settled back in her seat. “I think it might, Mr. Wilson. Do go on.”
Wilson shifted. “Look, it wasn’t blackmail.”
“What?” Evadne sat up straight again and shared a bemused look with Hilda. “What do you mean?”
Wilson shrugged. “I just caught them at it. And they voluntarily gave me a bit of cash to keep quiet and not call the police.”
“Wait,” said Hilda, shaking her head. “You caught someone taking money from the safe.”
“Yes, of course.” Wilson gave them a bewildered look. “Isn’t that why you’re here?”
Hilda waved a hand vaguely. “Well…”
“Yes, indeed. That is why we came,” interrupted Evadne smoothly. “Do continue, Mr. Wilson.”
“Well, I didn’t realise until after you two were arrested how much money was involved or I wouldn’t have got involved myself,” said Wilson.
“So…” said Evadne. “You knew we were innocent but said nothing to the police.”
“Well, I didn’t want to get arrested myself, did I?” said Wilson. “Look, I knew you were innocent and you’d get off, and you did!”
“It would have been nice not to have gone through the trial though,” said Evadne coolly.
“Look, I’m sorry,” said Wilson. “I wasn’t much for caring about other people at the time. But I met my wife soon after leaving Rosa Charles and she’s kept me on the straight and narrow ever since.” He indicated his surroundings. “Which is why I’m trekking round on these bloody tours instead of living in comfort. I don’t want my wife upset, so just tell me what you want from me.”
Evadne leant forward. “Just tell us one thing, Mr. Wilson—who stole the money?”
Hilda leant forward too. “Yes, Mr. Wilson?”
Wilson held up his hands. “Look, anything but that. I can’t say.”
Evadne grimaced. “Honour amongst thieves, eh?”
Wilson shrugged. “I don’t want to save my own skin at the expense of dropping someone else in it. I may be a changed man but I made my decision at the time to keep silent and I’m going to stick to that.”
He looked at Evadne defiantly.
“So if you’re going to tell my wife about my past, I’d like to have the opportunity to tell her first.”
Evadne leant back and sighed. “Of course we’re not going to tell your wife.” She indicated Hilda and herself. “We just want to clear our names. After all, we did nothing wrong at all.”
Wilson gave an embarrassed smile. “I’m sorry, ladies. But I just can’t help you.”
They returned the Vespa, Hilda gave the manager an awkward explanation about it being the wrong Ken Wilson after all, and they made their way back to the hotel.
“So that really is that!” said Hilda once they were back in their shared room. “We truly have come to a dead end this time—that was our only lead.”
“I suppose so,” said Evadne. “We can’t force Wilson to tell us what he knows.” She frowned. “It’s just so frustrating being so close to the answer and not...” She sat down heavily on her bed. “Well, there’s nothing else we can do in Italy. Do you want to stay for the rest of our booking or..?”
“Oh, heavens no,” said Hilda, sitting down on her own bed. “I’ve had enough of the entire thing.”
“Me too.” Evadne sighed. “Well, I’ll phone the airport—see if we can get a return flight tomorrow.”
Once they’d landed in London they made their weary way back to the club.
“Let’s have lunch,” said Evadne as they set down their bags. “And then we’ll face the train.”
Hilda nodded. “I have to say I’m certainly in no hurry to get back to Stackton.”
As they were signing in with Sharon, Mabel came out to greet them.
“Any news?” she called cheerfully. But then she caught their expressions. “Oh. I see.”
Mabel gave Sharon an apologetic smile, and she, Hilda and Evadne moved a discreet distance away from the reception desk.
Evadne dropped her voice. “We did find Wilson. And he knows who was responsible.”
“But he won’t tell us!” said Hilda.
“Damn.” Mabel looked from Hilda to Evadne. “Can’t you put any pressure on him? Say you’ll ask the police to question him about it instead?”
“We’ve already gone down that route,” said Evadne. “The problem is that he thinks staying quiet is the honourable thing to do.” She held up her hands in resignation. “And we don’t want his wife to suffer by the police getting involved. Wilson made some mistakes in the past but he’s living an honest life now.”
Mabel straightened her shoulders. “Right then, ladies. Wilson won’t tell you—so what’s our next line of enquiry going to be?”
Hilda’s eyes were wide. “There isn’t going to be one!”
Mabel started to protest but Evadne interrupted her. “No, really, Mabel. Enough is enough. We’ve decided to concede defeat. We’re just going to have something to eat and then go back to Stackton.”
Mabel looked at them for a moment, and then nodded sympathetically. “Yes, all right. It is up to you, of course.”
She gestured towards the dining room.
“But I insist you have your meal on me.”
She led them to a table and once they were seated, handed them a menu each.
“Now, what would you like? Order anything you want!”
Hilda stared at the menu. “I must admit I don’t feel like anything fancy. Just something light.”
Evadne nodded. “I know what you mean. I just keep turning things over and over in my head... I don’t really have an appetite.”
“Maybe a salad? Or a poached egg?” suggested Mabel.
“An egg does sound nice, I have to—” Evadne froze.
Mabel looked at her in some alarm. “What is it? Are you all right?”
“An egg,” said Evadne, gazing out into space.
“Yes, dear. So Mabel said.” Hilda studied the menu. “As well as poached, there’s scrambled, eggs Benedict, an omelette…”
“No, Hilda—an egg.”
Hilda looked up at Evadne in bemusement.
A grin started to spread across Mabel’s face. “Evadne, are you onto something?”
Evadne raised an eyebrow. “You know, I do believe I might have… ‘cracked’ it.”
Mabel groaned, but didn’t lose her grin.
Evadne beamed across at a bewildered Hilda. “Come on then, dear, let’s order our meal. Something substantial, mind—I rather think we’re going to have retrace our steps…”
And so once again they found themselves standing on a recently visited doorstep.
Hilda and Evadne exchanged a glance, and then Evadne took a deep breath and knocked firmly on the door.
There was a pause and the door opened, revealing a familiar figure.
“Dodie,” said Evadne. “May we come in?”
The three of them sat together in Dodie’s living room, Dodie looking at Hilda and Evadne cautiously.
“You know… I’m really not sure what this is all about.”
Evadne made herself comfortable in her chair. “It’s about that lead you gave us, Dodie.”
“About who might have taken the money at Rosa Charles,” said Hilda.
Dodie looked bemused. “Well, it was just a suggestion, you know. Was it any help?”
“It did get us started in our investigation, yes,” said Evadne. “We went to see Boothby Pagnell.”
Dodie relaxed a little and beamed. “Oh, Boothby! How is he? And Nunton?”
“They’re both very well,” said Evadne. “And they managed to come up with a possible suspect for us.”
“Oh..?” said Dodie.
“Yes—Ken Wilson,” said Hilda. “You probably don’t remember him.”
Dodie furrowed her brow. “No, I don’t think I do.”
“Trumpet player. But he wasn’t with us very long—must have joined shortly before you and Courtney left,” said Evadne.
“And you think he might be the guilty party?” Dodie frowned. “But surely there’s no chance of you tracking him down after all these years.”
“We thought it was worth a try anyway,” said Evadne. She smiled. “So we went to visit Sybilla Strang.”
“Oh, Sybilla…” Dodie smiled too. “What a lovely wedding.” She put her hand to her mouth. “Oh, I think you weren’t there, were you? I believe Sybilla may have thought you were dead.”
Hilda rolled her eyes. “Yes, so we heard.” She inclined her head. “Sybilla’s done very well for herself, hasn’t she? Lovely big house and garden. Gorgeous furniture.”
Dodie gave a little gasp. “You mean— You think she was involved with the money being stolen? With this Wilson character?”
Evadne looked thoughtful. “It’s always a possibility. Though Sybilla did have a reasonable career, and I can believe her when she says she did well with her investments.”
Evadne looked at Hilda.
“Well, you remember, dear. Sybilla always had a cool head when it came to a wager. During bridge tournaments she used to clean us out.”
Hilda nodded ruefully.
Dodie waved a hand. “So… did Sybilla tell you where to find this trumpet player then?”
“Unfortunately she had no idea where he was,” said Evadne.
Dodie placed her hands in her lap. “So that’s that then?”
“Well, not quite.” Evadne raised an enquiring eyebrow. “You remember Mabel Rivington? Owns Queens of the Theatre? She offered to put the word out on the grapevine. And she actually managed to track him down in Italy.”
“We’ve just returned from visiting him,” said Hilda.
“And he confessed?” asked Dodie, eyes wide.
“No,” said Evadne. “But he knows who did it. However, he refuses to say.”
“I see.” Dodie frowned. “Evadne, I don’t quite see why you’re letting me know all this though. There isn’t anything more I can tell you.”
Evadne smiled. “But I haven’t quite finished the story. After we returned from Italy, we went for lunch at Queens of the Theatre. And Mabel suggested an egg.”
Dodie shook her head. “Evadne, I’m a little lost…”
“And do you know what popped into my mind?” Evadne gazed at Dodie. “Your ‘nest egg’.”
Dodie shifted in her chair. “Evadne…”
Evadne gestured around. “Here you are with your splendid bed and breakfast, and with Dodie’s Pantry in Stackton.”
Hilda leant forward a little. “Two businesses. You and Courtney have really done most terribly well.”
Dodie smiled awkwardly. “Well, we were always careful with our savings.”
“You would have had to have been.” Evadne quirked an eyebrow. “Your musical career wasn’t terribly successful, was it? In fact, it was… What would you say the word was, Hilda?”
“Abysmal,” said Hilda.
“Oh!” said Dodie, shrinking back somewhat. “I really don’t think…”
“There was a reason you never progressed past understudy at Rosa Charles,” said Hilda. “You just didn’t have the voice.”
Dodie sat up straight. “That’s not fair! I was never given the chance to prove myself on stage. That’s why Courtney and I left—to do our own thing.”
“But still, you must admit it wasn’t a sparkling career,” said Evadne. “And the career and the earnings simply don’t balance.” She abruptly pointed at Dodie. “Because you didn’t earn all of the money, did you? You were the one who stole the cash from Rosa Charles!”
Dodie smiled uncomfortably and twisted awkwardly away. “Don’t be ridiculous! Of course I didn’t.”
“Yes. We did.”
Evadne and Hilda turned to see Courtney in the doorway.
“Courtney,” said Dodie. “Don’t…”
“It’s time we owned up to it, dear.”
Courtney nodded grimly to Hilda and Evadne, and went to take a seat next to his wife.
“Oh, Courtney…” Dodie leant on her husband’s shoulder and sobbed a little.
Courtney patted her hand, and turned to Evadne. “We were equally to blame—we came up with the idea together. The books were in such a mess when I started working in the accounts department—I used to joke that I could easily squirrel away money and no-one would ever notice.”
“I see,” said Evadne icily.
Courtney looked at Dodie again. “And then when we decided to strike out on our own with our own act…”
Dodie laughed through her tears. “Oh, don’t be so noble, Courtney. It was my idea to take the money. I was the one who talked you into it.”
Courtney shook his head. “I knew it was wrong.”
“Yes, it was.” Hilda looked at them aghast. “How could you both! Evadne and I nearly went to prison. And we wore ourselves out trying to recoup the money afterwards.”
“It was only ever meant to be a… well, a loan,” said Dodie. “We thought we could use the money for booking theatres and for tour expenses, and then pay it back later.”
“But how?” said Evadne. “Courtney was no longer an accountant for the company. Were you going to leave it wrapped in brown paper on Mr. Micklethwaite’s doorstep?”
“We would have found a way,” protested Dodie. “But then…”
“But then you were arrested,” said Courtney. He glanced at his wife and sighed. “We couldn’t risk drawing any attention to ourselves.”
Evadne gazed at him steadily. “But you would happily have watched us be blamed for it?”
“No!” said Courtney. “Of course I would have come forward if you’d been convicted. But I didn’t want attention to be drawn to Dodie if I could help it.”
“How very chivalrous,” said Hilda, clenching her jaw.
“I’m sorry, Hilda. I truly am. It was a stupid and selfish thing to do.” Courtney took his wife’s hand. “So. I take it you’ll be going to the police now?”
Hilda and Evadne exchanged a look. Hilda held up her hands and shrugged.
Evadne looked back at Courtney and Dodie. “I must admit I hadn’t thought that far. I’m not sure what I want to do—I simply wanted to find out the truth and prove our innocence.” She glanced briefly at Hilda. “But to be honest, I remember how afraid we were in that dock and I don’t think I can find it in me to put you both through that.”
Hilda sighed and nodded. “Yes, I wouldn’t want that either.”
Courtney gave a little relieved smile.
“Oh, Hilda! Evadne!” sobbed Dodie. “Thank you.”
“But you’re going to have the pay the money back,” said Evadne. “Sell one of your businesses maybe.”
“Yes, of course,” said Courtney.
Hilda frowned. “But who are they going to pay the money to? The company’s closed. Mr. Micklethwaite died years ago. And he didn’t have any close relatives.”
“Don’t you remember, dear? What little remained after the business was eventually wound up was used to start the Rosa Charles Charity for Distressed Performers.”
Evadne gave Dodie and Courtney a significant look.
“Perhaps it might be a good idea to make a few donations to it. A few large donations.”
Dodie and Courtney exchanged glances, and then looked at Evadne and Hilda and nodded.
After getting a train back to Stackton station, Hilda and Evadne went to the taxi office to order a car to take them and their luggage back to Utopia Ltd.
“So that’s that,” said Evadne, as they walked over. “We found out the truth, we exacted some kind of justice. But we can’t tell anyone that Dodie and Courtney were the real thieves—not even Mabel. We’re in exactly the same position we were in when we left. Everyone here is going to continue to think we’re guilty.”
Hilda sighed. “Perhaps you were right, dear. Maybe we should move away. Make a fresh start.”
She leant in at the dispatch window.
“A taxi to Utopia Ltd, please.”
Evadne gave a little rueful laugh. “Do you want us to pay up front?”
The woman on dispatch looked embarrassed. “Of course not, Doctor Hinge. In fact, Mrs. Foxfield said you were allowed a trip on the house once you were back.”
“Really?” Evadne frowned. “Why?”
The woman smiled awkwardly. “Because you’re such good customers.”
The taxi dropped them at home, and Evadne fished out her front door key. “Well, that’s something. At least the taxi company seems to like us again. Pity nobody else does.”
Hilda yawned. “Let’s get some rest and maybe the world will seem brighter tomorrow.”
First thing in the morning they went out shopping to replenish the larder.
“We better go to the post office first,” said Evadne moodily. “Remember—we’re going to need plenty of cash as no-one will give us credit.”
“I’m really not keen on facing Mr. Jenkins again,” said Hilda. “But I suppose needs must.”
They entered the post office together with shoulders slumped.
“Dame Hilda! Doctor Hinge!” Mr. Jenkins beamed at them. “How lovely to see you again.”
Hilda and Evadne stared at him.
“Thank you, Mr. Jenkins.” Hilda gingerly approached the counter and handed over the pension books. “Could we both collect two weeks, please? We’ve been away.”
“Of course! Of course!” Mr. Jenkins counted out the money and stamped the books. He looked up. “I must say it surprises me that you claim pensions.”
Hilda flinched. She glanced at Evadne, and then looked back at Mr. Jenkins. “Really? And why would that be?”
“Because you both look far too young to be pensioners!” Mr. Jenkins cheerfully handed over the books and the money. “Hope to see you again soon, ladies!”
Outside the post office Hilda looked bewildered. “What on earth is going on, Evadne?”
Evadne looked around cautiously. “Perhaps they’re trying to lull us into a false feeling of security before running us out of town with blazing torches and pitchforks.”
Hilda shuddered. “Don’t, dear.” She consulted her list. “Right then—let’s get Ptolman’s out of the way.”
Mr. Ptolman, Junior was perfectly polite to them, and quickly put together their order of sausages and chops.
Evadne dipped into her handbag to find her purse. “So how much does that come to?”
Mr. Ptolman smiled. “You needn’t pay for it now, Doctor. I can put it on your account until the end of the month, if you prefer.”
Evadne furrowed her brow. “But…”
Hilda placed a hand on her arm, and addressed Mr. Ptolman. “That would be wonderful. Thank you so much.”
“This is really beginning to unsettle me,” whispered Evadne when they were outside again. “Everyone is behaving perfectly normally.”
“I can see why that would unnerve you in Stackton, dear,” said Hilda. She gave a little shrug. “But let’s make the most of it and do the rest of the shopping.”
After depositing the shopping back at Utopia Ltd they went to visit Mr. Butler.
“Doctor Hinge!” he smiled as he opened the door. “How wonderful to see you safely back. Dame Hilda too! I hope you found the house exactly as you left it: do come in—I’ll return your key to you.”
Evadne returned his smile as she and Hilda entered. “Thank you so much, Mr. Butler. We’re so grateful for all you’ve done for us while we’ve been away.”
“Think nothing of it,” said Mr. Butler. “It was the least I could do.” He regarded Evadne and Hilda cautiously. “Is… everything sorted out?”
Hilda sighed. “In a way.”
“We’ve found out… certain information,” said Evadne. “But we’ve decided not to take things any further.”
Mr. Butler held up a hand. “Say no more, Doctor. I’m just glad this unpleasantness is in the past.”
“But that’s the thing, Mr. Butler.” Evadne automatically lowered her voice. “We don’t know why the unpleasantness is in the past. I mean, everyone is treating us just as they treated us before. I can’t understand it.”
Mr. Butler looked somewhat bashful. “Well, that may have something to do with me, Doctor.”
“Really?” Evadne raised her eyebrows. “How so?”
“I… had a little word with people,” said Mr. Butler.
Hilda and Evadne looked somewhat taken aback.
“Oh, nothing that would embarrass you both,” said Mr. Butler. “I simply discreetly reminded our neighbours of what a lot you have done for this community. For example, I pointed out to Mrs. Foxfield that she always used to talk about what generous tippers you are.” Mr. Butler paused. “Well, what a generous tipper Doctor Hinge is.”
Hilda looked a little put out, and Mr. Butler hurried to continue.
“And I reminded Mr. Ptolman of how Dame Hilda gave him good publicity—raving about his scrag end.”
Hilda nodded, happy again. “Not much meat on it but a real treat in the right hands.”
“I even suggested to the vicar that ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged’ might be an interesting subject to write about for the parish magazine.” Mr. Butler shook his head. “It’s dreadful really. People hear a little bit of gossip and then completely forget everything they know about a person. I simply helped to reset the balance.”
Hilda smiled at him. “Well, I have to say it really seems to have done the trick.”
“Yes, indeed,” beamed Evadne. “Thanks to you, Mr. Butler, I think things truly might be back to normal.”
“Is it just us tonight?” asked Hilda a fortnight later, once she, Evadne and the vicar were all settled around the table for the parish meeting.
The vicar nodded. “I’m afraid so. Mrs. Shanks has contacted me to offer her apologies about not attending.” He hesitated. “She also let me know that, owing to her present circumstances, she thought it might be best to tender her resignation as treasurer.”
Evadne looked solemn. “Well, I have to say I think that’s perhaps a sensible decision. Joan isn’t truly qualified to act in that particular capacity and she should never have put herself forward. She really doesn’t have a leg to stand on.”
The vicar smiled weakly. “It’s more her arm that’s the problem. Apparently she’s now broken the other one.”
Evadne’s face fell. “Oh, good heavens.”
Hilda shook her head. “Poor, poor Joan.”
“Yes, indeed,” said the vicar. “Mrs. Shanks will be in hospital for quite some time so feels she would be unable to keep up with the responsibilities of being treasurer.” The vicar looked hopeful. “So… I was wondering if you two ladies might like to…”
Evadne smiled back at him.
“Donald. I think I can speak for Hilda and myself when I say we are greatly honoured that you are willing to trust us with the church funds again. And I think we can both say about accepting these posts…”
“Absolutely, definitely not,” said Hilda.
Evadne nodded firmly but was still smiling. “We’ll let someone else continue on with the books, Donald. I think Hilda and I will stick with our happy ending.”