Foul Play at Four
She’s worked through all the days of the week, turning up clues and scrubbing up both messes and murderers in the village of Long Farnden. But crime is a persistent stain, and Lois Meade is finding that sleuthing is rarely a spotless endeavor...
Magistrate Mrs. Tollervey-Jones represents the upper crust of the village, although nowadays she lives alone at the Farnden Hall estate without a staff to attend to her. Fortunately, Lois Meade’s cleaning company visits twice a week.
But Lois’s help is needed elsewhere as a series of robberies begins to plague Long Farnden. Lois’s own daughter is shaken when a thief robs her grocery store till. Good thing Josie’s got a policeman for a fiancé—he’s on the culprit’s trail soon afterward.
Before he can crack the case, though, someone cracks Lois’s husband on the head when he stops in to check on Mrs. Tollervey-Jones and interrupts a burglary. Now Lois—in collaboration once again with the besotted Inspector Cowgill—must determine who cleaned out the magistrate’s mansion, and clean up after an increasingly violent crime spree…
“For heaven’s sake, Mother, slow down!”
Lois Meade and her daughter, Josie, were returning home in New Brooms’ van, Lois cheerfully breaking the speed limit and accompanying a Beatles track at the top of her voice. As they sped round familiar corners, almost on two wheels, Josie stood hard on an imaginary brake and made a mammoth effort to quiet her urge to open the door and jump. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, Dad would say. “‘We all live in a yellow submarine!’” she bellowed, only a fraction out of tune.
“Hey, shut up a minute, Josie!” Lois said suddenly, leaning forward and braking sharply. “Look! Isn’t that Mrs. T-J’s car? Looks like she’s gone off the road. Come on, let’s take a look. Quickly!”
They hurried over to the big car, and saw that it had come to rest at an angle, its front wheels in the ditch.
“Oh no, she’s still in it! Look, Mum, she’s slumped over the wheel.”
Lois already had her mobile in hand and dialled for an ambulance and the police. When she had finished, she said that they should probably try to open the driver’s-side door and see what there was to be done. To their relief, the door opened easily, and as they leaned in, Mrs. Tollervey-Jones stirred and groaned. Then she pulled herself away from the steering wheel and looked around in a daze.
“Mrs. Meade! What on earth have you done? Why am I in the ditch? For goodness’ sake, woman, help me out.”
Not much wrong with her, then, thought Lois, and between them, she and Josie helped the heavy old woman out of her car.
“Take it easy, now. You may have damaged something. Stop moving the minute you feel any pain,” said Josie anxiously.
In no time at all, an ambulance arrived, accompanied by a wailing police car driven by Sergeant Matthew Vickers, who not entirely coincidentally was the fiancé of Josie Meade and nephew of the legendary Detective Chief Inspector Hunter Cowgill.
“Matthew! Thank goodness it’s you,” Josie said, whilst Lois greeted the paramedics and led them to where Mrs. Tollervey-Jones was perching on the edge of the sloping car seat, frowning and protesting that all this was totally unnecessary, and that all she needed was Thornbull’s tractor to pull her car out of the ditch.
The paramedics answered her soothingly and said that she should come with them to the hospital, just as a precaution. “We need to check you over, madam,” the fresh-faced youngster said.
“Absolute nonsense,” she replied. “I have no time to waste this . . .” Her voice faded away, and the two paramedics caught her expertly as she keeled over in a faint.
Farnden Hall was a pleasant mansion in the heart of England, and had been the home of the Tollervey-Joneses for many years. In earlier days, the nearby village of Long Farnden had served the hall and farmland, supplying maidservants, agricultural workers, gardeners, grooms and horsemen, and drivers for carriages and then cars. Money had been plentiful, and the family had taken their life of rural ease for granted.
Along with this, they had had a sense of responsibility for their village and its residents. The Tollervey-Joneses had been patriarchal, looking after the health and welfare of villagers, repairing their cottages, sorting out their problems. Sometimes the solutions were harsh, but on the whole they were considered fair and kindly.
Now it was very different. Investments had dwindled, and the costs of running the estate—even with cuts and reductions—were high. Mrs. Tollervey-Jones lived alone in the echoing mansion, with one part-time gardener, one old mare in the stable, and twice a week the services of New Brooms cleaning team, the successful business run by Lois Meade.
This morning the old lady had received her council tax bill, and her mind had been fixed on the impossibility of paying it when she swerved to avoid a large, loping hare and ran into the ditch. “Didn’t want to kill the animal,” she said weakly now, her memory returning.
The paramedics nodded consolingly and said that as soon as she had been checked, they would take her home again. Unless there was someone who would come to pick her up from the hospital?
“Like who?” she said crossly, her voice growing stronger. “My son lives in London, and has a family to look after, and an important position to maintain.” And important though it may be, she reminded herself, in these difficult times he could not afford to prejudice his job by taking time off to visit his old mother. Or so he said.
“Someone in the village, perhaps? That nice lady with the van seemed very helpful.”
“Mrs. Meade? Never a minute to spare, that one.” She closed her eyes and sighed, realising just how alone and friendless she felt. Then she opened them again, and said, “But her husband, Derek Meade, might help. Very nice man. On my parish council. Always willing to help. Telephone him.”
“We’ll see to that later, Mrs. Tollervey-Jones. Now, here we are. Don’t move until we say so.”
Derek was working in Waltonby, a village four or five miles from Farnden, when he received a call on his mobile. He knew the voice at once, even though it was more mellow than usual, no doubt because its owner was asking a favour.
“Yes, I could manage that, Mrs. Tollervey-Jones,” he said. “Just sit quietly in the reception area. I have to make this job safe to leave, and then I’ll be with you. Sorry you’ve had an accident. Don’t worry, I’ll be there.”
Derek was an electrician, and he and his wife, Lois, together with her mother, Mrs. Weedon, known to most village people as Gran, lived in a substantial Victorian house in the main street. Derek and a few friends from the pub had won the lottery jackpot, and he and Lois had been able to install their daughter, Josie, in the village shop when it came up for sale. She had now become a highly respected and experienced shopkeeper, and the village was waiting curiously to see what would happen when she married her policeman.
Lois had been a cleaner working on her own, but her independent and ambitious nature had led her to set up the New Brooms cleaning team of loyal cleaners, including one, Andrew, who also took on interior décor projects. All this worked harmoniously, with Gran more or less running the household, and Lois and Derek between them financing it.
But not all was harmony, unhappily for Derek. His still desirable and lively Lois had for some years been enjoying assignments which involved working with one Detective Chief Inspector Hunter Cowgill of Tresham CID. Ferretin’, Derek called it. He disapproved strongly, especially as, being no fool, he had come to see that Cowgill was unprofessionally fond of Lois. This affection was not reciprocated, so far as Derek could tell, but it was an irritant, like the grit in the oyster, which he felt could at any time turn into a black pearl.
Sometimes Derek wondered if he would feel happier about this ferretin’ if Lois was willing to put the whole thing on a professional footing and receive financial reward. But she refused payment, saying it was a hobby, and she took on only cases that appealed to her, or involved the family.
When Derek arrived at the hospital, Mrs. T-J, as she was known far and wide, was standing on the outside steps waiting for him. He helped her into the passenger seat of his van and set off slowly through the back streets of Tresham, taking a shortcut to avoid the town centre.
“Kind of you, Derek. A lot of fuss about nothing. Can I give you something for the petrol?”
Derek shook his head. “No need. I was able to pick up some stuff I needed on my way in. Just you take care of yourself, now. Shall I ask Lois to call? You might need an extra hand for a day or two.”
“I might need it,” she said, “but I certainly cannot afford it. No, don’t worry. I shall be fine. And I always have the telephone if I need help.” If it hasn’t been cut off for nonpayment of the bill, she thought to herself, and said no more until they drove into the stable yard of the hall and Derek helped her into the kitchen.
“Sure you’ll be all right now?” he said, and when she said he was to think no more about it, he left, but not without a feeling of unease.
Lois, Derek and Gran were sitting at the big table in the kitchen, with Lois’s small cairn terrier curled up in front of the Rayburn, idly chatting after a substantial supper prepared by Gran.
“So did she say what was wrong with her? Did she doze off and steer off the road, or did they think it was something like a little stroke, like your father used to have, Lois?”
“I don’t know, Mum. Ask Derek. He brought her home.”
Derek shook his head. “You know only too well our Mrs. T-J, magistrate and chairman of the bench, is renowned for being a tough old bat in court. If they did suspect that she was past it, and even driving without due care and attention, she wasn’t going to tell me, was she?”
“Well, she must be a good age,” said Gran. “Must be nearly seventy. They have to retire from being a magistrate at seventy. She never stops. Parish council, magistrates court, chairman of the local Conservatives . . .”
“And President of the Women’s Institute,” added Lois. “Which reminds me, aren’t you going to WI tonight? They’ve got that woman who sings and dances and changes costumes as she goes. A one-woman musical show, she says on her leaflet.”
“Lovely Betty,” Gran said, peering at the luridly coloured flier. She looked at the clock. “Plenty of time,” she said. “I’m not doing teas tonight. You coming, Lois?”
Lois was about to refuse as usual, but then thought it might be a bit of a laugh. She had had a trying day, with Dot Nimmo, the sparkiest member of her cleaning team, registering an angry complaint that one of their clients, a farmer’s wife over at Waltonby, had said she hadn’t washed the floor properly and made her do it again. Lois had smoothed her down with difficulty, and had promised to have a word with the client. Yes, she thought now, Lovely Betty might be just what she needed.
It was a cold, windy evening, and Gran and Lois walked quickly down to the village hall, well wrapped in scarves and gloves.
“Soon be Christmas,” Gran said as they approached. “Only ten weeks to go.”
Twenty or so women had gathered and were sitting in a semicircle in front of the President’s table, where Mrs. T-J sat in earnest conversation with the secretary, Mrs. Pickering from Blackberry Gardens, mother of Floss, one of Lois’s cleaners, and a good friend of Gran.
“Here she comes,” whispered Lois to her mother. A tall, plump woman, with shining blonde curls and liberally applied makeup, hovered in the doorway, carrying two heavy cases and smiling hopefully. In time-honoured WI fashion, Mrs. T-J and everyone else ignored her completely, and it was left to Lois to walk over and offer a welcome and a helping hand.
Finally the members were settled in their chairs, the business of the meeting dispensed with in record time, and Lovely Betty was introduced.
“You can have half an hour, Mrs. er . . .” said Mrs. T-J. “We like to have our tea and biscuits then. Most of us like to get home to watch television by nine o’clock.”
“Right then,” said Betty, stung into a sharper tone than she’d intended. She usually performed in old folks’ homes, and was used to a warmer welcome than this lot offered. She sighed. It was going to be hard work, she guessed, and rightly. The semicircle folded their hands and dared her to amuse them.
After a while, one or two members began to mumble the old songs along with Betty, as she proceeded to change her costume from soldier boy off to the war, to music hall favourite, to Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, and many more.
Lois felt deeply sorry for her, and decided to do something about it. “Come on, you lot,” she said. “We can do better than that. Can we have a request, Betty?”
A grateful Betty said of course, if she had the music for it on her sound system. “Right, let’s have some suggestions, then,” Lois said, ignoring the evil looks directed at her.
Gran helped out immediately. “My favourite was Vera Lynn’s song about the White Cliffs of Dover,” she said, and Betty smiled widely. “Wonderful,” she agreed, and found the accompaniment at once. With a wavy brown wig and soulful expression, Betty became a very creditable Vera, and was relieved to see that most of the ladies remembered the words and were singing lustily.
At the end of the allotted half hour, Mrs. T-J looked at her watch and began a stiff little vote of thanks, and all members clapped heartily. They were on Betty’s side now, and intended to make up for their President’s chilly words.
It was not until tea had been served and Betty had been positioned on a chair next to Gran, that Lois noticed Mrs. T-J standing by a row of coat pegs used by the daily play group, holding on with one hand and passing the other across her eyes, as if to clear her vision. Lois walked over to her, but not rapidly enough. Just as if an invisible arm had scooped her legs from under her, Mrs. T-J folded heavily on to the wooden floor with a loud thud.
This time she did not lose consciousness, and with help struggled to her feet looking dazed. She quickly regained her composure and sternly forbade any of the worried women to telephone for an ambulance.
“Well, one thing’s sure,” said Lois firmly. “You’re not driving yourself home. Your car will be quite safe round the back here, and I’ll run you home.”
“In a van with ‘New Brooms’ emblazoned on the side?” said Mrs. T-J, quite restored. “Well, I suppose I must accept your offer, Mrs. Meade. Perhaps you will organise returning my car to me tomorrow. I have to go into Tresham.” She had arranged to see her bank manager in the afternoon, and was not looking forward to the meeting.
Lois gritted her teeth and said she would do her best. Then she extracted a promise from Mrs. T-J that she would make an appointment to see her doctor as soon as possible. “After all, twice in one day is a warning that something might be wrong,” she said.
“I thought you were very brave, Lois,” Gran said when they got home. “She actually listened to you, though, so she probably knows in her heart of hearts that something is not right.”
“So I expect you and me will have to get her car back to her?” Derek said when they told him what had happened. “It’s a pity that son of hers don’t live closer. She’s got nobody else to turn to, really, has she?”
Gran shook her head. “Not like you lot,” she said smugly. “I’m always here, a tower of strength and reliability.”
Lois and Derek looked at one another. “And we are eternally grateful,” they chorused.
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