ANNE CLEELAND

Writer

Murder In Spite

Chapter 1

 

 It was a shame, about the little baby. Not that she’d ever cared much for babies, of course.

 

    Doyle considered the elegant menu-card laid before her and could not help but compare this train-trip with the last one she’d taken, the day she’d traveled from Dublin to London, two-thirds terrified and one-third hopeful. Her mother had packed her a lunch, because they weren’t certain whether there would be any food available. Doyle, of course, had been too self-conscious to eat it, sitting cheek-by-jowl between two strangers in third-class.  

    “Perhaps you could make your peace with the fish,” Acton teased, glancing at her over the top of his own menu. Doyle didn’t care for fish, having worked a stint in a Dublin fish-market; an occupation that played no small part in her decision to strike out for London.

    “There is not the smallest chance,” she replied. “Fish are the work o’ the devil; those starin’ eyes still give me the willies.”

    She was traveling with her husband in the train’s first-class dining room, going to Holyhead before taking the ferry over to Dublin.  Doyle had recently given birth to their first child, and Acton thought it would be a good time to take a trip to see Doyle’s hometown. He’d wanted to hire a private train, but Doyle had found that idea a bridge too far, and so they’d compromised on public first-class.

    “Somethin’ quick,” Doyle cautioned. She’d discovered that when one had a baby, one lived the other parts of one’s life in forty-five minute intervals. “The soup sounds good.”

    Acton signaled to the hovering waiter, and placed the order.

    With a smile, she reached for the bread basket. “Irish butter—there’s nothin’ better, but I’d best watch myself; have to get back to fightin’ trim, or you’ll leave me for the next fishmonger who wanders by your window.”

    “Nonsense; you are perfectly delightful.”

    As she buttered her bread, she gave him a look. “Meanin’ that I actually have a bosom for the first time, and you are findin’ it fascinatin’.”

    “I will miss it, when it is gone,” he admitted.

    Savoring the moment, she took a blissful bite of the buttered bread, as the car jostled rhythmically along its journey. “As will baby Edward—faith, you’d think he’d blow up like a balloon, what with all the eatin’ he’s been doin’.  I think he must be naturally scrawny, like me—or like I used to be, anyways.”

    Smiling, he decided to take his own piece of bread. “You are hardier than you appear, though.”

    “Comes of bein’ shot-up, and such,” she agreed, and licked a fingertip.  They were both detectives at Scotland Yard, and Doyle had experienced more than her share of gunshot wounds.

    As he broke the bread with his fingers, his eyes rested on her for a thoughtful moment. “Can you tell me what is bothering you, Kathleen?”

    Trust him to know something was amiss; he knew her better than she knew herself, sometimes. With a small frown, she drew a finger along the crisp linen tablecloth, and chose her words carefully.  “I don’t know, Michael; I’m feelin’ as though this may not be the best idea, just now—to go adventurin’ off to Ireland.”

    “Oh? I would like to see where you lived.”

    She smiled, as this was true. What was also true—but remained unspoken—was that he wanted her well-away from whatever was going forward back home, at the Met.   She didn’t know what it was, but that something ominous was happening seemed a given. She knew the signs.

    He continued, “And a visit to the new orphanage would probably be in order.”

    “Aye—we’ve got to let the nuns know that we’re keepin’ an eye on them; no funny-business allowed.”  This would, in fact, be a welcome diversion—to see St. Brigid’s again, and the orphanage that she and Acton had founded at her old school.  Doyle had lived a hard-scrabble life until she’d gathered up the courage to apply to the Metropolitan Police force in London, in the hopes of becoming a detective. Promptly upon graduating from the Crime Academy, she’d been assigned to be Chief Inspector Acton’s support officer—which was something of a surprise, since the much-renowned DCI had a reputation for being reclusive, and not one for suffering fools.

    The reason behind this unlikely assignment soon became clear, however, because Doyle’s superior officer proposed marriage out of the blue, and—unable to come up with a plausible excuse—she’d accepted.  As a result of this impetuous decision, she was now Lady Acton, riding in a first-class railway car on her triumphant return to Dublin, and never having to look at another fish-eye again.  Life was a crackin’ wonderment; truly.

    “I can’t put on airs at St. Brigid’s,” she warned. “They know better.”

    “There will be no airs of any kind,” he assured her, and decided to take another piece of bread. 

    “Reynolds can’t come, then,” she teased, trying to shake off her uneasiness.  They were traveling with Reynolds, their butler, who tended to be more cognizant of Lord Acton’s rank and importance than Lord Acton himself, and it was doubtful that the servant could downplay this exalted status, even if he were so inclined.

    “Just the two of us will go, then.”

    This was welcome news, as—aside from Reynolds—they were also traveling with Mary, Edward’s nanny, Mary’s young daughter Gemma, and Trenton, who acted as security. It seemed that upper-class traveling necessarily involved a great many people coming along, and Doyle had feared she’d have little time alone with her husband.  “I’ll take Edward to St. Brigid’s, too—I imagine they’d like to see him. I can manage, since he tends to sleep all the time, anyways—I’ll put him in that chest carrier.”

    “Don’t let him squash your new bosom.”

    “Edward’s just as concerned about that as you are, believe me.”

    The soup was served, and they ate for a few minutes in companionable silence, until he ventured, “Is it anything in particular, or just a general feeling?”

    She paused to consider the remains of her soup bowl—she hadn’t managed to throw him off the subject then, which came as no surprise, since he’d a fine-tuned radar, when it came to her. “No—nothin’ in particular, Michael; I’m just a bit fashed, for no good reason.  Mayhap it’s my hormones, runnin’ amok.”

    Doyle had a rare gift—well, if one could call it a gift—in that she was what the Irish would call “fey”; she had an extraordinary perceptive ability which mainly meant that she could read the emotions of the people in her vicinity, and could usually tell when lies were being told, which was a very useful tool when one was a detective, even though no one really knew of her abilities, save Acton.  The other detectives at the CID only knew that she was top-of-the-class in interrogation technique, but bottom-of-the-class in everything else—except for marrying one’s superior officer, of course.  In that, she’d carried off the palm.

    It also meant that she didn’t like crowds, or traveling—faith, this trip was sounding less and less like a good idea—not to mention she’d a husband who was well-familiar with her abilities, and so was being careful to hide from her whatever-it-was that he was up to.  

    That he was up to something seemed a given; beneath his correct, polite, public-school demeanor—so much-loved by the citizenry—lurked a rather bloodthirsty vigilante who did not hesitate to take justice into his own hands, up to and including manipulating evidence so that the right people went to prison or were simply murdered, if it seemed that manipulating the evidence wasn’t going to turn the trick.

    And she couldn’t just ask him outright about whatever his latest scheme was, because he would be reluctant to tell her on the fear that she’d try to spike his guns—she was probably the only person on earth who could persuade him to spike his guns.  He was a complicated man, but he was devoted to her—sometimes overly-devoted, truth to tell—and because she loved him in return, she spent a great deal of her time and energy trying to save him from himself.

    Pausing with this thought, she gazed at the passing scenery for a moment, because she’d the sense—she’d the sense that Acton wasn’t exactly up to something; instead, Acton wanted her well-away from whatever was going forward, back home.  It couldn’t be a coincidence, that her mobile phone was having service problems. And—although he was a busy DCI, and running a huge caseload of major crimes—he’d not been checking in at all; or not that she’d noticed.

    Another flippin’ crisis, she thought with resignation, and hoped that she could handle whatever-it-was in forty-five minute intervals.

    Acton checked his watch. “An hour or so, until Holyhead.”

    “Then comes the ferry-ride,” Doyle added brightly, trying to sound enthusiastic. On the ferry ride to London, she’d been a bit seasick, and was rather dreading a repeat performance.

    “We’ll stay away from the crowds,” he assured her, and reached to take her hand.

    Touched, she pinned on a smile to reassure him. Truth to tell, he didn’t like this any more than she did; he wasn’t much for traveling, either—faith, Acton didn’t like being amongst other human beings as a general policy.  Unfortunately, this was yet another indication that he was bound-and-determined to take them away from London, for the nonce, and for reasons which were unknown but which could probably not withstand the light of day.

    I wonder what’s happening back home, she thought, as she dipped a surreptitious fingertip into the butter, and then brought it to her mouth.  Hopefully, the Met would still be standing when they returned, although when Acton was involved, one never knew.

    She was startled out of her thoughts by Mary, Edward’s nanny, who suddenly came through the dining car door, holding Edward in his chest-carrier and looking a bit wild-eyed.  She was accompanied by Trenton—Acton’s private security person—and as Doyle rose, she noted that Trenton met her husband’s eyes with some sort of message.

    “Why, Mary—whatever’s happened?”

    Blushing, the young woman swallowed, and glanced up at Trenton. “I feel so foolish, Lady Acton—and to think I may have—I may have—”

    “Sit yourself down, Mary—and have some tea. Here, let me take Edward.”  This, mainly because Doyle wanted to make certain the baby was all right, but he was sound asleep, and made no protest when his mother pulled him into her arms.

    Acton was sitting quietly, although Doyle knew he was on high alert, and she recognized the interview technique—oftentimes a detective had to be patient with an agitated witness.  Agitated witnesses tended to over-explain, so one would eventually hear the whole story; it would just take a bit longer.

    Doyle shifted Edward to her other arm and reached to take Mary’s hand. “Tell us what’s happened, Mary—no harm done, after all.”

    The stricken nanny lifted her face. “Oh—oh, but Lady Acton; when I think—”

    “The vestibule door came open,” Trenton interjected. Not being a police officer, Trenton had no patience for interviewing techniques.

    Doyle tried to tamp down her alarm. The vestibule was the enclosed area between the train carriages, and the passengers had to negotiate the vestibules as they walked from one carriage to another.  “The emergency door opened?”

    “I must have knocked the lever,” Mary confessed. “I was so very foolish, Lady Acton—I was trying to find better reception for my mobile, and I wasn’t paying attention.  Then suddenly I could feel the wind, rushing by, and I stumbled—”

    “Was there anyone with you, in the vestibule?” Acton’s voice was calm, and matter-of-fact.

    Doyle was so surprised by the implication behind the question that she caught her breath, but Mary saw nothing amiss, and confessed, “Oh, yes—there were people going in and out, and jostling a bit.  I shouldn’t have stopped to fiddle with my mobile—I’m so sorry.” She paused, then glanced up at Trenton in gratitude. “Mr. Trenton pulled me back, and then another man slammed the door shut.”

    “No harm done, Mary,” Doyle repeated firmly. “Edward’s due for a feedin’ anyway, so I’d best get it done before we get to Holyhead. Let’s all go back to our compartments, then.”

    They all rose, and made their way out of the dining carriage, Doyle holding the baby and noting that Trenton walked before her, watchful and alert, as they made their way back to their own carriage.

    As soon as Mary was dropped off at her own compartment, Doyle cast a glance over her shoulder at Acton, as they navigated the narrow hallway. “Tell me what it is you’re thinkin’, husband.” 

    Acton held the door for her, as she passed into their own compartment, and then Trenton firmly closed the door from the outside. “It may be nothing, Kathleen.  But it seems unusual that the automatic alarm didn’t sound.”

    Much struck, she considered this, as she sank into the upholstered seat and unbuttoned her blouse. “Oh—oh, of course, it should have.” But thinking this over, she frowned. “I don’t know, Michael—it seems unlikely that anyone would make an attempt on Mary—or even Edward, for that matter—by hopin’ to get a chance to shove them out a train door.”

    “Yes; a very unreliable means and mode.”  His unreadable gaze rested on the baby, and she knew that his mind was turning over possibilities.  Interesting, that his attention had been caught, and not in a good way.

    She glanced up at him, as she gently jostled Edward so that he didn’t fall back to sleep, which he was wont to do after taking the first hearty gulp. “Should we have a look at the manifest—to see if there’s anyone of interest?”

    “Already accomplished.”

    This only made sense; as a result of his chosen profession, Acton had a basketful of enemies, and so he’d be very cautious when venturing away from their security flat in Kensington.  In a way, it reassured her; Acton would take no chances, and Acton was no fool.  It must have been a dereliction by the train personnel—the alarm wasn’t functioning—and they were unlucky, at most. As she’d said to Mary, no harm done.

    Thinking about it, Doyle ventured, “I imagine Mary was tryin’ to ring up Howard, and shame on you, for muckin’ up the phones. Let this be a lesson.”  Mary had recently become romantically involved with one of Acton’s acquaintances, and it seemed clear they were both well-smitten—not a good time to be away from home and discover that one’s mobile was not working.

    He didn’t deny this accusation, but instead rested his thoughtful gaze on the baby. “I thought it would be a welcome change to remain incommunicado.”

    Doyle took a guess at what “incommunicado” meant, and chided, “That won’t wash, husband; you’re one who’s got a finger in every imaginable pie. You’d no more go off the grid than you’d fly to the moon.” She paused, and then decided she may as well take the bull by the horns. “What is it, then, that you’re not wantin’ me to find out?”

    He did not disclaim—he knew she’d know, if he told an untruth—and so he thought carefully about his answer for a moment. “Only that there have been some distasteful spite murders, coming onto the docket lately.  It is my preference that neither of us is called in on those cases.” 

    “Done,” she agreed willingly, knowing that what he’d said was true, but also knowing that this was not exactly the reason he wanted her well-away.  Spite-murders were always distasteful, as they were the result of the killer’s raging fury; the motive tended to be personal, and the crimes were messy—often involving multiple stabbings, or mutilation.  However, the excuse didn’t really hold water, since the illustrious Chief Inspector could pick and choose his own assignments, and his support officer was currently dossin’ about on maternity leave. 

    Taking a guess, she ventured, “I think that one or two of the blacklegs from the Health Professions Council has managed to get himself spite-murdered.”  The Council had been deeply implicated in a recent corruption scandal—a nasty conspiracy that had involved blackmail and sex slavery. However—as yet—there was no direct evidence that would support a charge, and so the prosecutors hadn’t gone after any of the members. As a practical matter, you couldn’t arrest someone in such a high-profile position unless you had an air-tight case.

    “I’d rather not comment.”

    She glanced up at him, and then decided she was in for a penny, in for a pound. “Is it you, doin’ the spite-murderin’?”

    “No,” he replied steadily. “It is not.”

    This was nothing more than what she’d expected—the last thing Acton would do, one would think, would be to involve himself in a spite-murder.  He was too well-bred and would probably shrink at the idea of having to scrub blood-spatter off his shirt-cuffs.

    She brought her gaze down to Edward again. “Then fine, husband; I’ve no objection to stayin’ off the grid, for a bit. Although please let poor Mary phone Howard on occasion, else he’ll be droppin’ whatever he’s doin’ to come and join our wretched tenirue.”

    He smiled, and put a finger within Edward’s little fist, where it rested on her breast. “It is ‘retinue’, but good attempt; I am impressed.”

    “You should be; I never thought I’d ever have a retinue, in the first place.”

    “We’ll keep our travels low-key,” he soothed, lifting his finger to see if the baby would hold on, which he did. “No need to attract unwonted attention.”

     “Well, the first order of business is to keep Trenton from fallin’ in love with Mary; the woman’s a hazard, is what she is.”

    He smiled in amused acknowledgment. “It is rather surprising.”  The soft-spoken nanny had acquired no shortage of admirers before she’d met Howard, even though it never seemed as though she was making the least push to beguile them.

    Doyle teased, “Faith, husband, she reminds me of you—an out-and-out honey-trap. Always attractin’ shirt-tail admirers, left and right—although hers aren’t crazed, which is a point in her favor, I think.”  Due to his title and public status—not to mention his handsome face—Acton had been a target for the lovelorn, some of who’d been willing to commit major crimes so as to achieve the object of their affections.

    “I am not certain how I can answer such a charge without sounding insufferable.”

    Laughing, she met his gaze. “Well, it’s not exactly a secret, husband.  Hopefully Tasza is not gearin’ up to shoot me, herself.”  They’d recently tangled with a female MI 5 officer who seemed to have an out-sized interest in Doyle’s wedded husband.

    “Death before dishonor,” he promised, and kissed her.

    Quirking a corner of her mouth, she lifted Edward and began patting his back.  “I don’t think it will come to that, my friend. You’re an old da, now, and the only crazed admirer left standin’ is your poor wife, whose bosom is only temporary. It’s time to face the sad facts.”

    “Consider the facts faced.”

    With great contentment, they sat together and watched Edward doze, whilst Doyle tried not to notice that Trenton hadn’t budged from his post outside the door.