In a High End Guesthouse by the Sea.
I recognised an old man and woman at breakfast, sitting at the bay window in the sun. Like many longstanding couples they weren't talking.
Both looked older. She peered and wore a countryside skirt. He stooped and wore corduroy. Her hair was dyed younger than her skin and his was almost gone.
I sat where I could see them, just off to one side, at a natural table for one. Not in a direct line of sight, as that might seem odd, but not in a corner either. They shouldn't think I was hiding.
Although I didn't think they'd recognised me, I couldn't be sure. Her, in particular, I remembered as the observant type and probably too refined to let on.
I finished my eggs and reviewed a few pictures on my camera while I considered my plans. I pressed a few buttons, carefully assessed the options and risks, and decided there was time to play the game.
I folded my paper napkin as if it was linen, pushed back my chair, rose unhurriedly and strolled in their direction.
"Good morning. I'm sorry to interrupt, but do I, perhaps, know you? Mr and Mrs Cosgreve?" There was no surprise and no overt response. They stared back patiently waiting for me to complete my greeting. "I believe we met in Egypt?"
It had been a posh tour: ten clients with our own minibus, a driver and two guides; first class connections and all site tickets; gin and cold towel on arrival at each hotel.
"Yes indeed. Of course. Mr Ross? I am terribly sorry - it has been a long time. It's a pleasure to see you - isn't it Fletcher?" Mrs Cosgreve had a well-balanced, expressionless voice, perfect for the church coffee morning. She placed a slight emphasis on her husband's name when she said it.
"Yes Mary, yes, quite so. Mr Ross, a pleasure. Staying here long?" Fletcher Cosgreve was a bluff sort of speaker: tough, puffed up and insistent. He'd sat up in his chair and filled out his chest. The stoop had vanished.
"I leave tomorrow. Yourselves?"
"Ah, yes, not quite sure. Driving tour. May move on today. Perhaps tomorrow. Still making our plans." Mr Cosgreve was flicking conspiratorial glances at his wife.
"Well, if you are still here this evening, it would be pleasant to catch up." I inflicted a polite smile on each of them in turn.
"That would be lovely, I'm sure," said Mrs Cosgreve with intentional vagueness.
I made a cultivated movement which might have been a miniscule bow or an elegant nod and left. At the door of the breakfast room I stopped a waiter.
"Have you seen Lady Chennan this morning? She is the elderly lady in the garden suite." I spoke in a loud voice and Mr Cosgreve's shoulders seemed to stiffen at the aristocratic name.
It turned out that Lady Chennan had not yet come to breakfast. I wasn't surprised. She never eats before lunchtime.
This gave me several hours to my own devices. First, I wandered outside to check the weather. Parked in front of the guesthouse were four cars: mine, an ancient Daimler, a family estate and a two-seat German sports-model. It would be a cold day for a soft-top.
Back at reception a girl was typing notes into a computer.
"Good morning. Sorry to interfere but there's a fresh scratch on the sports car in the carpark. Do you know who it belongs to? Someone probably ought to tell them."
She told me it belonged to a middle-aged couple called Bretton who'd arrived late last night. No-one else had come or gone since, so the scratch must have been caused elsewhere. The receptionist seemed quite defensive so I dropped the point. Instead I scribbled a short note which she kindly placed in the pigeon hole for room six.
Then I took a walk around the village. It was a quaint old place where the seagulls hovered over the sand and the benches were regularly repainted. There was a small post office selling snacks and repellent sandwiches, a gallery full of watercolour seascapes, one passable restaurant and a tiny police station with a helpful, if skeleton, staff. Otherwise the village was mostly chip shops and cafes. My ramble, nonetheless, took longer than you might expect.
I spent the rest of the morning preparing business plans and accounts for Harriet Morton, Lady Chennan. I wanted to have everything ready for our meeting.
Harriet Morton was a fake, through and through. She had so perfected her frauds over ninety-three years that they were now an integral part of everything she did.
Firstly, she was not called Harriet. That came from the nickname, ‘Harry', given to an unruly tomboy. Secondly, she was not an aristocrat. She was the daughter of a shoemaker from Northampton. The title had once been in the family of Tommy Morton, the man whose name she used but had never married, but had become defunct in the early twentieth century. Despite the ancient Daimler neither she nor Tommy had inherited any wealth.
However, when she shuffled into the restaurant for lunch in her faded dress and re-soled shoes I didn't feel sorry for her. Because Harriet Morton also faked how remarkable she was. In a meteoric career she had founded a small business empire, been a special advisor to the Carbon Trust and, briefly, a Liberal MP. The fortune she'd made in the process allowed her freedom to masquerade as a cantankerous old biddy.
The wizened shell hunched across the table from me pretended to struggle with the menu's small type. She was deaf when my comments were boring and was forced by her fickle digestion to eat steak and chips with her troublesome but perfect, adamantine teeth.
"So, my useless grandson sent you to plead his case, did he? I imagine he thinks I like you. Nonetheless, I warn you, if you think I'm going to invest in his hopeless restaurant, you are an imbecile." The plum accent and haughty demeanour betrayed her talent for acting.
"Your grandson is not useless. He's good with people and an excellent cook."
"You mean he's a flimsy, effeminate socialite with a chef's temper. I won't squander money on a boy who doesn't know its value. I'd rather buy a paper tent. The bailiffs will lock the doors for him within a year."
"That's my role. He knows you won't trust him with money so has agreed to give me complete control of the finances."
"So you can shove the lot up your shirt and vanish. What makes you think I trust you, Mr Ross?" she scrabbled in her bag for the peanuts on which she incessantly snacked.
These were just preliminaries. I tried to show her the business plans but she waved them away, claiming not to understand such things. I knew the form. She would have been suspicious if I had not produced them and would, in due course, crawl through every detail. For now, their existence was enough to keep the discussion going.
Mr and Mrs Cosgreve entered the restaurant while we were on dessert. Mr Cosgreve acknowledged me warmly before holding the chair for his wife. He was strutting and confident in country casuals while she had changed into a riding dress. Both sat with ramrod-straight backs and excellent posture.
I explained to Harriet how I had met Fletcher and Martia Cosgreve.
"They must be rich to be on that kind of holiday," she observed.
"He claimed to have done well in commodities. However, I don't think they paid for the tour. They were accompanying a doddery old man who'd apparently always wanted to see the pyramids. Not that he seemed to know what he was looking at when he was there. Totally gaga. Very sad. He died on the last night of the tour and one of the chambermaids apparently rifled through his possessions while his body was still warm. A small amount of foreign exchange disappeared, although his will which, oddly enough, he was carrying with him, wasn't touched. I remember Mrs Cosgreve was outraged. It was all very distressing."
"Quite. How unfortunate for you. Well that's enough excitement for now. Boris will want to give me all sorts of pills. Tell him to bring the car round while I powder my nose."
She always called her chauffeur-nurses Boris. This one's name was actually Andrew. He had an unhealthy obsession with mints and a nut allergy. He was sitting on a painted bench outside the window, eating a sandwich and waiting for us to finish. I mouthed Lady Chennan's instructions to him through the glass.
While both were gone, I flicked through Harriet's handbag, removed a few things which I crushed under a knife and returned the bag as I'd found it. Then I paid the bill and filled the time pushing the mints around the receipt dish.
Andrew drove us back to the guesthouse where an energetic family was piling into the estate. Harriet insisted on being helped from the car before whining, blaming and complaining her way up the steps and down the passage. When Andrew finally got her to the garden suite, I rewarded him with the mints I'd taken from the restaurant.
My session with Lady Chennan had gone well so I returned to my room to increase my financial projections and the amount of investment required. At half three, I made my way to the breakfast room, now serving as a drawing room, for afternoon tea.
The Cosgreves joined me just before four. Their change in clothes seemed to have wiped ten years of worry from both of them.
"Good afternoon, Mr Ross. We got your message at reception. I hope we are not too late to join you," said Mrs Cosgreve when I rose to greet her.
They were a good deal more friendly than they had been at breakfast. We recalled Egypt and the old man who'd died there leaving Mrs Cosgreve a small inheritance. We spoke about the rich old lady who'd given me lunch and how frail she seemed.
"Got the sense to keep a nurse," said Mr Cosgreve, approvingly. "Trustworthy, I hope?"
"She is quite dependent upon him," I agreed. "Without him I'd worry that she'd miss one of her pills - she, herself, barely knows what she takes. Or a fall might leave her unable to summon help. At her age, he's a life-preserver."
This seemed to be some kind of cue for destiny and down the corridor we heard a shrill cry. It was not a scream, but nonetheless an undeniable summons for help. Mr Cosgreve and I exchanged looks and rushed together to the door.
The calls were from Lady Chennan. She was propped in the door of the garden suite shouting at her highest volume.
"Boris! Boris needs help. Ah Ross, - about time - get along, we need to lift him! Quickly." Mr Cosgreve and I lifted Andrew onto a wicker chair where he bent double and gasped painfully.
"Nuts," I said to Harriet.
"Of course, you fool. What else? Only a mild dose. I tell him not to buy sandwiches from newsagents - you never know what's in those things."
"Is he going to recover?" asked Mr Cosgreve, who was shifting uncomfortably looking for something to do, like a soldier without orders.
"He'll be fine," snapped Harriet. "I've given him his injection. Nonetheless, we must get him to a hospital and I'm not about to carry him, am I?"
We agreed to take my car. Mr Cosgreve helped Andrew to the door while I drove round to pick them up. Harriet insisted on coming and bullied the staff nurse into keeping Andrew overnight for monitoring.
By the time we returned to the guesthouse it was getting dark.
"Let's all dine together," I suggested while Mr Cosgreve was collecting the key for room six. "This place does the best dinner in the village, anyway."
I turned to Mr Cosgreve and whispered to him:
"Probably best that someone stays with Lady Chennan at all times until her nurse is released, eh?"
"Good thinking, quite right!" He nodded seriously and puffed his cheeks, apparently pleased with such a role. With a nod he suggested something to Mrs Cosgreve who immediately escorted Lady Chennan in the direction of the garden suite to get ready for dinner. Mr Cosgreve and I stepped into the bar to wait.
When the ladies finally returned, both had dressed up. Martia Cosgreve was in an evening dress and Lady Chennan had chosen to wear a diamond necklace. Although invariably dressed in drab and dowdy clothes, Harriet had a weakness for glitter. I shuddered to think what priceless items might be in her overnight bag.
"Helps calm your nerves after a shock," Mrs Cosgreve explained when her husband asked about the bother of dressing.
Harriet, however, was not letting the shock affect her. She was in a belligerent mood. Twice she said my financial projections were fantasy and my accounts creative, once that the business was just smoke and mirrors. Before I could respond she went on:
"I called my grandson this evening, Ross. He didn't answer. He does know what you're up to, doesn't he? I won't give you a penny without speaking to him in person, you know."
I shrugged off the insinuation. She was just enjoying herself in a manner I considered encouraging. If she didn't plan to invest she wouldn't be setting conditions.
She remained in a combative mood throughout dinner. Mr and Mrs Cosgreve were charming and careful to do everything to please her. I smiled and kept a close eye on everything she consumed. Eventually coffee was ordered and we moved to the drawing room to drink it.
"I wonder how Andrew is getting on?" I mused, as the coffee tray was laid on our table.
"I should call that hospital," replied Harriet holding out her hand with grasping movements. Martia Cosgreve had taken the coffee pot and was pouring out four cups while her husband hovered helpfully with sugar and tongs. I selected the hospital's number and passed my mobile to Harriet. She jumped up and tottered away barking enquiries down the line.
While her back was turned I poured the milk. The Cosgreves were prattling about dogs but each clearly had one ear on Harriet's call. I picked up my coffee and took the chance to leave them for a moment. I smiled to Harriet and, leaving my cup on an empty table by the door, left in the direction of the toilets.
Back in the dining room I asked a waitress for tea. She was very kind and poured a cup then and there.
When I returned to the drawing room Harriet was hanging up her call so I tried to help by passing her coffee to her. Unfortunately she was too busy waving the mobile at me and telling the Cosgreves that Andrew would be discharged in the morning. I had to put down both her coffee and my tea to take it.
I finally managed to give her the tea as we returned to our chairs.
Harriet immediately turned the conversation to the fact that her grandson still had not returned her call.
"I just remind you, Ross, that whatever we agree between us, you'll get nothing until I've spoken to him. You can't keep us apart, you know."
But she was content really. Andrew's news was positive and she had enjoyed her dinner. She didn't even complain when I mentioned her pills. Instead, she sent me to get them and, when I returned, placidly swallowed all I gave her. As I re-entered the drawing room I switched my coffee for the one I'd left by the door earlier in the evening.
We broke up at about ten. Harriet was insistent that she would be fine on her own for one night and none of us wanted to argue with her. I returned to my room and made a brief call before watching the late film with the sound off.
At midnight I decided the coast should be clear. I pulled on a black hooded top and sent a text. Holding my shoes in one hand I slipped down the stairs, put the front door on the latch and, piloting by moonlight, crept around to the guesthouse garden.
One advantage of the garden suite was that it led directly onto a little patio where the occupant could sit on warm days. Access was by French doors which slid open as I pushed them. It had been easy to release the lock when I'd fetched the pills.
The doors led into a sitting room, on one side of which was a box-room for the nurse and on the other a master bedroom for Harriet. The jewellery box would be in the bedroom. I took a quick look around and found a stout walking stick which would serve my purpose. Then I pushed open the door to Lady Chennan's bedroom.
At three a.m., concealed in the shadows of the garden suite's sitting room, I was jolted out of a half-conscious doze by scratching sounds at the corridor door. After a few moments there was a click as the lock turned and the door swung open. A man looked in briefly, removed some delicate tools from the keyhole and withdrew. Immediately a woman pushed past him, padded to the master bedroom and disappeared inside.
I pressed the dial button on my phone. A few rustling noises came from the bedroom and the seconds ticked by. My mobile buzzed silently with an incoming call which I did not answer. Eventually the woman re-entered the sitting room carrying a lumpy pouch. I let her get half way across the room before turning on the light.
"Good evening, Mrs Bretton," I said.
Martia Cosgreve screamed and made a sudden rush for the corridor. Before she reached it a mass of struggling men crashed into the room with fists and arms flying and she was forced to back away. I took aim and whacked one of the combatants with my walking stick.
The struggle became one sided and in a few seconds an overweight policeman was sitting on Fletcher Cosgreve's chest. Behind them, an ageing sergeant occupied the doorway. Arthritic applause came from the box room doorway where Harriet Morton was lurking.
Martia Cosgreve didn't resist. She handed over the bag which contained Lady Chennan's jewellery, other than the necklace she had publicly worn that evening, and was led away. The policemen promised to return for statements after breakfast and, with almost indecent efficiency, Harriet and I were left alone.
"We should celebrate," said Harriet in the silence that followed. "Boris keeps a brandy bottle in his holdall."
We sat in the wicker chairs and stared at the full moon through the French doors.
"I suppose I was right to trust you," she said, grudgingly.
"Thank you for moving to the box room and not asking too many questions. It seems the bags and pillows in your bed were enough to convince Mrs Cosgreve you were still there."
I took a deep breath.
"There was something strange about what happened in Egypt," I started. "The old man died very suddenly and it was bizarre that he was carrying his will. Mrs Cosgreve's outrage at the robbery was also, somehow, excessive. But, despite some uneasiness there was nothing certain so I forgot about it.
"Then I saw the Cosgreves at breakfast and again something seemed wrong. It was as if they were pretending to be different people: older, less proud, less memorable. Their clothes were not the sort they would have worn when I knew them. Fletcher Cosgreve even seemed to get his wife's name wrong. And when I mentioned you they reacted."
"Do you know what an internet search says about you, Harriet? Amongst your many achievements, it mentions that you are over ninety and have an interest in valuable jewellery. That is like catnip to a certain kind of person. I have no doubt the Cosgreves knew your name before I mentioned it.
"Well, they saw an opportunity. But there was no time to win your confidence or build up trust. They would have to hope for a break and act fast if they got one. I suspect nothing would have happened if Andrew had been around. Entering your room would be too risky. But when he was taken ill after eating some mints which…, someone had rubbed in crushed nuts, a golden chance presented itself. Mrs Cosgreve lost no time in checking out your jewellery. Let me guess - when she helped you dress the two of you had a long chat about which necklace to wear?"
"Well yes, she suggested I try a few on. Come to think of it, she brought the subject up."
"And how much are all those pieces you carry around worth?"
"No clue. Hundreds of thousands probably. They're mostly antiques - priceless."
"So the reward was worth the risk. A little poison, an old lady on a cocktail of pills has a heart attack and in the morning her new friends shake their heads in shock. They say how well she looked and what a surprise, but then, you know, at her age... No-one knows you were carrying more than one necklace so no-one thinks to check what's missing. They continue on their driving tour and perhaps even send a small bouquet to the funeral."
"It had to be in the coffee. I was watching all night and they didn't get near your food. Also I suspect they needed to mask something bitter. I switched the cup when you were calling the hospital and the police have taken it for analysis."
"Well anyway, after my initial suspicions, I spent some of the morning doing a little investigation. I checked their car - a two seat convertible - hardly the sort for a spring driving tour in rainy England. And the name they'd given the receptionist was Bretton, not Cosgreve. I confirmed it was them by leaving an invitation to afternoon coffee in their pigeon hole. Of course they accepted - it must have seemed a stroke of luck to them.
"Then I went to the police station. I'd taken a sneaky photo of the Cosgreves at breakfast and the local office sent it on to London. I had a long call with an officer there. It appears the police are aware of our recent friends who have been close to a few too many sudden deaths - all natural causes, of course.
"Anyway, the police wanted to catch them in the act so they arranged to wait around outside all night for the right moment. I left the guesthouse door unlatched so they could get in. A silent phone call from me was the signal that the Cosgreves were in your rooms and a silent return call confirmed they were in place to seize Mr Cosgreve. Turning on the light was the cue to pounce. The sergeant deserves all the credit. Ex-army - planned everything down to the second." "Why did you have to be involved?"
"They only have two officers in the village and they thought you might be happier if it was me who woke you up and stood guard in your rooms."
"Miraculous," said Harriet without meaning it. She reached into her handbag for her nuts and dropped a few into her mouth. "I wondered why I got tea when I ordered coffee."
"Just your grandson's friend, looking out for your interests."
"Nonetheless, if I get this right - I could have been killed?"
"When I told the police about you, we all thought you'd be delighted to take the risk."
There was a long pause before Harriet replied: "Is that supposed to convince me to trust you with my investments?"