When an early morning call wakes Vicky from the arms of her dream man, reality had better be worth it - and it is. A tipster tells her about the secret funeral of local celebrity Scarlett Flemming, organised by her grieving husband Doug. The entire town is baffled by the sudden death and oddly discreet funeral. After all, in life Scarlett had hardly been a shrinking violet. Vicky's suspicions are heightened when she learns of the Flemmings' shaky finances - and that Doug has as many admirers as Scarlett had enemies. And while canvassing suspects and juggling three potential suitors, Vicky must stay one step ahead of a killer once she realises she's no longer writing an obituary - she's writing an expose!
Release date: September 20, 2012
Publisher: C & R Crime
Print pages: 322
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A Vicky Hill Mystery: Exposé!
‘Are you Vicky Hill?’ a woman said in a low voice.
‘It depends,’ I said crossly. It’s not often I dream of the elusively gorgeous Lieutenant Robin Berry but when I do, I resent being woken up at the crucial moment.
‘Don’t you do the funerals?’
When I mumbled that I did, she said, ‘You’ve got to get to St Peter’s. It’s urgent.’
‘Now?’ I glanced over at the clock on the nightstand. It was barely six thirty. ‘You must be mistaken,’ I said. ‘Reverend Whittler is away on holiday and everything is on hold until he gets back.’ In fact, Whittler had left strict instructions with Dr Frost and Coroner Cripps that bodies from any deaths arising whilst he was in Disney World were to be kept in cold storage at Gipping morgue.
There was a long pause on the other end of the line.
‘Who is this?’ I said.
‘Don’t bother. I’ll phone the other girl—’
‘No. Don’t do that,’ I said quickly, knowing full well that the ‘other girl’ could only mean my nemesis and rival, Annabel Lake. ‘I’m on my way. Hello? Are you still there?’
The phone was dead. I immediately hit one-four-seven-one only to be told by an infuriating mechanical voice that the ‘number you have called is not in service.’
As I dragged on the jeans, sweater, clean underwear, socks and sneakers I always left folded and ready on the floor next to my bed (childhood memories of nighttime police raids die hard), I wondered who on earth could have died and why I was only finding out about it now.
Frankly, I was grateful to the mystery woman. In the one hundred and forty-odd years of being in existence, the Gipping Gazette had never once missed sending a reporter to the church to record the names of all the mourners. The thought that I almost broke the tradition was too horrible to bear.
I hurried down the stairs surprised that my landlady, Mrs Evans, was not in the kitchen listening to Radio Two. It was unusual for her to sleep in. I was sorely tempted to grab a quick cuppa and slice of toast but the tone of the caller implied it was urgent.
Donning my helmet and goggles, I set off on my red Yamaha SRI25. Within minutes, 21 Factory Terrace was far behind me. I headed north toward Upper Gipping, taking the shortcut through the narrow country lanes flanked by green, luscious hedgerows.
It was a gloriously sunny May morning. Lambs frolicked in the fields; late-blooming daffodils and primroses sparkled in the early dew. I couldn’t help thinking it was a lovely day for a funeral.
With practically no traffic at this early hour – apart from the odd tractor en route to a field – I reached St Peter’s the Martyr in record time.
Turning into Church Lane, the twelfth-century grey stone Norman church peeped between the treetops a quarter of a mile further on. I entered the gravel car park and discovered two cars were parked outside the wooden lych-gate.
One was a hearse – and an unconventional one at that.
It was an American Cadillac – the sort seen in old movies from the sixties. Faded black, scalloped curtains hung in the large picture windows. Embellished in gothic-styled lettering on the side panels was Go-Go GOTHIC – OUR PASSENGERS Go ALL THE WAY.
This hearse certainly didn’t belong to Ripley and Ravish, Gipping-on-Plym’s funeral directors – DUST TO DUST WITH DIGNITY – who owned a very smart fleet of Peugeot DA3’s. Besides, they had taken Whittler’s absence as a chance to close their facilities for refurbishing.
I’d heard about rogue funeral outfits such as Horizontal Taxis and Hearsedriver.com available on the Internet. Hatch, Match and Dispatch was a common sight in the less affluent areas of Plymouth, but I never expected to see such a tacky sight in Gipping-on-Plym.
As I pulled up behind the Cadillac, I was astonished to see a sleek black Audi RS Avant with the registration plate DF 007. I recognized it as belonging to Douglas Fleming, the managing director of Gipping-on-Plym Power Services.
Thanks to my usual daily dose of funerals, I prided myself on knowing the domestic state of all my readers. Douglas Fleming had been married to Scarlett, an American from Atlanta, for more than forty years. As far as I knew, they had no children or relatives on this side of the Atlantic so the presence of his car at this early hour was most intriguing.
What’s more, Douglas Fleming came from an old Devonian family and was unlikely to flaunt convention. Besides, Scarlett was as ostentatious as her namesake from Gone With the Wind. Everything she did had to be bigger and better than everyone else. From hiring a team of gardeners so she could win the Best-Garden-of-Gipping prize, to training with a French pastry chef and snagging the Best-Victoria-Sponge trophy at Gipping Church Fête.
Taking out my Canon Digital Rebel, I ran off a few quick snaps of the American Cadillac both inside and out. The hearse had none of the gleaming brass and burnished wood fixtures that any of the Ripley and Ravish Peugeots boasted. I even spied an empty wine bottle, a half-eaten egg-and-cress sandwich and a copy of Land Ahoy! a well-known guidebook to Plymouth nightlife.
My curiosity was piqued.
Passing through the church lych-gate, I took the short cut diagonally across the cemetery, taking care not to trample on late-blooming daffodils. Within minutes my sneakers were soaked through with early morning dew.
The churchyard was enormous. I scanned the rows of lichen-covered headstones for any sign of life – no pun intended – and then recalled that the Flemings kept a family vault in the posh part of St Peter’s.
Known locally as Albert Square, the private enclosure had been created in the late nineteenth century during Queen Victoria’s reign when Gipping-on-Plym had a thriving wool and textile industry.
Located in the sheltered southwest corner, Albert Square was enclosed by a beautifully clipped yew hedge and accessed by a six-foot-high, wrought-iron gate flanked by stone angels. The gate stood ajar.
As I drew closer, I noted paper streamers and dead flowers were woven through the railings. One stone angel even wore a cone-shaped party hat – all remnants from another grand Devon family funeral held a few weeks earlier.
Ninety-five-year-old Samuel K. Larch’s tragic passing had been a true celebration of an eccentric life – or death – depending on how well you knew him. Everyone from the newspaper was invited to the post-service shin-dig and we all got plastered on scrumpy and cheap sherry, which was more than I could say for this morning’s sad event.
It was one of the reasons that I took my job as funeral reporter extremely seriously. Someone had to record a life – however insignificant – for posterity. Someone had to make that life count.
I pushed open the gate and stepped inside. Albert Square housed four marble tabernacles adorned with winged, trumpeting angels, a pyramid – Sammy Larch’s final resting place – made of granite guarded by two small sphinxes, three identical miniature Greek temples with ornate porticos, and a Gothic chapel choked with brambles behind rusting iron railings. All were crammed into a space not much bigger than Gipping’s village hall and knee-deep in weeds. The place seemed deserted.
For a horrible moment, I thought I must be in the wrong location until I spotted wheeled track marks – presumably left by some kind of trolley – in the tall grass hugging the yew hedge boundary.
I set off, surprised to find a further overgrown area tucked away around a corner. Albert Square was more of an L-shape and not a square at all.
Two figures and a hospital trolley stood next to the entrance of a stone burial vault carved with gargoyles. No doubt, pallbearers were an extra charge.
I recognized Douglas Fleming immediately. He was smoking a cigarette with a man wearing a Victorian frock coat, pinstripe trousers, and top hat who had his back to me.
‘Morning gents!’ I called out and walked over to join them.
Douglas Fleming saw me, gave a start of surprise, and dropped his cigarette into the tall grass. ‘Why, it’s Vicky! Goodness,’ he said, grinding the butt under his heel. ‘What a piece of luck. I was going to come and see you later.’
The Victorian frock-coated gent turned to me and said, ‘Neil Titley, Esquire. Nice to meet you.’
‘Hello.’ I tried hard not to stare at the ghoulish-looking man before me. Kohl pencil-rimmed dark brown eyes with white face powder gave him a deathly pale complexion. His large Roman nose lay slightly bent and flattened as if someone had punched him full in the face and he hadn’t bothered to see a doctor.
‘Allow me to introduce Vicky Hill from our local newspaper,’ Douglas Fleming said.
‘Gipping Gazette,’ I said, offering my hand.
‘Delighted.’ Neil Titley took it in his leather-clad own and held it just a little too long. I caught a whiff of cigarette breath. ‘Here’s my business card,’ he went on, with drawing a small white card from inside his frock-coat pocket. It was the cheap print-your-own variety, available at any railway station. ‘Funerals are only one service we offer—’
‘Thank you, Mr Titley,’ Douglas Fleming snatched the card out of his grasp. ‘Hardly the right time to tout for new business.’
‘Sorry, sir.’ Neil Titley did not look sorry. He promptly withdrew another card and pushed it into my hand whispering, ‘We accept cash only. No credit cards. Tell your friends and I’ll give them a good price.’
‘Goodbye,’ Douglas Fleming said coldly.
‘Good day to you both.’ Neil Titley touched his top hat and, with practised skill, collapsed the hospital trolley with a snap. ‘May your poor wife rest in peace.’
‘Your wife? Goodness. I am sorry!’ I was stunned. I’d seen Scarlett Fleming only two weeks ago picking up first prize for Gipping’s Bottled Jam Boil-Off. She’d been in rude health judging by the fight she picked with Mayor Rawlings after her preserves had been initially placed third.
‘Was it an accident?’ I said gently.
Douglas Fleming’s eyes filled with tears. ‘It happened so quickly. One moment she was alive and the next . . .’ He shook his head with despair. ‘I just can’t believe it.’
Nor could I.
Something wasn’t right. Pete Chambers, our chief reporter, had a hotline to Gipping Police Station, Fire Station, and morgue for accidents and fatalities. We also had informers dotted around Devon eager to earn fifteen pounds for any gossip worth printing.
Given Douglas Fleming’s stature in the community, it was astonishing that this tragedy might have passed by unnoticed had it not been for that mystery phone call this morning. It also occurred to me that whoever made that call was not here, either.
‘I’ve written a short paragraph for your newspaper,’ said Douglas Fleming. ‘I know there will be some people who won’t be happy that we didn’t have a big bash, but’ – he wiped away a tear – ‘this is exactly what Scarlett wanted – a quiet funeral with no fuss.’
‘Of course,’ I said, thinking a lot of Gipping church goers would feel incensed about being cheated out of a slap-up meal especially since Scarlett Fleming was regarded as a local celebrity.
‘My Scarlett led a very simple life,’ Douglas Fleming went on. ‘She didn’t like to draw attention to herself.’
I stifled a snort of disbelief. Were we talking about the same person? My landlady, Mrs Evans, ran a cleaning business called Doing-it-Daily and counted the Flemings as one of her clients. She always enjoyed gossiping about Scarlett’s glamorous lifestyle. The twice-weekly manicures in Plymouth to keep her acrylic nails in peak condition, the private yoga classes with a trainer rumoured to have worked in Los Angeles, and her brand-new Range Rover Vogue SE with the personalized number plate, SCLTT.
‘Scarlett always said that if she died before me’ – Fleming swallowed hard – ‘a quickie burial was her only request. Even her coffin is plain. Would you like to see it?’ He withdrew a heavy ornate key from his pocket. ‘I can unlock the vault.’
‘No thanks.’ I studied Douglas Fleming’s expression. His face was etched with grief. This was not the time to question him further about the gory details. He was obviously still in shock.
‘Perhaps I should come to your house this afternoon?’ This would give me a chance to ring emergency services and get the real scoop on Scarlett Fleming.
‘I’m going to the office,’ he said. ‘Being alone at Headcellars with all those memories is more than I can bear. Come before we close, just before three.’
Mr Fleming escorted me back to the car park in silence. It was only when we reached the lych-gate and he stopped to usher me through, that he spoke again. ‘I know I should have called you about this but I couldn’t face it,’ he said. ‘How did you find out?’
‘I got tipped off. A woman phoned but wouldn’t give her name. I was going to mention it earlier but somehow, it didn’t seem the right thing.’
‘Tipped off?’ Douglas Fleming frowned. ‘Who on earth . . . oh, dear.’
‘Do you know who it could be?’
‘I’m afraid I might.’ Douglas Fleming turned pale. ‘Good God!’ He lowered his voice and whispered, ‘Look no further. I believe your answer is over there.’
A silver Ford Fiesta was parked on the far side of the church car park in the shadows.
I was flabbergasted. ‘Doesn’t that car belong to Eunice Pratt?’
It was a well-known fact that she remained wildly infatuated with Douglas Fleming, her childhood sweetheart, but how she found out about this morning’s burial so quickly was anyone’s guess.
‘Forgive me. I must go.’ Douglas Fleming grabbed my hands and squeezed them tightly in his own. ‘Please, Vicky. I can’t deal with her now. Would you mind?’
And with that, he hurried to his Audi and leapt in, just as a slight figure with a lavender-coloured perm scrambled out of the Fiesta shouting, ‘Dougie! Dougie! Wait!’
Mr Fleming appeared not to hear. He gunned the engine and tore past her at high speed as if his life depended on it.
Eunice scurried toward me, her face shining with excitement. ‘It’s true isn’t it?’ she cried. ‘Scarlett Fleming is dead. Dougie is mine at last!’
Eunice Pratt engulfed me in a warm embrace. Her pale blue twinset and beige skirt smelled strongly of lavender water and mothballs. She was so thin I feared she might snap in two.
Mrs Pratt was not one of my favourite people. She was a bitter woman in her sixties with a nasty temper. She was also the love of my life’s – Lieutenant Robin Berry – aunt. Given that Robin adored her, it was important I keep on her good side. Of course, Robin and I hadn’t actually gone on our first proper date yet but it wasn’t for want of trying. On the two occasions we’d made dinner plans, he’d had to cancel at the last minute, due to ‘top secret naval business’.
‘I can’t thank you enough, dearest Vicky,’ Eunice Pratt cried.
‘I didn’t do anything,’ I said, gently extricating myself.
‘Of course you did.’ She beamed. ‘You gave me hope. If you hadn’t told me how Dougie felt, I’d never have dared to dream.’
How horribly awkward! A few weeks ago, I had inadvertently hinted that the embers of her school day romance with Douglas Fleming may not have grown cold, but it was just a passing remark to make her feel special. Unfortunately, given the speed with which Douglas Fleming had peeled out of the church car park, it would appear that as far as he was concerned, those embers had definitely fizzled out.
‘I had no idea Scarlett was ill,’ Mrs Pratt chattered on happily. ‘I wonder what she died of – probably her heart. She had high blood pressure, you know – and of course, that dreadful temper. Poor Dougie. Good riddance to bad rubbish is what I say.’
I hadn’t expected heartfelt sympathies but Mrs Pratt’s callous remark got me thinking. ‘By the way, thank you for telephoning this morning.’
She looked blank. ‘I don’t know what you are talking about.’
‘Don’t you remember?’ I said indulgently. I was used to dealing with these senior lapses of memory. ‘You told me to get a reporter to St Peter’s immediately but didn’t want to leave your name?’
‘Are you implying I made an anonymous call?’ Mrs Pratt said, appalled.
‘It was certainly not me,’ she snapped.
The funny thing was, I actually believed she was telling the truth. Even if she had forgotten she’d made that phone call, Eunice Pratt would always leave her name.
Rather like her dead rival, Mrs Pratt basked in the limelight and never missed an opportunity to plug her latest petition, no matter how inappropriate the circumstances. At Sammy Larch’s funeral I caught her handing out inflammatory flyers condemning the British government’s plans to add loudspeakers to the numerous CCTV cameras that were now installed throughout the country. ‘A shocking invasion of privacy!’ Eunice claimed and I had to admit she could be right.
I wondered what prompted Douglas Fleming to suggest his former love had been the caller. ‘How did you hear about today’s sad event?’
Mrs Pratt turned a mottled shade of red. ‘I was just passing by and recognized Dougie’s car.’
‘Really? That was lucky.’ Hardly passing by. Church Lane was off the main road and dead-ended in a field.
A peculiar feeling came over me. Surely there wasn’t anything sinister about Scarlett Fleming’s death? Good grief! What if Eunice and Douglas Fleming were having an affair? What if they’d knocked Scarlett off and he was only pretending to dislike her to throw me off the scent? Now I thought about it, Fleming’s hasty get-away exit from the car park had seemed staged.
‘A lot of people are going to be disappointed that Mrs Fleming wasn’t given a traditional funeral,’ I said slyly. ‘Don’t you think that odd?’
‘Why? She wasn’t very popular.’ Nor was Sammy Larch, I thought, and people turned up in droves for his official departure. ‘I assume she’ll still get her fifteen minutes of fame on page eleven?’ Eunice added.
‘Yes. I will be writing Mrs Fleming’s obituary,’ I said. ‘I’m going to see Mr Fleming this afternoon.’
‘Good. I must pay my respects, too. I’ll come with you and bring one of my homemade cakes.’
‘I might just phone him instead,’ I said quickly.
‘I’ve been learning to cook. She was a good cook, you know. But I shall be better.’
I checked my watch and gave a yelp of horror. Every Thursday morning, Pete held a Page One meeting. I was going to be late. ‘Sorry, Mrs Pratt, I’d love to stop and chat but I have to dash.’
‘Do call me Eunice,’ she said, grabbing my arm. ‘Tell you what, why don’t you come for supper tonight and we can talk about this more?’
I hesitated. The thought of sitting amongst live chickens in a kitchen that smelled of damp dog, listening to Eunice fantasizing about a future with Douglas Fleming was not my idea of fun. But sometimes one had to make sacrifices to get the truth. I was quite certain my heroine, Christiane Amanpour, had endured far worse meals out on the battlefield.
‘I’d love to,’ I said with as much enthusiasm as I could muster.
‘It’s formal attire. Come at six.’ She gave a happy nod. ‘I’m making monkfish medallions with tomato lemon coulis followed by snow eggs with pistachio custard and chocolate drizzle.’
‘It sounds delicious,’ I said – and alarmingly ambitious. Still, better than the usual liver and onions I got every Thursday night at Chez Evans. ‘Yes. I’m having a practice run,’ Eunice said. ‘And of course, Dougie loved fish Fridays at school.’
As I sped back to the Gazette, my mind was spinning. A mysterious phone call, a much-loved wife practically buried in secret, a dubious funeral company, and an old flame so anxious to reunite with her former lover that she admitted to taking up cooking!
Call me suspicious, but I wondered if Douglas Fleming and Eunice were up to something. The question was could it involve murder?
It was well past nine by the time I rushed into reception. ‘There you are,’ cried Barbara Meadows, our sixty-something you’re-as-old-as-you-feel receptionist. Dressed in her usual shapeless, purple hand-knitted cardigan over a crimplene polka-dot dress, Barbara was perched on the edge of one of the hideous brown leatherette chairs. It looked like she was wrestling with an extremely large, deflated exercise ball. ‘Annabel has rung down twice wondering where you were.’
‘Plym Bridge was closed. I had to go the long way around. But Pete knows.’ I’d sent him a text and left an explanation on his mobile. Experience had shown that I couldn’t rely on Barbara or Annabel to pass on messages. The former genuinely forgot – and the latter pretended to.
‘Hair, dear. Take this.’ Barbara reached into her cardigan pocket and withdrew a tortoiseshell mirror and comb. She always wore her iron grey tresses scraped into a tight bun. ‘You look like you’ve just got out of bed,’ she went on, with a knowing wink. Barbara always had sex on the brain.
I pretended not to hear. ‘No time,’ I said, hurrying past.
Ignoring her cries of ‘You really should grow it,’ and, ‘Men love long hair,’ I left reception and tore upstairs.
The other reporters were already in Pete’s office judging by the angry voices coming from behind his closed door. Someone other than me was in the hot seat this morning.
I hovered outside – not eavesdropping, of course – just waiting for the right kind of lull so I could make my entrance.
‘Find yourself another sports writer,’ I heard Tony Perkins yell. ‘I’m through!’
Pete’s door flew open, narrowly avoiding knocking me off my feet. Tony stormed out and slammed it behind him, hard. His thin, pointed face was white with rage. With his lank, shoulder-length brown hair, a growth of stubble on his chin, and dressed in a tattered, old grey sweatshirt emblazoned with the logo GIPPING GROWLERS – our local foot ball team – Tony looked even scruffier than usual.
I was just about to rap on Pete’s office door when an ominous voice stopped me in my tracks.
‘What’s all this caterwauling?’ Wilf Veysey, our reclusive editor, emerged from his corner office. Dressed in his trademark brown tweed jacket and corduroy trousers, he cradled his Dunhill pipe in his hand. His one good eye zoomed in on Tony, giving me the chance to duck behind my desk out of Wilf’s range of vision.
‘Tony?’ said Wilf sternly. ‘Come into my office and close the door.’ I waited until Tony had done just that, then darted into Pete’s. This was bad. No one liked to disturb the great man.
Pete was standing by the window, shirtsleeves rolled up, wearing ancient jeans and gnawing on the end of a pencil. I hated this room. It was small, cramped and stuffy and still smelled of stale cigarettes despite the fact Pete had given up smoking months ago.
‘Well, good afternoon,’ Pete snapped. ‘Glad you decided to stop by.’
‘Sorry I’m late,’ I said. ‘I left a . . . never mind.’ Blast! Pete’s mobile was recharging on the top of his filing cabinet.
‘Don’t get so stressed you silly thing.’ Annabel was sharing the tartan two-seater sofa with Edward Lyle, our court reporter. Today, Annabel was dressed simply in a plain cream V-neck T-shirt dress that accentuated her curves. Gold chains hung around her neck and she wore espadr. . .
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