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Authors: Joan Dahr Lambert

Tags: #Mystery

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BOOK: Wading Into Murder
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Relieved, Laura walked across the little bridge over the moat to Vicar’s Close. The small streets were twisty and full of shadows. She tried to imagine the black-gowned figures of the medieval choristers, for whom the Close had been built, hurrying back to their Spartan stone dwellings. How cold they must have been in winter!

She was aware suddenly of footsteps behind her. Had Dr. Bernstein managed to follow her despite her caution? Laura ducked into an alley to let the person pass so she could see who it was, but the footsteps stopped. Anger, unexpected and sharp, surged in her. She decided to foil the man. If he was Dr. Bernstein she would give him a piece of her mind; if he was the man who had followed her in Glastonbury who was trying out jeans instead of his trench coat, she would confront him and maybe even get rid of him. If he was the father…Well, she would deal with that if it happened.

Darting out of the alley, she walked rapidly back, giving her follower no time to get away. Not Dr. Bernstein, she realized. This man was younger, huskier. Nor was he the trench coat man, who was tall and slender. Or the father, thank goodness.

Unable to escape, he stared at her impassively; then he turned into a side street. Laura stared after him. He wasn’t a distinctive man, just an ordinary one, rather swarthy, but she was certain she had seen him before. She looked again at his retreating back. She had seen him walk away from her before, too…

Of course! The man in the teashop in Bath! The one she and Violet and Lady Longtree and William had retreated to after Joe had been run down. The man had sat studying a racing form and then gone into a back room to phone in his bet, or so she had assumed as she watched his retreating back.

How crazy! Or was it? Maybe horse racing hadn’t been the man’s real interest; maybe he had been watching her, phoning in a report on her. In fact, she could have been under surveillance by this man, maybe the trench coat and a blue jeans man as well, ever since she had found the baby in the Baths. Maybe the trench coat man had even been searching her room just before she had run into him. She remembered the mess in her closet, the unpleasant smell of disinfectant. Fingerprinting?

Laura frowned. Something nagged at her, as if she hadn’t got the man’s identity quite right. She turned into the narrow street her pursuer had taken, hoping for another look at him. It led her to a second bridge, a bigger one. She started across but ducked quickly behind a stone bulwark when she spotted three people huddled on the far side, talking softly. One of them was the man she had just seen. But who were the others?

The Takaras, she saw in astonishment. She had thought they were taking pictures in the Cathedral. And why were they talking to the man who had been following her? It made no sense at all.

The three moved off, and Laura turned to go back. Footsteps sounded again, not behind her this time, but running away from her. That was a welcome change.

Too curious to resist, Laura followed, and rounded a sharp turn just in time to see the person duck down another alley and disappear. She gasped in shock. Violet! The long legs, the elastic stride and tall figure, the short red hair couldn’t be mistaken.

Except she wasn’t Violet, not really. The person she had seen looked like Violet, but she, or he, was a man.

CHAPTER TEN

Nursing her anger at Violet for deceiving her and at herself for being so easily deceived, Laura stormed into the bathroom to get ready for bed. She would confront Violet tonight, she decided, before her erstwhile friend had a chance to avoid her. Then she remembered that Violet had her own room for tonight and wouldn’t be here.

Frustrated anew, Laura grabbed her toothbrush and scrubbed with unnecessary force at her teeth. An image in the wide mirror caught her eye, and for a moment she almost stopped breathing. A small form lay crumpled in the bathtub behind her; two plump legs stuck out from it at unnatural angles….

Laura turned slowly, not wanting to see, not wanting even to think the object could be what she suspected it was. But it was. A baby, another baby, almost exactly the same size as the baby she had found in the Baths, only this one still hadn’t moved, didn’t look as if it could move. It was all wrong, too crumpled, too still…

Heart pounding, she crept closer. The small feet were enclosed in pink slippers, the little fists were tightly clenched; the head was turned to one side, so that the round cheek was pressed upwards…

Laura leaned over the bathtub, stared for a few seconds and then gasped with the shock of relief. A doll, a life-sized doll. It was only a doll.

She clung to the edge of the tub, feeling faint and sick to her stomach. The sensation passed, and anger took its place. What a dastardly trick! Why would anyone do such a thing?

A crude message written in heavy black ink on the doll’s dress made that obvious. It was only a big circle with an “X” inside it, but the meaning was clear. Someone who wanted her to stop interfering and asking questions had left the doll. But who?

Violet was the most likely culprit, Laura thought bitterly, since she was the only other person who had a key to the room. That oversized bag of hers could be a clue, too. It would easily hold a doll, as well as clothes and other props that turned Violet into a man, or a woman, on demand.

Another thought intruded. Could Violet really
be
a man? She always waited politely to use the bathroom so they didn’t have to share, and always undressed in there. British prudery or a more ominous sign? Violet was almost six feet tall and had a deep, gruff voice. But could a beard be disguised that well?

Pulling the shower curtain across the tub, Laura staggered out of the bathroom and collapsed on the bed. What should she do now? Probably she ought to tell someone about the doll. But who?

Reluctantly, Laura decided Alan was the best choice. He was the manager of the tour so it was his job. Sighing with tiredness, she got up again and went down the hall   toward Alan’s room.

Footsteps at the end of the corridor made her whirl. Laura ducked behind a door that led to the stairs. Her eyes opened wide in disbelief. This was like a replay! Coming down the hall at a run was the tall woman with the long red hair. But this time she held a child under each arm, each about the same size as the one in the bathtub and the one in the Baths. These two were clearly alive and well. Two sets of chubby legs kicked mightily, and both babies looked as if they were on the verge of a tantrum.

The woman rapped desperately at Alan’s door with one free finger. It opened promptly and Alan peered out. He stared at her, astounded. Then, seeming to recollect himself, he grabbed one of the babies just as it let out its first howl. As soon as the woman and the other baby were inside, he closed the door hastily. Laura heard another howl, muffled now, and then there was silence.

Had they gagged the poor little creature or just dashed into the bathroom with it and closed that door too? Laura waited, unsure what to do next. Half of her wanted to barge into Alan’s room and demand explanations, the other half urged caution.

Another muted cry emerged, quickly stifled. Envisioning gags or worse, Laura emerged from the stairwell to rescue the babies. When she got closer to Alan’s room she heard chortles and noisy slurping, the reassuring sound of hungry babies sucking at their bottles. She relaxed. It didn’t sound as if the children were in imminent danger.

She returned to her room and was about to close the door when Lady Longtree’s opened. Surely, the venerable lady wasn’t going to appear with another baby in tow?

To her astonishment, Hans emerged. Lady Longtree was out of sight, but Laura heard her voice bidding him a fond good night. Laura gaped. Hans making a nocturnal visit to Lady Longtree? 

Hans cast a lingering look at Lady Longtree; then he tiptoed down the hall to his room. His face changed when Lady Longtree’s door closed. He looked as if he were gloating now, Laura saw, like a man who had scored a victory. She cringed. Hans as a self-satisfied lothario held no appeal, and the idea of Lady Longtree indulging in a secret affair in the dead of night was simply preposterous, not because of her age but because she was Lady Longtree. It felt all wrong.

Shaking her head in bewilderment, Laura tumbled into bed. She’d had enough! All problems and puzzles would have to wait until morning.

Unfortunately, her brain didn’t agree and her sleep was filled with nightmares about babies and doors that kept opening and closing. It was also short. At six-thirty in the morning, a loud knock interrupted her uneasy slumber.

“Sorry, pet,” a voice with a strong cockney accent said from the other side. “You’ve had a change of plan. Off to the Safari Park at Longleat, I hear, so I’ve got to rouse all of you early. Mr. Mansfield will explain at breakfast.”

“Thank you,” Laura mumbled, aware that she sounded exceedingly grumpy.

“Make yourself a good cuppa, that’s the thing,” the voice advised.

“Guess I’d better,” Laura replied, and stumbled over to the tray that held an automatic pot, tea bags and all else that was required for the ubiquitous cup of tea. She had flipped the switch on the pot and headed into the bathroom for a shower before she remembered the doll. Her steps slowed.

The closed shower curtain was a relief. Deciding a shower wasn’t essential and she didn’t have time anyway, Laura made her tea and drank it gratefully as she dressed, and then headed downstairs. She would decide what to do with the doll after breakfast. She didn’t want the maid to find it – that could cause all sorts of talk, and give the poor woman a terrible shock as well.

Alan appeared as soon as all of them had arrived in the lovely garden room used for breakfast. Laura regarded him curiously. He didn’t look as weary as she felt, despite the interruption last evening. She wondered where the babies were now, and the red-haired woman. Had they left again?

“We’ve had a change of plan,” Alan told them. “We will go to the Safari Park at Longleat today instead of Stourhead Gardens. He went on to explain that Stourhead was bathed in dense fog that was expected to lift tomorrow, when they could try again, and that the Safari Park at Longleat was less crowded on a weekday. In addition, he had been able to arrange an early entrance if they could arrive by eight o’clock.

“To see the animals so early is really a treat,” he said enthusiastically. “They are most active then. I think you will enjoy it immensely, and the fog won’t bother us nearly as much there. We’ll have lunch in a restaurant on the premises; in the afternoon anyone who wishes can venture into Longleat’s truly devilish maze, or you can tour the lovely Manor House.”

Laura brightened. She had looked forward with special enthusiasm to the Safari Park. That would take her mind off babies and baths and night-time assignations, if anything could.

The first stop was the East African preserve, where grazing animals – antelope, camels, zebras and giraffes, even llamas and ostriches, roamed across the savannah-like countryside. The animals looked very much at home and paid little attention to their human visitors. More animals, tapirs and wallabies, pygmy goats and ponies, occupied other enclosures. Some of the wallabies had little ones peeking out of their pouches, which sent Amy into raptures of delight. Laura was glad to see her looking happy again.

They went next to the monkey jungle, where inquisitive and lively monkeys roamed free. Unlike the grazing animals, they were fascinated by their visitors. They climbed all over the bus, peered in the windows and tried to get inside, slapped the windshield wipers up and down, and were generally an amusing nuisance.

The predators – tigers, lions and wolves - also roamed freely, each group in its own habitat. The people viewing them were restricted to cars with the windows rolled up. Laura found the switch apt, but suspected that some of the predators were frustrated by captivity despite the large size of their enclosures and the nearly invisible fences that separated them. Along one side, a steep hillside formed an even more natural-looking barrier. Laura looked up at it as a watchful caretaker opened the heavy gate into the lion enclosure, and blinked in surprise. The road to Longleat was perched at the top of the hill. Here, they could be in Africa; up there, cars full of tourists drove along, oblivious to the wild animals below.

The lions at least didn’t seem frustrated. They lay about, yawning; occasionally they rose laboriously to their feet and ambled around and then lay down again. One more energetic female tried repeatedly to persuade a male to mate but he ignored her until she became so insistent he had to comply. He accomplished the act in seconds, emitted a half-hearted roar, then lay down and slept again.

Not much romance there, Laura mused, unimpressed. The tigers were more interesting, and to her, far more beautiful. Their long bodies were sleek and muscular, and the ornate patterns on their backs rippled as they strolled along. One of them looked directly at her as it passed within inches of the bus, and it seemed to Laura that all the wildness and beauty of the environment it had once inhabited lived in those gleaming yellow eyes. Yes, she thought, the tigers might easily be frustrated by captivity, no matter how well arranged.

She wasn’t sure about the wolves. They were very social, which might foster contentment. Even if they didn’t have to hunt in a pack, the usual rules of behavior were clearly in force. The dominant female was easy to spot since she had pups cavorting around her and milk-heavy teats to feed them. So was the dominant male, whose mere presence seemed to keep all but a few select pack-mates away from the carcass of a deer they had been given. The lowest ranking male stood out, too, and Laura felt sorry for him. His coat was mangy, he looked half starved; his tail hung low between his legs. She wondered what characteristics had determined his lowly fate and if he would ever get a chance to rise above his station.

The pups were a delight. All the members of the pack seemed to look after this precious new generation; they licked them, made sure they didn’t stray too far, tolerated their nips and growls with equanimity, and, Laura thought, provided an excellent model for appropriate parenting. They paid no attention to the bus or anyone in it, except to cast an occasional bored glance in their direction.

Laura suddenly became aware that all around her cameras were clicking. Belatedly, she pulled out her own.

“I got good pictures of the wallabies, too. I’ll send you some,” Amy offered. “The babies peeping out of their mother’s pouches were so dear, aren’t they?”

Laura looked at her more carefully. Amy wasn’t just reacting to the baby animals; she really was her usual cheerful self today. Margaret looked better too, as if some weight had been lifted from her shoulders. Laura was relieved and wondered what had happened to make the difference. As soon as she could, she would get Amy alone again and try to find out.

“Now to the Cellars for lunch,” Alan told them as they came out of the park. “We go through the Victorian kitchens to get there. You’ll find them interesting.”

“And be glad you don’t have to use them,” Violet contributed wryly as she and Laura viewed tools for crushing grain and other ancient implements, which made it abundantly clear that in those days all edibles were prepared not just from scratch but came straight from the fields and barns.

Violet sounded so like herself that Laura flinched. How was she to come up with her usual bantering response, knowing what she did now? She would never be able to talk normally to Violet again until she found out who she was.

In the restaurant, however, a private chat was impossible. The room reverberated with noise. Anything she said would echo all the way across the room or disappear in the confusion of competing sounds. Laura settled for observing her companions instead. Anyone in this group, like Violet, could be hiding a second persona. But who, and how to tell?

Hans was the most likely person, she reflected, recalling the odd interlude with Lady Longtree, but he had apparently been called back to Switzerland. No one seemed to know why or when he would be back. Everyone else was behaving normally, to Laura’s frustration. Dr. Bernstein lectured Alan on the role of animal research in comprehending mental states; William had a faraway look in his eyes that could mean he was rehearsing a piano concerto in his head or that he was taking mental notes on the people around him. The others were acting in character, too, even Lady Longtree, whose eyes missed nothing even as she listened to Amy’s chatter. Watching her, Laura found it harder than ever to make sense of last night’s tryst with Hans. 

William fell into step beside her as they headed for the maze, and she asked him what he had thought of the Safari. He smiled amiably.

“The animals were great, but what I really liked was comparing them to the people. Dr. Bernstein would make an excellent baboon, don’t you think? They have such amazing bright red rumps. I suppose that’s what made me think of him. Violet is a tigress or one of the hawks; she looks friendly but watch out for those talons. Amy is an ostrich; she has her head in the sand and thinks everything is always all right, or wants to think so, and Margaret’s a lonely wolf who’s not very high in the pecking order and knows that everyone is out to get her. Let’s see, who are you?”

Laura laughed. So that was what William had been thinking about over lunch! How delightful.

“I’d like to be a beautiful gazelle running free on the plains, but I don’t think I am,” she said wistfully. “Let’s see. I think I am really one of the monkeys who are always investigating everything and making nuisances of themselves.

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