The Devil's Brew (Hilary Manningham-Butler Book 3), страница 1
The Devil’s Brew
Copyright © Jack Treby 2017
Published by Carter & Allan
The Author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publishers
Table of Contents
Hilary And The Hurricane
The Pineapple Republic
The Scandal At Bletchley
The Murder At Flaxton Isle
The Gunpowder Treason
I have never been much of a one for beating servants. In my experience, violence only serves to breed resentment and with the serving classes that should be avoided at all costs. The schoolmaster’s cane may give much needed direction to the immature mind, but a fully grown man – even a member of the lower orders – should be capable of disciplining himself. If he cannot, he has no business being a servant.
That being said, there are times when I would happily have throttled my man Maurice and Thursday morning was a case in point.
A loud thump from the living room had roused me from my slumber. I had been fast asleep – as any sane person would be at three am – and it took me some time to gather my wits. I pulled a hand from beneath the bed sheets and rubbed my eyes. What the devil was he up to this time? I wondered. The thump was followed by a prolonged and unnatural silence. I lifted myself onto my elbows and peered across the bedroom towards the far door. There was a light flickering beneath the wooden frame; Maurice up and about again for no good reason. I scowled quietly. The man barely seemed to sleep at all. I had almost jumped out of my skin, a couple of weeks earlier, when I had got up in the middle of the night to answer a call of nature and had caught sight of his ghoulish, crumpled face staring up at me from an armchair, a large textbook in his lap. At that time of the morning – four am – anyone with an ounce of sense would have been in the arms of Morpheus, but not my valet. We had had a few words then about his nocturnal activities, but clearly he needed a reminder.
I yawned, stretched myself out and pulled back the bed sheets irritably. I wouldn’t be able to get back to sleep now, so I might as well give the fellow a piece of my mind. I did not appreciate being woken up like this, in the middle of the night, especially when I had to be up myself in a few hours time, bright and alert.
I reached across to the bedside lamp and flicked the switch. Nothing happened. I let out a growl but I was not surprised. Another power cut. The electricity supply here was about as reliable as the plumbing. That was one of the perils of living in such a backwards part of the world. I swung my legs over the side of the bed and my nightshirt snagged on the mattress. I ruffled it out and planted my feet firmly on the floorboards, flinching momentarily at the sudden cold. It could be a little chilly in the early hours, even here in the tropics. The nightshirt was a necessary bulwark and also served to protect my modesty. It was not the done thing for a woman to sleep au naturel, even in the relative safety of her own apartment.
I pulled myself up and stood for a moment, gazing across at the light underneath the living room door. It did not have the reassuring flicker of a regular candle. The blasted thing seemed to be darting about all over the place. More like a torch, I thought. But why would Maurice be wandering around the place at this hour with a flash light? It took a few seconds for my befuddled brain to stagger towards the obvious conclusion: it might not be Maurice at all.
I moved back to the bed and sat myself down, shivering again. Good god, it might be a burglar. What if some ruffian had broken into the flat and was even now rifling through my possessions? I gripped my hands on the base of the mattress and took a large gulp of air. If there was an intruder, it was probably best not to disturb him. I am no coward – I have faced down all sorts of rogues and scoundrels in my time – but if life has taught me one thing, it is that it is often better not to get involved. There was nothing of any value in the living room. Let the fellow root around if he really wanted to. If I strode out there like some irate landowner, he might well attack me; and burglars in this part of the world were likely to be armed with rather more than the traditional cosh.
The intruder was doing rather a good job of keeping the noise down. Apart from that initial thump, I hadn’t heard anything at all. No sloping footsteps, no cupboards being ransacked. In fact, there did not seem to be any noise at all, even out in the street, though my bedroom window was ajar and the blinds were only half drawn. Perhaps he had got in through the living room window. We were only one floor up and even I could probably have managed to shin up that distance. A narrow balcony ran the length of the apartment, encompassing the living room and the bedroom. I just hoped to God he didn’t decide to extend his search. Perhaps I ought to cough, make some noise to frighten him off. Or perhaps it would be safer just to lie down and pretend to be asleep.
A low groan sounded from the other room. I shuddered, recognising the voice. It was my man Maurice, out there in the thick of it. He did not sound at all well. And, now that I was more alert, it dawned on me what this must mean. He must have heard a noise and got up to investigate; and then, obviously, someone had clobbered him. That was the thump that had woken me up. Lord. If my valet was lying out there with a sizeable dent in the back of his bonce then I couldn’t just ignore it. The burglar might try to finish him off. I had no choice. Somehow, I would have to frighten the blackguard away.
My eyes had now adjusted to the gloom and I glanced around the room for a weapon. Unfortunately, there was nothing suitable to hand. A small silver candle holder next to the lamp shade looked to be my best option. I pulled out the wax stick and grasped the metal disk by the finger hold. That would have to do.
Tentatively, I approached the door. A floorboard creaked beneath me and I cursed it silently. The light from the torch disappeared. I waited a beat, then reached out a hand and grabbed the door handle. I opened it a crack but the living room was in darkness, a much deeper black than the bedroom. The blinds were lowered further out here and I could make out little in the punishing gloom.
Perhaps I had let my imagination run away with me. Maybe my man was up and about on his own and had simply tripped up. If so, I would crucify the fool.
I pulled the door open a little further and then cursed again, realising I would now be visible in silhouette in the doorway. I stepped forward and my foot collided with something solid in front of me. I tripped and stumbled across the carpet, crashing hard into the back of the sofa. My hands grabbed hold of the top of it and I managed to steady myself. At that moment, I heard the door slam on the far side of the living room. Our intruder had fled the scene.
Edging around the sofa, I tottered blindly towards the far wall and searched for a light switch. I flicked the control but nothing happened.
‘Morris?’ I called out, with some concern. I always called him “Morris” rather than “Maurice”. It was a private joke, though more for my amusement than his. The valet let out another groan.
I moved across to the window and grasped for one of the hanging cords. I caught it and pulled the wire taught, rotating the blinds sideways. At last a small shaft of moonlight illuminated the chamber. I glanced around the room. A set of drawers had been quietly ransacked to the right of the windows. Papers were strewn everywhere. I fumbled inside the bureau for a candle and a box of matches. Before I could complete the action, the electric light bulb stuttered into life and the room was bathed in a dim glow.
Maurice was just beginning to rouse himself. He was clutching the back of his head and frowning slightly.
‘Morris, are you all right? What happened?’
The man took a moment to recover himself. ‘I heard a noise, Monsieur. I came out to investigate.’ Maurice was a tall, thickset Frenchman in his mid-fifties. He was dressed in a light but well cut dressing gown. He raised a hand to the back of his head and then, without fuss, examined the residue on his palm. A little blood but nothing serious. ‘I believe I may have been struck from behind,’ he said. The fellow had a knack for understatement.
‘Sit down,’ I told him. I moved over to the side table and poured out a glass of whisky. I downed the liquid in one and then dished out a second glass for Maurice. Ordinarily, I would not have allowed him to drink in the flat, but these were exceptional circumstances.
Maurice had been my valet for about a year and a half now. He was a grim, taciturn man with a craggy face and a permanently pained expression. His manner bordered on the surly but, for all that, he was an efficient fellow and not the sort to demand sympathy unnecessarily.
He took the glass and sipped at it gently. ‘Thank you, Monsieur,’ he said. Even in private, we maintained the forms. It was always ‘Monsieur’ rather than ‘Madame’. I may have been born a woman but I had chosen to live my life as a man. Employing a valet was an important part of that and, for a modest monthly fee, the Frenchman was happy to go along with the charade.
‘Did you see who hit you?’ I asked him.
‘Pity.’ I poured myself another whisky and had a brief look around. There was no sign of a cosh or any other blunt instrument. ‘He must have clambered in through the window,’ I guessed. The flat was mercifully small – just a kitchen, a living room and two bedrooms – so there was not much for an intruder to get his teeth into.
Maurice had recovered himself slightly. ‘Shall I call the police, Monsieur?’
‘Lord, no!’ I baulked at that. The last thing I wanted was the local boys crawling all over the place. ‘Not before I speak to the minister anyway.’ There was nothing of a sensitive nature kept in the apartment, but as a foreign national and an employee of the British legation in Guatemala City, I would require the minister’s approval before involving the police. ‘We need to see if anything was taken.’ I shuffled across the room to examine the open bureau. ‘I didn’t keep any cash in there. Just a few odds and sods. Certainly nothing valuable.’
‘A burglar would not know that, Monsieur.’
‘No, I suppose not. The only money in the house is in the drawer next to my bed. Oh, apart from anything you have.’ Maurice was given a small allowance for housekeeping, on top of his wages.
‘A few dollars only, Monsieur. And some local currency.’
‘Did he try to come into your room? The burglar?’
I downed the second whisky. ‘But you heard him moving about?’
‘I am a light sleeper Monsieur.’ That was certainly true. The man had excellent hearing too. He would know the difference between his master blundering about, answering a call of nature, and some devil of an intruder.
‘We’ve had a lucky escape, Morris. We might have been murdered in our beds.’
‘Oh, how’s that head of yours?’
‘I will survive, Monsieur.’
I glanced down at the bureau again. One of the drawers had been pulled right out and emptied of its papers. It was an internal drawer, inside the top of the bureau. The flap had been pulled down so that the burglar could look inside. ‘That’s odd,’ I remarked.
I peered at it closely. ‘There’s a second drawer here. I never noticed that before.’
Maurice rose up from the sofa and came across to take a look.
‘You see? It’s inside the first one.’ I thrust a hand into the larger drawer and slid the tiny compartment back inside the first. ‘Good lord,’ I exclaimed. ‘You wouldn’t even know it was there.’ I stared down at the thing. ‘How do you even open it?’
‘A catch, Monsieur.’ The valet indicated a slight irregularity in the wood.
I pressed against it, but nothing happened. Then I caught a fingernail on the edge and teased it back. The hidden drawer popped out again. ‘Some kind of spring.’
‘The burglar knew what he was looking for, Monsieur.’
I stepped back and digested the implications of that. I had been living in this flat for about eight weeks now. Before that, so far as I knew, the place had been empty. ‘What on earth could have been in there?’ I wondered.
‘That was where your predecessor was sitting when he shot himself,’ David Richards pointed out maliciously. He was a tall, solidly built man with jet black hair and a pug nose. ‘You can still see the bullet hole in the wall behind you.’ Richards was our head of mission at the legation. He spoke like an aristocrat but looked like a boxer. It was only the second time he had deigned to speak to me. On the first occasion, in the main building, he had made his disapproval evident. ‘I don’t like spies,’ he had informed me testily. ‘My job is to establish cordial relations with the new government and promote British interests in Guatamala. If you do anything to jeopardize that mission, you will be on the first boat back to Blighty.’ Officially, Richards was my boss. I was the new head of passport control at the legation – in reality, me and two secretaries – and he was my immediate superior; but we both knew I had other, more shadowy masters back in London, to whom I was ultimately responsible. Richards was unhappy, however, with the idea of anything happening outside of his direct control. ‘Mr Markham overstepped the mark,’ he continued now, referring to my unfortunate predecessor. ‘Got involved with people he had no business getting involved with. And now we see the consequences.’ Giles Markham had committed suicide at the end of March, a fact no-one had bothered to inform me of before I had accepted the job. Something to do with gambling debts, apparently. Markham had been creaming off some of the visa receipts collected by the passport office, presumably to pay off his creditors, and it had all got out of hand.
‘And you think that might have something to do with the robbery?’ I asked.
Richards shook his head. ‘Don’t be absurd, man. If Giles Markham had left anything important in that apartment, someone would have been in there long before now. It must be over three months since he died. In any case, the place was given a thorough going over at the time. Are you sure this burglar of yours didn’t look anywhere else, apart from the bureau?’ I had given Richards a full account of the break-in.
‘No. And so far as I know, there was nothing of any value in there; or in the whole flat. All the sensitive material – the code books, passports, money – they’re all with you at the legation or in the safe over there.’ I gestured to a strong box in the corner of the room. The passport control office was a couple of doors down from the legation itself. ‘Whoever broke in last night, they were only after one thing. Though what that might be, I have no idea.’
‘Have you spoken to Miss Bunting?
‘Yes, of course.’ Emily Bunting was one of the clerks in my office. ‘I spoke to her first thing this morning.’ Miss Bunting was a bubbly young thing in her early twenties. She had started work at the legation a few weeks before me. Apparently, she had arrived in Guatemala City the week Markham had died. A lack of available accommodation had forced her to take up temporary residence in the flat for the first few weeks before I had turned up at the beginning of May; a fact I had not previously been aware of. ‘She never went near the bureau. And she says there was no suspicious activity in the block while she was staying there.’
Richards grimaced. ‘I really don’t have time for this nonsense. I’m sure you’re making a mountain out of a mole hill.’
‘I hope you’re right,’ I said. ‘Should I inform the Guatemalan police? As a courtesy?’
‘Don’t be ridiculous!’ He growled. ‘We don’t want them involved. It was bad enough the last time, when your predecessor put that bullet in his head. The last thing we need is them clomping around again in their size eleven boots. That is exactly the sort of unpleasantness we are looking to avoid. One of our apartments broken into in the dead of night. They’ll take it as a personal affront, implying that they can’t keep their streets safe at night.’
I laughed. ‘Have you been out on the streets at night?’ No-one in their right mind would risk venturing out in this city after dark.
‘Things are improving,’ Richards stated tersely. ‘And I don’t want to hear you implying anything different. I suggest we draw a veil over this whole matter.’ He rose to his feet. ‘Now get back to work. I can’t afford to waste any more time on this. But bear in mind, Mr Buxton...Mr Bland, whatever you call yourself these days, I have my eye on you. If you cause me any trouble, I’ll come down on you like a ton of bricks. Remember, you do not have diplomatic immunity. If you get caught breaking any local law, no matter how trivial, you’re on your own. I can do nothing to protect you. Good day.’ And with that, he stormed out of the office.