Dido Hoare, dealer in rare books, single mother, and daughter who alternately shelters her father, Barnabas, from unsettling events and leans on his sage and scholarly advice, has unexpectedly been named executor of the will of one of her bookstore's more irregular customers. Before he died, Tom Ashe gave Dido an exotic necklace along with cryptic clues and dire warnings, which she took to be the ravings of a street person. Then his death turns out to be a murder, and the ever-curious Dido has to find out why.
Though Ashe's life seemed quiet enough, his death has Scotland Yard's Special Branches sniffing around Dido and her shop. Her sometime flame, Inspector Grant, has been instructed not to talk to her about the case, and Dido has had some bruising run-ins with a mystery man. It's a dangerous guessing game that takes her from abandoned buildings to the Egyptian cultural attache limo, a puzzle that brings Dido ever closer to other people's greedy ghostsand to a past full of deceit and treachery that could spell fatal trouble for her and her father.
Author Biography: Marianne Macdonald was born in Northern Ontario, where she lived until the age of twenty, when she moved to England to study at Oxford. After a lengthy academic career, she returned to the writing and acting she loved as a child. She lives in Muswell Hill, England.
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Looking back on it, I blame the weather. By mid-July something had gone badly wrong. As though London had slid southwards in some earthquake and lodged against the equator. I think of myself as a careful person nowadays, thoughtful, even responsible. Maybe if it hadn't been so hot I would have kept a cool enough head to mind my own business. Because whatever else you can say, one thing is certain: Tom Ashe's problems were nothing to do with me.
It was nearly eleven-thirty at night and still so hot that all I could think about was getting home. My old Volvo estate was stuck near Highbury Corner in traffic that shouldn't have been there at that hour, and I could feel sweat trickling down my spine and sticking my new dress to my back. No amount of dry cleaning was going to leave the fine flowered silk the way it had been when we'd set out four hours earlier to celebrate Barnabas's birthday. My father. His seventy-fourth.
The pubs were closing, their customers spilling out across the pavements on the Holloway Road. They must have been sweating and drinking iced beer all evening, to a man. Or woman. A figure wavered on the kerb and my headlights shone for a moment on a blind, sweating face: I executed an instinctive swerve to avoid catastrophe. Beyond the pedestrian crossing at the station I rolled my window down, hoping the movement of the car would bring in a stir of air. But the heat had hammered down a lid of ozone and exhaust fumes over the city. When it stung my nose, I cranked the handle again.
A red light stopped me in front of the public library, and I caught myself on the point of opening the window again. All very well for me -- thirty-three years old and tough enough -- but I wasn't alone. In the baby seat beside me, Ben sprawled half-naked, drugged by the heat. Before the traffic had moved on I'd made up my mind absolutely positively for the twentieth time in a month that I was going to replace my beloved twenty-year-old car. I wanted dust filters, air-conditioning, all the gadgets that London's most astonishing infant could possibly need in this long summer.
He should have been at home, of course. I'd considered leaving him with his sitter. Except that Barnabas would have been so understanding about his absence that it would have spoiled dinner for all of us. If anything, Barnabas is even more daft about Benjamin David Hoare than I am. Which is saying quite a lot.
The sky ahead had taken on a muddy darkness in which light flickered briefly. There'd been no rain in weeks, but as I was signalling a turn out of the main road a few oily drops hit the windscreen, oozing through its film of dust. By George Street they had already hesitated and stopped. When I bought the new car I'd drive north. For sure. Possibly to Lapland.
Heat-sodden, I squeezed into a space at the kerb and dragged myself onto the pavement.
The ground floor of my early nineteenth-century terraced house is the converted shop where I earn a living for Ben and myself. The gilt letters of the sign gleamed dully in light from the street lamp opposite: Dido Hoare ~ Antiquarian Books and Prints. Two doorways flank the display window. The one on the left was my immediate destination.
Ninety seconds to get upstairs to the flat. A minute to settle Ben in his cot under the open window in my bedroom -- say two minutes if he woke up. In about four and a half minutes I intended to be naked and supine with a glass -- no, a bottle -- of ice-cold mineral water in my hand. Ben's sleeping face was tranquil in the light from the street lamp. I unstrapped the seat, slid it out of the car and sweated across the road. How could he possibly have gained so much weight in one evening?
The street light was throwing a deep shadow into the doorway, so I was only a few feet away when I saw the shape there. For one second I assumed that somebody had dumped a sack of rubbish on my doorstep. Then I saw a foot. I had been presented with a body: probably a drunk. Maybe lying in wait -- my heart lurched. Maybe dead. I backed off. The obvious thing to do was retreat into the shop and phone the police from the back room. Getting myself to bed departed into the middle distance. Damn it! My key was actually in the lock before my pathetic conscience took over: so -- some poor homeless kid has dared to creep into your sacred doorway for a night's shelter? And you're so ladylike that you're going to have him arrested?
London streets are full of the homeless nowadays. A lot of them are only children. If you really look at them you can't bear it. I dithered. The sweat trickling down my chin persuaded me that I only wanted to get the baby up the stairs to where there were damp towels, cool drinks and bed.
As far as I could see, the heap wasn't stirring. I crept back to the foot, braced for the stink of alcohol and then surprised by its absence, edged past the legs and reached gingerly to the door. The light switch was just inside it.
And I knew him, even though he was lying with his head under his bent arm and his face turned away from me. With a sinking feeling I reached down and touched his shoulder. For one heart-stopping moment there was no response. Then it seemed that he sagged and I heard the rasp of a difficult breath. Damn it all!
I deposited the sleeping baby just inside the street door. 'Mr Ashe?'
Nothing. I touched his cheek and felt its warmth under my palm and tried to think what to do.
His name was Tom Ashe. He had wandered into the shop one morning last December. At first I'd been dubious. The layers of shabby clothing seemed to mark him out as one of the local homeless, perhaps one of the group I had often seen around the corner in St Mary's churchyard, sitting on the benches with their consoling bottles of cider or cans of export lager. Apparently the vicar exercised Christian charity towards them, and the local police tolerated the gathering as long as they kept to themselves. Anyway, there wasn't much point in moving them on: they had nowhere to go.
As I watched that first day from the desk just inside my little office, he drifted towards my tiny Classics section and stopped. The best thing would be to let him get bored and go away. Unless I found him trying to fill his inside pockets, of course. You get used to dealing with thieves when you run a bookshop. What is it about old books that makes people think stealing them isn't really a crime?
So I watched him: a stocky, clean-shaven old man with white hair and economical movements. I would have put him down as seventy or older, but it's hard to tell with the homeless: they don't wear well. He was sidling along the cases looking at the titles on the spines of the books. I watched him run an index finger along the shelf he had finally chosen. The volume that he selected eventually was only a cheap student edition of Thucydides. He began leafing slowly through the pages, holding the book at arm's length like someone who needs reading glasses.
I can't say that I get a lot of customers who are not only interested in the Peloponnesian Wars but prepared to read about them in classical Greek, so I smiled at how I'd been judging by appearances.
He'd spoken. I said, 'I'm sorry ...?'
'I said, I once taught this.'
I answered stupidly, 'Oh, I see,' and adjusted my ideas: classics master at some vanished grammar school, teacher's pension that either hadn't kept up with inflation or had been drunk away ...
He spoke again while I was working it out. 'I imagine that you're Dido Hoare?' His voice seemed to shift from the careless London accent that swallows its consonants to the more middle-class tones of those old schoolmaster days -- his voice was caressing Latin words, placing them like glassy jewels, and it was a moment before I grasped what he was saying:
... in freta dum fluvii current, dum montibus umbrae
lustrabunt convexa, polus dum sidera pascet,
semper honos nomenque tuum laudesque manebunt ...
I must have been gawping at him, because he grimaced and declaimed, 'Some time I was a Trojan, mighty Queen. But Troy is not, what shall I say I am?' His pale blue eyes stared at me.
As it happened, I'd recognised both the passages. Oxford High School for Girls had taken us along the first steps of an old-fashioned classical education, and I'd had to put up with some teasing during the autumn term that we started Virgil's Aeneid. The Marlowe had at least come a few years later, when I was more prepared: or more resigned to my mother and father having christened me 'Dido' after the Queen of Carthage whom Aeneas had abandoned on his way to more important masculine pursuits like founding the city of Rome.
And Ashe even bought the book.
Of course I didn't know his name then, but he came back from time to time. Often he ignored me, wandering along the shelves like a ghost. At other times it was as though a switch had been thrown that returned him to the real world, and on those days we talked about books -- if I wasn't busy with other customers -- and eventually he told me his name, watching me out of the corner of his eye.
Other information came bit by bit. Tom Ashe could read not only classical Greek and Latin, but Arabic; and he once even translated the title of a Persian art book that had turned up in a mixed auction lot and needed some kind of identification before I could attempt to price it.
If anybody else came in he fell silent and slid away. It struck me, one morning, that he was covertly examining another customer from behind the central row of bookcases as though trying to remember whether he had seen him before. If my father was there -- Barnabas was coming to the shop more and more often after Ben's birth, his excuse being that I had become too fragile (or maybe too preoccupied) to be left all on my own to run a business -- then I noticed that Ashe vanished. I assumed he was a little mad.
But he always seemed to have some money. He bought a few more books over the months: mostly Latin poetry or cheap travel books, classic reprints of Thesiger, Burton and Robert Byron -- nothing costing more than a couple of pounds. And I'd wound up accepting him for what he appeared to be: an impoverished retired schoolmaster, only one step above the men in the churchyard and not entirely in the real world. One of life's casualties.
Bending over the silent heap, I recalled something else. Last New Year's Eve I'd had a couple of bottles of sherry in the office so as to offer a drink to regular customers. Ashe had sidled in at about four-thirty, just as I was deciding to close, and I'd offered him a glass; but he'd refused. My face probably showed surprise, because he'd looked at me quickly, hunching his shoulders under the layers of old cardigan, threadbare jacket and patchy greatcoat. 'I am an alcoholic,' he announced with a kind of toneless formality. 'I never drink.' And I had said I was sorry for offering, although there was no reason why I should have known. Instead of the sherry I gave him a nearly new paperback -- Thubron's Chinese journey -- which he accepted with an unreadable expression that might have been either anticipation or amusement. Anyway, whatever had happened to the silent bundle on my doorstep, it seemed unlikely that he had drunk himself into unconsciousness.
Which left me at a loss.
My hesitation was ended by a noise which was half-groan, half-snore, and I leaned over looking for a pulse in the bony wrist. I thought I felt a shudder under the layers of clothing. When I put my hand on his forehead I realised that he was shockingly hot.
If only I'd joined the Girl Guides all those years ago instead of learning Latin, I would now be more prepared to deal with unconscious men on my doorstep. What I wanted was to step over the recumbent form, close the door on him, and put myself and Ben to bed. But what I was going to have to do instead was get my prostrate customer to a hospital.
I squatted beside the bundle.
'Mr Ashe -- can you hear me? It's Dido Hoare. Don't move. I'm calling an ambulance. You'll be all right.'
I thought that he hadn't heard me properly. 'Don't worry, I'm just going to phone ...'
A hand shot out and grabbed the hem of my dress. 'Get me home.'
Home? I made an effort to remain polite and heard my voice say very distinctly, 'You're ill. You're in the street in front of the shop. You may have had a heart attack.' I'd been thinking about heart attacks ever since my father's had nearly killed him. 'I'm going to phone for an ambulance.'
There was a heave, and the old man pulled himself into a sitting position against the wall. His watery eyes looked past my ear and then flickered and focused on my face. 'I'll be all right. I don't go to hospitals. Help me stand up.'
His other hand shifted to my arm, and the two of us straightened up together, me hauling and Ashe leaning and struggling. When he seemed to be balanced, I could pay more attention to minor details like the smell of the unwashed body so close to me. I disentangled myself and said faintly, 'I think you've had some kind of attack. You must see a doctor.'
The hand that shot out again and grabbed my elbow showed no weakness. 'I said no! I know what's wrong. I have medicine at home. I'll get a bus.'
I knew that I was going to say 'I'll drive you' a second before I had spoken, but I was too tired to stop myself.
'Yes'? Good,' he replied and was silent. The grip on my arm grew more desperate; I thought he was trying not to fall down.
I sighed. 'I'll get you to the car, and then I'll come back for Ben.'
Ashe pulled away, and I knew he'd forgotten.
'The baby,' I said between gritted teeth.
It was lucky that he was a small man because I'm only five foot three myself -- though hauling cartons of old books to and from book fairs and auctions keeps me fit. But he was too weak to walk far. I pushed a shoulder under his arm and manoeuvred him across the road and into the back seat, where he slumped silently. I wasn't sure that he was conscious. Then I returned for the baby seat. Ben was still sleeping gently. At least somebody was cooperating.
I'd started the engine before I remembered I had no idea where I was going. The man behind me was so still that I thought he was unconscious until I heard a whisper.
'Where?' I made my voice sharp, trying to penetrate his illness.
'Horsell Road ...'
Somehow I'd let myself in for this nonsense months ago when he called me Queen of Carthage. I almost snapped, 'Hospital,' but I thought I'd just give it a try, because I happened to know the road. It wasn't far: an easier journey than driving to the nearest hospital that still has an emergency department. But when I'd turned off the Holloway Road and brought the car to a halt in a narrow street lined with tall Victorian terraces, Ashe was silent and motionless. It was nearly midnight, and there were a few lights on in scattered windows, but nothing that shouted, This is it ...
When I turned around, he was unconscious again. For a moment I listened to the air rasping in his throat. When I whispered his name and got no reply, I let in the clutch and headed for the emergency department at the Whittington.
In daylight, sitting in the kitchen with the window wide open and Ben solemnly finishing his breakfast bottle, I found it hard to think about last night.
Mr Spock posed in a favourite spot on top of the fridge, regarding us benignly in the intervals of washing behind his ears. For some reason the sight of him reminded me this morning of the man who had given my ginger cat his name. I didn't think of Davey very often any more -- my former husband, Ben's father, poor Davey.
Things had changed since Davey. First, most obviously, there was Ben, the last thing that Davey had done for me before he'd been killed. Having a child is an absorbing, intimate thing that fills the world and leaves you not only permanently exhausted but strangely forgetful of everything else. One year ago I'd been the independent, impoverished and unexpectedly pregnant owner of a fairly promising, under-capitalised antiquarian book business. Barnabas, newly recovered from his heart attack, had been my main worry. He and Davey between them had changed all that, though Davey certainly hadn't planned his contribution to my welfare. They were, jointly, the reason why I was able to sit comfortably drinking coffee in the redecorated kitchen of my flat on a late July morning and waiting for Phyllis, Ben's sitter, to arrive so that I could saunter downstairs to do a little work. Davey had left me an uncomfortable legacy, but I'd long ago decided to accept the facts and believe all's well that ends well.
My mind skittered away from that old uneasiness to the more immediate one -- the unfinished business of the night. I'd have to contact the hospital and enquire. Now.
When the phone rang in the sitting room I hoisted Ben's sticky, comatose form over my shoulder and went to answer it. As on most mornings first thing, it was Barnabas. We exchanged greetings and then I had to assure him that the baby hadn't suffered at all from the party.
'And you?' I could hear suspicion in his voice. 'You sound odd. You got home safely? You didn't overdo it, I hope?'
I hesitated long enough to appreciate the comedy of having a seventy-three -- now seventy-four-year-old parent worrying about whether his all-too-grown-up daughter was getting to bed early enough; and decided that my story was too good to keep to myself.
'You should have called for an ambulance, of course. What if the old boy had died on you?'
I said, 'He didn't, and I managed perfectly well!'
'What was wrong with him?'
'I don't know. A fever.'
Barnabas snorted down the line into my ear, implying that the cause must lie in drink or some other vice and that this went without saying only because we had urgent arrangements to make. He was taking over from me for the afternoon while I went to a book auction.
Barnabas retired nine years ago from an Oxford Chair in English. He misses the university life, the arguments and enmities, and so it pleases him to look on the shop as a hobby, a place where he can indulge his passion for books. For telling people about books. It is just that his audience now consists of my luckless customers rather than his students. Today he also had the privilege of supervising Ben after his early evening feed, if I wasn't back before Phyllis had to go home.
That essential matter organised, I lowered Ben and his bottle onto the settee and made my own phone call. It took the hospital switchboard a few minutes to trace Ashe to a ward. I identified myself to a second voice as the friend who had brought him in last night.
The hesitation should have warned me. 'I'll call Sister,' the voice said eventually, and I twiddled my thumbs for another minute or two before I heard the receiver being picked up.
'I'm Nurse Fletcher,' this voice said after another of those hesitations. It was a deep Jamaican voice, and I pictured the owner of it as a big, motherly, comforting black nurse, and relaxed. 'We're real anxious to find the next of kin. Are you related to Mr Ashe?'
I assured her that for all I knew Mr Ashe had no relatives: he had certainly never spoken of anyone. 'Is he dead?'
She sounded startled. 'Goodness, no! Much better this morning. But restless. He doesn't like us very much, and he says he's goin' to discharge himself. We want somebody to make him stay until he's well -- that's all.'
I promised I'd have a go, or at least try to persuade the invalid to give them the name of somebody with more authority than I had. Then I found a sleeveless pink cotton sundress and white leather sandals, and was tiptoeing around the bedroom looking for my hairbrush when I heard the street door close and footsteps marching up my stairs.
'Dido? You awake?'
I ignored the evidence that the speaker knew my habits all too well. 'Phyllis? Shhh ... he's almost asleep.'
Phyllis Digby said, 'Excellent,' and appeared like an angel in the doorway.
Which is just about the right description.
Phyllis was a tallish, scrawny, sandy, freckled, tough-minded, fiftyish Australian who had appeared four months ago in response to my advertisements when I'd finally admitted that I had a problem looking after a business, a baby, and an over-anxious father all at the same time. Of course I knew it was impossible that anyone else could really be trusted to take care of my excellent son. But Phyllis and Ben had come to an instant understanding at the interview, and we'd struck a deal. It turned out that she had taken us both on. It was a bit like being bullied by an Australian schoolmistress. Or to put it another way, we'd discovered that we trusted one another.
I explained in whispers about Tom Ashe and was shooed off on my journey. But what on earth was I supposed to accomplish once I got there?
The doctor's rounds had finished by the time that I skirted the little queue of patients at the public phone in the hall and pushed through the doors of the ward. In here, they were mostly old men who lay propped motionless in the white beds, staring at a shrunken world. A television set high on the wall was broadcasting a morning chat show, but the sound had been turned to an inaudible rumble, so that the faces on the screen mouthed and smiled meaninglessly. I felt a moment of panic, wondering whether I was going to recognise Ashe in this gathering of old bones.
A voice behind me asked, 'Can I help?'
I recognised it from the phone. Its owner was indeed black, though younger than me and as skinny as a broom; but her name badge said that this was Sister Fletcher.
I explained myself. She threw me a look that seemed worryingly relieved. 'Second from the end,' she said, and then I recognised the face on the pillow. His eyes were closed.
'Is he asleep?' I asked. Maybe I could leave.
I thought that I detected a flicker of amusement. 'He ought to be tired out,' she said, 'but he was awake and fussin' a minute ago. Don't worry -- you go on. He'll be glad to see a friend.'
I edged past a dozen pairs of eyes that slid over me hopefully before they gave up, and inserted myself onto a chair at the bedside. The old man was looking strangely brushed and clean, like (the thought intruded and I had to make an effort to push it away) like a corpse laid out for burial. I located the faint rhythmical rise and fall of the sheet-covered chest and a fluttering of eyelids and waited, conscious that I was sweating and that the air in the ward was barely breathable for the heat, the tang of antiseptic and the faint sweet smells of old bodies and sickness.
'You're here.' The voice was louder than I'd expected; it made me jump.
I tried to cover my surprise by babbling that he looked a lot better.
Still with his eyes closed, Ashe allowed the shadow of a lopsided grimace to appear and vanish. 'Of course I am. I told you -- a mild attack. You shouldn't have brought me here. I'm all right.'
There's a limit to what I will take. I said, 'Good! I'm glad you feel all right now. You certainly didn't when I found you! You were lying on the ground in front of my door. I couldn't know what was wrong with you.' Don't bother to thank me.
'I have a good constitution,' he said in a slightly more conciliatory tone. 'Very good for my age. I was unconscious? That's bad.' He hesitated. 'Did I have anything with me?' When he looked at me, I saw once again his habit of looking beyond my head before he focused on my face. It struck me that he might have an eye problem. Either that, or he was expecting to see somebody hiding behind my back.
'I said, did you find a parcel?'
I told him that he hadn't been carrying anything when I found him, and got back to the point. 'I'll look for your parcel this afternoon, and I'll take you home again when you're well enough.'
'Well?' he repeated, coughing. 'I'm ready now. Get my clothes.'
I stood up. 'Not now. You're still weak.' I could hear my voice bullying him in the way that I bullied my father when he was being stubborn. Dido ... Then I saw that he was surreptitiously moving his legs under the covers, trying to decide whether I was telling the truth. At that point I remembered the ward sister's plea and added, 'I'm on my way to an auction anyway. Look, I'll come back at the same time tomorrow. If you're well enough by then I'll get you out. Just rest: you aren't invited to die in the front seat of my car, you know.'
'I'm not dying anywhere now,' he said grumpily; 'maybe next time, maybe. All right, I can last twenty-four hours.' He closed his eyes again and lay silently while I made one or two inane remarks that were supposed to be cheerful. When I'd done my duty, I gathered myself together and left. Why was I so sure he was pretending to be asleep to avoid having to speak to me?
I found Sister Fletcher shuffling forms in a little office by the lifts and tapped on the glass of her door.
'You get any sense out of him?' she asked, hands hovering over the files.
I told her I wasn't sure. 'He wants me to take him home. I told him I'll come tomorrow.' I hesitated, not quite sure how much I could expect when I wasn't even a relative. 'Was it a heart attack?'
She looked up, surprised. 'What? No, not at all. His heart is just fine, no problem there. He just had a mild recurrence of malaria.'
I gawped at her. Malaria?
'He says he got it in the Middle East just after the war. That's the Second World War? We got his temperature down fast, and he'll be over the worst of it in a couple of days. He's safe now. He's pretty strong.'
I shrugged and realised that I was smiling stupidly. When I'd got my face under control I told her I hoped he'd behave himself for the time being, and promised I'd be back in twenty-four hours.
And then I pushed the whole thing out of my mind and fled to the car because I had just fifty minutes to get to the sale rooms in Mayfair. I was in fact only just in time to hurtle inside and bid on the first lot of French Revolutionary pamphlets, which included the one I'd arranged to sell on to a New York dealer. In the rush I paid twenty pounds more than I'd meant to and nearly wiped out my profit. Then I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening getting on with my business. When it came down to it Tom Ashe was not my business.
Perhaps I should have phoned the hospital again, but it didn't seem necessary. I'd left my number and assumed that if anything went wrong they would ring me. I'm always assuming that what should happen, will. I really ought to know better.
The visitors' car park was full, and I had to risk leaving the Volvo on a yellow line in the main road. I didn't really believe Ashe would be able to leave the hospital, but it was obvious that I couldn't expect him to walk far if he insisted on going.
The long ward was busier today. I was late, and the support staff were already wheeling trolleys up the centre of the room, dispensing early dinner trays and cups of teas from a big urn. I angled a look at one, despite the heat, we were having some kind of light brown stew. Obviously they wouldn't let Ashe pack up and leave in the middle of a meal. I wove a path among the trolleys and headed towards his bed.
It wasn't until I was close that I realised it was empty. The bedside table top was also clear. Even the visitor's chair had gone.
I stopped one of the student nurses, flying past in the direction of a winking light. 'Where's Mr Ashe? He isn't worse, is he?'
She looked vague and paused long enough to say, 'I don't know him. Can you ask in the office?'
Of course it wasn't possible that he had died. Not without her knowing about it. I retraced my steps to the little room in the corner where Sister still seemed to be shuffling papers. Presumably an occupational hazard. I thought she stiffened when I appeared in her doorway. 'Where is he?'
'Mr Ashe left two hours ago.' The exasperation was unmistakable. 'He discharged himself after the morning rounds.'
I got myself in hand enough to demand details. Yes, she told me, he had woken in a bad mood, passed the morning in what sounded like alternating temper tantrums and sulks, and (obviously) tried everyone's patience a little more than was acceptable. In the end the doctor had given him a prescription but advised him to stay for another day.
'But he made a phone call after breakfast, and his son came...
'Well, I guess it must be his son. They talked for a minute, and then the man went and waited in the smokin' room. Then Mr Ashe got his clothes and signed the form, and he left.'
'With this other man?'
'I was busy, myself,' Mrs Fletcher told me unnecessarily, 'but I guess so.'
It seemed likely. Though unexpected. 'So he was all right today?'
No, she hadn't thought he was really well enough to leave. Nor had Dr Aziz. Ashe himself had decided differently.
Groaning silently I asked, 'Where was he going? I'd better make sure he's all right.'
I could see her wondering where I came in. I didn't explain and after a moment she riffled through a stack of big cards and produced one which looked newer than most of them. 'Arlington House.'
It rang a bell but I wasn't sure why.
'Arlington Road. Camden Town. It's a hostel for homeless men.'
Of course it was. I remembered the big brick building just off the street market. 'Of course. Thanks. I'm sorry...' Why did I feel that I had to apologise for him? The erratic behaviour of Tom Ashe was hardly my responsibility.
We parted on coolly cordial terms, and I'd taken a few steps towards the main door when I heard her call, 'Miss?' and turned back. She was following me quickly, holding something out. 'I nearly forgot - I didn't give this back. It was in his pocket when he came in. Would you give it to him?'
She held something towards me: a big screwdriver, maybe fourteen inches long with a thick black plastic handle. The flat tip had been filed sharp.
I said stupidly, 'This was in his pocket?' She nodded silently.
'How could he carry this thing in a pocket? ... Is there something wrong?'
'There was a little hole in the lining.'
I let her see that I didn't understand.
'The blade pokes through a hole, hangin' down inside the lining, and the handle is in his pocket where he can reach it. Be careful you don't cut yourself! They carry that on the street, some of them, for defence. See, some of them think it's better than carrying a knife. Just as useful, and less trouble for them - if the police find it, they don't make a fuss, they just take it away.'
I closed my mouth before it could say something really stupid, like that Mr Ashe wasn't that kind of person. What did I know about him? Maybe he spent all his nights in street brawls. Or doing woodwork for a hobby.
I stomped back to the car before it had been presented with a parking ticket, turned around by means of a bad-tempered half-circle across the road, and made off in the direction of Camden Town, where I was lucky enough to find an empty meter only two streets away from the hostel and so was feeling a little more cheerful when I arrived opposite the council depot and climbed the cracked steps to the door.
Ninety seconds later, I was descending the same steps into a recurrence of bad temper. The man at the reception window had just informed me in definite terms that no Tom Ashe lived there, or had ever stayed there, or was known to him even slightly, and there was no point begging him to check his register because he knew this already. Apparently Ashe had given the hospital a false address. Of course, if I wished I could stand in the street and watch the door for a few hours in case he was on his way here now. Or I could let the old man fend for himself since that seemed to be what he wanted. Next time he was ill he could find some other muggins to cart him around.
There was a stall in the market selling nectarines at seven for a pound. I bought fourteen of them so that my journey wouldn't have been entirely wasted. The sun was blasting down again today and I began to yearn for my own pleasant, shady shop where I could sit like a lady with the front and back doors open to create a gentle breeze, waiting for intelligent and book-loving customers to come in and buy books. Serious, valuable, antiquarian books that brought in some real money, unlike student texts or travel paperbacks.
Drops of sweat were rolling down my neck. I turned back to the stall and bought a watermelon.
And then I caught a glimpse of somebody who could have been Ashe himself walking away from me through the milling shoppers. He vanished when I tried to follow him.
Not my business!
I wiped a trickle of sweat from my jaw line, turned myself around, and got back to the car just as my meter time ran out. I could do with not seeing Tom Ashe again for a while.
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