Home > Closed Casket (New Hercule Poirot Mysteries #2)

Closed Casket (New Hercule Poirot Mysteries #2)
Author: Sophie Hannah






A New Will

Michael Gathercole stared at the closed door in front of him and tried to persuade himself that now was the moment to knock, as the aged grandfather clock in the hall downstairs stuttered its announcement of the hour.

Gathercole’s instructions had been to present himself at four, and four it was. He had stood here—in this same spot on the wide first landing of Lillieoak—many times in the past six years. Only once had he felt less at ease than he did today. On that occasion he had been one of two men waiting, not alone as he was this afternoon. He still remembered every word of his conversation with the other man, when his preference would have been to recall none of it. Applying the self-discipline upon which he relied, he cast it from his mind.

He had been warned that he would find this afternoon’s meeting difficult. The warning had formed part of the summons, which was typical of his hostess. ‘What I intend to say to you will come as a shock …’

Gathercole did not doubt it. The prior notice was no use to him, for it contained no information about what sort of preparation might be in order.

His discomfort grew more pronounced when he consulted his pocket watch and noticed that by hesitating, and with all the taking out of the watch and putting it back in the waistcoat pocket, and pulling it out once more to check, he had made himself late. It was already a minute after four o’clock. He knocked.

Only one minute late. She would notice—was there anything she did not notice?—but with any luck she would not remark upon it.

‘Do come in, Michael!’ Lady Athelinda Playford sounded as ebullient as ever. She was seventy years old, with a voice as strong and clear as a polished bell. Gathercole had never encountered her in sober spirits. There was always, with her, a cause for excitement—often such morsels as would alarm a conventional person. Lady Playford had a talent for extracting as much amusement from the inconsequential as from the controversial.

Gathercole had admired her stories of happy children solving mysteries that confounded the local police since he had first discovered them as a lonely ten-year-old in a London orphanage. Six years ago, he had met their creator for the first time and found her as disarming and unpredictable as her books. He had never expected to go far in his chosen profession, but here he was, thanks to Athelinda Playford: still a relatively young man at thirty-six, and a partner in a successful firm of solicitors, Gathercole and Rolfe. The notion that any profitable enterprise bore his name was still perplexing to Gathercole, even after a number of years.

His loyalty to Lady Playford surpassed all other attachments he had formed in his life, but personal acquaintance with his favourite author had forced him to admit to himself that he preferred shocks and startling about-turns to occur in the safely distant world of fiction, not in reality. Lady Playford, needless to say, did not share his preference.

He started to open the door.

‘Are you going to … Ah! There you are! Don’t hover. Sit, sit. We’ll get nowhere if we don’t start.’

Gathercole sat.

‘Hello, Michael.’ She smiled at him, and he had the strange sense he always had—as if her eyes had picked him up, turned him around and put him down again. ‘And now you must say, “Hello, Athie.” Go on, say it! After all this time, it ought to be a breeze. Not “Good afternoon, your ladyship”. Not “Good day, Lady Playford”. A plain, friendly “Hello, Athie”. Is that too much to manage? Ha!’ She clapped her hands together. ‘You look quite the hunted fox cub! You can’t understand why you’ve been invited to stay for a week, can you? Or why Mr Rolfe was invited too.’

Would the arrangements that Gathercole had put in place be sufficient to cover the absence of himself and Orville Rolfe? It was unheard of for them both to be away from the office for five consecutive days, but Lady Playford was the firm’s most illustrious client; no request from her could be refused.

‘I dare say you are wondering if there will be other guests, Michael. We shall come to all of that, but I’m still waiting for you to say hello.’

He had no choice. The greeting she demanded from him each time would never fall naturally from his lips. He was a man who liked to follow rules, and if there wasn’t a rule forbidding a person of his background from addressing a dowager viscountess, widow of the fifth Viscount Playford of Clonakilty, as ‘Athie’, then Gathercole fervently believed there ought to be.

It was unfortunate, therefore—he said so to himself often—that Lady Playford, for whom he would do anything, poured scorn on the rules at every turn and derided those who obeyed them as ‘dreary dry sticks’.

‘Hello, Athie.’

‘There we are!’ She spread out her arms in the manner of a woman inviting a man to leap into them, though Gathercole knew that was not her intention. ‘Ordeal survived. You may relax. Not too much! We have important matters to attend to—after we’ve discussed the bundle of the moment.’

It was Lady Playford’s habit to describe the book she was in the middle of writing as ‘the bundle’. Her latest sat on the corner of the desk and she threw a resentful glance in its direction. It looked to Gathercole less like a novel in progress and more like a whirlwind represented in paper: creased pages with curled edges, corners pointing every which way. There was nothing in the least rectangular about it.

Lady Playford hauled herself out of her armchair by the window. She never looked out, Gathercole had noticed. If there was a human being to inspect, Lady Playford did not waste time on nature. Her study offered the most magnificent views: the rose garden and, behind it, a perfectly square lawn, at the centre of which was the angel statue that her husband Guy, the late Viscount Playford, had commissioned as a wedding anniversary gift, to celebrate thirty years of marriage.

Gathercole always looked at the statue and the lawn and the rose bushes when he visited, as well as at the grandfather clock in the hall and the bronze table lamp in the library with the leaded glass snail-shell shade; he made a point of doing so. He approved of the stability they seemed to offer. Things—by which Gathercole meant lifeless objects and not any more general state of affairs—rarely changed at Lillieoak. Lady Playford’s constant meticulous scrutiny of every person that crossed her path meant that she paid little attention to anything that could not speak.

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