by Trevor Hopkins

It was time to pay a visit to Tibbermore. Some new questions to ask, making sure I got some answers. I don't like it when people hold out on me, especially when those people are my clients. But I shouldn't be surprised. Clients almost always hold out on you. Sometimes it really is entirely irrelevant, but not often. Understanding the motivation of my client is frequently a good handle on understanding the motivations of other involved in the case especially, as is usual, when the others are well-known to one another.

I retraced my steps to Lady Strowan's house, keeping my usual jaundiced lookout behind for anybody who might be trying to follow me. Not a tickle. Perhaps whoever it was had been disheartened by the ease with which I shook him off last time. But I doubted it.

There was still a very visible police presence when I arrived at the house. The main entrance - the one I had used when I was escorted by Tibbermore - was barred by several lengths of that yellow-and-black tape you see in all good crime scenes wrapped round the pillars of the portico, and more effectively by a couple of bored-looking uniformed cops. Not that anybody was seriously trying to get in but some news must have leaked out. The tape barrier was lined with reporters, cameramen and curious bystanders three deep, with no signs that any of them were going to leave any time soon. If Tewel or one of his colleagues didn't make a formal statement to the press very soon, then the newspapers would be full of those "...speculation is rife..." pieces which usually get three-quarters of the facts wrong and confuses everybody for months.

There was no point in trying to bluff my way in through the front door. But Tibbermore had initially invited me to her Ladyship's house before agreeing to attend my office instead. I concluded that the entire building could not have been out of bounds. Time to seek out the tradesman's entrance, round the back.

*

As it happened, there wasn't a tradesman's entrance as such. Rather, there were a variety of working doors and gates in the high stone wall which edged the narrower and less grand street that ran behind the row of imposing residences of which Lady Strowan's mansion was but a part. Most entrances were firmly shut and secured against the kind of tampering which I was likely to be able to undertake given the high likelihood of being observed. But there were few people about; it seemed that the hounds of the press had not thought to explore this side of the residence.

Fortunately, no breaking and entering was required on this occasion. One gate stood wide open, leading to an inner courtyard given over to recently-washed sheets drying on clotheslines and a few urns growing the kind of fresh fungus used to season traditional foodstuffs down here.

I strode through the gate as if I owned the place and followed the obvious pathway which looked as if it led to the scullery door. Other doors gave the appearance of being the entrances to storerooms, laundries and kitchens. Once upon a time, this would have been a bustling place packed with staff preparing food and washing sheets for the myriad houseguests and visitors that Lady Strowan's fame and position would command. Now it looked unused, locked in a kind of stasis awaiting a new lease of life.

As I walked, an old maid dressed in the deep black of mourning hobbled out of the scullery door. She was bent nearly double from age and fragility. She was carrying a woven basket lined with a clean white cloth and, when I was close enough to inspect it closely, what looked like a worryingly-sharp kitchen knife. She gasped and stopped dead when she finally caught sight of me, clutching the basket to her chest as if it were some kind of defence.

I too stopped and raised my hat politely.

"Good afternoon," I called out, waving genteelly with the hand not holding the hat.

She curtseyed - an action I hadn't seen carried out for many a long decade - and mumbled some enquiry as to my errand. It was all very old-fashioned and innocent, and a far cry from the hubbub of reporters and general gawkers outside the main entrance.

"I wish to see Tibbermore," I said in a clear firm voice.

"Yes, sir. This way sir."

The maid turned on her heel and led the way back to the scullery door.

Part 28 Part 30