by Trevor Hopkins

I found myself once more standing on the front door step of the gracious Vale residence, ringing the doorbell. There had been no sign of anybody following me for at least twenty minutes. I had hightailed it to the home of the late Merton Vale as soon as I had felt confident that I was not being shadowed.

I had half-expected a lengthy wait outside, but in the event the heavy wooden door was opened almost immediately by the aged female retainer who had ushered me inside on my previous visit. I had also expected that I would be required to undertake a little fast talking in order to be admitted. Again, wrong: as soon as the housekeeper recognised me, she beckoned me inside and directed me towards a reception room on the ground floor, a different room that had been used to host Merton's wake. It was almost as if I was expected.

Alva Vale received me in a - well, the only word was boudoir. The aged retainer showed me inside, bowed formally with a carefully neutral expression on her old face, then backed out firmly closing the heavy wooden doors behind her. Both room and widow were a vision in pale tones, a visual harmony only an expensive interior designer can achieve. A swathe of deep-pile cream carpet lapped against the walls which were themselves painted a colour a carefully-chosen two shades lighter. An airy high ceiling allowed for drapes with elaborate swags and tails that framed the high windows, yet still let in a surprising amount of light.

For all its size and grandeur, the room was surprisingly intimate. The curtains which edged the vast four-poster bed concealed a substantial fraction of the room, a separation that hinted at even more intimate surroundings within. A couple of comfortable-looking chairs finished in pale leather - yet another shade of cream - were set around a grand fireplace presently not lit. The opening itself was graced by an arrangement of dried fungi in shades of fawn and beige and mushroom. The walls were decorated with large works of art - I hesitated to categorise them as paintings - executed sparsely in charcoal or ink on pale backgrounds.

The centrepiece of the entire room was Alva Vale herself. She lay artfully arranged on a chaise-longue, swathed in a dressing gown in cream satin somehow a different but again complementary shade to the curtains and walls and carpets. Her garments were carefully placed to leave much of her arms - and even more of her legs - entirely uncovered. Another region was also exposed, displaying a great deal of what my grandmother would no doubt have insisted on called her décolletage.

Placed on a low table in convenient arms-reach was a cut-glass tumbler containing a transparent liquid which displayed just a very few bubbles rising leisurely to the surface, rising slowly enough for me to infer the presence of much alcohol in the colourless fluid. Standing by the glass was a bell in some silvery metal, ready to summon the housekeeper - or some other servant - to refill her glass.

"So you're the mysterious Private Detective?" she purred, in a voice unslurred but already somewhat loosened by the contents of the tumbler.

"The name's Gask, Findo Gask, Ma'am. We've met before," I said levelly, "At your late husband's wake."

She drew a hand to her mouth prettily, to hide a smile or giggle, or perhaps just a hiccup.

"That's true, isn't it," she said, "But there were too many people about. I wasn't paying much attention, I'm afraid."

She picked up her glass and sipped coyly, taking the opportunity to look at me over the rim and under her eyelashes.

"Surely you can understand that," she continued, swirling the liquid around the half-full glass, "But now that you're here, maybe you can tell me what you know about poor Merton's death."

She fixed me with a smile that left no room for misinterpretation. Long experience had taught me that it's hard for some females - even some very good-looking females - to realise that their bodies are not irresistible. Mrs Merton Vale was coming on to me as if I was just any other guy with his brains in his pants. Mistake - big mistake - huge. I was certainly no patsy, but if Alva wanted to play pat-a-cake then I was willing to play along, at least for a while.

"I'm not sure what I do know," I said carefully, "Although I think I'll learn more from a closer study of the stash of documents I've recovered - at great personal risk, I might add."

As I spoke, her eyes lit up, a brightness that might have been mistaken for a hunger, a need.

"Are those what were in poor Merton's briefcase? You got them back?"

I nodded wordlessly.

"Oh so very brave of you - tell me all about it," she gushed.

I gave her a heavily précis'd and slightly over-dramatised version of my adventure. I made no mention of the names of those involved, or even indicated that I had recognised any of them.

"So brave!" she breathed, when I had finished, "To face down those horrid Goblins, and that human too."

She put down her drink on the little table, next to the silver bell, then looked up at me under her eyelashes again.

"So can I see Merton's papers?"

Again, I nodded without speaking. Suddenly, Alva stood up, somehow slipping out of the dressing gown as she rose from the chaise-longue, leaving her wearing only a short and revealing negligee fabricated from a material so diaphanous that she might as well have been entirely naked. She moved to me, pressing herself close so that I could feel the warmth of her body and the swell of her breasts, and sense her hot breath on my face. She ran a hand over my chest, inside my coat, just where I have my deep pockets.

"There's only one little snag," I whispered in her ear, catching her hand, "I don't actually have them any more."

She drew back, her eyes narrowing.

"Where are they?" she snarled.

"They're in safe-keeping," I said, a wry grin slowly forming on my face, "With Judge Kirkton."

Part 63 Part 65