“Mops, you know I can’t tell you any details before the investigation’s complete…” Andrew muttered, trying to free himself of Imogen’s grip. He was in no luck – there was nowhere to retreat, and she was blocking the only exit.
“So, it was a murder, wasn’t it? Otherwise, you and Balinson wouldn’t be here questioning everyone. Mr. Fitzroy called the Town Hall last night, demanding to speed up the investigation. I need to know how the Gnome died!” Imogen cleared her throat awkwardly. “I mean, Mrs. Fitzroy.”
“The Gnome?” Andrew asked, professional interest replacing inexplicable panic in his eyes.
“Yeah, that’s how I, Oliver, and about a dozen of her colleagues called her,” Imogen admitted grudgingly. “You know, she was small, and sort of… shifty.”
“She was your height,” Andrew noted, and Imogen shrugged.
“But I don’t walk up to people quietly to eavesdrop.” Imogen bit her tongue and blushed. She was supposed to be the one abusing their friendship and milking him for information – not the other way around! She resumed her interrogation. “Andrew, was there something suspicious about the car? I need to know because if it were the road, it’s a Town Hall issue, and…”
“It wasn’t the road, Mops,” Andrew interrupted, and sighed. “Mops, I can’t tell you anything…”
Imogen had only one weapon left in her arsenal. She wasn’t called Mops for nothing. The nickname had been given to her by her sister when they were kids – having caused Imogen lashings of hurt over years – and the basis behind it was Imogen’s turn up nose, and… the eyes. They were huge, of an odd greenish-brownish colour – and they did stand out.
Imogen moved even closer to Andrew and looked up – just like all those films with Audrey Hepburn taught her. Eyebrows raised, under a specific angle – and cue Puss from Shrek! She didn’t exactly have that many people in her life to use the weapon on, since no one cared that much what Imogen felt or needed, to be honest – but she’d been spared several library fines for overdue books, and an occasional driver would yell at her just a tad less for her biking escapades.
That was the first time Andrew had ever been subjected to the Puss Maneuver – and the result was more than satisfactory. He gulped again, and glanced behind him, looking mildly terrified. Clearly, his defences were crumbling.
“Why…” His voice broke, and he started coughing spasmodically. “Why do you even care? It’s so not like you, Mops, to bother with gossip…”
“Andrew, please, I properly need to know. It’s important…” Imogen cranked up the Hepburn factor.
“Oh alright!” Andrew exclaimed, and leaned forward. His long narrow nose was right in front of her. “It wasn’t the road. It wasn’t the car. She had some sort of a seizure, and drove into that barn, and into…” Andrew stopped himself and gave her a concerned look. “Mops, I don’t want to overwhelm you with ghastly details.”
“She drove into a plough, I know, Andrew. Mrs. Harris told me.” Imogen pinned Andrew with a firm glare. “What sort of seizure?”
“The autopsy was yesterday. Her husband had applied… pressure on the coroner’s office. But Balinson didn’t tell me anything. We will be questioning her doctor tonight. And, Mops, I need to go now!” Andrew begged; and Imogen released his sleeve.
She needed more information. As much as she hated it, she had to ensure Andrew would let her know the results of the autopsy, and whatever him and the DI managed to find out from the doctor and the family.
“Andrew, could I… invite you for dinner tomorrow?” she blurted out; and Andrew, who’d straightened out by then and was edging towards the door, froze and gawked at her. “You’ve been so very helpful the other day, and I thought I’d cook your favourite lamb. As a thank you.” Imogen gave him a wide, properly artificial smile. Andrew stared; Imogen held her breath – partially in anticipation of his answer, partially from the remorse she was feeling for manipulating her friend this way.
“Do you mean… your place? Dinner at your place?” Andrew asked in an oddly raspy voice. Imogen wasn’t quite sure why he was so surprised. She cooked, and quite well; and he knew it. She’d always invited him over after the fetes where he drove her and the children. And when they were teens, he often had tea and supper at their place.
“Yeah… Just you and I, some food, chat… Just a chat…” Imogen decided the wisest thing to do now was to shut her gob – since she sounded as nonchalant and natural as a saw meeting a nail in a plank.
Andrew’s eyes were glassy for a second or two, and then he nodded.
“Sure, yeah. Dinner, and… chat. When should I come? Or I could pick you up at work…”
“Just come over around nine. Is nine too late? I’m not sure what a policeman’s hours are. We can do later!” Imogen rushed to ensure he’d actually come. This line of hers produced a strange twitch of Andrew’s left eye.
“Nine is perfect,” he muttered.
“Perfect then,” Imogen parroted; and squeezing by him she tried to flee the pantry. She couldn’t quite look into his eyes, feeling that he would see through her schemes if he only looked more attentively.
She jerked the door open, stepped out – and into the wide, suit clad chest of DI Balinson.
“Oh dear… Afternoon,” Imogen mumbled; and the Inspector gave her an impish look over.
“Afternoon, Ms. Fox. Would my Sergeant happen to be here with you?”
“He is… Yes, he’s… there…” Imogen waved somewhere behind herself, at the direction of Andrew, who’d just stepped out of the door as well, and stood petrified in front of his superior officer. The dark eyes of DI Balinson twinkled under bushy grey eyebrows.
“Cooper, if you’re quite done here…” The Inspector gave Andrew what was called a knowing smirk. “Straighten yourself up, and let’s go talk to the Headmistress.”
“Yes, sir.” Andrew cleared his throat, and left without giving Imogen another look.
“Well, I’ll be going then too…” Imogen squeaked.
“Actually, Ms. Fox, I’d love to have a word with you too. When you have a moment if you could stop by the station.” The DI gave her a polite smile. According to Andrew, the man was as cunning as Imogen’s namesake; and endlessly perceptive. There was no point in trying to hide much from him. Imogen nervously swallowed.
“I have half a day off on Thursday, and I’ll of course come in, but… What’s it all about?” she asked in a scratchy voice.
“Just to clarify a few things, that’s all,” Balinson answered benevolently.
Imogen sniffled, promised to be there, and fled.
It was now time to pedal back to the office. On the way out Imogen stopped in the reception and learnt that Oliver had called sick in the morning. If he was indeed lying home ill, he wouldn’t pick up his mobile. But, of course, the news made Imogen only more worried.
She arrived back at the Mayor House, hungry and exhausted from her Tour de Fleckney. She rushed to the table with the kettle and the coffee machine, but both were empty, just as the box from the morning pastries. Imogen threw a mournful look into the icing sugar covered bottom.
“Are you ready?” The Mayor’s voice shook her out of her starving thoughts. For a second she couldn’t suss out what he was asking about, but then she remembered their trip to the meres.
The Mayor held his coat in his hands, and Imogen habitually ogled him adoringly. Her all time favourites were in place: a crooked tie; the disheveled dark curls; the lush short beard, touching which – just once, really, just to know how it felt – was on Imogen’s bucket list; and the slightly drawn together, thick glossy eyebrows. Imogen fancied everything about him – purely platonically and professionally, of course, thank you very much. And this grumpy semi-frown of his wasn’t an exception.
Imogen picked up her own coat, and followed the Mayor down the hall and into the reception.
He was looking into his phone, so she had to steer him away from his favourite corner of the bookshelf – three thumps in the last fortnight – and the recently popular table, which Imogen first had stopped putting the vase on, and then considered buying those soft rubbed corner protectors for. It would be done for the sake of the table, of course, not the Mayor’s hip – because Imogen was not under any circumstances thinking about the Mayor’s hips.
They were approaching the entrance hall, when Imogen heard Mr. Dudgeon.
Imogen hissed like a suddenly picked up cat, and grabbed the Mayor’s forearm. He looked from his mobile, one eyebrow hiked up.
“It’s Mr. Dudgeon. We need to use another exit.”
“Mr. Dudgeon?” Imogen jerked her hand from the warm, firm forearm under the jacket sleeve.
“Yes, Mr. Dudgeon. The gentleman who protests our dam.” The Mayor gave her his habitual ‘speak on, please!’ twitch of his right eyebrow. “Our dam, built in 1936, which he considers un-historical, and suggests demolishing for the sake of preserving ‘the real Fleckney Woulds.’”
“Oh…” The Mayor’s lips rounded. “Shall we use the tunnel?”
“Indeed,” Imogen agreed; and they turned around and headed to the stairs leading to the basement.
The Old Mill, which later had become the Mayor House, had had a tunnel leading out into the fields – a secret, hidden behind a bookshelf, dusty and dark tunnel. It had been discovered by the architect in charge of the building’s renovations in 1962, and since then the secret of it had been passed from an inhabitant to an inhabitant. There was even a non-disclosure form an employee of the House was to sign; and presently those were the Mayor, Imogen, and Mrs. Harris who were in the know. Imogen could bet the tunnel looked very inviting to Mrs. Harris at the moment, since she was the one to deal with Mr. Dudgeon. The man was shockingly agile and loud for a 92 year old; and he could go on talking for hours, seemingly without drawing a breath.
They picked up the torches, hanging by the entrance of the tunnel; walked through; hid the torches in the specifically allocated flower pots on the other end, on the outside; and briskly walked to the garage. Imogen sighed at the prospect of the ordeal of climbing into the Mayor’s Range Rover. Being short was quite a nuisance sometimes.
She liked being in his car, though. It was clean, but not as impeccable as Andrew’s, where she always tried to sit as still as possible, worried she’d make a mess. The Range Rover smelled nice too – woody, and spicy. The Mayor also was an excellent driver – fast, and confident – and Imogen always felt safe and cosy in it.
Ten minutes into the drive the Mayor suddenly veered and tucked the car into a parking spot in front of a tea shop.
“Are you hungry?” he asked; and while Imogen was going to loudly protest and reassure, her stomach decided to speak up. A loud mournful gurgle was its answer to the man. “Perfect.”
The Mayor grabbed his keys and jumped out of the car. Imogen scampered after him. He pushed the door; the bell above it rang; and Imogen’s knees buckled. It smelled amazing inside!
“Are we taking away?..” Imogen started asking but the Mayor already strode to a table by the window. Imogen minced after him.
They sat and opened menus. Everything sounded good to Imogen, and she hungrily swallowed.
“You sighed every time we passed any food place,” the Mayor grumbled, his eyes on the menu. “And I could use some sugar.” He flipped the page, probably to browse the pudding options. Meanwhile, Imogen wasn’t looking at the menu.
She was sitting, her eyes widened, her chest rising in short pants. He noticed she was hungry and decided to feed her! John Crispin Oakby – who didn’t notice the furniture; and once continued reading his emails when papers in his bin had caught fire – had actually been focused on her enough to observe her throw longing looks at cafés; more so, he acknowledged and analyzed those longing looks; and was now feeding her! Oh be still, Imogen’s heart!
“What do you think of a bacon and watercress tart?” he asked, without looking up, and absent-mindedly ruffled the silky curls on the top of his head.
“I think it’s most wonderful…” Imogen whispered, and he nodded, and continued reading his menu.