The fourth book in the Kate Brannigan series, 1995
To chelsea fans everywhere, in deepest SYMPATHY; GOD KNOWS, YOU NEED SOMETHING TO CHEER YOU UP.
THE USUAL GANG ALL LET ME PICK THEIR BRAINS TO MAKE THIS a better and more accurate book than it would otherwise have been-Coop, Uncle Lee, BB, Paula, Jai, Brother Brian, Lisanne and Jane, and Julia. I also scrounged assistance from Frankie Hegarty, Fairy Baillie and Diana Muir. Don’t blame them if you spot any mistakes. To anyone who recognizes where we went on our holidays-my heartfelt sympathies.
I DON’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT ART, BUT I KNOW WHAT I DON’T like. I don’t like paintings that go walkabout after I’ve set up the security system. I especially don’t like them when I’ve packed my business partner off to the Antipodes for two months with the calm assurance that I can handle things while he’s gone.
The painting in question was a small Monet. When I say small, I mean in size, not in value. It would barely cover the hole my lover, Richard, punched in the wall of his living room in a moment of drunken ecstasy when Eric Cantona clinched the double for Manchester United, but it was worth a good dozen times as much as both our adjoining bungalows put together. Which, incidentally, they never will be. The painting depicted an apple tree in blossom and not a lot else. You could tell it was an apple tree; according to our office manager, Shelley, that’s because it was painted quite early on in Monet’s career, before his eyesight began to go and his whole world started to look like an Impressionist painting. Imagine, a whole artistic movement emanating from one bloke’s duff eyesight. Amazing what you can learn from the Open University. Shelley started a degree course last year, and what she doesn’t know about the history of art I’m certainly not qualified to uncover. It’s not one of the course options in Teach Yourself Private Dicking.
The Monet in question, called, imaginatively enough, Apple Tree in Blossom, belonged to Henry Naismith, Lord of the Manor of Birchfield with Polver. Henry to his friends, and, thanks to John Major’s classless society, to mere tradespeople like me. There were no airs and graces with Henry, but that didn’t mean he didn’t hide his thoughts and feelings behind his charming facade. That’s how I knew it was serious when I picked up the phone to his perfect vowels that September morning. “Kate? Henry Naismith,” he started. I leaned back in my chair, expecting the usual cheery chat about his recent exploits before we got down to the nuts and bolts. Not today. “Can you come over to the house?” he asked.
I straightened up. This sounded like the kind of start to a Monday morning that makes me wish I’d stayed in bed. “When did you have in mind, Henry?”
“As soon as you can. We, ah… we had a burglary in the night and a chap from the police is popping round for more details. He’ll want to know things about the security system that I probably won’t be able to answer, and I’d be awfully grateful if you could take a run over.” All this barely pausing for breath, never mind giving me the opportunity to ask questions.
I didn’t have to check the diary to know that I had nothing more pressing than routine inquiries into the whereabouts of a company chairman whose directors were rather eager to ask him some questions about the balance sheet. “No problem,” I said. “What’s missing?” I prayed it was going to be the TV and the video.
No such luck. There was silence on the end of the phone. I thought I could hear Henry drawing in a deep breath. “The Monet,” he said tersely.
My stomach clenched. Birchfield Place was the first security system I’d designed and watched installed. My partner, Bill Mortensen, is the security expert, and he’d checked my work, but it was still down to me. “I’m leaving now,” I said.
I drove out through the southern suburbs to the motorway on automatic pilot. Even the inevitable, ubiquitous roadworks didn’t impinge. I was too busy reviewing Mortensen and Brannigan’s involvement with Henry Naismith. When I’d seen his original appointment in the office diary, I’d thought Shelley was kidding me, especially since I’d been having one of my periodic antimonarchy rants only the day before, triggered by the heir to the throne asserting that what was wrong with the country was not enough Shakespeare and smacking of small children. Once I realized the appointment was for real, I’d expected some chinless wonder with the sort of inbred stupidity that’s only found among the aristocracy and the population of isolated mountain villages. I couldn’t have been more wrong, on both counts.
Henry Naismith was in his late twenties, built like an Australian lifeguard with the blond hair to match and with more than enough chin to provide a boxer with a target. According to Who’s Who, his only recreations were sailing and ocean yacht racing, something I could have guessed for myself the first time I saw him. He had sailor’s eyes, always looking beyond me to some distant horizon only he could see. His face was burnished a ruddy brown by wind and sun, apart from the white creases round those dark blue eyes. He’d been educated at Marlborough and New College, Oxford. Even though I’d grown up there, I didn’t think his city of dreaming spires and mine of car factories would give us much in common to reminisce about. He had the same clipped accent as Prince Charles, but in spite of that and everything else, I liked him. I liked anybody who was prepared to get off his backside and work hard. And Henry could graft, no messing. Anybody that tells you yacht racing is a holiday doesn’t know an anchor from a wanker.
The newspaper archive database that we use had colored in the outline. Henry had inherited his title, a black-and-white Tudor manor house in Cheshire, a clutch of valuable paintings and not a lot of readies a couple of years before when his parents had been caught in an avalanche in some chic Alpine resort. Henry had been sailing in the Caribbean at the time. Life’s a bitch, and then you marry one. Only Henry hadn’t. Married, that is. He was right up there in the gossip columnists’ lists of eligible bachelors. Maybe not in the top twenty, on account of the lack of dough, but the good looks and the tasty house put him in the running nevertheless.
Henry had come to us precisely because of the serious deficiencies in the cash-flow area. Because his father hadn’t anticipated dying at the age of forty-seven, he hadn’t got round to the sort of arrangements the landed gentry usually make to avoid the Exchequer getting their mitts on the widow’s mite. Having done his sums, Henry realized the only way he was going to be able to hang on to the house and the art collection and still spend half the year at the helm of a racing yacht was to bite the bullet and open Birchfield Place to the day-trippers.
The great British public are notoriously sticky-fingered on the stately-home circuit. You wouldn’t think it to look at the coachloads of little old ladies that roll up on Bank Holidays, but they’ll walk off with anything that isn’t actually nailed down, and one or two things that are. This makes insurance companies even more twitchy than usual when it comes to providing cover, which in turn makes the security business a nice little earner for private- investigation agencies like us. These days, security makes up about a quarter of our annual turnover, which is why Bill and I had decided I needed to learn that side of the business.
It’s impossible to make any building impregnable, unless you brick up the doors and windows, which makes it hard to get a decent light to do your petit point. The best you can do is make it obvious that you’ve made it as hard as possible to get in, so the prospective burglar turns away discouraged and turns over the next manor down the road. To make sure I got it right, as well as picking Bill’s brains I’d consulted my old friend Dennis, himself a recovering burglar. “You know the one deterrent, Brannigan?” Dennis had demanded.
“Heat-seeking thermonuclear missiles?” I’d hazarded.