We’d been driving for hours. I didn’t recognise the countryside at all. Were we in Scotland now? The journey was not only long but it was also inevitable. I see that now, of course. Neither of the men had said a word to me, even when they forced me into the car outside Victoria Station. They’d hit me, hard, and for a while it was all I could do to breathe. I didn’t struggle. I’m a junior forensic pathologist. I do go to the gym – I go to run – I’m not built for violence, nor is it something I’m keen on. They clearly were. Despite their civilian clothing, even I could see they were military of some form or another. I kept asking them why, where were they taking me, who were they? Eventually, the one in the passenger seat turned around and shoved a short, snub-nosed gun in my face. I lost all desire for conversation at that point.
Mike had warned me about this, but I’d refused to let it go. It wasn’t right what they did to her. What they’d put her through. And now she was dead. On some days I didn’t believe the stories they told about her. The late-night parties, the lovers, the eating disorders. She wasn’t like that. And if she was, they’d made her like that. She used to work at an animal shelter for heaven’s sake. But then there were other days, the ones where you could see the sadness and the loneliness behind that dazzling smile. In a sense, she was our Marilyn Munroe. Blonde, glamourous, lonely.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m no stalker. She was on the front page of the newspapers every day. Hers was the real-life story of little girls’ dreams. The Cinderella that married a prince. It wasn’t my fascination for the woman herself that got me in to trouble; it was, in a sense, my aunt’s fault.
It all started at my Uncle Harold’s wake. My aunt, Lady Bronwyn Sandringham, asked me if I would go through my uncle’s office at their house in Berkshire and pack it all away for her. She couldn’t bear it and besides, she wouldn’t know what was important to keep or what could be thrown away. She’d murmured something about what an asset he’d been to the Royal Family, such a staunch and loyal member of the Household. Personally, I’d thought him a pompous ass and that his position as Coroner of the Queen’s Household had only made him more so. But naturally I didn’t say that.
I had just recently finished my final FRCPath exams and was now, finally, after what seemed a lifetime of study, a forensic pathologist. As I only started work in a month’s time, I had nothing better to do so I agreed.
I resigned myself to the fact that it would probably be a tedious job as he’d kept copies of every file on every job he’d worked on. Each with highly detailed notes, which would have been interesting, if they hadn’t all been about himself. He’d shown them to me once, gloating a little at his own importance.
Speaking with a plummy accent is no deterrent to being a bore.
I knew that he’d kept all the files and notes for the memoirs he’d been planning to write. And the worst of it was, because of his position they would have been published. No, that wasn’t the worst. The worst of it was I would have been given a copy for Christmas, or my birthday, whichever came first, and been expected to read it.
After the funeral, the aunt, leaving me to hear the reading of the will alone, had gone to the Caribbean with a few of her bridge friends. I wasn’t sure if it was to mourn or to let loose and kick up her heels. I hoped it was the latter.
I knew it was when I discovered they were also taking the chauffeur. Let’s just say he hadn’t been hired for his ability to drive a car.
The only other occupants of the house left were Mr and Mrs Oats, butler and cook respectively. A couple I’d known all my life. They were as much a part of the fabric of my life as my uncle and aunt had been. More, probably. They still called me Master John, despite the fact that I was far too old for that and neither heir to the estate nor the title.
I’d be away on a two-week walking tour of Wales before I started the Herculean task awaiting me, my aunt wouldn’t be back for a month at least – and if the chauffer lived up to the ladies’ expectations who knew when they’d be back – so I suggested Oats and his wife take time off and enjoy a couple of months’ holiday themselves. But they wouldn’t hear of it.
I was grateful and looking forward to being at the house. Being cooked for and waited on hand and foot sounded much better than having to endure my own cooking of which I was heartily sick. It inevitably gave me food poisoning.
I’d been in Wales three days when I got the call. It was Oats.
“I’m terribly sorry for calling so early, Master John. I wasn’t sure who else to call.”
“What is it, Oats?” I rubbed my eyes and checked my watch. 5 A.M. Not my best time of day.
“There’s been a break-in at the house.” I could hear in his voice that something was terribly wrong. I sat up and rubbed my eyes.
“Are you and Mrs Oats all right?”
“Yes, yes. We’re fine. I don’t think they knew we were here. We were in the cellar when they arrived. I’m sorry to say we stayed there.”
“Nothing to be sorry about, Oats. I’m glad you did. Are you sure you’re all right?”
“Oh, yes, sir. Thank you. But they’ve left quite a mess, I’m afraid. I wasn’t sure whether I should call Lady Sandringham, what with her being in the Caribbean, and as you were coming here anyway, I thought…” his voice trailed off. I’d never heard him so shaken. He sounded old all of a sudden.
“No, no need to worry my aunt. Did you call the police?”
“Well, that’s just it, sir. It was the police.”