“John Redfyre is a detective for the ages.”
—Tasha Alexander, New York Times bestselling author of Death in St. Petersburg
“Cleverly resolves the mystery with her customary expertise and good taste. But she’s human enough to take the occasional jab at men who make the rules of society, ‘smothering female talent, gagging and belittling their wives and daughters.’”
—The New York Times Book Review
Did you enjoy the Joe Sandilands series, but haven’t yet met Detective Inspector Redfyre? Or did you read Fall of Angels and have been dying for a sequel ever since? You’re in luck, because Barbara Cleverly‘s next book has arrived!
An “invitation to dine” loses a letter and DI John Redfyre returns to the hallowed halls of Cambridge academia in Invitation to Die, the second installment in Cleverly’s critically acclaimed Detective Inspector Redfyre series. Keep reading for an exclusive excerpt.
It’s Cambridge, 1924, in early summertime. May Balls, punting on the Cam, flirting and dancing the tango are the preoccupations of bright young people, but bright young DI John Redfyre finds himself mired in multiple murders.
One morning, his dog discovers a corpse neatly laid on a tombstone in the graveyard adjoining St. Bede’s College. An army greatcoat and well-worn boots suggest the dead man may have been a former soldier, though the empty bottle of brandy and a card bearing the words “An Invitation to Dine” on the victim ring a discordant note. Even more unsettling is the autopsy, which reveals death by strangulation and unusual contents in the stomach from the man’s last meal. Redfyre learns that this murder is one of several unsolved cases linked to a secretive and sinister dining club at St. Bede’s.
Redfyre, himself an ex-rifleman, becomes caught in a dark tale of revenge, betrayal and injustice—a lingering mystery from a long-forgotten war. With the unlikely assistance of his lead suspect, he gradually unearths the dead man’s story and fights to right an ancient wrong.
Invitation to Die is on sale now wherever books are sold.
CAMBRIDGE, FRIDAY, THE 16TH OF MAY, 1924
Struck by a rare lapse in confidence, Rupert Rendlesham pulled up sharply in the middle of the King’s Parade on his way down to the market square. At half past eleven on a Friday in May, the street was almost deserted. Examination papers and desperate last-minute revision had cleared undergraduates from the streets, and there was no one about to raise an eyebrow at the sudden break in the stride, the fleeting frown of indecision. Nevertheless, he looked furtively from side to side before turning to check on his reflection in the window of the gents’ outfitters he was passing. Vanity? No. “Judicious self-awareness,” he would have called his decision to indulge in a little light preening. Rupert was too vain ever to suspect himself of vanity. There was another, less shaming trigger for his sudden spasm of doubt. This was no everyday expedition into the realms of the Great Unwashed he was undertaking. He was on a mission. A manhunt. His mind, steeped in medieval literature, dared to add: a quest. And he was running out of time. He had one hour to secure the trophy that would see him garlanded in praise by his fellows before the day was out. Amused by his own whimsy, Rupert twirled the end of an imaginary moustache and shared a flirtatious leer with his reflection.
A cheeky wolf whistle caught him in midpose. A further rude comment on his parentage from a butcher’s boy pedalling by on a bike distracted and annoyed him.
“You ignoramus!” he hurled back. It occurred to Rupert that his choice of insult, if indeed apt, would be incomprehensible to the target. “Oik!” he added for clarity. “And your granny!”
Mild enough, but he regretted at once descending into mindless repartee. What the hell! He could do better than indulge in surreptitious self-examination for the entertainment of the lower classes.
With a swirl of the academic gown he’d chosen to retain as protective camouflage for his foray into the market, he breezed into the shop.
“Dr. Rendlesham! May I be of assistance, sir?”
“Ah, Blandish!” Rupert returned the greeting of the salesman who stepped forward at once to attend him. “You certainly can! I was just passing and felt the need to check the length of my gown in your—”
Before he could finish the sentence, a tall mirror was being pushed towards him and angled correctly. Rupert twirled in front of it, peering critically at his own elegant figure.
“Tell me now, Blandish . . . It’s being whispered around college that the longer length of gown, like this one you sold me last year, is somewhat passé. I invite you to share your thoughts. I like to have these things straight from the horse’s mouth.” He turned again, adjusted his tie and smoothed down his short fair hair. At that moment, Rupert caught Blandish’s sardonic eye, and a flash of skittish humour prompted him to grasp the two sides of his gown at heart level, elbows out, in a parody of a lecturer’s stance. He tilted his head to offer the mirror an inspiring profile. He’d do! By George, he’d do! If the goddess Britannia had had a son and that son had been admitted as a scholar to St. Jude’s, he’d surely have presented just such an image. Clean-cut. Direct gaze. Yet sporting a nose that would have provoked an envious Duke of Wellington into calling en garde!
Nerves calmed, he could now go on his way. Complete his mission. But Blandish appeared to be taking this nonsense at face value; he was giving the matter serious consideration.
“All is perfection, Dr. Rendlesham. I assure you the hemline rests where it has rested for seven hundred years. Halfway between hock and heel, just brushing the fetlock. But . . .” A reproving finger was raised. “If you will permit me, sir.”
From heaven knew where, the man had suddenly conjured up a tailor’s sponge and was dabbing at a fold in the back of his gown, tutting all the while. “Eve’s pudding for supper last night, sir? You must have been seated in front of a clumsy custard- eater. There, that’s better. I’ll just give the shoulders a brushing and you’ll be ready to take tea with the queen.”
“Ah! Tea with the queen?” Rupert snorted with amusement. “Dinner with the devil is more what I have in mind! Thank you, Blandish. I’ll be on my way.”
“Give His Satanic Majesty my regards, sir.”
Rupert just made out the words murmured behind his back as he returned to the hubbub of the street. Yon Blandish would bear watching, he decided. Hidden depths? A possibility there? No. Too useful in his capacity of outfitter to the university and gentry of the town. Rupert’s nephew would be coming up next term, and he’d planned on confiding the boy to this establishment for his sartorial needs. Never curdle the cream and never foul your own nest—those were the rules. He must seek his prey farther afield.
He strode through the market square, surveying the midday crowd from his formidable six-foot-two stature. It had been a good idea to wear his gown. At worst, it cloaked him in anonymity; at best, it granted him ease of passage. People moved out of his way, demonstrating their mistrust and dislike of academe. He scanned the mass of housewives and traders, lounging townies and the sprinkling of students desperate for fresh air and a change of scene. Checking, scorning and ultimately rejecting the lot of them. A predictable and boring collection with nothing more interesting on their minds than the size of Sunday’s ham joint and the freshness of the cauliflower. Nothing here remotely resembling his target.
Had he missed him? Mistimed his sortie? Rendlesham was growing anxious. His afternoon meeting was due to start at one; there was little time to spare. After a very brief consideration, Rupert forgave himself. He would have to suggest a postponement. But his pride would be eternally dented if he let down the chaps. This was his first quest, and he’d volunteered, after all. What’s more, the selection had been made for him—the scented lure had been pressed to his nostrils by Fanshawe himself. He merely had to follow where it led. He could not be seen to fail. He’d have to calm down, put a lid on the cauldron of conflicting emotions bubbling over and put his nose to the ground.
Testily, he wondered whether Fanshawe had been ill-advised. Surely there were more fruitful hunting grounds than the market square? The sunny green banks of the Cam? No, not during exam season. The only people lurking discreetly below the trailing green foliage of the willows were students. Swotting, sweating, occasionally throwing themselves off bridges. The bar of the Eagle? Packed with unintelligible science-wallahs. Drunk or boring. Frequently both. To be used only as a last resort.
Where in this city did one find a genuine civilian? Someone unconnected with the university? A socially negligible stranger? Rupert realised that in his six years here as a student and graduate researcher and lecturer, he’d scarcely set foot on non- university territory. Where was that to be found? The Alhambra cinema came first to mind. Ugh! Flea-infested and full of copulating couples. Anyone who would pay a shilling to sit in the dark watching Rudolph Valentino sneer his way through something called Blood and Sand for an hour and a half was automatically disqualified. They weren’t looking for a grunting Neanderthaler, after all.
He looked about, preparing to leave the square. He gave a final check to the impeccable fascia and gleaming vitrine of Aunty’s Tea Rooms. A watering hole popular with both Town and Gown, who were to be seen, if not sharing a table, at least sitting peaceably at adjacent tables. There might be a few early tourists about, taking a cup of tea and a bun. Fanshawe had marked his card: Our man is said to frequent— if that’s the right word, though I’d suggest—infest—the environs of the café at lunchtime, when the place is at its busiest. People with enough cash to waste at “Aunty’s” are likely to feel a frisson of guilt at the sight of a beggar when they step out, bloated on cakes and ham sandwiches. In the act of putting away their wallets and their purses, it’s no trouble to hand over their small change to whoever asks for it. That’s where you’ll find the parasite.
There was no beggar lurking about here at the entrance to put anyone off his lunch today, however. Could he return empty-handed? Faute de mieux, would a tourist suffice? Rupert rather liked the notion. By their nature, tourists could be expected to vanish from the scene. Transients moved on and were less predictable. They didn’t come home for tea and a gossip at a regular time each day. They had no truck with the local forces of law or the organs of information. And there was precedent. Hadn’t there been a visiting foreign person a few years ago? Yes! The older members still spoke of it, tears of laughter in their eyes. Garlic-eater, they would remember with an exaggerated shudder. Almost a caricature, danced the tango, chattered a lot in hilarious English. He’d provided good sport. And no repercussions.
But as he scanned the tearoom, Aunty’s seemed to explode.
Rupert could have sworn the genteel façade had suffered a kaleidoscopic shift. The wide front door burst open noisily, accompanied by a bellow of outrage. The bellower himself erupted onto the street. Chintz drapes, which harked back to the more spacious days of William Morris, were in motion.They were being tweaked aside, and the wondering faces of the clientele appeared, jostling for the best position to view the events developing on the pavement outside. The door had been opened to its widest extent to allow space for the manager—a cumbersome fellow in a dark suit—to man- handle and eject from the café a bundle of old clothes enveloping the skinny frame of what Rupert took to be a down-and-out. His tramp?
“Ah, there you are! So that’s where you were skulking!”
Rupert’s attention was instantly caught. Occasionally, driven by hunger or despair, one of these all-too-numerous unfor- tunates would make a hopeless attempt to invade the premises of one of the city’s establishments by the front door instead of creeping round to the back, where he would be treated with furtive generosity by the serving staff if he was lucky.
Embarrassing little spat! Townies at play. Kinder not to look? Rupert would normally have grimaced and prepared to move on. But today he stayed put, observing the struggling pair.The portly grotesque, watch chain now straining across his silk-waist- coated abdomen, intrigued him. He widened the focus of his huntsman’s stare to take in the broader picture. Who was this? Rupert had taken him for the manager, but he corrected him- self. No salaried employee would have taken the liberty of creating such a public scene. This lardy gent carried himself with all the assurance of . . . the owner. Rupert chuckled. He’d seen much the same whipped up, noisy aggression in a male robin establishing its proprietorial rights in the springtime nest-building frenzy. Well, well! Many had speculated on the identity of “Aunty,” and now, before his eyes, the mask seemed to have slipped off.
Rupert moved closer. He wanted to judge the quality of the verbal exchange that was now occurring between the two badly matched adversaries. Was his target articulate? Educated? The chairman had rather stressed that quality in his briefing. “Bear in mind that a modicum of resilience in the subject is to be preferred. We need a touch of steel to strike a spark!” It hardly mattered; the bell of Great St. Mary’s Church was banging out twelve. This man would have to do.
The sweating incarnation of “Aunty” was holding forth: “Git yer ugly carcass out of my tearoom or I’ll call the coppers! ’oo the ’ell do you think you are, coming in ’ere, all la-di-dah and taking the mickey, you old scarecrow?”
Oh dear. Rupert heard the bombastic tone of a London air-raid warden and sighed. This was some upstart Cockney war profiteer, no doubt having invested his ill-gotten pile in a nice little business. A jaw-cracking bore. His interest was reclaimed on noticing the scarecrow resisting the manhandling. What a fool! His best course would be to wriggle out from under the clasp of the beefy paws and show a clean pair of heels.
One abrupt upwards slashing, a cavalryman’s flourish of the right arm, was all it took for the tramp to free himself from Aunty’s clutches. Immediately following that, the bony fellow, stiff with indignation, pulled himself to his full height and rounded on Aunty. He attacked his tormentor with words, delivered in a ringing baritone. And yes, “la-di-dah” just about described his tone, which was, might one say . . . almost gentlemanly? Hard to tell when the sentiments being expressed were decidedly ungentlemanly.
“Mind your manners, you overstuffed little cream puff! I’d smack you plumb in the watch chain if I didn’t fear the resulting explosion would contaminate the market square. But, what the hell . . . In for a penny!” His second attack came swiftly as his bunched left fist punched into the distended target with surprising vigour. Aunty doubled up, gasping and heaving, eyes popping.
An audience was hurrying to get a ringside seat. Fight! Fight! Where had they all come from, swarming up from nowhere like a plague of self-generating frogs?
For a sickening moment, Rupert was back in a prep-school playground, hearing both jeers and shouts of encouragement. From the same throat, in certain instances. A soggy tomato launched with pinpoint accuracy from the nearest stall added further decoration to Aunty’s waistcoat. So, predictably, the English townsfolk had chosen to take the side of the underdog, Rupert noted. He thought he heard a police whistle somewhere in the distance. He would have to act fast. Having found his prey, he didn’t want it carted off from under his nose by the local bobbies. No time for niceties.
He stepped forward, imperious in his black gown, calming and authoritative. A Cambridge crowd always appreciated instant judgement and swift retribution. Rupert was aware that, until quite recently, public hangings outside the Castle Street jail had drawn shamefully large audiences. He looked with a shudder at the overbright eyes and gawping mouths. Probably these people’s grandparents, he calculated. But, however reprehensible, a crowd was easily manipulated. Mark Antony had played on the emotions of the mob over the bloodied corpse of Caesar in the Roman forum. He, Rupert Rendlesham, could perform the same trick with a scattering of idlers enjoying a rumpus amongst the vegetables in the Cambridge market.
With a dramatic swing of the folds of his gown over one shoulder, he became a toga-clad senator. Better still—a blue- eyed, fair-haired authority figure with a short back-and-sides. Trustworthy. If he’d stuck out a finger and barked, “Your country needs you!” they would have formed an orderly queue to sign up. Instead of the hoots and catcalls he’d feared, the crowd fell silent and attentive.
For a shameful moment, the thrill of exercising a dark power had him in its grip. He knew that, impressed by a commanding presence and oratorical skills, a mischief-seeking rabble could be roused to the point of stringing either of these idiots up from the nearest lamppost.
Rupert didn’t hesitate.
“You!” he announced, pointing a headmasterly finger at Aunty, “You, my man, have just received the trouncing you deserved! A disgraceful display, sir! You set a poor example for the youth of the town.”
The youth of the town concurred. “Yer! We saw ya!” “Knocking six bells out of a poor old bummer!” “Bullyraggin’ an old man! Shame on yer!”
Ale-drinkers to a man, Rupert decided—they would have no truck with Aunty’s expensive refreshments. The man appeared, indeed, to be already an unpopular figure with the crowd. Rupert had backed the winner. Before it occurred to anyone to demand further and better retribution involving ropes and lampposts, he spoke again to the still-speechless loser. “Now go back inside and make your apologies to your custom- ers. Miss! Step forward!” A waitress who had crept close, wide-eyed with dismay and excitement, obeyed his beckoning gesture and helped her boss back indoors.
“Storm in a teacup, eh?” Rupert shared a joke with the crowd and allowed a judicious pause for the laughter to roll away. “You can all move on now. The tavern’s that way!” A black-sleeved arm extended to indicate the way to the nearest pub. To the lingerers, he added, “I shall remain. Be assured, I shall present myself as a witness to this, er, contretemps, should a witness for something so trivial be required. That will be all. Thank you for your concern.”
The last bystanders ambled away, tut-tutting or laughing. Rupert turned his attention to the tramp, who was now clown- ing about in the fashion of Charlie Chaplin, doing a surprisingly nimble boxer’s victory dance around an imaginary ring. A fit of coughing brought that to a halt and he took to doffing his cap and giving a doddering salute to the ones who were pausing to drop pennies at his feet. He made no move to pick up the coins or hurry away.
Search over. Rupert had found his man.
“Good left jab! Where did you learn that? Military man, are you?”
“I’ve a matching right one! Want to sample it?” His eyes flashed with the pathetic challenge of a cornered mongrel.
“Sir! I asked a polite question.”
“So you did. Sir. And delivered a compliment. At least I think it was a compliment.” The tramp paused, then added, “King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. Once upon a time.”
Rupert surveyed his target from head to toe with fresh eyes. Even he was aware of the fire-eating reputation of the regiment. “KOYLIs, eh? Well, the king would be looking at you a long time before he recognised one of his own, I’m afraid. Down on your luck, you’re going to tell me? But I’m puzzled. Help me out . . . What on earth were you doing, mounting an incursion into a douce tea shop by the front door?” He wrinkled his nose. “Your feral odour risked overpowering the fragrance of the Earl Grey, wouldn’t you say?”
The sharp features hardened as the tramp studied his face, and Rupert understood that, unusually, he was being regarded with dislike, and—more disturbingly—his prey was about to break loose. Pity. For a moment, there had been something promising, even intriguing, in his manner. Rupert acknowledged that he’d gone too far. The fish was off the hook. He’d have to take a step back and select a different, more attractive lure.
“I mean to say—Aunty’s of all places! Whatever possessed you? You couldn’t drag me in there to join that clientele even with the promise of a pot of Lapsang Souchong and a petite madeleine to soak it up. Just look at the hats!” He pointed through the window. “All feathers and frills nodding at one another over the china.”
He’d chosen the right tack, it seemed. The scruffy gent was nodding. Even producing a grudging response. “Right. I haven’t seen so many pink frou-frous outside a tart’s boudoir.”
A comment calculated to challenge and silence a monastic academic, Rupert judged, but he replied anyway. “And the conversation!” he said heartily. “The conversation, if similarly elevated, would render us catatonic in thirty seconds, eh?”
The man had not made off into the crowds, but the scorn in his eyes told Rupert that his attempt at comradeship was despised. “It’s none of your business, sir, but I happened to see a soldier from my old regiment going in there for a cuppa. Stupid, but I wanted to see him again. Make sure he was all right. He was in a pretty bad state last time I clapped eyes on him. Being stretchered off a Transvaal battlefield, covered in blood. Shrapnel bullet, they said.”
“Ah. The Transvaal? That bloody business in South Africa? He was your officer?” Rupert asked, spinning out the conversa- tion, reeling in the line and wondering how long it took for a bobby to run from Parker’s Piece to the marketplace.
“No, he was my sergeant. And—yes, that bloody business.” The man’s eyes flicked back regretfully to the shop window. “Still—as I say—stupid of me. I was probably mistaken.” He shrugged. “He couldn’t possibly have survived. And he’d never recognise me after all these years anyway. It was just that feel- ing of someone walking over my grave . . .” He gave an exaggerated shudder to illustrate his thought, then, “I’d best be off. But thank you for your kind intervention, sir. Truly—it was much appreciated.”
Rupert seized him by the arm. “Look here . . . when did you last eat?” he asked bluntly.
“Lord! Dunno!”The tramp frowned in mock concentration, then: “Ah! How could I have forgotten the unctuous tripes à la mode de Caen? Washed down with a tankard of eau du robinet. Last week, courtesy of the Sally Bash down the Mill Road Shelter. Tripe. Familiar with tripe, are you? The lining of a cow’s stomach, stewed up with onions and washed down with a measure of best Cambridge tap water. They know how to treat a bloke with respect, the Sally.”
Rupert took the jibe on the chin and managed to produce a sympathetic smile. “You’ve earned a damn good meal, I think. And I don’t have a Bath Bun in mind. I say . . .” Head cocked on one side as though the thought had just occurred to him, he added, “What about a slap-up dinner in congenial company this very evening? There’ll be a couple of pals. We always treat ourselves to something special on a Friday eve- ning. Accompanied by fine wines, of course.” His eyes gleamed as he added his ultimate temptation: “A refined hock and a hearty burgundy? You’d be very welcome, frisky chap like you. Here.” He fished about in an inside pocket and took out a printed card.
The tramp took it between grimy fingers, looked at it in disbelief and read:
INVITATION TO DINE.
You are cordially invited
to break bread with the Amici Apicii.
Please bring this card with you
when you attend.
“Well, I never . . . ! Sure you didn’t mean a refined cock and a hearty buggery?”
“Oh! I say!”
The tramp grinned, enjoying the embarrassment and indig- nation his crude observation had caused. He handed the card back to the spluttering don. “Well . . . bit vague, isn’t it? No names, no pack-drill, no rendezvous. What sort of a mug do you take me for? And who the hell is this crew? Body snatch- ers? White slavers? Or just a bunch of tosspots who can’t manage to get a fourth for a hand of bridge?” He leered unpleasantly. “Seems to me I risk being boiled up for glue, shafted or bored out of my brains.”
“Sir! May I remind you that this is Cambridge! We are not savages. Quite the reverse. We take our name from an ancient Roman cook whose lavish yet refined cuisine has come down to us through the Middle Ages. One of our members is even now working on a translation into English of the original text. The . . . erm, Amici—the Friends—are a group of bons viveurs— aesthetes. Our group is fastidious regarding the choice of dinner guests for our intimate soirées,” Rupert objected, stiff with shock and anger. He hesitated, and his eyes glazed over as he remembered whom he was addressing. Had he made himself clear?
“Toffs, are you saying, Your Honour? Afficionados of the philosopher Epicurus? I thought they’d all died out, what with the recent privations. Or don’t you suffer from food rationing like the common man if you know a bit of Latin?”
Oh joy! They’d caught themselves a socialist! And a pretentious word-juggler at that.This was promising. Could Fanshawe have been aware? His shock and anger were somewhat mollified as he persisted with his explanation. “Our guests are carefully selected—and not for the pecuniary value of their various body parts.” He ran a scathing eye over the pathetic figure in front of him. “For bones, buggery or bridge, be assured I should be seeking plumper prey,” he said haughtily. The man’s appearance was certainly a drawback. Rendlesham couldn’t be certain whether he resembled Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner—the greybeard loon—or one of the more disreputable Vikings of the Sagas. Ulf the Unwashed, perhaps? Had they, after all, wasted precious time on a nonstarter? Perhaps he ought now to abandon this squalid scene and move on? He added a rehearsed mechanical formula, distancing himself as he spoke. “The invitation stands. Were you to decide to accept, it would be for sherry at six, knives and forks at seven. Over by ten in case you have plans to go on somewhere.”
The tramp uttered a guffaw instead of the snarl of derision Rupert had expected. With some aplomb, he stood upright, shoulders back, grasped the lapel of his greatcoat with one hand and extended the other in an affected gesture he’d most prob- ably seen on a page of the Gamages catalogue. “Frightfully sorry, old man,” he said, “I didn’t pack an evening suit. Hadn’t realised Cambridge was so hospitable . . . so socially experimental. I’m dressed, as you see, for the Salvation Army shelter. I believe we’re to have jellied eels tonight, and I may even go on afterward to the dog races down the Newmarket Road if I can charm sixpence out of the hatched-faced old dears in bonnets who dispense the hospitality. So—ta, but no ta!”
He handed back the card.
“Very good. Well understood,” Rupert said hurriedly. “A man like you is not to be tempted by food and wine. I had rather been thinking you might have been starved over this last bit of something more essential to your well-being. A convivial and uncensored exchange of views and experience between equal minds? Intelligent conversation! You could tell us how—and, perhaps more pertinently, why—you defeated the Zulus. Or was it the Boers?” he finished with an engaging smile.
His remark had certainly caught the man’s attention. Rupert flinched at the sharpness of the glare launched in his direction. Two deadly, steel-grey eyes locked on to his with the menace of a Lee Metford or whatever blunderbusses those pre–Great War riflemen had used. Aware that he had said something deeply annoying, Rupert looked away, bit his lip and came to a decision. “Listen carefully.” He could not prevent himself from looking shiftily to the right and left to ensure they were not being overheard. “Should you change your mind, present yourself on the steps of the Wren Chapel in Trumpington Street at six this evening and show this card to the man who will greet you.”
Ignoring the man’s smile of disbelief and the scathing comments of the “Coo, er! What? No password? Shall I carry a copy of the Times under my left arm and a carnation in my teeth?” style, he slipped the card back into the tramp’s hand and pressed on. A dislike and suspicion of this subject was taking hold in Rupert’s normally insensitive bosom. He tried, with not much success, to hold back his distaste and his growing desire to see the man squirm. “Come exactly as you are. We don’t stand on ceremony. Though you may well, er, feel more comfortable in company if you were to spend this sixpence at the slipper baths.” He produced a handful of change from the bottom of his sleeve, selected a sixpenny coin and handed it over.
Too late, Rupert sensed that he had again misjudged the situation. The tramp, icily polite, took the coin and looked at it carefully. “I usually find the fee for a hot bath including soap and towel on a Friday afternoon is twopence. Extra-special Derbac nit soap costs a further penny. Why not? Let’s push the boat out! I’m sure delousing is a prerequisite for the entertainment on offer. So—that’ll be threepence change.” He bent and picked up three pennies from the pavement and put them in Rupert’s hand.
The don flinched at the insult and his hand quivered at the contact with coins from the gutter, but he decided to go down fighting, with his flag—though beginning to look a bit tattered—still flying.
“That’s the spirit! May I further suggest you take a postbath stroll down King Street and seek out a barber’s shop?” A quick assessment of the tramp’s shaggy beard and overgrown thatch prompted him to add a half crown to the sixpence. “Raymond at the Select Salon should be equal to the task, but . . . um . . . no need to . . .”
“Mention your name, sir? Wouldn’t dream of it. Even if I knew it,”the man replied briskly, pocketing the coin.“You haven’t introduced yourself.” He frowned. “And evidently your dining club friends are equally incurious concerning the names of their guests. Odd, that . . . Something of a breach in etiquette, one might say? Don’t you want to know who I am? Even the angels down at the shelter are particular as to the identity of their guests. I usually sign in as ‘Charlie Chaplin’ or ‘Kaiser Bill.’”
Rendlesham gave him a strained smile. “I had already assumed you were Noël Coward, dear boy. The ready wit, the insouciance, the insistence on the social niceties . . . Commend- able attributes, but a dead giveaway!” He reined in his flash of petulance and produced an inviting smile. “Come now! Don’t disappoint me.”
His smile could not quite mask the uneasy realisation that he was now himself being played. “Noël Coward” was eyeing him with, yes, a twinkling mischief.
“Mmm . . . the Friends of Apicius, eh?” the tramp drawled. He was studying the invitation card with a raised eyebrow. “Well, just as long as you can guarantee that you’ve not got your old Roman mate with his pinny on, officiating in the kitchens. . . I can’t be doing with larks’ tongues. And ostrich ragout— believe one who has experienced it—is vastly overrated.”
Seeing, from the corner of his eye, a policeman turn the corner of Peas Hill and come running towards the tea shop, Rendlesham’s target came to a swift decision. He tucked the card away carefully into an inside pocket of his greatcoat, saluted and shot off.
As they went their separate ways, neither man was aware of the watchful presence, standing half-hidden by the curtains in the back corner of the tea shop. Dismissing Rendle- sham, the watcher focused his attention on the tramp until he was lost to view, heading straight through the market crowds in the direction of King Street.
A flustered waitress approached the table bearing a tray of toasted tea cakes and a pot of tea. He waved away the tray impatiently and spoke urgently to his female companion.“Get your coat, Edith. Sod the tea cakes! We have to leave. Now, Edith!”
Like what you read? Check out these buy links for Invitation to Die–available wherever books are sold!
…but if you want to start from the beginning, fall into this excerpt of the first Detective Inspector Redfyre investigation, Fall of Angels.