Whatever I was expecting when I decided to take a turn around Dunfermline - I was early for my appointment and it was a particularly pleasant day - it was not this air of jubilance. Indeed, if one were taxed with naming five jubilant towns and ran out of inspiration after Paris, Barcelona, New Orleans and Rio one would not search for the fifth in Scotland's Gazetteer. (And if one were taxed with naming five jubilant towns in Scotland and did not, for some reason, face the facts and pay the forfeit right away, I daresay Dunfermline would still not spring to mind.)
Yet I could not help but notice that, today at least, the whole town effervesced in the most remarkable way. The whole city, I should properly say, for - as Hugh never tires of reminding me with much retelling of the glories of King Robert and the shenanigans of Malcolm Canmore - Dunfermline is a city and one groaning with history too: the birthplace of Charles I and more lately (not to mention more beneficially to the world at large) Andrew Carnegie. Indeed I was passing the Carnegie Library now, thinking how generous it was of him to endow it, since here was one place he might have been sure to get a library named after him anyway.
As for the present mood, the weather had to be responsible for some of it, but soft spring sunshine and the kind of gentle breeze that teases at hat ribbons and turns the new leaves over to show their silvery undersides only go so far and further explanation was needed for the exuberance of the window displays in all the small shops along Abbot Street and up the Kirkgate, the newly planted flower beds glimpsed through the park gates, as neat as samplers with their white pansies and pink tulips stitchedinto the smooth brown backing, and the giddy high spirits of the girls who flitted about in giggling pairs and threesomes, all decked out in their new spring costumes and with their shingles glistening.
There was plenty for them to see: behind the plate-glass windows of a department store called - rather splendidly - House of Hepburn (Hosiers, Glovers, Clothiers and Milliners), instead of the expected outcrops of sensible hats and pyramids of sturdy china there was a series of tableaux showing a beautiful mannequin girl accompanied by a broad-shouldered mannequin admirer, the pair set before a succession of lurid backdrops and dressed in the height of fashion for golf, tennis, the seaside, and - against the most improbable backcloth of all - yachting, complete with ice buckets and open picnic hampers. In the seaside window, I was almost sure, they stood on real sand.
I walked on. At another department store further up on the High Street - Aitkens' Emporium (Tailors, Mantle Makers, Silk Merchants, Domestic Bazaar): no less splendid, with just as many enormous windows and a revolving door - one could hardly see the sensible hats and sturdy china for exotic arrangements of ostrich and peacock feathers in urns, silver-sprayed fans of seaweed and gold-sprayed shoals of little fishes sprouting out of conch shells (also gold), with billows of sequined silk on the floor for waves, and around the top of each window ... bunting. Actual bunting, in the dark mauve and gold livery of the store and hanging from golden rope with tasselled ends like the cords which used to hold back dining-room curtains.
There was, however, no time to penetrate the revolving door in search of whatever unheard-of delights the fish and feathers were there to advertise: I had used up my store of time in hand and was in danger of being late unless I hurried along and struck the right street first time.
The right street - Abbey Park Place - was very easily found, since my amble around the town had taken me close to one end of it already although I was surprised to see how far I had since wandered, but number fifteen was not at all what I had beenimagining. The postcard I had received was of good quality, thick and cream-coloured with the address deeply engraved in plain black, but I had not foreseen how one of at least fifteen houses in a street in Dunfermline could be anything except a sandstone villa, with a bay window above and one below, joined to its neighbour at the front door and inside stairway. In fact, 'No. 15' was merely the Post Office's designation of Abbey Park itself that presented stone gateposts and a lodge house to the street which I supposed had sprung up around it and taken its name. I glanced at my wristwatch and opened the small pedestrian gate set into one of the large ones.
There were limits, I soon saw, lodge or no lodge; the drive was only yards long - hardly a drive at all - and the house lay at hand just before me. Nevertheless, it was a solid chunk of good grey Georgian stone, sitting there as calm as a bull walrus on a sunny rock; one of those houses where the carriage circle reaches up to meet the front door but whose grounds drop away to lawns at the back so that the porch spans the basement area like a covered bridge (they always make me think, for some reason, of a sedan chair) and its size and solidity despite the deficiencies of the drive presented me with a problem.
For there was no name engraved on the card in my hand, just the address, and I had expected, after rapping on the door of the sandstone villa, to be greeted by whoever had sent it. Clearly, however, this smart black door would be answered by a servant - perhaps even a butler - and I did not know for whom to ask. I pulled the bell and squinted at the card again: Please come at eleven o'clock on the morning of the twenty-fifth. I have an urgent commission to put to you, and an unintelligible string of initials written in a wavery but deliberate woman's hand.
Butler indeed it was who answered, a portly sort in mauve and gold, and drawing myself up I conjured my grandest stare and my coolest voice to address him (taking a moment to note, with sadness, from how near at hand I conjured them these days).
'Mrs Gilver,' I said, 'to see the lady of the house.' And I waved the card in his direction. He recognised it, but continued frowning.
'To see ... Mrs Jack?' he asked. I gave a nod that might have cracked a walnut under my chin; a gesture I had seen in a police superintendent of my acquaintance and had at once decided to add to my own repertoire. 'Step this way, madam,' said the butler and swept me inside.
As we clacked across the tiles of the porch, under a soaring arch, across an expanse of pillared hall and under a second soaring arch I peered at the signature, trying and failing to resolve that final initial into a J, then my attention was caught by the sudden blaze of light as we entered a library. The butler left me and I wandered over to the windows, the card - for the moment - forgotten.
The room faced due south and was bowed out at the far side, with the three tall windows of the bow looking over the lawns I had glimpsed while arriving. And the light simply poured in - warm, thick, honey-coloured light - rolling lazily in through the rippled old glass and washing the room in gold, making it pulse and gleam.
Perhaps it was not a library at all, I judged at a second glance around. To be sure, it was panelled from floor to ceiling and the ceiling itself was covered with panels too, but the wood was some species unknown to me - a rich glossy amber, smelling of wax and resin in the sunshine, and as far from the good dark oak of libraries as could be imagined. Add to this the fact that there were no bookshelves and it seemed less of a library still.
Then, lifting up the velvet cover from one of a number of shrouded tables, I saw that there were books after all. The cover had been guarding a glass-topped case, flattish but tilted a little for display, and in it was what looked to be a book of hours, open at a calendar page. I bent over this surprising item the better to study its decoration and marvel at its obvious antiquity and was still in that undignified position - stooped and snooping - when a gentle cough from the doorway caused me to drop the cover back again. The brass rod along its edge clattered onto the frame and, turning, I banged my ankle against one of the table legs.
'Mrs Gilver?' said a voice.
'Mrs Jack?' She had stopped in the doorway and stood there for a moment in a frame of that glowing, honeyed wood like a painted saint in an altar panel. It would have been a comely setting for ninety-nine women out of a hundred but it did not flatter this one, at least not today. She was about fifty, I guessed, but anxiety or exhaustion had further aged her; her face was tight, her skin pale and her long dark-red hair was bundled back into an inexpert knot from which great hanks of it were escaping. She wore a wool shawl over her dress and tugged it closer around herself as she moved towards me.
'Have you brought news?' she said, searching my face. Her eyes were drawn up into diamond shapes, red-rimmed.
'I--' I began, but she interrupted me.
'Have you discovered her? Has she been found?'
'I--' I said again and then mutely held out the postcard for her to see. She blinked at it and then looked back at me.
'From my mother,' she said. 'My goodness, my mother actually wrote to ... Who are you?'
'I do apologise, Mrs Jack,' I answered. 'My name is Dandy Gilver. I asked for the lady of the house, you see. Perhaps someone might fetch your mother now?'
'But who are you?' she said again, all politeness, all decorum driven away by whatever suffering had caused the careless hairdressing and the shawl.
I hesitated. It would be monstrously unprofessional to discuss a case with anyone but my client in person and ordinarily I would not have dreamt of doing so, but surely her worry sprang from the same source as her mother's card.
'I'm a detective,' I said. 'Now, someone's missing?'
'A detective,' she echoed, going over to a chair against the wall and sinking into it. She nodded slowly. 'Yes, that would make a great deal of sense. That would be exactly what--My daughter.' She looked up at me with a new, clear look in her eyes. 'My daughter Mirren has been missing for five days. Since Saturday.'
'Well, Mrs Jack, your mother got her postcard off to me in admirable time.'
'It's not Mrs Jack,' she said, and for the first time a ghost of a smile passed across her. 'Trusslove has known me since I was a child, you see. It's Mrs Aitken.'
'Aitken?' I said, trying to remember where I had just come across that name.
'My husband is Jack Aitken and so, in the family, I am Mrs Jack.'
'I see,' I said. 'And your daughter went missing five days ago. Do you have any idea where she might have gone? Did you have any warning? Had you quarrelled? Or do you - forgive me, but your distress is only too clear and it leads me to wonder - do you fear that she might have come to harm?' I had not thought it possible for Mrs Aitken to increase her look of wretchedness but she did so now.
'The very gravest fear,' she whispered, sending shivers through me. 'Unspeakable harm.'
Before I could respond there came the sound of hurried footsteps across the marble floor of the hall and an elderly lady entered the room at some speed.
'Abigail? Is that Mirren? She's not back, is sh--' She stopped dead, seeing me, and pressed a hand to her heart, breathing hard. 'Sorry, dear,' she said to the other woman. 'I heard voices and thought she'd come back again. Phewf!' She eased herself down into another chair and sat panting, her feet set well apart and her hands braced on her knees.
'Do forgive me,' she said, cocking her head up in my direction. 'We're having quite a time of it here just now.' I smiled, uncertainly. Her mood did not at all match that of the younger woman's. If anything, she seemed diverted by the problem of the missing Mirren, nowhere near as distraught as the girl's mother.
'This is Mrs Gilver,' said Mrs Aitken. 'She's a detective. Mother sent for her.'
I frowned, because of course I had assumed that this new arrival was the grandmother in the case and the sender of my card. She was the right sort of age and she obviously lived here in the house; she was wearing bedroom slippers and still hadsome pins keeping in place the curls across her forehead, while the rest of her ensemble - a voluminous day-dress cut for comfort and a long string of very white beads trying, although not hard, to look like pearls - was just conventional enough to persuade me that its wearer would not go a-visiting in slippers and pin curls. On the other hand, I thought, looking more closely at her, there was no family resemblance: Mrs Jack was a sweet, plump thing with a face like a little pansy and that extravagance of crinkly russet hair. The newcomer, in contrast, was very tall with large hands and feet and the kind of strong plain features which must have released her from all vanity at an early age and given her lots of time for other things.
'I'm Mrs Aitken,' she said. 'Bella. Widow of John. Jack's mother. You don't look much like a detective.' She fished in her dress pocket for her cigarette case, waving them at me before selecting one and lighting up.
'I was just beginning to ask your ... daughter-in-law, whether she had any idea where Mirren might have gone,' I said.
'Good heavens!' said Mrs John Aitken, staring at me with the match still burning. 'You don't sound like a detective either.' And because a large proportion of my instinctive bristling took the form of trying to decide what she sounded like, her loud, easy voice with its good round vowels and its crisp, clear consonants, and concluding that she sounded like the wife of a very comfortable merchant, at last I made the connection.
'Aitken!' I said. 'As in House of Aitken?' It might have sounded insufferably rude and so I was lucky that Mrs John took no offence but said only:
'Emporium, my dear. House Of is - ahem - the other lot.'
Mrs Jack said nothing at all and registered no offence either; she had withdrawn from us entirely, returned to her inner woe like a horse with colic.
'So what do you do?' said her mother-in-law. 'Where do you start looking?'
'I'm not sure I do anything,' I replied. I turned to the other woman again. 'You mentioned "grave fears", Mrs Aitken. If youthink your daughter's life is in danger you must summon the police.'
Again young Mrs Aitken said nothing, but I thought I could see that mention of the police had caused a slight shrinking. Her face looked more than ever like a little flower as her chin dipped and her eyes fluttered.
'No, no, no,' said the elder woman, shaking her head emphatically. I noticed that the row of curls did not budge; those pins had to be very firmly anchored. 'You've got the wrong end of the wrong stick, my dear.' She laughed. 'Abigail thinks she knows exactly what's in danger.'
Mrs Jack, hearing this, was roused at last.
'Aunt Bella, really!' she said, flushing.
'We think she's eloped,' the other went on. 'I'm sure she has.'
I felt a flush blooming in my cheeks now, but not a flush of embarrassment at the woman's coarseness, rather one of anger.
'I see,' I said. 'In that case, I'm afraid I shan't be able to help you, ladies. I'm not that sort of a detective.'
Then all three of us jumped.
'I don't know what sort of detective you think you are,' said a voice. Someone had entered the room and come right up beside us without being heard. 'What are you doing here?' She was a woman in her seventies, I guessed, very small and neat, encased from neck to knee in a column of the stiffest, tightest, blackest imaginable bombazine, which made her look like a downpipe. Her white hair was arranged on her head in up-to-the minute style - a spiral of flat coils like seaweed at low tide - and on her breast, heaving hard against the restrictions of her costume, was a pair of spectacles on a black ribbon.
'Mother!' said Abigail. 'You asked Mrs Gilver to come. I saw the card you wrote out to her.'
'I asked Mrs Gilver to come tomorrow,' said the new arrival. 'When I would have been looking out for her, to greet her and enter the private discussion to which I thought my invitation would entitle me.' Her voice was icy, her vowels constricted by rage and refinement.
I took the - by now rather battered - little postcard back out of my bag and held it out to her.
'Eleven o'clock in the morning on the twenty-fifth of May,' I said. She flicked it a glance and drew herself up to her insignificant but somehow still very impressive height. Or perhaps it was just the bombazine; her dress was quite ludicrously tight, like a horse bandage.
'You're a whole day early,' she said.
I looked at the card again.
'It's quite clear, Mrs ...'
'Aitken,' she said. 'Mrs Ninian Lennox Aitken.' I frowned and turned to look at her daughter. 'My husband was John Aitken's elder brother.' John Aitken's widow rolled her eyes; at the 'elder', I guessed, and since it seemed that both men were dead it was rather pointless still to mark precedence between them. 'I seem to have made a mistake with the date.' She coloured and her hand rose to the collar of her dress and fluttered there. 'Understandable at such an anxious time. I meant the twenty-sixth. And today is not suitable at all.'
'Anyway, you just said you wouldn't touch it with a pole,' said her sister-in-law, stubbing out her cigarette on the sole of her slipper. 'I don't blame you. Anyone can see you weren't brought up to go grubbing round guesthouses checking the register.'
'Mirren did not elope,' said the senior Mrs Aitken, Mrs Ninian I shall have to call her, following family tradition, if I am ever to keep them all in order. 'I can guarantee it.'
'As can I,' said Abigail very faintly. Her mother glanced at her but said nothing.
'Well then, time might well be of the essence, mightn't it?' I said, wondering at a grandmother who would send off a postcard to a detective so hastily that she made a mistake on it but delay the start of the searching.
'Yes, but today,' said Mrs John, then she lay back in her chair and twirled her string of beads like a propeller. 'Lord, it's like a comic operetta.'
'Today is our golden jubilee,' said Mrs Ninian, and she spatthe words out as I am sure they have never been spat before, not being made for spitting. 'Aitkens' is fifty today, Mrs Gilver.' She gave me a smile so swift and unconvincing that it was more like the flick of a lizard's tongue to catch a fly than an expression of any human emotion. 'And we owe it to the memories of John and Ninian not to let that little minx spoil it for everyone.'
DANDY GILVER AND AN UNSUITABLE DAY FOR A MURDER. Copyright © 2010 by Catriona McPherson. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.