DEATH IN COSTUME

by John Douglas

Author's discaimer : Characters and places portrayed in this story that appear in episodes of "Midsomer Murders" and/or in novels by Caroline Graham are the property of their respective copyright holders. I assert copyright of such characters, scenes and situations as are not already copyrighted. This story is written purely for enjoyment and not for profit.


Chapter One

High House, Midsomer Priors, had been the home of the Hallingham family for generations. It was an imposing estate, comprising, besides the house itself, which had been built in the eighteenth century but much altered since, two cottages in the grounds, one being the stable block, now converted into living accommodation, and a smaller caretaker's cottage. The caretaker's cottage was now nearly derelict, as the post of caretaker had long since disappeared, but the stable block was occupied by Paul Metcalfe, an energetic, swarthy young man who had moved in only two months previously. He was not exactly a tenant, or at least he certainly did not see himself as a tenant, though he paid a nominal rent to the sole owner and occupier of High House, Rex Hallingham himself.

Rex was a widower of eighty who spent most of his days writing rather bad poems in his study on the first floor. He had been good-looking as a younger man and vestiges of his good looks still clung to his features. His downy white hair gave him a baby-like appearance and his large blue eyes, coupled with his undoubtedly charming manner, still had the capacity to attract women of a certain age. Some regarded him as quite a catch, despite his advancing years, though the fact that he had a considerable fortune may also have had something to do with his appeal. Even young girls sometimes felt captivated by him and his reputation for having a way with the ladies was known throughout the county of Midsomer and beyond.

It was half past eight in the evening and Rex Hallingham was enjoying his dessert of Floating Islands in the elegant green-painted dining room of High House, accompanied on this occasion by Florrie Packerton, a widow who was his junior by ten years.

"Excellent dessert," said Florrie, tucking in with relish. She was a neatly-dressed woman with long black hair - the colour of her hair had been artificially rejuvenated - and a round, smiling face. She had a habit of talking fast - or 'gabbling', as her long-dead husband used to say. "But I do hope Delfina isn't going to give it to us tomorrow."

"I rather fear she may," said Rex gloomily. "Floating Islands always comes back again."

"Now, Rex, look on the bright side. She's a good girl. She cooks well and she looks after you. It's not every registered nurse who can cook."

"But you can look after me, now you're here," said Rex impetuously.

"Oh, Rex!" Florrie looked flattered. "You know I can't stay more than a week, two weeks at most. I don't think I should come quite so often, you know. People in the village are beginning to talk." By 'in the village' she meant her native Moretonhampstead in Devon, where she was the owner of an equally large and impressive house.

"So what if they do?" Rex pouted. He was unaware that people in Midsomer Priors were also beginning to talk, mostly out of amusement at this demure septuagenarian who played the part of hostess at High Hall with such accomplishment and so frequently. "But at least you'll be here to supervise my Costume Exhibition on Saturday week."

"I'll be here for that," said Florrie stoically. "I'll help you get the things out. How many people have you invited?"

"Oh, about thirty. And they've all accepted. They're mostly from the village." By 'from the village' Rex meant Midsomer Priors in Midsomer. "And I've invited the Mayor of Causton and the Chief Constable of Midsomer Constabulary."

"I hope Rosamund isn't coming."

"Of course she's coming. She's my sister-in-law."

Florrie puckered her lips. "Rex, what about the models? Have you got enough?"

"Stop fretting, Florrie," said Rex irritably.

Florrie walked over to the sideboard with her now empty dessert plate and was just helping herself to some more Floating Islands when the front doorbell rang. "Whoever can that be at this time of night?" she asked.

"Hallo!" called a loud voice from the hallway. "Rex, are you there?"

"Oh, no!" said Florrie. "It's the doctor again."

Rex lifted himself up from his seat and shuffled out to meet the visitor.

"I was just passing by and thought I'd drop in to see how you're getting along."

Florrie's lips were firmly pressed together as she reluctantly gave up the chance of a second helping of Floating Islands and followed the two men into the sitting-room.

"Oh, I'm fine, Doctor Trevor - thanks to you."

Doctor Trevor Frittas was a tall, lean man of about thirty with a long face, a bushy black beard and piercing blue eyes. His beard, together with his habit of seldom smiling, gave him a rather sinister appearance.

"Do sit down," said Florrie, but the doctor had already done so. Florrie took up a position in an upright chair somewhat behind the two men, to indicate that she was not really part of their discussion.

"Would you like a glass of whisky?" asked Rex.

"Yes, please," said Dr Trevor eagerly. Florrie scowled as Rex tottered towards the drinks trolley in the corner and with an unsteady hand poured Dr Trevor a large glass of Glenmorangie Malt, and for himself an even larger glass of his favourite tipple, which was red vermouth diluted with soda water.

"Are you taking the pills I prescribed?" asked the doctor as he received the libation.

"Yes, all of them, every day. Delfina counts them out for me."

"The results from the hospital show that your blood has a tendency to clot. I've asked Delfina to give you a course of heparin injections."

Rex made a face.

"You really have to be careful, Rex. You're still recovering from that bout of pneumonia, and with your heart condition - well, at least I found Delfina for you. It's a pity she can't live in."

"Yes, I suppose it is. But with Florrie here…"

"How are you enjoying your holiday in Midsomer?" the doctor addressed Florrie, apparently not prepared to consider her as a candidate for the post of carer.

"Very much, thank you," said Florrie primly. "I always enjoy my visits to Midsomer."

"Rex, why has Julian not come to see you? It really is too bad that he didn't even show up when you were so ill. You had double pneumonia, you know, and it was very touch and go."

"I know," said Rex. "But I've written to him, asking him to come for the Costume Exhibition."

"But he wasn't here when it mattered most," continued Doctor Trevor. "At least your sister-in-law came and stayed a few days."

Florrie pursed her lips together even more firmly.

Rex sighed. "That son of mine is a great disappointment to me," he said sadly.

"Julian must come and look after you. Or at least be in the house."

"Well, he does have a job teaching English to foreigners in Brighton."

"That's not a good enough excuse. It's lucky I found Paul for you to take the stable block. Company is what you need, company. Well, I must be off," and Doctor Trevor, who had drained his tumbler of whisky in a couple of minutes, stood up and bowed politely in the direction of Florrie. "Give my regards to Devonshire," he said as he took his leave.

"Really!" said Florrie as soon as she heard the front door slam. "That man is impossible."

"Oh, I wouldn't say that," said Rex mildly. "He did save my life."

"Aren't doctors supposed to do that?" Florrie was still smouldering from having been denied a second helping of Floating Islands. "He walks in here, any time of the day or night, and what for? To cadge a drink off you."

"I don't think he's that bad," said Rex, laughing slightly.

"And why does he keep saying that Julian must do this and Julian must do that? He's never even met Julian." Florrie, who had met Julian, was very hopeful that he would not move in to High House, as that would upset her relationship, as she saw it, with Rex. "Well, I must go and have my bath." Florrie stood up.

"You will come back again before going to bed?"

"Of course I will, you silly old thing." Florrie put her arms playfully around Rex's neck and kissed the snowy top of his head. "Has Diddles got another poem for me?"

"If you're good," said Rex with pride.

"Then it's only - au revoir!" Florrie flounced out of the room like a kittenish schoolgirl - or as much like one as a seventy-year-old could - while Rex took another noisy sip of vermouth and soda and leaned back in his armchair. The sound of gushing water came presently from the bathroom upstairs, and almost immediately after that there was another "Hallo!" from the hall, this time not preceded by the doorbell.

Paul Metcalfe strode into the room. He carried something wrapped in a brown paper bag in his hand.

"Ah, Paul! Come to keep me company, have you?"

"Actually I've come to consult you," said Paul, sitting down on the edge of the sofa and leaning forward. He always spoke loudly, as if directing other people about their business. "You know that macrobiotic restaurant that I go to?"

"You have often spoken of it," said Rex, hoping that he was not going to get another lecture on the benefits of macrobiotics.

"I was wondering whether to seduce the cook." He eyed the old man carefully.

"How would I know?" said Rex.

"The thing is - she's a lovely girl - and she's got a lovely personality. Here, I've got a photo of her." He fished in the breast pocket of the tweed jacket that he was wearing and showed it to Rex, whose eyes lit up instantly. "But would it be unprofessional? I mean, I have to go to that restaurant to eat good food. What do you think?"

"Very tasty," said Rex, who was not thinking of the food. "Would she be available, do you think, as a model?"

"Rex, what makes you say that? She's not that sort of a girl."

"I mean for my Costume Exhibition. You know I'm having live models."

"Oh, that. I'll have a word with her," said Paul. "I should think she would love to do it, if she's free. But what do you think about seducing her?"

"Does she seem receptive?"

"Yes - well - it's rather hard to tell, really. She chats to a lot of the customers."

"Then you'll have to play it by ear." Rex took another noisy sip of vermouth and soda. "I didn't offer you a drink, as I know you don't," he said. He cleared his throat. "Have you got anything for me?"

"Oh! I nearly forgot." Paul extracted a DVD from the brown paper bag. "Shall I put it on for you?" he asked.

"Yes, please," said Rex. Paul inserted the DVD into the player under the television set and placed the remote control on the arm of Rex's chair. "I think you'll like this one. Don't forget it's the red button to stop it. Well, I'll leave you to it. Good night, Rex."

"Good night, Paul," said Rex, his eyes glued to the television screen.

A few minutes after he had slammed the front door Florrie came downstairs in a bathrobe, towelling her long black hair energetically. From the sitting-room came a series of grunts and groans.

"Rex?" she called from the hall. Rex seized the remote control and pressed one button after another, which did have the effect of shutting off the television, whatever else it might have done. "I thought I heard someone in here with you," said Florrie, opening the door of the sitting-room.

Rex cleared his throat. "Oh, Paul was here a moment ago."

"Not talking about macrobiotics again, was he?"

"Well, no - not really. He was just being friendly."

"A bit too friendly," said Florrie, sitting down on the sofa. "What do you know about him, Rex? And what is he doing here?"

"Doctor Trevor said he wanted somewhere to stay and that he thought he would be good company for me."

"Aren't I good company for you?" Florrie, who was again in kittenish mode, pursed her lips together, but this time it was to be kissed. "And where's my poem, Diddles?"

Diddles staggered to his feet and, opening a drawer in the Louis XIV desk in the corner of the room, withdrew several sheaves of foolscap paper covered in tiny spidery writing. "Are you ready?" he asked and cleared his throat again. Florrie shut her eyes and smiled.

"There was a young man of Dundee…", he began.

Listening to his droning voice, Florrie imagined herself on a tropical beach somewhere being attended to by several handsome natives.