THE CASE OF THE MYSTERY SHOPPER
‘This is one for our Verity, I think,’ said the Professor, with his eyes twinkling, as he read the morning mail the next day. ‘Here, my dear; look at this.’
The letter from this client was short and blunt.
Dear Mr Plush,
Mrs Sunday recommended I try you. I recently received these letters. My sister goes shopping every day, but now I am worried. Can you help me?
A couple of slips of paper fluttered out of the envelopes. Are you sure she’s shopping? And Why don’t you ask to see her purchases? The letters seemed more nosy than nasty. The closest to poison pen was the one that read What is she really up to?
‘What’s the story?’ asked S.P.
‘Mrs Phillpott is a widowed lady living very respectably with her sister, Mrs Hamlyn, also a widow, in Mayfair. A couple of weeks ago she started getting these letters. The simplest thing of course would be to show them to her sister, and ask what they were all about, but the lady is very delicate about the whole thing. Doesn’t want to offend her sister, who is, as it happens, the one with the money. Mrs Phillpott wants to find out what is going on. ’
‘And so she came to you.’
‘Via Mrs Sunday, who must be the confidante of half of London judging by the number of cases she’s referred to us.’
‘Do we know who wrote the letters?’ asked S.P.
‘Mrs Sunday says it is a nosy neighbour, a Miss Thimbleby. She’s already been dealt with. Apparently Mrs Phillpott has very pointedly not invited her to tea.’
S.P. gave a shout of laughter. ‘That’s punishment for you!’
The Professor smiled. ‘Verity, I want you to tail Mrs Hamlyn.’
‘What slang you use, Father,’ said S.P. with a grin. ‘Quite shocking! He means follow her, Verity.’
‘Why me?’ I asked.
‘Shopping, Verity! Can you see me or Father lurking in the haberdashery?’
They were right. This really was a case for Verity Sparks.
Mrs Hamlyn was a plump, energetic lady of about sixty. Her husband must have died long ago, for though she’d pinned a jet mourning brooch to her chest, that was the only black she wore. Her gown was the colour of a drinker’s nose, and her hat looked like liver on a dish.
She bustled out of their house in Portman Square at about ten o’clock. Clutching my parcel (an empty hatbox tied up in brown paper) I followed her first into Notting Brothers, where she bought a yard of ribbon, and then into Ferrell’s Famous Emporium, where she got some bootlaces. Then into Postlethwaites, and right through into Oxford Street, and along Duke Street and down Brook. I was quite puffed by now – the old lady trotted along at a cracking pace – when she turned sharply. A few houses along the row, she just about ran up the steps, rapped at a door which opened smartly, and disappeared inside. I turned round and walked back to the corner where S.P., got up like Champagne Charlie in a straw-coloured wig and one of his ridiculous moustaches, was waiting for me. I asked him what I should do.
‘Knock on the door. Say you have a hat to deliver. With a bit of carry- on about the address and the lady’s name you ought to be able to snoop just a little. I’ll be just outside in the street, so don’t worry.’
I walked down the steps to the servant’s entrance and knocked, but even before the door was answered, I could hear it. Moaning and groaning, warbling, gibbering and blubbering. What on earth could it be?
‘Hat for Mrs Manton,’ I said, holding out the box when the maid opened the door.
She shook her head. ‘No Mrs Manton here.’
‘No Mrs Manton?’ I said, like a dummy.
‘Did I get the address wrong then?’ I said playing for time.
‘Must of,’ said the maid in a bored voice, shrugging her shoulders. It wasn’t her problem, and she started to shut the door. Just then, the groans turned into shrieks and cries, and then sunk back down again.
‘Cor, what’s that noise?’ I asked. ‘Someone sick?’
‘That?’ She jerked her head. ‘Holy Moaners, that’s what it is. Fair gives me the heebie-jeebies just listenin’ to ‘em.’
‘Holy Moaners?’ I repeated.
‘It’s a dozen ladies wot orter know better wavin’ their arms an’ rollin’ their eyes an’ talkin’ in tongues while Mother Malachi…’ Here the maid paused for drama and rolled her eyes. ‘…Mother Malachi purifies ‘em.’
‘Well I never!’ I said, and then right on cue, another bout of wailing burst out from the drawing room. A door slammed somewhere in the house, and cross voice called, ‘Florrie! FLORRIE!’
‘Housekeeper,’ whispered the maid, and then said in a loud voice, ‘Sorry, but you’ve got the wrong ‘ouse. Try number fifty-five,’ and she shut the door with a bang.
S.P. was loitering by the next-door railing. I told him what I’d learned as we walked back to Oxford Street. It turned out he’d heard of the Holly Moaners.
‘They prefer to be known as Mother Malachi and the Sisters of Purification,’ he said, twirling his fake blonde moustache. ‘They believe that different sounds produce spiritual vibrations which cleanse the soul. So they sing.’
‘Sing!’ I snorted. ‘Sounded like a herd of sick cows to me.’
‘Mother Malachi’s order is similar to the Ranters, the Quivering Redeemers and the Chorist Brethren,’ S.P. went on. ‘Fervent but harmless. I wonder how Mrs Hamlyn got involved?’
‘Well, I s’pose it gives her an interest,’ I said.
‘Moaning and shopping!’ said S.P. ‘That’s a nice life! Come on then, back to Portman Square to tell her sister what we have found out.’
We thought Mrs Phillpott would be upset to find out that her sister had joined the Holy Moaners. She was nervous when we got there, but when we told her the news, she stopped twisting her rings and fiddling with her lace. She leaned back in her armchair with a sigh.
‘Sisterhood, did you say?’ she asked. ‘So they would all be ladies, then?’
‘I presume so.’
‘Well, that’s all right, then. She still comes to church with me at St Sycorax’s every Sunday, so there’s no reason anyone needs to know about it. It can be her little secret.’ She folded her plump hands in her lap. ‘Last year, it was Signor Mezzaluna, and then I was worried.’
‘I’m not sure I understand, Mrs Phillpott,’ said S.P.
She leaned forward. ‘My sister, you see, must have an interest. Last winter it was singing lessons. I was quite worried for a time – I thought that Signor Mezzaluna might be some mountebank wanting to marry her for her money. But you know what? He was married already, with seven children! So it all came to nothing. I’m her older sister after all, and I have to keep an eye on her. You know what they’re like, these middle-aged ladies. They can be – how shall I put it ? – susceptible to charming gentlemen.’
‘I know, dear lady,’ said S.P., kissing her hand. That fluttered her a little, and she blushed as she served us glasses of sweet wine and a plate of macaroons.
‘You should be ashamed of yourself!’ I scolded him later when we got back to the carriage. ‘Flirting with Mrs Phillpott! She’s old enough to be your mother! You’ll do anything to solve a case, won’t you?’
S.P. just grinned.