Dark clouds over nuala, p.1

Dark Clouds Over Nuala, page 1

 part  #2 of  Inspector de Silva Mysteries Series


Dark Clouds Over Nuala

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Dark Clouds Over Nuala

  Dark Clouds Over Nuala

  An Inspector de Silva mystery

  Harriet Steel

  Kindle edition 2017

  Copyright © Harriet Steel

  The author or authors assert their moral right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author or authors of this work. All Rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, copied, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior written consent of the copyright holder, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.


  Author’s Note

  Characters who appear regularly in the Inspector de Silva Mysteries.

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Other Books by Harriet Steel

  Author’s Note

  Welcome to the second book in my Inspector de Silva mystery series. Like the first one, this is a self-contained story and I have done my best to write it so that readers who are new to the series will not feel they are missing out on anything. As a reader myself, however, I usually find that my enjoyment of the characters in a series is deepened by reading the books in order. With that in mind, I have included thumbnail sketches of those who took a major part in Trouble in Nuala and reprinted the book’s introduction, with apologies to those who have already read it.

  Two years ago, I had the great good fortune to visit the island of Sri Lanka, the former Ceylon. I fell in love with the country straight away, awed by its tremendous natural beauty and the charm and friendliness of its people who seem to have recovered extraordinarily well from the tragic civil war between the two main ethnic groups, the Sinhalese and the Tamils. I had been planning to write a new detective series for some time and when I came home, I decided to set it in Ceylon in the 1930s, a time when British Colonial rule created interesting contrasts, and sometimes conflicts, with traditional culture. Thus, Inspector Shanti de Silva and his friends were born.

  My thanks go to my editor, John Hudspith, for all the excellent work he has done on Dark Clouds Over Nuala, and to Jane Dixon Smith for designing the layout and a cover that fulfilled all my dreams. As always too, I am extremely grateful to my husband, Roger, and my daughter, Ellie, for their encouragement and support. Any mistakes are my own. If any characters resemble persons living or dead, this is purely coincidental. The town of Nuala is also fictitious.

  Some pre-publication readers mentioned that an explanation of a few unfamiliar culinary terms would be helpful. I hope the following are of use:

  A hopper: a kind of crispy pancake cooked in a bowl shape. It’s usually served at breakfast with egg or curry in it.

  String hoppers: noodles.

  Brinjal: a special curry dish made from eggplant (aubergine).

  Note on languages.

  The languages of Sri Lanka are Sinhalese, Tamil and English. An educated man like de Silva would speak all three.

  Characters who appear regularly in the Inspector de Silva Mysteries.

  Inspector Shanti de Silva. He began his police career in Ceylon’s capital city, Colombo, but, in middle age, he married and accepted a promotion to inspector in charge of the small force in the hill town of Nuala. Likes: a quiet life with his beloved wife; his car; good food; his garden. Dislikes: interference in his work by his British masters; formal occasions. Race and religion: Sinhalese, Buddhist.

  Sergeant Prasanna. In his mid-twenties and starting to find his feet in his job. Likes: cricket (and is exceptionally good at it). Dislikes: his mother trying to marry him off. Race and religion: Sinhalese, Buddhist.

  Constable Nadar. A few years younger than Prasanna and less confident. Married with a baby boy. Likes: his food; making toys for his baby son. Dislikes: sleepless nights. Race and religion: Tamil, Hindu.

  The British:

  Jane de Silva. She came to Ceylon as a governess to a wealthy colonial family and met and married de Silva a few years later. A no-nonsense lady with a dry sense of humour. Likes: detective novels; cinema and dancing. Dislikes: snobbishness.

  Archie Clutterbuck. Assistant government agent in Nuala and as such, responsible for administration and keeping law and order in the area. Likes: his Labrador, Darcy; fishing; hunting big game. Dislikes: being argued with; the heat.

  Florence Clutterbuck. Archie’s wife, a stout, forthright lady. Likes: being queen bee; organising other people. Dislikes: people who don’t defer to her at all times.

  William Petrie. Government agent for the Central Province and therefore Archie Clutterbuck’s boss. A charming exterior hides a steely character. Likes: getting things done. Dislikes: inefficiency.

  Lady Caroline Petrie. William’s wife and, as the daughter of the 13th Earl of Axford, a titled lady in her own right. A gentle, elegant woman. Likes: making other people feel at ease. Dislikes: things not being done properly; lack of consideration for others.

  Doctor David Hebden. Doctor for the Nuala area. He travelled widely before fetching up in Nuala. Unmarried and, under his professional shell, rather shy. Likes: cricket. Dislikes: formality.

  Chapter 1

  New Year’s Eve 1933

  Western Australia.

  As the minutes to midnight ticked away, ever greater numbers of revellers crowded into the noisy bar. The dark-haired man limped back to his table with a glass of beer in his hand. Halfway there, someone knocked into him and he stumbled, lurching into a burly miner and slopping some of the beer down the fellow’s jacket. As the miner jerked round, he waited for a blow but, to his relief, all that came was a gust of hot, whisky breath and a muttered curse.

  The young man waiting for him at the table was still on his own. ‘They aren’t coming,’ he said miserably. He raked one hand through his fair hair. His forehead glistened and his skin had a greenish hue.

  What was there to say? It was impossible to put things right.

  Morosely, the young man reached for the bottle of whisky on the table and poured a shot into a glass. He drained the whisky in one gulp and reached for the bottle again, but the dark-haired man pushed it out of his reach.

  ‘Enough. We’re getting out of here.’

  Glowering, the young man tried to get to his feet but staggered; the table rocked as he grabbed the edge. The whisky bottle and the glasses slid off, smashing on the stone floor. He stared bleakly at the jagged pieces glinting in the puddle of whisky and beer then almost toppled into the lap of the heavily rouged and powdered woman sitting at the next table. He clutched at her dress to steady himself, dislodging the neckline.

  ‘You’ll have to pay if you want to look down there, sweetheart.’ She laughed and shoved him off, rearranging her cleavage.

  Her scowling companion started from his seat. He wore an open-necked shirt that revealed a burly chest. The sinews in his thick neck bulged and he clenched his fists.

bsp; The dark-haired man pulled a couple of dollars out of his pocket and pushed them across the table. ‘Sorry about my friend. He’s had a few too many tonight, and some bad news. Please, have a drink on us. Happy New Year.’

  The woman’s companion hesitated then shrugged and sat down again. ‘Happy New Year, friend. No hard feelings. But I’d get yer mate out of here before someone rearranges that pretty face of his.’

  ‘Thanks for the advice,’ the dark-haired man said dryly.

  Outside, the temperature had markedly dropped. The young man gagged and doubled over. His companion helped him to the side of the road and looked away as he vomited bile and alcohol. When it was over, he handed the young man a handkerchief. ‘Here, use this.’

  The streets grew quieter as they neared the hotel. In the lobby, the woman behind the desk glared at them. ‘I hope there’s going to be no extra laundry. I charge double, New Year’s Eve or not.’

  After making a stumbling ascent of the stairs, they reached a narrow landing painted a drab shade of brown that presented a series of doors. They stopped at the last one; it was unlocked. Inside was a pokey room. A lightbulb with a cheap paper shade – the graveyard of years of dead flies – cast a glaucous light over an ugly table and chair and a bed covered with a faded red counterpane. The young man crumpled onto it and turned his face to the wall.

  The window was shut so the dark-haired man went over and struggled with the sash. After a few moments, it yielded and air crept into the stuffy room. Distant cheers and shouts drifted from the centre of town. A million shooting stars and fountains of light: red, blue, green, silver and gold, split the night sky. As the first round of fireworks faded, welcoming in 1934, a succession of others took its place, each volley crackling and fizzing before it died, until a pall of smoke lay over the rooftops.

  His heart hollow, the dark-haired man went over to the bed and looked down at his companion, who, in spite of the commotion, was asleep. Very gently, he reached out a hand and stroked his cheek then brushed back a lock of hair that had stuck to the pale, clammy skin. After a few moments, he returned to the window to view the display. His clenched fists rested heavily on the windowsill.

  Then fear seized him. Was it his imagination or had something deep in the earth moved?

  Chapter 2

  April 1935


  It was the day of the Empire Cup, the most fashionable event in Nuala’s racing calendar. While he waited for his wife, Jane, to get ready, Inspector Shanti de Silva strolled around his garden. Overnight rain had revived the red earth and freshened the trees and flowers. His beloved roses looked splendid and the grass under his feet was a springy, emerald carpet.

  He turned to see Jane walking across the lawn towards him. ‘Do I look suitable?’

  ‘Of course you do, you always look lovely. Is that a new dress?’

  She shook her head. ‘Shanti dear, I’ve worn it dozens of times.’

  ‘Well, it’s very nice.’

  ‘But I have bought something new for the dinner at the Residence tomorrow. I hope you don’t mind?’

  ‘As long as we still have money to eat,’ he said with a grin.

  She pinched his sleeve. ‘You know I don’t spend extravagant sums on dresses, and this is very pretty - a sea-green silk with a bolero jacket. I think you’ll like it. I plan to wear it with my pearls.’

  ‘I’m only teasing, and I’m sure I’ll love it.’ He offered her his arm. ‘Shall we be on our way? It would be a pity to miss the first race.’

  The Morris Cowley waited for them on the drive. One of the houseboys had washed and polished its smart navy paintwork and chrome fittings and they gleamed in the sun. De Silva started the engine and the car crunched over Sunnybank’s gravelled drive and turned onto the road.

  ‘I’ve been looking forward to this for weeks,’ remarked Jane, putting up one hand to hold her hat in place as they speeded up. Sunshine filtered through the green tunnel of trees above them, dappling the road with light and shade. ‘Florence Clutterbuck says William Petrie and Lady Caroline will be here today. They’re up from Kandy for a while and have brought Lady Caroline’s nephew and his wife with them.’

  De Silva didn’t comment. The arrival of this nephew, Ralph Wynne-Talbot, and his wife, Helen, seemed to have acted like a stone tossed into the quiet waters of the de Silvas’ sleepy little home town. The Wynne-Talbots were being treated as the most exciting visitors to come to Nuala in a long time. He hoped they were not going to disappoint everyone.

  At any rate, Florence Clutterbuck, the wife of the assistant government agent, Archie Clutterbuck, and self-appointed leader of Nuala society, clearly intended to make the most of the visit. It wasn’t every day that her husband’s superior and his wife bestowed their company on Nuala, let alone brought prestigious relatives with them. Among other things, Florence was organising a grand dinner to which everyone who was anyone in Nuala had been invited. De Silva supposed he should be flattered that he and Jane were on the list, although he wasn’t fond of having to dress up for the occasion.

  Jane sniffed. ‘Well, aren’t you curious to see them?’

  He chuckled. ‘If you want me to be, then I am.’

  His wife reached across the steering wheel and gave his knuckles a brisk rap. ‘You’re very provoking.’

  De Silva smiled and changed gear as he decelerated to negotiate the bullock cart lumbering towards them. It surprised him that his down-to-earth wife was so excited about the whole business; he concluded it must be an English trait to take such an interest in the British aristocracy, in which the Wynne-Talbots were, apparently, about to play a notable part.

  Jane had explained to him several days previously that they were in Ceylon en route from Australia to England. In England they would be visiting Ralph’s grandfather, William Wynne-Talbot, 13th Earl of Axford, who was not in the best of health. His death, when it unfortunately occurred, would make Ralph the fourteenth earl and master of a large tract of the English Midlands. He would also inherit Axford Court, generally considered to be one of the finest stately homes in England. In the days of Henry VIII, it had replaced the draughty, medieval castle built by Guillaume de Wynne, a Norman knight who had come over to England with William the Conqueror.

  Henry had rewarded Guillaume’s Tudor descendant with the earldom for his services to the Crown. The first earl had the good sense to keep his king’s favour by building a house that was large and magnificent enough to eclipse those of his peers, but not so grand that it overshadowed the royal palaces.

  Yes, Ralph Wynne-Talbot’s prospects were bright: a great landowner and a belted earl with the surety of a welcome in the highest echelons of society.

  ‘But one thing puzzles me,’ Jane remarked when she had imparted all this information. ‘I don’t understand why Ralph Wynne-Talbot has no title. Florence Clutterbuck was speculating as to why that should be and, even though I don’t like gossip, she does have a point.’

  ‘Why would he have one? I thought you said it was his grandfather who was the Earl of Axford.’

  ‘Yes, but where an ancient family like theirs is concerned, they usually have more than one title. The earldom will be the principal one but any lesser one, say viscount, is usually given to the male heir as a courtesy.’

  De Silva shrugged. ‘Perhaps there is no lesser one.’

  ‘It would be odd. Florence thinks it strange too that Lady Caroline has never mentioned her nephew up until now. I wouldn’t expect to have heard about him but the Clutterbucks have known the Petries for many more years than we have.’

  ‘There’s probably some perfectly simple explanation,’ said De Silva, rather bored with the topic. ‘Nearly there. I hope there are some decent parking places left.’

  The course was already bustling with chattering, laughing racegoers. A few had arrived by car but most on foot so, to de Silva’s satisfaction, the Morris came to rest in an ideal place close to the entrance to the course.

  Racing was a popula
r sport with all classes of Nuala’s society and visitors in saris and sarongs mingled with those wearing floral frocks, western-style suits or even morning dress and top hats. As they passed one of the refreshment tents, de Silva’s famously acute nose picked up an appetising aroma of cashew and pea curry. He and Jane had eaten lunch at home, but he must remember where the tent was. He could always find room for his favourite curry.

  They made their way to the paddock where the horses entered in the first race were already collected, circling and fidgeting as if they knew that the race was imminent and were keen to be off. Their jockeys, mostly gentleman amateurs looking smart in their shining boots, breeches and colourful silks, chatted to owners and trainers.

  ‘I always think it’s most ingenious that they find so many different combinations of colours and patterns,’ said Jane. She pointed to one of the jockeys. ‘I like the look of the gold stars on the blue background.’

  De Silva glanced at his card and then over at the rails where the bookies had set up their pitches. ‘He’s riding number twelve, Firefly. The odds are a hundred to eight.’

  ‘Oh dear, not much chance of winning then.’

  ‘You can never tell, although I agree it seems unlikely.’

  ‘Oh, but it’s a pretty name, maybe I’ll put a few rupees on each way.’

  ‘Well, I suppose a pretty name is as good a reason as any. We’d better get over to the bookies, then. The race will start soon.’

  Unfortunately, Firefly finished second to last but the de Silvas’ choice in the next race fared better, coming fourth. They were nearing the paddock to see the horses entered in the third race, the Empire Cup itself, when Jane shaded her eyes and pointed to a group standing inside the ring.

  ‘Oh, look over there! The Petries, and Florence and Archie Clutterbuck with them. The young couple must be the Wynne-Talbots. My, but she’s lovely, isn’t she? What beautiful blonde hair she has, and so slim. He looks very handsome too.’

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