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In the frame, p.1
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       In the Frame, p.1

           Dick Francis
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In the Frame

  Books by Dick Francis

  THE SPORT OF QUEENS (autobiography)

























  LESTER: The Official Biography









  The Frame


  Michael Joseph



  Published by the Penguin Group

  27 Wrights Lane, London W8 5TZ, England

  Viking Penguin, 375 Hudson Street, New York, NY 10014, USA

  Penguin Books Australia Ltd, Ringwood, Victoria, Australia

  Penguin Books Canada Ltd, 10 Alcorn Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4V 3B2

  Penguin Books (NZ) Ltd, 182-190 Wairau Road, Auckland 10, New Zealand

  Penguin Books Ltd. Registered Offices: Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England

  First published in Great Britain

  October 1976

  Second impression December 1976

  Third impression February 1977

  Fourth impression September 1980

  Fifth impression February 1984

  Sixth impression February 1989

  Seventh impression May 1992

  Eighth impression June 2001

  Copyright © Dick Francis, 1976

  All rights reserved.

  Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval stystem, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.


  My thanks to two professional artists


  of Australia



  of Czechoslovakia

  who generously showed me their studios,

  their methods, their minds and their lives.

  Also to the many art galleries whose experts gave me

  information and help, and particularly to Peter Johnson

  of Oscar and Peter Johnson, London, SW1, and to the

  Stud and Stable gallery, Ascot.


  Sound Asleep


  I stood on the outside of disaster, looking in.

  There were three police cars outside my cousin’s house, and an ambulance with its blue turret light revolving ominously, and people bustling in seriously through his open front door. The chill wind of early autumn blew dead brown leaves sadly on to the driveway, and harsh scurrying clouds threatened worse to come. Six o’clock, Friday evening, Shropshire, England.

  Intermittent bright white flashes from the windows spoke of photography in progress within. I slid my satchel from my shoulder and dumped both it and my suitcase on the grass verge, and with justifiable foreboding completed my journey to the house.

  I had travelled by train to stay for the week-end. No cousin with car to meet me as promised, so I had started to walk the mile and a half of country road, sure he would come tearing along soon in his muddy Peugeot, full of jokes and apologies and plans.

  No jokes.

  He stood in the hall, dazed and grey. His body inside his neat business suit looked limp, and his arms hung straight down from the shoulders as if his brain had forgotten they were there. His head was turned slightly towards the sittingroom, the source of the flashes, and his eyes were stark with shock.

  ‘Don?’ I said. I walked towards him. ‘Donald!’

  He didn’t hear me. A policeman, however, did. He came swiftly from the sittingroom in his dark blue uniform, took me by the arm and swung me strongly and unceremoniously back towards the door.

  ‘Out of here, sir,’ he said. ‘If you please.’

  The strained eyes slid uncertainly our way.

  ‘Charles…’ His voice was hoarse.

  The policeman’s grip loosened very slightly. ‘Do you know this man, sir?’ he asked Donald.

  ‘I’m his cousin,’ I said.

  ‘Oh.’ He took his hand off, told me to stay where I was and look after Mr Stuart, and returned to the sittingroom to consult.

  ‘What’s happened?’ I said.

  Don was past answering. His head turned again towards the sittingroom door, drawn to a horror he could no longer see. I disobeyed the police instructions, took ten quiet steps, and looked in.

  The familiar room was unfamiliarly bare. No pictures, no ornaments, no edge-to-edge floor covering of oriental rugs. Just bare grey walls, chintz-covered sofas, heavy furniture pushed awry, and a great expanse of dusty wood-block flooring.

  And on the floor, my cousin’s young wife, bloody and dead.

  The big room was scattered with busy police, measuring, photographing, dusting for fingerprints. I knew they were there; didn’t see them. All I saw was Regina lying on her back, her face the colour of cream.

  Her eyes were half open, still faintly bright, and her lower jaw had fallen loose, outlining brutally the shape of the skull. A pool of urine lay wetly on the parquet around her sprawled legs, and one arm was flung out sideways with the dead white fingers curling upwards as if in supplication.

  There had been no mercy.

  I looked at the scarlet mess of her head and felt the blood draining from my own.

  The policeman who had grabbed me before turned round from his consultation with another, saw me swaying in the doorway, and took quick annoyed strides back to my side.

  ‘I told you to wait outside, sir,’ he said with exasperation, stating clearly that my faintness was my own fault.

  I nodded dumbly and went back into the hall. Donald was sitting on the stairs, looking at nothing. I sat abruptly on the floor near him and put my head between my knees.

  ‘I… f… found… her,’ he said.

  I swallowed. What could one say? It was bad enough for me, but he had lived with her, and loved her. The faintness passed away slowly, leaving a sour feeling of sickness. I leaned back against the wall behind me and wished I knew how to help him.

  ‘She’s… never… home… on F… Fridays,’ he said.

  ‘I know.’

  ‘S… six. S… six o’clock… she comes b… back. Always.’

  ‘I’ll get you some brandy,’ I said.

  ‘She shouldn’t… have been… here…’

  I pushed myself off the floor and went into the dining-room, and it was there that the significance of the bare sittingroom forced itself into consciousness. In the dining-room too there were bare walls, bare shelves, and empty drawers pulled out and dumped on the floor. No silver ornaments. No silver spoons or forks. No collection of antique china. Just a jumble of table mats and napkins and broken glass.

  My cousin’s house had been burgled. And Regina… Regina, who was never home on Fridays… had walked in…

  I went over to the plundered sideboard, flooding with anger and wanting to smash in the heads of all greedy, callous, vicious people who cynically devastated the lives of t
otal strangers. Compassion was all right for saints. What I felt was plain hatred, fierce and basic.

  I found two intact glasses, but all the drink had gone. Furiously I stalked through the swing door into the kitchen and filled the electric kettle.

  In that room too, the destruction had continued, with stores swept wholesale off the shelves. What valuables, I wondered, did thieves expect to find in kitchens? I jerkily made two mugs of tea and rummaged in Regina’s spice cupboard for the cooking brandy, and felt unreasonably triumphant when it proved to be still there. The sods had missed that, at least.

  Donald still sat unmoving on the stairs. I pressed the cup of strong sweet liquid into his hands and told him to drink, and he did, mechanically.

  ‘She’s never home… on Fridays,’ he said.

  ‘No,’ I agreed, and wondered just how many people knew there was no one home on Fridays.

  We both slowly finished the tea. I took his mug and put it with mine on the floor, and sat near him as before. Most of the hall furniture had gone. The small Sheraton desk… the studded leather chair… the nineteenth century carriage clock…

  ‘Christ, Charles,’ he said.

  I glanced at his face. There were tears, and dreadful pain. I could do nothing, nothing, to help him.

  The impossible evening lengthened to midnight, and beyond. The police, I suppose, were efficient, polite, and not unsympathetic, but they left a distinct impression that they felt their job was to catch criminals, not to succour the victims. It seemed to me that there was also, in many of their questions, a faint hovering doubt, as if it were not unknown for householders to arrange their own well-insured burglaries, and for smooth-seeming swindles to go horrifically wrong.

  Donald didn’t seem to notice. He answered wearily, automatically, with long pauses sometimes between question and answer.

  Yes, the missing goods were well-insured.

  Yes, they had been insured for years.

  Yes, he had been to his office all day as usual.

  Yes, he had been out to lunch. A sandwich in a pub.

  He was a wine shipper.

  His office was in Shrewsbury.

  He was thirty-seven years old.

  Yes, his wife was much younger. Twenty-two.

  He couldn’t speak of Regina without stuttering, as if his tongue and lips were beyond his control. She always s… spends F… Fridays… working… in a f… friend’s… f… flower… shop.


  Donald looked vaguely at the Detective Inspector, sitting opposite him across the diningroom table. The matched antique dining chairs had gone. Donald sat in a garden armchair brought from the sunroom. The Inspector, a constable and I sat on kitchen stools.


  ‘Why did she work in a flower shop on Fridays?’

  ‘She… she… l… likes…’

  I interrupted brusquely. ‘She was a florist before she married Donald. She liked to keep her hand in. She used to spend Fridays making those table arrangement things for dances and weddings and things like that…’ And wreaths, too, I thought, and couldn’t say it.

  ‘Thank you, sir, but I’m sure Mr Stuart can answer for himself.’

  ‘And I’m sure he can’t.’

  The Detective Inspector diverted his attention my way.

  ‘He’s too shocked,’ I said.

  ‘Are you a doctor, sir?’ His voice held polite disbelief, which it was entitled to, no doubt. I shook my head impatiently. He glanced at Donald, pursed his lips, and turned back to me. His gaze wandered briefly over my jeans, faded denim jacket, fawn polo-neck, and desert boots, and returned to my face, unimpressed.

  ‘Very well, sir. Name?’

  ‘Charles Todd.’





  The constable unemotionally wrote down these scintillating details in his pocket-sized notebook.

  ‘Houses or pictures?’ asked the Inspector.


  ‘And your movements today, sir?’

  ‘Caught the two-thirty from Paddington and walked from the local station.’

  ‘Purpose of visit?’

  ‘Nothing special. I come here once or twice a year.’

  ‘Good friends, then?’


  He nodded non-committally. Turned his attention again to Donald and asked more questions, but patiently and without pressure.

  ‘And what time do you normally reach home on Fridays, sir?’

  Don said tonelessly, ‘Five. About.’

  ‘And today?’

  ‘Same.’ A spasm twitched the muscles of his face. ‘I saw… the house had been broken into… I telephoned..’

  ‘Yes, sir. We received your call at six minutes past five. And after you had telephoned, you went into the sitting-room, to see what had been stolen?’

  Donald didn’t answer.

  ‘Our sergeant found you there, sir, if you remember.’

  ‘Why?’ Don said in anguish. ‘Why did she come home?’

  ‘I expect we’ll find out, sir.’

  The careful exploratory questions went on and on, and as far as I could see achieved nothing except to bring Donald ever closer to all-out breakdown.

  I, with a certain amount of shame, grew ordinarily hungry, having not bothered to eat earlier in the day. I thought with regret of the dinner I had been looking forward to, with Regina tossing in unmeasured ingredients and herbs and wine and casually producing a gourmet feast. Regina with her cap of dark hair and ready smile, chatty and frivolous and anti-bloodsports. A harmless girl, come to harm.

  At some point during the evening her body was loaded into the ambulance and driven away. I heard it happen, but Donald gave no sign of interpreting the sounds. I thought that probably his mind was raising barriers against the unendurable, and one couldn’t blame him.

  The Inspector rose finally and stretched the kinks caused by the kitchen stool out of legs and spine. He said he would be leaving a constable on duty at the house all night, and that he would return himself in the morning. Donald nodded vaguely, having obviously not listened properly to a word, and when the police had gone still sat like an automaton in the chair, with no energy to move.

  ‘Come on,’ I said. ‘Let’s go to bed.’

  I took his arm, persuaded him to his feet, and steered him up the stairs. He came in a daze, unprotesting.

  His and Regina’s bedroom was a shambles, but the twin-bedded room prepared for me was untouched. He flopped full-length in his clothes and put his arm up over his eyes, and in appalling distress asked the unanswerable question of all the world’s sufferers.

  ‘Why? Why did it have to happen to us?’

  I stayed with Donald for a week, during which time some questions, but not that one, were answered.

  One of the easiest was the reason for Regina’s premature return home. She and the flower-shop friend, who had been repressing annoyance with each other for weeks, had erupted into a quarrel of enough bitterness to make Regina leave at once. She had driven away at about two-thirty, and had probably gone straight home, as it was considered she had been dead for at least two hours by five o’clock.

  This information, expressed in semi-formal sentences, was given to Donald by the Detective Inspector on Saturday afternoon. Donald walked out into the autumnal garden and wept.

  The Inspector, Frost by name and cool by nature, came quietly into the kitchen and stood beside me watching Donald with his bowed head among the apple trees.

  ‘I would like you to tell me what you can about the relationship between Mr and Mrs Stuart.’

  ‘You’d like what?’

  ‘How did they get on?’

  ‘Can’t you tell for yourself?’

  He answered neutrally after a pause. ‘The intensity of grief shown is not always an accurate indication of the intensity of love felt.’

  ‘Do you always talk like that?

  A faint smile flickered and died. ‘I was quoting from a book on psychology.’

  ‘ “Not always” means it usually is,’ I said.

  He blinked.

  ‘Your book is bunk,’ I said.

  ‘Guilt and remorse can manifest themselves in an excess of mourning.’

  ‘Dangerous bunk,’ I added. ‘And as far as I could see, the honeymoon was by no means over.’

  ‘After three years?’

  ‘Why not?’

  He shrugged and didn’t answer. I turned away from the sight of Donald and said, ‘What are the chances of getting back any of the stuff from this house?’

  ‘Small, I should think. Where antiques are involved, the goods are likely to be halfway across the Atlantic before the owner returns from his holidays.’

  ‘Not this time, though,’ I objected.

  He sighed. ‘Next best thing. There have been hundreds of similar break-ins during recent years and very little has been recovered. Antiques are big business these days.’

  ‘Connoisseur thieves?’ I said sceptically.

  ‘The prison library service reports that all their most requested books are on antiques. All the little chummies boning up to jump on the bandwagon as soon as they get out.’

  He sounded suddenly quite human. ‘Like some coffee?’ I said.

  He looked at his watch, raised his eyebrows, and accepted. He sat on a kitchen stool while I fixed the mugs, a fortyish man with thin sandy hair and a well-worn grey suit.

  ‘Are you married?’ he asked.


  ‘In love with Mrs Stuart?’

  ‘You do try it on, don’t you?’

  ‘If you don’t ask, you don’t find out.’

  I put the milk bottle and a sugar basin on the table and told him to help himself. He stirred his coffee reflectively.

  ‘When did you visit this house last?’ he said.

  ‘Last March. Before they went off to Australia.’


  ‘They went to see the vintage there. Donald had some idea of shipping Australian wine over in bulk. They were away for at least three months. Why didn’t their house get robbed then, when they were safely out of the way?’

  He listened to the bitterness in my voice. ‘Life is full of nasty ironies.’ He pursed his lips gingerly to the hot coffee, drew back, and blew gently across the top of the mug. ‘What would you all have been doing today? In the normal course of events?’

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