Fina doubled over, gasping for air. The cold ice grated against her fingers.
“I’m sorry. Did I hurt you? I thought the snowball was soft,” giggled a girl Fina knew only as Ethel. She was a tall, stocky young woman who apparently didn’t know her own strength.
“I’ll be fine,” groaned Fina. “I think.” She brushed the snow from her coat. It was too late. Her coat was sopping wet. Fina looked up and blinked through her fringe. She blew a little puff of air upwards to move it away. Time for a trim.
Amidst the shrieks of laughter from the other girls tossing snow across their Oxford quad, Fina spied a man in uniform striding through the archway leading to their beloved Quenby College. A police uniform. The girls continued to leap about and slide in the snow. He marched through the crossfire as if his constable’s uniform were snowball-proof. After treading a straight line through the quad, he suddenly turned left.
In her many past encounters with the law, Fina had noticed how a constable’s helmet had the unfortunate effect of squishing the face together so the resulting expression conveyed little except permanent indigestion. This constable was no different. Despite the sun sparkling on the snow on this beautiful December day, Fina was already frozen in place by a familiar rush of adrenaline. Perhaps the constable was just walking toward one of the side doors of the residence?
But Fina’s intuition – or whatever one might call it – told her the constable was coming to speak to her. She sensed it in the way he studiously avoided her gaze as he approached.
He walked right past her.
And then spun round on his heel. Was this some new police technique?
“Miss Fina Aubrey-Havelock?” he asked, touching the brim of his helmet.
“Yes, I am she,” she replied, still rooted to the spot. Only her arms moved, or rather flailed. It was as if her limbs didn’t belong to her.
“Good. The scout pointed you out.”
“Yes,” she said with an impatient exhalation of air. “What is it I can do for you, Constable?”
“Well, miss. I’m looking for a Miss Ruby Dove. I was told you would be able to locate her.”
“Ah, Miss Ruby Dove?” It was all Fina could muster while she bought herself breathing room.
“Yes, miss. You are her best friend, aren’t you now? We’ve been trying to locate her.”
“May I ask why?”
The constable shifted his weight from side to side and then ran his forefinger through the chinstrap of his helmet. “We’re looking to speak to her in connection with some … activities, you might say.”
Although her knees had turned into marmalade, Fina stood tall. Well, as tall as a short person could stand. “Yes, I know Miss Dove, but I’m afraid I haven’t a clue where she is at the moment.”
“When might she return to college?”
Fina gulped involuntarily and hoped it wouldn’t be noticed. Of course it wouldn’t. Not with the high collar of her favourite new coat, which she had purchased on her adventure with Ruby in Italy. “Miss Dove has relations in the Caribbean. She had plans to travel there with her family in London for Christmas.”
“Really,” said the constable in a low voice. She could almost see the words form through the water vapour that swirled from his lips in the crisp air. “That’s peculiar. We know the Dove family sailed from Southampton a few days ago, but there was no passenger named Ruby Dove aboard.”
“I regret I cannot be of assistance. Perhaps she decided to travel later and is somewhere in London,” said Fina, with an increasing air of social superiority. She couldn’t help it. It was her defence mechanism whenever she dealt with the police. Occasions when her double-barrelled name proved rather useful.
“Yes, well…” The constable trailed off and twisted his lips to one side, indicating he judged this to be a dodgy explanation. Bobbing forward on his toes, he scribbled in a small notebook. “If you hear from her, please ring us,” he said, handing Fina the scrap of paper with a phone number and ‘Police Constable Oates’ scrawled next to it.
Fina stuffed the paper in her pocket, nodded, and mumbled, “I will endeavour to do my best, sir.”
And she always did. It wasn’t a lie. Just an omission.
PC Oates lumbered off toward the gatehouse under the archway. Shivering, Fina stood rooted to the spot. She wanted to be certain he was heading toward the porter’s lodge. After a knock on the door, he disappeared inside. Sighing with relief, she made her way to her residence building.
As Fina stamped her feet outside the door, caked snow on her sensible shoes splattered onto the stone pavement. She rubbed her hands together and blew on them as she bundled herself in.
Inside the warmth of the hall, her brain began to thaw. Constable Oates might be on his way to Ruby’s room. The back stairs were a shortcut. There was a risk he might see her arrive, but it was a risk she had to take.
Taking the back stairs two at a time warmed up her frozen limbs. Soon, she was practically flying upward, toward the fourth floor. On the second-floor landing, her progress was halted by a scout.
“Where are you hurrying off to, as quick as a March wind?” Mabel leaned against her broom.
“I must rush to Ruby’s room. Now. Please let me past.”
Mabel blocked the staircase as if she were a royal palace sentry, armed with a rifle rather than a broom. “I know you, Miss Aubrey-Havelock. You’re a troublemaker. I remember everything that happened here a few months ago. The other scouts told me to keep an eye on you. And here you are, tearing up the stairs for no good reason. I have a mind to report you to the head scout, I do.”
Fina’s small hand balled into a fist. “Mabel. This is urgent and personal. I will report you to the head scout if you do not let me pass.”
Mabel’s eyes floated this way and that as if they were rolling around freely, like marbles in her eye sockets.
“If you let me go, I won’t tell the head scout about whatever it is you get up to at night. That is not part of college rules,” Fina said mysteriously. She had no idea if Mabel did anything at night – she probably said her prayers and went to bed early – but it was worth a go.
Mabel’s earlobes turned a dusty shade of pink. “Well. Just you mind you don’t get in trouble. Hear me?” She stepped aside and moved the broom in an overly dramatic sweeping motion. Fina let out a great sigh as she gripped the railing and pulled herself up the next set of stairs. She had lost valuable time, but she might still make it.
On the fourth-floor landing, she poked her head into the corridor.
The residents must be slumbering away in their beds. It was a Saturday, after all. Or else they were on the quad, wreaking merry havoc. Ruby’s room was the third door to the left of the landing. The one with a mistletoe sprig hanging above it. Fina had teased Ruby about it because hanging it up was such an un-Ruby thing to do. Ruby had said in serious tones that it was a talisman. Not for kissing. Besides, her erstwhile boyfriend, Ian Clavering, was not in college. After their Train Blanc adventure, they’d left him in London. And Ruby hadn’t heard from him again.
Fina dashed down the corridor and tapped on Ruby’s door. A shuffling noise came from somewhere, but she couldn’t figure out the source. She tapped again.
Thud. Heavy footsteps. And wheezing. Only one other person was large enough to make that much noise – the snowball-throwing Ethel – but her room was across the quad.
If he spied Fina, she’d be… Flashes of terrible past experiences with the police rooted her to the spot. Even her hand remained on the doorknob.
A sneeze shook her back into consciousness. Dashing down the corridor to the landing, she flew down the stairs until she reached the second floor. A glimpse over the railing of the square-spiral staircase told her Mabel had moved her sweeping campaign to the first floor. Still not wanting to risk being seen, Fina popped down the main staircase to her own room. She fished around for a key in her coat pocket and then inserted it in the lock. Nothing happened.
The door was already unlocked.