“There’s an English lady on the phone for you,” Marisol told me. “She says her name is Betty Butterberg.” Marisol spoke loudly, as people do when addressing someone my age, which happens to be one-hundred and five. Marisol is an aide at Ivy Bridges Care Center in Westport, Connecticut. I was there because I’ve lived too long and my body has failed me.
My brain, however, is as keen as ever. It is a machine that runs on facts, sifting through data and unerringly reaching conclusions. A man called Alan, with whom I once worked, compared my brain to a computer. Coming from him, it was the highest compliment he could have paid.
Alan is dead. He was hounded to death for being who he was. Almost all my Bletchley Park chums are dead. Some days it seems like everyone I knew back then is dead. At least the English lady who was currently on the phone was still alive.
Her name wasn’t Betty Butterberg. Marisol misheard her. The English lady sometimes calls herself Betty Battenberg. It’s a joke. The English lady likes jokes, particularly bawdy ones, surprisingly to those who think of her as a prim little figure dressed in pastels with an enormous, matching hat, like a human tea-cozy.
The English lady is Queen Elizabeth II. Battenberg was her family’s surname, before they changed it to Mountbatten.
I took the phone from Marisol. Gingerly wrapping my arthritic fingers around it, I said, “Hello, ma’am.”
“Hello, Sarah. We are pleased to have found you in,” she said.
“I’m always in. I’m bedbound. I’m ancient,” I told her.
“Nonsense. You’re not much older than we are. We don’t languish in bed all day. We rise in the morning, have some toast and marmalade, and then we get to work.” I could hear an echo of her great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, in her self-congratulatory tone. I made no comment, and she continued, “Sarah, we are facing an international crisis. We need your help.”
That piqued my interest. “Not a family problem, then?”
“Good gracious, no. Those are horrid. This is about that Egyptian woman who’s gone missing.”
“Do you mean Behati Gamal?”
“Yes. She vanished from an airplane.”
I heard about it on the news. Behati Gamal was a singer and an actress of the splashy sort: tall, willowy, with a haystack of blonde hair. She disappeared on a charter flight to London from Lydd Airport, in Kent.
“The Egyptian ambassador is furious. He’s saying she was done away with because she was seeing a man who is related to us. It has no basis in truth, and yet there are insinuations.” Her voice thickened. “It’s like the bad time, all over again,” she said, referring to the death of her former daughter-in-law, Princess Diana.
“I shall look into it, ma’am,” I promised.
“Thank you, Sarah,” she said.
I looked into it. The internet makes it possible to do that while lying in bed, propped up on pillows and being turned every couple of hours, to make sure I didn’t develop bed sores.
The facts were straightforward. At 7 a.m., four days previously, a mechanic at Lydd Airport saw Behati Gamal board the small plane she chartered to take her to London. Despite the early hour she wore a short, silver dress, her blonde hair done up in her signature beehive. The mechanic was busy that morning, but he took a moment to appreciate the sight of the glamorous celebrity as she walked towards the aircraft, her back to the hangar where he worked.
Hovering over her was her bodyguard, a former boxer named Eric Parker. Her assistant, Rose Chatham, was late. The mechanic saw her scurrying from the car park, mousy in a tan raincoat, about ten minutes after her boss arrived.
There was a row the night before. Behati’s neighbours reported they heard the star shouting at her assistant. It appeared they made up. There was a wait for the pilot, who was filing the flight plan. When he arrived, carrying a cup of coffee, the plane took off.
Ten minutes into the flight, Behati got up to use the restroom. When she didn’t return, Rose Chatham told the police she knocked on the door. Getting no response, Rose opened the door. The tiny room was empty. Behati was gone.
“Flushed herself down the toilet?” Marisol suggested.
“She’s slender, but she’s not that slender,” I said.
“Could she have been hiding somewhere?”
“The police searched the plane. There was nowhere to hide.”
“Jumped, then,” Marisol said.
“There was only one door. Everyone would have seen her if she jumped.”
“Maybe she did it when they weren’t looking.”
“If the door opened while the plane was in flight, there would have been a gust of wind. The pilot surely would have noticed. The door was only a few feet from where he sat.”
Marisol was quiet, mulling it over. Finally, she said, “I don’t see how she could have disappeared from the plane.”
“She didn’t; she never got on.”
“But the mechanic saw her.”
“He saw Rose Chatham. She wore a blonde wig and a dress belonging to her employer. She got on the plane, changed clothes, and got off as herself when he wasn’t looking, pretending to be arriving late.”
“Then where’s Behati Gamal?”
“Dead,” I said shortly. “She fought with Rose the night before. It wasn’t the first time, from what the gossip columns say. Rose killed her, then she got the bodyguard to help get rid of the corpse. Behati’s house in Kent has a large garden. There are pictures of it online. They should start looking for her there.”
A day later, I had another phone call. I was sleeping at the time. Marisol took a message.
“It was Betty Butterberg again. She said you were right. She said she’s giving you an MBE. What’s that?”
“It’s an honour, and it’s high time I got one,” I said.
About the author:
Jill Hand is a member of International Thriller Writers. She is the author of the Southern Gothic novels, White Oaks and Black Willows.