___It seemed like just another ordinary day. My partner, Jeff Randall, and I were at the office. Business had been pretty slow, so we were just passing time. I was trying to read, and Jeff was trying to hold a conversation with me. I don't suppose I could really blame him. Tiny minds get bored quickly. Marty smirked to himself before continuing. Suddenly, the phone rang. We were both a bit over-eager, I suppose, and made a dash for the thing. I pushed Jeff out of the way and answered it. It took all Hopkirk's self-control to keep himself from laughing aloud and arousing his partner's suspicions.
___"Hello? Randall and Hopkirk... Hopkirk speaking."
___"Could I make an appointment?" A nervous-sounding male voice asked at the other end. "I need help to find a missing person - Mrs. Mary Burnt. My mother."
___I was scribbling furiously in my notebook while my mind raced. I hadn't been a detective for very long, but I was learning fast. "Right... uh... And what would your name be?"
___"Mr. Burnt... Mr. Jim Burnt."
___I suppose it was obvious that his name would be the same as his mother's, but a good detective never makes assumptions, and I had to make a note of my client's name. I got his address, and made an appointment to see him at 11.30.
___When I arrived at the house, I was greeted by a middle-aged man. "Can I help you?"
___"I hope so," I replied, pulling a business card from my inside pocket. "I'm Mr. Hopkirk. Mr. Burnt is expecting me."
___"I shall inform the man of the house that you are here, Mr. Hopkirk. You are somewhat early."
___While I'm on the subject, I'll inform you that I'm always early, if I can help it. I don't like to keep clients waiting - that's Jeff Randall's job.
___"Ah, Mr. Hopkirk," Mr. Burnt was younger than his butler, with light brown/red hair and bright blue eyes. He led me into his study, so that we could talk in private. "Can I get you a drink?"
___"Uh... yes. I'll just have a mineral water, please. I never drink when I'm working."
___Mr. Burnt raised an eyebrow at me and sent the butler off to fetch our drinks.
___"You said on the phone that you wanted us to find your missing mother..."
___"That's right. She disappeared about a week ago."
___"Disappeared? As in without a trace?" Of course I didn't think he meant that. That's ridiculous! He was obviously exaggerating, and I wasn't about to write THAT in my notebook.
___"She walked out of here early one morning, and hasn't been seen since."
___"When was this, exactly?"
___I nodded and made a note. "Have you been to the police?"
___"They were very unhelpful. Said that my mother probably hasn't been seen because she didn't want to be. What kind of an answer to an investigation is that?"
___I had to admit, he had a point. The police can be very tiresome, at times.
___When I returned to the office, I gave my partner the information I'd gathered. It might have been my case, but two heads are better than one. In any case, Jeff was still bored.
___My partner was his usual, helpful self. "Why didn't you ask more questions?"
___"Like what, Jeff? I didn't know where to start! From what the son told me, the police asked lots of questions and got nowhere."
___"So you allowed that to put you off. Ha! And you call yourself a detective!"
___He had a point, but I wasn't about to take that from him. After all, we were both new to all this, and I'm sure he wouldn't have handled it much better. "Alright then, if you're so clever... What would you do?"
___"I'd go back to the house, and start asking questions, Marty. Be sure not to leave anyone out - family, friends, hired help, neighbours - any one of them might turn up something important."
___He was right, of course. I told him that I intended to do that anyway, and had only returned to the office to collect my thoughts and put my notes into some kind of order. Jeff rolled his eyes and went to lunch.
___When I returned to the house, I found Mr. Burnt yelling at one of his staff members. Rather than intruding upon his tirade, I leant on the bonet of my car and eavesdropped. I learnt that the man he was 'talking' to was his head gardener, and he wasn't best pleased with the condition of his roses.
___"What ever have you used as fertalizer, anyway? It smells terrible around that back border, and it hasn't helped the blooms in the slightest! I want something done about it - immediately. Is that clear?"
___I waited until the gardener was gone, before presenting myself.
___"Ah, you're back then, Hopkirk. What have you found out?"
___"Well, it's early days. I've been making inquiries, though." Alright, alright, so that's not true. What was I supposed to say?
___"Good man. Feel free to wander the house and grounds as you wish. I don't care what it takes, as long as you find my mother. It isn't like her to go off like this, whatever the police may think."
___"I know. You told me that earlier, Mr. Burnt. Don't worry, I've not failed yet."
___Jeff had been reading over Marty's shoulder again. He shook his head in disapproval. "Marty..."
___"What? You can't say that I was lying!"
___"Marty, you hadn't failed to find a missing person before because you'd never had to find one before!"
___"And I should have told him that, should I? Oh, yes! THAT would have made him feel VERY confident and reassured!" Hopkirk rolled his eyes with annoyance.
___"What had you found out, anyway?"
___"Give me a chance! I'd only just returned to the house, remember?"
___"So what happened?"
___"Stop asking stupid questions! I'm TRYING to remember. Anyway, I need to concentrate in order to use the typewriter."
___Jeff sighed and returned to his desk. "I'll read it when you're finished."
___Marty secretly hoped that he wouldn't. "Well, anyway..." he mumbled to himself, before continuing his work.
___I wandered the grounds a while. The gardens were spacious and beautiful, and I spent a few moments just enjoying a bit of peace. I noticed the head gardener talking with a maid. His body language seemed friendly enough, though I couldn't tell what was said. As I moved closer, she suddenly burst into tears and ran off inside. I shrugged. The gardener had obviously not been as friendly as I'd thought... that or perhaps he'd been a bit too friendly... In any case, standing around speculating wasn't going to do me a lot of good. It was time to ask some more questions.
___I went to the head gardener and struck up a conversation with him. I commented on the garden, first and foremost. After all, you won't get a lot of co-operation by going up to a stranger and saying "I'm a detective, and I want some information". A little patience, coupled with good manners, can make a great deal of difference.
___I learnt that the head gardener's name was Bertie Sylvester, and that he managed the gardens with three assistants. I was tempted to ask about the maid, but decided that perhaps it was best to pretend that I hadn't noticed her.
___"Do you know Mrs. Burnt very well, Mr. Sylvester?" I asked.
___"Not personally. I only work for her, young man."
___I hate being called 'young man'. Alright, he looked as if he was getting on a bit, but I'm sure he wouldn't have liked it very much if I'd called him 'old man'. Anyway, I didn't say anything. Instead, I asked him if he'd worked at the house for very long. He'd been there for the last thirty-four years. He quite liked the family that he worked for, but he liked to keep out of their businsess, and couldn't tell me much about them. I was happy to go along with that, though I was well aware that that was a very easy way out of answering awkward questions.
___Mr. Sylvester seemed to quite enjoy talking with me, as it happened. He might not have had a lot of information to offer me, but it seemed I had plenty to offer him. He soon had me acting as assistant number four, helping to carry things for him. I wouldn't have bothered, but this man intrigued me. His manner struck me as funny - especially when he started work in the back border. As soon as we got there, I noticed the smell that Mr. Burnt had mentioned - it made my stomach turn.
___"Ugh! Whatever is that smell?!"
___"Fertalizer, young man. I'm trying a new sort." He didn't seem very happy about my mentioning it, but after the way that Mr. Burnt had laid into him earlier, I don't suppose that was very surprising. I decided that if I wanted to know more, I should speak to one of the assistants.
___Eventually, I managed to speak with most of the household's 'hired hands'. I couldn't get very much sense out of the maid I'd seen earlier, though. She seemed like quite an emotional sort. She'd be alright one moment, and crying her head off the next, without a warning. I decided to leave her alone.
___Anyway, aside from her, most of the staff members were pretty helpful. I learnt a lot about the Burnt family. Mrs. Mary Burnt had been married for over fifty years, but her husband had died seven years ago, leaving her a very wealthy lady. She had two children - Jim, my client, and Cynthia, who had moved away to Winchester. I decided to try contacting her before the day was over, and find out whether she might have heard from her mother. For all we knew, Mrs. Burnt might have decided to go and stay with her daughter.
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