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Authors: Caroline Graham

Death in Disguise

BOOK: Death in Disguise
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DEATH IN DISGUISE

Caroline Graham

F
ELONY
& M
AYHEM
P
RESS
• N
EW
Y
ORK

Contents

Prologue

Two Deaths

Some Interviews

A Life with True Intent

Through the Magic Lantern

Epilogue

That monks can save the world, or ever could,
That anchorites and fakirs do you good,
Is to bring Buddha back before your gaze.
Men do not eat the lotus in our days.

Juvenal,
Satire 3
(trans. Thorold-Roper)

Death in Disguise

Prologue

N
o one in the village of Compton Dando was surprised to hear of the murder up at the Manor House. They were a funny lot up there. A most peculiar lot. Weird.

Mr and Mrs Bulstrode were almost the only locals to have a thread of contact with the spiritual community (so called) in the big house. She pushed the parish magazine determinedly through the letter box once a month. He delivered a single daily pint of milk. The tenuousness of this connection in no way undermined the couple's standing as a source of much juicily informative gossip. Now, of course, they were in even more demand and Mrs Bulstrode found herself facing a full house every time she put foot to pavement outside her front door.

Demurring at first: ‘I know no more than I did yesterday Mrs Oxtoby…', the temptation to embroider and expand proved irresistible. And by the evening of the third day if the inhabitants of ‘The Lodge of the Golden Windhorse' had come sailing over their crinkle-crankle wall on broomsticks, the village would have been unastonished if not exactly sanguine.

In the butcher's, buying her lamb's liver and a bone for Ponting, Mrs Bulstrode shook her head in reluctant and judicious revelation. She had seen it coming she told Major Palfrey (two kidneys and a packet of dripping) in a voice that carried. The goings-on at that place you would simply not believe. The queue, more than willing to take up the challenge, followed her to the Post Office.

There Miss Tombs, cushiony cheeks practically taking an impression from the wire grill, passed over Mrs Bulstrode's stamps with a stage whisper: ‘You won't be getting over this in a hurry, dear. Your Derek finding a body. Not something you come across every day of the week.'

‘Ohhh…' Overcome, Mrs Bulstrode (whose husband had not even seen the body), clutched at the counter's edge. ‘It's all rushing back, Myrtle—'

‘Devil take my tongue!' called Miss Tombs and watched her customers disappear, clustering like nebulae around their guiding star.

In Bob's Emporium Mrs Bulstrode said that just the way they dressed was enough. Her audience seemed to think this a mite parsimonious. They hung on for a sec then started to drift towards pyramids of Happy Shopper cat food and bags of carrots.

‘Can't tell if they're male or female half the time.' Then, gussying things up a bit, ‘What my Derek's seen through the windows some mornings… Well—I wouldn't divulge in mixed company.'

‘You mean…' a woman in a headscarf with a snout like a porbeagle breathed heavily ‘…
sacrifices?
'

‘Let's just say “ceremonies” shall we, Miss Oughtred? Best leave it there.'

Ceremonies! People regathered, quick and solemn. Their minds swarmed with melodramatic images, horrific and banal. Graves yawned, allowing the undead easy access to careless passers-by. Horned Lucifer, yellow-eyed and sulphurous, clattered his hooves at the pentagon's rim. Burning sand and a girl, once beautiful as a Mameluke, staked-out to be eaten alive by marching ants. (Major Palfrey had served with the Desert Rats.)

Next stop was the Crinoline Tea Rooms for half a dozen homemade Viennese fingers. While the assistant silver-tong'd these into a bag, Mrs Bulstrode looked around in the hope of further increasing her audience ratings.

But she was out of luck. Only two people were present tucking into coffee and cakes. Ann Cosins and her friend from Causton, Mrs Barnaby. There was no point at all in trying to talk to them. Ann had a most dry and unimpressed way with her—almost as if she were laughing up her sleeve—that made her quite unpopular. Also she had let the whole village down on one occasion by actually going to the Manor House on a course. The two of them had been seen walking up the drive bold as brass one Friday afternoon, not emerging til the Sunday. To add insult to injury, Ann had then refused to be drawn as to what the place and people were really like.

So Mrs Bulstrode contented herself with a cool inclination of the head and a sniff of acknowledgement, grandly ignoring the gurgling snorts upon which she closed the door. Finally, on the way home, she paused to exchange a few words with the vicar who was leaning over the gate of ‘Benisons' smoking his pipe. He greeted her with a look of deep satisfaction, for The Lodge had long been a thorn in the ecclesiastical side. Uncertainty as to its precise ethos had proved no hindrance when it came to firing off a series of mildly hysterical salvos at the letters page of the
Causton Echo
—warning readers against the new idolatrous theology now nestling in the wholesome English countryside, like a maggot in the heart of a rose.

Any religion (wrote the vicar) invented by man as opposed to that plainly emanating directly from the Almighty could surely come to no good end. And so it had proved to be. God, after all, was seen to be not mocked and the Reverend Phipps plus his minuscule congregation had gathered to celebrate the fact with a renewed sense of righteousness and not a little surprise. Now he raised a greying compassionate brow and asked if there were any fresh developments.

Mrs Bulstrode, flattered at the implication that Derek and the CID were as two peas in the same pod, could not bring herself to tell even the whitest of lies to a man of the cloth. She had to admit there were none, adding: ‘But the inquest's Tuesday, Vicar. Eleven o'clock.'

He knew that of course. Everyone knew and they were all going, some even taking time off work to do so. Hopes were high that the hearing might last all day and every table in Causton's Soft Shoe Café had long since been booked for lunch. Compton Dando had not seen such excitement since three boys from the Council Estate burned down the bus shelter and it was confidently supposed that the incendiary quotient in this later drama would be immeasurably higher.

The scene of these dramatic goings-on was a modestly beautiful example of early Elizabethan architecture. Two storeys high, it was built of grey stone horizontally banded with flint and smooth pebbles and was charmingly unsymmetrical. There were Ionic columns at the slightly offcentre doorway, a little porch and forty-six light mullioned windows. The chimneys were huddled together in three separate clumps, some twisted like barley sugar, others appliquéd with vine leaves and convolvulus. Many had star-shaped openings emitting, during the cold winter months, star-shaped puffs of smoke. A huge lump of metal thought to be a meteorite or, less romantically, part of a cannon ball lay near the edge of the roof which had rose-red, moss-encrusted tiles.

The building was the gift of Elizabeth the First to an exiled favourite, Gervaise Huyton-Corbett. The queen and her entourage were frequent visitors during the first five years of his occupancy and this crippling honour brought him, and several near neighbours obliged to absorb the overspill, near to bankruptcy. The descendants of Sir Gervaise (as he was graciously dubbed once brought to his knees by penury) had lived at Compton Manor for the next four centuries but the family coffers never really recovered. Each year the house cost far more to maintain than it had originally cost to build but, so great was their love of the place, the Huyton-Corbetts struggled on—borrowing beyond their means and unable to bear the thought of parting with the family home. Then, in 1939, Ashley joined the Fleet Air Arm. The scion of the house, he was killed at the Battle of the River Plate. In old age and having no immediate heir, his father sold the property and the village suffered the first of what was to be a long line of cultural shocks and setbacks.

No longer was it possible on the day of the village fête to swarm all over the Manor gardens and be entertained by the sight of Lady Huyton-Corbett, gently drunk in georgette and a shady picture hat, bowling for (and frequently hitting) the pig. No longer did the squire present a silver cup for the finest sweet peas, with rosettes for the runners-up.

In 1980 the property was sold again and the house was transformed into a conference centre. The villagers' deep distrust of change and resentment of newcomers was much consoled by the creation of over thirty jobs, albeit of a rather menial nature. Five years later, muddled and inefficient management having forced the property once more on the market, one of Mrs Thatcher's designer gladiators took it on. He also purchased a thousand acres of adjacent farmland with the (concealed) intention of creating a Tudor theme park. Horrified Dandonians of every rank and political persuasion joined forces against this vile despoliation of England's green and pleasant. Neighbouring villages, imagining the hooting traffic jams outside their own front doors if not actually in their own back yards, rallied in support and, after petitions had been handed in and a banner dramatically unfurled in the public gallery of the House of Commons, planning permission was refused and the entrepreneur went off in a huff to attempt malfeasance elsewhere.

Relieved though the locals were to see the back of him, they had at least understood, if not appreciated, his simple profit-making rationale. The present situation was quite beyond their comprehension. For a start the newcomers kept themselves strictly to themselves. The village, sturdily resentful at the slightest hint of seigneurial familiarity from a succession of visiting parvenus, was doubly resentful when no such hint was seen to be forthcoming. It was not used to being ignored. Even the half dozen or so weekenders who drove down from London at the first sign of a clement Friday, Golf GTI boots crammed with bottles of wine and stone-ground pasta, made hopeful attempts at integration in the saloon bar of The Swan—receiving by way of return many a falsely jocular put-down.

But the second black mark against the Windhorse contingent was much more serious.
They did not spend
. Not once had a resident entered Bob's Emporium or even the Post Office (‘Use It Or Lose It'), let alone their friendly neighbourhood local. This had been grudgingly accepted when the community, tilling and hoeing its three acres, was thought to be self-sufficient but when one of them was spotted getting off the bus with two Sainsbury's carrier bags, umbrage was well and truly taken. And so it was with a quite justified sense of grievance as well as happy anticipation that a large crowd trooped into the Coroner's Court to see the drama unfold and justice done.

The dead man, fifty-three at the time of his demise, was named as James Carter. The proceedings opened with written evidence from an ambulance attendant who had arrived at the Manor House following an emergency telephone call to find the body of Mr Carter lying at the foot of a flight of stairs.

‘I carried out a brief examination of the deceased,' read out the clerk, ‘and contacted my control who sent out a doctor and informed the police.'

Doctor Lessiter gave evidence next. He was a pompous little man who refused to use one word where five could be conjured and his audience soon got bored and turned their attention to members of the commune.

These were eight in number and something of a disappointment. Primed by Mrs Bulstrode, the courtroom was expecting a rare exotic species piquantly marked to distinguish it from the common herd. True, one girl had floaty muslin trousers and a reddish dot on her forehead, but you could see that sort of thing any day of the week in Slough or Uxbridge. Rather peeved, they all tuned back into the doctor's gist just in time to hear the satisfying words ‘strong smell of brandy'.

The constable who followed confirmed that he had questioned the ambulance man as to his opinion on the possibility of foul play of which he himself had seen no outward sign. Then the first witness from the Windhorse took the stand. A tall, wide woman clothed in a brilliantly coloured Liberty silk two-piece and presenting a splendid figure. Agreeing that she was indeed Miss May Cuttle, she recounted her movements on the day in question in greater detail than was strictly necessary. All this in ringing confident vowels that would not have disgraced the chair of the local WI.

BOOK: Death in Disguise
8.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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