Authors: Marty Wingate
The Rhyme of the Magpie
is a work of fiction. Names, places, and incidents either are the products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
An Alibi eBook Original
Copyright Â© 2015 by Marty Wingate
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Alibi, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.
is a registered trademark and the
colophon is a trademark of Penguin Random House LLC.
Cover design: Scott Biel
Cover image: Diana Jarvis/Dorling
One for sorrow, two for joy;
Three for a girl, four for a boy;
Five for silver, six for gold;
Seven for a secret, never to be told;
Eight for a wish, nine for a kiss;
Ten for a bird that's best to miss.
Four magpies in their black-and-white court jester outfits strutted about on the pavement when I stepped out of my cottage. I gave the door a sharp tug to make sure it latched and looked down the empty high street toward the green. The birds had the place to themselvesâthe village was mostly deserted midmorning on a weekday, as the majority of residents commuted into London. I turned right for the short walk to work, and the birds lumbered off into the road when I passed, hopping and skipping a few times before they took flight. One looked over his shoulder and locked a beady black eye on me as he lifted off.
FourâI must ring Bianca later today and give her a scare. I had spotted four magpies the last time my sister had discovered herself pregnant. Little Emmet had recently turned two. Dad had observed three birds when Bee was pregnant with Enid, and Mum the time before that, predicting the sex of my niece Emelia, now ten. I had told my sister that the magpies were an early warning system, and she told me to shut it. But in a nice way. We loved each other, my sister and I. I also loved her husband, Paul, and all threeâwith perhaps the fourth on the wayâof Bee's dear, sweet children. I particularly loved the fact that they lived at the other end of England.
A cold gust of wind caught me from behind, sending my hair into my face. The first of May in Suffolkâa somewhat dodgy experience. I turned up the collar of my coat and tucked my hair behind my ears. I still wasn't used to this shorter cutâthose twelve inches of hair had been good insulation against a cold neck. Even so, you won't hear me say a word against a chin-length bob and uneven bangs that hang down too far into my eyes. This flapping hair was part of the New Me, only three months old, and I would wear it proudly.
I cut across the high street, wishing that it had been necessary to sidestep a busload of tourists. It was my life's workâmy new life. Lure tourists into Smeaton-under-Lyme, where they would be enchanted with the picturesque village and its tales of ancient Romans and pillaging Vikings, and where they could spend a few pounds in the shops and pubs. The Earl
employer and owner of not just the village and my Pipit Cottage, but also the parkland, farms, managed woodlands, holiday cottages, and various historic sites around the estateâcounted on me to make it happen.
As I arrived at the door of the tourist center, my second-in-command stepped out. “There you are, Julia,” she said. “I'm just off for fresh milk.”
I looked down at the time on my phone. “But, Vesta, it's only two minutes till ten o'clock. Lord Fotheringill is never late. He'll wonder where you are.”
Vesta Widdersham squinted against the glare of the gray skies and clipped sunglasses onto her pearly cat-eye frames. “He takes no notice of me. I'll just dash up to the shop. I'll get us a packet of biscuits, tooâwe're low. What do you thinkâbourbon creams?”
“Malted milk?” I asked without any hope of getting them.
Tilting her head to the side, she looked at me out of the corner of her glasses and gave me half a smile. “Too ordinary.” Vesta saw a connection between biscuits and courting that I didn't see, and, as the Earl Fotheringill was divorced, Vesta thought I should be interested. I was getting the distinct and slightly unpleasant feeling that the earl thought along the same lines.
“We're not here to put on a show,” I said.
“You've got to give them what they want,” she said with a sly look.
“Biscuits,” she said. She ran a hand through her short hair that was a shade she called “champagne.” Vesta, a retired home health care nurse, had about as much experience in the tourism industry as I did, but she played an important role at these meetings with Lord
was a buffer.
“You'll hurry, won't you?” I asked.
“Someone rang just now and asked for you,” she said, cinching her pink raincoat up around her thin frame. “He didn't leave a name or a message, but he did sound familiar.” She looked at me with fake innocence and a perplexed frown.
I felt a dull ache start up in my chest as I sensed my old life as a foxhound and me up a tree. “You'd better get the milk.”
Vesta answered with a tiny backward wave as she walked away. I stood on the pavement for a moment and viewed our shop-front window as a visitor might. Gold-leaf lettering read “Tourist Information Center” and the small space was cut almost in half by a counter. In front of the counter were racks of leaflets touting the many attractions around the estate. A poster of the abbey ruins hung on the wall, and the counter was awash in promises: “Buy fresh local produce at the Smeaton-under-Lyme farmers' marketâopening in June” and “Celebrate Summer Solstice in Suffolk.” In back of the counter was our work area, which comprised a small table, a computer, a kettle, a fridge barely big enough for a carton of milk, and a loo.
I turned the door sign to “Open” and slipped behind the counter to hang up my coat, smoothing my skirt in the process and patting the embroidered Fotheringill family crest on my cardigan. I pinned on my nametag and checked the mirror to make sure it was straight. “Julia Lanchester,” it read, although backward to me, “Tourist Information Manager.”
Full-time manager, and then some. I worked six days a week, which sounded rather Dickensian, but it was necessary, at least here at the beginning, in order to build the village and the entire Fotheringill estate into a destination spot.
Angling my head under the light, I looked for the telltale gray hairs amid the dark blond that Rosy at The Hair Strand swore she saw. “We could do a lovely highlight,” she had said as my long locks had fallen to the floor, “take years off you.” I had told her I didn't need any years taken off, thank you very much. She had smiled. “Good on you, Julia. No need to hide our age when we turn forty.” Thirty-seven, I had corrected her.
“Welcome to Smeaton-under-Lyme,” I rehearsed to my mirror image. “Our little corner of Suffolk has so much to offer. Would you like a map of the fifth-century Saxon trail?” I might as well say it to myself, as I'd had few real live tourists to say it to.
The earl looked at this new tourist information centerâthe TIC, as we referred to itâas a way of increasing income for the estate, which he hoped to run along the lines of Chatsworth in Derbyshire. He thought it likely there would be another remake of
Pride and Prejudice
anytime nowâor, at the very least,
âand we should be selected for location shots.
The bell tinkled above the door, signaling that it was showtime.
“Lord Fotheringill, good morning,” I said.
His Lordship rested his bicycle against the wall and took off his helmet and trouser clip. “Now, Julia, pleaseâit's Linus.” He wagged a finger at me and smiled as he took a handful of poeticus daffodils from his bike basket. “They're just starting to bloom along the driveâThorne cut them for me to bring to you. And Ms. Widdersham.”
“How lovely, Linus,” I said, taking the flowers and picturing Thorne, his Lordship's ancient butler, sent out on such a dangerous solo mission. I busied myself with filling a vase while Linus straightened his bow tie and stood examining a map on the wall that showed the extent of his estate.
Lord Fotheringill wore impeccable tweeds and had a neatly trimmed mustache and black hair with a touch of gray at the temples, although some weeks that gray was more noticeable than others. Even without my heels, I towered over him. He really was a dear, but the man was sixty if he was a dayâmore uncle material than suitor.
Tread carefully, Julia.
“I'll just switch the kettle onâVesta's gone for milk. We've come up with some smashing ideas to attract visitors.”
I breathed a sigh of relief when Vesta really did show up just before the kettle switched off. She often lingered at the shop, chatting up its owner, a widower named Akash Kumar, in one of the slowest courtships the planet has ever seen. I told Vesta she should just ask him over to dinner, but she said I didn't understand how best to go about these things. And we both knew she was right.
We sat round the small table in the back part of the TIC, finished with business and well into our tea. “Bourbon creams, my favorite,” Linus said, taking another biscuit off the plate.
“Julia insisted,” Vesta said, lying through her teeth. I shot her a look.
“Well, now.” Lord Fotheringill's way of beginning a new topic. “Rupert Lanchester. He certainly has ruffled a few feathers with this latest interview.” Linus chuckled, and Vesta joined in at the joke that was so old there were hardly any feathers left on it.
I smiled, but said nothing as my heart sank. Linus never seemed to notice my lack of enthusiasm when he mentioned my father, host of the popular BBC Two nature television show
A Bird in the Hand
. Linus was a huge fan of my dad's, and although I'm not saying that Rupert was the reason Linus hired me to manage the estate's tourist center, I'm not ruling out the possibility.
I suspected that Vesta suspected there was a story to be told, but I'd never offered more than a few sketchy details: I no longer worked as Rupert's personal assistant or associate producer on the BBC show. I sought a new direction for my life, had settled on the tourist industry, and was delighted to be in Smeaton-under-Lyme. I breathed not a word about the recent upheaval in my personal life.
My mother had died unexpectedly late last summer. Dad and I at home in Cambridge, and Bianca down in Cornwall, sought ways to cope with the shock. My grief was deep, like a sharp pain cutting straight through meâand it didn't help any of us that we'd had barely a word from my mum's relatives. She was from California, but her family had cut all ties with her when she married my dad, and they continued to apply that ban to the rest of us after she was gone.
Goneâand not six months after she died, my dad remarried. Just the thought of his betrayal of Mum's memory was like a punch to my middle, and even now, sitting at the table with Vesta and Linus, I struggled to breathe. But I would not let them see, because one slip would lead to another and I could not let my hysterical reaction to Dad's marriage and my subsequent flight from Cambridge seep into my bright new life. Some things are best left to fester in the dark.
By the shrewd looks she gave me, I knew Vesta could tell that a sea of stories churned under the thin explanation I'd given her. She didn't pry, but she would poke me with a stick occasionally, hoping to loosen up a few details.
“Did you see it, Julia?” Vesta asked, stick in hand at that moment. “On the news last night, they asked him what he thought about the plan for the wind farm going in somewhere in Norfolk.”
Near Weeting Heath, close to the Suffolk border.
“Rupert said it would wreak havoc on the birds,” Vesta said.
The meadow was an important breeding ground for stone curlews, and the wind farm could disrupt an entire population's life cycle.
“Rupert said the company is a bunch of thugs,” Vesta added.
“Power to the Peopleâthat's the name of the firm,” I said, “and they are most certainly thugs.” It slipped out before I could stop itâit was my intention to appear as disinterested in my old life as possible, but the subject made my blood heat up. “Rupert was pointing out that it's a protected site,” I continued, “and yet the company is trying to push through approval for their project without taking into account the environmental impact.”
But with my defense of Rupert came a crash of emotions that disoriented meâa flush of pride in my dad for standing up to them, followed hot on its heels by the anger that never went away, followed by my eyes filling with tears.
Get hold of yourself, Julia.
If I didn't, one of these days I would simply explode.
I shook my head and said, “I didn't see the news.”
Vesta was relentless. “Later, they ran a repeat of one of his shows. It was from three years ago, but still such a delight. Rupert showed a group of schoolchildren how to build nest boxes for wrens, and he taught them a song about caterpillars. Do you remember that episode, Julia?”
Of course I remembered that episodeâI'd scheduled it. Twenty-five second-graders from a poor school in Newham had gone out to Marshy End. Few of them could speak English, many had never been to the countryside, and all of them went wild. They ran riot over their
off stems of yellow flag iris and chasing one another round, jumping up and down on clumps of sedges near the pond. I certainly hadn't been any help. It was a nightmare, until Rupert began a silly song that involved flapping his arms like a bird. One by one the children followed him, and soon they were acting out the life of a blackcap. They had ended their afternoon in quiet reverence, a congregation of seven-year-olds watching a pied wagtail bob its tail up and down before flying to the nest to feed its young. He was that good.
But the distance I put between myself and my old life could not be bridged. “No,” I said to Vesta and Linus, “I don't remember that one. I was probably getting the tea.”
Vesta busied herself in the back so that I would need to see Lord Fotheringill out on my own. He stood near a rack of leaflets, fiddling with a copy of the Suffolk Walking Festival schedule. I had arranged a walk round the parkland at Hoggin Hall, and it had been accepted as one of the official outingsâmy first big score as TIC manager, and I was quite proud. Linus smiled and leaned toward me. I leaned away and shifted slightly, putting the counter between us.