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Authors: Marty Wingate

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Chapter 34

A low groan and a flutter of eyelashes.

“Gavin!” I shouted, prodding him with my knee. “Are you all right?”

Another moan, followed by a curse. He opened his eyes and squinted up at me.

“Julia?” he whispered hoarsely. “What are you kicking me for?”

I laughed with relief. “You're alive—that's good, that's very good. What are you doing here?”

Gavin didn't reply, but slowly pushed himself to a sitting position using his left hand, while his right hand he held close to his chest.

“What happened?” I asked, nodding to it.

“I missed Spore and got the wall instead,” he said, taking a moment to examine his knuckles, bloodied and bruised. He stretched his fingers and then shook his hand. He studied our surroundings. “Smells like pigs,” he said.

“Yes, pigs,” I said. I leaned back against the wall, relieved I wasn't sharing space with Gavin's dead body. “He's thrown us in a pig hut in the field. I was about to figure out he'd killed Kersey. And you're here because of the Sardinian warbler?”

Gavin seemed to search for the words before replying. “He was afraid I'd talk it up that one might be coming to Rosemere.” Gavin wiped his cheek, and some of the dried blood flaked off while the rest stayed in his stubble. He gingerly touched the back of his head and winced. “It could do, and I wouldn't keep quiet about it if I saw one. What's a life list if it isn't true?”

“You mean all those birds on your list—you've really seen every one?”

“Of course I have,” Gavin said loudly, and blanched. “Did you think I was lying?”

“No,” I said quickly, shaking my head, “of course not. So you wouldn't lie for Val.”

“I was out at the fen here this morning when he rang and wanted to talk. I went up to the pub and we went round about it again. He tried paying me off—and didn't offer much of a bribe for all that.”

“He wanted Carl the Case to kidnap you, but he got Rupert by mistake.”

Gavin squinted at me. “I don't know who this Carl is, but he needs new specs if he thought Rupert was me. Is Rupert all right?”

“Yeah,” I said. “They let him go.”

“Spore's desperate. The Cairn isn't doing too well, and he thinks this hotel idea will save him. But he'll never get permission to build—Rosemere is too important a site. It isn't only the wind farms that are the problem, you see, Julia. It's all the ill-conceived buildings splattered across the countryside. We can't let that continue—we're losing habitat too quickly as it is.”

He certainly kept to a clear message. I began to reconsider Gavin's desire to secure a spot on
A Bird in the Hand
—he might make a good spokesman after all.

“I told Spore if I saw a warbler I'd bloody well say so. He picked up an empty whisky bottle and said I wouldn't. That's when I threw the punch, but he ducked and darted behind me. He moves fast for a round little git. That's the last thing I remember. Until I woke up to you,” he said, managing a weak smile.

Brown smears and bits of long grass coated Gavin's jacket. “Looks as if he rolled you down the hill and out here.”

I put my ear to one of the slits and listened for the sound of a rescue. “My phone is out there,” I said. “They might find us—they might look for the satellite signal.” A dim hope, I knew. I wasn't missing—I had only stood Michael up for a date. That was hardly a reason to phone the police.

I crawled on my knees closer to him and turned my back. “Look, Gavin, could you untie me? All we need to do is break that door down and we'll be out. Surely we can run to the road before he sees us. I dropped my phone—we might see it on the way, and we can ring the police. Flint will be here in a flash, I'm sure of it.” I waited, but felt no attempt to free me. “There, Gavin, there—can you untie his knot?”

I glanced over my shoulder. Gavin was unconscious, head slumped to the side.

“Gavin!” I shouted, flipping over and kicking him with my knee. “Gavin, wake up!”

He came to. “Yeah, what?” he asked, looking up at me. “What did you say?”

“You cannot go to sleep,” I said firmly, “do you understand? You probably have a concussion, and you must stay awake so that we can escape. Right? Gavin?”

“Yeah, yeah, I'm on it,” he said. Pushing himself up, he began to work on the knot. “I'd say his pigs don't get out of one of these,” he said through teeth clenched round the rope.

It was a few minutes before he got me loose. At last, I collapsed on the floor, rubbing the feeling back into my arms. “Why didn't he tie you up?” I asked.

“Didn't need to, I suppose. Probably thought I was dead already.”

“Well, he was wrong. Now, look, we can't stand, but if we lie on our backs and kick at the door, we could break it down. Come on, get over here.” I crawled to the door, and heard a
behind me. Gavin had collapsed, face-first.

“Gavin!” I shrieked, and shook him for a few seconds before he revived.

“Sorry, Julia, I can't quite keep my eyes open.” He took a few deep breaths and said, “Right, let's do it.”

“No, let's sit for a few minutes. When you've recovered a bit more, then we'll try.” Gavin couldn't die on me—or sink into a coma. I didn't want to be alone. With two of us, we could do something.

We sat back against opposite walls, Gavin careful of his head, me careful of my foot. It had swelled so much that it looked like over-risen bread dough flowing out of the tops of my trainers. I wondered if I would have to have my shoe cut off me. I pressed on the toe lightly and frowned.

“Spore do that to you?” Gavin asked.

I shook my head with a rueful smile. “I was angry at Michael and took it out on my cottage door.” I saw Gavin's eyelids sink and thought I'd better keep him talking.

“I've never seen a Sardinian warbler.”

“Well, you wouldn't have, would you? I haven't, either,” Gavin replied, lifting his eyebrows and pulling up his eyelids on the way. “Quite rare—they cause a big stir when one appears.”

“What does it look like?”

“He's much like a blackcap, you know, except not in his song—that's a sort of rattling sound.” Gavin scratched his chin as he got a far-off look in his eyes. “Almost got one a couple of years ago—there was a report of a sighting near Lakenheath.” I saw a gleam in his dark eyes. “That's right, two years ago—I stopped at Marshy End on the way back, just to see if I might talk with Rupert. But it was only you there.”

This wasn't the topic of conversation I would've chosen, but, oh well. “I remember that.”

“I enjoyed that afternoon,” Gavin said, and I saw his smile.

Go on, Julia, confess.
“Yeah, it was nice.” I felt myself go red. “Really. I wasn't doing too well that day, and you…you know…helped me out of that.”

“You're quite a woman, Julia.”

“Oh God, Gavin, don't. Please.”

“I see the way that Sedgwick looks at you.”

My red face went a deeper shade. “What way?” I asked casually, as if not caring a whit.

“One minute, it's admiration like, and the next, it's something else.”

I laughed and tried not to be pleased. “Oh, I don't know about him. I just found out he's been lying to me.”

“Is he married?”

“No.” I shook my head. “Well, I don't think so, but at this point I'm not sure about anything.”

“Well, whatever he's been lying about, you should talk with him. Don't just ignore it.”

I exhaled with
there no escape from relationship advice? “You sound like my sister. What about you? Are you married now?”

Gavin shook his head. “No, that one didn't work out.” Which one was that, I wondered—two or three? “I've got a girlfriend, though. At Dungeness, down in Kent. Great place for bitterns.”

“She's a twitcher, your girl?”

“Nah, she works in a pub in the village.”

Good luck to her,
I thought, but smiled at Gavin. Just behind me outside the hut, I heard the snorts of a snuffling hog.

“What's he going to do with us?” I asked, not really wanting to hear an answer.

Gavin dropped his smile. He stared at the wall and, under his breath, said, “Went for a walk and the pigs ate him.”


“Went for a walk and the pigs ate him,” he repeated, with a tiny hysterical giggle. “Something my gran always said. It means disappeared, you know, just gone. Only now, maybe it's for real.”

“Gavin, that's disgusting,” I said, scooting away from the wall and the hog on the other side, my stomach heaving at the thought of the roast pork meals I'd eaten at the Cairn. “How can you even say it? Pigs don't eat people.”

He sat up. “Pigs eat what you give them to eat,” he said, his eyes wide and dark. “And what better way for Spore to get rid of us? No one would ever expect that, would they?”

He isn't thinking straight,
I told myself.
Must be that knock on the head.
“Well, it isn't going to happen, and so you can just put it out of your mind. I don't care what he did to Kersey.”

At Kersey's name, Gavin's face drained of all color. “I saw him,” he whispered.

“You saw Kersey,” I repeated. “You mean—dead?”

Gavin nodded and swallowed hard, as did I.

“Stopped by Marshy End that Sunday midday, looking for Rupert, but he wasn't there. Walked out to the river and…there he was. Got out of there quick, I can tell you.”

I didn't really need to be reminded of the scene. “Did you say that to the police?”

He shook his head rapidly. “I don't like talking with coppers, I told you that. It had nothing to do with me, and so I didn't think it would help if they knew that I knew.”

“You're supposed to tell the police everything,” I said, with a pang of guilt about withholding details of Dad and his notebook. Would it have helped if I had spoken up earlier?

“I rang them,” Gavin said. “From a phone box near Thetford so they wouldn't know it was me. Gave them the tip.”

Yes, Flint had come upon Michael and me just after we came upon Kersey's body. The sergeant had said they'd been phoned, that's how they knew.

“How do you feel?” I asked. “We need to try the door.”

The snorting faded, replaced by the sound of a rough engine approaching.

We stared at each other, listening. “Tractor?” Gavin whispered, as if we'd be overheard.

The noise grew until it sounded as if the tractor was just outside the hut.
“Help us!”
I shouted, and beat on the plywood wall. “We're stuck in here, help us!”

No reply, of course. It must be Val. We heard the clink of heavy chains and, after a moment, the revving of the tractor's engine. As the hut began to move with a jerk, Gavin and I rolled across the floor and up against the wall.

After a couple of minutes, we came to a standstill and heard the chains again, followed by the fading engine noise. We peered through the slits, but they were too narrow to make out any features of the world outside; we saw only bright sunshine on one side of the hut, shade on the other.

“Do you think he's gone?” I asked. “And where are we now?”

Gavin shrugged. “Far enough away from the pub that no one would hear us, I suppose. At the edge of the field?”

“Near the trees.” I thought hard about the times I'd looked across Val's pig farm. “Aren't there some outbuildings?”

“Yeah, maybe. Let's go and see.”

We lay on our backs, counted “one, two, three,” and kicked. It was then I recalled that I had only one good foot with which to kick—the pain shot up from my toe and seemed to burst out the top of my head. I screamed and rolled, holding my knee to my chest.

“Right, right,” Gavin said, up on one elbow. “We won't do that again.”

“We will do that again,” I said, gasping, “but I'll remember to use only the one leg.”

“What's he keeping the door closed with?” he asked.

“A board, almost square, sort of stuck in like a barricade. It had slots along the top.”

“Pig board,” Gavin said. “They use them to move the pigs round.” He noticed my raised eyebrows and shrugged. “My granddad had pigs—it was all he ever talked about.”

We got in position and started again. It took a while, and we rested between kicks. I could see the effort wasn't doing Gavin any good—he flinched and closed his eyes tightly after each kick, and his face was damp with sweat. At last, the pig board on the other side of the door came loose and the door flew open. We sat up, breathing hard, and saw trees and a gray stone barn.

I stuck my head out slowly, until I could see that we weren't in the line of sight from the pub. “We're in the back corner of the field near the wood,” I said. “The pub is up there”—I nodded off to our right—“and so the fen is on the other side of that barn.”

We crawled out and looked up toward the pub—no movement, so we dashed into the tree cover. I rested against a trunk for a moment while Gavin walked over to the wooden door of the barn, pulled it open, and peered inside. After a moment, he stepped back and turned to me, his face gone an unpleasant shade of green.

“Abattoir,” he whispered.

Chapter 35

Rays of sunshine cut through high, narrow windows on the stone walls in the barn, and dust motes danced in and out of the light. I walked in and over to a shallow trench in the stone floor that ran from the center of the room to a large sunken rectangle, like a huge sink. My eyes were drawn to the rope and pulley hanging above me. I saw a vision of a pig hanging there, but the vision of the pig was replaced by…

Gavin came up beside me and swayed. I caught him, but really we held each other up. “No, Gavin, he wouldn't do that—he'd be mad to try it.” My voice echoed lightly off the hard surfaces, as if we were standing in an empty church.

“He's a nutter, all right—and that means he could try anything. I'd say he snapped when he did that job on Kersey, and now, well, how different would this be for him?”

I shuddered. “Well, we're free, so it doesn't matter. But we need to get away before he comes back. He's opening the pub now, surely that'll keep him busy for a while. We need to get to a road without being seen from the Cairn.”

“There's a road on the other side of the fen—it's where I've left my car—but we'll have to work our way round to reach it.”

Behind us, the door of the barn slammed shut, and I heard a metal bar sink into place. We both ran over to it, pounding and calling out. I had a fleeting image of being shut in my lockup, but that was nothing, the mild antics of an envious academic. This was something else entirely.

Outside, I heard the squeal of a hog, and Val shouted, “Go on with you, now!” He banged on the door. “Good of you to go in there of your own accord. That's grand—you've saved me the trouble. And there's no way out unless you'd like to climb straight up those walls and fly through a window no wider than a swallow.” He chuckled. “Sit tight, I'll be ready in two ticks. And you can put your mind at ease, you won't feel any pain—I'm that good.”

Gavin and I eyed each other. “Quick, now,” he whispered. “Let's find something to use on him.”

I glanced round at the rest of the barn, counting the seconds until we would hear Val return, my heart pounding in my chest. I avoided looking at the rope and pulley—they were too far out of reach to be useful and too sinister to be reminded of. There were stalls along the left side, their dividers made of the same gray stone. On the back wall, stone steps gave access up to the loft that ran half the length of the room. Off to the right was a wide archway.

Val kept his slaughterhouse clean and empty; it smelled of dirt and hay, not death. Did he even kill his pigs here, I wondered, or was this just a remnant from a pig farm of the past? Still, he had shown his skill with a knife on Kersey, and he seemed quite willing to exhibit it again on us. Best to stay as far away as possible from that blade.

We found no makeshift weapons—no loose boards or stones or conveniently placed spades. I left Gavin in the big room, walking the perimeter, and I went through the archway.

It opened onto a bare room, with a thick wooden door to the right. The door stood open a few inches, and I approached slowly, unsure what sorts of things were to be found in an abandoned abattoir. I peeked round the door and into what must have been a storeroom, now empty, with the only light coming from one high, narrow window. No pile of bones, nothing to indicate what the barn had been used for.

I returned to the arched opening in time to see Val creeping in, heading away from me toward the stalls. He held the knife in his hand not to carve, but to stab. No Gavin in sight. I backed up silently into the room I'd just left, and then to the storeroom.

The door creaked when I pulled it open a few more inches; I froze for a second and then slipped inside. Because the door faced away from the arch, Val wouldn't be able to see me until he walked over and looked in. I stood in the middle of the space and waited.

“Is it hide-and-seek?” I heard Val call in a singsong voice from the other room. “No outs-in-free in this game, Julia. No flying away like one of your Sardinian warblers, Lecky. No escape.”

His voice grew closer.
Move, Julia.
I made my way over to the partly open door as silently as possible, and put my open hands up in front of me. I could feel my muscles like tight coils ready to spring. I heard his footsteps shuffle on the stone floor and the magnified sound of his labored breathing. I held my own breath. Wait. Wait.
With a burst, I shoved the door with all my might.
and a scream as the door ricocheted, flying back in my direction.

“Stuck!” Val squealed. “Ahh, I'm stuck!”

I had to push the door hard to get it open wide enough to squeeze through. Once out, I saw why. Val lay on his back up against it with the handle of his carving knife protruding from his thigh and blood soaking into his trousers.

He screamed as he waved his arms in the air, helpless as an upside-down turtle.
I can run,
I told myself,
run while he's distracted,
but when I stepped past him to get away, he brought his fist down hard on my bad foot. I collapsed on top of him, and in an instant he had a handful of my hair, holding it so tightly I thought it must be about to tear from my scalp. I forgot the pain in my foot.

He pulled the knife from his thigh as if it was nothing. My right arm was pinned between him and the wall, but I began beating him with the other, kicking at his legs with my one good foot and crying out in a choked voice. He jerked my head back further, exposing my throat, and he brought the knife up high above me.

From just beyond my line of sight, a shoe appeared, and I caught a fleeting glimpse of Michael sending a swift kick that made contact with Val's hand. Val shouted and let go of my hair as the knife sailed across the room. With both arms loose, I began beating him in earnest, but was interrupted when Michael grabbed Val by the collar of his jacket and threw him against the wall on the other side of the room.

All at once, the place was full of people. Flint ran in and put a hand out to stop Michael from going for Val again, but he didn't have to, because Michael came for me instead, wrapping me in his arms and sinking back to the floor along with me. Uniformed officers pounced on Val and he fought back, shouting something about how I stabbed him.

But all the chaos faded into background as Michael touched my hair, my face, my arms. “What did he do to you? Where are you hurt? They've called for an
be a doctor. Can you stand? They can bring in a stretcher. Julia?”

No, I didn't think I could stand. I couldn't stop trembling, and my arms and legs felt like jelly. All I wanted to do was to stay right there on that spot as long as Michael's arms were around me.

I looked down at my cardigan smeared with blood and understood part of Michael's alarm. “It's Val's blood,” I said, “not mine. He stabbed himself—I didn't do it. He's a butcher, he should know better than to walk around carrying a knife like that. You're supposed to point the blade
it could be dangerous. You could hurt yourself. He ran into the door, you see, when I pushed it open. I didn't have anything else to stop him with—so I suppose he stopped himself.” I had no control over my mouth, either, apparently, and continued in a shaky voice. “I suppose it's a good thing he wasn't careful, though, because…Oh, I'm fine, really, you know. No worse for wear. Apart from being dragged through a field and threatened with being turned into pig food.”

Michael took my face in both his hands and peered closely at me. His eyes were that incredible blue of twilight and held a magical power, banishing my hysteria and quieting my trembling nerves. “I'm glad you're here,” I whispered. He smiled, and his lips touched mine. I wished for more.

“Julia?” And there was Rupert.

“Dad.” I stretched a hand out to him. “Everything's fine. I'm all right.”

But he heard the catch in my voice, I know, and sank to his knees, put his hands on my shoulders, and said in a thick voice, “Look what's he's done to you.”

“No, he stuck himself with his own knife—it's his blood. Really, I'm not hurt.”

His face reddened. He stood up and made for Val, who was held down by three officers.

“My daughter!”
he shouted. Flint put a hand out to stop him, but Dad pushed him away and had to be pulled off the squealing Val by two uniforms. Rupert remained towering over Val, who cringed. “What kind of a man are you that you would try to hurt an innocent woman?”

“No harm done, though, eh, Rupert?” Val asked with a smile. “I'll see you in the pub again, won't I?”

Dad leaned over further and whispered loud enough for all to hear, “I'll see you in the dock, that's where I'll see you.”

Val attempted to scoot away from Rupert's looming presence and appeared grateful to be led away by the officers. Dad came back to me, bent down, and kissed my forehead.

“How did you all end up here?” I asked.

Flint walked over and sat on his heels next to me.

“It was Mr. Sedgwick and the birds,” Flint said.

I turned to Michael for an explanation.

“I woke up with initials in my head this morning,” Michael said, “RM—that was on the betting slip. Rosemere, I thought—it suddenly seemed so clear. It must be about a bird. And the WC—the Wheaten Cairn. And SW—the bird Spore had shouted about. Everything had to do with the pub, it seemed—or perhaps Spore's plans for the hotel. So I…did a bit of research this morning and discovered Spore's building application was on hold—pending an environmental assessment. I rang Rupert, and we talked to Flint.”

“We had tracked down Kersey's bookmaker, who told us about the wager over a bird,” Flint said. “We'd interviewed everyone at the pub, from Val Spore to the regulars. Spore said he'd been in the pub all that morning, but the regulars told us he'd gone missing for an hour or more.”

“I thought it might have been Lecky that had made the wager,” Michael said.

“Gavin? Gavin!” I sat up with a jolt. “Where is he?”

We all looked round the small room as if we'd dropped something from our pockets.

“Is Mr. Lecky here?” Flint asked, and held out his hand to two uniforms.

“Val knocked him over the head, and he was in the hut with me—we broke out together, and came in the barn. He may've passed out—I think he has a concussion.”

Flint nodded to his officers, and they went off.

“Why Gavin?” Rupert asked. “What was he doing here?”

“Gavin thought the Sardinian warbler might show up here at Rosemere. Val tried to get him to keep quiet about it, but Gavin refused. Val hired Carl to kidnap Gavin—to scare him into keeping quiet—but Carl thought you would be an even better prize.”

“Carl shouldn't think for himself,” Dad said. “But why were you up here, Jools? Weren't you meant to be—”

“My day off,” I cut in, watching two red spots grow on Michael's cheeks as my emotions played havoc with my voice. “I decided to go for a drive.”

“I phoned you this morning, too,” Michael said, “first thing, to tell you what I thought. But you didn't answer.” Yes, that morning I had taken only money to the shop, not my phone or my bag. “And so I thought I'd tell you when I saw you. I knocked at your cottage, but there was no answer. I rang, and you didn't pick up. And when I turned round, there was one bloody magpie strutting down the high street.” He frowned at me. “After all that talk of yours, what was I supposed to think? I rang the Hall.”

“You talked with Linus?” I groaned. Any hope of retaining my position faded. If he hadn't been happy about my summer supper idea, what would Lord Fotheringill think of his TIC manager involved in a murder?

“I didn't mention the bird, but told him there might be something wrong. He sent me to ask Vesta if she'd seen you, while he came into the village to make sure you weren't inside your cottage and hurt or something. Vesta took me to the shop to find out if you'd been in.” Michael wouldn't meet my eyes.

The shop—I could see how it happened. Michael had walked in, and Akash had probably commented that didn't Michael look just like Daniel's boss—perhaps he'd even shown Michael and Vesta the photo. They'd had a discussion about who Michael was, and Akash had probably said isn't that a coincidence, because earlier that morning he had shown me the photo of Miles Sedgwick, too.

“Michael rang the sergeant and me to say you might be missing,” Rupert said.

I picked up the story until I reached the moment when Val's knife hovered above my throat, when words failed me. Michael held on tighter.

Flint stood and shook out one leg at a time. “Our medical examiner had commented on what a fine job of carving was done on Mr. Kersey.”

“Why didn't you tell us that?” I asked Flint.

I could hear a firm note under his mild reply. “We didn't know you were looking into the matter, Ms. Lanchester. The police expect you to come to us with information, but we are not in the habit of going to you with all we learn.”

I shrugged. It didn't seem like a terribly efficient way to run an investigation.

“Well, if we hadn't meddled,” I pointed out—because really, wasn't that what he meant?—“then Gavin wouldn't be alive.”

One caterpillar eyebrow twitched. “I see your point. And I'm sure Mr. Lecky will realize he owes you his life.”

I shifted slightly—the stone floor wasn't the most comfortable seating, but I didn't mind putting up with it if I got some answers. “But here—how did you know to look down here in the hut and the barn?”

Flint nodded at Michael.

“I kept phoning your mobile—took that lesson from you, never give up,” Michael said, watching me as if there was another meaning to his statement. I listened with a polite but aloof look. “I got to the pub. The door was unlocked, but no one was about, so I stood out on the bank behind and tried your phone again. I heard it ringing from the grass, which was good—and bad. I could see in the field that one of the huts had been moved recently. I followed the track—saw the broken door—and I heard Spore in here. Rupert and the police were directly behind me.”

BOOK: The Rhyme of the Magpie
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