Authors: Marty Wingate
I looked into my tea. “That's my old numberâhe doesn't have my new one.” No one had it, except my sister, and apparently that bit of information she'd kept quiet.
“And the rhyme of the magpieâwhat does that mean?”
I stared at the screen, and then it came to me. “Did Dad talk with Bianca?”
Beryl shook her head. “Not since last weekend, I don't think.”
“Bee is pregnant,” I said.
Berylâwho had only an unmarried son living in Londonâbroke out in a smile. “That's wonderful news,” she said.
I felt tears sting my eyes at her happiness, wishing it could be my mum's. I turned to Michael. “Bianca is my sister,” I said, and explained the history of the rhyme. “If Dad hadn't talked with her, then he must've seen magpiesâfour for a boy. That's what this is about.”
“But still, it's odd, isn't it, Berylâthat Rupert would leave without telling you?” Michael asked.
“We're stillâ¦getting accustomed to each other's habits,” Beryl said. “I was out for most of the day, and he must've wanted to be on his way. I suppose it startled me when I realized he didn't have his car.”
We had reached the bottoms of our mugs. Beryl took a deep breath. “This is just what I needed,” she said with confidence, “to sit here with two sensible people who would make me see that everything is fine. Your reminder, Julia, of that time before when your father went off to
I know he does get wrapped up in his work. I'm sure he'll ring soon. Now, could I persuade you both to stay to dinner?”
At once, the walls started closing in on me, and I leapt out of my chair to escape. “I'm sorry, I can'tâI've borrowed a friend's car and I need to return it.”
“Of course,” Beryl said, with what sounded like equal parts disappointment and relief. “Michael, you needn't stay, either. I'm fine. Both of you, nowâon your way.” She stood up and made sweeping motions toward the door.
“Here,” I said, pulling one of my TIC business cards out of my bag and scribbling on the back. “Here's my numberâyou'll ring if you need to?”
You'd think I'd given her the prizewinning lottery ticket. “Yes, thank you, Julia.”
I walked out the door with my replacement. “Do you think she'll be all right?” he asked.
Glancing back at the house with windows aglow, I said, “She'll be fine. Rupert didn't realize he'd cause such troubleâhe thought a note would be sufficient.” I drew up at the CitroÃ«n and Michael walked on toward a Fiat 500.
“You've got the green,” I said, nodding to his car. “Mine's blue.”
“Are you having trouble with it?” Michael asked. “You said you had to borrow a friend's.”
“Trouble?” I said, ready to grumble about anything I could get hold of. “You could call it thatâsomeone nicked it right out of my lockup.” I had put off being really annoyed about it, but now I could lavish all my pent-up fear and anger on the situation. But there was moreâI caught hold of the end of something and tried to pull it from my mind, like a thrush tugging and tugging on one end of a worm to pull it out of the ground. I was missing something. “I'll have to ring the police and insurance tomorrow. Bloody hassle.”
“Rupert said you live in Smeaton. I'm near Haverhillâeasy for work.”
My work. I wondered just how Rupert had found Michael. “Are you in television?” I asked.
I gave him another moment, in case he wanted to offer up any more information. When he didn't, I asked, “Are you a biologist?”
Michael shook his head, and with a small smile said, “Not really.”
“And so, just what qualifications do you have to be Rupert's assistant?”
“What qualifications did you have?”
I hoped that the streetlight didn't show my face, scarlet at his arrogance. “I had a lifetime of learning about both birds and Rupert
Michael shrugged, an easy, noncommittal movement that irritated me further. “I'm having no difficulty learning the jobâbird biology, camera angle, three sugars in his tea.”
“Three sugars?” My voice shot up to the stratosphere. “Are you mad? You can't let him have three sugarsâhe'll be borderline diabetic before you know it.”
“I work for Rupert,” Michael said with a steely tone, “and if he says to put three sugars in his tea, then that's what I do. I'm his assistant, not his motherâor his daughter.”
“You've a responsibility to watch out for him.”
“You seem angry that I've got the job you had before. Why is that? It isn't as if you were made redundantâyou quit.”
I yanked the CitroÃ«n door open, refusing to answer or acknowledge the truth in his statement. “Well, the very best of luck to you in your new post,” I said, slamming the door and dropping my key on the floorboard.
The center opened at noon on Sundays and closed at fourâwith hopes of longer hours when visitor numbers picked up. I spent an unsettled morning at home waffling between wanting to ring Beryl to find out if she'd heard from Rupert and not wanting to hear the worry in her voice. She'd let me know when she had news, and I should leave it at that. I would ring Bianca later, when we could laugh about the whole story.
Vesta didn't come in at all on Sundaysâshe played the organ at St. Swithun's in the village. I had said little to her when I returned the CitroÃ«n, apart from thanking her profusely. She had looked at me with open concern, but I was too weary to explain, and had avoided her gaze.
No avoiding her now, though, as she stepped in, took off her rain bonnet, and shook the drops from it. “Thought I'd nip in for a cup of tea.”
“I'll switch the kettle on,” I said, turning away from the counter and stepping into the back room in order to deflect any inquiry into my well-being. “You wouldn't just read through the new leaflet before I send it to the printers, would you? I'd hate to misspell Godefryd Fotheringill's name.”
I was in the back getting out my packet of malted-milk biscuits when the bell over the door tinkled and I heard Vesta say, “You're very welcome to Smeaton-under-Lyme. Is this your first visit?”
“It is. I was looking for Julia Lanchesterâdo you know where I can find her?”
Silly questionâhe could see me quite plainly standing not ten feet away.
“Vesta,” I said, turning to the counter, “this is Michael Sedgwick, Rupert's new assistant. Michael, Vesta Widdersham.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Michael said.
Vesta's eyes darted between Michael and me, and she said, “Lovely to meet you, too. I'll finish the tea, Julia. You stay here.”
I dropped my voice as Vesta walked back to the kettle, which had started to heat and make its usual racket. “Have you heard something?”
Michael shook his head. “I was thinking of going up to Marshy Endâto see if Rupert is there, have a look round.”
“But if he is at Marshy End, how did he get there with no car?” I whispered.
“I don't know,” Michael said in a whisper that strained at its limits. “But I'm goingâbetter to take action than wait. Will you come? I've been there only once, and you'll have a better sense if anything isâ¦amiss.”
Amissâa vision of the ancient ash at the edge of the yard falling and pinning Rupert under it made me go pale. Vesta, who could apparently hear quite well over the sound of the kettle, said, “If you need to leave early, Julia, I'll stay for you. I've nothing else the rest of the afternoon.”
I tried to clear the frown from my face, but it wouldn't go away. “Yes, thanks. It's just thatâ¦” I couldn't continue to keep her in the dark, but I didn't want to start the story with Michael there.
“I'm in the car park at the end of the village,” he said. “Shall I come back and collect you here?”
“No, I'll stop home and change clothes if that's all rightâI'll meet you there.” I gave him directions to Pipit Cottageâjust up the high streetâand he left. I turned to Vesta. “Rupert's off on one of his retreats, you see. He gets so focused on what he's doing that he forgets to check in, so we thought we'd nip up and find out how he's doing.”
Vesta watched me. “Is his wife worried?”
I blushed with the realization Vesta probably knew more about Rupert's life from television and magazines than she let on. I cleared my throat. “Concerned,” I said. “But really, there's no need.”
“You go on,” Vesta said, and nodded to the door.
We drove in uneasy silence past Bury Saint Edmunds and north under gray skies and through spitting rain that barely wet the windshield. High Suffolk skies are wide and the landscape mostly flat and, in early May, fresh with white blooms against new green that seemed to wash everything clean. The hawthorn was out in the hedges, and the cow parsley in the verges looked like lacy knickers swaying on a long washing line. Marshy End was in north Suffolk where the land dipped into wetlands called fens. I'd not driven there from Smeaton, but I expected it would take about an hour. Marshy End. It had begun as our family's holiday cottage. Only a couple of acres accompanied it, but we were in the country, and it always seemed to Bianca and me when we were growing up that we owned the whole wide world. Situated among the region's many fens and near the Little Ouse, a windy river close to the
border, it became the perfect headquarters for Rupert's work as an educator.
“Do you know your way?” I asked Michael.
“I can find it,” he said. “Rupert took me by when we went up to Weeting Heath.”
“The wind-farm site? Do you know much about it?”
He had a slick answer for everything. “What did you do before thisâwere you a salesman?”
“What's that supposed to mean?” he asked, slapping his hand on the gearshift and changing roughly into fourth.
“It's just that you seem quite sure of yourself.”
“So you believe that confidence is a disadvantage?”
“I'm only wondering what made you go for a job when you knew little about it. Midlife crisis?”
“And youâtelevision producer turned tour guide. Midlife crisis?”
“Just how old do you think I am?” I shouted, my voice reverberating round the car's interior.
He didn't answer, but looked quite smug at his cleverness. I stared out the window, slowing my breathing and turning to happy thoughts of Marshy Endâtouching on scenes of summer birthday parties and overnights with friends.
We were almost to Mildenhall when Michael spoke again.
“Do you really believe that magpie rhymeâthat four of them were telling you your sister is pregnant with a boy?” he asked.
“Believing in it isn't the point,” I said. “I saw four magpies and Bee is pregnant. It's a fact. And I've no doubt it will be a boy.”
We turned off the A1101, and Michael said, “Rupert says that you were the inspiration for his change from academic to popular
I sank a little lower in my seat, embarrassed that Dad would repeat the family legend to a stranger. The story starred an eight-year-old version of me and had been repeated so often, I didn't know if I remembered it actually happening or if I remembered only the telling of it.
We had been standing in the back garden, my dad and me. He had been explaining why the song thrush changed the decibel and frequency levels of its song, when I interrupted him and said, “But, Daddy, don't you ever stop and listen to him and think how beautiful he sounds?”
It was, Dad said, his epiphany. “You were the one, Jools, who made me see that I needed to bring birds to the people, not to a load of toffee-nosed academics.” He began to share his knowledge of birds with the publicâin newspaper and magazine articles, as a guest on local television shows, in lectures and on field trips. He gave up academics for good about ten years ago. Many at Cambridge looked down their noses at this new Rupert Lanchester, considering him a turncoat to true science, but Dad didn't care.
“Was your mum a birder?” Michael asked.
I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye, trying to size up the question, but decided to treat it as idle curiosity.
“Not a birder. A
enjoyed the sight of a redpoll, but she was just as happy with a sparrow.” I smiled at the memory of her delight in the little birds and, without thinking, felt round in the depths of my bag until I located my
Observer's Book of British Birds
. I gave it a pat. I'd got it for a pound at a bookstall outside St. Mary's church when I was twelve, and it had been my constant companion ever since. “My mum was Americanâfrom California.”
“Hollywood?” he asked.
“No, further north. Where they make wine.”
We neared the drive to Marshy End. “It's just here,” I said. A pricking sensation, like pins barely touching my skin, made its way up my arms and caused me to sit forward and peer into the passing scrubby hedgerows, hoping to see Rupert smile and wave.
The cottage appeared at the end of the drive. Whitewashed, well-keptâand deserted, to all appearances. I was out of the car before Michael switched off the engine, and I'd got halfway to the door before I stopped, my heart thumping at what I saw perched on the peak of the roof.
“How many do you see?” I whispered to Michael, who came up beside me.
Michael looked round the yard and cottage. “How many what?”
“Birds,” I shouted. “Magpiesâhow many do you see?”
“I see one.”
The bird cocked his head at me and took offâan easy glide to the corner of Dad's workshop across the yard. He landed, and I could hear his claws scritching on the metal roof. He continued to watch meâI realized he wanted me to come to him. As I walked the twenty feet, I didn't take my eyes off the magpie, and he didn't take his eyes off me.
“Julia?” Michael asked, but I couldn't answer. My heart was in my throat at this portent. When the bird soared away, his long tail straight out behind, I ran after him. He skimmed the tops of the tangled wood, and I swatted stems of bird cherry and willow away from my face. I knew where I was goingâthis was our private trail, and just ahead it joined the public footpath alongside the river. I could hear Michael behind meâ“Where the hell are you going?” he shouted. After a couple of minutes, the magpie stopped, and so did I, with Michael almost running me down, unable to apply his own brakes without warning.
The magpie landed on a heap of broken stems and dried reeds on the riverbank and balanced at the tip of a willow branch, sending its fluffy catkins dangling like earrings under his weight. I cried out, and the bird flew off. In the middle of the heap, as if occupying a gigantic nest, was a man.
I thought in a rush of relief. Not Dad. And then the details of the scene came into focus.
The man lay on his back, one leg drawn up and one hanging over the edge, his arms in similar disarray. His eyes protruded as if trying to pop out from their sockets, and his faceâset off by his ginger hairâwas a sickly white. Blood had formed a pool in his wide-open mouth and trickled out the corner. I saw a fat fly light on his cheek as a wave of nausea swept up from the pit of my stomach.
“Dear God,” Michael said and took my arm as I swayed.
I swallowed hard. “We should do something,” I said, unable to move.
“Stay here,” he said, pushing in front. I was relieved to be told what to do.
He got as close as he could without touching anything, and peered at the man's face. He straightened up and took a couple of deep breaths. When he came back, he was wiping his forehead with the back of his hand.
“Is he dead?” I asked in a whisper.
“He is most certainly dead,” Michael said, taking my elbow. “Let's go, you shouldn't faint here.”
I yanked my elbow away. “I'm not going to faint. I've had no lunch, that's all.” Although lunch didn't sound like a good idea at the moment. “We'll need to contact the police.”
“No,” Michael said. “First we'll need toâ”
“Phone the police,” I shouted in his face.
“They've been phoned.” I whipped round to see a tall form blocking the low afternoon sun. “Sergeant Flint,” he said, and held out a warrant card. I blinked at it, but Michael looked closely as if trying to memorize the details. I glanced up at the man himself. Young, with thick sandy-brown brows that made up for his receding hairline. He wore a dark suit and an overcoat that hung loose on his thin frame. “Stay here, please,” he said, and moved past us to the body.
He was followed close on by two uniformed officers, a man and a woman, their smart copper hats decorated with black-and-white checkered bands. They had come up the footpath from the road, I
not on the trail from Marshy End. I heard more footsteps, and like a parade, three, no, four more people came along single file and joined the group that buzzed round the body.
We stood apart, Michael and I, not speaking. The temperature seemed to have dropped several degrees, and I could feel the cold seeping through my coat. I crossed my arms and looked over to him. He responded with a small shrug. We waited.
Flint assigned tasks to his crew, who were suiting up in gloves and paper coveralls, and then knelt over the body, leaning in without touching the branches. One was taking pictures, and a woman with a blond ponytail began poking about in the mouth of the man. I turned away, squinting into the sunlight that had broken through the clouds.
“You didn't ring the police?” Flint had returned to us, brushing duff off his overcoat.
We both shook our heads.
The sergeant continued. “We received an anonymous call at the Mildenhall station to report a deathâperhaps a suspicious death, even telling us where to take the footpath.” His gaze shifted back and forth between us. “Where've you come from?”
“I live in Smeaton-under-Lyme,” I said, digging in my bag and pulling out a card. “I manage the tourist information center, and I was working there this morning.”
Michael flipped a business card out of the breast pocket of his jacket and handed it to Flint with two fingers. “I live in Haverhill, Sergeant.”
“We've just this moment come upon him,” I said, my eyes flicking to the body and back.
Flint passed the cards to the woman PC. “Who are you, then?”
Michael took a deep breath, and I could see his face smooth out as if it turned to plastic.
“Michael Sedgwick, sir,” he said, sticking out his hand. What was it with him and shaking hands? “This is Julia Lanchester,” he added as if I couldn't speak for myself.
Flint spoke to us as his gaze combed the scene, starting with the tops of the shrubby trees across the river and ending with the flattened catkins on the muddy path under our feet. “What are you doing here?”
“We came up to Marshy End,” I said, realizing that wasn't much of an explanation.
“I am Rupert Lanchester's assistant,
with him on his television program,
A Bird in the Hand
. Have you seen it?”
“Marshy End?” Flint's caterpillar brows wiggled, his nose in the air, as if he could sniff out the cottage. “I'm new in Suffolk, and didn't realize we were so close. Won't my little one love hearing about this?” The inevitable note of respect crept into the sergeant's voice.
“This is a new post for me, you see,” Michael went on. “Ms. Lanchester worked with her father for many years, and has brought me up to Marshy End as part of my job training, as I take over from her.” I stood stock-still, my eyes cutting to Michael in astonishment at how smoothly the lie slipped out of his mouth. His eyes were a cool gray. “Marshy End,” he said, nodding behind him, “is just beyond this copse.”
“Is Rupert here?” Flint asked, and despite the situation, I had to stifle a laugh. I always marveled at how familiarly his public treated himânever Mr. Lanchester, but always Rupert.
“Rupert is away for a few daysâin Cumbria,” I said, wondering if lying was contagious. “He's sorting out a new film site.”
“And you saw nothing when you arrived?” Flint asked.
Nothing apart from the magpieâone for sorrowâbut I didn't say it aloud.
The woman with the ponytail approached, ripping off plastic gloves smeared with blood as she did so and speaking to the sergeant. “He's been dead at least five hours. I'll need more time, of course, but I can venture a guess at how.”
The sergeant raised his eyebrows and I barely breathed, waiting for the pronouncement. Michael edged closer.
“It's his tongue, you see,” she said in a businesslike tone.
“He choked on it?” Flint asked. “Did he have a seizure, do you think?”
“A seizure, no. Choking, yes. His tongue was cut off and stuffed back in his mouth.”
I saw their faces recede, as if I looked through the wrong end of binoculars. The ground rushed toward me, and the world went black.
“She's had no lunch,” I heard Michael say as I opened my eyes. I blinked twice at the circle of faces looming over me. “Are you all right?” Michael asked. “Can you stand?”
“Of course I can stand,” I replied, feeling a fool while at the same time grateful for the strength of his arms as he lifted me to my feet. I brushed dried leaves from my trousers and shrugged off his hands. “Thank you,” I said under my breath.
“May we go, Sergeant?” Michael asked.
Flint nodded. “I hope it won't be inconvenient for you to stop by the station in a day or twoâwe'll need to have you sign a statement.”
I wondered if we would lie on the police statement, too. But then, how could it matter to their investigation that we had come to Marshy End actually looking for Rupert and not on a training exercise?
“Of course we will, although we've nothing else to add other than what we've already said.” Michael took my elbow and steered me in the direction of the cottage.
“We'll help in any way we can,” I said over my shoulder as we moved off. Flint and the others were once again gathered around the body, and I raised my voice for them to hear. “It's a terrible thing. Do you know whoâ¦?” Michael's grip tightened into a pinch as he dragged me off. “Ouch.”
“We should let them do their work,” he said in my ear. “Come on.”
I pulled away and walked on ahead of him. When we reached the yard at the cottage, I said, “I wouldn't mind a cup of tea. Can we stay for a bit?”
“Yes, let's stayâwe need to talk. Do you still have a key?”
I whirled round. “Of course I have a key. Did you think I'd been
“I don't know your story,” Michael said, regarding me with an icy look.
“There is no story,” I replied. Over his shoulder I could see into the back garden and the derelict playhouse where Bee and I would serve Mum and Dad tea on summer afternoons. At that moment, I would've given anything in the world to be that happy-go-lucky little girl again.
I took a deep breath and put the key in the door. “I'll have to go through and switch on the electricity at the mains. We turn it off when we're going to be gone for a while.”
We walked into the dim light of the front hall, and I headed straight back with Michael behind me. We got to the kitchenâit was lighter here, with a window above the sink and one over the tableâand a sound stopped me. A humâthe hum of the fridge. I looked over at it, and Michael followed my gaze. He reached over and tried the switch on the wallâthe overhead light blazed.
“Rupert?” I called in a loud whisper. “Dad?” Louder this time, as I ran back into the hall, poking my head into the front room and into Dad's tiny study. Upstairs I flew, searching the three bedrooms and bath, shouting his name as I went. But the cottage was empty. I dragged myself out to the stairs and sank down onto the top step; Michael stood looking at me from the bottom. “Where is he?” I didn't bother keeping the tremble from my voice. “Why isn't he here?”
“Maybe he's in Cumbria.”
“That was a lie and you know it,” I whispered.
“Was it?” Michael asked. “What made you say Cumbria instead of the Isle of Skye or the Pennines?”
I shrugged. “It just popped into my head. We'd talked about starting an âEndangered' segment of the show, and Rupert had mentioned wanting to feature the hen harriers in Cumbria.”
“There you are, then,” Michael said. “Not a lie at allâRupert could very well be in Cumbria at this moment, field glasses trained on the sky.”
“Is that how it's doneâlying? You choose something reasonable and people believe you?”
Michael studied me for a moment. I tried to hold his gaze, but finally dropped my eyes, exhausted with the effort. Just plain exhausted.
He climbed halfway up the steps and held out his hand. “What about that tea?”
I wouldn't normally need assistance getting down the stairs, but I was still a bit wobbly, and so I took his handâat least he didn't want to shake. In the kitchen, he filled the kettle as I began to rifle through the pantry.
“The tea is here on the counter,” he said.
“I'm starving,” I said, head deep into a shelf that was almost empty, but for two tins of steak and kidney pudding that had been there for years.
“That's right,” he said, “you've had no lunch.”
I looked over my shoulder at him in case he was mocking me. The corner of his mouth went up in a grin, and his eyes flashed electric blue. Those eyes could put on their own light show. “And you?” I asked, retrieving my prize, a packet of cream crackers. “Never need to eat?”
“I wouldn't mind a meal,” Michael replied.
“Well, don't think I'm going to whip up a soufflÃ© for you.” I ripped open the crackers and offered him one before tucking in myself. “A bit soft, but they'll do,” I said. As the kettle switched off, I walked out to the cold porch. “Never mind about the tea.” I came back with two bottles of Adnams Southwold Bitter.
“That's more like it,” Michael said.
We settled at the table without speakingâmy mind was too full for words. I tried to focus on Rupert, but visions of the man's body by the river kept popping in. I shook my head to reset.
A few crackers in, Michael asked, “Did you recognize him?” He took another cracker and tapped it on the table as if he was ridding a ship's biscuit of its weevils. I lifted my eyebrows, asking for clarification. “The fellow we found,” he said.
I thought of the bloated face and the pool of blood and tried to shake the vision out of my head. “He wasn't Dad,” I said. “That's all I could tell. Do you know him?” This was a police matter; should we really be talking about it? My eyes flew to the door, but I didn't know what I was afraid ofâthat the body would walk in or that Sergeant Flint might be perched in the tangle of honeysuckle above the door.
Michael attended to his cracker for another moment, before replying without looking at me. “I heard them say his nameâthey were looking through his pockets while you were unconscious.” At the thought of hands searching the dead man's pockets, the crackers, which had so recently gone down my throat, threatened to come back up. I took a swig of my beer. “Kenneth Kersey,” Michael said, and watched me.
At first, my mind was too full of horror for the name to register. After a moment, it sounded vaguely familiar, and after that, a door creaked open to reveal the storage closet of my old life, and the name floated down from a top shelf.