Authors: Marty Wingate
Michael stopped at the gents' as I walked past the bar on the way to the door. As I approached, I heard Val talking to a fellow at the bar who was concentrating on the crossword.
“The trouble with this country,” he said, jabbing his index finger onto the polished wood surface, “is that we throw aside any chance of supporting business and putting up new buildings for the sake of some bloody bird, that's the trouble.”
I should be happy that Val wanted to enter the discussion of the wind-farm proposal, but the thought of Power to the People made me queasy. Still, I was my father's daughter, and couldn't let the opportunity pass completely.
“We can't pave over the countryside, Val,” I said, buttoning my coat. “The country's well-being is tied to its landscapeâour âgreen and pleasant land,' you know.”
Val blushed as he wiped his hands on his apron. “No offense, Julia, of course. We were only having a discussion.”
“Well, you should talk to Rupertâask him what sort of long-term damage is done when we don't think carefully about what we build.”
I made my way to the entry and stood waiting for Michael. The pub door opened and I moved aside, after which I heard a voice.
“Hello, Juliaâyou've cut your hair.”
I looked up, my blood pulsing and my face hot. I couldn't catch my breath. “Gavin?”
He stood close and, as I was already against the wall, I had nowhere to move. He looked the same as everâclose-cropped black hair, stubbly beard, dark eyes, and that single dangling earring in the shape of a hovering kestrel. He wore black leather, as always.
“It's been too long,” he said in that purring tone he saved for women. “You're looking well.” He put his hand against the wall behind me, which brought him within inches of my face. I detected a light scent of musk.
“Yes, umm,” I said, shoving my hands in my coat pockets. “How are you?”
“Is Rupert with you?” Gavin asked, glancing round the pub.
“No, he isn't,” I answered coldly.
“It's just that I wanted to talk with him about an idea I've had.”
“Have you been to Marshy End?” I asked just as Michael walked over.
“Is he there?” Gavin asked, and lowered his voice. “Are you going up to Marshy End?”
Time to abort this conversation. “Gavin, this is Michael Sedgwickâhe's Rupert's new assistant. My replacement.”
Michael, of course, stuck out his hand. As Gavin shook it, he turned, looked me up and down, and said with a sly smile, “No one could replace you, Julia.”
We were cut short by a shrieking
emerging from Gavin's jacket pocket. He took out his mobile and checked the screen. His eyes grew wide.
“There you are,” he muttered. “Hold on, darling, I'm on my way.”
“Leckyâa word!” Val shouted from behind the bar.
Gavin raised his hand without answering and left.
“Was that a birdcall?” Michael asked.
“The ringtone? Yesâhis damned kestrel,” I said as I pushed open the door.
We saw taillights disappearing. The road was deserted. I took a deep breath.
“Who was that, then?” Michael asked.
“Gavin Lecky,” I said. “He's a twitcherâhe goes after rare-bird sightings. That's probably an alert he got just nowâtelling him where to go to see what. He's had two wives walk out on him because he spends his life chasing birds to add to his list. The second time he cut his honeymoon short after word came in of a lesser gray shrike on the Kent coast.”
“Do you know him well?”
Well? No, not well. Except for that one afternoon two years ago at Marshy End. I'd signed my divorce papers and was free of Nick and he of me, and I'd gone to the cottage on my own to be depressed. Gavin's second wife had just left him, and he came up hoping we were filming an episode of
A Bird in the Hand
and he could annoy Dad. I don't really know how it happenedâI hadn't even been drinking. Really, I had no excuse for my behavior, but there it was, on recordâat least with my sister. I had phoned her that evening and confessed.
“You had sex with Gavin Lecky?” she had practically shouted, sounding too delighted for words.
“Quiet, Bee,” I had whispered, “I don't want the children to hear.”
Her voice dropped to a murmur. “How was it?”
“He was quite”âI had cleared my throat as I searched for a noncommittal
My mistake. Bianca had shrieked with laughter, and I had heard baby Emmet shriek in response.
she had repeated. She has never let me forget itâto this day if I even have so much as a coffee with a man, she'll ask, “And how accommodating do you think he might be?”
“Julia?” Michael asked, bringing me back to the moment.
I avoided his gaze and said coolly, “Gavin's been following Rupert round for a few years now. He thinks
A Bird in the Hand
should have a segment on
himself. Says he has seven hundred birds on his listâno one believes him, of course.” I felt Michael continue to stare, and so I walked off toward his car and waited by the door.
Michael drove and I stewed. Apart from the general shock of seeing Gavin for the first time since that afternoon two years ago, I was also suspicious. Gavin hadn't denied being up to Marshy End. If he hadn't seen Rupert, perhaps he'd seen Kenneth Kersey. The twitchers certainly weren't fans of any company that might disrupt the appearance of a rare bird. Hadn't Gavin or one of them got into a shouting match with Kerseyâor was it someone else from the company? I should mention that to Sergeant Flint when I gave my statement; it would do to shift some focus onto Gavin and his lot and away from Rupert.
The guilt at how I'd treated my dad blossomed again, and I squirmed at what an outsider would see: an adult daughterâwell-grown and allâstamping her foot at not getting her way. But my way wasn't completely selfishâI missed my mum and didn't understand how my dad could not. He'd turned to Beryl before we'd even finished writing replies to all the condolences. As I felt the familiar anger rising, I thought,
Here I am, back at the beginning of the circle, making myself dizzy.
“I'm worried about him,” I said as I stared through the rain-streaked windshield at the taillights ahead of us in the twilight.
“Gavin?” Michael asked, a quick glance at me.
“Rupert!” I said. “I wish he hadn't gone away.”
“Well, we'll have to find him, then, won't we?”
I shifted round to get a better look at Michael, his face glowing slightly from the dashboard lights. “Why are you doing this?”
“Giving you a lift? Did you want to stay back with Gav?”
If he hadn't been driving, I would've batted him about the head. “Why are you getting
to find Rupert?”
Michael exhaled. “I have a jobâit's a good job. I'm assistant to Rupert Lanchester. Trouble is, my employer has gone missing. And now with thisâwhat else am I supposed to do?”
“If you need a job, perhaps you should go back to your previous one.”
“I don't need another job,” he said between gritted teeth, “I need this one.”
There it was again, that flash of angerâI'd hit a sore spot. Old lives can be difficult to shed.
A few minutes later, Michael cut his eyes at me, and I saw the spark had returned. “You're no longer Rupert Lanchester's assistantâwhy are you doing it?”
Because of my inexcusable behavior toward him. Because of the terrible things I'd said to himâthings I now wished I could take back. “Because he's my dad.”
Michael dropped me off at Pipit Cottage with one more appeal. “I'll talk with Beryl again,” he said. “There may be something she's forgotten. And I'll ring you after. If we're going to find your dad”âoh yes, I took note that he said “dad” instead of “Rupert”â“we need to do this together.”
“Right,” I said, and flashed him a smile. “Yes, certainly ring me if you hear anything.”
He caught my arm as I was halfway out of the car. “I'll need your numberâdon't you think?”
I gave it to him, and before I'd got two steps into my cottage, he'd sent me a text. “Stay in touch.”
UnlikelyâI could clear this up on my own. Once I talked with Dad and he explained to the police he was nowhere near Marshy End when Kersey was killedâfor a guilty second I flashed on the empty Jaffa Cakes wrapperâthen Sergeant Flint could be on his way to find the real killer.
I tipped the last of the milk into a saucepan and heated it for a cup of cocoa. First, ring Bianca; after that, check the timetables for my journey to Cambridge. Without my carâwhy couldn't I remember to ring the police?âI'd need to take the bus to Bury and rail to Cambridge. Wouldn't take too long. I couldn't ask Vesta for the loan of her car againâshe had begun to have that way with me, and I imagined telling her my entire story over a cup of tea, then perhaps at last having the edges of my heart, still rubbed raw with grief, touched with a balm. There was no time for that now.
When I rang my sister, Emelia answered, sounding thirty years old instead of ten.
“Hello, 01736 55377, the Broom residence.”
“Hello, Emmy, dear.”
“Auntie Jools!” the ten-year-old returned. “Did Mummy tell you I'm to play Nana in
? I tried for Wendy, but the teacher said I'm the only one with the skill to run about on all fours, and it's really quite a privilege. Will you come and see me? It's next month. Will you?”
“I wouldn't miss itâsend me an email with the date, all right? Now, where is your mum?”
“She's talking to Daddy about the new baby. Mum said you saw the magpies. I told Mummy and Daddy they should choose a bird name that begins with âE' for the baby, but all we could think of was Egret, and wouldn't that be silly?”
Emelia continued to chatter, and I heard the house noises behind her change as she walked from room to room. My mind wandered and I didn't notice that Emmy had handed the phone to her mother until I heard Bee say sharply, “Julia, are you there?”
“Bee, have you heard from Dad?”
“Not since last weekâwhy?”
“Beryl rangâhe's gone off on one of his jaunts.” I used a light tone, and Bee responded in kind.
“No, he didn't forget to tell her, did he?”
“He left a note, but didn't say where he was. Not at Marshy End, apparently.” I felt safe in avoiding any mention of Kenneth Kersey. Bianca paid no attention to news in any formâon paper, television, or online, and I knew the name would mean nothing to her.
“Oh, she should leave him be for a bit. He needed to get away, that's all.”
“Do you think he and Beryl might've had a fight?” I suppose I still held some tiny hope that was the reason he'd scarpered.
“You mean like the time he took us off to Margate and left Mum behind at home?”
“Margate? When I was nine? That was a holiday. Mum wasn't able to go, so Dad took you and me.”
Bianca laughed. “Yes, some holiday. They'd had a row and Dad went off in a huff, dragging us along. All he did was sit on the beach and be miserable.”
“I thought he was holding still so I could bury him in the sand,” I said, steadily denying her accusation. “They never had a row.”
“You've quite a selective memory when it comes to our parents' marriage, Jools. You never remember the problems, only the happy times.”
They were all happy times as far as I was concerned, but there was no arguing with Bee when she took on her older-sister tone.
She continued. “A good marriage isn't always easyâsometimes you've got to work through bad times and blocks of boredom to get to the good parts. A good marriage takes workâyou and Nick lost interest in trying.”
I was rapidly losing interest in this conversation. “Perhaps Dad will ring soon. I think he knows you're pregnantâI think he saw magpies, too. The thing is”âI didn't want to worry my sister, but she's a levelheaded thinker, and I needed that right nowâ“he didn't drive his Rover, it's in the shop. Funny about that.”
“Hmm. Well, he must've got hold of a car hire. He certainly wouldn't ask to borrow yours, would he?”
“Ah!” I cried out as that niggling worm popped out of the ground of its own accord. My little car hadn't been nicked by a car thiefâit had been nicked by my own father. I must've known it all along, and that's why I hadn't got round to ringing the police.
Rupert hadn't asked to borrow my car because I had banished him from my cottage. But he did have his own set of keys, and so perhaps he thought he could bring it back before I noticed.
During my momentary silence, Bianca had started up a conversation with her husband, and it sounded as if all three children were joining in. “Bee!” I called.
“Sorry, Joolsâmust run, Paul's cooking. Byee.”
The cacophony that was my sister's life went silent when she rang off. I stood in my quiet kitchen, remembering my dad's unsent text to me: “Jools, the rhyme of the magpie.” I thought of the four magpies I'd seen in the village and the one atop the cottage at Marshy End. Dad must've been referring to Bianca's pregnancy. What else could it be?
Mondayâmy day off. At least until June, when Lord Fotheringill's plans for opening the TIC daily would kick in. I had plenty of time for breakfast before I set out for Cambridge midmorning, but I had used the last of the milk the night before, and there was no tea without it. After replenishing the bird food in the back gardenâfat balls, seed, and a handful of sultanas for the blackbirdsâI pulled on trousers and sweater, shoes and socks for a quick trip down to the shop.
I glanced in the window of Three Bags Full, the village woollen shop. Toy ewes perched atop stacks of woven throws, cardigans, and sweaters, but what caught my eye was my own reflection. I licked my hand and tried to flatten the ski-slope side of my hair. Akash had seen worse, I was sure.
Akash Kumar's was a true village shop, selling just about everything from newspapers and bars of chocolate to CÃ´tes du RhÃ´ne and ready-to-bake cannelloni. During the late-afternoon commute, traffic moved so slowly from the London road and onto the two-lane high street that a passenger was well able to get out of a car, buy something from the shop, and get back in before the car had moved more than a length or two.
Thankfully, morning business was light, and the shop was empty except for its proprietor, who was on the phone. Akash, a tall, dark-skinned man with deep brown pools of eyes and a smattering of gray in his glossy black hair, nodded a greeting. I grabbed a small jug of milk and held it up to show him it was a brief stop. I dug in my trouser pocket and began to count coins as Akash finished his phone conversation.
“Good morning, Julia. My son's new job,” he said with chagrin, “has made him bold enough to advise me on my business dealings. I need to protect my investment, Daniel says, build on what I own.” Akash shook his head. “ââI don't own the shop,' I tell him. âLord Fotheringill owns it.'â”
“Is Daniel a banker?” I asked.
“Public relations. âWe make you look
that's the company's motto.” Akash swept my coins off the counter and into his hand. “HMS, Ltd., it's called. I said to him, shouldn't it be HMS
but he didn't understand. He isn't one for musical theater.”
Akash shifted a box of apples off the counter, picked one up, and rolled it around in his hands. “Talking of musicâdo you know, Julia, does Ms. Widdersham enjoy the opera?”
Ms. Widdersham, honestly! I ran a search on conversations I've had with Vesta in which music was mentioned. I recalled nothing about opera. “You know, Akash, I believe she does. Opera, yes, I'm sure I've heard her mention how much she loves it.”
He smiled. “They will be putting on an outdoor performance of
in July over near Long Melford. I thought I might ask her.”
July? Good God, you people need to get a move onâyou aren't getting any younger. “July, what a lovely time for opera. Outdoors.”
Akash glanced up at my hair. “Your day off, is it?”
I'd better get out of the public's eye,
I thought. I'd made it just out the door when I met Vesta on her way in. We stood together ill at ease, like the morning after a blind date.
Vesta tilted her head, trying to make eye contact. “Julia, how are you?”
“It's all right, Vesta,” I said to head off any enquiries into my emotional state. But an image of Kersey's body on the bank of the river flashed in my mind. Not everything was all right. I swallowed hard. “Dad's fine.”
“Did you talk with him?” she asked, showing again an uncanny ability to find my weak spot.
“He's quite busyâall wrapped up in a project. And he has his new assistant. Everything, really, isâ¦under control.” Which meant, of course, there was something that needed controlling. “By the way”âI glanced back into the shop and lowered my voiceâ“do you like opera?”
I walked up from the rail station in Cambridge alongside the large green commons called Parker's Piece amid a sea of students, mothers with pushchairs, and clusters of tourists who paused occasionally and bent heads over their maps. I stopped dead when I noticed several magpies strutting about on the well-manicured grass.
“One, two, three, four, five,” I counted under my breath. “Five for silver.” Two more came in. “Six, sevenâseven for a secretâ¦” Three flew off. I started again. “One for sorrow, two for joyâ¦” Five landed nearby and I hurried my counting, but one left and two more arrived before I could finish.
“Hold still, you stupid birds!”
I shouted to them. The birds rose as one while the crowd around me parted. I put my head down and continued on my way.
My destination was the Guildhall, a depressingly characterless 1930s structure set amid a city of far older and more elegant buildings. I walked up one set of stairs and approached the half-open door at the end of the hall.
It was a modest officeâdesk, table, and chairs that were neither new nor old enough to be antiques. A small, worn leather sofa occupied one corner. Seated at his desk was Giles FenwithâFenny, as Bee and I always called him. He was once a teaching fellowâalong with Dadâat Clare College at Cambridge, but now made do as a private tutor for students hoping to make it into a decent university. He was also once Beryl's husband.
Another man towered over the desk, saying, “You didn't admit to it, Giles? Tell me you have more fortitude than that.” My movement must've caught his eye, because he looked up and said, “Yes?” A reserved smile appeared. “Julia, how lovely to see you again.”
Dr. Peter Drabwellâstill a fellow at Clare College. He had that hunched-over look that many tall men have. His brow overhung his eyes, his head was squarish, and his arms seemed too long for his frame. I'd seen him occasionally over the years, and reacted the same way each time: with a nervous giggle. I couldn't help itâBianca and I had watched far too many Boris Karloff films when we were growing up. “Hello, Dr. Drabwell, how are you?”
“Overwhelmed with the responsibility of molding tender young minds into useful adults, as always.” He walked to the door in two strides, saying over his shoulder, “We're not finished yet, Giles. You need to remember that. We'll settle on the details later.” He took my hand briefly. “My best to your father and his new bride.”
He turned and left before I could reply. But never mind. Across the room, Giles Fenwith rose from his desk chair as if released from a spell. “Julia, my dear.”
“Hello, Fenny.” I gave him a big hug and he returned it, and then we admired each other. He wasn't tall, and he'd grown a bit thick around the middle over the years, but he was still a fine-looking man with curly, silver-and-brown hair and a trimmed, wiry beard to match. His smile was still infectious. He'd been like an uncle to us, and he and Dad had stayed friends through all the ups and downs of life. The downs were mostly on Fenny's side, sad to say.
“This is a wonderful surprise,” Fenny said, pulling me around the worktable to the sofa. “What brings you to me?”
“I know it's been ages. I just thought that I'd stop by.” I glanced back at the door. “I hope I didn't interrupt anything.”
Fenny shook his head. “Peter was asking about a former student. It's nothing. You're looking beautiful as alwaysâhave you cut your hair?”
My hand went up to defend my neck in what had become an automatic response. “Well, I thought I'd try something new.” To business. “Have you seen Dad lately?”
Fenny had moved behind his desk to switch the kettle on and paused for a moment with his back to me. He took two mugs off a shelf and dropped in tea bags.
“Not long ago. I stood him a pint at The Eagleâyou know, to congratulate him.”
When he turned, he wouldn't meet my eye, and I was surprised that Fenny would be affected by Dad and Beryl. Close to thirty years had gone by since Fenny and Beryl had divorced, and I hadn't thought what she did now would matter.
They had split up when I was about ten. Stephen, the Fenwiths' only child, Bianca, and Iâthey called us the gang of threeâhad watched the adults in crisis with helpless fear. They told us little. Fenny moved out of their house, and Beryl could often be found in our kitchen with Mum, both of them alternating between tears and anger over countless cups of tea. No one likes to see mums upset, and so one day, we baked rock cakes to cheer them up. They were dreadfulâmore rock than cake. We had made a mess of Beryl's kitchen, and the mums cried even more, but they hugged us and gave us cocoa, so it all seemed to work out.
After that, Fenny disappeared from our lives for a few years, and Beryl took a post as office manager for the headmaster at a local independent school, and, as I recalled, dated two or three men seriously.
It wasn't until I was almost twenty that Bianca told me the reason for his
had been having affairs with two women in other colleges. At the same time. Both women were married to high-powered men, one a barrister and the other a member of Parliament; both wielded influence at the university. The resulting uproar meant that Fenny quit Cambridge and became a lowly private tutor to thickheaded teenagers; in addition to losing his life's work, he also lost his wife and his son. It was only by my dad's lobbying the powers-that-be for clemency that Fenny ended up with a job of any kind in the city. I was shocked at the true story, but by then, the highly charged emotional atmosphere surrounding Beryl and Fenny had long faded away, and their relationship was civil.
Fenny handed me my tea and sat in a chair. He looked down into his mug and asked, “Did you go to the wedding?”
When Dad and Beryl had told me they were getting married, I had reacted with disbelief, horror, and furyâin that order. I stormed out of our house and Cambridge and flew to Bee's to hide outâthat was how she described it. Within three weeks, I had found and secured the job in Smeaton. I'd got the post without a face-to-face interview, but I'd like to believe that it was on the strength of my organizational experience and good ideas, and not because Linus knew who my father was. And so, newly employed, I had effectively done a bunk on my old life.
Now, at Fenny's question, a mix of emotions vied for top billing. Anger and sadness, as usual, but I also had a strange impulse to defend both my dad and Beryl for their actions. My own outrage was justified, but I didn't want anyone else judging Rupert.
“No, I couldn't be there, as it turned out. I was visiting Bianca in Cornwall at the time, andâ¦well, they wanted to keep it a small affair.” I drank down my tea and got to the point. “So, you don't know what Dad's up to right now?”
A tiny smile crept across Fenny's face and then faded. I thought it was a sad smile. “How could I know more than his most able personal assistant?”
I shook my head. “That isn't meânot any longer. I've had the most incredible opportunity, you see, to run the tourism office for the entire Fotheringill estate, and I moved to Smeaton-under-Lyme. The other side of Bury.”
The smile returned, followed by a laugh. “Well, that's grand. Really, I'm so happy for youâI know you loved working for your dad, but it'll be good for you, don't you think? Yes, you're well and truly away now, aren't you?”
It was the most positive reaction I'd had from anyone to my
I should've been pleased, but Fenny made it sound as if I had saved myself from some terrible fate in the nick of time, and so I felt the need to mount a defense, claim some piece of my former life. I grabbed at the first thing that came to mind.
“Of course, I still help out. I'm continuing toâ¦go through all his post. I keep some of the
you know, so he doesn't have to deal with it all. He's had a letter recently that he's been concerned about, and I'm looking into it.” I patted my bag as if it held an important missive. I had no idea what sort of a letter it was that Michael mentioned, and you'd think this sudden penchant for lying would worry me, but I seemed to be slipping into the role with ease. Reluctantly, I added a bit of truth. “Dad does have a new
Fenny narrowed his eyes. “I thought Rupert took care of his own
“Well, we don't want any crazies getting throughâyou know how nice Dad is to everyone.”
Fenny set his mug down carefully and stared at his shoes. “Who is this Sedgwick?”
I shrugged. “I know nothing about him. Except that he's got a steep learning curve ahead of himâhe knows little about birds. Never been in television. I can't imagine why Dad hired him.”
“I hope Rupert knew what he was doingâtaking someone on who has no experience. I hope he conducted a thorough background search.”
“Dad must've had his reasons.” But what were they? “And so, that's the only time you've spoken with him?”
“I'm afraid we haven't seen much of each other lately.”
My heart sank at the realization Fenny was not my ace in the hole after all. I thought he and Dad kept in closer touch and he might even have heard from him about this trip away. But now that I thought about it, I don't think I'd seen him since Mum's funeral, nine months ago.
Fenny took up his mug and sat back. “Now, how is your sister?”
We entered the chatty portion of the visit, and I kept up as best as my dragging heart would let me. I told him that Bee was expecting, and I asked after his son, Stephen.
“I'd say you're more up-to-date than I am,” Fenny said. True, Stephen and I were still good friends; although he lived in London, we were certainly closer than the Fenwiths' father-son relationship. I'm not sure Stephen ever forgave his dad for breaking up the family, and Fenny never quite grasped Stephen's declaration, at age fifteen, that he was gay. They were, at best, on polite terms.