Authors: Marty Wingate
Linus had joined the family in the next room and was telling a story in German. Michael sat idly at our table.
“Why didn't you tell me I had chocolate all over my face?” I asked, sitting down and pulling my cold cup of tea closer.
“I tried, you paid no attentionâyou were enjoying the cake too much. I agree the chocolate is quite fine, but that Battenbergâ” He shuddered, and I laughed in spite of myself.
The door opened. I stood up to assume my role and welcome the new visitor, but sat back down again when I recognized the caterpillar eyebrows. “Oh, Sergeant Flint,” I said in a low voice, “you're here.”
“Ms. Lanchester, your co-worker told me where to find you. I didn't realize I'd also find Mr.
convenient.” He said it in an easy manner, but it made me break out in a cold sweat.
“Yes, isn't it?” I asked too quickly. “MichaelâMr.
offered to take the time to help us out here today. We're firming up the menu for a cafÃ© at Hoggin Hall.” That explained why I'd been eating so much cake so early in the day, but not what Michael, Rupert Lanchester's new assistant, had to do with it. But that didn't seem to matter, Flint's attention had been drawn elsewhereâI saw his eyes flicker toward the last wedge of blackberry sponge.
I feared Flint would settle down and ask for a fresh pot of tea. This would never doâI couldn't let Linus see his TIC manager with a policeman. I looked at Michael, and he must've been thinking the same thing.
He stood. “Sir, I'm sorry we've yet to get to the station and give our statements about Sunday. We can do that nowâshall we drive over to Mildenhall?”
“No need,” Flint said. “We can do it here.”
Here? Where, here? Certainly not in Nuala's Tea Room. Not at the TIC. My cottage? Absolutely not.
“You live locally, Ms. Lanchester?” Flint asked. “Could we go there?”
“Of course, Sergeant,” I said, instantly buckling to authority. “I'm not far.” My breathing became shallow as I heard “auf Wiedersehens” being said in the German room. We had only seconds. I caught Michael's eye and jerked my head toward the door. “Why don't you two go on ahead, and I'll catch up.”
Michael managed to sweep the sergeant out the door. I rushed over to speak to the visitors, using broken English as if they would understand that better. I complimented Nuala, promised to email Linus the proposed menu, and said my goodbyes. Out on the pavement, I went far enough to be unobserved from the tea room window and stopped. I sent Vesta a text saying I was delayed and would be back by lunch. She replied, reminding me of the two o'clock volunteer training at the Hall. I had the beginnings of a sugar headache.
I hurried up the high street, but as I rounded the bend, something caught my eye down a lane. I stopped, backed up a few steps, and stood still for a moment. The only movement was a woman coming out of the post office with parcel in hand, but it had seemed as if there had been someone else there only a second ago. I shook my head and hurried to catch up with Flint and Michael two doors away from my cottage as a chilly gust smacked me in the face. I let them in, pushing the door as it caught on the stone floor. “A good planing would set that right,” Flint said as they watched me put my shoulder to it to close.
“Yes, thanks, I'll certainly get on that,” I muttered, my back to them as I dropped my bag on the bottom step. “Sergeant, please sit down.” I gestured toward the kitchen table, big enough for three if no one breathed.
“The thing is,” Flint said casually, “it would be better if we could do this one at a timeâthat is, if you've another room we could use.”
My face froze. Isn't this some sort of interrogation
them so that they can't compare stories? And anyway, just where in my tiny cottage did he think that was going to happen? Was I supposed to send Michael up to my bedroom while I confessed toâ¦wait a minute, I had nothing to confess. I cleared my throat.
“Of course, I understand,” I said in my best TIC voice that conveyed total acceptance of a preposterous idea. “I tell you what, why don't you and Michael step outside to the terrace and I'll stay in here and put the kettle on.”
Michael glanced out the French door that led to a tiny bistro table and two chairs that, although inanimate objects, looked as if they were shivering. When he turned back to me, I refused to meet his gaze.
“That'll do,” Flint said. “I appreciate you letting us come hereâit's always a good idea to get your stories down while they're still fresh.”
Or to prevent us from making something upâtoo late for that. The two men settled outside at the table, Michael with hands in his pockets and Flint pulling out a notebook and his mobile. I filled the kettle.
I drank my tea leaning against the counter, imagining the policeman's questions and Michael's answers. Flint had his back to me, but I could see Michael, who appeared calm. He sat up straight, nodding or shaking his head as he talked, occasionally pulling a hand out of his pocket to gesture. At one point he paused and squinted toward the honeysuckle at the bottom of the garden. Flint said something, and Michael replied. I left them to it, and took my tea to the sitting room, but curiosity drew me back just in time to see the two men stand. It hadn't taken nearly as long as I thought, and they were back indoors before I'd drained my mug.
“Well,” Michael said, walking to the front door, “I'll be on my way.”
Flint hung back in the kitchen near the kettle, but I followed Michael.
“Don't go,” I said, hurrying round him to stand in front of the door.
He winked, and I glanced over his shoulder nervously. “I'm sure the sergeant doesn't need me hanging about,” he said. “I'll see you later.”
When Michael had tugged the door closed, I drew myself up to face the music and turned to Flint. “Tea?”
We settled at the tableâindoors. Flint opened his notebook and drew out his phone, which he used as a recorder. At his request, I related Sunday's events as I knew them.
“Ms. Lanchester, Mr. Sedgwick told us that, as this is a new post for him, you had offered to smooth the transition.”
Good, we're sticking to that story. And it wasn't far off the truth. Since Sunday afternoon, as Michael and I stood close to Kersey's body on the bank of the Little Ouse, this “training” had become fact in my brain. Yes, we went up there looking for Rupert, but think of the advice I'd given Michael on his new jobâno one else could do that, only me. And Dad had nothing to do with Kersey's death, so why even bring his name up? “I'm happy to help, of course,” I said.
“I believe you said your father was in Cumbria?”
“Yes, Cumbriaâat least, I believe that's what he said.” That sounded goodâvague, but not too vague.
“He's got a great talent, doesn't he?” Flint smiled. “He's teaching the whole country to pay more attention to nature, yet we don't even know we're being taught. Why, my little one won't let me cut the long grass near the field until we've made sure there are no lapwing nests. And hedgehogs as wellâwe must look out for them.”
“Yes,” I said, nodding. “Nature as a whole, not individual parts.” I liked thisâFlint had a good grasp of Dad's mission in life.
“Did you know Kenneth Kersey?”
The question made me jumpâI thought we had gone off in a different direction. “I'd seen him once or twice,” I said, stumbling over the words. “And, of course, his name is often in the news, isn't it?”
“Have you had dealings with anyone else from his company, Power to the People, through your work? Your previous job, that is.”
I shook my head, although it was more of a vibration than a confident denial. “No. Well, I may have read up on them, you know, as there seemed to be some discussion recently about the company's tactics in choosing a site for the new wind farm.”
Too close, Juliaâdon't bring up the wind farm.
“We're also trying to get hold of the company's managing directorâOscar Woodcock. Have you met him?”
“No.” Only because I'd stayed well away. Woodcock and Rupert had had a run-in when Dad showed up at the potential wind-farm site near Weeting Heath when Power to the People had been filming a promotional piece. But I'd seen photos, and I'd heard Dad's description of himâOscar Woodcock, he said, had eyes like a shark's: cold, dark, dead.
“Your father had met both of them, of course. And argued with them both. Publicly.”
“He had met them, yes. But I wouldn't describe their encounters as arguments,
It was nothing personal.”
“When was the last time you spoke with your father?”
I blinked. “FridayâI saw him just before he left for this research trip.”
“We'll need to speak to him as soon as possible. Do you have his mobile number?”
Was this a trick to see if I'd confirm Beryl's story? “I do, of course, but I believe he forgot to take it with him on this outing. At least that's whatâ¦” I stopped, unable to choose the next word without it choking meâhis wife, myâ¦“Beryl told me. Have you spoken to Beryl?”
“It's odd, isn't it?” Flint asked. “We've become so accustomed to instant
have our mobile phones at the ready. Hard to believe he could just leave it behind.”
I was preparing an answer to that camouflaged accusation, but Flint didn't seem to expect one. “What vehicle was Rupert driving on this research trip?”
“Driving?” I asked.
“Yes,” Flint said mildly. “Is it his old Range Rover?”
“No, he's borrowed my car for this trip. Is that a problem?”
“I'll need those details.”
I swallowed hard and gave themâmake, model, number plate. Flint flipped his notebook closed and stopped the recording. “That's all we'll need for now.”
Released. “Do you have any idea who did this to Mr. Kersey?”
Instead of answering, Flint stuck his hand in his pocket. “Here's something, now. Do you know what this is?”
He drew out a plastic bag that held a small, wrinkled square of paper with what looked like a series of numbers and letters. The letters reminded me of something, but I couldn't think of what.
SW to show 30.04 RM WC
“Is it a betting slip?”
“Possibly. We found it in the victim's shoe.”
I read the letters again. “WC.” “Was Mr. Kersey betting on toilets?”
Flint's caterpillars twitched. “I've known worse.”
He stood and walked to the door. “Thank you for your time, Ms. Lanchester. Please stop by the police station tomorrow or the next dayâwe'll have your statement ready for you to sign.”
I shut the door after him and stood immobile in the kitchen, going over the interview, hoping to discover some unnoticed tidbit from Flint about Rupert or Kersey or finding us at Marshy End. Also, I was starving, but had to abandon any thoughts of lunch when I glanced at the time.
“Vesta, I'm so sorry I've left you on your own all day.” I began speaking the second I cracked open the door of the TIC. “I was delayed, you know, with Nuala and all.”
The booklets lay in a tidy stack on the counter, and I ran my finger down the list of trainees for the program, shifting my brain from murder to ancient history with some resistance.
“It's been quiet, so no trouble,” Vesta replied. “Although someone came looking for you earlier. A tall man wearing a raincoat. It isn't raining, is it?”
I looked at Vesta's faceâquiet, nondemanding, welcoming. No escape this time. “He's a
Flintâfrom Mildenhall. You've probably heard the news about that man who was found dead, the one who worked for the wind-farm company.”
“It's a terrible business,” Vesta said.
I nodded, but there was no time for long stories now. “I don't mean to keep things from you, Vestaâit's just been a difficult few days. Perhaps I could stop at your place for a chat tomorrow after I close?”
She smiled. “I'll have the kettle on.”
That gave me such a feeling of peace, knowing I could spill it all to her. “Thanks. Right, then, that's me away,” I said.
“Julia, I forgot about your car. I should've asked Akash to give you a lift.”
“I've plenty of time.” Not really, but I was distracted by her use of his first nameâthat must mean that there had been some forward motion in the
I couldn't help pursuing the topic. I tapped the list of names. “I didn't know Akash had signed on to be a docent.”
“Yes, he's quite looking forward to attending.”
“Is he, now?” I asked. “Every training session, or only the ones you'll be leading?”
Vesta's cheeks took on a pink glow, and she looked down at her work. “I'll see you tomorrow after you close.”
Twenty new volunteers awaited me. I could only pray that Thorne had arranged for tea and that there might be a sandwich going. Anything but cake.
I hightailed it to the Hallâat least, I attempted some speed, but my heels sank into the damp earth of the grassy verge. When I reached the gravel drive, I sprinted and arrived, breathing hard, with thirty seconds to spare. I rang the bell, and while I waited, I dug a tissue out of my bag and tried to clean the mud off my shoes.
The door creaked open to reveal Thorne, his face like crepe paper and his hair a fluffy cotton ball. His eyes barely flickered to the muddy tissue in my hand. “Good afternoon, Ms. Lanchester, come in. May I take that for you?”
“Good afternoon, Thorne,” I said, and, with nowhere else to stash it, dropped the tissue into his open hand. He received it with aplomb.
Akash stood in the entry, a room as big as all of Pipit Cottage. In the middle of the room, a chandelier the size of my car hung over a round mahogany table, on top of which was a glass vase with a massive number of purple irises.
“Hello, Julia. Thorne was just telling me about a few of the previous earls,” Akash said, nodding to the bigger-than-life portraits that marched up the staircase.
“I'm delighted you've signed on for the program, Akash. How are you managing to get away from the shop?”
“I've old McKiddie taking a few hours now and thenâat least he knows his way round a till.” It was old McKiddie who'd had the shop before Akash acquired it a year ago.
Thorne took our coats and showed us to the library, where the volunteers, mostly retirement age, stood with cups and saucers in hand.
I spied two platters of tea sandwiches on a table against the far window. Lovely thin bread with trimmed crusts, spread with butter and each one cut into quartersâmy stomach growled at the sight. I thrust the stack of booklets into the arms of a woman who taught knitting classes at Three Bags Full and asked her to hand them out. I wove my way through the group until I reached my goal, whereupon I took a ham-sandwich triangle, folded it in half, and inserted the entire thing in my mouth.
I whipped round, chewing furiously. “Eh, ohr?” I covered my mouth. “Orry.”
Thorne held his arms at his sides and looked just over my shoulder as he spoke. “Lord Fotheringill asked me to tell you that he cannot be here for this afternoon's instruction and to convey his regrets. He's been called away on business with the young master. As such, he will be unable to conduct the new staff members on their foray about the Hall.”
The young master was Linus's thirty-year-old son, Cecil, whom I'd yet to meet. In my short time in Smeaton, Linus had been “called away” to deal with Cecil-related business several times.
I swallowed and cleared my throat. “Thank you, Thorne. I'll let the volunteers know that we must put that off to the next session. It isn't as if we don't have plenty to talk about today.”
I clapped my hands and got the group seated and silent before I made the announcement. The news didn't go over well.
“We were promised a tour,” said a voice at the back.
“Yes,” I said, “you'll get a tour.”
“We were promised a tour today,” another chimed in.
I held up a hand for quiet. “I know Lord Fotheringill is eager to show youâ”
“How're we to talk about the eighteenth-century tapestries if we can't see them?”
“I don't see why we couldn't have a nose round right now just on our own.”