Book: The Case Of The Dead Wait
The Case Of The Dead Wait
Christmas at home wasn’t ever in Laura Thyme’s plans. Where was home? She’d hurled a large stone through the front window of her last one. Her two-timing cradle-snatcher of a husband Nick had blighted all the nice memories of that place. She tried to think of herself these days as a free spirit. Tried, because deep inside she hadn’t entirely got the man out of her system. He still had the capacity to hurt.
Well, she was sure of one thing. She wouldn’t dump herself on either of her grown-up children. They would have plans of their own, and quite right, too. If Matthew or Helena looked forward to pulling anything on Christmas Day it wasn’t a cracker with their mum. They really were free spirits, long past the stage when Laura made it her business to know who they were sleeping with.
As for Rosemary-her gardening oppo, Dr. Rosemary Boxer, the ex-academic with the happy knack of finding wealthy clients with ailing plants-she’d be the perfect company for a festive lunch, but she had an elderly mum living alone. Last weekend Rosemary had called to wish Laura a merrier time than she was expecting for herself.
The result: Laura was house-sitting.
She was alone in The Withers, a large Jacobean house in Wiltshire. Two of her oldest and richest friends, Jane and Michael Eadington, were having three weeks in the Canaries. A call at the end of November had set it up. “We’re in such trouble, Laura. You know we’ve got these silly orchids that are Mike’s latest hobby? Our daughter Maeve-the model-was going to look after them and now she’s got a chance to do a series of shows with Calvin Klein in New York. Could you, would you, will you, please, be our fairy godmother?”
Even after discovering that the house had another resident-Wilbur, the rescue greyhound.
She’d driven the Land Rover down there on Christmas Eve. For all its mechanical uncertainties, the ancient 4x4 was ideal transport for the country. She overheated only once, and the car didn’t overheat at all. She was just in time to see the Eadingtons off. A quick introduction to the orchids, six trays of them in the conservatory under banks of fluorescent tubing. Hurried instructions about the central heating, persuading Wilbur to wear a coat for winter walks, and what to do in a power failure. Firm orders not to be in the least concerned if anything broke or went wrong. “It’s all replaceable, darling. We’re just so pleased to have you here. Treat it like your own home. Raid the freezer, watch the DVDs, drink the wine in the cellar, have an orgy if you want.”
For a few minutes after they’d driven up the lane Laura wondered if she’d done the right thing. The house seemed bigger than she remembered from the last visit. She’d never once set foot upstairs. The orchids were in flower, but didn’t look pleased at being handed over to her care. Winter was supposed to be the flowering season, but some of them were wilting. Mike had talked about misting and humidity levels and feeding. She didn’t want any casualties. She returned to the vast space the Eadingtons used as the living room.
A sudden movement at the window gave her a wicked shock. The greyhound had emerged from behind the curtain, where he’d been sitting on the sill. Yes, a greyhound on a window sill. It was that kind of room, that kind of window, that kind of curtain. “I’m in charge now, Wilbur,” she told him, wagging a finger, “and if the two of us are going to survive you’d better not play any more tricks like that.”
Treat the place like your home, they’d said, so she took out her Christmas cards and started setting them up. The cards triggered mixed feelings. It was good to hear from old friends, but it could hurt when the envelopes came addressed to Nick and Laura with messages along the lines of “How are you two getting along? Give us a call and let’s all meet up in 2007.”
Wilbur jumped back on his sill and knocked down most of the cards.
“Making some kind of point, are we?” Laura said. But she moved them to the grand piano.
When the doorbell rang a moment later, the rest of the cards dropped out of her hand. It was a chiming bell and her charming friends had set it to the opening bar of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” which can be pretty startling when you don’t expect it. Wilbur barked, so she had to shut him in the conservatory first.
A tall-six foot tall, at least-thin-faced woman with deep-set, accusing eyes was on the doorstep with a plate covered with a cloth. “And who the devil are you?” she said.
Laura did her best to explain, but it didn’t make much impact.
“Where’s young Maeve? She ought to be looking after the house,” the woman said.
“Yes, but she’s dashed off to New York. A last-minute change of plans.”
“What do I do with these, then? I made them for the family.” She lifted the cloth briefly to reveal a batch of underdone mince pies.
“I don’t know,” Laura said; adding with tact, “They smell delicious. I’m sorry, but you didn’t say who you are.”
“Gertrude Appleton from next-door. We always exchange mince pies at Yuletide. Have you made yours?”
“I just arrived.”
That didn’t count with Gertrude Appleton. She clicked her tongue and looked ready to stamp her foot as well. “I must have one of yours, or I’ll get bad luck for a year.”
“It’s Wiltshire custom, isn’t it? You eat a pie on each of the twelve days of Christmas, and every one has to be baked by a different friend. Then, if the Lord is merciful, you’ll survive to see another Christmas. Bless my soul, there isn’t anyone else I can ask.”
“You’d better step inside a moment,” Laura said, not wanting to panic this woman and playing for time while she thought about ways to resolve the problem.
“No, I won’t come in,” Gertrude Appleton said, and those fierce eyes were suddenly red at the edges and starting to water. “I don’t know you from Adam. Couldn’t call thee a friend.”
“Let’s be friends. Why not? It’s the season for it,” Laura said, dredging deep to sound convivial. “Listen, Gertrude, why don’t I do some baking right now and make some pies for you?”
“But you won’t have mincemeat.”
“I’m positive all the ingredients must be in the kitchen. Jane adores cooking, as you know.”
Gertrude raised her chin in a self-righteous way. “Mine was made with the puddings four weeks ago, the week after Stir-up Sunday.”
“Stir-up Sunday. Haven’t you heard of that? The last Sunday before Advent. That’s when you make your puddings and mince, after the collect for the day: ‘Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy people.’”
This was getting more and more weird.
“In that case, Jane may have made hers already,” Laura said. “I’ll check. One way or another, you’ll get a mince pie from me, Gertrude. Depend upon it.”
“Take these, then.” Gertrude thrust the plate towards her. “You’ll need some for the waits.”
Laura had a mental picture of old-fashioned kitchen scales, with her mince pie being weighed against Gertrude’s and found wanting.
“The carollers. They come round every Christmas Eve, and they always want a bite to eat and mulled wine, too, the boozy lot. I must be off. I have seasonal jobs to do. There’s greenfly and aphids in the greenhouse.”
“You’re a gardener?” Laura said with interest.
“Ha!” She tossed her head. “Am I a gardener? I wouldn’t bother to go on without my garden. It’s the saving of me.”
“I do some gardening, too. What are you going to do about the aphids-spray them?”
Gertrude looked shocked. “I don’t hold with chemicals. No, I’ll smoke the varmints out, like I always do.”
“Fumigation? Effective, I expect, though I’ve never tried it,” Laura said.
“I’ve got these magical smoke things, like little strips of brown paper. Had them for years. Just close up all the windows and seal the cracks and set light to they strips. Let it blaze for a while, and then I stamp it out so they can smoulder. Soon as the smoke appears I’m out of there quicker than hell would scorch a feather and shut the door behind me. When I go in again, there’s not a greenfly left to say it ever happened.”
Laura refrained from mentioning that the magical smoke things undoubtedly contained chemicals of some kind. “Good luck with it, then. And I won’t forget the mince pies. Which direction do you live?”
She was glad to have a task, although she could think of better ones than this. After closing the door she carried the plate to Jane’s enormous kitchen, plonked it on the table, and checked the walk-in larder for jars of mincemeat.
No joy. If you were planning to spend Christmas in Lanzarote, she reflected, you wouldn’t feel obliged to make mincemeat. Even on Stir-up Sunday.
She checked the freezer. Well stocked, but not with seasonal items.
She thought of the supermarket in Bradford on Avon. A bought mince pie wouldn’t suffice, of course. Those eyes like calculators would spot a Mr. Kipling at fifty paces. The pastry, at the very least, would have to look homemade.
Then Laura had her inspiration. She’d save herself the toil, tears, and sweat by recycling some of Gertrude’s own mince pies and simply making new lids for them. She picked a sharp knife and prised the lid off one. A neat dissection. The trick would be to spread a little jam over the mincemeat to seal the replacement.
She found all the ingredients she needed and switched on the oven.
When the phone on the wall rang she was up to her elbows in flour.
“You’ll just have to leave a message after the tone,” she said to it.
“This is Calvin Klein’s office in New York. Mr Klein was hoping to speak to Maeve about the trip. We’ll call back.”
Laura said, “Calvin Klein! I could be speaking to Calvin Klein and I’m sifting ruddy pastry?”
She was adding the egg yolk and water when the phone went again. This time she grabbed it with a floury hand. In a come-hitherish tone she said, “Hi, how can I be of service?”
She knew that voice and it wasn’t Calvin Klein’s. “You! I thought you were someone else. Oh, never mind. It’s good to hear from you.”
“It’s a miracle,” Rosemary said. “I used one of those directory-enquiry numbers and I’m sure it was someone in Calcutta, but she seemed to know the Eadingtons. You’re installed in deepest Wilts, then?”
“‘In deepest’ sums it up. I haven’t been here an hour and I’m already making pastry for the locals. What’s with you?”
“A change of plans, actually. Mother forgot to tell me. When I got here she was all packed up to leave. You know she does competitions? She won a trip for two to the Bahamas, courtesy of Cadbury, or Kellogg’s, or someone.”
“How marvellous! But what are you going to wear? I bet you didn’t pack your bikini.”
“Oh, she isn’t taking me,” Rosemary said, as if that went without saying. “You know what Mother’s like. She’s taking some old gent called Mr. Pinkerton from the Tai Chi group. I’m high and dry, Laura. I was wondering if-well-if there’s a spare bed in this stately pile you’re looking after.”
Laura took a step back and there was a yelp from Wilbur, who had got too close. “That wasn’t me. Do I have a spare bed? Dozens. That’s brilliant.”
“I could get a train to Bath tonight.”
“You’ve made my Christmas. I’ll be waiting on the platform.”
She had fitted the fresh lids on those pies, twelve of them, and very appetizing they looked. She’d used a beaten-egg glaze that gave them a lovely amber finish to leave no doubt that they were different from Gertrude Appleton’s insipid-looking offerings. Rosemary was due on a late train at 10:50, so it was likely that the carollers would get their treats. Would eleven pies be enough? She needed to put one aside, of course, for Gertrude, to help her survival plan. If twelve or more carollers came, Laura told herself, it was a sure bet that some wouldn’t want another pie if they’d been eating them all around the village. The mulled wine simmering in a saucepan was another matter.
About eight-thirty, Wilbur howled and Laura heard muted singing. She shut Wilbur in the kitchen and opened the front door. She needn’t have worried about the catering. A mere four men stood under a lantern. Three wore cardboard-and-tinsel crowns and were giving an uneven rendering of “We Three Kings.” The fourth, holding up the lantern, was the vicar, unless his collar was from a carnival shop, like the crowns. He looked too young to be a clergyman. Just like policemen, Laura thought.
When they started on the solo verses, Melchior’s reedy voice almost faded away. For a fat man he was producing a very thin sound. Caspar, with “Frankincense to offer have I,” was marginally better, and Balthazar, “Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume,” lost the tune altogether. She was thankful when they got to the last chorus. She popped a two-pound coin into the box and invited them inside.
“Muddy feet,” said the vicar. “We’d better not.”
Melchior had already taken a step forward and needed restraining by his companions. Too much mulled wine already, Laura suspected. But she still fetched the tray from the kitchen with the jug of wine and the pies.
“I may have over-catered here. I was expecting more of you,” she said as she invited them to help themselves. The man who’d sung the part of Caspar handed round the plate of mince pies, but it was obvious that they’d eaten well already. Only Melchior took one. The wine was more popular.
“We would have had two shepherds as well,” Balthazar said, “but one didn’t show up and the other dropped out at Long Farm.”
“It’s quite a trek,” the vicar said.
“He was legless,” Balthazar said.
“You don’t live here, do you?” Caspar asked Laura. “You’re not a burglar, by any chance?”
“Giving us mulled wine and the finest mince pie I’ve had all night? You must be joking,” Melchior said to his friend.
A slightly dodgy mince pie, Laura almost confessed. They seemed likable men, even if their singing wasn’t up to much. She introduced herself and explained about the housesitting. They told her their names but she soon forgot them. They were the vicar and Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar tonight, and she’d probably never see them again, so why think of them as anything else?
“What do you do when you’re not housesitting?” the tuneless one, Balthazar, asked.
“So do I. Not a lot of gardening to be done this time of year,” little Caspar said.
“You’re wrong about that,” Laura said. “There are no end of jobs. I’ll be out there tomorrow.”
“Cutting some holly and mistletoe?” the vicar said.
“Good suggestion. The house could do with some, as you see.”
“Christmas roses? You’ve got some in the front.”
“If you mean the Helleborus niger, they’re not such good specimens. The ones you buy in florists come so much taller and whiter, thanks to forcing,” Laura said, thinking Rosemary would have been proud of that bit of expertise.
“Nasty things. Poisonous,” Melchior said, slurring his words even more.
“Mistletoe berries are poisonous, too,” Balthazar said.
The vicar decided not to go down that route. “We’d better drink up, gentlemen. Three more houses and a long walk to go.”
“Have you been to Gertrude Appleton?” Laura asked.
“The house afore you. Stingy old mucker,” Melchior said.
“That’s a bit unseasonal, isn’t it?” the vicar said.
“We all know Gertrude,” Caspar said. “Before we get a glass or a bite to eat from her, we have to promise to take her a mince pie after Christmas.”
“And if we forget, she’ll come hammering on our doors,” Balthazar said.
Laura was about to explain that it was a superstition, but stopped herself. These villagers didn’t miss a thing. They’d know all about Gertrude.
“Thanks for these, good lady,” Caspar said as he returned the plate, with ten of the eleven pies remaining. “Sorry we couldn’t all do justice to them.”
Melchior said without warning, “I need to sit down. I’m feeling dizzy.”
“You’d better come in,” Laura offered. “I was wondering about you.”
“And it’s not the wine,” said Balthazar. “He’s a teetotaler.”
Laura gave Balthazar a second look, but he seemed to be speaking in all seriousness. She noticed Melchior didn’t have a glass in his hand.
“Would you mind, Mrs. Thyme?” the vicar said. “I don’t think he’s capable of continuing.” He picked the crown off the fat man’s head. “I’ll have to be Melchior now.” Judged by the speed of the change, he’d wanted a starring role all evening.
Laura took a grip on Melchior’s arm and steered him inside to an armchair. Then she said something she was to regret. “Why don’t you gentlemen finish your round and come back for him?”
“He farms just up the lane,” Caspar said, and Laura thought she detected a suggestion that they might not, after all, return for their companion. “Blackberry Farm. It can’t be more than three hundred yards.”
They waved goodnight.
After closing the door, Laura glanced at her watch. There was still ample time before she needed to collect Rosemary.
Melchior had slumped in the chair and was snoring softly.
“Strong coffee for you,” Laura said.
He made a sound she chose to take as appreciation. It could have been a belch.
In the kitchen, Wilbur was round her feet. She found the store of dog food and opened a tin. She said, “Consider yourself lucky, Wilbur. I’ve got other demands on my time.”
When she took the coffee to Melchior his snoring was heavier and his chin was buried in his chest. This wasn’t good. She didn’t want this overweight man settling into a deep sleep and being immovable just when she needed to drive to Bath. She checked the time again. She really ought to be leaving in less than an hour. She wasn’t certain how long it would take to drive to the station.
“Have some coffee. It’ll brighten you up.”
Wishful thinking. He didn’t make a murmur that wasn’t a snore.
In a louder voice she said, “I made the coffee.”
This was becoming a predicament. She’d have to touch the man’s face or hands to get a response, but she’d only just met him. Didn’t even know his real name. How do I get myself into situations like this? she thought.
She put down the coffee and stood with her arms folded wondering how to deal with this. Wilbur came in and sniffed at the mud on Melchior’s boots.
Fresh air, she decided. She flung open a couple of windows and an icy blast of December ripped through the room.
Wilbur streaked upstairs, but Melchior didn’t move a muscle.
“Come on, man!” Laura said. She found the remote and switched on the television. The Nine Lessons and Carols at full volume. Switched the channel to the Three Tenors.
In frustration Laura brought her two hands together and slapped her own face quite hard. She’d have to overcome her innate decorum and give him a prod. Alone with a strange bloke in someone else’s house, but it had to be done.
First she switched off the three of them belting out Nessun Dorma. Her nerves couldn’t take it.
Tentatively she put out a finger and touched the back of Melchior’s right hand, resting on the arm of the chair. It remained quite still. She placed the whole of her hand across it and squeezed.
There was a slight reaction, a twitch of the eyelids, but they didn’t open. Laura leaned closer and blew on them. Nothing.
She drew a deep breath and patted his fat face.
He made a sound, no more than “Mm”-but a definite response.
“Wake up, please,” she said. “I don’t want you asleep.”
A triumph. The eyes opened and stared at her.
“It’s no good,” she told him. “You can’t sit here forever. Let’s see if you can walk to the car and I’ll drive you home. Blackberry Farm, isn’t it?”
At the mention of his address, Melchior made a definite effort to move. He rocked forward and groaned. Laura thrust her hand under his armpit and encouraged the movement. Out of sheer determination she got him to his feet. He was still unsteady, but she wrapped his arm around her shoulders and hung on to it and kept him upright.
“The car’s outside. Come on. Start walking.”
It was slow progress and a huge physical effort, but she kept him on the move, talking all the time in the hope that it would keep him conscious. Getting down the two small steps at the front door was hard enough, but the real challenge was hoisting him onto the passenger seat of the Land Rover.
She swung the door open with her free hand. “I’m going to need your help here, Melchior. One giant leap for mankind.”
He moaned a little, maybe at Laura’s attempt to be cheerful.
To encourage him, she curled her hand under his knee and lifted his right leg up to the level of the vehicle floor. It felt horribly limp. She found places for his hands to grip. “On the count of three,” she said, “and I’ll probably end up with a slipped disc. One, two, three!”
If he made some gesture towards the performance it wasn’t obvious. Laura found herself making a superhuman effort. Dignity abandoned, she put her shoulder under his rump and inched him upwards. All those hours of heavy gardening paid off. He got one buttock onto the seat and she rammed him like a front-row forward until he was in a position where she could snap the safety belt across.
She ran back to the house and closed the windows and door. Wilbur was inside, but did she have the key? She hoped so.
The Land Rover, bless its antiquated ignition system, started the first time.
Blackberry Farm. Which way? Her passenger was in no condition to say. Laura swung right and hoped. The lanes were unlit, of course. Her full beam probed the hedgerows ahead. Can’t be more than three hundred yards, Caspar had said. She’d gone that distance already. She continued for another two minutes, then found a gate entrance. Nothing so helpful as a sign. She reversed into the space and retraced her route. Maybe she should have turned left coming out of The Withers.
Then she saw the board for Blackberry Farm fixed to a drystone wall. Drove into the yard and sounded the horn. She’d need help getting Melchior down. It would be useful if he had a couple of hefty sons.
From one of the farm buildings came a wisp of a woman wearing overalls and wellies. She was about Melchior’s age, Laura judged. Two sheepdogs came with her, barking.
“I’ve brought the farmer home,” Laura said, competing to be heard. “He’s rather tired. Is there anyone who can help get him down?”
The little lady spread her hands. “There’s only me, my love.”
Laura got out and opened the passenger door. “We’ll have to manage together, then. Is he your husband?”
“Yes, and I don’t like the look of ‘un,” the little lady said. “Douglas, you gawpus, what’s the matter with ‘ee?”
Laura looked. Her passenger had taken a definite turn for the worse. He was making jerky movements with his head and left leg. Change of plan. “I think we should get your husband to a doctor fast,” she said. “Jump aboard.”
“I can’t come with ‘ee,” the farmer’s wife said. “I’ve got a cow in calf.”
“But I’m a stranger here. I don’t know where to take him,” Laura almost wailed.
“Royal United, Bath. Agzy-denton Emergissy.”
Laura understood now. “Which way?”
“Left out of the yard and straight up the lane till you reach the A36. You’ll pick up the horse piddle signs when you get close to the city.”
“Can you call them and say I’m on the way with a man having convulsions?”
“After I’ve seen to the cow.”
Laura swung the Land Rover towards the gate, scattering the dogs, and started up the lane. “Don’t worry,” she said to Melchior, or Douglas, “you’ll be getting help very soon.” The only response was a vomiting sound.
“Please! Not in the Land Rover,” she muttered.
She was forced to concentrate on the drive, trusting in the Lord that she wouldn’t meet anything as she belted along the lane. Passing points seemed to be unknown in this part of Wiltshire. The beam picked out the scampering shape of a badger up ahead. It saved itself by veering off to the left.
Then she spotted headlights descending a hill and guessed she was close to the main road. Right or left? She’d have to make a guess. Her instinct said right.
Forced to stop at the intersection, she glanced at her passenger. His face was still twitching and looked a dreadful colour in the passing lights. This was much more serious than overindulgence in mulled wine.
Now was when she could do with an emergency light and siren. Out on the A36, with a long run into Bath -and a sign told her she had taken the right direction-she was overtaking like some teenage joyrider in a stolen Merc. Other drivers flashed their lights at her and one idiot got competitive and tried to force her to stay in the wrong lane. But there came a point when she was high on the downs and the city lights appeared below her. At any other time she would have been enchanted by the view. All she could think was, where is the hospital?
At the first traffic lights she wound down the window and asked. Of course it had to be on the opposite side of the city. Another hair-raising burn-up through the streets and she found seriously helpful signs at last.
A amp;E. She drew up behind an ambulance. Someone was rolling a stretcher on wheels towards the Land Rover. The farmer’s wife must have alerted them. The passenger door was opened.
“Is this the man with convulsions?”
Laura took this to be one of those inane questions people ask in times of crisis. Of course he had convulsions. He’d been convulsing all the way to the hospital.
But when she turned to look at him, he’d gone still.
They checked his heart. The doctor shook his head. They unstrapped Melchior and transferred him to the stretcher and raced it inside.
Nothing had been said to Laura. She could only conclude that she’d brought in a man who was dead. Maybe they’d revive him. She moved the Land Rover away from the entrance and went in to find out.
She was twenty minutes late collecting Rosemary. It was such a relief to see her.
“I’m so sorry.”
“My dear, you look drained. Whatever has happened?”
Rosemary insisted on taking the wheel and Laura told her story as they headed out of the city.
“So couldn’t they revive him?” Rosemary said.
“What’s the phrase? Dead on arrival. They worked on him, but it was no use.”
“What was it-heart?”
“No one would say. They’ll do an autopsy, I suppose. I told them all I could. It seemed to happen very suddenly. He said he felt dizzy and asked to sit down. I thought it was the mulled wine, but it turned out he hadn’t had a drop all evening. He’s TT. Then he fell asleep, a really deep sleep. I got him into the car-I don’t know how-he was pretty far gone-and his wife noticed the convulsions, which was when I knew he needed medical help.”
“Dizziness, anaesthesia, and convulsions. Was he vomiting?”
“Trying to, anyway.”
“It sounds more like poisoning to me,” Rosemary said.
“Did he eat anything?”
“One of the mince pies I handed out. That’s all.”
“That’s all right, then,” Rosemary said. “No problem with that, if you were the cook.”
Laura clapped her hand to her mouth.
Rosemary said, “What’s wrong?”
“I did something dreadful. I may have killed him.”
“Hold on.” Rosemary pulled into a layby and turned off the engine. “Laura, get a grip and tell me just what you’re talking about.”
Laura’s voice shook as she explained what she had done with Gertrude Appleton’s pies. “If there was anything in them I’ll never forgive myself.”
From a distant field came the triple bark of a dog-fox, answered by a vixen sounding eerily like a woman screaming. Rosemary shivered. “We’ll face this together.”
It was close to midnight when they drove up the lane to The Withers. Christmas morning, almost.
In an effort to lighten the mood, Rosemary said, “If you look in that bag at your feet you’ll find I packed a bottle of bubbly. Let’s open it as soon as we get in, shall we?”
“You’re a star,” Laura said. “Some Christmas cheer in spite of everything.” But her voice trailed away.
A police car was on the drive.
“Is one of you ladies Mrs. Laura Thyme?” the officer asked. “You’re about to see in Christmas at the police station.”
It was the day after Boxing Day, and still Laura was troubled by guilt.
“What upset me most was the way that detective put his hand on my head and pressed down when I got in their car, just like they do with murderers.”
“That didn’t mean a thing,” Rosemary said.
“Well, he didn’t do it to you.” Laura’s voice shook a little. “Is it possible those pies were poisoned?”
“Possible, I suppose.”
“Think of what goes into mincemeat-all those rich flavours, the fruits, the spice, the peel. You could add almost any poison and it wouldn’t be obvious.”
“If they were poisoned, we’ve still got eleven of them sitting in the fridge.”
“Ten. I handed the singers a plate with eleven and ten came back. The farmer took one and ate it. That’s certain.”
“There are eleven in the fridge. I counted,” Rosemary said in her precise way.
Laura snapped her fingers. “You’re right. I kept one back for Gertrude, the neighbour. She asked specially.”
“Gertrude,” said Rosemary. “She’s the one the police should be questioning. I wonder if she’d eat that pie if you offered it. She wouldn’t know it’s one of hers with a new lid.”
“I don’t want another death on my hands.”
“This is all supposition anyway,” Rosemary said. “We’ll probably find the poor man died of natural causes.”
“Listen, if Gertrude is a poisoner, those pies were meant for my friends Jane, Michael, and Maeve. Was she in dispute with them? You know what neighbours can be like.”
“Neighbourly, in most cases.”
“What could she have used?”
“You said she’s a gardener. You and I know that a garden is full of plants capable of poisoning people.”
“Christmas roses!” Laura said. “We’ve got some in the front.”
“Let’s not leap to any conclusions,” Rosemary said, trying to remain calm. “Besides, your carol singers had been round most of the village eating mince pies and drinking wine before they got to you. If he was poisoned, it could have been someone else’s pie that did it.”
Laura refused to think of anyone else except Gertrude as responsible. “I’d dearly like to know if she was having a feud with Jane and family.”
“Why don’t we ask someone?”
“In a village? Who do you ask?”
“The vicar. He ought to be discreet.”
The vicarage was ten minutes away, at the end of a footpath across the frost-covered fields. If nothing else, they’d be exercising Wilbur the greyhound. With difficulty they got him into his coat.
They passed Gertrude’s garden on the way. Laura grabbed Rosemary’s arm. “Look, she’s got a patch of Christmas roses.”
“She’s also got white bryony in her hedge and a poinsettia in her window, both of them potential killers, but it doesn’t make her a murderer,” Rosemary said to curb Laura’s imagination. “She may have mistletoe inside the house. Death cap toadstools growing in her compost. I see she has a greenhouse. There could be an oleander in there.”
But Laura was unstoppable. “I didn’t tell you about the greenhouse. She told me she was fumigating it for pests, and I don’t know what she was using, but it sounded primitive, and hazardous as well. Would you believe burning shreds of paper that she had to stamp on to produce the smoke?”
Rosemary winced. “Out of the ark, by the sound of it. Well, out of some dark shed. Old gardeners used flakes of nicotine. Highly dangerous, of course, and illegal now. What’s wrong with a spray?”
Laura tapped the side of her nose. “Chemicals.”
“Fumes are eco-friendly, are they? Isn’t that the vicarage ahead?”
They shouted to Wilbur, who must have scented fox or rabbit. He raced back, tail going like a mainspring, and got no reward for obedience. He was put on the lead and no doubt decided it’s a dog’s life.
The vicarage was surrounded by a ten-foot yew hedge that Rosemary mentioned was another source of deadly poison. Laura gave her a long look. “You wouldn’t be winding me up, would you?”
She smiled. “Encouraging a sense of proportion.”
The vicar, in a Bath Rugby Club sweatshirt, was relaxing after his Christmas duties. He sounded genuinely disturbed about the death of Melchior, and guilt-stricken, also. “If I’d had any idea he was so ill, I wouldn’t have asked you to take him in,” he said to Laura. “You acted splendidly, getting him to hospital.”
“I couldn’t tell the police much about him,” Laura said. “Didn’t even know his surname.”
“Boon. Douglas Boon. His family have farmed here for generations. Blackberry Farm is the last of the old farms. I suppose his wife inherits. There aren’t any children. She’ll have to sell up, I should think.”
“What do you mean by the last of the old farms?”
“Traditional. Cattle and sheep. Everyone’s switching to flowers and bulbs since that foot-and-mouth epidemic. We didn’t have an outbreak here, thank the Lord, but other farmers didn’t want the risk and sold up. Much of the land has been put under glass by Ben Black, known to you as Balthazar.”
“The tall man?” Laura said.
“A giant in the nursery garden business and a very astute businessman. Lay chairman of the Parochial Church Council as well, so I have to work closely with him. He’s from London originally. To the locals, he’s an incomer, but he gives them a living.”
“So he’ll be interested in Blackberry Farm if it comes on the market?” Rosemary said.
“No question.” The vicar sighed. “I happen to know he made Douglas a handsome offer last week, far more than it’s worth, and I heard that Douglas was willing at last to sell.”
“Every man has his price,” Laura remarked.
“Yes, and it is also said that gold goes in at any gate except the gate of heaven. As it turns out, Ben will get the farm for a fraction of that offer if Kitty Boon wants to sell.” He looked wistful. “I’ll be sorry if the cows go. They hold up the traffic when they’re being driven along the lane for milking, but rows of daffodils wouldn’t be the same at all.”
Laura had a vision of rows of daffies holding up the traffic.
“Do you mind if I ask about someone else?” she said. “On Christmas Eve, Gertrude Appleton called with some mince pies.”
“Gertrude?” The vicar had a special smile for this member of his flock. “That’s one of her many superstitions. Something about exchanging pies to avoid bad luck. False worship, really. I don’t approve, but we all indulge her because she’s such a formidable lady.”
“We have to hope so.”
“Is she on good terms with my friends, Jane and Michael Eadington?”
“As far as I know.”
“No boundary disputes? Complaints about the greyhound? Excessive noise?”
“I’ve never heard of any. Why do you ask?”
Rosemary said quickly, “It’s a joke. Those pies she brought round aren’t the most appetising.”
The vicar smiled. “Now I understand. Did you try one?”
She shook her head. “It’s the look of them, paler than Hamlet’s father.”
His eyes twinkled at that. “I’m afraid not one of the carollers could face one the other night.”
“And will you indulge her, as you put it, and exchange mince pies?”
He smiled. “The annual batch of pies for Gertrude is one more parochial duty for me. I don’t have a wife to cook for me, unfortunately.”
“Your pies are delicious, I’m sure,” Laura said, liking this young clergyman.
Rosemary said in her no-nonsense voice, “The third of the Three Kings was Caspar, right?”
“Little Colin Price the other night,” the vicar said. “He’s my tenor, at the other end of the scale from Ben Black.”
“As a singer, do you mean?”
“I was thinking of his situation. Colin’s up against it financially. He was a dairy farmer like Douglas, but less efficient. He lost a big contract with the Milk Marketing Board a couple of years ago and Douglas bought him out. He’s reduced to work as a jobbing gardener these days.”
Laura exchanged a wry smile with Rosemary. “There are worse ways to make a living.”
“True. But I have to object when he does it on Sundays sometimes and misses Morning Service. Colin just smiles and quotes those lines, ‘One is nearer God’s heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth.’ That isn’t scripture, I tell him, it’s a bit of doggerel.”
The vicar came out to see them off and Rosemary admired the yew hedge and asked if he clipped it himself.
“Every twig,” he said. “Can’t afford a gardener on my stipend. Some people seem to have the idea that yew is slow-growing. From experience I can tell you that’s a myth.”
“What do you do with the clippings-burn them?”
“No, I bag them up and send them away to be used in cancer treatment.”
“For the taxol in them,” Rosemary said. “Very public-spirited.”
“I must admit they pay me as well,” the vicar said with a fleeting smile at Laura.
Their return across the frost-white fields was spoiled by a blue police light snaking through the lanes. Laura said, “I just know it’s going to stop at The Withers.”
She was right.
When they got there the inspector was looking smug. “You might be thinking the forensics lab was closed over Christmas, but I happen to know one scientist who is a perfect Scrooge, can’t stand the parties and the eating and only too grateful to earn double overtime. It’s bad news for you, I’m afraid, Mrs. Thyme. The late Douglas Boon was poisoned. My scientist found significant amounts of taxin in his body.”
“Toxin?” Laura said.
“Taxin. It comes from the yew,” Rosemary murmured. “Just like taxol, only this is no help to anyone, not to be taken in any form.”
“You’re well informed,” the inspector said.
“I’m a plant biologist.”
“And Mrs. Thyme? Are you also an expert?”
“Only an amateur,” Laura said.
About as amateur as a million-pound-a-week footballer, if the inspector’s look was anything to go by. “I’ve got a warrant to search this house.”
“Here? What are you looking for?” Rosemary asked.
“We know from the stomach contents that the last food Mr. Boon ingested was a mince pie. In your statement of Christmas Eve, Mrs. Thyme, you admitted administering a pie to the deceased.”
“Administering?” said Rosemary. “She handed round a plate of pies, that’s all.”
“And we’d like to have them examined, if they aren’t already destroyed.”
This was a defining moment for Laura. Should she confess to changing the lids on Gertrude’s pies? She glanced towards Rosemary, who nodded back. “Inspector,” she said, “there’s something I ought to tell you, something I didn’t mention last time.”
The inspector raised both hands as if a wall was about to collapse. “Don’t say another word. I’m going to issue an official caution and you’re going to accompany me to the police station.”
“Oh, what nonsense,” Rosemary said. “The pies were made by someone else, and that’s all there is to it.”
“Don’t put ideas in her head, Miss Boxer. She’s in enough trouble already.”
As Laura got into the police car, Wilbur whimpered. The hand pressing down on the back of Laura’s head felt like an executioner’s this time. They kept her waiting more than an hour while the house was searched. The plate of mince pies, wrapped now in a polythene evidence bag, was carried from the kitchen in triumph.
Rosemary watched in silence, sickened and infuriated by this turn of events. She could see Laura’s troubled face through the rear window of the patrol car as they drove away. She thought about following in the Land Rover, and then decided they wouldn’t let her near the interview room. She’d be more useful finding out precisely what had been going on in this sinister village.
By asking around, she tracked Colin Price (the little man Laura knew as Caspar) to the garden behind the village hall. He was up a ladder pruning a huge rambler rose. The clippings were going into a trailer he’d wheeled across the lawn.
“What’s that-an albertine?” Rosemary asked, seeing how the new shoots sprouted from well up the old stems.
“Late pruning, then?”
“It’s a matter of getting round to these jobs,” he said. “I can only do so much. It’s mostly grass-cutting through the summer and well into autumn. Other jobs have to wait.”
She introduced herself and mentioned that she was Laura Thyme’s friend. “Laura had the unpleasant job of driving poor Mr. Boon to hospital on Christmas Eve. You met her earlier, of course.”
“That’s correct,” he said. “And now she’s been picked up by the police, I hear.”
“Word travels fast,” Rosemary said.
“Fields have eyes, and woods have ears, as the saying goes.” He got down from his ladder. “But all of us can see a police car with the light flashing. What do you want to ask me?”
“It’s about the man who died, Douglas Boon. Could anyone have predicted that he’d take one of the mince pies my friend offered round?”
He shrugged. “Doug liked his food. Everyone knew that. I’ve rarely seen him let a plate of pies go by.”
“So he had one at every house that evening?”
“Every one except Miss Appleton’s.”
“Gertrude’s? Was there a reason for that?”
A slow smile. “Have you met the lady?”
“Have you sampled her cooking?”
“If you had, you’d understand.” He closed the pruning shears in a way that punctuated the remark.
She said, “I thought you all exchanged pies with her.”
“We do, but we don’t have to eat them. My wife always makes a batch and I prefer hers any day.”
Rosemary ventured into even more uncertain territory. “Did Douglas have any enemies around here?”
He mused on that for a moment. “None that I heard of.”
“His dairy farm was the last in the village, I heard. What will happen to it now?”
“Kitty isn’t capable of running it alone. Likely it’ll be bought for peanuts by Ben Black and turned into another nursery. That’s the trend.”
“Sad to see the old farms disappearing,” Rosemary said. “It happened to yours, I was told.”
“Bad management on my part,” Colin said without hesitation. “I’ve no one to blame but myself. Doug acquired the herd and my three fields.”
“Would you buy them back if they came on the market?”
“I’m in no position to. Ben is the only winner here.”
She asked where Ben was to be found.
“This time of day? I wouldn’t know. Last I saw of him was yesterday morning.”
She decided instead to call on the village Lucretia Borgia.
The cottage could have done with some new thatching, but otherwise it looked well maintained. Gertrude Appleton must have seen Rosemary coming because the door opened before she reached it.
Tall, certainly. She had to dip her head to look out of her door.
And she was holding a meat cleaver.
“What brings you here?” she asked Rosemary. The eyes fitted Laura’s description of them as about as sympathetic as wet pebbles.
“I’m staying next-door.”
“You think I don’t know that? What do you want?”
A little Christmas cheer wouldn’t come amiss, Rosemary thought. “My friend Laura has been taken to the police station for questioning about the death of Mr. Boon.”
“So she can’t keep her promise to bring you a mince pie. We had some left, but the police have seized them.”
Those cheerless eyes widened a little. “She baked me a pie?”
Rosemary sidestepped that one. “She was saying it mattered to you, something about good luck for next year.”
Gertrude’s face lightened up and she lowered the cleaver to her side. “Did she really?”
“She said you generously made her a present of some pies of your own, and advised her that the carol singers were coming round.”
Abruptly, the whole look reverted to deep hostility. “Was it one of my pies she fed to Douglas Boon?”
“I believe it was.”
“And now they’re saying he were poisoned? Are you accusing me?” Suddenly the cleaver was in front of her chest again.
Rosemary swayed out of range. “Absolutely not.”
“You said the police seized some pies. Were any of mine among them?”
Gertrude took in a sharp breath. “I’ve made pies for twenty years and more, and never a whisper of discontent.”
“So we’ve got to find out how some taxin-that’s from a yew bush or a tree, the seeds, the foliage, or the stems-found its way into that pie, which apparently killed him.”
“One of mine? How could it?”
“Can you remember making the mincemeat? Did anyone come by while you were mixing the fruit?”
“Not a living soul.”
“Could anyone have interfered with it since?”
“Impossible. This isn’t open house to strangers, I’ll have you know. No one crosses my threshold.”
That much Rosemary was willing to believe. “You don’t have a yew bush in your garden, I suppose?”
“I wouldn’t. It’s the tree of death. It kills horses, cattle, more animals than any other plant.”
“Yes, but this was deliberate. Human deaths from taxin are rare. Someone added seeds of yew, or some part of it, to the mincemeat Douglas Boon consumed on Christmas Eve. Don’t you see, Gertrude? We’ve got to discover how this happened. I’m certain Laura is innocent.”
“They’ll pin this on me,” she said. “That’s what they’ll do, and everyone in the village will say the old witch deserves it.”
“Will you do something for Laura’s sake? For your own sake?” Rosemary said. “Will you think about everything connected with the making of the mincemeat? The chopping of the fruit, the source of all the ingredients, sultanas, currants, raisins, peel, nuts-whatever went into it. Go over it in your mind. Did anyone else contribute anything?”
“Please take time to think it over.”
Gertrude sniffed, stepped back, and closed the door.
Late that afternoon, Wilbur’s barking brought Rosemary to the front door before Laura emerged from the police car that returned her to The Withers.
“What a relief,” Rosemary said. “Have they finished with you?”
“I wouldn’t count on it,” Laura said as she scratched behind Wilbur’s ears. He’d given her a delightful, if slobbery, welcome.
Over a fortifying cup of tea, she told her tale. She had been interviewed three times and kept in a room that wasn’t quite a cell, but felt like one. She’d told the detectives everything she knew and provided a written statement. “I’m sure they would have charged me with murder if it wasn’t for Gertrude’s pies. They had them analysed and got the results back this afternoon.”
“No.” Laura smiled. “They were harmless, all of them.”
Rosemary pressed her fingers to her lips. “I find that hard to believe.”
“So did the inspector. You should have seen his face when he told me I was free to leave.”
“That’s amazing. Gertrude is innocent.”
“And so am I.” Laura glanced across the room. “What’s he eating? Wilbur, what have you got in your mouth? No, Wilbur, no!” She dashed across and forced open the dog’s jaws. A small piece of mincemeat fell into her palm. “Rosemary, look. There are crumbs on the carpet. I think he’s had a mince pie.”
Rosemary was already at her side fingering the pastry crumbs. “It can’t have come from inside the house. The police spent over an hour searching the place.”
“The garden, then,” Laura said. “He must have found it in the garden.”
They went to the front door. “Let him show us,” Rosemary said. “Find it, Wilbur. Good dog.”
Wilbur knew what was wanted. He went straight to a lavender bush and lifted it with his nose. A brownish conical thing was exposed.
“A death cap,” Rosemary said.
“Do you mind?” Laura said. “That’s pastry. That’s one of my lids.” She picked it up and turned it over. “How on earth did this get here?”
The question hung in the air unanswered. Wilbur’s cooperation could only go so far.
“Should we get him to a vet?” Laura said.
“Let’s give him water first.”
Rosemary filled his bowl and brought it to him. He lapped it obediently.
“He doesn’t seem to be suffering,” Laura said. “The onset was rapid with Douglas Boon.”
“Taxin is one of the quickest of all the plant poisons,” Rosemary said. “I doubt if we’d get him to a vet in time.”
“He looks all right.”
Wilbur licked her hand and wagged his tail.
“I think he wants some more.”
An hour later, he was still all right.
Rosemary and Laura allowed themselves the luxury of fresh tea. They didn’t get to drink it because Wilbur unexpectedly barked several times and ran to the door. Someone was outside holding a flashlight.
Laura looked out. The evening had drawn in and she had difficulty seeing who it was.
The voice was familiar. “You’d better call the police,” Gertrude Appleton said. “I’ve gone and killed another man.”
“This can’t be true,” Laura said. “You’re in the clear. Your pies were analysed today and there’s nothing toxic in them.”
With a stare like the condemned woman in a silent movie, Gertrude said, “Follow me,” and started towards the gate.
Laura looked at Rosemary. They’d been in dangerous situations before. Rosemary shrugged. At least Gertrude wasn’t wielding that cleaver. They went after her.
She paused at her garden gate and turned the flashlight beam on Rosemary and Laura to check that they were behind her. Then she led them to her greenhouse and unlocked the door.
The place would have been creepy even in daylight, with a huge overhanging vine that still had some of its leaves, brown and contorted. Other skeletal plants in pots had been brought in for the winter. Gertrude edged around a raised flower bed in the centre and directed the flashlight at a dark shape on the floor.
A man’s body.
“I killed him,” Gertrude said with a stricken sigh. “I never looked here when I smoked out the pests on Christmas Eve. I just put down the stuff and set light to it.”
“He is dead, I suppose?” Laura said.
Rosemary leaned over for a closer look. “Well dead, I would say.”
Gertrude was still reliving the experience. “I made sure it was smouldering and got out, locking the door behind me. Opened it an hour ago and found him. I can only suppose he was drunk and crept in here to sleep it off.” She paused. “Will I go to prison?”
“Let me have the flashlight,” Laura said. She edged past Gertrude for a closer inspection. “I can’t say I know him intimately, but isn’t this one of the carol singers, the tall one, Balthazar?”
“Ben Black? It is!” Gertrude said in despair. “God forgive me. What have I done?”
“Unless I’ve got my facts muddled, you haven’t done anything at all,” Laura said. “You fumigated on Christmas Eve after visiting me, am I right?”
“That was in the afternoon? You locked the door and didn’t open up until today? You left the key in the lock?”
Another nod from Gertrude.
“Think about it,” Laura said. “Ben was alive and singing carols that same evening. He couldn’t have been trapped in here. See, there’s dried blood on the back of his scalp. It looks as if someone hit him over the head and dumped the body in here. Yes, we will call the police, but I don’t think you’re in any trouble.”
Over cocoa that night, with the dog asleep in front of a real log fire, Rosemary summed up the case. “What we have are two impossible crimes. One man poisoned by a harmless mince pie and another bludgeoned to death in a locked greenhouse.”
“The second crime isn’t impossible,” Laura said. “The key was in the door. Obviously the killer could get in and out. They put the body in there and locked it again thinking it might not be found for some time.”
“Could be a man or a woman. That’s all I mean.”
“Then are we agreed that there’s only one killer?” Rosemary said.
“Let’s hope so.”
“So why was Ben Black bumped off?”
“Because he knew something about the first crime?”
“Very likely. And why did the first crime take place?”
“The death of Douglas Boon? It could have been a mistake,” Laura said. “Maybe he ate a poisoned pie intended for Ben Black.”
“I don’t think so,” Rosemary said. “Remember, Douglas was a gannet. He was guaranteed to take any pie that was offered except one of Gertrude’s.”
“Hers were on the heavy side,” Laura recalled.
“So if we assume Douglas ’s death was planned and carried out in cold blood, what did Ben find out that meant he had to be murdered as well?”
“It’s got to be something to do with the mince pie Wilbur found under the lavender bush,” Laura said.
“Another harmless pie?”
They were silent for some time, staring into the flames. “Do you think that young vicar is all he seems?” Rosemary said.
Laura frowned. “I rather like him.”
“A bad sign, usually,” Rosemary said. “Let’s go and see him tomorrow.”
“Won’t the police say we’re interfering?”
“They’re going to be ages getting to the truth, if they ever do. For them it’s all about analysing DNA evidence, and we know how long that takes. A good old-fashioned face-to-face gets a quicker result.”
Overnight it snowed and they both slept late.
“It’s the total silence, I think,” Laura said. “I always get a marvellous sleep when there’s a snowfall.”
“Whatever it is,” Rosemary said, “I’ve had a few ideas about these deaths and I’d like to try them out on you.”
After breakfast they put on wellies and took Wilbur for his longest walk yet. He was more frisky than ever, bounding through the snow regardless of that mince pie the day before. People might spurn Gertrude’s cooking, but this hound had thrived on it. Along the way, they kept a lookout for yew trees, and counted five in and around the village, and three yew hedges. Over a pre-lunch drink in a quiet corner of the pub, Rosemary unfolded her theory to Laura and it made perfect sense. They knew from experience that theories are all very well, but the proof can be more elusive. They decided to go looking for it late in the afternoon.
“Are we clear about what each of us does?” Rosemary said.
“All too clear,” Laura said. “You get the inside job while I wait out here with Wilbur and freeze.”
“He’ll be fine. He loves the snow and he’s got his coat on. Just stroll around as if you’re exercising him.”
They had parked outside the village church.
Rosemary went in and found the vicar slotting hymn numbers into the frame above the pulpit.
“Busy, I see.”
He almost dropped the numbers. “You startled me. I have a choir practice shortly.”
“I know. We had a walk this morning, and I saw the church notice board.”
“We meet earlier when the schools are on holiday.”
“A smaller choir now.”
“Sadly, yes. Plenty of trebles and altos, but only one tenor remaining. I’m going to miss Ben and Douglas dreadfully.”
“Would you mind if I stay and listen?”
He looked uneasy. “I don’t know what sort of voice they’ll be in after Christmas. There’s always a feeling of anticlimax.”
“If it’s inconvenient, Vicar, I’ll go.” She watched this challenge him. He was supposed to welcome visitors to his church.
After a moment, he said, “Stay, by all means. But I must go and turn up the heating. I don’t insist they wear vestments for practice, but I don’t like to see them in coats and scarves.”
Little boys started arriving, standing around the vestry on the north side, chattering about their Christmas presents. The choir stalls gradually filled. Two women choristers appeared from the vestry and so did Colin Price. He recognised Rosemary and smiled.
The practice was due at four. Some were looking at their watches. It was already ten past. The organist played a few bars and stopped. Everyone was in place except the vicar.
There was a certain amount of coughing. Then, unexpectedly, raised voices from the direction of the vestry. The vicar was saying, “Outrageous. I can’t believe you would be so brazen.”
A female voice said, “I’ll be as brazen as I like. I’ve got what I came for and now it’s up to the police.” It was Laura.
“We’ll see about that,” the vicar said.
“Get your hands off me,” Laura said.
Rosemary got up from the pew where she was sitting and walked quickly around the pulpit to the vestry. The door was open. Inside, the vicar was grappling with Laura, pressing her against the hanging coats and scarves.
Rosemary snatched up a brass candlestick and raised it high.
Over the vicar’s shoulder Laura said, “No, Rosemary!”
Distracted, the vicar turned his head and Laura seized her chance and shoved him away. He fell into a stack of kneelers.
He shouted to Rosemary, “Don’t help her. She’s a thief. I caught her going through people’s clothes.”
Laura said, “You were right, Rosemary. There were pastry crumbs in his pocket. Oh, get out of my way, Vicar. I’m going to make a citizen’s arrest.”
She dodged past him and ran into the main part of the church in time to see a small figure making an exit through the west door.
Rosemary, some yards behind her, called out, “Laura, that man is dangerous.”
“So am I when roused,” Laura said.
She dashed up the aisle and out of the church to the car park. There, the runaway, Colin Price, was standing by his pickup truck. But he’d shied away from the door because a dog was baring its teeth in the driver’s seat.
“Wilbur, you’re a hero,” Laura said when she’d recovered enough breath. Before going in to search the vestry, she’d noticed the door of the pickup was unlocked, so she’d installed Wilbur in the cab as a backup.
Colin wasn’t going to risk opening that door and he knew he wouldn’t get far through the snow on foot. He raised both hands in an act of surrender.
To the delight of the choirboys, the practice was abandoned, and they were sent home. In the warmth of the vestry, Colin seemed not just willing to talk, but eager. “I’ve been an idiot. I should never have killed twice. It was meant to turn out differently.”
“Why kill at all?” the vicar said. He’d dusted down his clothes and was a dignified figure again.
“I hated Douglas Boon,” Colin said. “We were rivals in the old days, both of us dairy farmers, but he was so damned successful and I was failing on the paperwork. I couldn’t compete. Lost my contract and had to sell up, and of course there was all the humiliation of selling to him-and for less than it was worth. He had me over a barrel. So I was reduced to odd jobs. I’d see my beautiful herd every day when I was on my way to mow another lawn. The resentment festered. And then I learned that Ben Black had made him an offer for the land, a huge offer, and he was selling up, for millions. He could retire and live in luxury and my cows would go for slaughter. The anger boiled over.”
“But they weren’t your cows anymore,” the vicar pointed out. “You’d sold them.”
“You don’t understand about animals, do you?” he said. “I raised them from calves. They were a dairy herd, not for beef.”
“So you made up your mind to kill him,” Rosemary said, “and you chose poison as the method. The yew, because its dangers are well known to all farmers, and the mince pie because it was part of the tradition here.”
“And Boon was a glutton,” he said. “He was certain to take it.”
“Your wife had made a set of pies, knowing Gertrude would be round at some stage,” Rosemary went on. “You added seeds of yew to one of them and had it with you on Christmas Eve. When you got to The Withers you took the plate as if to hand it round, but you passed your poisoned pie to Douglas.”
Colin glared at her. “How do you know that? You weren’t even there.”
Laura said, “Pastry crumbs in your pocket, the obvious place to hide it. I checked your coat just now. That was what all the fuss was about. The vicar thought I was a thief.”
Rosemary said to Colin, “Thanks to Laura getting the poor man to hospital, the police were alerted. News of the poisoning went quickly around the village and at some point over Christmas, Ben Black got suspicious enough to come and see you. He threatened to tell the police. You panicked, cracked him on the head, and killed him.”
Laura said, “And transferred the body to Gertrude’s greenhouse in your pickup and trailer. She was under suspicion, so you thought you’d add to it. While you were in church just now I checked under the tarpaulin in the trailer. Bloodstains. The police will match them to Ben’s blood group.”
Colin’s shoulders sagged. All the fight had gone out of him.
In all the excitement, Laura hadn’t given a thought to her main reason for being in the house. Over supper that evening, she dropped her knife and fork and said, “The orchids. I’ve completely forgotten about them.”
She had visions of dead and drooping plants in their dried-up trays.
“What am I going to say to Mike?” she said as she raced to the conservatory.
But the orchids were doing fine, better than when she’d taken over. The droopy ones were standing tall.
“They benefited from being left alone,” Rosemary said. “He’s a novice at this. The roots of an orchid are covered by a spongy material that holds water.”
“Like a camel’s hump?”
“Well… I’m saying he must have overwatered them.”
That evening Wilbur was rewarded with a supper of chopped turkey and baked ham. After he’d curled up in front of the fire, Rosemary and Laura slipped out of the front door to make a call on a neighbour.
Gertrude invited them in and poured large glasses of sherry.
“I’m so grateful to you both,” she said. “I must have had calls from half the village saying how sorry they are for all I’ve been through. I kept telling them you two are the heroes.”
“Far from it,” Rosemary said with modesty.
“But you are. And you, Laura, being mistaken for a thief and wrestling with the vicar.”
“That wasn’t so bad.”
Rosemary said, “He’s rather dishy. She enjoyed getting into a clinch.”
They all laughed.
“And now,” Gertrude said, looking happier than they’d seen her, “another Christmas tradition. To ensure good fortune for us all in the new year, I insist that you have a slice of my homemade Christmas cake. You can make a wish.” She went out to the kitchen.
Rosemary said in confidence, “I’m going to wish that I survive this.”
Laura said, “I’m so glad I wore this cardigan. It’s got pockets.”
Peter Lovesey, one of Britain ’s finest mystery writers, will be signing Headhunters Wednesday, April 30 at 7 pm. He began his Diamond series in 1991 featuring the modern policeman, Peter Diamond, which has now spun off into the Henrietta Mallin mysteries. His novels have been translated into 22 languages, and ten of them have been seen on film or television. The Headhunters, published in May 2008 will be his 30th novel.
Peter Lovesey won the Gold Dagger Award with The False Inspector Dew and in 2000 joined the elite group of people awarded the Cartier Diamond Dagger Award for lifetime achievement. His short story, Needle Match, won the 2007 Crime Writers' Association Short Story Dagger Award. And this April, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Malice Domestic Mystery Convention.
Don’t miss the chance to meet this fascinating author. As a bonus Soho press has sent us 3 bookbags which we will be raffling off during the evening.