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When a young man moves into a recently inherited Suffolk manor house, he falls into a summer idyll that gathers friends and strangers alike—and concludes in murder
When the new owners of Wyvis Hall go to bury a dear pet dog, they stumble upon a ghastly relic left by the home’s previous occupants: the bones of a woman and a small child, hastily interred. So opens a mystery set in motion a decade before when nineteen-year-old Adam Verne-Smith inherited the property and spent one ...
When a young man moves into a recently inherited Suffolk manor house, he falls into a summer idyll that gathers friends and strangers alike—and concludes in murder
When the new owners of Wyvis Hall go to bury a dear pet dog, they stumble upon a ghastly relic left by the home’s previous occupants: the bones of a woman and a small child, hastily interred. So opens a mystery set in motion a decade before when nineteen-year-old Adam Verne-Smith inherited the property and spent one debauched summer there with friends and a few aimless drifters. While most of Wyvis Hall’s visitors that summer would go on to live respectable lives, two would never leave. Now, investigators must piece together not only whodunit, but also to whom it was done, in this brilliantly constructed thriller.
THE BODY LAY ON a small square of carpet in the middle of the gun room floor. Alec Chipstead looked around for something to put over it. He unhooked a raincoat from one of the pegs and, covering the body, reflected too late that he would never wear that again.
He went outside to see the vet off.
"I'm glad that's all over."
"Extraordinary how painful these things can be," said the vet.
"You'll get another dog, I suppose?"
"I expect so. That's really up to Meg."
The vet nodded. He got into his car, put his head out of the window, and asked Alec if he was sure he didn't want the body taken away. Alec said no, thanks, really, he'd see to all that. He watched the car move off up the long, sloping lane that in those parts was called a drift, under the overhanging branches of the trees, and disappear around the bend where the pinewood began. The sky was a pale silvery blue, the trees still green but touched here and there with yellow. September had been a wet month, and the lawns that ran gently to meet the wood were green too. On the edge of the grass, where a strip of flower border separated it from the paved drive, lay a rubber ball dented with toothmarks. How long had that been there? Months, probably. It was a long time since Fred had been up to playing with a ball. Alec put it into his pocket. He walked around the house, up the stone steps onto the terrace, and in by the french windows.
Meg was sitting in the drawing room, pretending to read Country Life.
"He didn't know a thing," Alec said. "He just went to sleep."
"What fools we are."
"I held him on my lap and he went to sleep and the vet gave him the injection and he—died."
"We couldn't have kept him any longer. Not with that chorea. It was too painful to watch and it must have been hell for him."
"I know. I suppose if we'd had a family, love—I mean, Fred was just a dog and people go through this with kids. Can you imagine?"
Meg, who was made sharp-tongued by distress, said, "I've yet to hear of parents calling in the doctor to put their sick children down."
Alec didn't say any more. He went back through the house, across the large, finely proportioned hall, with its pretty, curved staircase, under the wide arch to the kitchen area, and then to the gun room. The front kitchen and the back kitchen had been converted into one, lined with the latest in cupboards and gadgets. You wouldn't have imagined, while in there, that the house was two hundred years old. It was the real estate agent who had called the place where the freezer lived and where they hung their coats the gun room. No guns were kept there now. No doubt there had been in the Berelands' time, and some old Bereland squire had sat in here in a Windsor chair at a deal table, cleaning them....
He twitched the comer of the raincoat and had a last look at the dead beagle. Meg had come up behind him and was standing there. Sentimentally he thought, though did not say aloud, that the white and tan forehead was still at last, would suffer no more brutal spasms.
"His was a good life."
"Yes. Where are we going to bury him?"
"On the other side of the lake, I thought, in the Little Wood."
Alec wrapped the body up in his raincoat, wrapped it like a parcel. The raincoat had seen better days, but it had come originally from Aquascutum, an expensive shroud. Alec had an obscure feeling that he owed this last sacrifice to Fred, this final tribute.
"I've got a better idea," Meg said, putting on her parka. "The Bereland graveyard. Why the Little Wood when we've already got an animal cemetery? Oh, do let's, Alec. It seems so right. It's been a traditional burying place for pets for so long. I'd like Fred to be there, I really would."
"I know I'm a fool. I'm a sentimental idiot, but I'd sort of like to think of him with those others. With Alexander and Pinto and Blaze. I am a fool, aren't I?"
"That makes two of us," said Alec.
He went across to the old stable block, where they kept the tractor and the wood stacked for winter, and came back with a wheelbarrow and a couple of spades.
"We'll mark the grave with a wooden plaque, I think. I could make one out of a sycamore log, that's a nice white wood, and you could do the lettering on it."
"All right. But we'll do that later." Meg bent to lift up the parcel but recoiled at the last moment, straightening up again and shaking her head. It was Alec who put the dog into the barrow. They set off up the drift.
There were two woods, three if you counted the one below the lake. The lawn in front of the house in which a great black cedar grew ended at the old wood, five or six acres of deciduous trees, and beyond that, as the ground rose, a green ride of turf separated it from the pinewood. This was a plantation, rows of cluster and knobcone pines, set rather too close together and now forming a dense reforestation. It was larger than the deciduous wood, nearly twice the size of it, and forming a windbreak between it and Nunes Road, across which, since the uprooting of hedges, gales swept unchecked from the prairielike fields.
Impenetrable the pinewood seemed to be from the drift and Nunes Road. But on the southern side an offshoot from the green ride led in between the ranked trees, led into the center, where it broadened out into a rough circular shape. Here both the Chipsteads had penetrated on one previous occasion, on a Sunday of exploration not long after they bought the house and land. If you have twenty acres of land it takes you a little time to learn exactly what your possession consists of. They had been a little moved by what they saw, gently derisive, too, to conceal their sentimentality even from the other.
"This could only be in England," Meg had said.
This time they knew exactly where they were going and what they would find. They left the drift by the green ride that was rather like a tunnel between the two kinds of wood and which at its distant end showed a little vista of green meadows piled in lozenge shapes, scraps of darker copse, a church tower. Underfoot, where the grass ended, was a slippery floor of pine needles. The air smelled of resin.
Turf covered the circular place, but here it was raised into a dozen or so small hummocks, shallow hills, grassy knolls. The monuments were mostly of wood, oak, of course, or it would not have lasted so long, but even some of these had fallen and rotted. The rest were greened with lichen. Among them was the rare stone: a block of slate, a slab of pink granite, a curb of bright white Iceland spar. On this last was engraved the name Alexander and the dates: 1901-1909.
What writing there might have been on the wooden crosses had been obscured by time and weather. But the inscription on the pink granite remained sharp and clear. Blaze was printed there in capital letters, and under it:
They do not sweat and whine about their condition; They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins ... Not one is respectable or unhappy over the whole earth.
Meg stooped down to look at brushstrokes almost obliterated by yellow mold. "'By what eternal streams, Pinto ...'" she read. "'Gone from us after three years.' Do you think Pinto was a water spaniel?"
"Or a pet otter." Alec lifted out Fred's shrouded body and laid it on the grass. "I can remember doing this sort of thing when I was a kid. Only it was a rabbit we were burying. My brother and I had a rabbit funeral."
"I bet you didn't have a ready-made cemetery."
"No. It had to be the back of a flower bed."
"Where shall we put him?"
Alec picked up the spade. "Over here, I should think. Next to Blaze. It seems the obvious place. I should think Blaze was the last to be buried here, the date's 1957. Presumably succeeding occupants didn't have pets."
Meg walked around, eyeing the graves, trying to calculate the order in which the plots had been used. It was hard to tell because of the collapse of so many of the wooden monuments, but certainly it seemed as if Blaze had been the last animal laid here, there being two rows of seven hummocks each behind his grave and three hummocks to the left of it.
"Put him on the right side of Blaze," she said.
Now that Alec had begun to dig, Meg would have liked to get it over with as soon as possible. It was all folly; it was beneath their dignity as middle-aged, presumably intelligent people; it was what children did. Alec's recounting his pet rabbit's funeral brought this home to her. Why, at one moment she had almost been going to suggest uttering a few farewell words as Fred was laid to rest. They must bury him, they must replace the turf over him, forget all that nonsense about a memorial. White sycamore indeed! Meg seized the other spade and began digging rapidly, turning up the soft, needle-filled leafmold. Once the turf was penetrated, the ground yielded to the spade as easily as the sand on a beach above the water line.
"Easy does it," Alec said. "It's Fred we're burying, not a coffin six feet under."
These were unfortunate words that he was to remember in the days to come with a squeeze of the stomach, a wrinkling of the nose. His spade struck what he thought was a stone, a long flint. He dug around it and cleared a blade-shaped bone. There was an animal buried here already then.... Something that had a very big rib cage, he thought. He wasn't going to say anything to Meg but just cover up that rib cage and that collarbone quickly and start afresh up where she was digging.
Alec was aware of a crow cawing somewhere. Down in the tall limes of the deciduous wood, probably. The thought came unpleasantly to him that crows were carrion birds. He plunged the spade in once more, slicing into the firm dry turf. As he did so he saw that Meg was holding out her spade to him. On it lay what looked like the bones, the fan splay of metatarsals, of a very small foot.
"A monkey?" Meg said in a faint, faltering voice.
"It must be."
"Why hasn't it got a headstone?"
He didn't answer. He dug down, lifting out spadeloads of resin-scented earth. Meg was digging up bones; she had a pile of them.
"We'll put them in a box or something. We'll rebury them."
"No," he said. "No, we can't do that. Meg ...?"
"What is it? What's the matter?"
"Look," he said, and he lifted it up to show her. "That's not a dog's skull, is it? That's not a monkey's?"CHAPTER 2
THE THINGS THAT HAD happened at Ecalpemos, Adam resisted thinking about. He dreamed of them, he could not expel them from his unconscious mind and they also came back to him by association, but he never allowed himself to dwell on them, to operate any random access techniques or eye for long the mental screen where options appeared. When the process began, when association started an entering procedure—at, for instance, the sound of a Greek or Spanish place name, the taste of raspberries, the sight of candles out of doors—he had taught himself to touch an escape key, rather like that on the computers he sold.
There had never been, over the years, more than an associative reminder. He had been lucky. On that last day they had all agreed not only never to meet again, that went without saying, but also if a chance encounter should occur, not to seem to notice the other, to pass without recognition. It was a long time since Adam had ceased to speculate as to what had become of them, where their lives had led them. He had made no attempt to follow careers and had had no recourse to the phone book. If asked by an inner inquisitor and required to be honest, he might have said he would have felt most comfortable if he knew they were all dead.
His dreams were another story, a different area. They visited him there. The setting of the dream would always be Ecalpemos, where, alone at night or on some hot, still afternoon, entering the walled garden or turning the corner to the back stairs, where Zosie had seen the ghosts of Hilbert and of Blaze, he would meet one of them coming toward him. Vivien in her bright blue dress, it had once been, and at another time Rufus, white-coated and with blood on his hands. After that particular one he had been afraid to go to sleep at night. He had lain awake purposely for fear of having another dream like that. Soon after that the baby had been born and this had been an excuse for him to have restless, disturbed nights, to resist sleep until he was too tired to dream. It was his misfortune really that Abigail was such a good baby and slept seven and eight hours at a stretch.
This not only prevented him from putting forward the excuse of having to stay awake to nurse her but also had its own power to frighten. She slept so peacefully, she was so quiet and still. He had gotten into the habit of getting up five or six times a night and going into her room to see if she was all right. An anxiety so acute was not natural, Anne said, and he ought to see a psychiatrist if he was going to go on like that. She, the mother, slept dreamlessly, thankfully. Adam did see a psychiatrist and received some therapy, which was not much use since it was impossible for him to be open and tell the truth about the past. When he told the therapist he was afraid of going into the room and finding his child dead, he was offered tranquilizers.
Abigail was now six months old and still very much alive, a placid child, large and bland-looking, who at lunchtime on a Thursday in late September took an incurious look at the check-in line in which she found herself, laid her head back on the stroller pillow, and closed her eyes. A Spanish woman, going home, who had been watching her, gave a sentimental sigh, while an American with a backpack, irked by the slowness of the service, opined that Abigail had the right idea. Adam and Anne and Abigail—if they ever had a son they intended to call him Aaron—were on their way to Tenerife with Iberia Air Lines, a tenday vacation carefully planned for when Abigail was too old to be endangered by climatic and environmental changes and young enough still to be dependent on her mother's milk.
Heathrow was densely crowded—when was it not?—thought sophisticated Adam, a frequent traveler for his firm—a milling mass of strangely dressed people. You could always tell the seasoned ones by their jeans and shirts, invulnerable garb, sweaters to roll up and stuff into the overhead locker, from the tyros in smart linen suits and Italian glitter and skin, boots that might have to be sliced open to release swollen feet at the other end.
"I'd prefer window to aisle," said Adam, handing over their tickets. "Oh, and nonsmoking."
"Smoking," said Anne, who had given it up when she was pregnant. "Unless you're going to sit by yourself."
"All right. Smoking."
It so happened that there was no room left in smoking and only aisle seats. Adam put their two big suitcases, one stuffed with disposable diapers in case these were not easily obtainable in the Canary Islands, onto the weighing machine. He kept his eye on them as they passed through to see that the correct label went on the handles. Twice last year, going to Stockholm and Frankfurt, his baggage had been mislaid.
"I'd better change Abigail," Anne said. "And then we could go straight through and have some coffee in the departure place."
"I'll have to find a bank first."
Giggling, Anne pointed to the international sign indicating the mothers' room. "Why a feeding bottle? Why not a breast?"
Adam nodded, absently acknowledging this. "You have your coffee and I'll join you." He had once had a sense of humor, but it was all gone now. The dreams and the subtext of anxiety that underwrote his actions and speech had eroded it. "And don't have more than one Danish pastry," he said. "Having a baby doesn't just make you eat more, you know. It alters the metabolism. You need a whole lot less food to put on weight." Whether or not this was true he wasn't sure, but he had gotten back at her for wanting to sit in smoking.
Excerpted from A Fatal Inversion by Ruth Rendell. Copyright © 1987 Kingsmarkham Enterprises Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted March 16, 2013
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