Killing a Unicorn [NOOK Book]

Overview


A family with secrets---is murder one of them?

Membery Place has been the home of the Calvert family for over one hundred years. Below it, set in a forest clearing, is a modern, award-winning house designed by architect Mark Calvert, one of Alyssa Calvert's three sons.

Mark's wife, Francesca, has been conscious of an intriguing element of mystery surrounding Bianca Morgan...
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Killing a Unicorn

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Overview


A family with secrets---is murder one of them?

Membery Place has been the home of the Calvert family for over one hundred years. Below it, set in a forest clearing, is a modern, award-winning house designed by architect Mark Calvert, one of Alyssa Calvert's three sons.

Mark's wife, Francesca, has been conscious of an intriguing element of mystery surrounding Bianca Morgan ever since Chip, the eldest Calvert brother, brought her and her child to live with him at Membery. No one, except possibly Chip, knows anything about her previous life. Bianca remains an enigma---and then one day her body is found in a pool beneath a waterfall on the estate.

The three brothers have always been very close, but the subsequent inquiry now reveals that they all had their own secret connection with Bianca. Could one of them have had reason to kill her? Perhaps Jonathan, to save his career as an international cello soloist; Mark, to save his marriage---or even Chip?

The focus of the inquiry shifts dramatically when Bianca's nine-year-old son goes missing. Has the child too been killed, or has he been abducted because he saw his mother's murder? The fruitless search for Bianca's killer and the kidnapper forces Francesca to take matters into her own hands, determined to resolve the mystery of the Calvert family.


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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
British author Eccles (Untimely Graves) introduces a new sleuthing duo in this outstanding cozy police procedural. Alyssa Calvert, her three grown sons-businessman Chip, architect Mark, cellist Jonathan-and assorted others all live on the family estate, Membery Place, in the Chilterns near the village of Felsborough. When Chip's girlfriend Bibi is murdered and her young son goes missing, DI Dave Crouch and Sgt. Kate Colville step in to investigate. Mark's wife, Fran, inadvertently becomes involved when she looks into Mark's strange behavior on her own. Membery, an old mansion where pictures of the long deceased Judge Calvert still hang in judgment around every corner, hides any number of dark family secrets. What Fran discovers in her own contemporary house, built of glass cubes and designed by Mark, is even more disturbing. A fast-moving plot culminates in an ending that will surprise even the most astute mystery buff. While fans may miss the author's usual police team, Det. Supt. Gil Mayo and Abigail Moon, Crouch and Colville don't disappoint. Keen insight into all her characters, primary and secondary, plus realistic settings, make this one of Eccles's best. Agent, Juliet Burton at the Juliet Burton Literary Agency. (Feb. 1) Forecast: The unusual jacket art, with glass house in the foreground and manor house in the background, should attract casual browsers. Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Living with your relatives can be murder, as advertising executive Fran Calvert learns when she discovers the body of her brother-in-law's companion behind her home. Unlike their late father Conrad, who lived a life of leisure, the Calvert brothers have all made their mark: Chip, the eldest, as a financier; Jonathan, the youngest, as a world-renowned cellist; and Fran's husband Mark as an architect. It was Mark who built The Watersplash, stark and ultramodern, on the grounds of picturesque Membery Place, where his mother Alyssa has turned the vast garden into a showplace that attracts hundreds of visitors each year. When he isn't on tour, Jonathan stays at Membery with his girlfriend Jilly Norman. So does Chip, with his strange, fey companion, Bibi Morgan, who came to Membery several years ago with her young son Jasie and scant explanation. But while Mark is consulting with a client in Amsterdam, Fran comes home from a long day at O'Sullivan O'Toole to an urgent message from Bibi to see her right away; a later message canceling the meeting; and, finally, Bibi's corpse. Inspector Dave Crouch and Sergeant Kate Coleville delve into Bibi's past, but no more than Fran, who wonders about this sudden stranger she's lived beside all these years. Eccles, author of the Gil Mayo series (Untimely Graves, 2004, etc.), lavishes mystification on minor plot details, deflating the puzzle that should be at the center of the piece.
From the Publisher
"Keen insight into all her characters, primary and secondary, plus realistic settings, make this one of Eccles's best."

Publishers Weekly (starred review)

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781466822696
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 1/1/2005
  • Sold by: Macmillan
  • Format: eBook
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 289
  • Sales rank: 743,650
  • File size: 261 KB

Meet the Author


Marjorie Eccles was born in Yorkshire, England. She spent her childhood there and on the Northumbrian coast. The author of over twenty novels, she is also a writer of short stories and her books have been translated into many languages and serialized in British and foreign magazines.
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Read an Excerpt

Killing a Unicorn

Chapter One

London. A stifling early September afternoon, the sun beating down. Oxford Street and a million shoppers. Sheer hell.

Overnight bag and briefcase in one hand, handbag over her shoulder, Fran plunges down into the arguably worse hell of the Underground at Oxford Circus. Everything conspires against her, but what's new, when you're in a hurry? Jostling her way through the shuffling crowds, she steps on to the down escalator, where a couple of tourists very nearly cause a major pile-up by stopping dead at the bottom and opening their map. Squashed between them and the crowd behind, Fran feels her shoulder-bag slip and she grabs it just in time. On the teeming platform she's pushed around between home-going commuters like herself and shoppers weighed down with carrier bags from Selfridges and Harrods. Plus students of every nationality, top-heavy with bedrolls and backpacks, a hazard to anyone who isn't adroit enough to dodge their gigantic loads as they swing round like ungainly camels ... Why am I doing this? she asks herself, finally in the tube train, strap-hanging, in unwanted intimacy with a garlic-scented, hair-oiled individual who eyes her suggestively, but it's a rhetorical question.

Clutching the support by the door with one hand, her grip and briefcase wedged between her feet, the other hand firmly on her handbag, she closes her eyes and longs to be able to massage the crease between her brows where the incipient headache has threatened all day. Staring atthe VDU hasn't helped, trying to co-ordinate the designs so clear in her own mind with the recalcitrant graphics on the screen. O'Sullivan, O'Toole Advertising — O.S.O.T. — in the middle of a prestigious toothpaste account, has been more than the usual madhouse today. If anything could go wrong, it had. Murphy's Law. That's not unusual, either. It's what comes of working for the Irish mob, according to her friend Claire, who is little and neat and deceptively wide-eyed, and sees things very clearly. She's an exceedingly clever lawyer, and would never dream of working for any outfit as wacky as O.S.O.T., though that's hardly the point, as far as Fran's concerned. The point is that there are other factors that make it a good place to work. And however hit and miss it might seem to outsiders, the agency functions well. Saatchi & Saatchi it's not, but they get results.

They'd had supper together last night, she and Claire, and afterwards Fran had stayed in the family's flat, a one-bedroomed pad in Belsize Park, which all the Calverts use as a convenient overnight stopping place on visits to town, or when it's too late to get home. Claire had pressed her to stay on another night and see the latest new release at the Leicester Square Odeon, but Chip has bagged the flat for tonight, and anyway the mere thought of its stuffy claustrophobia, never mind her brother-in-law's large presence and a consequent bed for her on the sofa, was enough to negative the idea. No contest there with the house in the woods, waiting for her, the thought of which is like a long, refreshing draught of cold water.

Home. Even home alone.

Cool and light, set in a wide, open clearing, the windows facing in all the right directions because Mark designed it that way. An award-winning, modernist arrangement of glass cubes, planned for maximum light, wonderful when she's working on the intricate hangings she does in what spare time she can muster, but mainly designed for Mark's working environment. What you can see of it that isn't windows is creamy slabs of Purbeck stone, smooth asmarble. No garden, just a large, grassy space beneath the little waterfall and the pool, the backdrop of trees behind it. Shared only with rabbits, squirrels, the odd badger, and the deer who roam the woods and come down to the pool at night to drink. It's what Fran thinks of as part of her inner landscape, or if that isn't too fanciful, the place where, finally, she knows she's meant to be. Not everyone shares her passion for it, much less for the animals. They're a menace in the village gardens, and sometimes the deer herds wander even further out of the woods, up along the bluff behind the house towards Membery and, with no trouble at all, gracefully leap the crumbling six-foot wall enclosing Alyssa's garden, wreaking havoc and bringing out the worst in her. Better to have no roses than no deer, thinks Fran, though Alyssa can hardly be blamed for feeling that way when the garden has become a substantial part of her livelihood. She's gradually having the old wall replaced by a chain-link fence, ten feet high — a less aesthetically pleasing but more affordable deterrent. As and when she has the money. That's the story she's putting about, though it would be more truthful to say when Chip can be persuaded to sanction payment for it.

It doesn't do to take Alyssa too literally. Large and flamboyant, in her mid-sixties but still hanging on in there to the vivid, dark good looks she's passed on to her three sons, exaggeration is as much part of her nature as her flashing eyes, her warm smile and the jewellery she wears with such panache whenever she isn't working in the garden — and sometimes when she is. Unlike most women of her station, she has no inhibitions about appearing vulgar. But then, she wasn't born out of the top drawer. Like Fran, she has only married a Calvert.

The escalator disgorges its passengers into the main-line railway station, Fran makes a run for it across the concourse and by the skin of her teeth manages to catch the commuter train that will bear her home. Miraculously, she finds a seat, collapses into it while she gets her breath back after her sprint and closes her eyes, willing herself to relax.But she can't shut out the vague incipient unease which, like that hint of a headache, has been with her all day in the office, shadow-dancing at the back of her mind.

Why does Mark have to be away on this particular night? She doesn't mind being on her own, as a rule, she's used to it. Only lately she's been a bit jittery — imagining she hears sounds outside, when there's nothing. Hearing someone moving around outside the house during the night, voices, running footsteps, a motorbike revving up and driving away, none of which Mark ever hears, because once his head touches the pillow, he's dead to the world for the next seven hours. Things like that.

In fact she normally enjoys the silence of the forest. The product of divorced parents, she was brought up in the hurly-burly of life with three half-siblings, where there was never enough room, never enough privacy. Then at art college, it was much the same in a way, where not only classes were shared but life outside, the not yet cast off adolescent compulsion to go with the crowd. She'd been determined afterwards to have her own bedsit, but it had come as a shock, a fierce disappointment. She's tried to explain the difference between aloneness and loneliness to Mark ... has he understood? She isn't sure her powers of interpretation are adequate. Or, as always with Mark, if he's understood only too well.

Meanwhile, the silence surrounding the house is a precious commodity, to be weighed out and savoured in small amounts, alone or, better still, with Mark.

'Look, Fran, you love him, right?' Claire had begun her mini lecture last night, over paella and a bottle of Rioja. 'OK, stupid question! So — isn't it time for some straight talking between you?'

'I've tried that, but he won't talk, not really talk, discuss things — and that's so unlike him.' Mark, relaxed, smiling, skilfully changing the subject.

'Then you do the talking, and refuse to stop. He'll have to answer sometime. I wouldn't let Mitch get away withanything like that, and we're not even married yet. Come on, it's not like you, Fran!'

'We-ell ...'

'Trouble is, you don't know yourself what you want. Am I right or am I right?'

Fran looked down into the bottom of her empty glass, and saw the inescapable truth. 'You're in the wrong job, Claire, you should be working for Relate. All right, when he gets back, I'll give it a try.' For a moment, she'd felt bleak. 'Another try.'

'Don't give up, duckie, you owe it to yourself. Get a life.'

Claire's talking sense. Only, Fran's never been very good at confrontations. If confrontation is the right word.

Hopefully, Mark will be ringing her this evening, though his schedule in Brussels is tight. But she knows really that a brief message on the answerphone is all she can realistically expect. Mark, when working, is totally concentrated - and considering how things have been lately, she can only be glad of it. However, this brings forth aspects of the situation she doesn't want to consider at this precise moment.

Then she remembers that Bibi's coming down later that evening, and hardly knows whether to be pleased or not. It will all depend on what mood she's in. Bibi with all her candles lit is great to be with: she radiates happiness, seeming to dance as she walks, light as a leaf, with her soft hair curving like silver-gilt feathers round her face, unbelievable eyes, a real, gentian blue, complexion so fair and translucent it dazzles. An infectious laugh, when she's pleased, or wanting to please. Totally different from that other self she can assume, as for instance when she goes up to work at the country club: then, she wears severe suits, so unlike her preferred ethnic garments, hair drawn back to reveal the clean modelling of a face beautiful without the need for much make-up, with high, rounded cheekbones and a soft mouth that's belied by a determined chin.

But — and that 'but' makes Fran shiver — it isn't outside the bounds of possibility that tonight she'll be in neither persona, but in that faraway, withdrawn mood, where you can never be sure if it's something you've said, or whether any single word you've uttered has actually reached her, never mind that she always answers rationally enough. Indeed, if you didn't know her, you might well think there was nothing wrong, unless you noticed that blank, china-doll stare in those blue eyes, that unnerving, unblinking, inward-looking gaze, as if there was a glass wall between her and the rest of the world. At such times, Fran often wonders whether she'd feel anything if you stuck a pin into her. It's weird. No, it's much more than that, it's frightening, in a way that makes your blood run cold.

 

 

Forty minutes later, Fran steps off the train at Felsborough and crosses the car park to where she's left her car the previous morning, slips off her London shoes and exchanges them for the old flatties under the driving seat, stows her jacket tidily on the back seat — better and better, Fran! — and sets off for home.

Gradually, the tense band around her skull eases as she drives up the wooded hill, one of the ridges of the Chilterns set high among rolling chalk uplands. Half-way up, the trees begin to close in and it becomes noticeably cooler as she makes the turn for the forest ride that eventually leads to the house. The silence deepens; she winds down the window further and the car is suddenly full of earthy scents and the croo-crooing of wood pigeons and the scrunch of beech-mast beneath the wheels. The forest is considerable, covering four thousand acres of mostly beech and some oak, interspersed here and there by the occasional stand of mixed conifers, spreading upwards and outwards across the valley. Jutting forward in the midst of this, cleaving the valley like the prow of a huge ocean liner, is the bluff on which Membery Place stands.

Soon, she drives through the shallow ford that crossesthe road immediately before the point where the drive of The Watersplash appears to the right before whipping diagonally back on itself. The ford has been marked on ancient maps from time immemorial as The Watersplash, and the name settled easily on the new house in the course of its erection without anyone consciously having chosen it.

And there it is, with only a row of slender silver birches to screen it from the forest road, and beyond it the wide green sward of the clearing stretching right up to the front door. It's compelling, totally unexpected in that place, an in-your-face statement, like a lot of Mark's work. All right, a shock it might be — and some of its detractors say it's an outrage, an alien structure in this wood — but its clean geometry of dynamically interlocking glass cubes endows it with a spatial quality that allows it to blend in with its background. Its glass gilded tonight by the evening sun, glimpsed through the birches, it stands at the end of a driveway of ruinously expensive bark chippings that constantly need to be renewed: Mark's poetic vision of this house hasn't entirely encompassed the practicalities of living in a wood. For one thing, a house like this — though not as much at the back end of nowhere as one might think, since a road runs along the ridge of the bluff above and behind the house, past the village of Middleton Thorpe (which has a pub, a church and a school — a shop, even) and then on towards Membery Place, before curling back down the other side — such a house couldn't be built and maintained except at considerable expense and not a little inconvenience. The estimated cost of just laying the services, bringing them down from the road, had almost shipwrecked the enterprise before it was launched. The electricity is unreliable, there are often blips, momentary but enough to cause trouble with all the electronic devices Mark sees as indispensable to life: his PC, fax, video and e-mail, not to mention the microwave, fridge and freezer. Occasionally, however, it fails altogether. The overhead cables are easily brought down by the wind, a falling tree,and once, it's said, by a gnawing squirrel — though how this was known, or what had happened to the squirrel, has not been recorded. Fried, presumably, says Mark. But at least, the lack of a garden poses no problems of maintenance: a scything of the soft, lush grass twice a year, occasional attempts to keep back the encroaching bracken are all that is needed.

Fran drives her car into the area at the back of the house, discreetly screened by a thick holly hedge, and parks it in the double garage, carefully not taking up too much room, although Mark won't be needing his space until next week. She remembers to change her shoes again and leave her flatties in the car. She's learning — though it has to be said that natural tidiness isn't in her nature. She heads for the house.

Its lovely, spicy cedar smell welcomes her as she enters. The muted light filtering through the blinds burnishes the pale wood floor to gold, the white walls to a warm apricot. Interlocking spaces rather than rooms meet her, a suspended staircase and a mezzanine floor. Height and light and, flanking the front windows, the lavish, seemingly never-ending curtains of shimmering ivory watered silk that stretch through two floors to the upstairs ceiling (God knows how many metres — a second mortgage) and are never drawn. There are holland blinds, necessary to shut out the sun when it's too intrusive. Or for privacy. Fran insists on drawing them in the evening against the blank-black night outside, when Mark would leave them undrawn, secure and unperturbed in his lighted glass cube.

The decor Mark chose is minimalist, hi-tech, with transparent tables, cool, neutral colours, tubular furniture. Some of Fran's own brilliant-hued wall hangings provide the only splash of colour. And, on a table, a pile of oranges heaped in the huge black basalt bowl she'd once guiltily splurged a fortune on. She frowns.

They look gorgeous, a black and orange composition on the smoked glass table, but she doesn't remember puttingthem there, she prefers oranges cold from the fridge, juicy and almost lemon sharp. She cannot abide eating their flesh when it's warm. But there's no denying the evidence of her own eyes, she must have put them there and forgotten. She pauses, then shrugs. Well, yes, perhaps. She's found herself, regrettably, doing this sort of thing before. Subconsciously copying that habit of Mark's, that clever way he has of meticulously arranging groups of objets trouvés. Perhaps hoping to please him. Forgetting his habit of sometimes removing her vases of flowers because they don't fit in with his overall perception of what the house should look like. Annoyed with herself, ignoring the thought of what construction Claire would put on such a lapse, she puts the fruit back in the fridge. She's teaching herself to live with perfection, artistic perfection, but it isn't always easy.

She sighs. Most women would give their eye teeth for a husband who never leaves his dirty socks under the bed, who wipes the washbasin, and puts the cap back on the toothpaste, without even a conscious effort. Picks her things up, too, as well as his own, and not in any spirit of criticism — he's relaxed and easy, just never thinks about it, it's how he's made. Either that or his training has made him so. She reminds herself that architects need to be meticulous. Mind you, he isn't above letting her change the vacuum cleaner bag, or iron his shirts or struggle to put the fresh cover on the duvet. Wifely things he never thinks of doing.

It cuts both ways, though, doesn't it? He keeps an eye on her car and stops her from forgetting to make out her tax forms. He's wonderful when she has flu. And he's more fun to be with than anyone else she's ever known.

Kicking off her shoes to protect the floor, she pads around. No red, blinking light flashing from the answering machine, but loads of post. More bills than she wants to see, half a rain forest in junk mail, a folded slip of paper that turns out to be a note from Bibi: 'Sorry darling, couldn't make it tonight after all. I'll ring you and we'll fixanother time.' Typewritten, but at least she's signed it in her distinctive violet ink, and with her full name, too: Bianca, in rounded, schoolgirl handwriting, and with the tail of the final 'a' curling backwards and round to encircle the whole signature with a great stylish flourish.

Fran goes into the kitchen, pours herself a glass of iced water and drinks it down in one, not entirely sorry Bibi won't be here tonight. It might be her ankle that's bothering her: she broke it a few weeks ago, and though she says it isn't actually painful now, it's still irksome. She's obliged to hobble, even with the aid of a stick. She must have persuaded the boy who works for Alyssa in the gardens to deliver the note on his way home. She isn't able to drive yet and being dependent on others to get about irritates her. She doesn't like everyone to know her business — where she's going and who she's been with. In her own way, she's a very independent person. Stubborn and secretive, more like, according to Mark. Mulish, at times. Yet, when she'd rung Fran that afternoon to say she'd be dropping in, she'd sounded ... well, almost pleading. She'd insisted it was urgent that they should talk. Perhaps she's been casting her own horoscope again. Maybe there is malevolence in Saturn, or whatever else it is that makes the planets inauspicious. Bibi's actions, her life even, are ruled by her belief in this sort of mumbo-jumbo, but you'd be very brave if you tried to laugh her out of it. She's deadly serious.

It was Chip, the eldest of the Calvert brothers, who brought Bibi to Membery Place, a couple of years ago. Chip, a prep school nickname for Crispin, which stuck and has been accepted ever since with the good humour that's typical of him. Chip, of all people, who might have been expected to settle down eventually with some county gel with a loud laugh, a shiny-haired bob and a way with horses. And, hopefully, money. But no, it was Bibi. About as far from that as you could get.

Fran first met the three Calverts at Henley, where she'd been taken by Connor O'Sullivan, then her boss at theO'Sullivan, O'Toole agency, now her fellow director. As a stand-in for his wife, who'd decided an invitation to join friends at their villa in Tuscany was a better prospect than the occasional few seconds' fleeting excitement offered by the passing of two racing boats. Blink, and you missed them. Though Fran had seen at once that for anyone other than enthusiasts, the racing wasn't by any means the only point of the Regatta.

Happily sipping her fruity Pimms, she'd gazed across the sea of pretty hats and frocks, blazers and panamas, and immediately noticed the three seriously gorgeous young men in white flannels and striped blazers, Leander pink socks and ties. Who wouldn't have? After the two college boats they'd been vociferously cheering had sped by, followed by the umpire boat, and were lost, they'd turned away simultaneously from leaning over the rail in the stand. Coolly surveying the crowd, standing shoulder to shoulder, they could only have been brothers, or at any rate closely related, sharing the dark, family attractiveness that had a good deal to do with that particular brand of assurance that comes only from a privileged background. Something else shared, too — an obvious solidarity, three against all comers. One for all and all for one.

Chip, of course, had been the first to notice Fran, to make a beeline for Connor's group, and get himself introduced to her, closely followed by Jonathan, himself never averse to a new prospect. But it had been Mark her attention had fixed on: then, and ever thereafter. And for Mark, too, it had been the same. Mark and Fran. Even Chip had acknowledged that before the end of the day, and backed off, showing a sensitivity one wouldn't have expected from him. Fran had found herself holding on to this memory lately, like a good-luck talisman, or perhaps a lifeline.

Chip is the eldest of the three brothers, big and glowing with healthy good spirits, laughing brown eyes and a Rugby-trophy broken nose that adds an endearing quirk to his rugged good looks. At that time obsessed with high-performancecars, long-legged girls and having an astonishing capacity for beer. A phase, a rite of passage, they said. The cars, still fast but now sleeker, more conservative and more expensive, are around yet and, Fran suspects but doesn't really know, maybe the girls, too, though kept in the background, for Chip has become more circumspect as he's grown older, and the situation between him and Bibi is equivocal. Defying all previous prognostications, he has turned out to be something successful in the City, and his mother's adviser, having rescued her from disaster after his father died.

Their father was Conrad Calvert, gentleman of leisure, an ex-army man who'd retained his army rank of Captain to boost a stature he never again attained in civilian life. Who, had he been born into a different class, would have been called a layabout. Unremarkable for anything except the amount he could drink, the staggering extent of both his wine cellar and the debts he left behind when he died. How could a man like that have produced three such sons? All of them self-motivated, successful in the widely differing careers they've chosen. Chip, moneywise and self-assured. Jonathan, the youngest by several years, whose passion is his cello, who draws magic from its strings, who buys it an airline ticket and sits next to it on his flights abroad. He has a growing international reputation as a soloist and an increasingly busy life, with little time for personal considerations. Accompanied everywhere by Jilly, pale Jilly, a wisp of a girl who looks after his bookings and trails with him to the four corners of the earth, sitting on the other side of the cello in the aeroplanes, seemingly largely taken for granted by Jonathan.

And Mark.

Oh yes, Mark. Bright, narrow eyes in a thin, sardonic face. Full of beguiling charm, which goes without saying, seeing he's a Calvert. Less obvious than Chip, and effortlessly clever in a way that makes even Jonathan's dedicated, driven talent seem laboured. Confident and self-contained, but basically, Fran has all too often foundherself thinking lately, unknowable. Too erratic and unpredictable for most people to feel sure of him and, despite his flashes of brilliance, too individualistic to settle into a well-paid, successful architectural partnership, which he has consistently refused to do.

He's never been a person you could hold on to, even less so recently. There are times when he seems to slip away from her altogether. More than that, the house suddenly seems to be getting on his nerves. She has a sinking feeling that he has caught the architect's disease and is already growing tired of it: architects don't need to live with the imperfections of their own creations, they can always move on to the next. This suspicion chills her with a kind of foreboding that isn't only to do with fears of losing the house itself, though this is certainly part of it. But he veers away from talking about it, just as he skilfully slides away from what is fast becoming her major preoccupation, the need to talk about their having a child.

Fran's experience of family life has been happy, if crowded and noisy, and she has never envisaged a life without children of her own. But Mark shrugs it off lately, every time she tries to open a discussion. Plenty of time, he says, aren't we happy as we are? Yes, of course they are. They have a loving, trusting relationship, they've built a satisfying life together, but it isn't complete. You can be a couple, but without children, you can't be a family. She tries to be patient, but her patience is growing thin. It isn't that Mark doesn't like children, per se, look how good he is with Jasie, who adores him. Which makes his indifference to having children of their own all the more baffling.

What is it about the Calvert men that makes them so anxious to steer clear of commitments? Understandable where Jonathan and Jilly are concerned: it's hard to see them as a staid married couple, their sort of life precludes it, and anyway, are they an item, in that way? Neither give away anything of their private life. By nature, Jilly plays her cards close to her chest: Jonathan isn't one for explainingmuch, either. When they come to Membery, they don't share a room, but that might be out of consideration for his mother's feelings. For all her outward unconventionality, there's a strong streak of prudery in Alyssa. And perhaps in Jonathan, too.

But what about Chip and Bibi? No signs of marriage there, either, though it's just as likely to be Bibi who doesn't want permanence. Her previous relationship, which has resulted in Jasie, poor little scrap, has presumably not been an unqualified success.

Poor little scrap, indeed! No way can Jasie be called that. He's an ordinary, outgoing little boy, a cheerful little soul, mischievous — a fiend at times, like all children — but engaging and with nothing at all in him of his mother's feyness. Fran can't help smiling, thinking of him, but her smile is a little forced. She is thirty-seven, and the biological clock is ticking over.

She orders herself to stop mooning around and go upstairs and change out of her city clothes, but as she turns into the one dim corner of the house, at the bottom of the cantilevered staircase, she takes an involuntary step backwards, stifling a scream. Her heart leaps into her throat. In front of her, right opposite the front door, hovers a ghostly shadow. A white owl, wings outspread. It hangs motionless, and for a moment Fran can't move either. It stays there while her heart resumes its normal beat, and a rational explanation presents itself: an owl must have flown straight through the open door into the mirror on the end wall, directly opposite the front door, the impact imprinting the dust from its soft feathers into an uncanny impression of itself, its outspread wings, its large head and short neck, even — oh, shoot! — its eye sockets.

It isn't an unusual occurrence for birds to fly into the windows, deceived by the wide expanse of glass into thinking they're flying into open space. In an attempt to prevent it, Fran has at various times painted images of sparrowhawks, kestrels and other raptors: jackdaws and jays, crows and magpies, owls too, and hung them insidedifferent windows, and sometimes the fear of these birds of prey has warned the smaller birds off. But it isn't an entirely successful deterrent, sometimes the birds fail to see them — or else they aren't fooled. The larger birds are mostly just momentarily stunned by the impact and fly woozily away, as presumably the owl had done, since there are no other traces of it, but finding the small broken-necked bodies of thrushes, robins and finches distresses Fran, a reminder that the house is the intruder here, pushing itself into the habitat of these wild creatures.

So far, however, none of the birds has ever flown right into the house.

She fetches a duster and wipes the mirror clean of the eerie image, repelled by the ashy, almost greasy residue, by the faintly foetid smell, and is surprised to find her hands trembling, to see her own frightened face behind the image, pale and wide-eyed with shock, her soft, difficult to manage brown hair lank as string with the heat.

It was only an owl, she tells herself. The woods abound with them, their unnerving shrieks echo through the trees at night, it isn't unknown for one to swoop silently, intent on its prey, straight across the car windscreen when you're returning home late.

But it's still there in her mind as she showers, lathering her hair and turning up the power to concentrate the sharp needles of water on her shoulders, letting the warm water sluice over her head and body, taking away the tensions with it. Her hair still slightly damp, she combs it through, slips into a loose shift, then bundles every sweaty stitch she's worn that day into the washing machine. Feeling better, she fixes a hefty gin and tonic while she makes herself a salad in the under-used stainless steel, state-of-the-art kitchen, where you could comfortably cook for an army with every gadget known to man, most of them unused, since she rarely has the time, or need, to cook imaginatively.

But all the while she's wondering how the imprint of the owl could have been left on the mirror, when the house hasbeen locked up for two days. It wasn't there before she left, of that she is certain. She couldn't have failed to see it as she came down the stairs. She'd locked the doors before leaving and Mark had left before her, business in London first, then on to Brussels. And she has come into the house that night by the back door, closing it behind her.

They said owls were bad luck.

 

 

It's too hot for supper to have much appeal, but she dutifully eats as much of her salad as she can stomach, which isn't a lot. In the end, she gives up and scrapes the rest into the bin. But she finishes off the second glass of cold white burgundy she's poured, watching the early evening news while she drinks it: television, the solitary person's refuge.

The thought is outrageous, and suddenly she feels a great need for air and a release from thoughts about herself, and the need to move, the feeling she should, perhaps, go up to Membery and see if Bibi is all right.

The heat of the day is still held in the clearing, the dying sun is flickering through the trees with the effect of a shuttered camera. Honeysuckle reaches for the light through a thicket of blackthorn, breathing out its warm and heady scent, mingling with the earthy, woodsy smell under the trees. Further into the woods stinkhorn grow, but their pervasive, disgusting odour thankfully doesn't reach so far. Walking across the grass, feeling it cool against her bare toes, between the straps of her open sandals, she is conscious of unseen eyes watching her from the shadowed depths beyond the trees. She listens to the silence, broken only by the sounds of the forest beginning to settle for the evening, the cool splash of the waterfall into the pool.

It isn't much of a waterfall, to tell the truth, little more than a pretty cascade, not a straight fall, but flowing in three stages for about forty feet from a large slab of rock across the watercourse above, which originates in anunderground spring, somewhere beyond Membery. But forty feet is enough to turn the glassy water, sliding like mercury over the lip, into a creaming froth at the bottom, before it gradually disperses into the still water beyond, fringed with ferns and foxgloves. At its far end, the pool narrows again and continues through the clearing and the watersplash to the other side of the road. The water is deep just below the fall, though nowhere is it suitable for serious swimming — not without the major upheaval of removing some of the big rocks at the edges, a job Mark refuses to consider paying for.

Years ago, someone built a rustic bridge over the lip, to make it possible to return along the right-hand side of the stream after taking a stroll along its left. The bridge isn't used now, it's rotten and unsafe. There are planks missing, the railings have grown lichens and moss, just lean on them and they'd give way — but anyway the right-hand path is now invisible beneath its overgrowth of nettles, thistles and cow parsley. The one at this side is hardly any better, being used only as a short cut for the comings and goings between Membery and The Watersplash, ending in a scramble down the rocks alongside the waterfall. The rocks are steep, but hold no terrors for the younger members of the family, who have learned to negotiate them from childhood.

Fran pauses and sits there for a while, as near to the edge of the pool as she can get, on one of the boulders, most of which are green and slippery in wet weather, and even now are embedded in velvety moss. She slips off her sandals and trails her toes in the water, always deliciously cold. She sits for several minutes before she notices the white shape eddying around in the curdling foam at the foot of the waterfall.

At first she thinks, ridiculously, it's another owl, another white shadow. Until she realizes it's larger, much larger, that it has an arm, and a leg, human form.

KILLING A UNICORN. Copyright © 2002 by Marjorie Eccles. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.

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