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Manna from Hades
A Cornish Mystery
By Carola Dunn
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2009 Carola Dunn
All rights reserved.
"We put in several frogs, Mrs Trewynn," said Miss Annabel Willis anxiously. "You did say they were well received?"
"Very well indeed, Miss Annabel. They sold in no time. My thanks to both of you for your hard work and generosity." Eleanor lifted the big cardboard box, whose faint, sweet fragrance bore out the logo on its sides: Co-op Tea. It was more awkward than heavy.
"It's a pleasure to do what little we can to help," the elder Miss Willis assured her from her wheelchair, her knitting needles clicking away tirelessly, producing yet another green and yellow frog. "Annabel, stop fussing and give Mrs Trewynn a hand."
"Yes, of course, Dorothy." Miss Annabel dithered.
"Perhaps you could open the car door for me," Eleanor suggested.
"Certainly." Beaming, Miss Annabel buttoned her cardigan over her flower-print dress and trotted ahead out of the tiny cottage. She was over eighty if she was a day. Eleanor only hoped she herself would be half as spry at the same age, a couple of decades hence.
The aged lady opened the door of the aged pea-green Morris Minor (age being a relative term). Teazle seized the chance to hop out and stretch her short legs.
"Oh, the dear doggie! We always had West Highlands when I was a child," said Miss Annabel wistfully. "Dorothy says we haven't room for a dog. She's right, I'm afraid. She won't hear of my wearing trousers, either. They look so comfortable and practical, but in our time, ladies simply didn't." She eyed Eleanor's royal-blue tracksuit and white trainers with envy.
"Nor in my time. Not even in the 'fifties. The 'sixties seem to be altering so many of our ideas." Depositing the box on the passenger seat, Eleanor closed the door. "Thank you for the cup of tea, Miss Annabel. It was just what I needed. Come on, Teazle, we must be on our way."
With a shove from behind, Teazle scrambled up on top of a bag of old clothes on the back seat. Eleanor waved a final goodbye and drove back past the other half-dozen cottages of the hamlet. The lane, scarcely wider than the car, wandered through greening valley-bottom woods for a quarter mile and ended at a T-junction with another lane not much wider. Eleanor turned left, up a steep, twisting hill between high banks starred with pale clumps of primroses, the bright gold of celandines, and patches of purple violets.
The slope levelled off for a short stretch. On one side was a grass verge, with a car parked on it with two wheels in the lane. A gate in the bank led to a summer cottage, a tiny farm-labourer's dwelling expanded and modernised to provide a country get-away for Londoners. Most of the summer cottages and bungalows with TO LET signs she had passed were still closed up, but the Hendersons appeared to have come down early. They were pleasant people with two teenagers.
She pulled over in front of their car, blocking half the lane, but she wouldn't be more than a moment and she'd hear anyone honking to get by.
Mrs Henderson was delighted to see her. The children were doing foreign exchanges over the Easter hols and she and her husband were going to Italy. They were lending the cottage to friends, so she had come down to prepare the place. She hadn't realised — one never did, did one? — how much clutter had accumulated over the years, much of it perfectly good but unnecessary. If Mrs Trewynn could just take this box of kitchen stuff — nobody needed two egg-beaters and three potato peelers, let alone five cake pans when one never baked on holiday!
The box was somehow squeezed into the boot on top of two boxes of books.
"And I'll bring more in to the shop when I've sorted it all out," Mrs Henderson promised.
Groaning a bit, Eleanor's little Morris tackled the hill again.
"Yes, we'll go for a walk when we reach the top," she said in response to an interrogative bark. Teazle raised her black nose from her little white paws and sat up. "If we reach the top," Eleanor amended, leaning forward over the steering wheel to aid the ascent.
One last, steep upward bend and the Morris bounded forward, demanding a change into third gear. The lane straightened, the banks gave way to drystone walls. A moment later Eleanor pulled across the road and parked in a lay-by beside a stile marked by a green PUBLIC FOOTPATH sign.
"Come on." She opened the door.
Teazle scrambled over the handbrake, paused a moment to nose interestedly at the tea box on the passenger seat, then launched herself across Eleanor's lap and out. Before following the terrier, Eleanor remembered to take the keys from the ignition.
Dear Megan was so insistent about the need to lock one's car, wherever one left it, even if it contained nothing of value. Megan said crooks often stole cars just to use to commit other crimes, and being a policewoman, she must know. Though why should anyone choose a car that had barely scraped through the MOT test a month ago? Eleanor had had to pay for several repairs before the examiner would give her that indispensable certificate of safety.
As she closed the door and inserted the key in the stiff lock, she heard a vehicle drawing near. Quickly she turned to look for the dog.
"Teazle?" From the other side of the stile, two bright brown eyes peered at her through a tangled white fringe. "Stay!"
The car that approached was one of the few that she recognised, black and white with a blue light on the roof and POLICE blazoned across the door. Panda cars people called them these days. She waved a greeting to the driver.
Constable Leacock slowed down. "Everything all right, Mrs Trewynn?"
"Oh yes, thank you, Bob, we're just going for a walk on the cliffs."
"Beautiful day for it." He waved and drove on down the hill.
A nice boy, she thought as she went to join Teazle. She was climbing the stile when she heard another car engine, groaning up the hill. Probably someone from one of the farms. The beginning of April was early for tourists or ramblers, especially with Easter late this year, and few others used this lane from nowhere to nowhere.
She glanced back. The grey car that came into sight was not familiar, but then, she never noticed people's cars. Sunlight gleaming off the windscreen concealed those within, but it might be an acquaintance who would be hurt if she failed to acknowledge them. She waved.
"Wuff!" said Teazle in a come-on-let's-get-going tone. Eleanor stepped down from the stile and they set off across the field. Sheep raised their heads to watch suspiciously. Teazle stuck close to her mistress's heels.
Behind them, the sound of the car's engine suddenly died. Eleanor hoped that did not portend someone following her along the path. She wanted to practise her Aikido, and spectators always distracted her. Strangers tended to be alarmed when they saw a small woman with snow-white curls twisting and twirling and making strange gestures.
Peter had insisted that she learn to defend herself if she chose to accompany him to the more perilous parts of the earth. Aikido, a then recent development of the martial arts, appealed to both of them with its philosophy of deflecting aggression without harming the aggressor. Now she was safe home in England, she'd never need to use it, but the exercise improved her health and the mental discipline brought tranquility.
Nothing could be more tranquil than the present scene. In the quiet, a meadowlark trilled, invisible in the pale blue vault overhead.
Then a car door slammed. A few moments later, the engine started up again and Eleanor breathed a sigh of relief.
On the far side of the field, she climbed another stile while Teazle wriggled underneath. Here they joined the footpath that led around the entire coast of Cornwall and Devon. A grey-green heather-covered slope rose to the cliff's edge, with nothing but sky and wheeling herring gulls visible beyond from Eleanor's viewpoint. A thicket of yellow gorse in full bloom sent forth its sweet, coconutty fragrance.
Teazle dashed ahead, making brief forays into the heather. They came to a level area carpeted with wiry grass, dotted with clumps of pink thrift and patches of wild thyme. A rough, lichened bench overlooked the sea, the slow green rollers shattering in bursts of spray on rocks three hundred feet below.
Eleanor sat down for a minute to collect her thoughts in preparation for the necessary concentrated effort of body, mind, and spirit. She breathed deeply of the scented air. Teazle gave her a sceptical, resigned look and went off about her own business — chiefly rabbits up here. Dismissing irrelevant concerns, acutely aware of her surroundings and of her precise position in the centre of things, Eleanor rose to begin her practice.
When she and the dog returned to the Morris, an hour later, the sun was low in the west and the first scattered drops of an April shower were falling. She felt in her pocket for the car keys.
"Don't say they fell out while I was ... Oh, there they are."
In the car door. And she had left the passenger-side window wide open. What Megan would say if she ever found out! How fortunate that Teazle told no tales.
She gave the little dog a boost onto the high-piled backseat and they headed for home.
The shower was ending and sunset blazed through the clouds when they reached the hill down into Port Mabyn. At the top, before the slope steepened, a rash of pastel holiday bungalows spread across what had been meadows. There was a mini-supermarket, closed now, and a gravelled public car park. From here there was a good view over the old part of town: Grey stone and whitewashed cottages, slate-roofed, clustered about the stream and up the steep slopes on either side. Most were accessible only via a labyrinth of footpaths and steps. A narrow stone bridge crossed the stream just before it widened into a crooked inlet of the sea, between rocky, precipitous headlands. Within the sheltering arm of a stone-built jetty, three fishing boats at anchor bobbed on the dark water.
Eleanor drove on down, past the post office–newsagent–sweet shop, past the Trelawney Arms, Bob Leacock's police station, B&Bs, antique and curio shops, Chin's Chinese and the fish-and-chip shop next door. Daffodils and hyacinths flourished in window-boxes and tubs, obstructing the narrow pavement. A few people were about, but hers was the only car.
Halfway down was the Mabyn Bakery (Cornish Cream Teas and Hot Pasties). The smell of baking pasties wafted through the open car window and made her nostrils quiver like Teazle's. Could her waistline and her wallet afford one of the savoury steak-, potato-and onion-filled pasties for supper, she wondered. Probably not. She had a packet of chicken noodle soup in the cupboard.
She drove across to the wrong side of the street and stopped before a shop window. Above, large gilt letters announced LON * STAR; and below, smaller, in black script: The London Save the Starving Council.
She had pulled the Morris as far out of the roadway as possible, with two wheels on the pavement, two on the double yellow lines. The bonnet nudged a NO PARKING sign, leaving Eleanor barely room enough to open the door.
"Wait," she said firmly to Teazle, then once she was out, "All right, come."
The Westie sprang over the handbrake and down to the pavement and went to sit before a blue-painted door to one side of the shop. Her short tail vibrated with impatient joy. Home!
Eleanor retrieved the keys from the ignition and went to unlock the door. After some fruitless fiddling, she discovered she had forgotten to lock it when she left, a not infrequent occurrence. Really, modern Western life was so complicated, she reflected with a sigh. It made one quite nostalgic for the rondavels of Botswana or the stilt villages of Malaysia.
She let Teazle in and the terrier scampered along the passage to the far end, then up the stairs on the right. Once stepped on, twice shy, she would wait outside the door to the flat, well out of the way of the hordes of tramping feet that would soon be carrying goods to the stockroom at the back. Eleanor turned on the light in the passage, a dim bulb dangling from the ceiling near the top of the stairs. Then she went back to the car to begin unloading, serene in the expectation that those hordes would arrive at any moment to help.
Tipping forward the driving seat, she reached for the bag of clothes Teazle had been sitting on. Beneath it was a black attaché-case. Eleanor frowned. She didn't remember anyone donating an attaché-case for LonStar. Her memory for practical matters had never been of the best, but she usually knew exactly who had given her what.
Picking it up by the handle — it was surprisingly heavy — she carried it and the bag of clothes through the blue door. Near the far end of the passage, opposite the foot of the stairs, was the door to the stockroom. This she had inconveniently remembered to lock, or, more likely, Mrs Davies had locked it when she left after closing the shop. Eleanor set down her burdens and felt in her pocket for her keys.
Where on earth had she left them now? Ah, dangling from the lock of the street door, of course.
Keys retrieved, she took the clothes and the attaché-case into the stockroom. The bag of clothes she dropped on the floor in the back corner, out of the way of the shelves and racks of already-priced goods awaiting space in the shop. The attaché-case she set on the long trestle table used by volunteers more businesslike than herself to sort and price the donated items.
Through the high window, the setting sun flooded the room with rosy light. As far as Eleanor could tell, the attaché-case was real leather, not one of the modern substitutes. It was in good condition, one corner just a trifle scuffed, but unfortunately on the top edge was an embossed monogram, the kind with superimposed, intertwined letters which are hard to make out — D, A, and W, she thought. One couldn't expect a customer with the same initials to happen to come into the shop in search of an attaché-case. The letters weren't conspicuous, though, half-hidden by the handle and not picked out in gilt.
She'd better see whether anything had been left inside it, on purpose or by accident. Laying the case flat on the table top, she pressed back the shiny brass catches, opened it, and gasped. On a bed of black velvet, a tangled heap of jewelry glittered and gleamed, gold, ruby-red, emerald-green, sapphire, amethyst, and the hard sparkle of diamond.
With tentative fingers, Eleanor picked out a bracelet and held it up to the light. Purple stones glowed with an inner fire.
Paste, of course, or the modern equivalent, but paste of excellent quality. Even if they were artificial gems, they must be quite valuable. How very generous people were, she thought, a little misty-eyed.
And doing good by stealth, too, not wanting to be thanked, slipping the case into her car when she was not watching, as if it were manna from Heaven.
What the kind donor unfortunately didn't realise was that valuable gifts had to be documented. Jocelyn was going to have forty fits when she discovered that Eleanor had no paperwork, no signatures, to vouch for the provenance of the jewelry.
Nor had she the slightest idea of the identity of the giver.CHAPTER 2
The number of the safe's combination was the date she had met Peter in India, between the wars. Even Megan agreed it was as secure a number as any, and it had the immense advantage that Eleanor would never forget it.
The anodised metal door swung open. She scooped the jewelry from the attaché-case with both hands and dumped it in the safe.
Making sure the door closed with a solid click, she re-hung Nick's painting of Clovelly, a Christmas present. No connoisseur of art, she liked the little donkey traipsing down the steep cobbles, the bright splashes of geraniums in window-boxes. It cheered up her small sitting room.
Teazle was already asleep in her bed in the corner, exhausted after all that fruitless rabbiting. Nose and paws twitched.
"Good luck with the dream rabbits," Eleanor wished her, wondering in a vague way whether talking to a sleeping dog was even more eccentric than talking to a wideawake one. Teazle raised her head and blinked. "I'll leave the front door open for you, in case you want to come down and see what's going on."
As she started down the stairs, empty attaché-case in hand, a voice rose from below.
Excerpted from Manna from Hades by Carola Dunn. Copyright © 2009 Carola Dunn. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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