Well-Schooled in Murder
By Elizabeth George
Bantam Copyright © 2007 Elizabeth George
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780553384819
The rear garden of the cottage in Hammersmith's Lower Mall was set up to accommodate artistic endeavours. Three slabs of knotty pine stretched across six battered sawhorses to function as work stations, and they held at least a dozen stone sculptures in varying stages of completion. A dented metal cabinet near the garden wall contained the artist's tools: drills, chisels, rifflers, files, gouges, emery, and a collection of sandpaper with differing degrees of abrasion. A colour-splodged painter's dropcloth--smelling strongly of turps--made a dispirited lump underneath a partially broken chaise.
It was a garden completely without distractions. Walled in against the curiosity of neighbours, it was thus also protected from those insistent and largely mechanical noises of river traffic, of the Great West Road, of Hammersmith Bridge. Indeed, the high walls of the garden were so expertly constructed, the cottage's position on the Lower Mall so well-chosen, that only an occasional waterfowl in flight overhead broke into the superb stillness that the site afforded.
Such protection was not without one disadvantage. Since cleansing river breezes never found their way through the walls, a patina of stone dust covered everything from the small oblong of dying lawn, to the crimson wallflowers that bordered it,to the square of flagstones that served as a terrace, to the cottage windowsills and the building's pitched roof. Even the artist himself wore fine grey powder like a second skin.
But this pervasive grime did not bother Kevin Whateley. Over the years, he had become quite used to it. Even if he had not been accustomed to operating perfectly well in a cloud of grit, he would not have noticed it while he laboured in the garden. This was his haven, a place of creative ecstasy in which convenience and cleanliness were not required. Mere discomfort meant nothing to Kevin once he gave himself over to the call of his art.
He was doing so now, taking his latest piece through the final stage of buffing. He was particularly fond of this current effort, a reclining nude rendered in marble, her head raised on a pillow, her torso twisted so that her right leg was drawn up over her left, her hip and thigh an unbroken crescent that ended with her knee. He ran his hand down her arm, round her buttocks, and along her thigh, testing for rough spots, nodding with satisfaction at the feeling of stone like cold silk beneath his fingers.
"You do look a bit daft, Kev. Don't believe I ever once saw you smiling like that over me."
Kevin chuckled, straightened, and looked at his wife who had come to stand in the cottage doorway. She was drying her hands on a faded tea towel, laughter drawing deeply at the wrinkles round her eyes. "Then come right 'ere and give it a try, girl. You just weren't paying attention last time."
Patsy Whateley waved him off with, "You're crazy, you are, Kev," but her husband saw the pleased flush appear on her cheeks.
"Crazy, am I?" he asked. "Not what I recall you saying this morning. That was you, wasn' it, sneaking up on a bloke at six A.M.?"
She laughed outright, and Kevin smiled at her, studying her dear, familiar features, admitting the fact that although for some time she had been surreptitiously colouring her hair to preserve a semblance of youth, her face and figure were decidedly middle-aged, the one lined and no longer firm at jaw and chin, the other filled out in places where once he had found the most delicious curves.
"You're thinking, aren't you, Kev? I can see it on your face. What?"
"Dirty thoughts, girl. Enough to make you blush."
"It's these pieces you're working on, i'n it? Looking at naked ladies on a Sunday morning! It's indecent and that's all there is to it."
"What I feel for you's indecent and that's a fact, luv. Step over here. Don't mess me about. I know what you're really like, don't I?"
"He's gone mad," Patsy declared to the heavens.
"Mad the way you like." He crossed the garden to the cottage door, took his wife into his arms, and kissed her soundly.
"Lord, Kevin, you taste all of sand!" Patsy protested when at last he released her. A streak of grey powder tinted the side of her head. Another smeared against her left breast. She brushed at her clothing, muttering with exasperation, but when she looked up and her husband grinned, her face softened and she murmured, "Half crazy. Always was, you know."
He winked and went back to his work. She continued to watch from the doorway.
From the metal cabinet, Kevin brought out the powdered pumice that he used to condition the marble prior to signing his name to a finished piece. Mixing this with water, he smeared it liberally onto his reclining nude and worked it against the stone. He gave his attention to legs and stomach, breasts and feet, taking the greatest care with the delicate work upon the face.
He heard his wife move restlessly in the doorway. She was, he saw, looking behind her into the kitchen at the red tin clock that hung above the stove.
"Half-ten," she said reflectively.
It was a statement she intended to sound self-directed, but it didn't deceive Kevin with its pretence of detachment. "Now, Pats," he soothed her, "you're just making a fuss over nothing. I can see it dead clear. Leave off, can't you? The boy'll ring home as soon as he can."
"Half-ten," she repeated, regardless. "Matt said they'd be back by Eucharist, Kev. Eucharist surely would've ended at ten. It's half-past now. Why's he not rung us?"
"He's busy, no doubt. Unpacking. There's schoolwork to be faced. Tales to be told about the weekend's fun. Then lunch with the rest of the boys. So he's forgotten to ring his mum for the moment. But he'll do it by one. Wait and see. Not to worry, luv."
Kevin knew that telling his wife not to worry about their son was as useful as asking the Thames to stop rising and falling every day with the tide just a few steps away from their own front door. He'd been offering her variations of that admonition for the last twelve and a half years. But it rarely did the slightest bit of good. Patsy would worry herself over every detail of Matthew's life: over whether his clothing was correctly matched; over who was cutting his hair and seeing to his teeth; over the polish on his shoes and the length of his trousers; over his choice of friends and the hobbies he pursued. She studied each one of his letters from school until she had it memorised, and if she didn't hear from him once a week, she worked herself into a state of the jitters that nothing could quell save Matthew himself. He usually did so, which made his failure to telephone after his weekend adventure in the Cotswolds all the harder to understand. This was something that Kevin would not admit to his wife, however.
Teenagers, he thought. We're in for it now, Pats. The boy's growing up.
Patsy's response startled her husband, who thought himself not so easily read. "I know what you're thinking, Kev. He's getting bigger. Won't want his mum fussing over him all the time. There's truth to it. I know."
"So . . . ?" he encouraged her.
"So I'll wait a bit before I ring the school."
It was, Kevin knew, the best compromise she would offer. "That's my girl," he replied and went back to his sculpture.
For the next hour he allowed himself the bliss of complete absorption into the delights of his art, losing track of time entirely. As was usually the case, his surroundings faded into insignificance, and existence was reduced to the immediate sensation of marble coming to life under his hands.
His wife had to say his name twice to return him from the twilight world he inhabited whenever he was called there by his particular muse. She'd come back to the doorway, but this time he saw that she held a black vinyl handbag in place of the tea towel, and she was wearing her new black shoes and her best navy wool coat. She had inserted a coruscating rhinestone pin haphazardly into the lapel--a sleek lioness with one paw raised and ready to strike. Its eyes were tiny specks of green.
"He's in the Sanatorium." She spoke the last word on a high note of incipient panic.
Kevin blinked, eyes drawn to the dance of light diffracting from the lioness rampant. "Sanatorium?" he repeated.
"Our Matt's in the Sanatorium, Kev! He's been there all weekend. I've just rung the school. He didn't ever go to the Morants' at all. He's sick in the San! That Morant boy didn't even know what was wrong. He hadn't seen him since Friday lunch!"
"What're you up to, girl?" Kevin queried shrewdly. He knew full well what the answer would be and sought a moment to ponder how best to stop her.
"Mattie's ill! Our boy! Lord knows what's wrong. Now, are you coming with me to that school or planning to stand there with your hands on that woman's flipping crotch for the rest of the day?"
Kevin hurriedly removed his hands from the offending part of the sculpture's anatomy. He wiped them down the sides of his work jeans, adding white abrasive cream to the dust and dirt already embedded along the seams.
"Hang on, Pats," he said. "Think for a minute."
"Think? Mattie's ill! He'll be wanting his mum."
"Will he, luv?"
Patsy worked on this thought, her lips pressed together as if in the hope of keeping further words at bay. Her spatulate fingers worried the clasp of her handbag, snapping it repeatedly open and shut. From what Kevin could see, the bag was empty. In her rush to be off, Patsy had thought nothing about putting inside a single belonging--a pound coin, a comb, a compact, anything.
He pulled a piece of old towelling from the pocket of his jeans and rubbed it along his sculpture fondly. "Think, Pats," he gentled her. "No boy wants Mum flying out to his school if he's got a bit of flu. He's liable to be a bit choked over that, isn't he? Red in the face with Mum hanging about like he needs his nappies changed and she's just the one to do it."
"Are you saying I just let it be?" Patsy shook her handbag at him to emphasise her words. "Like I wasn't interested in my own boy's well-being?"
"Not let it be."
Kevin folded his towelling into a small, neat square. "Let's think this out. What did San Sister tell you's exactly wrong with the boy?"
Patsy's eyes dropped. Kevin knew what that reaction implied. He laughed at her softly. "They've a nurse right there on duty at the school and you've not rung her, Pats? Mattie'll have stubbed his toe and his mum'll go running out to West Sussex without a thought given to ringing up to see what's wrong with the boy first! What's to become of the likes of you, girl?"
Hot embarrassment was climbing its way up Patsy's neck and spreading onto her cheeks. "I'll ring now," she managed to say with dignity and went to place the call from the kitchen phone.
Kevin heard her dialling. A moment later he heard her voice. A moment after that, he heard her drop the phone. She cried out once, a terrified keening that he recognised as his own name wailed in supplication. He flung his ragged towel to one side and flew into the cottage.
At first he thought his wife was having an attack of some sort. Her face was grey, and the fist at her lips suggested that a shrieking-out in pain was being withheld by an act of will. When she heard his footsteps and swung to face him, he saw that her eyes were wild.
"He's not there. Mattie's gone, Kevin. He wasn't in the San. He's not even at the school!"
Kevin struggled to comprehend the horror that those few words implied and found he could only repeat her own statement. "Mattie? Gone?"
She seemed frozen to the spot. "Since Friday noon."
Suddenly that immense stretch of time from Friday to Sunday became a breeding ground for the sort of unspeakable images every parent must confront when first acknowledging a beloved child's disappearance. Kidnapping, molestation, religious cults, white slavery, sadism, murder. Patsy shuddered, gagged. A faint sheen of perspiration appeared on her skin.
Seeing this, fearing she might faint or have a stroke or drop dead on the spot, Kevin grasped her shoulders to offer the only comfort he knew.
"We'll be off to the school, luv," he said urgently. "We'll see about our boy. I promise you that. We'll go at once."
"Mattie!" The name rose like a prayer.
Kevin told himself that prayers were unnecessary at the moment, that Matthew was only playing the truant, that his absence from the school had a reasonable explanation which they would laugh about together in the time to come. Yet even as he thought this, a vicious tremor shook Patsy's body. She said their son's name beseechingly once again. Against all reason, Kevin found himself hoping that a god somewhere was listening to his wife.
Thumbing through her contribution to their report one last time, Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers decided that she was satisfied with the results of her weekend's labour. She clipped the fifteen tedious pages together, shoved her chair back from her desk, and went in search of her immediate superior, Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley.
He was where she had left him shortly after noon that day, alone in his office, blond head cupped in one hand, his attention directed towards his own section of the report which was spread across the top of his desk. The late Sunday afternoon sun threw long shadows against walls and across the floor, making perusing typescript without artificial light next to impossible. And since Lynley's reading spectacles had slipped disregarded to the end of his nose, Barbara entered the room noiselessly, certain that he was fast asleep.
That would not have surprised her. For the past two months Lynley had been burning the candle not only at both ends but right through the middle. His presence at the Yard had been so unceasing--generally requiring her own reluctant presence as well--that he'd been jokingly christened Mr. Ubiquitous by the other DI's in his division.
"Go hame, laddie," Inspector MacPherson would roar when he saw him in a corridor, in a meeting, or in the officers' mess. "Ye're black'ning the rest o' us. Hearkening aifter a super's position? Canna rest on the laurels o' promotion if ye're deid."
Lynley would laugh in his characteristically affable fashion and sidestep the reason behind this sixty-day stint of unremitting toil. But Barbara knew why he remained on the job long hours into the night, why he volunteered to be on call, why he took other officers' duty at the first request. It was all represented in the single postcard that lay at the moment on the edge of his desk. She picked it up.
It was five days old, badly creased from a hard journey across Europe from the Ionian Sea. Its subject was a curious procession of incense bearers, sceptre-wielding officials, and gold-gowned, bearded Greek Orthodox priests who carried a bejewelled sedan chair upon their shoulders, its sides made of glass. Resting within the chair, his shrouded head leaning against the glass as if he were asleep and not more than a thousand years dead, were the remains of Saint Spyridon. Barbara turned the card over and unabashedly read its message. She could have guessed before doing so what the tenor of the words would be.
Tommy darling, Imagine having your poor remains carried through the streets of Corfu town four times a year! Good Lord, it does give one pause to think about the wisdom of dedicating one's life to santity, doesn't it? You'll be pleased to know that I've made my bow to intellectual growth with a pilgrimage to Jupiter's Temple at Kassiope. I dare say you'd approve of such Chaucerian endeavour.
Barbara knew that this card was the tenth such communication from Lady Helen Clyde that Lynley had received in the last two months. Each previous one had been exactly the same, a friendly and amusing commentary upon one aspect of Greek life or another as Lady Helen moved gaily round the country in a seemingly endless journey that had begun in January only days after Lynley had asked her to marry him. Her answer had been a definitive no, and the postcards--all sent to New Scotland Yard and not to Lynley's home in Eaton Terrace--underscored her determination to remain unfettered by the claims of the heart.
That Lynley thought daily, if not hourly, about Helen Clyde, that he wanted her, that he loved her with a single-minded intensity were the facts which, Barbara knew, comprised the heretofore unspoken rationale behind his infinite capacity for taking on new assignments without protest. Anything to keep the howling hounds of loneliness at bay, she thought. Anything to keep the pain of living without Helen from knotting steadily, like a tumor within him.
Barbara returned the card, retreated a few steps, and expertly sailed her part of their report into his In tray. The subsequent whoosh of air across his desk, the fluttering of his papers to the floor, woke him. He started, grimaced disarmingly at having been caught sleeping, rubbed the back of his neck, and removed his spectacles.
Barbara plopped into the chair next to his desk, sighed, and ruffled her short hair with an unconscious energy that made most of it stand on end like bristles on a brush. She spoke. "Ah yes, do ye hear those bonny bells of Scotland calling to ye, lad? Tell me ye do."
His reply made its way past a stifled yawn. "Scotland, Havers? What on earth--"
"Aye. Those wee bonny bells. Calling ye home to that land of malt. Those blessit smoky tastes of liquid fire. . . ."
Lynley stretched his lengthy frame and began to gather his papers together. "Ah. Scotland," he replied. "Do I imagine this sentimental journey into the thistle is an indication that you've not tipped into your weekly allotment of alcohol, Sergeant?"
She grinned and sloughed off Robert Burns. "Let's pop round to the King's Arms, Inspector. You can buy. Two of the MacAllan and we'll both be singing 'Coming Through the Rye.' You don't want to miss that. I've the very devil of a mezzo-soprano sure to bring tears to your lovely brown eyes."
Lynley polished his spectacles, replaced them on his nose, and began an examination of her work. "I'm flattered by the invitation. Don't think I'm not. A proffered opportunity to hear you warbling touches me right to the heart, Havers. But surely there's someone else here today into whose wallet you haven't dipped your hand quite so regularly as mine. Where's Constable Nkata? Didn't I see him here this afternoon?"
"He's gone out on a call."
"More's the pity. You're out of luck, I'm afraid. I did promise Webberly this report in the morning."
Barbara felt a twinge of exasperation. He'd dodged her invitation more adroitly than she'd managed to phrase it. But she had other weapons, so she trotted out the first. "You've promised it to Webberly in the morning, sir, but you and I know he doesn't need it for another week. Get off it, Inspector. Don't you think it's about time you came back to the land of the living?"
"Havers . . ." Lynley didn't change his position. He didn't look up from the papers in his hand. His tone alone carried the implicit warning. It was a laying-down of boundaries, a declaration of superiority in the chain of command. Barbara had worked with him long enough to know what it meant when he said her name with such studied neutrality. She was barging into an area off-limits. Her presence was not wanted and would not be admitted without a fight.
Well and good, she thought with resignation. But she could not resist a final sortie into the guarded regions of his private life.
She jerked her head towards the postcard. "Our Helen's not giving you much to go on, is she?"
His head snapped up. He dropped the report. But the jarring ring of the telephone on his desk precluded reply.
Lynley picked up the phone to hear the voice of one of the girls who worked reception in the Yard's unfriendly grey-on-black marble lobby. Visitor below, the adenoidal voice announced without preliminaries. Bloke called John Corntel asking for Inspector Asherton. That's you, I s'pose? Though why some people can't ever keep a body's proper name straight . . . even when a body takes to stringing names together like some flipping royal and expects reception to know each and every one so's to sort it all out when old schoolmates come calling--
Lynley interrupted this verbal tally of woes. "Corntel? Sergeant Havers will come down to fetch him."
He hung up upon a martyred voice asking him what he thought he'd like to be called next week. Would it be Lynley, Asherton, or some other dusty family title that he thought he'd try out for a month or two? Havers, apparently anticipating his request from what she had heard of the conversation, was already heading out of his office for the lift.
Lynley watched her go, her wool trousers flapping round her stubby legs and a scrap of torn paper clinging like a moth to the elbow of her worn Aran sweater. He contemplated this unexpected visit from Corntel, a ghost from the past, to be sure.
They'd been schoolmates at Eton, Corntel a King's Scholar, one of the elite. In those days, Lynley recalled, Corntel had cut quite a figure among the seniors, a tall and brooding youth, very melancholy, favoured with hair the colour of sepia and a set of aristocratic features reminiscent of those endowed Napoleon on the romantically painted canvases by Antoine-Jean Gros. As if with the intention of holding true to physical type, Corntel had been preparing to take his A-levels in literature, music, and art. What had happened to him after Eton, Lynley could not have said.
With this image of John Corntel in mind, part of Lynley's own history, it was with some surprise that he rose to greet the man who followed Sergeant Havers into his office less than five minutes later. Only the height remained--two inches over six feet, eye to eye with Lynley. But the frame that had once allowed him to stand so tall and sure of himself, a promising scholar in the privileged world of Eton, was round-shouldered now, as if protecting him from the potential of physical contact. That was not the only difference in the man.
The curls of youth had given way to hair close cropped to the skull and peppered with premature grey. That miraculous amalgamation of bone, flesh, contour, and colour that had resulted in a face speaking of both sensuality and intelligence now bore a pallor usually associated with sickrooms, and the skin looked stretched across the bones. His dark eyes were bloodshot.
An explanation had to exist for the change that had come upon Corntel in the seventeen years since Lynley had last seen him. People did not alter so drastically without a central cause. In this case it looked as if a burning or a freezing at the core of the man, having destroyed that interior substance, now pushed forward to decimate the rest.
"Lynley. Asherton. I wasn't sure which name to use," Corntel said diffidently. But the timidity seemed studied, a decision about salutations made well in advance. He offered his hand. It was hot, and felt feverish.
"I don't use the title much. Just Lynley."
"Useful thing, a title. We called you the Viscount of Vacillation at school, didn't we? But where did that come from? I can't even remember."
Lynley preferred not to. It stirred up memories. How they assaulted the protected regions of the psyche. "Viscount Vacennes."
"That was it. The secondary title. One of the joys of being the oldest son of an earl."
"Dubious joys at best."
Lynley watched the other man's eyes sweep over the office, taking in the cabinets, the shelves and their books, the general disarray of his desk, the two American Southwest prints. They came to rest on the room's single photograph, and Lynley waited for the other man to comment upon its solitary subject. Corntel and Lynley had both been at Eton with Simon Allcourt-St. James, and since the photograph of him was more than thirteen years old, Corntel would no doubt recognise the jubilant face of that wild-haired young cricket player who was frozen in time, captured in that pure, exhilarating joy of youth with trousers ripped and stained, a sweater pushed above the elbows, and a streak of dirt on his arm. He was leaning against a cricket bat, laughing in sheer delight. Three years before Lynley crippled him.
"St. James." Corntel nodded. "I've not thought of him in ages. Lord. Time does go, doesn't it?"
"It does." Lynley continued to study his old schoolmate curiously, noting the manner in which his smile flashed and disappeared, noting how his hands drifted to his jacket pockets and patted them down as if reassuring himself of the presence of some item he intended to produce.
Sergeant Havers flipped on the lights to dispel the gloom of the late afternoon. She looked at Lynley. Stay or go? her eyes asked. He nodded her towards one of the office chairs. She sat, reached in her trouser pocket, brought out a packet of cigarettes, and shook out several.
"Have one?" she offered Corntel. "The Inspector here's decided to give up yet another vice--curse him for his sanctimonious desire to stop polluting the air--and I hate to smoke alone."
Corntel seemed surprised that Havers was still in the room, but he accepted her offer and produced a lighter.
"Yes. I will. Thank you." His eyes danced to Lynley and then away. His right hand rolled the cigarette against his left palm. His teeth gnawed momentarily at his lower lip. "I've come for your help," he said in a rush. "I pray you'll do something, Tommy. I'm in serious trouble." Continues...
Excerpted from Well-Schooled in Murder by Elizabeth George Copyright © 2007 by Elizabeth George. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.