Charlie Leathers was not the most popular man in the charming English village of Ferne Basset, but few people seemed to hate him enough to murder him. Still, that was his fate one night, and it brings Inspector Barnaby to the scene to investigate. What Barnaby doesn't know is that before his death, Charlie witnessed what might have been the suicideor murderof a young woman whose troubles with the law have landed her in the home of a local retired minister and his none-too-pleased wife. Now a man is dead, a girl is missing, and a town is in chaos as long-kept secrets begin to unravel, with deadly repercussions.
About the Author
Caroline Grahamwas born in Warwickshire, England. Her first Inspector Barnaby novel, The Killings at Badger's Drift, was selected as one of the Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time by the Crime Writers' Association.
Read an Excerpt
Every night, at exactly the same time and whatever the weather, Charlie Leathers took the dog for a walk. When Mrs. Leathers heard the gate of their breeze block council bungalow click to, she would peep through a gap in the net curtains to check he was on his way then switch the television back on.
Mr. Leathers was usually out about half an hour but his wife would set her kitchen timer for twenty minutes then switch the set off just to be on the safe side. Once he had come back early, stared suspiciously at the newly blank screen and laid the back of his hand against the glass. It was still warm. Hetty had to listen to a droning lecture on how it stood to reason that nothing worth watching was on after ten and it was a known fact that valves wore out more quickly during the hours of darkness. Once she had had the temerity to ask him who paid the licence fee out of their wages and he hadn't spoken for three days.
Anyway this nightor the night in question as the police were to call it once its significance was appreciatedhe was out rather longer than usual. Hetty could have watched every moment of Absolutely Fabulous. It was only a repeat but was still her favourite programme, being as far removed from her everyday life of domestic drudgery as it was possible to imagine.
Bright moonlight washed over the village green, illuminating the Best Kept Village notice and Ferne Basset's amateurishly painted coat of arms. This was a made-up, folkloric affair showing a badger rampant, several sheaves of wheat, crossed cricket bats and an unnaturally vivid limegreen chrysanthemum.
Charlie Leathers strode across the shorn grass and onto the pavement opposite. He directed an angry stare at the dark mass of half-finished new homes and builder's equipment next to the pub and kicked a pile of bricks as he went by. He passed several Victorian cottages and a remarkable modern house made almost entirely of glass, over which the moonlight ran like silver rain. A few yards further and he was entering the churchyard behind which lay the beginnings of Carter's Wood. He walked quickly with the angry, vehement energy that drove all his movements. Charlie never relaxed and even slept twitching, sometimes flailing at the air with clenched fists.
The Jack Russell kept up as best she could, trotting along with many an anxious, upward glance. Tiredness or hard stones along the way were no excuse for faltering. A savage hoik on the collar or an even sharper flick of leather on her tender nose kept her up to scratch. She was only allowed to pause once to do what she had been brought out to do. A wee was accomplished hopping on three legs. And the wonderfully rich and varied scents that thickened the night air remained for ever unexplored.
After being half dragged through a tangle of thick brambles and undergrowth, Candy was relieved to find herself padding on soft leaf mould before a sideways yank on the lead pulled her round in an awkward half-circle as they turned to go home.
This involved approaching Tall Trees Lane, where Charlie lived, in the opposite direction from which they had left. This way they would pass some semi-detached bungalows, several almshouses, the village shop and the church of St. Timothy in Torment. And then, before the money started to show itself again, there was the river.
The Misbourne was fast-running and deep. A shallow weir a few hundred yards downstream made a soft swishing sound which mingled with the rustle of leaves in the still night air. Over the river was a stone bridge with a carved parapet barely three feet high.
Charlie had just walked across this when he heard shouting. He stood very still and listened. Noises are hard to place at night and at first he thought the shrill, angry voices were coming from the council houses where people couldn't care less who heard them rowing. But then they suddenly became louderperhaps because someone had opened a doorand he realised the source was the building close by the church: the Old Rectory.
Charlie hurried into the churchyard, stood on tiptoe and peered eagerly over the yew hedge. He wound Candy's lead round and round his hand until she was almost choking. Warning her to be quiet.
Light from the hallway spilled out, flooding the front steps. A girl ran out calling something over her shoulder, the sense of it distorted by gulping sobs. There was an anguished cry from inside the house. "Carlotta, Carlotta! Wait!"
As the girl hared off down the drive, Charlie quickly backed round the corner of the hedge. Not that she would have noticed him. Her face as she ran by, just a few feet away, was blind with tears.
More running. A regular pounding on the gravel and a second woman, some years older but no less distressed, flew across his line of vision.
"Leave me alone."
Reaching the bridge, the girl had turned. Although the way behind her was perfectly clear, Charlie had the most vivid impression of a wild creature at bay.
"I didn't mean any harm!"
"I know, Carlotta." The woman approached cautiously. "It's all right. You mustn't"
"It was my last chancecoming to you."
"There's no need for all this." Her voice was soothing. "Try and calm down."
The girl climbed onto the parapet.
"For God's sake"
"They'll send me to prison."
"You don't have to"
"I thought I'd be safe here."
"You were are. I've just said"
"Where else can I go?" She hung her head, exhausted by her tears, swaying precariously backwards then jerking upright again with a little cry of fear. "Ahh ... what will happen to me?"
"Now don't be silly." The woman moved forward, her face and hair ghostly in the moonlight. "Nothing's going to happen to you."
"I might as well be dead." The girl on the bridge became considerably more agitated, covering her face with her hands and once more starting to cry, rocking wretchedly back and forth.
Momentarily unobserved, the woman approached quickly. Softly. She was level with the girl. Had her arms wrapped round the slender legs.
"Get down, Carlotta. LookI'll hold your hand."
"Don't touch me!"
Charlie Leathers had been easing forward, a breath at a time, while all this was going on. Tugged into the drama, not caring, such was his excitement, that he might be seen.
The moon slid behind a cloud. Detail was lost but there was still light enough to outline a dark agitated shape, grotesquely tall, as if one woman was balanced on the other's shoulders. For a few seconds they wrestled backwards and forwards, grunting.
The girl cried again, "Don't ... don't push"
Then there was a terrible cry and a splash as something heavy hit the water. Then silence.
Charlie stepped back into the shelter of the hedge. He was trembling, his nerve ends jumping like fleas on a hot plate. It was some time before he could start to make his way home. And when he did, more than one person noted his progress, for an English country village, despite all appearances to the contrary, is never quite asleep.
For instance, in the beautiful glass house Valentine Fainlight and his sister Louise were enjoying a ferocious game of chess. Valentine played with savage vigour and a determination to win. He would swoop over the board, snatch up pieces and wave them in the air triumphantly. Louise, more detached but equally resolute, remained very still. She would smile, a cool parting of the lips, after a successful move but showed neither disappointment nor displeasure in the face of failure.
"Checkmate!" The board was tipped over and the figures, dark blue resin styled in the manner of mythical beasts and warriors, clattered and fell. Immediately Louise got up and walked away.
"Don't sulk, Lou. Fair and square. Wasn't it?"
"As much as anything ever is with you."
"I wouldn't mind a glass of something."
There was no denying that, so far, it had been good having Louise around. Valentine had been edgily uncertain when she had first asked if she might come and stay. He was sorry for her, of course. The break-up of her marriage had caused real damage. For the first time in her life she had been dealt wounds deeper than those she had inflicted. But it had worked out very well. On the whole.
To allay his anxiety and emphasise the transitory nature of her visit, Louise brought only two small suitcases. A month later she collected the rest of her clothes. Then her books and a tea chest full of stuff that had what is described as only sentimental value. Packing these things had hurt so much (why do people say "only"?) that the crate remained in the garage, unopened.
"A spot of Casa Porta would be nice."
Louise started to pull the curtains. These were immensely long and full yet almost weightless, being made of gossamer-fine fabric scattered with pale stars. There was a gap between the upper floor, suspended from a huge loft by steel cables, and the external wall and the curtains fell through this, tumbling from the top of the house to the bottom, over a hundred feet to the ground. When Louise walked along, pulling them behind her, she always felt like someone in a theatre at the beginning of a play. Halfway across she stopped.
"There's Charlie Leathers with that poor little dog."
"Why do you have to mock everything?"
"Not quite everything."
No, thought Louise. If only.
"You're turning into a village drab, woman. Peering through the acrylics. You'll be joining the WI next."
Louise stood for a moment staring at the dark, shifting silhouettes of trees. And the houses, solid black building blocks. She pictured people asleep, dreaming. Or awake, overcome by night-time fears of illness and their own eventual decay. As she moved again, the muslin soft against her arm, her brother called, "Hang on."
Louise stood still. She knew what was coming and kept her thoughts deliberately even and colourless. There really was nothing more to be said. They had exhausted all the arguments. In a way, having been through the same fire, she could sympathise.
"Is the blue door open?"
"It's too dark to see."
"What about a light in the flat?"
The Old Rectory was shrouded by trees but the garage, over which the flat was built, stood some way from the house and was clearly visible.
"Let's have a look."
"Val, there's nothing to look at."
"Humour me, darling."
They stood together staring into the night. Louise averted her eyes from the sensual hunger and raging tenderness that consumed her brother's features. They waited for a few moments then she lifted Val's hand and pressed it sadly against her cheek. As she did this the powerful headlights of a car swept down the village street and turned into the Old Rectory drive.
Ann Lawrence was not asleep. But when she heard the front door slam and her husband climb the stairs, she jumped into bed, shut her eyes and lay very still thanking God they slept in separate rooms. Lionel opened the door of her room, spoke her name without lowering his voice, waited a while, gave an irritated sigh and briskly closed it.
Ann got up again and started once more to pace about, padding up and down softly on the faded yellow Aubusson carpet. She could not be still for a minute. Had not been still since that terrifying moment on the bridge when Carlotta had slipped from her grasp and drowned. For surely, by how, she must have drowned.
Ann had run along the side of the river calling, crying her name, staring into the dark, rapidly swirling water. Ran until she was exhausted. Eventually she reached the weir, a narrow strip of foam, curling and hissing in the moonlight. Nothing. Not the slightest sign of life, animal or human.
She trudged back to the village sick with emotion and fear. What could she do? Her watch showed that nearly half an hour had gone by since the accident had happened. What would be the point of telling anyone now? On the other hand, how could she not? Suppose, by some miracle, Carlotta had not drowned but was caught up somewhere beyond the weir. Perhaps she had managed to grab an overhanging branch and was hanging frantically on, cold, soaking wet and desperate for help.
Ann saw now that she had made a dreadful mistake in racing along the river bank, searching and calling. It had been instinctive, a natural human impulse. What she should have done was run to the nearest telephone and dial the emergency services. Surely they would not have taken half an hour. And they would be properly equipped with lights and ropes. And divers.
There was a telephone box next to the Red Lion now quietly shuttered against the night, all revellers departed. Ann stabbed at the figure nine three times, the receiver slipping and twirling in her sweaty hand. Asked what service she required she hesitated then said the police. They would notify the ambulance service surely, should one be necessary.
She described the situation somewhat incoherently while still managing to make it plain that a person had fallen into a river and been swiftly carried away. A search immediately afterwards had proved fruitless. She gave the exact locations but then, asked what time the accident happened, stared at her watch, struggling to make sense of the figures on the dial. She said she didn't know. Perhaps half an hour ago. Maybe less. And then the person on the other end of the line wanted her name.
Ann dropped the receiver which swung and clattered against the glass. Her throat constricted suddenly as if a hand had gripped it tight. She stood rigidly, swamped by horror. Her name. How could she possibly give her name? Her mind leapt ahead and saw it printed in large letters across the front page of the local newspapermaybe even the nationals. She pictured the repercussions. Her husband's distress and its possible effect on his reputation. His sorrowful disappointment not only at her failure to provide the secure environment that Carlotta had so urgently needed but that she had actually driven the girl from the house. At least that was how it would appear.
Ann slid into a maelstrom of miserable reflection, when she emerged moments later, wretched and on the verge of tears, it was to realise she had put the phone back on the hook.
Fortunately there was no one to see her return home. Ann was horrified at the sight of herself in the hall mirror. Face streaked with dirt. Shoes and stockings soaked through. She was shivering as the sweat generated by her mad dash along the river bank dried coldly on her skin.
She started to run a bath before she had even taken off her coat. Bypassing her husband's Radox which promised to "soothe away aches and pains, easing tension and tiredness," she reached for Molton Brown's Sensual Foaming Bath. A Christmas present from Louise Fainlight, ravishingly scented, wonderfully effervescent and surely much more likely to ease tension and soothe pain. Tiredness was not a problem. She had never felt so wide awake. Was inclined to believe she would never sleep again. Unscrewing the cap, she noticed without surprise that the bottle, which she had used only once, was nearly empty.
She dropped her clothes on the floor, put on a robe and went downstairs to pour herself a drink. There wasn't much choice. Harvey's Bristol Cream. Some dregs of Dubonnet which her husband would drown in soda and sip rather daringly. Rose's Lime Juice.
Ann sighed, terribly tempted in her present frame of mind to empty the lot into a giant tumbler and swig herself to oblivion. She opened the huge carved sideboard and discovered, right at the back, a single bottle of Sainsbury's claret. Five minutes later, lying in perfumed water and knocking back the fruity stuff, she replayed the dreadful events of the past two hours a frame at a time. She could still hardly believe that the ground could have been so violently snatched from under her. Or that events had whirled out of control at such a speed. Surely there must have been some point at which she could have avoided being sucked into the eye of the storm?
* * *
It had all started with the disappearance of her mother's eartings. Delicate exquisite things: rose diamonds and emeralds on an amethyst clip. They had been given to Ann on her eighteenth birthday, together with a fob watch on a watered silk strap, a garnet and turquoise necklace and several beautiful rings, too small for all but her littlest finger.
She had been looking for a handkerchief when she noticed that the tortoiseshell silk scarf under which she kept her carved jewel box had been moved. She opened the box. The earrings had gone.
Ann rarely used any of the jewellery. The life she led gave little opportunity for wearing such lovely thingsor showing them off, as her husband would have put it. We mustn't flaunt our wealth, he would frequently say in his bland, determinedly non-critical way. And Ann always agreed, never ever pointing out that it was in fact her wealth.
She sifted through the other items in the box, her fingers shaking. She counted the rings, held the necklace briefly to her heart then put everything back. Nothing else was missing. She stared at her pale face in the glass, at her sandy lashes already fluttering and blinking with apprehension. But she couldn't, she wouldn't let it pass.
The fact that she knew who had taken the earrings made things worse rather than better. It meant a confrontation. Something from which her very private soul shrank. But the only alternative was telling Lionel and that would mean a deeply embarrassing meeting between the three of them. Herself struggling to appear non-accusatory. Lionel twisting himself into compassionate knots trying to understand and excuse and forgive Carlotta. Carlotta either denying she had taken them, in which case what could they do? Or playing her deprived, unhappy background card, whining that she never meant any harm. All she had wanted was to try them on, having never owned anything worthwhile or beautiful in her whole wretched unloved young life.
Ann was pretty certain that Carlotta occasionally wore some of her clothes. She had noticed a rather sour smell on one or two shirts and dresses. And various items had disappeared before. Some rather expensive diamond-patterned tights. A pair of fur gloves left in her coat pocket in the hall. Small amounts of money from her purse. Pretty much what she had come to expect from Lionel's succession of lame ducks.
Lifting her head, Ann stared upwards in the general direction of Carlotta's room from which came the relentless thud, thud, thud of rock music. It was played from the moment the girl got up until eleven at night: a curfew Lionel had imposed as, by then, even his patience was wearing thin.
She would have to tread carefully. Carlotta was supposed to have a history of instability. When she had first arrived, Lionel had urged caution, assuring his wife that the slightest criticism or pressure to embrace petty, bourgeois restrictions could well tip Carlotta over the edge. So far Ann had seen little sign of this. In fact she was starting to think the boot could well be on the other foot.
She felt queasy, as she always did when faced by the compulsion to demonstrate aggression. Feeling it, no problem. Showing it, well, maybe tomorrow. But perhapsAnn started to backtrackit might not after all be necessary. For instance, shouldn't she first make sure the jewellery was really missing?
Relieved at the possibility of postponement, Ann removed the top drawer, tipped the contents out on the bed and started to sort carefully through her tights and underwear. No earrings. She checked the other two drawers. Same result.
She recalled clearly the last time she wore them. It was the anniversary of her mother's death. Ann had taken fresh flowers to the grave. While her grown-up self had poured water into the stone urn and carefully arranged yellow roses with buds like candle flames, her six-year-old self, aching with grief and loss, had longed for her mother to appear, just for a moment. Just long enough to see that she was wearing the earrings. That she had not forgotten. That she would never forget.
The music suddenly became very loud. Whether it was this ugly intrusion into her painful reflections or the renewed conviction that the girl had indeed stolen one of her most precious possessions, Ann suddenly found the courage to move. She strode along the landing, half ran, half stumbled up the attic steps and banged on the door.
The volume increased again, hugely this time. The pounding bass battered her eardrums, burst through, invaded the inside of her head. The wooden panels of the door and the boards beneath her feet danced and shuddered. Consumed by angerthis is my house, my house!Ann thundered on the door with her fists until the knuckles grazed.
The music stopped. A few moments later Carlotta appeared, standing square in the doorway in her dusty black jeans and T-shirt. Split sneakers on her feet. Long matted dark hair tugged through a purple scrunch band. She wore the expression so frequently present when they were alone together. One of amused contempt. Then she ducked under the Mind Your Head notice, crossed the threshold and stood, blocking Ann's way.
"Got a problem, Mrs. Lawrence?"
"I'm afraid I have."
Ann stepped boldly forward and, surprised by the sudden movement, Carlotta stood aside. She did not follow Ann into the room which was very untidy and reeked of cigarette smoke.
"What's that then?"
"I can't seem to find my mother's earrings."
Ann took a deep breath. "I was wondering if you'd ..."
"I don't wear old lady's stuff. Thanks all the same."
"They were in my jewellery box the other day"
"You calling me a liar?" Spittle flew as the words twisted thin scarlet lips.
"Of course not, Carlotta."
"Search the place then. Go on."
She knows I never would, thought Ann. Especially with her standing there watching. She imagined calling Carlotta's bluff but couldn't bear the humiliation of not finding the earrings. Or the awful scene that could ensue if she did.
She wondered if the jewellery had already been pawned or sold and felt quite ill at the idea. She pictured her precious things being handled by knowing, dirty fingers. Money, a fraction of what they were worth, changing hands. It was this that prompted her fatally rash next words.
Table of Contents
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book would not appeal to everyone. It is an enjoyable read without violence, blood, gore and vampires. I loved it! I enjoyed watching the series on TV. Now that pleasure is gone I have decided to read all od Caroline Graham's books. Her plot has enough twists to keep you guessing and interested in the book until the end. Anyone who enjoys reading and good mysteries should buy this book.
I love mysteries like this one where there are no guns or foul language or constant sexual references. An excellent british cozy.
Johan raises an eyebrow. "Bi.tches love the Johan."
((I'm pretty sure this rp is dead but....)) *Walks in* Morning!