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Oxford historian and TV personality Daniel Kind and his lover, Miranda, buy Tarn Cottageonce home to an autistic youth suspected of murderin Brackdale, a place so remote that the dead had to be carried out over the peaks on pack animals along the ancient Coffin Trail. When the unsolved murder case is reopened, Brackdales skeletons begin to rattle.
About the Author
Martin Edwards has published 12 novels. He has edited 16 crime fiction anthologies and written a book about homicide investigation. He is a well-known reviewer and commentator on the genre.
Read an Excerpt
The Coffin Trail
By Martin Edwards
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2004 Martin Edwards
All right reserved.
Chapter OneForget about the murder. It's history.
Daniel tightened his grip on the steering wheel as the Audi jolted over potholes in the winding lane, his palms sweating. Miranda thought he was so cool, so relaxed, but it was an illusion. Might a conjurer feel like this when walking onto the stage? Fearing that his magic wouldn't work, that when he whipped the cloak away, his audience wouldn't gasp, but merely yawn? The car eased over the top of the fell and Daniel held his breath. At last Brackdale revealed itself. Unfolding below them, luxuriating in the sunshine.
'A hidden valley!'
Miranda's delight made him shiver with relief. This was the moment he'd yearned for. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her leaning forward in the passenger seat, craning her long neck so as to drink in the scene. Stone buildings squeezed around a spired church and its lush graveyard, and on the other side of the village, a jigsaw puzzle of fields and copses spread out across the hollow. Quarry workings, deserted and melancholy, pockmarked the far end of the valley, yet he wouldn't have loved Brackdale as much without its scars. Steep surrounding crags closed in together beyond the dead industrial remains. There was no through road. Miranda was right: a casual visitor would never guess that the valley existed. Tarn Cottage was concealed from view, as if by pale plumes of smoke. But Daniel knew that no fire burned, it was only the blossom of damson trees.
'Look over there!' Miranda was excited, he was aware of her tensing beside him. 'That weird stone on the summit.'
The boulder was shaped like an anvil, stark against the sky. Even on this innocent spring morning, its grey bulk loomed dour and secretive. Without thinking, he said, 'I climbed up there once. People round here call it the Sacrifice Stone.'
'Really?' Her voice rose. 'Go on, tell me more.'
He'd said too much. That was the trouble with the valley; it seduced you into betraying what was on your mind. Laughing, he changed the subject. He must focus on the here and now, not let anything darken a perfect day.
They shuddered over a cattle grid; it would be a miracle if the car's suspension survived the weekend, but who cared? As they joined the road on the far side of the village, dry stone walls gave way to hedgerows smudged by the gold of willow catkins. A mile further on stood a wooden sign with worn lettering. He could barely make out the words Tarn Fold. Next to it a gleaming estate agent's sign pointed towards the woodland: Cottage for sale by private treaty.
It must be Tarn Cottage. Had to be. There was no other dwelling down the track. His skin tingled: soon he would see the old place again. He parked on a square of turf where the asphalted lane became an unmade track. Miranda leaned towards him, eyes closing as they always did when she was aroused. Her perfume had a heady jasmine fragrance. They kissed and he put the cottage out of his mind until she pulled away.
'Time to explore.'
As he led her across an old packhorse bridge, they heard the faint splash of a fish in the beck. Past a ruined corn-mill, the route forked, and without hesitation, he headed towards a coppice of beech and ash. Wrens murmured in the trees. He'd read that birdsong is quieter in the countryside: no need to compete with city noise. Above the track, sinuous branches arched to form a green tunnel. He had a sudden fancy that he and Miranda were people in a story for children, passing through a portal into another world.
A breeze set the trees swaying, as if to the rhythms of a samba that only they could hear, and he glimpsed the whitewashed walls of the cottage. Beyond, he remembered, lay the barn and the bothy. When they reached the clearing, they stopped a few yards from the gateway at the end of the track, taking in the luscious air. A board freshly painted in a blinding shade of yellow bragged that Tarn Cottage "presented outstanding potential for sensitive refurbishment."
Ground elder and nettles had colonised the gravel path that curved towards a front door from which green paint was peeling. At least the tracery of the mullioned windows was intact. Moving closer, they could see the slope of the garden down to a reed-fringed tarn. Sunlight glinted on the water. Further on, the land rose towards the lower reaches of the fell. They paused, no longer able to hear the rushing of the beck. The breeze had dropped, the birds had lost their voice.
For a long time, neither of them broke the silence. Daniel slipped his arm around Miranda's waist and felt her trembling. It wasn't in her nature to be uncertain. Perhaps, like him, she felt as if she had arrived at a sort of holy place. The two of us are worshippers, he thought, we're here to make our devotions. And now we are overcome by awe.
'How could anyone live here and not be at peace?' She was whispering, even though no one could hear.
'Maybe we ought to put in a bid.'
'Oh God, yes,' she murmured. 'Let's do it.'
Her smile was dreamy. He'd seen it before, in her flat in London, moments after they made love for the first time. She could ask for anything, he would give it gladly. Seizing his hand, she gripped it tight.
'Let's do it,' she said again.
'No buts, Daniel. I mean it.'
'You're not serious.'
Her eyes opened wide. 'Believe me, I am.'
He tried being logical, though this was no time for rational argument. 'You work in London. I'm in Oxford. It takes almost as long to drive up here as to fly the Atlantic.'
'You weren't talking like that a couple of days ago.'
'You weren't talking about buying a holiday home then.'
'Not a holiday home.' She pinched his arm. 'Listen, remember when I read out my horoscope last night, that stuff about making a new start? We could make it here. Sell up everything and move into Tarn Cottage.'
'You're joking.' His mouth was dry. 'Aren't you?'
'I've never been more serious,' she said. 'I hate my job, and the college is stifling you. Listen to me, Daniel. Life is short, we don't get second chances. Let's escape from it all, make a fresh beginning together. We could be so happy here.'
He took a step away and stared at her flushed cheeks. Once such intensity would have scared him, now it made him giddy with desire. She lived by instinct and he adored her for it. For too long he'd played the sober academic, weighing evidence with cool scholarship before proceeding to a measured judgement. But reason was a ball and chain. Even though he'd never been able to get Brackdale—and Barrie Gilpin—out of his mind, it had taken him twenty years to return. Miranda was different. From the moment she'd seen the cottage, she had fallen head over heels.
'It's not exactly Islington.'
'Didn't you once tell me that anywhere north of the Wash was like a foreign country? You've never even lived in a small town. You're a Londoner, the city's part of you.'
'Parts of it I hate. The greed, the dirt, the crime. The newspaper placards screaming Murder of Woman—Witnesses Sought.'
'Hey, I thought you'd understand, that you'd want this as much as me.'
A gust caught the damson petals. Daniel watched them flutter in the air like crystals of snow before they merged with the wood anemone carpeting the ground beyond the little wood.
'Well?' she asked. 'Are you up for it?'
If I say no, he thought, will things ever be the same between us? I mustn't mess up, the way I messed up with Aimee.
He swallowed hard. 'Sure.'
Flinging her arms around him, she kissed him with a fierce hunger. Unbuttoning his shirt, unbuckling his belt, pushing him backwards and down. The grass smelled damp but they didn't care. The two of them were drunk with passion for each other. Her skin tasted sweet. He'd never experienced this before Miranda: not such abandonment. Surrendering to the will of another human being. Until now he'd always kept control.
Later, stroking his chest with warm fingertips, she said, 'You've never been able to get this place out of your mind, have you? I love that. That kind of obsession.'
Obsession? Yes, he supposed she was right. He ought to tell her that once, in this quiet and lovely place, a woman had been savagely murdered. But this moment was too precious. He would never forgive himself if she took fright and fled, vowing never to return. She was impulsive, he could never quite be sure how she would respond. He could tell her later.
* * *
Their pilgrimage had come out of the blue. Miranda had been trying for a late booking at a hotel on the Riviera that a friend claimed was the last word in luxury. She was desperate to take a break from London. At a party a few weeks back, Tamzin, her editor at the magazine, had made a pass following too many glasses of wine. Perhaps Miranda's rebuff had been scathing, she really couldn't remember. Ever since then, Tamzin had subtly set about making her life hell. When told that the hotel was full, Miranda burst into tears. Daniel threw out a suggestion, scarcely imagining that she'd say yes.
'Why go abroad? We could stay in England, off the beaten track. How about the Lakes?'
'Windermere?' she asked, making it sound as remote as the Sea of Azov.
'Too many tourists. But there are plenty of out of the way places. I stayed up there as a boy, it's where we had our last family holiday before my father left us. I always wanted to go back.'
'You mean—you'd like us to take a break up north?'
'It's not the Arctic Circle. Who wants to spend fifteen hours at an airport when air traffic controllers go out on strike? Even with all the motorway jams, the Lakes are only a few hours' drive away. Where better to get away from it all?'
'Doesn't it rain a lot?'
'You know what they say in the Lakes? There's no such thing as bad weather. Only bad clothing.' She laughed. 'Okay, you win. I've never been there before, not even as a kid. My parents used to take us to France every year. Besides, I was never keen on Wordsworth and all that. We had daffodils in our front garden at home, they were my mother's pride and joy. I never saw any need to visit Grasmere to see them in their thousands.'
'There's more to the Lakes than rain and daffodils. Forget Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter. Think Coleridge, think De Quincey, think ...'
'All right, all right, any moment now you'll be reliving battle scenes from Swallows and Amazons.' She was laughing already and he knew he'd persuaded her. 'Okay, I admit it. When I was a kid, I couldn't help liking Arthur Ransome's books. And it's silly, travelling the world and ignoring your own back doorstep. Even if I don't get the chance of a tan. Let's do it.'
Now here they were in Tarn Fold. Talking about junking their jobs, their homes, and moving up here. Unreal, but so was the whole of their affair. They had fallen for each other in the course of a single evening. He'd met her at a party thrown by his publishers at Soho House. At seven that evening they were strangers; they parted next morning as lovers. Her spontaneity was a gift. It turned him on, the way she let herself be swept by a tide of passion.
'I just can't believe ..."
'You must believe,' she said quickly. 'Swear to me you won't change your mind?'
'I swear,' he said. 'You know I wanted you to share this place with me.'
She put her head on one side, as though trying to decipher an inscription in Sanskrit. 'I've never seen you like this before.'
'You've never come here with me before.'
Taking a pen out of the pocket of her Levis, she scrawled the estate agent's name and number on the back of her hand. 'Fine, we'll call at the branch and arrange to view.'
He couldn't help grinning. 'You really are set on this, aren't you?'
'Once I start on something,' she said, 'nothing will stop me.'
It wasn't precisely true. A month ago, she'd begun to write a novel, about some other young journalist who lived in Islington and suffered from lesbian harassment, but she'd never made it beyond chapter one. Last night in the hotel she'd talked of pitching a feature to a broadsheet about alternative therapies. Over breakfast, she wondered about yet another variation on a favourite theme: Diana: how she taught us to get in touch with our emotions.
'Hey,' she said, 'we'd better get a move on. We mustn't lose out.'
She skipped off towards the car and he tramped after her in a blissed-out daze. Anyone would think they were both high on something.
'This whole valley is a Shangri-La,' she said as they left Tarn Fold behind. 'If only the people here were immortal too. It's too beautiful a place to die in.'
He switched on the CD player and started humming to Norah Jones. Anything to avoid talk of death. A lane led off to a squat pele tower that formed the centrepiece of Brack Hall; another curved towards the hall farm and the fell beyond. As they passed through Brack, he pointed to a window above the front door of a large pub on the main street. The Moon under Water. From it hung a 'bed and breakfast' sign.
'That was my room,' he said. 'I shared it with my sister Louise. She kept me awake, telling me stories from a book my parents bought us. Legends of Lakeland, it was called. Tales about stone circles that came to life and rivers that wept.'
Beyond the church, the road narrowed. Purple aubretia and white alyssum spilled from cracks in the walls. On the verges, poppies were starting to bloom. He remembered clambering halfway up to Priest Edge with his father to an embankment within which an irregular pattern of marked-out footways was all that remained of a hut village constructed by ancient Britons. According to Ben Kind's books, fewer folk lived in the valley now than during the years BC.
'My father and I used to roam around here while my mother and sister went into the town to shop.'
'Your old man was a policeman, you told me. Was that difficult?'
'Not for me,' he said. 'I was fascinated by the stories he told.'
'But your mother, did she have a tough time?'
He hesitated. 'The week we came home, he told mum that he was seeing someone else. The affair had been going on for some time, but she didn't have a clue. He might have walked out sooner, but the holiday was booked and he didn't want to wreck it for all of us.'
'And you never saw him again?'
'No, my mother would have regarded it as a betrayal. Louise backed her to the hilt. We both had to promise never to speak to him again. It was a long time before I broke my word.'
* * *
By evening, Miranda's plans for the cottage were well advanced. They were staying in a hotel on the outskirts of Keswick, halfway between shimmery Derwentwater and the brooding heights of Skiddaw and Blencathra. The restaurant occupied an airy conservatory and over their meal they'd watched the sunlight streaking the lake, then marvelled at a sky so red as to delight even the gloomiest of shepherds. The dinner would have had Egon Ronay drooling. As they drank a final glass of Chablis in the low-beamed bar, Daniel felt light-headed, as if a hypnotist had put him in a trance of happiness. Viewing was scheduled for half-nine tomorrow. No one else had put in a bid. For Miranda that meant the cottage was as good as theirs.
'Did I ever tell you I've written for home magazines about interior design? The importance of lighting and colour and stuff.'
He waved at the 'to-do' list she'd scrawled on the hotel notepaper, and her lavish sketch of their redesigned living accommodation. Already everything was planned out in her mind. The bothy could provide additional guest accommodation, and she'd decided the barn could be split into two offices: his and hers. In their new lives they could work from home and be together all the time.
'You saw how rundown the place is,' he said. So far words of caution had blown away like leaves in a gale, but he dreaded her distress if it all fell through. She cared so much about everything. In her vulnerability, if nothing else, she reminded him of Aimee. 'The garden's bad enough; who knows what a survey might show?'
'Come on, loosen up. Anything can be fixed.'
'It'll cost a small fortune.'
'Have you checked house prices here? You could buy a mansion for the cost of a terrace in Islington. Well, almost. Anyway, we'll have plenty of cash to spare when we sell our old homes. Money isn't a problem.'
Excerpted from The Coffin Trail by Martin Edwards Copyright © 2004 by Martin Edwards. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Martin Edwards writes terrific crime novels.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Miranda persuades her lover Oxford historian and TV host Daniel Kind to leave the school that she insists is stifling him and she would quit her detestable job so that they can relocate and move in together. She further convinces Daniel to buy notorious Tarn Cottage in a relatively isolated Lake District Valley. Daniel is familiar with Tarn Cottage once home to Asperger¿s syndrome sufferer Barrie Gilpin, whom he knew........................ Barrie was suspected by the police led by Daniel¿s father of a violent ritual murder, but before he was questioned he fell to his death. Daniel has solved mysteries on his TV show using Holmesian logic and always felt that Barrie was innocent. Additionally, Detective Chief Inspector Hannah Scarlett has reopened this cold case because of a recent anonymous tip. Although Hannah and her team do not want Daniel interfering, he also makes inquiries as he plans to prove Barrie was innocent. The two adjoining investigations upset several residents of Brackdale, who want their dirty laundry left hidden from view.............................. Although coincidence is over-killed to bring the son and the protégé in competition, readers will appreciate this fine amateur sleuth police procurable rivalry in which the who-done-it is cleverly devised. The story line is fun to follow as Daniel and Hannah employ similar methods as both learned from his dad. They also share in common the fear that their teacher bungled this case when he bet on Barrie exclusively. Miranda adds just the right additional touch so that the audience obtains a strong mystery that tracks THE COFFIN TRAIL, the path the dead are taken on to leave the isolated valley for burial............................. Harriet Klausner
This being my 2nd Lake District Mystery I did not know what to expect, I was extremely impressed. The Coffin Trail was I believe the first book in the series and it was not repetitive it could be a stand alone book. This was a new storyline with a new murder when Daniel Kind met Hannah and learned about his father. Still being a part of a series you had no trouble following or feeling confused because you went out of order. I can not wait to get more of the Lake District Mystery books. Wonderful!!