Natural Enemy

Natural Enemy

by Jane Langton

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The award-winning author’s “rare gift of genius” is on display as her scholar/sleuth investigates a suspicious death from asthma and yellow jackets (St. Louis Post-Dispatch).
 John Hand visits the Heron house looking for a summer job. What he finds is a family in mourning. A few minutes after he is hired by Mrs. Heron and her daughter, Virginia, a neighbor, Buddy, finds Mr. Heron lying dead in the orchard, choked to death by asthma and bee stings. As Buddy comforts the grieving family, John feels out of place. But as he begins to suspect that Buddy knows more about Mr. Heron’s death than he’s letting on, he goes to the only person who can help: his uncle, Professor Homer Kelly. After years teaching students about Thoreau’s famous sojourn at nearby Walden Pond, the famed transcendentalist scholar feels his memory beginning to slip. But nothing sharpens the mind better than murder, and Homer’s nephew has stumbled on a fine one.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781453247556
Publisher: Road
Publication date: 03/06/2012
Series: The Homer Kelly Mysteries , #4
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 284
Sales rank: 580,796
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

Winner of the Bouchercon Lifetime Achievement Award, Jane Langton (1922–2018) was an acclaimed author of mystery novels and children’s literature. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Langton took degrees in astronomy and art history before she began writing novels, and has set much of her fiction in the tight-knit world of New England academia.
She published her first novel, The Majesty of Grace, in 1961, and a year later began one of the young adult series that would make her famous: the Hall Family Chronicles. In The Diamond in the Window (1962) she introduced Edward and Eleanor, two New England children whose home holds magical secrets. Two years later, in The Transcendental Murder, Langton created Homer Kelly, a Harvard University professor who solves murders in his spare time. These two series have produced over two dozen books, most recently The Dragon Tree (2008), the eighth Hall Family novel.
Winner of the Bouchercon Lifetime Achievement Award, Jane Langton (1922–2018) was an acclaimed author of mystery novels and children’s literature. Born in Boston, Massachusetts, Langton took degrees in astronomy and art history before she began writing novels, and has set much of her fiction in the tight-knit world of New England academia.
She published her first novel, The Majesty of Grace, in 1961, and a year later began one of the young adult series that would make her famous: the Hall Family Chronicles. In The Diamond in the Window (1962) she introduced Edward and Eleanor, two New England children whose home holds magical secrets. Two years later, in The Transcendental Murder, Langton created Homer Kelly, a Harvard University professor who solves murders in his spare time. These two series have produced over two dozen books, most recently The Dragon Tree (2008), the eighth Hall Family novel.

Read an Excerpt

Natural Enemy

A Homer Kelly Mystery

By Jane Langton

Copyright © 1982 Jane Langton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-4755-6


Things were going on at different levels on that day in June.

From ninety-three million miles away, sunshine flooded the uptilted northern hemisphere of the earth. Twenty-four thousand miles over the state of Maryland, some of the sun's light was intercepted by the solar collectors of the communications satellite for the eastern half of the United States, and beamed down to the tracking station at Logan Airport in Boston. This morning the satellite was transmitting an image of Labrador and Greenland, rounding against the dark sky, and a hazy view of a continental landmass nearly obscured by swiftly rushing clouds.

And at four hundred feet above the rocky soil of Massachusetts, the first gusts of wind were buffeting a small helicopter as it droned away from Hanscom Air Force Base and rattled along the border between the suburban towns of Lincoln and Concord.

Lincoln selectman William Warren was surveying his territory. His purpose was prudent and businesslike, but his head was spinning. He had lived in the town nearly all the sixty-five years of his life, but he had never seen it from the air before. Neighborhoods he had known since childhood as linear stretches of road were spreading before him in broad sweeps of landscape.

"Wow," shouted William, straining forward in his seatbelt, "it feels like God up here."

"What's that?" said the pilot.

"You know, looking down at everything from above. Hey, look, you can see everybody on the beach at Walden Pond. Look at the whitecaps on the water. Boy, the wind is really picking up out there." Then William clutched the pilot's arm and pointed at the road streaming below them, dappled in sun and shadow. "You see that kid down there, on the bicycle on Route 126? You know who that is?" Again William was exhilarated by the sense that he was observing the whole world at once, guiding fatalities, prophesying destinies. "That's a young friend of mine, John Hand. I was just talking to him on the phone, half an hour ago."

"What's that you say? Can't hear."

"I said, that kid on the bike, I was just talking to him. Told him he could get a summer job with some friends of mine. See there? He's on his way right now. Hoooeee! What was that?"

The helicopter was lurching and yawing sideways. "Pretty strong wind," said the pilot.

"What did you say?"

"Gusty! If the wind gets any stronger, we better turn back."

"Oh, no, don't do that. This is so terrific. Wow, look at Pine Hill. Looks almost flat from up here. And, my God, look at the size of Buddy Whipple's slate roof! Greenhouse! Tennis court! Say, I didn't realize what a big place he has there. Well, you know, it was an old hunting estate. Rich people named Higginson built it back around the turn of the century. Fox hunting. Horses. You know. Say, maybe I should raise Buddy's tax assessment. That place of his is really colossal. Hey, will you look at that! See those people unloading a lot of stuff from their car?"

"Listen, mister, stop jerking my arm, okay?"

"Oh, sorry. But I mean, it's so amazing. You get this Olympian view of everything from up here. That's a new family moving into Buddy's house. He's renting the place out. Says he can't afford to live there anymore since his father died."

"What's that? I'm kind of deaf in my right ear."

"OH, SORRY. Hey, look at that, you can see Buddy's whole driveway, going down the hill under the trees there, see? And there's the Heron place, that old house at the bottom of the drive. Friends of mine, the Herons. Say, look at that roof of theirs, needs a new roof! Maybe I should lower their property assessment. Hey, there's Edward's girls right there on the lawn. Wish they'd look up. HEY, THERE, VIRGINIA! BARBARA! Nope, they're working at something, not going to look up. You know what? They don't even know young John is coming around the corner on his bike to help them out for the summer. See what I mean? From up here I know their future better than they do themselves. Look, there's the orchard. See those old apple trees? Wow, I haven't been in there in forty years. Used to steal apples in there when I was a kid. All overgrown, just a wilderness now. Hey, hey, did you see that? Cock pheasant! We flushed a cock pheasant!"

"How's that again?"

"Never mind. Bird flew up just now."

The frightened pheasant skimming above the bristling tops of the trees was only thirty feet above the tangled undergrowth of the old apple orchard. Stretching its ringed neck, spreading its wings wide, the pheasant landed awkwardly fifty feet away from the commotion in the bushes and scuttled into the dense cover of low vegetation, still squawking in alarm at the wild tumult in the jungle of honeysuckle and firecherry, the muffled shout, the furious buzzing of angry yellow jackets.

Under the high canopy of leaves Buddy Whipple stood a good six feet four inches above the ground. Staring upward through the high branches, he ignored the pheasant. He was worried about the helicopter. Could it see him? Probably not. The green umbrella of the apple tree was thick over his head, and entangled with wild grape vines. Cautiously Buddy moved farther back into its protective shade. What if the helicopter came back to take a second look? No, the heavy clattering noise was dimmer. Now it was only a faraway vibration in the air. Buddy's heart was beating wildly. Feverish with excitement, he dropped his gaze to the man who lay heaving below him in the trampled undergrowth.

It was a ghastly thing to see. Edward Heron was lying face-up, thrashing from side to side, fighting for air. His head was thrown back, his eyes were bulging. The blue swelling of the wound on his forehead was hardly distinguishable from the cyanotic blue of his face and throat. The sound of his agonized struggle to exhale was long-drawn-out and grating, like dry pebbles rattling over stone. A few yellow jackets had followed the mad scrambling plunge through the overgrown orchard and fastened themselves to Edward's eyelids, his lips, his throat.

Warily Buddy circled the dying man, fascinated in spite of himself. He had never seen an asthmatic attack before. It was Edward's own fault, of course, for getting so mad. Asthmatic people should know better than to let themselves get mad. Everybody knew it was their own emotions that brought on the worst attacks. So it wasn't Buddy's fault. The goddamn man had come along too soon, just a quarter of an hour too soon! A few minutes later and the job would have been done. Edward wouldn't have noticed a damn thing. Buddy's tremendous undertaking would have been completed, and he would have been far away by now. His crowbar, his wheelbarrow, his tools — they would have been gone too. But, no, Edward had to come blundering along, surprising him, grabbing him by the shoulder all of a sudden, asking him what the hell was going on. No wonder Buddy had lost control of himself. No wonder he had picked up that rock. And then, of course, all hell had broken loose. Those yellow jackets, God —

The noise of the chopper had faded away altogether. Edward Heron's breathing was only a hoarse rasping whisper, nearly inaudible, almost nonexistent. How long would it take him to die?

Patiently Buddy folded his arms, determined to wait it out. Then to his surprise he found himself grinning. A tense high giggle was welling up in his throat. Lucky again! He'd been lucky again! Well, to do himself justice, he shouldn't say lucky exactly. It wasn't just luck. It was his own prompt action, his own quick response to a crisis, his own gift for knowing what to do that had made things work out so well. Then Buddy told himself again, as he had told himself so many times before, how strange it was, how really strange, that most people had no feeling for opportunity. Among all the people he knew, only Buddy himself seemed to have been born with a quick foresight that was like a sixth sense, an instantaneous grasp of what needed to be done, a willingness to work his head off to get what he wanted, an eagerness to knock on doors no one else had ever tried to open, to hammer at them until the rusted locks and hinges busted off at last. It was too bad other people were so simpleminded and slow. But Buddy was proud and glad. He felt lucky, really lucky, to have been born the kind of person that he was.

It was all over. Edward Heron had stopped struggling. There was no motion in the broad shoulders, no lifting and falling of the denim jacket, no terrible wheezing struggle for breath.

Buddy rolled the body over with his foot and saw the empty ground beneath it. Nothing was growing on that strip of dirt. It was part of the line of bare soil running along the edge of the tangled orchard. He couldn't leave the body there. Bending down, Buddy picked it up easily and slung it over his shoulder. A yellow jacket stung him on the back of the neck, but Buddy hardly felt it. Shoving his way through the head-high thicket, he dropped his burden for a moment on the stone wall, leaped over the wall in one bound, picked up the body again and carried it to the farthest apple tree in the jungle of honeysuckle and firecherry. There he let it fall. Then, lowering himself to the ground, Buddy leaned his back against the tree and closed his eyes, waiting for his excited heart to quiet down. He was thinking hard.

* * *

Beyond the orchard a wilderness of blackberry canes and low briers filled an acre that had once been part of a tilled field. Above the wilderness the sloping lawn rose to the house. East of the house stretched a long two-story shed.

On the frame of one of the shed doors a spider was sleeping.

Once upon a time the shed had sheltered a summer kitchen, three buggies, a hired man, and many cords of wood. Now it enclosed a laundry, a workshop, a toolroom, and a loft for the storage of miscellaneous objects. As the helicopter buzzed over Pine Hill its whirling blades sent an expanding globe of turbulence through the air, setting up strong vibrations in the framework of the shed. Storm windows clicked against each other in their deep leaning rows in the loft, clay pots shifted in their brittle stacks, saws and hammers rattled against the pegboard in the workshop, the dryer knocked against the washing machine in the laundry, and all through the shed the sheathing boards trembled, loosening by another fraction of an inch the old square nails that held them together.

And in a crack between the shivering lintel and the frame of the workshop door, the dormant spider was shaken awake. Crawling slowly out of the crevice where she had spent the winter, she paused in the sunlight, her eight dim eyes nearly blinded by the glare, then dropped on a silken line into the shadow behind the door. Halfway to the sill she stopped paying out thread from her spinnerets and rested, hanging upside down.


The wind sweeping across Walden Pond Knocked Against the light frame of John Hand's ten-speed bike as he leaned over the handlebars and raced along Route 126 in the direction of Edward Heron's house. Of course it wouldn't be Edward Heron who would be hiring him, if all went well. It would be Mr. Heron's two daughters, Barbara and Virginia. Barbara was a nurse — she had been in college with John's Aunt Mary — and Virginia was much younger. John had met Virginia. A long time ago there had been that spelling competition, way back in grammar school. Well, naturally it was only John who had been in grammar school. Virginia must have been in high school by that time. There had been a picture of the winners in the Concord Journal, Virginia long and lank in a shapeless dress; John, the runner-up, just a fragile-looking little kid. Virginia hadn't seemed excited by her victory, just patient and kind. Looking back now from the point of view of an older person — almost a college freshman — John thought he knew how she had felt. You had to do things like that sometimes — you had to enter spelling competitions and science fairs and try out for the school play — but you didn't have to care about it. Virginia Heron would have been just as glad if she had lost and John had won.

Hugging the side of the road, leaning into the sharp curve beyond the last Walden Pond parking lot, John blamed himself for waiting this long to get a summer job. After all, he had promised his parents he would earn money this summer. They had gone away, halfway around the world, and left him to help his Aunt Mary and Uncle Homer take care of his little brother Benny, and of course they had just assumed he'd get a job with the Lincoln Public Works Department to help pay the huge college fees that were coming up next fall. Here he was, all accepted at the University of New Hampshire, the college of his choice — what if he couldn't afford to go there after all? Not many other places had a whole big department in entomology. Usually there was just a course or two in the catalogue. And that big famous spider specialist was there too, Dr. Underhill. So John couldn't just give it up and go to someplace cheaper, like Middlesex Community College.

The sandy verges of the sharp S-curve were slippery and dangerous under John's speeding wheels. He shifted gears and slowed down, wondering why the Public Works Department hadn't swept up the sand earlier in the spring. A year ago last April John had stirred up the sand on this very road himself, and brushed it to one side in the big town sweeper. He had enjoyed it, churning slowly along the narrow streets of Lincoln in the big machine during his spring vacation. And then all summer he had worked on the road crew, putting in a bicycle path on the north side of town. It had been good hard outdoor work. John's pale shoulders and narrow rib cage had turned a raw and fiery red, and his thin arms had gained muscle.

So this morning it had been a blow to be told that the Lincoln road crew had no use for him this summer. "I'm sorry, John," Mr. Warren had said on the phone, "but this recession has hit the town as hard as it's hit everybody else. Town Meeting wouldn't even vote us a new cruiser to replace the old Pontiac. Remember the old Pontiac? Now, listen here, John, I've got an idea."

And then Mr. Warren had told him about the job notice posted at the drugstore. "You know the Herons there on Route 126? Where those big brick gateposts are?"

"You mean those rich people who live near Walden Pond?"

"That's right. Well, I don't know about rich. They had to sell that big house to the Whipples, a long time ago. They're living in the farmhouse now, at the bottom of the hill. I guess Edward isn't much of a businessman. Had to give up breeding queer kinds of plants in that greenhouse up there, and sell out. Anyway, Barbara and Virginia want somebody to help around the place. Free board and room thrown in. I don't know how much they'll pay. You could see if the job's still open."

So then John had changed his shirt and combed his hair and started right out for the Herons' house, feverish with curiosity, eager to see the place and be hired by the girl who could spell iridescent.

Now there was a lightness of anxiety in his chest as he swooped between the brick gateposts and started up the hill. The driveway had been tarred fifty years back, when the big house was still a fancy hunting lodge. But now only a few chunks of asphalt stood high among the gulleys and trenches and wallowing tire tracks. At the fork in the driveway John paused for a second, then turned to the right in the direction of the farmhouse. The house was shabby, but it had a nice shape, decided John, and it fitted into the gently sloping hillside. He remembered something his father had said once — that the first settlers always got the best sites. His father had been talking about their own house in Concord on the level meadows beside the Assabet River. But this eighteenth-century house was like that too. To the north it was protected by the rise of Pine Hill, and to the south it faced a broad sunny slope.

Dismounting, John trundled his bike through an opening in the hedge and across a round lawn surrounded by flowerbeds. Leaning the bike against a tall arching yew, he walked up a set of shallow stone steps into a small courtyard. His eyes took in everything at once — the big window, the peeling clapboards, the seedling tomatoes sprawled on a tray on the low stone wall. Those tomatoes should have been planted out by this time, thought John gratefully. These people really need me. I can take care of things like that.

There was no doorbell, only a brass knocker like an ear of corn. John rapped it loudly, and waited, feeling a flush rise around his ears.

No one came to the door.

He knocked again.


Excerpted from Natural Enemy by Jane Langton. Copyright © 1982 Jane Langton. Excerpted by permission of
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