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Ann Granger's
A WORD AFTER DYING
A Meredith and Markby Mystery
 
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A WORD AFTER DYING
Chapter One
(Read or print)

There's Gladness in the Remembrance
Memorial to a horse
 
A SUMMER of drought had baked the ground as hard as concrete. The men's feet in their strong footwear echoed as they tramped across it, as if they were walking across the surface of a drum. Rory Armitage saw how it had cracked open in deep fissures and bare soil showed in patches through a thin, brown, scabby blanket of shrivelled turf.
 
His lawn at home was in much the same state. No question of watering it. Not that anyone was likely to report you, not in Parsloe St John. But he had a certain standing in their small community and it behove him to set a good example. So he'd let his garden dry and wither. Only the roses had been kept alive by his wife, with an enterprising recycling of washing-up water. Out here, in open pasture, it was much worse. He scraped the edge of his sole along the lip of one crevice and a puff of dust rewarded him.
 
'Can't get a spade in that!' Ernie Berry announced. He drove the implement down at the earth by his feet, to illustrate the point. It bounced back with a muffled clang. 'It took me and my lad half yesterday to hack out that trial trench of yours with a pickaxe. As for digging a bloody great hole the size you need?' he added, rubbing his brawny arm across his face to erase the pearled sweat. 'Not a chance! You wants a mechanical digger. Me and my lad can't do it.'
 
The little knot of figures had gathered in a middle of the paddock beneath a venerable chestnut tree. They'd chosen this spot for their discussion because of the shade the leafy branches offered, not because the pit was to be dug here. The root system rendered that impractical. The area designated for the pit was some twenty feet away uphill, marked out with string and pegs. Within it was the trench painstakingly excavated by the Berrys to establish the level of any sub-surface water. The bottom of it was bone dry. They were well above the water-table, thought Rory with relief. That could have thrown a spanner in the works.
 
However, that was as far as they'd got and that, decided Rory now, was as far as they were going to get without a digger. Berry was right. He eyed the man with a mixture of distaste and wry amusement. There was a distinct resemblance between Ernie and the tree under which they stood. Ernie was squat, powerful, sunburnt and gnarled. He had heavy jowls and not much neck. He wore, as always, work trousers and a grimy singlet stretched over his paunch. Greying hair burst from the singlet and bushed odiferously in his armpits. More hair sprouted along his muscular shoulders and down his bulging arms. Only on his shiny walnut head did hair obstinately refuse to grow at all. A regular fly's skating rink.
 
Rory suppressed a smile, hardly appropriate in the circumstances, and turned his face into the cooling breeze. They were on the high point of local topography on this hillside, exposed to wind and weather, but offered compensation by way of a truly magnificent view. Rory's gaze absently took in the rolling countryside. He was thinking it was a pity Charles Darwin couldn't have come across Ernie Berry. The great naturalist would've slotted Berry in neatly between ape and man, his 'missing link'.
 
The vet reminded himself that Berry was a reliable workman. He took good care of Mrs Smeaton's garden and did all the odd jobs about the place competently. Rory knew he was trying hard to suppress his own natural feelings and the knowledge irked. Frankly, he didn't like Ernie because he didn't trust him. The man's shifting gaze, and the way he had of rolling an eye at you sideways when he thought you weren't looking, were warning signs which Rory would have heeded in a horse. Watch out for sly kicks and a sudden vicious snap of teeth, the signs would have cautioned. The meaningless half-grin which always lurked around Ernie's mouth only made it worse.
 
Beside Ernie stood the lad, a study in contrasts, pale, silent, dull-eyed. He stood waiting to be told what to do next. That was normal. His name was Kevin, but he was always referred to in the village as 'Berry's lad'. As far as anyone could tell, he was a casual offspring of Ernie's loins. He worked for and with Ernie and appeared to have no independent life of his own. Rory looked away from him, and made a determined effort to attend to the far more pressing matter in hand. Village politics, as his wife Gill called them, were best left to villagers.
 
Rory had lived in the village for twenty years. He held a position of trust and, he had reason to believe, respect. But he knew he was not considered a villager. The true villagers with their intertwined ancestry, had been here since time immemorial. They banded together in a subtle mix of shifting alliances which would have been well suited to mediaeval Italy or long-ago Byzantium, so complex were they and so unfathomable to outsiders.
 
Demographically, the village was split into four camps, altogether accounting for enough persons young and old to support the school, two or three shops and a pub. Apart from the inner circle of natives already mentioned, there were the inhabitants of the sprawling council estate, a motley crew, some of them kin to villagers and others drawn here for a variety of reasons. The social scale, such as it was, was topped by the knot of professionals, active or retired, such as Rory himself.
 
Lastly, and quite beyond the pale, were the despised inhabitants of the new houses. Universally scorned, poor souls, not because they were anything but utterly respectable, but because they had no visible reason, by village logic, to be there at all. They didn't work there, but commuted daily in large and noisy cars from and back to their four-bed, double-glazed, double-garaged homes. They didn't have any relatives elsewhere in the community. They certainly weren't what older villagers called gentry. They were thirtysomething former yuppies who thought it would be nice to live in the country, safer than the inner city and healthier for the children.
 
Such pusillanimous reasoning cut no ice with the villagers, although the headmaster of the primary school welcomed the children to keep up his numbers, even though he knew they were only passing through the state system on their way to independent schools elsewhere when older.
 
But if the natural-born inhabitants of Parsloe St John had anything in common, Rory had long ago found, it was scorn for anyone who tried to change anything. The newcomers were great ones for change. They arrived declaring Parsloe St John 'absolutely perfect' and within six weeks were pestering the council for improved amenities and the serving of a noise abatement notice on old Mr Horrocks's cockerel. This attitude irritated Rory as much as it did the villagers.
 
Aloud he said, There's not a lot of time. The carcass is deteriorating in the heat.' Sweat trickled across his scalp as he spoke and ran from his thick curly dark hair. He longed to be finished here, get off home and dive under a cool shower.Berry fingered his jowls and agreed, 'Whiffs a bit, dunnit?'
 
So did Berry himself by now, what with the heat and all that expanse of hairy skin, and the singlet which looked as if he worked and slept in the same one for weeks at a time. But Berry wasn't referring to the odour of a living body. He was talking of the insidious stench of death.
 
The urgency of the case inspired Rory with an idea. 'I'll have a word with Max Crombie! He might be able to help us out, seeing it's an emergency!
 
Rory left the Berrys beneath the tree and hurried back to his dusty but prized new Range Rover. He glanced towards the house, half hidden behind a fine old redbrick garden wall, its surface dotted with nails which had once supported espalier fruit trees. He hesitated, wondering whether to go in and tell Mrs Smeaton what he intended. But he decided against it. The whole affair had distressed her and, goodness knew, she was pretty shaky these days, even before ...
 
See Max first, he thought. Get it sorted out. Max'll help. His daughter's got a pony. He'll be sympathetic. If all else fails, I'll offer to waive the next lot of vet's fees. When it's all done, time enough to tell her. She won't want to be troubled with the unpleasant details.
 
Max Crombie, a local builder, was a self-made man and proud of it. He lived in considerable style on the other side of the village. But his builder's yard was only a stone's throw from his house. Max liked to keep an eye on things. He hadn't made his fortune by letting others run rings round him. He knew builder's labourers. Planks of wood, tins of paint, even half a load of bricks at a time would walk out of the place if Max wasn't there breathing down everyone's neck.
 
'You don't need to be popular, only respected. Golden rule" said Max to anyone who hadn't already heard him say it a dozen times before, and also to those who had.
 
But as Rory had guessed he would be, Max was sympathetic to the present situation, even without the offer to overlook the next veterinary bill for his daughter's expensive show pony
 
'Poor old lady, rotten thing to have happen. Upset our Julie. She cried buckets when we heard about it. It gave her a fright. Now she spends every spare moment combing our paddock for that wretched weed. I'll send a man over with a digger, say in half an hour, all right?,
 
'As soon as possible, Max,' Rory sighed in relief. 'The carcass is putrefying. The job's got to be finished by this evening if it's to be done at all.'
 
The digger duly lumbered into the field half an hour later, looking like a perambulating yellow dinosaur with its toothed scoop head bouncing comically at the end of its long jointed neck. Ernie Berry observed its approach mistrustfully. His belief was that machines took away a man's work and were generally to be resisted. Today was an exception, but he didn't want anyone to get the idea that normally, Berry and his lad couldn't manage most any job.
 
The lad brightened and brief interest at the machine's activities showed on his narrow face as he watched it in his customary silence.
 
The digger did the trick, gouging out a deep pit between the marker pegs. When it had been done, Ernie and the lad stepped forward and tidied up the edges, making the whole thing square.
 
By now the carcass stank, the stuff of horrors, partly eviscerated like a sacred beast of Ancient Egypt being prepared for ritual mummification. It was grotesquely unreal, a nightmare, legs stuck out stiffly like wooden stumps, neck collapsed, the whole surrounded by buzzing flies. Moving it presented considerable difficulty.
 
'Gawd!' said the digger operator, putting a handkerchief to his green face.
 
Berry and the lad, of sterner stuff, managed to get ropes round it. They tied them to the rear of the digger and the machine trundled across the pasture, dragging the carcass behind it. Then they untied it, the digger wheeled round, and with the help of its shovel and with Ernie, Rory and the lad all levering like mad with any implement to hand, they pushed the thing into the pit. Luckily, it landed on its side.
 
Then they all worked like fury filling in the pit. At last, sweating and grimy, they were able to stand back and admire their work. It looked quite neat, a tidy square of raked earth.
 
'As nice as you could hope for!' said Ernie.
 
'Job and a half, that!' said the digger operator with feeling. He hadn't enjoyed a minute of it, but Max had promised to 'see him all right' for the unorthodox work. That meant fifty quid in the hand, no questions, nothing for the taxman. And he had a story to tell his mates, too.
 
'I think,' said Rory with relief, 'we can fetch Mrs Smeaton down to see it now.'
 
He went to get her himself. He gave her a lift from the house in the Range Rover, even though it wasn't far and it meant bringing her right round the edge of the property by road and depositing her at the paddock fence. But she didn't walk too well these days and crossing the uneven pasture would have been tricky for her.
 
She was very pleased and thanked them all for their hard work, backing her thanks with beer money for the three labourers.
 
'Poor old girl,' said the digger operator. 'Nice old lady, too.'
 
The paddock emptied. The sun went down in a pink fire. The branches of the chestnut tree stretched ever-lengthening shadow arms protectively across the grave. Before they merged completely into dusk, a thrush struck up its twilight song, carolling clear tuneful notes across the deserted scene.
 
Olivia Smeaton sat at her bedroom window and watched the light fade and evening spread long shadows across the gardens. She sat with her hands folded in her lap and her stick leaning against her chair. Her silvery grey hair stood up in a halo around her head, her pink skull visible and shiny between the roots. Her wrinkled skin was as fine as a baby's and powdered as heavily. Her withered mouth was marked by a shaky line of fuchsia-coloured lipstick and bright blue shadow was smeared above her eyes. She'd been taught to keep up appearances, even when one was alone. A young woman who ran a home-hairdressing business drove over from Long Wickham and saw to her hair.
 
From here she had a clear view, skimming the weathered walls of the old vegetable garden, in which no one had cultivated anything edible for years, to the paddock. The limit of detail was the chestnut tree, beyond which the gradient dropped away so that the lower reaches of the pasture were hidden. But she could see the square of freshly turned earth because that was higher up, on the house-side of the tree. Beyond all that the distant landscape was a mauve haze of which she could make nothing. The village was down there somewhere, full of people whose lives were a mess of everyday trivia, the non-stop business of living. She was beyond that, almost, had cut herself loose from it years ago and sat here waiting.
 
Firefly had his grave but she, his owner, would never have one because she had left precise instructions, specifying cremation, for disposal of her own remains. She'd told Behrens, the solicitor, and added that there was to be as little ceremony as possible. She wasn't sure she even wanted a priest, although she was a Christian woman. She was out of tune with the modem church, but she'd remembered the local parish in her will as she felt it her duty to do, the church commissioners having managed to lose so much money and all the rest of it. St John's was promoting its restoration appeal and was a nice old building. It would be a pity to let it fall down.
 
Mr Behrens, Orthodox in his own religious observances, had been made uncomfortable by the casualness of her proposed farewell to this world. No gathering of friends and relations to sit and sigh, no prayers, no respect for the occasion.
 
'Really, Mrs Smeaton, are you sure about this? Listen, my dear, I'll find you some nice old-fashioned priest when -not for a long time yet, God willing - the time comes. Someone retired, perhaps? My sister lives on the coast and tells me the place is full of retired clergymen, all faiths.'
 
'All right, Mr Behrens, if you can find one who's at least seventy and uses the Book of Common Prayer. Tell him not to waste time composing an address. There won't be anyone to listen to it if he does. I want no mounrers.'
 
Olivia gave a little chuckle at the memory of Behrens's earnest acquiescence. It died in her throat as her gaze returned to the window and the view of the paddock. It was decent of Armitage to organise the burial party. She'd observed him out there, turning to and lending a hand with the physical work, alongside Berry and his lad. Later there'd been another man, whose name she didn't know, sent by Crombie with a machine to dig out the pit.
 
Crombie was also a decent sort of man though undeniably a rough diamond. Ernie Berry, too, was a rough
 
Here Olivia's mind baulked at the word 'diamond' which suggested something pure and bright. Unable to come up with a satisfactory substitute, she settled for describing Berry as just 'rough'. But a good worker. Yes, that was it. A good worker - under supervision, naturally.
 
She ought to feel tired. It was late, the day had been long and stressful, she was well advanced in years. But she felt wide awake, sustained by anger.
 
She was angry because no longer would she see, from this window, Firefly cropping grass in his paddock or dozing beneath the tree, swishing his tail lazily and occasionally shaking his head to dislodge the flies which dared to settle on his long eyelashes. She was angry because Firefly ought not to be dead. She was angry because of the lie, generally believed in the village, that the animal had eaten poisonous weeds. Angry because she knew with absolute certainty that he'd had no need to do such a thing.
 
That was it, that was the fuel which fed her anger more than any other: the suggestion that Firefly hadn't been adequately cared for. She knew that wasn't true. Some people who were quite ignorant kept horses. It was a sad fact. But she knew about horses. She knew a sturdy pony could live quite well out of doors all year round, provided it was given additional feed in lean months, care was taken over its hoofs, and if the weather turned exceptionally cold, it were provided with a blanket. Firefly hadn't been the first pony she'd kept, though he'd be the last. All his predecessors had thrived as he had during the - Olivia did a quick calculation - during the twelve years she'd owned him.
 
It was a long time to own an animal and he'd been more than a servant or a pet, he'd been a friend. Every morning before breakfast she'd cross the gardens, enter the walled vegetable plot, cross that to the gate in the wall which led to the paddock. Firefly would have heard her footsteps and the tap of her stick long before she appeared. He'd bustle up to the gate, snickering his welcome, coat steaming gently in the early dew, eyes bright, soft upper lip quivering in anticipation of his treat. Sometimes she took him an apple or a carrot. Generally it was his daily ration of four Smarties. He was partial to the chocolate sweets in their lurid sugar coating, but she was strict with him, because she cared. If Firefly had been lacking feed, she'd have seen it. Armitage would have remarked on it when he called for Firefly's regular check-ups. The farrier who drove out to trim the pony's hoofs would have said ...
 
As it was, the pony had been suffering in secret and no one had known until it was too late to do anything about it. She'd miss that early morning routine. Part of her life had been taken away from her. But everything, she knew, was taken away from you sooner or later.
 
Nevertheless there was a peculiar injustice in Firefly's loss which made it seem more theft than death. Olivia clenched her bony fists and struck them on her knees in impotent rage.
 
'Such wickedness,' she whispered to the empty room. 'Such wickedness and the world is full of it.' It came in all shapes and sizes, And I ought to know ... she added in her head.
 
At this, the weariness which wrath had kept at bay swept over her. She pushed herself out of her chair with the help of her stick. She was alone in the house. Janine had left for the day. She was reminded of her housekeeper by the way the loose tip of one slipper sole snagged from time to time as she moved across the floor.
 
Janine had grumbled about that loose sole until Olivia had been bullied into sending off a coupon cut from a magazine to some company which marketed sheepskin slippers through the mail. The new pair ought to arrive any day.
 
Janine was a good girl. Well, no, thought Olivia with a cynical little grin, not good. Olivia knew a tart when she saw one. But a good worker, like Ernie Berry, only better than Berry because Janine had a kind heart. Olivia played with the words, bouncing them off the sides of her brain like ping-pong balls. Good worker. Good-hearted. The tart with a heart. Wasn't that what they used to say?
 
She was halfway down the corridor now and deviated from her straight progress to make a semi-circular detour around a worn spot in the carpet runner. It was less prudence than superstitious dread. Two weeks ago, she'd stumbled on that worn patch and fallen forward, landing on hands and knees, her stick skidding away along the floor out of reach.
 
She'd told no one of the mishap. It had happened after Janine left with no one to see or hear. She'd bruised her knees badly and for a while had remained motionless, in shock, in that undignified position. Then she'd recovered from that shock to get a worse one. She couldn't get up. There she'd been, on all fours, both too weak and too stiff in the joints to remedy the situation. Frightened and perplexed, she'd stared down at the worn Turkey pattern for what seemed an age, seeing its geometric angles and dull reds and blues in an intimacy she'd never done before. What a curious design it was, she'd thought. Whoever thought it up? All those strange shapes.
 
What she'd needed was a helping hand and there hadn't been one. God helps those who help themselves! she'd told herself sternly. She'd crawled to the nearest bedroom door, reached up to grasp the old-fashioned brass knob in both hands and somehow used it to scramble to her feet.
 
Never said a word to Janine, nor to Tom Burnett when he'd called. Why not? Ashamed, that's why. Embarrassed, you silly old thing, she admonished herself, at being frail and old, as if it were something to be ashamed of.
 
A pity Janine had left now. A cup of tea would rally her spirits and she'd have to go down and make it herself. Even as she thought this, her ear caught the creak of wood. Perhaps the housekeeper hadn't yet gone home.
 
'Janine? Is that you?' she called eagerly.
 
But it was nothing, only the old wood settling at the end of the day. No one there. All alone and, as it was Friday night, Mr Behrens would be settling down for the Sabbath in the midst of his family. But, for Olivia, Friday night meant all alone until Monday morning, because Janine didn't come at weekends.
 
Olivia set off again, crossing the landing. She looked over the balustrade into the hall below. The chequered floortiles were swept and clean, but dull. No use asking Janine to polish them. Janine would reply that it would be dangerous, when what she meant was she didn't want the extra work. Olivia could remember the days when that highly endangered species, the parlourmaid in black dress and white apron, had been a familiar sight in any house this size. No longer, and she couldn't see Janine agreeing to wear an outfit like that. The very word 'servant' had become taboo. Employer and employee relationship had changed out of all recognition. Janine treated her employer as though Olivia were an elderly, obstinate aunt. Sometimes Olivia didn't mind, mildly amused, and sometimes she did mind, very much.
 
Either way, she thought, it made no difference. Either way she depended on Janine. Perhaps it was just a more honest age when the Janines knew their worth.
 
The shifting skeleton of the 250-year-old house groaned again, but Olivia ignored it as she started on her way downstairs.
 
Rory, looking out of his bedroom window that night as he rubbed salve into his sore palms, thought what a thoroughly unpleasant business the whole episode of the burial had been. Thankfully it was over and done with.
 
Turning to his wife, he remarked, 'I wish I'd remembered to ask Max whether he'd actually found any dangerous weed in his paddock. We may never get to the bottom of that little mystery.'
 
Gill mumbled, already half-asleep, as he slid into the sheets beside her. He'd had a busy day of it and went out like a light.
 
Sprawled at the foot of the staircase of Rookery House, Olivia Smeaton had already been unconscious for some hours and was sliding into eternal sleep.

A WORD AFTER DYING
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Twilight Lane, from Avon Books, at MysteryNet.com: The Online Mystery Network,
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