A Bit of a Murder at Haven House

By TP Keating

Work had become scarce in London at that time, which was why I took the 8 a.m. train (with buffet car) from bustling Victoria Station to the little seaside town of Seahill on the south coast. My interview was at 10 o'clock.

Seahill Station, a delightful curio, contained an unmanned ticket hall, festooned with hanging baskets filled to bursting with vivid red fuchsia. No other passengers had alighted with me beneath the glorious June sunshine that day. A couple had boarded the train at the other end of the platform, but I only glimpsed them as they did so. Once through the ticket hall, the car park beyond held a single old hatchback. Which would doubtless stay there until the couple's return.

I removed a page of yesterday's Daily Telegraph from my wallet and unfolded it, to study my directions. I had torn it out to write on rather hastily during the telephone call with the cheerful advertiser. Satisfied with my verbal account of qualifications and experience, he had provided the information without warning, and without stopping his flow to make sure that I had transcribed correctly. Still, as a former Special Forces man, clear orders never did me any harm.

While I read my extremely scrawled notes, an unseen bird chirped energetically nearby. Turn right out of the station, take this street and that street, right again to the track which leads to a hill above the town. Follow the narrow, overgrown lane to the house at the end. A straightforward mission.

I set off along a modest street, where the peeling paint on many of the semi-detached houses told of a more affluent past. A milk float drove slowly by. Most of the B&Bs showed vacancy signs in their windows. Pebbledash abounded. The smell of brine was delicious. I had the morning seaside charm pretty much to myself.

The advert had stated, "Groundsman required. Duties to include weeding lawns, tree management, maintaining flowerbeds, sweeping footpaths and entrances, driving vehicles and equipment as required. Seeing off the occasional fox."

The bell of a distant church was striking the hour when I gave three firm raps with the ring of the brass door knocker of Haven House. It was an impressive building of red brick and black wooden windows, which nestled under a red tile roof, with two tall chimneys. I did not mind the minutes spent waiting at the ivy covered portal, where a large wagon wheel was propped up against the right-hand wall. Small statues of Greek gods and goddesses abounded close to the house. When you garden, you learn that serenity takes time to be soaked up, and in the process, that long-term approach rubs off on your character. "Ordinary" I've been called, and with good reason. "Calm" I'd rather say. Dependable on all occasions. For the interview, I had settled for a dark blue suit, white shirt and regimental tie.

The fellow who answered the door was perhaps 10-years older than me, wearing a red velvet smoking jacket and Turkish slippers. In his early 40s, he gave me a long look before deigning to speak. His eyes narrowed while he did so, casting a somewhat dark shade over his narrow face (which topped an angular physique). Though when he smiled it was genuine — perhaps his eyesight was not that good? "Hartley Jackson? Come in come in." We shook hands. "You can start today, can't you?" Had the telephone call in effect been the interview? Had the fact that I was a crack-shot clinched the deal, if foxes were a significant issue? He guided me through the galleried entrance hall to the drawing room. The style was Gothic, though not oppressive.

We settled on the blue Zoffany damask of the sofas, in a room which followed the same colour scheme. I noted that the mantelpiece held several invitation cards, an urn, a Bakelite radio and a smattering of photos, some framed. A corner of the room contained a modest piano.

I told him that I would have to return to London tomorrow evening, Friday, to collect my few belongings and pay my final rent. "No problem, old chap. And please, call me George. The 23rd Lord Loxwood is way too grand a title." Needless to say, I signed on the metaphorical dotted line there and then, and after he showed me to the room at the rear of the house which was to be mine, I set to work immediately after lunch. If lunch was the correct term for two 12-inch pizzas delivered by motorbike from Marine Parade Pizza (apparently the delivery boy's bike had broken down in the access lane yesterday evening, and today he rode a replacement).

That afternoon, from the brow of the hill where Haven House stood, I watched the blue sea sparkling far below, beyond the rooftops of Seahill. These hundred acres would keep me busy enough, and happy enough too. I had had my fill of taking arms against the world and those who lived in it, and was today a man who preferred to gently guide and persuade, in order to reach the desired conclusion.

There had been one instruction which he repeated while we ate. "The area next to the south wall holds great sentimental value to me, you understand. It's where I used to play as a small boy. On no account is the foliage there to be cut or otherwise touched without my express, prior permission. Not a blade. You'll recognize the place when you see it." I concurred every time he said it. We clinked our cola tins together, to celebrate my hiring.

The informal grounds were in a reasonable condition, and my circuit took me through woodland and past a small rockery. I touched the trunk of a horse chestnut tree on the way, and the rough bark made me feel at home. Thence to the south wall — this area offered a vista more akin to an African jungle than England. Here were trees and shrubs in abundance, solid in parts, along with lilies, roses, hollyhock and foxgloves. The smell was rich and soothing. I shrugged at the caprices of inherited wealth and continued around the garden.

The dinner bell rang. Could it be 6 o'clock already? When I thought of the pizza, I chuckled at the sound of a formal dinner bell. Then again, it was his lordship's money, so who was I to argue?

I arrived in the drawing room to find him deep in conversation with a man and woman of about his age. "Ah, there you are, Hartley. I used to go scrumping with Geraldine and Archie on the Waverley Estate. Geraldine, Archie, this is Hartley, the new groundsman." We shook hands. Although dinner was another takeaway, it came from an Indian restaurant, by way of variety.

A full-figure woman, Geraldine wore a floral pattern halter-top dress and strappy sandals, and her hands played rather nervously with the several wooden bead necklaces she wore. "Are you sure you should have hired anyone today, George?" said Geraldine, during dessert (strawberry sundae from Haven House's freezer). "With Mercury in retrograde, and the Sun in a bad conjunction..."

Archie raised his palms and laughed. "Seriously, Geraldine, Hartley does not want to hear your airy-fairy New Age nonsense." It was meant as a light-hearted comment, I was sure, but he displayed a nitpicker's delight in highlighting incorrect details, which came coupled with a booming voice. The effect could be disconcerting, even to the initiated. He slapped the thigh of his jeans. The sleeves of his check-shirt were rolled up, and his half-moon glasses, pushed down onto the bridge of his nose, had a thin metal frame. Indian food was obviously to his liking.

"Don't you mean airy-fairy 'Astrology nonsense', Archie?" added a very amused George. When he and Archie laughed harder, Geraldine's face became serious.

"Better than legal nonsense, surely?" She had touched a nerve with George and Archie. The pair stopped laughing. After a few minutes of silent eating the conversation began again.

"Hello, where's Mrs Taylor?" exclaimed Archie, looking around theatrically.

"Cook? She's on a long weekend, lucky her." George grinned mischievously. "I'll tell you that you miss her cooking, shall I? Considering that you've only just noticed her absence."

Geraldine frowned. "Honestly George, how can you miss a woman who said that your late wife was not good enough for you? To your face, if you don't mind."

"Oh, come on Geraldine," said George, "my wife and cook had argued about who knows what for years at their village school, long before I came along. Anyway, it was my late wife who gave her the cook's job. They forgave and so did I."

I noted that it was the nitpicker Archie who tactfully changed the subject. "Still go for your solitary midnight strolls, Geraldine? The famous Night Lady of Seahill?"

"Couldn't live without them. How else to experience the barn owls over at Setford wood?"

"Good for you," Archie added, and I noticed that she let her hand linger on his upper arm.

"Archie is a solitary sort of chap too, Hartley," explained George. "You'll often find him on the beach in all weathers. And I do mean in all weathers, eh, Archie?"

"The lot of the amateur fossil collector can be very hard." Archie raised his glass of Alsace Pinot Gris. "Given that we all have full glasses, let me propose a toast. To the wonderful town of Seahill. Because the four of us can't all be wrong."

"To Seahill," we replied in unison. The evening wore on. The meal was agreeable, although the turmeric was a pinch overdone for my tastes.

Later, Archie showed us his portable fossil collection, pointing out with serious zeal the gaps he wished to fill. Geraldine cast a mini-horoscope for me (indicating that the sun plays an important role in my affairs), and George sang the popular aria Una Furtiva Lagrima (A Furtive Tear) from Gaetano Donizetti's L'Elisir D'Amore (The Elixir of Love), accompanying himself on the piano. When he sobbed at the end, we called it a night.

The next morning I woke up early, which suited me fine, on a day when the glory of June continued unabated. What drew me to the south wall that evening was sheer nosiness, I confess, and nothing more. Although I had half-convinced myself that an important feature of the grounds may be tucked away inside, and it was my job as groundsman to know what it was. In a way I did discover an important feature. A sundial, in a grove not 10 yards from the meandering path to the house.

Or more precisely, the body of a middle-aged woman, slumped over the timepiece. Impaled on the bronze gnomon. Stone dead.

Yes, the sight disturbed me. Because the soldier who is unaffected by death becomes a liability to his regiment.

Her hands hung limply. Her final outfit had been black trousers and a longer length black coat. She had short blonde hair, a necklace of seashells and a slender wristwatch. Unbidden, I thought about the absence of hustle and bustle at Seahill Station, and how this body meant that a quiet town had become a little bit quieter. I shook the ungallant notion from my mind. Here was a shadow that threatened to take away a job I was greatly in need of, because I had broken my employer's express decree by coming here.

I made a swift tactical decision — I would investigate matters myself. Because a small, well-trained unit, operating on the battlefield, was exactly what was required here. In fact in my old unit, reconnaissance was my speciality. For the moment, I covered the body with a tarpaulin and strode briskly up to Haven House.

Fortune smiled on me, as I met George on his doorstep. "Are Geraldine and Archie still around?"

"I think so. You seem annoyed. Is everything okay? Are the tools up to scratch? That lawn mower is getting on a bit, I suppose." I brushed by and caught sight of Geraldine and Archie in the hall. "Good. You two, join George and me." I marched back outside.

"Steady on George, are you letting the groundsman give orders?" asked Geraldine, her fingers returned to her necklace.

"This way," I instructed. I knew that two of them followed out of curiosity, while one of them followed out of trepidation.

As we approached the south wall, George grabbed my arm. "I told you, Hartley. On no account is the foliage here to be cut or otherwise touched without my express, prior permission. Not a blade. You're treading on thin ice." I shrugged off his grip and marched us into the bushes. There I halted until we were all next to the sundial. In a single movement I pulled away the tarpaulin. Keenly, I watched the reactions.

George turned white. "Dear lord, Mrs Taylor. Is she...?"

"Quite dead," I solemnly stated. The cook. Yes, this was indeed an entirely local affair, and my instinct to deal with it myself had been correct.

Geraldine began to cry, turning her face to Archie's check shirt, saying between heaves of her chest, "And on...the solstice...too." He peered at me from over his glasses. "Is this your work, groundsman?"

"Shouldn't we call the police?" said George.

"The military Special Forces police themselves, and I assure you that I have all the necessary expertise. On the battlefield, justice for your own men (and latterly women) who step out of line has to be rapid, accurate and high-profile." I glanced at George, who nodded his approval for me to continue. Archie shook his head.

"Geraldine. You hated Mrs Taylor for what she said to George."

"That's common knowledge. Old common knowledge. But why would I want to kill her after all these years?"

I let the question hang. "George. That Mrs Taylor told your late wife not to marry you could be seen as sufficient motive for a murder, no?"

"Good god man, I scattered her ashes here. That's the reason I won't let this corner be touched."

"Oh, I'd surmised as much, but thank you anyway. Once I'd been groundsman for a while, I'm sure you would have informed me. So tell me, Archie. Why would a man who enjoyed the Indian takeaway bother to enquire about the cook? I did wonder last night." I pointed to the necklace worn by the deceased. "Those gaps in your collection. Several of them can be found right here, can't they?"

"Rot! The ammonites on her necklace could fill the gaps in an absolute beginner's collection. But not mine."

"I'm sure...he knows...about his own...collection," sobbed Geraldine.

"What would the military Special Forces do next?" George asked.

"Secure the crime scene and fall back to Haven House for further questioning." They spoke in hushed tones while we set up a small garden tent, and during the walk to the drawing room the trio were utterly mute.

I cut to the chase. "What is this legal business all about? The business which made you all fall silent yesterday evening."

Standing by the hand-carved limestone fireplace, George took up the thread. "A wealthy lady friend of ours died six months ago, leaving her estate to the three of us. But an absentee nephew has turned up in Seahill, and the will is being contested." I raised a quizzical eyebrow. "Yes, well, why would she leave it all to us, you may wonder?"

"Because we often went to the opera with her," Geraldine interjected, vigorously.

"That's right, we went all the time. We shared a passion for Bel Canto, which the nephew detests." I peered at Archie, and he had the good grace to look away.

Whatever the legal business actually was, it most certainly was not this on-the-spot pile of balderdash. Another tactical decision was called for. "The hour is getting late. What say we call it a day, and reconvene here tomorrow morning — say 7 o'clock?"

A few minutes later I lay down on my bed, fully clothed, and let out an enormous sigh. What on earth had I got myself in to? Is it sensible for one man to go to war all by himself? What did I understand about fossil collecting? Under what circumstances had George's late wife forgiven Mrs Taylor? Dear lord, was there anything to eat in this town except takeaway?

I must have fallen asleep, because I was woken up by a bump and a semi-smothered curse. Which came from the being who, otherwise hidden in deep shade, held a statue of Athena aloft in a bright patch of moonlight from the window, ready to dash my brains out where I lay. I rolled aside. Unfortunately, clean off the bed. The door slammed, and was locked from the outside.

The solution of the mystery lay within my grasp. All that remained was to gather together my companions and bring the matter to a conclusion. Once my hammering on the door had brought a key to open it, that is.

Within 15-minutes we were once again in the drawing room. It was my turn to take the place at the mantelpiece. "George, roughly how many statues are there in the grounds?"

"Roughly? Crikey. Fifty? Never had a reason to stock-take statues."

"And how many depict Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, in cold cast bronze with hand finished colour accents?"

"I know of only one."

"An old statue, is it?"

"Look, I don't see..." Geraldine began. At my stern frown she shrugged.

"With the paint peeling off, George?"

"Yes Hartley, that's about right."

"The sort of peeling paint that could be found under the finger nails. If someone had been holding the statue, that is. Perhaps even tripped while holding it, when I had deliberately left my bedroom door unlocked to temp the culprit into making a move (although I had not planned on falling asleep). Possibly scratched their skin as well?"

In a flash all eyes were darting around, looking from hand to hand. A single pair of hands showed recent cuts. One of those hands had whipped a gun from a hidden holster. Lack of sleep had dulled my forward planning.

"She was a moron," spat Archie. "Wore a wealth of scientific interest around her neck and never appreciated a bit of it. Never knew the real value of those gorgeous ammonites. Bloody pleb. I'm almost glad she turned around at the last moment, denying me the chance to knock her unconscious, which made her death unavoidable. Almost as bad as that pizza delivery boy, who bloody well prevented me reclaiming her necklace for the whole scientific community. His stupid motorbike broke down too close for my liking."

The man was angry and armed, but he was also an amateur and too wrapped in the power of his words. I leapt, knocked the gun to the floor and yanked his arm up behind his back in a secure grip.

George spoke softly into the telephone. "Ah, hello Sergeant Hall, it's Lord Loxwood here. There's been a bit of a murder at Haven House..."

Geraldine tapped my shoulder. "When he goes to prison, will he still be able to inherit his share of Miss Gould's estate?"

"You mean, the three of you were telling the truth about that?"

When she replied, her affront plain and undisguised, she could have been speaking for the whole of the little seaside town. "Mr Hartley Jackson, may I remind you that you are in Seahill now, not London."

TP Keating currently lives in London, England. Along with numerous short stories published online, he also appears in the printed anthologies Small Crimes, Murder In Vegas and Daikaiju!2: Revenge Of The Giant Monsters. He was previously nominated for The James White Award. For more information about the author, please visit www.tpkeating.com.

Copyright 2011 TP Keating. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!

Return to Over My Dead Body! Online.