Grounds for Death at Haven House


By TP Keating



"Poison," I announced, my initial suspicions confirmed. The tall man lay sprawled across the floor of the concrete shed, a brutally functional structure artfully hidden on all sides by large hedges (Leyland Cypress). The shelves contained gardening tools in abundance. The deceased wore a black athletic jacket, jeans and black trainers. A silver hip flask lay by his right hand. I knew him.

I'd encountered a couple of poisonings during my army days, when my unit had been based for 2 years in Cameroon. A chap called Gordon had upset the son of a local tribal elder, and was discovered dead with no less than 3 poison arrows in his arms and neck. My analysis revealed snake poison and a hastily organised mineral deal restored the peace.

"Cyanide to be precise," I continued. "There is the tell-tale smell of almonds from his hip flask. Nathan Lombard's weakness for Amaretto provided his killer with the first evil hint of a plan." Poor Mr Lombard. He'd been full of life an hour ago.

"Who carried out the deed, Hartley? Just tell me that." Standing at my side, George — that is 23rd Lord Loxwood, wore his habitual red velvet smoking jacket and Turkish slippers. For the pleasantly mild weekend, I had settled on a dark blue suit, white shirt and regimental tie. George employed me as groundsman here at Haven House. His narrow face was a countenance of concern, atop his angular physique. Behind him, part of the red brick of Haven House was visible through the trees, along with one of its two tall chimneys. From behind the house came faint cheers from the Seahill Women's XI Cricket Team, which practiced here of occasion.

"Doctor Buckley, as I'm sure you've already surmised. There is no one quite so deadly on God's earth as a doctor who is tempted by wickedness. That's when knowledge, experience and a steady nerve combine to a hideous degree, as our poor friend discovered all too horribly. The Doctor carried a supply in case he needed to lower a patient's blood pressure swiftly. Don't worry about the murderer getting away. Before I came to fetch you I rang Seahill Police and notified them — as we speak, the murderer is doubtless having his collar felt by Sergeant Oliver Hall."

"No need to search too far for a common interest. They both spoke of precious little else than the expected return from a recent investment in a land deal or some such. Frightfully crass. Fairly put me off my game at times, I can tell you. To think, both killer and victim had been my guests this very morning."

"Indeed. And when they left together, after our mini-tournament in the billiards room, a route past this garden shed offered a seemingly natural way to take."

"Confound it all, did they fall out because our side won?"

"Unlikely. Such a disagreement would be spontaneous, and this act was planned. Our opposing team gave no hints of enmity at the billiards table, although their mutual investment would seem a likely bet for trouble. But whatever the reason, the poison plot was hatched, and it would have been easy enough to persuade the victim to stop for a swig or two of his favourite Amaretto. The key could have been duplicated days or weeks ago — the doctor is a semi-regular visitor to Haven House, is he not? Yet this is pure speculation, of course, and we should await the findings of the police investigation."

"Hartley Jackson! Yet again, I congratulate myself for appointing such a commonsense man as you. If anyone can find out why my splendid cherry trees have been vandalised, you can. For once I can't blame a fox. Incidentally, was it chance that brought you to this particular shed?"

"A need for an electric hedge trimmer, which may well count as chance. Actually, on the subject of steady nerves, I noted that the doctor's game was a tad under par earlier on — a shaky cue hand would explain it."

The police came and went, and after the interviews and photographs of the crime scene, late in the evening of the same day, an unexpected hand gave several loud raps to the brass door knocker of Haven House.

Sergeant Hall politely refused my entreaties to come in, his convivial outlook for once subdued. "Is Lord Loxwood at home as well?"

"Ah, hello Sergeant," replied his lordship, "I was on my way from the library and heard the door knocker. I never let my own books get overdue!"

The sergeant ignored the half-joke. "I'll be brief. We followed your train of thought, Mr Jackson. But Doctor Buckley was found dead at his surgery. The cause of death is strongly suspected to be cyanide. Self-administered or not, it is not my place to say, and the investigation continues. So if you had any travel plans, gentlemen, please cancel them, and mind that you stay within the municipal district of Seahill. Good night." With a brisk salute he turned and left.

"Dear lord," said his lordship, aghast. "Given the mini-tournament, we must be prime suspects."

"I suggest that the best way to proceed is for you to continue with your arrangements for tomorrow, as they do not involve travel. The women's cricket team will be most miffed, if their practice on the north lawn is curtailed at such short notice. And a most miffed Augusta Slater is always best avoided." Having witnessed the team in practice, it was evident that Augusta was a captain who led by example, born of a single-minded dedication to sporting excellence. Which is entirely at is should be in any cricketer.

"Concentrate Betsy, concentrate, or you'll never stand a chance," boomed Augusta Slater the next morning. The Seahill Women's XI Cricket Team, dressed to a woman in whites, was again deep into their training, and the world beyond the boundary had become but a tenuous notion for all of them. "For heaven's sake, what do I have to do to make you keep your arm and bat straight? After our experience at the hands of the Setford Women's XI last week?" In theory this was a session of fielding practice, but from listening to Augusta, you would surmise that a must win contest was in the offing.

For Augusta cut a serious figure. With long blonde hair and a ruddy, wide face, she scanned the field before her with steely blue eyes, seeking players in need of brusque advice. Nevertheless, the other members of the team were enjoying themselves. "If only his lordship could set up practice nets," she said, almost to herself, but loud enough to carry to me. "Old ones would do — nothing special." I feigned interest with the grass as I prodded it with a green garden shoe. Yesterday, she had hinted loudly about the need for additional cricket helmets, because "Second-hand for others would be new enough for us."

At the wicket, the left-handed Betsy Noakes placed her feet a foot apart and bent her knees slightly. Her face, pale by comparison to Augusta's, was more relaxed than the latter, although her eyes did flit somewhat.

Behind her, keeping wicket, Fiona de Lisle was a study of serious endeavour. A petite woman, the last ball had slipped through her fingers, and she was not going to make the same mistake twice, not even during practice. She was rather tense for what was a standard training session.

Dotted around the nearby pitch were Petronella, Lucinda, Octavia, Deborah, Ariadne, Emma, Poppy and Philippa. All waiting for the medium-fast Augusta to bowl the next ball.

The north lawn ran up to the edge of Haven House, where the study acted as the changing room, accessed via 3 steps and a porch. The weather, ever the enemy of the local cricketer, had decided to show a sunny April face this weekend, with only a slight breeze blowing through the nearby oak trees. From within the house wafted snatches of George performing the aria Hai Ben Ragione (You Have Good Reason) from Giacomo Puccini's Il Tabarro (The Cloak), accompanying himself on the piano.

I enjoyed the sportswomanship, although I understood that the world beyond the boundary was real enough for one member of the team. Regrettably, the moment had come to act. I returned to the house, purloined the dinner gong, ascended the steps to the porch and beat the burnished metal ferociously. Within a minute, I had gathered twelve startled people around me — the Seahill Women's XI Cricket Team and George.

"My apologies for disturbing your fine efforts. I have an announcement, but regrettably not of dinner. Doctor Buckley neither killed Nathan Lombard nor committed suicide, and I owe his spirit an apology for both accusations. Rather, a third person killed them both. A third person who is standing here as I speak."

"Great Scott," exclaimed Augusta.

"Upon my word," added George, with a quizzical regard my way.

"Hopefully, very few of you learnt in your school chemistry lessons that cyanide can be found in plants. It is why cherry tree bark should never be used for making whistles, food vessels, or any other implement. There is a fabulous display of wild cherry trees over there." I pointed. "Grown from pips provided by the 23rd Lord Loxwood himself. Over there — see? Being visible from all parts of the north lawn, I believe they they gave a, shall we say, lethal suggestion to a particular member of the cricket team.

"Forgive me for fooling you, ladies. When I drew your attention to wild cherry trees, I was in fact pointing to Flowering Dogwoods. During which I observed the team closely." I paused during a collective outbreak of murmuring. "Only a handful of you appeared startled at my serious lapse of gardening expertise. This eliminates many of you from my deliberations. Suffice it to say, a number of those cherry trees have been cut down in order to fashion a quantity of cyanide."

"So that's why my wonderful cherry trees were damaged," George exclaimed. "Please do continue, Hartley."

"Thank you, George. Which begs a question. Of those of you who remain under consideration, who had any connection with Doctor Buckley and Nathan Lombard? Which is to say, who has a connection to a recent property development? Before I go any further, let me say that I have retrieved some interesting fibres from the vicinity of the vandalised cherry trees."

She had drawn a knife from inside her white sock and held it to George's throat before anyone could move. "Back off. Back off, I say. All of you. The Seahill Women's XI Cricket Team had practised on that land since they were formed, over 50-years ago. Those rapacious vultures had no right to buy it and kick us off."

From short range, Augusta threw the cricket ball with deadly accuracy. It struck Betsy Noakes full on the temple, knocking her out cold. "I told you to concentrate to stand a chance Betsy," boomed Augusta Slater.

"I'll call the police," announced George, dashing back to the study, while Deborah and Poppy kept a firm grip on the limp Betsy.

"While I am certain that when the police search Betsy's belongings, they will find a key to the concrete storage shed were the body was found. A key with her prints all over it," I stated, calmly.

Augusta turned her attention to me. "You mentioned that you'd retrieved some interesting fibres. May I take it that you have analysed them, and found a link to Betsy?"

"Actually, there were no fibres. All I can say is that the moment called for positive action."

Her affront was palpable. "Mr Hartley Jackson, cheating has no place on a cricket pitch, and especially not on a Seahill cricket pitch." She strode off with a loud "Harrumph."


TP Keating currently lives in London, England. He first introduced omdb! readers to Hartley Jackson in "A Bit of Murder at Haven House" and followed with "A Spot of Ritualistic Killing at Haven House."

Along with numerous short stories published online, TP Keating 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.