A Rather Unpleasant End at
Haven House

By TP Keating

Lady Araminta "Pebbles" Dolphin nibbled tentatively at a corner of her thinly sliced, wholegrain bread cucumber sandwich. Apart from the fire crackling merrily in the hand-carved limestone fireplace, we had fallen silent in the drawing room in anticipation of Lady Pebbles' verdict on her food. That she had fired three cooks this year alone explained the subdued anticipation of her four companions that mid-December evening. Our chitchat was all forgot. Snowflakes began to fall against the panes in the black wooden window frames.

A woman of around sixty years, which is to say about twice my age, she wore a sensible and robust tweed ensemble, with her greying blonde hair swept up into a severe bun. That severity extended to her all-seeing gaze — no teacher could be sterner. It did not take a great leap of the imagination to consider that her pallid skin, like the fireplace, could actually be made of quarried stone. Magnificent, solid, utterly unforgiving. With the fire reserved for her words.

"Hartley Jackson," she pronounced, turning her intense brown eyes to me. Quite naturally really, as I had been the person who'd prepared her tea when she had dropped by Haven House 10 minutes ago, unannounced. "This sandwich is...what is the correct word now...oh yes, delightful. This sandwich is absolutely delightful." Despite my 12 years as a military Special Forces man, including a year undercover in an African country which must remain unnamed, where the jungle was my small team's only source of sustenance, I found myself smiling and half-bowing, despite being sat. Dependability is not a crime, while a mixture of lemon juice and olive oil were the secret ingredients.

Sitting on the blue Damask sofa opposite mine, George — that is 23rd Lord Loxwood, sporting his trademark red velvet smoking jacket and Turkish slippers, noted my unbidden response and hid his smile behind a bony hand. In his early 40s, George was my employer and the owner of the splendid red brick Gothic pile that was Haven House, where I lived and worked as groundsman. One of these days, and particularly after this evening, I'd have to persuade him that employing a cook of his own wouldn't be such a bad idea.

Especially if his second cousin twice removed, Pebbles, was going to make a habit of dropping by unbidden. A woman who customarily slept from sunrise to early afternoon, and never told her staff about the hours she kept — hence their tendency of not staying in post for too long.

Across the room, Geraldine de Montford, clad in a floral pattern poncho and black slacks, leant her full-figure against the side of a modest piano. She regarded the Tarot cards she had dealt out, while absentmindedly playing with one of her several wooden bead necklaces. "Hmmm. Lady Luck's coin is spinning. Heads is a significant reversal of fortune, tales a major opportunity."

Beside me, Ariadne Eustace-Fuller smoothed her cashmere sweater and took another sip of Earl Grey tea. Tall, elegant and fair, when Geraldine had gone to fetch her cards from her fairtrade poncho, she'd told me that her friend had been an ardent fortune teller since the third form at their boarding school. Her prediction for Ariadne, sitting on a bed in the dormitory with her face lit from below by a torch, had been of "A life filled with wordless beings," and given her subsequent veterinary career, perhaps that was reasonably accurate. Although Geraldine had of course known that Ariadne was top of her class in biology.

Sadly they were found seconds later by a patrolling teacher, and Geraldine was severely reprimanded in front of the school assembly the next morning for "Attempted witchcraft." The name "Witch" stuck for the remainder of her days at the school.

Like Geraldine, Ariadne was a childhood friend of George's. She and Geraldine had agreed to drop by for a few hands of Bridge later on, and for the occasion I'd opted for a dark blue suit, white shirt and regimental tie. But with the unexpected arrival of Lady Dolphin, talk had turned to an impromptu trip to the theatre. George part-funded the Seahill Sandcastles acting troupe, which would be performing this week at the Cove Theatre, where he owned a private box. Tonight, according to a programme hastily located in his study, it would be The Cherry Orchard by Chekov.

I'd left London for the picturesque seaside town of Seahill, on England's south coast, a little over 18 months ago, and not regretted a day of it. Haven House, perched atop Oak Hill, enjoyed a splendid view over the town to the sea beyond. A town the Romans called Maredun.

However, when I came to open the front door that evening, we were greeted by a view of a midriff-high snow drift. The change since Lady Pebbles' arrival was astounding. "Anyone for a jolly old singsong around the piano?" suggested George, barely concealing the glee of the keen amateur musician and serious opera-buff.

George played the piano superbly for all of us, while my singing could be described as adequate at best, as I ran through the traditional Early One Morning — always a favourite in the regimental mess, no matter who sang it. Ariadne and Geraldine acquitted themselves well with a hearty rendition of Three Little Maids Are We from Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado. But Lady Pebbles astounded us all with a pitch perfect, full-blast interpretation of Hojotoho, Brünnhilde's Battle Cry from Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) by Richard Wagner. Regrettably, Geraldine and Ariadne fell to whispering throughout the performance. When a leaden crystal wine glass on the mantelpiece shattered, George said that to follow such an act was simply impossible. While I fancied that she'd managed to dislodge some snow from the roof as well. Soon thereafter we called it a night.

Well, three of us did. According to George as we headed up the staircase, Lady Pebbles was likely to read for several hours, catch up with her correspondence, take a final bath before finally turning in.

There are some who think that a groundsman has nothing to do in winter, I reflected, as I sipped my hot cocoa before turning off the light. If only it were true! That week, I needed to decide what to grow next year and agree it with George, because the monthly supplies were soon to be ordered. There was digging to be done, when the weather allowed it. Trees and shrubs required pruning, and the lawns needed repairing. Just this morning, I had been protected outdoor taps with hessian. Fortunately we had not had any foxes, much less signs of foxes, for almost a month, which pleased George no end — foxes were his bête noire. Their yowls, or his concerns about their yowls, often disturbed his sleep.

With which thought, my cocoa finished, I finally turned off the light and settled my head on the pillow, to contemplate that imminent visit to the local garden centre.

Morpheus stole in and filled my mind with visions of the fantastic and the mundane. For a few minutes I was back in the jungle, talking to the fellows in my unit who were destined never to leave that place alive, while unseen drums pounded on the far shore of a wide, dark river, the banks of which we followed at varying distances for week after endless week. I turned and, after rubbing a hand over my fevered brow, enjoyed untroubled sleep thereafter.

A scream awoke me. At 4.17am, by my black and silver quartz wristwatch (military issue — withstands scratches and maintains a clear view, because it uses glass crystal as opposed to Perspex. A boon for any gardener). Another scream — yes, it was Ariadne. Hastily donning my red and blue check dressing gown, I tied the cord and raced from my room at the rear of the house. Ahead of me came the sound of breaking wood.

The hallways of Haven House were all narrow, with vaulted, ornamental ceilings. Each had small, arched windows, and instead of the usual romantic feel, in the early hours of that morning they increased my apprehension.

I found George around a corner, standing at the now broken door of the Orange Bathroom, one of the four superbly appointed bathroom facilities available at Haven House. Geraldine de Montford and Ariadne Eustace-Fuller had arrived just before me, their bedrooms being located along this corridor.

"The Tarot...never...lies," sobbed Geraldine, dabbing her eyes with a white handkerchief. Before us was a vision of unmitigated catastrophe. Lady Araminta "Pebbles" Dolphin had apparently died whilst talking a bath before retiring for the day. I stepped cautiously inside.

"Steady on old chap," cautioned Ariadne at the ruined portal, "the police will still want to have a look around."

"It's okay, Hartley is a former Special Forces man," George explained.

Tragedy piled on tragedy. Lady Pebbles had switched on a radio to keep her entertained, and foolishly placed it on the side of the metal bath, where it had fallen in behind her. All four bathrooms were equipped with a radio, each of which occupied a high shelf well away from the sink and bath. A feature introduced by Arthur, the 22nd Lord Loxwood.

"Electrocution," I stated, finding no satisfaction in my deduction. "She had been listening to the bathroom radio." I pointed to the lead which remained plugged in, and which trailed across the floral carpet and over the rim of the bath. This was most certainly a case for the Seahill constabulary.

"I'll call the police from the drawing room," said George. "I suggest that, once you have all dressed, you can join me there."

In an instant, what had been wrong about the scene in the bathroom shifted from a tiny niggle to a full-blown certainty. Which brought with it a horrible yet unavoidable conclusion. "Wait!" I raised my hand. The trio had barely taken two paces each in their chosen directions. "We must stay together at all times until the call is made and the police arrive."

George raised an eyebrow. "Because?"

"Because, if we do not, the killer will have a chance to escape. Or perhaps even strike again."

Her arms folded across her lime-green silk nightgown, Ariadne leant against the wall and regarded me coolly. "Are you suggesting, Hartley, that someone here murdered Pebbles because of her singing abilities? Or perhaps because...I don't know...she shattered a favourite glass? Or played her radio too loud? Hmmm?"

"I freely admit that the motive remains unclear. However, what is certain is that, given the way the radio entered the water, to lie flat on its back, the tuning dial had not been touched. With her classical tastes, I doubt very much that Lady Pebbles would have been enjoying South Coast Heavy Metal, according to the listing on that dial. While if the radio had fallen from the side of the bath, it would not have landed that way. Indeed, she had no reason to remove the radio from its shelf."

George shook his head. "Wait a minute. Hells Bells. If she never tuned the radio to South Coast Heavy Metal, who did? I can safely posit that it's not the radio station of choice for any of us here."

"Precisely," I replied. "Who did? Or rather, who moved the dial as an accidental consequence of picking up and hurling the device? Why, none other than the murderer, naturally. Before Lady Pebbles could turn around to find out who had barged in, the radio had been grabbed, switched on and dumped in the water. A most callous, deliberate act."

"By the goddess," exclaimed Geraldine.

"Well, that's a great theory Hartley," said Ariadne, "and I've encountered worse plot twists in the opera house. But why? And even if you could prove why, exactly who of us three did the deed? You? I bet you were no saint in your Special Forces career."

I could not resist a wry smile at her suggestion. "No saint, but no rogue operative either. But "why" and "who" can be safely left to the police. Let us follow George to the drawing room. It would be rude to disrespect the request of our gracious host, would it not?" We trooped silently along the corridor, down the wide main staircase and into the drawing room. The grandfather clock in the hallway struck 4.45.

During our quiet procession I fell to pondering, as is my wont. Lady Pebbles had arrived at Haven House with no forewarning. Therefore the murder must have been a spur of the moment decision. This meant that it was the culmination of an already existing grievance. Had there been some minor yet key point during the events of last night which I had missed? A real-life battle, an ongoing cold war, which had eluded my notice? The sort of seemingly insignificant detail which a Special Forces man (or woman) dismisses at his or her peril, because it may be the essential sign of deadly intent?

Like poor Edwards and the crocodile which didn't move. It didn't move because it was already dead, but he had surely crept by grateful at encountering a creature which showed no interest in him. For the real menace lay hidden behind it, armed with a dagger and a deadly accurate throwing arm.

Yes, the crocodile was the key point. The reason my subconscious had taken me down this particular jungle path. In that instant I knew who had committed the deed. When we entered the study I closed the door and cleared my throat. "If I may have your attention. Regarding the murder."

Ariadne rolled her eyes. "Dear lord, George, when does he squeeze in a moment to garden?"

Sitting next to the telephone, George frowned. "Let's hear the man out."

Geraldine fiddled with the wooden beads of her necklace. "Fate can be cruel."

I cut straight to the chase. "It's a straightforward piece of reasoning. Two of you showed real concern just now, but one of you actually warned us of their plan last night. Isn't that correct?" I turned my gaze to the guilty party. Two pairs of puzzled eyes followed mine.

Geraldine sobbed once more. "Yes, Hartley Jackson, it was me."

"But why, Geraldine, why?" George's face told of the turmoil in his mind.

"Ariadne knows," continued Geraldine. "Tell him, Ariadne."

"Ah, I get it. Because of the foul, poisonous accusation of an evil woman who should never have been let anywhere near children. A teacher who discovered Geraldine's Tarot reading in the dorm one night, and charged her with "Attempted Witchcraft" before the whole school assembly. From that day forth, Geraldine was "Witch" to many. Tell me, wouldn't that vile allegation have affected you too, Hartley Jackson?"

"That teacher being Araminta "Pebbles" Dolphin," I said, with another inference which gave me no pleasure. Like the sad realization that she must have taught music.

The door knocker sounded. The police had arrived. It would be a long time before I could bring myself to make another thinly sliced, wholegrain bread cucumber sandwich with any real joy.

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," and "Grounds for Death 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 © 2012 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!

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