A Cruel Curse Hangs Over Haven House
By TP Keating
"I say Hartley, I've made a somewhat disturbing discovery underneath a gooseberry bush," announced George, my employer at Haven
I worked at the memorably gothic Haven House as gardener for George, that is, the 23rd Lord Loxwood, and I had intended to slip quietly
into the grounds after breakfast, to lightly prune the rose garden. Instead, I set my cup of coffee (black, no sugar) on the coffee table,
folded my Daily Telegraph, set aside my medicine for a tediously lingering heavy cold, rose from the armchair in the library and followed George through the door.
George, a lanky man in his early 40s, wearing his habitual red velvet smoking jacket and Turkish slippers, strode purposefully ahead. I
marched along behind with my dark blue suit, white shirt and regimental tie. Down the narrow path we went, leaving first the summerhouse,
and then the rockery, in our wake.
The gooseberry bushes (Ribes grossularia) enjoyed the moisture in the soil beyond the rockery, where it was well-drained but not
dry, and they could benefit from uninterrupted sun. I noted that George had marked the gooseberry bush in question by means of a pencil
driven into the ground. Half-hidden by leaves, a flat, oval stone lay on the earth, small enough to fit in my palm. A clean stone — it
had not lain there that long, I surmised. I bent forward for a closer examination, my hands resting just above my right knee. On the visible
surface of the stone had been carved a stick man, with what appeared to be a spear passing through his torso. I straightened up and cast
a quizzical glance at George.
"Well you may ask, Hartley Jackson old chap, well you may ask." Given the obvious gravity with which he viewed his find, I suppressed a
smile at being called "old chap," being ten years his junior. "This missive lay next to the stone. Like a fool I opened it. Here, you can read
it for yourself."
He retrieved a manila envelope from his pocket and handed it over. Like the stone, the material was notably clean. "Lord Loxwood" had
been printed on the front. Inside was an expensive sheet of writing paper, which held a printed message: "The curse of the Loxwoods
cannot be avoided — you know your history."
George had visibly paled, although the June sun shone uninterrupted in our little corner of England. We were on the brow of a hill which
overlooked the modest seaside town of Seahill, on England's south coast. "History?"
"According to the legend, whenever the Old Man of the Oaks is touched by a Lord Loxwood, he will die soon after."
"That's delightfully vague term, 'soon after'."
"Perhaps. Yet each of my forebears who touched that accursed stone was dead within a week. A week, Hartley. Dear heavens. It seems I
am to be the fourth unfortunate." His voice had risen, his cheeks reddened. "Every one of my ancestors who touched the stone received
just such a warning letter as this. Come, I'll show you — the accursed documentation is back in the library." He turned to go.
"What of the stone?"
"Take it over to the ornamental koi pond and kick it in, for all I care. Or go down to the beach and skip it over the waves. Not that it would
do any good. Not that it could be got rid of. Not ever." He headed off. Swiftly, I wrapped it in my handkerchief and slipped it into a pocket,
before hastening my pace to catch up.
We retired post-haste to the library, whence George placed his left-hand on the left-hand side of a picture frame, containing "Seahill with
Impending Tempest" by Constable (painted during his solitary weekend visit) and tugged. The frame swung forward on a hinge to reveal the
numbered dial of a wall safe. He spun the face to the right, right again, now left, back to the top. A second tug and my employer retrieved
a somewhat battered Huntley & Palmer Biscuit tin. He spread the contents on a nearby black marble table. Here were not biscuits, but aged,
yellowing letters and newspaper cuttings, along with three rubbings taken from the stone we'd seen a few minutes previously.
"The oldest writing is from the 12th Lord Loxwood in 1645. Edmund was the first to discover the carved stone, and the parchment he
mentions, pinned by dagger to the front door, is also in this nightmarish collection. That night, he fell from the roof, while attempting to fix
the weather vane in a storm." George shook his head, yet before I could venture any comment, his mood changed abruptly. "No Hartley,
this will never do. Not with the summer solstice fair about to begin on the West Lawn in less than 15 minutes. We have responsibilities, and
a Loxwood never, ever puts personal sentiment above his duties."
He threw the contents brusquely into the tin, the tin into the safe, and replaced the portals. "Come Hartley, midnight will be here before we
know it, and the curse will be broken forever. You know how the social calendar cannot be allowed to falter." He marched off purposefully;
chin in the air, whistling an extract from Johann Sebastian Bach's B minor Mass, his favourite 18th century German choral writing. As a
former military man, I fully appreciated the pre-eminence of duty. No garden could flourish without responsibility. No groundsman could
ignore his heavy cold without everyday tasks to attend to.
Haven House stood proudly atop Oak Hill. As we descended the hill we approached a new, temporary world of tents and bunting on the
four acre West Lawn below, already packed full with the good citizens of Seahill. Not for the first time, I marvelled at the resilience of
grass. Or more accurately, that monocotyledonous green plant in the family Gramineae (Poaceae). Such an outstandingly
successful organism, which would recover from the trampling feet and myriad tents in a trice. Grass. Too few people stopped to consider it,
in my opinion. Now that was really criminal. We crossed the invisible boundary and entered the annual hurly-burly.
For a moment, my thoughts returned unbidden to my Special Forces unit, making our slow way along the edge of a wide, dark river in
Africa. Returned to memories of poor Williams. When I awoke that morning, I discovered his scrawled note at the entrance to my tent. A
more intelligible passage spoke of swimming upstream to fulfil a sleeping vision of truth and destiny. I raced through the jungle. His uniform
was neatly folded at the river's edge — a river infested with crocodiles. A tragic end for an intelligence man, although resistance can
be the downfall of the best of us. I shook my head, wondering if the medicine for my lingering heavy cold was having an unexpected side
The Hall of Mirrors beckoned. In the glass, I'd shrunk from six foot two to two foot six, wider than I was tall, my moustache shaven off.
Only my blue eyes remained intact. George did not fare much better. It took a full two minutes outside to stop laughing and regain my
composure. What a great antidote to an unwelcome memory of active service. We strolled on.
"Ever have any luck with the slot machines, Hartley?" George enquired. We had arrived outside a tent full of one-arm bandits, at the end
of a path formed by two rows of tents. It nestled beneath a large oak tree, behind which was the boundary wall of George's land.
"I'm more of a skill man, I freely admit."
"Skill, you say? Then care to chance your arm?" called out Alicia Clement, a petite young lady with long blonde hair, operating the Test
Your Strength machine. Usually she worked at the garden centre, where she sold her homemade preparations, and we often chatted about
the latest gardening products and techniques.
"Don't mind if I do." This was more me. I paid my fee and swung. The wonderfully loud "Clang" meant I'd achieved my objective. Much
She beamed, "You win a toy rabbit," holding up a cuddly yellow creature and moving a paw winsomely, to make it look like the toy had
come to life and was attempting to gain my attention for reasons as yet unknown.
"Please Alicia, donate it to the orphanage for me."
"Hartley, you're unique." She winked.
"And so is your mulch."
The neighbouring attraction was a coconut shy, with Brian Conroy as the master of ceremonies. Funnily enough I almost didn't recognize
the master butcher, wearing a top hat and tails instead of his customary butcher's apron. Which was silly really, because his thickset arms,
bull neck and fine black beard were almost registered trademarks. George threw six tennis balls, without winning, and although all six of
mine hit four different coconuts, they wobbled to varying degrees without being dislodged. "All for charity, eh, gents?" suggested Brian,
and we couldn't disagree.
Opposite the coconut shy was a Guess the Weight of the Cake tent, run by Emma, Lady Draper-Brewer of the local Woman's Institute. She
had made the cake, which like her was tasteful and elegantly decorated in pink. The top displayed the Draper-Brewer coat of arms in icing.
"You've got to pay the price if you want to taste success," she cheerily informed us, and suitably encouraged, we wrote our guesses in the
book provided, along with our names and addresses.
Adjoining the tent were of course the slot machines, which again took George's attention. Now he was slipping coins into the nearest slot.
Mind you all profits from the summer solstice fair would go to the Seahill Orphanage, so for once I set aside my aversion to gambling and
waited to see how Lady Luck felt today.
At which point Malcolm Tyler hove into view, immediately apparent in his wraparound sunglasses, long red hair and AC/DC T-shirt. A real
student's student, who worked Saturday mornings in a newsagent, and two weeknights behind the bar in The Red Lion Inn on Seahill
Parade. "Money goes to money your lordship, as they say." I saw that he was joking, but his words stung George somewhat. Who took a
step backwards. And made a swift decision.
"Then I insist that you be the one who pulls the handle. Seriously. Have this turn on me."
"It's all for charity," I reminded Malcolm, as it was his turn to be slightly put off his stride. With a gracious smile and jokey "Yes, my lord,"
he accepted the offer.
George and I fell to talking. My head cold was evidently still affecting me. Because how could I have heard the crack yet not reacted? A
giant branch from the oak tree crashed down, rending the flimsy material. I shoved Lord Loxwood out of the way and dived for safety.
Malcolm, oblivious, got no chance to respond. He was crushed to death instantly by the massive branch. A heavy, long, brute of a branch.
Towards the end of the police's interviews at the scene, I tapped George's arm and said, "Once the statements are all taken, would you
mind requesting that Alicia Clement, Brian Conroy and Lady Draper-Brewer join us in the library?"
"Naturally, old chap, naturally. But the owner of the slot machine tent, who the police took away for further questioning — Marc
Kerswell. He's not part of your deliberations, I assume?"
"No one could fake a shock that genuine."
Because of its fund-raising aspect, the police allowed the fair to continue to the usual end time of 4pm, and two hours after I had tapped
George's arm, the five of us assembled at Haven House. We sat in leather chairs at a large oak table, sipping takeaway tea and cake from
a stall. My head cold was long forgotten. Woes betide the villain who vandalised a tree in grounds that I maintain. In my book, a garden is
a sanctuary for all.
"Earlier today," I began, "George found the Old Man of the Oak. According to those I spoke to at the fair, the tale of the curse is common
knowledge hereabouts. Or at least, he found a version of it." I ignored George's mystification. "Although reasonably authentic in
appearance and composition, it was not exactly the same as the original rubbings contained in George's archive, here in the library. For
example, the angle of the spear piercing the torso does not match. Which begs a question.
"Why was the curse resurrected for a fourth outing? Perhaps for the sheer pleasure of scaring George, to let him know that his death was
imminent. Or, more prosaically, to occupy his mind in order for the real method of attack to pass undetected. While concerned for his safety,
he would not be paying attention to the trees in his grounds.
"Who killed Malcolm Tyler by mistake? For most certainly he was not the intended victim. Well, that's easy enough to determine. The same
person who hacked through the branch, and prepared a method of making it fall when needed. Except that Malcolm took George's turn at
the last moment, after the trigger had been activated. Before too long, the police will realize what the potassium chlorate smell on the
remains of the branch means. It's used in safety matches, fireworks and...explosives. Yes, the trigger took the form of an explosive."
"Hartley Jackson, let me say that you are as mad as a fruit cake." Emma Draper-Brewer was the epitome of haughty distain. "How could
the murderer have known which slot machine Lord Loxwood would play?"
"The sheer size of the branch would kill anyone standing at a slot machine near the entrance. George would be unlikely to venture inside,
and he is well-known for spending money at all the attractions, given the splendid cause they support. His browsing time is regrettably
limited — it's why his face is never painted. Basically, the attempt on his life would have been made at the entrance of any attraction
in any tent which occupied that niche beneath the oak tree. Last year, the attempt would have occurred amongst fabric covered boxes and
fabric covered books."
"So far, so almost semi-plausible." The butcher steepled his beefy fingers on the tabletop. "How come the police didn't find the trigger you
"Good point, Brian," enthused Alicia. "Honestly Hartley, you've always seemed well-adjusted when we've spoken at the garden centre.
Perhaps the branch clipped you on the way down and affected your mind a bit, hmmm? If you call it a day, I promise not to mention this
nonsense to anyone."
"Me as well," added Brian.
"Here here," chipped in Lady Draper-Brewer. "We shall take a joint vow of silence, witnessed by George as honest broker."
But the coup de grace was within view. "Which brings me to the key question. Who would gain from George's death? Ladies and
gentlemen, my breakfasts here in the library of Haven House have been spent reading many interesting volumes of Loxwood family history.
It turns out that, should George die without leaving an heir, the estate falls to his distant cousin Charles Mortimer Grange — currently
in his first year at boarding school."
Lady Draper-Brewer stood up. "Enough of your tedious waffle, Hartley Jackson. This conversation is as pointlessly wide of the mark as
your estimate of the weight of my cake."
Brian Conroy got to his feet as well. "If I can't run my coconut shy, then I'll go and open my shop for the afternoon."
Alicia Clement rose too. "To think I used to enjoy your company and tips on environmentally-sound gardening methods, Hartley Jackson.
How wrong a person can be."
But I had stationed myself in front of the door, preventing their exit. "What the library did not tell me I can fill in through my own local
knowledge. You see, I'm fully aware of your little gambling club, Alicia, Brian and Emma, sorry, Lady Draper-Brewer. A gambling club with a
fourth member in serious debt to the three of you. Alan Hayward, Charles Mortimer Grange's guardian. With George dead and Charles
Mortimer Grange installed at Haven House, Alan Hayward would have access to sufficient funds to repay his debts, would he not? Along
with future extorted payments you three would claim were 'interest' on his 'loan'."
Brian glowered. "You're dead meat, Hartley. These hands will finish you in seconds."
"You too, George," spat Alicia with real venom. "My black belt karate will dispatch you equally fast."
Emma Draper-Brewer appeared higher and mightier than ever. "My people will take care of the remains. Let's get this over with."
George opened the concealed door, disguised as a bookcase, and burly Sergeant Hall of the Seahill police leapt out, followed by six
colleagues, truncheons drawn. The surprise won the day, and the guilty were soon led away in handcuffs. On his way out, Sergeant Hall
gave a smart salute to Lord Loxwood and a cheery wave to me. "Scones and jam this Sunday afternoon at the police station, Hartley?"
I smiled and nodded my agreement. "I'm keen to see that trigger device for myself."
"I bet you are," he replied.
When they had gone, George shook his head ruefully. "Gambling, eh, Hartley? The first bet seems innocent, yet it can lead us down a
slope both steep and inevitable."
"Like murder, the perceived prize blinds us to the chasm we march towards."
"Hartley, I do believe that the gothic Haven House has discovered the perfect gothic groundsman in you." We allowed ourselves a
chuckle on the way to join the waiting police cars.
Hartley Jackson's previous investigations are all available in omdb! — For ex-Special Forces man turned groundsman
Hartley, his singular skills are called upon with surprising regularity in his new job. A Bit of a Murder at Haven House.
A Spot of Ritualistic Killing at Haven House. Grounds for Death at Haven House. A Rather
Unpleasant End at Haven House.
TP Keating currently lives in London, where he is writing the next Hartley Jackson murder mystery. His web site is www.tpkeating.com.
Copyright © 2012 TP Keating. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any
medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB!
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