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 House.

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 effect.

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 more me.

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 suggest?"

"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 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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