THE NIT-PICKER


By Shari Aarlton



There are pros and cons to living in a village. On the plus side, if you have a heart attack or an accident you're unlikely to be lying on the floor for days until you die. I'm a lawyer, I go to my office in the village every weekday and any day I didn't appear, six people would be at my door to see why. On the downside of that I need to tell someone if I'm not coming to work — or be woken by the same six people.

On the plus side if you have an accident, everyone steps up, your farm, if you have one, is looked after by the neighbours, your pets, if you have them, are cared for, and someone will call into the hospital every day to update you on farm and pets. The downside of that is the reverse — if your neighbour has an accident you're expected to step up the way he or she would. But then I'd rather take time to help someone and know they'd be there for me than not bother and find when I needed help no one would be there. A village is a community.

And that's something city folk forget — or don't know or understand — about a village. That there are the people who live in one, and then there is a sort of collective consciousness that is the village memory and way of doing things — and you go too far against that at your peril.

"Johnny?" It was my sister Karen.

I put down my book and called back to her. She appeared at my library door.

"Good, you're home. There's a problem."

I'd have protested that it was the weekend, I'd worked hard all week and I'd like a break, but this was my little sister. "What's the trouble?"

She blew out her cheeks, making a small exasperated sound. "It's that — man — again."

I groaned. "Doug Spence? What's he up to now?"

"You aren't going to believe this, but he's laid an official complaint against Mrs. Amersen for having her dairy open a whole ten minutes beyond legal hours."

I was surprised. Mrs. Amerson is a widow, a kind and generous person but also very regimented and who obeys the law to the letter. Her shop door is shut exactly on time. In case of genuine emergency she'll open her back door, give the item to the person needing it, and trust them to pay her the following day. Legally that isn't a sale, so what had occurred that she hadn't done it that way this time? I asked and Karen almost spat.

"It wasn't like that. You know Nancy Whiting?" I nodded. Nancy is ten, her mother is an invalid and Nancy shops for her." She was coming on her pushbike to pick up meat that Tom in the butcher shop had waiting for her, she'd have got there a minute or so before the shops shut. Some fool driver cut the corner and knocked Nancy off her bike. No, she wasn't really hurt," in response to my sudden attention. "Grazed knees, a sprained wrist, and a knock on the head, but that made her dizzy and when she tried to stand up she fell over. Mrs. Amerson came running out with her first aid box and a glass of water. She and Tom looked after Nancy until she could stand up again, and Jerry says the driver will be prosecuted." Jerry is the village policeman — and Karen's husband.

I frowned. "Where does Spence's complaint come in?

"When Mrs. Emerson ran out to help Nancy it was about two minutes to closing time. In all the excitement of Nancy collapsing again when she tried to stand up, Mrs. Emerson forgot to shut the shop door. So officially she did stay open ten minutes later than she should have."

I could see how it had happened, and as the butcher's shop has one of those self-closing and locking doors — and Tom had most likely already put the lock down and the door had locked when he ran out — he hadn't stayed open past hours. Legally Mrs. Emerson had, if she'd not only left the shop door unlocked but also open to anyone who walked in." And I said so.

"But Johnny, surely the law wouldn't count it that way?"

"The law doesn't always make sense. But don't worry, I'll have a word with someone."

I phoned the authorities and they would have accepted that Mrs. Emerson hadn't been "trading out of hours" in the legal definition of the phrase, but Doug Spence pushed his complaint and they had no option but to take it to court. I appeared for Mrs. Emerson and the case was dismissed. That didn't bother Doug Spence, he'd got what he wanted, official notice taken of a possible breach of the law, and he was happy.

A month after that he infuriated just about everyone by walking down the street behind the row of village shops and cutting back every branch overhanging the boundaries of their sections. It may have been the law that said he could, but no one else found it necessary to do that, and if they had, they'd have discussed it with the tree-owners first.

Ten weeks later I had Karen crying on my doorstep. "It's Andy, he's made a complaint about her to the police."

Andy is my eight-year-old niece. She was attacked by a dog two years ago and lost an eye, she's just starting to get over the trauma of the attack and since the most recent operation left her scars almost invisible she's become less self-conscious. I couldn't think of any reason why she'd be the subject of a complaint and "to the police?"

I took my sister by the shoulders, hauled her in, sat her down, insisted she say nothing until I had a small glass of strong drink into her and then asked for it from the beginning.

"Andy rode her bike to play with friends in the village and Spence saw her. He wrote the police in Braden Ash, hinting he couldn't complain here because of who she was."

I was baffled. "Was she on the wrong side of the road or something?"

"No, she wasn't wearing an approved helmet."

I forced down the desire to stamp swearing from my house, drive down to Spence's home, haul him out and beat him senseless. He moved here just about the time Andy was attacked by the dog. Like everyone in the village he knew about the attack, knew that damage to her face had been substantial, and that while it didn't show, there had also been damage to the side of her head above her ear. I live outside the village as does my sister and her family. They have a few acres a little over three miles away from me in one direction, and from the village in another.

The experts who saw Andy after the attack said that she needed to be able to continue interacting with her friends, and that she should not be over-protected. So I'd taken statements from her doctors and psychologist, and asked the authorities for an exemption for Andy. They'd looked at the situation and granted it. Andy had to wear a bike helmet, but she was permitted to wear a special one that had been modified so as not to put pressure on her injuries.

Spence would have known that, it was common talk in the village at the time the exemption had been granted. However as Andy was only riding her bike to and from the village on a side road that carried almost no traffic, I hadn't felt it necessary to inform every police station for fifty miles around. This was a piece of spite on Spence's side, he could claim he hadn't known about an exemption, that he'd been concerned for the child, and that he'd felt diffident about approaching the child's father. He'd make it sound quite reasonable — to anyone who didn't know him.

"How do you know he wrote to them?"

"They turned up at home," Karen said bitterly. "Andy rode in on her bike and they scared the life out of her, pouncing and asking if she didn't know she was supposed to wear a proper helmet? Andy was in tears and I was furious."

I made a resolution to have a quiet word with the police over at Braden Ash.

"Andy dropped her bike and went to run inside, one of them was in the way and she ran into him and fell over. He asked if she was blind too? I was so mad I could hardly speak. I told them to get off the property, that I'd make an official complaint about them to the Police Complaints Commission, and that they could talk to my lawyer."

"What did they say?"

"That my lawyer would have to do some fast talking to get us out of this."

I stood up. "Go home, cuddle Andy and tell her she's done nothing wrong. I'll talk to the police."

I drove over to Braden Ash — taking my copy of the exemption — and asked to see Mervyn Gastow, I'd been on committees with him, he headed the station there, and I knew too that he was a devoted family man. He listened to my account and his normally smiling face froze into hard lines. The two men who'd spoken to Karen and Andy were called in and asked to account for their actions.

"Well, sir. The letter of complaint suggests that Senior Constable McKay condones his daughter's breaking of the law, that it's been going on for a long time and that he ignores any attempt by the public to object. It says that the child is endangering herself, and possibly other road-users, and that seeing her constantly breaking the law may encourage others to do the same."

I spoke quietly. "The Mckay's have an exemption for Andrea's helmet type. The one she uses is medically and legally approved." I placed the exemption copy on the desk in front of them. "As you will see from this, two years ago Andrea was savagely attacked by a dog. One bite damaged bone to the side of her head and pressure on that area is still painful. You frightened her, and when she ran, she bumped into one of you and fell over. You asked her mother if she was blind, and yes, she is blind. One of the bites damaged her eye, which became infected and was removed. She wears a false eye on that side."

Both men flushed. "Before you ask how you were to know this. All you had to do was ask her mother politely, rather than leap at a child, terrify and insult her. Her mother wants to make an official complaint, and I brought this to your superior instead. I'll leave it up to him what's done about it. You are free to make a copy of Andrea's exemption and fax it around the area's police stations. But if the child is approached in this way again I'll take a complaint all the way to the area Commander."

It was cleared up. Karen had a letter of quite grovelling apology, Mervyn Gastow, genuinely furious, came down on his men like a ton of bricks, and wrote a letter too, to Douglas Spence. It said that they had checked and the child in question had a legal exemption from wearing a standard safety helmet. I gathered — from Mervyn at the next committee meeting we shared — that he'd have liked to say a lot more, such as Mr. Spence was a trouble-making pain in the arse who'd known about the exemption before he ever posted his letter. Such as the police could do without his type trying to cause dissent in police ranks, and a lot more. But as a servant of the public he had to be polite — even to trouble-making pains in the arse.

Inspired, no doubt, by the tart edge to the letter Mr. Spence then made a complaint about a three-year-old boy seen riding his tricycle bareheaded from one house to the other next door, a distance of less than twenty feet and all on the pavement between them. The boy's parents were convicted for that, so Spence was triumphant — but the village was starting to grumble.

The grumbling got much louder when he complained about the Colonel's dog. Colonel Jacobs was a genuine war-hero, he'd volunteered when still under-age, served two years of the war in the SOE since he spoke impeccable French, and the Germans had caught him. He'd been freed by the coincidence of an Allied air-raid hitting the town where he was imprisoned, only a day after he'd been captured. He got home with several cracked ribs and a few nasty burns, (even a day was too long in Gestapo hands) and he had the medals to prove his exploits.

However he was now a very old gentleman, the possessor of a freehold cottage and a small independent income. He wrote still: intelligent, amusing articles for nature magazines, kept bees, and was generally liked by everyone. The apple of his eye was a small, very elderly Japanese Spaniel named Kung Fu — because he hit you about the knees with his tail, wagging it ferociously in his delight at seeing a friend.

The Colonel had had a visitor, Kung had been in the front garden, and unrealised by either visitor or Colonel, Kung had slipped out of the open gate. At some stage Douglas Spence had met the old dog, trotting along a street and happy to be picked up and taken for a ride — to the Braden Ash pound where he was handed over as a "collarless stray," interesting because, as the entire village knew, Kung always wore a nice red leather collar, and even without it he'd be recognised by anyone, including Douglas Spence. Who later claimed that he hadn't at all, that the dog had been covered in mud and he'd assumed it to be some stray wandering to the danger of farm livestock.

Kung can't have been too well disguised, because even in Braden Ash, twenty miles from the village someone knew the old dog. They waited until backs were turned, bundled Kung into a blanket, took him to their car, and brought him home. Being stressed out and soaked in freezing mud hadn't done the old dog a lot of good however and he died in his sleep two nights later — to the Colonel's quiet grief.

There was a fuss at the pound, where their records were now a dog short, but the Colonel was driven over there, paid the fine, and accepted the blame. With their books balanced the pound staff were content, but if the villagers had been grumbling before, they were snarling now. No matter how vigilant an owner may be, now and again a dog escapes, and they didn't like the idea of Doug Spence hovering about the place, snatching up a lost animal, dumping its collar, and then turning it in for possible destruction.

"Something should be done about that man."

"Aye, heard the latest bee he's got in his bonnet?"

There was an anticipatory silence.

"Ah, well. You know that cliff of Henry Mercer's?" Heads nodded. There was a steep cliff back of the Mercer farm. That bit of cliff-edge land didn't belong to Henry, but to get to it you had to walk over his land. The cliff dropped down to sharp rocks at the head of a long narrow sea inlet. His or not Henry had the cliff very solidly fenced off, it was crumbling, dangerous, and it had fascinated too many children — and too much farm livestock — in the past.

"What of it?"

"Henry says he had a letter from the council. Someone's claimed that there used to be an old right of way along the cliff and that by fencing it off from the public Henry's breaking the law."

I could guess who that'd been and I was very happy to be able to speak on the subject. "Right of ways can be cancelled, and I happen to know that that one was taken off the list before the First World War."

There were grins all around, and over the next two days that fact was conveyed to Spence by a number of people who added sly comments about "interfering busybodies," and "incomers who wouldn't know legal right of ways if they walked across them."

Maybe Douglas Spence had lost his complaints to police and courts a few too many times recently. Maybe he was so determined to find something where he could take it to court, win, and wave that triumphantly at the villagers, that he lost his common sense. Whatever caused it, a rumour went around that Spence was onto something. That some place held a rare treasure and the owner could be forced to open a right of way to anyone wanting to see this item.

No one knew exactly what the treasure was — or where Spence was for that matter. He wasn't answering his door or phone, he wasn't harassing Jerry or the police at Braden Ash, and when Jerry went to Spence's house he said that it looked to him as if no one had been home for two or three days but his car was still in the garage. He reported that and a search was suggested.

We searched, Jerry coordinated it and while we looked just about everywhere, no one looked on Mercer's farm. That was private land, and with Spence being so hot on keeping the law there was no way he'd have trespassed surely? I did start that way once, and was quietly headed off by Tom from the butcher shop. We hunted all that day, left it for the night and started again the next day, with no result. It was a week after the search ended that someone messing about in a small boat saw what they thought might be a body on the rocks below Mercer's cliff.

He phoned Jerry, Jerry called out the coastguard, and they found Spence cold and dead, his mobile phone smashed under him where he'd landed on it, but with several photos on it of a small dainty-looking white flower. An expert glanced at that and said it was a common something-or-another, and if the man had died trying to get down and photograph it, he was an ignorant reckless idiot.

Spence was buried, unlamented and unmissed. And when they had a clearance of his possessions I bought his computer. I had ideas about the recent events, and it was possible there was something on the hard drive that I'd prefer to see — and prefer that others didn't. There was a file labeled, Cliff. It was an account of how he'd tried and failed with the right of way, and how he'd discovered that there could be another way to get access to the cliff opened up. The file was vitriolic about the village and how they'd laughed at him and suggested that by now he'd have done almost anything to be in the right.

"...rare flowers, there are some, I know where there used to be anyhow." It was recorded in the file that Spence had been eavesdropping on the Colonel and old Joe Gatson who used to work for the Mercers.

"Aye, you mean that flower grows on the cliff?"

"Yes, most people don't know about it, it looks just like its common relative and it takes an expert to tell them apart. My father told me that before the war they had some botanist at the farm going crazy about the thing. Saying it was a national treasure, a heritage for the people, and that the Government should use a compulsory purchase order, take a slice off the Mercer land and build some sort of sanctuary."

"Why didn't they?"

"The war came and I suppose they had more important things to do."

"Aye, well, so long as no one knows about it, wouldn't be good if some expert started making a to-do about it again. Nor the Mercers won't want to lose bits of their land."

"No, quite. But no outsider knows, and the only patch of the rare type is halfway down the cliff. No one's going to climb down and take photos. If anyone does try that Henry will give whoever it is to the police as trespassers. I wouldn't worry about it, Joe."

Good lord, they'd given Spence a motive to risk his neck, and complete instructions how to get his own back. And the silly fool had done it. I knew he didn't listen to what was said unless it could be useful to him. So he hadn't taken in how dangerous that cliff was. He'd sneaked through Mercer's place, probably after dark or just on the edge of first light. He'd climbed down the cliff with his phone, taken pictures of the supposedly rare flowers, and the cliff had done what that cliff had been doing for generations, crumbled!

I thought about it, and what puzzled me was how he had climbed down. The man was — well — not elderly perhaps, but in his fifties. He wasn't an outdoors type, surely he'd have used a rope? I asked Jerry who nodded.

"He did use one, it was an old rope, weathered in a couple of places, one of them halfway down."

"Was the condition obvious?"

"Not really. No. I'd say that he got the rope from somewhere — where we haven't traced yet — assumed that it was okay, used it to climb down to his precious flowers and took his photos. He was climbing back up when the rope broke at one of the weak spots and he fell all the way to the rocks. The pathologist says that he was probably alive for quite a while. He died from internal injuries and hypothermia. A pity we couldn't find him when we searched."

They did trace the rope, it had belonged to Henry Mercer. He said that Mr. Spencer must have stolen it from a shed. No, it had been dumped there because it was damaged in a couple of places and sometime when a shorter piece was wanted they'd have used the good lengths from it.

I showed the computer file to old Joe who read it, stumbling over a word every so often.

"I wonder how he got the rope." I said when he was done.

"What you gonna do with that file?"

"Wipe it," I said, doing so as he watched.

"Aye, well, a man might check through his own shed and find a rope he didn't know was there. Seeing as how it was on his place he might not look at it too hard."

"And a man who was where he shouldn't be couldn't complain if he was injured and no one heard him calling for help?" I said slowly, remembering the pathologist's report. Remembering how I'd been steered away from the farm.

His reply had nothing to do with the subject — or not directly. "That Kung were a nice old dog, Colonel's a good man too."

I nodded, he nodded back and left, while I sat there a while in the gathering dusk, before double checking that the file was wiped then starting to cook my dinner. A village has its own way of doing things, and since I have too, I wasn't going to argue with theirs.


Shari Aarlton is a pseudonym of popular author Lyn McConchie whose writing credits include 32 books and 270 stories, Her most recent book, REPEAT BUSINESS (2014) published in the U.S. by Wildside Press, is a collection of fourteen new cases by repeat customers for Sherlock Holmes. You may read more about Lyn at her website and blog.


Copyright 2014 Lyn McConchie. 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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