By TP Keating

"Ah! There you are Hartley Jackson. Do come in and help yourself to a scone and strawberry jam." Sergeant Hall was a most convivial fellow, which made his police work in the quaint little seaside town of Seahill, on England's south coast, than much easier. He was the kind of chap that people found it very easy to confide in, and those confidences often included their suspicions too — a very useful personality trait for a policeman.

The police station, a two-storey red brick building, with high arched windows and a traditional blue lamp on a pole outside, was situated at a crossroads a few streets behind the seafront. Across the road, the clock on the Gothic spire of St Ethelbert's was a minute shy of 4pm when I'd knocked on his office door, located at the side of the building. It was a magnificent July afternoon, with only a hint of lofty, wispy clouds in the blue sky.

"And how is life at George's place of late?" he asked, smiling, as he sat his burly frame at his desk and beckoned me to take the seat opposite. The room was cluttered and well-used to the point of dilapidated. In his early 30s like me, Sergeant Hall had already started on the jam and scones, I noted. I sat down and poured a cup of tea for myself. His black telephone had been set to one side, on top of the blotter, itself perched on the metal tray. Crockery, bearing the Seahill Police crest, took centre stage on the tea-stained wooden tabletop.

George, of course, was The 23rd Lord Loxwood, my employer and the owner of Haven House, where I lived and worked as groundsman. I'd met Sergeant Hall there about 3 weeks ago, in circumstances which, regrettably, necessitated the involvement of the local constabulary. A chance conversation beside his Lordship's strawberry patch had led to the discovery of a mutual interest in locally sourced comestibles.

As a former military Special Forces man, my ability to judge the inner character and intent from a few salient surface features had saved my life more than once. So naturally, he being a thoroughly reliable type, we'd become firm friends. This Sunday afternoon tête-à-tête looked set fair to become a weekly ritual. For the chinwag, I had settled on a dark blue suit, white shirt and regimental tie.

"Hmmm, George's place?" I replied, ruminating on the ups and downs of the last 7 days. Which were miniscule ups and downs, frankly microscopic, containing precious little that would be of interest to an officer of the law. Nothing of interest, if truth be told, unless I wanted to make molehills out of grass pollen. "George's place is George's place. Sailing along unaffected by the currents of the wider world, really, wouldn't you say?"

Sergeant Hall roared with laughter. Had I missed something he'd said while enjoying the incredible home-made scone and organic jam from Perkin's in the High Street — that very model of the traditional grocer's shop? "Sailing along...unaffected...by the currents of the wider world, Hartley?" He wiped the tears from his sparkling blue eyes with a pristine matching handkerchief, which he returned to his pocket with a flourish, before leaning forward on his desk and saying, conspiratorially, "Then George has made no mention of the ritualistic killing at Haven House?"

"Ritualistic killing? Here? In Seahill?" It took great restraint not to choke on my scone. Nothing to do with the mention of death, which I'd witnessed firsthand often enough. But because, as a reconnaissance specialist in my old unit, I chided myself for failing to research the local history before taking up the job offer. Then again, I should not be too harsh on myself. Especially when the need for gainful employment had been so keenly felt. On the battlefield, survival is the watchword.

"It was 20 years ago. Shortly before the current Lord Loxwood returned from his gap year in Mozambique to inherit the title, at the death of the 22nd Lord. A dreadful business. The death of Arthur, the 22nd Lord, I mean. Coming so soon after His Lordship had mislaid the Loxwood Pearls. One dark winter's morning, he was found slumped against that large wagon wheel next to the front door, pentagrams scratched into the wooden spokes. But the implement with which the scratches were made was never found. The wheel has been expertly restored, as you've seen."


"Well, his head was missing. After we were called in, my predecessor found the head. It had been hastily painted white and left on a spare plinth in the grounds. You know how many statues of Greek gods and goddesses there are at Haven House? If it hadn't slipped off during a particularly windy morning, and been spotted through a conservatory window by a maid, who knows how long it would have stayed there." I nodded. My job at Haven House included keeping the statues spic and span. I'd be lucky to clean them all within a month. "We never found the culprit. Care for another scone?"

The conversation ebbed and flowed, the scones, jam and tea vanished, and an hour later I began to think about returning to Haven House. Then curiosity got the better of me. "Oliver, is the file still around?" He frowned. "The file on the death of George's father you mean? I shouldn't show it to anyone outside of the force. But, as it's you..." Officer Hall opened the top drawer of an old metal filing cabinet, and riffled for a minute. "Here it is." He handed it over the desk to me. "Precious little in it, I'm afraid. Even less in the Loxwood Pearls file — Haven House has so many nooks and crannies, you could easily stumble on them tomorrow."

I opened the thin manila folder and began to read — date, time, location. The suspect descriptions included photos taken during the investigation. It was all in delightfully neat handwriting. At first, Officer Hall busied himself with other matters, such as watering the geraniums in his window box — a well-tended display, I was happy to note, with lush green foliage and lilac flowers ('Rozanne'). Or pretended to water. But as my study of the file grew more intent, so did his study of me.

"Aha!" I exclaimed. "It assembles like a Lee-Enfield at the Edinburgh Military Tattoo."

"Come on Hartley, out with it."

"What do you want first? The reason for the murder, or the name of the murderer?"

"Great Scott man, you can't be serious?" A thunder cloud had settled on his face.

"Then I will start with the reason." The good officer beetled over to stand at my shoulder, peering at the file. "As you rightly forewarned, there is precious little in the file. But what it does contain is crucial." I put the police report and witness statements to one side, which puzzled Sergeant Hall. Is it wrong to say I enjoyed his puzzlement? "Here we are." I arranged three official photos next to each other.

"A trio of visitors to Haven House, each of whom announced themselves coincidentally soon after the murder, and each of whom had excellent alibis. On the left is Miss Grace Bowden, 45, the Head Librarian at Seahill library. Most prim and proper in her navy blue suit and gray blouse. She had dropped by to remind Arthur about a fine on several overdue library books. The library records showed that she returned with all the books, the fine and a note of apology. In the middle is Malcolm Maynard, 32, who placed his lordship's anonymous bets at the High Street bookie. Has ever a man worn a shinier, nastier suit, and a shiftier countenance, I wonder? The staff and punters at the bookies saved his bacon, and his lordship had not yet placed a bet that day. On the right is Clara Anderson, 24, an actress with the Seahill Sandcastles acting troupe, which he part-funded. Her fellow thespians established her firmly off-stage at the time of the monstrous deed, and the troupe's unopened letter was found on his mantelpiece."

"Yes, and the photos you've chosen were taken in front of the rockery. Afraid I don't see where you're going, Hartley."

"In the background. What do you observe?"

"The stones of the rockery of course. I still don't..."

"The upkeep of the rockery is part of my duties. I know every limestone rock and every shrub, be it Armeria maritima 'Rubrifolia' or Ceratostigma plumbaginoides — which is to say, the lovely rose-pink flowers here and the gorgeous blue flowers there. See that rock in the middle, against the back wall? Not only does it no longer form part of the rockery, but it is absent from any of His Lordship's photo collection. Moreover, it's clearly a blue slate, which does not belong in the feature. I believe the rock was in place for the length of the police investigation only. Because it hid the Loxwood Pearls. The ritualistic element was concocted on the spur of the moment, probably because His Lordship had disturbed the thief in the act. A head on a plinth? Hardly the work of any South Coast devil-worshipping fiends I've heard of."

"Suspicion fell on Seahill's pagan community, which caused a fair amount of friction and anger. What happened to the paint pot and brush?"

"Thrown into the ornamental koi pond, and removed later. The killer's hands were cleaned in the koi pond too — the flow of water from the mini-waterfall is quite significant."

"A thoroughly enjoyable narrative, Hartley, but sadly not provable in a court of law." I took it calmly, as is my wont.

"Au contraire, and you will be pleased to know you are on precisely the right path with the paint pot and brush. I dredged up an old paint pot from the depths of the koi pond last week, and put it in my tool shed. I wondered at the time why it rattled — having read this file, I strongly suspect that it contains the paintbrush, along with the killer's DNA and, dare we dream, the killer's fingerprints too. While a check on the killer's financial affairs should prove most rewarding."

"Then you are definitely staying for more scones and jam, Hartley Jackson. If you refuse, I'll arrest you and make you stay! Actually, before the investigation is re-opened, would you care to put a name on the killer?"

"I'm sure it's the same person who you have identified, Sergeant Hall, and on the same basis. Miss Grace Bowden, the Head Librarian. Because she had the payment and handwritten note, and so must have spoken to Arthur before he died."

"Plausible enough. But how can you determine that she personally committed the deed? A spur of the moment killing, to cover a theft?"

"As the file shows, she didn't ask any questions about the murder when notified of it by the police. Suggestive, is it not? Also, you would have thought she'd return to the library immediately, to get on with her work. Instead, she turned around half-way across Seahill and went back to Haven House. The question must be, why?"

"During the interviews, she said it was to ask Lord Loxwood to provide financial support to the library. Yet I'm sure you have another answer." Sergeant Hall smiled genially.

"Quite." I selected a photo and placed it next to hers. "This is a book she was carrying, which the notes show was kept here at the station. Is it still here?"

"Yes. Along with the rest of the evidence, such as it was."

"A curious design for a hardback, is it not? With metal tips on the four corners, to prevent wear and tear. Yet this tip, at the top right of the front cover, appears decidedly worn and scuffed. I strongly recommend that the tip be tested for traces of the large wooden wheel. For this is the implement with which the pentagrams were scratched, and it was only when she was half-way across Seahill she noticed it was missing. A shame for her, because she meant to wait much longer before retrieving the pearls. She must have found the metal tip on the driveway, but not before being spotted by the police."

"You could almost say that Miss Grace Bowden will be brought to her own book," said Sergeant Hall, with a chuckle. "More tea, Hartley?"

TP Keating currently lives in London, England. He first introduced omdb! readers to Hartley Jackson in "A Bit of Murder 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!

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