Authors: Jill McGown
“A plot Dame Agatha Christie would have much admired … An ingenious puzzle … A smashing finale with a solution that is both right and inevitable.”
The Washington Post
“Low-key and engrossing, and pleasantly English.”
“A murder so baffling it might even have stumped Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple … A lively, entertaining mystery.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Ingenious, stylish, and distinguished.”
This book contains an excerpt from the forthcoming edition of
by Jill McGown. This excerpt has been set for this edition only and may not reflect the final content of the hardcover edition.
A Fawcett Crest Book
Published by Ballantine Books
Copyright © 1995 by Jill McGown
by Jill McGown copyright © 1997 by Jill McGown
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published in Great Britain by Macmillan London Limited in 1995.
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 97-90055
The buzz of excitement and anticipation in the classroom turned to hushed expectancy as the new teacher walked in. Teachers, however new and interesting, didn’t always merit instant attention on the first day of term, but today there was a particular reason for this unusual reaction.
Someone, for some reason, had written on the board every rude word they could think of, in or out of the dictionary. Whoever it was, if he or she was in Mr. Murray’s class, was keeping very quiet about it, and Kim Walters was waiting, like everyone else, to see how the new teacher would handle this pre-planned challenge to his authority.
He was quite young; late twenties, at a guess, Kim thought. Nice looking, in a way. The same pleasing build and colouring as Colin Cochrane, but not as handsome, of course. He had a friendly face, though; Kim liked the look of him. Short, dark, wavy hair, beginning to recede at the temples already, but it suited him, somehow.
She could see, even from the back of the classroom, the little beads of perspiration on these exposed temples, and she wondered if he was nervous. She supposed he would be; he was starting a new job, after all. Kim worked in a supermarket at weekends, and she knew how she had felt on her first day. It was hot, though—too hot for the school uniform they were obliged to wear now that the school had opted out of local authority control, and had given itself a new image. A grey skirt or slacks—after much discussion, they had decided that girls could wear slacks as well as boys—navy blue sweatshirt, and grey blazer. Those wearing skirts, the guidelines had
said—presumably that included any boys who felt so inclined—should wear knee-length navy blue socks if they were in first, second or third year, and flesh-toned tights in fourth, fifth and sixth year.
Kim, now a fifth-year student, had opted for the skirt and tights, and her legs felt slippery already. Mr. Murray’s equally formal grey suit wouldn’t be helping him to keep cool either; he hadn’t, unlike his pupils, removed his jacket. Perhaps it was that rather than apprehension that was making him sweat, but Kim wished whoever it was hadn’t done that, all the same. It didn’t seem fair, not on his first day.
He smiled, told them that his name was Patrick Murray, and that he would be their form teacher. “That means,” he said, “amongst other things, that if you have any problems with the school, or fellow pupils, or even at home, you’re welcome to come to me and I’ll see what I can do to help. But I’m sure you all organize your lives a lot better than I do,” he added. “So if I’ve got any problems, can I come to you?”
He had an Irish accent; it was nice. He was nice—funny. Kim almost wished that she had some problems to take to him.
“And I see from this—” Mr. Murray held up his timetable, pulling a face. “If I’m reading it right, that is, that I also have the honour of taking this class for English.” Latecomers were straggling in as he spoke. “Find a seat,” he said. “I haven’t taken the register yet—I always give people time to get here and sit down and get the Maltesers out before I raise the curtain. Speaking of which,” he said, turning back to the class, “there isn’t a theatre in Stansfield, is there?”
A couple of negatives were murmured in reply.
“Well, maybe I can wangle a trip to Stratford or something,” he said, to groans. He laughed, and began to call out their names, asking each of them to stand. “Not every time, you understand,” he said. “Just for today, so that I can pretend to fix your faces in my mind. It takes me all term to sort out who’s who really, but I like to show willing.”
The usual people were absent, and he had the predicted and laughed-at trouble over the Polish and Ukrainian and Russian
names which were commonplace in Stansfield. He stumbled over Natalie’s.
Kim smiled at his attempt and glanced at Natalie, who sat across from her at the next table, but she wasn’t laughing and hadn’t even stood up as he’d asked. Kim frowned a little. Natalie wasn’t usually touchy about her name, and poor Mr. Murray was really embarrassed about it.
Kim had known Natalie since primary school. Her first name was Natalia really, but she called herself Natalie; Natalia was nicer, Kim thought. But if that was too difficult for most people, then they didn’t stand a chance with her surname, which was Ouspensky. She was looking a bit pale, almost hiding behind the curtain of long blond hair which Kim had always envied. By her eighth birthday, Kim had reluctantly come to the conclusion that she was not going to turn into a blonde until she was old enough to choose to be one, but she had thought that she could grow her hair long like Natalie’s. She had tried, but as soon as it started getting in her eyes or having to be untangled, she would get her mum to cut it again.
Kim’s mum was a hairdresser, and she wished that Kim had Natalie’s hair too. Natalie’s hair always looked wonderful; Kim’s would never have looked like that even if she had managed to grow it. But in this warm weather Kim was glad of her urchin cut, as her mother called it.
Mr. Murray carried on with the register, closing it with a smile. “Now then,” he said. “What’s all this groaning at the mention of Stratford-upon-Avon?”
He spoke a bit about how much better it was to see Shakespeare on the stage than to read him, but the class wasn’t listening to a word as they whispered to one another and willed him to turn round to the board. At last came the moment of truth, when he finally stood up and turned to the board, and the room went silent.
He turned back to the class. “I expect you’re all taking bets about who wrote this stuff,” he said. “And I’ll bet that all bets are off. Because I wrote it.”
He must have been very satisfied with the gasp of surprise, but he didn’t show it.
“Why?” someone asked.
“I’ll tell you,” he said. “Two reasons. One is—if you really feel obliged to write all or any of these words on walls, that is how they are spelled. If I’m going to be responsible for your command of English when you leave here, then at least do me the favour of proving you can spell when you deface public property.”
“And the other reason,” he said, “is to indicate to you that I know all these words. I’ve used them all, in my time. There isn’t an Irishman born that hasn’t, I shouldn’t think—well, give or take the odd priest, but I wouldn’t be too sure about that, either. So I’m not going to be all that impressed if you use them. Now, I don’t know why some words are taboo—I think if we sent explorers to another planet and found a tribe of people with a language some of whose words they weren’t allowed to use, we would think that very quaint. But we are that tribe, so here’s the deal. I won’t use any of these words in class if you don’t. That way we can all keep out of trouble.”
“Would you get into trouble if we told the head that you’d written them on the board?” someone asked.
“Of course I would,” he said, wiping them off the board as he spoke. “But you’re not going to tell, are you? If you do, I’ll deny everything—and I’m a powerful liar.”
Kim laughed. She liked Mr. Murray.
Acting Detective Chief Inspector Judy Hill ran a hand through dark, short hair dampened with perspiration, wound the window down, and breathed in petrol and paint fumes with a modicum of the fresh air she had hoped to admit.
They were parked on one of the new industrial estates in a cul-de-sac of mini units out of which worked small concerns, mostly in the motor trade. A body shop, a paint shop, a car repair place, and a motor-cycle spares and repairs made up the court they were in. They were watching Humphry Davy Close, the one across the road, where two men also sat in a parked car. These two were not police; they were would-be receivers of stolen goods.
And they were all, good guys and bad guys, sitting in hot cars waiting for a lorry full of electrical goods which had been due at nine forty-five. Lorries came and went all the time; none of them had been the lorry they were waiting for.
“Do you think it’s going to come?” asked Detective Sergeant Finch.
“No,” Judy said, with uncharacteristic shortness. Knowing the kind of day she was having, there was no chance, she thought.
It had started all right. The sun had awakened her as it always did in this sort of glorious weather. She enjoyed the extra time, the quietness. Sometimes she just lay awake, watching the room come into sharp focus, her mind wandering where it would. Sometimes she got up and allowed herself to wallow in the bath rather than have a quick shower. Always, she left enough time for breakfast, the best—and quite often the only—meal of the day. Bacon, egg, tomato, toast and tea.
The clamour from the body-repair shop brought her back to her current surroundings, but she kept the window down. Even with the noise and the fumes, it still had the edge over being baked alive, she decided. “It always did seem a funny time to deliver a lorry-load of stolen goods,” she muttered.
The repair firm began work on an ancient black cab, which operation involved racing the deafening engine with the bonnet up, forcing black clouds of exhaust smoke out the other end.
“That’s the idea, guv,” Sergeant Finch said, raising his voice above the noise as the smell of spent diesel mingled with all the others in a sort of essence of automobile. “They think no one will pay any attention to a lorry delivering mid-morning in an industrial estate. Give it another fifteen minutes?”
This morning, her early-morning meditation had been spent looking forward to Detective Chief Inspector Lloyd’s return from the course that he had been on for weeks. The silence that she so enjoyed palled a little when it had no counterpoint; Lloyd’s occasional but sometimes turbulent presence in the morning made the solitude all the sweeter.
“It’s almost eleven,” she said. “I think your informant’s let you down.”
There was a moment before Tom Finch answered. “He never has yet,” he said.
“Between nine-thirty and ten, you said.”
“The villains haven’t called it a day yet, guv. Just another fifteen minutes?”