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Authors: S. T. Haymon

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‘Thanks very much, then. See you at 8.30.'

For a moment, after the inferno of the Appleyard Room, the outside seemed actually chilly. The exit from Bullen Hall, the detective discovered, had brought him out at the rear of the building, on to another lawn, not so grand as the one in front. In the distance were trees, following, Jurnet supposed, the line of the river where Appleyard of Hungary had met his untimely end.

Ah, well. A lot of water had flowed under the bridge since then, and no one should account it sacrilege if a dehydrated copper took off his shoes and socks, rolled up his trouser ends, and soaked his poor old feet in the sacred stream. Arrived under the trees, he stood still for the sheer bliss of the dappled greenness that roofed him in against the blazing sky. This, he thought, is where I stay till the sun goes down.

All the same, he did not stay, not above a minute or two. Switching his jacket from one shoulder to the other, he moved steadily among the clustering trees, only to discover that the wood was no more than a narrow strip bordering, not the river, as he had expected, but a field full of newly sheared sheep, who stood about strangely muted in their nakedness.

Some pollarded willows at the further boundary promised water at last. Nevertheless, Jurnet came to a halt in the shelter of the outermost trees. Two horses, one chestnut, the other dapple grey, tethered to the gate, were cropping the grass at the entrance to the field, their heads bent in delicate concentration.

He did not at first see their riders; and when he did, he was doubly glad he had not come crashing out of the undergrowth. Under a hedgerow oak that overshadowed the gate, a boy and a girl stood embraced. The boy's hair glinted gold in the shade; the girl's was dark, and tied back in a pony tail. The two were of a height; both tall and long-legged in their jeans and faded T-shirts. Pressed together as they were, one could easily have wondered which was the boy and which the girl, had it not been for the way they held each other; the boy masterful, the girl proffering herself with a generosity that brought a wry twist to the lips of the watching detective and, though he could hardly have said why, a lump to his throat.

Jurnet called himself sharply to order. Just because they made such a pretty picture, all that picture postcard scenery, didn't make them any different from any other two kids getting randy.

Yet the detective did not advance, approach the gate, and ask them to move their horses so he could pass through. To break in upon that circle within which the pair existed in their own time, their own place, was unthinkable. There was about them a passionate innocence that was utterly disarming. Entirely against his will, it suffused Jurnet's being with tenderness and a strange melancholy joy which he reluctantly recognised as love.

He stepped back into the wood, careful to snap no twig underfoot: retraced his path to the lawn, skirted the house and found his way round to the Coachyard to see if Miriam's earrings were ready.

Chapter Four

Francis Coryton greeted them at the front door of the flat, his glasses glinting festally, his body encased in an embroidered silk shirt and pale blue slacks, the two united by a cummerbund of wine-coloured velvet.

‘You brought him!' he exclaimed. ‘That's wonderful! I was so afraid the Inspector was going to arrange a little murder or something, as an excuse for not coming.' He squeezed Danny March's arm with affection, and kissed Anna on the cheek. ‘Anna, you look marvellous!'

Which was no more than the truth. Jurnet himself had not yet got over the transformation. No limits, it seemed, to what stone-ground wheat, organically grown, could do. Himself unable, in that temperature, to eat a thing, and, with that thirst, to do other than drink more cups of tea than he had ever drunk at one sitting, the detective had watched the wholemeal scones disappear and a new Anna emerge, a little shrill perhaps, but more human than he ever remembered her. When, after putting Tommy to bed and giving the baby-sitter her instructions, she had come back into the little living room dressed for the party, the metamorphosis was complete. She looked ravishing, clad in a shift of some shimmering white material, pleated from yoke to hem. Round her neck she wore a wide necklace of flat pieces of silver interspersed with some dark red stones the detective did not recognise, carved with what looked like hieroglyphics. From her ears hung matching earrings. Silver sandals shone on her feet, her dark hair swung straight to her shoulders, her eyes glowed dark-lashed and mysterious. At her entrance, Danny, large and awkward in his movements, had got up from his chair and knocked a bowl of nasturtiums off the table.

It had been left to Jurnet to seek out a cloth in the kitchen, mop up the water, and rescue the tumbled flowers. The two had stood facing each other, not speaking. Then Anna had put out her hand and Danny had taken it. Nothing more.

Enough.

‘You ought to stand sideways on in that get-up,' said Jurnet when, a little heartsick on his own account, he deemed the silent worship had gone on long enough. ‘You look like one of those paintings you see on papyrus.'

‘Pa
y
rus,' the woman corrected him, and the detective concealed a smile. The same old Anna, even if tonight she did look like Nefertiti, tits and all. The pleats in the almost transparent fabric were not enough to hide that she wore no bra beneath, and precious little of anything else.

Danny, who had appeared to see nothing to object to in his wife's flimsily veiled nudity, had cried boisterously: ‘My Egyptian mummy!' and the three of them had clambered down the narrow stair and gone out into the scented dusk, laughing; as if there had never been any tears, no problem requiring solution.

Tommy's aversion to bed, so long as his Uncle Ben was on hand to entertain him, had delayed them, and the three found themselves among the late arrivals at the party. The long, low room with its dark panelling and its plaster ceiling incised with Tudor roses was already crowded. People standing with glasses in their hands, or sitting with loaded plates on their knees, were hard at work being jolly.

Jurnet's heart sank. What the hell was he doing here?

Momentarily, he found himself on his own, Anna and Danny borne away on a wash of greetings. Then a woman was at his side, suggesting amiably: ‘Let me get you something to eat.'

For lack of something better to do as much as anything, he followed the sturdy, middle-aged figure in its unsuitably frilly dress to a long refectory table set out with food which at one stroke restored his appetite and his faith in human nature.

‘I'm Jane Coryton.' The figure turned to disclose a face sweet-tempered but not gullible. ‘My husband's told me all about you. Now, what are you going to have? Salmon, ham, or goulash?'

‘Salmon, please.'

Mrs Coryton took a plate, and, to Jurnet's relief, began to fill it for him.

‘How's that?'

‘First-rate!'

Mrs Coryton endeared herself further to the detective by heaping a second plate for herself, then seating herself on a bench drawn up to the narrow end of the table, and making room for Jurnet to sit beside her.

‘I hate doing a balancing act, don't you? Have I given you enough mayonnaise? And let's have some of that wine, shall we?' – indicating a bottle within Jurnet's reach. ‘Mr Shelden said it was very good, and I don't think he was being polite because he's been drinking it all evening, and everyone says he's a great connoisseur.'

After a respectful silence devoted to the business of eating and drinking the woman swivelled her gaze round to her companion and studied his face thoughtfully. To his surprise, Jurnet found himself neither embarrassed nor offended by the examination.

‘Francis was both right and wrong,' she pronounced at the end. ‘You
are
like George Bullen, and you aren't.'

‘And there was I kidding myself he remembered me for how kind I was finding the crime prevention officer for him.'

‘Is that what he said? I'm sure you
were
kind,' she added, kind herself, ‘but of course the likeness was the main thing. The hollows under the cheek-bones – they really are quite amazingly like. Still, it only goes to show, doesn't it, how superficial physical resemblances can be. I always feel there's a petulance, a self-pity, about George Bullen which I'm glad to say I don't see in you at all, Inspector.'

Perhaps it was because of the wine, an ambrosial amber exquisitely chilled, perhaps because he could not remember ever being with a woman with whom he felt so instantly at ease, Jurnet found himself saying: ‘You're wrong there, then. Eaten up with it. My girl friend's away in Greece and I'm feeling properly sorry for myself.'

‘Oh.' Mrs Coryton reconsidered. ‘On holiday, you mean? Alone?' Jurnet nodded, and after a little she did the same, as if a question she had set herself had been resolved. ‘Ah, then it won't be self-pity. Jealousy. Quite different. I feel quite sure, Inspector, that you can be very jealous.'

‘Jealous? Who said anything about being jealous?'

The voice which disturbed their sympathetic communion was blurred, the hand that reached for the wine bottle shaking. The man to whom both belonged was grey-haired, tall and well-made, if a little run to fat. There were food stains on his canary-coloured polo sweater.

Jane Coryton rose to her feet, removed the bottle from the man's hand, and said calmly: ‘Let me pour it out for you, Charles. Mr Jurnet, this is Charles Winter, who makes those wonderful pots.' Filling a glass less than half-full, she said: ‘Charles, I don't think you've met Inspector Jurnet.'

‘Inspector? Not police, is he? What's he doing here? Keeping an eye on that bloody pseud, our new master?'

Mrs Coryton did not answer the question directly; merely remarked with no hint of reproof in her voice: ‘You've had too much to drink, Charles.'

‘Quite right, Jane darling. So I have.' The man polished off the wine she had poured for him, and brought the empty glass down on the table with a thump. ‘If you
will
give parties that are so bloody boring – what else is there to do, for Christ's sake?' Scowling at the assemblage: ‘Hark at ' em! Monkeys screaming in the trees, parakeets squawking their silly heads off. Bullen Hall? More like the ruddy Amazon!'

‘In that case,' Jane Coryton returned, the sweetness of her smile undimmed, ‘you'd better go home before the piranhas get you.'

‘Can't do that, love. Got to make sure Francis gets his present. Bet you didn't even know he was getting one.'

‘I did have an inkling.'

‘From all of us. Affection, gratitude, all that crap. Deep appreciation of all he's done for us over the years – namely, drive us up the wall with his nit-picking whenever we've wanted to do anything that might get him in bad with the Empress Elena.'

‘You're very ungrateful, Charles. After all, if nothing else, it was Francis who got the Trust to give all you craftsmen your workshops and your living quarters rent-free.'

‘So he did, the dear old sod. So perhaps I shouldn't grudge my 50p. Got to hang around, just the same – make sure our resident tsiganes come up with the goods, not send it back to Mother Russia as their contribution to world revolution –'

‘You
are
in a bad mood,' the woman observed cheerfully. ‘It'd do you good to eat something.'

‘Eat?' Charles Winter knitted his bushy eyebrows in an effort of recall. ‘There
was
something –' Then: ‘Mike! He wanted a bit more ham. Please, Jane darling, cut Michael a beautiful slice of ham.'

Obediently, Jane Coryton got up again, carved a slice of the meat, and handed it to Winter on a plate.

‘If it isn't enough, tell him to come and get some more himself.'

‘Can't do that, love. He's too busy being seduced by our lovely new curator.'

‘Don't be silly, Charles. He isn't one of you.'

‘What do you know about it? A man of many genital parts, our new gauleiter. The poofter of Parson's Green's what they call him up in town.'

‘He doesn't come from Parson's Green. His London address is somewhere near Chalk Farm.'

‘Even worse than I feared!' The potter clutched at his breast with his free hand. ‘Don't say you haven't been warned, ducks! Where's the bloody cutlery?'

When the man had gone, the plate of ham balanced precariously on the fingertips of one hand, the other, aloft, clicking knife and fork like castanets as he bumped his way down the room, Mrs Coryton gave a little sigh, and turned back to the detective.

‘Mike is Mike Botley, our basket-maker. In case you're worried in your official capacity, he's well over the age of consent.' As Jurnet made no comment: ‘I hope you aren't too shocked.'

‘A copper! We meet all sorts.'

‘Still,' she insisted, ‘I sense your disapproval. Charles
is
a genius, you know. It does make a difference. And it isn't as if he's breaking any law.'

‘Oh ah.' Those all-purpose East Anglian syllables.

‘He can't help being the way he is.'

‘Oh ah again.'

With no perceptible exasperation Mrs Coryton said: ‘He's in love and he's jealous, my dear man, just like you.'

To that there was no answer, and Jurnet did not attempt one. Instead, with an effort, he transferred his attention to his fellow guests.

‘Is everyone here – barring me – connected with the Hall?'

Mrs Coryton nodded.

‘It's only when we have a get-together like this one realises how many there are. Though it's more a lot of small parties than one big one. The workshop people gang up in one corner, the maintenance men go into a huddle over clogged-up drains, and the volunteers are so overawed at actually being asked to Bullen Hall socially, you'd think Anne Boleyn herself was expected along at any moment.'

‘At least it sounds as if they're all involved in what they're doing.'

BOOK: Stately Homicide
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