Only the long rusty blonde strands adhering to the shattered skull of the decomposing body suggested that it had once been a woman, possibly an attractive one. Now it was just a breeding ground for maggots.
‘Make a tidy little profit if we could bag those things and sell them to the local fishermen for bait,’ Sergeant Bullwhip quipped merrily
‘Mmm, yes …’ Abstractedly, his companion thrust her bare hand through the squirming mass in the region of the abdomen and pulled out a gold ring; a long slimy maggot-infested string of intestine slid away as she lifted it. She shook the ring free of the remaining maggots before inspecting it.
One of the maggots struck Sergeant Bullwhip on the corner of his mouth. He recoiled instinctively, then pulled himself together, hawked deeply and spat. A glistening globule of green-hued sputum struck the earth just short of the corpse’s outstretched fingers.
‘Interesting …’ Dr Sheherazade Wollinski observed. ‘It looks as though she swallowed her wedding ring shortly before she died.’ She took another look at the jawbone with some teeth unaccounted for and added, ‘Either that – or someone rammed it down her throat.’
‘Autopsy will tell us that, won’t it?’ Sergeant Bullwhip asked eagerly.
‘Possibly, possibly,’ Dr Sheherazade said. ‘Have them remove the body to my dissecting room. It should be ready for us by midafternoon. We’ll have time for lunch first.
‘And, Bullwhip, bring along your smelling salts. This is going to be a juicy one …’
Lorinda allowed the book to slip to the floor from her nerveless grasp. Whatever had happened, she wondered, to the concept of reading as entertainment? Now it appeared to be an endurance contest as to how many pages the reader could get through before throwing up.
Had-I and But-Known moved forward to investigate the object that had just joined the others like it on the floor. Long experience should have taught them that oblong things with fluttering pages were unlikely sources of food but, obviously, hope sprang eternal in the feline breast.
Not that she could talk. She stared ruefully at the stack of paperbacks still to be breached. It had seemed like such a good idea when she had recklessly filled her carry-on bag with what she thought was loot from the airside bookshop just before boarding her flight home. Other parcels of books from the mystery bookshops she had visited during her two-week tour of the States (plus another ten days added on as a vacation) would be arriving shortly by post. She hoped she would enjoy them more than these last-minute impulse buys. Still, she needed to keep up with what was currently popular over there.
Thankfully, however, there was no rush about it – not now that she was safely home. She leaned back and closed her eyes for a moment, savouring the peace and quiet – and the memory of that glorious moment of awakening this morning when, exhausted and disorientated, she had groped for her travelling clock with the ever-present worry:
What time do I have to check out of this hotel room?
The clock wasn’t there and she had opened her eyes to the blissful realization that she was home in her own bed.
I don’t! I don’t have to check out and move on! I don’t have to be anywhere or do anything. I can stay in bed for the whole day if I like!
In celebration of which, she had stretched,
turned over and not surfaced again for another hour and a half.
Only a year ago, she would not have believed that she could feel so happily contented in this house. At that time, Dorian King, famous mystery writer and doyen of the mystery world, had discovered the peaceful little village of Brimful Coffers and begun a determined campaign to turn it into his own fiefdom. Chivvied, perhaps slightly bullied, but definitely lured by the promise of a colony of like-minded friends and colleagues forming a retreat from the rigours of city life and its problems, a group of mystery writers had allowed themselves to be persuaded to move here.
As Dorian had painted the scene, it had sounded ideal and, as with all things that seemed too good to be true, it wasn’t. During their first bleak winter, their refuge was stalked by a half-mad killer – also thoughtfully introduced into their midst by Dorian – playing a deadly game. The killer had been caught and judged unfit to plead and was now in Broadmoor, ‘detained’, as the saying went, ‘at the Queen’s pleasure and the taxpayers’ displeasure’. After which, life had gradually settled back into a more normal routine.
Perhaps Dorian was right, after all. Certainly, it had been comforting to know that the cats had been able to remain in their own home while she was away, cared for by neighbours Freddie Carlson (creator of the Wraith O’Reilly series) and Macho Magee, sweet and mild ex-history teacher, who wrote the rough-tough-Macho Magee books and was completely under the paw of his own enormous ginger cat, Roscoe.
It had been even more comforting to open the fridge door after the long taxi ride home from her red-eye flight and discover that Freddie had thoughtfully stocked it with the basics, so that she was able to have a late brunch of scrambled eggs on toast when she awoke.
Later, perhaps, she would go out and do a bit of shopping. Or perhaps she wouldn’t. Freddie had provided
enough so that it wasn’t immediately necessary. There were also the contents of the store cupboard. A tin of soup with, perhaps, more toast would do nicely for an early evening meal, followed by an early evening.
She yawned and the cats yawned back at her companionably. She ought to ring Freddie and say thank you, but she was just so tired …
The snick of the cat flap in the kitchen distracted her, as well as alerting Had-I and But-Known. They turned towards the doorway, waiting.
The bedraggled orange cat who staggered into the room was not immediately identifiable. It was only when Had-I and But-Known went over to him and he greeted them with a faint meow that she recognized him.
‘Roscoe!’ she cried. What’s happened to you?’
Sensing sympathy and a new audience, he tottered over to her and began a long, pathetic account of his woes. Had-I and But-Known began to wash his face, one on each side of him.
‘Poor darling!’ Lorinda stroked his head, which seemed larger than usual and unusually bony. ‘You’ve lost weight. Lots of it. Are you all right?’ Disquiet, bordering on panic, rose in her. She must ring Macho and find out if Roscoe was ill. And whether it was anything contagious.
Had-I and But-Known began shouldering Roscoe back towards the kitchen. Lorinda stood and followed them, watching in amazement as they took him straight to their feeding bowls and seemed to be encouraging him to help himself.
He needed no urging. With a faint pathetic mewl of gratitude, he plunged in. Her cats then turned and gave her an accusing look. If she had been here, they seemed to say, this wouldn’t have happened.
But what had happened? She had only arrived back late last night and had slept nearly the clock around. Still feeling the vaguely time-out-of-joint lassitude of jetlag, she had postponed getting in touch with anyone until later – much
later – in the day. Perhaps it was Macho who had been taken ill and was, perforce, neglecting Roscoe.
The cats had gone back to washing their friend, offering what comfort they could along with their food. He wasn’t eating quite so quickly now, but with steady determination, as though he didn’t know where his next meal was coming from and so he was making sure of this one.
Lorinda started for the phone. She’d better call Freddie and find out what had been happening in her absence. She had just reached the phone when it rang.
‘Welcome home!’ Freddie said. ‘Do you really feel you’re back yet, or do you still feel half-here and half-there?’
‘Half and half,’ Lorinda confirmed.
‘It will take a few days to get back on this time plane. It’s not so bad going over, more like an extra-long day, but it’s a killer coming in this direction. Time goes so skew-whiff that nothing seems quite real.’
‘It’s all dreamlike,’ Lorinda agreed. ‘I was going to ring you later, when I got a little more awake.’
‘Oh, sorry. Shall I ring back?’
‘No, I’m awake now. And curious. What have I missed while I’ve been away?’
‘Now there’s a question. Where to start?’
‘How about with Roscoe? He popped in a few minutes ago and I almost didn’t recognize him. Is he all right?’
‘He’s sick as a parrot,’ Freddie said. ‘And, if you think he’s miserable, wait until you see Macho!’
‘But what —’
‘I’ll come round,’ Freddie interrupted. ‘It’s too much to go into over the phone. Or would you rather come here?’
‘I’d rather stay right where I am, if you don’t mind. I’ve had enough moving from place to place to last me quite a while.’
‘That’s what I thought,’ Freddie said. ‘I’ll be right over.’
‘Oh, but I don’t have anything for tea —’
‘Don’t worry,’ Freddie said. ‘I’ll bring some snacks along
– there’s plenty for all of us. I’m awash with the stuff at the moment.’
It seemed she had hardly put the phone down when Freddie was at the door with a carrier bag full of bowls and small bulging bags. The cats raced up to their visitor eagerly.
‘That’s right,’ she told them. ‘There’s more than enough for everybody.’
Roscoe headbutted her ankle enthusiastically, his purr throbbing out.
‘Oh, yes?’ Freddie stopped and stroked the bony head. ‘Do you love me, or is it what’s in the bags? Not that I’d blame you, poor baby.’
‘What’s the matter with him?’ A faint rising panic swept over Lorinda. ‘It’s nothing contagious, is it?’
‘No, no, nothing serious. Not to anyone else. It’s pretty devastating to Roscoe, though. They’ve put him on a diet.’
‘A diet? Macho has put Roscoe on a diet?’ She couldn’t believe it. ‘I didn’t think Macho knew the meaning of the word diet.’
‘Not Macho. Cressie.’
‘Cressie? Who’s Cressie?’
‘Well you may ask.’ Freddie shrugged out of her coat and tossed it across an armchair. ‘You
have a lot of catching up to do. Cressie is living with Macho now.’
‘Macho has hired a housekeeper?’ She registered the amused twitch of Freddie’s lips and moved on to the next obvious conclusion. ‘A girlfriend? Macho has a girlfriend?’
‘Of sorts. It may be more accurate to say the girlfriend has Macho. I’m not sure how happy he is with the situation, but he doesn’t know how to get out of it.’
‘Macho …’ Lorinda was still stunned. ‘I thought he was so traumatized by his divorce that he was never going to get involved again. How many years ago was it?’
‘Yonks,’ Freddie said cheerfully. ‘And then he stumbles across the most unsuitable woman in the world and lets her move in with him. I’d say it serves the bloody idiot right – but nobody deserves Cressie. Especially not poor Roscoe. She doesn’t know the difference between putting him on a diet and starving him to death.’
‘Poor Roscoe.’ Lorinda still found it hard to believe, but Roscoe’s scrawny state was proof of it. ‘When did all this happen?’
‘Just a couple of days after you left. Macho had to go up to London for an editorial conference. I gather it wasn’t quite what he’d expected. He went from there to a publishing party and began drinking. Cressie was there and she’d had bad news, too, so they drank together and went on somewhere else to continue drinking when the party was over. He’s a little vague about what actually happened that night, but the upshot was that she came back here with him and has been here ever since.’
‘Macho? Macho got drunk? Picked up some woman? And she’s living with him? Here?’ It was what his character Macho Magee would have done without a second thought, but Macho’s real name was Lancelot Dalrymple and it suited his own character. ‘I can’t imagine Lancelot Dalrymple sweeping a woman off her feet!’
‘I wouldn’t take any bets as to who carried whom over the threshold,’ Freddie said. ‘And it’s not just any woman. It’s Cressie Adair!’
‘Cressie Adair?’ Lorinda frowned. ‘The name sounds faintly familiar, but …’
‘She made a big splash a few years ago with
Hello, I’m on a Bus.
It was the cutting edge of Chick Lit – and so was she. Tall, leggy, blonde – she was everywhere. You saw her picture every time you turned around. I began to think it was illegal to produce a talk show that didn’t feature her. Fortunately for them, she was very opinionated. She still is.’
‘Oh, yes, it’s coming back to me … didn’t she also write
Mooning the Builders?’
‘That was her second. It struck quite a chord with a lot of Upwardly Mobiles who’d bought substandard houses to renovate and were head-to-head with the cowboy builders who’d given them the lowest quote and started bumping up the charges every time they turned around. Not to mention doing a lousy job.’
‘Wasn’t that almost autobiographical?’ Lorinda frowned again. ‘I seem to remember something about accusations and threats and law suits … but I can’t remember the outcome.’