Excerpt

The Decent Inn of Death

Rennie Airth

The following is an exclusive excerpt from The Decent Inn of Death, by Rennie Airth. While on a trip, former Chief Inspector Angus Sinclair learns of a tragedy that has struck a nearby town: the death of a church organist. But folks aren’t so sure it was an accident—and neither is Angus when he learns that she had been married to a powerful anti-Nazi resistor. His partner John Madden joins him as he investigates a grand manor, which ties in somehow, but then a blizzard strikes. And so does murder.

At breakfast the following day the Bennetts invited Sinclair to accompany them to church later that morning.

‘Margaret and I usually attend the service,’ Bennett said. ‘And we feel more than ever that we ought to show support for poor Harry Beale just now. He’ll have to manage with no organist. He told me last night he hadn’t found a replacement for Greta Hartmann as yet.’

Though raised a Presbyterian, the chief inspector had grown accustomed during his years of retirement to the Anglican services conducted at the Highfield village church and he replied that he would be happy to join them, but that he would like to walk into the village ahead of time.

‘It’s for the exercise,’ he explained. ‘Helen insists on it—within moderation, of course.’

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‘You’re very lucky to have her.’ Sir Wilfred looked morose. ‘Dr Maddox, our local quack, is quite hopeless. He’s only a step or two away from the grave himself if you ask me. Margaret and I have taken to consulting a doctor in Winchester.’

Soon afterwards the chief inspector set off down the lane that led to the village and found when he reached it that he had arrived a good ten minutes before the service was due to begin. Having peered inside the church and found the pews empty and the building all but deserted apart from one of the vicar’s acolytes, dressed in a white surplice, who was busy inserting the numbers of the hymns to be sung into a slotted board above the pulpit, he retreated to the churchyard and wandered among the graves.

Spying one that was freshly dug—the mound above it was still bare of grass—he made his way over to the spot. There was no headstone as yet to indicate who lay there and he wondered if it might be the remains of the late Mrs Hartmann.

‘Would you mind?’

The voice came from behind him and the tone was sharp. Turning, the chief inspector found himself facing a middle-aged woman who had a bunch of flowers in her arms. Dressed in a military-type greatcoat, her greying curls were all but hidden under a felt hat of ancient design that was pulled down low, almost reaching her eyes, which rather than meeting his seemed to look right through him.

‘I beg your pardon.’

He stepped aside politely, allowing her to pass. She moved closer to the grave and began distributing the flowers on top of it. The chief inspector watched her in silence for some moments. Then he spoke:

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‘Miss Cruickshank, I believe?’

She gave no sign that she had heard him, but continued with her self-appointed task.

‘We haven’t met. But I was told your name by Sir Wilfred Bennett. I’m very sorry for your loss.’

‘Indeed?’ Laying the last of the blooms down on the ground, she turned to him. ‘I can’t think why.’ Her voice was cold, her glance hostile. ‘As you say, we’ve never met. Nor can I say I’m pleased to hear that my name is being bandied about, particularly by the likes of Sir Wilfred Bennett.’

‘He seemed more than sympathetic when he told me about Mrs Hartmann’s accident.’

‘Her accident? I see. That’s now the accepted truth, is it?’ Her eyes bored into his.

‘He also said you disagreed with that finding. You thought it unlikely that she could have tripped and fallen.’

Her lips twitched momentarily.

‘I would have thought that a former assistant commissioner at Scotland Yard might have taken the trouble to look into the matter more carefully.’

‘It was hardly his place to do so.’ Sinclair saw that she was determined to be difficult.

‘And what is your place, then, Mr . . . I don’t even know your name.’

‘Sinclair.’

‘What brings you here to Greta’s graveside? Not idle curiosity, I hope.’

Sinclair paused. He had addressed her by name on an impulse—one he now regretted. It was probably the moment to apologize for intruding on her grief and withdraw. But he felt compelled to go on.

‘I should tell you I was a policeman myself before I retired a few years ago, a chief inspector at Scotland Yard. That’s how I know Sir Wilfred.’

‘According to Sir Wilfred you felt something wasn’t right about the way your friend died. Is that correct?’

‘Should I be impressed?’ Her gaze was unflinching. ‘According to Sir Wilfred you felt something wasn’t right about the way your friend died. Is that correct?’ He was copying the same flat tone that she was employing and he kept his gaze neutral.

Miss Cruickshank was silent. But he thought he detected a slight change in her expression, a flicker of interest in her leaden gaze.

‘It may interest you to know that I was a detective for the better part of thirty years and one of the things I learned over time was that when people feel something is “not right” about a situation, there’s generally a good reason for it— which is not to say that the explanation necessarily accords with their suspicions.’

He added the last words quickly. He had sensed she was about to speak.

‘I . . . I’m not sure I understand.’ For the first time she sounded uncertain.

‘If I’m not mistaken, you think foul play might have been involved in Mrs Hartmann’s death. I’m saying that even if there was more to it than met the eye, that’s not necessarily the case.’

Vera Cruickshank shook her head in annoyance. ‘Are you playing games with me, Mr Sinclair? What are you suggesting?’

The chief inspector hesitated. He was searching for the right words with which to frame his reply.

‘Before I answer that, can you tell me why you believe her death was no accident? I mean your specific reasons.’

‘I should have thought they were obvious.’ She glared at him. ‘The idea that Greta should have tripped on a set of stepping-stones she must have crossed a thousand times in her life is simply ridiculous. She was not a careless person— quite the opposite, in fact. If anything, she was overcautious, and I used to tease her about it. And what exactly do you mean by saying there might be “more to it than met the eye”?’

‘What if she had an altercation with someone at the stream and either fell or was pushed off the stones? What if whoever else was involved panicked when they saw her lying there facedown in the stream and ran off?’

‘That’s a ridiculous idea,’ Vera Cruickshank scoffed.

‘Is it? I can assure you that during my time as a detective I came across even more unlikely ways of losing one’s life than that. I take it you don’t believe there’s anyone in the village who would have wanted to do her harm.’

‘It’s out of the question.’

‘Then if it wasn’t an ordinary accident, something unexpected may have occurred while she was crossing the stream, something that might, just might, have involved encountering another person there—with fatal results. But blaming the police won’t help. It would be next to impossible to prove it was other than accident without some evidence to support that. Have you any?’

She stared at him, blinking.

‘I have a suggestion,’ he said. ‘Why don’t you show me the place where Mrs Hartmann died? I can’t promise it will lead to anything. I’m no magician, and it’s years since I did any police work. But after what you’ve just said I’m curious to see the spot. It’s for you to decide, though.’ He waited.

While they were talking the congregation had begun to arrive and when he glanced over his shoulder Sinclair saw that the Bennetts had just come into the churchyard from the road and were walking up the path to the church entrance arm in arm. It seemed they hadn’t caught sight of him yet.

‘Do you mean now?’ Miss Cruickshank had finally replied to his question. ‘Aren’t you going to the service?’

‘I’d just as soon not.’ The chief inspector hazarded a smile. ‘I was raised a Presbyterian, you know. We tend to look askance at you Anglicans.’

‘And you’re quite sure of that, are you?’ Sinclair peered at her. ‘She was in good spirits when she left the house?’

‘Absolutely certain. Why should you think otherwise?’ Miss Cruickshank had made no attempt to alter her man-

ner: the aggressive note in her voice made it clear that even if a truce had been declared between them it was an armed one. They had walked through the scattered graves in the churchyard to the gate and out onto the road. Looking back, Sinclair had caught a brief glimpse of Sir Wilfred. He was standing in the doorway of the church looking back, and the chief inspector had waved to him but carried on without stopping.

‘Because apparently she wasn’t quite herself at the service that morning. According to Father Beale she made some mistakes at the organ, which he said was most unusual, and when the service ended, instead of joining him outside to chat with the congregation she slipped out through the vestry and wasn’t seen by anyone.’

‘That’s the first I’ve heard of it.’ Miss Cruickshank was clearly put out. ‘And I wouldn’t take it as gospel if it comes from Father Beale. All I can tell you is that when Greta left the house she was behaving quite normally and not bothered by anything.’

They had crossed the road and walked past the forecourt of the pub to a path that ran alongside it. Presently they came to an apple orchard and Sinclair saw that there was a small wood ahead of them.

‘You didn’t go to church yourself that day. Was there any reason for that?’

‘Yes, a perfectly ordinary one.’ Miss Cruickshank kept her gaze on the path ahead. ‘I’d recently had an attack of bronchitis and was still coughing a lot. I didn’t want to sit there in the church, which is freezing anyway, and disrupt the service.’

‘So Mrs Hartmann walked there alone?’

‘As a matter of fact she didn’t.’ This time she accorded him a brief glance. ‘Edna Harris, who lives in the cottage nearest to mine, happened to be passing by as Greta left and they walked into the village together. I spoke to her later. She said when they got to the road they parted. She had to walk a little way down it to collect an old lady who needs help getting about. Greta always made sure she got to the church early so as to begin playing before the congregation arrived.’

‘So she walked the rest of the way on her own?’

‘For God’s sake, man!’ Vera Cruickshank stopped in her stride to glare at him in exasperation. ‘It’s barely fifty yards from where she and Edna Harris parted company. I tell you nothing could have happened to Greta before she reached the church. Father Beale’s an old fool—and your friend Sir Wilfred Bennett isn’t much better.’ She strode on.

They had entered the wood, their footsteps cushioned by the carpet of dead leaves covering the path, and in a matter of minutes they reached the stream. There Miss Cruickshank paused. She pointed at the stepping-stones in front of them. ‘The third one from this side is unstable. Here, I’ll show you.’ She walked ahead of him and stopped on the stone in question. ‘See?’ She rocked to and fro. The chief inspector noted that the movement was slight. ‘No one who isn’t either blind drunk or playing the fool could possibly lose his or her balance on it, yet there are people who are trying to say that’s what happened to Greta. And I’ll tell you something else.’ She faced him. ‘Dear Greta was such a cautious soul she always stepped across it. She didn’t want to take a chance. I told you I used to tease her . . .’ She turned away angrily and Sinclair saw her put a hand to her face. He gave her a moment to compose herself.

‘I take your point,’ he said gently. ‘But if she was distracted that day it’s possible she was careless for once. Is that where she struck her head?’

He indicated a rock no bigger than an orange that was lying in the streambed close to the stepping-stones. It was the only one showing above the level of the running water, which looked to be no more than a few inches deep. Miss Cruickshank nodded.

‘There was blood on it. Greta had a cut on her forehead.

She was lying facedown in the water.’

Her gaze remained fixed on Sinclair, who said nothing for the moment. He was thinking.

‘Well?’ She couldn’t contain herself for long. ‘You say you’re a detective. What do you make of it?’ Giving him no chance to reply she went on: ‘You’re going to tell me it was probably just one of those things, aren’t you? That accidents happen.’ Her voice dripped scorn.

The chief inspector shook his head. ‘As a matter of fact, I was going to say something quite different.’

Edging closer to the bank, he glanced upstream where a dense tangle of bushes overhung the water, and then down, in the other direction, where part of the bank had been washed away by floodwater and a small bay of dried mud had been left in its wake. He spotted an empty beer bottle stuck into the surface of the mud. Bits of orange peel were scattered about beside it.

‘Yes . . . ?’ She urged him on.

He turned to her. ‘What would you do if you fell headfirst into the stream?’

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Now, this moment . . . what would your first reaction be?’ She stared at him for a second.

‘I’d try to break my fall.’

‘Exactly . . . you’d put your arms out. Of course, you might sprain a wrist, or even break it . . .’

‘. . . but I wouldn’t fall flat on my face onto a rock.’ Her eyes came to life for the first time. ‘Is that what you’re suggesting?’

‘More or less. Were there any injuries to her hands, cuts or bruises?’

‘I don’t know. Her body was examined by old Maddox, our village doctor, but I wouldn’t put much faith in his opinion. He should have retired years ago. He’s in his dotage.’

‘It wasn’t seen by a pathologist?’

‘Not to my knowledge.’ She wet her lips. ‘Do you think . . . ?’

‘I don’t think anything, Miss Cruickshank.’ He cut her off quickly. ‘It’s just an observation. I’ll be honest with you. I’m far from coming to any conclusion. But you’re right about one thing . . . something unusual seems to have happened to your friend when she was crossing these stones. I can’t say more than that at this stage.’

‘At this stage?’ She clutched at the hope his words seemed to offer.

‘I’m going to think about this. I promise you that.’ He met her gaze.

‘But . . . isn’t there anything you can do about it?’

‘I don’t know,’ he replied honestly. ‘It wouldn’t be easy.

As I say, I retired from the force some years ago. They won’t take kindly to my interfering.’ He saw she was struggling to say something, and he waited.

‘She wasn’t a nobody, Mr Sinclair.’ At last she found the words she was seeking. ‘I want you to know that. She was a rare soul, and dearer to me than anyone.’

‘I understand.’ He nodded solemnly.

‘And whatever conclusion you come to, I want to be informed. Don’t leave me in the dark.’

‘I won’t,’ he promised her.

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From THE DECENT INN OF DEATH by Rennie Airth, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.Copyright © 2020 by Rennie Airth.




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