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The Case Of The Dead Wait


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1.

Christmas at home wasn’t ever in Laura Thyme’s plans. Where was home? She’d hurled a large stone through the front window of her last one. Her two-timing cradle-snatcher of a husband Nick had blighted all the nice memories of that place. She tried to think of herself these days as a free spirit. Tried, because deep inside she hadn’t entirely got the man out of her system. He still had the capacity to hurt.

Well, she was sure of one thing. She wouldn’t dump herself on either of her grown-up children. They would have plans of their own, and quite right, too. If Matthew or Helena looked forward to pulling anything on Christmas Day it wasn’t a cracker with their mum. They really were free spirits, long past the stage when Laura made it her business to know who they were sleeping with.

As for Rosemary-her gardening oppo, Dr. Rosemary Boxer, the ex-academic with the happy knack of finding wealthy clients with ailing plants-she’d be the perfect company for a festive lunch, but she had an elderly mum living alone. Last weekend Rosemary had called to wish Laura a merrier time than she was expecting for herself.

The result: Laura was house-sitting.

She was alone in The Withers, a large Jacobean house in Wiltshire. Two of her oldest and richest friends, Jane and Michael Eadington, were having three weeks in the Canaries. A call at the end of November had set it up. “We’re in such trouble, Laura. You know we’ve got these silly orchids that are Mike’s latest hobby? Our daughter Maeve-the model-was going to look after them and now she’s got a chance to do a series of shows with Calvin Klein in New York. Could you, would you, will you, please, be our fairy godmother?”

Sorted.

Even after discovering that the house had another resident-Wilbur, the rescue greyhound.

She’d driven the Land Rover down there on Christmas Eve. For all its mechanical uncertainties, the ancient 4x4 was ideal transport for the country. She overheated only once, and the car didn’t overheat at all. She was just in time to see the Eadingtons off. A quick introduction to the orchids, six trays of them in the conservatory under banks of fluorescent tubing. Hurried instructions about the central heating, persuading Wilbur to wear a coat for winter walks, and what to do in a power failure. Firm orders not to be in the least concerned if anything broke or went wrong. “It’s all replaceable, darling. We’re just so pleased to have you here. Treat it like your own home. Raid the freezer, watch the DVDs, drink the wine in the cellar, have an orgy if you want.”

For a few minutes after they’d driven up the lane Laura wondered if she’d done the right thing. The house seemed bigger than she remembered from the last visit. She’d never once set foot upstairs. The orchids were in flower, but didn’t look pleased at being handed over to her care. Winter was supposed to be the flowering season, but some of them were wilting. Mike had talked about misting and humidity levels and feeding. She didn’t want any casualties. She returned to the vast space the Eadingtons used as the living room.

A sudden movement at the window gave her a wicked shock. The greyhound had emerged from behind the curtain, where he’d been sitting on the sill. Yes, a greyhound on a window sill. It was that kind of room, that kind of window, that kind of curtain. “I’m in charge now, Wilbur,” she told him, wagging a finger, “and if the two of us are going to survive you’d better not play any more tricks like that.”

Treat the place like your home, they’d said, so she took out her Christmas cards and started setting them up. The cards triggered mixed feelings. It was good to hear from old friends, but it could hurt when the envelopes came addressed to Nick and Laura with messages along the lines of “How are you two getting along? Give us a call and let’s all meet up in 2007.”

Wilbur jumped back on his sill and knocked down most of the cards.

“Making some kind of point, are we?” Laura said. But she moved them to the grand piano.

When the doorbell rang a moment later, the rest of the cards dropped out of her hand. It was a chiming bell and her charming friends had set it to the opening bar of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen,” which can be pretty startling when you don’t expect it. Wilbur barked, so she had to shut him in the conservatory first.

A tall-six foot tall, at least-thin-faced woman with deep-set, accusing eyes was on the doorstep with a plate covered with a cloth. “And who the devil are you?” she said.

Laura did her best to explain, but it didn’t make much impact.

“Where’s young Maeve? She ought to be looking after the house,” the woman said.

“Yes, but she’s dashed off to New York. A last-minute change of plans.”

“What do I do with these, then? I made them for the family.” She lifted the cloth briefly to reveal a batch of underdone mince pies.

“I don’t know,” Laura said; adding with tact, “They smell delicious. I’m sorry, but you didn’t say who you are.”

“Gertrude Appleton from next-door. We always exchange mince pies at Yuletide. Have you made yours?”

“I just arrived.”

That didn’t count with Gertrude Appleton. She clicked her tongue and looked ready to stamp her foot as well. “I must have one of yours, or I’ll get bad luck for a year.”

“Why?”

“It’s Wiltshire custom, isn’t it? You eat a pie on each of the twelve days of Christmas, and every one has to be baked by a different friend. Then, if the Lord is merciful, you’ll survive to see another Christmas. Bless my soul, there isn’t anyone else I can ask.”

“You’d better step inside a moment,” Laura said, not wanting to panic this woman and playing for time while she thought about ways to resolve the problem.

“No, I won’t come in,” Gertrude Appleton said, and those fierce eyes were suddenly red at the edges and starting to water. “I don’t know you from Adam. Couldn’t call thee a friend.”

“Let’s be friends. Why not? It’s the season for it,” Laura said, dredging deep to sound convivial. “Listen, Gertrude, why don’t I do some baking right now and make some pies for you?”

“But you won’t have mincemeat.”

“I’m positive all the ingredients must be in the kitchen. Jane adores cooking, as you know.”

Gertrude raised her chin in a self-righteous way. “Mine was made with the puddings four weeks ago, the week after Stir-up Sunday.”

“Stirrup what?”

“Stir-up Sunday. Haven’t you heard of that? The last Sunday before Advent. That’s when you make your puddings and mince, after the collect for the day: ‘Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy people.’”

This was getting more and more weird.

“In that case, Jane may have made hers already,” Laura said. “I’ll check. One way or another, you’ll get a mince pie from me, Gertrude. Depend upon it.”

“Take these, then.” Gertrude thrust the plate towards her. “You’ll need some for the waits.”

Laura had a mental picture of old-fashioned kitchen scales, with her mince pie being weighed against Gertrude’s and found wanting.

“The carollers. They come round every Christmas Eve, and they always want a bite to eat and mulled wine, too, the boozy lot. I must be off. I have seasonal jobs to do. There’s greenfly and aphids in the greenhouse.”

“You’re a gardener?” Laura said with interest.

“Ha!” She tossed her head. “Am I a gardener? I wouldn’t bother to go on without my garden. It’s the saving of me.”

“I do some gardening, too. What are you going to do about the aphids-spray them?”

Gertrude looked shocked. “I don’t hold with chemicals. No, I’ll smoke the varmints out, like I always do.”

“Fumigation? Effective, I expect, though I’ve never tried it,” Laura said.

“I’ve got these magical smoke things, like little strips of brown paper. Had them for years. Just close up all the windows and seal the cracks and set light to they strips. Let it blaze for a while, and then I stamp it out so they can smoulder. Soon as the smoke appears I’m out of there quicker than hell would scorch a feather and shut the door behind me. When I go in again, there’s not a greenfly left to say it ever happened.”

Laura refrained from mentioning that the magical smoke things undoubtedly contained chemicals of some kind. “Good luck with it, then. And I won’t forget the mince pies. Which direction do you live?”

She was glad to have a task, although she could think of better ones than this. After closing the door she carried the plate to Jane’s enormous kitchen, plonked it on the table, and checked the walk-in larder for jars of mincemeat.

No joy. If you were planning to spend Christmas in Lanzarote, she reflected, you wouldn’t feel obliged to make mincemeat. Even on Stir-up Sunday.

She checked the freezer. Well stocked, but not with seasonal items.

She thought of the supermarket in Bradford on Avon. A bought mince pie wouldn’t suffice, of course. Those eyes like calculators would spot a Mr. Kipling at fifty paces. The pastry, at the very least, would have to look homemade.

Then Laura had her inspiration. She’d save herself the toil, tears, and sweat by recycling some of Gertrude’s own mince pies and simply making new lids for them. She picked a sharp knife and prised the lid off one. A neat dissection. The trick would be to spread a little jam over the mincemeat to seal the replacement.

She found all the ingredients she needed and switched on the oven.

When the phone on the wall rang she was up to her elbows in flour.

3

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