Lady Ann Riddecoombe is a witty, intelligent woman in post–World War II England; she abhors her husband, Sir Arthur—and rightfully so. Sir Arthur is a rich, powerful blackmailer who deals in stolen art and armaments. Forced into her marriage, Lady Ann passes the time by unraveling the web of human behavior that surrounds her. She sees life as a skein of relationships, motives, and emotions with the power to connect or separate. Soon, Ann finds she must separate herself from Sir Arthur in order to save a naïve young woman by the name of Letty, along with her cat, Van Eyck. The two women, although very dissimilar, strike up a friendship and lean on each other for support. With the help of Allen Herrick—an agent of houses and the secret service—Ann finds a home of her own, away from Sir Arthur and his odious cruelty. Even so, Ann has not escaped entirely. When Sir Arthur is found murdered on the grounds of Ann’s new home, questions are raised. Who hated the man enough to kill? Could it be a victim of his blackmail? Could it be Arthur’s dull yet vengeful brother Percival? What does the town gossip have to do with murder? With the help of Herrick and friends in Scotland Yard, Ann must come to terms with her past and decide her future. Will she find the happiness she deserves, or will the web of lies lead to her undoing?
The station house seen from the outside seemed to be a place where Oakes could think. He needed to think. He needed to stare at one of the copies of Ann’s skein and try to fit his suspicions into it or find good hard factual reasons why they were the detritus of an overworked brain. Looks can be deceiving. Even, or especially, in police station houses. “Sir.” Oakes knew he was in trouble—or had trouble. At any rate, he was not a man who was going to be given time to think. “Yes, Sergeant. What is it this time?” “Well, there’s this lady, sir—” “And she is where?” “In your office, sir. I’m sorry, sir.” “You’re just doing your job, son.” Son. He’d just called someone else son. Damn it, he was not getting old! Tired, yes, tired as hell, but he just needed rest! The station house had just lied to him. That was all. He opened the door to the tiny room they had given him as an office. Hell, if they turned the room on its side and used one wall as the floor, there’d be more standing room. “Yes, madam? What can I do for you? Is it something to do with this particular case? Because if one of the others can help you, I’d be grateful.” The woman stood up from the chair there was just room for by his desk. She was poised and polite as always, but he could tell panic was breaking out of that shell. Oh god. “I am Miss Makepeace from—” “It’s Charles, isn’t it?” “Please start from where he was going when he went missing. And does Allen know about this yet?” “No.” “Good! Believe me, we’ll work as hard as we can to find him before Allen finds out he’s been missing. Now, please tell us all you know.” Charles had left a county meeting of real estate agents in Oakhill some thirty miles away at 10:00. Her voice, always crisp and controlled, had wavered and whispered with uncertainty. Uncertainty was alien to Miss Makepeace, and Oakes, comparing her with the last times he had seen her, was struck as much by her change of appearance as by her words. Her eyes, usually so direct, were wavering back and forth as if trying to find Charles in the corners of the room. She was close to panic. Oakes repeated her words over the phone, watching her closely as he did so. He saw her long fingers in their gray gloves twist and untwist, rubbing the fabric mercilessly, straining at the seams. Her curling red-gray hair seemed to writhe away from helpless hairpins, creating the wild halo of some ancient Irish saint. Miss Makepeace, consoled that all that could be done was being done, hurried back to Herrick, Makepeace, and Herrick in the hopeless hope that Charles had returned, but in reality to wait for a ransom note. Oakes chose as his sergeant a clear-eyed youngster, a new man who had lived in the area all his life and knew every lane and trail that a large gray Buick could possibly have taken. Underhill was a break of luck for which Oakes gave fervent thanks. Slowly they traced the route. Oakes was watching one side of the road when Sergeant Underhill spotted weeds bent and broken on a deserted trail to a deserted farm on the other side. Living grass bends back when driven over, especially early in the year. Last year’s weeds, taller than the new grass, were dried and brittle. They broke and stayed broken. Oakes and Underhill, with the other car behind them, drove up the silent track. At the end, they found the ruin of a decaying farmhouse and an equally decaying barn behind it. Behind that, driven into the brambles and heavily scratched by the stout thorns not yet protected by sprouting young leaves, was a large gray Buick “suitable for an established real estate firm.” The police cars stopped some distance away from the car to let Oakes himself investigate so as not to interfere with any possible clues and to let Oakes find the body, if any. There was no body. There was no blood. There was not even a sign of violence. “Could he have gone willingly?” This from a young sergeant. “Leaving those scratches on his impressive new Buick? Doubtful,” Underhill replied from his deep understanding of the local lore and its inhabitants. “Very biddable was Mr. Charles, sir. Charming Charlie they called him at the Blue Boar. When it came to business, numbers and that, Miss Makepeace always had to be there. He’d have gone willingly just so they wouldn’t put those scratches on his new car, would Charming Charlie.” Oakes felt he had just found the replacement for Constable Stites. Or rather more than a replacement for a constable. Why it hadn’t happened years before was a mystery. Ann could have told him. Flask and Dabs did their work, and the car was towed back to the station. On the way back to High Yews, Oakes turned to Underhill. “How do you read the case, Sergeant? I’d appreciate your views.” Every sergeant hopes to hear those words from his superior. Underhill was more than pleased to tell Oakes all he knew of the place and the people both. “Mr. Herrick? I mean Allen Herrick? How is he, sir?” Real concern showed in the young man’s voice. “Begging your pardon, sir, but he’s one of the good ones—the special ones, you know? He came back from the war so weary! So, like, scared inside himself. As if it wasn’t over even yet, not for him. Now with him missing! I know the word is not to worry about him, sir, but, well, damn it, sir.” Oakes continued to be struck by this young man’s concern and his perceptiveness. Oh yes! Promotion for sure. What were his superiors thinking? Where was the major in all this? Inquiries would be made. “Finally, now, Sergeant, the one you’ve been avoiding. Mrs. Dray.” “Sir! Begging your pardon, she’s none of us for all she’s lived here forever. She’s bad, sir, truly bad! I mean, it’s like we don’t even like to say her name, the way the oldens won’t say, well, certain words, like the little folk or that. Superstition, sure, but still. Her and that Miss Tilly!” Oakes nodded for him to go on. Underhill was holding his breath. “Well, those two, they’re both as mean as wildcats. Tilly, she don’t amount to much. They think they can spread their mucky thoughts and nasty hints so secret, like, but we all know. Oh yes!” Underhill would have stopped there, given the chance. He was not given the chance. “Go on!” Oh yes, young man, just keep going! Oakes was willing him to keep on talking. There was more he wanted out of this young man once he’d gotten him started. Underhill, however, seemed to shy away. “Miss Tilly, now, Mrs. Dray has Miss Tilly like hypnotized as if she had some power over her.” Superintendent Oakes wanted to mention blackmail as that kind of power, but he didn’t want to break into the young man’s train of thought. Underhill stopped there and stopped short. He was too close to his childhood fears. Oakes was happily convinced that he was not far short of the truth as well. Now came the topic that had Oakes holding his breath. “Were there any others around, young children, for instance, who seemed to be interested in Mrs. Dray?” Here it came—or didn’t come. “Well . . . There were two little boys, like twins they were, but just cousins, I reckon.” “Go on. Don’t stop there!” “Well, they were a little on the nasty side too, you know? Seeing as they were gentry, no one paid them much mind, not enough to stop them. Being as they were gentry, you know.” “Oh yes. I’ll wager everyone said ‘Boys will be boys.’ Am I right?” “Right, sir. You understand.” “And these boys had names?” “That was the funny part of it.” “Go on, son! Don’t just stop there!” Damned if Oakes was going to lead the young man, but this was taking all his control. “Yes, sir. One was Percival, and the other was Percival as well. So they called the little one, the younger, they called him Percival Two.” Percival Two! Some prayers were answered. With patience, some prayers were answered.
Elizabeth Schaeffer has written in several different formats, from professional papers on medieval art to newspaper columns on wildflowers. Her master’s thesis was accepted into the Medieval Arts Collection of the J. P. Morgan Library, and she is the author of the previously published book Dandelion, Pokeweed, and Goosefoot. She currently lives in New Hampshire.