The three envelopes lay on the mat inside the front door. The postman, having sent them flying through the letter box with the insouciance of one who had no idea what would follow from his action, could be heard driving off, scattering gravel chips as he went. Betsy, the old black Labrador, was pushing the new arrivals around with her nose and sniffing at them suspiciously. As Alison walked slowly down the hall towards her, the dog looked up at her with questioning, anxious brown eyes and whined, giving an uncertain wag of her tail at the same time.
She knows, thought Alison. She senses something is wrong and it has to do with the post, although she can't know what it is. You can fool people but you can never fool a dog.
She dropped her hand to touch the old dog's head. 'It's all right, Betsy.'
Betsy wagged her tail more energetically, half reassured, and thrust her head against Alison's knee as she stooped over the envelopes. One was a long brown official type. Any problem that presented could be dealt with by Jeremy. The second looked as if it came from a credit card company. Any problem that held would be another ordinary, everyday one. The third was smaller, white and square, with a printed address to Mrs Alison Jenner. Alison's heart lurched and seemed to drop like a stone down into her stomach. Momentary dizziness overwhelmed her, her knees gave way, and she sank down to sit on the floor by Betsy, ankles crossed as if she were about to engage in a spot of yogic meditation. For amoment she just sat there, her eyes fixed on the envelope, until the dog pushed her wet nose into Alison's ear, following it with a tentative lick.
It brought her out of her haze but the biting pain of dismay was still there. The envelope was still there, too. It's another one, she thought. Please, no! But it was another one, another one, another one ...
For a second or two, the dismay turned to anger against the writer. 'How dare you do this to me?' she raged aloud in the silence of the empty hallway. Betsy cocked her head and her furry brow crinkled in concern. 'You have no right to do this!' Alison shouted, the words echoing around her.
The uselessness of her rage flooded over her. Nausea rose in her, filling her mouth with sour, acid bile which burned her throat and tasted foul. She forced it back and picked up all the envelopes. Scrambling to her feet and followed by the dog, she took them back to the dining room. Shouting out like that was worse than useless, it was dangerous. Mrs Whittle might hear her.
The room was cool and quite dark. The sun didn't reach this side of the house until the afternoon. The polished oak refectory table had been cleared of the breakfast things. They didn't eat much in the way of breakfast these days, she and Jeremy, just toast and a pot of coffee. The table was one of Jeremy's antiques, acquired long ago, before Alison had even met him. Its dark surface with ancient scratches and dents had probably witnessed more than one crisis. It was quite frightening, Alison thought, how inanimate objects could survive so much and human beings just crumble. She tossed the two oblong envelopes on to the table and turned the small square one in her fingers. At least Jeremy wasn't at home. He'd taken the car and gone into Bamford on some errand. He didn't know about the letters and he must never know. He'd want to do something and whatever he did, it would make it worse. She tore the envelope open and took out the single folded printed sheet it contained. The hate-filled words had a horrible familiarity by now. They seldom varied by more than aphrase or two. Though few in number, the pain and terror they caused were immeasurable.
YOU KILLED HER. YOU KILLED FREDA KEMP. YOU THINK YOU GOT AWAY WITH IT BUT I KNOW. SOON EVERYONE WILL KNOW. YOU WILL GET WHAT'S COMING TO YOU. BLOOD WILL HAVE JUSTICE.
'Why are you doing this to me?' Alison whispered now. 'Do you hate me? If you do, why? What have I done to you? Who are you? Do I know you? Are you someone I think of as a friend, see regularly and share a joke with, sit down to dinner with? Or are you a stranger?'
Far, far better that the poisonous thing came from a stranger. The betrayal by a friend, the thought that someone she trusted could do this to her, would be so much worse that Alison felt she understood now why Judas' betrayal was especially dreadful. He had been the friend who had sat at table. Alison could imagine the particular pain his treachery must have caused. Was the writer of the letter just such a smiling acquaintance?
Another question buzzed about her brain. 'How do you know about this?' she asked the unknown writer. 'Nobody hereabouts knows. It all happened twenty-five years ago, miles away from here. Did someone tell you? Who was it and how did they know? Or did you read a report in a yellowing newspaper used to line a drawer? I was a twenty-three-year-old! I am, I was then, innocent. And now you are trying to make me pay for something I didn't do!'
She would destroy the letter as she'd destroyed the others. But another one would come and, next time, Jeremy might get to the post first. He wouldn't open it, of course, not if it was addressed to her personally. But he would probably ask her who it was from and she'd have to lie to him. She didn't want to lie to him. So far, to avoid the necessity, she had invented ingenious ways of getting to the post before he did. Because the deliveries seemed to come later and later these days, she spent half the mornings listeningfor the crunch of the postvan's tyres, the driver's cheerful whistling and the rattle of the letter box. Sometimes, on fine mornings, she used the pretext of taking Betsy for a walk to intercept him. She dragged the unwilling old dog up and down the lane until the little red van appeared and she could waylay it. But she couldn't do that every day without the postman becoming suspicious. He was young and she knew he already found her behaviour odd. She could read it in his bemused expression. He had probably told all his mates at the depot that the woman at Overvale House was potty. But better tales should spread of her eccentricity than that he should realize she really dreaded the arrival of the post because of something in it. He was young enough to be curious. That might lead to the existence of the letters becoming known. But for how long would this go on? Would the writer eventually tire of his cat-and-mouse game? What would he do then? Just stop writing or make his information public as he threatened?
The nausea returned. Alison dropped the letter on the table where its pristine whiteness showed up startlingly against the blackened oak. She dashed to the downstairs cloakroom where she threw up into the lavatory bowl, retching violently until her diaphragm muscles ached. She burned with heat and sweat trickled over her entire body. To remedy it, she splashed cold water on to her face and mopped it dry. She peered into the little mirror and decided that, though still blotchy, she looked fairly normal, enough for Jeremy, anyway.
Jeremy! She had left the letter on the table and her husband would be home soon. Alison ran back to the dining room.
She was too late. With her head stuck down the loo, she hadn't heard his return. Jeremy was standing by the table holding the small white sheet. He held it up as she entered.
'How bloody long has this been going on?'
It was Thursday, Maundy Thursday to be exact. After lunch, Meredith Mitchell would clear her Foreign Office desk and take off for the Easter break, not returning until Tuesday. Theknowledge made her light-hearted. The weather had been good all week and, with luck, would stay good over the short holiday. There would be time to relax with Alan, time to discuss the house they were buying and all that needed doing to fix it up. The pressure of work would be gone and they both needed the break. At the other end of the room, Polly, with whom she shared a spacious office, was packing away already. Meredith stretched out her hand to her in-tray where a ray of sunlight from the tall window fell across a single slim file. Get this one out of the way and she, too, could be off, free.
The ray of sunlight was abruptly cut off. Someone was standing in front of her desk. She looked up.
'Toby!' she exclaimed. 'Where on earth did you spring from?'
'Beijing,' said Toby Smythe. 'I've just finished a tour of duty there. Now I'm home for a spot of leave before they find me a new posting. At least,' his expression grew troubled, 'I hope they do find me a new posting. I've been telling them that this morning. I don't want to be stuck at a London desk for ages, like you.'
That wasn't very polite but it was true. She had been stuck at this desk for quite a while now. Ever since her return, a few years ago, from what had then been the Federal Republic ofYugoslavia, in fact. She had been consul there. But now she was just a desk in this room. The Yugoslavia she'd known had fallen apart and it seemed to her that her career had stalled about the same time in an empathetic parallel. Despite repeated requests, no long-term new overseas post had been offered her, only slots of a few weeks at a time, filling in for someone sick or to lend an extra pair of hands in an emergency. At first she had minded, minded very much, knowing that there was a reason for her being grounded like this that she would never know. Somewhere she had crossed someone, or gained a reputation perhaps for a maverick style which made senior heads uneasy. But now things had changed. She no longer felt the need to 'flee the country' as Alan Markby always described her desire to work abroad. Alan had never wanted her to go. She smiled to herself and then up at Toby.
'I don't mind being in London,' she said. 'I'm getting married in the summer.'
Toby started back in theatrical manner, both hands upraised, palms outwards. 'You're not getting married to that copper you've been hanging out with for years?'
'His name is Alan,' Meredith said crossly. 'As you very well know! Nor have I been "hanging out" with him.'
At the other end of the room, Polly was laughing at them. Meredith felt her brief anger evaporate. It was no use getting ruffled over anything Toby said or did. Toby was just Toby and this was the beginning of the Easter break, for goodness' sake.
'There's no hope for me, then?' he was asking. He gave a melodramatic sigh. Polly giggled.
'There never was any hope for you,' Meredith told him. 'But I am pleased to see you.'
'I couldn't come here and not look you up.' Toby put his hands on the desk and leaned over it towards her. 'I was wondering, if you're not dashing straight back to the arms of Mr Plod, if I could take you out to lunch?'
'Not if you're going to call him Mr Plod!'
'Sorry. Come on, come and have lunch. I promise I won't call him anything even slightly disrespectful. We can catch up on the news, talk over old times and--'Toby hesitated briefly. 'I'm rather glad you're still together, you and Markby, because I've got a bit of a problem. That is, I haven't, but a friend of mine has. Markby might be able to give some advice.'
She shook her head. 'If your friend has a problem which might involve the law, perhaps he ought to consult a solicitor? Alan isn't an agony aunt. If it's really a police matter, then the procedure's simple. Your friend should go to the nearest police station and ask to speak to someone. Alan can't interfere outside his own area, anyway. If it were a serious criminal investigation which took him outside his own boundaries he would make arrangements with whichever other police force was involved. But he isn't going to do that for your chum's little problem! You know that, Toby.'
'Ah,' said Toby cunningly. 'But all this is taking place in Markby's neck of the woods. That's why he's the ideal chap.'
Meredith sighed. Toby wasn't Alan's favourite person at the best of times. She felt instinctively that an appeal to help Toby would fall on deaf ears. But Toby was standing there looking at her so hopefully, and he was an old friend. One stuck by old friends. She studied him. Tidiness had always eluded him. His suit was so crumpled it looked as if he'd spent the flight home in it. But Toby wasn't the sort of person who travelled in a suit. It had probably been crushed in his suitcase. The top button of his shirt was undone and the knot of his tie nestled some two inches below it. Suddenly Meredith realized that she was truly very pleased to see him.
'Of course I'll come to lunch with you,' she said.
Toby, perhaps mentally still in Beijing, took her to a restaurant in Chinatown. It was busy, packed out, the waiters rushing to and fro. The activity and buzz of conversation meant it was easy to talk in confidence.
'Seriously,' said Toby when they'd ordered. 'Congratulations and all that on your forthcoming nuptials. But what changed your mind? I know he's been keen on getting married but I got the impression you weren't.'
'I didn't change my mind. I was just a bit slow making it up.'
Very slow. The idea of marriage, settling down, had previously sent her into a spin. But oddly enough, once it was all decided upon, her misgivings had vanished.
'The big event is to be in the summer, you say?' Toby was saying. 'I'd like to dance at your wedding, of course, but with luck they'll have found me a new posting by then. No, sorry, that doesn't sound right. You know what I mean. If I'm anywhere in Europe I could get back home for it, if I'm invited.'
'You're invited. We've picked a summer date because the house won't be ready until then. We're buying the vicarage in Bamford. The Church authorities have long wanted to sell it and Alan'salways yearned to own it, its garden especially. But it's in an awful state. It needs a new kitchen, new bathroom, rewiring and redecorating top to bottom. There will be other things, too, once we start work. There always are.'
'What will they do with the vicar?'
'James is being moved into a brick box on a new estate. The Church imagines he'll be among his parishioners there. Some hopes. James says he doesn't mind. His housekeeper has retired. She's incredibly ancient, no one knows how old. Mrs Harman's age is like a state secret. But she's hung up her pinny at last and James is having to "do" for himself. He'll manage much better in a new house with a fitted kitchen and a postage-stamp-sized garden, so everyone's happy. Only, I refuse to camp out in a house that's completely topsy-turvy with workmen tramping up and down the stairs. I'm still living in my terraced cottage in Bamford and Alan's still got his house. Both houses are on the market. If one of us sells, that one will move in with the other one. If we both sell, well, I suppose we shall have to camp out among the paint pots.'
'I've still got my flat in Camden,'Toby said, as their food was plonked down in front of them by a harassed waiter who sped away. 'It's apparently worth an obscene amount of money now. I can hardly believe it.'
Meredith manoeuvred her chopsticks round a prawn and dipped it into the sweet and sour sauce.
Toby took a bite of crispy duck. 'Everyone's got their problems, which brings me to mine, to my friend's.'
'Look, Toby,' Meredith said firmly. 'If it's really your problem, stop pretending it's a friend's. It's daft and I won't let you tell me anything unless you are absolutely frank. That's the first thing. The second is that I don't promise to ask Alan about it. All I can do is give you my own opinion, for what it's worth.'
'Fair enough,' agreed Toby. 'It isn't my problem, honestly. The person whose problem it is, well, he's a relative - Jeremy Jenner. He's a cousin of my father's. When I was a kid I used to call himUncle Jeremy. Now I just call him Jeremy. He made a pile working for the multinationals and retired to a country estate near Bamford to live on his ill-gotten gains.'
'Are they ill-gotten?'
He shook his head. 'No, absolutely legit. Unless you happen to be one of the anti-globalization bunch. Then you'd probably think him a public enemy. But Jeremy is as straight as a die. He's married to a really nice woman called Alison. She's a bit younger than he is. She's in her forties. He's sixty-something. He doesn't look it.'
'I see. What's his problem, then? He's seems pretty well fixed.'
'It isn't really his, it's Alison's.'
Meredith groaned. 'Another degree removed!'
'I rang him up,'went on Toby. 'As soon as I got back to England. I wanted to touch base and, to be honest, I wanted to wangle an invitation down there for the weekend, this Easter weekend, as it happens. He has invited me. But I also had to listen for twenty minutes while he bent my ear about Alison's problem.'
'Is it going to take you that long to tell me about it?' demanded Meredith.
'No, hang on. I'll make it brief. The old chap was obviously distressed, I could tell, and pretty angry as well. It seems poor Alison has been getting poison pen letters, and he'd only just found out.'
'He should take them to the local police,' said Meredith promptly.
'They've only got the one example because she burned the others. He had taken it to the local copshop that very morning and he wasn't at all happy at their reaction. That was why he was so upset when I spoke to him. He said they were uncivil, incompetent and short.'
'Short?' asked Meredith, wondering if she'd heard him right amid all the surrounding din. 'Short meaning brusque? Or short meaning lacking height?'
'Short as in not tall. Jeremy reckons they must have loweredthe height requirement for coppers. According to him, the ones at Bamford were practically midgets. Unimpressive, he called them.'
'I don't think I'm going to let your cousin Jeremy anywhere near Alan!' said Meredith. 'If he said that to Alan, Alan would hit the roof.'
'I admit,' said Toby, 'old Jeremy can be rather outspoken. I think it's all those years as a captain of industry. He's used to giving orders and seeing minions scurry to obey his every command. He probably harangued the cops until they politely told him to naff off.'
'I am not letting him near Alan!' said Meredith firmly.
'Wait! He wouldn't be like that with Markby because Markby is the right sort.'
'Right sort?' A prawn fell from Meredith's chopsticks back into the sauce. 'What on earth is the right sort?'
'He's high-ranking, a superintendent, isn't he? Jeremy is used to dealing with the top men. Markby went to public school, he's polite to ladies and wears polished shoes. He's even, as I recall, quite tall. Tall enough to satisfy Jeremy's idea of a copper. They'd get on like a house on fire.'
'I doubt it! Your cousin Jeremy sounds a real snob.'
'He isn't, not really, just conditioned by all those years in the boardroom. He's a bit stuffy, that's all. Alison, bless her, hasn't a snobbish bone in her body. She's a sweetie. You'd like her.'
'I might like her. I don't think I'd like your cousin Jeremy. Incidentally, I'm probably tall enough for his idea of a police recruit!'
'Don't take against him,' pleaded Toby. 'He's really a decent guy, but right now he's in a terrible state over this letter business. He needs help. Believe me, he isn't the sort who seeks help unless the situation is desperate. He adores Alison. He must be ready to kill whoever is writing the letters. He's got a slight heart condition. It can't be good for him.'
Meredith gazed at Toby's face, puckered in worry lines. He scratched his mop of light brown hair and gazed back at her.Well, thought Meredith, what are friends for? Toby seems genuinely to care about this awful cousin. The least I can do is try and help.
'Did the police,' she began, 'say if anyone else in the district had received a similar letter? Because, as far as I know anything about it, the writer is often someone with a grudge against the community. He or she sits down and pens these wretched things to any and all. It'll probably turn out to be someone no one suspects.'
He shook his head. 'No, only Alison's been getting letters. Or rather, no others have been reported to the police. We and the police think it's probably only her because they aren't the usual run of poison pen stuff. There's no foul language or accusations of unnatural sex, any of the stuff twisted minds usually come up with. The letters refer to a specific event in Alison's past, something that really happened. That's why she's so upset and Jeremy, too. Just think, this weirdo has got hold of some very personal and, up until now, private information about her. No wonder she's sensitive about it.'
'That is more worrying,' said Meredith soberly. She wondered if Toby was going to tell her what the specific event was, or if she was going to have to ask outright. The problem with family secrets was that people were reluctant to disclose them even when forced to seek help. Jeremy, Alison and Toby would have to learn that they needed to open up. She tried the roundabout approach. 'He, the writer, isn't asking for money, is he?'
'No, not yet, anyway. It's just an accusation, repeated over and over again, and a threat to make it all public.'
'Where is the letter now?'
'The local cops have it. They're trying to see if they can get a sweaty fingerprint off it or something. Alison's going crazy at the idea of all those coppers reading it. It's not something she wants anyone to know about. Jeremy knows, because she told him when they married. I know because he told me all about it on the phone. But no one else around there does, unless the writer carriesout his threat to tell everyone. If it is a man, which we don't know. I fancy it's a woman myself. It seems like a woman's thing.'
'Poison is a woman's weapon, whether it's in a bottle or written on paper, you mean? Plenty of men have written letters of that sort.'
'All right. We'll call the writer "he" for the purpose of discussion. Look, Alison's panicking. She says they'd have to sell the house and leave, if the facts in the letter got out. They're a funny lot in the country. They take an unhealthy interest in one another's affairs and rumours run like wildfire.'
'Not more than in the city,' Meredith defended rural life.
'Don't you believe it. The green-welly brigade are sticklers for form, and can be merciless if they think you don't fit in. There's so little going on in the country that your social life is everything. Being cut from everyone's guest list really matters. In town you can make new friends, there's a bigger pool, if you like. In the country you're down to your neighbours. If the contents of the letter get out, they'll freeze out Alison and old Jeremy too. In the city there's far too much going on for anyone to worry what his neighbour is doing, or care.'
'Conan Doyle,' Meredith objected, not willing to give in to this argument, 'wrote that it was the other way round, or at least he has Holmes say so in one of the stories. Holmes tells Watson that nobody knows what goes on in the country because people are so isolated.'
Toby considered this point. 'Either way, all that rural peace and quiet isn't good for you. It makes people strange and who knows what they get up to?'
'You're saying, one of them found out Alison's secret and is writing to let her know? But how did he find it out? Because if we know how, we might well know who.' Meredith frowned. 'Why torment Alison with threats? If, as you say, the knowledge would result in social exclusion, why not just tell everyone, if the writer's aim is to do her harm? Instead, he just writes about it. What's his purpose?'
'That's a question none of us can answer. Alison wouldn't hurt a fly. She hasn't got any enemies.'
'She's got at least one,' Meredith pointed out, 'unless the letters are just a sick joke. Did she keep the envelope? If the writer licked it, there might be a DNA trace.'
'You see? You know all about that kind of thing. I knew you were the one to ask.'Toby's manner was that of a man who had successfully passed on a burden to another's shoulders.
I'm a sucker, thought Meredith. Why did I let him drop this in my lap? 'One more thing,' she said. 'And it's important. Before I'm convinced this matters enough to bother Alan with it, I need to know exactly what this episode in Alison's past is, because that's the cause of the trouble. I'm the soul of discretion. I won't blab it around. But what you're asking me to do is ask Alan to get on to whoever is handling this at the local station and make waves. Alan's got plenty on his plate without that. I need to know it really matters. Sorry, but Jeremy and Alison losing all their friends isn't enough. They must be fair-weather friends, by the way.'
Toby nodded. 'Yes, I realize you have to know. I warned Jeremy about that.'
'You told Jeremy you'd speak to me? Honestly, Toby--'
He cut short her spluttered indignation by plunging into his story, knowing full well, she told herself wryly, that her curiosity would outweigh her anger.
'Twenty-five years ago, Alison stood trial. She was found not guilty. That is, she wasn't guilty and the jury agreed.'
'So, why is it a problem now? Why should she worry if the neighbours know? I think country people are a lot more tolerant that you believe they are.' Meredith paused. Toby was avoiding her gaze. 'Toby? What did she stand trial for?'
'Murder,' said Toby simply.
THAT WAY MURDER LIES. Copyright © 2004 by Ann Granger. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.