“Yip?” said Teazle hopefully.
“You’re not supposed to beg at table,” Eleanor reminded her.
The Westie’s ears flattened and she subsided to the floor, but her nose and her short white tail continued to quiver.
“Oh, all right.” Leaving the last bite of chipolata sausage on the side of her plate, Eleanor finished the salad.
As she put her plate and coffee mug in the kitchen sink, just a step away, she glanced out of the open window. Though the schools’ autumn term was well under way, plenty of tourists unencumbered by children still came to Cornwall. After yesterday’s drizzle, today they were being rewarded with a day as bright and warm as summer. Even the usual cool sea breeze had stilled.
On the other side of the narrow street, a couple were coming out of the bakery, which stayed open at lunchtime till the end of September. The man carried a brown paper bag with twisted corners. He opened it and sniffed, whereupon the woman took it from him and firmly rolled the top. Hot pasties, Eleanor guessed. The couple turned down the hill, no doubt making for one of the benches overlooking the harbour.
“Wuff,” Teazle reminded her.
She transferred the piece of sausage to the dog bowl. As she straightened after putting the bowl on the floor, the phone rang. A few steps took her across the sitting room to her desk by the window at the back of the cottage. She picked up the receiver and gave her number.
“Aunt Nell, it’s Megan. It’s such a gorgeous day, if you’re taking Teazle for a walk, I’d like to join you. I didn’t get to bed till three—we just wrapped up a big burglary case—and if I don’t get out, I’ll doze all afternoon and not sleep tonight.”
“Of course, dear. Shall I drive over to Launceston and pick you up?”
“No, that’s all right. You won’t believe this, but the DI has not only given me the afternoon off, he’s said I can take a CaRaDoC car—plain, not a panda—in case he has to call me back unexpectedly.”
“Mr. Scumble?” Eleanor, though in general inclined to believe the best of people, had clashed more than once with the detective inspector and mistrusted his apparent benevolence. “Are you sure you didn’t misunderstand him?”
“I’m sure. He said I looked peaky.”
“That sounds more like him, managing to combine an insult with a favour. Are you not feeling well, dear?”
“I’m fine, just a bit tired. We’ve been working long hours for a couple of weeks. I’ll be over in about an hour, if that’s all right.”
“Why don’t you meet us at Rocky Valley? Nick wants to do some sketching and photographing there, and I promised to take him this afternoon. It’s a lovely place to walk.”
“Nick Gresham? I don’t know if I—”
“Don’t be silly, Megan. It’s months since he was arrested and he doesn’t hold it against you. He’s my next-door neighbour, you can’t avoid him forever.”
“I’ve managed pretty well so far! It’s very embarrassing when you’ve had to question someone about his … personal life. Oh, all right, I’ll be there. It’s between Tintagel and Boscastle, isn’t it?”
“Yes, dear. There’s a lay-by on the east side of the coast road. Or it might be the south side at that point, come to think of it. Never mind—It’s just on a sharp bend, and there’s a footpath sign on the sea side. We’ll see you in an hour or so.”
Eleanor was glad Megan had agreed to come but disappointed by her reluctance. She was very fond of Nick and her niece. They were both about thirty, the perfect age for settling down, and both free of romantic entanglements. What could be more natural than that they should become fond of each other? Unfortunately, the artist and the detective sergeant rarely saw eye to eye. Eleanor sighed.
Teazle, having heard the magic word “walk,” was waiting impatiently by the door. Now she cocked her head, whining. Eleanor heard footsteps running up the stairs, followed by a knock.
“Come in,” she called.
The door opened. “Ouch!” said Nick as Teazle’s back paws danced on her bare, sandalled feet. “Down, girl.” She rolled over on her back and he crouched to pet her tummy, his long brown ponytail flopping over his shoulder. The sleeves of his blue shirt were rolled up above the elbow. The shirt was spotless, but a splotch of turquoise paint on his arm had eluded him. “Ready to go, Eleanor? Shall I go and get the Incorruptible?”
“Yes, dear, would you?” Eleanor’s pea-green Morris Minor (named after Robespierre, the “sea-green Incorruptible”) lived at the bottom of the hill, in a shed she rented on the only flat piece of ground in Port Mabyn. The one and only street was too narrow for parking. “The keys are on the hook—oh, no, they’re not. In my handbag? No, they must be in a pocket. What was I wearing last time I took the car out?”
Nick grinned. “I don’t know, but it hasn’t been this warm and dry for a couple of weeks, so try your coat pockets.”
“Aren’t you taking a mac? The sun may be shining now, but it is September, after all, and you never can tell.”
“My anorak’s in my satchel.”
“Here are the keys. But there’s no hurry. Megan’s going to meet us there in about an hour.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Detective Sergeant Pencarrow intends to grace us with her presence? I was under the impression that I’m out of favour. You did tell her I’ll be there, didn’t you, Eleanor?”
“Of course. It’s not that she dislikes you, Nick.”
“She just disapproves.” He laughed. “Well, I like your niece, but not enough to be shorn like a copper. As for keeping my clothes and my person paint-free, it’s just not possible. If it’s all right with you, I’d like to get going. I want to reach the inlet while the sun’s still high. You could let me out and go begging in Bossiney or Boscastle till it’s time to meet Megan.”
“Requesting donations for LonStar is not begging,” Eleanor said severely. The London Committee to Save the Starving had employed her for decades as a roving ambassador, travelling all over the world. After retiring to Cornwall, she had dedicated her ground floor to a charity shop and now spent much of her time travelling the countryside, picking up donated goods to sell. “As a matter of fact, I did miss a couple of farms last time I was up that way. I’ll change my shoes while you fetch the car.”
Nick departed, his long legs making short work of the stairs.
The Incorruptible’s aged engine did not make short work of the hill out of Port Mabyn. It groaned upward, past the newsagent’s and Chin’s Chinese, the Trelawny Arms and the minisupermarket, then between hedge-banks bright with ragwort and garlanded with red and orange bryony berries and the white fluff of old-man’s beard. This stretch of coast was all cliffs, two or three hundred feet high. The lanes wound about some distance inland, so that for the most part the sea was invisible.
Directed by Eleanor, who knew the maze of lanes like the back of her hand, Nick left the B road and drove through tiny hamlets, Bothiwick, Trewarmett, then cut across country to avoid Tintagel, where the street was often a tourist traffic jam. At one point, a stretch of higher, open land allowed occasional glimpses of a dark blue line of sea meeting the pale blue of the sky on the far horizon.
Beyond the small village of Bossiney, the road wiggled through a patch of woodland. The dark green footpath sign was easy to miss, but Nick spotted it. They pulled over and he got out. Teazle was about to jump out after him, but as she scrabbled over the gear lever from the backseat, Eleanor grabbed the end of the lead. Not that there was much traffic, but cars tended to come much too fast round the blind corner.
“She can come with me,” Nick offered. “There’s not much mischief she can get into, and you won’t be long, will you?”
Eleanor checked her watch. “About half an hour. All right. You behave yourself, Teazle.” She handed over the lead to Nick and told him, “Don’t let her off till you’re away from the road.” She went round to the driver’s seat and drove on.
The first farm she called at offered a couple of old wooden cart wheels with iron rims. The farmer’s wife said her husband had found them at the back of the hayloft in the barn. She couldn’t imagine why or when someone had lugged them up there. “I’ve seen such set up roundabout furriners’ houses,” she said, “so I thought you might be able to sell ’em. They’re no earthly use to us.”
“Lovely,” said Eleanor. “People like to make garden fences with them. We get a good price once they’re cleaned up and polished.” Jocelyn, the vicar’s wife who ran the shop, could be counted on to turn the battered, grimy wheels into decorative “antiques.”
They wouldn’t fit in the boot. The farmer had to be called to manoeuvre them into the backseat. As she hurried—insofar as the car was capable of hurrying—back towards Rocky Valley, Eleanor pictured Teazle sitting in among the spokes on the way home and she laughed.
She parked in the lay-by opposite the footpath, no more than a gravelled widening of the road. A moment later, a dark grey plainclothes police Mini stopped nose to nose with the Incorruptible.
“Nick decided not to come?” Did Megan sound disappointed?
“I dropped him off a little earlier, with Teazle. He wanted to catch the light. Or was it the tide? One or t’other, or perhaps both. Let’s go and find them.” Preparing to cross the road, Eleanor looked both ways.
“Aunt Nell, you haven’t locked the car. You haven’t even closed the windows!” Megan took the keys from her hand.
“At least I didn’t leave them in the ignition. But can you honestly imagine anyone going to the trouble of stealing the Incorruptible, dear? And the only things in it are a couple of dirty old wooden wheels.”
“Are those for the shop? If they’re worth something to LonStar, they’re worth something to a thief.”
“Only if an inquisitive and dishonest antique dealer happened to pass. They’re not worth the trouble anyway. If you’d seen the struggle the farmer had getting them in … I just hope we can get them out again.”
By then, Megan had rolled up the windows, locked the doors, and returned the keys. They crossed to the drive leading down to the house that had been the old Trevillet watermill, built of irregular slabs of local slate mortared together.
On their right, amid trees and bushes still summer green, the Trevillet River rushed and tumbled over a series of low waterfalls, flinging droplets that sparkled in the sun. Then, clear as glass, it rippled down its stony bed, each pebble visible, from pale grey and yellowish through every shade of brown. A narrow, rickety wooden footbridge took them over the stream, almost hidden here in the lush growth of water-loving plants. Heedless of protruding tree roots, the rough path plunged into the cool dimness of greenery, winding along the chuckling brook. They came to the roofless ruins of Trethevy Mill.
The moss-draped walls were succumbing to the slow, inexorable assault of small trees, whose branches intruded brazenly through the empty rectangles of windows. In an odd sort of parody of spring blossom, ribbons bedecked the lower branches, pink, blue, red, white, purple, orange.
“What on earth…?” exclaimed Megan.
At the sound of her voice, a small white ball of fur erupted from the interior. Teazle greeted Eleanor with delight and Megan with rapture, as she hadn’t seen her for a couple of weeks.
Nick’s tall, lean figure followed the dog, stooping beneath the low lintel of a still-standing doorway. He had his camera and Teazle’s lead looped around his neck. “I thought I heard footsteps. Hello, Megan. How are the arrest statistics?”
“Fine.” Megan’s cheeks were tinged with pink, possibly from stooping to pet Teazle. “How’s the artistic licence? Is this lot your doing?” She waved at the multitude of ribbons.
“Good Lord, no! Though I confess to having wondered whether to paint it. I decided it’s really not my cup of tea.”
“What on earth is it all in aid of?”
“I gather it’s some sort of neopagan business. They find an esoteric significance in the labyrinth patterns in here.” He led the way inside and gestured at a smoothed rock face, which appeared to have formed one wall of the mill. On it was inscribed a primitive mazelike pattern. “The experts say it was probably carved a couple of hundred years ago, not in the time of the Druids, as the nuts like to believe.”
Megan was equally sceptical. “Surely it would have worn away, anyway. It’s exposed to the elements—the lichen and that green stuff are evidence that the rock is usually damp. It would cover the designs if someone hadn’t cleared them. Probably eat into them, too.”
Nick grinned. “The detective at work. Some interesting mosses there, and that’s navelwort or pennywort growing straight out of the rock.”
“You dabble in botany as well?”
“I like to know what I’m painting. I’ve been photographing and sketching them, and the old mill wheel in the next room. Picturesque ruins always sell well. But I’m finished here and time’s passing. Let’s move on.”
Bringing up the rear, Eleanor glanced into the room with the mill wheel. It lay flat on the ground, half buried under luxuriant stinging nettles and ferns. She found the sight rather depressing—something about the futility of human endeavour. A man had shaped that stone by the sweat of his brow. Others had carted it down from the moors, set it up, built a millhouse over the stream, run the mill to produce … what? She had no idea what the mill’s purpose had been. It had provided a living for who knew how many people, then its day had passed and now it was nothing but a tumbledown ruin, half-roofed with scarlet-berried honeysuckle.
Sighing, Eleanor followed the others.
They crossed another wooden bridge. The path now ran sometimes along the bank of the stream, sometimes rising high above it as it delved into narrow, invisible chasms between sheer walls of bare rock. Rocky outcrops broke through the grassy hillsides, bare of trees, where little else but bracken, gorse, and blackthorn thickets braved the thin soil.
In places the horizontal strata of slate were weathered so as to look like artificial walls. Down by the water, flat platforms and shelves invited sitting.
Nick stopped to snap a few photos, so Eleanor and Megan accepted the invitation. The rock felt deliciously warm. Megan closed her eyes and turned her face up to the sun. Teazle went paddling in a limpid pool where the stream bubbled down a series of steps. To her surprise and alarm, Nick joined her—involuntarily, in an attempt to leap to a good viewpoint.
“Damn! Lucky I’m wearing sandals.”
Teazle scrambled out and shook herself vigorously.
“Damn!” Megan echoed, jumping up as dark patches of damp appeared on her Indian cotton wrap-around skirt and pale green sleeveless blouse. “Clumsy idiot,” she muttered under her breath, casting an unfriendly glance at Nick. “And how can one small dog absorb so much water?”
“You’ll dry off in no time.” Eleanor, out of range of the shower, was unsympathetic. “And the water is about as clean as water can be. Nick, are you watching the time? You said something about the sun.”
Nick glanced up at the sky. “Yes, it’ll be at just the right angle. I need to get there before it dips below the headland. Let’s go.”
The stony path climbed the hillside. Here and there bedrock protruded, making natural steps, awkward however because of their odd sizes and shapes. Twice Eleanor stumbled and nearly fell, but her Aikido training helped her regain her balance.
Ahead, the valley widened, and soon the inlet came into view. The air was so still that there were no whitecaps, just an edging of creamy froth along the base of the cliff. The dark green swells rolled in with soothing regularity.
“The Isle of the Dead,” said Nick.
“What?” exclaimed Megan, startled.
“Rachmaninoff. The opening describes the sea’s present motion perfectly, restless yet monotonous. But he was writing music about a painting, so I don’t see quite how I can reverse the process…” He was momentarily silent, occupied with an inner vision. “Damn! I was hoping for waves crashing against the sheer headland over there in sheets of spray. I should have checked the tide. Or maybe it’s just that we haven’t had much wind recently. Oh well, it’ll have to do.”
They walked on until the path petered out into terraces and steps of slate. The abrupt edge was two or three feet above the smooth tops of the swells that surged onward to meet the stream in swirls of foam. Clumps of thrift, the flowerheads brown now, clung in crevices here and there. A grey-and-white herring gull launched itself into the air and joined its fellows circling overhead, their raucous screams cutting through the constant yet ever-changing sounds of moving water. High above floated a buzzard.
“Gorgeous,” said Megan.
“Good enough.” Nick fiddled with his camera’s settings, peered through, and fiddled some more.
Megan jumped down a slate step. Eleanor sat on it, the sun warm on her back.
“What’s that?” Nick lowered the camera and pointed.
Eleanor peered, wishing she had brought binoculars. Something dark bobbed in the water. “A seal?”
“No.” Megan’s voice rang harsh. “It’s a man. And if he’s not already dead, he soon will be.”
Copyright © 2012 by Carola Dunn