Read Thieves! Online

Authors: Dennison, Hannah


Table of ContentsTitle PageCopyright PageDedicationAcknowledgements Chapter 1Chapter 2Chapter 3Chapter 4Chapter 5Chapter 6Chapter 7Chapter 8Chapter 9Chapter 10Chapter 11Chapter 12Chapter 13Chapter 14Chapter 15Chapter 16Chapter 17Chapter 18Chapter 19Chapter 20Chapter 21Chapter 22Chapter 23Chapter 24Chapter 25Chapter 26Chapter 27Chapter 28Chapter 29Chapter 30Chapter 31Chapter 32Chapter 33Chapter 34Chapter 35Chapter 36Chapter 37Chapter 38Chapter 39Chapter 40Chapter 41Chapter 42Chapter 43Chapter 44 PRAISE FORExposé!“Spend an afternoon with Vicky in Gipping-on-Plym—you’ll enjoy your visit and be back for more!”—Reader to Reader Reviews “Dennison provides plenty of laughs in this third installment in the series—and a tricky plot, too. Miss Marple might not recognize Gipping-on-Plym, but it’s guaranteed to make you smile.”—Richmond Times-Dispatch “Her heroine is charmingly gullible and gets herself into a lot of tight spots. The plot is very Agatha Christie-like and Vicky Hill is delightful and very amusing. Don’t miss this cozy English mystery—you’ll love it.”—Once Upon a Romance Reviews  Scoop! “Vicky’s story is a cozy mystery with a dash of Bridget Jones-type humor thrown in. Fans who enjoy a mystery yarn without the violence should check this one out.”—  A Vicky Hill Exclusive!“A dizzy romp with an endearingly gullible investigator and a plot twist on every page.”—Ann Purser, author of the Lois Meade Mysteries “Hannah Dennison rings up a laugh a page . . . a racy romp and hilarious debut.”—Carolyn Hart, author ofDare to Die“A smashing debut! Yes, Vicky is more Lucy Ricardo than Christiane Amanpour, but CNN’s loss is Gipping-on-Plym’s gain—and ours. Hannah Dennison writes a delightfully clever mystery with wit and warmth to spare. May the dead bodies abound.”—Harley Jane Kozak, award-winning author ofDead Ex “Vicky Hill is a delightful heroine who would be right at home in a Jane Austen novel. When author Hannah Dennison plunges her into an Agatha Christie-like plot, she gives readers the best of both worlds.”—Linda Palmer, author of the Daytime Mysteries “An intriguing journalist investigative mystery because the heroine has such a vivid imagination that is not always anchored in just the facts . . . Fans will enjoy Hannah Dennison’s front page whodunit.”—The Best ReviewsBerkley Prime Crime titles by Hannah DennisonA VICKY HILL EXCLUSIVE!SCOOP!EXPOSÉ!THIEVES!THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUPPublished by the Penguin GroupPenguin Group (USA) Inc.375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USAPenguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada(a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)Penguin Books Ltd., 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, EnglandPenguin Group Ireland, 25 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd.)Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia(a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty. Ltd.)Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi—110 017, IndiaPenguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0632, New Zealand(a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd.)Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty.) Ltd., 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196,South Africa Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content. THIEVES! A Berkley Prime Crime Book / published by arrangement with the author PRINTING HISTORYBerkley Prime Crime mass-market edition / January 2011 All rights reserved.No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions. For information, address: The Berkley Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014. eISBN : 978-1-101-47689-5 BERKLEY® PRIME CRIMEBerkley Prime Crime Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group,a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.BERKLEY® PRIME CRIME and the PRIME CRIME logo are trademarks of Penguin Group (USA)Inc.

For Brenda Dennison, the best mum in the worldACKNOWLEDGMENTSWriting can be a lonely labor of love, which is why treasured company, helpful guidance, selfless encouragement, and endless snacks fed by family and friends make each book a team effort.I’d like to continue to acknowledge my wonderful friend and mentor, Claire Carmichael.My IOU tally has gone beyond the purchase of a small island to an entire galaxy.Mark Davis, chairman of Davis Elen Advertising and my long-suffering boss, whose constant refrain is “thisisyour last book, isn’t it?” but who continues to give me paid days off to meet my deadlines.Linda Palmer, who finds time in her own busy writing and teaching life to boost my morale and provided the spark that inspired the plot in this, Vicky’s fourth adventure.Credit and a special thanks go to my daughter Sarah and her sister Emily for creating a new character for Gipping-on-Plym. May Phil Burrows live on.A huge thank-you to kindred spirits Carolyn Hart, Rhys Bowen, and Marcia Talley, who are all inspiration personified. Thanks to Gail Elen for her innovative spirit and creative PR strategies, and to Cam Galano’s friendship and endless generosity.Heartfelt thanks to Natalee Rosenstein, my wonderful editor at Berkley, along with Michelle Vega, a multitasking superwoman, and to my amazing agent, Betsy Amster. Thank you for everything you do.And last, but foremost in my heart, my husband, Jason, who had no idea what he was letting himself in for when he encouraged me to follow my dream. Jason—without you, none of this would be possible.1You can’t leavenow!” Barbara Meadows cried as I drifted nonchalantly toward her front door to make my escape.“It’s nearly one in the morning,” I protested.How many more hen parties can the human body take?“I’m really tired.”“You’ll miss all the excitement.” Barbara readjusted her glittering tiara—HERE COMES THE BRIDE—that had slipped rakishly over one ear. “You youngsters have no stamina.”It wasn’t that I begrudged our receptionist her newfound happiness at the grand age of sixty-plus. This was the third hen party of Barbara’s that I’d been to in the last two weeks, and I knew of at least three more in the works.“Olive bought the director’s cut ofThe Full Montyon eBay,” Barbara burbled on. “We’re in for a real treat.”That settled it. There are some things a young woman should never be subjected to—and full-frontal nudity in a room filled with members of the Graying Tigers Society was definitely one.I grabbed my safari jacket from the hall coat stand and pulled it on. “Sorry, I’ve got to be at St. Peter’s the Martyr Church at eight tomorrow.” It was only a tiny white lie. The service didn’t start until nine thirty.“Why bother? No one will go to Gladys Trenfold’s funeral,” Barbara said with scorn. “She was a horrid old bag.”“Maybe not,” I said. “But theGipping Gazettedoes have a reputation to keep up.”Obituaries were my area of expertise, and it was my responsibility to make sure that no funeral went unreported and no mourner was left out. “Unless you’d like to have a word with your fiancé and ask for an exception?”“Oh no, dear,” said Barbara quickly. “Wilf is a stickler for tradition.” She stretched out her left hand and gazed rapturously at the solitaire diamond ring on her finger. “I still can’t believe he proposed.”I couldn’t either! I was still grappling with the idea that after years of working together, Barbara was marrying our illustrious—and intimidating—editor, Wilf Veysey.It had all happened so suddenly—but at least it gave me hope. It was never too late to find love.Olive Larch emerged from the kitchen accompanied by the raunchy sounds of Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff” starting up for the fourth time. Perched atop her sleek gray bob was a pair of striped cat’s ears. She carried a silver tray of tumblers decorated with slices of fruit and was moving toward us at glacial speed.“Good grief, Olive,” said Barbara. “We’re all dying of thirst. What took you so long?” She turned to me and mouthed, “She’s alwayssoslow.”“Vicky, you’re not leaving, are you?” said Olive aghast. “You can’t!”“Sorry, I hate to go, but I really must.”“Well, you shouldn’t—” Olive started to titter nervously. “Tell her, Barbara.”
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“It wasn’t my idea,” Barbara declared.“Tell me what?”“Someone—and we won’t say who—added a teensy weensy bit of vodka to the fruit punch,” said Olive.“The punch wasspiked?” I was flabbergasted, particularly as I’d had five glasses. “I could lose my job!”Spearheaded by the odious Detective Inspector Stalk, Gipping Constabulary was in the midst of an aggressive campaign to clamp down on driving while intoxicated. What’s more, he was working closely with theGazette. Every week, names of Gipping citizens who had been stopped by the police and ordered to take a Breathalyzer test—often in broad daylight and without due cause—were listed in MOTORIST MENACE OF THE WEEK.“So you’ll stay?” said Barbara hopefully. “We’d love a youngster’s opinion.”Opinion onwhat? “I’ll take the back road via Mudge Lane,” I said firmly. “We haven’t had that much rain, so the ford won’t be deep.” As a shortcut linking Lower Gipping to Middle Gipping, access was through a shallow stream that could be unpredictable at times.“Don’t you meanSmoochLane?” Olive tittered again. It was a notorious place for romantic trysts. “Are you having a secret rendezvous?”“Not tonight.”Or any other night for that matter.Realizing that I meant business and after promising to attend Olive’s Butler-in-the-Buff buffet on Friday in Barbara’s honor, I said my good-byes and left.As the cool night air of summer hit me, I had to admit to feeling a little light-headed.I made it a rule to never drink alcohol and drive. The risk was too high. Besides, you wouldn’t catch my heroine Christiane Amanpour arriving at the front line tipsy in a taxi.I’d recently traded in my moped for an old but nippy blue Fiat Panda Sisley 4x4. It was hardly a flashy silver BMW like that of fellow reporter, roommate, and bane of my life, Annabel Lake—but it was mine, and not a gift for services rendered, like hers.The Fiat’s engine started the first time. Apart from a bit of rust on the doorsills and a juddering clutch, I was thrilled with my purchase for which I paid cash, naturally. As the daughter of a notorious silver thief—nicknamed The Fog—I never used bank accounts or credit cards in case they could be traced. Old habits die hard.Moments later, I headed for open countryside, leaving the sounds of Donna Summer and the comforting lights of The Marshes housing estate behind me. The night was black as pitch—rather like the sudden wave of depression that hit me hard.Barbara was getting married. Even coy Olive Larch was living in sin—a thought I didn’t want to dwell on too long given the man in question—and here was I, an ancient twenty-three years old with no boyfriend and no prospect of finding Mr. Right, either. Gipping-on-Plym was rather sparse on the bachelor front.I reached the entrance to Mudge Lane, marked by two triangular road-warning signs. They were both graphically clear. One showed a vehicle being submerged in water; the other, a cyclist being knocked over by a car. The first didn’t concern me because my Fiat had four-wheel drive, and the latter was highly unlikely given the hour of the night.Mudge Lane wasn’t one of my favorite shortcuts. The narrow, high hedge-banked road was twisty, steep, and impassable in winter.My mood darkened. What if the fordwasrunning high? My Fiat would be swept downriver and my bloated body—when it was finally discovered somewhere in the English Channel—impossible to identify. And who would notice? I had no real friends to speak of. Even my parents seemed to have disowned me.Get a grip, Vicky!I hated it when I got maudlin and administered a sharp pinch to my inside thigh. It really hurt but always did the trick. Who cares about love! Who has time for love anyway? What I needed was a front-page scoop to cheer me up. A nice juicy murder would do nicely and—blast!I slammed my foot on the brakes and swung the steering wheel sharply to the left as a vehicle, blazing with a row of white lights atop a safari roof, flew around a blind corner and came barreling toward me. I managed to pull into a concealed farm entrance signposted MUDGE COTTAGE and flashed my headlights, but the vehicle didn’t even attempt to slow down.There was a hard thud. My right wing mirror was torn off, followed by the sickening sound of metal screeching on metal as a green Land Rover scraped by. I caught just a glimpse of a figure in a woolen hat fly past without so much as a second glance.Furious, I leapt out just as the Land Rover’s taillights were swallowed up in the darkness. Pulling my Mini Maglite from my safari-jacket pocket, I braced myself for the worst and went to inspect the damage.I was gutted. The wing mirror could be repaired, but a deep gouge along the entire length of the driver’s side would need an expensive trip to the body shop.Damn and blast!I was absolutely trembling with rage. I’d used every last penny to buy my car and intended to hunt down the driver—no doubt a farmer, given the make of vehicle—and make him pay for the damage. I couldn’t even report the incident to the police because of that wretched “fruit punch.”I set off in the Fiat once more, drawing to a stop at the brow of a hill where a third triangular road sign warned of the almost-vertical drop below. Among the many skills I learned under Dad’s “advanced driving course,” which I eventually realized focused on handling a getaway car, was navigating obstacles. These included railway lines, ditches, and small rivers. The key to success, Dad said, was in the approach.Engaging the four-wheel drive, I took a deep breath and began a slow descent, stopping only when I reached the edge of the water at the base of the hill.I couldn’t believe it! That wretched Land Rover had dumped a pile of household rubbish in the middle of the ford and—good grief—was that abicycle?Fly-tipping was illegal and culprits faced huge fines of thousands of pounds. It was also on the increase thanks to Gipping-on-Plym County Council’s ridiculous “bonsai bin system”—supposedly to encourage homeowners to cut the amount of rubbish they put out. People drove miles to dispose of old refrigerators or mattresses. I made a mental note of talking to our chief reporter, Pete Chambers, first thing in the morning. I even had a headline—BABY BINS BALLS-UP: FLY-TIPPING FIASCO!Since I could hardly turn around, I’d have to move the stuff aside.I cut the engine but left the headlights on so I could keep both hands free to see what I was doing. According to the wooden-posted depth reader peeping above the water line, the water was seven inches deep. I always kept a pair of Wellingtons in the boot of my car and swiftly switched footwear.I passed the short flight of steps up to the “kissing bridge,” which was basically a wooden walkway on stilts that straddled the stream for pedestrians. The drop had to be about eight feet. There was no handrail, and I would imagine if things got hot and heavy, it could prove quite dangerous for lovers. I could think of much better locations to steal a kiss—on a cliff top overlooking the ocean, or perhaps around a campfire deep in the woods under a sky filled with stars. He’d be playing a guitar and—focus Vicky!A gentle breeze rustled the leaves in the surrounding trees. I waded into the ford, making for the bicycle, but almost fell over. My feet were caught up in some kind of debris. I pulled out my Mini Maglite for a closer look.Wrapped around my Wellingtons was an octopus-like creature with long, thick black tentacles. Puzzled, I gingerly poked at it and, to my surprise, realized it was a wig.My heart began to thump. Something felt wrong down here. I trained the flashlight over the rubbish just a few feet away. Were thosecurtains?The wind suddenly picked up and tore through the trees above, making my skin prickle. Edging closer, I lifted my foot and nudged the mound of material. It toppled over heavily with a loud splash.Captured in the harsh white light was the gray face of a partially bald woman. Her eyes were wide open, caught in an expression of horrified surprise.I would have screamed, but there was no one—no one alive—to hear. Instead I gave a muffled whimper and began to back away, falling heavily in the water with the sudden thought. Mum was right when she said, “Be careful what you wish for.”2Glad you rang me first, doll,” said Steve Burrows, Gipping’s paramedic and my most ardent admirer. Unfortunately for Steve, the feeling was not mutual. I hadn’t “rang him first,” either. All 999 calls were routed to Emergency Services, as Steve was perfectly aware.“Here, let Steve help you get out of those wet jeans,” he said, holding up a gray hospital blanket. His cherubic face was etched with concern.“I was only in the water for seconds,” I said, although I was beginning to feel a distinct chill around my nether regions.In vain, I tried to shake the image of the woman’s face out of my head and shivered.“You’re in shock, doll. Let me give you a hug.” Steve put his arm around my shoulders.“I wonder who she is,” I said. “Or was.”“That’s for the police to find out.” Steve pulled me closer. I wouldn’t describe him as fat, but he was certainly cuddly. Inhaling his scent of Old Spice and antiseptic, I felt strangely comforted.“I’m a reporter,” I said. “It’smyjob to find out.”The poor woman couldn’t have been more than forty and certainly wasn’t one of my mourner regulars. What was she doing in Mudge Lane at this hour of the night? Was it a romantic tryst that had gone terribly wrong? Had they quarreled on the bridge and she’d fallen and drowned? In a panic, he’d fled the scene in a Land Rover.“I really think you should sit down.” Steve gestured to the campstool he’d set up just for me.“No. I’m fine.” In fact, I’d never felt better. Despite being banished to the sidelines the moment Detective Inspector Stalk turned up, I was riveted by the activity going on in the stream. It was just like on the telly! The area was ablaze with lights, adding an eerie stagelike effect to the small white tent erected over the woman’s body, which still lay in the water to await the arrival of Coroner Cripps.I already had a couple of headlines up my sleeve. MUDGE LANE MYSTERY: A VICKY HILL EXCLUSIVE! Or better still, RIVER OF DEATH SHOCKER!“What’s your expert opinion, Steve?” I said.“To be honest,” said Steve, “when you hadn’t returned my phone calls, I thought you had given up on us.”Good grief!Here we were at the scene of what could be, at worst, a fatal accident or, at best, manslaughter, and all Steve could think about was us. But since he had proved to be a valuable informant in the past and would be taking the body to the morgue, I needed to be tactful.“You know I don’t have time for relationships, Steve,” I said gently.“I know, I know,” said Steve. “You want to take things slow.”“Not slow. Not anything. I want to focus on my career.”“And so you should, doll,” said Steve, patting my arm. “We’ve got our whole lives in front of us. Don’t worry so much. Steve’s not going anywhere.”Which was exactly my problem.He kissed the top of my head. A frisson of electricity shot through my body as it always did around Steve—a phenomenon that utterly baffled me every time. I didnotfancy Steve Burrows.“Let Steve get you some hot tea,” he said. “We could be in for a long night since Stalk wants to take you down to the station.”“He doeswhat?” My stomach flipped over. I had an inherent fear of police stations. “Why? I’ve already told him everything.” But even as I said it, I knew the real reason. Stalk wanted to give me the Breathalyzer test.“You’re right, Steve. I do feel a little wobbly,” I said, struck with one of my brilliant ideas. “Do you have anything stronger than tea? Brandy perhaps?”“Anything for you, doll.” Steve ruffled my hair—causing another tingle to surge through my loins—and disappeared into the rear of the ambulance, returning a few moments later with a small paper cup filled with amber liquid.“This is just for medicinal purposes, you understand,” he said.I thanked him and drank the lot.Several cheerful beeps announced the approach of the coroner’s metallic-red Freelander GS 2.Coroner Cripps flung open the driver’s door, collected his black case from the passenger seat, and strode past us with a nod of acknowledgment. Dressed in his regulation white jumpsuit and Wellingtons, Cripps exuded an aura of confident professionalism. He plunged into the ford, oblivious to hidden hazards, and vanished inside the white tent.Moments later, Stalk appeared, accompanied by a reed-thin, fresh-faced copper who couldn’t have been more than nineteen.
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In his late forties, Detective Inspector Stalk was built like an Aga, with a neatly clipped beard and piggy eyes. As an active member of Gipping Boxing Club, he was not a man to be trifled with. Stalk was very unpopular at theGazette. Pete Chambers often said he’d rather spend the night with Jack the Ripper than five minutes in Stalk’s company.I took a deep breath and waited for the two policemen to join us. “Do you have an ID on the victim yet, Inspector?”“No,” Stalk snapped.“Could it be a romantic tryst gone wrong?” I said. “Or perhaps a hit-and-run?” I hadn’t considered that possibility. “She was on a bicycle. Maybe he didn’t see her?”“No comment,” he said.I took out a business card—I’d had some cheap ones made at Gipping Railway Station—and handed it to him. “If you find out the owner of the Land Rover, at least let me know. Not only did he leave the scene of an accident, he hit my car.”“We’re perfectly aware of what went on here.” Stalk studied my card and handed it back to me with a sneer. “But if I want to talk to theGazette, it won’t be with a rookie.”“But I saw the Land Rover!” I protested. “I found the body.”“Which is exactly why Detective Constable Bond, here, will be taking you to the station.”“Why? I already gave you my statement.”“To give you a Breathalyzer test,” Stalk growled. “There is only one reason why you would be in Mudge Lane at one thirty in the morning—if you weredrunkand hoping to avoid the police.”Damn and blast!“There is another reason.” Steve stepped forward and threw his arm around my shoulders once more. “This is Mudge Lane, Officer. Surely you know whatthatmeans?” He wiggled his eyebrows.“No,” said Stalk.“Vicky and I had a romantic rendezvous.”“That’s right,” I said with relief.“When I got here, she was in a terrible state. I remember when I saw my first body. It was a farming accident. Bloke got mangled in the thresher. Couldn’t sleep for weeks. Even hit the bottle myself for a while.”Good old Steve!“It was a terrible shock,” I chimed in. “I was shaking—”“So I gave her a medicinal shot of brandy.”“Just a small one. I am perfectly capable of driving home.”Stalk regarded us both with suspicion.Steve stuck out his jaw. “Ms. Hill needs to be out of those wet clothes and tucked up in bed, not hauled off to a cold police station.”I had to admit Steve was impressive when angry and, despite my feelings, was deeply touched. If only Icouldfall in love with him.“Inspector?” said a familiar voice. “A word please.”Startled, Stalk swung around. “Probes! What the hell are you doing here?”I gasped and, without thinking, shrugged Steve’s arm off. This was not Detective Sergeant Probes’s beat. He worked with the Plymouth Drug Action Squad, a good forty-minute drive away. What’s more, I hadn’t heard or seen his car arrive, and we were in the middle of nowhere.Mobile phones did not work down in the dell, either— as I found out when I’d had to run up to high ground to make the emergency call to Steve. Considering that Probes’s lightweight raincoat hardly covered his red-and-white-striped pajamas, it was as if Probes had simply teleported in from his bedroom.Wait!Why was Probes wearing his pajamas? Surely he couldn’t be the third member of the love triangle?With barely a nod in my direction, Probes led Stalk out of earshot, closely followed by D.C. Bond.“Okay, I get it. I’m not blind,” said Steve, arms akimbo. “What’s going on between you and that redheaded copper?”“Nothing. I don’t know what you mean,” I said, flustered at seeing Probes so unexpectedly. It had been weeks since we’d tried to enjoy a celebratory dinner over my last front-page exclusive, but that magical evening had been cut short when he got a phone call. Probes’s promise that we’d make it another time came to nothing. Frankly, it was embarrassing seeing him again, and it was obvious that he felt embarrassed, too.“Stalk’s right,” said Steve. “Whatwereyou doing in Mudge Lane at one thirty in the morning?” Steve’s expression darkened. “I noticed his pajamas. And yet you tell me you want to focus on your career?”“I was at Barbara’s hen party. For heaven’s sake, Steve,” I said. “A woman is lying dead not twenty feet from where we stand. This is hardly the time to discuss our relationship.”Steve brightened. “So wearehaving a relationship!”Fortunately I was saved from answering by the return of Stalk and Probes. Without even bidding a hello or good-bye, Probes stepped up onto the wooden walkway and was swallowed into the darkness as quietly as he had appeared.“You’re free to go, Vicky,” said Stalk, who had never addressed me by my first name before. “My colleague speaks very highly of you.”“Oh yes, I’m sure he does,” muttered Steve.“We won’t need to talk to you again,” said Stalk. “It’s clear what happened here tonight.”“Probes knew the victim?” I said, feeling an inexplicable stab of jealousy.Stalk made a strange chuckling sound. “Nothing like that. The poor woman was riding her bicycle on the walkway, slipped off, hit her head, and drowned.”I looked at him with disbelief. Did he think I was bornyesterday? “What about the Land Rover with all those fancy lights?”“Coincidence,” said Stalk. “Anyway, she’s most likely a vagrant. There is a small group of gypsies camped in Upper Gipping—”I’d heard the rumor. “But that’s miles away!” I said. “What would she be doing down here?”“Frankly she’s no loss,” said Stalk. “Those gypsies are a menace to society.”Didn’t Mum say that her side of the family had Romany blood in their veins? Stalk’s inflammatory comments made my blood boil. “She still deserves justice,” I said coldly.“I’ll say it again”—Stalk’s voice hardened—“it was an accident, and that’s official. Now, you’d best get home unless you want to continue this conversation down at the station with a Breathalyzer test.”I mumbled that it wouldn’t be necessary. Stalk turned on his heel and left.“I’d offer to take you home, doll,” said Steve apologetically, “but I’ve got a body to deliver to the morgue.”“Don’t worry. I’m off.”After Steve had successfully turned my Fiat around in an impressive eleven-point turn, I headed for home.Let the police think what they liked, but something bad had happened here tonight. Gypsy or not, there was no way I was going to accept Stalk’s diagnosis.Tonight’s events had all the makings of another Vicky Hill exclusive!3Barbara was right about Gladys Trenfold’s funeral. There were only three mourners at her graveside—her brother, Bill; the Reverend Whittler; and me.The service was simple. There were no flowers. No hymns sung. Even Gipping’s funeral directors, Ripley and Ravish—DUST TO DUST WITH DIGNITY—had seemed to simply drop the coffin off en route to another job in Plymouth.Bill Trenfold shed no tears and kept checking his watch. He was a shifty-looking man in his early sixties with severe bandy legs. Dressed in his navy blue with red piping Royal Mail uniform, and black, polished peaked cap, Bill wasted no time in telling us that he was on his tea break and had to resume his postal rounds as soon as possible.Poor Gladys Trenfold. She may have been unpopular, but it was at times like this that I was proud to write the obituaries. If it weren’t for theGipping Gazette, lives such as hers wouldn’t be recorded at all.As we returned to the car park, Reverend Whittler pulled out an envelope from the folds of his cassock. “Would you mind taking this envelope with you, Bill? It’s already stamped.”Bill glanced at the address on the letter and promptly gave it back, saying, “Can’t do that, Reverend.”I’d always been able to read upside down: WINDOWS OF WONDER, ROYAL PARADE, PLYMOUTH, PL4 9TD.“It’s the final deposit for our stained glass window,” said Whittler, gesturing to a five-foot placard—SAVE OUR STAINED GLASS WINDOW AND GOD WILL SAVE YOU—that had stood outside the church lych-gate for as long as I’d lived in Gipping. A crudely drawn barometer marked in thousand-pound increments revealed there was only three thousand pounds to go to make the goal of twenty thousand.“This Saturday’s Morris Dance-a-thon at The Grange will close the gap,” beamed Whittler. “Such a clever idea of your Barbara’s.”Nearly every fund-raising event in Gipping-on-Plym had been to raise money for the Trewallyn Trio. Named after its benefactor—the late Sir Hugh Trewallyn’s father—the three-paned stained glass window had stood in St. Peter’s Church for more than a hundred years until a tree fell through it during a bad storm.“Windows of Wonder agreed to start work on Monday,” Whittler went on, “and with all these postal problems recently—”“Sorry,” said Bill firmly. “It’s against company policy.”“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’ll post it, Vicar.”“It’s not my fault that the village post offices are closing down,” grumbled Bill. “I’ve already had my wages cut. Did you know that they’re trying to force me into taking early retirement?”What’s that got to do with posting a wretched letter?I wanted to say and would have done so had we not just buried his sister.“Come back to the vicarage for some sherry and cake. Let’s give your Gladys a good old send-off.” It was traditional in Gipping to have an after-service shindig following a funeral.“Can’t,” said Bill. “I’ve already taken longer than I should. Better get back to my job while I still have one.”We watched Bill get into his red post van—a 1973 Morris Marina, bearing the Royal Coat of Arms—and drive away.“Poor man.” Whittler shook his head. “I know I shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, but that sister of his left him in a bit of a financial mess. Rather too fond of snail racing, I’m told.”“I’d better go, too.” It was already ten, and I was anxious to get to theGazetteto see if Stalk had spoken to our chief reporter.Of course, I’d wasted no time in contacting Pete first thing this morning. I was worried he might give the Mudge Lane scoop to Annabel Lake—my senior by a mere three months—especially as their on-again, off-again flirtation was back in full “on” mode.Consequently, I’d left a long and detailed message on Pete’s mobile phone making it quite clear that it wasmewho’d found the body, that it was vital we find the Land Rover, and that I suspected police corruption.“The Victoria sponge with homemade strawberry jam was only made this morning,” said Whittler. “Are you sure you won’t change your mind?”I hesitated. Perhaps I could just pop in for a quick slice.Back in the warmth of the rectory kitchen, a plate of Victoria sponge sat on the pine kitchen table. Two bone china cups and saucers and a pot of tea covered with a hand-knitted, green-and-white-striped tea cozy were set alongside a jug of milk and a bowl of sugar.Upstairs, a vacuum cleaner droned on over our heads. My landlady, Mrs. Evans, ran a housekeeping service called Doing-It-Daily and counted Reverend Whittler as one of her many customers.“Ah, Mrs. Evans must have seen us walking over from the church,” said Whittler, removing the tea cozy and feeling the pot. “Nice and hot. It’s just been made.”A quick survey of the kitchen showed that Whittler was a very busy man—and hopelessly disorganized. Mrs. Evans often complained that she was forbidden to touch his work area.Every available surface was piled high with files and papers. A wall calendar was crammed with scribbled notes and stuck with yellow Post-its. In one corner of the room was an old computer and a fax machine surrounded by a sea of paper. According to Mrs. Evans, he had been married a long time ago but after his wife died, never remarried, claiming, “Constance was irreplaceable,” which I thought very touching.I sat down and played mother, pouring the tea and cutting large slabs of cake that were still warm to the touch. Whittler retrieved a bottle of Harvey’s Bristol Cream from a cupboard and two dainty sherry glasses.“I should think you’d welcome a quick snifter after finding that body last night,” said Whittler, handing me a glass.“Just a small one. I’m driving.” I wasn’t surprised that he’d already heard the news. There were no secrets in Gipping. “Who told you?”Whittler chuckled. “Mrs. E. is great friends with Betty Bond. Her son, Kelvin, was called out to the scene. He was pretty shaken up.” I recalled the poor young constable last night. “I’m sure he hadn’t seen a dead body before.”Nor had I, for that matter, and the expression on the woman’s face still haunted me this morning.
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“What did Kelvin make of it?” I intended to grill Mrs. Evans later on.Whittler took a sip of tea. “I always say, there’s nothing like the first sip of a freshly brewed pot of tea.”“Did Kelvin mention the police thought she could be a gypsy?”Startled, Whittler looked up sharply. He must have inhaled a cake crumb because a violent fit of coughing followed.I jumped up. “I’ll get you some water.”“No need,” he croaked, eyes bulging. Spluttering, Whittler reached for the sherry and drank straight from the bottle. Gradually he recovered his breath. “Goodness. Well, I never. We haven’t had gypsies in these parts since I was a teenager. Barbara caused quite a scandal, I recall.”This didn’t surprise me. Barbara had been notoriously wild in her youth and never let anyone forget it.“Stalk said a few gypsies had arrived in Upper Gipping.” I cut myself another slice of Victoria sponge.“I only hope the poor dead woman isn’t a gypsy.” Whittler dabbed his eyes with a paper napkin, adding darkly, “For your sake.”“What do you mean?”“Do you know anything about gypsy funerals?”I shrugged. “No. Why?”“My colleague officiated at one in St. Jude’s in Teignmouth a few years ago,” said Whittler. “Over three hundred gypsies turned up.”“Threehundred?” I squeaked. TheGazetteprided itself on being one of the few newspapers in the country that recorded the names of every single mourner. How would I ever cope?“Oh yes. It was like an invasion,” Whittler said with relish. “Gypsy funerals are quite something. It’s traditional for relatives from all over the country to come and pay their last respects. Festivities can go on for days. My colleague told me that after the service, they even dug a hole in the church car park and roasted a whole pig.”“Apig!” I gasped. “I suppose it will make a change from the usual sherry and fruitcake.”“One of their customs is to burn the wagon of the deceased with all their possessions in it,” said Whittler. “They perform a ritual destruction. I’m told it’s quite astonishing to watch.”“Even now? With modern trailer caravans?”“Oh yes. Imagine if my parishioners decided to do the same?” Whittler chuckled. “There would be fires burning in Gipping every single day.”I believed it. I went to at least seven funerals a week.“They’re all dreadful thieves,” Whittler went on cheerfully. “Steal anything not bolted down. She’ll be buried at St. Peter’s naturally. You’d better prepare yourself.”And with that worrying thought, I said, “I really must go.”“Wait! I almost forgot,” said Whittler. “We must toast Gladys. More sherry?”“I’m fine.” Mine was still untouched. I still couldn’t get used to the tea-sherry-cake mixture of flavors first thing in the morning. Whittler refilled his glass and offered up a little prayer. I drank it down in one go and got to my feet. “Don’t forget to post that envelope, Vicky,” he said. “There’s a very large check in there.”Reassuring him that I’d physically take it to the main post office in the High Street, I bid the vicar good-bye and walked back to the car park to collect my Fiat.It sounded as if things were soon going to get very lively in Gipping-on-Plym.4To my disappointment, there wasn’t a gypsy to be seen in Gipping-on-Plym. It was business as usual.Knowing the four-space car park behind theGazettewould already be full, I left my Fiat in the alley adjacent to The Copper Kettle across the street. Topaz Potter, who owned the café as well as The Grange, charged me one pound—paid in advance—for the privilege. It was easier than having to use the free parking lot half a mile away.To my surprise, there was no sign of Topaz’s red Ford Capri and, emerging from the side passage, I noted that the café blinds were at half-mast. On the front door was a sign saying CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.How odd. I’d only seen Topaz yesterday, and she hadn’t mentioned she was going away. I stooped down to peer under the blinds and saw the wooden chairs turned upside down on the Formica tabletops.“She’s gone, then,” came a hard voice.I jumped up to find two of my regular mourners, Florence Tossell and Amelia Webster. “It certainly looks like it,” I said.“I knew she couldn’t keep that place going,” said Florence, fiddling with the wart on her chin. “Didn’t I tell you, Amelia?”Amelia nodded. Both ladies wore crimplene summer dresses and hand-knitted cardigans, but Amelia had added a large straw-colored floppy hat despite the fact the day was overcast. “People prefer The Warming Pan,” she said. “And her food was overpriced and tasted dreadful.”I had to agree with her on all counts. I ate at the Kettle only out of a misguided sense of loyalty.“We were hoping to bump into you,” said Florence. “Is it true that the gypsies are back at The Grange?”“Backat The Grange?” It would certainly explain Topaz’s sudden absence. Having inherited the estate from her uncle and aunt—Sir Hugh and Lady Clarissa Trewallyn—Topaz must have dropped everything and gone to protect her birthright.Topaz didn’t live at The Grange. She didn’t use her real name, either—namely that of Lady Ethel Turberville-Spat. For reasons that still remained a mystery to me, Topaz fancied herself as Gipping’s local vigilante, adopting the pseudonym of Topaz Potter and doing a terrible job of running a café as a front.“Oh yes. In Sir Hugh’s day, they used to camp there every summer,” said Florence. “Remember all that scandal with Barbara?”Barbara again. Here she was more than forty years later and still unable to escape her past.“We’re awfully worried about Saturday’s Morris Dance-a-thon,” Amelia said. “My husband, Jack, is the Ranids’s squire this year.”“Squire?” I said.“It’s the squire’s job to run the program and call the dances,” said Amelia. “Jack threatened to burn down all their caravans if they weren’t gone by Saturday.”Amelia’s hand fluttered to her floppy hat. She pulled the brim down, hard. Jack Webster was notorious for his temper, which often turned violent after a few glasses of lethal Devon scrumpy. I took a closer look at Amelia’s face and fancied I saw a yellowing bruise above her right eyebrow.“When Jack came to pick you up last night from Barbara’s,” I said, “did he take the shortcut through Mudge Lane?”“Jack didn’t show up,” said Florence, throwing her arm protectively around her friend’s shoulders. “Eric and I had to take her home.”“It wasn’t that he forgot,” protested Amelia. “He’d been drinking at the Three Tuns and didn’t want to lose his license.”“Doesn’t he drive a green Land Rover?” I said.“All the farmers round here have green Land Rovers,” snapped Florence.“Was he out shooting rabbits?”“Why are you asking all these questions?” Amelia sounded upset.“Just curious.” It dawned on me that news of the woman’s demise might have reached the vicarage but not the High Street. Yet.“If anyone was shooting rabbits, it would be those gypsies poaching. Mark my words. We don’t want thieving gypsies in Gipping, with their filthy children and rabid dogs—”“And all the nasty rubbish they leave behind,” said Amelia. “They don’t use toilets, you know.” She pulled a face. “They just go number oneandnumber two in the woods.”“Don’t be silly,” said Florence sharply. “These days they have all the mod cons and demand equal rights. My sister lives in Brighton, and she said they had some gypsies passing through only last month, and one of them drove a flashy silver Winnebago with a satellite dish! Imagine!”At the sound of clopping hooves, Amelia turned to Florence and said, “Mod cons? Just look at that!”A pretty green-and-yellow-painted bowtop wagon, drawn by a glossy-coated skewbald pony in a gleaming harness, trotted on by. Bells tinkled cheerfully, and theclink, clinkof metal pots and pans fastened to the guardrails seemed to play a magical melody of their own. So much for the dirty old vans!At the reins stood a handsome man in his late twenties looking very Pirates-of-the-Caribbean. Dressed in black jeans and a white shirt with balloon sleeves, he sported a mustache and wore his long dark-brown hair tied back in a ribbon.Catching my eye, the man gave me a stunning smile that made me blush. On impulse, I waved.“What are you doing?” hissed Florence. “Don’t encourage him, you stupid girl.”“I was just being friendly,” I said, gazing after the departing wagon and wondering if there was a real bed inside. Frankly, I found gypsy life fascinating and romantic—life on the open road. Singing around a campfire. Sleeping under the stars.Two women followed on foot. One looked a few years older than me, with long dark hair and a hard face. Dressed in a traditional ankle-length skirt and white peasant long-sleeved blouse, she carried an open basket.“Lucky heather?” she said, walking up to us. “Keep you safe from the evil eye.”“Shoo!” said Florence, flapping her hands. “Go away.”“I’ll take one,” I said firmly. If I had to report on this funeral, I couldn’t afford to upset the mourners.“That’ll be three pounds, and don’t ask for change.”Three pounds!The young woman thrust a tiny bunch of lilac heather tied with a red ribbon into my hands. I noticed her nails were long like talons. I took out my wallet, annoyed that I only had a fiver, and handed it over. She snatched it and headed off for another unsuspecting member of the public.“You got ripped off,” scoffed Florence. “Three pounds!”“Five, actually,” I grumbled.“No, thank you,” said Amelia as a second gypsy woman in her late sixties limped over with a stack of flyers peeping out of a canvas shopping bag. “Please go away.”The woman had obviously been a beauty in her heyday. She wore her gray hair coiled on top of her head and enormous hoop earrings. A long, red dirndl skirt, matching blouse, and fringed shawl completed her outfit.“Can I have a flyer?” I said.“Bless you, me angel,” said the woman, shooting Amelia a venomous look and adding, “And you should watch that husband of yours. One day he’ll go too far.” She limped after the disappearing wagon.My stomach turned over.Perhaps he already had!“What a horrible woman,” gasped Amelia. “What a thing to say!”I studied the flyer ROAMING RIGHTS FOR ROMANIES! WE CAMP BECAUSE WE CAN! with Florence—smelling strongly of cooked bacon—reading aloud over my shoulder. “‘Shortage of residential and transit authorized sites, retrospective planning permission holdups, lack of health care and education, poor environmental conditions, unemployment’—blah, blah, blah. I told you so!” she said, stabbing the paper with her finger. “They’re playing the human rights card. They’re here to stay. Just you see.”“Oh dear,” said Amelia. “Jack is going to go berserk.”Realizing I’d wasted precious minutes chatting, I said, “I really must get to work.”“Can you ask Barbara when she intends to finish the window?” said Florence. “The Morris Dance-a-thon is only a few days away.”I looked across the street and saw newspaper still taped up inside the show window.“Jack wanted me to make sure the Ranids’s mascot was in the center,” said Amelia. “It’s so unlike Barbara. I suppose she’s too busy with her wedding plans.”Promising them I’d find out, I bid my good-byes and left.Life was certainly never dull in Gipping-on-Plym.5Oh, I’m so glad you’re here,” said Olive Larch, looking distinctly frazzled. Three large cardboard boxes were standing at the foot of the padlocked wooden shutters that screened the display window.
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“I don’t know what to do with them. Orthatthing.” She pointed to a man-sized hobbyhorse standing by the entrance to the nook. A long, black cape enveloped the wooden pole reserved for the rider. Atop was a garish white horse head sporting a highwayman mask and jaunty black tricorn hat. The model horse’s mouth was permanently open in a macabre smile, revealing an impressive set of teeth.“That’s not the mascot for the Gipping Ranids,” I said, knowing full well our local Morris dancers had a giant green frog.“It’s the Turpin Terrors,” said Olive. “Phil insists I put it in the window, and all this stuff, too.” She kicked the box with her patent-leather pump.“Where’s Barbara?” I said.“No one knows.” Olive wrung her hands. “Wilf called and told me to come in.” Olive occasionally worked in reception when we were extra busy, but her excruciating slowness was more of a hindrance than a help. “I rang her house and left two messages.”“Perhaps Barbara had too much fruit punch and overslept?” I said—though that would be a first inGazettehistory. Barbara liked to boast that she’d only taken two days off sick in all the years she’d worked for the newspaper—and that was because she couldn’t ride her bicycle to work because her ingrown toenail had flared up.“Phil wants all this in the windowtoday,” said Olive.“I saw Amelia Webster outside wondering why the window wasn’t done yet.”“I can’t do it without Barbara. You know how she is.”I certainly did. Along with the archive room, it was her pride and joy. Barbara refused to let anyone interfere in her themed window displays and kept the shutters padlocked just in case someone silly enough was tempted.“Since Barbara keeps the key with her, there is not much you can do about it,” I said. “And anyway, who is Phil?”“You don’t know?” Olive’s jaw dropped. “Phil Burrows is a famous Morris dancer.”I shook my head. “No. Can’t say I’ve ever heard of him.”“He used to dance with the Gipping Ranids until he was poached by the Turpin Terrors,” said Olive. “They’re based in Brighton and dance all over the country. Phil is making a guest appearance. It’s very exciting. I knew him as a lad. Even then I knew—”“I’m sure Barbara will be here soon.” Time was moving on, and I was anxious to get upstairs to the reporter room. “Just tell Phil he’ll have to wait, and in the meantime, take a look through those boxes.”“But they’re Phil’s,” said Olive. “Oh, I forgot to tell you that Pete called an emergency meeting in his office. You’d better hurry. You’re already late!”Cursing Olive under my breath, I tore upstairs.6Luckily for me, Pete was on the phone. I managed to slip into his office unnoticed and stood at the back of the room. There was an air of excited anticipation. I knew my instincts had been right about the bald woman.Accidental drowning? My eye!My fellow journalists—court reporter Edward Lyle; sports go-to man Tony Perkins; and, of course, Annabel—were squashed on the tartan two-seater sofa seemingly riveted to Pete’s “conversation,” if you could call it that.Gripping the receiver in one hand, Pete was hunched over his desk, scribbling furiously into his notepad and uttering the occasional grunt.Pete slammed down the phone. “We’re on!” He threw his pencil onto his desk, where it promptly rolled off and fell to the floor.Annabel leapt from the sofa. “I’ll get it!” She bent down to pick it up—making sure that Pete got an eyeful of cleavage in her plunging V-neck, pale-yellow T-shirt before putting the pencil back onto his desk. “Looks like we’ve got some action here this week, folks,” said Pete, all business.“That was Detective Inspector Stalk at the police station putting us on red alert. We’re about to be invaded by some hundred-plus gyppos.”“It’s politically incorrect to say the wordgyppos, Pete,” reminded Annabel. “I believe the term these days istravelers.”“They’ll be coming for the funeral,” I said. “Do we have a name yet?”“Belcher Pike,” said Pete.“That’s a strange name for a woman.”“Belcher is not a woman, silly.” Annabel swiveled around to face me, draping her arm along the back of the sofa. Her V-neck gaped open to reveal a lace-trimmed, pale-blue bra. “He’s some important gypsy king who has come to Gipping to die.”“What about the dead woman in Mudge Lane?”“Accident,” growled Pete. “Can we move on?”“Let me fill her in, Pete.” With an exaggerated sigh, Annabel turned to me again. “The police said she was cycling across the kissing bridge, wobbled off the edge, hit her head, and drowned.”“That’s ridiculous!” I cried. “What about the Land Rover that hit my car?”“Don’t know anything about that, do you Pete?”“Are you quite finished?” snapped Pete, unwrapping a fresh stick of gum and folding it into his mouth. Sometimes I wish he still smoked. His mood had seemed better in the good old days.“I was just filling her in,” said Annabel, adding, “since shewaslate.”“I went to Ms. Trenfold’s funeral, actually.”“Are you feeling all right?” said Edward. “It must have been a terrible shock to find the body.”“It was, thank you, Edward.” I shot him a grateful look, unwilling to say that last night I had suffered nightmares about drowning in a sea of hair. “All I’m saying is that I have a feeling I might know who is responsible, and I don’t believe it was an accident.”“Well, believe it,” said Pete.“But even Stalk originally hinted that it was a suspicious death, but then Detective Sergeant Probes turned up—”“Oh! Colin is such a cutie-pie,” gushed Annabel.“Enough!” Pete slammed his hand down on the table. “The woman drowned. End of story.”“The less of those bloody gypsies, the better,” Tony declared. “Thieving beggars.”“She’llstillhave a funeral,” I persisted. “Westillneed to know who she is.”“We forget, Pete,” said Annabel sweetly. “Vicky takes her job as an obituary writer very seriously.”“Why would the ruddy gypsies pick Gipping?” Tony said bitterly. “They’ve never been here before.”“Actually, Tony,” said Edward, “my mum told me they used to come here years ago. They camped up at The Grange.”“And that’s where they’re going now,” Pete said. “Apparently Belcher Pike has decided to spend his last days on this earth in Gipping-on-Plym. Aren’t we lucky?”“They’re sticklers for tradition and highly superstitious,” said Edward. “Apparently the dying gypsy’s wagon must be pitched away from the main camp in an isolated spot. He must never be left alone day or night. Gorgers—that’s the name they give for non-gypsies—are forbidden to cross the threshold, as it’s believed their presence can send the Romany’s soul to hell.”“How pathetic!” said Annabel.“Did you know that there are between two and three hundred thousand gypsies living in Great Britain at the moment?” Edward went on. “Of course, it’s impossible to be accurate because they are always on the move.”“That’s why they’re called travelers,” Annabel insisted. “Because they are always on the move.”“Ah, butthat’swhere you’re wrong,” Edward said cheerfully. “Many people make that mistake. Both are legally recognized as distinct ethnic groups and have the protection of the law. Romanies are the real deal. Travelers tend to be dropouts from the seventies, old hippies, and people unwilling to work. Now, theIrishtraveler is a different breed all together. He’s disliked by—”“Romanies, travelers, who cares!” shouted Pete. “We’ve got a bloody important gyppo about to kick the bucket here in Gipping-on-Plym, and hundreds of the buggers are heading for The Grange just in time for this Saturday’s Morris Dance-a-thon.”There was a chorus of dismay, especially from Tony. “Bloody hell. It’ll cause a riot.”Pete leaned back in his chair and flung his feet up on his desk. “And that meanstrouble. And trouble meansnews,and news meansreaders!”“Why can’t we just evict them?” said Annabel. “The Grange is private land. Surely it’s illegal.”“Technically, yes,” said Edward. “I believe there is a public right-of-way from Ponsford Ridge. But even if the site is unauthorized and perceived as an official transit pitch, the law stipulates they can stay put for thirty-five days—actually, it takes a good ten to file an eviction notice, so you’re looking at a minimum of—”“A bloody long time,” said Pete. “We get the picture.”“And since the old boy is dying, we’ve got the Human Rights Act to deal with,” Edward said. “They can’t be thrown off the land.”“It’s true,” I said, taking the flyer out of my safari-jacket pocket. “One of the gypsy women gave this to me today.”Pete snatched it from my hands and skimmed the contents with a groan. “Bloody hell!”“A gypsy told my fortune once,” said Annabel with a seductive wriggle. “She said men would always fall in love with me and to be careful of the married ones.”“They’re all crooks.” Tony stuck his jaw out belligerently. “The bastards mended my roof, and the first time it rained, water poured into the attic and brought the ceiling down. It cost me hundreds of pounds. If it were up to me, I’d set those caravans on fire and burn the lot of them.”“Not helpful, Tony,” barked Pete. “Who lives at The Grange now?”“It’s supposed to be empty,” I said. “The place belongs to—”“Lady Ethel Turberville-Spat,” said Annab.el smoothly. “Inherited it from her aunt and uncle—”“She usually lives in London,” I said, wondering why I was continuing Topaz’s lie.“Not anymore. My sources tell me she’s back at The Grange.”“Good,” Pete nodded, seemingly deep in thought. “Do you still have your contacts with Westward TV?”“Why?” Annabel said.My heart sank. Shortly before Annabel’s fall from grace, she’d persuaded Westward TV that she had the biggest exposé of the century, namely that she’d located the daughter of one of the most notorious criminals in England—i.e., me. Since Annabel ended up with egg on her face and it all came to nothing, I’d be surprised if they were willing to talk to her again.Pete jabbed his finger at Annabel. “Call Westward. Do whatever it takes to get a camera crew. Go and interview the Spat woman—”“Omigod!” squealed Annabel. “I’m going to be on camera at last—”“Get her reaction. How does she feel about her home being invaded? Is she frightened? You know the deal.”I raised my hand. “Actually, I sort of know her ladyship. Why don’t I handle her? She can be a little unpredictable.”“No, Vicky,” said Pete. “You’ll have your hands full with Belcher Pike’s funeral if we’re to believe Edward’s prediction.”“But he’s still alive,” I protested.“So get a head start.”“She won’t get very far,” said Edward ruefully. “Gypsies don’t like talking to gorgers—especially the press.”“We’ll run the Spat piece on this week’s front page,” Pete declared. “That should get a few angry letters to the editor.”Annabel clapped her hands. “How about this for a headline—SPAT’S SPAT WITH THE PIKEYS!”“You can’t saypikeys,” said Edward. “Politically incorrect.”“But the gypsy’s nameisPike.” Annabel sounded smug. “Belcher Pike. Get it?”I cringed. Annabel was appalling at headlines.“PIKE’S PLOT IN PERIL,” I said suddenly. “Or, GRIEVING GYPSIES—”“Silence!” Pete slammed his hand on the desk. “Just get on with it.”“I’ll come with you, Annabel,” said Tony.“I don’t need anyone to hold my hand, thanks.”“Don’t flatter yourself.” Tony had asked Annabel out on a date once and still hadn’t gotten over being rejected. “These people can cause a lot of problems with the environment when they leave a site. You know how strict our recycling rules are. I want to take a few photos before they wreck the place.”Tony was an avid supporter of Greenpeace and had sympathies with Eco-Warriors, Gipping’s environmental watchdogs.“A fly-tipping piece?” Pete nodded eagerly. “I like it.”“I thought I’d get a few quotes from Ronnie Binns about the challenges he faces as a garbologist.”“Good luck,” Annabel and I chorused. We’d never agreed before—though in this instance, Ronnie Binns’s personal hygiene problem was legendary. His pungent aroma of boiled cabbages could be smelled a mile away.Pete’s phone rang. He snatched it up, listened for a brief moment before slamming the receiver back into the cradle. “Vicky, Olive wants you downstairs. Phil Burrows is in reception.”“He’s got some nerve showing up here,” said Tony grimly. “Guest appearance! What a bloody cheek.”
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“Get over it, Tony,” said Pete. “You would have done the same. You just weren’t good enough.”“Personally, I think Morris dancing’s silly,” Annabel declared. “Grown men in silly hats with bells strapped to their arms and legs, waving sticks around. It’s stupid.”“I’m sorry to hear you think it’s stupid,” came the voice we all knew and dreaded. Everyone leapt to attention. Our illustrious editor—and now Barbara’s fiancé—stood in the doorway.“I’ll have you know that Morris dancing has been in existence since the sixteenth century, young lady,” scolded Wilf, who had never liked Annabel at the best of times. “William Kempe, the Shakespearean actor, was one of the first to dance the Morris.”“We all dance the Morris,” Edward chipped in. “If you’re local, you dance the Morris. In fact, I only gave up because of my knee injury. Wilf still does the odd event, don’t you, sir?”“That’s right.” Wilf removed his trademark Dunhill pipe from the pocket of his brown tweed jacket and clamped it between his teeth, unlit. “It’s a real coup to snag Phil.”“Burrows shouldn’t have signed on with the Turpin Terrors,” said Tony stubbornly. “Remember the outcry when David Beckham went to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy?”I hardly thought world-famous footballer David Beckham and Morris dancing were in the same league but kept quiet.“You’re only jealous because you’re stuck in this boring dump,” said Annabel.An awkward silence descended on the room.“I didn’t mean theGazettewas boring,” mumbled Annabel.“How is Barbara feeling, sir?” I said, neatly changing the subject. “She’s never off work.”“That’s very nice of you to ask, young Vicky,” said Wilf. “She’s got a migraine.”“Migraines are brought on by stress,” Annabel declared. “She should lie down in a dark room.”“I’m sure Barbara knows what to do,” Wilf said stiffly and swung around to face me, his one good eye, sharp and bright. “Were there many people at Ms. Trenfold’s funeral this morning?”“I’m afraid it was just the reverend, her brother, and myself, sir,” I said. “Seems she wasn’t very popular.”“That’s why theGazetteobituaries are so important,” said Wilf, swelling with pride. “We are recorders of history and keepers of the truth. Another newspaper may not have bothered with Ms. Trenfold. With no husband or children to continue her line, it would have been as if she had never lived at all.”“Quite right, sir,” I said. “Which makes me wonder about the dead woman in Mudge Lane last night. No one seems to care about who she was.”“Bollocks!” muttered Pete.“Pete?” said Wilf sharply. “A word in my office.Now.”Pete shot me a filthy look and followed Wilf’s departing figure.“That wasn’t very clever,” said Annabel.“It was an innocent question,” I protested, but I felt sick. I would never knowingly throw our chief reporter under the bus. “Why am I the only person who cares around here?”The phone rang in Pete’s office again. Annabel picked it up. “It sounds like Olive is having a nervous breakdown. You’d better hurry downstairs.”7Pausing at the reception door, I pulled a comb and small mirror from my safari-jacket pocket and dragged it through my shoulder-length bob. Unlike Annabel, I wasn’t vain, but since I was about to meet a mini celebrity, I wanted to look my best.I’d inherited the famous Hill sapphire-blue eyes. They were my best feature but—being so unusually distinctive—had almost brought about my downfall. As a result, I pretended to wear colored contact lenses, which Annabel liked to point out whenever I received a compliment.I stepped into reception to find a tall, heavy-set man leaning over the counter.Olive heaved a sigh of relief. “Here’s Vicky now.”“Hello. You must be Mr. Burrows,” I said. “Vicky Hill.”The man turned around and rewarded me with a smile of blinding white Chiclets. Frankly, I’d been expecting a rustic farming type and was taken off guard by his orange fake-tan complexion and designer-spiked dirty-blond hairstyle.I guessed he was only a few years older than me, though it was hard to tell. Fake tan can be deceptive. I noticed his hair also sported telltale orange tints, confirming my suspicion that Mr. Burrows had been overzealous with Sun-In hair-care products, too.“So! Here is the famous Vicky Hill.” Phil Burrows was dressed in expensive clothes. Designer jeans—something I knew all about thanks to Annabel’s obsession with labels—and a black silk shirt, which was open halfway down his chest, where a fuzz of brown hair exploded over a gold button. “Call me Phil,” he said. “I’ve heard a lot about you.”“All good, I hope.”“Oh yes.” He gave a knowing wink.“Shall we go somewhere private?” I was considering the nook in the corner of reception, away from Olive’s adoring gaze. She was already on the phone telling her friends he was here.I caught a snatch of “Phil and I had a lovely chat” and “autograph.” It was then that I noticed a stack of professional headshots of Phil Burrows on the counter and—good grief—a Phil Burrows look-alike doll dressed in Morris dancing attire. Bells, ribbons, et al.“The nook, eh?” Phil’s brown eyes twinkled. “Not sure if I’ll be able to trust myself in there with someone so beautiful.”Stifling a groan, I mumbled a gracious, “Thank you.”“Wow,” he said, studying my face. “He told me you had the most incredible sapphire-blue eyes and—”“I wear contacts,” I said firmly.And then, with a sinking heart, I justknew. There was something extremely familiar about Phil,andhis last name was Burrows.“You’re not related to Steve Burrows by any chance?” I said.“Little Steve’s my baby brother,” said Phil with a laugh. “I know all about the gorgeous Vicky Hill. Let’s take a look at you.” Phil took several steps backward and gave me an admiring once-over. “Very nice.”God!He even sounded like Steve. I deliberately slumped over in the hope of looking deformed. “Thanks, but shall we get on?”“I meet a lot of girls in my profession,” Phil said. “Fame attracts groupies and, not meaning to brag, I’m never short of a bedfellow or two, but Steve’s right. You’re a catch. He’s a lucky man.”“That’s very nice of Steve to say that,” I said, not surprised that Steve continued to regard me as his girlfriend. “But I’m not caught by anyone. I’m too busy with work.”“In that case—” Phil took my hand and brought it to his lips. I braced myself for the Burrows tingle, but thankfully, Steve’s brother didn’t have the same electric touch.“All’s fair in love and war.” Phil wiggled his eyebrows—he even had Steve’s mannerisms. “I’ve got a suite at Gipping Manor. Why don’t you come over tonight for a drink?”How typical.“Working. Sorry.”I heard Olive gasp. “Oh, Vicky! You should!”Steve’s ardor was easy to manage. If anything, it was rather innocent and touching. Phil was a different animal. Fame had given him a sense of entitlement and an ego to match.I gestured to the opened cardboard boxes on the floor. “Presumably all these are yours?”One box contained items—tankards, black sweatshirts emblazoned with TURPIN TERRORS, and tricorn hats—sealed in plastic bags. The other box had SILENT AUCTION written on the inside flap. It seemed to contain a mixture of what looked like used clothing and objects normally relegated to a charity shop.“All this needs to go in the window today,” said Phil. “Just wait until you see the stuff for the silent auction. Everyone wants a bit of Phil.”“What about the horse mascot?” Olive said.“That’s Beryl.”Given that the Turpin Terrors had a highwayman theme, I said, “I thought Black Bess was the name of Dick Turpin’s horse.”“No. She was called Beryl,” said Phil.I saw no point in arguing.“I was trying to ex-ex-explain to—Phil.” Olive looked uncomfortable. “Our Gipping boys only wanttheirmascot in the window.”“Let Barbara sort that out when she gets here.” I sat down in one of the leatherette chairs. “Phil, take a seat.”“Is there a problem?” Phil sat down. He leaned back and put his arms behind his head, pulling the fabric of his shirt tight across his chest. Although he and Steve were about the same build, Phil’s thin shirt outlined solid muscle instead of flab. There was even a hint of a six-pack. “My agent told me I’d get full use of the window display.”I thought this highly unlikely. “Do you have anything in writing?”“My agent handled it.” Phil’s expression hardened. “I waived my appearance fee for this as a favor to the Women’s Institute. I even cut short my training in Brighton. My fansexpectto see my stuff in the window,andI’ve already announced it on Facebook.”Celebrities!I took a deep breath.Patience, Vicky!“Perhaps one of the members of the Women’s Institute said you could use the window and forgot to tell Barbara?” I suggested. “Since we can’t reach Barbara, can we talk to your agent?”Phil looked at his watch. “He’s in Los Angeles and won’t be up yet. They’re eight hours behind.”“Los Angeles!” said Olive directly behind me. I hadn’t heard her creep up to eavesdrop. “Hollywood! I bet he knows Paul Newman.”“I doubt it,” I said. “Paul Newman died three years ago.” I remembered it well. My mum cried.“I’m working on a deal with an American dance show,” said Phil. “It’s a bit hush-hush at the moment.”“I won’t say anything,” Olive said, enthralled. “Is itDancing with the Stars?”“I’m not allowed to say which one,” said Phil, feigning modesty. “But put it this way: the Hoff and I are friends.”“TheDavid Hasselhoff?” Olive clung to the back of the chair. For a moment, I thought she might swoon. “How did you meet him?”“I was dancing in the Brighton International Folk Festival, David saw our performance and we got talking.” Phil reached for his man-bag and unzipped it. He took out a color photograph of two figures standing arm in arm. The man on the left was definitely David Hasselhoff.“Is that you?” Olive peered over my shoulder. I caught a whiff of her perfume—Elizabeth Arden Blue Grass—my grandmother’s favorite. “It’s hard to tell.”Phil cut a dashing figure dressed as a Turpin Terror complete with red tatter three-quarter coat, tricorn hat, and highwayman mask. “Being a Terror is a different ball game from dancing with the Ranids. Presumably you’ll want to interview me for the day-in-the-life feature?”I hadn’t considered it but it, wasn’t a bad idea. “Yes, of course.”“I’ll have to check with my agent,” said Phil, “but plan on coming to the Manor tomorrow night. By the way, where are the extra headshots?”Olive looked blank. “I don’t know.”I hadn’t realized just how much we all relied on Barbara’s efficiency.“You should have gotten them by now.” Phil’s tone was mild, but I sensed a flicker of irritation. “My agent posted them last week.”“We’ve been having a lot of problems with the post, haven’t we?” said Olive. “It’s the cutbacks.”“If they’ve gone missing—”The signature tune fromFlashdanceerupted from Phil’s man-bag just in time. Phil pulled out his iPhone. “Yo! What’s happening?”“It’s probably his agent,” whispered Olive as Phil wandered over to the front door and stepped outside.“Do you think I should talk to Phil’s agent about Barbara’s party on Friday night?” Olive went on. “I was going to ask Phil to make a special appearance as a surprise.”“I would just ask Phil.”“I wish someone had thrown me a hen party,” Olive said wistfully. Having been a spinster for most of her sixty-five years, Olive’s first attempt at marriage had lasted less than a week. For the past month, she and the pungent Ronnie Binns were a hot item—a thought that I could not dwell on for too long without feeling ill.“Perhaps if I can find a way to put Phil’s things in the window, he’ll agree?” she said.“I should check with Barbara first. In fact, I may as well go and see her on my way back from The Grange.”Phil reappeared. “Sorry, ladies; I’ve got to run. I’ll be back tomorrow to check on that window; otherwise”—he looked grave—“I might have to pull out of the show.”Reassuring Phil that all would be well—even though I had serious reservations—I was relieved when he disappeared.“Did you say you were going to see Barbara?” said Olive. “I’ve got something for her. Wait a moment.”Olive went behind the counter, muttering, “It’s under here somewhere.” After what seemed like ages, she produced a small, rectangular package covered in brown paper with lashings of tape.
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“Isn’t that Phil’s?” I said exasperated.“Of course not.” Olive tapped a perfectly manicured frosted pink nail at the crudely written name in black marker pen: BARBARA MEADOWS. OPEN BY ADDRESSEE ONLY! EXTREMLY CONFIDENTAL. There was no postage mark. “And whoever sent it can’t spell.” She picked up the package and shook it. There was a dull thud. “I wonder what it is. Would it be naughty to open it?”My thoughts exactly, but I had no intention of doing so in front of Olive. “We shouldn’t. It’s personal.”“It could be anthrax!” Olive dropped it onto the counter and sprang back, terrified.“Hardly.” Although I had to admit that the package did look sinister. “Who delivered it?”“I only left reception for a moment to use the little girls’ room. When I got back, it was on the counter. Should we call the police? What if it’s a bomb?”Olive could be so dramatic! “I’ll take care of it.”Fortunately, the phone rang, and Olive had to answer it, giving me the perfect opportunity to grab the tape dispenser off the counter—marked in black Sharpie DO NOT REMOVE FROM RECEPTION—and slip it into my pocket. I was going to need that.Olive had a point. The contents of the package could be dangerous, and I would hate for something to happen to Barbara.Grabbing it, I hurried off to my car.Someone needed to check.8The package was heavily taped but no match for my Swiss Army penknife. I sliced through the bindings and removed the brown paper to find an old, battered shoebox.Inside was an object wrapped up in a torn sheet of yellowing newspaper. With surprise, I saw it was none other than an obituary page from theGipping Gazette! It was dated August 26—Dad’s birthday—1963. There was no note.I lifted out the package with care and unwrapped it to find a single white-leather Mary Jane with a peep toe and honeycomb cutouts.Perhaps the shoe was connected to Barbara’s wedding day? Wasn’t the bride supposed to wearsomething old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue?This was certainly old. I wasn’t a shoe expert, but it looked like something my grandmother would have worn, but it didn’t look exactlybridal.For a start, the two-and-a-half-inch heel had brownish stains—Devon was known for its rich red clay, which was used to make the terra-cotta pots from which the Torquay terra-cotta industry began in the late nineteenth century—but it was the circular metal object that had been jammed into the toe of the shoe that was most puzzling.It was an old steel bicycle bell, with a starburst on the top and a crown on the bell pusher, stamped MADE IN WEST GERMANY. Of course, everyone knew that Barbara owned a bike. Hers was pink and she was very fond of it. Baffled, I returned the bell, which still worked and emitted a brightding-ding, back inside the shoe.There was something weird about it that gave me the creeps. Why mark it confidential? Where was the other shoe? Was the date on the newspaper significant, and what could this possibly have to do with Barbara?I smoothed out the newspaper. The headline read, MILDRED MOURNED BY MILLIONS!A sharp rap on the window made me jump.Blast!Steve, dressed in his white paramedic uniform, was standing there, clutching a bunch of pink carnations.I opened the window.“Morning, doll,” he said, wheezing heavily. “I ran. Got five minutes?”“Not really. I’m just leaving.” But Steve appeared not to hear. He walked around to the passenger side. I made a mad scramble, rolled the shoe up in the newspaper, shoved it into the box, and placed it on the seat behind me. I’d have to tape it up again later.“Thanks.” Steve squeezed his large frame into the front of the Fiat. There was a weird grating sound as the car sank a full two inches under his weight.Good-bye, shock absorbers!“Thought I’d check on my girl. I’m on a coffee break.” Steve leaned over to kiss me, but I was a step ahead and looked away.“What a piece of luck!” He went on, “We almost missed each other.”“But here we are,” I said.“Telepathy.” Steve beamed. “Olive said you’d already left. I know you sometimes park your car here.” He passed me the carnations. “For you.”“That’s very sweet of you, thanks.”“They’re the flowers of love, doll,” said Steve. “I wrapped the stems up in wet newspaper. They should be all right until you get them into a vase.”“You didn’t tell me you had a famous brother,” I said.“You met Phil?” An agonized expression crossed Steve’s face.“He came to theGazettethis morning.”Steve shook his head. “No, Steve, don’t ask her. Don’t go there.”“Don’t go where?”“I can’t help it. I’ve got to know.” Steve looked at me with his tortured puppy-dog eyes and took a deep breath. “We’ve got to be honest in this relationship. Tell me the truth, and I won’t be upset.”Had Steve been spying? Had he seen me open the shoebox? “It’s just work,” I said quickly.“I knew it!” Steve cried with dismay. “All the ladies fancy my brother. He asked you out, didn’t he?”“Oh.That.Don’t be silly,” I said. “I’m interviewing Phil for a day-in-the-life piece. I told you, I don’t have time for relationships.”“Phil’s rich. A celebrity—”“And you save lives,” I said firmly. “That’s far more important.”Steve turned pink with pleasure. “You’re right. Steve saves lives.”“Must you refer to yourself in the third person?”“What?”“Never mind,” I said. “Any ID on the mystery woman yet?”“She’s gone, doll.”“What do you mean,gone?”“I heard they took her to Plymouth morgue this morning.”“What’s wrong withourmorgue?” I was stunned and more than a little suspicious.Steve raised his heavy shoulders. “Stalk’s orders.”Stalk!It certainly explained why Pete was no longer bothered—but frankly, I was incensed. Not only had the woman died on Gipping territory, but she had died in very mysterious circumstances, and nobody seemed to care except for me.“Come on, Steve,” I said flirtatiously. “You’re a smart and intelligent man. If itwerejust an accident, why would the police waste taxpayers’ money moving the body to Plymouth? Are they doing another autopsy? Is Coroner Cripps losing his touch?”“Search me, doll. I mean no disrespect but—” he hesitated. “Don’t get me wrong . . . She was only a gypsy. Know what I mean?”“I’m surprised at you of all people, Steve,” I said hotly. “Gypsy or not, the poor woman still deserves justice. And what about her family? Perhaps she has children? How would you feel—?”“Don’t panic! Keep your hair on, Vicky. Hang on a minute.” Steve frowned. “Therewassomething funny about her hair—”“I thought she was wearing a wig.”“She was, and it was obvious why. I got a good look at her in the morgue,” said Steve. “There were a few small clumps and an unusual red rash on her scalp. Cripps thought it was a chemical burn and wanted to send off a sample to get tested, but we were told Plymouth would handle all that.”Even more strange!“Do you know anyone in Plymouth morgue?“Why?”“I wouldn’t mind being kept in the loop,” I said with a smile. “Something doesn’t feel right.”“Anything for you, doll,” said Steve. “When can I see you?”“How about after you’ve spoken to your friend in Plymouth again?”Steve nodded. “They’ll get the results back tomorrow.”“Tomorrow it is.”As I drove away, a glance in my rearview mirror showed Steve waving me out of sight. I felt a pang of guilt. Steve had proved to be a valuable informant in the past. Was I just leading him on? Using him as a source of information?No more!I resolved to set the record straight—but not quite yet.News that the body had been moved to Plymouth was certainly fishy.Pete had told me to leave well enough alone, but I just couldn’t. Christiane Amanpour would never allow herself to be deflected from finding out the truth.Belcher Pike’s arrival in Gipping-on-Plym couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. Whittler had predicted there would be hundreds of gypsies arriving at The Grange. Surely someone would know who she was?9As I made my way to The Grange, I kept an eye out for a Land Rover with safari rack and overhead lighting, but only saw the common Keswick green variety.Turning off the main road, I could just see the chimney tops peeping above the trees that screened the main house and wondered what chaos lay ahead.Set in one hundred and seventy-five acres of parkland, there was plenty of space for the gypsies to call home.Rumored to have once run to over two thousand acres, the estate had shrunk considerably over the years, thanks to various gambling debts and a passion for snail racing.There were three entrances to the estate—the main drive, a tradesman’s back lane, and an overgrown access road that passed the abandoned cricket pavilion and cut through Trewallyn Woods.Since Topaz was adamant that she’d never sell, The Grange was turning into a white elephant. She’d made a few half-hearted attempts at renting the stables out, but they had ended in disaster. No doubt the main house would gradually fall into disrepair, as did so many of these beautiful country homes dotted around England, a vivid reminder of a time when Britain had an empire.Good grief!I sounded just like my father, who complained that his target market—the upper classes—was steadily shrinking.Dad was extremely fond of silver heirlooms, especially if there was a story behind them. He’d say,“Mary Queen of Scots’s lips touched this silver tankard the morning before she had her head cut off,”and“This candelabra was on Charles II’s night table when he first seduced Nell Gwynne.”Thinking of my parents made me sad—especially the last memory of Mum, pushing me onto the train at Newcastle railway station, saying, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”What was it like to live a normal life? Perhaps I had more in common with these gypsy folks than I realized. Hadn’t my family been ostracized by society for Dad’s lifestyle? Hadn’t we been forced to move on from town to town?A loud horn from behind interrupted my maudlin musings. A driver’s cab filled my rearview mirror. Headlights flashed urgently. Startled, I accelerated, looking for somewhere to pull over, but the road was too narrow. The horn sounded again. The wretched lorry was on my bumper! In desperation, I yanked the steering wheel to the right and mounted the grass verge with a sickening thud.A large truck from Gipping County Council—REFUSE WE CAN’T REFUSE—sailed on by without even so much as a thank-you! In the cab sat a grim-faced Ronnie Binns, Gipping’s chief garbologist and recycling fanatic. On the flatbed was a selection of colored wheelie bins tied down with rope. How unbelievably rude!Slamming my foot on the accelerator, I bumped the Fiat off the grass verge and returned to the road with another nasty thud.Rounding the corner, I saw Ronnie’s lorry skid through the main gate to The Grange and barrel up the drive, hand hard down on the horn for good measure. What Olive saw in him was a mystery to me.Arriving at the entrance, I stopped for a moment, unsure of what sort of reception lay ahead. Opening the glove box, I took out my makeshift PRESS placard and put it on the front dashboard. I’d heard that gypsies could get violent, and that their dogs were vicious and chased after cars. I read somewhere that a Molotov cocktail had been hurled at an innocent rambler who just happened to be walking by, minding her own business. Hopefully my press card might act as some kind of deterrent.
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It looked as if trouble was already brewing. Flanked by abandoned Victorian gatehouses, the main gate had been lifted from its hinges and lay on the ground. A banner, stretching from roof to roof, said:Morris Dance-a-thon!Here! Saturday!See Your Favorite Devon SidesDance Till They Drop!The accompanying massive fluorescent-green billboard listing the other attractions—hedge-jumping and hedge-laying displays, a snail racing exhibition, and a bottled-jam boil-off, had been partially sprayed with graffiti.The words SILENT AUCTION! TAKE HOME A PIECE OF CELEBRITY MORRIS MAN PHIL BURROWS had practically been obliterated.Phil was not in as much demand as he thought.A flash of blue caught my attention. My stomach turned over as I braced myself for a gypsy attack, but suddenly four figures in navy hoodies and jeans, aerosol cans in hand, burst from the undergrowth and scampered away. I recognized them immediately—Mickey, Malcolm, Ben, and Brian Barker, aka the Swamp Dogs—Gipping’s answer to a street gang. No doubt they were responsible for the graffiti.I slipped my Fiat into four-wheel drive. Even though the last two weeks had been dry, we’d had a wet summer, and Ronnie’s heavy lorry had certainly deepened the ruts in the potholed surface. I dreaded to think what kind of damage would be done to the parkland. Add that to the hundreds of revelers expected on Saturday, and the place would be a quagmire.As I drew closer to the main house, I wondered if there had been some mistake.I counted just two painted wagons—the green-and-yellow one I’d seen earlier and a crimson one—two horses, and one 1960 orange-and-white VW camper van.They were backed against a vicious blackthorn hedge that I knew had been earmarked for one of the hedge-laying displays on Saturday. Even I didn’t need to have the gift of the Sight to predict trouble with hedge-layer Jack Webster.But where was everybody? Where was the famous gypsy king, Belcher Pike? Was thisit?I was so preoccupied that I wasn’t paying attention and narrowly avoided hitting a pedestrian with a limp.Dressed in a red shawl and long dirndl skirt, the gypsy was still carrying her canvas bag filled with flyers. I did hope she wasn’t planning on giving one to Topaz—or, rather, Lady Ethel, or was it Ms. Ethel? Not moving in aristocratic circles, I wasn’t sure how to address the niece of a dead aunt who had married a Duke.I opened my window. “Can I give you a lift?”The woman turned and regarded me with suspicion. “Why?”“I’m going up to the main house,” I said cheerfully. I wasn’t, but perhaps the gypsies had camped on the other side of the estate. “Thought it might save you the walk.”“I’ve seen you before.” The woman stepped up to my car and peered at the sign under my windshield. “Are you a reporter?”“Yes. I’m with theGipping Gazette.” I gave her my best smile, anxious to prove Edward wrong and that, yes, she would love to talk to the newspaper.“Just the person I want to see!” The woman slithered around to the passenger side and opened the door. Edwardwaswrong.Planting her muddy, sensible shoes—I recognized them from Marks & Spencer—into my foot well, the woman slid into the front seat, clutching the bag to her chest. I caught a strong whiff of cheap perfume.“I’m a reporter, too. Editor ofRomany Ramblings,” she said. “I go by my maiden name of Dora Pike, but just call me Dora.”“Vicky Hill.” What a stroke of luck! A fellow reporter! I was thrilled. It had never occurred to me that the gypsies might have their own newspaper! Better still, if the dead womanwasa gypsy, Dora Pike was bound to know who she was and demand justice.“My newspaper is available online, in case you were wondering.”I was. “I’m impressed.”“Don’t look so surprised. It’s no mystery,” said Dora. “We use modern technology just like the rest of you. We have mobile phones and satellite TV.”So much for a romantic life on the open road, free from twenty-first-century technology.Dora rummaged around in her bag and pulled out a business card—MADAME DORA, EDITOR AND PSYCHIC JOURNALIST.ROMANY RAMBLINGS. “Do you have one?”I handed her the same cheap card Stalk had sneered at and braced myself for a derogatory remark.Dora studied it with a frown, then smiled. “Don’t worry, your time will come, luv,” she said. “I see big things for you.”I could already tell that Dora and I would become the best of friends.“Mind if I put this bag behind my seat?” she said.Wedging the bag behind her, I noted that Dora looked at Barbara’s parcel. Her eyes widened in surprise. My stomach flipped over. Did the gypsy woman’s psychic powers sense there was something sinister about the contents? Or had she guessed that I’d opened something that wasn’t addressed to me?“I’m delivering it to a friend,” I said by way of explanation, wondering why I felt the need to do so.Dora suddenly grasped my hand and turned it over. Her fingers traced my palm. Dad thought fortune-telling was a load of rubbish, but naturally Mum believed in the Sight. She said I’d inherited a sixth sense from her side of the family, and sometimes I was inclined to believe this was true. It had certainly helped me clinch three front-page exclusives. Even so, as the saying goes,the jury was still out.Finally, Dora looked up from her studies. “I thought so,” she said with deep significance. “A word of advice, luv. Be careful whom you pick for friends. Sometimes people are not as innocent as they seem.”I didn’t need a gypsy to tell me the obvious. I could think of at least ten people I could say that about.“You are also not what you seem,” said Dora darkly.I felt my face turn red and tried to snatch my hand away, but she held on tightly.“Your eyes are the windows to your soul,” Dora said nodding. “You have enemies. I see a woman. Is that true?”“Possibly.” I recalled reading how fortune-tellers had a way of drawing information out of you. “Actually, I’m more interested in my career.”Dora dropped my hand, swiveled around, and pulled out a copy of theGipping Gazettefrom her canvas shopping bag. It was folded open to the obituary pages on eleven and twelve, where my photograph—inappropriately smiling, I’d always thought—bore the caption: ON THE CEMETERY CIRCUIT WITH VICKY!“Here you are now, but don’t worry,” said Dora. “You won’t stay stuck in this dump forever. I’ll be in the market tomorrow morning. Why don’t you come, and I’ll give you a proper reading.”“No thanks. I can’t really afford it at the moment,” I said. “I already bought some lucky heather for five pounds. It was supposed to be three, but the girl didn’t have change.”“You can’t go wrong buying heather from my daughter, Ruby,” Dora declared. Maybe not, I thought, but I was still overcharged.I put the Fiat into gear and we began to bump up the drive.“I wondered if you could tell me a little about Belcher Pike?” I ventured. “I understand he’s enjoying his final days here at The Grange?”“He’s my dad,” said Dora. “Turned eighty-nine last month, but he won’t last out the summer. He’s bedridden now.”“I am sorry,” I said. “As you know, I write the obituary column for theGazette,and I just wondered if I might be able to have a chat with him—”“Chat?A chat!” Dora seemed appalled. I kept my eyes on the road ahead but could feel her fury. “Do you want to send my father’s soul straight to hell?”“No, of course—”“A terrible misfortune will fall upon gorgers who cross the threshold of a dying Romany!”Idiot, Vicky!Edward had mentioned something about gorgers not being allowed near dying gypsies.“A vigil is kept around the clock,” Dora raged on. “They mustneverbe left alone. They must besegregateduntil death comes and finally releases them from the sufferings of this life. These are our customs, and they can never be broken.”“Sorry,” I said, desperately trying to think of something to redeem myself. “I suppose I’m nervous about his funeral—when he has one, if he has one,” I blundered on. “It’s just that I’ve heard that there will be hundreds of mourners, and I’m worried about leaving someone’s name out.”“Is that all?” said Dora. She patted my leg. “Don’t worry. I know the name of every family in England, luv. I’ll help you when the time comes.”“Thank you!” My relief turned to excitement. If the dead woman as a gypsy, Dora would almost certainly know who she was—or, at least, know someone who might.“When do you expect everyone to arrive?”“In a week or so,” Dora said. “We’re the advance party, so to speak. Tell you what—why don’t you come and have a cup of tea in my wagon? We’ll talk about how we can help each other.”“I’d love to.”Ha! Edward wasn’t right about everything.As the main house came into sight, the drive split in front of a large oak tree.“Take the right fork,” said Dora. “I’m up behind the stables.”My spirits lifted. I couldn’t wait to see the inside of a traditional horse-drawn wagon and was positive that my new friend Dora’s would be stuffed with horse brasses and Royal Crown Derby china galore.“Just stop by the public footpath sign,” she said.Cutting the engine, we both got out. I changed into my trusty Wellingtons and squelched my way after Dora along the muddy footpath that led around the back of the stable block and up a slope.Moments later I stopped dead. There in front of me was a luxuriously sleek, silver Winnebago Sightseer. So much for a horse-drawn wagon.I couldn’t help but wonder if it was the same Winnebago that Florence Tossell’s sister had seen in Brighton last month. Surely there couldn’t be two?“I had to drive in through the Ponsford Ridge gate,” said Dora, gesturing up the hill to a distant hedge, where a five-bar gate was just visible. “She can’t handle these small country lanes.”“She’s a beauty,” was all I could manage to say. Everyone knows that Winnebagos cost thousands and thousands of pounds, and this one looked practically new. There was obviously a great deal of money in telling fortunes! I was beginning to wonder if I was in the wrong business.“I know what you’re thinking,” Dora said cheerfully, removing her muddy shoes and gesturing me to do likewise—fortunately, my socks were new. “Times have changed. It’s calledprogress.” She unlocked the door, and I followed her up three short steps into the RV. Donning a pair of sheepskin slippers, she added, “There’s nothing romantic about sleeping in a freezing-cold wagon. Even my Ruby prefers a VW camper.”“And the man with the ponytail?” I felt my face redden and hoped Dora hadn’t noticed.“Noah?” Dora gave an indulgent chuckle. “That’s my nephew. Writes poetry. Plays the guitar. Now, heisa romantic.”“So they’re cousins?” I asked, realizing that I was glad that Ruby and my pirate look-alike were not an item.“Oh, we’re all related,” said Dora. “And that’s the way we like to keep it. Blood is thicker than water. That’s just our way.”It was also the Hill way. Dad’s business activities were always kept within the family. He’d often say,“If you can’t trust family, then who can you trust?”As Dora boiled the kettle—she proudly pointed out a silent generator—I gave the Winnebago a once-over.It was equipped with all the modern conveniences and reminded me of the celebrity trailers depicted on TV. Plush, wall-to-wall carpeting; sleek wooden fittings and fixtures; a state-of-the-art kitchen. There was even a flat-screen television, an expensive-looking camera, and a computer workstation complete with scanner. A glass display cabinet was stuffed with Royal Crown Derby china.Although Dad only dealt in silver, he knew the value of everything on the black market. Royal Crown Derby was deceptively expensive. Some limited pieces ran into thousands of pounds.Dora set down a tray containing an unopened packet of chocolate digestives, two china mugs, and a Brown Betty teapot.Whilst the tea steeped in the pot, Dora handed me a copy ofRomany Ramblings.I had to admit it looked surprisingly professional. All eight pages were nicely laid out with full-color photographs. “I run off copies for those who don’t have or can’t afford the Internet. A couple of my boys take them around to other sites.”I leafed through the newspaper, intrigued by the range of features, from gypsy campaigns to evade eviction to human-interest stories. One gypsy was even awarded an MBE from the Queen. There was a whole section dedicated to “Young Ramblers,” a column called “Peep at the Past” chronicling a different gypsy way of life one hundred years ago, job opportunities, caravans for sale, and a helpline for victims of domestic violence.To say I was impressed was putting it mildly.Dora poured me a cuppa and gestured to the milk and sugar. “I’m working on getting up a website with an audio stream. Get some of the old-timers to record their memories before our way of life is lost forever.”Even theGazettedidn’t have a website.“But I want to reach a wider audience. Not just limit this to gypsies,” Dora went on. “You gorgers are willing to believe the worst of us. We’re not thieves. We don’t destroy the countryside. It’s our creed to live peacefully with nature. Live and let live is all we ask for.”We sipped our tea in companionable silence. It was now or never. “A woman drowned in Mudge Lane last night,” I said. “It’s been rumored that she might have been a gypsy. I wondered if you’d heard anything?”“Sorry,” said Dora. “Not one of us, luv. I told you, I know everyone.”
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“It happened only last night,” I pointed out.“Vurma,” said Dora. “Or you could call it a gypsy phone tree. There are fixed contact points throughout the country. Someone always knows someone. Believe me, if she was a gypsy, we’d know.”“Are you quite sure?” I asked. “The police don’t seem to care.”“Is that why you think she’s one of us?” demanded Dora. “Because the police don’t care?”“I didn’t mean it quite like that,” I faltered.“We’ve had centuries of discrimination,” Dora proclaimed. “But not anymore. Times are changing. More tea?” I nodded. “And I suggest you don’t go asking questions. We don’t like talking to reporters,” Dora went on. “If you want to know something, ask me.”“How long will you be staying at The Grange?” I asked, feeling quite flattered that I was obviously the exception to the rule.A shadow crossed Dora’s face. “Who can say when God decides to take my father’s soul?”“Is it”—I hesitated—“legal to stay here?”“When I was a teenager, we’d camp at The Grange all summer,” said Dora. “My folks picked apples and helped make scrumpy. Sir Hugh said we could come whenever we liked.”“Sir Hugh died a while ago,” I said. “I’m not sure how Lady Turberville-Spat—she inherited The Grange—would feel if it were too long.”“The niece?” Dora gave a harsh laugh. “She’ll be in for a nasty surprise one day.”My heart gave a jolt. “What do you mean?”“You’ll see,” Dora said cryptically. “We have a saying, ‘In the hour of your greatest success are sown the seeds of your destruction.’ But let’s get down to business, shall we?”Business?Dora got to her feet, limped over to the computer workstation, and hobbled back with a thick brown envelope.“It’s all in there. As a board member of the National Gypsy Council, I’ve written a detailed report about the disgraceful lack of legal stopping places for gypsies and the lack of sanitation and health care. We need the public to be aware that our kids are discriminated against in schools. I want this report on the front page of your newspaper, and believe me, Doraalwaysgets her way.”I was flabbergasted. “The front page is not up to me.”“And don’t think I don’t know the little tricks you gorgers try to pull, like framing us for fly-tipping and spreading rubbish about,” Dora declared. “We follow the recycling rules, same as everybody else.”“Actually, I believe Gipping County Council are dropping off recycling bins as we speak.”“There is no way you can evict us, luv,” said Dora. “We’ve got the law on our side these days. The Race Relations Act of 1976 recognizes Romanies and ethnic minorities deserving of sensitive treatment, and with my dad so close to death’s door, you can’t get more sensitive than that!”“Right. Of course,” I said.The door opened, and Ruby poked her head in. “Whose Wellingtons are those outside? Oh.” She scowled on seeing me. “I thought we were going to pick mushrooms.”“Ruby, this is Vicky, who works for the newspaper,” said Dora. I resisted the temptation to ask for my two pounds change. “She’s going to publish my article on the front page this week.”Blast!“As I was saying, it’s not really my—”“And you believe her?” Ruby snorted. “What did you go and talk to a bloody gorger for? And a reporter, too?”Dora opened her mouth to answer and shut it again. The two women glowered at each other. Clearly this kind of discussion would not continue in front of the likes of me.“Actually, I just write the obituaries,” I said. “We were talking about your grandfather, Belcher Pike.”“He’s not dead yet,” snapped Ruby.With Wellingtons on once more, I bid my good-byes and left the luxury of the Winnebago. I reflected that things had gone rather well.My fear that the names of hundreds of mourners would elude me were groundless. As for the gypsy woman’s inflammatory report—let Pete deal with her. The front page was out of my hands.Yet there was one thing that bothered me. Dora didn’t seem remotely curious about the dead woman in Mudge Lane. Call it my own Romany instincts but Dora Pike was hiding something, and I was determined to find out what it was.10As I took the footpath back to my car, I had to stop to admire the view. It was magnificent. Born in the industrial city of Newcastle, it had taken me a while to appreciate the beauty and adjust to the silence of the countryside. Surprisingly, I’d grown to love it.Gray clouds gave way to a watery sun. Below, stretching to the horizon was a patchwork of rolling green meadows divided by hedgerows, peppered with grazing sheep. Down to my right, screened by towering oak and beech trees, stood The Grange.I could just make out the redbrick chimneys and dormer windows set into the slate roof—servants’ quarters from another century ago.To my left, stood a forest of pine trees known as Trewallyn Woods. The tradesmen’s entrance wound it’s way past Sir Hugh’s Folly, a cylindrical tower built in Victorian times—for no reason whatsoever—to the rear of the main house.I had to look hard to locate the two wagons and VW camper. Even the Winnebago was shielded from the road by a belt of trees and thick hedge.From my vantage point, I tried to find Belcher Pike’s “segregated” wagon but to no avail. It was as if the gypsies weren’t here at all, although I rather doubted this would be of any consolation to Topaz.The Morris Dance-a-thon was to be held in an enormous field on the south side of the house. The original building had been Tudor. Then, as the years passed and fashions came and went, bits were added on here and there—Queen Anne sash windows with multipaned glass, gothic gables with hideous gargoyles peering down from bargeboards—and now, the front door was reached by taking a wide flight of stone steps leading up to a Palladian portico supported by grand Corinthian pillars.A natural sloping bank descended from the upper garden—now a wilderness—providing the perfect spot for spectators to sit, picnic, and watch the proceedings below.There were many preparations to make. An arena with a hard floor had to be laid out, tents erected, Port-a-loos brought in, and parking for hundreds of cars marked off.There was plenty of space for everyone, and frankly, as long as Belcher Pike didn’t die before Saturday, there was no reason why the Morris Dance-a-thon couldn’t go ahead as planned.Continuing down the footpath, I came to a T-Junction. One way took me past the Victorian walled kitchen garden, which I knew led directly to the rear of the house; the other, up to Ponsford Ridge. In front of me was the entrance to a bridleway flanked by an archway of trees that looked as if they’d definitely been disturbed. Branches were broken, and the ground was full of muddy footprints and tire tracks.Curious, I set off, promising myself that I’d walk for only ten minutes—I couldn’t afford to get lost—but just when I was about to retrace my steps, I heard the faint chords of a guitar.Drawing closer, I came upon a grassy clearing. Less than twenty feet away stood an elaborately carved bowtop wagon in a dull khaki green. There was no decorative scrollwork picked out in gold leaf, colorful shutters, or painted wheels.Fierce-looking barbed wire encompassed the small camp. There was even a sign reading GORGERS KEEP OUT. Dora certainly wasn’t taking any chances with Belcher Pike’s soul.Noah was sitting on a tree stump quietly playing his guitar. A shaft of sunlight broke through the trees and shone down on him like a spotlight from heaven. My stomach turned over. I was utterly spellbound.The song finished. Noah looked up sharply and saw me standing on the edge of the woods. I gave a shy wave, but he didn’t wave back.Hurrying over, he gestured to the sign, whispering urgently, “You can’t come here. You must leave.”“Sorry. I heard you playing—”“You don’t understand.” Noah’s eyes bored into mine as he grabbed my hand and led me away from the clearing. “No one must see you here.”“It’s okay.” Frankly, I thought he was overreacting. “Your aunt told me all about the gypsy customs. I just had tea with her.”“Tea?” Noah frowned. “Why?”“I work for theGipping Gazette.” Really, he had to be the sexiest man alive. “I’ll be writing Belcher Pike’s obituary and usually visit the family at home.”“Well you can’t,” he said flatly, then tensed. “Someone is coming! Go and hide behind the wagon. Quickly.”His anxiety was contagious. I ran and squatted behind the rear of the wagon next to a small tarpaulin-covered box. A quick peek underneath revealed a shiny red, portable Honda generator, model number EU30i. I bet Belcher Pike had a television in his wagon, too. I also noted a tow-hitch receiver and a mass of crisscrossing tire tracks that continued into another belt of trees and most likely up to Ponsford Ridge.Voices came closer. Dora and Ruby were walking toward the wagon. Ruby was carrying a bulging gunnysack.My heart gave a lurch! Why hadn’t I guessed the obvious? The gypsies had been poaching. Nighttime rabbit shooting, which I thoroughly abhorred, was a common sight in the countryside. Land Rovers were the vehicle of choice, particularly one with the advantage of a safari roof rack and overhead lighting! I wouldn’t be surprised if it were the same vehicle that had been used to tow this wagon to this very spot. Next time I saw Dora, I’d confront her.The two women entered the wagon, but before I had a chance to eavesdrop, Noah appeared by my side. “Quickly,” he whispered, pointing to a barely visible animal track behind me through the undergrowth. “Follow that path. It will take you back to The Grange.”He took my hand. Our eyes met again, and he smiled. “You’ve got the most beautiful sapphire-blue eyes.”“Thanks,” I said coyly. “Believe it or not, they’re my own.”“Now—go!”I darted into the undergrowth. It was thick with brambles and quite exhausting to fight my way through. Noah was right. About ten minutes later I found myself standing in the weed-riddled cobbled courtyard.The Grange was even more rundown than I remembered. A row of ramshackle outbuildings revealed an old tractor with no wheels and an assortment of rusted farmyard machinery. There was no sign of the new wheelies or Ronnie Binns.Annabel’s extremely muddy silver BMW was parked next to Topaz’s equally dirty red Ford Capri. Since Annabel had been assigned to interview her ladyship, there was no reason why I should be there, too. Yet, in a funny way, I felt a bit jealous.Topaz may be as mad as a hatter but she was stillmyfriend. Besides, I was curious to meet Topaz as her real self—if there was such a thing. Would Annabel see through her disguise?As always, the back door was unlocked. I pushed it open and stepped inside.There was only one way to find out.11The scullery was just as I remembered it—dark and soulless. A long slate-lined sink ran the length of a window that was covered in dirt and cobwebs. Bare stone counters lined the other three walls.The kitchen was equally depressing. As far as I knew, the place hadn’t been lived in for months, following a disastrous attempt at renting out The Grange to strangers.I shivered. Despite it being August, the place was freezing. The room had a high-gabled roof, a flagstone floor, and a large inglenook fireplace. Tacked to the wooden mantel clung an old sheet—apparently an ineffectual attempt at stopping the draft howling down the chimney.The kitchen was divided into two by a wooden counter. On one side were countertops, a kitchen sink, an unlit Aga, an old fridge, and a microwave.Propped under the tall sash window on the far side of the immense room stood two camp beds. Tattered sleeping bags had been rolled up and deposited in a corner—no doubt providing a very nice home for rats. An ancient Chesterfield sofa was piled with open boxes, presumably containing the former tenants’ meager possessions.
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The place smelled damp and musty and could do with a good airing.I went through to the large inner hall. The floor was of black and white marble and resembled a chessboard. An enormous crystal chandelier hung from a domed atrium overhead. On my right, two suitcases stood at the base of the grand oak staircase. A soft woof came from above.Looking up, I saw Topaz’s old Labrador peering down through the banisters from the landing. Slipper was exactly the kind of dog I liked—arthritic, practically deaf, and almost blind. Normally, I was afraid of dogs, but I had to admit that Slipper was a sweetheart.I recalled Topaz mentioning that when her aunt and uncle were alive, they used a suite of rooms on the first floor. Presumably she intended to do likewise. Even though I wasn’t afraid of Slipper, I couldn’t quite bring myself to have to pass her on the staircase but fortunately, the sound of muffled voices coming from farther down the hall suggested that Topaz and Annabel were close by. I went to join them.Suddenly there was the tinkle of familiar laughter followed by an unattractive snort. It seemed to be coming from inside the room with the daffodil painted on the porcelain door handle. A room I knew all too well.“Oh, your ladyship, you are funny!” I heard Annabel say. I couldn’t quite catch Topaz’s response because I was in shock.Topaz was showing Annabel her family heirlooms.Always under lock and key—though, either would not deter any seasoned burglar—Topaz had always claimed that she couldn’t risk showing the “priceless Spat silver” and the “extremely valuable Trewallyn paintings” to anyone. I’d only seen them myself because she’d asked me to do an inventory one night.I gently pushed open the door, unnoticed by the two women who were huddled over a table in the far right-hand corner.The shutters on the tall sash windows were folded open. Light spilled into the usually kept dark room that afforded a view of Trewallyn Woods. Light also twinkled from the crystal chandelier above, catching the sheen of mountains of silver piled on top of the antique oak refectory table.It reminded me of Dad’s old lockup at Newcastle railway station, which I was allowed to visit as a treat when most kids were taken out for a strawberry milkshake.Having taken Topaz’s inventory before, I knew there should be a total of thirty-seven pieces—silver tea sets, compote services, candlesticks, candelabras, goblets, and a pair of silver swan centerpieces. But when Annabel stepped aside, I couldn’t believe what Topaz held cradled under each arm—a pair of matching Georgian tea urns.Of all the silver that came and went in the Hill household, Georgian tea urns were Dad’s passion. He collected them and was famous for it.I recognized the designer immediately. With the urns’ simple, neoclassical style and beaded borders, they were almost certainly made by Hester Bateman in the late 1700s.As one of the first well-recognized female silver-smiths in England, I had always had a particular interest in Hester Bateman’s work. Being a woman in a male-dominated workplace isn’t easy these days, let alone two hundred-odd years ago.“I just want one more photograph of the underside.” Annabel took a step back, holding her iPhone aloft.“They’re frightfully heavy,” grumbled Topaz.I would never have recognized Topaz as the waitress from The Copper Kettle. For a start, she was wearing a 1960s black Jackie O-styled wig, horn-rimmed spectacles, and a pair of tight-fitting stretch jodhpurs that she’d filled with lumpy padding. A cream polo-neck sweater under a green tweed jacket topped off her lady-of-the-manner attire.Topaz caught sight of me hovering in the doorway and gave a cry of alarm. “Who are you? Get out! You’re trespassing!”Annabel spun round. “What areyoudoing here?”“I recognized your car outside, Annabel, and thought I should introduce myself to her . . . ladyship.”“Out! Out!” shrieked Topaz, slamming both tea urns down on the table, seemingly not caring if she damaged either.Flapping her hands in my direction, she yelled, “Shoo! Shoo!” before grabbing a very startled Annabel and bundling us out of the room.Honestly!How typical of Topaz to go over the top.“Now see what you’ve done,” hissed Annabel as Topaz pulled the door closed with a bang.Pulling a key out of her tweed coat pocket, she made a meal of locking the door. “I’m sorry, but there arepricelessheirlooms in there. The viewing was for your eyes only, Ms. Lake!” she trilled.“I’m sorry—”Wagging her forefinger at Annabel, Topaz raged on, “You naughty girl! Howdareyou tell your friends!”“I can assure you I did nothing of the sort,” said Annabel, throwing me a look of pure hatred.“I’m afraid I might not want to do the interview, after all,” Topaz said with a haughty sniff. “I don’t think you can be trusted. Telling your friends—”“She’s not my friend, and I didn’t tell her anything,” said Annabel hotly. “Right, Vicky?”“It’s true. We just work together.” I found the whole thing amusing. Annabel had always been scathing about the waitress from The Copper Kettle, so the fact that she didn’t recognize her now, and seemed intimidated in the bargain, was actually hilarious.“Even so,” said Topaz, ignoring both of us. “I’m not suretelevisionis really my thing. It’s so common.”Annabel turned pale. “But you agreed. Westward TV is excited. They’re sending over a camera crew and everything.”Topaz gave a heavy sigh. “I’ll think about it, but what if the sight of cameras starts a riot?”“I don’t think there is any danger of that,” I said mildly. “There are three wagons, a VW camper, and a Winnebago. You’d hardly notice the gypsies are here at all.”“Hardly?”scoffed Annabel. “Pete said there would be hundreds turning up for that old man’s funeral.”“He’s not dead yet,” I said.“They’re already a menace to society with all their rubbish,” said Annabel. “You should see what’s behind the pigsty! Her ladyship showed me earlier. An old mattress, a fridge, sheets of corrugated iron—”“It’s frightful,” said Topaz.“All that stuff has been there for ages,” I said. “Have the recycling bins arrived yet?”“Recycling!”said Annabel with scorn. “You expect people like that torecycle?”I shrugged. “They insist they’re environmentally friendly.”Annabel turned to Topaz. “Andwe’ve got the Morris Dance-a-thon to think about, your ladyship.”“I am perfectly aware of the Morris Dance-a-thon,” said Topaz. “That’s why the eviction service is coming first thing Friday morning.”I’d heard of eviction crews in the past. They arrived with their bulldozers and were basically thugs-for-hire. “But Friday is when all the tents for the Morris Dance-a-thon will be going up. It’ll be chaos.”“My mind is made up,” Topaz declared.“I’m sorry, but I think that’s a really bad idea,” I said.Annabel’s eyes bugged out as if I’d answered back to the Queen of England. “Surely her ladyship is entitled to do what she wants on her land.”“You can’t evict a dying man and his grieving relatives,” I said, although, frankly, I hadn’t seen that much evidence of grief. “It’s a race relations and human rights issue.”“I don’t care,” said Topaz stubbornly. “I want them off.”“I spoke with a member of the gypsy council—”“Is that the frightful woman in the Winnebago?” said Topaz with a sneer. “If she can afford one of those, she can afford to live like a normal person in a proper house.”“I agree,” Annabel chimed in.“Apparently, Sir Hugh Trewallyn said they could camp here whenever they wanted,” I said. “There is a public right-of-way from Ponsford Ridge and—”“I don’t care about the public right-of-way,” Topaz snapped. “This is my land now, and I’ll do what I like.”“There are laws and—”“Never underestimate a Turberville-Spat.” Topaz’s voice was icy. “Iwillget them off my land, and that’s final. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some unpacking to do. You may both leave.”“But you’ll still do the interview, your ladyship, won’t you?”“Come on, Annabel,” I said, shepherding her in the direction of the kitchen.“Ms. Lake? Wait!” commanded Topaz.Annabel shook off my arm and stopped in her tracks. “Yes?”“Is it true that you live in Mrs. Evans’s sewing room?”“How did you know that?” Annabel seemed taken aback. Of course, it was me who had told Topaz. “And it’s not Mrs. Evans’s sewing room anymore. I moved all her stuff out.”“Whatever.” Topaz gave a dismissive wave of her hand. “I trust she still runs her charlady business?”“Yes. Why?”“Do you have her telephone number? I need to hire her services immediately.” Topaz gestured expansively to her surroundings. “I’d forgotten how enormous my ancestral home is.”“Won’t you be returning toLondon?” I asked pointedly.“I must stay on the premises until this rabble have been evicted. There could be stragglers, and I can’t risk anything being stolen.”“Aren’t you insured?” I said.“Insurance is not the point,” said Topaz. “These family heirlooms are irreplaceable—but I don’t expect either of you to understand that. Some of the silver pieces were personal gifts from George III.”“Like the Georgian tea urns,” said Annabel, turning to me with a bright smile. “Which was why I suggested a few additional photographs just in case there were any problems.”There was something in Annabel’s expression that made me uneasy. Knowing that she had made a thorough study of all of Dad’s foibles, she was bound to have discovered his penchant for a handsome tea urn with a nicely turned spigot.“I thought gypsies only collected Royal Crown Derby china,” I said lightly. “Antique silver is too distinctive and complicated to move on the black market without the right contacts.”“And you should know,” Annabel said slyly.Careful, Vicky!Annabel continued to try to catch me out.“How fascinating.” Topaz turned to me. “Ms. Hill, I’d like a quick word with you. Alone.”“Why? She’s just the obituary writer.”“How dare you question me!” Topaz pointed her finger at the kitchen door. “Go and wait in the scullery, otherwise, there will be no television interview.”Annabel opened her mouth and shut it again. Without a word, she slunk off and disappeared into the kitchen.Topaz started to bray with laughter. “What an absolute hoot!”“Keep your voice down,” I said. “She’s bound to be listening.”“Fancy her not recognizing me,” said Topaz.“Why did you show her the silver?”Topaz shrugged. “I told her that all gypsies were thieves, and she asked if I had anything valuable in the house, and one thing led to another. Why? Did you think I’d lured her into the daffodil room for a naughty reason? Were you jealous?”“No,” I said firmly. “Just surprised. You never mentioned you had any Georgian tea urns.”“You didn’t ask,” said Topaz.“And she did?”“Who cares!” Topaz laughed again. “I say, does this outfit make me look fat?”“Yes. Very. I’d better go,” I said. “Annabel is bound to be eavesdropping.”But Annabel wasn’t. She was outside in the courtyard, scrutinizing the grimy scullery window.“What are you doing?” I said.“I told her ladyship she ought to have a burglar alarm installed.” Annabel rapped the glass with her knuckles. “With all that silver, it would be easy to break in. And she should have a surveillance system, too.” Annabel cocked her head, adding thoughtfully, “Especially if it becomes common knowledge that there is a treasure trove ofsilverinside.”“Why should it become common knowledge?” I said. “I’m not going to spread the word around.”“Aren’t you?” Annabel smiled sweetly.My skin began to prickle—perhaps that trace of Romany instincts in my blood was kicking in. Annabel was up to something, and I didn’t like it one bit.Fortunately, all further comments were forgotten as the sound of angry voices drifted toward us. They seemed to be coming from behind a row of outbuildings.“I told you the gypsies would cause trouble,” said Annabel with ill-disguised glee.It would seem that this time, she could be right.12Rounding the corner, we discovered Ronnie Binns and Dora embroiled in a heated argument. Dressed in his regulation gabardine overalls and thigh-high waders, Ronnie stood next to a neat row of colored wheelies—blue, brown, gray, and a dirty white—quivering with rage.The courtyard may well have been a mess, but the situation behind the pigsty was a hundred times worse.
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Behind the pyramid of garbage, a muddy bank sloped down to a fast-running stream. It, too, was filled with debris—I counted five large wooden pallets and an ancient refrigerator. Black and blue plastic bags were snagged on branches along the riverbank. The whole place was filthy.“Ah! Vicky. Thank heavens! Dora’s face was bright red. “Tell this disgusting,smellyman that all this . . . this”—her arms encompassed the surrounding detritus of rusting bedsprings, tattered bags, and empty paint tins—“is nothing to do with us. Any idiot can tell it’s been here for years!”Ronnie thrust out his jaw. “She would say that, wouldn’t she?”“This is fly-tipping. No doubt about it,” said Annabel, snapping away with her iPhone. “Did you know you could be facing fines of up to twenty thousand pounds?”“What’s the point of fining them?” seethed Ronnie. “They’ll only vanish in the middle of the night. Tow-bar getaways. That’s what they’re called.”“This rubbishhasbeen here for a long time,” I said, pointing to a stack of rusted corrugated iron sheets. “The Romanies got here only yesterday.”“I told you so,” said Dora triumphantly. “Thank you, Vicky.”“So?” said Ronnie. “Now you people will see this as an excuse to dump your rubbish here, too.”“Whoever owns this house didn’t follow the rules,” Dora fumed. “Rules for them who have it all and rules for us who have nothing. That’s what’s wrong with this country today, isn’t that right, Vicky?”“A lot of people say that,” I said warily. Although I tended to agree, I didn’t want to get drawn into a political discussion.“And what’s more,” said Dora, “why put the bins here? We want a set of recycling bins outside every caravan just like normal householders. We’re entitled to it!”“Entitled!Entitled!” Ronnie sputtered with rage. “Over my dead body.”Annabel started to giggle.Dora turned on her. “And what’s so funny?”“Nothing,” she squeaked, shoulders heaving with silent laughter. She caught my eye, and I had to look sharply away as laughter began to bubble inside me, too. The scene was just too ridiculous.“Who are you?” demanded Dora.“Annabel Lake,” she said, struggling to pull herself together. “I’m an investigative reporter with—”“Get off my land or I’ll fire!” Topaz shrieked, storming into view. She was brandishing a twelve-bore shotgun.“Oh Lawd! It’s her ladyship!” cried Ronnie.“She’s not joking,” I said quickly. “You’d better do as she says.”Dora spun around to face Topaz, arms akimbo.“Go ahead. Fire. I’m not afraid of you.”Annabel grabbed my arm. “Do something—!”Topaz fired both barrels, and the recoil from the force of the blast sent her falling back into a pile of rusting paint cans.Annabel screamed. Ronnie ran off. Dora stood her ground.A strange smile spread across Dora’s face. Quick as lightning, she snatched the gun out of Topaz’s grasp.Topaz was trembling violently. “Golly. I didn’t know it was loaded.” Hampered by all that padding, she was finding it difficult to sit up. “My finger slipped. Frightfully sorry about that.”“You’ll be sorry all right,” said Dora in a low menacing voice. “Threatening a gypsy with a gun! Firing a gun without a license.”“I might have a license,” said Topaz faintly. “I’m positive Uncle Hugh had one.”“Your uncle Hugh said we could camp here for as long as we like,” Dora declared.Topaz rolled from side to side like an upended sheep until Annabel gamely stepped forward and pulled her to her feet. “My uncle is dead,” said Topaz with dignity, readjusting her clothes. “The Grange now belongs to me.”“You really think so?” Dora gave a harsh laugh. “The Grange isn’t yours, dearie. I can prove it.”Color drained from Topaz’s face. “What are you talking about?”Dora smirked. “Not so hoity-toity now, are you? Yourladyship.”“You liar!” screamed Topaz, pushing Annabel roughly aside, but Annabel hung on tightly. “Get off my land!”Dora started to laugh.“Let’s go inside, your ladyship,” said Annabel. “Have a nice cup of tea.” Thankfully, Topaz allowed Annabel to lead her away, leaving Dora and I alone.“Is it true about The Grange?” I said.Dora’s expression was hard. “Put it this way, Sir Hugh liked to exercise his rights as lord of the manor.”Of course, I’d read all about droit du seigneur in my pirate novels, but the thought of old Sir Hugh—who I’d never met—seducing the virgins of Gipping-on-Plym was utterly repulsive.“With one of your people?” I said stunned.“Never!” said Dora. “You’ll see. You’ll find out soon enough. And I’m warning you, be careful of that Annabel. She’s no friend of yours.”This was not news to me.And with that, Dora limped away.I retrieved my Fiat but had only gotten halfway down the drive when one of the Swamp Dogs flagged me down. The four youths descended on my car, hammering on my bonnet and windscreen.I opened the window. “What’s happened, Malcolm?”“It’s Mickey.” I could never tell the two sets of identical twins apart. “Over there. Quickly!”Across the field, a Land Rover was parked next to a crimson gypsy wagon. Two figures seemed to be engaged in some kind of heated exchange given the amount of arm flailing by one of them.“It’s Jack Webster,” cried Mickey. “He’s got a machete! He’s going to kill one of those gyppos.”My heart gave a lurch. Who needed the battlefields of Afghanistan when there was Gipping-on-Plym?“Stay here,” I shouted, and jumped out of my car. It wasn’t easy climbing over a post and rail fence in Wellingtons, but I managed it and set off across the muddy field.I could tell it was going to be one of those days.13The moment I saw the location of the crimson painted wagon, I knew the reason for Jack Webster’s ire. It was parked against a hedge that had been earmarked for Saturday’s hedge-cutting display. With a stab of disappointment, I realized his Land Rover did not have a safari roof rack, although obviously, it could have been removed.A man in his early seventies sat on the steps of his wagon, seemingly unconcerned by Jack’s foul-mouthed diatribe. If anything, he seemed amused.Dressed in a red-checked shirt and jeans, the gypsy wore his long, gray hair in a single braid threaded with ribbon. A large gold-hoop earring dangled from one ear.“Good afternoon, gents,” I said. “What seems to be the problem?”Jack Webster swung around to face me. I sprang back, startled. Mickey wasn’t exaggerating about the machete—although in hedge-cutting circles, the instrument was called a billhook and was used for slicing through thick branches. Made of carbon steel and with a blade measuring a good nine inches, the knife could be lethal in the wrong hands—which it was today.Never one of my favorite people, Jack bore the telltale signs of the heavy drinker—the bloodshot eyes, the purple nose, and the flushed complexion. “Bugger off and mind your own business, you silly cow.”“It will be my business if you land up on the front page.”“That’s no way to talk to a lady,” said the gypsy mildly.“And you can shut up.” Jack jabbed his billhook at the gypsy and turned back to me. I caught a whiff of alcohol on Jack’s breath. “This bloody gyppo can’t stay here!”“Ma’am,” he said, touching his forelock. “Name’s Jimmy Kitchen. It looks like this gentleman is a little the worse for wear.”“Vicky Hill,” I said. “I work for the newspaper.”“We don’t want any trouble,” he said, “but Sir Hugh Trewallyn used to let us camp here years ago. This is my spot.”“And this is my hedge,” Jack Webster fumed. “See? It’s all been pegged out for Saturday.”To the uninitiated, the hedge looked a mess of brambles, bracken, and unruly branches. But on closer inspection, small strips of white material divided it into sections of roughly ten yards apiece.“We’re having a Morris Dance-a-thon here on Saturday,” I said by way of explanation. “This is part of a hedge-cutting exhibition.”“Wait a moment,” said Jimmy Kitchen, giving an expansive smile. “You mean you want me to move my wagon? The gentleman only had to ask.”“Why—you bloody . . . !” Jack stepped forward, billhook raised.“Jack, no!” I shrieked and tried to grab his weapon.Jack lashed out with his other hand, accidentally catching the side of my face. It hurt.Jimmy Kitchen leapt up with astonishing speed and grabbed Jack’s weapon, pushing him away, hard. Jack sprawled backward and landed flat on his back in a puddle of muddy water, where he lay still and in complete shock.“Not in front of a lady,” said Jimmy grimly. “If you want to fight with me, we’ll go elsewhere.”Shocked, I looked at the older, wiry man, who seemed to be bursting with vitality, versus Jack, who, quite frankly, was a corpulent slob.“Gentlemen, please,” I said quickly. “Let’s be civilized and sort this out. I don’t want to call the police.”I was quite sure that Jimmy Kitchen wouldn’t want the cops around, and Jack had clearly been drinking. Given that he’d been listed as MOTORIST MENACE OF THE WEEK on two occasions, it was a miracle he still kept his license.“She’s right.” Jimmy extended his hand to Jack. “No reason to call the cops.” After what seemed like eons, Jack reluctantly took it and was helped to his feet. The billhook was returned to its rightful owner.All the wind had gone out of Jack’s sails as he stood in his muddy clothes.Jimmy Kitchen gestured to a glossy-coated piebald pony hobbled some yards away. “Bess and I have been on the road these past weeks, and she’s gone lame. I’d thank you kindly if I could move tomorrow—having taken her out of harness and all.”At hearing her name, Bess raised her head and whickered. She limped toward us.“What’s wrong with the mare?” said Jack. “She’s favoring her off hind.” I remembered that Amelia often complained that Jack cared more about their farm animals than he did about her.“Must have picked up a stone. She’s bruised her sole badly,” said the gypsy. “We came all the way from Brighton once we heard about Belcher Pike being taken poorly.”“You should put a poultice on it,” Jack said gruffly. “Rest her up a bit.”“Thank you kindly, sir,” said the gypsy, giving me a wink.Another Land Rover—minus a safari roof rack—bumped across the field toward us. Emblazoned on the door panel was the slogan LET’S GO OLYMPICS! JUMP 2012! My heart sank.As Devon’s champion hedge-jumper, Dave Randall and Jack Webster were sworn enemies. Since both hedge-jumping and hedge-cutting displays were two of the main attractions this Saturday, there had already been some territorial wrangling over a highly desirable stretch of blackthorn that had ended in a fistfight and both guilty parties spending a night in the slammer. The magistrate ruled that the hedge in question was off-limits and ordered that both events be held at opposing ends of the field.I felt one of my rare headaches coming on. Honestly, what with Dora and Topaz, Jack and Jimmy, and now Dave—today had been utterlyexhausting.Dave Randall pulled up alongside us and wound down the window. Dressed in a black T-shirt, his muscular arms were bare and browned by what little sun we had managed to have this summer.With a curt nod at me and another at Jack, he said, “The Dogs told me Jack was in trouble.”“It’s all sorted now, thanks, Dave,” said Jack.I was relieved, though not surprised, to see two sworn enemies become instant friends in the face of a hostile force. I’d seen it happen with Dad when the cops were involved. Once—rumor had it—Dad even sided with the Mafia.Dave got out of his Land Rover and made a show of cricking his neck and rolling his shoulders. “Isn’t this your patch?”“It’s handled, Dave,” said Jack, mirroring Dave’s neck crick and shoulder roll. “This gent said he’d move this wagon on tomorrow. Horse is lame.”“We can’t afford for anything to go wrong on Saturday, Jack,” said Dave. “A couple of my guys are on the radar for Olympic selection this weekend.”“You already told me,Dave, and we’ve got some scouts for the British national team coming down from Norfolk.”“So you said a hundred times,Jack.” A vein began to pulse on Dave’s forehead.I sensed that the unconscious truce could soon be forgotten. “Good. That’s settled,” I said brightly. “Is it true that the Nag and Bucket has all-day drinking?”“Is that right?” said Jack Webster brightening. “Fancy a snifter, Dave?”“Yeah. Why not?” With a last nod at me and a scowl at Jimmy Kitchen, Dave clambered back into his Land Rover.
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Jack followed suit, and the two men drove off in convoy.“Fancy a cup of tea?” Jimmy said, breaking into a grin. “I think I owe you one for saving my life.”How could I possibly refuse? At last I would see the inside of a gypsy wagon.14It was just as I had imagined the inside of a gypsy wagon to be. “What a wonderful home you have!”I was seated on a buttercup-yellow three-legged stool. Jimmy was sitting on another that was painted a dark green. In front of him, an old kettle boiled merrily atop what I gathered was called a “queenie” stove.The upper half of the wagon door was wide open, affording a spectacular view of open fields and woodland. I could hear the cry of birds and the rustle of the wind through the trees and, frankly, couldn’t think of anything more romantic than living life in one of these beauties.“It’s all so neat and compact,” I enthused. “Where do you sleep?”Jimmy pointed to the rear of the wagon. Beneath a casement window and atop a bow-fronted glass cabinet was a neat bed reminding me of a berth at sea.It was definitelycozy.The actual living area couldn’t be larger than a prison cell—but thanks to an abundance of cut-glass beveled mirrors on all three sides, it didn’t feel remotely claustrophobic.I caught sight of my reflection, feeling decidedly out of place with my shoulder-length hair, jeans, and light sweater. A long flowing gypsy skirt, peasant top, and shawl, with my hair tumbling to my waist, seemed far more fitting.Every surface was painted in two-tone greens and yellows with delicate grape and apple motifs except for the bowed ceiling, which depicted a pastoral river scene. There were masses of scrollwork covered in gold leaf.A display cabinet was filled with Royal Crown Derby china.There were a few photographs framed in silver plate. I gestured to one. A young couple smiled at the camera, arm in arm. The man was unmistakably a younger Jimmy with his ribbon-threaded braid. “Is that you?”“That’s right.”“She’s very beautiful. Was that your wife?”“Yes, but she wasn’t the love of my life.” Jimmy pulled a tattered photograph of a woman from his shirt pocket and passed it to me. “She was.”The “she” couldn’t have been more than sixteen and was sitting on the step of what looked like this very wagon. The woman was stunning and reminded me of Bizet’s Carmen from a poster the Gipping Bards bought on eBay to promote one of their more ambitious productions.“What happened to her?”“Gypsies and gorgers can’t be together,” Jimmy said sadly. “Ever.”“That’s ridiculous in this day and age,” I said. “Do you know where she is? Can you find her?”“I’m not sure she’d want that. It’s too late.”“Rubbish!” I cried. “You should follow your heart.”Jimmy raised an eyebrow. He seemed amused. “You are young. What do you know about love?”“Not much,” I admitted. “But enough to know that outdated customs and traditions would never hold me back from someone I truly loved.”“Some of our customs can only be broken by death,” Jimmy said quietly, but before I could press him further, there was a shrill whistle as the kettle came to a boil.Jimmy took a tin tea caddy down from a rack of shelves set into the wall above the stove. He added three heaped spoonfuls—one per person and one for the pot—ofrealtea leaves into a Brown Betty teapot and poured on the boiling water. Given the amount and different brands of tea I consumed every day on my travels, I considered myself a tea connoisseur and had high hopes for this cuppa.I was glad to see a packet of my favorite chocolate digestives join two mugs and a bowl of sugar on the pull-out table between us. These days I seemed to survive on a diet of tea, biscuits, and cake.Jimmy leaned over to his right and opened a small fridge to retrieve a pint of milk. “These wagons are collector’s items nowadays.” Clearly our conversation about love and longing was over, but not for me. The thought of being reunited with the love of one’s life in later years was something I felt sure my mourner readers would go for. Perhaps I could have my own column? I made a mental note to mention it to Pete.Jimmy poured the tea and gestured for me to help myself to a biscuit. “This wagon is over one hundred years old. It used to belong to my grandfather.”“Was he part of the Pike clan?” I said.“We’re all related. ‘Our caravan is our family, and the world is our family,’ a gypsy proverb,” said Jimmy.“Why would anyone want to swap a beautiful wagon like this for a hideous camper?”“Most of the youngsters these days prefer the modern conveniences,” Jimmy said. “Electricity, running water, mobile phones, and those ugly satellite dishes!” He shook his head. “There’s a growing divide between traditionalists and those who want us to be something we’re not. We are what we are. Nothing more and nothing less.”Dad would have agreed with him. I could still see the expression of acute disappointment when I announced I wouldn’t be joining the family business.“Going to work for the papers? Collaborating with the cops? You’re no daughter of mine.”“You all right, luv?” Jimmy asked, squeezing my shoulder. “You look a bit down in the mouth.”“I just think it very sad that horse-drawn wagons are becoming a thing of the past,” I said quickly, realizing it was a perfect lead into a perfectly reasonable question. “When you’ve set up camp, how do you get around? Other than the VW camper and Dora’s enormous Winnebago, is there another vehicle? A Land Rover, perhaps?”“We use bicycles,” said Jimmy. “Why?“No reason.” I took a sip of tea. “You’ve been on the road a long time and must know everyone . . .”“Seventy years,” said Jimmy. “I just turned seventy last month, and yes, I do.”“I wondered if you’d heard about that poor gypsy woman who died last night in Mudge Lane.”“She wasn’t a gypsy,” said Jimmy firmly.Funny that Dora claimed to know nothing about it but Jimmy did. “Don’t you think it disgraceful? The police don’t even seem to care who this woman was?”“Is that so?” Jimmy shrugged. “That’s the police for you. More tea?”“She was dressed like a gypsy,” I persisted. “Riding a bicycle, too. The wig was a bit weird, though. I nearly fell over because it got all tangled up in my legs.”“You werethere?” said Jimmy sharply.“I found the body,” I said, trying to keep my tone casual. “My car was hit by a Land Rover leaving the scene.”“As I said, she wasn’t one of ours.”“What about all the mourners coming for Belcher Pike’s funeral—I mean, to pay their respects?” I said. “Perhaps one of them might know something?”“Maybe,” said Jimmy slowly. “Tell you what, why don’t I ask around? Gypsies don’t like to talk to gorgers. You won’t get very far on your own.” Which is exactly what Dora had said, too.“Thank you—but . . .”Blast—Topaz! I’d almost forgotten. “I think it’s only fair to tell you that the owner of The Grange has hired a professional eviction service to come here on Friday.”“Eviction!” Jimmy’s jaw dropped. “They can’t do that. We’re allowed to camp here.”“Sir Hugh passed away,” I said. “His niece owns the estate now.”“That can’t happen. It mustn’t,” Jimmy cried. “If Belcher Pike is uprooted in his final days, his soul will go straight to hell.”“Jimmy, we’ve got a problem.” Noah’s face loomed large through the open half door. “Some idiot reporter is—”“Noah, lad!” said Jimmy with false joviality. “Come on in for a cuppa and meet my guest.”Jimmy’s pathetic attempt at warning Noah of my presence was not lost on me.Idiot reporter!My face burned with indignation—and to think I’d been attracted to him and his wretched guitar.“I was just leaving,” I said coldly. But, of course, I had to wait for Jimmy to move the tea service, push the table in, and pick up his chair so that I could squeeze past him.I was rapidly going off wagon life. It was far too cramped.“We’ll be in touch,” said Jimmy, all smiles once more. He opened the lower door and took in a breath of fresh air. “Now, that’s what real life smells like. Off you go back to your stuffy office.”Jimmy stepped aside to let me pass. I swept by Noah without giving him a second glance and tramped back to my car.Idiot reporter?Noah’s words stung. I might be an idiot for finding him attractive, but I certainly wasn’t an idiot when it came to sleuthing. Dora and Jimmy were lying about the dead woman in Mudge Lane, and maybe they were poaching, too.I kept circling back to the same questions. If the womanwasa gypsy, why would they pretend she wasn’t? If the womanwasn’ta gypsy, why did the police say it was an accident but move her body to Plymouth?It was only when I was halfway back to Middle Gipping and had reached Plym Bridge that I realized that I’d forgotten to post Whittler’s checkanddrop off Barbara’s mysterious package.Fortunately I remembered there was a pillar box opposite Barbara’s house. Barbara had been born in Gipping-on-Plym and given the scandal that she had supposedly created all those years ago, might be able to shed some light on the new residents at The Grange.I turned the car around and headed back to The Marshes. Jimmy Kitchen’s cup of tea had been very good, but I could always do with another.15Fifteen minutes later I arrived at The Marshes and pulled up outside Barbara’s end-terraced house. Built on a ridge, Barbara’s two-up, two-down, overlooked a horseshoe of unattractive 1950s redbrick bungalows with metal-framed windows and corrugated iron roofing.In the center of the horseshoe was a patch of grass that always seemed to be waterlogged whatever the weather. Rumor had it that the bungalows had been built on a landfill and were steadily sinking—hence the local nickname “Little Venice.”Bill Trenfold’s post van was parked next to the old-fashioned cylindrical red pillar box. I checked my watch. It wasn’t even three thirty, and I knew the last collection of the day was supposed to be 5:30 P.M. Bill was picking up early.I opened my window and shouted, “Bill! Wait!”But he didn’t seem to have heard me. I’d no sooner gotten out of my Fiat when Bill simply drove off! It was little wonder that there were so many complaints about the postal service if the postmen had decided to enforce their own schedules.Blast!I had given Whittler my word, and now it looked as it I’d have to drive all the way back to Gipping to post his letter after all.Turning to the main reason for visiting poor Barbara, I went to get the shoebox. It wasn’t there.Puzzled, I opened the rear doors and looked under the driver and front passenger seats, thinking it must have slid forward. With growing dismay, it dawned on me that the wretched shoebox must have been stolen, and I knew exactly by whom.Blast the Swamp Dogs!No doubt they nabbed it when I was dealing with Jack Webster’s shenanigans. Of course I’d confront them, but it was annoying. Besides, what use would an old shoe and a bicycle bell have for them anyway? Come to think of it, what use would either have for Barbara?As Mum would say, “What you haven’t had you won’t miss.” The sender hadn’t left a note or return address. If it were that important, I was quite sure we’d hear about it, but until we did, I had other things to think about.I was tempted to leave, but experience had shown that Barbara had eyes like a hawk and ears like a bat. She was bound to have recognized my car and heard me shout out to the postman. I also noticed the curtains upstairs were open, suggesting Barbara was no longer lying stricken in a darkened room with a migraine.
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I’d just pop in for five minutes.On the front doorstep was a glass jam jar filled with wildflowers—forget-me-knots, ox-eyed daisies, and some purple flowers that I didn’t know the name of.How romantic! Who would have thought Wilf had it in him!I knocked on Barbara’s front door and must have stood there for a good five minutes until I realized she wasn’t going to answer.I knelt down and opened the letterbox. “Barbara?” I shouted. “It’s Vicky.”There was no reply. Dad said empty houses had a particular feel to them, and I had to admit to getting that feeling.I took the narrow path around the side of the house. A latch gate opened into a small, back garden surrounded by a high wooden fence. There was a neat lawn—no bigger than eight feet square—and a flagstone patio lined with tubs of geraniums and begonias. A white circular plastic table and matching plastic chairs stood under a blue umbrella emblazoned with the wordCampari!Peering shamelessly through the ground-floor windows, I saw a spotlessly clean kitchen with no telltale signs of a teatime cuppa left on the draining board.Rapping smartly on the back door, I shouted again, “Barbara!” But there was still no reply.I tried to ring her home phone from my mobile but with no luck. I also tried her mobile and again drew a blank.What if she’d fallen down the stairs—Barbara was getting up there in years despite her boasts of “sixty being the new forty.”I was in a dilemma. Should I break in?A quick look at Barbara’s window latches assured me of an easy access—but first, I had one more place to check.Barbara did not own a car. Instead she went everywhere on her beloved circa 1940 pink bicycle. Convinced it was a collector’s item and liable to be stolen for parts, Barbara stored it under lock and key.At the end of the garden stood a wooden shed. As I drew closer, I noted the old padlock shackle dangling from the hasp. I opened the door, and among shelves filled with empty pots and gardening paraphernalia stacked neatly on the floor sat an empty bicycle stand.Barbara’s bicycle was gone, which meant she was out.I returned to my car feeling distinctly uneasy. This was most unusual. Barbaralivedfor her job. Her life revolved around the bustle of reception, and she was often known to go into the office on her days off, “just in case there is an emergency.”A doctor’s visit was out of the question. Following the shameful exit of Annabel’s former beau, Dr. Frost, from Gipping-on-Plym, there was currently no G.P. The doctors of choice were the sadistic Dr. “Jab-It” Jolly, the podiatrist, or Dr. Bodger, who was a ten-mile drive away in Newton Abbot.Consoling myself that I had at leasttriedto deliver a package that I didn’t actually have, I could at least try to keep my promise to Whittler.I knew my route back to Factory Terrace would take me past three red pillar boxes—Tripp Lane, Swing-Swang Road, and Bexmoor Way—but first a quick check of the collection plate.I was right. The last pickup of the day was 5:30 P.M.! There it was in black-and-white—MON-FRI: 9 A.M.-5:30 P.M. SAT: 9 A.M.-12 NOON.It was then that I noticed that the cast-iron pillar box door was not set flush against the cylindrical wall. Bill can’t have locked it properly.I slammed the door shut.Back on the road again, my thoughts turned to the evening ahead at 21 Factory Terrace.Mrs. Evans loved a good gossip. Since it was she who had told Reverend Whittler about last night’s drowning in Mudge Lane, she was bound to have some information to share.16Annabel’s silver BMW was already in the drive behind Mr. Evans’s green Austin Rover Metro.As someone who had lived at Chez Evans for far longer than Annabel had, this particular privilege somewhat irked me. We were both supposed to park our cars on the street.Annabel’s “temporary” stay in Mrs. Evans’s sewing room had surprisingly turned into a two full months.Located in Lower Gipping, Factory Terrace was a row of dreary Victorian houses formally built for the workers at the six-story wool and textile factory—another Trewallyn white elephant—that stood opposite. The factory had closed down years ago and now stood derelict and vandalized—hardly the kind of neighborhood that Annabel claimed she was accustomed to. But with no man paying her expenses at the moment, presumably beggars couldn’t be choosers.One thing I loved about living with Mrs. Evans was having my own latchkey—unlike my previous landlady. I let myself in and was greeted by a delicious smell of baking pastry. Apart from Thursday night’s disgusting liver and onions, Mrs. E. was a decent cook, and at least there were always second helpings.After hanging up my safari jacket on the hall coat stand, I noticed a pile of mixed objects left in an unceremonious heap at the bottom of the stairs—a pair of leopard-print ankle boots, a copy of bestseller relationship guru Fenella Fox’sHow to Be Irresistible!a pink satin robe, a hairbrush, and a bottle of red nail polish.A note, written in Mrs. Evans’s bold handwriting, was tucked into the top of an ankle boot. It simply said ANNABEL. Obviously, Mrs. E. was getting fed up with Annabel’s possessions seeping into every corner of the house.I found my landlady standing at the kitchen sink gazing out of the window. Her hair had the tight-curled look of the just-permed, and for once she had switched her usual floral housecoat for a bright yellow apron over a cream cotton blouse and skirt.On her right was a countertop full of an array of colorful mini recycling containers for which purpose I knew off by heart.Brown, for food waste, garden waste, and cardboard;blue, for paper, colored cardboard—not wet;white, for plastic bottles, cans, and tins—not polystyrene; andgray, for everything else. The same set that Ronnie had left at The Grange—only smaller.Mrs. Evans suddenly started to jerk her left arm about, crying, “Bother! Drat!”“What’s wrong?”She spun around. Two spoons were stuck to a metal band on her wrist. Mrs. E. flicked it violently left and right in a futile effort to dislodge the cutlery. “It’s this wretched magnetic bracelet.”“Why are you wearing it?” I laughed but Mrs. E. scowled, clearly not thinking it funny at all.“It’s for my arthritis. My Sadie bought it for me when we had our girl’s lunch in Plymouth last week.”I was glad to hear there was a grain of generosity in Mrs. Evans’s wayward daughter’s heart. Sadie Evans earned a ton of money pole-dancing at the Banana Club on Plymouth Hoe but was always on the scrounge.“As long as I stay away from anything metal, it’s fine.”“Damn and blast!” I cried, remembering Whittler’s envelope. “I completely forgot to post a very important letter.”“Why bother?” said Mrs. Evans, clicking her ill-fitting dentures. “The post is all over the place. Mrs. Pierce swore she sent me a check a fortnight ago—it was a lot of money, too—and that Olive Larchinsistsher check cleared through her bank.”I knew that Mr. and Mrs. Evans struggled to make ends meet. As a road worker for Gipping County Council, Mr. Evans’s salary was dictated by weather conditions and very unpredictable. Mrs. Evans said snail breeding was expensive, too, and that Mr. E. was always adding to his collection of terrariums.Mrs. Evans opened the cutlery drawer. A knife, spoon, and fork catapulted onto her bracelet with a series of chinks. “Oh, sod it!”I helped her remove them. “Why don’t I lay the table?”“Use the best linen. Middle drawer.”I did as I was told and took out a white damask tablecloth with matching napkins.We usually used a plastic tablecloth and paper napkins, so when Mrs. Evans placed a cut-glass vase of roses picked from the garden in the center of the table, I had to ask, “Are we expecting visitors?”“No.” Strain was etched across Mrs. Evans’s face.“Is everything all right?”“I’m trying to make an effort,” Mrs. Evans said miserably, nodding toward the open kitchen window. “Can’t you hear them?”I paused to listen. The familiar sound of Annabel’s tinkling laugh drifted along the evening breeze. “They’re in the shed,” Mrs. Evans went on. “She’s taken an interest in Lenny’s snails.”Honestly, Annabel was the limit! For the past couple of weeks, she had been blatantly flirting with Mrs. E.’s husband, who was an enthusiastic snail breeder and took the sport very seriously.As one of Gipping’s most popular summer pastimes, I had tried to get excited about the various celebrity snails that either were raced every weekend or appeared as “attractions”—Seabiscuit, Rambo, Bullet—but found the whole idea just too silly. I knew Annabel did, too. It was one of the few things we laughed about together.“Ignore it, Mrs. E. She’s just insecure.”“Why should I?” said Mrs. Evans defiantly. “I don’t like to see her making a fool of my man.”At the beginning, Mrs. Evans told me she found Annabel’s behavior toward “my Lenny” a joke, claiming she couldn’t believe that anyone would find him attractive.Without intending to sound unkind, I had to agree. I still suffered from nightmares following the time I accidentally walked in on the two of them fooling around. The sight of “my Lenny” wearing nothing but a pair of bottle-green socks was firmly printed on my brain for all eternity.But recently I noticed Mrs. Evans make the occasional barbed remark at Annabel’s mode of dress, the smaller portions she deliberately slopped onto her plate at dinner, and the circled classified advertisements for flats or cottages to rent left at her place setting at the kitchen table.Needless to say, Annabel either was oblivious or didn’t care.A sudden burst of laughter sent Mrs. Evans scurrying back to the kitchen sink to peer out of the window. “Here they come!”She took off her apron, darted to the counter, pulled out a drawer, retrieved a small compact mirror, and applied a layer of lipstick.Moments later, Annabel and Mr. Evans strolled through the back door arm in arm. The smell of Polo Sport aftershave filled the kitchen.“Yum, yum,” said Annabel. “I’m starving.”“What’s cooking, Millie?” grinned Mr. Evans, his eyes sparkling. Having always seen Mr. Evans in corduroys and an old threadbare sweater, I did a double take. Tonight he was dressed in jeans and a pressed short-sleeved shirt. He’d even shaved.“Egg and bacon flan.”“Don’t you mean quiche Lorraine?” said Annabel. “That’s the right way to pronounce it. It’s French, you know. And we love all thingsFrench, don’t we, Lenny.”Mr. Evans blew Annabel a kiss. The meaning was plain.“We call it flan in this house,” snapped Mrs. E.“Lovely,” I said. “I love flan, and you’re so good at making pastry.”“Lenny’s good ateverything, aren’t you, sweetie?” said Annabel, batting her eyelashes. Mr. Evans turned pink with ill-disguised pleasure.Mrs. Evans’s dentures clicked into overdrive. “Not everything. The hinges on the wardrobe upstairs still need repairing.”“Nag, nag, nag,” he said. “That’s all she ever does.”“Wardrobe!”Annabel pretended to sound shocked. “Have you been jumping off wardrobes? Naughty Lenny.” She suddenly burst out laughing. “Oh, Mrs. E.! You’ve got something dangling—”“What’s on your arm, you silly woman.” Mr. Evans began to laugh, too.“It’s for my arthritis,” said Mrs. Evans stiffly. She tore off the bracelet and threw it into the sink with a crash of clanking metal.“You’re getting past it, old girl.” Mr. Evans guffawed, giving Annabel a wink. He flexed his muscles. “You won’t see me getting arthritis.”“It’s hereditary,” I said quickly. “I have it and I’m only twenty-three. It’s the damp weather.”Mrs. Evans stomped over to the stove and returned with a saucepan. She put five potatoes on each plate except for Annabel’s, on which she put only one—and a deformed one at that. Annabel also got a burnt slice of flan.Mr. Evans gestured to Annabel’s plate with his fork. “See what little Annie eats?”Little Annie?“Next to nothing. You should try that. Lose some of that pot belly.”“You can talk,” Mrs. E. quipped. “Why don’t you do something about that fat gut of yours?”“I think it’s rather sweet,” said Annabel. “He’s nice and cuddly.”I caught Annabel’s eye and glowered at her. She just smirked and started cutting tiny pieces of food and popping them daintily into her mouth.Mr. Evans reached over and gently smoothed Annabel’s hair away from her face. “I love long hair,” he said softly.Mrs. Evans’s expression was nothing short of murderous, which reminded me—“There was nearly a murder committed at The Grange today,” I said, glad to change the subject.
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“Really?” Mrs. Evans perked up, as I knew she would. “Probably some stupid old man lusting after a girl young enough to be his daughter.”“God. What a nightmare,” said Annabel. “Her ladyship nearly shot a gypsy.”“She should have shot the lot of them,” declared Mr. Evans, bringing his hand down hard onto the table. “They’re parasites, leeching off the government.”“Nonsense; they pay their way,” said Mrs. Evans. “Mend the roads, fix the roof. Tell fortunes.”“I’d love to go to a fortune-teller.” Annabel wriggled in her seat. “I wonder if I’ve already met the man I’m going to marry?” She looked directly at Mr. Evans.Mr. Evans leaned back in his seat with a smirk. “If I come back on the market—”“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” muttered Mrs. Evans, viciously stabbing a potato with her fork.“You’ve got a short memory, Millie,” said Mr. Evans. “Remember all that trouble years back?”“What trouble?” Annabel and I chorused.“I’m not one to gossip.” Mrs. Evans sank her dentures into the pastry crust and then wished she hadn’t. She gestured for us to wait a moment whilst she finished her mouthful.“Get on with it,” said Mr. Evans, rolling his eyes.“And besides, it’s not right,” said Mrs. E. finally. “These two girls work with her.”“Oh, please tell us,” Annabel and I chorused again.“There isn’t much to tell. We’d just started courting, hadn’t we, Lenny?” said Mrs. Evans. “Your Barbara took up with one of them and ran off for a week or two. Caused a big scandal.”Sothatwas the scandal! How unbelievably romantic!“Hardly ascandal,” said Annabel with a sneer. “I bet Barbara was a bit of a tart in her day.”It takes one to know one!“Neither of them were married, so why shouldn’t she fall in love with whomever she wanted,” I protested.“She was a real looker,” said Mr. Evans wistfully. “Hair down to her waist. Everyone took a run at Barbara.”“The police got involved,” Mrs. E. said. “And then there was all that bother with Mildred.”A light snapped on in my head. Hadn’t the newspaper clipping in the shoebox mentioned the name Mildred? “Mildred who?”“Veysey. Wilf’s poor mother,” said Mrs. Evans. “She had an accident in Mudge Lane. It was all very mysterious.”“I’d just started with the council and I remember putting up that “Beware of Cyclists” warning sign,” said Mr. Evans. “It’s dangerous down there if you’re not paying attention.”“Mildred was riding a bicycle, too, just like that poor lady last night,” Mrs. Evans said. “Vicky found the body, didn’t you?”“That’s right.”“The police say she drowned,” said Annabel.“Kelvin—that’s Betty’s son—doesn’t think so,” said Mrs. Evans. “And why else would that important redheaded copper be involved? Kelvin says they’ve been told to keep out of it.”My heart began to race. Iknewsomething was up! Justknewit!“Both in Mudge Lane,” Annabel frowned. “How very strange.”“Not really. The two incidents are decades apart, isn’t that right, Mrs. E.?” I said. “By the way, the flan was delicious.”“Interesting . . .” Annabel turned her attention back to her plate and fell silent.Mr. Evans nudged her elbow. “Penny for your thoughts.”“Don’t do that,” snapped Annabel. “I’m thinking.”I desperately wanted to change the subject. Whatever had happened in Mudge Lane belonged to me. “What do you think about the gypsies claiming they can camp at The Grange, Mr. Evans?”“Bastards!”He slammed his hand down on the kitchen table again. “We taxpayers are continually getting shafted while the do-gooders in government use our hard-earned cash to pay out to nonconformists and the terminally idle.”Annabel whipped out her notebook. “Great quote. Mind if I use it?”“If me and the lads had anything to do with it, we’d set fire to the lot of them!”“No need,” said Annabel. “They’re being evicted on Friday and it’s being televised and—guess what?—I’m going to be on TV!”“Evicted, eh?” said Mr. Evans. “Now you’re talking. I can’t wait to see that.”“Yes, her ladyship wants them off,” Annabel said. “Oh, Mrs. E., I almost forgot. Your cleaning services are wanted at The Grange.”“I’ve already spoken to her, thank you very much,” said Mrs. Evans with a sniff. “She telephoned.”“What’s for pudding?” I said.“Spotteddick,” spat Mrs. E.“Not for us.” Mr. Evans looked at his watch and stood up. “We’ll skip pudding and fill up on popcorn.”“Where are you going?”“The Gipping Film Club is showingBasic Instincttonight,” said Mr. Evans.Mrs. E. stood up, too. “I’ll be ready in five minutes.”“Don’t you have some Morris knee pads to sew for Saturday?”Mrs. Evans sat back down, a look of defeat on her face. “You know I do.”“Vicky?” said Annabel sweetly. “Hardly your scene, but you are welcome to come with us.”“No thanks,” I said. “I thought I’d help with the sewing.”The moment Mr. Evans and Annabel disappeared, Mrs. E. covered her face with her hands.“It’s not his fault,” she whispered. “It’sher.”“He’s just having a midlife crisis.” I’d grown fond of Mrs. E. and couldn’t bear to see her humiliated. “It’s just a phase, honestly,” I said. “He’ll come to his senses.” Although Dad never did—I knew for a fact that Pamela Dingles followed him to Spain. My mother caught them watching a bullfight together.“Yes. Yes, ofcourse!” Mrs. Evans suddenly sat up straight. I noted a fierce gleam in her eye. “When did you say the gypsies were being evicted?”“Friday. Why?”“No one tries to steal my husband from under my nose. No one.”Mrs. Evans obviously had some kind of plan and seemed to perk up considerably. Unfortunately, she wasn’t in the mood to talk about Mildred Veysey, Barbara, or the dead woman in Mudge Lane, steering every question around to “when Lenny and I first met.”After sewing a total of thirty-four bells onto strips of colored cloth, I was very glad to finally get to bed.Just as I snapped off the light, my mobile phone rang. It was Steve.“Just calling to wish my girl good night,” he said. “You sound sexy. Are you in bed?”“No. I was cutting my toenails.”“I wish I could be there to hold your foot.”“Very sweet of you, Steve,” I said. “I’ll save my nail clippings.”“Would you?”“Do you have any news from Plymouth?”“A little. I thought we could meet tomorrow night.”I sat bolt upright. “You’ve heard something, haven’t you?”“You’re tired. We can talk about this tomorrow.”“At least give me a hint,” I said. “I’ll never sleep otherwise.”“I don’t sleep anyway.” Steve gave a heavy sigh. “I just can’t stop thinking about you.”Stifling a groan, I said, “Thanks. So what did your friend say?”“You’re killing me, doll,” said Steve. “All right, I’ll tell you.” He paused, presumably for dramatic effect. “There’s going to be an internal police inquiry.”Aninternalinquiry! The only reason for an internal inquiry was when something was not quite kosher in the Devon and Cornwall Police Constabulary. “Any idea who would want one?”“Why don’t you ask yourfriend, Probes,” said Steve bitterly.“I just might.”“No, don’t do that,” Steve said. “My man will be getting the toxicology results in the morning. Be interesting to see what comes back.”“That would be great,” I enthused. “What time do you want to meet?”“Tomorrow night. I’ll call you.”It seemed a small price to pay for some potentially excellent information.17There’s been a break-in!” shrieked Topaz. “I knew that would happen! I told you so!”“There is no need to shout,” I said crossly. Being woken up by a hysterical woman on the other end of the phone was not my idea of fun. Squinting at the luminous dials on my alarm radio, I let out a groan. It wasn’t even seven.It had taken me hours to get to sleep last night, and when I did, I was haunted by a naked vision of Steve, dressed in Mr. Evans’s bottle-green socks, sitting on a three-legged stool in a gypsy wagon, drinking a cup of tea. “Just calm down and tell me what’s happened.”“Itoldyou they were thieves!” Topaz squealed.I sat up in bed. “For heaven’s sake,what’s happened?”“There’s been arobbery!” Topaz sounded triumphant. “You’d better come quickly if you want the scoop.”I scrambled out of bed, dragging off my pajamas with my free hand and reaching for my clothes, which were always neatly folded on the floor next to my bed. Childhood habits of nighttime police raids die hard.“I’m surprised you didn’t ask your new best friend,” I said, pulling on my jeans with one hand.“Why would I?” said Topaz. “The church is your area of expertise, isn’t it?”I sank onto the edge of the bed. “What are you talking about?”“They’ve taken the silver from St. Peter’s the Martyr Church,” said Topaz cheerfully. “Reverend Whittler is frightfully upset.”“That’s terrible.” And strange—why would gypsies steal from the church? “I’ve got to get dressed,” I said. “I’ll meet you there in twenty minutes.”“Are you mad?” said Topaz. “I’m not leaving The Grange. The gypsies are bound to target me next.”Racing out of my bedroom, I bumped into Annabel on the landing. She was wearing sky-blue pajamas embroidered with pink kittens. “Where are you off to?” she demanded. “Is there a fire?”“Emergency church business—” Which I thought a very clever answer because it was true.“Church? Ugh.” Annabel pulled a face. “Rather you than me. See you at work. Don’t be late for our Page One update.”It was only when I turned into Church Lane and pulled up behind a police panda car that I had a sudden thought. How on earth did Topaz know about the theft at such an early hour? Not only that, but she seemed almost gleeful.Carefully locking my Fiat—this time I wasn’t taking any chances—my Topaz musings were cut short by a rustling in the undergrowth.D.C. Bond materialized from a large elderflower shrub. He was adjusting his uniform, and judging by the pink flush on his face, I suspected that the young copper had been answering a call of nature. “Morning, Ms. Hill.”Naturally, my mind flew to D.C. Bond’s comments on the woman in Mudge Lane. It might be prudent to make friends with this young copper, especially as I would need a mole for the internal police inquiry.“It’s Kelvin, isn’t it?” I said with an indulgent smile. “You probably know a very,verygood friend of mine. Detective Sergeant Colin Probes?”D.C. Bond’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t you mean DetectiveInspectorProbes? He’s been promoted.”How could Probes have been promoted so quickly?Again?It just wasn’t fair.“I knew that,” I said. “Freudian slip. Old Colin seems to get promoted a lot.”D.C. Bond seemed to swell with the inflated authority of the newly anointed. “I don’t remember seeing you at his promotion party?”“A journalist never stops working,” I said smoothly. “Colin and I had our own private celebration. I thought I might just pop into the church to say hello to him.”“He doesn’t handle theft,” said D.C. Bond suspiciously. “You’re that reporter girl, aren’t you?”“That’s right,” I said. “Vicky Hill.”“We’ve been told not to talk to the press,” Bond said. “Run along now.”Run along?I had to beyearsolder than him! “I want to talk to the vicar.” I tried to step round him, but he blocked my path. “Please get out of my way.”D.C. Bond gestured to the lych-gate a few yards farther on. The entrance to the churchyard had been transformed into a spider’s web of yellow plastic CRIME SCENE DO NOT ENTER tape. “You can’t go in there without authority.”“It looks like you can’t get in there at all,” I said dryly. “I got a phone call from Reverend Whittler to come here quickly.” Not strictly true. “How else would I have heard about the robbery at this time of the morning?”“Sorry. Orders are orders.”“Oh, for heaven’s sake . . .”Without another thought, I sprinted toward the waist-high stone wall to the right of the lych-gate. Launching into the air, I executed a perfect straddle jump that would have made champion hedge-jumper Dave Randall proud.“Oi!” shouted D.C. Bond. “Come back!” but I didn’t, and tore up the brick herringbone pathway toward the church porch.
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Reverend Whittler was in the vestry nursing a balloon of brandy. Dressed in his usual black attire, he was slumped in an oak high-backed chair seated behind a scratched wooden table. The far wall was covered with black cassocks and white surplices dangling from wooden pegs. Scattered around the room were various odds and ends—a chipped headstone, a pair of broken papiermâché angel wings from the Sunday School play, a stack of moth-eaten bibles, and four croquet mallets.“I’m afraid my fears were justified, young Vicky,” said Whittler. “The gypsies didn’t waste any time.”D.I. Stalk emerged from a walk-in storeroom with a flashlight. “What the hell—pardon me, vicar—are you doing here?” I noted he hadn’t shaved this morning and must have left home in a rush. “I gave D.C. Bond strict instructions—”“I’m not here in a professional capacity,” I said, “but as a friend.”“How kind, dear,” said Whittler. “They’ve taken everything, Vicky.”“No questions!” barked Stalk. “This is a crime scene.”“I’m not asking any,” I protested. “But frankly, the more people who know about it, the better. We could offer a reward on this week’s front page. How about PILFERING AT ST. PETER’S: RECTOR OFFERS REWARD! as a headline?”“Would you, Vicky?” Whittler took a large quaff of brandy. “Don’t you think that an excellent idea, Inspector?”Stalk grunted an assent but looked cross. “Forensics will be here shortly to dust for fingerprints.”“All the altar artifacts have gone.” Whittler took another swig of brandy “The ciborium, both cruets, a silver paten, and, of course, the Trewallyn chalice.”“The Trewallyn chalice?”“It was given to the church by Sir Hugh’s great grandfather at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It’s embedded with two large rubies and is of tremendous value.”How odd that Topaz—supposedly so obsessed with her family heirlooms—hadn’t mentioned it?“Distinctive silver like the chalice is relatively easy to recover,” I said—reluctant to add, unless it was to be melted down. “It’s bound to appear on the black market eventually.”“What do you know about black markets?” sneered Stalk.“I’m a reporter and make it my business to know.” I’d also make it my business to contact Chuffy McSnatch—my godfather, go-between, and Dad’s right-hand man. Chuffy knew everything and everyone on the black market.With a start, I realized I couldn’t do that anymore. Having refused to follow Dad’s orders, Chuffy had made it clear that I’d been excommunicated from the family firm, and I was not to contact them ever again. He’d even changed his pager number. Mum had made an unexpected call from a pay phone in San Feliu to try to make me change my mind, but by then it was too late. The damage had been done.For months and months I’d pretended to be an orphan, and now it was true. I was on my own.To my dismay, I felt my eyes begin to prickle, and a solitary tear ran down my cheek.“Don’t cry, Vicky dear,” said Whittler kindly. “Here, take a sip of brandy.”I shook my head. “Sorry.” I gulped. “It’s so sad. I hate thieves.”“God is all seeing and all knowing.” Whittler downed the last of the amber liquid. “The culprits will not go unpunished in the afterlife.”“Those ruddy gypsies will steal anything not bolted down,” said Stalk grimly, echoing Whittler’s words of only yesterday. “I’ve already given orders to search their wagons this morning. But don’t be surprised if they’ve already scarpered. They could be halfway to China by now.”Hardly, I thought. The VW camper was ancient, and those horse-drawn wagons weren’t exactly fleet of foot.Perhaps I’d been wrong about gypsies and silver—but why rob from the church, especially since Topaz had ordered the eviction. Wouldn’t the gypsies have stolen from her, since she lived so conveniently on their doorstep?Stalk’s phone rang and shattered the unhappy silence in the vestry.“I’m sorry, Inspector,” said Whittler. “There are no mobile phones allowed in the Lord’s house.”Stalk scowled and walked into the nave, but we could hear his voice ricocheting around the cathedral roof. “What do you mean, they can’t get through the lych-gate?” he boomed. “Goddamit.Do I have to do everything myself?”Stalk reappeared in the doorway. “Do you have any scissors, vicar?”The moment the odious Stalk was out of earshot, I retrieved my reporter notepad and a pencil from my safari-jacket pocket. “We’ve got a Page One meeting today,” I said. “I’d like to take down some details. It was Topaz—I mean, her ladyship, who tipped me off this morning. Any idea how she could have known?”Whittler poured the last dregs of brandy into the cut-glass balloon. “Holy Communion is at six on Thursdays.”“Excuse me?” I had to pinch the inside of my leg. “Are you saying that her ladyship actually came tochurchthis morning?”“That’s right. A lot of the farming folk drive to Taunton for the livestock market.”“Her ladyship isn’t a farmer,” I pointed out.“Ah, but Lady Clarissa, her ladyship’s aunt—a Turberville-Spat—was always a regular churchgoer. Of course, Sir Hugh Trewallyn never bothered when he was alive, but it’s wonderful to have a Spat back in the congregation again.”I had to hand it to Topaz. When she was assuming the role of a different character, she did her best to be authentic.Wait!What was I saying! Of course she was authentic. She was playing herself.“Her ladyship called me the night before, offering to come early and help lay out the artifacts,” said Whittler. “She arrived shortly after I discovered the cupboard was empty. Of course we had to cancel the service.” He groaned with despair, adding, “How could I conduct Holy Communion without the sacred vessels?”I walked over to the storage cupboard and inspected the door handle. “It doesn’t look like this was a forced entry.”“There wouldn’t be.” Whittler’s voice sounded defiant. “I trust my parishioners. They wouldneversteal from the church.”I looked inside. The cupboard smelled musty. Apart from one empty shelf—presumably where Whittler’s “sacred vessels” had been stored—the place was a chaotic mess of pamphlets, Parish newsletters, and candle stumps.I spotted a metal cash box labeled TREWALLYN TRIO, tucked behind a framed picture of Saint Peter. “What about money?”“I keep very little here. Each week I pay the cash directly into the church bank account,” he said. “Did you post the check to Windows of Wonder?”I felt my face redden. The envelope was burning a hole in my pocket.“You really should install a safe in that cupboard,” I muttered.“You are a suspicious young lady.” I noted Whittler’s eyes were beginning to glitter, and his usual sallow complexion had turned a little pink. “Goodness. I’m beginning to feel a little light-headed. Shall we walk to the rectory and have a cup of tea?”Despite being absolutely parchedandstarving, I had to turn Whittler’s offer down. En route to the office, I posted Whittler’s envelope in the first pillar box I found.This morning’s unusual robbery, the dead woman in Mudge Lane, the missing Land Rover, the stolen shoebox, and Barbara’s uncharacteristic absence from work all suggested something was definitely up.There was no way I could risk missing a minute of this morning’s Page One update meeting.18You can’t do that! It’s just not fair.” Annabel stamped her foot and continued to pace back and forth in front of Pete’s desk.The atmosphere in Pete’s office sizzled with tension as what had started as a normal Page One update had dissolved into Annabel having an enormous wobbly.“If you don’t like it, take it up with Wilf,” snapped Pete.“This is the second time I’ll have canceled the camera crew,” she cried. “I’ll never be taken seriously again!”“Get over yourself.” Tony wore a huge grin on his face and was practically bouncing with glee on the tartan two-seater. He was clearly enjoying the show.“Oh, shut up,” said Annabel.Edward and I were also squashed onto the sofa, but whereas he calmly leafed through his reporter notepad, I was becoming increasingly nervous about the prospect of pushing Pete’s temper over the top.Tucked inside my safari-jacket inner pocket was Dora’s report, which I was having second thoughts about giving to Pete in his current mood.“Her ladyship will go ballistic when she finds out, won’t she, Vicky?” Annabel raged on. “You were there. You saw her fire that gun.”“It was an accident,” I pointed out. “But, yes, I don’t think she’ll be happy.” And boy, was I glad to not be the bearer of that bit of news.“Her ladyship has already been informed by the police,” said Pete. “The eviction is off, and that’s final. Do you understand?”“It just doesn’t make sense,” Annabel persisted. “Vicky? Come on. What do you think? Really.”Although I was relieved that Annabel’s debut as anchorwoman for Westward TV had been canceled, I, too, was confused.“Has it been called off because the gypsies are legally entitled to stay at The Grange,” I asked gingerly, “or because they’re suspects in the robbery at the church and have been told they can’t leave town?”“Who cares? Pete,pleaselisten to me.” Annabel flicked her auburn Nice ’n Easy tresses and slithered onto the edge of his desk. As she leaned toward him, he got an eyeful of cleavage whereas we were rewarded with the rear view—the Y of a lilac-colored thong peeping above the waistband of her low-rider jeans.“Don’t you understand that having a camera crew here with the police is good television?” Annabel pleaded. “We could film them searching the caravans and everything.”“There will be no searching of caravans,” Pete said coldly. “Now get off my desk and go and sit down.”Annabel childishly flung her pencil across the room and flounced back to the sofa.“Conducting a search, atelevisedsearch, would throw up all sorts of legal issues,” said Edward.“But they’re thieves!” shrieked Annabel. “If they didn’t steal them, who did?”“Gypsies are very superstitious,” said Edward. “They’d never steal holy artifacts from a church, especially at night.”“The Swamp Dogs?” I suggested, but even I knew their parents were atheists and would never set foot in a church.“No,” said Annabel slowly, and turned to look straight at me. “My instincts tell me this could be the work of a professional thief.”“Don’t start that The-Fog-is-in-Gipping nonsense again, Annabel,” warned Pete. “I won’t save your job next time.”My heart began to pound in my chest. Ihadto steer the subject away from Dad.“Take a look at this.” I handed Dora’s envelope over to Pete. “Dora is on the National Gypsy Council,” I said, “and believe me, she knows her rights.”“The woman with the Winnebago?” said Annabel with a sneer. “Have you any idea how expensive those things are to buy? I bet she didn’t get the money from telling fortunes!”Pete pulled out the newsletter. “Romany Ramblings?”“It’s for gypsies and travelers,” I said. “Dora has an office set up in her Winnebago with a printer and a scanner. She said a lot of the younger folk have computers and iPhones so can get it online.”Annabel hurried around to Pete and snatched it out of his hands. “God. Listen to this. It says here that the Queen awarded an MBE to a gypsy called Gloria Buckley. I quote, ‘We are part of the human race, a microcosm, and there is good and bad in our community as there is everywhere else.’ Blah-blah-blah. Apparently, they’re organic conservationists—”“Let me see that,” said Tony.Annabel tossed the publication onto his lap. “Be my guest.”Tony skimmed the contents. “I don’t like them any more than you do, but last night I sneaked up to The Grange to take some photographs of all that rubbish behind the pigsty—”“Don’t tell me they’re using the recycling bins?” scoffed Annabel.“They sure are. Couldn’t believe my eyes. The stuff that couldn’t fit had been sorted into neat piles. Scrap metal. Paper. Even cardboard boxes had been broken down,” said Tony incredulously.“I don’t care about recycling or about Belcher Pike!” Pete slammed his hand down on his desk. “Right now all I care about is Page One. We’ve got no bloody lead story!”“How about a reward for the missing silver?” Annabel and I chorused, then looked at each other with distaste.“I’m the one who has the relationship with Lady Ethel, and it was the Trewallyn chalice that was stolen,” said Annabel.“And the artifacts,” I said. “The church is my area of expertise.”Pete drummed his fingers on his desk. “What else have we got?”“But that’s a great lead!” said Annabel.
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“How about a day-in-the-life of Phil Burrows?” I suggested. “What’s it like for him to be dancing with the Turpin Terrors instead of the Gipping Ranids?”“You won’t make yourself popular,” said Tony. “No one will care.”“What’s going on with ‘Motorist Menace of the Week’?” said Pete. “Any poor bugger been caught by Stalk for drunk driving?”“I was,” I said. “Almost.”“Speaking about Mudge Lane,” said Edward. “When I bumped into Coroner Cripps at the petrol station this morning, he told me they still had no ID on the woman who died and that she had been moved to Plymouth.”“That’s strange,” said Annabel.My stomach clenched. Half of me didn’t want anyone to know about this, but the other half wanted to see Pete’s reaction.“I already told you,” said Pete. “It’s not our problem.”“Not ourproblem?” Edward rarely raised his voice.We all looked at one another, stunned. Since when did Pete not seize the chance to stir up trouble with his controversial front-page scoops? His cavalier attitude toward the stolen silver and his blatant indifference to a dead woman were seriously worrying. What was wrong with him?“With all due respect,” Edward began, “I feel—”“If you’ve got any complaints, take it up with Wilf,” Pete snapped. “And Vicky, Stalk has already called me this morning to complain about your behavior at the church. Apparently you disobeyed a police officer.”“Sorry,” I mumbled.As we were dismissed, Edward asked Pete for a quiet word but was bundled out and had the door slammed in his face.The four of us stood quietly shocked in the reporter room. “He’s losing it,” said Tony.“Don’t take any notice of him,” said Annabel. “I think he’s having problems at home.” Grabbing her favorite Mulberry bag off her desk, she looked directly at me. “I’m off to The Grange to talk to her ladyship. I think she should know there could be an international thief in the area.”“Good idea,” I said mildly.Recalling that Dora was going to be in the market square this morning, I decided to take her up on her offer of telling my fortune after all. Perhaps she could enlighten me on Annabel’s plans.I’d also keep my eyes peeled for a Land Rover with a safari roof rack and overhead lighting. Thursdays at Gipping market often attracted a different kind of crowd.Pete’s insistence that the dead woman was not our problem had only made me determined to make it mine.I had no intention of letting sleeping dogs lie.19Iwas relieved to find Barbara back at work.When I’d arrived earlier this morning, the office was still locked up and the front door blinds down. I’d had to let myself in via the side entrance and discovered everyone else had done so, too.The shutters to Barbara’s beloved street-side show window were wide open, and only her ample rear—clothed in a poppy-print skirt—strong calves, and sturdy Birkenstocks protruded from the aperture.“I’m so happy to see you,” I said, realizing this was true. “You won’t believe what’s been going on. We’ve had a weird drowning in Mudge Lane, someone has stolen the church silver, and we’ve got gypsies at The Grange.”Barbara edged backward out of the opening and stood up. Her face was pale. Large dark circles lay beneath her normally inquisitive eyes, which today seemed dull and listless. Her hair, although scraped back into its customary bun, looked disheveled, with loose tendrils escaping from their pins.“Are you feeling any better?”“No, I’m not,” said Barbara. “Justlookwhat that wretched Olive has done to my window!”I peered over Barbara’s shoulder and gave a gasp of dismay.Dead center was a life-sized standee of Phil Burrows dressed as an action hero in white trousers, a black T-shirt and Terminator sunglasses. A slogan said I AM BACK!On Phil’s right stood Beryl—the creepy horse mascot with the highwayman mask. On his left wasanotherlife-sized standee of Phil Burrows dressed as a Turpin Terror in a red tatter three-quarter coat, black breeches, a white cravat, a tricorn hat, and a highwayman mask. Along the base of the window, various Turpin Terror souvenirs had been arranged in a neat row—tricorn hats, mugs, key rings, and scarves.Tucked in the rear left-hand corner stood the Gipping Ranids mascot—a bright-green man-sized frog, with huge webbed feet, bulbous eyes, and a goofy smile. The banner GIPPING RANIDS RULE! was lying on the ground and partially hidden by carefully placed musical instruments—an accordion, pipes, tabors, a concertina, and two fiddles—in a symmetrical design. Olive was always one for straight lines.“How could you let her do this?” Barbara’s voice was heavy with accusation. “No oneis allowed to touch my window displays!”“I thought no one could,” I said. “Don’t you have the only key?”“The padlock was snapped off with wire clippers,” Barbara said. “And we know who always keeps a pair of those in his dustcart cab: Olive’s ghastly boyfriend.”“In fairness to Olive, she was put on the spot,” I protested. “I was here when Phil Burrows came in yesterday, and he demanded she put all his things in the front of the window; otherwise, he’d pull out of Saturday’s event. We tried to find you—”“And what am I supposed to tell the Ranids?” said Barbara. “Jack Webster will have a fit. He’s the squire this year, and you know what his temper is like.”“Can’t we just change the mascots around?”“You don’t justchangeit around,” said Barbara with scorn. “There is skill involved.” She marched over to the nook and drew back the star-spangled curtain to reveal a pile of Ranid-themed souvenirs, posters, and flags. “Where am I supposed to put all these?”“There’s space—”“Oh, to hell with it,” said Barbara, throwing up her hands. “I don’t have time for all this.” She stormed over to the counter, yanked up the flap, and let it fall behind her with a deafening crash. “Let Olive take the blame. I don’t care.”This was so unlike Barbara. I’d never seen her so upset. Clearly, she must be suffering from pre-wedding nerves, and yesterday’s migraine was evidence of that. Mum often said that when something major was bothering Dad, it was the little things—overcooking the potatoes, losing a sock—that used to send him off the deep end.“Where is Olive now?” I asked.“God knows.” Barbara gestured to the neat stacks of paperwork and heaps of colored ribbons along the counter. “She was supposed to have sorted all this out. I’m not going to her hen party now. She can stuff it.”“Don’t be silly. Olive would be terribly hurt. She’s been planning it for ages.”Good grief.This was worse than being at school. I looked over to the front door. Speak of the devil. “Here comes Olive now.”“Good. I’ll give her a piece of my mind.”Olive nudged the door open with her shoulder and walked in cradling a small brown paper bag in her hands. Barbara and I immediately recoiled. There was the most terrible stench.“You’ll never guess who I’ve just seen,” enthused Olive, oblivious to Barbara covering her nose. “A gypsy fortune-teller and healer. Her name is Madame Dora.”“Was she any good?” I said.Olive gently set the brown bag down on the counter and retrieved a small business card from her cream hand-knitted cardigan pocket. Today she wore a yellow butterfly barrette in her sleek bobbed hair. “Barbara, this is for you. I thought she might be able to help your Wilf with his bad eye.”Barbara pinched her nose and spoke. “No, thank you,” she said in a nasal voice. “It’s notbad. He onlyhasone eye.”“What’s in that bag?” I said.“Whatever it is, stinks,” muttered Barbara.“It’s goose dung,” Olive said proudly. “Collected by the light of a new moon.”Barbara gave a snort. “Ohplease!”“It’s a cure for Ronnie’s baldness. I have to keep the dung moist until midnight. Then, when the clock strikes twelve, I have to smear it over Ronnie’s head.”“Gosh,” was all I managed to say. I glanced at Barbara and was relieved to see the beginnings of a smile rapidly contort into suppressed mirth.“Won’t it get on the pillows?” I said, struggling not to laugh myself.“No. He’s got to wear a woolen cap for a whole cycle of the moon. Twenty-eight days,” Olive declared.“How much did thatdungset you back?” sniggered Barbara.“Five pounds. You really should go.”“Did she tell you to put Phil Burrows’s equipment in my window without consulting me?” demanded Barbara.Olive turned pink. “Well. I—I—”“You’re right. I should see Madame Dora,” I said. “Shall I get a love charm, Barbara? See who I am going to fall in love with?” The only way to distract Barbara was to talk about matters of the heart.“Love brings more trouble than it’s worth,” Barbara said bitterly.Olive winked at me and whispered loudly, “They must have had a row.”“I heard that,” said Barbara.It would certainly explain Barbara’s unheard of absence from work and the I’m-sorry-I-love-you flowers on her doorstep. I wondered what the row was about.“Did you get your present?” said Olive suddenly.Barbara frowned. “What present?”“Someone delivered it here yesterday,” said Olive. “I thought you were going to take it over to Barbara’s, Vicky?”Thank you, Olive.“Silly me left it at home today, but I did try to see you yesterday. You must have gone out.”“Out?” said Barbara sharply. “I wasn’t out. I was asleep. I had a migraine.”I was about to argue with her but had a better idea. “Have you checked on your pink bicycle recently?”Nice one, Vicky. “With all the thieving around, I’d hate for you to lose it.”“Unless it’s been stolen in the last two hours,” said Barbara. “How else could I get to work? Magic carpet?”“The gypsies have already taken the church silver and the Trewallyn chalice,” said Olive. “And they ride bicycles.”“Why do they always get the blame?” Barbara glowered. “Do you have any proof?”Olive seemed to wither beneath Barbara’s fury. We were both glad when the door to the inner hall opened and Wilf stepped into reception.“I’ve just had a phone call from Jack Webster,” said Wilf. “He told me that the Ranids mascot has been put at the back of the window. What’s going on?”“Ask Olive,” snapped Barbara. “It was her idea.”Olive froze as Wilf swung round and zeroed in with his good eye. “Well?”There was a horrible silence as we waited for Olive to speak. Her face began to turn blue from holding her breath.“The flowers you gave Barbara were lovely, sir.” I couldn’t think what else to say. Olive made a reassuring gasp.“Flowers? What flowers?”“The ones you left on Barbara’s doorstep?” I faltered.A tide of crimson raced up Barbara’s neck. “I don’t know what she’s talking about,” she said quickly. “Silly girl. You must have imagined it.”“No. I didn’t.” I was getting fed up with Barbara. But then, in a flash, it hit me. The flowers must have been from another admirer, possibly the anonymous shoebox, too. The only people who took time off during the middle of the day and weren’t ill or going on holiday were those who were having affairs.I looked at Barbara—was thatguiltin her eyes?“You’re right,” I said. “I was getting confused with your neighbor. Shall we change the window display together?”“But what about Phil?” Olive whined.“As a matter of fact, I’m interviewing Phil Burrows tonight for a day-in-the-life,” I said. “I’ll tell him. I’m sure he’ll understand.”“Hold up on that day-in-the-life,” said Wilf. “There has been some bad feeling going around about Phil coming back to Gipping for this so-called guest appearance. Let’s keep him low key.”“Of course, sir.”Low key?I’d worked with local celebrities before, and they had massive egos. If Phil got wind of the fact that not only were his standees being pushed to the rear of the show windowbuthe wasn’t getting a mention in Saturday’s newspaper, I was sure he’d pull out.“I believe Phil’s holding a silent auction,” I said. “Should I just get a list of the items?”“What’s it in aid of?” said Wilf.Blast!I had no idea. “Let me find out.”Barbara ultimately rejected my offer of help, insisting that since it was Olive’s fault, she should be made to put things to rights.I stepped outside into the High Street thoroughly perplexed. The world as I knew it seemed to be crumbling away, and it had all started with the arrival of Belcher Pike and his merry band of gypsies.
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With that in mind, I set off for the market square.20Toward the top of the High Street, the traffic was at a standstill. Some motorists had their car doors open and were balancing on the sills to get a look at the holdup. One motorist hit his car horn, and suddenly everyone’s car horns were blaring in a deafening chorus.There was a buzz of excitement in the air. In a flash, I knew what was happening. The much-awaited gypsy invasion had begun.I broke into a jog, cursing the fact I’d left my Canon Digital Rebel in my Fiat glove box. Rounding the corner, I came across a wall of onlookers.A Garrett showman traction engine, circa 1913, was completely blocking the street. It seemed to have stalled. Steam belched from the black funnel that protruded through the bright red-and-green-striped canopy that stretched the length of the shiny green engine.Along the sideboards THE GORDON was embellished in fancy scrolls and picked out in gold. Hanging from the rear was a rather worrying sign—COME AND RIDE THE GORDON! THE GRANGE! THIS SATURDAY! £1 A GO!At the helm stood Mary Berry, a sixty-something do-it-yourself mechanic dressed in an orange boiler suit.Following the death of her husband—champion hedge-cutter Gordon Berry—Mary had been determined to finish his lifelong labor of love, namely rebuilding this showman traction engine so that one day she could drive the hundred-plus miles to the Great Dorset Steam Fair.Three times the iron monstrosity jolted forward several inches, then rolled back with a screech of brakes, sending a cry of alarm from the growing crowd of spectators. Pete had wanted a new front-page lead, but I wasn’t sure if this was what he had in mind.For a moment, I faltered. It’s one thing to imagine the worst and quite another to bear witness to it. As another cry of fear erupted from the crowd, my knees turned to jelly. Did I really have what it took to be the next Christiane Amanpour?Forcing myself to get a grip—after all, Christiane must have witnessed much worse in the trenches—I plunged into the fray and pushed my way through to the front amid cries of “Those wheels will squash him flat” and “Mary Berry’s drunk.”There was a sudden round of applause. It was all over. With a cheery wave and long peep on the whistle, the showman tractor lurched forward and slowly chugged up the hill.Thanks to Simon Mears’s quick thinking, tragedy had been averted. First Gipping Scout Group’s Akela had saved the day by miraculously wedging a large cinder-block under each rear wheel. Where Simon found them was anyone’s guess, but it certainly took the Boy Scout motto of “Be Prepared” to a new level.Traffic began to move and the crowd dispersed, chattering with excitement and comparing this near-death experience with alpine avalanches and other natural disasters.Simon joined me, shaking his head with disbelief. Dressed in beige trousers and a beige-and-brown-patterned shirt, he reminded me of a giraffe with his long and intelligent pointed face. Even though Simon wasn’t dressed in uniform this morning, he wore the distinctive scout trefoil badge on his winged collar.“Mary’s determined to give rides to the kiddies at this Saturday’s event,” he said. “With all this rain, foot traffic, and cars, the ground surface will be like an ice rink. It’s just not safe.”“I suppose I could have a word with her sister-in-law, Eunice Pratt.” Though the thought didn’t thrill me.“Please do. I believe she’s in the market square this morning. I would have been happy to do so but the truth is—” he paused and looked a tad uncomfortable before plunging on, “I don’t really like Eunice, and she’s become so militant with her petitions.”This didn’t surprise me. Eunice Pratt was hugely unpopular, and her endless petitions were legendary.Simon lowered his voice and added, “I think Mary Berry was drunk.” This didn’t surprise me, either. I’d never seen Mary Berry sober.“I don’t really want to report her to D.I. Stalk,” Simon went on. “Let’s hope Eunice will intervene.”The thought of talking to the odious Eunice Pratt brought back all sorts of memories. Not that long ago, and for all of forty-eight turbulent hours, I’d been obsessed with her handsome nephew, the gorgeous Lieutenant Robin Berry of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy.What a disappointment he had turned out to be—just like all the other men I’d had such high hopes for. As Barbara said, love only seemed to bring trouble.Four alleys led into each corner of Gipping Pannier Market—to use its correct name. Built on the site of an original Roman encampment, the market still retained its original perimeter walls. In the center was a large open-sided, glass-roofed building topped with a Victorian clock tower and weathervane.Inside and center were two rows of stalls that extended along the entire building, with a farther row lining the perimeter. The area outside the market was scattered with more stalls and exhibits, making this one of Gipping’s prime tourist attractions during the summer months.The traditional market was always held on a Wednesday, with the sale of livestock, local produce, and crafts. Today was the general market, consisting of second hand furniture, household effects, and cheap clothing—and it was packed.I entered the south alley flanked by high stone walls. At the end was the familiar sight of Eunice Pratt, clipboard in hand. There she stood in the perfect position to strong-arm anyone into lending his or her signature.A couple in front of me did an abrupt U-turn, muttering, “We’ll have to take the west alley” and “Can’t stand that old battle-ax.”Eunice stood in front of a three-paneled display board reading KEEP GIPPING TIDY! GYPSIES GO HOME! Photographs of rusting old fridges, mounds of rubbish, and filthy raw sewage were laid out in gory detail.One look at Eunice’s sour expression and I was already regretting my rash promise to Simon Mears.Frankly, I was irritated. Why should I be made responsible for Mary Berry’s behavior? What if someone reallywaskilled on Saturday; would it be my fault? Maybe Ishouldtalk to D.I. Stalk regardless?Eunice’s usual perm was a vibrant shade of violet. She wore a severe charcoal-gray long-sleeved dress and flat shoes. Mixed in with her usual aroma of mothballs was the pungent smell of hair chemicals, suggesting a recent visit to the hairdresser.I mustered up a smile. “Morning, Eunice! Lovely day, isn’t it?”“It would be if it wasn’t for them.” Eunice pointed to a queue of women waiting outside a candy-striped tent. A pennant depicting a crystal ball fluttered atop in the summer breeze. Ruby—being ignored—was pacing back and forth with her basket of extortionately expensive lucky heather.“Gypsies,” hissed Eunice. “Always laws for them and laws for us.”Here we go. “There are only a handful of them,” I said. “I’m told they won’t be here long.”“They’re camped at The Grange, you know” she fumed. “Why don’t I buy a caravan and go and plant it anywhere I like, throw my rubbish around the countryside and then clear off?”“Not all of them are like that,” I protested. “Some of them even recycle!”“They’re thieves, the lot of them! I suppose you heard about the church silver?”“Nothing has been proved—”“Nothing ever will,” she said. “Her ladyship at The Grange had even booked an eviction service, but the police told her to cancel. It’s New Labour with their rights-for-all, isn’t it? What’s wrong with this country?”“One of the gypsy elders is fatally ill, and they can’t—”“Well, we’re going to do something about them.” Eunice’s eyes were slits of spite. “Jack Webster has a plan. Do you know how many sides we’ve got coming from all over Devon?” I told her I knew I should, but I didn’t. “Including the Ranids and that silly Burrows chappy—nine!” she exclaimed. “We won’t allow these criminals to ruin the Morris this Saturday.”“Speaking of ruining things,” I said. “I really need you to talk to Mary.”Eunice scowled. “What’s she done now?”“It’s about The Gordon,” I said. “She’s not really going to give rides to the children, is she?”“Mary is stubborn and pleases herself,” Eunice snapped. “She won’t listen to me.”“What about Robin? Would he talk to her?” I said. “Is he still at sea?”At the name of her favorite and only nephew, Eunice’s entire face transformed. Her eyes shone. She actually smiled. “Darling Robin. He’ll be home this weekend. I’ll speak with him. If anyone can make Mary see reason, it’s her son.”I recalled my first date with Robin, during which he spent most of the evening texting his wretched aunt. I’d thought about that a lot since then, and frankly, it’s not normal. Mum was right when she said,“Sometimes being rejected means being saved.”Eunice thrust the clipboard under my nose. “Sign here.” I noted there were dozens and dozens of signatures.“As a journalist, I have to stay impartial,” I said. “Sorry.”“You don’t have to write your real name. No one is going to check.”Fortunately, I was saved by a sudden burst of applause coming from the direction of the Public Toilets just a few yards away, where a crowd of women stood clustered around the exit to the Gents.Phil Burrows emerged and was instantly mobbed by a sea of female admirers. He was dressed exactly like his action hero standee—white trousers, black T-shirt, and Terminator sunglasses.“Excuse me, Eunice,” I said, glad to make my escape. “I need to talk to Phil Burrows. As you know, he’s making a guest appearance.”“I can’t think what for,” she said. “He’s got some nerve showing up here after all the Ranids did for him.”“TheGazetteis doing a day-in-the-life,” I lied.“No one will read it,” said Eunice. “You should be writing about the Ranids. That’s traditional Morris dancing for you. The Turpin Terrors are just young upstarts.”“I’ll bear that in mind.”I caught up with Phil in the refreshment area on the opposite side of the square. The statuesque figure of sensible Gillian Briggs, a former cook in the Royal Navy, stood behind a long trestle table piled with freshly baked goods and a steel tea urn. I was ravenous.Phil was seated at one of the many wrought-iron tables and chairs surrounded by his posse and, judging by the squeals of delight and photographs held aloft, signing autographs.He waved me over. “Enough ladies, enough!” he said beaming. “Give me five minutes with Vicky.”With groans of disappointment, the women moved away to reveal a table strewn with black-and-white headshots. I took the empty chair and sat down.“They exhaust me,” said Phil happily. “Everyone wants a piece of Phil. You should see what’s on offer for the silent auction. Two of the ladies almost fainted when I told them I was flogging the shirt I wore when I met the Hoff.”Eunice was wrong. There were many people who would like to hear all about a day-in-the-life of Phil Burrows—especially his newfound friendship with David Hasselhoff, who was arealcelebrity.I brought out my notebook. “What’s the silent auction in aid of?”“Me, of course,” said Phil. “I’m raising money for my trip to Los Angeles. My agent says if you want to break into America, you’ve got to physically be there.”“Good idea,” I said. “Perhaps you could give me a list of the auction items for the newspaper?”“I’ve left it at Gipping Manor,” said Phil. “I’ve penciled you in for six thirty tonight. We’ll catch a quick bite. I’ve got to call my agent at seven thirty in L.A., and then I’ve got a tanning session at eight. Hey! Danny-boy!”I glanced over my shoulder and, to my surprise, saw Noah walking by carrying two take-out cups of tea.Phil jumped excitedly to his feet. “What are you doing here?” he cried. “Come and join us! Come and meet Vicky.”For a split second, Noah hesitated, then turned on his heel and walked off in the opposite direction.“Well I never.” Phil’s jaw dropped. He seemed bewildered. I thought it just plain rude.Phil sat back down. “Danny was as chatty as you please in Brighton two weeks ago.”“Maybe you’re mistaken?” I said. “That’s Noah Pike. He’s one of the gypsies up at The Grange.”“No,” said Phil firmly. “I never forget a face or a name. I can’t afford to in my profession. His name is definitely Danny. He plays the guitar—got a pretty good voice, too. We got to talking whilst waiting for the bank to open.”Even if Phil had gotten Noah’s name wrong, he certainly had the right man. The gypsies had been in Brighton, and Noah did play the guitar.“He must be here for Saturday’s event,” Phil went on. “My fans come from all over the country. They can get intimidated. When we first met, Danny didn’t know I was famous.”More likely Noah was embarrassed about being a gypsy and didn’t want to admit it. Who was I to judge? Didn’t I lie about my parents? I still regretted inventing the story of their death-by-lions in Africa. Even to me it sounded far-fetched.
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A flutter of admiring females descended upon us. Phil grinned and flexed his muscles.“We’re back,” gushed young Nicola Mears, First Gipping Brownie’s Brown Owl and Simon Mears’s wife. “It’s been exactly five minutes. We timed ourselves.”I wondered if her husband knew she had a crush on Phil Burrows whilst he had been out there risking life and limb under the wheels of The Gordon?Reassuring Phil that I’d meet him at Gipping Manor tonight, I headed straight for the refreshment table. If I didn’t have a cuppa in the next three minutes, I’d collapse from malnutrition.“That’s Phil Burrows, isn’t it?” said Gillian Briggs, handing me a cup. “I remember him and his brother, Steve, when they were little. Phil was always the handsome one. Always stealing Steve’s girlfriends. Oh! You’re back—” she smiled.I turned to find Noah and, to my annoyance, felt my face go hot. He really was handsome.“I’ll take two more rock cakes, Mrs. Briggs.” Noah turned to me. “Can I have a quick word, Vicky? It’s important. For a rockcake?”Gillian Briggs raised her eyebrows and winked.“Okay,” I mumbled. “I’m listening.”“No. In private. Follow me.”With a cup of tea in one hand and a rock cake in the other, I hurried after him, wondering what on earth it could be about.Moments later, Noah stopped at the mouth of the rarely used east alley, which led to the industrial estate. It was a well-known hideout for lovesick teenagers after dark. Being mid-morning, the place was deserted. I felt inexplicably jittery.“I owe you an apology,” said Noah. “I was rude yesterday. The thing is—” he took a deep breath. “You make me nervous.”I was stunned. “But you don’t even know me.”“I feel as if we’ve met in another life,” said Noah, staring deep into my eyes.My stomach turned over. Had he known me when I lived in Newcastle with Mum and Dad?Gypsies got around a lot. It was certainly possible. “I don’t think so,” I said, adding wildly—and inexplicably, “I’m an orphan.”“An orphan? Me, too.” said Noah. “Both my parents died of the flu when I was twelve. The doctors refused to treat gypsies in the hospital.”“That’s awful,” I said. “Mine were on safari—actually, I can’t talk about it.” Somehow I just couldn’t bring myself to tell Noah the death-by-lions-in-Africa story.“I live with Aunt Dora,” he said. “You know we didn’t steal that silver. It’s always the same. We’re always blamed for everything.”“I know. I’m sorry.”“You’re different from the other gorgers, aren’t you?” He brushed a strand of hair away from my face—just as Mr. Evans had done to Annabel. A bolt of electricity passed between us.“Am I?” I said, feeling even more jittery. Was this what he had in mind when asking to see me in private? Things were moving very fast.Good grief!Was he going to kiss me in broad daylight?“Is this why you’ve brought me here?” I said coyly.“No. I didn’t want to be overheard,” said Noah. “I need to talk to you about the woman in Mudge Lane.”All thoughts of love flew right out of my mind. “You know who she is?” I gasped.“You mean to say you don’t?” Noah seemed surprised. “I thought you reporters worked closely with the police?”“They’re not interested,” I said exasperated. “I don’t understand it.”“Why?” said Noah. “What did they say?”There was a crash of breaking glass followed by another, as a wave of empty beer bottles sailed in our direction. A pack of schoolchildren added stones to their ammunition.“Clear off you dirty pikeys!” they yelled.“You’d better leave,” said Noah, as the kids drew closer. Some were armed with sticks. Frankly, I’d never seen such open racial hatred and was embarrassed for my kind.“What was her name?” I cried, as he began to back away. “Was she a gypsy?”“Meet me by the gatehouse tonight at ten,” said Noah. “I’ll tell you everything.”And with that, he tossed his empty cup aside and ran off down the alley with the kids in hot pursuit.I stared after him, feeling incredibly excited. I had recruited a brand-new informant and a handsome one at that. But first, a quick word with his aunt, Madame Dora, was in order.21In the past hour or so, the queue of women waiting to see what the future held had grown considerably longer. Clearly, rumors that the gypsies were responsible for the theft of the missing church silver and priceless Trewallyn chalice had not affected Madame Dora’s business a bit.I felt a twinge of disgust. Only yesterday, most of these ladies were desperate for the “pikeys” to be gone, but today they were lining Dora’s pockets with pounds.I felt a slight wave of anxiety. What if she sensed I’d planned to meet one of her kin tonight? What if she peered into her crystal ball and saw something—romantic? Hadn’t Jimmy said that gypsies and gorgers could never be together?The tent flap lifted, and Mrs. Evans emerged clutching a brown paper bag. Ruth Reeves broke away from her friends, pawing at Mrs. E.’s arm, saying urgently, “Was it worth the money?”Seeing as how Ruth have been married to hedge-cutter John Reeves for decades, I wondered why she would need to see Madame Dora at all. Mum says only unhappy people want to know the future.“If it works, it’s worth every penny,” said Mrs. Evans grimly.“That’s not goose dung, is it?” I said, joining them.“No it’s most certainly not,” said Mrs. Evans. “It’s a charm to put a stop to Lenny’s wandering eye.”“What’s in it?”“I’m not allowed to say.”Dora poked her head out of the tent looking decidedly different from the last time we met.Heavily made up with false eyelashes and crimson lipstick, a colorful bandana was wrapped around her head. Two large hoops dangled from her ear lobes, and her wrists jangled with an abundance of gold bracelets.“I thought I heard your voice, Vicky,” she said. “Come on in.”Ignoring the grumblings and cries of “She’s jumped the queue” and “What’s so special about Vicky Hill?” I ducked inside.Securing the flap behind us, Dora gestured for me to take the wooden stool whilst she settled into a high winged-back chair. A large crystal ball sat atop a round table that was covered with a gold-fringed, deep purple tablecloth. Behind Dora’s chair was a three-paneled Chinese screen painted with mysterious symbols. In the corner stood a potted plant and a small painted wooden medicine chest with dozens of little drawers containing various herbs—if the labels were anything to go by.This setup must have taken some time to put together to say nothing of transportation to and from The Grange. How did it get here?“Ruby brought all this in her VW camper,” said Dora, as if reading my thoughts.“I was just wondering,” I said.“We didn’t steal that silver,” Dora said bluntly. “Someone is trying to frame us. Someone is throwing rubbish around the pigsty,” Dora raged on. “Rubbish we spent a whole day clearing up and putting away into the correct recycling bins.”“I’m not sure if what you saw in a crystal ball will hold up—”“I’m not daft, luv. I’ve got it all on camera—and more besides!”“Onfilm?”My suspicions as to Topaz’s involvement were growing by the minute. “Iamsorry, Dora,” I said in my friendliest voice. “I have a feeling I know who is doing this. Why don’t I have a word with that person? I’m sure that person will apologize.”“Don’t bother,” said Dora. “I already know who is doing it, and I’m going to make sure she goes to prison.”Good grief!“Aren’t you being a bit hasty?”Dora regarded me with utter contempt. “Hasty?Hasty?There’s a dying man just feet from her back door! She’s shown no respect for our culture. It beggars belief.”“At least let me talk to her first. I’m sure it was just playful high spirits.”“Why? Friend of yours, is she?” said Dora with a sneer.“Not exactly.”Blast, wretched Topaz and her ridiculous disguises.“Good, you’ve got some sense, then.” Dora leaned back in her chair and cocked her head. “You’ve had a rough life, luv,” she said gently. “Be careful of these so-called friends. They’d think nothing of betraying you.” She leaned forward and took my hand, turning it palm side up once more. “You’re an outsider,” she said. “Stick to your own kind. And, whilst we are on the subject, gorgers and gypsies should not be together.Ever.”I felt my face redden. “I don’t understand what you mean.”“You know who I’m talking about.”The tent was becoming claustrophobic. I snatched back my hand. What a fool I’d been to come here. The gypsy could obviously “see” me with Noah.“That’ll be five pounds,” said Dora. “But since you’ve got my article on the front page, I’ll do this for free.”Front page?“Thank you, but you do know that Page One is not up to me?” I said. “I’d still like to talk to her ladyship about this so-called film.”Dora gave a harsh laugh. “Don’t waste your breath. My mind is made up.”I got to my feet thoroughly rattled, though I wasn’t sure if it was because of Dora’s stubborn determination to get Topaz incarcerated—though I’d often thought of doing that myself—or her uncanny knowledge of my rendezvous tonight with Noah. Either way, I wanted to get out of this tent.Now.Outside, a chorus of “Are you going to meet Mr. Right?” and “Will you win the lottery?” greeted me, but I had no desire to stand and chat.It suddenly occurred to me that I had triple-booked myself tonight—an interview with Phil for a day-in-the-life, a rendezvous with the gorgeous Noah, and somehow, mixed in with all this, drinks with Steve.An extremely trying evening loomed ahead.22Three times I tried to call The Grange to speak to Topaz about this so-called film, but the phone just rang and rang. Needless to say, she didn’t have a mobile or an answering machine.Finally, on the fourth attempt—journalism is all about persistence—I was taken aback by the sound of a familiar voice and, for a moment, thought I must have dialed the wrong number.“Annabel, is that you?”“What do you want, Vicky?”“Are you at The Grange?”“Well, duh?” said Annabel. “Where else do you think I’d be? The moon?”“What are you doing there?” I said. “I thought the eviction was off.”“It may be off fornow,” she said, “but actually her ladyship is in a dreadful state.”“Why? What’s happened?” Topaz had seemed very cheerful on the phone this morning.There was an exasperated sigh. “Because of the Trewallynchalice. It was stolen, remember? Fortunately, I was able to tell her ladyship that theGazettewould be offering a reward of fifty pounds for any information leading to its recovery.”Frankly, I thought fifty pounds a bit cheap. “It was my idea.”“It wasouridea,” said Annabel briskly. “However, since it’s me who has the relationship with the Lady Ethel, it’s all my idea now.”BlastAnnabel andblastTopaz! “Can I talk to her, please? It’s important.”“She’s resting, and anyway, all her calls go through me now,” said Annabel. “What would it be regarding?”I hesitated. Even if Dora was bluffing, I didn’t want Annabel to jump on this bandwagon, too. “Tell her, tell her . . . it’s about Belcher Pike’s funeral arrangements.”As I ended the call, I wondered why I was bothering to talk to Topaz at all. With Annabel as her new best friend, she’d probably repeat our conversation.I felt strangely depressed and a tiny bit jealous.Get a grip, Vicky!I had far too much on my plate to give way to maudlin musings.
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