The Anodyne Necklace(4)
Author:Martha Grimes


    Having accomplished the difficult task of posting his letter, Sir Miles proceeded farther along the High. He considered returning a handkerchief he had purchased in a tiny haberdashery next to the sweet shop, as he had noticed one loose stitch. Fifty pence, and the Empire couldn’t even sew after all these years, he thought. There was only the one smudge, a tiny one in the corner when he had been eating a bit of chocolate, but that should make no odds. He was after bigger game, though, today. He was intent upon Mr. Bister’s garage, down a few doors, where the owner had not given him the right change yesterday for gasoline.

    Thus did Sir Miles make his daily rounds. The police station he was saving up for last, where he planned on spending the whole of the morning finding out from Peter Gere, the village constable, why the Hertfield police weren’t moving more swiftly in the matter which had brought Littlebourne to much wider notice.

    II

    One would have thought that Sir Miles was the least popular of the villagers. This was not so. His wife, Sylvia, beat him out by a hair. It wasn’t five minutes after her husband had left the village post office that she herself was on the telephone arguing with the benighted Pennystevens.

    “I simply want to know how much it will cost to mail it, Mrs. Pennystevens. That seems a simple enough request. I want the parcel in this afternoon’s post. . . . But I have given you the weight—you need merely look it up in the book.” Sylvia Bodenheim’s hand was clicking the garden shears which she had just used to cut the flowers, snapping each one as if it had been the head of a villager. “No, I most certainly will not send Ruth along with a pound note in case the postage is more. You know what servants are nowadays. I don’t understand why you cannot undertake to give me the exact amount . . . My scales are quite accurate, thank you very much. . . . Edinburgh, yes.” The shears clicked now in time to the tapping of Sylvia’s foot. “Fifty pence. You’re quite sure that’s the cheap rate?” Sylvia’s mouth clamped in a grim line. “ ‘As sure as you can be in the circumstances’ is hardly a satisfactory reply. I hope it will not be necessary to send Ruth back again with more money if you’ve misjudged the weight.” Abruptly, and with no farewell, she dropped the phone into the cradle and shouted for Ruth.

    • • •

    The other two contenders for the Littlebourne murders were the Bodenheim children, Derek and Julia. However, they fell far behind their mother and father merely because of proximity. Derek came down from Cambridge rarely; Julia (whose horse could have got into University before Julia could), was not seen all that much. She spent most of her time shopping in London or hunting with one or another of the local packs. Seldom did the villagers see her from any vantage point except up on her horse in her hacking jacket or black Melton, one hand on her hip.

    When the four Bodenheims had to be together (at Christmas, for instance) they entertained themselves by noting the shortcomings of their neighbors, by reestablishing their own superior claims as feudal overlords, and, all in all, generally turning water into wine.

    III

    The Littlebourne Murders, as yet unfinished, had long provided practice in the gentle art of murder for Polly Praed. A moderately successful mystery-story writer, she often, when her plots came unglued, would divert herself by practicing various modes and styles of murder on the Bodenheims, singly or together. She favored the denouement which had the entire village coming together to murder the titled family. At the moment she was walking down the High considering a choice of weapons. A dagger passed from hand to hand was out—it had already been used. As she passed the garage considering poisons, she smiled absently at Mr. Bister, who raised his greasy cap. While she was thinking of that dreadful cliché of “arsenic-in-the-tea,” she stopped.

    About twenty or so feet away, parked outside of the tiny house which was Littlebourne’s one-man police station, two men were getting out of a car. One was rather slight and ordinary-looking, though it was hard to tell, as he was apparently blowing his nose. But the other, the other made her understand the meaning of being rooted to the spot. He was tall, and if not precisely handsome . . . but what else could one call him? When he reached to take something from the rear seat—was it a bag? was he staying?—a wind blew his hair. He scraped it across his forehead and turned with the other one and walked up the path to the station.

    Polly stared at the air and felt mildly seasick.

    It was nearly ten. She often went into the station to have a chat with Peter Gere; they were friends. Sometimes they even went across to the Bold Blue Boy for a bit of lunch or a drink. What was to prevent her from simply marching up the walk and feigning surprise—Oh, do excuse me, Peter, I didn’t know—

    Her hands shoved deep in the pockets of her coat-sweater, her mind busily worked over the scene that would unfold: there would be the stranger’s open-mouthed astonishment that she was that Polly Praed (a name which had never seemed to get much of a rise even out of her publisher), an appreciation of her wit (which reviewers put on a par with her plots), a quiet appraisal of her beauty (seldom commented on by anyone). At this point she was so deep into sparkling repartee inside the police station that she forgot she was still on the pavement until she heard the raised voices.

    She turned to look back toward the petrol station where Miles Bodenheim was waving his swagger stick in the air and Mr. Bister’s face had turned the color of the little red Mini he had apparently been working on. Sir Miles made one last gesture with the stick, and started down the pavement, headed in her direction. Quickly, she crossed to the other side and shot into the Magic Muffin, fortunately open that day. It was a tearoom run by Miss Celia Pettigrew, a gentlewoman of slender means, who kept very capricious business hours. One never could be sure from one week to the next when the Muffin would be open: it was as if Miss Pettigrew were running by some other calendar than the Gregorian and some other time than Greenwich Mean.

    Polly watched the progress of Sir Miles, who was marching down the other side of the street and was now just by the police station walk.

    She could have died.

    Coming down the walk and running bang-up against Miles Bodenheim were Peter Gere and the two strangers. The idea that this brief encounter should fall not to her but to Miles (who deserved prussic acid in his morning egg) made her want to scream. She watched as Peter Gere and the others maneuvered around Sir Miles and separated themselves from him—which must have been like picking a limpet off a rock. The three crossed the street and Littlebourne Green and out of her line of vision. Her face was nearly mashed against the glass.

    “Whatever are you staring at, dear?” The reedy voice of Celia Pettigrew pulled Polly back from the window, the blood creeping up her neck as she took a seat at one of the dark, gate-legged tables. Its blue-and-white cloth matched the cottage curtains. “Might I have some tea, Miss Pettigrew?” said Polly in a strained voice. “And a muffin?”

    “That’s what we’re here for,” said Miss Pettigrew, moving briskly toward a curtained door at the rear of the room.

    To resist further temptation, Polly had seated herself with her back to the windows, so that when the bell tinkled again, her heart leaped within her. Could his course have been deflected walking across the Green? Could—?

    No. It was only Sir Miles, come to hector Miss Pettigrew within an inch of her life. Although Miles Bodenheim vied only with his wife as the first one to dispatch in The Littlebourne Murders, she was almost glad to see him now.

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