For decades, Catherine Aird's crime novels featuring C.D. Sloan have been beloved by fans and lauded by critics for their adroit plotting, playful wit, and literate charm. With Amendment of Life, Aird delivers the lively and engrossing novel that readers have come to rely upon.
Detective Chief Inspector C.D. Sloan of the Calleshire CID is used to the occasional oddity in his relatively quiet part of the English countryside. But lately things have taken a strange turn. First, in the center of a yew maze that is the showpiece of the Tudor-era house, Aumerle Court, a body is spotted by Miss Daphne Pedlinge, the elderly chatelaine of the Court. By the time the groundskeeper actually makes it to the center, he, too, spies the body, and it is indeed dead.
Meanwhile, a few miles away, a slaughtered rabbit is left on the Bishop's doorstep in nearby Calleford, an omen as portentous as the body in the maze. Now Inspector Sloan, with the somewhat trying personage of Constable Crosby in tow, must uncover what precisely is going on as they launch an investigation with more twists and turns than the maze itself.
About the Author
Catherine Aird is the author of more than twenty crime novels and story collections, most of which feature Detective Chief Inspect C.D. Sloan. She holds an honorary M.A. from the University of Kent and was made an M.B.E. Her more recent works include Past Tense and Losing Ground. She lives in Sturry, Kent in England.
Catherine Aird is the author of twenty-odd crime novels and story collections, most of which feature Detective Chief Inspector C. D. Sloan. She holds an honorary M. A. from the University of Kent and was made an M.B.E. Her more recent works include Amendment of Life, Past Tense and Losing Ground. She lives in England.
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Amendment of Life
By Catherine Aird
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2002 Catherine Aird
All rights reserved.
'Toss you for it?' said Pete Carter.
'It's your turn anyway,' objected Kenny Prickett. 'Not mine. I did it last Monday, remember, while you did the car park?'
Pete started to feel in his trousers' pocket for a coin. 'I know, but —'
'But', finished his friend for him, 'you don't like going in there.'
'You're dead right, I don't. It beats me why it's so blooming popular,' said Pete. He sniffed. 'Can't understand it myself.'
'People like mazes,' declared Kenny confidently. 'They queue up for ages to get in there. You can see them doing it all the time.'
'And they queue up to get out, too, mate. Don't forget that. Only you can't see them then —'
'Don't forget what goes in has to come out,' said Kenny sturdily. 'Just like what goes up has to come down.'
Pete grimaced. 'That's only if you can find your way out in the first place. It's not like you're on a straight road with signposts telling you which way to go next when you're in there.' He held up a coin. 'Come on, Kenny,' he urged. 'Live dangerously for once. Let's toss for it.'
His workmate, Kenneth Prickett, leaned against the giant industrial dustbin on wheels from which hung his brush and shovel and said, 'Oh, all right then ... only do get on with it.'
The two workmen had just arrived at Aumerle Court to start their week's work and Monday was always their busiest day. It was the only one on which the general public were not admitted to the Court and thus the day on which a great deal of clearing up had to be done. The owners of Aumerle Court – the Pedlinge family – were careful to foster the illusion that their paying visitors were actually welcome guests and therefore liked as much as possible of the routine cleaning and tidying up to be done when that same public were not around to see the work in progress.
Pete Carter steadied a twopenny piece on his horny thumb. 'Heads you do the maze and I get to do the car park instead. Right?'
'If we don't get started pretty soon on both,' remarked Kenny pertinently, 'old Pusher Prosser'll be along wanting to know the reason why and then there'll be trouble. Big trouble. You know what he's like when he's roused, so don't let's hang about.'
Captain Jeremy Prosser was steward and agent to the Aumerle estate, and thus unhappily poised between those who wanted the work done and those who had to do it.
'You call then,' said Pete, getting ready to spin the coin up in the air.
'And none of your catching it as it comes down and turning it over in your hand, see?' said Kenny Prickett vigorously.
'Right. Call now —'
'Here goes —'
Prickett shifted his heavy metal bin out of the way and watched as the twopenny piece spiralled first upwards, spun and then fell back to earth in a diminishing giro. As solemnly as a pair of cricket captains at a Test match, the two men advanced together the better to see how the coin lay on the ground.
'Tails it is,' said Pete, peering down, patently disappointed.
'Good,' said Kenny Prickett briskly, immediately starting to push his great bin in the direction of the car park. 'See you beaver time, then ...'
'That's if I ever get out.' Pete gave a histrionic laugh. 'You realize you may never see me again, don't you?'
'Keep turning left,' advised Kenny callously.
'That's all very well, but once I go in there who knows when I'll ever come out?'
'Old Pusher Prosser will,' said his mate, taking this literally. 'He's probably timing you already if you did but know.' Everyone on the staff at Aumerle Court had soon discovered that Captain Prosser worked to the clock and that he expected everyone else to do the same.
Pete muttered exactly what Captain Prosser could do with his precious military precision, but he did it under his breath. The gentleman in question had an unnerving habit of appearing where he was least expected.
'You can do the car park next Monday,' promised Kenny, lifting the handles of his bin and beginning to trundle off towards the old stable yard, where visitors to the Court were asked to leave their vehicles, 'seeing as how it'll be your rightful turn then anyway.'
'Thanks for nothing,' said his friend, turning in the direction of the solid yew-hedge maze that lay to one side of the ancient Court.
Like other mazes of its period, it had been so positioned that those looking down from the windows at the end of the Long Gallery on the first floor could be entertained by the sight of the heads of those inside the maze struggling to get round it and regain their freedom. The fact that those above the maze – usually the ladies of the family – could themselves see the way out clearly enough when those inside couldn't presumably added to their pleasure.
'And, Pete,' called out the departing Kenny Prickett over his shoulder, 'don't forget the Captain's motto for the maze.' He grinned. 'His Monday morning one.'
Pete ground his teeth. The Captain's mottos were a bane to everyone. They were, in fact, a thinly disguised substitute for the 'aims and objectives' principles which the good soldier had been taught at his staff college were essential to successful administration.
'"Leave no avenue unexplored",' sang out Kenny, carefully putting some distance between himself and his friend as he did so.
Exploring avenues was part of Pete's problem in this job. Even had he been able to memorize the correct route in the maze from the entrance to the exit, it would have done him no good at all. This was because he was required to tidy up all the blind alleys, nooks and crannies, and false – though promising – starts in the maze as well. And while those in the Long Gallery, scanning the maze from above, were able to relish an Olympian view of the struggles of those beneath them and could always see the easy – the only – way out, anyone actually inside the maze enjoyed no such all-encompassing view.
Not, of course, that Pete was supposed to get out of the maze as quickly as possible, unlike the visitors to Aumerle Court. He had not, after all, paid good money to go in there. Nor was there a cream tea awaiting him in the stables, which had been thoughtfully placed beside the gift shop now set up in the old laundry. Pete had to go in the maze and stay in there until the work was done – and for not very good money at all.
And then get out again.
This was Pete's complaint, too, as well as his problem. Even to the initiated, one stretch of yew hedge looked remarkably like the next and the sky was never any help at all. Pete had found that the clouds above moved with surprising speed and in all directions.
He halted as he heard Kenny call out his name. 'What is it now?'
'We could toss again next week, if you like.' Kenny Prickett gave a throaty chuckle. 'Then I might get to do the car park again. I'd have a fifty -fifty chance, wouldn't I?'
* * *
'Pete Carter's late again this week,' announced Daphne Pedlinge, adding crisply, 'And so are you, Milly.'
'Now, Miss Daphne, you shouldn't be saying that. You know I'm not. I was in your bedroom on the stroke of eight o'clock this morning, like always.'
'Push me nearer the window,' commanded Daphne Pedlinge, changing tack. 'I want to keep an eye on him.'
'Yes, Miss Daphne.' As a rule, today's carers addressed the elderly and ill more informally – Christian names were de rigueur in most care homes and hospitals. But Aumerle Court was neither of these things and, while undeniably elderly, Miss Pedlinge did not greatly care for this new practice.
'Nearer, Milly, please. I can't see if Pete Carter's gone in already. I don't want to miss him.'
Milly glanced at her watch as she helped to position the wheelchair. 'He'll scarcely be there yet ... there's hardly been time for him to get across to the maze from that bothy of theirs, now has there?'
'And mind you put the brake on.'
'I haven't ever forgotten,' responded Milly cheerfully, manoeuvring Daphne Pedlinge's wheelchair into position at the end of the Long Gallery with a dexterity born of much practice, and giving it an affectionate shake, 'now have I?'
'Don't humour me, Milly.'
The woman gave a good-natured grin. 'All right, then, I'll leave you just here all day ... where you can't see a thing.'
'No, you won't.' Miss Pedlinge's expression became positively vulpine. 'I want to watch him get lost.'
Milly suppressed any reference to what she herself felt, or, indeed, to the more modern meaning of the invitation to 'get lost'. She had been born and bred in the village of Staple St James and was thus quite accustomed to the vagaries of the Pedlinge family. Indeed, Daphne Pedlinge, a true survivor from an earlier age, had been a feature in the landscape of Milly Smithers's own life as long as she could remember.
To a little girl she had seemed kindly but awesome, and to a growing woman she had only been a friendly but distant figure, busy and much away from Aumerle Court. Then, after her elderly parents and her nephew had died, Miss Daphne had come back to take charge of Aumerle Court. That had been when the much-married woman whom Milly had then become, with all the troubles that came with the wedded state and motherhood, had found Daphne Pedlinge unfailingly approachable and helpful.
The passing years had found the boot on the other foot and it had become Milly's turn to show an equal compassion and concern.
Milly said 'Now, I ask you, is that kind, Miss Daphne? Poor Pete —'
'No,' said the old lady frankly, 'but it livens up a dull morning. And there's nothing else to look forward to today but the doctor coming.'
'He's nice, is Dr Browne,' said Milly fondly. 'I like him.'
'He can't do anything more for me, though,' said Daphne Pedlinge. 'He keeps on saying so.'
'There's not that much wrong with you,' said the woman warmly. 'All you need, Miss Daphne, are some new legs.'
'True.' Daphne Pedlinge looked down at the rug which covered a pair of arthritic, misshapen knees. 'But he hasn't got any of those in his little black bag.'
Milly propelled the wheelchair forward again and asked with genuine solicitude, 'Now, Miss Daphne, can you see all you want from here?'
'Yes, thank you, Milly.' The old lady twitched her rug. 'I'm quite all right. Now, you can go and attend to Eurostopodus diabolicus ...'
'Yes, Miss Daphne.' Milly smiled dutifully at the daily joke. By now she knew that this was Latin for a bird called the Satanic-eared nightjar – and that the reference was a pun. The nightjar to which she had to attend every morning was of quite a different variety. 'Here's your bell. Just ring for me if you want anything.'
The carer had settled the wheelchair in exactly the same place – had she known it – from which the ladies of Aumerle Court of yesteryear had also diverted themselves by looking down on the maze. It had been convention, not arthritis, which had prevented those earlier gentlewomen from going outside, but they were the spiritual sisters of Daphne Pedlinge all the same. They, too, had always wanted to see what was going on in the maze, hoping for some little excitement to enliven their dull days.
Had they seen what Daphne Pedlinge saw there when she first looked down this Monday morning, they might not have reacted with her speed – after all, the Tudor age was one quite accustomed to death – but they, too, would have done exactly what Daphne Pedlinge did and rung for help and told their waiting women that there was a body in the maze and to do something about it.
Miss Pedlinge also pointed out to a shocked Milly that, in the fullness of time, Pete Carter and his brush and shovel would be happening upon it, and that something should be done about that, too.
And quickly.CHAPTER 2
Mondays were not usually the busiest day of the week at Berebury Police Station – in theory, that is.
Saturday held the crown in that respect, especially if there happened to be a football match in the town; even more so if the game was a local Derby played between neighbouring teams. Fixtures between, say, Berebury United or Calleford City called for a lot of policing. When the industrial town of Luston played their away match at Berebury, often enough it was extra ambulances that were needed rather than policemen.
On the other hand, Mondays weren't the quietest day of the week at the police station, either.
Not by a long chalk.
As far as Detective Inspector C.D. Sloan was concerned, they didn't have quiet days there at all. And he thought he was a man in a good position to know. After all, he was head of the tiny Criminal Investigation Department of 'F' Division of the County of Calleshire Constabulary. Reports of such crime as there was in that division usually landed on his desk. Detective Inspector Sloan was known to his nearest and dearest as Christopher Dennis and – for obvious reasons – to his friends and colleagues at the police station as 'Seedy'. His superior officer, however, used neither of these names this morning when he sent for him.
'Ah, there you are, Sloan!' Superintendent Leeyes glared at him from under bushy eyebrows. 'Don't just stand there. Come in. There's been a very odd message from a care assistant to an old lady out in the sticks.' He looked down at a message sheet in his hand. 'Over Staple St James way. At Aumerle Court —'
'The Pedlinges' place,' responded Detective Inspector Sloan, himself a Calleshire man born and bred. He didn't say so, but – as the old phrase had it – the Pedlinge family were 'as well known as the bell man'. 'It's over towards Calleford.'
'The carer – Milly Smithers is her name – says', went on the Superintendent, still staring down at the paper on his desk, 'that her old lady insists there's a dead body in the grounds.'
'And what does the carer say on her own account, sir?' asked Sloan, a man who, in his time had had his full meed of the dotty and the delusional. In the police force, dealing with the mentally deranged had always gone with the territory. Every beat officer got quite good at it early on in his career.
'This Milly Smithers agrees that there's definitely a person lying out there – she could see it, too, from where the old lady is – but she herself isn't absolutely sure that it is a dead one.'
'And what, may I ask, sir,' enquired Sloan, 'makes the old lady think that she knows better?' Their Station Sergeant had daily visits from a man who was unshakeably convinced that his television dish was picking up messages from alien bodies on Mars; messages of an obscure nature that nevertheless the police should do something about then and there. If not sooner.
'She doesn't think,' growled Leeyes. 'She knows ...'
'She says it was her wartime service in the FANYs,' quoted Leeyes. He scowled. 'I think someone somewhere must be trying to have us on, Sloan.'
'They may not be, sir.' He frowned. 'I rather think that there was a women's outfit in the Services in the last war known as the FANYs. The First Aid Nursing Yeomanry or something like that. FANYs for short.'
'And there was I', marvelled the Superintendent, 'thinking about Sweet Fanny Adams instead.'
'Yes, sir,' said Sloan stolidly.
'Anyway,' Leeyes snorted, 'the carer wanted to send for an ambulance, but apparently the old lady wouldn't hear of it. Made her carer send for us instead. Insisted on it, in fact.'
'Do we know why, sir?' He had an idea that in their day – in the war, that is – the FANYs had done something clandestine, but he didn't know exactly what.
'She – that's this Miss Daphne Pedlinge —'
'The old lady at Aumerle Court,' put in Sloan, getting out his notebook. It – a name and address, that is – was as good a place as any to begin.
'She said that the ambulance people might destroy the evidence.'
'So Miss Pedlinge thinks we need to be there first, does she?' mused Sloan. 'That's interesting, sir. And that she thinks there's evidence to be destroyed, too. That's interesting as well.'
The Superintendent wasn't really listening. 'I don't know about getting there first, Sloan, but she says that the police do need to reach the body before a workman called Pete Carter gets to the spot with his shovel and dustbin.' He sniffed. 'What does she imagine he's going to do? Sweep it up and put it on the rubbish tip? Sounds to me as if you'd better take a straitjacket out there with you.'
'Yes, sir.' He sighed unenthusiastically. 'Presumably this Milly Smithers will be able to direct us to the body.'
'I shouldn't count on it if I were you, Sloan.'
'What you are going to be looking for is lying somewhere in the famous Aumerle maze,' said the Superintendent, adding, quite unabashed, 'Didn't I say?'
'No, sir,' Sloan said expressionlessly. 'You didn't say.'
'Well, it is, and I don't want you and your Sergeant spending all morning playing about in there either.'
'I'm afraid, sir,' said Detective Inspector Sloan with an even more marked lack of enthusiasm, 'that I'll have to take young Crosby with me today instead.' Detective Constable Crosby, inexperienced and inept, was not a useful man to have at his side – or anyone else's – on a case. 'Sergeant Gelven rang in sick first thing this morning. He's not going to be well enough to be on duty at all this week.'
Excerpted from Amendment of Life by Catherine Aird. Copyright © 2002 Catherine Aird. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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