About the Author
Although she wrote under a number of pseudonyms, Edith Mary Pargeter (1913-1995) is perhaps best known as the mystery author Ellis Peters. Pargeter wrote the Brother Cadfael series featuring a medieval Benedictine monk. She won many writing awards during her lifetime and a number of her Brother Cadfael books were made into television movies.
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The Grass Widow's Tale
The Felse Investigations: Book 7
By Ellis Peters
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1968 Ellis Peters
All rights reserved.
The day before her birthday turned out to be a dead loss right from the start. It dawned reluctantly in murk, like a decrepit old man with a hangover half-opening one gummy eye, to glare sickly at the world and recoil into misanthropy. Morose commuters groped their way through a gloom that did not lift. Slimy black mud picked up by the set-back heels of the new season's shoes spattered mini-skirted legs to the thigh with miniature cowpats, which dried greenish-grey and clung like glue. Desultory moisture in the air, balanced irritatingly between rain and mist, caused half of the hurrying morning tide to open their umbrellas, while leaving the other half unconvinced, and to walk the length of the street was to witness the formation of two inimical factions. There was no letter from Dominic in the post, nothing but a dismal circular for a furniture sale and a quarterly gas bill, first delayed and then wantonly inflated by a perverse computer. It was impossible to do the housework without switching on lights, and the spectral world outside the misted windows instantly sank deeper into the all-defiling ooze of dirt and darkness. There was no real daylight all that day.
When October turns traitor it can sometimes outdo the worst of the winter in nastiness. By the time George came home, late in the afternoon, it was raining with a restrained malice that wet people through before they realised it, and yet did nothing to rinse the spattered shop-windows and greasy pavements. All the lights were hazed with condensation and clinging filth; the day was a write-off, and the night already settling malevolently over Comerford.
Bunty heard the car slurp dejectedly along the kerb and slow to turn in at the gate; and her heart rose so violently that only then did she realise with a shock how low it had sunk. George was home, there would be a letter from Dominic in the morning. She examined with astonishment, and rejected with disdain, the feeling that she had been for some hours utterly alone.
And George came in, tall and tired, stained with the greyness of the day, and said, so abruptly that she knew he was hardly with her at all: 'Pitch a few things in a case for me, will you? I've got to go down to London.' Some sense of guilt touched him vaguely through the cloud of his abstraction. 'I'm sorry!' he said. 'Something's come up.'
Bunty had been a detective's wife for just over twenty years. Her responses were as nearly automatic as made no matter. You do not send your husband out on a job with a divided mind; least of all do you claim any part of his concentration for yourself when he needs it all intact for his own purposes. She closed her magazine briskly, crossed to him and kissed him with the brevity of old custom.
'Got time for tea? Ready in five minutes. What difference can that make?'
'You don't mind?' he said, tightening his arm round her for a moment. His voice was weary; so were his eyes. The Midshire C.I.D. were having no easy time this autumn, and there wasn't much Bunty didn't know, directly or indirectly, about their preoccupations.
'I mind like hell!' Since when had they dealt in polite, accommodating lies? 'But there it is. You get something good out of it, and I'll be satisfied. Anything promising?'
'Hard to say. It might be a breakthrough, it might just drop dead. You know how it is.'
She knew just how it was; usually it dropped dead. But they had to pursue it just the same, as long as there was breath in it. 'It's time you had a break. Is it the wage-snatch? Has something broken there?'
'No, the fur job. If we're lucky it might turn out to be something. They've picked up a small floating operator on another charge, one of the possibles we had listed. Specialises in driving jobs, anything on wheels, especially get-away cars. He answers to one of the two descriptions we got out of the driver of that van, but not any better than a dozen other professionals do. The thing is, he produced an alibi for the time of our job, but as soon as they probed it, it fell down. There may be nothing in it. Maybe his own gang want him shopped, for some reason of their own. Anyhow, they don't want to know about him, and he's left wide open. It may be the moment to get something out of him, or there may be nothing to get. But we've got to try it.'
'Of course! I hope it turns out right, I hope he's your man. You sit down,' she said, steering him backwards into his own chair by the fire, 'and I'll put the kettle on. By the time I've packed it'll be boiling. How long will you have to be away?'
'I don't know, maybe two or three days. If I do get a lead, it'll be down there I shall have to follow it up. I told Duckett, this is some metropolitan gang moving out. I'm sure of it. Distances have shrunk since we got the motorways, and town's getting too congested and too hot. The pickings are better out here. And we're beginners,' he said grimly. 'They know where the pastures are green, all right! And the police greener!'
'They think!' said Bunty from the kitchen. The gas hissed under the kettle, and the busy, contented purr of water heating began almost at once. 'You're taking the car?' she asked.
'It's quicker, and I need to be mobile. I shall have to fill up on the way out. Thank the lord, at least it isn't foggy.'
'I'd better reckon on three days or so, then? Keep an eye on this kettle, I'll be down in a few minutes.'
She had had plenty of practice, there had been a great many abrupt departures during those twenty years. She packed the small black suitcase with brisk movements, and by the time she brought it down George had the tea made, and was shuffling papers together in his briefcase and locking his desk.
'Has the van driver seen a photograph of your man?' she asked, pouring tea.
'Yes, but he can't be too clear about anything but the general build and movements of the two he saw. It was night, and they had a powerful torch trained on him the moment he pulled up. We might get an identification when we can show him the man himself. But between you and me, I doubt it.'
Bunty doubted it, too. The van-load of furs bound from the London dealer to Comerbourne's leading dress-shop had been hi-jacked shortly after leaving the motorway, on a night in early September, nearly six weeks past, and the driver was still in hospital. The wonder was that he had been able to tell them anything at all. A quiet stretch of road, a red triangle conspicuously displayed, a car askew, half off the road, a man running along the verge and waving a torch towards the cab of the big van – add up the details, and who wouldn't have deduced an accident, and stopped to help? The driver had seen a second man dart out of the shadow of the car, and he had an eye for the characteristics of movement, and insisted he would know this one again if he could ever see him in motion. But no sooner had he pulled in to the side of the road and jumped down from his cab than he was hit on the head from behind, by someone he never saw at all, and that was the last thing he knew about it. Hit three times, as it turned out, to make sure of him. He had a tough constitution and a hard skull, and he survived, and even remembered. But for him they would never have known where the attack took place, for the empty van was picked up later on a road-house parking-ground twenty miles off its route, and the driver was found in the morning dumped in the remotest corner of a lay-by on a country road in the opposite direction. Every part of the van that might have carried prints had been polished as clean as bone. A thoroughly professional job. And nobody had seen hide or hair of the load of furs since then. Probably they had been delivered to an already waiting customer that same night.
If Midshire had had any doubts, after that, that crime on a big-business scale was moving in on its territory, the wage-snatch three weeks later would have settled the matter. But the driver who regularly conveyed Armitage Pressings' weekly pay-roll to the factory on Thursdays had not provided any information for the police, because he had been unconscious when the ambulance-men lifted him on to the stretcher, and dead before they got him to hospital. As for the van, someone had ditched it among the skeletons in a local scrap-yard within an hour of the crime.
And this time the weapon they had used on him had not been a cosh, but a gun. Guns had seldom featured in Midshire crime before, and then usually in the haphazard and amateur kind. This was professionalism on a highly organised scale. The planners were extending their territory, and it looked as if the march of progress had reached Comerbourne.
'I'd better get off,' said George, sighing, and rose to pick up his case.
'I'll come in with you.' Bunty got up very quickly, and whisked out into the hall for her coat. 'You can drop me off at the Betterbuy, and I'll get a bus back. I want to pick up a few things there.'
There was nothing she needed, but with his preoccupations he couldn't hope to read that in her face, which was bright, tranquil and sensible as always. The truth was that she had suddenly felt her very bones ache at the thought of seeing him go, and being alone in the house with the autumnal chill and silence after he was gone. Even a few minutes was worth buying; even the struggle on to a crowded bus on the way back might break the spell of her isolation, and restore her to the company of her neighbours. Tiresome, troublous and abrasive as one's fellow-men can be, only the friction of human contact keeps one man-alive.
'I thought you hated the supermarket,' said George obtusely, frowning over his own anxieties, and smiling through them abstractedly at his wife. He had loved her ever since he was twenty-two and she eighteen, and so whole-heartedly and firmly that talking to her was something as secret as confiding in his own conscience; which was why she seldom questioned him, and he never hesitated to tell her what troubled him. No betrayal was involved; it was a conversation with himself. Only occasionally, as now, did he stiffen suddenly to the devastating doubt whether she in return opened her own agonies to him, or whether there was something there denied to him for reasons which diminished him, and removed her to a distance he could not bear. The moments of doubt were appalling, pin-points of dismay, but unbelievably brief, vanished always before he could pursue them, and forgotten before they could undermine his certainty. But he never knew whether this was because they were delusions, inspired by some private devil, or whether she diagnosed them and herself plucked them out of his consciousness before they could sting. She was, after all, the antidote to all evils. How could he know whether the exorcism worked as efficiently the other way?
'I do hate the place,' said Bunty warmly, 'but what choice have I got? Haven't you noticed that all our four groceries in Comerford have switched over to self-service?'
'I thought it was supposed to make shopping quicker and easier,' he said vaguely. What he was thinking was how beautiful she was, his forty-year-old wife, how much more beautiful now with her few silvery hairs among the thick chestnut waves, and the deep lines of character and laughter and rueful affection in her face, than the unblemished ivory girl of twenty years ago. Those smooth, eager, glowing young things are so touching, when you know only too well what's waiting for them. They don't all weather and mature into such splendour as this.
'Hah! You try it! Getting round is all right, once you know where everything is, but getting out is the devil. Give me the old corner gossip-shop every time. You could hang around if you weren't holding anyone else up, and get out fast if you were. And no damned stamps!' said Bunty feelingly. 'But that's progress for you – all part of the same process. We've all got to get mechanised, like the criminals.'
They went out to the car together, the house darkened and locked behind them. Once in the car shoulder to shoulder, with the doors fast closed against the dull rain and the muddy remnant of the light, they recovered a certain security. The demons clawed at the glass impotently, tracing greasy runnels of water through devious channels down the panes, splitting the street lights into a dozen flat, refracted slivers of sulphur-yellow, smoky playing-cards shuffled in an invisible hand. The raw new bungalows on the other side of their own residential road perforated the darkness with eruptions of pink, featureless brick.
'Change and decay!' said Bunty bitterly. She hadn't meant to say it, it was all too plain. The population explosion must settle somewhere, but homes ought to have a certain reticence, as well as a degree of assurance, and these were hesitant, at once aggressive and apologetic, meant for units, not families.
'I know! You wouldn't think this was just a village when we settled here, would you? With about three service shops, and farms right on the through road, and a pet river like a tortoise-shell kitten chasing leaves all down the back-gardens.'
'Careful!' said Bunty. 'You're getting lyrical.'
'I'm getting homesick. For the past. It's a sign of age creeping on. By any standards, this is a town now. You don't notice it sneaking in, but suddenly there it is. Chain shops, supermarkets, bingo halls and all. Automatic-barrier parking-grounds, gift stamps, special offers, fourpence off – the lot! Bunty, let's move!'
'It used to be so lovely,' she said; and then, reasonably: 'We couldn't go anywhere that it wouldn't catch up with us. Why run?'
In the main street, which had once been the road through the village, neon lights peered shortsightedly through the murk, all their greens and blues and reds filmed over with sour grey gloom. The jostling cars of the affluent society glared shoulder to shoulder from the new car parks, their colours dimmed with thin, glutinous mud. The cinema frontage sustained with evident effort an almost-nude blonde twelve feet long, sprawled the length of its lights, three feet of flaxen hair extending her at the head, as though someone had dragged her there by those pale ropes. She wore a bikini, and she might have been merely sun-bathing, but she looked dead. There was no queue to find out the truth; no one was interested.
'Wait till you see what they're doing with old Pearce's place,' said George, between resignation and revulsion. 'Or didn't I tell you he's sold out? To some chain moving in from the south. He had too good a spot to survive long, once the urbanisation started.'
He turned the car left out of the High Street, and slowed as he approached the glittering frontage of what had once been Pearce's Garage, long inhabited by three generations of passionate motor-maniacs without a grain of commercial acumen between them, but able to do just about anything with an engine. All its capital had been in the background then, and the forecourt and petrol sales had been a somewhat tedious chore, very modestly lit and little regarded. No advertising was needed for a first-class service to which every well-run car in the county knew its own way.
Within ten days of the sale things had changed radically. A long festoon of lights in four colours stretched all along the frontage, which was being torn back into a great arc to accommodate nine new pumps of the latest type. They looked more like something from outer space than mere petrol pumps. A large neon sign over a repainted office flaunted the name of the chain in the single word: FLEET. Two large posters in fluorescent orange proclaimed apocryphally: 'Double stamps' week!'
'See?' said George, with bitter satisfaction.
'Oh, well,' sighed Bunty helplessly. 'He was pushing retiring age anyhow, and the offer must have been monumental.'
'Still, if Tony hadn't emigrated his dad would never have sold out,' observed George, drawing the Morris neatly into position by the nearest Super pump. He opened the door and slid out as a snub-nosed, shaggy-headed youngster came loping down from the office in answer to the bell. 'Fill her up, Bobby.'
'Sure, Mr. Felse!' The sombre young face brightened faintly at the sight of them. Bobby had been on probation, an apparently incurable driver-away of unlocked cars, when George had followed a hunch and talked old Pearce into taking him on and giving him a gloriously legitimate interest in the machines he couldn't resist. George found himself hoping that two years had been long enough to effect a cure, because he felt in his bones that this experiment wasn't going to survive the change of ownership. Commercial garage chains have very little interest in the salvation of local problem children. In such a county as Midshire, however, there are still plenty of family businesses in the remoter areas, and a two-year apprenticeship with Pearce's is a very sound recommendation.
Excerpted from The Grass Widow's Tale by Ellis Peters. Copyright © 1968 Ellis Peters. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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