Meet the Cantelos of Leeds, England. To call the Cantelos dysfunctional is actually a wild understatement. But is one of them also a killer?
Clarissa Cantelo, a skilled clairvoyant, apparently thought so. Believing that her sixteen-year-old nephew, Merlyn Docherty, was in peril, she sent him into hiding in Italy, far away from the rest of her family. She told them he was dead. It was safer that way.
Now Clarissa herself has died, and Merlyn, a successful lawyer and civil servant who still lives abroad, has returned to Leeds to claim his inheritance. First, he must prove his identity. Is he really Merlyn or, as some of his long-lost relations say they suspect, is he an imposter?
Merlyn doesn't mind confirming his identity, but he'd at least like to move into the house that Aunt Clarissa left him in her will while he gets to know some of his relatives. And the house may hold some clues to the Cantelos' past.
What is the dreadful family secret that has upset relations between mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, filling even the youngest generation with fear? If Merlyn discovers the truth, buried under decades of deception, his life may once again be in danger.
Merlyn must start at the beginning if he is to find the answers. All roads seem to lead back to his grandfather, the formidable Merlyn Cantelo, renowned in the family as an object of both fear and loathing.
Though the old man who caused such pain to his family died years ago, his malevolence lives on. Somebody wants young Merlyn gone. With help from police detectives Mike Oddie and Charlie Peace, Merlyn must find that person before the Cantelo curse works its evil again.
Wickedly observant and full of his trademark sly twists, The Graveyard Position proves once more that Robert Barnard is in a class of his own.
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The organist was playing yet another slow, amorphous piece, and for the mourners who had taken their pews early, enough was becoming enough. You couldn't expect the relentless cheerfulness of Rossini, but times had changed since the era when you got only the musical equivalent of a thick blackout curtain at funerals.
"So very un-Clarissa," said her niece Rosalind Frere. "Particularly in her earlier years." She gave another of her surreptitious quick glances at arrivals through the main door. "Oh, there's whatsername. Caroline Chaunteley. She never went near Clarissa in her last years, that I do know, though Clarissa was awfully kind to her when she was young...as we all were."
"Nobody went near her in her last years," said Rosalind's husband, Barnett.
"That's not fair! I went as often as I could. We're not a drop-in sort of family -- we keep ourselves to ourselves....I did my best, though she was obviously failing, physically as well as mentally."
"You said she threw a meat pudding at you."
"Well, it was more a sort of gesture, showing she wanted to." The levels of Rosalind's truthfulness were well known to her husband, who merely raised his eyebrows.
"Oh, here's the coffin," said Rosalind brightly.
The music had changed inconspicuously to something with a muffled, marchlike beat and the coffin began up the aisle, borne by a mixture of undertaker's men and relatives.
"Oh look, there's Cousin Malachi. They've put him in the middle, where he can pretend to carry. He's all of a hundred and ten pounds, and short with it. Doesn't he look ridiculous?"
"We're lucky he's not wimbly-wambling all over the aisle," said Barnett. "That's what I saw him doing, back and forth across Boar Lane, last Friday night."
"He can't have had a drink yet. It's only half past eleven."
"What a sweet, innocent creature you are," said Barnett, who knew better than most that she was neither.
The coffin seemed to take forever. The organ march went on and on, obviously something that could be stretched to the crack of doom if circumstances demanded it. The bearers shuffled slowly forward, their expression either dour or bored. Cousin Malachi was the only one who let his sharp little eyes stray indiscriminately around the congregation.
"Oh, get a move on," said Rosalind, turning round. "Oh!"
She swiveled her head back to the frontward-looking position.
"What?" whispered Barnett.
"Nothing...I must have got it wrong....It can't be."
Her husband always said that her whispers were more powerful than a public-address system, and behind her people reacted: some looked around unashamedly, while others continued looking straight ahead for a second or two, then attempted a slow, casual twist of the head.
"What can't be?" asked Barnett.
Rosalind merely shook her head. The coffin began to pass slowly by her row, seventh from the front, but she hardly glanced to see how Malachi was faring, fearful of catching his bright little eyes. Her face was set, its expression thoughtful, miles away from the Church of St. Paul the Evangelist in Headingley. At long last the little procession reached the altar, and the coffin was slowly set down just in front of it, to a general but suppressed sigh of relief. Barnett noticed a woman slipping into a pew, and nudged Rosalind.
"There's that Mrs. -- something-or-other -- head of the Leeds Society of Spiritualists."
"Pity someone from the Other Side didn't tell her the right time," said Rosalind sourly. She was a woman of limited mental powers, and that sort of tired joke about spiritualists was just up her street. "Why couldn't she just slip into a place at the back? There's plenty of empty pews."
"You don't get anywhere in the spirit world by being backward in coming forward," said Barnett. He was conscious of his wife twisting her head around and taking a longer, more blatant look. "What is it, for heaven's sake?" he asked.
"Nothing," she said again, an obvious untruth.
"Dear friends," began the vicar, who knew next to none of them, "we are gathered here today -- "
" -- to see the old charlatan well and truly buried," whispered Barnett.
The vicar steered away from brutal truths of any kind, and tried to keep to truth of a more generous sort. He stopped short of claiming Clarissa Cantelo as a Christian, even of the "essentially" or "in her heart" order, but he dwelt, as well he might, on her spiritual side.
"Clarissa Cantelo had, as many of you here today have cause to know, a sense of a deeper reality than most of us can conceive of. She felt God in nature, as many of us surely do, but she made little distinction between the world that we know so well and that other world that we may believe in, but would not claim to know. To Clarissa those who had died had not 'gone before,' but were still present, around us, functioning as before, affecting daily life in ways beyond our understanding. It is easy to call such people cranks, charlatans, even to suggest that they profit from other people's misery and loss. No one could say that about Clarissa, however. Hers was a joyful, life-enhancing belief, generously shared."
"That didn't stop her pocketing a fee, though," whispered Rosalind. "She knew the going rate for news from the Other Side."
"Clarissa was from a well-known Leeds manufacturing family, and she had the family's sense of responsibility. In her it took the form of a real and burning desire to help, to lead people at times of stress, at times when they felt the urge to go on a spiritual quest, and she did this out of love for her fellow human beings."
"With a strong streak of showbiz and ego trip into the bargain," muttered Barnett.
There was a disturbance at the back of the church, then someone scurrying forward and climbing across to a place in the second row behind them.
"Terrible holdup at the Armley gyratory," said a male voice.
"Cousin Francis," whispered Rosalind at her most piercing. "Really, it would have been better not to come into the church at all if he was going to be this late."
"The powers she believed she had she always used benignly, and the people she helped were her friends for life -- "
And so it went on, ecumenical and nonskeptical to the point of meaninglessness. Rosalind whispered that it was going down well -- you could just feel it was. She sometimes thought she had powers of perception that made her especially akin to her aunt. When, after some seven minutes, the vicar's tribute drew to a close, there were two more hymns, divided by an impromptu prayer and the one the Lord had formulated. The hymns were well known and middle-of-the-road, Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley. The congregation knew them and sang with a will -- naturally so, since most of them were in very good spirits. Then the service drew to a close, the coffin was taken up on the shoulders of the undertaker's men (missing Cousin Malachi's by a good five inches), and the little procession made its way back down the aisle, out of the church, turning left to a distant east corner of the churchyard where there were still vacant sites to be filled.
Rosalind kept her eyes glued to the floor as she went out. She did not want to see what she thought she had seen. Barnett looked around him, but couldn't for the life of him spot what had been worrying her. Seeing things, he thought. Like Aunt Clarrie in her bloody séances.
Aunt Emily stood by the clergyman with Aunt Marigold, representatives of Clarissa Cantelo's own generation of the family. Emily had made most of the arrangements for the funeral, helped when she felt like it by Rosalind. Cousin Francis stood close by them, to make up for his lateness at church, but Cousin Malachi took his hundred and ten pounds off and collapsed onto a tomblike grave some yards away. The vicar scattered earth, and associated cousins and nephews and nieces followed suit. Her eyes on the immediate present, Rosalind scattered and murmured a little prayer. Then, clutching Barnett's hand, she took a deep breath and looked around at the assembled mourners.
Family, close to the grave, and beyond them all the expected people, every one in an aspect of deep gloom that was not always convincing: the lady from the Society of Spiritualists, neighbors and old friends, a young man Rosalind suspected was a reporter from the Yorkshire Post, representatives of the Leeds clothing industry, of which the Cantelos had been a mainstay for many years. And there, at the back of the group, not far from Malachi on his gravestone, him.
Or not him, surely, but someone who looked like him.
Light brown hair, with a strong chin, piercing eyes that Rosalind felt sure would be blue, sober suit, black tie, about the right height -- five-ten, perhaps -- and with a quiet, interested air. More still, more considered than the boy she had once known, but then people would say he had matured. Thirty-eight he would be now.
"It's not him," Rosalind said.
"Not who?" her husband demanded.
"You never knew him. But I'd have thought you could guess."
Aunt Emily was talking to various relatives about the drinks and refreshments to be served back in Congreve Street, and Rosalind broke away from the group, dropped her husband's hand, smiled her thanks at the vicar, and walked over to the bystander, who watched her coming without any alteration in his expression.
"I'm afraid I don't know who you are," Rosalind said, "but all friends of Aunt Clarissa will be very welcome to drinks and refreshments at the Congreve Street house." The young man looked at her for a moment or two, then, a tiny smile at the corners of his mouth, spoke.
"You know me, Rosalind. I'd be delighted to come for refreshments. It will be good to see the old house again."
Rosalind turned and marched toward the gate of the graveyard and her husband waiting by the car.
"After all, I was closer to her than anyone," shouted the young man.
Copyright © 2004 by Robert Barnard