Wed
Jan 4 2017 10:00am

The Death of Kings: New Excerpt

Rennie Airth

The Death of Kings by Rennie Airth is the 5th novel in the critically acclaimed John Madden series, featuring the return of the former Scotland Yard detective in a gripping post-World War II mystery.

On a hot summer day in 1938, a beautiful actress is murdered on the grand Kent estate of Sir Jack Jessup, close friend of the Prince of Wales. The arrest of an ex-convict and his subsequent confession swiftly bring the case to a close, but in 1949, the reappearance of a jade necklace raises questions about the murder. Was the man convicted and executed the decade before truly guilty?

Though happily retired from the police force, John Madden is persuaded to investigate the case afresh. A story of honor and justice that takes Madden through the idyllic English countryside, post-war streets of London, and into the criminal underworld of the Chinese Triads.

PROLOGUE

Kent, August 1938

When she heard the stair creak beneath her foot, Portia stopped and stood frozen. Her heartbeat quickened with excitement.

She didn’t want to be seen. She planned to slip out and then return to her room in time to appear for tea as though nothing had happened; as though she had been resting, which was what she had told the others she would be doing when she had left them in the drawing-room after lunch.

But there was always the danger that he might be spying on her; keeping a watch on her movements. She knew that he didn’t trust her any longer. He suspected that she might be trying to take matters into her own hands.

‘What is this game you’re playing?’ He had come to her room the night before after the household had gone to bed. ‘Are you out of your mind?’ His face, which so seldom showed any feeling, had been stiff with rage. ‘Do you think you’re on the stage? Must you always be the . . . actress?’ He had spat the word out as though it left a bad taste in his mouth. ‘Leave this to me. Just do as you are told.’

She had tried to calm him, telling him not to worry. ‘They’re in a safe place,’ she had assured him. But she had resented the tone of his angry accusations and the evident scorn he felt for her. As if he weren’t the one playing his own game! She still didn’t know what he was up to—what his scheme involved—only that she had a part in it and would be rewarded in due course.

Or so he had said. But she no more trusted him than she did any other man. And as it happened his suspicions were justified. Unknown to him she had already put her own plan into action and he was helpless to stop it. The stage had been set; all that was required was for the curtain to go up.

She knew her lines—she had written them herself—and before leaving she had stood before the full-length mirror in her room taking in not only her appearance but also the expressions on her face as she rehearsed the scene she was about to play.

She had dressed with care, choosing a simple skirt and blouse, and covered her red hair with a silk scarf. Although the occasion hardly called for a display of jewellery, she had put on the pair of earrings she had been lent for the week-end and then, unable to resist the temptation, had slipped the pendant around her neck as well. Carved in the shape of the Buddha, it was made of jade and deep green in colour—the shade most valued by Chinese emper- ors, she had been told. She had already removed the paint she had put on her nails the night before—that had been purely for show, and to draw attention to her hands as she played with the pendant— and having examined her reflection in the mirror she went one step further, wiping the lipstick off her mouth. She meant to display a new image of herself, one about which there could be no mistake: that of a woman with a serious purpose, not a plaything to be used and then cast aside at will. As if by reflex she reached for the small leather handbag that was hanging by a strap from her shoulder. Searching for the clasp, she had opened it and slipped her fingers inside. Yes . . . everything she needed was there.

Now, with the house as silent as a tomb around her, she re- sumed her descent of the stairs, reaching the empty hall below with its echoing paved floor and then crossing it on tiptoe, pad- ding softly as a cat. Her goal was a long corridor that ran the length of the house, and when she came to it she turned right and made for a door that gave onto the garden.

She had almost reached the end of the passage when a figure appeared from one of the doorways ahead of her and she slowed her pace, put out at being discovered. But it was only one of the maids, who stood aside, bobbing her head as Portia went by. The door was a few paces farther on, and as she opened it and slipped out into the blazing hot afternoon a wave of relief washed over her.

Although she didn’t want to admit it—even to herself—she was afraid of him. The men she had known in her life, and there were many—too many—had been mostly of a type and she had learned what to expect of them, which was little enough. But he was different—unreadable, unknowable—and she had sensed that his silent presence and cold, ever-watchful eye signaled a nature more dangerous and less predictable than any other she had encountered in the past.

The door she had come through gave onto a path that stretched the length of the garden. Walled on either side by high yew hedges whose topmost branches had been trained to meet overhead, it offered a shield against prying eyes—even those that might be watching from the bedroom windows above—and once she had entered the long, cool tunnel she was able to relax and focus her mind on the business ahead. She was already a good ten minutes late for her appointment (deliberately so—she was not the one to be kept waiting) and when she came to a wooden gate in the high brick wall at the bottom of the garden and saw a party of a dozen or more people, both men and women, strolling along a path that crossed the expanse of common land beyond it, she paused and waited while they made their slow way towards the tree-covered knoll which was visible from the terrace of the house behind her and which she had been told bore the name of Holly Hill. She assumed that the casually dressed group were hop pickers; the harvest was in full swing, and driving down from London the day before she had seen the fields surrounding the village busy with pickers. But since today was Sunday she knew they wouldn’t be working and didn’t want the rendezvous to which she was heading disturbed by passers-by.

As soon as the last of the party had disappeared into the wood she went through the gate and made her way swiftly across the field on a path less trodden than the one they had used. The two paths met on the far side of the meadow just short of the wood, and when Portia got there she glanced over her shoulder to make sure she was not being followed before continuing in the wake of the group whose voices she could hear in the distance ahead of her, plunging into the gloom of the wood whose deep shadow was in stark contrast to the bright sunshine she had just stepped out of.

She was treading unfamiliar ground. She had never been invited to the house where she was a guest before, so its surroundings were new to her. But she had been given directions easy enough to follow: some way into the wood, near the top of the slight rise she was ascending now, was the ruin of an old hermit’s hut. It was situated a little way off the path, but easy to spot. They were to meet there. As she neared the top of the knoll she began to scan the surrounding trees and presently caught sight of the stone structure. Overhung by a towering beech, it was without a roof; only the walls still stood.

She stopped to peer at it and as she did she heard the sound of movement behind her. It might have been no more than a twig breaking, but she stood still for long seconds peering into the shadowy depths of the wood, waiting until she was sure that there was no one there. Only when satisfied did she turn back to peer at the ruined hut again, and almost at once caught sight of a figure moving about inside. One moment it appeared at the single window, the next it was standing in the doorway, barely visible in the deep shade cast by the branches overhead.

Poised to move forward now, she hesitated.

Was she going too far? Had she over-reached herself?

She knew what he would say; it was why she had kept it a secret from him.

Still she felt a tremor of doubt, and for a moment her nerve faltered.

Then anger came to her rescue, the deep rage that had been building inside her—for years, it seemed. She had been used once too often; humiliated in a way she was no longer prepared to tolerate. It was time someone paid the price.

An actress, he had called her, and standing there motionless in the wood, she couldn’t help but picture herself as a character in a play, or perhaps a film: a woman of mystery, a woman with a secret. It was the sort of part she had always longed for, and while there were no cameras, no lights adjusted so as to catch her face half in shadow as she waited, she could still comfort herself with the knowledge that hers was the leading role in the drama that was about to unfold.

Her moment had arrived, the one she had dreamed of, and her only regret was that there was no one to record it, no director standing hidden in the shadows somewhere behind her ready to shout the magic word.

‘Action!’

 

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Rennie Airth was born in South Africa and worked as a foreign correspondent for Reuters news service for many years. The first novel in his John Madden mystery series, River of Darkness, won the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière for best international crime novel of 2000 and was nominated for Edgar, Anthony, and Macavity awards.

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