Dead Heading by Catherine Aird is the 23rd book in the Detective Chief Inspector C.D. Sloan series where the British officer must try and connect two cases that revolve around a break in at a greenhouse (available June 17, 2014).
When Jack Haines reports a break-in at his greenhouse, the motive of the intruder is unclear. Other than the destruction of some expensive orchids, no damage has been done, and nothing seems to be missing. But Detectives Sloan and Crosby sense something sinister, and soon their suspicions are confirmed. Similar reports are multiplying and sabotage is the word on everyone’s lips.
The pair is drawn into an equally perplexing case when the mysterious Miss Enid Maude Osgathorp goes missing. Investigations begin at her deserted abode, Canonry Cottage, where the detectives soon discover that the house has been ransacked. Shattered glass is found in the larder, and traces of blood spatter are found on the floors. Something disturbing has undoubtedly taken place, but Sloan and Crosby can’t figure out who did it, or why.
As it becomes clear that the two cases are linked, the two detectives must work to find the missing woman, and how she connects to the greenhouse burglary, before it is too late.
‘I don’t believe it,’ spluttered Jack Haines, the colour in his face draining away. ‘All dead, you say?’
‘Every last one, boss,’ announced Russell Aqueel, his foreman. ‘Well, all of them in number one and number two houses – the two farthest ones – anyway.’
‘Good grief.’ Jack Haines leant forward in his office chair and sank his head between his hands on his desk. He was a burly man and the chair creaked under his weight.
‘The other greenhouses seem all right,’ offered Mandy Lamb, the firm’s secretary, automatically pushing a cup of coffee along the desk in front of him.
‘They are. I’ve had a good look at the rest to be quite sure,’ said Russell, a short, stocky man. He sniffed. ‘First thing I did. Naturally.’
‘But the young orchids and the special orders?’ his employer asked tightly, lifting his head to look at the man.
‘All dead,’ said Russ. ‘Every flaming one.’
‘A flame would have been a help,’ remarked Mandy Lamb detachedly, ‘seeing as how it was the cold that killed them.’
‘There was a frost last night…’ began Russ.
‘I do know that,’ snapped Haines, his facial colour rapidly changing from grey to a rising red. ‘You don’t have to tell me. I’ve got a thermometer alarm by my bed, remember.’ He stopped suddenly and said softly in quite a different tone of voice, ‘Except that it didn’t go off last night, did it?’
‘I wouldn’t know about that, would I?’ said the foreman truculently.
‘Go on, Russ,’ said Jack Haines evenly. ‘Tell me exactly what’s happened.’
‘When I came in this morning, first thing, both those greenhouse doors were wide open.’ The man scowled at his employer. ‘And before you ask, no, it wasn’t me.’
‘I didn’t think it would have been, Russ,’ said Jack Haines pacifically. ‘So calm down.’
‘But who on earth would do an awful thing like that?’ demanded Mandy Lamb.
‘Only someone malicious or careless, Russ,’ said Haines bleakly.
‘It could well ruin us, boss,’ said the foreman. ‘And where’s the gain in that?’
‘I wouldn’t begin to know,’ said Jack Haines tonelessly, although he thought he had a good idea.
Mandy Lamb shrugged her shoulders and said, ‘On the other hand, anyone could forget to shut a couple of doors.’
Both men stared at her.
‘Never,’ said the foreman robustly.
‘Not at a plant nursery,’ sighed Jack Haines. ‘It could kill the lot at this time of the year.’
‘It has killed the lot,’ pointed out the foreman soberly. ‘Well, everything in those two houses, anyway.’
‘What about all those plants Anthony Berra had in there for the admiral’s garden?’ put in Mandy Lamb suddenly. Waldo Catterick, an old sailor, was a favourite of hers.
‘They’re goners all right,’ said the foreman. ‘So is most of the stuff for Benedict Feakins, but not all of it though. He mostly wanted shrubs anyway, thank goodness, and they’re still alive, being hardy. And Miss Osgathorp’s special orchids were in the packing shed so they’re safe enough.’ He hesitated and then went on in more muted tones, ‘But not Anthony Berra’s other plants – the ones for the Lingards at the Grange. They’re all goners too.’
Jack Haines groaned aloud.
‘Dead as doornails, the lot,’ said Russ. ‘And there sure were plenty of them.’
‘Who locked up?’ demanded Haines suddenly.
‘I did,’ said Russ, adding with great emphasis, ‘and I really did, Jack. Honest. Everywhere. The main gate was locked as usual when I got here this morning.’
‘So someone got in somewhere else,’ concluded Jack Haines.
‘They sure did,’ said the foreman instantly.
‘Search me, boss, but I can tell you where. They came through the fence that backs on to the field sure enough. You know, just where the compost heap backs up there. If you ask me…’
‘I am asking you, Russ,’ said Haines pointedly.
‘It was a bolt croppers’ job on the fence. That or wire cutters. Something like that anyway.’
Jack Haines pushed his coffee mug away and snapped into action. ‘That makes it a matter for the police. Right, Russ, you go over to the Berebury Garden Centre, pronto, and then on to the Leanaig boys’ place and see what you can pick up in the way of replacements before word of this gets out and their prices go up. So watch what you say to them all – especially Bob Steele at the garden centre. Oh, and call in at Staple St James Nurseries too. They may have something.’
‘I’m on my way,’ nodded the foreman.
‘Sling me that phone, Mandy,’ ordered Haines, ‘and I’ll get on to the police this minute. Well, what is it?’ he said to Russ, who had paused at the office door, his hand on the handle. ‘What are you waiting for?’
‘Shall I call in at Capstan Purlieu Plants while I’m about it,’ asked the man, ‘and collect some replacement orchids?’
‘Certainly not,’ snapped Haines, his colour starting to rise again. ‘Just get going. Now.’
* * *
Benedict Feakins was sitting with his wife at their dining-room table, lingering over a late breakfast that had included a couple of pain-killing tablets. He was going through his post whilst Mary Feakins was toying with a piece of dry toast. She had been doing this for some time.
After a few moments Benedict lifted his head from opening yet another bill to survey the garden through the window. While anyone else who was looking at it would only see a large patch of nondescript ground, loosely dug over and edged by some dispirited rhododendrons, what he saw in his mind’s eye were banks of well-established flowering shrubs with an under-planting of hardy perennials, dotted about with something spectacular in the way of palms.
‘I’ll need a really good mulch to give everything a proper start,’ he said.
‘Benedict,’ exploded Mary Feakins, ‘how could you talk about mulch when I feel so sick!’
Benedict Feakins, who was unaware that he had spoken aloud, was instantly apologetic. ‘Dearest, I’m so sorry.’
‘And what I said – had you been listening – was that we need some more fuel for the boiler. It drinks oil.’
‘So soon?’ He brought his mind back to reality with an effort.
‘Hot water doesn’t grow on trees,’ she said.
The pair hadn’t been married long enough for him to find this remark anything but charmingly original. ‘Very true.’
‘It was all very well in your father’s day,’ she said, ‘but we don’t seem to have as much money as he had to run the place.’
‘We haven’t,’ he said simply. ‘Is it urgent? I mean, could it wait a few days until I’ve sorted things out a bit?’ He waved at the little pile of post on the table. ‘There are a couple of big bills in this lot.’
‘Do you want your son to freeze to death?’
Benedict Feakins winced. The son in question had yet to be born but his welfare was already a priority in the household. He was all apologies. ‘I’ll get on to the bank,’ he promised, ‘and ask them what they can do about beefing up our overdraft. Don’t forget we’ve got to go into Berebury today anyway to sign some papers for Simon Puckle.’
Simon Puckle was a partner in the firm of Puckle, Puckle and Nunnery, Solicitors and Commissioners for Oaths.
Mary Feakins, her morning sickness temporarily forgotten, gave a luxurious stretch and said, ‘And then everything out here at Pelling will be really and truly ours?’
‘It will, although,’ he added conscientiously, ‘naturally I didn’t want Dad to die just so that we could inherit the place.’
‘Of course not,’ she responded swiftly, ‘but he was ill and unhappy. He was never the same after your mother died, you know.’
‘I don’t suppose I would be if you were to die before me,’ said Benedict fondly.
‘Nonsense,’ said Mary Feakins, her eyes sparkling mischievously. ‘If I did, I bet you’d be married again within the year.’
‘What,’ he started up again, grimaced with pain and fell back in his chair, ‘and let someone else look after young Benedict? Never!’ He gripped the arms of the chair and this time moved with extreme caution as he tried to rise. ‘I’m sorry but you’ll have to do the driving into Berebury today. My back’s still too painful.’
‘What did you expect if you will dig up ground like you did…’ Mary Feakins’ own attitude to pain in other people had started to change as her pregnancy advanced. ‘You’re not used to that sort of work and Anthony Berra seems to be.’
‘We can’t afford a professional garden designer. You know that’s why I had to cancel his coming here to give the garden a proper grounding. But I really need to get those shrubs in soon,’ he said earnestly, ‘and I didn’t know that digging was going to do my back in, did I?’
‘You might have guessed.’ She reached for another piece of dry toast. ‘So how do you suppose with your bad back that you’re going to be able to put these precious shrubs in the ground when you do get them?’
‘I’ll manage somehow,’ he said through gritted teeth as another spasm of pain shot through his frame.
‘You could always cancel that plant order for the front garden just like you put Anthony Berra off,’ she suggested, not meeting his eye. ‘They’re going to cost an absolute bomb.’
‘Then we’d miss a whole season of growth,’ he said, waving a hand towards the window.
‘I would have thought you could put a packet of seeds in instead. Some annuals there would look pretty.’
He shook his head. ‘That would be no good in the long run. You’d only have to look at all this desolation for another winter.’ He added another letter to the little pile on the table. ‘We can’t have that. Besides,’ he smiled, ‘you’ll want somewhere nice outside to sit with young Benedict in his pram.’
‘It was a pity your father was so keen on his cacti and nothing else in the garden,’ she responded obliquely, ‘and then you wouldn’t have had to do all that work in the first place.’
‘It’ll look lovely this year as well next, I promise,’ he said, blowing her a kiss.
‘At least you don’t take after him,’ said his wife.
Benedict Feakins’ head shot up. ‘What do you mean?’ he demanded hotly.
‘In specialising in cacti like he did, that’s all.’ She shuddered. ‘Nasty-looking things.’
‘Prickly too,’ said Benedict ambiguously. ‘Mother didn’t like them either but they gave Dad something to do and kept him happy enough after she died and that’s what mattered.’
‘He didn’t really like gardening, did he?’ she said, scanning the untended ground outside the window. ‘Proper gardening, I mean, like you do. He liked fiddling around with little bits of things that looked as if they should have stayed in the desert where they belong.’
Benedict Feakins gave this some thought. ‘I suppose not. Dad wasn’t keen on the garden even before his hip got bad, but afterwards, of course, when he couldn’t get about so easily the cacti were ideal. He must have spent hours in the greenhouse with them.’
Mary Feakins shivered. ‘They give me the willies. Can we get rid of them before … before…’
‘Before Benedict the Third arrives…’ he finished the sentence for her, smiling. ‘Of course we can. I might even get Jack Haines to take them in part-exchange.’
‘That would be good.’
‘I know what,’ he said, ‘we’ll call in at the nursery on our way into Berebury and ask him.’
Mary Feakins changed tack suddenly. ‘I suppose,’ she admitted, ‘you do need to be getting on with planting those shrubs anyway now. If you can manage it. But do be careful. You don’t want the office saying you’ve got a self-inflicted injury like they do with sunburn.’
‘The shrubs can’t wait beyond the end of March,’ he said. ‘Ideally some of them should have gone in the ground last October…’
‘But we weren’t here in October, were we?’ She looked round with pleasure at their dining room. ‘We were making out in a grotty basement flat in Luston.’
Benedict Feakins acknowledged this with a quick jerk of his head. ‘You were making out, Mary. I’m not sure that I was.’ He looked out at the garden again in wonder. ‘And now we’ve got all this.’
‘You weren’t expecting your father to die quite so soon, that’s all.’ She waved a hand in a gesture that took in the neat double-fronted Edwardian house. ‘All this would have come to you one day anyway. You know that.’
‘True, but you must admit that it couldn’t have come at a better time.’
‘For all three of us,’ she said with manifest satisfaction. She got up from the table. ‘Now, we really should be getting going…’
‘Ah, there you are, Sloan.’ Somehow Police Superintendent Leeyes was always able to make his subordinates feel that they had kept him waiting even when they hadn’t done anything of the sort. It was, they felt, a gift. ‘Two jobs for you this morning. Both out the same way, which saves time.’
‘Sir?’ He knew it would not be Sloan’s time that the superintendent was saving but money. Police finances were as much under pressure as everyone else’s these days and Sloan knew that saving his time never figured anyway.
‘Both out Pelling way but not connected.’ Superintendent Leeyes waved a message sheet in his hand. ‘A missing person and trouble at a nursery.’
Detective Inspector Sloan groaned. Small children always spelt trouble, big time and all the time.
‘A plant nursery, Sloan.’
He relaxed. That sounded better. Until the superintendent explained, that is.
‘Surely that’s hardly a crime, sir, leaving doors open,’ protested Detective Inspector Sloan. He was the head of the tiny Criminal Investigation Department of ‘F’ Division of the County of Calleshire Police Force at Berebury and thought he knew the law as well as the next man. ‘Not yet, anyway,’ Sloan went on cautiously, since these days all governments seemed to be hell-bent on making more and more activities illegal.
Besides which, the detective inspector reminded himself hastily, this was the time of the year for his annual appraisal and it wouldn’t do to put a foot wrong just now.
Superintendent Leeyes said, ‘The owner thinks it is, Sloan. In fact, he’s absolutely sure a criminal act is involved. Says he can prove it. And he’s hopping mad about it.’
‘Of course I quite understand how he must feel,’ said Sloan untruthfully, subconsciously noting that the superintendent had used the word owner rather than householder, ‘but even so … just an open door, I think you said…’
‘Two doors opened and left open, to be precise,’ said the superintendent, waving a message sheet in his hand, ‘and a fence damaged.’
‘Even so…’ repeated Sloan, realising as soon as he’d said it that he should have been more circumspect. It didn’t do to upset his superior officer at appraisal time. Although greenhouse doors left open with or without guilty intent – even fences broken with undoubted guilty intent – wouldn’t usually warrant the attention of a detective inspector, Sloan decided against pointing this out. ‘And the missing person?’
‘Old party not back from her hols,’ said Leeyes. ‘Gone walkabout, I expect.’
‘Has she done it before?’ asked Sloan. ‘What do the family say?’
‘She hasn’t got any family. Lives alone,’ said Leeyes, turning over the message sheet. ‘It’s a neighbour who’s been in touch and no, she hasn’t done it before.’
Detective Inspector Sloan sighed but said nothing.
‘Even so…’ harrumphed Leeyes, noting the sigh, ‘I want you out there soonest.’
Sloan’s unusual reticence was because there was something sinister pending at the Berebury Police Station as part of the appraisal element of his PDD – otherwise known as a ‘Personal Development Discussion’. This was to be held with his superior officer quite soon. He hadn’t been told exactly when it would be yet but it wouldn’t do to jeopardise the interview by an unguarded response about a quite possibly disorientated old lady.
‘Because,’ went on the superintendent, the message flimsy still clasped in his hand, ‘the owner of the nursery would seem to have had very good reasons for sending for us for something like that. And since as you know we’re well under establishment these days…’
Sloan privately decided that they’d better be very good reasons indeed or he himself would want to know why. Since technically all law-breaking in the market town of Berebury and its environs, excepting traffic violations, eventually landed on his desk, he automatically took out his notebook. ‘Just two open doors, did you say, sir, and a hole in a fence?’
‘That’s all that he seems to be complaining about. So far anyway,’ trumpeted the superintendent. ‘He said he’d tell us more when we got there.’
At this Sloan sighed again, his superior officer being given to using the royal ‘We’ only when he had no intention of doing any of the work himself.
‘Right, sir,’ he said without enthusiasm. ‘I’ll get out there straightaway.’ The distinction between open and closed doors as far as crime was concerned was one beloved by insurance companies but disliked by those whose duty it was to frame charges – ‘breaking and entering’ was only one of them – when doors had been closed. Doors left open were quite a different ball game when it came to insurers and policemen alike.
‘Two open doors and a broken fence so far,’ repeated Leeyes, ever the pessimist. ‘I’m told the man seemed a bit guarded on the phone.’
Sloan cleared his throat and in carefully neutral tones asked his superior officer if the police had any further information about either case. There were other – and indisputably really criminal – cases on his own desk awaiting his attention that were – would seem to be, anyway, he added a silent caveat of his own – more urgent than open doors and elderly ladies on the loose.
‘Was there, for instance, anything stolen at the nursery, sir?’ he enquired.
‘No, Sloan, nothing at all.’ The superintendent gave the message sheet another wave. ‘It would appear from information received that theft would not seem to have been what whoever left the doors open had in mind since nothing would appear to have been taken.’ He sniffed. ‘What exactly was the object of the exercise is presumably too soon to say.’
‘I’d better have some names,’ said Sloan, taking a pencil out of his pocket and suppressing any references to gross carelessness that sprang to his mind. ‘And their addresses, sir, please.’
‘The missing person is an Enid Maude Osgathorp of Canonry Cottage, Church Street, Pelling,’ said Leeyes. ‘And man is Haines – a Jack Haines.’
‘Jack Haines? Not the nurseryman?’ Sloan’s pencil stayed poised in his hand above his notebook.
‘That’s him. At Pelling too.’ Leeyes, an urban man if ever there was one, sniffed. ‘Back of beyond.’
‘Ah.’ Detective Inspector Christopher Dennis Sloan, who was known as ‘Seedy’ to his family and friends, had lived in the small market town of Berebury all his life. In his spare time he was a keen gardener and thus knew most of the nurseries for miles around. This one was out in the far reaches of the Calleshire countryside.
‘None other. Proprietor of that big outfit on the Calleford road there.’
‘What sort of doors?’ asked Sloan, his attention now thoroughly engaged. This was different. Jack Haines was a nurseryman on a substantial scale, well known to professional and amateur gardeners alike and not above, when in a mellow frame of mind, dispensing his expertise to both. ‘I mean doors to where exactly?’
‘Ah, I understand now.’ Any gardener knew that that was something quite different too. ‘Right, sir. I’ve got that. Greenhouse doors at the nursery.’
‘Left open overnight, or,’ Leeyes added ominously, ‘deliberately opened during the hours of darkness.’
‘I understand.’ Sloan nodded, tacitly agreeing that this was different too. There was another distinction, as well, one between criminal activity that took place in the hours of darkness as opposed to in daylight – a distinction that went back to what was engagingly known as ‘time out of mind’ – but was still important in law.
‘When no one was supposed to be there anyway,’ amplified Leeyes, adding the automatic caveat, policeman that he was, ‘or so the owner says.’
‘I see, sir.’ Because Sloan was an off-duty gardener himself he was beginning to be aware where this might be leading. ‘And, of course, there was quite a frost last night…’ He knew this because he’d only just pruned his own floribunda roses and when he had woken in the morning he had seen the hoary ground. He had hoped, then, that he hadn’t done it too late in the season and wondered, as he did every year, whether he should have done the job in the autumn instead. Horticultural opinion was divided but ‘the later the pruning the bigger the bush’ was something on which everyone was agreed.
‘There was. A really heavy one, too, for early March.’ Superintendent Leeyes grunted and consulted the message sheet again. ‘He says that Russell Aqueel – he’s their foreman out there – came on as usual this morning at seven o’clock and found one entire greenhouse full of baby orchids and another one of young other plants killed off.’
‘Not good, sir,’ agreed Sloan. Nothing might have been stolen but even so there was undoubtedly loss involved. Heavy loss, certainly: crime, as well, if there had been a break-in. It was too soon to say. ‘Were the doors usually locked? Or, rather, had they been locked last night?’
‘You don’t lock greenhouses,’ said the superintendent irritably.
Detective Inspector Sloan forbore to say that you did if they contained valuable plants. He said instead, ‘I’d heard that Jack had some young orchids that he’s been growing out there. He’s a bit of a specialist in them. Are they all right?’
‘No, they’re not,’ Leeyes came back quickly. ‘And judging from his present state of mind I should think he’s pretty well lost the lot.’
‘That’s bad,’ said Sloan. ‘They must have been worth a packet.’ He looked up and asked, ‘Is Jack Haines talking about malice aforethought?’
‘Jack Haines,’ came back the superintendent impressively, ‘is talking about sabotage. You’d better get out there and see him, pronto. And you can take that dim-witted constable, Crosby, with you. We may be short-staffed but I still don’t want him here all day upsetting the civilian staff.’
‘No, sir, of course not,’ Sloan hastily agreed with this sentiment. Both men knew without saying that the superintendent was referring to Mrs Mabel Murgatroyd, the civilian staff supervisor, a lady of a certain age who took the view that uniformed policemen were an illiterate bunch who got in the way of the important work of the clerical staff.
When told about it, Detective Constable Crosby viewed the prospect of a journey far out into the hinterland with evident pleasure. Detective Inspector Sloan locked the seat belt of the police car into place with markedly less enthusiasm.
‘There is no hurry, Crosby,’ he said as the car took off at speed. ‘The missing person hasn’t been seen for three weeks and wilted plants don’t run away. We’ll go to the nursery first while any evidence that there might be there is still fresh.’
‘Nobody dead, then?’ said the constable.
‘Not yet,’ said Sloan dryly, averting his eyes from a near miss with a refuse lorry, all public service vehicles being anathema to the constable. ‘It would seem that the only things that are dead to date are plant cuttings and I would like to keep it that way, please.’
It was something on his wish list he was destined to remember for a long time.
* * *
‘That you, Anthony?’ Jack Haines had reluctantly picked up the telephone to ring one of his professional customers and he wasn’t enjoying the conversation.
‘It is,’ a throaty voice came down the telephone in reply.
‘It doesn’t sound like you.’
‘Well, it is,’ insisted the voice testily. ‘I’m a bit chesty, that’s all.’
‘It’s Jack Haines from the nursery here.’ Haines groaned inwardly. The last thing he wanted was an Anthony Berra under the weather and in a low mood. ‘I’ve got a bit of bad news for you, I’m afraid.’
‘Tell me.’ Anthony Berra was a thrusting young landscape designer beginning to be very popular with the landed gentry of the county of Calleshire and starting to be quite an important user of the nursery too.
‘You’re not going to like it.’ Haines swallowed uneasily while he waited for the man to finish coughing. Although still with his name to make in the landscape design world, Anthony Berra was nothing if not business-like and rather formal into the bargain.
‘How bad?’ asked Berra shortly when he had recovered his breath.
‘Bad.’ Jack Haines told him about all the damaged plants in the greenhouses.
‘Good God, man, you don’t mean to say that I’ve lost the lot?’
Gloomily, the nurseryman admitted that the majority of the plants ordered by Berra for his client, Admiral Catterick, and all of those being grown for the Lingards at the Grange were now either dead or dying. ‘And some of those for Benedict Feakins too.’
Anthony Berra took a deep breath and said frostily, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to say to the Lingards, Jack, if I can’t get their Mediterranean garden fixed in time for their garden party in June. It was part of their contract with me that it would be.’
‘I’ve been ringing round everywhere trying get replacements,’ Haines admitted, ‘but it won’t be easy. Not at this time of the year.’
‘I shouldn’t think it will,’ retorted Berra crisply, ‘considering the effort I put in to ordering everything exactly as I wanted it for my planting plans for their new project. You don’t pick up plants such as Strelitzia let alone Gardenia and Bouganvillia from any old nursery anywhere in East Calleshire.’
Half-heartedly Jack Haines muttered something about insurance.
‘Mine or yours?’ asked Berra on the instant.
‘Yours,’ said Haines gruffly. ‘I’ve never even insured the orchids. I’ve lost all of them too.’
Anthony Berra wasn’t interested in orchids and made that clear. ‘What I’m interested in, Jack, is that greenhouse of yours that had my plants in it and no, I’m not insured.’
‘Actually,’ drawled Berra a little unpleasantly, ‘since I hadn’t actually bought the plants yet I would have thought the loss was entirely yours. Not mine.’
‘I grew them especially for you exactly to your precise order, didn’t I?’ responded Jack Haines, torn between keeping Anthony Berra as a customer and minimising his own loss. ‘Especially those citrus trees and the palms, let alone the Mimosa.’
The landscape designer came back on the instant. ‘I don’t know who left your greenhouse doors open, Jack, and I don’t care, but I can assure you it wasn’t me.’ There was an uneasy pause and then Berra went on in a more mollifying tone, ‘It isn’t quite as easy as that, anyway. You must know what these particular clients of mine are like. I should think the whole village does.’
Jack Haines had to admit that he did know what the Lingards of Pelling Grange were like and so did everyone else in the locality. ‘Not exactly easy people,’ he agreed.
‘Especially the wife,’ added Berra, opening up a little.
‘Quite difficult, actually,’ conceded the nurseryman. There weren’t many people in Pelling who didn’t know all about Major Oswald Lingard’s new wife, Charmian, and her imperious ways. ‘Comes of having the money, I suppose,’ went on Haines. The second Mrs Lingard was rumoured to have brought a small fortune to the marriage. The restoration of the old and long neglected gardens was only one of the changes she was making at Pelling Grange. And to its owner, widower and former soldier, Oswald Lingard too.
‘She thinks she only has to give an order for it to be carried out,’ said the young landscape designer resentfully.
‘And pretty pronto too,’ added Haines, who knew the lady in question all too well. ‘No hanging about with her.’
‘She thinks she knows all about landscape gardening too,’ muttered Anthony Berra, ‘and believe you me she doesn’t.’
‘He’s all right, though,’ said Haines fairly. ‘Been around in Pelling a long time, the Lingards have. I remember his mother. Nice old lady but hardly a bean to her name.’
‘Oh, he’s all right,’ agreed Berra on the instant, ‘although he’s no pushover either what with having been in the Army. What his wife’s going to say, though, if I can’t get the work done on time I can’t begin to think. It sounded to me as if she was going to invite half the county to her precious summer garden party just so that she could show them all her improvements to the old place. Not that they didn’t need doing,’ he added hastily in case the nurseryman should be thinking that he had been making work for himself at the expense of the owners of the Grange. ‘The place was falling apart until she came on the scene.’
‘No money around until then,’ said Jack Haines, making what he hoped were sympathetic noises. Unfortunately the effect of these was somewhat lessened by Mandy Lamb’s loudly calling out that his coffee was getting cold. ‘Poor as church mice for years, the Lingards,’ he added. ‘Until now, of course.’
Anthony Berra’s mind was still running on. ‘You do realise, Jack, don’t you, that my client is going to tell all her Calleshire friends that I’ve let her down. It’s not going to do my reputation in the county any good if I do. Or yours,’ he added ominously.
‘As I told you, Anthony, I’ve already been on to two or three other suppliers to see if they can make good any deficiencies,’ said Haines by way of mitigation. He didn’t mention that he’d already had to swallow his pride and approach his three great business rivals for replacements. ‘And they’re being very helpful.’ This was actually stretching a point since Russ Aqueel had not yet returned to the nursery at Pelling after going round them.
‘I’m not having any old stuff,’ snapped Berra immediately. ‘I’ll have to go over to the Lingards first to tell them and then I’m coming straight over to you to see for myself. If I put anything at all substandard in that garden it’ll all have to come up again and the Lingards won’t pay for that. The fact that the lady’s loaded doesn’t mean she’s going to shell out for rubbish, you know. She’s not silly.’
‘It might just get you through this season, though,’ suggested Jack Haines tentatively.
Anthony Berra wasn’t listening. ‘I’ll just have to go back to the drawing board and revise my overall design, that’s all, and she won’t like that, I can tell you. Not one little bit.’
‘I’m sure we can come to some arrangement about the cost of any replacements,’ began Jack Haines.
Anthony Berra ignored this amende honorable. ‘Do you have any idea at all about who could have done all this damage?’
‘No,’ said Jack Haines quickly.
Much too quickly.
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Catherine Aird is the author of over 20 Sloan and Crosby mysteries. She lives in England.