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The Anodyne Necklace(3)

By:Martha Grimes



Littlebourne, surrounded by pleasant, open country, with one side hemmed by the Horndean wood, was pleasant but undistinguished, no matter how the new inhabitants might spend money on rethatching roofs and exposing beams and painting exteriors in pastel washes. The village had its one street, called the High, which divided halfway along so that it flowed round an irregular patch of carefully tended grass called Littlebourne Green. The High had its sufficiency of shops, just enough so that the villagers weren't forced to go into the market town of Hertfield, four miles away, except when they wanted to browse through its many antique shops.

As some wags liked to put it, the High contained, among other things, Littlebourne's four P's: one pastor, one post office, one pub, and one police station. There was a fifth P with whom the villagers would happily have dispensed: Littlebourne's one peer.

The fifth P-Sir Miles Bodenheim-was presently giving one of the other P's the devil of a time. He was in the post office store making the postmistress's life hell. There had been only one other person waiting for service before Sir Miles Bodenheim had decided to rejuvenate the British postal system. Now there were twelve, snaking down past the bread tray.

"I should certainly think, Mrs. Pennystevens, that you could do the stamps a little quicker if you would keep the half-p's separate from the others. You would do better to have some sort of system. I have been standing here a good ten minutes simply trying to post this one letter."

Mrs. Pennystevens, who had been tending a gouty husband for fifteen years, was proof against practically anything. She even refrained from pointing out that the whole of the ten minutes had been taken up with Sir Miles's arguing the weight of the letter and claiming she was coming up too heavy. Finally, she had had to let him fool with the scales himself.

Back in the bread-shadows, a voice was heard to mumble, " . . . stupid old sod."

Sir Miles turned and smiled in a self-satisfied way, delighted to know that someone else was as quick at seeing Mrs. Pennystevens's deficiencies as he himself. He turned back to her: "I still believe that your scales are malfunctioning. But I daresay there's nothing to be done; the government has seen fit to place its faith in your judgment. Frankly, Mrs. Pennystevens, I would get a new pair of spectacles, were I you. Yesterday you shorted me two p on a half-loaf."

Shuffling, shuffling up and down the line and the woman behind Sir Miles whined that she was in the most dreadful hurry . . .

"Yes," said Sir Miles. "Kindly hurry it up, Mrs. Pennystevens. We've none of us all day, you know."

Mrs. Pennystevens looked at him with steel in her eyes and counted out his change, which he slowly recounted, as he always did, naming each coin. One would have thought, given the puzzled expression, that he was unused to the coin of the realm or the decimal system. Finally, he pocketed the money, nodded curtly to the postmistress, nodded again up and down the line as if they had come not to buy bread and milk but to be received by Sir Miles Bodenheim, owner of Rookswood. He bade them all adieu.
 
 

 

Having accomplished the difficult task of posting his letter, Sir Miles proceeded farther along the High. He considered returning a handkerchief he had purchased in a tiny haberdashery next to the sweet shop, as he had noticed one loose stitch. Fifty pence, and the Empire couldn't even sew after all these years, he thought. There was only the one smudge, a tiny one in the corner when he had been eating a bit of chocolate, but that should make no odds. He was after bigger game, though, today. He was intent upon Mr. Bister's garage, down a few doors, where the owner had not given him the right change yesterday for gasoline.

Thus did Sir Miles make his daily rounds. The police station he was saving up for last, where he planned on spending the whole of the morning finding out from Peter Gere, the village constable, why the Hertfield police weren't moving more swiftly in the matter which had brought Littlebourne to much wider notice.

II

One would have thought that Sir Miles was the least popular of the villagers. This was not so. His wife, Sylvia, beat him out by a hair. It wasn't five minutes after her husband had left the village post office that she herself was on the telephone arguing with the benighted Pennystevens.

"I simply want to know how much it will cost to mail it, Mrs. Pennystevens. That seems a simple enough request. I want the parcel in this afternoon's post. . . . But I have given you the weight-you need merely look it up in the book." Sylvia Bodenheim's hand was clicking the garden shears which she had just used to cut the flowers, snapping each one as if it had been the head of a villager. "No, I most certainly will not send Ruth along with a pound note in case the postage is more. You know what servants are nowadays. I don't understand why you cannot undertake to give me the exact amount . . . My scales are quite accurate, thank you very much. . . . Edinburgh, yes." The shears clicked now in time to the tapping of Sylvia's foot. "Fifty pence. You're quite sure that's the cheap rate?" Sylvia's mouth clamped in a grim line. " ‘As sure as you can be in the circumstances' is hardly a satisfactory reply. I hope it will not be necessary to send Ruth back again with more money if you've misjudged the weight." Abruptly, and with no farewell, she dropped the phone into the cradle and shouted for Ruth.



The other two contenders for the Littlebourne murders were the Bodenheim children, Derek and Julia. However, they fell far behind their mother and father merely because of proximity. Derek came down from Cambridge rarely; Julia (whose horse could have got into University before Julia could), was not seen all that much. She spent most of her time shopping in London or hunting with one or another of the local packs. Seldom did the villagers see her from any vantage point except up on her horse in her hacking jacket or black Melton, one hand on her hip.

When the four Bodenheims had to be together (at Christmas, for instance) they entertained themselves by noting the shortcomings of their neighbors, by reestablishing their own superior claims as feudal overlords, and, all in all, generally turning water into wine.

III

The Littlebourne Murders, as yet unfinished, had long provided practice in the gentle art of murder for Polly Praed. A moderately successful mystery-story writer, she often, when her plots came unglued, would divert herself by practicing various modes and styles of murder on the Bodenheims, singly or together. She favored the denouement which had the entire village coming together to murder the titled family. At the moment she was walking down the High considering a choice of weapons. A dagger passed from hand to hand was out-it had already been used. As she passed the garage considering poisons, she smiled absently at Mr. Bister, who raised his greasy cap. While she was thinking of that dreadful cliché of "arsenic-in-the-tea," she stopped.

About twenty or so feet away, parked outside of the tiny house which was Littlebourne's one-man police station, two men were getting out of a car. One was rather slight and ordinary-looking, though it was hard to tell, as he was apparently blowing his nose. But the other, the other made her understand the meaning of being rooted to the spot. He was tall, and if not precisely handsome . . . but what else could one call him? When he reached to take something from the rear seat-was it a bag? was he staying?-a wind blew his hair. He scraped it across his forehead and turned with the other one and walked up the path to the station.

Polly stared at the air and felt mildly seasick.

It was nearly ten. She often went into the station to have a chat with Peter Gere; they were friends. Sometimes they even went across to the Bold Blue Boy for a bit of lunch or a drink. What was to prevent her from simply marching up the walk and feigning surprise-Oh, do excuse me, Peter, I didn't know-

Her hands shoved deep in the pockets of her coat-sweater, her mind busily worked over the scene that would unfold: there would be the stranger's open-mouthed astonishment that she was that Polly Praed (a name which had never seemed to get much of a rise even out of her publisher), an appreciation of her wit (which reviewers put on a par with her plots), a quiet appraisal of her beauty (seldom commented on by anyone). At this point she was so deep into sparkling repartee inside the police station that she forgot she was still on the pavement until she heard the raised voices.

She turned to look back toward the petrol station where Miles Bodenheim was waving his swagger stick in the air and Mr. Bister's face had turned the color of the little red Mini he had apparently been working on. Sir Miles made one last gesture with the stick, and started down the pavement, headed in her direction. Quickly, she crossed to the other side and shot into the Magic Muffin, fortunately open that day. It was a tearoom run by Miss Celia Pettigrew, a gentlewoman of slender means, who kept very capricious business hours. One never could be sure from one week to the next when the Muffin would be open: it was as if Miss Pettigrew were running by some other calendar than the Gregorian and some other time than Greenwich Mean.

Polly watched the progress of Sir Miles, who was marching down the other side of the street and was now just by the police station walk.

She could have died.

Coming down the walk and running bang-up against Miles Bodenheim were Peter Gere and the two strangers. The idea that this brief encounter should fall not to her but to Miles (who deserved prussic acid in his morning egg) made her want to scream. She watched as Peter Gere and the others maneuvered around Sir Miles and separated themselves from him-which must have been like picking a limpet off a rock. The three crossed the street and Littlebourne Green and out of her line of vision. Her face was nearly mashed against the glass.

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