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The Anodyne Necklace(9)

By:Martha Grimes



Jury did not know whether the three cats lined up and looking at him, paws neat and tails twitching, were the same cats come inside or other cats spawned in the darkness of the cottage. Even in midday a lamp was needed, and one was lit, a tall one beside Miss Craigie's chair. Its fringed shade cast a puddle of gloomy light. The thug-cat jumped up on her lap, dealing what should have been a death-blow, but Miss Craigie didn't seem to notice.

"Ernestine is the president of the Hertfield birdwatchers' group. She's usually up before five and out with her binoculars . . . so, you see, it's perfectly natural she might have come across the . . . poor woman."

Jury decided Augusta was an overexplainer and left her to it. She must have taken his silence as some assumption of guilt on her part and rushed ahead to embroider upon the circumstances. "She was out making one of her little maps, you see, for the birdwatchers. We all use them when we go out together, usually in teams, if there's something-like the Speckled Crackle-truly important . . . " A bitter note crept into her voice as she said, "You know, it was just as bad for me-quite as bad!" Even in the dull light Jury could see her face flush; she had blurted this out as if Ernestine had hogged the limelight long enough. "Seeing that dog come trotting up the street with that-thing in its mouth." Augusta sank back in her chair and then just as suddenly sat forward, sweeping the cat to the floor, who then set off to stalk the lovebirds. "I don't understand any of this at all, Inspector. We're being singled out. It's almost as if police-you-suspected us. First there was that other inspector from Hertfield coming here and asking all those questions . . . well, really, it's most unfair."

Jury let his demotion pass and said, "I hope you can understand how important it is to question anyone who had a part in discovering the body. We don't mean to harass you. If it hadn't been for you and your sister, she might still be lying out there in the wood." Jury smiled.

The sudden switch from victim to heroine brought Augusta's hand up to smooth her hair, then her skirt. Now she was able to let her naturally curious bent take over: "Who was she? Do you know?" Jury shook his head. "We'd never any of us seen her before, so maybe it is someone from Horndean or Hertfield. I was just saying to Miles Bodenheim-Sir Miles-and we both agreed, there must be some psychopathic killer, come down from London, maybe-" (On vacation? Jury wondered) "-and it puts us in mind of Jack the Ripper." Her small shudder seemed more one of pleasure than pain. "You remember the way he mutilated his bodies-"

"I don't think that's the case here."

But Augusta wasn't having that. She went after the gory details like a hound on scent, detailing the appearance of the corpse as described to her by her sister. That same sister seemed to be rousing, for there were thumpings and creakings and sounds of someone descending the stairs.

"That must be Ernestine. I can't think why she's up. I don't know why she didn't faint dead away-Ernestine! You really should not be up!"

If this were Ernestine blocking the archway, she didn't look as if she could be brought down by a gale wind. She was stout, square, determined. Any objections to her present course would obviously be beaten off with the blackthorn stick she carried. Even the cats scattered like buckshot. She was wearing a navy pea coat, buttoned tightly across her large frontage, and a knitted cap had been pulled down over her ears with such force, that nothing but a gray fringe of hair and the barest hint of eyebrow showed.

"Out, of course," was her snappish answer to her sister's timid question as to where she was going. "A nice lie-down, that's all I needed. Just got to get the Wellingtons on-"

"But you can't be going back to the Horndean wood. This is the police from Scotland Yard, and he wanted to ask-"

"Why shouldn't I go back? The Crackle won't wait forever. I expect police have tidied up by now. Right, Inspector?"

"We've taken the body away, ma'am. But you can't go into that part of the wood yet."

"Why not, I'd like to know? The Speckled Crackle is very nearly an extinct bird, sir. It's that part of the wood he'll return to, if any. They like the wet, you know." She was chugging toward a little window seat by the door where her Wellingtons waited, stiff as soldiers. Could only brute force stop her?

"This Speckled-what is it?"

She stopped. She turned. "Great Speckled Crackle. Don't tell me you've not heard of it?"

"No, I haven't. Is it rare?"

"Rare? Rare?" She walked back a few paces. "It's been sighted only five times in the last three years. Once in the Orkneys, once in the Hebrides, and once in Torquay. It's clearly off course, somehow."

"And you've seen it in the Horndean wood?"

"Think so, yes." Now she was unbuttoning her pea coat.

"I've a friend who saw a Spix's Macaw once." Jury offered her a cigarette which she absently accepted.
 
 

 

The eyebrows shot up, devoured further by the pull-down cap. "But that's impossible! The Spix's Macaw is only seen in Brazil. Somewhere in northwest Bahia. It's an extremely rare bird!" She sat herself down as if from shock in the twin of the cretonne chair.

Jury shook his head. "Maybe it simply got blown off course."

Regarding him with extreme suspicion, she said, "I can't believe this person saw one. I'm an ornithologist and keep abreast of such things. I've heard no report of Spix's Macaws." Her eyes narrowed as she puffed on the cigarette she held between thumb and index finger. "Describe one." She might have been interrogating a murder suspect.

"Well, it was blue, he said. Darker blue on the back and wings. And about, oh, two feet or so long."

There was a brief, amazed silence as Ernestine stared at her sister. At first, Jury thought she might be going to accuse Augusta of having something to do with this spurious Spix's Macaw report. But what she said was, "Augusta, don't be sitting about like a sparrow. We're peckish and it's nearly twelve. Let's have some sandwiches." To her sister's resigned and departing back, she yelled: "Minced chicken in the fridge!" Then she settled back for more bird-talk. "The Spix's Macaw is . . . "

Jury gave it exactly three minutes and then decided she was primed enough to get off birds and onto birdwatchers. "How often does your group meet?"

"Once a month, third Monday."

"Who belongs to it?"

"The Bodenheims-Miles and Sylvia. Mainwaring and his wife, when she's about." Ernestine smirked a bit.

"I take it she's not about very much?"

"Trouble there, if you ask me."

Augusta returned with a plate of sandwiches so neatly cut they looked hemmed. Jury refused the food, but accepted a cup of coffee.

"Tell me, Miss Craigie, you must have speculated on who this girl might be, or at least a reason for her to be walking in the wood."

Making no attempt to hide the fact her mouth was full of chicken, Ernestine said, "None whatever. Some shop girl, probably."

"Why do you say that?"

"Don't know. Just looked the type. Bit tartish, you know, all those bangles and earrings. ‘Bedizened, beringed, and bejeweled,' as our old mum used to say. But all from Woolworth's is my guess."

"You observed her rather closely if you saw all of that."

"Saw the body through these first." Again she lifted the binoculars. "Wasn't sure what it was, though, and I tramped over. I didn't spend too much time looking-you can imagine-but, being a trained observer, it wouldn't take much to see what I saw. I went off straightaway to the nearest phone and called the police."

With the answers flowing freely now, Jury hesitated to ask his next question. "The, ah, damage to the body was done with a small ax found near the stump. I understand it was yours, Miss Craigie. Why did you keep it there?"

But it would take more than bloody axes to put Miss Craigie off. "To chop through thick stuff, of course. Small branches, that sort of thing. Get a better view."

"Anybody else ever use it you know of?"

"I expect so. It was always lying about. Not necessarily there-the birdwatchers wielded it now and again, so it might have been found anywhere round about there."

Jury changed the subject. "Tell me, did you know Katie O'Brien?"

They didn't, for a moment, seem to comprehend. "Oh, that O'Brien girl. Forgot about her. Got coshed on the head, didn't she, about a fortnight ago? Well, if the mother will let her run about London, it doesn't surprise me."

Augusta said, more to disagree with her sister than to defend Katie, Jury inferred, "Katie always seemed such a nice girl. She did cleaning for people in Littlebourne to help out. And she was very thorough; I had her in to help me often. She worked, Katie did. A responsible child. Not like some of those others that go to the comprehensive."

Ernestine made a deprecating gesture. "Nice as ninepence, maybe, but I always say still waters, that sort of thing. Bet she'd be off with a boy soon as say knife."

"Perhaps," said Augusta, "it was the girl for Stonington."

"Stonington?" said Jury.

"Why yes, that's the Kennington place. I heard Lady Kennington was looking for someone to do typing for her. Stonington's just the other side of the wood, on the Horndean Road. I'm quite sure Mrs. Pennystevens told me that she-lady Kennington, I mean-had a prospect she was expecting to interview a day or two ago. Maybe this person in the wood was one of them."

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