- Cherringham - A Cosy Crime Series
- The Authors
- Main Characters
- A Cosy Crime Series Compilation
- The Body in the Lake
- Playing Dead
- Next Compilation
Cherringham — A Cosy Crime Series
“Cherringham — A Cosy Crime Series” is a series made up of self-contained stories. A new episode is released each month. The series is published in English as well as in German, and is only available in e-book form.
Matthew Costello (US-based) is the author of a number of successful novels, including Vacation (2011), Home (2014) and Beneath Still Waters (1989), which was adapted by Lionsgate as a major motion picture. He has written for The Disney Channel, BBC, SyFy and has also designed dozens of bestselling games including the critically acclaimed The 7th Guest, Doom 3, Rage and Pirates of the Caribbean.
Neil Richards has worked as a producer and writer in TV and film, creating scripts for BBC, Disney, and Channel 4, and earning numerous Bafta nominations along the way. He’s also written script and story for over 20 video games including The Da Vinci Code and Starship Titanic, co-written with Douglas Adams, and consults around the world on digital storytelling.
His writing partnership with NYC-based Matt Costello goes back to the late 90’s and the two have written many hours of TV together. Cherringham is their first crime fiction as co-writers.
Jack Brennan is a former NYPD homicide detective who lost his wife a year ago. Being retired, all he wants is peace and quiet. Which is what he hopes to find in the quiet town of Cherringham, UK. Living on a canal boat, he enjoys his solitude. But soon enough he discovers that something is missing — the challenge of solving crimes. Surprisingly, Cherringham can help him with that.
Sarah Edwards is a web designer who was living in London with her husband and two kids. Two years ago, he ran off with his sexy American boss, and Sarah’s world fell apart. With her children she moved back to her home town, laid-back Cherringham. But the small town atmosphere is killing her all over again — nothing ever happens. At least, that’s what she thinks until Jack enters her life and changes it for good or worse …
1. Gracious Hosts
Sarah turned off the main road and pulled up at the pillared gatehouse to Repton Hall. She looked up at the stone columns: on each stood a bronze stag. The tall wrought-iron gates that stood between them and protected the Estate were closed but as she prepared to get out and…
… do what? Ring a bell? Do places like this even have doorbells?
… they magically opened.
She glanced up at the stuccoed entrance walls. Nestled discreetly beneath one of the stags she spotted a camera. Somewhere within the Estate, she realised, a security guard was watching her on a monitor.
Clearly her tatty old Rav-4 had passed the test — and now she understood why Simon Repton’s secretary had asked for her registration number.
As she drove through the gates, past the tasteful steel sign — ‘Repton Hall: Country House and Conference Centre’ — she remembered how, only a couple of years ago, there had been rumours that the Repton family, house and all, were heading for bankruptcy.
This was quite the turnaround.
From the looks of it, the long driveway had recently been re-laid, and as she travelled along it towards the imposing Queen Anne mansion which glowed in the afternoon sunshine, she could see they’d also spent a fortune on the gardens.
The trees were shaped and pruned; the rolling meadows trim; fences freshly painted — and to one side of the house the famous ornamental lake sparkled.
Last time she’d been here — to a rather sad agricultural show two summers ago — the lake had been stagnant and green. But now its waters were clear and on the little island at its centre, the Georgian folly — a classical temple — stood proud again.
Sarah smiled to herself. In part she and Jack must have been responsible for this miraculous turn-around. Some time ago they’d solved the mystery of a missing Roman artefact on Repton land — the successful case had benefited the redoubtable Lady Repton to the tune of half a million, so the rumours went.
But now as she drove past the side of the house towards the ‘conference car park’ she guessed that the Reptons must have picked up at least another million elsewhere to complete this transformation.
For, behind the graceful mansion, a low brick-and-timber extension had been added, with cool clear lines that suggested the work of an expensive architect.
This was the conference centre — where in a couple of hours she was going to deliver her little performance…
The car park was nearly full but she found a space, grabbed her MacAir, locked up, and headed to the side entrance.
“Hey, nice timing,” said a voice behind her.
She turned to see Simon Repton himself walking round the side of the house. Lean, tanned, in a charcoal hand-made suit, Simon exuded money, confidence, charm, and success.
At least that’s what he thinks, thought Sarah.
Slimy Simey — that’s what her assistant Grace had called him, and Sarah had to work hard not to say the name to his face.
“Simon,” she said. “How lovely to see you again.”
Simon approached and gave her a kiss on each cheek, lingering just a little longer than was quite necessary.
“We’re still at the champers stage, so you’ve got plenty of time to set up.”
“Everything going okay?”
“Absolument parfait!” he said with a faux-Gallic shrug, his boyish fringe swinging across his eyes. “Our guests are having a tres bonne temps!”
“How wonderful that you speak French,” said Sarah, guessing that she should acknowledge the performance.
“One of the benefits of an awfully expensive education, Sarah,” he said. “Though to be honest, I do believe the esteemed delegation representing St. Martin sur Mer has a better grasp of English than most of our staff.”
“That’s good, because the presentation’s going to be entirely in English — some of it Cherringham English too.”
“I’m sure you’ll make it clear as day, babes.”
Slimy Simey indeed.
“And I wouldn’t worry over-much,” he continued. “I’m told we’re a shoo-in. Your little PowerPoint’s just the icing on the cake.”
“Terrific,” said Sarah, thinking about the hours that she and Grace had slaved over it, hoping it was worth more than just the icing.
“Not that we can do without it, of course,” Simon said hastily, obviously spotting the dismay on Sarah’s face, “After all, it’s the official reason they’ve flown over here to see us!”
Sarah was impressed with his quick recovery.
“Why don’t I show you to the media room and you can get yourself all Wi-Fi’d and ready to go?”
He put an arm around her shoulder and steered her towards a door in the new block. She pulled away a few inches, letting the unwanted limb dangle in air before falling.
“I think, by the way, you’ll find the whole thing pretty damned state of the art,” he said. “Cost Granny a fortune!”
They entered the building and Sarah could see the long corridor that led back to the main house — impeccably decorated, with cedar floors, soft-toned wood panelling, and fabric walls.
On one side of the corridor was a line of oil portraits of grim-faced Reptons past and present. On the other, framed black-and-white photos showed armies of house staff, standing to attention on the steps of the house.
“Family tradition,” said Simon as Sarah leaned in to examine one of the photos. “Every Boxing Day for a hundred years the grateful Estate workers grabbed their bonus and lined up for the team photo.”
“Quite a collection,” said Sarah.
“Daddy’s archive,” said Simon. “I’ve been digitising it. Yanks love it.”
Then, with a tap to the shoulder, Simon steered her the other way towards the ‘media room’.
“Lots of break-out areas for brainstorming,” he said on the way, pointing out rooms off to the side, each filled with sofas, cushions, and low tables. “And through here we’ve got the leisure centre.”
“Very impressive,” said Sarah.
“Isn’t it? Pool and gym aren’t open yet, but the hot tub, steam rooms and sauna block is up and running. Hope you’ll join us after dinner for a little fun?”
“Ah, hmm,” she said quickly. “You know how it is — working mum — got to be home by midnight.”
Simon looked disappointed.
“Pumpkin time, huh?” he said. “Shame. I was hoping you’d stay over. Anyway—”
Dream on, she thought.
He stopped by one door and opened it to reveal a small lecture theatre with cinema style seats, a screen and a presentation area.
“And here’s the media room. Get yourself sorted — and I’ll bring the mob through in an hour.”
With that, Sarah watched him turn and go — as if he’d suddenly realised there was more fun to be had elsewhere.
“Toodle pip!” he said as he left.
The door swung shut and Sarah looked around the room.
Could be a West End screening room, she thought, taking her laptop and setting it down on a table at the front.
Let’s hope they like what I’m going to show them…
Sarah moved in a way she hoped looked confident across the stage in front of the presentation screen and clicked for the next slide.
Public presentations weren’t really her forte, but this seemed to be going well. All eyes were on her, and despite the amount of champagne consumed, the audience appeared to be totally with her.
“So, here in Cherringham we hope you agree that the business case is clear. The social value. The cultural importance. Our two villages are the perfect fit — St. Martin and Cherringham — both deeply proud of their long history, confident of a long future. Friendly, outward-looking, hospitable. Have there ever been two better candidates for twinning?”
Even in the low light of the room, Sarah could see smiling faces, nodding heads.
And she knew it wasn’t just the effect of the stream of hors d’oeuvres and bubbly which Simon’s army of waiters had been pouring for the last hour.
“Finally — who better to join in what I hope will be a happy occasion — the children of Cherringham themselves…”
Stepping to one side, she clicked play on the last video and took a deep breath of relief.
Up on the screen the kids of Cherringham Primary sang their hearts out in a raucous, affectionate ‘open letter’ to the mayor and deputy mayor of St. Martin, telling them they should “do it for the kids” and sign that agreement “Toot Sweet!”
She scanned the audience. There were plenty of faces she recognised — the great and the good of Cherringham. Tony Standish — her old friend and family solicitor; Cecil Cauldwell, local property bigwig; Harry Howden — no-nonsense owner of Howdens Holdings, one of the biggest agri-businesses in the area; June Rigby, chair of the parish council; Lee Jones, vice-chair. There were several other familiar faces from the village — but not people she could actually name.
All were gathered here for a weekend of wine and fine dining to persuade the mercurial French delegation to finally agree to a twinning arrangement — a proposition to become “sister” villages — which had been in the works for over a year.
She looked at the two visitors from St. Martin — the mayor and his deputy.
Laurent Bourdin — built like a bull — though one aged by a lifetime of brandy and Gauloises, she guessed.
And Marie Duval — slight, elegant, aloof, and beautiful.
They were smiling. Good sign? Perhaps. By all accounts, they were proving tough nuts to crack…
Sarah hoped that her contribution might just make up their minds at last.
On a final crashing chord the house lights went up and Sarah was thrilled to see her little audience rise to their feet laughing and applauding.
Simon came over from the side, clapping her…
“Ladies and gentlemen, Madame et Monsieur le maire — our very own Sarah Edwards, giving you the real human reason why we all hope you’ll give your blessing this weekend to our historic and ambitious twinning proposal!”
The good-natured applause continued.
“Now, if you’d all make your way to the Queen Mary room — dinner is about to be served!”
Sarah waited while Simon ushered the crowd away. At the door he turned back to her:
“Totally fab, Sarah — not a wrong note. Awesome.”
“Now come on — let’s get them drunk, give ’em a pen and force the Frenchies to sign!”
Sarah couldn’t fault his enthusiasm. Whether he was in it for himself, the Reptons or the village — Simon certainly gave his all for the cause.
2. Entente Cordiale
“Leave the EU? No way, Laurent! There’s still a few bob to be made, ain’t that right, Harry?”
Lee Jones, vice-chair of Cherringham Council and owner of a local luxury 4WD franchise, grinned at Harry Howden then turned to Sarah sitting next to him and winked.
“Harry won’t be happy until his Turkey-Pops are filling every freezer in Europe,” Lee continued.
Across the dining table Laurent Bourdin raised his glass to Lee: “Just as long as I don’t have to eat them, Messieurs…”
“I have to say I’m with you on that one, Monsieur Bourdin,” said Tony from further down the table. “No offence intended, Harry old chap.”
“None taken,” said Harry Howden raising his glass with what looked to Sarah like a very weary smile. “But I don’t see the problem with exporting a little modern food-industry know-how to our friends in St. Martin—”
“We welcome it,” said Marie Duval.
Sarah turned to see the French deputy mayor smiling graciously — and looking directly not at Harry Howden, but at Lee.
“And in return perhaps we can introduce you to some of the more sophisticated pleasures of French culture.”
“Looking forward to it already,” said Lee raising his glass back at her.
“Would that be before or after the cricket match?” said a voice from the far end of the table.
Everyone already pretty lubricated, Sarah could tell.
“No, I forbid it!” said Laurent banging his hand down on the table in mock outrage. “There will be no cricket in St. Martin — non!”
“Put that in the contract, Tony!” shouted Simon from the head of the table.
“Not another bloody clause!” came a voice from somewhere.
“Anything Brussels can do, we can do better—”
“Throw another crate of this red in and I’ll sign anything,” said Lee. “Amazing!”
Sarah joined in the laughter and hardly noticed her glass being filled.
But it was too late to say no to more wine.
Somewhere between the fish, the sorbet, and the meat courses, Sarah had given up her promise to herself that she wouldn’t drink. The quality stuff was on offer tonight. How could she refuse?
Yes — she had to be up early to take Daniel to football, yes — she had a week’s housework to do, yes — she’d promised to go through Chloe’s essay on Anthony and Cleopatra… A busy Sunday ahead!
But she’d quickly realised that the meal — and the drinking — was going to go on for ever and the only way to get through it was to just go with the flow.
And was the wine ever flowing now.
There were twenty places at the dining table, and Simon had spared no expense. The candelabra were lit, the silver shone, the crystal sparkled, and the food was exquisite, even by French standards.
But now — three hours into the event — all pretence at formality had long gone and tongues were not only loosened, they were positively flapping.
She sat back and scanned the room. Part of her job was to write up this historic dinner as part of the official press release — and then in a week’s time take pictures of the actual signing of the Twinning Agreement.
If it wasn’t all going to end up as a blur she needed to take notes now. In truth though, it was hardly what she’d call work. The dinner had revealed all kinds of intriguing behaviour — plenty for her and Grace to chat and laugh about on Monday…
The mayor and deputy mayor from St. Martin for instance.
They weren’t married — at least not to each other. But by all accounts they were a couple — Simon had whispered to her that they had requested a double room.
An odd couple at that: Laurent was in his sixties, blustering, red-faced, the bulging body of an ex-rugby player. And Marie: much younger, was rail thin, the archetypal political mistress; alluring on the outside and tough as nails inside, Sarah had no doubt.
And yet… Was there a hint of something here also going on between Marie and Lee?
There’d been half a dozen ‘exploratory’ trips to France over the last couple of years and from what she’d heard, Lee was just the kind of chap to take that kind of exploring literally.
Just before they’d all taken their seats Sarah had noticed the Cherringham vice-chair whispering briefly in Marie’s pretty little ear…
Then there was Harry Howden — gruff, no-nonsense Harry.
Rumour had it he was aiming to snap up some prime French property on the back of this partnership and build himself a meat processing plant in St. Martin.
Won’t the locals love that.
Next to Harry, Cecil Cauldwell helped himself to another glass of wine. This event was right up his street, Sarah could tell. Eating, drinking, and smooth-talking potential customers — he was in his element. And why not? The proposed twinning arrangement would give an extra spur to the little French property business he had started up, expanding from the Cotswolds to the sunny south of France.
Raucous laughter burst from the far end of the table, apparently generated by Simon, their host. Was that a turkey impersonation he was doing, complete with gobbling noises?
People were weeping with laughter…
And what was in it for Simon? Surely Cherringham Council wasn’t picking up the bill for this junket? She’d seen that he had his eye on Marie — perhaps he imagined a never-ending line of French fillies queuing up to use the Repton Hall spa?
She looked to the other end of the table, where June Rigby was deep in conversation with Harry Howden’s wife, Vanessa.
June was quiet and demure, but she was active on the council and had big political ambitions, or so Sarah had heard. Was she looking for a role at Westminster one day? And if so, perhaps Simon and the Repton name might be able to help?
She spotted them exchanging looks. Perhaps he’d given up hope of a French partner tonight and was going to settle for the prim English maid?
And what of Harry’s grim-faced wife, Vanessa? How would the twinning affect her? Vanessa was a self-proclaimed moral authority in the village — frequently writing to the local paper about the out of control “yoof”, the over-liberal licensing hours, the decline in social standards. Would her turkey-farmer husband be able to resist the dubious temptations of a French sea-side resort?
Ooh, this is too much fun, thought Sarah.
At which point the chairs at the far end of the table were kicked back, music blared, and Sarah saw that a conga line had formed with Simon at its head.
As the surprised waiting staff retreated to the edges of the room, the conga line laughed and stumbled its way around the table. “La la la la la la! La la la la la la!” they all began singing.
The line picked up more dancers as it went — and Sarah watched as it disappeared out of the room.
Waiter, cheque please, she thought.
Time to go.
Sarah looked around the table at the half dozen remaining guests. June looked embarrassed. Harry Howden was grinning — but Vanessa looked disgusted, her lips pursed. Tony Standish, as always, seemed remarkably tolerant.
Laurent and Marie were blinking in astonishment.
The conga line could be heard going up and down the corridors outside.
“La la la la la la! La la la la la la!”
In the Queen Anne room, the remaining diners sat totally quiet.
Suddenly, it was all too awkward.
“Les Anglais,” said Sarah smiling apologetically, trying to break the silence. “They’ll be back, I’m sure.”
And noisily they soon were.
“Come on you spoilsports!” cried Simon as the conga line burst into the room and swayed past the seated guests.
Simon whisked June Rigby up from her seat to join in. There was a quick exchange in French between June and Laurent as she passed him, stony-faced. Sarah could only assume it was an apology for the behaviour of her English colleagues…
Sarah watched as Cherringham’s Council chief awkwardly led the dancing line.
Round and round the table the line stumbled.
“La la la la la la! La la la la la la!”
“More champagne!” cried Simon.
“Champagne! Champagne!” echoed those behind Simon.
“La la la la la la! La la la la la la!”
Sarah looked at her watch. Still only eleven o’clock. She wondered where this evening would end…
And maybe — now — how…
Sarah stumbled into the fresh air at one in the morning. Standing outside on the gravel in front of the beautiful old house, it was hard to believe that the party was still going on within.
But it was…
Those party games.
Had they really played Sardines?
Had she really hidden in a cupboard with a French mayor while her own solicitor tiptoed around the room whispering ‘come out, come out, wherever you are’?
She shook her head in horror.
Luckily she was the one responsible for writing up the report of the evening for the parish council — and she knew exactly which parts would be censored.
Slowly the more sensible guests had drifted home, but there was still a hard-core party group remaining in the house. She’d sneaked away to get her coat from the ever-patient cloakroom staff, and managed to escape the house without being noticed.
Or so she thought.
Simon appeared at the doorway.
“Don’t go. Can’t go now,” he’d said. “Now’s when the fun starts.”
He came over and swayed boozily next to her.
“Hmm, that’s what’s worrying me,” said Sarah, just keeping her balance herself.
“Hot tub’s filling up,” he said. “Dress code’s au naturel or so I hear. Everyone’s feeling jolly frisky…”
“I’m sure they are,” said Sarah. “Oh look — there’s my taxi!”
A set of headlights swung round into the drive in front of them both.
Thank God, she thought.
“Kissee kissee goodnight at least,” said Simon, his face drifting closer to hers, eyes shut…
But Sarah disappeared.
Nick of time, she thought.
3. The Island on the Lake
Laurent stood at the edge of the lake, took a deep drag of his cigarette, and peered into the darkness.
The lake stretched ahead, the water flat and black in the moonless night. He could just make out the shape of the island and the little Greek temple which stood upon it.
A folly, they called it.
Bien sur. So very… English!
This whole project was a folly and he wanted to wash his hands of it.
Nothing good had come from it and nothing good ever would. Rien!
These people with their grand ideas and their patronising views. Getting drunk on such good wine! And never following through with the money. Always “a little cash-flow problem”.
Should have put a jacket on.
Not in the south of France now.
Mon Dieu — I wish I was home.
But he couldn’t go home — yet. He had work to do. One final meeting. Why on the island though? It didn’t make sense.
He’d left the hot tub when things got too wild. Then Simon Repton had cornered him in the empty bar. Making all sorts of promises. Slurring his words…“you’ll do the deal, hmm?”
Laurent didn’t like being cornered, so that meeting hadn’t gone quite as expected.
But what did he care? Rich bastard needed bringing down a little.
He’d wandered around the place looking for Marie but he couldn’t find her. Then he’d gone back to his room to lie down — and found the note under the door.
Someone telling him they had to meet — now.
So here he was out in the cold night looking for a way to get out to the damn island.
So very… caché!
He thought back to when they’d arrived that the morning and Simon and his mother had given them a tour of the Estate. There’d been some boats, he was sure of it.
He wandered along the edge of the lake, slipping on the wet grass.
Ah-ha — there they were.
Two small rowing-boats were tied to a metal stake set into the bank.
He held one steady and clambered in, half-falling.
Was he still drunk? Maybe, a little.
There were two oars — and rowlocks.
Untying the rope, he used one of the oars to push off, then spun the little boat round, sat, and began to row towards the island.
Fifty years living by the sea, he knew how to row.
He felt the oars dig deep in the black water and the boat slide smoothly. Ahead of him he could see the outline of Repton Hall. Some windows were still lit.
In one upper room a figure appeared at a window, silhouetted.
Could they see him?
It was unlikely — so dark out here on the lake.
The figure disappeared.
To bed? Or was the party still going on? Surely not, it was nearly three in the morning.
He looked over his shoulder.
The island was now just a few metres away and he could clearly see the temple.
There was a faint glow from within — a light on?
He shipped the oars and the boat glided on, bumping against rocks until it reached the grassy bank of the island.
He climbed out carefully and tied the rope to a tree stump.
Then he stood up on the rough grass, looked around and listened.
Not a sound.
And no other boats — as far as he could tell.
What was this — some kind of trick? Another stupid English joke.
But no — there was a sound now, a faint sound from inside the temple.
Laurent shivered again.
And suddenly felt a sliver of fear. The hairs on his arm were standing up.
What am I afraid of? He thought, surprised at his own emotions.
No — it must be the cold. The chilly night air out here on the lake.
He walked up the sloping grass towards the temple, his eyes now adjusting to the darkness.
He faced tall marble pillars and just behind them, a large metal door which must open on to the temple interior. The door — not quite shut.
And inside — yes, he was right — there was some kind of light.
Quietly he approached the door, and reached out to nudge it.
He sniffed the air — there was a scent — familiar…
He pushed the door hard and it swung open.
The inside was lit by candles — small tea-lights — it seemed like hundreds of them, like stars. And on the floor were cushions and blankets.
And there, ahead of him, he saw someone standing in the shadows.
Not waiting for him, but startled.
He took another step closer and finally — in the scant light — he could see who it was, but not understanding, now suddenly confused.
And all Laurent Bourdin could do was say “Non.”
4. The Morning After
Jack pushed open the door to his boat, the Grey Goose, and the morning sunlight hit him square in the face. A slight breeze blew, carrying the scent of the grassy field only steps away. Looking down to the water, the Thames lapped gently by the side of the boat.
The dream, he thought.
He and Katherine had planned to come and retire here. Have this crazy kind of life; an English life for two Americans.
What fun it would be, they both agreed.
And then — as if the whole thing was a joke, the dream simply that — Katherine got sick, and began slipping away bit by bit, day by day.
Until she was gone. And for some reason, Jack had decided to come here anyway. He knew she would have wanted that.
Yes, to stand here, on a picture-perfect morning in the Cotswolds. Katherine would have loved it.
He heard the kettle whistling behind him. Riley came up and nuzzled him, ready for his walk.
“Yes,” Jack said to his Springer. “Let's get this day going.”
He walked on the mushy field, dodging places where the tufts of grass gave way to oozing piles of mud.
Riley seemed to have learned how to navigate the field, barely getting any dirt on his legs as he dashed away from Jack, then ran back as if fetching an imaginary ball.
Jack walked with a tall mug of English Breakfast tea, the warmth in his hands was wonderful. This was not his world, but Jack loved it anyway.
The dog raced up to Jack as if he should begin running with him. Back in the day, Jack had loved a nice long run. Especially after a long tour on the streets. Cleared the head.
His wobbly knees ended that.
Riley cocked his head, barked, and then streamed away, running fast, zig-zagging in the direction of the ancient church that sat on the western end of the field where a small road passed by.
Jack started following Riley’s path, sipping the already cooling tea, when he felt his phone vibrate.
He slid the phone out of his jacket pocket, already guessing who was calling.
“Jack, Sarah here.”
“Good morning, Sarah,” he said.
“Jack, I'm at Tony’s office. He gave me a call.”
“Tell Tony ‘hi’,” Jack said. Riley had reached the end of his invisible tether and started racing back.
Jack liked Tony Standish, the very epitome of a British solicitor and, for Sarah and her parents, a trusted family advisor.
But Jack waited. He guessed that if Sarah was calling him, there would be a reason.
“Can you pop over here, do you think?”
Her voice, a mix of strained and excited.
“Let me guess,” Jack said. “Something’s happened?”
Cherringham may be a small village, but people were people everywhere, from the streets of New York to the village lanes here.
He waited, thinking she would add some detail about her call, her request to come.
Then: “Best I tell you when you get here. I need your help, Jack.”
And without knowing what the call was about, what Tony had contacted Sarah for; Jack nodded as if they were standing there, in the field.
“Sure. Let me get Riley back on the Goose and I’ll run right over.”
Then — again, maybe with a good friend’s sense of something in the air — Sarah said, “Thanks.”
And Jack, his day begun, something in the air, said, “No problem. See you soon.”
On a perfect, blue-sky day, one his wife would have loved, Jack was curious about what lay ahead.
“Most definitely, black will be fine.” The solicitor’s secretary stood at the door and nodded to Jack. “Right away, Mr. Brennan.”
Jack felt like a homeless person standing in the impeccable office. Tony dressed — as usual — in a crisp dark suit, maroon tie, with a neatly folded handkerchief protruding from his breast pocket.
Jack, on the other hand, still wore the rumpled jeans he had slipped into that morning, a flannel shirt that — for all Jack knew — was dotted with last night’s dinner. His black shoes were spotty from the morning’s walk; mud now dried to a light brown.
He did say he’d run right over…
Jack took a chair and Tony’s receptionist, a prim, grey haired woman, quietly brought the cup of coffee.
“Thank you, Emma.” Tony smiled; he waited until the door was shut.
“So what’s up?” Jack said.
Tony turned to Sarah. “Sarah, would you like to tell Jack what this is all about? Terrible business, I'm afraid. Not good at all.”
Jack sipped the dark rich coffee. He turned to Sarah.
“It’s about last night Jack. At Lady Repton’s…”
And she began.
“In the lake, they found a body.”
Jack nodded, sat back, and listened.
A body in the lake.
She certainly had his attention.
5. The Body
Sarah started by describing the previous night’s event to Jack — the big bash to woo the French mayor and his deputy for a twinning arrangement.
She had to explain that term. Twinning. Seemed like in the States they called it a ‘sister town’.
Two countries separated by a common language.
She explained her role and the PowerPoint presentation she’d given: Cherringham and St. Martin, connected, the opportunities for both.
Then, the dinner, the drinking, the — God, she was embarrassed to say it — conga line.
“You didn’t, um, do that?” Jack said with a small smile.
Sarah shook her head.
“No, but everyone was well beyond tipsy. It was nearly one by the time I left. Probably should have gone earlier. But it did seem to be spinning out of control.”
Now Tony jumped in to carry on.
“I must confess; I only stayed a little longer. After all, I was the solicitor of record for the arrangement.”
“And Tony I don't imagine you… conga-ed?”
Tony took the question in earnest.
“Heavens no. I was a mere spectator to them all, laughing, drinking. When the party continued in the hot tub, I made my excuses and left.”
“Oh, dear,” Jack said. “Doesn't sound very Cherringham.”
“Tony called me this morning,” Sarah said.
“Indeed,” the solicitor continued. “The police have been all over the place, talking to everyone. It's becoming something of an international scandal at this point.”
“The body?” Jack said.
“Laurent Bourdin, mayor of St. Martin. It appears he was so drunk he took the little rowing boat, went over to the folly—”
Jack turned to Sarah.
“Oh — it’s, well, like a temple, something Grecian. Just decorative, really. Built on a small island in the centre of the lake.”
“Sounds aptly named.”
“It seems he got as far as the island,” Tony went on, “then he must have slipped on the mud, fallen back in the water and smacked his head on a boulder.”
“Nasty. So the body…?”
“Just floated on the lake. Until this morning. Lady Repton spotted it first. Called the police — as you say — asap.”
And Sarah knew he was thinking. Putting all the details together.
Those New York detective instincts, honed on the mean streets of Manhattan. “Sarah and I can tell you about who was there. Quite a large crowd. The local great and the good.”
Still, Jack hadn’t said anything.
He looked at Sarah, then to Tony, brow furrowed.
“The drunken mayor slipped, knocked himself out, drowned. Police on it.” He took a breath. “So why call Sarah, or me?”
Tony sniffed the air.
“It’s Lady Repton, Jack. You know her, of course.”
“Do indeed. Great old lady.”
“Well, all this — it’s terribly embarrassing. And the event, spearheaded by her grandson—”
Tony hesitated. Jack could tell that Simon Repton was not Tony’s cup of tea. “Simon Repton. Has big plans for the old place. Now she's worried about the family name.”
“But the police are involved, yes?”
“Of course. Alan is over there this morning. CID from Oxford due shortly, I’ve heard. Looks like an accident. But still, well as I said, you know Lady Repton.”
Sarah had her eyes on Jack. Maybe he was right. Nothing more than an accident for the police to investigate.
He looked over then, as if sensing her eyes on him. “Okay. I guess we could talk to her.”
“And Simon,” Tony added. “It was his ‘show’ last night, so to speak. The manor house turned into a conference centre. His dream, using his grandmother’s money to be sure.”
Tony looked from Jack then to Sarah. “Would you? It would be a great favour. Just a terrible accident, I'm sure.”
“I'm sure,’ Jack said.
Does he mean that? Sarah thought.
Jack stood up, and extended a hand to the solicitor.
And Sarah felt that maybe there were things Jack hadn’t said that she would soon hear once they stepped outside.
“So Jack, what do you think?”
For a moment he didn't look at her, squinting in the sunlight.
He turned to her. “You know, Sarah, sometimes an accident is just that: an accident.” He shook his head.
“I know, but it wouldn't hurt for us — to look into it. If only to pacify Lady Repton.”
Jack nodded. Then: “It’s police business. They have their team, on it. I dunno, Sarah…”
Sarah kept her response short, to the point.
“Yes. But what if we can help?”
Then one added fact.
“And we have helped people.”
Jack nodded again. Took a deep breath. The truth of that clear. Case closed.
And then — he smiled. “Sure.”
Said with all the warmth that she had grown to like so much.
“Wouldn't hurt for us to ask a few questions. Be interesting to meet this Simon fellow.”
“I doubt very much you’ll like him,” Sarah said.
“I gathered that from Tony’s take on him.”
“The man’s an octopus — if you know what I mean,” Sarah said, triggering another laugh from Jack.
Jack looked around again.
“And not a bad day weather-wise,” he said. “The Sprite, top down?”
“Brilliant,” Sarah said, following him to the small sports car he’d parked by the Village Hall, the minuscule vehicle with its tall driver already a familiar sight in the village.
And they drove to Repton Hall, in silence, enjoying the light, the wind and this rather spectacular day.
Pulling into the gravel roundabout in front of the grand Georgian house, Jack saw a police car.
“Looks like Alan’s still here.”
Jack was never certain how Alan would respond to them. With their help, mysteries had certainly been solved. These days, Alan seemed not to mind them getting involved — at least not as much as he did when Jack and Sarah first started their little “investigations”.
A good solid beat cop, Jack would have called him back in NYC. Perfect for a sleepy village like Cherringham.
It’s only when things got complicated could he be over his head.
Alan popped out of his car as Jack pulled up.
“And it looks like he’s expecting us,” Jack said.
Sarah nodded. Jack knew that she had history with the officer, which made things complicated for her.
Jack parked the Sprite, and then he and Sarah got out of the car.
Alan’s face was set, serious.
“Morning, Alan,” Jack said.
A nod. “Lady Repton said she had asked to see you two. Thought I’d wait. It's very much a police matter here, you know.”
“I’m sure,” Jack said.
“Alan, we just were going to talk to Lady Repton and Simon,” Sarah said. “She's worried about the incident, the publicity.”
The officer nodded, then pointed to the water’s edge. “Just make sure you don't go anywhere down there. We’ve got yellow tape over by the trees. But the whole lake is off-limits. Least till the SOCO gets here.”
“Absolutely,” Jack said. “Just here to talk.” He fired a glance at Sarah.
“Right, and maybe reassure Lady Repton,” she added.
“Okay. Yes—” Alan took his time. “Guess that’s okay.”
Not that he could stop us, Jack thought. Still, better to keep on Alan’s good side.
“Alan,” said Sarah. “Just curious — can we ask you a bit about the body, where they found it?”
“Bobbing out there, on the lake. Looks like whatever nonsense went on here last night, the mayor from St. Martin took it into his head to row out to the island. What was he thinking? Slipped, and fractured his skull.”
Jack nodded. “He didn’t drown?”
“He was floating face down. Not my area of expertise, Jack. That will require a postmortem. But the hole in his skull looked lethal and bloody enough to kill him.”
Alan’s radio squawked, and he turned back to his patrol car. “She's inside. And that grandson of hers too.”
Another Simon fan, Jack thought.
“Thanks,” Sarah said, and Jack followed her up the steps and into the house.
“It’s all coming back to me,” Sarah said. “Last night, here way too much wine.”
Jack looked around. Though the place was opulent, he could see signs of things beginning to slip. A bit of frayed carpet, the wood railing of the staircase not as gleaming and shiny as it should be.
They stood in what he guessed was a classic sitting room. White antimacassars covered the arms and headrests of claw-footed easy chairs.
Just like Grandma’s place in Brooklyn Heights, Jack thought. A room out of a museum collection.
He turned to Sarah. “So, the plan was for this place to become a modern conference centre?”
Sarah nodded. “There’s a big new extension at the back with meeting rooms and a leisure centre. And they’ll use the dining room in the main building of course. But I can’t imagine this room will be part of the ‘package’.”
A sudden clearing of a throat signalled that they weren't alone.
And Jack turned to see Lady Repton, standing next to a lanky man.
Jack looked at him. Simon’s eyes were shifting everywhere except landing on Jack.
There is a guy who looks like he may have a secret or two, he thought.
Sarah stirred her teacup, making a whirlpool in the delicate china cup, sending a single sugar cup spinning. No other sweetener on offer, so the cube was it.
She and Lady Repton got Jack up to speed on the purpose of the event last night, the planned twinning, the local luminaries who attended.
And Lady Repton didn’t hide the fact that she wasn’t thrilled with her grandson’s plans to turn the ancestral home into a modern conference centre. A good deal of head shaking and eye rolling accompanied her description of those “plans” and Simon’s ambitions.
Simon. So quiet.
“And the cost? So much money!” she said.
Sarah waited for Simon to defend his plans, but now, he was much less gregarious than he had been the night before. Not enough sleep, and probably a crashing hangover. His blood-shot eyes looked like road map.
Jack nodded. Then he pressed the point: “Simon, you were the organiser of the event?”
Finally, as if waiting for a bullet that would inevitably hit, Simon looked at Jack, then Sarah.
He cleared his throat. “I, er, um, provided and prepared the venue.”
He parsed his words so carefully.
“The reception, though, was run by the Parish Council, of course. June Rigby, Lee Jones.”
Jack looked to Sarah.
“The chair and vice-chair of the Council, Jack.”
Simon nodded. “I merely provided the resources, the tech set-up for Sarah and her PowerPoint. Organised the dinner.”
“And the wine?” Jack said.
That stopped Simon. The wine would be a key player in this, Sarah knew. For that accident to happen, for Laurent to stumble and smash his head on a rock… well, that would call for an enormous amount of wine.
Simon rubbed his nose.
“Y-yes. Though, June and Lee signed off on it all.”
Jack nodded, a small smile. Sarah knew that smile. Disarming, one of Jack’s tools of the trade.
“And you just kept it flowing?”
A nod. Then Sarah leaned close.
“Simon, after I left, I'm wondering… did anything happen that concerned you? I know you turned on the hot tub and the party went on late. Did you see the mayor leave?”
Too many questions she knew.
Lady Repton filled the gap.
“Hot tub. Spare me the details please.”
Then she stood up. “I think I’ll let you three chat. I don’t think my constitution can handle any more discussion of that… hot tub. I shall be in the garden.”
“Sure,” Jack said.
Then Lady Repton paused in her flight. “And thank you both for coming.”
“Glad to help,” Sarah said, as the venerable lady fled the room just as some seamy details seemed about to bubble to the surface.
“Yes, everyone seemed up for it. I mean, not Tony, of course. Still—” Simon caught himself. “Or Cecil either. But Laurent got a bit worked up. I mean, everyone was—”
“Naked?” Jack said.
“Lot of wine,” Simon offered. “And the mayor suddenly got upset. He’d barely plopped in — he was very large — before he stormed away.”
“Upset?” Sarah said. “What about?”
“Well, lots of laughs going on between Lee and the deputy mayor. Maybe Laurent didn’t appreciate that. I did go and look for him.”
Jack looked over at Sarah. She imagined he had a question at the ready but in such a subtle way he was telling her to carry on.
“You were worried?” she said.
“About the mayor — no. But about the deal? Yes! It’s not just a big deal for the village, you know. Big deal for this place too, the Repton Conference Centre.”
“So you tried to see if Laurent was all right?”
Simon nodded. “Found him in the bar. And he was anything but, threatened to pull the bloody plug on everything and—”
Simon stopped, catching himself.
He rubbed his nose again, sniffed.
Maybe more than wine being liberally consumed last night.
“That’s it. I went to bed. Then, this morning, the police came.”
“Lady Repton spotted the body?” Jack said.
Simon’s head seem to sink lower.
“Yes. She wasn’t sure what it was at first. Then—”
Sarah looked at Jack.
Just the kind of thing to make him angry. The old lady having to experience that.
Jack remained steady. “And that’s all you know?”
A quick nod from Simon. And Sarah guessed that her friend didn’t buy that at all.
Jack stood up. “Beautiful place your grandmother has here, Simon. Be a shame to have anything… anything at all endanger that, yes? Guess we all need wait on what the SOCO finds out, hmm?”
A small smile.
“Yes,” Simon said, his voice hollow.