It was a blissfully sunny August Sunday, and, as the villagers expected, Amanda Cadabra and her irascible feline companion were making their way towards their favourite picnic spot. Jonathan, the dazzlingly handsome but incurably shy assistant librarian, had raised a hand in greeting as they’d passed.
Witch and familiar took the slope up towards their goal at a gentle pace; Amanda because exertion was no friend to her asthma; Tempest because he believed that ‘rush’ was a speed reserved for extreme emergencies, but otherwise for peasants. He sniffed delicately in the direction of the picnic basket.
‘Can you really smell ham through the container? It has a tight lid. Not that lids or locks have ever held you back, Mr Fuffy-wuffy. Well, you won’t have to wait much longer for lunch.’
Their goal was in sight. The one-thousand-year-old priory, long since an unremarkable ruin, lay on the northern edge of the peaceful English village of Sunken Madley. It was situated just before the last of the habitations gave way to the trees of old Madley Wood. Years ago, Amanda had illicitly, but very discreetly, used some magic to erect a platform on what remained of a portion of the upper floor. They would visit on fine Sundays, Amanda to think and Tempest to survey his kingdom and … eat.
But today, today was going to be different. Amanda felt it before she saw it, saw it in the shadows.
She stopped a few yards away, staring towards the ground.
‘Oh, Tempest. Oh no …. Not here … please, let it not be … here.’
Several days earlier, Detective Inspector Thomas Trelawney of the Devon and Cornwall Police, and now also of the London Metropolitan Police, was standing in his new office. It was strongly redolent of fresh paint and new carpet.
The office, together with his flat, occupied part of the ground floor of The Elms, one of the largest and oldest establishments of Sunken Madley. The village, still rural in spirit, was pleasantly situated just three miles south of the Hertfordshire border and 13 miles north of the Houses of Parliament. It was rather different from his Cornish coastal home town of Parhayle, but all in all, Trelawney was happy to be here.
Having looked around the room, he turned his hazel eyes toward Bryan Branscombe, the village builder, and smiled.
‘You’ve done wonders, Mr Branscombe.’
‘Thank you, Inspector. Very nice of you to say so.’ Bryan pushed his hands more deeply into the pockets of his light grey overalls and gazed at the carpet to hide a blush.
He was still getting used to accepting compliments. Bryan looked up again, at a slight angle, being somewhat shorter than Trelawney’s six feet. ‘Sorry about the delays,’ he said for the umpteenth time. ‘But the gas explosion at the Puttenhams left them without a kitchen, so I couldn’t leave them, and then I had to sort out the plumbing at Pipkin Acres. It’s a residential home, after all.’
‘That’s quite all right. I’ve been busy with various things back in Cornwall myself, and I believe Miss Cadabra has had a few rush jobs on. But here we are now, and I can see it’s been well worth the wait.’
‘Thank you, Inspector. Here, would you like to check the facilities?’
Thomas had already been shown the milestones in the refurbishments of his new flat and office as they’d been reached. However, this had something of the air of a grand opening, albeit with just the two of them.
Bryan had cleverly made the small loo appear to be part of the stretch of cupboards that ran from the right-hand edge of that essential room to the end of the wall opposite where the desk would be. That centrepiece of furniture was to be set in front of the attractive bay window, with the door to the hallway of The Elms on the left and the entrance to Thomas’s new flat to the right. The woodwork was painted matt white; the walls were mushroom, and the carpet a warm beige. Pleasant, welcoming and serviceable.
‘The desk will be over this afternoon,’ Bryan told him, ‘as soon as Miss Cadabra has finished with it. I’ll bring it over.’
‘Thank you, Bryan. I don’t know how you managed to get it to her workshop.’ A generous present at the end of the last case and something of an heirloom, it was a gift from Miss Armstrong-Witworth of The Grange. A handsome Victorian partner desk, it was furniture crafted to last and, thought Thomas, must weigh a considerable amount.
‘Oh, that’s all right, Inspector. All part of the service. Moffat helped me get it onto the van to take to Miss Cadabra. You wouldn’t think a man his age could be that strong. Must be one of them bodybuilders in his spare time! Iskender –'
‘– who owns the kebab shop?' checked Trelawney, who was still getting to know the village.
'That's right. Gave me a hand the other end, and then Marcus, your neighbour, will help me get it back here.’
‘But I can –’
‘No, no, Marcus says he wants to do it. What with you sorting out that business and clearing his name as a suspect and all.’
‘Most kind. You must let me give –’
‘No, Inspector, that’s quite all right. Mrs James takes care of all that. But I wouldn’t say no to a jar down the Sinner’s when we’re both free.’
‘Did I hear my name spoken?’ asked Irene, knocking on the office door that gave onto the hall.
‘But not in vain, I assure you. Do come in, Mrs James,’ called Trelawney.
‘Thank you, Inspector.’ His new landlady trod lithely into the room and turned her head, adorned with short blonde hair, towards her builder, ‘All done then, Bryan?’
‘All done, Mrs James. Just the desk arriving soon, and I expect Miss Cadabra told you, Inspector, she’s waiting on the staining of your coffee table for the sitting room until you’ve seen the colour of the leather on the desk. So the two echo, as they say, in different parts of the flat.’
‘Of course, Amanda told the inspector,’ said Irene, smiling at Thomas and briefly laying a maternal hand on his grey-suit-jacketed arm. ‘It’s all absolutely splendid, Bryan. What about the flat?’
‘Perfect,’ said Trelawney.
‘Good, good. Well, Bryan, I think you deserve a bonus.’
‘Very kind of you, Mrs James.’ Then, nodding brightly at Trelawney, ‘You and Miss Cadabra can start work then.’
‘Not yet,’ stated Irene firmly. ‘The paintwork and carpet need airing for at least three days, I’d say. They’ll be no friend to her asthma else. Is the paint on the window frames dry, Bryan?’
‘Well then, with your permission, Inspector, if you’re going to be here for a while …?’
Irene began to open all of the windows, top and bottom. ‘Ah, yes, good idea,’ Thomas approved. He went into his flat through the door at the right-hand end of the office and opened the entrance to the side passage that ran between the house and the annexe, which he knew all too well. He opened the kitchen windows and the French windows giving on to the extensive garden, with its distinctive avenue of elms that gave the house its name and had featured so significantly in the last case. The memory flickered through Thomas’s mind before being recalled to the present by the voice of approval from Irene:
‘That’ll get a good through draft.’
‘Three days?’ Trelawney checked. ‘For all of the chemical odours to dissipate?’
‘Yes. Then,’ advised Irene, ‘ask Amanda to come and try it.’