Monday, August 28, 2017

Thief's Mark by Carla Neggers

Skirt or no skirt, Henrietta could move. As they charged up the private drive that curved to the main entrance at the side of the gracious stone house, Martin was pushing hard in an effort to keep up with her quick pace. The drive ended at a parking area surrounded by mature hedges, trees and flowerbeds. She glided onto the flagstone walk. He huffed and puffed a step behind her, his sense of dread mounting. Violence had devastated the Yorks thirty years ago, but it had occurred in London—never had violence touched the York farm.
But Martin warned himself against leaping ahead. He didn’t know what had happened.
Henrietta slowed her pace and thrust out on arm, as if he were a five-year-old about to jump into traffic. He saw the door standing wide open. His first thought was that Oliver must have grabbed Alfred, his wire-fox-terrier puppy, for an urgent walk. Wouldn’t that be a welcome change? Martin cared for him when Oliver was away, but had dropped him at the house before heading down to meet Henrietta to discuss dirt and flowerpots.
“There,” she said, pointing at the entrance.
Martin lowered his gaze as if by the sheer force of her pointed finger. It took a half beat for him to grasp what he was seeing.
A man lay sprawled facedown on the stone landing in front of the threshold. Blood had pooled around him on the pavement.
Henrietta cursed under her breath. “I hope Ruthie’s called the police.” She lowered her hand. “Do you know this man?”
Martin pretended not to hear her. Did he know him? No. It cant be. His knees wobbled, but he forced himself to focus. “I should check for a pulse.”
“He’s gone, Martin.”
There wasn’t a note of doubt in her tone. He blinked at her. “Dead?”
She gave a grim nod. “I’ll check to be absolutely certain, unless you’d rather—”
“No. Please. Go.”
She hadn’t waited for his answer, regardless, and was already stepping forward, circling the pool of blood. She bent from the waist, touched two fingers to the man’s carotid artery and stood straight, stepping back, shaking her head. “Dead. No question. We need to wait for the police.”
“Oliver…” Martin stifled an urge to vomit, shock and what he took to be the smell of blood taking their toll. “Ruthie said Oliver was here. He was helping…”
“Well, he’s not here now. There’s no sign he administered first aid. The man’s upper arm was cut. I didn’t get a good look at the wound, but with this much blood, he must have nicked his brachial artery. He’d have had only minutes to get help. Oliver must have been too late.”
“How do you know these things?” Martin asked, gaping at her.
“What?” As if everyone knew. She waved a hand. “BBC.”
“I should check inside. Maybe Oliver is ringing the police.”
She shook her head, firm, knowledgeable. “I don’t think so, Martin. Look. His car isn’t here.”
Martin glanced behind him at the empty spot along the hedges. Oliver had left his Rolls-Royce there last night, instead of parking it in the garage. “Oliver mentioned last night he wanted to go out today.” Martin heard how distant his voice sounded—his tone one of shock, disbelief—but at least the nausea had passed. “I noticed when I went down to meet you at the potting shed.”
“Did he say where he planned to go?”
“No, he didn’t. I’m not sure he had a plan.”
Henrietta adjusted her skirt, which had gone askew in the charge up to the house. “Why would he run?” she asked, her tone neutral.
Martin didn’t answer. It was a loaded question, anyway.
She peered at the dead man. “I haven’t seen him before that I can recall. Have you?”
The woman was relentless. MI5 wasn’t far-fetched at all. “I don’t think…at least I’m not certain…” Martin stopped himself. He didn’t need to speculate and didn’t want to lie, but he hated stumbling around for what to say, no matter the provocation. Time to get hold of himself. “I can’t say for certain I’ve seen him before. We get a lot of walkers on the south lane this time of year. I seldom pay attention to them.”
“All right, then.”
He heard the skepticism in Henrietta’s tone but let it be. He glanced at the dead man, hoping to take in more details of his appearance, but he felt another surge of nausea and turned his head quickly, if too late. He’d seen enough. Much of the man’s blood had emptied onto the landing and oozed onto the pavement. What a dreadful sight it must have been when he was alive, his heart pumping arterial blood. Martin hadn’t noticed blood on Ruthie, but Oliver, if he’d been helping this man, surely he would have been sprayed with blood.
Martin felt the bottom of his shoe stick to the pavement. He looked down and saw he’d stepped in a smear of blood himself. Ruthie hadn’t exaggerated. There was a great deal of blood. He felt bile rise in his throat. “Someone else could have taken the car,” he said, forcing himself to keep his wits about him. “There are several routes on and off the property. One of the workers or a walker might have seen the car leaving and might even be able to identify the driver. Ruthie was in a panic. She could have been mistaken and it wasn’t even Oliver she saw.”
“Perhaps,” Henrietta said.
She was humoring him. Martin felt a surge of irritation but knew it wouldn’t help. She was right. Of course Ruthie wasn’t mistaken. “My point is we don’t have enough information to draw any conclusions.” He stared at the open door. “I shouldn’t wait. I need to search the house—”
“No, Martin. The police will be here shortly. They’ll check the house. They’ll deal with any possible intruders or additional casualties. We’ll only muck things up sticking in our noses now.”
Her self-assurance, decisiveness and brisk efficiency snapped Martin out of his stupor of shock and worry. If not oblivious to the blood and death at their feet, Henrietta was remarkably focused and steady. No panic, no wild speculation, no fear.
He turned to her with a cool look. “You speak with authority for a garden designer.”
She gave the smallest of smiles. “One learns to be decisive when planning gardens.”
No doubt true, but he was now convinced she was MI5. Her grandfather, Posey’s older brother, Freddy, had been a legend with Her Majesty’s Security Service. Henrietta obviously took after him—except for the heavy smoking and penchant for opera.

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