The Cipher Garden: A Lake District Mystery #2

The Cipher Garden: A Lake District Mystery #2

Warren Howe is surprised by a hooded visitor while working in a garden in Old Sawrey, a lovely village in England's Lake District. Soon it is Warren who is dead ...

About The Author

Martin Edwards

Winner of the CWA Diamond Dagger 2020 Martin Edwards has published sixteen crime novels and more than 50 short stories. ...

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‘I thought you were dead.’

Warren Howe hadn’t seen the hooded figure approaching, hadn’t heard a footfall. He was digging in the rain and his work consumed him. Only when he put down his spade did he realise that he was not alone. Someone in a waterproof jacket stood on the ridge above the trench, someone he recognised. How long had he been watched? He didn’t care, nothing and nobody could rattle him. His jeering words were chosen to wound.

‘Sorry to disappoint you.’

Warren spat on the ground. ‘You might as well be dead, as far as I’m concerned.’

‘It’s time for us to talk.’ ‘Nothing to talk about.’ ‘You’re wrong.’

Warren clambered out of the trench and lifted his spade in the air, a gladiator wielding a trident. The hooded figure took a step backwards, bumping into the low trailer that held the garden tools.

‘Nobody tells me I’m wrong.’

The intruder edged down the path. The rain was slackening to a drizzle, but the stone flags were as sleek as a ski run. How easy to slip and pitch head over heels into the trench or down the uneven ground towards the silent cottage.

‘You hate it that I’m here, don’t you?’

‘I couldn’t care less.’ ‘What do you care about?’

Warren stabbed the sodden earth with his spade. He’d never believed in explaining himself and he wouldn’t start now. He was what he was. A plantsman, and proud of it. Plants didn’t make demands the way people did, they didn’t nag or whine or sob. Even if they shrivelled and died, it was so easy to start again. He liked heathers, sedges and rushes as well as shade-loving field roses with purple stems. Tender buds, voluptuous blooms, seductive perfumes, all were to his taste. And there was something else. Once you understood how plants behaved, you could bend them to your will.

The hooded figure inched forward, as if along a tightrope, flicking nervous glances up the fell-side. But they were alone, even the ravens had fled from the trees.

‘We need to talk.’ ‘For Christ’s sake.’

‘You can’t have what you want. It’s impossible. You owe it to…’

‘Listen.’ Warren took a long stride forward, felt his visitor’s breath on his cheek. ‘Watch my lips, I don’t owe anyone anything.’

The hooded figure grasped Warren’s wrist. ‘You can’t do this.’

Warren pulled his arm away in an easy, powerful movement. ‘Go before you get hurt.’

The hooded figure reached into the trailer and yanked out the scythe. Warren’s oldest gardening tool, a favourite since he was eighteen. He’d cared for it as others might look after a much-loved pet. He’d taken pains to keep the blade clean and sharp.

‘If you could only see yourself,’ Warren scoffed. ‘In that hood and holding a scythe. Fancy yourself as the Grim Reaper?’

The scythe rose in the air, blade grinning like a Cheshire Cat. Warren folded muscular arms, showing his tattoos. Two dragons, belching fire. He stood his ground.

The scythe wavered and Warren took a pace forward, arm outstretched. His boots skidded on the greasy stone and his legs gave way under him. As he sank to the ground, he saw the blade—his lovely blade—glint in a sudden shaft of sunlight.

For so many years, to hold the scythe in his hand had made him feel strong. Powerful. The blade could not betray him now. Yet it had such a wicked edge.

The sun blinded him. He could no longer make out the face beneath the hood. His heart was thudding, his forehead moist with sweat and yet he knew he must be strong. Without strength, he was nothing.

‘You’ll never do it.’ It might have been a prayer, but he made it sound like a dare.

The blade fell and for a split second he understood his mistake. When the metal sliced against his flesh and pain bit into him, he screamed.

Part One

Chapter One

Welcome to Paradise.

Daniel Kind shaded his eyes against the sun as it streaked the surface of the reed-fringed tarn with gold. He’d taken refuge from the heat and hard labour. The garden bench stood in an arbour formed by the stooping branches of an old copper beech. The breeze ruffled leaves of a fragrant lavender bush, an orange-billed oystercatcher emerged from a tree stump, then vanished from sight.

Even Paradise offered no escape from nettles or scratches by bramble thorns. His hands were stinging and blood smeared his forearm. Sweat glued his shirt to his skin. Hours spent digging out tree roots had left his body pleading for mercy. His spine yearned for the soft recesses of his battered leather armchair at Oxford, but the stone bench was cold, as if carved by a Puritan intent on deterring indolence. As he rubbed the stings with a dock leaf, his gaze travelled up the steep rise of Tarn Fell toward the straggle of fell-walkers on Priest Ridge. Heedless of pagan folklore, a young couple and their children were clambering on to a dour grey anvil outlined against the sky. The Sacrifice Stone. If he didn’t start moving, his vertebrae might seize up. Bones creaking, he crunched over the gravel path that looped around the water’s edge. Fronds of an ostrich fern brushed his face, red admirals skittered around the michaelmas daisies. The path curved around a rhododendron bush before coming to an abrupt halt in front of a cracked and ancient mirror nailed to a trellis on which ivy and flowering jasmine intertwined. The glass created the illusion of an arch festooned by climbers, beyond which the path continued past the tarn toward the damson wood. Even now the mirror had the knack of deceiving him.

His tanned reflection returned a wry smile, as if wondering whatever happened to the pale-faced academic who had down-shifted to the Lakes and made this his home. He still couldn’t trust his luck. Last night in his dreams, he’d become a tourist whose fantasies of escape dissolved when duty dragged him back to college to teach Victorian history.

Turning back, he headed back past a mass of purple foxgloves. He loved this garden, but it mystified him. The serpentine by-ways and dead ends made no sense. There was something unnatural about them, a sense of something fashioned with a purpose. Three months after moving here, he still hadn’t fathomed that purpose.

Conundrums entranced him. He had this need to know.  In the days when he’d read The Times, he’d never been able to abandon the crossword until the last cryptic clue was solved. He was his father’s son. Ben Kind had been a career detective; after the divorce, he’d come up here to the Lake District and the two of them never met again. The old man was dead now, leaving his son to nag away at the mystery of the garden. There must be a reason for it, a secret waiting to be uncovered.

Clouds sneaked into the sky as he checked his watch.

Does a chief inspector do lunch? I could call Hannah Scarlett, pass the time of day. Where’s the harm?

As he scraped soil off his spade, he surveyed the patch of ground that he’d cleared. Before he’d moved to the countryside, blackberries conjured images of sweet-tasting fruit pie and verdant hedgerows. Bramble was another name for the same plant, but more ominous. Brambles were sinister, the gardener’s foe. The first time he’d cut back their green foliage, they’d fooled him. It wasn’t enough to snap brambles off at ground level. If the crown was left, the stems grew a couple of inches each day, making the thicket ever more impenetrable. Today he’d taken care to extract the whole of the roots, tracing each stem back to the end to remove any runners that had anchored themselves. Solving crimes must be like this, all about taking infinite pains.

The shrilling phone shattered the peace. Hannah?

They hadn’t spoken for weeks, but he couldn’t scrub her out of his mind. A couple of days ago, he’d rung her mobile and left a message on her voicemail. She hadn’t called back. Of course, he didn’t want anything to happen between them, any more than she did. They both had partners, it was out of the question. But she’d worked with his father, they could talk about the old man over coffee, maybe a glass of wine.

He ploughed through foliage, his aching back forgotten. Following the paths was too roundabout a route. Seconds before he reached the phone, the answering machine started up.

Miranda’s soft voice knocked the breath out of him. She never rang when she was on her way back from London. He felt a twinge in his stomach. Disappointment? Couldn’t be. Miranda was the one he loved.

‘The train’s stuck in Crewe station, would you credit it? The guard says we may be stuck for a couple of hours, God knows why. I’m waiting for the excuses. Wrong kind of sunshine, something like that. Hope you’re okay. Why aren’t you answering? Don’t tell me you’re working in the garden. I bet it’s pouring down, I never knew a place like Brackdale for rain.’

He wanted to protest, but when he glanced through the window he saw squiggles of damp spreading over the paving stones.

Not quite Paradise after all, then.

# # #

‘You want the good news or the bad news?’ Hannah Scarlett asked.

Nick Lowther went through a pantomime of deliberation as he stirred the coffee in its recycled paper cup. Not a bad actor, Hannah thought. A useful talent in a detective sergeant.

‘You know how I feel about the power of positive thinking,’ he announced. ‘Go on, then. Give me the bad news.’

The police canteen was filling up and so were the members of Cumbria Constabulary. In a campaign to prevent their officers’ arteries furring, the senior management team had insisted that the catering franchisee should wipe the Big All Day Breakfast off the menu during summer. The main difference was that the air was thick not with the smell of Cumberland sausages but the pornographic aroma of giant pickled onions from Hungry Ploughman’s Platters.

Hannah scowled at the briefing notes on her clipboard. ‘Half the general public doesn’t have confidence in the police. Which may be connected to the fact that we spend half our time on paperwork in the office instead of tedious frontline duties like catching criminals.’

‘Only half the time? Feels like more. And the good news?’ ‘Cumbria Constabulary has clawed its way to the top of the Home Office’s performance league table.’

Nick pretended to choke on his chocolate muffin. The campaign to promote organic eating options had passed him by. He still preferred calorie-laden junk food that resembled an exhibit in a long ago poisoning case. Infuriating that he never seemed to carry a surplus pound.

‘You forget, I’m a Carlisle United supporter. So naturally I have a deep distrust of league tables.’

She slid a sheet of paper across the table. The diagram looked like the work of a statistician on an acid trip. A red-edged, irregular hexagon with a blue shaded area inside and black arrows flying around in wild confusion.

‘Don’t just take my word. Here’s the official spidergram to prove it. Only those Celtic super-sleuths in Dyfed-Powys performed better, if the police standards unit are to be believed.’

‘So Lauren’s cracking open the champagne?’

‘When she called us in to announce the glad tidings, she actually said that we mustn’t be triumphalist when we brief our teams.’

‘That’s like being told to stand up straight by the Hunchback of Notre Dame.’ He swallowed a mouthful of coffee and pulled a face. ‘Thought I’d try the new Guatemalan roast. Give me Tesco’s own brand any day.’

Hannah stifled a yawn. Not through boredom, for Nick never bored her, although she’d needed to fight to keep her eyes open during Lauren’s spiel. Maybe she should have risked a black coffee before seeing the Assistant Chief Constable. The bitter taste on your tongue was enough to make you retch, but it kept you alert. Another poor night’s sleep was taking a toll. At four a.m. she’d been lying in bed, trying to shut her ears to the boom of Marc’s snoring.

‘Yeah, our performance in the exotic hot drinks table was a big disappointment to Lauren.’

Nick grinned. The ACC was engaged in a passionate long-term love affair with official statistics. Data in bar charts and seminars on monitoring, these were a few of Lauren’s favourite things. Who needed handcuffs or DNA samples when they had key performance indicators? Once upon a time, the powers-that-be liked to boast that they were tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. These days they preferred to drive up standards through quality assessments and eye-catching initiatives. Lauren was a relentless moderniser, an evangelist for joined-up thinking and institutionalised number-crunching. In today’s police service, everyone was encouraged to remain permanently upbeat. Figures offered crumbs for the morale of hapless underachievers. Things could only get better. If detection rates fell, citizen focus might swing upwards. Solving fewer crimes could be explained away as a statistical quirk or due to more rigorous selection of cases for prosecution.

‘So the Cold Case Review Team lives to fight another day?’ ‘She’s  negotiating an extended stream of funding. As you know, what the ACC wants, the ACC gets.’

Nick leaned over the table, voice barely audible above the raucous banter between a couple of vice cops queuing at the counter and the cheeky girls behind it. ‘If my legendary powers of deduction aren’t waning, you’re not overwhelmed with gratitude.’

Hannah shrugged. ‘Would I lie to you? This project’s a backwater, we all realise that. Somewhere convenient to park me ever since I messed up the Rao trial. Out of harm’s way.’

‘Relax. You’re too hard on yourself. Heading up the unit will look good on your CV.’

‘You’re confusing me with Lauren.’ To her dismay, her face was hot with blushing. ‘I couldn’t care less about my CV.’

‘You all right?’

‘Yeah, I’m fine. Knackered, but fine. Sorry.’ ‘Only…if you aren’t fine, you can tell me. Okay?’

‘Thanks for the offer,’ she said. ‘Not that I expect to take you up on it. A good night’s rest is all I need. I shouldn’t moan. We have some good people in the team and we’ve had a couple of results. I don’t deny it, it can be fascinating to exhume the past.’


‘But it’s not forever. I want remission for good behaviour.’ The canteen door swung open and Lindsey Waller loped in.

She was skilled at making an entrance and for a moment the aisle between the tables became a catwalk. Everyone’s eyes followed her swinging hips, especially the vice cops’. Accustomed to admiration, she took no notice. She’d have been unbearable, if she hadn’t been so down to earth and such good company.

‘Ma’am, you’ll want to see this.’ She was clutching a sheet in a protective plastic wallet. ‘We’ve had a tip-off about a murder that was never solved. Ever heard of a man called Warren Howe?’

Nick sat up. ‘Warren Howe was a landscape gardener, lived out by Esthwaite Water. I worked on the investigation. What sort of tip-off?’

Linz waved the sheet as if signalling by semaphore. ‘Someone’s given us the name of a suspect.’

‘Who?’ Nick demanded.

Hannah stared at him, struck by his uncharacteristic intensity.

‘His wife.’ ‘Tina?’

‘Yes, Tina Howe.’

He leaned back in his chair, the metal legs scraping on the floor tiles with a screech that set Hannah’s teeth on edge. She watched as he weighed up the news.

Is it my imagination, or is he relieved it isn’t someone else?

# # #

As Daniel parked outside Tarn Cottage, Miranda flicked a stray blonde hair out of her eye and asked, ‘So where are the builders?’ He took a breath. Now for the tricky bit. Driving her back from the station, he hadn’t got round to breaking the news. Downshifting to a dream cottage in the Lakes was one thing. Rendering the house and outbuildings habitable was quite another.

For weeks the air had been thick with dust and dirt. As well as varied and ingenious excuses for the slow rate of progress.

‘Eddie’s off sick. Asthma attack, allegedly. The other lad and his brother decided to go back-packing around the Philippines and didn’t give any notice.’

‘Jesus, so they haven’t made a start on the bothy?’

The renovated bothy was to be her sanctuary. She’d planned it out before they moved in. A studio flooded by light, a chart of acupuncture centres on the pine-clad wall, the décor in natural colours, oaten and wheatmeal, a massage bed in the centre, dominating the room. She’d written articles on the importance of de-cluttering your life. Less is more.

Daniel shook his head. ‘A week on Monday if we’re lucky.’ ‘Get on to Stan Mustoe, tell him it isn’t acceptable.’

‘This is the best he can do, he claims we’re getting preferential treatment. Same with the plumber. The latest bulletin from Casualty is that he broke an arm playing cricket. Trying to fend off a bouncer when he should have ducked. We won’t be seeing him for a fortnight. You want to hear about the electrician?’

She put up her hands in surrender. ‘Taken hostage by terror- ists? What’s wrong with these people?’

‘Can’t get the staff, Stan Mustoe’s very words. He mourns the old apprenticeships.’ Daniel put on cod local accent. ‘“All the kids keep boogering off to university, that’s the trouble. Lads have got fancy ideas these days, they’re poncing around on courses about media studies and such-like. What’s wrong with plumbing and plastering, that’s what I want to know?”’

‘Just as well I have a bit of good news, then.’

On the way home, he’d decided she was building up to something. Something he wouldn’t like, so she needed to pick her moment. They’d chatted about London and she kept saying how much of a buzz there was in the city. Suki, who edited the magazine she wrote for, had taken her out clubbing. Not that she really liked clubbing, she added quickly, but it made a change. And Suki was fun.

‘What news might that be?’

‘Suki’s introduced me to her old boss, Ethan Tiatto. He likes my work. Next month he starts publishing a new magazine and he’d like me to contribute lifestyle features.’

‘Perfect.’ He kissed her cheek. ‘Congratulations.’

She drew back. ‘There’s just one snag. I’ll have to spend more time in London. Ethan wants me to attend the editorial conference every fortnight.’

‘You could go to Kendal or Lancaster or somewhere, talk to them by videolink.’

‘Sorry. It’s part of the deal, I have to be there in the flesh. Ethan sets a lot of store by brainstorming ideas. Remote discussions won’t do. But it isn’t so bad. I’ll need to stay overnight, though he did say he’d pay for me to fly from Manchester.’

‘They must be keen.’

She gave him a mock bow. ‘Of course they are.’

She loved writing, it was one of the things that had drawn them together in the early days of love’s madness. She saw her journalism in mystical terms, the way she talked about it was exhilarating. Once, after they’d shared a bottle of Merlot, she’d confided that although she wasn’t sure about having kids, every piece she wrote was like a child of her imagination.

Suitcase in hand, he led the way up the front path. ‘That’s great. I’m pleased.’

‘I thought you might be cross with me,’ she said when they’d settled in the living room. She was lying on the sofa and he was cradling her head in his arms.


‘Well…this was my idea, wasn’t it? The rural idyll.’

‘It was a wonderful idea. I’m a convert to this way of life.

Dangerous as it is out there. See the scratches on my arm?’ She laughed. ‘I never realised you’d go native.’

‘So you said in your last column for Suki.’

‘You don’t think I wanted to buy the cottage simply because I was looking for copy?’ Her voice rose. ‘I mean, nothing could have been further from my mind. I adore this place. It’s so peaceful, so—away from it all. It’s just that…well, I like London too. That’s why I don’t want to sell my flat. It’s a bolt-hole.’

‘Why do you need one?’

‘Hey, you don’t understand. I want a foot in both camps. I need to keep writing.’ A line of counter-attack struck her. ‘And we could use the cash. The money you made on your place in Oxford won’t last forever. Not at the rate we’re spending on these vanishing builders. Your TV royalties are down to a trickle. I want to live the dream too, but we can’t live on fresh air.’

‘At least here it is fresh.’

She feigned a coughing fit. ‘Am I imagining this dust?’ ‘You know what I mean.’

When they’d met she’d been miserable and unfulfilled. He’d sacrificed his career to move here with her—his choice, no regrets. Yet he hadn’t managed to give her peace of mind. Not that she was a pessimist. She believed that happiness was just around the corner. Her life revolved around her latest passion, until a few months later, she was ready to move on. In dark moments, he wondered if one day her passion for him would burn out too.

He bent down and they kissed long and hard while he started unfastening her silk shirt. Soon they were making love on the rug by the hearth. Afterward, she propped herself up on one elbow and smiled at him.

‘Trust me, Daniel, we can do it. You and me, we can get the best of all possible worlds.’

Before he could answer, the phone rang.

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