This Private Plot: An Oliver Swithin Mystery #3

This Private Plot: An Oliver Swithin Mystery #3

If a blackmail letter drives a man to suicide, is the sender guilty of murder? “Yes,” says Oliver Swithin, author of bestselling Finsbury the Ferret children’s stories and amateur sleuth, ...

About The Author

Alan Beechey

Alan Beechey was born in England and grew up in London. He moved to Manhattan in his twenties and now ...

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Friday night

“The odd thing about a banana,” Oliver Swithin mused as he chased the naked policewoman across the moonlit field, “is not that it’s an excellent source of potassium, but that everybody seems to know it is.”

A week earlier, he’d been borrowing a book about swans from the library. A passing reader had tapped him on the shoulder and whispered: “A full-grown swan can break a man’s arm, you know.” Oliver might have forgotten the incident, but on his way home, a bus passenger had spotted the book poking out of his leather satchel and said the same thing. Later, his housemate Geoffrey Angelwine couldn’t resist making a similar comment. That’s when it struck Oliver that he’d never had a conversation about George Washington without somebody piping up: “Did you know he had wooden teeth?” Every time the subject of hedgehogs arose, someone felt compelled to say: “They’re covered in fleas, you know.” Munch on a celery stalk and you’d inevitably be told that you burn more calories digesting it than you take in from eating it. And how many discussions of sexual orientation had led to the dubious anecdote that Britain had no laws against lesbians because Queen Victoria didn’t (or couldn’t or wouldn’t) believe they existed?

An owl hooted, interrupting his thoughts. At least Oliver guessed it was an owl. It could have been a hedgehog howling at the moon for all he knew about country matters. It was hard to hear anything over his labored breathing. Was that a nettle patch he’d just run through?

Oliver had assumed that he and Effie were only going for  a nighttime stroll. But when they’d reached the edge of Synne Common, the tract of scrubland near the Cotswolds village where they were staying, she had swiftly disrobed, bundled her clothes under a holly bush, and, ordering him to “get your kit off,” hared off into the darkness. Mesmerized, Oliver undressed and followed, struggling to catch up with his girlfriend’s slim outline, silvery-blue in the moonlight, the mass of curly hair fanning out around her head and bouncing wildly as she ran. Pure Botticelli. But he knew that he’d need some serious mental distraction to blot out his awareness that he was stark naked in a public place and it wasn’t a dream.

Back to bananas.

Oliver believed that this irresistible urge to educate strangers about swans and bananas and lesbians was a new strain of trivia that he’d identified. No, not trivia. Anti-trivia. It was the opposite of conventional trivia, the stuff of board games and pub quizzes.

That kind of trivia, you either knew or you didn’t. More likely, you didn’t. For example, Effie Strongitharm, like many women, had a pair of faint indentations, set symmetrically on her lower back. (The clear moon might have been bright enough to reveal them now, but Oliver had left his glasses with the rest of his clothes.) And he would have bet that not one person in a hundred knew they had a name—the “dimples of Venus.”

But in contrast, Oliver thought, his attention drifting downwards, everyone can (and, crucially, does) tell you that the gluteus maximus, the humble buttock, is the largest muscle in the human body. (Well, strictly speaking, it’s in joint first place with its counterpart.) “Muscle” couldn’t do justice to Effie’s fleet derriere, flickering about five yards ahead of him. No need for his glasses to make that out. Perhaps there is a divinity that shapes our ends, he reflected. Or maybe it’s the squats.

Did Botticelli do bottoms? Or would it take a sculptor to do full justice to his girlfriend, capturing the way each side approached the Euclidian perfection of the sphere, those gluteal creases each an almost perfect arc? Dear God, they seemed to be smiling at him!

Effie slowed and turned round. Oliver stumbled to a halt, remembering Sir Robert Helpmann’s caveat about nude ballet: that not everything stops when the music does.

“What’s on your mind?” she asked. “Solid geometry,” he confessed.

Effie nodded. “Serves a girl right for asking.”

Oliver sneezed. Fair-haired and English-skinned under the full moon, he felt as conspicuous as a polar bear in a nunnery. In his late twenties, he had so far avoided gathering any spare flesh on his wiry frame, but his physique was still an embarrassing contrast to Effie’s lean, athletic build. Her attractive face under the teeming curls, vaguely reminiscent of the young Ginger Rogers, would always score higher out of ten than his own benign features—his chin not quite firm enough, his teeth a touch too prominent, his pale blue eyes always looking as if he had just removed his glasses, even while he was wearing them. Gazing at her blurry form and trying to recover his breath, he was struck again by how grown-up it felt that a whole adult person, with a smirking bottom and everything else that goes with it—most of which was currently on display, since she’d elected to unmask her beauty to the moon—should love him as much as he loved her.

“I still wonder what you see in me,” he confessed.

“You know, the number of times my colleagues at the Yard say the same thing, you’d think I could come up with a reason by now.”

Oliver’s riposte was thwarted by another sneeze. “So have you guessed where you are?” Effie asked.

“In the middle of bloody Warwickshire, far from my clothes, even farther from my nice warm bed, too far by half from London, and in constant fear of being dive-bombed by  bats,” he thought, but kept it to himself. The irony had not escaped him that, since his adolescence, he’d lavished many hours of his imagination on female nudity, preferably accompanied by his own. Now that it was an al fresco reality, all he wanted to do was cover up his full Monty and go in search of a nice hot cup of tea. A cloud, which had momentarily slid across the moon, moved on, and the expanse known as Synne Common ensilvered itself moment by moment.

He saw that they had reached the highest point of the Common. In front of them, surrounded by a chain-link fence, was a huge, circular pattern, about 150 feet in diameter, where the top surface of the chalky soil had been scraped away to leave a dozen concentric rings of dark grass, each a yard wide. This landmark was the nearby village of Synne’s greatest claim to fame. It was one of England’s seven authentic turf mazes, possibly the finest, well documented since the seventeenth century, but called the Shakespeare Race only since the early twentieth, on the grounds that any community within twenty miles of Stratford-upon-Avon needed to claim some Shakespearean connection, no matter how spurious.

Because Synne had been his parents’ home for the last ten years, Oliver had seen the Race many times, but its serpentine beauty, monochrome and almost luminous in the glimpses of the moon, was still an impressive sight, despite his fuzzy vision. On the far side of the Race, an ancient tree known as The Synne Oak was reputed to have been the village gibbet.

“Splendid,” he said, wiping his nose on his handkerchief. “Although I don’t see why we had to take our clothes off first. Can we go back now?”

Effie punched him mischievously in the upper arm. It hurt. “Back? We haven’t even started. We have to do the maze.” “Do the maze?”

“I was talking to your brother Toby.” “Oh dear.”

“Toby, as you know, is stuffed full of Shakespearean lore and local traditions. He was telling your Aunt Phoebe and me that it was a custom for young lovers to come up here at midnight on May Day and follow the path of the maze.”

“Naked?”

“As nature intended.” She paused, narrowing her eyes. “Hang on, where did that handkerchief come from?”

“I stuffed it into my sock.”

“You kept your socks on! Oh, Oliver! Here am I, trying to arrange something mystical and life-affirming, and you’re turning it into a bad porn movie.”

“It’s only one sock,” he protested. “My hay fever’s playing up. I needed somewhere to stash my hankie. And it was the other foot that stepped into what I think was a cowpat.”

“Okay, Buster, off with the sock.”

“Where shall I put my handkerchief?” He hopped on one foot as he complied.

“Don’t tempt me.”

Oliver’s bare foot landed on a thistle. He cursed briefly. “My parents have lived in Synne for nearly a decade, but this is the first I’ve heard of this custom.”

Effie sighed. “Oh, come on, Ollie. You’ve been thoroughly miserable since you got here two days ago. Toby’s not around, you’re not interested in your mother’s village activities, and you never talk to your father. Your Uncle Tim and Aunt Phoebe turned up this evening, and you barely cracked a smile. I thought this might perk you up.”

Oliver looked out again over the Shakespeare Race. He knew that it was technically not a maze but a labyrinth: breaks and bridges in the pattern at the cardinal points made it possible  to trace a sinuous, half-mile pathway of grass from the start- ing point, just by the opening in the modern fence, to a round island at the center.

“There’s a similar pattern in the tiles of Chartres Cathedral,” he said. “Not exactly a steep and thorny way to heaven, but people walk that, too, as an aid to meditation or prayer. They generally keep their clothes on.”

“Who said anything about walking?”

Effie began to run along the outer circle of the Race. Oliver followed reluctantly, grateful that the twists and hairpins kept their speed down. He settled into a steady jog, seeking diversion again. Something more effective than buttocks.

Finsbury the Ferret. Yes, good distraction. If he collected more of this pseudo-trivia—he ought to come up with a better name for it—maybe he would have enough material for a book supposedly penned by Finsbury, the nastiest and consequently the most popular character in his Railway Mice series. Finsbury the Ferret’s Guide to What Everybody Knows would be a suitably cynical theme for the vile creature, and the book would prob- ably sell well to his many adult readers, given that nobody these days seems in a hurry to find out what they don’t know. It would make a pleasant change from another children’s story stuffed with badgers, stoats, pugnacious swans, flea-infested hedgehogs, and the like—always a challenge for their resolutely urban author. Oliver usually limited his visits to his parents’ Warwickshire home to a handful of weekends a year. He was staying longer this time because his editor at Tadpole Tomes for Tiny Tots had demanded he do some original research for once instead of leaving it to a team of overworked subeditors to make corrections, such as changing the word “sheep” to “cow” every time he mentioned a dairy farm. “And try to work some zombies into the next book,” she’d urged. “Zombies are in.”

Oliver hated the countryside. His hay fever had already kicked in. But at least Effie was staying for the duration, taking some overdue leave from Scotland Yard.

They reached the heart of the maze. “Now what?” he asked. “Well, Oliver C. Swithin,” she purred, “we’re two young lovers, naked on a grassy knoll, the night is fine, the moon is full, and there’s nobody around for miles. What do you think we could do?” It was clearly a rhetorical question, because she started to show him. Suddenly, she froze. “Did you hear something?” she whispered.

Oliver listened. A slight breeze rustled the leaves of the Synne Oak. A branch groaned, as if carrying a burden. A distant buzz might have been a truck on the motorway, carried miles on the still air.

But there it was. Voices, far off, but getting closer   quickly.

And fast footsteps muffled in the long grass.

“Oh Lord,” Oliver said. “Somebody’s coming.”

It was too late to scurry back through the opening, and there was no space between the Synne Oak’s broad trunk and the fence for them to squeeze into. Their only option was to flatten themselves to the ground. It might just work, as long as the visitors stayed near the entrance.

Two figures came into view, a man and a woman, both at least twice as old as Oliver and Effie, but both running and both apparently naked. To Oliver, they were little more than two out-of-focus white smudges, which merged briefly into one as they paused to embrace.

“And this is some ancient fertility rite?” the man asked.

Oliver flinched.

“So young Toby says,” replied the woman. “We have to follow the path all the way to the center.”

“What do I get if I get there first?”

“The same thing you get if I get there first.” The woman laughed, and there was further physical contact with a slightly moist soundtrack.

Oliver pushed his mouth as close to Effie’s ear as her thick curls permitted. “Oh, my prophetic soul!” he hissed. “My uncle!”

“I know,” she whimpered. “That’s why I’m not looking.”

If Oliver had been wearing his glasses, he could have made out the tall, white-haired figure of his uncle-by-marriage, Tim Mallard, who in his unclothed state looked even younger and fitter for a man in his sixties than he did when dressed for work as a detective superintendent in Scotland Yard’s Serious Crime Directorate.

And Effie’s immediate boss.

Oliver assumed that the smaller blur was his Aunt Phoebe, Mallard’s wife; otherwise her voice and appearance made her indistinguishable from her identical twin sister, Chloe Swithin. Oliver’s mother.

The newcomers started to jog around the circumference of the maze. Oliver made his mind up.

“Stay behind me,” he said, rising to his feet and screening Effie. She adopted a nymph-surprised-while-bathing pose.

Being an introvert, Oliver always found starting conversations a challenge, but there was nothing in any self-help article he’d ever read that prepared him for attracting the attention of nude relatives in an ancient monument at midnight. Fortunately, his abrupt sneeze solved this problem.

Phoebe came to a halt and screamed. Mallard started like a guilty thing, uttered an expletive, and shielded his wife with his body.

“Who’s there?” he demanded. Oliver guessed, to his relief, that his uncle had also discarded his glasses and, fifty feet away, could not see them clearly.

“Uncle Tim, it’s me. Oliver, your nephew.”

“Oliver?” Mallard repeated, edging nearer, with Phoebe shuf- fling behind him.

“Don’t come any closer—Effie’s here, too.”

“Effie?” echoed Mallard, as if taking attendance. He squinted into the darkness. “Are you both…?”

“Yes, from top to toe, from head to foot.”

Mallard clasped his hands over his groin, like a soccer player in the line of a free kick. “Effie can’t see me in my birthday suit,” he cried, scandalized.

“I have my eyes closed,” Effie assured him. “And you’d better, too. Sir.”

“Then I guess I’m the only one who can expose myself,” Phoebe called from behind Mallard’s back. “Effie’s the same sex, Tim’s my husband, and Oliver’s family.”

“I can’t see you in the altogether, Aunt Phoebe,” Oliver pro- tested. “You look like my mother. It’s too Freudian, I wouldn’t enjoy it.”

There was a silence.

“I have an idea,” Effie called out. “Come to the middle of the maze. Keep your eyes down and look for feet.”

Mallard and Phoebe shuffled to the maze’s grassy center, and then, on Effie’s count, the four turned and faced outward on the cardinal points of the compass. There was another long, uncomfortable silence.

“I’m going to kill Toby,” Oliver muttered eventually. “You’ll have to join the queue,” said Mallard.

“As the actress said to the naked policeman.” “It’s a good job for you I can’t turn round.” “You’re telling me.”

“I bet the little bugger was making it all up,” sniggered Phoebe. She was the only one enjoying the situation. “It means mischief. I’m surprised he’s not up that tree with a flash camera.”

Like an old sleeping dog flicking its tail when it hears its name, a long branch of the Synne Oak creaked.

Silence again.

“We can’t stand here all night,” said Oliver. “How do we get out of this?”

“Look,” Effie said, “or rather, don’t look, but pay attention. We need one member of each pair to go and retrieve the clothes from wherever they left them. Since the men can’t see where they’re going, that leaves Phoebe and me. Come on, Phoebe. Boys, you’re on your honor to keep your eyes closed for ten seconds.”

And Oliver and Mallard found themselves alone.

“A remarkable woman in a crisis,” said Mallard, always proud that he had been instrumental in bringing his nephew and his sergeant together. “I assume Effie put you up to this little escapade?”

“It was supposed to cheer me up.”

“What should a man do but be merry?” They broke from their north-south orientation and sat down on the low turf island, each doggedly gazing toward the Synne Oak and avoiding eye contact.

“Yes, streaking doesn’t sound like your particular brand of lunacy,” Mallard continued. “How long have you and Effie been an item? About nine months. And she’s already got you leaping around like a trained haddock. To thine own self be true, Oliver.”

“Aunt Phoebe made you do it, then?” “Of course.”

The two men laughed, looked at each other briefly, and then hastily returned their attention to the tree.

“Phoebe thought it would enhance my performance,” Mallard continued.

Oliver whistled softly. “And you’d think the nipping and eager air would have the opposite effect.”

“I mean my performance as an actor. Inspired by your idiot brother’s folktales, your aunt thought a nude run around the Shakespeare Race would be like one of those acting exercises that release you from your inhibitions.”

“You’re not treading the boards again?”

Mallard nodded. “My drama group, the Theydon Bois Thespians, won a contest. The prize is to give one performance of a play by Shakespeare on the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford. And since that’s just up the road from Synne, we’re staying with your parents during the rehearsals. The performance is next Saturday, a week from tomorrow. I don’t think you’ll see much of me until then.”

“I’ve already seen more than enough of you. What play’s the thing?”

“Appropriately enough, Hamlet. At least, I think it is. Our director, Humfrey Fingerhood, changes his concept so often that it might be Cats by the weekend.”

Oliver stood up abruptly and walked toward the Synne Oak. It struck Mallard as a reasonable reaction to any mention of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.

“What’s the matter?” he called. Oliver didn’t answer but stopped on the outer circle of the maze, staring up into the branches of the gallows tree. He beckoned to Mallard, but realizing that his uncle couldn’t see him, gave a sharp whistle. Mallard clambered stiffly to his feet.

“I thought I saw something, up in the tree,” Oliver said. “A Cheshire Cat?”

Oliver ignored the comment. He strained his eyes into the darkness.

“There!” he said, pointing. “There’s something there, Uncle Tim. Like a sack or a big balloon, caught in the branches. Whatever it is, I don’t think it’s alive.”

“In that case, it can hang there till the morning,” said Mallard with a yawn, “when somebody else can take care of it. Maybe it’ll fade away and just leave its grin. I wonder what’s taking the ladies so long.”

He wandered away around the tree. There was an abrupt metallic clatter, followed by several choice curses. Mallard sat up in the long grass beside the fence, disentangling his legs from whatever he’d tripped over, and found himself glaring at an aluminum stepladder.

“Thanks, Uncle Tim, that’s just what we need,” said Oliver, picking up the lightweight ladder and setting it firmly where he’d been standing. Its top step was about eight feet from the ground, level with the lowest branches of the tree. He glanced down at Mallard. “When you’ve finished messing around down there, get up and hold the ladder. I don’t want to fall arse over Titus Andronicus.”

He started up the shaky stepladder. Mallard reluctantly braced himself against the framework. Oliver managed to grab a branch and reached blindly into the leaves for another handhold.

“Uh, Uncle Tim…” he called after a moment, a tremor in his voice. “We have a problem.”

Mallard looked up. Oliver’s upper body was hidden by foliage. “What is it?” he asked, sensing the sudden fear in his nephew’s voice.

“Who is it, is more to the point. There’s a dead body up here.” Mallard’s police instincts took over. “Come down,” he commanded. “Ollie, come down now. Let me deal with this.” “It’s okay, Uncle. I’m fine.”

“Are you sure it’s dead?”

“It’s dead, all right. Cold. A man. Hanged.”

“Jesus Christ, Oliver, get down this moment!” Mallard shouted. “Don’t touch anything. It’s a police matter now.” He shook the ladder. “Oliver Swithin, I’m ordering you to return to the ground. I’m moving you on. It’s bloody official, sonny!” There was a pause. Mallard breathed heavily, impotently.

Oliver stood on tiptoe, balancing on the highest step. “Oh no!” he exclaimed.

“What?” Mallard demanded, staring up into the darkness. “Tell me!”

Again, Oliver waited. Then he said, “Hold tight to Exhibit A, Uncle Tim, I’m coming down. I am tame, sir.” He descended the ladder cautiously until he could turn around and sit on the top step.

“Well, I hope I shall not look upon his like again,” he said, wiping some moisture from his eyes with the heel of his hand. Mallard could not tell if it was sweat or a tear.

“Strangulation does some terrible things to a face,” he said. Oliver wrapped his arms around his knees. “I know him, Uncle Tim.” “What?”

“That’s why I needed to see the face. I had my suspicions when I saw what he was wearing. Despite the… changes, the lips, the tongue, I still recognized him. It’s Uncle Dennis.”

Mallard frowned. “You don’t have an Uncle Dennis.” Was Oliver hallucinating under the stress?

“Everyone has this Uncle Dennis. Dennis Breedlove. He used to read stories for children on BBC radio. Called himself ‘Uncle’ Dennis. A worthy pioneer. Retired long ago to write books. Lived in Synne for years. Sorry, that always sounds bad, doesn’t it? Little man. Happy. Always wore the same outfit—tweed suit, yellow waistcoat, spotted bow tie. That’s why I thought I knew him. Had to see the face, you see. To be sure.”

“It’s probably a suicide,” Mallard said. “Perhaps there’s a note—in his pocket, back at his house.” He shivered. “We really should leave this to the local plod.”

Oliver nodded glumly. He stood up. The stepladder shook and tilted, one of its feet sinking deeper into the soft dirt.

“It’s all right, I’m holding it,” Mallard called. “Yes, but who’s holding me?”

Oliver tipped sideways. Mallard let go of the ladder, which slammed into the trunk of the oak, and tried to catch his falling nephew. His arms closed around Oliver’s waist, his nose going into the young man’s navel. The two naked men staggered toward the maze and landed on the soft turf, winded and wrapped in each other’s arms, dimly aware that two fully dressed women were watching them curiously.

“Superintendent Mallard,” Effie called, as she dropped a bundle of clothes and turned away again. “I wonder if this is a good time to discuss my promotion to Inspector.”

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