Death of an Ordinary Guy
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by Jo A. Hiestand
Description: On Guy Fawkes Night someone switches the straw effigy with a real corpse. The village square is bathed in torchlight. Spectators huddle against the cold this November night, Guy Fawkes Night, in Upper Kingsleigh, England. Shadows grip the edge of the square, but all minds concentrate on this 400 year-old festivity, all eyes focus on the straw effigy of Guy Fawkes, the symbol of the governmental coup-gone-wrong. The flaming torch extends to light the straw--and the villagers recoil in horror. Twisting at the end of the rope is no straw-filled dummy. It's the corpse of an American tourist. Newly-made Detective-Sergeant Brenna Taylor, Derbyshire C.I.D., is anxious to prove herself. She's skillful, determined, and imaginative in her crime solving, but faces the obstacle of male resistance in her field. Heading the investigating team is Detective-Chief Inspector Geoffrey Graham, former minister and a brilliant, intimidating man whom Brenna works hard to impress. Which would be easier if murder suspects weren't so numerous. Among them are the American's brother-in-law, still angry over his sister's death; the husband, who fears his wife will desert him for the American; the inebriated, penniless uncle, who clings to his nephew's fortune tighter than a cork in a wine bottle. As Brenna digs into the lives of the villagers, she becomes the target of frightening pranks. Are these the work of one of her harassing male colleagues, or a deadly warning to leave the case? Not only must Brenna solve this personal mystery while working on the two murders, but she must also sort out her conflicting emotions of trepidation and love for Chief Inspector Graham.
eBook Publisher: L&L Dreamspell/L&L Dreamspell, 2003 London, Texas
eBookwise Release Date: November 2011
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [379 KB]
Reading time: 230-322 min.
"Ngaio Marsh's Roderick Alleyn is back to work and has changed his name to Geoffrey Graham. If you like Marsh, you'll like Hiestand."--John Dacres-Mannings, nephew of Golden Age mystery novelist Ngaio Marsh "A good and original story, with good dialogue."--Anne Perry, author of the successful Pitt and Monk series. "Set in a small English village, Jo A. Hiestand's DEATH OF AN ORDINARY GUY has all the smarts and intrigue you'd expect from a good mystery. And something more: an authentic sense of wit and a wonderful, moody feel for the English countryside."--John Dalton, author of HEAVEN LAKE
"The last four to die included Guy Fawkes, 'the great devil of it all.' Having asked the King for forgiveness, he crossed himself and was hung. A pathetic ending to a daring plot."
Quiet born of distress and shock stifled the listeners, who clustered on the village green, mesmerized by the waiting woodpile. Morning was slipping into afternoon and the November sun shone through the leafless woods to the west. Two rooks, their black feathers opalescent in the bright sunlight, had settled on a limb of a grandfather oak at the fire circle and surveyed their domain. A stand of pines in the churchyard swayed in the breeze, dropping their dried needles onto the lichen-crusted graves beneath them. I suddenly wondered if Guy Fawkes had such a grave in another quiet corner of England, and if it was the scene of subdued visitations.
One of the Americans murmured something in response and the speaker said, "The plot was discovered when one of their group, a Catholic peer, was warned. His absence from Parliament led to Fawkes' exposure and death."
The speaker was Byron MacKinnon, a ginger-haired Scotsman in his late 40s, secretary to the local lord-of-the-manor. He was good at his job, I had heard, and from what I could judge, good as a guide, showing the manor's bed-and-breakfast guests the delights of the English countryside. And the lord-of-the-manor was delighted with the guests, for not only did they bring a few pence to his pocket but also underscored his decision to buy the manor.
Right now, that decision seemed indisputably good, for his B-&-B wing was fully booked for the week, and Byron was conducting tours nearly 24/7. The three Americans stared at the peaceful fire circle, then at each other, and then back at Byron.
"And you do this because Guy Fawkes and his conspirators almost assassinated the King," the woman said, taking notes so she could relate the story to her friends back home. Her breath came in white puffs, matching her hair color.
Even though the afternoon was sunny, it was cold, with a slight wind that stirred the dried grass and flower stalks. They rustled near the open fringes of the fire circle and rattled against the boulders bordering the creek. The woman blew on her fingers, then went back to her note taking.
"Thirty-six barrels of gunpowder," Byron repeated, eyeing the skating pencil. "November 5th, 1605, plotting to blow up Parliament during the opening ceremony. Aye." He paused and I could see the Americans looking at each other. Some topics just hit too close to home.
Byron either didn't notice the uncomfortable glances or was immune to them, for he continued. "The conspirators hoped to kill James I and eradicate the entire government, clear the way for a Catholic coup over the existing Protestant majority."
A group of elementary school-aged children ran across the green, their chant echoing off the buildings opposite us. "Remember, remember the 5th of November. The poor old Guy. A hole in his pocket, a hole in his shoe. Please, can you spare us a penny or two? If not a penny, a ha'penny will do. If not a ha'penny, may God bless you." The end of the rhyme faded into laughter as the children ran into the woods.
The copse was the remnant of an ancient forest that had encircled Upper Kingsleigh, a sleepy village whose only claim to fame--to date--was its location in the heart of England's Dark Peak District. There were worse places for patrol duty, and normally I would have wallowed gloriously in the quiet, but I was itching to prove myself with something more energetic--a burglary or missing person case. Something for which I, a newly-made detective-sergeant, could get noticed. Something more dynamic than nursemaid to a stack of wood and a straw-filled effigy. But we were few on the ground that November weekend, and a policewoman's lot is not always a happy one.
I therefore ignored the fact that any constable could handle this barmy assignment and prepared for the problem of kids hiding firecrackers in the bonfire. And kids did. Or seeing that big brother didn't push little sister into the fire. Which might not have been all that bad, considering some of the little devils I've seen. I'd do anything for some quiet.
And it was quiet. No car horn blasted, no radio blared, no human voice yelled into the calm. In spite of my urge for action I admit it was a refreshing change from the Constabulary's sectional headquarters in Buxton, an active city of 22,000. I stood, just listening, letting the silence wash over me, and took a deep breath of winter savory and pine. A moment later the silence shattered when one of the Americans laughed.
I stared at the group, wondering what I had missed.
Byron, straight-faced, gestured to the huge oak. "That's why we make a straw-filled effigy of Guy Fawkes, which we call The Guy. It's hoisted at the beginning of the celebration, the note listing his offenses to the Crown and warning other potential traitors is then read aloud--"
"I won't be able to understand a word if it's in Old English," one of the men said, screwing up his mouth. He was middle-aged and destined towards fat in later life. Already he was developing the jowls of an English bulldog. He pulled his baseball cap farther down on his head before shoving his hands into his sweatshirt pockets. "All those thee's and thou's and hear ye's..."
"We've put it into modern English," Byron said, exhaling loudly.
"Nothin' turns me off faster than thee's and thou's," the man muttered, gazing at me.
"The Guy is then lit with a torch--"
"Hope there's no dead grass around. All that straw and clothing falling down might start a fire. You got pails of water handy?"
"I think, Dear," said the woman, a matronly type, white-haired and wrinkled. Though her hands were smooth, it was her face that gave her age away. That or years of sun worshiping, I guessed. "They've probably thought of everything. They've been doing this a long time."
"Four hundred years," Byron replied, standing a bit taller. "Each November 5th."
"So there's nothing to worry about, Tom," she said, squeezing his arm.
Byron continued. "And then the bonfire is lit with the torch."
"All this over this religious thing?" asked the woman, gazing towards the spot where the children had disappeared from sight.
"Religion or politics," the other man answered. He looked to be the same age as the first man--aging baby boomers relinquishing their fight to retain their teenage physique and succumbing to the pleasures of couch and cuisine. Yet the battle was not quite over. While his stomach shook slightly when he walked, his shoulder muscles screamed of weekly workouts. His hair, too, had refused to shift tones. All in all, he had not gone to seed as quickly as Tom. And he seemed less bothered by the cold--his nylon jacket unzipped, his head bare. "In those days they were pretty much the same thing, weren't they?"
"Steve, let Byron tell--"
The husband waved her into silence. "Steve knows a lot of history, Carla. Majored in it, if you don't remember."
"I thought it was American history," Carla returned.
"Close enough," Tom said. "You learn about King George, you learn about us shaking him off. He tried oppressing the Pilgrims and what did it get him?"
The man called Steve said, "Nothing much changes, not even in four hundred years, Carla. You know, like today's President and Congress. Same thing. Same political odds, though they aren't as violent about their oppositions as this Guy Fawkes thing was."
I could see Byron's knuckles whitening. There was a tensing of his jaw muscle.
"Damned injustice, I call it," Tom said. "You've got a Catholic king so all Catholics get favor at the court. A few years later, when the Protestants are in vogue again, they get the royal handouts and titles."
"Doesn't really seem fair, does it?" Carla said, looking at Byron.
"The plot was discovered," Byron said, wrestling control of the conversation, "when one of their group, a Catholic peer, was warned. His absence from Parliament led to Fawkes' exposure and his eventual hanging."
"And that's why you hang this Guy," the woman said, nodding. "A sort of resurrection each year for Mr. Fawkes."
Steve laughed. "Bring the old guy out of the history books, trot him out for public scrutiny so no one'll forget. We oughta do that with Benedict Arnold. Ya know?"
Ignoring Steve's jest, Byron said, "The Queen's Bodyguard, part of the Yeomen of the Guard, still searches those cellars below the House of Lords on the eve of Parliament's opening. They've never found any terrorist armament."
"Sounds nutty," Steve said. "Looking for gunpowder for 400 years."
"It's not so much the search," Byron said, his voice hardening, "as it is the tradition."
Steve asked if they used bloodhounds. "Those dogs are trained to sniff out different odors, ya know."
Tom said, "Write 'em a letter, Steve. They'd be glad of the suggestion. Save 'em a lot of work." He hitched up his sagging slacks, pulling in his stomach as though he were going to help with the labor of building the bonfire, which already towered above us.
"I hope the cellars are modernized with electric lights."
The woman made the mistake of asking why.
Steve said, "'Cause if they have to light a candle to look--" He made a face and yelled "Kaboom!" He laughed while Carla looked embarrassed.
"Least it'd save having to do it each year." Tom yawned, simultaneously trying to say something.
"I can't understand you, dear," the woman said, glancing at me and smiling. Probably thinks I'm a tourist. It's the lack of uniform that confuses them.
Recovered from his boredom, Tom said, "When's this start again?"
"The program begins at 7:00," Byron said. "Then there's the hoisting and lighting of the Guy--the straw effigy--lighting of the bonfire, and the eating of the roasted potatoes."
"Sounds nice," Carla said, smiling and pulling the men in the direction of the newsagent shop across the street.
"Sounds nutty," Tom said. "All this way for a glorified weenie roast."
* * * *
A pale moon shimmered in the fading sky, painting the giant oak and everything within the perimeter of the fire circle in silvery tones. One or two early stars winked in the blackness, confirming their existence. Lanterns, already lit and dotting the bonfire area, seemed to mirror heaven's arrangement. The magical atmosphere broke when Arthur Catchpool, owner of Catchpool Manor, walked up to Byron, who was standing near the unlit fire. Both men were dressed in tweeds and corduroy, lending a decidedly "country squire" air to the coming drama.
"I see the omnium gatherum has already begun," Arthur said, looking at the people milling around the stack of wood. "Night looks clear, too. Nice for once, no rain."
Arthur Catchpool, a slight man in his early 40s, could have easily been mistaken for the straw Guy in the lantern-lit darkness, had it not been for his obvious vitality. Though not a lord of the blood, he had bought Catchpool Manor some years ago, saving it from the wrecking ball and the village from a slow death. Now manor, lord and village survived, if not prospered, and enjoyed the influx of tourists who came for the three day celebration of the Catchpool Dole, Mischief Night, and Guy Fawkes festivity. Hardly surprising, for there were few villages--or towns--left that celebrated Guy Fawkes as thoroughly as Upper Kingsleigh did.
Arthur was about to move to the torch area when Byron grabbed his arm.
"What do you--" Arthur began, only to follow Byron's nod. He groaned as he saw Talbot Tanner, the village odd jobs man, walking up to him. "A hell of a time for this," he said, glancing at his watch.
"It's almost 7:00," Byron said. "You want me to--"
"No. I'll shake him off as quickly as possible. Another minute more or less..."
"Trouble is, he rabbits on more than a minute." Byron stepped back as the older man stopped inches away from Arthur and tapped his forefinger against Arthur's chest.
"I just seen the other third of your Trio," Talbot said, his eyes narrowing. "And up you pop. Speak of one, as they say."
"What are you on about," Arthur asked.
"This little yearly problem is easily fixed, if Your Grace orders it."
"How do you suggest we remedy it, Talbot?"
"Turn over the dole to me, that's what you can bloody well do. No one need know."
Not unless they were deaf, I wanted to add, amazed the older man would air his grievance so loudly and publicly.
"Not exactly ethical," Byron said, stepping closer to the man. "According to Henry Catchpool's will--"
"Will be damned!" Talbot exploded, grabbing Arthur's jacket.
I took a step forward, wondering if the man wanted me to intercede now that Talbot had become physical. Byron saw me and shook his head.
"I'll prove it," Talbot said, releasing Arthur's jacket. "I'll prove to you and the whole village that I'm entitled to that dole money. I'm goin' to search tonight, and when I find the proof, I'll see who my real friends are. Aw, hell!" He turned quickly, spat on the ground, and strode toward the oak where the straw effigy lay.
Byron eyed me, silently mouthed 'thank you,' and guided Arthur to the torch area. Minutes later the program began. It was typical of most village entertainment: this year's songs and dances cutely interpreted by the pre-teen group, jokes and riddles by the younger set, and a painful violin solo by an older man who--explained the vicar--had just begun lessons that month. The vicar then said a prayer and thanked that year's hard workers.
Before the applause died, the vicar bent over and tugged at the wooden torch pushed into the ground near the woodpile. Cotton batting, covered in layers of paraffin-soaked gauze, topped the stick, giving it the grotesque appearance of a giant cotton swab. He held the wooden torch as high as he could, letting everyone see and snap a few photos if desired. Then, from somewhere in the darkness behind him, a match scraped against something rough. The smell of sulfur filtered downwind, and a small blue and ochre flame bored a hole into the blackness. The flame moved forward as if floating through the gloom. There was a stronger scent of kerosene as the cotton batting ignited, and the vicar's thin face leapt out of the dark, bathed in crimson, gold and yellow. He slowly walked forward, his ink-black robes one with the night, his jet-black shadow bobbing behind him while the torch flames danced. The instant he struck the torch into the base of the gigantic wood pile, the crowd cheered.
"It's like a homecoming," the American woman said to Tom. She pressed her hands together as the man agreed there was something about the bonfire that was better than Independence Day.
Without a word, the vicar walked over to the huge oak. He stood patiently while Byron unwrapped the free end of the rope from the tree trunk. In the bonfire's blaze I could first see the whiteness of a triangle appear from the background, then the figure of a woman. Her left arm was cradled in a fabric sling, yet she climbed the ladder positioned beneath the overhanging tree limb easily enough. When she reached the top rung, Byron pulled the Guy Fawkes dummy off the ground.
"Can you manage the torch, do you think?" Byron asked over the cheering crowd, concern etched into his face.
"If you'll stand by me, in case the torch proves to be too much..."
Byron stepped back into the blackness beyond the fire. When he returned seconds later, the vicar was handing the burning torch to the woman. Her slender form was silhouetted against the blackness of the night sky, the effigy languidly rotating from the massive oak limb that held it in mid air.
From her position near the top of the ladder, the woman grabbed the torch from the vicar. By the yellow light she paused to read the declaration scribbled on a slightly wrinkled square of paper stretched across the Guy's chest and held upright by an old knife. Its wooden hilt and naked blade gleamed in the firelight and threw hideous shadows across the whiteness of the paper. The crowd cheered louder, urging her on as she leaned closer to peer at the effigy's face. Ebony and saffron-yellow alternately washed the face as shadow and firelight flitted across the form. At another vocal urge, the woman raised the torch to peer at the face before her. A moment later her scream rose against the clamor as she fell in a faint.