Read an Excerpt
Little Acre was all abuzz with news about the murder of one of their native sons. Derrick Pickles, long-time proprietor of The Black Stag public house in the adjacent village of Kelton Market, had been found bludgeoned to death. Pickles had lived in the village since the day he was born, the pub having been in his family for generations. He’d taken it over from his father, who’d taken it over from his father, and so on and so on. The Pickles were a Norfolk institution, and Derrick was well-liked and respected in the community. Not even the taint of his only son going off to work in The City rather than positioning himself to one day take over the reins of the family business could dampen the locals’ affection for the family, though forgiveness wasn’t always as easy to come by. Feelings and memories ran deep in this part of the world, despite young Pickles defection to London taking place nearly two decades before, which, at least to the locals, might as well have been yesterday. Not even the death of his mother many years later could bring young Pickles back in line. But old Derrick stubbornly clung on, running the pub long after most publicans would have sold up and retired to Spain or Portugal—especially a widower with no one to stay behind for.
Being the only pub in the village, The Black Stag was a magnet for the locals, not to mention tourists in search of some local colour. Kelton Market was conveniently situated in the county, what with the ruins of an old castle located just outside the village and a bustling crafts and antiques market taking place on weekends, so it was a rare day, indeed, when the pub wasn’t busy. The fact that a murder had been committed was not something the residents of this part of Norfolk were accustomed to. The most crime they ever got was of the sort involving the theft of a cockerel from a farm or some youths out joyriding on a tractor. But murder? No. Murders happened in London and Birmingham and Glasgow. They did not happen in Kelton Market.
Therefore when Thelonious heaved open the heavy glass door of Little Acre’s one and only newsagents in his quest to buy a copy of the local newspaper (or as local as he could get), he discovered quite a crowd gathered inside the cramped little shop. A trio of men representing three generations and an elderly woman who had to have been pushing the century mark were gathered in front of the till, talking animatedly and all at the same time, the garrulous din being added to by a frumpy sixty-something woman behind the counter. She appeared to be refereeing the conversation, her heavy arms flapping and waving about as if she were attempting to direct a newly landed plane to an airport gate.
The youngest of the men was dressed in a white beekeeper’s suit, the hood of which had been pushed back behind his head. Hair the shade and texture of the round bales of hay Thelonious had seen in the fields of the surrounding landscape kept falling down over his eyes, causing him to reach up to swipe it away, whereupon the same thing happened all over again. He had the open and guileless mien of someone who’d grown up in the country and had little to no experience with big city life. The oldest of the trio had a pickled and world-weary look about him that could only have been achieved from a lifetime of heavy drinking. His deeply creased face was the colour of cured tobacco leaves, his overall appearance untidy and unwashed. He clutched an unlighted cigarette between the fingers of his right hand, the skin and nails stained a sickly yellow-orange from nicotine. Had it not been for his expensive-looking leather jacket, Thelonious might have mistaken him for a homeless man. The third fellow was aged somewhere between the two and, judging by his collar, appeared to be a vicar. He kept trying to get the group to quiet down, his pale palms making circles in the air as if he were washing invisible windows. Instead of having the desired effect, the group became even more animated, as if seeking to exorcise the vicar’s fruitless attempts at calm.
The elderly woman to whom no one paid any mind bashed the rubber-tipped feet of her Zimmer frame against the worn linoleum floor until she was in danger of toppling over. Nevertheless, the accompanying staccato of protestations coming from her shrivelled maw continued to fall on deaf ears. Her hunched form looked as if it might crumple into a heap of ancient bones as she slammed the rattling frame of steel to the lino again and again, her grey head bobbing up and down on her withered neck like a nodding dashboard dog. But no matter how much she crashed and banged and spluttered, she could not be heard above her village compatriots, who were determined to get their points across despite the fact no one was listening to anyone.
It didn’t take long for Thelonious to determine that something was definitely up—and the headline shouting at him from the front page of the Walsham Courier pretty much confirmed it. He pulled a copy out from the news rack and waddled over to the side of the counter, stretching upward on his short legs to hold out some coins to the sour-faced shopkeeper, who abruptly ceased her refereeing to gawp at him. Not that this was unusual—Thelonious got gawped at a lot, especially by people who’d never encountered his sort before. You would think she’d be a bit more discreet when it came to paying customers, he grumbled inwardly, biting back the urge to tell her to get a new front door fitted. The one she had weighed as much as a London bus. His right shoulder was beginning to ache something awful from the impact of it against the glass when he’d pushed it open. He hoped the B&B his publisher’s UK office had booked him into had a bathtub and decent hot water system so he could have a long soak later, because he didn’t fancy looking elsewhere for accommodation, especially at the beginning of the summer tourist season. For him to be able to work, he needed a home base, a sense of order. Chaos was not Thelonious’ style.
With newspaper in hand, he made his way out of the newsagent’s, only to pause outside to examine the cards and notices that had been placed in the shop window (which apparently cost each poster the princely sum of five pounds a week to display). He was curious as to what kinds of items and services people put on offer in these Norfolk villages and expected to see advertisements of either an agrarian nature or for church jumble sales. Not surprisingly, they were positioned too high up for him to read properly, but he did manage to make out a card for an electrician slash handyman as well as a flyer for a beekeeping school before his neck threatened to join his shoulder in protest.
Thelonious trundled back to where he’d left the Mini, climbed up onto the driver’s seat with the usual fanfare and aggro, then set off down the little high street with its requisite tea shop/café, gift shop, post office (closed due to government cutbacks), and pub, which went by the rather portentous name The Drowned Duck. Within moments he’d reached the Norman church that marked the end of the village high street. It was also the turnoff for Baxter House Bed and Breakfast. Home at last!