Naomi and boyfriend Alec Friedman travel to the Fenlands for the funeral of Alec's beloved Uncle Rupert, who ran an antiques business and wrote books on local history. It seems that there were some suspicious circumstances, and that the ostensible cause of death - a heart attack - may not hold true. It soon becomes clear that Rupert may have had some secrets in his past...
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Legacy of Lies
By Jane A. Adams
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2007 Jane A. Adams
All rights reserved.
Even a couple of years ago, Naomi thought, she would have been reluctant to step so far outside of her comfort zone, but she felt surprisingly relaxed this time. True, last year she had ventured further afield when she and Alec had spent ten days in Tenerife, but as she had been content to spend most of that either sleeping or lounging on the beach, it didn't really count in terms of adventure. She had been surprised, though, at how unbothered she had been when preparing for this trip. Perhaps that was because in her sighted days she had known this area well. Family holidays spent visiting relatives on the Fens, cycling and walking beneath the big skies that overarched the flat landscape, made this familiar territory.
She had never visited Alec's uncle Rupert, though. In fact, she had barely registered that he had an uncle Rupert – or Uncle Rupe as he called him – until Alec had announced that the old man had died.
'How old was he?' Naomi had asked.
'Rupe is ... was ... Dad's older brother. Dad is seventy this year and I think Rupe must have been seventy-six, or thereabouts.'
'How did he die?'
'Ah, well that's the odd thing. It seems Rupert had a heart condition I didn't know about. He went out walking one day, collapsed in the middle of nowhere, and was dead by the time a couple of hikers came across him.'
'That must have ruined their day. Sorry, that was flippant. Were you close? When's the funeral. Will there be problems getting the time off?' Naomi remembered from her own time as a police officer, just how hard it could be to take holidays without a lot of prior warning. 'Are we going?'
'You want to go with me?'
'Don't see why not. I know you hate funerals. We can give your parents a lift over. Doncaster way, isn't it?'
'Lord, you have a memory like an elephant. I can't have mentioned him more than a couple of times, and no, we weren't close, though I liked him a lot. But Mum and Dad won't be going. They and Rupe had a major falling out, years ago. I doubt Rupe dying will change the way Dad feels about him. I mean, I'll ask, but I think the answer will be no.'
And the answer had been no. Naomi had been there when Alec broached the subject. His mother had added her voice to his pleading that Rupe was dead now and Arthur, Alec's father, should let the past go, but he was adamant and in the end Alec had given in. Surprisingly though, Arthur had stolen a moment to speak to Naomi just before they'd left.
'I'm glad the two of you are going, actually,' he said awkwardly. 'What happened between myself and Rupert, well, it was a personal thing and perhaps the two of us should have made peace somewhere along the line. But my quarrels shouldn't be my son's and I'm well aware that Alec kept in touch with his uncle.'
'You didn't mind?'
'What was there to mind?'
'But you still feel you can't go to his funeral?'
'No, I can't go. Naomi, funerals are an opportunity to say goodbye to those you love and respect. Honour, I suppose. I don't think I quite stopped loving Rupe, which is why I'm glad Alec kept in touch. I believe everyone deserves to have some family, some connection, if you see what I mean. But respect? No. I didn't honour or respect my brother, so my going to pay my respects would be somewhat hollow, don't you think?'
And so, Naomi thought, it was just the two of them. Three, if you counted Napoleon, Naomi's guide dog, snuffling on the back seat, snoring and twitching as he dreamed.
'Must be chasing rabbits,' Alec said.
'Napoleon's an urban dog. I doubt he's even seen a rabbit. Wouldn't recognize one if he saw one.'
'Trace memory,' Alec said wisely. 'All dogs have a trace memory of rabbit chasing.'
'Well, out here, he might just get the chance.'
'If Uncle Rupe's garden is the way I remember, he might get the chance in there.'
'Big garden, is it?'
'Fallowfields was once a farmhouse. Rupe bought it with an acre of land, started to create a garden and then, typically, got bored. The section around the house, maybe a third of the land, is landscaped and lawned and all that. The rest ... well, I seem to remember he called it his meadow. In the spring it's all wild flowers and scrubby, self-seeded birches.'
'Sounds nice. It's going to seem strange staying in his house, though.'
'Not superstitious, are we?'
Naomi could hear the smile in his voice. No, she could not be described as superstitious.
'It just seemed easier,' Alec went on. 'We could have stayed in the local pub, but the closest one is all steep stairs and awkward rooms and I don't think either you or Dog would like it very much. At Fallowfields he can run around the garden and you can get used to the layout without crowds of drinkers and family lunchers getting in your way. Rupe wouldn't mind. He'd be happy about it.'
Naomi stretched, shifting position in the passenger seat.
'Tired of sitting. Much further?'
'Fifteen minutes. Ten maybe.'
'What's it like round here?'
'Well, actually, it's very un-fenlike. The big open spaces don't really start until we're out past Fallowfields. Here, it's all very green. The road is enclosed either side with trees and high hedges. In fact, Rupert's house is surrounded by what I'm told is a very ancient hedge. But you get about a mile from the house and it all opens out. Massive fields and those deep drainage ditches banked on either side. I never did like it very much.'
'Oh, I don't know. On our family holidays it was good for cycling and I used to love watching the storms roll in.'
'There is that, I suppose. Rupe always liked a good storm. I remember, when I was just a little kid, going out into the garden with him and getting drenched because he wanted to be out in it. There's a terrace runs the length of the house at the back with steps down on to the lawn ...'
'Very Lady Chatterley.'
'Oh, very. There are these plinth things either side of the steps. I suppose they were meant for planters or something. Anyway, Rupe stood on one, and me on the other, and we perched up there, cheering every time the thunder crashed, watching the lightening strike and trying to count how far away it was.'
'Wonder you didn't get struck!' Naomi laughed.
'I was frozen through and soaked to the skin by the time we got back inside. Rupe ran me this hot deep bath. The baths are Victorian and so deep you cause a drought just filling the damn things.'
'Baths? More than one?'
'Oh, there's an en suite in Rupe's room and a second bathroom on the floor below. Rupe took over the attic. Dad always said he hoped Rupe had the ceilings reinforced before he installed the second bathroom.'
'Your parents visited the house?'
'Oh yes. When I was small we visited often. The storm incident; that was on a family visit. Mum and Dad had gone out somewhere and left Rupe in charge of me.' He laughed. 'I often thought I should be in charge of Rupe. That day, Rupe got me in the bath then made this massive jug of hot chocolate. We sat in that great big kitchen of his, Rupe in this elaborate burgundy dressing gown, all velvet and quilted silk – very Noel Coward – and we drank chocolate and Rupe told stories. He knew the scariest ghost stories. I don't think I slept for weeks after that.'
Naomi laughed. 'I can't see your mother being pleased about that.'
'Oh, she wasn't. Not about any of it. Of course, Rupe hadn't bothered to hide the evidence. There were my soaking wet clothes strewn all over the bathroom floor and, of course, I blurted the whole thing out as soon as Mum and Dad got in, just in case the sopping trousers hadn't given it away.'
'So, when did this quarrel happen?'
'I'm not sure. I know after I was about eight years old we stopped coming, but I was away at school by then and everything was changing. I don't think I really thought about it too much. I still heard from Rupe at birthdays and Christmas, still got cards with cash tucked inside and long rambling letters about nothing in particular. Rupe was good at that kind of thing. I missed the summer trips, but I don't think I gave it too much thought at all. You don't at that age.'
'I wonder what it was all about.'
'So do I, but Mother won't say if Dad won't and he was adamant. None of my concern, he said, and you know Dad. Once he takes up a position, his feet are set in concrete ...' Alec paused and Naomi could almost feel the thoughts ticking by. 'Oh,' he said finally, 'we're here. I forgot how fast the house came up after that bend.'
He slowed and Naomi heard him shift down the gears, the rattle as they hit something in the road.
'Yes. Rupe installed a hedgehog ramp.'
'A ramp for hedgehogs to climb up if they fell in.'
'Oh yes. He liked hedgehogs.'
The sound beneath the wheels had changed and Naomi heard gravel. The car lurched slightly as Alec hit ruts and uneven ground. 'You'll need to watch yourself on here,' he said. 'It's paved closer to the house, but the drive is quite a length and very uneven. I think the gravel just hides the pot holes.'
He turned and then pulled up, cut the engine. 'OK. This is it. Fallowfields.'
He sounded excited, Naomi thought. Excited and just a little nervous. She wondered at that.
Alec opened the door and let Napoleon out. As Alec helped her from the car Naomi could hear the dog sniffing and snorting at all the new smells.
'Watch your footing. Two steps and you'll be off the gravel and on to the paving.'
Naomi extended her cane as he led her forward. She felt the small stones shift beneath her feet and then the smooth, if still slightly uneven, feel of the flagstones. 'Has it rained?'
'Looks like it.'
'I thought so.' The air smelt fresh and the heat of the sun brought out the scents of rose and honeysuckle and damp grass. It also made the flagstones slightly slippery and she could feel the algal slime of stones not scrubbed in a very long time.
'OK.' Alec stood behind her and moved her slightly to the right. 'You are now in line with the front door. The house is symmetrical, Georgian style, you know, balanced. Three storeys including the attic floor and with sash windows Rupe had to prop up on sticks. Of course, he might have got them fixed by now ...'
'But you don't think so.'
'Um ... Uncle Rupert was into quirky. Apparently early sash windows were held up with props. The weights that are supposed to keep them open came later. Or so he used to tell me.'
'And you believed him?'
'Like I said, Uncle Rupert told good stories. OK, walk forward about five paces ... good. Now there's a small step up.'
'I've got it.' She could feel the step as her cane nudged up against it.
'There are pillars each side of the door making a sort of porch. If you reach out your hand ...'
Cool stone beneath her fingers. Smoothly carved. 'Nice.' She hopped up on to the doorstep.
'Just watch yourself. On your right there's a foot scraper. Big cast iron thing.
Naomi swung her cane. Found it.
'You'd know about it if you stubbed your toe. Another step and you'll be at the door. Big, black, shiny and ... what do you know? Rupert must have had it repainted.'
'Well, I should hope so. It has been three decades, near enough, since you were here.'
'I suppose it has.' Alec sounded surprised.
Naomi explored the door with her outstretched hand. Smooth, solid, with the beaded panels she had half expected to find. Letterbox, large door knocker. The casting felt like swags of leaves. To her right she found a doorbell. Large, metal surround, cold to the touch. 'Oh! It's a bell pull. Does it work?'
'It used to. Try it and see.'
Naomi tugged at the knob. Somewhere inside the house a bell jangled cheerfully.
'It rings in the hall and down in the kitchen. The kitchen is slightly sunk ... sort of half below ground level. Rupert had bigger windows put in. There's all the servants' bells still up on the kitchen wall, though they aren't attached any longer. Or, at least ...' He seemed suddenly struck by how long it had been since he was last here. 'They used to be there. You're right. Who knows what he did to the place in the past however many years.'
'Does it feel very strange to be back?'
'Oh yes,' Alec said softly. 'Very, very strange.'
Naomi waited outside while Alec went through into the hall to check for any obstacles. She leaned against the smooth stone pillars and listened to the near silence. Only Napoleon's padding and snuffling and the song of a blackbird broke the stillness and quiet. The sun had come out after what had been a cloudy start to the day. It seemed to be making up for lost time and Naomi thought she could almost hear the garden drying. Green scents rose all about her and she closed her eyes – a habit from her sighted days – to intensify the sensations and focus on the warm, moist fragrance of earth and flowers. This would be a fabulous place to laze and doze and let the world slip by, she mused.
It occurred to her that Alec was taking quite a time and she figured that he must be taking a chance to explore the house alone. That, she thought, was what she would have done. The experience of returning here had caught him off guard. He had been unprepared for the reawakening of forgotten memories and impressions and she knew that he would be regretting having not returned in Rupert's lifetime. She wondered what Rupert's house was like inside and how much it would have changed from Alec's memories. And just what sort of quarrel could have kept the family apart for all this time.CHAPTER 2
Waking in a strange place was always something of a trial, especially when the bed was so comfortable. Reluctantly, Naomi dragged herself back to something like consciousness and turned over.
She sat up and called his name, suddenly anxious that she would not be able to remember the layout of the house. Then she heard his footsteps on the stairs and the sound of the bedroom door being pushed across thick carpet.
'I thought I'd make us both tea. Start the day in a civilized manner,' Alec said, depositing a tray on the chest of drawers that, Naomi remembered, stood beside the window.
'I wondered where you'd gone.'
'Sorry. I thought you'd sleep until I got back. You looked very peaceful.'
Naomi stretched, listening to the domestic, comforting sounds of tea being poured and sugar being added and then stirred. She liked hers without but Alec was a lover of strong and sweet. 'I slept well,' she admitted, slightly surprised. 'It's so quiet here.'
'Apart from the birds making a racket at five in the morning.'
She laughed. 'I didn't hear that. Anyway, that's supposed to be enjoyable, isn't it?'
'Five in the morning is never enjoyable. Here you go.'
He placed the mug in her hands and tugged her pillows into a more supportive shape against her back.
'What time will we have to leave?'
Alec fetched his own mug and climbed back into bed. 'It shouldn't be more than a fifteen-minute drive, so about eleven, I suppose. I've fed Dog and let him out. The kitchen door's open ready for when he's finished exploring and before you ask, don't worry, I checked the garden is secure.'
'Good. You sure it's safe to leave the door open?'
'Naomi, this is the middle of nowhere. To get into the garden someone would have to struggle through a thorn hedge and cross a ditch and then climb a wall. I don't see the average burglar bothering, really I don't.'
'Maybe they breed hardier souls round here. Thieves that don't mind the thorns.' Naomi objected, but she wasn't really worried. Alec had explained to her the night before that a wall running either side of the house separated the rear garden from the front drive. A small, wrought iron gate gave access through the wall, but it was locked and presented no gaps big enough for Napoleon to squeeze through. The rear garden was also walled close to the house and the remaining land could be approached through a second small gate set into the back wall. Safe for Napoleon and with enough room for him to run. It didn't entirely prevent her from worrying, but nearly.
'What time is it now?'
'Eight thirty or just gone. We can have a leisurely breakfast and explore a little more of Rupe's domain before we leave for the funeral. No rush.'
'I wonder how many will be there.'
'I don't know. Uncle Rupert mentioned a lot of people in his letters, but I only met his business partner once. They'd been running that antique shop together for years.'
'It's good of him to have arranged everything,' Naomi mused.
'It is, yes. Not sure what the wake will be like. From what I recall of Marcus Prescott, he liked his booze. Come to that, so did Rupert.'
'Well, unless you want me to drive, which might prove interesting, you'll have to leave him to drown his sorrows alone.'
'True, though I'll have one drink just to bless the old boy, and I thought when we got back we'd see if Rupert still kept his cellar as well stocked as he used to.' He paused and then said, 'You know, love, part of me feels as guilty as hell for not keeping in better touch and the rest just keeps wanting to laugh when I remember what Rupert was like. Then I feel guilty again because I really did like him and ...'
'People lose touch,' Naomi said gently. 'I'm sure Rupert didn't hold it against you. He must have known you were in an awkward position after he fought with your dad.'
Excerpted from Legacy of Lies by Jane A. Adams. Copyright © 2007 Jane A. Adams. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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