JONATHON DE Mountford had forgotten how charming Merrychurch railway station was. From its quaint black-and-white mock wattle and daub exterior, to the colorful bunting decorating the arch above the door, to the troughs, pots, and hanging baskets filled with flowers everywhere he looked. The yellow-painted warning line toward the edge of the platform was bright, as if freshly done, and the station sign, with its white lettering on a dark blue background, was free from the graffiti Jonathon had seen in such plentiful supply only a short time ago in Winchester.
Only one thing was missing: there was no sign of his uncle, Dominic.
Jonathon checked the time on his phone. Ten minutes had elapsed since he’d gotten off the train, and the platform was deserted. The station guard had disappeared into his office, but Jonathon could hear him whistling cheerily. Then his mind snapped back to Dominic. Okay, it had been a very early train, but Dominic had assured Jonathon that he was still a habitual early riser and that collecting him from the station would be no trouble at all.
Maybe he’s waiting outside.
Jonathon adjusted the strap of the backpack slung over his shoulder, grasped the pull-up handle of his suitcase, and trundled through the open doorway into the station, with its ticket counter and bright posters. The only incongruity was the self-service ticket machine, but he assumed even Merrychurch had had to succumb to some of the demands of the twenty-first century.
Passing through the wide wooden door onto the pavement beyond, Jonathon found himself standing alone, a car park to his left, surrounded by a picket fence. Nothing else to be seen but the lane, with tall trees on both sides. No traffic. No noise, except for the birds chirping away.
And still no sign of Dominic.
Jonathon checked his texts, but there was nothing. Sighing, he scrolled through to find Dominic’s number. When all he got was his uncle’s recorded message, the first tendrils of unease began to snake through his belly. This really wasn’t like Dominic.
A glance up the empty country lane, a glance down, and he made his mind up. There seemed little point in waiting any longer. The best thing to do would be to make his own way into the village and then on to the manor house. He knew that Merrychurch was only a mile or so away, and, based on experience, it wasn’t worth waiting for the local bus, which only ran once an hour. With the happy chirping of birds in the trees to accompany him, Jonathon headed toward the village, pulling his suitcase behind him.
It was a beautiful late-July day, just the right temperature that he didn’t need a jacket. As he walked along, he recollected the recent emails and conversations he’d had with Dominic. There was nothing he could put his finger on, but Jonathon had gotten the definite impression that all was not well. The speed with which Dominic had agreed to Jonathon coming to stay had been enough of an indication.
So why isn’t he here to meet me like he said?
Jonathon cast his mind back to their last conversation, a week ago. They’d spoken about the village fete, due to take place on the grounds of the house in early August. Dominic loved doing his Lord-of-the-Manor routine, and from what Jonathon could recall from past visits, it was usually a fun day. They’d also talked about Jonathon’s latest book, a collection of photographs taken on a recent trip to India. More than once, Dominic had expressed his pride in Jonathon’s work.
From behind came the sound of a vehicle, and Jonathon squeezed himself into the hedge, pulling in the case to stand it beside him. It surprised him when the car came to a stop in the road next to him.
“Do you need a lift?” The voice was male, deep, and cheerful.
Jonathon regarded the driver of the 4x4. He was in his late thirties, maybe early forties, with dark brown hair cut short and neat. Warm brown eyes peered at Jonathon from behind a pair of rimless glasses. “If you’re going to Merrychurch, then yes.”
The driver smiled. “I didn’t think you’d be walking any farther. The next village after Merrychurch is Lower Pinton, and that’s four miles from here.” He nodded to the seat beside him. “Hop in. There’s room in the back for your case.”
“Thanks.” Jonathon crossed to the passenger’s side, stowed the case, then clambered into the front seat. “It was nice of you to stop.” He clasped the backpack to him, his precious camera safely protected within it.
“Excuse me?” Jonathon arched his eyebrows.
The driver laughed. “Okay, yeah, that was presumptuous of me, but the suitcase was a bit of a giveaway. And I’m only asking because if you don’t have anywhere to stay, I own the local pub, and there are rooms if you need one.”
The lane leading to Merrychurch hadn’t changed in all the years Jonathon had been visiting his uncle: trees met in a leafy arch over the road, the odd house here and there….
“Have you been to Merrychurch before?”
Jonathon smiled to himself. “A few times, yes.”
“You probably know the place better than I do, then. I’ve only lived here for the past eleven months.”
Just then a rabbit darted out from the hedgerow, and the driver swerved the car violently to avoid it. Jonathon found himself holding his breath, but fortunately the rabbit escaped injury and reached the other side of the road.
The driver expelled a low growl, then glanced across at Jonathon. “I hate it when the little buggers do that. One of these days, I’m not gonna be able to stop in time.”
The fact that he’d swerved at all was a plus in Jonathon’s book.
A minute later they were in the heart of the village. The driver stopped the car in front of the charming, picturesque pub, leaving the engine running. “So, can I drop you someplace? Where does your uncle live?”
Jonathon was overcome with an unexpected rush of nerves. He knew there were those in the village who resented his uncle—Dominic had intimated as much on several occasions—and he didn’t want to say something, only to find his Good Samaritan harbored a grudge and turned out to be a psychopath. Then he pulled himself together. The stranger had already admitted he was a recent addition to the village population, so it was highly unlikely that he bore Dominic any ill will.
“But he wasn’t there when you arrived,” the man concluded. When Jonathon lifted his eyebrows once more, he smiled. “That much was obvious, or you wouldn’t have been walking into the village. Has he messaged you to say he was delayed?”
Jonathon shook his head. “Which is… weird.”
Jonathon thought it was about time he knew the name of his Good Samaritan. “Sounds great to me.” He extended a hand. “Jonathon de Mountford.”
The man shook it. “Mike Tattersall. Pleased to meet you.” His eyes widened. “Ah. I guess I don’t have to ask who your uncle is, then.”
Jonathon had suspected that might be the case. Even if Mike was a recent addition to Merrychurch, he would have known about de Mountford Hall, the imposing manor house on the outskirts of the village.
Mike’s face clouded over, and he switched off the engine. “Your uncle is a sore point at the moment.”
Jonathon stilled. “Why?”
Jonathon had the impression that Mike’s sudden change of mood was more to do with his sister than Dominic. “What happened?”
Mike sighed. “Sue’s a member of an animal rights activist group. I try not to get involved, partly because it gives me the willies to hear she’s off on some protest. What I don’t know can’t keep me awake at night.” When Jonathon frowned, he gave a shrug. “Comes with the territory. I’m an ex-copper. I’ve tried telling her to stay on the right side of the law, but it’s not easy. She can be bloody stubborn when she wants to be. Anyway, last month she got wind of something and went charging off to the manor to see your uncle. Turns out he’s given permission for the local hunt to go across his land, which also means they’ll be close to the village.”
“But… didn’t they ban fox hunting? It’s just hunting with dogs now, isn’t it?”
Mike nodded. “Sue has got it into her head that the local hunt bigwigs will be ignoring that part. No idea where she’s getting her information from. But yeah, things got a bit… ugly.”
Mike appeared to shrug off his mood. He straightened in the driver’s seat and nodded briskly. “Sure thing. Let’s get you up there.” He switched on the engine and pulled away from the curb.
Jonathon gazed at his surroundings. The village seemed as it always had: a few shops huddled together, the pub, and the post office. Then there were the houses, many of them thatched. The church tower rose above the trees, square and solid. The river still wound its way through the village, dipping below the picturesque stone bridge with its graceful arch. Ducks squatted along its banks, heads tucked under their wings, while others swam in the slow-moving, clear water, bobbing their heads below the surface, their rear ends stuck up in the air, as comical as Jonathon remembered from his childhood.
“Merrychurch hasn’t changed,” he murmured as they sped through the narrow, leafy lanes.
Mike chuckled. “Oh, you think so? I’ve learned from experience that things are seldom as they appear. You have no clue what’s lurking below the seemingly tranquil surface.” He snorted. “Yeah, there speaks an ex-policeman, always expecting the worst.”
“London Met. And I was invalided out when I lost my foot in a raid.”
Jonathon couldn’t help the automatic glance toward Mike’s feet.
Mike obviously caught the movement. “I have a prosthetic foot now. You’d never know it wasn’t real if you saw it.” Then he sighed. “At least that’s what I tell myself every night when the shoes come off. Anyhow, as I was saying… when they gave me my compensation, I was at a loss. I’d been a copper since I was nineteen, and there I was, nearly forty, with no clue what I was going to do for the rest of my life.”
“So you bought a village pub. Quite a change of pace from London, I imagine.”
Mike laughed. “You have no idea. The pub was Sue’s brainchild. She’d moved here with her husband, Dan, but things didn’t work out for them. When he left, she stayed, although that meant finding work. The pub came up for sale, and she thought of me. I did suggest that she could work there if she wanted, but she soon scuppered that idea.” He gave a wry chuckle. “She had a point. We’d have been at each other’s throats within minutes. Chalk and cheese, us two.” Mike nodded toward the windscreen. “There you are.”
Jonathon followed his gaze. On either side of the lane stood the old stone gateposts that he recalled from his childhood, the ones that bore the family crest. Except the crest had worn away during the two centuries or so that the family had owned the manor house, and the gateposts were beginning to crumble too. They marked the boundaries of the original estate. Subsequent members of the de Mountford family had sold off parts of it, and now all that remained were the one hundred or so acres that surrounded de Mountford Hall.
“And there it is,” Jonathon said softly. The manor house was just visible above the tree line, perched on top of a gently sloping hill, its white facade standing out against the green, glowing in the early-morning sunshine. As Mike passed through the gateposts and followed the gravel-covered lane, Jonathon peered up at the hall. “I can’t imagine what he finds to do all day in that place. He must really rattle around in there.” Dominic was a confirmed bachelor and had lived alone since he’d inherited the house. Up until fifteen years ago, he’d worked in London, in the family law firm, but he had surprised everyone by announcing his retirement at the age of forty-five.
Mike took a left turn, and the gravel lane became a driveway that looped in front of the house, circling a grassy knoll where an ornate fountain stood, its wells dry. He pulled up in front of the wide arched entrance. “Delivered to the door. How’s that for service?”
“It’s very quiet. Mind you, it is still early. Maybe he overslept.”
Jonathon cocked his head and listened. Even the birds seemed to have ceased their happy song. That only served to add to his returning unease. He put down his backpack, got out of the car, and walked toward the heavy oak door, darkened by the shadow of the stone arch above it. Jonathon pulled on the central knob of the brass door bell, hearing the clang within the house. He took a step back and waited, his gaze fixed on the door.
After a minute of silence, he turned to Mike. “Looks like he’s gone out.”
“He has servants, right? At least that’s what Sue says.”
Jonathon tried to recall. “He used to, but that was a few years ago. I haven’t been here for two years, so I don’t know. He certainly didn’t mention getting rid of them.” In which case it either appeared to be their day off, or they hadn’t arrived yet, which seemed unlikely.
“Try the door. Maybe he left it unlocked.” When Jonathon stared at him, Mike snickered. “Yeah, I know. Since when does anyone go out and leave a place like this unlocked these days? It was just a suggestion.”
The door swung open with a creak.
“Uh-oh,” he whispered.
Mike was out of the car and at his side in an instant. “That’s a bit odd. Want me to go in there with you?” he asked in a low voice. “Just in case there are….”
“What? Just in case there are what?” Icy fingers traced over Jonathon’s skin.
Jonathon was praying for the latter. “Okay, you can come with me.”
Mike puffed out his broad chest. “And stay behind me. If there’s anyone in here, let me deal with them, okay?”
It took a moment or two to realize Mike was acting with such bravado to ease Jonathon’s nerves. He gave a mock sigh of relief. “Absolutely.” Not that he was afraid of taking on a few bad guys, but they’d have to be smaller than him, and since he was five feet six and as skinny as a rake, he thought that extremely unlikely.
Mike stepped into the cool interior, the white marble floor reflecting the sunlight that spilled in through the open door. He crept forward, his boots squeaking slightly against the tiles, his head to one side as he listened.
The house was as silent as the grave, and Jonathon ceased to see the funny side. “I don’t think he’s here.”
Jonathon nodded. “I’ll take a look around too.” There was no way he was going to wait there, feeling as useful as an inflatable dartboard.
Mike narrowed his gaze. “Be careful.”
It was rather sweet, Jonathon thought, considering Mike had known him for all of five minutes. Well, he could be sweet too. “I will if you will.” Without waiting for Mike’s reply, Jonathon crept over to the sitting room door. One glance around it convinced him that room was empty. He moved from room to room, the soles of his trainers making the same squeaky noises as Mike’s boots.
No signs of disturbance. No signs of a break-in. Nothing.
When he reached the door of his uncle’s study, he paused. As a child, this room had always been off-limits. Dominic’s refuge for when visitors became too much, his sanctuary. Finding the door ajar only added to the panic fluttering in his belly.
“Dominic?” He pushed it cautiously, took two steps into the room—and froze.
“What’s wrong?” Mike hissed from behind him.
Jonathon swallowed hard. “I think we need to call the police. And an ambulance.” He tried to take another step, but his legs were like lead.
Uncle Dominic lay in a heap on the floor by the fireplace, the harsh red of the blood pooled around his head stark against the white marble. Jonathon could only watch as Mike hurried over to the prone form and bent over to place two fingers against Dominic’s neck. The silence stretched as Jonathon waited, unable to tear his gaze from the sight.
His words didn’t compute. Dominic couldn’t be dead.
Mike walked over to him and grasped his upper arm. “Okay,” he began, his voice calm and even. “I’m going to take you out to the car, and then I’ll call the local police.” When Jonathon gazed at him, blinking, Mike patted his arm. “You can’t stay in here, Jonathon. This could be a crime scene.”