Book 9 Previews
Here's a taste of the continuing story of the Ellinghams and the quirky characters of Portwenn.
The fickle wind wafted snatches of music to their ears as they made their way towards the Wadebridge Village Hall—a chorus of Japanese bamboo flutes, sensually strummed harps, and Indian sitars.
The doctor raised an eyebrow to his young aide when the sound intensified with the arthritic creaking of the old wood door. Jeremy gave him a shrug of his shoulders before they made their way down a narrow corridor, following the ethereal strains to a large room, devoid of furniture excepting a table and a row of mismatched chairs lining the far wall.
Martin stood, mouth agape, as two dozen or so men and women of various shades of grey writhed on the floor. A few were still standing but swayed precariously, arms over their faces. Scanning the room, he recorded a quick mental catalogue of noted symptoms. His gaze landed on Bert Large where he lay on the floor, his round body rocking to and fro, his eyes closed and his jaw slack.
Martin lumbered over to him. “Bert! What’s happened?”
The ex-plumber’s gyrations stopped, and his eyes popped open. “Oh! Hi there, Doc!”
Leaning down, the doctor gave him a grunt. Probing the man’s fleshy neck, he pulled up his hand, studying his watch as blood pulsed through his patient’s carotid artery.
“You took your time, Doc,” the portly man said.
“No, I didn’t. Are you having any chest pain?”
Bert’s brows pulled together. “I’m not havin’ a heart attack if that’s what you’re thinkin’.”
“What are you doing on the floor, then, for God’s sake?”
“On the floor? Isn’t it customary to do that on one’s feet?”
Rolling to the side, Bert pushed himself on to his elbow. “Oh, most of the time the dancin’ is on my feet. But you see, when I’m tryin’ to find a deeper sense of myself, it’s better lyin’ down.”
The music shifted abruptly, and the room came to life. The figures laid out on the floor sprang up and began to undulate their hips in time to the strong salsa beat.
Martin and Jeremy looked at each other, wide-eyed, as the small crowd grew more frenzied.
“Bloody hell,” the aide muttered.
“What on earth is going on here, Bert?” the doctor asked. “Some sort of-of geriatric … love-in?” He sniffed at the air, grimacing as he looked over at his assistant. “Do you smell that? It smells like perfume.”
The young man tipped his head back as his nostrils flared. “It smells like something’s burning to me.”
His lips drawing tight, Martin asked, “Marijuana? You’ve been smoking marijuana, haven’t you?”
Groaning, Bert pushed himself into a sitting position and shook a pudgy finger. “Oh, it’s nothin’ like that. It’s incense—sandalwood. It helps to reduce negative thoughts. I bet you knew that already though, didn’t you, Doc? What with you bein’ a man of science and all.”
Air hissed from Martin’s nose. “Bert, I was led to believe this was urgent.”
“Oh, it was, Doc. Very urgent—at the time. He was laid out on the floor like a poached fish on a platter. Still had his head, of course,” he said with a chuckle.
“Oh, that’d be Gary. But he left.”
The doctor’s jaw clenched. “He left?”
“That’s right, Doc. Haye sent ‘im home.”
“Oh, for God’s sake! I drove all the way over here for a case of hay fever? An allergy is not an emergency! Tell the idiot to call and make an appointment.”
“Allergy? Oh, no. It’s nothin’ like that, Doc. Ol’ Gary … well, you see, it’s like this. We thought it was an emergency, see. But it turns out, he got a bit overly excited is all. He’ll be right as rain in the morning. He just needed to recentre himself someplace quieter.”
A woman with a thick mane of grey hair flowing down to her waist spun past them, a flailing arm smacking Jeremy in the chest. The young man staggered backwards, tripping over Bert and landing with an oomph on to the floor.
Stopping, she slapped a hand to her mouth. “Oh, dear! Are you all right?”
“For heaven’s sake, woman! Watch where you’re going!” Martin gave a jerk of his head. “Get up from there, Jeremy.”
The aide scrambled to his feet, brushing petulantly at his trousers.
“I’m so sorry,” the dancer said, extending a hand to the doctor. “Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Haye-in-the-Green.”
Martin gave her a blank stare before cocking his head.
“The aide mumbled in his ear. “Could be a colloquialism.”
“Mm. She does look haggard.”
“No, no, no!” she said with a chuckle. It’s my divine name.”
“Your divine name?” Martin gave the woman a quick once over. “Have you people been smoking something?”
“Of course not!” she bristled. “And I resent the very suggestion! This is a drug and alcohol-free environment. I would never encourage the use of something that could harm my fellow travellers as we share transcendental experiences. I use the Nia Technique to help my students find spiritual grounding, not drugs.”
“The what?” the doctor asked, turning a furrowed brow to his aide.
Bert crawled to the nearby table and pulled himself to his feet. “The Nia Technique. Here, let me explain it to you, Doc. It’s a kind of Conscious Dance.”
“Well, that clears it up.”
“Okay, it’s like this, see. It’s dancing. But we don’t have to follow all those rules that keep us from expressin’ our raw emotions. We just dance. It helps us learn to love our bodies and clear our minds—connect with our inner source,” the ex-plumber explained as he adjusted his knit hat.
“Rubbish. You’re going to give yourself another heart attack with this woman’s nonsense, Bert.”
Haye crossed her arms over her chest and looked Martin up and down. “Oh, I see. It’s nonsense because I’m a woman, is it?”
“Nooo. It’s nonsense because my patient needs to be taking real and professionally-supervised exercise, not writhing on the floor at some sorceress's Dionysian soiree.”
“I’m going to chalk your negative and dismissive attitude up to your obvious physical frustrations, Doctor.”
Bert shook his wriggly jowls. “Oh, it doesn’t got anything ta do with physical frustrations. The doc here’s never got on well with the fairer sex. Even before his … frustrations.”
“You don’t say,” the woman said, her interest now piqued.
“It’s true. He’s a bit short on the ‘ol animal magneticism, so to speak.”
Pulling several tiny bottles from her pocket, Haye peered at the labels, selecting one made of lavender-coloured glass. “This should do the trick,” she said, removing the stopper and tipping some of the liquid on to her index finger.
Before Martin could react, she swiped a line across his forehead.
“What in God’s name is that?” he sputtered as he snatched his handkerchief from his back pocket and rubbed at it.
“I normally don’t divulge that information to a querant. But, as you’re a doctor, I’ll make an exception. It’s rosemary and thyme, steeped in the enchanted waters of St. Keyne. It’s an irresistibility potion.”
Martin pulled his head back. “Utter rubbish.”
“Ah, an unbeliever. I have my work cut out for me, I see.” She patted his arm and gave him a sly smile. “Never you fret, love. There’s a full moon tonight,”she said before slipping past him, her long peasant skirt whooshing.
He blinked at her retreating form before his gaze drifted to Bert’s feet. “Where are your shoes and socks?”
“Over there by the door,” Bert said, gesturing. “Haye says they’re a worldly impediment to a true physical and spiritual connection with our Mother Earth.”
“Gawd.” Martin eyed the slapping feet still keeping time to the music. “This room is a breeding ground for athlete’s foot, nail fungus, and God knows what kind of parasitic infections! Not to mention the bacterial spores that are, no doubt—”
“Now, don’t go gettin’ yourself all worked up, Doc.” The portly man’s palms went up in front of him as he spoke in an exaggeratedly measured voice. “Louiser wouldn’t approve. What with your delicate constitution and all, you know.”
Giving him a dark look, the doctor growled. “Mind your own business, Bert.” He turned for the door. “Jeremy!”
The aide gave Bert a shrug before hurrying after him.
Nothing was said to Evan about the incident on the playground when the headmistress picked him up at his classroom later that afternoon. They walked home in relative silence. He hoped that Miss Soames had decided to take pity on him and had not shared his indiscretion with her. Maybe she had even covered for him—told her he was staying late to help her in the classroom. His hopes were quickly dashed, however, when they arrived back at the surgery.
James was in his highchair eating a snack of cereal and banana, and Martin was watching a video at the table when they came in the back door. Evan shucked his shoes, hung his coat on a peg, and removed his most recent library book from his backpack before heading towards the lounge to read.
“Wait a minute,” Louisa said. “Come and have a seat in the kitchen, Evan. There’s something I need to discuss with you and Dr. Ellingham.”
A burst of adrenaline rushed through him, and his pulse began to throb in his head. Keeping his eyes on the floor, he sat down across from his guardian.
“What’s going on?” Martin asked when he saw the grim look on his wife’s face.
“Something happened at school today, didn’t it, Evan?”
The boy gave her a sideways glance. “You mean that kid that threw up at lunch?”
“Evan.” She tipped her head down at him. “I believe there was an incident on the playground that you might like to tell us about.”
The seven-year-old’s feet began to swing as he picked at his fingers. “No, thank you, Miss.”
Louisa took a seat next to him and rested her arm on the back of his chair. “Evan, I am your head teacher when we’re at the school, but when we’re at home, I’m just Mrs. Ellingham. You don’t need to address me as ‘Miss’.”
He gave her another sideways glance. “Then, no thank you, Mrs. Ellig-am.”
“Well, I guess I’ll have to explain to Dr. Ellingham, then. It seems Evan had to stay after school today for saying something very unkind to another student.”
Martin cocked his head at her. “Which student?”
“Oh, I see.” He picked his journal up and snapped it open again.
“Hmm?” he grunted, raising his eyebrows.
Her ponytail whipped to the side. “This is a serious matter, Martin.”
“Quite possibly. But I highly doubt the Archeske boy was innocent in whatever it was. I’m familiar with the family.”
“What does that have to do with anything?” She shook her head at him before turning back to the boy. “Evan, what you said was not only unkind, but the word you used is not allowed at our school.”
The seven-year-old kept his head down. “But I used it ‘propriately, and Dr. Ellig-am said that was okay.”
Her eyes narrowing, Louisa pulled her arms across her chest and stared at her husband. “Under what circumstances might it be considered appropriate to use the word s-h-i-t, Martin?”
“Why are you looking at me like that? I never told him it was appropriate.”
“Uh-huh, you did,” Evan said. “Remember, you said anus is ‘propriate if you’re sayin’ its real name, but it’s not ‘propriate if you call someone that.”
“But that is what you called Mark,” Louisa said with a forbidding frown.
“Uh-uh! I didn’t call him nothin’! I just told him his face looked like shi—” He squirmed in his chair, mumbling unintelligibly.
“And you think that was appropriate?”
“Yeah, ‘cause … well, ‘cause….” He gave his guardian a help-me-out-here look, and it was returned with an empathetic sigh.
“Perhaps we should give Evan a chance to clarify the circumstances,” Martin said.
Her eyes snapping, Louisa got to her feet. “Martin—a word.”
They stepped into the hall, and she peered up at him, flinty-eyed. “I appreciate that you’re not fond of the Archeskes, but don’t you dare excuse Evan’s behaviour because of it,” she murmured.
“I didn’t intend to!” he hissed back.
“Good, because we need to give the appearance of unity here. Remember, Dr. Peterson said we need to be firm with him.”
Martin pulled up his chin. “Firm but fair, if I remember correctly.”
“I am being fair!”
She whipped her head to the side and huffed. “We’re going to go back in there and make it clear to Evan that what he said to Mark Archeske was not acceptable, under any circumstances.”
He breathed out a heavy sigh as she strode back towards the kitchen.
“Mummy, mo peeze,” James said, reaching for the box of cereal on the table.
She gave the toddler a tense smile and dumped a scattering of oaten bits on to his tray. “There you are, James.”
Then, closing the box, she returned her attention to the seven-year-old. “Evan, I cannot imagine how you can explain away what you said to Mark.”
“But suppose we let you have a crack at it,” Martin added, casting a wary glance towards his wife.
He gave the boy a nod and Evan turned his gaze to his lap. “Me and Colin … well, we saw this pile of … you know … dog poo, and Colin said it looked like Mark’s face.”
He peered up at Martin. “And it kinda did. Then, Mark said stuff and … and it wasn’t nice.”
His elbows thudded on the table top and he dropped his head into his hands. “I don’t know why I can’t catch a ball, Dr. Ellig-am! Mark said it’s ‘cause I’m a pisshead like … like him. And he said you’re not my dad ‘cause we gots a different name and I don’t look like you! And my finger hurt! And he said … he said I’m common as muck!”
He looked up with teary eyes. “I couldn’t help it; I lost my rag! I said at least I don’t have a face that looks like shi…. You know.”
He pulled in a ragged sob, and Martin sat down, waving him over. Reaching around to his back pocket, he pulled out his handkerchief and wiped at the child’s face.
“So see, Dr. Ellig-am? It was ‘propriate ‘cause I was just sayin’ its real name.”
“Evan, why on earth didn’t you explain all this to Miss Soames?” Louisa asked as she knelt down next to him. “Why didn’t you speak up for yourself?”
The boy gave her a shrug of his shoulders and wiped at his eyes. “I dunno.”
“Well, I’m very glad you spoke up to us now.”
Evan peered up at her. “Mrs. Ellig-am … I didn’t mean to. I really didn’t. But I said somethin’ else I wasn’t s’posed to say. It just came out—all by itself.”
“Well, I doubt it will be the end of the world. And I’m sure you’ll feel better about it if you tell us what it was that you said.”
His face crumpled and he quickly covered his eyes. “I told him the secret! I told him I’m gettin’ adopted!”
“Oh, Evan, that secret was already out, I’m afraid. You may have let the secret slip to the other children, but the teachers at the school were already aware of it. And if one person in this village gets wind of something, it’s only a matter of time before everyone else knows it.”
Evan drew in a mucousy snuffle and pulled his hands away from his face. “Are you for sure?”
“Mark said you’re not gonna adopt me cause his mum says I’m common as muck.”
“Well, I can guarantee you that what Mark said is absolute rubbish. None of that is true. You’re a wonderful and lovable boy. And Dr. Ellingham and I will be very proud to have you as our son.”
Her expression turned more serious and she tipped her head to the side. “However, that doesn’t mean that what you said to Mark is acceptable. There are better ways to have handled the situation.”
“Well, maybe if you just let him tease you—ignore him—after a while, he’ll get bored with it and find another way to entertain himself.”
“What, like shutting him in a locker?” Martin mumbled.
Louisa gave him a dark look before getting to her feet. “Perhaps Dr. Ellingham can come up with a solution, then. Hmm, Mar-tin?”
He stared up at her for a moment before picking up his charge’s right hand to inspect it. “What did you mean when you said your finger hurt, Evan?”
“This one.” He thrust his left hand out folding all but his red and swollen middle finger into his palm. “I was tryin’ to catch the ball. It’s okay, though.”
“Let me look.” The doctor’s fingers gently explored the wounded digit, and the boy sucked in a breath, pulling his hand back to his chest.
“Come through to my consulting room,” Martin said as he got to his feet.
Evan turned an alarmed face to him. “Is it gonna hurt?”
“I’ll do my best to see that it doesn’t.”
“What do you think it is, Martin?” Louisa asked, pulling James from his highchair and hurrying after them.
“Let’s see what the ultrasound scan shows, shall we?”
They emerged from the consulting room a short time later with Evan admiring the new splint which secured his middle finger to his index finger.
“Can I tell the kids in my class I hurt it punchin’ Mark Archeske?”
“No, you may not!” Louisa put her hand on the child’s head and tipped it back. “That’s not the Evan Hanley I know. Why would you say such a thing?”
The seven-year-old shrugged his shoulders. “I was wonderin’ if I could just pretend I was brave.”
“Hitting someone is not a sign of bravery, young man.” She turned and followed her husband out to the kitchen before setting James down on the floor. “Are you sure his finger will be okay, Martin?”
“It’s a nasty sprain, and it’ll need to be immobilised for a couple of weeks. But yes, it should heal without complications.”
“Can I go read now, Mrs. Ellig-am?” Evan asked, picking his library book up from the table.
Setting a pot on the hob, she took a jar of marinara sauce from the cupboard. “Get your homework done. Then you may go and read.”
“I did it when I was doin’ my consequence.”
“Oh, very good! Then yes, you may.”
The seven-year-old sprawled out on the floor in the lounge, cracking the cover on The Big Dictionary of Carnivores, and James Henry plopped down next to him to watch as the pages were flipped.
Her knuckles whitening as she struggled with the sauce jar lid, Louisa lowered her voice and said to her husband, “Well, how are we going to deal with this?”
“If you can’t get it off of there, I highly doubt I’ll be able to manage the job. Perhaps you should try running it under hot water.”
“Not the sauce, Martin!” she hissed. “Evan!”
He shook his head and blinked back at her. “It was dealt with at the school, wasn’t it?”
“I mean, how are we going to deal with it as Evan’s parents? How do we discipline him?”
“Is it mandatory that we queue up to have a whack at him as well?”
“I didn’t say that. And no one had a whack at him, Mar-tin.” She scowled at the jar in her hand before setting it down with a thud on the worktop. “Shouldn’t we do more than just talk to him about this?”
“What would be the point? He’s already had one consequence too many, if you ask me.”
Her ponytail swished, and she crossed her arms over her chest. “Are you saying you don’t feel I opt for a very relaxed approach to discipline after all?”
The reference to his once-made criticism of her school disciplinary practices caused him to fidget under her imperious gaze. “Perhaps that was an overgeneralisation.”
She sat down across from him. “Look, I’m just wondering how we should handle things here at home.”
“The point’s been made. I think we should let the matter drop.” He struggled to his feet and went to the sink for a glass of water. “I’ll try to sort out this mess with semantics before he goes to bed tonight.”
Huffing out a breath, she shook her head. “Fine. How was your lunch with Ruth?”
“High in saturated fat, so I just ate the salad. As a doctor, I would think Ruth would know better.”
He drew a slow sip of water as he peered over the rim of the glass at her before adding, “And it was, er … rather brief. I’m supposed to be getting a lie-down in every day. Not to mention I was tired, so I left—”
The brring of the doorbell sounded, and he gave her a glance before limping off.
Joe Penhale stood on the terrace, his arm braced against the building, when Martin pulled the front door open.
“Afternoon, Do-c.” He pulled up his wrist and looked at his watch. “Evening to be exact.”
“Sorry for the delay in getting back to you—mandatory training exercise with the boys up in Exeter. A requirement if I’m to stay on top of my game.”
“Mm, yes.” The doctor glanced back over his shoulder before stepping outside, pulling the door shut behind him. “You mentioned the break-ins in Devon. I thought you should be aware that someone was loitering outside the surgery last night.”
“Really. Now when you say loitering” —the policeman pulled a notebook and pencil from his shirt pocket— “do you mean suspicious loitering or just loitering-loitering?”
“They were standing outside my house watching through the window, Penhale. I would call that suspicious, wouldn’t you?”
Joe’s head quirked to the side. “Depends. Could be they were admiring the decor.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. They were wearing a long black raincoat with the hood up.”
“I see your point—not a fashion-conscious individual, then.”
“I’m saying, I didn’t get a good look at them. They took off down the hill as soon as they knew I’d spotted them. Someone of average build—likely male. And I don’t think this was the first time they’ve been lurking around here. Evan’s seen them on at least a couple of occasions.”
“Hmm. Sounds like they’ve sent someone ahead to case the joint. I’ll put in a call to HQ once I’ve interviewed the other witness.”
“What other witness?”
“Evan. I’ll need to get his statement before I can file a report with the boys upstairs.”
“No. That’s out of the question. He’s still traumatised from his father’s death. I haven’t even said anything to Louisa, so I expect this to be handled quietly, Penhale. There could be a perfectly logical explanation for all of this.”
Tipping his head down, Joe peered up at him. “I try not to let logi-c muddy the investigative waters.”
Martin gave him a grunt. “I’d appreciate your discretion until we know more.”
“Right. Softly-softly, Doc.” The constable gave him a two-fingered salute before turning towards the steps and heading off down the hill.