Part 2: A Cozy Murder in a Cozy English Village (WITH A CASTLE!)
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“HELL, YES I WANT TO MEET A HOMICIDAL GRANNY IN A CASTLE! And you can give me your cinnamon roll recipe on the way!” is what Allison thought. What she said was, “Sure. Happy to help.”
After running Sir Benjamin home and texting Joan a quick update on her whereabouts, Allison tossed her winter coat into the tiny backseat, took a deep breath and got into the driver’s seat next to the chain-smoking pastry chef. Only a few times along the way did Allison do something that revealed her discomfort with the English driving situation. She had been practicing on the back roads around their cottage with the little gray car they leased when they moved there. Joan took the train in to the city every day, and Melissa was meant to have access to the car for “all of her adventures,” but this was the first adventure she’d really been on, and the first time she needed to engage with any appreciable traffic. For her part, Sally did a good job of only slamming her hands into the dashboard and swearing only on every other near catastrophe.
As the country rolled past, Allison also had to divide her attention between the harrowing driving and the story Sally was telling in her very British way. From what Allison gleaned, Sally had thought that her mother had been acting suspiciously for a while but had attributed it to aging and grieving her husband. Three years before, Sally’s father had left a long, winding note about how he needed to sew some wild oats (at age seventy-four) and would be going on a journey of indefinite length. Neither Sally nor her mother had heard from him since and her mother had been “gobsmacked” by this and had become a bit of a weird recluse, refusing to leave her house and walled-in garden, and glaring at the neighbors through binoculars, inventing increasingly elaborate conspiracy theories about them. “Really, she’d been declining since she sold the restaurant and left the city ten years ago, but my dad leaving sent her fully ‘round the bend. I tried to get her to come live with me,” Sally said, while exhaling her thousandth puff of smoke, “but she insists on staying out in this village in the middle of nowhere and waiting for him to come back. All day long she just drinks tea, yells at the neighbors, and fusses about her garden. She’s become a real shufflebutt!”
Allison nodded and wondered idly if she should start gardening. She recalled that on one of her visits to the bakery Sally had described her mom’s old restaurant in London with some number of Michelin stars. She must have been a big deal.
When they finally arrived in the little town of Castle Hedingham, Allison was delighted to see that there was, in fact, a castle. It looked like a fortress, tall and dignified, and she nearly ran over a little boy in school uniform dawdling behind a group of other uniformed youth while she gaped up at it.
“Eyes on the road, woman!” Sally barked. “OK. Just pull up there in the parking lot by the castle.”
“The castle’s the jail!?”
“No, the castle is just a castle. I thought you might like a tour while I deal with things,” Sally said, in a voice like she was trying to make a dumb kid feel smart. “My mother is in the prison across the square, there.” Allison parked and looked to where Sally pointed, at a town’s square across the street not unlike the one where they lived. Allison wondered if there was a “Sal’s” type bakery here, as well. She hadn’t ever gotten her cinnamon roll that morning. The square was lightly dusted with snow and was surrounded by charming pale stone buildings. None of them had bars or metal fencing, and she saw no machine gun-wielding guards. She started to wonder what “prison” meant here, and, if one of those cute, innocuous places was where they sent people who had just killed someone, she wondered what “murder” meant here, too. Perhaps all the rules were different on this side of the pond and Allison understood nothing at all. “Ok, I’ll call you when I’m through,” Sally said, tossing her cigarette out the window and gathering her bag and coat. Allison felt that lonely, lost feeling slip inside her again as she watched Sally walk away toward the square.
The air bit into her neck when she got out of the car, and she reached back for her puffy blue coat. It was colder here, but at least it wasn’t wet. They had traveled roughly north to get here, so maybe that made sense? The weather pattern was another thing Allison didn’t understand. Yet. She didn’t understand them yet. Joan was always telling her to approach things with a ‘growth mindset.’ Allison almost always threw something at Joan when she said that; a slipper, a book, a pillow, whatever was close.
She followed the gaggle of school children toward what appeared to be the entrance of the castle. The grounds were lovely, all pristinely manicured lawns and hedges. As she got closer, she could see just how old the place was, and her imagination started populating the floors with royalty and the grounds with ancient guards. She waited for the nun in charge of the children to count them three times- it seemed a little boy named “Peter” was a slippery little bastard who liked to hide when it was time to be counted- before deciding to give them some time to begin their tour before she’d venture in behind them.
Walking around the base of the tower away from the loud kids and other tourists, Allison found a plaque that said that Castle Hedingham was nine centuries old. It took her a minute to do the math. That meant that this giant fortress had been standing since before the 11th century!? She pressed her hand against the cold stone, and then pulled back, whipping her head around. When no security guard charged her and no one hollered down from a turret, Monty Python-style, “Hey, you, American girl, stop rubbing our history!” she put her hand back on the stone and closed her eyes. What must it have been like to live in that building back then? To be a princess or a scullery maid? It must have been cold ALL the time, and dirty.
Allison had done a presentation on the medieval times when she was in middle school and remembered reading about how rarely people bathed and what a disaster the whole bathroom situation was. Recently, Joan had convinced Allison to stream a big cheesy hetero Hollywood romance set in medieval times and Allison had provided the…realism commentary while they watched. “Good for them! They’ll only live a few more years, so they should get it while they can…but eww, don’t kiss! Neither of you has ever brushed your teeth and they’re all falling out of your heads! Can you imagine the breath?! And, princess, have you checked to see that he has both feet in those boots? Feet were always falling off back then.” Allison smiled, remembering how Joan had eventually shaken her head and turned the movie off, giving up and going to bed. Marriage isn’t about winning and losing, but that night Allison had won.
Allison kept wandering around the base of the castle. Another sign along the path said you could stay at the castle, and that breakfast was included! Maybe she should bring Joan back here for a romantic and cold and terrifying weekend. Maybe not. What would they serve for breakfast? If they were trying to be authentic to the period, it would be a lot of mush and game. Plus, there’s no way the place wasn’t haunted.
Behind the castle, she could just make out a body of water and a few out buildings that must be stables and servants quarters and whatnot. This would make a great location to set a murder mystery story. Perhaps it was an affair gone wrong? An evil Earl of Somewhere had besmirched the reputation of a maiden and there had been a duel in the southern lawn? Perhaps in a shocking twist, instead of loving the king to whom she’d been shackled by her dad, the queen actually loved the queen from the next kingdom over and one of them ends up floating Ophelia-style in the pond on the back of the property? Kristen Stewart could play the queen in the movie version of Allison’s book…or maybe she could play BOTH queens, AND all the other parts, like Tom Hanks did in “Polar Express.” It would be so tragic and sexy and weird. A raindrop hit Allison squarely in the eyeball and she startled, realizing she’d been staring into space, envisioning motion-captured Kristen Stewart’s clandestine medieval clone sex, for way too long. This is why she never made any progress on her book.
Allison blinked and squinted at the pond, surrounded by more perfectly trimmed bushes and pathways, then turned back to look up at the grand tower, jutting more than seventy feet into the cloudy sky. She wondered what she looked like from up there, this stocky little woman with shaggy brown hair that needed cutting, she hadn’t found a stylist since moving, large, dark-rimmed glasses, and an oversized bright blue raincoat. No one would be able to tell all those details from way up there, she realized. She’d just look like a blue speck among all the other specks. That sad and lonely feeling came back to her. She was a nobody here. She did nothing. No one knew her and she knew barely anyone. Back at the front of the castle, near the entrance gate, she didn’t go inside. Touring this castle would be the coolest thing she’d done in ages, but she didn’t want to do it alone. She didn’t want to do any of this alone. What was she doing with her life? It started to rain lightly, because of course it did. Instead of going into the entrance, she headed down the path away from the castle and toward the road that headed to the town square. Surely Sally would have an idea of what was going on with her mom by now, and maybe Allison could offer her support. Plus, and this was not her main motivation in returning to Sally’s side before she was beckoned, how lovely it would be for a writer to see the inside of a small English village “prison.” Allison could only tell which of the lovely buildings held criminals because of the bronze signage above the door. She walked right in without any cops, or constables, rather, patting her down or hassling her. The interior was not what she expected, either. The whole place had a warm office vibe, and she was greeted by a friendly man behind a desk who did have a mustache but lacked a billy club or funny blue helmet. “Mary Poppins” had lied to her. Again.
“Hi,” she said awkwardly, just realizing she didn’t even know Sally’s mom’s name, or if Sally and her mom even shared a last name. Then, to her horror, she realized she didn’t even know Sally’s last name. “Umm, I am waiting for my…friend. She’s here with her mom. I’m not sure-“
Before she could finish, the man stood up and beckoned her to follow him. She had to move sideways to get her big coat through the narrow space between the desk and the wall, and then had to jog a little to catch up with him. They took two flights of stairs up, and then she found herself in a more municipal-looking area, a beige hallway with benches and multiple official-looking office doors. Outside of one of these sat Sally and a woman who looked like Sally in a few decades.
“Allison!” Sally said, rising to greet her. She look pleased to see her, so Allison removed her ridiculous big coat and walked toward them. “This is my mother, Sophie. Mum, this is the American I was telling you about, who was lovely enough to drive me to be with you.”
“Hello, so nice to meet you,” Allison said, too quickly, too loudly, in the echoing hall. “I’ve heard so much…umm…I’m afraid I’m not much used to driving on the wrong side of the…the right side of the…you know, the left side of the road…” Allison flushed, realizing that this must be the worst moment of this woman’s life and on top of it, she was having to meet a bumbling stranger.
Sophie just smiled up at her sweetly and said, “So nice to make your acquaintance. I’m sure your driving was just fine, since here you both are!”
Allison hovered for a moment before squeezing in next to Sally on the bench.
“We’re waiting for mum to sign her official statement. She gave it ages ago and they’ve been typing it up one bloody letter at a time, I’m afraid. This is all such a load of bollocks.”
“Sally, mind your language, love,” Sophie said, resting a hand to stop her daughter’s bouncing knee.
“Mum, they haven’t a lick of proof that you killed that dog! The whole thing is ridiculous and the whole lot of them can get stuffed.”
Allison sat up a little straighter. A dog? This was about a dog?
“Alright now, I know you’re upset, but no reason to get shirty with me!” Sophie said.
Sally stilled her body, slumping against the wall, while Sophie continued to gently pat her knee like she might a cat or a child. Sophie’s voice was calm and clear, and she was much calmer than Allison had expected. Maybe since it was just a pet-related crime and not an actual homicide investigation, it might make sense that she wouldn’t be too riled up, but, still, the elderly woman was awfully placid for someone sitting in a police station being grilled about dog murder.
“It’s true, though,” Sophie went on. “This is all shameless accusations from those terrible Johnsons. That terrible dog of theirs never shut up. Did I call the bobbies on it a time or two? You bet I did. When it got out and the beast dug its way into my garden, did I threaten to hit it with my shovel? I did. Yes. I did. But do they really think I could I ever kill a creature, no matter how pathetic and obnoxious he was?”
Allison snuck a glance at Sally to see if they were meant to respond and Sally was shaking her head and muttered under her breath, “Utter bollocks.”
Finally, a door at the end of the hall opened, and a wealthy-looking couple in their fifties or sixties walked out, followed by a man in a suit. The woman in the couple held a lacy handkerchief up to her face, but Allison noticed that her makeup was all in place and there was no sign that tears had fallen. The fullness of her lips made Allison wonder if plastic surgery was interfering with her tear ducts, or if this whole thing was for show. The man had his arm around woman, and as he ushered her past the bench on which Sally, Sophie, and Allison sat, he glared at Sophie with such malice it made Allison gasp. That balding man looked like he wanted to strike the old woman. Over a dog?
How long had these neighbors known each other? What was their relationship like before the dog arrived on the scene? Had there always been this much hostility, or was this new? Was Allison imagining it, or was there a little shadiness to all of Sophie’s sweetness? Curiosity piqued; Allison immediately agreed to go back to Sophie’s house for tea when they were done at the station. She really hoped this old lady was not a dog killer, and that when they said “tea” they meant “lunch,” since she was famished, and desperately wanted to see how Sally the baker and Sophie the famous chef fed themselves.