There was definitely a body lying on the bookshop floor,” said Renée.
“There definitely was,” Valerie agreed.
The two sisters were among the more unusual members of Jude’s clientele. As a healer, she had come across a wide variety of humankind but Renée and Valerie were the only ones who had ever insisted on attending sessions together—and indeed both being healed at the same time.
And yet when she had met them, the idea made perfect sense. They had lived in the West Sussex seaside village of Fethering much longer than Jude herself had—they’d been born there in fact—and they did everything together. From their similarities in appearance and their intuitive understanding of each other, one might have thought they were twins, but Renée was the older by two years. Their manner might also have made them be taken as a pair of spinsters, but in fact both had been happily married, though neither had had children. When their husbands had died within a year of each other, the two women, then in their sixties, had moved back to Fethering to a house very similar to the one in which they had been brought up, and some twenty years later they were still there. They made a familiar sight walking along Fethering’s parade of shops and beach, two tiny figures with matching tiny Chihuahuas. The octogenarians were known locally by the compound word “RenéeandValerie.”
Jude had first met them when they approached her one morning on Fethering parade, asking if she was “the healer who had moved into Woodside Cottage.” As soon as she had assured them that she was, they had launched into a litany of the pains caused to them by arthritis, speaking as ever in an alternate sequence of overlapping sentences. This had led to Jude taking the pair of them straight back home with her. There she had exposed the treatment couch in her cluttered sitting room and done what she could for each sister in turn. Arthritis, she recognised, was not a condition that could be cured, but she knew some forms of massage therapy that could alleviate the women’s discomfort.
“We definitely did see the body,” Renée reiterated.
“Well, you seem pretty clear about that,” said Jude.
That morning they hadn’t come round for a healing session. Jude had had a call quite early from Renée, saying that she and Valerie had something “very important” they wanted to discuss with her. It was the kind of thing they wondered whether they ought to “go to the police about.” But they thought maybe “asking Jude first” might be a good idea. After all, you and your next-door neighbour Carole Seddon “have got involved in murder investigations from time to time, haven’t you?”
Jude had played down this suggestion, but still agreed that RenéeandValerie should come round to Woodside Cottage as soon as possible. And so it was that she found herself being told about the body the two old ladies had seen in the bookshop.
“You see,” said Valerie, picking up the baton, “last night we were taking Churchill and Montgomery out for their late-evening walk . . .” Jude knew that Churchill and Montgomery were the names of the two Chihuahuas.
“We always do,” Renée continued, “about half past nine . . . you know, for them . . .” she blushed “. . . to do their business.”
“Yes,” said Jude, reassuring them that she was not shocked by this revelation.
“And,” Valerie went on, “we always walk along the parade, because there’s good street lighting from our house to there . . . you know, for safety reasons.”
“Not that we’re pussyfooted,” insisted Renée.
“Oh no, by no means pussyfooted.”
“Anyway . . .” said Renée, “you know, along the parade are all the shops . . .”
“Yes, I do walk there quite often,” said Jude. Every day, in fact.
“And usually . . .” it was Valerie’s turn, “all the lights are switched off . . .”
“Well, except in the estate agent’s windows, they stay on all night . . .”
“Which always seems a bit odd to me, doesn’t it, Renée?”
“Well, so you always say, Valerie, and I do so agree with you.”
“Because do you think the estate agents really get a lot of potential customers checking out the details of a country cottage in Fethering at three in the morning?”
Valerie giggled, and Renée joined in. Clearly this was a private joke between them. Renée stopped giggling first and went on, “Well, anyway, last night we were going past the bookshop . . . you know where the bookshop is, don’t you?”
Jude assured them that she did. “Called ‘Book and Candle.’”
“Yes. It’s run by that woman with red hair,” said Valerie.
“Lorna Philpott,” Jude supplied.
“Mind you, I don’t think it’s natural red,” said Renée.
“No, nobody’s born with hair that colour,” her sister agreed.
“And if they had been, it wouldn’t still be that colour at Lorna’s age.”
“No. She’s married, though,” said Valerie, as if this were a slightly unusual state for a woman with dyed red hair.
“Yes, the husband doesn’t seem to be around much, though.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him.”
“No, nor have I,” said Renée.
There was a natural pause at the end of this little rattle of duologue. Then Valerie looked searchingly at Jude. “You know her name; do you actually know Lorna Philpott?”
“Yes, I’ve been in the shop a good few times. She has an excellent ‘Mind, Body, and Spirit’ section.” Jude didn’t mention that Lorna was a client, for whom the menopause had brought great misery as a final confirmation of her childlessness. Although her husband Mike had apparently never voiced any word of complaint or reproach, she felt that she had let him down. Healing had helped Lorna Philpott through a difficult time.
“Well, normally,” said Renée, picking up momentum after the brief lull, “Book and Candle has all its lights off when we take Churchill and Montgomery for their little nighttime walk to . . .”
“Do their business,” Jude filled in helpfully, sparing Renée blushes.
“But last night,” Valerie picked up, “the lights were on . . .”
“The blinds were down . . .”
“Oh yes, they always are when the shop’s closed.”
“And we were intrigued . . .”
“So we thought maybe the woman who runs it . . .”
“Exactly, Valerie. We thought maybe she might be working late . . .”
“You know, stock-taking or whatever . . .”
“Anyway, there was a little space between the edge of the blind and the window frame . . .”
“So Renée, who’s always been very nosy—”
“It takes one to know one, Valerie.”
“Touché! Renée crept up to the window and peered through the crack . . .”
“And there I saw a dead body lying on the floor of the bookshop.”
“So I had a look too. And there it was—no question about it—a body lying on the floor. It was a woman, lying on her front . . .”
“With a jewelled dagger sticking out of her back.”
“There was blood all over her . . .”
“Blood all over her . . .”
“Well, really, Jude,” said Carole. “I’m surprised that you take anything those two say seriously. They’re completely gaga.”
“I disagree. All their marbles are firmly in place.”
They were sitting in the antiseptically clean kitchen of High Tor, the home of Jude’s next-door neighbour Carole Seddon. By the Aga her Labrador, Gulliver, snuffled contentedly in dreams of killing hostile seaweed on Fethering Beach.
“Well, they always seem to be gaga to me,” announced Carole in a manner that defied argument. After a long career in the Home Office, she was a pragmatist, disapproving of flights of fancy—in anyone, and particularly in herself. “And really! A woman’s body lying on its front with a jewelled dagger sticking out of its back? It sounds like a scene from the local amdram’s latest Agatha Christie.”
“Well, I believe them,” said Jude doggedly.
“But if RenéeandValerie really were witnesses to this ‘scene of the crime,’ why don’t they go and tell the police about it?”
“I think they’re worried they might be laughed out of court.”
“With justification, Jude. And they claim to have seen this gruesome tableau last night?”
“Well, I’d have thought the first thing they should have done was to go to Book and Candle again this morning and see if there were any signs of their body.”
“Oh, they did that before they rang me.”
“And there was no sign of anything untoward. The bookshop’s blinds were up and everything looked exactly as normal.”
“Well?” Carole Seddon shrugged, as if her point had been made.
“So they said they’d be embarrassed to go to the police.”
“I don’t blame them. A very sensible decision, I would say. The police can be very patronising to people who see themselves as amateur sleuths.” Carole spoke with feeling. She’d had a few uncomfortable encounters with the authorities during her investigative career.
“But they’re still utterly convinced of what they saw,” Jude persisted.
“Jude, there are people in this great country of ours who are utterly convinced that they’ve seen spaceships landing and little green men climbing out.”
“Well . . .” Carole’s neighbour jutted out a stubborn lower lip. “I still feel inclined to investigate what RenéeandValerie saw.”
“Please feel entirely at liberty to do so,” said Carole with infinite condescension. “So long as you don’t expect me to participate at any level.”
“Well, yes, I could go it alone . . .” said Jude dubiously.
“That’s the only way you can ‘go it,’ I’m afraid. I’m certainly not getting involved.”
“That’s a pity.”
“Why a pity?”
“Because RenéeandValerie were very keen that you should be involved.”
“Yes, they said . . .” Jude lied, “that, though they’d appreciate the kind of intuitive input I might bring to the case . . .”
“What they really wanted to tap into was your analytical and deductive skills.”
“Did they?” said Carole, interest beginning to kindle in her pale blue eyes behind their rimless glasses.
Jude was a great believer in synchronicity, so she was unsurprised later that morning to receive a call from Lorna Philpott, asking to arrange an appointment as soon as possible. The diary for the rest of the day was empty, so it was agreed that the bookshop owner would come to Woodside Cottage at three.
When Lorna was laid out on the treatment table, Jude ran her hands up and down the woman’s body, not touching but just probing for the tensions and knots. The sitting room’s curtains were drawn and the lights kept low. The fire was alight and aromatic candles burned on the mantelpiece.
“Hmm, it’s the shoulders and the small of the back,” Jude observed. “Like it was the last time.”
“Yes. Can you make it better like you did the last time?” There was a lightness in Lorna Philpott’s tone, which couldn’t fully disguise the desperation in her plea.
“Hope so,” said Jude lightly. “I’ll start with just a basic massage to loosen you up, then see where we go from there. If you wouldn’t mind just stripping down to your underwear . . . ?”
Jude kept a very strict dividing line between her professional work as a healer and her hobby of investigation. She wouldn’t have dreamt of asking one of her clients directly about a case. And rather like a Catholic priest in the confessional, she would never have revealed anything said during a healing session to anyone else—even Carole.
On the other hand, she had frequently gleaned useful information from casual conversation with people on her treatment table.
As her firm hands kneaded into the tightness of Lorna Philpott’s shoulders, she said, “And I presume you haven’t come back for the same reason as last time?”
“No, no. I won’t say it’s gone away. There is an enduring sadness about having no children. Haven’t you ever felt it, Jude?”
“I can honestly say I haven’t, no.” Though Jude had had two husbands and many lovers, she had never met anyone with whom she had felt the need to make the commitment of a family. “But I do understand the feeling. Just turn on your side, facing the fire, would you . . . ?”
As her fingers probed into the tension along Lorna’s collarbone, Jude asked, “And how’s everything going at Book and Candle?”
A long sigh preceded the answer. “Oh, I suppose no worse than any other bookshop is doing at the moment. In other words, pretty badly. People come in and browse, find the books they want, then go home and buy them cheaper from Amazon. And of course the explosion of Kindles and other e-readers hasn’t exactly boosted the sales of old-fashioned books.”
“No, but you’re surviving?”
“Just about, I suppose. I do my best, set up events, readings, quizzes, Crime Evening, even book launches. . . . I did one back in September for Tilly Thwaite—she’s local and she had a book out then, and she’s very efficient when it comes to publicity. So I do try, but it’s an uphill struggle.”
“When we had our last sessions . . .” Jude knew she had to put the next bit delicately, “. . . you implied that, if you went through a bad patch with the shop, Mike’d always bail you out in the short term.”
“Yes, but I never wanted to go running to him,” Lorna responded with some asperity. “However much he might have liked that.”
“Oh?” Jude made the monosyllable sound light and incurious.
“I’m afraid Mike has always wanted to dismiss Book and Candle as a wealthy woman’s indulgence. He doesn’t realise how seriously I take it as a business. Book and Candle is my baby. He doesn’t realise that. Nothing would have given him greater satisfaction than having to bail me out.”
The only response was a noncommittal “Ah,” but Lorna’s words did stir a memory from their previous sessions. Jude remembered getting the impression then that all was not entirely comfortable in the Philpott marriage. That Mike was a rather unimaginative and demanding husband, and that for him Lorna’s inability to bear children was not her only shortcoming.
“Oh well,” Jude continued in a comforting tone. “I’m sure you’ll weather out the recession, just like a lot of other businesses.”
“It’s not just the recession,” said Lorna grimly. “It’s a fundamental shift in the way people access their reading material.”
“You don’t just sell books, though, do you? You’ve still got the candle side of the business.”
“Yes, but that’s only really there to justify the store’s name. I never sold that many candles. And now, given all the new knickknacky kind of shops that are springing up all over the place . . .” The sentence didn’t seem worth finishing.
“Hmm.” There was a silence while Jude’s hands continued to do their magic. Then she said, “So I suppose that’s part of the tension . . . ?”
“The reason you’ve come to see me. Worries about the financial stability of Book and Candle.”
“That may be part of it, yes. Certainly I’ve got to find some way of making more out of the business.”
“A way that presumably doesn’t involve you eating humble pie and asking Mike to help you out financially?”
Lorna Philpott jutted out a rueful lower lip. “Fat lot of good that’d do now.”
“The fact is, Jude, that Mike’s lost his job.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I thought he worked for a bank.”
“If you think that’s still a guarantee of job security, you’re behind the times.”
“Yes, I probably am. He wasn’t involved in one of the big banking scandals, was he?”
“Oh God, no. Mike’s been on the marketing side for some years now. With the same bank since he left school. And done pretty well out of it—good income, quite a bit of foreign travel, no surprises. But now there’s been some kind of ‘rationalisation’—that’s what they call it these days—and apparently the ‘rational’ thing was to chuck Mike out on his ear.”
“But surely with his experience, he could get something else, couldn’t he?”
“You’d think so, wouldn’t you? The trouble is, a lot of other people have also been ‘rationalised’ recently. And many of them are rather younger than Mike. And considerably less expensive. Not many openings for the over-fifties.”
“But he must get some kind of compensation, mustn’t he?”
“You’d have thought so, wouldn’t you? But no, he doesn’t get a lot. Little more than a year’s salary. And then there’s rather an ugly gap without any income until his pension kicks in. So Mike’s going through all those processes you keep reading about in the papers, registering with head hunters, scouring the ‘Appointments’ pages, trying to recontact old friends in the banking business, applying for everything in sight. And very rarely even having an acknowledgment of his application. He’s getting very depressed. Someone like him thought he’d got a job for life. And Mike’s not good at change. Even if he got something new, I think he’d have a terrible adjustment to working in an unfamiliar environment.”
“I can see why you’re stressed, Lorna.”
“And, er . . .” cue for a little more delicacy “. . . things are all right between you and Mike?”
“Oh yes. As ever.” But the airiness of Lorna Philpott’s words was belied by the instinctive tensing of her shoulder muscles under Jude’s fingers. Further questioning about the marriage would be required at some point, but now wasn’t the moment.
Lorna went on, “Mind you, it’s a bit cramped with the two of us currently living in the flat over the shop.”
“I thought you’d got that big house over on the Shorelands Estate.”
“Rented,” said Lorna. “And before long probably have to be sold.”
“I am sorry. I’m sure something’ll come up.” It was automatic reassurance; Jude had read too much recession gloom in the papers to be optimistic about Mike Philpott’s job prospects.
“Huh,” said Lorna. The sound summed up her hopelessness, and the mounting stress which had led her to seek the comfort of healing hands.
Since her client was being so forthcoming about her circumstances, Jude thought it might be the moment to try a more direct line of questioning. “I heard about something strange happening at your shop last night . . . at Book and Candle . . .”
“Well, don’t ask me about it,” came the tart reply. “I wasn’t there last night.”
“I needed to . . . get away from things for a while, so I went to my sister’s in Hove and stayed there the night. Mike was on his own at Book and Candle. . . .”
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