published in Great Britain
by Dodo Books 2008
Copyright © Jane Palmer 2008
is a work of fiction and any
resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.
The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this
All right reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored
in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic,
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being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
Science fiction & Supernatural Fantasy books by this author
THE PLANET DWELLER
THE ATON BIRD
exploded in a ball of fire. Tiles from its antique roof landed in Victoria
Park’s lake and the inside of the butcher’s shop glowed like
an Aga at Christmas, its enamelled tiles falling, one by one, into the
inferno like swotted moths.
Those ducks that hadn’t already been frightened off by the skirling
sirens and clattering of hydrants took to the air before the smoke billowing
across the lawns engulfed them. House martins performed an aerial ballet
about the conflagration that was briefly punctuated by a blast of steam
as the water in the loft tank vaporised.
Most of the houses in Victoria Street that faced the park were now derelict.
The water pressure had been reduced long ago and the fire service control
were unable to contact anyone in the water company capable of increasing
it. For a short while the fire continued to roar like an angry monster,
vaporising any water trained onto it. By the time the firefighters managed
to run a relay of hoses from the High Street main so they could use jets,
there was nothing left to save. The stench of burnt meat hung over the
neighbourhood like Hell’s barbecue. A couple of teenagers threw
The conflagration had been so sudden none of the customers could pinpoint
the seat of the flames. All they remembered was a rush of hot, smokeless
air, and Mr French, the butcher’s assistant, ushering them out clutching
their liver, chops, and joints as he locked the till and phoned the fire
An elderly woman holding a carton of chicken mince for her neurotic cat
had refused to move since the fire started.
‘But I’m sure Mr Merryweather was in there!’ she wailed.
‘It’s all right Mrs Jenkins,’ the community constable
reassured her. ‘The other customers say he was out the back at the
time. They’re checking the gardens and park. He’s bound to
be safe somewhere.’
The old lady kneaded the carton of mince in agitation. ‘No! No!
No! He was showing Mrs Niblock the locket Una wanted mending.’
A friend, eyes smarting from the smoke, tried to comfort her. ‘Don’t
you upset yourself, Minnie. As soon as Mr French got us out he checked
‘Then why haven’t they been found?’ insisted the old
A fireman heard the outburst and caught the constable’s glance with
a nervous shrug.
For some while the clink of tiles dropping through the floors and the
nauseous stench of burnt meat pervaded the area around Victoria Park.
The police found Una Merryweather between the aisles of pansies and petunias
in the local garden centre. She was told, as gently as possible, that
her home and the family business had burnt down. It took several cups
of tea and five cigarettes before reality came back into focus, and she
realised that she was sitting in the comfort lounge at the police station,
talking to a plain-clothes officer with good looks that should have been
illegal. He was investigating the possibility of arson but, as the middle-aged
woman gradually became more fixated on him than the matter in hand, Una
Merryweather was discreetly left with a bright-eyed young woman who had
probably dealt with nothing more serious than lost poodles. She had certainly
never had to break the news of a missing loved one.
‘We can’t find your husband, or Mrs Niblock. We’ve been
told they went into the back parlour to look at a locket of yours, but
Mr French says they weren’t there when he checked.’ She took
a deep breath. This was quicksand without the stepping stones of a training
manual. ‘Is it possible they could have gone off somewhere together?’
The insinuation brought the butcher’s wife crashing back to earth.
‘Of course not! Deirdre and me are the best of friends. She’s
got a husband who dotes on her. And why would a vegetarian run off with
a butcher?’ Una took a sip of lukewarm tea. ‘I never kept
my locket in the parlour. Frank didn’t pay any attention to things
like that, but Deirdre knew it was in the bedroom, in the drawer with
The young PC’s jaw dropped; if the couple had been upstairs, now
she had two fatalities to deal with.
Una Merryweather had been a widow before. She pulled off her hat and thoughtfully
parted the threads of its tassel. ‘It’s all right. I’ve
lost most of my family at some time or other. The business used to be
my father’s. I inherited it when he died in a car crash ten years
The policewoman was nonplussed by her diffident manner. ‘But, your
husband - aren’t you...?’
‘Upset? Oh yes. But I’ve buried better men. You save your
sympathy for Mr Niblock. He married Deirdre when they were teenagers,
and they’ve not been apart for thirty-five years. Only albatrosses
know devotion like that.’
Fire prevention continued to puzzle over the ferocity of the fire. Despite
the shop being tiled, newly rewired, and Una Merryweather being careful
not to use flammable fabrics, they were unable to work out the seat of
Then the fire service decided it was safe to lift the carbonised roof
timbers. Under them they found the remains of two people.
A group of men stood at the end of Victoria Street and watched the ruins
of the last independent butcher in the Moltonford Town centre smoulder.
Like so many druids officiating at the wake of a newly extinct species,
their presence lent the incident a sense of finality. Few of the men were
local, but Moltonford had ceased to pay attention to the small gatherings
of strangers examining street corners, Victoria Park and inoffensive dips
in the lie of the town centre. As it sat in a valley, the borough engineer
should have been more concerned about the one in five gradients either
side of it. Many a resident had suffered a heart attack or broken hip
negotiating the steep roads to buy the groceries or pay the council tax.
Only after the local onlookers had tired of the spectacle and filtered
away, were two body bags carried from the debris of Merryweather’s.
‘Tragic,’ one of the strangers muttered without much conviction.
A neat man in a grey trench coat was more businesslike. ‘He was
the last obstacle. Now the remaining residents in Victoria Street will
be happy to sell up for fear of vandals wandering out of the park every
A large man with the deadly smile of a hippo was examining some papers
from his briefcase. ‘Once we explain our redevelopment plans for
the park and town centre, no one will object. Then we can condemn this
street and Victoria Park as public safety hazards. After all, that bread
left for the ducks only encourages vermin, the pavilion is full of down
and outs, and the toilets - Do you know what goes on in the toilets?’
A tall, distinguished looking man standing a little way off from the gathering
didn’t share their enthusiasm. ‘No. I wonder that you do,
‘Councillor Makepeace, why must you be the only one unable to see
the benefits of breathing new life into a derelict area that should have
been razed years ago?’
‘The only reason this area is derelict is because you persuaded
the council not vote the funds to revitalise it as the local community
‘Cutbacks. Did you want to see us rate capped like all the other
councils who believe every deserving cause should be serenaded by a full
orchestra when they really need to be drummed out of the back door?’
‘And your little scheme is not going to cost us a penny, Mr Grablatt?’
The large mouth beamed wide enough to swallow an elephantburger. ‘Gideon
Enterprizes will supply the shopping centre. All we do is make a few concessions
and provide the land.’
‘Worth a rental value of millions per annum.’
‘Enterprise, Councillor Makepeace. People want a shopping centre.
Who else could we rent Victoria Park and a run down town centre to? The
Merryweather read the notes attached to the flowers placed before the
remains of her family’s business. At that moment she had nothing
left in the world but a few credit cards, full board in a guesthouse for
as long as she needed it, and a pot of bright yellow pansies.
The shock had long since worn off and with the insurance money she was
almost indecently looking forward to a new life in the small fishing town
where she and her husband had intended to retire. An overpowering man,
Frank Merryweather had demanded that the world revolve round his mountainous
frame. Now Una was able to stop running in circles, she could smell the
moss roses left to run wild in Victoria Park and hear the squirrels squabbling
in the branches of larch. Of course, she would have to keep up the act
for some time yet and graciously accept condolences, secure in the knowledge
that she wouldn’t be around to be slowly marginalised as a widow.
Having already been married to a grocer and butcher, what was wrong with
trying out a redundant fisherman?
Una looked across the park. Through its damaged wooden walls, she could
see something going on inside the derelict boathouse. A man wearing climbing
tackle and a safety helmet was waiting while another with a silenced pneumatic
drill tunnelled into its floor. She arched her neck to try and see more,
and then felt that it was too early to show curiosity in such humdrum
things as municipal maintenance. The workmen were probably only checking
Una selected a long stemmed rose from the flowers, gathered up her carrier
bag of toiletries and returned to the High Street to brave the sympathetic
The Moltonford council chamber was surprisingly well attended, and the
public gallery packed. Having failed to see modest redevelopment schemes
approved, Neville Grablatt’s proposal for a brand new shopping centre
seemed an even better idea to the campaigning residents.
Of course, Councillor Makepeace radiated disapproval at the scheme, as
he had done when speculators tried to muscle into Moltonford a decade
before. Unfortunately he couldn’t put into words what was so worrying
about this new development, apart from it being proposed by Neville Grablatt.
There was an air of nobility in Conrad Makepeace’s slightly stooped
presence, like a self-effacing cricketer’s about to be called to
hit the winning six. His eyes were the same milky silver as his hair and
it came as a surprise to hear that deep voice resonate from someone with
such a narrow chest. Despite his crusading spirit, he possessed a calmness
that persuaded people to trust him. Ex Inland Revenue, the councillor
had a nose for projects that were not quite what they seemed.
It would have been pointless him getting up to confront Neville Grablatt,
the champion of the huge shopping mall, to try and block his scheme. There
were more grounds for complaint it being called Palace Parade, as not
even the second cousin of a monarch had ever stopped in Moltonford to
use one of their pink and cream urinals. Now the town could become the
centre of the driving shoppers’ universe. Gideon Enterprizes was
American based; they liked the regal overtones and believed that no one
could shop without a wheel at each corner. They had even designed, at
great expensive, a rather vulgar crown that would no doubt appear over
every entrance. Makepeace thought it should be called “Tacky Alley”.
As there was nothing he could do to outsmart the menacingly ebullient
Grablatt, he closed his eyes and dozed. Perhaps something would crop up
at the committee stage.
He woke as Grablatt was coming to the end of his triumphal speech.
‘Oh, my God,’ Makepeace groaned to himself. ‘They’ve
passed it. Where will the ducks and down and outs go now?’
The avuncular rumble of Neville Grablatt’s voice was deceptively
genial. ‘And, bearing in mind government policy to discourage the
building of out of town supermarkets, this development will house everything
- and so much more - than other shopping complexes. There will no longer
be any need to search for somewhere to park or struggle through the pouring
rain and biting wind to buy life’s essentials, or stand in endless
queues at the post office when there’ll be a counter in the same
store where you purchase your loaf.’
Another scenario loomed before Conrad Makepeace. The man wasn’t
only going to plough up Victoria Park, he was going to back the closure
of the local post offices as well.
Even the mousy mayor, vice chair, clerks, and chief officers had been
spellbound by dreams of credit card heaven and Grablatt was too full of
himself to be put off by one disapproving scowl. ‘This is the future.
The centre of our town will be protected from the elements, cushioned
from the threat of street crime, and cater comfortably for everyone who
needs to shop.’
There was enthusiastic applause from the public gallery and Conrad Makepeace
half expected to hear the sound of pile drivers at any moment. From then
on, it looked as though the champion of worthy causes would have to content
himself with putting to rights the gripes he heard in his weekly surgery
about the drains, traffic calming schemes, and barking dogs. Now the development
had been approved, any debate about municipal incompetence would be edged
out of council business by discussions on the colour of the paving bricks
to pattern the forecourt of Palace Parade.
The meeting broke up and Conrad Makepeace’s prostate insisted he
pay a call before leaving the town hall. It was late and the bar had closed,
so he wended his way past the enthusiastic groups of councillors and Palace
Parade supporters and through the darkened lounge to the men’s toilets.
As he returned, he fumbled inside his wallet to find his member’s
card for the car park. Tugging it out, his family photos spilled across
the bar counter and over the other side. Not knowing where the light switch
was, Makepeace was obliged to get down on all fours and fumble for them.
Having retrieved the snapshots of his grandchildren, the councillor was
about to pull himself up when he heard voices. One of them belonged to
Neville Grablatt. The instincts of the tax inspector kicked in and he
ducked back down out of sight.
Makepeace didn’t recognise the businesslike voice of Grablatt’s
companion. ‘I told you, Gideon is not going to commit without that
There was the familiar gurgle of perplexed amusement that resembled some
huge carnivore digesting its prey. ‘I keep telling you not to worry.
He’s in the bag. You heard the vote. No one can pull back now, not
even if Makepeace besieged the town hall with tanks.’
‘There’s too much at stake here. Gideon isn’t going
to bring in plant before planning permission.’
‘And you will have it.’
‘And we don’t want any trouble with the local builders.’
‘There’s only one firm of any size, and that’s run by
a woman. They never tackle anything more ambitious than the odd clinic.’
‘I heard they built a multiplex in a neighbouring town?’
Grablatt grunted contemptuously. ‘Oh that. Only some humdrum entertainment
complex for a council estate.’
The councillor’s business associate was obviously thinking something
over. ‘Has there ever been trouble between you and this woman?’
Grablatt sounded as though his estranged wife had accused him of going
through her purse. ‘Trouble? What possible trouble could there have
been between me and a local builder?’
‘Because if there has, she might feel inclined to start asking questions.’
‘Suspicious or not, Mrs Zelinski can find out nothing. This is a
tight operation. Do you think I wouldn’t cover my tracks when dealing
with a scam on this scale?’
The two men had reached the emergency exit and pushed its bar.
‘By the way, you don’t know who burnt out that butcher’s,
Then, to Makepeace’s frustration, the door slammed behind them.
approximately half past four the previous Tuesday, life had paused for
Preston Niblock. Reality still seemed light years away, as though he had
been nudged sideways into a different dimension where existence had a
The jeweller watched the burly long distance lorry driver make token swishes
at Deirdre’s bric-a-brac with a duster as though he could waft away
the ghosts clinging to her memory. The unlikely spectacle only heightened
the unreality. Of well meaning souls, the husband of Preston’s sister-in-law
took full marks, but Ben hadn’t been to that school which embroidered
roses round the door of life and knew what to do when the stitches unravelled.
If a jack, spanner, or new fan belt could fix it, Ben was your man. Unfortunately
Preston’s machinery needed the attention of a kindred spirit, not
a lorry mechanic.
Barely five foot five, Preston Niblock had always been smart, though not
dapper, and never wore his trilby at an angle. His cuff links could have
been ruby and gold; instead he chose garnet. He preferred not to advertise
his jeweller’s skills with what he considered vulgar display. Finding
that life wasn’t so predictable after all had not persuaded him
to review the way he saw the world; that would probably happen when the
shock wore off.
Preston and Deirdre had seemed so compatible as they chugged along in
life’s two-stroke jalopy. Now, after ignoring them for over thirty-five
years, Fate had lashed out with her hobnailed boot and left a cavernous
dent in its bodywork.
To avoid confronting his grief, Preston tried to calculate how many hours
on the road Ben was prepared to lose before being reassured that the jeweller
wouldn’t disappear through a rift in the floor to where purgatory
was a solitary affair. Fran, Deirdre’s sister, owned and ran the
local garden centre, so she and Ben could afford to indulge themselves
by doing the right thing. Preston wasn’t sure whether he resented
it or not. Though he didn’t want company, he would have lost his
sanity without it. Something kept insisting that if he went to sleep everything
would slot back into place by the time he woke. After all, he was the
one who should have collected Una Merryweather’s locket. Deirdre
knew nothing about jewellery. Given the crown jewels to look after, she
would have polished the Kohinoor with Windolene. Loving the infuriating
woman had never made any sense. It made even less sense now she was dead.
Ben looked at the alabaster carriage clock on the mantelpiece. It was
a quarter to six. He boiled the kettle then filled a tray with sandwiches
and chocolate biscuits in the hope Preston would eat at least one of them,
even though the sight of food made the jeweller feel nauseous. It was
just as well that the lorry driver hadn’t attempted to cook one
of the Greasy Spoon meals much beloved by his fraternity. Preston forced
himself to sip some tea and Ben’s large face lit up as though he
had a winning scratch card.
Ben, whose presence could intimidate the most seasoned of picketing French
farmers, tended to tower like a benign monolith and his chin always wore
a five o’clock shadow regardless of how often he shaved. He had
probably been a good-looking rogue when younger until Fran, and life in
general, gave him a thorough going over. All that remained was a sly twinkle
in the eye, the tattoo of a mermaid called Samantha, and the occasional
stab of pain that made him clutch the small of his back where twenty five
years on the roads of Europe had taken their toll.
By the time Fran arrived Ben had persuaded Preston to swallow some soup.
She took off her coat and waited while Ben washed up, secretly watching
Preston’s dark eyes, and tilted nose that gave him an incongruous
air of defiance. There was no point in trying to say anything; the man
was too intelligent to be soothed by platitudes.
‘Do you remember that time the four of us went to Blackpool?’
Fran eventually asked.
Reality still hadn’t appeared on the horizon, so Preston didn’t
think the question odd. ‘That was over twenty years ago?’
‘Deirdre and me went to see this fortune teller while Ben tried
to beat that Test Your Strength machine.’
‘He did too.’
Fran hesitated. Preston wasn’t helping her.
She took his hand. ‘I never believed in all that mystic rubbish
myself, but Deirdre was a sucker for it.’ She swallowed hard before
admitting, ‘That fortune teller said she was going to die young.’
‘So Deirdre took out life insurance.’
‘She never told me?’
‘Did you tell her about yours?’
Preston shook his head. ‘That’s different.’
Fran took a letter from her shoulder bag. ‘It’s a lot of money,
He pulled his hand free. ‘I don’t want it.’
‘I know it doesn’t matter to you now, but it’s best
you sign this all the same.’
‘It’s what Deirdre wanted.’ Fran put a Biro in his hand
and guided it to the document. Shakily he signed his name. ‘Good
lad. Una Merryweather is moving to the coast on her insurance. Why don’t
you think about a holiday?’
‘We can come with you.’
‘Ben has already lost a week’s money running around after
me and you can’t leave the garden centre to run itself. I’ll
be all right.’
Fran sat back and looked at her brother-in-law. For a moment he sounded
as though he meant it.
Conrad Makepeace rapped the borough engineer’s door. During weekdays
its reception was usually open to field inquiries about leaky drainpipes
on municipal buildings, blocked storm drains, and potholes in car parks.
There was no reply, so he took out his glasses and read the tiny writing
on the notice pinned to the door. ‘Due to pressure of engagements,
this office will be closed to the public until further notice. All enquiries
can be made on the following phone and fax numbers.’ Below was a
list of answerphones that would take messages for everyone from the chief
engineer to the office cat. The paranoia Makepeace was trying to fight
back told him that they were probably plotting with the planning and architect’s
offices. Common sense insisted that they were bound to be busy after the
announcement about the shopping mall, and nothing could happen until the
borough surveyor had made his report. And if any of them were in the pocket
of a corrupt councillor, he was no longer a tax inspector who could demand
to see their books.
But what about the fire at Merryweather’s? Two people had died and
those instincts that had once led him to the dodgy receipt or embezzled
millions were beginning to whisper “murder” into the councillor’s
reluctant ear. Despite being sure that the fire wasn’t an accident,
fire prevention were unable to say how it had started because the heat
was so fierce it would have destroyed the traces of any propellants.
Then there was Preston Niblock. Conrad Makepeace had been acquainted with
him for years. The jeweller had always engraved the names on his golf
club’s cups and mended many a family heirloom. How could he allow
the man to believe that his wife had been murdered?
flock of pigeons pecking at a discarded beefburger took to the air and
the occasional rabbit bounced from the overgrown hedges, wheeling this
way and that in terror before disappearing into the neighbouring gardens.
As the chain saws chewed through the trunks of their homes, squirrels
angrily chucked at them. Larch cones cascaded down and, despite the risk
to her perm, Linda Furnival darted in to collect the best branches for
her flower arrangements. She secretly mourned the loss of her lovely,
unkept park, yet for a shopping mall she would even forgive the council
its road calming schemes.
Although planning permission had not yet been granted, there was nothing
to stop the council felling trees or draining the lake. In the unlikely
event of Gideon pulling out, Victoria Park could always be concreted over
for skateboarders and car parking.
From a huddle of old raincoats and plastic bags in the derelict pavilion,
three apprehensive faces watched. Their home may have been leakier than
the squirrels’, but it had kept them from the worst of the snow
and wind. Now where would they go? Not into the town centre where the
other down and outs were territorial and always drunk. As Merryweather’s
had burnt down, the rest of the houses in Victoria Street, derelict and
occupied, would soon be demolished as well. Those residents who had held
out could get compensation. Alice, Mabel, and Hector wouldn’t get
a sou. That’s the way it always went.
Half a dozen duck catchers waded about the shallow lake trying to snare
the birds whose protests could be heard in the High Street. A small band
of onlookers gradually became a protest group, hurling imprecations at
the abductors, even though they were trying to save the lives of the stupid
creatures. Fortunately the lake hadn’t been large enough to accommodate
swans. For novices, ducks were difficult enough to handle.
The bird catcher’s supervisor had been watching from the paddleboat
jetty and came over to discretely ask the protesters whether they really
wanted a shopping centre. His team was immediately left in peace to box
the ducks and send them to a bird sanctuary where the geese would give
them something to really quack about.
The Victorians had intended the shallow lake to be the focus of a pleasure
garden in which children could safely sail boats and nannies wheel their
charges. For many years it had been just that but now, many fancying a
stroll past the philadelphus, weigela and moss roses, wanted somewhere
to park. It was easier to drive the dog to the downs several miles away
where their owners could sit in the car and watch their pooches defecate
as they smoked and listened in comfort to the cricket.
Most children had deserted the playground for that all dancing, all singing,
inter-active box in the corner that did their homework and provided monsters
to zap. So only the vandals showed interest in the swings, seesaws, roundabout,
and slide, leaving dangerous metal stumps that had to be removed. The
gate carrying the notice about talking to strange men swung in the breeze,
until an even stranger man knocked it off its hinges with a sledgehammer.
The remains of the fence were quickly dismantled and rubberised surfaced
Then the dredger arrived to remove the murky contents from the lake. A
cover was taken off a nearby manhole and the water pumped into it until
nothing of the lake remained but a deep layer of sediment, weed, and several
items that had failed the audition for Cash Converters.
The pavilion was left until last.
Mabel, Alice, Hector, and Jenny had been comrades against the wide world
in which they drifted; jetsam rejected by the virtuously employed and
well off. Because they were inoffensive, in the main, and advanced in
years they had been allowed to shelter in lock up garages and the occasional
outhouse, though they had always returned to the derelict pavilion in
the park. Because Moltonford Council had refused to approve the scheme
that would have revitalised the area, it had stood mouldering away, giving
shelter to the pigeons and doughty companions.
Now Jenny was gone. Alice assumed that the fairies had taken her, though
Mabel refused to believe that she would have left for sweeter pastures
without saying something. Hector had trouble remembering his own name,
let alone anyone else’s.
Jenny was a small, happy soul with no hang-ups or personal monsters. She
had been born on the road and, when her family stopped travelling, had
set out in her own camper until some council impounded it. The open air
was her friend, and her only craving for material things was clothes.
The last the others had seen of Jenny was when she had gone to collect
a bag of cast-offs that would have helped them through another winter,
and she wouldn’t have run off lugging that with her. Hector might
have done because of his tenuous grip on reality, and Alice was hardly
any better because she thought she was a fairy and could fly, frequently
ending up in the bushes when she tried. But Jenny - she was fitted with
her own biological transponder that told her whereabouts in the world
she was. The others were lost without her Traveller’s instinct to
find her way around, and daren’t stray too far from the town centre
and benefit office’s counter.
Two social workers eventually turned up to offer Alice, Hector, and Mabel
places in a hostel. Rounded up like sheep that had wintered on the moors,
they gathered together their belongings and followed the social service
Rotten to its foundations, the pavilion crumpled at the nudge of an excavator.
The wood was burnt where it fell, casting another pall of smoke over the
district and leaving nothing but the tiled floor donated by some Victorian
benefactor. Moltonford’s museum would have found storage space for
it somewhere if someone had bothered to notify them what was happening.
Then metal jaws turned to the remains of Victoria Street. The coroner
had given notice that the site of Merryweather’s should not be disturbed
until after the inquest. The police tape cordoning off the site had conveniently
disappeared and, true to local authority communications, no one had told
the demolition team. The address of the contractor’s HQ was such
a well kept secret that by the time the local police got wind of what
was happening it was too late. If there had been a crime, all the evidence
was now on its way to a landfill quarry. By the time the coroner heard
about it, Victoria Street had disappeared - bar Henrietta Stevens who
resolutely held out until forcibly removed. She had depended on the fair-mindedness
of Moltonford’s residents to object to an eighty-eight-year old
being evicted from her lifelong home, without taking into account the
overwhelming compulsion of apparently normal human beings to shop until
their credit cards winced.
Given so many people had the craving to meander miles of supermarket shelving
and see the ultimate in fitted kitchens, planning permission was promptly
granted so the heart of Moltonford could beat in time to the footsteps
of the consumer.
In Victoria Park, a scraper and three crawler dozers tore up the topsoil
which was ferried away by a convoy of articulated loaders to cover the
grounds of some executive director’s barren estate. Then rippers
and drills moved in to break up the pathways and boathouse’s landing
After the decades of sediment had been dredged from the shallow lake,
its concrete bed was also broken up and carted away for use as hard-core.
The park’s trees had never been properly cared for and allowed to
develop diseases and burr, so they were felled and burnt, watched from
distant roofs by resentful starlings, and pigeons still trying to work
out what was going on.
All the gardens backing onto the far side of Victoria Park were halved
to accommodate an access road, and an old cinema and office block demolished.
The landlords, who owned the jumble of offices, lock-up shops and restaurants
in the centre of Moltonford, were paid generously to relocate, and their
premises soon added to the brick dust billowing up and down the valley.
When the demolition was complete, a swathe had been cut through the centre
of the town as though some terrible juggernaut had ripped out its heart.
It was at this point that the owners of the shops in the adjoining streets
started to wonder whether Palace Parade was going to be so good for their
trade after all. They had assumed that the complex would bring more people
into the town’s centre. That was before seeing the final plans for
the monster shopping mall. What they had been given to believe would be
an open air shopping centre with a covered precinct, was now six storeys
high with a glass roof to hermetically seal the customers from contamination
by specialist outlets. It had just been a matter of moving a few key lines
on a plan that was displayed for public perusal in the foyer of the council
chamber, mostly inaccessible due to staffing cuts, so no one noticed until
it was too late. Neville Grablatt’s project was now a huge bubble
to blissfully beckon people away from the real world.
she gossiped on the phone, Mary Bell gazed out at the tropical, turquoise
ocean rippling like a sheet of thin silk. From the veranda of the mansion
she could imagine turtles, manta rays, and the fish of the coral reef
engaged in their life and death tango. Shoals of shimmering darts waltzed
in the shallows like banners being continuously unfurled and sea birds
hammered into the water, seizing lunch for their chicks. Catering to the
strange whims of Julius Tucker the third was worth it just to bask in
these exotic wonders. If paradise hadn’t existed, he would have
probably paid someone to invent it.
‘You should be here Angie, it’s beautiful. It’s not
like the house we had in the Barbados. This is right on the shore.’
‘As long as he keeps sending the alimony, I’ll be happy with
Venice, Mary Bell. Now you remember what I said. Hang in there and you’ll
still be around when the old crook dies.’
Mary Bell resisted the urge to giggle. Though Julius Tucker didn’t
monitor her calls, she would have felt ungrateful. With the gifts he had
lavished on the model, she could have bought her own island. ‘Oh
Angie, I wish we could meet once in a while, but I don’t know what
Juli would say? Would he be mad if he thought we got on?’
‘Probably give us a medal each. He’s a funny man. Blows hot
and cold over stupid things. Someone with his money can afford to be eccentric,
and then some.’
Mary Bell saw a launch drawing up to the jetty. ‘My taxi’s
just arrived. I’m going shopping.’
‘Have fun kid.’
Mary Bell always had fun shopping. She was genetically predisposed to
pull out the plastic and purchase anything that glittered, jiggled suggestively,
or fitted her.
She put on a flimsy, fluttery frock and huge sun hat. As she teetered
down to the jetty in her sling back heels to the launch, even the gulls
stopped fishing to watch, and the pilot had to keep reminding himself
that he had seven children and very well paid job for a billionaire. Losing
them for the sake of a quick grope would not have been a good move.
In a back room of the beach mansion, an architect paced round the scale
model of his latest creation. He hated the thing, resenting the very balsa
wood and styrene wasted to build it. He was an artist and should have
been designing opera houses, libraries, art galleries - even the odd hospital.
If the people who mattered realised that he had been responsible for this
monstrosity he would never again be asked to create anything more adventurous
than the kennels for a dog hotel. But this was a world where money was
everything and professional integrity easily bought. He only hoped that
anyone who went shopping in Palace Parade didn’t share his ascetic
Many aspiring architects might have been pleased with this creation of
glass in which the escalators criss-crossing its interior resembled the
teeth of gleaming rip-saws, and where cantilevered galleries were suspended
like the running boards of some heavenly chariot crammed with cornucopian
wonders. This architect had seen it all before. Enclosed shopping malls
should have been consigned to the society’s rubbish tip decades
ago. Then, try telling that to someone whose only thrill in life was watching
soaps and filling in lottery numbers.
Just before the sun went down, Mary Bell returned with a launch full of
shopping. Lace edged pillow cases for their new love nest in London -
Julius Tucker hated hotel linen - three gowns for a charity dance - she
would decide which to wear on the night - and a box full of tourist mementoes
to amuse herself wrapping as presents tomorrow.
Many might have said that Mary Bell’s passion to purchase was due
to some insecurity. Deep down, the model knew that she was really looking
for that elegant Art Nouveau bracelet her mother always used to wear,
and all these other things just seemed to get in the way. Five years ago
that heirloom had been stolen from the family home and was never recovered.
Now her mother had a terminal illness. Julius Tucker paid for an expensive
nursing home and treatment that would give her several more years, and
would have happily commissioned a copy of the jewellery, but Mary Bell
was determined to replace the bracelet herself. It was the best way she
could think of to show her love for a woman who had given up so much for
her air-headed daughter.
there is any beauty in a cremation, it is in not having to cluster around
a grave and give everything you had ever cared for to the muddy sod. Fire
had killed Deirdre Niblock, so it was only fitting that it should consume
what was left of her.
Preston Niblock felt as though he was going to float away on the perfume
of the white and pink blooms that crowded the crematorium chapel. Fran
was the local expert in arranging flowers for weddings, functions, and
funerals. It was an ironical tribute to a woman who preferred the garden
to be filled with forget-me-nots sooner than her sister’s penstemons
and petunias. Deirdre had been so different from Fran, Preston had often
wondered about the wicked twinkle in their mother’s eye. Now Deirdre
had gone to join her, no one would ever know she did have that extramarital
As he was well sedated, the congregation took the chief mourner’s
serene demeanour to be strength of character, not Prozac. Behind the impassive
mask, Preston’s thoughts were becoming more and more bizarre. Brandy
and sedatives obviously did not mix. As long as he didn’t fall flat
on his face or let anyone smell his breath, no one could tell that visions
of Old Testament magnitude were filling his mind. He was consumed by guilty
memories of how he had treated Deirdre more like an inept child than an
adult and never allowed her to follow through an irrational whim. Would
it have hurt anyone if she had planted that hideous shrub with purple
flowers in the front garden or built a hedgehog box in the rockery?
The jeweller sensed that the Universe was reading his thoughts. He had
never felt so terrified of being found out. Even the flowers started to
take on a life of their own, linking fronds to sway to the rhythm of the
excavators only two streets away, and without so much as a stem of cannabis
At the back of the chapel, Conrad Makepeace wondered what was going through
Preston Niblock’s mind. Would the jeweller have been so tranquil
if he knew the truth about his wife’s death? Well versed in the
ways of such occasions, the councillor realised that the chief mourner
was probably feeling very little at that moment. This service was for
that monster, convention.
Una Merryweather was there, untranquillised and dabbing her eyes, more
for her friend than husband. So were the Silvestri family who owned the
health food store, Lucy Tribble the beadworker, Winston and Mercy Cuffe
who owned Riotous Records, Monty Golden the bespoke tailor, Mr Singh the
shoemaker with his wife, and many other shopkeepers from what was left
of the town centre. At the very back of the chapel, trying not to look
businesslike, were two plain clothes policewomen. Watching them from across
the aisle, Councillor Neville Grablatt. Filled with an urge to reach for
the man’s thick throat, Makepeace closed his eyes and thought of
The funeral breakfast was laid out in one of the conservatories at the
Fran and Deirdre’s father had been a grain merchant. Preferring
flowers, Fran used her inheritance to set up a horticultural business
years before buying plants became the Sunday substitute for Church and
gardening programmes in colour had triggered ambitions in people once
content to watch daisies invade the lawn. As soon as they had developed
the compulsion to rake, feed and aerate their grass, then surround it
with tubs of bamboo and datura, her turnover rapidly expanded. Now television
had progressed and opened up luxuriant vistas to the window box minded.
Fran had to anticipate the demand for trellises, artificial stone mix
and F1 hybrids like a supermarket stocking up with ingredients after a
programme of Delia Smith recipes.
While the guests discreetly guzzled, munched, and made small talk, surrounded
by Fran’s tender stock of azaleas, gloxinias and calceolarias, Preston
Niblock watched the sunlit scene and tried to find some niche amongst
the bright colours in which to fit death. There wasn’t even room
for a graveyard spider, just sympathetic pats on the back, and careful
grasps of the hand as though bereavement had transformed the chief mourner
into fragile porcelain. Something told him that he couldn’t float
forever in this airy, expressionistic gathering and he would have to return
to Earth at some time.
Ben noticed Preston’s wan expression, sat him in a chair, and brought
a cup of tea.
Eventually the limb of reality rose and dulled the colours. What was he
doing here, wasting time?
‘I have a brooch to set,’ he announced to a neighbour who
had been telling him about her Persian cat’s new litter.
She hesitated before responding. ‘Really? What stones are you using?’
‘I promised Deirdre I would do it before her birthday. She wanted
one for her navy jacket. Opal - the stones are fire opal surrounded by
garnet baguettes - she wanted a dandelion. I didn’t have the right
colours, so I’m making her a dahlia.’
The woman knew she should let him ramble on, but felt impelled to sound
interested. ‘With rectangular petals?’
‘I have some rock crystal beads.’
‘Garnets sound nice.’
As he took a slice of cheesecake from the buffet table, Conrad Makepeace
noticed Neville Grablatt zero in to offer his condolences. He left his
plate to cut off the human bulldozer’s approach.
‘Councillor Grablatt, a word with you outside please.’
An annoyed flush filled Grablatt’s huge collar. He daren’t
lose his temper here. Glancing around to find some way out, he instead
saw Toni Zelinski, the local civil engineer, fixing him with a disconcerting
gaze. He was unsettled enough to go outside into the avenues of compost
to join Conrad Makepeace.
‘This had better be good. This is a funeral y’know.’
‘I’m well aware of that, and it’s a pity we’ll
never know how the woman was killed now the crime scene has been levelled.’
Anyone else would have defensively pulled back. Like a true hypocrite,
Grablatt quickly recovered. ‘Crime scene? What are you talking about,
‘The police told the coroner that the premises needed further investigation.’
‘What rubbish, Makepeace. If fire prevention couldn’t find
anything, where was the point in waiting a couple more weeks?’
‘A police forensic team were preparing to go over the debris. That’s
why they cordoned the area off. It was very convenient that their tape
blew away before the contractors arrived.’
‘These things happen.’ Grablatt pulled himself up to his imposing
height and dwarfed Makepeace, at least sideways. ‘And why should
all this concern me? Why bring it up here? Haven’t you got any respect?’
‘Just making sure you know that these matters do not go unnoticed.’
‘Good grief, man! You’re paranoid! Why would anyone want to
kill Frank Merryweather?’ Before Makepeace could assert that it
was because he was in the way of Palace Parade, Grablatt snapped, ‘I
don’t have time for this!’ Then strode off.
‘Yes, Mr Makepeace,’ said a soft voice from behind a nearby
trellis, ‘why would anyone want to kill Frank Merryweather?’
He turned. ‘Hello Miss Zelinski.’
Nobody really knew Toni Zelinski’s age. Her husband was almost seventy,
but she still ran up and down ladders, waded through muddy building sites,
and glazed the odd window when she had no workmen on site unoccupied enough
to order about. Not that anyone minded being ordered about by her. The
civil engineer had an intangible charm that won over everyone from architect
to apprentice brickie. It was odd to see her in a two piece suit instead
of jeans and canvas jacket. Conventional clothes revealed how attractive
she was in a mature dormouse sort of way.
Conrad Makepeace dutifully shook hands with the small, sturdy woman. ‘I
never saw you at the funeral?’ he said.
‘I only just arrived back from Scotland.’
‘I’m sorry I couldn’t do anything about the building
contract. They wouldn’t vote me onto the Palace Parade Committee.’
‘That wasn’t your fault. We all know that these things are
fixed well beforehand - But murder?’
Makepeace gave an embarrassed smile. ‘You never heard me say that.
It was just to make Grablatt uneasy.’
‘Every little helps.’
‘No murder then?’
Makepeace examined the roses growing over the trellis. ‘I think
I’ll take a couple of these for the porch. It might stop my wife
painting it a different colour every year.’
Toni Zelinski smiled. In the business of building contracts, it paid to
be able to read people, especially defensive members of local government.
That evening, while Ben snored in the spare room, Preston Niblock took
the small family Bible from its box. He turned its gold edged pages as
though expecting to find an explanation but the verses were for another
time, another place, and more irrelevant than words in an avalanche. He
had been without sensible thoughts for long enough and now wanted his
The jeweller watched the glowing embers of the fire Ben had lit more for
comfort than warmth, and then tossed the Bible onto them.
tried to scratch his back. His rigorously manicured nails were useless
and he let out a stream of monosyllabic profanity.
‘That’ll be enough of that!’ snapped a voice from the
‘Bleeding Bible bashers!’ cursed the old man, who rarely put
more than two words together unless really roused.
‘There are many who would welcome a place in this refuge.’
‘Then why don’t you bloody well go and fetch them?’
Mabel declared in her plummy accent.
Alice tittered. She wasn’t too sure what was going on but it sounded
‘All three of you have been nothing but trouble ever since you arrived.’
Mrs Roy slammed shut the prayer book she had been vainly trying to interest
her captive audience in, and stalked out.
‘Bad move, bad move,’ gabbled an inmate on the next table.
‘Be bread and dripping for breakfast now, bread and dripping.’
‘Don’t need bleeding breakfast,’ growled Hector.
When the social worker had promised the companions meals and beds they
thought that she meant a hostel, not a reformatory where God’s eagle
eye gazed down from every tin lamp shade, and their small collection of
worldly goods were fumigated before being impounded in a forbidding locker.
They hadn’t heard about Moltonford’s brand new policy on vagrancy,
which encouraged the immediate arrest of anything that looked as though
it was about to settle on the pavement. It wouldn’t have helped
the companions to know that the feral pigeons had been poisoned and the
dog pound was even fuller than Mrs Roy’s emporium for waifs, strays,
and the generally misguided.
Mabel straightened her hat as though about to attend a garden party. ‘We
had our own place, you know, in the middle of its own grounds.’
‘Yeah,’ said their neighbour. ‘Well it ain’t there
no more. Big ‘ole now.’
‘Hole? What do you mean? Hole?’
A huge sheet of plastic flapped in the rising wind to reveal lights spangling
the inky darkness below. From the depths rose the chugging of excavating
‘What’s going on down there then?’ a traffic warden
asked his companion.
‘Storage units. Be hundreds of them, each with their own lift.’
‘Thought it was going to be car parking?’
‘Nah. They’re knocking down the bus garage for that.’
‘Where they gonna park the buses then?’
Having dug the hole of one section, the excavators started on the next,
preparing the ground for raft foundations that would support the storage
units, an access road, power cables, and water pipes.
From under the hood of her parka, Toni Zelinski furtively peered through
a gap in the tarpaulin, down into a pool of light where East European
tongues tried to make sense of the site engineer’s instructions.
Although she was an experienced civil engineer with similar ancestry,
she couldn’t understand what was going on either.
Eventually, Toni managed to calculate that a building half a kilometre
long and several stories high, was going to rest on horizontal load bearing
spans. The agitated discussion in broken English seemed to be about the
proposed depth of the columns to support the centre of the structure.
They were supposed to help spread the weight and balance the horizontal
spans, but the engineer in charge wasn’t allowing them to sink the
columns any deeper than a metre.
Toni Zelinski replaced the tarpaulin, now thankful that she hadn’t
received the contract to build Palace Parade after all. It was also unlikely
she would be shopping in the place.
Not one to get up early enough to read about the progress of Palace Parade
in the papers, Emily shivered in the pounding rain as she waited for the
Without warning, a huge ball crashed through the wall of the bus garage
opposite and added a hail of mortar to her woes. Not hanging around to
find out what was going on, she pulled off her platform shoes and splashed
over to the nearest phone to call a taxi. Where was a prossie going to
take her clients after the shed at the back of the bus garage disappeared?
The following week, shafts were excavated in the bedrock to accommodate
the outside columns that would support the whole shopping complex. To
avoid time penalty charges, the builders continued to drill around the
clock. Homeward bound revellers stopped to peer into the dimly lit holes
and occasionally throw up.
Now the centre of Moltonford was empty of residents, it took on the eerie
identity of some restless monster trying to flesh itself from the intestines
outwards. On the balconies of council flats, people kept awake by cement
mixers and pile drivers watched as, one by one, tall columns punctuated
the night sky. Many were happy to substitute sleep with dreams of the
shops that would nestle in their marble heart.
Preston Niblock looked down from his garret workroom, momentarily mesmerised
by the frenetic pace of the building work in the valley below. Then he
returned to the hinge of a locket. His hand was still unsteady. The shelf
of half-finished settings and racks of pliers, needle files, triblets,
and mallets surrounded him accusingly. ‘Can’t work? Won’t
work?’ What use was a craftsman of fine jewellery when his hand
shook? He needed a holiday.
Preston Niblock had bought his shop and home thirty years ago when the
steep road down to the town centre had trees and grass verges until it
was widened. The owners of the properties below him had sold their back
gardens to a contractor who built a row of lock up garages. The jeweller
kept his land. He resented being woken in the mornings by neighbours revving
up their frozen engines.
Preston had never been sure whether Deirdre liked living next to the shop.
It was a sizeable house and he had often sensed that she preferred to
be in some unpretentious terrace with window boxes. As always, she never
said anything, knowing he wouldn’t want to give up the garret workroom
that overlooked the centre of Moltonford.
The jeweller took a diamond catalogue from a shelf and tried to invite
some sparkle into his life. It was no good. All he could see were the
cat’s eyes of a bland future stretching away into the night like
an unlit road.
He went downstairs and made yet another mug of Ovaltine. Nothing worked.
Sleep was another country. He examined his haggard reflection in the kitchen
mirror. The hard fluorescent light ricocheted off a bald forehead too
high for his slight frame. Preston was suddenly aware that the length
of his remaining dark hair was annoying him. Used to Deirdre giving it
a trim before it reached his collar, he picked up the kitchen scissors.
Before he managed to cut a piece from his ear, he replaced them in the
drawer and decided to leave it to the hairdresser.
chairman of the Palace Parade Development Committee, Neville Grablatt,
brought the meeting to order with a bell borrowed from the council chamber.
As he rose, his overpowering presence silenced the gathering of shopkeepers,
and tenants of Moltonford’s small industrial units.
From a distance, Neville Grablatt might have been mistaken for the sort
of gentle giant who helped old ladies across the road and patted their
overweight Labradors. As a councillor, that was how most saw him –
fortunately from a safe distance. Those who knew better had sense enough
to give the thug the wide berth his police record and size demanded. All
except Conrad Makepeace, of course. During his life as an Inland Revenue
inspector he had shrugged off worse threats than Neville Grablatt and
was tall enough to look the man in the eye, not that he wanted to know
what was going on behind those heavy lids. Grablatt had trained his expression
to be bland, his tone conciliatory and garments to hang on his huge body
without so much as a renegade crease. No one would have dared question
how he could afford a wardrobe of hand-tailored clothes to cover his expanse,
unlike many other councillors whose expenses only ran to the pick of the
‘Business people of Moltonford, let me welcome you to this meeting
on behalf of the Palace Parade Development Committee. I am here to address
any apprehensions you may have about the improvements to our town centre.’
Suddenly the air was filled with apprehensions. The bell once again tinkled.
‘One at a time, please. Shall we allow Mr Becker to start?’
As he was one of the few to remain quiet, having been immersed in ideas
for of the layout for his book on church furniture, this took the bookseller
by surprise. ‘Yes, er...’ He suddenly remembered where he
was. ‘When will we know the cost of the units in the mall?’
Having thought his selection a clever one, Grablatt now regretted it.
‘Ah, yes. That will not be known for some time yet. Rest assured
that anyone unable to meet such costs will be compensated for any resulting
loss of business.’
An ominous silence fell over the tradespeople.
Mr Becker promptly leapt from the cathedral of his preoccupations as he
recalled Gideon Enterprizes testament to Moltonford. ‘Loss of business?
I thought this shopping mall was supposed to enhance our businesses?’
‘Indeed we hope so but, at this stage, nothing can be guaranteed.’
Winston Cuffe, who owned a record shop, was less diplomatic. ‘All
surveys carried out have found that small shops suffer when a large enclosed
mall is introduced into a town centre. Our businesses will only remain
viable in an open shopping precinct, as the residents had been demanding
for over ten years, and were given to believe would be part of the development.’
‘Now this is some-’
‘Yes! Who decided to enclose everything in this massive aquarium?’
blurted out Mercy, his sister.
More people leapt to their feet.
Chaos rained again until, taking the coward’s way out, Neville Grablatt
pointed to an accountant who was fortunate enough to have an office that
would face the shopping centre. ‘Miss Priddle, do you have any objections?’
The accountant polished her apricot nails on a matching satin collar.
‘Yes, Mr Grablatt. I can’t hear myself speak on the phone
for those pile drivers, and all the pigeons not caught by pest control
are roosting on my roof.’
The councillor was momentarily wrong-footed. Whatever powers he had in
this little empire, pigeons were not subject to them. ‘That wasn’t
what I meant.’
Miss Priddle leisurely scratched her head through her bouffant hairdo
with a gold pen and looked the monster in the eye. ‘Mr Grablatt,
I have been asked to represent the Co-operative renting the industrial
units in Archway Road. My clients are dependent on trade from the railway
There were murmurs of agreement in the background.
‘Yes, yes. But this is a different matter-’
It was too late. The accountant’s peach tones were pared aside to
reveal the stone underneath. ‘So why has the council abolished all
parking in that area and doubled the rents of the units?’
Howls rose throughout the small hall.
‘This is not relevant!’ Grablatt bellowed above the din. ‘Those
units are unsafe! Structural repairs must be made! The new rents will
only come into force when this has happened!’
Miss Priddle was finding the shouting competition tedious and would have
rather been drinking wine with a vintage amour. The accountant rose like
an equatorial sunrise and the audience fell silent. ‘And, Mr Grablatt,
while these repairs are taking place, does the council intend to allocate
alternative premises to my clients? Or would it be more convenient for
them to just go out of business?’
With a unified roar of rage, the metal craftsmen, a potter, shoe maker,
baker, and electricians stood up, quickly followed by the rest of the
audience. Even the thug in Neville Grablatt was unnerved, so he slipped
through the platform curtains and out of the town hall to safety.
Without an Aunt Sally, the meeting was obliged to adjourn untidily to
the nearest pub where the arrival of the angry crowd persuaded some students
to vacate the benches in the garden.
‘Is there anyone here who still doesn’t believe something
is going on?’ Winston Cuffe aimed his question principally at the
Cupit sisters who made children’s clothes in one of the Archway
Vivian Cupit was highly strung and, once she believed her own conclusions,
was prepared to attack anyone who disagreed with them. ‘Why should
this affect us? It will bring more people into Moltonford. I don’t
know why everyone’s getting so emotional?’
‘Sit down Vivian,’ ordered Sonia Cupit. ‘Mr Cuffe is
right. There is something more than town centre redevelopment going on
here. Look at the speed they’re putting the place up. I doubt if
the rats were able to get out of the sewers in time.’
Vivian huffily resumed her seat and sipped her G and T as though it was
Church furniture was now the last thing on Mr Becker’s mind. ‘And
isn’t it odd how all the local builders have been cut out of the
‘Yeah, now why would they do that?’ Winston asked ironically.
The bookseller shrugged. ‘Perhaps there’s something in the
plans a mere British brickie would not be allowed to see in case he understood
‘Well, what about Miss Zelinski? – She’s straight. Did
our extension last year. Refunded a couple of hundred because they didn’t
need to make a saddle connection to some pipe. She wouldn’t go along
with any scam. That’s probably why she was cut out.’
The bookseller replaced his glasses to give the gathering an objective
look. ‘Pity Niblock isn’t here. He may be the quiet sort,
but he’s got a nose for these things.’
Vivian Cupit was unable to sulk any longer. ‘I always thought his
nose was too turned up to notice the tribulations of mere mortals like
Monty Golden, the bespoke tailor, would have resented anything that came
out of the woman’s mouth unless it was her last gasp. ‘Preston’s
a gentleman and he keeps himself to himself! Why would he waste his time
here? His business comes through recommendation. He doesn’t need
a shop to stay solvent, unlike some people who wouldn’t recognise
a French seam unless they tacked their fingers to it!’
Vivian Cupit went bright pink and let out a gasp of outrage.
‘Hey, steady!’ called Winston. ‘There’s no point
in fighting each other.’
Bored by the machinations of the shopkeepers and her clients, Miss Priddle
glanced at her watch. ‘Shame about his wife. Looks as though I’ll
have to wait for that pearl choker now.’
‘Pearls for grief,’ Monty Golden muttered.
‘Well he’s certainly had that.’
Mercy Cuffe had already been nursing her own doubts for some time and
could keep them to herself no longer. ‘That fire. You don’t
think? I mean…?’
‘Deliberate? Probably.’ Miss Priddle pulled out a silver note
pad and consulted it. ‘Fire discovered 1607. Fire service arrived
1614. Merryweather’s gutted 1629,’ she read as though it were
‘Do you really think that it was arson?’
‘Why else is there going to be an inquest.’
‘Then why did the contractors clear the site?’
‘Probably because there was going to be an inquest.’
The gathering fell silent. The manager of a small supermarket became uneasy
at the implication and left. His store was part of a chain and could relocate.
Mr Singh, the shoemaker, didn’t like the connotation either. ‘That
means anyone one of us here could be at risk.’
‘Only if you get in their way.’ Miss Priddle tapped her pearlised
lips with her gold fountain pen. ‘It would be interesting to see
the contracts for Palace Parade. This place isn’t being constructed
to bump up the dividends of shareholders.’
‘Julius Tucker the third never floated Gideon Enterprizes.’
would be another hour before the smell of traffic was wafted from the
coast road and, as though scattered with sequins, the gently rippling
sea sparkled in the morning sun. Preston Niblock put down his suitcase
to lean on the promenade wall. He had often stood there with Deirdre to
watch the sun setting over the headland and the ships passing like pieces
on a glittering draughtboard.
A pier dotted with fishermen straggled out into the benign swell, coming
to a full stop where some ferry had dashed away the pavilion at the end
of it. And the sea walls were higher – large stone blocks indicating
the height of public anxiety. Below was the dull clatter of pebbles in
the outgoing swell and the smell of decomposing seaweed. Moltonford seemed
a thousand miles away, not thirty. The jeweller even stopped thinking
about the gems and precious metals sitting in his safe. Though he now
ceased to value the materials of his trade, the unfinished jewellery of
several clients lay accusingly amongst them. But this was not the time
to wonder what stone to set at the centre of Lady Angela’s pendant,
or about reclaiming the precious filings from the bench apron. Until his
hand stopped shaking, filigree falderals, and grain settings were beyond
Preston picked up his suitcase and strolled down to Rosedale Guest House.
For the first time, he wondered why it was called that when the landlady
preferred to have clematis overgrowing the porch. Preston suspected that
his sudden desire to analyse everything was a symptom of shock wearing
off. Or perhaps he was at last admitting to himself that he was no more
than the sum of his own expectations. Without Deirdre to discreetly boss
around, life from now on was going to be lamentably empty.
The widower rang the doorbell and braced himself to face yet more condolences.
That evening, if someone had asked him what he had been doing all day
he wouldn’t have been able to tell them, only that he had the vague
recollection of eating, walking and watching some ancient film on television
where the star wore pearls the size of mothballs. All he wanted to do
was rest. Then the dreaded moment, bedtime, arrived. Having hardly slept
for weeks, Preston knew he would only lay awake under Rosedale’s
rose duvet, listening to ships pass in the night and counting the lights
garlanding the promenade. So used to seeing across Moltonford’s
valley to the council flats and listening to building activity that never
stopped, the darkness beyond the sea front was like a deep chasm.
He dutifully brushed his teeth, pulled on his pyjamas, and laid his head
on the polycotton pillow to while away yet another sleepless night. The
next thing Preston remembered with any clarity was the garnet hands on
his travel clock telling him that it was half past ten. As the sunlight
came round to penetrate the curtains, the landlady brought in a tray.
Not knowing where his dreams had taken him that night, he had the watery
feeling that this painful episode of his life had been shed like an ugly
scab. Even the mirror revealed a reasonably alert middle-aged man who
could have increased his weight by a few pounds and still been able to
button his waistcoat.
After a full breakfast, Preston Niblock put on a light suit to make the
most of the sun before another weather depression reared its ugly grey
He walked along the promenade and beyond to the rough path that wended
its way down to the rock-strewn shore to watch fossil hunters busily chipping
away at the shale. They always turned up ammonites, and occasionally somebody
found that fly in amber or rare fish.
The jeweller turned over a small chalcedony pebble with his toe. Deirdre
used to collect carnelian, agate, and quartz by the bucket load to polish
in her wind driven machine that kept the neighbourhood awake when she
forgot to put the brake on. Then she gave the stones away. Some women
served in charity shops or visited the elderly. Deirdre polished pebbles
and gave them away. If they had been together for another thirty-five
years, Preston still wouldn’t have understood her. A pang of guilt
reminded him how he had insisted that she need not work, even in the shop.
Although married to a master jeweller for most of her life, Deirdre never
learnt to tell pearls from plastic poppets, or gold from copper. However
much Preston loved her, she could have put him out of business within
a week. So Deirdre regularly baked enough food to feed a troupe of boy
scouts. Most of the rolls, pies and cakes ended up at bazaars, with neighbours
and in the plastic bags of the down and outs in the park.
Preston summoned the strength to put his guilt back in its box and wandered
over to the pebbles glistening in the outgoing tide.
Suddenly there was foam splashing over his shoes. He sprang back and brushed
the water from his trousers. Someone chuckled.
‘You need wellies around here. Pools of water everywhere,’
said a short, stout young woman with a puckish smile.
‘I’m foreign to this part of the beach. Usually keep to the
‘You don’t sound that foreign?’
‘I come from Moltonford.’
At the town’s name, the palaeontologist involuntarily blurted out
a laugh loud enough to frighten a herring gull from its perch on a breakwater.
Preston wasn’t sure what was so funny about his town, apart from
the eccentric sculptures on traffic islands and pink and cream public
‘You know it well then?’
She took a quick breath from an inhaler. ‘Sorry. Only ever went
there to buy the odd tool from Pilkington’s – Is he still
‘Retired two years ago. Both of his sons moved to Europe so he sold
‘Shame. Don’t suppose many specialist shops will last long
when that shopping mall opens.’
Until then, the jeweller hadn’t really given it any thought. ‘You’re
The young woman started to giggle again. ‘Bet they’re getting
on with it pretty sharpish?’
Preston’s innate curiosity was aroused for the first time since
the funeral. ‘As a matter of fact, they are building at quite a
‘They must know about it then. Have to with a building that size.
Depends how far down they were able to sink the foundations, I suppose.
But then, I’m a palaeontologist, not an architect. By the way, my
‘Mine is Preston.’
‘After the town?’
‘Born there to parents of small imagination.’
‘My parents are consultants on tacky films about rampaging dinosaurs
– promote every daft dino DNA theory that reaches the cinema. They
were dotty enough to have christened me Sally Sauropod instead.’
‘Mine thought that a trip to the cinema warranted exorcism.’
‘What did you watch when you managed to escape, then?’
‘Harryhausen films about rampaging dinosaurs.’ Preston glanced
down at the fossil she was in the process of cleaning up. It looked like
just another ammonite to him. ‘Now it seems people get more pleasure
from tacky shopping centres.’
Coral stopped giggling to herself. ‘You sure it’s going to
be that tacky?’
‘When it has destroyed all the opposition it can be as crass as
it wants because everyone will have forgotten what quality is and how
little they used to pay for goods.’
The palaeontologist opened her eyes wide. ‘Ooh, there speaks the
voice of deep loathing.’
As he hadn’t yet come around to blaming it for Deirdre’s death,
Preston wondered why he suddenly hated the idea of Palace Parade so much.
‘Maybe, but I can’t see what’s so funny about it? I
doubt if they unearthed many good jokes during the excavation.’
‘If they dig down deep enough, no one would do much laughing.’
Preston was unable to stand it any longer. ‘Would you share the
joke if I buy you a coffee in that café up there?’
Coral beamed. ‘Why not. This can be thirsty work.’ She gathered
up her small collection of finds in a soggy raffia basket and led the
The palaeontologist was obviously a regular and her doughnut and coke
arrived as they went to a table by the window.
She slurped down a few mouthfuls then took another breath from her inhaler.
‘You know about the River Nox, don’t you?’
Preston had never paid it much attention as its water rose some miles
away from Moltonford. ‘Yes?’
‘It runs under your town.’
He hadn’t known that. ‘I thought its source was in the range
of hills over fifty miles away?’
‘The drainage basin is, then the river meanders through the bedrock.
Guess where to?’
It didn’t need somebody as sharp as Preston to work that out. ‘You
mean … it will run directly under the new shopping mall?’
Preston’s anxiety only made the scenario seem funnier to Coral.
She continued to chortle, despite a mouthful of jam doughnut. ‘Better
than that. I’ve seen these old charts. The whole of your region
– the downs, and Millington Hill – was made by earth movements
that caused the rock to fold.’
Rocks on this scale were beyond the jeweller’s comprehension. ‘Not
Coral laughed. ‘God no, but the limestone is ancient and impermeable.
During the Cretaceous, when it was more soluble, the run off gouged out
a large network of caves.’
‘I didn’t know that.’
‘It would be impossible to sink enough bores to map out their extent.
We can only guess by the number of ancient artesian wells. Now most of
those have disappeared since the water pressure dropped.’
Preston took a thoughtful sip of his coffee. ‘I’ve lived in
Moltonford most of my life and wouldn’t have guessed it. Now Preston
sounds a safer place.’
‘Oh, it gets better.’
‘You keen on shopping?’
It was an odd question to slip into a discussion about geology. ‘What’s
that got to do with limestone caves?’
‘The centre of Moltonford sits over a bloody huge one. So I hope
they don’t build any heavy turrets on Palace Parade.’
‘But, the borough surveyor-’ Preston stopped himself before
he stated the obvious.
‘Well, that’s what the charts said when I saw them last. A
year ago I wanted to find the location of this fossil bed worked by the
Victorians, but suddenly no one’s allowed to look at them any more.
Could be cutbacks in library funding, but then, show me sixpence and I’d
believe in the tooth fairy.’
Preston Niblock was beginning to wish he hadn’t dispensed with his
security blanket of religious belief so finally. The idea of some almighty
deity watching, ready to punish miscreants wasn’t perhaps such a
bad idea after all. ‘Oh dear God.’
Coral swallowed the rest of her doughnut. ‘Well, when it all comes
out, somebody’s certainly not going to get to Heaven.’
The jeweller shook his head. Being thirty years older, he could no longer
deny cruel reality. ‘If it gets out.’
Makepeace looked in the rear view mirror to straighten his tie and comb
back his thinning hair before stepping out of the car, ready to face any
members of the press at the inquest.
Fortunately there was only one disinterested looking young woman who obviously
aspired to report on more action than this. What might have previously
led to a murder charge had now been relegated to a domestic tragedy, so
the local newspaper had no doubt found a somersaulting guinea pig or rude
vegetable to lavish copy on instead.
The councillor waited while the coroner and his officer bustled in, and
then joined the other witnesses, glad that Preston Niblock was still away.
The last thing the jeweller needed to hear was the gruesome details of
his wife’s death.
Alice clapped her hands and went spinning around the church hall like
a lopsided whirling dervish, much to the disapproval of Mrs Roy who preferred
Jesus to be worshipped a little more sedately.
Mabel caught her friend’s arm. ‘No, no, Alice. It’s
not a waltz, it’s a hymn.’
The rest of the congregation were doing their best to cough in time to
some irrelevant downbeat and Hector was braying inaudible obscenities
to the tune.
Mrs Roy turned accusingly to the piano accompanist. ‘This is impossible!
What is wrong with them today?’
‘It was fish cakes for lunch, Mrs Roy. They don’t like fish
cakes, much prefer fish fingers.’ The old lady in the huge rouched
hat smiled toothily without missing a note, as well as hitting quite a
few of the right ones.
‘What rubbish. How is it possible to show charity to these people?’
‘Just think of Jesus, dear.’
Mrs Roy’s eyes narrowed and her bosom heaved at the ingratitude
of the ancient vagrants she had saved from the streets. Not even the thought
of female bishops could fill her with such virtuous indignation. There
was an order to all things and some almighty cue kept snookering them
out of position.
‘Smile dear,’ said the smile under the hat. ‘Jesus is
The animal rights activist was a tiny young woman wearing an embroidered
cap and braided hair extensions. The sleeves of her antique jacket fell
over her hands and the mirrors on her long fringed skirt glittered in
an unnecessary spotlight.
‘Us, your Honour? No, we don’t believe in violent protest.
We believe in what Ghandi said. Our protests reflect the dignity of life
and the way it interrelates-’
‘Yes, Ms Tindal,’ interrupted the coroner. ‘We all know
what Ghandi said. Just tell us if you know of anyone in the Animal Rights
Movement who might have felt strongly enough to harm a butcher, namely
The small pinched face first mouthed the words before it dared utter them.
‘No one that we know. Mr Merryweather led the fight against the
redevelopment. After he had gone, there was no one to stop the bulldozers
ripping the heart out of Moltonford.’
‘You mean the park?’
‘Yes your honour. It was the lungs of this town and now it will
‘Thank you Ms Tindal.’
An usher gently escorted the animal rights activist from the witness’s
chair as though she was liable to flutter up to the balcony and throw
down leaflets about saving the whale.
Sub Officer Yeoman took her place.
He explained that Fire Prevention had enough suspicions to recommend an
investigation, but after the site was bulldozed they became academic.
The coroner resented being robbed of the chance to find reliable evidence
and wasn’t going to let the matter go easily. ‘Tell me, is
there any way of starting such a fire without leaving a trace?’
The sub officer’s eyes momentarily glazed as though his reply would
be broadcast nationwide for every arsonist to hear.
The coroner added, ‘Of course, any members of the media will exercise
discretion and not report your answer.’
The disinterested, solitary trainee from the local newspaper’s sports
desk continued to chew her pencil, unaware that her lewd doodles were
being taken as a threat to the legal process. The usher discreetly reached
over and confiscated the frayed writing implement.
At last having the chance to air his suspicions, the sub officer’s
face lit up. ‘There were several thermostats in the basement and,
as the room was reasonably airtight, it would have been possible to release
pure oxygen or any other flammable gas into the void.’
The coroner waited for the punch line. ‘Yes?’
‘Pure oxygen is very flammable, Sir. A spark from any of the thermostats
could have ignited it.’
The coroner paused. ‘Thank you Sub Officer Yeoman.’ Over half
moon glasses his glance swept the room. ‘Is Mr Conrad Makepeace
Everyone in the packed hall held their breath and from a privileged seat
in the balcony, Neville Grablatt looked down at the thinning silver hair
as his adversary took the witness chair.
‘Mr Makepeace, I understand you had some communication with one
of the deceased before this incident?’
‘That is correct Sir.’
‘Could you tell us the nature of it?’
Councillor Makepeace put on his glasses and referred to several letters.
‘I received my first communication from Mr Merryweather on the 4th
of November. He complained that he had been under pressure to sell his
property to a company called Gideon Enterprizes. Despite several approaches
he declined, though many other residents did accept the offer. Later,
the borough engineer sent letters to everyone still with property in the
street stating that, as the houses were so run down, they would be demolished
to make way for a new development, not specified. Mr Merryweather was
angry because his premises had always been well maintained, and had stood
on the same site for over two hundred years.’
‘This actually being the business he inherited from his wife’s
‘That is correct.’
‘Please carry on.’
‘Mr Merryweather had encouraged the remaining residents in Victoria
Street to resist the compulsory purchase order and asked me to look into
the matter. I did so, yet was unable to find any report by the borough
engineer or planning office that explained their correspondence.’
‘Was there no record of the letters being sent from council offices?’
Conrad Makepeace removed his spectacles. ‘None Sir.’
‘Can you say where the letters might have originated from?’
‘Paper with Moltonford Corporation letter heading would be easy
enough to come by.’
‘Do you have any reason to believe that Gideon Enterprizes was involved
in this matter?’
‘All my letters to them were ignored.’
‘Where were the threatening letters to Mr Merryweather posted?’
‘Unfortunately all his correspondence when up in the fire. I have
no envelopes and only photocopies.’
The last line of enquiry cut, the coroner sat back. As he glanced up,
the large, grinning face of Neville Grablatt seemed to rise like a malevolent
moon over the balcony balustrade.
Relegated to the garden for bad behaviour, Hector, Alice and Mabel took
their plastic chairs to a bushy magnolia and clustered beneath it like
‘Not like park,’ rumbled Hector, thinking of the goodies that
Deirdre Niblock used to regularly bring them. ‘Where’s Jenny?’
‘I keep telling you, she’s gone,’ scolded Mabel.
Alice sighed. ‘Why can’t we dance any more?’
‘We were wearing out the parquet paved with charity.’
The other two ignored Mabel when she talked like that. It also made do-gooders
suspect that she wasn’t quite what she seemed.
‘Merryweather! Sausage!’ Hector suddenly blurted out. ‘In
‘Only on Sundays,’ Alice reminded him. ‘Only on Mondays.’
‘Not since plumbers.’
‘No, not since the plumbers.’
Mabel nodded. ‘They should have fitted sprinklers.’
Alice was momentarily lucid. ‘What were they fitting in his basement
‘No idea, but it wasn’t sprinklers.’
‘No, I suppose not. Burnt down the same day, didn’t he.’
‘Yes Alice. Poor Mr Merryweather and Mrs Niblock burnt down the
to her irritation, Miss Priddle scratched her nail varnish on a staple
as she pulled out the brashly coloured brochure from its envelope. She
read the Gideon Enterprizes promotion with a mixture of distaste for its
simplistic hype, and outrage at the enclosed list of proposed ground rents
for Palace Parade. The cartoon crown sitting at the top of the page should
have been a tin hat, because there were going to be some pretty annoyed
shopkeepers in Moltonford. None of them would be able to afford Gideon’s
charges, even if they took out a second mortgage and sold the family silver.
As well as the craft workers and bespoke goods outlets she had agreed
to represent, this was also going to hit the small industrial units. Preventing
so many businesses from going under would tax even her ingenuity.
Large companies came in many sizes and shapes. Those controlled by only
one person were the most difficult to deal with. You could lop the occasional
head off multi-headed monsters without the others realising what had happened.
One person capable of managing a multi-billion dollar empire was instinctively
programmed to know everything about their business, from when to seize
and asset strip competitors to how many paper clips went missing from
his secretary’s desk. Getting past the Cerberus that guarded Gideon’s
gate was going to be a challenge.
The next meeting of Miss Priddle’s clients in the small church hall
was subdued. The gathering of shopkeepers and craftspeople now had no
Grablatt to shout at, and knew that virtuous rage would not prevent their
businesses from bleeding to death. Mercy Cuffe was close to tears and
her indomitable brother at last lost for words.
The accountant took an envelope from her briefcase and tried to sound
matter of fact. ‘Of course, there is this goodwill promise of one
sizeable unit to act as an outlet for several businesses. It would at
least afford a collective presence in the mall while you retain your original
Monty Golden shrugged. ‘Where would be the point? However large
it is, it couldn’t carry the stock of everyone here, let alone display
‘And it’s tucked right by the Victoria Square entrance,’
sneered Vivian Cupit.
‘Nevertheless, I am recommending that you allow me to take up the
option so they won’t have the excuse to rent it out to someone else.’
Monty Golden couldn’t see the point, yet deferred to her clinical
reasoning. ‘You’re the brains.’
Aware of the bespoke tailor’s business acumen, Miss Priddle doubted
that he meant it. ‘Thank you.’
Ever the optimist, Vicky Wade asked, ‘Can you see a way of making
this work for my pottery?’
The accountant neatly folded the letter and replaced it in her briefcase.
‘No prospect is totally hopeless, though I would advise those able
and willing to take any compensation move their businesses. From now on,
it will be an uphill struggle for all the specialist shops in Moltonford,
It was unlike Miss Priddle to hesitate, so the potter prompted, ‘But?’
Mental cogs had started turning. However, even this mathematician needed
time to calculate one of her Machiavellian schemes. ‘I will have
to study the small print of the contract a little more closely. From an
initial reading, it appears to contain guarantees of tenure and rent,
as well as generous storage space directly below the premises.’
‘That’s because they don’t expect us to take it up,’
said Mr Becker. ‘How could we manage to fit a bookseller, potter,
electrical goods, health foods, clothes, shoe maker, and jeweller all
into one unit?
The jeweller he had actually been referring to was Lucy Tribble from the
industrial co-operative, though Vivian Cupit cut in rather nastily, ‘Well,
I can’t see Mr Niblock taking up any space. They say his mind isn’t
what it used to be after what happened to his wife.’
‘That was uncalled for!’ snapped Sonia, wishing she could
tip her touchy sister into the footings of Palace Parade and let them
concrete her over, though the acid would have probably seeped through
Miss Priddle snapped shut the catches on her briefcase with a click that
resonated about the timber roof void. ‘If anything constructive
is going to come of this there must be no disagreements. I’ve seen
too many businesses fold because partners fall out.’ The tone was
not so much schoolmarmish, but Madam Speaker.
‘Hear, hear,’ Mercy Cuffe muttered into the intimidated silence.
The accountant expected nothing to be resolved that evening. Ideas fluttered
through her mind. Those without plausible business portfolios tucked under
their wings were quickly shot down.
As the gathering morosely dribbled out to late dinners and the pub, Miss
Priddle repaired her lipstick. In her mirror she noticed a butterfly standing
between the rows of stacking chairs.
‘Mrs Singh, I never saw you in the audience?’
Despite her elegant saris, the wife of the shoemaker only made a point
of being noticed when it was convenient.
‘I do not wish to detain you, Miss Priddle.’
The accountant laughed. ‘I’m pretty sure you can’t have
anything less constructive to offer than the others. What can I do for
The breeze from the open door seemed to waft Mrs Singh forward. ‘In
my home village my grandfather used to own a large store. As it was the
only store, he had to sell everything. Some things were not always available
when people travelled from outlying districts to purchase their goods.
It was often months before they were able to return. Had he known exactly
what they needed, he could have had it waiting for them.
‘My grandfather’s brother used to send him books from the
United States. Many of them were very old. One day something arrived which
gave him an idea. An idea that has worked in different ways, and different
places, over and over again.’
Preston Niblock read the article once more. If he had stayed away another
week it would have given Fran time to gather up all the newspapers in
the neighbourhood and incinerate them. He hadn’t told her of his
intention to return for fear of coming back to a house filled with flowers.
Preston had never managed to pluck up the courage to let his sister-in-law
know that carnations made him sneeze. How could you tell the owner of
a garden centre something like that?
Once again he read the coroner’s conclusion. ‘Frank Merryweather
and Deirdre Niblock met their deaths in a fire, the causes of which were
suspicious, though without sufficient grounds to recommend further investigation,
I must therefore return a verdict of unlawful killing.’
Deirdre murdered? As well as illogical guilt, Preston’s mind was
now seared with rage.
In the days that followed he kept the closed sign on the shop door and
sat in his garret workroom, idly trying to play shove halfpenny on his
bench pin with cabochons and soldering the swarf of precious metals into
bizarre doodles. Then he used a blank of platinum to chase the image of
a skull and grain set scrolls of diamonds and sapphires over its surface.
He would have pierced Satan’s outline in gold but didn’t have
the right star rubies for the eyes and suddenly felt hungry.
The jeweller went downstairs to make a sandwich with dry bread. Then he
sat brooding behind drawn curtains and ignored it.
Somebody turned the keys in the locks of the shop door. He ignored that
Fran, not having heard from him, had a hunch that he had returned days
Seeing Preston’s mug of cold coffee, she put on the kettle. ‘You’ve
read the paper then?’
He continued to stare at the wallpaper. ‘Why would anyone want to
‘They probably only intended to burn down Merryweather’s.’
Preston often found his wife’s family unsettlingly practical when
they should have been passionate. ‘She was your sister?’
‘If I knew who was responsible I would commit murder, but I don’t,
and am never likely to.’ She pushed a plate of biscuits in front
of her brother-in-law then sat down to face him. ‘Preston?’
‘Are you sure you want to stay in Moltonford?’
‘Why shouldn’t I?’
‘It’s not going to be much of a place for small businesses
from now on. You could afford to move to the coast, retire, or start that
small museum you wanted.’
He looked vacantly at the tea service as though it was about to vote on
his sanity. ‘I have to know why Deirdre died.’
‘Would you move?’
Fran shrugged. ‘My business won’t suffer. Given the way they’ll
heat the place, they can’t have a garden centre in the shopping
mall.’ Fran threw open the curtains then poured their tea. ‘You’ll
have to decide one way or the other. People are starting to enquire about
Preston hadn’t given closing the shop much thought. It was a decision
he might have drifted into before he realised that Deirdre had been murdered.
Cold logic joined hands with his guilt. ‘No. Whoever was responsible
for her death is probably connected with Gideon Enterprizes, and I’ll
be damned before I allow some corrupt speculator to put me out of business!’
Fran lowered her cup in surprise. She had never heard so much conviction
in his tone. Although sharp-witted, her brother-in-law had always appeared
mild mannered. Now some metamorphosis was taking place, but not one liable
to flutter off on pretty wings and sip nectar from the buttercups.
Parade stretched from the town hall, right through the centre of Moltonford
and to the small square commemorating Queen Victoria at the other. When
it was closed it effectively cut off access from one side of the town
to the other.
True to its royal pretensions, the contractor had cast preformed Hellenistic
pillars for its grand front entrance and façade, though they owed
more to Walt Disney than Palladian pretensions. Supported by the load
bearing outside columns, five levels of cantilevered gallery ran the length
of the mall. This allowed in enough sunlight from the six storey high
glass ceiling to illuminate the mall’s simulated marble and mosaic
floor. That was all the customers would be allowed to see of the great
outdoors. Even the vast store windows facing the High Street were filled
with displays backed by screens that blocked out daylight. At night the
Moltonford ghosts, whose haunts the monstrosity had displaced, would only
have the safety lights to find their way around, apart from Molly MacGlagen
the axe murderess, who had committed her deeds by candlelight and always
had a match handy.
It was opening day. Palace Parade was festooned with bunting and balloons,
much of it in places only hydraulic platforms and the surviving pigeons
could reach. All that was left of the old High Street was two fast food
outlets, half a dozen estate agents, and a forecourt in cream and red
brick from which the customers could be enticed into the major stores.
Neatly dotted with flower containers, it made a promise of the antiseptic
On the other side of the wide, welcoming glass doors escalators rotated
like jewelled treadmills and see-through lifts ascended and descended
with no visible means of support.
Everyone in Moltonford with a credit card and car boot was thronging around
the steps of the town hall where Neville Grablatt and a star from a television
soap out-performed the town’s dowdy little mayor. The poor man had
only been voted into the position because he never got in anyone’s
way or upstaged the real stars. If it hadn’t been for his chain
of office, he would have been mistaken for Grablatt’s lunch.
After the menacingly ebullient councillor had finished his oration to
Gideon’s commercial vision, the mousy mayor uttered a few piping
words. Then the Botoxed soap star tottered down the High Street on five
inch heels, ready to snip the pink tape across the entrance to consumer
heaven after the parade.
A huge net burst asunder and excited children chased after the released
balloons that hadn’t floated up to further alarm the much harassed
pigeons. Few people bothered to read the small print on them, just below
the cartoon crown, and probably wouldn’t have known what Gideon
Enterprizes was anyway, despite Grablatt’s eulogy. The only thing
Moltonford seemed interested in was shopping; for many the ideal substitute
for sex. It may have been more expensive, but you always came out with
something to show for it other than pregnancy or some noxious disease.
Then the majorettes arrived. Exhilarated by their success in a baton twirling
competition, they spun, twisted, skipped, and kazooed for the milling
crowds, clearing the way for the main attraction, floats of every nation.
Well, nations north of the equator with the income and a similar appetite
to shop. Stars and Stripes led the procession and onlookers grabbed the
proffered beefburgers and hot dogs from huge two-legged, foam rubber buns.
On the French float paraded fashion plate models with coat hanger shoulders
in off-the-peg clothes that would be available to the public in only a
matter of moments from the largest store. Holland was laden with cheeses
that had little in common with Dutch cows, and cereals that had everything
to do with genetically manipulated soya, maize, and sugar. Then there
was a flotilla of smaller floats filled with clothes, groceries, more
clothes, shoes, and even more clothes.
Miss Priddle was sitting at the window of her first floor office with
Toni Zelinski watching in contemptuous amazement.
No one knew Miss Priddle’s first name. She guarded it as though
it was even more unlikely than her surname. Whatever else she might have
been, the accountant was not a Priddle. She was an Athena of the ledger,
the goddess who could stand before the tide of outgoing expenditure and
make it flow back into its original budget. Many a suicidal businessman
owed his sanity to her inventive - and totally plausible - way of presenting
accounts to the Inland Revenue. She had thrown life belts to shopkeepers
mired down in receipts, and found obscure items of legitimate expenditure
that turned around the profits of several small businesses. Names wended
their way from the City to discreetly ask her to unravel unfortunate commitments
they made in the flush of yuppiedom, and the managers of international
firms surreptitiously faxed her their accounts to find out who had been
embezzling the tea money.
No one was sure what planet Miss Priddle had arrived from, or to what
she owed her phenomenal capacity for preventing people from being suffocated
by their own spreadsheets. Because her hobby was making herself look like
a model who fell off the catwalk some time in the seventies, her occupation
seemed all the more remarkable. When her clients had an accountant who
could save their businesses, they weren’t going to wonder too much
at the tightness of her skirt, height of her heels or how much lip-gloss
Sipping wine, the accountant and civil engineer peered over the flower
box to wonder as float upon cumbersome float appeared from nowhere.
‘I wonder where they had all those parked?’ mused Miss Priddle.
‘Probably that set-aside field on Butt’s farm.’
‘The wretched man hasn’t sold the land to Gideon has he? I
don’t think I could cope with more than one procession like this
in a lifetime.’
‘Don’t worry, it’s too far out. The field turns into
a bog after a shower and it wouldn’t be worth draining for a car
park. They need land in the town centre.’ Toni noticed the next
set of floats approaching. ‘Oh my God. This must be the seasons.’
Spring just managed to stop short of infringing Disney copyright, although
the suspended polystyrene centaurs and blue-haired sprites were a risky
cross between My Little Pony and Fantasia. Dolls and toys for babies bounced
from a canopy of billowing, parachute like clouds and media related mechanoids
for teenagers chased each other with alien weaponry to tinny sound effects
on the rolling daisy covered hillocks below.
Toni Zelinski was more interested in autumn’s castle than why the
float had managed to arrive before summer. It shouldn’t have been
possible to balance the top-heavy construction on the truck’s narrow
base, let alone have a dozen knights in full armour perching on the battlements.
Her gaze eagerly followed it like a spectator at Le Mans anticipating
a pile up. The fact that the castle was advertising kitchen utensils quite
escaped her. The last place she expected to see a saucepan was on the
head of a Norman knight.
Summer, rushing to catch up, was festooned with so many billowing drapes
that the point of the spectacle was mostly obscured. Tony Zelinski and
Miss Priddle decided that it had something to do with fashion. As the
accountant had her own firm ideas about dress and the civil engineer was
more used to boots and safety helmets than frocks, they felt no sympathy
for the models being strangled by their own backdrop.
Winter predictably had a ski slope crowded with the members of a sports
club demonstrating how you too could have bodies like them if you exercised
with their selection of equipment.
Miss Priddle stifled a yawn. ‘This is going on forever.’
Toni noticed a new wonder. ‘Oh look, a Jacuzzi on wheels.’
‘What’s that supposed to represent? Effluent control?’
The builder had something else on her mind. ‘Wonder how they managed
to plumb it in?’
The accountant’s priorities were slightly different. ‘I wonder
if that blond beefcake is wearing knickers?’
‘Given the height of those bubbles, he needs scuba gear.’
‘They left out Russia.’
‘Vodka and the Mafia?’
Miss Priddle reached over the window box and caught a balloon. She tapped
the small print beneath PALACE PARADE ‘That’s the closest
we’re likely to get to Gideon Enterprizes.’
‘Not even an address I can send my hate mail to. At least being
just across the road from them won’t do your business any harm.’
Miss Priddle burst the balloon with a sharp scarlet nail and scared the
pigeons roosting in the guttering above. ‘This shifty estate agent
from out of town has an “important client” who wants to make
me an offer for the place.’
‘Just as well you own the freehold.’
‘Now why on earth would Gideon need this side of the street as well?’
‘Because property values will be soaring in a matter of minutes?’
‘I doubt it.’
‘You’re right. No other business would stand a chance. The
rest of the town centre will only be fit for charity shops and estate
agents by the end of the year.’ Toni took a sip of her sherry. ‘Still
prefer to see the old park there instead of a wall of glass.’
‘At least it will give the local yobbos something to amuse themselves
Toni Zelinski shook her head. ‘Not that stuff. It’s not your
regular laminate or toughened glass. Even I wouldn’t have been able
to supply it if they had given me the contract.’
‘You know anything about the construction company?’
The builder shook her head. ‘Mystery to me. American architect,
Hungarian contractor - civil engineer probably came from Mars.’
‘It was a bloody funny way to put up a place that size.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Everything hangs from the outside columns.’
‘Shouldn’t it then?’
‘A place with those overheads needs to maximise its floor space.
The complex could have contained stores on several levels. Instead, it
has those narrow galleries of boutiques you could hardly turn a pig in.
They make the building look like a gutted liner.’
‘Oh, they won’t be losing out. Add to the exemption from rates,
no need to pay ground rent for five years, and the fact they only had
to fork out for building the place and they’re laughing.’
‘Now there are some books I would like to go over. Neville Grablatt
has all the answers, but they aren’t going to be published in the
local council’s newsletter.’
At last the soap star dutifully cut the scarlet ribbon and. as the large
glass doors to Palace Parade opened, another net of balloons were released,
along with some rather disorientated doves that zeroed in to the pigeons
returning to Miss Priddle’s roof with outraged territorial cooing.
She closed the window.
The Mayor’s party quickly stepped aside as a stampede of shoppers
rushed forward to be first at the special offers.
At every corner inside Palace Parade stood lithe young people wearing
comedy crowns and garish uniforms plugged into welcome mode. They handed
out commemorative pens, lollipops, and fizzy drinks. Throughout the heart
of the complex the escalators criss-crossing to different galleries framed
a fountain dancing to a selection of mind deadening Musak.
Quickly overcoming their awe at this cathedral to consumerism, people
began to search for discounts. Customers who counted the pennies when
buying baked beans suddenly found the money for frilly blouses that would
only be worn once, monumental candles for the patio, and aftershave guaranteed
to attract every airhostess from Florida to Singapore.
The shopping frenzy eventually died down when some residual logic told
everyone that the mall would be open the next day as well, and the day
after that and so on, until all the world’s special offers dried
Some stores had a sameness about them, like familiar tunes played in a
different key. If one had petit four boxed in cellophane, another would
have the same confectionery in glass trays with a spray of silk violets
costing twice as much. Perfumes for every occasion and person, male, female,
and pampered pet, were also priced according to container. No one seemed
to mind. The point of having an expensive looking bottle on your dressing
table was that visiting friends retrieving their coats from the bedroom
after dining on your cordon bleu crab paté would realise what an
affluent and discriminating acquaintance you were. The fact that the selfsame
product could be bought in half litre bottles in one of the large chemists
for the same price would escape their attention because they weren’t
going to admit that they shopped in such a downmarket outlet.
The Tots ‘n Tinies store sold every media related toy parents dreaded
as soon as the film appeared. Overpriced moulded rubber cartoon characters
were one thing - fiendish plastic engines that spat pellets, shot out
blades and kung-fued the cat without warning, were quite another. Life
in the nursery was already hazardous enough.
The Tots ‘n Tinies imprint published alien, brain-sucking monsters
for the semi-literate mind. If the tots were too tiny to revel in the
adventures of the World Destroying Demon of Mars, they could always read
about the inane antics of little fluffy animals running around in frilly
bonnets, patchwork waistcoats, and pinnies. And for those parents who
couldn’t read, there were sticky transfers of expressions they could
help their offspring fix to the right face.
The larger stores appeared to have found a mythical Far Eastern island
where the inhabitants lived side by side with grinning turtles, large
bland bears in straw hats, and a whole range of other cute animals they
were impelled to replicate wood, straw, stone, and metal. The ornaments
sat, perched or crouched beside small porcelain houses with filigree thatched
roofs and twisting chimneys, and notebooks of handmade paper decorated
with gold scrolls. After the senses had been desensitised by display upon
display of these gewgaws the price didn’t seem to matter.
Embroidered linen sheets to match the wallpaper, wallpaper to match the
curtains; everything had its place on the display shelves. It would all
be rotated once in a while to give more useless items room. Palace Parade
may not have had a feel for the necessities of life, but it certainly
had the knack of making people wonder how they could have existed for
so long without an exotic wooden salad bowl, onyx candlestick, or inflatable
That evening Preston Niblock watched from his garret workroom as a spotlight
on the roof of Palace Parade projected the silhouette of that dreadful
crown into the sky.
He put on his coat and strolled down to the Victoria Square end of the
High Street. From there the shopping mall resembled a monstrous glass
serpent that had just swallowed the town. The inadequate car parks were
filled with the honking and abuse of those trying to escape from its belly.
‘My God,’ he murmured to himself as though noticing Palace
Parade for the first time. ‘It’s six storeys high.’
The jeweller felt a chill breeze, pulled up his collar and walked back
of the secondary entrances to Palace Parade opened onto the small square
that was all that was left of Victoria Park and faced the gates of Fran’s
garden centre. Having bought their plastic flowerpots, potting compost,
and trellises in the shopping mall, people were fortunately fired with
enough ambition for something other than plastic flowers.
Before padlocking the main gates the next day, Fran thanked goodness for
the damage the central heating in Palace Parade would have done to bedding
plants and started to tally up the day’s takings. Predictably, compost
and garden tools were down. Plants had been going as soon as she received
new stock. That was the way she preferred it. Flowers were shelf worthy
for a limited period, compost only matured with age. When Fran thought
about the rapid decline of the other local businesses she felt a little
guilty, and wondered why the planners of the shopping mall had allowed
her to survive. Unfortunately there was a reason. It was standing in the
greenhouse outside her office door.
The professional looking young man with a smart suit and flash mobile
probably had too many diplomas to be a regular estate agent. As soon as
Fran realised the purpose of his visit she recalled that Frank Merryweather’s
troubles had started with a letter from some anonymous client offering
to buy him out.
Although tough when handling business matters, the appearance of this
hardly weaned executive made Fran’s blood run cold.
Her staff had just left so she locked the office door to come out into
the fuchsia house to meet him, only to realise that she was now too far
from the panic button. Though he was unlikely to give her reason to hit
it, the option would have been a comfort.
Of course, this young man’s client was prepared to give her a good
price for such a favourably situated site, and shares in the development
planned for it.
Fran’s response was immediate. ‘The rest of Moltonford’s
been concreted over. It doesn’t need any more development.’
The young man was momentarily disconcerted by the way the red-haired woman
lowered her head as though about to charge. He hadn’t been briefed
to deal with this degree of recalcitrance. It looked as though the menacing
aura he had spent hours perfecting in front of the executive washroom
mirror would at last have its use.
‘You’ll never get another offer like this. You could retire
and live comfortably for the rest of your life.’
‘I’m used to working. My family prefers to work until they
die. This business has been good to me, and I’m keeping it. Anyway,
how can you be so sure you’d get the planning permission to build
The young man’s smile was humourless and sinister, as though some
demonic entity was preparing to break through his bland, pale skin. Planning
permission was obviously no problem. ‘You’ve a very long perimeter
here. Must be difficult, keeping out intruders?’
‘Just the squirrels, and they’re only here because they were
evicted from Victoria Park. So what is it your client wants to build on
If Preston Niblock hadn’t put on crepe soled shoes for the first
time in his life they would have heard him come in. ‘How about another
They turned to see the master jeweller lounging against the frame of the
He hadn’t been part of the young man’s equation. In fact,
he had been given to believe that Preston Niblock was so overcome with
grief he refused to leave his house. But there he stood, tie-less, slightly
dishevelled, and nonchalantly swinging a carrier bag as though he had
just been deadheading the roses with an automatic pistol.
The visitor frowned. ‘What makes you say that?’
Preston strolled in. ‘Oh come on, as long as the industrial units
in Archway Road refuse to part with their premises, and nobody in the
streets facing the mall will sell up, it’s obvious. There’s
no room in Palace Parade for cars and Gideon Enterprizes isn’t going
to use valuable shop floor space for parking.’
Having the advantage snatched away from his well-manicured grasp, the
visitor suddenly sounded older. ‘Who are you?’
‘You know who I am. My name is Niblock, Preston Niblock. Your client
will certainly remember the name. My wife was “unlawfully killed”
when Frank Merryweather’s shop burnt down.’
Fran marvelled at the hardening of her brother-in-law’s manner.
It looked as though he was about to make up for a lifetime of being mild
‘What are you saying?’ Though the young man sounded threatening,
he stepped back, knocking over a Dollar Princess standard as the jeweller
‘I am saying that, if I ever discover who was responsible for my
wife’s death, I will destroy them. And if so much as a lit cigarette
end falls onto a packet of petunia seeds I shall go to the relevant authorities
with a few surprising geological facts.’
The young man hesitated. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘You don’t need to know. Just tell your boss. Now get out!’
Trying to stay cool, the interloper picked up his briefcase and wended
his way through the Campanella and Lena Daulton to the entrance. Fran
and Preston watched in silence as he drove off.
‘What was all that about?’ she asked.
Preston smiled. ‘I’ve suddenly developed an appetite.’
He pulled a package from the carrier bag. ‘You do like fish and
chips don’t you?’
A couple of days later, when Ben returned in his lorry from Italy at 10
o’clock in the evening, the garden centre car park was suddenly
floodlit and two huge Alsatians hurtled at the perimeter fence. Then he
noticed the razor wire that a Russian vine was about to colonise. Even
the family home next door to the garden centre was equipped with automatic
sensors, and as he opened the front gate he was once again lit up like
an ice show.
Not daring to find out what would happen if he unlocked the front door,
Ben rang the bell. His eldest son and two grandchildren who were on the
way out let him in.
‘What the hell’s going on?’
‘Mum’s had an odd visitor, but Uncle Preston saw him off.
How was Italy?’
‘Still on the right side of the Alps.’
‘Great. See you.’
Late for bed, Josey and Jim were bustled away to the car.
‘Preston? Saw off..?’ The lorry driver just managed to stop
the door slamming before he went inside.
After eight hours on the road he didn’t really want to unravel the
reason why his home had been fitted with enough surveillance to deter
a small army. By the time Fran had explained, he realised he was older
than he wanted to admit.
She poured some wine and went out to throw together a stir-fry. ‘Sorry,
should have warned you, but Preston insisted on doing it right away!’
Fran called from the kitchen.
‘Could this bloke be something to do with the company that tried
to buy out Merryweather’s?’
‘Wouldn’t be surprised. Preston knows something else but isn’t
Ben tossed his lorry keys onto the sideboard and pulled off his T-shirt
and jeans. ‘No rice for me, love. I’m trying to lose weight.’
Fran peered through the serving hatch. ‘My God, with a gut like
that you should stop eating at motorway café s. And Ben...’
‘Draw the curtains, you’re scaring the dogs.’
Ben had been on the verge of asking if she wanted him to stay on for the
rest of the week, then changed his mind. He would probably only end up
preparing meals for the resident security team.
‘Where did you get those animals?’
‘One of Preston’s customers supplies the police with Alsatians.
Apparently these two couldn’t quite get the hang of it.’
Ben paled. ‘How do you mean?’
‘What? You mean they’re dyslexic?’
‘No. Couldn’t understand what “LET GO!” meant.’
Fran’s face appeared at the hatch again. ‘Only joking. Want