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Chapter 3 - Lilies at the Funeral by A.J. Hall

Sam had heard of stomachs turning over. He’d thought it a figure of speech. But that was before he had heard Lisa Clare’s voice on the other end of the line. Mrs Clare was upset but lucid, even though what she had to tell him was so fantastic that for one split second he wondered if he were the victim of a practical joke in the worst of all conceivable taste.

As he put the handset back on the bracket he was shaking. Not just his hands, but all over.

James looked up at him. “What the Hell — ?”

He collapsed onto the sofa and dropped his head into his hands.

“Hilary,” he said, in a muffled sort of way. “They’ve arrested Hilary. For murder.”

All the way out to Gloucestershire, his head resting against the dusty cushions of the train seat, he visualised his aunt handcuffed by police officers, pinioned between wardresses, dragged away into the women’s wing of the county gaol. And, because his imagination was vivid and four and a half years as an articled clerk had done much to dent his original faith in human common-sense, he followed her further. He saw her in the dock, futilely protesting her innocence before a jury of country dullards, their innate prejudices against women who moved out of their proper sphere craftily stoked by Counsel for the Crown. He saw the judge reach for the black cap. He saw the hooded executioner, striding through the prison corridors in the cold dawn light, testing the trap for the long drop. And he saw the announcement being nailed to the prison gates and the prison standard being hoisted to confirm all was over.

At Cheltenham station the fog of horror in which he had travelled lifted, just for a moment. He knocked on the stationmaster’s office door, explained in a few crisp phrases that he had urgent business and — completely against his better judgment, indeed, with very little idea why the idea had seized him with such force — sent a telegram to Raymond West.

JR Fleming’s Apollonian looks were undimmed even by stress and (doubtless) insomnia. The violet circles beneath his eyes added an air of bewitching pathos, like that of a wounded faun.

“Fleming, what on earth’s been going on?”

Sam’s voice, which he’d intended to sound no more than forceful, came out accusatory. Fleming looked first startled and then resentful.

“Don’t bellow like that. My head’s absolutely splitting.”

“You can take an aspirin and lie down later. Let’s think of Hilary, first, all right?”

Think about Hilary? My God, have you no imagination? I haven’t stopped thinking about her — locked in that horrible, squalid place. And they won’t even let me visit her!”

“That’s because you’ll be a witness at the trial, I expect.”

Not, alas, a defendant, though the lack of logic in the police case stuck out like a sore thumb. At least, it did to Sam’s (admittedly prejudiced) viewpoint. Any evidence of motive against Hilary surely went for double against Fleming. Opportunity, likewise.

Years ago, an eminent criminal silk had come up to Oxford to address a student law society, and stayed an extra couple of days to take advantage of the college facilities. Under conditions better suited for unreserve than the podium of the lecture theatre, he’d waxed cynical and expansive about country police forces.

“Forget justice. They have to live with these people, afterwards. And rural districts have long memories. A policeman who upsets a big local family doesn’t just risk his own career. Suppose his mother takes in laundry — his wife’s a dressmaker — his brother has a bicycle repair shop. All their businesses start feeling the chill. Just a word here and there over the vicarage coffee cups does the trick. You can hardly blame local police if they prefer to pin crimes onto a handy outsider. One to remember, if you get a case with a County connection.”

Fleming’s aggrieved cough brought Sam back to the present. Even without the K.C’s warning, there was no point in alienating the man, not until he had to.

“Look here, Fleming, I know it’s rotten for you. I can take a message if you like. Since I’m related, I expect I can get leave to visit through Hilary’s solicitors. Who’s handling her defence? I must speak to them at once.”

Fleming looked sulky. “I don’t know. I wanted her to use our family firm — Blair Hayward and Bennett, they’ve acted for us practically since the Conquest — but she said no. I can’t imagine why. It can’t have been the expense; I offered to pay everything, naturally, and I only got some garbled message back from that awful landlady of hers — Lisa Clare — she seems to have wormed her way in everywhere. Some nonsense about its looking bad, or causing problems with the Law Society or something to use our family solicitors.”

Sam had absolutely no intention of explaining the ‘cutthroat defence’ to Fleming. But if anyone was going to take that line, it wouldn’t be a firm of solicitors whom countless generations of Flemings had fed, clothed and kept comfortably housed. His opinion of Lisa Clare, whom he had yet to meet, went up another notch.

“Well, I’ll find out. Anyway, Fleming, you haven’t answered my question. Do you know what can possibly have happened? Could your mother have taken something —” He saw Fleming’s mouth begin to shape a denial, and raised hs hand to forestall the inevitable. “No. Not like that. But could she have combined two medicines which reacted badly with each other? By accident, I mean.”

Sam had seen Fleming’s Caliban. And, for that matter, his Oberon. He thought distantly that should have prepared him. As he explained later, to James, “I knew he could become a different person. I just hadn’t expected to happen then. Or like that.”

Oh.” An intense exhalation of agonised revelation, followed by a perfectly judged pause. “I see now. Oh, God, what a fool I’ve been. I can’t — d’you realise, a man at Oxford warned me once about eau de noyau — they make it from peach stones, you know, that’s why it’s got that bitter almond taste. Mother loved it; it was the only liqueur she could bear to drink. I kept a bottle in my set at Oxford, for when she came to visit.”

Fleming rose from the sofa, where he had been slumped, and paced across to the window. The late afternoon sun caught his features at the perfect angle, making him look simultaneously ethereal, noble and tormented.

“It was Halliwell who warned me noyau could be dangerous. Did you know him? Frightfully earnest. Chemist. Keble. Kept wanting OUDS to put on JB Priestley and Githa Sowerby. If only I’d remembered last week — but Halliwell was such a dim bulb, one never did remember anything he said, ten seconds later. Oh, God, I’m babbling, aren’t I? But if only — How could I forget? How dare I forget? This is all my fault.”

Sam repressed the urge to slap him. A genuine lead would be worth rubies, but this Detective Weekly stuff about noyau smelt of desperation: a drowning man clutching at straws. Because Sam was straw-clutching on his own account, his voice came out all the harsher.

“What’s your fault? Pull yourself together, man; you’re not making sense.”

“I suppose I’m not.” A bitter, half-smile played about Fleming’s lips. “It comes as a shock to a man, to realise he’s killed his own mother. Look, Mansell, do you mind seeing yourself out? I’ve got rather an important call to put through to the police.”

Sam might never have attempted anything more elevated in the acting line than “Sheep, noises off” at his prep. school, but he knew a curtain line when he heard one. He exited, stage left.