The villagers of Stoney Cross were bustling about like hyperactive ants. In gardens, houses, and the village hall, figures flitted to and fro, making last-minute preparations for their 'Great Event': the first Stoney Cross Arts Festival, which was due to commence on Saturday. The enlisting of a local radio presenter to advertise then review their efforts had added an extra frisson of excitement.
But the delight soon turns to dismay when the broadcaster, Marcus Willoughby, actually moves into a house in Stoney Cross the day before the Festival. He turns out to be someone from various people’s pasts; someone whom they had hoped never to see again, and who greets them with recognition – and malice – in his eyes. To those he had never met before, he simply proves to be a smarmy, spiteful bigot, who proceeds to take great delight in verbally shredding their artistic efforts.
When he is found dead at his desk in his new home, no crocodile tears are shed. His demise is even presented on air, during his pre-recorded radio show Marcus having been 'choked off' for good while in full flow. His arrival in the village had obviously caused a few already guilty hearts to beat faster, and precipitates the hasty confessions of dark deeds thought long since buried. Into this welter of emotions is dispatched DI Harry Falconer, his erstwhile Acting Detective Sergeant, 'Davey' Carmichael riding shotgun, as they enter 'bandit' country once more.
Choked Off is the second instalment of Andrea Frazer’s Falconer Files, a detective series chock-full of picture-postcard villages, dastardly deeds, and a delightful slice of humour.
As our story opens, Akela, Brown Owl, and the Sunday school teacher are gathered in the village teashop, casting aspersions on all those involved with the accursed Forthcoming Event. They had been cast out of their normal space for their weekly activities, and were sorely tried, and indignant that this should be allowed to happen.
In The Old Chapel (converted), Christobel Templeton sat at her Georgian desk, putting the finishing touches to her fiercely calligraphic poetry exhibits. She would, of course, not use these for her recitations, as they would be on display. She was a tiny woman with a mass of auburn-tinged curls, freckles, and big brown eyes, and was at present shooing her cats, Byron and Longfellow, away from the un-dried ink. As she resumed her lettering, her small pink tongue protruded, almost invisibly, from the side of her mouth as she concentrated. She so hoped that everyone would like her little contributions, and looked forward, with an anxious, desperate longing, to receiving praise for her efforts.
Across the intervening paddock, at The Old School (also converted), Sadie Palister stood stock still, chisel in one hand, mallet in the other, her head tilted slightly sideways as she viewed her creation with a critical eye from behind her horn-rimmed glasses, her view slightly obscured by the wispy fronds of a raven-black fringe. ‘This thing will be finished in time,’ she shouted across her studio to no one in particular, flinging down her tools and tossing a cascade of hair away from her face.
She stooped to grab an open can of lager from the floor, and pondered anew how to arrange her other, smaller pieces around this monster, for the great event. Smiling wickedly, she took a greedy gulp of the lukewarm flat liquid, and wandered over to her favourite piece, beside which her contact lenses were sitting. These were of a startling blue, and not only helped her eyesight, but transformed her eyes’ natural nondescript colour into tropical pools and, on the whole, she thought, they enhanced her image as a sculptress.
Oh yes, that must be blatantly in view, considering its title, and considering also who might see it and tie it in to its inspiration, she thought. (This was a thin hope, as she had no doubt that her old enemy would have little time for such small-fry as a village event, but it cheered her to think that this was, at least, a vague possibility – cheered, but chilled her at the same time!)Her gothic make-up crinkled with mischief, as she ran her pitch-coloured fingernails through her night-black hair.
Across the High Street in The Old Mill (converted, unsurprisingly), Araminta Wingfield-Heyes – Minty to her friends – bent her small, round figure to the bottom right-hand corner of the large canvas before her, her cropped mousey hair almost touching the not quite dry paint. Better sign it, I suppose, she thought, reaching over to her workstation where her brush rested, in waiting for just this moment.
In Dragon Lane, at Journey’s End, Lydia Culverwell ran her nimble fingers over the keyboard of her piano in rehearsal for the recitals she would give in the forthcoming event. She had chosen Chopin for her pieces, their sad and romantic themes close to her heart, but at odds with her plain and unremarkable looks. She had had her dull mousey-blonde hair highlighted in anticipation of, maybe, a photograph in the local newspaper, but could do nothing to disguise the undistinguished grey/blue of her eyes – others in the village, not so naïve, guarded their secret solution to this problem jealously.
As she approached a very tricky section, her ears discerned the unmistakeable ‘ah-ah-ahing’ of her neighbour on the other side of the adjoining wall, obviously warming up with scales, for her own performance. As the intrusive voice searched for a high note it could not quite find, and clung hopelessly to one a quarter of a note lower, Lydia flung down the lid of her ‘darling’ (her pistachio green baby grand), and flounced off to the kitchen to make herself a cup of camomile tea.
She’d wait for now, until the children of the neighbouring household went to bed, then give them hell with the louder sections of Dave Brubeck’s ‘Blue Rondo a la Turk’. That would teach the bitch to interrupt her when she was ‘in the zone’.
On the other side of the wall, in The (converted) Haven, Fiona Pargeter’s cat-like green eyes twinkled with victory and, with a shake of her copper-coloured waves, she launched into her proposed solo for her performance. That had shown the bitch next door that she wasn’t the only one around here with a musical bone in her body. As her voice soared higher and higher, she thanked God that her husband Rollo was a sufficiently accomplished pianist to accompany her – how she would have hated to go round on her knees to beg for Lydia’s services.
Casting this unpleasant scenario from her thoughts, she let her mind dwell fondly on the fact that Rollo had taken their children George, Henry and Daisy into the village to feed the ducks on the pond. They would not return until tea-time, giving her the rare luxury of peace and quiet, now she had seen off the crashing, mistake-ridden chords of that pretentious cow next door, who would be better off, in her opinion, thumping out melodies for the drunks in The Inn on the Green on a Saturday night.
Down Stoney Stile Lane, in Starlings’ Nest, the slightly dumpy figure of Delia Jephcott could be discerned, producing a bright tune on her flute, as beautiful and liquid as birdsong. She had no neighbourhood axe to grind and played on blithely, oblivious to the semi-detached rivalry and warfare underway in Dragon Lane. Oh, but she was hungry! But she mustn’t eat anything. No food! Let music be her only sustenance.
Stopping abruptly and putting down her flute, she darted guiltily into the kitchen and opened the fridge. A girl had to eat, hadn’t she? And it wasn’t as if she couldn’t do something about it afterwards, was it? She just mustn’t make a habit of it, or she’d have a real problem.
Across the dividing hedge, in Blackbird Cottage, Serena Lyddiard had her earphones in, and was totally absorbed in her graceful dance routine, floating and flying elegantly across the floor of her living room, oblivious to the existence of an outside world, totally caught up in the marriage of music and movement. Her steps suddenly halted, and she pulled her ear-pieces away as she said, ‘Blast your eyes Tar Baby! What do you think you’re doing?’ Her eyes smiled fondly at the big black cat, who had unwittingly offered himself as a Fred Astaire to her Ginger Rodgers, and she shooed him off to go play with Ruby, his red-point Siamese companion.
On the other side of Church Lane, opposite the church, in Blacksmith’s Cottage, Camilla Markland drew one long, last, lingering chord from her harp and sighed. Her own playing always made her feel emotional. A slightly overweight woman who was constantly on a diet, she was a suicide blonde, dyed by her own hand. She had mud-coloured eyes and, like Sadie Palister, she overcame this shortcoming with the use of turquoise-tinted contact lenses. The sculptress’s little secret was only kept, as long as Camilla’s was safe in Sadie’s bosom. If she, Sadie, ever indicated what she knew, then Stoney Cross would be made aware that Camilla Markland wasn’t the only one in the village who was pulling more than wool over her own eyes.
In many other dwellings in Stoney Cross, a welter of individuals were painting, mounting or framing their watercolours, oils and pastels. Portraits, landscapes, and a whole variety of other scenes, were all being treated with the respect due to them, as objects that would soon be on public view, and under the scrutiny of the public’s eye.
In other houses, voices were raised oratorically, practising the recitation of poems, short stories, and excerpts from longer literary creations. All much-loved by their creators, these pieces were being treated like new-born babies, each ‘parent’ hoping that their ‘offspring’ would be praised for their beauty, but with the not unnatural dread that they may be slighted as not pretty enough; that they would be mocked, even, for their lack of perfection.
Stoney Cross had become a hub for those of an artistic and creative bent, and was now polishing up its talents for the biggest show the village had produced in living memory.
In the town of Carsfold, Marcus Willoughby was packing up his possessions in preparation for moving to his new home. He had everything ‘in the bag’ workwise between now and Friday, when he would take up residence in his recently purchased dwelling, and thought his new job was going very well indeed. Smiling smugly, he inserted the last few books into a box, and sealed it with parcel tape.