Parents and Children
Bartlemy Goodman was home the night the burglars came. He usually was at home. For a man who had seen so much, and done so much, he now led a very tranquil life, or so it appeared, visiting the village of Eade mainly to see Annie Ward, who was widely thought to be his niece, and rarely venturing beyond Crowford. He was known to own the bookshop where Annie and her son lodged, and believed to be a collector, though no one was quite sure of what. The villagers accepted his unspecified eccentricities, and respected him for no particular reason, except that he appeared worthy of respect. It was a part of his Gift that he could pass almost unremarked in the local community, giving rise to no gossip, awakening no curiosity, though he had lived at Thornyhill, the old house out in the woods, since the original Thorns had sold up and all but died out generations before. Without really thinking about it, people assumed that the house had been bought by Bartlemy's grandfather, or some other elderly relative, and had passed on from Goodman to Goodman until it reached the present incumbent. They never wondered why each successive owner should look the same, or remain apparently the same age, around sixty; indeed, had anyone been asked, they would have sworn to little differences among the Bartlemys, to periods of absence following the death of one when another must have been growing up somewhere abroad. Nor did they ever wonder about the dog.
Every Goodman had had a dog, a large shaggy creature of mixed parentage and universal goodwill, with bright, intelligent eyes under whiskery eyebrows, and a lolling tongue. This one was called Hoover, because he devoured crumbs, and indeed anything else that came his way. The most wonderful cooking smells in the world would forgather in Bartlemy's kitchen, and the generosity of the leftovers made it canine heaven. Hoover had no reputation for savagery, welcoming every visitor, even the postman, with amiable enthusiasm, yet perhaps because of him the house had never been burgled before, except for the strange incident the previous year, and in that case the stolen object--which had belonged to someone else--had eventually been returned by Bartlemy himself, though no one knew how he retrieved it. The house was isolated, unprotected by alarms or security, and with the vague rumors that Bartlemy "collected" it should have been an obvious target, yet until that night in late April the criminal fraternity had left it alone.
The burglars were two youths, as the newspapers would have called them, an Asian boy from Crowford who was only seventeen, and his sixteen-year-old sidekick, who was big and ginger-haired and not very bright. Getting in was easy: they broke a window, which was stupid, because the back door wasn't locked, and were just checking out the sitting room when the dog pounced. He didn't bark: it would've meant wasting time. Bartlemy came downstairs, wrapped in an enormous dark blue dressing gown with stars on it, to find the ginger-haired sidekick shivering in a corner while the other boy lay on his back with Hoover standing over him. He wasn't growling--he never growled--but the boy could see, behind the panting tongue and doggy grin, two rows of large yellow teeth that wouldn't have looked out of place on a wolf. There was a knife lying on the rug a little way away. Bartlemy picked it up by the blade. Afterward, the boy puzzled over how the house owner had known to come down, when neither the intruders nor the dog had made much noise.
"This is--this is assault," the youth stammered, keeping his voice to a whisper. "I can sue."
"I haven't assaulted you," Bartlemy pointed out in his placid way.
"He hasn't assaulted you, either." Yet, said the ensuing pause.
"We didn't mean no harm," offered Ginger, between sullenness and fright.
"I'm sure you didn't. I'll telephone the police, and then you can sit down with me, and have a cookie, and while we wait you can tell me what you did mean."
The call was made, and somehow the boys didn't argue, perching nervously on the edge of Bartlemy's sofa and nibbling homemade cookies while Hoover stood by, watching them in a proprietary manner. Ginger was known for beating up older boys, and the little Asian--his name was Ram--made up in aggression what he lacked in size, but they sat as quiet as if they were at a vicarage tea party, and God was waiting with a thunderbolt for one of them to burp.
"Someone sent you here, didn't they?" said Bartlemy. "What were you looking for?"
Mouths opened and shut, and Ginger choked on a cookie crumb, but this time it was Ram who looked most afraid.
"No one sent us," he said at last.
"It was your own idea?"
"Yeah. Yeah. I'm the one with the ideas."
"Do you think it was a good idea?"
"Are you sure no one sent you?" Bartlemy persisted.
Ram turned pale, and his mouth closed tight, and he looked almost relieved when the police arrived. He knew just how not to talk to the police. He'd sat through many interrogations, he was still underage, and insofar as it concerned himself he knew the law as well as any solicitor. But this man with his unruffled manner, and his alarming dog, and his calm blue gaze that seemed to see straight into your mind--this was something far more demoralizing than any bullying copper. Ram had a horrible feeling that given time--and a few more cookies--he would have been telling Bartlemy things even his mother didn't know. He was secretly thankful to settle for the more familiar option.
Watching them go with a sigh, Bartlemy surmised that if they had been sent, Ginger, at least, knew nothing of it. He returned to bed, and in the half hour before sleep considered possible lines of inquiry. A few days later, he telephoned an acquaintance in the CID.
Some months had passed since their last meeting, and Inspector Pobjoy had become chief inspector, helped by his recent arrest of a serial killer when most of his colleagues hadn't believed any murders had actually taken place. Bartlemy had been involved in that affair, which had been vaguely connected to the former theft at Thornyhill, and Pobjoy still darkly suspected that he knew many facts that had never emerged. There had been too many loopholes in the case, too many loose ends. Not that Bartlemy had ever been a suspect, though perhaps he should have been, caught as he was in the middle of things. However, Pobjoy was curiously glad to hear from him, and intrigued at the news of the attempted burglary, and he agreed instantly to come to Thornyhill for a cup of tea and an informal chat.
"You should lock your back door," he suggested when they met.
"But if I did that," Bartlemy said, "people wouldn't be able to get in." It was unanswerable. "Anyway, they broke a window. That's the kind they were: crude, not very clever. The sort who would always break a window, if there was a window to break. I was rather surprised to find them so unsubtle. Kids like that usually give this place a miss. I would've expected any burglar who came here to be more . . . sophisticated."
"Apart from that business last summer," Pobjoy said--carefully, since he felt the subject required care--"I notice you haven't really had any trouble here." He added: "I checked our records."
"Naturally," Bartlemy said. "I assumed you would. No, we haven't had much trouble at Thornyhill. I prefer to avoid it, if I can." He didn't say how, but Pobjoy, who was not a fanciful man, found himself wondering if the house had some intangible form of protection. Apart from the dog. He noted Bartlemy said we, perhaps including Hoover in the personal pronoun.
The canine hero of the recent burglary attempt was currently sitting with his chin in Pobjoy's lap and the classic please-feed-the-starving expression on his face.
"Which is why," Bartlemy was saying, "I was a little . . . disturbed by what happened. I can't help feeling there must have been something--someone--behind it. On the surface, there is nothing to steal here but books, some old but unremarkable furniture, and my collection of herbs for cooking."
"The paintings?" Pobjoy asked, glancing up at a landscape in oils that seemed to consist mostly of gloom and a framed drawing so crowded with detail it was almost impossible to distinguish what it portrayed.
"Generally done by friends or acquaintances," Bartlemy said blandly. "That drawing, for instance, is unsigned. Richard wasn't satisfied with it. Later, he went mad. People have sometimes been curious about my pictures, but their curiosity always seems to fade in the end."
"You said on the surface," Pobjoy resumed, his narrow eyes narrowing still further, dark slits in the lean pallor of his face.
"I have a certain article concealed here," Bartlemy explained after a pause. "It was entrusted to me." He didn't say I am telling you this in confidence. Pobjoy already knew that.
"The article that was stolen last year," the inspector surmised. "The so-called Grimthorn Grail."
"Of course, it was never authenticated," Bartlemy said. "Technically, it's valueless. But I am concerned. I have lived here a long time, and no one has ever broken in until now."
"Is it secure?"
Bartlemy smiled. "No burglar would ever find it, I assure you," he said. "No ordinary burglar."
Pobjoy let that pass. "You think those boys were put up to it," he summarized, "by someone interested in the Grail."
"It's a possibility I would like to check. You would know if there were any likely collectors in the market for such items."
"Those kind of gentlemen don't usually have a record," Pobjoy said with a trace of bitterness. "Too rich, too influential. But--yes, I should know. I might know. I'll ask around."
"Thank you." He poured more tea. "By the way, how is our murderer?"
"What? Oh--I don't know." Pobjoy looked startled. For him, once a villain was convicted and imprisoned, that should be the end of the matter. "We never found any trace of his accomplice--the woman who masqueraded as his wife."
"I suspect," Bartlemy said, "she wasn't the kind of person who would allow herself to be traced." He was remembering a malignant water spirit who had poured herself into the shape of a dead actress--a spirit now returned to the element from whence she came.
Pobjoy, who hated loose ends and didn't believe in phantoms, fretted at the recollection. "Do you think she could be involved in this latest affair?"
"Hmm . . . I doubt it. Still, it is an idea."
As he drank his tea, Pobjoy seemed to become abstracted. Once, he asked: "How is . . . Mrs. Ward?"--hesitating over the inquiry as if it embarrassed him.
"She's very well," Bartlemy said. "You should go and see her."
"I don't think . . . she wouldn't want . . ." Pobjoy's excuses faltered and failed; he looked around for a change of subject, but didn't find one.
"It's up to you," Bartlemy said. "Annie doesn't bear grudges."
At one time Pobjoy had wanted to arrest Nathan.
The inspector retreated into silence and stayed there, until Bartlemy began to talk of something else.
Nathan and Hazel Bagot had been friends from infancy, closer than brother and sister; they used to tell each other everything, but now they were getting older they needed their own secrets. Nathan didn't tell Hazel about the city and the princess (not yet, he said to himself, not till it becomes important), and Hazel didn't tell Nathan about the boy she was keen on at school. When they got together on the weekends and during the holidays, they talked about music and television and lessons, and feuds or allegiances with their classmates, and how parents never understood what it was like to be a teenager, because it must have been different for them. Hazel's bedroom had evolved into a kind of nest, lined with prints and posters, cushioned with discarded clothing, floored with chip packages and CDs, where she and Nathan could curl up and listen to her latest musical discovery--usually something twangy and foreign sounding and faintly bizarre--while she related how her father, who had left last year, wasn't allowed to come home anymore because he'd tried to hit her mother again, and how her mother had a new boyfriend who was rather old and a bit dull but nice.
"They met through an ad in the paper," Hazel said. "Lots of people do that now. Has your mum tried it?"
"I don't think she's too keen on dating," Nathan said. "There was you-know-who last year--I'm not sure if he ever asked her for a date, exactly, but--well, obviously it didn't work out." He didn't need to say any more. Hazel knew what he was alluding to.
"She must've loved your dad a lot," she remarked. Nathan's father had died in a car accident before he was born, or so he had always been told. "I mean, she's not forty yet and really pretty, but she hasn't had a proper boyfriend for years, has she?"
"You wouldn't mind though, would you?" They'd been over this territory before, but Hazel thought it was worth checking.
"Of course not--as long as he was kind, and loved her. What about your mum's new man? Do you think it's serious?"
" 'Spect so. He brings her flowers, and that's always a sign, isn't it? She says he's dependable, which is what she wants, after Dad. He'd never knock her about, or get drunk, or anything. He's sort of boring, but that's okay for her. She likes boring."
"Have you talked to him much?" Nathan queried.
"Not really. He asked me about my homework once, but when I showed it to him he couldn't do it."
"If you haven't talked to him," Nathan said, "you don't really know if he's boring or not."
"You're being reasonable," Hazel said sharply. "You know I can't stand it when you do that. He--he gives off boring, like a smell. BO. Boring Odor. He walks around in a little cloud of boringness. Please, please don't start being open-minded and tolerant about things. It's revolting."
"When you shut your mind," Nathan retorted, "you shut yourself inside it. That's silly. Besides, I just said, give him a chance. You think he's nice, don't you? So he might surprise you. He might be fun after all."
"Mum doesn't need fun," Hazel said obstinately. "She's my mum, for God's sake. I like him, okay? He'll do. I don't have to be thrilled by him."
"Okay." Nathan grinned, a little mischievously. Sometimes he enjoyed provoking her. She was always too quick and too careless in judging people, and slow to alter her opinions, and he liked being the only person who could ruffle her certainties.
Excerpted from The Sword of Straw by Amanda Hemingway. Copyright © 2006 by Amanda Hemingway. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.