No Man’s Nightingale
MAXINE WAS PROUD of having three jobs. These days more and more people had none. She had no sympathy for them but congratulated herself on her own initiative. Two mornings a week she cleaned for Mrs. Wexford, two mornings for Mrs. Crocker, afternoons for two other Kingsmarkham women, did gardening and cleaned cars for Mr. Wexford and Dr. Crocker and babysat every evening where she was wanted for those young enough to need a baby-sitter. Cleaning she did for the women and gardening and car-washing for the men because she had never believed in any of that feminism or equality stuff. It was a well-known fact that men didn’t notice whether a house was clean or not, and normal women weren’t interested in cars or lawns. Maxine charged maximum rates for baby-sitting except for her son and his partner, who got her services for free. As for the others, those who had kids must expect to pay for them. She’d had four and she knew.
She was a good worker, reliable, punctual, and reasonably honest, and the only condition she made was payment in cash. Wexford, who after all had until recently been a policeman, demurred at that but eventually gave in the way the tax inspector up the road did. After all, at least a dozen other households would have paid almost anything to secure Maxine’s services. She had one drawback. She talked. She talked not just while she was having a break for a cup of tea or while she was getting out or putting away the tools, but all the time she was working and to whoever happened to be in the room or upstairs in the kitchen. The work got done and efficiently while the words poured out on a steady monotone.
That day she began on a story of how her son Jason, now manager of the Kingsmarkham Questo supermarket, had dealt with a man complaining about one of Jason’s checkout girls. The woman had apparently called him “elderly.” But Jason had handled it brilliantly, pacifying the man and sending him home in a supervisor’s car. “Now my Jason used to be a right tearaway,” Maxine went on, and not for the first time. “Not in one of them gangs, I’m not saying that, and he never got no ASBOs, but a bit of shoplifting, it was like it came natural to him, and out all night and underage drinking—well, binge-drinking like they call it. As for the smack and what do they call them, description drugs—mind Mr. Wexford can’t hear me, hope he’s out of hearshot—all that he went in for, and now, since him and Nicky had a kid, he’s a changed character. The perfect dad, I still can’t believe it.” She applied impregnated wadding to the silver with renewed vigour, then a duster, then the wadding once more. “She’s over a year old now, his Isabella is, but when she was a neo-nettle, it was never Nicky got up to her in the night, she never had to. No, it was my Jason had her out of her cot before the first peep was out of her. Walked her up and down, cooing at her like I’ve never heard a bloke go on so. Mind you, that Nicky never showed no gratitude. I call it unnatural a mum with a new baby sleeping the night through, and I’ve told her so.”
Even Maxine sometimes had to pause to draw breath. Dora Wexford seized her opportunity, said she had to go out and Maxine’s money was in an envelope on the hall table. The resumed monologue pursued her as she ran out to the conservatory to tell her husband she’d be back in an hour or so.
Wexford was sitting in a cane armchair in autumn sunshine doing what many a man or woman plans to do on retirement but few put into practice, reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. He had embarked on it expecting to find it heavy going, but instead becoming fast enraptured and enjoying every word. Reaching the end of the first volume, he was happy to anticipate five more and told Dora she’d picked her moment to desert him.
“It’s your turn,” she whispered.
“I didn’t know we had a schedule.”
“You know now. Here starts your tour of duty.”
As Dora left, Maxine swooped, pushing the vacuum cleaner and continuing to hold on to it while she peered over his shoulder.
“Got a guide to Rome there, I see. Going there on your holidays, are you? Me and my sister took in Rome on our Ten Italian Cities tour. Oh, it was lovely but hot, you wouldn’t believe. I said to my Jason, you and Nicky want to go there on your honeymoon when you get around to tying the knot there’s no untying, only these days there is of course, no point in getting married if you ask me. I never did and I’m not ashamed of it.” She started up the vacuum cleaner but continued to talk. “It’s Nicky as wants it, one of them big white weddings like they all want these days, costs thousands, but she’s a big spender, good job my Jason’s in work like so many’s not.” The voice became a buzz under the vacuum’s roar. She raised it. “I don’t reckon my Jason’d go away on a honeymoon or anything else come to that without Isabella. He can’t bear that kid out of his sight for his eight hours’ work let alone a week. Talk about worshipping the ground she treads on, only she don’t tread yet, crawls more like.” A pause to change the tool on the end of the vacuum-cleaner hose. “You’ll know about that poor lady vicar getting herself killed and me finding the body. It was all over the papers and on the telly. I reckon you take an interest though you’re not doing the work no more. I had a cleaning job there with her up till a couple of weeks back, but there was things we never saw eye to eye on, not to mention her not wanting to pay cash, wanted to do it on line if you please and I couldn’t be doing with that. She always left the back door open and I popped in to collect the money she owed me and it gave me a terrible turn. No blood, of course, not with strangling, but still a shock. Don’t bear thinking of, does it? Still, I reckon you had to think of things like that, it being your job. You must be relieved getting all that over with . . .”
Standing up, clutching his book, “I’m going to have a bath!” Wexford shouted above the vacuum’s roar.
Maxine was startled from her monologue. “It’s ten thirty.”
“A very good time to have a bath,” said Wexford, making for the stairs, reading as he went the last lines of volume one, describing another murder, that of Julius Caesar: . . . during the greatest part of a year, the orb of the sun appeared pale and without splendour. This season of obscurity, which cannot surely be compared with the preternatural obscurity of the Passion, had already been celebrated by most of the poets and historians of that memorable age. . . .
His mobile was ringing. Detective Superintendent Burden, known to the phone-contacts list as Mike.
“I’m off to have a look at St. Peter’s Vicarage, taking Lynn with me and I thought you might like to come too.”
Wexford had already had a shower that day. A bath at 10:30 a.m. wasn’t needful, only seized upon as a refuge from Maxine. “I’d love to.” He tried to keep the enthusiasm out of his voice, tried and failed.
Sounding surprised, Burden said, “Don’t get excited. It’s no big deal.”
“It is for me.”
He closed the bathroom door. Probably, Maxine wouldn’t open it but would perhaps conclude that he was having an exceptionally long bath. The vacuum cleaner still roaring, he escaped out the front door, closing it after him by an almost silent turning of the key in the lock. Taking an interested member of the public—that, after all, was what he was—on a call or calls that were part of a criminal investigation was something Wexford had seldom done while he was himself an investigating officer. And his accompanying Superintendent Ede of the Met on the vault enquiries was a different matter as he, though unpaid, had had a kind of job as Ede’s aide. This visit, this opportune escape from Maxine, was undergone, he knew, because, once senior and junior officers, over the years they had become friends. Burden knew, none better, how much Wexford would wish to be involved in solving the mystery of who had killed the Reverend Sarah Hussain.
ALL WEXFORD KNEW of the death, apart from what Maxine had mentioned that morning, was what he had read in yesterday’s Guardian and seen on the day-before-yesterday’s regional television news. And seen of course when passing the vicarage. He could have seen more online, but he had cringed from its colourful headlines. Sarah Hussain was far from being the only woman ordained priest of the Church of England, but perhaps she was the only one to have been born in the United Kingdom of a white Irishwoman and an Indian immigrant. All this had been in the newspaper along with some limited biographical details, including information about her conversion to Christianity. There had been a photograph too of a gaunt woman with an aquiline nose in an academic cap and gown, olive-skinned but with large, deep-set, black eyes and what hair that showed a glossy jet-black. She had been forty-eight when she died and a single mother.
Her origins, her looks—striking but not handsome—her age, her single parenthood, and, above all, that conversion made him think that her life could not have been easy. He would have liked to know more, and no doubt, he soon would. At the moment he wasn’t even sure of where the murder had taken place, only that it was inside the vicarage. It wasn’t a house he had ever been in, though Dora had. He was due to meet Mike and DC Lynn Fancourt in St. Peter’s Church porch, the one at the side where the vestry was.
The vicarage was some distance away and he had no need to pass the church to reach it. Heading for the gate that led out of Queen Street, he passed a young man pushing a baby buggy, a not particularly unusual sight these days, but he recognized this one as Maxine’s son Jason. As industrious as his mother if not as vociferous, he must be having a day off from his job as a supermarket manager. Curious to see the child whose father worshipped the ground she crawled on, Wexford looked under the buggy hood and saw a pretty, pink-cheeked blonde, her long-lashed eyes closed in sleep. Wexford hastily withdrew his head from Jason’s glare. No doubt the man was wary of any male person eyeing his little girl. Quite right too, he thought, himself the parent of girls who were now middle-aged women.
He was a little early and by design. In his position it was better for him to be waiting for them than they for him. But Burden was seldom late, and the two of them appeared almost immediately from the high street. All the years he had known him, Wexford had never ceased to marvel at Burden’s sartorial elegance. Where did he learn to dress like that? As far as he knew, Mike went shopping no more than any other man of Wexford’s acquaintance. And it couldn’t be the influence of his wives, neither of whom, Jean, long dead, or Jenny, the present one, had had much interest in clothes, preferring in their own cases no more than attention to “neatness and fashion,” as Jane Austen has it. But here was Burden today, his abundant but short hair now iron grey, his beige jacket (surely cashmere) over white shirt with beige-and-blue-figured tie, his beautifully creased trousers of denim, though discernibly—how? How could one tell?—not jeans.
“Good to see you,” Burden said, though he had seen him and eaten lunch with him three days before.
Lynn, whom he hadn’t seen for as much as a year, said in a respectful tone, “Good morning, sir.”
They walked along the path among gravestones and rosebushes towards Vicarage Lane. It was October and the leaves had only just begun to fall. Green, spiky conkers lay on the grass under the chestnut trees.
“I don’t know how much you know about this poor woman’s murder, Reg,” Burden said.
“Only what I read in the paper and saw on TV.”
“You don’t go to church, do you?”
“I hesitate to say my wife does, though it’s true, and you know it already. She knew Sarah Hussain but through church, not socially. Where was she killed?”
“In the vicarage. In her living room. You tell him, Lynn. You were one of the two officers who were the first to see the body.”
Excerpted from No Man's Nightingale: An Inspector Wexford Novel
by Ruth Rendell
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