With the engine off the bird-song seemed very loud. A nearby but invisible blackbird chirruped "Look at me, Look at me, This is my territ'ry." He was answered by other birds seeking mates, building nests or defending their boundaries. They stilled to silence when they heard the clang of Royston shaking the gate, then started up again, for all the world as if they were gossiping about it. Royston started back towards the car, shaking his head.
Carmichael stuck his head out of the open window. "Let's give them a quick blast and see what that roots out," he said. Royston grinned. Carmichael leaned across the driver's seat and tapped out a quick salute on the horn, "Pa pa pa paaaarp!"
The only immediate result was another avian hush, and Carmichael was about to try again when a middle-aged woman came hurrying from the nearest cottage wiping her hands on her apron. "You'll be the police," she said. "Excuse me not hearing you but I was just getting dinner out." As if to authenticate her statement, the church clock suddenly chimed through its sequence and then struck noon. It was so close that none of them could speak over the clamour.
"Isn't that a bit loud?" Royston asked, taking his hands down from his ears.
"Oh, we're used to it," the woman said. "It has to be that loud so they can hear it up at the house." She nodded towards the gates.
"Are you the gatekeeper?" Carmichael asked.
She blinked. "No... and I'm not rightly the gatekeeper's wife neither, because there hasn't been a gatekeeper since my father died. The gates stand open, mostly, I was saying to Jem this morning that I don't know when we shut them last."
This confirmed Carmichael's observation, he nodded. "They're not closed even at night?" he asked.
"No, not for ever so long now," she said. "Not since my father died probably, the same year the old king died."
It was as Carmichael had thought. Anyone could have driven up to the house. The gravel held tracks, the local police would have driven up it this morning but it might be possible to find some evidence even so. He got out of the car and stood beside Royston. "So, if you're not the gatekeeper, who are you?" he asked the woman.
"I'm Betty," she said, "Betty Jordan. My husband Jem is the mechanic up at the big house."
"Mechanic?" Royston asked, surprised.
"He keeps their cars and that going," she said.
"But you have a key to the gate?" Carmichael asked.
"Yes, and the policeman from Winchester said you'd be arriving and to let you in when you did," she said, brandishing a large iron key inset with a robin to match the robin on the gates. "You are the London police, aren't you?" She took their silence for assent and went on immediately. "Isn't it terrible, anarchists murdering Sir James in his bed like that?"
"And to think it might have been prevented if they'd only locked the gates," Carmichael said, taking the key from her unresisting hand. "I'll be sure to lock them behind me now, and to see that this key is returned to you later. We'll also need to interview you and your family -- does your husband sleep at home?"
"Jem?" she asked, as if he might mean some other husband. He smiled at the thought that a bigamist might ask that question that way. "Yes, he does, he sleeps down here."
"And did you see any signs of anarchists last night? Any unusual cars?"
"Well, yes," she said, very flustered now and twisting her apron in her fingers. "Any number of them. But they were having a party. People were to-ing and fro-ing all the time. Who's to say who any of them were? Half of them could have been terrorists and assassins and we wouldn't know."
Copyright © 2006 by Jo Walton
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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