Read Omens of Death Online

Authors: Nicholas Rhea

Omens of Death

 

© Nicholas Rhea 1996

 

Nicholas Rhea has asserted his rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.

 

First published in 1996 by Constable and Company Ltd.

 

This edition published in 2015 by Endeavour Press Ltd.

 

Chapter 1

 

When Detective Inspector Montague Pluke noticed the solitary crow upon the roof of No. 15 Padgett Grove, he realised it was an omen of death. Resembling the sky, the bird was black, sombre and threatening. It was a sultry Wednesday morning with a threat of thunder and although the clouds were silent and brooding, the bird was croaking raucously. It was a melancholy moment for Montague Pluke.

With some apprehension, he paused at the end of the Grove to view the modest two-bedroomed bungalow. Detached, with a red pantile roof and built of local stone, it boasted tidy gardens, a greenhouse and a single garage. Second from the far end and situated on the right, it had a green front door — a healthy colour, he mused, the colour of the countryside. Some might consider green to be unlucky; that was probably why green was so rarely used on our postage stamps. Montague contemplated that whenever we’d had green postage stamps, the country had experienced great social unrest.

He made a determined effort to ignore the significance of colours of postage stamps and concentrated upon the crow. It was perched upon the home of the Crowthers. They were nice people who had recently retired to live quiet and unobtrusive lives in Crickledale.

Cyril had been an agricultural engineer specialising in combine harvesters, while May had worked for forty-five years as a clerk in a building society. She had served faithfully, with no thoughts of promotion, neither had she sought additional responsibility. She was a steady sort of person, just like Cyril in fact. The Crowthers lived in mutual shared contentment and, being well-mannered people with well-ordered lives, were considered ideal residents for a small town like Crickledale.

Detective Inspector Montague Pluke was well acquainted with them because he knew most of the people in Crickledale. He knew their backgrounds too, and their social habits, even though they were not the sort of people to come to the notice of the police in a derogatory manner. The same could also be said about other residents of Padgett Grove, thus the neighbourhood had been locally established as desirable. It was the type of vicinage where you could confidently buy a house without worrying too much about the sort of neighbours you would acquire. The residents took the
Daily
Telegraph
, didn’t join trade unions, never ate fish and chips in public or repaired their cars in the street.

As he studied the scene before him, Montague Pluke appreciated that the Padgett Grove area was very similar to that in which he lived, although it must be said that the Pluke household stood in a street of ‘olde’, more substantial properties, genteel homes with a Georgian pedigree. None the less, each was a contented community replete with decent law-abiding citizens who held coffee mornings for charity and didn’t have gnomes or model windmills in their gardens.

But even if the residents of Padgett Grove had never caused professional concern to the constabulary, the presence of that crow did create some anxiety in the meditative mind of Montague Pluke. It remained cawing on the roof and adopted an almost defiant attitude as he re-established his stride and continued his walk to work. In Montague’s opinion, its presence could not be ignored — its message was strikingly clear. It heralded a death within that house. An added factor was that today was not the most providential of weekdays. Wednesday, like Wednesday’s child, was often full of woe.

That unwelcome combination of portents dominated Montague’s morning walk to the office and produced a mood of impending doom, albeit with just a glimmer of excitement. That glimmer could never be mentioned to anyone else because it was based on the fact that, as the officer in charge of the CID at Crickledale Sub-Divisional Police Station, he had never solved a murder and never arrested a killer.

The death, when it happened, could mean work for him and his department. It was that possibility which had provoked those mixed feelings, because it was his ambition, before he retired from the Force to seek neglected or forgotten horse troughs, to detect a noteworthy murder. Before that day came, therefore, he wanted his name prominently placed in the annals of great and famous criminal investigations and the presence of that crow offered just a little hope of that. Throughout his service he had wanted to be a great detective, but all the glamorous investigations and high-profile inquiries had been the responsibility of someone else.

As he pondered the presence of that crow, therefore, he mused that it would be very nice to solve just one murder enquiry before he retired to enjoy his pension, but as his years of service carried him ever closer to retirement, the opportunities for professional glory were dwindling by the day.

Montague did appreciate that the natural peace of Crickledale had been a contributory factor to his lack of success in having a murder to solve. In fact, there had never been a murder in the town. Crickledale was a murder-free zone. But if one did occur, he would be in charge of the investigation. That would be his duty and it meant he would be able to display his latent detective acumen. He knew the theory of criminal investigation very well indeed, because he had attended lots of courses about techniques and procedures, so perhaps the forthcoming death would enable him to put his years of acquired knowledge to some practical use?

In considering these matters, he did remind himself that not every death is a murder. A crow on a roof merely foretold a death and not necessarily a murder; after all, a crow could not be expected to distinguish between suspicious deaths and natural causes. It was a well-known fact that most deaths were not suspicious, even if they were sudden and unexpected.

But in spite of his ruminations, he knew that the Crowther household could expect a funeral very shortly, probably before the week was out. As Montague Pluke contemplated that scenario, he realised it would not be very pleasant having to deal with the unexpected death of one’s acquaintances, although actually to arrest the
murderer
of one’s acquaintances would indeed be meritorious. Apart from any job satisfaction that would result, it would add to the high esteem in which he was already held in the town.

For generations, the Plukes had enjoyed positions of influence in Crickledale — Josiah Pluke (1803-81) had established the King’s Head as a premier coaching inn, while Beaumont Pluke (1832-1914) had been the town’s first head constable.

There had been a long line of eminent Plukes in Crickledale and records showed that Sir Wylyngton Pluke had occupied the Manor House in 1422, although a Wortham Pluke (1349-93) had been a wandering minstrel. Montague was not totally sure of the social status of a wandering minstrel at that time, but it did suggest that one branch of the family was musical. His favourite ancestor was Justus Pluke (1553-1609) who achieved national distinction for his futuristic design of carved animals’ heads upon the inlets to stone horse troughs.

On that Wednesday morning, however, illustrious ancestors were far from Montague’s mind as he continued his thoughtful way to work. The police station, a former mansion with original beams and fireplaces, was located on an elevated site near the church. The handsome building was highly suitable for the accommodation of a Pluke, but this one served as offices for the other police of Crickledale as well.

As he continued his walk along Cornmill Lane, he tried to recollect the last time he had encountered either of the Crowthers. He hadn’t seen Cyril for some time, although May’s presence could be noticed most days; she’d be working in her garden, doing the shopping, visiting friends, working with her voluntary groups, helping those in need, or pottering across to the church to put fresh flowers on the altar.

He’d seen her a couple of weeks since and she’d looked fairly fit, but by Crickledale standards that was quite a long time ago. In such a small town, people saw one another on a much more regular basis. So had Cyril been ill recently? Perhaps he was in hospital? Montague hoped neither would be the victim of the grim reaper, but you couldn’t tamper with fate. That crow had forecast a death, so perhaps they had friends or family staying at the house? That was a possibility, he mused, realising that neither of the Crowthers was compelled to be the victim.

In considering the fate of the Crowthers, Montague Pluke felt proud of his detailed professional knowledge of the town and its people. It was a knowledge acquired over many years without the slightest hint of direct prying, but in this case he was secure in the knowledge that he could regard the Crowthers as friends. Or to be precise, the Pluke-Crowther relationship was as close to friendship as the life of a police officer would permit. Police officers, especially senior ones, had to be circumspect in their choice of friends and social acquaintances. They had to be above criticism; they had to set a good example to the rest of society.

The Pluke-Crowther relationship arose because May Crowther was on the Church Flower Rota and shared watering duties with Millicent — Mrs Pluke. They were on the same Local History Society committee and were members of many other clubs and societies; they even shared tea-making duties at the Over-Sixties Club. Not that either Millicent or Montague was over sixty — but both of them did work very hard for those citizens who were less fortunate than themselves. The Plukes and the Crowthers were good neighbours to lots of people.

As Montague walked on, the crow remained in position. It bowed up and down as it croaked defiantly on the ridge of Cyril’s and May’s bungalow, its bedraggled plumage resembling a dismal undertaker in baggy trousers and a loose jacket. It was quite alone too. In vain, Montague searched the skies, the chimney pots and the nearby roofs for a second crow. The presence of two crows meant that something happy was about to occur, such as a wedding or even a birth, therefore two crows on that roof at the same time would have presented a totally different message to the world. But the menacing creature was utterly alone and Montague knew that he was powerless to prevent the drama which was about to engulf the Crowther household.

It was no good chasing it away or pretending he hadn’t seen it. The crow had landed and its message was beyond dispute. As a consequence, it was with a feeling of impending gloom, coupled with just a little personal anticipation, that Montague continued his walk towards the police station. Bidding his smiling but frequently automatic good-mornings to people on his left and right, and doffing his panama to the ladies, he did consider returning to the Grove for words of advice with the Crowthers.

He could urge them — or their guests — to take great care in their daily routine, especially when crossing the road or fixing plugs on electrical appliances, but realised his well-meaning action would unsettle and disturb them. No one liked being told that any carelessness on his or her part could be fatal. Worse still, it would be a waste of time. Any such intervention would be fruitless. Nothing could halt the inevitable. Death was imminent at No. 15 Padgett Grove, Crickledale.

*

When Montague left the house for his walk to work, Millicent settled down to her routine. After making the bed and washing the pots she would consult her diary to check her daily appointments. Hadn’t Amelia Fender hinted at something strange happening at the Crowthers’ bungalow? But the Coffee Club meeting was tomorrow, Thursday. So who else was likely to be that well informed?

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