Balford-le-Nez is a dying seatown on the coast of Essex. But when a member of the town's small but growing Asian community, is found dead on its beach, his neck broken, sleepy Balford-le-Nez ignites. Working solo, without her long-time partner Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley, Sergeant Barbara Havers must probe not only the mind of a murderer and a case very close to her own heart, but the terrible price people pay for deceiving others...and themselves.
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March 23, 2009
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Excerpt from Deception on His Mind by Elizabeth George
To Ian Armstrong, life had begun its current downward slide the moment he'd been made redundant. He'd known when he'd been offered the job that it was only a temporary appointment. The advertisement he'd answered had not indicated otherwise, and no offer of a contract had ever been made him. Still, when two years passed without a whisper of unemployment in the offing, Ian had unwisely learned to hope, which hadn't been much of a good idea.
Ian's penultimate foster mother would have greeted the news of his job loss by munching on a shortbread finger and proclaiming, "Well, you can't change the wind, can you, my lad? When it blows over cow dung, a wise man holds his nose." She would have poured tepid tea into a glass--she never used a teacup--and she would have sloshed it down. She would have gone on to say, "Ride the horse that's got its saddle on, lad," and she would have returned to perusing her latest copy of Hello!, admiring its photos of well-groomed nobs living the good life in posh London flats and on country estates.
This would be her way of telling Ian to accept his fate, her unsubtle message that the good life was not for the likes of him. But Ian had never aspired to the good life. All he'd ever sought was acceptance, and he pursued it with the passion of an unadopted and unadoptable child. What he wanted was simple: a wife, a family, and the security of knowing that he had a future somewhat more promising than the grimness of his past.
These objectives had once seemed possible. He'd been good at his job. He'd arrived for work early every day. He'd laboured extra hours for no extra pay. He'd learned the names of all his fellow workers. He'd even gone so far as to memorise the names of their spouses and children, which was no mean feat. And the thanks he'd garnered for all this effort was a farewell office party drinking lukewarm Squash, and a box of handkerchiefs from a Tie Rack outlet.
Ian had tried to forestall and even to prevent the inevitable. He'd pointed out the services he'd rendered, the late hours he'd worked, and the sacrifices he'd made in not seeking other employment while occupying his temporary position. He'd sought compromise by making offers of working for a lower salary, and ultimately he'd begged not to be cut off.
The humiliation of grovelling in front of his superior was nothing to Ian if grovelling meant he could keep his position. Because keeping his position meant that the mortgage could continue to be paid on his new house. With that taken care of, he and Anita could move forward with their efforts to produce a sibling for Mikey, and Ian wouldn't have to send his wife out to work. More important, he also wouldn't have to see the scorn in Anita's eyes when he informed her he'd lost yet another job.
"It's this rotten recession, darling," he'd told her. "It goes on and on. Our parents had World War Two as their trial by fire. This recession is ours."
Her eyes had said derisively, "Don't give me philosophy. You didn't even know your parents, Ian Armstrong." But what she said with an inappropriate and hence ominous amiability was, "So it's back to the library for me, I suppose. Though I hardly see what help that'll be once I've arranged to pay someone to look after Mikey while I'm out. Or did you plan to look after him yourself instead of looking for work?" Her lips were tight with insincerity when she offered him a brittle smile.
"I hadn't yet thought--"
"That's the trouble with you, Ian. You never think. You never have a plan. We move from problem to crisis to the brink of disaster. We have a new house we can't pay for and a baby to feed and still you aren't thinking. If you'd planned ahead, if you'd cemented your position, if you'd threatened to leave eighteen months ago when the factory needed reorganisation and you were the only one in Essex who could do it for them--"
"That's not actually the case, Anita."
"There you are! See?"
"You're too humble. You don't put yourself out. If you did, you'd have a contract now. If you ever once planned, you'd have demanded a contract then and there when they needed you most."
There was no point in explaining business to Anita when she was in a state. And Ian really couldn't blame his wife for the state she was in. He'd lost three jobs in the six years they'd been married. And while she'd been supportive through his first two spates of unemployment, they'd lived with her parents then and hadn't the financial worries that menaced them now. If only things could be different, Ian thought. If only his job could have been secure. But residing in the twilight world of ifs did nothing to offer a solution to their problems.
So Anita had returned to work, a pathetic and ill-paying job at the town library, where she reshelved books and helped pensioners locate magazines. And Ian began the humiliating process of seeking employment once again, in an area of the country long depressed.
He started each day by dressing carefully and leaving the house before his wife. He'd been as far north as Ipswich, as far west as Colchester. He'd been south to Clacton and had even ventured onward to Southend-on-Sea. He'd given it his best, but so far he'd managed nothing. Nightly he faced Anita's silent but growing contempt. When the weekends came, he sought escape.
Walking provided it, on Saturdays and Sundays. In the past few weeks, he'd come to know the entire Tendring Peninsula intimately. His favourite stroll was a short distance from the town, where a right turn past Brick Barn Farm took him to the track across the Wade. At the end of the lane he'd park the Morris, and when the tide was out, he put on his Wellingtons and slopped across the muddy causeway to the lump of land called Horsey Island. There he watched the waterfowl and he poked about for shells. Nature gave him the peace that the rest of life denied him. And in the early weekend mornings, he found nature at her best.
On this particular Saturday morning, the tide was high, so Ian Armstrong chose the Nez for his walk. The Nez was an impressive promontory of gorse-tangled land that rose 150 feet above the North Sea and separated it from an area of tidal swamp called the Saltings. Like the towns along the coast, the Nez was fighting a battle against the sea. But unlike these towns, it had no line of breakwaters to guard it and no concrete slopes to serve as armour over the uneasy combination of clay, pebbles, and earth that caused the cliffs to crumble to the beach below them.
Ian decided to begin at the southeast end of the promontory, making his way round the tip and down the west side, where waders like redshanks and greenshanks nested and fed themselves from the shallow marsh pools. He waved a jaunty goodbye to Anita, who returned his farewell expressionlessly, and he wound his way out of the housing estate. Five minutes took him to Balford-le-Nez Road. Five minutes more and he was on Balford's High Street, where the Dairy Den Diner was serving up breakfast and Kemp's Market was arranging its vegetable displays.
He spun through the town and turned left along the seafront. Already, he could tell that the day was going to be yet another hot one, and he unrolled his window to breathe the balmy salt air. He gave himself over to an enjoyment of the morning and worked at forgetting the difficulties he faced. For a moment he allowed himself to pretend all was well.
It was in this frame of mind that Ian rounded the curve into Nez Park Road. The guard shack at the entrance to the promontory was empty so early in the morning, no attendant there to claim sixty pence for the privilege of a walk along the clifftop. So Ian bumped over the cratered terrain towards the car park above the sea.
That was when he saw the Nissan, a hatchback standing alone in the early morning light, just a few feet from the boundary poles that marked the edge of the car park. Ian jounced towards it, avoiding pot holes as best he could. His mind on his walk, he thought nothing of the hatchback's presence until he noticed that one of its doors was hanging open and its bonnet and roof were beaded with dew not yet evaporated in the day's coming heat.
Ian frowned at this. He tapped his fingers against the steering wheel of the Morris and thought about the uncomfortable relationship between the top of a cliff and an abandoned car with its door left open. At the direction in which his thoughts began to head, he very nearly decided to turn tail for home. But human curiosity got the better of him. He edged the Morris forward until he was idling at the Nissan's side.
He said cheerily out of his open window, "Good morning? I say, do you need any help in there?" in case someone was dossing in the car's back seat. Then he noted that the glove compartment was hanging open and that its contents appeared to be strewn upon the floor.
Ian made a quick deduction from this sight: Someone had been searching for something. He got out of the Morris and leaned into the Nissan for a better look.
The search had been nothing if not thorough. The front seats were slashed, and the back seat was not only cut open but pulled forward as if with the expectation that something had been hidden behind it. The side panels of the doors appeared to have been roughly removed and then just as roughly returned to place; the console between the seats gaped open; the lining of the roof sagged down.
Ian adjusted his previous deduction with alacrity. Drugs, he thought. The harbours of Parkeston and Harwich were no great distance from this spot. Lorries, cars, and vast shipping containers arrived there by the dozens on ferries every day. They came from Sweden, Holland, and Germany, and the wise smuggler who managed to get past customs would be sensible to drive to a remote location--just like the Nez--before retrieving his contraband. This car was abandoned, Ian concluded, having served its purpose. He would have his walk and then phone the police to have it towed away.
He was childishly pleased with his insight. Amused at his first reaction to the sight of the car, he pulled his Wellingtons from the boot of the Morris and as he squirmed his feet into them, he chuckled at the thought of a desperate soul attempting to end his troubles at this particular site. Everyone knew that the edge of the Nez's clifftop was perilously friable. A potential suicide wishing to fling himself into oblivion at this spot was far likelier to end up sliding with the brick earth, the gravel, and the silt onto the beach below as the cliffside collapsed beneath his weight in a dirty heap. He might break his leg, certainly. But end his life? Hardly. No one was going to die on the Nez.
Ian smacked the boot of the Morris shut. He locked the door and patted the vehicle's roof. "Good old thing," he said in an affable fashion. "Thank you very much indeed." The fact that the engine continued to turn over in the morning was a miracle that Ian's natural superstitions told him he ought to encourage.
He picked up five papers that lay on the ground next to the Nissan and deposited them within the car's glove compartment from which they'd no doubt originally come. He swung the hatchback's door closed, thinking, No need to be untidy about things. Then he approached the steep old concrete steps that led down to the beach.
At the top of these steps, Ian paused. Even at this hour, the sky above him was a bright blue dome, unmarked by the presence of clouds, and the North Sea was tranquil with the calm of summer. A fog bank lay like a roll of cotton wool far out on the horizon, serving as distant background for a fishing boat--perhaps half a mile off shore--that chugged in the direction of Clacton. A flock of gulls surrounded this like gnats round fruit. More gulls, Ian saw, were buzzing along the waterline at clifftop height. They flew in his direction from the north, from Harwich, whose cranes Ian could glimpse even from this distance across Pennyhole Bay.
Ian thought of the birds as a welcoming committee, so intent did they seem upon him as a target. Indeed, they approached with such mindless determination that he found himself giving more than idle consideration to du Maurier's story, Hitchcock's film, and Tippi Hedren's avian torment. He was thinking about beating a hasty retreat--or at least doing something to shield his head--when as a single unit the birds arced and dived at a structure on the beach. This was a pillbox, a concrete fortification from World War II from which English troops had watched and waited to defend the country from Nazi invasion. The structure had once stood on the top of the Nez, but as time and the sea had washed away the cliffside, it now sat on the sand below.
Ian saw that other gulls were already doing their web-footed tap dance on the pillbox's roof. From a hexagonal opening on this same roof, where a machine gun placement once would have stood, more birds entered and exited the structure. They gabbled and cawed as if in communication, and their message seemed to pass telepathically to the birds off shore, for these began to leave the fishing boat and to head towards land.
Their decisive flight reminded Ian of a scene on the beach near Dover that he'd witnessed as a child. A big barking brute of a dog had been lured out to sea by a flock of similar birds. The dog had been playing at catching them from the water, but they had been deadly serious, and they'd circled farther and farther out into the sea until the poor animal was a quarter mile from the shore. No one's shouting or imprecations had brought the dog back. And no one had been able to control the birds. Had he not seen the gulls toying with the dog's ebbing strength--circling above him just out of his reach, cawing, approaching, then darting away--Ian would never have thought it reasonable to conclude that birds were creatures with murderous intentions. But he saw it that day, and he'd believed it ever since. And he always kept a respectful distance from them.
Now, however, he thought of that poor dog. It was obvious that the gulls were toying with something, and whatever that desolate something was, it was inside the old pillbox. Action was called for.
Ian descended the stairs. He said, "Hey, there! I say!" and he waved his arms. This did little to deter the gulls that bobbed on the guano-streaked concrete rooftop and flapped their wings minaciously. But Ian wasn't about to be put off. The long ago gulls in Dover had got the better of their canine pursuer, but these Balford gulls weren't about to get the better of Ian Armstrong.
He jogged in their direction. The pillbox was some twenty-five yards from the foot of the steps, and he was able to build up a fair amount of speed in that distance. Arms waving, he descended on the birds with a yowl, and he was pleased to see his efforts at intimidation bear fruit. The gulls took to the air, leaving Ian alone with the pillbox, and whatever it was that they had been investigating within it.
The entrance was a crawlhole less than three feet