This is the fourth part of a mystery serial.

In case you missed it, Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here, Part 3 is here.

Part five will be along next week. I hope you enjoy this piece of the story, and please bear in mind that this is a first draft.

Freshly Roast Mystery – Part 4

Dartmoor

Sitting in the passenger seat of Alan’s Volkswagen Golf, Dan clung to the door handle. “Mind that pothole. You can’t get around it.”

“Watch me.” Slowing just a little, Alan sent the Golf veering across the narrow lane with a deft adjustment to the steering wheel. Twigs protruding from the high hedge lining the narrow lane scraped along the car’s side and tapped on the window as the car flitted past. “There. Oops, there’s another pothole.”

“This is insane,” Dan grumbled. “Are you sure this is a road? It’s more like a track.” He pointed through the windscreen. “It’s got grass growing down the middle of it for God’s sake.”

“This is practically a motorway in Devon. No problem at all. Plenty of passing places.”

“And we’ve stopped in most of them. For every mile forward, we must’ve reversed half a mile back to let a Land Rover or a tractor to get past.”

“That’s nothing out of the ordinary,” Alan replied. “You get used to it. And everybody gave us a friendly wave.”

Dan stared out in silence. He wanted to ask how long it would take until they arrived, but he didn’t want to sound like a petulant child. Get used to this? he thought. No thank you. Give me traffic lights and bus lanes any day of the week.

As if reading his mind, Alan said, “I’d rather be here than in a city. Once city dwellers get behind the wheel, they get rude and impatient. Here, we have to make allowances for each other, and most people are fine. You get the odd maniac, of course.”

Dan could’ve contradicted him, but he had other things on his mind, like watching the blind bends ahead and wondering what lay around them. Were they about to hurtle into a head-on collision with a combine harvester?

“Nearly there,” Alan went on. “Just another minute.”

“Great,” Dan said, albeit without much conviction; they seemed miles from anywhere. But when they rounded the bend, the hedges fell away, the countryside opened up around them, and there, across a broad verge of neatly mown grass, a huge pair of wrought iron gates stood wide open, a gravel path leading away between rows of evenly planted trees. And firmly fixed to one of the tall, stone gateposts was a dark blue sign with bold white lettering:

Welcome to Knightsbrook House.

They followed the signs to the visitor car park, and Alan brought the car to a halt in one of the many empty spaces.

“It’s very quiet,” Dan said, gazing out across the expanse of gravel. “I hope we got the dates right. It is open, isn’t it?”

“The gates were open,” Alan replied. “We’re just a little early. For some reason.”

Dan grunted. “I didn’t want to miss the start of the tour. Anyway, we’re here now, so let’s go and have a look around.”

A winding tarmac footpath took them through an area of landscaped garden, the path bordered with trimmed shrubs, and the route had apparently been designed to conceal the house from view until the last possible moment. But suddenly, there it was. Knightsbrook House stood proudly in its place, its walls of mellow stone pristine in the early morning light, its elegant proportions exuding an aura of permanence. Dan had always found mansion houses to be cold, pretentious even, but while this building was certainly grand, it’s rows of tall, leaded windows lent it a warm and welcoming aspect.

“Very nice,” Alan murmured. “Talk about life goals…”

Dan smiled. “Yes, I can see you striding out with a shotgun over your arm and your faithful Labrador at your heels.”

“Oh, I’d have half a dozen dogs if I lived in a place like this. A whole pack of them.”

“Let’s just hope they don’t set the dogs on us today,” Dan said. “I have a feeling we’d better watch our step. They won't like it if we seem too nosy.”

“Agreed.” Alan nodded toward the corner of the house where a grey-haired man in a dark jacket and trousers was bustling toward them. “This might be the butler coming to give us a horse-whipping.”

“I’ve never been sure what that means. Do you have to use an actual horse-whip, or is it just an elegant term for sticking the boot in?”

But the man offered a friendly wave as he hurried toward them. “Hello,” he called out. “You must be Mr Corrigan’s party.”

Dan and Alan shared a look. “Erm, there are only the two of us, I’m afraid,” Alan said.

“So I see,” the man replied with a smile. “You’re our first guests of the day, and you’re in good time which we do appreciate. It makes things difficult if people are running late.” He paused to pull a sheet of paper from his pocket. “My name is Arthur, and I’ll be taking you around the house this morning, but before we go on, do you have your ticket codes? There’ll be an email if you booked online. Most people do it that way.”

Dan fumbled for his phone, swiping his thumb up the screen. “Here we are.” He held the phone out, and Arthur leaned close to peer at it before consulting his sheet of paper. “Thank you, that’s all in order.” He squared his shoulders. “Right, gentlemen, if you’ll follow me, I’ll show you inside. It’s a little early, but unless you’d like a comfort break, we’ll proceed with the tour.”

Dan glanced around. “Don’t we have to wait for the others?”

“Others?” Arthur studied him. “I understood that you were a party of two.”

“We are,” Dan replied. “I just thought there would be other people joining the tour.”

Arthur shook his head. “No, sir. Just the two of you. It’s early in the season. We do have much larger groups in the summer, but today, you have my undivided attention, so if you have any questions, please feel free to ask as I show you around. But let’s head over to the entrance hall, and I’ll begin.” He extended his arm toward an imposing front door, and then led the way, striding purposefully, his back straight, and Dan and Alan fell in behind him.

“I feel like I’m on a school trip,” Dan murmured to Alan.

“Sh,” Alan replied. “No talking in the ranks.”

Dan grinned, but the sensation of being a schoolboy on a class outing did not disperse as they were led from room to room, gazing appreciatively at paintings as Arthur recounted the tales of the people portrayed. And despite his courteous manner, Arthur was clearly a man on a mission, and he whisked them from place to place, maintaining the flow of his oratory until one impressive room blurred into another.

Finally, when they reached a spacious conservatory, Arthur relaxed a little, and standing in the centre of the room, he favoured them with a beatific smile. “Now, gentlemen, we’re almost at the end of our time together. We have one more room, and then you’ll be free to explore the gardens at your leisure. So if you have any questions, this is a perfect time to ask them.”

“Yes,” Dan began, “you’ve told us a lot about Gordon Kenning and his heirs, but there’s been no mention of Cyril.”

Arthur raised his eyebrows. “Goodness me, you have done your research. I’ve been a guide here for fifteen years, and no one has ever asked about Cyril Kenning.”

Dan narrowed his eyes, but before he could speak, Alan said, “We’re very keen on local history, and we came across a reference online.”

“I see.” Arthur nodded thoughtfully. “I’m sure you know that Cyril was Gordon’s older brother, but I’m afraid that there isn’t much more to tell.” He smiled, but Dan detected a hint of sadness in the man’s eyes. “You must appreciate that this house, while impressive, is still a family home and not a museum. That’s why we run these tours instead of letting people just wander around. The family are entitled to their privacy, and we must respect their wishes, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Yes, but Cyril died a long time ago, in the First World War, wasn’t it?”

There was a pause before Arthur replied. “Like so many, Cyril served and was lost. And like so many, he was only a very young man when he died.” His professional smile and brisk manner were back. “If there are no other questions, I’ll take you through to the final room, and since you’re interested in the Great War, you’ll enjoy it. Follow me, please.”

He set off toward an unmarked door, and Alan followed, but Dan stayed behind for a moment, gazing around the tidy conservatory. Not a museum, he thought, but somehow, he couldn’t square that statement with his impression of the place. The house, in all its glory, seemed stuck in the past, frozen in time. If a young man with carefully oiled hair and striped blazer were to saunter in through the French windows twirling a tennis racquet, he wouldn’t be surprised.

“Come on, Dan,” Alan called out, and with weary feet, Dan traipsed after him.

In the next room, Arthur was waiting, his hands clasped in front of him, and Dan was immediately struck by the profusion of objects displayed in the glass cases that lined the room. Undoubtedly, this was a museum.

“There has been a long tradition of government and military service in the Kenning family, and indeed, the current owner of Knightsbrook House, Martin Kenning, served with the Royal Marines, rising to the rank of major. When he retired, he decided to put the family’s collection of uniforms, military paraphernalia and other artefacts on display, so he had this modern extension built. Everything is arranged in chronological order and clearly labelled, so I’ll give you a while to peruse them as you see fit. Then, when you’re ready, I’ll show you out to the gardens and direct you to our Orangery Restaurant for any refreshments you might require.”

“Thank you,” Alan said, then he crossed to the first display case and leant close to study the scarlet dress uniform within, clearly intent on reading every word of the caption below.

But Dan paced the length of the room, scanning the artefacts rapidly.

Arthur cleared his throat. “Is there anything I can help you with, sir? If you wanted the First World War items, you’ve just passed them. They’re behind you on your left.”

“I’m looking for a Roman general’s staff,” Dan said, his eyes roving across the displays. “It’ll be a reproduction, a replica, but I feel as though it’ll be here.”

“No, sir. I know every item in this room, and I can provide a good amount of detail on most of them, but these artefacts all date from 1830. Many of them predate the house, of course, but thankfully, the family were very good at maintaining the older items in good order. Now, the dress uniform that’s occupying your friend is—”

“Not really of interest to me,” Dan interrupted. “Where is it? The staff. He used it for the scytale, but where is it now? Does Deborah have it?”

Arthur eyed Dan warily. “Sir, I presume that you are referring to the Roman reproductions collected by Gordon Kenning, yes?”

“Yes. Can I see them? They weren’t in the house. I checked as we went around, but there was no sign of them.”

“That’s because the collection is private,” Arthur replied. “None of the items are displayed since the family felt that they would cause confusion or give an impression that could’ve been…misleading.”

Dan stared at him. “Misleading? In what way?”

“Well, as you have already surmised, most of the items were reproductions and of no real historical value, but in a house such as this, visitors might’ve assumed that they were genuine. The family were keen to avoid that situation.”

Alan joined them. “Sounds very reasonable. People are fast to jump to conclusions, and then they feel foolish or cheated when they find out they’re wrong.”

“Precisely, sir,” Arthur said. “There were a few genuine artefacts in the collection—pottery fragments and so on—but they were either sold or donated to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter. As for the rest, they were packed away several years ago and placed in a storage facility.”

Dan nodded thoughtfully. “I see. Okay, in that case, is there anything here that belonged to Cyril Kenning?”

Arthur blinked as if taken aback at the sudden change in topic, but he recovered quickly, his expression becoming stern and fixed. Remaining tight-lipped, he shook his head.

“Nothing?” Dan asked. “Nothing at all? Even though he served in the War?”

“There are no items relating to Cyril kenning in this room, sir.” Arthur took a breath. “Mr. Corrigan, I really don’t know where you’re going with this, but please remember that the artefacts around you have all been kindly provided by the Kenning family, and they are entitled to choose what goes on show to the public.” He let out a humourless chuckle. “After all, if I were to visit your home, I wouldn’t expect to go rifling through your photograph albums.”

“I don’t have photograph albums,” Dan replied, “I don’t even have photographs. Nobody has photographs anymore. But the point is, I don’t sell tickets to my front room and charge people for the privilege of staring at my overstuffed sofa.”

A flush of colour tinged Arthur’s cheeks. “Sir, I have nothing further to add, so if you’d like to make your way through the exit, you’ll find the Orangery Restaurant around to your right. It’s clearly signposted.” He sidestepped to an unmarked door and pulled it open, gesturing toward the doorway. “Please feel free to explore the gardens, sticking to the marked paths in order to preserve the lawns. Thank you for visiting Knightsbrook House, and I hope that you’ve enjoyed your tour.”

“Hold on a minute,” Dan began, but Alan intervened.

“Thank you, Arthur, you’ve been very helpful, but…” Alan glanced back at one of the displays, “I hate to tell you this, but you’re not quite right.”

“I beg your pardon, sir?”

Alan pointed to a uniform tunic displayed on a stand. “That was Gordon Kenning’s uniform, yes?”

Arthur nodded enthusiastically as if relieved to be back on familiar territory. “Yes, sir. Third Battalion, Devonshire Regiment. They were a Special Reserve unit, but they did important work, training officers and men to equip them for the challenges they’d undoubtedly face.”

“Yes, I read the caption,” Alan said. “But that ribbon…if I’m not mistaken, that represents the Croix de Guerre 1914 to 1918.”

“How do you know that?” Dan asked. “I didn’t have you down as an armchair general.”

“I’m not, but I knew we were coming here today, and I did my research. Most of this collection is listed on the website, and the medal caught my eye. It seemed strange to me that a British soldier could be awarded a French medal, so I looked it up.”

“Well done, sir.” Arthur beamed. “As I’m sure you discovered, units of the British Army and other allies of the French could be awarded the Croix de Guerre for their gallantry, in this case, for the defence of Bois des Buttes in May of 1918.”

“Yes, I found that out online, but it doesn’t tally with your display.” Alan fixed the man with a searching look. “You see, if the person who wore this uniform belonged to a reserve unit, how could he have been recognized for his gallantry in a battle? I’m sure the third battalion played their part, but from what you’ve just said, they weren't frontline troops.”

Arthur’s smile faltered. “I’d have to check the precise details, sir, but there’s no question about the medal’s authenticity, I can guarantee that. The family would never allow such a thing. As I said earlier, the current owner was an officer in the Royal Marines.”

Alan held up his hands. “Oh, I’m sure the medal is genuine. I just don’t think it was awarded to Gordon. I think it was given to Cyril.”

“I think we’re onto something,” Dan said, taking a step closer to Arthur. “What happened to Cyril Kenning? And why has he been airbrushed out of your little museum?”

Arthur bristled. “Sir, I’ve done my best to answer your questions, but I believe that I’ve made the position clear. I have nothing more to add, so that concludes the tour. As I said, you may visit the restaurant and the gardens if you wish. Thank you and goodbye.” He stood stiffly beside the door, stony-faced, and after a brief moment, Dan turned to Alan. “Come on. We may as well go.”

They headed outside, and the door was closed firmly behind them.

“Tell me,” Alan began, “if I hang around with you, am I going to be continually thrown out of places?”

“Very probably,” Dan replied. “If you play your cards right.” He smiled. “Good work with the medal, by the way. You weren’t bragging when you said you were good at research.”

Alan affected a nonchalant expression. “One tries.” He pointed to a wooden signpost. “I think we’ve earned a trip to the restaurant, don’t you?”

“I guess we could have an early lunch. I don’t suppose they’ll have much I can eat, but they must be able to rustle up a snack.”

“Are you allergic to gluten or something?”

“I’m a vegan. Sort of.”

Alan’s gaze shot skyward. “It’s such a fad. Everyone’s doing it these days. But how can you be sort of vegan? You’re either vegan or you’re not.”

“I eat fish. I won't bore you with my objections to meat and dairy products, but fish…frankly, they’ve got it coming.”

“Wait a minute,” Alan protested. “You didn’t say anything about all this when I mentioned the pheasant shoot.”

Dan sighed. “I don’t bang on about my principles every five minutes. It’s not like I’m a member of some weird cult or religion. I make my choices, you make yours. I won't pour scorn on you if you buy a meat pie, nor will I make rude remarks while you eat it. À chacun son whatsit.”

“Goût,” Alan provided. “Okay, let’s go and see if we can find a mung bean you can nibble.”

“I won’t cast aspersions at your lifestyle, so I’d be grateful if you’d return the favour.” Dan looked him in the eye. “As far as I’m concerned, this is not a fad but a choice, and I made it a long time ago. It’s got nothing whatsoever to do with Gwyneth Paltrow or any of the other so-called celebrities. It hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve put a lot of thought into my decisions and I stand by them. I think that deserves a little respect.”

Alan dipped his chin. “Fair point. No more snide remarks. And for the record, I’m with you on the fish. I’ve always found them to be fundamentally untrustworthy.”

“And that is a sentence I never thought I’d hear,” Dan said. “Come on, let’s get to the restaurant before Arthur calls out the guard.”

“He’s probably looking for a horse-whip as we speak,” Alan said with a smile, and they set off along the gravel path.

I hope you enjoyed the fourth part of this story.

This episode will be included in my monthly anthology as an ebook along with this month's blog posts and flash fiction. The ebooks will only be available to my patrons on patreon where, for a few dollars a month, you can have instant access to all the ebooks as soon as I compile them. Also, the support of patrons will help me to keep writing and providing content for you all. Learn more when you head on over to patreon and check it out
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THE COMPLETE STORY IS NOW AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDER UNDER ITS NEW TITLE: A STUDY IN STONE

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All the best and happy reading,

Mikey C

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