Well-Schooled in Murder - By Elizabeth George

Chapter 1

The rear garden of the cottage in Hammersmith's Lower Mall was set up to accommodate artistic endeavours. Three slabs of knotty pine stretched across six battered sawhorses to function as work stations, and they held at least a dozen stone sculptures in varying stages of completion. A dented metal cabinet near the garden wall contained the artist's tools: drills, chisels, rifflers, files, gouges, emery, and a collection of sandpaper with differing degrees of abrasion. A colour-splodged painter's dropcloth - smelling strongly of turps - made a dispirited lump underneath a partially broken chaise.

It was a garden completely without distractions. Walled in against the curiosity of neighbours, it was thus also protected from those insistent and largely mechanical noises of river traffic, of the Great West Road, of Hammersmith Bridge. Indeed, the high walls of the garden were so expertly constructed, the cottage's position on the Lower Mall so well-chosen, that only an occasional waterfowl in flight overhead broke into the superb stillness that the site afforded.

Such protection was not without one disadvantage. Since cleansing river breezes never found their way through the walls, a patina of stone dust covered everything from the small oblong of dying lawn, to the crimson wallflowers that bordered it, to the square of flagstones that served as a terrace, to the cottage windowsills and the building's pitched roof. Even the artist himself wore fine grey powder like a second skin.

But this pervasive grime did not bother Kevin Whateley. Over the years, he had become quite used to it. Even if he had not been accustomed to operating perfectly well in a cloud of grit, he would not have noticed it while he laboured in the garden. This was his haven, a place of creative ecstasy in which convenience and cleanliness were not required. Mere discomfort meant nothing to Kevin once he gave himself over to the call of his art.

He was doing so now, taking his latest piece through the final stage of buffing. He was particularly fond of this current effort, a reclining nude rendered in marble, her head raised on a pillow, her torso twisted so that her right leg was drawn up over her left, her hip and thigh an unbroken crescent that ended with her knee. He ran his hand down her arm, round her buttocks, and along her thigh, testing for rough spots, nodding with satisfaction at the feeling of stone like cold silk beneath his fingers.

"You do look a bit daft, Kev. Don't believe I ever once saw you smiling like that over me."

Kevin chuckled, straightened, and looked at his wife who had come to stand in the cottage doorway. She was drying her hands on a faded tea towel, laughter drawing deeply at the wrinkles round her eyes. "Then come right 'ere and give it a try, girl. You just weren't paying attention last time."

Patsy Whateley waved him off with, "You're crazy, you are, Kev," but her husband saw the pleased flush appear on her cheeks.

"Crazy, am I?" he asked. "Not what I recall you saying this morning. That was you, wasn't it, sneaking up on a bloke at six A.M.?"

"Kev!"

She laughed outright, and Kevin smiled at her, studying her dear, familiar features, admitting the fact that although for some time she had been surreptitiously colouring her hair to preserve a semblance of youth, her face and figure were decidedly middle-aged, the one lined and no longer firm at jaw and chin, the other filled out in places where once he had found the most delicious curves.

"You're thinking, aren't you, Kev? I can see it on your face. What?"

"Dirty thoughts, girl. Enough to make you blush."

"It's these pieces you're working on, i'n it? Looking at naked ladies on a Sunday morning! It's indecent and that's all there is to it."

"What I feel for you's indecent and that's a fact, luv. Step over here. Don't mess me about. I know what you're really like, don't I?"

"He's gone mad," Patsy declared to the heavens.

"Mad the way you like." He crossed the garden to the cottage door, took his wife into his arms, and kissed her soundly.

"Lord, Kevin, you taste all of sand!" Patsy protested when at last he released her. A streak of grey powder tinted the side of her head. Another smeared against her left breast. She brushed at her clothing, muttering with exasperation, but when she looked up and her husband grinned, her face softened and she murmured, "Half crazy. Always was,