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Death in a Ngawha

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Death in a Ngawha is a short crime story by New Zealand Author Jackie Evans.

 

For the life of him, Lord Nigel Archibald-Mordent could not find the mate to his sock.

If only Trigg were here–the good manservant who had attended his every need for so many years–A curse on Pater, who could so well afford Trigg to accompany him on the awful three month voyage to the antipodes–this God forsaken place.

Brimming with self pity, Lord Nigel, ached in every joint from his night on the earth floor of a his hand-built hut, called a whare by the Maori. He peered through the tiny aperture which served as a window to the steamy world of Ohinemutu. But perhaps this world was not God forsaken after all…. Rising through the wraith, like whorls of steam, the vision of a church spire thrust heavenwards. Lord Nigel found the spectacle reassuring.

Six foot three, of lean build (he had become leaner during the awful voyage), Sir Nigel had to bend almost double to negotiate his exit from the tiny whare hired to him by a friendly Maori for 3 and 6pd per week. (The famous Lake House hotel was overflowing with tourists and New Year guests.)

He gasped at the remarkable sight that greeted him– steaming pools lined the banks of Lake Rotorua. Small clusters of Maori women laughed and chatted in their native tongue, lowered and raised baskets of what his nostrils told him were pork, chicken and vegetables unfamiliar to him.

His stomach contracted and grumbled. Oh that Trigg were here! Addressing a passing dog (itself obviously in search of food), he said, “The Lake House–I will see whether I can afford some breakfast.”

Two very elderly Maori women squatted on the pumice of a recently strewn track, weaving a long and intricate flax mat. They laughed and chanted in Maori…. Their graceful fingers moved with remarkable skill and agility, creating row upon row of yellow and black geometrical designs. As he stopped to watch, the younger of the two said, “Kia ora, e hoa.”

Having been tutored by his Maori landlord, Nigel proudly replied, “Kia ora.”

“No hea koe?” asked the older lady. Nigel was stumped.  

“She asked: Where you from?” cackled the other.  

“Oh. I am Lord Nigel Archibald-Mordent from Oxford, England,” replied Nigel.

“Ingarangi! We know.” said the first. Rising, she pressed her nose firmly against his in the greeting of the hongi.  “Whaea Turia ahau.”

Her elderly friend followed suit, but she rose more slowly, perhaps even somewhat painfully. She introduced herself as “ Whaea Maraea ahau.”

Lord Nigel, mystified, added the hongi experience to his meager basket of Maori lore.

His stomach grumbled audibly, causing him embarrassment.  The two old ladies laughed with understanding.  “Kei to hiakai koe?” asked Whaea Maraea. Nigel looked blank, “She says are you hungry?” translated Whaea Turia.

“Yes,” he replied, “I’m off to the Lake House to see if I can purchase breakfast.”

“No,” admonished Whaea Maraea. “Lake House is too full. Come with us. We find you some kai.”

Not wishing to appear impolite, and experiencing the pangs of one who hadn’t eaten since yesterday, Nigel followed the giggling old ladies to a well kept whare set back from the lake in a clump of manuka ponga ferns. 

Welcomed inside, he was presented with remarkable speed and efficiency, with some delicious rewanabread, fish and kumara ( the sweet potato– a vegetable alien to him). This was accompanied by a bowl of ripe peaches.

“Could you tell me stories of these parts some time?” Nigel inquired hesitantly, having polished off the last delectable peach. “I’d be obliged.”

“Stories?- repeated Whaea  Turia.

“Korero purakau,” translated Nanny Maraea.

“Aye, when you come again?”

“Soon, I hope,”  Nigel replied. “ My main aim is to find a Post Office, to check my mail from England.”

“Aye – Ingarangi.” chortled Whaea  Turia.

Thanking the old ladies profusely, and feeling agreeably replete, Nigel followed their directions to the Government buildings in the fledgling town.

His path took him on a southerly route, past the Church he had observed from his lodgings. The old ladies had told him that this was St. Faiths Church, built originally twenty years ago, and rebuilt following a fire.

The path to the Government Buildings was rough, and pumice strewn, the land flat and bare, apart from patches of scrubby manuka and a few steaming ngawha.

His destination could just be observed in the distance. What an uninviting landscape! But lovely Lake Rotorua, a gleaming expanse of calm water, lay beyond him to the east, with a small, bush clad island rising from it’s centre, resembling a slightly flattened volcanic cone.

A faint mist hovered above Lake Rotorua, mingling with steam from the thermal vents lining it’s banks. The pungent smell of sulphur assailed his nostrils.

Nigel  became aware of a shambling figure advancing toward him. Was he, perhaps, a little tipsy?  On closer inspection, the stranger  appeared to be a man of about his own age–late thirties, with auburn hair and a full beard. He wore a kilt, sported bare, hairy legs, black socks, and a hat which had known better days and carried a worn hold-all.

“Top of the morning to ye.” said the stranger. “Ian McGechie–I am.”

“How do you do? Just call me Nigel.” And they shook hands.

“What deuced relief to meet another Britisher.”

“Even though he’s from Scotland!” chortled Ian McGechie.

Throwing their holdalls onto the rough path, the pair found sparse shade beneath a stand of spindly manuka. They had much to tell each other.

“I’m a failed lawyer,” Nigel explained.

“Failed?” queried Ian.

“Indeed. I barely scraped though my law degree. … to please Pater, of course. I then decided I hated the law and the legal fraternity, and bought a wonderful second hand Bookshop, specializing in old manuscripts.”

“You must be very well heeled, if I might say so,” observed Ian.

“No. I managed to raise a loan from a gaming friend. Of course the bookshop failed. Pater was livid, and here I am. Free as a bird in New Zealand.”

“But how will you survive?”

“That’s the crux of the matter, old boy. I am what is known as a Remittance Man.”

“Oh yes, I’ve heard of such…. Did your Pater, as you refer to him, kick you out?”

“Indeed. Swiftly, and with much harshness. Told me he would settle my debts if I disappeared to New Zealand or Australia, and  never return to sully the family name again.”

“But what about survival, man?” queried Ian.

“Well, dear Pater has promised to forward me a modest quarterly remittance. That’s where Remittance Man comes into the picture.” Nigel smiled and carefully packed his pipe.

“I have to say I’m deuced nervous right now. Off to the Post Office to check my mail. If it wasn’t for the generosity of two dear old Maori kuia, I’d be famished right now.”

“Kuia?”

“Maori for elderly ladies. They have just served me a delicious repast.  But enough of me and my tedious problems. What brings you to the antipodes?”

“Oh, me?” sighed Ian, “I’m a failed Priest….”

The two fell about laughing.

“A Priest?” I thought all Sots were Presbyterians.” Nigel looked perplexed.

“No, man. There’s a growing Roman Catholic presence in many parts of Scotland. My old mother coerced me into training for the Priesthood. I had neither the courage nor the strength to resist.”

“And did you become ordained?”

“Aye, but my faith faltered. And, to complicate matters, I was pursued, man.”

“Pursued?”

“Aye. By a very determined woman, who meant to make me hers.”

But Priests are celibate, Ian.”

“Of course. But she, like me, had deserted the Roman Catholic Church. She then had me firmly fixed in her sights.”

“Say no more, Ian. Let’s just drink to our liberty.” And Nigel drew a silver flask and two glasses from his holdall.

He noticed that Ian appeared troubled.

“What’s the matter, man? A small drop of brandy won’t hurt you.”

“A thousand thanks Nigel. It’s just that it plays merry Hell with ma gout.”

Gout?”

“Ae. Forgot to explain– that is another reason I’m here. To take the waters. Incredibly beneficial for any form of rheumatic disease.”

“But I thought only old fogies in their seventies and eighties suffer from gout.”

“Oh no! My old man told me it can be hereditary. He suffered from it in his forties, and here I  am– only thirty- eight last September.”

“Oh dear. Forgive me but I did notice you were limping. Is it painful?”

“I have ma good days and ma bad days. But it definitely helps to abstain from red meat and alcoholic beverages.  I generally stick to fish and chicken.” Ian smiled.

“What deuced bad luck.” Nigel commiserated, discreetly putting away his brandy flask and glasses.

And parting, a little while later, on cordial terms, the pair agreed to met the following evening at the Lake House Hotel bar at seven pm, where Ian confided that he would stick to aerated water.

Entering the Old Trading Centre, one of  several General Stores in the locality, Nigel gazed in fascination at the sight that met his eyes. The grimy interior was cluttered, dimly lit and crammed with goods of every conceivable description. Copper kettles, brass lanterns, and iron pots swayed suspended on hooks that hung from the ceiling. Shelves lined walls, were stuffed with candles, pipes, and crockery. Sacks of flour, sugar, oats and horse feed leaned haphazardly against the walls.

Hunched behind the counter sat a half-caste Maori youth of about nineteen years, scribbling in a ledger, while a younger woman, perhaps seventeen, was weighing flour.

Roderick Willis, the proprietor whose name was displayed in the signage on the window, negotiated his way through the cluttered muddle. Attended by three female customers. Nigel was seeking a lantern for his whare. Spying a likely one on a bottom shelf near the counter, he knelt to inspect it. Thus, concealed from view, he chanced to overhear a muffled conversation.

“Get a move on, you lazy bastard!” exclaimed Willis, addressing the youth behind the counter.

“I’m doing my best, Mr. Willis.” came the quiet response.

Thankful that he was out of sight behind a display of large crocks, Nigel waited for Willis, a bulky man in his early sixties, to rejoin his customers. He then quickly purchased his lamp from the young female assistant, and left to meet Ian McGechie at the Lake House Hotel.

***

“Roderick Willis?” replied George, the Lake House barman, in response to Nigel’s query.

“Know him well?” Nigel asked.

“Not really. Hearsay mainly. Generally keeps to himself. Only drinks here once or twice a week. Don’t quote me, but I hear he is owed money by two thirds of the population of Ohinemutu-Maori and pakeha alike. Too generous with his credit.”

George busied himself with some demanding  patrons.

“Nigel!” yelled Ian McGechie, elbowing his way through  the throng.

“I’ve ordered you a ginger beer,” Nigel informed him.

“Any news from the Old Country?” inquired Ian, only managing to insert himself between his new friend and a fat and over familiar American woman in her fifties whose eye the friends carefully avoided.

“Excellent news.” replied Nigel. “Pater has sent me three month’s remittance in advance. So, as you observe, I am celebrating.”

“Splendid!” shouted Ian, above the din. “But be cautious, man. Ohinemutu is not an inexpensive village in which to survive.  Heed the advice of a canny Scot.”

Nigel smiled, “ Ian, my friend, I appreciate your advice, but last night in my whare, I  gave the matter serious consideration. I am told that the population of Ohinemutu is growing apace, and I hear talk of a new town being built in Rotorua.”

“Is that so?”

“Indeed. Tourists are visiting in increasing numbers to take the waters, and to visit the wonderful thermal regions. I’m seriously considering putting my law degree to use after all.”

 “But you said you hated the law!”

“Indeed. In Oxfordshire, barristers and solicitors are two a penny. However, Ohinemuutu, Rotorua is a different kettle of  fish.”

“All I can say man, is that I wish you all the luck in the world.” replied Ian McGechie, pumping his hand.

Thank you Ian. But one step at a time. With luck and enterprise, the day may dawn when I no longer have need of Pater’s  bloody remittance!”

By nine pm, the crowd having thinned somewhat, Nigel managed once more to gain the ear of George, the barman.

“I have a reason for sounding you out about our mutual acquaintance, Mr. Frederick Willis,” he explained.

“And what might that be?” inquired George, vigorously polishing a glass.

Nigel related the abusive comments overheard in Willis’ store.

“Doesn’t surprise me in the least,” said George. “Treats them both like dirt–slaves, more like it.”

You mean the young woman as well?” Nigel asked.

Oh. Yes. It’s well known. They’re brother and sister–Half castes. Work for a pittance I hear tell. “She wouldn’t say ‘boo’ to a goose. Brother’s not much better.”

“But the young fellow must be reasonably well educated to help with Willis’ accounts….”

“Probably educated at the Mission schools, I would say.”

“Why do they stay on, when he treats them so badly?” Ian asked.

“Because their father is elderly– suffers from TB. And jobs are hard to get– especially for young people. Worse for  Maori.”

“Willis is not married, then?”     

“Oh, he’s married all right. But I hear his wife is a hypo- hyper…”

“Hypochondriac?” suggested Ian.

Exactly. Lies on her sofa all day, waited on by servants. I hear she has continuous “attacks” of some kind.

Not the vapors, by chance?” Nigel asked.

“Something of that nature, no doubt,” replied George. “My old woman has her own opinion of Mrs. Hetty Willis.”

And what might that be?” asked Nigel.

Says she’s pretending to be sick so as to get out of helping her husband in the store. Has done this for a long time.”

Is that so?” Nigel responded.

Eve, my old lady, said she comes across Mrs. Willis a lot at Women’s functions. Does some of the organizing. Regards herself a pillar of the community!”

Just then a commotion erupted at the rear of the crowded bar.

Well, speak of the devil!” George shouted, vaulting the bar, and running to help separate two men locked in a mortal embrace.

“Bless my soul, if its not our friend  Willis!” yelled Nigel, above the din.

What the hell’s going on, man?”  Ian shouted.

“Looks like old Willis is having a punch up with one of his creditors.” said Nigel, elbowing his way through the throng.

“Send for the constables!” shouted the fat lady.

The combatants could now be seen in the centre of a cheering crowd, hammering each other with vicious intent. As two burly Maori employees dragged them apart, three members of the Constabulary appeared and proceeded to arrest and handcuff the assailants who were dragged unceremoniously from the precincts, spitting oaths at everyone and anyone.

When the friends next met at the Lake House  to compare notes, they were told that it was George’s night off.  Trying, unsuccessfully, to engage a youthful Maori barman in conversation, they were directed to a female employee who was having a hectic night with the big New Year crowd of patrons.

Catching her eye, Nigel asked, “Have you any news of Roderick Willis and his friend?”

Between customers, she said, breathlessly, “Oh yes. It was in the Hot Lakes Chronicle. Willis was bailed, and Morunga stays in custody till next month’s hearing.”

That’s not fair,” Ian said to Nigel, “Why wasn’t Morunga bailed?

Probably couldn’t afford it,” Nigel reflected.

It appears that the Courts on the whole favour Europeans.”

My good fellow,” Nigel said, slightly flushed, “This is a golden opportunity to begin my legal career in the antipodes!”

Explain yourself.” protested Ian, draining his second glass of Soda Water.

Use your brain, man. First and foremost, I will offer my services to the incarcerated Eru Morunga.”

Who,” responded Ian, “is without doubt unemployed and unable to pay….”

“In which case, I shall defend him Pro Bono, just to keep my hand in.”

“Pro Bono?”

“Free, gratis and for nothing, my good fellow,” said Nigel,  becoming more animated by the minute.

“But how on earth do ye propose to make a living?” his friend inquired.

“Don’t you understand, Ian? When the good people of Ohinemutu learn there is a lawyer in their midst, a qualified lawyer– a man with a conscience to boot, they will come flocking to my door!”

“But ya have na got a door.” Ian protested.

“Then I shall nail my shingle to the door post of my whare, man.” The two doubled up with mirth, decided to call it quits and departed for their respective abodes.

***

Lord Nigel walked in the constabulary and overheard a frightening conversation.

“The body, or parts thereof, was observed in the well known Priest’s Pool at about seven a.m Friday morning by a housemaid on her way to work. Mrs. Higgs told police. “I was alerted by what I believed to be the faint odour of cooked pork. Just a whiff, Sir,” said she, haltingly. “As well as the sight of a set of false teeth nibbling the edge of the pool.”

“What did you do then, Madam?”

“I had a closer look, Sir. I was in a state then, but when I saw what appeared to be part of a human leg, dressed in dark cloth–sort of shredded like, I ran for me life!”

At that point, the unfortunate woman became hysterical, so Sergeant Davis arranged for her to be taken home.

Extraction of the body proved to be a protracted and dangerous procedure. It was removed from Tauranga to a makeshift morgue near the Court House. Forensic authorities informed police that since the body had been in boiling water (temperatures of over 100 degrees celcius) for over twenty four hours, identification could only be made by dental material recovered. This, of course, might take a considerable time.

It was not until two days later that Mrs. Hetty Willis, wife of the Storekeeper Harold Willis, reported her husband missing.

“Why such a long delay?” Ian asked Nigel. The friends were relaxing in Ian’s tiny room at the Lake House hotel.

Very curious,” Nigel replied. “I hear that Willis had told his wife he was travelling to Tauranga for a week, where he intended stocking up on supplies.”

“Curiouser and curiouser,” Ian reflected, pipe clamped between his teeth. Evening was drawing in, and the lamp cast shadows on the plain wooden furniture. Despite the two small windows, which were wide open, the room was stifling.

“Who could give us more information about the couple?” Ian asked.

“What about my elderly Maori lady friends?” suggested Nigel.

I promised to visit them again soon. Why not tonight?”

Thirty minutes later, Ian and Nigel were welcomed by Whaea Turia and Whaea Maraea, who introduced them to three whanau members, partaking of a splendid meal. Having already dined, the friends courteously declined the old ladies’ invitation to join the feast.

“Have you heard the news?” asked Whaea Turia.

“What news?” replied Nigel.

The young fellow – Eru Mita- is being blamed by Mrs. Hetty for her husband’s death.”

“Has he been arrested?”  

“No. Not yet,” said Whaea Maraea. “But we are very worried.”

“How well do you know the young people?” Ian asked.

We know them well, “replied Whaea Turia–serious for the first time since Nigel had met her.

“Good family.”

“We have heard that the late Mr. Willis did not treat the couple well.”

No. He used them badly–a pig of a man,” said Whaea Maraea fiercely.

“What about his wife?” asked Ian.

“Oh, she thinks she is a fine lady,” cackled Whaea Turia. Plenty of money for nice dresses. Goes to lots of meetings.”

“What kind of meetings?” inquired Nigel.

“Oh– raising money for the Catholic Church and Social Clubs, that kind of thing,” said Whaea Maraea.  

Did she see much of the young brother and sister?” queried Ian.

“Only when they took the books home–then I hear she sometimes gave them hell.” said Whaea Turia.

How do you know this?” asked Ian.

“My second cousin is Mrs. Hetty’s house maid.” laughed Whaea Maraea. She tells us these things.”

Relaxing once more in Ian’s  room at the Lake House, Nigel, who had been unusually silent, suddenly thumped the table. “Eru Morunga!” he shouted.

“What about him?” Ian asked.

“He knows more about this business than we bargained for. Care for a jaunt to the Tauranga Gaol House?”

 “Not really. Especially not in this foul weather.” said his friend. “…but I’ll go, just to humor you.

The weather had indeed changed for the worse over night, and at 7:00 am the following day, the friends departed for Tauranga from the Coaching Stables on the corner of what was later to be known as Ranolf Street and Lake Road. The route was via the notorious Mangorewa Gorge.

“I shall have to write to Mater, and tell her of this magnificent scenery, shouted Nigel, above the roar of wind and rain.

“And the magnificent weather!” retorted  Ian.

“No worse than  your precious Edinburgh.”  laughed Nigel.

Ten minutes later, descending a steep, twisting incline, the king bolt broke. Totally out of control, and separated from the horses, the coach careened over a bank and was severely damaged. However, fate smiled upon the passengers, and the coachman, all of whom managed to jump clear and sustained only heavy bruises–in Ian’s case, a badly sprained ankle. “I hate to think how this is goin’ to affect ma gout,” said he, struggling up the bank with help from Nigel and the coachman. There followed a lengthy delay, after which the drenched and battered passengers were finally conveyed by a following Coach to Tauranga, where they secured accommodations for the night in a small hostelry.

On Thursday, the sun shone from a cloudless sky, and the friends spent the day washing and drying ruined garments and shopping for new ones.  

“Ye look a new man in that suit.” said Ian, as he admired Nigel who emerged from Tauranga Mens’ Outfitters. He was clad in a grey tweed suit, and carried a long ulster on his arm.

“It cost over half my recent remittance!” Nigel replied, ruefully.

Two hours later they were seated on a hard, narrow bench in the Tauranga Gaol House in Eru Morunga’s squalid cell.

Thank you, sirs, for taking an interest in me,” he said. My family are worried about me, but can’t afford the transport to Tauranga.”

Nigel observed that Morunga’s face was grey and haggard, his eyes sunken from sleepless nights. The cell was uncomfortably warm.

Following introductions, Nigel said, “I am a lawyer. Mr. Morunga. Mr. McGechie here is my assistant. We are happy to stand bail for you. “

Eru Morunga attempted, unsuccessfully, to control his emotions, but he managed to mutter his thanks, before going speechless.

Nigel said, “We need to talk, man. Tell me about Roderick Willis What type of man was he?”

“Was?” inquired Morunga.

Willis is dead. His body was found in the Priest’s Pool four days ago.”

Morunga’s face took on a pale hue.

”Good God! Well, at least I cant be blamed. Did he kill himself?”

“It is believed, at present, to be murder rather than suicide,” said Ian.

Tell us what you know of the man,” said Nigel.

Morunga was silent for a minute or two. Then he spoke slowly.

“Many said he was a good man, because he was generous with credit. And he put on a show for customers. But he was really a bad man.”

“Why do you say this?” asked Ian.

”Because he took away my cousin’s wife,” replied Eru Morunga, staring at the floor.

”Took her?”

“Yes. They were together for three years. There is a child, A daughter.”

“Does that explain the fight in the Lakehouse Hotel?”  asked Nigel.

“Yes, sir.”

Morunga stared at him defiantly.

“My family has had enough.”

“Does Mrs. Willis know of the situation?” Ian asked.

“I don’t know,” Morunga replied, wiping perspiration from his brow.

“She likes to be seen as a woman of good deeds. But they treat their workers badly.”

Nigel described  the abusive comments he had overheard in Willis’ store.

“That is not a surprise to me,” Morunga said.

Nigel rose to his feet. “Enough for now. Time to get you out of here.”

Bail was swiftly arranged, and a few hours later the three men boarded an Ohinemutu bound coach. This time, however, as  the Irish proverb proclaims– the road rose to meet them, and the wind was at their backs. The journey through the Mangorewa Gorge proceeded without incident, and they arrived safely at Ohinemutu, breathing sighs of profound relief.

Nigel and Ian immediately sought out Whaera Turia and Whaea Maraea who invited them to repast.

“A thousand thanks, dear ladies, but we must watch our waist lines!” protested Nigel.

“Waistlines?” queried Whaea  Turia.

Nigel indicated the appropriate part of his anatomy, and  the two old ladies doubled up in mirth.

“A cup of tea would be most welcome, but we must get down to serious discussion. In fact, time is of the essence.”

“Essence?” queried Whaea Maraea.

“We must share what we know of the family, household, and business of the late Mr. Roderick Willis,” said Ian.

“Only then can we shed light upon the mystery behind his sudden death.”

“Aye, Mr. Nigel,” said Whaea Turia.

“But it is a good thing that he is dead. He was a bad man.”

“That may be so, Nigel,” I remonstrated, “But it is vital to discover the truth or an innocent person may be  blamed and punished for his death. I am convinced it was not suicide.”

“Suicide?” asked Whaea Maraea.

“That is when a person takes his own life,” explained Ian.

“Ahhh,” said Whaea Turia, shifting her head slowly from side to side.

“We hear that Mrs. Hetty has told police that she blames young Eru Winitana.”

“We have also heard these rumours,” mused Ian, “ But why would Eru wish his employer dead?”

Mrs. Hettie told the police it was because Eru hated Mr. Willis, and because he owed him money.”

How do you know these things?” asked Nigel.

Whaea Turia smiled, “ Because Miria Erepeta is Mrs. Hetty’s housekeeper, and Miria is my nephew’s wife.”

What a fascinating source of information,” remarked Ian.

“And a very useful one,” added Nigel. He went on, “I have seen Eru working in Willis’s shop. He is a slightly built young man.  I cannot envision him having the physical strength, nor indeed, the motive, to shove a man as  powerfully built as Willis into a boiling  pool.”

The two old ladies exchanged glances.

“Miria says that Mrs. Hetty is a very jealous woman,” said Whaea Maraea.

“Jealous? Of whom?” asked Nigel.

“Of her husband’s lover,” replied Whaea Turia.

“Oh yes,” reflected Nigel. “We have heard a tale to that effect from Mr. Morunga.”

Do you know more?”

“Mrs. Hetty had no tamariki,” said Whaea Maraea.

“Tamariki?” asked Ian.

“Children,” Nigel said, ”Even I know that, old man!”

The old ladies giggled.

Mrs. Hetty always wanted a baby. Now she is too old.”

Nigel said, “We have heard that Mr. Willis has a child by another woman.”

“Aye, ka tika,” said Whaea Turia.

“And did Mrs. Willis find out?” asked Nigel.

“Aye. Miria told us that someone left a note for her telling her what happened.”

“And?”

“When Miria came to work one day, Mrs. Hetty was very angry and sick. She made Miria get the doctor.”

“When was this?”

The two old ladies looked at each other.

“A few weeks past,” said Whaea Maraea.

Nigel and Ian rose to their feet.

“Thank you both. You have been extremely helpful.”

“What now?” asked Whaea Turia.

“I believe we must inform Sergeant Forrester,” replied Nigel.

“We must also call on Mrs. Hetty Willis forthwith.”

“Forthwith?”

“Immediately”! Nigel smiled, and he and Ian bowed themselves out.

***

It was Miria Erepeta’s half day off. She was sitting with her two elderly friends outside their whare at mid day when Nigel and Ian approached. The sun was striking diamonds off tiny fragments of obsidian on the lakeside track. Enjoying her brief freedom from Mrs. Hetty Willis’ bullying  presence, Miria confided that she was seeking another position.

“Another job?” exclaimed Whaea Turia. She looked shocked. Nigel and Ian looked at each other.

“But Mrs. Hetty gives you good pay. Why do you leave?” asked Whaea Turia.

“She gives me a hard time,” said Miria. “I am always tired.”

“Is it really so bad with Mrs. Hetty?” asked Whaea Maraea.

“Aye. Most days,” Miria confirmed. “She shouts. Says I am mangere.”

The other day she made me look all day, just for  a button!”

“A button?”

“Yes. Missing from a dress she likes. I looked all day. The dinner was burned!”

Whaea Turia commiserated with her relative.

“We will try to find you another job. We know the nice young man at St. Faiths.”

“Do you mean the new Curate?” asked Whaea  Maraea.

“Aye. He might need a house keeper. He is handsome, too!”

And all three exploded into mirth.

***

What a hellish way to die.” reflected Nigel. He was standing, with Ian, as close as was prudent to the edge of the famous Priest’s Pool. Whaea Turia sat some distance away, cross legged, on the rough turf, smoking her pipe. (Whaea Maraea had declined to join them, since she was entertaining a group of whanau.)

The friends stared at the seething, emerald depths.  The surface of the pool was boiling in places, simmering in others. Whorls of hot steam occasionally enveloped them. The air was pungent with the odour of sulphur.

“Why is it called the Priest’s Pool?” asked Nigel.

A Priest came here once,” said Whaea Turia. “ He was sick with Room- rheum….”

“Rheumatism?” suggested Ian.

“Aye. He knew of the healing waters. So he came here. He dug a hole. Over there.” She indicated an area several meters from the Priest’s Pool.

“And he found water that was not too hot.”

“And?” asked Nigel.

“He sat in the small pool every day for a long time. Then he was well again.”

“Amazing.” said Ian. “I should try it for ma gout!”

They all laughed. Ian bent to examine a small. gleaming object, stuck in the  branch of a black, stunted manuka bush. It was very close to the edge of the Priest’s Pool, and Ian had to exercise extreme caution.

“What might this be?” He held aloft an oblong, carved clasp, crafted from polished wood.

That’s from a lady’s dress,” said Whaea Turia.

“Don’t mention this to a soul,” said Nigel. When Whaea Turia had finished her pipe, they walked to their respective homes.

Sgt. Forrester, Ian and Nigel picked their way through the cluttered Victoriana of Mrs. Hetty Willis’ living room.

Following introductions, Mrs. Hetty Willis said, in a commanding tone, “It would have been courteous to have given me prior notice of this visit.”

“Forgive me, Madam,” said Sgt. Forrester, “but this is an extremely serious matter.”

“Please explain yourselves, and be quick about it. I am unwell.”

She raised herself slowly from a recumbent position on her  generously upholstered chaise loungue.

Mrs. Willis was a heavy  woman, in her mid fifties, yet still handsome. Her eyes, however, were small, hot, and suspicious. They darted, bird-like from one visitor to another. Nigel felt a trifle uncomfortable. Clad in a voluminous oyster satin robe, with matching slippers, her hand often strayed to fondle a peculiarly ugly Pug dog, snarling at her feet.

We appreciate that you are recently bereaved, Mrs. Willis,” said the Sergeant. Please accept our condolences.”

Mrs. Willis nodded, impatiently. “Get on with your business, please.”

Is your housekeeper, Mrs. Miria Erepeta, on the premises?” inquired  the Sergeant,

“What business could you possibly have with my housekeeper?” asked Mrs. Willis with a scowl on her face.

I must ask you to call for her immediately, Madam,” replied the Sergeant.

Mrs. Willis, whose complexion now resembled one of Whaea Turia’s  plums, pulled a bell rope at her elbow. The little dog snarled menacingly.

There followed a strained interval, of about five minutes, after which a timid knock announced the arrival of the housekeeper.

Miria looked flustered, and was wearing a floury apron over her dark, ankle-length dress.

“These gentlemen wish to speak with you, Miria,” said Mrs. Willis, stiffly.

Nervously, Miria touched her face with her hand, leaving floury traces on one cheek.

Introductions were made by Sergeant Forrester.

“Mrs. Erepeta,” he said, “have you seen this object before?”

He produced the carved, polished clasp and held it out for her inspection.

Oh, yes, Sir!” exclaimed  Miria, gasping in surprise and recogniition. ”This is the missing button from Mrs. Hetty’s dress. I took a whole day looking for it!”

Do you confirm that this is your property Mrs. Willis?” asked the Sergeant.

“Yes. How on earth did it come to be in your possession?” gasped Mrs. Willis, ashen-faced.

“Mrs. Hetty Willis, I am arresting you on suspicion of the murder of your late husband, Mr. Roderick Willis.”

***

Jackie Evans has been a force at promoting poetry in New Zealand. She has been secretary for The Mad Poets for the last fourteen years and has been published in New Zealand anthologies and has her own book of humorous verse: Tilting at Windmills. The story listed above is one of her ventures into prose.

Tilting at Windmills - Sixty Poems on the Lighter Side

Published inDetective/Crime

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