On Saturday afternoon Mr Smith takes up residence in his new home. He sits on a deckchair on his front lawn and smokes while three men in blue boiler suits carry his possessions from the lorry to the house. It is warm for September and they sweat dark crescents beneath their arms.
Expressionless in black glasses he watches them struggle along the short path with antique furniture of mahogany and oak. One falters with a crystal vase of surprising weight but maintains his grip beneath the unchanging gaze of his employer.
“Close call that, Mr Smith,” says the man, but Mr Smith just draws on his cigarette and says nothing.
He wears trousers of carefully pressed white linen and polished brogues. His shirt is pale blue, the sleeves rolled down and buttoned, a white handkerchief folded into the top pocket. He is clean shaven and his hair is dark and waxed smooth and flat.
The last few items leave the lorry. A violin case. A cage containing an elegant cat of oriental extraction. Two cacti with purple flowers. Then the men are finished. Mr Smith takes a roll of notes from his trouser pocket and with a silent nod pays them and retires into the house.
There are seventy houses in the village. The bigger properties line the edge of the green. There is one small pub, the Pony and Trap, which has a bull-mastiff lazing on the doorstep and an old man in a cricket cap mowing the lawn. Mosquitoes cloud above a duck pond with dark water and no ducks. A Kawasaki rides through at over sixty and everyone pauses to shake their heads in disapproval.
At four o’clock Mr Stroud lights a barbecue. He wears loafers and is tanned from a holiday in Tuscany. While the coals begin to whiten in the flames he drinks champagne. In the kitchen Mrs Stroud makes salad with rocket leaves and shavings of parmesan and drinks neat vodka.
At five o’clock the first guests from the village arrive. Soon there are twelve people gathered on the lawn, enjoying the fading sunlight and the glasses of gin and tonic. Bill Cornwell tells a golfing anecdote, handing his drink to his wife so that he can demonstrate the full range of his swing. Mrs Stroud passes round smoked oysters which no one enjoys. Her silver bracelets jangle as she stumbles between guests and her overpowering scent of Chanel mingles with the smell of barbecued swordfish and garlic.
Then the peace is broken by the scream of sirens as two fire engines pull onto the green. Mr Stroud knows immediately what has happened. He looks up to the bedroom window of his neighbour’s house where the pale face of an old woman peers from behind a net curtain.
“You,” he shouts, and hurls his champagne glass in rage. “You think this is funny? I light my barbecue and you call the fire brigade? You exist only to make my life hell.” Then he lets fly with a stream of obscenities. Twenty minutes later, as the fire brigade are leaving, the police arrive to caution him for threatening behaviour.
Next evening he sits alone at the bar of the pub. He drinks whisky and feeds his humiliation and rage. The door is open and a cool breeze blows through, rippling the poster for ‘Quiz Night’ and lifting the corners of the bar towels. The bull-mastiff sits by the empty fireplace and dribbles while it watches a young family eat steaks.
Mr Stroud broods over the injustice of everything. He is an honest, hardworking man. Mrs Kent, the old woman from next door, the old woman who sabotaged his barbecue, has never worked a day in her life. And yet she lives comfortably in a five bedroom house, spending the will from her dead husband, and using her time to interfere and spy and cause trouble in the village. She opposed the planning proposal for his indoor swimming pool with built in cocktail bar. She accused him of watching her through the bathroom window. She had his poodle impounded over ludicrous allegations of a vicious attack on her person. Fi-fi was still traumatised by the experience.
“I wish that woman was dead,” he whispers, then orders another whisky.
Nearby Mr Barnaby enjoys a pipe with his bitter. He sits at a table with Mr Banks, his longstanding drinking companion. Both men are in their sixties and wear flat-caps and sleeveless fishing jackets. For an hour they discuss the results of the village cricket season and the disappointing performance of the local team. Amid a cloud of pipe smoke Mr Barnaby states that next year he is considering an emergence from retirement.
“I wager that even with the rheumatism and the pacemaker I could build an innings to be proud of,” he says.
“Pride,” says Mr Banks. “That’s exactly what’s missing from the game these days.”
Then their conversation develops a conspiratorial air.
“Have you seen the new villager?” says Mr Banks, his voice low.
“I have indeed. A strange fellow. An air of mystique about him, I would say.”
“There’s more than that.”
“Go on,” says Mr Barnaby, leaning forward. Mr Stroud, who has heard every word, has to concentrate hard to pick out the conversation above the snoring of the dog.
“I’ve seen his type before,” say Mr Banks. “The sunglasses, the meticulously pressed clothes, the waxed hair. And do you really think that was a violin case? No my friend. There’s no doubt in my mind. He’s mafia through and through.”
An hour later Mr Stroud makes the short walk from the pub to his house. He concentrates hard to maintain his balance. For a moment he pauses to look up at the stars but the sky is rotating in an unnerving and nauseating fashion and he comes close to toppling backwards.
He reaches his house and scolds himself as he fumbles with the keys and takes several attempts to open the door. His wife is asleep on the sofa with pink curlers in her hair and smudged lipstick.
He tiptoes past her to an imitation Monet which hangs above the drinks cabinet. He removes the painting and with shaking hands summons all his concentration to work the dial of the safe concealed behind it.
It is gone midnight when he crouches amongst the rose bushes outside Mr Smith’s garden window. He has a bundle of notes pressed close to his chest. The thorns have pierced his trousers in several places and there are lacerations along his forearms. He is watching and waiting for the right moment.
Inside Mr Smith is reclining in an armchair. He wears sunglasses despite the soft lamplight and smokes a cigar. One leg is crossed casually over the other and his elegant cat is sat upright on his lap. The sound of Beethoven carries out into the night.
Then Mr Stroud can wait no longer. He stands and raps his knuckles on the window.
“Mr Smith,” he says in a loud whisper. “I have some work for you. I was hoping you could kill my neighbour.” And he waves the bundle of notes in the air.
A week passes. Mr Stroud has been through many emotions in those seven days. The morning after his nocturnal visit to Mr Smith he was stricken with regret, fear and a hangover worse than any he could remember. He did not go to work but spent the day watching Mrs Kent’s house through binoculars, waiting for the gunshot, or the scream as she was garroted with piano wire. But nothing happened. He saw her potter in the garden and rake the early autumn leaves. He watched her through the kitchen window as she baked chocolate cake. He saw the lights go out as she retired to bed at ten-thirty. Then he broke down in a tearful confession and told his wife everything, kneeling at her feet, begging forgiveness, saying that if Mrs Kent lived through the night he would never as much as fiddle his tax returns again.
To his surprise she seemed distant and disinterested and said that, although having their irritating neighbour assassinated seemed a little extreme, it might in the long run be for the best.
Then he began to revel in the idea. He stayed at home, unwashed and unshaven, muttering to himself, waiting with a twisted desire to hear of her demise. All ideas of calling off the murder left him. He woke in the night, convinced he had heard her death rattle carrying to him in his sleep. He sent a second planning application to the council for his indoor swimming pool, sure that no one would oppose him. He sent out invitations for a cocktail party with a live jazz band to be held at his house in a fortnight’s time.
And still he waited. But he waited for nothing.
Now he sits by his wife on the sofa and they watch Celebrity Pop Idol together. The week has passed and he feels that so has the prospect of an early death for his neighbour. He is resigned. The loss of five thousand pounds is unfortunate, but certainly not the worst outcome he had envisaged.
“It’s strange,” he says, “how you can be so wrong about someone.”
On screen Dale Winton sings I Will Always Love You.
To assume,” says Mr Stroud, “is a terrible thing. I’ve insulted Mr Smith. I’m just surprised he didn’t go to the police.”
Mrs Stroud nods in agreement, though she has heard only part of what was said. She is in her dressing gown, has freshly painted nails and has drunk herself into a stupor with campari and lemonade.
“Still, he says, “it would have been nice to see the end of Mrs Kent. We could have had the swimming pool built and held as many debauched parties as we wanted. Now we’ll have to wait for her to die naturally.”
Then he is quiet as he feels the cold metal of a pistol barrel pressed into the back of his head and smells cigarette smoke and fabric softener.
“You were wrong about me,” says the smooth voice of Mr Smith. Mrs Stroud narrows her eyes, wondering if the voice is coming from the television.
“I’m not a killer by trade,” he says. “But any man can be swayed by money. And I’m not talking five thousand. I mean big money. The kind of money Mrs Kent can pay.”