The thieving magpie

This is a short story I wrote about 28 years ago, enjoy.

Photo by shravan khare on

It was a cold wet morning in December and the birds making a noise heard outside amongst the rustle of the wind as it brushed against the naked trees. A middle-aged woman awoke from her peaceful rest to another repetitive day. Her husband was away to a demanding day at the factory, supervising all the local working classes. She drew back the curtains slowly to inspect the garden with all its commotions of collaborations between the natural beauty of wildlife. The squirrels were covering their supplies while the Robins were hopping around in search of food. The other birds flying from tree to tree spying out the land while the magpies were looking for an innocent victim to devour or steal from.

The woman’s name was Mrs Emily Redgrave, a wealthy mistress of the Howard Redgrave, an influential business manager. He was a devoted husband of Emily. She walked down the stairs in her silk dressing gown towards the front door to collect the milk. She opened the door and noticed that the birds have been at the milk again.” Those wretched birds why can’t they just leave my milk alone”.

Miss Redgrave had a regular visitor every Thursday. A so-called friend from years ago who attended the same school. There was once a close relationship like a sister, but over the years they drifted apart. The conversation would start with the mundane events in life. It would lead to a heated argument about each other’s life in competition. Mrs Redgrave knew there was a jealous heart in her friend Helena Foster but dismayed it as an insecurity and lack of experience. The clock struck 11 and not a minute after, there was a knock at the door.

“Hello Helena, please come in from the cold and rain. Even in this shocking weather you always arrive just after 11.”

“Well, my sweet friend, when you live alone like me you don’t have the pleasure of looking after a handsome husband.” said the spiteful lady as she wiped her feet on the doormat.

“Oh, please come into the lounge and have a cup of tea with me.”

“How is Howard?”

“He seemed very anxious the other day at the wedding in Florence. Because of pressure from work, he’s had very demanding contracts to meet, and the employees are revolting with accusations.”

Helena replies subtly as a cunning leopard hunting her prey, “Your husband needs reassurance and support. What have you done for him recently apart from looking after the house? I’m not surprised. Have you been neglecting him? If you don’t watch it, he will leave you or even do something worse.” Mrs Redgrave couldn’t understand and can’t believe her ears from a friend.

“I’ve been so caught up with the wedding of our beloved daughter I’ve been feeling very low recently.”
“Don’t worry too much, my dear. I will be here to look after Howard and you. We can be one big happy family.” The hunter smiled to herself, thinking if only she could have Howard all to herself.

Miss foster left the house and Emily wept bitterly with a heart open with a violent storm of sadness. The tears were falling down her cheeks like the rain outside. The rain lashed against the window, slowly drifting towards the ground in confusion. Losing her daughter in marriage caused loneliness in the Redgrave home. She didn’t know where to turn for support because her husband was under a lot of pressure. Her life sank into a deep depression and melancholy.

The noise of the machines was chattering away like a mechanical orchestra at a steady pace in the factory. The occasional break as the machinist finished one rotation. Men with solemn faces and worn-out hands working precisely with the huge machines. Rain was tapping on the huge, corrugated roof, and drips of water descended into the buckets dotted around the factory floor. In the building’s corner’ was an office elevated above the factory floor like a prison guard’s control post. You could see two men shouting and waving their hands. It was Mr Redgrave and Mr Jean Mitchell, a French investor. 

“Mr Redgrave, if you don’t reach your targets on time, we will have to do something drastic to you.” said the Frenchman emphatically. 

“I’m at the limits already and my men can’t work any harder without revolting.” Mr Redgrave said pleadingly.

Later that day there was a general meeting for all the workers in the factory, from the cleaner to the supervisor. All 300 men gathered in the large dining hall with anxious looks with envious hard faces. “Men, we all know the tremendous competition we are against to survive. First, we will have to make cutbacks, with one hour a day. Redundancy will have to be made and lastly reduction in wages. With that it caused an opera of tragedy, with the men shouting, “traitor traitor traitor” and stamping their feet. There was animosity against Mr Redgrave saying “all he was concerned about was keeping his job to please his wife, what about our wives and our families. The volatile anger immersed with emotional outburst towards Mr Redgrave and his and wife life if they lost their jobs.

The factory supervisor went to Mr Redgrave’s office to speak to him privately. “What would you do then, Mr Ballard, I have targets to meet or all of us would be out of jobs? 

James, the factory supervisor, replied, “Whatever happens, don’t fire anyone. We all will work harder. We’re also willing to have a reduction in wages that must include you and the other supervisors”. 

Mr Redgrave replied “We have to get rid of at least 5% of our staff to make a profit and that’s final” James Ballard slammed the office door and walked down the stairs. 

That evening on the way home from work Mr Redgrave pulled in to see Eleanor foster the only friend he could think of he had left to turn to. “Sorry to disturb you Helena, can I come in for a couple of minutes, please?” 

“Oh, please come in, my dear. You look exhausted. Put your feet up and I will make you a lovely hot drink of coffee with a wee bit of dram.” Helena had devious eyes with a snide smile while she was making the coffee. As she was making the coffee, she filled the cup half full of strong whiskey. “They you are my dear take your time I’ll make you a quick snack”. She put more coal on the fire and pulled the curtains closed. 

“Don’t worry Helena, Emily will have my dinner ready as soon as I arrive home,” Howard said as he relaxed and yawned. Before he knew it, he fell asleep in the comfortable chair next to the blazing fire.

It was about 10:00 pm and Mr Redgrave had been in a deep sleep for several hours at Helena’s home. He woke up bewilder and confused. He was like a cat after a cosy rest next to the fire, not wanting to move. “What time is it, Helena?” Howard asked anxiously.

“It has just passed 10, my love. Why don’t you have a quick coffee before you go.”

“I must get straight home. Emily will worry about me.” Howard quickly slipped his shoes on and searched for his coat in the dimly lit room.

“I’ll get your coat. Are you sure you don’t want another quick coffee to wake you up?”

“No, thank you again Helena I must shoot off. Why did you let me sleep? Howard asked cautiously.

“You looked contented, like a baby in his mother’s arms. I didn’t want to disturb you.”

Mr Redgrave walked down the gravel path towards his car in the winter rain underneath the dark night. When he came in proximity to his car, he notices that all four tyres slashed. He was cold and annoyed, waving his arms in the air shouting and cursing while kicking the car. He walked back up the path. Helena was smiling as she watched her victim staggered back.

“I’m going to have to use your phone to let Emily know what’s happened,” he said while panting with fear and frustration. 

“It’s not working, my dear I think the storms must have disconnected the lines”.

“Are there any telephones nearby?”

“My neighbours are away on holiday and the nearest telephone is several miles away.”

“I’m going to have to use your car, Helena, please.”

” You can stay if you want to. My car was playing up today when I was visiting Emily.” 
“I can’t stay”. Mr Redgrave tried starting the engine. Once, twice, and up to six times with no response. He was feeling more exasperated and hit the dashboard than a wire dropped underneath the ignition key. Howard’s mind couldn’t understand why this was happening to him. Then he had ago to reconnect the wire. 1,2,3 hey presto it started. Miss foster was amazed he started the car. Her smile turned to disgust, like the transition from Doctor Hyde to Doctor Jackal. 

“Thanks a lot for letting me use your car. I drop it back tomorrow”. He sped off into the night, leaving a trail of smoke from the clutches of the hungry predator.

“Honey, I’m home I’m extremely sorry I am late. You would never believe what happened”. 

Howard slammed the door behind him, securely locking it. There was still no reply. Howard thought Emily must have gone to bed. He crept up the stairs towards their bedroom while removing his wet shirt. He opened the door, glanced across the room to see his beloved laying peacefully. He strolled across the soft carpet floor and realised Emily must be in a deep sleep, because she normally wakes up. The rain rattled against the window; the wind was whistling through the trees with the sound of an owl in the distant. Emily was very silent. “Emily,” Howard said loudly, but there was no response. “Emily, dear, I’m home,” but still no reply. Howard was worried and rushed towards the bed and shook her. “Emily, wake up” he shouted and rocked her and panicked. He was screaming at her, holding her close in his arms. She was cold and rigid. Not one breath was in her body.

The Doctor arrived “Doctor, what happened to her?” asked Mr Redgrave in a distraught state. 

“It looks like a toxin or poison which has caused severe swelling around the glands then she had a fatal heart attack.”

“But why, doctor?” Mr Redgrave sobbed and wept bitterly.

“I’ll have to do some tests and call the Chief Inspector Winslow to tie up some of those loose ends.”

“Are you suggesting murder, Doctor?” Mr Redgrave replied in a high-pitched voice?”

“Well, my dear old friend, it’s better to clear any conspicuous rumours and find the truth of the death of your beloved wife.”

As the doctor left, Mr Redgrave was full of remorse. He was pondering on the fact, if he had never dropped into Helena’s home, he could have saved his wife. He was full of guilt, blaming himself for everything that happened. 

Then there was a knock on the door. It was James Ballard “Hello Sir I’m sorry It is late, but I tried phoning you earlier but there was no reply and I had to see you urgently.”

“What do you want James, why couldn’t you wait until tomorrow when I would be at the factory?”
“I had to warn you of the threat from the workers. I overheard some of them planning to frighten you and your wife.”

“It’s too late, my wife is dead just leave me alone”. 

The factory supervisor left, and Mr Redgrave shut the door. He then went down on his knees, crying in the hallway. After about 10 minutes he composed himself and headed towards his only friend left in the lounge. He opened his drinks cabinet and poured half a tumbler of whiskey to drown his sorrows. As Mr Redgrave sat down in his chair with his whiskey bottle next to him, he looked around at the neat room and saw a cup and saucer on the floor half full of lukewarm tea. He puzzled because Emily was very particular about leaving dirty dishes around the house. 

A knock on the door Bang, Bang. It was Chief Inspector Winslow. Mr Redgrave dragged his feet towards the door with his whisky glass in his hand.

“Hello, is this Mr Redgrave’s house?” asked a small old frail man with an educated German accent. He wore a long black coat with a smart Black Hat with drips of water descending from the rim.

“Yes, it is, and I am Mr Redgrave. You must be Mr Winslow?

“You are most correct, Sir, can I come in please it’s very wet out here.”

“Oh, certainly come into the lounge, don’t worry about your wet coat and shoes”. 

He walked along the hallway with Mr Windsor following slowly behind, observing the carpet. “Mr Redgrave, that smells like a single malt whisky, probably about 20 years old?”.

“How did you know that Mr Winslow?”

“You could say if I had a previous life, I must have been a dog or a Scotsman”.

“Do you want a drink, Sir?” Mr Redgrave offered him as he poured another glass while Mr Windsor was looking at the window. 

“Thank you very much, but I want to have my strongest concentration powers of observation being fully alert, maybe after this case is sealed and wrapped up.” 

The inspector turned around, scratching his chin, and had a vacant look on his face.

“Mr Redgrave, what time did you arrive home tonight night?”

“I arrived home about 11:00 o’clock, then I found my wife dead on the bed. Then I telephoned the doctor.”

“Can I look at your wife, please? You can stay in here if you want to.”
“She’s upstairs. I will show you just follow me, Sir.”

They walked upstairs towards the bedroom while Mr Winslow was observing everything as he followed Mr Redgrave. He notices all the rooms upstairs were closed, apart from the bathroom and the bedroom door. He could smell a strong disinfectant that has been used recently. As they entered the bedroom, Mr Winslow looked around as he usually did, looking at the windows and at the door again. Emily laid out across the bed neatly with a silk nightgown on with her arms crossed. Inspector Windsor took off his hat and coat and gave them to Mr Redgrave to hold while he examined the body. 

“Just as I thought, cardiac arrest caused by poisoning Mr Redgrave”.

“Who could have done that, inspector?” Mr Redgrave asked in a state of shock.

“Mr Redgrave, please draw up a list of acquaintances and friends, work associates and anyone you can think of. Also, trace your last week’s activities and yours, and especially your wife, if you can.” 

Mr Winslow left and arranged to call back early in the morning to further his investigations. 

The dawn was breaking, and the sun rose on a fresh winter’s morning frost on the grass, with the spiders’ webs shining in the sunlight. The Chief Inspector walked down the path towards Mr Redgrave’s house. The magpies have been at the milk again, stealing the cream. 

He knocked on the door “Good morning, Mr Redgrave, what a pleasant day break.”

“Good morning Mr Winslow, please come in. Do you want a coffee?”

“I’m quite content now, thankyou sir,” 

They went into the lounge and sat down.

“I’ll have that whiskey now, if you don’t mind,” said Inspector Winslow. 

“Does that mean you will have solved the case with my wife’s death?”

“I am quite convinced. I will have to wait for the coroner’s report and the test on a few things to be 100 percent. I’m rarely wrong. Have you drawn up a list of your wife’s activities and so-called suspects?’ 

The inspector looked at the list and nodded his head, smiling. He takes a sip of the whiskey and looks at the sheet of paper. 

“It looks very interesting, Miss Helena Foster, James Ballard, Jean Mitchel and your employees, etc. There are a few other options you’ve left out. Yourself, suicide and natural causes.”

There was a knock at the door it, was the Doctor and he joined the inspector in the lounge. 

“Hello doctor, do you have the results yet?” asked inspector Winslow. 

The Doctor and Mr Redgrave sat down. The inspector was sitting back in his chair drinking another sip of his whiskey.

He said” well gentlemen, it couldn’t of have been an intruder because all the windows were locked. There were no fresh footprints last night apart from the doctor’s shoes and yours, Mr Redgrave. I notice your wife had a visitor yesterday Helena foster who I paid a visit to last night after I met with you. There was a different type of lipstick on a second cup and a scent of woman’s perfume in the air despite your whiskey. I concluded and realised your wife must have been violently sick because of the smell of disinfecting in the bathroom. My intuition told me it had to come from outside the house because there was no evidence linking you or Helena to your wife’s death. It was unusual to notice a milk bottle top outside last night and spilt milk on the carpet in the hallway. A thieving creature tragically killed your wife when she was physically weak suffering from depression. It’s a rare disease carried by the birds, and it can be fatal in humans. The suspects stole some of your milk and Helena doesn’t drink milk”

Who was it Inspector?

“It was a thieving magpie”.


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About Stephen Hyne

I am creative and curious about life. I have a passion for the brain and the psychology of human behaviour. I love the renaissance art, culture and architecture. Music is my best friend follows me on my life journey of discovery.

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