The Crime Readers' Association

Natural Justice, by Brian Price

Damien Porton sneered as his Bentley glided past a battery of posters attacking his plans for Mellors Wood. ‘Bunch of Luddite NIMBYs,’ he muttered to himself, as he drove through the electric gates guarding his drive. One of them was even on the radio right now. He caught snippets of an interview. ‘Twenty-three species of butterfly… 500-year old trees… carbon store…’ Load of hippy nonsense. Why shouldn’t he build his cordon bleu cookery school here? It was his land and he’d damn well do what he liked with it. And he shouldn’t have to defend his scheme to a bunch of yokels at a public meeting either. He had better things to do.

Damien was a celebrity chef, rich on the back of a long-running TV show and a series of glossy cookery books. He had already outraged conservationists by urging people to plunder Epping Forest for its wild mushrooms and he had the same contempt for green issues as he had for food from roadside burger vans. He spent most of his time at his London flat but also owned Constance Hall, a seventeenth century building just outside the village of Whitfield Cross, which he surrounded with razor wire and CCTV to keep the paparazzi out.


A chilly autumn mist covered the village the next morning, but feelings about Porton’s project were heated. Most of the villagers opposed the scheme but a few, believing it would mean work for them, were in favour. The landlord of the Dog and Duck, anticipating increased trade, supported Porton’s plans and banned campaigners against the project from his bars. His, mainly youthful, drinkers were tempted by the prospect of more and better-paid jobs. They fuelled themselves up with cider and lager, determined to have their say at the meeting that evening.

At the other end of the village, the Coach and Horses was filled with vociferous campaigners against the plans. They were becoming increasingly agitated as the time of the meeting drew nearer. The campaign spokesman, Dr Gareth Healey, a professional ecologist, had produced a detailed report on the importance of the wood which he planned to present that night.

‘We must remain calm and reasonable,’ urged Gareth, ‘otherwise we’ll be dismissed as a rabble. I hope Porton will accept public opinion and build his cookery school somewhere else.’

‘Don’t be bloody naive,’ snorted Colonel Carmichael, whose estate backed onto the wood. ‘He’s a profiteering little oik who cares nothing for the village he’s invaded.’

‘But don’t you think we can convince the Planning Committee to throw it out? We’ve got science and nearly all the village on our side.’

‘Of course,’ sneered Jed Butcher, a local farmer. ‘Just after they’ve given me a licence to fly my pigs. They’ve all got their noses in the trough and the Head of Planning’s as crooked as a corkscrew.’


The village hall was packed half an hour before the meeting was due to start and the noise level was mounting. The atmosphere was febrile, full of anticipation and anger. The hall smelt of beer, cider and sweat. Attempts to exclude people without seats, on fire safety grounds, had to be abandoned, such was the strength of local feeling, both for and against Porton’s plans. There was no local police constable but two officers and a PCSO, drafted in from nearby Tavister to keep order, became increasingly apprehensive as tensions mounted. Damien had brought his own minders and his solicitor, just in case.

‘Order, please, order, ladies and gentlemen,’ shouted Rupert Renfrew, the Chair of the local council. ‘Everyone will get a chance to speak so please settle down.’ The cacophony subsided to a muted grumbling as Damien Porton got to his feet and switched on a projector. The first slide of his PowerPoint presentation appeared on the wall behind the stage, crinkled and warped where twenty-first century technology met eighteenth century plasterwork.

Porton’s pitch was as slick as his Savile Row suit.

‘My proposals will bring jobs for local people,’ he promised, but without giving numbers.

‘Not many,’ someone heckled, ‘You’ll get builders down from London. You won’t be using local people.’ Porton ignored him.

‘The village will prosper as a result.” A few people cheered. “There will be increased trade for local pubs and shops. And think of the prestige of having an internationally famous cookery school in Whitfield Cross.’

‘Prestige be damned,’ another heckler shouted. ‘You’re wrecking the place.’

‘Look,’ replied Porton, finding it hard to control his temper. ‘Building works and materials deliveries will only take place during the daytime and I’ll have the site screened to reduce dust and noise. I care about the environment. I’ll put solar panels on the roof. And I’m planting just as many trees around Constance Hall as would be lost from the wood.’

‘Yes – leylandii rubbish. Nothing that belongs here,’ someone shouted, prompting numerous ‘hear, hear’ responses from the audience.

Porton glared at him. Switching on the synthetic smile which had endeared him to his TV viewers, he concluded with: ‘Ladies and gentlemen – I’m bringing something to your village which will take it into the twenty-first century. Jobs, prosperity and prestige will follow and we must embrace progress. I hope you will see that this is much more important than a few flowers and trees. Thank you.’

The applause which he had hoped for failed to materialise and the few ragged cheers were swamped by a flood of boos and catcalls such as ‘Rubbish’, ‘Bollocks’, and ‘Philistine’. It took Renfrew a full five minutes to restore order and summon Gareth Healey to the stage.

Bespectacled and stooping slightly, wearing a lumberjack shirt and corduroy trousers, Gareth was the antithesis of Porton’s confident suaveness. He spoke from notes rather than a laptop but once he began to outline the case against the proposals, the audience fell silent.

‘Mellors Wood is a very special place,’ he began. ‘For hundreds of years people have walked in the wood, enjoying its tranquillity and its wildlife. Now, as nature is increasingly under threat, it’s a vital oasis. Birds, butterflies and other insects are found there in numbers unmatched anywhere else in the county. Some of them are extremely rare.’ Calmly, and growing in confidence as he spoke, he outlined the wood’s conservation value, its cultural significance to the village and the place it had in the villagers’ hearts.

‘We don’t object to a cookery school in principle,’ he concluded, ‘but this is the wrong place for it. Mr Porton can afford to go elsewhere. He has plenty of other land near the village. But there’s only one Mellors Wood and we can’t afford to lose it. Thank you.’

When he stopped the silence was broken by a couple of jeers from the Dog and Duck crowd, which were swiftly drowned out by a roar of applause. Gareth smiled. Porton looked as if he was chewing a tarantula.

The audience was clamouring to speak. Renfrew tried to allow a balance of opinions to be heard but it was clear that the few locals who enthused about employment prospects were massively outnumbered by those in favour of preserving the wood. Birds, bees, picnics and flagons of cider featured prominently in their accounts and many a romance had blossomed among the bluebells.

The final contribution was the testimony of an elderly woman who rambled on for several minutes about the joys of foraging in Mellors Wood. Blackberries for crumbles, mushrooms for soup and sloes for gin all featured in her reminiscences. Hers was the only voice Porton, a confirmed foodie, paid any attention to, but as the woman spoke Gareth looked puzzled.

The meeting broke up shortly after and the two camps drifted off to their respective pubs, with some shouting and jostling as opponents pushed their way through the exits.

‘You did damn well, young fellow,’ said Colonel Carmichael as Gareth reached for his pint. ‘If there was any justice, the Planning Committee would throw it out in an instant.’

‘Yes, but I realise there isn’t,’ replied Gareth. ‘We need to set up a fighting fund and pay for a planning expert. We’ve got a few pounds in the campaign kitty but we’ll need a lot more. Local opinion won’t stop Porton – and money brings its own momentum. He always gets his way. Remember those rumours about him bribing staff to keep quiet after a food poisoning outbreak in one of his restaurants? That was all hushed up and there was no comeback.’

Various suggestions for fundraising followed. The vicar offered the church grounds for an Autumn Fair, the landlord of the pub agreed to host quiz nights and the captain of the cricket club thought he could persuade the members of the team to pose for a ‘tasteful’ nude calendar. Martin Askew, a retired accountant, offered to act as treasurer for the campaign and a committee meeting was arranged for the following week.

‘By the way, what was your Aunt Judy waffling on about?’ asked the Colonel, as the landlord called last orders.

‘I don’t know,’ replied Gareth, ‘She’s normally much sharper than that. She used to forage in the woods but that was many years ago.’

‘Oh, well. Age claims us all, I suppose. Goodnight.’


Damien Porton was an early riser and usually jogged around the grounds of Constance Hall when he was in Whitfield Cross. Intrigued by the woman’s reference to mushroom soup, he decided to take his run through Mellors Wood and see what he could forage. To his delight he found several species which he recognised – horse mushrooms, chanterelles, penny buns and some, just-emerged, button mushrooms. Sweeping them into his bag, he jogged onwards, promising himself soup for lunch. A light snack would do as he had a business meeting over dinner in Whitfield Cross’s best restaurant that evening.


The meeting was going well and he had convinced his potential investors that local opposition to the training centre would be swept aside.

‘It’s amazing how a few brown envelopes can smooth the planning process,’ he said, knowingly. The others chuckled. With roast partridge following the mackerel pâté, Porton was feeling benign and slightly woozy from the champagne. As they started on the dessert, he began to feel ill. His stomach hurt and he dashed to the Gents just before throwing up and succumbing to horrendous diarrhoea.

‘I’ve got to go home,’ he moaned to his companions when he returned to the table some time later. ‘That pâté must have been off.’

Porton just made it back to the Hall before he needed to rush to the lavatory again. Exhausted, he eventually crawled into bed, resolving to castigate the restaurant in his monthly Sunday magazine column.


By the following afternoon Porton was beginning to feel much better. He was able to write his column and review the plans for the school but was still too feeble to go out for his jog. A day later, however, he started to feel ill again. He was constantly nauseous, his insides ached abominably, his skin began to turn yellow and his gums had started to bleed. Confused and sleepy, he became weaker and, with growing alarm, phoned his GP in London, telling him he suspected the mackerel pâté.

‘Well, I suppose it could be,’ said Dr Campion. ‘There is a toxic substance called scombrotoxin found in badly kept mackerel and it can produce some of your symptoms. I think you need to go to hospital. Quickly. Get yourself checked out.’

Porton followed the GP’s advice and booked himself into the nearest private hospital, calling for an ambulance to get him there. Following a battery of tests and examinations a worried-looking consultant came into Porton’s room the following morning.

‘Damien’, he said, ‘I’m afraid you are gravely ill and we don’t know why. Your liver is shutting down and your kidneys are seriously damaged. It can’t be the mackerel you were worried about. Have you eaten anything else unusual recently?’

‘I had some wild mushroom soup,’ croaked Damien, ‘but it tasted absolutely fine.’

An hour later, the consultant returned with a series of pictures printed off the internet.

‘Did any of the mushrooms look like these?’ he asked.

Porton’s vision was blurring and he was beginning to hallucinate but he managed to look at the pictures.

‘Definitely not those,’ he said, ‘That’s Death Cap and that’s Fly Agaric. I’m not bloody stupid. I know my mushrooms.’ He continued looking and nodded when he saw the final image. ‘Some of them were like those – small button mushrooms.’

‘I’m really sorry, Damien. Those are the early stages of the Destroying Angel. It looks just like an edible species when it’s newly emerged. Even the experts can be fooled. It’s deadly and I’m afraid the damage is irreversible. We’ve looked on the transplant register for a suitable liver for you but we’ve had no luck. There is nothing more we can do for you except make you comfortable. I’m so, so, sorry.’

Porton barely registered what the doctor was saying as he slipped in and out of consciousness, eventually lapsing into a coma.


A week later the Coach and Horses was buzzing with excitement as the campaign committee held its final meeting. Behind the bar someone had pinned up the front page of a tabloid newspaper with the headline ‘Foraging Foodie’s Fatal Fungi.’ No one was actually expressing glee at Damien Porton’s demise but there was much relief that the wood was safe, at least for the time being. After celebratory drinks had been purchased, the remaining campaign funds were donated to the local wildlife trust to help them buy the wood from Porton’s heirs. Whitfield Cross could begin to return to its normal peaceful state.

As the merriment in the bar died down and people drifted off home, Gareth carried the remains of his beer over to his Aunt Judy’s table.

‘You encouraged Porton to eat those mushrooms, didn’t you?’

‘Of course not, dear. What makes you think that?’ his aunt replied.

‘You never made soup from mushrooms in the woods because everyone knows some of them are poisonous.’

‘Oh dear. Perhaps my memory is failing me,’ she replied, although her twinkling eyes belied this.

‘So you’re responsible for his death.’

‘Goodness me, no. Everyone knows you should be careful with wild mushrooms. I like to think of it as nature striking back. Simply a case of natural justice.’




Read more about author Brian Price here.







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