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With their fortunes dwindling, Reggie and his wife, Midge, have turned the family mansion into an English country inn. When Midge gets a call from an old classmate who arranges “mystery tours” for visiting Americans, she happily agrees to host one of these staged-murder events.
But the tour seems to be a disaster from the get-go, with lots of arguing and complaining among those involved. Then, after a massive snowstorm, a real murder takes place–and it’s up to the amateur sleuths to solve the case before the killer checks them out permanently.
Praise for Marian Babson
“Marian Babson’s name on a mystery is a guarantee of quality writing wrapped around an unusual crime.” —Houston Chronicle
The knives were out at Chortlesby Manor.
Fish knives, butter knives, meat knives, carving knives, bread knives, fruit knives, even—in deference to the visitors expected soon—steak knives, were spread in glittering array across the pantry table.
Below them ranged fish forks, meat forks, salad forks, carving forks, sweet forks, pastry forks and pickle forks. Then came a lower row of soup spoons, sweet spoons, teaspoons, coffee spoons, salt spoons, egg spoons, tablespoons and assorted serving spoons.
The final row was a miscellaneous jumble of sugar tongs, grape scissors, jam-jar lids, salt cellars, cruet sets, knife rests, fish slices, muffineers, nut crackers, nut-meat picks and a dozen fox mask silver stirrup cups.
An all-pervading smell of silver polish hung heavy in the air and the once-pristine butler’s apron was grey-streaked and stained. The man wearing it gave a final vigorous rub to a pastry fork and set it down in the proper row. He frowned at it judiciously and picked it up again.
‘Oh, let it be, Reggie,’ his wife said from the doorway. ‘If you get that silver any brighter, they’ll have to wear dark glasses at the dinner table.’
‘A couple of the last ones did, anyway,’ Reggie said, but he replaced the fork and grimaced at his hand. ‘Filthy job!’
‘I told you to leave it to the help,’ Midge said. ‘Lettie was mooning around all morning, doing nothing.’
‘Steady on, old girl!’ Reggie looked at her in alarm. ‘Lettie isn’t exactly help, you know.’ He frowned at her anxiously. ‘You do remember that, don’t you?’
‘Oh, I suppose so.’ Midge sighed and ran her fingers through her hair. ‘It’s getting more difficult, though. It never seems to stop. I have to keep closing my eyes and thinking of our mortgage.’
‘Hold on to that thought. Life may be more complicated these days, but it means we’re climbing out of the red. Besides—’ he beamed at her suddenly—it was the old Reggie grin, not the professional Mine Host smile he used so often these days. ‘Besides—it’s rather fun, isn’t it?’
‘Rather … We’re certainly getting a different type of guest—not to mention a different sort of complaint.’
‘And not even so many of those.’ His grin broadened. ‘If the service slumps or anything goes wrong, they don’t dream of complaining, they just think it goes with the territory.’
The sudden shrill peal of the bell startled them. With a clatter, a black and white card dropped into place in the rows of pigeonholes over the door. Number 22 was at it again.
‘Now there’s someone I’d like to kill,’ Midge said. ‘I could cheerfully strangle her with my bare hands!’ She started for the door.
‘Hold on a minute—’ Reggie stopped her. ‘You don’t have to go running upstairs every time she rings. Let’s just see what she wants first.’ He picked up the telephone, dialled 22 and waited. ‘Maybe some day we can even get her to realize that she has a telephone in her room.’
‘Not her,’ Midge said. ‘Having a bell-rope in her room has given her delusions of grandeur. She thinks she’s the Lady of the Manor and we’re her servants.’
‘Yes, Mrs Barbour—’ Reggie waved a silencing hand as someone lifted the receiver at the other end of the line. ‘Can we help you?’
‘Ackroyd is in my room again.’ Amaryllis Barbour’s carrying voice scarcely needed the assistance of the telephone. ‘He refuses to leave. I demand that you come up here and evict him!’
‘I don’t think that will be necessary, Mrs Barbour,’ Reggie said soothingly. ‘Just put him on the line and let me have a word with him.’
‘Oh, really! Come here and get him—instantly!’ The receiver was slammed down violently.
‘I’ll go up,’ Midge said, as Reggie rubbed his ear.
‘Ackroyd has a warped sense of humour,’ Reggie said. ‘He knows that woman hates him. He enjoys upsetting her.’
‘Oh no.’ Midge paused in the doorway, glaring. ‘The real reason Ackroyd keeps stalking her is that he knows a big rat when he sees one!’
The thought cheered her all the way up the stairs and twitched the corners of her mouth as she tapped on the door.
‘It took you long enough!’ Mrs Barbour appeared to believe that someone should materialize the instant she pulled her bell-rope. She stepped back, radiating fury and discontent.
‘I’m sorry, Mrs Barbour, we’re very busy today.’ Midge held on to her temper by visualizing a miniature Amaryllis Barbour clenched between Ackroyd’s jaws, arms and legs dangling limply. ‘The new guests are due in just a few hours.’
‘I hope they’re not going to disturb Bramwell,’ Mrs Barbour said severely. ‘He is communing with his Muse. Nothing must be allowed to disrupt his train of thought.’
The clatter of a typewriter could be heard from the master bedroom opening off the sitting-room of the suite, bearing witness to Mrs Barbour’s remarks.
‘I’m sure Bramwell will be able to finish his stint for the day in good time to welcome our guests and take part in the festivities.’ Midge forced a smile.
‘It is not a stint!’ Amaryllis Barbour bristled. ‘Genius knows no boundaries; nor is it ruled by hours. Bramwell does not “stint” his talent!’
Midge took a deep breath and reminded herself that it was nearly over. Just a few more days and she would never have to see either of the Barbours again. She allowed her mind to skip ahead to pleasanter considerations: as soon as they had left, she would disconnect the bell-pull and remove it. No future occupants of this suite would ever be able to demand her dancing attendance again. There were going to be some other changes made, as well. When the new season started …
‘I’ll be glad to see the last of this nonsense.’ Unwittingly, Amaryllis echoed Midge’s thoughts. ‘I simply cannot understand why Bramwell allowed himself to be roped into this charade in the first place.’
‘You have had a nice holiday, haven’t you?’ Midge murmured gently. Six weeks in England, with all expenses paid, including free air flights, for only three weekends’ work as Master of the Revels was pretty good going in anyone’s language.
‘Holiday? You call this a holiday? With poor Bramwell working his fingers to the bone?’
A fresh burst of machine-gun typing gave added impetus to her words.
‘But I thought Bramwell was delighted that the book was going so well,’ Midge said, as innocently as the vitriol dripping from her voice would allow. ‘No one’s forcing him to work on it. All he has to do is host three weekend parties. That isn’t too arduous. Especially as he has Evelina T. Carterslee to act as hostess. She carries half the burden as Mistress of the Revels.’
‘And that’s another thing,’ Amaryllis flared. That woman! That awful woman! I don’t know why you bothered with her.’
‘It was all arranged from the States,’ Midge said. ‘And she does have a lot of fans. Most of the guests are delighted to find her here.’
‘Bramwell should have been celebrity enough. I could quite easily have acted as his hostess. I always do at home.’
‘It wasn’t up to me,’ Midge weaseled out from under the implied accusation. ‘Death on Wheels and The Crimson Shroud organized everything from their end. Chortlesby Manor is just the venue.’
‘Miles from the nearest town!’
‘Only two miles. Some of the guests find it just a pleasant walk. In any case, there’s always a car avail—’
‘If you call that a car! I shall never understand how Bramwell allowed himself to be inveigled into this ridiculous enterprise. He should have had more sense. I don’t know what he was thinking of!’
The betting below stairs was that Bramwell had seen it as an opportunity to escape from his mother. Unfortunately, he had underestimated her determination—and her death grip.
Midge made an indeterminate sound and looked around the sitting-room. Ackroyd was crouched beneath the television set, his baleful gaze fixed on Mrs Barbour. Midge wriggled her fingers at him enticingly, but he was not to be coaxed away.
‘And another thing—that creature! That Lettie—!’
Midge recognized that they were getting to the nub of Mrs Barbour’s complaints now. Ackroyd had simply been an excuse to acquire a listener.
‘It’s shameless, the way she’s always in and out of the bedrooms—’
‘Lettie has to go into all the bedrooms every night to turn down the covers. It’s part of the routine.’
‘That’s no excuse. There’s no need for her to keep going into Bramwell’s. I can take care of that myself.’ She sniffed. ‘The way that female flaunts herself is disgraceful!’
No doubt about it, the old girl had her knife out for Lettie. Probably for any young pretty woman to whom her son was attracted. Not that she needed to worry. Lettie was not fool enough to tie herself up with a mother-in-law like that. Midge wondered how many times Amaryllis Barbour had ruined her son’s chances. It could be no coincidence that he was nearing middle-age and still unmarried—not with mother constantly in tow.
‘Come on, Ackroyd,’ Midge called. There was no point in trying to argue with a brick wall. Amaryllis was Bramwell’s problem—and he was welcome to her.
‘And that cat should not be allowed to go into the guests’ rooms.’ Amaryllis was abruptly reminded of her original complaint. ‘It’s dangerous.’
‘Oh, really!’ Midge protested.
‘It is! He could frighten someone into a heart attack. Or someone could trip over him. Not to mention people who might be allergic to—’
‘Come on, Ackroyd.’ Midge stooped and scooped him up before he could be blamed for the state of the economy, the attitude of the Common Market Commissioners and the next terrorist attack anywhere in the world. ‘You’re not wanted here.’
‘He certainly isn’t! There are too many creatures around this hotel pushing themselves in where they aren’t wanted.’
The typing noises beyond the far door had stopped and there seemed to be a listening silence, perhaps even a guilty silence. Neither Lettie nor Ackroyd were unwelcome so far as Bramwell was concerned. Midge couldn’t speak about Lettie, but she knew for a fact that there had been definite enticement when it came to Ackroyd: delicious titbits smuggled away from the dining table and lovely pieces of typing paper crumpled into balls for him to chase. It was not surprising that Ackroyd sought the company of this charming playmate.
‘I think it particularly distressing that there should be another invasion of fans at this time. Bramwell’s book is at a crucial stage—’ She lowered her voice and spoke with hushed awe. ‘Adam MacAdam and Suzie Chong are just about to begin interrogating the suspects.’
Midge cravenly buried her face in Ackroyd’s fur to hide her involuntary grimace. She was not a fan of the popular husband-and-wife detective team. Ackroyd took the gesture as no more than his due and broke into a throaty purr.
‘So you see, it is imperative that Bramwell not be disturbed at this delicate juncture. He must be free to bring all his resources to bear upon his work.’
The rattle of typing began again in the other room, as though on cue. Amaryllis Barbour nodded in satisfaction and gave Midge a meaning look.
Midge nodded back without speaking. It was safer that way. Several days ago, Ackroyd had escaped the Barbour suite with one of those crumpled balls of paper still in his mouth. Midge and Reggie had rescued it and smoothed it out to see what sort of prose Bramwell considered beneath his talent. They had discovered a multiplicity of quick brown foxes jumping over lazy dogs. Since then, they had taken a jaundiced view of the rapid-fire typewriter chatter of his supposed creativity. Not that they blamed him. If Sweet Amaryllis had been riding on their backs, they might have stooped to a little honest subterfuge, too.
‘I am the mere guardian of a great and noble talent,’ Amaryllis Barbour said solemnly, not for the first time. ‘It is my humble—yet glorious—destiny in life to stand between my son and those who would use him and toss him aside, those who would plunder his Talent, ravish his Gift—’ She drew herself up, her nostrils flared, her eyes flashed fire.
‘I will defend him—to the death, if necessary!’
‘Er, yes,’ Midge said. ‘Well, perhaps you’ll make his excuses to the company if he isn’t able to attend the Opening Reception.’
Amaryllis Barbour took a deep breath and opened her mouth. Before she could launch into another Declaration, Midge, who had been quietly backing towards the door, slipped through it and closed it firmly behind her. She also closed her eyes and took a deep breath of her own.
From the corridor, the frantic typing was mercifully blurred. The loudest sound was Ackroyd’s purr. Automatically, Midge ran her fingers through his white ruff and smoothed the long white streak of his chest. The purring grew louder. A rough little tongue dabbed at her fingers.
Midge slumped weakly against the wall, eyes still closed, trying, as she had told Reggie, to think of the mortgage. Even more cheering was the thought that this was the last weekend the Barbours would be in residence. It had seemed like such a good idea a few months ago, but by now even Death On Wheels and The Crimson Shroud must be having second thoughts. With luck, they would not repeat that experiment.
The sound of a doorknob turning brought her away from the wall and opened her eyes wide. Hugging Ackroyd defensively, she began edging away from Suite 22.
Straight into line with the door of Suite 21. The door swung wide and Evelina T. Carterslee stepped into the corridor.
‘Having a spot of bother?’ she asked sympathetically. She prided herself that she could pick up any local lingo in no time.
‘Just a spot,’ Midge said weakly. Through the open doorway, she could see Hermione and Cedric huddled over a table of tea-things. They were waving sheets of typescript at each other and it was obvious that an argument was developing.
‘Thought so,’ Evelina said triumphantly. ‘You should have been warned. Bramwell isn’t so bad, but no one in their right minds in the States would have allowed Sweet Amaryllis on the premises.’
‘How were we to know?’ Midge continued her crabwise progress towards the service stairs. ‘We’ve only read the books. We don’t know anything about your private lives.’
‘Pity it couldn’t have stayed that way, isn’t it?’ Evelina surveyed her with more than a trace of amusement breaking through her sympathy. ‘Never mind, you’ll know better next time.’
‘Mmm.’ Midge refrained from committing herself to any future prospects. She could not resist one question, however.
‘Tell me, whatever happened to Mr Barbour?’
‘Rumour has it—’ Evelina’s eyes gleamed—‘that Sweet Amaryllis ate him soon after mating!’
Ever one to recognize a good exit line, especially when she had uttered it herself, she stepped back into her suite and closed the door softly behind her.
Midge clawed weakly at the wallpapered panel that gave on to the service stairs. It swung open silently and she stumbled through it, conscious of a great relief at escaping the rarefied atmosphere of Upstairs.
The knives were well and truly out at Chortlesby Manor.
Reggie had tidied the silverware away and the pantry table and counters were now crowded with baking trays waiting to be transferred to the oven when the guests arrived.
Cheese straws, sausage rolls, vol-au-vent shells, miniature pasties, pizzas and quiches Lorraine ought to satisfy the hungry hordes and hold them until dinner-time.
Midge gave an approving nod and continued into the kitchen where Cook sat at the table frowning over her script.
‘I’m not sure about this—’ Cook looked up. ‘Do I throw the apron over my head before I burst into tears or after? It doesn’t make sense.’
‘I’m sorry about that,’ Midge said. ‘But cooks were always doing things like that in Golden Age books. You’ll just have to do the best you can. Perhaps you can leave one eye free.’
‘I don’t like it,’ Cook said. ‘There’s enough to do around here without all this nonsense. It makes me look a fool.’
‘Well …’ Midge didn’t like to stress the fact that servants were usually considered the comic relief in Thirties novels, they were too hard to get these days. One upset them at one’s peril and, as Cook had noted, there was enough to do around here.
‘Well,’ Midge temporized, ‘I think they were often Irish cooks. Probably they had different customs.’
‘That’s so.’ Cook tilted her head to one side, considering. ‘I could do that. I wouldn’t feel so silly if it wasn’t me, like. I’ll use an Irish accent then. Begorra.’
‘That’s fine.’ Midge was not about to discourage anything that would keep Cook in a reasonable mood. She took a tighter grip on Ackroyd, who had been restive since spotting the trays of goodies in the pantry. ‘Where’s Reggie?’
‘He’s gone into the bar with his little black book,’ Cook said, adding darkly, ‘Muttering to himself.’
‘There’s a lot of it about,’ Midge muttered and headed for the bar.
It was strategically placed in what had once been a study at the far end of the main drawing-room, so that people could wander out on to the stone-flagged terrace through the French windows in good weather. Alternatively, they could carry their drinks into the drawing-room and settle in the comfortable chairs and sofas in front of the open fire if they didn’t want to perch on one of the bar stools in the bar.
‘Ah, you got him.’ Reggie looked up and nodded a greeting to them both. ‘Any problems?’
‘Only the usual. She doesn’t know what she’s doing here and she hates us all.’
‘And vice versa, I may say.’ Reggie lowered his head again to frown at the recipe book he was studying. ‘I hope we’re doing the right thing here. Some of these combinations ought to carry a Government health warning. They sound absolutely lethal.’
‘I wouldn’t be surprised if they were.’ Midge perched on a bar stool and let Ackroyd slip to the floor. He sauntered behind the bar to join Reggie. ‘Fortunately, we’re protected from the worst excesses by the fact that all Governments long go outlawed absinthe. Pernod isn’t nearly so dangerous.’
‘In these combinations, I still wouldn’t like to take my oath on it.’
‘We’ve done our best.’ Midge had spent a morning lettering cards with the names and contents of the cocktails. ‘If they want to order the things, on their heads be it.’
‘You know they will—out of sheer bravado. And for some of them, it will be a nostalgia trip. Perhaps we ought to serve them in teacups for the real period atmosphere.’
‘Not in England,’ Midge corrected. ‘We never had Prohibition or speakeasies. That would only be period in the States.’
‘I suppose so.’ Reggie accepted the correction grumpily. They were all growing a bit weary of the game. It was their first season. Next season it would be easier. For one thing, the ‘Guest Stars’ would be different—and that alone was bound to be an improvement. Not that Evelina T. Carterslee was so bad; nor even, to be fair, Bramwell. It was Amaryllis who was the genuine worm i’ the bud. Perhaps they could insist that only the celebrities be invited —no appendages allowed.
‘Well, let’s post the warning signals, anyway. Where have you put them?’
‘Here.’ Reggie reached beneath the counter and slid the stack of cards across the bar. ‘And you’ll need these.’ He added a box of drawing-pins.
‘Right!’ Midge slid off her stool and took the top card, not by any accident;
1 dash Crème de Menthe
1/4 Orange Juice
1/4 Dry Vermouth
Topped with Port Wine
‘They’ll go for the names.’ She shook her head forebodingly. ‘God knows what it will do to their livers.’
‘Relax,’ Reggie said. ‘Look at all the people who survived the Thirties. And they were smoking their heads off in those days, too. The human race is a lot hardier than it’s been currently led to believe it is.’
‘It must be.’ Midge tacked up the next lethal cocktail beside the first:
1 dash Orange Bitters
1/3 Green Chartreuse
1/3 Vermouth Rosso
Add a cherry or an olive and a piece of lemon peel squeezed on top.
‘They’re all authentic, remember,’ Reggie encouraged her. She was the one who had found the original Thirties book of cocktail recipes. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, now her conscience was beginning to quiver. He nodded as she picked up the next card. They’ll love that one.’
1/4 Vermouth Rosso
That’s what I’m afraid of.’ Midge darted over and tacked it up in a shadowy corner. ‘We’re the ones who’ll have to deal with the aftermath.’
‘Post the hangover cure in the centre,’ Reggie advised practically. ‘That ought to give them the gipsy’s warning.’
‘All right.’ Midge sifted through the cards and came up with the one for pride of place:
2 dashes Vinegar
Unbroken yolk of one Egg
1 teaspoonful Worcestershire Sauce
1 teaspoonful Tomato Catsup
1 dash of Pepper on top
To be swallowed at one gulp.
‘If that doesn’t discourage them, nothing will,’ Reggie said.
‘You know nothing will.’ Midge gloomily tacked up the next cards:
|Merry Widow||Monkey’s Gland|
|2 dashes Absinthe||1 dash Absinthe|
|2 dashes Angostura Bitters||1 teaspoonful Grenadine|
|2 dashes Benedictine||1/2 Orange Juice|
|1/2 Dry Vermouth||1/2 Gin|
‘Then they’ll die happy.’ Reggie shrugged philosophically.
|1/2 Gin||3 dashes Green Crème de Menthe|
|1/4 Grand Marnier||3 dashes Green Chartreuse|
|1/4 Passion Fruit Juice||1/2 Dry Vermouth|
|1 dash Grenadine||1/2 Irish Whisky|
‘I’d rather they didn’t die here,’ Midge said.
‘Nonsense girl! Point of the whole thing, isn’t it?’ Colonel Heather appeared in the entrance to the bar, resplendent in straw boater, blue blazer with silver buttons and white flannel trousers.
‘Oh, well done, sir,’ Reggie applauded.
‘Not bad, eh?’ Colonel Heather twirled the ends of his sweeping RAF-style moustache. ‘Knew I had something appropriate packed away. Bit out of season, but they won’t know that, will they?’
‘You’re perfect!’ Midge said warmly. ‘You’re so perfect, I’m afraid for you. If she can’t get you any other way, some rich American widow is going to slip you a mickey and smuggle you away in her luggage.’
- On Sale
- Aug 31, 2021
- Page Count
- 220 pages
- Hachette Book Group