Read an Excerpt
Wingate / MURDER IS A MUST
The taxi drove west away from the rail station, avoiding the Monday-evening commuter traffic on Manvers Street. Instead, we encountered it along Green Park. Skirting Queen Square, we swung round the Circus, where lights twinkled in the austere Georgian terraces that formed the circle—doing their small part against the January darkness. No quicker a journey than walking, and certainly not cheaper, but I’d had no energy for the hike from the train up to Middlebank House. Perhaps I should’ve done. Nervous excitement had built up during my afternoon journey from Liverpool to Bath—my tummy atwitter at the thought of the First Edition Society’s inaugural literary salon. It would be my first official public event as curator, and would go live in only twenty-four hours.
Nerves were the order of the day. When I walked into the entry, Mrs. Woolgar, Society secretary, shot out of her office and, dispensing with formalities, said, “Ms. Burke, a man delivered six cases of wine this afternoon. I had him leave them in the kitchenette, but—will we need that much?”
“I tell you what,” I said, dropping my case next to the hallstand and hanging up my coat. “If they don’t drink it all during the salon tomorrow evening, you and I can finish it off after everyone’s left.”
Behind her glasses, Mrs. Woolgar’s eyes grew large. “Well, I hardly think—” She caught herself.
“Or we’ll keep it until next week’s salon,” I said. “And the next or however long it lasts. We saved fifteen pounds with a large order.”
“And Professor Fish? You’re certain he’ll arrive early enough tomorrow—and Mr. Moffatt knows to collect him?”
Actually, Arthur Fish wasn’t a professor—he was a tutor at a college in London. But as he was our lecturer for the inaugural salon, I thought it better not to press the point. Titles and position meant a great deal to Mrs. Woolgar.
“Mr. Fish will come down on the train and arrive by midday, and Val will meet him.” I’d been over this with her, but repeating it helped me as much as I hoped it helped her. “I’ve a cold lunch arranged”—or would have, as soon as I did the shopping in the morning at Waitrose—“and he’ll have a quiet afternoon to sort himself out over a cup of tea.”
While she tried to think of another potential disaster—my reading on the situation—the secretary smoothed the cutwork collar on her dress. She wore her usual-style frock, a narrow skirt and wide lapel, this one navy with matching belt. I admit to a bit of envy at Mrs. Woolgar’s 1930s wardrobe. Narrow skirts didn’t suit me.
“Still,” she said, “I’m not entirely comfortable with the title of his talk—‘Fifty Ways to Murder.’ Rather sensational.”
I might’ve conceded her point but for the fact it was also the title of his popular book and that Middlebank was home to the First Edition library, a stunning collection of books from the women authors of the Golden Age of Mystery.
It had been the lifetime passion of Lady Georgiana Fowling, who, through her élan and generous nature, had garnered the love and admiration of the people of Bath and the worldwide membership of the Society. Her ladyship had died almost four years ago at the grand old age of ninety-four and, sadly but inevitably, during the last few years of her life, the Society had diminished and the world’s attention had turned elsewhere. This is where I came in.
“The title did its job, though, didn’t it?” I reminded her. “The entire series of salons was sold out in a fortnight even though we had only this first title to announce.”
Mrs. Woolgar sighed, and I knew this indicated she could think of no other argument for the moment. “That arrived by hand for you this afternoon,” she said, nodding to a brown envelope on the hallstand.
Comic Sans font had been used to print out both my address— Ms. Hayley Burke, Curator, First Edition Society, Middlebank House—and the return address—Make an Exhibition of Yourself! James Street West, Bath.
“Thank you,” I said. “I believe I can leave it for the morning.”
“Well, then,” Mrs. Woolgar said, “I’ll say good night. Tomorrow will be an eventful day, I’m sure.”
“Yes, it will be—in the best possible way.”
Without another word, she walked to the back stairs and descended to her garden flat on the lower ground floor. I understood her restraint—to a point. Glynis Woolgar had been personal assistant to and dear friend of our founder for many years and, as directed in her ladyship’s will, had become secretary in perpetuum for the Society. Mrs. Woolgar had seized this duty and interpreted it to mean nothing should happen unless it had happened while Lady Fowling had been alive. Devoted as that made her look, the secretary’s love of the status quo was seeing the Society slowly grind to a halt.
Just let me introduce a new idea, and I was met with a heavy sigh and a raised eyebrow—her way of reminding me that I had been curator for not quite six months, had never met her ladyship, and had only recently read my first detective story. And so, what did I know?
I knew my responsibilities and I took them seriously. Job one—resurrect the First Edition Society to its former glory, even if I had to drag Glynis Woolgar along kicking and screaming.
But at this moment, I needed my bed, and fortunately, it was quite near. We were self-contained at Middlebank—Mrs. Woolgar’s flat on the lower ground floor, our offices and a kitchenette here on the ground floor, the library up one flight of stairs on the first floor, and my flat above that. An attic and a cellar completed this typical Georgian terrace house—built up instead of out.
I picked up my case, but set it down again when Bunter appeared.
He came sauntering out of my office, his tortoiseshell fur groomed to perfection and his tail straight as a rod apart from the question-mark curve at its tip. After she had been widowed, Lady Fowling had always had a tortoiseshell cat, and he had always been named Bunter—this one, number seven, had come on board as a kitten not long before she died.
He stretched, digging his claws into the Persian entry rug and retracting them before pausing at the bottom of the stairs that led up to the library. He twitched his tail with reproach, and I knew why— I was late. An entire day late. I spent weekends with my mum in Liverpool, but usually returned home on Sunday evening.
After a pause—perhaps deciding he’d looked at his calendar wrong—the cat approached, arched his back, and rubbed against my leg. I made a show of rummaging in my bag before slowly pulling out a catnip mouse and dangling it before him. After we’d gone through the ritual of presentation, I said, “Right—you know the agreement. Get a fresh mouse, give up a manky mouse.”
We headed upstairs. On the first-floor landing, I opened the library door, switched on the lights, and made straight for the fireplace, the cat on my heels.
Sticking my hand in the coal bucket, I rummaged round. I’d brought Bunter a new mouse each week for several months now, and only recently had I instituted the one-for-one rule, and so it wasn’t as if his cache of toys would ever diminish.
Now I pulled out not a lump of coal, but a sorry specimen of catnip mouse, stiff from dried drool and its catnip long since gnawed away. “Ewww,” I said, holding it gingerly between thumb and forefinger. “Would you like to say any last words?”
But Bunter, mouth full of fresh prey, only watched as I carried it out. At the library door, I looked back to see him drop the newest addition into the bucket.
I put my hand on the newel to continue to my flat upstairs, but turned back to Lady Fowling—her full-length portrait, that is—hanging on the library landing.
“I wish you could be here tomorrow evening,” I said, confident that no one could hear me talking to a painting. In her enigmatic smile I read that, come time for the literary salon, she just might listen in.
At last in my flat, I dropped my case, kicked off my shoes, and pulled the band out of my ponytail as I moved into the kitchen, phone in hand. I tapped an icon with a red heart labeled Val and switched the kettle on, but changed my mind and reached for a wineglass instead.
“There you are,” he answered. “Are you home? How was the train?”
“All right. Crowded. The fellow across from me made it through several cans of Tennent’s Lager—he must’ve started his journey in Glasgow. He offered me one—at least, I think that’s what he said. And your day—all four classes plus office hours?”
“I had a student ask me today did a novel need a protagonist or could it be peopled only with secondary characters.”
“Well, that’s a fine way to begin the week. Everything all right with Mr. Fish?” It was Val who had secured our first speaker, having heard Arthur Fish once speak at the Chiswick Book Festival. Arrangements had worked out perfectly when the author had graciously waived his fee in exchange for selling his own books at the salon. “You reminded him that there will be only twenty people there?”
“He hasn’t had a new book out in two years,” Val said. “We’re doing him a favor as much as he is us. So, coffee tomorrow—the Pump Room?”
“Perfect. I’ll be close by looking at that space near the Gainsborough.”
“Pump Room it is, then,” he said. “Good night. Sweet dreams.”
Dreams were all we had at the moment, and so I took them to bed with me, drifting off as soon as my head touched the pillow.
The next morning, Mrs. Woolgar popped into my office first thing. “Shall we, Ms. Burke?” Her eyes fell on the corner of my desk where sat a pristine, rose-red file folder marked Exhibition. “Are we discussing that?”
“No—that topic is for tomorrow’s board meeting.” I gathered a notebook, papers, and my mug of tea, and followed the secretary out to the entry and into her own office, where our morning briefings were held.
Why? Why did we meet in Mrs. Woolgar’s office instead of mine? True, she had a comfortable space with oak bookshelves and desk, a floral Axminster rug, and a view of the street. But my office was larger with a wingback chair for my guest, plus two chairs and a tea table in front of the fireplace and a Victorian desk—walnut, highly polished to show off its swirls and bands. And, I had a view of the garden. My office—the curator’s office. And yet, I didn’t protest. One of the first things I had learned about working with Mrs. Woolgar was to choose my battles carefully.
We kept the meeting brief—that evening’s literary salon our only concern.
“I’ve written up the agenda,” I said, pushing a paper across Mrs. Woolgar’s desk, and tapping a finger at the starting time, seven thirty: Remarks by Hayley Burke, curator. I did so like the look of that. “We have two young women to serve the wine. Pauline is sending them over from the Minerva—they work for her at the pub. I’ll introduce our speaker. Apart from that, there’s little to do. He’s in charge of his own book sales.”
“I wonder will he approach murder methods by discussing the author or the detective?” Mrs. Woolgar mused. “Will it be Sayers’s choice in Unnatural Death—”
I kept my face in neutral as I scanned the cheat sheet in my head—Dorothy L. Sayers; detective, Lord Peter Wimsey. Yet to read Unnatural Death.
“—or Inspector Grant’s intellectual ways in A Shilling for Candles—”
Inspector Grant, let’s see—yes! Josephine Tey. Have yet to read any of hers.
“—or examine only methods. What would he say about laburnum seeds?”
Wait now, that sounded familiar—I think I saw the movie.
I felt sure Mrs. Woolgar’s mention of specific Golden Age of Mystery authors was not meant to trip me up—we’d at least got that far in our professional relationship—and I should’ve been able to add some coherent thought to the discussion. But, put on the spot, I came up with nothing, and so carried on with business.
“Once Mr. Fish is taken care of this afternoon, I will start on my assessment of the books we have on the shelves in the library,” I told her. “And study the list of the rare books that are in storage. I want to get an idea of the direction we’ll take for the . . .”—breaking my own promise that we would not discuss this topic this morning, I half swallowed the last word—“. . . exhibition.”
The glow of the computer screen reflected in Mrs. Woolgar’s glasses and masked her eyes. Still, I thought I detected a look of displeasure.
I popped up from my chair, excused myself, and fled.
As I gathered my coat and bag, I rehearsed my introductory remarks for that evening’s lecture, but by the time I headed out the front door of Middlebank and into a chilly January morning, my mind had shifted to my new venture—and the topic for the Society’s board meeting the following afternoon: the exhibition.
The six-week series of literary salons—debuting that evening with Arthur Fish—had been booked out before Christmas, and so I’d had bags of time to concentrate on another project. I knew exactly what that should be—to mount a show focusing on our founder and her accomplishments. I called it Lady Georgiana Fowling: A Life in Words.
We had no shortage of material. Not only the contents of the library, but also the more valuable volumes at the bank, which I had not yet fully investigated. Could one of them be worth as much as the Dorothy L. Sayers book I’d seen in an online auction going for six thousand pounds? I was unclear if all the stored books were signed editions, but I knew that many of the volumes at Middlebank had been inscribed with charming comments from the authors, such as To Georgiana, Albert thanks you for your support, and so do I! That from author Margery Allingham mentioning her amateur sleuth, Albert Campion. On my to-be-read list, of course.
Enriching the library, we had her ladyship’s notebooks—three cartons full of everyday school exercise books, the kind with the marbled covers. She had kept them throughout her life, beginning with her marriage at twenty to Sir John Fowling, a baronet, seventy. Sir John had died ten years later, after which Lady Fowling’s casual interest in the Golden Age of Mystery became a lifelong obsession. Her notebooks teemed with the everyday—shopping lists, recipes— as well as thoughts on writing, her favorite authors and characters, and memories of her marriage.
We also had Lady Fowling’s own novels to display. She had written fan fiction—borrowing a sleuth here and there from established authors—but her light shone brightest when she wrote about her own detective, François Flambeaux, a wealthy landowner from Dorset who disguised his serious, crime-solving nature by acting the gadabout.
What we didn’t have was a venue. Middlebank itself was unsuitable for the sort of event with freestanding glass cases, scenes reconstructed, displays both lifesize and intimate. We didn’t have the space. The ground floor of the terraced house comprised the entry, two offices, and a kitchenette. The library itself took up most of the first floor—shelves, books, enormous table, chairs. My flat was on the second floor, and so that was certainly off-limits—as were Mrs. Woolgar’s accommodations on the lower ground floor. No, we needed a purpose-designed site.
We also needed an exhibition manager.
When I’d announced my firm intention to go forward with the exhibition, Mrs. Woolgar acted as if I were mad as a box of frogs. The board of the First Edition Society lined up on their usual sides. Mrs. Jane Arbuthnot and Ms. Maureen Frost stood with the secretary—although I sensed Maureen edging toward the fence. On my side were Mrs. Sylvia Moon and Mrs. Audrey Moon, who were both in their eighties and game for almost anything, and my good friend Adele Babbage—by far the youngest board member. In Lady Fowling’s later years, she and Adele had enjoyed an affectionate mother-daughter-like relationship—or more accurately, considering the decades of difference in their ages, grandmother-granddaughter. This was something Adele had never known growing up. But on the subject of an exhibition, even Adele thought I might be doing too much too soon.
At least they’d all agreed to attend a meeting about the exhibition, and so I’d scheduled one for the next afternoon—Wednesday. When it came to meetings at Middlebank, the agenda hardly mattered to the board members—they looked forward to a jolly good time with tea and pastries and the sherry decanter on the table. It reminded them, so I was told, of when Lady Fowling was alive and they spent many an afternoon laughing and sharing stories either in the library at Middlebank or at the Royal Crescent Hotel.
Tomorrow afternoon’s board meeting would be my second go-round on the exhibition. The Society was on a roll, and we needed to follow up the salons with the announcement of an exciting event in order to keep everyone’s attention. I admitted—with great reluctance—that it was possible I still felt the need to prove myself. I’d got the job as curator when the Society had desperately needed someone—anyone—to fill the role, and I’d not yet shaken the thought that I had been only a stopgap measure.
Work had to begin immediately—it would take a year to mount a show of even a modest size, and when I considered the scope of the undertaking, I couldn’t breathe. Scheduling enough time for move-in and buildup, handling of delicate books, protective lighting, promoting the event through the right channels, coming up with ideas for the actual displays—signage that read Here’s a Book wouldn’t cut it—those jobs were only the tip of the iceberg.
Val was in on the planning, of course, and he brought with him the backing of Bath College, the adult education school in the city. We were a good team, Val and I—in the business sense as well as personally, although that side of the relationship hadn’t moved quick enough for either of us. Still, his support meant the world to me.
But we couldn’t publicly announce the exhibition until we had secured a venue. I was reminded of this now as I walked down Julian Road and stopped alongside the Assembly Rooms. The building’s entrance did not face the road, but sat at a ninety-degree angle, the doors opening onto a large courtyard where tour and school groups could gather as they waited to go in. A popular and exquisitely kept historical venue, but the spaces within—the Great Octagon, for example—were hired for weddings and receptions and the odd two-day trade show. It was the same all over Bath. We needed a place that could accommodate us for a two-week run. We needed the Charlotte.
The Charlotte sat just across the road from the Assembly Rooms and at the corner of a terrace block. It had been created by combining two houses. On the ground floor, the wall between had been knocked down, providing a comfortably large event space with offices up on the first floor. Parts of the second house—the corner one—had not been refurbished.
The exhibition area had been restored in the Georgian style so loved in Bath. When I had worked at the Jane Austen Centre, we’d held a week-long show there—Jane and Siblings: The Austens at Home— and so I knew the place well. For a long-term event, it was perfect. Sadly, it was perfect for many other organizations—its calendar booked solid for the next three years. Unavailability only made it all the more desirable.
And so, instead of the Charlotte, I had an appointment to look at rooms with an address along the Lower Borough Walls, above a mobile-phone shop.
Turning my back on the Charlotte, I hurried along St. Andrews Terrace before dashing across George Street and striding down Milsom into Union Street—I always made better time going downhill. As I passed Lush, my phone rang, and I saw it was a call from my daughter.
“Dinah, sweetie, how are you?”
“Hi, Mum, just running to class, but I wanted to find out about Gran’s appointment with the surgeon yesterday.”
“Promising. He said she’d definitely walk better when he finished with her. She’s down for surgery.” My mum had been in a car crash almost three years ago. She now used a walking frame in her flat, and a wheelchair elsewhere. She’d had a fall in November—no broken bones, but her doctor had referred her to an orthopedic surgeon, and he had given her hope. “But it’s not life-threatening, so she’s on the bottom of the list. How are you? Your job isn’t distracting you from classes, is it?”
My daughter, just shy of her twenty-third birthday, studied the history of everyday life at Sheffield. We never brought up what job she might get when she graduated—after all, what sort of a role model was I with a degree in nineteenth-century literature? And yet I had turned out all right. Finally, at age forty-five.
“It’s only pub work, Mum, and it’s only every other weekend—studies are fine.” I heard a nanosecond of hesitation—a length of time only a mother could detect. “Dad says he can get me on answering phones at some car-hire business, and I’d get double the pay.”
“Did he?” I asked brightly, silently cursing my ex.
“Apparently, he knows someone.”
“Well, you wouldn’t want to give up your pub job before you knew for certain he could do that, would you?”
“You’re right,” she said with relief. “I’ll stick with this. He does get a wild hair sometimes.”
With my job as curator and Dinah’s ever-so-part-time pub work, I’d only just got on an even keel financially. Now, with the promise of my mum’s leg being sorted, came the realization that although the cost of Mum’s surgery would be covered, there would be other related expenses. I didn’t need Roger’s weak, empty promises to lead our daughter astray.
“Look, sweetie, I’d better go. I’ve an appointment and just arrived.”
“An appointment with Val?” she asked, a bit of tease in her voice.
“No, it’s work. Although—”
“I’m off, Mum. Class.”
I made short work of viewing the potential venue—narrow stairs for access and a decidedly dreary look to its two small rooms, which showed remnants of a previous exhibition on the history of felt markers. No storage, no kitchen, no loo—no thanks.
Leaving the Lower Borough Walls behind me, I heaved several huge sighs. I needed something concrete to present to the board the next afternoon, and not only about the venue. What of an exhibition manager?
“What about you?” my mum had asked when I’d told her my idea.
“Me?” I laid my hand on my chest and felt my heart race. “Manage the entire exhibition—design and all? No, Mum, I couldn’t do that. We need a proper person. Someone with qualifications and experience.”
Mounting this sort of show was a job for a professional with specific talents. I, as curator, would be there every step of the way, of course, and perhaps someday in the future I could do it myself, but not now. Lady Fowling: A Life in Words was too important for a first-timer. A truly impressive event required a person who could see a space, know the material, and build a visual experience that would draw the public into Lady Fowling’s world.
Exhibition managers were thin on the ground, I can tell you that. I had an appointment with one the next day here in Bath—Zeno Berryfield, whose company was called Make an Exhibition of Yourself!—the exclamation point his. I swallowed hard, hoping and praying he hadn’t been the one to put on the felt-marker event.
When I turned up Bath Street—quiet and empty—my spirits rose. There was Val standing in the shadow of the colonnade with his hands stuck in the pockets of his duffel coat. I hurried over, and he wrapped the coat round me as my arms circled his waist.
“We’ve got to stop meeting like this,” I said.
The corners of his eyes crinkled as he smiled. “Oh, I’m all for that.”
We kissed and kissed again, the warmth of his lips spreading down to my toes. I drew one arm out and brushed my fingers through his chestnut hair.
“I could use a bit of good news,” I said. “Do you have any? Doesn’t matter what it’s about—has one of your students been offered a publishing deal, or is Waitrose carrying a new line of ready meals?”
“As it happens,” he said, “I do have good news. I’ve booked us a place for next weekend.”
It was an announcement of some import. Val and I had met in October, and there had been no denying our mutual attraction, but our timing wasn’t the best. Life had intervened—beginning with my daughter, who arrived in Bath unannounced for a week’s visit. To say we were surprised would be an understatement. I had invited Val to dinner that evening, but five minutes after he arrived, we had decided dinner could wait. Two minutes after that, there was Dinah, waiting downstairs at the door.
The three of us had shared the lasagna—yes, it was from Waitrose—and Val had left soon after, wanting to give us mother-daughter time. Dinah had thought him sweet and “quite taken with you, Mum.”
After that week, Val’s twin twenty-four-year-old daughters arrived for a visit—I had yet to meet them, because my mum had had her fall and I had gone to Liverpool for a week, followed by Christmas and all that entailed, and then Dinah had come back to Bath for a few days—the obstacles to getting on with my relationship with Val seemed never ending. Finally, we’d given up.
Not totally, but we’d decided to act like adults and plan a proper weekend away, just the two of us. Things like this mean more at our age, and so with the prospect of a romantic getaway, we remained celibate. And frustrated.
We had redirected our energies into collaboration of another kind, focusing first on the salons, and now, the exhibition. And we were doing all right. Fine. After all, that weekend was less than a fortnight away.
“Where are we going?” I asked, thrilled that I’d had no hand in the planning.
I gasped. “Woolacombe?”
“We’ve got a room on the second floor of the hotel that looks out to the seafront.”
The seaside—January or no—was where I most wanted to be, and he knew it. I kissed him again. “Did you do that for me?” I asked. “A deluxe room?”
His green eyes twinkled. “Yes,” he said, and I laughed. “And because if we can look out at the sea any old time we want, perhaps we can spend a bit more of the weekend in the room.”
For a moment, we looked deep into each other’s eyes, and then it became too much.
Morning coffee in the Pump Room, with its high ceilings and white tablecloths, was the perfect place to calm my nerves about that evening’s salon while, at the same time, I came to terms with my disappointing venue search. Our orders arrived and we dived in—Val spread brown sauce on his bacon roll while I slathered my Bath bun with cinnamon butter. I licked a finger, and while I stirred the foam down in my cappuccino, described the space above the mobile-phone shop.
“So,” I said, “we can tick that place off the list.”
“Admin at the college regrets turning Wood Hall into offices now.”
Val had done his part to search for a venue, and we had both come up empty-handed. But I pushed those troubles to the side. For the moment, I wanted to think happy thoughts.
“Which author should I read next?”
I had asked Val, a writing teacher who specialized in genre fiction, to guide me in my quest to learn about the Golden Age of Mystery authors and their detectives.
“Well, you’ve got Christie under your belt,” he said. “You might move on to Sayers.”
“Ah, Dorothy L. Sayers—her sleuth is Lord Peter Wimsey. On one of my paperbacks, he’s wearing a monocle.”
“Why? Does he have poor eyesight, or is it because he wants to look like a toff?”
“Or could there be another reason?”
“Hmm,” I said, picking up the second half of my Bath bun. “Yet another mystery to solve.”
When we were nearly finished with coffee, our phones pinged with texts. As Val dug in his coat pocket, I saw my message.
“What?” I fumbled my password, hurrying to reread what I hoped I hadn’t seen.
Val got to his message first—but it was the same as mine. “Bloody hell,” he said.
The text came from Arthur Fish.
Paddington Station shut down. I don’t drive. Don’t think I’ll make it for this evening.