Drew Farthering dropped to one knee to get a closer look at the note.
It was a lovely thing really, written with an old-fashioned quill pen on thick, yellowed paper, the handwriting embellished with the generous loops and flourishes of Queen Elizabeth’s day. In fact, it looked as if it could be from her time entirely. Sweet. Romantic. But it lost some of its charm when one read the terse message: Advice to Jack. The effect was further spoilt when one realized that the note was secured by means of an ornate Victorian hatpin driven into the heart of Quinton Colman Montford.
That Mr. Montford was in no position to be inconvenienced by this was largely due to the vigorous application of a marble bookend to the balding back of his head.
“Not much to go on.” Drew stood and picked up the two halves of the bookend, a bust of Shakespeare only recently separated at the neck. “You did say this had been checked for fingerprints?”
“I did not say. But yes, it has. There aren’t any.” Chief Inspector Birdsong pursed his lips under his shaggy mustache. “Weren’t any.”
“Must have hit him awfully hard to crack it into pieces this way.”
“Or it broke on the grate there when he fell.”
Drew examined the hearth and then scanned the room. The Empire Hotel in Winchester exuded respectability and quality without ostentation. Just the image that would be prized by Whyland, Montford, Clifton and Russ of London. No doubt it would be Whyland, Clifton and Russ now.
“How long ago?”
Birdsong shrugged his stooped shoulders. “I’d say an hour, more or less. We’ll have to let the coroner determine that.”
“He couldn’t have fallen this way. Not if he was clouted on the back of the head.”
“Obviously the killer turned him over, the better to attach the message.” The chief inspector peered at Drew. “And tell me again just how you happened to turn up at a fresh murder, young Farthering?”
“Appointment. Quarter past two. To discuss finalizing my, um, mother’s and stepfather’s estates and revising my own will.” Drew looked at him expectantly.
“Right. So you said at first. And you didn’t go to his office in London because . . . ?”
“He had other business to see to, as did I. I’ve been looking for someone competent to manage Farlinford Processing for me, so it was simpler for both of us just to meet here in Winchester.”
“Did he tell you what his business was?”
Drew shook his head. “No, of course not.”
“Of course not. And how long had Mr. Montford been your solicitor?”
“I believe my father put the firm on retainer about 1907 or 1908. Before I was born, at any rate, so a good twenty-five years or more now. So what’s it mean? ‘Advice to Jack.’ Who’s Jack?”
“No idea as yet,” Birdsong admitted, the expression on his craggy face as world-weary as any old bloodhound’s. “Bring anyone to your mind?”
“I’m afraid not, Chief Inspector. A client of the firm, perhaps?”
“Yes, well, we’re checking that, though I expect there would be any number of Jacks or Johns or even Jonathans utilizing a law firm of any size. I wonder what advice our Mr. Montford could have given this Jack.”
“Evidently, it wasn’t very well received.”
Drew looked down at the body. Montford was lying with his head thrown back, his mouth slackly open, one arm crumpled at an awkward angle beneath him.
“He couldn’t have felt a thing. Thank God for that, poor fellow.” Drew knelt once more, turning the head to study the wound on the back of the skull. “Looks rather like the killer was a tallish chap. My height or very nearly.”
“I presume the pin was, ah, used after death?”
“It would seem so.” Birdsong touched one callused fingertip to the small, dark stain on the front of the man’s finely made shirt. “Stabbed through like that alive, I’d expect a good deal more blood than this. Clearly he was bludgeoned first.”
The spatters on the grate and the hearth and the sticky reddish-brown that had soaked into the carpeting were testament enough to that.
Drew took careful hold of Montford’s sleeve, lifting his hand. “Where’s his ring?”
“His wedding ring.” Drew pointed out the pale band of flesh and slight indentation on the third finger of the left hand. “I don’t suppose you chaps found it anywhere? Pocket perhaps?”
“No. All that was in his pockets were a few pound notes, some odd pence, ring of keys, nothing out of the ordinary.”
Drew shook his head. “He was a nice chap. Always a kind word when I was a boy, even when I’m sure I was a dreadful nuisance. My father liked him very much. My stepfather, as well.”
“Perhaps he wasn’t quite what he seemed.”
“I suppose there’s always that possibility, Inspector. Ah, well. Is there any way I can be of help here?”
“No, I suppose not. If you happen to think of anything that might be useful, you know where to reach me.”
“At any rate, I don’t expect that you will need to reach me.” Birdsong looked at Drew from under his heavy brows, and his meaning was clear.
“No need to warn me off.”
“True enough.” Birdsong’s scowl deepened. “Warning you off didn’t do the slightest bit of good last time, either.”
“Inspector, I assure you, I have no interest in this case. I was acquainted with the man, and I’m truly sorry to see he’s dead, but I have no idea who could have killed him or why. I assume you and your men are best equipped to discover that.”
“Quite right.” Birdsong narrowed his eyes. “All the same, if you were to think of something, it’s your duty to report it.”
“You may rely upon me.”
There was a tap on the door, and one of the uniformed officers came into the room. “They’re here to collect the body now, sir, if you are done.”
“All right, Barnes. We’ve just finished up.” Birdsong turned to Drew. “If you’ll excuse us now, sir . . .”
“Just leaving. Er, have they informed Mrs. Montford?”
“Someone is seeing to that, yes.”
“Poor woman. I must send condolences to her. I met her a time or two when I was a boy. Charming lady.”
Drew took the road past Farthering Place and into the village. He didn’t want to think about murder anymore, unless of course it was written in the pages of a cracking mystery novel. It was about time for the latest release on the list from the Mystery Mavens’ Newsletter if he had his dates in order. Perhaps Mrs. Harkness would take pity on him and let him buy a copy before she sent them out to everyone else. This time he’d be ahead of the game, and Madeline would be the one who had to wait.
Farthering St. John was comfortingly usual that afternoon. He waved as he drove past old Mrs. Beecham tending her roses, and sat smiling as Mr. Farnsworth drove his seemingly endless flock of sheep across the road in front of him. It was already early August and the spring lambs were getting big. Madeline would never forgive him if he didn’t take her out to see them soon.
When the way was finally clear, Drew drove down the high street and pulled up in front of the Royal Elizabeth Inn, fondly known as the Queen Bess, the center of everything in the village and just down from the bookshop.
He got out of the Rolls and stepped into the street, only to jump back again as a bicycle whizzed past.
“Good afternoon, young Farthering!”
“And to you, Mr. Llewellyn!”
Drew laughed to himself. The old blighter had to be nearing seventy, but there was no one who could discourage his vigorous jaunts on his two-wheeler. The people of Farthering St. John contented themselves with the knowledge that he hadn’t yet run anyone down.
It was a good day, and Drew wasn’t going to let the unpleasantness in Winchester spoil it for him. Now, if Mrs. Harkness would just be obliging, the day could turn out to be very fine, indeed.
He glanced up at the sign above her bookshop: The Running Brooks. Most people thought the name odd, but he’d always liked it. It played on a quotation from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, and it suited Drew’s mood most especially today to read again the words of the exiled duke painted on the shop’s sign:
And this our life exempt from public haunt
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones and good in everything.
Yes, there were certainly worse things than the quiet of little Farthering St. John.
Drew pushed open the door to the shop, tripping the bell that hung above it, but there was no one in sight. He looked round for a moment.
“Oh, good afternoon, Mr. Farthering!” Mrs. Harkness came out from behind a stack of large boxes. “Do pardon the mess. I’ve just gotten in my latest shipment, and they’ve gotten it all wrong, I’m afraid.”
“Oh, dear,” Drew said. “Have you spoken to them?”
“They’re supposed to send someone round this week, but you know how it is these days. No one ever seems to take the trouble to do things properly the first time.” She smiled and brushed a strand of short, graying hair out of her face. “Now, how can I help you?”
“I, uh . . .” Drew gave her a sheepish shrug. “I know it’s not due yet, but I thought I’d see if you had the newest book from the Mystery Mavens’ Newsletter in.”
“Now we are eager, aren’t we?” Mrs. Harkness wagged one thin finger at him. “You know I’m not allowed to sell those yet. They’re not officially released until Friday.”
“Oh, but you know better than anyone how I like a good murder mystery.”
Unbidden, the image of poor old Montford’s battered body sprawled before him, but he pushed it out of his mind. That wasn’t his case to solve. He much preferred the ones with handy answers contained within the covers of Mrs. Harkness’s books.
He took a deep breath and then grinned at her. “I had hoped to collect the newest one from you directly. The last one was stolen from me, you know. Right out of the post.”
Her eyebrows shot up under the sweat-dampened fringe of hair on her forehead. “Stolen? Did you report that to Mr. Pringle at the post office?”
“Not to worry. I know the perpetrator, and she returned the book to me directly after she’d finished reading it. And she was good enough not to spoil it by telling me the ending.”
The indignation on Mrs. Harkness’s face quickly turned to indulgence. “Ah, your young lady. Miss Parker.”
“Miss Parker.” He couldn’t quite subdue the smile that tugged at his face. “Have you met her?”
“Not to speak to, no, but I’ve seen her about the village, and of course at her uncle’s funeral. She’s a lovely young lady.”
“An intelligent one as well, and I’d sooner take a clever woman over a beautiful one. She was quite pleased with that volume of Shakespeare you suggested I give her. You know, I’m sure the two of you would get on famously. Madeline loves books. I daresay she’ll be your best customer in time. Next to me, of course.”
“I daresay. Though, if she reads your books, I don’t suppose she’ll be buying her own, now, will she?”
“No, I suppose not.”
“So she’s not going back to America?”
“Not if I have anything to say about it.”
“Then she hasn’t accepted you yet. Of course, you know I’ve always had hopes for you and my Annalee.”
“Why, Mrs. Harkness!” He chuckled despite the flush he felt in his cheeks. “Annalee is married and has two children.”
Mrs. Harkness’s eyes sparkled with mischief, and she began unpacking one of her boxes. “Well, one never knows what lies ahead.”
“Besides, I thought she’d moved away.”
“Oh, yes. Marcus has been given a position at Lewis’s in Liverpool.”
“That must be a grand opportunity for him, though I suppose you didn’t much care for him taking Annalee and the little ones along.”
“Well, she couldn’t very well have her husband go off without her, could she? But Annalee’s just a girl yet. She’s not yet twenty-five.”
“I was sure of that much, seeing her mother’s little more than a girl herself.” He winked at her. “If only I were just a bit older . . .”
She turned bright pink and put a hand to her mouth, looking rather like a schoolgirl after all. “Now I know you’re after something.”
“Well, I do have an ulterior motive.” He leaned closer to her and lowered his voice. “Are you sure I can’t buy a copy of the new Mystery Mavens’ book right away?”
“Now, now,” she scolded, shaking her head and chuckling as she checked one of her packing lists.
“After all, I did risk life and limb to come see you.”
She pursed her lips. “You did, did you?”
“Well, I was quite nearly run down by Mr. Llewellyn and his beloved bicycle.”
Again her smile was indulgent. “He seems a nice old gentleman even if he is rather an odd duck.”
“Is he? Odd, I mean.”
“Well, really. A man of his years ought to slow down a bit. And he should have his people about him.”
“Perhaps he hasn’t any.”
“Yes, perhaps you’re right. And really, there’s no harm in him. I’m sure he’ll settle into our ways once he’s been here awhile longer.”
“Oh, no doubt.” Drew looked about the stacks of new books once more. “Now about that new book . . .”
“You know I’m not allowed.”
“But you do have them in, don’t you?”
She tried to look stern. “I’m not supposed to say.”
“But suppose I just happened on a copy.” Drew looked into one of the open boxes. “Perhaps in here.”
She shook her head, and he pointed out another box.
“Certainly not. Those are textbooks.” She snatched up the box and put it on a side table. Then she began unpacking the books, setting them out on a high shelf.
“May I help you with that?”
“Oh, no. I can reach it just fine, thank you.”
“Very well.” He walked round to the front counter where her packing lists were awaiting verification. There was a freshly opened crate just beside it. “Now there’s an interesting possibility. I suppose with something as popular as the books for the Mystery Mavens’ Newsletter, there would be several copies coming in all at once. They wouldn’t be in there, would
She turned to face him, abandoning the task at hand. “I am absolutely not going to tell you where they are.”
Again she tried to look stern, but she was softening, he could tell. And she hadn’t said the books weren’t in that one.
“No, of course not.” He strolled over to the crate, peering sideways into it.
“Now, Mr. Farthering, if there’s nothing else, you really must let me get on with my inventory. I have to sort through some of the boxes in the storeroom, and if I come back and count the books in that crate and find one missing, I’ll just have to put it on your bill.” She looked at him over her spectacles, her expression stern, but her eyes twinkling. “And you won’t be getting one when I send the rest of them out.”
He made his own expression humble, even abject. “That would be no more than right.”
“Well, then, I must get to my inventory. Have a look round the shop if you like. I’m sure you can show yourself out.”
With that, she gathered up her packing lists and went into the back room.
It was as much as an invitation.
Drew waited just another moment before reaching into the crate. The new book was by Dorothy L. Sayers, Have His Carcase. The latest exploits of Lord Peter, no doubt. Delicious.
He slipped a copy into his coat pocket and then, just to make sure, he left in its place money enough to pay for two or three of its kind. And if she added the price of the book to his account on top of it, that would be all right as well.
When he went out into the street, he made sure to give the bell above the door a good jingle so she’d know she could come back to the front of the shop.
He would have doubtless been swaggering on the way home if he had been walking, but since he was behind the wheel, he had to content himself with a certain smugness of expression.
“Well, my fine Miss Parker, you’ll not be getting those dainty little hands on this one before I’ve had a go at it. The further adventures of Lord Peter and Harriet Vane, including the romantic ones, no doubt, and I won’t be giving you so much as a peek at it till I’ve finished the whole thing, bat those lovely blue eyes as you will.”
The scene from earlier in the afternoon tried once more to force its way into his thoughts, but he again drove it off. He would occupy his mind with Detective Lord Peter Wimsey and not solicitor Quinton Montford. No doubt Chief Inspector Birdsong would thank him for it, too.
With a determined smile, he turned toward Farthering Place and then slowed, puzzled at what he saw. Unless he was mistaken, that was Nick standing there at the side of the road, waving his arms like the flagman for a railway, his sandy hair sticking up and his hazel eyes wide. Drew pulled over.
“Nick, old man, what in the world—?”
“I just managed to slip out the back way.” Nick jumped into the car and wiped his sweating face with his handkerchief. “Madeline. She said I had to warn you.”
“What’s happened? Is she all right?”
“No, no, she’s fine,” Nick panted. “Perfectly fine. It’s you she’s worried about.”
Drew let out the air that was pent up in his lungs and put the car back into gear. “Why don’t you tell me what’s going on without all the melodrama?”
“I’ve just had the tongue-lashing of my life, I can tell you that much.”
“Accusations of a rather forceful nature, I must admit, and insinuating all manner of impropriety.”
Drew chuckled. “What exactly have you been up to?”
“Yes, go on and laugh now, but you might want to turn round, you know. Before it’s too late.”
They were at Farthering Place by then, and Drew pulled up at the steps, glad to see his family’s ancestral home was still standing in the grove of oaks at the end of the drive in all her imposing, respectable glory. From what Nick had said, Drew had half expected to find the old manor house nothing but rubble around his feet.
“Hadn’t you better—?”
“Too late,” Nick breathed, nodding toward the formidable middle-aged woman dressed entirely in black, who, despite her cane, came sailing along the garden path round to the front of the house like an ocean liner in open water.
“There you are!” Steely eyes blazing, she pointed one accusing finger at Drew. “Finally man enough to show your face, are you?”
Drew blinked at her. “I beg your pardon?”
“And well you should, young man. Stand to your feet when addressing your elders. Now, where have you been hiding yourself?”
“Stand up, I say!”
She thumped her cane against one of the tires. Drew scrambled out of the car, removing his hat and feeling horribly guilty. Guilty of what, he did not know.
“I was just at the bookshop and—”
“A very likely story. Now, what do you have to say for yourself?” She turned her head sideways, peering at him over her wire-rimmed spectacles as if she were some enormous parrot in full mourning.
“Yes, of course. There is no excuse you could possibly offer. I’m glad we can agree on that much. I hope you realize that the situation cannot continue as it is.”
“Well, I didn’t think you would, but that doesn’t matter.”
She put up a hand to silence him, looking the perfect image of saintlike patience in the face of great provocation.
“No amount of contrition will be sufficient at this late hour. I have already arranged for a taxi to come take us to the train station and told one of your housemaids to have everything packed up before he gets here. This little episode will soon be nothing more than a shameful memory. For you and for Madeline, I trust.”
“Me and—” Then it all made sense. Drew smiled. “Aunt Ruth, it must be. How lovely to meet you at last.”
“Oh, dear,” Nick murmured, and he slunk out of the car and toward the house.
“Don’t you Aunt Ruth me, young man!” she roared. “I’m not your aunt, and don’t hold your breath waiting for me to be.”
“Again, I beg your pardon.” Hat over his heart and determined to keep hold of his affable demeanor, Drew made a slight bow in her direction. “Shall we go into the house, Miss Jansen? I’m sure Madeline will be delighted to see you.”
“She has seen me already. And no, she was not delighted.” Aunt Ruth swept up to the top of the steps, then turned to glare at Drew once more. “I will go into the house only because I have never been one to air dirty laundry in public.”
Nick scurried up to the door and opened it for her.
She vouchsafed him a nod of thanks. “I apologize for what I said to you earlier, young man. I had no way of knowing you were not this Farthering fellow, but we sometimes suffer for making poor choices in the company we keep, don’t we? Let that be a lesson to you.”
“Indeed, ma’am. I certainly will.”
With a derisive snort, she sailed into the house.
Drew stood at the foot of the steps for a moment more and then glanced longingly back at the car. It wasn’t too late for a quick getaway.
Nick gave him a half-dazed smile. “Coming inside, old man?”
“Good heavens. No wonder you looked as if you’d been hit by a train.”
Nick laughed, and a touch of color crept back into his face. “I believe the only thing she didn’t accuse me of was sacrificing Christian maidens to my pagan gods out here on the front lawn.”
“Sorry about that. Obviously that was all intended for me. What exactly am I meant to have done?”
“Evidently you’ve led one Miss Madeline Parker astray with your silver tongue and modern ideas, not to mention forever soiling the family honor.”
Drew chuckled. “Oh, is that all.”
“Apparently, it’s enough.”
“Well, that’s easily cleared up. I’ll just explain to her that Madeline has been living at Rose Cottage since her uncle died. Even the old hens in the village haven’t quite figured out how to be scandalized at that.”
“Explain away, my friend, for all the good it will do you. When the dear auntie came in earlier, she found Madeline sleeping—sleeping, mind you!—on the divan in the library. And she had her shoes off.” Nick grinned. “If that doesn’t tell the whole sordid story, I don’t know what would.”
“But surely Madeline told her—”
“You’ve seen what it’s like to try to get a word in edgeways, haven’t you? I daresay Madeline gave up trying to be heard ages ago.”
“Well, the lady has got to take a breath sometime, hasn’t she? I will just wait for a lull in the storm.”
Aunt Ruth stormed into the library, and Madeline stood up, her shoes decently on both feet.
“And why didn’t that other boy tell me he isn’t who I thought he was?”
“That’s Nick Dennison. He’s learning to manage the estate. His father is the butler here.”
“With all these people to do his work for him, no wonder this Farthering fellow has time for mischief. He tried to give me some cock-and-bull story about being at a bookstore.” The older woman raised one graying eyebrow. “I can guess the kind of books.”
“If you guess Shakespeare and a lot of the other classics, you’d be right. Drew’s a very well-educated man.”
“Educated in mischief, I’ll be bound.”
Aunt Ruth’s lips were pressed into that tight line Madeline knew so well. Over the years, the expression had etched vertical creases into Aunt Ruth’s forehead and upper lip, advertising her displeasure with the world and all it had to offer.
“I wish you would just give him a chance. Talk to him for a little while and see. He’s got a lot of good qualities.”
“I suppose he does. Lots of money, fancy friends, a big house, the latest automobile, fashionable clothes and a handsome frame to display them, what else could a girl want?”
“Oh, I know. I know.” Aunt Ruth waived one hand in its black glove. “It’s not that way with you. You love him for his warm heart and his generous spirit and his kindly soul. Let me tell you, young lady, in the short time you’ve been here, you know nothing about his heart, spirit, or soul but what he’s wanted you to see. It’s easy for a man like that, one of these men of the world you hear about, to fool an innocent little girl like you. No telling what he’s talked you into already.”
“But Aunt Ruth—”
“Don’t you Aunt Ruth me, miss. Didn’t I see you with my own eyes exhibiting yourself here on this sofa half dressed?”
Madeline bit her lip. “I was just reading a book and fell asleep. Drew wasn’t even here for me to exhibit myself to. And I was completely dressed except for my shoes.”
“Well, bare feet are just the beginning if you ask me.”
Madeline fought the urge to scream. “Why don’t you sit down for a while and we can talk about this?”
“There’s nothing to talk about. Go see that that maid has packed all your things. I’ll make sure the cab driver is still outside. He’s driven off with all the luggage, like as not.”
Aunt Ruth bustled out of the room, and Madeline sank down onto the couch and dropped her head into her hands.
She looked up to see Drew peeking around the door and flung herself into his arms.
“Oh, Drew, I’m so sorry.”
“For what, darling?”
“I don’t know. For what she must have said to you outside.”
He gave her a wink, and there was warmth in his gray eyes. “She is a bit of a pepper pot, isn’t she?”
Madeline smiled in spite of herself and smoothed the dark hair off his forehead. “She really doesn’t mean any harm. She thinks she’s protecting me.”
He squeezed her tightly against him. “That’s my job now, isn’t it?”
“Drew. Drew.” She buried her face against the fresh linen of his shirt and burst into tears. “I don’t want to go home now. I don’t.”
“It’s all right, darling.”
He had such a wonderful voice, soothing and sure, as if he could make anything all right.
“I don’t know what to do.” She lifted her head and smiled again. “I guess I’d better make up my mind one way or other.”
“That’s the preferred method, of course.”
She sat on the sofa and pulled him down beside her. “I can’t believe she’s come all this way. I don’t think she’d ever left -Illinois or even Chicago in her life.”
“She seems rather determined nonetheless. It’s good of her to wear mourning for your uncle. I didn’t think they were all that close.”
“They weren’t. She never liked him at all. But she always wears black, at least ever since I’ve been alive. She was engaged to a man who died a few days before their wedding. I suppose she never got over it.”
He looked around the room and then lowered his voice. “You don’t suppose he took the coward’s way out and made away with himself, do you?”
Madeline stifled a laugh. “You are very bad. Besides, Aunt Ruth was quite the beauty in her day. I should show you some photographs.”
“So who was he, this chap who died? Must have been quite something.”
“That’s just it. I don’t know anything about him. She’s worn mourning for him ever since he passed away, but she never speaks of him. I mean, except to say how different things would have been if her Bertie had lived. I’d never dare ask her about him.”
Drew frowned. “Just because she’s been unhappy, it doesn’t follow she should want you to be.”
She squeezed his hand. “No, it doesn’t. And I don’t think that’s what she wants. Not really. She just has that way about her. My uncle Cal says she’d scowl at a sunrise and bark at a bluebird. Of course, he doesn’t say it where she can hear him.”
He grinned at her with that little spark of mischief in his eyes that she had already come to know so well. Surely even Aunt Ruth couldn’t dislike him for long. In the weeks Madeline had been here in Hampshire, she had seen him with the older ladies in the village—well, with all the women to be honest. He didn’t intentionally flirt, not really, but he was never lacking in charm, charm that was all the more attractive for its artlessness, charm that made them girlish and indulgent whenever he was around.
But Aunt Ruth was right, even though she had only meant to be sarcastic. Madeline did love him for his warm heart and his generous spirit and his kindly soul. She loved his wit and his intelligence, his protectiveness and his coolness through the worst of situations. She wouldn’t lie to herself, either. She loved the look of him and the sound of him, the touch and the taste and the smell of him. Oh, why did he always have to smell so good? So many men reeked of liquor and cigarettes, but he always smelled like freshly laundered linen, new books, and tea and honey.
She was unable to resist pressing her face against his neck and breathing in his clean, masculine scent. He did nothing more than slip one arm around her waist and lay his cheek against her hair, but she felt that instant electricity between them, that quickening in her blood that made her want to kick off caution and restraint like a pair of too-tight shoes.
But that wasn’t going to happen. They’d already talked about having no regrets between them and being careful to stay out of situations that might make it too easy to slip.
She pressed a little closer, breathed a little more deeply. It wasn’t going to happen, but it would be easy, oh, so easy—
Madeline shoved herself away from Drew, and he sprang to his feet.
“Exactly what I suspected.” Nostrils flaring, eyes snapping, Aunt Ruth stormed into the room, the picture of delighted righteous indignation. “Get up this minute, young lady. The sooner we’re away from here, the better.”
Madeline stood, anger, embarrassment, and irritation fighting for supremacy inside her.
“I beg your pardon, Miss Jansen, and with all due respect, but Madeline is of age.” Despite the touch of color in his face, Drew managed to keep his tone and his temper cool. “She ought to be able to make such decisions for herself, don’t you think?”
Aunt Ruth snorted. “She never could make a sound decision. And how could she be expected to? She may be twenty-two, but she’s really just a child. How else could she have been so easily seduced into staying on here so long?”
Drew’s tolerant smile tightened. “Seduced? Now, really—”
“She was raised up to be a good girl. I knew it was a mistake letting her tramp all over creation with a couple of flibbertigibbets for even a few weeks. Now they’re who knows where and she goes and gets ideas in her head.”
“Carrie and Muriel are back in Chicago now, Aunt Ruth. I wrote you about it. I couldn’t just leave with everything that was happening here.” A little tendril of grief tightened around Madeline’s heart. “And then there was the funeral.”
“You should have come home. I don’t care what was happening.” Aunt Ruth shook her finger in Madeline’s face. “You listen to me, my fine lady. You may have your uncle’s money now to do with as you please and no one to answer to, but it will do you little good if you lose your precious soul in the bargain.”
Madeline merely looked down at her folded hands and said nothing. It was always this way. The more she tried to get Aunt Ruth to understand, the worse the situation became.
“You mistake my intentions, ma’am,” Drew said. “I have made Madeline an honorable proposal of marriage.”
Drew blinked. “I assure you—”
“If your intentions were anything but low down, you’d have asked permission from her family.”
“And I would have, the moment she accepted me.”
“Bah. A gentleman asks permission first.”
“You’re perfectly right, and for that I do apologize. But with everything that happened here when she arrived, I thought it would be best to have her answer before I presumed to contact you in America.”
“Presumption it would have been.” Aunt Ruth’s eyes flashed. “And is still. How long have you known each other? A month now?”
“Nearly two,” Madeline blurted, and then she wilted under her aunt’s glare.
“Two whole months, is it? Well, why have you waited so long? You could have saved yourself the trouble and moved in the moment you stepped onshore.”
“Please, Aunt Ruth, I’m trying to do the right thing. That’s why I haven’t given him an answer yet. I thought if we waited a while, to get to know each other better, and—”
“Playing house in your little love nest the whole time, of course.”
Madeline said nothing else in protest, but her face was hot, and mortified tears had sprung to her eyes. What must Drew think? Of her and her family? But if a sharp retort leapt to Drew’s tongue, he kept it firmly subdued.
“You should congratulate yourself, ma’am, on a job well done.” Smiling, Drew put his arm around Madeline. “As you say, you raised her to be a good girl, and she is just that. Through everything that’s happened, she’s conducted herself with courage and clear-headedness and absolute propriety. You’ve fashioned her into a young lady any man would be honored to have as his wife.”
Dear Drew. Of course he’d use honey to catch Aunt Ruth. Madeline squeezed his hand, her eyes glowing, but her aunt merely crossed her arms over her broad bosom, peering at him again over her spectacles.
“I may have been born at night, young man, but it wasn’t last night. Though I see how an innocent girl could be taken in by that glib tongue. Well, your foreign ways are no match for honest American truth, Mr. Farthering, and if Madeline is old enough to be in such a fix, she’s old enough to hear it. I hope and trust that, as you say, she is a good girl. Yet whatever she has or hasn’t done, she’s coming back home with me and no more nonsense about it. I won’t have her staying here for you to play upon her sweet, easily led nature.”
He glanced at Madeline, and she could see him holding back a chuckle. Sweet, to be sure, the gleam in his eyes said, but easily led?
Aunt Ruth jerked her head toward the door. “Come along, Madeline. I’m sure that lazy girl has your things packed by now. The cab is waiting.”
“No.” Madeline tightened her hold on Drew’s hand, but she didn’t raise her eyes.
Aunt Ruth pursed her lips and glared at Drew. “Don’t be stubborn, Madeline. We don’t have time for it. Get up.”
“I’m not going.” Madeline lifted her head, her mouth set in a firm line. “I’m staying here.”
“Darling.” Drew pressed her hand to his lips. “I’m so glad. I can inquire into getting a special license—”
“I didn’t say I’d marry you, either.” She hoped her expression was cool and imperious, despite the tremor in her voice. “I’m not going to be rushed into or out of any decision as important as this one.”
Drew kissed her hand again, a mingling of pride and disappointment in his eyes. “Nor should you be, darling. I’ve told you before, I want you to be sure of me. As sure as I am of you.”
“Madeline Felicity Parker, if you think for one minute—”
This time Madeline looked the older woman in the eye. “I’m not going, Aunt Ruth.”
Her hand trembled a bit in Drew’s, but she didn’t look away.
Aunt Ruth threatened, cajoled, warned, and pled, but it was all to no avail. Madeline wasn’t going home. Not yet.
“Very well. You’ve taken the bit in your teeth. I suppose there’s nothing else but to let you run with it.” The older woman strode out of the parlor and, seeing Nick on the stairs, snapped her fingers at him as if he were the bellboy at New York’s gleaming new Waldorf Astoria. “You there. Boy.”
Nick came down with an obliging bow. “May I be of service, ma’am?”
“There is a taxicab waiting out front with our luggage. Tell the maid that Miss Parker will not be returning to America after all, and have her things returned to the cottage.”
“At once, ma’am.”
Madeline hurried over to her aunt and took her arm. “I know you’re mad at me, but—”
“And,” Aunt Ruth told Nick, “have them take mine there, too.”
Madeline glanced, wide-eyed, at Drew and then back at her aunt. “You’re . . . you’re staying?”
Drew swallowed audibly. “Here?”
“I realize I can’t force Madeline to come back home. Well, I don’t suppose you can force me to leave, either.” Aunt Ruth gave him a poisonous smile. “Unless you want to charge me with trespassing and have your police drag me off to whatever sort of prison you have in your town. Perhaps you people are used to that sort of scandal and wouldn’t even notice.”
Madeline glanced at Drew again. “No, of course he wouldn’t do that, Aunt Ruth. But do you have clothes and everything for a stay? Won’t Uncle Calvin and Aunt Emily be expecting you back?”
Aunt Ruth made a dismissive little hissing sound. “Em will do just fine as she is, and Calvin’s her husband, not mine. She can see to him, too.”
“But your clothes—”
“I guess they have wash buckets in this country? And even dress shops?”
“Well, yes, but—”
“Then I don’t think that will be a problem. Now show me this cottage of yours.”
Drew took Madeline’s hand. “I think having your dear auntie to visit will be perfectly charming, darling. That way she and I can become great friends, and she’ll see you’re in no danger here whatsoever.”
“No danger.” Aunt Ruth smirked. “None besides the half-dozen murders, more or less, and who knows what other shenanigans that have gone on here.”
Drew pressed his lips together, and a shadow passed over his gray eyes. It had been not even two months since Mason was killed, and Madeline knew Drew still felt pain in the loss. And then there was Constance, murdered just a few days before that. Drew had told her of the guilt and regret that goaded him at every memory of her. Did Aunt Ruth have to trample those still-raw remembrances?
The heat in Madeline’s face intensified. “Please remember, Aunt Ruth, that besides being my uncle, Uncle Mason was Drew’s stepfather. We were both very fond of him, and his death came as a great shock. I met his wife, Constance, only the one time, but she was Drew’s mother. You can understand how he must feel. How we both feel.”
Drew managed a gracious smile. “It was a difficult time for all of us, Miss Jansen, as I’m sure you can well imagine. Surely you wouldn’t have wanted Madeline to travel all the way back to America on her own after such a loss.”
Aunt Ruth pursed her lips. “I suppose not, not right away, but she could have come home anytime this past month. How long did you think I’d be put off with those letters, Madeline? And time passing and us wondering only the Lord knows what you might be doing over here.” She sneered at Drew. “Society folk. I told your mother, God rest her, she had no business marrying a foreigner and an upper-crust bigwig to boot. At least your father, God rest him, didn’t take her back over here where we’d never see her again. But that uncle of yours, and God rest him too, I suppose, I was always afraid he was going to turn your head with his fancy falderals and riding horses and high-toned finishing school. Now I see he did after all.”
Madeline’s eyes stung. “Uncle Mason was like a father to me, and you know he was. After Daddy died, he tried his best to look after me, even if he couldn’t come see me that often.”
“We looked after you, your aunt Emily and I, and it was only right that we did.” Aunt Ruth looked away. “I’m sorry that wasn’t good enough.”
“I never said or thought any such thing. I know you both did everything in the world for me, and I’m more grateful than I can ever say.”
“All Em and I ever wanted was for you to grow up a fine Christian girl, and this is the thanks we get.”
Madeline sighed and didn’t reply. Obviously Aunt Ruth had made up her mind and wasn’t to be troubled with such paltry inconveniences as actual truth. Discretion being the better part of valor, Drew also said nothing.
Finally, Aunt Ruth rapped her cane on the marble floor. “Well, is there or is there not a cottage?”
Drew gave Aunt Ruth a determined smile. “Why don’t you show your aunt down there, Madeline, and I’ll see where Nick’s got to with your luggage. How would that be?”
A few minutes later, the two women were standing on the doorstep of Rose Cottage. It was a charming place, picture-postcard perfect, and Madeline smiled as she opened the green-painted door to the quaint little front room.
Aunt Ruth peered inside. “Not very big.”
“We won’t need a lot of space.” Madeline led her through to the bright kitchen. “I haven’t done much cooking since they take care of that up at the house, but we can, anytime we want to. Isn’t it sweet?”
“Humph.” Aunt Ruth stomped back into the front room. “Where’s the bedroom? Or do you not use the one here much, either?”
Madeline bit her lip, but whether it was to keep herself from crying or laughing, she wasn’t sure. “I’ve been using this one.” She pushed open the door to the room she’d been occupying, a nice airy space with a cozy bed and heaps of fresh down comforters and mullioned windows all along the back wall that flooded the place with light every morning. “But if you’d like, I can move to the other one.”
The second bedroom was much like the first, clean and bright and cheerful. Evidently even Aunt Ruth could find no fault with it.
“No need for you to change now,” the older woman grumbled. “I suppose the girl can put all your things back where they were until you come to your senses.”
Madeline squeezed her aunt’s hand. “You’ll see. It really is lovely here.” Then, without warning, she pulled her aunt into a tight hug. “I am glad to see you again. I am really.”
Aunt Ruth stood stiff in her embrace, studying Madeline’s face, her own expression severe. Then she softened and stroked Madeline’s hair back from her temple.
“I just hope you don’t end up being sorry you were ever mixed up with this Farthering boy. If you are, I’m certainly not one to say I told you so. Now go find out who’s knocking at the door while I see what’s what in here.”
Madeline found Drew and Nick peering around the still-open front door. Nick looked especially wary.
“Is it safe?”
“Come in, you silly thing. Did you get it all?”
“All present and correct,” Drew said as he and Nick set down their burdens of bags and boxes. “After much persuasion, Anna is on her way to unpack for you.”
“Oh, good. Poor girl, Aunt Ruth must have scared her half out of her wits. And she’s taken such good care of me here so far.”
“I did have to give her a pound note to get her to come back.” Seeing the older woman come into the room, he winked at Madeline and put one finger to his lips and whispered, “Not a word.” He then turned and smiled at Aunt Ruth. “I trust everything is satisfactory, ma’am.”
She granted him a nod. “It’ll do. For now. I don’t suppose there’s such a thing as a telegraph office nearby.”
“Of course. You may come up to the house and telephone your message, or if you’d prefer to write it out, I’ll be happy to send someone down to the village with it.”
“I’ll take it myself.” She narrowed her eyes. “Just to make sure.”
“Certainly, ma’am. I’ll have the car brought round for you.”
She made a grudging little huff of acknowledgment. Then, seeing Anna had made a wary appearance, she began settling herself and her belongings into the cottage.
While Aunt Ruth was ordering Anna and Nick around, Madeline moved closer to Drew and lowered her voice. “It’s very nice of you, you know. Putting up with all this.”
“I’m a nice fellow. And as irrefutable proof, I brought you this, hot off the presses.” He took a little book from his coat pocket and presented it to her. “Haven’t even cracked the cover.”
“Oh, Drew! It’s the new Lord Peter.”
“And Harriet Vane, as well.”
Hugging the book to her chest, she leaned up and swiftly kissed his cheek. “And after I stole the last one from you.”
“I told you I was a nice fellow.”
“It might not do you any good, you know.”
He smiled the warm, lazy smile she loved. “They say trials build character, so there’s that at least.”
“Madeline!” Aunt Ruth stood in the doorway, hands on hips. “Come and see that all your things are put where you want them. Then you’ll be going to the village with me too, so say your goodbyes.”
Madeline sighed, and Drew squeezed her hand.
“Courage, darling. You’ve got Lord Peter to help you along for now.” He raised his voice for her aunt to hear, “We would be delighted to have you to dinner this evening, Miss Jansen.”
Aunt Ruth acknowledged the invitation and dismissed him with the same curt nod, and Madeline could only watch as he walked the path back toward the house. But before he disappeared, he turned and gave her that smile once more. It helped tremendously.
After three days, Aunt Ruth still managed to be only a little more than civil to Drew, but civility was an improvement nonetheless. Still, it was a bit wearing to feel like an intruder in one’s own home, and Drew decided an afternoon of golf would be a welcome change.
Nick and Bunny hadn’t arrived at the club by the time he got there. Roger’s car was parked outside, but Drew hadn’t yet seen the man himself. He decided to go ahead and change his clothes. He was early for their tee time after all. Perhaps a few practice shots wouldn’t come amiss.
Just as he got out of the Rolls, one of the caddies hurried up to him.
“Mr. Farthering, sir?”
“A man asked me to give you this.”
Drew tossed the boy a half crown.
Would appreciate you joining me on the first green.
The words were scrawled across the back of the card the boy had handed him. On the front, along with the official seal, it said J. T. BIRDSONG, Chief Inspector, Hampshire Constabulary.
Drew walked through the clubhouse. There seemed to be a lot of people standing about the club in little groups, talking in low voices and glancing toward the course.
“Good morning, young Farthering!”
Drew turned to see Mr. Llewellyn from the village among the onlookers.
“Good morning, sir. I didn’t know you played here.”
“Don’t play at all,” he said, chuckling. “But I do ride my bicycle through this way quite often. Saw there’d been some sort of row, so I thought I’d find out about it.”
The old man scowled. “No one knows anything. People milling about, claiming a man was hit by a stray ball and killed outright. Shouldn’t be allowed, talking when one hasn’t a clue, yet they won’t let anyone near enough to see what did happen. I may as well pedal myself on back to the village, eh? Tomorrow’s newspaper will be quicker than this.”
“I daresay.” Drew waved and made his way through to the course.
Several constables were holding back onlookers, and by the time Drew could see the first green, he didn’t need Birdsong to tell him anything. There was a body lying not two feet from the hole.
Drew removed his hat, grieved once again to look upon death.
The chief inspector managed a grim smile. “Ah, Detective Farthering. Good of you to come.”
“Not at all, Inspector. What’s happened?”
“Act Two, it would seem, of our little drama in Winchester last week. I thought perhaps another pair of eyes that saw the aftermath of the Montford murder might help us here.” Birdsong shrugged a little self-consciously. “Saw your car turn into the drive.”
Like the last time, there was a note on the body, secured by a hatpin through the heart. Judging by the amount of blood on the shirtfront, Drew assumed the man had first been stabbed in the same area.
He knelt to get a closer look. The victim was a placid-looking middle-aged man with a sedentary paunch in his jowls and belly. Rather well-off too, judging by his clothing. There were tobacco stains on his fingers and tiny burn holes in his coat.
Drew scanned the neatly clipped grass at his feet. It seemed pristine still. The body must have fallen where it lay. There were no marks that would have indicated it was dragged or even shifted much. It would take nerves of steel to stab a man here on the green at the first hole at three o’clock in the afternoon with dozens of potential witnesses.
Drew looked about again. The trees were a good ten or fifteen yards away. The clubhouse was in plain view. He gave a quick wave to the men sitting up there with their gin and tonic, and they were obliging enough to wave back. He hadn’t a clue who they were, but they could certainly see him.
How was it that no one seemed to have seen the murder?
“Do you have any idea what sort of weapon might have been used?” Drew asked.
“As best I can tell, something sharp and narrow-bladed,” the chief inspector offered. “Most likely the letter opener we found in the victim’s inside coat pocket. Common enough to be untraceable.”
“And the body was lying this way?”
“No. It was facedown, a bit doubled over. Impossible to see the blood or the wounds from any distance.”
Drew considered that and then the note itself.
Kentish wisdom would have him paid so.
It was the same graceful writing, the same aged parchment as was used on Montford in the hotel room, fastened by another antique hatpin. This one was larger than the first and looked to be silver with an amethyst set into it. Drew read the words again. What did the killer mean by Kentish wisdom? And what had that to do with the first murder?
“‘Kentish wisdom would have him paid so,’” Drew murmured. “‘Advice to Jack.’”
What was the connection?
“I don’t know how I can help you, Inspector,” Drew said.
“You were involved with the first murder. Your solicitor.”
“I wouldn’t exactly say ‘involved.’ I merely had an appointment with the man. He was dead well before I arrived.”
“Fair enough,” Birdsong said. “But you were some little help in that matter at Farthering Place. I thought perhaps you might have some observations on these current cases.”
Drew smiled faintly. “I see.”
Birdsong drew himself up with a sniff. “It’s part of my job to make use of any source of information as may become available in an investigation.”
“No need to be defensive, Inspector. If you want my help, all you need do is ask.”
Birdsong scowled. “No, I do not want your help, Detective Farthering. I do not want you mucking about interfering with my official duties. No, nor your friend, Nick Dennison. Nor your young lady. All I want is for you to tell me if you’ve noticed anything besides these blasted bits of writing that would connect the two murders.”
“The hatpins, of course.” Drew dropped to one knee again and peered at the body. “Both men middle-aged. Both appear to be professional men.”
“You didn’t know the man?”
“No. Should I have?”
“It’s your club, isn’t it?”
“Well, yes, but that doesn’t assume an acquaintance with each and every member, does it?”
“I suppose not.” Birdsong consulted his notes. “He was a doctor. Name of Corneau. Ever hear of him?”
Drew shook his head. “Do you know anything else about him? Where he lived? Where he had his surgery?”
“He lived in Chilcomb and practiced in Winchester.”
Drew frowned. “And no one here saw anything?”
“What they saw was Dr. Corneau playing the hole with his caddy. Next thing they knew, Corneau was on the ground and the caddy was running for the clubhouse, calling for a doctor. Claimed it was the man’s heart.”
“Have you talked to the caddy?”
“The man’s not to be found. Corneau’s regular boy was called away on some family urgency, and evidently this one took his place. No one at the clubhouse seems to know anything about him, and the manager claims all of his regulars are accounted for. None of them was out here with the doctor.”
Drew’s frown deepened. “So this unknown boy comes out to the clubhouse, waits until Corneau needs a caddy, gets himself hired on, and before the doctor can sink his first putt, stabs him through the heart and disappears. Why?”
Birdsong shook his head.
“And I suppose no one thought to detain the caddy.” Drew looked up at the clubhouse again, squinting against the afternoon sun. “The sun would have been behind anyone who was looking this way, so he’d have had a clear look. Did you get a description?”
“Not anything specific. Evidently no one really looks at a caddy. ‘Thin, tallish chap’ is all anyone’s said.”
“No one saw him when he came running into the clubhouse?”
Again the chief inspector shook his head. “Seems all the attention was on Corneau. This fellow ran in shouting and ran out again. Perfectly natural to think he was going after some help. By the time they all realized the doctor had been stabbed, the caddy was well away.”
“So no one could tell you what he looked like? What he was wearing? What he sounded like?”
“Not anything helpful,” Birdsong admitted. “He had a cap on, dressed like any of the other fellows who caddy here. Seems he had darkish hair, but no one’s overly certain about that. One of the men who saw him leave said he had a rather low voice. ‘Husky,’ he said it was, as if he’d had a sore throat or congestion.”
“Or didn’t want to be recognized.”
“There is that.”
Drew thought for a moment. “I suppose you’ve turned out his pockets. Might I see?”
“Griffiths,” the chief inspector called. “Bring me what you have.”
One of Birdsong’s men came up to them with a few small items bundled into a gentleman’s handkerchief.
“This is everything, sir.” He spread the handkerchief over the chief inspector’s outstretched hand, displaying the dead man’s possessions. “Certain he wasn’t robbed.”
Birdsong prodded a stack of three five-pound notes. “No, I’d say whoever did it wasn’t after money. Has Tompkins photographed this lot?”
“All right then. Clear all these people away from here. I want everybody who’s not on police business back in the clubhouse.”
“Right away, sir.” The constable turned to the onlookers, shooing them away from the crime scene with both hands as if they were barnyard fowl. “That will be all, ladies and gentlemen. You’ll all have to go back inside now. Everyone, if you please.”
Birdsong turned his attention back to the items in hand. “Besides the notes, a pocket watch, a few shillings, matches, wedding ring, couple of tees, penknife, bit of pocket lint. Not much help.”
“No cigarettes?” Drew asked. “Or cigarette case?”
“Not that we found.”
Drew nodded, then turned his attention to the plain gold band. “I thought . . .” He looked down at the corpse. “I thought he had a ring on already.”
The band on the dead man’s left hand was similar to the one found in his pocket—of high quality but not ostentatious.
Birdsong narrowed his eyes. “You don’t reckon this was Montford’s, do you?”
“Might have been. Did his ever turn up?”
“No. No, it didn’t.”
Drew shrugged. “It’s obvious the two killings are connected. The messages, the hatpins.” He paused. “You don’t suppose this man, this doctor—”
“Right, Dr. Corneau. You don’t suppose he might have taken Montford’s ring for some reason.”
“You think he could be our Winchester killer?”
Drew shrugged. “It’s not out of the realm of possibility, is it? Then someone might have done for the good doctor to get vengeance.”
“A bit fanciful, don’t you think? Granted, if the doctor is a murderer, it stands to reason someone may want to kill him as a measure of payback. But why would he have killed Montford in the first place?”
“I don’t know, Inspector. But no, that doesn’t seem right at all. The notes are written in the same hand, I’d lay odds on that, and the same paper. Corneau couldn’t have written them both. More likely our killer brought Montford’s ring from Winchester and left it on Corneau.”
There was no humor in Drew’s low laugh. “We don’t even know for certain if it actually is Montford’s ring. Worth inquiring into, I expect.” He looked round and saw the men were there with the stretcher, waiting expectantly. “I suppose that’s all there is for now, but I’ll certainly keep my eyes and ears open, Inspector, and my mind working. Any flashes of brilliance will be immediately reported to you.”
Birdsong’s dour expression did not change. “I’ll have an extra man put on just to take your telephone calls. We really haven’t enough to keep us busy as it is.”
Drew gave him a sarcastic smile in return and then sobered as he looked down at Dr. Corneau for the final time, watching as the men carefully lifted his body onto the stretcher and covered it with a sheet. It was now just a sad, empty shell without the spirit it had housed. God have mercy.
Drew turned back to Birdsong. “What else do you know about the doctor? Did he have family?”
“According to one of club members here, he had a wife and three children, all grown, and a number of young grandchildren.” Birdsong hesitated. “Would you like to come to his surgery with me? Hear what his staff have to say?”
Drew nodded, trying not to look too surprised. “Yes, if I might.”
“Best come along, then.” Birdsong shook his head, watching the men with the body. “Always devilish sudden, aren’t they, these killings?”
“Devilish,” Drew murmured, and then Dr. Corneau was carried away as if he had never been.
There would be no more golf today.
“I say, that was quite a shocker at the golf course, wasn’t it?” Nick removed Drew’s clubs from the Rolls and slung them over his shoulder. “And we just missed it.”
Drew got out of the car, and the two of them walked up the path from the garage to the house.
“What happened to all of you anyway?” Drew asked.
“Bunny’s new motor car punked out on him, and by the time he had it going again and we got to the course, the police wouldn’t let anyone in.” Nick grinned. “Bunny was so distraught about his precious car, Roger had to take him round to Barbie Chalfont’s for drinks. I made them drop me here first so I could get the details right off.”
“I’m afraid I haven’t many details on the case so far. I even went with Birdsong to the doctor’s surgery to see if anyone working for him knew of any reason he’d be murdered. It was just the one nurse and a girl at reception, and they neither of them had any clue. So, such as it is, you know Madeline is going to want to know every detail so far too, and I’d as lief tell you two vampires both at the same time.”
“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea.” Nick looked round and then lowered his voice. “It seems dear Auntie isn’t letting Madeline out of her sight these days, and I doubt it would increase her fondness of you if you were to bring such lurid tales to her niece’s attention.”
“I suppose you’re right, though I did want to talk to both of you about what’s happened. There’s certainly something odd going on, and I had hoped that, between the three of us, we might make some sense of it.”
Nick’s eyes narrowed. “They said there was a note on this one, too.”
“Yes. It said, ‘Kentish wisdom would have him paid so.’”
“That’s worse than the first one. Any ideas on what it means?”
“No.” Drew shoved his hands into his pockets. “I don’t suppose Auntie is feeling any more charitably toward me, is she?”
“She’s been relatively quiet as far as I can tell. She’s in the library with Madeline. Knitting or crocheting or whatever it is old ladies do.”
“Crocheting lace, I expect. Was it white?”
Nick nodded. “What I saw of it.”
“Crocheting, I should think. Madeline’s learning it. I didn’t really know what it was either, but she seems to enjoy it. Best not bring up that bit about old ladies, though.”
Nick smirked. “I see you’ve already made that mistake.”
By then they had reached the French doors that led to the library. Open doors. Drew put one finger to his lips and then, removing his hat, went inside.
“Good afternoon, ladies. Hard at work, I see.”
Madeline and Aunt Ruth both glanced up from their spools of white thread and tiny metal crochet hooks. Madeline looked particularly fetching, her dark hair a soft frame for her lovely face, her long legs tucked gracefully under her, and her slender hands nimble and skillful as they worked.
There was a sparkle in her periwinkle-blue eyes as she set down the lacy little piece of fluff in her hands. “Hello there.”
Aunt Ruth continued counting for another few seconds. Then she too stopped work and peered at Drew over her steel-rimmed glasses.
“We weren’t expecting you back until later this afternoon.”
“Didn’t end up playing actually, ma’am. The course was closed suddenly.”
“So that’s what they do when there’s a murder, eh?”
Drew glanced at Madeline. “You’ve heard about it, I see.”
“It’s all the talk evidently.” Madeline shrugged in helpless apology. “Anna heard it from the grocery boy, who had the story from one of the caddies out there who was kind of put out because he doesn’t make any money when the course is closed. Anyway, Anna was telling Beryl about it, and Aunt Ruth heard them talking.”
“Good thing I did, too.” Aunt Ruth came to what was apparently a stopping point and set down her work. “I don’t suppose you were going to bother to tell us there is a killer at large? I say it’s an insult to your guests to make them get important news from the help.”
“I didn’t want to worry you,” Drew said. “Either of you. And it’s nothing to be worried about. The police are seeing to everything, and I’m sure they’ll catch whoever’s done it before long.”
Aunt Ruth snorted. “What kind of a place is this? I haven’t been here a week and already you’re involved in two murders.” She arched one eyebrow at him. “That we know of.”
“Not involved actually.”
“Not involved? Hah. They seem to follow you around. If you ask me, there’s something—”
She broke off with a muffled shriek as her crocheted lace, hook, and ball of thread careened off the coffee table and disappeared under the sofa.
“Oh, dear.” Drew tossed his hat onto the table and dropped down to his hands and knees. “Nick, cut him off before he gets out the door with it.”
Aunt Ruth drew her feet up off the floor. “What is it?”
“It’s all right, ma’am. Nick, get the thread and other things. Be careful, you idiot.”
“What is it?” Aunt Ruth demanded, and Drew finally managed to pull a struggling Mr. Chambers out from under the sofa by the scruff of his neck. The little white kitten squirmed, batting his paws in midair, claws extended, emerald eyes wild.
“I’m terribly sorry, Miss Jansen. He doesn’t mean any—”
“Give him to me.”
Before Drew could protest, she snatched Mr. Chambers from his hands and sat him on the sofa beside her. Then, before the rascal could leap away, she tickled the back of his head with a black tassel from her jacket. He attacked it with his entire little body, holding it in his front paws as he kicked it, rapid fire, with the back.
Still on his knees, Drew could only watch in amazement as Madeline’s formidable maiden aunt played with the kitten. He glanced at Madeline, but she was smiling on the unlikely pair too and didn’t notice. With Aunt Ruth’s face softened that way, Drew could see something of a resemblance between her and her niece. Perhaps she really had been lovely in her day.
Abruptly the woman glared at him. “Well?”
He scrambled to his feet. “I, uh—”
“I’m terribly sorry about your lace, ma’am.” Nick offered up the wadded tangle of thread he had rescued.
Aunt Ruth merely pursed her lips. “Oh, just put it down there on the table. It won’t take a minute to fix it.” She looked down at Mr. Chambers, her face softening once more. “He didn’t hurt anything, did he? No. No, he didn’t.”
She wiggled her fingers under his fuzzy chin, and he immediately abandoned the tassel and wrapped all four paws round her wrist. She made some little clicking noises with her tongue and started scratching his neck. After a few halfhearted kicks, the kitten closed his eyes and began to purr.
Drew shook his head. “I’ve never seen him take to anyone quite that way, ma’am. You’re a wonder.”
“How is it I’ve been here a week and didn’t know you had a kitten in the house?”
Drew shrugged. “I suppose I didn’t want him inconveniencing anyone.”
“Poppycock. As if the angel could be an inconvenience.” She narrowed her eyes at Drew. “I thought all you Englishmen had huge, slobbery dogs running around everywhere.”
“We have them in the stables and about the estate. The gardener has one too, but we don’t typically keep them inside. My mother didn’t care for them in the house.”
“She must have been a sensible woman.”
Drew and Nick exchanged glances. Before her death, Constance had been described in a variety of ways, but sensible was not a word that was commonly used. Still, since her policy regarding the estate’s dogs was one of the few things of which Aunt Ruth seemed to approve, Drew did not contradict the notion. Aunt Ruth seemed to have given her wholehearted approval of Mr. Chambers as well, despite his destruction of her lacework, and Drew silently blessed the fuzzy little beggar for it.
“He’s a darling.” Madeline beamed at the kitten as it basked in her aunt’s attentions. “He was born the day I came here. Isn’t that sweet?”
“I didn’t suppose he dropped out of the sky,” Aunt Ruth said. “Where’s his mother?”
“Oh, she’s about the grounds somewhere,” Drew assured her. “Now that the kittens are weaned, she stays out a bit more. She’s quite a hunter.”
“And the rest of the little ones?”
“In good homes nearby, but I just couldn’t part with old Chambers here.”
“Chambers?” The old lady scowled at him. “What kind of a name is that?”
“Mr. Chambers, actually. I named him after my old Latin professor.”
Aunt Ruth shook her head. “Not a very sensible name for a cat.”
Drew wasn’t quite sure how to make amends for his shortcomings in feline appellations, but he was rescued when Denny appeared in the doorway with a decorous cough.
“Are you at home to a Mrs. Montford, sir?”
He presented Drew with a silver tray containing a tasteful, engraved calling card. Mrs. Q. C. Montford.
Drew glanced at Madeline and then nodded. “By all means, Denny. Show her in.”
“Oh, I say!” Nick brightened and sat up straighter in his chair. “What do you suppose she wants with you?”
“I daresay we’ll find out.”
Overlooking Aunt Ruth’s suspicious expression, Drew and Nick both stood at the appearance of a tall, bewildered-looking woman, slender and clad in solemn black.
She offered Drew her hand, and he clasped it briefly. It was a soft, womanly hand, a hand that showed little sign of hardship or toil.
“I don’t know if you’ll remember me—”
“Of course I do. You and Mr. Montford were always very kind to me when I was a boy. I’m so glad to see you again. May I introduce Miss Madeline Parker, her aunt Miss Jansen, and Mr. Nicholas Dennison?”
“Good afternoon.” Mrs. Montford barely spared them a glance before turning her expressive brown eyes back to Drew. “Thank you for seeing me. I should have telephoned ahead, I know, but I just couldn’t take the chance that you might not speak to me.”
“Nonsense.” He guided her to a chair and then sat down himself. “I would be quite pleased to know if there’s any way I can be of help to you. I’m so sorry about what happened to Mr. Montford. It must have been a terrible shock to you.”
“Oh, Mr. Farthering.” She stopped for a moment, her eyes filling with tears, but she blotted them away. “No. I haven’t time for any silliness just now, and I’m certain you haven’t.” She smiled, her mouth tight and her lips quivering, and then she leaned a bit closer to Drew. “Do you think I might speak to you in private for a few moments? I promise I won’t take up much of your time.”
“Of course.” Drew stood and held out his hand to Madeline. “Darling, do you think you and Nick might take your aunt to see to that matter we were discussing?”
“What matter?” Aunt Ruth demanded. “What are you talking about?”
“This way, ma’am. I’ll explain everything.”
Nick took Mr. Chambers from her, offered her his arm, and hurried her out of the room before she could say anything more.
Madeline looked a bit vexed at having to leave, as well. No doubt she was dying of curiosity just now, but she let him bring her to her feet. “We’re going to need your help, too.”
He kissed her cheek. “Won’t be long.”
“Thank you, my dear,” Mrs. Montford said to Madeline, her smile wistful. It had to be painful, with her loss so fresh and raw, to see a happy couple.
Once they were alone, Drew shut the library door and sat down beside her once more.
“Now, what can I do for you?”
She folded her hands in her lap. “I want you to find out who killed my husband.”
It wasn’t precisely what he had expected her to ask.
“You want me—”
“Please, Mr. Farthering, hear me out.”
“Mrs. Montford, believe me, I would do anything in my power to help you, but surely this is a matter for the police. They’re much better qualified—”
“But I read about you and that awful situation with Farlinford Processing and everything that happened here.”
“That was hardly anything, really. I merely stumbled upon a clue or two. The police would have found out the villain in time, no doubt.”
“That may be so, but he might have been in South America well before then and completely out of the reach of the law.”
“I still think the police—”
“Bother the police.” Her expression turned fierce. “They’ve got everything wrong as it is.”
“Do they? In what way?”
“They suspect that my husband was meeting a woman there at the hotel. I know that’s not true.”
“What evidence do they have of that?”
“Nothing but their nasty little minds. I just know it’s not true. Not of Quinton. He was a good Christian man.”
Drew made his voice as gentle as he could. “Good Christian men have stumbled before. Presumably that’s what makes a merciful God and a living Savior such a pressing need.”
“I’m not saying he was perfect. I knew him too well for that. But I knew his heart as well as I know my own. Can’t you make them see the truth?”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t know anything about it. I don’t know the truth of the matter. I hope for your sake that they’re wrong, but I really can’t interfere with their investigation.”
“So you won’t help me?”
“Can’t you even consider that things might not be as they seem? Your poor stepfather, Mr. Parker, he was all but tried and convicted by the newspapers and the local gossip, and he was innocent, wasn’t he?”
“And would you have liked to see him buried with the name of murderer and embezzler blazoned over him?”
“But your husband—”
“My husband wasn’t an adulterer. The police are content to let him be branded with that. The press love anything that adds spice to a story, I know that much.” Her eyes pled for her, soft and doelike. Maybe it wasn’t so surprising that Montford would have been still in love with her after so many years. “Won’t you find out what really happened?”
“You know I’m not actually a detective or anything, Mrs. Montford.”
“But you could talk to people. Ask questions. I know I’m asking a very great favor of you, but I don’t know where else to turn. The police won’t listen to me at all. They’ve already made up their minds about everything.”
He looked at her for a long moment, and she put one tentative hand over his.
“Please, Mr. Farthering. You mentioned a merciful God and a living Savior. I presume you’re a Christian man yourself.”
“Won’t you help me? For His sake?”
She pulled her hand back, a little flush of pink on her cheeks. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be quite so maudlin. But I’ve already lost my husband. I can’t lose his good name, as well. Not for my sake alone, but for my son’s, too. And because, as you have said, good Christian men have stumbled before. It’s what the world expects of us, isn’t it? Frailty and hypocrisy?”
That was true enough. The world was always waiting to exult over the failings of anyone who claimed the name of Christ. Did every man who tried to live his principles have to have a dirty little secret? Must he absolutely be a fraud?
Surely there were good men in the world, men who weren’t perfect but who meant to be honest and true to their faith. Was it so very impossible that Montford hadn’t betrayed his wife and his beliefs?
Drew nodded, smiling a little. “Maybe so. And maybe there’s more yet to be known.”
Tears sprang into her eyes once more. “Oh, thank you. Thank you.”
“I can’t promise anything.” He stood up, bringing her with him. “I don’t even know where I’ll start, but I’ll see what I can find out. Fair enough?”
“Bless you, Mr. Farthering.”