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Table of Contents
King Wilfred’s Honey Cakes
ALSO BY NANCY ATHERTON
Aunt Dimity’s Death
Aunt Dimity and the Duke
Aunt Dimity’s Good Deed
Aunt Dimity Digs In
Aunt Dimity’s Christmas
Aunt Dimity Beats the Devil
Aunt Dimity: Detective
Aunt Dimity Takes a Holiday
Aunt Dimity: Snowbound
Aunt Dimity and the Next of Kin
Aunt Dimity and the Deep Blue Sea
Aunt Dimity Goes West
Aunt Dimity: Vampire Hunter
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First published in 2009 by Viking Penguin,
a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Copyright © Nancy T. Atherton, 2009
All rights reserved
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING IN PUBLICATION DATA
Aunt Dimity slays the dragon / Nancy Atherton.
eISBN : 978-1-101-02222-1
1. Dimity, Aunt (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 2. Women detectives—England—Cotswold Hills—Fiction. 3. Cotswold Hills (England—Fiction). I. Title.
Set in Perpetua
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For Claudia and Don Stafford,
my next-door angels
The invasion of Finch began on a mild Monday evening in late May. By the end of August, my peaceful English village would find itself at the mercy of rampaging brigands, bullies, braggarts, and blundering louts. There would also be an unexpected death.
None of us saw it coming. On the evening in question, my neighbors and I were sitting quietly—some of us somnolently—in the old schoolhouse that had for many years served as our village hall. We were there to attend a village affairs committee meeting, and nearly seventy of us had shown up because the annual May meeting was widely regarded as the most important committee meeting of the year.
The sole purpose of the May meeting was to finalize plans for Finch’s many summer activities. It was, for the most part, an egregious waste of time, because everyone knew that the summer fete, the bring-and-buy sale, the gymkhana, the art show, the flower show, the dog show, and the tidy cottage competition would be run exactly as they had been run for as long as anyone could remember.
Innovations might be suggested, discussed, and debated, but they were never adopted. In the end, the same dates would be chosen and the same folding tables would be used, along with the same frayed linen tablecloths, tarnished tea urns, and increasingly shabby decorations. The summer fete would be held, as it had always been, at the vicarage, the gymkhana would take place at Anscombe Manor, and everything else—apart from the tidy cottage competition—would be staged, as per usual, in the schoolhouse. In the eight years since my husband and I had moved to Finch, the routine had never varied in the slightest.
The only thing that ever changed from one year to the next was the assignment of menial tasks to volunteers. The glamorous jobs had been snapped up as long ago as 1982 by women who would defend to the death their right to wear big hats and flowery frocks while opening the art show or graciously awarding ribbons at the gymkhana. Competition was understandably less fierce for the less glamorous jobs. No one fought for the right to iron tablecloths, empty rubbish bins, or pick bits of soggy crepe paper out of the grass on the village green. Since such toil was essential to the success of any event, however, volunteers had to be found.
It was left to our esteemed chairwoman, the all-powerful Peggy Taxman, to delegate the donkeywork, and it was for this reason, and this reason alone, that the May meeting was so very well attended. Peggy had it within her grasp to favor us with the pleasant chore of attending to the tea urns or to condemn us to the noxious duty of scrubbing the schoolhouse floor after the dog show. We were agog to learn our fates.
“The meeting will come to order.” Peggy banged her gavel, then pointed it accusingly at the room in general. “And if I catch any of you napping, I’ll have you removed from the schoolhouse!”
Mr. Barlow, who had already dozed off, woke with a start.
“We done yet?” he asked sleepily.
“Just getting started,” Miranda Morrow murmured from the corner of her mouth.
“Right.” Mr. Barlow yawned, rubbed his eyes, and lifted his gaze to the five committee members.
The members sat shoulder-to-shoulder on one side of the long, linen-draped table that had been set up on the small stage at the rear of the schoolhouse. Peggy Taxman occupied the middle chair, a position which allowed her to loom menacingly over the assembled throng. Lesser villagers perched meekly on folding chairs on either side of a central aisle leading to the schoolroom’s double doors, through which Peggy would sweep magisterially after she’d made her final pronouncement.
No one would dare to stop her or attempt to dispute her decisions. An empire-builder by nature, Peggy ran two major businesses as well as the post office in Finch. She was a woman of substance, both physically and financially, and her fierce sense of civic duty drove her to rule the village with an iron hand, a steely eye, and a voice like thunder. A reproving glance from behind those pointy, rhinestone-studded glasses was usually all it took to make the bravest among us quail. When the glance didn’t work, she employed the voice, and although I’d never seen the iron hand in action, I had no doubt that, if all else failed, she would use it.
The other committee members were much less daunting. Sally Pyne, vice chair and tearoom owner, preferred gossip to governing and was content to let Peggy rule the roost. George Wetherhead, recording secretary and model train enthusiast, was so bashful that he rarely raised his eyes from the laptop computer he used to record the minutes. Mr. Wetherhead would no more think of contradicting Peggy than he would of challenging her to a wrestling match.
Our treasurer, Jasper Taxman, had been a retired accountant before marriage to our chairwoman had forced him to rethink his definition of retirement. No professional career could have kept him busier than his wife did. When he wasn’t minding the tills in Peggy’s shops or selling stamps in Peggy’s post office, he was keeping the books for Peggy’s myriad committees.
The last chair on the stage was assigned to the least important member of the committee: me, Lori Shepherd—wife, mother, and hapless draftee. I sat at the long table because, having made the grave mistake of missing last year’s May meeting, I’d been appointed, in absentia, to the post of sergeant-at-arms.
All things considered, I’d gotten off lightly. Although my title was impressive, my duties were not. I was assigned to keep order among the villagers during the meeting, and to distribute Peggy’s work rosters after it. Since our chairwoman needed no one’s help to keep the villagers in order, and since she wouldn’t release the rosters until she’d finished reviewing her copious notes, I spent most of the evening staring absently into space.
“Item one,” Peggy began. “A few comments on fastening floral swags to the art show tables. Safety pins are considered unsightly and will not be used unless the following conditions apply. . . .”
As if by magic, my eyes stayed open while my mind floated out of the schoolhouse. My first thoughts were, as always, of home. Finch was nestled snugly in a verdant river valley set amidst the patchwork fields and rolling hills of the Cotswolds, a rural region in England’s West Midlands. I lived two miles south of Finch, in a cottage made of honey-colored stone, with my husband, Bill, and our six-year-old identical twin sons, Will and Rob.
Although Bill, the twins, and I were American, we’d lived in England long enough to know the difference between crème fraîche and clotted cream, and to develop an incurable addiction to the latter. Bill ran the European branch of his family’s venerable Boston law firm from a high-tech office on the village green, Will and Rob attended school in the nearby market town of Upper Deeping, and I divided my time between taking care of my family and serving my community.
Until quite recently, we’d shared our home with the boys’ nanny, the inestimable Annelise Sciaparelli, but she’d left us in mid-May to marry her longtime fiancé, Oliver Elstyn, and her room had been vacant ever since. With the twins attending primary school full-time, neither Bill nor I felt the need to hire another nanny, and we agreed that Annelise was irreplaceable in any case.
“Item twenty-four . . .”
Peggy’s bellow jerked me out of my reverie.
“. . . the proper use of dust bin lids!”
I immediately sank back into a stupor shared by almost everyone in the schoolhouse. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been excited about a committee meeting. My life was in many ways idyllic—devoted husband, healthy sons, happy home—but I’d lately begun to realize that it was also just a tiny bit . . . boring. I loved my friends and neighbors—most of the time—but their faces had started to become a tad too familiar, their habits slightly too predictable. The daily routine of village life, which I’d once found so fulfilling, had recently begun to seem a little too . . . routine.
As I scanned the faces assembled in the schoolroom, I acknowledged sadly that there wasn’t much I didn’t know about my fellow villagers. Mr. Barlow, a retired mechanic, was in the midst of cleaning the carburetor in a vintage Mustang he was restoring for a wealthy and recently divorced client who lived in Tewkesbury. Although Miranda Morrow was a strict vegetarian, she spent hours every day preparing the choicest cuts of meat for her cat. Lilian Bunting, the vicar’s wife, was currently rewriting the third paragraph of her introduction to a book about stained glass. Dick Peacock, the local publican, had taken up pottery as a hobby, but the consensus was that his handmade goblets would do little to improve the taste of his homemade wine.
And so on and so forth. I knew without asking whose dog had fleas, whose roof had sprung a leak, whose grandchildren were angelic and whose were not. If Finch had any surprises left for me, it was keeping them well hidden.
“Item twenty-five: Flower show entry forms. Block letters must be used when filling out . . .”
While Peggy continued to drone, my gaze traveled to the portrait of the queen, hung in a place of honor above the schoolroom’s double doors. I usually felt a small, Anglophilic tingle when I beheld England’s gracious monarch decked out in royal regalia, but I’d seen the schoolroom portrait so often that it no longer worked its magic.
Sighing, I looked down at my idle hands. If asked, I would have been forced to confess that I had no one but myself to blame for my growing sense of ennui. After the fiasco with the vampire in October, I’d sworn to keep my feet firmly on the ground, and on the ground I’d kept them for seven months, successfully stifling an inborn and nearly irresistible inclination to let my vivid imagination run away with me.
When Sally Pyne’s gilded antique biscuit barrel had gone missing in January, I’d clamped down on my desire to nab the thief and left it to Sally to remember—two days later—that she’d loaned her precious barrel to Mr. Barlow, who’d played one of the Three Wise Men in the Nativity play and needed a fancy container for the frankincense.
Similarly, when a stranger spent a cold February morning taking photographs of every nook and cranny in Finch, I did not allow myself to envision him as a predatory land developer, a fast-talking film location scout, or a devious foreign spy, and when I learned that he was, in fact, a real estate agent acting on behalf of clients who were about to buy long-vacant Crabtree Cottage, I refused to wonder whether or not those clients had sinister ties to the woman who’d died there.
It was just as well, because the clients turned out to be Grant Tavistock and Charles Bellingham, who were sitting just below me, in the front row of folding chairs. The newest residents of Crabtree Cottage were a perfectly friendly pair of middle-aged art appraisers who’d never heard of Prunella Hooper or her tragic demise, and who were so eager to fit into their new community that they’d actually volunteered to clean up after the bring-and-buy sale. As I surveyed their shining faces, I thought pityingly, They’ll learn.
“. . . cacti and succulents belong to separate and distinct plant categories and will be judged accordingly, with no exceptions. . . .”
My mind drifted lazily from cacti to flowers to the beautiful bouquet Annelise had carried down the aisle. Annelise’s wedding had definitely helped me to keep my treacherous imagination in check. With her mother’s permission, I’d thrown myself into every phase of the preparations, attending to each detail with such single-minded devotion that I had no energy to spare for phantom biscuit-barrel thieves or mysterious strangers.
The wedding had taken place on the third Saturday in May—a mere nine days ago, I thought, glancing wanly at the schoolroom’s well-thumbed wall calendar—at St. Margaret’s Catholic Church in Upper Deeping. Thanks to my impeccable planning, it had gone off without a hitch, but now that it was over, I couldn’t help feeling a bit deflated.
What did I have to look forward to, I asked myself, but the summer fete, the bring-and-buy sale, the gymkhana, the art show, the flower show, the dog show, and the tidy cottage competition? A sensible woman would have thanked her lucky stars to live in such a lively community, but when Peggy asked if there was any other business, I could scarcely keep myself from yawning. Everyone in the schoolroom knew that Peggy’s question was meaningless because there was never “any other business” at the May meeting.
Which was why everyone—except Peggy—jerked to sudden, rapt attention when Mr. Malvern raised a hesitant hand and lumbered slowly to his feet.
Horace Malvern lived next door to me, on a vast estate known as Fivefold Farm. His property ran along the southern edge of mine, and I’d never had the least cause to regret it. He was a model neighbor—a respectable, hardworking, middle-aged farmer whose behavior had, until the moment he’d raised his hand, been as predictable as spring rain. I couldn’t imagine what other business he had to offer.
I stared at him incredulously for a moment, then swung around to look at Peggy Taxman, who still had her nose buried in her notes. It wasn’t until Mr. Malvern gave a rather pointed cough that Peggy looked up from her clipboard, peered suspiciously around the room, and fixed her gimlet gaze on the burly farmer.
“What is it, Horace?” she snapped waspishly. “Be quick. I can’t abide time-wasters.”
Mr. Malvern shuffled his large feet uncomfortably, then muttered something gruffly to the floor.
“Speak up, Horace,” Peggy ordered. “No one can hear you.”
Mr. Malvern cleared his throat and, with a brief glance over his right shoulder, said forthrightly, “My nephew would like to make an announcement.”
“Your nephew?” said Peggy, clearly taken aback.
“That’s right,” said Mr. Malvern, nodding. “Calvin, my brother Martin’s boy, would like to make an announcement.” Without further ado, he turned toward the double doors and whistled shrilly, then sat down again and ducked his head.