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A Brush with Death
A Penny Brannigan Mystery
By Elizabeth J. Duncan
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2010 Elizabeth J. Duncan
All rights reserved.
Penny Brannigan awoke disoriented and confused. What on earth was she doing in the old-fashioned spare bedroom of Emma Teasdale's cottage? Why wasn't she at home in her own bed in the small, tidy flat above her manicure salon?
And then, through the just-woke-up muzziness, it all came back to her. She had recently inherited Jonquil Cottage, today was Sunday, and she had just spent her first night in her new home.
She kicked back the rumpled duvet, sat up, and looked about. The subdued light of a cheerless, rainy late-summer morning revealed an outdated pattern of orange poppies on yellowed wallpaper that had started to peel away from the ceiling and a substantial layer of dust on shabby, mismatched furniture. The room gave off a musty feel of neglect and the air was so close and stale that she leaned over to turn the latch of the small, leaded window beside the bed and pushed it open. When the first breath of cool, damp air from the garden filled her lungs, she felt her spirits lift as a feeling of excitement and anticipation began to creep in. She hopped out of bed, found her slippers, and padded across the hall to the loo.
A few minutes later she was standing at the bottom of the stairs. In front of her was the door that led to the street; to her right, the sitting room and dining area; and adjacent to that, toward the back of the cottage, a small kitchen which gave access to a partially walled garden, now somewhat overgrown but well laid out with mature pear trees espaliered along the south-facing brick wall.
With her hand resting on the banister, she surveyed the sitting room. What little light managed to filter through the closed curtains on this grey morning bathed the room in a soft, desolate luminosity, giving it the abandoned look of a place someone had once loved but would never be coming home to.
Although Penny had realized that the charming Welsh cottage would require major renovations to shift it out of the 1960s, she had decided to live in it before undertaking any drastic changes so she could get a feel for it, get to know it, and discover what she liked and what she didn't. She wanted to modernize it but in a way that would respect its history and the memory of its previous owner.
But there are too many memories crowded in here, she thought, memories that are not mine. Other people, from other times, living other lives.
Penny, a Canadian in her fifties, had met Emma when she arrived in the Welsh market town of Llanelen, decades ago. Over the years, their friendship had grown, and Penny had been deeply saddened when Emma passed away. To Penny's astonishment, the retired schoolteacher who had never married and had no close relatives, had bequeathed the cottage and its contents to her, along with a substantial amount of money.
Although Penny had visited the cottage many times, it was different now. When you're a guest in someone's home, you don't see the precious, secret things that have been carefully preserved and hidden away, to be held, savored, and reflected upon in quiet, private moments.
Emma, who had been ill for some time, had made a will and funeral plans but had not got round to dealing with her personal effects. Perhaps she thought she had more time to wrap up her affairs, Penny thought. And don't we all?
Today, she would have to start clearing out Emma's things, but first things first. Facing the centre of the sitting room window, she reached above her head and grabbed a curtain in each hand. With a smooth, sweeping motion, like tearing off a bandage, she ripped them apart and as they swooshed along their rail, a soft, moist light filled the room.
That's a bit better, she thought. And now, she must find the kettle.
Her friends Victoria Hopkirk and Detective Inspector Gareth Davies had dropped her off at the cottage yesterday, and she was well provisioned with the basics. A few minutes later, carrying a steaming cup of freshly brewed coffee and a bowl of cereal on a tray, she made her way back to the sitting room and sat down on the faded, sagging sofa.
Opening a new notebook, she crossed her legs, looked around, and began to make a list:
Internet (and computer)
LR — New curtains
Paint — pale green/white trim?
She crossed that out and then wrote underneath it.
With pen poised above the page, she gazed critically about her, taking in the overflowing bookshelves that filled one wall, side tables, a small walnut writing desk, and a pair of matching wing chairs that had once been 1950s brown but had been recovered in a 1970s floral chintz. Then, setting the notebook down, she wandered over to the writing desk.
She picked up a small figurine of a stooping man clad in a brown robe and turned it over. Royal Doulton. Scrooge. She set it down, smiled, and inclined her head slightly. Emma had loved Christmas and had always been generous with her gifts. Scrooge, of all things!
She tugged on a drawer and heard a slightly metallic, rattling sound as something inside shifted. The drawer moved a couple of inches and then stuck. She pulled on it again, harder this time, and under protest, it slid all the way out. Sitting on top of a dog-eared Reader's Digest, beside a magnifying glass with a tortoiseshell handle, was a scratched and dented tin pencil box. Wondering if it was a gift from one of Emma's long-ago pupils, Penny picked it up and turned it over. The bottom was painted a distinctive green, and the cream-colored top featured a sketch of St. Paul's Cathedral with a pencil in the same shade of green as the base of the tin. The Harrods logo occupied pride of place on the top left corner of the lid.
Noting the box was missing a hinge, she pried it open. Inside, she found a tattered ten-shilling note, a National Westminster Bank plastic bag containing a commemorative coin marking the 1981 wedding of the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana Spencer, a key, a concert ticket stub, a square key fob featuring the octagonal red MG logo, and a black-and-white photo.
She set the box down, picked up the photo, moved closer to the window, and turned slightly so the light fell on the image she was holding.
Gazing back at her was what appeared to be a young Emma wearing black eyeliner and false eyelashes. She smiled shyly at the camera but with a secretive, subtle confidence, her eyes slightly closed against the sun. Her blond hair had been elaborately styled in a towering bouffant, with curls trailing down her cheeks and she was wearing a sleeveless mini dress with two rows of white buttons down the front. In her arms she cradled a black-and-white fox terrier puppy.
Penny's lips moved slightly as she noted the dark nail polish Emma was wearing and then turned the photo over. In Emma's precise, schoolteacher handwriting was written Winnie, Menlove Avenue, Woolton, 1967.
Penny replaced the photo in the tin, snapped the lid shut, and set the battered pencil box back in the drawer.
What am I to do with things like that, she wondered. This was going to be harder than she'd thought. Not only prying into every nook and cranny of Emma's life but also having to sort through her things and probably get rid of most of it.
She took a sip of lukewarm coffee, had a spoonful of soggy cereal, and then headed upstairs to get dressed.
At the top of the stairs she paused at the doorway to Emma's old bedroom. The day before, emotionally drained and physically exhausted, she had taken a long nap on Emma's bed, but now, in the cold light of morning, she knew she would never sleep in the bed in which Emma had died. Getting rid of it would be easy. As part of the cottage makeover, she had promised herself a fresh, serene new bedroom.
And that pleasant thought brought her to Gareth. She wondered what he was doing and decided to ring him to see if he could come over and give her a hand. The job might go better with two, and he'd be much more objective. None of Emma's stuff would mean anything to him, and in his line of work, he'd had plenty of practice going through other people's belongings in a detached, clinical way.
Just as she was about to duck into the spare room in search of her mobile phone, it rang. She smiled when she saw who it was.
"Oh, I was just thinking about you," she said, "and wondering if you'd give me a hand sorting out all this stuff."
A few moments later she laughed and ran down the stairs to answer the door.
He bent his head to enter the cottage and then, in one easy, wordless moment they wrapped their arms around each other. He held her for a few seconds as she rested her head against his chest. They stepped back and he smiled at her upturned face.
"Right, then," he said, turning around to retrieve a large bouquet of red and white carnations and two bottles of white wine he'd set down on the front step. "These are for you."
Penny smiled as she accepted his gifts. "I'll find a vase for these and put the wine in the fridge," she said.
"The flowers are for us," he said, nodding at them. "Red and white flowers for you. Canada, see? And then the red flowers and green ferns for me. The colours of Wales!"
Penny grinned at him.
"Oh, very charming! Did you think that up yourself, or did you have a bit of help?"
Gareth gave her a sheepish grin.
"Well, Bethan did say I was not to arrive empty-handed, but I figured out the bit about the colours myself."
"Well, they are lovely and it was very sweet of you. And Bethan," she added.
Bethan Morgan was Gareth's energetic young sergeant; the three had come to know one another over the summer as Penny helped the two police officers investigate the case of a missing bride.
Gareth stepped into the sitting room and looked around. "Doesn't seem to me that you've got too far. What have you done?"
Penny winced and waved a hand in a vague flap of defeat.
"Ah, like that, is it?"
"You do surprise me. Your old flat was so uncluttered, and I would have thought it would be easy to get rid of someone else's things because you've got no attachment to them. Unless, of course, you just happen to like something. Anyway, I've brought a few boxes so we can make a start. We'll sort it all into piles — one for the charity shop, one for the rubbish, and one for the things you want to keep. I think we should pack up as much as we can so the decorating will be easier. Let's start with the walls. You're an artist, so dealing with the paintings shouldn't be too difficult."
"You're right," agreed Penny. "I know what I like and what can go." Besides her manicure business, Penny painted scenic watercolours featuring the beautiful landscapes around Llanelen. She loved rambling through the valley, with easel and paintbrushes, capturing the timeless beauty of the deep greens and purples of the ancient, majestic hills that cradled the town.
She pointed to the small watercolour that hung over the desk.
"See that one? It's the first painting I did when I came to Llanelen. I gave it to Emma to thank her for being so good to me when she gave me a bed for a night or two." She smiled at him and opened her arms in an expansive gesture that took in the whole room. "And now look what she gave me!"
He removed the painting carefully from its hook and set it on the small table in front of the window, where Penny and Emma had spent many hours solving jigsaw puzzles.
"Right. What's next?"
She pointed to a pair of Monet prints.
She walked across the room and took down a painting.
"But this one I've always liked, and I definitely want to keep it."
She turned it to show to him and then looked at it again.
"Funny, all the years I've seen it and liked it but never had a chance to really look at it up close. It's rather well done, in my opinion, although it does need a good cleaning."
The painting was oil on canvas and showed two people at a picnic, a red-and-white checkered cloth spread out on the grass between them. She could make out what looked like a still life on the tablecloth ... glasses of wine, a bowl of fruit, a cheese plate, and half a loaf of bread on a cutting board, with a bread knife beside it. The people were facing each other, the woman in a flowered summer dress with her legs folded away to the side as she leaned on one hand. The man lay on his back with his feet toward the viewer, his hands tucked under his head. Behind them was a large bank of purple flowers.
"The perspective on this is really excellent, you see," said Penny, pointing at the male figure. "With him reclining like that it would have been too easy to have him look flat and out of proportion, but the artist has got it just right. I used to ask Emma about this painting, but she wouldn't tell me anything about it. Just turned away and changed the subject."
She squinted at the signature. "A. Jones."
Davies walked over to her, put his hand gently on her arm, and glanced at the painting.
"Well, I don't know anything about art, but if you like it, that's good enough," he said. "Now, what do you want to do about that one?" They turned their attention to a large watercolour of blowsy pink roses as Penny set the painting she held in her hand in the keep pile.
She wagged her head back and forth while she thought about it. "I think I like it," she said finally. "Let's keep it for now. I can find a place for it. Maybe in the new guest room."
Then, as Emma had always loved music, they started in on her rather extensive record and CD collections.
"We'll get rid of the old vinyl records," Penny said. "I don't want them, and I don't want the old record player or hi-fi or whatever it's called. But I'll keep the CDs. They don't take up too much space. They're mostly classical, but as I recall there's some good old pop stuff in there. She loved the Beatles, Emma did."
They moved on to the bookcases and started sorting out the contents. Most went into the charity-shop pile, although Gareth kept a couple of thrillers for himself, and by late morning they had filled several boxes. Penny hesitated when they came to the row of Emma's notebooks and personal journals. Emma had kept extensive commentaries on the day-to-day details of her life, including observations on the personalities and characters of hundreds of her pupils over the years. Her assessment of one student in particular had helped in the investigation of the missing bride.
"What's the matter?" Davies asked.
"I don't know what to do about the journals," Penny replied. "It seems a shame to bin them, but there are so many and I doubt I'd ever need them again. I certainly don't want to read them."
She looked at him as if asking him to make the decision. Gareth pulled out a slim red volume marked 1982 on its spine and riffled through it.
"Do you think you'll want to know what she wore to a coffee morning at the church on October first or what she had for dinner a few days later?"
Penny shook her head, and together they pulled the little books off the shelves and boxed them up for the rubbish.
"Oh, look," he said a few minutes later, holding up a Scrabble game with two elastic bands wrapped around the box, holding the tattered lid in place. "I like a game of Scrabble every now and then. Do you? Might as well keep it. Could come in handy on a long winter night. As long as all the letters are there, of course. We could count them out later, maybe. Let's keep it for now, shall we?"
As Penny murmured her agreement, he set it down, then picked it up again at both ends and gently tipped it back and forth.
"Feels a bit heavy."
Penny glanced at it and then went on with her book sorting.
"I expect there's a dictionary in the box. Some people keep one with the game so they have it handy for the challenges. I haven't come across one on the shelves, and Emma must have had one, so I expect it's in there."
"Happens you're right."
Penny tucked her hand under her chin and pursed her lips.
"Odd, that game of Scrabble, though. We used to do jigsaws together, but she never brought that game out."
Davies grinned. "Maybe she thought you'd be too much of a challenge for her."
Penny gave a little snort.
"The other way round, more like."
Finally, Davies stepped back and assessed the boxes they had filled.
"That wasn't so bad now, was it? Why don't we drop the charity boxes off at the shop, just to get them out of the way, and then I'll take you to lunch?"
"Just give me a few minutes to wash up and get changed. Won't be long." She touched him lightly on the arm as if to reassure herself, and then turned toward the stairs.
As she disappeared, Davies sat down on the sofa to wait. The place really did have lovely bones, and he had no doubt that when Penny was finished with it, the cottage would be beautiful. Light and airy, in soft, modern colours with all the right accent pieces and looking like the cover spread on an interior design magazine.
A few minutes later she was back, and they began shifting the boxes out the front door.
"You know," he said as Penny locked the door, "this business of clearing away old stuff gets better as you go along. At first you don't know what to keep, but once you start chucking things out, it gets easier to toss it than to keep it. At least, that's the way it was for me when my wife died."
Excerpted from A Brush with Death by Elizabeth J. Duncan. Copyright © 2010 Elizabeth J. Duncan. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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