The Skeleton in the Closetby M. C. Beaton
Ever since the death of his father, poor Fellworth Dolphin has slaved away as a waiter to support his miserly, cold-hearted mother. When his mother suddenly dies, Fellworth is shocked to discover that she has left him a sizable inheritance. confused, Fell teams up with Maggie, a plain girl with a similar background, to investigate the source of the riches. But what… See more details below
Ever since the death of his father, poor Fellworth Dolphin has slaved away as a waiter to support his miserly, cold-hearted mother. When his mother suddenly dies, Fellworth is shocked to discover that she has left him a sizable inheritance. confused, Fell teams up with Maggie, a plain girl with a similar background, to investigate the source of the riches. But what they find is a closet full of skeletons...
Is it really possible Fell's father was involved in a long-ago train robbery? Who's the mysterious woman in the portrait hidden in his mother's wardrobe? As Maggie and Fell poke around the village for answers, they find themselves on a surprise-filled path to danger and adventure, and--just possibly--love. But Fell's sudden good fortune could come to an abrupt end if he doesn't stay one step ahead of a cunning killer... from beloved novelist M.C. Beaton comes this thrilling stand-alone mystery, The Skeleton in the Closet.
“Among writers of cozy village mystery series, count M. C. Beaton as one who creates a nice tea party.” Associated Press
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The Skeleton in the Closet
By M. C. Beaton
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2001 M. C. Beaton
All rights reserved.
IN the way that illiterate people become very cunning at covering up their disability, Mr. Fellworth Dolphin, known as Fell, approaching forty, was still a virgin and kept it a dark secret.
His long-standing virginity had come about because he had been a shy, lanky, oversensitive boy, the single child of strict and emotionally blackmailing parents. He had been born when his mother was in her early forties. His father, a railway signalman, and his mother, a housewife, had dinned it into him that his duty in life was to get an education and be the sole support of his parents. When he was older, they chose "suitable" girls for him, girls who seemed foreign to the young Fell with their vapid conversation and the way their minds seemed to be set on a white wedding and a neat bungalow, both with a total absence of romance. For Fell was a romantic, living through books.
He had been set to go to university, but his father had fallen ill and it was borne in on him that he must take some sort of job immediately or "they would all starve." They lived in the market town of Buss in Worcestershire. In Buss, there was a rather grand hotel, the Palace, and it was there that young Fell found employment as a waiter.
His father died from a heart attack several years after Fell had started work. His mother became cross and morose, always complaining. Sometimes when he had finished a late shift in the hotel dining room, he would return home to their scrupulously clean two-up two-down terraced house, and he would see the light in the living room still burning and his feet would feel as heavy as lead for he knew he would have to drink the hot milk he hated and listen to his mother's complaints. In his spare time, he lived through books: spy books, adventure books, detective stories, thrillers, relishing those other worlds of action and mayhem.
He had acquaintances, but no close friends.
Although he was not often prone to depression, as he approached his thirty-eighth birthday, and once more walked home from the hotel, he felt a terrible darkness of the soul. Life had passed him by. He did not look unpleasing, being tall with a good figure, a pleasant face with wide-spaced grey eyes and a long, sensitive mouth. But his thick hair had turned prematurely grey.
The light was on in the living room. He braced himself for another wearying end to the day, listening to his mother's droning complaints, cradling that glass of hot milk and wondering if he could tip it somewhere.
He had not been allowed his own key. "Why should you have one?" his mother had complained. "I'm always here." But he had secretly had one cut, just a little bit of rebellion. He rang the bell. Nothing. The door did not open, nor did his mother's whiskery face appear at the window.
He took out his key and let himself in. He went into the living room. His mother was lying back in her usual armchair. He knew somehow that she was dead.
He felt numb. He phoned the ambulance and the police. He travelled in the ambulance to the hospital. He was told in hushed whispers that she, like his father, had suffered a heart attack.
He walked home at dawn — he had never been allowed to take driving lessons — trying to fight down a guilty feeling of relief. He was free at last from the chains of duty.
As he plodded homeward, he looked about him at the silent streets of the market town. This town had been his cell. He had never even been to London. The clock on the town hall sent down six silvery chimes. The rising sun sent his elongated shadow stretching out in front of him. He shivered, although the day was already warm. What on earth was going to become of him?
The next day a call from Mr. Jamieson, one of the town's solicitors, came as a surprise. Mr. Jamieson said a doctor friend at the hospital had told him of Mrs. Dolphin's death, and asked Fell to call round at his office to go through his mother's will. Fell could not imagine how his mother, who never seemed to leave the house, had got round to writing a will and visiting a lawyer. Fell had already phoned the hotel to say he would be taking time off until after the funeral. He still felt strangely numb. He put on his only suit and a shirt which his mother had turned at the collar and cuffs when they became frayed, a darkblue tie and highly polished shoes. He could now let his shoes get dirty if he liked, he thought, and then was ashamed at the pettiness of the thought. As he clattered down the stairs to make his way out, he looked at his mother's usual chair by the window, almost amazed to see it empty.
Mr. Jamieson seemed too young to have had any dealings with Fell's mother. He appeared to be in his early thirties. He had thick, shiny black hair and a smooth face with pale eyes behind horn-rimmed glasses. After commiserating with Fell on his mother's sudden death, he got down to business. "Your father," said Mr. Jamieson, "left everything to your mother on his death and Mrs. Dolphin left everything to you."
"It won't be much," said Fell apologetically, for the lawyer's offices seemed too grand to deal with such a small inheritance, "although I suppose I will get the house."
"It is in fact a very comfortable amount of money."
Fell blinked at him. It was a sunny day. The weekly market in the town square below the windows was in full swing. The sun glittered on the glass front of a large bookcase.
The lawyer smiled. "Did you never look at your parents' bank books?"
Fell gave a rueful smile. "I haven't had time to look through any bank books or documents."
"Well, apart from the house, there is the sum of five hundred thousand pounds, plus some shares. Of course, there will be death duties to pay. The first two hundred and fifty thousand is tax-free, and then there is a straight forty per cent off the remainder."
"But that's impossible!" Fell turned red. "Quite impossible. We never even had a television set."
"Your father saved as much as he could all his life. The savings were kept in a high-interest account."
"But I couldn't go to university! I had to go to work. They lived on my earnings!"
"Perhaps they wanted to make sure you had a comfortable future."
It burst out of Fell. "But they took my youth."
The lawyer looked uncomfortable. "To business, Mr. Dolphin. I have been made an executor. Would you like me to arrange the funeral?"
"Please," said Fell, still bewildered and shaken. "I wouldn't know where to start."
"The expenses from the funeral will be paid out of the estate. These things take some time to wind up, but in the meantime you can draw any money in advance."
"May I draw, say, two thousand pounds now?" Fell did not know how he had the temerity to ask for such a sum.
When Fell left the lawyer's office, he could feel rage boiling up inside him. He was free at last — free to travel, to set up his own business, to start living. But his parents had filleted out his ambition and his guts. He felt like someone who has come out of prison after a long sentence, wondering how to cope with life and reality and the modern world.
He did not even have a bank account. He had handed his pay cheques first to his father, and then, after his father's death, to his mother, and a small sum had been handed back to him.
He went into the nearest bank, holding the lawyer's cheque, and opened an account. It was all so easy.
Then he returned home and began to go through his father's old desk. Tucked away in a drawer at the bottom was a cash box. It was locked. With a strange feeling of intrusion, he searched his mother's battered old calfskin handbag. On her ring of keys was a little silver one. He inserted it in the lock and found it worked. He opened the box up. It was full of money in neat bundles, each marked "one thousand pounds." With shaking fingers, he counted it out. There was nearly fifty thousand pounds. He was about to put it back in the box, take it round to the bank and put it in his new account when he suddenly began to wonder how his father had come by such a large amount of loose cash. He had obviously not declared it to the income tax.
Fell went to the sideboard and took out a bottle of whisky which had been produced only at Christmas and poured himself a generous measure. He sat sipping it, looking around the living room, at the dark cheap furniture, at the old horsehair — horsehair! — sofa and the brown paint on the doors and skirting and the dull, faded wallpaper. He felt trapped in these familiar surroundings. What did his inheritance matter? He would never have the courage to do anything with it. He roused himself to find the address book which held the numbers of the few surviving relatives and phoned them, telling them he would let them know the day and time of the funeral. Then the undertaker's rang. Fell agreed on the price of a coffin, and that the body should be buried in the town cemetery in three days' time at ten in the morning. The undertaker asked if Mrs. Dolphin had been Jewish, Catholic or Protestant. Fell told him, "Church of England," and the efficient undertaker said he would contact the vicar of St. Peter's to conduct the service. Fell replaced the receiver. He suddenly wanted his mother back, so that he could ask her why they had skimped and saved all those years. He wanted to ask her what she had thought about during her long days in the house alone. But it was now too late.
He rang the relatives again and informed them of the time of the funeral and the date. Things like that he could do. He had always been dutiful.
The next day, the doorbell rang and he went to answer it. The ancient and unlovely figure of his mother's sister, Aunt Agnes, stood on the doorstep.
"Come in, Aunt," said Fell. "Have you come all the way down from Wales?"
"Yes, but I'm staying with my friend, Nancy, in Worcester until after the funeral." Her eyes ranged round the living room. "There are some nice pieces here. You'll need someone to look after you. Doris always said" — Doris was the late Mrs. Dolphin — " 'I don't know who's going to take care of my boy when I'm gone and give him his hot milk.' So I've decided to sacrifice myself. I'll move in with you."
Terror gripped Fell. His aunt looked remarkably like his late mother. Whiskery face, small weak eyes, round figure in a tightly buttoned jacket.
"How kind of you," he said. "But I am surprised my mother didn't tell you. I'm engaged. This tragic business, of course, puts off the wedding."
Aunt Agnes sat down suddenly and goggled at him. "Who is she?"
Desperation lending his fantasy wings, Fell said, "Maggie Partlett."
There was a waitress at the hotel in which he worked called Maggie Partlett. She was extremely plain with thick glasses, lank hair and a lumpy figure.
"What does she do?"
"She works as a waitress, same hotel as me."
"Well, I never. And you've got the house and all this lovely furniture."
It seemed as if something had broken loose in Fell. "Maggie doesn't like the stuff," he said. "Tell you what, after the funeral, I'll put it all in a delivery van and send it up to you in Wales."
Aunt Agnes said, "That's awfully good of you. All this lovely stuff. I 'member when they bought it. Oh, my. You are a good boy. And that's what I'll tell this Maggie of yours when I meet her at the funeral."
"She won't be there. Her mother in Bedford isn't well, so she's over there at the moment."
"Sad. But I'll come back in a few months and you can introduce me then. I must be on my way."
"Let me get you a taxi and pay for it."
"What! All the way to Worcester."
"I've got a bit saved up."
"I must say, it would be better than waiting in this heat for a bus. It's going to be a scorcher of a summer. It's the dandelions, you see."
"Yes, dandelions. You'll have seen masses of them all along the roads on the verges. Country people always said when you saw a lot of dandelions, it was going to be a hot summer."
"Dandelion summer," said Fell and laughed.
"You must forgive me laughing," he said quickly. "Grief takes me that way." And God forgive me, he said silently to himself, because I am not grieving at all.
* * *
When his aunt had left, he wondered why he had not told her about the legacy. Most of his other relatives were dead. But there was Cousin Barbara, and Cousin Tom. He should maybe see the lawyer and share it out. No, cried a voice in his head. I earned it with every bit of my youth. It was then he began to cry because he had not loved his mother and he was glad she was dead.
After some time, he dried his eyes and began to look through his home with new eyes. There were two bedrooms upstairs, a living room and sitting room downstairs and a small kitchen. The sitting room was kept for "best," in the old country way: three-piece suite with the plastic covers still over the uncut moquette upholstery, a fringed standard lamp, the shade covered in plastic, a display cabinet with bits of china, a fitted mushroom carpet, and a glass coffee table on white wrought-iron legs. He mentally cleared it all out and stripped the heavy flock wallpaper from the walls, tore up the carpet to find what was underneath. What if, once he had cleared everything out — just what if he turned the living room into a large kitchen, with modern appliances, with long counters, shiny copper pans and bunches of herbs? His eyes filled with tears of guilt again. Something dark was telling him that his days of living would never come. Better leave things as they were. Go home every night to the dark, lonely house and hear the ghost of his mother's complaining voice.
He had to get out again, into the sunlight, take action, any action. He walked to a driving school and booked in for a course of lessons, he ordered a television set to be delivered that very day, then he went to the hotel and handed in his notice.
He was just leaving the hotel when with a guilty start he saw Maggie arriving for the evening shift.
"Oh, Fell," she said, blinking at him through her thick glasses, "I am so very sorry about your mother."
"Thank you, Maggie. I've resigned."
"It won't be the same place without you," she said shyly. They were both book readers and talked a lot about their favourite authors.
"Look here, Maggie, I did a silly thing. My aunt was threatening to move in with me and I told a lie on the spur of the moment. I said I was engaged to you."
If I were pretty, you wouldn't find it so silly, thought Maggie. Aloud she said, "What will you do when she finds out it isn't true?"
"I'll cope with that later," said Fell, suddenly weary.
"I don't mind pretending," said Maggie quickly. "I mean, we could always break it off after the funeral."
Fell looked down at her as if seeing her for the first time. Her lank hair could do with cutting and shaping, and her clothes were a ragbag of shapelessness, and the thick glasses were ugly, but her mouth was well shaped and her eyes were kind.
"That's good of you," he said.
"Do you want me to go to the funeral?"
Fell laughed and Maggie blinked up at him, thinking that she had never heard Fell laugh before. "I told Auntie that you were nursing your sick mother in Bedford."
"I think you'll need some support at the funeral," said Maggie practically. "You'll need to have some drinks and eats for them at the house."
"I didn't think of that."
"You can tell Auntie she misheard. My mother is home in bed, not Bedford. I think she'd buy that one and then you can leave the catering to me. It can be expensive."
"As far as expense is concerned, Maggie, I think maybe we'd better meet for lunch tomorrow if you're free. I've got something to tell you I don't want anyone to know."
"I'd love that. Where?"
"That French restaurant down by the river — at one o'clock?"
"All right. I'll pay my share."
"That's what I want to talk to you about. I'll pay. But don't tell anyone."
"That's not hard," said Maggie ruefully. "No one talks to me except that wretched Italian barman who's always jeering at me."
"I'll see you then."
Fell headed home, just in time to see the television van arriving. What, he wondered guiltily, would the elderly neighbours on either side make of an aerial being erected on the roof and a television set being carried indoors right after his mother's death? He felt suddenly ashamed, but he had used up his small stock of courage for the day and somehow could not tell the television men he had changed his mind.
Excerpted from The Skeleton in the Closet by M. C. Beaton. Copyright © 2001 M. C. Beaton. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
M. C. BEATON, the British guest of honor at Bouchercon 2006, is a New York Times bestselling romance and suspense writer who has been hailed as the "Queen of Crime" (The Globe and Mail). She is the author of more than twenty Agatha Raisin novels, whose fans range from the actress Elizabeth Hurley to the Archbishop of Canterbury, as well as the Hamish Macbeth series. Born in Scotland, she now divides her time between Paris and the English Cotswolds.
M. C. Beaton, who was the British guest of honor at Bouchercon 2006, has been hailed as the "Queen of Crime" (The Globe and Mail). In addition to her New York Times and USA Today bestselling Agatha Raisin novels, Beaton is the author of the Hamish Macbeth series and four Edwardian mysteries. Born in Scotland, she currently divides her time between the English Cotswolds and Paris. The Blood of an Englishman is her 25th Agatha Raisin Mystery.
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