Read an ExcerptThe Final Crumpet
By Ron Benrey Janet Benrey Barbour Publishing, Inc. Copyright © 2005 Ron and Janet Benrey
All right reserved.
Chapter One The roaring clatter made by the earthmover astonished Nigel Owen. The "mini excavator"-a compact tractor equipped with a crablike digging arm-sounded as loud as a bulldozer inside the enclosed confines of the tea garden. Nigel felt the need to clamp his hands over his ears, but his left arm was stalwartly enfolding Flick Adams's shoulders, and she had tightly gripped his right hand between both of hers.
"I can't bear to watch this," she shouted, as the small machine began to roll along the garden's serpentine redbrick path. "I'm having second thoughts about tearing out our Assam tea plants. It's hardly fair to chop them down just because they didn't grow to full height."
Nigel didn't feel much sympathy for the two scraggly evergreen shrubs planted in the Indian Tea area of the garden, but Flick clearly did. He bent close to her ear. "Those Assams have led long and happy lives. If they could talk, they would applaud your decision to uproot them."
"Then why do I feel like a vandal?"
"Because you have focused too closely on the fate of two individual plants. Think of the big picture. We have twenty-two tea bushes in this garden. Replacing ten percent of them represents prudent husbandry of the museum's precious resources."
"Okay, so maybe I'm not a vandal. But what do you call a person who destroys history? Our predecessors planted those Assams decades ago."
"Yes, they did-for the specific purpose of educating visitors to the Royal Tunbridge Wells Tea Museum. However, these particular tea plants routinely confuse our current day visitors. As you have repeatedly explained to me, there are three major varieties of tea plants grown throughout the world: the China, the Assam, and the Indo-China. The Assam is supposed to be the tallest of the three; consequently the founders planted only two of them. But our Assams look more like bonsai miniatures. You sensibly chose to replant this corner of the tea garden with new Assam seedlings." He gave her shoulders a reassuring squeeze. "As the newly appointed managing director of the museum, I hereby certify that you are doing a wise and proper thing."
"You may be right, but you may also be wrong. While it's perfectly true that a healthy Assam plant can soar to more than sixty feet, tea growers routinely prune them back to a height of four or five feet for convenient picking of tea leaves. Our stunted bushes are really quite realistic."
Nigel squeezed Flick's shoulders again and fought the urge to laugh. How could Felicity Adams, PhD, who knew everything about tea, think of any tea plant growing in Kent, England-tall, short, or in-between-as being "realistic"?
The very existence of this tea garden was a tribute to the extraordinary lack of realism exercised by the museum's founders some forty-one years ago. They began by surrounding a fifth of an acre of land on the eastern corner of the museum building with a twelve-foot-high brick wall to block out chill breezes. Then they ordered a grid of iron pipes buried three feet below the surface. Two powerful pumps circulated heated water through the subterranean plumbing by day and by night, to keep the Kentish soil, and the sheltered garden itself, balmy enough to raise tropical tea plants.
Nigel gazed up at the ugly gray sky and decided that this very day provided a fine illustration of the founder's accomplishments. Outside the garden, one had to endure an icy Friday morning in mid-January, but inside the wall, one could relish springlike surroundings. He and Flick had both left their cumbersome winter trench coats upstairs, in their respective offices.
Of course, if one thought about it, there was a touch of the implausible about the whole of the Royal Tunbridge Wells Tea Museum. There it stood on Eridge Road: an imposing, four-story, Georgian-style building dedicated to the many different aspects of tea. The history of tea, the geography of tea, the economics of tea, the cultivation of tea, the processing of tea, the blending of tea, the tasting of tea, the serving of tea, the food that accompanies tea-if a topic had something to do with tea, one could probably find a relevant exhibit in the museum's galleries, library, meeting rooms, garden, or laboratories. How could sensible Brits give over such a significant institution to the veneration of a mere beverage?
Don't forget the most improbable thing of all. The trans-formation of his own life. He had come to Tunbridge Wells ten months earlier as the museum's acting director, a one-year-long temporary position intended to tide him over between "real" jobs. He had had every intention of returning to London, no desire at all to make a sea change in his career. And not the least notion of falling in love with the chief curator.
That had happened the previous October during a re-markable chain of events that even now seemed inexplicable. What magic had transformed a woman he disliked into a woman he loved-a woman who loved him back? And how did one explain the two bizarre side effects? Managing a tea museum abruptly seemed an utterly logical job for him, and Royal Tunbridge Wells-Nigel had grown fond of the prefix bestowed on the small city south of London by King Edward VII in 1909-had begun to feel like home. And so, against all odds, Nigel Owen-a lifelong Londoner, a financial whiz trained to lead major corporations with thousands of employees, a man who didn't even like tea-had gleefully accepted the trustees' invitation to become the museum's managing director.
The mini excavator's diesel engine roared even louder as it approached its prey. Nigel looked across the garden and saw Jim Sizer, an enormous smile on his bearded face, wave happily at him from the driver's seat of the rented machine. Jim, who admitted to being seventy but was undoubtedly older, served as the museum's jack-of-all-trades utility person. He had once again lived up to his reputation as a problem- solving genius by figuring out how to get the mini excavator into the tea garden. For all their ingenuity, the founders had not thought to provide a door through the brick wall. Jim had taken ten different measurements and calculated there was just enough clearance to wheel the pint-sized earthmover through the aisles of the museum's greenhouse.
Jim steered the mini excavator in line with the pair of Assam tea plants and pushed a lever that activated the hydraulically powered digging arm.
Flick shouted above the noise, "This is like witnessing an execution!"
Nigel moved behind Flick and wrapped his arms around her. "This garden party was your idea. If you don't stop shifting your mental position like the pendulum in a clock, I shall change your nickname to Tick."
She looked up at him and smiled. "You wouldn't dare."
"I'd have centuries of tradition on my side. Ask your Anglophile parents back in York, Pennsylvania-Tick and Flick are both acceptable short forms of Felicity."
Jim revved the diesel again.
"We can postpone this," she said hurriedly. "We don't have to rip out the Assam plants today."
"Need I remind you that our two-week shutdown is about to come to an end. We plan to reopen on Monday; Jim Sizer will need all of Saturday to get the restored tea garden ready for visitors."
"You're assuming that the vultures will finish this afternoon."
"The appraisers will be finished by noon-as you well know."
Nigel thought of the two teams of professional antiquities valuers-twelve experts in all-who had worked their way from floor to floor in the museum. They were a lean, sallow-faced crowd who did resemble a flock of vultures. The recent death of Dame Elspeth Hawker made it necessary for the museum to purchase the many antiquities on display that were owned by the Hawker family. The first step of the process was to value the thousands of paintings, books, maps, woodwork, and pieces of crockery that served tea, praised tea, honored tea, celebrated tea, and explained its long history. One appraisal team was hired by the Hawker family, the other by the museum; their respective findings would be averaged to establish the collection's value.
"Yikes!" Flick cried as the toothed bucket on the end of the arm tore a tea bush out of the ground. Nigel felt her shudder.
"Steady on, Dr. Adams." Nigel tightened his hug. "The worst is almost over."
Jim Sizer made a dozen more careful swipes with the bucket to knock down the other Assam tea plant and scrape away enough top soil to make a trench about seven feet long, three feet wide, and two feet deep. He finished by maneuvering the excavator close to the back wall and killing the engine.
"I finally understand the true meaning of 'blessed silence,'" Nigel said.
"What happens now?" Flick asked.
"I believe that Jim takes over with a shovel." Nigel looked over his shoulder. "Isn't that right, Conan?"
"Quite right, sir," said Conan Davies, the museum's over-sized chief of security, who today was also acting as excavation supervisor. Nigel noted that the big man was smiling; the museum's staff seemed to approve of the blossoming relation-ship between their director and chief curator.
Will the trustees feel differently? One of these days, we'll have to find out.
Conan went on in his gravelly voice. "We can't risk damaging the heating pipes. Jim helped to install them forty years ago. He knows the layout better than anyone else alive does. He'll dig slowly and carefully around the pipes to prepare the bed for the new tea plants." Conan cocked his head toward a flat of seedlings sitting on a table.
Nigel studied the foot-high replacement plants. They had arrived the day before on a flight from India, the gift of a tea estate in Kerala, a renowned tea-growing region in southern India. The seedlings had begun life as cuttings from established Assam plants. Flick had told him that mature tea plants were almost impossible to transplant successfully because their long taproots rarely survived the shock of a move. He and Flick had thought about cultivating cuttings in the museum's greenhouse, but she decided to make a wholly new beginning for the Assam tea plants, starting over with imported seedlings that had a proven pedigree.
Flick unwound from his embrace. She moved closer to the trench, studied it intently from a distance, and then crouched down to dribble handfuls of loose soil through her fingers. Nigel chuckled to himself. The tea tree-loving softy had given way to the hard-nosed scientist with impeccable academic and industry credentials. Her encyclopedic knowledge of tea spanned the entire life cycle-from growing tea plants, to processing and blending leaves, to brewing a good cuppa, to preparing and serving a classic English afternoon tea. In short, a surfeit of skills for someone only thirty-six years old. Flick had so impressed the museum's trustees that they took the radical step of appointing an American as chief curator of England's leading tea museum.
Nigel remembered his initial meeting with Flick when she came on board the previous summer-and winced. He had deemed her pompous, arrogant, dreary, and much too good-looking to be an effective curator. It had boggled his mind that a stunning brunette with big brown eyes could also be a serious scientist.
So much for the perspicacity of your first impressions-and your deep understanding of women.
"The soil feels and looks healthy," Flick said. "I wish I knew why our Assams didn't thrive."
"Well, ma'am," Conan said, "one of our security guards set up a modest betting pool that has generated many different suggestions as to the exact cause of the stunted plants. One thought is bad soil in this corner of the garden. Another is a leaky uncharted gas pipe somewhere beneath the bed. My belief is that we'll find a layer of construction rubble further down that prevented the plants' roots from reaching the proper depth. We're really quite close to the building proper; the workmen may have inadvertently buried a stack of unused bricks."
"My money is on moles," Nigel said. "I think the little blighters built a subterranean city and ate the roots as fast as the plants sent them out." He extended his hand and pulled Flick to her feet when Jim Sizer arrived with his shovel.
Nigel took a step backward to make room for the clods of earth that Jim removed from the trench at shockingly high speed. Doing all manner of odd jobs at the museum had kept the lanky septuagenarian in such vigorous shape that he steadfastly refused to retire.
"I should be so healthy at his age," Nigel murmured. In February he would be thirty-nine, a painful milestone he found difficult to contemplate.
A deep thunk from the trench interrupted his reverie.
"What did you hit?" Flick asked.
"Not sure, ma'am." Jim poked about with the shovel. "It may be that Mr. Davies thought right. It could be a layer of rubble, except ..."
"It's not rubble," Jim said excitedly. "This is a roof slate. Someone laid a layer of roofing tiles about three feet down."
"Well, now we know what blocked root growth."
Nigel watched Jim lever two slates loose with the tip of the shovel. He lifted them out of the way.
"Why would someone bury roofing tiles?" Nigel asked. No one answered him; Flick, Conan, and Jim had directed their complete attention to the trench.
"Do you see anything below the tiles?" Flick asked.
"Only one way to find out." Jim thrust the shovel into the earth-and immediately brought forth an ominous crunching noise.
"Blast!" Conan said. "I hope that wasn't a heating pipe."
"Oh no, sir. They go clang when you bang 'em. I can see some sort of green plastic sheeting, perhaps a tarpaulin. Whatever is there is beginning to crumble."
Nigel leaned over to look into the trench. "What do you make of that yellowish object?"
Jim used the tip of his shovel to draw back the plastic sheeting. Nigel at once recognized a discolored skull and several human bones.
Jim made a throaty moan. "Blimey! It's a skeleton!"
Nigel might have fallen face first into the trench if Conan had not grabbed his belt and tugged him away from the edge.
* * *
Flick perched against the edge of the windowsill and said, "I feel it in my bones. I don't care if you laugh at me for saying that." When she peered at Nigel, she didn't see any laughter-merely an indifferent shrug.
A few moments later, he finally spoke. "More than one detective inspector serves in Kent Police's Major Crime Unit. It's hardly likely that the plods will dispatch the only investigator in the county who has had the opportunity to yell at you."
"Want to bet?"
"Not especially." Nigel was sitting behind his desk, tilted as far backwards as his swivel chair would allow.
"Come on. You're always game for a wager. How about dinner tonight, at Thackeray's on London Road. If I'm right, you pay.... If you're right, I pay."
"Okay-if that's what you want to do."
He rocked forward in his chair and reached for his telephone, but stopped in midstretch. "Shouldn't we first arrange for a sitter for Cha-Cha?"
Flick looked across Nigel's office in time to see a pair of pointy ears perk up. The smiling mouth below them emitted a yodel-like yip. Cha-Cha had raised his head at the sound of his name, although the rest of him lay sprawled along the sofa, a piece of furniture he now considered his own.
Cha-Cha, a Shiba Inu, an ancient breed of dog from Japan, was compact and foxlike, with a heavy reddish coat and white puffy cheeks. He had become a ward of the museum upon the death of Elspeth Hawker. He spent alternate nights in Nigel's flat on Lime Hill Road, near the Royal Tunbridge Wells' town center, and Flick's apartment on the Pantiles' Lower Walk, opposite the three-hundred-year-old colonnaded walkway that was one of the Wells' leading attractions.
"I have custody of the hound tonight," Flick said. "We'll drop him off at my flat; it's on our way to Thackeray's."
"And you can withdraw the necessary funds to pay for dinner from the cash machine in the Pantiles."
Nigel sighed. "I adore scintillating small talk, my dear, and I appreciate your valiant attempts to amuse me in times of trouble; but when do we tackle the elephant standing in the corner of the room?"
Flick rolled to her feet. Nigel's melancholy mood had begun when Jim Sizer unearthed the skeleton and had grown worse as they waited in his office for the police to arrive. His enthusiastic "hail fellow, well met" demeanor had vanished, and his usually ruddy complexion looked strangely colorless compared to his reddish-blond hair. Even his tall, slender build seemed to have compressed several inches.
Let's find out what's bothering the poor dear.
"What would you like me to say, Nigel?" Flick asked. "We don't have enough information to discuss the corpse in the tea garden. For all we know, he-or she-is a two thousand-year-old Roman expatriate."
Excerpted from The Final Crumpet by Ron Benrey Janet Benrey Copyright © 2005 by Ron and Janet Benrey. Excerpted by permission.
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