Winner of the Bloody Words Light Mystery Award
The North Wales market town of Llanelen is abuzz when a Vietnamese family moves into Ty Brith Hall. It isn't long before the family's business dealings have the townsfolk wondering what's really going on up at the big house on the hill.
Things take a sinister turn when Penny Brannigan, spending a midwinter afternoon sketching the magnificent views that surround the town, discovers the body of the new family's teenage daughter. Many secrets lie buried in the shallow grave, along with the girl, who Penny identifies by the snakeskin manicure she received at Penny's salon. When an elderly woman returns to Llanelen to care for her ailing brother, Penny discovers the truth about another death at Ty Brith Hall, one that hits very close to home. Though Penny's romantic interest, Detective Chief Inspector Gareth Davies, warns her to stay away, Penny can't resist getting involved, and her urge to help will ultimately put her in danger.
Elizabeth J. Duncan's fourth offering in this engaging series, A Small Hill to Die On is filled with memorable characters, great escapes, explosive plot twists, and plenty of Welsh charm.
About the Author
Elizabeth J. Duncan, author of the Penny Brannigan mysteries, is a winner of the Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition for The Cold Light of Mourning. She was shortlisted for the Agatha and Arthur Ellis Awards. She lives in Toronto.
Read an Excerpt
A Small Hill to Die On
A Penny Brannigan Mystery
By Elizabeth J. Duncan
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2012 Elizabeth J. Duncan
All rights reserved.
Penny Brannigan rolled over and glared at the glowing red numbers on her alarm clock. Four o'clock in the bloody morning. She'd done all the right things to prepare for a good night's sleep: a luxurious soak in a warm, fragrant bath, a cup of soothing chamomile tea, and relaxation exercises involving palm trees, turquoise waves, and a pink beach. She'd stretched out between clean sheets freshened with lavender linen spray and opened the most boring book the local librarian could locate — a history of farming practices in the old Soviet Union.
Her efforts had worked, sending her quickly off to sleep. But a few minutes after one o'clock she awoke from an uneasy dream and now, after three sleepless hours shifting around in her bed listening to a BBC radio presenter interview a reality television personality about her new hair extensions, which she liked, and her ex-husband, whom she didn't, Penny was beside herself. Even if I get back to sleep within the next five minutes, she groaned, I'm going to be a basket case at work tomorrow. Or rather, today. She checked the clock again. Four hours from now. She switched off the radio and stared at the ceiling, allowing her thoughts to go into freefall.
* * *
"You look ghastly." Victoria Hopkirk looked up from her computer as Penny slid into the chair in front of her desk just after nine. "Thank you very much," moaned Penny. "I feel awful. I was awake half the night."
"Trouble drifting off?"
"Oh, I drift off all right but I just can't seem to stay asleep. I wake up and can't get off again. Honestly, it's driving me mad. I haven't had a proper night's sleep for weeks. I just lie there listening to rubbish on the radio and thinking about things. Like what happened to that poor woman whose body was found in the old ductwork."
Several months earlier Penny and Victoria had bought a decaying old stone building beautifully and gracefully situated on the bank of the River Conwy and had overseen its conversion into an airy, bright, modern space. But the renovations had not gone smoothly. Workmen had discovered human and animal remains wrapped in a tatty old duvet in the ductwork. The body had been identified as that of Juliette Sanderson, who had worked as a kennel maid at Ty Brith Hall, and the animal remains were those of a cat. The woman had gone missing sometime in the 1960s and how she'd died and why her body had been hidden in the building for so many years remained an unsolved mystery.
"We may never know what happened to her," Victoria replied, "and you certainly shouldn't be losing sleep over her. Have you been to see the doctor? She could prescribe something."
"No! I don't want any tablets. You never know about side effects with those drugs. They might make me dopey." Victoria raised a well-shaped eyebrow. "Dopier?" emended Penny.
"Well," said Victoria, "I hope you're going to be able to function well enough during the day to manage the Spa on your own because, if you'll recall, I'm taking some time off, starting tomorrow. We both put in a tremendous amount of work getting this place up and running and we deserve a break." She smiled. "It just so happens that I'm taking my break first."
Victoria opened the top drawer of her desk and pulled out a glossy brochure. Holding it in both hands at arm's length, she displayed the cover to Penny.
Penny's eyes swept over a photo of an idyllic farmhouse overlooking a neatly laid out vineyard. The image was bathed in the soft, warm light of late afternoon as wispy clouds drifted through a brilliant blue sky.
"Tuscany? In January? I hope you're not expecting it to look anything like that. No rustic villas and sun-dappled piazzas for you, I'm afraid. It's bound to be every bit as cold and miserable as it is here."
"Well, it may be, but the point is, it's not here. It's there. That's what's so great about getting away. A nice change of scenery always works wonders. And it's the off-season, so I've found a good deal on a pensione in Florence." She grinned. "There are some concerts that I'd love to go to and I've signed up for a cookery course with wine tasting. I really just made the decision to go last minute and got a fantastic package deal. I'm so excited."
Penny's face went blank.
"What's the matter?"
Penny held up a finger and gave a loud sneeze.
"Maybe that's your problem. Are you getting a cold?"
"I hope not. That's the last thing I need right now. Anyway, you'd better tell me what I need to know about looking after the business while you're away." Penny cupped her chin in her hands.
A few minutes later a gentle, reflective smile spread across her face as Victoria wrapped up her explanation on how she managed the day-to-day operations.
"Seriously, I hope you have a fantastic time. How long will you be away? A fortnight?"
"Actually," Victoria replied, "I was thinking a bit longer than that. Since I'm going anyway, I was thinking more like a month. Or maybe even six weeks."
As Penny's smile faded and she started to protest, Victoria held up a hand.
"Sorry, Penny, but it's all settled. I'm going. And anyway, it's not like the old days. I'll take my laptop, and if there are any problems or you've got questions, you just have to contact me and I'll get back to you right away. Sorted! There's Wi-Fi everywhere to check e-mail and I'll have my mobile with me. I'll show you everything before I go. How to do the banking and all that. Rhian has a good grasp of the business end of things. You'll be fine, and honestly, I do need to get away."
Penny checked the time, gave the desk a little tap, and stood up. "Right, then. I'd better go. Mrs. Lloyd'll be arriving any minute for her manicure."
* * *
"I heard at the Over Sixties Club that we have some interesting newcomers in our midst," Mrs. Lloyd remarked as Penny began removing last week's nail polish. "Vietnamese people, they are, or at least everyone except the husband is. He's English. There's the mother and two teenagers and the mother's brother, and you'll never guess where this lot is living."
Penny set down a scrunched-up cotton ball covered in brown nail polish and lifted the lid from a glass bowl where she kept clean cotton balls. "Where?" But before Mrs. Lloyd could reply, Rhian, the receptionist, poked her head around the door.
"Penny, could I just have a quick word, please." She gave Mrs. Lloyd an apologetic smile. "Won't take a minute."
Penny and Mrs. Lloyd exchanged quizzical looks and Penny stood up.
"Excuse me. I'd better see what she wants."
"Yes, you better had."CHAPTER 2
Penny joined Rhian in the hall that led from the manicure room to the reception area of the Llanelen Spa.
"There's a woman in reception demanding to speak with the manager. Victoria's stepped out to pick up some bits and pieces for her holiday, so it's down to you, I'm afraid. You'll have to speak to her. She's quite insistent." Rhian lowered her voice. "She's Chinese, I think." Penny nodded. "Right, I'll talk to her. You go back to work now." The two women walked down the hall, their footsteps making soft, padding noises on the hardwood floor. Rhian settled herself in front of her computer, and after a quick glance at the visitor, she began typing.
An Asian woman standing in the reception area turned to Penny and gave her a cool, professional smile. She was several inches shorter than Penny and wore her black hair tied back in a ponytail. Her small dark eyes darted about, taking in everything.
"Hello," she began. "My name is Mai Grimstead and my family and I have just moved to Llanelen. I'm opening a new business here and wanted to speak to the manager. Would that be you? Might I know your name? Are you the manager?" She spoke with a British accent that seemed at odds with her appearance. While her accent had the faintest hint of something foreign, most pronounced was the downward intonation at the end of each sentence associated with Birmingham.
"Yes, I'm Penny Brannigan, one of the owners," Penny said. "Is there something I can help you with?"
"No, I don't need any help," the woman replied. "I'm just paying you a courtesy visit, that's all."
"Oh, really? That's very nice of you."
"Yes, you see, I'm going to be opening a new business on Wrexham Street. Where a bookstore used to be, or so I was told." Penny waited, a mild fluttering of apprehension starting up within her. She didn't like what she was hearing and was afraid of what Mai was about to say. Before she could reply, Mrs. Lloyd's head peered round the door of the manicure room, and then the rest of her entered the hallway.
"It's all right, Mrs. Lloyd," Penny reassured her. "There's nothing to worry about. Everything's under control."
"I thought I heard someone mentioning the old bookstore," Mrs. Lloyd said as she approached Penny. Her curiosity had got the better of her, as it always did, and she turned her full attention to the Asian woman.
"The bookstore closed a little while ago, what with everybody buying their books online or reading them on those funny little device things. Shame, really, but if someone's that desperate for something to read, there's the public library, and the charity shop has a perfectly good selection of used paperbacks. And hardbacks, too, with their jackets still on them. And fairly recent, they are, so I'm told."
"I'm not interested in books," said the woman, turning her attention back to Penny. "My research showed this town doesn't have a tanning facility. But that's about to change."
Mrs. Lloyd cocked her head. "Is it?"
"Yes," said Mai.
"Look, I'm sorry, I haven't explained myself very well. I own a chain of nail bars and tanning salons across the Northwest. We've several locations in England, Chester being the closest, but we're expanding into North Wales. Nailz. Have you heard of us?"
"Oh!" said Mrs. Lloyd, exchanging a concerned glance with Penny. "Yes, of course I've heard of Nailz. And you own it, you say?" She thought for a moment. "And when will you be opening?"
"Soon. The builders have started converting the premises where the old bookstore used to be. And because we just need a few fixtures and fittings, we'll be up and running in no time. The new shop is going to be called Handz and Tanz because we're adding tanning to the services we offer. That's Handz and Tanz with a zed."
She turned to Penny. "So I thought the proper thing to do would be to stop in and tell you myself about our plans. I didn't want you to learn about us from the newspaper." She gave a light, slightly embarrassed laugh. "Or even, possibly, from one of your former clients."
Penny did not immediately reply as she struggled to take in the implications of what she had just heard.
"I'm sure your tanning service will be in great demand," said Penny sarcastically, with a strong emphasis on the word "tanning." "Of course, studies have shown that tanning is dangerous, so that is not a service we offer as we place an emphasis on health and well-being." Rhian glanced up from her computer. "Now then, if there's nothing else, I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to excuse me. I must be getting on. Mrs. Lloyd and I are in the middle of her manicure."
"Yes, well," said Mai, "I just wanted you to know. You'll see the shop sign installed in a day or two. I have to be getting on as well. Lots to do what with launching our newest venture and seeing the family settled into the new house."
Mrs. Lloyd raised an eyebrow and shot Penny a conspiratorial glance.
"Before you go, er, Mrs., when you say 'house'— bought a place in the area, have you?"
"Yes. It's called Ty Brith Hall. Do you know it?"
Penny tried to conceal her surprise.
"We know it," said Penny. "We heard at Christmas that it'd been sold, but we didn't know who had bought it."
"Well," said Mai, pulling on her gloves, "now you do." She gave a curt nod and turned to go. Rhian stood up and the three watched Mai push open the door and step out into the frosty January morning, letting in a whoosh of cold air.
"Well, I don't know what to make of that," said Mrs. Lloyd as she and Penny returned to the manicure room and work resumed on Mrs. Lloyd's fingernails.
"But I do think that woman's going to be trouble with a capital T for you, Penny, you mark my words," said Mrs. Lloyd. "A foreigner. We don't get many foreigners moving to Llanelen." She thought about what she had just said and to whom she had said it. "Well, there's you, of course, but that's different. You're from Canada and we used to practically own Canada, back in the days when we still had an empire, so in a way, you're one of us."
Penny had arrived in Llanelen over twenty-five years ago as a recent university graduate with a degree in fine arts. She had planned to stop in Llanelen for just the one night, but as the years slipped away she had created a life for herself in the small market town. She'd made friends, built up a small manicure business, and on the death of a dear friend, a retired schoolteacher with no family, she had inherited a period cottage, which she had lovingly updated and decorated.
The two women fell silent and the only sound was the soft scraping of emery board on fingernail. After a few minutes, as if unable to bear the silence, Mrs. Lloyd picked up where she'd left off.
"What is the world coming to when someone like that would live at Ty Brith Hall? I wonder. The country's being taken over by foreigners. I don't care about political correctness and what we're allowed to think or say. Very worrying, it is," she said. "Those politicians are letting these foreigners come in and steal our country. Everyone's so concerned about not offending anybody we're not allowed to be British anymore." She gave her head a little shake. "And Ty Brith Hall, of all places."
Beautifully situated on a hill overlooking the North Wales valley town of Llanelen, and with embracing views of the magnificent ancient green hills that cradle it, Ty Brith Hall had been owned by the Gruffydd family for decades. Emyr Gruffydd had inherited the property the previous summer on the death of his father, but now spent most of his time managing the family's other estate in Cornwall. Too many unhappy memories attached to the property, the townsfolk suggested. Or too much house and land for a single man to cope with on his own.
"We don't know anything about this woman, really," said Penny. "We're just going on first impressions. I hope we're not being racist. But I must say I found her accent rather surprising. Where's she from, do you think?"
"Birmingham, I shouldn't wonder. We had a woman who worked in the post office once who sounded like that." She gave Penny a meaningful look. "I'm not an expert on accents by any means, but I'd say from the sound of hers she's been in this country a very long time. Grew up here. Maybe her family arrived here with the boat people in the 1970s, so she might even have been born here."
Penny wiped her hands on a towel, looked at it thoughtfully, and then folded it.
"What I don't understand," Mrs. Lloyd continued, "is why on earth Emyr would sell the Hall to her. That house has been in his family for decades and he loved it. Why would he not want it to go to someone who would appreciate it and take care of it? I can't see her doing that. What could she possibly know about or want with country living? It's not for everyone, you know."
"Well, these are difficult times. I don't suppose there are many people about who could afford a property like that, so he probably didn't have much choice who he sold it to." After a moment's reflection, she added, "Of course, entertainers and show business people are always looking for nice big country estates. Wouldn't it have been something if we'd got a film star? Or a couple like Brad and Angelina. They buy up houses all over the place. France ..."
Mrs. Lloyd reached for a tissue and dabbed at her nose.
"Well, that's another thing. Who knew there was so much money to be made in tanning salons that you could afford a beautiful place like Ty Brith Hall. She must be rolling in it."
Penny sighed as she applied the top coat to Mrs. Lloyd's manicure.
"Actually, right now I don't care about her buying the Hall. It's the new business that's got me very worried. I don't care about the tanning. If young girls or older women who should know better are stupid enough to pay to expose themselves to skin cancer, that's their lookout, but this town doesn't need two manicure salons. Never mind Handz and Tanz with a zed. With a zed! How stupid is that?"
Excerpted from A Small Hill to Die On by Elizabeth J. Duncan. Copyright © 2012 Elizabeth J. Duncan. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Penny's character continues to grow and change along with each challenge. I like seeing the deepening relationship with Gareth. As always, it's a pleasure to spend time in North Wales.