In post-World War II England, former Secret Service operative Mirabelle Bevan becomes embroiled in a new kind of intrigue…
1951: In the popular seaside town of Brighton, it’s time for Mirabelle Bevan to move beyond her tumultuous wartime years and start anew. Accepting a job at a debt collection agency seems a step toward a more tranquil life.
But as she follows up on a routine loan to Romana Laszlo, a pregnant Hungarian refugee who’s recently come off the train from London, Mirabelle’s instincts for spotting deception are stirred when the woman is reported dead, along with her unborn child.
After encountering a social-climbing doctor with a sudden influx of wealth and Romana’s sister, who seems far from bereaved and doesn’t sound Hungarian, Mirabelle decides to dig deeper into the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death. Aided by her feisty sidekick—a fellow office worker named Vesta Churchill (“no relation to Winston,” as she explains)—Mirabelle unravels a web of evil that stretches from the Brighton beachfront to the darkest corners of Europe. Putting her own life at risk, she must navigate a lethal labyrinth of lies and danger to expose the truth.
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By Sara Sheridan
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Sara Sheridan
All rights reserved.
Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.
Mirabelle Bevan surveyed Brighton's beachfront from her deck chair. The weather had been so fine the last few days she was picking up a golden tan.
Well put-together and in her prime, Mirabelle always ate her lunch on Brighton beach if the weather was in any way passable, but out of sheer principle she never paid tuppence for a chair. We did not win the war to have to pay to sit down, she frequently found herself thinking. Mirabelle's stance against the deck chair charges was one of the few things that kept her going these days. In an act of personal defiance, she carefully timed the coming and goings of Ron, the deck chair attendant, and concluded that it was perfectly possible to sneak enough time to enjoy her sandwich while he tended the other end of his pitch. By selecting the right chair she could have an average of twenty-five undisturbed minutes, which was perfect. Mirabelle's life these days revolved around small victories, little markers in her day that got her through until it was time for bed.
She loved the beach. There was something soothing about the expanse of gray and cream pebbles, the changing color of the sea and the movement of the clouds. Mirabelle didn't mind if it was cold or if there was a spot of rain and it was only during a full-blown downpour or a gale-force wind that she retreated to the steamy interior of the Pier Café. Now she ate her fish paste sandwich with her large hazel eyes on the ocean and her sixth sense switched on in case Ron returned early.
While the nation complained about rationing, Mirabelle found the limited range of foods available comforting. These days she never had much of an appetite and her favorite whiskey was in easy supply as long as she swapped her meat coupons on a regular basis and paid slightly over the odds. A nice bottle of Islay malt was all Mirabelle Bevan really wanted — though Glenlivet was fine at a push. When she had finished her sandwich she brushed the crumbs from her tweed skirt, checked right and left, and slipped a small leather-bound flask from her crocodile-skin handbag to wash down the sandwich with a tiny swig. Back at the office she always made herself a strong cup of tea and sipped it with a cracker so that if her boss came in he would be none the wiser. The whiskey was the only outward sign that Mirabelle Bevan was in mourning. It reminded her of Jack.
As she negotiated the steps in her vertiginous heels and glided back onto the Promenade, Ron came into view, his hands deep in his apron pockets, chatting to two girls. It was always easier to avoid paying the tuppence when the sun was out and a stream of pretty girls occupied the deck chairs on the pebbles. Mirabelle smiled as she cut away from the front and made her way back to the office, in a grubby white stone building on the corner of East Street and Brill Lane. She climbed the dark stairway to the second floor, passed the sign that said MCGUIGAN & MCGUIGAN DEBT RECOVERY and opened the frosted-glass door with every intention of putting on the kettle to boil, but the sight that greeted her stopped Mirabelle in her tracks. Big Ben McGuigan was sitting at his desk. That, in itself, was unusual. Big Ben was what one might call a man of action and, much to Mirabelle's relief, was rarely in his office. But it wasn't only his presence that lent a perturbing air to the office that spring afternoon. Mirabelle's boss was sitting under a grimy blue towel with a cloud of menthol steam emanating from above his head. The place smelled like a hammam.
"Mr. McGuigan." Mirabelle coughed.
Big Ben emerged with his chubby face flushed. He had been out all morning collecting money from what he referred to as "his friends in the slums." He had seemed in perfectly good health when he left.
"Mirabelle, Mirabelle, not so great," he said, and disappeared back under the towel from where he mumbled, "Put on the kettle. I need a hot drink."
Mirabelle complied. She made two cups of strong milky tea and laid one on Big Ben's desk. It was most unlike him to ask for anything. In the eighteen months since Mirabelle had taken the job she hadn't had a single request. Unbidden she opened the mail, dealt with the ledger, the files, the banking and the invoices. She answered the telephone, leaving accurate and detailed messages that required no further explanation on Big Ben's tidy desk. Occasionally a client might come to the office in pursuit of their money. Most days there was a visit from at least one debtor, either ready to pay or to give their excuses, which they seemed to clutch to their chests and then let out, too quickly, like machine-gunfire. Mirabelle Bevan dealt with everything briskly. Big Ben appreciated her efficiency and she appreciated his absence or, on his fleeting visits to the office, his silence. After everything she had been through, it was the perfect job.
"Are you ill?" Mirabelle inquired gently.
One of Big Ben's rheumy blue eyes peered through a crack in the towel. He removed the tea from the desktop and disappeared back beneath the swathe of material. The sound of him drinking ensued.
"Cold. Influenza. Maybe pneumonia," he said.
A shadow of amusement passed across Mirabelle's face. Big Ben was six feet two inches in height and he weighed two hundred pounds. An ex-professional boxer, he had been a sergeant major during the war. The thousands of conscripts who had passed through his capable hands had endowed him with a highly honed capacity for judging human nature and a complete inability to accept any form of excuse. He had set up McGuigan & McGuigan after he demobbed and quickly gained a good reputation for chasing other people's money, on commission. Big Ben, it transpired, was the only McGuigan — the sole employee of the firm until Mirabelle arrived — but he thought that the dual name sounded more professional, so he'd doubled up. It was all very businesslike, which was something both Ben McGuigan and Mirabelle Bevan had recognized in each other from the first moment they'd met. The interview for the job lasted two minutes — exactly long enough to establish that he knew what he wanted and she knew what to do. Until today Mirabelle had never seen Big Ben display any kind of weakness.
"Do you think it might be a good idea to go home?" she suggested tentatively.
Big Ben emerged from under the towel and took a sip of tea. "Seventy-two-hour job," he said.
"I can keep things ticking along," Mirabelle assured him.
"Right," Big Ben said without moving. "Sleep's the best cure."
"And perhaps some Beecham's powders might help," Mirabelle suggested.
Big Ben shrugged his shoulders and the blue towel dropped to the faded linoleum floor. He ignored it and got up from the chair, reaching automatically for his hat. "Seventy-two hours," he repeated, and walked through the door without a backward glance.
Mirabelle cleared Big Ben's desk and took his notebook over to the ledger to transcribe the payments he had picked up that morning at the Albion Hill estate. Whole streets there were still rubble. The locals used the bombed-out floorboards as firewood, she'd heard — it had been a mild winter, but the houses were damp. There were plans now for rebuilding, of course. About time, too, she thought — it was almost six years since VE Day.
With the ledger up to date, Mirabelle checked her watch and went to stand by the window. It suddenly seemed like it might be a long afternoon. She absentmindedly poked her finger into the dry compost of the half-dead geranium on her desk and wondered if it was better for the soil to be wet. Despite her efficiency there were some areas of life that remained incomprehensible to Mirabelle and care of household plants was one of them. Perhaps I should water it, she thought. Or maybe it needs more light — cut flowers were so much easier, she deliberated, because you knew they were going to die. She moved the plant onto the windowsill. Then, just as she was considering boiling the kettle again and making more tea there was the hammering sound of someone coming up the stairs and Mirabelle hurriedly returned to her chair and appeared busy by reading a file.
The man who burst through the door was dapper. He was short, about forty years of age and sported a brown suit with very wide shoulders. "Well, aren't you a glamour puss?" he said with a London accent.
Mirabelle did not smile. "Can I help you?" she asked, crossing her long legs away from him, beneath the table.
"I'm looking for Big Ben McGuigan."
"Bert." The man smiled and winked.
Mirabelle hesitated. "I'm afraid Mr. McGuigan is out, Mr. Bert."
Bert grinned. "Well, I could see that for myself, sweetheart," he said and sank into the chair on the other side of Mirabelle's desk. He showed no sign of volunteering any information so, after a short silence, Mirabelle tried to prompt him.
"Did you have a job for Mr. McGuigan?"
"Yeah, yeah. Bit of a tricky situation. But I bet you've seen them all in 'ere, love."
Mirabelle primly pushed her sleek chestnut-brown hair off her face. Many of the people Big Ben pursued for money were in dire straits. In general she didn't tend to feel sorry for them, but, still, she didn't want to laugh at their expense or take their difficulties lightly.
"I can take the inquiry," she said as she turned over a fresh page on her notepad. "What is your full name?"
"Awful formal, aren't you?" Bert smiled.
"He won't be back today. He's out on business."
Bert looked out of the window past the wilting geranium. "Know where he's gone, do you?" he tried.
Mirabelle shook her head. "Mr. McGuigan is working."
"Right," Bert sighed.
Mirabelle kept her pen poised.
"Well, I was hoping to get back on the four thirty anyway," he conceded. "My name's Albert Jennings. Best place to get me is the Red Lion in Notting Hill — though Big Ben knows that already."
"And your case, Mr. Jennings?"
"It's a tricky one, like I said. Slightly delicate. Woman borrowed four hundred quid. And now she's in the family way, if you see what I mean. Come down to Brighton all of a sudden to have the little blighter and there's no sign of my money. Six weeks overdue — that's the payment, not the baby — and plenty of interest. She said she had money coming from her uncle's will. I want Ben to find her and see what he can do — it's a tidy sum now. Piles up when it's overdue, dunnit? Got no address for the lady down here."
"Her name?" Mirabelle asked.
"Foreign bird. Widow. Name of Laszlo," Bert smiled. "Romana Laszlo. Think she's Polish or something." He sniffed. "She's got a sister, but she's done a bunk and all."
"Romana Laszlo. Well, from the name, she is Hungarian, I imagine," Mirabelle said, without thinking. "Do you have a written contract?"
Bert leaned forward and pulled a paper from the inside pocket of his jacket. He laid it on the desk.
Mirabelle peered at the signature. "Yes. Hungarian," she pronounced. "The Poles don't spell it like that. It's an interesting combination — ethnic Hungarian surname with a Catholic given name. She's a Magyar girl, I should think."
"Know a lot of Hungarians, do you, Miss?" Bert asked.
Mirabelle bit her lip, smearing cherry-red lipstick along her incisor. She really ought to be more careful. "I read a book about Hungary. Very interesting," she said lamely.
"Right. Well, do you think Ben might get onto it for me?"
"Yes. I'll give him the details. Of course."
Mr. Jennings punctuated his next remark by tapping his forefinger on the desk. "You tell him ten percent."
Mirabelle shook her head. "The normal rate is twenty," she said briskly.
"Yeah, but this is more than he picks up on any of those calls he makes down the coast. This is real money." He sat back.
Mirabelle considered for a moment. Mr. Jennings had a point. "He'll do it for fifteen," she said.
Bert sighed. "Twelve and a half, an even eighth?" he tried.
"You know I'm not going to budge from fifteen percent," Mirabelle replied. "Fifteen percent is fair."
Bert hesitated for a moment. Then he shrugged and offered his hand.
Mirabelle shook it. "Didn't catch your name," he remarked.
"I'm Mirabelle Bevan, Mr. Jennings."
"French name, Mirabelle. But you sound good and English."
Bert smiled. "Well," he said, "expect I'll make the three thirty now."
"Sign here and here, Mr. Jennings." Mirabelle pushed a contract over the table. Bert picked up the pen and scribbled his name onto the sheet in the appropriate places.
"Tell me, sweetheart, what did you do during the war, then? Have a good one?" he asked as he got up to leave.
"Oh," Mirabelle replied, as she always did when people inquired, "I was a Land Girl."CHAPTER 2
There are a thousand ways to go home.
At five o'clock precisely Mirabelle left the office and locked the door. With Big Ben out of commission for the next three days, she decided to take a detour on her way home past the Church of the Sacred Heart in Hove. She might as well get a head start on Bert Jennings's case, she rationalized, and if a Hungarian-Catholic woman had a baby in Brighton, the Sacred Heart was the most likely place for a christening. There were other Catholic churches in town of course but Mirabelle happened to know that one of the pastors there was Hungarian, and she knew that because she had helped Jack to get Father Sandor the job after the war.
Jack had been happy to pull strings for Sandor. The department owed him for bringing what — with typical Allied understatement — had been called "highly sensitive" information out of France when most other channels were closed and every radio transmission on the continent was being monitored. The priest had access to the Vatican and had used the Catholic Church's own lines of communication to do what he thought was right. He was trusted by the Nazi junta and ministered to several senior SS men stationed in Paris. Sandor had put his life on the line every day for years.
When he turned up in London after the war Jack shook the priest's hand warmly and slapped him on the back. "You deserve any help we can give you," he promised. "I take it you don't want to go home."
"Well," Sandor said with a twinkle in his eye, "I've come all this way now ..."
By then the Soviets had closed the Hungarian border in any case. Jack was always generous to his operatives and he was happy to sort out entry papers and get onto the diocese to see what they could come up with. Encouraged by the department's glowing report of the man's character and despite his disappearance from church duty for what was, by then, several months, they suggested a vacant position at the Sacred Heart.
"A ministry by the sea!" The priest had been delighted. "Thank you, Jack. Thank you so much."
Now, years later and with a lot of water under the bridge, Mirabelle hovered uncomfortably on Norton Road in front of the wooden gate that led to the entrance. She glanced at the row of small shops farther up the main road. Two women with brightly-colored net shopping bags were gossiping outside the greengrocers. Mirabelle brought her eyes back to the Church. It felt no better. The Victorian building reared up in front of her like a pale sleeping monster. Her hands were trembling and her fingers were cold. But the truth was that she was drawn here and had been for a while. Romana Laszlo was only an excuse. Jack was buried in the small graveyard behind the building. It was ironic, really. He had given up his faith years before he died.
Mirabelle had never visited the grave. By now, she realized, there would probably be a headstone or a plaque. The thought made her queasy and she wasn't sure she could face it. Besides, there was no point in causing embarrassment or trouble for Jack's wife or his girls — that would be spiteful. Better by far to remain Jack's most covert operation. At least that's what she'd believed for almost two years. Now, though, despite her longstanding rationale for staying away she was here at the door, and the truth was she loved Jack as much as ever.
"Damn it, damn it," she whispered as she paced along the paving stones. Finally Mirabelle drew up her courage, took a deep breath and walked slowly through the gate, keeping her eyes straight ahead. The clicking of her heels echoed across the tiled floor. The Church was deserted. Her vision adjusted to the gloom as she moved down the aisle. Tentatively she peered into the enclaves on either side but there was no one at prayer. Then, from a door near the altar, a stocky man in a cassock with the face of a rugby player emerged into the heavy atmosphere like a cannonball.
"My daughter," he nodded. His accent was Irish. "Have you come for confession?"
Mirabelle shook her head. "I'm looking for Father Sandor," she said, her voice suddenly croaky.
"Can I not help you? I'm Father Grogan." He gripped her hand in a firm shake and Mirabelle felt rather glad she was wearing gloves.
"I'm afraid it's Father Sandor I need to speak to," she said.
"Ah well, I'll fetch him." Father Grogan disappeared back through the door.
Excerpted from Brighton Belle by Sara Sheridan. Copyright © 2016 Sara Sheridan. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
1 - Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.,
2 - There are a thousand ways to go home.,
3 - HA HU HI: I am going to Paris (radio code used by double agent Eddie Chapman),
4 - Chickenfeed: information intended to attract and puzzle the recipient.,
5 - Curiosity is one of the forms of feminine bravery.,
6 - All war is deception.,
7 - True friendship can afford true knowledge.,
8 - All knowledge begins with experience.,
9 - He is a hard man who is only just.,
10 - There is no such thing as accident; it is fate misnamed.,
11 - Let wisdom make you a good gamester.,
12 - Never was anything great achieved without danger.,
13 - There is no sinner like a young saint.,
14 - He who would search for pearls must dive below.,
15 - Friendship: a state of mutual trust and support.,
16 - Ratissage: a counter-espionage manhunt,
17 - The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on.,
18 - As a man is, so you must humour him.,
19 - Common sense is not so common.,
20 - Blowback: the unintended consequences of covert operations.,
21 - It takes two to speak the truth.,
22 - Where there is a mystery, it is generally suspected there must also be evil.,
23 - Death is not the worst that can happen.,
24 - Advice to agents: Your life depends on your ability to tell your cover story unhesitatingly.,
25 - X2: the counterintelligence and agent-manipulation branch of the Secret Service.,
26 - Evil counsel travels fast.,
27 - All right then, I'll go to hell.,
28 - Upon the conduct of each depends the fate of all.,
29 - The Black Swan,
30 - Only the dead have seen the end of war.,
31 - Love is a reciprocal torture.,
Questions for Readers' Groups,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I had great hopes for this book, but unfortunately it did not live up to my expectations. The setting and time period drew me in, but I found the writing to be more like junior high or high school level than adult fiction. By the middle of the book, I found myself speed reading to get it over with and skipped several pages towards the end. The main character, Mirabelle, constantly put herself in unnecessary danger like she hadn't a brain in her head and drug the reluctant Vesta along with her. It felt like the author had a checklist of items to include and did her best to fit them all in in a slapdash manner. I am all for intrigue and strong female leads but Brighton Belles did not deliver.
Mirabelle worked for the OSS during the War. When the war was over she took a job as a debt collector's assistant. Her boss disappears and she uses her knowledge to try to find him. As she searches for him she learns of other misdeeds and murders occurring that may be related to his disappearance. I enjoyed this book. I liked how history was pulled into the story with those attempting to escape their war crimes. Ms. Sheridan had a good sense of the time and place. I felt I was back in 1950's England. The world building is excellent. I liked Mirabelle and Vesta. Vesta was there for comic relief but she will have a bigger role in future books, I think. I like how Mirabelle's past is woven through the story. I also liked how racism and its effect on Vesta is shown through the story. The mystery is interesting and realistic. Detective Superintendent McGregor I am unsure about. He seems to have an attraction towards Mirabelle but by the end I'm not sure about him. It will be interesting to watch the relationship develop. I look forward to more books in this series.
A clever woman clearly set in the post-war world of Britain. She is resourceful and not afraid to do whatever it seems is necessary. Aiding her is an intriguing black woman who offers an insight into the rampant racism that existed then and how one character handled it. Nicely done all around.
First off, though I was pretty sure early on what the mystery was, the story was interesting enough to keep me reading. One other aspect of the story that was rather annoying was the different POVs. I often found myself going back to see who was actually talking which is rather jolting when reading. This is a plot device that I've never been fond of even when done right. I'd hoped for a bit more of historical background. I love reading about the outfits and vehicles used during this time period. Mirabelle and her sidekick Vesta were charming and the mystery fast paced but I probably will not read any more in this series if alternating POVs are used.
Loved this book. I found it was a quick read - and I really got caught up in the story right from the first page. I am definitely looking forward to future books in the series
I am SO glad I requested this one and SO glad there was nothing or no one to bother me while reading it. There was a lot going on in this book, by that I mean characters and plots. Yet, it was so GOOD!! The list of suspects was so long, there is absolutely no way anyone could have figured out what was going on in this book. I had to read some things a couple of times because there were new characters and I thought I had missed something, which I had. Especially at the end with the lady on the train. This book definitely kept me riveted and so thoroughly entertained. I loved it! I highly recommend it. It will keep you wondering the whole time. Huge thanks to Kensington Books for approving my request and to Net Galley for providing me with a free e-galley in exchange for an honest review.
This is a good period mystery post WWII. It describes the society of that time with ration books, racial issues, and women's issues. It was well written and a fun read. The two heroines are both enjoyable characters.
I was hoping to find a new series to read but didn't find it here. Just pass it by unless you get it free.