An “invitation to dine” quickly loses a letter as DI John Redfyre returns for his second investigation in the hallowed halls of Cambridge academia.
Cambridge, 1924 in early summertime. May Balls, punting on the Cam, flirting and dancing the tango are the preoccupations of bright young people, but bright young Detective Inspector John Redfyre finds himself mired in multiple murders.
One morning, his dog discovers a corpse neatly laid on a tombstone in the graveyard adjoining St. Bede’s College. An army greatcoat and well-worn boots suggest the dead man may have been a former soldier, though the empty bottle of brandy and a card bearing the words “An Invitation to Dine” on the victim ring a discordant note. Even more unsettling is the autopsy, which reveals death by strangulation and unusual contents in the stomach from the man’s last meal. Redfyre learns that this murder is one of several unsolved cases linked to a secretive and sinister dining club at St. Bede’s.
Redfyre, himself an ex-rifleman, becomes caught in a dark tale of revenge, betrayal and injustice—a lingering mystery from a long-forgotten war. With the unlikely assistance of his lead suspect, he gradually unearths the dead man’s story and fights to right an ancient wrong.
About the Author
Barbara Cleverly was born in the north of England and is a graduate of Durham University. She lives in Cambridge and is the author of twenty books. Thirteen of these are the Joe Sandilands investigations; the first, The Last Kashmiri Rose, was named a New York Times Book of the Year, and the third, The Damascened Blade, won the CWA Ellis Peters Historical Dagger. She has written one other novel in the John Redfyre series, Fall of Angels.
Read an Excerpt
CAMBRIDGE, FRIDAY, THE 16TH OF MAY, 1924
Struck by a rare lapse in confidence, Rupert Rendlesham pulled up sharply in the middle of the King’s Parade on his way down to the market square. At half past eleven on a Friday in May, the street was almost deserted. Examination papers and desperate last-minute revision had cleared undergraduates from the streets, and there was no one about to raise an eyebrow at the sudden break in the stride, the fleeting frown of indecision. Nevertheless, he looked furtively from side to side before turning to check on his reflection in the window of the gents’ outfitters he was passing. Vanity? No. “Judicious self-awareness,” he would have called his decision to indulge in a little light preening. Rupert was too vain ever to suspect himself of vanity.
There was another, less shaming trigger for his sudden spasm of doubt. This was no everyday expedition into the realms of the Great Unwashed he was undertaking. He was on a mission. A manhunt. His mind, steeped in medieval literature, dared to add: a quest. And he was running out of time. He had one hour to secure the trophy that would see him garlanded in praise by his fellows before the day was out. Amused by his own whimsy, Rupert twirled the end of an imaginary moustache and shared a flirtatious leer with his reflection.
A cheeky wolf whistle caught him in midpose. A further rude comment on his parentage from a butcher’s boy pedalling by on a bike distracted and annoyed him.
“You ignoramus!” he hurled back. It occurred to Rupert that his choice of insult, if indeed apt, would be incomprehensible to the target. “Oik!” he added for clarity. “And your granny!”
Mild enough, but he regretted at once descending into mindless repartee. What the hell! He could do better than indulge in surreptitious self-examination for the entertainment of the lower classes.
With a swirl of the academic gown he’d chosen to retain as protective camouflage for his foray into the market, he breezed into the shop.
“Dr. Rendlesham! May I be of assistance, sir?”
“Ah, Blandish!” Rupert returned the greeting of the salesman who stepped forward at once to attend him. “You certainly can! I was just passing and felt the need to check the length of my gown in your—”
Before he could finish the sentence, a tall mirror was being pushed towards him and angled correctly. Rupert twirled in front of it, peering critically at his own elegant figure.
“Tell me now, Blandish . . . It’s being whispered around college that the longer length of gown, like this one you sold me last year, is somewhat passé. I invite you to share your thoughts. I like to have these things straight from the horse’s mouth.” He turned again, adjusted his tie and smoothed down his short fair hair. At that moment, Rupert caught Blandish’s sardonic eye, and a flash of skittish humour prompted him to grasp the two sides of his gown at heart level, elbows out, in a parody of a lecturer’s stance. He tilted his head to offer the mirror an inspiring profile. He’d do! By George, he’d do! If the goddess Britannia had had a son and that son had been admitted as a scholar to St. Jude’s, he’d surely have presented just such an image. Clean-cut. Direct gaze. Yet sporting a nose that would have provoked an envious Duke of Wellington into calling en garde!
Nerves calmed, he could now go on his way. Complete his mission. But Blandish appeared to be taking this nonsense at face value; he was giving the matter serious consideration.
“All is perfection, Dr. Rendlesham. I assure you the hemline rests where it has rested for seven hundred years. Halfway between hock and heel, just brushing the fetlock. But . . .” A reproving finger was raised. “If you will permit me, sir.”
From heaven knew where, the man had suddenly conjured up a tailor’s sponge and was dabbing at a fold in the back of his gown, tutting all the while. “Eve’s pudding for supper last night, sir? You must have been seated in front of a clumsy custardeater. There, that’s better. I’ll just give the shoulders a brushing and you’ll be ready to take tea with the queen.”
“Ah! Tea with the queen?” Rupert snorted with amusement. “Dinner with the devil is more what I have in mind! Thank you, Blandish. I’ll be on my way.”
“Give His Satanic Majesty my regards, sir.”
Rupert just made out the words murmured behind his back as he returned to the hubbub of the street. Yon Blandish would bear watching, he decided. Hidden depths? A possibility there? No. Too useful in his capacity of outfitter to the university and gentry of the town. Rupert’s nephew would be coming up next term, and he’d planned on confiding the boy to this establishment for his sartorial needs. Never curdle the cream and never foul your own nest—those were the rules. He must seek his prey farther afield.
He strode through the market square, surveying the midday crowd from his formidable six-foot-two stature. It had been a good idea to wear his gown. At worst, it cloaked him in anonymity; at best, it granted him ease of passage. People moved out of his way, demonstrating their mistrust and dislike of academe. He scanned the mass of housewives and traders, lounging townies and the sprinkling of students desperate for fresh air and a change of scene. Checking, scorning and ultimately rejecting the lot of them. A predictable and boring collection with nothing more interesting on their minds than the size of Sunday’s ham joint and the freshness of the cauliflower. Nothing here remotely resembling his target.
Had he missed him? Mistimed his sortie? Rendlesham was growing anxious. His afternoon meeting was due to start at one; there was little time to spare. After a very brief consideration, Rupert forgave himself. He would have to suggest a postponement. But his pride would be eternally dented if he let down the chaps. This was his first quest, and he’d volunteered, after all. What’s more, the selection had been made for him—the scented lure had been pressed to his nostrils by Fanshawe himself. He merely had to follow where it led. He could not be seen to fail. He’d have to calm down, put a lid on the cauldron of conflicting emotions bubbling over and put his nose to the ground.
Testily, he wondered whether Fanshawe had been illadvised. Surely there were more fruitful hunting grounds than the market square? The sunny green banks of the Cam? No, not during exam season. The only people lurking discreetly below the trailing green foliage of the willows were students. Swotting, sweating, occasionally throwing themselves off bridges. The bar of the Eagle? Packed with unintelligible science-wallahs. Drunk or boring. Frequently both. To be used only as a last resort.
Where in this city did one find a genuine civilian? Someone unconnected with the university? A socially negligible stranger? Rupert realised that in his six years here as a student and graduate researcher and lecturer, he’d scarcely set foot on nonuniversity territory. Where was that to be found? The Alhambra cinema came first to mind. Ugh! Flea-infested and full of copulating couples. Anyone who would pay a shilling to sit in the dark watching Rudolph Valentino sneer his way through something called Blood and Sand for an hour and a half was automatically disqualified. They weren’t looking for a grunting Neanderthaler, after all.
He looked about, preparing to leave the square. He gave a final check to the impeccable fascia and gleaming vitrine of Aunty’s Tea Rooms. A watering hole popular with both Town and Gown, who were to be seen, if not sharing a table, at least sitting peaceably at adjacent tables. There might be a few early tourists about, taking a cup of tea and a bun. Fanshawe had marked his card: Our man is said to frequent—if that’s the right word, though I’d suggest—infest—the environs of the café at lunchtime, when the place is at its busiest. People with enough cash to waste at “Aunty’s” are likely to feel a frisson of guilt at the sight of a beggar when they step out, bloated on cakes and ham sandwiches. In the act of putting away their wallets and their purses, it’s no trouble to hand over their small change to whoever asks for it. That’s where you’ll find the parasite.
There was no beggar lurking about here at the entrance to put anyone off his lunch today, however. Could he return empty-handed? Faute de mieux, would a tourist suffice? Rupert rather liked the notion. By their nature, tourists could be expected to vanish from the scene. Transients moved on and were less predictable. They didn’t come home for tea and a gossip at a regular time each day. They had no truck with the local forces of law or the organs of information. And there was precedent. Hadn’t there been a visiting foreign person a few years ago? Yes! The older members still spoke of it, tears of laughter in their eyes. Garlic-eater, they would remember with an exaggerated shudder. Almost a caricature, danced the tango, chattered a lot in hilarious English. He’d provided good sport. And no repercussions.
But as he scanned the tearoom, Aunty’s seemed to explode.
Rupert could have sworn the genteel façade had suffered a kaleidoscopic shift. The wide front door burst open noisily, accompanied by a bellow of outrage. The bellower himself erupted onto the street. Chintz drapes, which harked back to the more spacious days of William Morris, were in motion. They were being tweaked aside, and the wondering faces of the clientele appeared, jostling for the best position to view the events developing on the pavement outside. The door had been opened to its widest extent to allow space for the manager—a cumbersome fellow in a dark suit—to manhandle and eject from the café a bundle of old clothes enveloping the skinny frame of what Rupert took to be a down-and-out. His tramp?
“Ah, there you are! So that’s where you were skulking!” Rupert’s attention was instantly caught. Occasionally, driven by hunger or despair, one of these all-too-numerous unfortunates would make a hopeless attempt to invade the premises of one of the city’s establishments by the front door instead of creeping round to the back, where he would be treated with furtive generosity by the serving staff if he was lucky.
Embarrassing little spat! Townies at play. Kinder not to look? Rupert would normally have grimaced and prepared to move on. But today he stayed put, observing the struggling pair. The portly grotesque, watch chain now straining across his silk-waistcoated abdomen, intrigued him. He widened the focus of his huntsman’s stare to take in the broader picture. Who was this? Rupert had taken him for the manager, but he corrected himself. No salaried employee would have taken the liberty of creating such a public scene. This lardy gent carried himself with all the assurance of . . . the owner. Rupert chuckled. He’d seen much the same whipped up, noisy aggression in a male robin establishing its proprietorial rights in the springtime nest-building frenzy. Well, well! Many had speculated on the identity of “Aunty,” and now, before his eyes, the mask seemed to have slipped off.
Rupert moved closer. He wanted to judge the quality of the verbal exchange that was now occurring between the two badly matched adversaries. Was his target articulate? Educated? The chairman had rather stressed that quality in his briefing. “Bear in mind that a modicum of resilience in the subject is to be preferred. We need a touch of steel to strike a spark!” It hardly mattered; the bell of Great St. Mary’s Church was banging out twelve. This man would have to do.
The sweating incarnation of “Aunty” was holding forth: “Git yer ugly carcass out of my tearoom or I’ll call the coppers! ’oo the ’ell do you think you are, coming in ’ere, all la-di-dah and taking the mickey, you old scarecrow?”
Oh dear. Rupert heard the bombastic tone of a London air-raid warden and sighed. This was some upstart Cockney war profiteer, no doubt having invested his ill-gotten pile in a nice little business. A jaw-cracking bore. His interest was reclaimed on noticing the scarecrow resisting the manhandling. What a fool! His best course would be to wriggle out from under the clasp of the beefy paws and show a clean pair of heels.
One abrupt upwards slashing, a cavalryman’s flourish of the right arm, was all it took for the tramp to free himself from Aunty’s clutches. Immediately following that, the bony fellow, stiff with indignation, pulled himself to his full height and rounded on Aunty. He attacked his tormentor with words, delivered in a ringing baritone. And yes, “la-di-dah” just about described his tone, which was, might one say . . . almost gentlemanly? Hard to tell when the sentiments being expressed were decidedly ungentlemanly.
“Mind your manners, you overstuffed little cream puff! I’d smack you plumb in the watch chain if I didn’t fear the resulting explosion would contaminate the market square. But, what the hell . . . In for a penny!” His second attack came swiftly as his bunched left fist punched into the distended target with surprising vigour. Aunty doubled up, gasping and heaving, eyes popping.
An audience was hurrying to get a ringside seat. Fight! Fight! Where had they all come from, swarming up from nowhere like a plague of self-generating frogs?
For a sickening moment, Rupert was back in a prep-school playground, hearing both jeers and shouts of encouragement. From the same throat, in certain instances. A soggy tomato launched with pinpoint accuracy from the nearest stall added further decoration to Aunty’s waistcoat. So, predictably, the English townsfolk had chosen to take the side of the underdog, Rupert noted. He thought he heard a police whistle somewhere in the distance. He would have to act fast. Having found his prey, he didn’t want it carted off from under his nose by the local bobbies. No time for niceties.