The idyllic Cotswold village of Folly-on-Weir, with its traditional pub, sumptuous tea rooms and fragrant bakery, is a piece of paradise found … until ‘those incomer Quillams’ arrive. A young piano virtuoso and his neglected but talented half-sister, their controlling father, the pianist’s beautiful, acquisitive and passionate mother, an ambitious family retainer, and an intimidating woman who has always run the Quillam household form a successful little empire - until it starts to crumble.
The Quillams’ arrival has also attracted the attentions of a sly, clever and perverted killer who desperately needs a jackpot and knows where to find one – if the obstacles can be removed. Once again pub owner Alex Duggins and her veterinarian friend Tony Harrison must use their wits and resourcefulness to prevent further carnage – and ensure that they themselves don’t become the killer’s next victims.
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Melody of Murder
By Stella Cameron
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2016 Stella Cameron
All rights reserved.
One month later
Alex Duggins scrunched down on her haunches and leaned against the back wall of St Aldwyn's church. Silence but for cool breeze flipping the leaves of a giant beech tree let her slip to a peaceful place in her too-busy mind.
Thick moss in every cranny of the building, between cracks in the pathways, smelled rich and damp. A scent that blended with the earth and the mulch of many seasons. She breathed in deeply. The cycle of growing things, even moss, was endlessly predictable and nowhere more so than among the permanent resting places of the dead. Inscriptions on ancient, leaning tomb stones faded beneath thick films of green and grey stains.
Summer came beautifully to the Cotswold Hills. From where she sat, in the shade of the beech, she could see the soft, early-morning sunlight shadow painting grass and clumps of tiny bright white daisies beneath the shadows of the dark gravestones.
Bogie, her gray, mostly terrier dog, ran after his earthward nose, back and forth, snuffling, black ears flapping. She dropped to sit on the ground. The area was still damp with lingering dew but she wore a long canvas jacket over jeans and it would keep her dry enough.
From the church came the sounds of someone playing the old upright piano used for choir practice. She looked toward the stained-glass windows overhead but couldn't see them without moving. They were not remarkable but she liked them. The music gained strength and a woman's voice rose in song. A woman's beautiful, husky, completely out-of-place voice singing in short bursts, with intervals on the piano. It sounded as if this was a new piece for the singer and she was working it out. Every few moments she fell silent, but then began again.
The voice reminded her of Madeleine Peyroux. When Alex had first heard Madeleine she'd thought of Billie Holiday. Alex loved the sound. The woman inside St Aldwyn's had the low, lazy tones of some blues singers, but also an unexpected range that let her climb high scales that made Alex grin with pleasure, even while her throat tightened with emotion. 'Loving you drives me crazy. But I ain't got no choice.' Again there was a piano interlude, practicing the same notes again and again. Alex could hear the woman hum while she played, a full, natural sound. The humming faded away. Each silence was longer until the sound ceased completely.
Wrapping her arms around her drawn-up knees, Alex rested her chin there and waited for more.
Any diversion was a good diversion these days. She lived in a muddle of decisions that needed to be made. Each one could be absolutely right or horribly wrong for her.
She could see the back windows of the Burke sisters' two row cottages that faced Pond Street. The downstairs floors of the cottages had been combined to make Leaves of Comfort, their tea rooms, book and handicraft shop. Alex smiled toward the upstairs window where she knew the sisters would be having breakfast in their flat over the shop and chatting about the rights and wrongs of Folly-on-Weir, or more likely of the villagers. For two elderly, retired teachers who supposedly didn't get out much – other than to Alex's pub that was so conveniently close – they were a depthless treasure of local news and speculation.
But it was Tony, Tony Harrison, village vet, vet to the surrounding farms, and Alex's sometimes lover who crowded out everything else whenever she couldn't push thoughts of him away. He was her best friend. Now how likely was that combination?
She wanted to keep on making love with Tony. Recently, rather than slipping into a comfortable routine together, they had moved into a realm of experimentation and excitement she would never have thought either of them would seek out.
She gave a quiet smile behind her hands.
What neither of them seemed able to confront was their future. That could be for the best; they both had miserable marital failures in their pasts.
She wished the woman in the church would sing again but silence suggested a very long pause for thought. Or perhaps she'd finished.
The little girl Alex had lost at birth five years earlier, not long before she returned to Folly-on-Weir, had no marker here, in the place the child's mother, and grandmother, Lily, called home. Lily attended services regularly. Alex went when the mood moved her and it had moved her more frequently lately. This morning's visit to the churchyard had been with the idea of choosing a spot where a bench might be enjoyed by those who came here. A little brass plaque would say only 'Baby Lily', as the baby had been named after the grandmother who never saw her, never held her.
Why couldn't she move on from her lost child? Sometimes she didn't think about her for weeks, but then the memories returned, usually in the dark night hours when she lay awake watching for the dawn. She got up and wandered between graves, searching out the perfect spot for a bench. When she reached the lych-gate with its rose-draped canopy, she crossed her arms on a splintery cross beam, careful not to disturb a few vines curling there.
Teenagers on horseback clattered up Mallard Lane, laughing and chattering, their mounts' coats shining. Two Jack Russell terriers bustled in self-important circles close, but not too close, to the horses' hoofs. She watched the group until they crossed Pond Street, heading for a shortcut to the village green, then she turned back and made a loop around the entire, semi-circular path until she returned to sit against the wall again.
Alex had to concentrate on the Black Dog, Folly-on-Weir's village pub and her investment in the future when she'd returned after her divorce. No business ran itself and it was important to her not to be an absentee owner while her mother, Lily Duggins, and manager Hugh Rhys, ran the place. Capable as they were, customers formed a bond with the landlord, or lady. She smiled at the thought. Once she had wanted nothing more than to follow her career as a successful graphic artist; becoming landlady of a pub would never have occurred to her.
From inside the church came a mighty crash, the discordant clatter of piano keys. Probably a slam of exasperation. The singer had been silent for so long, Alex assumed she really had left.
Disappointed, after another lengthy, soundless interval, Alex pushed to her feet, whistled for Bogie to heel and set off for the side door into the ambulatory behind the organ. That was where the rather decrepit, if well-tuned upright was kept, and the choir practiced. The piano they occasionally used at the Black Dog was a better-looking instrument, but not much.
If the woman was still there, Alex wanted to say how she loved her voice and hoped she'd hear her again.
In the distance, to Alex's right, a figure in dark clothing walked on the other side of the graveyard wall. He, and she was sure it was a man, went toward the rectory and almost instantly disappeared from sight when the church blocked her view. Must be Reverend Ivor, the interim vicar who was rumoured to be leaving soon. She would miss him and his wife, Sybil – and their longhaired Dachshund, Fred.
'Sit,' she told Bogie, 'and stay.'
He flopped into a dejected heap beneath pink and coral rose bushes and turned reproachful black eyes up to her face.
Inside the church it took moments for Alex's eyes to adjust to the dim light. She entered behind the choir risers and skirted them until she could see the back of the piano. The woman had gone, darn it. Disappointed, Alex wandered out into the ambulatory, avoiding stepping on memorial brasses set into large, side by side flagstones. She studied the knight and his lady depicted there, as she had often done before. Years of enthusiasts spreading their rolls of paper over the eerie likenesses, taping them down, rasping the raised images with rubbing wax to capture the images and later frame them, had taken a toll on the brasses. Rubbings were banned now.
Alex took a backward step to get a better angle on the knight. His toes were pointed and his chain-mail enclosed arms crossed over his narrow, concave chest. In the stone beside him ... Her heel caught something that shot away, her body keeled backward, one leg doubled under her, arms flailing. Alex cried out. The landing was painful as her elbows and bottom let her know, but at least she didn't jolt all the way back and hit her head.
Very carefully, she stretched flat on the cold floor and waited for her breathing to calm. She ached but moved her limbs, flexed her spine until she was sure she hadn't broken anything. All of her parts worked even if her body did throb. The leg that had bent backward felt achy at the knee but she could move the joint easily enough.
The sound of something rolling back and forth, slowing and coming to a stop, brought her to a sitting position. A red plastic thermos bottle had come to a standstill where it had slewed away from sharp contact with her trainer. 'Who would leave that here?' she muttered, gingerly getting to her feet and picking up the unintended weapon. Probably a choir member. There were one or two who carried water bottles and wrapped yards of scarf ostentatiously around their necks like opera singers protecting priceless voices.
Bending to grasp her knees, Alex waited for her heart to resume its usual position in her chest. Parts of her would definitely bear bruises. The thermos was an old, well-used one that should have a screw top that doubled as a cup, only that was missing.
Not far from the piano a stained-looking white lid, probably the cup belonging to the thermos, rested on its side.
She breathed through her mouth and squeezed her eyes shut. When she opened them again, her heart gave another huge bump. A thin trickle of blood ran like an emaciated scarlet snake from beneath a piano leg – from beneath a wing of glistening, pale blond hair spread in a blunt sweep over the feet of a brass music stand and gray flagstones.
One hand, fingers outstretched but still, appeared to reach for the lid of the bottle.CHAPTER 2
Alex wouldn't appreciate finding out that Harriet Burke had called from Leaves of Comfort to suggest Tony 'might' want to walk past St Aldwyn's this morning. Tony would do his best to make it believable that he'd wandered by while walking his dog, Katie.
That tale wouldn't pass the smell test. So what? He needed to spend real and personal time with Alex, and soon.
'Sitting at the back of the church, against the wall facing ours,' Harriet had told him. That had been some time ago and he hoped he hadn't missed her. He arrived at the spot. And there was no sign of Alex, but Katie took off as fast as her arthritic hips would allow, and he followed. The dog gave a single, excited bark, joined by a familiar yipping. He quickly found Katie with Alex's Bogie, gamboling joyfully through rose bushes near a side door to the church. The door stood slightly open.
He heard Alex's voice before he saw her. Her tone sent him striding into the building and past the choir risers. She spoke on her mobile, urgently, breathlessly, calling for help.
At her feet lay a young woman who seemed vaguely familiar. Blonde, her blue eyes open and dimmed, her rounded features seemed flaccid. Tony felt the emptiness of death.
He dropped to his knees and felt for a pulse. Nothing. But she was warm, soft, and he started CPR. Her head gradually lolled before he could return to her mouth for a second time and a glance at her eyes confirmed his fears. Her lips were blue, a little puffy even, and saliva had drizzled from her mouth and across a cheek. He looked more closely at her clothes. Her shirt stuck to her body as if she had sweated heavily. He sniffed and realized she must have vomited although he couldn't see any evidence. Carefully, he shifted back, stood and looked around, desperate not to move or even touch anything the authorities would want to deal with.
Alex's free hand reached for him. He squeezed her fingers and saw tears pouring down her cheeks from oval green eyes that glittered with confusion. 'Yes,' she said into the mobile. 'What? She's at St Aldwyn's, Folly-on-Weir, near the organ. Hurry, please. Yes, I'll stay here until they come.'
'Tony,' she said, slipping the phone into a pocket in her green jacket. 'How did you know to come?'
He swallowed. 'I didn't. I just came looking for you and here you are. I'm glad I'm here. Do you know who she is?'
Alex angled her head. 'I think I've seen her somewhere.'
'My dad was going to see Harriet and Mary this morning.' He pulled out his own mobile. His father was the local GP. 'We can hope he's already there.'
It was sensible Harriet Burke who answered, 'Leaves of Comfort.'
He asked if Doc Harrison was there. 'Yes,' she said promptly but couldn't resist asking, 'is there a problem over there?'
So they had been watching to see if he went looking for Alex. 'Please ask him to come to the church – use the door behind the organ, the one closest to where the choir stands,' he said firmly and clicked off.
'Tony.' Alex stared at him. 'Is this ... Tony, did someone do this to her?'
He looked up into the rafters high above and swallowed. 'I don't know.'
'But you think so, don't you? It's her head. Oh, my god, someone hit her over the head.'
'Or she fell,' he said quickly. 'Onto the bottom of the music stand, do you think?'
Alex shook her head. 'I don't know what to think. An ambulance is coming.'
Their eyes met again and Tony grimaced. 'What's that?' He nodded to the red thermos she held.
She sniffed it. 'Smells like berries – and perhaps cloves – but it's sharp. I don't recognize the stuff. Could be a cordial. It was over there. I tripped and fell on it. I think that's the top of it near her hand.'
He nodded. 'I'd like to take a closer look at the body, but we must not move her. Dad will get here. Alex, you shouldn't have moved that thermos, or touched it.'
'It's empty.' She set the thing on the piano stool and wiped her hand on her jeans. 'I didn't think about anything like that. I hadn't noticed ... her. Tony, why? She's so young. You're sure she hasn't just passed out and cut her head?'
'I'm sure, darling. I wish I weren't.'
'Morning,' his dad said briskly, coming through the side door, bag in hand. 'Are you two volunteering for the choir? It's been a bit thin lately but are you sure you'd be an asset, Tony? If I remember ...' He saw the girl and didn't miss a step before going to kneel beside her. He felt her throat for a pulse and pulled his stethoscope from the bag.
It all felt hopeless.
'Have you phoned for an ambulance?' he asked sharply.
'Yes. She was singing in here when I was sitting out there. Then she stopped but I didn't hear her call out.'
Doc James Harrison leaned over and moved the stethoscope over the girl's chest. He pulled off the scope and set it on the ground while he felt her neck again. After a few moments he sat back and looked steadily down into her face. 'How long ago did she stop singing?'
'I don't know.' Alex looked near tears again. She checked her watch. 'I was out there a long time, I think. She stopped singing several times as if she were practicing, or trying to get the song right. That was before I went around the churchyard. I walked around for a bit, thinking, and eventually went back to sit again. It was as if she'd been in here figuring something out but she suddenly got frustrated. She banged the piano keys hard. After that it was quiet. I was thinking about something else.'
'She hasn't been dead long at all,' Doc said. He had been a physician most of his life but he hadn't lost empathy in the face of tragedy. Looking at him, Tony saw what Alex had often pointed out, an image of himself in his sixties; tall, straight-backed, his dark blond hair turned grey but still thick and wavy, and the same dark blue eyes.
Tony gave all his attention to Alex. He could almost see her thoughts. She shook her head and said, 'I wandered around out there while she died.'
'Best not think about that,' he said. 'There was nothing you could have done.'
His father produced his own phone. 'I need to call the police.'CHAPTER 3
Soft-soled shoes squeaked on tiles in the vestibule.
'Thank goodness,' Alex said.
'If it's the ambulance they'll have to stand down until the police say otherwise,' Doc told her.
Alex breathed out loudly. The old church seemed to press in on her. Sunlight caught the very tops of the single stained- glass window and dappled incongruous cheery colors on the girl's body, her pale face. That wasn't right, bright chips like a kaleidoscope frame had no place here and now.
Excerpted from Melody of Murder by Stella Cameron. Copyright © 2016 Stella Cameron. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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