Lady Rena, who dresses in Victorian costumes and speaks with a British accent, lives alone except for six cats; her redoubtable housekeeper, Marcella; and Dr. Corbeau , a graduate of Duke Medical School who enjoys playing a stoic butler. Not a single resident in the coastal rural community of Williston has seen Lady Rena leave her house in the last thirty years, but Lady Rena has one confidant-Harry Wade,a neighbor who lives down the road with his wife and faithfully visits Lady Rena. But when Marcella's son suddenly dies under suspicious circumstances and then Marcella disappears without a trace, Harry, his wife Rosemary, and a sheriff's deputy become embroiled not only in an intriguing murder case, but also find themselves facing specters from the past.
In this lively tongue-in-cheek murder mystery, someone-or something-is harboring a secret in Williston, and it is up to the motley crew of detectives to find out what it is.
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Murder and MarcellaA Lady of the Lane Mystery
By Elaine Chadwick Clanton
Trafford PublishingCopyright © 2010 Elaine Chadwick Clanton
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Lane
The lane began at Highway 70 and ended just shy of the front gate of the majestic three-story house on Williston Creek. A few years ago Carteret County fire rescue regulations had mandated street signs on every inhabited unpaved road in this part of eastern North Carolina. After two hundred years of anonymity, this former logging trail was officially dubbed Oak Lane after the ancient perennial overlooking the makeshift driveway behind Harry Wade's house.
Local residents still called the quarter mile stretch of tightly packed earthandpulverizedseashells"thelane,"stubbornlyignoringthepretentious sign at the entrance. But, Harry could see the encroaching signs of change in the increased traffic along the highway, and the parceling off of lots as the larger homesteads divided and subdivided in the shuffle of inheritance and the lure of newcomer investment.
Still, Harry reflected, one thing remained constant. The three-story white, green shuttered house at the creek end of Oak Lane was the exclusive domain of Rena Laurel Chadwick, known locally as Lady Rena. Some time in her nebulous past, she had purportedly married a duke or other titled nobleman, although covert whispers thoroughly enjoyed speculation on the legitimacy of the title.
Lady Rena, a recluse, reveled in her eccentric reputation, having shed every last vestige of her rural Carolina upbringing. She lived alone, that is, if you didn't count the six cats, the redoubtable housekeeper Marcella, and Dr. Corbeau.
A tall, lean sophisticate of Haitian descent, Dr. Corbeau was rumored to possess bona fide medical credentials. Some thought that he actually served as Lady Rena's live-in physician. But, in all appearances to those few proffered access to Lady Rena's domain, he functioned as the stoic, point-of-order butler, eschewing the modern title of household administrator.
Perhaps, not so point-of-order, Harry thought, since his model was the classical actor Sir John Gielgud in his Oscar winning performance as Dudley Moore's candidly pragmatic butler in Arthur. In fact, his humorous and often ironic demeanor sometimes projected elements of an actor on a set, and it was always clear to Harry that he enjoyed himself immensely. Harry and his wife Rosemary lived at the highway end of Oak Lane. In their mid-fifties, they had elected early retirement from civil service careers at the military base in Cherry Point, although Rosemary still worked part-time at the Food Lion grocery store at the eastern end of the waterfront town of Beaufort. Their house, which actually faced Highway 70, was onestory and emphatically more modest than Lady Rena's landmark estate.
Harry was Lady Rena's one friend in the coastal rural community of Williston, some fifteen miles down Highway 70 from Beaufort and Morehead City. He was the only person who visited her on a regular basis. Unless you counted Rosemary, since everyone knew they had a standing invitation for dinner with Lady Rena every other Friday.
Not a single local resident in Williston could remember the last time they had seen Lady Rena leave her house, at least not in the last thirty years. Most people, especially the "newbies" from Florida or "up north," assumed that Lady Rena was elderly.
Harry Wade knew differently. Harry and Rena had graduated from East Carteret High School in the same class.
The summer after graduation Rena had inexplicably disappeared from Carteret County for a number of years. Rumor had it that she had traveled extensively, and ultimately married the English Lord, insuring herself the princess-style life of a pampered and heralded aristocrat. The story circulated that her new husband had died suddenly and rather mysteriously, leaving her childless, but with a considerable fortune.
Whatever the true nature of events, she had quietly purchased the property at the end of the lane and built the enormous house in record time and at considerable expense. While the paint was still tacky on the shutters, she had moved back to Carteret County without fanfare, akin to Watership Down's Hazel-rah sequestering himself in the safety and comfort of his burrow.
Not a soul in Williston knew the name of the aristocrat Rena had married, for although she had retained the title of Lady, she had reverted back to her maiden name, Chadwick. Gossip mongers reveled splendidly in implicit scenarios surrounding such a delightfully resplendent decision.
It was rumored that Lady Rena had contributed a substantial sum to the building fund of Carteret County General Hospital, and other public projects that had enamored her with the local and state political establishments. No doubt, such munificence allowed her carte blanche in whatever personal endeavors or causes she might embrace.
No one could say exactly what those causes might be. There were only two things that anyone knew for sure about Lady Rena @mdash; she was wealthy and she was eccentric, two qualities that over the years had firmly established her as a mysterious local institution. Speculation on the goings on in the spectacular house that could be seen from the Williston Bridge towering in the distance over the creek filled many a gap in gossip at local clambakes and bazaars.
Harry reflected on these things and more as he walked up Oak Lane on a slightly overcast and breezy Sunday afternoon. He always had tea with Lady Rena on Sundays at precisely three forty-five, and lunch with her every Wednesday at precisely twelve-fifteen. The visits had become a tradition they both looked forward to. Their common ground had started out with mysteries in novels, television, and movies. Since Rosemary's interest leaned toward romance and related adventure, she had made a point of arranging her schedule at Food Lion to cover these time periods.
During these twice weekly visits, their favorite topic had evolved into any questionable crime or occurrence reported by The Carteret County News-Times. Harry provided Lady Rena with insightful viewpoints on local happenings. His contributions sometimes included inside information because his best friend happened to be Danny Lawrence, the local sheriff's deputy.
On this particular day, Harry was accompanied by his ten-year old niece Eleanor, down east for a visit from Raleigh while her parents were off cruising the Caribbean to celebrate their twentieth wedding anniversary. Eleanor shared her uncle's enthusiasm for mysteries, and was particularly enamored with Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot.
She was excited about finally meeting the mysterious Lady Rena. Her Uncle Harry had talked about her often enough. Eleanor had cleverly pointed out that Aunt Rosemary would not have to rearrange her schedule at Food Lion, thereby successfully finagling her uncle into getting her an invitation to his customary tea.
"Do you think Lady Rena will like me?" Eleanor queried as she bounced along beside her uncle's wide, decisive stride.
Harry shrugged, an enigmatic expression that reflected a hint of amusement flickered across his ruddy round face. "Lady Rena will adore you," he assured her heartily, a comedy of conflicting emotions emanating from his eyes. "Just mention the mustaches and the little gray cells, and you'll win her over in a heartbeat!" His niece smiled at the reference to Agatha Christie's famous Belgian detective.
They both heard the hoof beats behind them at the same moment, and turned to see a tall, sturdily built man in a khaki law enforcement uniform closing the distance between them at a brisk trot. He waved to Harry, a friendly, almost jovial expression on his face.
"Wow, what a beautiful horse!" Eleanor exclaimed as the rider pulled up next to them. She had seen the sheriff's deputy riding the big bay from a distance, but had never been this close before.
Harry introduced his niece to his best friend, Danny Lawrence (pronounced "Larnce" in the local dialect). Danny produced a piece of carrot from his saddlebag, so that Eleanor could make friends with his horse, Roscoe.
"Why did you name him Roscoe?" Eleanor wanted to know as they progressed down the lane, Danny pacing his horse beside them.
"Seems appropriate for a deputy's horse," Danny responded good-naturedly. "Way before your time, it used to be a nickname for a handgun."
"Aren't you usually off-duty on Sunday?" Harry asked. He was beginning to puff a little bit because the big horse walked faster than he was used to.
Danny laughed. "I'm out to make sure you get some extra exercise on your walk up the lane. Take some of those extra pounds off Rosemary's cooking has packed on you!"
Harry patted his substantial waist, a wistful grin creasing his features. His eyes twinkled, not in the least put out by the jibe. He had always been lean until he quit smoking about twenty years earlier. Now, in his plaid flannel jacket, he looked like a well-fed version of Paul Bunyan, his balding head covered by a faded blue Yankees baseball cap.
"I get plenty of exercise when we go bowling every Tuesday night," Harry responded defensively. "And, you try mowing that acre of grass around my house sometime, and you'll see exercise!"
"Can I ride Roscoe?" Eleanor pleaded. They were only a short distance from the three-story house at the end of the lane.
"You're not exactly dressed for riding a horse," Harry interjected, thinking that Rosemary would have a fit if her niece ruined the new dress she had just bought for her.
"Sometime when I'm not on official business," Danny promised.
Harry looked up into his friend's eyes, a questioning expression on his face.
"What official business?" Eleanor asked. It was the exact question on Harry's mind.
Danny reached down and tweaked Eleanor's nose affectionately. "Deputy business," he said enigmatically, but Harry did not miss the glance he directed toward him over Eleanor's windblown auburn curls. There was something in his friend's eyes that plainly stated that he was not out on a lazy Sunday afternoon soliciting contributions for the local sheriff's association.
Eleanor groaned, but accepted for the moment that she was grounded from Roscoe's alluring back.
"On your way to your usual Sunday tea at Lady Rena's, I presume?" Danny directed to Harry. Everyone in Williston knew about the customary teas and the twice-a-month dinners. Harry nodded in the affirmative. "Can't miss those crumpets!" he quipped in jest. In truth, he hadn't a clue what a crumpet was.
"I get to meet Lady Rena!" Eleanor chimed in. "Uncle Harry says she's very nice, and has a neat house, and beautiful cats, and the most wonderful things to eat!"
Harry snickered. "I'm especially tuned in to the wonderful things to eat part!"
"Actually, I was thinking about dropping in at Lady Rena's place myself," Danny remarked casually as they approached the gate subdividing the hedges that encircled Lady Rena's yard. "Haven't actually set foot in the house in, oh, must be close to ten years."
"You saw Lady Rena ten years ago?" Harry responded, the skepticism apparent in his tone. He was trying to imagine the sheriff deputy's purpose on a Sunday afternoon for calling on Lady Rena.
Danny shrugged, an amused, but capitulatory expression in his demeanor. "O.K., maybe it was, uh, 15 or 20 years ago. Time has a way of catching up on you."
They had stopped on the berm where the lane ended in front of the wooden gate that bisected the hedge surrounding a neatly sculptured lawn. The imposing house seemed old now, but well kept. It boasted two main stories with a high-ceilinged third-story attic, the exterior walls covered in immaculately maintained white siding. A porch surrounded it on three sides. A second-story balcony with intricately carved railing ran in sync with the lower porch.
Tall, arch-shaped French-style windows flanked by long, forest green shutters surrounded the house on the two main floors, and doubled as doors. Harry had always found it amusing that the shingled roof matched the color of the shutters perfectly.
The porch was furnished with white wooden patio furniture, pristinely maintained, including a large swing suspended from the ceiling beams, all sporting comfortable cushions in the same shade of green. A variety of flowering plants in artistically sculpted and intricately painted stone urns placed at precise intervals around the porch added color and warmth to the imposing edifice. Hydrangeas in blue and green hugged the shaded sides of the house between the arched windows.
"Hey, you could have tea with us!" Eleanor exclaimed, the naivety of her youth oblivious to the dictates of decorum.
Harry cleared his throat rather theatrically as he tinkered with the latch in the neatly painted white gate. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see that Danny had dismounted, and was standing just in back of Eleanor, Roscoe's reins held characteristically in his left hand. He was right-handed, but that left him clear access to the police-issue revolver secured in a trim leather holster on the right side of his belt.
"Only if Dr. Corbeau would let him in," Harry directed delicately, ostensibly responding to his niece, but he had turned to meet his friend's eyes.
"The windows are like the Hemingway House in Key West!" Eleanor exclaimed as she rushed through the gate. As they watched her skip down the flower-lined brick pathway, Harry mentioned to Danny that his niece was well-traveled for her age.
She took the marble steps leading up to the porch in multiple leaps, and as quickly as possible planted herself firmly on the sofa-sized wooden swing. She eyed the two men triumphantly as she glided back and forth in the swing, its creaking competing with the seagulls, jays, and crows that hovered over the house and lawn.
Harry caught the gate as it swung back, and turned around toward Danny. "Lady Rena violate some kind of county ordinance about never showing herself in public? I can vouch that she's still alive and kicking! Well, maybe not exactly kicking!" He kept his voice light, but there was an undertone of apprehension that he couldn't quite conceal.
"Actually, knowing this was your usual tea time— Danny began tentatively, "I was hoping you could scout out the situation for me."
"What situation?" Harry asked, his voice lower than usual, although the distance between the gate and the swing, and all the background noise made it unlikely that Eleanor could hear them.
"When I come by tomorrow morning, I'll fill you in," Danny assured him. The deputy always stopped at Harry's for coffee on his way to the sheriff's office in Beaufort.
"It's not Lady Rena I'm interested in right now. It's her housekeeper, Marcella."
Harry raised his brows, his expression a combination of humor and incredulity. "Marcella? She's so old and decrepit, I expect her to collapse one day getting the tea to the table. What could possibly interest you in Marcella?"
"She may be in danger," Danny stated cryptically. "Just see if she acts any different than usual. You know, nervous or anything."
"Danger?" Harry had raised his voice, perplexed to the point where he had completely forgotten about his niece on the swing.
"We think she saw something she wasn't supposed to," Danny stated succinctly. He was in the process of remounting his horse. "Don't know anything right now for sure. But, if she did— His words trailed off as he turned Roscoe back toward the lane.
"Saw what?" Harry asked, but Danny had already urged the big bay into a trot.
"You'll be late to tea!" the deputy called out behind him as he headed back down the lane.
"Come on, Uncle Harry!" Eleanor shouted from the porch. "I'm hungry!"
Harry hurried through the gate and along the brick path. His heart was thumping harder than he would have expected. Something major had happened, and Marcella was involved. And, if Marcella was involved, Lady Rena was involved by default. The two were inseparable. He could only hope that whatever had happened, there had been time for Marcella to tell Lady Rena everything.
Eleanor jumped off the swing and rushed to the entrance, instantly awed by the massive double doors of sleekly polished mahogany, the upper half inset with beveled stained-glass in a wonderful panorama of butterflies, flowers, and cats. She ignored the intercom button on the right, and primly applied the brass knocker.
"This is going to be such a fun tea!" Eleanor commented, smiling up at her uncle, her eyes wide with anticipation.
"It will be that!" Harry responded, a touch of irony in his tone that his niece completely missed.
Excerpted from Murder and Marcella by Elaine Chadwick Clanton Copyright © 2010 by Elaine Chadwick Clanton. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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