Sharing lodging in the sleepy English village of Walmsley Parva has eased some of the financial strain on the two old school chums, but money is still tight in these lean years following the Great War. So when the local vicar—and pigeon-racing club president—approaches them with a private inquiry opportunity, the ladies eagerly accept. There's been a spot of bother: the treasurer has absconded with the club's funds and several prized birds.
Beryl and Edwina hope to flush out the missing man by checking his boardinghouse and place of employment at the coal mine. But when they visit the man's loft, they find their elusive quarry lying in white feathers and a pool of crimson blood—the only witnesses cooing mournfully. Beryl and Edwina aren't shy about ruffling a few feathers as they home in on their suspects, but they had better find the killer fast, before their sleuthing career is cut short . . .
Praise for Murder in an English Village
"With its strong sense of place and time in post-World War I England, this will be welcomed by fans of Frances Brody’s Kate Shackleton mysteries."
—Library Journal (Starred Review)
“A spectacular series launch.”
—Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
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Beryl Helliwell watched as her friend Edwina Davenport capped her fountain pen and laid it on the desk in front of her. The morning post had yielded several pointed and chiding reminders from local merchants of accounts past due as well as a vexing dearth of alimony checks. Clearly the results of Edwina's calculations could not be considered good news.
"It's all here in black and white on the ledger page. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say in red and white."
"Come on now, Ed, it can't be as bad as all that, can it?" Beryl asked. "After all, we were tediously careful with the funds all winter long."
"One can never be careful enough to make not enough go as far as one needs," Edwina said.
"Just last Sunday your dreary vicar was nattering on about some story or other from the Good Book about miracles and unending supplies of bread and fish or some such a thing. Can't you make the same thing work with the bookkeeping?" Beryl asked. Beryl noticed her friend looked shocked at the suggestion. But then, Edwina was easily shocked.
"The vicar is not the most prepossessing of men but I would hardly call him dreary. And the parable of the loaves and the fishes is not meant as a lesson in resource husbandry. It certainly isn't meant to encourage the congregation to tread all over the toes of the Almighty by assuming one can just as easily perform such miracles." Edwina shook her head at Beryl and delivered a severe look. "The only thing close to a miracle I've managed lately by way of stretching the comestibles is to water down your gin."
"I had wondered about my increased capacity for alcohol recently," Beryl said. "Rather a shortsighted approach, you know. I've only gone and consumed twice as much of it."
"But I haven't diluted it by half," Edwina said. "No wonder we are going behind each and every week."
"You should have told me and I would have cut down on my cocktail making," Beryl said.
"I didn't imagine you would have been willing to listen to reason about it. You've said as much in the past." Edwina gave the bookkeeping ledger another dour look.
Edwina was right, of course. Although Beryl had spent most of her forty- odd years rattling around the globe in an effort to complete one feat of derring-do or another, she had always returned to the States at the end of a journey. That is, until the outrageous passage of Prohibition. She had no intention whatsoever of stepping foot back on American soil until that nonsense had been repealed. Even finally granting women the right to vote had not changed her mind on the subject.
"I said nothing about reducing my consumption. You know quality gin is the reason for my glowing complexion and unflagging vivacity. I'd even go so far as to say it is responsible in large part for my youthful appearance. No, I would not stop imbibing, but would have stopped making cocktails."
"You aren't talking sense, Beryl. Not in the least."
"I mean to say I would have commenced to mooch. I would regale those at the pub with stories of my adventures in exchange for the odd drink or two," Beryl said. Edwina gasped with a ferocity that put Beryl in mind of one of those newfangled carpet aspirating machines she had seen at a model home in London some months back. It really was extraordinary how well Ed mimicked the noise of the device.
"You mustn't spend your evenings in the pub. What would people say?" Edwina asked.
"I have never been concerned about what others say about me, Ed. You know that. It is only out of deference to your sense of decorum that I have not already staked out a favorite table at the village watering hole. Besides, I was quite sure you would not be willing to accompany me and I vastly prefer your companionship to that which I could find in the Dove and Duck."
"Despite my qualms and concerns for your reputation, I suppose if you wish to keep imbibing it may just come to that," Edwina said. "There are no two ways about it. Despite my very best efforts, and your own contribution to the coffers, our financial situation could conservatively be pronounced dire."
"Are you sure you have no piggy banks with a few pounds set aside for a rainy day? No unused silver knickknacks ready to sell floating around the place?" Beryl asked. But she already knew the answer. When she first arrived in Walmsley Parva a few months earlier she had been quick to note that all items of any value which Edwina's family home, the Beeches, had ever held, had already been discreetly sold off. As things stood, they were barely able to seat six for dinner with matching silverware. The income from Edwina's shares could generously be called paltry. The Great War had sent the English economy into a steep decline and she knew they weren't the only ones suffering. In fact, they were better off than many and she made sure to remind herself of that fact regularly.
"You know that there aren't. Despite all our efforts at economizing, we may yet be forced to take in a lodger." Edwina pursed her lips. "I just don't know what else we can do." Edwina threw her slim hands into the air.
"Something will turn up, Ed," Beryl said. "In my experience, it always does." Beryl could not help but notice Edwina did not appear soothed. At least she did not if her exit from her chair and commencement of pacing the long threadbare rug running the length of the Beeches' library was any indication of her state of mind.
"Your experience runs to reviving stalled engines and surviving crash landings, Beryl. Your knowledge of finance is limited to prying funds from former husbands and outrageous runs of luck at card games," Edwina said. Beryl did not see the trouble.
"I think that means I stay calm under duress," Beryl said.
"If we were plunging to our deaths whilst flying over the North Sea your expertise would be very welcome. As it is, I can't say I hold out much hope that your attitude is the right approach." Edwina chewed indelicately on the edge of her thumbnail. Her friend must be very worried indeed.
Beryl never did understand the concept of worry. Either something would happen or it wouldn't. She could see no point whatsoever in spending energy best suited to taking action and to having fun on fretting about possibilities that might never come to pass. But Beryl did recognize that not everyone shared her view of life. While she sometimes admired and even envied Edwina's rambunctious imagination she realized it came at a price far steeper than she herself would wish to pay. No, she felt quite sorry for Edwina as she watched her dear friend trying to keep her upper lip stiff as she snuck another glance at the bookkeeping ledger. Something would have to be done and soon if Edwina were to keep from worrying herself to death.
Beryl took things in hand. She drew a deep breath and decided, yes simply decided, that all would be well. Then she sprang from her chair with as much vigor as her slightly stiff joints would allow and grasped Edwina by the arm, gently but persuasively.
"We shall take a turn about the garden and look at what has come into bloom today. Weren't you mentioning anticipating the unfurling of some peony buds just last night?" Beryl asked, drawing her agitated friend towards the library door. "I shouldn't be a bit surprised if a solution to all our troubles appears before we complete our tour."
* * *
Sure enough, by the time they reached the third garden bed on their walk, the roses were back in Edwina's cheeks. Beryl congratulated herself as she watched Edwina burying her nose in a fluffy pink peony blossom. While Beryl did not concern herself in the least with the garden, she was amazed at Edwina's intimate knowledge of all of her plants, their triumphs and their tribulations. Edwina leaned farther into the planting bed and inspected the underside of some glossy green leaves. She pulled a pair of secateurs from the pocket of her skirt and snipped off an offending branch.
Just then, Edwina's jobbing gardener, Simpkins, rounded the corner of the potting shed. Beryl wasn't certain but she thought she detected a slight wobble in Simpkins' gait. She suspected the privacy of the potting shed had provided him with the opportunity for a spot of tippling. Fortunately for Simpkins, Edwina was far less savvy about such things than Beryl was herself. Edwina found fault with her elderly employee's manner and work as a matter of course. Imbibing on the job would do little to improve her opinion of him. As he approached them, Simpkins slowed his pace and seemed to be having a care about putting one foot neatly in front of the other.
"Morning, ladies," Simpkins said. "I see you've noticed the fine glory of the peonies this day." He doffed his hat and made a slight bow. That clinched it. Beryl was certain that a cold-sober Simpkins would never bow to anyone. It was one of the things she liked best about him.
"The peonies are in fine form despite an infestation of aphids. I'm not sure how you call yourself a gardener at all," Edwina said, taking a step towards Simpkins and waving the leaf she had cut right under his nose. Beryl held her breath and wondered if Edwina was finally going to tumble to Simpkins' vice. Beryl could practically smell the fumes from where she stood several feet away. Perhaps a distraction was in order.
"Have you any news, Bert?" Beryl asked. "Any goings-on in the village we may have missed? Gossip down the pub you may have gleaned in your ramblings?" She winked at Simpkins as she uttered the word pub, hoping he would take the hint and do his best to look less disreputable. When Edwina had worries on her mind, she often was less tolerant of the foibles of others. In Beryl's opinion Simpkins was often just what Edwina needed and she would hate to see a breach develop between them.
"Indeed there is, miss," Simpkins said, drawing himself up to his full height. "There's been a bit of a hullabaloo with the local pigeon racing club. I thought of the two of you at once."
Edwina fanned herself vigorously with her leaf and scowled.
"The local pigeon racing club made you think of us, Simpkins," Edwina said. "I hardly dare to imagine how that could be."
"But there's been a scandal, miss," Simpkins said. "It put me in mind of the pair of you right quick like." Beryl shook her head slowly, wondering how Simpkins had managed to remain employed for as long as he had. Edwina most certainly did not prefer to truck with scandal.
"A scandal made you think of us?" Edwina asked, waving her cutting tool in front of her as she spoke.
"Now don't go getting yourself all hotted up, Miss Edwina," Simpkins said with only the slightest of slurs in his speech.
"What sort of a scandal?" Beryl asked before Edwina could say anything else.
"The pigeon club treasurer has gone missing," Simpkins said. Beryl laid a soothing hand on Edwina's arm, which had disturbingly reached out towards Simpkins while holding the secateurs.
"A missing person," Beryl said. "Of course you thought of us. After all, finding lost individuals seems to be something we are quite good at." Beryl turned towards Edwina and flashed her a brilliant and reassuring smile. She was gratified to see Edwina place the cutting tool back in her pocket.
"I suppose that's all right then," Edwina said. Edwina took a step closer to Simpkins, a sure sign her interest had been piqued. Simpkins directed a rheumy glance in Beryl's direction and cleared his throat. Beryl gave him the slightest of nods in encouragement.
"I'm not sure why the vicar would be so upset about a grown man who's gone missing, but he is right worked up about it," Simpkins said.
"Why would the vicar be interested in the comings and goings of someone in the pigeon club?" Beryl asked.
"The vicar is the president of the local pigeon club," Edwina said to Beryl. "It's a very popular pastime with many of the local gentlemen."
"Even though he was right cagey about the details, I told the vicar you'd be happy to give him a hand with his troubles," Simpkins said, swaying ever so slightly in the breeze. "He said he'd be happy for any assistance you might give."
"You told him what?" Edwina asked, her voice floating shrilly up into the treetops. Simpkins winced. Beryl wondered if this early in the day imbibing was to counteract the effects of a very long night of indulgence. She noticed him placing a gnarled hand over his stomach and decided the man was in fact hung over. She never had such troubles herself, a happy fact that left her feeling slightly superior as well as inordinately sympathetic towards those who did.
"Well, seeing as the two of you were such dab hands at solving the last mystery that came your way, I suggested to the vicar that you might look into this one," Simpkins said. "I see no reason why the two of you shouldn't start up your own private enquiry business."
And there it was. The solution to all their financial problems. Beryl was heartily ashamed she had not thought of it herself. Of course they ought to open their own private investigations agency. Beryl turned expectantly towards Edwina who, characteristically, did not seem to share her enthusiasm.
"Go into business?" Edwina said. "We haven't any idea whatsoever how to do such a thing." Beryl noticed Edwina did not cross her arms across her chest but rather began fussing with her collar and the cuffs of her cardigan. Beryl was encouraged to voice support for the suggestion.
"Is he willing to pay for our services?" Beryl asked.
"I'm sure that he would be. He seemed eager to have the problem taken care of quickly and quietly," Simpkins said. Beryl noticed the way Simpkins stressed the word quietly. "Of course he's a vicar so I wouldn't expect him to be a big spender."
"His willingness to pay does not make us more worthy of receiving payment," Edwina said. "We know nothing whatsoever about running an enquiry business. Or any other sort of business for that matter." Edwina's arms began to creep towards her chest. "It's one thing to look into criminal activities as a hobby. It is quite another to charge for one's services." This would require persuasion and quickly. Once Edwina had made up her mind she could be very difficult to budge. With an apologetic wink to Simpkins, Beryl took Edwina by the arm and drew her slightly out of his earshot.
"You recall our conversation this morning. I told you something would come up. This is precisely the answer to all our woes," Beryl said. "We would be foolish not to build upon our previous successes."
"Solving one mystery does not make us experts," Edwina said.
"If you recall, it turned out to be two mysteries in the end," Beryl said. "I would also point out we solved two crimes the local constable had determined were not crimes at all." Edwina took a deep breath and let out a long, loud exhale. If she had been a different sort of woman, Beryl suspected Edwina would have allowed herself the indulgence of a profanity or two. As it was, Edwina simply sniffed extravagantly, as though she suffered from hay fever.
"But we haven't any capital even if we do have some measure of experience," Edwina said. "Surely one needs resources to set up any form of enterprise."
"We have absolutely everything we need to set up shop," Beryl said. She lifted her hand and counted off their assets one by one. "In addition to our experience and our gumption we have a telephone, an automobile, and a pistol."
"A pistol," Edwina said. "You never mentioned that you have a pistol."
"I confess, I never thought to do so. I also never happened to mention I have a toothbrush. I find both of them to be absolute necessities."
"Have you ever fired it?" Edwina asked. Beryl was quite certain Edwina would have been embarrassed to realize her mouth was hanging open slackly like an adenoidal parlour maid finding herself in the presence of a member of the royal family.
"Only when absolutely necessary," Beryl said. "Unless you would like to be in the position of advertising for an additional lodger, I suggest we visit the vicar posthaste. Besides, I would have thought helping a vicar would be the Christian thing to do." Two spots of color appeared on Edwina's cheeks. Beryl felt grubby reminding her friend of her duty, but appealing to her sense of morality was the most expedient way to reach an agreement.
Edwina turned back towards Simpkins, lifted her chin, and squared her shoulders.
"Did the vicar happen to say when he would be available to meet with us?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Murder Flies the Coop"
Copyright © 2018 Jessie Crockett.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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