A Bloody Words Light Mystery 2014 Finalist
Spa owner and habitual amateur sleuth Penny Brannigan finds herself at a clerical conference at Gladstone's Library in North Wales. Also attending as a guest speaker is her boyfriend, DCI Gareth Davies, there to give a talk on theft prevention. But behind the ornate red sandstone facade of this most respectable of Victorian buildings, Penny encounters deception, blackmail, and murder.
When the bishop's secretary dies of a suspicious case of food poisoning, Davies leads the investigation. At Penny's suggestion, Florence Semble, a friend from Penny's adopted hometown, is invited to the Library to decode the secretary's shorthand notebook in the search for clues. As the conference continues, another body is found in the beautiful Library itself, and Penny must once again search for a killer.
Elizabeth J. Duncan's Never Laugh as a Hearse Goes By is a fine entry in a series celebrated for its small-town charm, Welsh flavor, and lovable characters.
About the Author
Elizabeth J. Duncan, author of the Penny Brannigan mysteries, is a winner of the Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition for The Cold Light of Mourning. She was shortlisted for the Agatha and Arthur Ellis Awards. She lives in Toronto.
Read an Excerpt
Never Laugh as a Hearse Goes By
A Penny Brannigan Mystery
By Elizabeth J. Duncan
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2013 Elizabeth J. Duncan
All rights reserved.
"Hello, darling. It's me. Just wanted to let you know that I will be attending the conference at the library after all. It'll be wonderful to see you, but we'll have to be careful. We wouldn't want ... well, you know." The speaker cleared his throat and hesitated, as if trying to decide whether he should say anything more. Then, apparently deciding to leave it at that or perhaps just not wanting to say too much, he ended with a somewhat lame, "Right, well, bye now, and we'll talk soon, I hope."
Penny Brannigan's finger hovered over the delete key. Then, setting down a bag of shopping, she eased herself into the wingback chair beside the telephone, and when she was seated reached down and picked up a small cat who settled comfortably into her lap. She stroked his luxurious grey fur as she listened to the message again. She did not recognize the caller, and this voice-mail message, spoken in a precise, cultured English accent tinged with a bit of border Welsh, was clearly not meant for her. The man had misdialed and got a wrong number, her number. She pressed the Save button.
"Well, Harrison," she said. "What do you make of that?" Harrison purred loudly and kneaded her lap with his paws. "You don't care, do you? Of course you don't and why should you?" She put him down and with him weaving in and out of her legs she walked to the kitchen to see about meals for both of them.
"What do you want for your supper?" She opened a cupboard, pulled out a tin, and showed it to him. "Salmon?" Harrison meowed his approval.
* * *
"Very intriguing, indeed," agreed Victoria Hopkirk when Penny repeated the contents of the voice-mail message to her the next morning. "Who was the message meant for, I wonder? And as for being careful...." She paused to listen as the sound of the front door opening announced the arrival of Rhian, the receptionist at the Llanelen Spa. A moment later Rhian poked her head into Victoria's office. "Good morning." She grinned at Penny and Victoria, who returned her greeting.
"Our first clients will be here any minute," said Rhian, directing a meaningful look at Penny. "We've got that wedding party booked in today, remember. Hair, waxing, massages, manicures, the works. They've all got to be sorted. You'll have to speak to them and decide who's getting what done and in what order, Penny."
Penny gave Rhian a brief nod, rose from her chair and took a few steps toward the door and then turned to look at her business partner. "I might just ring the library today and see if they've got a conference coming up."
"A conference? Here? At our little library?" Victoria laughed. "There's barely room for the books, never mind a conference. Where would people sit? In the children's section? On those little plastic chairs?"
Penny threw her a dark look. "Don't forget you've got to sort out that appointment with the solicitor to start working out the licensing agreements for the hand cream." She closed Victoria's office door behind her and set off down the hall to the manicure room to prepare for her first client.
As the morning wore on her thoughts kept returning to the puzzling voice-mail message and she asked herself the same question Victoria had: Who had the message been meant for?
* * *
"I know you aren't exactly keen to go," said the Rev. Thomas Evans, "but my dear girl, you know what the bishop's like."
"No, I don't, actually," his wife replied. "And as I don't work for him, I don't see why I should have to go. And 'not exactly keen' is putting it mildly, I might add." She selected a piece of toast from the toast rack and made a great, noisy show of buttering it and slathering it with thick-cut orange marmalade. "And for four days, too." She bit off the corner of her toast and looked at him steadily while she chewed.
"Well, it's meant to be a get-together for the wives too, or should I say spouses? After all, we do have a couple of women rectors." The kindly rector mulled that over for a moment. "I'm sure even the word 'spouses' will cause offence to someone. 'Partner', then, although I detest that word, for some reason." He took a sip of coffee and let out a little sigh. "It's all so complicated nowadays." He folded his hands over his chest and gazed fondly at his wife. "Although what the partners are meant to be doing while the rest of us are attending to church business, I have no idea, but I'm sure something interesting will be organized for you." He brightened. "And apparently the food there is very good. Everything is homemade, and I hear the scones are especially delicious."
He got up from the table, walked round to his wife, bent over and put his arms around her shoulders. "Please, Bronwyn, love, I need you to do this for me. Couldn't you show just the tiniest bit of enthusiasm?"
She buried her face in the familiar comfort of his green cardigan. It smelled of old books with the faintest whiff of cigarette smoke.
"It's Robbie, isn't it?" The rector asked the question but knew the answer.
Bronwyn nodded into the wooly warmth. "I can't bear the thought of being away from him for so long," she wailed. "Four whole days."
"I know it seems like an eternity to be apart from him, but really, in the grand scheme of things, four days isn't so very long. And he'll be fine. Jones the vet's going to look after him and Robbie will get lots of attention, you know he will. Everyone at the practice loves Robbie. You could leave those special treats he likes so much with the staff to give him and we could see if Penny would look in on him."
Bronwyn sniffled into a tissue. "I suppose you think I've gone all soft and daft."
Sensing progress, the rector responded immediately with reassurance.
"Of course I don't think you're daft! I know how much he means to you and how much you love him." She gave him a sharp glance. "We love him," the rector hastily corrected himself.
Hearing a soft clicking sound coming down the hallway, Bronwyn jumped up from her chair. She bent down as a cairn terrier, eyes bright with anticipation, trotted into the dining room and jumped into her open arms.
She held him close, stroking his beige fur and murmuring, "Who's my darling boy, then?"
She held him for a few more minutes, glancing at the rector over the top of Robbie's head, then set him down.
"And speaking of Penny," said the rector, "Why don't you treat yourself to a manicure before the conference? Go on."
Bronwyn looked at her hands. They were lightly flecked with brown spots and the smooth contours of youth had been replaced by skin that was starting to loosen.
"Oh, I don't know about that."
The rector covered her hand with his and gave it a little squeeze.
"Oh, go on," he repeated. "When was the last time you had a manicure? Before Christmas, wasn't it?"
Bronwyn met his eyes and the two exchanged loving, knowing smiles. "That's better," said the rector as he returned to his place, opened his newspaper and began to scan the headlines. A few moments later he set it down and remarked to his wife, "Listen, what do you say we decide that we're going to make the most of this conference? After all, how often do we get to go away for four days, all expenses paid? I'm sure someone in the vet's office would agree to send you an e-mail every day to let you know how Robbie's doing and that will put your mind at ease so you can relax and enjoy yourself. This little break will be a good chance for you to catch up on your reading. The drive to Hawarden will be lovely this time of year and the venue is beautiful. St. Deiniol's as was. Now known as Gladstone's Library. Such an imposing name. I haven't been there for many years and I can't tell you how much I'm looking forward to going back.
"Oh, and Bronwyn, there's another very special reason why I'm looking forward to this. I had an e-mail last night from my old friend from university days, Graham Fletcher. You'll remember him. Well, he's just been appointed the new warden at Gladstone's Library. A very distinguished position it is, and he's wanted it ever since I've known him. It'll be wonderful to see him again and catch up."
"Graham. Graham Fletcher. Well, well. I haven't thought about him in ages," Bronwyn said. "I wonder if he still has that red hair?"
"It would be amazing if he did," replied Thomas, thinking of his own grey hair, "since we're all about the same age. It's so long ago now that we all did our undergraduate degrees together. Those were the days. Back when we were all young and beautiful." He rubbed his chin. "Then he went up to Oxford to take a master's degree and I had the great good fortune to marry you, although I always felt that he fancied you for himself." Bronwyn smiled and raised an eyebrow. Reassured, the rector picked up his newspaper and opened it. A moment later he made a little tutting sound.
"Oh, dear. What a terrible thing."
"What is it?"
"It says here a couple in Aberystwyth returned from holiday to find their garden had been stolen. Ninety-three feet of it! All the plants just dug up and gone." He read a bit more. "And the bench, too!" He shook his head. "What wicked times we live in. What's the world coming to, I ask myself." He took a sip of coffee. "I must give this some thought. Perhaps there's a sermon in it. Garden," he muttered. "Garden of Gethsemane?"CHAPTER 2
Graham Fletcher closed the door of his new office on the first floor of Gladstone's Library and, his heart pounding, leaned his back against it. As his breathing slowed, the beginning of a nervous smile appeared at one corner of his mouth. The smile crept across his face as he took in the bare bookshelves. When his gaze reached the heavy, old-fashioned oak desk, a tentative lifting of the corners of his mouth had become a broad, self-satisfied grin. He made a fist with his right hand and pulled it through the air toward his body. Then, with long, graceful strides he crossed the room to reach the leaded window that overlooked the tidy garden at the rear of the building. He grasped the handle, pressed down to release the clasp, and pushed the window open. A gust of cold, damp air rushed in as his eyes swept the rain-soaked scene below him. Four large rectangular grey stones which could serve as seats stood at the corners of two intersecting walking paths. Each stone, now darkened by rain, was carved at one end with an English word and its Welsh translation at the other: LOVE/CARIAD, PEACE/HEDDWCH, TRUTH/GWIRIONEDD, and JUSTICE/CYFIAWNDER.
Where the paths crossed stood a limestone sculpture of a half-woman, half-tree creature entitled Sophia, from the Greek for wisdom. She wore a carved asymmetrical diaphanous gown that exposed one breast and barely concealed the other. In her right hand she held a branch of leaves and, instead of legs and feet, her lower half was made up of gracefully twisted tree roots.
Fletcher didn't care for the benches and loathed the statue; he considered the grouping unnecessary and much too modern for his taste, but he was more than happy to live with it for now. Once he had established himself, he would find new homes for all of it.
He closed the window, pulled out the desk chair, and slowly — savouring every delicious moment of the descent — lowered himself into it. He switched on the desk lamp and gazed around the room, empty now of all the personal possessions of his predecessor. Fletcher, who had been in this office many times when it belonged to another man, pictured the empty bookshelves groaning under the weight of his own precious books — books it had taken him a lifetime of learning to collect.
The rain hammered steadily against the leaded windows with their small square panes, but nothing could dampen Fletcher's spirits on this day. For Graham Fletcher was a happy man. At the age of fifty-six, at a time when several of his colleagues were starting to think about retirement, he'd achieved his heart's desire. He'd been appointed to the position he'd wanted for almost thirty years and believed he deserved. Granted, the wait had been long and agonizing. The previous holder of the position, a man of robust health, had made it clear he had no plans to retire, so Fletcher had had to be patient, smiling while he bided his time. Finally, he'd heard the news he had been waiting for. The elderly incumbent had developed pneumonia and was not expected to survive. Fletcher stayed up late that night, praying and polishing his curriculum vitae.
And a month later, all the formalities completed, the bishop had approved his appointment as the warden of Gladstone's Library. The position came with a house on the grounds, but he didn't care about that. He could always get a house.
It was the Library he loved — the red sandstone building itself, of course, with its ornate displays of late-Victorian Gothic design but more than that he loved everything the Library stood for. It was about liberal thinking, open-mindedness, contemplation of a different kind of future, innovation, eliminating barriers and boundaries. Oh, the possibilities were endless. He felt on the very edge of a brave, new intellectual and theological world in which anything and everything might happen. And he would be the man to lead the change.
His long, slender fingers caressed the recently polished surface of the desk as he glanced at the small stack of files in one corner left by his late predecessor. There would be plenty of time later for those. This morning he wanted to meet with the staff and discuss the next major event on the Library's calendar of special events and the first on his watch: a conference of officials, including the bishop himself, and rectors from the Church in Wales. Also attending would be his old friend from university days, Thomas Evans and his wife, Bronwyn. He'd had hopes for Bronwyn himself, back then, and had been heartbroken, for a while, when she'd chosen Thomas. He himself had never married. It would be good to see them both again and to be able to welcome them to the Library as its warden. Warden. He loved the very sound of the word. It was all he'd ever wanted and he'd only had to tell one lie to get it.CHAPTER 3
Pamela Blaine's blue eyes followed her husband, the Very Rev. Michael Blaine, Bishop of Holywell, as he opened his wardrobe, took out two shirts, and laid them smoothly on the bed. He gave her a brief, emotionless glance, then turned his attention to his cufflink tray. He picked up a square silver one with an offset sapphire, examined it, then set it down.
"Don't you have anything better to do than stand there watching me?" he asked, his head lowered and his back to her.
She remained in the doorway and said nothing. The uncomfortable silence stretched on until the bishop broke it.
"Well, unlike some of us, apparently, I've got a busy morning ahead of me." He glanced at his watch. "Still got a lot of things to do to get ready for the conference. One of our guest speakers has cancelled, I'm told. But that's got nothing to do with you. If you want to make yourself useful, you could start sorting out my clothes for the conference. Day and evening. Business. One set of casual. Oh, and an extra shirt, just in case. You know. The usual. But don't pack them yet. I don't want them creased. I just want to make sure everything has been laundered and gathered up so I don't forget anything. And I'm still waiting to hear what you've arranged for the women's program. But leave them some spare time, too, for their own pursuits and to enjoy the Library itself. Conference goers don't like a crowded program."
Before his wife could respond, he strode toward the door. "I'll be in my office if you need me."
He paused at the door and glanced at her. "If you need help organizing the women's program, I suggest you contact Bronwyn Evans in Llanelen. She's always organizing one thing or another. Cooking classes for new mothers, coffee mornings to raise money for literacy programs in Africa, or a good old-fashioned jumble sale. Minty can give you her contact details."
"Do you really think we need a women's program?" his wife asked. "If they have to come at all, surely they can keep themselves amused for a day or two? And anyway, it isn't just women. There's a husband or two in the mix."
"I'd like to provide a little entertainment or activity of some kind for them," replied the bishop. "Shows we care and it doesn't matter about the gender."
Excerpted from Never Laugh as a Hearse Goes By by Elizabeth J. Duncan. Copyright © 2013 Elizabeth J. Duncan. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Starts with a body in the library and just gets better and more interesting with the turn of each page. Very enjoyable.