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Meet the Women of the WISE Enquiries Agency. The first in a new series.
Henry Twyst, eighteenth Duke of Chellingworth, is convinced his mother is losing her marbles. She claims to have seen a corpse on the dining-room floor, but all she has to prove it is a bloodied bobble hat.
Worried enough to retain the women of the WISE Enquiries Agency – one is Welsh, one Irish, one Scottish and one English – Henry wants the strange matter explained away. But the truth of what happened at the Chellingworth Estate, set in the rolling Welsh countryside near the quaint village of Anwen by Wye, is more complex, dangerous, and deadly, than anyone could have foreseen . . .
About the Author
Cathy Ace was born and raised in Wales, but now lives in Canada with her husband and two chocolate Labradors. She is a proud member of Crime Writers of Canada (CWC) and Sisters in Crime (SinC). She is also the author of the Cait Morgan Mysteries.
Read an Excerpt
The Case of the Dotty Dowager
By Cathy Ace
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2015 Cathy Ace
All rights reserved.
Henry Devereaux Twyst, eighteenth Duke of Chellingworth, was terribly worried about his mother. He wondered if the Dowager Duchess had finally lost her grip on reality and gone completely batty. Given the way his father had acted for the last decade of his life, he supposed she'd done rather well to make it to almost eighty with her faculties pretty much intact. But now?
For a few months he'd been catching snippets from the staff at Chellingworth Hall which alluded to her mental capacity. He'd even overheard, '... a few sandwiches short of a picnic ...' being muttered on several occasions. But now he feared the worst; this might be the beginning of the end. If it was, it would be a dreadful pity. A brilliant woman in her time, everyone agreed that Althea, Dowager Duchess of Chellingworth, was all but the human equivalent of the Jack Russell dogs she'd bred and doted upon for decades; compact, strong, full of energy, and never one to let go of a cause or an argument.
But, Henry reasoned, for her to telephone him from the Dower House in the middle of the night claiming she'd found a corpse on the floor of her dining room – well, it beggared belief.
Henry hadn't phoned the police, for obvious reasons; he didn't want his failing mother to be gossiped about in the village. Having no doubt she'd imagined the whole thing, he felt he'd acted quite correctly by urging her to go back to her bedroom, shut her door and push a chair against the handle, or something like it. In that moment he cursed the fact that there had never seemed to be a requirement for locks on the bedroom doors; he'd always assumed they'd merely serve to hinder servants from gaining entry. He'd promised to rush right over, and she'd assured him that McFli would keep her safe. Henry had to agree that, despite the fact that her one remaining canine companion was almost a dozen years old, he could probably manage to keep his mistress safe – from a nonexistent corpse. Henry hadn't even alerted any of the staff at the hall. No one other than he himself needed to become aware of his mother's diminishing capacity to differentiate between reality and imaginings.
Clutching an old torch, Henry tramped across the bottom pasture toward the lower copse, and thence to the Dower House itself. All the vehicles had been shut away for the night, and he didn't want to wake anyone with the noise he'd make if he revved up an engine. Besides, he hated driving himself.
The night was black. Clouds obscured the moon completely, but Henry's eyes adjusted as he walked. He had silent conversations with himself as his wellington boots made tracks upon the wet, yielding grass.
He was certain he'd find his mother tucked safely into her bed, completely unaware she'd woken him and sent him into a panic. When he'd asked her on the telephone why she was poking about in her dining room at such an ungodly hour, she'd retorted that McFli had woken her, she'd heard a noise and had gone to investigate.
What was she thinking? was what he'd wanted to ask. Why hadn't she woken her staff? was what he'd ended up saying instead. Why should she? she'd replied huffily and hung up.
As he walked determinedly into the copse, along paths he'd known for a lifetime, Henry Twyst kept telling himself that everything would all be all right when he got there. He just had to keep the whole thing quiet and no one would be any the wiser.
It was the middle of September, almost the end of the Open Season. That was how they referred to it at Chellingworth Hall. The six months of the year when the masses traipsed through the venerable pile which Henry, like so many generations of his gilded ancestors before him, called home. He hated the whole process of opening the doors of Chellingworth Hall to the public, but it had to be done. The upkeep of the hall was exorbitantly high and it was an obvious way to make some money. At least the Twysts hadn't descended to the point where they had to accept PGs. Paying Guests marked the low point for any family. It smacked of putting oneself on display in the same way animals were paraded about at a circus, performing tricks that amazed the viewing crowds – like using the correct cutlery. The Twysts, not the animals. Henry would have none of it. He'd accepted the necessary influx of public visitors for limited hours each day, but had not gone as far as allowing overnight guests, nor catered events like weddings.
His mother also hated the daily invasion. She hid inside the Dower House, an architectural delight that had been built in 1669 to provide a home for all the Chellingworth dowagers since that time, as bulging family cars and garish coaches crunched along the sweeping pea-gravel drive toward the hall. Althea Twyst had even been known to close all the curtains on many a perfectly beautiful August day just in order to be absolutely sure that no wayward members of the public would have the opportunity to attempt to peer into her sanctuary.
Henry cursed aloud as he stumbled on a protruding root. He wasn't cursing the root, but the countless feet which were widening the natural pathways as day-trippers jostled through his once peaceful and idyllic woodlands. He played the beam of light from his torch onto the ground and steered himself toward safer footing. The night was fresh, almost sharp, and there was a promise of autumn in the atmosphere. The earliest of the leaves to drop from their branches rustled beneath his tread, even though they were damp. Light showers had stopped after tea time. At least they'd cleared the unseasonable humidity of the morning, thought Henry. Beginning to pant a little, he noticed that, for the first time since the spring, his breath looked like little puffs of steam in the cool night air.
As he emerged from the ragged fringes of the copse, Henry could see the dark shape of the Dower House glowering down on him from the higher ground ahead. Some architectural scholars claimed the building was a square version of Wren's famous circular Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford. He'd never been clear about how, exactly, one building was related to the other. He saw them with the eye of an artist, albeit a frustrated one. He'd never grappled with the concept of the bones beneath the flesh and skin of a building. Granted, the edifices were certainly similar in terms of their honey-colored stone, upon which the evening sun would always linger, and their style of decoration, which he'd always thought of as elegant rather than showy. But, beyond this general impression, Henry was unsure about other similarities. As far as he could tell, the breed known as architects had their very own language and used it in the presence of others as a way to exclude the uninitiated from any possible comprehension of their conversations.
At the thought of architects, Henry's shoulders sagged. He'd met so many of them in the decade since his father's death. They each had their opinions about how he should schedule the constant upkeep and renovation of the hall, but none of them seemed to agree with each other. It had dawned upon Henry in short order that owning a Grade I listed home meant one was simply a guardian of a building for posterity. Something that had never occurred to him during his father's lifetime, when Chellingworth Hall had merely been his home. Since the day his father had died, and Henry became the eighteenth duke, it had become an all-consuming responsibility. Sometimes Henry thought he'd simply like to pack a small duffel bag and slip away somewhere. Somewhere he could indulge in his love of art. Where he could paint his watercolors and dream of beautiful trees, enjoying nature in all its glories. Somewhere where there weren't dozens of people all working at different tasks in his home every day, as well as hundreds of complete strangers shuffling through it oh-ing and ah-ing at every little thing for months on end.
But he knew that was unrealistic. He had a job for life. He was the Duke of Chellingworth and Chellingworth Hall, set in the glorious Welsh county of Powys, was his to nurture, repair and run – as far as possible – as a paying business. It would be his legacy to his son. Should he ever manage to find himself a wife to bear one.
As this, his greatest shortcoming, flitted through his mind, Henry almost stopped walking. His mother never tired of reminding him that, at fifty-five years of age, he was fast running out of time in which to procreate. He felt the weight of this other responsibility more personally, because he had always promised himself he would marry for love. But, to date, that particular emotion was still alien to him.
Pressing on in anger and frustration, the walk up the steep incline to the Dower House took it out of Henry, and his breath began to resemble the output of a steam engine. While his mother might have been likened to a small, active dog, he admitted to himself that he was probably more akin to a less frantic creature. Not a sloth – he wasn't that inactive – but he was certainly not a nippy little terrier. Maybe a koala? He smiled as he pictured the rotund little creatures with their comical features, which he supposed were not very unlike his own, and he recalled something about their liking for eucalyptus leaves, which meant they were usually half-sozzled – a state with which he was far from unfamiliar. He found that a few brandies after dinner took the edge off his worries about balance sheets and creditors during the evening and allowed him to sleep more soundly at night. Which was why he was especially cross at being hailed from the comfort of his bed at such an hour.
Just as Henry arrived at the Dower House, the light of the half-moon pierced the ragged-edged clouds above him. A light showed in what he knew was the window of his mother's bedroom. So she really was awake, after all. He wondered if she'd woken Jennifer yet. If she had, he was sure that whatever emergency might have occurred would be halfway to a peaceful solution. Jennifer was a very competent young woman. Somewhat plain, but competent.
He couldn't help but smile to himself as he recalled how Jennifer Newbury insisted upon being referred to as Lady Althea's 'aide'. A lady's aide, rather than a lady's maid. He understood why, in the twenty-first century, a professional woman in her thirties would prefer one title over the other, but it amused him to hear his mother frequently refer to her as a 'maid', only to have Jennifer equally frequently – and always politely – reply with, 'You mean aide, ma'am,' to which his mother's invariable response was, 'Do I?'
It was like a little battle his mother always enjoyed. He wondered why Jennifer bothered to participate. Maybe she thought she'd eventually win, one day. She clearly didn't know his mother very well. But she'd only been in residence for six months or so. They usually lasted about a year, he recalled with a sigh. It was a shame. Jennifer was an efficient young woman, and he had begun to believe that her presence was helping his mother. Maybe he'd been too optimistic. Too hopeful.
Henry pulled a set of keys from his pocket and let himself into the Dower House. As he pushed open the front door the beeping of the alarm began and he punched his code numbers into the panel which glowed in the entryway. He sighed with relief. His mother had imagined it all. The front door had been locked and the alarm was in working order. It was all a wild goose chase. He supposed that was better than there being an actual dead body on the premises. But the implications regarding his mother's mental acuity depressed him.
Flicking the switch that illuminated the chandeliers in the portrait-bedecked hallway, his first thought was to make his way upstairs to check in on his mother. He didn't call out to announce his arrival. Jennifer, Cook and Ian would have heard the beeping of the alarm upon his entry, and know there was someone about. He expected their imminent arrival. They'd all want to find out what was going on at such an hour. Knowing he'd need to be able to answer their inevitable questions, he walked directly to the dining room. Moments later, with chandeliers flooding the oak-paneling and brocade drapery with light, it was clear to Henry that the room was devoid of any human presence, dead or alive. Relief and sadness washed over him in equal measure. Poor Mother.
No one having arrived to welcome him, or seek out a possible intruder, Henry climbed the sweeping staircase toward his mother's room with a weariness borne of dread. He was deeply concerned about her state of mind. Knocking loudly on her door – where was everybody? – he waited for a reply.
'Come,' called his mother's voice. He was heartened to hear that she sounded quite like her usual self.
Striding into the room, he found his mother wrapped in an embroidered blue silk dressing gown that swamped her small frame. He could recall a time when it had fitted her well; had she diminished that much? Her hair was bound up in a vibrant purple scarf of some sort which trailed down her back. She was sitting on the edge of her bed looking quite alert, brandishing a brass poker above her head, and gripping McFli's squirming body, which Henry suspected was the only reason he hadn't already been attacked by the eager little creature.
Henry was struck by her incongruous, poker-wielding figure sitting in a room where flocks of painted birds flew through exotic branches upon the walls and cabbage roses bloomed on every piece of upholstery.
'Mother, what on earth is going on?' He knew the right tone to adopt was one of supportiveness, but he couldn't help but sound cross. Henry was immediately annoyed with himself. He tempered his voice as he continued, 'I don't think you need the poker, Mother. Everything's quite all right. I have been into the dining room and there was no sign of a dead body at all. I think maybe you dreamed it. Come along now. Let's get you back into bed.'
Henry thought he'd handled himself, and the situation, quite well.
Althea, Dowager Duchess of Chellingworth, stood with as much dignity as her billowing attire allowed. She retained her grip on the fire-iron as she did so. 'Thank you for coming, Henry. You say you've been into the dining room?'
Henry nodded. 'Yes, Mother.'
'And you say there is no one there? No one dead, that is?'
Henry nodded again. 'That is correct, Mother. No one dead, nor alive. No one at all.'
His mother sighed. 'So where's he gone, then? The dead cannot simply walk away. If he's not there any longer, someone must have removed him.'
Henry's mind whirred. He wasn't sure about the extent to which he should mollify his mother by subscribing to her delusions. He wished he had been possessed of the foresight to know that this day would surely come, and to have taken professional advice ahead of time.
'Would you like me to show you, Mother? We could go and look together. I could help you down the stairs.'
His mother looked wounded, then indignant. 'Why on earth would I require assistance to walk down to the dining room? I've never needed it before. Henry dear, I am neither infirm, nor gaga. Though if, as you say, the body has been moved, then I think we should telephone the police, post-haste. There might be an intruder still on the premises. Hence the poker.' She settled her small shoulders and raised the implement higher above her head. 'Once I saw the boy, I picked up this potential weapon from the hearth in the dining room and telephoned you. I considered pushing a chair against my door, but they're all far too heavy for me to move.'
Henry panicked. 'I don't think we need to bother the police, Mother. The alarm was in working order upon my arrival, the front door was secured and, as you know, every window and door in the Dower House is connected to the alarm system. No one could have come in, or out, of the house without it sounding. I assume it hasn't?'
His mother shook her head. Her small, wrinkled face puckered with a mixture of puzzlement and defiance.
Excerpted from The Case of the Dotty Dowager by Cathy Ace. Copyright © 2015 Cathy Ace. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I'm reading my way thro this series and find each book to be very enjoyable. I highly recommend all of them. Enjoy,
Henry Devereaux Twyst, the eighteenth Duke of Chellingworth, is a bachelor in his 50s, living on his enormous estate. He realizes the pressure for him to marry and produce an heir but he is quite happy as he is. His estate requires lots of money for upkeep and he has been forced to open part of it and the grounds to the public for tours. This irks him tremendously. His sister, Clementine, is also unmarried and has a place in London where she lives a type of bohemien lifestyle. Her friends are artists and she loves attending parties with them. She drinks heavily and often utters quite inappropriate things. Althea, the Dowager Duchess of Chellingworth, lives in the Dower House with her staff. So, when she phones Henry in the middle of the night to report finding a body in the dining room, he is quite concerned. When he arrives at the Dower House, there is no body there. Henry is certain that his mother is losing her mind. The alarm was on and it had not gone off. Since Althea is insistent that the body was there, Henry decides to call upon the WISE Enquiries Agency in London. This group consists of four women that don’t care to be called simply detectives. Currently, they are in dire need of some money to help them stay afloat so when the call comes from Henry, they are right on top of things and immediately set out to see what they can find. Christine is the founder of the agency and the one who has made made contacts as she is related to Lord Wraysbury. Carol is pregnant so she is the one to stay in the office and do research and coordinate with the other ladies. Mavis used to be a nurse. Annie has had many different jobs but is quite good at chatting up people. The ladies all become involved with the locals of the town to find out who might have reason to break into the estate and what could have happened to the body. This is a cute and fast paced book that focuses on each of the personalities of the ladies thus giving us bits of humor here and there. I have not read the author’s books before but look forward to doing so.