It has been nearly a year since I took up my position as curator of Lady Georgiana Fowling’s collection of Golden Age of Mystery writers’ first editions at her library in Middlebank House. I have learned that I need to take the good with the bad. The good: I have finally convinced Mrs. Woolgar to open up the collection to the public one day a week so that they too can share in Lady Fowling’s passion. The bad: although he would not be my first, or even tenth, choice, at the insistence of the board Charles Henry Dill, Lady Fowling’s unscrupulous nephew, is now my personal assistant.
On one of our first days open to the public, Mr. John Aubrey shows up at Middlebank House and insists that Lady Georgiana Fowling is his grandmother. Mrs. Woolgar is scandalized by his claims, and Charles Henry, who feels he has been cheated out of his rightful inheritance as Lady Fowling’s heir, is furious. I do not know that I believe Mr. Aubrey, yet he has knowledge of Lady Fowling’s life and writings that few possess. To further complicate matters, an associate of Mr. Aubrey’s intends to help us uncover the truth of John’s story. But before he can do that, he is murdered and the police have reason to suspect Charles Henry.
As much as I would like to lock up Charles Henry and throw away the key, I cannot believe he is a killer. And I also know there is something dead wrong about Mr. Aubrey’s tales regarding his “grandmother” Lady Fowling. I will need to make sense of her past in order to suss out the true villain of this story.
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Charles Henry Dill didn’t wait for a response, but reached across the library table for the pot, the sleeve of his baby-blue linen jacket pulling up and exposing his hairy arm. He poured, managing to splash tea into the saucers and onto the highly polished walnut surface before, at last, hitting the cups.
Beside me, Mrs. Woolgar flinched and leapt up to get a towel— either that or she was about to go for his throat, a prospect I found not all that unappealing.
I stood. “No, let me.”
Mrs. Woolgar sat down again as I retrieved a small towel from the trolley by the door. I mopped up the spill as Charles Henry distributed tea round the table, after which each of us poured the excess from the saucers back into the cups before adding milk. I noticed he had handed board member Maureen Frost, sitting next to him, a saucer with no spills.
“Well, now,” Dill said, with a smirk of self-importance, “let me just say I’m ever so glad to be joining you here at Middlebank House and the First Edition Society, and I look forward with eager anticipation to working with our esteemed curator, Ms. Burke, in my new role as her assistant and, I daresay”—he chortled—“general dogsbody.”
How had it come to this?
It had started on Monday. My boyfriend and I had returned from a week in Deal—a lovely seaside town in Kent—and I was ready and rested for the First Edition library’s inaugural public open hours in two days’ time. It was the logical next step to increasing the awareness of the Society, gaining new respect and members, and contributing to the overall knowledge base about those wonderful women writers from the Golden Age of Mystery.
But a library open to the public had been a shocking proposition— at least to the Society’s secretary, Mrs. Glynis Woolgar. It took a fair bit of song and dance on my part to convince her that our founder, the late Lady Georgiana Fowling, had intended for her impressive collection of first editions—as well as rare and unusual printings—to be enjoyed, not hidden away. The secretary had agreed, but with reservations.
On my first day back at work, I had expected to find Mrs. Woolgar with her knickers in a twist about the launch of the Wednesday-afternoon opens, but instead, at our morning briefing, I had been met with an ashen face across the desk from me. Even before we had exchanged “good mornings,” she made the pronouncement: “It’s about Charles Henry.”
Rarely was any news that involved Charles Henry Dill, Lady Fowling’s lout of a nephew, good news, unless it was that he was out of the country. Because when he wasn’t out of the country, he applied himself to his life’s goal of trying to get more, more, more money out of his aunt’s estate.
Mrs. Woolgar had told me his latest scheme was to become my assistant, and when I could find my voice again, I said, “But surely the board wouldn’t allow it? Mr. Rennie wouldn’t allow it?”
Duncan Rennie, the Society’s solicitor, did his best to keep Dill and his machinations at bay. Sadly, as Mrs. Woolgar had pointed out, “Asking for a job isn’t nefarious unto itself.”
The board members’ reasons for acquiescing had been another matter. The board comprised four dear old friends of her ladyship, plus a young one. Mrs. Audrey Moon and Mrs. Sylvia Moon—they had married brothers—and Jane Arbuthnot were in their eighties; Maureen Frost, in her early seventies; and my friend Adele Babbage, several decades younger than the others and ten years or so my junior.
Dill had worked his subterfuge quickly while I had been away, and he had kept under the radar of Mrs. Woolgar, aided and abetted by Maureen. First, he had worn down resistance from the Moons by “stopping in for a cuppa” every afternoon the week before. Under the guise of sharing stories of his aunt, he had revealed to them his wistful hope to be a part of the Society as a way of honoring her. Jane Arbuthnot had been easily swayed by Maureen. But I had been shocked to learn that Adele—the turncoat—had agreed to Dill’s proposal, too.
The meeting had been arranged for Tuesday, the next afternoon. When the attendees, including Mr. Rennie, had arrived, Mrs. Woolgar had taken them up to the library. I had stayed on the ground floor in the kitchenette to get the tea tray ready, and so when the front-door buzzer went off with the last in, Adele, I answered.
“Are you still speaking to me?” she asked, slapping a sweet smile on her face.
“Barely,” I said.
Adele stepped in and stopped. “Is that his?”
A large white Panama hat hung on the hallstand.
“I’m afraid so. He’s cut off that dreadful ponytail, probably so the hat would fit on his head. He must’ve taken scissors to it himself—it’s all one length, and he has to tuck it behind his ears.”
Adele wrinkled her nose. “Eww. Look, Hayley,” she said, following me into the kitchenette, “I know hiring Charles Henry sounds dire, but the Moons as well as Jane have had to endure four years of his trickery in his attempt to get hold of Georgiana’s fortune.”
“And house,” I had added as I arranged pastries on a tray.
“What about Maureen?” I asked. “What does she see in him?”
“Yes,” Adele said. “You’d think she’d have better judgment than this. Perhaps all those years ago, he wasn’t quite so . . . Charles Henryish.”
Nearly twenty years ago, Maureen, a local actress, and Charles Henry Dill had been involved. He had been in his forties and Maureen, married at the time, in her fifties. The affair had ended, and a few years later, Maureen’s husband died, but it had been only in the four years since Lady Fowling’s death that Dill and Maureen had picked things up again. Those were the only shreds of the story I could tease out of Mrs. Woolgar, who probably knew much more.
“And,” Adele said, “it just seemed that a half day a week as your assistant would be a small price to pay to keep him quiet.”
Possibly, but who would pay that price? Me.
I had handed Adele the tea service, taken the pastries, and headed upstairs to meet my doom.
It was done and dusted, and now Charles Henry reached out to nab the last black currant macaron, holding it aloft for a moment between a stubby finger and thumb. “I’m sure my dear aunt Georgiana would be so pleased to know that the only living member of her family”—he carried that description like a badge of courage—“is once more involved in her great undertaking.”
Pairs of eyes darted round the table. No one attempted to contradict this outright lie. Even I, who had never met Lady Fowling in person, knew that pleased was not a word that would’ve described his aunt’s reaction to the situation. Not after he had absconded with that set of eighteenth-century silver basting spoons. During her funeral reception. He had best watch his lies or the late Georgiana Fowling, founder of the First Edition Society and its library, might just rise from her grave and set her nephew straight.
“And now, Ms. Burke,” Charles Henry said in his oleaginous fashion, “to the particulars of my employment. Shall we set our day and time now while we’re all gathered? What about Monday mornings?”
“No,” I said quickly, “I’m sorry, that won’t suit.” Did he think I wanted to spend my weekends dreading the start of the workweek?
“Friday mornings?” he offered with what he might’ve thought looked like a polite smile.
“Sadly”—happily—“that won’t work with my schedule, either. I have a local adult-learning student starting on a special project Fridays.”
“Well, then,” Dill said, his voice practically gurgling with pleasure, “what is left but the middle of the week? Shall we say Wednesday afternoons?”
He had tricked me. He had wanted Wednesday afternoons all along so that he could be present during our public openings. What sort of devilry might Charles Henry get up to during those four hours when he could mingle with the public? Whose ear would he try to bend in the process—reporters, bloggers, academics—to support him in his desires? No, I would do everything I could to keep the proverbial bargepole between Dill and the public.
“You know,” I said, “now that I think about it, Monday mornings just might work.” There go my worry-free days off.
“Lovely,” he said with some resignation. “Now, as to the particulars of my employment.”
“No need to drag the board and Mr. Rennie through the details, Mr. Dill,” I said, smiling innocently. “The two of us can sort all that out on your first morning. I’m sure the others need to be on their way.”
They couldn’t get out fast enough, offering quick good-byes along with weak congratulations to Charles Henry and quiet asides to me.
“Arrivederci, mon amie!” Adele whispered. “I’m stopping at the Minerva for Pauline. We have an evening class. We’ll talk later.”
“You’re young,” Jane Arbuthnot murmured as she left. “You’ll survive.”
“Dear Hayley,” Mrs. Audrey Moon said, patting me on the arm.
Mrs. Sylvia Moon added, “It’s so good of you. I suppose we should’ve been stronger and not let him in, but he is Georgiana’s only relative. Do let us know how you get on. Stop in for a sherry, why don’t you?”
I noticed Dill had cornered Duncan Rennie before he could get out the door. Maureen Frost gave them a quick glance, leaned toward me and said, “He deserves a chance.”
Mrs. Woolgar ushered the group, including my new assistant, downstairs to show them out. I remained in the library, propping my elbows on the table and sinking my head in my hands. She returned a few minutes later to find me unmoved—not an inch.
“Yes,” I said, stretching my shoulders and then slumping back in my chair, “I know I must buck up. I’ll tidy in here, and we can discuss this tomorrow at our morning briefing. You go on.”
“Thank you. Mr. Rennie and I do have a few items to go over. But I want you to know that in no way will Charles Henry Dill be let loose to do as he pleases in Middlebank House. He remains as he always has been—not to be trusted. He will be watched.”
The secretary left, and I followed her out as far as the landing, dragging one of the Chippendale chairs from the library behind me. She continued to the ground floor, but I stayed, placing the chair across from the full-length portrait of Lady Georgiana Fowling.
I sat down, heaved a great sigh, and said, “Well, now what?”
Even though I had never met her ladyship, I felt as if I knew her through this work of art. It had been painted in the 1960s, but in it she was dressed in retro fashion from the thirties in a burgundy satin evening dress with a halter top. The gown was cut on the bias and draped elegantly to the floor. She was turned slightly, revealing a low back, and had a hand on an empty chair—representing her late husband, Sir John.
I confess that on rare occasions I talk to the painting, but only in the sense that I use Lady Fowling’s image as a sounding board. It isn’t as if I thought she’d answer back—although the artist had done such a wonderful job of capturing the spirit of his subject that there were times when I felt as if her ladyship seemed about to reply. Needless to say, no one else knew I did this.
Today, she offered only her enigmatic smile, but I detected a steely glint in her look as if to say beware.
I lingered in case she had anything else to tell me. I stayed so still and quiet that when Bunter, Middlebank’s tortoiseshell cat, padded up the stairs, he froze at the sight of me. I broke the moment with “Hello, cat,” and he sauntered over and hopped up into my lap.
“What do you think of Charles Henry Dill?” I asked Bunter. “Will you lie in wait for him on the landing and pounce on his head when he passes?” I snorted, startling the cat. “Oof,” I said as he used my tummy as a springboard and went flying down the stairs.
I returned the chair to its place as my phone, left on the library table, pinged with a message from my boyfriend, Val. At the end of our week at seaside, he had flown across the pond to visit one of his twin daughters, Bess, and her boyfriend, who had moved to the States a couple of months earlier to get involved in the theater scene. A good dad, his stay included helping them settle into their new flat.
Official now? You have a new employee?
Sad but true. How’s the refurb?
Stripping wallpaper today. This evening Hamlet set in 1880s Tombstone.
And you—the first open afternoon tomorrow. I’ll expect a report.
Mrs. Woolgar and I started our Wednesday-morning briefing early. That was partly nerves, at least on my part, and mostly because we had short commutes to work. We both lived on-site—perks of our appointments. The secretary had the garden flat on the lower ground floor, which came with lots of sun as the land behind the terrace fell away. Her French doors opened onto the garden, which led to a gate that gave us access to the Gravel Walk that ran behind the entire terrace. My flat was on the second floor, above the library, and had brilliant views of the city on one side and out toward the Mendip Hills on the other.
“We’ve very little to do before this afternoon,” I told her. “Everything is under control.”
I thought it best to remain calm in front of the secretary, as I didn’t feel as if she were yet one hundred percent behind the event. “I’ll collect the brochures from the printers before lunch. That Edwardian inlaid occasional table you’ve chosen to use at the door is lovely. We have a new guest book for people to sign, and although it doesn’t actually have a designated spot for email addresses, will you encourage people to leave theirs? Do you want a chair?”
“I don’t need a chair, Ms. Burke,” Mrs. Woolgar said. “I am perfectly capable of standing. I would prefer to greet our library patrons eye to eye.”
The term library patrons gave me a thrill. “Is the sign ready?”
We had squabbled about this. Next to Middlebank’s front door was a brass plaque that read The First Edition Society. When I had mentioned hanging a temporary sign on the door to announce the public hours, Mrs. Woolgar had balked.
“We are well identified already,” she had said with a huff, “and a cheap-looking, computer-printed, plastic-covered notice stuck up on the door as if we’re telling people the way to the beer garden has no place at Middlebank.”
I had better taste than that, but there was no use pointing that out. Instead I had worked her round to the idea of a sign gradually, helped by a timely visit from our solicitor, Duncan Rennie. When I had put it to him, he commented that a proper notice might add to, instead of detract from, Middlebank’s impressive presence. That’s all the secretary had needed—an opinion from anyone other than me, but especially one from Mr. Rennie.
Now Mrs. Woolgar opened the bottom drawer of her desk and took out a heavy, ornate gold frame. The words, printed in bold, classic Garamond read:
The First Edition Library
Wednesday open hours
1 p.m. until 5 p.m.
Please ring bell
“It looks lovely, Mrs. Woolgar, thanks so much for taking charge of it.”