At Maude Daneson’s rooming house, the holiday season has everyone bustling about in anticipation, and Maude herself is planning a glorious Christmas dinner.
But neither the landlady nor her lodgers realize that a killer walks among them. The police have so far been unable to track the culprit—and when murder strikes close to home, it threatens to chill the festive mood.
“A fast-moving, one-sitting treat.” —Kirkus Reviews
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About the Author
Marian Babson, born Ruth Stenstreem, is an American mystery writer. Her first published work was Cover-Up Story (1971), and she has written over forty-five mysteries. Babson served as secretary of the Crime Writers’ Association and was awarded the CWA Dagger in the Library in 1996.
Read an Excerpt
On the first day of Christmas ...
It was a gratuitous insult on his part to introduce the subject of Broadmoor into what had hitherto been a perfectly amicable conversation.
At first, I could not believe that I had heard him aright. Failing that, I could not believe that he was serious.
But I had. And he was.
"You must understand you can't go on like this," he said. "Of course you understand it, you wouldn't have come to me otherwise. And that will count as a point in your favour with the police —"
"I came to consult you as my legal adviser about a slight problem," I said stiffly. "I see no need to bring the police into it." I would not dignify his previous mention of Broadmoor by admitting that I had noticed it.
"No need!" He seemed to choke and gasped for breath. After a moment, he gave a weak smile and started again. "Well, perhaps you could be right —" He did not meet my eyes. "Why don't we have a drink and talk it over?"
He stretched out a hand to ring for his secretary, then grimaced nervously. "I forgot," he said. "It's after hours. She'll have gone home long ago." There was a trace of accusation in his tone. "I was working late to try to get some things cleared up before the holiday."
"I dropped in on impulse," I agreed. "I was just passing and hadn't really thought about the time. But you're right. I noticed it as I came through the outer office. Everyone else has gone home."
"Well," he said, "we can still talk it over. Sit down again, please."
"There is nothing to discuss." I can tell when I am being humoured, and I resent it deeply. "I should have known better than to expect help from such a source."
"No, no," he demurred. "It's early days yet. You mustn't despair. We'll think of something."
It has long been my contention that you cannot really trust anyone. This conversation was proving it. If you cannot trust and confide in your own legal adviser, who is supposed to have your own best interests at heart, then who else in the world can you —
"There's always an answer," he went on, rather nervously, as though he were beginning to sense how deeply he had offended me. "You mustn't despair." It was the second time he had said that.
"I am not in despair," I told him firmly. "I see nothing to despair about. You have taken a small, basically unimportant, problem and blown it up out of all proportion. I can only assume you are doing so in order to justify the inflated fee note you will presently send to me."
"Small!" He was choking again. "Unimportant! Don't you see, the very fact that you can say that —"
He was repeating himself. I stopped listening. Really, he was being extremely boring. The thought crossed my mind that it might be as well to find myself a new legal adviser. I looked around the old-fashioned office. Someone more up to date. Someone who did not keep an enormous Victorian brass inkstand on his desk, one heavy glass well filled with red ink and the other with black ink, despite the fact that, in common with everyone else these days, he actually used a ballpoint pen. Someone who had a modern desk lamp, rather than an old green-shaded student's lamp with useless bits of candle-tending equipment dangling from it, despite the fact that it had been many years since he had been a student and the lamp had long since been wired for electricity.
"Right now, of course —" he bared his teeth in a false smile — "and I only mention it because we should consider the immediate alternative, the best option would appear to be Broadmoo —"
I picked up the long brass inkstand. He caught the movement out of the corner of his eye and, although his face had been a peculiar shade of grey since I had begun speaking, it turned even greyer.
"Wait a moment ... Please ..." He lifted a hand to protect the soft vulnerability of his temple. "I didn't mean ... Calm down ... Surely we can discuss this like civili —"
I hadn't realized there was so much ink in the red inkwell. It mingled with the lesser trickle of the black, making curious patterns across the back of his sandy hair and the dull green of the desk blotter.
Honour was vindicated.
"And let that be a lesson to you!" I said, as I closed the office door behind me.
He didn't answer. Sheer pique, I should imagine, at having been worsted in our encounter.
Out in the street, darkness had already fallen. It was, of course, fast approaching the shortest day of the year. How time flies!
I walked down the Strand towards Trafalgar Square and Whitehall to catch the bus back to my lodgings just off Baker Street. The darkness was compounded by the onset of a thin sleeting rain. The street lamps were strange pools of floating light above the heads of the pedestrians, casting weird shadows and turning every face into a grotesque mask of menace.
In the wider, deeper pool of light by Charing Cross Station, the black doom of newspaper hoardings proclaimed NEWSAGENT SLAIN IN SOHO, as did the headlines of the evening papers displayed by the newsvendors. How it upsets them when one of their own kind is involved.
I bought a paper to read later, thinking as I did so that perhaps it was as well that poor dear Mother had not survived into this Age of New Austerity to see what all our hopes and dreams had come to. Really, what a world we live in!
There were children in the bus queue and I smiled at them. I like children and get along well with them. Except for one or two unfortunate exceptions. But I mustn't think about them. It makes my head ache, and my head is aching quite enough already.
In fact, sometimes my head aches quite shockingly.
There was no bus in sight and, when one came, it would undoubtedly be full. For a moment I hesitated, and then the children began pushing each other and arguing, their shrill little voices cutting through me. My head gave a particularly nasty throb and that decided me. I hailed a taxi.
Sometimes, when my headache is particularly severe, I wonder whether or not I ought to consult a doctor about it.
But of course one can't trust doctors either ...CHAPTER 2
Deck the halls with boughs of holly ...
Iris Loring was at the top of the stepladder draping strands of tinsel over the crêpe paper streamers in the front hall when Anne Christopher arrived home. At the foot of the ladder, Mrs. Daneson was doling out tinsel and instructions in roughly equal proportions.
"Over to the left more. No, not there. Be careful — that one's sliding —" She stooped and retrieved it from the floor, passing it back up to Iris.
"Filthy night." She greeted Anne absently. "Is it still sleeting?"
"Worse than ever." Anne shook her umbrella, opened it again and set it down among the others in the corner of the hallway where they clustered like monster multicoloured toadstools, "Thank heavens I don't have to go out again tonight."
"I shouldn't imagine anyone would be going out again tonight." Maude Daneson stepped back to survey Iris's handiwork. "I think you need more in that corner, dear. Unless you were thinking of having balloons there? But I shouldn't advise it. Some of the lodgers are apt to come home a bit merry at this time of year and they seem to find balloons irresistible. It makes me very cross to be wakened by what sounds like gunshots in the early hours of the morning. So, no balloons."
Anne collected her mail from the bulletin board and her newspaper from the hall table, shaking it out for a quick look at the front page. "NEWSAGENT SLAIN IN SOHO ... Discovered by early customer ... an apparently motiveless killing ..."
"Terrible, isn't it?" Maude Daneson looked over her shoulder. "Someone ought to do something."
"I'm sure the police are trying, Mrs. Daneson," Anne said, continuing to skim the paper for the gist of the story.
"I didn't mean that," Mrs. Daneson said. "Everyone knows that the motiveless crimes are the hardest to solve — and sometimes they're never solved at all. I meant that it should not be left entirely to the police. Someone who'd do a thing like that — surely he's mad. Do you mean to say no one has noticed? He has to live among other people. He must be in contact with family, friends, acquaintances, people he works with — surely, some one must have noticed something suspicious. It's their duty to report him to the police — no matter how close the relationship."
"It may not be that simple." Iris spoke from the top of the ladder, where she had been taking advantage of Maude Daneson's inattention to redistribute the tinsel as she saw fit. "He may be perfectly normal most of the time — unless something triggers him off. If no one ever triggered him off, they'd never know. To them, he'd just be that kindly man down the street who's always so good to his wife, adores his kiddies, climbs trees to rescue cats and helps little old ladies across the street."
"This time he's killed a little old lady," Anne said. "And with her own scissors. A newsagent. Completely inoffensive. No enemies, no money taken from the till — but a top shelf of girlie magazines swept to the floor. The police think that may be some sort of clue."
"Well, there you are." Iris backed down the ladder. "It's a sex maniac, a religious crank, a literary critic — or possibly just a member of the public who's fed up with constantly being faced with the sort of stuff that used to be sent in a plain brown wrapper to people who really wanted to look at it. That ought to narrow the field of suspects down to about ten million. Elementary, my —"
"I don't think you ought to laugh about it," Maude Daneson said sharply. "The woman is dead. In her own shop, going about her own business. It's dreadful! People aren't safe anywhere any more."
"The police are appealing for witnesses —" Anne was still reading. "Or anyone who might have noticed anything remotely suspicious —"
"The police!" Maude snorted. "They made the same appeal about those two children they found in Regent's Park Lake last week — and what good did it do? No one ever notices anything, or admits it if they have. And at this time of the year, too! I don't know why things always seem worse at Christmas. Worse or better. But lately, it always seems to be worse instead of better. Perhaps that's what comes of growing old."
"Shall I lock the door, Maude?" Iris asked.
"Yes, do. Anne is the last one in. If anyone wants to go out in this weather — well, they have their own keys. We certainly don't want to leave the front door open on a night like this, with a maniac roaming the West End."
"Nonsense," Iris said, snicking the lock home. "He's roaming well away from the Baker Street area, and there's no reason to suppose he's any more impervious to the weather than the rest of us. He's probably sitting in front of a roaring hearth this minute, roasting chestnuts for the children and planning what to serve the carol singers when they come round."
"If he doesn't poison them," Maude Daneson said darkly.
Leaving them to their amicable wrangling, Anne began to climb the stairs. She was half way up when she abruptly pulled her hand away from the banister. "Oh!"
"What's the matter?" In the hall below, both Mrs. Daneson's and Iris's faces turned upwards.
"There's ink all over my hand! It came off the banister just now. Wet black ink!"
"Oh dear. It didn't get on your coat, I hope?" Maude Daneson looked concerned.
"No." Anne scrubbed at her hand with a paper handkerchief, and then scrubbed at the spot on the banister. "No, it's all right. I think I've cleaned it off."
"I suppose it's no more than one can expect with so many students in the house." Mrs. Daneson turned away, losing interest. "But they ought to be more careful. I shall post a notice on the bulletin board to remind them."
Despite the fact that she had watched Iris lock the front door, she went over and checked it.
"I did lock it, Maude," Iris said.
"Yes, yes, I know. I just like to make sure." Maude Daneson turned away from the door, beaming with relief. "There," she said. "We're all locked in safe and cosy for the night now."CHAPTER 3
On the second day of Christmas ...
I don't know why that silly song should keep haunting me. I don't even like it. It never made any sense to me. When I was a child, I used to believe that the twelve days of Christmas were the days before Christmas itself. I had it mixed up with an Advent Calendar, I suppose, but it seemed to make sense that way. When I grew older and discovered that the counting started with Christmas Day, it seemed silly — and foreign, somehow. Not the way English people ought to count.
Even now, when I think of it ... Although I seldom think of it. It's just that it seems to have crept into my mind lately and keeps circling around and around in there — it still seems as though it ought to be the days leading up to Christmas. These days. Another ten days until Christmas. And then I can relax.
A lot of people hate Christmas in England because all the shops are shut for three or four days in a row and no newspapers are published, but I rather like it. It takes away the burden of choice. When nothing is open, there is no reason for one to leave one's room. There is nowhere to go and no one will think it odd for anyone to stay in one's room with the door shut, just reading and resting.
I feel the need of rest lately. I don't know why. I have not been taking more exercise than usual, nor has my work load been any heavier.
Perhaps it has something to do with these headaches I've been having lately? After Christmas, I must really try to see a doctor. But we must get Christmas out of the way first. It will be good to have it over and done with.
But I shall be glad of the rest. I don't even mind there not being any postal service for several days. I don't get many letters anyway.
Mother used to get a lot of mail, especially at this time of the year. Letters, cards, and often presents, with every delivery. Sometimes it was hard to find space to display all the cards — every available surface was covered. How she loved that!
But the cards stopped coming after Mother died. They slowed to a trickle the first year or two, and then they stopped altogether, despite the fact that I always sent a card in return. I don't know why. I fear I lack the gift for friendship that Mother had. I'm socially stiff and awkward, I know. She always complained about that. Of course, many of the cards were from her contemporaries. I suppose they might have died, too.
No, I'm quite pleased that the postal service stops. Then no one can see how few cards I receive. Because they watch me in this house, I know they do. I catch them staring sometimes. They think they're clever about it and they smile and say, "Good morning" or "Good evening" when I meet their eyes. Quite as though that was all they had intended to do. And I answer pleasantly. I don't let them know that I know.
I do not think that I shall remain in this house much longer. Perhaps, after Christmas, I shall seek more congenial surroundings, find a place where the people smile with their eyes as well as their lips and do not watch, and watch ... and wait. What are they waiting for?
Yes, after Christmas.
There is so much I must do after Christmas. Thinking about it all makes me tired. Perhaps that is why I welcome the long holiday this year. When everything is closed and shuttered, one feels curiously free, absolved from any necessity for action because no effective action can be taken.
Yes, after Christmas.
Perhaps I ought to make a list. I must see a doctor, look for new lodgings. And oh, yes, I wanted to see my legal adviser —
But I seem to have forgotten for the moment why I wanted to consult him.
My head! Oh no, no! I had thought I could get through this day without a headache. Perhaps, if I catch it in time ... if I take some aspirins ... and lie down quietly ...
Perhaps ...CHAPTER 4
I'm dreaming of a ...
"Iris, be careful!" At the foot of the stairs, Patti James dodged back, trying to escape the flying white spray from the aerosol tin. "What are you doing, anyway?"
"Sorry." Iris took her finger off the button and lowered the tin. "I haven't got this thing tamed yet. I'm trying to turn the hall mirror into an Olde Englishe mullioned window — can't you tell?"
"Oh yes." Patti approached cautiously and peered at the clouded mirror. "You're overdoing it a bit, aren't you? I mean, it would be nice if we could still see pieces of ourselves in it. We might want to check our make-up before we go out, or something."
"That was what Miss Manning said. Well, more or less. She wanted to make sure her hat was on straight before she went out. Not that it would make any difference — with her."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Twelve Deaths of Christmas"
Copyright © 1979 Marian Babson.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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