A Meeting With Murder: Miss Gascoigne mysteries book 1: sneak peek

This is a rough draft of the first few chapters of this new book that I hope to inflict release in 2022. The Miss Gascoigne books are a series of cosy mysteries set in the 1960s. They feature Diana ‘Dee’ Gascoigne as an amateur detective who stumbles over dead bodies almost as often as your average dog-walker.

A Meeting With Murder: Miss Gascoigne mysteries book 1

Chapter One

Years earlier:

 Outside the village post office, an elderly woman smiled at the charming picture presented by a little girl hugging her baby brother.

‘He’s very good, isn’t he?’ the old woman said, leaning towards the little girl who could only have been about ten years old herself.

The baby waved his arms and gurgled happily. The little girl nodded gravely, and hugged him closer. ‘My mummy says he’s so good, he’s just like a little baby Jesus.’

The old woman kept her smile but her mind was wondering whether this was blasphemous, or whether the child—and her mother—were just sincerely besotted by the infant. These days people said things that would have been scandalous when she was young. ‘I see. Well, er…’

‘I think he’s perfect,’ the little girl said, gazing down at her little brother’s face. ‘He hardly ever cries,’ she added, ‘and he sleeps all through the night.’ She pulled the folds of the shawl more closely around the little chap’s body.

‘Fancy that. My word, what a good little boy.’ The old lady smiled again then extracted a couple of sixpences from her purse and placed them in the little girl’s hand.

‘I think he’s just like a little baby Jesus too,’ announced the little girl. ‘I love him lots and lots. And when he’s all grown up, I’m going to marry him and we’ll be together always.’

The little girl leaned forward to place a slightly sticky kiss on the baby’s forehead. He grumbled for a moment but she held him close and shushed him, and soon he was asleep.

‘Well, I think you make an excellent little mother to him dear.’

‘Thank you,’ the child said solemnly. ‘And thank you for the sixpences too. I’ll put them in his piggy bank.’

***

Friday 19th March 1965

Mildred Evans, headmistress, was looking dismayed. ‘I’m so sorry, Dee. Believe me, my dear, I did try to reason with them. But I’m afraid they are rather a bunch of old stick-in-the-muds. The collective view was that divorce—or even just separation—does not accord well with the traditional values of Lady Adelaide Joseph’s Academy for Young Ladies. You’ve scandalised them, my dear. I’m sorry.’ Miss Evans was on her feet and coming round to this side of her grand mahogany desk. ‘You will, of course, be paid up to the end of the school year in July, if that’s the slightest consolation.’

Feeling numb, all Dee Gascoigne could do was nod, and try a polite smile, and say of course, she quite understood, and thank you so much for trying to help. She was on her feet too, and almost at the door before she knew she’d moved from her chair. Mildred Evans handed her a small visiting card.

‘Contact me, dear, if anything changes. Would you like me to ask around amongst my chums? I have a few acquaintances who are senior staff at Secondary Moderns.’ Miss Evans lowered her voice on those last two words, and all but shuddered. ‘Not ideal, obviously, but a job’s a job at the end of the day, and in your present situation, you may find it hard to come by another place at a more exclusive establishment.’

Again, Dee could only nod and say thank you politely as her mother had taught her. She opened the door.

Miss Evan’s hand was on her arm. ‘I shall miss you, my dear. But for what it’s worth, I think you’ve done the right thing. You’ve got to do what’s best for you. Keep in touch, won’t you? God bless you, dear.’

Dee was relieved she made it all the way to her car before bursting into tears.

How many bridges had she burned? She had acted on impulse, and couldn’t possibly regret it, yet she felt a shimmer of fear at what the future might hold. She clamped down hard on the shimmer, saying viciously as she stamped on the accelerator, ‘Nonsense,’ in the time-honoured fashion of the women in her family.

Besides, her family would never let her starve. With nowhere else to go and all that she possessed already packed in the car with her, she headed for home.

*

Dee halted her car in front of the ancient family retreat Ville Gascoigne and steeling herself, grabbed her bag and suitcase and crossed the gravel drive to the front door. She had warned them she was on her way. They knew why, of course. That her mother had been looking out for her was clear as both she and the aged butler, Greeley opened the door to Dee before she got anywhere near it. They were already coming down the steps.

‘Hello Mother, hello Mr Greeley.’ She sent a bright beaming smile in the direction of the ancient butler who winked at her and relieved her of her suitcase and jacket. Her mother was not in the least deceived by the attempt at cheerfulness.

‘Oh Dee, darling! Are you all right? Oh you’ve lost so much weight! I’m so glad you’re here.’ Flora Gascoigne swept her only daughter into a tight hug. Tears threatened, and Dee pulled herself out of her mother’s grip, turning away to fuss with her handbag.

‘Gosh it was a horrid drive down,’ she began, and concocted a story about an entirely fictitious traffic jam just outside London. She just needed something, anything, to talk about. Anything other than why she was here and what had happened.

‘Come into the drawing-room. Your father’s not here, he’s off somewhere with his cronies, but he said he wouldn’t be late. My goodness, you look so pale, dear, and so thin! I’m sure you girls don’t eat properly.’

‘God, Mother, no one eats these days. Don’t fuss. I’m not a child.’ Dee rolled her eyes. It was not easy to maintain her appearance of trendy self-sufficiency when all she wanted was to curl up in a ball and sob her heart out. Bloody men. What had happened to the happy-ever-after stories of her teens? ‘Is Freddie here? I thought he said he would be.’

‘Tomorrow, apparently. I suspect him of a romantic dinner or something this evening. I only hope she’s a decent sort of girl. That last one…’

‘Lord, yes. Freddie can’t half pick ‘em. And what about Rob, is he home?’

‘Oh of course he is. When does your youngest brother ever go anywhere?’ Her mother sighed, and they went into the drawing-room.

As they came into the room an earnest-looking, bespectacled young man looked up from a book. He grinned at his sister. ‘Deedee, about time.’

‘Hello yourself, Boffin.’ She flung herself down in the seat next to him and hugged his arm. Her baby brother. Her rock.

*

To her relief she managed to get through the rest of the day by hedging or fielding any further questions that came her way, or by skilfully turning the question around to get the other person to talk about themselves.

She had a feeling no one was fooled but she was grateful for their silence. She really didn’t want to go into the whole sordid mess quite yet. At some point, she knew, she would have to tell them exactly what had happened, and what her plans were for the future. But tonight, she just wanted to turn back the clock, pretend she was still a kid and not a thirty-year-old woman who had just left her husband.

But when everyone else had gone to bed and it was just her and her younger brother, Rob got up and poured her a glass of wine and brought it over, sitting down on the sofa next to her, and saying, ‘So what are you going to do?’

To her shrug, he responded, ‘You do know it’s going to be five years? Even then you’ll have to take the blame for deserting him. Unless you’ve got proof that he is at fault.’

Crossly, she said, ‘Oh Rob, I know all that. I don’t want to think about it just now.’

He took a sip of his own drink. His dark hair was even darker in a room lit only by firelight. His eyes shone brightly as he watched her. He may always have his nose in a book, she thought, but he saw everything. And he was a brick, a wonderful listener. There was no one better to pour out your heart to. She dearly loved all three of her brothers, but for some reason Rob, the baby of the family, was special, she was closer to him even than her own twin brother, Freddie. She always had been, perhaps because she had seen him as a living breathing doll when he was a baby and she was, what? Three? Four? Now he was no longer a baby but a charming, good-looking, intelligent and sensitive man. She leaned against his shoulder.

‘Rob, do you think I’m doing the right thing? The last thing I wanted was any kind of scandal or fuss, but it’s all going wrong.’

He put an arm about her and she rested her head on his shoulder. In a meditative voice he said, ‘The right thing?’

‘Don’t go all philosophical on me right now, I couldn’t cope with that.’

He laughed. ‘I wasn’t about to. But let me see. Shall we examine the facts?’

‘Yes, M’lord,’ she murmured. He was definitely studying the right discipline; he’d make an excellent judge one day.

‘Was he unfaithful?’

‘You know he was.’

‘Were you?’

She turned to glare at him. ‘What? No, of course not! What do you take me for?’

‘Sorry. Had to ask. The divorce court will, so…’

She nodded. ‘Of course. Sorry. No, I was never unfaithful.’

Perhaps not in deed, said the nasty little self-accusing voice in her head. Just in thought. She pushed out of her head the image of a man’s face, along with those old Bible words, whosoever something looketh upon something something even in their heart, is an adulterer. Or words of that sort.

Rob said, quietly, gravely, ‘Did he hurt you? Clarke?’

There was a silent moment. Then she heard the crackling of the flames devouring a log in the grate, and she said, softly, ‘Yes. He drinks.’

Another long pausing moment. Rob kissed her hair and got to his feet. He paced a little, a barrister through and through. In a very matter of fact manner, he said, ‘I always suspected as much. In that case, yes, you are doing the right thing. If you had proof of either his violence or any adultery on his part, that would speed things up, otherwise you’ll need to allow him to sue you for desertion or for infidelity.’

‘What if he won’t?’

‘I’ll kill him for you.’

She looked at her tall, skinny brother. ‘You?’ She grinned.

He shrugged. ‘Clearly I won’t do the dirty work myself, I’ll contract it out. Obviously when I say I’ll kill him for you, I mean, I’ll do the organising side of things, but probably set Freddie onto him. Or Bill.’

She wriggled in her seat. ‘Not Bill,’ she said.

Rob nodded and said nothing. He didn’t need to say anything.

He flomped into the chair opposite and they sat in silence staring into the fire.

Later, when the ancient grandfather clock in the hall chimed one o’clock, surprising them that the hour was so late, Dee thought she’d better get to bed. It would be odd, sleeping in her old room again after six years, almost seven.

She said goodnight to Rob suspecting he was at least half-asleep himself. As she was about to leave the room, he said, ‘By the way, I’ve decided to go into partnership with JJ. We both qualify next year. We thought we’d set up shop together.’

She sat back. ‘Oughtn’t you get some experience first? If you’re both new to the job, how will you know what to do?’

‘I’ve got a part-time position with Monty. I can use it as part of my coursework. It’s only temporary. He’s retiring.’

‘Again? Didn’t he retire about ten years ago?’

‘Hmm, he did, yes, and a few years before that, too. This time he says he means it, he’s almost eighty after all. But he said he wanted to stay on to give me some experience.’

‘Can’t he take both you and JJ on as juniors then retire in a year or two and let the two of you just carry it on for him?’

‘Who knows? That is one possibility. But if he does stick to his guns, at least he’ll have given me a bit of a start. It’s dashed good of him.’

‘I’m glad,’ she said. M’dear Monty, as they all called him in the family, had been a staunch friend and ally of the family for many years. He’d even helped her aunt to avoid a murder charge once back in the mists of time. JJ was their cousin, and although studying law like her brother, being a year younger, was not quite so well advanced in his studies.

‘So I was thinking, why don’t you and I share a flat? I’ll have to be in London, so it just seems, you know…’

That surprised her. ‘Oh.’ She thought about it. ‘That’s a fab idea. Just us? Or JJ too?’

‘Just us. I think JJ is going to move in with Bill during the Easter hols.’

‘Of course.’ Again, she didn’t want to talk about JJ’s older brother Bill.

He set his glass down and got up. ‘Right, I’m off to bed.’

‘Well goodnight, Rob, and thanks for the pep-talk. Sleep well.’

‘Night Deedee. For what it’s worth, I’m glad you’re out of it. He wasn’t worthy, my darling.’

As soon as he’d gone she reached for her handkerchief and scrubbed the tears from her cheeks. Enough was enough. Time to look to the future.

 *

Two weeks later, and Rob and Dee were searching for a vacant flat within easy reach of where Rob was studying, and M’dear Monty’s offices, yet still central enough for Dee to get to most areas without too lengthy a commute, always assuming of course that she managed to get another job to start teaching again at the start of the new school year in far-off September.

After viewing several properties, they found what they were looking for. Not as central as they’d planned, nor as cheap as they’d budgeted for, nor as modern as they’d hoped, but it was the best of all the properties they viewed, and the lease was a long one.

It was in a dull building of Victorian respectability, on the fourth floor, but with only one further floor above, so that seemed all right, it shouldn’t be too noisy. The sitting-room and dining-room were at the front of the building, overlooking the street, a busy street, whilst the bedrooms overlooked the service yards and the backs of numerous surrounding houses, which should hopefully be a little quieter, Dee thought.

In many ways the flat was everything they’d decided against, but with their budget and time limited, it had become clear they couldn’t afford to be too choosy. The outside of the building did not inspire confidence. But as soon as they stepped inside, they knew it was just what they needed: surprisingly spacious, bright, and possessing that indefinable something extra that told you that you had entered not just a house but a home.

‘It feels friendly,’ Dee said to her brother. That was the only way she could explain how she felt.

He nodded. ‘This sitting-room is perfect. I don’t even mind that the front door leads straight in here with no entrance hall.’

‘With all this open space, it’ll be wonderful for parties,’ she said.

He shot her a sideways glance. Parties were really not his thing.

She grinned at him. ‘I know, I know. Not on a school night.’

There were three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen, a small rather dark dining-room, and an even smaller darker dressing-room that Rob immediately claimed for his office. And then there was this large, open, sitting-room with three floor-to-ceiling windows looking out onto the late afternoon London traffic. The vehicles purred along beneath them, seeming far enough away not to be too much of a nuisance.

‘And what does madam think?’ the agent asked with a smarmy grin. He’d been standing in the middle of the room talking at them continually whilst they walked round him and ignored him. He seemed anxious to make them love the place. Rob wondered if it was his first day, and Dee wondered if there had been a murder in the flat and that was why he was desperate to get rid of it.

She exchanged a look with Rob then beamed at the agent.

‘We love it. We’ll take it.’

The agent tried, not very successfully, to hide his relief.

Dee said, ‘It’s not haunted, is it?’

‘Oh no, madam.’

‘Good. When can we move in?’

‘It’ll take a day or two to do the paperwork, but any time after that. Just call into the office to collect your keys. I hope you’ll both be very happy here.’ He left them to it, almost running down the hall, telling them to just slam the door shut when they left. The latch would lock automatically.

Dee and Rob wandered about, talking, leaning against the walls and planning the layout of their small amount of furniture, and looking out of the windows.

‘What a shame this block isn’t one of the sort with the kitchen in the basement, sending hot meals up to our little kitchen in a dumb-waiter. That would just about make it perfect.’

‘They used to be in the attic more often than in the basement,’ Rob told her. ‘I suppose I shall have to learn to cook. If we rely on you to make our meals, we’ll either starve or die of food-poisoning.’

‘Well thank you very much! But I’m not doing all the domestic stuff just because I’m the girl, so yes, you’d better learn to cook,’ she laughed. ‘And clean. And just to be very, very clear, I’m never going to wash your pants either, so that’s another thing you’ll need to learn to do.’

‘Fine,’ he sighed, pretending to be irritated. He put an arm around her shoulders. ‘Are we sure? I mean, it’s a lot of money.’

‘It’ll be fine. Mum and Dad will always help us out if we’re stuck. And besides, everywhere’s a lot of money these days.’ She began to move about the room. ‘I love this place. We’re going to be so happy here.’

‘I suppose you’ll want a house-warming party.’

‘A flat-warming, you mean!’ She beamed at him. ‘Yes!’

***

End of sneak peek – thanks for reading!

***

all content is copyrighted © Caron Allan 2013