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

This is a rough draft of the first four chapters (don’t panic, they are really short!) of this new book that I hope to inflict release in 2021. The Miss Gascoigne books are a series of cosy mysteries set in the 1960s. They feature Diana 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

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 four years old herself.

The baby waved his arms gently 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 completely sincere in being besotted by the infant. People these days 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 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 growed 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.’

*

At forty-six, Meredith Hardew, with her handsome features, trim figure and excellent dress sense, was frequently taken for at least ten years younger than her true age. Not that she was in the habit of seeking out flattery, she told herself, for she was one of those women who never thinks about herself, what she’s wearing or how she looks. She was far too busy running errands for someone or other.

It was one of these errands that brought her into the village street on a wet Wednesday morning in early March. As she crossed the road by The Seagull public house, heading in the direction of the tiny village square, she waved a greeting to old Mrs Hunter, to whom she read on Tuesdays and Fridays. Mrs Hunter was being wheeled along to the doctor’s surgery by her granddaughter Marlene, a plump, bad-tempered seventeen-year-old who reeked of cigarettes.

Meredith Hardew had almost reached the square when she collided with Major Reeves on the narrow bend. She apologised swiftly and conferred one of her special, sweet smiles on him then moved on, leaving him staring after her with admiration and a resolution to ask her out for drinks, or dinner, or possibly the pictures. He wondered if she was the kind of woman who liked the pictures, or whether she might feel that they were both too old for all that silliness. Probably a nice, quiet evening playing bridge would be more suitable. But difficult to get a woman to yourself at a bridge evening, and he really wanted to talk to her. And if at all possible, to kiss her. He’d been thinking about that for a long time.

Meredith Hardew, oblivious to the major’s intentions, continued to the post office, and passing by the window, she was irritated to see at least three people already waiting. But there was nothing for it, she had to get the stamps, and the postal order that was to be the birthday present from her aunt to her late husband’s nephew and had to be sent inside the birthday card, and so Meredith went in.

One of the waiting people was Miss Fenniston. Of course, if Meredith had seen her sooner she would never have gone in, even though Edward’s birthday was in less than a week, for if there was one person she always went out of her way to avoid, it was her brother’s secretary.

Miss Fenniston nodded to her and said a cool, ‘Good morning.’

Meredith Hardew felt irritated, as if she had been condescended to, but she shook off the feeling and trying to force a good deal more warmth into her voice than she really felt, she replied, ‘Good morning to you, Miss Fenniston. How are you? It’s been quite a while since I last saw you.’

‘Just about three weeks,’ Sheila Fenniston responded, her tone still rather cool, ‘but perhaps you forgot I was away with Jeremy for his conference in the Midlands before taking my annual holiday?’

‘Of course, how silly of me.’ Meredith blustered a little, noting that the other occupants of the shop were taking in every detail, including the woman’s very inappropriate use of Meredith’s brother’s first name. Really, it had to stop, this all-too-casual familiarity. She made a mental note to speak to her brother once again about Miss Fenniston’s behaviour.

The person at the post office window moved off and Miss Fenniston stepped up to carry out her business, making further conversation impossible. But Meredith continued to feel flustered and upset. She was relieved when, a few minutes later, Miss Fenniston exited the shop with only a nod in Meredith’s direction. Her feelings were further relieved when, a few minutes later, upon completion of her own purchases, she left the shop, and glancing up and down the street, found that Sheila Fenniston was nowhere to be seen.

Meredith felt herself relaxing again. She pulled out her list to check what she needed to do next.

*

By the time Meredith had hung up her coat and emptied her basket on the side-table in the morning-room, it was almost lunchtime.

Her aunt entered the room, leaning rather more than necessary on her stick. She proceeded to complain about the library books Meredith had selected for her, waving away Meredith’s apologies and explanations, but she gathered the books up anyway, carefully stacking the stamps, the postal order, the medicine bottles, the packet of mints, the magazines and a few other small items on top and went up the stairs slowly and with every appearance of frailty, carrying everything to her private sitting-room with her usual air of martyrdom, returning a few minutes later when luncheon was announced.

Davies, her maid, came downstairs with her, and ran ahead to open the dining-room door for Mrs Smithyes, who sailed past her, putting Meredith in mind as usual of an old steamship entering a harbour.

‘No Jeremy today?’ Meredith heard her aunt enquire. Before Meredith could answer, Davies responded quickly with:

‘Not today, Mrs Smithyes. Mr Jeremy mentioned that he has a meeting with the gentleman from Italy today, and is lunching at his office.’

‘Ah yes, of course. So he did. Well, I can’t bear cold meat, let us begin.’

‘Yes madam, I’ll bring it through immediately.’ With a quick bob, she turned and left the room.

As soon as the door closed behind her, Mrs Smithyes turned to Meredith and said, ‘I do hope that odious Fenniston woman isn’t lunching with him, it would not be at all appropriate. Men are so terribly lax about these things. Especially since the war.’

‘Yes, Aunt Lucinda.’ Meredith was not required to say more. Her aunt continued to expand on her main theme.

‘It encourages the woman to believe herself on an equal footing with him. It arouses hopes that ought not be aroused. It is most…’ and here Mrs Smithyes felt about her for the right word, found an old favourite and pronounced it with finality. ‘Inappropriate!’

‘It is indeed, Aunt.’

‘Perhaps you or I ought to have another word with him. I’m convinced he has forgotten everything you said to him last month about the position in which he is placing himself, and by extension us, when he acts so familiarly with this—this creature.’

There was a brief pause in which Meredith, on the point of responding in either the negative or the positive according to requirement, suddenly had a presentiment of what her aunt was going to say next.

Mrs Smithyes spoke again, distress in her voice. ‘If only your uncle was still alive, he would know how to handle a situation of this sort. Indeed, the situation would probably have never arisen in the first place.’

About to agree once more, Meredith was prevented from doing so by the door opening and Davies coming in with a tray of covered dishes which she dispensed about the table and withdrew, leaving them to serve themselves. Thus distracted, Meredith had no opportunity of steeling herself or heading off the current in another direction. Her aunt said:

‘Perhaps you could have another word with him about it. Be more forceful this time. He must be made to see that the woman must be got rid of. I simply cannot endure the strain of her rudeness, her presumption, nor her familiarity. We have our position to consider. Speak to him this evening after dinner. That way you will have to get it over and done with, and he won’t be able to do anything other than listen because we will have guests to entertain. He won’t risk causing a scene.’

Meredith’s heart sank. There would be a scene, she knew it. She had been through a similar situation only a few weeks earlier, when last her aunt had tasked her with talking to Jeremy about his relationship with his secretary. It had been unpleasant in the extreme and he had sulked all evening. At the time it had been difficult but Meredith had been comforted by the fact that he had appeared to take notice of her aunt’s concerns. But now, after spending some time away together—and who knew what that may have led to—it was all too clear this had been just a momentary improvement and he had now slipped back into those objectionable ways. Did that mean that in another month’s time, she would be facing the prospect of yet another talk with Jeremy about his precious Miss Fenniston? She had a horrid feeling that is exactly what would be happening. Her future life would be punctuated with such talks on a regular basis. She said:

‘Do we really want him sulking all through tonight’s dinner, when he should be setting himself out to entertain his guests?’

‘That’s why I said you should speak with him after dinner. Wait until the gentlemen join us for coffee, then I shall entertain our visitors and you can take him into the morning-room for a quick talk in private, and there will be no time for him to make a fuss. We can’t put it off any longer. The woman is making complete fools of all of us.’

It was all very well for her aunt to talk of ‘we’ but the task was falling to Meredith alone, and she dreaded bringing up the subject that had been so angrily discussed between her brother and herself only a short time ago. Once upon a time he had trusted her judgement and followed her advice. They had been so close. He had looked to her to fulfil all his needs. Not anymore. The evening ahead began to loom horribly in Meredith’s mind, and she momentarily toyed with the possibility of a migraine coming on gradually during the afternoon. But she knew that wouldn’t be any good. The dinner party was too important, and her aunt would not permit any absences.

 *

If the dinner had gone well that evening, that was all that could be said. In the drawing-room, Jeremy was witty and attentive. His guests clearly enjoyed themselves.

But beneath the host’s perfect demeanour burned a bright, brittle anger and Meredith was all too aware of it whenever her brother should look at her. She was confident, however, that no one else detected anything amiss, even though some of his jokes were barbed. At least she could be sure he would wait until after their guests had returned to their hotel before he turned on her. She was not looking forward to that.

Miss Fenniston, passing around the cigarettes, bent near to Meredith and said softly for her ears alone, ‘What on earth have you said to Jeremy? He’s in a filthy mood.’ Her eyes, bright with malicious enjoyment, rested on Meredith’s before she moved on.

Meredith excused herself for a moment, though no one even noticed her leave, and praying that her brother would not seize the opportunity and come after her, she made her way to the bathroom. She bolted the door behind her and leaned against it for a moment, relieved. It was cool in here. She went to the basin and splashed some cold water on her wrists. Then she damped the corner of the towel and applied this to her temples and the back of her neck. Immediately she felt the delicious chill freshen her. Her faculties felt sharper. Some of the tension lessened, though her head still ached abominably.

She looked into the mirror and saw how pale she was looking. She patted her cheeks vigorously several times to induce a little more colour into her face. Her aunt did not approve of rouge.

She took a few deep breaths. She felt a little better. She was as composed as she would ever be, and besides, she couldn’t stay in the bathroom forever. A glance at her watch told her it was just a few minutes before ten o’clock. If she was very lucky, their guests might leave soon. But she doubted it—they were all getting on far too well for the evening to end so early. Jeremy was in fine form, and Miss Fenniston—whom the guests so readily addressed as Sheila—was bubbling with friendliness, conversation, and plying her knowledge of foreign languages to charm the German, French and Italian visitors, whilst ably discussing the latest in cinema and books with the Americans. It was too much to hope that they would all leave any time soon.

She left the bathroom. Crossing the hall, she met her aunt coming from the drawing-room. Mrs Smithyes looked highly annoyed.

‘What is it, Aunt?’ Meredith’s heart sank at the thought of some new offence.

‘That woman!’ her aunt snapped. ‘Anyone would think she was the hostess, and not myself. Surely they know she is only a secretary? To hear them calling her Sheila, like that! It’s too much. They include her in all their conversation and constantly ask her opinion. I thought I made it perfectly clear that you were to speak to him about it.’

‘Yes, Aunt Lucinda, and so I did. You saw me leave the room with him.’

‘Then a very poor showing you must have made of it. He’s worse than ever with her. He actually put his hand on her arm. And now they’re talking of going off to a casino, of all places! At this time of night!’

Meredith looked at her watch. Dead on ten o’clock. She looked at her aunt in dismay.

‘But Jeremy will…’

‘Yes, I know. I am quite aware, thank you very much. You hardly need to tell me about Jeremy! We must stop this.’

At that moment the drawing-room door opened, disgorging the guests in search of coats and belongings, ready to take their leave. Jeremy, all smiles and triumphant looks, came over to kiss his aunt and sister, saying:

‘Don’t know what time we’ll get back, so no need to wait up!’

Davies was suddenly there handing out coats and the American gentleman, cigar clamped firmly between his teeth, was helping his beautiful daughter into her fur wrap.

‘Oh Miss Niedermeyer, I do hope…’ Meredith began, but Miss Niedermeyer wasn’t listening. Nobody was listening to Meredith. They were all concentrating on Jeremy and the glamorous Miss Fenniston who wore plenty of rouge, and all kinds of other make-up too, expertly applied. Under her aunt’s furious gaze, Meredith tried again. ‘But surely it’s a bit cold and damp to be going out at this time of night? Perhaps we should have some more coffee? How about a few games of Bridge?’

She heard the squeaking of the country mouse in her voice and was embarrassed. Her aunt glared at her. Meredith knew it had not been enough, but what else could she have said?

‘Gnädige Fraulein, thanks you for the plentiful dinner you have made for us. I say you great thanks for the nice hospitality, and to you all ladies, good night.’

The German gentleman, tall, blond and as handsome at fifty-six as he had been in his thirties, bowed low as he kissed first Meredith’s hand and then her aunt’s.

Jeremy, with a malicious grin, sketched a sarcastic wave in their direction. The rest of the company took their leave, Miss Fenniston and Jeremy ushering everyone out ahead of them so they could bring up the rear, and just as the door closed behind them, through the glass Meredith saw Miss Fenniston tuck her hand into the crook of Jeremy’s arm.

Davies tsked. ‘Well I never did,’ she said.

‘Yes, all right, Davies! Thank you!’ snapped Mrs Smithyes. ‘You won’t be needed again tonight. You may go.’

The maid left, still craning her neck to see through the glass of the front door. Meredith and her aunt stood alone in the hall, like children waiting for a party that never arrived.

Mrs Smithyes rounded on her niece.

‘This is all your fault. I don’t know why I put up with your incompetence. I ask you to do one simple little thing, and you make a complete mess of it. Really, Meredith! After all I’ve done for you and your brother.’ Her aunt whirled round to the foot of the stairs, resting her hand on the post in preparation or her ascension, her other hand gripping her stick. ‘I’m going to bed. Thanks to you I now have a migraine. We will talk about this disaster in the morning.’

Halfway up the stairs, Mrs Smithyes bellowed in a most unladylike manner, ‘Davies!’

Davies, used to being dismissed then summoned again, came scurrying from the bowels of the house to follow her mistress up the stairs, collecting the trailing satin wrap as she went.

Meredith took in a deep, quavering breath and went to sit in the morning-room. She left the lights off so she could be still and quiet in the darkened room. She brushed a couple of tears from her cheeks, weary of being in the wrong, and cross with herself for giving way.

Clearly it was her aunt’s intention to lay all this at her door, as usual. But Meredith did not see that she could have done anything different. After all Jeremy was an adult.

What an idiot her brother was! She knew the casino idea must have been his, and was intended purely to spite her. She only hoped he wouldn’t lose too much. Or get too drunk and offend his business associates. But in drink, Jeremy was not known for his good sense. He was completely lacking in restraint, and his main mission in life had always been to have fun and to deal with the consequences later. Much later. She hoped he wouldn’t be too late coming home.

*

He came home at a quarter past four in the morning. She was still waiting for him in her chair in the morning-room. She had dozed, off and on, and was cold and stiff.

But on hearing his key in the lock, she had roused herself, stretching her neck and shoulders, and by the time he was actually stepping into the hall, she was there in the doorway of the morning-room, watching him.

He saw her immediately.

‘Here she is, my perfect big sister,’ he said, not troubling to keep his voice down. He slurred his speech. Drunk again. His sarcastic tone cut her. ‘Waiting up for me? Waiting to tattle to Auntie? More like, waiting to have another go at me! Tell me all my faults and where I’m going wrong in life? Eh? Tell me how disappointed you are with me? Your naughty baby brother.’

She didn’t speak. He was roaring drunk. She could smell the alcohol seeping through his pores. His face was red and slick with sweat, his tie unknotted and hanging down on either side of his crinkled collar. He swayed as he stood there. Had he driven himself home in that state? She dreaded to think. But she would get no sense out of him now. In this state, all he wanted was to fight. He raised a wavering finger at her.

‘Well I’m going to bed, so there. You can just forget about having a go at me.’

And he turned and tottered up the stairs, his grip slipping on the polished wooden rail.

A few moments later she locked the front door and went up to her room. At least he was home safely. Now she could sleep.

At eight o’clock her alarm woke her from a deep sleep. Her first thought was, I forgot to ask him. How much did he lose?

*

Mildred Evans, headmistress, looked dismayed. ‘I’m so sorry, Diana. 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 Diana 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, Diana 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.’

Diana 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.

*

Diana 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. That her mother had been looking out for her was clear as both she and the aged butler, Greeley opened the door to Diana 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 bag 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 Diana 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.’ Diana 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. When does your youngest brother ever go anywhere?’ Her mother sighed, and they went through into the drawing-room.

An earnest-looking young man looked up from a book as they came into the room. 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.

***

End of sneak peek

***

 

all content is copyrighted © Caron Allan 2013