Murder at the Castle- Frances Evesham (Digital Sample)

Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘Murder at the Castle’ by Frances Evesham.

Murder at the Castle

Frances Evesham

 

CHAPTER ONE

Fruit cake

Max Ramshore descended the last few steps of the ladder, panting with effort. He dumped a massive cardboard box on the floor, rubbed his back, and sighed. ‘How many more boxes are up in your loft?’

Libby chuckled. ‘I warned you I had plenty of stuff.’

‘You weren’t kidding. I thought you downsized when you moved to Exham.’

‘You should have seen the amount I threw away. These boxes are full of important items—’

She broke off as Max flipped the lid off the box. ‘Soft toys? Really?’

‘They belong to Robert.’

‘Why are they in your loft and not his?’

Libby wriggled. ‘I’m not sure he’s told Sarah about them yet.’

‘Your son’s been married for months. Time for him to confess, I would have thought, and take back his own – er – toys.’ Max held aloft a battered tiger. One eye was missing. ‘This one’s seen action, I suspect, and a ride or two in the washing machine?’

Libby retrieved the toy and slid it gently back into the box. ‘Robert promised to come over this afternoon to help me clear the cottage.’ She gestured vaguely around the tiny landing. ‘He thinks I’m too old and infirm to pack up my own belongings and move to your place…’ Her voice faded as she leaned over Max, who’d squatted down to sort through the medley of toys, books, and CD cases. She snatched a soft, blue-covered book from his grasp and flipped it open. ‘He used this when he was in primary school. Look, a drawing of his sister.’

‘Love Ali’s pigtails.’

‘She must have been about five when he drew this. He was eight.’

Max laughed. ‘Not bad artwork for an accountant.’

Libby stood up. ‘Even so, I can’t keep everything. I’m making a fresh start when we get married and Robert will have to decide what to do with his belongings. Tell you what, I’ll get one of those memory boxes for things I want to keep and the rest is up to him.’

‘A small one.’

‘Well, medium-sized. If things won’t fit, I’ll let them go.’

Max pushed the box to one side and set off up the ladder once more.

Libby looked again at the drawing and her stomach flipped. She recognised that stab of anxiety. Ali was grown up and sensible, and Libby liked that she was engaged in voluntary work, but South America seemed so far away.

Even Robert and Sarah’s wedding had failed to entice Ali home, and according to her latest email, she wouldn’t be back any time soon. She was totally engaged in her voluntary work, and if it weren’t for the regular emails she sent home, Libby would suspect she’d lost interest in her family. Would she even get home for Libby’s wedding?

Maybe it was Libby’s own fault. Determined not to pressure Ali, she’d made light of her wedding, pointing out it was only going to be a quick registry office affair. She’d had quite enough of the ‘bells and whistles’ approach to matrimony, with her first, deceased, husband, Trevor, and look how that had turned out; he’d been demanding and controlling, and deeply involved in money laundering for a gang of criminals.

No, Libby’s second wedding was going to be nothing like the first.

She snapped the book shut and put it back in the box. She wouldn’t admit, even to herself, how much she missed her daughter. To stave off the familiar wave of sadness, she slipped into her bedroom to look at her wedding dress. The wedding would be quiet, but it was still an excuse for a new outfit. In knee length navy silk with a pattern of bright red poppies, the dress hung behind the door in a cloud of protective plastic. She’d even bought a hat and red shoes and was planning the cake. Something suitable for an autumn wedding, perhaps, incorporating elderberries.

A contented smile spreading over her face, she shouted up to Max, ‘Cup of tea?’ and ran down the stairs of the cottage. Bear, the enormous sheepdog, raised his head from the box he shared with Fuzzy, her marmalade cat. He was hoping, as ever, for a titbit. ‘No chance. You’re starting to get fat.’ With a heavy sigh, Bear closed his eyes and went back to sleep.

Shipley, Max’s recently adopted springer spaniel, was racing in circles round the garden. Libby hoped he’d work off some of his excess excitement. He’d shown himself to be a talented sniffer dog, and Max was delivering him soon to a specialist trainer, to hone his skills and learn to be calm. Recent attempts to improve his behaviour by attending obedience classes with him had been only mildly effective, and Libby didn’t hold out a great deal of hope.

She pottered happily in her kitchen, spooning the tea Max preferred into a teapot. When she made tea for herself, she stuck lazily to teabags. Opening a cake tin, she cut a hunk of fruit cake, then shaved off a third. Max couldn’t resist her home-made cake, and she’d noticed his shirts were just a little tighter over his chest, these days.

Libby leaned on the counter and admired the room. When she was finally installed in Max’s old manor house, she’d miss Mandy, her lodger, who planned to stay on for a while, renting the property cheaply while she and Libby continued to run the chocolate business from there. She couldn’t bear to leave the professional kitchen, which she’d designed herself. After her husband had died, she’d used up all the money she had, incorporating all the latest kitchen gadgets to help her build up her cake and chocolate business.

Eventually, there would be plenty of room in her new home for an even more splendid workspace. She flipped through a glossy catalogue; one from a pile she’d amassed. Maybe two big ovens, she mused as she delivered tea and cake to Max. But there was no hurry. One step at a time. Marrying Max was more important.

 

 

CHAPTER TWO

Coffee

Late autumn sun bathed the ancient stones of Exmoor’s Dunster Castle in a warm glow. Inside, peace and tranquility reigned. That was just how Margery Halfstead liked it. She shifted a pair of heavy spectacles further up her nose, careful to avoid putting smears on the lenses, and grasped the small, soft brush more firmly. With a satisfied smile, she registered the click of her wedding ring against wood, and breathed in a lungful of slightly musty air.

Surrounded by formidable portraits of other people’s ancestors, she felt at home. On the days she worked as a National Trust volunteer, she daydreamed about living in this castle on top of the hill, overlooking the hills and valleys of West Somerset. You could even catch a glimpse of the sea – well, the Bristol Channel – when you looked out of the right windows.

Her husband, William, was here with her today. Humming tunelessly, Margery selected another book from the pile. With a gentle, practised flick of the wrist, she released a year’s worth of dust from the top of the pages. The dust motes danced in a random ray of sunlight, finally subsiding invisibly onto the floor. Could there be any better way to spend the day? Margery glanced at William. ‘I wonder why dusting old books in a stately home is such fun when…’

‘When there’s so much housework to do at home,’ William finished. They often ended each other’s sentences. Hardly surprising, after forty years of marriage. ‘Wedded bliss,’ William called it.

‘Birds of a feather,’ her father had called them, years ago.

Margery’s brush hovered in the air. She’d often wondered what Father had meant by that.

She gave a mental shrug and carried on with the job. William would never set the world alight, but he’d been a solid, dependable husband. He’d understood his wife’s longing for the bigger house they couldn’t afford, and he’d put money by. There wasn’t enough for a new place, but they were planning an extension. A bigger sitting room, with floor to ceiling windows so Margery could look out on the garden, and one more room upstairs to use for sewing. Mind you, some of the neighbours weren’t keen. Mrs Whatshername down the road said she was going to object and stop the planning permission.

William would sort it out. He’d think of a way. Margery rewarded William with a fond smile. Reliability; that’s what she liked most about her husband. When you’d known someone for years, you could trust them.

The clatter of heels on wood disturbed the peace as a stranger, a younger woman in her early forties by the look of her, burst in from the passage, gabbling in breathless haste, ‘So sorry to butt in. Mrs Moffat, the housekeeper, sent me over here. She said you’d show me the ropes. It’s my first day here, you see. I’m Annabel.’ She beamed and held out a hand.

Margery suppressed a grimace. She’d raise the issue of proper flat shoes later. Even those ghastly trainers the young people wore would be more suitable than this woman’s highly polished, pointy toed boots. She tried to be gracious, putting down the brush to shake the woman’s hand. ‘You’re very welcome, Annabel.’ Annabel, what sort of name was that?

William blinked behind horn-rimmed spectacles. ‘You’ll soon pick things up. I’m William, and this is my wife, Margery. She’s the boss when it comes to cleaning.’

The skin tightened on Margery’s face; he sounded like a hen-pecked husband. ‘William usually shows visitors around the castle, but we’re closed between October and February. Just a few pre-arranged groups are allowed.’ She shot a glance at her husband. Neither approved of out-of-season tours, for they disturbed the winter peace of the castle.

William wasn’t listening. His eyes were on stalks, staring at the stranger. Margery spoke louder. ‘A special party of students from the local school will be here shortly. William will lead the tour, but meanwhile…’

‘I thought I’d lend a hand with the cleaning,’ William cleared his throat. ‘Plenty to do.’

Margery nodded. ‘The more the merrier.’

‘Many hands make light work.’

‘No man is an island—’ Margery broke off. The newcomer was biting her lip with small white teeth, as though stifling a giggle. Incensed, Margery took a long, slow breath. How dare this newcomer laugh at them?

She narrowed her eyes, summing up Annabel. Almost pretty, except for that snubby nose. Brown hair in a tidy bob, quite suitable. Wide blue eyes, the exact colour of that expensive looking sweater – not cashmere, surely, to come cleaning? A pair of rather expensive, well cut jeans. Margery patted her own fringe into place and sniffed. ‘Did they give you an apron?’

Annabel nodded. ‘Not that I need it, really. These are my oldest clothes. By the way, Mrs Moffat said you might like a cup of coffee. Can I get you one?’

William looked at the watch Margery gave him last birthday. Nothing too showy – a solid, reliable British watch. He laughed, a little too loud. ‘That’ll hit the spot, coffee. Can’t bring it in here, of course, but I’ll come with you, make sure you find the sugar. Are you coming, dear?’

Margery shook her head. ‘I’ll finish up here. You go on.’

He was already on his way, ‘The biscuits are hidden in the cupboard on the right…’

His voice faded away. Margery, alone in the sudden silence, clicked her tongue, replaced the newly dusted book, and reached for another.

***

William and Annabel returned, chattering like old friends. Margery flicked a book with harder-than-usual force. Horrified, she watched a page flutter to the floor. She’d never damaged castle property before, not in all the years she’d been volunteering. She shot a wary glance at Annabel, but the younger woman was too busy listening to William telling her about the castle to notice. Margery slipped the page back inside the book.

William hadn’t noticed, either. He beamed at his companion, raking a hand through thinning grey hair. Margery remembered when he’d had a blond fringe flopping over his forehead. That was a few years ago, now. Still, he’d aged well.

Annabel’s eyes sparkled. ‘I’m so excited to be here. I loved history at school, but other things got in the way. Life.’

Curiosity piqued Margery’s interest. ‘Family?’ she suggested.

‘Just one son. He’s thirteen, now, and it’s time I got my life back. I’m a widow, you know. My husband died in a car accident when Jamie was five.’ Annabel’s hands were clenched.

William’s head wagged in sympathy and Margery swallowed. ‘That must have been difficult.’ She paused. ‘Your son must be a great comfort to you.’

Annabel gave a watery smile and started dusting books. ‘He is. He’s a great kid, but a child’s not the same as a husband. I miss his father dreadfully.’

Margery coughed awkwardly, never very comfortable dealing with personal matters. How could she know what to say? ‘Now, it’s time for you to let these students in, William. Goodness knows why Mrs Moffat made a special arrangement, just for them.’ She sniffed. ‘Something about history exams, I think you said?’

‘Quite right, dear, but I can’t stand here all day. We’re starting off in the modern butler’s pantry, so the students can try out the speaking tube.’ A favourite feature of the castle, the tube allowed the butler to speak to kitchen staff, downstairs in the servants’ quarters. ‘Then, I’ll take them round the rest of the castle, finishing with a Victorian tea party later. Mrs Forest will be bringing a cake.’

Margery hesitated, every vestige of her earlier contentment destroyed by Annabel’s arrival. She wouldn’t spend any more time with this superior younger woman if she could help it. She replaced her brush in its bag. ‘I’ll give my husband a hand, if you’re happy to carry on here.’ She’d be glad to join the tour, and some of Libby Forest’s cake would be just the job to cheer her up.

***

Heaving teenage bodies filled the tiny butler’s pantry. They shuffled, giggled and – Margery sniffed the air – passed wind. She wrinkled her nose. A tall lad, towering over his companions, disproportionate height miraculously supported by a skeletal frame, bent over to place his mouth against the speaking tube and affected an exaggerated upper class accent. ‘Hello. Who’s there? I’m talking on behalf of Mr Haddock, the butler. To whom am I speaking?’

A distant, tinny voice filled the room. ‘Elsie ‘ere. I’m the scullery maid.’

William hissed in the lad’s ear, ‘Use your script.’

Face pink as he struggled with self-conscious giggles, the youth pulled a crumpled sheet of lined paper from his pocket. ‘I’d like to speak to the cook.’

The voice replied, ‘Ooh, she’s out, I’m afraid. Can I ‘elp, at all?’

Margery raised an eyebrow. She knew that voice. Beryl Nightingale, a fellow volunteer, was a timid little woman, not someone Margery would have chosen for an acting role. She supposed William thought he was doing Beryl a favour. Maybe he was right. Beryl sounded unusually confident today.

As the student continued to read from his script, William hissed at Margery. ‘I’ve left some handouts in the car. Can you take over here? Send everyone downstairs to the old Victorian kitchen when they’re finished here. I’ll do the tour of the castle afterwards. I’ve given them maps.’

‘B-but,’ Margery wanted to argue. She hated dealing with visitors, and schoolchildren were the worst of all, but she was too late. William had already gone.

The teenager, enjoying himself, went on speaking through the tube. ‘Mr Haddock, the butler, wishes to confirm tonight’s dinner menu.’

The menu was almost lost in his companions’ gleeful snorts. Margery could hear Beryl listing elaborate dishes, from partridge soup and potted crayfish to scotch woodcock. She began to think the catalogue would never end. Beryl was relishing the starring role. Finally, the litany came to an end, ‘… and queen of pudd—’

The disembodied voice fell abruptly silent. The young man shouted into the speaking tube. ‘Hello. Are you there?’

More silence.

Margery stepped forward. ‘It gets blocked sometimes. Try blowing into the tube.’

The boy puffed and the device produced a loud raspberry, but there was no reply. The scullery maid, it seemed, had gone.

‘Right, never mind.’ Margery swallowed. She wasn’t good at handling groups of students. They made her nervous. She tapped one of the boys on the shoulder. ‘You come upstairs with me. You can tug the bell-pull while the rest go down to the servants’ quarters, find the row of bells on the wall, and wait. Mr Halfstead will join you there.’

‘Will they ring downstairs? Like in Downton Abbey?’

‘Exactly.’

Margery climbed towards the bedrooms, an excited teenager in tow. Her knees ached.

As one foot reached the landing, a single cry rang through the castle. Another volunteer, a big woman, poked her head out from a nearby doorway. Neat black hair framed her face. Her blouse was printed with bright swirls that made Margery’s head spin. ‘What’s that?’

‘Party of schoolchildren.’

Another cry interrupted. The two women’s eyes met. Without another word, Margery turned and, forgetting her painful knees, ran down the stairs to the servants’ quarters.

She burst through into the old kitchen, the young lad close behind. William was already there, bent over, peering behind the huge metal-topped table that dominated the room.

Margery pushed past the knot of schoolboys. ‘What is it?’

Her husband looked every day of his age as he turned an ashen face to his wife. ‘It’s… she’s…’

But Margery, knuckles stuffed into her mouth to stifle a scream, had already seen Beryl Nightingale’s motionless body.

 

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