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THE BODIES IN THE LIBRARY
"I’ll be leaving now, Ms. Burke.”
I leapt up from the desk at this announcementknocking my phone on the floor in the processand hurried out of my office.
“Yes, Mrs. Woolgar,” I said, tugging on my jacket. “Have a lovely evening.”
The secretary stood in the flagstone entry and reached for her coat off the hall stand. The open front door framed a twilight sky behind her, as a cool October breeze swirled round our ankles. Bunter, a tortoiseshell cat, sauntered down the staircase, his tail straight as a soldier apart from the question-mark curl at its tip. He settled on the bottom step.
“You will have a word with them, won’t you?”
“I certainly will,” I replied. “But”I added with as much authority as I could muster under her steely gaze“as I’ve explained, I don’t feel we can ask them to move along just yet. And, I believe this connection to the local writing community will be a boonhelping us to build a base of support that will ensure the Society’s future.”
Mrs. Woolgar took a lace-edged hankie from her sleeve and polished the brass plate mounted at the door that read The First Edition Society.
“And the furniture?”
“I haven’t forgotten the furniture,” I assured her. “I’m terribly sorry they left the chairs in such disarray last week.” And the week before. “It’s only that Trist had shifted things round to act out a scene he’d written with the zombies.”
Mrs. Woolgar’s eyes were veiled as she snapped her handbag closed and brushed an imaginary speck off the lapel of her dress. “Yes, well, it’s only that we have a great responsibility to maintain a certain caliber and excellent quality here at Middlebank House. Not only because this was Lady Fowling’s own residence and she was held in high esteem here in Bath and greatly mourned three years ago when she died, but also because it sets the standard for her grand endeavor, the Society, which she began herself with . . .”
I stopped listening but kept the polite smile plastered on my face as Mrs. Woolgar continued to tell me my job. I was new to my position as curator at The First Edition Society, an organization founded and funded by the late Lady Georgiana Fowling. She had turned Middlebank House, her home, into the repository for her lifetime passionacquiring first editions of the women authors from the Golden Age of Mystery. Her library comprised a vast collection not only from Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and the othersmany of the books personally autographedbut also works from suspense author Daphne du Maurier, added to the list for the sole reason that she was one of Lady Fowling’s favorites.
It may have appeared that I’d made quite an extraordinary leap from my former postassistant to the assistant curator at the Jane Austen Centreto my current position of sole curator at the Society, especially as my university degree was in nineteenth-century literature. Never having read a detective story in my life, I knew I needed to prove my worthif not to the board, then to myself and Glynis Woolgar, a dear friend and personal assistant to Lady Fowling for donkey’s years, and who now held the post of Society secretary in perpetuum.
Mrs. Woolgar was on one side or the other of sixtycloser than that I could not guess. It was because of her clothes. She dressed as if it were 1935that great age of mystery writing. The narrow frocks with wide lapels and cinched waists suited her pencil-like physique. Perhaps some women might’ve added a whimsical flare at the hemline, but not Mrs. Woolgar. Lady Fowlingninety-four when she diedhad dressed in the same era, if the portrait on the stairs was anything to go by.
“This is a chance for growth,” I said when the secretary had finally run out of steam. “And if we do not grow, we stagnate.”
“The Society is not in need of funds,” Mrs. Woolgar stated, and not for the first time.
Lady Fowling’s vast fortune notwithstanding, I knew that money was finite. It could be used up or taken away, and then where would we be? I wasn’t thinking only of my own financial historywhat about her ladyship’s lout of a nephew? I’d heard the whole story. He’d received a bequesta shocking amount of money that I could’ve lived on for the rest of my lifeyet he continued to look for ways to challenge his aunt’s will. Apparently, he wanted the house, tooThe First Edition Society be damned.
“That may be true,” I replied, “but we mustn’t forget Lady Fowling’s admonition that we are ‘dedicated to the enjoyment, education, and furtherance of both readers and writers of mysteries, by connecting the public to our collection.’ ”
“I doubt she meant your lot,” Mrs. Woolgar muttered as she left.
My lot. It had been my idea to invite the fan-fiction writers group to hold its sessions at Middlebank. I had offered it free of charge, believing this was a first step in making the Society not a diminishing, albeit elite, group of elderly book lovers who were scattered across the globe, but a viable and growing concern.
Each writer in the group had chosen to create his or her own homage to Agatha Christiethe doyenne of the detective novel. Their ages were mixed, ensuring the word got out that the Society appealed not only to university researchers and rare-book collectors, but also to a lively assortment of arty types from twentysomethings to pensioners. Apart from the fact I knew nothing about Christie’s writings, how could this be a bad idea?
I checked the time, went to the small kitchenette behind the stairs, and made myself a sandwich. Middlebank, as was the case with terraced houses, stretched upward instead of outward, with four floors and a basement. The ground floorstreet levelheld our separate offices, Mrs. Woolgar’s and mine, plus the kitchenette and a loo. Up one flight of stairs lay the library, with floor-to-ceiling shelves, a large table, fireplace, and cozy nooks, as well as a powder room. My flat was up one more flightaccommodations had been included in the job, and I was ever so gratefuland at the top, an attic.
The basement was never referred to as suchinstead, it was called the lower ground floor, and that’s where Mrs. Woolgar lived. Middlebank sat midway along a well-kept Georgian terrace made of golden Bath stone. The terrace had been built on a slope and the land fell away at the back, which meant her flat had plenty of light and access to the back garden. It was lovelythe brief glimpse I’d had.
My flat had windows that took in a sweeping expanse of the town and into the Somerset countryside, as well as having a bird’s-eye view of both the back garden and the street in front. I had moved here from a dreary, cramped flat out on the Wells Road, and I counted myself more than lucky, although I needed a reminder of this each morning when Mrs. Woolgar and I held our briefing.
On Wednesday evenings, I remained on the ground floor and in my office while the writers group met upstairs in the library. Furniture moving wasn’t the only black mark they’d received during their short tenure. Mrs. Woolgar had posted herself in a far corner of the library on the first evening the group metshe wanted to make sure no one touched any of the books. The group’s discussion had become so heated it had spilled out onto the first-floor landing, where they’d knocked a Chippendale walnut chair against the frame of Lady Fowling’s portrait. I heard shouts of “Poirot always had superpowers. I’m just bringing them to the forefront!” and “Vice in St. Mary Mead? I don’t think so!” After that scene, Mrs. Woolgar began taking herself off the premises.
My second thoughts on inviting the group to meet at Middlebank had turned into third and fourth thoughts, and after only a few weeks, I was considering how I might turf them out and save face. I had yet to come up with a solution.
Bunter, who had accompanied me to the kitchen to receive his own repast, finished his meal before I’d finished mine, and so spent the remainder of the time watching me with golden eyes. Every minute or so, he would shift slightly and rewrap his tail round his toes just to let me know he was still there. I saved out a tiny bit of cheese and offered it to him on a fingertip. He sniffed politely before taking it in one lick and spending the next ten minutes washing up. When the front-door buzzer sounded, he scampered off.
A young woman stood clutching a laptop to her chest and wriggling with excitement. “Hiya, Hayley,” she greeted me. Her pale blond hairfrizzy and chin lengthfought with enthusiasm against the hair band that held it.
“Hello, Harry, ready for your session?” I asked.
She nodded frantically. “I’ve had a breakthrough in my plotMiss Marple gave up a baby for adoption, and the baby’s grown into a woman and has come to St. Mary Mead to track down the mother who deserted her.”
“You must be joking, Harry,” said a voice behind the door as I started to close it.
“Sorry, Peter.” I pulled the door open, and Petergray hair slicked backslouched in, a worn canvas satchel thrown over his rounded shoulders. He was followed by Mariella, in her late thirties with pixie-cut black hair, creamy complexion, and dark circles under her eyes. They both wrote books with Hercule Poirot as protagonist, with the outstanding difference that Mariella imbued her character with superpowers.
“Who’s going to believe an old thing like Miss Marple ever had a baby?” Mariella asked. She dropped her bag on the flagstone, and it landed like a sack of rocks. A sippy cup and a packet of rusks spilled out. Mariella, who looked perpetually exhausted, had a ten-month-old she left at home with her husband on Wednesdays.
“That’s the point,” Harry said. “It’s the juxtaposition of the past and the present that leads to the murder.”
“It’ll be a hard sell,” Peter commented as he breezed past me.
The three continued to bicker as they headed up the stairs while I stepped out onto the pavement. The streetlights had flared, and I spotted the last two writers hurrying alongTrist, leader of the group, and Amanda, who was dedicated but indecisive and continued to rewrite the first ten pages of her story, which starred Tommy and Tuppence, Christie’s married sleuths.
“They aren’t lightweights,” Amanda complained, flipping a long, thick, blond braid over her shoulder and unbuttoning a coat that looked three sizes too big for her.
“She was having a lark when she penned those stories,” Trist replied. “They aren’t truly serious works of detective fiction.”
Trist, who wrote like the wind, was not one to talk about serious fiction. But he turned a deaf ear when anyone told him that the Agatha Christie people would never let his bookMiss Marple and Zombiessee the light of day. Not that the others could ever hope for official sanction of their books either.
“You think you’re better than the rest of us,” Amanda said, “just because you’re fast, but you’ll seeit’s one of us who’ll be published long before you. No one cares about zombies anymore, Miss Marple or no. Oh, thanks, Hayley,” she added as I held the door for her. She hitched her worn canvas satchel higher on her shoulder and walked in.
“Trist” I stopped him before he stepped inside. I needed to have a word, and I liked having the extra inch or two that the doorstep provided. It wasn’t that I was short, but, although thin, he was well over six feet. He sported sparse hair in need of a trim and a scar that cut through his right eyebrow, giving him a perpetual look of scorn. “You will remember to put the furniture back, won’t you? Mrs. Woolgar said that”
“We put the place to rights before we left last week,” Trist argued, taking a handkerchief from the outside pocket of his leather case and wiping his brow. “And anyway, I don’t know what she’s complaining about, she doesn’t own the place.”
“Both Mrs. Woolgar and I are responsible for what goes on inside Middlebank House,” I reminded him. I was on the verge of slamming the door in the face of his insolence, but how would I get the rest of them out? “And when you were invited to hold the group here, you took on part of that responsibility. If that is more than you’re willing to assume, we’ll have to discuss”
“Maybe it’s her ladyship feeling restless,” he cut in with a sly grin. “She’s starting to rearrange the furniture.”
I put a finger in his face. “Don’t you start that again about a ghost. Lady Fowling has not returned to haunt Middlebank.”
“Are you coming up this evening, Hayley?” Amanda asked.
I had monitored the group the second week they met at Middlebankjust to assuage Mrs. Woolgar’s worrybut I had no wish to hear those first ten pages again. “No, thanks. I’ve a project proposal to catch up on. I’m sure you all work better without an extra pair of ears.”
Had I given Trist enough of a warning? Perhaps notI would catch him on his way out. Momentarily defeated, I retreated to my office and a proposal I was writing to the board. The Society would offer a series of literary salonsintimate evening lectures on the local culture, entertainment, and writing of the 1930s. We’d serve wine and have a fire blazing. We would charge, of courseand members would receive a deep discount when they bought a ticket to the full series.
Mrs. Woolgar had raised an eyebrow at my idea, as I expected. But she would think differently when I roused the interest of the board of trustees. All five of them, not just my friend Adele Babbage. I was not required to get the board’s permission, but as the salons would be the first big project I’d taken on, I wanted to show them just how forward-thinking and thorough I could be. I knew Adele would love the ideashe had my back as far as the Society was concerned. It was the remaining four I needed to win overthree of Lady Fowling’s dear friends, now in their eighties, plus the daughter of another. I had the impression Mrs. Woolgar had the ear of at least one of them.
It had taken the boardworking with Lady Fowling’s solicitorthe entire three years after her death to get the Society up and running and hire the first curator. During that time, Middlebankbusy during her ladyship’s life with researchers, rare-book enthusiasts, and lovers of mysteries who came to admire the first editionsfell off the radar, so to speak, leaving the first curator wondering just what she was supposed to be doing. That sense of ennui, coupled with Lady Fowling’s nephew mounting an assault on the estate and the Society in an attempt to break the will, was too much for her, and after four months of constant hounding, she’d had enough and retired to Torquay.
The event threw the board into crisis. This was not what they’d signed on forthey had expected an easy time of it, holding quarterly meetings in the library with the sherry decanter close to hand. The other board members, that isnot Adele. She didn’t care for sherry, and besides, she believed Lady Fowling would want the Society to do and be more.
Their fear that the nephew might take advantage of the Society’s instability coincided with a particularly low point in my year, when no matter how I did my sums, I could not seem to cover my expenses. Adele had looked at my nadir as the stars aligning and had talked me into applying for the post of curator, skating over my lack of knowledge about the mystery genre. “You’ve a university degree in literature,” she reminded me. “Books are books.” The other board members did not see a problem either, and at their next quarterly meeting, they welcomed me with raised glasses.
Not yet halfway through the evening, and all was quiet from the library upstairs. I’d been twirling the end of my ponytail and staring at the blank document on my computer screen for nearly an hour before I gave up and reached for my phone. My call went unanswered just as I expected, and so I left my usual message.
“Dinah, sweetieit’s Mum,” I said, chipper in the face of dead silence. “Just ringing to see how you areI transferred the money on Monday, so it should’ve landed in your account. Ring me when you can, sweetie. Cheers, bye!”
Where would a twenty-two-year-old woman be on a Wednesday evening? My darling daughterin her second year at Sheffield studying the history of everyday lifewas probably at the library. No, waitmaybe she’d found herself a part-time job. A pub, perhaps, or a café? There’s something to hope for.
I noticed Mariella come down the stairs and pass by my office. I got to work, and had written a heading and a one-sentence précis of my proposal by the time she returned, mug in one hand, plate of biscuits in the other.
“Thanks, I’d love one.”
“I brought my own tea along this evening,” she said. “I didn’t touch the other.”
Good thing. Two weeks before, when Mariella had made tea in the kitchenette, she’d used Mrs. Woolgar’s Fortnum & Mason Assam Superb. Another black mark.
“It was good of you to remember.”
Mariella hovered just inside my office, tugging on the stretched-out sleeves of her sweater and glancing round the room at my mahogany desk, Palladian-style mantel, and the Queen Anne wingback chair near the door where Bunter now slept amid the warm glow thrown by the lamps.
“This house is gorgeous. All the dark wood and suchlike out of some old film.” She sighed. “We aren’t too noisy for you?”
I took that to mean there had been a fair few arguments already this evening, but at least they had been behind closed doors. “No, I haven’t heard a thingthat’s what you get from good, solid, Georgian construction, you know. Along with Lady Fowling’s refurbishments before she died. So, how’s it going? Everyone come with something fresh?”
“Oh yes, we’ve made great progress,” Mariella said, glancing behind her and up the stairs. “Apart from Amanda, of course.”
“Have you read all those books in the library?”
I opened my bottom desk drawer and bent over it to hide my blush lest she cotton on to the fact that I had yet to crack a cover of those first editions and collectible volumes of the Golden Age of Mystery authors.
“The ones her ladyship wrote, I mean,” Mariella added, innocently giving me a way out.
“I haven’t as yet, but I intend to.”
Lady Fowling, as it happened, was a mystery writer, too, each of her many titles gloriously produced in tooled leather binding with gold lettering. She had known the publisher. Twelve books starred her own detective, but the rest had, as protagonist, one of the famous detectives from her favorite authors. Yesfan fiction. It was as I had told Mrs. Woolgar when I booked the writers group inif Lady Fowling had been alive today, she’d’ve joined them in the library on Wednesdays.
By ten o’clock, I had made considerable progress on my proposal, but when Bunter raised his head and yawned, so did I. Perhaps another cup of tea. I stood and stretched, and my phone rang. One glance told me it wasn’t Dinah returning her mum’s call.
“Hello, you,” I answered.
“Why aren’t you here in London with me? Why?”
“And why isn’t Bath the perfect place for your business, not London?” I responded, sitting again. We both sighed.
My boyfriend, Wyn Rundle, was a brilliant inventor and businessman whose fully funded start-upEat Here, Eat Nowpromised to deliver meals by robot to any address in Greater London, whether that was an office on the twenty-seventh floor of the Shard or a semidetatched in Ealing. Initially, of course, they would concentrate on lunchtime in the one-mile City proper, but as Wyn and his best mate, Tommy, pointed out, the financial district alone would be a gold mine.
We’d met two years earlier here in Bath when Wyn had attended a business expoone of those happy coincidences when we had both reached for the same flat white order at the Costa Coffee on Southgate. We’d laughed and got to chatting and . . . well, fueled by caffeine, things moved along fairly quickly after that, and by the time he’d returned to London two days later, we were smitten.
And yet we remained living separately. Was it our ageboth of us midfortiesthat kept us from making that last leap and moving cities? We’d grown rather tired of the topicapart from our requisite greeting on the phoneand had decided to enjoy our long-distance relationship to its fullest, supplementing widely spaced weekends together with phone calls and texts.
“We need a new navigation system for Myrtle,” he said glumly. “She can’t tell left from right. I’d just as soon throw the bloody thing off Tower Bridge at the moment.”
Myrtle, the robot. Why did these things always have women’s names?
I heard voices on the stairs. The writers must’ve reconciled their differences for the evening, because as they trooped down quietly, Peter asked, “Pub?” and the others murmured assents.
“Hang on a tick,” I whispered to Wyn. “The group’s leavingI should probably have a quick word and then we can talk.” I jumped up and hurried out to the entry.
“Sorry,” Wyn replied in a rush. “Here’s Tommy. We’ve got to get to work. Love you.” And he was gone.
“Trist?” I called as the group filed out the door.
Already on the pavement, he replied, “See ya, Hayley.”
“Library’s all in order,” Harry promised.
“Night, Hayley,” came from the others.
I withdrew my objection when Mrs. Woolgar appearedI got the idea she carried out surveillance from across the road and returned only when she saw the writers leaving.
“Turned a bit chilly,” I commented to her as she marched past me.
“It’ll do that in October. And tonight’s damage?” she asked, shrugging off her coat and hanging it on a peg.
“I’m sure they took careI’ll check on my way up.”
“Good night, then,” she replied, and made straight for the stairs that led down to her flat.
I locked the door and set the alarm. I heard Mrs. Woolgar’s door close, and I stood in the entry, listening to the silent house. The cat emerged from my office, stretched, and made his way into the next room to his bed behind Mrs. Woolgar’s desk.
“Well thengood night, Bunter.”