Henry Devereaux Twyst, eighteenth Duke of Chellingworth, is terribly worried about some water damage to the priceless books in his lower library, so retains the services of a local book restorer to tackle much-needed repairs. The antiquarian also runs the Crooks and Cooks bookshop with his daughter – local TV celebrity chef, The Curious Cook. When the book restorer mentions some strange shenanigans going on at the book shop, Dowager Duchess Althea brings the case to her colleagues at the WISE Enquiries Agency.
As the WISE women try to unravel one puzzle from their base at stately Chellingworth Hall, they then get embroiled in another when they come across a valuable book of miniatures which seems to be the work of a local famous artist, murdered by her own brother. Are the cases linked and why do both mysteries lead to a nearby old folks’ home? The WISE women are on the case – and nothing will get in their way . . . Or will it?
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The Case of the Curious Cook
A Wise Enquiries Agency Mystery
By Cathy Ace
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2016 Cathy Ace
All rights reserved.
Friday 20th June
Henry Devereaux Twyst, eighteenth Duke of Chellingworth, was terribly worried about the books in the lower library. Following his marriage to Stephanie Timbers, some three months earlier, the couple had moved into the bedchamber and apartment on the second floor of Chellingworth Hall formerly used by Henry's grandparents. Having been mothballed for decades, the bathroom where he and his bride performed their daily ablutions in a carefree manner had been harboring a dangerous secret; a rubber ring inside one of the art deco taps had perished. This small failure had allowed water to seep, unheeded, along a meandering pathway until it arrived at the bookshelves in a corner of the ground floor library. What might have been no more than an unfortunate inconvenience had assumed the proportions of a potential tragedy, because the shelves in question were reserved for the Twyst's impressive – and priceless – collection of ancient bibles and sacred books.
It had cost a pound – just one pound! – to purchase a replacement for the offending rubber washer; the cost to remediate the damage to the irreplaceable books, if remediation were indeed possible, was yet to be determined. Beneath the watchful gaze of his mother, Henry paced the morning room muttering under his breath as he awaited a verdict. The Chellingworth Bible was of particular concern; one of only two known volumes of its type, it had been created by Dominican monks in the mid-fourteenth century, probably around the time Geoffrey Chaucer himself was born, and was now under a terrible threat. It was over six hundred and fifty years old, and Henry was keenly aware it had come to harm on his watch.
'Any news yet, Henry?' Stephanie entered the room silently, startling her husband.
'Not a dickie bird. He's been in there for over an hour.' Despite his impatience, Henry's spirits lifted a little at the sight of his wife. His wife. How wonderful that knowledge made him feel.
His mother Althea smiled at her daughter-in-law's arrival, and patted the spot beside her on the sofa with an encouraging smile.
Stephanie hovered uncertainly and checked her watch. 'The doors will open to allow public admittance in forty-five minutes. I think I'd better get the lower library roped off for today. We don't want to disturb him.'
Henry's spirits plummeted again. 'You're right, of course,' he acknowledged with a sigh. 'I'll just pop my head in and tell the chap he can find us in the estate offices when he's finished.'
Their conversation was interrupted by the arrival of Edward, the Twyst's butler.
'Mr Bryn Jenkins is asking to see you, Your Grace. Should I tell him to join you here?'
Henry turned and pulled down the points of his waistcoat beneath his jacket. 'Absolutely. Bring him in immediately.' He smiled nervously at his wife and mother. 'Now for the moment of truth.' The tremor in his voice betrayed his anxiety, which made him cross.
A head taller than the duke, and a decade older than Henry's fifty-five years, Bryn Jenkins carried himself erect, and with dignity; his wiry, birdlike frame was upright. His bony, slightly hooked nose twitched as he crossed the spacious room and his hands fluttered as he cleaned his spectacles then replaced them upon their perch.
Finally facing each other, Henry waved an outstretched arm toward a chair, and Bryn Jenkins took a seat.
Henry also sat, and asked, 'Is it bad?' It was the best he could muster.
The lenses of his eyeglasses glittering in the morning sun, the book-restorer's expression was impossible to read. Henry hardly dared breathe.
Bryn Jenkins replied, 'Not as bad as it could be, Your Grace. Thank heavens. I believe I could have everything returned to good order pretty quickly, relatively speaking. Patience and experience should do it. And it'll cost a bit, too, of course.'
Henry had expected the topic of money to raise its ugly head, but was at least relieved to discover he wouldn't forever be known as the duke who'd allowed a piece of internationally-renowned art to be ruined. 'The Chellingworth Bible can be saved?' He finally dared say the words.
Bryn smiled toothily. 'It can be, Your Grace. Though, of course, as I am sure Your Grace is aware, it shouldn't really be called a "bible" because it's a book of biblical stories, designed to allow holy teachings to be delivered in such a way that fourteenth-century, illiterate peasants could understand them. The Twyst Bible on the other hand, now that's a real bible, of course. I'm sorry to say it's in slightly worse condition. While it's not as old as your other volumes, it's still quite something for me to get to work on a copy of the 1611 King James Bible presented by King James himself to your forebears, Your Grace. Your family tree and the accompanying signatures inside its back cover must be very precious to you. That part is undamaged I'm happy to say, though there's some damp in a portion of the front binding and the spine. A lot of work, that'll be, but I can get it shipshape, sure enough.'
Henry beamed. 'That's not as bad as I'd feared.'
The dowager put down her cup and saucer and clapped her hands. 'I am so relieved, Mr Jenkins. I'll admit I've always been more fond of the Twyst Bible than the Chellingworth Bible. It has a long-lived connection with the family – though I know the world beyond these walls would disagree about the relative value of the two volumes. What about the William Morgan Bible? That's older than the King James, and, being the original Welsh translation, probably more culturally sensitive in these parts.'
Bryn tilted his head. 'That's a very thoughtful thing to say, Your Grace. And you're quite right – means a lot to we Welsh, does that one. Not as valuable as the King James, but, as you say, a culturally sensitive work. That one's fine, funnily enough. Not a bit of damage. It was saved by its box. Good Welsh oak. Well-oiled and polished. Almost as good as waterproof. Stopped the seeping in its tracks.'
'That is a relief,' chimed in Stephanie. 'Any other volumes damaged?'
Bryn stood, holding out a piece of paper. 'A few, yes. Here's a list. I've written up what I propose to do, and what it'll cost.' He handed the paper to the duke, incorrectly judging he'd be in charge of the work ahead. 'There's just one thing I haven't said there,' he added.
Scanning the notes, and focusing on the worryingly large amount of money involved, Henry answered absently. 'And that is?'
Bryn shifted his weight. 'Usually I'd do the work at my own shop. I've got a little place in the attic where I do my restoration work. But for these? I don't think I could afford the insurance. Besides, there's some sort of strange shenanigans going on at the moment, so I'd rather the items didn't spend any time there at all. If there was somewhere here, at Chellingworth Hall, where I could bring my tools of the trade, so to speak, I could do it all without any of the pieces having to leave the premises.'
'Of course we can arrange that, can't we, dear?' said the duchess.
Henry lifted his head. 'Pardon? Oh, absolutely. Whatever you say, my dear.'
Stephanie smiled. 'When would you like to begin, Mr Jenkins?'
Straightening his shoulders the tall man rubbed his chin. 'The first thing to do is to clear all the volumes away to a safer environment, and I think that should be done immediately. For that we'd just need a secure place. Then I'll need a dry, well-lit room – no direct sunlight, mind you – with some good, solid, flat tabletops, no drafts, and quite a few power outlets. The room shouldn't be dusty. Wherever it is, it'll need a thorough vacuuming. And, of course, you'd probably prefer there to be effective locks on the door.'
Henry panicked. With 268 rooms, Chellingworth Hall was bound to offer something of the type Bryn Jenkins had just described, but he was dashed if he could think of it.
Stephanie stood. 'I know exactly the place, Mr Jenkins.' She looked at her watch. 'If you would return at, say, nine o'clock tomorrow, with any supplies and equipment you might need to bring, you will be able to inspect the room to ensure it meets your needs. Will that suit?'
Bryn nodded eagerly. 'Sounds spot on, thank you, Your Grace. I'll be back and forth here over the next few weeks. I'll make arrangements with my daughter to schedule proper cover for me at the shop.'
'But of course,' replied Stephanie, moving to pull the bell-rope beside the fireplace. 'You have that lovely place Crooks and Cooks, don't you?'
Bryn preened himself. 'You've heard of it?'
'Indeed I have, Mr Jenkins. I've been there on many an occasion myself. You might not remember me, because I spent most of my time upstairs in your cookery books' section with your lovely daughter, Val.'
Bryn Jenkins looked stunned. 'You know my Val?' was the man's first remark. 'Well, I never,' he added.
His awestruck blubbering was curtailed when Stephanie turned to Edward, who had appeared at the door in response to her ringing for him. 'Close off the lower library for today, please, Edward, and arrange for Mr Jenkins to have all the help he needs to take a number of volumes from the lower library to His Grace's old bedroom. Then ask Mrs Davies to dust, vacuum, and polish the old nursery. Not His Grace's old nursery, but the sixteenth duke's, please. Thank you.' Turning to Bryn she added, 'The sixteenth duke's old nursery is spacious and has large, barred windows, facing north. It was wired for power when it was used by the seventeenth duke during his photography-loving phase. I think it'll meet your needs.'
Bryn glowed with delight. 'Absolutely, Your Grace ... Your Graces,' he stammered as he walked out of the room almost backwards, and almost bowing.
As the door closed behind the bookseller Althea asked, 'Is there something else, Edward?'
Henry looked up. His mother's tone was odd. He could see that Edward, unusually, was shifting his weight from one foot to another. Indeed, he was almost hopping. He looked extremely uncomfortable.
Edward cleared his throat. 'It's Lady Clementine, Your Graces. She's fired her nurse – again – and is insisting a replacement is found within the hour. Nurse Thomas is packing as I speak. I wondered how Your Graces would like me to proceed. It would appear the situation is rather urgent.'
Henry rolled his eyes in his mother's direction. Althea sighed. 'She must have sacked the poor woman at least half a dozen times in the past few months. I'll go to Lady Clementine shortly, Edward. If you'll ask Nurse Thomas to stop packing, that would be helpful. Thank you.'
'Thank you, Your Grace.' Edward vanished through the door.
Once they were alone, Henry allowed himself to sag a little. 'Thank you for offering to intercede with Clemmie, Mother. She can be a terrible bother, I know. When she arrived with her leg in that plaster cast, months ago, I thought we'd be shot of her by now.'
'So did I,' agreed Althea. 'As children go, she's a challenge. If only she could find her soul mate, as you have, Henry.' Winking at her daughter-in-law the dowager added, 'Thank you for taking him off my hands, dear.'
Henry's wife's gaze toward him was both loving and sympathetic as she said, 'Clemmie would have been back in London weeks ago, had she not taken that tumble down the steps to the croquet lawn. I don't know why she thought she could manage all on her own and without her crutches.'
'I'd better get along and see your sister right away,' said Althea, kissing her son on the cheek. 'And I want to catch Mr Jenkins before he leaves. I'm rather intrigued to find out what he meant by "strange shenanigans" at his bookshop. Sounds like that might be just my cup of tea.'
'Mother ...' called Henry with a warning tone as Althea left the room, ignoring him.
In the hallway, Althea caught up with the bookseller. 'Mr Jenkins, I wonder if I could have a word before you leave about the unusual goings-on at your bookshop?' Her eyes twinkled with anticipation.
Bryn blushed. 'It's nothing that needs to concern Your Grace, I'm sure,' he replied.
Althea winked. 'Oh go on – tell me. I adore the sound of "strange shenanigans".'
Bryn sighed. 'It's nothing, really. Honestly. Just the sort of thing a person who runs a shop should – well, I don't know I would say "expect", but I'm sure stranger things have happened.'
Althea licked her lips. 'So, something unusual then? Not just books going missing? That's the sort of thing one would expect, I'd have thought.'
Bryn's eyes lit up. 'Exactly; Your Grace is very perceptive. Pilferage is something a person might expect. But this? Well, it's the exact opposite, you see.'
Bryn looked over his shoulder, as though to make sure the pair couldn't be overheard, and leaned in. 'Yes,' he whispered. 'It's a real puzzle.'
'Oh, I do so love a puzzle,' said Althea brightly as she took the man's arm and steered him toward the empty dining room. 'Now why don't you tell me all about it?'CHAPTER 2
'Annie's late, again,' noted Mavis MacDonald, consulting the watch pinned to her chest. 'Does that girl have no idea at all of time? It was only last night we agreed on meeting here at the office at ten o'clock.'
'I think you're stretching the use of the word "girl", Mavis. In fact, given that Annie's fifty-six, I think you've snapped it,' said Carol Hill wiping the mouth of her infant son, who was perched on her lap. Her head popped up as she heard excited yapping outside the open windows of the converted barn; the WISE Enquiries Agency had been using it as their office base for about six months. 'That'll be her now. And it sounds like she's brought Gertie with her.' She held up her son so she could look into his cherubic face. 'You like Annie's puppy Gertie, don't you, Albert? Yes, you do. And Gertie likes licking your feet, doesn't she? Yes, she does. Gertie's a very cute little thing – just like you. She's still a baby, just like you.'
'The wee bairn'll grow up sounding like an idiot if you keep speaking to him like that, Carol,' chided Mavis with a kind glint in her eye. 'Children don't need to be cooed at. Just treat him like a small human being. Use your normal tone. It's what I did with my two boys, and they turned out to be fine young men.'
Carol sighed quietly, and forced a smile. She was discovering that being a new mother meant anyone and everyone felt they had the right to dole out parenting advice – whether she wanted it or not – and she was beginning to find it rather wearing.
The door flew open and a scrambling puppy dragged a skidding human into the room. 'Hold on there!' cried Annie at Gertie, to no effect. Spotting the wriggling, squealing baby, the young black Labrador began to strain in her harness, all four of her gangly legs sprawling in different directions, and both of Annie's doing the same thing. Annie struggled to shut the door behind her and released her grip on the dog's lead at the same time. 'Look out, Car, incoming. Gertie'll be after Bertie's feet!' Carol stood, lifting her wriggling son's legs out of the dog's frantic reach. 'He's not Bertie, he's Albert, Annie. Please don't call him that.'
'Alright, doll,' said Annie, collapsing onto the sofa in a heap. Gertie decided to give up on trying to reach Albert's tasty toes and launched herself at Annie's lap instead.
'Ach, a babe and a pup – we'll never get anything done today,' snapped Mavis, retiring to the cubbyhole beneath the stairs to pour herself a cup of tea.
'Where's Chrissy?' called Annie, wrangling her puppy's eager pink tongue away from her face.
'Driving down from Nottingham where she's been doing some work for a pig farmer who suspected his estate manager was fiddling the books,' said Carol, burping Albert on her shoulder. 'She had to slum it in an eighteenth-century farmhouse with only six bedrooms for a few days.' She winked at Annie. 'Won't be back until tonight. I'm to email her the minutes of the meeting.'
With Gertie finally settled at her feet, Annie thanked Mavis with her eyes as she took a mug of coffee from her friend and colleague. 'Is Chrissy being escorted by the enigmatic Mr Alexander Bright?'
'Not this past week, though they're usually joined at the hip,' replied Carol, knowingly.
Excerpted from The Case of the Curious Cook by Cathy Ace. Copyright © 2016 Cathy Ace. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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