Authors: Marian Babson
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data available
This eBook published by AudioGO Ltd, Bath, 2012.
Published by arrangement with the Author
Epub ISBN 9781471303302
Copyright Â© 1996 by Marian Babson
The Author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work
All rights reserved
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental
Jacket illustration Â© iStockphoto.com
Miss Petunia Pettifogg adjusted her gold-rimmed pince-nez and surveyed the tea table with deep satisfaction. “I see that our invaluable Mrs. Bloggs has outdone herself again,” she remarked to her sister.
“Jam sponge.” Lily began lifting the little white muslin tents covering the dishes to display the treasures hidden beneath. “Scones, crumpets, walnut bread ... woman must have been baking all day.”
Miss Petunia closed her eyes briefly and inhaled the delicious fragrances. All part of the comfort and delight of coming home to their dear Blossom Cottage after a tedious and exhausting day in London trying to convince the singularly obtuse hierarchy at New Scotland Yard that there had, indeed, been yet another murder in the deceptively rural and peaceful village of St. Waldemar Boniface.
“Let's eat,” Lily said, tilting the teapot and beginning to pour.
“But... where's Marigold?” Miss Petunia looked around for her youngest sister.
“Off on some mysterious errand of her own,” Lily said. “Don't know how long she'll be. No point waiting for her.” Even as Lily spoke, they heard the sound of footsteps running down the path to Blossom Cottage and the quick scrape of a key in the lock. Then the front door slammed on loud and obnoxious shouting which came to them, unfortunately, all too clearly.
“Come back out here!” a male voice howled. “And I'll
yer! Come out and I'll show yer what it's for!”
Another door slammed and Marigold was suddenly in the room with them, leaning against the door, her red-gold curls dancing, her bright blue eyes sparkling with the merriment of the chase.
“Oh, dear!” She tossed her head impishly. “I'm rather afraid poor Colonel Battersby is
“You mean the drunken sot is drunk again!” her sister Lily growled tigerishly. “You must stop encouraging these vulgarians. One day you'll go too far.”
“I was merely following your instructions,” Marigold pouted. “I was questioning him â very subtly â about the strange disappearance of his sister-in-law, the cyanide in his wife's cocoa, the bonfire which destroyed any evidence that might have been hidden in the compost pile and the reason why there were bloodstains on his knitted silk tie when, for no reason at all, he suddenly got very upset and began shouting at me.”
“So you came home immediately,” Miss Petunia said. “How very sensible of you.” Outside, the shouting died to sporadic sulky outbursts.
“I most certainly did
desert my post that easily,” Marigold said indignantly. “I went to the bar and bought him another drink. When I came back, he seemed quite reasonable and we had a pleasant little talk. He asked me how much I was insured for. Then, before I could answer, he said no matter how much it was, it wasn't enough.” She frowned thoughtfully. “I hadn't realized that Colonel Battersby had taken to selling life insurance as a sideline.”
“He's sly, that man,” Lily growled. “Sly and dangerous. As too many women in this village have found out... too late.”
“He's gone very quiet suddenly.” Miss Petunia felt a strange flutter of apprehension.
“Perhaps he's fallen asleep,” Marigold giggled.
“Passed out, you mean,” Lily said, lighting another cigarette.
“Oh, my dear, I wish you wouldn't.” Miss Petunia was moved to make one of her rare protests. “You don't want to shorten your life.”
“Be quiet!” Lily ordered roughly.
“It's only for your own good, dear.” Miss Petunia was hurt.
“Not that, Pet â” Lily gestured toward the front of the house. “I mean, listen ...”
“Yes, I can hear something!” Marigold gasped, her eyes widening. “It's the car! Of course, I took the keys away from him because he was in no fit condition to drive. That was when he got upset all over again. Then I threw the keys into the bushes when he was gaining on me, in order to distract him. He must have found them and gone back for the car. Oh, I hope he doesn't kill someone!”
“He's racing the motor,” Lily judged. “He's heading this way â”
There was a tremendous crash at the front door.
“He's ram-raiding us!” Marigold shrieked.
“I'll put a stop to this!” Lily snarled. They all rushed out into the front hall.
The door was half off its hinges; the motor car blocked any hope of getting past it. As they stared aghast, it burst into flames.
“That does it!” Lily roared. “The man is a menace and must be stopped. Marigold, ring the fire brigade. I'll take care of Colonel Battersby!” She led them into the front parlor and opened the window.
“Battersby, you old fool!” she bellowed. “You're under arrest! This is a Citizen's Arrest! I demand that you step forward and surrender immed â”
The rock struck her on the temple with great force, hurling her back into the room where she lay motionless.
“Lily! Lily!” Miss Petunia knelt beside her. “Speak to me!”
“Oh, Petunia â” Marigold put down the telephone, her hands shaking. “There's no answer. There's not even a dial tone. Colonel Battersby must have cut the wires. The line is dead!”
“So is Lily,” Miss Petunia said grimly.
“What?” Marigold rushed over to stand beside her, looking down at her fallen sister. “You can't mean it!”
“Thus was Goliath slain!” Miss Petunia rose to her feet, one hand clasping Marigold for support. Suddenly she felt quite giddy. “Colonel Battersby has gone too far!”
“Oh, Petunia, what are you going to do?”
“Lily shall be avenged! Marigold, run upstairs and get me Daddy's old Service revolver. We have always kept it well cleaned and oiled in his memory. Now we are forced to take the law into our own hands!”
Marigold left the door ajar as she dashed from the room and Miss Petunia became aware of gray tendrils of smoke curling along the floor. As soon as she had dealt with Colonel Battersby, it might be wise to leave the cottage, as it seemed to be alight. In the distance, she could hear Marigold coughing as she stumbled up the stairs.
“Be careful!” she called out instinctively. Marigold always dashed about so impetuously. Already she must have found the gun, for she was now hurrying back downstairs. The smoke was thicker.
Marigold must have been halfway down the stairs when there was a squeal and a shot rang out. There was the sound of a body â Marigold's body â falling down the stairs.
“Marigold!” Miss Petunia dashed into the front hall to find Marigold, as she had feared, lying at the foot of the stairs. Daddy's gun was still clasped to her bosom, above it a dark-red stain blossomed.
“Oh, Petunia,” Marigold said faintly. “I tripped.” And said no more.
Tears, as well as smoke, blinding her eyes, Miss Petunia dragged Marigold's body into the parlor to lie beside Lily's. She could not bring herself to remove the gun from Marigold's hands.
She was alone now and must face her fate as best she might. The hallway, she had noticed, was alight at both ends.
Colonel Battersby had obviously set another fire by the back door to trap them in the house.
There was only the window for escape. Coughing, she made her way to it. Strange, how difficult it was becoming to walk.
The window was still open, curtains fluttering in the breeze. Was that wise? Wasn't there something about not creating a draught in a house that was on fire? Perhaps she should close the window ...
No! No! She must get out through the window. Laboriously, she threw one knee up on the sill and â
The rock crashed into her temple. Ah, but her head was harder than Lily's, she congratulated herself, even as she was being borne backwards by the force of the blow.
She fell across Lily and Marigold and rested on them a moment, fighting for breath. The room was completely fogged with smoke now. To think that she had reprimanded dear Lily for lighting a cigarette!
Smoke inhalation! She was being overcome by the smoke. Miss Petunia tried to push herself to her feet, even to her hands and knees, but she felt too giddy. She must try ... she must fight... but...
As she collapsed again across her sisters' bodies, the thought came to her that this really Was
Â Â h
Â Â Â Â e end
Lorinda Lucas slid the last page out of her typewriter with a feeling of peace and accomplishment.
Quickly, she rolled another page into the machine. While the euphoria lasted, she could force herself to put the repellent Petunia, the nauseating Marigold and the appalling Lily through a few more of their paces. Paces which, unfortunately, would leave them triumphantly alive and kicking and ready to trudge through the next book in the series.
She typed steadily for another hour, then pushed her chair away from the desk. She stood and crossed to the dark-red filing cabinet where she hid her guilty secret, the death-dealing chapter, in the increasingly thickening folder marked “FINAL CHAPTERS.” Soon she would have to begin another file folder â if she kept on like this.
And she probably would. Only to herself could she admit the deep satisfaction it gave her to dispose of the detestable Sibling Spinster Sleuths (“Try saying it quickly three times,” a critic had written. “A few drinks may help, but you need a few drinks to pick up this sort of book in the first place.”) in ever more lurid and gory detail. Other series writers might moan about how sick they were of their creations, but her own safety valve was blowing off steam quite nicely, thank you, as she wrote alternative endings for each book, each story and, sometimes, each idea. Reichenbach Falls had nothing on this!
As she turned away from the filing cabinet, the view from the window caught her eye. A picture-postcard village of quaint cottages, several with thatched roofs, sprawled into the distance along both sides of a winding road. Beyond it, a curving river sparkled in the fading sunlight. On the other side of her house, she knew, the view was of the High Street, which had several shops too many for a real village; the place had ideas above its station and was aspiring to Town status.
Lorinda made a face at the olde-worlde prettiness displayed below her and turned away, conscious of a dissatisfaction that was not solely caused by her professional discontent.
It had seemed like such a good idea at the time.
“I've made the discovery of a lifetime,” Dorian had brayed over the bridge table a year ago. “Brimful Coffers. Delightful little village. Undiscovered, unspoiled, easy reach of London. Several highly desirable bijou residences going for a song because of the modernization they require. Cheap as they are, the natives can't afford 'em, but they'd just about come out of petty cash for
â and we'd always be sure of a fourth for bridge.”
Somehow, it had escaped her attention that she didn't care all that much for bridge. After living here for six months, she wasn't sure that she cared all that much for her colleagues, either.
Dorian King, as befitted the creator of Field Marshal Sir Oliver Aldershot, was a brilliant organizer. One by one, he had driven his chosen colleagues down to the village, introduced them to the local estate agent, accompanied them on their tours through the properties on offer, helpfully pointing out improvements that could be made... doing everything, in fact, except forcibly guiding their hands as they signed the contracts to purchase. Nor did he help with any mortgage arrangements, as it became clear to his victims that his idea of petty cash varied considerably from theirs.
Even so, it was, she had to admit, a lovely little cottage, and just what she had thought she wanted. Furthermore, the cats adored the garden and enjoyed exploring their immense new territory, revelling in a freedom that traffic had denied them heretofore. Another positive aspect was that there was no lack of cat-sitters or someone to pop in and feed them when she had to go up to town or off on a research trip. Nor did she mind being called upon in her turn to look after someone else's pet. No, the growing unease went deeper than that, but it was early days yet and no doubt they would all soon settle down satisfactorily.