“Really, Alice, don’t you think the tang of arsenic would be detectable in a strawberry scone?” Hazel Martin cocked her head and watched her long-time cook, Alice Duprey, as she vigorously mixed batter in a yellow stoneware bowl.
Alice scrunched her face. “Well, now you mention it, ma’am, it does have a bitter after-taste, don’ it?”
“Technically, the arsenic itself is neutral, but it can change the flavor of the food. Most people say it creates a metallic taste.” Hazel rifled through one of the two notebooks which lay open on the scuffed pine table in front of her.
As a novelist, Hazel kept copious notes on various methods of murder and poisoning was her favorite. She found the page on “arsenic” and verified her statement, then tapped her green celluloid fountain pen on the other notebook while she thought.
A misshapen blob of ink splattered onto the middle of the empty page as if to taunt her that she had yet to come up with a satisfactory opening scene for her next murder mystery. “Perhaps we could put the arsenic in something else instead. Marmalade has a strong natural taste. That might hide it.”
“Indeed.” Alice looked thoughtful as she turned the dough onto the floured stainless steel counter, kneaded it slightly then plucked plump, red strawberry slices from a bowl and incorporated them into the dough.
Hazel knew that most ladies of the manor didn’t hang around in the kitchen consulting the help on matters of murder, but the kitchen at Hastings Manor had been one of her favorite places since childhood. She took comfort in the familiarity of the meticulously scrubbed black and white tile, the golden glow of the finely polished oak cabinets and the copper jelly molds that glinted in the sunlight streaming down from windows set high on the wall.
Even the stacks of yellow glazed pottery mixing bowls that lined the pine shelves on the large hutch that dominated one wall reminded her of carefree childhood days when she would have naught to do but hang around the gardens and kitchen, hoping cook would let her lick the batter bowl.
But Hazel was no longer a child, nor was she carefree. She was a widow. A grown woman with a book to write and precious few ideas on how to start it.
Alice looked at Hazel out of the corner of her eye. “Detective Chief Inspector Gibson would know the best way to use arsenic.”
Hazel looked down at her notebook, not wanting Alice to see the pang of sadness that stabbed through her. Alice’s mentioning of the inspector had become more and more frequent and, while she knew the cook only had her best interests at heart, Hazel’s late husband, Charles, had only been dead three years. Just the thought of anyone else being interested in her—which Gibson clearly was—made her anxious with guilt. It was much too soon for Hazel to think about someone else, even if Inspector Gibson did have kind eyes.
An inspector with Scotland Yard, Charles had been killed while chasing down a dangerous suspect and the empty hole he’d left behind was like a raw wound that wouldn’t heal. The pain had lessened slightly over the past three years, but it was still there front and center as a reminder of what Hazel would never have again.
Hazel missed him terribly and not only because they had truly been in love, but also because he’d been invaluable for the consultations in various methods of murder that he often supplied for her mystery novels.
And now, here she was trying to write the first one after his death and coming up mostly empty. What if she couldn’t write one on her own without his guidance? Did Alice think she couldn’t and was that why she kept mentioning Gibson?
No, of course not. Alice had all the faith in the world in her as did her entire staff. And they were depending on her as were her publisher and millions of readers, so she’d better get cracking.
Hazel absently wiped at the ink splotches that seemed to permanently stain her fingers. The ink stains reminded her that she needed to get some words on paper soon or her publisher was going to start to nag at her. Her current mystery involved a poisoning during breakfast and she was currently trying to decide between arsenic, strychnine or hemlock. “Maybe hemlock would be better. It tastes like carrots. We could disguise it in a root dish. Of course, then I might have to change the venue from breakfast to dinner,” she muttered, mostly to herself.
Alice whipped her head around at the sound. In the doorway sat a sleek Siamese cat. His intelligent, pale blue eyes were striking in contrast to the dark brown mask that covered most of his face. His body was a creamy mocha color and his legs, tail and ears matched the mink-brown color of his face. His gaze darted from the broom in the corner to Alice. The cat, whose name was Dickens, was Hazel’s constant companion and somewhat of a sleuth in his own right. He also delighted in tormenting Alice, who felt that cats did not belong in the house, much less in the kitchen.
“Oh, no, you don’t!” Alice lunged for the broom and Dickens hissed at her. “Not in my kitchen, you overgrown rat.” Alice swatted the broom in the air like a swashbuckler wielding a sword. Dickens ran around the kitchen, weaving and dodging around the swooshing broom, apparently finding the game fun.
“If you weren’t so good at catching mice around here, I’d have you banished!” Alice yelled.
“Meow!” Dickens gave a haughty cry as if to tell Alice that Hazel would allow no such thing and then scampered out of the kitchen. Alice, her face beet red with the effort, put the broom back with an exasperated sigh and smoothed her apron before returning to her task of shaping the dough into triangles.
“I don’t know why you like that creature so much.” Alice opened one of the large ovens, letting out wisps of steam and the sweet aroma of fresh-baked scones.
Hazel laughed. She knew Alice would never do anything to harm the cat. In fact, she suspected Alice secretly liked Dickens and had even once caught her slipping a morsel of fish to the feisty feline.
“Come on, Alice, you know that Dickens is my confidant,” Hazel said. “He knows all my secrets and has helped solve a few mysteries of his own.”
“Speaking of which…” Maggie, Hazel’s housemaid, appeared in the doorway. “I hope you haven’t forgotten that mysterious invitation.”
Hazel’s hand flew to her pocket, the crisp paper crinkling as her fingers brushed against it. She took it out, a frown creasing her face as she glanced down at it. “Yes, that’s right. This is rather mysterious, isn’t it?”
The lavender-colored paper had become wrinkled in the pocket of her dress. She placed it flat on the table and smoothed it out. It was a pretty paper—heavy quality stock, lavender in color with a cluster of vibrant lilacs stamped in the top right corner. A subtle, flowery aroma wafted up as she looked down at the spidery writing, which looked to have came from a Parker dip pen with a wide nib. An early model, if her guess was correct. And Hazel’s guesses about pens were almost always correct. She was somewhat of an expert on the topic.
I implore you to attend the weekend celebration of my eightieth birthday starting this Friday, 25 July, at Lowry House. I need your help as I fear one of my relatives wants this birthday to be my last. Please tell no one you received this letter and make it appear as if you simply stopped by to bring your birthday wishes on a whim.
Maggie had come to stand beside her, wisps of brown hair sticking out from her cap, her face eager with excitement. Mysteries were not only Hazel’s vocation in writing, but somewhat of a hobby for her and her whole household staff. “Indeed, it does seem mysterious.”
“But Myrtle is quite old. Why would someone want to do her in?” Alice asked as she slid a tray containing large triangular pieces of dough into the oven.
Hazel tapped her lips with her index finger. “Myrtle is wealthy, but it hardly seems worth it to kill her when she is already eighty years old.”
“True, but something must be going on or she wouldn’t have written and you haven’t had a mystery to solve in quite some time. This could be just the thing you need,” Maggie said.
“And you know looking into other mysteries always helps with the writin’ of ye books.” Alice nodded toward the empty notebook where Hazel had scribbled out several scenarios. She was a bit stuck on her plot and Myrtle was a dear old friend of her parents. It would be terribly rude of her to ignore the woman’s request.
Alice slid a plate of strawberry scones on the table in front of Hazel, who eyed them dubiously considering their recent conversation.
Alice raised a brow. “Scone, mum?”
Hazel’s eyes flicked from the scones to Alice and then Maggie. She could see by the anxious looks on their faces that the two women were just as eager for her to get “unstuck” with her writing as she was. These women cared about her. They were more than staff, they were her family and the success of this book—the first one since Charles’ death—meant a lot to all of them. And if a little change of scenery and a mystery to solve helped get her unstuck, then she was all for it.
Hazel pushed away from the table. “Thanks, Alice, but I don’t think so. I have packing to do. I’ll leave first thing tomorrow for Lowry House and if Myrtle is right about someone trying to kill her, you can bet I will get to the bottom of it.”
The next day, it took Hazel nearly the entire morning to finish packing both herself and Dickens as well as field Maggie’s persistent suggestions that she take her along. She could hardly bring a maid and still pretend that she was just popping by for a quick visit.
Myrtle had instructed her not tell anyone about the letter, so she planned to act as if she had been vacationing at Dunelawn By-The-Sea and had stopped by Myrtle’s on the way home since Lowry House was halfway between Hasting Manor and the famous hotel.
It was mid afternoon by the time Hazel stood at the imposing oak door of Lowry House with Dickens’ red and black houndstooth carrier clutched in one hand, the other grasping the cool, smooth brass of the lion’s-head door knocker.
A black-suited butler answered the door and before she could announce who she was, Myrtle swept into the polished mahogany foyer, her eyes lighting on Hazel in surprised recognition.
“Lordy, if it isn’t Hazel Martin!” Myrtle rushed over as if she hadn’t been expecting Hazel at all and Hazel smiled and nodded. Myrtle was putting on a good act. A pretty, young green-eyed woman with copper hair, dressed in a slate blue chiffon chemise—the style that was so popular with young people and that made Hazel feel positively matronly in her dowdy, navy blue traveling outfit—appeared beside Myrtle. Hazel recognized her as Myrtle’s grand-niece.
“You don’t look a day over seventy, Myrtle. Are you sure you don’t have your birth year wrong?” Hazel teased.
The truth was, Myrtle looked, and acted, much younger than her eighty years. Perhaps Hazel should try to discover her secret. The old woman was positively glowing and wore a chiffon dress similar to that of her grand-niece but with a few more ruffles to hide her more mature figure. Beaded necklaces of several layers sparkled in the light from the overhead crystal chandelier. Her red hair was cut in a curly bob. Both the style and the color—which Hazel assumed came from using henna, a natural hair dye made popular by Clara Bow—would have looked ridiculous on another woman of that age, but somehow looked just right on Myrtle.
Myrtle smiled at Hazel’s compliment, her hand self-consciously fluffing her hair. A cameo ring boasting a deeply carved scene of angels and cherubs framed by tiny rubies—a family heirloom that Myrtle had once told Hazel was extremely valuable—looked gigantic on Myrtle’s slim finger. “Do you like my hair? Gloria gave me a little make-over. She tries to keep me young with these newfangled outfits and health elixirs.” Myrtle turned to the younger woman. “Gloria, you remember my friend Hazel Martin?”
“Of course, I do. Nice to see you again.” Hazel thought she detected a flash of a knowing look in the other woman’s green eyes. Perhaps Myrtle had confided in Gloria about her suspicions… or perhaps Gloria was the one she was suspicious of.
“Where are my manners?” Myrtle clamped on to Hazel’s elbow and steered her toward the drawing room, her heels clacking on the black and white marble floor as they crossed the foyer. “Do come in and say hello to everyone.”
The drawing room was steeped in rich colors—burgundy drapes, Cobalt blue, ruby and gold Oriental carpet and mahogany-paneled walls. The furniture consisted of highly carved walnut frames and sumptuous velvet cushions. Gold-framed oil paintings decorated the walls.
A marble fireplace adorned with carved angels dominated one end of the room. A tall, lanky man in his mid-fifties leaned one elbow against it, admiring a painting that hung on the wall. Across from him, a much younger man with a large bandage on his right hand snoozed in a chair. Next to that, a woman in her early to mid-twenties with red hair and scarlet lips lounged on a divan, inspecting her ruby red nails.
“Everyone, this is my friend, the novelist, Hazel Martin,” Myrtle said proudly as she propelled her into the room.
“Meow.” Dickens, not one to be left out, chose that moment to let his presence be known.
“Oh, and her cat, Dickens” Myrtle added.
The man turned from the fireplace, one brow quirked as his eyes fell on the carrier. Hazel glanced down to see that Dickens had his face pressed to the screen in the front, his intelligent eyes keenly surveying the room. She adjusted her position so the carrier was behind her. No telling what kind of shenanigans Dickens might get up to later on if he were allowed to take inventory of the entire room from within his carrier. Truth be told, she should have left him in the car which idled in the driveway, but the last time she’d done that he’d coughed hairballs up on her pillow for the following two weeks. It wasn’t common practice to bring one’s cat in on a visit but as a novelist, Hazel was expected to be a bit eccentric and, since she was somewhat of a celebrity, people didn’t seem to mind when she brought Dickens along. Some had even come to expect it.
Undaunted, Myrtle continued with the introductions. “Hazel, this is my son Edward…you’ve probably met before…my grandson Wes and his wife Vera.”
Hazel’s and Myrtle’s families had been close at one time, so of course she’d met Edward many times before. And she knew Wes was the son of Myrtle’s daughter Sarah. Thinking about Myrtle losing Sarah reminded Hazel of her loss with Charles and she was overwhelmed with a rush of compassion and a feeling of camaraderie for the older woman—they’d both suffered the loss of a close loved one. Hazel was now even more determined to get to the bottom of Myrtle’s suspicions, be they real or not.
Hazel nodded at Edward, Wes’s sleeping form and Vera.
Edward said pleasantly, “Nice to see you again, Mrs. Martin.”
Vera stood, her lavishly beaded deep blue dress sparkled in the light and large diamonds winked in her ears. “Nice to meet you.”
Wes shifted position in the chair and let out a snore.
Vera approached the cat carrier and bent down to peer inside. “Don’t mind my husband. He spends most of his days asleep.” She slid a fingernail through the mesh in the front and scratched Dickens. “What a darling creature. I should get a picture.”
She picked a square leather box off the table that Hazel recognized as a box camera similar to the Brownie camera that was all the rage in the States. She’d used the same model often to capture images of scenes she wanted to depict in her novels and Charles had used much more complex models in his police work.
Vera stood back from the carrier and held the camera at her waist, looking down to take the shot. Dickens hissed and promptly presented her with his backside, to the laughter of Myrtle and Edward.
“Looks like he doesn’t want his picture taken,” Edward said.
Vera shrugged. “Maybe next time. We could use a cat at the cottage… get rid of the rats.”
“Rats!” Myrtle seemed shocked.
Vera straightened. “Yes, I told you I have to keep all the food in the ice box for fear they’ll eat it.”
“There are no rats. You’re lucky Mother is nice enough to let you live there,” Edward cut in.
“Yes, you are lucky. The rest of us have to fend for ourselves.” Hazel turned to see a dour-looking young woman standing in the doorway. She had mousey-brown hair and, though she looked to be around the same age as Gloria and Vera, her clothing looked more suitable for a woman twenty years her senior. Her lips were turned down as if in disapproval as her dark eyes scanned the room, coming to rest on Dickens’ carrier which by now was starting to get rather heavy in Hazel’s hand.
“Merow.” Dickens voice was loud and Hazel figured he was probably trying to signal that he was tired of being cooped up.
“Oh, Hazel, this my granddaughter, Fran. Edward’s daughter.” Myrtle gestured between Hazel and Fran. “Hazel is a dear friend of the family.”
Fran looked at her and squinted. “Yes, I remember. The novelist, right?”
Hazel nodded. She readied herself to fend off a potential fan as happened all too often, but instead, Fran pressed her lips together then crossed to a chair on the opposite side of the room and sank into its lush, velvet-tufted cushions.
Hazel sensed a tension in the air. No wonder Myrtle thought someone was up to no good. It seemed most of the family couldn’t stand each other.
She shifted the cat carrier to her other hand. “Well, you certainly have a houseful, Myrtle.”
“Yes, indeed. Everyone is staying for my birthday celebration. Oh, you simply must stay, too!” Myrtle clapped her hands together and turned wide eyes to Hazel as if she’d just thought of Hazel staying.
“Well, I don’t know…” Hazel looked around uncertainly so as to add credence to Myrtle’s act.
“Oh, but you must,” Myrtle insisted. “We have a whole weekend of activities planned. It will be great fun. And how many times do I get to turn eighty?”
“That sounds lovely,” Hazel said. “I do have my bags from vacation in the car , but I wouldn’t want to put you to any trouble…”
“It will be no trouble at all,” Gloria cut in. “I’ll go see if Mrs. Naughton can make you up a room and I’ll have your driver bring your bags up.”
Edward scowled. “Mother, I hardly see how Hazel would want to be included in our little family celebration. I’m sure she has better places to be.”
“Nonsense. Hazel is an old friend. I’m sure she’d love to spend the weekend with us.” Myrtle turned and winked at Hazel. “We have a nice tea planned and outdoor games. Walks in the garden and even a formal party with a jazz band and champagne tomorrow night.”
“Not tomorrow, dear,” Vera said. “The party is Saturday. Tomorrow is Friday.”
A look of confusion contorted Myrtle’s face, then it cleared. “Why, of course it is. That’s exactly what I meant. Saturday.”
“Well, if Hazel wants to stay then she is certainly welcome.” Edward picked up Staffordshire statue off the mantle and turned it over in his hands, looked at the bottom then shook his head and replaced it. “Exquisite work always amazes me.”
“If you recall, Edward is an antique dealer. Always picking things up and looking underneath. Rather annoying, if you ask me,” Myrtle whispered.
“I heard that,” Edward said.
“It’s no wonder Daddy is always looking at the items in here. Most of them should belong to him,” Fran said softly.
Edward clucked. “Now, now. Mother has been very generous to us. I don’t know why you say such things.”
Fran shrugged, her fingers fiddling with a deeply carved cameo at her throat which bore a resemblance to the ring on Myrtle’s finger. Hazel was just about to ask about it when a servant appeared at the door.
“Mrs. Martin’s room is ready.”
“Wonderful. That was very fast, Mrs. Naughton.” Myrtle turned to Hazel. “I’m sure you want to freshen up. Mrs. Naughton will show you the way.”
Hazel nodded to the others in the room and followed Mrs. Naughton toward the wide, sweeping staircase, pausing just below the first step to chance a look back into the drawing room.
Clearly the family was at odds, but that wasn’t entirely unusual. Most families had some sort of tension from time to time. But if Myrtle was right about this family, there was more than just tension in the air…there was also murder.