Authors: Joyce Cato
he jewelled dagger glinted in a shaft of bright June sunlight, its shadow as black as death against the wall on which it was hung.
It was a strange-looking piece. The handle was thick and curved, designed to fit snugly in the hand, and was richly encrusted with rubies, emeralds, pearls and sapphires. In contrast, the blade was as straight as a die, long, narrow and almost rounded, but coming to a wickedly sharp point. It looked more like a stiletto that some nineteenth-century Italian nobleman might once have carried for his personal protection, than the patently older and authentically Indian weapon that it actually was.
Suddenly, the sparkle of its gems was dimmed as a shadow fell across it, and thoughtful eyes studied it minutely. The killer looked at the dagger for a long, long while, planning just how, where and when to use it.
Finally satisfied, the killer nodded and moved away and once more the Indian dagger basked in the light, its gems sending shafts of lively colour across the ancient walls.
he ancient, bright cherry-red van whined like a wasp as it buzzed up the country road leading to the small Oxfordshire market town of Bicester. Although it was the first week of June, it was unseasonably cold, and its driver was wearing a warm outfit and gloves. Miss Jenny Starling, travelling cook and one-woman crusader for real food was constantly on the alert against colds. Her profession and sneezing and coughing were not exactly compatible.
The turn off to the small village of Upper Caulcott, where Jenny was headed, suddenly appeared and she indicated right, keeping a wary lookout for any road signs that might lead her to Avonsleigh Castle. As she drove, she wondered what her best approach would be for the important interview that lay ahead.
She had seen the advertisement for a cook/chef at Avonsleigh Castle in the
just last week, and had promptly applied for it, enclosing her full curriculum vitae, plus a pile of impressive references, and had not been surprised to be summoned for interview. But she had never so much as set foot in a genuine lord’s pad before.
She sighed deeply and tried not to anticipate. She would play the interview by ear, as she had always done in the past.
Jenny soon found herself entering a small but attractive village where a Victorian coronation oak spread splendid
branches over the village pub and she stopped to ask an old man walking his dog the way to Avonsleigh.
‘The castle’s just up ahead on the hill,’ the old man said, pointing his walking stick in the general direction. ‘Follow the bend around, and you’ll be bound to see it. Bugger’s big enough,’ he stated amiably, and grinned at her.
Jenny grinned back and set off, and soon found herself at her destination. The bulk of Avonsleigh Castle had been built just after the civil war, and looked more like a really large manor house than anything else, but it did have a few turrets and a dry moat to boast of.
As the van reached a tiny wooden drawbridge and crossed it, the air echoed to the empty clang of iron and wood as they went over, and she pulled the van to a stop in a small quad. There, she withdrew her six-foot, Junoesque frame from the van with unconscious grace, and took off her white knitted hat, revealing a lush, shoulder-length bob of thick, dark brown hair.
To the east were the stables which, she saw to her
had been converted into a tea-room for the tourist visitors. To the west was the main entrance, gained through a double, iron-studded oak door that looked massive, heavy and ancient. Jenny knew better than to approach them, and looked around instead for a side entrance.
As she did so, a small wooden door set in the south-facing wall opened slowly, and a man emerged. At about five feet ten, he was dressed in a dark-blue suit and impeccable white shirt. Even from a distance, he was unmistakably a member of staff.
Jenny locked the van, then walked towards him, her clear and quite beautiful blue eyes assessing him as unobtrusively as his own gaze assessed her. When they were face to face, both had come to the conclusion that the other would do
‘Miss Starling?’ the man murmured, and Jenny smiled and inclined her head and followed him into a small anteroom that was extremely cold, but at least well lit. Jenny fought back a shiver as he took her coat, and followed him out into the main hall, which was as impressive as anything she had ever seen. Traditional stone slabs stretched across the floor, whilst bulging and thick walls were painted a dazzling white. Standing guard were several suits of genuine armour, and hanging from a towering ceiling was a huge
candle-bedecked crystal chandelier that tinkled melodiously in the draught.
Jenny, wide-eyed, continued to follow the butler as he led the way past a sweeping, ornately carved wooden
Lining the walls were landscape paintings, and Jenny noticed a woman, standing halfway up the stairs, studying one with intense interest. She had time to wonder briefly who the other woman might be, and then the butler was taking her down another cold passageway that seemed to twist and turn forever.
Eventually he reached a door and tapped discreetly, before ushering her inside. The contrast was almost overwhelming. From cold bare walls to a vast expanse of warm, carpeted, light-painted elegance was a bit of a shock to the system, but Jenny supposed she’d get used to it. If she was to work in a castle, she had better quickly become castle-orientated.
The room itself had windows that faced a stone-flagged terrace, which in turn gave way to lawns, interspersed with bushes, rose-beds and herbaceous borders. The view across to the village was awe-inspiring. The walls here were also crammed with paintings, there having been several avid art collectors in the Avonsleigh ancestry.
Jenny gave them a quick, appreciative glance, and then the
butler coughed. ‘Miss Starling, my lady,’ he said simply and withdrew, leaving her alone with every sense snapped alert.
At first she thought that there was only one other person in the room, in the form of Lady Avonsleigh, Vivienne Margaret, who, she would quickly learn, was called simply Lady Vee by friends, family and staff alike. She sat on a sturdy French-looking sofa, dressed in English tweeds and very sensible, lace-up, walking shoes. She had
reached her sixties, and her hairdresser had insisted on a light blue rinse. Her heavy jowls gave her the look of an amiable bulldog. Her hands, however, were littered with rings encasing stones that would make even the most hardened of jewellers break out in a cold sweat.
At her feet, a filthy English Setter slumbered in
Lady Vee looked up at the same moment that Jenny looked down, and the two women instantly recognized the other. Not that they’d ever met before – they just simply and instantly knew what kind of person the other was, and was glad of it. Jenny knew there was a word for it –
was it? – or something along those lines.
‘Please sit down, Miss Starling,’ Lady Vee said, her voice booming out like a foghorn. She’d probably become used to shouting in order for the servants to hear her through all these solid doors, Jenny thought tolerantly, and promptly sat down. Already she knew this interview was going to go well.
‘George, ring Janice for some tea would you, there’s a dear?’ Lady Vee prompted, and it was only then that the cook noticed the man seated in a huge wing-backed chair placed at a comfortable right angle to a blazing fire.
As Jenny watched, the rake-thin man with a huge nose and fiercely blazing blue eyes reached forward and pulled on a bell rope hanging discreetly against one velvet, floor-length
curtain. His lordship (who else could it be?) then leaned back. Throughout the entire procedure, he had not taken his eyes off the book he was reading. Like his wife, he was dressed in traditional countryman’s clothes, and was wearing a
odoriferous pair of Wellington boots.
She turned back immediately to the boss. As imposing as his lordship undoubtedly was, Jenny was under no illusions as to who was the true master of Avonsleigh Castle.
‘Well, I suppose we’d better make a start,’ Lady Vee said briskly. ‘I must say your references are particularly impressive, Miss Starling. You make a lasting impression on your employers, it seems,’ she added, button-brown eyes definitely twinkling.
Jenny said modestly, ‘I seem to. Yes.’
Just then the door opened and a very pretty,
maid walked in, carrying an enormous tray on which sat a tea-pot covered with a cosy in a particularly garish design, a tall silver milk jug, obviously Georgian, with a matching sugar bowl and spoon. The cups and saucers, a delicate rosebud design, were Royal Doulton, or Jenny was a monkey’s uncle. And Jenny Starling definitely was
a monkey’s uncle.
All in all, it was a very revealing tray. Wealth sat side by side with English eccentricity in a way that immediately soothed the nerves and reassured her.
The maid transferred the whole assembly onto the table in a matter of seconds and withdrew. ‘We’ll let it brew, of course,’ Lady Vee said, making Jenny fairly beam. Someone else who appreciated proper tea! Yes indeedy, she thought, mentally hugging herself with joy, things were off to an auspicious start.
‘Now, perhaps you could give us some idea of, say, an average meal. What would you cook for my husband and me,
on a day like today?’ Lady Vee abruptly came straight to the point. Jenny liked that. And the fact that she was conducting the interview herself bode well. Here was a person who took her food seriously. As she should.
Jenny looked out of the window at the cold day,
the chilly corridors and dismissed anything remotely to do with salad. She glanced back at the boss. You didn’t get all those chins eating lettuce and tomato, she judged happily, and smiled. ‘Well, your ladyship, I am basically a traditional cook. That is, I specialize in English cuisine.’
Out of the corner of her eye, and for the first time, she noticed the man of the house lower his book. No doubt he had attended Eton and then Oxford, and thus had been raised on spotted dick and custard. In Jenny’s opinion, children never outgrew their favourites, and taking a deep breath, she leapt right in.
‘I think a steak and onion pudding – made with real suet, mind – would go down well, so long as its steamed for a good three hours. And none of this modern microwave oven nonsense either,’ she added, and paused to gauge her
Over to her right, his lordship’s book had lowered all the way to his lap now, and his wife’s bright cheeks had become, if anything, even a little rosier. ‘Vegetables, of course, depends on personal taste and the season, but good early broad beans, and spring cabbage, if seasoned right, are good sources of iron.’ She noticed his lordship’s hands tighten on his book and, sensing she was losing him, added quickly, ‘and of course, potatoes must always be served. With a steamed steak pudding, I would serve them mashed, with plenty of milk and butter. And plenty of them. There’s nothing so … unappealing … as … stingy potatoes,’ Jenny said, suddenly and – potentially catastrophically – losing all
It had never happened to her before, but on this occasion it could most definitely be forgiven. For, on the table in front of her, the teapot, in its brightly knitted cosy, was beginning to move slowly across the silver tray.
So she didn’t see his lordship lick his chops with
and totally missed the sigh of pure pleasure that Lady Vee gave over this recital of potato worship.
‘And for pudding?’ George, for the first time, actually spoke. He was leaning forward eagerly in his chair now.
Jenny, with some considerable effort, managed to drag her eyes away from the perambulating teapot and forced her mind back to the job in hand. But it took some doing. You expected teapots to stand still, after all.
‘Well, now, if you’ve had a heavy main course, a lighter pudding is usually advisable,’ she began. Then, realizing that she was about to lose him again, added hurriedly, ‘But by that I don’t mean any of these fancy, foreign puddings. No. Let me see – rhubarb should be just superb at this time of year. There’s nothing like fresh rhubarb served with a good vanilla custard … after a … heavy dinner….’ Jenny trailed off again, noticing that the tea cosy was picking up just a little bit of speed now. Not that it was exactly galloping across the tray mind. Just inexorably moving. And moving, moreover, in
Only by the greatest effort of will, did Jenny manage to remain sitting in her seat. Her eyes, however, became wider and rounder as the tea cosy ambled inexorably her way. Try as she might, she couldn’t recall of ever having heard of a haunted teapot before. Haunted houses by the dozen,
Haunted railway depots, no problem. There’d even been reports of a haunted shoe factory, once. But a possessed teapot?
She supposed that any self-respecting castle would have its own ghost, but she wished the phantom would make itself scarce, at least until she’d secured a position here. It was
putting her off her stride.
‘And how would you cook the rhubarb?’ Lady Vee asked, swallowing hard as she contemplated the thought of rhubarb and custard, steaming hot from the kitchens.
Once more, Jenny dragged her eyes from the moving tea cosy and concentrated on securing the job that she already knew, in her heart of hearts, was hers for the taking.
‘Oh, no water, definitely not. Rhubarb reduces easily, and rhubarb juice should never be contaminated with water,’ Jenny’s voice was just a tad shaky. ‘A touch of orange juice – pure, mind – is all it would need. And a certain amount of sugar of course.’
The boss was already nodding her head in undisguised glee. ‘Yes, yes. I certainly agree.’
‘And not too much sugar either,’ the cook added. ‘Custard, made with the cream off the top of the milk is all the contrast that’s needed.’
‘Used to eat raw rhubarb as a boy m’self,’ George put in, unexpectedly. ‘Old Smithers, the gardener, used to laugh himself sick over it.’ And with that, he abruptly returned to his book once more.
The tea cosy was now only inches away from the edge of the tray, and thus, Jenny’s lap. The gaudy blues, oranges and greens of the knitted horror were sending cold shivers up and down her spine.
‘Do you have any specialities?’ Lady Vee prompted eagerly. Either she hadn’t noticed that her teapot was on walkabout, or she was so used to the castle’s restless spooks that she now took no notice. Jenny only hoped that she could acquire some of her ladyship’s
As it was, her
hands were clenching and unclenching nervously in her lap, and her top lip was becoming … yes … was most definitely becoming moist.
‘Er … well, bacon clanger springs to mind,’ Jenny said desperately, her eyes glued to the tea cosy. It never slowed or stopped, but just kept up its ponderous, remorseless pace. It wouldn’t be so bad if the spook moaned or rattled the odd chain or two. That at least might serve to break some of its fearsome attraction for her. With a huge effort, the cook looked back at her ladyship. ‘Made with proper bacon – or even boiling bacon if you prefer, and of course, plenty of leeks. That’s the secret of a good bacon clanger,’ she gulped, hoping her voice wasn’t as high-pitched as it sounded to her own ears.