Authors: Hannah Dennison
In a corner to the left of the fireplace stood a Wainscot chair with a tattered tapestry cushion. I had wondered why it was always left empty until the landlord told me it was reserved for Sir Maurice who, centuries ago, had courted Lady Frances Honeychurch.
Rumor had it that Sir Maurice was the same ghostly Cavalier who roamed Hopton's Crest on his big black steed. On the fateful night when he'd lured the platoon of Roundheads to Coffin Mire, Sir Maurice had stopped at the pub for refreshments where he sat in that very Wainscot chair. Here, the legend got fuzzy but the bottom line was that misfortune would follow anyone who dared to sit in Sir Maurice's chair. Bottles had been known to explode, dogs refused to lie by the fire, and even I had experienced a distinct “chill” in that particular corner despite the heat from the flames.
The Hare & Hounds was very popular among locals and tourists alike. Landlords Stan and Doreen Mutters had run the pub for forty-odd years and were well known for their unusual pets that roamed around the bar. I never met Deidre, their fourteen-year-old ferret who died just weeks before I arrived, but Mum had. Their newest addition was an Indian Runner duck called Fred who held court at the end of the counter wearing a green bow tie.
Tonight, he was napping next to a large red collection bucket labeled
SAVE FRED & FRIENDS! STOP OPERATION BULLET!
I gave Fred's silky white head a scratch and he rewarded me with a quack.
The bar seemed unusually busy for a Monday evening and more than a few familiar faces gave me a surprisingly warm welcome.
“Kat! I knew you'd come!” beamed Stan. With his round, ruddy face, shock of white hair, and corpulent figure, Mum nicknamed him Tweedledee and his equally rotund wife, Doreen, Tweedledum.
Tables were being pushed together and chairs rearranged. There was an air of purpose and when Suzi, one of the waitresses, started laying out notepads and pencils I realized that something was going on.
“We're expecting a good turnout tonight, aren't we, Fred?” Stan said to the duck. “You're early, Kat. The meeting doesn't start for another hour. Where's Iris?”
“Didn't Eric tell you?” said Stan. “He changed the meeting from Thursday night to this evening.”
Eric had not told either of us and I would bet my last pound that it was because he and my mother had had “words.”
“Have you seen this?” Doreen joined her husband behind the counter and set down a stack of green flyers with photographs of local beauty spots
3 and graphically Photoshopped
They were jarring and, frankly, shocking.
“Fred is our mascot,” Doreen went on. “We wanted to bring to the public's attention the fact that it's not just our village and the Honeychurch estate that will be destroyed, it's about protecting our wildlife.”
“The images are very powerful,” I said, surprised at how angry they made me feel.
“Farmers will lose their livelihoods,” said Doreen. “Woods and hedgerows will be destroyed. And what about the wildlife? Our bats, badgers, foxes, and deerâto say nothing of the Honeychurch dormice.”
Stan put his arm around her shoulders. “We know, my luvver. That's why we're doing something about it. What do you think, Kat? Are you on board?”
“Yes,” I said firmly. “I am.”
“That's fantastic.” Stan beamed. “Having a real celebrity will make a difference.”
“WellâI'm not exactly sure I want to useâ”
“I don't mind admitting I was wrongâ”
“Stan said you wouldn't want to be a part of it but I knew you would.” Doreen gave Stan a nod of triumph and held out her hand to her husband. “You owe me ten quid.”
“Alright, alright,” said Stan. “Now, you'd better make sure Iris is coming.”
“I'll give her a quick call.” I had a sudden thought. “Do you have someone staying here called Valentine Prince-Avery?”
“You're damn right we do,” said Doreen grimly. “I wanted to turn him away but Stan said beggars can't be choosers. We need the business.”
“He's only doing his job, luv,” said Stan. “I wouldn't want to be in his shoes tonight. Poor bugger's going to get it in the neck. That's the point of the meeting. Put him on the spot.”
I thought it strange that Valentine hadn't mentioned this to me on the phone earlier. Now I was in an awkward position. Having a casual drink with “the enemy” was probably not a good idea.
“Excuse me a minute.” I brandished my mobile. “I'm just going to give Mum a quick call and see where she has gotten to.”
“I'll get you a gin and tonic,” said Stan. “On the house.”
I slipped through the archway and into the Snug. The two tables and bench seat were empty but a small wood-burning stove made the tiny room feel cozy and I could quite understand why it had earned its name.
Mum was obviously working since she didn't answer even though I knew the phone in her office was just inches away from her typewriter. I dug out Valentine's business card and called him, again.
“It's Kat,” I said upon hearing his voice. “I'm downstairs. Did you know there was a protest meeting tonight?”
“No,” said Valentine. “The date was suddenly changed for no reason. I feel like I'm about to be thrown to the lions. Is that awful woman in the purple coat downstairs with her shotgun?”
“No. Joyce isn't feeling well,” I said. “But Patty her daughter is here. She's working in the kitchen.”
“So she'll have access to knives?”
“Look, are you still up for a quick drink?” said Valentine. “I need some Dutch courage.”
“Where? Definitely not down here.”
“Do you mind coming up to my room?” said Valentine. “I smuggled in some wine.” Sensing my hesitation, he added, “I've got the only suite. All very aboveboard.”
“You can sneak up the back staircase through the Snug,” said Valentine. “No one will see you.”
I remembered that Stan had a drink waiting for me on the counter. “Okay. I'll be five minutes.”
I reentered the bar just as the front door opened letting in a rush of cold air and Eric Pugsley, who looked relatively smart for a change in a tweed jacket over his jeans. Without his trademark beanie hat, Eric's eyebrows looked more unruly than usual.
To my surprise Angela Parks followed Eric in. She was dressed like an old-fashioned servant on her afternoon off in a mid-calf-length dark gray duster with dainty button boots and a cloche hat.
“Eric's got a new lady friend already,” said Doreen with a scowl. “Poor Vera's not long in the grave and he's off cavorting. Althoughâ” She took in Angela's appearance. “She doesn't look his type. Men! They just can't stand to be alone.”
“Her name is Angela Parks,” I said. “She's the new housekeeper cum parlor maid cum scullery maid, whatever they're called these days.”
“Maid-of-all-work, a skivvy, really,” said Doreen. “Well. That explains things. Poor Patty.” She gestured to Patty who had just emerged through the door from the kitchen carrying a jar of lemons. She put it down with a loud thump and trudged off again.
“Stan and I feel sorry for her so we've given her a job hereânot that we can afford it,” Doreen went on in a low voice. “Patty has a rough time with her mother, you know. I think she was hoping it would work out at the Hall because she would have gotten one of the cottages on the estate if they'd kept her on. She'd still be close enough to keep an eye on Joyce but have a bit of freedom as well and some money of her own.”
“How long has Patty been taking care of her mother?” I asked.
“Let me seeâ” Doreen thought hard. “Ever since Joyce's Dennisâthat's Patty's dadâdied of a heart attack. About twenty yearsâand of course, she's an only child.”
Struck by the similarities of our situations, I felt a pang of compassion for Patty. I suspected it couldn't be easy.
“Oh! Mercy, me!” shrieked Angela in her broad Devonshire accent. “Would you look at that duck!”
“This is Fred,” I said, rubbing his head once again. “Here, give him a scratch. He loves it.”
Angela stepped back. “Oh, no! I couldn't. He might bite me. I'm scared of ducks.” She gave Doreen a beaming smile and waved at Patty who was giving her a filthy stare.
“I wondered if you needed any help with the sandwiches,” said Angela.
“No, thank you. I'm quite capable of bringing out my own sandwiches,” said Doreen with a sniff. “Our contribution to the cause.”
“Be nice to her, Doreen,” said Eric, joining us. “She's a newcomerâoh! Kat, I didn't know you were coming.”
“Yes, I'm here.” I said, glad that he looked sheepish. “Why didn't you tell my mother that you'd changed the meeting date?”
Eric puffed out his chest. “I don't know what Iris's problem is. I was just going about my business. Her ladyship orders me to clear out the ditches, so I clear out the ditches and Iris goes mental, screaming at me and the likeâ”
“I can't imagine anyone screaming at you, Eric,” said Angela coyly.
“So that's why you didn't tell her the date of the meeting had changed?” I demanded.
“We don't need her help.”
“I think my mother was upset about all the noise under her office window, that's all,” I said.
“Office?” said Angela. “She has an
? I thought she was retired.”
I was about to say “writing her books” but then I remembered that only a handful of people on the Honeychurch estate knew of Mum's secret life and Angela was definitely not one of them.
“I meant to say bedroom window,” I finished somewhat lamely. “My mother suffers from headaches.”
“She'll have more than a headache if your place gets flooded,” said Eric. “With all this rain, you've got to keep the ditches clear of branches and leaves and that's what I told her. She owes me an apology.”
Fortunately, my phone vibrated so I didn't have to answer. “Ah, this will be from Mum,” I said, waving it at no one in particular. “Excuse me.”
I was glad of the chance to escape. A quick glimpse confirmed my hunch that it was a text from Valentine. “Where are you? I'm dying of thirst.”
“Just dashing to the loo,” I said to anyone within earshot. I slipped into the Snug and up the staircase feeling oddly guilty.
“I thought afterward that my invitation to entice you to my boudoir was highly inappropriate,” said Valentine as he ushered me into a tiny bedroom. Dressed in a sports coat, teal cashmere sweater, smart trousers, and Italian leather shoes, he reminded me briefly of David.
“I thought this was a suite?” I said.
“You should see the single room! This is luxurious.” Valentine laughed. “But there is a bathroom en suite.”
I felt uncomfortable, not because he made me nervous, but seeing his personal things spread around the room smacked of a certain type of intimacy that I wasn't ready for.
“Do you drink red?” said Valentine. “Actually, that's all I've got.”
I brandished my gin and tonic. “I'm fine, thank you. Compliments of the house.”
“Good. I only have one tooth mug. Take a seat.” He gestured to a wingback armchair that stood next to a Victorian fireplace where an arrangement of dried flowers sat in the disused hearth. “You can have the chair.”
Valentine disappeared into the bathroom. “I never travel anywhere without my own wine,” I heard him say. “The muck they serve in pubs is awful.”
I took in my surroundings. The bedroom with its exposed beams could be described as quaint with its rose-patterned curtains and matching hangings that fell around the four-poster bed. Of course, the bed was a reproduction and far too large for the small room but I suspected it was popular with the tourists that passed through Little Dipperton on their way to neighboring Dartmouth, Totnes, and GreenwayâAgatha Christie's much beloved summer home.
As well as a large mahogany armoire, there was a chest of drawers and rolltop desk. On a luggage stand behind the door sat a light brown monogrammed holdall of soft calf leather. Valentine's ox bone cane, with its distinctive French bulldog handle, rested on top.
I settled into the wingback chairânever very comfortable and always reminded me of hospital waiting roomsâand put my glass down onto a pretty octagonal side table. A set of keys caught my attention. The fob was a circular piece of thick leather painted in bright red. In the center was a white half crescent moon cradling a five-pointed star under which was stenciled
Valentine emerged from the bathroom carrying the open wine bottle and a tooth mug filled to the brim. “That's my lucky key ring,” he said. “Got it when I was traveling this summer. It's supposed to bring me luck.”
“I have a lucky mascot, too,” I said. “A Merrythought Jerry mouse called Jazzbo Jenkins.”
A flash of amusement crossed Valentine's features. “A