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Authors: Joyce Cato

Deadly Stuff

BOOK: Deadly Stuff
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J
enny Starling turned a corner in the seventeenth-century stone-lined corridor, and came face-to-face with a stuffed owl.

The owl, it has to be said, looked somewhat surprised. The travelling cook not so much. She did, however, draw her well-rounded, six-foot-tall form to a halt and contemplate the bird thoughtfully.

When she’d seen the advertisement in the
Oxford Times
for a cook/chef to work at St Bede’s College during the summer months, catering to the conferences that the college hosted during the Long Vacation in order to replenish its ancient coffers, she’d applied instantly.

Naturally, with her references and experience, she’d sailed through the interview process, had been offered and had accepted the post. The college’s resident cook had up and left for New Zealand for three months, in pursuit, so the local gossip had it, of a somewhat unreliable but well-heeled widow. This had left the bursar with a string of conferences booked in with no top-flight chef (as advertised in the glossy brochures) to offer them.

Jenny had been more than happy to get the gig. Not only did she get to live in for three months – free accommodation
in this day and age was not to be sniffed at – but she also got to cook an extensive, if budget-controlled menu, for a large number of people daily, which was the Junoesque cook’s idea of heaven. Added to all this bounty was the truly pleasant realization that she also had well-trained and willing staff to work under her. This, courtesy of the resident chef, who, so gossip also had it, was a bit of a tartar and expected first-class standards from his staff.

So it was that she found herself, this lovely July morning, exploring her way around St Bede’s ancient buildings and quads, and contemplating whether she could possibly squeeze lobster bisque into her budget for sometime that week.

Now Jenny continued to eye the stuffed owl thoughtfully. It was, according to the small plaque on the plinth on which it was resting, an eagle owl. It was certainly huge and imperious looking, which Jenny supposed, was only your right, if you were an eagle owl.

When the cook had contemplated her first foray into academia cooking for a prestigious conference, she’d assumed it would be something suitably glamorous, as befits Oxford’s status as one of the premiere universities of the world. A conference of neurosurgeons, perhaps, given the proximity of the world-famous John Radcliffe Hospital, which was a part of Oxford University’s medical teaching programme. Or maybe something more artistic, like art restoration experts drawn to Oxford by the Ruskin, or perhaps some esoterically historical society intrigued by the university’s ancient heritage.

What she’d had, was the Greater Ribble Valley & Jessop Taxidermy Society. This august body had come down for five days to give lectures and demonstrations, to talk shop, buy the latest gadgetry and goods, and generally do as all good conference-goers did – drink too much, gossip, and back-stab friends and colleagues whenever possible.

It was only Monday, the very first day of the conference and,
even though they were still arriving in dribs and drabs, Jenny had overheard enough conversations to make her long dark hair stand on end.

She’d also seen several examples of the conference goers’ exhibits being bandied about, hence her
sang froid
in the face of unannounced stuffed owls.

‘Oh there she is. Sorry, I wondered where I’d left Bertha.’ An apologetic voice had Jenny turn and smile at a harassed sixty-something with an overbite and a grey cardigan that looked as if it had been dinner every night for more than a couple of moths.

The old man retrieved the owl, beamed at Jenny, looked around vaguely and went off, probably trying to find his room. For her part, Jenny carried on towards her own bedroom, which was a pleasant, high-ceilinged room in one of the older buildings, and collected her laptop.

It was time to get down to planning tomorrow’s menu. The willing helpers in the vast kitchens were already preparing the ingredients for today’s fare, but she wanted to get a head start on her preparations for the rest of the conference. Although she had no doubts that she could keep within the budget set by the bursar, and still produce delicious, show-stopping meals, she wanted to make every day a gourmet experience – not just the opening night, and the finale, so to speak. And that took planning.

But Jenny was not the only one in St Bede’s College on that fine summer day busily making painstaking preparations.

In another room, someone else was checking off things on their to-do list, and making careful preparations for tomorrow. But these didn’t include anything as innocuous as checking out Oxford’s covered market for the freshest vegetables, fish and meat, or a reminder to look up the best variation for a butter sauce on the internet.

And, if someone had been standing over their shoulder,
and reading their notes, one or two items on the list would definitely have raised their eyebrows. Because what they’d be reading would be the blueprint for a perfect murder.

Or so someone supposed.

J
enny knocked on the door of the assistant bursar and waited. It was nearly two o’clock, and dinner was at seven, so she still had plenty of time to start to oversee the staff and check on their dinner preparations for the Great Jessies’ (as she’d come to think of them) first night.

‘Yes? Come on in!’ The voice sounded somewhat harried, even through the thick oak door.

Jenny obliged and found herself in a typical St Bede’s room. It was somehow gloomy, despite the large, high sash windows, mainly due she supposed, to all the wood-panelling and heavy, dark-brown furniture. Since the college had been going for over five centuries or so, she supposed that a fair number of the past alumni had left vast amounts of massive and now impracticable furniture and furnishings to their old alma mater, as well as their much more welcome books, collections and, of course by far the best of all, filthy lucre.

Jenny hadn’t been talking to the man who’d hired her for above five minutes before she’d cottoned on to the fact that the college was perpetually seeking funding. Rich overseas students were courted with almost indecent fervour, whilst industrial and commercial institutions were cajoled, bullied, bribed and, Jenny wouldn’t be at all surprised, blackmailed
into offering scholarships, endowments and job opportunities for graduates. It was all, so the bursar had explained woefully, a far cry from medieval times, when the aristocracy were falling over themselves to enrol their prodigy at Oxford, and were willing to fill the coffers of the colleges in order to do so.

From this, Jenny had surmised that the bursar’s own degree had been in history, and that his time was taken up almost solely with holding out his hat and begging for pennies.

So the fact that the taxidermy society currently in residence for their annual conference had several well-heeled members willing to pay the high fees had quickly explained much of what had hitherto surprised her.

Of course, the bursar, being one of the senior officers of the college, along with the principal, a titled industrial baron coasting through retirement, and the treasurer, an ex-government minister who was, frankly, slumming it, was far too important to deal with the running of the summer conference season. Hence she’d been told that for all her day-to-day decisions, it was to the assistant bursar that she needed to cosy up. And, indeed, the man who looked up at her now with a worried frown and badly bitten nails, looked in sore need of a little cosseting.

The nameplate on his door informed her that his name was Arthur McIntyre, BA, MA. He was, she guessed, somewhere in his early fifties, and was just in the process of losing his short dark hair. Perhaps to make up for it, he had grown a reasonably luxuriant moustache. At the moment his somewhat muddy, grey-brown eyes were eyeing her with both surprise and alarm.

As he got uncertainly to his feet, Jenny instantly realized the problem. At perhaps five feet tall, or maybe just a bare inch over, she was still towering over him, and she instantly swept forward, beaming her best smile, quickly snatched out the chair in front of his desk and sat down, and held out her hand
all at the same time.

‘Hello, Dr McIntyre, I’m Jenny Starling. I’m catering to the conferences this summer. I thought I’d better just introduce myself and check in. Perhaps the bursar has mentioned me?’

A look of instant relief and comprehension swept over the little man’s face and he shook her hand with a brief smile of his own and resumed his seat. ‘Oh yes, of course. And I’m plain mister. Not a doctor.’

‘Oh sorry,’ Jenny said. Although she knew from his nameplate that he didn’t have a doctorate, practically everyone she’d met at the college so far, including the librarian, was a ‘Doctor’ something or other. And it didn’t take a genius to guess that it must be pretty daunting – not to mention deflating - to be one of the few common or garden Mr or Misses swanning around in these heady, refined waters.

And a little buttering up of your boss never hurt, especially on your first day.

‘And yes, of course the bursar has spoken to me about you. I hope you’re settling in all right. Is your room OK?’ he added anxiously.

‘Oh yes, fine thank you,’ Jenny said, and meant it. It had a whopping four-poster bed, and armchairs built to last, as well as a wardrobe and set of drawers that took up most of one wall. And whilst big brown furniture might not be much in fashion nowadays, it was something that a woman of her size never sniffed at.

‘Splendid, splendid. So, you’ve met and talked to the regular kitchen staff then?’ Arthur McIntyre said, somewhat nervously, Jenny thought.

‘Oh yes. They’ve all been very friendly and helpful. I know the chef had his own way of doing things, and I have no intention of being the new broom sweeping all before me,’ Jenny reassured him, perhaps somewhat less than totally truthfully this time.

In fact, when she’d met the kitchen staff, there’d been the usual mutual summing up on both sides that such occasions warranted. On their side, they were obviously anxious to know what sort of temperament she had and, more importantly, how easily she could be bamboozled. And she, for her part, had been keen to pick out the slackers from the professionals, and make sure that all the plum kitchen jobs were allocated fairly. And to show them who was boss, of course, in the nicest but firmest possible way. Since she’d never had any trouble in getting on with people and at the same time, getting exactly what she wanted, they’d very quickly settle down to an amicable way of rubbing along together.

As if sensing this, Arthur McIntyre seemed to relax a little. ‘Ah, I’m glad things are running smoothly,’ he said. No doubt it would have been part of his job to arbitrate had they not been.

Jenny smiled gently and somewhat thoughtfully. Something in the rather weary way he spoke, told her that here was a man not altogether happy in his job. And she could quite see that being even an assistant bursar for an Oxford college as big and old as St Bede’s would be quite a responsibility. The Bursary Department was responsible for the daily running and upkeep of the college, which had to be a never-ending job. Not only did they have to deal with the maintenance of the buildings and grounds, but it also had to oversee all the cooking and cleaning that was done by the domestic staff, or ‘scouts’ as they were called for some unfathomable reason. And since the bursar himself seemed preoccupied with fundraising, it was easy to see on whose shoulders the weight of all this had landed.

‘I thought you’d want to have my budget plans for the first conference as soon as possible,’ Jenny said, and handed over a neatly printed list of menus and expenditure, which Arthur McIntyre accepted eagerly and began to peruse.

‘Oh yes, thanks. It is, as I’m sure the bursar told you, most
important that you don’t exceed the budget that’s been laid down.’

Jenny nodded. ‘I think you’ll find everything in order,’ she said gently, but firmly. The little man shot her a quick, surprisingly shrewd look, and then he smiled somewhat bitterly. Jenny, a little alarmed, began to wonder if she’d come across as a bit more condescending than she’d meant to.

‘I’m sorry, I hope I didn’t sound rude,’ she apologized at once. ‘I just meant that I’m used to managing both food and money, and that you didn’t need to worry.’

But Arthur McIntyre was already waving a hand in the air in that deprecatory way that was supposed to indicate nonchalance. ‘No, no, it’s not that. I don’t doubt your ability at all, Miss Starling, just the opposite in fact. I was just thinking that it’s typical of the bursar to be able to spot a gem so easily. You’re clearly the perfect person for the job. I only wish I had the bursar’s knack for omniscience.’

‘Ah, one of those, is he?’ Jenny thought with a knowing smile. But inside her heart was sinking just a little. It was clear that the little deputy felt inadequate and probably disliked his boss intensely. Which was none of her business, of course, unless she found herself somehow in the middle of a domestic spat and pressed to choose a side.

Obviously a little more buttering up was called for. ‘And please, call me Jenny. And you know, I can’t stand those people who always seem to get everything right all the time. As my granny used to say, the sort who could fall in a rubbish heap and come up smelling of roses.’

Arthur McIntyre’s muddy brown eyes began to twinkle and his narrow shoulders to relax just a little. ‘Please, call me Art. Nearly everyone around here does, either to my face or behind my back.’ He said it with just a shade too much bitterness for it to be comfortably funny, and Jenny smiled gently, deciding with her usual tact that a change of subject was in order.

‘Will we be seeing you at dinner tonight, Art? I wasn’t sure from the bursar whether or not many people from the college actually dined in Hall when the conferences were on?’

‘Oh no. Most of the dons scatter as soon as Trinity Term ends, and you won’t see them again until Michaelmas. The principal, I believe, is in Kuala Lumpur trying to secure a research fellowship sponsorship from something big in coconuts. Or is it rubber?’

Jenny blinked. No doubt about it, they did things differently in Oxford.

‘So you won’t be dining with us?’ she pressed. She liked to be sure of her numbers.

‘Oh yes. I will. Well, most nights anyway. I’m not due to take my paltry three weeks until August. And there might be one or two others knocking about, of course. The Emeritus Professor in Classics is sure to be there. He’s ninety-two and sharp as a tack, and probably hasn’t left the college grounds for something like ten years or so. Come to think of it, he’ll probably find the taxidermists fascinating. He’ll be bending their ear on how Plato would have set about it. Or something along those lines.’

Jenny grinned. ‘I look forward to meeting him. I hope he likes lobster bisque.’

 

Like all the main dining rooms in Oxford colleges, the place where undergraduates and dons alike gathered to eat was known simply as ‘hall’.

And the hall at St Bede’s, Jenny thought, some four and a half hours later, was an amazing sight. Huge, with one length of near ceiling-to-floor windows stretching one length of it, it made you stop and stare. Beyond them, the college grounds, immaculately groomed and full of colour, provided an equally grandiose and formal setting.

Three massive chandeliers hung down from the ceiling at
equal distances, spreading a scattered, crystal-reflected light onto a hardwearing, midnight-blue carpet. Long, wooden tables, so old, well polished and varnished, that they looked nearly black, spread out along ‘high table’ on the raised dais at one end where the Dons would normally eat, and in two parallel rows down the length of the hall where the students usually munched. Matching padded, ornate chairs – over a hundred of them? – lined the tables. On the walls were vast portraits of past principals and distinguished old boys and, towards the end of the latter century, old girls.

Jenny knew that Somerville College, just down the road a bit, and formerly an all girl’s college, could boast Margaret Thatcher and the mystery novelist Dorothy L Sayers amongst their alumni. St Bede’s however, not only boasted ex-prime Ministers and novelists, but one or two famous artists, several Nobel-prizewinners, masters of industry, a mad earl and a notorious womanizer, reprobate and friend of Keats.

Jenny paused and blinked at the name of the artist on one of the portraits. Surely that couldn’t be an original, could it? It must be worth…. She gulped.

Whilst her mind was boggling at what it was worth, however, the professional part of her was also checking out the table settings, and finding no fault with the layout. Not that she had really expected to. The scouts here were all old hands at this game, and they only really needed Jenny to plot the menus, express her views on how they should be served, and generally keep out of their way as much as possible.

That didn’t stop her from spending long, happy hours in the kitchen however, personally preparing and making certain dishes. It had been a bit of a juggling act to marry the careful budget with the logistics of preparing four courses for over a hundred sittings, and still produce interesting, appetising food that both looked good on the plate, and challenged even the most jaded or conservative of palates.

But she was confident that she’d managed it, naturally.

And now, with the Great Jessies gradually arriving in their best bib and tuckers to start the conference off with a bang, so to speak, she could judge for herself whether or not she’d got the balance right.

The first arrivals began to mill around and check out the little place-names to find their spot on the long tables. Having staked their claims, they began to accept the glass of complimentary wine – first night only, and strictly one glass only – and chat. Jenny had thought that rather stingy, but the bursar had pointed out that the JCR or junior common room where the undergraduates usually hung out had a fully licensed bar and games room, and was the conference-goers socializing area for the duration. Unspoken was the tacit understanding that all the money they spent in the no-doubt over-priced bar went into the college’s coffers, so free drinks were to be strictly limited.

Jenny could well imagine that the majority of their visitors would be heading straight there once the dinner was over in order to top up.

She smiled and nodded as several people greeted her and then checked her watch. Dinner started at seven, and she wanted to be here to see it begin. She was anxious to pick up comments on the starter.

‘Hello, don’t recognize you, do I? You must be college, right? Or are you a new member?’

Jenny turned to find a tall, skinny young man with sandy hair and attractive large hazel eyes looking at her.

He thrust out a large, competent-looking freckled hand. ‘Ian Glendower. I’m trying to specialize in marine and freshwater presentation.’ He grinned widely. ‘In other words, if you catch a monster pike this big’ – he spread his arms wide – ‘and for once, it wasn’t the one that got away, and you want it stuffed and mounted complete with an antique or bespoke glass case, I’m your man.’

BOOK: Deadly Stuff
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