Read Murder Most Austen Online

Authors: Tracy Kiely

Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths, #Cozy, #General

Murder Most Austen (4 page)

BOOK: Murder Most Austen
7.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Aunt Winnie was teasing, of course, but the truth was that I’d had some odd experiences over the last few years, and they included being involved in three murder investigations. Although I did not purport to be some kind of Nancy Drew—not out loud, anyway—I had been able to provide real assistance to the police in all three investigations. And while the experiences were a tad more scintillating than ensuring proper subject-verb agreement, I wasn’t really seriously thinking of a career change.

“A detective!” exclaimed Izzy, her eyes bright with interest. “How exciting! But how do you expect to meet your Mr. Darcy if you’re off chasing criminals?”

I laughed. “First of all, you should know that I’m not a detective. My aunt is prone to hyperbole. And second, I think I’ve already met my Mr. Darcy. His name is Peter. We’ve been together for about two years now.”

“And is he The One?” asked Izzy.

I paused. It was a question I’d been asking myself a lot lately. Just before Aunt Winnie and I left for this trip, Peter had asked me to move in with him. I’d said no, but it wasn’t a decision I’d come to lightly. I love Peter, but in addition to just having quit my job, I’d been forced to move in with my pregnant sister, Kit, and her family thanks to a rampant mold problem in my apartment. I didn’t want to move in with Peter because I was desperate. And trust me, jobless and living with Kit—pregnant or not pregnant—was enough to make anyone desperate. When Peter and I took our relationship to the next step—whatever step that was—I wanted it to be because it was the right decision for us, rather than the most convenient decision for my personal situation.

Or, to paraphrase Jane Austen, I didn’t want to be accused of pursuing a man merely for the sake of a situation.

Peter was disappointed but said he understood. I hoped that was true, but I had a horrible feeling that I’d blown something. That’s about when Aunt Winnie called and told me we were going to Bath. Since then I’d let myself be distracted with travel details.

“I think so,” I said to Izzy now.

“Well, then, you should take a page of advice from dear Jane Austen and show more affection than you feel if you are to secure him,” Izzy advised teasingly.

I laughed. “Somehow, I don’t think Austen meant for us to take that remark seriously,” I replied, taking a sip of tea.

“Oh, but I think she did,” exclaimed Cora. “Remember, Charlotte Lucas gave that advice for Jane Bennet. And if Jane
had
initially shown more affection to Bingley, then his sisters and Darcy wouldn’t have been able to convince him that her heart was untouched!”

“Well, yes,” I conceded, “but then Charlotte took her own advice regarding Mr. Collins and ended up married to one of the stupidest men in all of England.”

Cora shook her head. “But she was finally
settled,
and that’s all she ever cared about. It didn’t matter to Charlotte what her husband was like. She just wanted to be comfortably established and married. And that’s what she got. As Austen demonstrates in all her books, there were only a few options for women with regard to marriage. Really, one could say that that was the intent and guiding theme in all of her books.”

I remembered Professor Baines and his perverted suppositions. “Speaking of Austen’s intent,” I said, “we met someone on the flight over who had the most bizarre theories on that. He said there were two stories in her books: one obvious and one hidden. But his ideas about these hidden stories were absurd!” I started laughing as I remembered the details. “He claimed that Marianne Dashwood had an abortion, and that Sir Walter Elliot and Elizabeth had an incestuous relationship.”

To my surprise, Cora did not seem amused. Her face froze in an expression of disgust and she said with icy disdain, “Let me guess. Professor Richard Baines.”

“Why, yes,” I said in surprise. “I take it you know him?”

“Unfortunately, I do.” Cora’s nose wrinkled as if she’d suddenly caught a whiff of raw sewage. “He is a revolting man with revolting ideas and he is perverting Austen’s legacy. I cannot stand him. Unfortunately, I have to see him every year at the festival. He considers himself an expert on Austen and is determined to convert people to his way of thinking. It’s disgraceful.”

Izzy winked at me and said, “Mama would prefer it if he would not go out into society. She thinks he only makes people uncomfortable.”

“Do not tease me, Izzy,” Cora replied. “You know that what I’m saying is perfectly true. If it wasn’t for his money, which came from his father and not from his own efforts, most people wouldn’t tolerate him. But because he is rich, he gets away with more. He stirs things up and upsets people.”

“He upsets
you,
” corrected Izzy. “You’ve made it your life’s objective to ban the man from any Austen gathering—both here and at home. You pick a fight with him every year at the festival and then proceed to get into a huge public screaming match. I’m surprised that it isn’t advertised in the brochure as one of the main events.”

“You exaggerate,” Cora said dismissively, while Izzy mouthed, “No, I don’t,” to me. “Even his first wife, Gail, left him because of his crazy ideas,” Cora continued.

“That’s not the only reason Gail left him,” said Izzy. “If I remember correctly, his current wife, Alex, had something to do with
that
decision
.
” Turning to Aunt Winnie and me, Izzy said, “It was quite the scandal at the time. Richard had run around on Gail for years, and it’s rumored that their son, Ian, is not an only child, if you catch my drift.”

Cora flushed and looked away in apparent disgust.

“Anyway,” Izzy continued, “Gail and Richard Baines ran one of the best Austen magazines in the States,
Forever Austen.
Then Richard started in with all his secondary story theories and making the most outrageous claims. Some people ignored him, some—like my dear mama,” Izzy added with an indulgent smile at Cora, “frothed and foamed at him, while a few others actually entertained his ideas.”

“Did Professor Baines’s wife—Gail—agree with him?” Aunt Winnie asked.

“God, no. She thought they were complete crap, of course,” said Izzy. “But she loved him, I guess, so she put up with it. But then Richard claimed that Darcy and Bingley had been lovers and that was the real reason behind Darcy’s dislike of Jane. As you can imagine, all hell broke loose. Gail took his name off the magazine and filed for divorce. At first everyone thought that it was because of his crackpot theories, but within a month or two he’d married his current wife, Alex—who, I might add,” she added archly, “is a good ten years younger than Gail.”

“The man’s a pig on all levels,” muttered Cora. “And what made it all the worse for Gail was that as part of the divorce agreement, Richard was still given a monthly column in
Forever Austen.
He’s no longer an owner, but he is a contributor. I find that particularly distasteful, because I write a monthly column for the magazine as well. To be published in the same periodical as him is humiliating.”

“But surely people don’t take him seriously,” said Aunt Winnie. “I mean, the stuff he claims to have unearthed is pretty outrageous.”

Cora shook her head. “But that’s just the problem—he’s starting to collect quite a following. Most are stupid little sycophants from his classes hoping to curry favor and a decent grade, but there are others in his camp who ought to know better.”

“Such as?” asked Aunt Winnie.

“Well, Byron Chambers, for one,” replied Cora. “He serves as a kind of secretary or assistant to Richard. Byron’s a smart guy. I’ve known him for a few years, mainly through the festivals. I don’t know why he ever took a position with Richard in the first place. I thought he was better than that.”

“Mama, I’ve told you a thousand times—ignore the man,” said Izzy with more than a little frustration. “You sabotage your own cause by constantly engaging him and reacting to him.”

“I know, I know, but he makes it so hard. He’s always proclaiming some new scandalous find, and I just lose my head,” Cora said with a rueful shake of said head.

“Well, maybe this will be the year he won’t unleash any new discoveries,” Izzy offered.

I have often been told that I have an easy face to read. This is usually articulated to me with the advice, “For God’s sake, I hope you don’t play poker.” Over the years, I’ve tried to control my expressions, but without much success. Too late, I now felt my face pull into an expression of grave misgiving. Of course, Cora saw it.

“What? Did he say something?” she said to me. “Please tell me that he doesn’t have some new cockamamie theory he’s going to foist on us during the festival.”

“Well, um, he may have mentioned something—” I began, but Aunt Winnie cut me off.

“He sure as hell did,” she replied with a laugh. “He claims that he’s discovered the real reason that Jane Austen died.”

Cora stiffened in anticipation, her teacup frozen halfway to her mouth. “And?” she inquired ominously.

Eyes sparkling with laughter, Aunt Winnie leaned over. “He claims she died of syphilis!”

While Izzy gave a snort of laughter, Cora’s reaction was much less lighthearted. Her eyes narrowed and she angrily slammed her teacup down onto her platter. “I’ll kill the son of a bitch,” she said.

 

CHAPTER 3

It would be an excellent match, for he was rich, and she was handsome.

—SENSE AND SENSIBILITY

I
ZZY ROLLED HER EYES.
“Oh, Mama. Please, don’t be so dramatic. You know he only says these things to shock people and get attention. You’re just playing into him.”

It seemed pretty sound advice, but Cora was having none of it. “The man is the devil incarnate,” she said. “He’s bent on ripping down Austen’s reputation just so he can build up his own. It isn’t right!”

Izzy appeared as if she were about to respond when her eyes focused on something just beyond Cora’s indignant left shoulder. “Well, don’t look now, but he’s here.”

Of course Cora did just the opposite and twisted around in her seat. “Who’s here? Richard?” she asked.

Izzy didn’t need to answer because it was immediately clear that the “he” in question was indeed Professor Baines, aka “Richard.” He was also heading our way. He hadn’t seen us yet as he was too engrossed in a conversation with another man. Professor Baines’s companion was tall with an average build. He had sandy blond hair and a square jaw. His face wasn’t classically handsome, but the deep laugh lines that ran from the corners of his brown eyes to the tops of his cheeks made it an appealing one. “Who’s that with Professor Baines?” I asked Izzy as the men, still in deep conversation, took a seat at a table not far from us.

“That’s Byron Chambers,” Izzy replied in a low voice. “He’s Richard’s assistant, the one we were telling you about before. Mama is right about him, at least. He is a really nice guy. I’ve no idea why he’s working with Richard.”

I turned to study Byron again, wondering if he’d been named for Lord Byron. He certainly didn’t look “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” But then again, it’s generally hard to look any of those things while wearing a blue blazer and gray wool pants. Actually, if anyone resembled Lord Byron it would be Professor Baines. He had the strong profile, the shiny hair, and even the curling lip. All that was missing was an extravagant ensemble of velvet and lace.

No sooner had Professor Baines taken his seat than he noticed Cora glaring at him from our table. A slow smile formed on his lips, and his eyes narrowed with an expression of pleased anticipation. I’d seen that look several times before on Aunt Winnie’s cat, Lady Catherine, usually right before she pounced on some unsuspecting victim. It’s also a look commonly found on that particularly nasty set of girls in junior high who enjoy ruthlessly tormenting their counterparts on the social ladder. Different species, perhaps, but the same look.

“Why, Mrs. Beadle,” Professor Baines purred at Cora. “What a pleasant surprise. It’s always lovely to see you. Are you in town for the festival?”

“You know that I am,” Cora snapped back. “Tell me, Baines, is it true?” she asked without preamble.

“Is what true?” Professor Baines raised his groomed eyebrows in apparent cheerful confusion at her question. His companion, Byron, however, made no such pretensions. His shoulders hunched slightly as if he were readying himself for an attack.

“Is it true that you are seriously proposing to spread this filthy theory about Jane Austen’s death?” Cora demanded.

Professor Baines’s blue eyes twinkled in amusement. Whether it was from his enjoyment at Cora’s vexation or it stemmed from an egotistic appreciation at his own purported cleverness wasn’t clear. What was clear, however, was that the man was relishing every second of the confrontation. Cora by now was too furious to notice.

“My filthy theory?” he repeated, glancing at Byron in seeming bewilderment. Byron pretended not to notice and studied the papers on the table in front of him. “Theories are either true or false. I don’t see how they can be ‘filthy,’” continued Professor Baines. Cora huffed noisily. “But perhaps,” he said with a meaningful glance at Aunt Winnie and me, “you are referring to what I told your companions on the plane last night? My
discovery
—which, my dear Mrs. Beadle, I must point out, is very different from a
theory.

Next to me, Cora clenched her fists until her knuckles showed white. Izzy rolled her eyes in annoyance, seemingly more at her mother’s reaction than from Professor Baines’s condescending behavior. “You know damn well what I’m referring to, you arrogant…,” Cora began, then stopped herself. Taking a deep breath, she attempted to calm herself before continuing. “Are you seriously claiming that Jane Austen died of…” Her voice petered out, unable to form the word.

“Syphilis?” Professor Baines supplied politely.

Cora closed her eyes and visibly shuddered at the sound of the word. “How can you possibly claim such an outrageous perversion?” she asked, but Professor Baines cut her off by forcefully tapping his long forefinger on the thick pile of papers that lay in front of Byron.

BOOK: Murder Most Austen
7.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

By the Lake by John McGahern
Bruno's Dream by Iris Murdoch
One Thousand Brides by Solange Ayre
The Hiding Place by Karen Harper
J by Howard Jacobson
Traitor's Knot by Janny Wurts
Search for Audric by Richard S. Tuttle
Discovering Alicia by Tessie Bradford