Read Murder Most Austen Online

Authors: Tracy Kiely

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

Murder Most Austen (6 page)

BOOK: Murder Most Austen
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“Of course not, silly. That was my aim.”

“Oh, well, in that case—well done. Full marks.”

My subsequent suggestion of a shawl was rejected as prudish, so we made our way downstairs and crossed the lobby to the famed restaurant. Decorated with a nod to 1930s opulence, the room is furbished in warm shades of caramel, burgundy, and honey. I closed my eyes for a moment to soak in the atmosphere, from the faint tinkling of expensive crystal to the hushed accented murmurings where nary an
r
was rolled and several
t
’s were elegantly dropped. It was as if I’d stepped into an episode of Agatha Christie’s
Poirot,
one in which Poirot and Hastings were seconds away from the civilized confrontation of the wealthy killer, all while enjoying a delectable amuse-bouche. I may have sighed with happiness.

Oh, who am I kidding? I
did
sigh with happiness. I was finally in London, damn it! I was floating in a giddy tea-infused, strawberries and scones, Burberry tweed dream come true.

Okay, so maybe I was a bit jet-lagged. And I guess there might be some truth to the oft-repeated observation by some that I watch entirely too much PBS and
Masterpiece Theatre.

Whatever. As if there is such a thing as too much
Masterpiece Theatre.

Once we were seated at our table, we were attended by a seemingly never-ending parade of exceedingly polite waiters. After our orders had been placed and the wine had been served, I leaned back in my chair and said, “So, seeing as how I have the strong feeling that Izzy is to be my constant companion over the next week, tell me again how you know them?”

Aunt Winnie laughed. “Well, I don’t really know Izzy. When I last saw her, she was a little bit of a thing. She’s grown into quite a nice-looking girl, though.”

“I gather she takes after her father in looks,” I said, remembering Cora’s earlier comments.

Aunt Winnie paused to consider the question. “No, actually. She doesn’t look a thing like Harold, which, God forgive me, is actually a blessing. Harold was short, bald, and terribly nearsighted. Or was it farsighted?” Aunt Winnie mused. “I can never remember which is which. Oh, well, it doesn’t matter. I just remember he wore these enormous glasses, a bit like the ones Charles Nelson Reilly used to wear. But Cora is relatively harmless,” Aunt Winnie said with a smile. “She’s just very excitable. She was never one to take a deep breath and think before speaking or acting—as you saw for yourself today.”

“Yes, I sort of caught on to that whole theme of her being eager in everything and her sorrows and joys could have no moderation.”

Aunt Winnie nodded. “Cora means well, but Lord, how she used to fray poor Harold’s nerves. He was the complete opposite of her, of course. Always cool, calm, and rational. Bit of a bore, actually, now that I stop to remember him.”

“Well, it should be an interesting week, then,” I said, after taking a sip of wine. “I get to attend my very first Jane Austen Festival with my new best friend, Izzy, her excitable mother, Cora, and then watch the fun unfold when Professor Baines announces to the world his discovery that Jane Austen was apparently something of a Commie tart.”

“Yes,” agreed Aunt Winnie. “You will have to keep a journal, for how are your absent cousins to understand the tenor of your life in Bath without one?”

I laughed at that and then immediately dismissed it from my head as the first of our courses arrived. It’s hard to stay focused on anything but your stomach when a bowl of Thai-spiced lobster ravioli, lemon grass, lime, and coconut broth is placed before you.

But by the week’s end, I would find myself wishing I
had
kept a journal. It might have helped in making sense of the coming calamity.

 

CHAPTER 5

Oh! Who can ever be tired of Bath?

—NORTHANGER ABBEY

“T
HERE YOU ARE!”
cried Izzy the next morning as I crossed the lobby to her. “I’ve been waiting forever! Where have you been?”

Surprised, I found myself apologizing. “I’m sorry. Have you been waiting long?”

“Ages.”

Confused, I glanced at my watch. “But didn’t we say eight thirty? It’s just eight thirty now.”

“It doesn’t matter. I’m just glad that you’re finally here, and I can join Mama at the table and get away from those horrible men over there.” She tipped her blond head to the far end of the lobby. “They have been practically
gawking
at me this whole time. I grant you, they
are
very good-looking, but still, I am surprised. Englishmen aren’t usually so forward.”

I turned in the direction indicated and saw two conservatively dressed businessmen intently reading the
London Times.
I inwardly agreed with Izzy that they were very good-looking; however, they appeared to be anything but gawking. After a moment, one looked up and glanced rather vacantly in our direction. Seeing us staring at him, he nodded politely and returned to his paper. “See what I mean?” Izzy hissed. “It’s disgraceful!”

Either I was still jet-lagged or Izzy was delusional. “Where’s your mother?” I asked, hoping to change the subject.

“Mama went to get us a table,” she said. “Where’s your aunt?”

“Checking out. Oh, here she is,” I replied, as Aunt Winnie made her way to us.

“Good morning, Izzy,” said Aunt Winnie. “How are you today?”

“Fine,” Izzy said, shooting a coy glance in the direction of the men who were again absorbed in their papers. “Mama’s gotten us a table.”

Aunt Winnie followed Izzy’s gaze and then glanced back to me. I shrugged. “Well, let’s join her,” Aunt Winnie said. With one last lingering look at the men, Izzy turned and made her way to the breakfast area. Cora saw us and waved us to the table.

“I hope you don’t mind, but I already ordered us tea,” she said. “I don’t want to risk being late to the train station.”

“Tea sounds fine—” began Aunt Winnie.

Cora cut her off. “I was up all night, trying to figure out our problem. I imagine you were, too, and I think if we put our heads together, we can find a solution by the time we get to Bath.”

Aunt Winnie responded with a blank look. “What problem?” she asked.

Cora’s eyes opened in surprise. “Why, Richard, of course! What are we going to do to stop him from spreading his filthy lies about Jane?”

Aunt Winnie sighed. “Cora, anyone who believes his drivel is no Austen fan with any sense, and all true Austen fans have sense, so don’t worry. Besides, I don’t think there’s anything we can do. If the man wants to make his claims, we can’t stop him. It’s a free country, after all.”

Cora shook her head in disagreement. “No, it’s not. That’s America.”

I stifled a laugh. “I don’t think free speech is exactly frowned upon here,” I said.

Cora shot me a level look. “Well, his particular brand of speech is frowned upon by
me,
I can tell you that.”

“Yes, Mama,” said Izzy, pulling her still hopeful gaze away from the lobby. “Despite your rather cagey behavior, I think we all managed to decipher your true feelings about Richard Baines.”

“Well, what do
you
propose we do about him?” Cora countered.

“Nothing. Tease him. Laugh at him. Please, for once, don’t rise to his bait. You make it worse. Every blessed time you make it worse.” From the way Izzy uttered these words calmly and without emotion, I gathered it was an oft-repeated speech. From the way Cora kept proposing ideas, I also gathered it was an oft-ignored speech.

And so it continued for the rest of the morning. Cora could be steered to no other topic but how to thwart Richard Baines. As we headed outside to hail a taxi for Paddington Station, I saw with delight that it was a perfect, crisp autumn day—made all the more lovely by virtue of it being a perfect, crisp autumn day in
London.
Cora, however, seemed oblivious of our surroundings and prattled on. Could we steal his paper? Could we somehow get to Byron? Could we preempt him by calling the press ourselves?

It went on and on. After offering a few polite responses, I gave up and largely ignored her. So did Aunt Winnie and Izzy. I don’t think Cora noticed, so consumed was she by her topic. She only briefly stopped her rant when she thought she’d lost the train tickets, but upon discovering them in her coat pocket, she quickly resumed her tirade.

Soon the taxi deposited us at the station. While Cora continued to fret about “our” problem, we quickly made our way to our assigned track and soon we were on board the ten-thirty high-speed train to Bath.

Bath!

I got a happy little chill at the very thought of it. Home of the famous Roman baths, the glorious Circus, and, of course, the Jane Austen Centre. An hour and a half later, our train was pulling into Victoria Station in the city’s center. As we emerged from the station, I glanced all around me, afraid to miss one single sight. While Anne Elliot is perhaps second only to Elizabeth Bennet as my favorite Austen heroine, I have to admit I did not share her dismal view of the city. I neither entertained a very determined disinclination for Bath, nor did I hold a disinclination to see more of the extensive buildings. Rather, I was like Catherine Morland—all eager delight. My eyes were here, there, everywhere, as I approached the city’s fine and striking environs. I was come to be happy, and I felt happy already.

All around us was evidence of the upcoming festival. Banners and posters were everywhere. The streets were crowded with tourists, many of whom were clutching well-worn copies of Austen’s novels as if they were the Holy Grail of travel guides. As we were staying at a different hotel from Cora and Izzy, we said our temporary good-byes, which were mingled with fervent entreaties from Izzy to swear that we would meet later.

I admit it was with some relief that I saw their forms disappear up the street and out of sight.

“Dear God,” said Aunt Winnie with a weary sigh. “I’d forgotten what an excellent talker Cora is and how she can get so completely rattled over nothing.”

“I wouldn’t let her catch you saying that defending Jane Austen’s reputation is a mere nothing.”

“Good point. I’m beginning to remember why Harold was so quiet. I attributed it to dullness, but I think I’ve done the poor man a disservice. He probably just gave up trying to get a word in edgewise.”

“Do you think she’s really going to try and stop Baines from presenting his paper?” I asked, as we threaded our way through the crowd toward our hotel.

“I sincerely hope not,” Aunt Winnie replied. “I have a suspicion that that is exactly what he hopes she
will
do. As much as I think the man is full of it, he is right on one count: the press would love a story of some crazed Austen fan attacking an English professor over his scintillating views on Austen.”

“Do you think he’s intentionally goading her?”

Aunt Winnie paused in front of a poster. In large print, it proclaimed THE TRUTH BEHIND AUSTEN’S DEATH: A COVER-UP EXPOSED. Below it, in smaller letters, it read, J
OIN RENOWNED
E
NGLISH LITERATURE PROFESSOR,
R
ICHARD
B
AINES, 7 P.M.
S
UNDAY AT 3
U
PPER
C
AMDEN
P
LACE,
C
AMDEN
R
OAD, TO HEAR HIS GROUNDBREAKING REVELATIONS
. In the background, there was a faded watercolor sketch of a busty woman provocatively sprawled on a bed, the neckline of her tissue-thin chemise millimeters away from indecency.

Aunt Winnie tilted her head. “I think I’d better keep an eye on Cora,” was all she said.

*   *   *

OUR HOTEL WAS
on Henrietta Street, an elegant avenue lined with stately Georgian homes. I was convinced it served as the setting for Camden Place in the 1995 film adaptation of
Persuasion,
but Aunt Winnie disagreed. We argued the point for several minutes until the proprietor, a middle-aged woman with a kind heart-shaped face who appeared used to hearing such meaningless topics so hotly debated, politely interrupted to inform us that while her hotel was
not
the location in question, she would be happy to show us where it was. She pulled out a walking map of Bath and circled the location, Number One, Royal Crescent, and provided us directions on how to get there. Having been proved correct, Aunt Winnie smirked. I, as is also my habit in these situations, ignored her.

Our room key and map in hand, Aunt Winnie and I were about to head upstairs when a man who had evidently overheard our conversation came toward us. “I take it you ladies are in town for the festival?” he asked in a booming voice.

He appeared to be in his early thirties. He wasn’t particularly handsome; his forehead jutted out from a receding hairline over eyes that were set too close together. He was only a few inches taller than I am, and from the looks of his wiry build only a few pounds heavier as well. His tweed blazer was close to being threadbare, and his jeans were ripped. However, his Rolex was obscenely large, and his shoes hinted of Italian beginnings at the gentle hands of a gloved master. Taken all together, it gave the impression that he was intentionally trying to lessen the potential of his appearance. Why, I couldn’t begin to imagine.

“We are here for the festival,” Aunt Winnie answered. “Are you?”

“Yes indeed. I never miss it. I’ve been coming for the last fifteen years at least.”

I paused. “But I thought the first festival was held in 2000?”

“Good God, no! It must be older than that! I’m sure of it. I should know, after all, I’ve been coming to them all this time, haven’t I? No, no, you must be mistaken. But it’s a frightfully good time. You must let me show you some of the better sights. I’m quite an expert, you know. How could I not be, after coming to them for so long? I’m John Ragget, by the way.”

We shook hands all around, and Aunt Winnie and I introduced ourselves. “Well, you must let me show you Bath,” John continued. “You won’t find anyone more knowledgeable. And I have a car, of course. It’s a Jaguar convertible, actually.” Addressing me, he asked, “Do you like Jaguars?”

BOOK: Murder Most Austen
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