A Pinch of Poison by Alyssa Maxwell is the 2nd book in the Lady & Lady's Maid Mystery series, set in post–World War I England, where Lady Phoebe Renshaw and her lady’s maid, Eva Huntford, encounter an uncharitable killer at a charity luncheon sponsored by a posh school for girls.
Good deeds build good character, and good character is what the Haverleigh School for Young Ladies is all about. Lady Phoebe—with the tireless assistance of Eva—has organized a luncheon at the school to benefit wounded veterans of the Great War, encouraging the students to participate in the cooking and the baking. But too many cooks do more than spoil the broth—they add up to a recipe for disaster when the school’s headmistress, Miss Finch, is poisoned.
The girls at Haverleigh all come from highly respected families, none of whom will countenance their darling daughters being harassed like common criminals by the local police. So Lady Phoebe steps in to handle the wealthy young debutantes with tact and discretion, while Eva cozies up to the staff. Did one of the girls resent the headmistress enough to do her in? Did a teacher bear a grudge? What about the school nurse, clearly shell shocked from her service in the war? No one is above suspicion, not even members of the school’s governing body, some of whom objected to Miss Finch’s “modern” methods.
But Lady Phoebe and Eva will have to sleuth with great stealth—or the cornered killer may try to teach someone else a lethal lesson.
The ladies nearest the fallen woman screamed, their cries quickly taken up and echoed from table to table. The students, still lined up on the side of the room, began to weep, and a quick-thinking woman in a fox-head stole scurried over and herded them back into the corridor and down to the kitchen.
Eva rushed to the fallen woman’s side. Phoebe reappeared at Miss Finch’s other side, but before either could lay a hand on the headmistress, she slid grotesquely down- ward, taking the tablecloth and place settings with her as she collapsed to the floor. Dishes and glasses shattered around her; cutlery clattered; tea and cream and remnants of cake splashed and bounced. At first, no one moved, frozen in obvious disbelief. Then Eva sank beside her, hesitated, drew a fortifying breath, and slipped her fingers to the side of the woman’s neck.
“Is she . . . ?” several voices hissed at once.
Eva looked up and found Lady Phoebe’s anxious face.
“I don’t feel a pulse.”
A chorus of shrieks raised a lament and invoked the Lord’s mercy. Ladies huddled together with their arms around each other. Still others buried their faces in their hands, until footsteps from the main hall turned their horrified gazes in that direction, as if the assemblage believed Death, having fled too hastily, had decided to return to claim another soul.
Instead of a shrouded, formless creature, the school nurse appeared, clad in blue with a crisp white pinafore and matching kerchief. She strode briskly in, looking straight ahead and avoiding the stares converging on her. She carried a short length of rubber tubing and what appeared to be a hand-held pump very much like a concertina accordion. As the nurse grew closer, she attached the tube to a nozzle at one end of the pump, and Eva surmised this to be some kind of breathing apparatus. Amelia and Julia came in behind her, trotting every few steps to keep up. So that was where Julia had gone.
Lady Phoebe pushed to her feet. “Amelia, don’t come any closer.”
The youngest Renshaw sister paid no heed, but was forced to halt before reaching Miss Finch’s inert form when Lady Wroxly adamantly stepped in front of her. “I’m feeling faint, dearest. Would you help me into the hall?”
“Oh, but Miss Finch—I want to know if she’s all right.” Uncertainty spread across Amelia’s pretty features, but she linked arms with her grandmother and walked away. She apparently couldn’t resist looking back several times be- fore they reached the doorway and turned out of sight.
It was then Eva realized the nurse had yet to take action. The woman, about Eva’s own age, had come to an abrupt halt and simply gawped down at her would-be patient. She clutched the apparatus so tightly, the rubber tubing compressed and the accordion threatened to collapse into uselessness. With her frizzled, strawlike hair and ashen complexion, she more resembled a patient than a healer. Why didn’t she do something? What was she waiting for?
“Nurse, help her,” Eva shouted. “Perhaps she can still be saved.”
That broke through the woman’s lethargy. She lurched forward, her feet crunching on china shards, and crouched beside Miss Finch. “Help me turn her.” Eva complied, summoning the strength to shift the rotund woman. But once accomplished it became all too apparent that nothing could be done for the headmistress.
“Her face, it’s already turning blue,” Lady Philomena
Albert whispered tremulously from a table away.
“Her fingernails, too,” added her companion, who hung with both hands onto Lady Philomena’s upper arm.
The nurse set down her breathing equipment and placed her fingertips against Miss Finch’s neck, as Eva had done. After a moment, she gestured at the tubing and pump. “I’m afraid we won’t be needing that.”
The coroner scribbled a few more notes in his tablet while a pair of assistants grunted beneath their burden as they lifted the stretcher bearing the headmistress’s body. They had covered her with a sheet, thank heavens. Eva still shuddered to think about poor Miss Finch staring up with sightless eyes from within her blue-tinged face. The speculation that had immediately spread among the students, staff, and luncheon guests alike had centered around three possibilities as the cause of death: stroke, heart attack, or, what Eva found most likely, choking. Miss Finch had been partial to almonds in her Madeira cake. Had one of them cost her her life?
The arrival of Chief Inspector Isaac Perkins and his assistant, Constable Brannock, a half hour later took everyone by surprise. A man in his middle years, Chief Inspector Perkins looked put out and irritable, no doubt from having his leisurely afternoon interrupted. He shuffled in, declaring the coroner a fussy old buzzard who didn’t know one end of his business from the other. “Nonetheless,” he added, “an inquest shall commence and I should appreciate every- one’s cooperation.”
“An inquest? What on earth for?” Miss Sedgewick had headed the man off in the entry hall and stood her ground. “Surely you’re not suggesting . . .”
With a shocked expression, she forewent finishing her question. Neither did the chief inspector deign to explain himself. He’d merely stepped around her and commandeered one of the administrative offices. Presently, he was questioning the ladies who had been seated at and near the head table, including Julia, Phoebe, and the Countess of Wroxly. The rest of the guests had been sent home, and those with students attending the school had taken their daughters with them.
No sooner had Lady Phoebe joined Eva back in the dining hall than the inspector’s assistant, Constable Bran- nock, asked to see them both together. The hairs at Eva’s nape bristled. The luncheon had been Lady Phoebe’s idea, and Eva had assisted in all the preparations. Were they suspected of something?
Constable Brannock must have noticed something in her expression, for he immediately put them at ease. “We worked well together last Christmas, didn’t we? I thought it best we put our heads together again.”
He didn’t say a word about his employer, Inspector Perkins, with his pocked nose and rheumy eyes—sure signs of a man who enjoys his whiskey. He didn’t have to. Last Christmas, an innocent man might have hanged if Constable Brannock hadn’t taken matters into his own hands— and hadn’t placed a certain amount of trust in Eva and Lady Phoebe.
“Tell me everything you remember,” he said to them now. “Every detail, no matter how small it may seem.”
They occupied Miss Finch’s office, sitting opposite one another at the desk. He had removed his high-domed police- man’s helmet, allowing waves of thick auburn hair to fall rakishly across his brow. In the window behind him, a vista of the school’s garden and, farther away, the athletic fields and outbuildings, stretched into the distance among trees and hedges wearing the pale greens of spring. Eva thought the pastoral scene outside made a pleasing contrast to the harsh lines of his uniform as well as a colorful frame for his bright hair and keen blue eyes.
Eyes that missed nothing, she reminded herself. Though she had done nothing wrong, something about Miles Bran- nock always made her feel somehow . . . under a microscope.
“As I told the chief inspector,” Lady Phoebe began, but Miles Brannock immediately interrupted.
“Forget what you said to Inspector Perkins. Pretend you’ve talked to no one prior to now. What was the first thing you noticed from the moment Miss Finch appeared to be in distress?”
Phoebe glanced over at Eva, and Eva nodded with a smile of encouragement. She, too, had been questioned by the inspector, but only briefly. Since she had been watching from a distance, Inspector Perkins had deemed her observations insignificant and summarily dismissed her. And as for Lady Phoebe, the man seemed to assume events had left her too distraught to be of much help as a witness.
“Well . . .” Lady Phoebe’s brows knitted. “She seemed perfectly fine throughout most of the luncheon. Except . . .”
“Yes?” The constable’s pencil hovered above his notepad.
“Her color wasn’t good, but then it never is.”
“Are you referring to the blue tint to her complexion?” “No, sir. Miss Finch was ruddy—always ruddy. And she huffed and snuffled and . . .” “
Yes, my lady? And what?”
“I’m not painting a flattering picture,” she murmured. “One shouldn’t speak ill of the dead.”
Constable Brannock laid down his pencil. “My lady, nothing you say can hurt Miss Finch now, but might help shed light on how she died.”
Eva couldn’t help herself from blurting her thoughts aloud. “We haven’t been told anything, but can we not assume from your presence that foul play is suspected?”
The constable held Eva in his gaze for a long, uncomfortable moment. She had spoken out of turn. Were Lady Phoebe any other but a kind and tolerant mistress, she would have received a reprimand. For instance, had she been sitting beside Lady Julia in similar circumstances . . . well.
But she received no reprimand from either Lady Phoebe or the constable. Quite the contrary. His gaze softened— ironically making her more uncomfortable still—and he leaned with his elbows on the desk. “I can’t tell you anything on the record. But off the record . . . because of the blue tinge to her skin and beneath her fingernails, the coroner suspects poison, and so do I.”
Lady Phoebe’s manicured hand flew to her lips. Eva’s mouth dropped open as she processed this information.
“I assumed she choked on something,” Eva said after a moment. “Or perhaps had a heart attack.”
“As did I,” Lady Phoebe said, “which is why I mentioned her color. As I started to tell you, she huffed when she walked and snuffed while she ate. I sat beside her, so I heard. I found it rather annoying, I’m ashamed to say, but it led me to believe she perhaps suffered from asthma, or as Eva said, a weak heart. Either of those conditions would ex- plain her struggle to catch her breath. I’ve read that a full- on asthma attack can completely close the airways.
Never did we suspect . . . my goodness . . .” Her gaze lighted on Eva. “Not another murder.”
Copyright © 2016 Alyssa Maxwell.
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Alyssa Maxwell knew from an early age that she wanted to be a novelist. Growing up in New England and traveling to Great Britain fueled a passion for history, while a love of puzzles of all kinds drew her to the mystery genre. She and her husband reside in Florida, where she loves to watch BBC productions, sip tea in the afternoons, and delve into the past. You can learn more about Alyssa and her books at www.alyssamaxwell.com.