An Act of Villainy: New Excerpt
An Act of Villainy by Ashley Weaver is the fifth book in the Amory Ames Mystery series, set in 1930s London and filled with style, banter, and twists that traditional mystery fans will positively relish.
“So you’ve gotten yourself involved with another murder, have you?”
Walking through London’s West End after a night at the theater, Amory Ames and her husband Milo run into wealthy investor and former actor Gerard Holloway. Holloway and his wife Georgina are old friends of theirs, and when Holloway invites them to the dress rehearsal of a new play he is directing, Amory readily accepts.
However, Amory is shocked to learn that Holloway has cast his mistress, actress Flora Bell, in the lead role. Furthermore, the casual invitation is not what it seems―he admits to Amory and Milo that Flora has been receiving threatening letters, and he needs their help in finding the mysterious sender. Despite Amory’s conflicting feelings―not only does she feel loyalty to Georgina, but the disintegration of the Holloways’ perfect marriage seems to bode ill for her own sometimes delicate relationship―her curiosity gets the better of her, and she begins to make inquiries.
It quickly becomes clear that each member of the cast has reason to resent Flora―and with a group so skilled in the art of deception, it isn’t easy to separate truth from illusion. When vague threats escalate, the scene is set for murder, and Amory and Milo must find the killer before the final curtain falls.
LONDON, JUNE 1933
MURDER IN FICTION is not nearly as thrilling as murder in real life.
This wicked thought slipped unbidden into my mind as my husband, Milo, and I exited a West End theatre after a performance of Death Comes at Midnight, an original drama sorely lacking originality.
My dearth of enthusiasm was not entirely the fault of the play. Truth be told, I rather suspected the blame should be laid at the feet of my recent endeavors in detection. I had found myself immersed in several mysteries as of late and, in consequence, the play’s puzzle had proven less than enthralling.
It hadn’t helped matters that Milo had, annoyingly, deduced the culprit and his motives not twenty minutes into the first act, and I had spent the remainder of the performance hoping that he would be proven wrong.
“Perhaps you’ll guess the killer correctly next time, darling,” he said, deducing my thoughts as easily as he had the solution to the play.
“It was too obvious,” I retorted. “I was looking for a cleverer motive.”
“Ah, I see,” he replied with a smile.
“Mysteries are rarely ever that straightforward, as you well know.”
“All the same, it’s nice to take part in a mystery where loaded guns aren’t being waved about,” he answered dryly.
“I suppose,” I said, though I still felt attempting to solve a fictional crime was disappointing in comparison to the real thing.
I took Milo’s arm and we walked along Shaftesbury Avenue, making our way through the crowds of people coming out of other theatres into the brightly lit streets. It was a lovely evening, clear and cool, and I was glad that we had decided to walk to a restaurant in Covent Garden rather than take a cab. There was something magical about strolling through this part of town late at night, surrounded by other theatregoers, all of us laughing and talking about the performances we had just seen.
“I say, Milo Ames, is that you?”
We stopped and turned at the sound of the voice behind us.
It was Gerard Holloway, an old friend of Milo’s. He came toward us through the crowd, smiling.
“It is you. And Mrs. Ames. How delightful.” It did not escape my notice that he had not been certain it would be me on my husband’s arm. Milo’s reputation had been less than sterling in the past, and I suspected Mr. Holloway had encountered Milo on other occasions when I had not been the woman in his company.
“How are you, Holloway?” Milo asked.
“Never better,” he said.
I had always liked Gerard Holloway. He cut a dashing figure. Tall and well built, he had a handsome, friendly face with a thin dark moustache above a mouth that was generally smiling. His pleasant appearance was complemented by his amiable disposition. The youngest of an earl’s four sons, he had had the liberty to eschew duty and politics and had devoted his energies and wealth to a more creative milieu. He was a patron of the arts, known to frequent the theatre district, and was often looked to as the last word on the current trends in London theatre.
“Have you been to a play?” he asked.
“Yes, we’ve just seen Death Comes at Midnight,” I told him.
“Of course. A mystery. That’s rather in your line, isn’t it?” he said with a smile. It had not escaped society’s notice that Milo and I had been entangled in more than one murder investigation, and we had yet to live down our reputation. “How did you like it?”
“A bit predictable,” Milo said.
“I thought the same,” Mr. Holloway said. “It’s only meant to be light entertainment, of course, so I suppose one shouldn’t judge too harshly. But so many plays these days aren’t what they used to be. I hope to do something on that score, however. I’m producing a new play of my own, The Price of Victory.”
“Yes, I heard something about that,” Milo said. “Wrote it yourself, didn’t you?”
“Yes. The script’s given me a devil of a time, but we’ve smoothed it over.” He was warming to the subject now, the spark of enthusiasm gleaming in his dark eyes. “We’ve got Christopher Landon, quite a rising star, as our lead man. And Balthazar Lebeau in a supporting role.”
“Lebeau is still acting, is he?” Milo asked.
“In a manner of speaking. Half the time, I don’t know how the man manages to put one foot in front of the other, let alone turn out a decent performance, but his name still holds a certain sway. Besides, we have a bit of a history, and I feel I owe him a chance. Anyway, I think it’s going to be a great success. We’ll be opening this weekend. I hope you’ll come and see it.”
“We’d like that very much,” I said, though I knew that Milo would probably be annoyed with me later for having agreed to see a play we would be required to praise, whatever its merits. My husband had very little patience for such things, and, even though Mr. Holloway was an old friend, I knew Milo would likely try to get out of attending.
“Good, good,” Mr. Holloway said. “We’ve been working very hard on it. It’s rather my pet project. That’s why I decided to direct it as well. It’s my first time at the helm, so to speak. I’m afraid I’m making a nuisance of myself about every last detail, but so far they haven’t kicked me out.”
Such a thing was unlikely, given that he had no doubt financed the entire venture. Mr. Holloway was incredibly wealthy, and, in addition to his interest in London’s art world, he and his wife were involved in numerous charities throughout the city.
“How is Georgina?” I asked. It had been some time since I had seen Mrs. Holloway, though, over the years, we had formed a warm friendship through mutual social engagements and had worked on several charity committees together.
A strange expression flickered almost imperceptibly across his face, and he hesitated ever so slightly. “She’s quite well.”
“I’m glad to hear it. It’s been a while since I’ve seen her. I’ll have to ring her up.”
“Yes, I’m sure she’d like that,” he said. “Well, I’m afraid I must be off, but I do hope you’ll come to the play.”
“Thank you,” I told him. “We’ll look forward to it.”
He hesitated, as though he wanted to say something else. Then he added, “And, Ames, perhaps we might have a drink together soon?”
“Perhaps at my club? Are you free tomorrow afternoon? Say three o’clock?”
“Yes, I think so,” Milo said. “I’ll stop by.”
“Excellent,” he said. “I’ll see you then. Good evening, Mrs. Ames.”
He tipped his hat then and left us.
“Laid that on a bit thick, didn’t you?” Milo said mildly as I took his arm again and we resumed walking.
As I had anticipated, he was less than pleased that I had agreed to attend an amateur performance. “I couldn’t very well refuse his invitation,” I pointed out. “It’s only one evening; it won’t hurt to attend. Besides, you know Gerard Holloway never does things in half measures. I’m sure it will be a good play.”
“That’s not what I mean,” he said.
I was suddenly confused. “Well, what do you mean?”
“Asking about Georgina.”
I hadn’t the faintest idea what he was getting at. “Why shouldn’t I have asked about her?”
“Because Gerard Holloway’s new play just happens to star his mistress.”
I stopped walking and turned to face him. “What?”
He smiled. “My sweet, innocent darling. You really didn’t know?”
“No,” I said, genuinely shocked. Perhaps it was dreadfully naïve of me, especially given the less than perfect state my own marriage had once been in, but I still managed to be rather taken aback at the rampant infidelity in our social circle.
“It’s been the talk of London. She’s the theatre’s newest darling, as well as Holloway’s. Flora Bell, she calls herself. I’m rather surprised you haven’t heard something about it.”
I had long ago developed an aversion to the gossip columns. I could find no amusement in the troubles of others.
“It did cross my mind that he didn’t mention the female lead in his play,” I said. “And I thought he looked a bit strange when I asked about Georgina.”
“I expect he thought you were pointedly mentioning her.”
“I hope he did,” I replied. “Someone ought to remind him of her. Poor Georgina. She must be dreadfully upset.”
Of all the couples that I knew, the Holloways were perhaps the last I would have expected to have this sort of trouble. The pair had been a love match. They had married young and had always seemed very much devoted to each other. Their romance had, in fact, been the sort of fairy tale young women dreamed about. They had grown up together and suddenly found one day that they were in love. After an opulent wedding that had been the talk of London, he had whisked her away on a summer-long wedding trip, and that had only been the beginning. From then on, they had traveled to countless exotic locales, doing all manner of adventurous things.
Whenever I had seen them together, I had admired their relationship. I had often noticed between them the little unspoken hints of affection that truly happy couples shared, the subtle gestures and glances that spoke volumes. It was astounding to me that he had taken a mistress.
I didn’t know why, but this news felt like something of a personal blow.
“She needn’t worry,” Milo said lightly. “These things never last.”
I felt a little pang of sadness at this careless comment. Milo would know about such things, of course. But the knowledge that an affair would be short-lived did not make it any easier for the wife in question. Georgina was a strong woman, and I knew it was not likely she would take her husband’s infidelity in stride. This could very well be the end of the Holloways’ marriage.
“It may not last,” I said quietly, “but the consequences of it surely will.”
I didn’t look at him, but I saw him glance my way out of the corner of his eye. He was aware, I knew, that I was thinking of the impact of past scandals upon our own marriage. We had surmounted our difficulties and the past was not something I liked to dwell on, but I could not help but feel exceedingly sorry for Georgina Holloway.
We let the subject drop as we reached the restaurant, but I was feeling much less carefree than I had been a few moments before.
I ought to have recognized the feeling then, but I didn’t. Couched as it was, in the guise of concern about my friend’s connubial disharmony, I am ashamed to say I hadn’t an inkling that my unsettled feeling meant we were on the precipice of another mystery.
Copyright © 2018 Ashley Weaver.