Buried in the Country is book #4 in the Cornish Mystery series (Available December 13, 2016).
After many years working around the world for an international charity in the late 1960s, Eleanor Trewynn has retired to the relative quiet of a small town in Cornwall. But her quiet life is short-lived when, due to her experience, the Commonwealth Relations Office reaches out to her to assist in a secret conference that is to take place in a small hotel outside the historical village of Tintagel.
Meanwhile, her niece, Detective Sargent Megan Pencarrow, is investigating the disappearance of a local solicitor when she is assigned to help provide security for the conference. Two African students, refugees from Ian Smith’s Rhodesia, arrive for the conference, escorted by Megan’s bête noire from Scotland Yard. They are followed by two mysterious and sinister Londoners, whose allegiances and connections to the conference and the missing solicitor are unclear. With a raging storm having trapped everyone in the hotel, the stage is set for murder, and it’s up to Eleanor and Megan to uncover the truth before more lives are lost.
Eleanor was halfway down the stairs when she heard the phone ring in her flat above. She hesitated for a moment. Teazle, already at the bottom, gave a sharp yip of impatience, but the little Westie had been out once today so she wasn’t desperate. Eleanor had a few minutes to spare. The lawyer’s office was less than five minutes’ walk.
As she turned to go back up, Eleanor was sure the ringing would stop before she reached the phone, especially when she discovered that, for once, she had remembered to lock her door. But the brrr-brrr continued, even while she searched her pockets for the key, opened the door, and crossed her small sitting room to the counter that separated it from the tiny kitchen.
Brrr-brrr: Someone really wanted to talk to her. She lifted the receiver and gave her number.
“Mrs. Trewynn? Eleanor Trewynn?” A woman’s voice, crisply impersonal, exuding patient determination.
“Yes,” Eleanor admitted cautiously. “Who’s speaking?”
“Sir Edward Bellowe’s personal secretary, Mrs. Trewynn. At the Commonwealth Relations Office. Just a moment, I’ll put you through.”
Before her husband’s death and her retirement to her little cottage in Cornwall, Eleanor had been ambassador-at-large for an international charity, the London Save the Starving Council. In that capacity she had travelled the world, persuading local officials from village chieftains to national leaders that LonStar was not an imperialist plot.
Her success was not regarded with universal approbation at the CRO, jealous of their turf, but Sir Edward had long been one of her supporters. He had even called on her services, unofficially, at one of the peace conferences that had ended the Nigerian civil war.
“Good morning, Sir Edward. What can I do for you?”
“Good morning. Before I forget, Gina sends her love.”
His wife, Georgina, was a dear friend. Softening me up, Eleanor thought. “Please give her mine.”
“Of course, of course. Er, I wondered whether you might have a few days free at the beginning of next month?”
“I might. I’d have to check my diary. What did you have in mind?”
“If you’re available, I’d rather explain that by letter. We want to keep the business quiet, if possible. We’re rather sensitive to the possibility of spies.”
“Spies?” Eleanor’s mind wandered to some of the current Commonwealth trouble spots: Sri Lanka—Sinhalese Buddhists against the Hindu Tamils? Pakistan—East versus West? Northern Rhodesia—blacks repressed by minority whites? Cyprus—Greeks against Turks? There were all too many.
She caught the tail end of what Sir Edward was saying: “… on the Friday?”
“This coming Friday? No, you said early March?”
“The first weekend.”
“Oh yes. Are we talking about London, or your place in the Scillies?”
“I’ll let you know in the letter. If you’re free?”
“Hold on a mo. Let me find my diary.” She looked round the sitting room and spotted her handbag on one of the chairs by the fireplace. A few days in London at the government’s expense would make a nice change, she thought, setting down the receiver and fetching the bag.
As she picked it up, Teazle gave an approving, hopeful whuff, but when she returned to the telephone, the little dog sent her a reproachful look, curled up in a fluffy white ball, and went to sleep.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Sorry, I was talking to the dog. Just a minute.” One-handed, she dug through the contents of the handbag. “Here it is. March. First weekend … Nothing that can’t be postponed.” On the other hand, though the Bellowes’ house was extremely comfortable and March was a beautiful time of year to visit the Scillies, spring storms sometimes cut off the islands from the mainland, by both sea and air, for days. One might find oneself stuck amid antagonists at daggers drawn.…
“… get it tomorrow or the next day. Give me a ring, reverse charges, of course, when you make up your mind.”
Eleanor promised to do so and they said their good-byes. At the click of the receiver being set down, Teazle instantly awoke and trotted to the door.
“All right, we’re going.” Now where had she put her shopping basket?
She found it on the landing outside the door, where she had dropped it while fumbling for the key. Teazle scampered ahead as she set off down the stairs again.
The ground floor had been converted into a LonStar charity shop when Eleanor bought the cottage, so she wasn’t taken aback to see a complete stranger in the passage. Teazle startled the woman, though. She scuttled into the volunteers’ lavatory under the stairs before Eleanor could introduce herself.
It was probably just as well. The phone call had taken longer than expected and had already made her late for her appointment with Mr. Freeth. The dog leashed, she hurried past the loo and through the door to the street.
As if to contradict her misgivings about early March in the Scillies, the sun was shining and no trace of a breeze stirred the mild air, full of the smells of seaweed, tar, and the bakery on the opposite side of the narrow road. They turned right, downhill past the front of the LonStar shop. Nick was in the window of his gallery next door, arranging a couple of paintings. Teazle headed for his shop door, but Eleanor had no time for a chat. She and Nick waved to each other.
On the way down the street, she exchanged brief greetings with several people without slowing her footsteps. As she crossed the old stone bridge over the stream, an ancient mariner, sunning himself on the low parapet, stopped her to warn her—his Cornish accent as thick as clotted cream—not to be taken in by the day’s warmth.
Gazing out over the small, cliff-sheltered harbour with its stone quay to the blue sea and sky beyond, he said, “There do be a storm a-brewin’ out yonder, my lover. Gales afore mornin’, you mark my words. Don’t ’ee go to sea.”
Eleanor promised not to go to sea, thanked him for his advice, and walked on, once again reflecting uneasily on the Scilly Islands in March. A pair of supercilious herring gulls perched on the opposite parapet eyed her, then noticed Teazle and flew off screaming imprecations.
Halfway up the opposite slope stood one of Port Mabyn’s largest structures. Built into the hill, on three levels, it had originally been a pair of houses with two front doors. Now it was split horizontally, the lower door leading to the offices of Freeth and Bulwer, Solicitors. Upstairs was the partners’ residence. Eleanor had been there for drinks several times, and for a couple of dinner parties. She remembered the sitting and dining rooms as comfortable but unremarkable except for one of Nick’s abstract paintings in the place of honour over the fireplace.
Eleanor was acquainted with Freeth and Bulwer’s secretary, a large, cheerful woman with improbably red hair. They had met now and then, here and there about the village, including in the LonStar shop.
“Hello, Mrs. Trewynn. Lovely day for the time of year.”
“Isn’t it? I’m going to take the dog for a walk on the cliffs when I’m finished here.”
“Seize your chance before the storms roll in. Mr. Freeth is ready for you now.”
“He won’t mind if Teazle—?”
“You know he won’t. Go right in.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Raleigh.”
Mr. Freeth came towards the door to greet her with a welcoming smile and an outstretched hand. A slight man of middling age and height, wearing a grey tweed suit, a white shirt, and a grey-and-black-striped tie, his most distinctive features were heavy-framed glasses and sandy hair thinning into a pronounced widow’s peak. His smile was friendly and cheerful, though in repose his face had a melancholy cast.
He and Eleanor shook hands. He seated her, bent to tousle Teazle for a moment, then returned behind his desk.
“I just need your signature on a couple of papers, Mrs. Trewynn. It’s the same business as last year, regarding the use of part of your house as a charitable enterprise. The government changes the regulations by a few words now and then, and we want to make sure everything is up-to-date. Would you like to read them? Or I can summarise for you.”
Peter would have said she ought to read every word, fine print included. But Peter was gone, killed by a rioting mob in a far corner of the world, and Alan Freeth had a sterling reputation. Not that sterling was what it used to be.
“Please, I forgot to bring my reading glasses. If you don’t mind?”
“Not a bit. This one just affirms that you receive no rent nor other valuable consideration for LonStar’s occupation of the ground floor of your premises.”
Eleanor signed. The whole business was finished in ten minutes.
“You’ll send your account?”
“Consider it a donation to LonStar, Mrs. Trewynn.”
“That’s very kind of you. Come on, Teazle, walkies.”
“Enjoy yourselves. It’s a pity to waste such a beautiful day, especially at this time of year. I wish I could go with you.”
Eleanor commiserated. Having more than once met him out on the cliffs, she knew him for a vigorous hiker. He ought to get a dog, she thought. He was rarely accompanied by Mr. Bulwer’s tall, stooped figure, his partner being of a more intellectual and contemplative nature.
As she toiled after Teazle up the steep, stony path, helped here and there by steps cut into the rock, Eleanor took off her windbreaker and tied it round her waist. The February day was turning out almost hot!
Misleadingly hot. Storms could blow up with little or no notice. She really didn’t fancy the Scillies in March. She could always decline Sir Edward’s invitation, but then, supposing negotiations failed and war ensued, she would always wonder guiltily whether her presence might have tipped the balance.
The ground levelled off into a sward of low, wiry green grass with stretches of taller hay-coloured tufts and frequent outcrops of rock. The lie of the land concealed the harbour below; on the far side of the inlet, Crookmoyle Head sloped up to the lighthouse at the tip.
Eleanor turned in the opposite direction. The curve of the horizon was a distinct line separating dark blue sea from pale blue sky. She walked on till she could look directly down the cliff, a sheer fall to wet rocks and frothing breakers. Beyond, a steady procession of waves rolled into Port Isaac Bay. Teazle stayed a prudent distance from the edge, sniffing after rabbits in the long grass.
A mile or so farther on, they came to one of Eleanor’s favourite spots for Aikido practice. Flat and smooth, it was hidden from the path by a granite outcrop taller than she was.
She disliked being watched, not that many walkers were to be expected in February. People were either fascinated or embarrassed to see a small woman with curly white hair apparently disco-dancing without music, in the middle of nowhere, all alone but for an equally small dog with equally curly white fur. It was an embarrassment she didn’t want to inflict on her friends, so she had told no one that she was a practitioner of one of the martial arts.
At her husband’s insistence, she had learned when she started travelling in some of the most dangerous parts of the world. They had chosen Aikido because of its emphasis on protecting oneself without hurting one’s attacker.
Though not expecting ever to have to use it in peaceful Cornwall, she continued to practise as often as possible for the benefits to body and mind. In fact, Aikido had come in useful a couple of times, not in far-off places but right here in Cornwall. Each time, her swift moves had taken no more than a few seconds, so brief a duration as to leave those present slightly puzzled at the outcome and still oblivious of her unusual skills.
Accustomed to her mistress’s antics, and uninterested, Teazle wandered off. She never went far. When Eleanor finished her practice, the Westie was lying nearby, nose on paws, ready to continue the walk.
Eleanor glanced at her watch. “Sorry, we’ll have to go back or the shops will be shut.” Did other people apologise and explain to their dogs? “I’ve had beans on toast for lunch two days running.”
Not that Teazle would understand the desire for a change, even if she understood the words. She happily ate the same tinned food almost every day.
Emerging from behind the sheltering rock, Eleanor felt a breeze on her face, stirring her hair. At the horizon, sea and sky merged into a milky haze. Old Mr. Penmadden’s prophesied storm was on the way. They retraced their steps down to the village.
As they passed the lawyers’ building, Mrs. Raleigh popped out, holding Eleanor’s shopping basket. “I’ve been watching for you. You left this behind.”
“Thank you! I hadn’t even missed it yet.”
“There’s a fishing boat just come in.” The secretary was noted for keeping a finger on Port Mabyn’s pulse. “If you like fish, it doesn’t come any fresher. Back to work. Bye-ee.” She retired to her desk in its vantage point at the window.
Eleanor made her way to the quay, where a smack was unloading dripping crates. A deck-hand rapidly filleted a couple of Dover sole for her. He threw the remains to the circling gulls, who caught the pieces in midair and squabbled over them. Teazle gave him a reproachful look.
Outside the greengrocer, they met Jocelyn. The vicar’s wife ran the LonStar shop, but she alternated days on duty with her second in command—and bitter rival—the wife of the minister of the Nonconformist Chapel.
“Good morning, Eleanor. I saw you down on the quay.”
“I bought some sole.”
“I was just going to get some.”
“It seemed like a good idea at the time. I’m never sure how to cook it, though.” Eleanor’s wandering life had not been conducive to the mastery of culinary skills. “Last time I grilled it, and it came out rather like shoe leather.”
“You’d better come up to the vicarage for lunch and I’ll cook it with ours to show you how.”
“Thank you, Joce, but I was going to invite Nick to—”
“Bring him with you. Are you going in here? They have some excellent leeks, but the lettuce is not fresh today.”
“I’ll get leeks,” Eleanor promised. She was very fond of Jocelyn, but her friend did tend to be bossy. It was usually easiest to follow her suggestions. “If you’ll show me how to cook them so that they don’t go mushy.”
“All right. You’d better come at one o’clock. I’ll pop in and invite Nicholas for half past.”
Eleanor hurried through her shopping so as to have time to change into a skirt. Joce had long since given up hinting that slacks were unbecoming to a woman of mature years, but she wouldn’t be seen dead in them herself. With a budget as meagre as Eleanor’s, she had an enviable knack amounting almost to genius for finding smart and suitable clothes among the donations to the shop.
Nick, as usual, turned up generously bedaubed with paint. He was abstracted throughout the meal. Though he roused himself to say how delicious it was, that was more innate politeness than real appreciation. Tim, the vicar, was, as always, gentle and vague. His occasional comments and questions concerned either his parishes and parishioners or some internal theological debate obscure to Eleanor. She and Jocelyn were left at liberty to discuss cooking, the shop, and the weather.
When Eleanor and Nick left the vicarage, storm clouds were building up in the southwest.
“Damn,” said Nick, “it looks as if we’re in for a drenching. I’d better move the car up the hill. Is the Incorruptible down by the stream?”
“Do you think it’ll flood?”
“Better safe than sorry. What a nuisance! I want to get back to the studio. It was nice of Mrs. Stearns to invite me, but the interruption—”
“You had to eat.”
He grinned. “Not necessarily. When things are flowing.”
“What are you painting?”
“Nielsen’s Four Temperaments Symphony.”
“Sorry I asked. Why don’t you give me the car key and I’ll drive yours up to the top parking? Teazle will enjoy riding up and walking down twice.”
“When you put it like that … Are you sure?”
“Of course,” said Eleanor. “After a lunch like that, I need the exercise.”
Since finding a market for his serious pictures in London, Nick had splurged on a Morris Minor Traveller, a “Woodie.” Though secondhand, it was considerably younger than Eleanor’s pea green Morris Minor “Moggie.” She enjoyed driving a car that didn’t rattle and groan going uphill, as the Incorruptible did.
The space in the back was big enough to lay flat even Nick’s largest canvases. It would hold much larger donations when she went on her foraging expeditions, she mused. Could she justify—or afford—a newer, larger car?
Not really, she decided with a sigh as she parked the Traveller in the lot at the upper end of the village.
She and Teazle walked down through the opes, the maze of steps and passageways that gave access to all the houses not fronting the single street. In the tiny sheltered gardens, early daffodils swayed in the freshening breeze, often surrounded by a carpet of purple, yellow, and white crocuses.
The dog was perfectly happy to climb into the Incorruptible and repeat the trip. On the way down, a gust of wind threw a spatter of rain at them.
* * *
The next morning, it was still raining, a determined drizzle that seemed set in for the day. The meadow by the stream was underwater, but the bridge was unaffected and the post arrived at the usual time. With it came the expected letter from Sir Edward.
It was in an unofficial envelope, addressed by hand. Only the initials on the back flap told Eleanor whom it was from. He was serious about secrecy, she realised. She mustn’t tell even Jocelyn, who had brought up her post after noticing it on the floor inside the street door in the passage below.
“Something interesting?” she asked.
“What? Oh, sorry! No, not particularly.”
Joce gave her a sceptical look. “I must get back to the shop. I’ll leave you to read it in peace. You won’t be out collecting today, I imagine. There’ll be water all over the roads. I wondered if you could lend a hand in the stockroom for a while? Miss Macy sent word she has a cold and won’t be in.”
“Yes, of course.” She wasn’t permitted to serve in the shop, as she had only to look at the cash register for it to stop functioning. “I’ll be down in half an hour or so.”
As the door closed behind the vicar’s wife, Eleanor tore open the envelope. Tintagel! They were to meet just a few miles up the coast, at the King Arthur Hotel, a massive Victorian excrescence about half a mile from the centre of the village. Perched on the cliffs overlooking the castle ruins, it was generally regarded as a blot on the landscape. These days it would certainly not have got planning permission.
Though exposed to the weather, it was at least accessible. Sir Edward confessed that he had wanted to go to the Scillies, but in view of the stormy long-term weather forecasts, Gina had put her foot down. She would act as hostess.
If Eleanor would arrange to arrive on Friday afternoon, in time for tea, it would be much appreciated.
That was all. No hint as to which particular conflict was to be the object of their efforts at reconciliation. Even Sir Edward, it appeared, considered Eleanor’s function to be nothing more than spreading sweetness and light, as Gina’s was to make sure the accommodations were in order and everyone was comfortable.
Eleanor would have liked a chance to prepare her thoughts in advance for whatever knotty situation she was about to plunge into. She was annoyed.
“Ssshh, don’t use that name.”
“Sorry. You’d better come on in.”
“What a dump. Sunk in the world, haven’t you.”
“It’s not my fault.”
“How much a week are you blowing on the Devil’s wheel, mate?”
“Not that much. It’s hard to find a straight wheel in London, and I can’t afford to go back to the Riviera. When did you get out?”
“Couple of days ago. I’ve been looking for your sister.”
“That’s bloody obvious, innit. You always were a fool. Dunno why your old man wasted his money sending you to that fancy school. Heard he died while I was inside?”
“That’s a shame. Smartest man in the business, and not flashy. Never once suspected, was he? Must have put away a packet. So how come you’re living in this dump?”
“I went down for another stretch. Just a few months, but he said if I couldn’t make a go of it straight or crooked, he washed his hands of me.”
“Don’t whine. It’s pathetic. Gets on my nerves.”
“Does this mean you can’t pay what your old man owed me for the last haul before I was sent down? The interest’s been mounting up while I’ve been on the Moor, you know.”
“Not my problem. My father left the lot to my sister. She sends me an allowance, barely enough to scrape by.”
“Ah, now that makes me even keener to talk to her. Where is she?”
“I don’t know.”
“Pull the other one.”
“She moved while I was inside and she never told me. Buried herself in the country somewhere. Said she didn’t want me hanging about.”
“I don’t blame her. But you must have some idea where she is, if she’s sending money.”
“I get cheques in the post.”
“What’s the postmark? Where’s the bank?”
“I never looked.”
“God, don’t you have any initiative?”
“There didn’t seem much point. She wouldn’t give me an extra penny if I went on bended knee.”
“We’ll see about that. Meantime, I hope that couch is comfortable, because you’ll be sleeping on it till the next cheque arrives. Got any smokes? And a beer would go down a fair treat.”
“You know I only drink vodka.”
“That’s right, keep your breath clean for the ladies. Have to step out for some Guinness, then, won’t you, mate?”
Copyright © 2016 Carola Dunn.
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Carola Dunn is the author of many previous mysteries featuring Daisy Dalrymple, including the recent Heirs of the Body, as well as numerous historical novels. Born and raised in England, she lives in Eugene, Oregon.