Murder Is for Keeps by Elizabeth J. Duncan is the 8th book in the Penny Brannigan Mystery series (available May 2, 2017).
Local artist Penny Brannigan has been spending her summer painting Gwrych Castle and its surrounding landscapes. A privately owned, castellated Welsh country house, Gwrych has been sadly neglected for decades and is in a heartbreaking state of disrepair. So when she learns architectural historian Mark Baker is leading a team of enthusiastic volunteers to restore the castle grounds and gardens to their former grandeur, Penny is thrilled.
But it’s not long before disagreements over the restoration turn deadly, and Penny is horrified to discover the body of a volunteer hidden in a castle outbuilding. Penny enlists her friend Gareth Davies, recently retired from the North Wales Police Service, to help investigate. As the two dig deeper into the castle's history, including its glamorous heyday in the 1920s, they find startling connections between an old, unsolved murder and Gareth's own family, and as they solve the present-day murder, Penny recovers a stunning piece of the castle's architectural heritage.
The slender, fit woman with the red hair picked her way along the rough path, placing her feet carefully to avoid falling. The pathway, with occasional small rocks jutting through the hard-packed, dark soil, was much easier to negotiate now than it had been just a few weeks earlier. Then, it had been choked with weeds and enclosed on both sides by prickly branches and great masses of thorny brambles that had scratched and clawed at her legs.
Burdened with painting supplies in both hands, she was unable to extend her arms for balance so she took her time on the gentle downward slope. At the bottom of the narrow path, she set off on a wider, smoother pathway that led past the main building of Gwrych Castle, an immense late-Georgian castellated mansion. Or what was left of it. Now, it was an abandoned, ruined shell of its former Gothic self, shrouded in decades of neglect but yet somehow maintaining the silent, faded dignity of its long-ago grandeur.
A pointed stone arch draped in ivy, set into an exterior wall that heralded the approach to the castle’s main building, beckoned her forward. When she reached it, the woman set down her easel and painting case and pulled a water bottle out of her backpack. It was cooler here in the shade, and she took a long drink as she admired the framed view through the arch. This was as close as she could get to what had been the magnificent manor house of the Bamford-Hesketh family for just three generations, ending with the death of the builder’s granddaughter, Winifred, Countess of Dundonald, in 1924. The property then passed out of the family, but was bought by her widower a few years later and then sold in 1946.
The structure was surrounded by tall, strong fencing, clearly marked with red and black DANGER signs. Through the ornate but lifeless cast-iron window frames, the stained glass they once held smashed long ago, she could just make out bits of faded, peeling plaster, and she mourned the loss of what would once have been magnificent, formal rooms. Even from this distance, she could almost smell the damp and decay.
Penny Brannigan had spent the earlier part of the afternoon sketching one of the castle’s eighteen towers and now, with the front of the castle bathed in a burst of mid-afternoon sunlight throwing it into stark relief against the heavy shadows of the trees behind it, she made her way down to the main terrace level.
The terrace, with a sweeping, buttressed wall overlooking the parkland below, stretched for two thousand feet along the front of the spread-out conglomerate of buildings that made up the complicated castle site. The wall, like the tops of the towers and many of the buildings, featured a crenellated pattern along the top—notches or indentations that provided a distinctive medieval castle look. She passed a massive cast-iron window frame, all that remained of the conservatory, leaning against a tower and paused to peer over the wall. Below her, the team of workers who had volunteered to clear away decades of weeds and wild overgrowth, some of them still wearing fluorescent lime-green, high-visibility vests, were locking up their tools in a large, dark green metal shipping container.
One of them looked up and upon seeing her, waved.
She raised her hand and waved back. In his early thirties, Mark Baker was an architectural historian and author with a growing reputation and was the driving force behind the restoration work of the castle gardens and the least damaged of the buildings. She’d met him a couple of months ago at an art exhibit opening and was impressed by his dedication and determination. When he’d mentioned an upcoming fund-raising auction, she’d offered to donate a couple of watercolours of the castle, an offer that had been enthusiastically accepted.
The tools and high-viz vests safely stowed until next time, the volunteers changed out of their muddy work boots and Wellies, got in their cars and headed down the rough drive that led to the castle’s main gates and lodge, with the busy North Wales Expressway and town of Abergele beyond. Penny turned away from the balustrade and walked on a little farther until she reached her destination, a square, three-storey building called the Melon House, which stood at the western end of the castle.
Named in the 1840s by the Victorian gardeners who grew exotic fruits like melons, grapes, and pineapples within its walls, the Melon House, like the rest of the castle, showed the effects of long-term neglect. Its roof had collapsed, the door was long gone, and the building stood empty, just stone walls and a rough stone floor. Nearby, the dying ashes of a bonfire in which workers had been burning brush continued to smolder.
Penny set up her easel and stool slightly to one side of the building and began to sketch, capturing the simplicity of the building’s square symmetry in broad, confident strokes. Half an hour later, satisfied with her work, she tucked the sketch in her carrying case, folded her stool and easel, stood up, and stretched. She shook each leg in turn to work out the stiffness and gathered up her artist’s supplies. Although several hours of daylight remained, now that the last of the volunteers had left, she realized she should, too.
The peaceful quiet of a summer’s afternoon, broken only by birdsong, had fallen over the estate as she walked to the balustrade to drink in one last time the stunning views of Liverpool Bay and beyond and away to the sparkling waters of the Irish Sea.
She lowered her eyes to the unpaved roadway below her. One vehicle remained. A black pickup truck. She looked to her right, and then turning slowly, surveyed the entire breadth of the castle towers and bastions that ran along the hillside. She saw no movement, no distinctive flash of a fluorescent vest. She saw no one.
She returned to the Melon House and walked round to the back, examining the woodland area of old yew, laurel, and pine trees, but again, saw no one. With a growing sense of unease she returned to the front of the house and once more contemplated the truck. It was unlikely that a volunteer could have fallen or become injured because everyone worked in teams; no one was permitted to work alone. The truck could belong to someone not associated with the work going on here, but because several structures were unsafe, areas were closed off with high metal fencing, stark black-and-white NO ENTRY signs were posted everywhere, and the public wasn’t allowed in except on special Open Days or as part of small, accompanied tour groups. She was allowed in to sketch only with Mark’s permission and had remained behind today with his approval after the others had left. Of course, vandals and trespassers ignored the signs and entered the grounds all the time, and as the afternoon was drawing to a close, that was another reason for her to leave.
She pulled a pair of small binoculars out of her canvas bag and scanned the grounds one last time, looking for someone who had perhaps stayed behind to finish a task. Except for the extensive canopy of tree branches swaying gently in the July breeze, nothing stirred, until a rusty red blur emerged from the dense woodland behind the castle. It moved with a swift, agile gait, carrying its bushy white-tipped tail horizontal to the ground, as it headed in the direction of the stable yard. A fox, she thought with delight. She hadn’t thought of including a fox in her painting, but now that she’d seen one, she would. Deciding there was nothing she could do about the owner of the truck and that it was time to call it a day, she tucked the binoculars back in the bag, gathered up her art supplies, and prepared to set off on the walk to the castle gates to wait for her ride home.
And then, she impulsively decided to see if she could catch a closer glimpse of the fox, so she headed in the other direction, back toward the main building and veered round behind the massive structure into the stable yard. Once a busy part of the operational heart of the estate, the stable yard, or stable court as it was sometimes called, included several connected buildings constructed from the same limestone as the castle. The stables themselves were now open to the elements; the entrances to other buildings, including what had been the blacksmith’s workshop and the coach house, were boarded up. Opposite the stables, a small building featured three arched ground-level openings, like half barrels, about shoulder-height. These would once have had metal grilles on the front, and were the original kennels. A perfect place for a fox to hide, or even set up a den, Penny thought. She set her art supplies on the cobblestones, and holding onto the arch at the top of a kennel for support, lowered her head and peered in. It was empty, except for a pile of dead leaves banked against the rough stone wall. She moved on to the next kennel, the middle one.
Something glinted a short distance from the entrance. She leaned over for a closer look. The daylight reached only a little way into the kennel and in the dimness she could just make out the silver stripes on a high-visibility vest. She pulled her mobile phone out of her jacket pocket and crouched into the kennel, covering her mouth against the damp, fetid smell of rotting leaves, aiming the beam of her phone toward the vest. The light was just strong enough to reveal the vest was fastened round a dark shape that looked like a navy blue fleece. She got down on her hands and knees and swept the space with the light from her phone, releasing a frightened gasp when it revealed a head of short brown curls belonging to a figure lying on its side with its back to her. She shook the shoulders gently and said, “Hey! What are you doing in here? Are you all right?” The body of a man rolled slowly onto its back, its open eyes gazing unseeingly at the curved stone roof of the structure.
She crawled backward out of the kennel, sat down heavily on the cobblestones, dialed the police, and waited.
After what seemed an eternity, the distant rise and fall of sirens announced the approach of the North Wales police.
Copyright © 2017 Elizabeth J. Duncan.
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Elizabeth J. Duncan is a winner of the Bloody Words Best Light Mystery Award and has been a finalist for the Agatha and Arthur Ellis Awards. Her books include The Cold Light of Mourning, A Brush with Death, and A Killer's Christmas in Wales. She has worked as a writer and editor for some of Canada’s largest newspapers, including the Ottawa Citizen and Hamilton Spectator. Duncan is a faculty member of the Humber School for Writers. She lives in Toronto, Canada and enjoys spending time each year in North Wales.