Murder on the Hour by Elizabeth J. Duncan is the 7th Penny Brannigan Mystery (Available April 12, 2016).
The residents of Llanelen are brimming with excitement. Antiques Cymru, a regional take on the popular national TV show, is coming to the Welsh town and people are flocking from miles around, hoping their attic treasures turn out to be worth a fortune. On the day of filming, quiet local sheep farmer Haydn Williams brings a generations-old long-case clock for evaluation, while the woman he's always admired from afar, Catrin Bellis, turns up with a cherished handmade quilt. Will either hear surprising good news about the value of their family heirlooms? By the end of the day, Catrin turns up dead, her quilt missing.
Who could have wanted this shy, quiet woman – who had been overshadowed by her parents for her whole life – dead? Delving into Catrin's past, spa owner and amateur sleuth Penny Brannigan is surprised to discover that Catrin had at least one enemy. And as Penny's romantic life heats up with a new love interest, she realizes that a mysterious document hidden in Haydn's clock could hold the key to a long-forgotten secret and a present-day murder.
“What’s everyone looking at?” asked Evelyn Lloyd as she and her friend Florence Semble picked their way across the cobblestones of the Llanelen town square. They joined the small crowd gathered in front of the newsagent’s and as a blonde woman in a bright green spring cloth coat backed away, Mrs. Lloyd was able to get close enough to read the poster in the window.
“Oh, my word,” she said, turning to Florence. “Antiques Cymru is coming to town. It says they’ll be doing appraisals and filming the television show right here in Llanelen! Saturday, May ninth. It’s to be held up at Ty Brith Hall. How exciting! Now, let me think. There must be something of value in all those old things Arthur’s auntie left us.” She touched Florence lightly on the arm. “Her set of best china! That’s got to be worth a bob or two! Twelve of everything, including what she called fruit nappies. Fruit nappies! Nowadays, nobody would call those little bowls nappies, that’s for sure. And who’d have twelve people for dinner these days? Or in her day, for that matter. I doubt she even knew twelve people, and she’s the one who owned the china.”
“Well, it’s not until May, so you’ve got a couple of months to think about it,” Florence replied. “We’ll have a good poke round the attic and you might find something better between now and then that would be worth bringing in for an evaluation.” She reached into her handbag for a pen and the little notebook in which she kept a running to-do list. “Put Antiques Cymru in diary and order tickets,” she scribbled.
A smaller, regional version of a national television program, Antiques Cymru travelled exclusively throughout Wales, filming in towns and villages where local experts evaluated fine art, stamps, coins, books, jewellery, textiles, ceramics, collections of memorabilia, and amusing oddments, decorative or useful, that defied any category.
The two women continued on their way and had almost reached the Llanelen Spa when Penny Brannigan, one of its co-owners, approached them from the other direction.
“Oh, Penny,” said Mrs. Lloyd, with just the slightest hint of annoying smugness. “You’ll never guess. Antiques Cymru is coming to town. Florence and I are heading home this very minute to see what we can dig out that might be of value. You see those people turn up with what they thought was an old bit of tat and it turns out to be worth a fortune. Maybe that’ll be me!”
“Maybe it will,” agreed Penny. “So the signs are up, then. Good.”
“Yes, we saw the sign in the newsagent’s window just now,” said Mrs. Lloyd, her eyebrows arching in puzzlement. “Wait a minute. How did you know about the signs?”
“Because I asked for them to be put there,” replied Penny. “Emyr asked me if I’d help out with the event, and I said I would. Someone gave him the wrong information in a telephone message and at first we thought it was the big national antiques program, but it’s Antiques Cymru, with its focus on local items of interest.”
“Well, you might have told me,” grumbled Mrs. Lloyd. “I shouldn’t have to find out about an important event like this from a sign in a shop window when the organizer is known to me personally.”
“Sorry, Mrs. Lloyd. I’m not really the organizer, though. The television production company takes care of everything. It’s their show.” She exchanged a quick smile with Florence and prepared to move on. “Well, mustn’t keep you.” She held up a brown envelope. “My turn to do the bank run.”
A few minutes later she pushed open the door of the bank and joined the short queue. The man just ahead of her had turned around when the door opened and raised a hand at Penny in a small, friendly gesture. He was Haydn Williams, a hill farmer, known throughout the area for his prize-winning sheep and beautiful singing voice. In his mid-forties, he was tall, with refined features that included friendly eyes that gave him a quiet, sensitive look. He lived alone just outside town, on a narrow country road, in the same grey stone farmhouse with a grey slate roof where his parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and several generations before that had raised their families and tended countless flocks of prize-winning sheep.
“Good to see you, Penny. How are you? Recovered from the St. David’s Day concert?”
“Just about, thanks, Haydn. What’s new with you?”
“Oh, not much. It’s always busy on the farm this time of year, with lambing season approaching. You should come up and see them this year. You could bring your sketchbook.”
“I’d love to! If there’s anything cuter than a lamb, I don’t know what that is. Oh, and by the way, Antiques Cymru is coming to town in May. I’m helping out with the event and I especially wanted you to know about it as you’ve got so many wonderful traditional Welsh pieces up at the farm. Please consider having one or two of them evaluated. The organizers are hoping to see some lovely furniture and I know you’ve got some.”
“I guess all that lot would be considered antiques now. I never take any notice of them. It’s just the furniture I grew up with. The Welsh dresser’s been in the kitchen longer than even my grandfather could remember.”
As she handed him a flyer promoting the show, the door opened and the woman in the bright green coat who had been looking at the sign in the newsagent’s window a few minutes earlier entered. Penny and Haydn smiled a greeting at her, and then resumed their conversation as the woman took her place in the queue behind Penny.
“Now Haydn, if you’ve got a large piece of furniture you’d like appraised, such as that Welsh dresser, you contact the show ahead of time and they’ll inspect the piece at your home. Then, if they want it on the show, they’ll make arrangements to transport it safely up to the Hall.”
Haydn’s eyes flickered past Penny and appraised the woman in the green coat and then returned to meet Penny’s amused gaze.
“That sounds good,” he said as the woman in the green coat leaned slightly around Penny and pointed at the flyer in Haydn’s hand.
“I’ve just seen the poster in the newsagent’s window,” said Catrin Bellis. “I’m sure everybody’s wondering what unknown treasure they’ve got hidden away in their attic just waiting to be discovered.”
At that moment the customer being served wrapped up his business and with a nod to both women and one last appreciative glance at Catrin, Haydn stepped up to the wicket. Penny and Catrin shuffled forward.
Catrin Bellis was about the same age as Haydn. Her platinum blonde hair was styled in a pixie cut and she wore soft makeup, expertly applied, that gave her a healthy, natural look. She smiled at Penny, revealing a row of even, white teeth. Penny’s eyes moved down to look at her hands, but they were covered in black leather gloves. Something of a late bloomer, Catrin had only recently started coming to the Llanelen Spa. Until a few months ago, her hair had been a mousy brown of uneven length flecked with grey, her eyebrows unshaped, and her hands and fingernails rough and uncared for. And following her makeover at the hands of the Llanelen Spa’s experts in hair and skin care, came the welcome and novel discovery that men found her attractive. Even Haydn Williams, whom she’d known all her life and who hadn’t paid the slightest bit of attention to her since they were children, was starting to sit up and take notice. And she liked the way that made her feel.
“We’re hoping for a good turn out to the Antiques event,” Penny said. “Do you think there’s something in your home you could bring along to show the appraisers?”
“Oh, I’m sure there is,” replied Catrin. “And I don’t think you need to worry about people turning up. This will be one of the biggest events in Llanelen in a very long time. Possibly bigger even than the last visit by the Prince of Wales, and that’s saying something. Everyone in town has probably heard about the show by now. You know what this place is like.”
This place is Llanelen, located on the picturesque River Conwy in North Wales. Penny had arrived in the pretty market town about twenty-five years ago as a young Canadian fine arts graduate, fallen in love with the area, and stayed on as the days turned into months, and then into years. About eighteen months ago, she and her friend and business partner, Victoria Hopkirk, had renovated a dilapidated stone building with what estate agents like to call “splendid views” across the river to the ancient hills that cradle the town and reopened it as the Llanelen Spa. The cool, stylish Spa had quickly become a destination for local women as a restful place for pampering, taking care of body and soul, and for Evelyn Lloyd, the town’s former postmistress, it was the perfect place to keep up with local news, or, if you prefer, to pick up and spread local gossip.
Mrs. Lloyd settled herself in the client’s chair and lowered her fingers into the soaking water as the first step in her bi-weekly manicure. She used to come every week, but lately, as part of her belt-tightening efforts, had decided once every two weeks was enough.
“I saw Catrin Bellis in front of the newsagent’s looking at the Antiques Cymru poster,” Mrs. Lloyd remarked. “I’ve no doubt she’ll have a few bits and pieces in that house of hers she could bring. Her parents didn’t have a lot of money, but her mother did have good taste and looked after her things.”
Penny nodded as she picked up Mrs. Lloyd’s hand and began shaping her fingernails. “I’m sure there are many households in this area with valuables that people don’t know they have. From what I’ve seen, people around here tend to live in the family home for generations and hang on to their ancestors’ property.”
“True,” said Mrs. Lloyd, “but I think you’ll find that’s changing. Many young people nowadays don’t want all that heavy furniture, sets of dishes, large paintings, longcase clocks, and what have you. The children grow up, move away, and they live in small flats in cities … there just isn’t room for all those old-fashioned things. And I’m sure most of the stuff in the charity shops comes from the grandmother’s house. She dies and the family has no room for all her stuff. Have you ever noticed how much royal memorabilia there is in the charity shops? Coronation mugs, jubilee biscuit tins, royal wedding this and that. All that’s got to be from house clearings after a grandparent died. Young people don’t collect that stuff.”
She leaned forward to see what Penny was doing.
“All rather sad when you think about it, really,” she said, settling back in her chair. “Still, I’ll definitely be at the Antiques show. I haven’t decided yet what I’m going to bring. I was thinking about Arthur’s aunt’s Carlton Ware dinner service but Florence said there might be something else and she’d have a good look round.”
“I wonder if Florence will bring anything,” Penny said.
“Florence?” Mrs. Lloyd scoffed. “What on earth could she possibly have that would be of value?”
“Well, that’s the beauty of it,” said Penny. “You never know.”
“That’s right,” agreed Mrs. Lloyd in a friendly fashion, “you don’t. Well, getting back to Catrin Bellis, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a transformation in a woman. She used to be so, well, what we used to call plain, and now, she’s all glammed up. Even had her teeth done, I believe. Who has white, even teeth like that around here? No one. And the men are really starting to take notice. And when I say ‘men,’ that includes men who should know better.”
Penny raised an eyebrow and Mrs. Lloyd mouthed, “Married.”
“Or so I’ve heard,” Mrs. Lloyd went on, “and I saw her myself walking down the street with a,” she lowered her voice again, “married man.”
“Oh, but that doesn’t mean anything,” said Penny. “You know how easy it is to bump into someone you know, you realize you’re going in the same direction, so you walk off together.”
“Well, that’s true,” acknowledged Mrs. Lloyd, “but there’s walking down the street together and then there’s ‘walking down the street together’ if you see what I mean.”
“No,” said Penny, trying not to laugh. “I don’t see what you mean. Unless you mean there’s walking down the street together at seven in the morning, which some might well find suspicious, and then there’s just your regular walking down the street together at any old time of day.”
“That’s exactly what I mean!” said Mrs. Lloyd. “Well, sort of, I guess.”
“Anyway, I saw Catrin in the bank this morning,” said Penny. “She puts the rest of us to shame, really. Wears makeup when she’s just out and about on errands.” A light smile crossed her face. “Even just walking down the street. Most of us consider ourselves dolled up if we bother to put on lipstick.”
“I can remember the old days when women would wear a dress and put on a hat just to go shopping,” said Mrs. Lloyd. “Gloves, too, for heaven’s sake. Mind you, that’s going back a good few years. More than I care to remember, actually. I guess going into town was more special back then.”
Penny smiled and reached for the bottle of nail varnish Mrs. Lloyd had chosen.
“Got everything? Gathered up all your bits and pieces? Want to put your coat on before we do this?”
Mrs. Lloyd slid her arms through the sleeves of her spring coat and sat down again.
“I don’t think Catrin had much of a life while her parents were alive,” she continued. “So maybe that’s what’s brought all this on. Very religious, they were, and so strict with her. Much too strict. You’ve got to let young people have fun. She was never allowed to go to the dances or young people’s outings when she was a teenager, and not allowed to train for anything so she could get a decent job. Such a shame. If only those kinds of controlling parents knew how their children would go wild at the first opportunity. And who can blame them? The girls often end up in the family way and the boys in trouble with the law.”
She peered at the polish Penny was applying. “Yes, that’s a nice colour. Has a lovely touch of spring in it.”
“I heard somewhere that Catrin looked after her parents for years,” Penny said.
“That’s right,” said Mrs. Lloyd. “They kept her at home and she never had much of a life, really. They were well into their forties when she was born and they died quite close to each other. She hasn’t been on her own that long and in some ways, she’s like a much younger girl living on her own for the first time. Enjoying her freedom and turning into the woman she wants to be, not what her parents thought she should be.”
“She’s quite girly,” said Penny. “Likes pretty things and loves coming here for hair and nails.” She laughed. “Our kind of girl, really.”
“I think at one time Haydn Williams’s parents had hopes the two might get together,” said Mrs. Lloyd, “but her parents seem to have quashed any chance of that happening.”
“Well,” said Penny, “if the way he looked at her in the bank today is anything to go by, they might still get together. He seemed rather interested in her.”
“Oh, that’ll be the new hair,” said Mrs. Lloyd. “Men can be so shallow that way, I find.”
Penny laughed. “She’s lost a fair bit of weight, too,” said Penny. “All in all, I think she’s doing a great job of making the best of herself. I might take a page out of her book and lose a few pounds myself.”
Copyright © 2016 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. 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.