Superfluous Women by Carola Dunn is the 22nd historical cozy in the Daisy Dalrymple series, where a locked-room murder leaves three of Daisy's friends as the main suspsects (available June 9, 2015).
In England in the late 1920s, The Honourable Daisy Dalrymple Fletcher, on a convalescent trip to the countryside, goes to visit three old school friends in the area. The three, all unmarried, have recently bought a house together. They are a part of the generation of “superfluous women”—brought up expecting marriage and a family, but left without any prospects after more than 700,000 British men were killed in the Great War.
Daisy and her husband Alec—Detective Chief Inspector Alec Fletcher, of Scotland Yard — go for a Sunday lunch with Daisy's friends, where one of the women mentions a wine cellar below their house, which remains curiously locked, no key to be found. Alec offers to pick the lock, but when he opens the door, what greets them is not a cache of wine, but the stench of a long-dead body.
And with that, what was a pleasant Sunday lunch has taken an unexpected turn. Now Daisy's three friends are the most obvious suspects in a murder and her husband Alec is a witness, so he can't officially take over the investigation. So before the local detective, Superintendent Underwood, can officially bring charges against her friends, Daisy is determined to use all her resources (Alec) and skills to solve the mystery behind this perplexing locked-room crime.
Daisy awoke gasping for breath. Her racing heartbeat thudded in her ears. For a frightening moment she had no idea where she was.
Just a nightmare, of course. She had dreamt she was shut up in an airless room with no doors or windows where a faceless figure was trying to smother her. As memory returned, her heart quieted, but her breathing was still laborious. Her chest ached. She started to cough.
Raising herself on one elbow, she reached for the glass of water beside the bed and took a sip. She had gone to sleep sitting up, as the doctor had recommended. The hotel’s inadequate pillows had slipped off the bed during the night. The chambermaid would bring her a couple more if she asked. The staff of the Saracen’s Head had been very friendly and helpful when she arrived in Beaconsfield yesterday.
The pale light filtering through the blue cotton curtains told her she had slept through the night for the first time in weeks.
Getting out of London, out of the Thames Valley, clearly was a good idea. The smog of October 1927 wouldn’t count among the worst to afflict the metropolis. However, the southerly breeze that broke it up wafted the noxious mixture of coal smoke and river fog up the hill to Hampstead, usually happily above the miasma. Daisy’s mild cold had turned to bronchitis.
The doctor ordered her out of town. She didn’t want to impose her illness on friends and she felt too rotten for a long journey. Beaconsfield, a small town on the edge of the Chiltern Hills, seemed ideal.
The air was clean; she was breathing more easily already.
She was about to leave the warm nest of her bed to retrieve the pillows when she heard a tentative knock on the door.
“Who is it?”
“Your tea, madam.”
“Come in.” Calling out set off another fit of coughing.
“Oh, madam, you don’ half soun’ ba’.” The local speech featured unvoiced final consonants, much easier to understand than some dialects Daisy had encountered. She very soon stopped noticing. “You better have a cuppa, quick.”
The maid, a sturdy, sandy-haired, freckled young woman of about Daisy’s age, set down the small tray and poured. “Here. Carefu’ now. You don’ wan’ it to go down the wrong way.”
Daisy managed to stop coughing for long enough to sip, and then to empty the cup. It soothed her throat a bit. “Thanks. Weren’t you waiting in the dining room yesterday evening?”
“That’s right. I’m a waitress, really. I don’t do the cleaning and such, but I live in so it’s easy to help out with early morning teas, and sometimes on reception, to oblige. And to earn a bit extra, too,” she confided. “I’m saving up to go to London and learn to type. I want to work in an office.”
“Good for you. What’s your name?”
“Sally, madam. Sally Hedger. Properly, Sarah. There’s another cup in the pot if you want it. And a couple of biscuits. I saw you di’n’t eat enough dinner to keep a flea alive.”
“I was too tired, and my throat’s a bit sore from coughing. I haven’t been very well, so I came to Beaconsfield to breathe the country air. It’s already doing me good. Would you mind awfully picking up my pillows? I seem to have knocked them off in the night.”
“Here you go.” Sally plumped them up and put them behind Daisy’s back. “That’ll be comfier for you.”
“I don’t suppose you could scrounge a couple more for me? I’m supposed to sleep sitting up.”
“I ’spect so. Can you manage till I’ve done the rest of the teas?”
“Of course. Whenever you have a moment.”
“And how about breakfast in bed? You didn’t ought to be rushing to get yourself up.”
“Sally, could you really? That would be marvellous! You’re a treasure.”
“Don’t tell anyone or they’ll all be wanting it, too.”
She was as good as her word. Daisy didn’t get up till after ten. She was able to take a leisurely bath instead of the usual hotel scramble to get out of the way of other guests queuing up. Back in her room, she went to the window.
Last night she had been too exhausted to bother about the view. Now she looked out over back gardens to meadows where black-and-white cows grazed, and ploughland with winter wheat just beginning to green the pale, chalky soil. A few trees were bare already, but oaks clung stubbornly to the brown leaves they would keep all winter and the bright gold of beeches stood out against the grey sky.
Not the slightest breeze stirred the leaves. Daisy decided she felt fit enough for a short walk. She dressed warmly, a flannel petticoat under her tweed skirt and a flannel vest under her blouse and pullover—her fashionable friend, Lucy, would have been horrified, she thought with amusement. Stout walking shoes, a warm coat, and a blue muffler and hat her stepdaughter had knitted for her, pulled down over her ears: she might well stun the local citizens as well.
She hadn’t paid any attention to the town as she was driven through the streets from the station, but she had noticed a church right opposite the Saracen’s Head. A stroll round the churchyard would be a good start to regaining her strength.
Dressing had tired her. On second thoughts, she took off the hat and stuffed it into the coat pocket, then tidied her hair. It was after eleven, time for morning coffee.
The residents’ lounge had only two occupants, who looked like commercial travellers. Deep in discussion over papers spread on a low table, they scarcely looked up as she passed through to the ladies’ parlour beyond. There, three elderly women were seated at a round table by the fire. They glanced at Daisy and, obviously deciding she was a stranger of no interest, returned to their chatter. Not so many years ago, a woman staying alone at a hotel would have caused disapproving stares. With two million more females than males in the country, most of whom would never have a chance to marry, single “girls” were no longer noteworthy.
Coffee and a cream cake restored Daisy’s desire for a little gentle exercise. (She didn’t even feel guilty about the cream cake as she had lost several pounds while ill. Well, a few at least.)
She went out. Slowly, feeling like a tottery old lady, she crossed the wide street to the church. She stopped to look at an elaborate war memorial. Bronze plaques on all four sides each listed twenty names: eighty men lost from this small town and the surrounding rural district. Daisy noted several pairs of names, including two Hedgers who must surely be related to Sally, the waitress, as well as a few trios, and six surnamed Child—six killed in one family.
Filled with melancholy, she trudged through the churchyard, right round the church. In spite of the grey sky, the day was now warmish for October. She unwrapped her muffler and undid the top button of her coat.
As she completed the circuit, a ray of sun broke through the clouds to strike a wooden bench near the memorial. Daisy accepted the implicit invitation. Though she had coughed only once or twice, her legs felt a bit wobbly. She was glad to rest and contemplate the scene.
Opposite, on the corner, stretched the gabled west front of her hotel, the Saracen’s Head, a centuries’-old coaching inn. The exposed timbers of the first floor looked much too straight to be the originals, though. The few other half-timbered buildings in the vicinity looked more genuine; most were typical Home Counties, mellow red brick with red-tiled roofs.
All four streets meeting at the crossroads were unusually wide for a town centre. They formed the intersection of the main route from Windsor to Aylesbury and the London to Oxford road, now the A40. Daisy had often driven through, in fact, without taking any particular notice of the town.
She wondered whereabouts Willie lived. Wilhelmina Chandler, a friend from school, had very recently moved from the North to Beaconsfield. They had exchanged occasional letters over the years, but never met since leaving school. Daisy hoped to call on her and refresh their friendship, once she’d recovered a bit more strength and was sure the coughing spells were a thing of the past.
The letter with the address was in her room. When she felt up to a visit, Sally would probably be able to direct her to the street.
She returned to the hotel. Climbing the stairs brought on another spate of coughs and she was glad to collapse onto the bed. A glass of water followed by a cough pastille did the trick. The taste of horehound, wintergreen, eucalyptus, and menthol lingered in her mouth, making the prospect of lunch unappealing.
In the end, telling herself firmly that she must keep up her strength, she went down to the restaurant just before they stopped serving lunch. Only half a dozen people were there, and most of them were just finishing their meals, so Daisy was able to chat with Sally.
The waitress brought a bowl of oxtail soup. “This’ll do you good, madam. If I was you, I’d have the shepherd’s pie after. Nothing in it to scrape a sore throat. It’ll go down a fair treat. Stewed apple and custard for afters?”
Daisy assented. The soup was rich enough to banish the cough pastille taste, and the shepherd’s pie was delicious.
When Sally returned with the pudding, Daisy asked, “Do you know where Orchard Road is?”
“Oh yes, madam. I can tell you how to get there.”
“Is it far?”
“Maybe ten minutes to this end, ’bout the same again or a bit less to the other end. Which end was you wanting?”
“The house is called Cherry Trees.”
“I know it. There’s three ladies just moved in. My Auntie May cleaned for Mrs. Gray, that sold the house, and the new ladies kept her on. Friends of yours?”
“One of them, Miss Chandler. I hope to make the acquaintance of her friends.”
Sally looked doubtful. “When you’re feeling more yourself, madam,” she said firmly. “It’s down the New Town end, too far for you to walk yet awhile. Unless you was to hire a car?” She sounded even more doubtful.
Daisy laughed, which made her start to cough. After a sip of water, she shook her head and ventured to speak: “I’ll wait a bit.”
She waited two days, two days of early nights, late rising, and afternoon naps, eating and sleeping well, walking a little farther each day. On the morning of the third day, Thursday, she wrote a note to Willie Chandler and gave the Boots, a skinny youth, sixpence to deliver it.
An answer came the same evening. Willie was sorry Daisy had been ill. Assuming she didn’t like to stay out late, would she care to come to tea the next day, to meet Willie’s friends and housemates, Vera Leighton and Isabel Sutcliffe? If she arrived at about half past four, Isabel would be at home. Vera, a teacher, was usually home by five at the latest. Unfortunately Willie herself often didn’t get home till six thirty, sometimes seven, but if Daisy felt up to staying that long, they could talk as Willie walked her back to the hotel.
Edward, the Boots, earned another sixpence taking Daisy’s acceptance to Cherry Trees.
The next afternoon she set out early, reckoning that Sally’s twenty-minute walk would be at least a half hour for her. The weather was still good, cloudy but with the sun breaking through now and then. It was a pleasant walk along Aylesbury End, a slight downhill slope. She hoped she would still consider it slight when she had to walk up it going back.
Once she left the shops and cottages behind her, high beech hedges, bronze-leaved, hid many of the houses and gardens along her way. On the opposite side of the street occasional roofs were visible through treetops. They seemed to be quite big houses, fairly modern. The railway hadn’t come to Beaconsfield till the turn of the century. Sally had told her about being taken as a little girl to the opening of the station. The New Town had sprung up around it and now spread to meet Old Town.
Where Orchard Road forked off to the left, Daisy saw a bench on the far side. She crossed and sat down for a minute or two. Not far now, she assured herself as she trudged onward.
On either side of the street, the beech hedges continued, allowing only occasional glimpses of largish houses and gardens. At last she came to the green-painted gate she was looking for. A white plaque declared in black script that this was Cherry Trees. She paused for a moment, leaning against a gatepost, to catch her breath.
She had made it, without dropping dead on the way. So much for her doctor’s gloomy prognostications!
A stout, red-faced woman came down the garden path towards Daisy, the yellowish gravel crunching beneath her run-down shoes, bulging with bunions. She wore a lime green, polka-dotted head scarf over greying hair, and a shapeless, shabby black coat nearly to her ankles.
Daisy opened the gate as she approached, and stood aside. The woman gave her a suspicious look and grunted what might have been an acknowledgement.
Mrs. Hedger, Daisy assumed. Sally, without saying anything derogatory, had given the impression that her Auntie May was a bit of a curmudgeon.
As Daisy stepped through the gateway, she saw that the gravel path led to a brick and timber house, the timbers silvery grey with age and the roof tiles lichened. The façade was rectangular but asymmetrical, with the front door off-centre, a small window to its left, a large one to the right. Yellow climbing roses, still in bloom, flanked the door and spread to meet above it. On each side of the path grew a cherry tree. Long, narrow scarlet leaves still clung to the branches, though many had already fallen.
Beneath one tree a woman was raking the debris into a pile. The gardener was tall and sturdy—robust was the word that came to mind—her dark hair in a severe bob, almost an Eton crop. She was clad in a red pullover, khaki trousers, and stout boots.
At the click of the gate latch, she glanced round in dismay. “Mrs. Dalrymple—I mean Fletcher? Willie still refers to you as Daisy Dalrymple. Good lord, is it half past four already? I’m so sorry.” Her voice hinted at a Yorkshire upbringing. She leant her rake against the tree trunk and came towards Daisy, pulling off her gardening gloves. “I’m Isabel Sutcliffe.”
“Yes, I’m Daisy Fletcher.” Daisy and Isabel shook hands. “How do you do?”
“Come on in. I just don’t notice the time when I’m busy, but don’t worry, the scones are keeping warm in the oven and it won’t take a moment to make tea.”
The fragrance of the roses gave way to lingering odours of baking when Isabel opened the front door and ushered Daisy into the entrance hall, floored with redbrick tile.
“Lovely and warm!” Daisy exclaimed as her new acquaintance took off her boots and donned house slippers.
“I made up a good fire in the sitting room because Willie says you’ve been ill. Let me take your coat, then you can go and thaw out. I’ll just put my boots by the back door and dash upstairs and change. I’ll be with you in a trice.”
“Please don’t bother to change for my sake, Miss Sutcliffe.”
“Really? Right-oh. Do please call me Isabel.”
“And I’m Daisy, of course.”
The furniture in the sitting room was Craftsman-style beechwood, upholstered in a modern geometrical dark and light blue print, with blue and white curtains drawn across the wide window. Sinking into a large, well-cushioned chair, Daisy held out her hands to the roaring fire.
The original fireplace had been huge, surrounded by smoke-blackened beams. A good half was blocked off, faced with blue and white Dutch tiles, leaving a good-sized grate in the centre. Looking around, Daisy wondered whether the room had once been part of a farmhouse kitchen. Isabel, having changed boots for house slippers, returned with a tea tray and confirmed her guess.
“The land was once a cherry orchard, as you might surmise from the name of the street and the house.” She poured tea. “Here, have a scone while they’re warm. Shop jam, I’m afraid, but come again next year and you’ll get homemade.”
“This house was the original farmhouse, eighteenth century according to the house agent. The previous owner, a London businessman, bought it in 1904 or thereabouts, knowing the railway was coming. He sold off the land for building and pretty much gutted the house to modernise it. He put in gas, then his second wife made him electrify. They left the gas range, though. I’m glad, because it’s what I’m used to, what I cooked on at home, in Yorkshire.”
“I’m glad, too, since it produced such light scones.” Daisy helped herself to a third. “Delicious! You’re a good cook.”
“Practice. Mother and I turned our house into lodgings when Papa died. That’s how I met Willie and Vera. They were among our lodgers.”
“How did you end up here in Bucks?”
“You know Willie went from typist to bookkeeper to chartered accountant?”
“Yes. She was always good at arithmetic at school. We didn’t go as far as anything worthy of being called maths—unsuitable for ladies and too taxing for our delicate female brains. Willie was probably the only one who actually enjoyed numbers and would have liked to go further.”
Isabel grinned. “Incomprehensible, isn’t it? A lot of people at her old firm were green with envy, and one old fuddy-duddy of a partner didn’t approve of a woman in that position, so she went looking for another job. She got one in High Wycombe and found digs there. Vera and I decided to follow her south. After my mother died, we sort of became a family.… You know the situation, nearly a million men dead and many more disabled in the war. ‘Superfluous women,’ they call us.”
“I was lucky,” Daisy said soberly. “Meeting Alec and us falling for each other, I mean. Vera’s a teacher, Willie said?”
“That’s right. Luckily there was an opening in the junior school here in Beaconsfield. She came down in August. I put my house and furniture up for sale and joined them when it sold. We were in horrible lodgings in Wycombe while I hunted for a place to buy. They’d both saved a bit of money, so we went in together, but of course my share is by far the biggest, which is just as well as I have no skills except housekeeping and gardening! Sorry, I’m talking your ears off.”
“No, you’re not. I’m interested. Besides, talking still makes me start coughing sometimes, so I’m much better off listening. Yes, I’d love another cup, please,” she added as Isabel lifted the teapot in her direction. “And is that parkin? I adore parkin.”
“It is. Let me cut you a slice. The thing is, we haven’t been here long enough to make any friends, so I’m pretty much alone all day except for the shopping and our char three days a week. And she’s not exactly chatty.”
“How on earth did you know?”
“Her niece is a waitress at the Saracen’s Head. Sally’s chatty all right, very friendly and helpful.”
“Oh, yes, she came over to give her aunt a hand one day. Mrs. H is the grim-faced sort, never two words when one will do, but she’s efficient. It wouldn’t be easy to replace her in a small place like this, so I’m glad she was willing to stay on when Mrs. Gray left. She already knows things like how to cope with the cranky boiler and how to open the desk drawer that always sticks.”
“We bought the furnishings with the house, you see. Mrs. Gray was going abroad and wanted to get rid of everything. She’s recently widowed, poor thing, though I can’t say she seemed exactly grief-stricken when she showed us round the house. Mr. Vaughn, the house agent, told us her husband was thirty years older. A lot of us surplus women grasp anything in trousers they can catch.” Isabel grimaced. “No, that was catty. I don’t know anything about their marriage.”
“I know what you mean, though.”
“I expect I shall turn into a catty old maid.” Isabel seemed unconcerned at the prospect. “The others have careers to occupy their minds, but I—” She raised her head as if listening. “The front door. That’ll be Vera. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll just go and put on the kettle. She’ll be dying for her tea.”
Daisy heard voices in the hall, then Vera Leighton came in. A wiry woman, she had mousy, frizzy hair pulled back in a knot with exuberant wisps escaping. It was the only exuberant thing about her. She looked tired, and her dark grey skirt and jacket and prim white blouse did nothing to enliven the picture, though doubtless proper for a schoolmistress.
She introduced herself in a low, pleasant voice. Perching on the arm of a chair, she said, “I’m glad you’re recovered enough to come to tea. Isabel and I have been longing to meet you. We all read your articles in Town and Country, of course, and Willie has told us so much about you.”
Daisy wondered how much Willie could find to say about her writing. She was sure she had asked her friend not to mention that Alec was a police detective, and she certainly hadn’t disclosed her own unorthodox activities in the detecting line. If that was what Vera was talking about, Willie must have heard through the Old Girls’ bush telegraph.
“Well…” she temporised.
“One should never say that.” Vera smiled, lighting up with amusement so that she became quite attractive, almost pretty. “It always makes me want to ask, ‘What exactly did she tell you?’ Nothing but good, I assure you.”
Laughing, Daisy agreed. “I’ve never found a response that wasn’t either discourteous or defensive. I’ll just have to reciprocate in kind. Isabel told me you found a job here just when you wanted it. You must have had excellent references from your last position.”
“I was lucky that there was an opening, but yes, I’m a pretty good teacher though I don’t like to boast.”
“How do you like your new school?”
Vera’s face clouded. “The children are marvellous. Two or three naughty ones—there always are; none as bad as the little toughs I had in Huddersfield.” She hesitated, then decided not to utter the “but” Daisy was sure hovered on her lips. “Willie is our great success story, of course. The first woman chartered accountant qualified in 1919, and there still aren’t many. Where on earth is Izzie with the tea? I’m parched.”
“Do go and change if you want to. Don’t mind me.”
“Are you sure you don’t mind? Teachers are expected to look so boringly respectable. Which I dare say I am, but I like to wear a bit of colour at home. I’ll be back in two ticks.”
Left on her own, Daisy’s eyelids grew heavy. She awoke with a start at the clink of china. For a moment she thought she was in her hotel room and Sally had brought her tea. She started to thank her, then, blinking, recognised the room and the two anxious faces looking at her over the teacups.
“Oh dear, I nodded off. How impolite! I hope I didn’t snore.”
“Not at all, just wheezed a bit,” Vera assured her. She had brushed out her hair and wore it in a single loose plait. Though still on the mousy side, she was a trifle more vibrant in a brown skirt and canary-yellow jumper, set off by a short but good string of pearls and lipstick in a brownish red shade. “Are you feeling all right?”
“A bit groggy. I always do if I nod off during the day. The doctor said the wheeze might last a few weeks even after I stop coughing. But I’m all right, really. I’d love another cup of tea.”
Isabel now wore a moss-green wool dress, but still no makeup. She lifted the tea cosy and felt the teapot. “It’s still hot. You were only out for a few minutes.” She passed the cup and saucer and, unasked, another slice of parkin.
They let Daisy eat and drink in peace, discussing household matters. Isabel was clearly in charge of domestic business, and Vera, at least, seemed grateful not to have to deal with shopping, cooking, laundry, cleaning, and coping with Mrs. Hedger. Sally’s aunt was not only grim-faced but pigheaded, it seemed.
“She has her own way of doing things,” said Isabel, “and nothing I say can make her stop straightening the stuff on your desk, Vera. You can try talking to her yourself. If that doesn’t work, you’ll have to put up with it or do your own room.”
“I could have killed her when she stacked those books on top of the one paper I needed urgently. I spent half an hour hunting through the other papers, then biked back to school to look for it.”
“Perhaps it’s revenge for the kirby grips you lose all over the house. I found a couple myself today and put them on the mantelpiece.”
“Oh, thanks. Sorry, they will fall out, no matter what I do.” Vera went to the fireplace, found and pocketed a couple of hair grips, and returned to her chair.
“Well,” Isabel sighed, “I’ll keep checking the notices in the newsagent’s window, but chars are hard to come by here, as I was telling Daisy earlier. We were lucky to inherit her.”
“I inherited my treasure of a cook-housekeeper from my mother-in-law,” said Daisy, and instantly regretted her words. She hoped she didn’t sound as if she were bragging about her marriage, her “treasure,” or being able to afford a cook-housekeeper, not to mention other servants. “Mrs. Hedger seems to be a mixed blessing,” she added quickly. Perhaps the woman had been soured by losing a close relative in the war, one or even both of the two Hedgers on the memorial.
But that was another topic best avoided. The chances were that Vera or Isabel or both had lost people they loved. Kind and friendly as they were, Daisy had only just met them. They were still strangers. She didn’t know what subjects they were touchy about.
Vera sighed. “I suppose it’ll teach me to keep my desk clear. I’m glad you’re the one who has to deal with her.”
“She’s more of a holly hedge than a beech hedge,” said Isabel, “but I’d rather cope with her than with a classroom full of children. Daisy, you have twins? They must be a handful. Do they go to school yet?”
“No, they’re just toddlers. I have help with them, thank goodness, and talking of prickly, their nanny qualifies as a gorse thicket! My stepdaughter is fourteen and away at school except for the holidays. She’s a darling, though, not at all difficult.”
“I seem to remember being at my worst at fifteen. That’s why I trained for primary teaching, not secondary.”
“My mother claims I was always difficult,” said Daisy, “and still am, come to that.”
Vera laughed. “Tell us about your babies, Daisy, if it won’t set you coughing.”
Daisy was always ready to talk about Oliver and Miranda, and both women seemed genuinely amused by stories of the twin’s antics. Given that Vera and Isabel had little chance of becoming mothers, Daisy included a tale or two of naughtiness and illness, to remind them that having children wasn’t all sunshine and roses.
“I miss them,” she said. “I haven’t seen them for weeks, except for blowing kisses from the door, for fear of infection.”
Vera shook her head. “Believe me, I’m pretty good at judging when a child with the sniffles is going to spread them to the whole class! I doubt you’re infectious still.”
“That’s what my doctor told me before I came away, or I wouldn’t be visiting you.”
“Is Daisy here?” Willie breezed in, bringing a breath of cold air. “Daisy, old top, it’s good to see you! How are you?” She stood, hands on hips, looking down at Daisy.
“Much better, darling.”
Wilhelmina Chandler ran one hand through pale blond curls as exuberant as her personality. Even in her grey business costume, her makeup discreetly unobtrusive, she managed to bubble. “Looking a bit pale and wan, but I see Isabel’s been feeding you up nicely. Izzie, pour us a cuppa, would you? I’m parched. Picked up a nail in the front tyre and had to run for the train, pushing my bike.”
Isabel felt the teapot. “It’s barely lukewarm. I’ll make another pot.”
“Don’t bother. As long as it’s wet. Ta.” She gulped down the tepid tea. “Now, Daisy, how long are you staying in Beaconsfield?”
“At least till Sunday evening.”
“Oh, good, then we’ll see you again.”
“Izzie and I thought you might like to come to lunch on Sunday,” Vera proposed.
“Good idea,” said Willie. “Do say you will, Daisy.”
“I’d have loved to, thank you, but my husband is coming to join me on Saturday morning, if he can get away.”
The other three consulted with a glance.
“He’s welcome, too,” said Isabel, “if he doesn’t mind an excess of female company.”
“Of course he wouldn’t. I won’t be sure he’s actually coming, though, till he arrives. Alec’s working hours are … erratic.”
“Never mind,” said Isabel, “we’ll expect him if we see him. I was thinking, to even out the numbers, we might invite the Cartwrights, but—”
“No!” Vera exclaimed vehemently.
“All right, keep your hair on! It was just a thought.”
Willie finished her tea. “Daisy, are you up to staying for supper tonight, or shall we set out?”
“I’d better head back, or you might have to push me in a wheelbarrow.”
A few minutes later, with Daisy carefully wrapped up against the night air, she and Willie started up the gentle slope of Orchard Road.
“Who are the Cartwrights?” Daisy asked. “Isabel said she hadn’t had time to make any friends here yet.”
“Vera’s headmaster and his wife. They invited her over for drinks one Sunday soon after the beginning of term, and we haven’t returned their hospitality. Partly because we’ve only just got the house sorted out. Also, we haven’t really been able to afford any halfway decent sherry, let alone spirits for cocktails.”
“She—Vera—didn’t sound frightfully keen.”
“No-o.” Willie’s expression was invisible as they were still some distance from the next street lamp, but she sounded as if she were frowning. “I don’t know what that’s about. She hasn’t talked about any trouble with Mr. Cartwright. Bosses can be difficult in a million ways, though, as I know from experience. Be glad you’re your own boss.”
“Editors can be awkward, too, believe me, but on the whole I’ve been lucky. As for Alec’s superintendent, the less said the better. By the way, did you tell the others he’s a policeman?”
“No, you asked me not to, though I didn’t gather why. He’s not in some top secret undercover branch, is he?”
“Heavens no, a common-or-garden detective chief inspector.”
“Tall, dark, and handsome, is what I’ve heard.”
“Handsome? Well, he has the most adorable hair, dark and springy. It just won’t lie down flat as he’d like.”
“I’d want to boast about him, to friends.”
“It’s just that most people badger me about what it’s like being married to a detective, or they want to hear about his cases, or they go silent.”
“I didn’t reveal your ventures into sleuthing, either,” Willie said, her voice mischievous.
“I’d like to know who told you, because I didn’t.”
“I can’t remember. More than one Old Girl, I think. Always with a ‘top secret’ caveat attached.”
Daisy laughed—and doubled up coughing. Willie helped her to the bench at the end of Orchard Road, and they sat there for a few minutes while she recovered. Few people were out and about at half past six on a chilly weekday evening. A couple of cars passed, going towards the new town; an errand boy on a bicycle zipped by in the opposite direction, whistling, his basket laden and his front light casting a weak and erratic beam.
A moment later, a motor roared behind them. Daisy glanced round to see a black car speeding up Orchard Road, only its side lamps lit. It barely slowed at the intersection, narrowly missing a van as it swung into the main road, towards the old town.
“Something something eight seven four,” said Willie.
“What? Oh, the number plate?”
“Yes. If I see him driving like that again, I’ll report him. Did you notice the letters?”
“No, sorry. And it’s no good asking me what kind of car it was, either.” Daisy stood up. “I’m all right now. Let’s go.”
By the time they reached the Saracen’s Head, she was worn out, though pleased with herself. In the brightly lit lobby, Willie took one look at her and said, “Come on, let me buy you a drink.”
“My treat. I’ve already been royally entertained to tea and I have high hopes for Sunday lunch.”
Daisy would have gone to the ladies’ parlour, but Willie pushed open the door to the saloon bar.
At their entrance, half a dozen men at the bar and three at a table looked round and fell silent. They looked like a mixture of prosperous farmers, shopkeepers, possibly a lawyer’s clerk or two, and the better kind of commercial traveller. Every face instantly registered disapproval, from raised eyebrows to scowls.
Respectable women unescorted by a male were still taboo in a barroom. The barman said gruffly, “You ladies’d be more comfortable in the parlour.”
Willie gave him a bright smile as she marched over to the bar. “Thanks, but this will do us very well. What’s yours, Daisy? A hot toddy?”
“Vermouth and soda, please.” She delved into her bag for money.
“And I’ll have a half of draught mild.”
Stony-faced, the man poured and siphoned Daisy’s drink and drew Willie’s. Daisy paid. Willie, her point made, carried the glasses to a table as far removed from all the others present as possible. Hidden by the high-backed settle, she burst into giggles.
“They’ll learn,” she said tolerantly. “These days, there are too many of us to be ignored or shunted off into a backroom.”
* * *
Next time Daisy saw Sally, the waitress had heard the story and was full of admiration for “that Miss Chandler.”
“She put him in his place proper, didn’t she, madam! And as polite and ladylike with it as you please.”
“She took him by surprise and he was flummoxed.”
Sally’s giggle sounded just like Willie’s. “Men! Too big for their boots they are, the most of ’em. Good for her telling our Mickey where to get off. He’s cross as scissors, he is.”
Copyright © 2015 Carola Dunn.
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Carola Dunn is the author of many previous mysteries featuring Daisy Dalrymple, including Heirs of the Body, as well as numerous historical novels. Born and raised in England, she lives in Eugene, Oregon.