My aunt lay dead and I was lost in her life. It came complete with auntie’s beloved bed and breakfast fully booked and brimming with guests. Too bad, since I slung a mean tea bag but was a hopeless cook. Instead, I was a murderess. Well, okay, call it guilty of failing to render assistance, but it felt worse.
Yesterday, Aunt Eve had rung me, panic vibrating in her voice.
“Myrtle, I need your help. This is getting out of hand.”
“What is? Listen, I’m so sorry, but there’s a faculty meeting in two minutes and—”
“I can’t do this on my own.”
“Not for this. I need you. I won’t let him win.” The last bit came out as a wail and triggered my monumental mistake. Aunt Eve was the most rational person on Earth, though she had her wild moments. I decided this was one of them, made soothing noises and promised to ring back.
I never made that call.
Now, on a deceptively pleasant Tuesday afternoon, I found myself standing in the kitchen of my aunt’s bed and breakfast, caught in a haze of loss and anguish, assaulted by the lingering aromas of fry-ups gone by. To make matters worse, the Witch’s Retreat was also overrun by the police in their size elevens.
Bang on cue, a copper tramped in from the corridor and pushed his way through the saloon-style swing doors, his helmet under his arm.
He beamed at me. “Hi there, any chance of a cuppa?”
Such a simple request. Aunt Eve would have had the kettle boiling in no time. Why was I still standing there, the strap of my purse cutting into my shoulder, the industrial-sized fridge humming away in indifference?
“Give me a moment.” I dumped my suitcase onto terracotta tiles as immaculate as the cupboards with their glossy eggshell finish.
Illuminated by ceiling spots so bright they out-dazzled the watery April sunlight, the doors of the cabinets reflected my haggard face, colorless and distorted as if I were a specter haunting auntie’s world.
Everything looked like it did in November when I visited this place for the last, and first, time. My scruples had nothing to do with the old house. The renovations did the Georgian elephant proud. The village it stood in was a different matter.
Don’t be such a Moaning Myrtle, my inner voice scolded.
True, this mawkishness was not my style. I heaved a shuddering breath and searched my surroundings. In a corner, close to the steel double sink, I spotted a toaster and the kettle. Tea bags were nowhere in sight, but then the blasted tears were once more blurring my vision. I searched my pockets for a tissue, wiped my eyes and blew my nose. All the time, my uniformed companion was tactful enough not to comment.
Trying to calm my breathing, I focused on the flowerpots lining the windowsill from the back entrance to the sink, their occupants the only sign something was amiss and must have been for a while. Aunt Eve took good care of her green boarders. These plants, primulas from what I could make out, were as shriveled and dried as last autumn’s leaves.
Fabric rubbing on fabric reminded me of the young police officer still waiting, his helmet now parked on the quartz countertop. His eyes narrowed and he cleared his throat. “Uh, I’m sorry. You’re Mrs.
Coldron’s older daughter, correct? Or would that be niece?”
The bloke was as well informed as he was nosy. “Take your pick,” I said.
“Ah. Put my foot right in it, then. Thought you might be another helper. My apologies. The ladies who do the cooking are ever so good with the drinks and sandwiches.”
Had this place turned into a police canteen?
“You seem to be familiar with the arrangements, officer.”
Policeman Plod snapped his heels together in a mock salute and bowed. “Constable Alan Hunter, at your service. Actually, I’m one of the houseguests. Just transferred to Swindon. I’m still looking for a flat, so I booked a room here for the time being. It’s a great place.”
His gaze slipped aside. “Well, it was.”
The bloke was easy on the eyes in his natty uniform, and his voice sounded genuinely contrite and well educated, so I forgave him.
When he spoke again, he addressed his helmet rather than me.
“I’m sorry about…what happened. You must be in shock.”
Polite despite the thing with the helmet, “shock” was not the word I would have used. One moment all I had to worry about was a mountain of essays for English Lit and A-grade German that needed correcting, wondering what the girls might be commenting on. It didn’t sound at all like the set novels. Moments later, the headmistress had called me in, the lines in her sourpuss’s face distorted by what I only afterward identified as concern. She had passed me the phone and my world went black.
“I’m afraid Mrs. Coldron met with a fatal accident,” the female voice on the other end of the line said. “In fact, we are treating this as a suspicious death. Can you come?”
I packed my case in a daze and spent a tortured hour in the teachers’ wing, the headmistress having stopped me from belting up the motorway to Avebury. Instead, a colleague was to drive me in my car and return by train. The headmistress had been surprisingly compassionate; she granted me a week’s leave and had given me tea and a pat on the back before I set out. I understood this to mean the job that meant so much to me—despite the crappy essays—might still be waiting once I escaped from this nightmare.
Auntie was my anchor, the one person who had always been there for me. She took me in when my parents died in an awful accident.
Now I was grieving for her.
My vision wobbled, and I sagged onto the rubber gymnastic ball auntie used instead of a kitchen chair. She insisted it did wonders for her spine and, whenever excited, bounced up and down on it like a toddler. Tears burned the back of my throat.
No more bouncing.
“You all right?” The copper’s voice dragged me back to the present.
“Need some tea?” That was the UK for you. If in distress, stay calm and switch the kettle on. To tell the truth, I was thirsty. And hungry.
My body craved sustenance, no matter what was going on and whether or not I liked it.
“No, thank you. If you don’t mind, I’ll unpack in Number Seven and then…”
No idea what to do then. My aunt was gone. Neither tea nor tears could bring her back.
“Room Number Seven?” my police officer asked. “I thought it stood empty?”
“It’s a spare, for emergencies,” I said. “It suits me.”
That had been an odd thing to say, so I changed the subject. “Any suggestions where my cousin might be?”
The constable shook his head. “The other Ms. Coldron suffered a breakdown when she heard the news, and the doctor gave her a sedative. She’s not in the house for sure.”
Yup, that sounded like something Daisy would do. If she was not at my aunt’s place, she had most likely returned to her room in the pub where she tended the bar. Running a B&B was beyond her, coping with emergencies was beyond her—in a way, life was beyond her.
As usual, it was all up to me. Not that she would appreciate my efforts.
The ball hurt the small of my back, and I dragged myself up. “Can I talk to your superior? I still don’t understand what happened. Is he around somewhere?”
Constable Hunter pushed the blond fringe from his face and twinkled his baby blues at a point somewhere over my right shoulder, which was an improvement over the helmet.
“She,” he said. “The Sarge is upstairs with the SOCO. They should be done soon. I’ll tell her you’ve arrived.” He bounced a smile in my general direction and trooped off, the doors swinging shut behind him.
Upstairs with the what? SOCO sounded ominous. And where upstairs? At least he didn’t mention pathologists. That was the last thing I needed now. What I needed was a porter, but even if the Witch’s Retreat was reasonably upmarket, it was no five-star hotel.
With every step I took up treads carpeted in midnight blue, my battered suitcase got heavier. The big three-oh was recent, so I shouldn’t wheeze like this. Not that I did, usually. Back at the school,
I bounced up and down stairs along with the girls. Here, I felt like I was climbing Mount Everest without a Sherpa.
The first landing gave me an excuse to let go of my luggage and catch my breath. The silent corridor, with the pine doors mirroring each other on both sides, seemed to have slipped out of the time stream and I with it. No creaks, no groans, none of the noises old buildings tended to make. Even the guests remained mum. The result was an oddly appropriate otherworldly stillness. Aunt Eve’s brilliant mind had created this place. Here, her memory would live on. I could almost see her smiling, her tall figure striding along the passage.
The phone at reception downstairs rang once, twice, then stopped.
The spell was broken, and I loosened my death grip on the blond wood of the handrail.
Something, probably a window, banged shut in the bedroom closest to the stairs, telling me the guests were awake after all.
Perhaps the police had forced them to stay, and those innocent-looking doors hid a killer.
Despite the plushy comfort offered by my favorite moss-green fleece jacket, a breeze sneaked along my spine. I was overwhelmed by an urge to scamper back down and keep running. Instead, I forced my unwilling legs to hoist myself and my luggage to the top floor.
Whoever had so diligently vacuumed below had capitulated here.
Footprints marred the dark blue of the carpet leading up the steps and into the upper corridor.
The cold spread from my spine to my arms and drew goosebumps.
I must be close to the crime scene. No sooner had the thought chilled my brain than I heard voices on the draft coming from the door at the end of the corridor. It led to a little landing with Aunt Eve’s room on the left and Daisy’s on the right. Both door and landing were half-hidden by a curtain featuring tiny mauve roses. Where the furnishings chosen by my parents had been all about angles and squares, Aunt Eve’s taste in interior decoration had leaned toward the floral, although she restrained herself to her private sphere. Her Wiccan spleen she had vented openly when she chose this village, of all places, for her business, naming the bed and breakfast “Witch’s Retreat” and hanging kitschy ceramic tiles displaying the room number and a witch motif on the doors to the rooms.
When I reached for the brass knob of Number Seven, featuring a teal-colored seven and a broomstick, I caught movement from the corner of my eye. A blue and white plastic band, unnecessarily labeled “POLICE,” barred access to the private part of the corridor.
Had my aunt been killed in her bed?
The carpet was even dirtier up here, showing the evidence of many a booted foot trudging to and from the makeshift but ominous barricade. For a moment, I considered searching for another place to stay. Unfortunately, apart from the Witch’s Retreat, Avebury offered little choice of accommodation. Next on the list was the Crystal Dawn, a quixotic New Age B&B down the road, a flat over the Magic Mushroom Café, available only during the summer months, and the few rooms at the Whacky Bramble, the pub where my cousin worked.
If I had any home in this village, this would be it, crime scene or not.
At least my aunt’s remains had been removed. The disembodied voice on this morning’s phone call had told me that much.
When I entered Number Seven, the room welcomed me with the sweet perfume lilies release into the summer skies. Aunt Eve must have refreshed the potpourri before she died. Sobs tickled the back of my throat, but I slammed the door before they escaped. I dumped my luggage to fumble for a box of tissues on the nightstand of the nearest twin bed.
Several sniffles later, I opened the suitcase. My packing had been hurried, and it showed. I could only hope the motley collection of charity rejects would yield some useful items of clothing. First things first: I needed a shower before confronting Constable Hunter’s sergeant.
The moment I entered the bathroom, a knock sounded on the door to Number Seven. I cracked it open and beheld the same lantern-jawed face and roving gaze I had encountered earlier.
“Sergeant Widdlethorpe can talk to you now if you like. She’s got to leave soon to attend the—eh, never mind. She’ll be back tomorrow.
You can meet her then if you prefer.” He looked at my ear expectantly. We were making progress.
I opened the door farther. “For how much longer will I have the pleasure of a police presence?”
“You mean the on-site investigation? They’re almost done, don’t you worry.”
The urge to talk to Constable Hunter’s superior became overwhelming, so I stepped into the corridor. “If your sergeant is ready, I wouldn’t mind having a word with her now.”
Hunter nodded and led the way. Ever the helpful neighborhood bobby, he lifted the plastic strip for me to bend under and pushed the curtain aside so I could enter the landing. Fluorescent lamps threw their glare into what used to be such a cozy place, illuminating a figure in a white hooded suit next to an aluminum stepladder lying on its side. A young woman in street clothes leaned against the wall opposite the entrance, her neck craning toward a trapdoor in the ceiling. The tips of her shoes rested inches away from the chalked outline of a person with one arm reaching out, knees pulled up.
My stomach lurched.
Dried red rose petals lay strewn about the grisly smear, flattened and crumpled in places. They clustered in the part marking the splayed fingers.
Bile rose in my throat. Those dark splotches half-hidden by the wilted and crushed petals could only be blood.
My aunt had not died in her bed.
She had plummeted from the attic.
Killed by a bouquet of roses?