About the Author

Alan Bradley

Books by this Author
A Red Herring Without Mustard
Excerpt

ONE

"You frighten me," the Gypsy said. "Never have I seen my crystal ball so filled with darkness."

She cupped her hands around the thing, as if to shield my eyes from the horrors that were swimming in its murky depths. As her fingers gripped the glass, I thought I could feel ice water trickling down inside my gullet.

At the edge of the table, a thin candle flickered, its sickly light glancing off the dangling brass hoops of the Gypsy's earrings, then flying off to die somewhere in the darkened corners of the tent.

Black hair, black eyes, black dress, red-painted cheeks, red mouth, and a voice that could only have come from smoking half a million cigarettes.

As if to confirm my suspicions, the old woman was suddenly gripped by a fit of violent coughing that rattled her crooked frame and left her gasping horribly for air. It sounded as though a large bird had somehow become entangled in her lungs and was flapping to escape.

"Are you all right?" I asked. "I'll go for help."

I thought I had seen Dr. Darby in the churchyard not ten minutes earlier, pausing to have a word or two at each stall of the church fête. But before I could make a move, the Gypsy's dusky hand had covered mine on the black velvet of the tabletop.

"No," she said. "No . . . don't do that. It happens all the time."

And she began to cough again.

I waited it out patiently, almost afraid to move.

"How old are you?" she said at last. "Ten? Twelve?"

"Eleven," I said, and she nodded her head wearily as though she'd known it all along.

"I see--a mountain," she went on, almost strangling on the words, "and the face--of the woman you will become."

In spite of the stifling heat of the darkened tent, my blood ran cold. She was seeing Harriet, of course!

Harriet was my mother, who had died in a climbing accident when I was a baby.

The Gypsy turned my hand over and dug her thumb painfully into the very center of my palm. My fingers spread--and then curled in upon themselves like the toes of a chicken's severed foot.

She took up my left hand. "This is the hand you were born with," she said, barely glancing at the palm, then letting it fall and picking up the other. ". . . and this is the hand you've grown."

She stared at it distastefully as the candle flickered. "This broken star on your Mount of Luna shows a brilliant mind turned in upon itself--a mind that wanders the roads of darkness."

This was not what I wanted to hear.

"Tell me about the woman you saw on the mountain," I said. "The one I shall become."

She coughed again, clutching her colored shawl tightly about her shoulders, as though wrapping herself against some ancient and invisible winter wind.

"Cross my palm with silver," she demanded, sticking out a grubby hand.

"But I gave you a shilling," I said. "That's what it says on the board outside."

"Messages from the Third Circle cost extra," she wheezed. "They drain the batteries of my soul."

I almost laughed out loud. Who did this old hag think she was? But still, she seemed to have spotted Harriet beyond the veil, and I couldn't let skepticism spoil even half a chance of having a few words with my dead mother.

I dug for my last shilling, and as I pressed the coin into her hand, the Gypsy's dark eyes, suddenly as bright as a jackdaw's, met mine.

"She is trying to come home," she said. "This . . . woman . . . is trying to come home from the cold. She wants you to help her."

I leapt to my feet, bashing the bottom of the table with my bare knees. It teetered, then toppled to one side as the candle slid off and fell among a tangle of dusty black hangings.

At first there was a little wisp of black smoke as the flame turned blue, then red, then quickly orange. I looked on in horror as it spread along the drapery.

In less time than it takes to tell, the entire tent was in flames.

I wish I'd had the presence of mind to throw a wet cloth over the Gypsy's eyes and lead her to safety, but instead I bolted--straight through the circle of fire that was the entranceway--and I didn't stop until I reached the coconut pitch, where I stood panting behind a canvas drape, trying to catch my breath.

Someone had brought a wind-up gramophone to the churchyard, from which the voice of Danny Kaye was issuing, made nauseously tinny by the throat of the machine's painted horn:

"Oh I've got a lov-ely bunch of coconuts.

There they are a-standin' in a row . . ."

I looked back at the Gypsy's tent just in time to see Mr. Haskins, St. Tancred's sexton, and another man whom I didn't recognize heave a tub of water, apples and all, onto the flames.

Half the villagers of Bishop's Lacey, or so it seemed, stood gaping at the rising column of black smoke, hands over mouths or fingertips to cheeks, and not a single one of them knowing what to do.

Dr. Darby was already leading the Gypsy slowly away towards the St. John's Ambulance tent, her ancient frame wracked with coughing. How small she seemed in the sunlight, I thought, and how pale.

"Oh, there you are, you odious little prawn. We've been looking for you everywhere."

It was Ophelia, the older of my two sisters. Feely was seventeen, and ranked herself right up there with the Blessed Virgin Mary, although the chief difference between them, I'm willing to bet, is that the BVM doesn't spend twenty-three hours a day peering at herself in a looking glass while picking away at her face with a pair of tweezers.

With Feely, it was always best to employ the rapid retort: "How dare you call me a prawn, you stupid sausage? Father's told you more than once it's disrespectful."

Feely made a snatch at my ear, but I sidestepped her easily. By sheer necessity, the lightning dodge had become one of my specialties.

"Where's Daffy?" I asked, hoping to divert her venomous attention.

Daffy was my other sister, two years older than me, and at thirteen already an accomplished co-torturer.

"Drooling over the books. Where else?" She pointed with her chin to a horseshoe of trestle tables on the churchyard grass, upon which the St. Tancred's Altar Guild and the Women's Institute had joined forces to set up a jumble sale of secondhand books and assorted household rubbish.

Feely had seemed not to notice the smoking remnants of the Gypsy's tent. As always, she had left her spectacles at home out of vanity, but her inattentiveness might simply have been lack of interest. For all practical purposes, Feely's enthusiasms stopped where her skin ended.

"Look at these," she said, holding a set of black earrings up to her ears. She couldn't resist showing off. "French jet. They came from Lady Trotter's estate. Glenda says they were quite fortunate to get a tanner for them."

"Glenda's right," I said. "French jet is nothing but glass."

It was true: I had recently melted down a ghastly Victorian brooch in my chemical laboratory, and found it to be completely silicaceous. It was unlikely that Feely would ever miss the thing.

"English jet is so much more interesting," I said. "It's formed from the fossilized remains of monkey-puzzle trees, you see, and--"

But Feely was already walking away, lured by the sight of Ned Cropper, the ginger-haired potboy at the Thirteen Drakes who, with a certain muscular grace, was energetically tossing wooden batons at the Aunt Sally. His third stick broke the wooden figure's clay pipe clean in two, and Feely pulled up at his side just in time to be handed the teddy bear prize by the madly blushing Ned.

"Anything worth saving from the bonfire?" I asked Daffy, who had her nose firmly stuck in what, judging by its spotty oxidized pages, might have been a first edition of Pride and Prejudice.

It seemed unlikely, though. Whole libraries had been turned in for salvage during the war, and nowadays there wasn't much left for the jumble sales. Whatever books remained unsold at the end of the summer season would, on Guy Fawkes Night, be carted from the basement of the parish hall, heaped up on the village green, and put to the torch.

I tipped my head sideways and took a quick squint at the stack of books Daffy had already set aside: On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers, Pliny's Natural History, The Martyrdom of Man, and the first two volumes of the Memoirs of Jacques Casanova--the most awful piffle. Except perhaps for Pliny, who had written some ripping stuff about poisons.

I walked slowly along the table, running a finger across the books, all of them arranged with their spines upwards: Ethel M. Dell, E. M. Delafield, Warwick Deeping . . .

I had noticed on another occasion that most of the great poisoners in history had names beginning with the letter C, and now here were all of these authors beginning with a D. Was I on to something? Some secret of the universe?

I squeezed my eyes shut and concentrated: Dickens . . . Doyle . . . Dumas . . . Dostoyevsky--I had seen all of them, at one time or another, clutched in Daffy's hands.

Daffy herself was planning to become a novelist when she was older. With a name like Daphne de Luce, she couldn't fail if she tried!

"Daff!" I said. "You'll never guess--"

"Quiet!" she snapped. "I've told you not to speak to me when I'm reading."

My sister could be a most unpleasant porpoise when she felt like it.

It had not always been this way. When I was younger, for instance, and Father had recruited Daffy to hear my bedtime prayers, she had taught me to recite them in Pig Latin, and we had rolled among the down-filled pillows, laughing until we nearly split.

"Od-gay ess-blay Ather-fay, Eely-fay, and Issis-may Ullet-may. And Ogger-day, oo-tay!"

But over the years, something had changed between my sisters and me.

A little hurt, I reached for a volume that lay on top of the others: A Looking Glasse, for London and Englande. It was a book, I thought, that would appeal to Feely, since she was mad about mirrors. Perhaps I would purchase it myself, and store it away against the unlikely day when I might feel like giving her a gift, or a peace offering. Stranger things had happened.

Riffling through its pages, I saw at once that it was not a novel, but a play--full of characters' names and what each of them said. Someone named Adam was talking to a clown:

". . . a cup of ale without a wench, why, alas, 'tis like an egg without salt or a red herring without mustard."

What a perfect motto for a certain someone, I thought, glancing across to where Ned was now grazing away at my sister's neck as she pretended not to notice. On more than one occasion I'd seen Ned sitting at his chores in the courtyard of the Thirteen Drakes with a tankard of ale--and sometimes Mary Stoker, the landlord's daughter--at his elbow. I realized with an unexpected shock that without either ale or a female within easy reach, Ned was somehow incomplete. Why hadn't I noticed that before? Perhaps, like Dr. Watson on the wireless in A Scandal in Bohemia, there are times that I see, but do not observe. This was something I needed to think about.

"Your handiwork, I suppose?" Daffy said suddenly, putting down a book and picking up another. She gestured towards the small knot of villagers who stood gawking at the smoking ruins of the Gypsy's tent. "It has Flavia de Luce written all over it."

"Sucks to you," I said. "I was going to help carry your stupid books home, but now you can jolly well lug them yourself."

"Oh, do stop it!" she said, clutching at my sleeve. "Please desist. My heartstrings are playing Mozart's Requiem, and a fugitive tear is making its way to my right eye, even as we speak."

I wandered away with a careless whistle. I'd deal with her insolence later.

"Ow! Leave off, Brookie! You're 'urtin' me."

The whining voice was coming from somewhere behind the shove ha'penny booth and, when I recognized it as belonging to Colin Prout, I stopped to listen.

By flattening myself against the stone wall of the church and keeping well back behind the canvas that draped the raffle booth, I could eavesdrop in safety. Even better, I was pleased to find that I had an unexpectedly clear view of Colin through the gaps in the booth's raw lumber.

He was dancing at the end of Brookie Harewood's arm like a great spectacled fish, his thick eyeglasses knocked askew, his dirty blond hair a hayrick, his large, damp mouth hanging open, gasping for air.

"Leave off. I didn't do nothin'."

With his other hand, Brookie took hold of the seat of Colin's baggy trousers and swiveled him round to face the smoking remains of the Gypsy's tent.

"Who did that, then, eh?" he demanded, shaking the boy to accentuate his words. "Where there's smoke, there's fire. Where there's fire, there's matches. And where there's matches, there's Colin Prout."

" 'Ere," Colin said, trying to ram a hand into his pocket. "Count 'em! You just count 'em, Brookie. Same number as I had yesterday. Three. I ain't used a one."

As Brookie released his grip, Colin fell to the ground, rolled over on his elbows, dug into his trouser pocket, and produced a box of wooden matches, which he waved at his tormentor.

Brookie raised his head and sniffed the air, as if for guidance. His greasy cap and India rubber boots, his long moleskin coat and, in spite of the hot summer weather, a woolen scarf that clung like a scarlet serpent to his bulldog neck made him look like a rat catcher out of Dickens.

Before I could even wonder what to do, Colin had scrambled to his feet, and the two of them had ambled away across the churchyard, Colin dusting himself off and shrugging elaborately, as though he didn't care.

I suppose I should have stepped out from behind the booth, admitted I was responsible for the fire, and demanded that Brookie release the boy. If he refused, I could easily have run for the vicar, or called for any one of the other able-bodied men who were within earshot. But I didn't. And the simple reason, I realized with a little chill, was this: I was afraid of Brookie Harewood.

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I Am Half-Sick of Shadows
Excerpt

Tendrils of raw fog floated up from the ice like agonized spirits departing their bodies. The cold air was a hazy, writhing mist.
 
Up and down the long gallery I flew, the silver blades of my skates making the sad scraping sound of a butcher’s knife being sharpened energetically on stone. Beneath the icy surface, the intricately patterned parquet of the hardwood floor was still clearly visible— even though its colors were somewhat dulled by diffraction.
 
Overhead, the twelve dozen candles I had pinched from the butler’s pantry and stuffed into the ancient chandeliers flickered madly in the wind of my swift passage. Round and round the room I went— round and round and up and down. I drew in great lungfuls of the biting air, blowing it out again in little silver trumpets of condensation.
 
When at last I came skidding to a stop, chips of ice flew up in a breaking wave of tiny colored diamonds. It had been easy enough to flood the portrait gallery: An India- rubber garden hose snaked in through an open window from the terrace and left running all night had done the trick— that, and the bitter cold which, for the past fortnight, had held the countryside in its freezing grip.
 
Since nobody ever came to the unheated east wing of Buckshaw anyway, no one would notice my improvised skating rink— not, at least, until springtime, when it melted. No one, perhaps, but my oil- painted ancestors, row upon row of them, who were at this moment glaring sourly down at me from their heavy frames in icy disapproval of what I had done.
 
I blew them a loud, echoing raspberry tart and pushed off again into the chill mist, now doubled over at the waist like a speed skater, my right arm digging at the air, my pigtails flying, my left hand tucked behind my back as casually as if I were out for a Sunday stroll in the country. How lovely it would be, I thought, if some fashionable photographer such as Cecil Beaton should happen by with his camera to immortalize the moment.
 
“Carry on just as you were, dear girl,” he would say.
 
“Pretend I’m not here.” And I would fly again like the wind round the vastness of the ancient paneled portrait gallery, my passage frozen now and again by the pop of a discreet flashbulb.
 
Then, in a week or two, there I would be, in the pages of Country Life or The Illustrated London News, caught in mid- stride— frozen forever in a determined and forwardlooking slouch.
 
Dazzling . . . delightful . . . de Luce,” the caption would read. “Eleven- year- old skater is poetry in motion.”
 
“Good lord!” Father would exclaim. “It’s Flavia!
 
 “Ophelia! Daphne!” he would call, flapping the page in the air like a paper flag, then glancing at it again, just to be sure. “Come quickly. It’s Flavia— your sister.”
 
At the thought of my sisters I let out a groan. Until then I hadn’t much been bothered by the cold, but now it gripped me with the sudden force of an Atlantic gale: the bitter, biting, paralyzing cold of a winter convoy— the cold of the grave.
 
I shivered from shoulders to toes and opened my eyes. The hands of my brass alarm clock stood at a quarter past six.
 
Swinging my legs out of bed, I fished for my slippers with my toes, then, bundling myself in my bedding— sheets, quilt, and all— heaved out of bed and, hunched over like a corpulent cockroach, waddled towards the windows. It was still dark outside, of course. At this time of year the sun wouldn’t be up for another two hours.
 
The bedrooms at Buckshaw were as vast as parade squares— cold, drafty spaces with distant walls and shadowy perimeters, and of them all, mine, in the far south corner of the east wing, was the most distant and the most desolate. Because of a long and rancorous dispute between two of my ancestors, Antony and William de Luce, about the sportsmanship of certain military tactics during the Crimean War, they had divided Buckshaw into two camps by means of a black line painted across the middle of the foyer: a line which each of them had forbidden the other to cross. And so, for various reasons— some quite boring, others downright bizarre— at the time when other parts of the house were being renovated during the reign of King George V, the east wing had been left largely unheated and wholly abandoned.
 
The superb chemical laboratory built by his father for my great- uncle Tarquin, or “Tar,” de Luce had stood forgotten and neglected until I had discovered its treasures and made it my own. With the help of Uncle Tar’s meticulously detailed notebooks and a savage passion for chemistry that must have been born in my blood, I had managed to become quite good at rearranging what I liked to think of as the building blocks of the universe.
 
“Quite good?” a part of me is saying. “Merely ‘quite good’? Come off it, Flavia, old chum! You’re a bloody marvel, and you know it!”
 
Most chemists, whether they admit it or not, have a favorite corner of their craft in which they are forever tinkering, and mine is poisons.
 
While I could still become quite excited by recalling how I had dyed my sister Feely’s knickers a distinctive Malay yellow by boiling them in a solution of lead acetate, followed by a jolly good stewing in a solution of potassium chromate, what really made my heart leap up with joy was my ability to produce a makeshift but handy poison by scraping the vivid green verdigris from the copper fl oat- ball of one of Buckshaw’s Victorian toilet tanks. I bowed to myself in the looking glass, laughing aloud at the sight of the fat white slug-in-a-quilt that bowed back at me.
 
I leapt into my cold clothing, shrugging on at the last minute, on top of everything else, a baggy gray cardigan I had nicked from the bottom drawer of Father’s dresser. This lumpy monstrosity— swarming with khaki and maroon diamonds, like an overbaked rattlesnake— had been knitted for him the previous Christmas by his sister, Aunt Felicity.
 
“Most thoughtful of you, Lissy,” Father had said, deftly dodging any outright praise of the ghastly garment itself. When I noticed in August that he still hadn’t worn the thing, I considered it fair game and it had, since the onset of cold weather, become my favorite.
 
The sweater didn’t fit me, of course. Even with the sleeves rolled up I looked like a baggy monkey picking bananas. But to my way of thinking, at least in winter, woolly warmth trumps freezing fashion any day of the week. I have always made it a point never to ask for clothing for Christmas. Since it’s a dead cert that you’ll get it anyway, why waste a wish?
 
Last year I had asked Father Christmas for some badly needed bits of laboratory glassware— had even gone to the trouble of preparing an itemized list of fl asks, beakers, and graduated test tubes, which I tucked carefully under my pillow and, by the Lord Harry! he had brought them! Feely and Daffy didn’t believe in Father Christmas, which, I suppose, is precisely the reason he always brought them such dud gifts: scented soap, generally, and dressing gowns and slipper sets that looked and felt as if they had been cut from Turkey carpet.
 
Father Christmas, they had told me, again and again, was for children.
 
“He’s no more than a cruel hoax perpetrated by parents who wish to shower gifts upon their icky offspring without having to actually touch them,” Daffy had insisted last year. “He’s a myth. Take my word for it. I am, after all, older than you, and I know about these things.”
 
Did I believe her? I wasn’t sure. When I was able to get away on my own and think about it without tears springing to my eyes, I had applied my rather considerable deductive skills to the problem, and come to the conclusion that my sisters were lying. Someone, after all, had brought the glassware, hadn’t they?
 
There were only five possible human candidates. My father, Colonel Haviland de Luce, was penniless, and was therefore out of the question, as was my mother, Harriet, who had died in a mountaineering accident when I was no more than a baby.
 
Dogger, who was Father’s general roustabout and jack- of- all- trades, simply hadn’t the resources of mind, body, or finances to lug round lavish gifts secretly by night in a drafty and decaying country house. Dogger had been a prisoner of war in the Far East, where he had suffered so awfully that his brain had remained connected to those horrors by an invisible elastic cord— a cord that was sometimes still given a jerk by cruel Fate, usually at the most inopportune moments.
 
“ ’E ’ad to eat rats!” Mrs. Mullet had told me, wide- eyed in the kitchen. “Rats, fancy! They ’ad to fry ’em!” With everyone in the household disqualified for one reason or another as the Bringer of Gifts, that left only Father Christmas.
 
He would be coming again in less than a week and, in order to settle the question for once and for all, I had long ago laid plans to trap him.
 
Scientifically.
 
Birdlime, as any practical chemist will tell you, can be easily manufactured by boiling the middle bark of holly for eight or nine hours, burying it under a stone for a fortnight, and then, when it is disinterred, washing and pulverizing it in running river water and leaving it to ferment. The stuff had been used for centuries by bird- sellers, who had smeared it on branches to trap the songbirds they sold in the city streets.
 
The great Sir Francis Galton had described a method of manufacturing the stuff in his book The Art of Travel; or, Shifts and Contrivances Available in Wild Countries, a signed copy of which I had found among a heavily underlined set of his works in Uncle Tar’s library. I had followed Sir Francis’s instructions to the letter, lugging home in midsummer armloads of holly from the great oaks that grew in Gibbet Wood, and boiling the broken branches over a laboratory Bunsen burner in a stew pot borrowed— without her knowledge— from Mrs. Mullet. During the final stages, I had added a few chemical twists of my own to make the pulverized resin a hundred times more sticky than the original recipe. Now, after six months of preparation, my concoction was powerful enough to stop a Gabon gorilla in its tracks, and Father Christmas— if he existed— wouldn’t stand a chance. Unless the jolly old gentleman just happened to be traveling with a handy bottle of sulfuric ether, (C2H5)2O, to dissolve the birdlime, he was going to stay stuck to our chimney pot forever— or until I decided to set him free.
 
It was a brilliant plan. I wondered why no one had thought of it before.
 
Peering out through the curtains, I saw that it had snowed in the night. Driven by the north wind, white flakes were still swirling madly in the light of the downstairs kitchen window.
 
Who could be up at such an hour? It was too early for Mrs. Mullet to have walked from Bishop’s Lacey. And then I remembered!
 
Today was the day the intruders were arriving from London. How could I ever have forgotten such a thing? It had been more than a month ago— on November 11, in fact, that gray and subdued autumn day upon which everyone in Bishop’s Lacey had mourned in silence all those whom they had lost in the wars— that Father had summoned us to the drawing room to break the grim news.
 
“I’m afraid I have to tell you that the inevitable has happened,” he said at last, turning away from the window, out of which he had been staring morosely for a quarter of an hour.
 
“I needn’t remind you of our precarious financial prospects . . .”
 
He said this forgetting the fact that he reminded us daily— sometimes twice in an hour— of our dwindling reserves. Buckshaw had belonged to Harriet, and when she had died without leaving a will (Who, after all, could even imagine that someone so brimming over with life could meet her end on a mountain in far- off Tibet?) the troubles had begun. For ten years now, Father had been going through the courtly steps of the “Dance of Death,” as he called it, with the gray men from His Majesty’s Board of Inland Revenue.
 
Yet in spite of the mounting pile of bills on the foyer table, and in spite of the increasing telephonic demands from coarse- voiced callers from London, Father had somehow managed to muddle through.
 
Once, because of his phobia about “the instrument,” as he called the telephone, I had answered one of these brash calls myself, bringing it to rather an amusing end by pretending to speak no English.
 
When the telephone had jangled again a minute later, I picked up the receiver at once, then jiggled my finger rapidly up and down on the cradle.
 
“Hello?” I had shouted. “Hello? Hello? I’m sorry— Can’t hear you. Frightful connection. Call back some other day.” On the third ring, I had taken the receiver off the hook and spat into the mouthpiece, which began at once to give off an alarming crackling noise.
 
“Fire,” I had said in a dazed and vaguely monotonous voice. “The house is in flames . . . the walls and the floor. I’m afraid I must ring off now. I’m sorry, but the firemen are hacking at the window.”
 
The bill collector had not called back.
 
“My meetings with the Estate Duties Office,” Father was saying, “have come to nothing. It is all up with us now.”
 
“But Aunt Felicity!” Daffy protested. “Surely Aunt Felicity—”
 
“Your aunt Felicity has neither the means nor the inclination to alleviate the situation. I’m afraid she’s—”
 
“Coming down for Christmas,” Daffy interrupted. “You could ask her while she’s here!”
 
“No,” Father said sadly, shaking his head. “All means have failed. The dance is over. I have been forced at last to give up Buckshaw—”
 
I let out a gasp.
 
Feely leaned forward, her brow furrowed. She was chewing at one of her fingernails: unheard of in someone as vain as she.
 
Daffy looked on through half- shut eyes, inscrutable as ever.
 
“—to a film studio,” Father went on. “They will arrive in the week before Christmas, and will remain in full possession until their work is complete.”
 
 “But what about us?” Daffy asked. “What’s to become of us?”
 
“We shall be allowed to remain on the premises,” Father replied, “provided we keep to our quarters and don’t interfere in any way with the company’s work at hand. I’m sorry, but those were the best terms I could manage. In return, we shall receive, in the end, sufficient remuneration to keep our noses above water— at least until next Lady Day.”

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Speaking From Among the Bones

Speaking From Among the Bones

A Flavia de Luce Novel
edition:Hardcover
also available: Paperback
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The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches

A Flavia de Luce Mystery
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The Golden Tresses of the Dead
Excerpt

· O N E ·
 
I’d like to remark at the outset that I’m a girl with better than an average brain. Just as some people are given the gift of a singular and often quite remarkable talent—such as Violet Cornish’s uncanny ability to break wind to the tune of “Joy to the World”—I myself, in much the same way, have been blessed with the power of logical thinking. As Violet could easily confirm, it’s something you’re born with, and then improve by much practice.
     The many occasions upon which I had been consulted by the constabulary had sharpened my already consider­able detection skills to the point where I had little choice but to turn professional. And so I had set up with Dogger, my late father’s valet, gardener, and all-round sounding board, a small agency to which we gave the name—to signal respectability—Arthur W. Dogger & Associates.
     Little did we know that our very first case would be so close to home.
     But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me begin at the beginning.
 

My sister Ophelia’s wedding was spoiled only slightly by someone calling out coarsely, as the bride floated in mod­est beauty up the aisle of the ancient church, “Hubba hubba, ding-ding, twenty years in Sing Sing!” The culprit was Carl Pendracka, one of Feely’s former suitors. It was his Cincinnati accent that gave him away.
     We all of us pretended we hadn’t heard, except my odi­ous, moon-faced cousin, Undine, who let out one of her long, wet, horrible, slobbering snickers, such as might have been made by a herd of cannibal cows.
     More troubling, though, was when, just a few moments later—at the precise moment the vicar addressed the con­gregation: “If any man can show any just cause, why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak, or else hereafter forever hold his peace”—one of the carved and painted angels, from its place high among the roof beams, cried out suddenly, in the zany voice of a certain cinema cartoon character, “I do! I do! Call the police!”
     It was Undine, of course, who, bored by lack of atten­tion, decided to practice her ventriloquism—which she had been studying for some time from a sixpenny book.
     Aside from that—except for the human remains—it was a beautiful occasion.
     Preparations had begun far in advance. First there had been the cake.
     “The weddin’ cake must be laid down ’least six months before the nup-chools,” Mrs. Mullet had said, waving a batter-coated wooden spoon at me in the kitchen. “Else the marriage’ll be poisoned.”
     The mention of poison captured my undivided atten­tion.
     “What kind of poison?” I asked.
     “The worst kind. The poison of leavin’ things to be done on the spurt of the moment. Just look at that Lucy Havers, as was, and then talk to me about darin’ the devil. Left it till the day before ’er weddin’ to ’ave ’er cake baked at that Bunne Shoppe in ’Inley, if you can credit it, an’ look what happened to ’er!”
     I raised my eyebrows in a “What happened to her?” signal.
     “ ’Er ’usband—one o’ them Simmonses, ’e was—run off with a tart from the Bunne Shoppe the day after they got ’ome from their ’oneymoon in ’Astings.”
     “If it were me, I’d have run off with an apple pie,” I said, pretending I didn’t understand her meaning, a tactic I am increasingly forced to employ in order to protect my alleged innocence.
     Mrs. Mullet smiled at my modesty. “Like I said, a wed­din’ fruitcake must be laid down six months ahead o’ time and left to sleep in the larder till required,” she said, re­turning to her theme. Mrs. Mullet could be uncommonly informative when allowed to lecture uninterrupted, and I pulled up a chair to listen.
     “Like layin’ the keel of a battleship,” she went on. “You mustn’t leave it till the enemy’s in sight.”
     “Who’s the enemy?” I asked. “The groom?”
     Mrs. Mullet laid a forefinger alongside her nose in the ancient sign of secrecy. “That’s for every woman to find out for ’erself,” she said, tapping the finger and causing her nose to give off an alarming hollow knocking sound. She lowered her voice. “And till she does, she needs all the spells she can get to keep away the Old Ones.”
     The Old Ones? This was becoming truly interesting. First poisons, and now malevolent supernatural spirits. And it wasn’t yet ten o’clock in the morning!
     Mrs. Mullet was now scraping the batter out of the bowl and into a large cake pan.
     “Here, let me help you,” I said, reaching for the oven door.
     “Not yet,” Mrs. Mullet said, surprisingly short-tempered. “First things first. Grab an ’andful o’ them sticks and toss ’em on top of the fire.
     “In the basket there,” she added, pointing with the spoon, as if I hadn’t seen them.
     A wicker basket beside the cooker was half filled with a tangle of twigs and branches. “Run a bit of water in the sink,” she said. “We wants ’em good an’ damp.”
     I did as I was told.
     “To make steam?” I asked, wondering how the steam was going to find its way from the firebox to the oven chamber.
     “Somethin’ like that,” Mrs. Mullet said, as I opened the firebox and threw the wet wood on top of the fire. “An’ somethin’ else besides.”
     Again, the finger beside the nose.
     “Protection,” I guessed. “Against the enemy?”
     “That’s right, dear,” Mrs. Mullet said. “ ’Azel and ’aw­thorn. I gathered ’em with my own ’ands in Gibbet Wood. Now, one more thing an’ we’re ready to pop in the cake.”
     She pulled a sprig of needled leaves from the pocket of her apron. “Rosemary!” I exclaimed. I recognized it from the kitchen garden.
     “That’s right, dear,” Mrs. Mullet said again, as the warm spicy odor of the herb filled the kitchen. “To remind Miss Ophelia of ’er ’ome, and all them as ’ave ever loved ’er. Rosemary in the oven for the cake and rosemary in ’er bouquet. It also ’elps keep off the ’obgoblins.”
     “I thought rosemary was for funerals,” I said.
     I remembered that because Daffy was always quoting Shakespeare.
     “An’ so it is, dear. Funerals and weddin’s both. That’s why it’s such an ’andy ’erb to ’ave round the ’ouse. Which is why we grows it in the kitchen garden. If we wants it for weddin’s we soaks it in scented water and braids it into the bride’s veil and bouquet. For funerals, we wets it with rainwater an’ tosses it into the open grave on top of the coffin.
     “We also tucks a bit of it into the shroud,” she added. “If we ’ave one, of course, which most of us doesn’t nowa­days, what with it bein’ charged as an extra expense by the undertakers.”
     “And the hazel sticks?” I asked.
     “Guarantees descendants,” she said, her face suddenly serious.
Poor Feely, I thought. Alone upstairs at this very mo­ment, innocently picking her pimples in a sterling silver hand mirror without the faintest idea that the cook was in the kitchen, already fiddling with her future. It almost made me feel sorry for my sister.
      “Now don’t ask me no more pesky questions,” Mrs. Mullet said. “I’ve got four more layers to bake an’ dinner to get started for you lot.”
      “What about the hawthorn?” I asked, even though I already knew the answer. It is believed by some—but not by me—that the haws, or berries, and the flowers of the hawthorn preserve in their smell the stench of the Great Plague of London, whereas I, with my scientific mind, know perfectly well that both haws and flowers of the tree contain a substantial quantity of trimethylamine, which is the chemical compound responsible for the smell of putrefaction.
      “Never you mind,” Mrs. Mullet said. “Ask me no ques­tions and I shall tell you no lies.”
It was her standard response to any question whose ex­pected answer had to do with the birds and the bees.
      “Thanks, Mrs. M,” I said cheerfully. “It’s just as I sus­pected.”
     And I skipped out of the kitchen before she could fling a piece of pastry at me.
     Anyway, as I was saying, the wedding was . . . well . . . interesting.
     Although it was autumn, St. Tancred’s was decked with exotic flowers: early narcissi, show pinks, and snap­dragons, all flown in for the occasion from the Isles of Scilly by Feely’s godfather, Bunny Spirling, a dear old friend of our late father. Feely had asked Bunny to give her away.
      “If only it were for keeps,” I had remarked when she told me the news.
      “Silence, you suppurating cyst!” Feely had shot back. “What makes you think it won’t be? You may never ever see me again.”
      “Oh, you’ll be back,” I told her. “There are two things in life that can be counted upon to return: a married sister and the smell of drains. Quite frankly, I’d prefer the drains.”
     I shot Dieter a sidelong wink to let him know I bore him no hard feelings. You can’t punish a basically decent chap simply for marrying the resident witch.
     But to get back to the wedding . . .
     There had been a last-minute panic when it was dis­covered, ten minutes before the scheduled time, that Dieter’s best man had still not arrived.
      “He’ll turn up,” Dieter said. “Reggie is an honorable man.”
      “Like Brutus?” Daffy had blurted. Daffy sometimes has the habit of putting her mouth in gear before engaging her brain.
     Reggie Mould was the British pilot who had shot Dieter down and was, therefore, the cause of Dieter’s remain­ing in England after the war. They had since become fast friends and shared, like all pilots, that mystic brother­hood of the air.
     Dieter took Daffy and me aside. “You mustn’t be sur­prised when you meet Reggie. He’s a member of the Guinea Pig Club.”
     We both of us looked at Dieter blankly.
      “After he bagged me, Reggie himself went down into the Channel in flames. He was very badly burned. He spent ages in Queen Victoria Hospital. You have proba­bly read about it.”
     We shook our heads.
      “Dr. McIndoe worked miracles with skin grafts. . . .”
     A shadow crossed his face.
      “But still . . .” he added, trailing off into some silent memory of his own.
      “Don’t stare,” I said, grasping his meaning immediately.
     Dieter’s face lit up in a glorious grin. “Exactly,” he said. “Look. Here he comes now.”
     An ancient green MG with a blatting exhaust was looming at the lych-gate, and a young man extracted himself gingerly from the low-slung cockpit.
     He came slowly toward us through the churchyard.
      “Tallyho!” he shouted as soon as he spotted Dieter.
      “Horrido!” Dieter replied.
     Saint Horridus, I recalled Dieter telling me, was the patron saint of hunters and fighter pilots.
     The two men hugged and slapped each other on the back—carefully, I noticed, in Dieter’s case.
      “I thought I’d put paid to you the first time I had you in my sights.” Reggie laughed. “Now I’m back to jolly well finish off the job properly.”
     Dieter laughed graciously, as he had learned to do since meeting my sister. “I’d like to introduce to you my sisters-in-law,” he said.
     I was grateful that he hadn’t said “future.”
     Even though I had been forewarned, as Reggie turned, the air went out of me.
His face was a ghastly blank: a grotesque mask of dry and fragile sheeting, as if someone had coated his skin with papier-mâché and painted it white and then red. His mouth was a round black hole.
     Only the eyes were alive, sparkling mischievous fire at me from their raggedly deep dark sockets.
      “Charmed,” Reggie croaked. His voice was that of a man who had breathed flames. “You’re the Shakespeare authority,” he said, offering Daffy a handshake.
      “Well, not actually,” she began as Reggie turned to me.
      “And you’re the poisonous one, Flavia. We must have a chat before I leave.”
     Then, assuming a hissing, bloodcurdling, snakelike voice, he added: “I have dark designs on several of my lesser enemies.”
     He needed to say no more. He had won my heart.
      “Wizard!” I said, with a grin like the blazing sun, and trotting out the only bit of RAF slang I could remember at the moment.
     Dieter then introduced Reggie to Aunt Felicity, who, offering him a cigarette, launched into a questionable RAF joke, which rather shocked me, but which I realized was meant to set Reggie instantly at ease, and to make the two of them forever comrades-in-arms.
     Dieter’s parents had flown over from Germany to at­tend the wedding. Although his father was a publisher and his mother an archaeologist, they stood off to one side at the church door, not forgotten, but too exotic, perhaps, to be casually chatted up by the villagers of Bishop’s Lacey.
     I wandered over for a few words, having learned earlier that both spoke excellent English. Complimenting their son’s fine singing voice seemed an appropriate and wel­coming way to open the conversation.
      “Dieter must have learned to sing at twenty thousand feet,” I said.
     They looked at me blankly.
      “From the angels,” I explained, and they both laughed heartily.
      “We thought we had lost him to England,” Dieter’s mother confessed, “but it is comforting to know that someone has already found him.”
     I wasn’t quite sure that I understood completely, but we all three of us beamed at one another like fellow mag­istrates.
      “Your English weather is quite like our own in au­tumn,” Dieter’s father observed, gesturing to the beautiful day around him.
      “Yes,” I said, not having enough international experi­ence to form an opinion. “Have you been here before?”
      “Oh yes,” Dieter’s father replied. “My wife and I both read Greats up at Oxford.”
     Which shut my mouth.
     Dieter, meanwhile, off among the tombstones, was en­grossed in animated conversation with Reggie Mould, their hands tracing out zooming, swooping angles in the air.
     “We’d better go inside,” I said. “Feely will be thinking we’ve abandoned her.”
     And so it all began.
 

 
A church is a wonderful place for a wedding, surrounded as it is by the legions of the dead, whose listening bones bear silent witness to every promise made—and bro­ken—at the altar.
     Dead now, every last one of them, including the man who invented the rule about not putting your elbows on the dinner table. Most of these had taken their vows at this very altar, and each in his turn reduced by life and time at first to juice . . . and then to dust.
     As Daffy once pointed out to me, the Latin word car­narium can mean both “cemetery” and “larder,” which shows that the Romans knew what they were talking about. The function of a churchyard—and the church itself, to some extent—is to digest the dead: There’s no point in pretending otherwise.
     After Undine’s shocking outburst of ventriloquism, the ceremony itself went relatively well. Feely, although it pains me to say so, was radiant in the wedding dress that had belonged to our mother, Harriet. Radiant or not, it gave me the shivers.
     When all of the proper words had been spoken, rings and vows exchanged, and the register duly signed, the vicar, Denwyn Richardson, held up a hand signaling us to remain in our seats.
      “Before walking down the aisle and departing upon their newly married life, Mr. and Mrs. Schrantz,” he said, “have prepared a personal thanks—a little gift—to each and every one of you, who have come from near and far to share their happy day.”
     It took a moment for me to realize that “Mr. and Mrs. Schrantz” meant Dieter and Feely, who were already mov­ing toward the grand piano which had been carted from Buckshaw to the church in the early hours of the morning.
     Feely, flushing furiously in her billowing white wed­ding dress and veil, fiddled annoyingly, as she usually does, with the height of the piano stool, twisting it this way and that in a series of ever-diminishing adjustments until it met the stringent requirements of her fastidious backside. Then she sat down and lifted the lid.
     There was a long, expectant silence and then, at last, her hands fell upon the keys and she began to play.
     A series of descending chords, following one upon an­other, joined in a melody of childlike simplicity.
     Dieter stood stiffly at the foot of the piano which, to my way of thinking, looked in the shafts of light from the stained-glass windows uncommonly like a polished black coffin. He shoved a hand in the front of his morning coat, and began to sing—in German:
      “Fremd bin ich eingezogen . . .”
     It was “Gute Nacht,” from the song cycle Winterreise. I recognized the song at once as one of Franz Schubert’s lieder, those songs of love and longing so popular in the last century, yet still so beloved by The Third Programme, on the BBC wireless Home Service.
      “I came among you as a stranger,” the song began, and went on to tell the sad tale of a lovestruck young man, standing in the snowy darkness at his lover’s gate. He dares not disturb her dreams, but instead, writes on her gate the words “Good night,” so that when she awakes, she will know he was thinking of her.
     Even though Daffy had explained the whole thing to me in great detail, I didn’t then—and still don’t—understand how it is that love feeds so voraciously on sadness.
     Come to think of it, Dieter had come among us as a stranger—a prisoner of war, in fact—but had long since been welcomed with open arms. He was now as much a part of Bishop’s Lacey as the tower of St. Tancred’s. Had he chosen to sing this particular song at his wedding as a way of expressing the fate he had so narrowly escaped?
     The sound of Dieter’s voice made my hair stand on end. His rich baritone filled the church with a warmth that made you turn and smile at your closest fellow man: in my case, Cynthia Richardson, the vicar’s wife, who wiped away wet tears from each eye. Cynthia, too, and her husband, in the tragic loss of their first and only child, had known grief of that same intensity of which Dieter was singing.
     I caught Cynthia’s eye and gave her a wink. She re­turned a sad, wry, silly smile.
Schubert’s melody line was rising like a staircase to heaven. In spite of its melancholy words, the music was that of hope, ever and ever higher, ever and ever more haunting.
     It was, I realized with a gasp, the story of my life to date, and I was suddenly finding it difficult to breathe.
     Great music has much the same effect upon humans as cyanide, I managed to think: It paralyzes the respiratory system.
     Get a grip on yourself, Flavia, I thought.
     I had heard stories of people flying to pieces at wed­dings but had never imagined it could happen to me.
     Was it the sudden realization that after today Feely would be gone forever from Buckshaw? It seemed un­thinkable.
     The two of us had waged war upon each other since the day she had first overturned my pram. What would I do without her?
     I twisted round in the pew and glanced back at Dogger, who had chosen to sit with Mrs. Mullet and her husband, Alf (he in a new suit with a chest full of medals), at the back of the church.
     We had tried to insist upon them sitting with the family—which consisted today of just Daffy, myself, and, unfortunately, Undine.
     But Dogger had demurred.
      “I shouldn’t feel comfortable, Miss Flavia,” he said. When he saw my disappointment, he had added, “One must be free to be oneself at weddings, despite the fal-lal and flapdoodle.”
     I knew that he was right.
     All too soon Dieter’s song came to its inevitable end. It was greeted with an explosion of applause from nearly everybody, an ear-splitting two-fingered whistle from Carl Pendracka, and an inexplicable wail—that of a wolf howling at the moon—from Undine.
     I was about to pinch her when she bared her sharp lit­tle fangs at me in a werewolf grin, and I let my hand fall to my side.
      “Gute nacht,” she whispered in a rasping, guttural voice that could be heard as far away as the font.
     Someone giggled, but it wasn’t me.
     Feely closed the piano lid, screwed down the seat of the stool, strode back to the top of the aisle, and reas­sumed the role of a blushing bride.
     Transformations, I thought, are everywhere. We are all of us in the process of becoming someone—or something—else. If only we knew it, there are probably people all around us who are in the process of becoming dead.
     Later, I wished I hadn’t thought that.
     Well, almost.
     After Feely finished fussing with her dress almost as much as if it were a piano stool, she was ready to begin her walk down the aisle.
     As Maximilian Brock, drafted in for the occasion, un­leashed the full power of the organ upon us—something from Wagner, I think—Feely seized Dieter’s arm and began her stroll to the door, taking her own good time about it. I could see that she was having her day and was going to make the most of it.
     Feely had first asked Daffy and me to be her brides­maids, but we had both declined: Daffy because she believed bridesmaids at a wedding to be superstitious hokum (“Originally meant to scare away spooks,” she in­sisted) and I because I wasn’t going to climb into ballet tights just to pander to a sister’s whim.
      “What a relief!” Feely had told us. “I didn’t want either of you anyway. I asked only out of courtesy. Actually, I’ve promised Sheila and Flossie Foster since we were tod­dlers, and I couldn’t possibly back out now—not that I’d want to, anyway.”
     And that was that. I have to admit that the Foster sis­ters lent glamour to the occasion. Having put away their chewing gum and tennis rackets for a few hours, they were radiant in autumn-colored faille frocks with Elizabe­than collars, sweetheart necklines, and full skirts.
     And I might as well mention that, in order not to be outdone, they both also wore tiaras, with Juliet caps em­broidered with pearls and silver beads.
     Not that I care a rat’s rompers what they draped them­selves with, but I’m always trying to sharpen my already formidable powers of observation.
     I, having fallen in behind, was able to follow the pro­cession closely down the aisle to the porch, where the Misses Puddock, Lavinia and Aurelia, perched on match­ing shooting sticks, had already staked out their vantage point.
     Cameras large and small flashed and clicked as the happy couple paused in the porch and smiled out upon the assembled villagers, some of whom, although not present in the church for the ceremony, had gathered in the churchyard to cheer and tug their forelocks in re­spect, and as a way of getting an hour or so off work with hopes of a free drink or two.
     When the wedding was being planned, the Misses Puddock had tried to horn in, as they always did, by offer­ing to perform one of their dreary musical offerings free of charge.
      “Oh no,” Feely had told them. “You must be at the door to catch my bouquet.”

Now, with a modest, maidenly backhand, Feely tossed her bouquet into the air. For a girl who could bowl a cricket ball with the best of them when she felt like it, it seemed a frail and puny effort.
     Although Miss Lavinia and Miss Aurelia were both in their seventies, and well past the age when most females traipse to the altar, hope still burned eternal, apparently, in their respective withered breasts. These two ancient sisters shot off their respective shooting sticks like an­cient skyrockets, and fell upon the flowers as hounds upon the fox, clawing and hissing at each other as if it were a catfight rather than a celebration of Holy Matri­mony. Blows and several shocking words were exchanged. It was not a pleasant spectacle.
     The real horror, however, was not to come until the reception.

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The Grave's a Fine and Private Place

The Grave's a Fine and Private Place

A Flavia de Luce Novel
edition:Paperback
also available: Hardcover
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Excerpt

•One•

I am on my deathbed.

Again.

Although I have done everything in my power to survive, it has not been enough. A human being can only bear so much.

I turn my face to the wall in bitter remembrance.

Father had died suddenly at Christmas, leaving a colossal vacuum which we quickly realized would never—­could never—­be filled. In some strange way, he had been the secret glue which held us all together, and with his passing my sisters and I, never friends at the best of times, had now—­and quite inexplicably—­become the most deadly of mortal enemies. Each of us, wanting desperately to be in charge—­to gain some control over her shattered life—­found herself at odds with the others at every turn. Words and crockery were thrown with equal carelessness. It didn’t seem to matter much who was hit.

With our family on the verge of breaking up, Aunt Felicity had come down from London to sort us out.

Or so she claimed.

In case we had forgotten it, we were quickly reminded of the fact that our dear auntie was—­as the Book of Common Prayer so charitably puts it—­a woman who followed the devices and desires of her own heart.

In short, she was at best a stubborn old woman and at worst a bully and a tyrant.

Buckshaw was to be sold at once, Aunt Felicity insisted, even though in law it was mine to do with as I pleased. Feely was to be married off to her fiancé, Dieter Schrantz, with all haste—­or at least as quickly as possible—­as soon as a respectable period of mourning had been observed.

Daffy would be sent up to Oxford to read English.

“Who knows but that, given time, you might even become a gifted teacher,” Aunt Felicity had said, upon which Daffy had thrown her teacup and saucer into the fireplace and stormed out of the room.

Tantrums were useless, Aunt Felicity had told us icily. Tantrums solve no problems, but only create new ones.

As for me, I was to be taken up to London, along with my cousin Undine, to live with Aunt Felicity until she could decide what to do with us. In my case, I knew that meant sending me somewhere to continue those studies which had been interrupted when I was chucked out of Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy, in Canada.

But what of Dogger and Mrs. Mullet? What would become of them?

“They shall be paid off and each given a small pension in proportion to their years of service,” Aunt Felicity had decreed. “And I’m sure they will both be very grateful.”

Dogger fobbed off with a pension? It was unthinkable. Dogger had given us almost his entire life: first to my father, then to my mother, and later to my sisters and myself.

I pictured him sitting on a quaint wooden bench by a river somewhere, dressed in a rough-­spun pensioner’s jacket, forced to beg bread from the passing tourists, who took occasional snapshots of him to send home to their cretinous relatives.

Dogger deserved better than that.

And Mrs. Mullet?

Left to cook for total strangers, she would languish and die, and we would be responsible.

Our lives were looking exceedingly grim.

Then, at the beginning of February, to make matters worse, King George had died: King George VI, that lovely man who once sat and chatted so happily with me in our drawing room as if I were his own daughter; and with his passing, the entire nation—­indeed all of the Commonwealth countries, perhaps even the whole world—­joined in the shock and sadness of our own recent bereavement.

And what of me? What of Flavia de Luce?

I would perish, I decided.

Rather than submit to a lifetime locked in some dismal pigeon-­infested London square with an aunt who valued the Union Jack more than her own blood, I would simply do away with myself.

And as an authority on poisons, I knew precisely how to accomplish it.

No cyanide for me, thank you!

I knew the symptoms all too well: the vertigo, the dizziness, the burning in the throat and stomach and, as the vagus nerve becomes paralyzed, the difficulty in breathing, the cold sweat, the feeble pulse, the muscular paralysis, the crushing heaviness of the heart, the slobbering .?.?.

I think it was the slobbering, more than anything, that put me off the cyanide. What self-­respecting young woman would want to be found dead in her bedroom drowned in her own drool?

There were easier ways of joining the Heavenly Choir.

And so, here I am on my deathbed, all warm and cozy, my half-­closed eyes moving slowly for the last time across that ghastly red-­clotted mustard-­yellow wallpaper.

I shall simply fall asleep and they will never find so much as a trace of what it was that did me in. How clever of me to have hit upon it!

They’ll be sorry, I thought. They’ll all be sorry.

But no! I mustn’t let it end like that. Mustn’t let it end with such a commonplace expression. That was the kind of platitude milkmaids died with—­or match girls.

The death of Flavia de Luce demanded something greater: some great and noble words to hold in my mind as I stepped across the threshold of the universe.

But what were they to be?

Religion had been done to death.

Perhaps I could conjure up some great insight into the peculiar electron bonding of diborane (B2H6), for instance, or the as yet unsolved atomic valences of Zeise’s salt.

Yes, that was it!

Paradise would welcome me. “Well done, de Luce,” the vast crystal angels would say, flickering with frozen fire as I set foot upon their doorstep.

I hugged myself, cuddling in my own warmth.

How comfortable death was when properly done.

“Miss Flavia,” Dogger said, breaking in upon my pleasant thoughts. He had stopped rowing the skiff for a few moments and was pointing.

I snapped out of my reverie in a split second. If it had been anyone but Dogger, I’d have taken my sweet time about it.

“That’s Volesthorpe over there,” he said, pointing. “St. Mildred’s is just to the left of the tallest elm.”

He knew I wouldn’t want to miss it: St.-­Mildred’s-­in-­the-­Marsh, where Canon Whitbread, the notorious “Poisoning Parson,” had just two years ago dispatched several of his female parishioners by lacing their Communion wine with cyanide.

It had been done for love, of course. Poison and Passion, I have discovered, are as closely connected as Laurel and Hardy.

“Looks a harmless enough place,” I said. “Like something from the pages of Picturesque England.”

“Yes,” Dogger said. “Such places often do. Horrific crimes can sometimes bleed a location of all feeling.”

He fell into silence as he gazed across the water and I knew he was thinking of the Japanese prisoner-­of-­war camp in which he and Father had been so badly abused.

As I have said, Father’s death, six months ago, was the reason we were now adrift on the river: my sisters, Ophelia and Daphne, and, of course, me, Flavia.

Undine, as originally planned, had already gone up to London with Aunt Felicity.

In the bow, her face damp with mosquito repellent, Feely lay languishing on a couple of striped pillows, staring down at her own reflection in the still water just ahead of our punt. She had not spoken since we set out this morning. The fingers of her right hand hammered out a tune on the gunwales—­one of Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words: I recognized it by the rhythm—­but her face was a perfect blank.

On the raised wicker seat, Daffy sat hunched over a book—­Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy—­oblivious to the glorious English landscape sliding slowly by on either side.

Father’s sudden and unexpected death had knocked our family into a kind of coma, brought on, I believe, by the fact that we de Luces are constitutionally incapable of expressing our grief.

Only Dogger had broken down, howling like a dog in the night, then silent and impassive in the long and tortured days that followed.

It was pitiful.

The funeral had been a shambles. Denwyn Richardson, the vicar and one of Father’s oldest and dearest friends, had been seized at the outset by uncontrollable sobbing, unable to continue, and the service had to be halted until a stopgap clergyman could be found. In the end, poor old Canon Walpole was located in the next village, dragged from his sickbed, and rushed to St. Tancred’s, where he finished what his colleague had begun, barking from a rattling chest cold at the graveside like a hundred hounds.

It was a nightmare.

Bent on taking charge, Aunt Felicity had (as I have said) swooped down from London, the death of her only—­and younger—­brother having driven her into a frenzy, during which she treated us all like particularly dim-­witted galley slaves, slinging orders about like a grill cook:

“Straighten those magazines, Flavia. Put them in alphabetical and then in chronological order, right side up, in the cupboard. This is a drawing room, not a jackdaw’s nest. Ophelia, fetch a mop and pull down those spider’s webs. The place is like a tomb.”

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The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
Excerpt

ONE

It was as black in the closet as old blood. They had shoved me in and locked the door. I breathed heavily through my nose, fighting desperately to remain calm. I tried counting to ten on every intake of breath, and to eight as I released each one slowly into the darkness. Luckily for me, they had pulled the gag so tightly into my open mouth that my nostrils were left unobstructed, and I was able to draw in one slow lungful after another of the stale, musty air.

I tried hooking my fingernails under the silk scarf that bound my hands behind me but, since I always bit them to the quick, there was nothing to catch. Jolly good luck then that I’d remembered to put my fingertips together, using them as ten firm little bases to press my palms apart as they had pulled the knots tight.

Now I rotated my wrists, squeezing them together until I felt a bit of slack, using my thumbs to work the silk down until the knots were between my palms — then between my fingers. If they had been bright enough to think of tying my thumbs together, I should never have escaped. What utter morons they were.

With my hands free at last, I made short work of the gag.

Now for the door. But first, to be sure they were not lying in wait for me, I squatted and peered out through the keyhole at the attic. Thank heavens they had taken the key away with them. There was no one in sight: save for its perpetual tangle of shadows, junk and sad bric-a-brac, the long attic was empty. The coast was clear.

Reaching above my head at the back of the closet, I unscrewed one of the wire coat-hooks from its mounting board. By sticking its curved wing into the keyhole and levering the other end, I was able to form an L-shaped hook, which I poked into the depths of the ancient lock. A bit of judicious fishing and fiddling yielded a gratifying click. It was almost too easy. The door swung open and I was free.

I skipped down the broad stone staircase into the hall, pausing at the door of the dining room just long enough to toss my pigtails back over my shoulders and into their regulation position.

Father still insisted on dinner being served as the clock struck the hour and eaten at the massive oak refectory table, just as it had been when mother was alive.

‘Ophelia and Daphne not down yet, Flavia?’ he asked peevishly, looking up from the latest issue of The British Philatelist, which lay open beside his meat and potatoes.

‘I haven’t seen them in ages,’ I said.

It was true. I hadn’t seen them — not since they had gagged and blindfolded me, then lugged me hogtied up the attic stairs and locked me in the closet.

Father glared at me over his spectacles for the statutory four seconds before he went back to mumbling over his sticky treasures.

I shot him a broad smile: a smile wide enough to present him with a good view of the wire braces that caged my teeth. Although they gave me the look of a dirigible with the skin off, Father always liked being reminded that he was getting his money’s worth. But this time he was too preoccupied to notice.

I hoisted the lid off the Spode vegetable dish and, from the depths of its hand-painted butterflies and raspberries, spooned out a generous helping of peas. Using my knife as a ruler and my fork as a prod, I marshalled the peas so that they formed meticulous rows and columns across my plate: rank upon rank of little green spheres, spaced with a precision that would have delighted the heart of the most exacting Swiss watchmaker. Then, beginning at the bottom left, I speared the first pea with my fork and ate it.

It was all Ophelia’s fault. She was, after all, seventeen, and therefore expected to possess at least a modicum of the maturity she should come into as an adult. That she should gang up with Daphne, who was thirteen, simply wasn’t fair. Their combined ages totalled thirty years. Thirty years! — against my eleven. It was not only unsporting, it was downright rotten. And it simply screamed out for revenge.

Next morning I was busy among the flasks and flagons of my chemical laboratory on the top floor of the east wing when Ophelia barged in without so much as a la-di-dah.

‘Where’s my pearl necklace?’

I shrugged. ‘I’m not the keeper of your trinkets.’

‘I know you took it. The Mint Imperials that were in my lingerie drawer are gone too, and I’ve observed that missing mints in this household seem always to wind up in the same grubby little mouth.’

I adjusted the flame on a spirit lamp that was heating a beaker of red liquid. ‘If you’re insinuating that my personal hygiene is not up to the same high standard as yours you can go suck my galoshes.’

‘Flavia!’

‘Well, you can. I’m sick and tired of being blamed for everything, Feely.’

But my righteous indignation was cut short as Ophelia peered short-sightedly into the ruby flask, which was just coming to the boil.

‘What’s that sticky mass in the bottom?’ Her long, manicured fingernail tapped at the glass.

‘It’s an experiment. Careful, Feely, it’s acid!’

Ophelia’s face went white. ‘Those are my pearls! They belonged to Mummy!’

Ophelia was the only one of Harriet’s daughters who referred to her as ‘Mummy’; the only one of us old enough to have any real memories of the flesh-and-blood woman who had carried us in her body, a fact that Ophelia never tired of reminding us. Harriet had been killed in a mountaineering accident when I was just a year old, and she was not often spoken of at Buckshaw.

Was I jealous of Ophelia’s memories? Did I resent them? I don’t believe I did; it ran far deeper than that. In rather an odd way, I despised Ophelia’s memories of our mother.

I looked up slowly from my work so that the round lenses of my spectacles would flash blank white semaphores of light at her. I knew that whenever I did this, Ophelia had the horrid impression that she was in the presence of some mad black-and-white German scientist in a film at the Gaumont.

‘Beast!’

‘Hag!’ I retorted. But not until Ophelia had spun round on her heel — quite neatly, I thought — and stormed out the door.

Retribution was not long in coming, but then with Ophelia, it never was. Ophelia was not, as I was, a long-range planner who believed in letting the soup of revenge simmer to perfection.

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The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag
Excerpt

One

I was lying dead in the churchyard. an hour had crept by since the mourners had said their last sad farewells.

At twelve o'clock, just at the time we should otherwise have been sitting down to lunch, there had been the departure from Buckshaw: my polished rosewood coffin brought out of the drawing room, carried slowly down the broad stone steps to the driveway, and slid with heartbreaking ease into the open door of the waiting hearse, crushing beneath it a little bouquet of wild flowers that had been laid tenderly inside by one of the grieving villagers.

Then there had been the long drive down the avenue of chestnuts to the Mulford Gates, whose rampant griffins looked away as we passed, though whether in sadness or in apathy I would never know.

Dogger, Father's devoted jack-of-all-trades, had paced in measured step alongside the slow hearse, his head bowed, his hand resting lightly on its roof, as if to shield my remains from something that only he could see. At the gates, one of the undertaker's mutes had finally coaxed him, by using hand signals, into a hired motor car.
 
And so they had brought me to the village of Bishop's Lacey, passing sombrely through the same green lanes and dusty hedgerows I had bicycled every day when I was alive.

At the heaped-up churchyard of St Tancred's, they had taken me gently from the hearse and borne me at a snail's pace up the path beneath the limes. Here, they had put me down for a moment in the new-mown grass.

Then had come the service at the gaping grave, and there had been a note of genuine grief in the voice of the vicar, as he pronounced the traditional words.

It was the first time I'd heard the Order for the Burial of the Dead from this vantage point. We had attended last year, with Father, the funeral of old Mr Dean, the village greengrocer. His grave, in fact, was just a few yards from where I was presently lying. It had already caved in, leaving not much more than a rectangular depression in the grass which was, more often than not, filled with stagnant rainwater.

My oldest sister, Ophelia, said it collapsed because Mr Dean had been resurrected, and was no longer bodily present, while Daphne, my other sister, said it was because he had plummeted through into an older grave whose occupant had disintegrated.

I thought of the soup of bones below: the soup of which I was about to become just another ingredient.

Flavia Sabina de Luce, 1939-1950, they would cause to be carved on my gravestone, a modest and tasteful grey marble thing with no room for false sentiments.

Pity. If I'd lived long enough, I'd have left written instructions calling for a touch of Wordsworth:

A maid whom there were none to praise
And very few to love.

And if they'd baulked at that, I'd have left this as my second choice:

Truest hearts by deeds unkind
To despair are most inclined.

Only Feely, who had played and sung them at the piano, would recognise the lines from Thomas Campion's Third Book of Airs, and she would be too consumed by guilty grief to tell anyone.

My thoughts were interrupted by the vicar's voice.

"…earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our vile body…"

And suddenly they had gone, leaving me there alone - alone to listen for the worms.

This was it: the end of the road for poor Flavia.

By now the family would already be back at Buckshaw, gathered round the long refectory table: Father seated in his usual stony silence, Daffy and Feely hugging one another with slack, tear-stained faces as Mrs Mullet, our cook, brought in a platter of baked meats.

I remembered something that Daffy had once told me when she was devouring The Odyssey: that baked meats, in ancient Greece, were traditional funeral fare, and I had replied that in view of Mrs Mullet's cooking, not much had changed in two and a half thousand years.

But now that I was dead, I thought, perhaps I ought to practise being somewhat more charitable.

Dogger, of course, would be inconsolable. Dear Dogger: butler-cum-chauffeur-cum-valet-cum-gardener-cum-estate-manager: a poor shell-shocked soul whose capabilities ebbed and flowed like the Severn tides; Dogger, who had recently saved my life and forgotten it by the next morning. I should miss him terribly.

And I should miss my chemistry laboratory. I thought of all the golden hours I'd spent there in that abandoned wing of Buckshaw, blissfully alone among the flasks, the retorts and the cheerily bubbling tubes and beakers. And to think that I'd never see them again. It was almost too much to bear.

I listened to the rising wind as it whispered overhead in the branches of the yew trees. It was already growing cool here in the shadows of St Tancred's tower, and it would soon be dark.

Poor Flavia! Poor stone-cold-dead Flavia.

By now, Daffy and Feely would be wishing that they hadn't been so downright rotten to their little sister during her brief eleven years on this earth.

At the thought, a tear started down my cheek.

Would Harriet be waiting to welcome me to Heaven?

Harriet was my mother, who had died in a mountaineering accident a year after I was born. Would she recognise me after ten years? Would she still be dressed in the mountain-climbing suit she was wearing when she met her end, or would she have swapped it by now for a white robe?

Well, whatever she was wearing, I knew it would be stylish.

There was a sudden clatter of wings: a noise that echoed loudly from the stone wall of the church, amplified to an alarming volume by a half-acre of stained glass and the leaning gravestones that hemmed me in. I froze.

Could it be an angel - or more likely, an archangel - coming down to return Flavia's precious soul to Paradise? If I opened my eyes the merest slit, I could see through my eyelashes, but only dimly.

No such luck: it was one of the tattered jackdaws that were always hanging round St Tancred's. These vagabonds had been nesting in the tower since its thirteenth-century stonemasons had packed up their tools and departed.

Now the idiotic bird had landed clumsily on top of a marble finger that pointed to Heaven, and was regarding me coolly, its head cocked to one side, with its bright, ridiculous boot-button eyes.

Jackdaws never learn. No matter how many times I played this trick, they always, sooner or later, came flapping down from the tower to investigate. To the primeval mind of a jackdaw, any body horizontal in a churchyard could have only one meaning: food.

As I had done a dozen times before, I leapt to my feet and flung the stone that was concealed in my curled fingers. I missed—but then I nearly always did.

With an "awk" of contempt, the thing sprang into the air and flapped off behind the church, towards the river.

Now that I was on my feet, I realised I was hungry. Of course I was! I hadn't eaten since breakfast. For a moment I wondered vaguely if I might find a few leftover jam tarts or a bit of cake in the kitchen of the parish hall. The St Tancred's Ladies' Auxiliary had gathered the night before, and there was always the chance.

As I waded through the knee-high grass, I heard a peculiar snuffling sound, and for a moment I thought the saucy jackdaw had come back to have the last word.

I stopped and listened.

Nothing.

And then it came again.

I find it sometimes a curse and sometimes a blessing that I have inherited Harriet's acute sense of hearing, since I am able, as I am fond of telling Feely, to hear things that would make your hair stand on end. One of the sounds to which I am particularly attuned is the sound of someone crying.

It was coming from the north-west corner of the churchyard - from somewhere near the wooden shed in which the sexton kept his grave-digging tools. As I crept slowly forward on tiptoe, the sound grew louder: someone was having a good old-fashioned cry, of the knock-'em-down-drag-'em-out variety.

It is a simple fact of nature that while most men can walk right past a weeping woman as if their eyes are blinkered and their ears stopped up with sand, no female can ever hear the sound of another in distress without rushing instantly to her aid.

I peeped round a black marble column, and there she was, stretched out full length, face down on the slab of a limestone tomb, her red hair flowing out across the weathered inscription like rivulets of blood. Except for the cigarette wedged stylishly erect between her fingers, she might have been a painting by one of the Pre-Raphaelites, such as Burne-Jones. I almost hated to intrude.

"Hullo," I said. "Are you all right?"

It is another simple fact of nature that one always begins such conversations with an utterly stupid remark. I was sorry the instant I'd uttered it.

"Oh! Of course I'm all right," she cried, leaping to her feet and wiping her eyes. "What do you mean by creeping up on me like that? Who are you, anyway?"

With a toss of her head she flung back her hair and stuck out her chin. She had the high cheekbones and the dramatically triangular face of a silent cinema star, and I could see by the way she bared her teeth that she was terrified.

"Flavia," I said. "My name is Flavia de Luce. I live near here - at Buckshaw."

I jerked my thumb in the general direction.

She was still staring at me like a woman in the grip of a nightmare.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't mean to startle you."

She pulled herself up to her full height - which couldn't have been much more than five feet and an inch or two - and took a step towards me, like a hot-tempered version of the Botticelli Venus that I'd once seen on a Huntley and Palmer's biscuit tin.

I stood my ground, staring at her dress. It was a creamy cotton print with a gathered bodice and a flaring skirt, covered all over with a myriad of tiny flowers, red, yellow, blue, and a bright orange the colour of poppies, and, I couldn't help noticing, a hem that was stained with half-dried mud.

"What's the matter?" she asked, taking an affected drag at her angled cigarette. "Never seen anyone famous before?"

Famous? I hadn't the faintest idea who she was. I had half a mind to tell her that I had indeed seen someone famous, and that it was Winston Churchill. Father had pointed him out to me from a London taxicab. Churchill had been standing in front of the Savoy with his thumbs hooked in his waistcoat pockets, talking to a man in a yellow mackintosh.

"Good old Winnie," Father had breathed, as if to himself.

"Oh, what's the use?" the woman said. "Bloody place… bloody people… bloody motor cars!" And she began to cry again.

"Is there something I can do to help?" I asked.

"Oh, go away and leave me alone," she sobbed.

Very well, then, I thought. Actually, I thought more than that, but since I'm trying to be a better person…

I stood there for a moment, leaning forward a bit to see if her fallen tears were reacting with the porous surface of the tombstone. Tears, I knew, were composed largely of water, sodium chloride, manganese, and potassium, while limestone was made up chiefly of calcite, which was soluble in sodium chloride - but only at high temperatures. So unless the temperature of St Tancred's churchyard went up suddenly by several hundred degrees, it seemed unlikely that anything chemically interesting was going to be happening here.

I turned and walked away.

"Flavia…"

I looked back. She was reaching out a hand to me.

"I'm sorry," she said. "It's just that it's been an awfully bloody day all round."

I stopped - then paced slowly, warily back as she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand.

"Rupert was in a foul mood to begin with - even before we left Stoatmoor this morning. We'd had rather a row, I'm afraid, and then the whole business with the van - it was simply the last straw. He's gone off to find someone to fix it, and I'm… well, here I am."

"I like your red hair," I said. She touched it instantly and smiled, as I somehow knew she would.

"Carrot-top, they used to call me when I was your age. Carrot-top! Fancy!"

"Carrot tops are green," I said. "Who's Rupert?"

"Who's Rupert?" she asked. "You're having me on!"

She pointed a finger and I turned to look: parked in the lane at the corner of the churchyard was a dilapidated van - an Austin Eight. On its side panel, in showy gold circus letters, still legible through a heavy coating of mud and dust, were the words "PORSON'S PUPPETS."

"Rupert Porson," she said. "Everyone knows Rupert Porson. Rupert Porson, as in Snoddy the Squirrel - The Magic Kingdom. Haven't you seen him on the television?"

Snoddy the Squirrel? The Magic Kingdom?

"We don't have the television at Buckshaw," I said. "Father says it's a filthy invention."

"Father is an uncommonly wise man," she said. "Father is undoubtedly -"

She was interrupted by the metallic rattle of a loose chain-guard as the vicar came wobbling round the corner of the church. He dismounted and leaned his battered Raleigh up against a handy headstone. As he walked towards us, I reflected that Canon Denwyn Richardson was not anyone's image of a typical village vicar. He was large and bluff and hearty, and if he'd had tattoos, he might have been mistaken for the captain of one of those rusty tramp steamers that drags itself wearily from one sundrenched port to another in whatever God-awful outposts are still left of the British Empire.

His black clerical outfit was smudged and streaked with chalky dust, as if he'd come a cropper on his bicycle.

"Blast!" he said when he spotted me. "I've lost my trouser clip and torn my cuff to ribbons," and then, dusting himself off as he walked towards us, he added, "Cynthia's going to have me on the carpet."

The woman's eyes widened and she shot me a quick glance.

"She's recently begun scratching my initials on my belongings with a needle," he added, "but that hasn't kept me from losing things. Last week the hectograph sheets for the parish bulletin, the week before a brass doorknob from the vestry. Maddening, really.

"Hello, Flavia," he added. "Always nice to see you at church."

"This is our vicar, Canon Richardson," I told the redheaded woman. "Perhaps he can help."

"Denwyn," the vicar said, holding out a hand to the stranger. "We don't stand much on ceremony since the war."

The woman stuck out two or three fingers and touched his palm, but said nothing. As she extended her hand, the short sleeve of her dress slid up, and I had a quick glimpse of the ugly green and purple bruise on her upper arm. She covered it hastily with her left hand as she tugged the cotton fabric down to hide it.

"And how may I be of service?" the vicar asked, gesturing towards the van. "It is not often that we, in our bucolic little backwater, are called upon to minister to such august theatre folk."

She smiled gamely. "Our van's broken down - or as good as. Something to do with the carburettor. If it had been anything electrical, I'm sure Rupert could have mended it in a flash, but I'm afraid the fuel system is beyond him."

"Dear, dear!" the vicar said. "I'm sure Bert Archer, at the garage, can put it right for you. I'll ring him up, if you like."

"Oh, no," the woman said quickly - perhaps too quickly, ";we wouldn't want you to go to any trouble. Rupert's gone down the high street. He's probably already found someone."

"If he had, he'd be back by now," the vicar said. "Let me ring Bert. He often slips home for a nap in the afternoon. He's not as young as he was, you know - nor are any of us, if it comes to that. Still, it is a favourite maxim of mine that when dealing with motor mechanics - even tame ones - it never does one any harm to have the blessing of the Church."

"Oh, no. It's too much trouble. I'm sure we'll be just fine."

"Nonsense," the vicar said, already moving off among the forest of gravestones and making at full speed for the rectory. "No trouble at all. I'll be back in a jiffy."

"Vicar!" the woman called. "Please…"

He stopped in mid-stride and came reluctantly back towards us.

"It's just that… you see, we…"

"Aha! A question of money, then," the vicar said.

She nodded sadly, her head down, her red hair cascading over her face.

"I'm sure something can be arranged," the vicar said. "Ah! Here's your husband now."

A little man with an oversized head and a lopsided gait was stumping towards us across the churchyard, his right leg swinging out at each step in a wide, awkward semicircle. As he approached, I saw that his calf was caged in a heavy iron brace.

He must have been in his forties, but it was difficult to tell.

In spite of his diminutive size, his barrel chest and powerful upper arms seemed ready to burst out of the seersucker suit that confined them. By contrast, his right leg was pitiful: by the way in which his trousers clung, and flapped uselessly around what lay beneath, I could see that it was little more than a matchstick. With his huge head, he looked to me like nothing so much as a giant octopus, stalking on uneven tentacles through the churchyard.

He lurched to a halt and deferentially lifted a flat peaked motoring cap, revealing an unruly mop of pale blond hair that matched precisely his little Vandyke goatee.

"Rupert Porson, I presume?" the vicar said, giving the newcomer a jolly, hale-fellow-well-met handshake. "I'm Denwyn Richardson - and this is my young friend, Flavia de Luce."

Porson nodded at me and shot an almost invisibly quick, dark glance at the woman before turning on the full beam of a searchlight smile.

"Spot of engine trouble, I understand," the vicar went on. "Quite maddening. Still, if it has brought the creator of The Magic Kingdom and Snoddy the Squirrel into our midst - well, it just proves the old adage, doesn't it?"

He didn't say which old adage he was referring to, nor did anyone care enough to ask.

"I was about to remark to your good wife," the vicar said, "that St Tancred's would be honoured indeed if you might see your way clear to presenting a little entertainment in the parish hall whilst your van is being repaired? I realise, of course, how much in demand you must be, but I should be negligent if I didn't at least make the attempt on behalf of the children - and yes, the grown-ups, too! - of Bishop's Lacey. It is good, now and then, to allow children to launch an attack upon their money-boxes in a worthy cultural cause, don't you agree?"

"Well, Vicar," Porson said, in a honeyed voice - too big, too resonant, too mellifluous, I thought, for such a tiny man - "we do have rather a tight timetable. Our tour has been gruelling, you see, and London calls…"

"I understand," said the vicar.

"But," Porson added, lifting a dramatic forefinger, "nothing would delight us more than being allowed to sing for our supper, as it were. Isn't that so, Nialla? It shall be quite like the old days."

The woman nodded, but said nothing. She was staring off at the hills beyond.

"Well, then," the vicar said, rubbing his hands together vigorously, as if he were making fire, "it's all arranged. Come along and I'll show you the hall. It's rather tatty, but it does boast a stage, and the acoustics are said to be quite remarkable."

With that, the two men disappeared round the back of the church.

For a moment there seemed nothing to say. And then the woman spoke:

"You wouldn't happen to have a cigarette, would you? I'm dying for a smoke."

I gave my head a rather idiotic shake.

"Hmmm," she said. "You look like the kind of kid who might have."

For the first time in my life, I was speechless.

"I don't smoke," I managed.

"And why is that?" she asked. "Too young or too wise?"

"I was thinking of taking it up next week," I said lamely. "I just hadn't actually got round to it yet."

She threw her head back and laughed toothily, like a film star.

"I like you, Flavia de Luce," she said. "But I have the advantage, don't I? You've told me your name, but I haven't told you mine."

"It's Nialla," I said. "Mr Porson called you Nialla."

She stuck out her hand, her face grave.

"That's right," she said, "he did. But you can call me Mother Goose."

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Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd

Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew'd

A Flavia de Luce Novel
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