Miss Marple meets Oscar Wilde in this new series of cosy mysteries set in the picturesque Cotswolds village of Bunburry. In “Murder at the Mousetrap,” the first Bunburry book, fudge-making and quaffing real ale in the local pub are matched by an undercurrent of passion, jealousy, hatred and murder – laced with a welcome dose of humour.
Alfie McAlister has retreated from London to the peace and quiet of the country to recover from a personal tragedy. But an accidental death – which may have been no accident – reveals that the heart of England is far from the tranquil backwater he imagined. After arriving in Bunburry, he is co-opted as an amateur detective by Liz and Marge, two elderly ladies who were best friends with Alfie’s late Aunt Augusta. And it is not long before their investigations take an even more dramatic turn …
Helena Marchmont is a pseudonym of Olga Wojtas, who was born and brought up in Edinburgh. She was encouraged to write by an inspirational English teacher, Iona M. Cameron. Olga won a Scottish Book Trust New Writers Award in 2015, has had more than 30 short stories published in magazines and anthologies and recently published her first mystery Miss Blaine‘s Prefect and the Golden Samovar.
Murder at the Mousetrap
»be« by BASTEI ENTERTAINMENT
Digital original edition
»be« by Bastei Entertainment is an imprint of Bastei Lübbe AG
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author‘s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. This book is written in British English.
Copyright © 2018 by Bastei Lübbe AG, Schanzenstraße 6-20, 51063 Cologne, Germany
Written by Olga Wojtas as Helena Marchmont
Edited by Allan Guthrie
Idea and series concept: Kathrin Kummer & Rebecca Schaarschmidt
Project editor: Kathrin Kummer
Cover design: Kirstin Osenau
Cover illustrations © shutterstock: JeniFoto | FreeProd33 | Canicula | Sk_Advance studio | ivangal | Nikola Barbutov
E-book production: Dörlemann Satz, Lemförde
Follow the author on Twitter: @OlgaWojtas
This ebook contains an excerpt of “The Gentleman Vanishes” by Matthew Costello and Neil Richards.
Copyright © 2018 by Bastei Lübbe AG, Köln
Cover design: Thomas Krämer
Cover illustrations © shutterstock: jason2009 | suns07butterfly | David Hughes | ohenze
Anybody can be good in the country. There are no temptations there.
Alfie McAlister flees the hustle and bustle of London for the peace and quiet of the Cotswolds. Unfortunately, the „heart of England“ turns out to be deadlier than expected …
Margaret “Marge” Redwood and Clarissa “Liz” Hopkins have lived in Bunburry their entire lives, where they are famous for their exceptional fudge-making skills. Between Afternoon Tea and Gin o’clock they relish a bit of sleuthing …
Emma Hollis loves her job as policewoman, the only thing she is tired of are her aunt Liz‘s constant attempts at matchmaking.
Betty Thorndike is a fighter. Mostly for animal rights. She’s the sole member of Bunburry’s Green Party.
Oscar de Linnet lives in London and is Alfie‘s best friend. He tries luring Alfie back to the City because: “anybody can be good in the country. There are no temptations there.”
Augusta Lytton is Alfie’s aunt. She’s dead. But still full of surprises …
Harold Wilson loves a pint (or two) more than his job as local police sergeant.
BUNBURRY is a picturesque Cotswolds village, where sinister secrets lurk beneath the perfect façade …
The storm was worsening and the train gradually ground to a halt in the middle of nowhere. Alfie peered out into the blackness but could see nothing except the rain hammering against the window. Nothing could have been further from his memories of the Cotswolds. Over thirty years ago now, those idyllic summer holidays when he came to stay with his grandparents. Endless sun-filled days scampering over the hills, exploring the woods, cooling off in the streams. He had been happy because there was no reason to be sad. His boyhood self could never have imagined the sadness that was to come.
His memories were of July and August but his present reality was November. What was that poem? No warmth, no cheerfulness, no fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds, November.
His thoughts were interrupted by the announcement system crackling into life. “We apologise for the delay to the service. This is due to trees on the line.”
Alfie reflected that at least it was a step up from the much-derided excuse for rail delays, “leaves on the line”.
The disembodied voice continued, its nervousness palpable even through the static. “The trees on the line are due to the storm. This is a circumstance beyond our control and we are waiting for the removal of the trees. We apologise to passengers for any inconvenience caused.”
The dark mumblings that indicated outrage on the part of the great British public broke out in the carriage.
“Oh, honestly!” muttered someone.
“They shouldn’t allow trees so close to the line,” muttered someone else.
Alfie opened his book again, a new biography of Oscar Wilde which had been getting rave reviews in all the papers. He realised he had been so caught up in his own thoughts that he was automatically turning the pages without taking in the words. As he flicked back to the beginning, the book fell open at the title page. He smiled as he wondered what anybody else would make of the ink inscription in bold copperplate handwriting:
Sometimes he wondered whether Oscar thought he was some sort of reincarnation of his namesake. Oscar was obsessed by all things Wildean, quoted his hero non-stop, and was known on occasion to complete his dandyish outfit with a green carnation, the mark of a true aficionado. If Oscar said this was the best book ever written about Wilde, Alfie wasn’t going to argue.
But just as he settled down to read it properly, the carriage door swished open to reveal a young ticket collector, who looked distinctly apprehensive. Alfie guessed this was the owner of the disembodied voice. In an uncertain tone, the young man explained that there would be a delay of at least an hour before the track was cleared.
There was an outburst of protests, complaints about missed connections, anxious spouses, ruined dinners. The hapless ticket collector, who must already have run the gauntlet of the other carriages, looked as though he might now run away to join the circus.
Alfie took a gamble. “Not your fault, just one of these things,” he said, raising his voice slightly so that he could be heard by the other passengers. “Tell me, is the buffet trolley around?”
“It’s right behind me, sir,” said the ticket collector eagerly.
“Great,” said Alfie. “Things always look better after a cup of tea.”
“You obviously haven’t tasted it, mate – it’s rubbish!” came a voice from the other end of the carriage.
“Thanks for the warning,” Alfie called back. “In that case, I’ll add a G to the T, and things will look even better.”
There was an outbreak of chuckling, and ripples of conversations.
“I haven’t had the tea, but the coffee is really not bad.”
“Yes, I think they must use those Arabica beans. You know, the good ones?”
“I couldn’t drink coffee this late. I’d be awake all night.”
“I’m sure you’d be fine. Arabica has far less caffeine in it. It’s the instant stuff that’s lethal.”
“Have you tried the flapjacks? They’re lovely and chewy.”
“No, I don’t have a sweet tooth. I go for the salt and vinegar crisps.”
The ticket collector gazed at Alfie in gratitude for defusing the situation. “Can I help you with an onward connection, sir?” he asked.
Alfie shook his head. “I’m getting off at the next stop.”
“Oh, Bunburry? We can’t be more than five miles away. You could practically walk it.”
The rain continued to batter against the windows. Alfie imagined himself heading off into the blackness, hauling his suitcase behind him. He had a sudden image of being trampled to death by a herd of enraged cows, and shuddered. Not a helpful thought. Think of something else.
Another voice broke in. “Do you want anything from the trolley, sir?”
Relieved, Alfie turned his attention to the trolley. He could have a gin and tonic if he wanted, but the atrocious weather outside made him feel in need of a hot drink. He went for coffee, along with a cheese and ham roll and a flapjack. The coffee was palatable, but very definitely instant. He reflected on human beings’ infinite capacity to convince themselves of something that obviously wasn’t true, one of the many things that had fascinated him during his psychology studies. He had no doubt that his fellow passenger would have no problem getting to sleep despite drinking coffee made from caffeine-packed beans.
The roll was substantial but uninspiring. But when he bit into the flapjack, he had an extraordinary sensation of being transported back through the years to when he was eight years old. It wasn’t the same, but there was definitely something, something about the chewiness, the sweetness – he saw himself in his grandmother’s kitchen, taking a tentative bite, and then cramming the rest of the square into his mouth to get every last bit of deliciousness. His mother smiling. “Good, isn’t it? That’s Bunburry fudge, the best fudge in the Cotswolds.”
He had forgotten all about Bunburry fudge until this very moment. Probably so too had everyone else. Another part of his childhood that wouldn’t be coming back. He ate the rest of the flapjack and returned to Oscar’s book.
He had scarcely finished the first chapter when the train lurched into life. There was a collective sigh of relief and some scattered applause. Less than ten minutes later, the ticket collector’s voice, more relaxed now, came over the announcement system. “The next stop is Bunburry. If you are leaving the train, please make sure you take all your personal belongings.”
As Alfie put on his overcoat, he vaguely wondered what impersonal belongings were. He retrieved his suitcase, carefully stowing Oscar’s book in the front pocket, and took out his foldaway umbrella.
He was the only person to leave at Bunburry. As he stepped on to the platform, a violent squall hit him full in the face. He struggled to open the umbrella while the train chugged away towards Cheltenham. His coat wasn’t waterproof, and rain was already trickling down the back of his neck.
There was absolutely no sign of life. Bunburry’s station was unstaffed. The station’s lights were blurred by the heavy rain, and Alfie could see nothing beyond them. He realised he could hardly remember the layout of the village, but he was pretty sure he had to cross the railway bridge. He had hung over this bridge many times when he played with the local kids, watching the trains thunder under it while the sun blazed overhead. But now, as he clambered up the iron steps, the wind tore at his umbrella and wrenched it from his grasp. He watched it whirl away, probably to become a new cause of delayed trains: umbrellas on the line.
When he crossed the bridge, he found an ill-lit notice headed “Onward Travel Information”. He used the light on his phone to read it. “There is no taxi rank in the vicinity of the station,” it went on. “The nearest bus stop is situated outside the Post Office, approximately 750 metres. Village centre – 1.2 km – 15-minute walk.”
Underneath was a map consisting of a jumble of streets, with no sign of a post office, bus stop or any other navigation point. He pushed open the wooden gate under the “Way Out” sign and gingerly made his way along a dark and narrow alley. His coat was already drenched. His expensive Italian leather shoes were made for continental promenades and art galleries, not icy puddles and treacherous cobblestones. His socks were sodden now, and he wished he was back on the train, particularly if it was returning to London.
He squelched to the end of the alley, and started negotiating the maze of rain-splattered buildings. It felt a lot longer than fifteen minutes before he found himself in what seemed familiar territory. He was pretty sure that if he turned right at the end of the street, he would reach his destination, the Drunken Horse Inn. He had never been inside it before, but the local pub was a key village institution.
As he headed in what he hoped was the right direction, Alfie noticed an advertising banner flapping forlornly in the rain. It was only secured at one side, and had wound round itself, so it was impossible to read. Pretty ineffective advertising, he thought. There was laid-back, and there was incompetent. Was this what village life was like? And more to the point, was this what the village’s finest hostelry was like?
He rounded the corner, and there was the Drunken Horse at the far end of the street, looking more drunken than he remembered. It was positively lopsided, an amalgam of three, or maybe four buildings, some one-storey, some two-storeys, which appeared loosely attached to one another. He hoped they would survive the storm better than the banner.
A cheerful hubbub emerged from the pub as he approached the front door. He knew it would cease as soon as he walked in, pints left undrunk, as all the locals stared at the new arrival. That was what he loved about London, its anonymity. Nobody knew who you were and, even better, nobody cared. Here in Bunburry, he would be public property.
He wrapped his dripping coat round him, gripped his suitcase more firmly, took a deep breath, and pushed the door open.
Nobody took any notice of him. He might as well have been invisible. He made his way across to the old-fashioned wooden bar which was being propped up by several men desultorily complaining about the council. They ignored him as he leaned past them to see if anybody was serving.
“Excuse me,” he called to the barmaid chatting to a customer at the other end. She turned to him and smiled warmly. This happened to Alfie a lot and it added greatly to his charm that he just assumed it happened to everybody. He genuinely had no idea of how attractive he was, or the effect he had on many of the opposite sex and some of his own sex.
“Hello,” he said as the barmaid approached. “My name’s Alfie McAlister. I’m booked in for two nights.”
She rootled around under the bar and produced a sort of ledger. She opened it and ran her finger down the page. “Ah yes,” she said. “Mr McAlister.” Apparently the Drunken Horse didn’t hold with online bookings. She reached up for a key attached to a chunk of wood which had “Room 3, The Drunken Horse Inn, Bunburry” carved on it. Apparently the Drunken Horse didn’t hold with keycards either. This didn’t bode well.
“I’ll show you to your room.”
Alfie followed her through a door at the back of the bar.
“Is this your first visit to Bunburry?” she asked as she led the way up a narrow wooden staircase.
“I used to come here a lot when I was a boy, to visit my grandparents.”
“Oh, that’s nice. Are you visiting them now?”
“No,” said Alfie. “They passed away some years ago.” Thirty to be precise, when he had been twelve.
“What a shame,” said the barmaid. “But that’s often the way with grandparents, isn’t it?”
“It is indeed,” agreed Alfie politely.
They were walking along a corridor now, which sloped alarmingly.
“So, just here for the weekend to wander down memory lane?”
“Maybe longer,” said Alfie. “I’ve got a cottage in Love Lane, although I haven’t seen it yet. I’ve just inherited it from my Aunt Augusta.”
The barmaid whirled round, concern on her face. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t realise you were the nephew from London,” she gasped. “We all miss her terribly, but it must be so much worse for you, being family. On behalf of everyone at the Drunken Horse, may I offer you our sincere sympathy.”
“Thank you, that’s most kind of you,” Alfie murmured.
They had reached the end of the corridor and were now in one of the adjoining buildings. The barmaid put the key in the lock of Room 3 and turned it. Alfie braced himself for whatever horrors lay within. All he needed was somewhere to sleep tonight – however bad Room 3 was, it must at least have a bed, and he could always cancel the second night.
“You’re still in time for a bar supper,” the barmaid was saying as she opened the door.
Alfie didn’t fancy some mass-produced meal which had been heated up in the bar microwave. “Thanks, I ate on the train,” he said.
“There’s tea and coffee making facilities in the room,” she said, ushering him in.
Alfie stood in disbelief. A timber-beamed ceiling and whitewashed walls. Polished wooden floorboards covered in antique rugs. A four-poster bed. Velvet curtains. Discreet and effective central heating. A flat screen television. A state of the art coffee machine.
“All our rooms are en-suite,” the barmaid went on, pushing open another door. The bathroom was dazzlingly modern with both a bath and shower, and floor-to-ceiling mirrors. A large towelling dressing gown hung on the wall, with a pair of disposable slippers peeking out of the pocket.
“I hope this is all right for you?” said the barmaid anxiously.
“Fine,” said Alfie. “Fine.”
“Tomorrow’s Saturday, so breakfast doesn’t start until 7.30am and goes on till 10.30,” she added, laying the key down on the mahogany dressing table. “If you need anything, just dial zero. And I’m sorry about your aunt. Still, she had a good life, and it must be a comfort to you that she died in her sleep.”
“Yes, a great comfort,” said Alfie, who was hearing this for the first time. “Thank you.”
“Good night, then,” said the barmaid and headed back downstairs.
Left alone, Alfie stripped off his sodden clothes and wallowed in a hot bath. He hadn’t liked to tell the sympathetic barmaid that he could scarcely remember his Aunt Augusta. He vaguely envisaged a tall woman wearing odd, brightly coloured clothes who came round to his grandparents’ from time to time. But he couldn’t recall her face. He had an even vaguer memory, so vague it might not actually be true, of some sort of argument between her and his mother. His mother had never talked to him about his aunt, but she had never really talked about any of the family. There was so much he wished he could have asked her.
And so much he wished he could have asked Aunt Augusta. He had certainly never expected to inherit a brass farthing from her, let alone an entire cottage. A cottage he hoped would be a ready-made sanctuary as he worked out what to do next. At least now he felt slightly more positive about the venture, despite Oscar’s scepticism.
He dried himself, put on the dressing gown and slippers, picked up his phone and took a photograph of the opulent bedroom. Then he sent the picture to Oscar with the message: “Begun Bunburrying. All good.”
Within a minute, Oscar’s reply pinged back: “Anybody can be good in the country. There are no temptations there.”
With a shake of his head, Alfie turned his attention to the coffee machine, which produced an exquisite cappuccino. A tray beside the machine held a display of upmarket tea bags, white and brown sugar, sweeteners, and a small cellophane bag tied with a red ribbon. Alfie picked it up. Surely it couldn’t be? But it was. He ripped off the ribbon, pulled open the bag, and grabbed one of the beige squares. He bit into it. It was exactly as he remembered. Sheer ecstasy. The best fudge in the Cotswolds.
With the characteristic unpredictability of the English climate, the next day dawned clear and crisp. From his first-floor bedroom, Alfie gazed out over lush rolling hills and meadows dusted with frost. He had never really appreciated the view as a child – he had simply seen the countryside as a gigantic playground. Oscar might dismiss Bunburry as a place where nothing ever happened, but even he would have to admit that the nothing happened beautifully.
Once downstairs, Alfie was ushered into a small bright dining room, where he decided to celebrate the change in the weather with a full English breakfast. It would have been impossible for the plate to contain any more food: a perfectly poached egg, bacon, sausage, grilled tomatoes, baked beans, potato scone and a mysterious mound of what he took at first sight to be Puy lentils. After prodding at it suspiciously, he realised it must be haggis. Even a London-born McAlister should surely be able to cope with Scotland’s national dish, he thought, taking a tentative mouthful which proved to be very tasty. He scarcely had room for the wholemeal toast with farm butter and thick-cut marmalade, but he persevered, washing it down with freshly squeezed orange juice and English breakfast tea.
Then he put on his coat, which had dried out overnight in the warm bathroom, and got directions to Jasmine Cottage. This was the home of Miss Margaret Redwood and Miss Clarissa Hopkins, Aunt Augusta’s best friends and the executors of her will.
In the bright sunshine, the Drunken Horse looked quaint rather than dilapidated. The golden limestone of the village buildings positively glowed. Alfie strolled along grass verges, passing well-kept cottage gardens and unkempt cottage gardens, an enticing tearoom, and an Indian restaurant called From Bombay to Bunburry.
Eventually, he reached Jasmine Cottage, a neat two-storey building with a low stone wall round its sloping front garden. He climbed up the three stone steps to a white wooden gate and paused.
Oscar had been dismissive of the Misses Redwood and Hopkins.