Suspicion at Seven: A Lois Meade Mystery

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9780425261781: Suspicion at Seven: A Lois Meade Mystery

Lois Meade has done enough buffing and polishing over the years with her cleaning business, New Brooms, to know that all that glitters is not gold. So when a bag of costume jewellery is the main clue in a murder, she has a strong suspicion that appearances may be deceiving...

After a woman is discovered in the Mill House Hotel, strangled with a silver necklace beside a bag filled with faux silver, gold and pearls, costume jewelry dealer Donald Black seems like the obvious suspect. But Lois knows Donald's wife, who runs a baker’s shop near the hotel, and can’t believe her husband could be a killer. Plus, Donald has an airtight alibi.

Nevertheless, Donald is no angel. It appears he’s running a pyramid scheme, and Lois’s mother is getting sucked in. Could the murder have anything to do with his unscrupulous business practices?

As Inspector Cowgill and Lois hope the bling may shine a light on the killer, the discovery of a second body on the old waterwheel in the hotel may be grist for the mill in solving the murder—if they can manage to catch the culprit without getting the runaround.

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About the Author:

Ann Purser was born in Market Harborough in Leicestershire and has lived most of her life in villages. She has turned her hand to many things, including journalism (as a columnist for SHE magazine), keeper of hens and donkeys, art gallery owner, clerical assistant in a village school, Open University graduate, novelist, mother of three, wife of Philip Purser, critic and writer. She is an avid reader of detective stories.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

ONE

Lois Meade, businesswoman and unpaid amateur detective, sat on the low wall of the millpond and watched the flow of water in the tailrace, where ducks and drakes were flapping about in the antics of courtship. It was spring, and love was in the air. Oddly enough, murder was also in the air.

Murder in Brigham, a small picturesque village, was shocking for all its inhabitants, and especially those near to the scene of the crime, the Mill House Hotel, a beautiful restoration of the old mill house and working machinery.

Lois, living in nearby Long Farnden, was particularly concerned, as her long-term interest was working with the legendary Inspector Hunter Cowgill in solving crime puzzles that took her fancy. She and Cowgill had a good working relationship, and though Cowgill was smitten long ago with her lovely smile, sharp tongue and long and shapely legs, Lois kept him at a suitable distance with ease.

Occasionally, Cowgill would wonder what he would do if Lois returned his passion, but acknowledged to himself that common sense would prevail and it would be he who backed off.

Lois was happily married, had three grown-up offspring and ran her own cleaning service, nattily entitled New Brooms, with “We Sweep Cleaner” added on the side of her van. Now she looked over at Brigham Bakery, still with its old bread oven and flour bins lining the bakehouse walls. Here Aurora Black made bread with flour from the mill, and in the old way baked beautifully crusty loaves for sale to customers, some from the Mill House Hotel, and most to the locals who knew a good loaf when they tasted one.

She and Lois were good friends, both of an age and both successful businesswomen. New Brooms cleaned the bakery, and Lois bought all her bread from Aurora.

Aurora’s husband, Donald, dealt in jewellery, costume jewellery of little value but plenty of sparkle, which he hawked around the country and sold in pyramid parties, including one or two a year in the Mill House Hotel.

Donald was small in stature and wore built-up shoes to give himself extra height. He was inordinately proud of his glossy black hair. Blacky had been his nickname at school, but, fortunately, he was stocky and strong, and could fight his corner with total success.

Aurora, now punishing a large crock full of bread dough, was a natural blonde, and several inches taller than Donald. Being a sensitive soul, she did not possess a single pair of high-heeled stilettos in her entire wardrobe.

Her arms and hands were beautiful in the powerful action of kneading, and now, catching sight of Lois by the pond, she decided the dough had the necessary elasticity, and she put it aside to prove. “Bread Baked by Hand” was her shop’s slogan, and as a result, her output was not huge. She had a long waiting list of potential customers wanting to join her orders list.

Lois, who was early for an appointment to see a new client for her cleaning business, walked across the road and into the bakery shop to say hello.

“Morning, Aurora,” she said, kissing her floury cheek. “Any bread left?”

“Your usual, yep. Did you want extra?”

“If you’ve got a large stone-ground wholemeal, that would be great.”

The bread was fresh out of the oven, still warm, and Lois resisted the temptation to break off a crust and eat it then and there.

“Donald doing all right?” she said, hoping Aurora would say he was out. She had never been able to like her friend’s husband, finding him shifty, flirty and too anxious to please.

“Yes, thanks. He’s got a jewellery party in your village next week. Six thirty in Farnden village hall. Spread the word.” She pulled a small poster from under the counter. “Would your Josie put this up in her shop?”

“Natch,” said Lois. “And how’s your Milly? She must be nearing her finals, isn’t she?”

Aurora nodded. “She’s on the heart ward at the moment. All drama is there, according to her!”

“She’s a lovely girl,” said Lois. “Deserves to do well.”

Milly was the only child of Donald and Aurora. She was small, with large brown eyes and an almost permanent smile for everyone. She had wanted to be a nurse since she was five, when Aurora had rummaged in the attic and found a nurse’s uniform from her own childhood.

“She hopes to come home for a weekend very soon, so perhaps we’ll come over and cadge a coffee. And what’s new in Farnden?” said Aurora. “This village is buzzing with the latest here. A poor woman found dead in the bed in the hotel. Cause not yet known. A nasty business on our doorstep, and many of my customers are upset and nervous about what might happen next. Anyway, rumour is rife, as they say.”

* * *

The fresh green of new leaves gladdens the heart, thought Lois, and as she drove home from Brigham, through dappled sunlight in tree-lined lanes, she thought how lucky she was to live here in the middle of England in a county as yet undiscovered by colonies of London commuters.

Long Farnden and Meade House were eight miles from Brigham, and Lois meant to call in at her daughter’s village shop back home. Josie and her husband, Matthew, along with her brothers Douglas and Jamie, completed Lois’s family, not forgetting her husband, Derek, and mother, Elsie “Gran” Weedon.

Meade House in Long Farnden had belonged to a village doctor, long since retired, and though the young ones had all flown the nest, Lois’s mother, known by most as Gran, lived with them and regarded herself as indispensable to the running of the household.

* * *

“Morning, Mum,” said Josie, as Lois climbed the steps into the shop and picked up the local paper. “How’s everything?”

“Everything’s fine,” said Lois. She handed over the flyer advertising the jewellery party. “Would you put this up for Aurora Black’s husband? It’s one of his bling parties.”

“Bling, eh? What a modern mum!”

“What I really mean is sparkly rubbish. Still, I hope he does well for Aurora’s sake.” She did not add that Donald Black was a charmer who could sell his own grandmother, and had a reputation for using his away parties as excuse for carrying on with a pretty woman.

Lois opened out the newspaper and scanned the columns.

“What are you looking for?” said Josie.

“Something Aurora said this morning. Some woman apparently found dead in bed in the Mill House Hotel, opposite the bakery.”

“And you thought it might be a juicy one for Lois Meade, private detective?”

Lois shrugged. “Who knows?” she said. “You might hear something from Matthew, anyway.”

Cowgill’s nephew, Matthew Vickers, a young policeman and Josie’s new husband, had been useful to Cowgill on a number of cases.

“What’s the woman called, or don’t we know? Police making enquiries an’ all that?” asked Josie.

Lois nodded. “Aurora didn’t have any details, so I thought it might be in this week’s local newspaper. Yes, look, here’s something on it.” She turned the paper round so that Josie behind the counter could also see it.

“‘Woman dead in bed,’” read Josie. “Sounds like the title of a book. No, there’s not much here. She arrived the day before, apparently. Why don’t you ring Uncle Hunter and then we can all know the gory details from the horse’s mouth?”

“You know perfectly well,” said Lois stiffly, “that anything I learn from Inspector Hunter Cowgill about police work is strictly confidential. You know that from your Matthew. And anyway, she might have died from a stroke, or something equally innocent.”

“Well said, Mum,” said a deep voice at the open door of the shop. It was Douglas, Lois’s firstborn, and a solid citizen of Tresham.

“Hi, Doug,” said Josie, and Lois gave him a peck on the cheek. “What brings you to Farnden this morning?” she said.

“Oh, nothing much. I was on my way to Waltonby and thought I’d stop by and say hello.”

“Come up to the house and have a coffee with me and Gran. Your father may still be at home.” Derek was an electrician, and his own boss.

Douglas nodded, and as another two customers had arrived, Lois waved to Josie, shouted to her that Aurora and Milly might be over at the weekend, and started off with Douglas up the rise to Meade House.


TWO

Gran, standing at the Rayburn and testing a cake with a skewer, saw Lois and Douglas go by the window and waved, delighted to see her grandson.

“Give your old gran a kiss then,” she said, as they came into the kitchen. Douglas gave her an affectionate hug, and sat down at the large table.

“You staying for lunch, boy?” she said.

The three sat around the table and talked of family concerns for a while, and then Lois asked if Douglas had heard anything about the woman found dead in bed at the Mill House Hotel.

“Only what you mentioned in Josie’s shop,” Douglas said, and Gran shook her head.

Lois showed them the newspaper, and Gran tut-tutted. “Sounds like a crime of passion,” she said. “Or she could have forgotten to take her pills,” she added. “I know if I were sleeping in a strange bed, which, God forbid, I would be out of my usual routine and probably even forget to wash me face.”

The phone rang, and Lois jumped up quickly to answer it in her office. New Brooms was a busy concern, and with six cleaners and at least forty regular clients, the office was a hive of activity.

* * *

“Hello? Who’s that?”

“Inspector Cowgill for you, Mrs. Meade. Just putting you through.”

“Lois, my dear, how are you this bright day?”

“Fine, thanks. What do you want?”

Cowgill resisted the impulse to tell her that she was the thing he wanted most in the world, and said that he had a new case which might interest her. He would appreciate her help.

“That poor woman found dead in bed in the Mill House Hotel?”

“Exactly,” said Cowgill. “It’s not as bald and straightforward as it seemed at first. Could I call and have a talk?”

“Police business?”

“Of course, Lois dear. I’ll be with you at five.”

Lois put down the phone and smiled. Good old Cowgill. He was semiretired, but seemed to do as much as he always had. He had a terrific reputation with the force, and they were happy to keep him on. His nephew, Matthew, was rising through the ranks, but Cowgill was careful to avoid any suspicion of nepotism.

Back in the kitchen, where Gran had made coffee, Lois said it had been a New Brooms call, and she would be having a visitor this afternoon. She hoped to get to the front door before Gran, but it was a forlorn hope.

“A new client?” said Douglas.

“What visitor?” asked Gran.

“Oh, all right then. Not New Brooms. It’s Inspector Cowgill, wanting to talk about that woman dead in bed at the Mill House Hotel. Now, let’s change the subject. How’s the tiddlers, Dougie?”

“Fine, Mum. They’re good little chaps, and Susie knows how to handle them.”

“Love ’em and leave ’em alone; that was my policy,” said Gran.

“Mum! It was ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child,’ if I remember rightly!” said Lois.

“Must be off now,” said Douglas, sensing an argument. “Let me know, Mum, if you need an assistant.”

“She already has one, though God alone knows why she has to choose a batty old woman. Mrs. Tollervey-Jones, of all people!”

“I’m already used to batty old women,” said Lois with a smile, and added she would see Douglas to his car and give her small white terrier, Jemima (aka Jeems), a bit of a walk.

* * *

“Hello, Uncle Hunter! How can I help you?” Josie greeted Matthew’s inspector uncle with a peck on the cheek. “Business call, or an afternoon off and here to see the family?”

Cowgill looked at her, so like Lois and equally lovely. “I’m here to see your mother, but couldn’t pass without saying hello. And, of course, to ask if you’ve heard any useful talk in the shop.”

“About the woman in the Mill House Hotel? Oh yes, most of the old tabs who congregate in here on pension day, they had plenty to say this morning. One of them said she was a high-class fancy woman who usually turns up with a man. The same man every time. But this time she was on her own.”

“How did this woman know that?”

“Son works for the hotel, in the bar. You lot have already interviewed him, so I’m not telling you anything new. Though there was one other woman who said she thought she knew who the man was, though it was all highly confidential. She looked embarrassed, as if she wished she hadn’t said anything.”

“Can you give me names, Josie?”

“No, sorry. Not unless it is unavoidable. If it got around that I was a nark, my shop would be avoided like poison. Mum being your little helper is bad enough.”

“And being married to a policeman?”

“And being married to a policeman.”


THREE

Gran had refused many times to have her hearing tested, claiming it was as good as the day she was born. Lois suspected she could be conveniently deaf at times and sharp as a button at others. She sighed, as no sooner had the bell begun to ring than there Gran was, opening the door and greeting Cowgill with distinct coolness.

“Ferretin’,” as Lois’s husband called her detective work, was steadfastly frowned on by both him and Gran. Derek considered she had enough to do with New Brooms without running around after criminals, some of whom could be dangerous, and Gran’s objection was terse and to the point. “A woman’s place is in the home,” she would say, loudly and often.

Now Lois asked her kindly if she could rustle up coffee for the inspector, and shut the office door firmly.

“It’s some time since we cleared up the last case. How have you been Lois? Is business good?” Cowgill smiled affectionately at her over her desk.

“Fine, thanks. New client at, guess where, Brigham. My friend Aurora Black runs a bakery near the Mill, and, as I am sure you know, we have talked about the sad case of an unexplained death in the hotel.”

Cowgill nodded. “Right, well, this woman, who checked into the hotel as Sylvia Fountain, arrived at about three o’clock in the afternoon with an overnight bag and went up to her room. She did not appear in the dining room for supper, nor at breakfast. The cleaning staff reported that they could get no reply to knocking, and asked if they should use their room key to go in.”

“What time was this?”

“Ten o’clockish. The cleaners do not always go round the rooms in the same order, so they weren’t absolutely sure, but more or less ten o’clock. When they went in, two of them, they saw the woman, still under the duvet and asleep, or supposedly asleep. Then one of them said the woman seemed very still, so they gently pulled back the duvet and saw at once that she was not breathing. The rest you can imagine.”

“Not completely. Was she wearing nightclothes?”

“Ah, still thinking laterally, Lois. No, she was wearing the clothes she arrived in. And the next odd thing is that her overnight bag contained no night things. No nightdress, toothbrush, nothing you would expect to find.”

“What was in it, then?”

“Jewellery. Bags of it. And, I am assured, all of it worthless. Costume jewellery, I believe it used to be called.”

“Oh God. Not jewellery.” Lois had paled.

“I know, Lois my dear. Your friend Aurora’s husband, Donald Black. First on our list of suspects, of course.”

“But she didn’t say anything about him being involved when I was over there.”

“No, well, when we spoke to him he had a cast-iron alibi. He was up north, far north, attending a conference on business management. They vouched for his every move, including sleeping in a school dormitory requisitioned for the purpose.”

“Oh, how convenient! ...

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