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Murder at Honeychurch Hall

by Hannah Dennison

A Book for your Summer Reading List

 

These first few chapters got me right away -Hannah has that mix of Sophia Kinsella and Agatha Christie going on here and I am hooked! This caught our eye a few weeks ago on Shelf Pleasure’s New Release’s list.

 

murder-at-honeychurch-halllIn Hannah Dennison’s Murder at Honeychurch Hall, Kat Stanford is just days away from starting her dream antique business with her newly widowed mother Iris when she gets a huge shock. Iris has recklessly purchased a dilapidated carriage house at Honeychurch Hall, an isolated country estate located several hundred miles from London.

Yet it seems that Iris isn’t the only one with surprises at Honeychurch Hall. Behind the crumbling façade, the inhabitants of the stately mansion are a lively group of eccentrics to be sure—both upstairs and downstairs —and they all have more than their fair share of skeletons in the closet.

When the nanny goes missing, and Vera, the loyal housekeeper ends up dead in the grotto, suspicions abound. Throw in a feisty, octogenarian countess, a precocious seven year old who is obsessed with the famous fighter pilot called Biggles, and a treasure trove of antiques, and there is more than one motive for murder.

As Iris’s past comes back to haunt her, Kat realizes she hardly knows her mother at all. A when the bodies start piling up, it is up to Kat to unravel the tangled truth behind the murders at Honeychurch Hall.

 

Chapter One

“Mum!” I exclaimed. “Thank God you’ve called. I’ve been so worried.”

“I hope you’re not driving, Kat,” chided my mother on the other end of the line.

“I am driving,” I said as my VW Golf crawled through the heavy stream of London traffic along the Old Brompton Road. “And don’t change the subject.”

“If you’re not wearing a headset, you’ll get a ticket—”

“Which is why I am pulling over,” I said. “Do not hang up. Let me stop somewhere.”

Mum gave a heavy sigh. “Quickly then. This call is expensive.”

I turned into Bolton Place, a quiet residential street divided by two graceful crescents that encircled communal gardens. Spotting a space outside the church of St. Mary’s, I parked and switched off the engine.

“Where did you get to last night?” I demanded. “I was about to call out the cavalry.”

“You sound tense,” said my mother, deliberately avoiding the question. “Is everything alright with Dylan?”

“You know very well my boyfriend is called David,” I said, annoyed that she always knew how to hit a nerve. “God, it’s boiling.” I wound down the window, taking in the heat of a hot August day and the smell of freshly mown grass.

“You’re too old to have a boyfriend—”

Man friend, then. And I’m not tense,” I said. “I was concerned when you didn’t come to my leaving party last night. Did you have another migraine?”

“No. I was in denial,” said Mum flatly. “I was hoping you weren’t going to go through with giving up Fakes & Treasures.”

“I want my life back, Mum. Have you any idea what it’s like to be constantly in the public eye?”

“Such a pity,” she went on. “I loved seeing you on the telly. You always looked so nice. Are you sure you’re not making a mistake?”

“You sound just like David—”

“Oh dear,” said Mum. “In that case, I’m delighted and I’m sorry I didn’t come.”

Ignoring the barb, I said, “Good, because I’m delighted that we’re going into business together. Speaking of which, I thought we could look at some properties this weekend.”

“That may not be possible—”

“And I must show you what I bought at Bonhams saleroom this morning,” I said. “Two boxes of Victorian toys and vintage teddy bears that I got at a bargain price—our first stock items. I can’t wait to show them to you.”

There was a long pause.

“Did you hear what I said, Mother?”

Another even longer pause and then, “I’ve broken my right hand,” she said bluntly.

“Oh Mum,” I cried. “Are you okay?”

“I am now.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I’m telling you now.”

“How bad is it?” I said. “Can you cook? Dress yourself?”

“With one hand?”

“Well, you do have the other one.”

“Very funny.”

“I’ll drive over straight away,” I said.

“What about Dylan? Won’t he mind?”

David is away this weekend.”

“Your father wouldn’t like me gadding off without him,” said Mum. “Did you know that we never once spent a night apart in all our fifty years of marriage?”

“Yes I did know and it was forty-nine years, not fifty,” I pointed out. “And if you going to be unkind about David, I won’t come.”

“When did you say his divorce from that Trudy woman is final? I keep forgetting.”

“It’s complicated,” I muttered.

“Have you watched Trudy’s new television show?” Mum said, hitting another nerve. “Very amusing—Walk of Shame! Celebrity Family Secrets Revealed.”

“Mum … I’m warning you. I do not want to talk about Trudy Wynne,” I said. “Do you want me to come or not?”

“Yes, yes,” said Mum wearily. “I do have a little project that needs finishing. Some typing.”

“I didn’t know you could type.”

“Of course I can type,” said Mum with scorn. “I used Daddy’s Olivetti.”

“That’s a collector’s item. I’m surprised you can still buy the ribbon,” I said. “I’ll stop by my place to pick up a few things and should be with you in under an hour.”

“I doubt it,” said Mum. “I’ve moved—now, don’t get all cross and silly.”

“Moved? Where? When?” I cried. “What about our business plans?”

“I’ve changed my mind. What do you need me for anyway?”

“The whole idea was that you’d help me run Kat’s Collectibles,” I said, exasperated. “We’d find you a lovely flat above a shop—”

“Whilst you moved in with David,” said Mum. “You know your father would never have approved of you living in sin.”

“It’s the twenty-first century, Mother,” I said. “And anyway, Dad wanted me to look after you. He didn’t want you to be lonely.”

“I’m not lonely.”

“When did you make this momentous decision?”

“Let me see, about a month ago.”

“A month? But …” I was beginning to feel light-headed. “We speak every day. Sometimes two or three times a day.” Then I remembered that recently Mum was always the one ringing me. “I thought I didn’t recognize the phone number. Where are you calling from?”

“My mobile.”

“You have a mobile? Seriously?” I said. “And when did you put the house up for sale?”

“All these questions,” said Mum. “That nice man who runs the dry cleaners made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.”

“Mr. Winkleigh?” I gasped. “Dad would never have sold to Mr. Winkleigh. He couldn’t stand him.”

“Well, your father’s not here so he won’t find out, will he?”

I tried to absorb yet another piece of disturbing information. Even the thought of shopping for groceries would guarantee to bring on one of my mother’s “turns” and yet somehow, she’d managed to move house. “You can’t have done it all by yourself.”

“I’m not an invalid, you know,” said Mum.

This was rich coming from someone who spent all my school holidays with a migraine lying down in a dark room.

“And besides,” she added. “Alfred helped.”

“And Alfred is whom? Your Spanish boyfriend?” Nothing would surprise me at this point.

“Alfred is hardly a Spanish name, dear. A Spanish name would be Juan or perhaps Pablo,” said Mum mildly. “Alfred is my brother.”

I swear I stopped breathing. “I didn’t know you had a brother.”

“Well, I do,” said Mum. “As a matter of fact I had two—though Billy’s dead and gone. Aneurism on Blackpool Pier. He died young. So very sad.”

“So I must have cousins. I’d love to have cousins.”

“You wouldn’t like them.”

“I would like them.” I could feel my temper rising as I remembered envying my friends’ big families, especially at Christmas. I hated being an only child. “Did Dad know you had brothers?”

“Of course he knew. He just didn’t like them so we didn’t see them,” said Mum. “Does it matter?”

“Actually, it does matter,” I said. “I always thought you and Dad were orphans.”

“Really? I wonder why?”

“Because that’s what you told me,” I shouted.

“Well, never mind all that,” said Mum briskly. “You’d better get cracking if you want to be here in time for tea.”

“Wait a moment,” I said. “What did you do with all my things?”

“Oxfam,” Mum declared. “And before you throw another wobbly don’t worry—I put all your furry friends in a suitcase. I have it right here—”

“And my dressing-up box?” I said, recalling the iron trunk full of dozens of beautifully handmade costumes. Mum had always been very nifty with the needle. “I want my children to have those.”

“You’d better get a move on in that department or it will be too late.”

“Thanks for reminding me, Mum,” I said.

“I was just joking.”

But I knew she wasn’t.

“Do you have a pencil?” Mum went on. “I’d better give you the address.”

“Wait,” I said. “I need something to write on.” I pulled the sale catalogue out of my tote bag and found a pen. “Ready.”

“The Carriage House, Honeychurch Hall Estate—”

“Honeychurch?” I snorted. “How very Winnie-the-Pooh.”

“Don’t snort. It’s so unattractive,” said Mum. “Honeychurch is all one word.” There was a long pause. “Little Dipperton.”

“Little what?” I said.

“Dipperton, like the Big Dipper only little. With t-o-n on the end.”

“Where the hell is Little Dipperton?”

“Devon.”

“Devon?” I sputtered.

“Near Dartmouth. Very pretty little fishing port. You’ll love it. I’ll take you there for a cream tea.”

“Devon!” I said again. “That’s over two hundred miles away.”

“Yes, I am aware of that. I just moved here.”

“But you don’t even like the countryside.”

“Your father didn’t but I do,” said my mother cheerfully. “I love the countryside. I’ve always hated city life. Now I wake up to the sound of the birds, the smell of fresh air—”

“But … Devon.” I felt dizzy at yet another revelation. “What about Dad’s ashes? I thought we agreed we’d put him in Tooting Crematorium? You’ll never be able to visit him.”

“I changed my mind about Tooting Crematorium. He suffered from claustrophobia, you know.”

“Mum, he’s in an orange Tupperware container right now,” I exclaimed. “What’s the difference?”

“It’s too final.”

I tried a different tack. “What about all your friends?”

“Your father worked for HM Revenue & Customs,” said Mum. “We didn’t have friends.”

“You don’t even drive.”

“I’ve always been able to drive. I just liked your father driving me.” Mum chuckled. “In fact, I’ve just bought myself a nice MINI Cooper in Chili Red.”

“How can you afford a new car? A house—and a grand house by the wound of things—in the country?” Alarm bells began to ring in my head. “How did you hear about this carriage house in the first place?”

“I have contacts.”

“But you must have viewed it? How? When?”

“I don’t have to answer any more questions from you,” Mum said. “I can do what I like.”

Another ghastly thought occurred to me. “You’ve spent all of Dad’s money, haven’t you?” There was an ominous silence on the other end of the phone. “He said you would.”

“Katherine, there’s something I need to tell you—”

“You have spent it!” I exclaimed. “You only call me Katherine when you’re about to give me bad news.”

“Does the name Krystalle Storm mean anything to you?”

Thrown for a moment, I said, “No. Why? Who’s she when she’s at home?”

“Critics say she’ll be even bigger than Barbara Cartland.”

“Who?”

“The romance writer. Barbara Cartland.”

“What’s that got to do with Dad’s money?”

“Her books are everywhere. Over half a million sold world-wide,” Mum enthused. “I’m surprised—”

“You know I don’t read that kind of rubbish, Mum. What did Dad call it? ‘Penny Dreadfuls for pathetic old ladies,’” I said. “And don’t try to change the subject again.”

“Fine,” Mum snapped. “You know what, I don’t think I need your help after all. I can manage on my own.”

“Now you’re throwing a wobbly. I’m happy to come. In fact I quite fancy a cream tea.”

“No,” said Mum coldly. “I don’t want you here. I already have someone who is longing to lend me his hand. He’s very kind. Very kind indeed.” And before I could utter another word, my mother hung up.

I was deeply perplexed. It was clear that Mum’s grief had made her rash and impulsive. What had possessed her to move so far away from London? The fact that she’d managed to get into my father’s carefully protected pension fund was extremely worrying. My mother was notoriously hopeless with money. It was a family joke. Dad and I had gone to great lengths to make sure that she’d just receive a monthly allowance so she couldn’t spend it all at once. I felt I’d let him down and he’d only been gone four months.

There was nothing else for it. I’d have to drive to Little Dipperton, wherever that might be, and make her see sense.

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I made a quick stop at my garden flat near Putney Bridge to throw a few things into a suitcase including brochures of some properties I was determined to show Mum. I also decided to take the two boxes of vintage teddy bears and Victorian toys that I’d purchased that morning.

“Ready Jazzbo Jenkins?” I said to my lucky mascot, a six-inch-tall Merrythought “Jerry” toy mouse from the 1950s that I kept on my car dashboard. It had been given to mum as a child, and she had given it to me. “Let’s go and sort out my mother.”

It was a gloriously sunny day in August and—according to the temperature gauge inside my car—a stifling 85 degrees. Everything in England always seemed ill equipped to deal with heat waves and my car was no exception. The cold-air fan just sucked in the hot air from outside. Even with all the windows open, sweat trickled down my back. It was going to be a long, sticky drive.

Traffic was heavy as holidaymakers headed for the West Country for the official last week of the school summer holidays. I trailed behind lines of slow-moving caravans and the occasional sight of a car pulled onto the hard shoulder with an overheated engine.

Along the roadside I saw a sign STRAWBERRIES HALF A MILE. Tears unexpectedly stung my eyes as I recalled family outings when I’d beg Dad to stop for strawberries but we never did because I always spilled food, drink—or anything really–on my clothes. I slowed down to look at the table filled with punnets of strawberries under a large umbrella and decided to pull over.

Feeling rather guilty, I bought two—one for Mum and one for me to eat right this second. I devoured mine in five minutes flat. The strawberries were sweet, plump, and delicious and unfortunately, the juice dripped onto my white capris. Dad had been right.

By the time I’d driven past Stonehenge on the A303, the sun had vanished and the sky was heavy with dark storm clouds rolling across Salisbury Plain. With a loud crash of thunder, rain started to come down like stair rods. Traffic slowed to a crawl and ceased altogether. Then, just as quickly as it had fallen, the rain stopped and an exquisite rainbow straddled the distant hills.
I pulled into a petrol service station to pick up some flowers and a bottle of Blue Nun for Mum.

Queuing at the register I noticed Gypsy Temptress by the author Mum had mentioned—Krystalle Storm—on a revolving stand of paperbacks. Against the backdrop of a church, a scantily clad gypsy girl with raven hair and masses of bracelets leaned against a vast oak tree trunk looking seductive in her low-cut dress. I picked up a copy and read the back cover. “He was a man of the cloth. She—an outcast from her kin. Can love…

“It’s good,” said a young woman in her late twenties. “It’s the first in the Star-Crossed Lovers Series—oh! Excuse me. Are you Kat Stanford from Fakes & Treasures?”
I smiled politely. “Yes.”

“I love that show!” she said. “It’s your hair.”

Unfortunately television personalities are pigeonholed with certain character traits—Gordon Ramsay and his famous temper; bra-less Charlie Dimmock from the TV show Ground Force, and me, nicknamed Rapunzel because of my mane of hair.

“Thanks,” I said. “Maybe I will buy this for my mother.”

“Be careful,” she said with a chuckle and pointed to a warning at the bottom of the cover. “See there? It’s categorized as a ‘sizzler.’ Racy stuff.”

“I’m not sure if my mother could handle sizzling,” I said and put it back. Then, on impulse I grabbed it, after all. It would be a peace offering of sorts. Maybe I’d even give it a try.

My spirits lifted as I barreled down the M5. Wiltshire turned into Somerset and then—at last—I flew past a road sign featuring a jaunty tall-ship logo announcing WELCOME TO DEVON and the sun came out again.

The countryside was breathtakingly diverse. There were vast expanses of lush rolling fields dotted with sheep and cattle, rushing streams bounded by thick woods or ancient low stone dry walls, gullies, and crags lined with the rich red earth that Devon was famous for. And, amongst all this beauty was another kind—silhouetted on the horizon, stood the dark, sinister tors of Dartmoor with its shifting mists and treacherous bogs.

With a last look at the detailed directions I’d carefully jotted down courtesy of Google Maps, I turned off the dual carriageway and onto a quiet two-lane road flanked by thick pine forests on one side and a low stone wall fronting a bubbling river on the other. Dartmouth was signposted twelve miles and from there, Little Dipperton just two miles farther.

I checked my watch. It was almost four. I’d made excellent time and was feeling thoroughly pleased with myself.

Two hours later I was hopelessly lost and incredibly frustrated.

It would appear that Google Maps had no knowledge of the myriad of tiny, interconnecting, twisting lanes that spread across Devon—90 percent of which had no signposts at all or if they did, ended in impassable tracks. Picking up a mobile phone signal was erratic, too, and when I finally got one and rang my mother, she didn’t answer.

By six o’clock all my good humor had completely evaporated. At last a church spire appeared in the distance so I headed for that.

Navigating a series of dangerous hairpin bends, I narrowly missed following in the footsteps of an earlier vehicle that had smashed through a stone wall and into a drainage ditch. And then, out of the blue, I came upon a small village consisting of whitewashed, thatched, and slate-roofed cottages with a handful of shops and a pub called the Hare & Hounds. There was also a church, an abandoned forge, a greengrocer, a teashop and a general store that doubled up as a post office. Outside the latter stood a dirty blue Ford Focus.

At first, I thought everything was closed until I noticed the door to the general store was ajar. Parking behind the Ford Focus, I went inside.

“Hello?” I cried. “Anyone home?”

There was no reply. Pushing my sunglasses on top of my head, I moved deeper into the gloom and tripped down a step. It was like descending into the black hole of Calcutta.

The place was jammed to the gunnels with items ranging from tiny sewing kits to flyspray killer. Shelves were haphazardly stacked with pliers, tinned goods, jigsaw puzzles, and hemorrhoid cream. A revolving wire display stand offered picturesque postcards of Devon for sale—three for two pounds.

In one corner a Plexiglas window encased a small cubbyhole that bore the sign POST OFFICE. A notice board was covered with colored flyers and handwritten cards offered a variety of services and local events—“Babysitter Wanted!” “Need Someone to Wash Your Car?” “Women’s Institute Jam Making Competition.”

Behind the counter and along the back wall were shelves filled with large glass jars containing sweets that I thought went out with the ark—Sherbet Pips, Fruit Chews, Black Jacks, and the kind of treacle toffee that removed dental fillings in one bite.

Strolling over to the counter I noted the old-fashioned cash register and a brass bell. In front stood a low bench spread with a selection of trashy magazines and national newspapers. To my dismay, the store carried this month’s Star Stalkers! My photo was in the bottom right-hand corner on the cover. It had been taken at a charity event and the article was written by my nemesis, Trudy Wynne. The caption said, GOOD-BYE RAPUNZEL, HELLO LADY GODIVA! TO SEE WHAT HAPPENED NEXT – TURN TO PAGE 5…

Of course I knew what happened next. It was the deciding factor in my decision to quit Fakes & Treasures and escape the public eye.

Quickly, I covered the offending magazine with the local newspaper, the Dipperton Deal. I swept my hair up into a coil and wondered not for the umpteenth time if I should just cut the lot off.

“Anyone home?” I called out again now aware of voices coming from behind a re-and-white plastic fly curtain that presumably led to a storeroom.

“She was a tart and a thief, Muriel,” cried a female voice. “I knew she was trouble the moment she arrived.”

“I find that hard to believe,” came the reply. “Gayla seemed such a nice girl.”

“Well she wasn’t.”

“I thought Gayla came through one of those posh London agencies?” said Muriel. “Don’t they do background checks?”

“Why don’t you just go ahead and say it?” There was a pause and then, “You think this has something to do with my Eric, don’t you?”

“Vera, dear, when it comes to the two of you, I don’t know what to think anymore.” There was a heavy sigh. “Come along, I really want to lock up and—”

I gave a loud cough. “Hello? Hello?”

The two women emerged through the curtain. One was in her late sixties with a tight gray perm and wearing a sleeveless floral dress. She was holding a paperback book. The other was in her mid-thirties, with blond hair that was in dire need of a root touch-up, scraped back into a ponytail. She was dressed in a pair of tight leather trousers, a scarlet V-neck T-shirt with matching acrylic nails that grasped the handles of a bulging plastic carrier bag.

“Enjoy the private conversation, did you?” the younger woman said, swaying slightly due to excessively high heels—Louboutins, I recognized the signature red soles.

“Vera, don’t be rude.”

I felt embarrassed. “I just got here. I heard voices.”

Vera looked me up and down, taking in my stained white capris. “Had an accident, did you?”

“I’m rather fond of strawberries and they’re rather fond of me,” I said with an apologetic smile.

“I’m afraid we’re closed,” said Muriel.

“I don’t want to buy anything,” I said. “I’m lost. There don’t seem to be any signposts around here.”

“They were all taken down during the war and never replaced, luv,” said Muriel.

“That was over sixty years ago,” I exclaimed.

“We’re a bit of a forgotten corner down this way and that’s the way we like it,” said Vera. “We don’t take kindly to strangers.”

I noticed Muriel was holding a copy of Gypsy Temptress.

“I love Krystalle Storm,” I said desperately.

“Vera told me to read it,” said Muriel. “She said it might liven up my marriage though frankly, I’m not sure whether my husband would remember what to do.”

“You should,” I smiled again. “It’s a bit racy though, isn’t it, Vera?” Sensing Vera thawing a little I added, “Apparently, Krystalle’s got a new book coming out in the—” I wracked my brain. “Star-Crossed Lovers Series.”

“That’s right,” said Vera. “Did you enter the competition?”

“Was there one?”

“Call yourself a fan?” Vera cried. “It’s all over her website. I’m going to win. I’m already through to the semifinals.”

“What’s the prize?” I asked.

“A long weekend for two in Italy and dinner with Krystalle Storm herself. All expenses paid—flight, hotel, the lot,” said Vera. “I’m going to take my Eric.”

“And I’m sure you’ll both have a lovely time,” Muriel said wearily and turned to me. “Where are you going, luv?”

“Little Dipperton.”

“This is Little Dipperton,” said Muriel.

“Thank God!” I said. “Actually, I’m looking for Honeychurch Hall.”

“Honeychurch Hall?” Vera’s face reddened and she and Muriel exchanged looks. “You’re not the new nanny, are you?”

“No,” I said. “Why?”

“Vera’s the housekeeper, that’s why,” said Muriel. “And she hires the nannies.”

I took in Vera’s youth and leather attire with surprise. Housekeepers had come a long way since the drab black uniform worn by Mrs. Hughes in Downton Abbey.

“My mother bought the Carriage House,” I said.

“It’s your mother, is it?” said Vera. “She’ll find it hard to settle here. We all grew up on the Honeychurch estate and we don’t take kindly to folks coming in from outside of Devon—especially when they gazump my husband who’d been promised the Carriage House by his lordship.”

Muriel put a restraining hand on Vera’s arm. “Vera—”

“Well, it’s true. It’s not fair you London folk coming in with all your money and buying up our properties.”

“I honestly don’t know anything about the circumstances,” I said quickly.

“I’ll close up now if you don’t mind.” Muriel gestured to the plastic carrier bag. “Now Vera, you make sure you give your mother my love. I hope she enjoys the care package. There’s no need to return the magazines.”

Vera barely acknowledged the comment. She was too busy staring at me. “Have we met somewhere before?”

“I don’t think so,” I said.

“I know who you are!” Vera’s eyes widened. “You’re that antiques woman on the telly! Fakes &Treasures!

“I’m not, actually.” The lie was out before I could stop it. Vera seemed just the type of person to call Trudy’s Star Stalkers hotline and claim the hundred-pound “finder’s fee.”

“You look just like Kat Stanford,” Vera persisted. “Take down your hair—”

“Oh for heaven’s sake,” said Muriel. “Leave the poor woman alone and tell her how to get to the Hall so we can all go home.”

Vera muttered something disparaging under her breath but grudgingly obliged. “Go back to the main road. When you pass the entrance to Ruggles Farm—”

“Is there a sign saying Ruggles Farm?” I asked.

“It’s a farm. Do you know what a farm is?”

I gave a polite smile. “Of course.”

“It’ll be on your left,” said Vera. “You’ll come to a T-junction next to Cavalier Copse—”

“Does that have a signpost?” I said hopefully.

“No. It’s a copse. You do know what a copse is?” Seeing my blank expression, Vera rolled her eyes. “You city folk. A copse is a small wood. On second thoughts, it’s better if you take the shortcut through Cavalier Lane. That’ll take you straight to the Hall.”

“Can you point me in the right direction?” I said.

Vera rolled her eyes again. “There is only one direction. The lane is very overgrown but it can take a small car. The entrance to the Hall has big stone pillars topped by stone hawks. You can’t miss it.”

“Thank you.”

“Wait!” Muriel hurried over to the counter and pulled a clipboard and pen out from under. “Will you sign the petition?”

“I don’t live here.”

“It’s to stop the government building a high-speed railway line to Plymouth,” said Muriel. “They say it’ll cut fifteen minutes off the travel time to Paddington.”

“Bastards,” muttered Vera.

“I don’t usually sign petitions.” I’d learned the hard way that anything with my name on it could be misconstrued.

“The railway line will slice through this here,” persisted Muriel. “It’s an area of natural beauty. It will destroy a lot of farmland and homes. Please. It’s just a name but every name counts.”
I hesitated. “Yes, of course. That’s terrible. I’m happy to.” I signed J. Jenkins and put my address as London.

Muriel studied it. “London addresses really help. They give us national recognition. What’s your first name?”

“Jazzbo,” I faltered. “It’s a nickname.

“Yeah right,” Vera said with a sneer. “Thanks, Jazzbo.”

Moments later I was back in my Golf and turning into a narrow lane flanked by high hedge-banks. Vera had not exaggerated. Grass grew down the center and a profusion of foxgloves, cow parsley, and old man’s beard brushed both sides of my car. I prayed I wouldn’t meet any oncoming traffic.

The lane snaked up the hill. Rounding yet another hairpin bend I came upon two equestrians thankfully moving in the same direction as me.

The pair made a curious sight. The woman on the handsome chestnut horse with white socks was riding sidesaddle dressed in a full habit and top hat. Her little companion was astride a small black pony.

I slowed down and crawled along behind them. Only the boy seemed to care that they were holding up the traffic—or rather, me. He turned around to stare and I couldn’t help but laugh and wave.

Wearing a pair of old flying goggles and a white scarf wrapped around his neck, the boy was simply adorable. I guessed at once who he was supposed to be.

Among David’s many antiquarian collections were first editions of Biggles by W.E. Johns, chronicling the heroic adventures of the fighter pilot during World War I. Biggles’s trademark look was flying goggles and a white silk scarf.

But after crawling behind them for the next couple of miles, I was growing tired of playing peekaboo with Squadron Leader James Bigglesworth—especially when the unexpected arrival of a tan-and-white Jack Russell shot through a hedge and tore around my car, barking manically at the wheels.

Still, the rider on the chestnut horse didn’t notice despite “Biggles” repeatedly shouting, “No, Mr. Chips, no!” Mr. Chips dashed about in circles, steaming past the riders and back to my car again.

Finally, the lane widened by a few feet and a narrow grass verge materialized in front of a five-barred gate opening onto a public bridleway marked TO CAVALIER COPSE. The horses pulled in and at last I could squeeze by. To my surprise, the rider on the chestnut horse was a bone-thin woman sporting a scarlet slash of lipstick who looked to be in her early eighties. I offered a smile of gratitude and was rewarded with a dismissive hand gesture from her and a military salute from “Biggles.”

Leaving the riders behind, I began a steep hill climb that opened out along a ridge running the length of a long range of hills. The view was spectacular. On my right stood the distant moors of Dartmoor. On my left, far below, the River Dart sparkled in the evening sun.

I could also make out a huge country house nestled amongst the trees, a vast walled garden, and several outbuildings and barns.

But that was about it. There was no other sign of civilization other than a dozen sheep and a few cows.

I thought of Mum dressed in her neat outfits from Marks & Spencer, kitten heel shoes, and perfectly coiffed hair. I just couldn’t imagine her embracing country living.

After yet another hairpin bend I came upon two towering granite pillars topped with statues of hawks with their wings extended. Etched into one pillar was Honeychurch Hall. I’d made it!

A pair of eighteenth-century gatehouses stood at either side of the entrance. They were severely run-down with cracked leaded pane windows, broken guttering, and roofs gaping with holes. Each arched front doorway bore the family crest and motto carved in stone: ad perseverate est ad triumphum—To Endure Is to Triumph.

A large sign warned TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTE. POACHERS WILL BE SHOT.

As I pulled into the entrance a young woman in her early twenties stepped from the shadows pulling a fuchsia-pink rolling suitcase behind her. Dressed in black jeans and a white ruffled long-sleeved shirt, she flagged me down.

I stopped and opened the window. “Hello?”

She seemed agitated. “You are the taxi? Yes?”

I detected a foreign accent. Even with no makeup she was beautiful with large blue eyes and shoulder-length blond hair swept off her face with a turquoise bandana.

“I’m afraid not,” I said. “Where are you going?”

“To Plymouth railway station.” She kept glancing over her shoulder as if expecting someone. “I must catch the seven-thirty-seven train to Paddington. I have to!”

I hesitated. Plymouth was miles away and I’d been driving forever. “Have you tried calling the taxi company?”

“They said thirty minutes.” She checked her watch. “Now, they are ten minutes late and I cannot telephone them because there is no mobile phone signal here.”

“Give them a little longer but I’m happy to call for you when I get to a landline,” I said. “Do you have the number?”

“Please.” She handed me a business card for Bumble-Bee Cars.

“Who shall I say called?”

“Gayla Tarasova.”

I recalled the conversation I’d overheard earlier between Muriel and Vera inside the general store and guessed this woman had to be the disgraced nanny.

“You are very kind,” said Gayla. “You know Lady Edith?”

“Not yet. My mother has just bought the Carriage House.”

“You are Kat!” Gayla broke into a smile. “Your mother is a nice lady. Please tell her—” Gayla’s expression grew earnest. “She must go back to London. She must! She is in great danger here.”

“Danger?” I said sharply. “What do you mean?”

“Listen to me. Rupert is a wicked man who must be stopped!”

Beep! Beep! Beep! The sound of a car horn startled us. Gayla’s eyes widened with terror. “Oh! It’s him! It’s Rupert! He mustn’t see me here. I must go.”

Gayla’s fear was contagious. “Wait,” I cried. “I’m blocking the entrance. Hold on.”

But Gayla dragged her suitcase back into the shadows just as a black Range Rover came barreling toward me. Beep! Beep! Beep!

“Oh, for heaven’s sake!” I muttered and reversed tight against the gatehouse wall. The Range Rover barely slowed down to make the turn into the lane.

Without so much as an acknowledgement, the driver hung left—thankfully in the opposite direction from the horses. I caught a glimpse of a tweed flat cap, a neat military mustache, and a brown-and-white English setter in the front passenger seat.

“And thank you, too!” I shouted at the disappearing vehicle.

I called Gayla’s name but she remained hidden, probably worried that the Range Rover—driven by the “wicked Rupert”—would return. It’s none of your business, Kat, I told myself. Even so, I waited for a few more minutes.

When Gayla still didn’t reappear I shouted, “I’ve got to go. I’ll call the cab company!” and set off down the long tree-lined drive.

As I rounded the corner, the dense thicket on my left broke briefly to reveal a rusted wrought-iron archway straddling a pair of wrought-iron gates topped by a metal cast of a galloping horse. The land beyond fell away and once again I caught a glimpse of the river.

Ahead, I spotted soaring chimneys and mullioned windows disappearing and reemerging between the trees. Another break in the shrubs on my left revealed glorious parkland where a handful of horses grazed alongside—good grief—were those llamas?

Just yards from the grass verge stood an ornamental lake covered with lily pads and framed with scattered clumps of pampas grass. At the top of a shallow bank that led down to the water’s edge stood a tall angel, arms reaching heavenward, carved in white marble surrounded by a sea of red roses—presumably a family memorial.

Although I had been keeping an eye open for any sign directing me to the Carriage House I realized I’d gone too far up the drive. It split in two with the right-hand fork turning uphill into a newly paved road lined by post-and-rail paddocks. One side harbored a small outdoor sand dressage arena; the other was laid out with cavalletti jump poles. Ahead was a range of redbrick buildings with neat white trim and green roofs. An impressive archway with a clock tower in Roman numerals registered the right time—six thirty-five—and marked a grandiose entrance to the stable yard. A large silver horse lorry with living accommodations over the cab and a hunter-green Land Rover were parked against an outside wall.

I took the left fork that ended in a turning circle in front of Honeychurch Hall. In the center stood a large empty stone fountain featuring rearing bronze horses marooned in a sea of weed-infested gravel.

I slowed to a stop under a bank of overhanging trees that bordered a wood. The house felt intimidating and unwelcoming. The architecture could e described as “classic revival” with its Palladian front and, judging by the four banks of tall chimneys topped with decorative, octagonal pots, suspected it encased a much older building—most likely a Tudor manor house. The main entrance was a central porte cochere with Tuscan columns. Compared to the immaculate stable yard I’d just seen, the house was a shambles.

The twelve-pane casement windows on the ground and first floors were shuttered. Paintwork was peeling and many of the cornices had fallen and lay broken and abandoned on the gravel. A forest of weeds and small holly trees emerged through the exposed roof on the east side of the building where sheets of black plastic had lost the battle to keep out the elements.

Scaffolding had been erected up the side of the west wing where a section of the roof was partially hidden under a huge dark green tarpaulin. Tiles were stacked along the front of the house.
Roof repairs to grand homes such as these ran into the hundreds of thousands of pounds. Often, the staggering cost of a new roof marked the beginning of the end for these country estates especially if they were listed buildings and had to comply with all kinds of complicated codes. I’d attended many estate sales and it was heartbreaking to see magnificent old properties such as this one, abandoned and left to their fate, slowly disintegrate.

Turning my attention back to my own disintegration, I knew I had to change my stained, white capris before meeting my mother. I’d changed clothes in the backseat of the car before and, with no signs of life coming from the house, felt the coast was clear.

Unfortunately, this was not the case. As I was squeezing between the front seats, a hammering on the window revealed “Biggles” in leather flying helmet and goggles with his face pressed against the glass.

I wound the window down a crack. “Hello.”

“Please get out of the car,” he said. “You’re trespassing and I’m afraid I’m going to have to shoot you.”

 

For more on Hannah Dennison, visit her website.

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