“Ah, Lady Merryweather.” The voice of Detective Inspector Aldcroft is uncertain, far from the confident man I was forced to speak to yesterday. He’s not at all the confident man who ordered my apprehension for a crime I hadn’t committed.
“Detective Inspector,” my words are like ice. I see him shiver at them as he comes to an abrupt stop in front of me, as I do the same. I raise my chin, refusing to be cowed by the state he finds me in, with my blond hair dishevelled by the rain and by not seeing a brush for over twenty-four hours. I’ve slept in my travel clothes. I know I smell of the damp police station, but my eyes are ice blue and clear. My fury ensures I’m thinking clearly.
The detective looks little better than I imagine I do. His overcoat is dark with rain, and beneath his feet, a trail of water pools that one of the housemaids will need to clear up before someone slips.
Silence falls between us, the sound of the kitchen drifting to us. Perhaps the sobbing housemaid has returned inside to make tea. Or maybe Mrs Underhill has taken refuge in what she knows best; providing for the household living at Cragside.
Evidently, Aldcroft has been outside. Aldcroft knows what’s happened in the rain. He knows the identity of the victim who’s been injured on the rockery.
“Well. Um. So I see you’ve been released.” He licks his lips before he speaks. I try not to note how snake-like the action is.
“Of course I have. It seems that even the Northumberland County Constabulary actually require proof of a person’s guilt before holding them indefinitely on suspicion of murder.”
“Ah, yes, well, um, apologies, Lady Merryweather. My humble apologies.”
Aldcroft runs his wide-brimmed hat through thin fingers, his eyes trying to look anywhere but at me. He’s a man of moderate height, a few inches taller than me now that I’ve discarded my shoes. His lips are covered with a fine brown moustache, although no beard. His police-issue overcoat is black, his boots filthy, the hems of his trousers spotted with what I hope is mud. And I feel just a single moment of pity for him, quickly banished. This man doesn’t deserve any kind thoughts.
“Good day,” I turn to continue my path to the library, thoughts of hot tea and something to eat driving me onwards to hunt down one of the housemaids who aren’t assisting the butler and whoever else is on the rockery. I know I’ll pass the stairs to the Turkish bath on the way, but right now, I’m cold and hungry. Bathing can wait.
Only Detective Inspector Aldcroft speaks. Somehow, I sensed he would. I consider whether he has, in fact, been seeking me out, having heard the growl of the motorcar engine pulling up on the gravel drive.
“Well, actually. If I could. If you wouldn’t.” And Aldcroft pauses again. “You’re cold. Let’s talk before the fire. There’s tea and biscuits,” and he indicates with his hand that I should lead into the library. I open my mouth to speak, to proclaim my innocence, but I bite down on those words. I won’t beg. I never have before, even when facing the noose.
I wish I’d kept my shoes on then. My passage makes no sound on the wooden floor, robbing me of the chance to make my displeasure felt in such an obvious way. Instead, I have to rely on rigid shoulders and tight steps. It won’t do. Not at all.
I bend and place my shoes before the vast fireplace in the library, noting as I do that there’s a fine spread laid out on the dark wooden table but that none of the other houseguests is partaking of the delicate sandwiches or gently steaming teapot. The library, which only a day ago had housed twelve people, is now silent and empty, even if every single electric lamp is turned on, including the converted cloisonné vases. The glass pendant shade over the table adds a warm glow to the cold food.
The fire is well-stocked with burning coals and logs, no doubt from the many trees on the estate. The smell is fragrant with pine and the promise of the coming Christmas.
I pull out one of the wooden backed chairs surrounding the table and hang Williams sopping overcoat over its back, stifling a shiver. My eye catches the hem of my sopping skirt. Aldcroft hesitates in the doorway, his eyes peering back towards the open front door. I believe he might attempt to escape at any moment, although he’s asked for this conference.
“Well, come in, or go out, but don’t hover,” my tone is reassuringly acerbic. I’m pleased to be feeling so much myself, despite the tribulations of the last twenty-four hours.
“Yes, well,” and Aldcroft casts a fleeting look along the inner hallway one more time, as though the answer lies out there.
I begin to pour myself tea into the delicate china cups, thinking of Williams. I can’t leave him without sustenance, but I need to see what the Detective Inspector wants first. Equally, I wish for a huge mug so that I can grip it between my two white-rimmed hands.
Carefully, I place two lumps of white sugar into the dark brown mass and then liberally apply the milk.
Only then do I remember my manners.
“Would you like one?” But Aldcroft shakes his head miserably, his lips fixed in something similar to a grimace. I stand and take a sip, wincing at the tartness of the too-long brewed tea, but welcome the warmth and the sweetness. It soothes me like nothing else. At least it’s better than the mixture they’d given me in the police station, which had not been worthy of the name tea. I don’t even think it deserved the name mud. It had been something indescribable, but I’d needed the warmth.
Lady Merryweather has had a shocking year. Apprehended for the murder of her husband the year before, and only recently released, she hopes a trip away from London will allow her to grieve. The isolated, but much loved, Cragside Estate in North Northumberland, home of her friends, Lord and Lady Bradbury, holds special memories for her.
But, no sooner has she arrived than the body of one of the guests is found on the estate, and suspicion immediately turns on her. Perhaps, there are no friendships to be found here, after all.
Released, due to a lack of evidence, Lady Ella returns to Cragside only to discover a second murder has taken place in her absence, and one she can’t possibly have committed.
Quickly realising that these new murders must be related to that of her beloved husband, Lady Merryweather sets out to solve the crime, once and for all. But there are many who don’t want her to succeed, and as the number of murder victims increases, the possibility that she might well be the next victim, can’t be ignored.
Journey to the 1930s Cragside Estate, to a period house-party where no one is truly safe, and the estate is just as deadly as the people.
M. J. Porter
M. J. Porter is the author of many historical novels set predominantly in Seventh to Eleventh-Century England, as well as three twentieth-century mysteries. Raised in the shadow of a building that was believed to house the bones of long-dead Kings of Mercia, meant that the author’s writing destiny was set.
For more information about M. J. Porter and her books, click on the links below
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Book Title: Cragside: A 1930s murder mystery
Author: M J Porter
Publication Date: 14th April 2022
Publisher: M J Publishing
Page Length: 234 Pages
Genre: Historical Mystery