Amateur detectives Jonty Stewart and Orlando Coppersmith seem to have nothing more taxing on their plate than locating a missing wooden cat and solving the dilemma of seating thirteen for dinner. But one of the guests brings a conundrum: a young woman has been found dead, and her boyfriend is convinced she was murdered. The trouble is, nobody else agrees.
Investigation reveals that several young people in the local area have died in strange circumstances, and rumours abound of poisonings at the hands of Lord Toothill, a local mysterious recluse. Toothill’s angry, gun-toting gamekeeper isn’t doing anything to quell suspicions, either.
But even with a gun to his head, Jonty can tell there’s more going on in this surprisingly treacherous village than meets the eye. And even Orlando’s vaunted logic is stymied by the baffling inconsistencies they uncover. Together, the Cambridge Fellows must pick their way through gossip and misdirection to discover the truth.
Excerpt: (found at Riptide Publishing)
The Stewarts’ home, London, 1910
“Thirteen for dinner. It’s desperately unlucky, Jonathan.” Mrs. Stewart pronounced the fact as though it were gospel truth that disaster must follow upon such a situation. “It can’t be countenanced.”
Jonty Stewart — expert on Shakespeare’s sonnets, distinguished fellow of St. Bride’s College, Cambridge, but apparently barely more than a seven-year-old boy as far as his mother was concerned — rolled his eyes. He was obviously already in trouble, given her use of the full version of his name.
“Thirteen’s certainly a cursed number,” Orlando Coppersmith agreed. As the most brilliant mathematician at the same august institution, he should have been in the best position to know, but he usually had no truck with associating luck — good or otherwise — with ordinal numbers.
Jonty rolled his eyes again. “You’ve changed your usual tune.”
Orlando drew himself up to his full, impressive height, his exceptionally handsome appearance complemented by the perfection of his dinner jacket. His abundant locks were, as usual, only just being kept under control. He’d always been a fine-looking creature, and at last he had begun to believe it, which added to the overall impression.
“If you’d let me finish,” he said, “I was about to say it was cursed in people’s minds, from full-blown triskaidekaphobia to simply not wanting to live in a house bearing the number.”
“I’d agree with that.” Mr. Stewart nodded enthusiastically. He was a splendidly handsome creature as well, even though his head bore barely a hair. Given the splendour of the costumes on show and the natural good looks of the four people wearing them, anybody peering through the window of the Stewarts’ drawing room might have labelled the tableau A typical representation of the cream of the new Georgian society, seen in its home.
But there was nothing typical about the Stewarts. Mr. Stewart was a lord but refused to use his title; Mrs. Stewart was the daughter of an earl but had been known — in her younger days — to lay out unwanted suitors with a right hander that wouldn’t have disgraced a prize fighter; and the youngest Stewart was not only a Cambridge fellow, but indulged in amateur sleuthing with his colleague.
And, of course, the least typical thing about them was that Jonty and Orlando were lovers, a situation of which the Stewarts were aware and seemed supremely unbothered.
It had become a matter of routine for Jonty and Orlando to spend part of the long vacation in the company of Jonty’s parents, usually en route to more exotic climes. This summer was no exception, the south of Italy being on the menu and a few days in London being a delightful hors d’oeuvre.
“I think it’s the superstition itself that brings bad luck, like it probably does on Friday the thirteenth,” Jonty said airily. “All those people looking over their shoulders, worrying about the slightest thing; it’s bound to make something daft happen, isn’t it? Maybe all the little mishaps which occur every day of the week get counted that particular Friday, in the same way they might be counted when someone’s walked under a ladder. And maybe exactly the same mishaps would be forgotten about if they happened on Tuesday the twenty-first, or after the person concerned had gone round the ladder in question.”
Mr. Stewart nodded. “Excellent point. Like so many things, it’s all in the mind. It must go back to the Last Supper, of course,” he continued.
At the theological reference, Jonty switched onto automatic mode, nodding and saying, “Oh, yes, I see,” and taking little notice. It tended to be the most effective strategy when being lectured. He’d had plenty of practice, during all those hours when Orlando was twittering on about vectors or random numbers or some such nonsense.
The Last Supper — yes, Jonty had always suspected there’d been more people milling about than reported in the gospels. And hadn’t Judas gone sneaking off at some point to leave just the twelve, which made the unlucky number aspect all a bit illogical? Whatever the reasoning behind it, the thing was just bloody stupid.
“I said, ‘Wouldn’t you agree, Jonathan?’”
“Absolutely.” Jonty nodded enthusiastically. He hadn’t actually heard his mother’s question, but — statistically, as Orlando would appreciate — there was a ninety percent chance that it was safest just to agree with whatever she had said.
“I was saying that I shouldn’t feel cross at Dr. Roberts’ having let us down at the last minute,” Mrs. Stewart continued, in a manner suggesting she was perfectly aware that her youngest son hadn’t been listening. “I’m sure he didn’t intend his appendix to explode, or whatever appendixes do to themselves to require being removed immediately.”
“Of course he didn’t.” Mr. Stewart, who had been having his annual check — ensuring the working of his engine, as he described it — at the time, had witnessed it all. “He was midconsultation when he just keeled over, face like a ghost. I thought he’d died.” Mr. Stewart had called for an ambulance, the physician in question clearly not being able to heal himself.
“I’ve sent him flowers” — Mrs. Stewart made a helpless gesture — “but they won’t be any use in rustling up a guest for tonight at the last moment. I suppose we’ll have to find somebody to draft in. I did wonder about Simon Bouverie, seeing as he’s in town.” Mrs. Stewart seemed to be deliberately avoiding her nearest and dearest’s gaze. “If he wouldn’t mind —”
“If he didn’t mind, then he damn well should.” Mr. Stewart rapped a tattoo with his knuckles on the chair arm.
“Sorry, Helena, but poor Simon gets a bad enough deal from this family. Ignored eleven-twelfths of the time and then expected to drop everything just to help us out.” Mr. Stewart turned to Orlando with a frown. “You won’t have met Simon, will you? He’s been abroad most of the time since you hove onto the horizon.”
“Richard, Orlando is not a battleship! He did not hove onto the horizon or any such nonsense.” She favoured Orlando with a charming smile, as a consequence not seeing Mr. Stewart rolling his eyes and grinning, which was just as well or he’d have had a full broadside. Mrs. Stewart could always be relied on to take her not-quite-son-in-law’s part against all comers, even in precedence to her husband’s and son’s. The smug little grin — quickly hidden — on Orlando’s face acknowledged how much pleasure he drew from that fact. Jonty didn’t begrudge him it, not really — he’d had precious little affection from his own family.
Mr. Stewart took up the account again. “Simon had the bad luck to be born to a wastrel of a father, Charlie Bouverie, a one-time friend of my uncle. He always hung about with us when we were younger. Nice lad. Officially he was Charlie’s ward, but then it turned out he was the natural son, born the wrong side of the blanket. Poor Simon became a bit of a . . . social embarrassment might be the best way to describe it. I mean, my family was very polite to him, of course, didn’t ban him from the house or anything, but there was always an air of being tainted by association. Or condescension, which is possibly worse.”
“Poor chap.” Orlando spoke with evident feeling. The Stewarts could have found him an embarrassment, or an object for pity, but he’d always been treated as Jonty’s equal. Mrs. Stewart circulating the story that he was her ward had, naturally, helped to keep up that standing with society as a whole. Had anybody discovered the truth about Orlando’s father’s bastardy and suicide, and then dared use that against him, the full might of the Stewart family would have come down upon them.
“Can we please get back to the matter of my dinner table and how I avoid disaster?” Mrs. Stewart wrung her handkerchief. “Is there nobody you could conjure up for me?”
“What about Dr. Peters?” Orlando said from the direction of the bookshelf, where he’d been greedily eyeing a book about the use of codes by Queen Elizabeth’s secret agents.
“Is he in town?” Mrs. Stewart’s distressed tone had disappeared, to be replaced with girlish enthusiasm. Dr. Peters, the master of St. Bride’s, was charming, handsome, and erudite. “Could you get him to come? He would be an ornament to any woman’s table.”
Not least because he was remarkably good-looking, Jonty thought, but wisely kept to himself. His mother had an elastic arm that could slap one of her offspring, irrespective of age, at about twenty yards. It was a shame that Ariadne, the master’s sister, wasn’t in the city; she would provide the erudition and charm without reducing Mrs. Stewart to drooling.
“He’s advising on an exhibition at the British Museum,” Orlando said. “I believe we should be able to contact him via the St. Bride’s porters’ lodge. Would you like me to try?”
“Please do, dear.” Mrs. Stewart beamed. “Avail yourself of all our facilities. Say there’s a lady who needs a white knight. Or a man on a white horse. Or something.”
Unfortunately, all the facilities at the disposal of St. Bride’s couldn’t actually connect Orlando with his quarry, although a message was left at his hotel to ring the Stewarts as a matter of urgency.
“What about the cat?” Mr. Stewart suddenly asked, in the sort of voice and with the sort of expression Archimedes must have used when he discovered his principle.
“What cat?” Orlando and Mrs. Stewart replied in unison.
“The cat they keep at the Dauphine Hotel. Great wooden monstrosity that gets wheeled out when there aren’t the required number of people at dinner and some superstitious soul wants to make the numbers up. He takes the fourteenth place.” Mr. Stewart looked suitably pleased with himself. “We could ask to borrow him.”
“Him? Are you sure he’s wooden and not some horrible moggy?” Orlando had no great love for feline creatures, or indeed for small furry animals of any sort. Apart from Jonty.
“He’s wooden all right,” Mr. Stewart assured him. “You can rap him on the head and check if you want. Would he work, Helena?”
“He certainly would. If you could ask, please, Richard.” Mrs. Stewart sounded and looked as she must have done when they were courting, all girlish enthusiasm and a dimpled smile. No wonder Jonty’s papa had been so smitten.
“I’ll get round there right now and talk to the manager. I’m sure he couldn’t resist an entreaty on behalf of a damsel in distress. Come on.” He gestured to his sometime fellow investigators. “You can add your most persuasive voices to the entreaty.”
“I’d love to, but I think I should stay here.” Orlando returned to his chair. “Just in case Dr. Peters returns our telephone call.”
“Excellent point, dear.” Mrs. Stewart reached across to pat his arm. “And you can keep me from fretting. I can always lay a fifteenth place if we end up with both Dr. Peters and the cat, but thirteen will not happen.”
Jonty hadn’t been in the Dauphine in years, but it didn’t seem to have changed that much. His father always averred that it was almost the same as when he used to take Jonty’s mother there — chaperoned, of course — in their courting days. The Stewarts still wandered over sometimes to have dinner, and not just for the sake of nostalgia.
“Mr. Stewart!” A tow-haired chap, maybe Jonty’s age, greeted them as they came through the revolving door. “A pleasure to see you, sir. Will you be gracing us with your presence at lunch?”
“No, alas, Mr. Chuter.” Mr. Stewart spoke to the man with the same easy respect with which he addressed anybody, from highest to lowest in the land. “Taking the nosebag at home today. You’ll not have met my youngest, Jonty . . .” He effected the introductions between his son and the deputy manager of the hotel with his usual practiced grace. “Is Mr. Wilmot available, by any chance?”
“Not at present, sir. Would I be able to help you?” Chuter looked disappointed at being passed over. He also eyed Jonty with a slight degree of trepidation, something that was becoming common now that the combination of Stewart and Coppersmith — not Coppersmith and Stewart, the cadence was all wrong with that combination — were gaining such public notoriety for their feats of amateur detection.
“I’m sure you would.” Mr. Stewart nodded sagely. “It’s about the cat. Montgomery.”
Chuter couldn’t have looked more relieved if he’d been in the thick of things at Mafeking when the siege was lifted. “Oh. Begging your pardon, gentlemen, but I assumed you were here on . . . detective business. I was concerned that one of our guests or — heaven forfend — one of the staff had blotted their copybook.”
“Nothing like that.” Mr. Stewart patted the man on the shoulder. “Although we’ll have blotted ours if we return home empty-handed. Montgomery’s services haven’t been booked for this evening, by any wonderful chance?”
“Not that I’m aware of, sir. Do you need him at your table?”
“I’m afraid I’m seeking more than that. We wondered, Helena and I, whether we could take him home and let him be our guest for dinner? We’d bring him back first thing tomorrow,” he added, maybe in case Chuter thought they’d never see the cat again.
“That should be quite in order.” Chuter smiled, inclined his head at Mr. Stewart’s profuse thanks, and summoned over a porter. “Launchbury, could you fetch Montgomery? He’s going to have an outing.”
“Well done, Papa.” Jonty tipped his head to one side, admiring, in an abstract sort of way, the neat cut of the porter’s trousers — or maybe the neat line of his backside. “Looks like your plan’s going to save the day. Maybe we have time for a snifter?”
“Oh, that sounds an excellent idea. Mr. Chuter, might we . . .” Mr. Stewart’s question died on his lips as Launchbury reappeared, looking alarmed and going at the fastest lick acceptable on the marble of the Dauphine’s entrance hall. He shattered all their plans on that same floor.
“He’s not there, Mr. Chuter. Montgomery.”
“Maybe he’s just been moved, or taken for cleaning,” Chuter said airily, although his wrinkled brow suggested concern.
“That’s what I’d have thought, sir, if it weren’t for —” Launchbury produced a piece of paper. “This was left where he should have been.”
Chuter unfolded the paper, looked even more alarmed, then handed it to Mr. Stewart.
Montgomery has gone on his holidays. He’ll be back once he’s helped light some fires.
“He’s been nicked!” Launchbury immediately corrected himself before Chuter could. “Purloined, I should say.”
“It certainly looks like it.” A gleam had appeared in Mr. Stewart’s eye that Jonty associated with the thrill of the chase.
“Mr. Stewart, Dr. Stewart,” Chuter said, addressing each man in turn. Jonty knew what was coming next. The deputy manager had At least we have the right men for the job on hand written all over his face. “I know such a matter would probably be beneath your notice, but would you consider helping us to find him? He’s an asset to the hotel and . . .” He spread his hands helplessly.
Jonty hid a smile, aware that Montgomery gave the Dauphine an advantage over other similar establishments, and that business might suffer due to his absence.
“He’s been taken on a previous occasion, I recall?” Mr. Stewart looked at the note again.
“Yes, it must be thirty years ago.” Chuter wrinkled his nose. “A rugby dinner. Blackheath. He was returned the next week looking slightly worse for wear but with money to cover French polishing. I just hope that bit about lighting fires isn’t literal.”
“I’m sure it isn’t.” Jonty felt less optimistic than his words suggested. “Not if he’s supposed to be coming back. We’d be delighted to help you find him, although I suggest it’s always best to start on your own doorstep. My colleague Dr. Coppersmith often loses things and then finds they’ve just been moved slightly, probably by him. He’s walked past them half a dozen times, taking no more notice than if they were part of the wallpaper pattern.” If the same could be said of Jonty, he’d keep that to himself for the moment. “I’ve no doubt that you will look everywhere, unlike Dr. Coppersmith, but it’s entirely possible Montgomery’s been moved by somebody to another location within the hotel. Note notwithstanding.”
“Good thinking, Dr. Stewart. We’ll scour the place for him and let you know if it turns out your services are not required.” Chuter nodded, then added ruefully, “He went halfway round the world the last time he was taken.”
“Let’s hope his wanderlust has been assuaged and he manages no farther than the home counties, then.” Mr. Stewart still eyed the note as though it should be telling him something but he couldn’t quite work out what. “The lads can’t manage to search the entire world before Michaelmas term.”
Chuter left them with the note in their custody, a poor substitute for the cat. He was clearly dreading having to report Montgomery’s disappearance, but at least he could also report securing the services of a distinguished pair of amateur detectives, should they be needed.
“The Dauphine will sorely miss that cat,” Jonty said, once they were alone.
“He went before. He’ll return. Whether with our assistance or without it.” Mr. Stewart had the voice of total confidence, even though the look he gave Jonty suggested he expected the game would soon be afoot.
“Let me tell Orlando about helping to find Montgomery.” Jonty cuffed his father’s elbow. “It’s been a while since he had a proper case to dig his teeth into, and he might get a bit upset at having another one that he feels is beneath his powers. Lost items pale into insignificance compared to murders or codes.”
“Point noted.” Mr. Stewart produced a sympathetic smile. “Maybe we could put his mind to this.” He held out the piece of paper.
“What’s bothering you about that note?”
“I don’t know. What is it I’ve heard you say? It’s like an insect buzzing about my head, that I can neither identify nor swat.” Mr. Stewart studied the piece of paper yet again. “It rings a bell — although whether that’s because I’ve seen the writing before, or the wording is familiar, or something else entirely, I couldn’t tell you. But it’s damned annoying.” The use of such a strong word, in public, illustrated the depth of his perplexity.
“That note won’t help you when we get home.” Jonty shuddered. “We’re still only thirteen. Should we go and drag somebody off the street so Mama doesn’t have to spend all evening waiting for somebody to drop dead? Or pray that Montgomery will return, maybe by magic, within the next thirty seconds?”
“We could pray for a miracle.” Mr. Stewart looked ashen. “What on earth are we going to tell her?”
Available now at Riptide Publishing, Amazon.com, .co.uk and ARe