Sir Adrian Beauclerk-Fisk sat complacently surveying the luxurious study of his manor house, basking in the Rembrandtesque glow of its dark-paneled walls, the gleaming surfaces of which reflected light from the flames in the carved eighteenth-century fireplace—a real fireplace, thank you very much, none of the fake-coal contraptions so beloved by the common people. The light reflected as well off Sir Adrian’s Toby-mug-like features, the silk of his smoking jacket, and the polished mahogany of the carefully chosen (by his hired London expert) antique furniture. Sir Adrian had shown the man a photo of the effect he wanted, torn from an article on Marlborough House in British Heritage.
He contrived to look, in fact, every inch the gentleman he was not. His expression as he surveyed the room through piggy eyes said as clearly as words, Mine. All Mine.
He picked up his 24-carat-gold-nibbed pen and contemplated the scattered pages of manuscript before him. A biro might have been less trouble than the pen, which constantly needed refilling from the antique inkwell, but the pen had seen him through thirty-nine best-sellers and, writers being the superstitious creatures that they are, nothing could separate him from it—certainly not the lure of one of those infernal personal computers with their floppy disks. Besides, he had that poncy American secretary to do the drudge work of transcribing his mostly illegible writing and cleaning up his spelling.
Sir Adrian indulged himself in several superstitions related to his writing, in addition to the pen. He would write only on flimsy blue air-mail paper of a kind produced only by a certain manufacturer in Paris—the kind on which he had penned his first best-seller. He now bought the paper in bulk, a hedge against the day its manufacturer might go bankrupt or change the content of the paper. His novels were always precisely twenty-six chapters long, often regardless of whether or not this served the needs of the narrative. His desk, although he had pointed it out to no one, especially the hapless reporters who liked to interview him on such things as when he worked and how he got his ideas, faced directly south, in imitation of the direction his desk had faced in the Parisian garret of his youth. Due south, which he had learned somewhere in his wide-ranging reading was the direction of good fortune in Asia. That this forced him away from the view of spacious gardens outside the French windows of the room was probably all to the good, the eternal Miss Rampling requiring more and more in the way of extremes of ingenious solutions to keep Sir Adrian’s vast public entertained. He had tried to kill her off more than once; his agent had remonstrated and his publishers had refused to publish. He had tried another sleuth, but the public revolted, staying away in droves from his Cornish Chief Inspector. No, Miss Rampling it must be, the reading public demanded it. He was wedded to the old bat as if by holy matrimony.
The reminder of matrimony brought a smile to his lips, a smile of the kind so accurately described by Ruthven as reptilian. Sir Adrian paused in his work, literally hugging his flabby girth with glee.
Sir Adrian felt he had a lot to smile about that day. The current book was going swimmingly—he was discovering that a roman a clef was much easier going than his usual fictional scampers down the too-familiar High Street and through the rectory of Saint Edmund-Under-Stowe with the sprightly Miss Rampling. He wondered if maybe he should adopt this method for future books. He sat tapping his pen, contemplating with serpentine relish the long list of his enemies, many long dead. At the age of 70, Sir Adrian viewed with some regret the diminishing ranks of those he viewed as his opponents, most of them older mentors who had had their kindnesses to Sir Adrian repaid with his own peculiar brand of ruthless, childish spite.
Still, there was his family, he thought cheerfully. Yet he surveyed this field with some bafflement. Not one of them worth a tinker’s damn. Only Ruthven even approached being worthy of the vast fortune Sir Adrian had amassed, for while George, if untalented, was certainly ruthless (which quality Sir Adrian admired above all others), only Ruthven possessed the perseverance necessary to turn the pitiless streak he had learned at Sir Adrian’s knee into vast pots of gold. As for the younger two—not worth mentioning. That his youngest son had turned into a drunken, poncy, fourth-rate actor was a family disgrace—more so for the feebleness of his acting talent than for his ponciness or his drinking, vices Sir Adrian was willing to tolerate because of their upper-class overtones. Sarah he dismissed with two words—fat cow, then amended that in his mind to, stupid fat cow—unaware of any irony as he absentmindedly contemplated his own vast girth spilling over the rope of his smoking jacket.
They think all they’ve got to do is while away their time until I die, he thought. Cookbooks and revivals of deservedly neglected plays and art gallery openings. He made a snorting sound that cannot effectively be rendered into English, and was turning once again to his manuscript when he heard a tapping at the door of his study. Quickly, Sir Adrian gathered the scattered sheets and shoved them under the ink blotter on his desk.
The door edged open to admit a blondish young man in the indeterminate middle years between thirty-five and forty-five. Slight of build, he still somehow exuded an American robustness that Sir Adrian found extremely tedious at the best of times. He was often to be observed prancing, as Sir Adrian put it, around the vast grounds of the estate, engaged in the pointless American pastime they called power walking. Sir Adrian predicted direly that the young man would not live to see his fiftieth birthday if he didn’t learn to relax, take up smoking, and knock back a few ales at the local.
“What is it?” Sir Adrian demanded now. The secretary, for it was he, flashed him a blinding white smile, displaying the results of a lifetime of proper oral hygiene.
“Just popped in to give you the latest pages, and to ask if you’ve any more for me to be getting on with, what?”
Another of Jeffrey Spencer’s many, many annoying mannerisms, to Sir Adrian’s mind, was his adoption of what he hoped was a British accent complete with British slang and figures of speech. Sir Adrian, when in the mood, reacted to this by slinging back as much American speech as he could recall from his telly viewing.
“Nope, Jeff,” he said now. “Reckon I’ll hang on to these here pages a mite longer, pardner. But you can mosey on down t’store yonder and fetch me some of this here special ink fer the inkwell. I’ve done tuckered it all out.”
Jeffrey—as he preferred to be called—blinked. There was something just that bit off in the phrasing of the last sentence. Sir Adrian wondered if he hadn’t gone rather too far this time, laid it on a bit thick. But, no. He could see the American shrug inwardly at the request, delivered as it was in what was still, to his ear, unmistakably a British accent. The old boy’s just having one of his off days, thought Jeffrey, wondering if he’d ever seen Sir Adrian having an on day.
“Rightee-o,” he said. “I’ll be back in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.” Again he flashed the fluoridated smile that could have launched a thousand ships, or at least, lighted them safely past the shoals, bouncing exuberantly on the balls of his feet.
“Okey dokey,” came the rejoinder.
The door slammed. Sir Adrian sighed. The man was an idiot, but, partly because he knew how to wrestle a personal computer into submission, and partly because he was one of the few souls alive who could decipher Sir Adrian’s handwriting, he had lasted longer than most of the secretaries, who, one by one, had been tested in the turbulent waters of Sir Adrian’s charm and emerged, scalded and terrified.
Sir Adrian was faced with a dilemma, however. He was fast approaching the part of his narrative that he wanted to preserve from the world’s scrutiny, at least until it was ready for publication. After all, the whole point of writing it was to ensure the world scrutinized it eventually. How far could he trust to Jeffrey’s discretion, or at least to his naïveté? Everything Jeffrey knew about Sir Adrian’s past and present he seemed to have gleaned from the pages of writers’ magazines—largely fictional interviews with the Master of Detective Fiction: Sir Adrian made it a point to change his story with every new reporter who came along. Still, the public facts of his marriage to Chloe were indisputable, common knowledge. Would even Jeffrey be able to read between the lines?
Sir Adrian, reaching no decision, sighed again and heaved himself slowly and painfully to his feet. The activity resulted in a grunting, snuffling sound, like a sow approaching a trough. He suffered, like Henry VIII, from gout, which affected his disposition about as well as it did that of the Jolly Monarch, and was the result of a lifetime of much the same kind of overindulgence. While he hadn’t left a trail of dead wives behind, the thought of beheading Chloe had more than once held temptation as being much pleasanter and more cost-effective than divorce. Grimacing, and with the aid of a cane, he hobbled towards the bell pull next to the fireplace to summon Mrs. Romano.
“He wants his tea, then,” Mrs. Romano informed Watters, the gardener, both of them sitting over their cuppa at the vast refectory table in the even vaster expanse of the surprisingly modern, warm kitchen. Chrome and stainless steel shone from every corner while the scent of just-baked bread filled the air.
Waverley Court had been built in the early eighteenth century by a soldier of fortune who had been well rewarded for his efforts to preserve and defend the monarchy by whatever means necessary, no questions asked. The house, however, seemed to reflect this rapacious gentleman’s subsequent determination never more to roam: It squatted, a square, immovable mass, on many hundreds of landscaped acres, like an enormous pile of building blocks laid out by an obsessive-compulsive giant in the dead center of his green garden. Sir Adrian had acquired it all for a song of a million or so pounds from the improvident descendants of the nobleman, gleefully snatching it just in time from the jaws of the National Trust. Sir Adrian was not certain even now that he had ever visited all the rooms in his dearly bought stone pile.
It was a long walk to the study, for it was a ludicrously large house and Mrs. Romano was not given to doing anything in haste. Indeed, it took five minutes for her to undulate her way from the kitchen in the back to the study in the front, balancing Sir Adrian’s tea tray the while. It was a ritual she had performed most of her working life for him and a task she would trust no one but herself to undertake, even on the days when her son, Paulo, who officiated as butler at the manor, was on duty. Best not to overtax Paulo, was her view: He’s got his life yet to live. And, besides, Sir Adrian seemed to enjoy the ritual every bit as much as she did.
Reaching the library at last, she knocked at its massive double doors before entering. It had apparently also taken Sir Adrian five minutes to get back to his seat; he was just settling in as Mrs. Romano entered.
“Here’s your tea, then. Repulsive English habit,” she said, as she always did.
A genuine smile transformed Sir Adrian, a smile that would have astounded any member of his family or his few acquaintances had they ever been treated to it, which most assuredly they had not. It was a smile in which it was possible to see traces of the handsome man he had been, before corpulence, bad health, and worse temper had ballooned the features into a mask of petulance.
“Mrs. Romano. I do thank you so much.” He pulled off his glasses. “Won’t you join me?”
It was an inevitable invitation with an inevitable reply.
“None for me. You know it would spoil my supper.”
Mrs. Romano had been Sir Adrian’s cook for 15 years, by far his most enduring employee. She was, in addition to being grounded by a bedrock of common sense, a marvelous cook, and Sir Adrian being known with some justification as a connoisseur of food and wine, she ruled not just the kitchen but the household as a result of her favored status. She and her husband had owned a trattoria in Cambridge that Sir Adrian had frequented on his trips to the bookstores. Mrs. Romano—Maria—had run the kitchen while her husband’s contribution to their success had been largely to drink the proceeds with the customers. When her husband died and she discovered he had drunk even more from the till than she had realized, Sir Adrian had convinced her to sell out and work for him with promises of a fat paycheck, autonomy, and spacious living quarters for her and her son, Paulo. She had accepted with alacrity, sick, at her age—she was then 52—of the hand-to-mouth existence of running a small restaurant, for her husband had, typically, left no insurance. She was touched then and now by Sir Adrian’s kindness, and she had never looked back. As she told her mother back in Italy, “Sir Adrian is nothing like they say in the newspapers. Never to me.” That Sir Adrian had gotten an excellent cook in the bargain was only fair, she felt, reveling in the chance daily to create new dishes to tempt Sir Adrian’s jaded palate.
“Stay for a chat, then, Mrs. Romano,” said Sir Adrian, motioning her to one of the chairs opposite his desk. She settled her generous form into the upholstered chair, mentally kicking her shoes off. This, too, was a frequent part of the ritual. More than most, she knew the solitariness of Sir Adrian’s day; like no one else, she felt sorry for him.
“How are the wedding dinner preparations coming along?”
Mrs. Romano, who had been steadfastly avoiding the subject, sidestepped with a question of her own.
“I did wonder, Sir Adrian, if it wouldn’t be better for me to speak with the bride about the preparations?”
“Er. I mean, she is the bride, and traditionally...” She trailed off. Mrs. Romano was seldom without words or an opinion, but something, as the British say, was fishy here, and she wasn’t going to venture too far without finding out first what it was.
“Tradition be damned,” said Sir Adrian. “Violet wouldn’t know a cauliflower from a pig’s brain—always too busy worrying about her figure to actually eat anything. She wouldn’t know what you were talking about.”
Not for the first time, Mrs. Romano wondered at the oddity of this proposed May-December match. Clearly it was a case of Jack Spratt and his wife in reverse, for one thing. But there was something more that bothered her. She knew Sir Adrian better than most and there was something, she felt, all wrong about all this. Violet Winthrop had emerged as a name spoken by Sir Adrian only in the past few months, and now these sudden wedding plans, with only the family invited, no friends. Of course, Sir Adrian had no friends, she reflected sadly. The ceremony was to be performed here in the library by a multidenominational pastor Sir Adrian had apparently selected from the phone listings. Why, at his age? The obvious answer of post-midlife crisis seemed out of character for Sir Adrian. There were men and there were men, after all. There was nothing Mrs. Romano felt she didn’t know about men. But she had never known Sir Adrian to face any crisis with other than blustering indifference.
And where was the blushing bride while all these preparations were going on?
“As for the refreshments after the ceremony,” she said now, “Champagne, of course. And I thought maybe a nice—”
“Too soon to worry about that now,” Sir Adrian said.
Too soon? With the wedding a few days away?
“Very well, Sir Adrian.” Long experience had taught her that there were times to ignore Sir Adrian, and this was one of them. Privately, she began listing the provisions she would order from the greengrocer and butcher in town. Raised on Italian weddings in her small village where the drunken celebrations had gone on for days, with or without the happy couple, she was having trouble paring this celebration down to the hole-in-corner affair Sir Adrian seemed to want.
She left the library some ten minutes later, following a spirited discussion with Sir Adrian as to how to prepare a traditional British roast with garlic, no easier in her mind than when she entered. Something is wrong here, she thought, pulling the massive doors, thick enough to repel an army, closed behind her.
“Something is wrong here,” she announced to Watters, having surged her way back to the kitchen more slowly than usual, lost in thought, looking more than ever like an older Sophia Loren in Two Women. She was not surprised to see Waters still sitting there at the oak refectory table, slowly sipping his highly sweetened tea. At 82, his role as gardener at Waverley Court had largely been reduced to taking a few feeble swipes with the pruning sheers at the rosebushes in the formal gardens, and pulling whichever weeds yielded themselves to his ineffectual tugging. The real work of maintaining the grounds was done by a hire firm from nearby Newton Coombe, which came in twice a week and largely prevented Watters from doing more damage than he might otherwise have done.
Now he roused himself from contemplating the tea leaves in the bottom of his cup to peer enquiringly around the kitchen.
“No,” said Mrs. Romano. “I mean here, at the house, in general. This wedding. Everything about it is not right. He is up to something, you mark my words.”
“No fool like an old fool,” intoned Watters, looking pleased, as if he’d newly minted the thought.
“Indeed,” said Mrs. Romano, briskly gathering the tea things and traversing what looked, from a bird’s-eye view, miles of stone floor to reach the stainless steel double sink. “But that is not what I meant. I do not think he is serious about this at all. We are only days away from the wedding and—has he even mentioned flowers to you?”
Watters shook his head.
“He had me bring in a couple of Christmas trees and some of them poinsettia plants for the house.”
“No, I mean flowers. You know, flower arrangements, for a wedding.”
“Nah. I thought ‘twere strange, that. Can’t have a wedding without flowers, can you now?”
“Exactly. No, you can’t.”
Mrs. Romano folded her arms, strong as a ship builder’s, under her impressive bosom. A crease appeared between her perfectly groomed eyebrows.
“I’ll tell you what I think. What I think is I do not think there is going to be a wedding. This week or next week or any time in the future. I do not think that is what he has planned at all.”
“Eh?” Watters’ mind raced, trying to keep up with Mrs. Romano. “Don’t be daft. The family will all be here, all invited, like.”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Romano. Absently, she flicked a dishcloth in the direction of a bread crumb. “Yes. The family will all be here. And I think that what Sir Adrian has planned is not a wedding, but the fireworks.”