Icy hail battered against the hood of Rosemary’s winter coat. It had, until a quarter of an hour ago been snowing like there was no tomorrow and she had thought that bad enough until the hail started. Her foot hit an icy patch and she slipped, and it was only the fact that she was holding Laura’s gloved hand that stopped her from landing flat on her back.
“I’m alright,” Rosemary assured her. “I think. Just a bit of a scare, that.”
“I almost wish we’d stayed in that bloody awful car of yours. At least we wouldn’t be risking our necks on this road. If we are still on the road, that is,” she added doubtfully after a moment.
“We might not have broken our necks but we would have frozen to death, and if by some miracle we weren’t overcome by hypothermia, with the amount of snow and hail we might not have been able to dig ourselves out tomorrow, let alone the car.”
“I told you you should have gotten the Landrover looked at after it started making that noise last week.”
“She makes a lot of noises, but she’s a good old girl. Most of them time they’re not critical.”
“Yes, well that one clearly was.”
“We don’t know that for sure.”
Laura rolled her eyes. “We’ll discuss it later. It’s too bloody cold to be arguing. Rosemary, look!” she appended excitedly. “Lights! We must have reached civilization at last!”
“Thank goodness! I’m about frozen through.”
“I do believe that is an inn before us. At the very least, it’s a building with light and where there is light there are people and heat. Light and heat,” she repeated dreamily.
“I wonder if they’ve got a bath,” Rosemary mused.
“A long hot soak would be heaven.”
“And a bite to eat. I’m starving. But I’ll have to thaw out before then.”
The building was, in fact, a small b&b in the town of Ripon-on-Rye and it was blessedly warm. The door tinkled merrily as they entered. To the right was the check-in counter, and to the left a fire blazed, and several comfortable-looking armchairs beckoned invitingly. The two women divested themselves of their sodden outer garments.
“You sit down, I’ll check us in,” Laura said.
“Are you sure?” Rosemary asked, as her feet carried her towards a large squashy chair near the fire, seemingly of their own volition.
“Go on,” Laura replied, shooing her on, “Don’t worry about it.”
Rosemary collapsed gratefully into the chair. “Ahhh,” she sighed contentedly. You know, this might have been a bad idea. I may never get out of this chair ever again.”
There was no one at the counter, so Laura pressed the bell, which inexplicably did not ding but started playing a tinny, off-key rendition of Jingle Bells.
“Aunt Edith!” a woman’s voice yelled. “I told you to get rid of that thing and put the normal bell back!”
A short, plump woman approximately the same age as Laura and Rosemary, with a streak of grey in her hair came around the corner. Her hair tumbled around
“I’m so sorry about the bell. Aunt Edith thinks it’s a riot and I’ve already replaced the bell twice but she keeps hiding them and putting this one back.”
“Not at all,” Laura responded. “At this point all we want is a bite to eat and crawl into bed with as many blankets as possible.”
“It’s a bad night to be out,” the woman agreed. “I’m Genevieve.”
“Laura. And that’s my friend Rosemary. Our car broke down about a mile out of town.”
“No! How awful. You poor dears! You must be chilled to the bone. Our cook went home early but I’m sure we can find you some toasted cheese and a bit of soup. The only room that is ready is a room with one double bed, I’m afraid, so I hope you don’t mind sharing. I can get you into a different room tomorrow. A number of our guests decided to check out earlier this afternoon instead of tomorrow morning, to try to beat the weather and with one thing and another I haven’t had time to properly prepare all the rooms.”
She rummaged around behind the counter and fished out a set of keys, which she handed to Laura.
“Up the stairs and to your right, #6. I’ll let you get settled while I see about those sandwiches. The dining room is down the hallway on this floor to the left, and kitchen is behind the dining room. Why don’t you come down in about 10 minutes and I’ll have some hot toddies for you and your friend. You can leave your coats and things down here if you like and I’ll move the coatrack near the fire so they dry out.”
“Thank you,” Laura said sincerely. She turned back to Rosemary, whose eyes were closed.
Laura walked over and shook Rosemary’s shoulder gently. “Rosemary, wake up, we’ve got to go get settled in, warmed up, and eat.”
“Mmmph” Rosemary tried to burrow deeper into the chair.
“You’ll be sorry if you stay in that chair. You’ll be stiff as board come morning.”
“But it’s so comfy.”
“You’ll be more comfortable upstairs, trust me. Besides, I’m not hauling both our bags up myself.”
“Oh very well.”
Genevieve had not been exaggerating about the size of the bed. It was small. Two people might fit in it, if they did not move at all during the night.
“Do you think Genevive would mind if we came down in our socks?” Rosemary asked.
“I don’t think so,” Laura replied. “Besides, I don’t know about you but my boots are soaked and my socks are soaked and my feet are freezing and I’m not intending to wear my boots anymore tonight and I’m not sure that I could get my feet back into them again even if I wanted to, which I don’t.”
Miraculously, two pairs of Laura’s socks, which had been deep inside her bad had not managed to get wet and so they each changed into a pair.
Rosemary sat on one edge of the bed, rubbing at one socked foot and then the other
“I think I can feel my toes again,” she remarked. “Either that, or they’re about to fall off from frostbite.”
Laura breathed hot air on to her own hands and resumed chaffing her own feet.
“Let’s hope for the former,” she said.
“Well, we’ll certainly get the advantage of each other’s body heat in this bed,” Rosemary cracked with a twitch of her lips. “Do you think we’ll fit?”
“We’d better. I’m not spending the night in the downstairs lobby.”
“Speaking of downstairs, let’s go see if those hot toddies she promised us are ready.”
“Thank you Genevieve, you’re a lifesaver,” Rosemary expounded after they’d eaten and drunk. They’d pressed her to stay with them while they ate, and she had been a charming conversationalist.
To their surprise, Aunt Edith had wandered by at some point. “Liked my bell, did you?” she’d cackled.
“She’s a bit doddy, but a sweet old thing, even if she does drive me crazy,” Genevieve had confided. “She’s my Daryl’s aunt, and he and I were the only family she has left and has stayed here at Christmas every year for 25 years. Daryl died five years ago now and I haven’t the heart to turn her away, even though she’s grown more eccentric. But she’s a sweet old lady, as I said, for the most part, and I wouldn’t want her to be alone. She moved in about a month ago. The lease ran out on her house, and her neighbors were worried about her. They didn’t think she should live alone anymore, and they were right. She’s a good enough soul, most of the time.”
“Nonsense,” Genevieve had replied, smiling. “It’s basic human kindness”.
“Still, thank you. We’d better be getting ourselves to bed and out of your hair.”
“It’s no trouble at all, it’s been a real pleasure talking with you.” She pressed their hands warmly. “You need anything else, you just let me know.”
They wished her a good night and climbed the stairs to the room.
“What a lovely person,” Laura commented.
“Yes. Ohh, I’m tired.”
“Yes, I suppose we’d better figure out the best way to do this, don’t you?”
“Mmm, it’s going to be a bit of squeeze. Any suggestions?”
“Back to back? I don’t think there’s enough room otherwise.”
That, as it turned out, worked pretty well, at least for a few hours. Around 2 in the morning, Rosemary woke up, half frozen, and blearily realized that the reason for this was that Laura had stolen the blankets. She tugged on them, but Laura sighed in her sleep and snuggled in more tightly with them.
Rosemary turned over to face Laura’s back.
“Laura. Laura!” Rosemary hissed, shaking her by the shoulder. “Laura! Wake up!”
“I’m frozen. You’ve taken all the blankets.”
“Well you’ve been kicking me all night,” Laura responded sleepily.
“I have you not!”
Laura flipped onto her back and glared at Rosemary. “You have too! You’ve been running a marathon over there, that’s what it feels like.”
“Maybe I’ve been trying to get to someplace warm since you stole all the covers.”
“If I’m going to be black and blue tomorrow I may as well be warm.”
Rosemary muttered something under her breath that sounded suspiciously like “Bloody insufferable woman”.
“Give me a moment,” Laura said, re-arranging the blankets and twisting to face Rosemary. “Come on, then, turn around.”
“The problem is we’re pulling the covers in opposite direction.”
“The problem is you’re a blanket hog,” Rosemary muttered.
“So,” Laura continued, ignoring Rosemary’s comment, “we’ll both face the same way and then we’ll be pulling in the same direction, you see? And neither of us will freeze.”
Rosemary was forced to admit there was some logic in this plan. She turned her back, leaving a little space between her and Laura.
“Oh for heaven’s sake,” Laura said, exasperated, and threw an arm over Rosemary and shifted so as to close the space between them. “There.”
Her breath tickled the back of Rosemary’s neck.
“Now if you don’t mind, Rosemary, I’m going back to sleep.”
In the morning Genevieve gave Rosemary the number for the local garage and Rosemary went with them to go find and dig out the car.
Laura decided to have a bit of a wander around the town.
“You should talk to old Nate,” Genevieve had said. “He’s our handyman and gardener and also for St. Stephen’s. Good morning, Professor Fitzhugh”, Genevieve called cheerily to a woman who had just entered the room. “This is Laura Thyme. She and her friend were caught in that awful snowstorm last night.
Professor Fitzhugh was a carefully manicured, impeccably dressed woman in a deep mauve skirt suit. “A pleasure,” she said without any real warmth.
“What brings you here, Professor Fitzhugh?” Laura inquired politely.
“I specialize in stained glass and the Father Smithson asked me to come look at St. Stephen’s to see if it is of sufficient historical value to save the church.”
“Oh, is the church in danger?”
“You know how it is,” Genevieve jumped in. “Lots of little villages all across England, each with its own church and attendance in the C of E has been declining steadily for years. The church doesn’t have the money, or at least it says it doesn’t, to keep all the parish churches open. St. Boniface’s up the road is a much larger and more imposing edifice, and the bishops have decided that it will stay and St. Stephen’s must go. But St. Boniface is rather far away for some of the old ladies, and it is perhaps a bit popish for some of them. We’ve never used incense at St. Stephen’s, you see. Anyway, you don’t want to hear the minutia of our local politics.”
“Well, I must go,” Professor Fitzhugh said. “I promised Dr. Smithson I’d meet him at nine-thirty.”
“Would you take Laura with you? That way she can meet Nate.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t want to impose,” Laura interjected.
“Oh, I’m sure it wouldn’t be an imposition. The professor’s going there anyway.”
“Not an imposition at all,” the woman confirmed.
Together they walked in the bright morning sun, which glinted off the snow.
“Do you enjoy teaching, professor?”
“It has its moments,” Fitzhugh answered with a wry smile more genuine than any emotion Laura had hitherto seen from her.
“Rosemary enjoyed it immensely I know. She misses it. My friend,” she clarified. “Rosemary Boxer, she used to teach at university. She’s a plant pathologist.”
“Retired, did she?”
Laura looked sharply at her companion. “Not exactly. Her boss was a bit of a jerk and let her go.”
“Ah, the perils of academia,” Fitzhugh observed. “And what does she do now?”
“We have a business,” Laura replied proudly. “Gardens – designed, mended, nursed, etc.”
“I see. Well, here we are. I’m sure Mr. Winteridge is around here somewhere. If you’ll excuse me, I really hate being late,” and without waiting for Laura’s reply, she swept through the front doors and into the church.
“What’s wrong with her?” Rosemary inquired anxiously of Bryony, head mechanic of the local garage as they hitched the Land Rover to Bryony’s truck
“Well, the engine’s probably going to need a fair amount of work, I can tell you that. We’ll need to get her back to the shop though to know for sure. Don’t worry, these old girls are pretty tough.” She squeezed Rosemary’s arm in a brief gesture of support. “But it may take a few days.”
“Laura and I were supposed to be at my friend Amelia’s for Christmas. I suppose that won’t happen now.”
“Better to be off the roads in this weather anyhow. They say we’re in for quite a bit more snow before Boxing Day.”
“Hello, you must be Nate Winteridge,” Laura smilled and stuck out her hand. “Laura Thyme. Genevieve said you’d be here.”
He took her hand and shook it heartily.
“Pleased to meet you Ms. Thyme. What can I do for you?”
“Laura, please. I hoped you might be able to tell me a bit about the gardens at the hotel and here at the church, since we can’t see them. My partner and I are gardeners. Well, I’m a gardener and Rosemary’s a gardener and a plant pathologist.”
“I’d be delighted.”
At dinner that night Rosemary and Laura met a few of the other guests of the hotel. The Williams family, with Peter (father), Lorraine (mother), twins Lucy and Annabelle, and little Freddie. To Laura’s delight Nate was there as well, along with his young assistant Jason. Professor Fitzhugh sat at the far end of the table. Genevieve served a creamy mushroom soup to them with thick slices of fresh, hearty bread and then sat to take her place.
The Williams’ were chattering amongst themselves about how they were going to get to the grandmother’s for Christmas, and discussing how early they would realistically be able to leave the next day, Christmas Eve.
“You must be Rosemary,” Nate addressed her. “I’m Nate, and this is my grandson and apprentice Jason. Laura told me so much about you. What adventures you two have had with your business! Did you know Jason, that these two ladies have worked on some truly exquisite gardens in our fair country?”
“Mmm,” Jason grunted, tucking into his food with greater urgency.
“Slow down my boy, and mind your manners,” Nate chided.
“Sorry,” Jason muttered.
“That must be fun, apprenticing to your grandfather,” Rosemary commented.
“It’s okay, I guess. Gardening is pretty boring though. I’d rather be a Formula 1 driver. Or a rock star,” he said into his soup.
Laura gave Rosemary a look.
“Did the stained glass pass inspection?” Laura asked Fitzhugh, passing her the salt.
“They’re beautiful windows,” she replied, “but they’re not of great historical value. Father Smithson was rather upset.”
Aunt Edith swept in with a basket of cookies. “Dessert, anyone?”
Fitzhugh selected a cookie, bit into it and immediately spit it out.
“Are you trying to kill me?” she yelled. “I told you I was allergic to walnuts.”
“I’m so sorry!” Genevieve cried. “I completely forgot that we still had some of Miss Bessie’s Christmas surprise cookies. Will you be okay? Do we need to call a doctor?”
“No, no,” Fitzhugh breathed shakily. “I will be okay. But I think I’ll go lie down.”
“I’m so sorry,” Genevieve apologized again.
Their new room, #8 was in the short part of the “L” shape of the hallway.
“What’s the door next to ours without a marking?” Laura asked.
“Oh that, that’s the door to the attic. Genevieve says that’s where they are storing most of Edith’s things at the moment.”
Rosemary surveyed the room with satisfaction. “I never thought I’d be so happy to see two beds.”
“Nor I,” Laura declared.
Rosemary flopped down on one of the beds. “Mine, mine, all mine!” she cried theatrically, clutching the blankets, and grinning at Laura.
“How do you know I haven’t already stolen one from your bed?” Laura teased.
“You wouldn’t” she replied in mock horror.
“I am a woman of mystery, and of many talents,” Laura replied with dignity, though she was struggling to keep a straight face as she did so.
Rosemary threw a pillow at her.
Rosemary ran into the professor again at breakfast the next day. The Williams were wrestling their many suitcases out to their car.
“I hope you’re feeling better,” she ventured to Fitzhugh as they sat down with bowls of oatmeal.
“Yes, much. It’s always frightening when I am accidentally exposed to walnuts though.”
“I can imagine. Well, I am glad you are alright. Laura told me you are a professor as well as a stained glass expert.”
“I am. And I understand that you are a former professor of plant pathology?”
“Yes,” Rosemary laughed a little. “It’s a long story.”
“Do you miss teaching?”
“Some parts of teaching, most certainly. I had some wonderful students. It was always lovely teaching those who were really eager to learn. I don’t know if you have many older students, but I had a number of students over the years who had come to college later in life, or who were going for a second degree, or who were simply interested in taking a few classes and they brought a a whole different dynamic than my 20 year olds.”
“Yes, they do have a different perspective don’t they. For the most part those who find their way into my seminars really do want to be in class but I do teach a couple of lower-level art classes and the students are not always entirely committed to the classes and it shows both in their participation and in their work.”
“Now grading, that is something I do not miss. But what I miss least of all is the politics and the backstabbing and the labyrtine and archaic rules of the administration.” Rosemary suddenly realized she had balled her napkin. She unclenched her fist and surreptitiously flattened it out.
“Now there is definitely a story there,” Fitzhugh remarked with a small smile, “but I won’t press you for it if you don’t want to tell.”
Rosemary picked up a piece of toast. “Oh, it’s a rather dull story really, but the short version is that you should never get personally involved with someone higher on the foodchain than you because it’s a terrible idea, and they may turn out to be a prick and let you go from your job in a cowardly and ungentlemanly way. In a letter,” she added, stabbing a knife with rather more force than necessary into the raspberry preserves.
“Ouch,” Fitzhugh replied sympathetically.
“Yes, well, now Laura and I have our business which is lovely, and not what I ever expected but it’s great, it really is.”
“Are you two…?” Fitzhugh waved her spoon vaguely “…together, as well as business partners?”
“Together?” Rosemary repeated dumbly, her voice sliding up onto a squeak. “No, no, just partners. Business partners.”
“Where is that young man?” Genevieve asked in frustration, running a hand through her hair. “He was supposed to be here half an hour ago to work on the water heater. He lives above the garage at the back – it’s a commute of all of five minutes.”
“Would you like me to go knock on his door?” Laura asked.
“Oh would you? That would be lovely, I’ve got to go get the laundry finished and the linen pressed for the Christmas Eve dinner.”
“Not a problem, I’ve had a lot of experience rousting young people to go work. I’ve a son and a daughter you see.”
“How lovely. Were they to join you and Rosemary at her friend’s home?”
“No, they had other plans this year. Helena, my daughter is travelling on the continent, and my son Matthew is having Christmas at his girlfirend’s house.”
“I think it is. I don’t know her terribly well, but I met her a few months ago – Matthew invited me to tea with her.
“My Daryl and I never had children. We never wanted any of our own, but we loved visiting other people’s. Being the honorary aunt and uncle was all the fun without the responsibility.” She winked, and Laura laughed.
“Filled them up with sweets and let them stay up too late did you?”
“Absolutely.” She twisted her hair into a bun. “Well I am afraid I must get to that laundry soon or we’ll be eating off the good china on paper towels.”
Dinner went off with a hitch, and afterwards, on Genevieve’s recommendation Laura and Rosemary attended the midnight Lessons and Carols Christmas Eve service, which actually began at 11 at St. Stephen’s.
The entire church was lit with candles, with a few artificial lights so, Laura and Rosemary suspected, the congregation could read the hymns. Genevieve and Nate came as well, though they sat near the back as Genevieve confided that they might have to slip out early as neither of them normally stayed up so late. Professor Fitzhugh had declined to go, citing a tickle in her throat and a small headache. “It will be gone by morning, I’m sure,” she’d said with a brave smile, “but I don’t want to risk making it worse.”
The service was lovely, and they walked back to the b&b, humming Christmas carols.
“You go on up,” Laura said to Rosemary, when they got back. “I’ll be there in a minute.”
Rosemary climbed the stairs and walked down the hall, still humming softly under her breath so as not to disturb the other guests. She turned the corner and stopped abruptly.
"Oh!" she cried and clasped a hand over her mouth. Aunt Edith stood by the splayed body of charity Fitzhugh, holding one of the professor's green velvet pumps.
"Rosemary!" Laura shouted, rushing up the stairs to the second floor
"Don't come, Laura" Rosemary yelled back.
But Laura was already rounding the corner. “Oh dear!”
Rosemary turned and reached for Laura’s other hand. “I think we’d better call the police,” she squeezed Laura reassuringly.
“Yes, I suppose so.”
“What’s going on?” Genevieve’s voice floated up the stairs. “Is everyone all right?”
“No,” Laura replied slowly. “They’re not.”
The police arrived with surprising swiftness, even considering the size of the town, but then again, maybe Rosemary was in shock and hadn’t noticed the time passing. The police had shooed them downstairs to sitting room and now Laura, Rosemary, Genevieve, and Aunt Edith were all huddled in the room. Edith and Genevieve were each in one of the squashy armchairs, and Laura and Rosemary sat on the loveseat.
“Hey,” Laura said gently, reaching out to touch Rosemary’s knee to get her attention. “Are you okay?”
Rosemary turned to her, her face frighteningly blank. She blinked, as though she had only just in that moment noticed Laura’s presence. “Not really.” She shuddered involuntarily, and Laura wrapped her arms around her and Rosemary hugged her back, fiercely.
The police were naturally very interested in speaking to Edith, who had not only found the body but had been found over the body, holding a piece of evidence no less.
“You don’t think they think she did it?” Genevieve asked anxiously.
“No, I’m sure they don’t,” Laura soothed, not certain at all. “They just need to talk to her, that’s all. She was the one who found the poor professor first, after all.”
Genevieve looked relieved.
“I don’t want to think it was her,” Rosemary whispered to Laura later, so Genevieve couldn’t hear, “but I don’t know. Clearly someone pushed Professor Fitzhugh down the stairs and it wouldn’t have required a great deal of strength”.
It had technically been Christmas when they had come back from the Christmas Eve service, and so it was well into the wee hours of Christmas morning, practically the non-wee hours before the police let them go to bed.
As Laura and Rosemary put on their pajamas and dragged themselves into their respective beds, Laura said “I vote that next year we make Matthew invite us for Christmas. It’s close, there is no possible way we can get snowed in, and the worst that can happen is he gets called away for work, in which case the murder is his problem, not ours.”
“Rubbish, you know you’d winkle all the details out of him.”
“Oh, and I suppose you wouldn’t be curious at all?”
Rosemary made a small harrumphing noise.
“What if he invites Nick?” Rosemary countered.
“Then,” Laura said firmly, punching her pillow into shape, “we decamp to Helena’s.”
They arose, rather groggily, mid-morning and stumbled downstairs to the dining room. Genevieve was sitting there in her bathrobe, nursing a cup of coffee.
“Morning,” Rosemary said briskly. “Merry Christmas,” she added, after a moment.
“Merry Christmas,” Genevieve replied with a smile of her own, though she looked a little wan.
“How are you?” Laura enquired. “How is Edith?”
“Edith is at church. She got up at 7:00 AM, went for a walk, and then announced she was going to attend the Christmas morning service.” Genevieve cleared her throat and then, in a passible imitation of a querulous Edith
She shook her head. “I’m not sure what’s gotten into her – she’s not usually a church-going person”.
“Maybe she only told you she was going to church,” Rosemary offered.
Laura stepped on her foot.
“Do you think? Perhaps we ought to go look for her.”
“Rosemary can go,” Laura volunteered.
St. Stephen’s was only a five-minute walk away, nonetheless Rosemary and Laura had risen late and so Rosemary slid as noiseless as she could into a back pew, wincing as the ancient wood creaked with what seemed surely unnatural loudness. But no one turned and hushed her.
The church was not very full, she noted as the words of the homily washed over her. They stood and rose for the hymn and she fumbled her way through the rest of the service, flipping hastily through the Book of Common Prayer.
As the congregants filed out at the end of the service, Rosemary paused to examine the stained glass windows that had been Fitzhugh’s raison d’etre for coming to Ripon-on-Rye. They were quite beautiful and it seemed a shame that they were insufficient to save the tiny church, which, as she looked around was a charming building, and if the pew cushions were a little worn here and there, well, that did not detract from the overall charm.
Rosemary was delighted to see that Father Smithson looked exactly as she thought a pleasant village clergyman should look – of middling height, a little stooped and avuncular, with a cherubic face.
“Delighted to see you,” Father Smithson shook her hand. “I do hope you’ll stay for coffee hour?”
“Professor Fitzhugh was telling us that you were hoping to get the church historical status on basis of the windows,” Rosemary remarked.
“Yes, alas, that is not an avenue likely to bear fruit. Did you know the professor well?”
“No, I was only very briefly acquainted with her. She was also staying at the b&b”.
Aside from the lemon pound cake, which was not unlike eating a piece of dried sponge, the treats at coffee hour were surprisingly tasty and the coffee hot and drinkable.
“I’d avoid the pound cake if I were you,” a cheerful looking woman in her late thirties advised. “Robert, no running in the social hall! Kids,” she added, turning back to Rosemary with a smile.
“I’m afraid I already found out about the cake the hard way,” Rosemary replied. “Rosemary Boxer,” she stuck out her hand.
“Melanie Johnson,” the woman replied. “Mother of the ever-energetic Robert, and equally rambunctious Daisy, who I suspect very strongly is playing hide-and-seek in the choir room. Nice to meet you.”
“Are you regulars here?”
“Oh yes, been coming to St. Stephen’s since I was small. It’s a family tradition.”
“I wonder, Father Smithson, if you had the original plans for the gardens for the church? I had a look around the other day and it seemed to me like the grounds are probably not laid out as they originally were.”
“You’re quite right, Miss Boxer,” the vicar beamed. “I do have the plans actually, unearthed them a few years ago. I’d be happy to show them to you later – I just had them out for I now keep them with the other plans and historical documents of the church buildings and ground.”
“Ah, and Professor Fitzhugh wanted to see them, I imagine.”
“Yes she did. Such a tragedy,” he murmured sadly. “Such a lovely lady. And so interested in the local history.”
“Oh?” Rosemary tried to keep the excitement out of her voice.
“Yes, she was very interested not only in our stained glass but in our WWII-era history. My father was an army chaplain, and Edith’s sister – you’ve met Edith Dowerly, yes? Edith’s sister Ermengarde, God rest her soul, was, I am quite sure, in intelligence.”
“How exciting! I had no idea she had a sister.”
“Ermengarde passed a few years ago, but she was fiery to the end. My dad used to tell me some of the things she and George got up to, before the war.”
“George?” Rosemary prompted.
“Friend of old Nate’s. George and Ermegarde were sweethearts till he got himself killed in ’45. A sad business.”
“Did you know Ermegarde well?”
“We were acquainted, but no, I didn’t know her terribly well. She travelled a great deal in her life, and it was only when she came to visit Edith that our paths crossed. But despite her travels and wanderlust she and Edith remained close. Edith misses her dreadfully. She’s still got a pile of things from Ermegarde up in Genevieve’s attic that she hasn’t fully sorted through.”
“It must be tough.”
“Yes, well, and now this. She’s had her fair share of trouble these past years. More than many. I’m sorry that you and Laura and Genevieve are also caught up in all this horrible business.”
“It was a shock.”
“If I can be of assistance, do let me know.”
“To tell you the truth, Father, I am not a regular churchgoer.”
“My services are at your disposal nonetheless.” He smiled. “If I can help you, I will.”
“Thank you. You’ve been a great deal of help already.”
“Aye, she was asking a lot of questions,” Nate agreed as Laura assisted him with the heater. Jason had been nowhere to be found. “As usual,” Nate had grumbled. “That boy had better get his act together if he ever wants to achieve anything in life.”
“Very interested in George and Ermie, the professor was was. At first I thought it was simple curiousity – but,” he shrugged. “She started asking some funny questions.”
“Hand me that spanner will you? Thanks. She was very interested in Ermie and George, but mostly in Ermie and what she did during the war.”
“Father Smithson said she was a WWII history buff.”
“She was certainly after something, but I don’t think she was history buff. I’ve lived a long time, and seen a lot of things, and I’m sure she was after something. Some people just don’t know when they ought to leave well enough alone.”
“Do you know what?”
“Some things are meant to stay in the past. I’m going to go get a washer from the shed.”
Laura tried to raise the subject again once Nate returned, but he wouldn’t discuss it further.
Rosemary was nursing a cup of hot chocolate by the fireplace when Aunt Edith stormed through the front door, muttering under her breath.
“Edith, are you all right?”
“Those…blasted policemen,” she fumed. “With their sly, insinuating ways. They managed to question me most impertinently about the contents of the attic – my possessions – and imply that perhaps I was the one who killed Charity Fitzhugh.”
“Her first name was Charity?” Rosemary asked, incredulous.
“So it seems. I didn’t quite believe her when she told me – such an old-fashioned name – she seemed like a woman who ought to be named something more modern, but the police confirmed it was true.”
“You must have spoken to her at some length. Laura and I both talked with her and I’m sure I would have remembered if she told us her first name.”
“Oh yes, we had quite a chat or two. She was very ingratiating at first, and seemed genuinely interested in talking with me. But she didn’t seem odious. Ingratiating, yes, but in a way that could almost be called endearing.” She unwrapped her scarf and laid it to one side.
“But your opinion changed?”
“No,” Edith frowned. “But she grew – well it seemed like she grew distracted after a time. It just didn’t make sense. She was here for a few days you know, and the longer she was here the more distracted she became. But I think she was also excited about something. But enough about that. What are you doing her by yourself? Where is your charming companion?”
Rosemary tried to keep from smiling too broadly at the thought of what Laura would look like if she heard herself described in those terms.
“Oh she’s off chatting with Nate. Said he reminds her of her old dad. They’re swapping war stories I think – gardening stories I mean, not actual war stories.”
“My sister was part of the war effort. I never did know quite what she did but I was very proud of her.” Edith’s voice quavered and she blinked furiously.
“You must miss her very much,”
“It is hard,” Edith agreed. “The grief is both terrible and in some ways a great comfort. In all this mess,” she said suddenly, “do you know what happened? Someone stole this awful painting Ermengarde had. I used to tease her about her terrible taste in art. She had this painting that she loved, an awful faux-cubist sort of still life in the most garish colors you can imagine. And a curious little cubist teacup in the corner in the most horrendous shade of blue you ever laid your eyes on. I don’t claim to know a great deal about art, but it truly was the most ugly painting I have ever seen. I can’t think why anyone would want to steal it. It seems hard to believe that anyone else would want it, and so I told those awful police. Professor Fitzhugh had asked if I’d show it to her, but she didn’t want it. It had come up somehow and she said ‘My word, Edith, if it’s as awful as all that you must promise to show to me sometime.’ But she won’t get to see it now, I suppose. It still haunts me, coming on her like that. I knew immediately something was dreadfully wrong. And then you came and then Laura.”
Her gaze was out of focus, as though replaying the scene in her mind.
“You shouldn’t let Laura get away, dear,” Aunt Edith admonished abruptly, and for one confusing moment Rosemary thought Edith thought Laura had murdered Professor Fitzhugh. Then Edith said “She’s a keeper, your Laura.”
“And it’s not as though the two of you are getting any younger,” she added in a philosophic tone.
Rosemary stared at her, her head reeling. She opened her mouth to respond, realized that she did not have anything coherent to say, and shut it.
“Yes?” Edith arched an eyebrow at her.
Rosemary opened her mouth again and this time, to her horror, a small, strangled sound emerged. She hastily took a large gulp of cocoa.
“That’s what I thought,” Edith said with satisfaction, and just a hint of smugness.
“Where have you been, boy?” Nate demanded. Laura rose hastily.
“I’d better be going,” she said.
“You were supposed to be here an hour ago to help me mend the fence,” Nate said to Jason
“I was out.”
Laura closed the door carefully, but not quite all the way, behind her, and leaned against the wall, listening intently.
“You’ve got to start being more responsible! Most jobs wouldn’t let you get away with the kind of stuff you pull here,” Nate fumed.
“I hate this job!”
“You’ve made that abundantly clear but if you won’t shape up you haven’t really got a choice. You’ve got to show that you can handle a job with more responsibility or no one will hire you.”
“I wouldn’t need this stupid job if Dad hadn’t been such a pushover.”
“Don’t you say that about your father, young man.”
“It’s true, don’t you dare deny it. If dear old Dad had looked out for himself and his family just a little bit more we could be very comfortably off and none of this handyman crap.”
“You watch your tongue.”
“Who’s going to make me? You? You’re a weak old man, Nate, just like my father. Someday soon I’m going to make my fortune, and then you’ll be sorry.”
“I’ll believe that when I see it.”
“I think he’s got it in that room of his,” Rosemary hissed excitedly.
“He’s quite unpleasant, I’ll give you that, but why would he want to steal a dreadful painting? Why would he murder someone over it?”
They knocked on the door of Jason’s room. No answer.
“Jason, are you there?”
Rosemary tugged at the door, but it was locked. “Blast.”
Laura tugged a bobby pin from her hair. “Budge over,” she commanded. “I’ve been dying to try this.”
“You didn’t tell me you could pick locks!” Rosemary whispered delightedly.
“Well I can’t generally, but this is not a very complicated lock.”
There was a satisfying snick. Laura twisted the knob and the door swung open.
“After you,” she grinned, deftly sliding the pin back into her hair.
“What a mess!” Rosemary exclaimed.
“Matthew was just the same at his age. So why is that you think he’s got the painting here?”
“Suppose its not just a dreadful painting. Suppose that it’s valuable for some reason and that’s why Professor Fitzhugh was so interested in it. Or suppose it’s not valuable but he thought it was. You said Jason had hinted he might be coming into some money soon, right?”
“But nothing. He overhears Edith talking with Fitzhugh about her sister and the painting. He misconstrues the professor’s interest and thinks it is just the ticket to get him out of here. But it’s a hotel, and a small one and he needs privacy to do this. Christmas Eve is coming up. He figures the Christmas Eve service is a good time to do it – a bunch of townspeople will be at the service, some of the guests of the hotel as well, and so this is going to be his best chance. He waits a little, goes to the attic to search for the painting. Professor Fitzhugh comes along the corridor, maybe hears something, maybe he leaves a light out, anyway something makes her come over to investigate. She surprises him, they struggle, he pushes her down the attic stairs either accidentally or on purpose, and runs away with the painting.”
“Rosemary I think I’ve found it!”
“Well, well, well, aren’t you the clever ones,” Jason drawled, leaning against the doorframe and fingering a pruning saw. “What a bothersome pair of old biddies you turned out to be.”
Rosemary and Laura started and instinctively moved a little closer together.
“And now what will I do with you?”
“What makes you think you’re going to do anything with us?” Laura demanded.
“Well I can’t have you telling anyone about the painting, now can I?”
“I think you misunderstood Professor Fitzhugh’s interest in it,” Rosemary explained patiently.
“Did I now? Then you won’t object to me keeping it.”
“Of course we object! It belongs to Edith.”
“It belongs to me!” he exploded, slamming his palm into the wall. “Or it should, at least. You two think you’re so clever but in all that time you were nosing around where you didn’t belong did you stop to think about what it was that Ermengarde and my grandfather were doing in the war? They were spies, and smugglers, that’s what they were. My grandfather, when he was ill and the medications had loosened his tongue, and fuddled his memory so he was no longer so careful about keeping his secrets, told me all about it. How they smuggled art in the war, how once Ermegarde had to send one of the pieces to her sister for a short while until they could send it through the proper channels, only somehow they never did, and then they just never could bear to give it back, and she kept it, she kept it all this time. And my poor, devoted father who was so devoted to the world that he never thought about his family at all, who would give the clothes off his back to a stranger but wouldn’t help his own son, he didn’t care about it. He didn’t care about making our lives comfortable. He wouldn’t touch it. But I’m better than him. I’m stronger than him. I’m more a man than he ever was. And if grandfather and Ermengarde had sold the painting they’d have split it 50/50 and we’d have been rich. Who knows what other treasures they might have hidden away, if only we knew where they were! But they didn’t sell it, didn’t tell anyone about it. It’s been wasting away all these years when it could have been put to good use.”
Rosemary and Laura had been slowly moving closer to the wall during this monologue, hoping to have an opportunity to scoot around him.
“Don’t think you’ll get away from me,” he growled, brandishing the saw at them.
“Jason, you don’t want to do this,” Laura reasoned. “It’s all been a terrible mistake.”
He laughed, a harsh sound.
“Fitzhugh knew. That’s why she was poking around. I don’t know how she knew, but somehow she realized the painting had value. It’s a Chagall, you know? Not what you see, of course, it’s been painted over, but it’s under there. Worth a fortune.”
There was no getting past him in his present position. What they needed, Laura thought desperately was a diversion. Then she saw it – a digital clock sitting on top of the dresser. She prayed it was battery-powered rather than plug in, and with one swift motion grabbed it and threw it as hard as she could at Jason. Her aim was not great, but it hit his right shoulder with a definite thunk, causing him to drop the saw.
“Deck him, Rosemary!” She shouted, and Rosemary executed a masterful blow, and Jason went down.
“Damn, that hurt,” Rosemary commented, shaking out her hand. Laura grabbed the other one and they ran out of the room together.
They spotted Nate on their dash back to the house.
“Call the police!” Laura shouted. “Jason’s the one who killed Professor Fitzhugh and stole the painting. And they might want to bring an art expert.”
The police came and took Jason away, and admonished Rosemary and Laura for getting themselves into a dangerous situation.
“We were trying to help,” Rosemary pointed out.
“You might have called us first rather than rushing in willy-nilly,” the policewoman replied sternly. “We do thank you for your assistance. But please be more careful in the future.”
“What a Christmas,” Edith said.
At dinner that evening, Edith stood and proposed a toast.
“To Rosemary and Laura, our intrepid sleuths. May they have many Christmases together that are much more pleasant than this one was.”
There was a long pause.
“To Rosemary and Laura,” Genevieve echoed. “Hear, hear,” and they all clinked their glasses together.
“Edith certainly is an original,” Laura whispered to Rosemary.
As they were changing for bed Rosemary said, “I talked to Amelia earlier today. She said that she’d still love to have us come for a few days, once this weather clears and the Landrover is operational again.”
“That would be nice. How is your hand doing?”
“It’s a lot a better, the ice pack helped a great deal.”
“You were magnificent, by the way.”
“We make a good team. With your throwing arm and my pugilist skills, we’ll go far,” she grinned.
Then she sobered. “I’m so glad you weren’t hurt today,” she said, squeezing one of Laura’s hands with her good hand.
“Believe me, so am I.”
They smiled at each other, and Rosemary suddenly felt, rather ridiculously, as though there was a shimmer between them. She’d never quite believed in the whole “and then I felt this connection” business, and yet…
They were still gazing fondly at one another, and then Rosemary heard Edith’s voice in her head saying “she’s a keeper,” thought to herself What the hell, and kissed Laura on the mouth.
She felt Laura stiffen briefly and then, wonder of wonders, Laura kissed her back.
Edith drew them aside as before they left.
“I’ve rigged up a new sound for the bell,” she confided. “Don’t tell Genevieve. I want it to be a surprise.”
“What is it?” Rosemary asked.
“I thought we needed something more cheerful, and less wintery, so now it plays ‘For she’s a jolly good fellow’”
“You are incorrigible,” Rosemary laughed.
Edith turned to Laura. “You take good care of this lady,” she instructed her. “And come back and visit some time, both of you.”
“We will,” Laura promised.
They loaded the bags into the Land Rover and buckled up. Edith was waving from the front door.
“I think they’ll be alright, eventually.” Rosemary observed, as she waved back.
“I agree. I think we should take Edith up on her offer to come back at visit. Just not, perhaps, at Christmas,” Laura added after a moment.
“Definitely not,” Rosemary laughed, and leaned over to kiss Laura. “We’re okay too, right?”
“More than okay, I’d say,” Laura replied with a sly grin.
Rosemary swatted her playfully, and then turned the key in the ignition. It sputtered for a few moments, and the engine roared to life.
They drove off, onto a new adventure, together.