A Proposal to Die For – Chapter One

September 2016

Read on for an exclusive look at the first chapter of the new Lady Alkmene Mysteries

‘Marry me.’

The whispered words reached Lady Alkmene Callender’s ears just as she was reaching for the gold lighter on the mantelpiece to relight the cigarette in her ivory holder.

Freddie used to be a dear and bring her Turkish ones, but since he had been disinherited by his father for his gambling debts, his opportunities to travel had been significantly reduced, as had Alkmene’s stash of cigarettes. These ones, obtained from a tobacconist on Callenburg Square, had the taste of propriety about them that made them decidedly less appetizing than the exotic ones she had to hide from her housekeeper – who always complained the lace curtains got yellowish from the smoke.

‘Marry me,’ the insistent voice repeated, and Alkmene’s gaze wandered from the mirror over the mantelpiece to the table with drinks beside it.

Behind that table was a screen of Chinese silk, decorated with tiny figures tiptoeing over bridges between temples and blossoming cherry trees.

The voice seemed to emerge from behind the screen.

Another voice replied, in an almost callous tone, ‘You know I cannot. The old man would die of apoplexy.’

‘Not that he doesn’t deserve it. If he died, you’d inherit his entire fortune and we could elope.’

‘Where to?’

‘Gretna Green, I suppose. Where else does one elope to?’

Alkmene decided on the spot that the male speaker had a lack of fantasy, which would make him unsuitable for her adventurous mind. If you did elope, you’d better do it the right way, boarding the Orient Express.

‘I mean,’ the female said, in an impatient tone, ‘where would we live, how would we live? Off my fortune I suppose? I don’t think the major would give me a dime.’

‘What has the major got to do with it? Once the old man is dead and we are married, the money is yours.’

There was a particular interest in money in this young man’s approach that was disconcerting, Alkmene decided, but if the female on the other side of the Chinese silk didn’t notice or care, it was none of her business.

‘Alkmene, dushka…’

Alkmene turned on her heel to find the countess of Veveine smiling up at her from under too much make-up. The tiny Russian princess, who had married down to be with the love of her life, wore a striking dark green gown with a waterfall of diamonds around her neck. Matching earrings almost hung to her shoulders, and a tiara graced her silver hair. ‘I had expected to see you at the theatre last week. Everybody who is somebody was there.’

‘I was…’ reading up on the fastest-working exotic poisons ‘…detained unfortunately. But I trust you had a pleasant night?’

‘The new baritone from Greece was a revelation.’ The tiny woman winked. ‘You should meet him some time. Just the right height for you. Never marry a man who is shorter. You will always have to look down on him, and it is never wise to marry a man on whom one must look down.’

Alkmene returned her smile. ‘I will remember that.’

She heard a light scratch of wood and turned her head to see a young woman adjusting the Chinese screen. She wore a bright blue dress and matching diadem, her platinum blonde hair shining under the light of the chandelier.

She looked up and caught Alkmene’s eye. ‘The thing always tips over to the side. Would crash the table and destroy all of those marvellous crystal glasses.’

She had a heavy American accent, but Alkmene recognized her voice anyway. It was the woman who had moments ago been discussing her marital prospects and a possible elopement with a man behind the screen. Her accent had been a lot less obvious then. But her reference to the major not giving her ‘a dime’ did suggest she was American.

Intrigued, Alkmene came over and said, ‘Let me give you a hand with that. It is huge.’

She glanced behind the screen, but there was nothing to be seen. Nobody – hardly room enough for two persons to stand. If she wasn’t perfectly sure she had heard the conspiring voices, she’d have deemed it impossible.

She pretended to test the screen’s stability by grabbing the top and pulling at it. ‘It seems solid enough to me.’

The young lady smiled at her. ‘Why, thank you, much obliged. A drink perhaps?’ She had already gestured to a waiter to bring them fresh glasses of champagne.

Outside a car horn honked, and someone lifted the curtain to look out and see who was arriving so late to the party. Alkmene didn’t have to look to know. Self-made millionaire Buck Seaton liked to be noticed wherever he arrived. No doubt upon his entrance he’d be hollering about a terrible traffic jam in Piccadilly, to make sure he could spend the next hour talking about his new automobile. It would probably be American, like this young lady by her side.

As the blonde handed her a glass of bubbles, Alkmene said, ‘How do you like London? Have you been here long?’

‘Just a few weeks.’ The blonde took a sip of her champagne, careful not to smudge her bright red lipstick. The colour might be cheap on another, but with her it underlined her stark classic beauty. As of a silver screen icon.

Alkmene said, ‘There is a wonderful exhibition right now in a renowned art gallery on Regent Street.’

‘I’ve already been there,’ the blonde said with a weak smile. ‘My uncle is an admirer of art. Sculptures, paintings. He even said he might hire someone to have my portrait done. A bit old-fashioned if you ask me. I’d rather have him hire me a star photographer. In the time I’d have to sit still for a portrait he could have taken my picture a hundred times. And not in front of some dull old bookcase either, but balancing on the railing of London Bridge.’

At Alkmene’s stunned expression the other woman burst into heartfelt laughter.

There was commotion at the door as Buck Seaton emerged, still wearing the preposterous goggles he always used when driving an open automobile. Pulling them off, he stretched his already impressive height to look around the room and spotted the blonde. ‘Evelyn!’ He waved the goggles in the air.

The blonde’s face lit at once, and she took a hurried leave, readjusting her long gloves as she made her way over to the millionaire. He leaned over confidently, kissing her on the cheek and speaking to her in an urgent manner.

‘I saw her last week at the theatre,’ the countess said in a pensive tone. ‘She was with a much older man.’

‘Must be the uncle she just mentioned to me,’ Alkmene said. ‘The art lover. You did not know him?’

The countess shook her head. ‘He has never been introduced to me. I actually thought they must both have been new to London for I had never seen either of them before and I do see people everywhere, you know. It was very odd. They came when the performance had already begun and they left during the break.’

‘Maybe they just didn’t like the singing,’ Alkmene concluded.

The countess shook her head. ‘It was not the performance. I think there was an argument in their box. A young man arrived, and there was a heated discussion.’

Ah. The countess had been training her opera glasses on the other boxes instead of on the stage. Alkmene also found it difficult to concentrate on sung love triangles for long stretches, even if the baritone was a tall dark Greek. ‘This young man, can he have been her fiancé or something?’ She was still curious about the man who had been with the blonde behind the Chinese screen just now.

Elopement rather suggested the relationship was illicit, but who knew, he might be a long-suffering fiancé who finally wanted to marry the girl and be done with it.

The countess’s fine brows drew together in concentration. ‘I do not think so. The old man seemed very surprised to see him – and upset. I think almost…startled. Like he had seen a man returned from the dead.’

Alkmene hitched a brow. ‘Returned from the dead? You mean, like he didn’t want to meet him?’

‘No, literally.’ The countess waved a breakable hand covered with a thin web of green veins. ‘Like he had seen someone whom he believed to be dead and all of a sudden he was there, in his life again. Making demands on him.’

Alkmene pursed her lips. ‘That sounds rather intriguing. I wish I had been there, and could have seen them for myself.’ Their gestures during the argument, or just the clothes of the unexpected arrival, could have told her so much. Leaning over eagerly, she asked, ‘This man returned from the dead, was he a gentleman, well dressed, in place there, or rather different? A foreigner perhaps?’

‘He was young, tall, broad in the shoulders. Well dressed, but not rich, if you know what I mean. Not like all of those sons of earls and dukes, running about.’

The countess sounded so deprecating that Alkmene had to laugh. ‘They are not all bad, you know.’

The countess waved a hand. ‘Ah, but they have never had to work for anything, long for anything, strive for it with all of their energy. They have it all; they get things with a flick of the hand. It doesn’t make men of them. Oh…’ She suddenly focused across the room and said, waving past Alkmene, ‘There is a dear friend I must see. Take care. Greet your father from me.’

Alkmene did not take the trouble to explain her father was off again on one of his botanical quests, this time to India, and was not expected to be back before Michaelmas.

The idea of all those weeks of delicious luxurious freedom beckoned her, and with a smile she reached for another glass of champagne.

 

Two days later, over toast with Cook’s excellent prune preserve, Alkmene unfolded the morning paper, still pristine as her father was not there to smudge it with egg yolk and bacon grease while he studied the social column so he could send attentions for weddings and births and always appear to be an engaged gentleman instead of a hermit who only knew the Latin names of plants.

He was so good at hiding his social deficiencies that people kept sending him invitations to balls and soirées he had stopped attending two decades ago. In his defence it had to be said that Alkmene usually pinched the envelopes from out between his other letters as soon as the post came in. Her father was a dear but a disaster in the wild, and he preferred the company of his microscope and his mould specimens anyway.

On page 2 a heading read: Banker dies in accident.

Unexpected death always had an unhealthy appeal to Alkmene, and she perused the few lines underneath with great interest.

‘Yesterday morning around eight Mr Silas Norwhich, a former banker, was discovered dead by his manservant in his library, apparently having fallen and struck his head on the rim of the hearth the night before. As it had been the servants’ night off, nobody had noticed the incident until the next morning.

‘A widower with no children, Mr Norwhich lived a very secluded life, focusing solely on his substantial art collection. The collection, containing masterpieces from Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Monet and Rodin, will now pass to his only heir: his niece, the actress Evelyn Steinbeck, recently come in from New York City, where she is a rising star on Broadway.

‘Miss Steinbeck wasn’t home at the time of the accident and has been treated by a doctor for nervous shock.’

It was rather a short and poor piece, lacking any form of useful information about the death, but Alkmene forgot the prune preserve and studied the text as if it contained the vital clues to the whereabouts of a gold mine.Buck Seaton had called the young woman who had appeared from behind the screen the other night Evelyn. She had spoken with an American accent and admitted she had only been in London for a few weeks. She had also mentioned an uncle who was an art lover.

The countess, who had seen the blonde at the theatre, had mentioned her being there with an older man who was not known to her socially, which fit with the newspaper’s assertion that the murdered man had lived a very secluded life.

Apparently until his vivacious niece from New York had arrived.

He had wanted to have her portrait painted and had taken her out to the theatre.

Not that Evelyn Steinbeck seemed to have appreciated the trouble her uncle took for her. She had spurned the portrait in favour of photographs.

Of her balancing on the railing of London Bridge no less. A testimony to a daring character, taking risks rather than fitting the mould.

And her talk of the old man and him dying of apoplexy behind the screen had been callous, almost cruel. Like she wanted to get rid of excess weight.

Alkmene stared into the distance. Evelyn had discussed her uncle’s death with a man, and lo and behold, two days later he was dead and she would inherit his art collection. Judging by the mention of some of the pieces it contained, it had to be worth a fortune. An excellent motive for murder.

But what about the young intruder into the theatre who had given the old man such a fright? The argument between them had been the cause for the old man to leave the performance early. Out of fear?

Had the intruder followed him to see where he lived? Killed him when he had been alone? It had been the servants’ night off so if somebody had rung the bell, the old man would have answered the door himself.

Alkmene narrowed her eyes. A push, a fall and no one around to see a thing…

With a beautiful, manipulative heiress and an intimidating stranger part of this story, there had to be something more behind the ‘accidental’ death. It warranted further investigation.

She left her breakfast for what it was, already shrugging out of her purple embroidered dressing gown while still climbing the stairs.

There was no place like the Waldeck tea room to catch some gossip about a sudden death.

***

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