The plot is based loosely upon that of Margery Allingham's The Crime at Black Dudley (1929). Lisette goes to a reunion of a ladies' club held in a country mansion. There is a game, reconstructing the séance from the A. E. W. Mason crime novel At the Villa Rose (omnibus edition 1931). A gang takes over the mansion and holds the group of women captive. Lisette is transported as a hostage to Tunbridge Wells where a missing item is retrieved. They return to the guesthouse to find the cellar open and the building deserted, yet the guest's cars are still where they had been parked …
The Guesthouse Sans Souci lay in a fold of two hills between Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells. As she cruised her little Renault up the driveway, Lisette Rivers could not help thinking that the isolated place was a logical choice for the Ladies' Detective Book Club annual retreat and dinner. She had accepted their invitation to be guest speaker with some misgivings. But she had just completed a case, and a long weekend away from the office was eminently desirable.
Anyway, it was a slack period. Her business partner Chèrie Chalmers - she was the "C" on L & C Associates (Corporate Crime Our Specialty) - was away on leave somewhere in Italy. Sophie Brush, their indispensable administrative assistant, had decided she was not indispensable after all and had taken a week's leave to visit her sister in academe at the University of Edinburgh. Rasputin Thermodux the First was holidaying in his favourite cattery, terrorising all human staff and charming the lady felines.
It was Friday mid-morning and Lisette did not expect to be back in her Covent Garden flat until late on Monday. It was a quiet period in an otherwise busy and sometimes dangerous life. No crimes had been committed that required her attention. The guesthouse looked cool and inviting in the summer sun and entirely innocent.
Lisette located a small car park to one side of the building. At her touch the Renault eased gently into a corner bay. She climbed from the seat and stretched her body gracefully, collected a small overnight bag from the boot, locked the car with the electronic pad attached to her key ring, and walked slowly across the entrance driveway. She looked about her as she went, admiring the view of undulating green fields through which she had just driven.
A cheerful redhead greeted Lisette at the reception counter. Her name badge identified her appropriately as Rouge Sunday. She wore a brown safari jacket with matching trousers, sensible in the hot weather.
"You're one of the first to arrive," said Rouge chattily. "Here, you'd better fill this in before I forget. Effie, that's Beeswax the publisher, will kill me if I don't get everything right. She's put so much work and effort into this retreat."
The woman slid a heavily bound guest register under Lisette's nose and indicated with a stubby finger the third line down the ruled page, which was blank. As she took up the pen, Lisette read the names of the two guests who had preceded her: Miss Penelope Whittle and Lady Frances Keene.
She remembered Keene vaguely. Keene had written a novelette that was something to do with a derelict castle, secret passages and a heroine who managed to get herself locked in a dungeon - or was she thinking of someone else? Those themes appear so often in railway novels that their authors might very well be one and the same person; or a stable of ghostwriters like those responsible for the Nancy Drew tales. Lisette filled in her name, business address and email and pushed the volume back to Rouge's waiting hands. The woman read the entry.
"Oh my goodness! You're the guest speaker. It's so very good to meet you, Miss Rivers, on time and earlier than most of the others."
Although she was enthusiastic, the woman became businesslike and soon Lisette was standing in a well-ordered little room decorated from floor to ceiling in pastel shades, a colour scheme that applied also to the large four-poster in the adjoining bedroom. The window looked down upon the driveway and fields. The bedroom opened into a sparkling en suite bathroom. It was more like a small apartment than the monoculture motel style she had been secretly dreading.
A small coffee table ringed by two wicker armchairs stood over by the main room window. A bookshelf against one wall held a selection of novels that might be attractive to all ages. There was even a Nancy Drew edition that Lisette considered quaint, especially as she had just been thinking lazily about that character. She looked at the title page. It was a Scandinavian translation. Of course, this guesthouse must attract international tourists.
At leisure she unpacked a few travel items and was refreshing her notes on the small laptop when there came a knock at the door. It was Rouge Sunday.
"The rest of them are starting to arrive," she announced cheerily. "No worries! Meeting at one for coffee so we can get acquainted. Dinner at 7.30 and an early night. First session at nine tomorrow as per your programme. AGM followed by your address, scheduled for 10.30 after morning tea. Again as per the programme. Effie is precise about these things. The regular staff are off for the weekend - some sort of fair in the village - but our needs will be taken care of by caterers hired from Tunbridge Wells." Rouge paused for breath. "Dress casual, more or less come as you are. This is meant to be a fun weekend, not some stuffy book conference. No worries! Oh, and there's a special plenary session scheduled for three o'clock. I'll brief you on that later."
Lisette thanked the girl who departed to make the announcement to other guests.
The come-as-you-are option did not appeal. Lisette felt sufficiently travel-stained for a quick shower and change of clothes before meeting her future audience. Ten minutes later, showered and refreshed, Lisette put on a light white top with a scooped neckline and a narrow slit skirt over white string-sided panties and a cream satin underwire half-cup bra. Around her neck she arranged a thin string of pearls. A small clip held in place a pink chiffon neckerchief interlaced with the necklace. She appraised her reflection in front of the ceiling-to-floor bedroom mirror and put her hair up to keep her neck free and cool. In the muted glow from the room's spiral energy saver, her rich honey gold hair glinted darkly.
Lisette smiled to herself as she descended the stairs in a swirl of satin skirt. She knew that some of the people she was soon to meet projected eccentricities to the world, and she was interested to know what they were like face to face in real life.
Rouge Sunday, still in safari suit, was waiting clipboard in hand as Lisette stepped into the living room. "Here you are," she exclaimed chattily. "Let me show you the seating arrangements for dinner."
She walked to Lisette's side and proffered the clipboard.
"I've placed you between two rather interesting thorns," Rouge said with a giggle. "Penelope Whittle and Lady Frances. Penelope is what they call an erudite scholar. Her specialty is the fiction of A. E. W. Mason. Lady Frances Keene is a publisher of what they call in the industry 'chick lit.' She likes a mixture of romance and mystery and her publishing house is a keen competitor against Mills and Boon. Penelope will not exactly bore you, but she has a couple of hobbyhorses. Frances - the 'Lady' is just an affectation, though don't tell her that - will probably try to recruit you to their research staff if not as a writer. Do you have writing experience? No? Well never mind. I can guarantee you'll have an interesting evening.
Rouge could not imagine how interesting that evening would become.
The group that gathered around the coffee table stimulated Lisette's interest. Rouge Sunday had arranged everybody according to her plan for the dinner table, so Lisette found herself sitting between Penelope Whittle and Lady Frances. They had been introduced at the door to the coffee room and now Lisette was the meat in the sandwich between the two women, who were discussing the relative merits of romance as against crime fiction. From time to time one or the other referred to Lisette for support as though she was an authority on the subjects, then passed on to another topic for argument and counter-argument. They were having a wonderful time.
Penelope Whittle was a thin, austere looking woman until she laughed, when the sharp features of her face softened to reveal a warm character within. Her long dark hair was plaited to fall in a ponytail halfway down her back. Lady Frances Keene was a full-bodied woman but not overweight. Her silvery hair, the outcome of a recent visit to a hairdressing salon, framed a rounded face with rich, sensuous lips.
In between their interchange, Lisette observed the other guests. The convenor, Effie Beeswax, was probably in her early forties. A little incongruously, she was dressed in a skin-tight jumpsuit. She wore her long brown hair waved and shoulder length. Dorothy Sailing wore the usual businesswoman's attire of dark skirt and jacket over a crisp white blouse. She was a dark haired beauty who must turn many a man's head, thought Lisette.
Agatha Crest was the only houseguest who had not yet arrived. Rouge stated apologetically that Agatha - "a slip of a girl" - had been delayed by a sudden meeting with her publisher to discuss a final emendation to her second novel, The Adversary Revealed, before going to press.
"It's all her own fault really," declared Penelope Whittle with a twinkle in her eye. "The girl will insist on making last-minute changes. She's lovely, and her thrillers are much talked about, but she has her editor tearing his hair out most of the time, and going prematurely grey."
Lisette smiled. She had met Agatha Crest at a party thrown by Bryce la Plage and liked the pretty blonde immediately. "I'm sure her novel will be the better for that," she remarked reassuringly, and Penelope and Frances agreed in unison.
The small function was drawing to a close, scones and jam, biscuits and cheese almost consumed. "Now, ladies," announced Effie Beeswax, clapping her hands exuberantly. "Time for our pre-dinner entertainment. This evening, to set us in the mood, our critic in residence Miss Penelope Whittle will talk to us on her latest theory about At the Villa Rose. This is all new to me so I shall pass you straight to Penelope who will explain all."
There was muted clapping and a last dive for the remaining scones and cheese. Penelope Whittle stood and waited several seconds until she had everyone's attention. She cleared her throat.
"Ahem … My colleague Effie is correct insofar as my general subject is concerned. However, I do not intend to bore you with a lengthy disquisition on what you all know is my hobby. No indeed. What I intend is to play a short charade that will set us in the right frame of mind for the activities tomorrow, Miss Rivers' talk about her, ahem, experience of crime in the real world," here Penelope raised both hands and made quotation marks in the air with her fingers, "and what will no doubt be lively discussions in the panel sessions that shall fill the rest of the day."
She paused dramatically, looking from one listener's face to the other, then continued: "I shall dramatise the séance from At the Villa Rose, and as Miss Sailing has acted in amateur productions I have asked her to assist me in the part of Celia Harland."
Dorothy Sailing stood and bowed diffidently to another scatter of applause.
"I'm glad it's her and not me," whispered Rouge into Lisette's ear. She had taken a seat behind Lisette. "You know what happened to the girl Celia in that novel don't you?" Rouge shivered with a sort of anticipatory delight.
Lisette nodded. "Miss Sailing looks confident," she replied. "As a businesswoman I guess she has to be."
They were interrupted in their whispered conversation as Penelope Whittle took a deep breath and anniunced: "Shall we begin?"
The audience, now sitting in a row, watched as Penelope Whittle in the part of Adele Rossignol stood facing Dorothy Sailing.
"I shall read from my script," Penelope announced. "Miss Sailing, however, has learnt her lines in the ten minutes during which I have set up the props - this curtain, that chair. So, we shall begin."
Adele/Penelope: "If mademoiselle consents, I shall tie her hand and foot and fasten her securely in a chair. Such restraints are usual in the experiments."
Dorothy/Celia: "I'm not sure that I do permit it."
"She's changed the dialogue," Rouge whispered in Listte's ear. She was sitting beside her now. "I wonder why?" she added.
Adele/Penelope: "Now, how are we to begin?"
Penelope took up a length of the thin cord in one hand and produced a small revolver in the other, with which she menaced Dorothy. Lisette heard the audience gasp. She herself was considerably surprised.
Adele/Penelope continued her lines: "Now I ask you again, mademoiselle. Turn and put your hands behind you."
Dorothy/Celia obeyed, crossing her wrists. According to what Lisette remembered of the novel, she also clenched her hands and stiffened her arms, and her adversary on cue tumbled to the ruse.
"Keep your hands relaxed, mademoiselle, your fingers loose."
Adele/Penelope stuck the revolver in the waistband of her skirt and began to tie her captive's wrists together. Dorothy Sailing winced as the cord was made tight. She's not play-acting, thought Lisette. Does that woman have something against Dorothy?
Adele/Penelope continued trussing Dorothy's elbows tightly together. She then pushed the girl down into the chair and bound her legs and ankles. "Now, try to free yourself."
Lisette and the rest of the audience watched in horrified fascination as Dorothy Sailing strained at the bonds, her hands fluttering. She was obviously completely helpless.
"You may have your scarf now, Célie," said Penelope, still in the role of Adele Rossignol. "But with a big difference."
She tied a scarf of heavy white silk so tightly between Dorothy's jaws that her mouth was stretched open in a grimace, the cloth cutting into her cheeks.
"Well! What was that all about?"
The group were in the central foyer consuming pre-dinner cocktails served on trays by two grim-faced waiters in badly fitting dinner jackets a size too small for their biceps. Lisette and Rouge were sitting side by side in a window seat looking out upon the gravel driveway abutting the entrance steps.
"Oh," said Rouge with a faint shrug, "It's an ancient rivalry. Dot and Pen acted in the same repertory and they were so equally matched in talents and acting ability that they soon began competing for the best parts. There was a bad time when they refused not only to talk to each other but also to cooperate when both were on the stage together. But they settled their differences and have since become friends. Mind you, the director had to take a firm hand. It's said that he locked them in a props room overnight, bound and gagged, and that brought them to their senses." Rouge finished her anecdote with a verbal flourish. "A night of considerable discomfort together forged bonds of friendship between them."
"They're a funny pair, that's for sure," observed Lisette. She took a sip of her cocktail. "This day is becoming more and more unusual," she continued. "Where on earth did Effie dig up those waiters? They look like gangsters rather than employees in the hospitality industry."
Rouge chuckled. "It was forced on Effie I believe. The catering firm were off sick - something to do with food poisoning - and their manager, rather than lose a good customer, took up an offer from the florist next door. Those two men are drivers - delivery boys for the florist."
"The mind boggles," said Lisette with a smile.
"Yes. It certainly does, and Tunbridge Wells is such a staid community. Ah well … There's the dinner gong and none too soon. I'm starving!"
Lisette and Rouge followed the other guests into the dining room where they were directed to their seats. Contrary to the previous arrangements, Lisette found herself sitting between Penelope Whittle and Dorothy Sailing. But the two friendly rivals asked whether they might sit side by side, so Lisette vacated her place and moved to Dorothy's left. Immediately to her left and at the head of the table sat Rouge Sunday. Facing Lisette at the other side of the table was Effie Beeswax with Lady Frances Keene. A vacant place with cutlery and napkin laid out was reserved for Agatha Crest who had not yet arrived.
As Penelope Whittle took her seat next to Dorothy, Lisette overheard her saying in anguished tones: "I don't understand how it's gone missing. I distinctly remember putting it away in the cupboard behind the reception desk, in a shoe box with the rest the props, the ropes and that scarf."
"What have you lost now?" asked Dorothy in a bored drawl that told Lisette Penelope Whittle must be notorious for misplacing things.
"The gun. That revolver. As an experiment I wanted to add melodrama to an already melodramatic moment."
"It can't have gone far," said Dorothy reassuringly. "You'll find you simply put it down somewhere else. Anyway it's only a prop."
"No it isn't. It's real. I made sure to remove the cartridges from that cylinder thing, so it was safe. If I don't return it my producer will kill me. Figuratively speaking of course."
The dinner had begun brightly, each woman chatting animatedly to her neighbours and across the table. But gradually conversation began to flag and looks of puzzlement appeared on their faces.
"Fish knives and forks for the soup?" asked Dorothy Sailing to no one in particular. "It's virtually impossible to eat it with forks! Not to mention the soup's cold!"
The main course arrived with spoons. A hushed, uneasy calm settled upon the group. Rouge looked interrogatively at Effie. "I think you really must take this up with these caterers," she said. "You're the convenor. I'm just the receptionist, when all's said and done."
Lisette looked back across her shoulder to the cabinet that held the table linen, at one end of which stood a woman in a business suit who appeared to be the catering organiser. At the other end of the cabinet stood a man, also in a dark suit. They had both entered within the last five minutes and were watching the group with an intensity that troubled Lisette.
Effie Beeswax rose to her feet and beckoned imperiously to the woman. "I say, Ms Tulle," she began, "What sort of catering is this, pray tell? The cutlery is all over the place, and the soup's cold, not to mention these beef nuggets burnt to a crisp. I'm sure you can do better than …"
Lisette saw Tulle produce a small revolver from her side pocket and level its muzzle straight at the convenor. Effie's voice trailed off and dead silence ensued. Those who had not been looking at the catering woman turned their heads upon hearing the abrupt lacunae in Effie's complaint.
"My god, the missing gun!" exclaimed Penelope Whittle.
The catering manager spoke: "Keep still all of you, and be quiet!" She jerked the small revolver menacingly. "Do as we tell you," she continued, "and you may get out of this affair only a little ruffled."
The man beside her spoke out of the corner of his mouth: "Which one do we have to be careful about?"
"Her!" The woman trained the muzzle of the gun on Lisette. "The girl's a private detective. Runs an agency."
"She looks harmless enough, a little woman," the man scowled. "Is this another of your fantasies?"
"No, no. You don't read the papers. Lisa Rivers is quite a celebrity. She's solved many cases. She's the guest of honour at this silly conference. If that doesn't worry you, she has a reputation as something of a Houdini."
"So - what do you suggest we do with this escapologist?"
"They all have to be locked up separately, but Miss Rivers gets special treatment."
The man sighed. "Very well. You two," he indicated the two former waiters who were now standing on either side of the door. "Keep the ladies amused while we attend to the private investigator."
The woman dropped the revolver into a side pocket and from the other pocket produced a small stun gun. She made it spark as the current jumped from one terminal to the other. "We won't shoot you, Miss Rivers, but if there's any nonsense you'll receive a nasty snap, crackle and pop. Please come with us."
Under this threat Lisette rose and walked to the door, her back straight and head high. The man took up the lead. The woman stayed close behind and from time to time prodded Lisette in the spine with the muzzle of the stun gun as an unsubtle reminder to behave.
As they mounted the stairs, Lisette thought for a moment that they were going to imprison her in her own room, and she paused. But the woman shoved her roughly forwards, making her stumble and upsetting her bouffant style so that the honey-gold hair tumbled to her shoulders. The small cavalcade passed her door and continued on towards the rear of the building.
"In there," said the woman.
The room into which Lisette was ushered was at the far rear of the guesthouse. It was a single room and more sparsely furnished than the others. Lisette guessed that it was temporary quarters for extra staff hired for peak seasons. The minimal furniture consisted of a narrow bed, a side table upon which stood a reading lamp, and a heavy wooden chair against the wall. She stood upon the large scatter rug that hid the worst of the wooden floor and waited stoically for what might come.
The woman remained behind her while the henchman walked to the bedside table and place upon it a small kit bag. From the bag he produced several coils of telephone cable. He selected a short length and faced Lisette.
Lisette felt the cold metal of the stun gun at the back of her neck and obeyed mechanically, holding her breath. She offered no resistance as her arms were drawn behind her back.
It took two twists to fix Lisette's wrists crossed in a vicious tie that forced her to relax her hands and fingers so they might have enough circulation. The henchman knelt at her feet and with the same economy tied her ankles together with another piece of cable. As this was done, the woman put the stun gun away and moved the chair to the centre of the room.
Lisette was pushed down into the chair.
"Make yourself comfortable," said the woman. "You're going to be here a long time. Help me with this, Humphrey."
"Yes Madam Tulle," the man replied.
Working together in silence, Humphrey and Tulle lashed Lisette into the chair with several lengths of cable. Lisette's arms, now bound securely behind her, were pressed against the chair back, a position that made any sort of movement impossible. The woman made sure that Lisette's bottom was snug at the point where the back of the chair and the seat met, securing her there with cable around her waist and a separate cable over her lap. A crisscross of the thin stuff around her body just beneath her breasts and up over each shoulder, its ends tied to the chair behind her, held her upright with her shoulders pressed back. Lisette tested her bonds. She could barely move.
The woman chuckled drily. "There's not much scope for escapology but you're free to try."
"How long are you going to keep us here?" asked Lisette with spirit. "You can't hold six women hostage for long without someone outside getting suspicious. There will be husbands and boyfriends, flatmates and business colleagues, and they'll start asking questions."
"What you say is correct," agreed the woman. "But this is Friday evening and the conference is not scheduled to end until Monday. Until then, people from outside won't be expecting much in the way of communication. One of the first things we will do as soon as the rest of those stupid women are locked away in the cellar is to switch off their mobile phones. That will give us enough time to get what we want and leave. On Tuesday next week the regular guesthouse staff will find you. By then we shall be well away."
"What is it you want? Instead of threatening us, why don't you tell us what it is one of us is supposed to have that you need so much?"
"The papers? Yes, they might be in someone's room this very moment. There is no need for you to know precisely what it is we're looking for, however. We will search the rooms as soon we have dealt with all of you. Later, if we are unsuccessful in our searches, we will interrogate each of you, beginning with you."
Humphrey the henchman turned to the kit bag and closed it. "Do you have any directions for me, Madam? The girl …" He made a gesture towards his mouth.
"Oh yes," said the woman. "I almost forgot. Go to her room and search for the papers. I don't think you'll find what we're looking for, but bring back any silk scarves and handkerchiefs. She's sure to have brought some."
The henchman bowed stiffly and left.
"If it's all the same to you, I'd rather not be gagged," stated Lisette with dignity, correctly interpreting the woman's instructions. "It isn't necessary. There are only the other women in the house and you have them under control. There's no point in me calling for help because this place is so isolated."
"Except for visitors who may arrive suddenly," said the Madam Tulle, "like the missing person on your guest list."
"You'll see them coming a long way off. There'll be plenty of time to do that to me then," said Lisette reasonably. "I'd prefer to be as comfortable as possible under the circumstances. It's no fun being tied up, especially as tightly as this. My fingers are tingling already. A gag will add to my discomfort. Couldn't you give me the benefit of the doubt? I promise I'll be quiet."
The woman considered with her head tilted to one side. She grunted decisively. "Very well, since you ask so nicely. One of us will check on you from time to time, but it's getting late and we have to take care of the others."
The henchman returned, several neatly folded and pressed silk scarves and handkerchiefs in his hand.
"Leave them on that table," said the woman. "We'll make use of them later if Miss Rivers becomes a nuisance."
She turned and walked to the door. At the threshold she stopped and turned. "You're lucky, Miss Rivers. But don't push your luck. Any peep out of you and I shall attend to it personally."
She went out. The henchman followed and closed the door with an appreciative look at the bound captive. There was a pause followed by a sharp click as the door was locked.
Back to Brian Sands Index
Back to What's New