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Book Jacket

159310197X
Trade Paperback
352 pages
Nov 2004
Barbour Publishing

Dead as a Scone

by Ron & Janet Benrey

Review  |   Author Bio  |  Read an Excerpt

Excerpt:

One

What does the old dear have up her sleeve? Nigel Owen asked himself as he considered the odd request just proposed to him. Nigel looked across his desk at the plump, rosy-cheeked, elegantly coiffed woman sitting in his visitor’s chair. Elspeth Hawker was eighty-four years old but appeared—and sounded—fifteen years younger. This morning, her usually placid face seemed filled with a curious determination.

“Let me understand you, Dame Elspeth,” Nigel said. “You want to speak at the end of our trustees’ meeting this afternoon, but you don’t want me to announce your intentions to the other trustees until the very last moment—is that correct?”

She nodded slowly. “Indeed. You will not mention me until the rest of our program is finished.”

“Is it someone’s birthday?” Nigel asked. “Do you plan to reveal that one of the trustees won an award?”

“No. It’s nothing like that.” She gazed down at the tops of her hands. “I know that I am imposing on our friendship, Nigel, but I ask your indulgence as a personal favor.”

“Won’t you at least tell me what you plan to talk about?” Nigel asked.

“If I do, will you promise to add me to the agenda without any further questions?”

He nodded. “Absolutely!”

Elspeth hesitated for several seconds. “I recently made a painful discovery,” she finally said. “We have a thief in our midst—an exceedingly clever thief, I might add. I feel it my duty to explain the circumstances to the other trustees.”

The pen Nigel had been holding slipped from his hand. “Dame Elspeth! You surely are not suggesting that one of the trustees of the Royal Tunbridge Wells Tea Museum is a criminal.”

“I have led a sheltered, pampered life—so perhaps I am overly surprised at the willingness of people to repay evil with evil.”

“Evil? I don’t understand what you mean.”

Nigel noted that Elspeth no longer was looking his way. She seemed to be staring at the wall behind his head. “When a thief is caught, he must pay back double,” she said softly.

“Double?” Nigel felt wholly bewildered at Elspeth’s rapid changes of subject.

Elspeth peered at him once again with her alert blue eyes. “That rule is from the Bible, you know. Exodus 22:7.”

“No, I didn’t know. But, getting back to your—ah—_explanation to the trustees.”

Elspeth refused to be steered. “Paying back double is the right thing to do under normal circumstances. But this is a museum. Our circumstances are special. Paying back single will have to suffice. I must explain that to the other trustees.”

Nigel pressed. “Who is this thief? What was stolen? What do you intend to say to the other trustees? I am quite at a loss.”

 “You see, this is why I don’t want a formal place on the program. The other trustees are certain to ask me the very same questions.” She sighed. “It is all so complicated. I prefer to tell my wretched tale only once today.”

Nigel changed tack.

“Dame Elspeth, as acting director of this museum, I have to rely on the absolute integrity of our trustees. You have broached the topic of thievery—I really must ask you to share your suspicions with me.”

“And so I shall, at the end of our meeting this afternoon.” She reached across the desk and patted Nigel’s hand. “The other trustees think me a foolish old woman. Permit me to behave like one today. What is the harm in that?”

Nigel thought a moment. Probably no harm at all. His momentary surge of concern vanished as he realized that Elspeth’s “thief in our midst” could not be anything more than a colorful exaggeration. Serious thievery from the Royal Tunbridge Wells Tea Museum was impossible. An impenetrable electronic security system protected the artifacts on display, and the museum’s state-of-the-art financial software would rapidly detect any significant embezzling of money.

Nigel felt himself smile. Dame Elspeth must have un-covered a case of minor pilferage from the gift shop or the Duchess of Bedford Tearoom. If she wanted to present her discovery to the trustees—well, she certainly was entitled to have her way. Hawker money, after all, built and stocked the museum. Moreover, her out-of-the-blue “explanation” would liven up what promised to be an especially dull trustees’ meeting.

He glanced at the printed meeting schedule on his desktop. There was no significant business to discuss, no burning issues. The museum was chugging along uneventfully, thanks in large measure to his fine management skills. The “high spot” today would be a lecture by Dr. Felicity Adams, the museum’s new chief curator, about the different approaches to professional tea tasting in different tea-growing regions of the world.

I can’t wait, Nigel thought grimly. He gave a tiny shudder.

“Consider it done, Dame Elspeth,” Nigel said grandly. “Only you and I know that you will speak the final words this afternoon.”

 

 

 

Nigel fought to stay awake by cataloging the various inducements to sleep that weighed down his eyelids.

For starters, the trustees of the Royal Tunbridge Wells Tea Museum had enjoyed a lavish afternoon “cream tea” at three thirty—a high-carbohydrate festival of assorted scones, clotted cream, and ten different kinds of jams, preserves, and conserves.

Immediately thereafter, Felicity Adams had begun a soporific lecture on the art and science of tasting tea. Flick Adams, as she preferred to be called, had spoken in her monotonous American voice for more than sixty minutes so far, and there was no telling how much longer her mind-numbing oration might drag on.

To numb one’s mind even further, the museum’s boardroom was overheated. The outside temperature on that sunny Wed-nesday afternoon in mid-October had risen to a pleasant fifteen degrees Celsius—almost sixty degrees Fahrenheit—but the museum’s archaic central heating plant obliviously continued to pump torrents of hot water through the radiators. Alas, it was impossible to open a window because someone had shut the drapes, presumably to make Flick’s tedious images of tea-tasting rooms in Asia, Europe, and Africa easier to see on the screen.

Who cares about the proper way to “cup” a Darjeeling?

Nigel swallowed a yawn and looked around the conference table. To his astonishment, the museum’s eight trustees appeared spellbound by Flick’s presentation. Their rapt expressions looked sincere; their total attention to her words struck him as authentic. They actually seemed interested in the trivial fact that a tea taster tastes tea that is five times stronger than the brew most people drink.

Well, seven of the eight seem interested.

Diagonally across the immaculately polished mahogany table from Nigel, Dame Elspeth Hawker had dozed off. She sat slumped in her chair, snoring delicately, her head resting comfortably against the leather wing. Nigel smiled at the sight of the snoozing octogenarian. She’s earned the right not to listen. If I were eighty-four years old—and filthy rich, to boot—I’d be fast asleep, too. Especially if I had eaten three raisin scones slathered with Danish lingonberry preserves and topped with dollops of thick cream.

A delightful notion took shape in Nigel’s mind. Perhaps he could use the dozing grande dame as an excuse to have the kitchen brew a decent pot of strong coffee. After all, one of his chief responsibilities as acting director of the museum was to orchestrate successful monthly meetings of the trustees. Dame Elspeth needed to be fully awake and alert when Flick finally sat down—and so did her seven colleagues.

Nigel surveyed the seven other trustees again and felt modestly virtuous that he had kept his word to Elspeth. None of them knew that Elspeth would close the meeting with the tale of an “exceedingly clever thief.” Strong coffee all around might be just the ticket.

Nigel let the delicious idea percolate awhile. Even the lowliest coffee would be preferable to the three kinds of _estate-grown tea—one from China, one from India, one from Ceylon—that he had served to the trustees from elegant Coalport teapots. Tradition demanded that the director play “mother” at trustee meetings, but his heart had not been in it. A hot cuppa at “teatime” was pleasant enough, Nigel agreed, but certainly not in the same league as a steaming mug of freshly brewed coffee.

How had tea managed to become the so-called national drink of Great Britain, anyway? The great irony was that tea was first offered in the coffeehouses of England during the middle of the seventeenth century. Even today, Brits consumed colossal quantities of coffee—except, of course, at the Royal Tunbridge Wells Tea Museum.

Feeling genuine regret, Nigel decided that his scheme to switch beverage was doomed to failure. “The trustees are blasted tea aficionados,” he muttered under his breath. “The merest hint of coffee will put the lot of them off their feed.” With the exception of Dame Elspeth, the eight men and women who presided over the Royal Tunbridge Wells Tea Museum were quite similar: fiftyish, give or take a few years, superbly successful in their careers, and—this last trait puzzled Nigel endlessly—gaga about tea. How could highly educated people be so passionate about shriveled leaves soaked in boiling water?

Nigel concealed a sigh. Ah, well—some mysteries have no explanations. Besides, it made little difference whether or not he understood the trustees’ motivations. The simple fact was if they loved tea, Nigel would pretend that he loved tea just as much.

For the past six months, Nigel had gone the extra mile to please the trustees. His yearlong stint as acting director was half-finished, and Nigel counted on one of the eight to pave the way for his next position—preferably a permanent rather than temporary post.

Nine months ago, Nigel Owen had been declared redundant when a behemoth Dutch conglomerate purchased the London-based insurance company he had worked at for ten years. Senior management jobs were tight—even for someone with his sterling education, broad experience, and still relatively tender age of thirty-eight. He had been fortunate to land the acting directorship at the museum. What he needed now was an influential person to offer a helping hand. And say what he might about their loopy affection for tea, the museum’s trustees included some exceedingly influential people.

Nigel’s tidy mind had meticulously organized them in order of their likely ability to advance his career: The unmistakable leader in career clout was Archibald Meicklejohn, the chair of the trustees. A trim, balding, always impeccably dressed banker from the City, London’s financial centre, he sat on several corporate boards of directors, hobnobbed with the prime minister, and owned the rather spectacular Bentley that currently reposed in the museum’s staff car park. Nigel liked to imagine Archibald calling one evening to ask, “What salary and perks would you require to join my staff as my personal financial advisor?”

Next in line was Sir Simon Clowes, a distinguished cardiologist whose large hands, craggy face, and thick graying hair made him look more like a veteran mountain climber than a successful doctor with offices in London and Tunbridge Wells. Sir Simon was well situated to tout Nigel’s skills to the executives of healthcare organizations. Nigel could easily picture himself as an administrator at a major hospital or possibly a financial manager at an international pharmaceutical firm. Sir Simon could start the ball rolling with a simple e-mail to one of his cronies.

Nigel’s most exotic fantasy involved Iona Saxby, an Oxford-based solicitor who looked as if she had been drawn by Leonardo DaVinci: statuesque, stylish, with a magnificently enigmatic face that could camouflage her every emotion. What would happen, Nigel mused, should Iona invite him to become business director of her high-powered law firm? He would accept the offer—after suitably playing hard to get, of course—and spend the rest of his career as a shadowy power broker, a puller of legal strings, feared and respected throughout the realm.

The other trustees were less easy to sort out.

The Reverend William de Rudd, vicar of St. Stephen’s Church in Tunbridge Wells, was reportedly a school chum of the current archbishop of Canterbury. The ever jovial, decidedly rotund clergyman reputedly had prominent friends across England, but not in circles of interest to Nigel Owen.

Matthew Eaton was a renowned landscape architect headquartered up the road in East Grinstead. A large man, he made himself look even bulkier by invariably wearing Harris Tweed suits and sport coats. His clients included Her Majesty the Queen, and it was widely assumed that “Sir Matthew” would show up on the nation’s Honours list next year. Well and good for him—but how could a glorified gardener give Nigel a leg up?

A similar question might be asked about Dorothy McAndrews—a PhD art historian turned antiques dealer, who owned a string of fifteen antique shops scattered throughout Kent and Sussex. Easily the most glamorous of the trustees, with a classic Celtic combination of red hair, greenish eyes, and fair, porcelain-like skin, she appeared regularly on the telly, on the BBC show that traveled around Britain appraising antiques. However, her ability to help Nigel land a better job seemed rather thin.

Marjorie Halifax was the politician among the trustees. She served as a councilwoman on the Tunbridge Wells Borough Council and was widely considered an expert on Kentish tourism. Marjorie was one of those women who, though short, seemed tall. Her loud voice and extravagant gestures more than made up for her petite stature. Marjorie had scads of influence locally—but Nigel’s daydreams extended beyond the precincts of Tunbridge Wells. Or should he say Royal Tunbridge Wells? Nigel never felt certain—and apparently neither did the locals. In 1909, King Edward VII had bestowed the right to add the somewhat pretentious prefix “Royal” to Tunbridge Wells—but many residents chose not to do so. Royal or not, Nigel thought the small city too tame, too bucolic, and longed to return to London.

Finally, there was Dame Elspeth herself, granddaughter of Commodore Desmond Hawker. The Desmond Hawker—the fabled, somewhat notorious, nineteenth-century tea merchant who used much of the huge fortune he amassed to endow the great foundation that bore his name. It had been Dame Elspeth’s half sister—Mary Hawker Evans—who, some forty years earlier, wheedled and coaxed the Hawker Foundation to establish a tea museum to house the family’s many tea-related antiquities, celebrate the importance of tea in Great Britain, and, “While we’re at it, honor Commodore Desmond’s memory. And wouldn’t it be lovely to locate the museum in Commodore Desmond’s favorite English town: Royal Tunbridge Wells, on the border of Kent and Sussex?”

The Royal Tunbridge Wells Tea Museum Charitable Trust had been duly created on 1 March 1964. Soon thereafter, the trust erected an impressive, four-story Georgian-style building on Eridge Road, opposite the Tunbridge Wells Common, a short walk from the Pantiles, the charming colonnaded walkway one sees in all the tourist brochures about Royal Tunbridge Wells. With its five major galleries—tea blending and tasting rooms; meeting facilities; tea parlor; and garden, complete with a greenhouse holding the largest collection of tea plants in England—the museum met every requirement on Mary Hawker Evans’s wish list.

Several letters to the editor of the Kent and Sussex Courier called the vast building a white elephant, questioned the wisdom of honoring a man of checkered reputation, and expressed caustic doubt that sensible vacationers would choose to visit the Royal Tunbridge Wells Tea Museum. But visit they did—in droves. Tea lovers from Tennessee, Taiwan, and Tasmania made pilgrimages of thousands of miles to see the clipper ship models in the Tea at Sea Gallery, the famed collection of gimcracks and crockery in the Tea Antiquities Gallery, and the huge diorama in the History of Tea Colonnade. The museum quickly became one of the most popular attractions in the south of England and, surprisingly to everyone involved, a source of considerable academic scholarship about tea.

Tea economists, tea historians, tea chemists, and tea geographers from around the world discovered that Desmond Hawker and his descendants had assembled a truly world-class collection of tea-related documents, memorabilia, and relics. As they also flocked to Royal Tunbridge Wells, they dramatically changed the character of the museum’s workforce. The Hawker Foundation had assumed that the museum’s curator would be little more than a watchman who tended the various exhibits. But today, the Royal Tunbridge Wells Tea Museum had a staff of four professional curators—experts in document restoration, wood preservation, art history, and cartography—led by a chief curator, the long-winded Felicity Adams, PhD.

A dissonance of different laughs, followed by a burst of robust applause as the lights came on in the room, brought Nigel back to the present. Praise the Lord! Flick had held her lecture to only an hour and ten minutes. She must have ended with a joke about tea tasting, if such a thing were even possible.

The new chief curator had been appointed the previous summer. The trustees had debated for nearly a year before they finally chose Felicity Adams from among a field of ten candidates. Nigel had been present for their final discussion; the choice had not been unanimous. Matthew Eaton had been reluctant to appoint an American to “a distinctly British position”; Dorothy McAndrews wanted a “museum person” rather than a “tea person”; and Iona Saxby had worried that “Dr. Adams, age thirty-six, was a tad too young to be taken seriously by her much older peers at other museums.”

In the end, Flick’s credentials had carried the day. She held a doctorate in food chemistry from the prestigious University of Michigan, had been a senior tea taster at a leading tea purveyor, and had written three successful books for laypeople about tea—including the unexpectedly popular How to Host an English Tea. She possessed, Nigel thought, all of the characteristics a successful chief curator required: arrogance, self-importance, dreariness, and a fanatic love of tea.

Time to take charge of the meeting.

“Thank you for sharing your expertise, Dr. Adams,” he said. “It’s really quite amazing how much there is to know about tea.”

The soft-spoken Rev. de Rudd murmured a barely audible “Hear! Hear!” The drum-throated Archibald Meicklejohn roared, “Entirely amazing! And I am sure we all agree— _fascinating!” The ever-political Marjorie Halifax added, “I concur! Fascinating is the only possible word!”

Nigel knew, of course, that Flick Adams understood his understated sarcasm. She smiled warmly and said, “Thanks, everyone. It’s a pleasure to talk to people who are thoroughly knowledgeable about tea.” She stared directly at him. “Many laypeople are so ignorant.”

“Yes, well, let’s move on,” Nigel said.

“Move on?” Archibald Meicklejohn spoke up. “Our meeting ended with Dr. Adams’s brilliant presentation.”

“Not quite,” Nigel said. “We have one more item of new business. Dame Elspeth wants to discuss a matter of considerable importance.”

“No one told me!” Archibald said, somewhat testily. “As chair of the trustees, I am certainly entitled to know of changes to our agenda.”

“Dame Elspeth visited my office before the meeting.” Nigel added a little white lie: “It seemed too late to notify you. I apologize for not doing so.”

Nigel looked across the table and saw that Dame Elspeth was still asleep, though no longer snoring. There was something unnatural about the pallor of her skin. And—was it possible?—she had slipped farther down in her chair.

Before Nigel could make sense of his four observations, Iona Saxby, who was seated alongside the elderly woman, let loose a robust shriek: “Good heavens! Dame Elspeth is ill!” Regrettably, the startled attorney also gave the Dame’s swivel chair an accidental shove. The shriek and the shove worked together in perfect unison; as every eye in the room turned toward the oldest trustee, she slid off the slick leather upholstery and fell to the floor with a lifeless thump.

Dr. Clowes moved to her side in an instant, but Nigel had not the slightest doubt that Dame Elspeth Hawker was dead. And neither, apparently, did the six trustees who stayed anchored in their seats. Nigel watched their frozen smiles, their eyes darting to and fro nervously, occasionally joining beams with his.

After several seconds of mental wheel-spinning, Nigel’s good sense kicked in and he reached for his cell phone. “I’ll call for an ambulance.”

“There is no need for haste,” the doctor said, rising. “Dame Elspeth is quite dead. She seems to have slipped away several minutes ago.”

Nigel snapped the cell phone shut.

“However,” Flick Adams said, “there is every need to call the police.”

It was only then that Nigel noticed Flick had switched the lights back on and was standing directly over Dame Elspeth.

“Why the police?” he asked her.

“Elspeth Hawker has been poisoned. Look at her.”

Dr. Clowes stiffened. “I have looked at Dame Elspeth! What possible line of thinking leads you to suggest—”

Flick didn’t wait for Dr. Clowes to finish. “Check out the color of her face,” she said. “Look at her eyes. Feel how cold her skin is. She has the classic symptoms of sudden death from a barbiturate overdose.”

Nigel heard a definite crack in Flick’s voice. She was clearly upset and fighting to control herself.

Dr. Clowes harrumphed loudly. “One cannot make such a determination after death without a battery of tests. In any case, may I remind you, Dr. Adams, you are not a medical doctor!”

“True—but I probably know more about forensic toxicology than you do. There are definite indications that can’t be ignored.”

Somewhere in the back of his intellect, Nigel vaguely grasped that a noisy argument between Sir Simon Clowes and Felicity Adams had begun. He didn’t hear their verbal thrusts and parries, however, because the spasm of alarm that abruptly gripped the front of his intellect overpowered his senses. He worked frantically to connect the logical dots that swarmed like gnats in his brain:

Dame Elspeth was dead. That much was certain. Flick Adams might be right about an overdose of barbiturates. If so, that would indeed mean Elspeth had been murdered.

Why was she murdered? Possibly to silence her before she could announce to the other trustees the identity of the “exceedingly clever thief” she had discovered.

If so, the thief might well assume that Dame Elspeth shared her concerns with Nigel Owen when she asked him to modify the meeting’s agenda.

Dame Elspeth’s final question echoed through his mind: “What is the harm in that?”

The blooming harm, you foolish old woman, is that I may now be in significant danger, too.

Nigel poured through his memory again. Had Elspeth said anything else that might point to the person she had in mind? Not a word!

A woman’s voice shouted, “Nonsense!”

A man’s voice bellowed, “Poppycock!”

With a start, Nigel realized that the noisy argument in front of him had become explosive. He looked up in time to see—and hear—Sir Simon Clowes roar, “I will not hear another utterance of your inane twaddle! Dame Elspeth’s heart failed. There is no doubt in my mind my diagnosis is correct. Not a whit of misgiving. Not a trice. Not a smidgen.”

Nigel felt his own heart leap for joy. A heart attack meant no poison. And no poisoner. And no danger to himself. Of course, there was still the matter of Dame Elspeth’s suspicions to deal with. . . .

Or was there?

The old woman’s fuzzy meanderings in his office hardly made sense. She had refused to flesh out her vague claim with specifics. He would be foolish to repeat her words to anyone. Far better to forget them lest they cast a pall on Dame Elspeth’s memory.

Nigel rapped the table with his knuckles. “Excuse me,” he said. “I urge us all to listen to Sir Simon’s wise counsel. I also intend to send out for coffee. Would anyone else like a cup?”