Early scene: Murder in Kilbriar
The rooftops of Kilbriar came into view as Heather Abbott rounded a turn and trudged up the slight incline toward the village green with its inviting expanse of lawn and white trellised gazebo.
Upon arriving at her gallery, Heather headed straight to the pantry to make a pot of tea. She had barely taken her first sip when the bell jingled over the shop’s entrance. She stuck her head around the corner to see Lady Elisabeth Collington entering the gallery in a swirl of tartan skirt and layers of gold chain around her neck. Her black hair positively shined from the attentions of highly professional and skillful hands.
“Lady Elisabeth, it’s so good of you to drop by. How may I help you?” Heather stood behind the counter separating the two women and waited expectantly.
Elisabeth walked slowly around the small interior and examined each painting in turn. You wouldn’t call it an extensive collection by any means, however each canvas reeked of quality. She noted with surprise several were signed ‘H. Abbott.’
“I hadn’t realized we’d been introduced,” Elisabeth set her purse on the countertop.
“Not formally, but I have been to the Hall on several occasions. I admire how you welcome everyone into your home. With the entire village in attendance, I’m sure no one paid any attention to me.”
“True enough, I suppose. I’m sure we missed each other owing to the confusion,” Elisabeth said dismissively.
“Sir Bernard likes to entertain, but it can be quite tiresome. Actually, it’s on his behalf that I’m here. Do you still require the Fantin-Latour for the awards banquet?”
“Oh, yes. It’s the centerpiece of the exhibit.”
“Sir Bernard mentioned he prefers having the display on stage behind the podium. Can that be arranged?”
“Of course, his will be the focal point among several others.”
Lady Elisabeth started to leave then turned back.
“Pardon me, by ‘several others’ do you mean there are only a handful of exhibits?” The corners of her mouth turned down expressively. “In that case, I can well understand Sir Bernard’s concern over a relatively unknown gallery handling this year’s exhibit.”
Heather spoke quickly. “Surely, he’s not worried about the art display; we discussed the arrangements only this morning and he was very supportive. I suppose I could add more from my own collection if you think it necessary?”
Without batting an eye, she said, “You do realize, of course, the festival represents a long and proud tradition for our family going back a hundred years? Success is paramount.”
Elisabeth glared at Heather who self-consciously folded and re-folded her arms across her chest. “Are you sure you’re up for this?”
Heather’s cheeks flushed crimson, “If you mean can I hold up my part for the festival, I can assure you there is no problem whatsoever.”
“Nevertheless, I shall have a word with Sir Bernard. He may wish to reconsider,” Elisabeth said, and then dropped all pretense of civility.
“I’ll not beat about the bush, Miss Abbott. I’m aware of the extraordinary circumstances that preceded your arrival here in Kilbriar, although I’m not sure why you chose this village to set up shop. But ever since you came here, I’ve heard only words of adoration from my silly, besotted cousin.”
“That’s not fair! I’ve never done anything to encourage Sir Bernard.”
“He may be infatuated with you, but I assure you, that’s as far as it goes, a momentary distraction. You’re not the first to land on his doorstep hoping to be swept off your feet by the lord of the manor.” Elisabeth lifted her chin to look down her nose. “Whatever your intentions, you are unwelcome at Collington Hall.”
Heather staggered back a step. The words and sentiment were like a slap across the face. “You are entirely mistaken. I’ve never thought about – “
“And I shouldn’t start now, if I were you.”
Suddenly the front door swung open, and the bell sounded as if to signal the end of a round between two fighters. A small, plump woman of about sixty, her hair a mass of tight curls, pushed her way into the gallery. She wore an outrageous flowered dress and a rumpled cotton sweater although the spring weather was decidedly warm.
The high-pitched voice of Mrs. Meadows, Kilbriar’s post-mistress and self-appointed local historian, interrupted the stand-off.
“Yoo-hoo, I have a package for you, Miss Abbott,” her quick, bright eyes picked up on every detail and facial expression as the two women glared at each other.
“It’s rather slow today so I decided to deliver it myself seeing as how you’re busy with the festival and all. Oh, dear me, it’s Lady Elisabeth herself. Will we see you at the rose festival this year?” she said in a rush with blithe indifference for the awkward tension that filled the room, but she had seen and heard quite enough.
Ignoring the effervescent Mrs. Meadows, Lady Elisabeth turned and abruptly left the art gallery shutting the door with unnecessary force. With her head held aloft in regal fashion, she charged across the street to the Swan and Bottle.
Mrs. Meadows came over and patted Heather on the arm. “Now, deary, don’t you listen to the likes of her. She’s fearful you’ll upset her meal ticket, is all.”
Mrs. Meadows handed Heather a thick manila envelope. “She’s like a monster guard dog, that one. She’ll bite the head off anyone who shows the least bit of interest in that cousin of hers.”
Exasperated, Heather said, “Where do people get these crazy ideas? I haven’t shown the slightest interest in Sir Bernard other than to help with the art exhibit.” She laid the package on the counter. “And it’s Cerberus.”
“Your description of Lady Elisabeth just now, it reminded me of Cerberus. You know, the mythical three-headed dog that guards the gates of hell to keep lost souls from escaping.”
Mrs. Meadows burst out laughing; the uncontrollable laughter welled up from deep inside. She held on to the edge of the counter to steady herself as her whole body shook and tears rolled down her round cheeks.
“That’s – that’s our Elisabeth, all right,” she said as she tried to catch her breath. “Straight from the gates of hell.”
She was still laughing as she headed back to her little post office. She couldn’t wait for afternoon tea with her good friend, Constable Cross. How unfortunate for Heather and Lady Elisabeth that their conversation should be overheard by the town gossip.
# # # #
From far off or near to, no one could mistake the pear-shaped Constable Cross as he ambled down Harlan Street in the direction of the post office.
Inside, several people were already queued up to mail packages or purchase stamps. Mrs. Meadows quickly and efficiently dispatched each in turn, one might say with a certain amount of disinclination, in her haste to chat with the only other person in the village with a penchant for gossip equal to her own.
The last customer was about to leave then glanced back only to find intense staring eyes willing her to go, which she did with some alacrity. At last, they were alone. Mrs. Meadows was excited and about to burst with anticipation.
“You won’t believe what I just heard.”
“You mean about Lady Elisabeth giving the newcomer a load of twaddle?”
With the wind suddenly let out of her sails, Mrs. Meadows looked crushed. “How could you possibly know already? I’ve only just come from the gallery.”
“Herself was in the Swan and Bottle giving us an earful about how the village has been taken over by jumped-up newcomers.”
“Well, let me tell you, Lady Elisabeth practically threatened the poor girl, told her in no uncertain terms to stay away from the Hall.” She nodded her head gravely to add emphasis.
“Oh, aye. Herself said how common folk weren’t welcome at the Hall no more.”
Constable Cross removed his policeman’s hat and massaged his brow; the tight band left a red mark across his forehead. “But then she remembered who she was talking to and allowed how present company was excepted. She were in rare form today, more’n I ever seen her.”
By now Mrs. Meadows was in a fluster. “If you’re going to come round here like some know-all then there’s not much left to say is there?” With that she ducked behind the counter and began counting out the till.
“Now hold on a minute, missy.” Constable Cross realized he had offended his one true friend in the village. “I meant no harm. Just got my bit in a little ahead of yours, that’s all.”
Mrs. Meadows continued counting and making and awful racket as she dropped the coins into the drawer, but she couldn’t stay angry for very long and soon gave way to temptation.
She said, “Care for a cup of tea?” She placed the kettle on the hot plate, and they huddled together to pick apart every nuance of the day’s misadventure.
# # # #
Sometime after Lady Elisabeth’s departure, Geoff and Jeff, proprietors of the local antiques shop, rushed into the gallery. Word of the dust up spread quickly throughout Kilbriar. There was nothing like an old-fashioned catfight to stir up excitement.
“We had to come over when we heard,” Geoff said. He commandeered the one stool in front of the counter and settled in for a good chinwag.
“Lady E’s got a nerve,” Jeff chimed in with righteous indignation. “I’ve got a good mind stay away from the festival this year.”
“You say that every year. You’ll be at the Hall like the rest of us.”
“Do be quiet,” Jeff shushed his partner. “Now tell us every detail. Old Meadows says Lady Evil was simply frightful.”
Heather sighed; when people weren’t minding their own business, they minded yours. “The silly woman has it in her head I’m after Sir Bernard. Can you believe it?”
Geoff watched as Heather folded a brochure and stuffed it into an envelope. He absently picked up a handful and began helping.
“She’ll not let anyone take away her soft berth,” Geoff said. “She lives in mortal fear Bernie will marry and she’ll be banished to one of the estate cottages.
“She’s safe enough. I’ve no time for romance or intrigue. I wonder why Lord Bernard allows her to stay on?”
“Out of familial loyalty, I suppose,” Geoff said. “They’re the last of the Collingtons, at least I think so. I’ve not heard of any distant relations.”
“That’s too bad. Sir Bernard seems like the type who would enjoy a big, noisy family.”
“You’ll positively insult the man if you call him ‘Sir Bernard’ to his face. He prefers Bernie. Don’t you know, such familiarity drives Lady E round the bend,” Jeff said with malicious glee.
“By the way,” Heather said, “How well do you know the Ballisters? Are they customers of yours?”
Jeff spoke up, “Thomas can be an awful pig at times, but he’s generous with the dosh. He stops by sometimes when he’s bored. He must be enormously intense about his business because he’s away from home quite often.” He gave a knowing wink.
Geoff piped up. “While the cat’s away . . . but, seriously, darlings, if he’s that bored with home life, I should think he’d never go home again. I mean, his wife is okay to look at, but sooo deathly dull.”
“Ever known him to be mixed up in anything dodgy?”
“I couldn’t say for certain,” Geoff looked thoughtful for a moment. “Don’t all successful businessmen have a few skeletons in their closets? But no, I’ve never heard anything untoward.”
“You wouldn’t believe half of what he’s got stashed in that pseudo-castle of his,” Heather said. “If he’s out buying up half the countryside, when does he have time for work?”
“Oh yes, we’ve seen ‘the collection’ Madeira’s always on about. We’ve been to the manse a few times. It’s a virtual warehouse!” Geoff said, rolling his eyes.
“I’ll tell you who I feel sorry for,” Jeff cut in. “That sister of his, Miss Rosalie. She’s a real sad case.” Jeff mimed downing a drink. “Stays stoned out of her gourde most of the time and as helpless as a kitten, so I hear. Poor thing.”
“What a pity,” Heather said. “It’s terrible living with a disability.”
Geoff and Jeff looked at each other; the awkward silence testimony to their obvious embarrassment at the mention of disabilities.
Heather noticed the looks they exchanged and laughed. “Don’t mind me,” she said, holding up her gloved hand. “I’ve grown accustomed to the way things are. You learn to put things into perspective and move on with your life.”
“Do you miss it much?” Geoff ventured, “I mean painting, the parties, the whole London scene, and all that?”
Heather reflected how much her life had changed in the past couple years. This certainly wasn’t the life she’d planned for herself, but then does anyone really achieve their utopia?
For her, life-changing events began when a gang of thugs wearing Balaclavas invaded the Milford Collection following a hugely successful exhibit. They forced Heather and her colleague, Sarah Halston-Prescott, back inside the deserted gallery.
It wasn’t as if the two women had refused to cooperate; they were too frightened to resist. However, trouble started when someone inadvertently tipped a sculpture from its pedestal causing a loud crash. One of the nervous thieves began shooting indiscriminately.
In all, the thieves made off with a half dozen valuable paintings and left the two women lying in their own blood.
When the emergency medical team arrived, they found Sarah dead on the floor and Heather, dazed and disoriented, trying to wrap a bloody hand destroyed by a round tearing through flesh and bone.
Such was the catalyst of events that propelled her to seek an isolated corner of England where she could recoup, forget the past, and start anew. Today, it appeared her past had caught up with her.
Heather blinked away the terrible thoughts. A lesser person might have capitulated, but she still had mountains to conquer. The survival of her gallery topped the list.
“I loved the creativity that painting allowed me. To me, painting is like poetry in colors. And yes, I miss it with all my heart.”
When neither of the two antiques dealers offered a comment, Heather continued, “As for parties, I wasn’t all that interested. You can take only so many gala events before the excitement wears thin. Now, my old London crowd, they lived for parties, I can tell you.”
“I know, we’ll have a party of our own after the festival!” Geoff said and sliding off the stool he waltzed around the tiny gallery and executed a credible pirouette. “We shall dance the night away, milady,” he said and bowed low with a flourish.
Heather laughed and clapped her hands. “That would be fun. I’m going to hold you to that promise.”
# # # #
Author Notes: This is part of a story I'm working on. An art dealer's budding career is nearly destroyed during a robbery, but she is determined to get on with life. As an art consultant, she unexpectedly discovers stolen artwork among her clients extensive collection - one of the pieces stolen during the robbery has suddenly and mysteriously turned up in a private collection. Any comments, observations, or suggestions on the emerging story will be gratefully received.