Into Death

Into Death
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Available NOW! 1st novella in the Miss Beale Writes series: The Dark Lord. A touch of gothic, a touch of mystery.
Currently Writing ~ Miss Beale Writes: a mini series of novellas with a gothic touch. Now Writing: The Captive in Green

Friday, July 16, 2021

*Portrait with Death* ~ Read the 1st Chapter!

 Murder. A baker’s dozen of suspects. 

A sleepy village and a Public School. A 1920s Mystery.

What more could you want?

Murder paints with death in Portrait with Death.

Chapter 1

 Wednesday, 31 January 1920

The train whistle blew. Steam clouded the grimy platform. People rushed past, laden with parcels that hadn’t gone to freight. Others sauntered along the platform, through the vapor wafting from beneath the engine. Small clutches of people lingered, saying goodbye.

Madoc hoisted his tightly-packed canvas duffle over his shoulder. He gave a shake of his head, to get his black hair out of his eyes. In the months since they’d met, his hair had grown. Isabella thought he had a personal goal to rid himself of anything like the military cut forced on him for years.

The conductor called for boarding, and tears flooded Isabella’s eyes. He was leaving. Now. Not weeks, not days. Now. She wouldn’t see him for months.

He touched her cheek. “None of that, Bella.”

“I wish I were traveling with you, Madoc.”

“Not yet. Only two and a half months. Then I will count the days until your ship arrives in Calcutta.”

“Seventy-six days, during which I work madly to finish an oil painting and store what we won’t need in that box room that Gawen’s offering, then I count the days. And try to finish the illustrations for his articles. He hasn’t written the last two yet.”

“You’ll come up with something he can use. You also have those pen-and-ink drawings for Tony Carstairs. London sites.”

“I have no worries about the drawings for Tony, but I’m running out of artifacts for your brother.” She fretted over the drawings because she dared not fret about his leaving. Married a month, and Madoc was heading to a faraway place. “Madoc, must you work your passage on this cargo ship? I can take a smaller berth or share with someone.”

“I need to stay active on this voyage.” He had rejected all her ideas for his travel to India, every idea she’d advanced over the past month of their marriage. “Captain Harvey is a cousin of one of my former soldiers. And working my passage will keep me busy. I’ll fall into my bunk every night, too worn out to miss you, love.”

Isabella clutched his arm. Nightmares no longer plagued him nightly, but they still occurred at odd times, for odd reasons. He’d been demobbed for over a year now. He wouldn’t want his new shipmates to know he had any weakness. Madoc made friends easily; he’d win them over—but they would be cautious if nightmares were their introduction to him.

“Besides,” he added, “I’m not certain what living arrangements Mr. Tredennit has set up in Calcutta. We won’t cross to Australia until July. Our summer is their winter.”

“An upside-down world.”

“A shake-up of your normal world. It will affect your art.” He flicked the golden end of her braided hair. “I’ll write letters or send a cable from every port until we reach Calcutta.”

The conductor called again.

Madoc bussed her lips with the briefest caress, risking censure for that public affection. Then he was gone, climbing into his compartment. He dropped the window to lean out.

She wanted to climb into that compartment with him.

The train engine groaned then began to pull, wheels squealing on the tracks before they caught and tugged. A man bumped her. A boy dashed between her and the train. When she steadied, the passenger cars were rolling, taking Madoc farther and farther away, faster and faster. He waved. She blew him a kiss. He stretched as if catching it, carried his closed fist to his lips. Then the vapor swirled, the train gained more speed and left the station, heading into the rain and away from her.

She yanked out a handkerchief and blotted her wet cheeks.

“Very touching,” said a wry voice behind her. “Shall we have tea before we start back? I know a shop a few streets from the station. They have clotted cream fresh from the countryside.”

“Cecilia,” Madoc’s brother Gawen said to his new wife, in a sigh rather than a quelling tone. “We planned to have tea at home.”

Gawen and Cecilia had insisted on joining them on the platform, partly to see Madoc off, partly to give Isabella support.

The two brothers were tight-knit. Gawen also hadn’t liked his younger brother working his passage to India and then to Australia. He understood the reason. He posed his arguments. Madoc hadn’t listened to him or to Isabella.

Cecilia had insisted on coming to the station for Isabella’s sake. She was intent on bolstering her friend. Isabella hadn’t moaned to anyone about Madoc’s leaving, yet Cess sensed her dismay. She’d tried dozens of distractions in the past fortnight. She had many more planned for the brief days before Isabella left to paint that portrait.

She didn’t begrudge the commission for the portrait. It would bring money, a lot of money, money to give her and Madoc a good emergency fund when they set up home in Australia. His job there would take months. Nor was the portrait the chief reason that she had to wait before taking ship to join him. That was the lack of a berth. With the war over and all countries in harmony imposed by treaty, their citizens had eagerly returned to traveling. The first affordable berth that Isabella could book wasn’t until April.

Seventy-six days from now.

An oil portrait. Six illustrations for Gawen, based on her remaining sketches from Crete and two artifacts. Ten pen-and-ink drawings for Tony Carstairs. Watercolor landscapes. Surely those will fill my empty hours without Madoc?

Cecilia pointed at the railway clock visible on the platform. “It’s a half-hour to lunch. Let’s eat at a tea shop then go on to St. George’s. Gawen, you do need talk to Isabella about your last two articles, and she can see the artifacts that you’ve picked for illustrations. Then she shall come to the flat for dinner.”

“No, I must call a rain check for dinner. I must finish my packing. I want everything almost out of the Kirkgardie Street flat before Filly Malvaise moves into your old room. I still have boxes and boxes.”

“I still want you to stay with us.” Cecilia looped a hand through Isabella’s elbow. Her other hand hooking on her new husband’s arm, she steered them off the platform and to the stairs. People coming down the steps had to venture to the side.

“I will not, Cess. You and Gawen married last weekend. You need time alone together.”

“We’ll have time when you leave.”

They emerged onto the street and into a cold rain that spat ice. Isabella popped up her umbrella while Gawen managed one for Cess and him. Cess turned and spoke, but the street traffic drowned her words. Isabella nodded anyway and followed them like a well-trained puppy.

Funny. Last summer I had to fend for myself, and I’ll be alone again when I travel to Upper Wellsford for the portrait. Not completely alone, though. Far from her, Madoc was still her husband, and Cess and Gawen were family.

London looked grey and dingy and dreary. Weeks in the countryside as spring emerged would be much better than cooped up in the congested city.

She hoped Madoc found a friend on ship. He’ll make friends quickly. He’ll find out their destination and their jobs on board and draw out their life stories.

That didn’t reassure her.

His ability to talk easily to strangers, to manage an unknown crew of workers, and to know work that needed to be done even without a prep for it: those traits had impressed Michael Tredennit. The older man had offered Madoc this chance. The new job had excellent pay and compensation for travel and an opportunity for advancement.

I’m happy for him. I am. I just wish—.

“Isabella, what do you think?”

She came to the present with a jolt and realized they’d passed Gawen’s roadster. “Sorry, I was wool-gathering. What did you ask?”

Cess exchanged a knowing look with Gawen then indicated the tea shop across the street. Brightly lit windows offered comfort from the elements. Ice pellets spattered her umbrella. The tea shop’s sunny interior, revealed above the bright blue café curtains, promised warmth and welcome. Cecilia launched into a description of a large luncheon.

Isabella listened to little of it. “Of course. Whatever fits with your plans.”

She tried to be less distracted as they lunched. The food was excellent and warming. The waitress allowed them to linger. Gawen talked of the last cataloging for the artifacts brought from Crete. Cecilia brimmed with plans for her columns for Modern Woman and how her work fit so easily into Gawen’s life. She tried a discussion of the new direction in the spring fashion magazines, but Isabella refused to engage in that conversation.

Then Cess began planning visits to four different couturiers, with Isabella needed for quick sketches.

“When are you planning to visit these fashion houses?”

“Next week.”

“You forget. I’m leaving for the Midlands in three weeks. I have packing. I have Gawen’s illustrations and those drawings for Tony. I can’t sketch countless models for you.”

“Your trip is a month away.”

“Not really. You will want these sketches to be magazine-perfect, won’t you?”

“Of course. Just like you do for Gawen.”

“That’s not enough time. Cess. It’s not. Not with everything else I must do.”

“Can you not delay your journey? Start the portrait at the end of February? Or in mid-March? Please! A few extra days only.”

Isabella cut into the luscious tiramisu, its aroma of coffee and chocolate promising delight. “I shall be at the outer edge of my timeline as it is. I dare not take extra days, or I’ll interfere with completing my commission. I won’t delay boarding ship.” She smiled at her friend, trying to take the sting out of her stubborn stance. “Let me talk to Tony. He may know of a young artist willing to do your fashion sketches.”

“Whoever it is,” she said glumly, “will want pay for their time.”

“Were you not going to pay me?” At Cess’s startled look, Isabella laughed.

“I fully intended to pay you, Isabella.”

“The hole gets deeper,” Gawen murmured then hid a smile behind his coffee cup while Cecilia blustered about payment.

The afternoon passed as planned. The ice turned back into rain.

When Isabella called a cab to take her back to the Kirkgardie flat, Cecilia waited with her in the entrance. “Do talk to your Mr. Carstairs. Give him my new address. Will we see you this weekend?”

“With a lorry in tow. I hope to have several boxes packed, ready for storage.”

“Stay for dinner. I’d have you visit us every night for dinner before you leave for Upper Slaughter.”

Isabella chuckled at the name. “Upper Wellsford. Next to Lower Wellsford. It has its own rail spur.”

“Upper Slaughter,” Cess declared firmly. “I predict that your curiosity will be slaughtered within three days of your arrival in that sleepy hamlet. You don’t have to stay there the whole time, do you? You can visit us. Every weekend.”

“Perhaps not that often. Oil paint sometimes has a mind of its own. I’ll ring you if I wish to visit.”

“How will you cart that monstrous canvas to Upper Slaughter? Why did the dowager want it nearly life-size?”

“He’s her only living grandson and heir to the barony. I’m making a very nice commission, Cess. The canvas and my easel should arrive before I do.”

“Oh, bother. That’s the cab man. You can manage everything else? If you need anything—.”

“I’ll see you several times before I go. And I will ask for help if I need it.”

“I feel as if my sole fledgling chick is flying the nest. I’ll miss you, Isabella.”

“I’ll write daily, Mother.”

“Oh, you!”

In this day of bright lipstick, they air-kissed. Like a posh Bright Young Thing, Isabella thought as she ran down the steps and slid into the cab.

She understood Cess’ strange feeling of loss. It had started for her when a gunshot nearly killed Cess. Madoc’s ocean voyage tripled the feeling of deprivation. Life’s changes weren’t always a blessing.

Cess had no one beyond their little circle. As the youngest daughter of Viscount Salton, she had had a wide circle of acquaintances. Yet she hadn’t had friends who became closer than family until the fraught events of last October. The viscount had threatened to cut ties when Cess wanted to marry Gawen. They had married. Maybe the viscount hadn’t followed through with his threat.

Isabella was just as alone. She had only an aunt for bloodkin, but that worthy remained in the States. Her marriage to Madoc had barely renewed the feeling of family before his imminent departure loomed. Cecilia and Gawen were her only friends on this side of the Atlantic, and soon Isabella would depart and enter another world where she knew virtually no one.

The cab trundled away, bouncing over pavement that needed repair, the rain pelting the windows and blurring everything around.

Or maybe that was the tears in her eyes.

 . ~ . ~ . ~ .

 Thursday, 5 February 1920

Flick Sherborne perched on a corner of Alicia Osterley’s littered desk and watched as her friend examined the photographic prints she had handed over as soon as she entered.

Blinking owlishly behind the thick round glasses that gave her the nickname of Owl, Alicia closely examined several of the prints. She hadn’t commented when Flick had presented her the courier envelope. She merely unwound the string and drew out the prints, spreading them on her desk to see the full range.

That’s how Flick knew Alicia would rise in the editing world. Already she had the behavior of Alan Rettleston, managing editor of the London Daily. No one had taught Owl the editing job; she came full-fledged with the knowledge. Cold logic about the facts, critical objectivity to judge the audience, emotional reaction held last, after all decisions.

With over two decades in the newspaper world, Alan Rettleston was emotionally stunted. Would Owl become that way? Her boss Lottie Crittenden wasn’t. Lottie was a publisher, not a busy editor. Modern Woman was her third publication. Where had Lottie gotten her seed money for Modern Woman?

Lottie and her nieces Greta Ffoulkes and Tori Malvaise threw fabulous parties filled with London’s Bright Young Things and artistic effetes. Flick rarely attended. Even more rarely did she receive an invitation—although the current obligatory invitation was propped on the dining table underneath the kitchen window. Like Owl, she was an employee more than a social equal. When Owl did attend a party, Flick imagined she blinked—well, owlishly at the goings-on in London’s high society. Those attending the fast and wickedly daring parties weren’t the readership for Modern Woman. Owl didn’t need to understand wild scavenger hunts and swimming in public fountains and all-night binges driven by white powder.

Owl was a babe in the editing world. Maybe she would escape the jaded cynicism of Alan Rettleston.

The current red-edged invitation came from Greta Ffoulkes, for a Valentine’s party. A masquerade The best of young London would be there, eager to celebrate the lives they hadn’t risked in the past war. Champagne would flow faster than conversation, and the dancing faster still. Secrets would become public, rumors would start, facts would be forgotten. She might go. In the crowd, no one would look too closely at her reworked black satin. A black mask for her eyes, a red flower pinned to her dark hair, and the Spanish shawl for an artistic touch.

“These are good.” Owl slid six prints toward her, the ones of women workers taking a smoke break outside a factory. The women’s coveralls hung baggily, with rolled cuffs at wrist and ankle. Their scarves and earrings said Woman at Work. The only thing that they shared with the few pictured men were tired faces and slouched bodies leaning against the brick factory walls. “Very good yet not for us. Sorry, Flick. I don’t have an article in the next six months that these photos will support. If something changes—.”

Sliding off the desk, Flick stacked the photos and tucked them back into the courier envelope she’d swiped from her father’s firm. “No worries, Owl. Rettleston will want a few of them. I wanted you to have first pick.”

Her friend sighed. “I wish I did have something. So many women will lose their jobs now that the men are demobilized. Perhaps I could commission an article—.”

“Not me. I don’t write the heavy-hitting. My garden features suit me very well, thank you.” Her blue eyes narrowed. “Do you need a break? You look as tired as those workers.”

“Perhaps we could do a photo spread. No words. You can tell a narrative without words.” She held out her hand for the envelope.

Flick tugged harder at the string that closed it. “You don’t get two refusals in one visit, my friend. Alan Rettleston gets second refusal. Besides, a photo spread of working women is not really the audience of Modern Woman.”

“I know, but the occasional feature—I could argue for it.”

“Let Rettleston do his work. Don’t worry about me.”

Owl pursed her lips as she scrutinized Flick. “You look thinner.”

“It’s the pants.” She tugged at the wide-legged worsted pants made from a man’s suiting pin-stripe.

“Are you eating enough?”

Gosh, Owl was determined. She pressed a false humor into action. “Three meals a day. Positively stuffed.” She blew out her cheeks.

“Are they square meals?”

“On a round plate. Stop worrying about me, Owl. Or do worry in this way. Would you be interested in a public school garden feature? Boys on a manicured lawn would make fond mothers sigh with contentment. The public school I’m thinking of has clipped topiary. Very photogenic. I have a couple of photos from last October that would work for any publication date, even summer, and the topiary is evergreen.”

“Anything you bring us about flowers and gardens we’ll take. That’s from Mrs. Crittenden herself. We had a flood of letters after your December feature on orchids. It was as if English women had never heard of orchids. Are you thinking of Greavley Abbey where your brother is?”

“Yes. All unexpectedly, too.”

“He’s not doing well?”

Flick didn’t answer that. Owl’s fascination with Chauncey was long standing. Chauncey didn’t know of it and likely never would. Owl just blinked owlishly at him. “He needs a visitor to take him out of Greek conjugations and Old Guard politics, for which he has little patience.”

“When do you leave?”

“A couple of weeks.” She slung the strap for her tote over her shoulder. The big bag held her most prize possession, a Kodak Autographic Special camera, bought off a newshound who worked at the London Daily, Rettleston’s paper. “I must wrap up things here.” She grinned, knowing she would look like an eager street imp with her bobbed dark hair and over-sized flight jacket handed down from her brother Allworthy, an ace in the Royal Air Force. “Lottie’s party this weekend. The mater’s tea before Valentine’s Day. A masquerade. Dinner with Rettleston one night.”

“You don’t have to dine with—.”

“Whirlwind shopping with friends. One must have tweed for the country. I might see the rest of winter in Upper Wellsford and bring back more than one article with photos for you.”

“I wish I could take those workers,” Owl fretted.

“It’s not a problem.”

“Will you—?” She dropped her eyes and toyed with the fountain pen on her desk. “Please tell Chauncey that I said hello.” The bland words didn’t match the eagerness that had started her broken-off question.

“I will.”

Chauncey might not remember Owl. The petite dark-haired girl with a round face dominated by thick black spectacles would have barely registered on his pre-war scale.

Maybe he had changed. Maybe serving as Greek master at Greavley Abbey School in a sleepy village had changed him for the better.

Shame about the photos, though. Women losing work should be the focus of Modern Woman, not flower features.

Publishing on July 20! 

Preorder here:

Book 3 in the Into Death series with Isabella Newcombe.

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