Winter of discontent : A Dorothy Martin Mystery. / Jeanne M Dams.
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- ISBN: 9781466820876 (electronic bk)
- Edition: 1.
- Publisher: New York : Forge Books, 2004.
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Dorothy Martin's neighbor and closest friend, Jane Langland, has been having a fling with Bill Fanshawe--or, as much of a fling as two 80-year olds in a small town are allowed. Now there are rumors that Jane and Bill may move in together, and Dorothy needs to know exactly what's happening. What neither woman expects is that Bill is missing, and that within a day his body is going to be discovered in the tunnel under the Sherebury town museum.Why would anyone want to harm a harmless old man, a historian who loves the town and the people who live there? Given his age, and the strange letter found in his hand, Dorothy thinks that whatever happened has its roots in WWII. Everyone, including her husband, retired police office Alan, looks askance, but when another old man is murdered--a man who served at the same RAF base as Bill--no one denies Dorothy's suspicions may be right.Dorothy investigates, knowing that the best Christmas gift she can give her friend...
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WINTER OF DISCONTENT
I LOOKED AT THE CALENDAR AND SIGHED. NOT ONLY A MONDAY, but December eighth. Exactly seventeen days till Christmas and I had done almost nothing. No cookies had been baked, no cards sent, no presents bought, let alone wrapped.
It's true that I'm a chronic procrastinator, but this time I had a good excuse. Recent events, including a fairly narrow escape from being murdered, had taken up a good deal of my time and every bit of my energy.
However, excuses notwithstanding, Christmas was going to be here in a little over two weeks, and I wasn't going to be ready, not unless I got my act together immediately. I poured myself the last cup of coffee in the pot, checked to make sure that my husband was happily occupied with his memoirs, and sat down to make a list.
Half an hour later I kissed Alan on the top of his head as he sat absorbed in front of the computer. "I'm going shopping. I may not be home for lunch. There's soup in the fridge."
He muttered something. I knew he'd really heard me and would remember what I'd said when he got hungry and I wasn't there. I patted his shoulder fondly and went out the back door, clapping an old plaid tam on my head.
It was an incredibly beautiful day for December. The temperature wasat least fifty, the sun was shining brightly, and the jasmine on the south wall of my house was in full, fragrant bloom. Perverse creature that I am, I resented the weather. My soul, nourished by more than sixty years of life in the Midwestern United States, insisted that there should be snow. It was a foolish longing. We seldom got much snow here in the part of southeastern England I'd adopted as my home.
Never mind. By the time I got back home I'd be glad enough of dry feet and warm hands and would, I hoped, be imbued with the somewhat frenetic Christmas cheer forced upon me by the merchants.
I knocked on my neighbor's back door. Jane Langland, my best friend, was often willing to accompany me on my jaunts, and I find shopping much less tiring with company.
I was greeted by Jane's bulldogs. I'm never sure how many she has. Soft touch that she is, she's forever bringing home a new one from the animal shelter and then placing it in a good home, so the population varies. They are all invariably good-humored, gregarious, and extremely interested in the way I smell (perhaps because I have two cats). I patted the nearest ones, shoved away the too-curious ones, and waited until Jane herded them all out of the way and motioned me into her pleasant kitchen.
"Sorry. Miserable beasts," she said in fond tones that belied her words. "Coffee?"
"Thanks, but I don't have time to stay. I'm off to do my extremely belated Christmas shopping, and hoped you'd come with me."
"Well." She considered. "Laundry folded, washing-up done, no committees today--right. Why not? Want to stop at the museum in any case."
She looked at her feet as she muttered the last remark, and I tried hard not to smile. "Do you have a present for Bill?"
"No. Need to talk to him." She spoke gruffly and stumped out into the vestibule. She pulled a sweater off a peg. "Coming, then?"
"How has Bill been?" I pursued as we walked past my house. It's at the end of the street, which is a dead end terminating with a gate into theCathedral Close. The quickest route to the High Street and most of the shops is through the Cathedral. "I haven't visited the museum lately."
"Hmph! Blinking fool!"
I took this to refer to Bill, not me. And I was pretty sure I knew why she was upset. "So he still won't come to live with you?"
"Hah! Sensible thing to do, with both of us lonely, and nearly eighty, and him an old crock who can barely walk. Not taking proper care of himself."
"Well, I've said before and I say again, I think there's a reason. Don't look at me that way! I don't think he's suddenly lost his fondness for you, so it must be something else. Maybe he doesn't like your house. Maybe he doesn't care for dogs. Maybe he hates the idea of living so close to the church bells. Maybe he's just afraid of losing his independence."
"Hmph!" said Jane again. I thought she was going to say something else, but she shook her head and closed her mouth firmly.
I was thoughtful as we took the shortcut through the Cathedral and out again and turned onto the High Street. Jane had told me, in bits and pieces, about her decades-old romance, and I found the story infinitely pathetic.
She and Bill Fanshawe, neighbors in Sherebury long ago, had known each other from infancy, but love had blossomed when they were just eighteen, in 1943. They desperately wanted to marry, but that was a bad time for romance. Their families insisted they were both too young and times too uncertain. Bill had enlisted in the RAF as soon as he was old enough, promising he would marry her as soon as the war was over and he came home.
But he hadn't come home when the war was over. His plane had been shot down over Germany and Bill taken prisoner. His prison camp was liberated in due time, of course, but under the harsh conditions his injuries had never healed properly. A broken leg, badly set, left him crippled and unable to work at his previous factory job. Even after English doctorsdid the best they could, he was unfit for factory work and untrained for any other job that could support a wife. Jane had begun her teaching career by that time, so she was earning a little. Bill doggedly worked at whatever menial jobs he could find while he studied history at Sherebury University. They both lived with their parents and tried to save, but the post-war austerity programs made life hard and saving almost impossible.
Then, in the early fifties, Bill's father was offered a better job in Norwich. The family moved, and Bill, unable to support himself, had little choice but to go with them. In the bigger city, Bill, too, was able to find a better job, his knowledge of history leading to work in the city's museum. The two lovers tried to keep up a correspondence, but since neither had the time or the money to travel to see the other, the letters became unsatisfactory and eventually lapsed. Jane lost touch with Bill except for the occasional Christmas card. Neither married. Time went by.
It was in the mid-nineties, as I recalled, that Bill retired and decided to return to Sherebury. He found a comfortable little flat in what had been a wool merchant's grand house in the seventeenth century. He had finished his degree and become a curator of some note by that time, so when the small Museum of Sherebury moved into the splendid old Town Hall and lost wispy little Mr. Pym, its old curator, Bill was a logical successor. He settled in happily and began to see Jane now and then.
The trouble was, they'd both become set in their ways. If they'd hoped (as the gossipy little town, eagerly awaiting developments, certainly hoped) to take up where they'd left off, they were disappointed. A late-life romance did not develop. But they still shared many of the same interests and enjoyed each other's company. The town held its collective breath and kept hoping, until a major rift developed.
The trouble arose when Bill fell on the stairs getting to his flat, which was on the top floor of the old house. He wasn't hurt, only shaken up, but Jane was extremely upset. Being Jane, she tried to take charge. Bill,with the old weakness in his leg, had no business climbing all those stairs, she insisted. In fact, he had no business living alone at his age.
When she had recounted the conversation to me, I had refrained from saying that she lived alone, in a house with many stairs, and that she was the same age as Bill. I wasted my tact. It seemed that Bill had pointed out that very fact. Jane had then changed tactics and said there was no sense in both of them living alone. She would be more than happy to have him move in with her, as a paying guest if he liked, and they'd be there for each other in case of illness or other disaster.
Well, that put the fat in the fire. Bill backed off like a scalded cat. I thought, personally, that he took the suggestion as a backhanded sort of marriage proposal, and was scared to death of the idea. I didn't say so to Jane, of course. She was mortally offended, and became even more upset when Bill up and moved to Heatherwood House, a retirement home in a beautiful old manor house on the edge of town. At one blow he had rejected her, dealt with all her objections about his unsafe living conditions, and distanced himself from her physically as well.
Jane Langland is one of the kindest people I know. She's also one of the stubbornest, and I'm well equipped to recognize the trait. She didn't give up. She called on him at the museum every chance she got, raising some new argument. I suspected that they secretly enjoyed the quarrels a good deal, and I was looking forward to watching them spar today.
Not yet, though. Shopping came first. List clutched in my hand, I steered Jane firmly in the direction opposite the Town Hall.
Two hours later, only halfway through my list, I was more than ready to stop for lunch. My feet hurt, my arms were weighed down with packages, I had a headache, and I was starving. So much for Christmas spirit. "Jane, let's go to Alderney's. It's about halfway home, and even with your help, I can't carry all this stuff much farther. Besides, they have wonderful food and I don't have much at home."
"Better idea. Town Hall's just across the street. Pop in there and leave your parcels."
"That is a good idea! And maybe Bill will come to lunch with us, if his assistant is there today." I glanced slyly at Jane, but she refused to meet my eye.
We staggered across the street. Jane opened the heavy old oak door and I negotiated the half flight of stairs to the level where the museum occupied the space vacated some years before by the city offices. The architects, with Bill to advise them, had done a lovely job with it. The building retained its Elizabethan dignity, and the artifacts of centuries of Sherebury history were displayed attractively.
The desk he usually occupied in the corner was vacant, and there was no sign of his assistant.
"Jane, he must be upstairs looking something up, and I positively cannot climb any more stairs." Bill, I knew, had been doing a lot of work lately in the storerooms, pulling out odd bits and pieces that had been donated to the museum years ago and trying to make some sense of them.
"HELLO-O!" Jane's stentorian bellow raised some dust motes that eddied in the sunlight coming through a leaded-glass window. There was no other response.
"Old fool's fallen asleep up there. Suppose I'd best wake him."
Jane made for the stairs while I sank gratefully into a chair. Jane's older than I, but better able to climb stairs, especially when my arthritic knees are acting up. I often think it's unfair that I feel about thirty-five on the inside, but the outer shell sometimes seems to be approaching a hundred. I leaned back as far as the rather hard chair would allow and closed my eyes. I'd have time for forty winks before Jane persuaded Bill to leave his work and come to lunch with us.
She came back before I'd reached even the edge of sleep. "He's not there," she announced.
Her tone of voice roused me. "But--he'd surely never leave the place unattended. He must have gone to the loo."
"Knocked. Then peeked in. No one."
This was unexpected. Bill Fanshawe was fanatically reliable. He viewed the museum's collection as virtually his own property, and guarded it jealously. He would never have walked off with the doors unlocked. I tried to make my weary brain function properly. "Maybe he isn't here at all today, and his assistant has done something foolish--gone off for a sandwich or whatever, and left the museum open."
Jane, prowling restlessly, reached Bill's desk and did some rummaging. "No," she said, holding up one of the papers. "Schedule for the week. Bill's here alone today."
I looked at her blankly. "Well, then, where is he?"
Copyright © 2004 by Jeanne M. Dams