A Dangerous Goodbye
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‘A brilliantly entertaining murder mystery… Full of lies, spies, murder, romance, mystery and so much more. Bursting at the seams!’Sharon Beyond the Books
England, 1944. On a clear autumn morning in late September, time stops for Fen Churche. Waiting on the scrubbed farmhouse table for her is a letter from her cherished Arthur Melville-Hare, a brave, blue-eyed captain who was shipped off to war. Through her tears, she knows what it means – she will never see her fiancé again.
As she reads his last letter, she realises something the War Office didn’t: Fen and Arthur shared a love of crosswords, and he’s left her clever clues to his disappearance.
Desperate to find out what happened to the love of her life, she sets off for France, travelling to his last posting: a quaint village, surrounded by vineyards. But darkness lies beneath the charming surface of this countryside town, and when the beloved priest and the son of a local wine maker are found dead, it’s clear that someone wants to keep wartime secrets buried.
Can Fen stay alive long enough to find out the truth?
A totally gripping story of war, mystery, espionage and murder. Fans of Jacqueline Winspear, Charles Todd and Rhys Bowen will absolutely adore this unputdownable World War Two murder mystery.
‘Nail-biting suspense and powerful emotion… A marvellous treat for historical mystery fans… A compulsively readable thriller that has me waiting with bated breath for the next.’ Bookish Jottings ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
‘A wonderful historical mystery and a fantastic start to a new series.’ Goodreads Reviewer ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
‘The plot is intriguing and filled with mystery, spies, lies, romance, murder and more!!!… Kept me guessing throughout.’ Goodreads Reviewer
‘A perfect historical mystery! What a beginning!… I could not put this book down and look forward to more from Ms. Chester.’ Goodreads Reviewer
‘I read raptly to the end, unaware that a summer storm poured outside. Can’t wait ’til book two!’ Goodreads Reviewer ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
‘I needed to know who the killer was, I just kept reading. House chores? No time for that!’ NetGalley Reviewer
Release date: August 20, 2020
Print pages: 278
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A Dangerous Goodbye
France, August 1944
My darling Fen,
I fear this may be my last letter to you. If you are reading this, then in all likelihood I am dead. I’m sorry to let you down like this, I think we would have had a jolly old time together in the years to come.
One last puzzle for you, honeypot… Where I have been posted, I cannot tell you. I muddled up Agen Cathedral for the hotel at first. You may wonder, lastly, why, with airmen of note around, I got so disorientated, but there you go. A glass of Burgundy soon saw me right, though, and the other fellows here are second to none.
I want you to know that I shall have died with your face in my mind, your name on my lips. Believe this, my darling, I loved you from the first moment I set eyes on you – and if we cannot be together after this ghastly skirmish is over, then I want you to find happiness elsewhere, and enjoy a life of fiendish puzzles and heavenly love for always.
The letter had arrived in the afternoon and Fen had found it waiting for her on the well-scrubbed kitchen table in the farmhouse. A few minutes beforehand, the postman, cycling along the lane that bordered the field, had called out to the group of land girls, all volunteers in the Women’s Land Army, as they checked the twine on the bales; August’s heat had brought the harvest forward by a week or two and now it was September the West Sussex fields were brown with stubble but peppered with bales of golden straw and the finer, greener hay.
Her friend Kitty Harris had waved back at him with an acknowledgement, then rested her hand on Fen’s shoulder. The cry of ‘Letter for you, Miss Churche’ shouldn’t have caused a sensible girl like Fen to drop her bale cutter and shake slightly, but she knew – she just knew – that this wasn’t a rushed note from her mother or a gossip-laden stream of consciousness from an old school friend. She knew it would be news of Arthur and she’d run straight back to the farmhouse to read it.
The words, his words, puzzled her. Didn’t they always, she thought as she remembered how she and Arthur had written little clues for each other in their letters.
‘More crossword lovers than star-crossed lovers,’ he’d joked that June day back in 1943 when they’d taken a modest picnic into the parkland beyond the farmhouse where Fen was billeted. They hadn’t had more than a few slices of home-baked bread and a small amount of cheese, but that didn’t matter as they had busied themselves working on their own puzzle, hoping to send it to The Daily Telegraph. ‘That’s what we should call ourselves,’ he’d said in between mouthfuls, ‘our setter name…’
‘Rationed Cheese?’ Fen had known that wasn’t what he meant and had laughed and ducked as he had playfully thrown a chewed-on piece of crust at her head.
‘No Fen, Star-crossed. It’s got a nice ring to it.’
And it had, and they had finished off setting their cryptic puzzle as the sun dipped behind the horse chestnut trees. Moments later, Arthur had leapt up and cried, ‘Dash it all!’ before hastily collecting the picnic together. He had almost missed his ride back to his quarters outside Guildford; a straw-haired fellow in a Land Rover was waiting for him at Fen’s digs when they’d got back, tapping his watch and looking every bit the part of put-upon patient friend. Still, it had been a rare day off for them both and its puffy white clouds and light breezes had lulled them into a sense of never-ending afternoon. He’d kissed her briefly before he climbed into the military vehicle and she’d known then that he was the one for her.
Fen closed her eyes at the memory, and before long others nudged their way into her mind. His spectacles with their round, dark rims and his dark brown eyes behind them. The way his neck always smelt of Palmolive soap, no matter what time of day she embraced him. His insistence on always carrying a penknife, a handkerchief and a small ball of string ‘just in case’.
And, of course, the dance when they’d met in the spring of 1943. She remembered the smell of wet wool – all those scratchy uniforms caught out in a summer shower just before the dancing had started – mingled with tobacco and the boiled beef being served in the dining room. Fen, Kitty, Dilys and Edith had all decided to walk down from their farmhouse billet, on the outskirts of Midhurst. They had arrived at the Spread Eagle, a medieval coaching inn at the bottom of the high street, just in time for the Lindy hop – a dance so chaotic that Fen had decided she better wait for something a bit less fast-paced for fear a twisted ankle could render her useless for the rest of the war.
She and Dilys, a quiet but pretty Welsh girl, who, like Fen, had joined the Women’s Land Army back in 1940, had hung back by the steaming tea urn and watched as several Wrens – the nickname given to those in the Women’s Royal Naval Service – poured something from a hip flask into their teacups. Fen’s memory was hazy as to where Edith had got to, though she remembered some talk later on of a tall Canadian chap. Kitty, dear Kitty, who by her own admission was a bit of a jive bomber, had made a beeline straight onto the dance floor, finding herself a partner in no time at all.
Fen wished she could simply join in like Kitty could, but then Kitty had such an open disposition, despite her hard upbringing, and would do almost anything to be loved, to be laughed with, to be part of something. Fen on the other hand had always been an outsider; it came with the territory of being brought up in a country that wasn’t your own. Lily L’Étranger – or Lily the Foreigner – was what her French classmates had called her in Paris back in the 1920s. Trust her father, Professor John Churche, to move them to the most artistic and creative arrondissement of Paris when she was a child, only to bring them back to sedate Oxford when she was eighteen, just when Paris was getting fun. Still, her teenage sorties to the Revlon and Max Factor counters at Galeries Lafayette, that gilded world of fashion and opulence, had opened a few doors for her when it came to kindling friendships and talking make-up with the other girls back in boring old Angleterre.
‘Are you dancing?’ A voice in her ear had switched her attention away from the giggling Wrens and towards a rather handsome and open, friendly face.
‘Not yet. Unlike them, I haven’t the means to get the old confidence up.’ Fen had nodded towards the other girls and their almost flagrant use of the hip flask and the man – Arthur as she would later discover – had smiled, his nose crinkling under the bridge of his glasses.
‘Well, I can’t help with the contraband, but I can do a fine foxtrot or wonderful waltz.’
Fen remembered how fun that night had been, from that point onwards at any rate. The dark-haired, chestnut-eyed captain had made her feel instantly at ease. He’d been there with a few other young men, and an Italian-looking girl, who threw her head back and laughed whenever Arthur’s friend said something.
That was the thing about the war, you found your friends quickly and stuck with them. Fen had been lucky with her placement as a land girl – after finishing her agricultural training at the college in Plumpton, she’d been posted to West Sussex and met Kitty, Edith and Dilys and, of course, old Mrs B, who was the widow of the tenant farmer who had rented the farm from the grand estate down the road. Together they looked after the place, carrying out the work that local young men would have done if they hadn’t gone off to war.
A friendship, Fen always thought to herself, is a real friendship once you’ve been out in the fields together, rain or shine, either planting out crops or ploughing the rough clay soil, your wellington boots getting stuck in every rut, or sitting up late at night on fire-watching duty with not much more to keep you warm save a blanket and a flask of hot tea, counting the seconds between blasts during the worst nights of the bombing raids that covered southern England.
Fen had spent many days and nights with these three and knew they were her real friends, despite their differences and backgrounds. Kitty was young, still not yet twenty, and relatively local. Fen suspected she came from a rather rough household and joining the Woman’s Land Army was as much a means to get out from under her father’s feet – and fists – as any dutiful calling.
Dilys was the daughter of a Welsh Chapel preacher and had grown up in a farm-like manse house in the Welsh valleys. She’d joined up as she reckoned she knew a thing or two about farming, and it turned out she wasn’t wrong. She was Mrs B’s favourite, and just about everyone else’s too, due to her calm manner and general kindliness.
And then there was Edith from the East End of London, tall and awkward and with a fondness for anything fanciful. She would be a fairy or a princess if she could, but God had decided, in his great wisdom, that instead she should be five foot nine of clumsiness, and for this she found it hard to forgive him.
The four of them had made fast and firm friends, however, and dances such as the one at the Spread Eagle were what made their eyes gleam for days afterwards and kept them up at night, whispering remembrances and gossip about who was dancing with whom and if so-and-so’s dress hem had been an inch too high to be proper or an inch too low to be fashionable.
The tea urn, the heat of the dancing bodies and the warm paving stones outside, doused in summer rain, had all seemed to be steaming, or was it Fen’s memory that gave a hazy feel to that first night she’d met Arthur?
Arthur had indeed finally encouraged her out in front of the band, and she had jived and swung with him, laughing all the time at his terrible jokes and the funny faces he had pulled as he flung her around the dance floor. Flushed with dancing and the excitement of the night, Fen had barely noticed the hour hand of the large wooden-framed clock creep towards eleven – and as khaki-clad soldiers led blushing local girls out to their cars or to more private places, Fen had felt Arthur’s hand on her arm, and she’d turned to face him.
‘I don’t even know your name. I’m Melville-Hare. Captain. Arthur!’ he had laughed. ‘Smooth as always. Let’s start again. I’m Arthur.’
‘How do you do, Arthur,’ Fen stuck her hand out to him while trying not to smile too much at his charming ineptitude. ‘Churche. Fenella Churche.’
‘Fen Churche, like the…’
‘… Station, yes.’
They’d both burst out laughing and for once she hadn’t minded her name being quite so similar to one of London’s more famous termini.
‘Well, Miss Churche, if I may, can I write to you?’
Fen opened her eyes and blinked away the tears. Arthur had written to her. Two or three times a week, and they’d met up too. He could never say exactly where he was based, but he would borrow a Land Rover or hitch a ride from the other chaps who were stationed at his digs. Sometimes his letters came with thick black redaction lines across the text, and when that was the case, Fen had to work extra hard to decipher the clues he would lay out for her. They were easy, by and large, and especially so when you knew the context. When he wrote meet me in your Revlon don’t you think? she knew he wasn’t asking her to tart up but was suggesting a trip to London, it being a classic ‘hidden’ type of clue, the answer being sandwiched between RevLON and DON’t. And, of course, there was one letter full of clues… like For you, unravelled, an emerging gent I am… that had led to her accepting his proposal of marriage.
She looked down at the letter in her hands. Was this full of hidden messages too? She had to admit that as far as farewell letters went it was rather an odd one, mentioning airmen and Agen Cathedral.
Fen smoothed out the letter and read it again. The bit about the cathedral and the airmen, it really didn’t make any sense. Who would mix up a hotel – and no doubt his quarters wouldn’t have been the Georges V exactly – with a cathedral? A crossword setter, that’s who.
‘Muddled up…’ she muttered to herself. ‘So it’s an anagram. Of Agen Cathedral.’
Fen turned the letter over and with a pencil she wrote all the letters of AGEN CATHEDRAL in a circle. Her eyes sketched across the letters, willing them to fall into place, but they just wouldn’t. She scrubbed it all out in frustration and wrote the letters out again, in a different order and jiggled up within the circle. Suddenly ANGEL sprang to her from the jumbled letters.
Fen bit her bottom lip. She was onto something all right. Arthur – her puzzle-loving Arthur – had sent her a message from… Her eyes filled with tears as she silently completed her own thought… Beyond the grave.
She laid her pencil down and cradled her head in her hands as she imagined what bombed-out dugout he might be lying in. Would she ever find him? She didn’t even know whereabouts in France he was; he had been mobilised so quickly that they’d not even had a chance to have an engagement party or, to Fen’s shame and regret, meet each other’s parents. So what was this then, this letter? In all likelihood I am dead. German forces were in retreat, it was true, more than likely wreaking havoc in their wake, but he might still be alive, despite his fears…
‘I have to do this, I can do this.’ If there was any chance of finding out what had happened to Arthur, Fen knew the clues to where he had last been were in that letter. In a life that had been dominated by duty and secrecy, he was letting her know, in his own way, where he had been stationed, and if there was any chance of finding where his journey had ended, she needed to know where it had begun.
Taking up her pencil, she concentrated once more on the wordplay.
‘… For the hotel at first…’ She chewed the end of the pencil as she worked out the clue. ‘The hotel at first… the first letter of hotel is H. So if I…’ her words turned into scribbles and she added an extra ‘H’ into the anagram of AGEN CATHEDRAL.
Angle… angel… cat… death…
‘Oh! Archangel Death. Gosh.’
Fen sat up straight and felt the bones in her back click into position. Long days in the fields were excellent for general health, but not so kind on a back, especially one that before the war had been more used to hunching over a desk, either studying or, once she had graduated with her degree in Modern Languages, working as a translator for a firm of copywriters in London.
‘So the next one. The airmen…’ Fen found the clue and read it out loud, for no one’s benefit but herself, but she found sounding out the clues sometimes gave away more than reading alone could. ‘You may wonder, lastly, why, with airmen of note around, I got so disorientated… I may wonder, Arthur, yes!’
She poised her pencil and started to jot down some letters. AIRMENOFNOTE. As before, the letters formed a circle.
‘Around, you see,’ she muttered to herself, once more trying to find new words in the mess of random letters. She knew this wasn’t the whole clue and read it through one more time.
‘Aha!’ She added a Y – it being the last letter of why – to the circle of letters and hunched over the page, staring at them as she held her face between her hands.
Nothing. She could find nothing in the bunch of random letters. Tone… foot… font… toon… fountain…
‘No U. Oh balderdash!’ Fen flung the pencil down, but not too far, and her determination to solve Arthur’s puzzle made her square up to the letter again.
A glass of Burgundy saw me right though…
‘Burgundy… France. Aha… of course not fountain, but,’ she checked the letters, ‘Fontaine.’
She worked through the letters that were left, ‘OERMY or YOMER?’ She tried a few more possibilities out as Kitty walked in.
‘Still at it, Fen? It’s gone ten.’ Kitty laid a hand on Fen’s shoulder and peered at her work. If she’d had an opinion about Fen writing all over the last letter her fiancé would ever send her, she didn’t show it and just squeezed Fen’s shoulder. ‘Cup of cocoa?’
‘If there’s some going, then yes please. And, Kitty?’
‘Do you know if Mrs B has anything like an atlas here? Or a map of France at least?’
Kitty put the old kettle on the stove and exhaled, blowing air out through pursed lips. ‘An atlas you’re more likely find in the town library, I suppose, or up at the big house. You could ask Mary if you could look.’ She was referring to one of the other land girls, Mary, an aristocratic young lady from the north of England who had managed to get a room in the big house itself. ‘Though I’m not sure she’s taking visitors after Lord Bigwig found her in the hay barn with Johnny Borthwick the other day. Still, poor love needs some excitement before she’s married off to some other toff, I’ve no doubt. Anyway, I’m sure Mrs B’s got a map of France though, wait here.’ Kitty moved the kettle off the hotplate onto the warming side of the stove and disappeared through the low door of the kitchen into the dark passageway beyond.
Fen, despite the cheering diversion of some gossip, really was starting to feel rather exhausted. It had been quite the day, from all the physical work before the afternoon post, then the reeling horror of realising that Arthur was most likely dead. But it hadn’t been a black-edged telegram, or were they only sent to real family? Perhaps fiancées didn’t count and weeks, even months ago, Arthur’s parents had known what she only feared; that he wasn’t coming home.
Kitty reappeared with a battered old map in her hands. ‘Thought I’d seen it somewhere. I think it’s Mr B’s from the Great War, but I doubt, bar the odd crater, that France has changed all that much.’
‘Thanks, Kitty, you are the very best, you know.’ Fen shook out the old map and found the right area for Burgundy. Now to find a Fontaine somewhere…
Four eyes and two cups of cocoa worked their magic and Kitty triumphantly pointed out a large village called Morey-Fontaine, close to the famous Château du Clos de Vougeot.
‘That must be it!’
‘Oh Kitty, you’re wonderful, you know that?’
Kitty, who had never been called wonderful in her whole nineteen years, smiled a little and nodded.
‘I wonder how the Archangel Death fits in with a charming little Burgundian village?’ Fen pondered.
‘I think Herr Hitler saw to it that he visited most places.’
‘Yes. I don’t suppose there’s many villages in France that haven’t had him fly over them these last few years.’ Fen reached out and held Kitty’s hand in hers as they thought for a moment about all the lives – and loves – lost in France since the war began.
‘Maybe Morey-Fontaine has some sort of connection with him? The Archangel.’ Kitty put the idea forward and it made Fen wonder who the Archangel of Death was, and why, indeed, he had some special connection to the village Arthur was so desperate to tell her about?
Luckily for both Fen’s mission to find out more about archangels, and for her aching back, the next day was a Sunday, which meant church and an enforced rest from the fields. Mrs B was keener than mustard that if she must have so many young ladies in her house she would ensure their spiritual sustenance as much as their physical one, and the best way to stop her sudden influx of girls being compared to a bawdy house (for some billets did indeed get that reputation) was to frogmarch them all, willingly or not, to church every Sunday.
‘I don’t know what I should be thanking ’im for.’ Edith spoke out rather loudly between verses of ‘Now Thank We All Our God’.
‘Shush, Edie,’ Kitty glanced over to where one of her cousins was sitting, several pews behind and on the other side of the nave. Fen knew Kitty worried constantly that her father would kick up a stink and demand she come home, to take on the work he and her mother couldn’t manage now the boys were gone, especially if word ever got back to him that she was on some sort of free ticket and enjoying herself a little bit too much.
Fen raised her eyebrows at her in solidarity; Edith was good fun at times but also a bit of an attention-seeker. She’d flapped her hands around wildly earlier as a bee had buzzed around their hats during the welcome, and now, since no one had paid her much attention, she seemed at it again.
‘Whatever is the fuss?’
The group of young women were shushed by those in the pews around them and Edith in particular was told to ‘just be quiet’ by Mrs B.
‘What is it?’ Dilys whispered to her, once the next hymn had started.
‘Got bloody stung, didn’t I?’
‘There, there,’ Dilys whispered, the words sounding even more comforting due to her soft Welsh accent. ‘Suck the sting out, else it’ll swell if you’re unlucky.’ Dilys was always the one who knew about countryside lore and how to fix almost anything like that.
‘Tch, it’s too late, look at my bleedin’ arm!’
The girls all looked at Edith’s swelling wrist and each had their own reaction. Fen frowned at the commotion, Dilys patted the poor girl on the shoulder and muttered another ‘there, there’, and Kitty looked sheepishly over at the ever more irritable Mrs B.
The service came to an end, not before Mrs B had insisted they all take Holy Communion, and they filed out according to their pew into the aisle and from there out to the September sunshine.
Fen found the vicar, a Reverend Smallpiece, and shook his hand.
‘Thank you, Vicar,’ she started the pleasantries. ‘Such an interesting sermon.’
‘Thank you, dear girl.’ Smallpiece took his hand back and used both of them to flatten his stole against his surplice. ‘I find the pre. . .
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