When murder taints writer-in-residence Penelope Parish’s charming British bookshop, she must follow the clues to catch a killer before tempers boil over.
Penelope Parish thought she’d turned the page on her amateur sleuthing days but when the owner of Upper Chumley-on-Stokes’ proposed first high-end gourmet shop is poisoned, the American novelist starts to wonder if she and her quaint British town are in for another rewrite. It turns out that not everyone was a fan of Simeon Foster’s farm-sourced charcuterie and imported pastries—many of the locals were outraged by the potential new competition.
With a full menu of suspects on her hands, this just might be Penelope’s toughest case yet. Luckily, her friends at the Open Book are there to help with every twist of the poisoned pen.
Release date: August 1, 2023
Print pages: 320
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A Deadly Dedication
Penelope "Pen" Parish never thought she'd write one bestseller, let alone two, but unless her editor was lying (and that wouldn't be like Bettina at all-she was usually brutally honest), her latest Gothic novel, The Woman in the Fog, had indeed landed on the bestseller list.
After her first hit, Lady of the Moors, Pen had come smack up against that wall known as writer's block and had chased her illusive muse all the way to Upper Chumley-on-Stoke, England, where she'd taken a writer-in-residence position at the Open Book bookstore. The grass is always greener on the other side (of the Atlantic, in this case), right?
And, much to her amazement, the change of scenery had worked its magic. Her writer's block had dissolved into thin air, and she'd managed to produce another bestseller by the skin of her teeth. The Woman in the Fog was doing quite nicely, and Penelope was settling down in Chum, as it was known to the residents, equally well.
It was late afternoon and dusk was quickly descending. Penelope saw the streetlights winking on along the high street through the diamond-paned windows of the Open Book. She was shelving some books for Mabel Morris, the owner, when the door opened and Gladys Watkins rushed in.
Gladys owned the Pig in a Poke, Chumley's butcher shop, and had dashed across the high street with her coat thrown over her apron. Her blue eyes were even wider than normal and her hair, which was never particularly well-coifed, looked even more disheveled than usual.
"I'm not late, am I?" she called out to no one in particular.
Mabel looked up from the invoices she was thumbing through and glanced at her watch.
"We still have twenty minutes."
Gladys's shoulders sagged in relief.
Pen put down the stack of books she was holding and wandered over to the front counter.
"Not late for what?" she said.
"The nerve of the man." Gladys's chin quivered.
"Indeed!" India Culpepper joined them at the counter.
Thin to the point of being gaunt, India had elbows and knees that stuck out at sharp angles and was to the manor born-a distant cousin of Arthur Worthington, the Duke of Upper Chumley-on-Stoke. Unfortunately, she was also one of any number of England's impoverished nobility who clung to the family silver with its engraved crests even as they darned the holes in their socks and put pots under the leaks in the roof.
"Late for what?" Penelope repeated. "What man?"
Gladys fixed her with a stare. "You've had your nose stuck in that book you're writing or you would have heard by now. Simeon Foster-what kind of name is that anyway?-plans to open a new shop in town. Some fancy gourmet place. With pastries flown in from France and chocolates from Belgium. Well, la-di-da. And even worse, farm-sourced meats. The nerve of him. Blimey! Don't all meats come from a farm? It's going to put all of us out of business! My shop, the Icing on the Cake, the Sweet Tooth, the Jolly Good Grub." Gladys sputtered to a halt.
"I wouldn't worry too much if I were you," Mabel said, brushing some fuzz off the front of her Shetland sweater.
"That's a fine thing for you to say. He's not going to be selling books, is he now?"
"The people who will patronize Simeon Foster's proposed gourmet shop aren't our customers anyway. They'll be the new money who live in developments like Birnam Wood, where all the houses are fake Tudor or newly built Georgians. They do most of their shopping in London. They only pop into the local Tesco when they suddenly find themselves without milk or something equally mundane."
Gladys didn't look convinced. "I don't know." She shook her head and her chin wobbled.
India fingered the strand of yellowing pearls around her thin neck and said in her reedy voice, "And that's not the worst of it. This Mr. Foster, whoever he is, wants to renovate that vacant building next to the one where those law offices are. He plans to put in a large plate-glass window to display his wares and make it more modern. It will look so dreadfully common." She sniffed.
Upper Chumley-on-Stoke was a medieval village approximately an hour's train ride outside of London. It was proud of its history and the residents had fought long and hard against paving the cobblestoned streets or erecting a stoplight at the lone intersection where more than one accident had occurred in the wee hours as the pubs were closing. The residents had successfully lobbied against the former but had lost the battle when it came to the stoplight, the town council having been more concerned for the lives of its citizens than the aesthetics of the high street.
"I still don't know what you're worried about being late for." Penelope pushed her glasses up her nose with her finger.
Mabel leaned her elbows on the counter. As a former MI6 analyst, she kept her calm in even the most trying circumstances, and this was no exception.
"Mr. Foster has requested a permit for the renovations he plans to undertake. The town council is meeting to hear objections to the proposal and will be voting on it tonight. It should make for a lively discussion," she said wryly.
"I'm certainly going to give them a piece of my mind." Gladys shook her fist in the air, color rising up her neck and turning her cheeks red.
India glanced at Gladys in alarm, a look of disapproval crossing her face. Penelope could imagine what India was thinking. One doesn't make a scene in public. It's simply not done.
Just then Figgy wheeled over a cart with a steaming teapot, cups and saucers, and a plate of freshly made shortbread biscuits.
Figgy, who was more formally known as Lady Fiona Innes-Goldthorpe, ran the tea shop inside the Open Book. She reminded Penelope of a sprite, with her short, spiky hair, heart-shaped face, and delicate figure. She was wearing one of her vintage clothing finds-a boho-looking tasseled maxi dress in diaphanous blue fabric. She and Penelope had become instant friends upon Penelope's arrival at the store. Two peas in a pod, Mabel had declared them.
"Does anyone fancy a cuppa?" she said, holding the teapot over one of the cups.
A chorus of yesses greeted her, and she began to pour.
Penelope reached for a shortbread biscuit. Lunch, which had been sketchy at best, was a distant memory nibbled at as she worked on her next book. There was no rest for the wicked as her grandmother Parish used to say, and that was certainly true in publishing. You'd barely turned around after handing in one manuscript before it was time to start another.
Penelope mentally reminded herself of her good fortune in being able to earn her living writing and not at some straitlaced job that required her to dress up every day and spend eight or more hours staring at the three walls of a cubicle.
Mabel glanced at her watch again. "We'll have to make it quick if we want to get to the meeting on time."
Just then the door to the Open Book flew open and a man rushed in.
"Rupert," Mabel said with a frown. "I'm sorry, but we're about to close. The town council meeting will be starting shortly."
Rupert Yardley was short and what might be termed stocky but was, in his case, mostly muscle and very little fat. He played right wing on the Upper Chumley-on-Stoke football team, the Chums. He was a solicitor by trade but was better known as the local historian. He'd been working on a book detailing the history of Upper Chumley-on-Stoke for more years than anyone could remember.
"Are you going to the meeting?" Gladys said, her face and neck still blotched red from her recent outburst.
"Meeting? What meeting?" Rupert looked around him as if the answer could be found written on the walls. "Oh, you mean the town council meeting," he said as the answer dawned on him. "I bloody well am." His face had become nearly as red as Gladys's. "What cheek the man has."
Figgy poured another cup of tea and handed it to Rupert.
He smiled briefly. "Lovely, thank you."
Gladys looked at him out of the corner of her eye. "Bollocks! What do you care? It's not as if Foster's new gourmet shop is going to put you out of business."
Rupert looked momentarily startled but then recovered. "I should think not. Plenty of work to go around. Contracts to be negotiated and all that." He took a sip of his tea, then put his teacup down on the saucer with a clang. "I object most strenuously, however, to the renovations Foster plans to make. They will destroy the integrity of the town. Upper Chumley-on-Stoke has a magnificent history that goes back centuries-"
"We should leave shortly," Mabel said, cutting Rupert short before he could truly get off and running. It took little more than a willing or captive audience for him to launch into the history of Chumley.
"Quite." Rupert handed his teacup to Figgy. "Where is this meeting to be held again?"
"At Worthington House." India lifted her chin. "Arthur has graciously allowed us to use the great hall for the meeting, given the number of people that are expected to attend."
Foster had certainly stirred up a hornet's nest when he chose Upper Chumley-on-Stoke for the location of one of his chain gourmet shops, Penelope thought as she slipped on her jacket and wound her scarf around her neck. It promised to be entertaining. She'd never seen everyone so agitated. Hopefully the vote tonight would go in the town's favor.
It was a cold night. Penelope tightened her scarf around her neck and pulled her gloves from her jacket pocket while Mabel locked the front door to the Open Book. She glanced up at the sky, which looked like a piece of black velvet cloth sprinkled with stars.
Rupert mounted his bicycle, which he'd left leaning against the outside of the building and with a crisp cheerio, pedaled off into the distance, the headlight mounted to the frame of his bike lighting a path in front of him.
All the shops along the high street were closed, their storefronts dark and with shadows pooling by their doors. Candles flickered in the window of Pierre's next door, Chumley's only high-end restaurant, and the faint aroma of garlic, onions and herbs drifted into the night air. Across the street, lights blazed at the Chumley Chippie, which Penelope could swear never closed. It seemed that the residents of Upper Chumley-on-Stoke had an appetite for fish-and-chips at all hours of the day and night.
They waved good-bye to Gladys and India, who headed to Gladys's car behind the Pig in a Poke. After a brief discussion, Pen and Figgy had agreed to go with Mabel. Riding with Figgy was a hair-raising experience and while Pen had acquired a new car, her MINI having been totaled when she was escaping a killer, she still hadn't quite mastered driving on the left side of the street and was prone to wandering over the center line into the wrong lane.
Mabel had suggested Penelope consider a bicycle instead given the number of near misses she'd racked up since arriving in Chumley. But then the thought of Penelope riding through traffic with no metal around her for protection had caused Mabel to swiftly reconsider her suggestion.
"The heat will take a few minutes," Mabel said as she started the car and pulled away from the curb.
Penelope hugged herself against the cold as they made their way down the high street.
"Rupert was certainly full of himself tonight, wasn't he?" Figgy said.
Mabel glanced over at her briefly. "He still hasn't recovered from the drama of the Tesco being built. He was dead set against it. The entire town was as well but, in the end, I think most residents would agree that it's been terribly handy having a large-chain grocery store so close by."
Mabel flicked on her bright lights as they headed away from town and down the high street, where the road dwindled into little more than a country lane with darkened fields on either side.
"Although no existing buildings were renovated to accommodate the Tesco and a brand-new building was constructed on empty land, Rupert still objected on the grounds that it was the first modern building erected in Chumley and might lead to wholesale destruction of the town," Mabel explained.
"Why did the residents object?" Penelope said.
"They were worried that it would cause an increase in traffic, but since it's open for such long hours, there haven't been any problems. Housewives tend to shop in the morning and afternoon, while others pop in after working hours. I've yet to see a huge crowd in there no matter what time I've gone."
They were nearing Worthington House now, which sat on top of a rise and could be seen from all over Chumley. "Worthington House" was something of a misnomer-it was an imposing structure-a medieval castle that reminded Penelope of Windsor Castle.
Cars, lined up one behind the other, waited to pull into the driveway, and Mabel joined them.
"Quite the turnout," she said as they inched forward.
Finally, they reached the parking lot itself, where there were signs directing visitors who were there for tours of the castle. A jitney with Sunshine Retirement Community painted on the side was leaving as Mabel pulled into an empty parking spot.
Mabel beeped the car doors locked, and they joined the stream of people headed toward the side door of the castle.
The great hall, true to its name, was a vast space with a massive stone fireplace at one end and heraldic banners hanging from the ceiling. Folding chairs had been arranged in tidy rows, with a long table facing them at the front of the hall. A microphone sat at each place, a tangle of wires trailing off to the side. A standing microphone was in front of the table.
Excited chatter echoed around the room as people greeted each other. Beryl Kent, Penelope's sister, who was hiding out in England after her husband was convicted of running a massive Ponzi scheme, was already there. She waved them over to the seats she'd saved.
"I got here early," Beryl said, smoothing down her blond bob. "I couldn't believe how many people were already here. I tried to get seats as close to the front as possible."
Penelope, Mabel, and Figgy took the empty seats and slipped off their coats.
Penelope noticed that Beryl's eyes were shining, and she seemed more animated than usual.
She leaned toward her sister and whispered, "What's up? You seem excited about something."
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