As Oxford's new Head of Ceremonies, Natalie Payne's first task is to plan St Margaret's autumn gala. However, her plans are dashed when she finds their famed chef dead in the kitchen.
And then a centuries-old cat informs Nat she has her own magical legacy... and responsibilities. A murder in the halls is a sure sign that something has gone wrong with Oxford's magical protections.
Now Nat has to solve the murder, find a new chef for the gala, and figure out why Oxford's magical defences are down. With the help of Oxford's magical Eternals and some new friends, Nat has a chance.
But can she do it before St Margaret loses its connection to the magic of Oxford?
If you like cozy mysteries where ghosts walk the halls, paintings come to life, creatures play, and magic seems within reach, the Oxford Key Mysteries are sure to delight.
Release date: May 31, 2020
Publisher: Marketing Chair Press
Print pages: 266
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Murder at St Margaret: A charmingly fun paranormal cozy mystery
The stall door next to mine crashes open. Peeking underneath, I watch as a pair of practical black rubber clogs stomps their way to the basins. I freeze in place at the sound of an angry muttering.
The words, mumbled in a growly voice, are hard to understand. “Interrupting me… how dare she… right in the middle of dinner prep… won’t be on my shoulders if the roast chicken is burnt… ringing my phone and demanding I come straight over… I’ll show her straight over…”
My legs start to tingle, a sure sign I need to get out of this position before they go numb. I’m working up the courage to stand up when I hear her stomping resume, followed by another door slamming. I slide the latch and open a slight crack, peeking out to make sure the woman is gone. After crossing to the sinks, I take my time. The last thing I want is to run into whoever that was.
Stopping for a last glance in the bathroom mirror, I fluff my blonde curls with my damp hands. The full day of moving combined with the humid air of the packed train compartment did me no favours. The stylist took my request for a serious cut to heart; I can barely get it up into a ponytail. I straighten my collar, smiling at the pair of cherries embroidered on my jumper. A touch of vintage felt proper for my welcome to one of the UK’s oldest institutions.
Having successfully exited the bathroom undetected, I make my way towards the lit doorway further along the hall. The sign next to it says ‘College Principal’. I tap a gentle knock before stepping into the cosy reception room. The older woman sitting behind the desk smiles a welcome. “Have a seat over there, hun. Dr Radcliffe is finishing up a quick chat and will be right with you.”
Her white hair is cut in a cute pageboy style, her jewel-tone dress accessorised by a vibrant floral scarf and an oversized golden broach. Her desk is in perfect order, not even a stray post-it note out of alignment. The tidy desk has one laptop, one phone, and a framed photo of an older man. Despite the regimental order of her workspace, the woman exudes an air of friendliness. Her blue eyes sparkle with merriment as she leans over the desk as though inviting me into her home for a chat.
I cross the room to perch on the upholstered chair the woman indicates, setting my flowery bag by my cherry red flats. Everything is as I imagined it would be. The mahogany walls offer a rich backdrop for gilt-framed Cotswold landscapes painted by a master. A shelf-lined wall showcases leather-bound books, priceless antiques and commemorative photos of rowing regattas.
The woman opens a desk drawer and lifts out a small cut-glass bowl. She places it on the corner of her desk and nudges it in my direction. “Go on, take one. I find a little sugar helps settle the nerves. Is this your first time in Oxford?”
I shake my head as I unwrap a bright red sweet. “Other than a quick trip for the interview, I visited once before as a child on a school tour of the museum. All I can remember is a long room with lots of sculptures of naked men.”
She chuckles in response to my honest, if somewhat ribald, response. “That’d be the Ashmolean. It’s the tip of the iceberg, plenty more places to explore. I guess you’ll have opportunities enough to do so in your new role. Lillian rang me up as soon as you accepted the job, asking if we could put you up in our faculty housing until you find your feet. Given our Autumn Gala is the first event on your To Do list, I could hardly say no.”
“I really appreciate your help, Mrs… um, sorry, I didn’t catch your name.”
“It’s my fault for not introducing myself. There’s no need to be so formal, you can call me Harry. Short for Harriet. I’m the Principal’s executive assistant.”
“I imagine I’ll be spending a lot of time with you. As you’ve likely guessed, I’m Natalie Payne. Please call me Nat, most people do once they get to know me.”
Harry’s warm welcome has put me at ease, but based on the seniority of her role and the glint in her eye, I’m guessing she has a core of steel inside her.
A flurry of raised voices coming from behind the closed inner door interrupts any further conversation. When we hear the crash of glass breaking, Harry winces and offers me a weak smile. I cling to my smile but shift on the edge of the cushioned seat. My eyebrows arch into question marks as I nod towards the exit, a silent query to see if I should make excuses and come back later.
Harry shakes her head and motions me to stay where I am. “Don’t you worry, hun. Dr Radcliffe is a gem. It’s that other woman in there. She’s stirring up all the trouble.”
The heavy inner office door slams open, a broad-shouldered and thick-waisted woman in a stained chef’s coat comes barrelling out of it straight into the reception. I spy a familiar pair of black clogs on her feet. So much for my efforts to avoid her.
She doesn’t spare a glance at me, glaring at Harry before turning back around and continuing with her angry rant. “How dare you tell me what I have to do! The kitchen and dining hall are my domain and I must have complete and total freedom.”
A voice calls out from the inner office, “Of course, you are in control, but surely you can see how your decisions can affect others?”
The chef is undeterred, her face glowing red with fury. “What happened to them is no fault of mine! If you want me to remain here as Head Chef, I’ll thank you to remember that. Now if you’ve no other false complaints to hold against me, I have to finish preparing dinner.”
When the chef stomps out of the room, slamming the reception door behind herself, both Harry and I breathe a sigh of relief.
“The glass paperweight?” asks Harry as a middle-aged woman in pressed trousers and a silk blouse appears in the doorway.
“Got it in one. I’m lucky she smashed it onto my desk instead of my head.” The woman spots me smiling in my chair. “You must be Ms Payne. Do come in. I’m so sorry about the delay… and that you had to witness that.”
I murmur polite reassurances as I gather my bag. Harry winks at me, offering reassurance with her expression that I’m not walking into the proverbial lion’s den.
Fixing my smile back in place, I straighten my shoulders and follow. I soak in more of the detail as I trail behind her into the next room. My last job locked me in the unforgiving modern glass and clean lines of London’s exhibition halls. The college Principal’s office is the exact opposite, located in the east wing of a sprawling mansion. The Edwardian architecture echoes in the decor, the space filled by an antique hardwood desk, claw-footed chairs and velvet sofas that scream to be stroked. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves line the walls, embossed leather covers mixing in with well-worn paperbacks and a few popular self-help novels. The room strikes a balance between well-respected and welcoming.
A life-size portrait of a man in an old-fashioned white wig dominates the space above the walnut fireplace mantle. His dour expression is so piercing that it almost feels as if he’s glaring at me. I choose the chair that faces in the opposite direction. Better to have Mr MacCreepy at my back than staring me in the face throughout my first meeting.
“I’m Scarlett Radcliffe, the Principal here at St. Margaret College at the University of Oxford. I’m really pleased to welcome you to our team.”
“This is an incredible opportunity, particularly for someone my age. I’m thrilled to be here.” My eyes are bright with genuine enthusiasm.
Dr Radcliffe settles into her padded leather chair. “When your predecessor, Lillian, announced her retirement, we didn’t know how we’d ever find someone who could work her magic in planning our ceremonies and events. Before she left, Lillian assured us you are more than competent for the job.” Pausing, she leans in my direction, “Did you know that Lillian was only 30 when she took on the role? I imagine you reminded her of herself.”
Dr Radcliffe digs around on her desk before coming up with a familiar looking document. “I’m ashamed to say I’ve had little time to review your CV, despite Harry continually moving it to the top of my pile. Would you mind talking me through it? It will help me learn more about you, which will be useful later when Harry quizzes me on our catch-up.”
I clear my throat and drive into my career highlights. “Although my CV covers my professional experience, my passion for events started much earlier. I’ve been planning my birthday parties since I was out of nappies. My mother let me help with her charity events in my teens, and by the time I headed off to uni, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up.”
I pause for a breath before continuing. “I stayed near home, attending City, University of London where I studied Business and Marketing. From there, they offered me an internship at Disneyland Paris. It was a dream come true to work behind the scenes at the park. No one in the world is better at event planning. I learned so much from seeing first hand the tricks they used to make it look like things happen by magic.”
Dr Radcliffe leans over her desk, her head resting on her hand, engrossed in my story. “I’ve experienced the magic of Disney myself. I can imagine a lot of work goes into planning their events. When did you come back to the UK?”
“I stayed at Disney for a year and a half. I had the chance of taking a full-time role in Orlando, but I wasn’t up for moving that far away. Paris was adventure enough. I found a job with a corporate events agency in London and spent the last few years there.”
“And now Oxford.” Dr Radcliffe eyes me before nodding. “You’ll fit right in, plenty of former London diehards here in the area. Everyone moves up here to raise their families, trying to escape the London house prices. Not much of a discount anymore, I’m afraid. But nothing for you to worry about now, you’re welcome to stay here in the college for the next six months. Is anyone joining you?”
“No family for me, just myself. I’m dedicated to my job.”
Dr Radcliffe smiles, “Much like our grad students and junior professors. So many of them are single that I’ve stopped offering a plus one on my dinner invitations.”
I straighten up in my seat, trying to brush off the feeling that the old portrait is huffing his disapproval onto the back of my neck. I am a confident, grown woman, and I don’t need a man to feel complete. Jumping ahead, I shift the conversation. “It’s incredibly generous of the college to put me up for so long. I am sure the house will be perfect, if what I’ve seen so far is any sign.”
The college fills an entire city block with a mix of hundred-year-old Edwardian buildings and modern halls tucked away behind a tall, wrought-iron fence. Each building is named for an earlier benefactor or notable college fellow, the halls hung with ageing portraits and commemorative plaques. I felt like I was stepping back a century when I walked in the front door. Only the sheer history of Oxford keeps the elements of modern technology from reminding me I’m still in the 21st century.
Dr Radcliffe rises from her chair, inviting me to follow. “I appreciate you stopping by to introduce yourself. I’m sure you want to unpack, so I won’t keep you long. Harry will get you a set of keys and show you to the flat. Shall we meet back here tomorrow morning, say 7am? I know it’s early, but I have an all-day meeting I can’t postpone.”
I pick up my bag and follow. “That’s fine. I’m an early riser. I’d love a proper tour, and then to meet the key staff.”
“Perfect. Do you have any other questions before you head off?”
I mull over whether it is appropriate to ask about the angry staff member or not. Better to know if she’s someone important so I can start strategising on how to win her over.
“The key staff members, do they include the woman who stomped her way out of here?”
Dr Radcliffe chuckles and nods her head. “Unfortunately, yes. Mrs Smythe will be someone you can’t avoid. As you must have overheard, she’s the head chef here. In fact, she’s one of the top chefs in the country, as she often reminds us. We have to fall in line with her demands, regardless of whether they are rational or even palatable. The other colleges here in Oxford keep trying to lure her away.”
I smile at her candour and reassure her, “There’s one in every bunch, even at Disney. I’m sure I can find a common interest to connect with her.”
“We’ll be very impressed if you do. Good night, Ms Payne.”
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