The deliciously twisty twenty-fifth novel in the much-loved Libby Sarjeant audiobook series by Lesley Cookman.
Praise for Lesley Cookman:
'With fascinating characters and an intriguing plot, this is a real page turner' KATIE FFORDE
'Lesley Cookman is the Queen of Cosy Crime' PAUL MAGRS
'I've read all of the books in this series and love them all' 5* Reader Review
'Just can't get enough of reading about Libby and her friends' 5* Reader Review
'Libby's gang are like old friends and I was hooked from the start' 5* Reader Review
'Love this series, roll on the next one!' 5* Reader Review
'I adore the characters and the village. I wish I could live on All Hallows Lane and be a part of this gang. Hoping for a new novel soon. Highly recommend' 5* Reader Review
'The characters are so likeable. I would love to visit the mythical Steeple Martin!' 5* Reader Review
(P)2023 Headline Publishing Group Ltd
Release date: September 7, 2023
Print pages: 288
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Murder in Autumn
This part of Kent, practically London, she thought, was unfamiliar. She consulted the map again and peered out of the windscreen. Yes – there was the sign: ‘Ashbury’. She felt an unfamiliar sinking somewhere in her insides and sighed. Checking behind her, she put the car in gear and set off again. Ten minutes later, she was pulling up outside Pendlebury Lodge, a self-important-looking Victorian building. A bit like its owner.
‘Constance! How lovely to see you.’
‘Libby. You’re late.’ The short, grey-haired woman leaning on a silver-headed stick stepped back from Libby’s attempted kiss. ‘Come in and collect my bags.’
Libby rolled her eyes. ‘No “hello, Libby, good of you to come and collect me?” or even a smile?’
The woman called Constance raised her eyebrows. ‘Why? How else would I get to Steeple Martin?’
‘Train, perhaps?’ muttered Libby, following her down the dark hallway.
Constance Matthews indicated two suitcases and retrieved a coat and handbag from a chair. ‘Come along then. Let’s not waste any more time.’
Libby managed to lift the two cases. ‘How long are you staying?’ she grunted. ‘I thought you were just coming down to see the performance?’
‘All that way just for one night?’ Constance led the way back to the front door. ‘Of course not.’
‘Where are you staying?’ asked Libby, as they emerged into the daylight again.
‘With you.’ Constance looked surprised.
Libby dropped the suitcases. ‘With me? But I don’t have room!’
‘What do you mean, you don’t have room?’ Constance’s face assumed the icy expression Libby remembered of old.
‘I only have two bedrooms, and my cottage is tiny,’ she said.
‘One for you and one for me.’ Constance turned to the car.
‘No, Constance. One for me and my partner, Ben, and one for friends who are also coming to the performance.’ Libby stood back, hands on hips. ‘We booked you a room – for one night – at our local pub.’
‘Pub?’ Now Constance’s voice was glacial.
‘It’s a hotel, actually,’ Libby hastened to correct herself. ‘Very good food.’
‘What are you talking about?’ Constance tried to wrench open the car door. ‘I am staying with you. I do not eat pub food.’
Libby sighed with exasperation. ‘In that case, Constance, I’ve had a wasted journey.’
‘What do you mean?’ Constance was now looking less sure of herself.
‘If, when you asked me if you could come and see Much Ado About Nothing, you had asked if you could stay with me, I would have said unfortunately not. And I would have saved myself a journey through Kent.’ She picked up one of the cases and returned it to the doorstep.
‘All right,’ Constance snapped. ‘You’ll have to wait while I unpack a few things, then.’ She marched back to the front door and unlocked it, not waiting for Libby, who, with a resigned sigh, manoeuvred the cases back into the hall before returning to sit in her car. Blowed if she was going to heave the damn things back to wherever Constance wanted them.
She should have known, she reflected. Constance Matthews had always been the same, imperious and uncaring of anyone else’s feelings. A bloody good director when Libby had been on the professional stage, though, but that had strengthened her power complex. And now she was coming back to the car carrying only her handbag and a small dressing case. She paused as if waiting for Libby to get out of the car and open the door for her, but, when she didn’t, opened it for herself and made a petulant performance of climbing in.
‘But why has she suddenly got in touch with you after all these years?’ Ben had asked.
‘The Glovers’ Men,’ Libby explained. ‘She wants to see Shakespeare performed as it was originally, by men. And that’s what the Glover’s Men do, isn’t it?’
‘But why you? Why here? There are lots of other venues on their tour.’
‘Somehow or other she’s found out that I – or we – run the theatre and she wants a free ticket and access to the company. How she knew where I lived heaven only knows.’
So here they were in Libby’s little car, driving back down the M2 to Steeple Martin.
‘How did you find me?’ Libby asked.
‘Social media,’ came the sharp reply.
‘Really?’ Libby was surprised. It was like the King admitting to using TikTok.
‘Looked up tour dates in Kent and had a look at both venues. You were mentioned.’
‘I see. And you got my number from directory enquiries?’
Libby risked a quick look sideways. Constance was staring through the windscreen, her mouth set in a straight line.
‘Suppose I’d said no?’ Which I should have done, Libby thought.
‘You didn’t.’ Constance turned her head to look out of the side window. Libby gave up.
It still didn’t quite explain it, Libby thought. Would directory enquiries have a number for Libby Sarjeant, Steeple Martin? Without a street address? She could have understood it if the original contact had been via the Oast Theatre, but the call had come to Libby’s landline. She scowled out at the road ahead.
‘I gather the Glover’s Men have performed at your theatre before?’ Constance’s clipped tones cut through her thoughts.
‘Twice,’ said Libby. ‘Twelfth Night and the Dream.’
‘Are they good?’
Libby risked a surprised glance at her passenger. ‘Of course they are! They’re part of National Shakespeare.’ She looked back at the road. ‘And that is, after all, the foremost Shakespeare company in the country.’
Constance sniffed. ‘No guarantee.’
Libby sighed. It was going to be a long journey.
Just over an hour later, Libby stopped the car outside the Coach and Horses in Steeple Martin’s high street. As she clambered out, she spotted a familiar figure about to cross the road towards her.
‘Libby!’ The Reverend Beth Cole beamed at her. ‘Looking forward to tonight?’
Libby made a face and jerked her head backwards. Beth’s eyebrows rose.
‘Yes, we’re all looking forward to it,’ Libby said out loud. ‘I just have to see my friend into the . . . er – hotel.’
‘Ah.’ Beth stepped backwards as Libby walked round the car and opened the passenger door.
‘About time,’ muttered Constance as Libby retrieved the dressing case from the footwell and stood holding the door open.
‘Can I help?’ Beth’s friendly face appeared behind Libby’s shoulder.
Constance looked up. ‘No thank you,’ she said coldly.
Beth, unperturbed, stepped back. ‘I’ll see you later, then, Libby,’ she said. ‘Good luck.’
Libby glared at Constance, picked up the dressing case and went to open the door into the pub, leaving her passenger to climb out on her own. ‘Bloody woman,’ she said under her breath.
Tim, the Coach and Horses’ landlord, appeared, smiling broadly. ‘Welcome!’ he said, as Constance pushed her way through the door and past Libby. He looked startled.
‘This,’ said Libby, preparing to follow, ‘is Constance Matthews.’ She made a face.
Tim grinned. ‘May I take your bag, madam?’ he said, and relieved Libby of the dressing case, parking it just inside the door.
Constance turned to face them from just inside the small bar.
‘Where is my room?’ she demanded.
‘I’ll show you,’ said Tim, waving a hospitable hand. ‘This way.’
‘Libby can show me.’ Constance stayed put. So did Libby.
‘This is not my hotel, Constance,’ she said, folding her arms. ‘Tim is your host.’
‘As you have palmed me off on someone else, the least you can do is show me where I am to sleep.’ Constance glared at both Libby and Tim, then turned her back.
Libby gave Tim a helpless shrug. ‘Stop behaving like a child, Connie Matthews,’ she said. ‘You aren’t my director now – in fact you’re not anyone’s director now. I’ll show you to your room and I’ll be back later to take you up to the theatre – and meanwhile, keep a civil tongue in your head.’
Taking Constance by the arm, Libby marched her past an open-mouthed Tim and up the stairs. In silence, she opened the door to room three, which overlooked the pub garden and the green between it and the theatre.
‘There,’ she said. ‘I hope you’ll be comfortable, and that you enjoy your dinner.’
She gave a tight smile, turned and went back down the stairs.
‘Well!’ said Tim, as she reached the bottom. ‘What a rude old cow!’
Libby giggled. ‘Me or her?’
‘She thought she was coming to stay with me for a few days.’ Libby sighed. ‘She wasn’t pleased to find that she wasn’t.’ She spotted the dressing case. ‘I’d better take this up.’
‘Leave it, I’ll do it,’ said Tim. ‘Want a stiffener before you go?’
‘I’d better not,’ said Libby with a sigh. ‘Lots to do before tonight.’
‘Everything sorted up at the theatre? Got their stage rigged up and everything?’
The Glover’s Men performed on a replica of an Elizabethan booth stage on the Oast Theatre’s normal stage, which added another note of authenticity to their performances.
‘Yes, and they’re all settled in at the Manor, except for the two you’ve got here. How are they, by the way?’
Ben’s mother Hetty still lived in his family home, the Manor, which had been converted into an upmarket bed and breakfast, and handily stood next to the theatre. The cast and technicians of the company were lodged there, while the director and his assistant were staying at the Coach and Horses.
‘Oh, they’re fine,’ said Tim. ‘I just hope they don’t run up against Madam up there.’
‘Gawd ’elp us!’ groaned Libby and shook her head. ‘Oh, well. I’d better get on. I’ll see you later.’
Libby drove round the corner into Allhallow’s Lane and parked opposite Number 17. As soon as she got inside, tripping over Sidney the silver tabby on her way, she pulled out her mobile and went to put the kettle on.
‘And tomorrow I’ll have to drive her back home again,’ she concluded to her friend Fran Wolfe, ‘and no doubt listen to complaints all the way there about the Coach, the production, the theatre . . .’
‘Perhaps she’ll want to stay on for a day or so – after all, she thought she was going to – and then you can plead previous engagements.’
‘I can’t see her wanting to stay on,’ said Libby gloomily. ‘Not after today’s performance.’
‘Well, at least you don’t have to sit with her in the auditorium tonight,’ said Fran. ‘You haven’t put her with us, have you?’
Fran and her husband Guy were coming to see tonight’s performance, and, as Libby had told Constance, were to stay overnight at Number 17.
‘No, of course not. She’s end of row C, so she can make a quick getaway if she needs to.’
‘Why would she need to? I know she had a bit of reputation as a tartar and she’s obviously not mellowed, but would she walk out?’
‘Quite possibly,’ said Libby. ‘I just hope she doesn’t get into a row with the company. They’re such nice lads.’
‘Hark at you, Grandma!’ Fran was laughing.
‘Well, they are. And we’re so proud to have them here. It’s amazing that they keep coming back after that first time. And especially nice that Oliver Marcus is in the cast, too.’
In fact, it was the third time the Glover’s Men had performed at the Oast Theatre. The first had been not long after the troupe’s formation, with an acclaimed production of Twelfth Night, which had been somewhat marred by a murder. Oliver Marcus, who was playing Benedick in the new production, had first come to the theatre many years ago with a troubled production of The Second Mrs Tanqueray, which in fact hadn’t gone ahead, and the second visit of the Glover’s Men had brought A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which had been happily unclouded. Libby hoped Much Ado would be similarly untroubled.
‘They come back because they love the theatre and they love staying with Hetty,’ said Fran. ‘Now, go on and start getting yourself organised for tonight. We’ll see you in the bar.’
Libby would be on duty tonight as house manager, looking after the audience, while Ben would be on hand backstage in case he, as resident stage manager, was needed. And Libby fervently hoped that neither of them would be needed for anything more than a spot of metaphorical hand-holding.
She sighed, put down her phone and went to start an early dinner.
‘Why didn’t you tell me you were hoping to stay with me when you first called?’ Libby held the pub door open for Constance, who had been waiting on a chair at the foot of the stairs.
‘I didn’t think I had to.’ Constance wouldn’t look at her. ‘And why didn’t you tell me you’d booked me into . . .’ she floundered for a moment ‘. . . to this place?’
‘Well, I hadn’t then, had I?’ said Libby, surprised. ‘I assumed you wanted me to book you in somewhere, so I did. I’m sorry we were at cross purposes.’
‘Hmm,’ said Constance, still not looking at her. ‘Food isn’t bad, though,’ she reluctantly admitted after a pause.
‘I’ll tell the chef,’ said Libby, with a private grin.
They turned into the Manor’s drive.
‘So you and this Ben own the theatre?’ Constance waved her stick in the air.
‘Ben and his mother do. It was an oast house, and Ben had it converted. He’s an architect – or was, until he retired. And he, his cousin Peter and I are now on the board of the Oast Theatre Trust.’ Libby looked sideways at Constance. ‘I’m still surprised that you knew about us.’
A small, almost sly smile flitted across the older woman’s face, but she made no reply.
They were now approaching the forecourt of both the theatre and the Manor. Several cars were parked to the side of the theatre, and the big double doors stood open. Libby ushered Constance inside.
‘I’ll have to leave you now,’ she said, pulling forward one of the white-painted wrought-iron chairs. ‘I’m house manager tonight. Can I get you a drink?’
‘A decent white,’ said Constance, seating herself gingerly.
‘Yes, ma’am,’ muttered Libby.
The foyer began to fill up and Libby was kept busy greeting audience members. Fran and Guy arrived and tucked themselves away at the end of the bar, manned tonight by Ben’s cousin Peter and another member of the Oast’s semi-permanent company. Libby dutifully checked in with Constance every so often, and diplomatically pointed her towards the toilets before the five-minute bell sounded. No one had been allowed into the auditorium until then, to allow the full impact of the booth stage to burst upon the audience, who, as they had done on previous visits by the Glover’s Men, erupted into spontaneous applause. Constance didn’t.
Libby had watched the company in rehearsal the day before, and was therefore prepared for the surprise that was coming for the audience, and which had somehow been kept out of the press during the tour so far. From her seat just inside the auditorium door, she hugged herself in anticipation as Don Pedro asked Balthasar for ‘a good song’. She almost held her breath as Balthasar self-deprecatingly replied that he was an ‘ill singer’ and then, accompanied by a lute-player, began to sing.
There was an audible collective gasp from the audience, as the actor, in a perfect, clear soprano, exhorted his audience to ‘Sigh no more, ladies.’
By the end of the song the audience, on stage and off, was on its feet, and Libby didn’t think she’d ever heard such a rapturous reception. Except for Constance.
‘Who’s the old lady who doesn’t like it?’ a voice whispered in Libby’s ear. ‘She came in with you, didn’t she?’
Hereward Fisher, director of the Glover’s Men, stood behind her.
‘She’s a retired director,’ Libby whispered back. ‘Very old school.’
‘Oh, yes! And don’t you forget it!’ Libby sent him a quick grin and returned her attention to the stage.
Libby was almost unsurprised when she didn’t see Constance in the foyer bar during the interval, but wasted little time either wondering or searching for her. The rest of the audience members were full of praise for both Balthasar and the production as a whole and she was kept happily busy with them. She did notice that Constance was in her seat for the rest of the performance, and was very obviously waiting for her at the end, arms crossed firmly under her bust and a formidable expression on her face. Libby sighed and, once she’d made sure that the auditorium was empty, made her way across the foyer.
‘I want to meet the director,’ said Constance. ‘One does not play around with Shakespeare like that.’
‘Eh?’ Libby frowned. ‘But I thought you’d be impressed! It’s as near as possible to how an original performance would have been.’
‘With a woman in it? I thought it was supposed to be all male?’
Libby’s mouth dropped open and the penny dropped.
‘You mean Balthasar?’ She couldn’t help laughing. ‘That’s the very male Freddie Cannon – and he’s a male soprano. Surely you could tell he was a man?’
Constance looked even more aggrieved and angry. ‘No such thing,’ she snapped.
Libby sighed. ‘What about the castrati? Not quite the same thing, of course . . .’
‘Cut his balls off, did they?’ Constance was now glowering at the members of the audience who were watching in puzzlement as her voice had risen. Libby tried to take her by the arm.
‘Come on,’ she said. ‘I’ll see you back to the pub.’
‘I want to make a complaint!’ hissed Constance.
‘Oh, stop being ridiculous,’ said Libby, losing patience. ‘I’ve registered your complaint, and quite frankly you’re not welcome here.’
‘Need a hand, Libby?’ Fran and Guy appeared either side of Constance and Libby breathed a sigh of relief.
‘I think Constance wants to go back to the Coach,’ she said.
‘We’ll take her,’ said Guy, giving Constance a smile.
‘No thank you.’ Constance’s voice was icy. ‘Libby will take me.’
Libby shook her head in defeat. ‘I’d better,’ she said. ‘Can you tell Pete and Ben for me in case I’m not back before we lock up?’
Fran nodded and stepped back, head on one side. ‘I think you’re an extremely rude old woman,’ she said to Constance. ‘Come on, Guy.’
Grinning, Libby hurried her charge out of the building.
Constance’s grumbles lasted all the way down the Manor drive, varying from ‘I’ve never been so insulted,’ to ‘Amateurish, sensationalist rubbish,’ and ‘Uncomfortable seats.’ By the time Libby deposited her inside the Coach and Horses, she’d fallen silent, merely offering Libby a grunt as she disappeared up the stairs.
‘Didn’t like it, eh?’ Tim emerged from the bar, eyebrows raised.
‘No,’ said Libby. ‘And the main reason I’m not going to tell you about, because you’re coming to see it, aren’t you?’
‘Don’t want to spoil the surprise?’ said Tim, with a grin.
‘What do you know about it?’ asked Libby suspiciously.
‘I’ve got young Hereward staying here, haven’t I? Can’t expect to keep it quiet.’ Tim glanced up the stairs. ‘But I wonder why she’s being like that?’
‘Actually, I feel a bit sorry for her,’ said Libby. ‘She’s no longer a big noise in the theatre – not that she was ever that big, but she was quite well known – and the world has changed a lot. Her world has changed.’ She paused. ‘And it wouldn’t surprise me if she wasn’t in the early stages . . .’
‘Of dementia?’ supplied Tim.
Libby nodded. ‘Oh, well. I’ll pick her up tomorrow, Tim. I hope she’s no trouble till then.’
Back at the theatre, the crowd had thinned considerably, but Fran and Guy were still at the bar talking to Peter and Ben, who had emerged from backstage. The cast were going straight back to the Manor, where Hetty had given them the use of the big sitting room.
Libby repeated her thoughts about Constance while Peter poured her a glass of Prosecco.
‘Such a shame, though,’ she said with a sigh. ‘It’s quite taken the shine off.’
‘At least she didn’t manage to upset the cast,’ said Peter, lifting his own glass. ‘Cheers.’
The following morning, however, Peter was proved wrong.
Fran and Guy had already left for Nethergate when Libby answered her mobile while drinking her second cup of tea at the kitchen table.
‘Libby!’ Hereward’s voice exploded in her ear. ‘That woman!’
Libby didn’t need to ask what woman. ‘What’s she done?’ she asked resignedly.
‘Put it all over Twitter! That’s what she’s done!’
Libby’s stomach lurched. Surely not? She stood up and went into the sitting room to open her laptop. And there it was. And, of course, it had spread, although it hadn’t altogether gone viral.
‘Can you sue her?’ she asked doubtfully.
‘Hardly worth it, is it? It’s out there now.’ Hereward sounded defeated.
They both fell silent.
‘I’m so sorry, Hereward,’ said Libby at last.
‘It isn’t your fault, Libby. She asked you to bring her, didn’t she? She would have seen us somehow, even if you hadn’t been kind enough to drive her down.’ Hereward sighed. ‘Oh, well, you know what they say?’
‘No publicity’s bad publicity,’ they chorused.
The truth of this hackneyed cliché was proven when Libby, Ben and Peter checked the online and phone messages for the theatre. The public were, it seemed, desperate to see the Glover’s Men – and, in particular, Freddie Cannon.
The three of them sat in Ben’s office at the Manor.
‘Have we got to call all these people back?’ said Libby, staring dolefully at the list in front of her.
‘We can record a message,’ said Peter. ‘The answer’s no to all of them, because we’re alre. . .
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