Authors: Diana Killian
The smaller man spoke out of the side of his mouth in an aside to his partner who grew even more lugubrious.
Peter said with decision, “I’m going to the bar. Watch for their reaction.”
Sliding out of the booth, Peter made his way yet again to the crowded bar. He was a tall man, a man with presence; people edged out of his way. Mutt and Jeff noticed him immediately.
Their reaction was instantaneous. Mutt knocked over his ashtray. His gnomish face puckered like a perturbed monkey’s. He hissed a warning to his companion. Jeff, however, had already spotted Fox. He was staring, mouth ajar, eyes enormous.
Mutt muttered another something out of the corner of his mouth, tugging the bill of his tweed cap low. Jeff was already sidling out of his chair.
The door closed behind them just as Fox turned away from the bar.
“They’ve gone,” Grace informed him as he set their drinks down on the polished tabletop.
“Yes. Cheers, Esmerelda.” He touched his glass to hers.
“Queen of the Gypsies?” Grace bit back a laugh. Maybe it was the drinks but she felt as young and carefree as one of her own pupils. Adventurous. Not at all like the mature career woman she was. Suddenly she didn’t care that Mr. Peter Fox was apparently trying to get her drunk. She didn’t care that something fishy was going on. She didn’t care that Peter Fox was not what he seemed … not that she had quite worked out what he seemed.
“Your hair is quite lovely,” he informed her. “The color of firelight.” He seemed to be settling down to some routine flirtation. Grace was not so easily distracted.
“Do you know those men?”
“They know you.”
“It does look that way.”
“They were certainly surprised to see you alive and kicking.”
“Were they?” The subject appeared to have lost interest for Peter.
Grace considered her companion. “So, Peter, what is it that you do?”
I do a number of things.” And all of them quite well, his tone implied.
“For a living.” She somehow couldn’t imagine him working a nine to five job; perhaps he was independently wealthy.
Peter said vaguely, “A little of this, a little of that.” It wasn’t so much that he seemed rude as preoccupied.
Surprising herself, Grace persisted. “You live around here?” She would have liked to ask whether he was married, but there really was no way of asking that without sounding personally interested in the response.
His restless gaze lit briefly on her own. “Yes.” His eyes flickered. “No. That is, I live in South Cumbria.”
“Oh, South Cumbria!” Grace was enthusiastic. “I was hoping to stop by the Abbots Reading Farm Museum, but I understand that’s no longer open. But there’s still Levens Hall with its topiary garden. And Furness Abbey, of course.”
“And the Laurel and Hardy museum.”
She couldn’t tell from his tone whether he was mocking her or not.
“And bookshops!” she exclaimed. “Lots and lots of lovely bookshops. I’m almost afraid to give in to the temptation.”
He opened his mouth, seemed about to say something, then changed his mind.
“And it’s not just the books and the writers,” Grace went on, reaching for her glass once more. “The Lake District is famous for so many things. Um, Carr’s Biscuits, Kendal Mint Cake, Grasmere gingerbread.”
“Would you like me to order something to eat?” Peter offered. He glanced toward the bar.
Grace chuckled. “No, I had a wonderful dinner. People always say British food is so bland, but the beef is terrific!” She had another long draw on her Gypsy Queen. When she came up for air, Peter was eyeing her with that private amusement.
“Tasty stuff?” he suggested.
“Yes indeedy.” Grace thought perhaps she had better slow down, and replaced her glass on the table.
“Besides your traveling companion, have you friends in this country?”
“No. I don’t know anyone. Well, you. You and Monica.”
“And you’re staying how long?”
“Another …” Grace glanced at her watch. “Nine, no eight days. School starts the fifth, but we, the staff, I mean, have got to be back early to prepare.” This time she let herself drink from her glass.
Peter said lazily, “You know, the Chinese believe that when you save someone’s life you ever after become responsible for it.”
Grace choked on her drink.
A cautious turn toward her traveling alarm clock warned Grace that it was eight-thirty. She was to meet Peter for breakfast at nine. She tossed back the white comforter and climbed down from the four-poster bed, padding over to the dressing table.
“How’s Esmerelda, Queen of the Gypsies, this morning?” she asked her reflection.
The reflected Esmerelda looked Grace up and down critically. Medium height, womanly contours; Grace had the gift of so many American women: great skin and straight, white teeth. Her eyes were green and long lashed, but Grace considered her strong points to be her legs, which were long and shapely, and her hair, which was very long, auburn and naturally curly. Grace’s hair was the envy of her tenth graders; her legs, the envy of her twelfth. Even old Esmerelda could not fault these.
Frowning, she tried to remember how the night before had ended. Toward the bottom of the fourth Gypsy Queen things had gone a little fuzzy. One thing stood out in her mind: Peter had not been trying to seduce her. He had been charming and attentive; he had bought her drinks and paid her compliments, but nothing in his manner had suggested he wanted to know her more intimately.
In fact, as ridiculous as it seemed in the gray light of morning, it seemed to Grace that Peter, if anything, had been trying to … well, pump her for information.
Good luck to him if that was the case, Grace reflected. Unless Peter was a rival scholar planning to refute her thesis, he would have found last night’s conversation of little practical use. The more Grace drank, the more enthusiastically she had babbled about her dead poets, about literature and about the glories of the English countryside. Not that Peter hadn’t egged her on. He had asked all the right questions and listened attentively to her answers. He had laughed in all the right places, and made Grace laugh (too much) as well. By the time they had said good night, Peter Fox knew all there was to know about Grace Hollister. Grace knew nothing about Peter Fox.
Grabbing her sponge, bath gel and towel, she stepped out into the hallway. She still found it strange sharing a bath with other guests. It brought back memories of college dorm life, though she had discovered English plumbing to be more eccentric than American.
The plumbing at the Tinker’s Dam was no exception. Although the inn boasted a shower, a blast of scalding water drained away to a trickle. Muttering under her breath Grace fiddled with the knobs and was rewarded with a burst of ice-cold rain.
After the first shriek, she endured the cold wash, rinsing shampoo out of her hair as quickly as possible, teeth clenched.
A brisk towel down helped to restore circulation, and the cold water had taken care of her headache. Grace wriggled into coffee-colored jeans and an oversize cream sweater. Fastening her hair into a loose braid, she opened the door into the drafty hall.
At the far end of the hallway a room stood open. Grace could see that the bed was stripped. A maid was running a dust mop along the floorboards. The room was Peter Fox’s.
Slowly, Grace walked down the corridor.
“Excuse me.” And as the maid looked up inquiringly, “Has Mr. Fox checked out?”
“But … when?”
The maid looked surprised. “This morning, I suppose.”
“Do you know if he left any kind of message?”
“I couldn’t say.”
“We were supposed to have breakfast together.”
The maid looked doubtful. “You could ask downstairs at the desk, miss.”
But the word at the desk was no more reassuring.
“Left during the night,” Mrs. Tompkins, the comfortable wife of the innkeeper, informed Grace. “Bit funny really. Just packed up and left.”
“But his bill—”
“Oh, that’s all right,” the woman said easily. “He paid cash for the room.”
Mrs. Tompkins shrugged. “Some folks do.”
Wild improbabilities flitted through Grace’s mind: panicked flight, abduction, murder. Foul play, in short. But he paid for the room in advance, which probably meant he had planned to leave early anyway. She tried to remember whether they had made firm plans for breakfast or left it open. The shank of the evening was a little fuzzy. Still it was odd …
“Did Mr. Fox leave an address?”
“Oh, I don’t know about that, miss.”
In her best schoolmarm manner Grace said, “I
understand, but Mr. Fox fell and hit his head last night. I just want to make sure that he’s all right. It doesn’t sound as if he is. You know, wandering off in the middle of the night. He might have a concussion or something.”
“I’m sure it was nothing like that, miss.” But Mrs. Tompkins’ eyes slid uneasily toward the register book.
Grace tried to look as sincere and responsible as she knew how. The kind of woman parents entrusted with their impressionable daughters.
“We were supposed to have breakfast together,” she offered.
Mrs. Tompkins wavered. “As to that, you wouldn’t be the first lass stood up by a man,” she pronounced. “Alls the same, I can’t see what harm it would do. You two seemed cozy enough last evening.” She dragged over the register book, heavy with years of guests, and ran a work-worn finger down the page.
“Here we are. Mr. P. Fox, Craddock House, Innisdale Wood, Cumbria. Sounds familiar, that.”
“Sounds like a relation of Peter Rabbit,” muttered Grace, jotting down the address.
Stolidly, on cue, Mrs. Tompkins returned, “I wouldn’t know about that, miss.”
While Grace ate her breakfast of Irish oatmeal and boiled egg in a china cup she studied Peter Fox’s address. Having got hold of this information, she asked herself, what am I going to do with it?
As Mrs. Tompkins had tactfully pointed out, it wasn’t the first time in the history of man that one of them had skipped out on a date. If she could only be sure that they actually had made a plan to meet. Had the thing been left more casually than Grace remembered? There had been no need for Peter to suggest breakfast, let alone sneak off in the dead of night to avoid sharing it with Grace.
Last night had, thanks to the Gypsy Queens no doubt, a dreamlike remoteness, but Grace knew that she had not dreamed resuscitating Peter Fox. Someone—Mutt and Jeff?—had tried to kill him.
And sometime during the night Peter had disappeared.
Were the two things related?
Peter Fox might have disappeared for his own reasons. What those reasons might be, Grace couldn’t imagine, but then she really knew nothing about Peter Fox. She didn’t even know if he was married, although he didn’t wear a ring.
She did know that he had not seemed at all worried or afraid yesterday evening. She deduced that since he had not wanted the police involved last night, he would not appreciate her going to them now with vague suspicions and rash conjecture. Grace suspected that even if Peter
been kidnapped he probably wouldn’t want the police involved.
So that left two possibilities. Grace could either forget about Mr. P. Fox of Innisdale Wood, and continue her vacation, or she could try to reach him at home in West Cumbria.
Grace had still not made up her mind which course to follow when she checked out of the Tinker’s Dam and began driving once more. She found herself turning southwest, but she had wanted to see this part of the Lake District in any case, although it wasn’t actually on her itinerary. Two and a half weeks was not nearly long enough to spend, although Great Britain had looked so small on the maps in Monica’s living room that she had truly believed they could completely cover England and still have two days left for Scotland.
The best-laid plans, Grace reflected as the green fields and hedgerows of Kentmere fell behind in the rainy mist. The hamlet nestled in a valley that had once been under a lake. Decades earlier, the waters had been drained away to provide valuable grazing land. She passed herds of black-face sheep with curling horns and red markings on their shaggy coats. She passed the inevitable cyclist, one or two hikers, a few other cars.
The rented “mini” hugged the narrow winding road as Grace drove, windshield wipers keeping time to the Irish reels playing on the tape deck. Grace concentrated on shifting gears with her left hand. It had taken a while to get used to driving on the “wrong” side of the road in the wrong side of the car, but she had finally grown comfortable enough to appreciate the scenery as she steered.
Perhaps I could add an extra day or two in West Cumbria and give up Scotland, she thought, as the road sign advising the way to Hill Top, the farm once belonging to children’s author Beatrix Potter, flashed by. The car seemed to be of the same thought, because they were certainly headed south, although Grace still told herself she hadn’t made up her mind. Of course, were she to stick to her original plan, next on her agenda was Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but he had lived in Keswick, which lay to the north.
She comforted herself by the recollection that by the time Coleridge had moved to the Lake District, he was addicted to opium and his greatest poetical works lay behind him.
Aside from losing Monica to Love’s Young Dream Revisited it had been a great holiday, and after all, she and Monica had spent the first week together visiting Kew Gardens on the outskirts of London, the Geffrye Museum, and Charles Dickens’ house at 48 Doughty Street. Just as they had planned for the past fourteen months they had savored buttered crumpets and tea at the Maids of Honour, and tried out the sticky toffee pudding at Pophams. Best of all, on Saturday they had prowled the antique market at Portobello Road where Grace had picked up three etched glass apothecary bottles to keep bath salts in, and an eighteenth century tea chest made of rosewood and lined with green felt.
It was after this high point that they had hit Surrey, the literary southeast, where Monica had bumped literally into Professor Calum Bell who had once been her don at Oxford. After that Monica had not even shown interest in visiting Elizabeth Browning’s childhood home in Herefordshire—shocking when one considered that the Victorians were her period.
Not only was it lonely, it was a little awkward because Monica was the one who knew her way around Britain. Grace missed not having anyone to share her adventures with, but she felt she was managing pretty well. If Monica had been with her yesterday she probably would not have taken that twilight stroll, and Peter Fox would be dead, and Grace would have missed an entertaining evening. So perhaps things were working out for the best.
After stopping for a quick lunch at Lakeside Pier on the southern end of Windermere, Grace resumed driving. Despite the leaden skies, traffic was heavy through this popular holiday resort. Visitors piled in to see the Steamboat Museum and The World of Beatrix Potter, one of the ten most popular tourist attractions in the entire country. Grace was not fond of tourist attractions. She longed to see the Lake District known only to the local residents, not the guidebook’s recommendation for day-trippers and summer folk.
The silver water of England’s largest natural lake was dotted by boats of all kinds, including old-fashioned steamers chugging out toward the Victorian-styled village of Bowness-on-Windermere. That famous stretch of water, coursing through densely wooded banks and secluded islands, still functioned as a public waterway, just as it had been used since the days of the Romans.
There were at least two used bookshops in Bowness that Grace would have liked to visit. There really wasn’t a legitimate reason to be rushing along, ignoring breathtaking scenery and missing all these once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, and yet, Grace felt impelled to hurry.
It was nearing teatime when Grace spotted the van. Several miles back on the empty road, it gained quickly, the tires eating the miles between. As the van drew near it flashed its lights; the driver blasted his horn.
With drystone wall on one side and a steep embankment overlooking somber woods on the other, Grace had no choice but to step on the gas. Her speedometer climbed as the blue mini bounced along over the narrow, potholed road.
It had been a mistake to speed up. The van stayed right on her tail, lights flashing, horn blaring.
God help them if they met opposing traffic. The driver of the van had to be crazy, Grace thought, concentrating on keeping the mini under control. Up ahead it looked like there might be room to pull off where a dirt lane turned off into the woods.
The mini flew, rattling as it hit another missing chunk in the road. The van stuck to Grace’s bumper like glue. As Grace risked a peek in her rearview she glimpsed what appeared to be an old woman crouched over the van steering wheel. The woman’s long gray hair flew around wildly. Another lumpish figure sat beside her.
The van drew closer still, its black face filling the rear window of the mini. To Grace’s angry amazement she felt a tremendous bang as the van rammed the bumper of the mini. It was not a hard hit but the mini swerved, its left fender screeching horrendously as it scraped along the stone wall to the accompaniment of whirling Irish fiddles.
Grace wrenched the car back on course, trying not to panic as the van loomed behind her once more. Once again the van slammed into the mini’s bumper and she fought for control.