Birthdays Can Be Murder

Birthdays can be Murder:

A TRAVELLING COOK MYSTERY

Joyce Cato

I
T WAS A
lovely spring dawn in deepest, rural England.

And in one particular garden, everything was awake and busy. Bees buzzed in the flowering cherry trees, birds patrolled the well-cut lawns for worms and grubs, and in a large, deep pond, ornamental carp checked the surface for flies and other tasty morsels.

The gently floating body of the young man in the water didn’t seem to bother them at all. Perhaps because he did nothing to disturb them, but simply floated placidly wherever the slight warm breezes took him. His short fair hair spread around his head like river weed and his wide blue eyes stared serenely at the azure sky above him.

He was, of course, quite dead.

A grey wagtail chinked up and down the bank of the attractive, lily-strewn pond, looking for a nesting site, while in the large, recently modernized country house a hundred yards away, its human inhabitants began to stir.

A little while later, a rather disreputable bicycle creaked its way up the sun-drenched drive as the old gardener arrived from the nearby village. He sighed as he parked the bike beside a brand new garden shed and looked around. There was nobody in sight, which meant that his temporary help was late, yet again.

And as he was soon to discover, ‘late’ was exactly the right word for him.

T
HE HOT MAY
sun shone down blithely on the green cornfields, lush water meadows, grazing cattle and scattered copses of Rousham Green. Jenny Starling turned her ancient cherry-red van onto the main village lane, but even with all the windows rolled down, she still felt uncomfortably flushed.

It was a Friday morning, and nearly everyone had deserted the small village for their daily commute to work. Only up at The Beeches were people still stirring at just gone 9.30 in the morning.

A white-haired man dressed in baggy trousers and a loose-fitting shirt looked up from his task of hoeing the weeds out of some rose beds as the bright little van came through the main gates, and he paused to watch it come towards him. Just beginning to rust in places, he could hear the engine protest as it went down into first gear and he wondered, with a grin, how on earth it had managed to pass its MOT.

As if reading his mind, the van’s exhaust gave a jaunty and defiant little backfire as it swept past him, and the gardener could just make out the driver – a woman with a shoulder-length cascade of jet-black hair – give a little grimace in response as it did so.

With a shrug, the man got back to work, wondering what someone driving such a disreputable-looking machine could want with the rich and rather supercilious inhabitants of the big house.

The lime and beech trees forming the avenue that led to The Beeches widened out into a spacious semicircle around the house itself, and as Jenny drove towards it, she spotted a gravelled area that she assumed was used as a car park. She stopped the car for a few moments to study the building, and decided that she rather approved of it. Square and simple in shape, it was almost certainly Georgian in date, with row upon row of large sash windows at the front. It was built of good solid Cotswold stone, glowing at the moment like clotted cream in the hot spring sunshine. There was pretty variegated ivy creeping along the south face, and a splendid Morning Glory was just beginning to bloom over the classical pillared porch.

She was beginning to look forward to catering the big dual birthday party that was to be held here this weekend. But then, cooking always made her feel happy.

She pulled up and parked under the shade of a nearby lime tree, turned off the engine, and stepped out.

Jenny was six feet and one inch tall, with a heavy bone structure that was well padded, and curvaceous in many places. Men tended to be either fascinated by her or terrified – or occasionally both. Jenny had become rather adept at cherry-picking the fascinated ones over the years, but had been careful to remain resolutely single. Marriage and motherhood, as yet, held no appeal for her.

The gardener, who’d followed the van’s progress to the house, now leaned on his hoe and whistled appreciatively at the Junoesque vision that emerged from the unpromising-looking vehicle. The day was just getting weirder and weirder, the old man mused silently. First of all finding the poor lad dead like that in the pond. Then the coppers coming. And now the appearance of this eye-catching woman. He shook his head and began his weeding again. It just went to show, he thought philosophically, that you never knew what life was going to throw at you.

Jenny Starling habitually marched, rather than walked, and now she moved rapidly towards the big oak doors, her comfortable trainers making rhythmic scrunching noises on the gravel. The noise sent some grey squirrels, searching for beech mast on the grass, scampering for cover into the branches above, and she could hear them chattering at her angrily as she headed for the elegant rounded steps leading to the front door.

Unsure whether or not to go around to the back, she found and pulled the old-fashioned wrought-iron chain and hoped for the best. Employers could be an odd bunch, as she’d discovered during her life as a travelling cook. And she wasn’t sure if the inhabitants of this splendid house were old money or new. She herself had no prejudices about that either way, so long as they didn’t look down their noses at her. If there was one thing Jenny Starling hated, it was working for snobs. Those, and militant vegetarians.

She seemed to wait a very long time for a response, and was just about to give the bell chain another tug when the door was suddenly opened, and a six-foot-tall, stoop-shouldered individual with a fine crop of silver hair looked back at her, blank-faced. He was dressed in a dark blue suit, discreet tie, and actually wore white gloves.

Ye gods, Jenny thought in utter dismay, a real-life butler! She’d thought the species to be all but extinct in this day and age.

The butler, for his part, was slowly looking her over, his eyes gradually widening in surprise. Today Jenny was wearing a calf-length loose floral skirt that was maybe a little bit creased and a crisp, white blouse and very little make-up. She looked, she knew, perfectly respectable. It was just the fact that there was so much of her that had this paragon of implacability so nonplussed. Since it was a reaction she had become used to over the years, she didn’t take offence.

But he was also, Jenny realized with a sharpening of interest in her periwinkle blue eyes, somewhat distracted.

‘Yes?’ he said at last, and his voice was not encouraging. He sounded as if he expected her to try and sell him patio sliding doors, or convert him to some weird and wonderful sect of Christianity.

‘I’m Jenny Starling,’ Jenny said simply, and waited. Despite their rarity, she was not afraid of handling butlers. In fact, there was very little that tended to scare her. Except perhaps militant vegetarians.

At last, in the lengthening silence, the butler was forced to speak. ‘Oh yes. The cook.’ He sniffed. ‘The tradesman’s entrance is around the back. I’m Mr Chase, the Greers’ butler.’

Jenny gave an inner sigh. ‘I am
not
the cook,’ she corrected him, patiently. ‘I have merely agreed to cater for the upcoming birthday party of a Miss Alicia Greer and her twin brother. She is in, I take it, Chase? I do have an appointment.’ And, she allowed her voice to imply, she didn’t like to be kept waiting.

The butler was so surprised by this full-frontal and totally unexpected attack that he forgot himself so far as to actually blink. However, he quickly recovered. ‘Certainly, Miss Starling,’ he agreed, his voice every whit as neutral as hers but his behaviour shifting just ever so slightly towards dumb insolence. ‘Miss Greer is, of course, expecting you. There, er, may be some delay, however,’ he added reluctantly, and again Jenny had a sense that something was not quite as it should be at The Beeches.

She’d always been very good at picking up nuances. Ever since childhood she’d been blessed with a razor-sharp mind but also – thankfully – a much more sympathetic heart to counter-balance it. This unusual combination had allowed her, over the years, to become one of those people who could pick up on the tiniest little clues in people’s behaviour and thus read them accurately. And, from her early twenties onwards, friends and family had often turned to her in times of crises. Sometimes, they even actually listened to her advice, which was invariably solid if not always particularly welcome.

Now she crossed the threshold into a hall that was a haven of coolness and tradition, and hoped that whatever the problem was here, she wouldn’t be required to mess with it.

Black and white tiles spread across the floor to a large wooden staircase, and a genuinely old grandfather clock ticked ponderously in one corner. On a pedestal table between two doorways stood a freshly arranged vase of irises and sweet Williams. It all looked very staged to her, as if someone had been studying photographs in
Homes & Gardens
to see just how high-class country living should be managed, and she felt herself sigh inwardly.

Although she was a one-woman crusade for real food, Jenny got the distinct feeling that she wasn’t going to find many aficionados of it here at The Beeches. She simply knew, without having to ask, that what the Greers would require for their festivities would be all flash and very little content. No doubt based on what the latest ‘in’ celebrity chef was cooking on the BBC. Or, if they were very daring, Channel 5.

But she would soon work her way around
that
!

‘I’ll inform Miss Greer of your arrival,’ the butler assured her and shuffled off. Jenny waited patiently, glad of the coolness in the hall. Presently there came the sound of footsteps, unmistakably feminine, clacking their way down the long tiled corridor that led into the rest of the house, and Jenny turned to meet her employer.

With soft blonde hair cut into a very designer pageboy revival, the woman walking towards her was one of the loveliest Jenny had seen in a long while. As slender as a supermodel, she was dressed in an exorbitantly expensive white sheath that was not quite see-through. Perfectly tanned, she wore white strappy sandals and a delicate single pearl drop on a long silver chain. Her pointed, gamine face was expertly made up, even at ten in the morning.

‘Miss Greer? I’m Jenny Starling. Your caterer,’ she introduced herself firmly, holding out her hand. ‘You live in a wonderful house. I’m not surprised you wanted to hold your party here. I can’t imagine there’s a hotel or venue for miles around that can match it,’ she added pleasantly.

Alicia Greer, who had been staring at her with wide, pale blue eyes, made an obvious effort at politeness, and quickly proffered her own slender white hand. The two women shook hands warily.

‘Miss Starling,’ Alicia Greer said, absolutely refusing to call her Jenny. ‘I’m so glad you could come. I’ve been in such a damned flap about this party, you wouldn’t believe it,’ she carried on, trying not to stare at this huge woman in front of her. ‘Mum and Dad have insisted on making it such a big thing, and now all this has happened.’ She fluttered one hand helplessly in the air.

Jenny raised one dark eyebrow. ‘All this?’ she repeated gently. All this what? she wondered.

Alicia smiled tremulously. ‘I’m sorry, Miss Starling, you’ve rather caught us at a bad time, I’m afraid. There’s been an awful accident here, you see.’

Jenny hoped the kitchen hadn’t caught fire. In her time she’d cooked in some adverse conditions, but that was her worst nightmare. ‘Oh? Nothing too serious, I hope?’ she asked, with an ingenuous smile. Jenny, so she’d been told, had rather a good line in ingenuous smiles.

But Alicia Greer wasn’t about to be bested. ‘Someone has drowned,’ she said flatly. ‘We have the police all over the place, I’m afraid.’

Jenny just about managed to stop her mouth from falling open, but her heart did a nasty downward slide. ‘Oh,’ she said, somewhat inadequately, and hid a sudden shudder that threatened to overtake her. Holding a party in a house where tragedy has just struck didn’t seem to her to be a very good idea.

‘How sad,’ she said inadequately, once it was obvious that Alicia wasn’t about to elucidate. ‘Well.’ She rubbed her large but shapely hands together and looked at the younger woman questioningly.

‘Oh, yes, sorry.’ Alicia responded to the hint at once. ‘Please, come into the study and I’ll go through things with you.’ She led Jenny into a library decked out in rich oak panelling that boasted a wonderful, if old, oriental carpet. Jenny was even more pleased to note the generously sized, button leather armchairs. Jenny, being the size she was, had to be very careful of the chairs she sat in.

‘Mum’s hired a party co-ordinator, of course,’ Alicia said, taking a seat and indicating the armchair opposite with a polite smile. ‘And Daddy’s so old-fashioned, he’s insisting on a champagne pyramid, can you believe it? Mind you, I can’t resist sticking my oar in occasionally, if only to cause mischief,’ she added, so obviously trying to get a handle on her caterer that Jenny almost felt sorry for her.

What she really wanted Jenny to know, of course, was that her daddy was so rich he could afford party organizers and the best of everything. And that she wanted a caterer able to keep up.

What Alicia would say if Jenny was to tell her that her own father could probably buy out the Greers twenty times over, Jenny couldn’t be bothered to find out.

‘It was a friend of a friend who recommended you to me,’ Alicia carried on, watching the Amazonian cook with a kind of fascinated repulsion. For all her life, Alicia had had Mrs Wallis Simpson’s philosophy drummed into her that a woman couldn’t be too thin or too rich. Now, here she was, face to face with society’s worst nightmare – a size eighteen woman – and she hadn’t a clue how to treat her. For a start, instead of giving out an apologetic air, this woman seemed to radiate a confidence and imperviousness that Alicia found utterly disconcerting. Worse, she seemed to exude a kind of powerful sexuality that Alicia instinctively guessed men would find very compelling.

In spite of all the appearances to the contrary, Alicia sensed that this annoyingly, incongruously attractive woman could probably snap her fingers and have men come running. And it made Alicia dislike her intensely.

‘Would you like a drink, Miss Starling?’ she asked, smiling brightly.

Jenny’s smile widened just slightly. Those who knew her well would have recognized the glint of battle in her eye and been forewarned. ‘Oh, please, call me Jenny,’ she said silkily. Then, seeing the other woman twitch, added smoothly, ‘Oh, unless of course you prefer to be, er, more formal?’ the subtext plainly being that perhaps Alicia thought herself too high and mighty to be on a first-name basis with a mere hireling.

Naturally, Alicia wasn’t about to let her get away with that. ‘Oh, no, of course not. Jenny it is. Would you like a cup of tea, Jenny?’

‘No thanks, it’s far too hot for that,’ Jenny said brightly. ‘But I’d love some lemonade, if you have any.’

Alicia smiled brightly. ‘Of course.’ She walked to the drinks cupboard and poured a cloudy liquid from a Tesco’s bottle that purported to be ‘real’ lemonade.

Jenny hid her sigh of resignation and accepted the glass. Well, she’d asked for it! But the first thing she’d do when she hit the kitchen was to make some proper cordial, she promised herself. She took a sip just to be polite and her tastebuds, connoisseurs every little darling one of them, shuddered at the onslaught of artificial flavourings.

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