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Authors: Kate Kingsbury

Death Is in the Air

BOOK: Death Is in the Air
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

Death Is in the Air

 

A
Berkley
Book / published by arrangement with the author

 

All rights reserved.

Copyright ©
2001
by
Doreen Roberts Hight

This book may not be reproduced in whole or part, by mimeograph or any other means, without permission. Making or distributing electronic copies of this book constitutes copyright infringement and could subject the infringer to criminal and civil liability.

For information address:

The Berkley Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc.,

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

 

The Penguin Putnam Inc. World Wide Web site address is http://www.penguinputnam.com

 

ISBN:
0-7865-1590-2

 

A
Berkley
BOOK®

Berkley
Books first published by The Berkley Publishing Group, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc.,

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

Berkley
and the “
B
” design are trademarks belonging to Penguin Putnam Inc.

 

First edition (electronic): September 2001

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Grateful thanks to my wonderful editor, Judith Palais, without whose guidance and encouragement this series would not exist. Thank you for making me look good.

 

My thanks also to Ann Wraight, a resident of England and lifetime friend, for keeping the memories alive, and for supplying me with useful research material.

 

And to Bill, for being my best friend as well as my devoted husband. I could not do this without you.

CHAPTER
1

Lady Elizabeth Hartleigh Compton rarely visited the hairdresser’s. Normally she had Marlene Barnett come to the Manor House to tend to her hair, which grew uncommonly fast and was inclined to rage out of control whenever she rode her motorcycle into the village.

That morning, however, she’d been seized with an uncontrollable urge to have her hair trimmed immediately. When she’d called Marlene to make an appointment, the young woman had been most apologetic. Two of the hairdressers were home with a cold, and she was just too busy to come to the Manor House. Perhaps next week?

At first Elizabeth had considered asking her housekeeper to give her a trim. Violet made no secret of the fact that she cut her own hair, and at times had wielded a pair of scissors above the head of Martin, Elizabeth’s
aging butler, even though Martin had less than a dozen wisps to worry about.

Envisioning the way Violet’s frizzy gray mop sprouted from her head like a much-used scouring pad, Elizabeth had reluctantly accepted Marlene’s polite suggestion that she come down to the shop where she’d do her best to fit her in.

Seated in front of a badly speckled mirror, almost suffocated by a cloud of cigarette smoke, Elizabeth wondered why she’d been in such a hurry to get her hair cut. It was most inconvenient for the hairdressers to catch colds this early in September.

The peculiar chemical smell that pervaded the shop was revolting, and she wasn’t too thrilled about being drawn into the gossip being avidly exchanged between the rest of the customers. Especially since the most strident of the voices belonged to her archenemy, Rita Crumm.

Rita had always made her voice heard in the tiny village of Sitting Marsh. Since the advent of the Second World War, however, Rita had come into her own. She had made the war effort her own personal crusade and had rounded up enough gullible followers among the housewives in the village to form a sizable group, most of whom followed her orders with ill-advised enthusiasm.

Elizabeth was well aware that Rita was more intent on basking in the glory of her supervision than of actually achieving any worthwhile war effort. Not only that, she was using her self-appointed position of authority to usurp the lady of the manor, whom she considered unworthy of the title. It was no secret in Sitting Marsh that Elizabeth’s mother had been a kitchen maid until she’d caught the eye of the Earl of Wellsborough and married him. Adding fuel to the flames was the fact that Sitting Marsh’s new landlady belonged to that much maligned species, the divorcée.

Elizabeth winced as Rita’s harsh tones effectively cut
off the voice of the timid woman seated next to her. “Did you hear about the big fight down at the Tudor Arms last night? Alfie said they broke dozens of bottles and glasses. It’s a wonder someone didn’t get really hurt. Bloody Yanks should go back where they came from, that’s what I say.”

Marlene wound Rita’s mousy brown hair around the last metal curler and securely fastened it. “I don’t know why everyone complains about the Yanks so much. Now that they’ve taken over the airdrome here, there’s been more money spent in the village than in all the years I’ve been around. Look at the business Ted Wilkins is doing down at the pub! I bet he’s not complaining about the Yanks. The Tudor Arms never had it so good.”

Rita glared at the brazen hussy who’d dared to contradict her. “The money’s not doing Ted much good if he has to pay for the damage them Yanks do while they’re busy punching our army boys instead of the Germans.”

“I wouldn’t mind betting our boys started it. They’re blooming jealous of the Yanks, that’s why.” Marlene moved over to Elizabeth’s chair and draped an evil-smelling green cape around her shoulders. “Them Yanks have all the money and all the glamour, don’t they. No wonder all the girls are flocking around them. They make the British blokes look like pansies.”

“I noticed you haven’t wasted any time getting to know some of them,” Rita said, coloring her comment with a loud sniff.

Marlene grinned. “Of course I haven’t. I’d be really stupid not to go after them. They know how to treat a girl, don’t they?”

“Well, all I can say is, they should know how to keep themselves to themselves.” Rita sent a sly glance in Elizabeth’s direction. “Of course, that’s a little hard to do when some people are taking them into their own homes.”

Elizabeth tightened her lips. She’d held her tongue for
the last half hour. Her mother would have been proud of her. Her mother had always maintained that a still tongue dwells in a wise head. But conscious of the sheepish glances being sent her way, she felt compelled to defend herself against Rita’s criticism.

“It is somewhat difficult to refuse a direct request from the government to provide quarters for the American officers. One can hardly turn down the Ministry of War at a time like this, and after all, I have plenty of room at the manor. I’m happy to do what I can for the war effort.”

At the mention of the war effort, Rita’s chin shot up. Those words were like a trumpet call to her ears. “Well, we all have to do what we can these days, I’m sure. Though some of us have to make
real
sacrifices.”

Elizabeth felt her blood heating up at the well-aimed barb, but before she could respond, the thin droning of an airplane made itself heard above the clatter in the shop. Everyone fell silent. Even Rita ceased her chatter to listen.

“One of ours?” one of the women asked fearfully.

“Hard to tell.” Marlene walked over to the door. “Whatever it is, it sounds as if it’s in trouble.” The spluttering sound of an engine confirmed her observation.

Rita got up from her chair, and, like sheep, the other four women followed. Marching in line wearing their helmets of metal curlers, they looked for all the world like ancient soldiers heading into battle. Elizabeth watched them all in the mirror as the spluttering grew more pronounced.

Marlene opened the door and stepped into the street. As she did so, one of the women uttered a loud shriek. “My God, it’s a bloody Nazi! There’s a swastika on its tail!”

“Inside, everybody!” Rita yelled. “Take cover! We’re being invaded!”

“I don’t think so,” Marlene said, staring skyward. “I think the poor bugger’s trying to land.”

Her words galvanized Elizabeth into action. Thrusting aside the green cape, she leapt from her chair and rushed to the door. The rest of the women charged in the opposite direction, nearly sweeping her off her feet in their hurry to find shelter.

Joining Marlene on the pavement outside, Elizabeth shaded her eyes against the bright sunlight as she followed the young girl’s transfixed gaze. The plane was indeed a German bomber, longer than a Messerschmitt, but with the distinctive black German cross on each wing. Her stomach heaved. Her parents had been killed in London during the Blitz. Probably by bombs from a plane like this one.

In spite of the danger, she felt compelled to watch the plane dip lower as the engine coughed and spluttered again, then died altogether. The bomber seemed to be coming right at her, yet her legs refused to move. She felt as if her entire body had turned to ice.

She felt Marlene tug on her arm, heard her screaming something, yet she was powerless to turn away from the awesome sight of the plane drifting silently now above the roofs of the shops along the High Street in the direction of the ocean. Then she saw why Marlene was still pointing at the sky after the bomber had passed over. Floating gently down to earth was the white silky mushroom of a parachute.

The man dangling beneath it swayed to and fro in the sea breeze. Marlene jumped up and down at Elizabeth’s side, still grasping her arm—something she would never do under normal circumstances. A commoner never actually touched the lady of the manor unless it was a matter of life and death.
Which it could very well be
, Elizabeth thought with remarkable composure as she watched the enemy pilot falling more rapidly now as he neared the ground.

“The silly sod’s going to land on the village green!” Marlene yelled.

At the sound of her words, bedlam erupted inside the
hairdresser’s shop. Rita’s booming voice rang out in an attempt to restore order as the women bolted into the street. “Wait, you blithering idiots! We have to capture the prisoner!”

“You bloody capture him!” one woman yelled. “I’m going home and locking myself inside.”

“Rita’s right,” Elizabeth called out, suddenly coming to life. “We can’t let him get away. Get everyone out in the street!” Even as she shouted the words, she could see people spilling out from the shops.

Jack Mitchem rushed out of his butcher’s shop carrying a wicked-looking knife, followed closely by Harold, the greengrocer from next door, who brandished a shovel.

Afraid now that they’d kill the German, Elizabeth started running toward the green. She heard a dull explosion in the distance and guessed the plane had landed on the beach, no doubt on a landmine. The beaches were covered with them in case of an invasion.

The pilot was on the ground now and trying to disentangle himself from the ropes of his parachute. He lifted his head as she drew closer, and she halted.

The German finally freed himself and pulled his flying helmet from his head. Then, to her utter relief, he dropped the helmet on the ground and raised his hands in obvious surrender.

Somewhat subdued, the crowd gathered around the green, encircling the man. Everyone looked at Elizabeth. Even Rita Crumm looked flustered, and she hung back as if waiting for someone to tell her what to do.

Elizabeth drew in a deep breath. Clearly the next move was up to her. As lady of the manor, she was responsible for the welfare of these people. She was in charge until the police arrived. “Someone send for the constables,” she said, keeping her voice calm so as not to alarm the German.

He looked very young and very unsure of himself. She could see his hands shaking as he held them in the
air. She just hoped P.C. Dalrymple would arrive on the scene shortly. Already the women were beginning to mutter behind her. Heaven knows what would happen if Rita Crumm took it into her head to lead a charge of her housewives against the poor man.

Marlene arrived at her side at that moment. “He doesn’t look very dangerous,” she said, running her fingers through her impressive mane of red hair. “He’s rather good-looking, actually. I always did fancy blond men.”

“You wouldn’t think so if he was trying to stick a bayonet in your belly,” Jack Mitchem growled.

“Wonder what happened to the rest of his crew,” Harold muttered.

“They’re probably either dead and went down with the plane, or they bailed out earlier on.”

“Gawd, the whole village could be swarming with bloody Nazis.”

Jack raised his knife. “I say we cut those ropes off that parachute and tie him up till George gets here.”

Elizabeth thought that was a good idea. She was just about to say so when Marlene exclaimed, “Look at that parachute! All that lovely silk going to waste.”

Rita’s voice rose sharply from behind her. “Silk? That’s real silk?”

BOOK: Death Is in the Air
11.98Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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