Cover image for Suspicion at seven
Title:
Suspicion at seven
Author:
Purser, Ann, author.
Personal Author:
Edition:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Berkley Prime Crime, 2014.
Physical Description:
292 pages ; 22 cm.
Summary:
"Lois Meade has done enough buffing and polishing over the years with her cleaning business, New Brooms, to know that all that glitters is not gold. So when a bag of costume jewellery is the main clue in a murder, she has a strong suspicion that appearances may be deceiving... After a woman is discovered in the Mill House Hotel, strangled with a silver necklace beside a bag filled with faux silver, gold and pearls, costume jewelry dealer Michael Black seems like the obvious suspect. But Lois knows Michael's wife, who runs a baker's shop near the hotel, and can't believe her husband could be a killer. Plus, Michael has an airtight alibi. Nevertheless, Michael--who prefers to go by Michel, a name as fake as his gems--is no angel. It appears he's running a pyramid scheme, and Lois's mother is getting sucked in. Could the murder have anything to do with his unscrupulous business practices? As Inspector Cowgill and Lois hope the bling may shine a light on the killer, the discovery of a second body on the old waterwheel in the hotel may be grist for the mill in solving the murder--if they can manage to catch the culprit without getting the runaround"--
Language:
English
Geographic Term:
ISBN:
9780425261781
Format :
Book

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Central Library FICTION Adult Fiction Popular Materials-Mystery
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Audubon Library FICTION Adult Fiction Mystery/Suspense
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Summary

Summary

It is early summer, and villagers are shocked by the discovery of a woman strangled by a silver necklace in her hotel bedroom, where a bagful of fake silver, gold and pearls is found tucked away in a cupboard. Inevitably, connections are made with Michel Black`s luxury jewellery business. Michel's wife, Aurora, enlists the help of her friend, Lois Meade, to find innocent explanations, but then the plot thickens. Then Another unexplained death shocks the village, and Lois and Inspector Cowgill are once more on the warpath.


Author Notes

Ann Purser was born in Market Harborough in Leicestershire and has lived most of her life in villages. She has turned her hand to many things, including journalism (as a columnist for SHE magazine), keeper of hens and donkeys, art gallery owner, clerical assistant in a village school, Open University graduate, novelist, mother of three, wife of Philip Purser, critic and writer. She is an avid reader of detective stories.


Excerpts

Excerpts

Lois Meade, businesswoman and unpaid amateur detective, sat on the low wall of the millpond and watched the flow of water in the tailrace, where ducks and drakes were flapping about in the antics of courtship. It was spring, and love was in the air. Oddly enough, murder was also in the air. Murder in Brigham, a small picturesque village, was shocking for all its inhabitants, and especially those near to the scene of the crime, the Mill House Hotel, a beautiful restoration of the old mill house and working machinery. Lois, living in nearby Long Farnden, was particularly concerned, as her long-term interest was working with the legendary Inspector Hunter Cowgill in solving crime puzzles that took her fancy. She and Cowgill had a good working relationship, and though Cowgill was smitten long ago with her lovely smile, sharp tongue and long and shapely legs, Lois kept him at a suitable distance with ease. Occasionally, Cowgill would wonder what he would do if Lois returned his passion, but acknowledged to himself that common sense would prevail and it would be he who backed off. Lois was happily married, had three grown-up offspring and ran her own cleaning service, nattily entitled New Brooms, with "We Sweep Cleaner" added on the side of her van. Now she looked over at Brigham Bakery, still with its old bread oven and flour bins lining the bakehouse walls. Here Aurora Black made bread with flour from the mill, and in the old way baked beautifully crusty loaves for sale to customers, some from the Mill House Hotel, and most to the locals who knew a good loaf when they tasted one. She and Lois were good friends, both of an age and both successful businesswomen. New Brooms cleaned the bakery, and Lois bought all her bread from Aurora. Aurora's husband, Donald, dealt in jewellery, costume jewellery of little value but plenty of sparkle, which he hawked around the country and sold in pyramid parties, including one or two a year in the Mill House Hotel. Donald was small in stature and wore built-up shoes to give himself extra height. He was inordinately proud of his glossy black hair. Blacky had been his nickname at school, but, fortunately, he was stocky and strong, and could fight his corner with total success. Aurora, now punishing a large crock full of bread dough, was a natural blonde, and several inches taller than Donald. Being a sensitive soul, she did not possess a single pair of high-heeled stilettos in her entire wardrobe. Her arms and hands were beautiful in the powerful action of kneading, and now, catching sight of Lois by the pond, she decided the dough had the necessary elasticity, and she put it aside to prove. "Bread Baked by Hand" was her shop's slogan, and as a result, her output was not huge. She had a long waiting list of potential customers wanting to join her orders list. Lois, who was early for an appointment to see a new client for her cleaning business, walked across the road and into the bakery shop to say hello. "Morning, Aurora," she said, kissing her floury cheek. "Any bread left?" "Your usual, yep. Did you want extra?" "If you've got a large stone-ground wholemeal, that would be great." The bread was fresh out of the oven, still warm, and Lois resisted the temptation to break off a crust and eat it then and there. "Donald doing all right?" she said, hoping Aurora would say he was out. She had never been able to like her friend's husband, finding him shifty, flirty and too anxious to please. "Yes, thanks. He's got a jewellery party in your village next week. Six thirty in Farnden village hall. Spread the word." She pulled a small poster from under the counter. "Would your Josie put this up in her shop?" "Natch," said Lois. "And how's your Milly? She must be nearing her finals, isn't she?" Aurora nodded. "She's on the heart ward at the moment. All drama is there, according to her!" "She's a lovely girl," said Lois. "Deserves to do well." Milly was the only child of Donald and Aurora. She was small, with large brown eyes and an almost permanent smile for everyone. She had wanted to be a nurse since she was five, when Aurora had rummaged in the attic and found a nurse's uniform from her own childhood. "She hopes to come home for a weekend very soon, so perhaps we'll come over and cadge a coffee. And what's new in Farnden?" said Aurora. "This village is buzzing with the latest here. A poor woman found dead in the bed in the hotel. Cause not yet known. A nasty business on our doorstep, and many of my customers are upset and nervous about what might happen next. Anyway, rumour is rife, as they say." * * * The fresh green of new leaves gladdens the heart, thought Lois, and as she drove home from Brigham, through dappled sunlight in tree-lined lanes, she thought how lucky she was to live here in the middle of England in a county as yet undiscovered by colonies of London commuters. Long Farnden and Meade House were eight miles from Brigham, and Lois meant to call in at her daughter's village shop back home. Josie and her husband, Matthew, along with her brothers Douglas and Jamie, completed Lois's family, not forgetting her husband, Derek, and mother, Elsie "Gran" Weedon. Meade House in Long Farnden had belonged to a village doctor, long since retired, and though the young ones had all flown the nest, Lois's mother, known by most as Gran, lived with them and regarded herself as indispensable to the running of the household. * * * "Morning, Mum," said Josie, as Lois climbed the steps into the shop and picked up the local paper. "How's everything?" "Everything's fine," said Lois. She handed over the flyer advertising the jewellery party. "Would you put this up for Aurora Black's husband? It's one of his bling parties." "Bling, eh? What a modern mum!" "What I really mean is sparkly rubbish. Still, I hope he does well for Aurora's sake." She did not add that Donald Black was a charmer who could sell his own grandmother, and had a reputation for using his away parties as excuse for carrying on with a pretty woman. Lois opened out the newspaper and scanned the columns. "What are you looking for?" said Josie. "Something Aurora said this morning. Some woman apparently found dead in bed in the Mill House Hotel, opposite the bakery." "And you thought it might be a juicy one for Lois Meade, private detective?" Lois shrugged. "Who knows?" she said. "You might hear something from Matthew, anyway." Cowgill's nephew, Matthew Vickers, a young policeman and Josie's new husband, had been useful to Cowgill on a number of cases. "What's the woman called, or don't we know? Police making enquiries an' all that?" asked Josie. Lois nodded. "Aurora didn't have any details, so I thought it might be in this week's local newspaper. Yes, look, here's something on it." She turned the paper round so that Josie behind the counter could also see it. "'Woman dead in bed,'" read Josie. "Sounds like the title of a book. No, there's not much here. She arrived the day before, apparently. Why don't you ring Uncle Hunter and then we can all know the gory details from the horse's mouth?" "You know perfectly well," said Lois stiffly, "that anything I learn from Inspector Hunter Cowgill about police work is strictly confidential. You know that from your Matthew. And anyway, she might have died from a stroke, or something equally innocent." "Well said, Mum," said a deep voice at the open door of the shop. It was Douglas, Lois's firstborn, and a solid citizen of Tresham. "Hi, Doug," said Josie, and Lois gave him a peck on the cheek. "What brings you to Farnden this morning?" she said. "Oh, nothing much. I was on my way to Waltonby and thought I'd stop by and say hello." "Come up to the house and have a coffee with me and Gran. Your father may still be at home." Derek was an electrician, and his own boss. Douglas nodded, and as another two customers had arrived, Lois waved to Josie, shouted to her that Aurora and Milly might be over at the weekend, and started off with Douglas up the rise to Meade House. Gran, standing at the Rayburn and testing a cake with a skewer, saw Lois and Douglas go by the window and waved, delighted to see her grandson. "Give your old gran a kiss then," she said, as they came into the kitchen. Douglas gave her an affectionate hug, and sat down at the large table. "You staying for lunch, boy?" she said. The three sat around the table and talked of family concerns for a while, and then Lois asked if Douglas had heard anything about the woman found dead in bed at the Mill House Hotel. "Only what you mentioned in Josie's shop," Douglas said, and Gran shook her head. Lois showed them the newspaper, and Gran tut-tutted. "Sounds like a crime of passion," she said. "Or she could have forgotten to take her pills," she added. "I know if I were sleeping in a strange bed, which, God forbid, I would be out of my usual routine and probably even forget to wash me face." The phone rang, and Lois jumped up quickly to answer it in her office. New Brooms was a busy concern, and with six cleaners and at least forty regular clients, the office was a hive of activity. * * * "Hello? Who's that?" "Inspector Cowgill for you, Mrs. Meade. Just putting you through." "Lois, my dear, how are you this bright day?" "Fine, thanks. What do you want?" Cowgill resisted the impulse to tell her that she was the thing he wanted most in the world, and said that he had a new case which might interest her. He would appreciate her help. "That poor woman found dead in bed in the Mill House Hotel?" "Exactly," said Cowgill. "It's not as bald and straightforward as it seemed at first. Could I call and have a talk?" "Police business?" "Of course, Lois dear. I'll be with you at five." Lois put down the phone and smiled. Good old Cowgill. He was semiretired, but seemed to do as much as he always had. He had a terrific reputation with the force, and they were happy to keep him on. His nephew, Matthew, was rising through the ranks, but Cowgill was careful to avoid any suspicion of nepotism. Back in the kitchen, where Gran had made coffee, Lois said it had been a New Brooms call, and she would be having a visitor this afternoon. She hoped to get to the front door before Gran, but it was a forlorn hope. "A new client?" said Douglas. "What visitor?" asked Gran. "Oh, all right then. Not New Brooms. It's Inspector Cowgill, wanting to talk about that woman dead in bed at the Mill House Hotel. Now, let's change the subject. How's the tiddlers, Dougie?" "Fine, Mum. They're good little chaps, and Susie knows how to handle them." "Love 'em and leave 'em alone; that was my policy," said Gran. "Mum! It was 'Spare the rod and spoil the child,' if I remember rightly!" said Lois. "Must be off now," said Douglas, sensing an argument. "Let me know, Mum, if you need an assistant." "She already has one, though God alone knows why she has to choose a batty old woman. Mrs. Tollervey-Jones, of all people!" "I'm already used to batty old women," said Lois with a smile, and added she would see Douglas to his car and give her small white terrier, Jemima (aka Jeems), a bit of a walk. * * * "Hello, Uncle Hunter! How can I help you?" Josie greeted Matthew's inspector uncle with a peck on the cheek. "Business call, or an afternoon off and here to see the family?" Cowgill looked at her, so like Lois and equally lovely. "I'm here to see your mother, but couldn't pass without saying hello. And, of course, to ask if you've heard any useful talk in the shop." "About the woman in the Mill House Hotel? Oh yes, most of the old tabs who congregate in here on pension day, they had plenty to say this morning. One of them said she was a high-class fancy woman who usually turns up with a man. The same man every time. But this time she was on her own." "How did this woman know that?" "Son works for the hotel, in the bar. You lot have already interviewed him, so I'm not telling you anything new. Though there was one other woman who said she thought she knew who the man was, though it was all highly confidential. She looked embarrassed, as if she wished she hadn't said anything." "Can you give me names, Josie?" "No, sorry. Not unless it is unavoidable. If it got around that I was a nark, my shop would be avoided like poison. Mum being your little helper is bad enough." "And being married to a policeman?" "And being married to a policeman." Gran had refused many times to have her hearing tested, claiming it was as good as the day she was born. Lois suspected she could be conveniently deaf at times and sharp as a button at others. She sighed, as no sooner had the bell begun to ring than there Gran was, opening the door and greeting Cowgill with distinct coolness. "Ferretin'," as Lois's husband called her detective work, was steadfastly frowned on by both him and Gran. Derek considered she had enough to do with New Brooms without running around after criminals, some of whom could be dangerous, and Gran's objection was terse and to the point. "A woman's place is in the home," she would say, loudly and often. Now Lois asked her kindly if she could rustle up coffee for the inspector, and shut the office door firmly. "It's some time since we cleared up the last case. How have you been Lois? Is business good?" Cowgill smiled affectionately at her over her desk. "Fine, thanks. New client at, guess where, Brigham. My friend Aurora Black runs a bakery near the Mill, and, as I am sure you know, we have talked about the sad case of an unexplained death in the hotel." Cowgill nodded. "Right, well, this woman, who checked into the hotel as Sylvia Fountain, arrived at about three o'clock in the afternoon with an overnight bag and went up to her room. She did not appear in the dining room for supper, nor at breakfast. The cleaning staff reported that they could get no reply to knocking, and asked if they should use their room key to go in." "What time was this?" "Ten o'clockish. The cleaners do not always go round the rooms in the same order, so they weren't absolutely sure, but more or less ten o'clock. When they went in, two of them, they saw the woman, still under the duvet and asleep, or supposedly asleep. Then one of them said the woman seemed very still, so they gently pulled back the duvet and saw at once that she was not breathing. The rest you can imagine." "Not completely. Was she wearing nightclothes?" "Ah, still thinking laterally, Lois. No, she was wearing the clothes she arrived in. And the next odd thing is that her overnight bag contained no night things. No nightdress, toothbrush, nothing you would expect to find." "What was in it, then?" "Jewellery. Bags of it. And, I am assured, all of it worthless. Costume jewellery, I believe it used to be called." "Oh God. Not jewellery." Lois had paled. "I know, Lois my dear. Your friend Aurora's husband, Donald Black. First on our list of suspects, of course." "But she didn't say anything about him being involved when I was over there." "No, well, when we spoke to him he had a cast-iron alibi. He was up north, far north, attending a conference on business management. They vouched for his every move, including sleeping in a school dormitory requisitioned for the purpose." "Oh, how convenient! And the big question: how did she die?" "Strangled with a silver necklace." "Blimey," said Lois, and she frowned as the door opened and Gran entered bearing a tray of coffee and home-baked biscuits. "You all right, Lois?" she said, frowning. "You look like a ghost! What've you been saying to my daughter, Inspector?" "Oh, I'm okay, Mum. Thanks for the coffee." The inspector had jumped up to help, and now closed the door behind a scowling Gran. "Sorry, Lois. I didn't mean to alarm you. But I am afraid that Donald Black is still under surveillance. I am not sure how much he has told his wife, but she must be aware." "Poor Aurora. What a slimy toad he must be. Beats me how he fathered that lovely Milly." "Don't jump to conclusions, Lois. As I said, his alibi is watertight. In fact, so much so, that it is in itself odd, to say the least. Most of us cannot account for every minute of our day and night." "Anything more to tell me?" "Only that Miss Sylvia Fountain is known to us. Nothing serious. A little light shoplifting now and then. Also hires herself out to the highest bidder. Family money behind her, apparently." "Where does she come from?" "Variously at a number of addresses. Widowed aunt lives in relative luxury locally. Several brothers, who return to our notice on a regular basis. Small-time crooks, and not worth our time and trouble, mostly." Lois did not reply for a minute, and then said that she presumed he wanted her to concentrate on the Brigham end of the case. The inspector rose to his feet. "You know, my love, that whatever you decide to do is helpful to us. As long as you keep in touch and don't do anything foolish." "Thanks, Cowgill. To be honest, I look at it like this. If I can help Aurora in any way, then I shall do so. And before you say it, I shall remember to keep mum on everything you've told me." He laughed. "That's my girl," he said, and leaned across the desk to give her a light kiss. She did not push him away, but said, "You're allowed one. Being as you're family." "Douglas phoned while you were out with Jeems," Derek said. Lois had taken her dog to the nearby woods early, before breakfast. "She caught a rabbit," she said. "I've left it in the scullery for you to deal with. I was a bit cross with her, but as she killed it quickly, I thought we might as well not waste it. Mum loves rabbit." "What's that Mum loves?" said Gran, coming into the kitchen. Lois told her, and her long-suffering mother said that as long as Derek drew and skinned it, she'd make rabbit pie for tonight's supper. "I might be out for supper," Lois said. "Aurora has asked me over to see some new stuff Donald has for sale. She wants me to stay for supper. Perhaps we could have rabbit pie tomorrow?" Gran sniffed. "You don't fool me, Lois Meade," she said. "You're ferretin' again. To do with that strangled tart, I suppose." Lois did not deny this, but said Josie's birthday was coming up, and Donald Black had got some new stuff to show her. "I should think we could do better than that rubbish for our Josie's birthday," said Derek. "I suppose it is no good saying you'd do better to keep well away from Brigham and that latest case?" "Who said anything about the latest case?" said Lois. "Inspector Cowgill did," said Gran. "I just happened to be coming along with your coffee, and you know what a deep voice he has. It carries, you know." "Mum! You were listening at the keyhole!" "Of course I wasn't! How can you say such a thing to your own mother?" "Oh well. I expect the full details will be in the local papers by now. But for heaven's sake, if you heard anything else, keep it to yourself. And in answer to you, Derek my love, I promise to keep well away from anything dangerous. I really want to help in this case for Aurora's sake." "Haven't you forgotten something?" said Gran with a smirk. "No. Don't think so." "Your son Douglas phoned. Shouldn't you go and phone him back?" "Oh Lor, okay, okay. I'll go into my office." She went quickly into the cool, soothing quiet of her office and dialled her son. "Hello? Mum here. Did you want me?" "Just idle curiosity, Mother dear. Brigham Bakery is in the news today. Isn't that the Blacks, opposite the hotel where that woman has been found dead in bed? I thought you might have an ear to Mrs. Black? Aren't they Brooms clients?" "And I get my bread from them. Delicious it is, too, and Aurora Black is a very nice person. I count her as a friend. As for knowing anything more about the strangled woman, apart from the fact that her name was Sylvia Fountain and her occupation prostitute, then I don't know anything." "Fountain? An old and disreputable family here in Tresham, so the gossip goes. So possibly one for Inspector Cowgill and his brilliant sidekick, Mrs. Lois Meade? No, don't answer that. The Fountains are known to be rich, largely as a result of dodgy dealings. Best not to have anything to do with any of them. We all love you, Mum, and don't want to lose you. 'Nuff said! Bye for now." * * * Lois spent the day visiting clients and checking over the accounts with Hazel in the Tresham office. She thought of calling on Susie, Douglas's wife, but looked at her watch and decided the best thing would be to see if Cowgill was in his office and find out how much he knew about Tresham's underworld in general and the Fountains in particular. He had spent a working lifetime in the area and probably knew all the villains, really bad, not so bad, and totally ineffectual. The Nimmos were another such family, and Dot Nimmo, a member of Lois's team and cleaner extraordinaire, had opted out, more or less, but inside knowledge had proved invaluable in the past. "Afternoon, Mrs. Meade," said the sergeant on the reception desk. "The inspector is in his office. Would you like to go on up and give him a nice surprise?" Inspector Cowgill's partiality for Lois Meade was well known in the police station, and Lois said certainly not, she would be glad if he would wipe that grin off his face and enquire if the inspector was free. By the time she had climbed the stone steps to his office, he was standing at his door ready to welcome her. "To what do I owe this visit, Mrs. Meade?" he said formally, and then as soon as his door was shut, gave her a hug and drew up a chair for her. "It's simple really," she said. "I've been thinking about the families known to be involved in a network of crooks in this town and around. More as background information, really. Nimmos I know about, and now there's the Fountains?" The next half hour Lois listened carefully as Cowgill gave her information about people she had never met. The Nimmos seemed to have been a bunch of Robin Hoods, stealing from the rich to give to the poor, with no record of violence. Not so the Fountains. Mugging old ladies for their purses was a specialty. "So what are you going to do? And is there anything I can be doing to make life easier for Aurora Black?" "Trust me. I am sure you will be supporting her, and that is most important at the moment. She is carrying on with the bakery, and I suspect helping her is what you can do best. Now, Lois dear, unfortunately, much as I would love to keep you here for longer, I have a meeting to go to in five minutes. How's the family? Matthew and Josie seem blissfully happy." "And why not? Anyway, I have to go now. Work to do. Oh, and by the way, when you come to see me in my office, keep your voice down. Mrs. Weedon, alias Gran, has superefficient hearing." The Blacks lived in the rear of their bakery, in an extension they had added years ago, when Aurora decided to set up her bread business in Brigham. They had one very precious child then, and had subsequently tried hard for another to be a companion for her. Aurora had sadly given up the possibility of it happening by chance, and had secretly investigated the possibilities of success. Although she did not want to blame Donald, she was pretty sure the fault was with him. Now it was too late, and in any case, she had a business that required all her time, and as Donald was away frequently at his jewellery parties, she accepted that her life was full enough, and having Milly was a bonus. She was expecting Lois Meade for supper, and Lois was sure to be full of news of her children and grandchildren, just as it should be. She thanked God, not for the first time, that she had her wonderful daughter, Milly, and had been delighted to hear from her that she hoped to be with them tomorrow for a lightning visit. * * * "Hi, Lois, come on in. Supper won't be long, and Donald has made some Pimms for us. It is really summery today, isn't it? I must say you are looking very smart this evening. Don't know how you do it . . ." "What with running a business, having children and grandchildren and keeping Gran happy? Are you thinking on those lines? Then you're absolutely right, and it is really nice of you to say so." Lois kissed Aurora on her cheek, and accepted a glass from Donald with a cool nod. "Shall we have supper first, and then Donald can show you his latest collection? I must say I am tempted myself!" What a pleasant couple, Lois thought to herself. Maybe I'm wrong about Donald. They seem so well adjusted to each other. None of the arguments that were a daily occurrence at Meade House. She watched as Aurora laid the table for supper, and Donald drew the cork from a bottle of red wine. She thought of Derek, who would be happy with a ham sandwich and a can of light ale. But then she remembered how much her family actually enjoyed a good argument, a fierce battle of words without giving any quarter. Perhaps Aurora, who was lively minded and good company, did not find Donald boring, with nothing to talk about but brooches, bracelets and necklaces. Baubles, bangles and beads! They all helped with clearing the table, and then he produced his collection. Everything sparkled and shone. Lois had to admit that some of it was really attractive, and she picked up a delicate silver necklace with a single pearl drop. "You could try it on, if you like," said Donald, and he walked round to fix the clasp at the back of her neck. The pearl nestled between her breasts, and she decided it would be foolish not to buy such a pretty thing. If Josie didn't like it, she would have it herself. "How much does it cost?" she asked. "Trade price to you, Lois. We never know when we might have to call on your New Brooms services to us at a revised special rate! We sole traders must stick together." "That's the last one of those necklaces," said Aurora. "Shouldn't you keep it for the collection? I am sure there's one with a blue stone set in faux diamonds that would suit Josie's colouring," Lois said. "No problem. I can easily order another pearl one," said Donald. "It looks so good on you, Lois. Simple and elegant. You must have this one, dear." He found a box, and the necklace was safe in Lois's handbag. "Now, how about a pair of matching earrings?" Lois laughed. "Sorry, no more pocket money this week. I think earrings would be overdoing it, anyway. Thanks, Donald. I shall enjoy this, either on Josie or myself!" "Shall we have coffee now?" said Aurora, disappearing into the kitchen. As soon as she had gone, Donald drew up a chair next to Lois's and spoke in a whisper. "She's very upset by the murder in the hotel. The woman had some of my stuff in her bag. Not a direct seller, thank God. No, Aurora's not quite herself. I expect you've noticed? We're so glad Milly's coming tomorrow. It'll take her mind off it." "Well, natural enough, I should have thought," said Lois. "You being taken in for questioning, an' that." Donald shook his head. "I was hardly in the police station five minutes before they let me go. Watertight alibi, you see. And I'm not a liar, Lois. All true, and I have proof that I was up north all the time. Can you help me cheer her up? She's very fond of you." At this point, Aurora came back with a tray of coffee and set it down on the table. "What are you two whispering about?" she said lightly. "Cooking up a surprise birthday party for Lois," said Donald. "Now it won't be a surprise," Aurora said, and ruffled his dark hair. "Oh, yes, it will," he said, smoothing it back again. "Black or white coffee, Lois?" Next morning, the necklace was examined by Gran and Derek, and pronounced very pretty and just the thing for Josie's birthday. "I'll get you another one, me duck," said Derek, seeing Lois's face. "That Donald Black, I'll have a word with him. He's coming over to the village hall, isn't he?" "Now, how about this? It's Josie's birthday on Monday, so we can ask her and Matthew, if he's not on duty, to come over for a meal," Gran said. "Oh, he'll be wanting to take her out for a treat, won't he? What do you think, Derek?" "What about tomorrow lunch? We can tell her not to open the box until Monday." "Fine," Lois said. "I have to go down to the shop, so I'll ask her then." She went along to her office and set about sorting out her papers and schedules for the New Brooms meeting at twelve. She had rearranged the weekly meeting to be today instead of Monday, because of the birthdays. The girls and one young man would arrive in dribs and drabs, and then settle down to business. Lois's team was much as it was when she set up the cleaning agency some while ago. One or two had left, and others taken their place, but they were largely the same happy group who respected Lois and enjoyed the work they carried out for clients around the county. Lois was born in Tresham on a council estate, where Gran and her husband had set up house, producing one beautiful girl. Gran always said that one like Lois was quite enough. Wayward and obstinate, refusing to knuckle down to schoolwork, Lois left when she was sixteen to work in Woolworths, where she caught the eye of the young electrician Derek Meade. He always said he courted her over the confectionary counter, and after a year or so going around together, they persuaded her mother and father to allow them to marry. Mrs. Weedon knew that if they said no, the two would debunk to Gretna Green and get married anyway. So they agreed, and in no time young Douglas had come along, then Josie, and finally the concert pianist, Jamie. Sometimes Gran looked at him and wondered if he was a cuckoo in the nest. But no, he would always be Lois and Derek's baby, and success had not changed him. Nor had he tried to shove the others out! At times like Christmas, when the whole family gathered together, it was as if they had never left home. * * * At twelve sharp, the doorbell rang, and Hazel, who managed the office in Tresham, was first to arrive. The rest came in a bunch, all except Dot Nimmo, who was always last. Dot was special to Lois, having not only shined up many a dusty house, but had also helped out with ferretin'. Dot, who was the widow of a gang boss in Tresham, had connections with the underworld that proved to be valuable. She had lost both husband and son, and had gone downhill in her lonely terraced house up the street from New Brooms office. Finally, in an attempt to pull herself together, she had asked Lois for a job. Against all advice from Gran and other team members, Lois had agreed. Dot was brash, bossy and totally loyal, and would go through fire to rescue Lois in trouble. The other team members were Floss, young and newly married; Sheila Stratford, comfortable wife of a retired farmer; and Andrew Young. Andrew ran his own interior-decorating business alongside New Brooms, and had no qualms about scrubbing floors or polishing silver. After Lois had thanked them for coming along on a Saturday, one by one they went through the work schedules, and then Lois asked for any queries they might have. "It's not to do with cleaning, really, Mrs. M," said Dot. "But I just wondered if you'd heard anything about the goings-on in Brigham? Every house I've been to this week, there's been someone talking about it. They all seem to think the jewellery bloke done it. And ain't he coming to do one of his parties here in the village hall? Nobody seems to know if it's safe to go along." "What?" said Lois loudly. "Donald Black a mass murderer? I think with a roomful of feisty women he'd stand no chance. No, it is serious, I know, particularly for his wife. But he's totally innocent. A watertight alibi, apparently. So I think you can all relax and enjoy an evening among the diamonds." "So who did do it?" said Sheila. "Any ideas, Mrs. M? My husband said he knew what he'd do with the poncey idiot." "Oh dear," said Lois. "So he's been found guilty by the gossips, has he? I've met him, of course, as has Floss when she's cleaning there. I have always bought my bread from his wife's bakery. But I really think we should leave this to the police. Now, can we get on with reports from clients? Andrew, would you make a start?" "My report is not unconnected with Dot's contribution," he said. "I've had a request from the Mill House Hotel to redecorate the entire interior of the bedroom wing. And after that, the dining room and reception." "Wow! Well done, Andrew. You won't have much time for New Brooms work, will you?" "Oh yes I will, Mrs. M. I explained that I divide my time working for you alongside interior decor. They said I could surely combine the two. We could prepare a schedule, they said, and as cleaners were always hard to come by, there'd be no shortage of work. I think they must have been anxious to get me, probably because I undercut other estimates for the decor work." Excerpted from Suspicion at Seven by Ann Purser All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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