Never Laugh as a Hearse Goes By

A Penny Brannigan Mystery

A Penny Brannigan Mystery (Volume 5)

Elizabeth J. Duncan

Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books


“Hello, darling. It’s me. Just wanted to let you know that I will be attending the conference at the library after all. It’ll be wonderful to see you, but we’ll have to be careful. We wouldn’t want … well, you know.” The speaker cleared his throat and hesitated, as if trying to decide whether he should say anything more. Then, apparently deciding to leave it at that or perhaps just not wanting to say too much, he ended with a somewhat lame, “Right, well, bye now, and we’ll talk soon, I hope.”
Penny Brannigan’s finger hovered over the delete key. Then, setting down a bag of shopping, she eased herself into the wingback chair beside the telephone, and when she was seated reached down and picked up a small cat who settled comfortably into her lap. She stroked his luxurious grey fur as she listened to the message again. She did not recognize the caller, and this voice-mail message, spoken in a precise, cultured English accent tinged with a bit of border Welsh, was clearly not meant for her. The man had misdialed and got a wrong number, her number. She pressed the Save button.
“Well, Harrison,” she said. “What do you make of that?” Harrison purred loudly and kneaded her lap with his paws. “You don’t care, do you? Of course you don’t and why should you?” She put him down and with him weaving in and out of her legs she walked to the kitchen to see about meals for both of them.
“What do you want for your supper?” She opened a cupboard, pulled out a tin, and showed it to him. “Salmon?” Harrison meowed his approval.
*   *   *
“Very intriguing, indeed,” agreed Victoria Hopkirk when Penny repeated the contents of the voice-mail message to her the next morning. “Who was the message meant for, I wonder? And as for being careful.…” She paused to listen as the sound of the front door opening announced the arrival of Rhian, the receptionist at the Llanelen Spa. A moment later Rhian poked her head into Victoria’s office. “Good morning.” She grinned at Penny and Victoria, who returned her greeting.
“Our first clients will be here any minute,” said Rhian, directing a meaningful look at Penny. “We’ve got that wedding party booked in today, remember. Hair, waxing, massages, manicures, the works. They’ve all got to be sorted. You’ll have to speak to them and decide who’s getting what done and in what order, Penny.”
Penny gave Rhian a brief nod, rose from her chair and took a few steps toward the door and then turned to look at her business partner. “I might just ring the library today and see if they’ve got a conference coming up.”
“A conference? Here? At our little library?” Victoria laughed. “There’s barely room for the books, never mind a conference. Where would people sit? In the children’s section? On those little plastic chairs?”
Penny threw her a dark look. “Don’t forget you’ve got to sort out that appointment with the solicitor to start working out the licensing agreements for the hand cream.” She closed Victoria’s office door behind her and set off down the hall to the manicure room to prepare for her first client.
As the morning wore on her thoughts kept returning to the puzzling voice-mail message and she asked herself the same question Victoria had: Who had the message been meant for?
*   *   *
“I know you aren’t exactly keen to go,” said the Rev. Thomas Evans, “but my dear girl, you know what the bishop’s like.”
“No, I don’t, actually,” his wife replied. “And as I don’t work for him, I don’t see why I should have to go. And ‘not exactly keen’ is putting it mildly, I might add.” She selected a piece of toast from the toast rack and made a great, noisy show of buttering it and slathering it with thick-cut orange marmalade. “And for four days, too.” She bit off the corner of her toast and looked at him steadily while she chewed.
“Well, it’s meant to be a get-together for the wives too, or should I say spouses? After all, we do have a couple of women rectors.” The kindly rector mulled that over for a moment. “I’m sure even the word ‘spouses’ will cause offence to someone. ‘Partner’, then, although I detest that word, for some reason.” He took a sip of coffee and let out a little sigh. “It’s all so complicated nowadays.” He folded his hands over his chest and gazed fondly at his wife. “Although what the partners are meant to be doing while the rest of us are attending to church business, I have no idea, but I’m sure something interesting will be organized for you.” He brightened. “And apparently the food there is very good. Everything is homemade, and I hear the scones are especially delicious.”
He got up from the table, walked round to his wife, bent over and put his arms around her shoulders. “Please, Bronwyn, love, I need you to do this for me. Couldn’t you show just the tiniest bit of enthusiasm?”
She buried her face in the familiar comfort of his green cardigan. It smelled of old books with the faintest whiff of cigarette smoke.
“It’s Robbie, isn’t it?” The rector asked the question but knew the answer.
Bronwyn nodded into the wooly warmth. “I can’t bear the thought of being away from him for so long,” she wailed. “Four whole days.”
“I know it seems like an eternity to be apart from him, but really, in the grand scheme of things, four days isn’t so very long. And he’ll be fine. Jones the vet’s going to look after him and Robbie will get lots of attention, you know he will. Everyone at the practice loves Robbie. You could leave those special treats he likes so much with the staff to give him and we could see if Penny would look in on him.”
Bronwyn sniffled into a tissue. “I suppose you think I’ve gone all soft and daft.”
Sensing progress, the rector responded immediately with reassurance.
“Of course I don’t think you’re daft! I know how much he means to you and how much you love him.” She gave him a sharp glance. “We love him,” the rector hastily corrected himself.
Hearing a soft clicking sound coming down the hallway, Bronwyn jumped up from her chair. She bent down as a cairn terrier, eyes bright with anticipation, trotted into the dining room and jumped into her open arms.
She held him close, stroking his beige fur and murmuring, “Who’s my darling boy, then?”
She held him for a few more minutes, glancing at the rector over the top of Robbie’s head, then set him down.
“And speaking of Penny,” said the rector, “Why don’t you treat yourself to a manicure before the conference? Go on.”
Bronwyn looked at her hands. They were lightly flecked with brown spots and the smooth contours of youth had been replaced by skin that was starting to loosen.
“Oh, I don’t know about that.”
The rector covered her hand with his and gave it a little squeeze.
“Oh, go on,” he repeated. “When was the last time you had a manicure? Before Christmas, wasn’t it?”
Bronwyn met his eyes and the two exchanged loving, knowing smiles. “That’s better,” said the rector as he returned to his place, opened his newspaper and began to scan the headlines. A few moments later he set it down and remarked to his wife, “Listen, what do you say we decide that we’re going to make the most of this conference? After all, how often do we get to go away for four days, all expenses paid? I’m sure someone in the vet’s office would agree to send you an e-mail every day to let you know how Robbie’s doing and that will put your mind at ease so you can relax and enjoy yourself. This little break will be a good chance for you to catch up on your reading. The drive to Hawarden will be lovely this time of year and the venue is beautiful. St. Deiniol’s as was. Now known as Gladstone’s Library. Such an imposing name. I haven’t been there for many years and I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to going back.
“Oh, and Bronwyn, there’s another very special reason why I’m looking forward to this. I had an e-mail last night from my old friend from university days, Graham Fletcher. You’ll remember him. Well, he’s just been appointed the new warden at Gladstone’s Library. A very distinguished position it is, and he’s wanted it ever since I’ve known him. It’ll be wonderful to see him again and catch up.”
“Graham. Graham Fletcher. Well, well. I haven’t thought about him in ages,” Bronwyn said. “I wonder if he still has that red hair?”
“It would be amazing if he did,” replied Thomas, thinking of his own grey hair, “since we’re all about the same age. It’s so long ago now that we all did our undergraduate degrees together. Those were the days. Back when we were all young and beautiful.” He rubbed his chin. “Then he went up to Oxford to take a master’s degree and I had the great good fortune to marry you, although I always felt that he fancied you for himself.” Bronwyn smiled and raised an eyebrow. Reassured, the rector picked up his newspaper and opened it. A moment later he made a little tutting sound.
“Oh, dear. What a terrible thing.”
“What is it?”
“It says here a couple in Aberystwyth returned from holiday to find their garden had been stolen. Ninety-three feet of it! All the plants just dug up and gone.” He read a bit more. “And the bench, too!” He shook his head. “What wicked times we live in. What’s the world coming to, I ask myself.” He took a sip of coffee. “I must give this some thought. Perhaps there’s a sermon in it. Garden,” he muttered. “Garden of Gethsemane?”

Copyright © 2013 by Elizabeth J. Duncan