A Small Hill to Die On

A Penny Brannigan Mystery

A Penny Brannigan Mystery (Volume 4)

Elizabeth J. Duncan

Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books

Penny Brannigan rolled over and glared at the glowing red numbers on her alarm clock. Four o’clock in the bloody morning. She’d done all the right things to prepare for a good night’s sleep: a luxurious soak in a warm, fragrant bath, a cup of soothing chamomile tea, and relaxation exercises involving palm trees, turquoise waves, and a pink beach. She’d stretched out between clean sheets freshened with lavender linen spray and opened the most boring book the local librarian could locate—a history of farming practices in the old Soviet Union.
Her efforts had worked, sending her quickly off to sleep. But a few minutes after one o’clock she awoke from an uneasy dream and now, after three sleepless hours shifting around in her bed listening to a BBC radio presenter interview a reality television personality about her new hair extensions, which she liked, and her ex-husband, whom she didn’t, Penny was beside herself. Even if I get back to sleep within the next five minutes, she groaned, I’m going to be a basket case at work tomorrow. Or rather, today. She checked the clock again. Four hours from now. She switched off the radio and stared at the ceiling, allowing her thoughts to go into freefall.
*   *   *
“You look ghastly.” Victoria Hopkirk looked up from her computer as Penny slid into the chair in front of her desk just after nine. “Thank you very much,” moaned Penny. “I feel awful. I was awake half the night.”
“Trouble drifting off?”
“Oh, I drift off all right but I just can’t seem to stay asleep. I wake up and can’t get off again. Honestly, it’s driving me mad. I haven’t had a proper night’s sleep for weeks. I just lie there listening to rubbish on the radio and thinking about things. Like what happened to that poor woman whose body was found in the old ductwork.”
Several months earlier Penny and Victoria had bought a decaying old stone building beautifully and gracefully situated on the bank of the River Conwy and had overseen its conversion into an airy, bright, modern space. But the renovations had not gone smoothly. Workmen had discovered human and animal remains wrapped in a tatty old duvet in the ductwork. The body had been identified as that of Juliette Sanderson, who had worked as a kennel maid at Ty Brith Hall, and the animal remains were those of a cat. The woman had gone missing sometime in the 1960s and how she’d died and why her body had been hidden in the building for so many years remained an unsolved mystery.
“We may never know what happened to her,” Victoria replied, “and you certainly shouldn’t be losing sleep over her. Have you been to see the doctor? She could prescribe something.”
“No! I don’t want any tablets. You never know about side effects with those drugs. They might make me dopey.” Victoria raised a well-shaped eyebrow. “Dopier?” emended Penny.
“Well,” said Victoria, “I hope you’re going to be able to function well enough during the day to manage the Spa on your own because, if you’ll recall, I’m taking some time off, starting tomorrow. We both put in a tremendous amount of work getting this place up and running and we deserve a break.” She smiled. “It just so happens that I’m taking my break first.”
Victoria opened the top drawer of her desk and pulled out a glossy brochure. Holding it in both hands at arm’s length, she displayed the cover to Penny.
Penny’s eyes swept over a photo of an idyllic farmhouse overlooking a neatly laid out vineyard. The image was bathed in the soft, warm light of late afternoon as wispy clouds drifted through a brilliant blue sky.
“Tuscany? In January? I hope you’re not expecting it to look anything like that. No rustic villas and sun-dappled piazzas for you, I’m afraid. It’s bound to be every bit as cold and miserable as it is here.”
“Well, it may be, but the point is, it’s not here. It’s there. That’s what’s so great about getting away. A nice change of scenery always works wonders. And it’s the off-season, so I’ve found a good deal on a pensione in Florence.” She grinned. “There are some concerts that I’d love to go to and I’ve signed up for a cookery course with wine tasting. I really just made the decision to go last minute and got a fantastic package deal. I’m so excited.”
Penny’s face went blank.
“What’s the matter?”
Penny held up a finger and gave a loud sneeze.
“Maybe that’s your problem. Are you getting a cold?”
“I hope not. That’s the last thing I need right now. Anyway, you’d better tell me what I need to know about looking after the business while you’re away.” Penny cupped her chin in her hands.
A few minutes later a gentle, reflective smile spread across her face as Victoria wrapped up her explanation on how she managed the day-to-day operations.
“Seriously, I hope you have a fantastic time. How long will you be away? A fortnight?”
“Actually,” Victoria replied, “I was thinking a bit longer than that. Since I’m going anyway, I was thinking more like a month. Or maybe even six weeks.”
As Penny’s smile faded and she started to protest, Victoria held up a hand.
“Sorry, Penny, but it’s all settled. I’m going. And anyway, it’s not like the old days. I’ll take my laptop, and if there are any problems or you’ve got questions, you just have to contact me and I’ll get back to you right away. Sorted! There’s Wi-Fi everywhere to check e-mail and I’ll have my mobile with me. I’ll show you everything before I go. How to do the banking and all that. Rhian has a good grasp of the business end of things. You’ll be fine, and honestly, I do need to get away.”
Penny checked the time, gave the desk a little tap, and stood up. “Right, then. I’d better go. Mrs. Lloyd’ll be arriving any minute for her manicure.”
*   *   *
“I heard at the Over Sixties Club that we have some interesting newcomers in our midst,” Mrs. Lloyd remarked as Penny began removing last week’s nail polish. “Vietnamese people, they are, or at least everyone except the husband is. He’s English. There’s the mother and two teenagers and the mother’s brother, and you’ll never guess where this lot is living.”
Penny set down a scrunched-up cotton ball covered in brown nail polish and lifted the lid from a glass bowl where she kept clean cotton balls. “Where?”
But before Mrs. Lloyd could reply, Rhian, the receptionist, poked her head around the door.
“Penny, could I just have a quick word, please.” She gave Mrs. Lloyd an apologetic smile. “Won’t take a minute.”
Penny and Mrs. Lloyd exchanged quizzical looks and Penny stood up.
“Excuse me. I’d better see what she wants.”
“Yes, you better had.”

Copyright © 2012 by Elizabeth J. Duncan