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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

In Prior's Wood

A Max Tudor Mystery

A Max Tudor Novel (Volume 7)

G. M. Malliet

Minotaur Books


Chapter 1


Lord Duxter had always disliked card tricks. He detested everything to do with magic, actually: rabbits pulled from hats, women sawn in half, the whole sleight-of-hand nonsense. But in particular and mostly, he disliked card tricks.

To him, tricks and magic and all that sort of thing were the hobbies of a twelve-year-old boy—one of stunted emotional development, at that. A grown man should have outgrown such childish pastimes.

But Colin Frost had not. Oh, no, not he. It summed him up, this idiotic interest, which Colin insisted on regarding as some sort of skill set, the specialty of a highly trained artist emerged from his magician’s cave after years of study and practice to bore the world with his “pick-a-card” trickeries. It didn’t matter to Lord Duxter that he could never figure out the trick—he did not regard that as a commentary on his intelligence. It was more that he didn’t care how it was done. One had to care, somehow. He saw it as a sort of social mask Colin hid behind, something to hide the fact that he had no conversation—at least none that would interest any sane person. Colin dealt in software and computers and God knew what-all forms of geekery. Apps, for God’s sake. He was always on about the latest apps. He was a cybersecurity expert, with skills ostensibly much in demand. The magic tricks were simply an extension of his preference for dealing with numbers and things rather than engaging with people.

Lord Duxter blamed the mother—she had been much the same way as Colin, and the whole village knew it. Cold as ice, she’d been. And Netta, the grandmother. No doubt she was the prototype for the mother. A cold fish if ever one swam in the small social pond of the Monkslip villages.

It was odd, Lord Duxter reflected. On the surface, Colin had everything going for him: still only in his thirties, he had a high IQ (or at least mathematical ability, if not what one might call actual intelligence); a good, slender physique; and a handsome if rather blank countenance, rather like an Easter Island statue. You could read him as profound or stupid, take your pick. None of these qualities, however, added up to having a personality—that spark of life that lit a man from within. Colin was, in fact, a good-looking dolt, rather naïve and pliable. A man of modest accomplishments married to a woman of stunning ordinariness.

Look at her now, in a frock at least two sizes too big and thick-soled shoes a decade out of style—if they’d ever been in style. They were the kind of shoes one wore if one were worried about a stack of bricks landing on one’s toes at any moment. Jane could have been twenty-five or forty but Lord Duxter knew she had just celebrated her thirtieth birthday. Her eyes behind the oversized, rose-tinted lenses conveyed intelligent awareness, so much so that compared with her husband, at least, she was a dynamo.

She was doing a good and meticulous job sorting the books and albums and other materials that had been discovered by a maid clearing out the attic not long before. Lord Duxter knew he was underpaying Jane Frost and resolved to do something about that, soon. Quite soon. No one had ever accused Lord Duxter of being a tightwad, not even his wife, who had accused him of many things. He hired the best and was willing to pay for the best, a lesson he’d learned watching his father penny-pinch over the years with disastrous result. He was also known for his philanthropic impulses, which had earned him an OBE for services to charity and publishing. His little joke was that given the slim profit margins in publishing these days, the whole publishing scene was tantamount to running a charity. But in fact the writers’ retreats he sponsored, in which he threw open the doors of his home to struggling authors for up to a month, were what had brought him to the notice of the Queen. He was an incubator for talent, of which he was enormously proud. He wished being an incubator paid better, but one couldn’t have everything, he supposed.

Now Colin was actually waving his hands over the pack of cards as he said “Abracadabra” in his deep, booming voice. What an asshole. It’s a wonder he wasn’t wearing a pointy hat and a cape with moons and stars painted on. Lord Duxter supposed he should feel pity for a man raised in such a stifling environment as that of Hawthorne Cottage but Lord Duxter was not a man much given to fellow feeling, and he certainly did not care about this oaf. He preferred to assist mankind at a vast, safe distance whenever possible. As Charles Schultz had said, “I love mankind; it’s people I can’t stand.” Yes, at arm’s length was quite the best way. Otherwise, people tried to embroil one in all their little problems.

Now he tried desperately to catch his wife’s eye but she was too enthralled by this idiot display. The writers’ retreats had in fact been her idea, and much of the work that went into establishing and funding the program had been hers as well, facts he chose to forget when the subject of his OBE came up. For that OBE was without question the crowning achievement of his entire life. Wooton Press was his brainchild and in a tough business he had prevailed, so it was only right the powers that be had finally acknowledged it. And not, in his estimation, before time.

Then there was the house itself to be proud of. He had bought Wooton Priory from King’s College, Cambridge, which had owned the building and grounds since the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. A small, deconsecrated church, formerly the Priory Church of St. George, still stood on the grounds. It had been converted into a private en suite writers’ studio, which Lord Duxter reserved for his bestselling authors. The midlisters were penned up in the main house where they shared the bathing facilities, not without a great deal of grumbling. Lord Duxter had found it beneficial thus to promote competition and friction and if possible ill-will among his authors, always dangling before them the carrot of being invited to stay at the St. George Studio provided they sold enough books for him. It kept them from bitching about their publicity, or lack thereof, if not for long.

King’s College had sold the place to him with certain conditions attached, among them that it be used in part for educational purposes, and of course he’d had to fulfill conditions set by the Anglican Church before they released the building into his care. Like it was any of their business anymore, really, but he pretended to be delighted to cooperate with everyone in order to gain his heart’s desire. The main buildings of the priory, huddled against the ancient forest and pond and next to the churchyard where for centuries monks had been laid to rest, had been shambolic wrecks when he first saw and fell in love with the place: saw the sunlight streaming through stark, empty windows and splaying patterns against stone floors tufted with weeds. With the success of Wooton Press he began to refurbish the buildings in earnest. Establishing Wooton Priory as a writers’ retreat was the next natural step—it required no genius for Marina to have thought of it. And besides, there was that stipulation from King’s to think of.

Copyright © 2018 by G. M. Malliet.