Death at a Country Mansion
(Daisy Thorne English Village Mystery – Book 1)
A shocking murder in a sleepy English village featuring hairdresser-turned-sleuth, Daisy Thorne.
Daisy Thorne’s pride and joy is her hair salon, Ooh La La, and because almost everyone in the village has been in it at some point or another, there’s not much that goes on that Daisy doesn’t know about. When her best friend Floria’s mother – the famous opera diva, Dame Serena Levanté – is murdered in her country mansion and a valuable painting is stolen, Floria begs Daisy to investigate.
Assigned to the case is gruff-but-effective DI Paul McGuinness who, at first, is against any involvement by the vivacious hairdresser, but after a while, comes to realize her local knowledge just might hold the key to solving the mystery.
As Daisy and DI McGuinness work their way through the growing suspect list, they have to figure out which clues are relevant and which are not, in their hunt for the killer.
If you like a cozy mystery, especially one set in a typical English village, then you’ll love this glamorous, page-turning series.
The ice in her glass tinkled provocatively as the scotch hit it. Another marriage in tatters. Her fourth, in fact. Serena shook her head and took a big gulp, feeling the whiskey encase her in a golden glow as it went down. Bastard. How could Collin do this to her? With an air-hostess, of all people. What the hell was he thinking?
She’d arrived home earlier that afternoon to find her husband packing. The lunch meeting with her solicitor had finished earlier than expected, otherwise, she’d never have caught him.
“I’m leaving you, Serena.” He tossed shorts and T-shirts into his suitcase, then fumbled in his dresser for the sunscreen. “I wanted to avoid a confrontation, but since you’re here, you may as well hear it from me. You’re a drunk. You’ve made my life intolerable. I’ve had it with your bitching and sniping, not to mention your blatant attempts to seduce every red-blooded man who walks through the door. Christ, you’re an embarrassment.”
She’d been so stunned; she hadn’t known how to respond. Yes, her drinking had got out of hand lately, and she had tried to chat up that handsome, young musician at the summer party, but that was Collin’s fault for ignoring her. What did he expect her to do? He certainly didn’t touch her anymore.
He continued, “I’ve met someone, someone who appreciates me. We’re going to the house in the Bahamas. My solicitor will be in touch.” Collin hauled the heavy suitcase onto the landing. It was the beige one, the same one he’d had on their honeymoon. Feeling a surge of rage, she’d stumbled after him. “What do you mean you’ve met someone? Who?”
“None of your business.”
“What do you mean it’s none of my business? You’re my husband, for Christ’s sake. Who is she?” She was screeching now, a horrid, high-pitched sound tinged with desperation.
“If you must know, her name is Bernadette and she’s an air-hostess. We met on my last trip to Paris.”
Serena stared at him. This couldn’t be happening. “How dare you walk out on me! And that’s my house in the Bahamas. I bought it and I forbid you to use it as a sordid fuck-pad.” Her language always deteriorated when she’d been drinking, and she’d had a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc with lunch.
He turned to face her, his voice unusually calm. Normally, they’d both be screaming at each other by now. “That’s rich, coming from you. And for your information, we put the Nassau house in my name, remember? For tax purposes. It’s mine now.” He smirked and picked up the suitcase to carry it downstairs. The grand staircase was Serena’s favourite feature in the stately old mansion, and the main reason she’d bought it almost three decades ago. It seemed like a lifetime. She adored the glorious mahogany balustrade with spiral spindles which Violeta, the housekeeper, kept polished to a high shine, and the soft lilac carpeting with gold strips. It reminded her of elegant Venetian palaces and old-fashioned grandeur. She’d once performed for a select group of guests, standing at the top of the grand staircase. The rapture on their faces as she sung Puccini’s O Mio Babbino Caro had made her heart soar.
Serena floundered after him, coming to an unsteady halt on the landing. “Please Collin, don’t do this. Let’s talk about it.”
He’d glanced up, but instead of looking at her, his gaze rose to the portrait of the woman she’d once been, which hung above her head. That’s when she knew it was truly over. He couldn’t even look at her anymore. She turned her face up to the painting, grasping the balustrade so as not to lose her balance. It had been commissioned at the height of her fame and the beautiful, serene expression on her face made her heart twist every time she saw it. She’d been so happy then. Life had been magical. Her records were selling, her concerts were sold out, everyone wanted a piece of her. How had it all gone so wrong?
“I didn’t want it to end like this, you know.” Collin’s face softened momentarily. “But you left me no choice. Living with you has become… impossible.” At that point, she’d fallen to her knees, tears streaming down her face.
“I hope you find some peace, Serena.”
And he walked out of the house pulling his suitcase behind him.
Serena hung her head and sobbed, great rasping sounds that resonated from the depths of her soul. The hand holding the tumbler drooped, spilling the drink on the Persian rug. She didn’t care. How had her life come to this?
Age was a bitch. Once she’d hit fifty, her voice had gone downhill, no doubt helped along by the booze and the screaming matches with her husband. But without her singing, she was nothing, just an empty shell, and no matter how much she drank or how many lovers she took, she couldn’t fill the void. Her laser-sharp soprano voice that had once captivated the masses and enthralled royalty was no more. She’d lost that iridescent quality that allowed her to scale the fearsome heights of the most physically demanding music. She poured another drink, then another. Eventually, the sought-after haze descended and her head lolled back onto the headrest of the chaise lounge.
Serena woke with a start in the middle of the night and looked around in a panic. Where was she? Oh, yeah. She was still on the chaise lounge, fully clothed.
What was that noise that had woken her? Was it the front door? She listened, holding her breath. The room swam in front of her eyes and her tongue was parched. A wave of nausea hit her and she bent over, fearing she might be sick. God, she’d polished off most of the scotch. That was heavy, even for her. There was a loud creak on the staircase. She recognised it. The loose board before the landing.
Someone was in the house.
She glanced around for a weapon, but all she could find was the empty whiskey bottle on the side table. Grabbing it by the neck, she stumbled towards the door. Her heart pounded as she peered onto the landing.
Relief flooded her body. “Oh, thank God, it’s you. You almost gave me a heart attack.”
She dropped her arm carrying the bottle, just as the intruder raised his.
Serena screamed as she realised what was happening. Then came the hammer blow. Her head exploded in pain and she fell to her knees. The room spun, she was so dizzy.
“Why?” She reached out, trying to grab something, anything to stabilise herself. Her hand folded around the balustrade.
The intruder lifted her to her feet and for a moment she thought it might be okay, but then he bent her over the railing. Her hand tightened its grip as she flopped forward.
The intruder pried her fingers loose. It wasn’t hard, she had no strength left. Then, she felt herself falling. It was a strange sensation, and for a fleeting moment she felt weightless and free. Then, the air was knocked out of her and darkness descended.
Daisy was on her hands and knees weeding the garden when her mobile phone rang. It was the beginning of summer and before she could plant the multitude of colourful potted geraniums she’d bought from the garden centre, she had to purge the beds of weeds first. The pesky invaders seemed to have taken root in the spring, thanks to the unseasonably warm weather, and had multiplied at a speed to rival that of a time-lapse motion camera. The upbeat ringtone interrupted her audio-lecture on the motivations for sexual offences, part of the Forensic Psychology diploma she was studying via correspondence. She pulled off a well-used gardening glove to answer it.
“Daisy, it’s Floria.” Her best friend’s voice wobbled like she’d been crying.
“Floria, what’s wrong?”
“It’s mother. She–She’s dead.” The voice cracked.
“What?” Daisy thought she’d misheard. The audio recording was saying:
In all important areas of life, in social activity, in love, in work, sexual offenders see themselves failing or inevitably destined to fail.
Daisy reached for her iPad and pressed stop.
Floria’s voice was hollow. “Mother’s dead. She had an accident. Oh, Daisy, please will you come to the house?”
“Of course. I’ll meet you there.” Daisy didn’t need an explanation as to which house. Floria’s mother, Dame Serena Levanté, the famous opera singer who had graced the pages of almost all of the tabloids at some point over the last twenty years, lived at Brompton Court, a stately home halfway between Daisy’s village of Edgemead and Esher in Surrey.
She dashed inside and changed out of her dirty gardening clothes into jeans and a blouse. What on earth had happened? Serena dead? What accident? Had she had a car crash? Perhaps she’d been driving under the influence. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Daisy’s mind was racing as she jumped into her VW Polo and reversed out of the driveway at pace, nearly backing into Mr. Henderson’s flower delivery van trundling up the road. He swerved onto the grassy verge to avoid her, then put his hand on the hooter.
“Sorry!” she yelled out of the window as she sped off in the direction of Brompton Court.
Floria Levanté was one of Daisy’s best friends. She still remembered how they’d met. It was a funny story and one they took great pleasure in reminiscing over. It had been Ladies Day at the prestigious Ascot horse-races five years ago. Floria had bounced into the salon to have her hair done and Daisy had tended to her. The moment they’d got chatting, Daisy had known Floria was a kindred spirit. She’d brought out the Prosecco and by the time Floria’s hair was done, they were both giggling over the horses’ names on the race sheet Floria was studying.
“He was renamed Bunny Killer because he trampled over a bunny in his first race,” Floria explained, trying to keep a straight face. “I swear, it’s true. I know the trainer.”
“Look at this one,” said Daisy. “He’s called Badly. Can you imagine the commentator? Here we have Jo Bloggs riding Badly.” They went off into peels of laughter.
“Broomstick, now that’s a good name,” said Daisy. “Perhaps you should go for that one.”
“Sounds like the perfect horse for my mother,” remarked Floria, setting Daisy off again.
Floria convinced Daisy to join her and her friends at the races, so after a manic dash home so Daisy could change, they’d caught a cab to Ascot. What Daisy hadn’t known at the time was Floria ran with a very posh set of friends. All ex-public schoolgirls who came from wealthy Surrey families and worked part-time in Mayfair at art galleries and had memberships to private clubs. The men were similar, university educated with burgeoning careers in finance or banking in the City. Not the kind of crowd Daisy was used to hanging out with. However, once she got to know them, Daisy fitted right in. Her natural exuberance and sense of humour endeared her to all Floria’s friends. The Pimms flowed, the betting commenced, and by the end of a very long, boozy day, Daisy knew she’d made a friend for life.
Daisy raced up the extensive driveway in her VW to Brompton Court. The gravel road wound through acres of beautifully landscaped gardens tended to by the ever-diligent Pepe, and opened into a gravel car-park in front of the house. The midmorning sun shone directly onto the stone Palladian mansion, bathing it in a golden hue. Usually, Daisy paused to admire the shimmering façade which never ceased to take her breath away, but today she was distracted by the flashing lights of the ambulance and several police cars outside.
Floria was deep in conversation with a tall, broad-shouldered man holding a notepad. A plain-clothed detective, no doubt. She was surprised by his casual attire: dark-blue jeans and a beige T-shirt, pulled tight across the shoulders as if complaining about the detective’s bulk. He really needed a bigger size. It was a far cry from the formal suit and tie her grandfather used to wear when he was in the CID, but then that was twenty years ago, and it was the weekend. His expression was serious, bordering on annoyed as if he didn’t appreciate being called out on a beautiful Sunday morning at the beginning of summer. He glanced up as Daisy approached.
Floria threw herself into her friend’s arms. “Oh, Daisy. Can you believe it? Mother’s dead.”
Daisy hugged her, then stretched out an arm towards the officer. “Hi, I’m Daisy Thorne.”
The detective gave a curt nod. “DI Paul McGuinness, Surrey CID. Are you related to Miss Levanté?”
“No, I’m her best friend.”
He glanced from one to the other, frown-lines on his brow. He was sizing them up. Most people did when they went out together. Similar in looks, they both had pale blonde hair and blue eyes, but while Daisy was tall and lanky, Floria was average height and curvy. She’d made an excellent Marilyn Monroe at last year’s Hollywood-themed ball. Daisy had gone as Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, complete with yellow jumpsuit.
Daisy shot him a coquettish smile but it didn’t have the desired effect. He returned an icy stare. “I’m sorry Miss Thorne, but this is an active crime scene and you can’t be here.”
Floria gripped her friend’s hand.
“I’m needed for moral support, Detective Inspector,” said Daisy firmly. “Can’t you see Floria is distraught?”
Her friend’s lip quivered obligingly. “I don’t have anyone else to call. My father lives in France and I have no siblings. Please, let her stay?”
The Detective Inspector stared at them for a moment, then obviously decided to let it slide. He changed tack, turning his attention back to the investigation. “Where is Dame Serena Levanté’s husband?”
Daisy pursed her lips. “Collin? I don’t know. Isn’t he here?”
Floria welled up. “I haven’t seen him. I just keep seeing mother lying at the foot of the stairs.” She turned to Daisy. “Oh, Daisy, it was too terrible. I saw her body… lying there… staring up at the ceiling… her eyes were still open.” A shudder ran through her voluptuous frame.
Daisy reached out and hugged her, holding her close while DI McGuinness made a note in his little black book. “We’ll have to trace him. Do you have his mobile phone number?”
Floria sniffed. “It’s in my phone.” Daisy stepped back as Floria pulled the device out of her back pocket and looked up the number. DI McGuinness scribbled it onto a page which he tore off, then he beckoned to a young sergeant standing nearby who immediately came over. He had large, square shoulders and a flat, earnest face. Daisy guessed ex-military.
“Buckley, I need you to trace Collin Harrison, Dame Levanté’s husband.” He handed the sergeant the slip of paper. “Do it now.”
“Yes, sir.” The sergeant pulled out his phone and walked away from the group to make a call.
Just then, Violeta, the Levanté’s elderly housekeeper shuffled over. Daisy was shocked by how pale the Italian woman looked. Reaching out, the housekeeper clutched Floria and Daisy’s hands in both of hers. She was trembling. “I find her this morning. Oh, Dio mio! Is too terrible. I can’t believe she gone.” In her distress, her English had faltered.
“You’re shaking, Violeta.” Daisy was concerned. The woman was suffering from shock. Her eyes were wide and had a wild, unfocused look in them like she wanted desperately to un-see something but she couldn’t. “Let’s get you inside. Inspector, we’ll be in the kitchen if you need us. I’m going to make everyone a strong cup of tea.”
DI McGuinness hesitated, but before he could complain, Daisy had shepherded everyone around the side of the house to the kitchen entrance so they wouldn’t have to walk through the main hall where forensic technicians were processing the crime scene. She put the kettle on and bought out Violeta’s favourite tea set, the one with little lemons painted on the cups and saucers. The housekeeper had once told her she’d bought it while on holiday on the island of Capri, and it reminded her of her native Italy.
Once seated around the rustic kitchen table, cups of sweet tea in front of them, Daisy asked, “Tell us what happened, Violeta?”
The Italian woman raised her eyes to the heavens and shook her head. She seemed somewhat calmer now, thanks to the tea. “I came to get my statins, which I keep in the kitchen cupboard so I don’t forget to take them. Sunday’s my day off, so I not normally here. Anyway, I take one and was just about to leave when I think the house is very quiet. There’s usually music playing.” She glanced at Floria, “You know what she’s like, loud opera all hours of the day. So I go to check, and that’s when I find her lying at the bottom of the stairs all bent and buckled like a rag-doll.” The housekeeper closed her eyes as if in prayer. “I never forget the look on her face. Her eyes were open but she terrified like she seen a ghost.”
“What do you think happened?”
“It looks like she fell. I find an empty whiskey bottle on the landing upstairs.” She bit her lip and frowned. “She was fully dressed too, in the same clothes as yesterday. She did not go to bed.”
Probably passed out fully clothed, Daisy surmised. Floria had told her that Dame Serena’s drinking had become so bad of late that the famous opera singer hardly ever left the house.
Floria clutched the hand of the woman who’d practically raised her. “It’s okay, Violeta. The drink was bound to get her eventually, although I must admit, I didn’t see this coming. I thought she’d end up in a rehab centre or wrap her Mercedes around a tree, not topple head-first over the balustrade in her own home.”
“It’s hard to take in. Will you be alright, Floria?” Daisy asked her friend. “You can stay with me for a couple of days, if you like.”
Relief flashed across Floria’s face. “Thanks, that would be great. I don’t want to be alone right now. Not after this. Mother and I were never close, as you know, but seeing her like that, so lifeless…” She let her sentence hang.
“It’s been a terrible shock for everyone,” Daisy murmured. From what Floria had let slip over the years, parenting hadn’t been Serena’s strong point. Floria had been raised by nannies and au pairs, until she’d been old enough to ship off to boarding school, and even then, it hadn’t been weekly boarding, but full-time boarding, with Floria only allowed home for the holidays. From what Daisy could make out, most of those holidays were either spent with friends or Violeta and Pepe, who lived in the gatehouse on the property. Why the woman had ever had a child, she couldn’t fathom.
“I wonder where Collin is?” Floria wrapped her hands around her teacup. In light of what had transpired, Serena’s fourth husband was conspicuously absent.
“He gone.” Violeta looked out of the window.
Both Daisy and Floria stared at her in surprise.
“What do you know, Violeta?” asked Daisy slowly.
Violeta shrugged in a way only Italians can. “He left her to run away with his lover. I think he finally had enough.”
“His lover? You mean Collin was having an affair?” Floria frowned. “With who?”
“Why don’t you start from the beginning,” Daisy suggested. “What happened yesterday?”
Violeta leaned back against the hard wooden back of the chair. “Serena come home early from her appointment with that nice solicitor, Greg. She been drinking. Collin was here packing. He ask me to iron some shirts to take away with him.” She paused to take a breath. “Serena ask him where he was going and he told her he leaving her. That he want a divorce.”
“A divorce?” gasped Floria.
“Sh… let her finish,” said Daisy, sensing Violeta had more to say. She didn’t want to interrupt the housekeeper’s train of thought.
“Serena scream at him, demanding to know who he sleeping with. He told her it was air-hostess, someone he meet on a trip to France. He said they going to the Bahamas, to the house there, and that it is over between them.”
Violeta wrung her hands. “I never seen madam so upset. She sit on landing and cried for hours. I was very worried about her.”
Floria put her cup down on the table and took a deep breath. “So, he finally worked up the courage to leave her? I didn’t think he had it in him.”
“I can’t say I’m surprised.” Daisy tilted her head to the side. “She practically threw herself at that Russian composer, Vladimir Someone, at the garden party last month. The guy must have been half her age. Don’t you remember? Collin had a fit. I thought then that it was tickets.”
“Vladimir Kustov.” Floria knew most of her mother’s musician friends. “I suppose it was inevitable. Mother’s behaviour has been out of control this last year. I don’t know how Collin put up with it for so long, to be honest. He deserves a medal.”
“She was out of her mind with grief,” Violeta added. “I don’t think she believe he’d leave her. I take her up some tea, but she throw it against the wall and scream at me to get out. We were going to my daughter’s for supper, so I leave her alone. If only I stay…” She hung her head.
Daisy squeezed Violeta’s hand. “It’s not your fault. You weren’t to know she’d fall over the balustrade.”
At that moment DI McGuinness flung open the kitchen door, giving them all a fright. He’d obviously never heard of knocking.
“Sorry to interrupt.” He took a step into the room and glanced around the table. “Do you mind if I ask you some questions?” Daisy noticed the faintest hint of an Irish lilt to his otherwise gravelly voice.
“Go ahead, Inspector. Would you like some tea?” She gestured to a vacant seat opposite her.
“No, thank you.” He pulled out the chair and sat down. His long legs collided with hers under the table but he didn’t appear to notice, so she discreetly shifted hers to one side. They waited for him to speak.
He hesitated as if unsure how to proceed, then making a decision, gazed directly at Floria. “I’m sorry to have to tell you this, Miss Levanté, but it appears your mother was murdered.”
“What?” barked Floria knocking over her teacup which, luckily, was almost empty. Remnants of tea spilled out onto the saucer and table, but no one made a move to stop it.
“Dio mio!” Violeta crossed herself.
“How do you know she was murdered?” Daisy leaned forward over her cup.
DI McGuinness met her gaze. “There is evidence of blunt force trauma to the head.”
“You mean someone hit her?”
“That appears to be the case. It’ll be confirmed during the post-mortem.”
“Who would want to kill mother?” Floria whispered, uncomprehending.
Collin for one, thought Daisy, although she didn’t say as much.
“Is that why she fell?” asked Floria.
“Or was she pushed?” Daisy couldn’t help herself. She’d always had a flair for the dramatic.
The Inspector glared at her and muttered, “We don’t know that for sure yet. Forensics is still working on it.”
“I don’t believe this?” Floria dropped her head into her hands. “I feel like I’m living in a nightmare.”
Daisy rubbed her back.
DI McGuinness cleared his throat. It didn’t help to allay the gravelliness. I’m afraid I have to ask you all where you were last night?”
“Are we suspects now?” Floria’s eyes were as wide as the hand-painted saucers under the teacups.
Daisy smiled reassuringly. “It’s just procedure, honey. The inspector wants to rule us out.”
At his questioning look, she added, “My grandfather was a cop. I spent a lot of time with him growing up.” Her folks wouldn’t win any parenting awards either.
“I’ll start the ball rolling.” Floria wrung her hands. “Last night, I was at a restaurant with my boyfriend, James – or rather ex-boyfriend, now. He dumped me. Prick.”
DI McGuinness looked startled.
Daisy jumped up. “Oh, sweetie. Why didn’t you say? I’m so sorry. What happened?”
“He called me a bimbo.” She sniffed. “Said I was a PR disaster. It was the picture of me in the Jacuzzi that did it. Someone leaked a copy to The Star. His bosses told him to get rid of me or he’d lose his job.”
“Bastard,” huffed Daisy. “He should have defended you. He’s a gutless coward. Besides, that was a great party.”
“I know, right? And there were loads of us in the Jacuzzi. It wasn’t just me.”
“He’s an idiot. You’re better off without him.”
Violeta nodded in agreement.
DI McGuinness didn’t know what to say. The expression on his face was quite comical, and Daisy would have laughed if it wasn’t for the seriousness of the situation. He clearly hadn’t anticipated the turn in the conversation.
“Erm, could you give me the name of the restaurant?”
“Posticino’s in South Ken.”
He wrote it down.
“It’s very good if you like Italian food,” Daisy pointed out. “I recommend the Veal Limone.”
McGuinness didn’t reply. Instead, he turned to the housekeeper. “Where were you, Mrs Bonello?”
“Who, me?” She looked shocked to be asked. The help was usually invisible, at least in Serena’s household. “I was at my daughter’s house. We, that’s my husband and I, go every Saturday after work. We babysit so they can go out. Sunday’s our day off, you see.”
“But you didn’t stay over last night?”
“No, her little one come down with fever, so my daughter think it best if we don’t stay. Besides, as I tell the girls, I’d forget my statins here. That’s why I pop in this morning, to get them.” She nodded towards the cupboard above the kettle.
“Pepe is the groundsman here,” explained Floria. “They’ve both been with us for over twenty years. I’ve known Violeta since I was ten. There is no way they are involved in this.”
“Thank you, Miss Levanté.” He turned back to the housekeeper. “Could you give me your daughter’s name and address?”
The Italian woman obliged.
Daisy waited her turn. Finally, the inspector settled his direct gaze on her. Up close, she noticed his eyes were an unusual shade of grey, like storm clouds just before the rain poured down. “Now you, Miss Thorne. Where were you last night?”
She thought through her evening. “I had to do a group of ladies who were going to see Tom Jones at the race course, so I worked late. Once they’d left, I cleaned the salon and got home about eight. I made supper, then watched Midsomer Murders until ten. You know, you remind me a bit of Inspector Barnaby, just a much younger version. You have that same intense look about you.”
DI McGuinness sighed and said wearily, “Can anyone vouch for you?”
“Actually, yes. Mr Tiddles escaped, so I helped Moira find him. That must have been at about ten-thirty. I was getting ready for bed.”
“Moira’s cat.” At his exasperated expression, she added, “Moira’s my neighbour.”
“I think I surmised that much, thank you. I’ll have to get her address too, if you don’t mind.”
“No problem.” She gave it to him, then added, “I’m the cottage on the left, number four, if you have any more questions.”
“I think that’ll do, thank you.”
“Daisy’s a wealth of information,” Floria told him with a little nod to back up her statement. “She knows absolutely everyone.”
Daisy smiled. “It’s true. I own the hair salon in the High Street. It’s the only one in the village. Everyone has been in at some point or another. So if you want the low down on anyone, come and find me. It’s called Ooh La La.”
DI McGuinness gave her a thoughtful look. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
* * *
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