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Fireside Tales from the Queen of Mystery
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INSTANT NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER!
“Reading a perfectly plotted Agatha Christie is like crunching into a perfect apple: that pure, crisp, absolute satisfaction.” –Tana French, New York Times bestselling author of the Dublin Murder Squad novels
An all-new collection of winter-themed stories from the Queen of Mystery, just in time for the holidays–including the original version of “Christmas Adventure,” never before released in the United States!
There’s a chill in the air and the days are growing shorter . . . It’s the perfect time to curl up in front of a crackling fire with these wintry whodunits from the legendary Agatha Christie. But beware of deadly snowdrifts and dangerous gifts, poisoned meals and mysterious guests. This chilling compendium of short stories–some featuring beloved detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple–is an essential omnibus for Christie fans and the perfect holiday gift for mystery lovers.
“Agatha Christie [is] the maestro of murder tales.” –People
Three Blind Mice
It was very cold. The sky was dark and heavy with unshed snow.
A man in a dark overcoat, with his muffler pulled up round his face, and his hat pulled down over his eyes, came along Culver Street and went up the steps of number 74. He put his finger on the bell and heard it shrilling in the basement below.
Mrs Casey, her hands busy in the sink, said bitterly, 'Drat that bell. Never any peace, there isn't.'
Wheezing a little, she toiled up the basement stairs and opened the door.
The man standing silhouetted against the lowering sky outside asked in a whisper, 'Mrs Lyon?'
'Second floor,' said Mrs Casey. 'You can go on up. Does she expect you?' The man slowly shook his head. 'Oh, well, go on up and knock.'
She watched him as he went up the shabbily carpeted stairs. Afterwards she said he 'gave her a funny feeling.' But actually all she thought was that he must have a pretty bad cold only to be able to whisper like that—and no wonder with the weather what it was.
When the man got round the bend of the staircase he began to whistle softly. The tune he whistled was 'Three Blind Mice.'
Molly Davis stepped back into the road and looked up at the newly painted board by the gate.
She nodded approval. It looked, it really did look, quite professional. Or, perhaps, one might say almost professional. The T of Guest House staggered uphill a little, and the end of Manor was slightly crowded, but on the whole Giles had made a wonderful job of it. Giles was really very clever. There were so many things that he could do. She was always making fresh discoveries about this husband of hers. He said so little about himself that it was only by degrees that she was finding out what a lot of varied talents he had. An ex-naval man was always a 'handy man,' so people said.
Well, Giles would have need of all his talents in their new venture. Nobody could be more raw to the business of running a guest house than she and Giles. But it would be great fun. And it did solve the housing problem.
It had been Molly's idea. When Aunt Katherine died, and the lawyers wrote to her and informed her that her aunt had left her Monkswell Manor, the natural reaction of the young couple had been to sell it. Giles had asked, 'What is it like?' And Molly had replied, 'Oh, a big, rambling old house, full of stuffy, old-fashioned Victorian furniture. Rather a nice garden, but terribly overgrown since the war, because there's been only one old gardener left.'
So they had decided to put the house on the market, and keep just enough furniture to furnish a small cottage or flat for themselves.
But two difficulties arose at once. First, there weren't any small cottages or flats to be found, and secondly, all the furniture was enormous.
'Well,' said Molly, 'we'll just have to sell it all. I suppose it will sell?'
The solicitor assured them that nowadays anything would sell.
'Very probably,' he said, 'someone will buy it for a hotel or guesthouse in which case they might like to buy it with the furniture complete. Fortunately the house is in very good repair. The late Miss Emory had extensive repairs and modernizations done just before the war, and there has been very little deterioration. Oh, yes, it's in good shape.'
And it was then that Molly had had her idea.
'Giles,' she said, 'why shouldn't we run it as a guesthouse ourselves?'
At first her husband had scoffed at the idea, but Molly had persisted.
'We needn't take very many people—not at first. It's an easy house to run—it's got hot and cold water in the bedrooms and central heating and a gas cooker. And we can have hens and ducks and our own eggs, and vegetables.'
'Who'd do all the work—isn't it very hard to get servants?'
'Oh, we'd have to do the work. But wherever we lived we'd have to do that. A few extra people wouldn't really mean much more to do. We'd probably get a woman to come in after a bit when we got properly started. If we had only five people, each paying seven guineas a week—' Molly departed into the realms of somewhat optimistic mental arithmetic.
'And think, Giles,' she ended, 'it would be our own house. With our own things. As it is, it seems to me it will be years before we can ever find anywhere to live.'
That, Giles admitted, was true. They had had so little time together since their hasty marriage, that they were both longing to settle down in a home.
So the great experiment was set under way. Advertisements were put in the local paper and in the Times, and various answers came.
And now, today, the first of the guests was to arrive. Giles had gone off early in the car to try and obtain some army wire netting that had been advertised as for sale on the other side of the county. Molly announced the necessity of walking to the village to make some last purchases.
The only thing that was wrong was the weather. For the last two days it had been bitterly cold, and now the snow was beginning to fall. Molly hurried up the drive, thick, feathery flakes falling on her waterproofed shoulders and bright curly hair. The weather forecasts had been lugubrious in the extreme. Heavy snowfall was to be expected.
She hoped anxiously that all the pipes wouldn't freeze. It would be too bad if everything went wrong just as they started. She glanced at her watch. Past teatime. Would Giles have got back yet? Would he be wondering where she was?
'I had to go to the village again for something I had forgotten,' she would say. And he would laugh and say, 'More tins?'
Tins were a joke between them. They were always on the lookout for tins of food. The larder was really quite nicely stocked now in case of emergencies.
And, Molly thought with a grimace as she looked up at the sky, it looked as though emergencies were going to present themselves very soon.
The house was empty. Giles was not back yet. Molly went first into the kitchen, then upstairs, going round the newly prepared bedrooms. Mrs Boyle in the south room with the mahogany and the fourposter. Major Metcalf in the blue room with the oak. Mr Wren in the east room with the bay window. All the rooms looked very nice—and what a blessing that Aunt Katherine had had such a splendid stock of linen. Molly patted a counterpane into place and went downstairs again. It was nearly dark. The house felt suddenly very quiet and empty. It was a lonely house, two miles from a village, two miles, as Molly put it, from anywhere.
She had often been alone in the house before—but she had never before been so conscious of being alone in it.
The snow beat in a soft flurry against the windowpanes. It made a whispery, uneasy sound. Supposing Giles couldn't get back—supposing the snow was so thick that the car couldn't get through? Supposing she had to stay alone here—stay alone for days, perhaps.
She looked round the kitchen—a big, comfortable kitchen that seemed to call for a big, comfortable cook presiding at the kitchen table, her jaws moving rhythmically as she ate rock cakes and drank black tea—she should be flanked by a tall, elderly parlormaid on one side and a round, rosy housemaid on the other, with a kitchen-maid at the other end of the table observing her betters with frightened eyes. And instead there was just herself, Molly Davis, playing a role that did not yet seem a very natural role to play. Her whole life, at the moment, seemed unreal—Giles seemed unreal. She was playing a part—just playing a part.
A shadow passed the window, and she jumped—a strange man was coming through the snow. She heard the rattle of the side door. The stranger stood there in the open doorway, shaking off snow, a strange man, walking into the empty house.
And then, suddenly, illusion fled.
'Oh Giles,' she cried, 'I'm so glad you've come!'
'Hullo, sweetheart! What filthy weather! Lord, I'm frozen.'
He stamped his feet and blew through his hands.
Automatically Molly picked up the coat that he had thrown in a Giles-like manner onto the oak chest. She put it on a hanger, taking out of the stuffed pockets a muffler, a newspaper, a ball of string, and the morning's correspondence which he had shoved in pell mell. Moving into the kitchen, she laid down the articles on the dresser and put the kettle on the gas.
'Did you get the netting?' she asked. 'What ages you've been.'
'It wasn't the right kind. Wouldn't have been any good for us. I went on to another dump, but that wasn't any good, either. What have you been doing with yourself? Nobody turned up yet, I suppose?'
'Mrs Boyle isn't coming till tomorrow, anyway.'
'Major Metcalf and Mr Wren ought to be here today.'
'Major Metcalf sent a card to say he wouldn't be here till tomorrow.'
'Then that leaves us and Mr Wren for dinner. What do you think he's like? Correct sort of retired civil servant is my idea.'
'No, I think he's an artist.'
'In that case,' said Giles, 'we'd better get a week's rent in advance.'
'Oh, no, Giles, they bring luggage. If they don't pay we hang on to their luggage.'
'And suppose their luggage is stones wrapped up in newspaper? The truth is, Molly, we don't in the least know what we're up against in this business. I hope they don't spot what beginners we are.'
'Mrs Boyle is sure to,' said Molly. 'She's that kind of woman.'
'How do you know? You haven't seen her?'
Molly turned away. She spread a newspaper on the table, fetched some cheese, and set to work to grate it.
'What's this?' inquired her husband.
'It's going to be Welsh rarebit,' Molly informed him. 'Bread crumbs and mashed potatoes and just a teeny weeny bit of cheese to justify its name.'
'Aren't you a clever cook?' said her admiring husband.
'I wonder. I can do one thing at a time. It's assembling them that needs so much practice. Breakfast is the worst.'
'Because it all happens at once—eggs and bacon and hot milk and coffee and toast. The milk boils over, or the toast burns, or the bacon frizzles, or the eggs go hard. You have to be as active as a scalded cat watching everything at once.'
'I shall have to creep down unobserved tomorrow morning and watch this scalded-cat impersonation.'
'The kettle's boiling,' said Molly. 'Shall we take the tray into the library and hear the wireless? It's almost time for the news.'
'As we seem to be going to spend almost the whole of our time in the kitchen, we ought to have a wireless there, too.'
'Yes. How nice kitchens are. I love this kitchen. I think it's far and away the nicest room in the house. I like the dresser and the plates, and I simply love the lavish feeling that an absolutely enormous kitchen range gives you—though, of course, I'm thankful I haven't got to cook on it.'
'I suppose a whole year's fuel ration would go in one day.'
'Almost certainly, I should say. But think of the great joints that were roasted in it—sirloins of beef and saddles of mutton. Colossal copper preserving pans full of homemade strawberry jam with pounds and pounds of sugar going into it. What a lovely, comfortable age the Victorian age was. Look at the furniture upstairs, large and solid and rather ornate—but, oh!—the heavenly comfort of it, with lots of room for the clothes one used to have, and every drawer sliding in and out so easily. Do you remember that smart modern flat we were lent? Everything built in and sliding—only nothing slid—it always stuck. And the doors pushed shut—only they never stayed shut, or if they did shut they wouldn't open.'
'Yes, that's the worst of gadgets. If they don't go right, you're sunk.'
'Well, come on, let's hear the news.'
The news consisted mainly of grim warnings about the weather, the usual deadlock in foreign affairs, spirited bickerings in Parliament, and a murder in Culver Street, Paddington.
'Ugh,' said Molly, switching it off. 'Nothing but misery. I'm not going to hear appeals for fuel economy all over again. What do they expect you to do, sit and freeze? I don't think we ought to have tried to start a guesthouse in the winter. We ought to have waited until the spring.' She added in a different tone of voice, 'I wonder what the woman was like who was murdered.'
'Was that her name? I wonder who wanted to murder her and why.'
'Perhaps she had a fortune under the floorboards.'
'When it says the police are anxious to interview a man 'seen in the vicinity' does that mean he's the murderer?'
'I think it's usually that. Just a polite way of putting it.'
The shrill note of a bell made them both jump.
'That's the front door,' said Giles. 'Enter—a murderer,' he added facetiously.
'It would be, of course, in a play. Hurry up. It must be Mr Wren. Now we shall see who's right about him, you or me.'
Mr Wren and a flurry of snow came in together with a rush. All that Molly, standing in the library door, could see of the newcomer was his silhouette against the white world outside.
How alike, thought Molly, were all men in their livery of civilization. Dark overcoat, gray hat, muffler round the neck.
In another moment Giles had shut the front door against the elements, Mr Wren was unwinding his muffler and casting down his suitcase and flinging off his hat—all, it seemed, at the same time, and also talking. He had a high-pitched, almost querulous voice and stood revealed in the light of the hall as a young man with a shock of light, sunburned hair and pale, restless eyes.
'Too, too frightful,' he was saying. 'The English winter at its worst—a reversion to Dickens—Scrooge and Tiny Tim and all that. One had to be so terribly hearty to stand up to it all. Don't you think so? And I've had a terrible cross-country journey from Wales. Are you Mrs Davis? But how delightful!' Molly's hand was seized in a quick, bony clasp. 'Not at all as I'd imagined you. I'd pictured you, you know, as an Indian army general's widow. Terrifically grim and memsahibish—and Benares whatnot—a real Victorian whatnot. Heavenly, simply heavenly—Have you got any wax flowers? Or birds of paradise? Oh, but I'm simply going to love this place. I was afraid, you know, it would be very Olde Worlde—very, very Manor House—failing the Benares brass, I mean. Instead, it's marvelous—real Victorian bedrock respectability. Tell me, have you got one of those beautiful sideboards—mahogany—purple-plummy mahogany with great carved fruits?'
'As a matter of fact,' said Molly, rather breathless under this torrent of words, 'we have.'
'No! Can I see it? At once. In here?'
His quickness was almost disconcerting. He had turned the handle of the dining-room door, and clicked on the light. Molly followed him in, conscious of Giles's disapproving profile on her left.
Mr Wren passed his long bony fingers over the rich carving of the massive sideboard with little cries of appreciation. Then he turned a reproachful glance upon his hostess.
'No big mahogany dining table? All these little tables dotted about instead?'
'We thought people would prefer it that way,' said Molly.
'Darling, of course you're quite right. I was being carried away by my feeling for period. Of course, if you had the table, you'd have to have the right family round it. Stern, handsome father with a beard—prolific, faded mother, eleven children, a grim governess, and somebody called "poor Harriet"—the poor relation who acts as general helper and is very, very grateful for being given a good home. Look at that grate—think of the flames leaping up the chimney and blistering poor Harriet's back.'
'I'll take your suitcase upstairs,' said Giles. 'East room?'
'Yes,' said Molly.
Mr Wren skipped out into the hall again as Giles went upstairs.
'Has it got a four-poster with little chintz roses?' he asked.
'No, it hasn't,' said Giles and disappeared round the bend of the staircase.
'I don't believe your husband is going to like me,' said Mr Wren. 'What's he been in? The navy?'
'I thought so. They're much less tolerant than the army and the air force. How long have you been married? Are you very much in love with him?'
'Perhaps you'd like to come up and see your room.'
'Yes, of course that was impertinent. But I did really want to know. I mean, it's interesting, don't you think, to know all about people? What they feel and think, I mean, not just who they are and what they do.'
'I suppose,' said Molly in a demure voice, 'you are Mr Wren?'
The young man stopped short, clutched his hair in both hands and tugged at it.
'But how frightful—I never put first things first. Yes, I'm Christopher Wren—now, don't laugh. My parents were a romantic couple. They hoped I'd be an architect. So they thought it a splendid idea to christen me Christopher—halfway home, as it were.'
'And are you an architect?' asked Molly, unable to help smiling.
'Yes, I am,' said Mr Wren triumphantly. 'At least I'm nearly one. I'm not fully qualified yet. But it's really a remarkable example of wishful thinking coming off for once. Mind you, actually the name will be a handicap. I shall never be the Christopher Wren. However, Chris Wren's Pre-Fab Nests may achieve fame.'
Giles came down the stairs again, and Molly said, 'I'll show you your room now, Mr Wren.'
When she came down a few minutes later, Giles said, 'Well, did he like the pretty oak furniture?'
'He was very anxious to have a four-poster, so I gave him the rose room instead.'
Giles grunted and murmured something that ended, '. . . young twerp.'
'Now, look here, Giles,' Molly assumed a severe demeanor. 'This isn't a house party of guests we're entertaining. This is business. Whether you like Christopher Wren or not—'
'I don't,' Giles interjected.
'—has nothing whatever to do with it. He's paying seven guineas a week, and that's all that matters.'
'If he pays it, yes.'
'He's agreed to pay it. We've got his letter.'
'Did you transfer that suitcase of his to the rose room?'
'He carried it, of course.'
'Very gallant. But it wouldn't have strained you. There's certainly no question of stones wrapped up in newspaper. It's so light that there seems to me there's probably nothing in it.'
'Ssh, here he comes,' said Molly warningly.
Christopher Wren was conducted to the library which looked, Molly thought, very nice, indeed, with its big chairs and its log fire. Dinner, she told him, would be in half an hour's time. In reply to a question, she explained that there were no other guests at the moment. In that case, Christopher said, how would it be if he came into the kitchen and helped?
'I can cook you an omelette if you like,' he said engagingly.
The subsequent proceedings took place in the kitchen, and Christopher helped with the washing up.
Somehow, Molly felt, it was not quite the right start for a conventional guesthouse—and Giles had not liked it at all. Oh, well, thought Molly, as she fell asleep, tomorrow when the others came it would be different.
The morning came with dark skies and snow. Giles looked grave, and Molly's heart fell. The weather was going to make everything very difficult.
Mrs Boyle arrived in the local taxi with chains on the wheels, and the driver brought pessimistic reports of the state of the road.
'Drifts afore nightfall,' he prophesied.
Mrs Boyle herself did not lighten the prevailing gloom. She was a large, forbidding-looking woman with a resonant voice and a masterful manner. Her natural aggressiveness had been heightened by a war career of persistent and militant usefulness.
'If I had not believed this was a running concern, I should never have come,' she said. 'I naturally thought it was a well-established guesthouse, properly run on scientific lines.'
'There is no obligation for you to remain if you are not satisfied, Mrs Boyle,' said Giles.
'No, indeed, and I shall not think of doing so.'
'Perhaps, Mrs Boyle,' said Giles, 'you would like to ring up for a taxi. The roads are not yet blocked. If there has been any misapprehension it would, perhaps, be better if you went elsewhere.' He added, 'We have had so many applications for rooms that we shall be able to fill your place quite easily—indeed, in future we are charging a higher rate for our rooms.'
Mrs Boyle threw him a sharp glance. 'I am certainly not going to leave before I have tried what the place is like. Perhaps you would let me have a rather large bath towel, Mrs Davis. I am not accustomed to drying myself on a pocket handkerchief.'
Giles grinned at Molly behind Mrs Boyle's retreating back.
'Darling, you were wonderful,' said Molly. 'The way you stood up to her.'
'Bullies soon climb down when they get their own medicine,' said Giles.
'Oh, dear,' said Molly. 'I wonder how she'll get on with Christopher Wren.'
'She won't,' said Giles.
And, indeed, that very afternoon, Mrs Boyle remarked to Molly, 'That's a very peculiar young man,' with distinct disfavour in her voice.
The baker arrived looking like an Arctic explorer and delivered the bread with the warning that his next call, due in two days' time, might not materialize.
'Holdups everywhere,' he announced. 'Got plenty of stores in, I hope?'
'Oh, yes,' said Molly. 'We've got lots of tins. I'd better take extra flour, though.'
She thought vaguely that there was something the Irish made called soda bread. If the worst came to the worst she could probably make that.
The baker had also brought the papers, and she spread them out on the hall table. Foreign affairs had receded in importance. The weather and the murder of Mrs Lyon occupied the front page.
She was staring at the blurred reproduction of the dead woman's features when Christopher Wren's voice behind her said, 'Rather a sordid murder, don't you think? Such a drab-looking woman and such a drab street. One can't feel, can one, that there is any story behind it?'
'I've no doubt,' said Mrs Boyle with a snort, 'that the creature got no more than she deserved.'
'Oh.' Mr Wren turned to her with engaging eagerness. 'So you think it's definitely a sex crime, do you?'
'I suggested nothing of the kind, Mr Wren.'
'But she was strangled, wasn't she? I wonder—' he held out his long white hands—'what it would feel like to strangle anyone.'
'Really, Mr Wren!'
Christopher moved nearer to her, lowering his voice. 'Have you considered, Mrs Boyle, just what it would feel like to be strangled?'
Mrs Boyle said again, even more indignantly, 'Really, Mr Wren!'
Molly read hurriedly out, "The man the police are anxious to interview was wearing a dark overcoat and a light Homburg hat, was of medium height, and wore a woolen scarf."'
'In fact,' said Christopher Wren, 'he looked just like everybody else.' He laughed.
'Yes,' said Molly. 'Just like everybody else.'
In his room at Scotland Yard, Inspector Parminter said to Detective Sergeant Kane, 'I'll see those two workmen now.'
'What are they like?'
'Decent class workingmen. Rather slow reactions. Dependable.'
'Right.' Inspector Parminter nodded.
Presently two embarrassed-looking men in their best clothes were shown into his room. Parminter summed them up with a quick eye. He was an adept at setting people at their ease.
'So you think you've some information that might be useful to us on the Lyon case,' he said. 'Good of you to come along. Sit down. Smoke?'
He waited while they accepted cigarettes and lit up.
'Pretty awful weather outside.'
'It is that, sir.'
'Well, now, then—let's have it.'
The two men looked at each other, embarrassed now that it came to the difficulties of narration.
'Go ahead, Joe,' said the bigger of the two.
Joe went ahead. 'It was like this, see. We 'adn't got a match.'
'Where was this?'
'Jarman Street—we was working on the road there—gas mains.'
- On Sale
- Oct 20, 2020
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Hachette Book Group