An excerpt from A Testament to Murder by Vivian Conroy - publishing 18 February 2019
“If you don't take your foot off the gas, you will get us killed before we ever reach the Villa Calypso.”
Patty Bryce-Rutherford yelled the warning over the roar of the Triumph's straining engine. The road ahead led upwards, in steep curves to where the pale pink villa sat like a frosted crown on a bridal cake. Bougainvillea with its bright purple flowers twined around the marble pillars beside the front door, and the grass of the immaculate lawn sparkled emerald green in the sunshine.
“If you hadn't insisted on bringing so many cases, the ruddy thing wouldn't be so heavy,” her husband of three months retorted, clenching the wheel and leaning forward like a race car driver. His rather too long blond hair was pasted to his thick sunburned neck, and he panted as if he had to push the car up the hill. Born and raised in California, Patty thrived in the heat, but Hugh wilted like a pansy as soon as temperatures rose over thirty degrees.
The wind that came from the bright blue ocean tugged at Patty's wide brimmed hat. Securing it with one hand, she clutched the edge of the car seat with the other. The days where she had giggled at Hugh's death-defying driving were long in the past. At the time she had done anything to lay her hands on a hyphenated name and a property in Cornwall, a place she had pictured as a castle from a fairy tale.
She had imagined herself throwing fabulous cocktail parties there and dress-up balls, but after its damp and dreadful glory had thoroughly ruined her wedding day – or rather her mother-in-law, who ruled there like a banished queen, had – Patty had ached to get away to the Riviera and buy something, anything, to remember why she had married Hugh in the first place.
Uncle Malcolm's invitation had come at the exact right moment. He had written to them that his doctors were certain he wouldn't last too long and would rejoice in the company of family during his final days.
Normally Patty would have been livid at the idea of spending the glorious days of summer with an old man nagging about his gout, but when that old man didn't have much time left to nag, things were different. They'd be kind to him, take him touring, show him the sunset or the moon, whatever he preferred, and then when he did die, he'd leave it all to them: his house, the money in the Swiss bank accounts, the horses back in England and the cars.
The plane even.
Patty suppressed a little squeal of delight when she imagined the plane landing in Paris and how she alighted from it, laden with dazzling emeralds a brighter green than the grass of the villa up ahead.
Hugh wouldn't have to travel home every few weeks to beg his father for a pittance, no, his father would have to come to him to ask for funds to restore the crumbling Cornwall facade. They'd be the ones in charge for a change, making others dance to their tune.
The car whirled through the last bend and shot past two stone lions leaning down from pillars beside the road. Potted palms lined the driveway that ended up before the pale pink house. The blinds behind the tall windows were closed against the afternoon heat.
Patty opened the car door while the engine was still turning and scrambled to climb out in her tight dress. Smoothing it down, she looked up at the villa's upper storey. “Poor Uncle Malcolm must be in bed. To lie about all day in this heat must be dreadful.”
Hugh honked the horn.
She waved at him. “Hush, you're disturbing the old man's afternoon nap.”
Hugh's brows drew together, and the scar on his right cheek turned white against his tan, as always when he got annoyed. “Don't act like you're so concerned for him.”
“I'm deeply concerned for him. And I intend to show it.” Patty reached into the back of the car and extracted the bottle of wine they had bought at a shop in the village nearby. “This will cheer him up. I could use a drink myself. My tongue is positively pasted to my palate. But it would have to be a cocktail. You think your uncle has some things around to mix a cocktail? Would be a shame if such a gorgeous house didn't have a good liquor cabinet. I could give parties here.”
“All you ever think about is parties,” Hugh scoffed. “Don't you see that the house is oriented on the south. That means the back is turned towards the north. Bright sharp light. Perfect for sculpting. And I think the old fox has a nice library too. I could sit there and type up some chapters on my novel. Between four and six in the afternoon of course. No decent writer ever wrote anything worthwhile in the morning.”
His jovial, fleshy face contracted in a deep frown. “Or perhaps I should start around midnight. The tortured artistic mind can't sleep like normal people do.”
“As long as you don't wake me when you get out of bed,” Patty said, shaking the wine bottle at him.
“I tell you it should have been champagne,” Hugh said gloomily, “or whiskey or something. Uncle Malcolm will point that out to me in no uncertain terms. Only my mother enjoys wine. With pheasant, I think. I don't suppose Uncle Malcolm ever eats pheasant here. We should have gone for the seafood.”
Patty clicked her tongue. “Seafood could kill an old man. One bad oyster...”
“Exactly,” Hugh said. “Isn't that what we are here for?”
Patty rolled her eyes at him and hopped up the steps leading to the villa's front door. Before she could even reach for the bell, it opened. A tall man with a skeletal face looked at her. “Yes?”
“Patricia Bryce-Rutherford,” Patty said, her tongue caressing the well positioned r’s. How lucky her first name really was Patricia and not Madge or something that would have totally ruined the whole. “We were asked to come.”
“Ah, yes. Mr Malcolm told me to prepare the smaller guest room for you. Do come in.”
“The smaller guest room?” Patty asked. Whatever happened to the bigger one? She gestured over her shoulder. “My husband needs assistance to park the car. I mean, he can park a car, he just needs to know where to park it.”
“Yes, I suppose it will take some fitting to get all the cars into the garage,” the butler said. “The chauffeur will see to it. Follow me.”
Patty just caught a glimpse of a ruggedly handsome French-looking man going over to Hugh in the Triumph and was immediately sorry she hadn't stuck around to practise her rudimentary French. If they were to inherit this house, she had to speak the local language.
But she had to follow the butler up the stairs. He opened a door to their left, and gestured for her to step into the darkened room.
Breathing the scent of something chemical, Patty wrinkled her nose in disgust, but reminding herself of the money, she trotted to the bed with a smile and leaned down to kiss the man in the pillows on his sallow cheek. “Uncle! How delightful to meet you at last. I am Patricia.”
“Oh, yes,” Malcolm Bryce-Rutherford said in a creaking, parrot-like voice. “Hugh's American nanny.”
Although it was true that Patty had been accompanying a rich family with children when she had met Hugh on the SS Sunrise, she would never have called herself a nanny.
Malcolm said, “From his mother's arms into the arms of someone trying to play a mother. He'll never have to grow up.”
Patty shuffled her feet. “I have here...” she said trying to hold out the bottle, but Malcolm beat her to it. “Some terrible concoction to make me feel better? Put it over there with the other gifts.”
“What other gifts?” Patty asked as she peered at the table along the wall hidden in the dusk. Suddenly her heart beat fast with concern that Hugh had been right and they should have brought champagne. She didn't want to look silly in front of other people.
“From the other guests of course.” Malcolm pushed himself up to sit better. “The other guests who are here to keep me company during my last days on Earth.”
As he said it, the door opened, and a woman came in, carrying something in her hands. She stooped like tall people often do, and moved with the solicitous air of someone who is doing something immensely important. A sweet scent filled the room as she crossed to the bed. “Pineapple, Malcolm. Cut up in small pieces so you can easily eat it.” The woman placed the bowl on the bed, holding it as Malcolm didn't reach out for it. She glanced at Patty. “And you are?”
“Hugh's American nanny,” Malcolm said before Patty could reply. “And this is my former secretary, Theodora, or Dodo as I used to call her. I never quite met anyone who…”
Theodora's eyes lit in expectation.
“Had such a good shorthand,” Malcolm concluded.
The expectation died, and Theodora's eyes flashed with something quite different. She pointed at the pineapple. “Eat it while it's fresh. The taste goes off so quickly.”
The door opened again, and Hugh appeared. He hovered on the threshold, terrified, as he had confessed to Patty on the way over, of the deathbed dramatics.
“Come closer, boy,” Malcolm called. “I am not dead yet.”
Hugh came up and stood beside Patty, feeling for her hand. She slapped it away, keeping her smile firmly on her face. Malcolm already seemed to think she treated Hugh like a baby. No need to reinforce that in his mind. She said in a brisk tone, “Hugh has been so looking forward to seeing you again, Uncle. And you have such a beautiful house here. The view is stunning.”
“I get out so little,” Malcolm said.
“Then we must change that. We will take you out, won't we, Hugh?” Patty glanced at Hugh, who stared like paralysed at the figure in the large bed. She prodded his foot with her own.
“Yes,” Hugh said. Even this one word came out strangled.
Malcolm sighed. “It will not be that easy, girl. I use a wheelchair these days.”
“Oh, we can take it along.” Patty put confidence in her voice. “And if you want to walk around the garden, you can lean on my arm.”
“Garden walks are taken care of,” Theodora said from the door where she had lingered, listening in on the conversation. “You are far too short to be able to support him.”
“I think we should let Uncle Malcolm decide with whom he wants to walk,” Patty said sweetly, brushing back her hair. She let her gaze wander deliberately down Theodora's shapeless black gown. The former secretary's shoulders slumped even more as she backed up against the wall as if she wanted to blend in with the wallpaper.
Malcolm made a rasping noise, then broke into a hacking cough.
Hugh stepped back, muttered an excuse and left the room.
“It's his father's death,” Patty said quickly. “He never got over that. He was only fifteen at the time.” Her voice caught at the memory of the first time Hugh had shared his unhappy childhood with her.
“Seventeen,” Malcolm corrected, “and he was in boarding school when my brother had his horse-riding accident. Hugh never even saw his father again until the day of the funeral.”
Patty's eyes widened. On the steamer Hugh had told her, almost in tears, about his sick father whom he had tended for weeks, practically on his own. She had reached out and touched his hand and when he had looked up into her eyes, she had known she was going to marry him. For the double name and the money of course, but also because she felt truly sorry for someone who had lost his father that way.
Malcolm said, “Hugh should really publish a novel some day so his fertile imagination could serve some monetary purpose. Don't you think?” He gave Patty a sharp, probing look from under his heavy brows. He then pushed the bowl with the pineapple away and said, “I want the newspaper.”
Theodora dashed off to get it. As soon as they were alone, Malcolm said, “I want you to know one thing, Patricia. It takes courage to be married to my nephew. For that courage you might be rewarded. With a mention in my will.”
Patty stood motionless. She felt like the old man in the bed could see her heartbeat flutter in her neck. “Yes?” she whispered.
Malcolm leaned forward, moving his thin grasping fingers across the sheet. “Maybe… I could make you sole heir to it all.”
Patty didn't dare draw breath in case this was a dream and moving but a muscle would wake her up. “You would?”
“Of course Hugh wouldn't like it. And the others might hate you for it. Would you mind?”
“Most certainly not.” Patty straightened up. “I know what it is like when people envy you.” The woman who had hired her to look after the children on the crossing from New York to England had been friendly, in a sort of patronizing way, until she had stumbled on Patty kissing Hugh and had fired her on the spot for being a siren. “It never hurt me before, why would it now?”
The dismissal had urged Hugh, who had felt hugely guilty for it, to propose to her. The proposal had of course been her intention all along, but the way in which her irate employer had contributed to it, she could never have thought up herself. Smiling to herself more than to Malcolm, Patty concluded, “I tend to think things turn out for the best, Uncle.”
“So you wouldn't mind if I filled in your name? When the lawyer gets here…”
“The lawyer is on his way already?” Patty asked in a low voice. She glanced over her shoulder at the door.
It was half open.
The crack of bright light from the sunny landing seemed to smirk at her. Was there someone in the corridor listening in on them? Should she close the door before her little secret with Uncle Malcolm got out?
“He will be here soon,” Malcolm said in a sigh. He closed his eyes a moment. “I am so tired.”
Patty grabbed for his hand. It was bony and chill under her touch. “Don't slip away now, Uncle. You must…” Change your will to contain my name.
She picked up a glass of water off the side table by the bed and gave it to him. “Drink some water to revive you. It's hot outside, that must exhaust you. But I'm certain you're strong enough to stay with us a little longer. We need you.”
Malcolm took a sip of water, then gave the glass back to her. She put it in place and retreated to the door. “You rest now.”
In the corridor she saw no one. Theodora was apparently still looking for the newspaper Malcolm had asked for, and Hugh had to be in their room, working through his confrontation with imminent death.
Relief flooded her, and she rubbed her clammy palms together. Nobody knew what Uncle Malcolm had offered her. Nobody could know about it, until it was all arranged for.
Her high heels making no sound on the thick carpet, Patty went down the corridor to a door that was open. Hugh stood beside a double bed, onto which he had tossed his jacket. He loosened his tie and took a swig from his silver hip flask.
Patty made a disapproving sound. “It's not even dinner time yet.”
Hugh said, “I can't stand this situation. The memories of…” He let the rest hang, sinking into a chair with the airs of a broken man.
Knowing now from Malcolm that Hugh had not even been around when his father had died, Patty wanted to tell him just what a pathetic little liar he was, but thought better of it. If Hugh didn't want to come near the dying old man, Malcolm would blame him for that. It only improved the chances that he would make her, Patty, the sole heir.
Imagine that. Her inheriting all that this rich man owned. Having this house and being able to throw lush parties here, inviting movie stars and splashing out on thousands of orchids that rained down on the guests from the ceiling after the final dance, without Hugh telling her it was silly or too expensive. He would have to live off whatever scraps she threw at him. It was just perfect. Better than anything she had ever imagined when she had set out to marry a wealthy man.
In the corridor Theodora stepped from behind the embroidered curtain covering the niche. It had its advantages to be “as thin as a broomstick” as Malcolm's first wife had often snidely described her. There weren't many hiding places she didn't fit into. That silly American girl had believed the corridor to be empty. She had believed that her little conversation with Malcolm had gone unnoticed.
She probably also believed that Malcolm meant what he said. How could she know, having just married into the family, what Malcolm was really like?
Theodora moved her long thin nose as if sniffing the air. Yes, she understood the situation perfectly. Malcolm had never meant for her to go get him a paper full of news he wasn't interested in. He had meant for her to overhear this conversation and speak her mind about it. She had always done so when working for him. Back in the old days. He had needed her opinion, even though he had never acknowledged that.
On his own he had just made silly mistakes. Two marriages, two mistakes. A disastrous death and a messy divorce, a scandal as his own business partner had snapped up his ex-wife before the ink on the divorce papers was even dry.
Not to mention the hidden scandals of the ballerina from Vienna and the lido hostess in Brighton. Luckily Theodora had always been there to solve things. To protect him from those who wanted to take advantage of his promiscuity. Men were silly, and they needed women to erase the consequences of their silliness.
With a fond smile Theodora crossed to the bed and said in the tone of a nanny finding her charge with a stolen toffee, “You can't mean that, Malcolm. You will not give that vain American girl anything. Let alone your entire fortune.”
Malcolm's deep-set eyes studied her with an amused gleam. She knew what he was thinking and said quickly, “It makes no sense. She just walked in here. She is married to your nephew, not a blood relation.”
“She suggested she could take me out, away from this dreary dim room, show me some sights, let the sun warm my skin.”
“If that is what you want, I can take you out.”
“You can't drive, Dodo. You've never been a risk taker. Besides, cars cost money, right? And you're also frugal. I know you well.”
Malcolm's gaze fixated her like it had when she still worked for him and he would find a typo in a letter. He could see right through her into the cause of the mistake. Distraction as the phone had rung on another desk and she had listened in on the conversation. Or Malcolm's first wife had stopped by and Theodora had gazed longingly at the stole around her neck, not because she wanted a stole but because Malcolm's hands had put it there.
Malcolm said softly, “Are you willing to take a risk now, Dodo? You could become the sole heir to all I own. After all, you deserve it more than all the others. You worked so hard for it. All those years in the firm. So close and yet so far away.”
Theodora's eyes burned with tears of shame that he knew her secret and even referred to it like it was something… to laugh about?
Malcolm continued, “You could be it. But you could also not be it. That will depend on whether you are willing to take risk. Wager.”
Theodora had no idea what he meant, but knowing him, it would be something cruel only he could devise. She should never have come here.
Yet she knew she could never have stayed away. She had always protected Malcolm. She had always done what was best for him. She'd keep doing that, no matter what the price.
She said through gritted teeth, “I'd do anything to keep your fortune away from that American gold-digger.”
“Anything?” Malcolm clicked his tongue. “That's a tall claim, Dodo.”
“I mean it.” He had no idea what she was capable of. “I'll prove it to you. Just tell me what you want me to do.”
“I'll have a chance to see exactly what you are willing to do. Very soon.”
“Why the riddles?” She reached out to him, pleading with her eyes. “Can't you tell me what you're planning? I used to know all of your secrets.”
Malcolm's eyes flashed. “Don't remind me of that. Or I might regret having invited you.”
Theodora froze. She should not have referred to the secrets. It was presumptuous. And even dangerous. There wasn't just Malcolm to consider, but also Howard, his former friend and business partner who had the firm now. Howard, who was also on his way over. Malcolm had not told her of course, but the butler had. Because Jenkins knew, like Theodora herself knew, that Howard would come for one reason only. And Howard should not succeed.
She wrung her hands, feigning the despair that came easy to her as she was really anxious enough about the outcome. “No, please, don't send me away. Let me stay. I'll do whatever you ask.”
Malcolm's eyes fluttered shut. With the green veins on his temples he suddenly looked like a very breakable old man. His ragged breathing wheezed in the silent room. The shadows in the corners were so dark, like death was already waiting there, ready to pounce at the man on the bed as soon as he was least aware of danger.
Theodora fixated the shadows and told them in her mind to stay away. To not draw near this man who belonged to her and her alone.
She wanted to kneel beside Malcolm's bed and beg him not to leave her. Not to leave her alone, not even if he left her with all of his money.
But she knew it wouldn't help any. Malcolm had said he was dying. Malcolm had said that his time left with them was short. It wasn't possible to bargain with death as it drew near and reached out its icy hand to wipe everything away. Everything that had been and could have been. What she had dreamt of and hoped for was long past.
Death was inevitable. The outcome of death, however, was not.
If Malcolm wanted her to have all of his money, she'd have to ensure that his last will was executed.
Any way she saw how.
To be continued...
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Suspenseful from the first page to the last, A Testament to Murder is perfect for fans of And Then There Were None, Murder on the Orient Express, and Crooked House.
A dying billionaire. Nine would-be heirs. But only one will take the prize...