The slash of red stood out against the brown and beige of the November countryside. I tightened my gloved hands on the steering wheel and squinted through the window screen of the Morris Cowley to get a better view, but I lost sight of the bright splash of color as the road dipped.
I navigated around the sharp bend near the bridge outside the village of Nether Woodsmoor. The river reflected the graceful stone arches along with the gloomy gray clouds. Normally, I would have slowed down at the river, maybe even stopped for a few moments to admire the view, but today I drove on toward the red gash among the trees.
It wasn’t too far ahead, almost near the gates to Parkview Hall, which was my destination. My aunt, Lady Caroline, and my cousins, Gwen and Violet, had recently returned from an extended holiday in the South of France. To celebrate their homecoming, Aunt Caroline had extended invitations to a select group of family and friends to stay for a few days.
I slowed. It was a motor, a sleek Alfa Romeo the color of holly berries, its nose in the ditch and tires spinning deeper into the mud. I brought the Morris to a stop and hooked my arm over the door as I leaned out to call, “Everything all right?” My breath made little white puffs.
I could tell from their brightly colored hats that the driver and passenger were women, but they were both turned away from me, and the noise of the engine drowned out my voice.
I gave the horn a sharp blast. The tires stopped turning, and the women twisted to look over their shoulders. “Olive!” My cousin Gwen climbed out and picked her way across the mud. She leaned into my motor and gave me a quick hug. “What perfect timing. You came along at exactly the right moment. Didn’t she, Deena?” Gwen turned toward the young woman who had remained in the driver’s seat of the Alfa Romeo. “Olive can give us a lift to Parkview, and we’ll send Ross to retrieve your motor,” Gwen called.
In one of her letters about the upcoming party, Gwen had listed the guests, but I didn’t remember Deena’s name being on the list.
“Is that Deena Lacey?” I asked Gwen in an undertone. “From Charles Manor?”
Gwen nodded an affirmative.
“I haven’t seen her since—oh, I don’t know. It must have been sometime early on during the war.” Charles Manor was thirty miles to the north of Parkview Hall. Deena had lived there with her uncle, who was her guardian after her parents died, until she came into her inheritance. When we were children, our paths had crossed occasionally, but since she was four years older—a great gulf when one is a child—we didn’t have much in common. “I thought she lived mostly in London.”
“She does. She’s only recently returned from town,” Gwen replied in an equally low voice. “It’s a long story.”
Deena glanced at the dark gray clouds. “But it looks as if it’s about to rain—or snow—and that will only make it worse. I know I can get back on the road. The salesman assured me this motor has excellent handling.” Deena revved the engine.
Gwen said to me, “I don’t know about that, but I’m sure it was the most expensive one.”
“Trying day?” I asked. My cousin Gwen had the sweetest and most long-suffering temperament. If she was out of sorts, then the situation had to be rather dire.
“Deena and I went into the village to shop.” Gwen gave her glove a sharp tug. She seemed about to say more but stopped herself.
“So Deena’s here at Parkview for the party?”
My last words were drowned out as Deena revved the engine of the Alfa Romeo. Wheels spun, flinging mud that splattered onto the road near the back of the Morris. Gwen took a few quick steps, moving nearer the Morris’s bonnet. I let the Morris roll forward a few feet, out of the range of the mud.
Gwen looked as though she’d like to call Nanny and have her take charge of Deena, but she drew a breath and shouted between the roars of the engine, “Deena, it’s only getting worse. Come away. I promise we’ll have your motor back at Parkview before dinner.”
Deena cut the engine. “Oh, all right. I suppose we’d better. I do hope they’re quick about it, though.”
“I’ll see to it,” Gwen said as Deena climbed out of the low motor and slammed the door.
Deena was dressed head to toe in gold. Her hat was the same shade as a sovereign and covered every strand of hair, which highlighted the fact that her face was a long narrow oval. She’d always reminded me of the illustrations in Father’s books of Byzantine saints with their elongated faces and mournful expressions. I recognized Deena’s hat as one of Madame LaFoy’s priciest creations. I’d briefly considered working in the haberdashery, and I’d seen the beautiful cloche with its trailing feathers and embroidery in that establishment. Deena’s mink-collared wool driving coat was of the same shade of gold.
She took a few steps on her tiptoes in an effort to keep her gold T-strap shoes out of the mud, but then she stopped and swiveled back to the motor. “Mr. Quigley! We mustn’t forget him.”
“Mr. Quigley?” I asked Gwen. “Who’s Mr. Quigley?” I didn’t remember a guest named Mr. Quigley either.
Gwen let out a tiny sigh. “A parrot.”
I wasn’t sure I’d heard her correctly, but Deena leaned over the side of the motor and lifted out a birdcage. It rocked to the accompaniment of squawks and flapping wings as she minced across the mud. “Don’t worry, boy. I’ve got you.” Deena climbed up the bank of sodden grass. A moment before she reached us, her foot slipped, and she pitched forward. Gwen caught her elbow and an edge of the birdcage.
Deena said, “Whoops! Thank you, Gwen.”
Inside the cage, the bird rotated its head and fixed an eye on Gwen’s fingers. She jerked her hand back.
“Oh, you don’t have to worry about Mr. Quigley. He never bites.” Deena propped the cage on the edge of the door at my eye level. “Hello, Olive. Isn’t he just the most gorgeous thing you’ve ever seen?”
Mr. Quigley rocked on his perch. “He’s not brightly colored,” I said.
The feathers fluffed up around his head and neck, as if he were displaying the gradual transition of color from nearly white at his head to a pearly gray at the tips of his wings. His tail feathers were a bright red. “No, he’s an African Gray—an extremely expensive parrot. And the most intelligent too.”
Clearly, Deena rated the intelligence of the parrot as of secondary importance compared to the cost. “How did you come to have a parrot?” I asked her.
“I wanted a pet to keep me company, but simply everyone has a dog or a cat. I had to have something unusual, something memorable.”
“Mr. Quigley certainly is that,” I said. Even with his muted coloring, which resembled the clouds today, he looked exotic and out of place in the English countryside. “How long have you had him?”
“Six days. I simply couldn’t leave him at Charles Manor. Parrots need plenty of interaction.”
Gwen said, “Deena thought Mr. Quigley should see the village.”
Mr. Quigley let out a high-pitched whistle that pierced the air.
“Goodness,” I said. “What does that mean?”
Deena smiled like an indulgent parent. “He’s saying hello.”
Gwen said, “He’s been doing that for the last hour.”
“I see.” That sharp noise within a short distance of one’s ear would become irritating. “Does he say anything?”
“Oh yes. He’s quite chatty. His previous owner spoke to him all the time and trained him to say many things.”
“Is it salty language?” I glanced at Gwen. Aunt Caroline wouldn’t be happy to have a parrot spouting naughty words during her party.
“Oh no. His former owner was a missionary.” Deena addressed the cage. “Say something for us, Mr. Quigley.”
Mr. Quigley rocked on his perch, then tucked his beak under his wing.
A wrinkle appeared between Deena’s thin brows. “Actually, he hasn’t said anything yet. I do hope the man wasn’t lying to me about Mr. Quigley being able to speak.”
“I doubt it, especially if he was a missionary,” Gwen said.
“Well, perhaps Mr. Quigley will talk to us later,” I said. “Let’s see if we can all get in the Morris. It’ll be a crush—”
Deena looked back at her motor. “I do hate to go off and leave the Alfa Romeo. It’s lonely out here. Do you think it will be all right?”
“Of course. No one will bother it,” Gwen said.
Deena gripped her mink collar with one hand and drew it closer around her neck. “Perhaps I should stay while you two go and get help.”
“Don’t be a goose,” Gwen said, her voice firm. “It will be perfectly fine. Now let’s get out of this cold.”
“I suppose we should—” Deena looked beyond Gwen’s shoulder and asked, “Look, isn’t that Inspector Longly and Captain Inglebrook? There, moving through the shadows of the trees. The shoot must be over.” Deena waved. “Yoo-hoo!”
I knew Detective Inspector Longly from Scotland Yard. I recognized his silhouette with his empty sleeve pinned against his jacket. The other man was taller with broader shoulders. As they came out from under the trees, I could see he had a pencil mustache and dark hair.
“I’m anxious to meet Captain Inglebrook,” I said, giving Gwen a significant glance.
She’d written to me several weeks ago in a state, which wasn’t like her at all. She had a calm methodical nature and wasn’t given to flights of fancy or emotional upheaval, but the idea of the two male houseguests, Inspector Longly and Captain Inglebrook, had her flustered.
She’d met Captain Inglebrook in France. The holiday was an effort to help Violet recover her equilibrium after a rather horrifying incident at Archly Manor, which was where we’d met Inspector Longly. I’d thought there was an attraction between Gwen and Inspector Longly, but then Gwen’s letters from France had frequently mentioned Captain Inglebrook while Longly’s name had been largely absent. Upon their return to Parkview, Violet, fully recovered from her trauma and back to her usual mischievous ways, had engineered invitations for both men, causing Gwen endless amounts of distress. At this moment, Gwen didn’t look eager to speak to either man. I couldn’t wait to get her alone and see what had happened.
“Captain Inglebrook’s gaze is positively smoldering,” Deena said. “It makes me feel like I’m going to swoon every time I’m near him.” Deena shoved the cage into Gwen’s arms and hurried down the road to the men.
“She certainly doesn’t look as if she’s about to swoon now,” I said. “More like she’s running a fifty-yard dash.”
“She has quite the sturdy constitution,” Gwen said. “If only she had as much sense as she has money and energy.” Mr. Quigley inched toward Gwen’s fingers. She set the cage down and stepped back.
“Didn’t Deena say he doesn’t bite?”
“I’m not taking any chances,” Gwen said. “My only experience with pets is rather mundane, dogs and cats and a few horses. I don’t know what to do with an exotic bird.”
The men and Deena strolled up to us. She had her arm through Captain Inglebrook’s elbow and looked as if she’d won a prize at the village fete. Both Inglebrook and Longly were dressed in tweed and their cheeks were bright red from the cold.
The captain disengaged himself from Deena as Gwen introduced me. Captain Inglebrook had raven black hair smoothed back from a handsome square face. His dark gaze fastened on me as if I were the only woman for miles around as he shook my hand then placed his other hand on top of it. “Good afternoon, Miss Belgrave. It’s a delight to meet London’s lovely lady detective. I’ve heard about your illustrious career.”
“Captain Inglebrook, I see already that you tend to exaggeration, and I shouldn’t believe a word of what you say.”
“On the contrary. Everyone is talking about you. You’re brilliant.”
“Hardly. I’m sure Inspector Longly would disagree,” I said lightly to draw the inspector into the conversation. He stood a few steps back from the others. Longly’s posture was more suited to a parade ground and didn’t go with the casual atmosphere of the group gathered around the Morris. I’d only encountered Longly when he was working, and I’d expected his manner to be less restrained here at Parkview while he was off duty.
“Miss Belgrave does indeed have some interesting insights.” Longly’s tone was matter-of-fact and seemed at odds with Inglebrook’s teasing banter.
Inglebrook didn’t seem to take notice of Longly’s flat tone and transferred his attention to the birdcage. “Did Mr. Quigley enjoy his trip?”
“He charmed everyone we met, didn’t he, Gwen?” Deena said.
Gwen made a noise that could possibly be construed as agreement.
Deena gripped Captain Inglebrook’s arm and pulled him down the slope to the Alfa Romeo. “You must help. My poor motor. I hate to leave it out here in such a lonely place.”
Captain Inglebrook surveyed the scene. “What happened?”
“I don’t know,” Deena said. “We were going along just fine, then suddenly we were in the ditch.”
“It’s a shame.” Inglebrook ran his gloved hand over the red paint. “It’s a fine machine. Any damage?” Deena and Inglebrook walked around to examine the bonnet.
Inspector Longly said, “Ladies,” put on his hat that he’d removed when he approached, then went over to Deena’s motor. He climbed in and motioned for Inglebrook to crank the engine. Once the motor was running, he called out for Deena and Inglebrook to stand aside. Instead of trying to reverse through the gouges in the mud that Deena had made, Longly inched the motor forward until it was on slightly drier ground. He made a sweeping turn, accelerated up the slope, and bumped onto the road.
Deena clapped her hands. “Brilliant, Inspector Longly! I never thought of going forward.” Deena took Captain Inglebrook’s arm and tugged him up the incline to the road. “Let’s all ride back to Parkview together.” Longly began to climb out, but Deena waved him back. “No, stay. We can all squeeze in. You must drive. I’m too flustered.” Deena called to Gwen and me over her shoulder, “Take good care of Mr. Quigley.” Once they were settled with Deena seated between the two men, the red motor accelerated away.
Gwen watched them for a moment, then murmured, “Something’s wrong.”
“Inspector Longly seemed a bit withdrawn,” I ventured.
“Yes, he is.” A combination of irritation and puzzlement infused Gwen’s tone as her gaze tracked the car. “But it’s more than that. There’s an atmosphere—a tension—” She shook her head, which caused the tendrils of her fair hair that had escaped from her bun to shift about her face. “I don’t know.”
“What do you mean?” This was more than Gwen being irritated with a trying houseguest, and she wasn’t the sort of person who worried needlessly, fretting over minor details and blowing up little incidents into phantom problems.
The Alfa Romeo disappeared through the Parkview gates, and Gwen’s brow lowered into a frown. “I can’t describe it, except to say the atmosphere is rather fraught.” She shrugged. “Perhaps you’ll be able to figure it out. You’re much better at these intuitive, under-the-surface things.” Returning to her normal good-natured manner, she looked down at the birdcage. “It appears Mr. Quigley and I have been abandoned. Can you give us a lift?”
“I think I can squeeze you and Mr. Quigley in,” I said as Gwen picked up the birdcage and went around to the passenger side.
“Goodness. What’s all this?” Gwen’s gaze ranged over the passenger seat of the motor, which was stuffed with my luggage. The dickey seat was packed as well with my trunk and more boxes. “What’s happened?” A smile lit up her face. “Are you moving back to Nether Woodsmoor?”
“No, far from it. At least, I hope not—as much as I’d like to be near you, living with Father and Sonia is just too grim to contemplate. Climb in and I’ll explain all.”