No. 6 in the Olympia Brown Mission Mysteries series. When Olympia Brown is invited to attend a religious conference in England, she soon discovers there is more than faith on the agenda. Someone on staff has a well-calculated plan to destroy The Moorlands, including the great stone house itself. Olympia discovers embezzlement, tainted food and a prescient housecat named Thomas, all of which eventually fit into a pattern—but not before she falls victim to a killer’s twisted plot. With Father Jim in the States, Frederick must assist his lady wife in this page-turning tale of hatred and revenge.
Robert Mosely first learned of his wife’s all-consuming rage and the havoc it was about to wreak in their lives on a sunny day in August while the two were seated out in the garden, enjoying their afternoon tea. This was the time when they reviewed the events of the day and, along with their tea and bread and butter sandwiches, indulged in a bit of gossip about the staff and paying guests. As head caretaker and chief bookkeeper of The Moorlands, they were considered to be below the management, but as operations and administration they ranked above the housekeepers and the kitchen staff. The two had never been blessed with children, and so it was that over the years The Moorlands, along with a succession of ginger cats always named Thomas, had become the focus of their care and attention.
On that particular day Robert was telling his wife Margery how he’d like to have a proper holiday someday, maybe a week in the Lake District or perhaps go off to one of the Channel Islands. They’d not been anywhere since their parents died; there never seemed to be extra money for such luxury. Still, he reasoned, they were happy as they were, weren’t they? Their tastes and needs were simple, and employment and lodging were assured as long as The Moorlands continued as it had done all these years. Maybe it was because of an expansiveness brought on by the warmth of the sun on his back and the sense of well-being he felt at the end of a good day that he decided to approach the subject once again.
“I’ve been thinking,” he said.
“I don’t like the sound of that, Robert,” said his wife.
“Just hear me out, woman. I’m thinking I fancy a proper holiday. We’ve never had one. If we’re careful and do it at a time when it isn’t too busy here, we might manage a week somewhere. What d’you think, lass?”
Margery set down her tea cup and gave him an odd look. “There’s something I need to tell you.”
“By the look on your face, I don’t think I’m going to like it.”
“Happen you will, happen you won’t, but it’s time you knew.”
“What are you going on about, woman?”
Margery folded her arms and leaned back in her chair. “For your information I have enough money set aside to take us on holiday anywhere in the world for as long as we want and go first class with it. We just have to watch and wait a little while longer.”
Robert gasped and then swallowed. “Have you gone daft? I know how much money we have. I put it in the bank every week, don’t I?”
Margery lowered her voice. “There’s another account in a different bank outside of England. It’s got well over six hundred thousand pounds in it, maybe even more, what with interest and dividends. I know, because I deposited every penny.”
He leaned forward. “Now I know you’ve gone daft. And just how did you manage that without me knowing it… and how did you come by it?”
Margery looked straight at her husband and said quite simply, “For lack of a better word, I stole it, every last penny of it. For the last thirty years your wife, the loyal and devoted bookkeeper to The Moorlands has been spooning off a little here and a little there that no one’s ever missed. I made sure of that. Then, what with compound interest and careful reinvesting, it’s grown itself into a tidy little sum.”
As she continued her voice became a harsh, rasping whisper, and her eyes glittered with the anger she’d suppressed for years. “I’ve kept it from you all these years because there was no reason to tell you, but now there is, and it’s because I’m going to need your help.”
Robert looked as though he’d been punched in the chest. “If you are telling the truth, Margery, and I can’t believe you are, whatever it is, I want no part of it. You love The Moorlands, and so do I. This is our life. We’ve nothing else but this. Have you lost your senses?”
“I said I had something to tell you, Robert. Are you going to listen, or do you want to wait until you read about it in the papers.”
“Hang on a minute. If it’s that serious I think I’d better have another cup of tea.”
Robert Mosely dumped out the remains of the cold tea and reached for the milk jug. After he’d poured in a healthy slosh of milk, he refilled his cup, using the flowered china teapot they’d received as a wedding gift. Then he held it up and shook it in his wife’s direction, but she set her mouth in a firm line and shook her head. He had a habit of stalling when he didn’t want to hear something, and it never failed to irritate her.
“Are y’done faffin’ about, or are y’going to have another biscuit and take up a little more time? Maybe you’d like a bacon butty to go with it, and some chips.”
He shook his head, “Go on then.”
“You’ve missed something these thirty years, Robert, and it’s not just the money. I don’t love The Moorlands. I hate The Moorlands, and I hate everything and everyone connected to it. It’s taken me thirty years to come this far, and I’m not going to let Miss Fresh-face New-blood Celia Attison and her bloody great plan for modernization stop me now.”
She held up her hand. “Just hear me out, will you? This is what you don’t know. My grandmother was a kitchen maid in this very house when she was a girl. She was honest, and she worked hard; but it seems like the master of the house, Sir Gregory Ashton-Beckett, decided he required more than her services in the kitchen. The poor thing desperately needed the pittance they paid, and she didn’t dare refuse him. Well, you know what happened, and when it did, they blamed her for seducing him and turned her out without a farthing or a character reference.”
Robert shook his head. “You never told me.”
“Well, I’m telling you now. Can you imagine it? Even her own parents blamed her. They said it was she who’d disgraced the family and not that titled monster of a man. She soon gave birth to my mother and was eventually married off to a pig farmer. He was a widower with six children who lived in Lancashire. Out of sight, out of mind, you might say. She had a hard life, did my mother, but she was determined to leave her own mother’s shame behind her and make a better life for herself. But can you imagine what it was like with nothing but pig muck to your name, the smell of it clinging to your clothes and your hair?
“She knew Sir Gregory Ashton-Beckett was her wealthy and titled grandfather, and he lived here in The Moorlands, but she was forbidden ever to speak of it. Even when my grandmother took ill, and my mother went to him, begging for help, he wouldn’t turn a hand. Said he couldn’t afford to help every beggar that came to the door and sent her off in tears.”
Margery blew out a breath in anger and disgust.
“Well, after her mother died, my mother left home and got a job in a local shop, where she met my father. They married and moved to Thirsk. I was their only child. But my father died when I was five, and then my mother was on her own with me to support. She worked hard and never once asked anyone for help. She was good with numbers and found work as a bookkeeper until she died. I inherited her head for figures, and when I finished school I took a job in the accounts office of a local Woolworth’s. That’s when I met you.”
Robert nodded slowly and picked up the part of the story he knew. “After we married we came to live and work at The Moorlands, you with your head for figures and me to fix all the things that broke. By then it wasn’t a private home any longer.”
“That’s right. It seems that the high and mighty Sir Gregory and Lady Sarah Ashton-Beckett had fallen upon hard times and could no longer afford to keep up their historic stately home. So what did they do? They were so miserable they even found a way to make bankruptcy benefit them. The old man tried giving it to the National Trust, but they didn’t want it, so he gave it to the church as a tax deduction with the provision that it be used as a retreat center. What bloody cheek. He plays the part of a pious citizen when all he’s doing is dumping a house he can’t keep up and calling it charity. I call it hypocrisy. Welcome to The Moorlands!”
“And we’ve been here ever since.”
“I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Getting the job gave me the opportunity I’d been looking for all my life, and I didn’t even have to ask for it. On that first day, the day I sat down at the secondhand desk they shoved in my direction, I began planning.”
She held up her hand to silence him. “It’s not what you think. At least it didn’t start out that way. Way back when I first started working here, I wasn’t thinking about revenge, I was only thinking about what was my just due.”
“I don’t understand,” said her husband.
“Just listen, will you? My blood grandfather, Sir Gregory, never gave so much as tuppence toward the support of my mother. It was so bloody unfair. I’ve carried that outrage with me ever since I knew the truth of what happened. Getting the job here gave me exactly the opportunity I was looking for, a way to make it right for my mother and my grandmother before her. The way I see it, I’m the legal heir to this place and the money it will bring when it’s sold. Everyone else has died off. Of course, I can never prove it, not at this late date, but I can still make it right in my own way and in my own mind, and that has been my intention since the day I came here. ”
Robert sipped at his cooling tea and said nothing.
“It didn’t take me long to find the folder containing the terms of the deed and the original agreement. The place is intended to be used as a religious retreat house and conference center and nothing else, not a business venture. Should it become unable to sustain itself as such, then it is to be sold, and anything left after the fees and the bills are paid is to be given to the local diocese. I suppose that way the old man thought he could buy his way back into heaven. Maybe he thought with all the money going to the church, St. Peter wouldn’t notice his heart was a block of ice and his soul was as black as night. Talk about hypocrisy, using the church to relieve him of impending debt! And it just so happens that the terms of the original agreement are going to work for us now. Make no mistake, Robert Mosely, The Moorlands is going under. I’ve seen to that, and when it does, we’re going to get it.”
“And then what?” he asked softly as the unpleasant reality, along with the complete feasibility, of her plan began to take shape in his own mind.
“When the day comes, I’ll find someone to buy it anonymously in my name. Then we’ll go off to Spain while the estate agent we’ve hired sells it to an investor for a very high price. This is prime land. It’s not far from the A65 and the A59 so it offers easy access to several larger cities. Bedroom communities are going up all over England. We’ll sell it to the highest bidder and retire as millionaires with nobody the wiser. Then you can have your bloody holiday anywhere you want, luv, and first class with it! But not until after I come back and watch the bulldozers knock down every filthy stick and stone of this place and everything it stands for.”
Margery was breathing faster now, and her dark eyes were like pointed arrows aimed directly at her husband.
“It started out with penny numbers, a little here and a little there. Then, when no one took notice, the numbers started going up. I opened an account in a Swiss bank, and I can say with some confidence that in the intervening years we have become quite wealthy. We can do what we want, just not when we want. The timing from now on is critical. When it’s all done and dusted, Sir Gregory’s obligation to my mother and my grandmother will be paid in full, and you and I will be far away.”