Authors: Judith Cutler
Table of Contents
The Sophie Rivers Mysteries
DYING TO WRITE
DYING ON PRINCIPLE
DYING FOR MILLIONS
DYING FOR POWER
DYING TO SCORE
DYING BY DEGREES
DYING BY THE BOOK
DYING IN DISCORD
DYING TO DECEIVE
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First published in Great Britain in 1996
by Judy Piatkus (Publishers) Ltd of
5 Windmill Street, London W1
This eBook first published in 2013 by Severn House Digital an imprint of Severn House Publishers Ltd.
Copyright Â© 1996 by Judith Cutler
The right of Judith Cutler to be identified as the Author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988.
ISBN-13: 978-1-4483-0108-9 (ePub)
Except where actual historical events and characters are being described for the storyline of this novel, all situations in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons is purely coincidental.
This eBook produced by
Palimpsest Book Production Limited,
Falkirk, Stirlingshire, Scotland.
I would like to thank the following: the Arvon Foundation; Tim Priestman for the chocolate pudding recipe; David Stephenson for his teaching and especially for Matt and Hugh's poetry; Graham Townshend for his cures for teacher's throat and ideas for poisoning people; Edwina Van Boolen for her constant support and criticism; West Midlands Police for their polite and ready help.
For my parents
August rain dripping down my neck.
A rat regarding me from the reception desk.
And a man confessing to murder.
Anyone else winning a raffle might have picked up a snappy car. A trip to Disneyland â stateside or in France. Even a bottle of whisky. What do I win? A course for would-be writers. In Birmingham.
Birmingham's trying to reclaim its heritage. Where it merges with the Black Country, there's a large tangle of grass and heathland. They describe it euphemistically as a Country Park.
And, sure enough, it comes complete with a country house.
Eyre House is not a stately home. It may once have been a gentleman's residence. Now the eighteenth-century stuccoed house is attached to a sixties block: concrete, blue panels and aluminium-framed windows.
I found the reception desk in the umbilical corridor connecting the two. Apart from the door I'd come through, there were three others, one in each wall. From the half-open one on my right came two voices raised in anger.
âI told you I put paraquat in Phil's tea,' a man shouted. âAnd you should have been teaching the bloody course anyway â after you were short-listed â'
âNo!' came a woman's voice.
The rat, honey-coloured with brown eyes, shuffled to the end of its cage and pricked its left ear. I pricked my right.
âSo you have to, Kate!' the man continued.
It occurred to me that I ought to announce my presence, though it would clearly be much more interesting not to. I coughed, mildly. In response, the door slammed, reducing the voices to no more than a murmur.
The door on the left opened. A huge typewriter appeared, Remington circa 1930, at a guess. It settled on the desk, edging the rat's cage perilously close to the edge.
âHello,' said a diminutive Asian woman emerging from under the Remington. âI'm Shazia. I'm the administrator here.'
âHello. I'm Sophie. Sophie Rivers.'
Shazia picked up a pencil and reached for a typed list. The door to my right opened.
âShazia!' It was a man's voice.
âExcuse me.' She disappeared in his direction, punctiliously closing the door behind her.
The rat shrugged its shoulders and set about exploring its cage. I looked round the reception area. Neither of us would be occupied for very long.
The rat, its tour completed, embarked on a minute examination of the fur at the base of its spine.
The door to our right opened again. Shazia's voice â and the other woman's. The rat looked pleased and stood up, pressing a stomach of comfortable proportions against the bars. I put out a tentative finger to tickle it. Then Shazia reappeared, with a woman in her forties. She had a rather lived-in face. She wore the sort of suit you can dress down with a T-shirt or up with a silk blouse. At the moment she was playing safe with Marks and Sparks poly-cotton.
âOh, you don't mind Sidney? Thank goodness! I thought people might be afraid of him.' She put down the sheaf of papers she was carrying and chirruped at him. He abandoned my finger for hers.
âI'm Kate,' she said at last, withdrawing her hand from Sidney and offering it to me. âKate Freeman. I seem to be one of the course tutors.'
âSophie Rivers,' I said, rather shyly for me. I'd not met a real writer before.
A man now emerged. She half-turned to smile at him. âAnd this is Matt Purvis, the other tutor.'
Matt smiled, an open, friendly smile. Like Kate, he was in his forties and wore depressingly normal clothes: jeans and a heavy sweater. I suppose I'd hoped for eccentricity in the form of bare feet and baggy cords. At least he sported a beard, but it was as neatly trimmed as his hair.
âKate, I'll shift your cases while you get that list retyped,' he said. âWhich room, Shazia?'
âNumber twelve. On the ground floor.'
Matt pushed through the door on the left, into the newer part of the building. He reappeared a minute later, a key between his teeth, carrying a suitcase and what appeared to be a state-of-the-art computer notepad. âAnother couple of bags,' he grunted, dropping the keys neatly into Shazia's outstretched hands. âBloody hell, Kate, never heard of minimalism?'
âOK, I'll get them,' said Shazia.
Matt disappeared through the door on the right.
âBloody French farce,' he muttered, as all the doors sighed. Kate meanwhile was busy with the list.
âThere: will they be able to tell I was originally supposed to be a student?'
I peered at her paper. Two undeniable blobs of Tipp-Ex.
âI'm afraid they might,' I said hesitantly. âAnd you know what people are like if they think they're not getting the real McCoy.'
âOh, dear. And, well, I helped train people when I was in Customs and Excise but I've never actually taught before â'
âMaybe we'd better keep quiet about that. Here â there's a couple of cars coming up the drive. Let's retype that list before anyone else arrives.'
Altruism doesn't pay. That's what my thirty-five years should have taught me. If I hadn't been sorting out the Remington's temperament, I'd have bagged the nice end room with the window overlooking what could one day become a garden again. As it was, I found myself relegated to one in the row of identical hutches whose only view was the kitchen bins. The decor was no more inspiring than the view. It didn't take me long to settle in â I travel more lightly than Kate. I'd go and confront my destiny in the form of my fellow students.
Shazia had mentioned tea or coffee. That meant retracing my steps across the gusty hall and into the old building. I found the lounge without difficulty, and strapped on a convivial smile. But even that minor effort was in vain. There was no sign of any of the people who'd arrived while I was lurking behind the reception desk. Except one: a woman a good ten inches taller than me. She was dressed â most unsuitably for the weather, which I braved in a winter-weight tracksuit â in a skirt shorter than you could buy anywhere in Birmingham. When she heard me come in, she turned from the window. She turned back again. The clear implication was that even the sodden lawn was more interesting.
I shrugged and padded over to the tea urn. It rumbled with the same menace as one we'd had at the college I work at. Periodically it would shudder and breathe steam. We'd christened ours Vesuvius. You'd expect something more literary in a place like this.
âHave you had some tea?' I inquired, squirting water into a mug. âOr did the Balrog defeat you?'
âTea rots your teeth, darling.' She sounded ineffably bored. Then she put on her party manners. âWhat did you call that thing?'
âThe Balrog. As in
Lord of the Rings
âBloody Wagner or something?'
âNo. A book by â'
âOh. A book.' She turned back to the window.
Her posture was impeccable, despite the high heels which the course prospectus had expressly forbidden, in order to protect the wooden floors in this part of the building. Her legs, evenly tanned, stretched up to her waist. Mine merely reach my bottom. To my provincial taste, the gold anklet made her look a little on the cheap side.
Clearly she did not want to talk about the original oak panelling or the badly foxed prints on the walls.
Sipping the surprisingly good Assam, I slipped off my shoes to toast my toes at the fire some kind soul had lit.
âWhat lovely feet!' said a Birmingham accent. And a hand grabbed one of them.
I nearly fell into the fire.
âI'm sorry. I didn't mean â oh, please â¦' Crouching, the speaker dabbed at the tea I'd slopped on to the hearth. I attended to that on my thighs.
All I could see of him was one of those Oxfam sweatshirts with a giant frog on the back. There was one on the front, too, as I saw when he eventually stood up. I was to wish he'd chosen another design. Whenever I thought of him after that, I saw a frog. No, a toad. His pale bulgy eyes and rather wide mouth didn't help. But he hadn't any warts or anything. Really he was quite a normal-looking man. Young â well, mid-thirties. Broadly built, but not heavy. Rather pale skin, and mousy hair which was quite distinctly thinning. Nothing remarkable. Except for his sweatshirt and the way he was clasping my right foot.
âQuite lovely. Lovely straight toes. No corns. Lovely!'
Not surprisingly, the woman at the window turned. She held out one of hers. Not for attention. Just worship.
I thought the colour she'd painted her toenails was common. But Toad leaped across the room to kneel before her, resting her foot on his knee and removing her strappy sandal.
âLook at that arch,' he breathed. âThe line of that arch!'