CHARADES WITH A LUNATIC
About the book:
‘Roses are red, violets are blue. It’s not quite dead, just like you.’
What was the meaning of Desmond’s childish rhyme, phoned to his sisters just days before his death? What unnamed ‘treasure’ of great value did Bella’s crazy great-uncle Desmond bequeath to his family? In a posthumous letter to be hand-delivered to Bella’s great-aunts, Gilead missionaries just returned from Peru to Cornwall, England, Desmond Wildeve spoke of a priceless object hidden in the vast, cluttered family mansion – a mansion no one had been admitted in for mearly fifty years. And he gave them only one clue to start the hunt: another childish rhyme.
Taking on the challenge, Bella, with the help of family, friends, and eccentric villagers, searches for the meanings to the childish rhymes hidden throughout the mansion by her great-uncle. The search leads Bella into comically bizarre situations, including wrestling with mummies, hidden passages, and genealogical secrets as she plays charades with a lunatic from beyond the grave.
Read an excerpt from CHARADES WITH A LUNATIC:
After dinner, as promised, Jude drove Michael, Tamsin, and me to Tanglewood Manor in his van, a great white shell of fiberglass bouncing on demented shocks. Besides the driver’s seat and the front passenger seat, which had been surrendered to Tamsin as the guest, there are no places to sit unless it’s on the floor next to tools, car parts, diving equipment, fishing tackle, or other male accoutrements. I always feel like the last marble in the box when I have to ride in the back of Jude’s van. For safety’s sake, I wedged myself somewhere between Michael’s solid form and an immovable box with something heavy inside. I wasn’t sure what was in the box, but it beat sitting next to the empty scuba tanks that had a tendency to roll across the floor like loose torpedoes.
Brandt had already taken his truck and Albert Pengarth on shepherding visits, and my father and Dante had long since left in the Range Rover on theirs. Even though Jude usually accompanied them, he was free for the night and available to take us on our tour of Tanglewood Manor.
It was more than could be said for Michael’s old midnight blue Saab, which was stuck at home with a flat tire and an alarmingly soft spare, something that we were all beginning to regret. It was dark and blowy when we left the house with nothing more than a faint scent of rain hovering in the blackness, but now the wind was beginning to grow with alarming rapidity, and when Jude’s flat-sided van caught the storm winds, it bobbled more violently than a fat lady running for her life.
“Maybe we should turn back and try again tomorrow,” Jude suggested and turned on the dash’s blower to clear the growing condensation from the windshield. “If we’re turning back to go home, we need to do so now. The storm’s building quickly, and it looks like it’s going to break any second.”
“You mean we’ll have to wait until the weather is calm?” Tamsin asked, sounding as disappointed as I felt at the thought of aborting the long-awaited excursion. A sudden gust of wind sprung up, buffeted the van, and sent two of the scuba tanks spinning in opposite directions.
“Look, I don’t really want to go back,” I said. “Tamsin and I have waited too long to see the inside of the manor house. Do you think we’ll make it? Can we keep going?”
“I know we can make it to the manor. Depending on the violence of the storm that’s blowing in, we might not be able to make it back though. But if you are that set on seeing it now, we can go on to the manor and just take our chances. If we have to, we can always hitch a ride back with Dad after he and Dante finish tonight,” Jude said and turned onto the rutted lane that led along the cliff’s edge to the house. “Then tomorrow Brandt can drop me off to pick the van up.”
Driving through wind gusts charging up a cliff face is like riding your bicycle with Toto in Kansas. I kept expecting the tin man to crash through the windscreen and kill us.
“It’s getting worse,” Jude remarked a moment later, expertly dodging a pothole. I guessed that he was used to his van and knew how far to push it. The rest of us were so buffeted and jarred that we couldn’t speak without biting our tongues off. I could hear the loose change clanking violently in Jude’s ashtray. “The wind is starting to hit the cliff pretty hard, but it may not be this bad down in the village.”
“Hopefully, later, it will die down a bit,” Tamsin grunted timidly between potholes, then screeched when a fork of lightning hit the water somewhere beside us.
Heaven was beginning to crack, and by the time we had pulled up to the front steps, lightning was avidly attacking the ocean in a breathtaking celestial display. The violent riptide of wind swirling maniacally around us shot a wriggling fish up and over the cliffs and plopped it across the windscreen like a splat of jelly. It was a toss up as to who was more startled, the fish or us. We all jerked back, watching in surprised horror as the windscreen wipers ricocheted back and flung it into oblivion. Jude turned off his engine, and large pelting raindrops began to thunder and roll over the van’s roof like hurled marbles.
The grime-encrusted manor had never looked more welcoming.
“Sorry!” Jude shouted. “The storm seems to have beaten us! And to top it off, I gave the umbrellas to Aunts Astrid and Aurora! Can you believe they didn’t have any?”
“Yes!” Michael yelled over the racket the storm was making in the echo chamber we were sitting in and scrambled to his feet, yanking me up behind him. “Come on! Run!” he commanded and shoved open the heavy sliding door. I barely had time to snag my rucksack with the keys in it before he propelled me out of the van and into the rain. Doors opened behind me, slammed shut, and we all ran for the deep front stoop. A brilliant stab of lightning hit the water nearby with a loud crack, sucking the air from our lungs.
Jude snatched the outside door keys from my hand as I fumbled, unlocking the door for me and shoving all of us into the house like he was ramming a plunger through a clogged drain. We exploded into the blackness in a stumbling damp mass of warm bodies and eight feet. I got mine tangled up with Tamsin’s and cannoned into another body. This one was stiff and meaty and didn’t move when I landed both of us flat on the floor with a body-jarring thud. Either I was embracing a horizontal corpse with advanced rigor or I had just killed one of my brothers. I froze in horror. Overhead a light clicked on, and I found myself staring at Margaret Rutherford. Her hat had been knocked off, and I found my left knee up her skirt, exposing her cotton bloomers and rolled stockings.
“Are you alright, Bella?” Jude asked and pulled me off of the mannequin’s immense bosom. I could see Michael against the wall, his hand on the light switch, and Tamsin staring open mouthed at something behind me. I whirled around and swallowed a gasp. We were in a soaring cavern built of hewn blocks. Flagstones the size of mattresses paved the floor, medieval weaponry and tapestries the size of sails hung from the walls, and a wrought iron chandelier the size of an upended sapling hung above us. But that wasn’t what had wrung an involuntary gasp from my throat.
THE DOLL IN THE WALL
About the book:
‘Checkmate to the black king…’ begins the eerie missive found by Bella. It had been hidden in a pub’s wall along with a cache of toys, a child’s clothes, and a century-old photograph of two children, one of whom is a little boy holding the same doll found in the wall with the note.
Who, or what, is the black king, and why is the writer of the message frightened for their life? Who are the children in the photograph? What is the link between the hidden items and a chess game? And most puzzling of all, how is it possible that the abandoned hundred-year-old doll is familiar to members of Bella’s family?
Using forgotten photographs, memories, and the game of chess, Bella and her friend Tamsin learn the secret of the doll in the wall.
Read an excerpt from THE DOLL IN THE WALL:
We neared yet another fork in the road, and Chloe began to gently pump her brakes. “Which way, dear?!” she yelled into Elsie’s ear. We all surveyed the forked road in wary trepidation. This time, both lanes were horribly malevolent and uninviting.
“Ach!” Elsie said, which was not a good sign. I looked at Tamsin as Chloe came to a complete stop in front of our choices. Tamsin skewed her wide brown eyes at me and bit her lip. I didn’t know if it was to clamp down on a laugh, or if she was really worried. We waited for Elsie’s decision. It came after only a few seconds of silence, and it wasn’t at all what we wanted to hear.
“I do not know!” she finally announced, her voice outraged as if she had been duped. “I haff never seen this place in my life!”
Tamsin’s lips unclamped, and she let out a nervous giggle.
“Oh, dear,” Chloe sighed, and fiddled nervously with the Volvo’s steering wheel. “And here I was needing to use the toilet.”
The car’s engine idled as we sat in silence, contemplating our chances of going back in time and re-doing our day. It was then, after we had stopped driving, that I finally noticed the odd sound coming from under the car’s bonnet. It was a cross between a scrape and a hum and sounded a bit like a hummingbird caught in a jar. I was pretty certain that nothing on a Volvo was supposed to sound like that. I looked at Tamsin and mimed listening. She frowned, listened, heard the noise, rolled her eyes up into her head, deflated, and let her head drop back onto her headrest.
“Chloe,” I said tentatively, “just a minute.” I opened my door, and got out, dropping to my knees to peer under the car for any leaks of Volvo-juice. All I saw were dusty ruts. Either way, the scruffy humming coming from the Volvo didn’t sound innocuous. I got back in.
“Okay,” I said, shutting my door and refastening my safety belt, “we need to turn around and go back. I think you broke something in your car.”
The engine picked that precise second to sputter, cough, and die, kicking over for twenty seconds like a mule in the spasms of death throes. After giving one last mighty hump, the Volvo fell into silence. Clouds scudded silently, and somewhere a thrush began to warble.
“What?” Chloe asked, and turned around to look at me. “Did you say something, dear?”
“It is all the same anyway!” Elsie bellowed. “I do not know the way back!”
Tamsin began to pound the back of her head against the headrest.
“Does anyone have a mobile phone?” I asked tentatively, without much hope, and wasn’t surprised at the negative answers. “Well, that’s it, then,” I said, and poked Tamsin, opening my door and sliding out. “Come on, Tamsin, let’s start walking. Chloe and Elsie, if you’d like, you can just stay here and wait for us. Tamsin and I will get help. We’re bound to find someone sooner or later.”
It turned out to be later. Over an hour later. Tamsin and I decided to follow the road back, but when it came to the various turns and forks, neither one of us could remember with any clarity the right way to go.
I voiced the worry that Tamsin and I were doomed to wander the Cornish countryside until we died. Tamsin felt that we would go insane first, which I had to concede was a probability. We both agreed that Chloe and Elsie would probably be forced to eat each other before we went insane and died, and that none of us would be rescued for a variety of reasons, one being that we couldn’t be spotted by a rescue helicopter if one decided to fly overhead. The tan Volvo would look like just another enormous boulder plopped in a rut. Unless, of course, Elsie or Chloe broke cover at the whir of the chopper blades and galloped across the pasture like frightened wildebeest.
We were giggling helplessly when we came to the stream. It cut across the road in a bubbling rush and brought us up short. We had long since lost sight of Chloe, Elsie, and the Volvo, and had no idea where we were.
“We’re lost,” Tamsin stated the obvious, eyeing the stream that we had never seen before in our lives. It flowed loudly and musically over the smooth boulders and flattened the grass growing low on its edges.
“Let’s cross it.”
“Why?” She turned luminous brown eyes at me and stared. I looked down at the forest-engulfed road. Snatches of sunlight fell around the obviously traveled tarmac in gently moving coins.
“Because this road has tire marks. Hopefully, it leads to civilization. Or at least to someone’s house.”
“Okay, then, you first.”
I went up to the stream, took off my shoes, and unhesitatingly searched for the first boulder to jump on. I had no qualms about the wisdom of my choice for two reasons, the first being that I didn’t look for omens. If I did, then Chloe’s driving would have been my first sign to go home back to bed. The second reason is that the brook looked inviting. It was loud, dancing, and translucent. A twisting crystal ribbon.
I crouched and leapt, aiming for a mossy rock only three feet away, and, of course, fell right in. Water surged over me, surged past me, lifted me, and I took off down the stream, my butt sliding smoothly over mossy stones like a greasy penguin on ice. Foliage slid past my water-blurred gaze in a smear of color. I bounced, scraped, and swirled, never quite facing the direction in which I was going with such wild abandon.
I wasn’t too frightened. However, Tamsin was. She ran alongside me, screaming useless, but well meaning, pleas. She’d scream things like, ‘Grab my hand!’ while running into saplings and careening around bushes. I couldn’t grab her hand. Not only was it ten feet away, I would have pulled her in with me which would have only served to submerge us. We would have been so busy trying to climb onto each other’s heads, we would’ve drowned like gerbils in a flushing toilet.
After the first shock of falling in subsided, I actually began to enjoy it. Once I was certain that I was buoyant enough to survive, the tumultuous spree took on the quality of a carnival ride.
I floated and swirled; Tamsin ran. I bobbed and bounced over boulders; Tamsin leapt bushes and dodged trees. I held my breath; Tamsin pleaded for divine impediment. I don’t think she was counting on the boulder that caught me and nearly ripped my skirt off before swinging me around onto a piece of stony embankment.
I tumbled, rolled onto rocks, stopped in a sprawl, hugged the earth, sucked in a great lungful of air, and then began laughing in between gasps. Tamsin dropped to her knees beside me, then dropped on all fours while she glared at me and panted. A bead of sweat rolled from her forehead to the tip of her nose. It quivered and fell off.
“Bella, why didn’t you let go of your shoes?” she demanded crossly, and then collapsed facedown.
“Tamsin, are you all right?” I struggled to my hands and knees, dislodging a slimy cap of sodden leaves from my hair.
“Yes,” she moaned in the turf, and then began to giggle. I started laughing as well, slipping my saturated slippers back onto my feet before catching sight of the ragged tear slicing my skirt from hem to upper thigh.
“You look awful.” Tamsin propped herself on her elbows, still giggling, and raised an eyebrow at my torn skirt. “Actually, that might come in helpful if we have to hitchhike.”
“God forbid,” I said amiably, wrung the water from my hair, and slowly struggled to my feet. “And I mean that literally.”
Tamsin stood up, and began the tedious process of picking leafy bits and twigs from her person. I turned and helped her, suddenly spying the house that had been squatting some distance behind us. A pleasantly large, but not overlarge, structure of quarried stone.
“Look,” I said a bit dramatically, and pointed. Tamsin whirled around and stared, her hand paused in mid-swipe.
The two-storied structure sat in a clearing ringed with untrimmed hedges. Riotous rosebushes encircled windows and leaned drunkenly over tiny bits of statuary. A couple of ancient trees, overblown and twisty, stood sentinel over the front doors, and threw the front into moving shadows. I could see the ghostly specters of long-ago landscaping in all that unruly splendor.
The house was pleasant to look at even though it seemed a bit tattered, looking as if it had slowly aged and been quietly neglected. Not abandoned. Just left comfortably to itself until one suddenly noticed the frayed edges, the sags, the mustiness. The whole structure ambled with shallow abutments, recesses, rounded edges, and oddly misplaced curlicues. I had the fanciful impression that the house looked like it had originally considered being a tiny castle, but quickly became too world-weary to produce the battlements and towers. Easily a hundred years old, it must have seen so many things.
A weed-choked sweep curled in front of the house, leading from a stone arch that framed the drive’s entry. There wasn’t any fence or gate. Enormous hinges hung from the open arch like splayed hands with rusted, empty fingers.
“There’s a road,” Tamsin said, and pointed unnecessarily at the narrow lane that meandered past. Even in ill repair, the road looked well-kept compared to the one we had just been walking on before I fell in the stream. “I don’t see any cars in the drive. Do you think anyone lives there?”
The house was too far away for me to spot the usual telltale signs of habitation. I started wading through the ferny undergrowth.
“Come on,” I said, turning my skirt around by its waistband until the rip was behind me. “Let’s see.”
We cleared the road, walked apprehensively through the arch, up the drive, and approached the double doors. Under a shallow stoop with stone supports, the doors looked solid and weathered, their daunting air softened by a nearby pair of mum-filled urns.
We saw the heavily figured doorknocker once we mounted the front stoop. Brass and oddly ornate, it was shaped like something from Cellini. A horse’s head, it’s mane like an ocean wave, rose out of a mass of what looked to be tangled lilies. A heavy ring was clamped in the grimacing horse’s teeth. I lifted the ring and rapped sharply on the edge of a flower.
The door creaked open, and we found ourselves face to face with an elderly woman. Dressed in a faded housedress and apron, she was pear-shaped, her bosom resting on her lower wedge of belly like wilted balloons. Even her wispy gray hair looked dispirited. Everything about her looked depressed except for her eyes. She regarded us brightly from behind large round glasses, taking in my wet bedraggled appearance and the bits of dead leaves hung on Tamsin, and opened her mouth before either Tamsin or I could speak.
“Well, you might as well come on in,” she said and opened the door wide. “I’ve been waiting for you.”