Miss Riddell and the Heiress by P.C. James
A lost fortune. A desperate hunt for answers. Can a persistent investigator unearth the truth and save a life?
Sydney, Australia, 1977. Miss Riddell just survived a mind-numbing audit. So when she’s approached by an Australian woman seeking to prove she’s entitled to inherit an affluent English estate, the amateur sleuth is tickled by the chance to crack an easy case. But when she heads to England and discovers the aristocratic claim has no substance, she didn’t expect her dissatisfied client to follow… or the danger she would attract.
Helping the Aussie further her cause, Miss Riddell believes there’s nothing left to uncover until she saves the woman from a hit and run. And with her keen eye spotting threats lurking in the shadows, the talented accountant is determined to expose a secret worthy of murder…
Can Miss Riddell unravel a sinister scheme before someone’s greed sends the poor soul to her grave?
Miss Riddell and the Heiress is the intriguing fourth book in the Miss Riddell Cozy Mystery series. If you like whip-smart heroines, compelling clues, and sensational twists, then you’ll love P.C. James’ captivating tale.
Targeted Age Group:: All audiences
Heat/Violence Level: Heat Level 1 – G Rated Clean Read
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
Many years ago, while working in Australia, I heard from someone that they were descendants of English aristocracy. The story stayed with me and, while nothing like this book, set me thinking 'what if' and, over the years since, this story was born.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
My leading character, Miss Riddell, is modelled on a young Miss Marple, or as I imagine she might have been, as well as on my aunts when I was growing up. My aunts and Miss Marple were practically the same in my mind.
The heiress is based on a number of women I've met over the years whose tongue and manner were sharp but their hearts were brave and kind.
SYDNEY, NSW, AUSTRALIA – NOVEMBER 1977
Walking around Taronga Zoo took longer than she’d expected. After an hour, with much of the zoo unexplored, she sat down at the cafeteria for a pot of tea and a lamington cake. She was hardly settled when she noticed a woman who was vaguely familiar hovering nearby. Pauline broke off a piece of her lamington cake and watched her approach. Now she was closer, Pauline remembered the woman had been on the same morning Captain Cook Cruise around the harbor and bay with her and even then, she’d seemed to take a special interest in Pauline. Pauline wracked her brain to make a connection between the woman and the many new people she’d met since arriving in Australia only four weeks earlier. She couldn’t think of anyone she’d met that resembled the woman, who was still circling closer looking unable to decide whether to speak or leave.
She was dressed for a vacation and that alone set her apart from the other Australians all around who were in ‘winter’ clothes, this being the depths of Sydney’s winter season. Pauline was in her spring clothes; for to a northern Englishwoman, an Australian winter was more like a summer’s day. But this mysterious and conflicted stranger was also in her summery clothes of a flower-printed dress and bare legs, though with a light, fawn coat over her arm.
Pauline took a sip of tea and continued nibbling her cake while she waited for the woman to make up her mind. Lamington cake, a sponge cube rolled in chocolate and shredded coconut, Pauline finally decided, was interesting, but in the end, just sponge cake. In Pauline’s mind, pastries were always better than cakes. The zoo café was busy with families enjoying snacks in the bright sunshine and under the clear blue sky that hadn’t changed since she’d arrived in Australia. Those crowds, however, made it hard for Pauline to always keep the woman in sight.
She could see the woman was attractive, but somewhat unusually, wore no jewelry to enhance her face, neck, or arms. Her honey-blonde hair was fashionably cut but not in the hideous modern styles that came from watching too much television or movies. Pauline guessed she was about thirty, though her manner was almost that of a socially awkward teenager. Her hovering wasn’t threatening but even if it had been, Pauline wouldn’t have been concerned. They were evenly matched in height and weight and Pauline, when the dangers of her forays into crime solving had become too apparent, had taken lessons in self defense. She saw herself very much in the mold of Mrs. Emma Peel in that silly television show, The Avengers, which had been so popular in the Sixties. Though she fully recognized and disapproved of the nonsense it showed, she’d gone ahead and taken lessons. While she knew even a trained woman like herself couldn’t win a fight against a violent, aggressive man, let alone the kind of supposedly trained agents Mrs. Peel was always besting in fights, it was enough to know that the element of surprise early in a fight could turn out in her favor.
Just as Pauline was thinking of leaving the small table, the woman came to a decision and approached her directly. “Excuse me,” she said. “Can I talk to you for a moment?”
She spoke English with an Australian accent, Pauline noticed, not Australian English. Perhaps she was a newcomer who was just beginning to settle in.
“Of course,” Pauline said, gesturing to the seat at the opposite side of the small table.
“You don’t know me,” the woman said abruptly and stopped.
“Well, we can correct that at once,” Pauline said. “I’m Pauline Riddell.” She held out her hand.
The woman took Pauline’s hand and shook it. Her hand was soft but her handshake firm. Despite her initial suspicions, Pauline felt herself thawing.
“Alexandra Wade,” she said, “but I prefer just plain Alex.” She stopped speaking abruptly again but this time it seemed less odd because she was settling herself in the chair Pauline had offered.
Pauline decided to wait it out. The woman wanted to talk, that was clear, but she’d have to decide to do so in her own time. After all, Pauline was flying home tomorrow and couldn’t help anyone here. She mentally shook herself. No one here knew she was Miss Riddell, fighter for justice and righter of wrongs, as her journalist friend Poppy had once described her in a newspaper article. She smiled to herself. Poppy’s words from long ago and far away, while silly, did come to mind often, which was of course pride and there- fore a failing she did her best to suppress.
“You talked about Whalley to the people on the boat this morning,” Alexandra said at last.
For a moment, Pauline had a mental block, then she remembered, “Oh, yes,” she said, “the British couple on the boat told me they were from Manchester before emigrating here. They asked me if I knew Manchester.”
Alexandra nodded. “Then you said you lived in Whalley.”
“I do now,” Pauline said. “I moved there some months ago. Why? Do you know it?”
“I’ve never been there but I know of it,” Alex said. “My mum said we were descendants of a noble family from near there.” She paused, then continued. “Do you know a village called Ashton de Cheney?”
“No,” Pauline said slowly, “but I’m not a local in the area. As I said, I only moved there a few months ago. Do you live in Sydney? It’s a beautiful city.”
“No,” Alex said, “I was born and raised in Victoria. Wadeville. It’s a tiny place about a hundred miles inland from Melbourne.”
“I’ve heard Melbourne is a beautiful city too,” Pauline said.
“I wouldn’t know,” Alex said, “apart from the airport, I’ve never been there.”
“Never?” Pauline asked.
“We never got off the station much when I was a kid,” Alex said. “Then when Dad took off, and we lost the farm and had to move into town, Mum and I couldn’t afford to go anywhere.”
“I’m sorry,” Pauline said. “Still, the country around there must be beautiful so you can’t have missed much growing up.”
“It is pretty around the town,” Alex agreed. “Living there, you forget. It takes a stranger to remind you of things sometimes.”
“That’s very true,” Pauline said. “Visitors came to where I grew up all the time and it was a long time before I could see the moors as they saw them.”
“My difficulty is different.” Alex said. “The country I grew up in is beautiful but our poverty, after Dad left, makes me hate it.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Pauline said, though wondering what any of this had to do with her. “It must have been very hard.”
Alex shook her head. “You don’t understand, I’m not explaining it well. It was a poverty of mind more than of the body, and it was made worse by my mother’s belief we were ‘quality’, as she called it, and we had to keep ourselves above our neighbors.”
Pauline was beginning to think the woman wasn’t quite right in the head and considered how best to extricate herself from this increasingly worrisome interview.
“It is hard when you’re young not to have things others have,” Pauline said.
“It wasn’t like that,” Alex said, almost angrily. “I didn’t care about material things. It was the lack of friends, the loneliness – the teasing and bullying at school – which drove me to leave school early and miss out on university.”
Pauline frowned. Any moment, she was going to be asked to donate to something, she was sure of it.
Seeing Pauline’s expression seemed to sober, Alex said, “You see, I lived all my life in a tiny village of fifty people and hadn’t a relative or friend in the whole place. My mother’s obsession with being ‘aristocracy’ kept us apart. People don’t like being told they’re below you on some idiotic social scale from a far-away country.”
“I can see how that would cause friction,” Pauline agreed, and she could. Alex’s mother must have been deranged to give herself airs and graces in a land as egalitarian as Australia prided itself on being.
“Friction doesn’t begin to describe it,” Alex said, her temper clearly rising again. “When I was a teenager, the other kids were always having crushes on each other, going out, falling out. Nobody wanted me. Mother would say ‘a pretty girl like you will soon get a good husband, not one of these local yokels’ but she didn’t have to run home from school to stop the yokels pawing her, not because they were attracted to me but because they wanted to hurt and humiliate me. Mother’s obsession was a nightmare I lived with until…” she stopped.
“Until?” Pauline said, feeling the woman was getting to the point at last.
“She died, about a month ago.”
“Oh, I am sorry,” Pauline said. Did the woman just want a shoulder to cry on? Pauline hoped not for she wasn’t the shoulder-crying-on sort.
The silence grew as Alex clearly tried to recover her thoughts and feelings.
“I have no one, you see, or not really,” she said at last, “and I don’t like where I live so I thought I’d make the trip to England to see if what mother said was true.”
“I still don’t understand why you’re telling me this or what it is you hope to learn in England,” Pauline said.
“Mother said I’m the rightful heir to the de Cheney estate in a village called Ashton de Cheney near Whalley and one day we’d go back and claim it.”
Pauline asked, “Was your mother from Ashton de Cheney?”
Alex shook her head. “No,” she said. “That was my real dad, he was the de Cheney. Mum was just a regular girl. They met in the war, but he was killed before I was even born. And so were his parents, by a bomber unloading its bombs. Mum said the Jerry was afraid of all the flak over Liverpool, so he dropped his bombs early and scampered back to Germany. She says it happened a lot. The Jerries were cowardly like that, not like our boys who flew right into the thick of it.” Alex paused, then added, “My real father, Jocelyn de Cheney, was a bomber pilot and he was killed over Germany. That may have clouded her judgment.”
Pauline smiled; Alex’s wryly honest comment confirmed what she’d suspected. Beneath that awkward manner was a more mature woman trying to emerge.
“Perhaps,” Pauline said, ‘but still I prefer simple national pride to the modern fashion for revisionism.”
“I do too,” Alex said, “I feel the pilots on both sides were incredibly brave though I never told mother that. She’d have skinned me alive.”
“It’s always a mistake to run down your enemy,” Pauline agreed. “It devalues your victory if you win and humiliates you further if you lose.”
“Exactly,” Alex said.
“I still don’t see why you wanted to speak to me?” Pauline asked. She felt it was time to get to the heart of the issue before her whole afternoon was lost.
“If I’m the rightful heir to the de Cheney estate, or at least I have a claim on it,” Alex said, “I’d like to know. Some money would be welcome, of course, though I’ve a good job now so it isn’t just that. Perhaps I have a family who may even be happy to know me.”
This story was different, Pauline thought. Since arriving in Australia, she’d heard one or two strange stories about ‘back home’ but this one was unusual. A missing heiress was straight out of a romance novel, and it quite likely was!
“So why didn’t your mother claim the estate for you?” she asked. “After all, the postal service is very quick and efficient nowadays.”
“She said it was because her husband died before his parents did and he never got to pass it on to her,” Alex replied. “Presumably the inheritance passed to some other branch of the family.”
“That’s bad luck,” Pauline agreed.
“I think so,” Alex said seriously, “but I imagine it happened a lot in history. All those wars and plagues and things.”
“Probably it did,” Pauline agreed again.
“What would happen if there wasn’t another branch of the family?”
“I’m not a lawyer,” Pauline said, “and I’m sure it depends on the circumstances, but I’d guess it goes to the British state.”
“What if someone claimed it years later?”
“I’ve no idea,” Pauline said. “Probably a successful claimant would inherit but, again I’m guessing, there must be a time period allowed. You couldn’t claim too long after the death or the State would have disposed of it. Are you thinking you might have a case?”
“Lately,” Alex said slowly, “I’ve been wondering. Since Mum died, I’ve been on my own and I thought a trip to England might… you know. Well, you wouldn’t because I don’t know…” Alex let the sentence dribble away into nothing.
“I’m sorry I can’t be more help,” Pauline said. ‘I really know very little about inheritance law.” This wasn’t entirely truthful, but Pauline didn’t want to give the woman false hopes. She saw Alex nod in thanks, her mind far away.
“I do hope you’re able to get the help you need,” Pauline began, gathering her purse and jacket in preparation for leaving.
“Please,” Alex said, “don’t go. I only want to know something of where you live and how I might begin my quest for the truth. Just a few minutes, please?”
Pauline laid her bag and jacket down. It was difficult. She was torn between her usual desire to help others who needed help and her equally strong desire to not be imposed upon.
“Tell me quickly what you want to know,” Pauline said, “and I’ll do my best.”
“Where is the village? I couldn’t find it on the map.”
“I’m as puzzled about that as you are,” Pauline said. “I’ve never heard of it and yet you think it’s somewhere near where I live.”
“Well, where is that?”
“In Lancashire, just a few miles north of Manchester,” Pauline said.
“So, I could fly to London and then take a train to there?”
“Yes, very easily.”
“How would I find out about wills and family matters?” “Do that at Somerset House in London before you travel north,” Pauline said, happier now they were talking practical matters.
“As easy as that?”
“Research is never quite that easy but that’s where you start,” Pauline said.
“Thank you,” Alex said, “I had no idea. Could I ask a favor? It won’t take much of your time.”
“If I can,” Pauline said, wary again.
“If I give you my address, would you find out what you can about the village and hall of Ashton de Cheney and send me the details? That way I’d know if there even is such a place because from what you’ve said, and my uninformed map reading, there isn’t.”
“Yes, I think I could do that,” Pauline said, making a mental note not to provide a return address on her letter. “It should be a quick and simple history project and I liked doing those at school.”
“I always hated history,” Alex said. “My life was blighted by history and I couldn’t see how it might help anyone to know more of it.”
Pauline smiled. “Well, this time it might work out to your benefit. If I find there isn’t or wasn’t an Ashton de Cheney, you’ll be saved the expense of the trip and if I find there was, you may have the opportunity of a family and some additional money. A win-win as we say in business.”
“I hope so,” Alex said, though it didn’t sound hopeful.
Pauline again picked up her bag and coat. “Well, I must be going,” she said. “I have to pack for my flight home tomorrow and before I go, I want to see a wombat.”
“Can I walk with you?”
“Of course,” Pauline said. “Maybe you can tell me more as we walk.”
“Yes, of course. Sorry,” said Alex, “I’m spoiling your afternoon outing.”
“Not at all,” Pauline lied. “I can see my wombat and you can tell me more of your mother’s story. Something might click with me that would help.”
They set off walking toward the ‘Australian animals’ section of the zoo. Pauline could see Alex was still struggling to articulate what it was she’d hoped to get from approaching her and decided to help her along.
“Perhaps tell me from the beginning,” she said. “Where did your mother’s story start?”
“It started one night in 1944,” Alex said. “I’ve heard it so many times, I can recite it word for word.”
“What was her name, by the way? We can’t call her ‘Mother’ all afternoon.”
“Adelaide, but she always went by Adie,” Alex said.
“It seemed, even when she was christened, she was destined for Australia,” Pauline said, smiling.
“Yes, my step-dad said that in the beginning too,” Alex replied. “He told me that when I met him here in Sydney. I came here thinking it would lift me out of the depression that settled on me when Mother died.”
“You were going to tell me your mother’s story,” Pauline reminded her. It seemed highly unlikely from the little she’d heard that Alex would have a claim on anything but maybe there was more that would shed a different light.
“All right, I will,” Alex said. “Mother described it in such detail there has to be something in it. It can’t have been a story she made up. Anyway, she couldn’t have been so cruel to expose me to all the misery for a made-up story.”
Pauline hesitated, and then said, “She may just have wanted to keep you to herself, don’t you think? People often do strange things, unkind things, when they are desperate for love.”
Alex frowned. “Her behavior drove her husband, my stepdad, away. Surely, she would see that and stop. Wouldn’t she?”
“I don’t know,” Pauline said. “It’s just a possibility to consider. Now, tell me the story while I try and take a photo of this wombat, who isn’t much like I imagined he’d be.”
“The story starts at the end of World War Two,” Alex said, and began, “This is how my mother told it.”
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