A Short Story by Emily Guy Birken
Mrs. Bantry stood in the doorway of her richly appointed library and fumed. She turned her disapproving glare from the sprawled limbs and lifeless eyes cluttering up her Persian rug to her husband, whose mouth still gaped open.
“Well?!” she demanded.
Mr. Bantry immediately began sputtering. “My…my dear! I have no idea who…”
She cut him off. “Yes, yes. You’ve never seen him before in your life. I don’t care a fig about that!”
Mr. Bantry’s eyebrows shot up to where his hairline used to be. “M…Martha?”
Mrs. Bantry sighed. “Arthur, my book club will be here in three-quarters of an hour. I need everything to be perfect. Lionel will be here.”
Mr. Bantry knew that his wife’s rivalry with the local parson had gone to ridiculous lengths before. After Lionel Sedges’s strawberry rhubarb pie had been complimented by the other members of the book club, Martha had hired a pastry chef to create a masterful concoction for the following meeting, and then locked the poor woman in the basement for a full 24 hours after the book club guests all departed to ensure no one detected her deception in claiming the recipe as her own.
After Lionel won an award for his rose garden, Martha had dug out their own garden, added a hedge maze, over a dozen topiary animals, seven different varieties of flowering trees, and even built a decorative hermitage—although the unemployed actor she’d hired to be their hermit quit after two days to audition for a foot-cream commercial.
The library’s addition to their home was only the most recent in Mrs. Bantry’s campaign to one-up the diffident young clergyman. Apparently, Lionel had converted his study into a traditional country house library, having inherited a number of gorgeous old volumes from his father and wanting a suitable place to display them. The young man had spent his evenings and spare hours designing and building the shelves, paneling the walls, and staining all the wood to a bright, perfect walnut. He had debuted his beautiful new room at the book club meeting the month before, after two years of work on it.
Mrs. Bantry had come home seething and kept Mr. Bantry up half the night with her angry mutterings. It wasn’t until nearly 3 in the morning, when Mr. Bantry heard her suddenly exclaim, “Oh, yes!” in the tone he had learned to dread, that he was truly afraid. She slipped off to sleep soon after, and he watched her form in the other twin bed, wondering what she would do next.
The following morning, Mrs. Bantry shook him roughly awake to ask him where the rest of the newspapers were.
“M…my dear?” he’d asked her, blinking at the dressing-gown clad figure of his wife, her head held stiffly in her righteous rage.
“The newspapers, Arthur! The newspapers!” she huffed. “I can only find this week’s. I need something I read a fortnight ago. Perhaps as much as a month. Where are they?”
Mr. Bantry reached for his glasses on the night table. “Have you checked the kitchen, my dear? I often place them there.”
Mrs. Bantry’s smile was possibly the most terrifying thing about her—at least, to Mr. Bantry. She displayed it now, showing all her large white teeth, and leaned over to kiss her husband. “Thank you, Arthur!”
When he had finally dressed and sat down at the breakfast table, Mrs. Bantry was already on the phone. “I don’t care what it costs!” she shouted. “I need you here tomorrow morning.” And she slammed the phone down.
Mr. Bantry knew better than to ask about her plans, or inquire to whom she was speaking. He would find out soon enough.
He was not at all surprised the next morning when a lorry arrived with the name “Latham’s Libraries” emblazoned across the side. Mrs. Bantry jumped to meet the driver, who turned out to be Mr. Latham himself. A short, stocky man, his eyes shone with a glint of humour as he shook Mrs. Bantry’s hand.
“Rush job, eh?” Latham asked, pushing his dingy blue cap up off his head to scratch at his scalp. Though it was barely 8 o’clock in the morning, Latham was already glistening with a thin layer of sweat that darkened the brim of his cap. “Lucky fer you Miz Bantry, I specialize in quick work.”
“Yes, yes,” she said, with an airy wave. “I’ve read your advertisement. It’s why I hired you. Now get to work.”
And get to work he did. Within a week, he had built the addition onto their home, installed shelving, imported books, artwork, furniture, rugs, and aged brandy, and even a purring Siamese cat. The three weeks between the completion of the library and the day of Mrs. Bantry’s book club were the most excited Mr. Bantry had ever seen his wife. He caught her practicing her “this old library?” look and self-deprecating chuckle several times a day.
But now, there was a dead body in the center of her library, and the cat was sniffing at the corpse’s shoes—all on the very day of her triumphant reveal of the new room, and she was very cross about it, indeed.
Mr. Bantry swallowed hard before squaring his shoulders. “Martha,” he said, “We need to call the police.” His voice only wavered slightly.
Mrs. Bantry turned and walked decisively toward the phone table, and Mr. Bantry began to congratulate himself. He should put his foot down more often.
“I’m glad you agree with me, my dear,” he said. “I am sorry about your book club,” he added magnanimously, “I know you are desolated.”
Mrs. Bantry simply snorted, not even bothering to refute his suggestion. She looked up a number in the book beside the phone, and quickly dialed. “Mr. Latham!” she said peremptorily once connected, “we have a body!”
“My dear!” Mr. Bantry cried. “Why are you bringing Mr. Latham into this?”
Mrs. Bantry turned a cold glare on her husband, shooing him away with a wide gesture of her arm. Mr. Bantry was close enough, however, to hear Mr. Latham’s rough voice through the receiver: “Oh, I was afraid of that!”
“Well, really, Mr. Latham,” Mrs. Bantry responded. “You could have warned me!”
The tinny voice of the contractor replied, “I spell out the all the potential problems in the contract, Miz Bantry. Right there in subsection A, I explain that dead bodies often turn up unexpectedly in traditional English libraries. Not my fault if you don’t read all the fine print.”
Mr. Bantry’s legs felt like blancmange, and he sank to the floor. He was horrified to realize he had landed on the dead man’s outstretched hand and shuddered, jerking away so that he was no longer touching it. The cat ceased its investigation of the body’s feet and came to settle itself on Mr. Bantry’s lap.
Mrs. Bantry hadn’t noticed her husband’s pallor or change in altitude. She continued berating Mr. Latham. “And what am I supposed to do with this thing now? I have guests coming in…” she paused and glanced as the clock on the mantel “40 minutes.”
“Get rid of it,” advised Mr. Latham. “And quickly, too, before a detective shows up. No little foreign men or daffy old spinsters hanging about, are there? Once one of them arrives… well, let’s just say you’ll miss the peaceful time of just having a corpse to deal with.”
Mrs. Bantry turned to glance out the curtained windows. There was no way she could see anything through the tiny slit of window that showed, but she still pressed her lips together in a thin line, as if she spied amateur detectives coming up the street four abreast. “And where do you suggest I dispose of this body?” she asked Mr. Latham.
Mr. Bantry could not hear the man’s reply, but whatever it was did not satisfy his wife. She slammed the phone back in its cradle and turned to him.
“Come on then,” she said to Mr. Bantry. “You’ll have to get the shoulders.” She suited deed to word by moving to the corpse’s feet and neatly hoisting them up.
Mr. Bantry’s mouth opened and closed for several moments with no sound coming out. When he finally managed to stammer out his wife’s name, she let out an impatient breath.
“Arthur,” she said with the kind of exaggerated calmness that wives usually reserve for tense conversations with their husbands during dinner parties. “There are only 35 minutes remaining until my club arrives, and I still have not assembled all the food or mixed the punch. Please grab this dead gentleman’s shoulders and help me carry him into the hedge maze. We’ll figure out what to do with him after the party.”
And so a dazed Mr. Bantry stood and reached for the corpse’s shoulders. “Lift with your knees, darling,” Mrs. Bantry reminded him. “No sense putting out your back.”
What followed was an unpleasant several moments. Though the dead man was not particularly large, bodies are unwieldy things, and the Bantrys struggled to get him around corners and through doors. When they had finally laid him at the first turn of the hedge maze, Mr. Bantry pulled his handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his forehead, staring down at the prone body.
“Shouldn’t we say a few words or something?” he asked, fearing that his voice was on the verge of whining. He cleared his throat. “I mean…”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Arthur!” Mrs. Bantry exclaimed, turning her back on him and exiting the maze. He stood dumbly for a long moment. From across the garden, he heard his wife call “Are you coming?!”
Mr. Bantry was sitting at the kitchen table with his hands braced around a much-needed cup of tea an hour later, listening to the gentle murmur of discussion from the library, when he saw a stooped old woman with fluffy white hair and bright blue eyes and a little man with an enormous handlebar mustache and a meticulously tied cravat enter their garden and walk toward the maze.
Mr. Bantry squeezed his eyes shut and sipped his tea.
Emily Guy Birken is the author of four books on personal finance, including The Five Years Before You Retire, with a fifth under contract, and her byline has appeared in Forbes. She has been writing professionally since 2010. She lives in Milwaukee with her engineer husband, two sons who are determined to make her a Pokemon expert, a retired greyhound, and a cat that doubles as a throw pillow. You can follow Emily on Twitter @emilyguybirken.