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  • Published: 3 April 2024
  • ISBN: 9781761341021
  • Imprint: Viking
  • Format: Trade Paperback
  • Pages: 336
  • RRP: $34.99

The Cryptic Clue

A Tea Ladies Mystery


Hazel Bates has been keeping a close eye on the man at the corner table since they arrived at the Bellevue Hotel. He eats alone at the same table each night and looks around the dining room, his curious gaze alighting on each of the guests in turn. Occasionally he jots down something in his notebook – almost as if he doesn’t realise that they can see him. When his gaze meets Hazel’s, he turns his attention to his meal in an unhurried way but soon resumes his silent surveillance. Despite this interest, he keeps very much to himself. Tonight, arriving in the dining room right on time, he eats his meal slowly and methodically and leaves as soon as he’s finished.

Hazel’s companion on this holiday, Betty Dewsnap, sits with pen poised over her notebook, ‘What do they call those people who study people?’ she asks in a loud whisper.

‘An anthropologist?’ suggests Hazel.

‘Oh goodness, that’s too difficult to spell. I’ll put “people-watcher” – that’s just one of my observations about him. My instincts tell me he’s up to something.’

‘He may be watching us, but we’re doing the same thing,’ says Hazel.

‘It’s the way he watches us . . . with intent.’ Betty writes that down and leans across to whisper, ‘Also, he’s foreign.’

This is Hazel’s first holiday in more years than she can count. With their workplaces, Empire Fashionwear and Farley Frocks, shut for holidays until mid- January, the tea ladies have an entire week at Manly Beach, which is easily reached from the city by ferry.

The guesthouse, set several streets back from the beach, was once a smart private hotel. It’s a little rundown now, which is the only reason she and Betty can afford to stay here. It’s clean enough but the furnishings are worn, the curtains faded, and the paintwork on the front of the house is losing its battle against the salt air. The place perpetually smells of burnt toast, but the food isn’t bad, and the beach is a short walk away.

Hazel and Betty share a room, which comes with its own problems. There’s so little space between the two lumpy beds that they need to coordinate getting in and out of their beds to avoid getting in a tangle. The only other furniture in the room is a dressing table with a wardrobe attached, the mirror cracked across one corner. It has a little stool with a velvet cushion, where Betty likes to sit to puts her rollers in and provide an update on her various ailments, but Hazel doesn’t mind. After decades of friendship, she’s used to Betty’s funny ways.

That said, despite her friend’s many endearing traits (and the financial necessity), Hazel would be reluctant to share a room with her again. Betty’s warm generosity and enthusiasm are offset by her snoring and nocturnal flatulence, which sounds like a pistol shot and has Hazel waking in fright several times a night. If they could afford separate rooms, it would be a perfect holiday.

The waitress dumps two bowls of soup in front of them. To Hazel’s dismay, it’s onion, which doesn’t bode well for the night ahead.

Betty continues. ‘He has the exact same routine every day. Takes the early breakfast, leaves the Bellevue at exactly 7.45 am carrying a leather satchel. And he walks down towards the ferry – I watched him from the window.’

‘Betty dear, please don’t suggest we follow him. We’re on holiday.’

‘I told you, I have a gut feeling, Hazel.

‘You’re probably just hungry.’ Hazel nudges the plate of bread closer to Betty. ‘Have a slice of bread with your soup.’

After two cloudy days threatening rain, the afternoon of third day delivers sunshine and a brilliant blue sky. Betty hires a sun umbrella from the Bellevue (complaining bitterly about the two- shilling deposit), and they take a couple of towels down to the harbour side beach.

The shoreline is busy with families spread out on picnic rugs with umbrellas and deck chairs. When the ladies are settled on their towels and the umbrella screwed into the sand, Betty gets out a bag of lollies, pops one in her mouth and passes them to Hazel.

‘When the girl was getting the umbrella from out the back,’ she says, rolling the lolly around in her mouth, ‘I looked in the guest register for that fellow’s name.’

‘You’re lucky Mrs Frazer didn’t catch you,’ says Hazel.

‘I could hear her scolding someone in the kitchen, so you could say the opportunity presented itself. His name is Sorensen, Mr Oscar Sorensen. I knew he was foreign. A foreigner,’ she repeats, relishing the word. ‘I don’t want to alarm you, Hazel, but he could be a spy or a secret agent.’

‘It's possible, I suppose.’ Hazel leans back and rests on her elbows to watch a ferry approach in the distance, its yellow and green paintwork bright against the backdrop of the sky. The view is a refreshing change from the narrow streets of Surry Hills where there are familiar faces on every corner. And, apart from the sound of rustling lolly wrappers in her ear, it’s very peaceful.

Betty leans over with warm butterscotch breath. ‘It’s always the one you suspect the least who turns out to have done it. Everyone knows that, Hazel.’

‘Perhaps in an Agatha Christie mystery, but not necessarily in real life.’

‘What if there was a murder at the Bellevue and I had already assembled a dossier on the potential suspects? Before it even happened!’

‘That would be impressive,’ Hazel agrees. ‘Do you have anyone in mind as the victim?’

Betty considers this for a moment. ‘Bossy Boots Frazer with all her rules and regulations is top of my list. That fellow with the jug ears who borrowed the marmalade from our table without asking properly, thinks he owns the place. He’d be my second choice. And his wife with the sour face, I’m also not keen on.’

‘She does have to put up with him,’ Hazel points out.

‘True. I notice Mr Sorensen is never at the guesthouse for afternoon tea.’

‘He obviously doesn’t know about the Madeira cake,’ says Hazel. ‘He most likely works in the city. He may even live at the Bellevue; there are a few residents. If you look back in the register, you’ll probably find those residents are added at the start of every week.’

Betty snaps her notebook shut. ‘I’m not convinced. There’s something a little . . . sinister about him.'

Drowsy with the heat and the salt air tinged with suntan lotion, Hazel lies back on her towel and closes her eyes, hoping that Betty will do the same. But what seems like only moments later, she is abruptly woken by the glare of sunlight and opens her eyes to find Betty wrestling with the umbrella.

‘Hurry up. We’ll miss afternoon tea.’

Hazel knows better than to stand between Betty and cake. She gets to her feet, packs up her bag and shakes out the towels. They walk along the foreshore past the busy ferry terminal where the passengers are pouring out onto the Corso. As they step back to let the crowd pass, Hazel notices a familiar figure standing to one side, distinctive with his gold-rimmed glasses, pale linen suit and Panama hat. ‘There’s your suspect, Betty, over by the newsstand.’

Betty gives a little gasp. ‘With his briefcase too. Let’s wait and see where he goes.’

‘We’ll miss afternoon tea.’

Torn for a moment, Betty says, ‘It’s a sacrifice I’m prepared to make. This could be our national security at stake, Hazel.’

Passengers are now streaming out of the terminal and Hazel takes Betty’s arm, guiding her to one side where they have a good view.

After a few minutes, a man comes striding out of the terminal and makes a beeline for Mr Sorensen, who raises his hand in greeting. In his forties, the man is tall and strong looking, with a healthy tan and thinning hair. A smart suit but no tie.

‘Ooh look, no tie . . . Another foreigner, I’ll wager,’ says Betty. The two men talk for a moment and it’s clear even from a distance that the stranger is upset and Mr Sorensen placating him.

After a few minutes, they leave the wharf and walk into a nearby coffee shop.

Betty turns to Hazel. ‘Let’s get a cup of tea.’

Despite herself, Hazel is also intrigued and gives Betty the nod.

Brushing off the last of the sand, they step inside the coffee shop. The waitress frowns at Betty, who has her arms wrapped around the sun umbrella. ‘Can you leave that outside, please?’

‘I paid a two-shilling deposit for it,’ explains Betty, gripping it tighter.

‘Well, you can’t bring it in here,’ insists the waitress.

‘Let’s just pop it in a corner,’ suggests Hazel, aware they’re becoming the centre of attention. She takes it from Betty’s grasp and leans it in the corner nearest the door. Fortunately, the two men, now poring over some papers, are too involved with their discussion to have noticed the fuss.

While Betty examines the menu, Hazel attunes her ears to the nearby table, but the men speak in such low voices she can’t hear a word. She’s tempted to save the sixpence and hurry back to the guesthouse for afternoon tea, but she won’t get Betty out the door without a commotion.

Having thoroughly perused the menu, Betty decides on the Devonshire tea. ‘A little holiday treat, Hazel. My shout.’

Half an hour later, the meeting between Mr Sorensen and his colleague ends abruptly. They gather their papers with some urgency and pack them away. As they cross to the door, Mr Sorensen notices Hazel. He turns towards her briefly with a frown.

Betty’s busy layering the last scone with jam and cream and doesn’t look up until the last crumb is devoured. She’s dismayed to find the table empty. ‘Oh no, they slipped out,’ she cries. ‘Well, that tells you something, Hazel. If only we could have seen what they were looking at. It could be blueprints of a government facility or plans for a bank job.’

‘It is intriguing . . . but I can’t see them as bank robbers.’

Betty frowns. ‘I’ve seen the tall man somewhere. Where was it? In the papers? At the pictures? A Wanted poster? Oh, how I wish I had your memory, Hazel. It will come to me. Hopefully before it’s too late.’

In the late afternoon, they lie on their beds to rest before dinner. Betty falls asleep instantly, breathing out great bursts of air like an industrial bellows. After a while, Hazel gets up and slips on her shoes. She walks down the main stairs to the ground floor. The house is quiet, apart from the distant crashing of pots in the kitchen, where preparation for dinner is underway. She contin-ues out to the verandah along the south side of the house, shady in the afternoons, and sinks into one of the large cane armchairs. She’s barely closed her eyes when sound of footsteps alerts her to company. She opens them to find Mr Sorensen’s steady gaze on her.

‘Are you enjoying your holiday?’ he asks with a stilted politeness.

‘Very pleasant, thank you. It’s Mr Sorensen, isn’t it? I’m Mrs Bates.’

‘I have seen you in the dining room with your friend.’ He sits down in the armchair opposite ‘What is your impression of these people we dine with?’

Hazel thinks for a moment. ‘Not terribly friendly, but then I’m not used to staying in guesthouses, so perhaps that’s the way it is.’

‘The tall man with the loud voice. I see him control his wife and the daughter with the expression on his face. A little frown. Or a shake of the head. And to silence his wife, he raises one finger,’ says Mr Sorensen, demonstrating. ‘This man like a tyrant in his own world, not noticing the rest of us at all. But we see him.’

Hazel, intrigued by his analysis, asks, ‘What line of work are you in, Mr Sorensen?’

‘It is not of great interest, I am afraid. Not a poet or a prince, simply a . . .’ He pauses. ‘. . . a simple technician.’

Hazel’s surprised to feel her ears tingle a little, a sure sign that someone is not telling the truth. His hesitation was also revealing. He needed a moment to fabricate his answer.

‘And what is your line of work, Mrs Bates?’

‘I work for a company called Empire Fashionwear in the city, manufacturers of women’s clothes.’

‘You are a seamstress? Is this the correct term?’ he asks.

‘It is, but no, I’m the tea lady. I deliver tea and biscuits to everyone in the building, almost thirty people, twice a day.

‘You keep the workers happy. This is a valuable profession.’

‘I agree, an honourable profession. My friend, Mrs Dewsnap, is also a tea lady. She works nearby so we see each other almost every day.’

‘And now you make this holiday together.’ He pauses for a moment. ‘Would you and Mrs Dewsnap agree to join me in the dining room this evening?'

Hazel wonders what Betty will think of this, but there is no polite way to refuse.

‘If our landlady will permit it,’ he adds.

Hazel smiles. ‘Oh, I’m sure you can convince her. I notice she’s more charming to her male guests than her female ones.’

Mr Sorensen nods seriously. ‘I will discuss the matter with her.’

When Hazel and Betty (forewarned) arrive in the dining room, Mr Sorensen is already seated at their table. He immediately stands and pulls out their chairs with a flourish. Betty blushes and stifles a giggle.

It’s soon evident that Mr Sorensen is comfortable in the company of strangers, practised at small talk, without giving anything away about himself. Betty hangs on his every word. By the time the waitress brings the soup course (potato and chive), Betty is clearly bursting to confess. Hazel tries to think of a ruse to stop it.

‘We were following you!’ Betty declares, halting all conversa-tion in the dining room.

‘Not actually following––’ Hazel protests, giving her a nudge under the table.

‘We thought you were planning something,’ Betty interrupts. ‘Or might be a secret agent or spy! There are a lot of spies around at the moment, aren’t there, Hazel?

‘It’s spy season,’ confirms Hazel, resignedly.

Betty continues. ‘There are government spies and KGB spies. You wouldn’t know it, but they’re everywhere. Not so long ago, me and Hazel got involved with all sorts of dangerous Russians. Extremely dangerous.’

‘Betty dear, I don’t think Mr Sorensen needs to hear all this.’

When the waitress has collected their bowls, Mr Sorensen asks what he did to fall under suspicion. Hazel sighs inwardly as Betty dives into her purse and rifles around for her notebook. There’s a moment’s reprieve while plates of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding are dumped in front of them, then Betty begins to read. ‘People watcher. Foreign. Briefcase. Misses Madeira––’

‘That’s the cake, not the city,’ Hazel clarifies. ‘Betty, let’s not––'

‘Nail scissors . . . oh, I forgot to buy those in the end. I’ll have to borrow yours, Hazel . . . Meets strange man at the wharf––’

‘Did you recognise this man?’ Mr Sorensen asks curtly.

Betty looks taken aback. ‘Should we have?’

‘No, not at all,’ says Mr Sorensen.

Hazel can see he’s rattled, and her tingling ears tell her this is an outright lie. ‘Your dinner’s getting cold, Betty dear.’

Betty puts down her notebook and spears a potato with her fork. ‘So, you can see I don’t miss a thing,’ she concludes, less confidently.

‘Does someone pay you for this spying?’ he asks. His friendly manner has cooled considerably.

Betty blushes. ‘Of course not . . . Oh, I hope I didn’t offend you, Mr Sorensen.’

‘Can I ask you to keep this information to yourself, please?’ he asks. ‘And not discuss with anyone at all. Especially not anyone from the press.’

Betty is clearly mortified and close to tears. Hazel puts a calming hand on hers and says, ‘Of course, Mr Sorensen, it will go no further. Please accept our apologies.’

Before he can respond, the waitress appears at their table. ‘Mrs Bates? Telephone call for you.’ She tilts her head in the direc-tion of the foyer.

Hazel looks up at her. ‘For me? Are you sure?’

‘You’re the only guest called Bates, so yeah,’ says the waitress and walks away.

Hazel excuses herself and hurries to the telephone. The only person who knows where they’re staying is her lodger, Irene Turn-buckle, and Irene would only call here if she’d set the house on fire, and probably not even then.

Hazel picks up the phone. ‘Mrs Bates speaking.’

‘Mrs B? Is that you?’

‘Maude?’ asks Hazel, recognising her young neighbour. ‘Yes, it’s me.’

‘When are you home?’ Maude bursts into tears. ‘You’ll never guess what’s happened.’

‘I’ll be home tomorrow, dear. What on earth’s wrong?’

‘Auntie Vera died,’ she says in a muffled voice.

Hazel is perplexed as to why Maude would take the trouble to call her with this news since Auntie Vera is only an acquaintance, not a close friend. ‘I’m sorry to hear that, Maude.’

‘You don’t understand,’ says Maude.

‘What’s happened exactly, dear?’

‘Can you come over straight after tea tomorrow? I’ll be home from work then. Come at seven. Please. Don’t tell them I asked . . . Sorry, I don’t have another sixpence––’

The line goes dead, and Hazel slowly puts down the receiver.

Still puzzling over the call, she goes back to the dining room to find Mr Sorensen has gone, and Betty is damp-eyed with remorse.

‘He was very polite. Said he had business to attend to. Couldn’t even wait for dessert,’ she says in a wobbly voice. ‘And it’s trifle tonight.’

The Cryptic Clue Amanda Hampson

Look who’s back in hot water! The highly anticipated new novel in The Tea Ladies mystery series, a runaway bestseller of the year. Ideal for fans of Richard Osman and Bonnie Garmus.

Buy now
Buy now

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