This is Part 2 of A Cosy Mystery (With Dragons) – Part 1 is here. Enjoy!
Miriam had never been questioned by the police before, and, on the whole, it was an experience she decided she’d rather not repeat. The inspector was terribly polite, but her questions had a horrible weight, dragging and scratching at the same point from so many different directions that Miriam wondered how she kept them all straight. She wanted another cup of tea, and probably some paracetamol, even if she normally only took it in the most dire of occasions, preferring herbal infusions and head massage. But then, this situation seemed fairly dire – the vicar dead, and the whole of the Women’s Institute under suspicion of having killed him with a poisoned cupcake. She rubbed her forehead anxiously.
“Would you say you cook with unusual ingredients, Ms Ellis?”
Miriam had asked the inspector to just use her first name, but the woman wouldn’t. She supposed being on first name basis with your suspects would be against protocol, or something.
“If you mean, do I use more natural ingredients, and less over-processed and chemically altered products, then yes, I guess I do.”
The inspector nodded, her expression so perfectly neutral that Miriam wondered if it would change even in the event that she jumped up, confessed her guilt, and ran for the door.
“So is stevia something you use in your baking, Ms Ellis?”
“It’s not my first choice for baking, because it doesn’t act the same as sugar. I prefer to bake with coconut sugar, or dried fruit if the cake allows it, although sometimes I’ll use stevia as well if I need to up the sweetness a bit. Only leaves, though, none of the processed stuff. I have a plant at home. I – oh.” Because the inspector’s lips had twitched just slightly, something that might have been a smile, and she was suddenly aware that she was probably babbling. How embarrassing. She’d never babbled in her life. “There was – there was stevia in the cake, wasn’t there?”
“There was. It was sweetened with fruit and ground stevia leaves.”
“Well.” Miriam licked her lips, wishing again for some tea. Her throat felt awfully dry. “I didn’t give him the cupcake.”
“Yet it sounds like something you would make, doesn’t it?”
“Okay, yes, but I’m not the only person that cares about the products they use.” Her voice sounded shrill to her own ears, and she winced.
“Are there many other people in the village with stevia plants in their garden?”
“Well, I don’t know! Maybe?”
“Would you say it’s a common plant? A common ingredient?”
“I guess not, but other people do use it. And sometimes I bring some dried leaves in to the meetings, so everyone can take some.”
That hint of a smile faded. “You give the leaves away.”
“All the time! Everything from my garden, really. I can’t eat it all.”
The inspector sighed, and pinched the bridge of her nose. “Alright. One last question, Ms Ellis. How would you characterise your relationship with the late vicar?”
Miriam shrugged. “I liked him. He was a very nice man.”
“You never clashed over your beliefs?”
“No – oh.” She flushed, and shifted in the chair uneasily. “There was the autumn market, when he told me some of my arrangements were inappropriate for church grounds.” The inspector didn’t answer, just raised an eyebrow, and Miriam sighed. “I made some kitchen witches.”
“Yes. You make them from pumpkins, and they stand watch over your kitchen. They’re cute, you know? Fun.”
“But the vicar didn’t think so?”
“Well, no. He thought they were too pagan to be associated with anything happening on church grounds.”
“So you argued.”
“Well, not really. I just put them by the gate, and he said that was fine.”
The inspector didn’t reply, and Miriam fiddled with the soft fabric of her skirt, pleating it between her fingers, waiting. She could hear birdsong through the open windows, and wondered where the dragons were.
“Alright.” The inspector leaned back in her chair. “That will be all for now, Ms Ellis. I may want to ask you some more questions, though, so please give your details to Art before you leave the hall.”
“Okay.” Miriam got up hurriedly, then extended her hand. The inspector looked surprised, but took it. “I hope you find who did it,” Miriam said. “But I really do think you’re looking in the wrong place here.” Then she left, leaving the inspector and the observing officer alone in the quiet office, that smelled of furniture polish and cut grass.
“Beaufort!” Mortimer hissed. “What are you doing?”
The old dragon glanced over his shoulder. “What does it look like I’m doing?”
“Well, it looks awfully like you’re about to break into a crime scene.”
“It’s hardly breaking in. The door’s open.” And he pushed the back door of the rectory gently open, letting out a whiff of warm air. “Besides, the dean’s staying here. It’s not like it’s an active crime scene.”
Mortimer squeezed his eyes shut, as if that would help clear away the image of the High Lord of the Cloverly Dragons trotting into the kitchen as if he had every right to be here, while just down the path the WI were being grilled in the village hall. He’d thought, when they left the hall, that they’d just head back to the caverns and talk it all through, wait and see what Miriam reported back, and form a cohesive plan from there. Not that they could do anything, but they could lend support and so on. It was as if he hadn’t known Beaufort since the old lord had patted his newly-hatched head and congratulated his parents, sixty-odd years ago. And it was particularly as if he had never encountered the new, modern, Beaufort, who was as likely to sit these things out as he was to start laying eggs himself.
“Beaufort, we can’t just walk into the rectory -” but the old dragon was already vanishing through the door that led deeper into the house, so Mortimer groaned and followed, wiping his feet on the mat as he went. Dragon footprints in the kitchen weren’t going to help anyone.
“Jasmine Shaw, is that right?” the inspector asked.
“Yes. Um, ma’am. Inspector. Detective Inspector, sorry.”
“And your husband is Constable Benjamin Shaw.”
“Yes, that’s him.” Jasmine smiled, then wondered if she should smile, and turned it into an uncomfortable grimace instead.
“And how long have you been in the WI?”
“Oh, three years now, I think? Miriam persuaded me to join when we moved here.”
“And you knew Miriam before.”
“No, but she lives just down the road from us, and she was so friendly when we moved in. She’s lovely.”
“So you spend a lot of time at her house?”
“I guess – I suppose I visit a couple of times a week?”
“So you’d be quite familiar with her garden, then.”
“Well, I’m not very good with plants. But yes – she has such a wonderful garden! All these veggies, and berries, and herbs, and just everything.”
The inspector leaned forward, smiling at Jasmine. “Everything you can eat, is it?”
“Just about. I’ve never seen strawberries like hers! But she has lots of medicinal herbs too, and she always just says to take what I want, that she can never use it all. She lets anyone go and pick what they fancy. She says it’s all part of village living, to share what you have with others.”
“Oh, yes! But she normally doesn’t let me pick the stevia, because it’s right next to the belladonna.”
The inspector and the police officer exchanged a glance that seemed terribly meaningful, then the inspector said, “Did you sometimes pick it on your own?”
Jasmine had a horrible feeling that she’d said something wrong, something that was going to get her or Miriam or someone into a lot of trouble. She could feel tears threatening in the corners of her eyes. But she wasn’t going to cry in here, she wasn’t! No one had actually done anything wrong. She was sure of it. Fairly sure, anyway. “I – maybe. Okay, yes. Once. Maybe twice. I like using it in my herbal tea.”
“Ever use it in cooking?”
“No, I have enough trouble even using regular ingredients.” She sighed. “I’m surprised the WI haven’t kicked me out, to be honest.”
“Did you ever give the stevia you picked to anyone else?”
The inspector leaned back in her chair, crossing her legs at the ankles. “Are you sure, Mrs Shaw? Because, you know, this could all be an accident. If maybe some stevia leaves got mixed up with the belladonna, and someone baked with it. No one would get in trouble for that, it would just be a terrible, tragic accident.”
“There was belladonna in the cake?” Jasmine’s heart was going much too fast, and there were little floating lights at the edge of her vision.
“I’m not saying that, but say there was, and maybe you’d made a cake for the vicar, or given the leaves to someone else…”
“I didn’t.” Her voice was a whisper, and the room was far too bright, the sunlight assaulting her eyes, heating her until she felt she had a fever. “And the vicar would never eat my cakes, anyway. I’m a terrible cook. I -” she stopped, unable to stand the heat and the light any longer, squeezing her eyes shut against it. “Terrible,” she repeated, and heard the inspector saying something, although it sounded an awful lot like she was shouting it over the roaring of a waterfall, a long way away and impossible to understand. But the waterfall would be cool, at least. She closed her eyes and fell towards it.
“Calm down. They’re going to be over there for ages. This is our absolute best opportunity to examine the scene.” The bigger dragon was padding around the living room, sniffing at the worn green carpet and examining the faded red rug on the hearth.
“But what’re we going to find? If it was the cupcake, the murderer might not have even been here.”
“Won’t know until we look.” Beaufort had found something particularly interesting at the edge of the hearth, and Mortimer sighed. There really was no point arguing. He didn’t know why he wasted his breath.
The living room was quite small, and even two relatively compact dragons made it feel crowded. Mortimer left Beaufort sniffing around in the dim light that filtered through the curtained windows, and padded out into the hall. There was a phone plugged into the wall, with a note pad next to it, but nothing of interest written on it. He supposed even vicars had mobile phones these days. There was a dining room off the hall, carpeted in the same insipid green, with five chairs nestled close to the scratched table. There was a desk in the corner of the room as well, with a rolling chair that looked somewhat out of place pulled up to it. Mortimer put his front paws on the desk as he examined the sheets of paper and print outs, brochures and flyers that were scattered somewhat haphazardly across it. He supposed the police would have already gone through it all, but he shuffled through them anyway. A brochure for Caribbean package holidays – did vicars go on holiday? In shorts and sandals? What a curious thought! – a garden centre catalogue; fund-raising flyers for half a dozen different charities; a fishing magazine; a postcard from a Mr and Mrs Clifford, who were apparently cycling in the Pyrenees; a google maps print out; an invoice for hall hire; Chinese takeaway menu, Indian takeaway menu, Thai takeaway menu, Pizza takeaway menu – evidently the vicar hadn’t been a fan of cooking. There was nothing – Mortimer stopped, one heavy paw flat against the pile of papers, his nostrils flaring. Nothing to see, but – he inhaled again, eyes half-closed. It was there, the scent of rage and indignation, bitter as burnt lemon. He went through the papers again, more carefully this time, but nothing triggered the feeling again. But someone had sent something, it had been on this desk, and the vicar had opened it, or printed it, and all that raw, ugly emotion had come boiling out into the world. He looked at the computer, then down at his paws. No, he needed help for this. He dropped back to all fours and went to find Beaufort.
Alice handed a mug of tea to the young constable, nodded in acknowledgement at his thanks, then set the remaining two mugs on the desk before she sat down, legs crossed and back straight.
“Thank you,” the inspector said.
“You’re welcome. It must be thirsty work, all this interviewing.”
“It is.” The inspector set the mug down and tapped her yellow notepad lightly. It was a bit of an old-fashioned thing, an affectation, the DCI called it, but she found it organised her thoughts admirably, gave her hands something to do, and made people unaccountably nervous. They’d peer at it anxiously, as if they half-expected to see she’d printed across it in her spiky writing: Guilty as hell. Or: Mad as a box of frogs. “Is Mrs Shaw alright now?”
“Jasmine’s fine. She’s quite an emotional girl. She fainted when her flower arrangement won ‘Most Improved’ last year.”
“Especially considering she landed on the flower arrangement in question.”
They shared a conspiratorial grin, then the inspector frowned down at her pad again. She preferred not to be friendly with her suspects. She knew it worked for some people, but building connections with anyone was awkward enough, never mind trying to create some fake friendship to get people to lower their guard. “Mrs Alice Martin, correct?”
“I prefer Ms, especially as Mr Martin is no longer with us.”
“Divorced. I believe he lives somewhere in the south of Spain now, if you wanted to check I haven’t sent him off with a poisoned cupcake.”
The inspector took a sip of tea to hide her smile, then fixed Alice with calm dark eyes. “You were a WRAF wing officer.”
“Must be quite a change, coming from that to chairing the Toot Hansell Women’s Institute.”
“I left thirty years ago. I did do a few things in between.”
“So I see.” The inspector checked her phone. “Private pilot. Helicopter pilot, even. Rescue chopper work. Exciting stuff.”
“Ten years ago I decided that while my eyesight met the standards required for the license, it didn’t meet mine,” Alice said, her voice quiet. “I retired, found my husband had been using my time away to ends that also did not meet my standards, sold the house, and moved here. Yes, it took some adjusting. But I like it. And if I needed to make things exciting, I could always take up para-gliding again.”
The inspector – whose name was Jeanette, although she preferred to be referred to as DI Adams – examined the slight woman in front of her, sat with her hands folded neatly in her lap, her bobbed grey hair styled in sleek waves and her skin flawless under the faintest touch of make-up. Her nails were cropped short, and she was wearing a pretty floral skirt under a sensible blouse. Her shoes would be sensible too, the DI imagined. She didn’t look like a murderer. She also didn’t look like a woman who would jump off cliffs with a handkerchief strapped to her back.
“You argued with the vicar,” she said finally.
“We had disagreements, yes. Argued might be putting too strong a word on it. We would discuss things, then get on with it.”
“Apparently he was afraid of you.”
Alice raised one meticulously shaped eyebrow. “I am a woman of a certain age, with a certain history of authority. Many people have been afraid of me. I’m sure you have had – and will continue to have – a similar experience, Detective Inspector.”
DI Adams took another sip of tea, careful not to make eye contact with James, the constable in the corner. He’d be grinning like an idiot. “Would you say you’re one of the best bakers in the WI?”
Alice inclined her head. “I’m not a natural baker, like, for example, Gert. But I am technically excellent. I make it a point to be.”
“So, if you wanted to make a cake in a – different style, shall we say – that would pose no problem for you.”
“It might take a few practise runs, but I’m sure I could achieve it.”
They were both silent for a moment, Alice’s grey eyes unnervingly steady on DI Adams’, until the inspector started to feel she were the one being questioned. She cleared her throat, and nodded. “Well. I think that’s all for now, Ms Martin. Please give your details to Art before leaving.”
“I shall.” Alice rose to her feet, extending a cool, strong hand for the inspector to shake. They were a friendly bunch around here. “Good luck, Detective Inspector. I will help wherever I can.”
“One thing – Mrs Shaw. She says she’s not a very good baker. Is this true?”
Alice smiled, but there was no unpleasantness in it – it was a fond smile, and it flushed her face with warm colour. “Jasmine is entirely capable of poisoning someone with her cooking. But first you’d have to get someone to eat it, and no one does that by choice.” She collected the empty mugs and left, her steps light on the wooden floors.
DI Adams looked at James as the door clicked closed. “Any thoughts?
He shook his head. “Nothing. You’ve got hippie lady with her poisonous plants – it was belladonna, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, in the icing. And it doesn’t take much – one leaf can kill someone, whether it’s deliberate or got in with the stevia by accident. I can’t see motive, though.”
“And half the village has access to her garden, by the sound of things.”
“Damn.” DI Adams ran her hands back over her hair. “How many more?”
“Just a couple.”
“Right. Let’s get this done.”
Beaufort was sitting on the hearth when Mortimer came back into the living room, hunkered down like a cat with his belly low and his legs tucked close to his body. His eyes were closed, and for a moment the younger dragon thought the High Lord had nodded off. Then one gold eye cracked open, collecting the light of the room.
“Find anything, lad?”
“Not exactly. But I can feel it.”
“Same in here. There were a couple of cake crumbs, too small to be able to tell much, but the anger baked into them -” Beaufort shuddered, his wings clattering. “Someone was terribly unhappy with the vicar.”
That explains the murder, then, Mortimer thought, but didn’t say. Beaufort didn’t always catch the nuances of humour. “I think they sent the vicar something, too. An email, or a letter. It’s all around his desk, but I can’t find anything there.”
“Let’s have a look, then.”
Mortimer led the way into the dining room and sat by the desk as Beaufort scuffled through the paper. “It might be on the computer,” he said as he watched.
“That thing?” Beaufort asked, waving vaguely at the screen.
“Yeah. But I don’t think I can work it.”
Beaufort inspected the monitor suspiciously. “Hello?” he offered. “Do you have any letters in you?”
“It’s, um, it’s not voice activated.”
Beaufort glared at the younger dragon. “It might have been.”
“It – yes. I think some computers are.”
“Well, there must be a way to work it.” Beaufort poked the screen, making it rock alarmingly, then patted the keyboard with his paw. “Does one switch it on, like a barbecue?”
“A little. But look, we mustn’t break it. We’ll come back with Miriam, she can work it.”
Beaufort tapped the keyboard again, and got a claw stuck between the keys. “Damn.”
Mortimer grabbed the board in his teeth to pull it off, and they heard the front door open and shut, then the sound of footsteps in the tiny hall. The dragons stared at each other in alarm, then scuttled for the dubious shelter of the table. Mortimer still had the keyboard in his teeth, and it yanked free of the computer, the cord scattering papers all over the floor. He spat it out in a panicked clatter, then squeezed in next to Beaufort, tucking his tail as close as he could to his body and willing himself to be faint.
The footsteps stopped in the hall, and a man humphed. He came in, gathered up the papers and the keyboard, and put them back on the desk. “Odd,” he said aloud, and the dragons concentrated on being very small and very inconspicuous indeed. The man stood where he was for a moment, then walked out again, and after a moment they heard footsteps on the stairs.
Beaufort moved out, fast and low, just the soft tock of his talons on the carpet and the whisper of his tail marking his passage. Mortimer followed, and they slipped through the kitchen and out into the garden, pulling the door shut in their wake. Neither spoke until they were over the fence, sheltering under some blackberry bushes. Only then did Mortimer say, “Gods, that was close!”
“It was,” Beaufort agreed, and peered back at the vicarage to make sure they weren’t being followed. “Let’s see if Miriam’s home. Then we can make a plan to go back and look at the computer thingy.”
He headed off down the path, and Mortimer watched him go. His eight-chambered heart was leaping about in his chest, and he could still smell that terrible stench of hate. This was dangerous. They were meddling in human affairs, and that was strictly forbidden. They could be discovered. They could be reported to the Watch, who had little patience for such things. They could even be killed, if the wrong sort of humans came across them.
Beaufort glanced back, and stopped when he saw the young dragon wasn’t following. “Alright, lad?”
“I don’t know. This is crazy, Beaufort. We should let the humans sort their own problems out.”
The old dragon nodded. “I know. But friends don’t sit by when friends are in trouble, no matter what the species.” He paused, and examined Mortimer. “And besides – aren’t you having just a little bit of fun?”
Mortimer opened his mouth to hotly deny it, and found that he couldn’t. He settled for a scowl in response to Beaufort’s toothy grin, and followed him down the path, surrounded by land heavy with summer growth and the scent of grass baking in the sun.
Jump on over to Part 3 here!