This is (sadly – I had fun with this!) the final instalment of Beaufort Scales’ cosy mystery. If you’ve missed any, you can find all the previous parts, as well as some earlier Beaufort stories, here. Part 4 can be found here, if you need a refresher.
The silence in the kitchen that greeted Alice’s announcement was very different from the silence that had preceded it. Miriam could hear a fly bumbling against the inside of the window, and she sympathised with it. She felt pretty dazed and confused herself.
Alice put her handbag on the table and pulled out a chair, the scraping of wood on tile unaccountably loud. “Any chance of you recovering enough to make some tea, Miriam, or shall I do it?”
“No! No no, I’ll do it.” Miriam got up hurriedly and busied herself with cups, pulling the tea pot out of the cupboard and checking it for spiders. She always kept loose tea on hand for when Alice visited. Because although Alice drank regular tea, you just knew she was the sort of person you should use loose leaf tea and your best china with. Not that she had best china. At the moment, clean, she had a souvenir mug her sister had got her from Blackpool, and a garishly floral thing with a chipped handle. At least the dragons were happy using bowls.
Beaufort had sat up, looking at Alice with something close to adoration. “You know who did it?”
“I didn’t say that. I have a lead, is all, and as the police don’t seem terribly interested, you might be able to do something with it.”
“Why on earth wouldn’t they be interested?” Mortimer asked.
“Because, apparently, someone being miffed over missing out on prizes at a village fete isn’t something anyone would kill over. Obviously they have never entered a village fete competition. They said they might ask some questions, but that was all.”
“They do sort of have a point,” Miriam said. “It’s a pretty extreme reaction. But – bestbaker91. If it’s the same person, they’ll have to look at it properly.” She felt as if something desperately heavy was lifting from her chest.
“Bestbaker91?” Alice asked.
“We – ah, we may have sort of broken into the vicarage to look at some emails on the computer,” Miriam admitted, putting a plate of the least-burned scones on the table. They’d be fine with some jam.
“I see. Is that why there’s a policeman outside?”
“Mmm. Partly. Probably mostly because we broke into the hall last night, and got caught a second time.”
Alice examined a scone, then put it back on the plate. “It sounds as if you need to work on your breaking and entering skills.”
“You keep saying ‘breaking’,” Beaufort complained. “Nothing was broken. The vicarage was open, and you had a key to the hall.”
“I think it’s the spirit of the thing, Beaufort,” Alice said, accepting her mug of tea. “Have you offered one to the policeman?”
“He’s been instructed not to eat or drink anything I give him, apparently,” Miriam said, sitting down across the table.
“Most sensible,” Alice commented, and Miriam supposed she was right, not that it made her feel any better.
“Well?” Mortimer asked. He and Beaufort were sat in the sunlight coming through the windows, bowls of tea in front of them. “What’s the lead?”
Alice buttered a scone, added some jam, then handed it to Beaufort. “Mortimer? Scone?”
He sighed. “Yes, please.”
Miriam watched Alice prepare another scone for the younger dragon, and realised that the kitchen, so recently full of despair, was starting to feel warm again. Just the simple act of sharing tea and scones had changed it. So she sipped her drink and waited, and once Alice was finished with the jam she made a scone for herself, while the dragons cradled their bowls in their front paws and lapped at the tea with delicate tongues.
“His name is Frank Minnow, and he owns a cafe over in Kingston Wommoor. Sorry, an oral experience.” Alice raised an eyebrow at the expression.
“Him! I remember him! Well, I remember the oral experience thing.”
“Hard to forget. I mean, I have no problem with using different techniques, or playing around with names, but when you tell me I’m having an oral experience for lunch I’m going to be otherwise occupied.”
Beaufort looked quizzically at Mortimer, who shrugged. “So what is this oral experience?”
“It’s just a cafe,” Alice said. “But he gives all the food fancy names, and serves them inside old clocks, or on pieces of coal, or in the dark – whatever his theme is for that particular meal.”
“It’s clever,” Miriam said, “But it’s not even about the food – it’s all about the experience.”
“People come all the way from London, apparently,” Alice added. “Which is all well and good, but last year he decided to enter in the summer fete baking competition. Which is not about fancy food. It’s about being able to perfectly prepare a classic cake, or jam, or biscuit.”
“I don’t enter it,” Miriam said. “My baking’s too alternative.”
“But your vegetables always place well,” Alice said, patting her hand. “And your cakes are lovely. They’re just – different.” She eyed her uneaten scone, and Miriam thought she maybe wouldn’t use chickpea flour in them next time.
“And he lost?” Beaufort asked.
“He didn’t even place,” Alice replied. “He made some frozen beetroot thing, but of course it melted before the vicar could even taste it.”
“And his jam -” Miriam shuddered. “Prune and watermelon with cumin, was it?”
“Wait – the vicar judged it?” Mortimer asked.
“The vicar judged, and Mr Minnow was not happy. He even knocked over some flower displays and threw some cakes on the floor, and said some very unpleasant things. All of which resulted in him being banned from ever entering again, and the entire village boycotted his place.”
“As did most of the villages in the area, because people come to the fete from all over the parish, and the whole debacle was in the parish newsletter.”
“Who wrote the newsletter?” Beaufort asked.
“Our poor vicar,” Alice said, and there was silence for a moment, full of expectation.
“We need to go see him,” Beaufort said. “We need to find out if it’s his scent we found.”
“I can’t go anywhere,” Miriam said. “Or not anywhere that’s to do with the investigation, anyway. And you two need to stop running around in the daylight. We’re already pushing it – I have no idea how the inspector didn’t spot you last night.”
“You have to want to see dragons,” Beaufort said. “And to some people, dragons are quite unacceptable.”
“Scandalous,” Alice said, and offered her scone to the old dragon.
“This is your evidence?” DI Adams asked the two women. They sat one to either side of the kitchen table, one so terribly neat, the other looking like she’d rolled in glue then fallen into a bin of multi-coloured fabric off-cuts.
“It is,” Alice said firmly. “I felt that the policeman I spoke to on the phone earlier did not give it the proper weight.”
“Well, it’s very circumstantial,” the inspector said. She had snatched a few hours sleep and about a gallon of sugar-laced Starbucks this morning, but her eyes were still doing funny things – the corner of the kitchen by the pantry was making her feel odd. She didn’t like looking at it, and it was right in her line of sight.
“It’s a piece of the puzzle,” Alice said. “He’s a man with a grudge.”
“From a year ago? It seems unlikely. He has a successful business, I doubt losing a fete competition hurt him too much.”
“But couldn’t you just talk to him?” Miriam asked. “He really was so angry. The vicar was quite upset.”
The inspector examined Miriam. She looked tired, shadows under her eyes and her frizzy hair even frizzier than it had been the day before. Not that DI Adams was at all sure she looked any better herself. She rubbed her face, tried not to look at the floor, and said, “We did talk to him. We found some evidence that he had been in contact with the vicar -”
“The computer!” A disembodied voice exclaimed, and another shushed it. One of the woman must have said it – they were both staring at her with startled expressions. Although she hadn’t seen them say anything. God, she shouldn’t have had all that sugar. It was messing with her head. Or the caffeine was.
“What did you say?” she asked.
“Nothing,” the women said together.
“No, one of you said something about a computer. How did you know about the computer?”
Miriam glanced at the floor, then said, “I’m sorry. After I left the vicarage I kind of hung around, and saw you taking it away.”
“Why would you do that?” the inspector asked.
“I was curious?”
DI Adams sighed, and slumped back in her chair. Her back was hurting. Everything was hurting, especially this stupid case. A poisoned cupcake? It should have been simple leg-work, but nothing seemed quite right, and she couldn’t put her finger on it. Ach, it couldn’t hurt. Let them know she wasn’t going to be sent on wild goose chases, when it was probably the Deadly Ditzy Gardener that had just mixed her leaves up.
“Yes, we traced some email addresses, and the log-in was via his IP address. But the emails are from last year, and while he said he was upset at the time, there’s nothing overtly threatening in them. He says he was just blowing off steam, and I believe him. He had nothing to gain by killing the vicar.”
“What about from tarnishing the reputation of the WI?” Alice asked. She was sitting so straight that she could have been leading a finishing class, making DI Adams feel fairly tarnished herself.
“Again, what would he gain? He said there was some business about a boycott because he made a bit of a fool of himself, but that most of his customers come from away anyway. In fact, he blames himself for entering.” Entering such an amateur little event, run by housewives and pretentious, ageing busybodies, was how he’d actually put it, but she didn’t fancy repeating that to Alice.
Alice pursed her lips. “Well,” she said. “I can see your mind is made up.”
“What?” Miriam sounded startled. “No!”
“The Detective Inspector is busy, Miriam. No doubt she feels we’ve wasted her time bringing her here. We have done what we can.”
“But – it has to be him! Who else could it be?”
“No doubt the inspector will figure that out.” Alice got up, and extended a hand to DI Adams. “Thank you for coming.”
The inspector took her hand, feeling as if she were being dismissed from a job interview – and not a successful one. “It’s really no problem.” She looked at Miriam. “I’d like to check your bins. You are, of course, free to refuse, but it would be in your favour if you agreed.”
Miriam looked on the verge of tears, but she waved one hand at the garden. “The compost’s down by the wall. The other bins are at the side of the house.”
“Thank you.” DI Adams left her cup on the draining board as she left, grateful not to have to stare at that patch of floor anymore. You’d think it was one of those horrid 3D pictures, the way it had made her eyes go all funny.
“Alice!” Miriam exclaimed, as soon as she could see the inspector was out of earshot, leaning over the compost bin with a horrified look on her face. “What are you doing? We need to convince her! She still thinks it was me!”
“If she was sure it was you, you’d be locked up by now,” Alice said, getting up and rinsing her mug. “But there was no convincing her it was him.”
“You can’t be sure -”
“I’m sure.” She looked at Beaufort, raising her eyebrows, and the old dragon nodded.
“You have to admit, it does sound rather far-fetched. If it’s him, he must carry a grudge like a troll.”
“Trolls carry grudges badly, do they?” Alice asked.
“Learn something every day,” she said to Miriam, and dried her hands on the tea towel.
“But then what do we do?” Miriam asked. “I’m – I’m virtually under house arrest!”
“So you will carry on as normal,” Alice said. “Beaufort, you’ll come with me. Mortimer, keep Miriam company, will you?”
“Sure,” the younger dragon said, sounding somewhat relieved. “But where’re you going?”
“You said you’ll know by the smell, Beaufort?”
“Yes,” Beaufort said. “The same anger was on the cupcake crumbs, at the hall, and on the computer. If it’s him, I’ll know.”
“Then we’re going to go by the – what was it called again? Oh yes – The Gilded Minnow, and see if you pick up anything.”
“And then?” Beaufort said. “I suppose singeing some hair or biting a few toes is out of the question.”
“Very much so.”
Alice quite enjoyed the drive to Kingston Wommoor. It was a pretty route, through lanes hemmed in by dry stone walls and green fields pocked with sheep and ruins. And it was another lovely day – they really were having a wonderful summer. A shame they’d had to leave both Miriam and Mortimer behind, but even without the police presence, it was quite obvious that neither of them were very good under pressure. Mortimer was shedding scales and Miriam had some cornflakes in her hair, which Alice had thought it best not to mention.
“So, it isn’t steam powered or magic?” Beaufort asked. He was sitting in the passenger seat, looking at the dashboard with great interest.
“No, it’s a hybrid. Gasoline and electricity.”
“How terribly clever,” Beaufort said, and patted the gear stick. “What does this do?” His pat was a little heavier than intended, and the automatic jumped out of drive into neutral, the engine roaring wildly. He roared back, a little lick of flame singeing the headlining.
Alice put the car back into gear and patted the dragon’s shoulder as they picked up speed again. “Best not touch anything.”
The cafe – or rather, the oral experience – was in a pub on the outskirts of the village, the rooms upstairs given over to visitors who came from away. There were only two cars in the car park when they pulled in, and Alice wondered if it was shut. There seemed to be lights on inside, though.
“You stay here,” she said to Beaufort.
He bristled. “I’m not letting you go alone into the lair of this beast!”
“He’s not a beast. He’s just a man with some funny ideas about his cooking. And we don’t want to risk the possibility of him being rather more receptive to seeing dragons than the inspector was.”
“Well, I need to get a whiff of him.”
Alice sighed. “I’m going to ask him if he can come have a look at the car, because I think it’s making a funny sound. You lie down on the back seat, and you’ll smell him just fine from there. Beaufort, you really mustn’t be so casual about being discovered.”
He sighed. “I’ve had centuries of hiding. I’m really very bored of it.”
“I’m sure the being hunted was much better.” She shut the door on him and marched towards the entrance, which was framed with a fanciful border of vines and lights.
Beaufort watched her go, his nostrils flaring. He could smell something – not that same hatred and fury, but a sick, hungry sort of despair, an eating away of hope and happiness that made him shudder. It was so strong it was a wonder humans couldn’t smell it, but then again, the place was empty. Maybe they could. He wriggled himself into the backseat and sat waiting impatiently. How long would it take? Surely no one could say no to a lady in distress? How long had she been gone? Should he go after her? He tugged at the door handle, but it was locked. Probably for the best, he realised, as a car passed on the road. She was right about keeping a low profile. They didn’t need the fuss.
The pub door swung open just as Beaufort was deciding that he was going to have to break a window and go in after her. Alice strode out with her head high, but he barely noticed her – all his attention was fixed on the small, rotund man who was bellowing at the woman’s retreating form, and the stench that rose from him like a physical thing, making the day seem suddenly dark.
“And don’t come back!” he roared. “Boycott my restaurant then think you can just walk in here like some superstar! You’re nothing! Nothing! Some country baker with a stick -” Beaufort didn’t entirely understand the rest, but it sounded painful, and the words that came after were even more insulting. He was growling, but Alice seemed unperturbed. She only turned when the gravel crunched behind her, and didn’t back away as the man glared at her, almost eye to eye, his chest inches from hers.
“Arrogant cow!” he bellowed.
Her smile didn’t falter. “I would recommend stepping away, Mr Minnow.”
Beaufort bunched his legs under him. If that man made the slightest move, he was going straight through the roof of this car, and he’d apologise to Alice later.
“What? Think you’re some black belt in karate, do you?”
“No. I actually practise Aikido. But, more pertinently, there’s two diners looking out your restaurant window right now. It would make for an interesting review, wouldn’t it?”
For a moment Beaufort was sure that he was going to have to step in, as the man’s face grew more and more red, the rage pulsing off him in waves. Then the man stepped back, and tried for a smile.
“Just don’t come back, you hear?”
“Oh, trust me, Mr Minnow. I have no desire to come back to your -” she paused, looking at the pub quizzically. “Establishment.”
The man looked like he was going to explode with barely-controlled fury, but eventually he just shook his head and turned away, stomping back into the pub as if he bore the ground a grudge.
Alice let herself into the car, still with that faint smile on her face, and Beaufort scrambled back into the front seat, buffeting her with his wings.
“Do be careful, Beaufort.”
“Sorry, sorry. Are you alright?” She looked calm enough, but his heart was pounding with the scent of the man, all that rage and hate and fury and despair, cooked down to a syrup that infected the very ground of the place.
“Quite alright. He was rather miffed that I was here – said he wouldn’t help me. Then I just happened to mention the vicar, and – well. Speaks for itself.”
“It’s definitely him,” Beaufort said. “He reeks. But what do we do? I don’t even want to eat him, he’d taste terrible.”
“Well, you can’t eat him anyway. We need him to clear Miriam’s name.” She started the car. “But I believe you mentioned singeing?”
“With pleasure,” Beaufort said, and showed all his teeth when he grinned.
Frank Minnow had not had a good day, and it was all the fault of that cow from the WI. He’d shouted at the bloody woman in the car park in full sight of the whole two customers they’d had in for lunch, and they’d left without dessert, even though he’d offered to comp it. Then he’d shouted at his wife for letting the WI cow get past her, and she hadn’t talked to him since. There had been no dinner bookings, and the only walk-ins had asked if he did gluten-free, and when he said no they’d quickly become walk-outs.
Which was why he was sitting somewhat disconsolately on the wall outside the kitchen with a pint in one hand and a cigarette in the other at midnight. This should have worked. Should have! So many chefs he knew had started their own places, all with their own innovative twists, their signatures, and people came from everywhere. Why hadn’t it worked for him? They were a distance from London, sure, but that was why they had rooms. Which no one was staying in. There was money in the area, there were people with taste – he ground the cigarette out viciously on the wall. It had all started going wrong last summer. He’d thought it would be a great PR move, entering the summer fete. Really get the word out about his place. Then that stupid bloody vicar –
He’d been so lost in thought he hadn’t heard the footsteps on the gravel, and it was a genteel cough that brought him out of angry memories.
“Good evening,” Alice said, and oh, he hated her! Hated her! That voice, those clothes, that holier-than-thou attitude! “Quiet night, was it?”
“What the hell are you doing back here?” he growled. “I told you to stay away.” His grip was so tight on his glass that he was momentarily afraid it would shatter.
“I rather think you have something to tell the police, regarding the death of the vicar, and I’d suggest you do so now.” She held her phone out to him, and he stared at her in disbelief, then slipped off the wall, staggering slightly as he landed. Damn. How many beers had he had? He couldn’t remember now.
“I’ve got nothing to tell the police. Unless it’s about you. You’re trespassing.”
“It’s a pub car park, Mr Minnow. It’s public land. Call the police and tell them about the vicar.”
He slapped the phone out of her hand, and thought he heard a growl. “Leave before I make you.”
“Oh, dear,” she said, almost sadly. “I did hope you’d see reason.”
“I’m not kidding. Get out of here!” He reached out to shove her, and she stepped back. He started to follow, then stopped. Two low, heavy shapes were emerging out of the shadows of the wall and into the light, and that growling was intensifying. “What – what’re they?”
“Are you sure you won’t make the phone call, Mr Minnow?”
Were they alligators? Why did she have alligators? And why did they have wings stuck to them? Were they wings? Dear god – one of them seemed to be grinning. He took a step back, and it grinned more broadly, and the other one spat a soft ball of fire that incinerated the dandelions he kept meaning to get rid of. “What -” he managed weakly, his legs suddenly wobbly.
“Dragons, Mr Minnow. Perhaps you’d like to make that phone call now.”
“Ah, DI Adams?”
“Yes?” She’d been asleep, and wished she still was, but she made it a point to never sound as if she’d been sleeping, even if it was – she glanced at the alarm clock – 1am.
“Sorry to disturb you. We’ve got a man just called up and said he wanted to confess to the murder of the vicar in Toot Hansell.”
The inspector sat up, fast. “Where?”
“He’s in Kingston Wommoor. We’ve sent a car to pick him up, but thought you might like to be here when he gets in.”
“I would.” She was already kicking into her trousers. “Any details?”
“He’s named the poison, and that it was in the icing, not the cake.”
“No one’s leaked that?”
“Fan-freaking-tastic. I’m on my way.” She had already dropped the phone when she heard the tinny voice on the other end say something else. She grabbed it again. “What?”
“Ah. He also asked if the station was safe from dragons.”
DI Adams hung up slowly, then stood silently in the half dark of her bedroom, thinking about spots you couldn’t look at on empty floors, and dead rabbits, and winged shapes in the night.
Alice cut generous slices of cake for the dragons, and slightly more modest ones for herself and Miriam, the rickety garden table wobbling.
“I still think it’s amazing,” Miriam said. “You went over there like some mob queen!”
“Nonsense,” Alice said, but she was smiling. “The boys did all the work.”
“You didn’t even let me singe him, though,” Beaufort complained. “Not even a little bit!”
“Singeing humans never ends well,” Mortimer said. He had icing on his nose. “And if he’d been any more scared he’d have lost the power of speech.”
They were still laughing when Beaufort said, “Someone’s here.” They followed his gaze towards the corner of the house, and a moment later the inspector came around it, looking over-dressed for the summer day in trousers and a suit jacket. The dragons stilled themselves, fading to match the surrounding bushes.
“DI Adams,” Miriam said, getting up and knocking the table, hard enough to slosh tea everywhere. “Is everything alright?”
“Perfectly,” the inspector said. “I just wanted to update you, since we had you under suspicion for so long.”
“Of course! That’s – that’s – thank you?”
“Can I pour you some tea, inspector?” Alice asked.
“That would be lovely.”
“I’ll just get you a cup.” She went inside to get it, and Miriam cut a slice of cake. If the inspector noticed the two empty plates and the half-drunk bowls of tea on the ground, she didn’t mention it. With any luck, Miriam thougt, she’d imagine it was some quaint local custom, like offerings for fairies. Or dead rabbits for friends.
When Alice had sat back down, and the tea was poured, the inspector said, “He only meant for the vicar to get sick, and for everyone to think the WI had messed up, so they wouldn’t want to buy their jams or cakes. He thought one leaf in the icing wouldn’t do any serious damage. Stupid scheme, really, as it wouldn’t have got him anywhere, but it was a petty revenge thing. He didn’t think the vicar would die. Quite sad, really.”
“Tragic,” Alice said, and Miriam murmured her agreement.
“Just lucky he confessed, else we’d still be looking at you ladies.”
“Very lucky,” the women agreed.
The inspector took a bite of cake – it was a Victoria’s sponge, and it tasted of sunshine. “Lovely,” she said. “My compliments to the baker.”
“Thank you,” Alice said, inclining her head slightly.
Miriam topped the inspector’s cup up. She was really rather nice, when she wasn’t accusing you of manslaughter.
“So,” the inspector said, and looked directly at Beaufort and Mortimer, dozing like cats in the late afternoon sun, “Tell me about dragons.”
The silence that followed was filled with birdsong and the steady rumble of bees, and the sense that there was magic in the world.
And I’m very sad to say that this was the last installment in Beaufort’s cosy mystery. It is, however, not the last of Beaufort, as he’s not the sort of dragon to stay out of trouble for long. You can find a few of his previous exploits here, and check back or sign up below for updates! Thanks so much for reading.