They were crouched in the blackberry bushes behind the vicarage, which was considerably less comfortable for Miriam than it was for the two dragons. She moved a particularly spiky branch that had draped itself across her forearm, and said to Mortimer, “How do we even know the dean’s going to go out again?”
“We don’t,” he replied. “But the sooner we can get into the vicarage and onto the computer, the better. That scent will fade, then we’ll have nothing to go on.”
Miriam thought privately that that trying to track a murderer through a scent on an email wasn’t much short of nothing, and was hardly worth breaking into the vicarage for, but she kept quiet and plucked a couple of almost-ripe blackberries instead. They were tart on her tongue, making her eyes water.
“He’s leaving,” Beaufort said.
The light was low and golden, and Miriam blinked around blearily. She’d slipped into a pleasant sort of half-doze, leaning back against the solid warmth of Mortimer’s side, only rousing herself to pretend to be berry picking when a couple had come by walking their cocker spaniel. The dog had been near-hysterical at the scent of the dragons, but they were so well camouflaged – and so faint – among the brambles that his owners hadn’t noticed them. They’d apologised to Miriam and said “He’s normally never like this,” and she’d accepted the apology graciously, saying that he undoubtedly smelled the sausage sandwich she’d had for tea. Now she stretched and got up, joints stiff and protesting after a couple of hours of sitting on the cool ground. A car door banged, and an engine started up, and she peered around the corner of the blackberry bushes to watch the dean’s car – rather new and fancy, she noticed – rumble down the drive and onto the quiet street beyond.
“Let’s go,” Beaufort said, and scrambled over the stile with his wings flared for balance.
“Shouldn’t we wait?” Miriam asked. “I mean, it’s still light. Anyone could see us.” The clean-mowed lawns between the bushes and the vicarage looked terribly exposed.
“He could well be back before it’s dark,” Beaufort said, already trotting across the grass. “Come along, Miriam. No time like the present.”
Miriam gave Mortimer an anxious look. “Is this really the best way?”
He shrugged. “I think so. I don’t see how else we’re going to get onto that computer.”
She sighed. “Alright then.” She hiked her skirt up to clamber over the stile, clutching a Tupperware container of quinoa salad in one hand – her excuse for visiting the vicarage, should she need it. Not that it was going to do her much good if the dean came back while she was on the computer. Oh, sorry, I thought the fridge was in here? She followed Beaufort to the back door, wishing she’d at least worn something with a hood.
It shouldn’t have felt creepy inside, but it did. The back door was open, and Miriam stepped onto the ageing lino hesitantly, smelling bleach and dish soap and the faint mould of damp under-sink cupboards.
“Hello?” she called, flinching at the sound of her own voice. “Anyone home?”
There was no response, no stirring in the house. It felt profoundly empty, and the hall looked dark beyond the sunlight-flooded kitchen.
“On we go, then,” Beaufort said, and led the way into the hall. Miriam followed, hearing the soft pad of Mortimer’s feet behind her. The curtains were drawn in the rooms that opened off the hall, and the shadows were deeply textured after the bright evening outside. She tried not to think of the poisoned vicar, alone in his chair, and focused on Beaufort’s tail instead, curling and sweeping after him as if it had a mind of his own.
The computer was on a desk tucked into the corner of the dining room, the surface still scattered with the papers the dragons had found on their previous visit. Miriam pulled out the chair and sat down, squinting in the dark to find the power button. The computer hummed into life rather vocally, and she wondered how long it had been since the vicarage had updated things. The monitor had a square screen and a fat back, and the letters on the keyboard were half worn away. “Just so long as it doesn’t have dial-up,” she told the dragons.
“Is that a kind of virus?” Mortimer asked. He was rather proud of his knowledge of human technologies – he watched TV at Miriam’s sometimes, and she brought him magazines from the charity shops.
Miriam grinned. “No, it’s – well, it was how computers connected to the internet. This one looks old enough to have been around in those days.”
Beaufort clicked his tongue impatiently. “So, does it have mail or not?” He was much less interested in technology that Mortimer. He was, Miriam reflected, more of a people dragon. And the study of that was rather more unchanging than technology.
“Hold your horses,” Miriam replied, doing a little swirl with the mouse that did nothing to hurry the computer up, but made her feel she was doing something anyway. “It’s not high speed, this thing.”
“I don’t have horses,” Beaufort said. “Although, now you mention it, I do feel rather peckish.” He trundled back into the hall, and Miriam wondered if there was any point suggesting that stealing food from the house they’d technically broken into wasn’t maybe the best idea.
“Here we go,” she said, leaning closer to the screen, and Mortimer sat up on his haunches next to her, one paw on the desk to steady himself. “Oh, damn. Password.”
They exchanged an uneasy glance while the cursor blinked in the little box. Hello, Vicar, it said above the box, which made Miriam think of dodgy 70’s TV shows. She typed in Toot Hansell, and hit enter.
Incorrect password. Please try again.
How many goes did you get with these things? She tried Toot Hansell in all lower case, then all one word, then all one word with capitalised T and H, then just stared at it.
“God?” Mortimer suggested.
That seemed a little blasphemous for a vicar, but Miriam tried it anyway.
Incorrect password. Please try again.
She tried 1,2,3,4, then four 0s, then pushed the keyboard away and stared scuffling through the papers. “Maybe he wrote it down somewhere.”
“Wrote what down?” Beaufort asked from the doorway. He’d found a packet of digestives, and there were crumbs on his snout.
“The password,” Mortimer said. “We can’t get into the computer without it.”
Beaufort padded over to them with the biscuit packet clasped in one paw, and peered at the screen. “Well, it looks like you haven’t said hello to the machine,” he said.
“It doesn’t really work like that,” Miriam said, closing the top drawer and moving on to the next.
“Why not? It’s saying hello to you. You should say hello back. It’s only polite.” Beaufort offered the biscuits to Mortimer, who took them automatically, still looking at the screen.
“Try it,” he said, and Miriam looked up from the drawers.
“I doubt it’ll be that,” she said, but typed it in anyway. Couldn’t hurt, and Beaufort would only keep insisting if she didn’t.
The box vanished, the screen flashed a welcome at them, and Beaufort looked smug. “Common courtesy, youngsters. Are you going to eat those biscuits or just cuddle them, Mortimer?”
Mortimer offered Miriam a broken biscuit and she took it, feeling slightly ashamed of her computer hacking skills. Not that she was particularly computer literate, but Beaufort couldn’t even get into a biscuit packet without tearing it to pieces. “Email,” she said. “Here we go.”
The programme opened, and all three looked at it with interest. The was the requisite junk mail, sales and offers and propositions, a parish newsletter… Miriam scrolled down slowly, but nothing caught her eye. Not that she was sure what she expected to see – a skull and crossbones in the subject line, maybe? “Are you getting anything from this?” she asked the dragons.
“It’s very – machine-y,” Beaufort said. “It’s hard to know. Some of those messages are a little risque, aren’t they? For a priest?”
Miriam laughed. “People just send things. They don’t even know who they’re sending it to.”
“Well, that’s very rude.”
“It is,” she agreed.
“What’s that folder?” Mortimer asked, tapping the screen lightly with a claw.
It was named Fete Issues, and Miriam couldn’t see anything particularly interesting about it, but the dragon was eyeing it like a particularly unpleasant insect. She clicked it open, and Mortimer took a soft whistling breath. Beaufort stopped eating.
“So much anger,” the old dragon said sadly.
There were four messages in the folder, all from firstname.lastname@example.org. The subject line was the same on each: Biased.
Miriam opened the first one.
You call yourself a man of God, but you blatantly have no sense of justice in you!! You awarded all the prizes to the WI!! ALL of them, when there were many more deserving winners! Call this a competition? It’s a sell out!!!
Justice must be served!! Recant those prizes and give them to the truly deserving!! I’ll report you!!!
Answer me!!! Are you so ashamed of your actions that you can’t even acknowledge them?? The WI should not have won all those prizes!!!
Are you in the pocket of the WI?? Or are you receiving favours from them??? I’m going to find out!!!
There were no replies to the emails, and nothing further after the last one, which had been sent almost a year ago.
“That’s the smell,” Beaufort said. “The one that was on the cupcake crumbs.”
“Are you sure?” Miriam asked. “I mean, this bestbaker91 person seems a bit over-fond of exclamation marks, but it’s about fete prizes. Last year’s fete prizes. You don’t kill someone over that.”
“Maybe they didn’t mean to kill the vicar,” Mortimer said. “Maybe they misjudged the dose. But it definitely put the WI under suspicion.”
“It just seems a bit crazy to me.”
“It smells more than a bit that way,” Beaufort said.
“So what now?”
“What can the machine tell us about this person?”
“Nothing,” Miriam admitted. “Or nothing I can figure out anyway.”
“Then we do it the old fashioned way. We’ll go to the hall and see if we can find their scent where they left the cupcake.”
The dragons padded out to the kitchen while Miriam shut the computer down and brushed crumbs off the desk. She was just pushing the chair back into place when she heard the galloping of taloned feet in the hall, and Mortimer rushed back into the room, Beaufort close behind him with the biscuit packet clamped firmly in his jaws.
“Hide!” Mortimer hissed. “The dean’s back, and the police are with him!”
The front door was creaking open even as he spoke, bringing the sound of voices with it, and the two dragons plunged under the dining room table for the second time that day. Miriam briefly considered trying to join them, but it wasn’t a very big table, and even small dragons take up a lot of space. There was no time to run for the back door, or even go for the window – and who knew if they were watching the house from outside, anyway?
“Miriam! Quickly!” Beaufort whispered, and Miriam heard the dean’s voice in the hall, the scuff of shoes on the welcome mat. She squared her shoulders, clutched her quinoa salad to her chest, fixed a smile on her face, and marched out of the room.
“Dean!” she exclaimed, aware that her smile was likely a little too big and a little too stretched, but hoping that the dim light of the hall would work in her favour. “I just popped by to leave you some salad, and the back door was open, so I just let myself in.”
“Ah -” the dean took the Tupperware container she pushed at him. “I’m terribly sorry -”
“Miriam,” she said. “It’s all organic, that. Homegrown veg, as well. Not the quinoa, of course. Wrong environment. Be nice though, wouldn’t it?” She shut her mouth abruptly, before she could say anything more stupid.
“Ms Ellis,” the inspector said from the doorway. “I didn’t expect to see you again so soon.”
Miriam could feel her smile fading, and she tried to hike the corners up again. “Just wanted to make sure the dean had some food in. I’d hate to think of him here, all alone and hungry.”
“Indeed.” The inspector held out her hand for the Tupperware, and the dean passed it to her wordlessly. “From your garden, you say?” she asked, holding it in the light coming from the door to inspect it more carefully.
“Yes, I grow my own as much as I can.” She said it with an uneasy mix of pride and misgiving.
“Dean, would you mind terribly if I take this?”
“No, that’s quite alright.”
The inspector smiled at Miriam. “Just to be safe.”
Miriam could feel the blood rushing to her face. “You think – you think I’m trying to poison him?”
“It seems you have a few dangerous plants in your garden, Ms Ellis. Just taking precautions.”
“But I know my plants! Those are medicinal herbs. And I’d never put poisonous ones in a salad.”
“Certainly not accidentally, by the sound of things.”
She stared at the inspector, dragons forgotten. “Why would I ever do it on purpose?”
“Maybe you had your reasons. Maybe you’re not so fond of the church. It’s often not so fond of other religions.”
The dean muttered something along the lines of “Steady on,” but Miriam talked over him.
“I have no problems with the church in this village. And if I had poisoned the vicar, do you really think I’d be stupid enough to use plants from my own garden, then go after the dean in exactly the same way? And hand-deliver it?” She held her hand out. “Give me the damn salad. I’ve going home to have it for tea.”
“I’m going to keep hold of it,” the inspector replied, smiling.
For a moment Miriam considered grabbing it off her, because why should she give up her favourite Tupperware? Then she thought that might be construed as assaulting a police officer, and nodded instead. “My phone number’s on the bottom,” she said. “I expect that tub back.” And she stormed back to the kitchen and out the door, her skirts swirling in her wake.
DI Adams offered the dean the little box of salad, and he recoiled in alarm.
“I’m not eating that!”
“It won’t be poisoned,” she said. “In fact, it looks very nice.”
“I’ve got a cottage pie from Sainsbury’s in the freezer. I’m not eating anything made by anyone in this village.”
“I thought you weren’t meant to judge.”
The dean gave her a peevish look, and she felt faintly guilty. She was probably enjoying this a little too much. “When I think I’m at risk of death by poison, I’d call it caution rather than judgement.”
“Very sensible, sir,” she said, and tucked the container under her arm. “Now, where’s this computer? We’ll take it back to the lab and see if the tech guys can find anything on it.”
Beaufort nudged Mortimer and nodded at the windows. The younger dragon shook his head vigorously. They’d never get out in time. The best thing was to just stay were they were, and hope no one noticed them. They were going to, of course. As soon as they turned the lights on, or opened the curtains. Being faint isn’t at all the same as being invisible.
“We need to go,” Beaufort hissed, and Mortimer shushed him. He had to think. Could he knock out the light? No, not enough time, and they’d still be able to open the curtains. Plenty of light out there still. So, hiding. Was there a cupboard? Could they – he almost screamed as Beaufort nipped his ear. The big dragon inclined his head – follow me.
Beaufort was astonishingly fast and silent when he wanted to be. He scooted out from under the table and pressed himself against the wall by the door, then beckoned Mortimer towards him. The young dragon was frozen with indecision – he could hear the inspector’s voice in the hall, hear the sure tread of her feet, there was no time, no time – he bolted for the wall and pressed himself into the ground next to Beaufort, closing his eyes as if that would somehow make him less obvious, a dragon as big as a good-sized dog lying exposed on the dining room floor. He waited for the shouts, and hoped they weren’t going to be tased. He’d seen that on Miriam’s TV, and it seemed singularly unpleasant.
The footsteps entered the room without pausing, four sets of them, and stopped in the corner. Mortimer opened one eye. The humans – the dean, the inspector, and two tall men that smelled of authority and cheap aftershave – were crowded around the desk. Beaufort slipped out the door, serving Mortimer a soft whack across the snout with his tail as he went. Mortimer blinked, startled, and stared at the humans in the corner. One of them had crouched down, and was rooting about under the desk.
“It’s warm,” he said. “Not very, but it’s been on recently.”
“Sir, did you use it before you went out?” the inspector asked.
“No, I haven’t switched it on at all,” the dean said. “Although, there was something odd when I came home earlier…”
Mortimer fled before he heard the details of the something odd. He already knew what it was – the keyboard on the floor from their first visit. And now they’d gone and got Miriam involved. What were they doing?
Beaufort was waiting for him by the kitchen door, still ajar from Miriam’s hasty departure, and they ran together across the lawn to the stile, feet quiet on the grass, scales taking on the mottled green of grass and shadows. Mortimer’s back itched with all those windows behind them, but there were no shouts, no running feet. That much at least was still going their way.
Miriam was sitting under the blackberry bushes, her face almost back to her regular colour. Her eyes were suspiciously bright though, and she wiped her nose quickly with a fold of her skirt as the dragons scrambled over the stile and came to sit next to her.
“Oh, I’m so glad you got out,” she said.
“Don’t you worry about us,” Beaufort said. “Dragons are good at getting out of tight spots.”
Mortimer thought of the steady tread of feet advancing up the hall, and felt heat rising in his chest. “That was a little too tight, Beaufort,” he said.
“But we have a lead,” the older dragon said triumphantly. “Bestbaker91.”
“But how’re we going to find them?” Miriam asked. “An email address doesn’t mean anything.”
“We’ll check out the trail at the hall as soon as the police are gone,” Beaufort said. “It’s as good a place to start as any.”
And about a week cold, Mortimer thought. Aloud, he said, “You should go home, Miriam. We shouldn’t have asked you to go in there.”
She gave him a look that Alice would have been proud of. “People are going around thinking I’m either such a bad gardener that I poisoned the vicar by accident, or that I’m a terribly clumsy murderer. I’m not having it. I’m going with you.”
“But if the police see you -”
“I’m perfectly entitled to go to the village hall to look for my cardigan, which I seem to have left somewhere during that – that interrogation.”
Mortimer opened his mouth, shut it again, thought for a moment, then said, “You lost your cardigan?”
“I might have.”
They stared at each other in the rich evening light, then Beaufort gave a delighted huff of laughter. “You would have made a wonderful knight, Miriam.”
“Thank you,” she said, sounding quite flattered. “But I could really do with a cuppa. Shall we go have one, then come back when it’s dark?”
“That – seems reasonable,” Mortimer said faintly. He could hear voices at the vicarage, and the slamming of car doors. He’d really rather go back to the caverns, curl up on his barbecue, and listen to the battery powered radio he’d found in the tip. Much rather.
“Do you have any biscuits?” Beaufort asked, as Miriam got up and brushed her skirt off. “Only I dropped the digestives.”
“I’m sure I can find something,” she said, and they headed back down the path, the two dragons and the woman who could have been a knight.
The dean closed the door on the inspector and turned back into the vicarage. It felt very empty and worn, scuffed down by the passage of lives and feet and hands and thoughts. He stood there for a moment longer, then decided he’d do better to open all the curtains. Windows too, get some fresh air in here. He started in the dining room, with its now bare desk in the corner, and was walking out when something caught his eye. He crouched down to peer under the table.
Was that – a packet of digestives? He fished it out, grimacing with distaste. There seemed to be – well, it was like drool, as if some dog had been lying in here worrying at them. But the vicar hadn’t had a dog. He held the packet up to the light. There were slashes in it that didn’t look much like teeth. It looked like the packet had been attacked by a knife. Or something with claws.
He closed his eyes, murmured a quick prayer, then took the biscuits to the kitchen and dumped them in the bin. The sooner he was finished here, the better. Mystery biscuit monsters and neighbourhood hippies with poisoned salads were not in his job description.
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