The vicar always had a headache after Women’s Institute meetings, and he’d taken to having a precautionary paracetamol before he arrived, although they never seemed to last long enough. His preference was to avoid the meetings entirely, but the Summer Fete was coming up, so they had requested his presence. Requested. It never felt much like requested. Maybe if someone other than Alice had been head of the WI, it would have been a request. As it was, there might be a please and a thank you tacked on, but he knew an order when he heard one.
He sighed, and locked the door before turning around to survey the hall. All was tidy – chairs stacked in symmetrical rows, tables lined up neatly against the wall. No one could ever accuse the WI of running a sloppy ship. He really should be happy to have such – such efficiency around him. He shuddered, almost theatrically. Maybe that was the problem. Does efficiency really have a place in a quiet life? Because that was all he wanted. He was a pleasant man, young enough to keep up to the parish’s website and facebook page (he’d even ventured onto Twitter, before retreating in the face of all the webcam chat requests), old enough to exude a good-natured calm that lent itself to local christenings and pocket-sized fairs. The village of Toot Hansell, all stone cottages and exuberant gardens, had promised him just the sort of quiet life he’d been looking for, an oasis after the grey streets of Liverpool. But that was before he’d encountered the Toot Hansell Women’s Institute.
“Terrifying,” he told the silent hall, dim-lit by the grey summer day. “Quite terrifying.” Which wasn’t entirely fair, but Alice did have a way of looking at him that made him feel like a six-year-old who’s just disappointed his favourite teacher. And she used it a lot.
He made his way to the little kitchen to the left of the cramped stage, massaging his forehead gently. Black spots swam across his vision, and he tutted. It wasn’t like he’d been shut in the hall with a horde of sugar-crazed toddlers all afternoon, or even some group of teenagers blasting pop music and shouting at each other – just a collection of women of a certain age who favoured M&S slacks and pastel cardigans. Well, some of them did. He had to remember to be careful not to generalise. It was less jam making and flower arranging, more fund raising and outreach these days. Which he supported whole-heartedly, but would prefer to do so from a distance.
The kitchen was as immaculate as the hall, cups and plates washed and put away, rubbish bin emptied, and the chipped laminate counters polished until they looked almost glossy. The only thing out of place was a small box sitting on the bench by the back door, the sort of flimsy thing you get in coffee shops and bakeries.
“Oh,” the vicar said, and gave an exaggerated look around the kitchen. “For me?” There were perks to being at a WI meeting, and he felt his headache fade just at the sight of the box. As long as it wasn’t one of Jasmine’s efforts – she was a lovely girl, but oh, her cooking. He lifted the top carefully and spotted rich dark cake sheltering under an extravagant swirl of paler icing, and smiled as he closed the lid on temptation. Home, a cuppa, his book and this lovely treat to look forward to. He thought he might even put the electric fire on. It wasn’t that cold, but the day seemed to call for such indulgences. He opened the door and let himself out into the rain-faded day, lifting his face to the sky as he followed the little path that ran from the village hall to the rectory.
“Miriam! Miriam, have you heard?” Jasmine clutched her handbag to her chest like a shield against the day, her eyes wide and startled-looking.
Miriam sighed, and stepped back from the door. “Come in, Jas.”
“I – okay. Yes.” Jasmine scurried after the older woman, so close to her that Miriam thought she’d best be sure not to stop too suddenly. The low-ceilinged rooms were incense-scented and dimly lit after the heat and light of the day outside.
“You want a cuppa?” Miriam asked as she flicked the kettle on.
“Umm. Yes. If you’re making one.” Jasmine kept her bag pressed close, and she seemed almost deflated, as if the excitement that had swept her in here had evaporated in the face of the wind chimes and candles.
Miriam didn’t hurry, her movements thoughtful and deliberate. She was a sensitive of sorts – she called herself a medium, and read palms and the tarot, and told people what they needed to hear when they came to her. She considered it more psychology than witchcraft, a study of human behaviour, and no one ever left unhappy. But sometimes she did know things she couldn’t have known, and saw things no one else did, and in this brilliant morning with the rain of the day before burned away and the sky scrubbed blue, everything wore a shadow a shade too dark, and the birds sang in tones a note too sombre. She wondered who it had been.
They took their mugs (heavily adorned with cats – Miriam was violently allergic to them, which she considered a serious shortcoming in her line of work. She did love the mugs, though) out to the mismatched table and chairs in the garden, and Miriam put a tin of shortbread biscuits on the table between them.
“It was the vicar!” Jasmine blurted, before she’d even sat down. “He’s dead!” She dropped into the chair and clapped her hands over her mouth, tears starting into her blue eyes.
Miriam sighed again, nodding at the darkness seeping through the day, and found a tissue in one pocket. It looked reasonably clean, so she passed it to the younger woman and waited patiently while she blew her nose. Mascara left startled rings under her eyes.
“It’s the vicar,” Jasmine repeated, her voice calmer. “Ben told me.”
Ben was a policeman, and he told his wife rather more than he should, in Miriam’s opinion. On the other hand, he adored Jasmine to the point that he swore her cooking was the best in the county, if not the country, so she was inclined to forgive him for his indiscretion. And it did make a handy source of gossip.
“Rose found him this morning.” Jasmine rolled the tissue between her hands nervously. “She cleans on Thursday. And Tuesdays, I think. But today when she went in, he – he was gone!” Her voice tipped into tears, and Miriam blinked, imagining a runaway vicar, then realised what she meant.
“He was by the fire, in his chair, with a cup of tea and half a cupcake, and Ben said – he said – he said the fire had been on all night, and – and the smell – oh, Miriam, it’s just awful!”
Miriam nodded, watching a bird splashing in the flat grey basin of the bird bath. It was awful – death is rarely not awful for those left behind, in one way or another. She said her own kind of prayer for the vicar, and hoped he’d spent more time thinking about his heaven and less about his other option. Thoughts are powerful things.
She realised Jasmine was staring at her expectantly, and she dragged her attention back. Days like this always made her feel – disconnected. “I’m sorry, Jas, what were you saying?”
“What do we do? What do we do, Miriam?”
Miriam picked up the tin of biscuits and offered it to Jasmine, who took a shortbread and nibbled it distractedly. “We wait,” she said. “If the WI can do anything, Alice will let us know. Meanwhile, we can pick some flowers for the church. That’ll be nice.
“Flowers?” Jasmine said doubtfully.
“Flowers. You can’t go wrong with flowers.”
A week later, the dean of the parish stood in the rectory kitchen, surveying the casserole dishes and tupperware containers that had sprouted on every available inch of counter space, here and there stacked two or even three deep. “What is it about death,” he said to the police inspector who was leaning on the similarly burdened kitchen table, “That makes people so desperate to feed the mourning?”
The inspector shrugged. “More your territory than mine, sir. I imagine it’s something to do with defying death, like the way people that have had near-misses get so horn -” she stopped and took an enormous gulp of tea as her face flushed to her ears, then started coughing.
The dean chuckled. “I have, in fact, heard of such phenomena. And I think you’re probably quite right, inspector.”
“Oh, thank God,” the inspector said. “I thought I’d really put my foot – oh, bollocks.” She was turning a really quite alarming colour, and when her phone rang she slammed her mug down on the table so urgently that tea sloshed over her fingers, and fled out of the room to answer.
The dean gave an amused snort, and went to inspect a rather enticing cake box. The WI had been coming by all through the morning to welcome him and express their sorrow – well, he certainly hoped it had been all of them. They’d been quite exhausting, and he didn’t think he could stand many more visitors. They’d all come bearing food, too, casseroles and stews and soups with neat labels telling him how to reheat them, cakes redolent with spices and heavy with fruit, even bread still warm from the oven. It smelled like life itself, with the exception of the young woman who had presented him with a lasagna, then promptly burst into tears and scampered out. He’d examined it suspiciously – it was charred on top but seeping blood into the bottom of the glass dish, and inexplicably smelled of milk several days past the turn.
“Don’t eat that one,” another woman said to him quietly. “She means well, but no need to get salmonella over it.”
He’d nodded agreement and put the dish down a prudent distance from the others, in case it had anything catching. Not that he’d have argued even if it had looked edible – poor Stuart had told him all about Alice.
Now he eased the lid of the cake box open and smiled at the contents. Carrot cake, if he wasn’t mistaken, heavy with brown sugar and the tang of lemon. He discovered the plates in the third cupboard he tried, and cut generous slices for himself and the inspector, hearing the murmur of her voice in the hall outside. She seemed both stressed and quite uncomfortable around him – the church did that to some people. Never mind, a fresh cuppa and a piece of cake would go a long way towards soothing both.
The inspector came back into the kitchen just as the dean put the plates on the table. “Any news?” he asked. He’d got icing on his knuckles, and he lifted his hand to lick it off.
“Yes,” the inspector said. “Your man was poisoned. By the cake they found with the body.”
The dean paused with his knuckle hovering in front of his face, then lowered his hand and looked around the food-laden kitchen. “Oh dear,” he said.
“Indeed,” the inspector replied, with a longing look at the carrot cake.
“Beaufort, this is an emergency meeting,” Miriam said. Again. “There won’t be any time for stories and cake. I imagine it’s about the vicar.”
Beaufort gave her a stern look, steam seeping from one nostril. “Of course, my dear, but I would like to offer my condolences to the group in person.”
Miriam gave Mortimer a pleading look, but the smaller dragon just shrugged wearily. There was no use trying to change Beaufort’s mind once he’d decided. The High Lord of the Cloverly dragons had a will just as hard as his scaled hide. This fact was tempered somewhat by the bunch of wilting wildflowers he clutched in one paw, and Mortimer’s sneaking suspicion that going to the meeting was more about seeing Alice than it was about paying their respects. But either way, the old dragon wasn’t going to be budged.
“I’m just not sure it’s the time,” Miriam said. “I mean, other people might be there. The dean probably will be, and he’s got enough to deal with. He’s not going to be prepared for dragons.” Of course, the question had to be asked, was anyone ever prepared for dragons? She’d known Mortimer for a year now, and she still wasn’t sure she was.
“We’ll just eavesdrop, then, won’t we? Mortimer?” Beaufort turned golden eyes on the younger dragon, age giving them a glaze like that on ancient pottery. “A terrible thing this, someone potentially murdered in our little village.”
Mortimer raised his eyebrow ridges. Since when had it been their village? Until last winter and the Christmas market debacle, Beaufort hadn’t even visited the village since it was all straw roofs and latrine buckets. Beaufort cocked his head slightly and winked, making sure Miriam didn’t see, and Mortimer swallowed a snort of laughter. Nosy! The old dragon was being nosy! Looking for some pocket-sized adventure or scandal just for his own amusement! He shook his head and said almost indulgently, “Sure. We’ll stay outside, just have a listen through the window.”
Miriam got up and collected the tea mugs and biscuit tin. “And here I thought you were the sensible one.” She went back inside, leaving Beaufort grinning widely at his young co-conspirator.
The dragons crouched behind the rose bushes under the hall window, trying not to do too much damage. There had been awful trouble last time they’d crashed the WI, when Mortimer had accidentally sat on Teresa’s pansies.
Beaufort brushed some leaves off his head and whispered, “Can you hear them?”
Better when you’re not ‘whispering’ in my ear, Mortimer thought peevishly, and shushed Beaufort with an urgently raised paw. The window was shut, but Miriam had promised to open it for them as soon as she was inside. It was the only window that offered enough bushes below it to disguise two dragons – luckily Cloverly dragons don’t grow terribly big. Even Beaufort, by far the biggest of the clan, was only the size of a Shetland pony. Which puts St George’s ‘heroism’ in slaughtering High Lord Catherine (to dragons, ‘Lord’ is a non-gendered term) somewhat in perspective.
Beaufort shifted irritably, and Mortimer could feel him building up to demand that they try another spot. Just as he thought the old dragon’s patience was going to run out, the latch in the window clattered, and it was flung wide above them, releasing warm air scented with rose talc and lavender, and Miriam said, “There. We could all do with the air. I’m sorry, please go on, Inspector, ah – ?”
“Inspector Adams,” a woman with a warm voice said. It was the sort of voice that promised dancing at sunset and moon rises over water, so its next words were jarring to the listeners, hidden and otherwise. “The vicar was poisoned, ladies. By a cupcake. And all evidence points to a member of the WI.”
Utter silence greeted this remark, and as the dragons stared at each other they heard Miriam mutter something under her breath that was undoubtedly not WI approved language. Then someone – probably Jasmine – burst into tears, and a surge of voices rose up in the hall beyond the window. Mortimer opened his mouth to say something, and Beaufort silenced him with a curt shake of his head. The smoke rising from his nostrils had thickened and taken on a deep purple hue, and Mortimer kept his peace, although he did promise himself that if the old dragon jumped up to defend the honour of the ladies of the Toot Hansell WI, he’d have to tackle him, High Lord or not.
The inspector was calling for everyone to be calm, and a man – likely the dean – was hemming and hawing, sounding increasingly panic-stricken. The voices just rose over them, protests and exclamations and confusion, tears and horror and recrimination.
Then one voice lifted through it all, clear and sharp-edged, slicing the ruckus to silence. “Ladies,” Alice said, and Mortimer grinned, seeing Beaufort’s worn yellow teeth gleaming back at him in the sunlight. Her voice was barely raised. “You do us all a disservice with this chatter. Please act like the women I know you are.” No one replied, but the silence felt different now, a little abashed, a little proud. “Inspector?” Alice said, when she was sure everyone was calm.
“Yes?” The other woman sounded slightly discomforted by the head of the WI’s imperious tone.
“I imagine you will interview us individually in the office, and the rest of us are to remain here without talking, monitored by your officers here?”
“Well. Yes. Something along those lines.”
“Then please proceed immediately, so we can get this unpleasantness out of the way. If you will permit it, Priya and I will make some tea. One of your officers can, of course, accompany us.”
“I – yes. Tea.” The inspector coughed, then seemed to collect herself. “Yes. James, can you escort the ladies, please. Art, make sure there’s no talking out here. Ma’am? Yes, you. What’s your name?”
Beaufort tapped Mortimer’s shoulder while the inspector was still talking, and inclined his head towards the path that led through the rectory gardens and down towards the woods and the stream. Mortimer raised his eyebrows – shouldn’t we wait? – but Beaufort was already moving, wings folded tight to his back, feet light on the summer-rich grass. To anyone who looked out the windows – well, anyone except the WI, who were likely expecting dragons – they’d have seen the shadows of clouds scudding softly across the garden, there and then gone. They’d probably never even have noticed that the sky was cloudless.
Where the path met the stream, shaded by willows, Beaufort paused to drink. He shook his wings out, and the sun turned their multi-hued green to the stained glass of a master workman.
“Beaufort?” Mortimer said cautiously. The bigger dragon was still huffing purple steam. “Why didn’t we wait for Miriam?”
The High Lord regarded him with those old, fierce eyes and said, “We have an investigation to launch, lad. No time for tea-drinking and socialising.” He turned away before Mortimer could respond, breaking into a trot that became a lumbering run before he leaped into the air with surprising, fluid grace, wings catching at the sky and sending him spiralling effortlessly through the trees to the clearer spaces beyond.
Mortimer sat back on his haunches, scratched his chin with one paw, and drew a deep, shuddering sigh. Why was he surprised? Why was he even slightly surprised that Beaufort wasn’t going to leave this to the humans to sort out for themselves? He didn’t know whether he felt fury, frustration, or some strange species of grudging pride and admiration. Not that any of those were uncommon feelings when it came to Beaufort.
“Well, sure,” he said to the trees. “I can’t see this going wrong at all.” Then he unfolded his wings and followed the old dragon, leaving the village wrapped in sun and sudden turmoil behind them.
You can find Part 2 here!