Miriam had opted to change into jeans and a hooded jumper, on the theory that they were easier to run in than her usual dresses and skirts, and also that no one would expect her to be wearing jeans. She was regretting the jeans, though, as they walked up the lane towards the village hall. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d worn them, and they seemed unaccountably tight. She unbuttoned them surreptitiously, and hoped that the zip didn’t come undone.
Night had come in with gentle affection, the air still warm from the day. Most of the houses they passed were dark already, the street lit by the orange glow of infrequent lamps, and the dragons walking to either side of Miriam looked like nothing more than slightly more substantial grey shadows, if anyone had been watching. Unless the watcher expected dragons, of course, in which case they were quite obvious, even in shades of grey. Moths fluttered across their path, and bats followed, their high-pitched squeaks making the dragons’ ears twitch. The silence was deep, pocked by nocturnal life. The whole thing was terribly idyllic, and Miriam was so nervous she thought she might throw up her tea and cake.
“Do you think the police’ll be watching the hall? After all, don’t they say a murderer always returns to the scene of the crime?”
“You could go back,” Mortimer offered. “We’ve really dragged you into enough trouble already.”
“No, no. I want to help. I just -” She let the word hang. Don’t want to get arrested was the rest of the sentence, but saying it out loud felt like tempting fate in the worst possible way. She tugged the hood of her jumper up a little more securely. It was tie-dyed organic cotton, so probably a dead giveaway, but at least she’d tried.
“We’ll be home for a cuppa in no time,” Beaufort said. “Pop in, a quick sniff around, then done.”
Miriam thought that if the dragons were coming back for another cup of tea, she was going to have to see what she had in the freezer. They’d already eaten all her apple cake and a loaf’s worth of cheese toasties while they were waiting for it to get dark.
The hall was dark and still, no cars parked nearby or policemen lurking in the bushes. Not that Miriam could see, anyway. She walked straight up the path that led from the road to the front door, then veered off into the grass to circle the building. There was no point trying to hide – there was a street light directly over the gate, so if it anyone was watching, she’d have been seen. The dragons followed, dog-sized wraiths that took on the greys and greens of the night.
At the back door, Miriam fumbled under the stones in the flowerbed, then stood up with the key.
“Well, that answers the question, could anyone get in?” Mortimer said.
“We’ve hardly got the crown jewels in here,” Miriam said, squinting at the lock. “What’s someone going to do – break in and make a cuppa?”
Beaufort snorted with amusement, then paused. “Smell that, lad?”
Mortimer sniffed carefully. “Maybe. It’s very faint.”
“That’s why we didn’t notice it when we were here before. It’s almost gone. But it’s there.”
The smaller dragon breathed deeply as Miriam opened the door. “It is,” he said. “The same smell as on the computer.”
“And the crumbs.”
“I still don’t understand how you can smell emails,” Miriam said, leading the way into the dark kitchen. “It’s nothing but data.”
“It’s not that sort of smell,” Beaufort said. “It’s a sense, a trace of what a person puts out into the world. The taste of their intentions, maybe. It’s why animals like some people and not others.”
“Our senses are just a little more refined,” Mortimer added, snuffling his way towards the door that led to the main hall.
“Not so much,” Beaufort said. “We just like to think we’re so different.”
Miriam pushed the door shut and leaned against the counter, pinching the bridge of her nose and ignoring the dragons for the moment. She really didn’t want to get caught here. After all, the cake that had poisoned the vicar had made in a very similar style to her cakes, using stevia (which she grew in her garden) and a tasty little dollop of belladonna. Which she also had in her garden. And then the police had caught her in the vicarage. She wasn’t doing a stellar job of looking innocent. She should probably tell Beaufort that this was a very bad idea indeed, and that he should just leave it with the police. They’d figure it out. It was their job to figure it out, and she had a horrible feeling that what she was doing most definitely counted as meddling. Or possibly interfering with the course of justice, if you wanted to go all official. Could they send her to prison for that? She didn’t even want to think about it. There certainly wouldn’t be any organic food in prison. She sat down on the little bench under the coat hooks and leaned against the wall, closing her eyes just for a moment. This was proving to be a very long day indeed.
The dragons didn’t take long, sweeping the hall with the click of talons on bare wood floors, and the scrape of strong tails.
“They never went into the main hall,” Beaufort declared. “Not when they dropped the cake off, anyway. I think they may have been here before, but not often. The smell’s strongest here – they must have come in, left the cake on that bench, and gone again.”
Miriam got up hurriedly, wiping the seat of her jeans off as if the scent might have stuck to her. “Okay, so now what?”
Beaufort and Mortimer looked at each other, but didn’t answer.
“Do we have a now what?”
“Err, not entirely,” Mortimer said. “We thought we might be able to follow the scent from here, but it’s a bit too old. I didn’t get anything until we came in.”
“Don’t fret,” Beaufort said, although he sounded less sure of himself than usual. “Let’s have a quick cast around outside, and if not we’ll do a sweep of the village. We’ll pick it up again.”
“But what if it doesn’t come from the village?” Miriam asked. “Then what?”
“We’ll figure something out. A little lateral thinking, a little initiative – Mortimer, you’re brilliant at that.”
“I guess,” Mortimer said, sounding less that enthralled by the compliment.
“Do you know,” a new voice said, making Miriam yelp and the dragons collide with each other as they tried to spin around in the tiny kitchen, “That standing around anywhere remotely related to a recent crime in the middle of the night could be construed as slightly odd behaviour. Some might even say suspicious.”
The light went on, and revealed DI Adams standing in the doorway to the hall. She frowned at Miriam.
“Who were you talking to?”
Miriam looked down at the dragons, who had taken on the dull tones of the laminate floor, and flattened themselves to it. Mortimer had his paws over his head, as if that would help. “Umm. Myself?”
The inspector studiously avoided looking at the floor. “Yourself?”
“Yes. Ah, it helps me think.”
“I see. And you do voices as well, do you?”
“Yes. Yes, I do. It’s a, a technique. Quite modern.”
“I see,” the inspector said again, in tone that indicated that what she saw didn’t impress her. “And why, exactly were you talking to yourself in the hall kitchen at -” she glanced at her watch “-11:46pm?”
“Well. I lost my cardigan.” Miriam nodded firmly.
The inspector made to take a step into the kitchen, then stopped. She still didn’t seem to be able to look at the floor. “So you thought you’d come look for it in the middle of the night?”
“It’s my favourite cardigan.”
There was silence then, and Miriam tried her best to look a little ditzy, but harmless. Harmless was the key here. Finally the inspector said, “Come on. I’ll give you a lift home.”
“A lift home?”
“Yes. It’s late. And you shouldn’t be here.”
Miriam felt her shoulders sag with relief. She’d half-expected to be arrested on the spot. She picked her way around the dragons – the inspector turned away as if to avoid looking at her careful steps – and followed her through the hall and out the front door.
“What do we do?” Mortimer asked Beaufort. They’d slipped out the back door and taken off from the lawn, lumbering runs becoming powerful flight. They’d arrived back at Miriam’s before the women had, and watched from the cover of a rose bush as DI Adams told Miriam to not to go too far, then returned to her car. The inspector hadn’t left, though, just leaned her seat back and unwrapped a chocolate bar.
“I don’t think there’s much we can do,” Beaufort said. “It seems Miriam has become a person of interest, as I believe it’s called.”
“That’s our fault,” Mortimer said. “We should never have started this!”
Beaufort gave him a stern look. “Truth will out, young Mortimer. For now, we canvas the village. See if we can find that scent.”
Mortimer groaned. “Really? Haven’t we made things bad enough already?”
“Sometimes things have to get worse before they get better.” Beaufort shook out his wings. “Now, off you go. You start in the South, I’ll start North, and we’ll meet in the middle.” He didn’t wait for Mortimer to reply, just headed off into the darkness.
Mortimer stayed where he was for a moment or two longer, cursing old dragons and their thick-headedness, then reluctantly emerged from the shelter of the bush and trotted away.
It was getting light. Finally. DI Adams stretched and yawned. James’d be here to relieve her soon. It was hard to believe Ms Hippie Garden was the murderer, but so far she seemed the most likely. The inspector honestly wouldn’t have put it past her to have done it by accident, what with all the midnight wanderings and talking to herself. She’d been waving out the window at the sky about an hour ago – probably casting spells by the moon, or something. But there remained the question of where the other cupcakes had gone, as so far no one else had dropped dead. Not that she was aware of, anyway.
God, she needed some sleep. Her eyes had been playing tricks on her all night. First at the hall, when looking at the floor had made her feel somehow queasy, as if instead of dated lino it housed a doorway into another dimension, where everything she knew had been turned on its head. Then, once she’d got the Tie-Dye Murderer inside, she was sure she heard whispering in the garden. She’d waited for a while, but it hadn’t re-started. It must have been just wind in the leaves. Not that she could feel any wind. And then – and then she was getting as nutty as Poison Petunia in there, because there had been shapes in the sky. Winged shapes, far bigger than winged shapes ought to be, unless they were man-made, which the shapes that couldn’t have been there blatantly weren’t. And the incoherence of that particular thought just showed how tired she was.
She opened the car door, thinking that stretching her legs could be a good idea, and put her foot on something that squidged. She closed her eyes, cursed the countryside, and looked down, expecting to see a cow pat under her boot.
It wasn’t a cow pat.
It was a rabbit.
It was very dead, and very cooked. Its skin was still on, but the fur was singed away, and its lips had been baked back from its teeth in a rictus of a grin. She stared at it, at its eye-less sockets and contracted limbs, and got slowly out of the car. It was lying on a several large green leaves, as if it was being presented on them at some trendy eatery. And there was a flower next to it, some sort of wildflower, god knew what, she wasn’t a botanist. She looked at the house, but there were no faces at the window, no waving mad women. She nudged the tiny corpse with her toe, and said something anatomically incorrect about what the donor of this meal could do. Then she snapped a couple of pictures of it on her phone, lifted it by one crumbling paw, and marched towards the house.
Miriam was making scones when the banging on the door started. She jumped – it was early still, but she hadn’t been able to sleep. Beaufort had stopped by about a hour ago to say that they hadn’t found the scent in the village, and she’d been fretting ever since. The old dragon still said that it was all going to turn out just fine, but she was starting to have doubts. Quite serious ones. And she was wondering if you wore orange in prisons, or if that was just TV. Because orange unsettled her.
She went to the front door, wiping her hands on a cloth, and opened it to find the detective inspector waving a dead rabbit at her. She flinched back with a little cry of alarm.
“What is this?” The inspector demanded. “What is this?”
“A – I – it’s a rabbit?” Miriam said, bewildered. Where on earth had she got a cooked rabbit from? And why?
“I can see it’s a rabbit, you -” she stopped, took a deep breath. “I can see it’s a rabbit, Ms Ellis. Why was it outside my car door?”
“Outside your car door?” Miriam repeated blankly.
“Yes. It was outside my car door. With a flower. I stood on it.” The inspector seemed to be struggling to keep her voice level. “Why? And how? How did it get there? I didn’t see anyone, and I’ve been watching all night.”
“Oh dear,” Miriam said, wiping her hands on the cloth with a little more enthusiasm. “Oh, oh dear.”
“Oh dear? That’s all you can say?”
“Yes. I mean, no. Oh dear.”
“What? Oh dear what?”
“I – well – oh dear.”
“Ma’am! Do not say ‘oh dear’ again!” DI Adams jabbed the rabbit towards Miriam as she spoke, with rather more violence than she had intended, and the well-cooked body tore free, leaving her holding the leg. Both women looked down as the carcass landed on the hessian mat with a meaty thud. There was a moment’s silence, then the inspector said wearily, “Oh, bollocks.”
“Come in,” Miriam said. “I’ll make you a cuppa.”
“What about the rabbit?”
“Bring it in. No point wasting it.”
She led the way into the sun-warm kitchen, and the inspector followed, gingerly cradling the dead rabbit.
“It’s a village custom.”
“Yes. A mark of respect. It means that we – we accept you.”
“A dead, burned rabbit left outside my car door is a mark of respect.”
“Country customs.” Miriam tried a self-deprecating smile, but it felt lopsided and awkward, so she stopped and fiddled with her mug.
“What happens if you really like someone? A dead cow by the back door?”
Miriam gave a little hiccough of laughter, and glanced at the oven. She’d slid the scones in while the tea brewed. Maybe the inspector would feel happier after she’d had something to eat. The rabbit lay on the draining board, staring blindly at the ceiling.
“Ms Ellis. Miriam. I need you to tell me what’s really going on here.” DI Adams leaned over the kitchen table, confidential, woman-to-woman. “I can see where this could really have been an accident. I can. But you need to be honest with me. So let’s start with how the rabbit got there. Because I never saw you leave the house.”
Miriam sighed. “I told you. I think a friend of mine probably left it there.”
“So what’s this friend called?”
“Beaufort Scales.” She said it unthinkingly. She was going to kick his scaly tail. What on earth was he thinking? Of course he’d done it because he’d been worried the inspector was hungry, but honestly.
“Beaufort Scales?” The inspector frowned. “Where does he live?”
“He’s not from around here. He sort of comes and goes.”
“Not – not exactly.”
“Where can I find him?”
“I’m not too sure.”
The inspector leaned back in her chair with a sigh. “You’re not helping yourself here, you know.”
“I know,” Miriam said miserably. “But it’s the truth.” She took a deep breath. “Are you going to arrest me?”
DI Adams rubbed her face wearily. “No, I’m not going to arrest you. But we will be watching you. And you really need to think about your story and decide how long you’re going to stick to it.” She finished her tea and got up, putting the mug in the sink. “Thanks for the tea.”
“That’s okay. Are you sure you don’t want some breakfast?”
The inspector glanced at the rabbit and shuddered. “No thanks,” she said. “I seem to have lost my appetite.”
It was mid-morning when Beaufort slipped into the garden, Mortimer not far behind. They kept close to the stone wall, just in case the policeman in the lane outside wasn’t the only one, and kept their heads low when they tapped on the door.
Miriam opened it almost at once. “Thank god,” she said. “I’ve just been beside myself. What on earth were you doing, Beaufort, leaving that rabbit?”
“I thought she might be hungry,” he said, trooping into the kitchen as she stepped back from the door. “And I thought she might be a bit less grumpy if someone looked after her.”
“And the flowers?” Miriam demanded.
“She seems like a very nice young woman. Someone should give her flowers.”
Mortimer walked to the corner of the kitchen like a very old dragon indeed. “You gave her offerings?”
“It’s the right thing to do, to show your respect.”
“Now she thinks I’m completely crazy,” Miriam said, her hands on her hips. “She’s probably going to have me committed, if she doesn’t arrest me first.”
Mortimer slumped to the floor and pressed his cheek against the stone flags. “Offerings. You gave a Detective Inspector offerings.”
“She’s very nice!” Beaufort protested, but there was a small stream of embarrassed orange smoke rising from his nostrils.
“Institutionalised, Beaufort. Or imprisoned! I’ve not yet decided which is worse.”
“I give up,” Mortimer whispered to the floor. “I’m going to the Shetland Islands. The sea dragons over there are pretty friendly, apparently.”
“And if I get locked up, who’s going to take care of my garden? And my mother’s going to be all self-righteous about it, just because I didn’t study accounting.” Miriam thought about it. “After she gets over being humiliated, of course.”
“I just wanted to help,” Beaufort said. His ears were drooping. “I didn’t think it would go this badly.”
“Just a little bit badly, then?” Miriam demanded, then felt terrible as Beaufort’s shoulders slumped.
“I was sure we could find out who did it,” the old dragon said. “Maybe I am too old for this. Computers and emails and so on.”
A silence settled over the kitchen then, heavy and unhappy, laced about with the smell of faintly burned scones.
Miriam thought they might have sat like that for the rest of the morning, lost in their own anxious thoughts, except for the light tap on the kitchen door.
“Good morning,” Alice said. “Aren’t we a happy bunch today?”
“Miriam is going to be locked up, and it’s all our fault,” Mortimer said, not lifting his head.
“It’s my fault,” Beaufort slumped a little further. He was going to be as flat to the floor as Mortimer in a minute. Miriam had never heard him sound so upset. “I thought I could find the murderer, and I can’t.”
“Ah,” said Alice. “Well. I may be able to help you there.”
The final instalment is coming soon – sign up at the bottom of the page to have it sent straight to your inbox!