Baking Bad, a cozy mystery (with dragons) is almost upon us! And because it is, I thought that for the next two weeks I might share a little of the story with you, lovely people. I’m so, so excited to have come this far with Beaufort, and it’s even more exciting because so many of you wonderful people have helped me so much along the way, whether by reading, beta reading, editing or cheering me on – and often all of the above. So thank you so, so much. And I hope you enjoy the excerpts!
As for the book itself – the ebook is available for pre-order now on Amazon for only 99p, and will automatically be downloaded to your device on the 2nd. So go grab a copy! But don’t forget that if you’re signed up for my newsletter you can get a free advance copy, as well as be in the running for some fun prizes – so get signed up over in the sidebar or here if you want in!
And now – grab a cuppa and a slice of cake, because it’s time for a cozy mystery (with dragons)…
A tranquil village.
A poisoned cupcake.
A murdered vicar.
A simple case – or it should be. But all clues point to the Toot Hansell Women’s Institute, and Detective Inspector Adams is about to discover there’s much more to the W.I. than bake sales and jam making.
Alice Martin, RAF Wing Commander (Ret.), and current chair of the W.I., knows the ladies of the Women’s Institute are not guilty. But she has a bigger problem. Toot Hansell has a dragonish secret, and she needs to keep the police well away from it. And she’d really rather not be arrested for murder. Again.
Meanwhile, Beaufort Scales, High Lord of the Cloverly dragons, survivor of the days of knights and dragon hunts, knows even better than Alice that the modern dragon only survives as long as no one knows they exist. But he also knows friends don’t let friends face murder inquiries alone. Beaufort intends to Get Involved.
This investigation is about to take on dragonish proportions.
Best put the kettle on.
Miriam couldn’t help feeling a little sorry for the vicar. He was wedged between Alice and Gert, picking at a piece of Victoria sponge cake and nodding with the regularity and anxiety of one of those dogs you see on car dashboards. Priya kept topping his tea up every time she went past, and from the way he was shifting in his seat, Miriam thought he was probably quite desperate for a break in the conversation. Well, lecture.
“I believe we should raise the price of the stalls for this year’s fete,” Alice said, cutting a shortbread biscuit into precise quarters. “Don’t you think so, Vicar?”
“Ah, well, now—”
“Even with the volunteers, the clean-up becomes quite costly. And it is a very popular fete.”
“While we’re on the fete,” Gert said, placing one large hand on the vicar’s shoulder and making him jump, “my nephew Pete just bought this bouncy castle gig. It’d be good to put some business his way, don’t you think?”
“Well, we usually—”
“That’s nepotism, Gert.” Alice brushed crumbs off her fingertips with a paper napkin, her voice mild.
“It’s sound business, is all. Using who you know.”
“And do they have references?”
“He’s my nephew.”
The vicar took the chance to take another mouthful of cake while the two women disagreed around him, and Miriam leaned across the table with a plate of sunny yellow lemon tarts. “Gluten-free,” she told him encouragingly.
“Oh, I—” He looked down at his plate, which the Victoria sponge cake was sharing with a poppyseed biscuit, half a scone, and a small, disconcertingly purple object the shape and texture of a hockey puck that Miriam thought might be Jasmine’s latest attempt at a macaron.
“Never mind. I’ll put some aside so you can take it home later.”
“Thanks,” he said, sounding less enthusiastic than one might have thought at the prospect of homemade, gluten-free lemon tart, although that might have been because Gert and Alice were turning their attention back to him.
“Vicar, have you made a decision on the live music situation? Because we do have to get the permit application in rather soon if we want to have that option.” Alice’s tone was mildly reproving.
“Our Sue – that’s my sister-in-law’s niece’s sister-in-law – is in the council. I can get it rushed,” Gert said.
“Gert, there is a correct way to do things.”
“Yes, and there’s also the smart way.”
“One can’t just demand favours—”
The vicar reached out and took a lemon tart with a sigh, the pastry crumbling under his fingers. “It looks lovely,” he told Miriam.
Miriam was in the village hall’s slightly shabby kitchen, rinsing cups in the sink and gazing out the window into the bee-crowded flowerbeds, thinking that the day seemed a little dark. Not cloudy, or late. Just dark, the way some days were when they had a sad edge or a bad taste to them. She hoped it didn’t mean anything unpleasant was going to happen.
She turned at the sound of footsteps, and saw the vicar come in carrying his plate and mug, his nose pink and crumbs on his front.
“Pass them here,” she said, when he tried to jam the crockery into the dishwasher rack at any old angle. “That machine needs careful stacking.”
“Yes. Of course. Sorry.” He handed the plate and mug over and stood there in the middle of the floor, tapping his fingers on his thighs.
“Are you alright, Vicar?”
“Yes. No.” He shook his head. “I just need five minutes. Very intense, these meetings.”
Miriam snorted. “This is your second summer fete, not to mention the winter ones. You should expect it by now.”
“I thought maybe the first year was a test of sorts.”
“Oh, no. They were easing you in gently.”
The vicar looked heavenward and mumbled some small prayer under his breath, then looked back at Miriam in her voluminous pink skirt and tie-dyed blouse. “No offence.”
Miriam, who liked the vicar but had no special fondness for the church, wasn’t sure if he meant the prayer or the slight to the ladies of the Women’s Institute, but she just shrugged and said, “None taken. Would you like me to drop some herbal tea around this afternoon? I have a homemade blend that’s very good for stress.”
The vicar, a small, softening man with drifting hair and old tattoos just visible under the cuffs of his shirt, scratched his head and said, “Why not? Better than taking to drink, right?”
Miriam, who had taken to drink on the odd occasion herself after a particularly intense meeting of the Toot Hansell Women’s Institute, smiled and went back to the dishes.
The W.I. meeting wound down as they often did, slowly and with little ceremony. The debris of plates and cake crumbs was cleared away, and Tupperware containers appeared as the leftovers were shared out, complimented, and packed up. Gert produced a bottle of elderflower cordial from her cavernous knitting bag and passed it down the line of pushed-together folding tables in the hall. Miriam diluted hers generously. She didn’t know how the older woman managed to ferment it, but she was fairly sure that the alcohol content in one glass was over and above the weekly allowance for any sensible person.
“Is Beaufort not coming?” Jasmine asked, leaning over to Miriam and keeping her voice low. Although how anyone could overhear, Miriam didn’t know. With formalities over and the cordial flowing, the noise level was considerable.
“Not with the vicar here,” she said. “No telling how he’d react.”
“Oh, of course. It just seems like ages since we saw him. Is he okay?”
“He’s more than okay. He’s Beaufort.” Which encompassed everything there was to say about the High Lord of the Cloverly dragons, well-known to the ladies of the Toot Hansell Women’s Institute, if to no one else. Only a couple of years previously, Miriam had been as confident as anyone that there were no dragons left in the world, and although she usually left milk out for pixies and made kitchen witches for luck, it was more because she felt it befitted her status as the village psychic than for any real belief. But that had been before the day she had walked into her garden to find a creature that, while no larger than Pearl’s Labrador, was scaled and winged and very definitely dragon-ish. He had her barbecue gas bottle tucked under one foreleg and one of the scones that she’d left out to cool halfway to his very toothy mouth, and they’d stared at each other in mutual astonishment (as well as some embarrassment on the part of the dragon, who she later found out was called Mortimer). Then she’d said, very cautiously, “Would you like cream with that?” Which was how she had come to be the first human in a very long time indeed to have a dragon over for tea, and how the W.I. had come to embrace non-human members.
“Well, say hi from me,” Jasmine said, and offered Miriam a pretty floral-patterned plate, still laden with the purple hockey pucks. “Would you like one? I know the colour’s a bit iffy, but it’s just because I spilt the food dye.”
Miriam stared at the luminous and utterly unappetising disks. She was pretty sure macarons were meant to have a little height, and a soft dome, and definitely shouldn’t smell faintly of cat food. “No thanks, love. Food dyes really play havoc with my allergies.”
“Oh.” Jasmine looked so crestfallen that Miriam felt bad for lying.
“Tell you what, let me have a few and I’ll give them to Beaufort next time I see him. I know he loves your cooking.” Which just went to show what a millennium or so of fire-breathing could do to your taste buds.
“Would you? Oh, that’d be lovely!” Jasmine jumped up to find a spare Tupperware to put the biscuits in, and Miriam decided not to tell her that she had purple food dye on her neck. It’d come off eventually, anyway.
The church, with its small and graceful spire, heavy trees, and attendant graveyard and vicarage, nestled just across a little dead-end road from the village hall. A footpath ran behind both the church and the hall, skirting the edge of the stream that made up the village’s natural boundary, gardens running up to it on one side, and trees and shrubs and farmland stretching out toward the high fells on the other. The village was entirely circled and segmented by streams and becks, but no one ever seemed to be able to agree if they were all part of the same waterway, or even what any of them should be called. Springs and wells peppered the common land, and there was a duckpond on the village green across from the hall that no one paddled in, partly because it was rumoured to be bottomless, but mostly because it was home to two permanently enraged geese. Miriam’s house was on the edge of the village, with the stream running just past her back gate, and she was halfway home on the worn dirt path when she realised she’d left her cardigan at the hall.
She sighed, lifting her face to the spring sunshine filtering through the trees, and decided she may as well go back. She was still full of cake and a little wobbly from Gert’s cordial, so the extra walk would do her good. She turned around, her old boots squidging in the mud left over from the last rain, and padded back up the path, humming a Stevie Nicks song to herself. It was a good day to be out. And she had a feeling that the cordial might well send her to sleep on the sofa if she got home too soon.
It didn’t take her long to make her way to the hall, and she let herself in the little gate at the back of its big plot, breathing the scent of new-cut grass and admiring the flowerbeds that Teresa had rebuilt after Mortimer and his friend Amelia had done some dragonish eavesdropping in them last summer. The pansies really had recovered admirably. The hall would probably be empty by now, everyone having dispersed to sleep off the afternoon’s cake, but the key would be under the usual rock in the flowerbed to the left of the back door. She was reaching for it when she realised she could hear raised voices. Well, one, anyway.
“But why won’t you at least try?” It was a woman’s voice, sharp and loud. Someone answered, too low for Miriam to make out what they were saying, and she hesitated by the door, wondering whether to knock, or wait, or just go home.
“It’s not like I’m asking for much! You can manage at least this!”
Miriam was almost certain she didn’t know the owner of the shouting voice. It was hard to tell, distorted with emotion as it was, but it didn’t sound like anyone she knew. She left the key where it was, hesitating on the back step. It felt horribly intrusive, this, but it was her favourite cardie. She didn’t want to risk it ending up in the charity bin – or the costume department, as her jacket had last year. She still hadn’t been able to get all the glitter off it. And maybe the arguers could do with an interruption.
“No! No! Don’t you walk away from me!”
Too late, Miriam realised the voice was coming closer. She took a step back, wondering if she could take cover behind the lavender, then the door was pulled open and the vicar hurried out so quickly that he almost collided with her.
“Oh! Miriam. Hello.” His face was pale, but a flush was rising on his neck.
“Who are you – oh.” Over the vicar’s shoulder, Miriam saw a woman stop in the doorway that led from the kitchen to the hall. She certainly wasn’t familiar, and she wore the sort of heeled boots and impractical jacket that suggested she came from Away.
“Hello,” Miriam said, feeling her own cheeks pinken, as if she’d interrupted something terribly private. “I left my cardigan behind.”
“That’s fine, that’s fine.” The vicar couldn’t seem to make eye contact with her. “You’ll lock up when you’re done, yes?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Norman,” the woman hissed, and Miriam was momentarily confused as to who she was talking to. The vicar hunched his shoulders and hurried around the hall, heading for the vicarage. The woman pushed past Miriam in a cloud of expensive scent, the skinny heels of her boots stabbing into the lawn and making her stagger, slowing her pursuit. The vicar threw an alarmed look over his shoulder and broke into a jog. The woman began to sprint on her tiptoes, waving her arms wildly to keep her balance. The vicar vanished around the side of the hall, picking up speed, and the woman shouted, “Dammit, Norman!” as she went over on one ankle. She recovered admirably and raced around the corner after the vicar, and a moment later Miriam heard the clatter of panicked heels on pavement and figured they’d both made it onto the road.
She shook her head, then went slowly into the hall. Each to their own. Whatever the vicar got up to with rich women from out of town was none of her business. She just needed her cardie.
She almost decided not to take the herbal tea to the vicar that evening. He’d been terribly embarrassed, poor man, and the last thing she wanted was him trying to explain or making excuses. She really didn’t mind what he did. But he’d also be even more stressed after all that carry-on, and probably worried that she’d tell the rest of the W.I. what she’d seen. Not that she thought many of them would be bothered by it, but men could be so touchy. And more stress really did look like the last thing the vicar needed. So she decided that she’d go after all, but if he started talking about whoever the woman was, she’d have to make her excuses and leave. Or just run for it. She had plenty of experience offering support and guidance to friends, and to the people she told fortunes for, but a romantically entangled vicar wasn’t something she felt particularly well equipped to handle.
Decision made, she ventured outside armed with secateurs. She was proud of her large, overgrown garden, full of pretty weeds and useful flowers, the grass long enough to brush her ankles as she walked barefoot from one plant to another. She collected a snip of vervain here, a sprig of lavender there, and some chamomile along the way, avoiding the bees and listening to the squabbling of the birds. Normally she loved being out here, in a wilderness of plants, but the day felt unsettled, and she thought it must have been the argument she’d inadvertently interrupted. She wasn’t exactly psychic, but she was Sensitive, as evidenced by the fact that she saw dragons very easily, even before she’d known to expect them. Her palm-reading and tarot card sessions were based more on observation and psychology, true, and she normally found what needed to be said to put people at ease more by empathy than any special powers, but she did feel things sometimes. Some days, like today, seemed cloudy even when the sun was out, and some nights had such bright edges that she couldn’t sleep, and had to sit in the garden instead and wonder at the beauty of it. Not that she told anyone about such things. She was one cat allergy away from being the village’s designated eccentric as it was.
Inside, she washed the herbs, popped them in a muslin bag, then wrote a label with instructions to steep in hot (not boiling) water for five minutes before drinking. It might not solve the vicar’s woman troubles, or even do much for W.I.-induced stress, but it’d smell nice at least, and there was a lot to be said for that.
For the third time that day she set off along the stream, this time in the rapidly deepening twilight of a very nice spring evening. She had a torch with her for the way home, but for now there was enough light to see the rocky little path, and the lights that were on in the houses on the other side of the stream looked homey and inviting. She smiled to herself as she walked – who would have thought that the vicar had such secrets? Or that he was called Norman. She’d never actually thought about him being called anything other than the vicar, and she couldn’t remember if he’d been introduced as anything other than the new vicar when he arrived to replace his predecessor. The previous vicar had been a nice man, too, but Miriam had a sneaking suspicion that the Women’s Institute meetings had proved to be too much for him. Either that, or, as it had been around the time that Jasmine had arrived, he’d been worried that the standards of cake were going to degenerate too much.
She was still musing on what old vicars did, exactly, in their retirement, when she climbed the stile that led over the wall of the churchyard. The evening light was gentle on the old gravestones, lending them soft edges, and the trees kept heavy green watch over everything. The musty scent of stillness and silence followed her past the church to the vicarage, where she rapped on the door politely. There was a light on in the kitchen, and another in the living room, but no one answered.
She knocked again. “Vicar? It’s Miriam. I brought you that tea, if you still want it?”
Still no answer. Maybe he couldn’t hear her properly and thought she was the shouting woman, still chasing him down. She peered in the kitchen window to the side of the door, but it was empty, just a container of leftover cake sitting in the middle of the table. She knocked again, more loudly, then picked her way through the garden to the living room windows. She’d just see if he was inside, then she could leave the tea on the door handle if necessary. For one moment she wondered if she was better off not looking, in case she caught him with the expensive-smelling woman, but he hadn’t looked like he had any intention of being caught by the expensive-smelling woman, let alone with her. So she’d just check that he was okay.
Through the open curtains of the small living room windows she could see that the TV was on, and the vicar’s legs were stretched out from a chair that had its back mostly to her. She leaned over the scraggly bushes in the garden (it needed weeding) and tapped smartly on the window. The vicar didn’t move. Maybe he was asleep? It wasn’t even eight o’clock, though. There was a worm of unease twisting in her belly, and she was aware again of the darkness of what should have been a lovely late spring day. She extricated herself from the garden, mumbling under her breath as a particularly aggressive rose bush plucked at her skirt, and padded along the wall, to where she had a better view of the vicar.
He was sprawled in a stiff, high-backed chair that looked at least a little more comfortable than the lumpy sofa, and for one moment Miriam was sure he was asleep after all, that Gert’s cordial and the excitement of the afternoon had worn him out entirely. Then she saw the mug on its side by the chair, a darker tea stain spreading across the old green carpet and the plate fallen next to it. There was a cupcake wrapper with a morsel of cake left in it sitting sadly on top of a hardcover book that had fallen to the floor with its pages all fanned out, and still Miriam tried to convince herself that he was just deeply asleep. The poor man had had a very exciting day.
But his eyes were open, and he was staring blankly at the ceiling, and try as she might, she couldn’t explain that.
“Oh dear,” she said softly, pressing a hand to her heart as her vision swam with unexpected tears. “Oh, you poor, poor man.”
Murder most foul!
Although, also possibly quite delicious.
I’ll be posting chapter two next week, and giving you to chance to get ARC copies so pop back then or get yourself signed up to the newsletter to be first in for those advance copies of the ebook (plus I’ll be giving away a paperback early next month too!) Or head over to get your pre-order in at Amazon now!
Until then – what’s your favourite treat? What could a poisoner catch you with every time? Mine would probably be chocolate chip cookies. Home made, of course…
Let me know yours below! (I promise not to use this knowledge for nefarious purposes – and, after all, you know mine now… 😉 )