Hello lovely people! Welcome back to the second instalment of Baking Bad, our current cozy mystery with dragons! If you missed the first chapter, head over and read it here now.
And if you’ve enjoyed these excerpts, I’m giving you a chance to grab an ARC copy of the book! You can use this link here to grab it free, but only for the rest of this week. So go ahead and get your copy now!
Otherwise, if you fancy supporting more dragons, you can pre-order your ebook from Amazon now! It’ll be delivered straight to your device on the 2nd, so grab yours now!
And now, let’s get to it – the body has been discovered, and the investigation is about to commence. DI Adams doesn’t know quite what she’s let herself in for…
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.
Detective Inspector Adams (whose mother called her Jeanette, although very few other people did) was not happy. There were several reasons for her not being happy, including but not limited to the fact that although she’d moved to Leeds from London, her mother was still trying to set her up with a nice young(ish) man who lived just down the street from her childhood home; and the fact that it was uncomfortably hot in the kitchen of the village hall but she was still wearing a suit jacket that she didn’t want to take off, because that seemed terribly casual. And this particular crime scene was already far too casual, which was the main reason she was not happy at this very moment.
“James,” she said sharply to the tall detective constable who had driven up from Leeds with her, “who are all these people? Why do they keep coming in?”
He shrugged, shuffling his feet without looking at her. He’d taken his jacket off and looked considerably cooler than she felt. “I’m not sure. They seem to be local.”
“It’s a crime scene.”
“Well, not technically. I mean, the actual crime scene is at the vicarage …” He trailed off as she glared at him, palming a thin sheen of sweat off her forehead.
“Why is there food?”
“It’s traditional,” a new voice said, and DI Adams turned to find herself face to face with a slim older woman bearing a large plate of mini quiches, garnished with cherry tomatoes and sprigs of thyme. “I guess it’s really to feed the family in their time of grief, but in this case, well. It’s just what we do.”
“And it’s quite lovely of you,” the dean said, accepting the quiches eagerly. As the person responsible for overseeing the various parishes in the rural deanery, he’d arrived not long after the detective inspector, and other than making tea for everyone he’d done nothing but get in the way, as far as she was concerned. The local police must have called him at the same time they’d asked Leeds for reinforcements, which had been mid-morning of the day after the murder, so God alone knew what evidence had gone missing already. The Skipton lead DI was on holiday in Cyprus, which apparently meant that there was no one in the area who had the experience to carry out a murder investigation. “Spring’s a quiet time up here,” the local sergeant had told DI Adams when she arrived. “Too much work for most folks to do for much murder or the like.” DI Adams had volunteered immediately when the detective chief inspector in Leeds had announced the case, eager to get to grips with her first murder as lead investigator. Technically she wasn’t in charge, of course, not in a murder case, but the DCI had made it clear that he expected it’d be some sort of misadventure rather than homicide, and as she was a big shot cop from down south he was certain she could handle it. She’d managed not to put a fake Cockney accent on and say “awright, guv” or something equally in keeping, and had instead grimaced, nodded, and said that she was sure she’d have it tied up in no time.
She’d been here half an hour and was already wondering if she might have made a bit of a miscalculation. As well as the steady stream of women bearing baking trays and cake tins and Tupperware containers in and out of the hall kitchen, there were three dogs barrelling around the hall itself, a cat had just come in the kitchen window and stolen a piece of fish pie, setting both the dogs and a couple of women shouting, and the woman who’d discovered the body was being plied for details by more civilians than officers, who were mostly standing around drinking tea and eating biscuits.
“Isn’t it lovely of the ladies?” the dean asked, and DI Adams dragged her attention back to him. He looked like he had enjoyed quite a lot of lovely dishes over the years.
“I’m quite sure it is, sir, but there really are far too many people in and out of here. We already know that the victim spent his last morning here, and it really shouldn’t have been turned into a bloody cafe like this. Sorry,” she added, not quite sure if “bloody” was the sort of thing a dean of the church might take offence to.
“Victim,” someone said, and burst into tears.
“Now, now, Jasmine,” the mini-quiche lady said, relieving the crying woman of a Pyrex dish of – something. DI Adams wasn’t at all sure what it was, only that it was blackened on top and appeared to be bleeding underneath. The mini-quiche lady handed the dish to the DI, whispered, “Throw that one out. She’s a lovely girl, but it’s not worth getting salmonella over,” and led the still-sobbing Jasmine into the hall.
DI Adams stared at the plate in horror, then shoved it at one of the local constables. “Get rid of that, would you?”
He looked offended. “That’s my wife’s, that is.”
“Jesus Chr— sorry, Dean. Look, just put the damn – sorry – put the bloody dish in the fridge or something out of the way, and clear this room, would you? I want everyone out of here. Now!”
DI Adams remembered that her mother used to say that trying to get her and her two brothers organised was like herding cats. In her mind, it was a silly expression, but she was starting to see the meaning of it. For every two women who were ushered out of the kitchen, another two or three popped in, all brightly inquisitive between the condolences they offered the dean. There were an awful lot of pearls and cardigans going on, and respectable floral skirts with sensible shoes, and the mean age of the Women’s Institute seemed to be well north of fifty. Which you would think would suggest reasonable behaviour, but instead seemed to make them even less manageable.
The local uniformed officers, two constables and the sergeant who’d offered the snippet of wisdom regarding murder in the spring, were milling around a little helplessly, saying things like, “That’s a wonderful-looking shepherd’s pie, Miss Robinson, but would you mind just waiting in the main hall? Oh, yes, of course, pop it in the fridge first if you want,” and “Oh, Mrs Hart! Is that your famous spiked bread and butter pudding? Wait, let me get you a cuppa.” Her DC, James, was trying to be a little more forceful, but the women kept patting his arm (and in one case his bottom) and walking right past him, and he was starting to look slightly panicked. Meanwhile, the dean was floating about, graciously accepting all these offerings of food like some hostess at a Tupperware party. The DI took a deep breath and massaged her temples with one hand. She wasn’t going to start shouting. She was the DI in charge, the lead investigator, a woman who commanded respect. She did not shout. Her mum shouted. She was not her mother.
Ten minutes later she was thinking that she was just going to have to abandon her principles and start shouting anyway. The steady tide of people in and out of the kitchen had barely reduced at all, and somehow the local officers had been roped into making tea and stacking plates and organising the fridge. Then mini-quiche lady walked in, silencing James with a glare that made DI Adams straighten up quickly enough to set off a twinge in her back.
“Detective Inspector?” the woman said, and extended a slim hand, devoid of rings or decoration. “Alice Martin. Chair of the local Women’s Institute.”
“DI Adams,” she said, trying to match the older woman’s perfect posture, and feeling suddenly dishevelled in her too-hot jacket. Alice’s grip was firm and calloused.
“What do you need?” Alice asked.
The chair of the W.I. made an impatient gesture. “Everyone out? Everyone in the hall? This softly-softly approach you have your men using will have absolutely no effect, you know.”
The DI felt her cheeks heat up. It was like being addressed by her grandmother, if her grandmother had been small and white and about twenty years younger. “I can see that.”
“So, tell me what you need. Always use local influence, Detective Inspector. It gets you a lot further.”
DI Adams frowned. “These officers are local.”
Alice made a sound that would have been a snort, if someone quite so elegantly turned out would do such a thing. “They’re young men, all of them. What do you think they can do with women who remind them of their mothers? Or are their mothers, in some cases,” she added, nodding at a woman with startling red-dyed hair, who was straightening the collar of one of the uniformed officers. He’d gone very pink.
“Well, what do you suggest, then?” DI Adams asked, more sharply that she’d intended. This was all she needed, some busybody trying to tell her how to do her job. And young men? The local sergeant looked at least ten years older than she was.
“May I?” Alice asked, and the detective inspector sighed, then waved her on. Why not. It certainly couldn’t make things worse. “Thank you.” Alice clapped her hands together three times, a hard, brisk sound that cut above the babble in the kitchen, and all eyes turned to the trim woman in her teal green cardigan. “Everyone out of the kitchen,” Alice said, her voice calm, and DI Adams had to stop herself following the women who had been milling around the counters as they exchanged glances then wandered out.
“Not you,” the inspector called, not bothering to hide the exasperation in her voice as the two constables made to leave as well. They stopped, looking embarrassed, but she ignored them and turned to Alice instead. “Can you get them all to quiet down in there?”
“Of course,” Alice said, and smiled.
DI Adams watched her go through the door to the hall, and a moment later the excited babble that had been roaring around the big room dropped to a murmur, then a hush.
“We’re ready for you, Detective Inspector,” Alice called, and the DI looked at the local officers and the dean, lined up against the counter as if waiting for inspection, all looking slightly nervous.
“Right,” she said. “Local influence.” Then she straightened her jacket and went into the hall.
Ten pairs of eyes followed her as she walked to stand in front of the little stage. It was at the same end of the hall as the kitchen, and there was a door marked “backstage” to one side of it, and one marked “toilets” to the other. The DI was faintly surprised to find that there weren’t more people sat in the folding chairs, most of them still gripping cups of tea and all looking distinctly worried. It had sounded like a lot more.
“Is this everyone?” she asked Alice.
“Yes. Everyone who was at the meeting with the vicar yesterday, too, if that helps.”
It did, actually, but that was none of Alice’s business, so DI Adams just nodded and glanced at the dean, hovering nervously in the doorway to the kitchen. He had his jacket off and chocolate icing on his shirt. James stood just inside the main door, arms folded, trying to look authoritative. The local officers, huddled together behind the two neat rows of chairs, weren’t even trying.
“Ladies and – ladies,” the DI said, noting a distinct dearth of testosterone in the civilian audience. “Thank you for your very generous donations to the, ah, dean. I’m sure he appreciates you coming here to pay your respects. And since you are here, I’d like to impose on your time a little more. It would be very helpful to me, even if you have spoken to the officers earlier, if you would permit me to ask you a few questions and get some details from each of you before you go.”
An uneasy shiver went through the room, a few whispered remarks, then it was silent again, except for a small fluffy dog whining on the lap of the bleeding lasagne woman. Jasmine, Alice had called her. The DI thought the dog might be a Pomeranian. One of those things that yap a lot and tend to get festooned with bows, anyway.
“Please let me make two things clear,” she continued. “No one is under suspicion here. However, this is an active investigation. The cause of death is yet to be determined, but at this point we are treating it as suspicious.”
Jasmine started to cry, and the dog wriggled and whined in her lap, trying to lick her face. The witness, Miriam Ellis, was sat next to her, and tried to put an arm around the younger woman. The dog snapped at her, making her jerk backward. Jasmine cried harder, squeezing the dog until it yelped. DI Adams cleared her throat, aware of Alice watching her impassively and suddenly feeling like she was in an exam room at school again.
“Ah, yes. I – I can see that this is terribly upsetting, of course, and I don’t mean to make it difficult for anyone, but, ah—” Between the dog and the crying, the detective inspector was having to raise her voice, and was coming far too close to shouting for her comfort. She gave the dean a pleading look, thinking that this must fall under pastoral care, but he retreated into the kitchen. Crying was apparently not his thing. Not that it was DI Adams’ thing, either. She rubbed her eyes. She seemed to be having some trouble focusing, particularly on the second row of chairs.
“Right, so I do need to talk to you all individually, if not now, then later. Let me stress again that no one is being accused of anything—”
Jasmine broke into a wail of horror, and the dog started barking hysterically. Miriam tried to intervene again, but the dog snapped at her so wildly that she jumped back, sending her chair pitching over backward. She sprawled to the floor with a yelp of alarm and a swirl of glittery, pale green skirts, catching her neighbour’s arm. Her neighbour, a slight woman with long dark hair, flailed for a moment then went down as well, and the dog tore free of Jasmine and leapt on top of them as tea cups and plates and fragments of cake spun across the floor. The other two dogs in the hall burst into a chorus of sympathetic barking, and a babble of cries broke out, varying from “shut up, you lot!” to “oh, the poor vicar!” One of the dogs was a Great Dane, and it dragged its alarmingly small owner down the aisle as she bellowed at it to sit, the pair of them sending empty chairs spinning to the floor in their wake. A large woman with a fading tattoo of a mermaid on one arm jumped up and scooped Jasmine’s dog into her arms before dropping it again with a howl of outrage.
“It bit me! Little mutt—”
“Primrose!” Jasmine wailed, and her husband started forward from his post then stopped, looking anxiously at the DI.
“It’s something that starts with P, alright,” Miriam said, sitting up. “You alright, Gert?”
The tattooed woman waved a bleeding finger. “It bit me!”
DI Adams pinched the bridge of her nose and pointed at Jasmine’s husband, still hovering at the back of the hall as if afraid to come any closer. She didn’t blame him. “Get the damn dog, would you? And someone get a first aid kit.”
“May I suggest more tea?” Alice said, appearing next to DI Adams and making her jump. “You can get your men to stand by, make sure no one leaves without giving you their details. Although I can also supply addresses and phone numbers, if it comes to that.”
“Tea?” the DI said. She was starting to feel like she’d stepped into some alternate universe. This should have been easy. Interview a few ladies of a certain age, collect some details, back to Leeds to follow up. Not this. Whatever this was. She allowed herself a moment to wonder if the DCI had known.
“Tea,” Alice agreed. “It gives everyone something to do, and I find people are much less panicky with a nice cup of tea on hand.”
DI Adams stared at the older woman for a moment, mystified, then nodded. The chair of the W.I. seemed to have a knack for these things, so she’d just go with it. “Dean,” she called, and he peeked cautiously around the kitchen door. “Get some tea on, please. And James?” He was examining Gert’s injured hand while one of the local officers pulled on the gloves from the first aid kit. Jasmine’s husband had chased the dog into a corner and was brandishing a leash at it. It was growling.
“Detective Inspector?” the detective constable said, straightening up.
“Make sure you get everyone’s details before they leave. I’d rather no one left before I talk to them, but let’s not be too harsh about it. Everyone’s a bit upset.” Including her. Well, upset wasn’t the right word. Discombobulated. That was the one. She was discombobulated.
“Got it.” James went back to the main door, looking relieved to get away from the blood.
“God damn it, Primrose!” Jasmine’s husband bellowed, and went sprinting out the door after the dog, waving the leash like a lasso as James jumped out of the way. The Great Dane gave an enormous woof of delight and lunged after the Pomeranian, sending his mistress to the floor and dragging her halfway across the hall before she let go. The other dog, a Labrador, ignored them entirely. It was using the distraction to hoover up the contents of any abandoned plates.
DI Adams took a deep breath, and wished she had time to count to ten. Even five. “You,” she said to the officer with the first aid kit. “Leave that. And you, Sergeant. Catch those bloody dogs!”
They left the hall at a jog, and she looked at Alice again. “Is it always like this?”
“Sometimes it’s worse,” Alice said.
“Oh, I’m not sure even He can sort this lot out,” Alice replied, and picked up the abandoned first aid kit. “Come here, Gert. Let’s get this done properly.”
The DI sat on the edge of the stage and rubbed her eyes again. They seemed to be okay now, which was good. She’d been worried she was getting a migraine. She looked at the women, all talking to each other and gesticulating rather excitedly, and wondered if transferring up here from London was going to be quite the low-stress choice she had imagined.
Poor DI Adams. She thought the Toot Hansell Women’s Institute would be easy.
Baking Bad comes out on Friday, so get in quick if you want one of those ARC copies before they’re gone!
Now tell me, lovely people – have you ever been a member of a club or society (not necessarily the W.I.)? What was it, and what were your favourite things about it? Let me know below!
Personally, I find most things like that too social. Even the thought of a book club fills me with horror… 😉