How do I know it’s almost December? Well, not from the Christmas products in the shops, since they’ve been there since October. But because Yule Be Sorry, Beaufort’s Christmas cozy mystery, is out this Friday!
On many grounds, I object strongly to it almost being December. I’m not ready for the end of the year yet. I’m quite certain it was still August the last time I looked at my calendar.
However, December is good for certain things, including but not limited to drinking copious quantities of hot chocolate and spiced apple juice, going to winter markets to buy said beverages, reading Christmassy books, eating too many festive cookies and mince pies (although, what is “too many”? That’s pretty subjective, I’d say), and hiding under cozy blankets while it rains (or, for those of you in places where it does Christmas properly, snows).
I think there’s also something about it being a month for Christmas parties and family gatherings, but I’m an introvert. Those do not recommend a month to me.
And I’m going to help you out with one small part of this festive celebration – Yule Be Sorry is out this Friday, and if you head to Amazon or other ebook retailers you can pre-order it now for just 99p! It’ll appear on your device entirely by magic when it’s released. Or technology, but that doesn’t sound as Christmassy.
You don’t have to have read Baking Bad to enjoy Yule Be Sorry, as they’re both stand-alones, but if you want to start from the beginning, you can grab the fist dragonish cozy mystery over on the books page. And, of course, if you want to start from the very beginning, and see how Beaufort became quite such a modern dragon, you can sign up to the newsletter to get your five free stories!
You can also read chapter two below right now, or if you’re not sure about ordering but fancy trying out a free ARC copy, I’m going to be very spirit-of-the-season and give you this link to go grab it – it expires on Friday, though!
Now – read on to find out how DI Adams ends up, rather to her dismay, back in Toot Hansell… (And if you missed chapter one, check it out on last week’s blog!)
A festive tale of kidnapping, explosions, & stolen turkeys….
One should never meddle in the affairs of dragons, but someone has been doing just that. They’ve been making imitation dragon scale baubles that are nothing short of lethal, and kidnapping delivery drivers all over the Yorkshire Dales. They’ve also been leaving behind some distinctly dragon-ish traces.
Beaufort Scales, High Lord of the Cloverly Dragons, is hot on the trail – or would be, if he wasn’t having certain political problems at home. That leaves Alice and Miriam to track down the real culprits, rescue the hostages, and salvage Mortimer’s bauble reputation, all while misleading the police regarding the of existence of dragons, and hopefully without being blown up by unexpectedly aggressive Christmas decorations in the process. Luckily they have the full resources of the Toot Hansell Women’s Institute at their disposal. They’ll need it.
And then there’s the small question of who stole all the Christmas turkeys…
Dragons, the Women’s Institute, and one very suspicious cat. What could possibly go wrong?
Detective Inspector Adams was glaring at the station coffeepot when Detective Constable James Hamilton appeared in the staffroom door, tall enough to fill it but nowhere near wide enough. She turned her glare from the hapless pot to him.
“Why does no one – no one – fill this thing up when it’s empty? Or at least switch it off? Smells like a car yard fire in here.”
“Well. Yes.” He looked more amused than worried, and she scowled at him.
“‘Oh, just go get a coffee across the road,’ everyone says. I do. I always do, but one day I would like to be able to buy a flat, and if I get all my coffee across the road, that will never happen.”
“That is a problem,” he said agreeably. “I like a nice cup of tea, myself.”
DI Adams snorted, and flicked the kettle on. “It’s not the same. But, fine. Tea it is. Want one?”
“I won’t say no. Two sugars, please.”
She doled sugar into the mugs, then leaned against the counter as they waited for the kettle to boil, rubbing her fingertips through the base of her tightly bound hair. She’d tried straightening it, but nothing took, and short hair was almost as much trouble to maintain, what with having to go for haircuts all the time. So she wrestled it into a bun every morning and put up with the headaches. She’d take it down to a number one again, but that seemed to make people nervous. Plus it was cold up here. She was sure London had never been this cold. And there had always been coffee in the station. Of course, there had also been things under the bridges that she was now reasonably sure she hadn’t imagined. There didn’t seem to be any up here. Bridges, that was. She wasn’t so sure about the rest.
“What’s going on, then, James?” she asked the detective constable.
“Right, yes. I was coming to tell you, actually. You know you said to keep an eye out for anything happening around that village with the funny name? The one where the vicar was murdered last spring? Tool Handle, or something?”
“Toot Hansell?” DI Adams asked, her back stiffening so quickly it was almost a spasm. She winced.
“Yeah, that’s the one.” James looked expectantly at the kettle as it clicked off.
“What about Toot Hansell?”
“It’s nothing huge. Just their postman’s disappeared.” He took half a step forward, and DI Adams stared at him, kettle forgotten.
“Gone. Poof. Done a runner, I guess.” He stretched a hand out toward the kettle, but the DI was in the way, so he dropped it again with a sigh.
“But gone how, James?” she demanded impatiently, trying to keep the unease out of her voice. The postman. That couldn’t have anything to do with the bloody Women’s Institute, could it? Well, not the W.I. exactly. More their rather unusual associates. “Details, please.”
“I don’t have the full details. It’s Skipton’s case at the moment, unless the postman turns up dead or kidnapped. I just know the van’s been found, but not him or the presents.” He looked longingly at the empty mugs. DI Adams ignored him.
“So maybe he just did a runner?” Not an everyday story, but still pretty routine. That was okay. She’d once thought that routine was boring, but that was before Toot Hansell. Before London, for that matter.
“Maybe, but it seems he’d been on the same round for about twenty years, and never missed a day. Pretty old-school.”
The inspector wondered vaguely when turning up for work daily had become old-school, and said, “Anything else?”
“One other thing, which is a little weird. The van was all scorched, like someone had tried to firebomb it, and there were some weird scratch marks on the top. No theories on that yet. Might be that it’s unrelated – DI Adams? Inspector?”
But she was already out the staffroom door and heading for her desk to grab her jacket and her keys. Scratches and firebombing and Toot Hansell. She didn’t like the sound of that. She didn’t like the sound of that at all.
DI Adams hurried into the Skipton police station and leaned over the front desk. The constable behind it stared at her in alarm. “DI Adams? What are— I mean, how can I help you?”
“PC McLeod, isn’t it?” She tried for a reassuring smile, but judging by the look on the young man’s face she didn’t do a very good job of it. It wasn’t like she’d even been that sharp with him last time she was here. Not that she remembered, anyway. “Good to see you again. Who’s in charge of the missing postman case?”
“Um. DI Collins?”
“Any chance I can talk to him?” The famous Skipton DI, off on holiday in Corfu when the vicar had been murdered. He was probably going to be all put out because she’d solved his crime while he was away eating calamari and getting sunburnt.
“I – I suppose so. He just came in.” PC McLeod punched something into the phone, then gave DI Adams an anxious smile. “You can wait over there if you want.”
The inspector looked at the row of plastic chairs and grimaced. She didn’t want to sit down. She shouldn’t even be here. She should be minding her own business. Or going straight to Toot Hansell. To the root of the problem, as it were. If it was a problem. She paced in an irritated circle in front of the desk, waiting. And hoped he wasn’t so put out that he’d leave her here until tea time.
She jumped up, shoving her phone back in her pocket. It hadn’t been that long – long enough to make a point, short enough not to be rude. “DI Collins.”
He gave her a surprisingly genuine smile, a big man with big hands, looking like he spent a lot of time out in the weather. “How can I help?”
“Well. Just wondering about that missing postman.”
“What about him?”
He shrugged. “Still considering the possibility he just did a runner, although it doesn’t seem likely at this point. Techs are going over the van, looking for trace.”
“What about the, uh, fire damage?”
He was still smiling, but his eyes were sharp. “Leeds, you say. What’s your interest?”
“Possible connection to a cold case.” Which was tenuous. Okay, which was a lie, if she was going to be entirely honest with herself. But DI Collins nodded as if the answer satisfied him.
“Not sure yet. Maybe they tried to torch the van to make sure there was no evidence left, but it didn’t take. That’s the working theory for now.”
“Like I say, the techs are looking at it now.”
The inspector found a card in her jacket pocket and handed it to him. “Can you let me know what they find? It’s sort of a personal interest thing. The case isn’t active.”
DI Collins took the card and examined it as if it held the answer to his deepest questions. “So I take it you don’t want it going through the office.”
“You know what it’s like. They’ll say it’s taking me away from my active cases.” She gave him a smile that felt fairly unconvincing.
“No.” Not yet, anyway.
He pocketed the card and clasped his hands in front of him like the world’s biggest schoolboy, waiting to be excused. “You want to give me any clues on this? Because it’s a beggar of a case. We’ve nothing at the moment, not even a tyre print.”
“I don’t even know if it’s related or not. If it is, then of course.” All the bits that aren’t to do with dragons, anyway.
“Hmm.” He examined her thoughtfully. “I guess that’ll have to do, then.”
“Thanks.” She shook hands with him awkwardly then retreated, far too aware that he was watching her go with that same patient gaze. Dammit, it had to be someone who actually knew what he was doing, didn’t it? Couldn’t be some old country boy just going through the motions. Although, if her last experience had been anything to go by, he wouldn’t feel like he knew what he was doing for long once he got involved with Toot Hansell.
She hurried back outside, jingling her car keys impatiently.
The road to Toot Hansell felt familiar, even if she hadn’t driven it since the early days of summer, when the fields had been brilliant green and wildflowers had bloomed along the dry-stone walls that flanked the lanes. Now the greens were mixed with bare earth and frozen mud, and the low light was cold and clear, outlining the fells with a bleak and savage clarity that made her turn the car’s heating up. The sky was high and pale and thin, and she felt as if she were driving across the far reaches of a world that didn’t much care if she survived it or not. It was indifferent. Say what you want about cities, but they’re never indifferent. Angry, yes. Usually, in fact. But this was something else. She had the sudden, irrational fear that she’d get a flat and find out she had no spare, and freeze to death out here before anyone came along. Then an ancient green Land Rover creaked past her in the opposite direction, the driver with a woolly pink hat pulled down over his ears, and DI Adams took a deep breath. She wasn’t in some Siberian wasteland. Honestly, it was less than an hour from Skipton. It wasn’t the end of the world. It just felt like it.
Just as she was wondering if she’d forgotten the way after all, the village unfolded itself under the fells. Some trick of the winter light made it luminous, more in focus than the fields that surrounded it, the grey stone of the houses less dreary and more plucky, bearing up brightly under the winter chill. There had been no snow yet, and the lawns were stubbornly green among the leafless trees and the empty flowerbeds. Lights were on in houses, Christmas trees visible through windows, and the roads were strung with both standard decorations and wreaths that looked like the work of the Women’s Institute. Streams clattered everywhere, catching the doubtful sun and splintering it into glittering shards. Little waterways circled the village and ran through it, burrowing under roads and popping up in gardens, turning it into a place built on water and magic. DI Adams scowled at it all suspiciously and headed for Miriam’s house. If there was trouble, that was where she’d find it.
DI Adams parked outside Miriam’s little cottage and examined it. There were no lights on in the living room except for those of a Christmas tree, but there was smoke coming from the chimney. She’d probably be in the kitchen. She rubbed her face with both hands, a small anxiety uncurling in her stomach. In the summer, Toot Hansell had proved some things to her, such as the fact that what she’d seen in London had been real, not some stress-related glitch in her perception. Also that women of a certain age were horrifyingly determined, and very disinclined to act sensibly. But it was hard, when she was back in Leeds, to reconcile these things with what she saw to be true all around her. It wasn’t like there were gnomes marching through the city streets or unicorns prancing across the midtown rooftops. She knew what had happened had happened, but it was harder to believe the longer she was away.
She thought of DI Collins looking for firebombing postmen, and grimaced. The last thing the dragons needed were more police poking around the place. And anyway, it might have nothing to do with them.
She checked for dead rabbits (it had become somewhat of a habit after her first encounter with Toot Hansell), got out of the car and marched up the path before she could change her mind. Eliminating suspects. That’s all she was doing. Nothing out of the ordinary at all.
Miriam answered the door with a smile on her face, gasped, and slammed it shut. DI Adams blinked at the door. That she hadn’t expected. She should really learn not to expect anything around here. She raised her hand to knock again, and the door opened.
“Detective Inspector,” Miriam said, her cheeks pink and her smile on crooked. “Sorry. You surprised me.”
“Evidently,” DI Adams said, and found herself peering past Miriam, looking for signs of a looted postal van. She dragged her attention back to the woman in front of her. “I hope this isn’t a bad time.”
“Oh! Oh, no. Come in, please.” Miriam pulled the door wide, and the inspector wiped her boots carefully as she came in, smelling candles and wood smoke and baking. “We’re just in the kitchen.”
We. DI Adams braced herself, and followed the older woman down the short, dim hall and into an oasis of golden light and warmth. Alice was sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of tea, and looked entirely unsurprised by the unexpected visitor.
“Good afternoon,” the inspector said, her vision swirling with migraine-like dots and the room feeling far too hot. “Lovely to see you all again.” She looked hard at the spot on the floor that made her eyes water, and a headache-y, vertigo-ish feeling washed over her. It lingered for a moment, then retreated as the corner resolved itself into the large rug in front of the AGA, and the two dragons sitting on it. Beaufort was grinning enormously, an oversized mug of tea in his paws, and Mortimer had a mince pie halfway to his mouth. He looked less than enthralled. The room settled around her, the migraine spots retreating, and DI Adams’ shoulders sagged in relief. She realised that she had almost thought she’d imagined the dragons, that there was something Not Right with her. They also looked friendlier than how she’d started to remember them. They didn’t look like they’d go around attacking postmen, but she had to admit that she was somewhat of a novice when it came to dragons.
“Good afternoon, Detective Inspector,” Alice said. “Can we offer you a mince pie?” She was watching DI Adams curiously, and the inspector was suddenly certain that the older woman could tell she was wearing her most ancient bra, the one that had gone a funny grey in the wash and which didn’t match her knickers at all.
She smoothed her hair and pulled a chair out, reminding herself that she was the officer of the law here. “That’d be lovely.”
“And tea!” Miriam had been standing awkwardly by the door, and now she lunged toward the counter, suddenly animated. “Tea, yes?”
“Ah, yes, please.” DI Adams watched, bemused, as Miriam dropped the tea pot in the sink, squeaking at a small tidal wave of sudsy water, and searched for a reasonably intact mug. Alice got up to find a plate, and served up a mince pie next to a neatly folded paper napkin, with a tarnished fork on the side.
“Cream?” Alice offered, as Miriam over-filled the kettle and almost dropped it on her own foot.
“No thanks – is she okay?”
“Figures of authority make her nervous. You must remember from last time.”
“Well, yes, but last time she was a suspect. She’s not a suspect now.”
Miriam managed to get the kettle on top of the AGA, but not before she trod on Mortimer’s tail, eliciting an outraged yelp.
“I don’t think it matters. Even I make her nervous. Can you imagine?”
DI Adams met Alice’s amused gaze, and thought, yes, actually. And also thought that Alice knew it perfectly well. Aloud, she said, “So, Beaufort, Mortimer. How are things?”
Beaufort tucked his tail safely out of danger and gave that alarmingly toothy smile. “Marvellous, Detective Inspector. Yourself?”
“Not bad, not bad at all. Tell me, what’ve you been up to recently?”
The dragons stared at her, Mortimer’s eyebrow ridges pulled up in an anxious line. “Why?” Beaufort asked. “What’s happened?”
DI Adams sighed. She’d never been good at the whole casual, just-making-conversation thing. She’d never been good at conversation, full stop. It just seemed like an awful lot of wasted effort. “Any trouble? Any issues?”
“What sort of issues?”
Between Beaufort’s fierce golden gaze and Alice watching with her fingers steepled under her chin, DI Adams was starting to feel like she was the one under interrogation. Not that this was an interrogation. No. She wasn’t even on duty. Well, not in this jurisdiction, anyway.
She sighed. “Postmen. Well, postman. And missing post.”
“Our postman?” Alice demanded. “I waited in all morning for him! Our Christmas boxes should have been arriving today.”
“Christmas boxes!” Miriam hefted the kettle off the AGA, aiming it vaguely in the direction of the teapot on the table. The DI regarded the wandering spout in alarm, then grabbed Miriam’s arm.
“Milk!” Miriam dropped the kettle on the table and rushed to the fridge. Alice picked the milk jug up from next to the mince pies and added some to the DI’s mug.
“Even the meter reader makes her nervous. Misspent youth, I imagine,” Alice replied, and filled the teapot. “Miriam, come sit down, dear.”
“Should I make sandwiches?”
“It’s 3 p.m. We don’t need sandwiches.”
“Right.” Miriam sat down and examined her own mug with interest.
“The Christmas boxes are for our charity dinner,” Alice said. “The dinner is a fundraiser itself, but we also ask people to donate little items to the boxes, books and toys and so on. They can either bring them to the dinner, or we have some for sale. Then the boxes are collected and go out to children who might not get a Christmas otherwise.”
“Right,” the DI said. She remembered her mum doing something similar at one stage. Although they might have been being sent overseas. She just knew that she’d had to grudgingly give up her favourite book to someone less fortunate, and therefore hadn’t thought it was a great Christmas. “So there were presents in the post, too?”
“Only the boxes, as far as I know. I have some book and toy orders coming next week.”
“Anyone else know you had these orders in?”
“The W.I., yes. But these are children’s books and toys. Nothing expensive. Why would anyone steal them?”
“And why have you come to see us?” Beaufort asked quietly. “I rather feel that this isn’t entirely a social call, although we’re very happy to see you, of course.”
There was a silence in the kitchen, full of the soft purr of the fridge and the tickings of the AGA, and the DI reached for the teapot to give herself a moment to think. What on earth was she doing? She was away from work without any sort of authorisation, treading on another department’s toes for the sake of something that might not even be a case. And she was talking to dragons about it. Not only that, she was kinda-sorta suggesting to said dragons that they’d been kidnapping postmen and stealing the Christmas mail. Assuming she really wasn’t imagining dragons, which she didn’t seem to be, this was possibly a little silly. She could get herself singed for her troubles. Or eaten. They weren’t big dragons, but they did have plenty of teeth. And she couldn’t quite forget how terrified the cupcake murderer had been when he’d turned himself in. Well, been convinced by certain meddlesome members of the W.I. to turn himself in. His only concern had been that the cells were dragon-proof, which had the whole station laughing at him. Except the DI, of course. She poured tea into her mug and picked it up, wrapping both hands around it despite the heat. It had a worn Peter Rabbit design on it.
“Whoever took the postman,” she said, looking straight at Beaufort, “left some rather dragon-y traces behind. Which isn’t to say it was dragons, but, well.”
The silence came back, heavier and louder.
Beaufort nodded thoughtfully, then said, “Well. We can’t be having that.”
“No, no, no,” DI Adams said. “This was not a suggestion that you should go off investigating. I’m the detective here.” How did she even need to point that out? Again?
“Well, if it’s dragons,” Beaufort said, “I rather think that this is our territory.”
“I’m not saying it was dragons. It was probably just someone doing a terrible job at burning the evidence.” She paused, then added curiously, “Do you actually breathe fire?”
Beaufort puffed his cheeks out and spat a little fireball into the centre of the kitchen. It floated for a moment, then drifted to the floor, where Mortimer swiped it hastily off the rug and patted it out on the stone flags.
“Okay. So, yes, it could have been a dragon. But I’m not saying it was.”
“Well, it wasn’t a Cloverly dragon,” Beaufort said. “No one would do that.”
“I just wanted to make sure you didn’t know anything about it,” the DI said. “I’m sure it’s going to turn out to be kids or something.”
“They tried to burn the van?” Alice asked.
“Yes. It didn’t take, but it was pretty scorched, apparently.”
“And straight away you thought of us?” Beaufort asked, looking offended.
“Well, no, not exactly. But it was a factor.”
“And the other factors?” Alice was sitting very straight, and looked alarmingly disapproving.
“I think I’ve shared enough for now.”
“I think if you’re suspecting dragons you should tell us why,” Alice said sharply. “Six months ago you didn’t even know they existed.”
The DI pinched the bridge of her nose and swallowed a sigh.
“Are you alright?” Miriam asked. “Do you want a sandwich? I knew I should have made sandwiches.”
“No. No,” she managed more calmly. “I’m fine. I’m not hungry.”
“Are you sure?” Beaufort asked. “You seem quite small, even for a human. I can get you a rabbit.”
“I don’t want a rabbit.” She clutched the table with both hands and tried to remember what, exactly, she’d thought she was going to find here. It certainly hadn’t been straight answers. She should have remembered that there were never straight answers in Toot Hansell.
“What sort of person doesn’t want a rabbit?” Beaufort whispered to Mortimer, rather loudly.
Mortimer shushed him, and said, “How can we help, Inspector? Can we help?”
She stared at him and wondered why the only creature acting reasonably in here had scales and wings. “No. Well, yes, actually. You can stay out of the human side of things, and let me know about anything from your end. I’m sure it’s nothing to do with you, but just … if you hear anything.” Let me know and I’ll go arrest some dragons? She took a hurried gulp of tea to smother a laugh that was trying to make its way out. This place was not good for her.
“It won’t be a Cloverly dragon,” Beaufort said again.
Mortimer looked doubtful, and said, “We’ll see what we can find out.”
“Thank you. That’d be great.” The inspector looked at her half-finished tea, and decided she’d had as much of the W.I. and dragons as she could manage in one sitting. “You still have my card?”
“We do,” Alice said. She sounded unimpressed. “Am I to take it our boxes are missing, then?”
“I’d say so, yes.”
“Most unfortunate. I’ll have to order more.” She stood and extended a hand across the table. “Are you sure we can’t do more, Detective Inspector? We can’t have the dragons being implicated.”
Beaufort gave a snort that threatened to scorch the tablecloth. “A dragon will not be responsible for this. What would we do with a postman?”
The DI looked at the few crumbs of mince pie left on her plate and said, “What do you eat, exactly?”
There was a sudden, shocked silence, broken by Miriam taking a nervous slurp of tea and promptly choking on it. Alice patted her on the back, and the dragons stared at the inspector in horror.
“You’re not suggesting—” Mortimer began, then was cut off by Beaufort.
“That is preposterous,” the High Lord spluttered. “Eating people? Even in my younger days we didn’t eat people. I know some clans carried on like that in the Middle Ages, but, honestly. What do you take us for? Savages?”
“Dragons,” the DI said. “Which is a little outside my area of expertise.”
Beaufort gave DI Adams a look that reminded her of her mother. “Inspector, I am disappointed in you.”
“That’s not fair! I’ve never met dragons before.”
“All the more reason to do your research.”
She rubbed her face. There was a headache cranking up behind one eye. “I watched Game of Thrones. Does that count?”
“Oh, no, no,” Alice said hurriedly. “No, that’s very fictional. Very.”
“Game of Thrones? Is that on the television?” Beaufort pronounced the last word with care, and possibly an extra syllable.
“You have TV?”
“We’ve been watching a few shows here,” Miriam said, her face red. “Midsomer Murders and Poirot, mostly.”
“Oh, fantastic,” the DI muttered.
“It’s very clever,” the old dragon said. “We’ve been learning a lot.”
The inspector wondered if she had any painkillers in the car. “Wonderful. That’s just wonderful.”
“We eat rabbits, mostly,” Mortimer said quietly, apparently the only one paying attention.
“We learnt a long time ago that livestock are missed,” Beaufort said. “And even if we actually liked the idea of eating something that talked to us, humans apparently don’t taste particularly nice. A bit stringy and dirty was what I was told, but that was a long time ago. Before running water and indoor plumbing, certainly.”
“Well,” DI Adams said. “That’s good to know.” She pushed her chair back and got up. “I’m going now. But you’ll stay out of the human stuff, right?”
“It’s just dragons you’re interested in?”
“Just dragons, Beaufort.”
He sighed. “Fine.”
DI Adams turned to go, and paused at the kitchen door. “When you say just dragons – you mean just dragons and not humans, right?”
Beaufort exposed his teeth in that alarming grin. “Not humans. Or gnomes, or dwarfs, or gargoyles, among others.”
The DI stared at him for a long moment before she said, “Vampires?”
“Don’t be silly. Vampires don’t exist.”
“Oh.” She relaxed a little. “So, no werewolves, then, either.”
“Plenty of those. Some of them are quite good sorts.”
Her headache was actually quite bad now.
Poor DI Adams. She really needs to start carrying paracetamol on her…
Tell me, lovely people – what’s your favourite thing about this time of year? What gives you headaches? Let me know below!
And don’t forget to grab your copy of Yule Be Sorry on pre-order before the price goes up!
Plus, don’t forget to sign up for the newsletter if you haven’t already! As well as the opportunity to get free ARCs when new books come out, in December I’ll be giving away a paperback copy of Yule Be Sorry!