What are your feelings on spa weekends, lovely people? I have to admit I’ve never actually tried one, since (as has been mentioned earlier), I’m not very good at a) “usual” methods of self-care, and b) people. But I think I’d be a lot more tempted if there were dragons involved.
Actually, I think many things in life would be improved by the inclusion of dragons, although it is true that this particular instance may have made the weekend somewhat less than relaxing for all involved…
That being said, I’m so excited to bring you chapter one of A Manor of Life & Death – Beaufort’s third dragonish cozy mystery! I had the most enormous fun playing with the classic cozy country house set-up, then throwing in dragons, mysterious things in the walls, and scene-stealing dogs (among others), and I hope so much that you enjoy it!
It’s up for pre-order now from your favourite ebook outlets, or if you haven’t read any Beaufort Scales before, jump across to the Books page for the buy links to his first two cozy mysteries. Plus, don’t forget to get yourself signed up for the newsletter to grab five free Beaufort short stories!
And now – read on!
Topiary of dubious intent.
Throw in the full complement of the Toot Hansell Women’s Institute and dragons doing yoga on the terrace, and DI Adams is starting to wonder if she might have made a small misjudgement signing up for this particular spa weekend in the country.
And that’s before the dead body in the sauna and the storm that cuts them off from the rest of the world.
Now she’s dealing with a houseful of guests (and staff) who’re looking more suspicious by the moment, fending off protesters wielding table condiments, and trying to keep everyone safe as the storm closes in. She needs to find the killer, keep the dragons hidden, stop the W.I. forming some sort of pearl-and-twinset posse, and try to resist the urge to arrest everyone.
And never mind the invisible dog.
DI Adams turned the car off but didn’t move to get out. She just sat there in the slightly worn embrace of the seat, staring at the front of the house and considering just starting the engine, backing out of the parking space, and driving away again.
The house stared back. It was one of those big, rambling places that had probably started life as a Georgian estate, maybe the seat of some minor lord, then the Victorians had come along and added some spires and steeples and (almost certainly) a folly somewhere in the grounds. The gravel drive swept into a broad turning circle in front of the doors, a reluctant fountain as its focal point, and ivy roamed up the walls. Woods crowded the drive behind her, and, other than the crumbling outbuildings to the right of the manor, the only house she’d seen since leaving the main road had been a decrepit stone hut by the wooden bridge that crossed the river. It was the sort of place where, not a terribly long time ago, people with her skin colour would have been lucky to be allowed out of the servants’ area to do the cleaning.
Which wasn’t what bothered her. What bothered her was the sneaking suspicion that she’d come here for a weekend away with the very people who made her need a weekend away. She sighed, grabbed her bag off the passenger seat and climbed out, the slamming of the car door echoing against the front of the house and scaring a small, chubby bird out of the fountain. She refused to feel jealous of it as it fled into the trees.
“Oh, well done,” someone said.
“Excuse me?” She stared as a man stood up from among the cars parked by the fountain.
“You scared it.”
“The bird.” The man shook his head sorrowfully, and two more men unfolded themselves from the cover of the cars.
DI Adams stared at them, mystified. One had a notebook that he was scribbling in furiously, and another was staring after the bird and clutching a camera that looked both very expensive and very heavy, judging from the way the long lens dipped toward the ground every time his attention wandered. The man who had spoken to her was festooned with various bits of electronic equipment, and they were all wearing the sort of multipocketed camouflage gear that wildlife photographers and safari guides favoured.
She didn’t know much about birds, but the one on the fountain had seemed a little dull and chubby. It hardly seemed to warrant much interest, unlike the peacock which was currently rushing toward them across the drive, doing his best to be noticed.
“Bu-kurk?” the bird said hopefully, displaying his tail feathers.
“Ugh,” the one with the notebook said.
“I’m sure she’ll come back,” DI Adams said, feeling slightly guilty. Although a driveway was hardly the ideal place for birdwatching.
“He,” the man with the camera said, boinking the lens off the bonnet of a car as he corrected her. “Male water rail. And they’re pretty timid.”
“Mind the camera, Keith,” notebook man said. “Steph’ll kill me if we damage that lens.”
“It’s heavy,” Keith complained. “I can’t believe you forgot the tripod.”
“I didn’t forget it. I told you, I had it in the room.”
“Well, he’s gone anyway,” electronics man said, and glared at DI Adams.
“Sorry,” she said. “But you know there’s a really nice peacock behind you, right?”
“Peacocks are not the birds we’re looking for,” electronics man said. “Nothing but plump guinea fowl on steroids, them.”
“Is it afternoon tea yet?” notebook man asked.
“Ooh, afternoon tea,” Keith said, and the trio gathered themselves up and crunched away across the gravel without another word to DI Adams. She watched them go, and after a moment the chubby bird flew back and started pecking its way around the fountain again.
“Bu-kurk,” the peacock said to her.
“I know,” she told it.
She stomped up the curving steps to the big main doors. They were coated in purple paint that was cracking to show the old green beneath, and the knocker was a frozen lump of purple-splattered rusted metal that might once have been a lion (although that was just an educated guess based on the fact that it seemed to have ears). There was a small and incongruously modern handle on one of the double doors, so she turned that and let herself in.
She’d expected to have to take a moment for her eyes to adjust to old-house dimness inside, but instead she stepped into an entry hall awash in light spilling from the tall windows to either side of the door, and pouring down from a domed skylight high above. The skylight had been painted in swirling purples and greens (along with oversized, panicked-looking goldfish), giving the hall aquarium-ish tones. She blinked at the fish, wondering if the same artist was responsible for the awful paint job on the doors, and pulled the door closed.
The house rested deep in silence around her, the tiles of the entry hall purple and white checks that gave to a sweeping staircase at the back of the hall. There was a single unmarked door directly ahead of her, and open arches to either side. The one to the left showed glimpses of the sort of deep, cracked leather sofas and dark red furnishings that made her think of old cigar smoke and crystal tumblers and casual prejudice, while the one to the right was a study in white and stainless steel and pale wood. It looked like a dining room in some minimalist eatery, and the cushions on the chairs were dark purple. She was starting to wonder if there had been a bulk deal on the colour somewhere.
“Hello?” she called. “Anyone about?”
There was movement in the lounge room, and she arranged a smile on her face. A moment later a walking carpet entered the hall, looked at her (she assumed, as its eyes were invisible under a mass of dirty dreadlocks), then wandered into the dining room and vanished. It left a scent of wet dog behind it so strong it made her eyes water.
She waited a little longer, but no one else appeared, and the only sounds were the old whispers of the house. She was just about to investigate the lounge when there was an explosion of shouting from the dining room. She turned, startled, and watched the carpet dog lope between the tables with an enormous joint of meat in its mouth, knocking a couple of the sleek dining chairs flying as it came. A man bounded after it, waving a rather large knife and screaming something unintelligible. He tripped over one of the fallen chairs, crashed to the floor, bounced off a table hard enough to knock over three glasses, and sat up just in time for one to roll off and hit him on the knee. He waved the knife after the dog, cursing inventively. The dog passed DI Adams and swerved up the stairs, and she could have sworn that it was emanating a smug sort of amusement along with the smell.
“Are you alright?” she asked the man on the floor.
“No,” he snapped, rubbing his knee as he got up, then kicking the chair. It spun sideways, hit the table, and rebounded into his shin, making him yelp. “Does it look like I’m okay? That bloody dog just stole dinner!”
He glared at her. “Unfortunate? Unfortunate? That was hand-raised organic lamb, basted in a rosemary-caramelised-balsamic marinade and slow-cooked for 48 hours. And the dog stole it.”
“I see.” DI Adams wondered what, exactly, the chef had been going to do if he caught the dog. It wasn’t like he could still have served his organic, marinated, slow-cooked, dog-slobbered lamb. She hoped.
The chef waved his knife at her. “You’re the ones who miss out! You’re the ones who’ll be asking, oh, where’s my dinner, Mister Chef? Why’s there no meat? Why’s it just frozen bloody peas and brioche toast?” He turned and walked away, still muttering. “Where’s my dessert? Where’s my lamb? Where’s my bloody amuse-bouche, they ask. But do they do anything about the damn wildlife? Do they heck.”
DI Adams watched him go, wondering what the relevance of the brioche toast was. She shifted her grip on the bag, undecided as to where to go, then the door under the stairs popped open and a young man with thinning red hair stared at her as if astonished to find someone in the hall.
“Hello,” he said in round, rich tones that suited the lounge room perfectly. “I thought I heard Keeley.”
“The chef?” DI Adams asked.
“Sous-chef,” he said, putting rather a lot of emphasis on the first part.
“Right. He was just here.”
“Honestly, he’s always making such a fuss about things. What was it this time?”
“The dog stole the lamb,” DI Adams said. “Can I check in?”
“We don’t have a dog,” the red-haired man said, frowning at her as if he suspected her of sneaking the dog in herself. “My brother’s scared of them.”
DI Adams scowled back, and hers was rather more practised and effective. “I’d like to check in, please.”
The man drew back as if he wanted to retreat behind the door. “Yes. Quite. I just— Keeley!” he bellowed, and DI Adams rubbed her forehead reflexively.
“Adams,” she said. “I’ve got a reservation.”
“Right, um— Kee-LEY!”
“Reid, honestly,” a new voice said from behind the man. “What on earth are you shouting about?”
“This woman says a dog’s stolen the lamb.”
“The lamb?” A small woman shoved Reid out of the way and smiled at DI Adams uncertainly. Her hair was wisping in half a dozen different directions from at least as many hair clips. “Was it your lamb?”
“No, it was dinner, apparently.”
“Oh.” The woman patted her hair, managing to change the directions of the wisps but not to tidy it. “Was it your dog, then?”
“No—” DI Adams realised her hand was clenched tight enough on the handle of her bag for the fingers to start cramping, and willed them to relax. “I have no idea whose dog it was. I’m just here to check in. For the weekend.” She swallowed. “With the Toot Hansell W.I.”
“Oh! The detective inspector!” The woman lunged forward with her hand extended, and DI Adams just managed not to jump back. “Maddie Etherington-Smythe. Welcome to the manor. We’re so excited you’re joining us! I do hope your drive was alright.”
DI Adams shook the woman’s hand, the bones feeling fragile under her grip. “Thanks.”
“Kee—” Reid began again, and Maddie swatted his arm.
“Stop screaming and go find him, Reid. It’s not like he’s actually going to come see you.”
“He should,” Reid grumbled, and slouched off with his shoulders hunched and his chin stuck out obstinately.
“Awfully sorry about that,” Maddie said, and grabbed the inspector’s bag before she could protest, heading for the stairs. “He’s a good boy, really. Well, he can be. Anyhow. I’ve put you in a small room, so I do hope that’s alright. We’re quite full, what with all the W.I. and the other guests as well, and Ms Martin said you wouldn’t want to share with anyone else. They’re all doubled up, you see, but then they always do, because otherwise there just wouldn’t be room, and they don’t seem to mind. I mean quite a few of them are single, I guess. Are you single? Oh, sorry, that’s a bit personal, isn’t it?” Maddie trotted up the stairs rapidly, not waiting for DI Adams to respond. “So you’re free to go wherever you want in the house and the grounds, except our personal rooms of course, which are in the very top floor, and the office and private rooms downstairs of course, but then that’d be like walking into someone’s bedroom, which you wouldn’t do, but I guess you’re a police officer, so you have to sometimes, but you wouldn’t have to now, of course, it’s not like we’ve any crimes to investigate! It’s afternoon tea soon, and the other ladies are just finishing up yoga on the terrace. You’ll be able to see them from your room.”
DI Adams trailed after Maddie, a small headache starting behind one eye. The midpoint landing had a giant cracked vase in one corner and a tarnished mirror hanging over it, and the stairs ran on to a mezzanine-style balcony above. There were worn red runners underfoot, laid over older carpet that might once have been green. DI Adams was just glad nothing else was purple.
“Your room’s just up here,” Maddie said, “and the bathroom’s in between your and Alice and Miriam’s room. Breakfast—”
“Wait – it’s a shared bathroom?”
“Oh, yes. I know that’s awkward, but I’m sure you ladies can sort it out. Two of the rooms have en suites, and we do want to do the others, but it’s money, you see.” Maddie fluttered her fingers at the shadows of the hall, and DI Adams saw that some of the stair spindles didn’t match and a lamp was missing its shade. “This year, though. I think this year will really turn things around for us.”
“It’s a beautiful house,” DI Adams said.
“Thank you. Thank you, yes. It is. And my poor old husband had it in his family for so long, but you know how it is. It’s expensive, these days. Maintenance, and insurance, and staff.”
“I can imagine,” the inspector said.
“Anyway. One does what one can. And the W.I. are always wonderful. They come every year, and it’s such a boon to rely on them after being so quiet through the winter.”
“I’m sure it is,” DI Adams said, thinking of Miriam saying, It’s my sister’s place, so it doesn’t cost anything. Just come and enjoy yourself. Bloody sneaky woman. She opened her mouth to ask how many guests were here in total, but before she could speak there was the crash of a door exploding open below, followed by a roar that threatened serious damage to vocal chords.
“Oh, no,” Maddie wailed, and DI Adams turned to run back down the stairs just as Reid sprinted across the foyer with a look of utter panic on his face. The sous-chef – Keeley – followed him with another roar, moving with astonishing speed for someone who had to be over six foot and all muscle.
“Stop!” DI Adams bellowed after them, hitting the floor at a run and almost colliding with a woman in chef’s whites carting an enormous pot of water. “You stay back,” she snapped at the startled chef, and sprinted across the foyer into the lounge. Reid was scrambling across the room, trying to push the heavy leather armchairs into Keeley’s path as he went but only succeeding in slowing himself down. He gave up and broke for a set of double doors at the back of the room with a wail of fright.
“Stop!” the inspector shouted again, but Keeley was roaring so loudly she doubted he heard her, and she didn’t blame Reid for not stopping. She wouldn’t have risked it either. Reid made it to the double doors and tried to slam them in Keeley’s face, then shrieked when he saw how close his pursuer was. He bolted across the next room, dodging between cane chairs and glass-topped tables. DI Adams avoided a final coffee table and charged out of the lounge just behind the sous-chef.
She tried another “Stop!” but both men kept running. She hurdled two chairs that had tumbled in their wake, burst into some sort of conservatory with her hand inches from the back of Keeley’s shirt, and tripped over an orchid that was sat in a bucket in the middle of the floor for no good reason she could imagine. She swore, and scrambled up just in time to see Reid explode through a final set of doors and sprint across the terrace outside. For a moment it looked like he was going to make it to the corner of the house, then he went sprawling over a discarded yoga block and skidded to his knees, yelping. Keeley didn’t even hesitate. He grabbed the back of Reid’s shirt as the young man tried to scuttle away on all fours, and hefted him to his feet, then turned him around and screamed in his face like a big cat on a BBC documentary.
Reid made a horrified squawking sound that DI Adams thought she’d probably heard on the same BBC documentary, just not coming from the big cats. She sprinted across the terrace and arrived beside them, placing one arm across Reid’s chest and raising her free hand just in Keeley’s line of sight, in a halt, who goes there gesture. “Stop,” she repeated, her voice calm.
The sous-chef glared down at her and took a deep breath, probably for another tooth-rattling scream.
“Police,” she said. “Detective Insp—”
The water hit her just as the sous-chef started bellowing, and she took an involuntary whooping gasp that sent icy liquid rushing down her throat. She spluttered and started coughing, feeling Reid staggering away while Keeley spat and swore next to her.
“What the hell?” she demanded, spinning around to face the woman in chef’s whites. “I told you to stay back!”
The woman shrugged, the empty pot hanging from one hand. “Only way to stop them. Like fighting dogs, y’know?”
DI Adams wiped water off her face and shook her head, although she couldn’t actually disagree. The sous-chef was still swearing and stomping in an angry circle, but he hadn’t actually attacked Reid again. Reid appeared to be trying to keep the inspector between him and Keeley.
“Anyone like to tell me what’s going on, then?” she asked them, putting her hands on her hips and trying to sound authoritative, although her teeth were starting to chatter.
“The man’s a psychopath and should not be working here,” Reid said, then ducked and clutched DI Adam’s arm when the sous-chef growled. She shook him off.
“I don’t care about your opinion of him, just about what happened. You.” She pointed at the woman. “Name?”
“Nita,” she said. “I’m the chef here.”
“Right. Detective Inspector Adams. You?” She pointed at the sous-chef, even though she already knew his name. It helped, sometimes, the simple act of naming. Of humanising.
“Keeley,” the big man said. “Sous-chef.” He pulled his buff off and squeezed the water out of it, then put it back on. “And he’s a—”
“Facts,” DI Adams said.
“I’m giving you facts,” Keeley said, but his shoulders had dropped away from his ears, making him look less like a bull hunched up and ready to charge.
“Reid came into the kitchen, giving it some about the missing lamb. He accused Keeley of being unprofessional,” Nita said.
“He accused me of stealing an entire shoulder of lamb,” Keeley snapped. “That’s more than just unprofessional.”
“Well, where did it go?” Reid demanded, still huddled behind DI Adams. “Bloody expensive, that lamb!”
“The dog took it,” DI Adams said, and Keeley threw his hands up.
“Yes! Thank you!”
“We don’t have a dog,” Reid said.
“I saw the dog,” DI Adams reminded him.
“You can’t have! Where would it have come from?”
“I don’t know. But I saw it.” She glared at Reid as he opened his mouth to argue, and he subsided.
“There,” Keeley said, jabbing a finger at Reid. “Keep the hell out of our kitchen from now on, you get me?”
“Your kitchen? We own it!”
“Shut up,” DI Adams said to Reid. She looked at Nita. “You need to get a better handle on your staff.”
Both chefs scowled at the inspector, and she glared back at them.
“We work together,” Keeley said, and Nita rolled her eyes but didn’t say anything.
“Reid! Keeley! What on earth …” Maddie appeared in the door behind them, cradling the wounded orchid. “You’re an embarrassment! Both of you!”
“Maddie, I can only take being talked to like this for so long—”
“Being talked to like what?” Reid demanded. “You think I should bow to the mighty sous-chef?”
“Boys, please—” Maddie tried.
“Talked to like the bloody help, you—”
“Oi! Do I need to get the hose, here?” Nita snapped.
“I’m on a weekend off,” DI Adams said. “But I find arresting people quite therapeutic.”
“DI Adams, I’m sure—” Maddie started, her eyes wide.
“I’m joking,” she said, not bothering to wonder if she sounded convincing or not. “You”—she pointed at the two chefs—“go back to work. You, Reid, go take a breather somewhere.”
“Now!” Goddammit. She was very nearly shouting. She wasn’t even in Toot Hansell. She was just in the region of Toot Hansell, for the grand total of maybe ten minutes, and here she was. Almost shouting. Also freezing, because her jumper and suit trousers were drenched and there was a smart little breeze out here.
“C’mon,” Nita said to Keeley. “We need to make a plan for a lamb-less dinner.”
“He probably sent the bloody dog,” Keeley grumbled, but trailed after the chef as she led the way off the terrace and around the corner of the house.
DI Adams squeezed water out of the front of her jumper, and suddenly became aware that she had an audience. She looked around properly for the first time, pinched the bridge of her nose, closed her eyes for a moment, then opened them again, wanting to be sure of what she was seeing. Because sometimes, in the region of Toot Hansell, things weren’t quite as you thought they were.
But, no. Things were exactly as she thought they were.
On the terrace, watching the altercation with expressions that ranged from amused to horrified, were the ladies of the Toot Hansell Women’s Institute. They were decked out in an astonishing variety of shiny new Lycra and tracksuits that had been at their best a few decades earlier, wearing headbands and scarves and, in Rose’s case, a woolly hat with an apple-sized pompom on it. They were standing on yoga mats laid out on the smooth stone flags of the terrace, and a young woman draped in scarves and flowing clothes was barefoot next to them, both hands pressed over her heart.
None of which was entirely unexpected. No, the unexpected bit was the two dragons standing on the grass next to the patio, holding front paws and using their tails for balance as they stood on one hind leg each. DI Adams resisted the urge to close her eyes again. The smaller dragon staggered and fell over sideways. The other, who was the size of a Newfoundland, raised a paw and gave her a toothy grin. She raised her own hand, mustering a faint smile from somewhere.
“Hello, DI Adams,” the chairwoman of the Toot Hansell W.I. said, tucking fine white hair behind her ears. “Was your trip up alright?”
“Less eventful than my arrival,” the inspector said. “Hello, Alice.”
“I’m so sorry about this,” Maddie said, a hitch in her voice. “They’re impossible, both of them!”
DI Adams found a proper smile for her. “No need to be sorry. It’s on them, not you.” She plucked at her damp trousers. “I’d quite like to go get changed now, though.”
Her room had a cracked jug of daffodils on the dresser, and white and green curtains on the windows that overlooked the terrace. DI Adams changed into a grey hoody and walking trousers, then watched the W.I. and the dragons at their yoga practise. Dragons weren’t invisible, but they were faint, and as very few people expected to see dragons, very few did. It still seemed needlessly risky for them to be wandering about joining in yoga classes, though.
She wondered again what she was doing here. This time last year she’d only just transferred up from London, and had no idea about such creatures as dragons and the Toot Hansell W.I. (although there had been the incident in London which had caused her transfer, but she tried not to think about that). It had been a rather blissful kind of ignorance, if she was going to be honest. Her fantasy of an easier life up north had come to a rather abrupt demise with the murder of a vicar, quickly followed by the discovery of Toot Hansell, the Women’s Institute, and dragons in one fell swoop. After which came Christmas, and the revelation that dragons weren’t the only magical Folk in the world.
It had not been the easiest year. A weekend in a spa hotel had sounded nice. It had sounded like the sort of thing that people did. It had sounded like the sort of thing that would not involve dragons, abductions, explosions, or goblins. And it hadn’t cost her anything, and while she wasn’t broke exactly, a free mini-break was nothing to be sniffed at.
She sighed. She had yet to have one encounter with the W.I. that didn’t end in some narrowly averted disaster and her covering up the existence of dragons, because God forbid the wrong people got wind of that. Like the government. Or her boss. And now they were just out there doing yoga. She fished some paracetamol out of her bag. She didn’t quite have a headache yet, but she had an idea she would before long.
“Well,” she said to the room. “Nothing for it. There is no reason for anything to go wrong. This is all going to be absolutely fine.”
She opened the door, and the dreadlocked dog that had been sitting patiently outside scrambled up, tail wagging eagerly. It shoved an enormous, well-slobbered bone at her and she jumped back with a yelp, but not before her trousers had been smeared from thigh to knees with, she assumed, rosemary-caramelised-balsamic-marinated, slow-roasted, organic lamb bone.
The dog dropped to its elbows and nosed the bone toward her, answering her yelp with one of its own that just about shook the windows.
“Well, bollocks,” she said, and went to change into her yoga trousers, trying not to think that this was an inauspicious start.
Poor DI Adams. Not even there an hour and everything’s going a little bit pear-shaped – or W.I.-shaped, more to the point …
And tell me lovely people – what does your ideal weekend look like?