Oh, hello, yes, that smouldering in the corner? Could be the remains of a bonfire.
Could be dragons.
Almost certainly dragons, in fact.
Definitely put the kettle on, though. That bit’s non-negotiable …
Lovely dragonish people, Beaufort Scales, High Lord of the Cloverly dragons, lover of baked goods, mysteries, and a nice cup of tea (although he’s also alarmingly partial to mulled wine at this time of year), is set to swoop into your ereader this Friday, accompanied by the long-suffering Mortimer, who has a new concern to add to his Taser-anxiety. It involves bats.
And since we’re so close to release day, it must be time to share another chapter! If you missed last week’s blog, you can read chapter one here, before we jump into chapter two below. Otherwise read on for dangerous doings in the Dales …
(And, of course, don’t forget to get your pre-orders in at Amazon or your favourite ebook retailer so that dragons can (almost) magically materialise in your ereader first thing Friday! Paperbacks are also ready to be ordered at the same links, but keep those out of dragonish claws.
And now I best close that parentheses. It got away on me, and no one needs rogue parentheseses. Parenthesi. Paren— I think the pre-launch nerves might be showing …)
Alice hadn’t expected that everyone would be quite so enthusiastic about chasing the wheelbarrow and the donation thief across the road and into the depths of the long grass on the green. Even for the ladies of the Toot Hansell Women’s Institute, who were admittedly rather enthusiastic about many things, it seemed excessive. She wondered if Gert had been giving out testers of her sloe gin already.
Gert herself was currently skirting the green, her hands cupped around her eyes as if it’d help her see better in the light washing from the one streetlamp on the corner by the hall. She kept bobbing up on her tiptoes, looking for movement in the long grass. Pearl, Teresa, Carlotta, and Rosemary had positioned themselves strategically along the road that encircled the hall side of the green, Pearl pointing into the long grass while she addressed her ancient Labrador, Martha. Martha, rather than looking like she had any intention of following what were likely instructions to sic them, slumped to the ground and put her head on her paws. Teresa had bundled her silvered braids out of the way and was in a half-crouch with her arms spread, as if she expected to be tackled at any moment, and Carlotta and Rosemary had put their Tupperware containers down on the village hall’s low wall so that their hands were free, presumably for grappling with the thief.
Priya, Jasmine, and Rose, however, along with Primrose and Angelus, had taken to the green. Jasmine was still shouting for Primrose, Rose was ordering Angelus to heel, and Priya had come to a sudden stop, trying to extricate her skirt from a particularly clingy patch of growth.
Miriam had plunged into the long grass, but quickly ran into the same difficulty as Priya. She pulled her skirt free, retreated to the edge of the green, and looked at Alice. “Can you see anything? The grass moving or something like that?”
Alice had a momentary vision of the thief – or thieves – crawling across the green, the dry grass waving over their heads like lions creeping through the savannah. “They’ve probably gone out past the duck pond,” she said aloud. There were plenty of ways on and off the green, after all, as long as one wasn’t too intimidated by the geese.
“Well, that’s good,” Miriam said, but didn’t lower the mop. “Um – should we go in and help, do you think?”
Alice regarded the green. Rose was only visible from the chest up, and Angelus was bounding around her like he was having delusions of being a kangaroo, his ears flopping in delight. Rose had given up trying to get him to heel and was waving a biscuit at him instead. Jasmine gave a shout of triumph and dived into the grass, then straightened up with a wriggling Primrose clutched firmly to her chest.
“Got her!” she shouted.
“Joy,” Priya said, and poked the vegetation with a stick. “Did anyone see which way the barrow went?”
“We didn’t see it at all,” Carlotta said. “Are you sure you saw a barrow, Rose? It’s getting quite dark.”
“I can see perfectly well,” Rose said. “I’m not the one not wearing my glasses.”
“I’ve got my contacts in.”
“Well, you must have them in upside down or something. They were there.” She pointed in a waving motion that took in most of the green.
Carlotta huffed. “Well, did anyone else see them?”
“No,” Rosemary said. “But I was too busy watching to see who Miriam was going to behead with the mop.”
Everyone looked at Miriam, who lowered the mop hastily and said, “Well, they might’ve been dangerous!”
“They stole a guy and a donation tin from an empty hall,” Alice said mildly. “It seems opportunistic rather than dangerous.” She didn’t add that Miriam and her mop were looking rather more threatening than anyone else around the place.
There was muttered agreement to that, and Gert put her hands on her hips, frowning at the green. “Why take the guy, anyway? Why not just grab the tin and run?”
No one had an answer to that, and finally Rose said, “It was definitely the barrow. Maybe they were going to use it to try and solicit more donations or something.”
“It was a very good guy,” Pearl said. “I think we rather outdid ourselves this year.”
“It was the ball gown that did it,” Teresa said. “No one can resist a guy in a ballgown.”
Alice wondered just where that piece of wisdom came from, and said, “There’s not much we can do about it now. We shall just be glad no one interrupted them and ended up hurt.”
“That’s very true,” Carlotta said. “They could have been waiting to do things, after all. A whole hall full of ladies.”
Alice thought the thieves might have rather misjudged the situation if they’d had those sorts of ideas, and said, “Does anyone want to host the meeting? The hall’s far too cold.”
“I’d say come to mine,” Rose said. “But I decided to re-tile the kitchen, and seem to have got a bit sidetracked. It’s not really fit for a meeting. Or anything else, for that matter,” she added. “I’ve had to put the microwave and the kettle in the living room.”
Priya made a sympathetic noise.
“What about reporting the theft?” Rosemary asked. “The police need to come and dust for fingerprints and all that.”
“We’ll do that straight away,” Alice said, watching Jasmine struggling across the green with Primrose still fighting to get free. “Jasmine, dear, can you call Ben and do it that way, perhaps?”
Jasmine made it onto the pavement and stood there breathing hard, her fine hair hanging softly in her face. “If he has time. I barely even see him these days.”
“Well, I shall just call Skipton station, then,” Alice said. “I doubt we’ll get anything back, but they may still catch who did it and stop it happening again.”
“I’m so sorry,” Miriam said again, apparently to the ground. “I’ll make it up.”
“What about the boiler?” Priya asked. “We’re going to need to get it replaced before Bonfire Night. We need to be able to use the hall, and it’ll be impossible in there with no heating.”
“We shall have to put it to the council,” Alice said.
“We can’t wait on them,” Gert said, the phone already to her ear. “It’ll be next summer by the time they get sorted. I’ll get our Maurice on it. He’s my sister’s brother-in-law’s second cousin’s stepbrother. He’ll get a good price on one, and we’ll just tell the council it’s a done deal.” She turned away from them. “Murph? I need you to get on something.”
“It goes through the council,” Alice said firmly, and looked around at everyone. “Shall we go to the pub?”
Everyone stared at her, even Rose and Priya, who were still mired in the green.
“The pub?” Miriam asked. “Really?”
Alice tucked her hands into her pockets, feeling the twinge in the knuckles that crept in on the cold air. “Yes. Why not? Otherwise we shall just have to traipse around to someone else’s house, and no one planned for a meeting. Unless someone wants to volunteer?” She could, of course, since her house was in very good order, but she didn’t fancy having both Angelus and Primrose loose inside, and it was too cold to imagine asking either of their owners to leave them outside. Martha she was quite willing to have in the house, as the old dog did very little other than sleep and eat, but with Angelus and Primrose there’d be running about, and noise, and the risk of breakages, plus Thompson the cat would protest, loudly and vocally, and she really had very little patience for it right now. Besides, she rather fancied a gin and tonic, unseasonal though it was, and she had no tonic at home.
The other ladies looked at each other, then Miriam said, “The pub would be rather nice. The fire’ll be going.”
That raised a murmur of agreement from the group, and in very short order they were circling the green, still clutching their Tupperware, as they headed for the nearest of the village’s selection of pubs. For such a small place, Toot Hansell still supported three of them. Two were on the village square, one a gastropub with disturbingly modern furniture and so much white paint and pale wood that Alice had been tempted to wear sunglasses the last time she went into it. The second pub had no such problems, as the dark green, vaguely sticky carpet and worn red upholstery were lit as dimly as possible, presumably so no one could see the stains on either. That particular pub still had the signs for ladies’ and gentlemen’s lounges hung over separate doors, and Alice had a suspicion that the owner retained a certain nostalgia for such times and situations.
The nearby pub, though, was all thick-paned windows, low ceilings, and heavy wooden beams, the whole place stuffed with cosy chairs and deep sofas clustering around tables that had never even heard of a flat-pack. It was as old as the village, and sported a priest hole by the fireplace, as well as a secret tunnel that connected it to the church. The owner was always rather keen on telling everyone about it, and the pub’s Facebook page featured at least as many photos of the tunnel and his attempts to map it as it did nicely framed shots of sticky toffee pudding and roast lamb shanks.
As they pushed through the door, a wash of warm, smoke-scented air rushed out to greet them, and everywhere were low lamps casting golden light, and old framed photos of the village, and just enough bits of derelict houseware and small farming implements to be interesting rather than cluttered. A young woman behind the bar gave them an alarmed look as they filed in, and put her shoulders back as Gert strode over and slapped one hand onto the polished wood of the counter.
“Evening,” Gert said.
“Good evening,” the young woman said, and shot a glance across the room, to where an even younger man was studiously not looking at them as he laid a table for dinner. “Um – do you have a reservation?”
“Unfortunately not,” Alice said. “The village hall’s heating is out, so we wondered if we might have our W.I. meeting here. It’s not dinner yet, is it?”
“No, but we will start filling up soon.”
“On a Tuesday night?” Gert asked. “Surely you can spare a table for us.”
“You can have some of my macaroons,” Rosemary said, waving a Tupperware.
“Macarons,” Carlotta said.
“No. These aren’t those silly little French things. They’re proper biscuits.”
“You English and your proper biscuits.”
“Is Manchester not in England, then?”
“We can try to be quiet,” Alice said, without much conviction, and at that moment a tall and slightly bony man in a corduroy jacket and jeans hurried through from the back rooms.
“Alice!” he said, and to Alice’s alarm he clasped both of her hands in his, then kissed her cheek. “And Miriam!” Miriam got the same treatment, which at least meant Alice got to reclaim her hands. When had people become so European about things? Surely a decent handshake was enough.
“Hello Bryan,” Alice said. “You’re looking …”
“Skinny,” Rose said, and handed him a Tupperware. “Eat that.”
Bryan gave the tub a puzzled look, then said, “It’s been very busy, what with …” He trailed off, swallowed hard, then continued. “What with Thomas gone.”
Miriam patted his arm. “Ignore them,” she said. “It’s good to see you smiling.”
Bryan gave her a grateful look, then waved at the young man, who appeared to be refolding some napkins with studious care. “Jared, put a couple of tables together for the ladies, would you?” He turned back to them. “And I’ll donate some wine to the cause. It’s the least I can do after you were all so helpful last year.”
“I don’t think we need wine,” Alice started, and Gert talked over her.
“Everyone alright with red?”
“I like rosé,” Pearl said.
“White,” Teresa said.
“Depends on the red,” Priya added.
“Do you have anything Italian?” Carlotta asked.
“Are you quite sure about this?” Alice asked Bryan. “We don’t want to disturb your customers.”
“It’s fine,” he said, and ducked behind the bar. “Why don’t I set you up with drinks, and by the time we’ve done that your table will be ready.”
“It’s very kind of you,” she said, and there was a moment’s silence as Bryan clattered around with bottles. She wondered if she should ask how he had been keeping, but the answer to that was in the way his shirt hung loosely from his shoulders. Losing his husband had been a terrible blow, she imagined. Unlike when she had lost hers, but then he had been a most unsatisfactory husband. Thomas had been rather lovely.
Then Priya said, “How’s the mapping coming along?”
Bryan looked up, a grin lighting his face, and Alice suddenly saw how a much smaller Bryan would have looked on a Christmas morning, wrapping scattered across the room. “I found another passage!” he said. “I’m telling you, there’s a labyrinth under our village. Do you want to see the map so far?”
“Absolutely,” Priya said, and grinned back at him.
Alice had never heard the other woman profess the slightest interest in tunnels of any sort, but Priya leaned on the bar with her forearms folded on the old wood and the gold stud in her nose glinting in the warm light, nodding seriously and oohing now and then, and Alice smiled as she picked up a bottle of wine and took it to the table. This was why one had friends. One person alone cannot be very good at everything, but the right people together can make the most beautiful whole. And know when to ask questions about tunnels.
* * *
Alice tapped the disconnect on her phone and went back to the table, where the volume had gone up by a couple of notches in direct contrast to the levels in the bottles of wine placed strategically along its length.
“What did they say?” Miriam asked. She was looking very pink-cheeked, but Alice had an idea that was the heat. Miriam had been nursing the same mug of hot water with lemon slices since they arrived, even when Bryan had offered to top it up with a little nip of whisky.
“The young man on the desk asked me if I was sure it was gone and I hadn’t just misplaced it,” Alice said, sitting down next to her.
Miriam gasped and covered her mouth with one hand, but a small snort of laughter still escaped. “What did you say?”
“That I was old enough to be forgiven for asking silly questions, but he wasn’t, and that I wanted to speak to someone else.” She smiled slightly and had a sip of her gin and tonic, which she’d insisted on paying for. Bryan couldn’t be subsidising the whole of the W.I.
“And what did they say?”
“There wasn’t anyone there, apparently, so I said I’d call DI Adams myself. He said that he’d get someone out here within an hour, so I assume DI Adams scares him more than I do.”
“It’s just because he hasn’t met you,” Miriam said in a comforting tone, then took a hurried gulp of her lemon and honey as her cheeks flushed an even brighter pink. “I mean, he wouldn’t be accusing you of asking silly questions if he knew you!”
“I’m sure he wouldn’t,” Alice said, tapping her fingers lightly on the table. The meeting hadn’t really come to anything – everyone was too busy speculating about the stolen guy to bother themselves with such things as stall bookings and refreshment plans. Not that it mattered terribly. Bonfire Night was always a small and local affair, not like the big summer fête or the Christmas market. There was something insular and wild about Bonfire Night, with its guys and flames and raw-edged shadows, shouting in the face of the looming, frost-edged spectre that was the oncoming winter.
“It’s just plain ageism,” Miriam said. “Or maybe sexism. Both, probably.”
Alice looked at her and wondered if she had taken the nip of whisky after all. “Are you feeling alright, Miriam?”
She plucked at her jumper. “I think it’s the paracetamol. Plus it’s very warm in here. Or my fever’s come back.”
Alice nodded. “It is quite toasty. Shall we go outside for some air?”
Miriam gave her a narrow look. “Just for some air?”
“Hmm.” Alice smiled slightly. “And maybe for another little look at the hall and green before the police get in the way?”
“You are terrible,” Miriam said, but she was already getting up.
* * *
Alice was a little surprised by how readily Miriam had agreed to join her, but she supposed the fact that the culprit had already clearly made their getaway – and the fact that the younger woman was responsible for the donation tin being there to be stolen in the first place – probably had a lot to do with it. What she hadn’t anticipated was the fact that the rest of the W.I., fortified by the free wine, were just as eager to accompany them.
“We don’t want to destroy any evidence,” she pointed out, as the ladies scuffled around pulling on coats and swirling scarves about the place, an upheaval of colour and movement as full of autumn as the drifts of leaves outside.
“We won’t,” Jasmine said, her nose bright pink. “I’ve got a very good idea of how to behave around a crime scene, you know.”
“And you can just imagine the police, can’t you?” Teresa said. “A donation tin? They won’t so much as check for fingerprints.”
“Probably say we misplaced it,” Rose added, rather accurately.
Alice gave her an appraising look. Rose had had her own issues with a misplaced body in her freezer in the spring, but even once it had all been cleared up it seemed not to have instilled any confidence in the police in her. Not that Alice disagreed. “Well, let’s go and have a look, then,” she said. “But we really must try to be careful.”
“Stick to the paved paths,” Jasmine said, throwing back the last of her wine. “Don’t touch anything with your hands – use your sleeve. And …” She thought about it. “We should probably put our scarves over our heads so we don’t drop any hair.”
There was more scuffling as everyone wrapped their scarves around their heads with varying degrees of elegance, and Jasmine gave Alice a questioning look.
“We have already been in the hall,” she said.
Jasmine looked so crestfallen that Alice pulled her scarf up and over her head.
“Better to be safe than sorry, though, isn’t it?” She led the way out into the night, having the absurd thought that they must look like the seven dwarfs, if a bit taller and minus the beards.
“Heigh ho, heigh ho,” Gert called cheerfully, so at least she wasn’t the only one thinking it. Although she was most certainly the only one not singing it as they followed the curve of the road around the green and toward the hall, its garden softly lit with the solar lamps Gert’s aunt’s goddaughter’s cousin (or something) had sourced for them.
The singing faltered, and Rosemary exclaimed, “The wheelbarrow’s back!”
“Is it the same one?” Pearl asked.
“The guy’s still in it,” Priya said, sounding uncertain. “Do you think they brought the collection pot back, too?”
Without anyone suggesting it, they’d come to stop, still far enough away from the wheelbarrow that it could have been the guy in there, even if the ballgown had been replaced by what looked like a dressing gown, and it was terribly lifelike, too, the way the head lolled and a shoe was hanging off one foot.
Alice took a step forward, and Miriam grabbed her arm. “Don’t,” she said.
Alice shook her off gently and walked over to the wheelbarrow, her stride slow and careful, and her hand tight on the cane.
But she needn’t have worried. The man in the barrow was long past being threatened with canes.
“Oh dear,” Alice murmured, and looked around at the rustling, deepening night. “This isn’t very good.”
The sheet of paper pinned to the man’s chest agreed with her.
For you, it said …
Lovely people, we’re only a couple of days away from release day! I’m so excited to share the latest Beaufort with you, and I hope these little samples have you ready to read on. Just don’t forget to lay in the cake supplies.
A good cause gone bad …
Miriam has never seen eye-to-eye with her sister. But when a body’s dumped on the doorstep of a Women’s Institute meeting and all signs point to Rainbow, Miriam knows her sister’s being framed. Rainbow might be monumentally irritating, but she’s no killer.
Going to the police would be the smart move, but even without the damning evidence on hand Rainbow’s got her own reasons for avoiding them. Before long she’s on the run, trusting to Miriam and the W.I. to clear her name. The killer’s left nothing to chance, though, and Rainbow’s in more danger than she realises – and she’s dragging the others right in with her.
Between rogue wildlife, clothing-optional informants, and Rainbow’s own team of obstinate rebels, the W.I. are in a desperate race to dodge the police and dig up the truth. But Miriam’s not backing down. Not this time. This is family, and she’s going to see this case through. Not even the dragons can stop her.
The killer might, though …