There’s a fine line between ‘eccentric’ and ‘a danger to oneself and others’.
And that line may just lie with the body in the freezer.
That’s certainly what DI Adams is thinking when said body turns up in Rose’s freezer. Rose might not look like an octogenarian black widow, but it’s the inspector’s job to follow the evidence, no matter how distasteful that might be.
Alice and the ladies of the Toot Hansell Women’s Institute, however, couldn’t disagree more. They don’t believe for a moment that Rose is responsible for anything worse than a little forgetfulness, and they’re certainly not going to let her be hauled off to jail or an old folk’s home for a crime she didn’t commit. They’re taking matters into their own hands, and if certain detective inspectors have rather limiting beliefs regarding what constitutes helping the police with their investigations, well, they shall just have to deal with it.
Between Rose’s squabbling exes, mysterious relatives, and shadowy connections to the more fringe elements of the scientific community, Alice and the W.I. are in a desperate race to clear Rose’s name – if they can – before DI Adams has no choice but to arrest her.
And hunting the real murderer would be a lot easier if they didn’t also have a small problem involving lurking journalists hunting dragons, as well as certain eccentric dragons who seem determined to hunt them back …
Nothing’s looking too rosy in Toot Hansell this spring.
Lovely people, book 6 of the Beaufort Scales cozy mysteries (with dragons, but you knew that already) is almost here! It’s releasing Friday 24th, and I’m so excited to be able to share the first chapter with you today.
There will be murder. There will be exes of a dubious character and excessive quantity. There will be snarky cats, despairing detective inspectors, and an invisible dog with a frozen pea fixation.
And there will, of course, be tea, cake, and the glorious mess that is friendship.
Because what would life – and Toot Hansell – be without those?
Read on for the first chapter, and check back next week for chapter two!
And if you fancy getting your pre-order in already, you can find the ebook at your favourite retailers here. Paperbacks will be coming soon!
Edit: As this is a message from the past (or a post from the past, which sounds better), Coming Up Roses is, of course, already out. So you can grab it in ebook or paperback at your favourite retailer, or ask your library about ordering it in!
Coming Up Roses
Chapter One – Miriam
It was that point in the season when one felt any frosts should have headed off to bother a different hemisphere, but there was a hungry little bite in the early evening air that made Miriam somewhat concerned for the new blossoms on her apple tree, although she knew they weathered the same threat every year. She was collecting logs from the shed in the garden, still partly full of the neat stacks of raw wood she’d put in against the winter cold last autumn. She supposed it might be considered a little indulgent to have a fire at the end of what had been a rather lovely spring day, but the evening seemed to be setting in fast, the edges dull and sad-feeling, and she rather felt a fire chomping away in the log burner was just what she needed to cheer herself up. A fire, a large slice of ginger cake, and a complete excess of tea. That was what the day called for.
It did not call for a wild animal jumping up at her with a roar of delight as she turned to the shed door, making her shriek and drop the log basket. It was only half full (any more and she couldn’t carry it), but that was more than enough to make the corner of it landing on her bare toes so spectacularly painful that she could barely see past the involuntary tears as she clutched her injured foot.
She said something fairly unrepeatable, and the monster yelped and fled.
“Are you alright there, Miriam?” someone asked.
“I think I’ve broken my toe,” she said, squeezing it a bit harder. She should have put shoes on, she supposed, but it wasn’t that cold.
“Let me see.” Rose squatted down, swatting Miriam’s hand. “Go on, let go!”
Miriam sighed, and let the older woman prod her foot. “Ow!”
“You’re being silly. It’s absolutely fine.”
“It doesn’t feel absolutely fine.”
“You should be wearing shoes.”
“You shouldn’t be sneaking around people’s gardens!” Miriam tried to glare at Rose, but she couldn’t make it stick. Rose just folded her arms and looked unimpressed, her short hair dyed a rather vivid shade of violet today. Her Great Dane, Angelus, skulked behind her contritely, not appearing in the least bit monstrous now that Miriam knew who he was.
“I wasn’t sneaking,” Rose said.
“Well, maybe not deliberately.” Miriam picked up the log basket, and Rose collected a couple of bits of wood that had made a run for it. “Fancy a cuppa?”
“Wouldn’t say no.”
Miriam led the way into the warmth of her stone-flagged kitchen, the ceiling beams low and heavy above them, the big old AGA cooking range breathing contented heat across the little room. She took the logs through to the living room, and by the time she came back in Rose had already put the kettle on and was clattering about with mugs. The small woman was restless, even for Rose, and Angelus was standing at the table licking the last of the ginger cake crumbs off the plate.
“Angelus!” Miriam said, and he flopped to the floor, his eyes huge.
Rose looked around. “Oh, no. Angelus, you brute!”
He wagged his tail and rolled onto his back, getting one leg caught up in a chair rung and almost knocking it over. Miriam caught it before it could fall and tried to look stern, which was quite hard to do, given the dog’s beseeching look.
“It’s alright,” she said with a sigh. “I’ve got some custard creams. They’re only packet ones, but they’ll do. It’s not going to make him sick, is it?”
“Just fat,” Rose said, swirling hot water in the tea pot to heat it. “And the vet says he’s that already anyway.”
“How rude.” Miriam went to the pantry to find the biscuits. “He looks very handsome to me.”
“It’s ridiculous,” Rose agreed. “It’s like beauty standards for dogs. They don’t need it.”
“No one needs beauty standards at all,” Miriam said. “Such a silly concept. As if there’s anything standard about beauty. Everyone’s beauty is completely unique.” She rubbed Angelus’ tummy, just to make sure he understood that he was included in this, and handed Rose the milk from the fridge. “Is everything alright, Rose? Not that I’m not very happy to see you, of course—”
“Oh, I know. It’s late to be coming around for a cuppa,” Rose said, slopping milk into the mugs and onto the worktop. “Sorry.”
Miriam handed her a cloth without comment. A little of the dull evening seemed to have crept into the kitchen with them, lovely dog tummies notwithstanding. The lights were a touch dimmer than they should be, the fading sun outside marginally more distant, and the heat of the stove couldn’t quite dissipate the chill in her belly. She knew why, but the knowing didn’t mean she understood it. Miriam was Sensitive, not in some psychic talking-to-the-other-side thing (she did do Tarot readings, rather successfully, but she drew the line at seances, which were either predatory fakeries or very real unpleasantnesses), but in a way that meant she felt things others didn’t, and sometimes it could change the way she saw the world around her.
It also meant, of course, that she had been able to see dragons quite easily, which is a rare ability. Most people can’t – or don’t – see the magical Folk that inhabit the edges of the world around them, since they simply never believe in anything outside the recommended parameters of human experience. So a dragon appearing in one’s garden and stealing a scone is impossible, and therefore never happened. Miriam, however, had been quite sure she was seeing a dragon, and had merely adjusted her understanding of the world to fit that reality. She had been slightly startled to discover that the dragon in question (and dragons in general, as it turned out) had rather a taste for baked goods, though. That had never been mentioned in any of the books she’d read. But being Sensitive had a less pleasant side, too, such as knowing when something sad or frightening had happened in the world around her. And that was what the day felt like now. A little grief-stained.
She took her tea from Rose and they sat in the old wooden kitchen chairs with their worn, comfortable cushions, and she offered the older woman a custard cream without asking anything further.
Rose took the biscuit, dunked it in her tea, and took a bite before it could collapse, making a small noise of appreciation. Angelus sat up, a long thread of drool already descending from his chops and his ears cocked hopefully. They drank their tea and ate the first of their biscuits in a companionable sort of silence, then Rose said, “Have you ever forgotten you’ve done something?”
“Oh, yes,” Miriam said. “I forget cakes in the oven all the time. And tea. I found a cup of tea in the greenhouse the other day. I don’t know how long it had been there, but there was a snail drinking from it.”
Rose nodded. “I’m terrible with tea. It’s a good thing I have so many mugs. I can only ever find a few at a time. But what about … bigger things? Things you really should remember?”
Miriam considered it. Not just the question, but who was asking it. Rose was the sort of small that meant she still shopped in the kids’ section of clothes stores, and was full of a matching exuberant energy, but she was over eighty. She was both of the age when forgetting things became commonplace, and where it became more worrying. “Teresa drove into Skipton the other week,” Miriam said at last. “Then she took the bus back, and when she got home she thought someone had stolen her car. She was about to report it to the police, but luckily she told Pearl first, and Pearl reminded her she’d driven.”
Rose snorted. “That’s quite big.”
“A car is,” Miriam agreed. “And Carlotta forgot her niece was coming to stay, and went to Majorca for the week. Her niece had to stay with Rosemary instead.”
Rose scratched Angelus’ heavy head, and he flopped his drooling jaw onto her lap. “That makes me feel a bit better.”
“Have you been forgetting things?”
Rose gave a funny little shrug. “Yes. Sort of. I mean, I always forget my tea. And sometimes I don’t remember where I left the car and have to retrace my steps to find it, or I’ll go to the shop for something and not remember what it was, so buy something else entirely and end up with six jars of marmalade but no butter, say.”
Miriam made a sympathetic noise. That seemed very normal to her, but that dull shade to the day hadn’t gone away. It was like watching an old movie, all the colours a little washed out and not quite as they should be.
Rose took another biscuit, twisting the two halves apart and staring at the pale yellow icing inside. “But there seems to be more, lately. Things don’t stay where I put them. Or … I don’t know. They’re not where I usually put them, and I don’t remember putting them where I find them.”
Miriam frowned, thinking of their stay in her sister’s country house the previous spring. Things hadn’t stayed where you put them around there, either, and the explanation had been less forgetfulness and more small creatures with kleptomaniacal tendencies. “Do you think you have bollies, or something like that?” she asked. “There seem to be lots of creatures around that we didn’t know about a year ago. Brownies, maybe. They’re house spirits, aren’t they?”
Rose nodded. “Maybe.” She didn’t sound convinced.
“Well, we shall ask the dragons,” Miriam said. “Mortimer will probably be down tomorrow, so we’ll come over and he can have a look around and see if that’s the problem.”
Rose tapped her fingers on her mug, looking less reassured than Miriam had hoped. “But it was just small things they moved, wasn’t it?”
“I don’t really know,” Miriam admitted. “They did move Beaufort, but that was an emergency. Maybe they move bigger things if they can get away with it?”
“Mmm.” Rose didn’t look up from her mug.
“What is it?” Miriam asked. “What’s missing?”
“It’s not what’s missing,” Rose said, looking up finally. “It’s what’s turned up.”
Miriam wasn’t quite sure what she expected. The dragons had been known to leave things before – the High Lord of the Cloverly dragons, Beaufort Scales himself, had actually left Detective Inspector Adams an offering once. It had been a very well-cooked rabbit, presented artfully on a bed of leaves and set outside her car door while she’d been staking out Miriam’s house. As DI Adams had not, at that stage, known about dragons, it had led to some very awkward questions. Still, Miriam hoped that this might be something similar. Perhaps the rather sweary French lizards from Christmas had relocated from Pearl’s chimney to Rose’s. Or maybe the water sprite had left a goose in the living room, which would be alarming but not entirely terrifying. Miriam thought of the geese that periodically invaded the village green, and revised that. It would be manageably terrifying. Or maybe one of the dragons’ new dragon scale baubles had blown up into something unexpected. There were still glitches at times, no matter how carefully Mortimer designed and tested them. Anything was possible, and she felt she could manage a situation like that rather well. However, Rose’s serious face suggested that whatever had turned up might not be quite as pleasant.
They walked to Rose’s house, crossing the village green with its reputedly bottomless duck pond (a TV crew calling themselves monster hunters had tried to find the bottom once, but the sprite had set some of the aforementioned geese on them, so that had been the end of that). The grass was damp on Miriam’s ankles, and she thought, a little distractedly, that she should have worn her wellies.
Rose’s house was perched on a slight rise on one corner of the village green, where the road curved around, giving her a large plot with a neighbour only on one side. The front and opposite side were bounded by the road, where it ran past the village hall and the church. A chunky, sprawling bungalow, the house squatted in an unruly garden that was partly given over to vegetables and fruit trees, and partly a wilderness of mysterious undergrowth sprouting bird boxes and insect habitats and hedgehog huts, with a wildflower meadow instead of a front lawn. The bungalow itself was a rambling sort of place that appeared to have started life as an old stone hut of some description, which various families had slapped extensions onto in a gleefully haphazard manner, and with little regard for the original architecture, such as it was.
“Are you sure we shouldn’t call Alice?” Miriam asked, as they crossed the green toward Rose’s gate. The more overgrown side of her garden met the village green, and various bushes and low trees crowded together, fighting for space where they hung heavy over the low stone wall. “You know she’s very good at dealing with things.”
“If I wanted Alice, I’d have gone to Alice’s,” Rose said. “I don’t want someone being logical at me, Miriam. I’m perfectly capable of being logical myself.”
“I just … I’m not the best person in a crisis.”
“It’s hardly a crisis,” Rose said, then considered it. “Well, I don’t think it is. Not yet, anyway. Besides, you underestimate yourself.”
Miriam didn’t think she did, but she didn’t argue.
Rose opened the little wooden gate and Angelus bolted into the depths of the garden, ears flopping and long legs splaying all over the place.
“Angelus, no!” Rose shouted, running after him as he vanished into the undergrowth. “Angelus! Sit! Sit, dammit!”
Miriam looked at the gate swinging gently in their wake, sighed, and stepped into the garden, latching the gate behind her. She could hear the older woman still shouting deeper in the undergrowth, and the birds sang to each other with no sign of alarm at the chaos below. She followed the tree-shaded flagstone path through the back garden to the kitchen door, leaving Rose to deal with the Great Dane and listening to the anxious shifts and sighs of her own thoughts. Everything felt a little too dark, a little too sombre, and she wished the dragons were here. Everything was better with dragons.
The door was unlocked, and she pushed it open onto the low-ceilinged, shadowed kitchen, the lights not yet lit against the night. She was about to step inside when something moved in the shadows, and she jumped, stumbling back down the single stair into the little covered porch and catching the heel of her flip-flop as she went. She teetered on the edge of her balance, heart pounding, and called, “Hello?”
There was a pause, and she squinted into the dim kitchen, wondering if she’d been mistaken, then someone detached themselves from the shadows and rushed forward. Miriam almost bolted, then remembered she was here to help Rose, and if that meant tackling strangers in her kitchen, she would.
“Stop!” she shouted, the word teetering on a shriek, and the figure stumbled to a halt, revealing themselves to be a woman of about Miriam’s height, all bundled up in a big jacket with her long dark hair gathered into a messy bun.
“Ooh, sorry,” the woman whispered, pressing her hands to her chest. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
Miriam blinked at her. She was familiar yet not, and Miriam wasn’t sure if it was just the taut evening confusing her, or if she had met her before. “What are you doing in Rose’s kitchen?” she asked.
The woman pressed her hands harder against her chest, licking her lips, and said, “Is Rose with you?”
“Yes, but who are you?”
The woman licked her lips again, and at that moment Rose clattered up behind Miriam with a contrite Angelus following her, his ears drooping.
“Honestly, he’s awful,” she said. “He found some fox poo at the bottom of the garden the other day, and now he has to go and see if there’s more to roll in every time we get home. And I’ve gone and stepped in a puddle trying to catch him.” She looked at Miriam. “Are we going in?”
“There’s someone in your kitchen,” Miriam said.
Rose flinched, one hand clutching at the front of her jacket, and said, “Who? Who is it?”
“It’s me,” the woman called from inside. “I was just … I came to see you.”
“Bethany.” Rose’s voice held a mix of relief and annoyance. “I wasn’t expecting you today.”
Bethany peered out the door past Miriam. “I just wanted to talk some things over with you.”
Rose shook her head. “Not tonight. Digitising all my old papers isn’t exactly time sensitive.” She made a shooing motion at Bethany. “I’ll call you later.”
“I really wanted to talk,” the young woman said, not moving, and Rose frowned at her.
“Miriam and I have some important business. Whatever it is will have to wait, Beth.”
For a moment Bethany didn’t move, wavering on the doorstep, then her shoulders slumped and she nodded. “Alright. Sorry for scaring you,” she added to Miriam.
“That’s alright,” Miriam said, although she could feel a nasty sweat on her shoulders and across her belly. That might not have been the scare, though. Or even Rose’s mention of important business, which sounded ominous. It might be entirely unrelated. Of all the things about ageing she could do without, unnecessary sweating ranked very highly on the list.
Rose waved Bethany off, then pushed Angelus ahead of her onto the old stone floor of the kitchen. She kicked her shoes off and followed him inside, her one damp sock leaving darker marks on the flags.
Miriam stepped out of her flip-flops and walked barefoot into the house, her chest tight with the strangeness of the evening. There was a faint whiff of woodsmoke coming from somewhere, mixing with the lingering scents of baked apples and old books, and Rose flicked the lights on, flooding the kitchen with a warm and friendly glow. The big table in the middle of the room was cluttered with opened mail and discarded science magazines and a fruit bowl stacked with apples and tangerines and precariously balanced eggs, but the worktops were clear of everything except a decrepit-looking microwave and a couple of mugs draining by the sink.
Rose led the way to a side door, opening it onto a utility room that looked considerably younger than the kitchen. It smelled a little damp, and when she turned on the lights they gave a couple of reluctant flickers before settling into a cold, fluorescent wash that lit dense mats of spiderwebs in the corners above the crowded shelves.
“Come on,” Rose said, as Miriam lingered in the safety of the kitchen, and Miriam followed her reluctantly. The floor in the utility was gritty under her bare feet, and she gazed around at the half-forgotten detritus of life around her. A set of shiny golf clubs with a forest of cobwebs engulfing the bag leaned against one wall, and a harness that looked like the sort of thing one wore for climbing into caves hung above them, a hardhat clipped to the belt. A giant, mouldy kite dived over a torn lampshade, and a chipped porcelain ladybird lay on its back next to a clock with plastic cockroaches on the ends of its hands. There were also the several boxes of empty jars and bottles that seem to be compulsory in every utility room, saved Just In Case.
But Rose ignored all of those, crossing the little room to a big chest freezer that was humming contentedly to itself next to the washing machine. She rested one small hand on the top and looked back at Miriam. Miriam stared at her, a shiver creeping its way up her spine and raising the small hairs at the base of her neck. She couldn’t quite read Rose’s expression.
“I’m sure I didn’t put this here,” Rose said. “I’d have remembered.”
“The freezer?” Miriam asked hopefully.
“No,” Rose said, without even the suggestion that she thought it was a silly question. She lifted the lid.
For one wild moment Miriam considered covering her eyes with both hands and refusing to look, but, she reminded herself, she was a grown-up, despite never being quite sure how she felt about that. And it couldn’t really be anything too terrible, could it? Not in Rose’s freezer. Maybe Rose had discovered some new type of creature that liked living in chest freezers, building a home from blocks of frozen spinach. It was possible. Or perhaps Rose had been given a rabbit by the dragons herself, although that wouldn’t be any great mystery.
Miriam stepped next to Rose and stared down into the freezer.
It was not a rabbit. It was certainly a body, though. It wasn’t looking at her, which she managed to feel thankful about for one moment before she really did close her eyes. When she opened them again, the body was still there, its pale hair frosted with ice and a packet of frozen peas resting on one hip, as if someone had put it there to soothe a bruise. She looked at Rose.
“I wanted some ice cream,” Rose said. “And, well.” She waved at the body. “It’s on my ice cream.”
Miriam thought she might never eat ice cream again.
Now over to you, lovely people. What’s the oddest thing you’ve forgotten? Let me know below!
I think my most inconvenient was a flight (oops), but otherwise I, like Rose, regularly end up at the shops without a shopping list, and apparently the one thing I am always convinced I don’t have enough of are gherkins. I wound up with three giant jars in the cupboard and one in the fridge at one point. There’s probably still at least two there in the UK…
Check back next week for chapter two, and don’t forget you can grab your pre-orders here if you fancy it!