Lovely people, we’re getting closer and closer to release day! I hope you’re stockpiling Halloween treats for November first! (What d’you mean, they’re for the trick or treaters? We have more important things to do …)
I can’t wait to share Beaufort Scales’ fourth cozy mystery with you – as ever, it’s rife with misunderstandings, dragonish culture clashes, and disapproving cats (are there any other sort?), and laced liberally with tea and cake. So to get you ready, here’s a sneak peek of what’s to come …
If you missed chapter one last week, head over and read that first – and don’t forget you can pre-order Game of Scones at your favourite retailer. Your ebook will be magically delivered to your device on the first of November, all set for post-Halloween reading!
Okay, not magically, but I’m not tech-y. It’s like magic.
Now – read on!
Game of Scones
A Beaufort Scales Mystery, Book 4
Bribery. Corruption. Murder.
Who said local politics were boring?
Suspicious deaths on the Skipton city council don’t sound as though they should have anything at all to do with the Toot Hansell Women’s Institute, and DI Adams would rather like to keep it that way. But when the councillor for Toot Hansell becomes the latest victim, Alice Martin, chair of the W.I. and RAF Wing Commander (ret.), steps straight in to take his place.
Before DI Adams can so much as say lemon drizzle cake the ladies of the Women’s Institute are lurking around farmyards in the company of dragons, farmers are vanishing, the invisible dog’s developed a caffeine dependence, and Alice is already in as deep as she can get.
In deep, and facing a killer that seems to know far too much about her.
Enough, perhaps, to turn the tables …
Murder, mayhem, and old secrets come to light in the Yorkshire Dales – with dragons, of course.
Chapter Two – Miriam
Miriam froze for only a moment after the car planted itself in the pond, which made her feel that she was maybe improving when it came to crisis situations. Of course, she rather thought that Alice might not have frozen at all, but that was Alice. It would take more than an unexpected red Toyota in a duck pond to make her hesitate. However, Miriam, unlike Alice, didn’t have a bad hip brought on by the goblin attack last Christmas, so she kicked off her flip-flops, broke into a run, and overtook the older woman just as she reached the chipped wood border at the edge of the pond.
“Miriam!” Alice shouted, but Miriam ignored her, charging into the pond with a squeak at the chill. She splashed determinedly through the lilies, mud squidging between her bare toes and blooming in the clear dark water, hoping the geese didn’t come back. Something jabbed her instep and she wondered briefly if she should have left her flip-flops on. They’d only have got tangled up in things and slowed her down, though. “Miriam, wait!” Alice called.
“I’m almost there!” The water was rising over her knees, and she gathered her skirt up in one hand, holding the other out for balance.
“Be careful.” Alice sounded as if she wasn’t far behind, but Miriam didn’t turn around to check. She was concentrating on staying upright. The plant-tangled bottom was uneven and treacherous, and she wasn’t entirely sure what she was stepping on. A lily stem slid between her toes like something alive and she yelped, tried to kick herself free, and almost fell face-first into the water. She dropped her skirt, flailing for balance, and the fabric floated around her, sinking toward her legs as it soaked and darkened. Well, it was already torn. What was a bit of mud?
“Miriam. Slow down.” Alice was using her RAF voice, which was normally impossible to ignore, but Miriam could see a man slumped behind the wheel of the car, head resting on his arms as if in exhaustion or despair as the water rose around him. He was wearing a familiar pale blue polo shirt and his hair was thin and fair, and he wasn’t moving. Miriam tried to go faster. She was over halfway across the pond, the water still only just above her knees, but the car seemed to be sinking. Its nose was well under the green-brown surface, and as she watched, the water began to investigate the open window. She gave up on trying to be careful and galumphed across the pond, arms pumping as waves of her own making surged around her legs.
People were shouting on the green behind them, and a roundish man was struggling through the ferns at the edge of the pond, still cradling his model boat in both arms.
“Call an ambulance,” Alice shouted at him. “Quick as you can, man!”
Miriam glanced at the man as he gave an alarmed yelp and stopped where he was, trying to keep hold of the boat while he dug a phone out of his pocket. She looked back at where she was going just in time to see a face appear in the water in front of her. She gave a screech of alarm, tried to stop her forward momentum, tangled her feet in some roots or her skirt or just each other, and pitched face-first into the pond with her arms windmilling.
The water washed up around her, the brown turned to amber by the glow of sunlight, and she tasted mulch and silence. She put her arms out and tried to push herself off the bottom, but she couldn’t reach it. She bubbled alarm, bringing her feet underneath her – only, oh, was it underneath? She couldn’t tell, couldn’t find anything solid to push against, and she knew there was something about watching your bubbles to know which was up, but there were bubbles everywhere, and all was confused green waters and the sneaky grip of lily stems around her feet. She thrashed in fright, trying not to scream, clinging to her breath, then cold strong hands gripped her arms and she was pulled firmly to the surface.
She spluttered mud and pond water, hair plastered to her head, finding herself sitting on a very solid and present bottom with the water washing under her armpits and lilies tangled around her hands.
“Soz,” her rescuer said. “Didn’t mean to give you a fright.”
Miriam drew a whooping breath, then managed, “What happened?”
“You fell in the hole,” the creature in front of her said, brushing mud off her scales. She had exceptionally sharp teeth, and clear third eyelids slid across her eyes as she blinked.
“Yeah. It’s bottomless. You shouldn’t go stumbling about in it.”
“The hole’s bottomless?”
“The pond. Although, I guess, yeah.”
Miriam pushed hair out of her face and looked at the car. Alice had obviously decided Miriam was in no danger and had carried on to reach it, which Miriam felt was a little unfair.
“I’m fine, thanks,” she said to no one in particular, then looked at the water sprite, with her lank weed-green hair and clammy skin. “Are you Nellie?” They hadn’t exactly met before, but thanks to the dragons she knew of the sprite.
“Yeah,” Nellie said. “What’s with the car in my pond?”
“I don’t know,” Miriam admitted. “Is it in the hole?” The hole thing seemed a little dangerous, really, with Alice next to the car directing efforts to get the man out, her voice clear and crisp over the splashing of people arriving off the green and the road.
The sprite frowned. “It kind of moves. Takes what it wants, you know.”
“Oh dear.” Now it was a sentient bottomless hole.
“Well, it’s not going to take the car, if that’s what you’re worried about. Too many witnesses.”
“It tried to take me.” She sounded aggrieved. She felt aggrieved.
The sprite snorted, and caught a water beetle, popping it in her mouth and crunching noisily. “You pretty much dived head first into it. What was it going to do, spit you out?”
Miriam thought that was exactly what the mysterious hole should have done, but as she was still likely sitting within easy reach of it, she decided not to say so.
“I’m off,” the sprite said. “Too many humans. Worse than a Sunday afternoon.”
“Where are you going?” Miriam asked.
“Around,” the sprite said, waving vaguely. The village of Toot Hansell nestled within a network of streams like a jewel in a complicated setting, and they cut and bisected the streets and yards in unexpected places. Miriam supposed it was quite handy for a water sprite. “Anyhow, you best stop talking to me. People’ll start wondering about you, sitting in a pond talking to yourself.” The sprite chuckled and vanished beneath the surface, and, with some difficulty, Miriam clambered to her feet and busied herself with getting disentangled from the overfamiliar embrace of the water lilies.
The sprite was right, of course. Miriam was Sensitive, and, more than that, she and the ladies of the Women’s Institute, being accustomed to dragons, had become rather used to seeing the magical Folk of the world. But Folk are faint, not invisible but unnoticeable, and as most people don’t expect to see them, most people don’t. Which was to the advantage of the Folk, but also did make it look to the uninformed observer as if one were talking to nothing.
There was a sudden commotion over by the car as it started moving and the nose slipped deeper into the pond, the back wheels lifting off the bank again. Miriam struggled to her feet and waded over to join Alice just as two young men dragged the driver out from behind the wheel and hauled him to the shore. The car groaned and wobbled, and with a noisy gurgle the front end dropped as if a chasm had opened beneath it. Miriam grabbed Alice’s arm and they staggered back, watching as the boot lifted to the sky like a whale raising its tail to dive. Then it stopped, shuddering, vertical in the pond with the water lapping over the back of the front seats.
“Well done,” Alice called to the two rather pale young men. “Just in time.”
“It really shouldn’t be able to do that,” Miriam said, staring at the car.
Alice smiled. “One would think you’d just arrived in Toot Hansell, with that sort of talk.”
* * *
They waded to the bank and scrambled ashore, Miriam slipping on the slick sides of the pond. She was trying not to look at the … the person lying on the crushed ferns and chipped wood, unmoving as an older woman with short grey hair checked his airway.
“Nothing,” the woman said, and positioned herself at the man’s side, elbows locked and her back straight as she started chest compressions. “Anyone with first aid training? It’s been a while since I had to do these.”
Miriam made an unhappy gesture. “I think I remember.” She didn’t want to touch him. Maybe if she didn’t touch him it wouldn’t be real. It’d just be some emergency drill, a mannequin made up to look like Thomas, who’d sat smiling and sweating in the garden with them only a few hours ago.
“I can do it,” Alice said, shooing a couple of bystanders out of the way and getting carefully onto her knees. “Do you think there’s much chance?”
“I don’t have any of my kit with me,” the woman said. “But it’s always worth a try, isn’t it?”
Miriam tried not to think of Thomas laughing at one of Gert’s off-colour jokes, and to remember what else to do in an emergency. “Has someone called an ambulance?”
“Yes,” the man with the boat said. His face was so pale Miriam wanted to tell him to sit down and put his head between his knees. “They’re on the way.”
Alice pinched Thomas’ nose and breathed for him, then looked up. “They’ll be a while if they’re coming from Skipton.”
Miriam nodded, then suddenly thought of something. “There’s a defibrillator in the village hall.” She pointed at the two young men who had pulled Thomas from the car. “One of you lads run over there and get it. Hurry!”
They glanced at each other, then took off for the road at a sprint, wet trainers squelching. Miriam thought they probably wanted to get well away from the body, and she didn’t blame them.
“Well remembered, Miriam,” Alice said, and took over the chest compressions, the other woman correcting her hand placement before going back to breathing for poor Thomas. Miriam thought her own effort was a sorry contribution, and wondered what else she could do. She wanted to do something, but it had been so long since she’d done her last first aid course, she wasn’t at all sure she’d be able to do any of it right. The ambulance had been called. The defibrillator was on its way. There was nothing she could do but be here, a witness to a man’s passing. She swallowed, her throat clicking, and watched the two older women working in unspeaking rhythm, trying to catch a life that was already gone. She could feel its absence in the way the sun had lost its heat and the day had grown shadows longer than they had any right to be. She could smell the fuel from the car, and she didn’t try and stop the tears that stung the corners of her eyes.
* * *
After the ambulance had arrived with lights flashing and sirens screaming, it left in short order and at a rather more sedate pace. The police, who had arrived at much the same time, stayed a little longer, unrolling crime scene tape and taking names and phone numbers of the witnesses. The sun had crept behind some clouds, as if unable to watch, and Miriam rather wished she could do the same. She still couldn’t quite believe what she’d seen, although the car stood resolutely upright in the pond, reminding her.
“We just had lunch with him!” she said to Alice. “How could this happen?”
“I don’t know,” Alice said. “Poor Bryan.”
“Poor Bryan,” Miriam echoed, the words distant to her own ears. Thomas and Bryan would come – used to come – and sit on the green on Mondays, when their pub was closed. It was the nicest pub of the three in the village, not far from the green and the church, restored respectfully and lovingly, with garden tables for the summer and open fires for the winter. They’d bring a picnic down to the green, with rosé wine if it was warm and a thermos of something if it was cold, and sit back in deckchairs reading books and talking to anyone who happened by. Once she’d stopped to have a drink with them and had watched Bryan present Thomas with a daisy chain. Thomas had still been wearing it on his head when she’d left them, the petals shining in his sensible hair like gems. She swallowed hard.
“Do you want a drink?” the woman who had started CPR asked. Her name was Nora, Miriam had eventually remembered, and she had five cats and a nice husband who had rushed over, seen Thomas, and promptly fainted. “I’ve got some whisky in the cupboard, and I could rather do with something after all that.” She nodded at her husband, sitting on the bank looking pale. “And I think he needs one, too.”
Alice shook her head. “I think we’ll just head home. Our bags are still over on the green somewhere.”
“Alright,” Nora said. “Come on, Lionel.” She helped her husband up and they headed across the road to their house, and Alice patted Miriam’s arm.
“Shall we get home?”
“Yes, please,” Miriam said. “I need a cup of tea.”
“That seems like an excellent plan,” Alice said, and they started to pick their way around the pond arm in arm, Miriam hoping her muddy skirt wasn’t making too much of a mess of Alice’s white capris. Not that they were looking any too clean anymore, either.
“Ms Martin?” someone called behind them. “Ms Ellis?”
They stopped, turning back to see Ben, Jasmine’s husband, padding toward them. He looked worried, and there was a smear of blue on the corner of his mouth. “Hello, Ben,” Alice said.
“Hello.” He hesitated, then said, “You were first on the scene?”
“We were.” Alice agreed, and Miriam made a small noise. It was hard to be nervous of Ben, who was tall and young-looking and red-faced, but he was still the police. And talking to the police always made her feel she’d done something wrong.
“Um, so, I know I took your statements and everything, but I think the inspector will still want to see you.”
“Colin?” Alice said. “That’ll be quite alright.”
“I’ll make some carrot cake,” Miriam said. “Colin always likes carrot cake.” Detective Inspector Colin Collins was her nephew, which made him about as unfrightening as any police officer could be.
“He’ll probably be by tomorrow,” Ben said, checking his watch. “So, you know, if you can be around …?”
“Don’t leave town,” Miriam said, and a little bubble of laughter popped up from somewhere. She covered her mouth with one hand, her ears getting hot as Alice and Ben looked at her curiously.
“Not really,” Ben said. “I mean, he’s got your phone number and everything.”
“He knows where we live,” Miriam agreed, and tried to swallow a giggle.
“I think we’d best go home,” Alice said. “We’ve had a long day.”
“Yes,” Ben said, scratching the back of his neck. “I can imagine.”
“You’ve got something just there,” Alice said, touching the corner of her mouth, and they left Ben scrubbing at the blue dye as they padded off across the green in search of their abandoned bags. Miriam wasn’t terribly surprised to find she was crying again.
And now, lovely people – just a couple of days to go until Game of Scones is released! Get your pre-orders in now, or start from the beginning with Baking Bad, which is free from the retailer of your choice.
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