Copyright © 2016 Penelope Sotheby
First published in 2016 by Jonmac Limited.
All rights reserved.
This book is a work of fiction. All names, characters and places, incidents are used entirely fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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(A Diane Dimbleby Cozy Mystery)
(A Diane Dimbleby Cozy Mystery)
(A Diane Dimbleby Cozy Mystery)
(A Diane Dimbleby Cozy Mystery)
(A Diane Dimbleby Cozy Mystery)
(A Diane Dimbleby Cozy Mystery)
(A Daniel Swift Mystery)
“Good morning Constable,” bellowed Diane Dimbleby as she strode rapidly around the corner of Monk’s Market, startling Martin Jackson, the village’s dedicated police officer.
White headphones engulfed the sides of Diane’s head, a thrumming beat making her ignorant of the volume of her voice. Her eyes were magnified by large thick glasses that sat improbably upon the bridge of her thin nose, like a bottle balanced on a dagger’s edge. Each vigorous stride saw her thrusting out her elbows and her pink velvet tracksuit billowed around her small frame, seeming many sizes too big.
“Let’s hope that holds off for the fête, eh,” yelled Diane, who vaguely waved a skeletal hand to the north. Dark clouds bulged and slid ponderously across the sky, threatening rain and ruin to the fête.
Martin turned as Diane streaked past, letting her trailing hand turn into a wave. He closed his mouth that had been ready to reply but was never given the chance. Watching her go, he saw Diane cross the main street and head to the old cricket pitch and the village green where preparations were well underway.
“She’s a funny old bird,” remarked Tommy Giles, stepping out from the convenience store in a stained dark-green apron. “You think she can see the centre of the universe with those glasses?”
“Some say she can see into souls and pick out the secrets we all keep hidden,” replied Martin absently as he reached up to adjust his helmet that had drifted slightly during his encounter with Diane.
“Let’s hope not, mate. I don’t need any old biddy seeing my privates.”
Tommy winked, and his perpetual grin got wider. He slouched in the doorway, one hand in the pocket of his baggy jeans, the other scratching his side.
“I don’t think anyone needs to see them, Tom.”
“Speaking of which, how was your night out with Jilly?”
Martin blushed slightly, straightening up to make himself a little taller, though he was still a head shorter than Tommy, and started walking down the street.
“Got a job to do, Tom,” he said as he picked up the pace, putting the convenience store behind him. “See you at the Goose later.”
Tommy chuckled and shook his head before turning back to the fluorescent interior, grabbing a pack of tins that he was supposed to be stacking on a shelf.
♠ ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠
Diane’s rapid progress slowed as she neared the large tents that had been erected all across the green. Just beyond them in the parking lot was a group of vans and trucks covered in gaudy artwork, people milling around them, lifting canopies and whole sides of the vehicles to reveal jumbles of stuffed animals and toys. A couple of large lorries were unhitching webs of steel trusses like petals on a blooming flower.
She saw Douglas Macdonald gesticulating wildly at a group of workmen that were holding mugs in thick, grimy fingers. He was obviously very animated about something and Diane wondered what it could be with the fête opening the next day. Douglas flapped his arms one last time, his face a blazing red, highlighted by his stark white shirt, then stormed away.
“Mr. Macdonald,” cried Diane, removing her headphones and stabbing a finger at her phone to pause the noise.
Douglas looked up from scowling at the ground in front of him, and his demeanour changed instantly. Stepping over guide ropes that booby-trapped his path, he met Diane between the tent for the cake contest and the one housing the café.
“Ms. Dimbleby, good to see you. Please, call me Douglas,” he said in a heavy Glaswegian accent.
“Are the preparations going well?”
“Oh yes yes, quite well,” replied Douglas. He nodded his head at the group still drinking their tea. “Just a little friendly encouragement needed here and there.”
“Did my marquee lady get you what you needed?”
“She’s been the smoothest part of all this. The tent was delivered yesterday at the crack of dawn. I only spoke to her that night. Thank you for suggesting her to me.”
“Oh, my pleasure Mr. Macdonald. I’m glad she was able to come through for you.”
“I’ll have a slice of the winning sponge cake set aside for you,” said Douglas, “Mrs. Gilbert will be the one to beat again, I think. She’s got a magical touch with those cakes.”
“That would be delightful. I have been trying to get her to make one for my niece’s wedding, but she’s just so focused on the fête.”
“Aye, she’s a determined competitor. And I’m sure the prize money doesn’t hurt either.”
Diane smiled at the not-so-subtle implication.
“You are very generous, you know. I think you’ll have a bumper crop of cakes this year. Everyone wants to try their luck for such a prize.”
“Never thought of trying your hand, Ms. Dimbleby?”
“Oh, definitely not. My late husband used to say that my apple pies were delicious and then feed half of it to the dog. He may have been a detective, but he was a terrible liar.” Diane smiled at the memory. “I know my strengths, Mr. Macdonald, and few of them lie in the kitchen.”
Douglas gave a hearty laugh and nodded his head in agreement.
“I know what you mean, I know what you mean. Food spontaneously combusts when I approach it in the kitchen. I’m glad to have Mrs. Hartnell to cook for me now. Saves on the smoke damage.”
With a smile in her eyes, Diane bid Douglas farewell and, slotting her headphones in place, continued her speedwalk around the village.
♠ ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠
Jilly Newman helped her father lift another crate of tomatoes down from the back of his van to the cart sitting on a grassy lot. Similar carts stood around with similar families stocking up their personal stalls as couples wandered around looking at the produce. The local farmers who usually spent Fridays at the open air market had pulled out all the stops for the day that preceded the fête’s opening. People had already started to fill the hotel and were using the spare time to check out the local wares. A couple of stalls were making a lot of noise hawking their wares, calling out prices for bags of sweetcorn and tubs of tomatoes.
“Blast that Mickey Jenkins,” said Jilly’s father, Larry Newman. “He’s got a mouth the size of Shrewsbury. He ought to be made to wear a sign or something, the amount of noise he puts out.”
“Oh, dad. He’s just trying to run his business,” replied Jilly, tucking a stray blonde hair behind her ear.
“I don’t mind that, but he’s scaring sheep two counties over. They’ll be having kittens instead of lambs.”
Jilly turned back to the inside of the van, reaching for her mobile phone that was wedged into her trouser pocket. She flipped on the screen, trying to hide it from her dad who was still mumbling about the noise. She hadn’t received any messages.
“Why haven’t you messaged me?” she said to the empty message inbox.
“Who you talking to?” her father said, poking his head around the van door.
“No one, dad. I was just talking to myself trying to decide what to bring out next,” said Jilly as she slid her phone back into her pocket hiding it from her father’s view.
“When you start arguing with yourself I’ll call the nuthouse to come get you. Now, I think we need more corn, love. We’re a little low still. “
Larry disappeared again as a group of people drifted by, manhandling a fruit or vegetable. Jilly could hear him bartering with a couple about some strawberries. She slid the crate of sweetcorn to the lip of the van, hopped down and carried it over to the stall.
“Morning Jilly,” said Diane, appearing from behind a couple that were migrating along the stall front.
“Ms. Dimbleby, good morning to you too,” said Jilly as she dropped the crate to the ground, narrowly missing her toes.
“Two pounds of those delightful tomatoes please,” said Diane, pointing to a stack of fist-sized fruit.
Jilly pulled out a plastic bag and started selecting tomatoes, firm and fragrant, just as she knew Ms. Dimbleby liked them.
“How’s your mother preparing for the contest?” enquired Diane. “Mrs. Gilbert has been on a roll. Though it sounded like last year was close between the two of them.”
“Mom’s got a secret weapon this year, so Mrs. Gilbert had better watch out.”
“Ooh, that sounds like a delicious rivalry. Lemon sponge cakes at dawn, eaten at twenty paces.”
Jilly giggled and handed Diane her bag, taking the proffered money.
“I wouldn’t put it past them to come to blows over the contest tomorrow,” whispered Jilly, leaning over the stall. “Gilbert’s already been bad-mouthing mom to Mr. Carson and the vicar, that and buying them drinks down the Goose. Buttering up the judges, she is.”
Diane frowned at the revelation, pinching at her sense of fair play.
“Well, at least Mr. Macdonald seems to have avoided her machinations. I can’t see him letting two votes overrule who he thinks should win. His money helps keep those two in business, you know.”
“Well, Mrs. Gilbert had better watch her step. Mum’s coming, all guns blazing this time.”
“Good good,” replied Diane, who moved aside as more people wandered up to the stall. “Good luck with the sales, dear. And to your mom too.”
Jilly gave a quick wave and went to answer a question from the young woman.
As the rush died down, Larry leaned over to his daughter and said quietly into her ear:
“Be careful around Ms. Dimbleby. I hear she’s got contacts in the police up in Shrewsbury. Husband was a copper too. Word is she helped catch his killers. So watch what you say, right?”
“Yes dad, of course I will.”
Jilly couldn’t just tell her dad that she had been out with Constable Martin Jackson the night before. He would never trust her with anything again.
♠ ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠
Diane pushed open the front door of her home to be greeted by a half-hearted barking from the end of the hallway.
“Now now, Rufus. I was only on my morning walk. I’d take you with me if you could keep up.”
A small dog, greying hairs around its mouth, peered around the kitchen doorway. Rufus looked unconvinced by whatever Diane was saying to him. Unconvinced or apathetic. Diane could never tell.
Wandering back to the kitchen, Diane dropped the bag of tomatoes on the pine table and went over to the kettle to make a cup of tea. While the water boiled, she removed her jacket and headphones, placing them on the kitchen counter while she checked her phone for any calls she had ignored. She found technology to be very intrusive when she was out in the world and preferred to ignore texts and calls until in the comfort of her own home.
Albert had called while she was walking, as had Susan Talbot. She decided to call Albert first as he never took long on the phone, his understanding of technology only matched by cavemen, and he disliked not understanding anything.
After a couple of short bursts of noises, Albert answered in his usual brusque manner.
“It’s Diane. I was just out for a walk.”
“Oh Diane, my dear. I called about tomorrow. Pick you up at ten, right?”
“That’s right, and I’ll show you the wonders of country cooking.”
“Great. I’ll be there at ten. Look forward to seeing you.”
“See you then, Albert.”
They both hung up, and Diane went to the violently rattling kettle and reached for a cup and the jar of teabags.
“I tell you, Rufus. He never minces words on the phone. It is going to be nice to see him tomorrow though. It would be the perfect day for a proposal, don’t you think?”
The dog sat heavily on the ground, its belly resting on the floor forcing it to sit a little taller. Rufus let out a small huff through his nose as if not impressed by Diane’s question. His small black eyes stared up with a look of sympathy for the poor human.
“Oh come on now. He’s got to do it sometime. It’s been five years since we met on that trip to the Pennines. I don’t know what he’s waiting for.”
Rufus responded by licking his belly and lying down, chin flat to the floor and eyes closed as if listening to all this talk was exhausting. Diane enjoyed Rufus’s commentary. It was like a disinterested deity trying to ignore the jabbering of its creations.
She poured the boiling water over the teabag, filling her cup, and dialled Susan Talbot while it steeped. She wondered what rumours Susan might have heard this time. Susan picked up, and the deluge of chatter started, barely pausing to acknowledge any of Diane replies.
“Diane, dearest, I’ve been dying to talk to you. How was your walk? Good. You worked with that Douglas Macdonald a couple of days ago, didn’t you? Not worked, but you know what I mean. Well anyway, you know how he is with his money, splashing it around like a bad aftershave. Who pays five hundred pounds for a lemon sponge cake? Five hundred pounds. And all the money he’s dished out on this fête and to the vicar, not to mention that ironworks project thing just outside of town. I hear it’s thousands and thousands of pounds. Anyway, where was I? Oh yes, so anyway, I was talking to Kathy Riley, you know, the old headmistress, and she heard from Tilly Hutchens, who has a brother-in-law from Glasgow, that Macdonald might be on the run. Yes, on the run! He says there was a security van robbery in Edinburgh that was about the time Macdonald came to town with his pockets bulging and bought Critchley House. Imagine that, old Douglas Macdonald holding up a security van and running off into the night only to end up managing a village fête! I tell you, he’s hiding from something, and that just makes sense. You see how angry he gets sometimes. So it all pans out. What do you think, Diane?”
When Susan paused while talking it always came as a surprise and Diane was caught off guard. She stammered into the phone for a second to give herself time to process everything Susan had unloaded like a machine gun. Diane concluded, as usual, that Susan’s rumours about Douglas Macdonald didn’t make much sense. He had been a deep-sea diver that uncovered Nazi treasure, a smuggler who sold a stolen Rembrandt to a secret buyer, and now a robber of security vans.
“Susan, you can’t just go spending money after a bank robbery, you know. The bank keeps track of all the serial numbers on the notes, and the police have the other banks keep an eye out. If Mr. Macdonald rolled into town and started buying up land left and right, the police would be all over him like ants on honey. He’s been around here for what, fifteen years? I think even the Shropshire police would have tracked him down by now.”
There were a series of “Ah, but” sputters at the end of the line; these were Susan’s attempts to bypass Diane’s argument. He’d paid off the police, paid off the bank clerks, laundered his money through drug gangs, and numerous other steadily more outrageous comebacks. Diane listened for a while, pulling her teabag from the cup before she agreed with Susan that it was definitely plausible now, with all those things taken into account.
Susan seemed happy and rang off to call the network of women that helped the ”truth” get out; “doing a public service” was how they saw it.
Diane took her tea and headed to the living room and the chair next to her bookcase. She wanted to ignore what Susan had talked about, but her mind kept asking the question: “How did he get all that money?”
♠ ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠
Albert was punctual as ever, knocking on Diane’s door at 9:30 am. She knew him well enough by now to be grabbing her coat at 9:29. She opened the door to dazzling sunlight, the clouds of the previous day having skirted the area as if in recognition of the importance of the day.
The streets outside were lined with cars; illegal parking was being ignored for the day as the village enjoyed the influx of people from all around. The centennial had been planned for almost a year, and Apple Mews was going to take full advantage of it. Great groups moved to and fro across the main street, and Albert reached for Diane’s hand as they worked through the crowds. This area of the main street had been coned off to stop accidents, and a detour led through the backstreets for people looking to park.
The front door to The Waddling Goose pub was oozing people, an overflow from inside spilling out onto the benches and tables outside. Plates of breakfast foods were being delivered by sweating kitchen staff that had trouble getting back inside, before finally giving up and going around to the back door.
Albert and Diane arrived at the edge of the village green and heard a loud tapping followed by a “One Two, One Two” from the Mayor of the village, Timothy Carson. A squeal of feedback brought gasps from several in the crowd, and Bill Travers could be heard shouting something about tweaking the top end, which brought laughter and some saucy remarks from the crowd.
As they passed the marquee where the contestants were lovingly laying out their baked beauties, Diane saw Tim Carson standing on a platform that hadn’t been there the previous morning. A series of wooden planks had been used to construct a makeshift stage next to the restaurant tent, and Tim was wandering about aimlessly while Suzie Carson arranged the coloured rosettes that would be awarded to the top three contestants in each category.
“That rosette is the size of a dinner plate,” exclaimed Albert.
“For the prize of prizes, the lemon sponge victor,” responded Diane.
“That will have to be some cake. I get a pretty good one from Tesco, myself.”
Diane patted his hand gently.
“People around here take their baking very seriously.”
They both wandered over towards the contest tent and the scent of lemon wafted over them along with a faint whiff of adrenaline. Diane stopped just outside the tent, not wanting to crowd the contestants in their preparations. But what she saw opened a floodgate in her saliva glands. Iced cakes of all sizes were placed upon decorated plinths. Scones were piled high on silver dishes; at least a dozen were required to enter the contest. And there were platters of crumpets making the wooden display tables creak. It seemed that everyone that had once looked in a cookbook had decided to try their hand.
Diane pointed out Mrs. Newman’s table and the lightly iced sponge cake topped with a decorative sugar flower. She then directed Albert to look at Mrs. Gilbert’s display, a heavenly glow seeming to come from her layered sponge with edible gold decoration. The front of her table displayed the four enormous rosettes that she had won over the last five years. Albert remarked that the cake was either very good, or she was “greasing the wheels.”
“Mrs. Kendall over there,” Diane pointed to a table sagging under crumpets and scones that was being fussed over by a woman in a lilac dress and a wide-brimmed straw hat, “makes the best scones in the county. I’ll be buying a half-dozen as soon as the contest is over.”
After giving their senses a tasty start, they made their way to the restaurant tent that also contained the judging table. Columns of polystyrene cups stood upon a table next to three tea and two coffee urns. Plastic bottles of water sat in ice behind the table, readily available to the three caterers that were handing out cups and collecting money as fast as they could.
Albert left Diane at a table near the tent opening and bought them a couple of cups of tea, returning with chocolate-coated biscuits too. They sat and watched the crowds, commenting on the tea and the weather and the hustle and bustle, waiting for the official opening of the fête by the Mayor.
As the chime of the church bells wafted through the trees surrounding the village green, three dignitaries climbed the loosely nailed steps onto the platform. The tune cut short to signify the half hour, and the throngs became hushed and turned towards the stage to await the Mayor’s words.
Timothy Carson was a rotund character with hair the thickness and colour of an aged, overworked broom. Usually in a smart suit, he had foregone his usual jacket and comic tie for a thin white shirt that was open at the neck and that had the sleeves rolled up over thick forearms. He looked more in line with his old career of a foreman at a construction site than the respected mayor of a small town. Stepping up to the microphone, he scanned the crowd briefly and gave an uncharacteristic small cough.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” intoned the Mayor with all the solemnity his jovial character could muster. “Welcome to the Apple Mews Centennial Fête.”
The crowd cheered as one, the beauty of the sun-drenched day and the bubbling excitement rousing the normally reticent and sedate public to the almost bawdy level of a TV show audience. Timothy soaked it all up. He was in his element with everyone looking at him with smiles and happy hearts. He waved his hands in the air to calm the last vocal remnants of the crowd that were whistling and whooping.
“This is a very special day for Apple Mews, and we are so happy to see such a large turnout to help us celebrate. One hundred years ago, Sir Malcolm Trunbridge started this fête as a thank you to all of the people that worked and lived on his estate. Since then it has grown to be the wonder you see today, in no small part to our local benefactor and newest inhabitant of Critchley House, Douglas Macdonald.”
Douglas took a small step forward and waved a hand to the crowd who returned the gesture with a rousing applause.
“Now, today we have some special events. The big one, as you’re all aware, is the bake-off. There’s the largest number of competitors that we’ve ever had, all vying to knock reigning and repeat champion, Mrs. Vera Gilbert, from the lemon sponge cake throne and claim their five-hundred-pounds prize.”
A wave of woo’s ran through the audience at the mention of the prize money and heads turned to look for the absent Mrs. Gilbert, who was still worrying over her display and decorations in the contest tent.
“Next up is the scone contest which will be a hot one, no pun intended,” Timothy grinned, proud of his joke even as no-one joined him. “And finally, crumpets, crumpets and more crumpets.”
A lone figure wolf-whistled and yelled, “Come on, Jinny!”
“Looks like someone has a favourite already,” Tim said, throwing an exaggerated wink at the crowd to a smattering of laughter.
“I’m sure we wish all of the contestants the best of luck, and I’ll be enjoying your cakes very soon. Vendors will be selling extras afterward, and the proceeds will go to the Battling Childhood Obesity Fund.”
Puffing up his chest and straining a few shirt buttons, Timothy went for the moment he relished every year, and that everyone was waiting for.
“So, without further ado, I hereby officially open the Apple Mews Centennial Fête. Let the festivities begin!” He thrust his hands into the air, and the carnival rides started pumping out their pipe music as gears started to grind the assorted apparatus up to operational speed. He bellowed, “Have a wonderful day, everyone,” as a parting shot, but the cacophony of rides and evaporating audience meant it was lost to all but Timothy.
Like water running through a sieve, people flowed out of the central area where there were no amusements and headed along the paths to the fairground rides and stalls with selections of prize games and into the restaurant and beer tents. The flaps of the baking competition tent had been lowered, and several fans were employed blowing air into the back of it to keep the arrayed delicacies from melting and warping. This made the tent billow heartily with loose flaps snapping down as air pressures battled.
The Mayor, the vicar, and Douglas Macdonald conferred briefly, and Suzie Carson flitted back and forth between the award table and the huddled men with sheaves of paper and bottles of water. She stopped to give an explanation of the scoring categories and the rating methods.
“There are 10 points each for Flavour, Texture, Presentation, and Originality. Every cake, scone, and crumpet will need those points. I’ve laid them out with the contestant’s names,” she said, pointing to the left column, “and the categories in these tables. We will tally the scores when you have had a chance to try all of the entries.”
“I’ll need all that sugar to drag this stack of paper around with me,” remarked Douglas, wafting the ream of paper in the air and enjoying the breeze on his warm skin.
“There’s a lot of judging to do this year so try not to eat too much of each cake. I know it’s tempting,” she said as her eyes locked onto the vicar, “to eat every piece of all of them, but we don’t want to be full by the later ones and not give them a proper try.”
The vicar had been thumbing through the papers and looked up briefly to see Suzie’s eyes piercing into him. He smiled sheepishly because she knew how much he enjoyed this job. These weren’t the rushed jobs that littered the tables at a Bring and Buy Sale; the culinary mistakes rushed out for a church fundraiser. James Timmers enjoyed a good cake, and he planned to enjoy every single one today.
“Right then. Off you trot, judges. Don’t forget to cleanse your palate with the water.” Suzie waved them down the steps and towards the tent.
At the entrance flap to the tent, Constable Jackson waited to usher the gentlemen to their places. The need for a police presence had been dictated following the “Knock-Gate” affair of five years earlier when there was some question about sabotage: One contestant, bending to pick up a box, had tapped a neighbour’s table with their backside and sent their prize sponge cake tumbling to the ground, and the tapper had been hounded into the halls of infamy.
Lifting the straining flap, a rush of air caught the papers in the vicar’s hand and tried tearing them off, but Suzie Carson had been her thorough self and looped string through several of the punched holes beforehand. This left the vicar wrestling the wayward leaves in an attempt to regain order.
Striding into the tent, the judges headed for their table, and the collective heartbeats of the people standing near their treasures doubled in unison.
♠ ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠
Albert led Diane through the tides of people sloshing between stalls. He knew where she would want to go. At every carnival they had visited in their few years together, Diane had made a direct line for the Coconut Shy. Throwing small wooden balls at hairy coconuts wedged into cups on sticks seemed redundant in these days when a trip to a supermarket could procure a bag full of coconuts without any game of skill involved. But to Diane, it was much more than acquiring coconuts. She would laugh at a wayward throw, then hurl another along the same line with more force, and the laugh would reach deep into her and, by the end of five balls, she would have enough cheer to keep her smiling for the day.
She knew exactly where he was going. He wasn’t much for trying his arm and looking the fool. “I’m too old to look like an idiot in front of kids,” he would say to her.
“That’s exactly why we can look like idiots,” she would respond. “If you can’t make yourself look ridiculous at our age, then there’s never going to be a good time.”
He would shake his head at her and lighten up his old fuddy-duddy attitude just enough that she would start giggling at his attempts to relax. He was the same way with dancing. Trying to loosen up just made him more awkward and stiffer so that her toes were in even more danger than usual.
They pushed through to the Coconut Shy, and Diane spent five pounds on progressively worse attempts. Even Albert couldn’t hold in the chuckles as the balls flew progressively wilder. By sheer luck, one wayward ball glanced off another person’s coconut, and it rolled sedately off its perch like a stunned owl. Diane cheered and handed her coconut to the small girl whose line she had crossed with a smiling apology.
They walked on to a loop toss, and Albert won a small fluffy orange toy that he gave to Diane in a solemn ceremony, as if handing over a precious gem. Then it was onward to watch others as they tested their strength and swooped around on the ends of the arms of a mechanical octopus. Squeals and laughter filled their ears as people immersed themselves in simple pleasures and pitted their wits against the ingenious carnival folk at their games.
“I’m parched,” said Albert after watching groups of children whirling around on the waltzers. “How about some lunch and a cuppa?”
“Albert, you read my mind. And the church clock just struck 11:30, so we’ll beat the rush.”
Looking around, Albert got his bearings and plotted a course, his eyes being a level just over the heads of most people at the fête.
“Hold on, Diane. We’re going to be passing through the perimeter of the Shooting Range. It’s like the Wild West in there.”
Without another word, Diane felt herself pulled along through the crush. Albert was a fine man; she had known that for a good while now. And for all his stiff upper lip, he could drop a comical statement with a straight face, and it didn’t even seem like he realized. She felt it gave him this hidden childishness, like a child locked out of the house who can only talk through the letterbox.
They reached the alley between tents that led back to the stage as a procession passed in front. The three judges walked away from the contest tent and were being pursued by a gaggle of women buffeting each other and in a heated discussion, some in raised voices. The lead judge, the Mayor, held in his hand a sealed envelope that was being given so much respect that a velvet pillow would not have been out of place to bear it hence. He was trying for a dignified expression, but seemed to be amused by the conversations coming from the procession.
Diane and Albert ducked into the restaurant tent and found their old table still free. Albert went for more tea, and Diane watched the bustle press forward to the stage front, the tension trying to pull her in. She saw Jilly Newman and her mother form a union against the press of Mrs. Kendall, who was trying to get closer to the front. Her smaller height would normally have meant people would let her slip through, but these were not normal times, and there was an each-to-their-own attitude in the crowd.
The Mayor handed off the envelope to his wife and, flanked by his honour guard of the vicar and Mr. Macdonald, he went to the microphone. As his hand gripped the stem, it was as if a hypnotist had triggered the audience for silence. The fairground noises continued, but the heads of everyone in the crowd was transfixed by that hand.
“Ladies and gentlemen. What a baking contest that was. I have judged this for the last few years, and I haven’t seen anything like this quality and quantity,” he said as he reached down to pat his slightly rounder belly. “This was a tough one, I can tell you.”
Restlessness rustled through the aprons of the onlookers, a mental willing for the mayor to get on with it.
Diane noticed the vicar was fidgeting a little too, his hand straying to his pocket while Timothy spoke. It seemed as though he would realize what he was unconsciously doing and pull his hand away, his eyes flicking around to see who had spotted.
“I know, I need to get to the important stuff,” said the Mayor, as if picking up on the vibe of his audience. “But let me just say that there are no losers here today. There may be those that are slightly richer, but that display of the baking skill has you all getting my applause. Great work to you all.”
His platitudes fell upon deaf ears. To the contestants, there was only the winner and then everyone else, the losers. Suzie stepped forward and handed the bright white envelope to her husband, then retreated to the award table.
Albert’s return made Diane realize how she had become mesmerized by the proceedings. He slid her tea over and asked, “What did I miss?”
Diane waved a quieting hand in his direction, and Albert turned to feign interest in the results.
“The winner of five hundred pounds and the right to call their lemon sponge cake the best in Shropshire is…”
Not a breath was inhaled as he slid his finger along the envelope, ripping through the paper with a slowness that filled the air with electricity. Every tear seemed to take double the time of the last. This felt like the opening of the world’s largest envelope.
Then finally his finger was free, and he reached in to pinch a single sheet of paper, edges trimmed with gold.
Diane thought someone was about to scream as Timothy glanced over the paper and cleared his throat.
“Mrs. Vera Gilbert.”
Whether from holding their breath or from actual shock, an audible sigh whooshed from the contestants. Nobody moved, no clapping, jeering or cheering. Just that single sigh.
A flowered hat bobbed into view followed by a face that held one of the smuggest looks imaginable by man. There was a reluctance in the crowd to let her through, as if delaying her might change the result for the better.
She finally popped loose of the crowd and strode triumphantly onto the stage. Suzie had handed the dinner plate-sized rosette to the vicar, and Douglas Macdonald held a slightly oversized cheque. Timothy met Mrs. Gilbert at the top of the stairs and, after shaking her hand, escorted her to the award line.
“This is a new record for the fête. Congratulations Mrs. Gilbert, it was quite an achievement.”
She passed down the line, accumulating the prizes and exchanging a few words as she shook hands. A slow clap had started in isolated pockets of the onlookers, and it spread to a reluctant applause over the course of a minute. Faces looked on with a mix of expressions, few of them congratulatory, some of them openly hostile.
“What a historic win. Now on to the other categories.”
When Mrs. Beatrice Foster was given the award for best scone, there were audible shrieks coming from the direction of Mrs. Kendall. She tried jumping to see over the crowd and leaned into her neighbour to ask if she had heard correctly. A purple tinge spread over her cheeks, and one small fist balled and uncoiled repeatedly.
Diane was distracted by Mrs. Kendall’s reaction that she only heard, “smoothest on the palate” from the Mayor.
The biggest surprise of a good kind came in the crumpet category where the outsider Jilly Newman was given first place. The gasps of surprise held no malice, and a hearty round of applause clattered from the crowd as she accepted her prize. Her grin could have run a solar farm for a month and everyone bathed in it, letting it wash away their ill feelings towards Mrs. Gilbert.
Diane found herself smiling too, and she clapped along with the contestants for the young girl.
From the left stage, Constable Jackson ran up the steps two at a time while brandishing a bouquet of lilies and daisies. He almost hurled them at Jilly as he stumbled to a stop before her, his smile a match for her own. Both of their cheeks blossomed pink, and she shyly took the bouquet and nestled it in the crook of her arm. The Constable leaned in for a quiet word before retreating back off the stage and leaving Mrs. Gilbert to feel like she wasn’t the big winner after all.
♠ ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠
Albert sliced the knife through a piece of roast lamb, smothering it in mint sauce before devouring it like a man held captive and starved by sheep. A bronzed roast potato followed it along with a fork-load of green beans. Diane watched the carnivore at work while she demurely worked on her roast chicken salad.
While in a tent, Douglas Macdonald had brought in one of the finest catering services in Shrewsbury to work the restaurant. This gave the illusion of stale crisps and limp sandwiches while the reality was finely crafted dishes of precisely cooked meats and vegetables seasoned to perfection.
Across the far side of the dining area, a larger table had been set and reserved and was now occupied by the judges and winners of the bakery contest. Douglas had set on a special spread for this elite group and, as a caterer reached over to pour fresh cups of tea and coffee, the Mayor was laughing heavily at a story he was still only half of the way through recounting. To the right of the Mayor was Mr. Macdonald, who had Mrs. Gilbert next to him, followed by Jilly Newman, the vicar, and Mrs. Foster. They were all smiling, though clearly not having as good of a time as the Mayor.
The second course of food was being brought out, and plates were being cleared to make way for several platters. Neighbouring tables craned their necks to get a glimpse of the delights that were being lavished on the victors and saw glimpses of braised duck and sautéed potatoes in a white sauce.
Martin Jackson leaned in behind Jilly to whisper quietly to her, and she handed him the bouquet that she had kept close to hand, resting them on her knees. The Mayor gave her a quick wink as the Constable stepped back and enjoyed her embarrassment as a taste of his distant youth.
“Albert, what do you say we have one of Jilly’s crumpets?” enquired Diane.
“Great idea,” Albert replied around a mouthful of lamb, and he pulled loose his napkin from his shirt neck and headed for the dessert table. He returned with two crumpets and some clotted cream and strawberries for one of Mrs. Kendall’s scones.
“The poor old dear seemed apoplectic, so I would feel bad not buying one of her scones.”
Diane buttered the warm crumpet and watched it dissolve into the pores before sinking her teeth into the light pillow and letting her taste buds savour the mix. She was sure the judges had made the right choice. It was buttery, sweet, light and a little firm, and took Diane back to her parent’s breakfast table where her mother had made crumpets every Saturday.
She took another bite as someone coughed, the sharp noise cutting into her memory. Another harsher cough sounded and washed the wispy images away. Voices were rising as another cough backed out, louder still and followed by a laboured sucking for air. Chairs were clattering over as people got to their feet, and Diane saw Mr. Macdonald and Martin Jackson in motion. The breathing became more frantic, screeches coming from a throat unable to pull in enough air. Someone screamed and another voice was shouting orders, and all the while the attempts to breathe got fainter until they finally stopped.
Diane was on her feet and rushing to see if she could help; her classes on CPR had been a while ago, but she remembered the rudiments. People stumbled away from the large table, its porcelain dishes going unnoticed now. Chairs were scattered in her path, but her exercise regime had kept her agile and able to twist and vault where needed.
Another figure mirrored her path from a different side of the tent and Diane glanced over, spotting Inspector Darrell Crothers in uncharacteristic jeans and t-shirt making for the same table.
They arrived simultaneously, acknowledging each other with a glance, and the Inspector pushed through what was left of the gawkers.
Martin Jackson knelt on the floor, his hand cradling the neck of Vera Gilbert as her head rested on his leg. Her eyes were wide, her face a deep shade of blue, lips curled back in the last final spasm, the last attempt to cling to a life that had already left her.
Inspector Crothers flashed his identification to the crowd and, pointing to three men, ordered them to stop anyone from leaving the tent. As they moved over to the restaurant tent opening, he already knew it was too little too late. People had been scurrying out of the tent through the wide open side that was of more use in venting the warm air of the tent than in stopping a fleeing suspect.
“Step back everyone. Find a seat at a table somewhere. You’re contaminating the crime scene.”
Constable Jackson lowered Mrs. Gilbert’s head to the floor and rose to usher people away from the area. Most people found a seat as far away as possible from the Inspector and the crime as though the further they were, the less likely they would be a suspect. A stubborn few had to be pushed by the Constable to get their legs moving, their heads turning to catch one more glimpse of the dead body as they were manhandled away.
The Inspector reached for his phone and dialled the Shrewsbury station. Diane stood with the judges and remaining winners, her glasses amplifying the movement of her eyes as they scanned over the area, alert for any peculiarities of the scene.
“No, it can’t be,” came a low voice behind her shoulder and Diane turned to see Mrs. Kendall, her frail hand over her mouth, staring at the edge of the group.
“How can it be?” she muttered to herself, her eyes sparkling with suppressed tears.
Diane didn’t know the two women had been close friends, but she had the feeling that wasn’t what Mrs. Kendall was shocked by. There was something in her voice. It wasn’t the horror at the ghastly death of a friend. There was almost relief mixed in with the surprise.
As she turned to ask Mrs. Kendall what she had meant, the small woman shuffled off, heading for the farthest table still available with her eyes downcast, and she noticeably avoided contact with anyone.
Inspector Crothers rose from his position over the body, pale blue gloves snapping off his fingers after running a cursory examination of the body. A scowl added contours to his otherwise youthful face, and he had let the furrowed brow run over the people remaining in the area; the people that had been at the table with Mrs. Gilbert and the catering staff that had served them.
“I don’t want any of you discussing this amongst you, do you understand? I will be interviewing each of you in turn at that table over there.” He motioned to a deserted table that still had the remnants of a lemon sponge crumbled across the tablecloth. “Please try to cooperate as it will make this go a lot faster.”
To Constable Jackson, he said, “Go to everyone in the room and take their names and addresses. Find out who they saw in the tent and who isn’t here now.”
With a crisp salute, the Constable headed off to the outlying tables that were populated by most of the remaining patrons. As he stepped between tables, he unbuttoned a pocket and pulled out a small notebook and a pencil that dangled from an attached string.
“Please, take some seats around this table,” he said directing the remaining group to a nearby table. “I need this area to be left clear. The coroner and a crime scene team are coming in from Shrewsbury.”
Expecting no argument and not allowing anyone to even attempt to do so, Inspector Crothers pulled the mobile phone out again and moved away from the group.
Diane took that as her cue to begin ushering the shell-shocked group to the chairs around the vacant table. The vicar, more used to death than anyone else at the table, had an arm around Jilly who was quietly sobbing and trying to speak through the tears. The vicar nodded and whispered consoling words to her as he followed Diane’s lead and moved Jilly to a chair.
Douglas Macdonald slowly shook his head while his gaze never left the body of Mrs. Gilbert. Diane moved to take his arm, and she was able to guide him as if he was blind. Her touch seemed to release something behind his eyes, and he looked Diane in the face.
“Was that for me?” he said with a quiver in his voice. “Was that…”
His voice trailed off as the fugue once more took his mind and Diane pushed him into a seat where he stared blankly at the tablecloth.
Mrs. Foster was shivering, and the Mayor had an arm around her waist that seemed to be the only reason she was still upright. Timothy Carson looked over at Diane, who beckoned him to a chair next to Douglas. He deposited her and stood behind her back with a hand upon her shoulder, fearing that she might topple to the ground without his contact.
The catering staff, mostly young men and women, helped each other to another table and whispered heatedly amongst themselves, despite the Inspector’s insistence that they do otherwise. The catering manager moved around the table while whispering a few words to each of her crew, and their discussions dropped one by one. Exaggerated glances and nodding heads were the only communication left to them.
Inspector Crothers chatted briefly with the catering manager and they disappeared out the back of the tent, returning a couple of minutes later with a crisp new tablecloth that they draped carefully over Mrs. Gilbert’s body.
Old Doctor Hamilton pottered in with his tweed jacket draped over his arm, and Inspector Crothers beckoned him over to the body. They conferred briefly before the doctor pulled back the sheet and began to examine Mrs. Gilbert, his hands moving expertly from eyes to mouth to neck and wrist. He clicked his tongue softly as if admonishing the dead woman for being in such a state.
“I can’t be sure Inspector, but I’ve known her for years, and there’s never been a heart problem once. That’s not to say there wasn’t an underlying issue. But a condition this severe, this dramatic, I don’t believe it’s natural. Not in all my days practicing have I seen anything like it.”
“Thank you Doctor, that’s enough to hold everyone here until the city techs arrive. Would you mind staying in the tent for a while to tend to anyone that might be overcome by all of this?”
“I’d be happy to,” said the doctor, and made for the crowded side of the tent.
As Diane stood around the silent group, she looked over to Mrs. Kendall, who had just finished talking to Constable Jackson. She was nervously tapping her foot on the thin wooden floor and avoiding the attention of anyone that glanced her way.
“It looks like we kept almost everyone inside,” said Albert over Diane’s shoulder. “I’ve been patrolling the entrance with the guys and watching for anyone making a break for it.”
Had the situation been different, Diane would have laughed as Albert puffed himself up with assumed authority, his thin chest pushing out a little further than usual. His wiry frame didn’t scream for respect during a confrontation, though he had told her stories of his younger days in the boxing club. She was sure he could handle himself if the need arose, at least if dealing with someone of their age group.
“So, one of the old biddies did for her over the cake win, eh. I’ve heard of cut-throat competition, but I never knew these girls had it in them. You did say baking was pretty serious around here.” Albert kept his voice low as the other winners were seated a few feet from them.
“I need to talk to Mrs. Kendall,” said Diane, “I think she knows something, something important.”
“You need to-” replied Albert. “No, no, no, Diane. Leave this to the police. They have the place locked down, and the killer could be in here watching you.”
“She knows something, I’m sure of it. And the Inspector has other people to talk to. All of the other people. I’m just helping him really.”
“Don’t get involved, Diane. These aren’t kids that stole some sweets from the tuck shop. There is someone around here that will kill a helpless old woman in public and they won’t think twice about doing it again.”
Diane’s head nodded as if she was agreeing with him, but she had already made her decision.
“Wait here for me, Albert.”
Her legs were moving as she uttered the phrase, and Albert let out a hiss of breath through his teeth. She vaguely saw Inspector Crothers seated at his table with a young couple and their baby in a stroller. He looked up as she walked into his line of sight, frowned slightly, then returned to asking questions that were answered with denials, head shaking, and a lack of useful information.
People started milling around, anxious to get out of the tent which was becoming stuffy as the day warmed, and the entrance flaps were lowered. They were supposed to be having fun at the fête, and now because they had wanted some lunch, they were stuck in a sweat lodge with a thousand other people and their whining kids. Constable Jackson had an increasingly hard time getting people to act in a civil manner, and their cooperation was becoming strained.
Diane arrived at Penelope Kendall’s table just as voices were being raised among two groups of families whose children had gotten into a pushing match. The parents became heated and hands started moving more wildly just as the kids were forgetting the disagreement and were heading under a table to play a game. Constable Jackson came briskly across the room, stepped between the two sets of couples and tried to calm the situation with a stern word and the authority of his uniform.
“This is quite a shock for you,” started Diane as she pulled a chair up next to Mrs. Kendall. “You two have been competing with each other for years.”
“Hmm, umm yes. Hmm,” replied Penelope in a distracted manner.
“I’m sure you two were good friends outside the competition tent,” probed Diane.
“What? No, well, yes, but not really. We, umm, we…” Penelope’s voice trailed off as her gaze became distant, her stare passing into a realm only she could see.
Diane paused and waited for Penelope to return to the room. As the seconds stretched out, she decided to clear her throat, and the sound jolted free the daydream.
“I heard what you said,” stated Diane. “What did you mean by ‘it can’t be’? What can’t be?”
“I, umm… I was in shock, I think. I wasn’t really thinking about anything, the surprise, you know. It was just such a shock. No one seemed to like her, but I didn’t see this happening. Not to her, at least.”
“Why not to her?” Diane probed further. “Was there someone else you thought might end up this way?”
“Oh, umm, no, no, of course not.” Penelope’s foot had started tapping on the floor again. Her eyes wouldn’t look directly at Diane, and she seemed to be looking for someone to get her out of the conversation. She found him, as Constable Jackson happened by.
“Oh Constable,” said Penelope, rising from her chair and lightly touching the blue material of his sleeve. “I need to get home for my pills, my heart pills. Could you see if the Inspector will see me now, or maybe tomorrow?”
“Of course, Mrs. Kendall. He looks like he is just finishing up with that couple. Come with me and we’ll get you home in no time.”
He took her lightly by the arm, her gait appearing feebler than usual, and led her towards the Inspector. Diane stared after her, their short talk raising all sorts of flags in her mind. She was sure now that Mrs. Kendall was hiding something. The evasive and stumbling responses to her questions left even more questions that needed to be answered.
Inspector Crothers welcomed Mrs. Kendall to the seat opposite him, offering her a glass of chilled water that the catering manager had brought over. She accepted and with a shaking hand took the glass from him. Diane could tell that there was some frail old lady act going on, and the Inspector seemed to be falling for it.
“Such a terrible day, Inspector. My dear friend, going like that. She wouldn’t harm anyone. Such a shock to us all. I’m not sure my heart can take this; I really need my pills.” Diane surmised the gist of the responses from the small spilling of the water as Penelope raised it to her lips, from the hand straying to the area of her heart, the Inspector handing over a handkerchief that was dabbed under the eyes. She could see that it was an act and a not very good one. But Darrell Crothers, for all of his gruff police exterior and stern face, was a kind and concerned man, and he was being drawn right into the charade.
Mrs. Kendall finally rose, and Inspector Crothers moved swiftly around the table to take her arm and help the frail old woman from her seat. He personally walked her to the door where he nodded to the men that had taken up guard, and they escorted Penelope Kendall out into the fresh air.
The interviews continued for another hour and the tent slowly cleared of patrons who made their way back to the fairground to erase the ordeal from their minds with candy floss and a game of Hook-a-Duck. One after another they told the same tale almost without variation, and it wasn’t helping the investigation one bit.
Crothers looked over his notes and worked a rough timeline in his head including locations of important players. All of the Winners table party had been clear on their stories. No one had threatened Mrs. Gilbert; no-one had been seen slipping a powder or liquid into her food or drink. Then again, no one had really been paying attention to those things as the caterers passed around them with the meal and drinks; tales were regaled by the Mayor and small talk distracted everyone. Mrs. Gilbert had just started coughing, grabbing at her throat and collapsed onto the floor to die.
A visitor had mentioned the chill that greeted the awarding of the sponge cake prize, but when he had mentioned it to the major witnesses their response had been unanimous: it was never a reason for murder.
“Someone else should have won,” said a tearful Jilly. “She wasn’t very nice to other people. But she didn’t deserve this.”
“Sour grapes!” huffed the Mayor. “Just sour grapes from the other contestants. But it is just a cake contest.”
“Oh no no,” exclaimed Mrs. Foster. “She was such a good cook. Not a very nice person though. But if everyone that someone didn’t think was nice got murdered….”
So the idea had started to creep into his head that Mrs. Gilbert was an innocent, a woman caught in a misplaced assassin’s trap that was meant for someone else. He quickly dismissed Jilly Newman from the list of possible victims. Douglas Macdonald, however, seemed to leap from the pack as the original target. He was the wealthiest man in town, a philanthropist in the area, and was known to have a temper when things weren’t done exactly to his liking. From experience, Darrell Crothers knew that with money came vices, arrogance, and jealousy that had other people reaching for their knives. There wasn’t a rich man alive with a back broad enough to house all of the sharp points that were poised to strike them down.
“Inspector Crothers,” chirped in a familiar voice.
He had scribbled some final notes about looking into Douglas Macdonald’s personal life and flipped his book shut.
“Ms. Dimbleby,” he said, looking up into the face that was dominated by the remarkable glasses. “I had hoped we might meet under more pleasant circumstances some day. It never seems to be though.”
“Not at all. We have a knack of arriving just where our… I mean, your talents are required.”
The Inspector nodded slowly. He had a list of the times he had come across a case with Ms. Dimbleby at its periphery. She seemed to know people all over Shropshire and the West Midlands. Her years as a teacher in Apple Mews and her natural talents for organization had seen her involved in county-wide drives and the administration of local and national societies. He had performed a background check on her after her third appearance in an investigation. Stranger things have happened than a 60-year-old retired teacher turned criminal mastermind/hitwoman. But his search came up clean, even with a note about her involvement in the solution of her husband’s death years earlier. Since then her peculiar skills and background had helped him more than once in apprehending a villain.
“What can I do for you?” The Inspector knew that Diane was holding onto something. She rarely came forward without having some piece of information that might be innocuous but invariably turned out to be crucial.
“Mrs. Kendall…” Diane let the name hang in the air and watched the Inspector’s face for a sign that he might already have what she was about to offer. He flipped open his notebook, thumbed a few pages and read for a moment.
“Friend of the victim, short woman, heart problem.”
“Yes, she’s the one. Well, I think you might want to look a little closer at her, Inspector.”
“Might I?” replied Darrell, raising an enquiring eyebrow.
“You know, it might be nothing, but she was acting particularly strangely earlier. Evasive, I want to say. I asked her a few questions…”
“Now, Ms. Dimbleby, you know that’s my job.”
“I know Inspector, but I overheard her at the time of the incident, and she seemed surprised.”
“I think everyone is a bit surprised. It’s not often that we get a murder at a fête.”
“Not the usual shocked surprise. She didn’t seem surprised by the murder, but more by who was murdered.” Diane put emphasis on her words by leaning in slightly towards the table, her eyes seemed to expand behind the thick lenses of her glasses.
“Did she mention who she thought would be murdered?”
“Well, not in so many words Inspector. As I said, she was being particularly obtuse when I talked to her.”
“So what makes you think that she was expecting a different death?”
“Because the way she looked and sounded, I think she expected to be the victim.”
Diane stalked away from the village green with her temper barely held in check. Penelope Kendall was going to talk to her, one way or another.
“Poisoning is such a personal act,” she had said to the Inspector. “Don’t you think it’s odd that this happened here, in the middle of the fête?”
“It’s unusual, I’ll give you that,” he had responded.
“So why do it here? Why not poison her in her own home, or strangle her, or shoot her? Why poison and why here?”
The Inspector had sighed at that. She knew that he had a lot of other avenues of inquiry, but she was trying to give him extra guidance.
“Diane,” he had said, mildly exasperated. “We’re not even sure that she was the target. Who would kill a harmless old lady? The only suspects are her fellow contestants, and it makes no sense to kill her after she had already won the contest.”
“Exactly my point, Inspector. Poison isn’t the weapon of rage brought on by losing a contest. It’s subtle, it’s personal. There’s something more here, and Mrs. Kendall knows about it.”
“Why on Earth would Mrs. Kendall not have told me already? I could have protected her from any murderer if she had told me. Yet she said nothing and I believe her. You’re barking up the wrong tree this time, Diane.”
“But Inspector…” Diane had started, but the Inspector made it clear that the conversation was over.
“I have other people to look at here. This may have been the wrong person killed, and I need to get to work. Thank you for your efforts Ms. Dimbleby. I must get on.”
And with that, he looked down dismissively at his notebook, a spark to light Diane’s simmering anger.
She had left the tent immediately, forgetting about Albert, who saw her head out of the flap and jogged after her. He trailed behind her now, trying to keep pace, but exercise was something he had given up when he retired.
“Come on Diane,” panted Albert, “Slow down a bit eh.”
“I’m going to get to the bottom of this, with the police or not. If they won’t use what I’ve found, I’ll do it myself.”
“Let them do their job,” pleaded Albert, whose legs were trying to convince him to go and have a sit down. “This isn’t one of your mystery novels. There’s a real murderer running around.”
Diane stopped then. As Albert approached, she turned to face him, and he knew that he had passed the point of safety. The sun glinted off her glasses like the launch of a fusillade of rockets.
“Don’t treat me like I’m a child, Albert. I know exactly what is going on here.” He knew that when she spoke softly like that, it was like a Venus Flytrap seductively drawing in the fly before caging it within its deadly grasp.
“Now, I didn’t mean anything like that.” The words stumbled out of his mouth, trying to undo the harm of his careless wording.
“Of course you didn’t. You just think I should let a murderer run free when I know some evidence, when some secret lies before me. You think I should go back to the kitchen maybe.” Albert flinched. This was not going to end well for him. “Maybe I should wash some laundry and forget anything about this while the police wrap it all up in red tape and distractions.”
“I never said anything…”
“This isn’t a game Albert,” said Diane, cutting him off mid-apology, “and I mean to get to the truth, one way or another. With,” Diane paused for effect, but Albert knew what was coming, “or without your help.”
Albert pulled a white handkerchief from his pocket and waved it half-heartedly, his head downcast and looking sheepishly up into Diane’s face. He had only seen her temper a couple of times before and on both occasions, he had capitulated in the same way.
“I surrender,” he said. “I’m sorry. I’m just worried about your safety. That’s all. This is a dangerous business.”
“Then we had better get on with finding the killer,” said Diane, turning back to her walk though her pace was now slow enough for Albert to pull alongside. She felt a little ashamed of turning on him, but she knew that every second was another moment of freedom for a killer. He would understand when it was over, she was sure.
Several police vehicles were pulling into the road before the inn, the crowds reluctantly flowing around them as they edged forward. A large white van held the crime scene team that the Inspector had called in from Shrewsbury. It stopped at the curb, and several individuals rolled out carrying large black cases. An incident van was set up behind it, uniformed officers fanning out from inside to set up cones and signs asking for information. A handful headed to the green and an officer directed them around the perimeter of the tent.
Diane and Albert walked up the road and past the supermarket without comment, the silence between them a mixture of shame at the altercation and a desire to not spark another. As they left the radius of the fête, the streets cleared of people, and they made for the dark stone of the older terraced housing, relics of the Victorian industrial past that had outlived the Age.
The music of the carnival rides faded, and the songs of birds replaced the pipe organs, the rows of the avian choir stringing crisscrossed over the road along telephone lines. A tabby cat sat cleaning its whiskers under the arch of an alleyway to a backyard, flicking a glance at the birds high above as if their presence should be kept under surveillance. Somewhere a dog barked, but the message it sent was muffled and damped by the intervening houses.
Diane had worked and lived in Apple Mews for most of her life and knew the location of the homes of anybody that was anybody. She had taught Penelope Kendall’s son, Walter, many years ago and, being the boisterous and inattentive child that he was, Diane had spent many an evening visiting with the family at their home. She had given advice on directing Wally’s energies into a more constructive area; Penelope and her husband Duncan had tried as they might, but to little avail. Walter had left Apple Mews after finishing at the school and rarely returned, especially once his father had passed away. Diane had last heard that he was a labourer in Wigan.
They passed door after door, the only distinguishing features being the colour of the woodwork and the number nailed to the frame. The windows, doors, and arches came at regular intervals, cloned habitats for the worker drones from the old iron mills. Modernity had been forced upon the aged structures with wire and drill, electric lights and PVC windows at odds with the stained brown brickwork. Mutton dressed as lamb, thought Diane, the old saying her mother would repeat whenever an older woman tried gaudily to regain her youth, and it seemed fitting for the patchwork improvements.
Checking the numbers, Diane asked Albert to hold back and wait under one of the arches, out of sight from the doorway. She didn’t want to spook Mrs. Kendall by intimidating her.
“I’ll call if there’s any need,” she said.
Albert nodded and leaned nonchalantly against the wall of the tunnel, trying hard to look inconspicuous. He patted his pockets and then remembered that he had given up smoking a few years earlier, Diane’s and doctor’s orders. He wasn’t sure which one he placed more emphasis on; pleasing Diane or the doc’s tests.
Diane rapped her knuckles on the wood of the door, avoiding a particularly pointed strip of peeling paint. It had seen better days, but then again so had most of Apple Mews. The steady decline after the ironworks had left had been abated in places by philanthropists like Douglas Macdonald and the appearance of other industries such as tourism and agriculture. The recent arrival of a local university with industry backing to renovate and restore an old iron mill had been the first major development in the village in years.
No one answered the door after a second set of knocks and Diane, a little more alert to danger than usual, peered in through the living room window, cupping her hands over the sides of her face to reduce the glare from the sun. Net curtains impeded her view, but with much squinting and head tilting she was able to make out a living room that matched her memories from years earlier.
A creak to her left told her the door had been opened, and she turned to see a bemused Penelope Kendall staring at her.
“What can I do for you?” Penelope asked quizzically, as if she hadn’t seen Diane before, let alone an hour earlier.
Diane decided to take advantage of the apparent confusion as best as she could by playing innocent.
“I was hoping you had some of your marvellous crumpets left. My Albert is such a fan.”
“Crumpets? Hmmm,” mumbled Penelope. Her eyes roved down the road and circled along the houses opposite. “I think, yes, I think I have some leftover.”
“Would you be amenable to selling them to me? I’m hoping to surprise him this evening.”
“Hmm. Yes, I suppose I…” Penelope’s voice trailed off, and she stepped back into the house.
Diane took this as an implied invitation and rushed through after her before the door could be slammed on her foot.
Penelope closed the door, her head peering up and down the street until it was closed fast, then she slipped a chain across the door and a deadbolt thunked into place. She bustled past Diane in the cramped hallway and made for the kitchen in the back of the house. A bead curtain draped over the opening, and she passed through it like a stiff breeze. Diane followed cautiously; the Penelope Kendall she was seeing today was at odds with the determined, motherly woman she had known. Her demeanour was distracted and forgetful, which could all have been a ruse to clatter Diane over the head with a frying pan as it poked through the beads leading into the kitchen.
Diane passed a hand through the curtain first and parted it enough to see into the cramped workspace. Penelope was bustling around the refrigerator, pulling out plates of crumpets covered in clear plastic film and arranging them upon the countertop.
“Oh that is more than enough for Albert I can tell you. His eyes are bigger than his belly when it comes to your crumpets,” joked Diane. Penelope didn’t even acknowledge she had spoken. She seemed to be muttering softly to herself as she went about stripping off the film. She suddenly stopped as if she had come to a decision after her solo discussion.
“I’ve got to be next,” she said, turning her gaze to Diane. There was fear written over her face, eyes wide, brow furrowed.
“You’ve got to be what?” replied Diane, unsure where this change in Penelope was leading.
“Vera… if it was meant for her, then I have to be next. Or else…”
“Else what, dear?”
“I—-I received this in the mail,” says Penelope, slipping through a side door into the dining room.
As Diane arrived to follow her, she was greeted with a small fist waving a crumpled sheet of paper.
“This… I got this a couple of days ago. But, you know, kids these days, I thought nothing more of it. I—-I don’t know what to think now.”
Diane took the letter and smoothed it out on the counter next to the plates of crumpets. In large capital letters in a style that looked like an angry toddler read the words:
No other identifying mark was obvious upon the page as Diane flipped it this way and that, up in front of the window to look for hidden marks.
“The envelope? Did you keep it?”
“No, I never thought about it. I don’t know why I kept that. Threw it away when I read it.”
“You’ve got to show this to Inspector Crothers, Penelope. This is most important.” Diane was shaking the paper before Penelope’s face, trying to get her to understand that time was crucial if they were to find the killer.
“I don’t… I mean, it might be… it’s just too incredible,” stammered Penelope.
“This could be evidence, fingerprints, and things.”
Then it struck Diane that she was thinking in the wrong direction about the letter. It might have evidence on it, but it was more of a distraction right at that moment.
“What does it mean, Penelope? ‘Lying is a crime’ is pretty specific. What did you do?”
A shimmer of light passed over her eyes as Diane watched, before pools formed and tears began to roll down her little round cheeks. Once they were moving, other floodgates opened, the tears became sobs, and the sobs became wails. She felt along the wall, retreating as much from the question as Diane and groped until she found a chair. Her head found her hands as her body was wracked with shuddering sobs. There seemed to be words encoded in the misery, but they were another mystery that Diane could not fathom. She moved into the room, resting a hand upon the shaking back of the weeping woman.
“Now, now, dear. It can’t be all that bad,” Diane said, trying her best to console her.
“It… was… so… long… ago,” came the staggered reply.
“Tell me all about it. We’ll get to the bottom of this.”
The sobs subsided a little and Diane pulled herself up a chair in front of Penelope and rested a calming hand upon her knee. With several large heaves of breath, Penelope began.
“There was a robbery, thirty years ago. It was the post office. Two men, they had guns, and they held up the postmaster one morning.” While she spoke, Penelope’s voice gained strength even as her eyes drifted off into memory. “They made off with a tidy sum of money, which was bad enough. But as they left, one of them shot the postmaster in the leg. Shattered the bone. He never walked on it again.”
“I remember reading about it,” said Diane. “I’d moved down to London with my husband when it happened.”
“Me, Vera, and Sally saw them run away. We were having morning tea at Vera’s and saw the two masked men run down the street towards a car. They got in and drove off, and we called the police. As we waited for the police to arrive, we started talking about what we had seen. Even though they didn’t take the masks off, we were certain we recognized one of them. I don’t remember who said his name first, but as soon as it came up, we all agreed for different reasons on who it was. You see, he had this run like he was favouring his right leg. One man in Apple Mews matched that run, had the same height, and had an unhealthy disrespect for the law: Frank Parker. Nasty piece of work he was. I could tell you stories.”
“Who’s Sally?” interrupted Diane, not wanting to miss any detail of the recollection.
“Sally Pitman. We three had been friends from early on, but we drifted apart after this. I don’t know if we knew we were lying or what happened next. There was awkwardness when we met from then on. Anyway, so the police arrived, we give our statements, and we all say who we saw. We just omitted that we didn’t actually see his face. But we were certain it was Frank Parker.
That afternoon, the Police picked Frank up and took him in for questioning. By the next morning he had been charged, and within a month he was on trial. We gave evidence, told the jury who we saw, and that seemed to seal the deal. His only defence was that he had been at home alone that morning. After he had been found guilty, the judge gave him twenty-five years in prison, a little extra on account of his previous record. He left the courtroom cursing me and the girls, saying he’d deal with us. ‘Lying is a crime,’ was the last thing he yelled as the bailiffs dragged him through the door to the holding cells.
And now he’s back to get us. He’s already managed poor old Vera, and there’s only the two of us left.”
The sobs began again, the recollection deteriorating into the present and the waiting peril of Frank Parker. Diane was still processing the information that had just been poured into her brain and only half-heartedly patted the weeping woman on the knee.
“What’s Sally’s number?” she blurted out suddenly, almost unaware that she was the one who had spoken. “Have you called her?”
“What? No, I didn’t believe it was true. It can’t be. He’d be sixty now, no fit state to….” A thought occurred to Penelope, something that to her tied it all together and made the situation so much more real. “But poison. Anyone can drop some poison in a drink, can’t they, old or young.” Her round cheeks drained of colour and sank inward as her jaw fell. “He’s back. He’s back, and he’s going to kill us all.”
“We’ve got to check on Sally, just as soon as we’ve got you to safety,” said Diane.
“You can’t call her,” Penelope said. “Sally doesn’t have a phone. She’s gone reclusive, a bit bitter too. Never leaves the house. She has Tommy Giles bring her groceries every week.”
“Then we’ve got to get around there and warn her.”
Diane pulled out her mobile phone and called Albert who was standing on the doorstep in moments.
“But Diane, I can’t leave you here alone if the killer’s coming,” said Albert after Diane’s brief synopsis had ended with her telling him to get the Inspector immediately.
“We’ll be safe in here,” she replied. “Now hurry.”
Diane relocked the door and went back to Penelope, streaks of tears leading down to pools of darkness on her blouse. Something was tapping at the back of Diane’s skull. There was some information that was trying to make itself known, but it wasn’t going to come easily. It was like a couple of pieces needed to move around to free up the information to come to the fore.
They sat for ten minutes in silence. Penelope stared at the wall opposite, flinching with every creak of the house and tick of the mantel clock. Diane paced the kitchen, a thumb and forefinger rubbing across her brow, trying to ease the knot that was binding up the new information.
Finally, a knock on the door broke them both out of their private worlds and Diane, armed with a carving knife, peered through the peephole in the door. Albert was standing red-faced and shoulders heaving with Inspector Crothers, who had a look of extreme irritation upon his face.
“I have a lot of work to do, Ms. Dimbleby. This had better be important.”
Albert helped Penelope make a pot of tea, which really entailed her directing him absently around the kitchen. Diane took the Inspector into the living room and relayed the story that she had heard.
“So you see, Inspector, we have to talk to Sally Pitman immediately. She could be in terrible danger.”
Inspector Crothers shook his head slowly and looked to be trying to restrain his temper.
“Not from Frank Parker, she isn’t,” he said. “Frank Parker died in prison twenty years ago.”
“Are you completely sure, Inspector?”
“Quite sure,” he replied. “It was one of my first assignments when I was promoted to Detective Constable. Fell in the shower and cracked his head on the tile floor. He never regained consciousness, and there was no evidence of foul play. But we had to look into it because there had been some bad blood between him and a small-time gangster. All the evidence pointed to an accident.”
“You’re quite sure it was him? No chance of a switch in the hospital?”
“None. They had a guard on him, just in case, and I saw the body after he died. Frank Parker, it most definitely was.”
Diane disappeared into the kitchen and returned with the threatening letter.
“Then who could have sent this?”
Inspector Crothers retrieved some gloves from his pocket and held the corner of the letter with the blue neoprene. He stared intently at it for a moment before placing it on the coffee table.
“It could have been anybody, but I’ll have my forensics guys look it over. Only you and Mrs. Kendall have touched it, correct?”
“As far as I know.”
“Still, there’s no sign of who the sender could be and any fingerprints would need to be in the database to get a match.”
“It’s someone that had to know about the trial though, that’s for sure.” Diane’s forefinger was tapping her lip in a thoughtful way when the Inspector’s mobile phone tweeted to life. He rose and left the room to answer the call. Diane could hear his voice become increasingly excited as the call progressed, and when he returned to the room, his demeanour had changed considerably. There was a small smile on his face, and he strode with a definite purpose.
“We’ve just found the same letter at Mrs. Gilbert’s house. Identical in every way.” He snatched up the letter again and deposited it into an evidence bag. “I need to get this to my forensics boys right away.”
“But Inspector,” said Diane, “We might now be a step ahead. Put a guard on Mrs. Kendall and Sally Pitman. They’re next on the killer’s list.”
Rising from her chair, Diane made for the door, pushing past the Inspector with some haste.
“Talking to Sally Pitman has become of supreme importance,” she said over her shoulder. She called for Albert and told him to stay with Penelope until a constable arrived. “Keep her safe.”
Albert picked up a nearby broom and rested it against his shoulder in the manner of a soldier on parade and marched into the dining room where poor Penelope Kendall was stirring her tea without any obvious sign that she actually knew what it was.
“Come along Inspector,” said Diane as she opened the front door, Inspector Crothers staring at her from the living room doorway with his phone to his ear.
Diane was already halfway across town when the Inspector had caught up with her. Constable Jackson and another from Shrewsbury had arrived, and he had dispatched one with the letter back to the forensics team’s van. He had left Martin Jackson with Albert and Mrs. Kendall and given instructions to let no one but the other constable into the house until the Inspector returned.
“Did he have any family?” asked Diane as the Inspector strode along beside her.
“Frank Parker? His wife had died a few years before he got put away, and his young son went into the foster system when Frank went to jail. He would have only been four or five at the time. I don’t know if we traced him or not, that wasn’t part of my job.”
“Was there anyone else that comes to mind? Friends or family?”
“No one that I can think of, but I’ve got the boys in Shrewsbury looking over the old case files if they can find them. Part of our storeroom burnt down about ten years ago, and we’re still cataloguing what went missing.”
“And the big question Inspector: why now? Why start all of this now? It’s been thirty years. We have only half of the motive, it seems.”
“I can’t be certain Diane, but the anniversary of Frank’s death might be around this time. It was twenty years ago, and I remember it being summertime. I’ve got people looking for the details of that too.”
They crossed Haniford Street and made for a row of prim cottages, picturesque in their rose-covered walls and thatched roofs. The gardens out of the front of each cottage were a delightful mix of flowers and shrubs, tended with love and care, which added to the old country village feel of the street.
Diane waved to Mr. Cuthbert, who was out pruning his bushes. They exchanged pleasantries as Diane and the Inspector powered past and headed for Sally Pitman’s house.
As they approached, Diane had the distinct impression of stepping into a fairy tale rife with gingerbread houses and enchanted roses. Sally Pitman’s garden and house were beautifully maintained; the bushes were trimmed, but with a wild look to them. The front of the house had the gleam of new paint as did the garden gate that led into this small wonderland. As the house was the end of the row, the garden continued around the side and to the back, a line of pristine ceramic slabs marking the path through the immaculate lawn.
Inspector Crothers gingerly grabbed the bronze door knocker as if concerned his finger oils might tarnish the spotlessness of it. Three solid raps on the door were not met with any response.
“She can be a cantankerous old woman,” whispered Diane. “I’d be surprised if she would even talk to you.”
Another group of brisk raps were again met with silence from within.
“You stay on the door, Diane. I’ll nip around the rear to see if the back door is open.”
Diane knocked again while the Inspector trod carefully to avoid stepping on the grass and disappeared around the ivy-covered wall.
Flipping open the letter box, Diane peered into the hallway beyond and then yelled, “Sally, it’s Diane Dimbleby. Are you home?”
Her voice barely seemed to make it into the house, thick rugs and hanging tapestries absorbing the sounds before they could disturb the rest of the space. She was just about to knock again when she heard a pop followed by a shower of glass onto tile. A door banged, wood against marble, and footsteps crunched over the remains of the window.
“Sally? Sally, are you alright?” yelled Diane through the letterbox opening.
There was a commotion inside followed by rapid footsteps.
The front door moved away from her, revealing the Inspector standing on the threshold.
“We’re too late.”
♠ ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠
Sally Pitman lay crookedly upon the dining room floor, her legs turned at angles only death would allow. There was a look of surprise upon her wizened face as if the afterlife wasn’t what she had been expecting. The frail figure was wrapped in a quilted dressing gown, her pink nightshirt peeking out from underneath. A knife with an ornate handle protruded from a scarlet stain in the left breast.
Inspector Crothers had called down to the fête to get another team to the cottage. He wanted all of the evidence he could find. Events were getting ahead of him and he hated playing catch up when murder was involved. He also had Diane call Albert to find out the situation at the Kendall household, and he had said that the two Constables were standing guard on Penelope, who they had moved to an upstairs bedroom for safety.
He left the dining room and walked delicately through the lower room of the cottage, careful not to disturb anything that might be evidence. It was clear to him that Mrs. Pitman had been disturbed by an intruder in the night and, upon closer inspection of the house, he had found a window in the conservatory with a broken latch. Muddy footprints in the flowerbed below the window had been scratched through with fingers so that a detailed print would be nearly impossible. Similar tampering with physical evidence had occurred to the footprints through the house. The intruder had known he would have time to get rid of evidence. The smell of bleach from the kitchen sink suggested an attempt to clean surfaces and the floor to get rid of any possible foreign DNA. This killer was thorough and wasn’t rushed, which made the manner of the murder peculiar.
Someone this methodical would be prepared, would have come with a murder weapon and the old woman wouldn’t have stood any chance at all. But as it was, he killed her with a letter opener, one that looked like it might have been used by the old woman as a means of self-defence when she found her home violated.
“Was it poison, Inspector?” Diane had asked him.
Why wasn’t it poison? Speculation led the Inspector to consider that it could have been the weapon that the killer brought, a vial of death to add to the old lady’s teapot so that when she died, he would be long gone and perhaps there would be a misdiagnosis of a heart attack. But he had been heard, and Sally Pitman had come down to confront the intruder. Then a struggle she couldn’t win, the knife taken from her and used to replace the poison’s task.
The Inspector paused when he realized his thoughts were leaning towards the perpetrator being a man. He was thinking ‘he this’ and ‘he that. But poison, that was predominantly the tool of female killers. A quiet killer is much suited to a more womanly manner.
He quickly thought back through all of the women that had been involved in the case from the fête onwards. Diane Dimbleby was the obvious one and, as much as he liked her; she couldn’t be ruled out. Jilly Newman had been sitting right next to Vera Gilbert when she had been poisoned. She could have slipped something into her drink without her knowing. Daphne Foster had been at the table too, and although not as close as Jilly, she could still have handed a poisoned food to Mrs. Gilbert. And, of course, there was Penelope Kendall. What better way to draw attention away from yourself as the killer than to make yourself a possible target? Housebreaking seemed a little beyond the physical capabilities of Mrs. Kendall, but he couldn’t rule her out based only on what he had seen that day.
There were too many suspects and not enough evidence.
In the kitchen rubbish bin, the Inspector found another letter, identical to the others in every way. The untidy childish hand, the short accusing message. The killer had left it which suggested he or she knew there was no evidence to be found on it. Except for the message itself. It spoke of someone that knew Frank Parker, knew the trial, and could wait twenty years to avenge his death.
The squeal of tires outside told him that the team had arrived, and he left through the back door with its broken pane to get them to where they were needed.
♠ ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠
Diane walked back through the village alone. The Inspector had not let her into the cottage which, as much as she wanted to look around, had been the right thing for him to do. She was disappointed that they hadn’t been in time to save the poor woman, but from what the Inspector had described, she had been dead for many hours when they arrived.
She wandered down the line of cottages, sirens wailing in the distance, and turned left up a tree-lined road that led a little out of town towards the church. She intended to head to Penelope Kendall’s house again and retrieve Albert now that there was a significant police presence, but that meant heading back towards the bustle of the village. She needed peace, a place of calm that she could think. There was information sloshing around inside her head like the bilge water in a lifeboat on a stormy ocean.
The greenery of the trees overhung the road from both sides, shading it entirely from the sun. The gentle rustle and chirp of squirrels from above had been a happy memory from her childhood in Apple Mews; the walk to church on Sunday mornings during the summer seeming to be a part of the world that worry and fear could not touch.
It occurred to Diane that the vicar might be a good person to talk to if he had returned or been released from the fête. He had been there a good many years and knew the churchyard and the village population as well as anyone.
Trees parted ahead as a low stone wall blocked further progress for the road. A gateway stood open onto the graveyard, and beyond the great walls of the church tower rose into the air. The spire didn’t seem as big to her anymore, her younger self-thinking that the top could pierce the clouds above, touching the very base of Heaven.
Passing through the gate from the road, Diane always thought that being upon hallowed ground seemed different somehow. As if the consecration made the area impervious to the outside world, time slowed and stopped as you approached the church. What had been during your great-grandparents’ time would still be during your great-grandchildren’s and beyond.
Gravestones and obelisks of various stones rose from the ground all around the path to the main door of the church. The older graves with their worn lettering and eroded images could be distinguished from a distance by the same dark local stone, the only thing available before marbles and granites had been imported from other areas to adorn the resting places of the dead.
Weeds squeezed between the cracks in the pathway. Diane always found it amazing that amongst all the death and man’s attempts to control it, the natural world still found a way to get a foothold and take a small piece back for itself.
The main door to the church had always been unlocked when she was younger to allow a place of sanctuary for those that needed it. Dark times could visit a soul at any hour of day or night, and that was the domain of the church to assist in. However, when Diane tried the great iron ring that was the handle, the heavy wood-planked door did not move. A spate of theft over the years had led to the church being locked whenever the vicar or the verger was not in attendance, and it told Diane all she needed to know.
With a sigh, she turned back along the path, heading towards an off-shoot that took her around the perimeter of the church. There was a bench just past the vestry door, and Diane felt the urge to sit for a while and look out over the graves and into the copse of trees beyond.
She had a hard time believing the she had been present at two murders that day as the sparrows whirled in the air and chirped their carefree songs. The tranquillity of the spot belied the confusion and evil beyond, but it was the peace she had needed to start clearing the thoughts and organizing the evidence.
The three women – Mrs. Gilbert, Kendall, and Pitman – had sent a man to prison for a crime he didn’t commit. Not an innocent man by all accounts, but not guilty of that particular crime. Thirty years had passed since then, and twenty since the incarcerated man had died. And now someone had come to take revenge upon these women for their own crime.
If it was a lover of Frank Parker, a resident of Apple Mews, then why wait so long to get back at the women? And that person would be in their late fifties or sixties by now. This wasn’t to say that sixty was old in this day and age, but these murders, especially Sally Pitman’s, seemed to be a much younger person’s act.
What of the younger people in the village? Jilly Newman had been there at the first murder, but Diane had known her for years through school and village life. If there was a mean bone in that girl’s body, it was buried very deeply. Tommy Giles delivered groceries to Sally Pitman and would know her house well. Diane knew him well too, and as mischievous as he could often be, she had a hard time equating what she knew of him to a murderer who delayed the crime for decades.
A sliver of white waved from amongst the gravestones and caught Diane’s eye. It broke her concentration and forced her to focus in its direction. A grey gravestone was covered in yellow and purple lichen and from behind it poked a flower whose whiteness gleamed in the sunlight. It seemed to peer at her sheepishly from behind the stone and then, with a flick of the wind, dodged back away from sight, like a child playing hide and seek.
Diane rose from her seat and walked over to the playful flower, mimicry of life in a home for the dead. All around, gravestones stood with no additions, or with withered plants protruding from stone vases. She had to see who had been blessed with such beauty, to see who was so loved even now in death. It lifted her spirits and pushed the darkness of the day’s events behind her.
There was no pathway to the grave, so she stepped carefully around the other graves, her mother having told her of the disrespect shown to those buried if you trampled over their resting places. This section of the graveyard seemed more haphazard than more modern sections that had neat rows of headstones with regular pathways between each. She would step around one grave to be confronted with another that she would skirt around, only to be forced back by yet another grave that slanted in at an angle. She almost tripped over a fallen stone, a crack passing through the name of the dweller with the rest tumbled off behind.
Eventually the flowers came into sight, a delightful collection of daisies and lilies, all as white as if they had been freshly bleached. They lolled from a grate placed beneath the gravestone, catching the wind and dancing back and forth. Diane couldn’t help but smile at the gift, a smile that soured and turned on its head as the name on the gravestone appeared between the stems.
Here lies loving mother and wife,
The recognition of the name triggered a series of memories to come to the fore. The flowers, Diane had seen ones exactly like them earlier, given to Jilly Newman at the baking contest. The son of Frank Parker, he would be in his late twenties now. He’d gone into the foster system, which means he might have changed his name to that of his adopted family. All of the pieces clicked into place, and Diane felt her heart sink.
Frank Parker’s son was with Albert and Mrs. Kendall at that very moment: Constable Martin Jackson.
The phone seemed to stick in her pocket, the edges becoming wedged at odd angles within the cotton confines. Her shaking hands didn’t help, along with a sheen of sweat that blistered out along her palm and fingers to make her tenuous grip effectively useless.
She strode quickly toward the gateway out of the churchyard, throwing aside her previous care to avoid disrespecting those buried in the expediency of trying to save the living. Her Albert. She had stumbled at the thought of being too late, at losing another man in her life to a criminal act. Even as it slowed her pace, it jostled the phone free of her pocket.
Diane had stared at the colourful display, for once her next step not so clear. Who should she call? She could call the Inspector and have him get the Constable out of the house and clapped in irons. But he could already be running, two elderly corpses littering the rugs. A lump blocked her throat and tears welled in the corners of her eyes at the thought. She had to know that Albert was safe.
With a shaking finger, she hit the button to dial Albert, who smiled out of the screen at her. The picture had been taken when they were on a trip down to Brighton. He had just emptied a shoe of sand, and he seemed quite pleased with himself at having collected so much of the beach in one shoe. “Mount Foot-ji” he had named the pile it had made.
The phone rang once, then again, and again, with no response. Every second her call went unanswered her stomach dropped another inch, and a tear rolled down her cheek.
“Come on Albert,” she said huskily into the mouthpiece. “Pick up the phone. Be…” She couldn’t finish the sentence.
A click at the other end and Albert’s voice rang into her ear.
“How do you… what? This one… ah okay,” then a loud click followed by a woman that told her to leave a message after the tone.
Diane’s heart had pounded at his voice only to stop when she realized that she was hearing Albert’s voicemail message. Her legs felt weak, unable to support her weight, and she sat heavily on the bench.
“He could have the ringer off,” she told herself. “Or he’s chatting Penelope’s leg off. Or any number of things.” The reassurance fell short. Lead sat in her limbs, rooting her to the bench as the heavy metal addled her mind.
“No,” she whispered.
The seconds dragged on for hours as the world froze in place, the colours rinsed out into greys and blacks. Her heart stopped, refusing to beat again until the break in it was fixed. Diane was sure she could hear distant singing; angels perhaps, come to take her away from this life. The angels sounded an awful lot like Jerry Lee Lewis, thought Diane.
“Great balls of fire!” the angel wailed.
Colour poured back into the world, and Diane’s heart began thumping again as time cranked back up to speed. That was their little joke, from when Albert had eaten jalapeno cheese balls by mistake, and she had set it as her ringtone for him. The phone was lying in a hearty dandelion by her feet, its leaves partially covering the speaker like it was trying to hide the call.
“Albert,” she cried before the phone was even to her ear.
“You rang?” answered Albert, his usual brusque self when on the phone.
Diane’s breath was caught in her lungs for another second, unable to respond as the relief rushed through her. She knew that she had to get talking; time was of the essence. The danger was still very present. But to hear his voice caused her to savour that moment.
“Hello? Diane? Have you been in the sherry with Mrs. Pitman?”
“Albert. Listen to me, and listen carefully. Reply with yes and no, okay?”
“Oh come on, is this some…”
“Albert!” Diane put on her firmest tone, the one that had made classrooms full of children stop their talking and pay attention. “This is serious. Yes and no, only.”
“Yes,” was the reply from the chastened schoolboy at the other end of the line.
“Good. Now, has the Inspector returned?”
“Are the two Constables still there with you?”
“You can see them both?”
“Yes, about 4 o’clock.”
“So they can hear you talking?”
“Okay, I need you to go get Penelope out of the house, as quietly as you can.”
There was some determined erring from Albert, who didn’t want to break with the yes/no responses.
“Constable Jackson, he’s the murderer Albert. Do you understand?”
“Umm yes.” There was a hesitance to his response that made Diane think that getting Penelope away from Martin Jackson wouldn’t be as easy as she had hoped.
“Do what you can, Albert. I’ll be there with the Inspector as soon as I can. Stay safe. Call me when you have her free.”
“Yes, yes. Bye Diane. Good luck,” said Albert loudly, as he tried to be as nonchalant as possible.
Diane hesitated in hanging up the line until she was sure Albert was gone. She knew that he was still in danger, but now he had been warned and would know what he was getting himself into. The call still left her uneasy, and she rose from the bench and called the Inspector as she strode toward the gate.
♠ ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠
“Can I get you gents a cup of tea?”
Albert had stood before the two Constables, unsure of which one he should be concerned about. They both looked like fine young men, as far as appearances went. They stood guard at the bottom of the staircase with Mrs. Kendall in the master bedroom above. The stairs were the only way up and, more importantly to Albert, the only way down. Diane had been pretty clear about getting Mrs. Kendall out of the house and away from a Constable Jackson.
“That would be very nice. Thank you, sir,” replied the slightly taller of the two police officers after a nod from the other.
“Right-oh, I’ll get the kettle on.”
Heading down the hallway to the kitchen, the bead curtain clacking closed behind him, Albert tried to think of a plan. He was sure Diane would have been much better about this sort of thing with all of her reading and writing of crime novels. There always seemed to be some scrape that had to be gotten out of with a cunning plan. He filled the kettle and, plugging it into its base, flicked on the power switch. Without warning, he found himself whistling a tune of his own devising.
“All the better to seem at ease, I suppose,” he thought to himself giving a shrug and really getting into the tune with some fancy vibrato.
The kettle rumbled after a few minutes, its whistle joining with his in an impromptu harmony, yet Albert was no closer to a devious plot. He grabbed the ceramic teapot that he had already become familiar with, being the cause of most of the brown droplet stains around the spout and a chip in the lid that he would deny all knowledge of if asked. Plopping a couple of teabags in through the top, he added the boiling water, closing the lid over it, and went about some serious thinking while the tea steeped.
He had to find out which Constable was the one with the homicidal tendencies, as he could then enlist the help of the other in protecting Mrs. Kendall. And once Diane got in touch with the Inspector, he would have a much easier time convincing the other Constable. He just had to make sure Mrs. Kendall stayed safe until then. Maybe it would just be better to barricade her into the bedroom until help arrived? That would certainly be easier than battling a fit young man. There was always nice heavy stuff in a bedroom to put behind the door, like wardrobes and dressing tables.
He slammed a few cabinets, rattling four mugs as he pulled them down to the countertop along with a small plate on which he placed several bourbon biscuits that he had found in his earlier rummagings. Nothing says everything’s fine like a cup of tea and a biscuit.
He filled the cups to brimming with tea and a splash of milk.
“Can one of you lads give me a hand?” he called back down the hallway. After a moment, the beads parted for the Constable that had spoken earlier. “Grab hold of those, if you would.” Albert motioned with his head as one hand was holding two mugs of tea that were dripping down the side, and the other held the plate of biscuits that had a bowl of sugar cubes balanced on top.
“Just these two?”
“Yep, thanks Constable…” Albert hesitated, waiting for the blank space to be filled.
“Jenkins,” obliged the other man. “Dan Jenkins.”
“Are you from around here, Dan?” asked Albert as he led the way back to the staircase.
“Transferred into Shrewsbury a year ago. Wife got a job up there with social services.”
“How’d you like it?”
“Pretty quiet most of the time, unless you count Saturday nights. Nothing like this goes on very often.”
They arrived at the base of the stairs, and Dan handed a cup over to who Albert assumed was Martin Jackson, killer in disguise. Albert offered them both the hand with the biscuits and sugar, urging them to take whatever they needed.
“I’ll just nip this upstairs to Mrs. Kendall,” said Albert as he pushed past Martin Jackson and mounted the stairs. “She’s going to need some distraction, poor woman.”
Both officers nodded their thanks as they dunked their biscuits and went about their sentry duties.
One step after another, his heart began to race faster as he climbed to where the next part of his plan would take place. If he could get into the room, he was pretty certain he could hold off any intruder until the Inspector and Diane arrived.
♠ ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠
Diane strode through the streets trying to get to Sally Pitman’s house as quickly as possible. She had tried calling the Inspector and the one time that it rang, she was pretty certain he had refused her call. The rest of the time was busy signal after busy signal. She knew that he had two murders on his plate, but she was starting to get irritated, with the busy signal, with the Inspector, and with herself for not being able to get to him faster. Albert was within the viper’s range, and the only way she could think to get him away was through a phone that couldn’t connect.
The trees and houses were a blur around her. Her vision was locked ahead on where she needed to go, and nothing was going to distract her – unless Albert called and said they were safely away from the house. Only then could she at least relax a little until the Constable was in custody.
♠ ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠
The bedroom door was shut, and Albert knocked a couple of times with his foot, nearly spilling the tea onto his leg. There was a muffled sound from beyond, and he waited for a moment out of courtesy, but no one came to open the door. With his elbow, he pushed down on the handle and leaned in with his shoulder, seconds away from a tea and biscuits disaster. After some jostling the door gave, and Albert knocked the door backward.
A woman sat on the end of a neatly made bed, pink flowered duvet draped over a lace trim that ran around the bed skirt. She was looking into a mirror that was mounted on the wall opposite, her eyes hollow with shimmering tracks down her face. Her hair was a mess from fingers passed through it one too many times. She looked haunted, a woman in despair. Her reflection looked up at Albert and mouthed rather than spoke, “What do we do?”
Albert took a step into the room and froze. Wardrobes and closets of light wood lined the wall around the mirror, which sat above a dressing table covered in bottles of various sizes. There would have been more than enough furniture to block the door for a year if they weren’t all fitted and fastened directly to the wall itself. None of the wardrobes were going anywhere.
He looked at the bed and night stands. They were attached, the headboard spanning out either side of the bed to encompass the sparse nightstands. He stepped forward and lifted the bed skirt with a toe and saw no gap underneath, the wood of the bed going all the way to the floor. The furniture in the room was so secure it could have been fitted in a sailing ship.
“Well, time for plan B,” he said. “Whatever that might be.”
♠ ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠
Diane stormed past the parked police car, its lights flashing blue around the white walls of the cottages. A uniformed officer on the gate stopped her from passing, a hand passing over the closed gate to restrain her from coming closer.
“This is a crime scene, mada…”
“I know it’s a crime scene. I was with the Inspector when he discovered it. I need to talk to him immediately.”
“Inspector Crothers is very busy ri…”
“Of course he is! But I have some new evidence that he needs to hear.”
“I’m sure you do, mada…”
“Don’t madam me, young man. Get me Inspector Crothers right this instant or you’ll be responsible for another murder. Maybe more than one.” Diane had stepped back from the gate but fixed the officer in a gaze he found uncomfortable. He had the look of someone that would rather be in the autopsy room than barring the way of this woman.
“I’ll, err…” said the officer hesitatingly. “I’ll see if the Inspector is free.” He turned away from the gate and moved towards the front door. Almost as a second thought, he looked over his shoulder and said, “Please don’t come past the gate, miss.” It wasn’t a command; it had the tone of a plea from a small boy.
He reached the open front door, glancing back regularly at Diane to make sure she hadn’t passed the boundary, and yelled into the building, “Has anyone seen Inspector Crothers?”
Diane heard some replies, though she wasn’t able to determine their content. The man stood at the door conversing with someone out of sight for a moment before the Inspector peered around the door frame, a look of exasperation on his face.
♠ ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠
Albert put down the tea and biscuits roughly on the dressing table. He put his hands under the tabletop and tried to lift it, straining with his legs. It didn’t move, his bones creaking more loudly in his ears than the wood.
He opened each of the wardrobe doors and peered inside, looking for anything that might hold a door shut, or be wielded as a weapon. All he saw were precisely stacked items of clothing, dresses on hangars, and boxes and boxes of shoes, not a dagger-like stiletto amongst them.
“What are you doing?” questioned Penelope as she rose from the bed, Albert’s rudeness at rifling through her private belongings disturbing her out of her melancholic daze.
“I need a…” replied Albert, “I need a…” The sentence never seemed to complete because he wasn’t sure what he was looking for anymore.
He squatted down beside the bed, rested his back against the mattress and pushed, hoping secret caster wheels lurked under the solid wooden bed frame. He felt something give, but his joy was short-lived when he realized it was just the mattress slipping over the base.
“There’s got to be something,” he said as he stood, scanning the room for weapons.
♠ ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠
Inspector Crothers listened to what Diane had uncovered, clearly sceptical at first but gaining interest as she explained how the pieces fit together. He interrupted her twice with a question which she rolled over like a tank would a daisy.
She was starting to get a little frantic again, and it made her testy and abrupt. She had expected Albert to call by now, and there had been no word, either good or bad.
When she concluded with the name of the killer, the Inspector paused as if his back had gone into spasms. Then, with a curse word that would have drawn a rebuke from Diane at any other time, he reached for his phone.
♠ ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠
Albert was completing his second full rotation in an effort to find something weapon-like when he heard a thud downstairs, followed by the sound of falling pottery. He stopped his spinning and wandered to the door, ready to peer out and ask about the noise. There was a commotion on the staircase and a uniformed form stood in the bedroom doorway.
“Well, it looks like the time for subtlety is over,” said Martin Jackson as he raised a long sharp knife from his side.
Albert backed away around the bed, getting between Mrs. Kendall and the knife.
“Don’t be a hero. Just let me deal with her and you can go on home. She’s the last one. I only wanted the three of them.” Martin took a step into the room, twisting the shining blade in the air. “You know what she did, they all did.” His tone was mild, like he was explaining how to tie a shoelace.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Albert, one hand behind him to guide him along the wall of wardrobe doors. “You can’t do this.”
“Of course I can. I’ve already done it twice. One more isn’t going to take much. Do you think they’d ever let me out of prison after the other two anyway? My future is set, so I can take either her or both of you, and it won’t make any difference.”
Martin approached two more steps as Albert backed into the edge of the dressing table.
“So save yourself, old man. I’ll get her either way. Why be in the way when…”
Albert swung a mug he had gripped behind him, the hot tea flashing out of the cup and into the face of Martin.
“Run,” yelled Albert to Penelope as he hurled the mug after the tea at Martin’s face.
Penelope scrambled over the bed and through the doorway. Albert tried to follow, but Martin swung the knife wildly in front of him, cursing as he did, trying to blink his scorched eyelids. Albert grabbed the second mug and threw it at the knife hand, which got another yelp from Martin who hugged the hand to his chest in pain. Albert dropped his shoulder and rammed into Martin’s side, knocking him against the wall, clearing Albert’s path to the stairs.
He stumbled across the landing and down the stairs, expecting a knife to slip through his shirt and into his back at any moment. Penelope was in the hallway below trying to drag an unconscious Dan Jenkins away from the door, his body sitting upright against their way out.
As Albert stepped off the bottom stair, he heard Martin grunt behind him, snarling in rage from the landing above.
Grabbing Penelope’s hand, Albert dragged her into the living room, slamming the solid door shut behind them. There was no lock on the door, so Albert braced himself against it, holding the handle up to try to stop Martin from opening it.
“The window,” he hissed at Penelope, who was standing in the centre of the room, clearly in the grip of panic. “Get out the window.”
A bang shook the door and jolted through Albert’s frame, his muscles and bones protesting at the sharp treatment.
“I’m going to kill you both,” screamed Martin from the hallway, his pretence of sanity shed like snakeskin. He rammed himself against the door again, the wood creaking under the assault.
Albert did his best to brace his foot against a cabinet, his shoes slipping a little further over the carpeted floor with every new assault. Penelope was working on the window latch, but it looked like years of painting over the join had sealed the window to the frame as well as if it had grown as a single piece of wood.
She hammered at it with her hands in vain.
Another shock rang through the door, and Albert’s knees buckled, unable to hold against the stress any longer. One more push and there would be nowhere to run.
Martin seemed to sense his imminent victory as he laughed hard and loud.
“You could have lived you, stupid old man,” he cackled.
Albert reached for a solid bronze statuette, either to defend himself or to hurl at the window as he tried to brace himself one final time. Penelope was staring out the window as if trying to capture one last vision of the world beyond.
There was banging behind the door and shouts from outside. Blue lights washed through the living room, and shadows sprang around like fleeing sprites. A smash of glass came from the back of the house in the direction of the kitchen.
Martin bellowed, and Albert heard his feet stomp rapidly down the hallway, the clack of the bead curtains marking his passage. There was a yell, the sounds of a scuffle followed by a series of grunts and snarls that sounded like Martin.
A figure sprang across the living room window silhouetted by the lights outside causing Penelope to squeal and tumble backward onto the settee. The blue light canted and shifted around the eyes as it passed through thick lenses.
“Diane!” cried Albert, suddenly realizing the Police had arrived. He picked himself up off his knees that growled at him for the trouble he had put them through. There was a knock on the living room door.
“It’s Inspector Crothers. You’re safe to come out. We have him.”
♠ ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠ ♠
Diane spent five minutes explaining what had happened to Albert, and he spent five minutes describing his failed plans. Penelope Kendall was tended to in a police car by a paramedic, her quivering lip the only movement on her face where her eyes stared at the headrest of the driver’s seat.
“I’ll take that,” said Inspector Crothers reaching out to Albert, who still held the bronze statuette in his hand. “We don’t need a burglary in amongst all this too.”
“So he was the son of the man that died in jail?” asked Albert.
“Oh yes,” said Diane. “He came back here a few years ago after entering the Police force. His adopted family had changed his name to theirs, but he never forgot the early years of his life. At some point, he must have looked up his father’s case and decided there was some justice to be handed out.”
“But why did he wait so long? He could have spread it out over years and no-one would have been any the wiser.”
“Ah, well,” said the Inspector, “Today appears to have been the twentieth anniversary of his father’s death. It’s odd why criminals wait for such moments, but its approach seemed to trigger something in him that set him on the path to murder.”
“The sins of the past never really disappear, I suppose,” lamented Albert.
Raised voices came from the alley, feet scuffing against the cobbled ground. Martin Jackson emerged first, a trickle of blood coming from his lip and arms cuffed behind him. He struggled with the two officers that were escorting him, each with a firm grip around a bicep.
“I almost had them all,” he yelled at Diane and Albert, “and now she’s going to get away with what she did. You helped save her from their lies.”
Diane turned her back to Martin, grabbing hold of Albert’s arm and marched him down the street away from the police vehicles.
“Goodbye, Constable,” said Diane as she walked away, raising a single hand to wave at the chained figure that receded behind them.
She stared down at the crumpled body, a life discarded like a used tissue. Dark pools oozed from holes that she couldn’t see. A hand lay within the spreading red, the clawed fingers looking as if caught in a moment in time, trying to scoop the fluid back into the veins.
The dagger fell from her slick fingers, clanking heavily upon the floor, the knell of a hellish bell of death.
Diane leaned back into her chair, the hard wooden back creaking as she did so. Circulation resumed to her legs again with a splash of tingling in her toes. She smiled at the monitor.
“I probably shouldn’t enjoy it as much as I do,” she said to the small dog curled up on one of her feet.
Rufus raised his greying chin enough to cast a suspicious eye over his human.
“Don’t look at me like that. It’s not like I’m becoming Countess Bathory. Though a good bath sounds perfect right…”
A huff came from the dog, clearly unimpressed by the explanation.
“You should be an interrogator with a look like that. Stone-cold Rufus, dog-tective extraordinaire.”
Seemingly pleased with his new title, Rufus laid his head back down upon Diane’s foot and fell quickly to sleep. Diane took a sip of tea, though it was starting to get cold. Writing always distracted her, got her caught up such that she forgot anything else around her.
The wind brushed fat raindrops against the window as she stared out into the garden. Puddles had formed along the gravel pathway to the shed, which looked hazy through the downpour. The deep grey clouds moved ponderously, as if dragging so much rain was a burden or penance.
“These are the best days for writing murder,” she thought.
A blinking light drew her attention back to her desk. Diane picked up her phone that had been laying face-down on a stack of unedited papers, its flashing light informing her that she had messages. Diane liked mobile phones in the sense that information and people were only a few taps away at any moment. But if concentration was needed then she found them distracting, as though it was her little master and she must be ready to do its bidding at the drop of a hat. So she usually turned the sound off and flipped it over while writing until the writing trance had taken hold of her. When this happened, only detonations of a thermonuclear kind could rouse her before she had completed a chapter.
An early morning message from Albert wished her a good morning and gave some brief details of his day ahead. He was in Somerset for the week visiting his daughter’s family, and they were off to the seaside at Weston-super-Mare for the day. He had talked about moving down there for the fresh sea breezes and relaxing pace of life, and Diane could tell he had been probing gently to see if she might have an interest in it. She had always been non-committal on the idea, replying that Apple Mews was sedate enough for her. Still, the sea had an allure that she didn’t mind daydreaming about; perhaps in a small cottage on a hillside overlooking the ocean, a small beach a short walk away down a private path, calm summers and howling winters. She found herself grinning at the idea again. Those thunderous skies as the sea tried to reclaim the land, lashing at the shore with mindless fury. Maybe, someday.
There was a message from Sissy Monroe. In the usual Sissy manner, she had taken up three texts with her message and it was only to say that she had another rumour about Douglas MacDonald and his fortune. Diane scanned the message and spotted the words, “Pools winner”, “murdered his neighbour”, and “Japanese sword”. In a usual Diane manner, she promptly deleted the message and stored the précis in her mental list of MacDonald conspiracy theories. There was always a chance that one of them would make a good story. There was a lot less chance that any were true.
She browsed her outline for the chapter, checking off the areas she had already covered and looking through what was to come. There was something about the overall scope of the book that she wasn’t comfortable with, but putting her finger on it was going to be as difficult of a time as Miss Charleston would have solving the case.
Rufus snorted as his breathing became deeper and his paws buffeted Diane’s foot as he chased rabbit criminals over grassy fields.
Diane let her mind drift, the patter of rain on the house hypnotizing her. The body on the floor. Discovered. What next? Who would be there next? What would I do in a similar situation? She had to tangle the story, hide the plot that she already knew behind false motives and secondary plots. The killer was known and had to become lost again.
The doorbell rang. Diane took a moment to wonder who it could be on such a horrid day.
Rufus rolled onto his feet and yipped at the intruder. The rabbits had escaped, and he was not pleased. He made a slow amble to the arch leading to the hallway followed by some more barking, showing his disapproval.
The bell rang again. And again. The ringer pressed the button repeatedly, almost frenziedly.
Diane wrapped her dressing gown tightly around her and walked carefully past her vicious guardian. The ringing disturbed Diane with its ferocity, and she checked through the peephole in the centre of the solid white door.
The fish-eye lens of the peephole showed a panorama of Diane’s front yard through the sheets of falling rain. On her front step stood a young woman; strands of brown hair were matted across her face and shoulders. She was dressed in a long blue waterproof poncho, though the hood had been ignored, with light brown slacks that were darker below the knee from the rainwater and sodden light brown shoes.
“My dear, you’re drenched,” said Diane as she swung the door open. “You’ll catch a death out in this weather like that. Come inside, quickly.”
The dripping woman squelched into the entranceway, and Diane immediately took her poncho, hanging it from a rack behind the door. She ushered the woman into the living room and grabbed a large towel from an airing rack in the kitchen. Rufus made for the kitchen table where she lay, keeping an alert eye on the living room beyond.
“Here you are. Now, what are you doing out on a day like this?”
“You are Miss Dimbleby, aren’t you?” asked the girl. She looked at Diane with her large brown eyes wide under thin dark eyebrows. Her olive skin glistened as the light of the living room caught droplets of rain.
She held the towel that Diane had given her like she wasn’t quite sure what to do with it. She had a nervous tension about her that disquieted Diane a little, but she made sure to stand near to the fireplace and the ornamental poker that rested on a rack near it.
When Diane nodded, the girl said shakily:
“Oh, Miss Dimbleby, I need your help.”
Her shoulders sank in relief, and she raised her left hand that had been partially hidden behind her leg. A white box rested in her palm which she extended towards Diane.
“I—-I don’t know what to do.”
Diane tentatively took the proffered box and examined it closely as she drew it to her. It was an ordinary plain white box of thin cardboard. She weighed it in her hand and didn’t feel any noticeable extra weight inside.
“What have we here?” she enquired. “Let’s have a cup of tea and discuss what this is all about.”
Leading her guest into the kitchen, Diane placed the box on the table and made for the kettle. A scrape of chair legs and a low rumble from Rufus told her that the girl had taken a seat.
“My name’s Monica, Miss Dimbleby. Monica Hope. I’m friends with Rose O’Dowd, Tommy Giles’s girlfriend. They’ve spoken about you and what you…” She paused, deliberating her next word, “do.”
“Ah yes, Tommy. You’re not from Apple Mews, are you?”
“No. Rose and I went to college together, but I’m from Ironbridge.”
“And you’ve come to me with this package.”
“Oh, Miss Dimbleby, I don’t know what to do,” she repeated, a slight quiver returning to her voice. “I got up this morning and picked up my mail and this box was with it.”
Diane placed a steaming cup of tea before Monica, along with a bowl of sugar and a creamer jug. She took a seat opposite and slid the box in front of her.
“And you opened the box?”
Monica seemed to turn a faint shade of green at the mention of it and just nodded.
“Do you mind if I…?”
This got no response, Monica instead deciding to stare into the swirl of cream in her tea.
Flipping the box over, a label was attached and written in a clear script was:
43 Valley Gardens,
Shropshire TF8 4TR
The postmark wasn’t much more helpful, reading Shrewsbury and the date of postage being the day before. They weren’t helpful to Diane, but she was sure that the Police would have a better time drawing out information by working with the Royal Mail. Maybe they would have a CCTV shot of the package being posted.
Diane hesitated, Monica’s demeanour boding something ill. While the tape around the lid had already been slit open by Monica, the lid was a tight fit around the base. With some reluctance, she worked the lid upwards and exposed the contents.
Inside, cotton wool puffed outwards, expanding to meet the new-found freedom. Diane pulled a set of tongs from a canister near her stove and carefully excavated downwards, placing the loose cotton into the box lid. Slowly the level inside the box dropped, and the wool became heavier and sticky with red.
On a cushion of wool rested a finger. It had been poorly severed at the base, a cut right through the bone, and blood had leeched out of it into the surrounding wool. Just above the rough edge of skin was a ring, ornate gold with a setting of two sapphires and two rubies around a single square diamond. The nail was nicely painted, a pattern of small flowers, yet it was chipped in places, and a jagged tear had taken off the very tip.
“I called Rose, I thought it might be a sick prank. She told me to come and see you, that you’d know what I should do.”
Monica still hadn’t looked up from her tea. Diane lifted her glasses and squeezed the sides of her nose, squinting as she did so. She had been fine slaughtering fictional characters, but her morning was not ready for a dead girl’s finger in her kitchen. She was sure the finger’s owner was dead. Unless they were simply very very sick, living people didn’t go around mailing body parts to others.
Diane let out a sigh, and a shiver ran along her spine. “A normal person would have been upset by the sight of a severed finger,” Diane thought. “So Monica is normal at least. But me, not so much.”
“We will have to call the police,” said Diane. “I know someone there that can help. He’ll take care of everything, I’m sure.”
“Thank you. I knew I should call them, but I was scared because this person sent it to my flat. I didn’t want to wait there, just in case…” She left the implication unsaid.
“Do you know who it could have been that sent this? You’ve not had any other strange correspondence?”
“How about suitors? You’re an attractive girl,” said Diane. “Has anyone taken a liking to you that seemed… unusual?”
“There was a guy at a bar a couple of months ago. He got a bit handsy, and the bouncers chucked him out. But nothing else. I’ve been too busy to worry about men for a while.”
“He hasn’t called unexpectedly? Or you saw him across the street when you were out?”
“No. I haven’t seen or heard from him again.”
“Well, do what you can to remember what he looked like. The police will probably want to talk with him.”
Diane went into the living room and dialled Inspector Crothers on her cell phone. She walked back into the kitchen as the phone rang repeatedly. Monica was finally drying her hair, great waving swathes of it flashing around the room. The Inspector didn’t respond, so Diane took a picture of the box and its contents and sent it via text message to the same number. Not twenty seconds later, Inspector Crothers’ name flashed up on her cell phone.
She filled him in on what details she had and told him that Monica was still at the house and that they would wait for him there.
Fifteen minutes passed as Diane alternately comforted and quizzed Monica before there was a knock at the front door. Damp images of Inspector Crothers and Sergeant Webster appeared in the peephole.
“Where’s this finger?” asked the Inspector as he pulled off his dripping coat.
Diane showed them both into the kitchen. Monica turned in her chair but didn’t get up, instead letting her head drop as though she was expecting to get chastened. The Inspector looked around briefly before making for the open box on the table. Diane got a couple of cups down from the shelf and made everyone some tea while the Inspector snapped on some blue surgical gloves. Meanwhile, Sergeant Webster was pulling evidence bags from his pocket, into which the Inspector placed the lid and cotton wool after a brief inspection.
“Sergeant, take Ms. Hope into the living room. I’ll want to talk to her in a moment.”
“Yes, sir,” said Sergeant Webster. He placed the sealed evidence bag on the table and moved to assist Monica into the next room.
“You do seem to attract unusual situations, Diane,” said the Inspector without looking up from the box.
“I suppose I have somewhat of a reputation for such things.”
“So it would seem.”
The Inspector picked up the finger and looked it over, rolling it around to look at it from every angle.
“Messy cut,” he said quietly. “I’d guess pruning shears or something of that nature. Definitely not an expert job.”
“What do you think about the ring, Inspector?”
“It doesn’t look cheap, that’s quite a chunk of ice in there. I’ll have the picture of it circulated through local jewellery stores. That’s assuming it’s local, of course.”
“I think it’s an engagement or wedding ring,” said Diane. “Look at the shape of the finger. It curves slightly to the right which makes me think it’s from a left hand, which would make it logical to be the ring finger.”
Inspector Crothers nodded in agreement.
“You have a sharp eye, Diane. But it doesn’t help much if we don’t have a fingerless woman to compare it to. Luckily, we’re in an area where most women seem comfortable keeping their fingers attached.”
The Inspector slipped the box into another bag and the finger into a third. He turned over the bag containing the box and scribbled the address into his notebook.
“Now, I must speak to the witness. I would appreciate if you would stay in here, Diane. This is now a police matter.”
“As you like, Inspector. I’d get right onto the post office and jewellers if I were you though. No time to lose.”
“The Sergeant will be heading back to Shrewsbury with this evidence, and he will have his instructions. Right now I have this witness to talk to, and I’m going to get that Rose O’Dowd and Tommy Giles over here if you don’t mind. Your living room might get a bit crowded, but we haven’t got the station here in town anymore.”
The Inspector referred to the police authority closing the police station in Apple Mews and replacing the full-time constable with a community officer that would be shared amongst the three villages in the area. Cost-cutting was given as the reason, but many viewed the recent incident in Apple Mews as being a deciding factor.
“Quite alright, Inspector. I really should get ready for the day anyway. I’ll take my laptop and head upstairs.”
“Thank you for your cooperation. We will try to be as unobtrusive as possible.”
Diane went into the living room and saw the Sergeant sitting opposite Monica, whose hair was finally starting to dry into a rough tangle. She was picking at her fingernails, avoiding eye contact with the Sergeant, and he was scrolling through his phone.
“I’ll get you a brush, dear,” said Diane, “otherwise you’ll have sparrows nesting on your head.”
Monica nodded absently, her mind distracted by the shock of all that had transpired.
“I will be right back.”
Diane headed upstairs and was greeted by Rufus, who stood on the landing having already decided that there were too many people in the house, and that the best defensive position was behind the balcony rail. The little dog led the way into Diane’s bedroom before turning upon entering with a sour look on his wrinkled face.
“Don’t look at me like that,” admonished Diane. “Your food is safe from them.”
The answer didn’t seem to please Rufus, who continued to frown at Diane while she made her way over to her dressing table and retrieved a brush. She heard the front door close and saw Sergeant Webster heading along the pathway to the police car that sat at the side of the road. She returned downstairs, leaving Rufus as sentry to the bedroom.
“Knock knock,” said Diane before entering the living room. “Here’s that brush, and I’ve found a small mirror too.”
She handed the items to Monica and left the room again, Inspector Crothers swinging the door shut behind her. Diane could hear him begin asking the same questions Diane had already told him the answers to. She shook her head while walking upstairs. She said to Rufus:
“The police do travel the most circuitous paths.”
As she headed to the master bathroom, Diane flicked her phone on and searched for the photo she had sent to Inspector Crothers earlier. She had saved a copy for herself. Something about the image reminded her of something she had seen before today.
She looked over the fingernail, zooming in for more detail. The little yellow flowers on the deep blue background were not false, having been meticulously painted with great care. There were shades of yellow and stems and leaves, all greatly detailed, which was not the work of someone simply idling away time fixing her nails. This girl had spent time and money on making her fingers look immaculate. The suggestion came to Diane that her hands were to be the focus; she wanted her nails to look more special than usual.
And the ring; the beautiful rubies and sapphires and that diamond. This was not a ring worn without purpose. This ring had expense and meaning embedded in it.
This was the hand of someone newly engaged or married. This was someone that had prepared for the moment to make everything perfect and had met with this horror soon after. The ring and nails were of a celebration turned macabre.
These were things Inspector Crothers would find out after the medical examiner had looked at the finger.
“Lack of tan line around the ring would probably tell them,” she mused.
And then the answer struck Diane. She had seen the ring before. A jewellers in Shrewsbury was having a sale and rings were flashed across the screen during the TV commercial. They had shown a beautiful princess-cut two carat diamond ring that Diane had “accidentally” paused upon the television for Albert one day when he had visited for tea. The very next ring in the commercial was two rubies and two sapphires around a square-cut diamond.
Diane ran to the shower. She had to make herself look presentable; she was going ring shopping.
The full book of “Murder in the Mail” can be yours. to find out more.
Don’t forget to grab your free copy of Penelope Sotheby’s first novella Murder At The Inn while you still can.
to find out more.
[+ Murder on the Village Green+]
Mystery novelist Diane Dimbleby lives in one of the most charming and safest places in the country. So when she discovers a dead stranger while taking a stroll through Apple Mew’s village green, she and the entire town are shocked. Who is he? How did he die?
This isn’t the first time Inspector Darrell Crothers has run into Diane at the scene of a crime. His instincts are telling him he’s going to need her uncanny skills again, but he’s still feeling a bit irritated by her amateur sleuthing.
Diane and Inspector Crothers forge an unofficial partnership during the investigation after an autopsy reveals that the deceased was the victim of a heinous offense. When Diane uncovers an overlooked clue that leads the Inspector to an evil crime syndicate, neither of them can fathom just how far the killers will go to protect their empire.
Now, Diane’s life is at stake and the Inspector must race against the clock if he wants to save her from becoming the group’s next victim.
A curious writer. Double-crossing killers. A determined detective. Murder on the Village Green—A Diane Dimbleby Cozy Mystery is the first in the Diane Dimbleby series of books by author Penelope Sotheby.
[+ Murder in the Neighbourhood+]
[“While going through the pile of novels on her bedroom floor, she hears a creaking noise downstairs. Must be Rufus, she thinks, until she notices him sound asleep on top of her bed.
She goes back downstairs and looks around the living room but sees nothing out of the ordinary. She looks around the kitchen and does not find anything or anyone strange either. “Perhaps the cottage is catching up with me and my creaky bones,” Diane chuckles to herself.
Climbing the staircase to go back to her bedroom, Diane hears another creak, and it’s louder this time…”]
The English village, Apple Mews, is an idyllic community where bad things never happen. Though recently, long-time resident Diane Dimbleby found herself smack dab in the middle of a murder scene on the village green.
The widow of a Scotland Yard police detective, retired teacher Diane spends her days writing crime-solving mysteries, and she used her expertise to help Inspector Darrell Crothers of the Shrewsbury Police solve the case. Standoffish at first, the inspector warmed to Diane’s amazing intuition. Against his better judgment, her sweet nature won him over.
Just as things are getting back to normal in the village, Diane’s dear friend and neighbour, Carys Jones, is found dead by one of her caretakers, Richard. Diane is beyond traumatized. Seeing Carys’ once lively body, now lying in a heap on the foyer floor, breaks her heart. To make matters worse, Richard’s story of an accidental fall isn’t adding up. When Darrell arrives on the scene, he isn’t surprised to see his unofficial partner already there.
Diane uncovers a clue that contains a cryptic message when she temporarily takes in Carys’ dog, Rufus. Before Diane has a chance to tell the Inspector, she and Rufus are slowly stalked, and then chased, through the woods near her house. They barely manage to outrun their pursuer.
She calls Darrell to share her discovery. The evidence leads the sleuthing pair—and Rufus—hours away to Carys’ luxurious beach home on Bardsey Island. What they find shines a light on Carys’ death, and points to something premeditated, something sinister. Things escalate when a stranger steps forward for the reading of the will. Diane and Darrell are forced to backtrack. Soon, Diane finds herself in the centre of a whodunit and she must once again use her ingenious wit to save her own life.
A curious writer. A determined detective. Suspects crawling out of the woodwork. Murder in the Neighbourhood: A Diane Dimbleby Cozy Mystery is the second in the Diane Dimbleby series of books by author Penelope Sotheby.
[“Darrell stops when he’s almost touching the edge of the cabin bed. He’s never met him, but can only assume that this is Mike Davies lying here. From a distance, one might surmise that this man is sound asleep in his bed, save for one particular detail. And that particular detail is that it appears, at first glance, that his head has been gruesomely bashed in.
With no sign of a snore or a breath, the inspector can only conclude that Mike Davies is not sound asleep, but dead”.]
Diane Dimbley’s childhood friend and fellow author, Mike Davies, has invited her to spend the weekend with him on the Island of Lundy. Lundy is the perfect place for writers and artists to find inspiration; the natives keep things hopping, and the wildlife awakens the senses.
Since Mike’s retirement from the MI6—Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, the 63-year-old native Londoner has called his grand, 40-foot yacht home. It’s a safe place to write, much like Diane’s village of Apple Mews. His novels are bestsellers, based loosely on personal experiences working as an intelligence spy. His latest submission is no different; it is inspired by a twenty-five-year-old case, and is soon to be released. But someone has begun threatening him. Warning him to make it disappear, or else.
Mike shares his concerns with Diane and her instinct tells her he might be in danger. In the past, Diane has assisted Inspector Darrell Crothers of the Shrewsbury Police with his criminal cases, but this time she needs his help. Mike is in serious trouble and the inspector is someone she trusts with her life.
When Diane and Darrell discover Mike’s dead body aboard his yacht, a single clue leads them to Mike’s publisher. It isn’t long before the MI6 intervenes and pressures the inspector to walk away. Darrell, driven to find the truth, has never backed down from a case. Neither has Diane, who is intent to bring Mike’s killer to justice.
When Darrell’s main suspect is found dead, the case takes a cataclysmic turn, and heads straight for Diane’s beloved hometown Apple Mews. Has she finally met a foe who will outwit her?
A curious writer, a determined detective, and a powerful government agency with a reputation to protect—everyone is a suspect and no one is safe. Murder on a Yacht: A Diane Dimbleby Cozy Mystery is the third in the Diane Dimbleby series of books by author Penelope Sotheby.
“Inspector! Finally, I have gotten through to you. This is urgent. I know who the killer is, and you need to hurry. He has another girl!” Diane’s words tumbled out of her in her haste to get the information where it could do some good.
“What? How?” said the Inspector.]
“That’s completely the wrong question right now, Inspector. Who? Who is the question of the moment. And the who is called……”]
The village of Apple Mews is known for its old-world charm and friendly neighbors. No crime to speak of, except for a few startling occurrences during the past year. Now things have finally settled, and everyone is enjoying the safe haven they’ve always known and loved. However, when a traumatized girl from a nearby town appears on her doorstep, mystery author Diane Dimbleby is knee-deep in the middle of another whodunit.
Monica Hope doesn’t have any enemies that she knows of, so she frantically reaches out to Diane after receiving a macabre package that contains a bejeweled severed finger. Inspector Darrel Crothers is called in and Diane hopes that together, with his experience and her uncanny sleuthing, they can solve this new inquest easily, but only if they work quickly. The inspector is dealing with personal demons of his own—struggling a demanding career with a patient, yet lonely wife—and he’s a bit distracted; therefore, Diane calls on a longtime friend for a favor.
The investigation leads Diane to a local jeweler, who helps identify the exquisite ring on the deceased’s finger. But a case of mistaken identity catapults the case in a direction Diane never saw coming. Clues are beginning to add up, and so are potential suspects. Can Diane and Darrell catch the killer before they strike again?
A curious writer. A determined detective. A not-so-special delivery. Murder in the Mail: A Diane Dimbleby Cozy Mystery is the fifth in the Diane Dimbleby series of books by author Penelope Sotheby.
[+ Murder in the Development+]
“Diane looked at her notes and tried to let Albert’s brightening spirits lift her own. She tried. A darkness sat heavily upon them, however, and the more Diane considered the possibilities, the more leaden her spirits became. There was a wicked person on the loose and, if the anger shown in the house was any indicator, the Carstairs may be in serious danger. And as the protectors of Monique, she and Albert may have brought that evil straight to their own door.”[
Diane gets a surprise visit one day from a young woman called Monique. Monique’s husband Jonathan has gone missing and so she wants Diane to help find out what happened. Monique suspects foul play – especially as their luxury house has been vandalized and the word “Traitor” daubed in red paint on the window.
It isn’t long before Diane finds out that Johnathan had made several enemies as a result of his job as an accountant. Did anyone hate Johnathan enough though to commit murder? That is what Diane must find out because if somebody killed Johnathan, they would certainly have no hesitation in killing again in order to cover it up.
A curious writer. A determined detective. A missing man. Murder in the Development: A Diane Dimbleby Cozy Mystery is the sixth in the Diane Dimbleby series of books by author Penelope Sotheby.
[“Bill Levy,” he said, taking Bill by the arms and putting on some handcuffs. “You are under arrest for the murder of Sean Harpo. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney one will be appointed for you. Do you have any questions about these rights as I have explained them to you?”
“No sir,” Detective Barclay turned Bill around and started to walk him out of the room. He stopped and gave Daniel a wink and a wicked smile. “You have a nice day now,” he said before leaving the hotel room.
“Don’t worry, and don’t say anything Bill,” Daniel called after him. “I’ll find out where they are taking you and be there quickly.”]
Daniel told Lindsay to stay put. “Everything said in the room stays between us, got it? There is something fishy going on here.”]
Daniel Swift – Attorney at Law. Honest. Dedicated. Brilliant. Together with his investigator friend, Jason Hunter, and his loyal clerk and assistant Kristie Starr, they make sure that justice is served in the Florida Keys. When Daniel gets a visit from Lindsay Gill, asking for help in getting her fiancé released from a Sanitarium, it triggers a chain of events which culminate in murder!!
Lindsay’s fiancé and Daniel’s client – Bill Levy, is seen leaving a hotel room where a man’s body was found – a man who was blackmailing him. Nothing is what is seems and Daniel must use all of his legal knowledge to not only protect his client but to find out what really happened. In doing so he must do battle with a steely judge, a vindictive District Attorney and a legal system where innocence is not always presumed.
A determined lawyer. A client with all the evidence stacking up against him. Murder in the Hotel: A Daniel Swift Mystery is part of a new series of books by author Penelope Sotheby.
For many, the thought of childhood conjures images of hopscotch games in quiet neighbourhoods, and sticky visits to the local sweet shop. For Penelope Sotheby, childhood meant bathing in Bermuda, jiving in Jamaica and exploring a string of strange and exotic British territories with her nomadic family. New friends would come and go, but her constant companion was an old, battered collection of Agatha Christie novels that filled her hours with intrigue and wonder.
Penelope would go on to read every single one of Christie’s sixty-six novels—multiple times—and so was born a love of suspense than can be found in Sotheby’s own works today.
In 2011 the author debuted with “”, a whodunit novella set on Graham Island off the West Coast of Canada. After receiving positive acclaim, Sotheby went on to write the series “Murder in Paradise”; five novels following the antics of a wedding planner navigating nuptials (and crime scenes) in the tropical locations of Sotheby’s formative years.
An avid gardener, proud mother, and passionate host of Murder Mystery weekends, Sotheby can often be found at her large oak table, gleefully plotting the demise of her friends, tricky twists and grand reveals.
publishes short reads that feature stories in a series of five or more books. Specializing in genres such as Mystery, Thriller, Fantasy and Sci Fi, our novels are exciting and put our readers at the edge of their seats.
Each of our novellas range around 20,000 words each and are perfect for short afternoon reads. Most of the stories published through Fantastic Fiction are escapist fiction and allow readers to indulge in their imagination through well written, powerful and descriptive stories.
At Fantastic Fiction, we believe that life doesn’t get much better than kicking back and reading a gripping piece of fiction. We are passionate about supporting independent writers and believe that the world should have access to this incredible works of fiction. Through our store we provide a diverse range of fiction that is sure to satisfy.
â€œAlbert was completing his second full rotation in an effort to find something weapon-like when he heard a thud downstairs, followed by the sound of falling pottery. He stopped his spinning and wandered to the door, ready to peer out and ask about the noise. There was a commotion on the staircase and a form appeared in the bedroom doorway." â€œWell, it looks like the time for subtlety is over,â€ said the murderer as they raised a long sharp knife from their side.â€ The Apple Mews Centennial FÃªte is right around the corner and the locals are busy preparing for the big day. Quirky personalities abound as tables and tents are set up on the green, and now everyone is waiting to hear the results of the hotly debated baking contest. All is dandy until a murder during the festivities plunges Diane Dimbleby and Inspector Darrell Crothers together in yet another mystery. The retired teacher-turned-author knew the baking competition this year was especially fierce, but would one of the participants really kill to win? It appears so. Just as the reigning champion is celebrating a record-breaking victory, she collapses. Diane finds clues and suspects galore in her quaint, picturesque town, but another contestant is murdered in the meantime. It turns out the victims had a dark secret they were hiding, and Diane and Inspector Crothers believe someone familiarâ€”someone from the villageâ€”is responsible for their deaths. Apple Mews is supposed to be peaceful. You should be able to trust your neighbors. Diane is tasked with her most personal case to date and it looks like timing is running out to save the next victims. A curious writer. A determined detective. Too many suspects and not enough evidence. Murder at the FÃªte: A Diane Dimbleby Cozy Mystery is part of a series of books by author Penelope Sotheby. If you are a fan of cozy mysteries that contain an ingenious but modest woman sleuth then you will love this Diane Dimbleby adventure. Interview with the Author Q - Can you tell us more about your Diane Dimbleby series of books? What are they about? A - The books concern the adventures of Diane Dimbleby, a retired school teacher who is now a writer of mystery novels. She lives in the quiet English village of Apple Mews â€“ a place where nothing should ever really happen, but of course murder is never very far away and Diane is always compelled to investigate. Q - Who would this book appeal to, who is your target market? A - Women between 35 - 65 but anyone really who loves whodunit books. Q - For those of us who are unfamiliar with the term "Cozy Mystery" what does it mean? A - A cozy mystery is a mystery novel without the graphic sex or violence that one might expect from some whodunit mysteries. It is a very popular genre at the moment with many cozy mystery free kindle books currently on Amazon. Q - Can you tell us more about yourself, what do you do other than write Murder Mysteries? A - I am a mother and a grandmother. I am an avid gardener and host Murder Mystery weekends. I currently live in England most of the time. Other than writing, I do of course spend lots of time reading whodunit mysteries. Q - What other stories have you written? Can you give us a brief overview of some of your stories? A - I have written a novella called "Murder in the Inn" which has a cozy mystery small town setting but set on a small Canadian Island. What they have in common with the Diane Dimbleby books though is that they are all whodunit books. Q - What will you be working on next? A - I am currently working on a new series of books that follow the adventures of a superb Attorney at Law called Daniel Swift. Daniel is in his mid-30s and lives in the paradise setting of Key West. Unlike many in his profession Daniel is the epitome of honesty. He is also one of the most brilliant lawyers in the country which a dedication not just to his clients, but to the pursuit of truth.