Five Six Pick up Sticks, a murder mystery by E J Lamprey

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Website dating for the over-fifties is definitely a boom industry, but for some it has been a dead end, and the Scottish police want to know why. Sergeant Kirsty Cameron’s aunt Edge is the right age to become the bait in their investigation, and even has some recent murder-solving experience on her CV, making her the perfect candidate. 

The third whodunit in the Grasshopper Lawns series dives gleefully into the murkiest end of the senior singles dating pool (where the predators lurk) with Edge secretly hoping to meet someone special. It’s spring, and it seems the rest of the world is in love, is there someone out there for her? Preferably not the murderer, of course. 

The murders of the recent past were solved with her friends Vivian, Donald and William, but this investigation is so covert, not even they can know why she is suddenly so keen to meet a series of slightly dodgy men. They do insist on riding shotgun in the pubs and restaurants all round the beautiful Forth area in Scotland, which is a bit of a nuisance when Mr Right does come along. Unless he’s just another dead end… 

Author:

Elizabeth (E J) Lamprey lives in Scotland, on the Firth of Forth, within easy distance of Edinburgh. She loves Scotland but accepts that with a mere eleven years residence she is still considered a tourist, albeit a tenacious one. She has been variously a book reviewer on a city paper, a columnist in a national magazine, a copy-editor and critiquer, a commercial blogger and a reporter on a country newspaper, alongside more conventional (better-paid) jobs. Writing a series of cheerful whodunits set in a Scottish retirement village is her favourite occupation. 

 

Chapter 1 – A job offer

 

Detective Inspector Iain McLuskie locked his police car in front of the main house at Grasshopper Lawns and struck off across the large garden with the confident familiarity of a man who knew the place well. With several murders there in fairly quick succession over the winter he’d spent a fair bit of time at the retirement village, but things had been restfully quiet lately. It was a pleasant novelty to be visiting socially, and he looked around appreciatively at the changes the season was bringing to the Lawns.

Spring had been late arriving in Scotland this year, but was making up for lost time; an army of tulips, flaunting vivid scarlet petals, marched through the borders past exhausted daffodils and crocuses, and the giant bank of rhododendrons was bulging with fat buds. Privet hedges crossed each other to make X-shaped mini private gardens at regular intervals around the perimeter of the lawn; he could see a few gardening enthusiasts already hard at work in the lovely spring weather. The sky arched blue overhead, the sun was warm on his face and the lightest of zephyrs pushed a few puffs of cloud overhead, and stirred the blossom on the fruit trees.

An indifferent gardener himself, and father to young football hopefuls, his own small garden was stripped to basics. One day, he promised himself, when he had the time, he would pop back here for gardening ideas. In the meantime, he was making his way to number twelve of the apartments that encircled the lawns, to run a proposition past Edge, Sergeant Kirsty Cameron’s slightly eccentric aunt.

The aunt in question was found busily weeding her triangle of hedge garden, which contained an elegant old bench and some ancient flagstones nostalgically imported from her previous home. She was wearing faded jeans, an overlarge plaid shirt and a completely disreputable gardening hat, and was clearing weeds between the flagstones with vigour and a running muttered commentary.

“I hope there aren’t any swearies in that lot, Miz Cameron?”  He hailed her cheerfully and she twisted round.

“Detective Inspector McLuskie! What a surprise. And of course there were swearies. Along with a magic spell that apparently banishes creeping buttercup. If it works I shall rent myself out for gardening services and be rich for life.” She used the bench’s sturdy support to scramble to her feet and looked past him, surprised. “Where’s Kirsty?”

“Helping out in Grangemouth for the next few days.” He pointed at his cheek. “You’ve – er – got a bit of mud…”

“Oh, I must look like hell. Gardening doesn’t suit me.” She pushed her battered gardening hat up her forehead – adding two more smears of mud, to offset the rakish dab on her cheek – and shot him a sharp look. “Not that I’m not pleased to see you, but what brings you here? Come on over to my verandah, do. I’ve some lemonade there in the shade.”

Two Havana chairs flanked a tiny table which held a jug of iced lemonade and a glass, and she waved him to one of the chairs.

“Help yourself, I’ll get another glass. I’ll only be a moment.”

He started a polite demurral but she fixed him with another sharp glance, said “Nonsense!” and vanished inside.

Smiling, he poured himself a half-glass.  Kirsty Cameron was in her twenties, a pleasant and competent police officer who was a pleasure to work with, but she was the image of her aunt. He had a sudden impression of what she would be like in thirty years’ time. Still slender, still attractive, redoubtable…

Edge reappeared without her hat and gardening gauntlets, her face free of smudges, and a fresh glass in her hand. She sank down into the other chair with a sigh of relief and he held the jug up invitingly, and filled her glass at her nod.

“I hope I’m not interrupting?” He drank gratefully – the lemonade was icy, clean and sharp, delicious – and she grinned at him.

“Not at all, I was clearing my decks for Kirsty’s visit this afternoon. What can I do for you?”

“I ken Kirsty visits Tuesdays so I wanted to speak to you first. I was going to ask how you were but I can see you’re back to your old self, right enough.”

“Just a small operation.” She was dismissive. “Part of growing older, such a bore, but I hope you got my thank you note for the flowers; it was very kind of you. And being called JB Fletcher did wonders for my ward cred!”

“Ah, now, you know we value your detective skills. In fact, I’m hoping you might be interested in – well, if you’re not too tied up with anything at the moment – you’ve jokingly said a couple of times in the past that you wanted to join the Force?”

“You’re offering to sign me up as a hobby bobby?” She leaned forward, eyes bright with interest and he waved his free hand vaguely.

“Not sign up, not as such. More if you’d put in an occasional… let’s call it appearance, on our behalf? I don’t know if Kirsty has said anything at all about some deaths we’ve recently picked up on which have aroused our suspicions? I’ll let her fill you in, but long story short, there’s a potential link to the dating agencies that cater to singles over fifty.”

He half-filled his glass again and sat back. “You ken the whole Scottish police force has been reorganized, aye? There’s no denying that doing away with all the little divisions has improved our overall picture, and now we’ve picked up some odd similarities in a few geographically-scattered deaths. I’ll have to ask you not to talk about it the noo, we dinna want to start any kind of panic in case it’s pure coincidence. We’ve been lucky; there was already a fraud investigation starting in the senior singles scene, with a top undercover poliswoman assigned to it. She’s just the person to take it up a level. Problem is, all this extra information got dumped on her, and all urgent, and she says there’s a limit to what she can do without ever meeting the marks. It would really help her if there was someone doing the social, appearing as her, but only in low risk situations. And it would be good to have someone – er –”

“Old?” Edge offered helpfully and he laughed awkwardly.

“No, no! I was trying to think how to say someone who could genuinely be interested in meeting senior singles. Old wasn’t the word I wanted!”

“I know what you mean. Someone older, who really could be expected to want to pick up sticks and sympathize about gout. I joined one of those senior dating websites myself, once. You wouldn’t believe some of the responses I got – from all ages, too. Still, it was cheap; you get what you pay for. I did think of going for one of the more expensive select introduction ones – mainly because my accountant Patrick looked on the verge of being snapped up by one of his widows, and that would have left me without my standby escort. Then he managed to escape, and I also made friends with Donald and William, so I never bothered.”

Iain grinned involuntarily. “Life must have been very quiet before yon Laurel and Hardy! There’s nothing for them in this set up, though. What I thought was, mebbe you’d like to pop round, have a talk with Susan, weigh each other up and see if it would be something that would interest you? She’s working from her home, it’s just over the way, in Onderness. She’ll talk you through what she’s doing, the possibles she’s already identified, how she’s monitoring things. She’s very good, and a nice person, you’ll like her. And you’ll ken why I’m asking, when you see her. You look very like the profile picture of herself that she’s posting on the websites.”

 

 

Edge poured the last of the lemonade into her glass and gazed thoughtfully into space after Iain’s departure. Murder. Back in December, when Betsy Campbell’s death had started a whole train of events, proximity to murder had been quite exciting, but there had been rather too much of it since then. Still, this wasn’t on the spot, and her involvement would be very limited. It wasn’t even confirmed that murder was involved at all –

Her train of thought was abruptly interrupted by the sight of a sizeable rump reversing slowly into view on hands and knees from the miniature garden next to her own and a breathless voice calling her name.

Stifling a laugh, she hurried over to help Miss Pinkerton up. The older woman, her neighbour in number thirteen and known to all as Miss P, gasped out grateful thanks as Edge helped her to her feet.

“Ay do it every time!” Miss P puffed ruefully. “Ay think Ay can manage on my weeding stool, and then Ay reach too far for a pesky herb and the next thing Ay know Ay’m on all fours again. Ay don’t know how you manage to get up and down so easily.”

“I don’t at all,” Edge assured her. “If it wasn’t for my bench I couldn’t get up either. You should get a bench in your bit, they’re very useful.”

Miss P was at least seventy, with a fresh complexion, fluffy white hair and the wide candid eyes of a young girl. Writing an endless stream of wistfully romantic novels kept her in comfortable circumstances, and Edge considered her an ideal neighbour – quiet, gentle and unsociable. Over the three years they had been neighbours, Miss P’s extreme shyness had only slowly thawed to the point where conversation occasionally slid past the briefest of friendly greetings, towards the first glimmerings of friendship.

“Ay really should be doing this at midnight anyway,” she said diffidently and unexpectedly. “Dark moon, you know. Most efficacious. But at my age, midday will have to do, Ay can’t be crawling on all fours to my apartment at midnight. What would my neighbours think?”

“Well, this neighbour would be quite startled, certainly. I was going to ask if you’re a good witch, but even in my head it sounded exactly like a line from the Wizard of Oz.”

“Oh, not a witch at all, not really. Not any more. Ay was quite the Wiccan in my younger years, even now Ay observe the more practical rituals, like cutting herbs according to the moon phases, but Ay don’t like to talk about it – or be talked about, if you’d be so kind.”

“Of course not, although I think it’s fascinating. Did you at least get all your herbs?” Edge fought to rid her mind of an image of her portly neighbour dancing round a midnight bonfire, and succeeded.

Miss P beamed at her and held up a slightly crumpled woven bag. “Oh yes, once Ay was down there Ay got the lot before Ay called for you. Ay had a feeling you’d understand when Ay heard what you said to that nice-looking policeman. Before you moved away, of course. Not that Ay would have listened if Ay…” She gave up on her jumble of sentences and settled instead for, “Will you join me for a quick cup of tea?”

“I’d have loved to.” Edge had to shake her head. “My niece will be here in less than an hour and I’ve still to make myself and the apartment presentable. Are you coming up to watch the boules later this afternoon?”

“Ay hadn’t planned – well, maybe. Ay don’t really go out in public alone but Ay suppose it isn’t really public. That’s at the top bit, where the new allotments are?”

“No need to go alone, we’ll knock on your door on the way past.” Edge was firm. “You’ll like Kirsty, she’s lovely. And boules is such fun.”

“It was very popular in France, when Ay lived there, but of course it was only older people who played it in those days.” Miss P seemed completely unaware of possible irony. “Ay do remember Godfrey saying the first tournament was very successful. Did you play?”

“No, I couldn’t at the time, I’d just had my op. Pity, because I love it, I’ve played it a bit in the past. I think the competition will be fierce today, but every time I thought I’d pop up and get in a little practice there’ve been people working on their game. Sylvia and Matilda are there half the day, every day. I imagine they’ll be the winners today.”

“Oh, Sylvia!” Miss P permitted herself a tiny unladylike snort. They agreed she’d be ready for three thirty and she headed back to number thirteen, while Edge hurried into her own apartment to shower off the morning’s exertions. She shook her head as she went. The most unlikely witch in the world, living right next door; bet that wasn’t on her application form! On the other hand, the Trust only selected residents with interesting pasts, so anything was possible…

 

 

Kirsty arrived soon after two looking very summery in a flower-patterned t-shirt dress which clashed cheerfully with her flaming red hair, and well prepared with a huge floppy hat more than equal to fending off the Scottish sun. She had brought an assorted box of the new doughnuts that were the latest craze and she and her aunt squabbled over them companionably over cups of tea on the tiny verandah.

“I hope I’m dressed right for a boules tournament. I haven’t the faintest idea what boules even is.” Kirsty picked a particularly lurid pink doughnut from the box and nibbled cautiously at a corner. “Is it a posh name for lawn bowls?”

“Not with our creaky knees, darling. And a bowling green takes up far too much space, even if Joey had the time to maintain it, along with all his other jobs here. Boules is that game where you throw steel balls to group them round a jack. It’s all in the flick of the wrist. Really good players make it look absolutely effortless. Takes years to get it just right.”

Kirsty nodded absently, finished her doughnut and changed the subject. “I’m a bit annoyed with Iain. I admit I’d suggested talking to you about our possible serial killer. You know your luck, you’d probably find yourself chatting to his dear old mum within the day. People positively queue up to tell you stuff. At the time he said no, but next thing I know he’s sounded you out over dating potential suspects, and you’ve jumped at it. I do wish you wouldn’t. Anyway, he says I’m to fill you in on some of the details.”

Edge looked up alertly as Kirsty went on.

“Usual situation, though – I do have to swear you to secrecy? In fact, even not saying anything to your buddies, as this may turn out to be really sensitive.”

“Then we’d better go inside. I’ve been overheard once already today and anyway, once the sun moves round, it isn’t quite as warm as it looks, is it?”

Once in her favourite chair Kirsty tucked her feet under her, sent a green-iced doughnut to join the pink one, and took up where she left off.

“I’m not sure how much he told you, so I’ll recap. There’s been a scattering of deaths of older women over the last year or two, with some as close as a month apart. Mostly in Edinburgh, but quite a few in the smaller towns falling within a thirty mile radius of the city. Anyway, we had one in Onderness about six months ago. Thought nothing of it, to be honest; she had a dicky heart, the doctor signed it off as a heart attack without a quibble, and it seemed perfectly feasible she had died of shock after finding she’d been robbed. It was one of Iain’s first calls when he transferred here. Then, with the Grangemouth crew short-staffed over the holidays, another death was reported and he caught the call. Again a robbery, no hint of murder, but he said he couldn’t shake a feeling of déjà vu. Even down to a slightly odd detail which he remembered from the Onderness case. He checked HOLMES and that same odd detail had cropped up in two other recent deaths. I can’t tell you what it was, Aunt, but trust me, it’s not something that always got noticed. Very easy to miss.”

She peered into the box, regretfully decided against another doughnut and shifted into a more comfortable position. “So, where was I? Oh, right, he went to Central to propose a full investigation and once we started pulling files and looking at the photos, it seems a few more may be connected. Which is why this is absolutely secret, because once the media think there could be a serial killer on the loose, it will be mayhem. Time was when the media worked with us in the common interest, but now it’s all about getting the story before anyone else does, and devil take the hindermost. They’ll blow it out of all proportion, spread misinformation and half-baked theories in all directions, and if there is a killer he’ll quietly vanish under the radar. No knowing how many more deaths before we pick up on the trail again; it took long enough this time.”

Edge cut a chocolate doughnut in half and offered the plate. “So you don’t want me to mention it to awful Sandy at the Chronic Ill. Got it. Just as well you said.”

Kirsty grinned sheepishly at the reference to the local daily newspaper. “As if you would – but nothing on Twitter, or Facebook, or even just chatting. Okay, okay. I know you wouldn’t. Iain’s now liaising with the big boys at Central about re-investigating any deaths that could be linked, and we’re pulling files on every death, natural or not, for older women in the last two years. Iain specified we should be checking for any sign they could have been dating, to check his theory, and every one we’ve confirmed so far had been actively dating on-line – trouble was, all on different sites. There are hunnerds of them!”

“Not really.” Edge sighed. “Do you remember I tried that one for professional retired people? I told Iain that, but I don’t think I told him what I absolutely bet those site managers didn’t tell you – that most of them run off a central pool of singles. It’s really a bit of a scam.”

“Aha! I knew it would be worth asking you. No wonder they’ve been evasive, they won’t want that coming out. I’ll pass that back. Central have put an undercover woman on it full-time. At least now she won’t need to join every agency on the web.”

“And unless they’re hauling someone out of retirement, she won’t be able to go on dates,” Edge nodded. “Which was where Iain thought I could help out. Of course, I jumped at it. Especially if she finds an absolute corker. It’s my civic duty, you know. Taking one for the team. Flying the –”

“Noted!” Kirsty interrupted, laughing. “I’m sure they’re all regular movie stars. Aren’t there any single hotties here, then?”

“Not that I’ve found, but in all fairness I haven’t really been looking. I’ve seen one or two possibles out walking their dogs. I do like a man with a dog. They look quite nice but have rather hunted expressions. There are an awful lot of women here, you know,” Edge reminded her gloomily. “Anyway, how’s your love life?”

“Rory’s back,” Kirsty glinted sideways at her aunt. “Oh, dinna fash, not back with me. That backing singer he hooked up with on tour dumped him for a better prospect, which in theory was very good for him. But what it actually means is that he arrives at the flat whenever he’s had a few, to tell me I was the one after all. I’m looking to move, now, to get shot of him. There’s a paralegal I’ve met – studying part time for the bar, very nice guy – and if that’s going to get anywhere I really don’t want Rory crashing in on us. Or drunkenly serenading me from the street, and that’s happened too. I don’t think Drew’s got a dog, though.”

“Well, dogs aren’t essential, at your age.” Edge conceded generously. “We’d better get moving, if we want to check out form, and we’re collecting my neighbour on the way. You’ll have to tell me about the promising Drew later.”

“Will do. Which neighbour, the Russian ballerina or the one who writes the bodice rippers?”

Edge laughed aloud. “She’d pass out at the very thought of a bodice ripper! We’ve got about twenty of her books in the library, so I read one that was set in a part of Provence I’ve visited. It was so sweet and gentle it made me want to hurl myself at the nearest man and have my wicked way with him. Fiona – James’s daughter – was addicted to them as a teenager, which explains a lot.”

Kirsty, who knew Edge’s stepdaughter well, grinned appreciatively.

Edge grinned back, then shot a slightly apologetic glance at the photograph of her first husband and went back to the books. “They’re well written, and she writes really good background – you can practically smell the croissants – but everyone’s so nice. Her name’s Titania, if you can believe that, but she’s really old-fashioned. She prefers to be called Miss Pinkerton, Miss P to friends. Sylvia calls her the Great Tit behind her back and Taytie to her face. They loathe each other but she’s sweet, honestly, in a very other-worldly way. She considers Godfrey Crossley, for an example, pure Heathcliff, very romantic and brooding, when everyone else knows he’s a crabby old bugger, which is probably why she’s the only person he’s remotely nice to. She’s seventy going on nineteenth-century sixteen; Vivian doesn’t like her much but I think she’s a poppet.”

Once again the bonfire image popped up; she longed to pass on the little bombshell Miss P had dropped, but loyally kept it to herself.

“I thought Vivian liked everyone.” Kirsty was mildly surprised. She’d known Vivian, her aunt’s friend since their schooldays, all her life. She waited patiently as her aunt vanished into the box-room tucked out of sight in her neatly-planned apartment, to hunt out a presentable summer hat, and raised her voice slightly. “Will she also be playing this afternoon?”

“Vivian or Miss P?” Edge reappeared with her first husband’s Panama hat, faintly yellowed by age. “It’s this or my gardening hat, I really have to get something suitable for summer. Yours is gorgeous. Not Vivian, she’s been dragged out clothes shopping with Donald. They’ve got themselves a project tonight and he said she had to dress to his standards. He’s the most awful fashion snob. William may be there. If he is, you’ll get to see him flirting with Miss P. It’s an education.”

“William flirts with everybody,” Kirsty remarked, holding the door open for her aunt, and Edge gave a naughty giggle.

“But with her, because he’s younger, he’s boyish, and a bit cheeky. It’s Billy Bunter chatting up Mrs Robinson. She adores him, and can’t forgive Vivian for being his favourite. And Vivian’s a wee bit proprietal about William and doesn’t quite like the trouble he takes with Miss P, so that’s why they aren’t particularly friendly. Very sweet to each other, but daggers, if not drawn, at least to hand.”

 

 

 

Chapter 2 – The time-travel cigar

 

Edge turned up the lighting and adjusted her wardrobe mirrors to check her reflection from several angles, frowning at the result. She was dressing to meet the others in the house pub for a late drink to hear how Vivian and Donald’s adventure had gone, but her favourite half-boots, soft cotton jeans and cashmere jersey were all black and she looked, she decided reluctantly, like a widowed crow. Even adding red and gold dangling ear-rings, and twisting her expensively streaked shoulder-length hair up into a very non-funereal casual topknot, didn’t lessen the air of extreme gloom. The outfit was flattering. It was comfortable. And she was definitely not going to change because, apart from anything else, it was her day for the laundry rota tomorrow and most of her alternatives were already in the clothes hamper. A couple of weeks of comfort eating and little exercise after a minor operation had made her usual favourites a little too snug, and discards were tossed in every direction.

Another assault on the cupboard’s deep reserves finally unearthed a gaudy poncho and she pulled that carefully over the topknot and studied the result. It would do. Only Donald would criticize, after all; he favoured blacks and greys himself, at least now they wouldn’t look like twins in mourning. Vivian, who was built on generous lines, bought her clothes from plus-size catalogues and enjoyed clashing colours together, while William – well, William, very tall, very broad and lavishly contoured, picked his clothes from the top of the eye-watering range and never thought about it again, pulling on whatever came to hand. It wasn’t even that he thought a successful Sci-Fi author should dress that way; he quite obviously didn’t care what he combined so long as he liked the individual items. He and Vivian at least would enjoy the poncho. It had immensely deep pockets so she transferred her Kindle, lipstick and keys from her handbag, hung up the rejected clothes to leave the apartment at least superficially tidy, closed the pantry doors on the kitchenette, and let herself out the door.

The main house, a three-storey building with more than a nod to country estate in its design, was already closed for the evening but the pub shared a side door with the early breakfast room. There were five residents in the place, completely engrossed in a game of football on the huge TV screen. She signed for a small glass of house white – no cash changed hands at the Lawns – and went straight on through to the large conservatory, which served as dining room overflow and garden room. Cleverly-deployed lighting in the big plant pots and concealed about the area made it a very handsome room at night, and she had the place to herself.  She glanced up at the clock above the pub door at she sat down. Just half past eight. She was earlier than she’d realized but she had wine, and, thanks to the Kindle, plenty to read.

She had finished her wine and was deeply engrossed in re-reading Benson’s Mapp and Lucia when she heard William’s unmistakable booming voice in the pub, and frowned at the little screen. William had indeed been at the boules tournament, and had annoyed her by flirting outrageously with Miss P until she was flushed, giggly and breathless. He had tried to include Edge in the banter after Kirsty left and they had both laughed at her, and made her feel like a stuffy maiden aunt when she was repressive.

Not normally one to take the huff, she still wasn’t quite ready to have his undiluted company for the ten or so minutes before the others arrived; but the only escape, at this time of night, was through the pub itself – or through the Snug. To think was to act and she was across the room and slipping through the Snug’s weighted door even as the door from the pub into the conservatory started to open.

 

 

Scotland’s draconian anti-smoking laws forbade smoking in public areas, but the main house, built before such laws were ever dreamed of, and by a non-smoker, had included a smoking room with its own patio. After a bit of swithering, the room had been kept for its designated purpose – Grasshopper Lawns was, after all, private property. Smoking had always been discouraged in the rented apartments for safety reasons but the Snug continued to offer residents a comfortable and sociable alternative to their own small verandahs.

A familiar haze eddied lazily in the air and she found herself smiling in instant flashback as the weighted door of her sanctuary sighed shut behind her. Someone was smoking a cigar, the kind that James, her first husband, had particularly liked. The lingering curl of expensive smoke instantly evoked a vivid image of him on the terrace, cigar in one hand, sundowner in the other, the shrill rasp of the cicadas and the booming, barking, calling insistent noises that fill the velvety darkness on a hot night in Africa –

“Are you all right?”

“Oh!” She shook her head quickly. “I had the most detailed flashback – from your cigar, actually.”

“Smells can be better time-machines than a TARDIS,” he agreed politely, a smile in his voice, and she smiled back. At this time of night the Snug was lit only by candles and the flickering of a very small pine-cone fire. By their friendly light the man who addressed her, and whom she knew by sight, could pass for early forties but by the more critical light of day he was over sixty; quite tall, nicely built, distinguished grey at his temples and a bent nose that added character to a face that was interesting rather than conventionally handsome.

“Would you like one?” he added, and reached for the pocket in his duffle coat, which was thrown over the arm of the substantial wicker sofa.

“No, oh no thanks, I don’t smoke.”

He didn’t ask the obvious question, just quirked one amused eyebrow and settled back in his seat, thrusting out a huge white foot which scraped along the floor.

Edge, not normally shy, found herself at a loss for words. Asking a virtual stranger, and one not in the mood to chat, how he had hurt himself, seemed positively intrusive. He didn’t appear to feel any awkwardness and drew on his cigar again. Once again James and Africa were briefly evoked. It wasn’t only the cigar; he had the same voice, even the same accent as James, the velvet burr which Sean Connery had made internationally identifiable as the accent of Scotland. Rather as, she thought whimsically in the extending silence, all frogs were expected to sound like Hollywood frogs.

With a friendly nod she started towards the patio door, pausing as he finally spoke again.

“Were you escaping the Sci-fi fellow?”

“Not escaping, as such,” she fibbed fluently. “I like William, we’re friends, but he can be a bit… ” her voice trailed off. A bit what?

“He can talk for Scotland, but I’d like to go in for a drink, if you’d be prepared to chaperone me. I’m sorry, I should have introduced myself. Brian Mitchell. And I think you’re Beulah Cameron?”

“Yes I am. I’ve seen you around with your beagle. You’re Donald’s neighbour.”

Brian, who had hauled himself to his feet to offer his hand, nodded. “Donald told me to call you Beulah, that you hated being called Edge. Is that right?”

“Well – the other way round, actually. I was named after a rich elderly maiden aunt, in a fairly blatant attempt to curry favour. My middle name is Edgington, another family name, and I’ve been Edge since my first week at school. Donald knows that, but he never misses a chance to tease.”

Brian fumbled for his crutch and Edge, thinking back, added, “Chaperone?”

He gave her a shy smile. “Do you have any idea how unnerving it is to wonder whether a man is flirting with you?”

“Well – yes?” She looked at him, surprised, and he nodded.

“Fair comment. Let’s just say, when it astonishes you that a man would even think you could be interested?”

“Still yes.” Edge’s eyebrows went up further and he shrugged.

“Well, call me homophobic then. For most of my life such a thing would have been unthinkable. I’m a bit of a dinosaur in this modern world.”

“William?” Edge asked. “Am I getting muddled? Don’t you mean Donald?”

She was more puzzled than ever and he said, slightly helplessly, “Donald doesn’t flirt with me. William – well, he makes me nervous. Maybe he won’t do it in front of you, so you’ll be doing me a favour if you’ll join me for that drink. ”

She held the door open for him to crutch his way through but he insisted on reaching above her head to hold it for her to precede him. William had taken up a position in a relatively well-lit corner, and was already engrossed in his Kindle, which looked like a toy in his big hands. He was well over six feet tall, nearly as large around, and could have modeled for the Holstein Henry VIII portrait, an illusion enforced by the rather determined Tudor red of his mane of hair and his tidy beard. He looked up with a smile and the merest sketch of I’m-thinking-of-getting-up, subsiding with relief when she flapped her hand at him.

“I wondered where you’d got to. Jamie said you’d already arrived. I got you a glass of house white, I was thinking I’d have to drink it myself. How long have you been smoking on the sly?”

Edge, who wasn’t very good at it, was forced into her second fib of the evening.

“I was tracking down a smell. Brian smokes the same kind of cigars as my first husband.”

William nodded at Brian, focusing on the big white eyesore. “Quality stookie,” he said admiringly of the cast. “What did you do to your ankle?”

Brian looked rueful. “I’d like to say I was climbing in the Cairngorms. Thirty years of climbing without so much as a sprained ankle. Truth is, I tripped over my dog, took a huge step to get my balance, stood on his ball and – crack. First time I’ve been really glad to be here, too. I was so shaken I’m not sure I could have phoned emergency services. I was barely capable of pushing my panic button. Jane was there in about three minutes.”

“You poor baby,” William cooed.

Edge shot him a startled look, then looked back at Brian, who had flinched. “Who’s Jane?”

“Matron’s new volunteer helper? Jane Pillay.”

“I think her name’s Jayenthi …” William murmured and Brian shrugged indifferently.

“Tomayto, tomahto – before I sit down, I’m getting a brandy. Anything for you, Beul – Edge? William?”

Edge glared at William as the pub door closed behind Brian. “I thought he was joking when he said you flirted with him. What’s with the ‘poor baby’ comment?”

“His fault, he started it.” William, resplendent in a vast vivid red shirt with a gold silk Ascot, still somehow looked for a second like a sulky baby. “He patronizes Donald; I don’t like homophobes, and I like making them uncomfortable. He annoys me, to be honest. Treats me like a cripple. My walking sticks are a fashion choice and a convenience, not a necessity.”

“He can’t be that much of a homophobe if Donald likes him, and he does. Don’t do it in front of me, it makes me uncomfortable too.”

“Oho!” William glinted sideways at her. “Sits the wind in that quarter?”

“Good grief, no!” Edge took a sip of her wine before going on quite forcefully, “The man can’t step over a dog without falling over, his idea of fun is climbing mountains, and he won’t take the trouble to say someone’s name properly. Jane for Jayenthi, good grief. Haud me back.”

William grinned at her but let it go. “Anyway, Donald doesn’t count, he’s the straightest gay man I ever met. I sometimes think he pretended to be gay so he’d blend in, and it became a habit. The whole theatrical world is stiff with them, after all. A non-gay choreographer is practically an oxymoron.”

“What are you reading?” Edge firmly changed the subject and he glanced down at his Kindle.

“A Joanna Lamprey story – she’s strayed into my territory, written a Sci-fi. Inexcusable paradox at the end, in my opinion, and I told her so, but she’s put up a strong argument, so I’m re-reading to give it another try. She’s by way of a friend. Do you read Sci-fi? It’s called Time After Time.”

Brian returned with his brandy before Edge had to answer, and chose the chair furthest from William.

“Sláinte,” he toasted and they raised their glasses automatically

“Donald mentioned you were an investigator?” Edge asked politely, and he nodded.

“We’ll have to bring you in on our murder-solving team.” William had obediently dropped the effeminate bantering tone. “Quite a slick operation. Edge lets people tell her everything we need to know, Donald tracks down bodies, and I’m the brains. Vivian is my moll. We’ve got one hell of a track record.”

“You can take my place on the team.” Edge said with feeling. “Four murders in as many months – and getting closer and closer to home – were way too many. I’m resigning.” She belatedly remembered she was meeting Susan in a little over twelve hours to voluntarily get involved in another potential murder investigation, but banished the flicker of unease immediately. That was entirely different.

“Donald’s told me a bit about it. My career was a lot more mundane.” Brian was apologetic. “I mainly did tracing work, missing or absconding persons, serving court orders; never saw a murdered person in my life.”

“Strictly speaking, neither have I,” William conceded. “Donald trips over them all the time, though.”

“I wonder how they’re getting on?” Edge turned to Brian to explain. “He and Vivian are out tonight at rehearsals. They’ve joined an amateur theatricals group in Livingston which is tackling La Traviata – a giant leap from Gilbert and Sullivan, but the group’s apparently very talented. Vivian’s playing Flora, she’s thrilled about it. We’re all going to be expected to go so I’ve been swotting up on it. Can we count you in?”

Brian laughed politely and glanced up at Sylvia, who had come through from the pub with her neighbour Matilda, instead of answering. The friends were an odd pair, both in their late sixties, Matilda placid and beige, the diminutive Sylvia gloved in a vintage dusky pink Chantal suit, her extraordinary nails painted exactly the same colour.

“Hello all,” she said carelessly, and perched at the next table with a special sizzling smile for Brian which should have made his toes curl. “Hello – Brian. Good heavens, Edge, I should have brought my sunglasses. So bright. How very brave of you. Did I hear you drumming up support for La Travesty?”

“Yes, you did. Will you be coming along?”

“I’ll be away, I’m afraid.” Sylvia looked at Brian under her false lashes and smouldered. He buried his bent nose in his snifter after a hunted glance at the Snug door.

“When are you going away?” Edge was surprised.

Sylvia finally took the burning stare off Brian and looked at Edge with a wicked smile. “When is the performance?” she answered pertly and Matilda gave a nervous giggle.

William shifted restlessly and Edge hastily congratulated Matilda on her boules success in the afternoon. If Vivian was proprietal of William, he was at least as protective of her. Interesting as a quarrel between Sylvia, with her stiletto barbs, and William, who used words for a living and had absolutely no inhibitions, might be, Edge had no intention of being this close to the crossfire. Sylvia’s eyes gleamed and William turned his attention back to his wine as Matilda and Edge determinedly rehashed the afternoon. Edge stole a quick glance at the wall clock. Just rising nine pm …

 

 

After another five agonizingly long minutes, during which Edge could feel herself getting increasingly tetchy, the cavalry arrived in the form of the thespians. Vivian was still flushed with excitement and unfamiliar in what was clearly Donald’s choice of clothes; a very flattering Benetton cape over well-cut slacks. A professionally trained opera singer who had given up a promising career to marry, she hadn’t sung in anything more ambitious than strictly amateur productions for years and Donald had clearly been determined to make her look the part, even persuading her to apply vivid lipstick and make her face up to accentuate her good bone structure. Sylvia made a final effort to cut Brian out of the group but retired defeated under Donald’s saturnine stare. The latter sank gracefully into the chair next to Brian with only the tiniest wince in the direction of Edge’s poncho and told them generally, “She was absolutely brilliant. A class of her own.”

Vivian giggled. “I don’t think they know what to do with us. Donald told them who my voice coach had been and they keep asking me for advice! Then he went over to make a suggestion about the dance the chorus was doing –  a tiny suggestion – and you’d have thought Verdi himself had decided to pop in. I know we’ll all shake down together once they remember they’re very talented and experienced, I’m a has-been – well, a never-was – and Donald is just incredibly useful to have around, not God.”

“Bite your tongue, woman,” he told her, smiling, and shrugged himself out of his black leather coat. As Edge had expected, he wore a black turtleneck and charcoal trousers. She was convinced he dressed to focus all attention on his blue eyes, but a recent brief holiday in Spain had banished most of his winter pallor and definitely improved what could be an almost sepulchral appearance.

Brian looked puzzled. “I can understand them being thrilled to get a set designer of your reputation, but what’s with the dancing?”

Donald shrugged. “I started as dancer, back in the mists of time, when it was all musicals. Moved into choreography and somewhere along the line fell into set design. Back in my early days productions needed everyone able to do a little bit of everything, and that’s what I’m enjoying most about this show. It’s fun. You should come along. And you, Edge.”

“I can’t imagine anything I’d like less.” She caught the tart note in her voice even as he looked surprised, and added apologetically, “I can’t sing, dance, paint sets or sew. All I can do, after a fashion, is write scripts, and I doubt they’d let me near the libretto.”

“Well, it’s a lot of fun.” Vivian was still bubbling with enthusiasm. “I thought I’d be absolutely paralyzed with shyness but now I’m glad Donald dragged me along. And by the way,” she added to Brian, “he’s being modest. He’s won several major awards as a choreographer, and he still consults on big productions. That’s why they were falling over themselves tonight when he suggested a way to tidy up the crowd scene. How’s Archie? Has he fully recovered from that poisoning incident?”

Brian cast Sylvia a quick hunted look and dropped his voice as he replied. Some six weeks earlier both his beagle and Sylvia’s poodle had been fed poison during a particularly nasty episode at the Lawns, but as quiet as he tried to keep his reply, she heard and joined in the conversation.

William leaned slightly towards Edge and lowered his voice. “What’s up? You’ve been snippy all day, everything okay?”

She bit back a withering retort and just shrugged helplessly. After waiting a moment he patted her hand and turned his attention back to the general conversation. She finished her wine as quickly as she decently could, excused herself and left quietly via the pub.

It was cool and quiet outside as she walked back to her apartment, the promise of summer a whisper on the night breeze, and she walked straight through from the walkway entrance to her tiny verandah overlooking the lawns. Her head ached slightly, and she was unusually restless, not regretting leaving the increasingly noisy gathering, yet not wanting to be alone.

William was right; she felt thoroughly out of sorts, and had done since Kirsty, very bright-eyed, had cut their afternoon short. Drew had phoned to suggest a spontaneous dash to Perth for the evening, and Edge had naturally insisted she go. She had meant it, but… It was ridiculous, at her age, to wish she too had an exciting man on the horizon. There would be no more of that sort of nonsense.

Edge brushed an angry tear from her lashes, scolded herself roundly, and treated herself to a single small glass of Cape Velvet cream liqueur, which she sipped sitting on the verandah and staring out over the dark gardens. There was always the meeting with Susan tomorrow, and the exciting possibility of getting involved in a police investigation …

 

 

 

Chapter 3 – What’s that, Lassie?

 

Edge found Susan’s little close on her second attempt along the main road, parked in a bit of shade under a neighbour’s overhanging tree, and locked the car. Feeling rather self-conscious, she crunched up the gravel path and knocked on the door, turning slightly to admire the profusion of azaleas in the sunny, neat garden. Susan might be an undercover policewoman but she also possessed enviably green fingers. The garden was full but not overgrown and her shrubs rioted politely in a state of organized chaos. Birds, which had taken to the shelter of the branches at Edge’s approach, regained courage and swooped back to the bird feeder. She smiled at a cat scarer, eyes glittering, which protected the spot cats could have chosen to launch themselves at heedless birds absorbed in their meal. As she thought it, a ginger cat emerged from under a shrub and stalked up to wind itself round her legs. The birds scattered again and she bent to stroke the cat, which arched insistently and pressed against her.

“Do you live here, I wonder? Where’s your owner?” She checked her watch – four minutes past eleven, thanks to the absence of a street name – and flapped the letter slot in the door instead of knocking again. The noise alarmed a bolder bird which had come back to the dry birdbath, but produced no other result. Nearly tripping over the insistent cat, Edge walked along the little path fronting the house, to the driveway. There was a garage, set back a bit, and a garden door in the six-foot wall between garage and house. The pull down garage door was shut – which didn’t necessarily mean the owner was home, but if she had done a quick trip to the shops, she would surely have left it open? The cat stalked ahead of her toward the wall, turned to look back over its shoulder, and meowed.

“What’s that, Lassie?” Edge said facetiously, under her breath. “Three children trapped down a mine shaft?” But she did follow the cat, which led the way to the garden door and then swarmed effortlessly over it. A more vocal miaow – feathering to a near yowl – floated back to Edge, who shrugged and tried the handle. The door opened into a utility area with the three standard wheelie bins, and a covered walk between kitchen and garage doors. The cat flap in the kitchen door opened and the ginger cat stuck its head out to look at her. The miaow was now very definitely a complaint.

“Not my fault if Susan hasn’t fed you, okay?” Edge muttered, but knocked on the kitchen door. Nothing. The garden door clicked shut and she jumped. It had swung to of its own accord, but her startled reaction was a clear sign of her growing unease. She could check the back garden, walk round the house peering in windows and trying the doors; or she could go back to the car, ring Iain and say that Susan wasn’t answering, hadn’t topped up the birdbath and didn’t seem to have fed her cat.

Knowing exactly which option William and Donald would have chosen, she turned sharply on her heel and went back to the garden door. Rather glad the area was entirely private and no-one could  see her being so cautious, she used her elbow to push down the handle and hook the door open, and went hurriedly down the path, only really relaxing when she had nipped smartly back into her car and hit the central locking. Ridiculous – but her fingers shook slightly as she dug in her handbag for her mobile phone.

 

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