Okay. We're over halfway at 56% and teetering perilously close to 60%. But there's still a long way to go before A Murder To Die For becomes a book that you can hold and read. So, I thought, how about giving my existing subscibers a chapter or four to read while they wait? It'll introduce you to most of the main players and give you a taste of my writing. And who knows? Maybe it might intrigue a few currently non-subscribing readers to lob a few quid into the pot.
So here, by way of a teaser, are THE FIRST FOUR CHAPTERS of the book in their entireity! No murders yet. No explosons or shoot-outs or incredibly tangled plots yet. Not even a naked woman in a tree or a suspicious pipe smoking New Age pensioner yet (They all come later). But if you want to know more - pledge! Or if you have pledged, nudge others to do so or, at the very least, spread the word!.
(All content is, of course, copyright (c) 2016 Steve Colgan and may not be reproduced wthout permission.)
With impeccable timing a warm drizzle began to fall just as the very last piece of bunting was being strung. Up and down the High Street, stepladders were hastily folded and toolboxes slammed shut as people made their way indoors and out of the rain. Most of the outside work was done and what little remained could wait until morning. In the meantime there were windows to decorate and costumes to press, props to be dusted off and cakes to be baked.
In preparation for the annual crime fiction festival Nasely had turned back the clock, transforming the centre of the village into a fair representation of how it would have looked in the 1920s when Agnes Crabbe, its most celebrated daughter, was a young woman. The great writer had lived her entire life in the village and had used it as the model for Little Hogley, the fictional hamlet in which the majority of her popular detective novels were set. As the result, every one of her murder scenes had a counterpart in reality and, as long as someone had been bludgeoned, poisoned or in some other way done to bloody death in or near its fictional doppelganger, even the most banal of locations had become a Mecca for ardent Agnes Crabbe aficionados. They flocked to Chetwynd’s shoe shop in Sacker Street because that was where adulterous butcher Cedric Munce had been murdered with an arsenic-laced game pie in Absent In The Flesh. They posed for photographs outside of The Gondolier Italian restaurant because it mirrored the location of the Staines family bakery where Primrose Rummage had met her grisly end among the flour sacks in Bite The Dust. But the village’s most sacred location was Crabbe Cottage at the junction of the High Street and Alyface Road and devotees came from all over the world to visit the tiny house in which the reclusive writer had penned all of her novels. In recent years, it had been converted into a museum and somewhat imaginatively dressed and decorated to look nothing like it probably had done in Agnes Crabbe’s lifetime.
At the other end of the High Street the village’s only remaining pub, the curiously named Sweating Boatman, was also preparing for the busy weekend ahead. The saloon bar was decorated with framed Agnes Crabbe book covers dating from different decades including 1940s covers where her fearless lady detective, Miss Millicent Cutter, wore her hair in a pompadour and glared undaunted down the barrel of a Luger, and 1970s covers where her hair was big, her flares bigger and the villain wore a Jason King moustache and a shirt collar the size and shape of a hang-glider. They were all fakes, of course; Crabbe’s novels, although written in the first half of the 20th century, hadn’t been published until the discovery of her work at the turn of the millennium. The covers had been specially commissioned by her publishers in 2005 to mark the 110th anniversary of her birth. But they added some much needed colour to the austerity of the otherwise white walls, black posts and beams of the saloon bar. Other Agnes Crabbe memorabilia on display included prints of the only known photographs of her, a delivery receipt bearing her neat signature, a school report, a portrait of her tragic young husband in his Herewardshire Rifles uniform and several of the letters that had passed between him and his young bride before his death in the trenches. There were also autographed glossies of Helen Greeley, the glamorous star of The Miss Cutter Mysteries TV series and, standing incongruously next to the Gents, a shop mannequin wearing one of her costumes from the show: a pleated summer dress and matching cloche hat and the trademark double string of pearls with which Miss Cutter daringly lassooed guns, whipped villains across the face, or scattered across the floor to make her enemies slip and tumble.
In the days to come, the pub would become a bustling hive of activity but tonight it was almost empty, a fact that landlord Vic Sallow ascribed not to the rain but to the fact that Savidge had popped in for a pint, a packet of peanuts and a rant.
“Historical accuracy my arse. You don’t see them taking down the satellite dishes do you?” he growled. His brow was furrowed with deep crags. “And no one says we should paint out the yellow lines on the road, do they? Or cut all the telephone wires. Oh no. Not if it inconveniences the cosy middle class home owners. As usual it’s people like me who get victimised. Working people with businesses to run who need our vehicles to earn a bloody living.”
“But they pedestrianise the High Street every year,” said Vic. “It’s not like they’ve sprung this on you, is it?”
“My burger van has had that pitch …”
"Be sensible man,” said Vic, deliberately cutting him off. Experience had shown him that the best way to tackle one of Savidge’s venomous lectures was to prevent him from getting a word in. “There's only so much we can do for authenticity. We can’t stop jets flying overhead or people using their mobiles can we?”
“If you can ever get a bloody signal”, grumbled Savidge.
“And we can’t go around ripping TV aerials and dishes off buildings”, continued Vic, ignoring him. “But we can clear the High Street of vehicles. Besides, it’s more about health and safety than anything else.”
“I didn’t think his burgers were that bad”, said Gordon Hawker, the only other person who had braved coming to the pub on festival’s eve.
“Oh ha ha”, said Savidge.
Hawker smiled. During his 30 year police career in London, he’d been insulted, beaten and screamed at so many times that he’d grown a skin as thick and as impenetrable as an armadillo’s. Savidge’s bitching normally didn’t bother him and beer usually helped to bolster his stoicism. However, the man was being unusually annoying this evening so getting a few barbed remarks into the conversation here and there was tremendously satisfying. Hawker sipped his pint and the froth that caught in his neatly clipped grey moustache gave the impression that he was starting to foam at the mouth. He sucked his upper lip clean, took a deep breath and returned to trying to reading his book.
“You know what it’s like on festival weekend”, said Vic. “The High Street is going to be stuffed with Millies and someone would be knocked down for sure. And it’s only for two days.”
“Yeah, two days during which time I’ll be the only mug not making any money”, said Savidge. “It’s alright for you. The Boatman is on the High Street. I have to …”
“Bollocks”, said Vic. “You’ve got a pitch over on the village green. You did alright there last year. I saw the queues.”
“There may have been queues but they didn’t fucking buy anything”, said Savidge. He sank into a desultory silence and stared at his hands, clenched into fists on the bar. Vic frowned and Hawker rolled his eyes and shook his head in despair.
“Another pint gents?” said Vic in an attempt to lighten the mood. “Something different perhaps? The Cockering Brewery has put on a special festival edition ale called To Die For. I can give you an advance preview if you like.”
“Go on then”, said Hawker.
“Savidge? One for the road?” asked Vic. “On the house?”
“No. I’ve had two. I’m at my limit”, said Savidge, pointedly. “And, as you well know, I have to move my van off the High Street because it’s a sodding anachronism. It's like I said, it’s us traders who ..."
“G’night then. Drive safely,” said Vic firmly. Savidge glared at him but took the hint. Vic Sallow had the curious build of a man who was simultaneously both short and large, like a fridge with limbs. There was a lot of strength contained within his oddly-shaped body. You didn’t spend your day moving full firkins about without developing some serious muscles. Savidge drained his glass, clonked it heavily on the bar and flounced out of the pub.
“Thank Christ for that”, said Vic, puffing out his cheeks. “That man is kryptonite for publicans. Not a punter in all night. Apart from you, that is. He’s a fucking menace.”
“Ah, he’s all bluster”, said Hawker.
“He needs stronger medication,” said Vic. “You wait and see, one of these days he’ll go completely postal.”
“In my experience it’s the quiet, introverted ones you have to watch”, said Hawker, shutting his book. Vic looked at the cover.
“Dali Plays Golf, eh? Any good?”
“No idea,” said Hawker.
“I’m 46 pages in and I have absolutely no idea what’s going on”, said Hawker. “I think it’s written in some kind of code.”
“Shirley Pomerance, she’s a local girl you know”, said Vic. “Grew up in Chinwell, just down the road.”
“So I understand,” said Hawker.
“Is that the book she won that prize for?”
“The Trupenie Medal? Yes”, said Hawker. “But I suspect the reason it won was because the judges couldn’t understand enough of it to offer any criticism.”
“That bad eh?” said Vic.
“There should be some way of checking people’s IQ at the till“, said Hawker. “I’m clearly not smart enough for them to have sold it to me. Listen to this: ‘She acquiesced her lubricious girlflesh, all the while palpating his tumid boypole …’”
“They’re having sex. Phwoooar, eh?”
“If you say so. I’m more of an Agnes Crabbe man myself”, said Vic.
“At least her sex scenes are sexy”, said Hawker sipping his pint. “I reckon Shirley Pomerance uses a thesaurus as a marital aid.”
Two miles outside the village, a coach negotiated the narrow country lanes with some difficulty. There was no street lighting and the spring rain was not helping visibility. The driver glanced nervously from wing mirror to wing mirror, cursing his blurry view and pining for the wide open carriageways of the M13. Sat behind him and oblivious to his discomfort three dozen middle-aged ladies hungrily devoured the novels of Agnes Crabbe, or discussed the novels of Agnes Crabbe, or listened to Agnes Crabbe audiobooks, or watched The Miss Cutter Mysteries on laptops and tablets, or leafed through the festival brochure and made their plans for the weekend. The atmosphere on the bus was fragrant with lavender and anticipation.
“I don’t know why you’re even considering going to the Greeley talk. It’ll be standing room only and you’ll learn nothing, mark my words”, admonished Mrs Handibode. “Stick to events that add value to your visit, Molly. Like the Andrew Tremens talk.”
“Oh I’m definitely going to that one”, said Miss Wilderspin. Short, timid and thickly bespectacled, she was both physically and behaviourally the opposite of her friend, the taller, slimmer and more bombastic Esme Handibode. “It says ‘An announcement of major importance to all Crabbe fans’ here in the brochure. It does sound very intriguing.”
“I dislike that term immensely”, said Mrs Handibode.
“Fan”, said Mrs Handibode. “You wouldn’t call a Shakespearean scholar a fan.”
Miss Wilderspin looked again at the programme of events, eyes lingering on the glamorous black and white image of Helen Greeley. “I hear that she’s very nice.”
“I’m sure she is”, said Mrs Handibode.
“And so brave”, said Miss Wilderspin. “If I ever found myself in the same situation I don’t think I’d be as brave as she was. She’s like a real-life Miss Cutter isn’t she?”
“I very much doubt it”, snapped Mrs Handibode. “I’d be surprised if she’s even read any of the books.”
“I didn’t mean that. I mean because she …”
“You mark my words, the hall will be packed to the gunwales with star-struck spinsters making silly old fools of themselves and you’ll learn nothing of any worth in there”, said Mrs Handibode. “Andrew Tremens, on the other hand, has had sole responsibility for the Crabbe archive since its discovery. He has an intimate acquaintance with her work and her diaries. He will have some fascinating insights to share, mark my words.”
“I’m sure you’re right Esme”, said Miss Wilderspin, resignedly. “Do you think we’re very far away now?”
“No, not far”, said Mrs Handibode. “I recognise this bridge.”
The coach driver was gingerly inching his way over a hump-backed canal bridge and desperately hoping not to scrape the bottom of his vehicle.
“How exciting!” said Miss Wilderspin. “To actually be in Little Hogley. I can’t wait to find some of the locations in the books.”
“You can pay a tour guide to show you around”, said Mrs Handibode. “But I’ve been to Nasely many times before and I’ll show you around for free.”
“Well, I thought I might ...”
“No one knows Agnes Crabbe and her books better than I do”, said Mrs Handibode. “In fact, were I to believe in such things, I would say that it was entirely possible that I was her in a previous life.”
Miss Wilderspin considered pointing out that her friend’s life had actually overlapped that of the author’s by two years but decided to bite her tongue. Esme Handibode was not a person who took kindly to being corrected, even in the face of unimpeachable logic. She considered herself to be the foremost expert on Agnes Crabbe and there was every good reason to think that she might be. She ran the Agnes Crabbe Fellowship, largest of the several fan clubs, and edited and published the quarterly Agnes Crabbe Fellowship Journal (circulation 27,910). She had amassed an enviable collection of first editions and memorabilia and had even once appeared on TV’s Mastermind although she had eventually lost to a man who knew a ridiculous amount about Vincent motorcycles. Her knowledge of Agnes Crabbe was nothing less than encyclopaedic and she threw herself into her studies with a single-mindedness that, if the gossip was true, had cost her at least one marriage and possibly a second. Certainly, no one had seen Mr and Mrs Handibode together in many months and their relationship was rumoured to be fraught at best. Naturally, there were always pretenders to her crown; people like Denise Hatman-Temples of the Agnes Crabbe Society, Brenda Tradescant of the Millicent Cutter Appreciation Society, Gaynor Nithercott of the Agnes Crabbe Book Club, and Penny Berrycloth of the Cutter Crime Club, who all purported to know just as much as she did. But Mrs Handibode scoffed at their claims, confident in her superiority and refusing to rise to their challenges. Instead she reserved the bulk of her ire for a journalist named Pamela Dallimore who, irritatingly, was the media’s go-to person whenever they needed a perspective on Crabbe’s life and works. She was flown or sent by rail or driven in First Class luxury to Crabbe conventions all over the world and appeared on endless TV specials despite appearing to be quite vague about Crabbe’s life or her books. The reality was that her entire reputation was based upon a biography of the author, The Secret Queen of Crime, in which she had included just enough scandal to ensure that it became a bestseller and just enough bad research to enrage any serious Crabbe scholar. Dallimore’s career had been built upon a string of similar populist books of little merit and dubious accuracy, and Mrs Handibode felt wholly justified in taking every opportunity to dissect, dispute and generally find fault with the content, much of which consisted of anecdotes that were either specious or entirely apocryphal. As far as Esme Handibode was concerned, Pamela Dallimore embodied everything that was wrong with the cult of celebrity in 21st century society; the adoration of the banal, the elevation of the ignorant, the hunger for gossip and scandal, and the complete lack of value placed upon self-discipline, systematic research and hard-won expertise and knowledge. She had dedicated 15 years of her life to Agnes Crabbe and her creations but her thunder was continually stolen by a second-rate hack who just happened to have sold a lot of very bad books. Hate was not a word that Mrs Handibode used lightly but she had no qualms in admitting that she hated Pamela Dallimore with a passion.
The springs in Gaynor Nithercott’s car seat squeaked and groaned as she sped along the narrow road, her ancient Mini Cooper’s thin wheels unerringly finding every pothole. But she was oblivious to everything except the words issuing from her car’s ancient speaker. The audiobook of Punishment Of The Sword was reaching its dramatic conclusion and Millicent Cutter had cornered her Belgian nemesis and occasional lover, Dr Florian Belfrage, among the dangerously grinding machinery of a windmill running at full tilt. While Belfrage flustered and ranted, Miss Cutter explained how she had unraveled his dastardly plot to steal the formula for Professor Vallory’s improved form of gunpowder. Gaynor Nithercott had listened to the audiobook so many times that she could recite large sections from memory. She joined in as the narrator reached one of her personal favourite moments; when Belfrage realises that he and Miss Cutter have now become so opposed in their moral standpoints that they can never again be lovers.
The fires that had for so long warmed Belfrage’s passions flared all at once becoming a volcanic ball that instantly and forever baked his heart into a hard, impenetrable mass. As insensitive as a fist, as impenetrable as iron, it would lay buried deep inside his chest forever still, forever cold, forever beyond repair. In that instant, he knew that he would never again be able to stoke those fires to passionate life. He would be eternally invulnerable to Eros’s darts.
A stabbing pain in her chest made her suddenly take a deep breath and, for a moment, she wondered if she was suffering an empathetic response to Belfrage’s broken heart. But, she reassured herself, it was most probably indigestion caused by the jam sandwiches she’d snacked on half an hour ago. She’d eaten them far too quickly and the bread had been very heavy. She fumbled in her handbag for an antacid tablet.
Mrs Denise Hatman-Temples wished that driving her little Peugeot didn’t preclude her from shutting her eyes and letting her imagination roam more freely. She was listening to a radio dramatisation of Teeth Set On Edge, the book in which Miss Cutter and Dr Belfrage finally ended the will they/won’t they speculation with a spirited lovemaking session atop Scafell Pike. Mrs Hatman-Temples’ mental image of Miss Cutter looked nothing like Helen Greeley’s high cheek-boned and surgically inflated portrayal for the TV series. It looked rather more like she herself had done in her thirties, a fantasy that was enhanced by the fact that Maggie Woodbead - the actor who played her in the radio dramas - had a voice not dissimilar in tone to her own. It made it very easy for her to superimpose her own face onto the spoken words. She also had quite distinct ideas about Dr Belfrage’s appearance; tall, dark and handsome of course, and rather distinguished like a young Christopher Lee or Louis Jourdan. He certainly didn’t look like the floppy-haired Hugh Grant type who played him on the telly. The fact that the TV series portrayed the characters so differently from the way they appeared in her mind’s eye was one reason why she tended to stick to audio. As Agnes Crabbe herself had once said, ‘Words have all the best pictures’ and Mrs Hatman-Temples soaked up the narrative as Woodbead, pretending that she was an older Miss Cutter reminiscing about past glories, recounted her story.
He looked deep into my eyes. Confusion drowned his gaze.
‘No, it’s you who doesn’t understand, Florian’, I said. ‘Love has no foundation in logic. It is possible to love someone whose morals are not cut from the same cloth as one’s own. In many ways, it is often the tension of opposition that excites; the fact that it is wrong makes it desirable.’
His eyes softened as his anger evaporated like warm breath off a cold steel blade. He straightened to his full height and, without another word, slowly buttoned his waistcoat and slid his sword stick back into its Malacca sheath. He took a deep breath and a wry smile crept across his thin lips.
‘So where does that leave matters, dear lady?’ he said, his words forming a milky cloud on the frigid night air. ‘Where does that leave … us?’
An old mini suddenly came roaring out of the dark and, in the last second before it smashed into the side of her car, Mrs Hatman-Temples caught a glimpse of Gaynor Nithercott slumped sideways in the driver’s seat. The impact sent the Peugeot hurtling down a steep embankment, tumbling over and over, before bouncing heavily off the towpath and into the shallow dark waters of the canal. The Mini, meanwhile, careened away from the impact and crashed headlong into the substantial trunk of an ancient oak. The noise of the car horn, stuck on a continuous ear-splitting wail, echoed through the woodlands and a mushroom-shaped cloud of radiator steam rose above the wreckage and was lost among the high arching branches above.
Gordon Hawker stood in the doorway of the Sweating Boatman and waited. Heavy rain had replaced the drizzle and he didn’t have an umbrella. It was worth waiting a few minutes, he decided, to see if it eased off before walking home. He was a patient man. And, besides, Mrs Hawker was in a bad mood, which was what had driven him to the pub in the first place, so he was in no hurry. Apparently, her unlikeable and lazy younger sister had just enjoyed a two week holiday in Las Vegas at some temporary boyfriend’s expense where she’d won over ten thousand pounds purely on games of chance and Mrs Hawker was fuming at the unfairness of it all. But when he’d tried to soften the blow by saying that her sister was basically carrying out a financial transaction for sex, the conversation had suddenly somehow re-focused upon him and his list of his deficiencies, which seemed to get longer with every passing year. Hawker couldn’t really blame her; she had every right to feel cheated. He wasn’t an ambitious man and while her friends and their partners had enjoyed decades of promotions, salary increases and annual bonuses, he’d been content to plod along in public service, happy with his policeman’s lot and steadfastly rejecting the idea of a higher pay grade as it would mean less hands-on thief-taking and a lot more desk-bound admin. All he’d ever wanted to do was catch villains, and so that’s what he’d done for three decades while, all around him, friends and colleagues had climbed social ladders and scaled career ziggurats. But visiting their friends’ ever more extravagant London homes had left Mrs Hawker feeling frustrated and embarrassed about inviting anyone back to their humble suburban semi in Ruislip with its unfinished DIY projects that her husband never quite seemed to find the time to tackle. Hawker had therefore suggested that they move to the country upon his retirement where they could start afresh. It had meant using all of their savings and it had stretched the upper limits of their finances but they’d been very lucky to find a pretty little cottage in picturesque and much sought-after Nasely. And, for a while, things in the Hawker household had improved immensely. The village was lovely. The locals were lovely. Everything was lovely. But the idyll hadn’t lasted. When visiting friends had remarked that the cottage reminded them of their ‘tiny little holiday gite in Clohars-Fouesnant’, old wounds had been reopened and Mrs Hawker’s sense of grievance had returned. And the fact that her sister was living the life that she had always dreamed of living added fuel to the flames of her discontent. All of which meant that, rather than enjoying his retirement, Gordon Hawker now spent much of it looking for a lucrative second career and drinking far more beer than he had ever done before.
The High Street was looking very good, he thought. Authentically vintage. This was his first festival, having only moved to the village 10 months previously, and it had been interesting to watch the transformation these past few weeks. No one could say that the good people of Nasely didn’t put the effort in. The window displays were all delightfully retro with the chemist’s shop boasting adverts for Goddard’s White Horse Oils and something called Cavanaugh’s Wonder Remedy, and the newsagent’s window was full of vintage posters for Will’s Gold Flake and Titbits magazine. Outside the Masonic Hall a poster was advertising its exhibition about the golden age of detective fiction and, diagonally opposite the pub, the Empire Hotel boasted a banner that read ‘Welcome Millies!’ Hawker frowned at the hotel, a 1960s Bauhaus quite out of keeping with the rest of the village, and wondered yet again how the place had ever got planning permission. Back-handers presumably. The current owners had tried to soften its stark outlines by adding rooftop crenellations, balconied windows and a portico over the front doors but the pretence at grand Victorian splendour hadn’t worked. When the facade was up-lit at night it had the same effect as a person holding a torch under their chin; it merely highlighted the true horror of trying to merge two entirely uncomplimentary architechtural styles. One of the staff had been forced to dress in an ill-fitting vintage doorman’s uniform in which he stood shuffling from foot to foot among the faux Doric columns and wondering who he’d upset. The wet pavement reflected the yellow light from the floodlit hotel and from the fluted and filigree cast iron lampposts, expensively installed along the High Street in an effort to enhance the charm of the village and to promote it as an all year round holiday destination. Hawker frowned at the lamppost nearest the pub in which, he had recently discovered, there was a hidden CCTV camera installed. As authentically antique as Nasely might try to appear, evidence of the Modern Age was there to see if you scratched the surface. And was there anything that said 21st century more than public surveillance? Hawker wondered whether the village’s two cameras were ever misused by the staff who monitored them from an upstairs office in the Masonic Hall. After all, there was almost no crime in the village but there were plenty of pretty teenage girls around thanks to the nearby boarding school at Harpax Grange. Big Brother may not be watching, but some spotty youth employed by the village council invariably was. Were they watching him now, he wondered? He was suddenly very aware of his every move. How often had he adjusted his crotch or picked his nose while forgetful of the cameras? He knew for sure that, during the winter, he’d fallen flat on his backside after glissading on ice outside the library. Had he given the lads in the control room a good laugh? He shifted from foot to foot, unconsciously aping the actions of the disgruntled hotel doorman, and became less patient with the rain.
His attention was drawn to a coach idling slowly up through the High Street towards him. He looked at his watch and saw that it was 10.30pm. Coaches and minibuses had been arriving all day, dropping off the faithful in time for the start of festivities in the morning. This was probably the last of them, he mused. The vehicle pulled up in front of the village hall and, with a loud hiss, hunkered down onto its suspension like a camel kneeling. The passengers, all middle-aged ladies, began reaching bags down from overhead racks and pulling on coats and jackets. The door to the coach opened and they began to disembark noisily while glancing at pieces of paper and pointing in different directions, identifying the whereabouts of their accommodation. Sensing that beating a hasty retreat would spare him a good 20 minutes of questions, Hawker slid quietly back inside the pub.
“I thought you’d gone home”, said Vic. “I was thinking of closing up.”
“A coach load of Millies has just turned up”, said Hawker. “And if they’re anything like the bunch I met on the way here, they’ll keep me pinned to the wall with questions I can’t answer for the next half hour.”
“Another one for the road then?”
“Cheers Vic. Just a half.”
“Dear god look at them”, said Vic as he watched the Millies gathering around the coach’s luggage compartment. “They look so innocent. But I’ll tell you this - for a bunch of librarians, primary school teachers and Women’s Institute types they can’t half put it away.”
“Really?” said Hawker. “They look more like occasional glass of dry sherry with the vicar types.”
“Don’t you believe it”, said Vic. “I reckon this is their once a year chance to let their hair down and get completely plastered. It’s like they dress up as someone else and it gives them permission to … Oh hang on … something’s kicking off.”
As Vic had been talking he’d become aware of raised voices outside getting louder and more angry. He looked out of the window to see two middle-aged women facing off against each other. A crowd had formed around the antagonists.
“There’s two Millies out there and …”
“I’m retired”, said Hawker, picking up the local newspaper and turning to the Situations Vacant.
While the driver had been handing out the suitcases from the storage compartment under the coach, the rusting catches on Mrs Handibode’s vintage leather case had sprung open, spilling the contents onto the wet road. That it had happened at the feet of Mrs Brenda Tradescant of the Millicent Cutter Appreciation Society was pure bad luck.
“Well I never”, said Mrs Tradescant, picking up a paperback and pointing at its lurid cover illustration. “Love’s Moist Promise, Esme?”
“It’s for research”, said Mrs Handibode, struggling to refill her case and desperately hoping that none of the other books had been spotted lurking among the neatly folded clothes. It was bad enough that Mrs Tradescant had seen one; if she saw the other three she would have a field day.
“Research, eh?” said Mrs Tradescant, reading the back cover blurb with a derisory snort. “Orphaned and alone, Chastity Fox uses her ample womanly charms to travel half-way across 18th century England to meet a mysterious man known only as The Squire who claims to know the truth about the shipwreck that killed her parents. But after an unplanned night of naked passion, Chastity races out of his bed and his life when she discovers a dark secret hidden inside a hollowed-out Bible. What doesn’t The Squire want her to … “
“If you don’t mind!” said Mrs Handibode, snatching the book from her rival’s hand.
“Esme, Esme, Esme”, tutted Mrs Tradescant. “I expected better of you.”
“One cannot elevate Crabbe’s writing without understanding her competition”, said Mrs Handibode. “I’m studying the history and breadth of romantic fiction from the sublime to the ridiculous and why …”
“There’s no shame in admitting that you enjoy a dirty book, Esme”, said Mrs Tradescant. “You’re only human.”
A ripple of nervous laughter ran through the assembled Crabbe fans. Watching two well-known aficionados squaring up to each other was a delicious and unexpected pre-festival treat.
“Nothing could be further from the truth”, said Mrs Handibode. “As I said, it’s research. Nothing more.”
“Research indeed. With trash like that? Pull the other one,” said Mrs Tradescant. “Even the author’s name is trashy. Simone Bedhead for goodness’ sake!”
Mrs Handibode closed her suitcase and glared at Mrs Tradescant. “Well you’d know all about trash wouldn’t you?” she snarled.
There was a sharp intake of breath among the assembled fans.
“I have dedicated my life to the study of Agnes Crabbe the writer,” snapped Mrs Handibode. “To the quality of her writing, to her character development and plot devices, while people like you sully her memory with your smut.”
“Those terrible stories you write. Slash fiction – isn’t that what they call it? Such a vulgar term.”
“I prefer the term fan fiction”, said Mrs Tradescant. “And I’m entertaining my readers by adding to the Miss Cutter canon.”
“With poorly written filth?” said Mrs Handibode.
Another audible mass inhalation from the audience.
“It’s erotica. And at least I’m making my readers happy,” said Mrs Tradescant indignantly. “Can you say the same, Esme? Do you ever make anyone happy? Even your husband?”
Mrs Handibode took a long, deep breath. “I can state categorically that you’re not making me happy”, she said. “And any true Agnes Crabbe fan would say the same. You’ve turned Miss Cutter into a promiscuous slattern.”
“She was promiscuous.”
“Not to the degree that you paint her in your dirty stories.”
“Which you have apparently read if you feel qualified enough to criticise me,” said Mrs Tradescant, smiling venomously.
“As I said, I’m researching romantic fiction from the sublime to the ridiculous. The very ridiculous in your case and ...”
“Ladies, ladies. It’s late and I have to get back to the depot some time tonight”, said the coach driver, wearily. “So could you all just make our way to your accommodation, please?”
“Come Molly”, said Mrs Handibode. She threw her chin high and walked off through the drizzle towards the Empire Hotel with Miss Wilderspin trotting at her heels like a terrier.
“Bloody snob,” snarled Mrs Tradescant. “One of these days, someone’s going to push you off your high horse Esme Handibode, and I, for one, want to be there when they do!”
“Looks like the coast is clear now”, said Vic.
Hawker sighed and folded the newspaper. Another week and no job in sight. At least, none that he fancied, nothing that offered a challenge. Warehouse work and delivery driving were good, dependable jobs but they weren’t what he was after and he said as much.
“Best I get off home then. Here, you can add this to the pub library. I’m content to admit defeat.” He handed over his copy of Shirley Pomerance’s Dali Plays Golf and walked to the door. “G’night Vic.”
As Hawker exited the pub, the now empty coach drove past him, noisily clunking into a kerbside pothole and soaking his shoes and socks with rain water. He cursed the pot hole and then the coach driver before setting off on the short squelching walk to his home. And as he walked he found himself musing upon the nature of obsession. What compelled people to become fixated upon a particular author or series of books he wondered? Perhaps it was something deep and primaeval; a need to belong, to be part of a tribe. He’d read that loneliness had become an epidemic in the 21st century as families fragmented and people migrated to the big cities in search of work. It was possible to feel completely alone and isolated within a large population because you were surrounded by millions of strangers. Finding people who shared your passions, whether they focused on a particular movie franchise, a boy band, a sports team, or the novels of a crime fiction writer, meant that you were once again part of a tribe, which was infinitely better than being alone. That said, tribalism had its dark side too. As an outside observer, Hawker had difficulty understanding why the members of the many and various Agnes Crabbe-related fan clubs and societies always seemed to be at war with each other. Surely if they all liked the books they had more in common than they had differences? He likened it to the conflicts within religion, another thing that he didn’t understand. Christianity, Islam, Judaism and the rest, they all worshipped a God – arguably the same God - and every one of their holy books contained a line somewhere about ‘do unto others as you would have done to you’. More importantly, those same scriptures all contained a commandment, apparently set by God himself, that forbade humans from killing other humans. And yet, throughout history, religion had fought religion and factions within religions had fought amongst each other, killing and torturing and maiming millions in the name of a deity that had expressly told them not to. ’It’s all about interpretation’, the scholars said but Hawker, who was agnostic at best, found himself wondering how a supreme being could be so lackadaisical. If God could create the universe and everything in it, from massive rotating galaxies containing trillions of stars to the tiniest nanoscopic detail on a midge’s whisker, then why hadn’t he been able to write a simple unambiguous rule regarding whether or not people were allowed to kill each other? It made no sense.
The rain began again, although not as heavily as before, and he quickened his pace, thankful for the lack of hills. One reason why Nasely and the villages surrounding it were favourite retirement spots was the flatness of the countryside. It was perfect for the slower driver, the older car, the wheelchair user and the tipsy retired detective making his way home.
He reached his cottage and, noting with some degree of relief that the lights were all off, opened the front door quietly and went inside.
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