Five Six Pick Up Sticks, which has dominated my life for longer than I care to remember, goes live soon, and I’m chewing my nails. I would dearly love feedback on this excerpt from the first chapter? Be mean, if you have to. I’m thick-skinned, I can take it. First chapters have to set the scene and tone of the book, and it may not appeal to you as a book, but if you might have liked the look of it, except for – well, it’s the ‘except for’ that I would love to know.
It officially launches just before Halloween and has 13 chapters and a retired witch living in #13, but no exciting Halloween stuff. And just to warn you – no gore, no zombies, no vampires, no wild sex – I think I had better shut up now. I’m talking you out of even reading further. There IS a life-and-death car chase on the Forth Road Bridge, and where earlier books had a couple of murders to solve, this one had over twenty, if that helps. But no gore. Please comment …. on Twitter or Facebook if not here.
Detective Inspector Iain McLuskie locked his 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 helped himself. 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…