(This is part ONE of a serial short story I will be dropping in installments. If you haven't already, subscribe and you'll get alerts in your inbox when they're up. Brew yourself a cuppa and enjoy, "A Cozy Murder in a Cozy English Village (It's Cozy)."
Everything was always wet here. It had been since Allison and her wife, Joan, moved to this tiny English town six months ago for a Joan’s job with the government. They had been to England before they moved, obviously, but it was always on one of those European city tours and they hadn’t really known what to expect of the culture, the food, the weather. Now that they had been residents in rural England for a while, Allison knew that the people were polite but distant, the food was bland, and the weather was wet.
Looking out the window over her kitchen sink, at the smeared gray sky, Allison pouted. Her tea kettle went off and she made a cup. She’d gotten into the rhythm of tea, and she drank an absurd amount of it. Sometimes twenty, thirty cups a day. In her mind, when they’d decide to move from their life in New England to a life in…Old England?…she’d decided that she’d take a sabbatical from teaching and try her hand at writing a murder mystery novel set in a tiny, wet, English village. She would do so in the window of an old ivy-covered cottage, on a typewriter, with a cup of tea. The amount of tea she was drinking might lead one to think she was making great progress on her manuscript, but if one thought that, one would be wrong. She mostly tooled around the internet on her laptop and took bathroom breaks to complete the tea cycle. The old typewriter she’d bought at the estate sale had been weird and uncomfortable, loud, and annoying, and it now resided in storage. The cottage was quaint enough, but it lacked ivy or adequate heat, so she avoided the drafty windows and instead, wrote from the couch in the narrow living room, covered in blankets and Sir Benjamin, their Collie. Lastly, and most tragically, it turns out that writing a murder mystery set in a tiny, wet, English village is just really super hard. Around 10:00 a.m., long after Joan had taken the train into work and after Allison had voided her sixth cup of tea, she grabbed the leash off the hook by the door and Sir Benjamin jumped up to join her for a walk. It had become their habit to walk the half mile into town and around the little town square, waving at the other villagers and sometimes popping into “Sal’s Sweets” for a cinnamon bun or other pastry. The village was Rockwellian, or whatever the British artist version of charming and old is. There was a fire house, a library, a few restaurants, and other businesses- one of which doubled as a law firm and a dog rescue and was where she and Joan had gotten Sir Benjamin, and a row of cottages like theirs.
Allison sighed as she looked out over the green square, pulling the hood of her raincoat tighter around her face. She still hadn’t come up with the perfect crime for her book and felt like a lazy failure who did nothing to contribute to their family but drink tea and complain about the weather. This was not how she had expected their adventure in England to go, or where she’d be in life during her thirtieth year around the sun…allegedlythere was still a sun behind those clouds. God, she needed a hobby.
In the spring, Allison had spent a few days in the library, peering through old newspapers and books on local history and peppering the elderly librarian Ms. Neil, with questions. She had assumed the perfect grizzly crime would rise from the text to light her imagination. It hadn’t. No murders, grizzly or otherwise, appeared to have happened here. It seemed she and Joan had chosen the wrong small town. Or, rather, they’d chosen the right small town for not getting murdered, but the wrong small town for murder plot inspiration. At one point, Allison had written a dozen pages with Ms. Neil as the victim, but then felt guilty and worried that it might bring bad juju on the nice old woman, so she stopped.
When Allison and Sir Benjamin walked into Sal’s this morning, there was no one behind the counter. This wasn’t uncommon. Sally, the proprietor, was also the baker, and was often back in the kitchen. Melissa rang the little bell on the counter and scratched the dog behind his floppy ears while she waited. No one came, and there was no sound of movement in the back. Allison frowned, her mind full of grotesque images of Sal, covered in flour, lying battered and beaten on the kitchen floor, then she chastised herself for again, too quickly and eagerly, thinking dark thoughts about nice people in the name of having a mystery to solve.
“Sally?” she called and moved toward the kitchen. She left Benjamin in the empty café area and stepped through the customer-employee barrier and behind the counter, calling as she moved toward the kitchen.
Turning the corner, she encountered a chilling scene. Sal’s famous cinnamon rolls were black and smoking, and all over the floor, next to an upturned pan. Allison ran to Sally, who was sitting against the door to the pantry, looking ashen and destroyed, rocking, and clutching her hand.
“What happened?” Allison knelt beside her. “Are you OK?”
Sally blinked slowly, coming back to herself. Eventually her eyes focused on Allison’s face, but it took another moment before she seemed to place her. Allison scanned her all over, looking for obvious wounds. Maybe she’d had a seizure or a stroke? The woman had always seemed fit and wasn’t more than forty, but in her line of work, her diet must consist of seventy-percent butter; who knew what health risks she hid under her apron.
“Allison, hi,” Sally finally said in a rough voice. “Thank you. I’m sorry that I worried you. I just had a bit of a startle and burned by buns and when I was rushing to take them out of the oven, I-” She seemed to remember her hand, and held it up to inspect. Allison flinched away from the angry red area on the outside of her index finger that was wanting to blister, and looking around, found an ancient ice box and got up to get ice cubes. Sally winced as she ran the ice along the burn but managed a “thank you.”
The room otherwise seemed in order. No obvious signs of a struggle or of a crime worth exploring. Dammit, Allison though, and then reminded herself to not be a creep. Surely, she could investigate a little, though. In the name of helping. “Do you remember what happened? Did you have an…incident?”
“No. I had an upsetting call. A misunderstanding. I’ll be alright.”
Well, that could be interesting.
Sally hoisted herself to her feet, grabbing a cell phone Allison just noticed lying at their feet, and slid it into her pocket with her good hand. She went to the sink and ran her finger under cold water while she spoke. Soon her voice had its authority back and she was cleaning up the ruined cinnamon rolls with her usual efficiency. Allison got down on her hands and knees to collect the sad, hard rolls that had found their way under the stove. When she tossed them all in the trash can, or, rather, the bin, she asked if she could help Sally bake new ones. Having something useful to do today would be a pleasant change of pace, and she could keep an eye on Sally and maybe get more information about this mystery call. Plus, Allison wanted to know what went into Sal’s cinnamon rolls that made them so divine. Maybe baking could be her hobby.
“No,” Sally said, wiping her hands on her apron and then removing it, and hanging it up on a hook by the door into the café. “I’ll be closing early today to be with my mother in Castle Hedingham. That was her on the phone. She’s had a bit of a dust-up, I’m afraid.”
“Your mom lives in a castle?!” Allison asked, her eyes and imagination popping.
“What? No,” Sally said, distractedly as she ushered Allison out into the café and grabbed her handbag and coat from behind the counter. “Castle Hedingham is a small town in Essex, about an hour’s drive.”
“Oh,” Allison said, trying to hide her disappointment.
“Seventy-seven-year-old and not been well since my dad left, the poor old bird. This is all she needs.”
“Was she injured?” Allison asked, not wanting the conversation to end. This tiny drop of drama was the most she’d come by in months. “Can I help in any way? Do you want me to come with you?” She held her breath after she asked the last question, knowing it was a strange ask, as she and Sally barely knew each other. Truthfully, she’d do anything to get a change of scenery. Joan had been so busy and stressed by work, they hadn’t done any of the weekend trips they’d planned, and the only bit of this new continent she’d seen was through her window and when walking her dog. She was bored and whatever was happening in that castle town sounded more interesting than this.
“Not injured, no,” Sally said, as she opened the front door and waited while Allison collected Sir Benjamin and followed her out. As Sally locked the door, she pursed her lips and then said, “It seems she’s been booked by the bizzies and they have her in the nick!”
“Utter jank, i’nt it? Have you ever heard anything so appalling? As if my elderly mother could be a criminal? The least they could have done is kept her at home while they sorted it all out. As if she’s capable of getting through the slips. Please.”
Allison stood staring at Sally, trying to translate what she had just heard. “Your mother…is…in jail?”
“That’s what I said. Keep up.”
“Sorry, I…” Allison followed Sally as she marched smartly to her car, a few paces down from the shop, parked at a wild angle against the curb. While Sally fumbled to unlock the driver’s side door, Allison asked, “What did your mom do?”
The door finally open, Sally threw her bag and coat into the passenger seat and sucked on her injured finger. “Oh, I can’t be arsed with this wound today.” She gingerly lit a cigarette, leaned against the car and narrowed her eyes at Allison. “They say she killed somebody. Do you want to drive?”
(Part TWO coming soon!)