Series: Crouch End Confidential
Publisher: Across the Pond
Release Date: 9th April 2016
Genre: Cozy Mystery
Crouch End Confidential, the agency started by housewife, Cathy O’Farrell, with ex-cleaner Pimple, is failing badly. Hardly surprising when their only clients are little old ladies seeking lost pets. Until the strange case of the missing dog…
Soon Cathy’s multiple problems include stolen bikes, a possible murder weapon, the sabotage of her friends’ new shop, drug-dealing yobbos targeting her children’s primary school and being forced to pose as the world’s most inept maths tutor. Worse, best friend Rosa hires her to investigate fiancé Alec and – horrors – Cathy’s husband Declan is intent on moving himself, Cathy and kids to the safer climes of rural Norfolk. Suddenly Cathy is endangering her marriage, friendships and her life to untangle these messes. But that’s what you get for meddling with murder…
What the fudge?
The branch creaks alarmingly as I test my weight against it. For a second I think it might snap but then my foot slips and we part company anyway. Bark scrapes another layer off my grazed skin and to my horror I find myself tipping backwards, falling, falling…
Far beneath me my daughter Sophie gives an unwitting squeal, Henrietta’s twins shriek in unison and I hear son Josh call out ‘Mummeeee!’ when as much by luck as design my left arm catches a forked limb long enough for me to grasp it and come to a bone-jolting, shoulder-wrenching stop. Sweat drips down my body, my knees shake uncontrollably and something’s poking between my ribs like a sharpened spear, causing an actual hole through clothes into flesh.
Dangling, I somehow hook one leg round the main trunk and cling there like my life depends on it. Which, for the record, it does.
‘Hang on, Mum!’ Sophie yells for perhaps the fifteenth time. She’d wanted to climb up here but I’d told her it was too dangerous. When will I listen to my own advice?
I stop panting long enough to call down. ‘I’m OK, sweetheart. Perfectly safe.’ How long since I last clambered up a tree? Me, an overweight, unfit middle-aged, mother-of-two in not so skinny jeans. And what did I promise my family – that I’d avoid potentially risky situations? That any cases I took on would absolutely not involve capturing murderers or exposing criminals? Not that our patch of North London known as Crouch End is inundated with killings, just that I’ve somehow succeeded in entangling myself with two in the last eighteen months. And now the simplest of mundane jobs has turned an everyday school drop-off into what could possibly be my final farewell.
A terrified glance below shows Sophie clutching on to her younger brother’s arm, their long-standing feud forgotten as they contemplate their mother’s plight. Lauren, Henrietta’s eldest by two seconds, is hopping from foot to foot, pale with anxiety while her sister’s nervously studying her watch. I wonder what’s upsetting them most – the thought of Aunty Cathy’s untimely demise or being late for class. Yet again.
Three feet above me, inches from reach, a tortoiseshell cat stares down with baleful yellow eyes. I hold out a coaxing hand. ‘Here, Fluffy. C’mon, kitty. Pishhh whishh.’
Disregarding me entirely, he licks his paw before stalking further out, balancing on a twig, with the arrogant grace of a tightrope walker. Oh how I wish I’d ignored him when I saw that distinctive white-tipped tail swagger across the zebra crossing. But I’d spent weeks scouring backyards, crawling on hands and knees, peeking under parked cars, over hedges, listening to sweet old Mrs Thompson choke back sobs as I admitted failure.
I’m gathering my courage and strength to scale higher when my mobile rings. I wedge my bum into a crevice between branch and tree, tighten my hold and, with a few contortions worthy of the great Houdini, extract my phone from my pocket to peer at the screen.
Caller’s number withheld. Should I answer it?
Am I in any position to answer it?
Could be urgent.
‘Hello?’ I venture.
‘Is this…?’ A woman. Middle-aged at a guess, posh sounding. She drops to a muted whisper so low I have to crane to hear. ‘The HP…um…WS…um…thingy?’
Several months back I’d been donated this money, you see, ten thousand pounds, which was kind of hot, but gone cold. Semi-illegal – not to be returned. Brilliant timing as my husband, Declan, had recently re-evaluated what he wanted from life: Rhode Island Reds and a less pressurised career, I’d been suspended from work and my house cleaner, Pimple, was tired of domestic duties. I was thinking maybe it’s time I should do some soul-searching. So we, as in Pimple and myself, decided to start up a business.
‘That’s right,’ I say briskly, with enough softness to encourage conversation. ‘The H.P.W.W.O.C.S. Helping People Who Would Otherwise Commit Suicide. Or even H.P.W.M.O.C.S. – People Who Might Otherwise…but we’re called Crouch End Confidential now.’ Impromptu market research among friends had ended up with tongue-tied repetitions and lots of ‘You whats?’
We’d originally substituted the would for might, because after all, how can one predict who’ll kill themselves? Some people threaten it with no intention of going through with it and others, not a word and then boom – lives are devastated. Then there’s those who talk about it all the time and no one gives a hoot because they’re labelled attention-seekers and before you can say boom again – they carry out what they’d always said they’d carry out.
‘But you are that organisation? The ones who help with, uh difficult problems, like er…’
‘Lost pets?’ I finish for her, looking up again at Fluffy. ‘Yes, we do a fair amount of those.’ Far more than intended. ‘What kind do you have?’
‘Well, I-I…’ She seems at a loss. ‘Only—’
A strange wailing fills the morning air. At first I think it’s the cat, but it’s clearly a siren, volume increasing as it draws closer. Exceptionally loud now. Anyone would think it—
‘Is that the police?’ There’s a fearful edge to the woman’s voice. Or perhaps she’s merely anxious to be heard over the noise.
I glimpse through the branches, hearing cotton rip as I lean forward. A huge red vehicle’s speeding this way, lights blazing.
‘Fire engine,’ I report back. ‘Can’t see smoke but it must be nearby. They’re slowing down. They’re—’
Stopping right beside the kids…
What the blazes?
Sophie’s small face gazes up at me, expression distraught in the strobe lighting, finger pointing in my direction.
‘PERHAPS I’D…’ I find I’m screaming into the phone as the siren abruptly cuts out. I turn away from the cluster of grinning helmeted and booted firemen assembling at the foot of the tree as someone cranks up the ladder. Fluffy takes one look, turns tail and bolts down the other side. I modulate my voice to more professional tones. Perhaps I’d better ring you back I’m about to suggest politely, but too late. She’s gone.
‘Calling Cathy O’Farrell. Hello? Can you read me?’
‘Yes, I’m here.’ I swiftly hide the nail polish, climb into my swivel chair and wire myself up to the Skype headset.
‘Where exactly, lovey?’ Pimple’s bespectacled eyes scan the computer screen. They travel left and right, until they finally focus on where I’m now perched facing the webcam, sporting a big beaming smile. ‘Found you. Hang on a jiffy.’
She ducks down, sits back seconds later clutching a wide-toothed comb and starts tugging vigorously at her tight curls, turning them into a helmet of grey frizz.
‘That’s better.’ She drops out of sight again, emerging with pencil in hand. ‘Now update on yesterday?’ She licks the lead tip.
My business partner, former cleaning lady and long-time friend. I both love and hate her enthusiasm for news. Love that she’s still interested in our work even though she’s travelling the globe on that luxurious cruise ship. Hate that I’ve nothing of interest to convey and am very likely letting her down, business-wise.
‘Shouldn’t you be in bed?’ I say, having lost track of the various time zones she’s travelled through.
‘Gosh, no. It’s only just gone midnight,’ she says cheerfully. ‘I’ve a card game booked in an hour and then I’m off to the casino. Thought we might have a catch-up in between.’
‘OK,’ I say, reluctantly clicking onto my spreadsheet. ‘You remember that petrol station cashier with the lost tomcat?’
‘Sure do. How’s that going?’
‘Good. We fitted him with a tracking collar. Discovered he not only had two homes but three. All the owners met for coffee. Arranged a feeding rota. She was very grateful.’
I scroll through the columns – last on the right – Income. ‘Oh Pimple, I just couldn’t ask her to cough up.’ I drop my head in shame and twist the headphone wire round and round my finger until it turns bright pink at the tip. ‘She was skint, stony broke. Only got the cashier’s job recently. Five kids to feed as well as the cat and still claiming benefits. And that’s what the fund’s about isn’t it, helping those in trouble?’
‘But Cathy, we’re meant to be running a viable concern here,’ she says. ‘Fair do’s, we agreed to support a few charity cases, but we need paying ourselves at some stage.’
‘I know.’ I’m totally feeble at fee chasing. ‘Oh but I did find Fluffy this morning. Owned by Mrs Thompson.’
‘Pensioner. Harringay Ladder.’
‘That’s right.’ I’m always amazed by her memory for detail.
‘Marvellous. We got paid for that then, yes?’
I groan. ‘I was going to charge her, I swear. But then she pulled out this ancient threadbare purse—’
‘Phooey!’ she scoffs. ‘Oldest trick in the book, that one. Bringing out the ancient threadbare purse. You’ll need to wise up, Cath. Those houses on the Ladder are worth a bomb. What else?’ Her pencil’s poised above her pad.
I run through our list of jobs, which takes precisely three minutes as apart from our two ex-clients, there’s only the newsagent who contacted me yesterday to ask if we’d investigate who’d been stealing his papers and a schoolkid called Ben who’d rung Monday to say his new mountain bike had been nicked and the police weren’t doing anything about it.
I’d asked him to wait a few days and if no joy to call back.
‘That’s it?’ She wrinkles her brow.
‘Looks like I’ll need a new mop when I get home, after all.’ She lets out a sigh that sounds like a steamship in heavy fog.
Worse thing is she probably will. Money’s haemorrhaging faster than I can spell the word. We had to invest in the computer because mine was horrendously slow. Then there was the cost of stationery, surveillance equipment, etc. – all the paraphernalia needed in setting up. At least office space is free. We’re based in Pimple’s Edwardian semi-detached home, couple of miles down the road from Crouch End. Seemed daft forking out when she had a spare room – perfect to shove two desks in. It’s where I am now.
‘Oh I’m sure that won’t—’ I stop. Because there’s a ploppy sound and she disappears into the ether, like Endora from Bewitched.
I wait a few seconds, see if she’ll reconnect, but nothing. No need to call back. We’ve both said what we had to. The phone, the one all prospective clients are meant to call, is staring at me accusingly.
I pick it up. Check it’s still working. Could be a fault and hundreds of sad souls have been trying to connect. Crying out for help.
I listen a second. Strong, healthy brrr.
By the time I turn into our drive around five thirty, I’m bushed. Rest of the afternoon had been spent clearing up the newsagent’s problem. I’d arrived at his shop, introduced myself, politely listened to his plans for an elaborate stake-out and then suggested we first have a good delve around the shop floor, back room and the flat above. Bingo. Turned out, his elderly widowed mum was nicking the papers and hiding them under her bed. Early signs of dementia at a guess but at least that’s that one solved. For us anyway. Frankly it was too bloody efficient. Less than an hour’s work but the poor guy’s got a long hard journey ahead. How could I possibly charge him?
On the other hand, I scold my ineffectual self, I need to toughen up. Do I really want to start again on a job-search?
I hang up my jacket by the porch and trudge through to the kitchen.
Declan’s standing over a saucepan which is bubbling away on the six-ringed range cooker which dominates our good-sized, somewhat country-style, kitchen. A heavenly tomato-ey aroma permeates the air. Everything’s worked out great for him. He’s ridiculously happy with his new postman’s job. Has to leave home at five a.m., but he’s always been an early riser so never minds. Gets bags of exercise on his assigned pushbike, and he finishes mid-afternoon, in time for the school run. Never mind that it pays half what he earned before. It’s the quality of life that counts, right?
Plus, best part, I have dinner waiting for me every weekday evening. All those years of wedded bliss with me muddling along, running out of recipes and not really being faffed and now he’s completely taken charge of the cooking. Wondrous.
I put my nose in the air and sniff. ‘Mmm. Smells delicious. You do know I’m out later?’
‘Wednesday Once Weekly girls’ night. How could I forget?’ He turns to peck my cheek. ‘Thought I’d make a big stew anyhow. We can eat some over the next few days and freeze the rest. Much more economical. Talking of which…’ He opens the fridge, pulls out a used cardboard carton and lifts the lid with a cheesy grin. Five brown eggs, still with a few feathers attached, smaller than shop-bought but hey. ‘Ta-dah. Even Pocahontas delivered. Fresh, free range, and best of all free.’
He always says this and I always tut and do an exaggerated who-gives-a-monkey’s shrug. Not that I’m averse to owning chickens. Can be rather relaxing squatting outside their coop, watching them scratch the earth and vie for pecking order. And Josh and Sophie wake themselves up early each morning to see which hen’s laid what, which is a heck of a lot better than me screeching at them to get out of bed. Plus free anything’s great with my almost non-existent wages, but I don’t like admitting it, because he bought them without consulting me – his wife. Then again, at that time, he was acting weird and buying other things without consulting me too. Like our super-expensive oven, which we’re still paying off. Male menopause, my insurance broker reckoned. But we’re over that. Back on an even keel. Perhaps not financially but definitely hormonally speaking.
‘Where’s the kids?’ I slump onto a chair and watch him stirring, tasting, stirring again.
‘Upstairs. Sophie’s watching TV. Josh is on the Xbox, where else. He’s done his spelling homework, though he needs help with reading later.’
‘OK, I’ll cover that.’
I watch him as he adds a spoonful of paprika, dash of Worcestershire sauce then a variety of fresh and dried herbs. He’s tall, few inches over six foot, gingery-brown hair, blue eyes. Irish born and bred, although you’d never believe it from his London accent. His body’s still good for his forty-three years. Actually, tell a lie, his body’s fabulous, but that’s only because he gets to spend afternoons in the gym while I’m slogging away in my office.
We’ve been married a little over eleven years. Not saying there’s been no ups and downs in that time, but the ups far exceed the downs. My friends all consider him Mr Wonderful and sometimes I do too, even though I maybe don’t say it often enough.
‘So how was the gossip at the school gates this afternoon?’ I ask.
Just after eight and I’m sitting back at the kitchen table, now set for one sole diner, after doing the bath-bed-book-lights-out routine. Declan’s preparing a salad and I’m enjoying a quick cuppa before heading off.
‘Drugs,’ he says, dicing a carrot.
‘Who’s on drugs?’
‘Feral youths supposedly.’
‘So what’s new?’
‘That.’ He nods at a letter on the sideboard behind him.
I pick it up and begin silently reading. Dear parent…
‘Says there,’ he starts chopping up tiny cherry tomatoes into even tinier quarters, ‘two teenagers were spotted hanging around Princes Road Primary. Offered a pupil some substance. Guess which one?’
I can’t imagine. Love my kids’ school but they’re famous for blowing the slightest unsettling ripple into a tsunami of alarm.
‘No, stop. Let me think.’ I hold my hand up and screw my forehead in concentration. ‘Heroin? Ketamine? Miu Miu?’
‘Meow meow, you mean. Miu Miu’s an Italian designer, but I wasn’t meaning which drug, I was meaning pupil.’
‘Yep, and William was with him.’ He tosses the tomatoes into a bowl, adding a drizzle of olive oil.
That confirms it. ‘My oh my. Knowing that family, I’ll bet it was something hideously toxic – like a Diet Coke. Or a powdered doughnut.’ I’m not too familiar with Pip, but I’ve seen him around, being the elder brother of Josh’s ex best friend, William. Once inseparable they’ve recently gone their separate ways, or rather Josh dumped William for another classmate. Slightly mortifying because I often bump into William’s mum at morning drop-off. Truth be told, though, if someone’s heart had to break over an early bromance, then I’d rather it wasn’t my kid’s.
‘School’s taking it seriously. Pip ran back in and told his teacher.’
‘Of course they are.’ I scan greedily through the rest of the letter but the details are amazingly vague. ‘They’ve got to, don’t they, to protect themselves. Besides Sheryl’s running the PSA. And the way that woman overreacts, it ought to be the drama club. Remember when she saw Custard lick William’s mouth and went into hysterics about intestinal worms, giardia and rabies injections? And then when I’d finally calmed her down and convinced her the poor dog had barely made contact and not to call an ambulance, William piped up, “It’s OK, Mummy. He does it every time.” I’m sure Sheryl was gloating like a goat.’
‘Too right she was.’ He fetches a cucumber from the fridge and slices it into paper thin layers. ‘Holding court when I arrived. Gaggle of parents hanging on her every word.’
I tap the letter in my hand. ‘Says here that we should keep vigilant. Talk to our kids.’
‘And so we must. They’re guarding the gates at pick-up time. The teachers rushed out but the “yobbos”, as Sheryl called them, had disappeared by then and there was nothing on CCTV.’ He digs his fingers into an iceberg lettuce and expertly tears it apart. ‘Becoming worse round here for sure. Honestly, I feel sorry for Josh and Sophie. Probably have better survival chances with a pack of ravenous wolves than inner cities today. Drugs at primary school, vandalism everywhere, fourteen-year-old pregnancies. And that’s without random crazies, potential terrorism and the local crime…’
Is it my imagination or does a cold wind suddenly whistle through the kitchen?
‘They love it here. And they’re a darn sight better adjusted than William and Pip, with their allergen-free, sugar-free, gluten-free cotton wool existence.’
‘You might be right.’ He opens a bottle and pours himself a rare glass of wine. I mean rare for him, that is, rather than vintage. For an Irishman his alcohol intake is shockingly moderate. ‘So how was your day?’ He eyes me shrewdly. ‘Any more enquiries? Prospective clients?’
‘One, but the caller got cut off.’ I feel obliged to sound a bit more positive. ‘Terrible line but she was definitely interested. Sounded right up our alley.’
‘Pretty much. Managed to close a couple of cases.’ Hopefully he’ll assume that means money in the bank.
‘Good for you. Hang on a second, what’s that?’ He leans towards me and begins tugging at my hair, emerging with a tiny twig between his fingers.
‘Thanks.’ I take it from him. ‘Very blowy outside today. Oh what’s that?’ I pick up a magazine lying on the Welsh dresser and leaf through pages of bucolic landscapes, slightly uneasy at the way he’s watching me – kind of sideways, mouth quirking.
‘Got dropped through the letterbox.’ He brings the saucepan over to the table and ladles a portion onto his plate. ‘Advertising houseboats. Miles cheaper than conventional houses.’
I put the magazine down. ‘No wonder. Who’d want to live on a leaky old barge with no room to swing a cat?’
‘Speaking of cats,’ he’s still wearing that weird expression, ‘not seen any lurking around lately, have we?’
‘Well, there’s doubtless loads lurking around.’ I stand up so I can avoid his eyes, grab a dessert spoon from the drawer and dip it into the bubbling mixture. ‘They say you’re never more than six feet from one in London.’
‘Isn’t that rats?’ He laughs.
‘Rats too.’ I blow fast at my spoon, like a silent flautist. ‘Stands to reason, where’s there’s rats there’ll be cats. Supplement their Whiskas.’
‘Only…that was the other thing parents were chattering about. Fire brigade had to rescue a mum who’d chased some cat up a tree. All on YouTube. Children arrived at class forty-five minutes late.’
‘Talking about being late…’ I leap up, pointing at the oven clock. ‘Holy Christ, is it really quarter past? Meant to be meeting the girls at eight thirty. I’ll never be ready in time.’
Meet the Author:
Ellie Campbell is a pseudonym for sisters, Pam Burks and Lorraine Campbell, who write together from their respective homes in Surrey, England (Pam) and Colorado, USA (Lorraine). After years of selling short stories independently, they began their Ellie Campbell collaboration with a first novel, How To Survive Your Sisters, followed by When Good Friends Go Bad, Looking For La La, To Catch A Creeper and Million Dollar Question. They write contemporary women's fiction laced with humour, romance, and mystery. Meddling With Murder is their 6th novel and follows Looking For La La and To Catch A Creeper in the funny, cozy ‘Crouch End Confidential’ mystery series.
Twitter: https://twitter.com/ecampbellbooksGoodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/EllieCampbell
Prize: 10 Ebooks of Meddling With Murder by Ellie Campbell.
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