Murder on the Levels- Frances Evesham (Digital Sample)

Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘Murder on the Levels’ by Frances Evesham.

MURDER ON THE LEVELS

FRANCES EVESHAM

CHAPTER ONE

Forest Chocolates

The warm tang of yeast percolated through Brown’s, the Exham on Sea bakery.

‘This must be the quietest place on the planet.’ Libby Forest didn’t mean to complain, but there hadn’t been much excitement here lately. Not since she’d found local celebrity, Susie Bennett, the rock singer, dead under the lighthouse on the beach. At least she’d finally tracked down Susie’s killer.

Frank Brown, owner of the business and master baker, dumped a pair of disposable gloves in the kitchen bin, hoisted a crate of fresh loaves onto his shoulder, grunted and shuffled backwards through the door to the car park. ‘Time to revamp the bakery. Make space for those Forest Chocolates of yours.’ Libby’s knife clattered to the table. Had she heard right?

‘Seriously? You’re not kidding?’

Mandy, Libby’s lodger and Exham on Sea’s resident teenage Goth, hooted. ‘When does Frank ever kid anyone?’ She pumped a tattooed arm in the air. ‘Our very first proper chocolate shop. Great stuff, Mrs F. The place will be famous in no time.’

A big fat grin forced its way across Libby’s face. It was weeks since she’d presented her business plan. Frank had sucked his teeth, scratched an ear and mumbled, ‘We’ll see,’ in the way people spoke to children when they asked for unlikely birthday presents. Libby had given up hope and spent several waking nights wondering how she could find another outlet for her home-made creations. She’d even pondered setting up her own website.

Maybe it was the constant supply of free samples that had worn Frank down.

His head bobbed back around the door. ‘Fancy a drive, Libby? Those cyclists left their sandwiches in the shop.’

He thrust packages into Libby’s arms. She’d made them to order not half an hour ago while the cycling club members boasted to each other about the miles they’d ridden. She’d packed them carefully into separate bags; cheese and pickle, egg and cress, and ham salad.

Mandy giggled. ‘Too busy stuffing themselves with free chocolates to care about lunch. Kevin Batty gobbled up at least three lemon meringue truffles, and some of his mates put them in their pockets. They’ll be growing out of their Lycra before they know it. Mind you,’ she added, ‘my clothes are getting a bit tight, too.’

Still in a happy daze, thrilled by Frank’s offer of space to sell her chocolates, Libby loaded the packets of sandwiches into her ancient purple Citroen, crunched the gears and drove out onto the Somerset Levels. She followed the cyclists’ route through corkscrew lanes beneath a broad blue spring sky filled with blackbird song, head whirling with plans for packaging, marketing, future outlets and exotic new chocolate flavours. Her second cookery book, unimaginatively called More Baking at the Beach was half written, and she spent at least one morning a week fending off phone calls from the elegant Christian Fortescue, her publisher, begging for updates.

‘Not that I’m pressuring you, but your readers are clamouring – clamouring, I tell you – for more of your perfectly scrumptious recipes.’

Mr Fortescue would have to wait.

Libby turned up the CD player and bellowed ‘We Are The Champions’ at the top of her voice. Why not? No one could hear it, in this peaceful corner of Somerset.

The car squealed round the final corner, narrowly avoiding a row of bicycles propped against a wooden fence. It lurched to a halt and Libby jumped out. Beyond an open gate, clumps of sedge and willow lined the placid waters of a stream. Moorhens ducked in and out of overhanging branches and a pair of geese honked in the distance.

Libby slithered on the grass. Patches of mud, still damp from a brief overnight rainstorm, squelched under her feet. Not quite a country girl yet, then. Just a year since she’d left London, and she still had plenty to learn. She’d keep a pair of wellies in the car in future.

A hand grasped her elbow. ‘Careful.’ A few years older than Libby, Simon Logan had pleasing salt and pepper hair and a warm smile, and almost managed to make Lycra look elegant.

Mandy, Libby’s lodger and self-appointed dating advisor, had pointed out, ‘He’s divorced, no children, retired university lecturer, conductor of the local orchestra and much richer than Max Ramshore. He’ll do for you, Mrs F.’

Enjoying her sudden, welcome independence, since her husband’s heart attack ended their unsatisfactory marriage, Libby had scoffed at the idea. Intent on building a business and a new life, she didn’t need male complications, thank you. Max Ramshore was hardly more than an acquaintance. She’d worked with the secretive ex-banker on Exham’s recent celebrity murder investigation but he’d left town without so much as a word soon after Susie’s funeral.

Still, she admitted to herself, Simon Logan was very attractive.

‘Lovely morning.’ His deep brown voice resonated pleasantly in Libby’s ears, but she had no time to reply, for Kevin Batty intervened, wiping streaks of sweat from sallow cheeks. Ratty, Libby thought. His pointy chinned, pink eyed face lacked only a set of stiff whiskers to complete the resemblance to an over-friendly rodent.

He stood so close Libby could count the pores on his nose. She took a sideways step.

Kevin followed. ‘Mrs Forest. I see you’ve brought our sandwiches. Why don’t you join us?’ He snickered. ‘We could do with some female company.’ What’s more, he’d been eating garlic.

Libby glanced at Simon. He rolled his eyes and she had to stifle a laugh.

He joined the appeal. ‘The least we can do is offer you some of our lunch, now you’ve come all this way. Come and sit over here.’ He pointed over her head. ‘I saw a heron in that elm tree, the other day. Look.’

He offered her a pair of binoculars and, as she searched for birds, spread a rug on the grass.

The heady smell of still warm pastries made Libby’s stomach growl. ‘Well, I suppose Frank can manage without me for a few minutes longer. Maybe I’ll have an Eccles cake.’

***

A smile still hovered over her face as she drove back to Exham. Mandy was taking the afternoon shift at the bakery, so Libby had the rest of the day free. She collected Shipley, a friendly, noisy springer spaniel with far more energy than training, from her indolent friend Marina, and let him loose on the beach.

‘Hi, there.’

Libby’s sunny mood evaporated in a flash. ‘Max.’

‘Still mad at me? How many times do I have to say I’m sorry? I had to leave town at short notice.’ Max threw a stick for his dog, Bear, the owner of four vast paws and the shaggiest coat Libby had ever seen. He’d looked after Bear since his owner, Mrs Thomson, died. No one had claimed the huge Carpathian Sheepdog. Mrs Thomson’s only relative, a distant, aging cousin, lived in London and maintained she was far too old for such an enormous creature.

‘He’d pull me over, so he would.’

Bear loped steadily along the sand to fetch the stick, while Shipley raced back and forth, barking ineffectively, and wild with excitement.

Max didn’t look sorry. In fact, he’d gained a light tan that made his Scandinavian eyes gleam brighter and his thick silver hair shimmer. He was grinning, expecting to be forgiven.

Libby exaggerated her shrug. ‘It’s quite all right. You don’t have to answer to me when you go away. Anyway, it wasn’t you I missed. It was Bear.’

Max threw the stick again. ‘I couldn’t leave him with you. He’s too big for Hope Cottage so I sent him off to have a little holiday with a farmer friend of mine.’

‘Well, I’m glad he’s back.’ Of course, Max was right. Bear had stayed at her cottage before, and the carpets had never been the same since, but Libby cared more for the giant animal than she did for home furnishings, and her cat, Fuzzy, had struck up a surprising friendship with Bear.

Max pulled a box from the pocket of his waxed jacket. ‘I brought you a present. It’s a peace offering.’

Libby narrowed her eyes, suspicious. ‘What is it?’

‘OK, if you don’t want it…’

‘Of course I want it. I make it a rule never to refuse presents.’ Libby unfolded layers of tissue paper inside the little blue box. ‘A fridge magnet. How nice.’ Not jewellery, then.

‘Look what it says. World’s Greatest Cook. That’s you. I’ve tried your cakes.’

She tried not to laugh. ‘You think flattery will get you anywhere. My son gave me one just like it, years ago, when he was about twelve.’

‘I may be childish, but am I forgiven?’

Why be grumpy while the sun’s shining? ‘Maybe. My book’s doing well, by the way. My publisher re-issued it. Baking at the Beach is now available world-wide and it’s coming out in hardback. I’m just waiting for my own copies to arrive and I’m thinking about a follow-up.’

‘No. Really? Why didn’t you tell me? Wait, because I wasn’t here. Now I really do feel bad.’

‘Good. Then I forgive you.’

‘To make up, I’ll buy the first hardback copy.’

Libby snorted. ‘Can’t imagine you baking cakes, somehow.’ She found a length of driftwood and called to the spaniel. ‘Shipley, here’s a stick, just for you. Bear, leave it alone.’ She held the sheepdog back, fondling the giant ears.

They’d already wandered past the nine legged lighthouse where Libby had discovered Susie’s body last year. Exham on Sea disappeared, hidden by sand dunes, as they rounded the bend.

Max cleared his throat. ‘Libby, there’s something I need to—’ He broke off and sighed as his phone trilled. ‘Sorry.’ He stiffened. ‘What? How many?’ A sharp intake of breath. ‘I’ll be there.’

‘What’s the matter?’

‘There’s been an accident. The cycling club, out on the Levels.’

That couldn’t be right. Everyone was fine when Libby left. ‘What sort of accident? A road crash?’

‘Apparently not.’

‘Then what? Wait!’ Max was already pounding back along the beach, dogs galloping behind. Libby followed, scrambling awkwardly across the sand. Panting, she struggled up the steps from the beach to the road.

Max threw open the door of his Land Rover to let the dogs pile in. ‘That was Claire, Joe’s wife, on the phone. She’s meeting us at the scene.’

‘Is it serious?’

‘Claire doesn’t know. They’re all out at the wildlife reserve.’

‘I know. I took their sandwiches. I saw Joe there.’

Libby had exchanged a distant nod with Joe, Max’s son. Their relationship was tricky. A detective sergeant in the local police force, he had little time for her and even less for his father.

***

An ambulance drove away as Max and Libby arrived at the river. ‘There he is.’ Joe lay on the grass, face chalk-white, eyes closed. A paramedic nearby saw Max and came over, squatting beside Joe.

‘Looks like a touch of food poisoning, sir. Half the club have keeled over.’

‘Food poisoning? Could it cause all this?’ Max waved a hand at a scene of disaster. A few hardy cyclists hadn’t passed out, but lay awkwardly, their backs propped against tree trunks, clutching silvery blankets and shivering.

Over by the stream, Simon Logan wiped his mouth. Had everyone been poisoned? Libby’s own stomach lurched, and she swallowed saliva. The sandwiches? No, surely not…

The young paramedic struggled to her feet. ‘Poison is poison. No idea what caused it, but the police will want to take the remains of those sandwiches. My job is to get people to hospital, then we’ll know more.’

The officer in charge, Chief Inspector Arnold, nodded to Max. ‘Sorry to see that lad of yours is involved, Max, but we need to treat this as a crime scene until we know otherwise.’ He peered at Libby. ‘Ah, Mrs Forest. I gather most of the cyclists bought their sandwiches at Frank’s bakery?’

The knot in Libby’s stomach tightened. ‘Well… yes, they did.’ She licked dry lips. ‘I brought the food out here—’

Max broke in. ‘Don’t say any more.’

Libby gulped. ‘You mean…’

‘Don’t say anything that might incriminate you. Or the bakery.’

Libby’s breath caught in her throat. ‘Do I need a lawyer?’

The Chief Inspector’s face was inscrutable. ‘We’ll talk to you properly, later. There’s no need to worry, Mrs Forest, until we find out exactly what happened here.’

Libby shivered. ‘The people in the first ambulance. Are they OK?’

‘I’m afraid not. Kevin Batty and Vince Lane are dead.’

 

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