The Bloodstained Letter: The Complete Story

This is all 24 parts of my recent fiction serial, in one complete story.
It is a long read, at 18,708 words.

After the postlady had pushed the letters through the letterbox, Jon noticed a smear of fresh blood on one of them.

Below the usual stack of bills, circulars, and card statements, the envelope stood out. It was small and square, like the kind that usually contains a greeting card. Sand-coloured, the edges were decorated with maroon squares, in a geometric design. The wide smear of blood was around the stuck down flap at the back, as if whoever had licked the glue had blood around their mouth as they did so.

The name and address was written in block capitals, with what looked like a marker pen of some kind. Not that it was a proper address, Jon had his moderate fame to thank for it being delivered at all.

MR JONATHON RIDLEY, YORK, YORKSHIRE.

Obviously, someone at the postal sorting office knew him well enough to have put it into the right bin, where it would have been collected by the pleasant lady who had been delivering his post ever since he had moved to the city some years back. The stamp was a Christmas stamp, second-class and probably bought some time ago,. The design was a drawing from Raymond Briggs’ book, ‘Father Christmas’. Jon tried to recall when those Christmas commemoratives had been issued, but couldn’t remember. It was a long time ago though, he knew that much.

Still, the one good thing about stamps with 1st or 2nd printed on them was that they would always be honored, no matter how old.

He took the post into what had once been the dining room, but was now his study. Taking the antique letter opener in the design of a Toldeo sword from a Moorcroft pot at the back of his desk, he opened the strange letter with great care. Inside, a thin sheet of notepaper bore the same design as the envelope, and there was just one word written on it, in large capital letters.

HELP

Sitting down into the green leather captain’s chair that he always used for his writing, he studied the postmark using an ivory-handled magnifying glass that looked as if it could have once been owned by Sherlock Holmes. Around the circular design was printed Watford Mail Centre. The date was faded, as if the machine was running out of ink, but he could clearly make out the number fifteen. The fifteenth of this month then. That was four days ago, about right for a second-class letter with an incomplete address.

Although he prided himself on knowing and having visited most parts of the British Isles, he was certain that he had never been to Watford. All he knew of it was that it was an unimpressive commuter town to the north west of London, and that it was the last stop on the Metropolitan Line of the London Underground network. And as far as he knew, he didn’t know anyone who lived there. Not personally, anyway.

One of his readers pehaps? A person who enjoyed his crime novels and thought he was someone who could actually solve such mysteries in real life. For many years, his Detective Inspector Johnson series had been required reading in the genre, and sold well in hardback long before the paperback was available. He had run to twenty-six books in that popular series, before losing the muse. When he told Claudia that he wanted to change direction, to write science fiction and fantasy, she had shaken her head as she lit a cigarette.

“Daaaarling”, she drawled. “Write what you know. Write what sells”. He had waved away the cloud of smoke she exhaled, and parted company with his literary agent.

Moving almost three hundred miles from Brighton to York had not been intended to be his retirement. But when rejection after rejection flooded in for his sci-fi manuscripts, it turned out to be just that. He even tried to rework his detective novels into the future, something along the lines of ‘Inspector Johnson In Space’. But even he thought they were so obviously a rip-off, he never sent them to the editor.

Life in York wasn’t so bad. Years of success and the inheritance from his mother’s house sale left him comfortable financially. And his reputation was still good enough to allow unaddressed letters to be delivered through his front door. He pushed the piece of notepaper around with the tip of the letter opener as he sat thinking. A mysterious letter was indeed great inspiration for a new novel. It would require some research first of course.

He would get onto that tomorrow. First thing.

Using a resealable clear plastic freezer bag, Jon sealed the letter inside, hoping to protect any forensic details as best as he could. A quick check on his laptop provided him with various districts in the Watford postal area, and the extra digit he couldn’t quite read on the postmark might help to identify exactly where it had been posted from.

It seemed to be a daunting task so far, given the wide area covered by Watford. He made a list of possibilities inside the morocco-bound A4 notebook his father had bought him the week before he left for university to study English.

Oxhey, South Oxhey, Carpenders Park
Bushey/ Bushey Heath
North Watford/Central Watford.
Garston, Leavesden, Aldenham, Letchmore Heath.
Rickmansworth. Kings Langley. Borehamwood.

There was only one thing for it, he was going to have to make the trip to Watford, and enquire at the postal sorting centre.

Alanah from next door could probably be relied upon again to feed Tutankhamun, his cat. She could be trusted with a key too, as in the past nothing had ever been disturbed. No drawers ferreted through, or things out of place. She was a spiritual type, and a cat-lover into the bargain. The two Siamese she owned never went outside the house, and as she would trust nobody with them, she rarely went very far either. He had always thought she might well have once been a full-time hippy. She certainly looked the part.

As he disliked having to change trains frequently, a hire car would be essential, and accommodation too. It was too far to travel for one day, so he would book into somewhere quite nice for a few nights. He could think of it as a holiday, even it it was only Watford. He telephoned Enterprise and arranged for a car to be delivered the next day, booking it for a week. As he rarely drove now, he decided to treat himself, and chose an E-class Mercedes.

If the book idea worked out later, he could claim the cost back against his taxes.

A hotel wasn’t as easy to find as he had expected. His first three choices had no rooms available, and he eventually had to settle for a Premier Inn, close to the football stadium. At least it had car parking, albeit at minimal extra charge, and he chose a double room to get a decent-sized bed to sleep in. A Google Maps check showed him that the main central post office was two miles from the hotel. He could walk that easily.

There was no difficulty getting Alanah to feed the cat. She was delighted when he asked as he handed over the spare key, and immediately invited him in for drinks. As it was only midday, he declined, inventing having to collect clothes from the dry cleaners as an excuse. She often smelled of whisky, and had a way of looking at him that made him uneasy. She also habitually sat with her knees apart, forcing him to avert his gaze. If it was his body she was after, she had very much chosen the wrong man.

With a standard check-in time of two in the afternoon, the hotel could allow a much later check-in if required. So he didn’t have to bother to leave too early. Just as well, as delivery of the car wasn’t promised until nine anyway. At almost two hundred miles, the journey south would probably take him four hours, not allowing for any traffic problems on the main roads. His Satnav was rather ancient now, but he got it out of the box and charged it up anyway. Then he charged his laptop and phone, before making a list of what he had to pack for seven days away.

Settling down in bed that night, Jon was feeling excited. He had a project, and one that really interested him. Although he dearly loved living in the city of York, a break down south would make a nice change from routine.

The young man who delivered the car just after nine the next morning was very nice. Much more his type. But he didn’t give Jon a second look, as he ran through the basics of the car, and showed that there was no damage. He had a colleague waiting for him up the lane in a small hatchback, so once the paperwork was signed, he scuttled off in a hurry. Jon watched him leave, in his chain-store suit, and brown shoes. Smiling to himself, he thought it was a shame the man didn’t have to come inside the house.

Well, you never knew until you tried, did you?

Charging the Satnav had been a waste of time. The new Mercedes had one built in.

Pleased with the delightfully smooth ride offered by the Mercedes, Jon made good progress south as he enjoyed listening to Radio Four on the impressive in-car entertainment system. Memories of his time in Brighton drifted in and out of his consciousness as he kept to the speed limit and watched out for the large trucks pulling into his lane too slowly.

These days, they would undoubtedly call it Grooming. The encouragement of an impressionable and overwhelmed student by an older, well-respected man. Someone abusing a position of trust in an educational establishment. Such stories were all the rage now, with court cases that were described as the pursuit of ‘historical offences’ But Jon harboured no resentment, sought no justice or revenge.

For him, Nigel had been a revelation, not a predator.

It all seemed so long ago. A room in a shared house at the cheap end of Brighton. Bus journeys to and from Sussex University. Then that first one-on-one meeting with his tutor, Nigel Downs. Although he was around the same age as his father, he was so different to him in every way imaginable. Dressed casually in the latest fashions, relaxed and chatty, quick to drape an arm around a shoulder, or gently pat a knee. Thinking about it made Jon smile, even now.

Flashing headlights in the rear view mirror broke his reverie. The car behind was just inches away, the driver shaking his head. Looking at the speedometer, Jon realised why. He had dropped to below fifty miles per hour, on a fast road. Checking the side mirror, he indicated and pulled over into the inside lane, allowing the man behind to swoop past, accelerating. Snapped out of that nostalgic dream state, something suddenly dawned on him.

How had the sender of the letter known he was living in York? On all his biographies and blurbs on the Inspector Johnson novels, it was mentioned that he lived in ‘The seaside town of Brighton, on England’s south coast’. Since moving north, he had not published anything, and as far as he could recall, very few people knew of his current location. Certainly not any readers of his old books.

The next service area came up in six miles, and he turned into it.

Sipping a tasteless coffee that he had no intention of finishing, he shifted around on the awful plastic chair. Smooth plastic and heavy velvet cord trousers were not a good combination, and the constant sliding was annoying him. Who knew he had moved to York? Well Claudia, certainly. He had sent her his address just in case he decided to reconnect with her in the future, as well as to receive his declining fan mail.

And there was young Lawrence of course. Splitting up with him had been the catalyst for the decision to leave Brighton. Lolly, the love of his life. Eyes meeting as he served Jon a glass of wine in a bar, like a scene from a corny old romantic pot-boiler.

Lolly only knew he was moving to the city, not his actual address. There seemed little point in giving that to him, after coming home unexpectedly and finding him in bed with a man old enough to be his grandfather. So much time invested. So much money shelled out. And all for nothing, in the end.

Reaching across the table for his phone, he pressed it to call Claudia.

“Daaarling, please tell me you have a new Inspector Johnson manuscript for me? Those old detective novels are enjoyed something of a renaissance, dear boy, and I am willing to forget our little bit of nastiness when you fired me”. Typical Claudia, he hadn’t even said hello before she launched into it. He asked her if she had told anyone about where e lived now. Not the usual people like his editor, or her publicist woman. Fans, strangers, someone who may have written in, or phoned the office.

“How could I possibly remember that, daaarling?” He heard her exhale cigarette smoke with such force, it reminded him of the steam trains he had seen as a small boy. “I mean, I can’t deny you do still get some fan mail, but that is always forwarded to you in a different envelope. I would never give a reader your address, daaarling. That said, you don’t get so much these days, do you dear boy? And I think it is very good of me to send it to you, considering”.

He thanked her, and hung up. It was time to get back on the road.

His second experience of a Premier Inn proved to be a good one. The receptionist was very efficient, and his parking space was not too far away either. The room felt fresh and airy, with all the basics he would need. The bathroom impressed him with its squeaky-clean cleanliness, and he had to admit to himself that the hotel chain had definitely smartened up its act.

Not in the mood to tackle a visit to the Main Post Office so late in the afternoon, he had a walk around the town instead. Avoiding the depressingly similar shopping mall, he wandered up the pedestrianised area instead, checking out the selection of restaurants. There was a Zizzi not far from there, and that Italian chain was always reliable. Finding a traditional pub, he wandered in an ordered a gin and tonic, then found a quiet table at the back.

Opening the notebook he had carried with him, Jon jotted down more possibile names of people who might know he now lived in York, but perhaps not his full address. It was a small list, and gave him cause to reflect that his memory might not be as sharp as it had been. After a second drink, he strolled back to Zizzi and was shown to a table for two by a girl who looked like she had just arrived from school. As it was relatively early, there were few other diners. Ordering a large glass of red wine and a king prawn linguine, he was in and out of the place in around forty-five minutes, suitably full.

Perhaps the drive had tired him more than he had realised, but in no mood to walk back to the hotel, he took a taxi from the rank at the end of the street. The driver appeared to be unconcerned about such a short fare, so Jon made sure to give a generous tip.

Although the bed was comfortable, sleep wasn’t about to happen. His mind was too active; full of thoughts about the past, many interwoven with the current mystery he was investigating. Before midnight, Jon gave up trying, and switched on his laptop.

The Bloodstained Letter
An Inspector Johnson mystery.
By Jon Ridley

Okay, it was back to the old style, but if Claudia was correct that it was popular again, why not? By two in the morning, fighting back yawns that felt strong enough to dislocate his jaw, Jon had two chapters down, more or less substituting what he was actually doing with his familiar Inspector character tracking down a suspicious letter on behalf of Scotland Yard. Of course, the letter had been sent to the police, not to him, and had landed on the desk of Inspector Johnson, not his own doormat in York.

It had been surprisingly satisfying to get back to the familiar formula, and to bring it up to date, he had decided to create a new character to become Johnson’s sidekick. Covering all the politically correct bases, Detective Sergeant Chen was not only female, but from a Chinese family that had emigrated from Hong Kong. She was going to bring a nice slant to the book, with her Confucian philosophy and methodical style.

Hopefully, she would bring the Inspector Johnson books into the twenty-first century. And she might even spawn a completely new series, if Jon decided to promote her later.

When a final yawn made his jaw crack with a sound like a snapping breadstick, he switched off the lamp and went to sleep.

He never slept late, so to do so was most irritating. Hanging the do not disturb sign on the outside of his room door, a long hot shower was just what was needed. Breakfast could come later, perhaps even wait for an early lunch.

Dressed in a suitably artistic crumpled linen suit, and not wearing a tie, he found the Main Post Office easily, then followed a sign for a public entrance to the collection office where people went to pck up parcels, or pay for items requiring excess postage fees. There were two people in front of him, both female. The younger one at the counter was arguing with a disinterested-looking man behind the perspex screen. “Says on this card that I have to collect it, so where is it then? I mean, I can’t be in all the time, can I? And I had to get a bus here and all. Now you tell me you can’t find it, and it’s been sent back to the sender? Go and have another look”.

The second woman in the queue turned and looked at Jon, raising her eyebrows. As the heavily tattooed woman at the counter started to demand to see a manager, she shook her head and left the office.

That was good. Now he was next in line.

The annoying woman finally gave up, leaving the office mouthing a selection of expletives that would make a wrestler blush. Jon stepped forward, and produced the plastic bag containing the envelope from an Italian leather shoulder bag that looked as if it might once have been carried by Gianni Versace. The man behind the perspex screen was suitably unimpressed. “And?” Jon asked if he could possibly identify where the letter had been posted, and quickly added that he should not remove it from the plastic.

After the most cursory glance, the post office operative jabbed a finger at the post mark. “Aldenham, mate. See that number? That’s Aldenham”. John could not see that number, even after putting on his plus two reading glasses. But he was pleased that the man could. He asked him where Aldenham was, as he had never heard of it. Leaning on his counter, the man adopted a tone that Jon found rather patronising. Close up, it was also evident that his nostril hair was out of control, and resembled small bunches of brown-coloured broccoli.

“It’s a couple of miles north east, mate. Very much your sort of place, I reckon. Classy, know what I mean? Countryfied like. Let’s put it this way, I couldn’t afford a bedsit there, let alone a house. Anything else for you today, sir?” The last part was in such an offensive tone, Jon might usually have demanded to report him to a superior. But he quit while he was ahead, thanking the man for his help.

With his stomach rumbling, he walked back into the town centre, where he found a cafe serving the ubiquitous all-day breakfast. Ordering the full works with a mug of tea, he sat in a window seat, and watched the world go by.

Back in the hotel room, it was easy to find out more aabout Aldenham using his laptop. Almost four miles north, it was an ancient village, now marked as a conservation area. Despite its proximity to Watford, it oozed the old world charm of an archetypal English village, boasting some very desirable properties indeed. There was also a prestigious private school, a classic village green, and a medieval church originally dating back to Saxon times. Modern additions to the area included a well-used Country Park.

However, as far as he could tell from the online search there were no shops in the village, and no Post Office. Though there would surely be at least one post box, if not more. There seemed to be little point in changing hotels, as it was so close to where he was. He decided to drive out that afternoon and take a look for himself.

The satnav in his car took him along the busy A41, then under the bridge of the M1 motorway. There were only seven or eight roads making up the village of Aldenham, and it was immediately obvious that this was a wealthy area. Even the older housing stock and smaller bungalows were all well-kept, and it struck Jon that prices of property in this area would exclude most working-class people from being able to live there.

He stopped the car outside the imposing church of St John The Baptist, as he had seen a Victorian post box built into a wall nearby. If there were other post boxes, he had not spotted any as he drove around. There seemed no point in actually going to look at the postbox. It was unlikely to have any traces of blood on the slot for letters, and other than the huge church, nothing jumped out at him as a clue. It seemed likely that anyone posting a letter there would be a local resident walking past, but the worrying truth was that anyone could have driven there from any location in the country, with the sole purpose of disguising where the sender was, if that had been their intention.

Having to make a decision about how to proceed with his investigation, he concluded that there was only one avenue to pursue. Whoever had sent the letter had to have been nearby, able to walk there and post it, or have someone post it on their behalf.

If he allowed the other options, he might as well drive home to York and forget the whole thing.

That evening after dinner, Jon returned to his notes, and the rough draft of what might become his next novel. What would Inspector Johnson do, in these circumstances? It would be very differentwith police powers of course. Knocking on doors showing the envelope, checking the computer for likely suspects in the Aldenham area. Detailed forensics from the blood and fingerprints. And the missing persons branch could be contacted, collating the available information against anyone who may have gone missing.

There was also the option of working alongside the Post Office Investigation Branch, a civilian unit with extensive powers given to them by the Royal Mail. But if Jon contacted them, or the Hertfordshire Police, it would all be taken out of his hands. He would no longer be able to investigate, and it would be highly unlikely that any information about the case would be passed to him.

It was not going to be possible to write the story from his perspective. The Inspector Johnson mystery was going to have to be completely different.

After breakfast the next morning, he went to reception and extended his stay in the hotel for another week. Then he called the car hire company, exchanging the Mercedes for a Transit Van that would be delivered that afternoon. The bigger vehicle would give him room to spread out, and with white vans everywhere in the country, it would pass without notice parked on a street. As well as that, the panelled sides would shield him from public gaze.

While waiting for the vehicle exchange, he walked into town and bought a cheap sleeping bag in a camping shop. Adding a thermos flask, and a pair of basic binoculars to his purchase, he smiled to himself as he remembered the excellent wartime German binoculars in his study. It hadn’t occured to him to bring those.

Surveillance was an area Jon had covered many times in his novels. Imspector Johnson would often use specialist teams to keep tabs on suspects. Sadly, he would have to try alone on this occasion. He would have no access to CCTV cameras as the police did, and there would be nobody to relieve him after a shift.

Worst of all, he had no suspect to surveil.

That gut-feeling so often written about in police procedural novels and murder stories was on his side though. Years of life on the edge of society living in the Gay Community had sharpened his senses nicely. There was a certain satisfaction that those first impressions of people so often proved to be correct, and with this current project, he had that feeling that he would instinctively know if he spotted someone with something to hide.

The van arrived on time, driven by a smart young woman who was very efficient. Unlike the one in the photo on the website though, it was dark blue, not white. No matter, as it would still pass for a tradesman’s vehicle, something not uncommon in an affluent suburb like Aldenham, of that he was sure. The young woman inspected the Mercedes, then exchanged her paperwork for its key. Jon went back into the hotel and changed his car details on the parking permit to reflect the new hire vehicle, then went to his room to take down some notes.

The next morning, dressed casually for comfort, he placed the sleeping bag and binoculars in the back of the van, together with his fully-charged phone, and the leather-bound notebook. The thermos flask had been filled in his hotel room, using the complimentary coffee sachets. Breakfast would be exchanged for some sandwiches and cereal bars, purchased in the BP petrol station on the A41. The day was bright and clear, but Jon knew all too well how cold you could get sitting in the back of a van all day.

Well he had written that into some novels at least, so presumed it was true.

Parking directly opposite the post box was not a good idea, so he parked where he could see the area clearly using the limited range of the new binoculars. Sitting on the sleeping bag up against the back doors to be able to look through the two back windows, even after ten minutes, the ridged metal floor was very uncomfortable. Perhaps he should have brought the spare pillows from the hotel room. He would do that next time.

The postal collections were at nine in the morning, and five in the afternoon. The small Post Office van arrived just after nine, but between then and midday, nobody walked past.

And now he badly needed to pee.

Trying to take his mind off the need to empty his bladder, Jon found his thoughts drifting back to his past once again.

Close to graduation, there had been the scandal with Nigel. Arrested by the police for Gross Indecency with another man in a public toilet on Hove seafront, the tutor’s life unravelled quickly. Resigning from his position, and no doubt losing his cosy family life with a long-suffering wife. For Jon, it was on to teacher training, and then a job as an English teacher in a West London school. A rented one-bed flat in Hammersmith, followed by a baptism of fire at one of the roughest secondary schools in the area.

Controlling the behaviour in the classrooms was near impossible, and most of his colleagues had stopped trying a long time ago. Like them, he was soon going through the motions, and accepting the appallingly low performance results. But unlike them, he was writing in his spare time, churning out manuscripts that he sent off in batches to anyone who would read them.

After watching a television series about a determined and efficient police detective, he concluded he could do a better job. Two years later, his first Inspector Johnson novel was published, he had an agent and had tendered hs resignation, prior to moving back to Brighton.

The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

As anyone knows, trying not to think about having to pee makes the urge to go worse, not less. Scanning the street through the van windows until it was clear of pedestrians or traffic, he grabbed his things, and exited through the back doors. Perhaps there would be a toilet in the church, though that seemed unlikely. Jon knew little about churches, other than a few he had researched for his novels. Like most people christened in the Church of England, he was only ever inside a church for christenings, weddings, or funerals.

In case anyone was watching, he held up his phone, pretending to take photos of the building as he approached it. His plan was to walk around to the back, and if nobody was around, he would relieve himself against the ancient stones. Not the gravestones of course, just the back wall. By the time he reached the rear of the church, the sense that relief was imminent made him feel relaxed. There didn’t seem to be any CCTV above him, so he put his phone away, and approached the wall.

Just then, a back door opened, and a man walked out into the churchyard.

Judging from the black suit, charcoal grey shirt, and white dog collar, he had to be the vicar. But as he was also a black man in excess of six-feet six tall who looked more like a professional basketball player, Jon wasn’t sure. Pretending to inspect the stonework, he contrived not to notice the man, until he was addressed by him. “Good afternoon sir, are you interested in my church? That stonework is actually medieval, but the building existed before that, in Saxon times”. He smiled, showing a row of strong white teeth that looked powerful enough to bite through the very stone he was describing.

Jon explained that he was a writer, a novelist researching a new book. He might well feature the church in it, so was doing some research. Shifting from foot to foot like an awkward schoolboy, he finally cracked and asked the vicar if there was a toilet inside he could use. He made a joke about drinking too much coffee before leaving the hotel.

“Of course, my friend. There is a toilet in the vestry. Many of the parishoners get taken short when my sermons go on too long you know”. He grinned, and opened the back door. “Follow me, I will show you where it is”.

Never had he known such relief, as his powerful stream felt as if it might well drill a hole in the porcelain. Tomorrow morning, he was definitely going to have to buy some kind of plastic container. As he exited the toilet, the vicar was waiting for him in the vestry. “A novelist you say? I might have read some of your books, what’s your genre?” Jon explained about the Inspector Johnson series, and gave the vicar his real name. The tall man shook his head. “No, not familiar with those”. Then he winked. “I much prefer horror, to be honest, but don’t tell anyone”.

Jon was hoping to say thank you and take his leave, but as they entered the main part of the church, the voice boomed behind him.

“Don’t rush off, I will show you around now you are inside.”

Trying to look interested, Jon actually took some photos on his phone as the vicar showed him around. He was trying not to think of the missed opportunities of being able to spot anyone who might be using the post box outside. His host seemed keen for the church to be included in any forthcoming book, and went so far as to suggest he might be a character.

“Of course, if you want to write me in, I won’t complain, Mr Ridley. My given name is Babatunde William Bolaje, but that might have come as a shock to my congregation. So I tell them to call me William. It used to amuse me when they asked where I was from. No doubt they expected some African jungle origin, and they all seemed very disappointed when I told them it was West Drayton”. He roared with laughter at his own joke, and continued.

“I suspect the Bishop was playing a cruel joke on the locals when he appointed me to this parish three years ago, but it has worked out very well, so backfired on him”. Stopping by a table near the main entrance, he picked up two leaflets. “These may well be of use to you. The history of the church, with some original drawings and a photo dating from the eighteen-eighties. This second one is information about the parish, church activities and special services.”

Reaching into his shoulder bag, Jon took out his notebook and opened it to slip the leaflets into it. As he did so, the plastic sleeve containing the envelope fell onto the stone floor, and the vicar quickly bent down to pick it up. Smiling as he tapped his finger against the front of the enveope under the plastic.

“I see you have received a communication from the redoubtable Amelia Bowes? Is that why you chose this church? I recognise her stationery from the numerous letters and notes she has handed me since I became the vicar”. Jon felt his mouth drop open, and a nice tingle ran up his spine. He thought fast, telling the vicar he was correct, but that Mrs Bowes had forgotten to put her address on the letter.

The huge smile returned, and he shook his head. “Really? That is most unlike her. She usually puts her address on her notes to me, even when she hand-delivers them. Come outside, and I will show you where she lives”. They walked to the end of the path, and standing close to the post box, the vicar pointed with his right hand. “Straight across the road, and you will see The Crescent. Her house has no number, it is called The Poplars. You will see why when you notice the Poplar trees along the side of the property”. He shook Jon’s hand, and held the grip for longer than usual.

“Please send me a copy when the book is published. And be careful of the widow Bowes, she is rather fierce”.

Deciding not to return to the van while the vicar was watching, Jon walked a little further down, and pretended to take some more photos of the church on his phone. The vicar soon got bored, waved a farewell, and went back inside the church.

Back in the van and writing notes furiously, he felt there was no longer any need to keep sitting and watching.

He had his first suspect.

Feeling cold and rather hungry he drove back to the hotel, got changed into something smarter, and went out for an early dinner. Or perhaps it was a late lunch, he wasn’t sure. On the way back to the hotel, he bought a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon to drink in his room while he worked on the draft manuscript. A church and vicar might well feature in the book, but it was unlikely to be that church, and that vicar.

By the time he had started to feel tired, there were four completed chapters saved on his laptop, and he was having to stop himself from getting ahead of the story. A doughty widow who lived in a house with no number was an unlikely suspect indeed. Unless you were Agatha Christie of course.

Which he wasn’t.

The next morning, Jon sat planning how he might approach Amelia Bowes. If her writing paper and envelopes were so distinctive, it seemed unlikely that she had posted it. Being well known in the community and church congregation also suggested she was unlikely to be in need of help without some local person or friend having already discovered her dilemma. Then again, if she had sent it, it seemed the right thing to do to go and see if she genuinely needed his help.

The mistake he had made yesterday had been not asking the vicar when he had last seen the woman. He was annoyed at himself for forgetting to do that. Inspector Johnson would have asked that question staight away. He would also have not hesitated to go to The Poplars and knock on her front door. Then again, he had authority on his side. He decided that he would drive back to Aldenham, and watch the house today to see if the woman emerged.

Casually driving past the house, he glanced along the short driveway that led to an original garage with wooden doors, and an old brown Jaguar XJ6 parked in front of it. A double-fronted Edwardian house with large sash windows, and dormer windows suggesting at least five bedrooms. It was not untidy, but could have done with repainting. The Poplar trees ran along one side of the property, separating the house from the nearest neighbour. He counted twelve of them, all very tall and well-kept.

Parking the van further up the street, he got in the back to look out of the windows. This time, he had an empty five-litre plastic container, the type usually used to contain spare fuel. He had bought it in the BP petrol station on the way, along with a litre bottle of water and two sandwiches.

A lady went past walking a small fluffy dog, gave a sideways glance at the van, then carried on. No doubt she would have been used to seeing the vans of tradesmen in such a well-to-do area.

Just after eleven, the brown Jaguar XJ6 exited the driveway of The Poplars, driven by a woman in her seventies with a scarf covering her hair. Jon decided not to follow, as that would be glaringly obvious. He would stay where he was, and see if anyone else came out.

It seemed likely that the woman driving the car was Amelia Bowes. And if that was the case, she did not seem to be in any immediate need of help. It was tempting to imagine trying to get into the house while she was gone, but as many of the nearby houses had obvious CCTV cameras, and the dog-walking lady could return at any time, he wasn’t going to risk that.

The next two hours passed very slowly. A couple of delivery vans made drops at houses across the road, but nobody walked past, or emerged from the driveway of The Poplars. When the Jaguar appeared again, it came from the other direction, behind him, turning into the driveway at some speed. Jon made the snap decision to go and speak to her.

She cut an imposing figure indeed. With no headscarf, her dyed blonde hair was immaculately styled, perhaps a hairdresser’s appointment explaining her absence. At least two inches taller than him in flat shoes, she had a firm stoutness that could not be described as fat. Just about to put the key into the lock, she turned as she heard his footsteps on the gravel. There was no trace of concern or alarm on her face at the sudden appearance of a strange man.

“Can I help you? I should warn you now, I buy nothing at the door, whatever you might be selling. If that is your purpose, I suggest you leave my property now”. Jon pulled the plastic sleeve containing the leter from his shoulder bag, and explained that he wanted to ask her about it, adding that he had spoken to the vicar, who had told him where to find her. She took it from him, and gave it a cursory glance before handing it back.

“I certainly never sent that. Look at the way it is addressed? I fail to understand why William could imagine I might have written that. But it is my usual stationery, he was right about that. I suppose my son might have sent it to you, he visits once a week and may well have taken paper and envelopes”.

Jon explained that there was no sender’s address on the letter, and wondered where he might find her son. Amelia was opening her door, about to go in. She showed little interest. “Roderick? Oh he lives in Old Hemel Hempstead. If you go down Chapel Street, his house is on the corner of Chapel Cottages, a small lane. You will find it easily. Good day to you”.

A quick check on his phone showed that the address she had given was almost eleven miles away. He would liked to have asked if her son would be home, but she had gone inside and closed the door so quickly, he had thought it best not to bother her further. It could well be that Roderick had brought the letter with him, posting it in Aldenham to avoid it having the Hemel Hempstead post mark.

It was definitely going to be worth staking out the man’s house, and seeing who came and went. Best leave it until tomorrow though, as he had some things to think about first.

Dinner that night was in an upmarket burger place that he had never tried. The meal was delicious, and after he had finished he continued to drink what was left of his bottle of wine as he took notes. Roderick Bowes. What was his story? Inspector Johnson would have asked Amelia so many more questions about her son, but he had been in no position to force the issue. Was Roderick employed? Did he have a social media profile?

Lying on the bed in the hotel room later, Jon added another chapter to the book. He changed the names of Amelia and Roderick, and made a lot more of the doorstep interview.

Sergeant Chen had one of her gut feelings about Roderick in his manuscript, and Inspector Johnson cautioned her to only look at the evidence. But inside, the Inspector was beginning to be impressed by his new sergeant’s pertinent observations.

There was something in this Confucious lark, no doubt about that.

In his real world, Jon had to be careful. If Roderick Bowes was not the sender, he might well be a victim. This was a game that could play out in so many ways, and take directions that Jon could easily have written around in a book.

But you can’t edit real life on a laptop.

As he settled down that night, sleep did not come easily. Tomorrow morning he had to drive to Chapel Street, and make a decision about what to do once he got there.

Amelia had been right about it being easy to find. The old white painted house on the corner bore a number corresponding to Chapel Street numbering, though most of the house extended back into Chapel Cottages. Parking was an issue. Like many old towns in his experience, those early Victorian streets had not been designed to accommodate cars, and in this commuter town for London, it seemed there were at least two cars for every one of the houses along the street.

Finding a space for the van less than one hundred yards west of the house in question, he had to park with two wheels on the kerb, and hope for the best. He had arrived early enough to miss the start of the runs to school and the train station, just in case Roderick left the house early. Hiding in the back, he looked through the windows, munching on a sandwich bought from the BP petrol station, and washing it down with a black coffee that tasted like dishwater.

The house was well kept. The stucco exterior painted a glowing white, and the window frames a gleaming dark green. Two large plant pots were placed either side of the front door, both containing mature Clematis bushes. But most of the property extended out of sight, with the white painted wall extending at least fifty feet along Chapel Cottages. Parking in that dead-end was at a premium, but an old Nissan Prairie was parked tight against the wall by the back gate, so Jon wondered if that could be Roderick’s vehicle.

After two hours of bum-numbing surveillance, he was rewarded by the sight of a very fat man in his forties coming out of the back gate, and walking to the car. He had sparse hair combed over a bald pate, and was dressed rather flamboyantly for his age. The Nissan drove out, and turned left, away from where his van was parked. Could the man be driving into town, to the shops?

Jon was excited, and was seriously considering jumping over that back wall.

The road was too busy to chance being seen jumping over that back wall. Besides, it was a long time since Jon had jumped over anything, let alone a wall higher than he was tall. He would likely fall down and break something if he tried, as well as almost certainly being noticed by people walking around, and passing traffic. Best to stay in the van, and hope the man came back soon.

And hope it was indeed Roderick, and not someone else.

Inspector Johnson would have asked Amelia for a detailed description, with Sergeant Chen writing it down in her notebook as it was given. Once again, this mystery would be so much easier to solve in fiction. With no sign of the old Nissan, Jon was lost in his thoughts again.

The move back to Brighton had started a better chapter in his life, and he was relieved to get away from the overwhelming concrete embrace he always felt in London. And those terrifying kids too, so very different to his own schooldays. Brighton was about to become the gay capital of southern England, as more and more people moved away from London to enjoy life by the sea within commuting distance of their city jobs. It was the perfect time to live there.

He got in before the property prices skyrocketed, buying a lovely restored two-bed terraced house near Regency Square. There was an oblique sea view too, though only if you leaned out of any front window and looked left. The courtyard garden was just enough outside space, and the kitchen-diner in the basement opened out onto it. Within five years, it was worth four times what he had paid for it. By the time he sold it to move to York, it fetched a small fortune. Parking was a nightmare in that town, but he didn’t need a car. Everything he needed he could walk to, and there was a good train service up to London too.

That daydreaming almost cost him noticing the return of the old Nissan, and he suddenly saw it reversing from Chapel Street into the side street, parking close to the wall again. The man got out, and retrieved three shopping bags from the car, which he carried in through the front door, stooping to pick post up from the mat before closing it again. Jon hadn’t even noticed the postman delivering. He had to stop his thoughts wandering, and pay attention.

It dawned on him that he had no idea what to do next. No doubt Inspector Johnson would have convinced his superiors to authorise a search warrant. He would have knocked on Roderick’s door, swept past him as he opened it, and searched the house thoroughly, accompanied by a specialist team in white overalls. Then he would give Roderick a good grilling about the letter. Who sent it, and why? Sergeant Chen would have a Confucian moment, and discover something sinister under a floorboard.

Case solved.

All Jon could do was to sit and watch. Take notes, and hope for clues. But what if nothing happened? What if no clues were forthcoming? Soon he would have to decide whether or not to extend his hotel stay, and the vehicle hire. With nothing happening in Hemel Hempstead at the moment, any further chapters of the new book were going to have to be pure invention. Still, it was only day one. He had to be patient.

Not easy, for an impatient man.

As far as he could tell, there was no CCTV camera on Roderick’s house. Jon decided to stretch his legs, and walk as casually as he could along Chapel Cottages. If anyone asked why he was there, he would pretend to be lost, and ask for directions to Aldenham. It wasn’t much of a plan, but it was all he had. He started by walking along the main road, past the front of the house. The curtains in the front windows were closed. If that was any sort of clue, it was the only one. Turning around, he strolled into Chapel Cottages, and past the old Nissan and the long white wall. In case anyone was watching, he took one of the church pamphlets out of his shoulder bag and pretended to read it.

In less than five minutes, he was back sitting inside the van.

None the wiser.

That evening after dinner, Jon wrote up the next chapter, based on what he had been thinking about today. Inspector Johnson got his search warrant, and arrived with his team. When there was no reply, they forced entry. But after an exhaustive search, there was little to arouse suspicion. They took away an old-fashioned personal computer to see if that revealed anything, and then left a uniformed policeman standing guard on the door until a locksmith repaired it.

It would never have done to have solved the case so quickly. Sergeant Chen would have to wait for her moment.

Settling down to sleep, Jon had a thought. A long garden like the one at Roderick’s house might well have a shed, perhaps even an outbuilding. It would be good to be able to get a look inside anything like that. But how to accomplish that? He might have to be bold.

An undercover policeman might pretend to be a utilities inspector. Show a convincing identity card, and say he had to inspect the property because of water leaks, or sewage issues. Most householders just let people like that in without a second thought, hence why so many fraudsters were able to steal from houses. But he wasn’t an undercover cop, and he had no way to fake an identity card.

There was only one thing for it, he was going to have to confront Roderick Bowes.

Steeling himself the next morning, he didn’t bother with breakfast, hoping to doorstep Roderick before he could go out. Arriving in the middle of the school run, there were lots of parking spaces in the street, so he parked almost outside the house. Dressed in a corduroy suit and carrying his shoulder bag, he strode up to the front door, and banged the brass knocker twice, very hard. As he heard a bolt inside being pulled back, Jon swallowed hard.

The man opened the door, then raised his plucked eyebrows at the sight of an unexpected caller. He was wearing a silk dressing gown adorned with embroidered peackocks, and had some very feminine feathered slippers on his feet. Jon asked him straight out if he was Roderick Bowes, and when the man nodded, he pulled the plastic sleeve from his bag, and asked if he had sent the letter.

The reply was delivered in a voice that sounded female, and heavily affected. What Jon’s father would have described as ‘fey’.

“Sent that? Dear me, no. I would never have addressed a letter like that, and I cannot even remember the last time I ever sent one anyway. Besides, that stationery is my mother’s, she never uses anything else, and I would know it anywhere. I wouldn’t be seen dead with something so pretentious. Back in the day, I always used Basildon Bond. Whoever suggested I could have sent that must have confused me with my mother, and given you the wrong information. Is it a rude letter? A threat, or something? Why are you so bothered about who sent it? You might as well come in, I’m hardly dressed for chatting at my front door”.

He turned into the hallway, and Jon followed. There seemed to be no danger from this patently effeminate man, and it was very obvious that the letter had completely surprised him. With no offer to sit, and the usual hospitality of tea or coffee ignored too, Roderick stood with his back to a fireplace that was so large, it made the small living room feel even smaller. Without waiting for Jon to reply to his earlier questions, he cupped his chin in the palm of his hand.

“Just had a thought though. Could be my sister, Eloise. She still visits my mother. I haven’t been to the Aldenham house for over twenty years, not since the inheritance from my grandfather when I was twenty-one, and I bought this house. When my mother came to look at it the week I moved in, she described it as a ‘rather pathetic cottage in a slum town’. We haven’t spoken since. Hang on, and I will write down Eloise’s address for you. I know she still sees mother, because she visited me last Christmas and told me so”.

Shifting his bulk across to a cluttered Victorian bureau under the side window, Roderick opened a red book with ‘Addresses’ embossed on the front in gold print. Then he tore the bottom section from a gas bill, and wrote his sister’s address down. “She still uses her married name, Eloise Parker-Hill. Been divorced for years though”. He extended the piece of paper with a leer. You are not going to tell me what it’s about, are you? If Eloise is involved, I’m guessing it’s an affair of the heart. Did she break yours perhaps?”

Jon grinned as he took the paper, concluding that Roderick’s Gaydar was not tuned in.

Sitting in the van, Jon shook his head when he read the address. Broadstairs in Kent was a considerable distance, at least one hundred miles south-east, if not more. That would mean changing hotels, as he had no interest in driving such a long round trip for however many days this next part of the mystery might take. While he was at it, he would change the van back to a car too. He hadn’t enjoyed his short time as a surveillance operative, and if he found himself doing it again in Kent, he would do so from the comfort of a nice car.

It had occured to him that whoever wrote the letter needing help might well be beyond aid by now, but his main concern was how he was going to progress the new book with this change of location. Inspector Johnson and Sergeant Chen would undoubtedly be making the drive from London, after informing the Kent Police they were going to be in their area. He jotted some notes down, so he could flesh out the next chapter later, in his hotel room,.

For now, he wanted a late breakfast, unable to hold out until places began to serve lunch.

The reception staff were very good about him leaving early, and he paid his bill ready for a departure the next morning. A phone call to the car rental company confirmed the van would be collected the next morning at nine, when the replacement car he had ordered was delivered. With no Mercedes available, he chose a Volvo X60 instead. This jeep-like car looked very comfortable, and he would hopefully keep it until he returned to York.

After an unusally light dinner, he arrived back in his room to pack everything for tomorrow, leaving out just what he would be wearing for the trip, and anything else he needed. Researching Broadstairs on the laptop reminded him of a visit he had once made to the small seaside town, part of a south coast book-signing tour. A favourite haunt of Charles Dickens, where he holidayed whilst writing some of his famous books. It seemed entirely appropriate to Jon that he might solve such a mystery for his new book, in a town associated with one of the greatest British writers.

Western Esplanade, where Eloise lived, was a clifftop road with sea views that boasted some impressive houses. He started to ring round some hotels in the town, securing a double room for three nights in the impressive-looking Royal Albion Hotel. Parking was available, and breakfast included in the room rate.

The Satnav in the Volvo showed one hundred and eleven miles to his destination. Feeling relaxed in wool trousers and a cashmere polo shirt, Jon was thinking that if this went on much longer, he would either have to buy some new clothes, or find a laundry service. Choosing the suggested route around the southern stretch of the M25 motorway, he at least avoided the Dartford Toll Bridge, despite the greater distance involved. No doubt the Satnav knew about delays and roadworks.

Three hour’s drive after a hearty breakfast, and he was in the rather upmarket seaside town that he had last visited more than fifteen years ago. The staff at the Royal Albion were immaculately uniformed, and very professional. His room had no sea view, but that didn’t matter to him in the slightest. It was very comfortable, and well appointed. And so it should be, given the price.

He decided to relax, and reacquaint himself with the town before lunch. Eloise could wait until tomorrow, no point in rushing things. She might not even be at home. Although Roderick Bowes had added her land-line phone number to the piece of paper, Jon had decided not to call her. It was far too easy to fob someone off on the phone, and he wanted to see her face when he asked her the question.

The restaurant in the hotel was surprisingly good. That evening, he enjoyed a three course table-d’hote meal before retiring to his room with a bottle of Grenache that he had purchased in the town earlier. Writing up the notes for the novel on his laptop, Inspector Johnson’s police team were speeding along the M2 motorway from London, eager to interview the sister, Eloise.

In the real world, he would drive to her house early the next morning, and show her the letter.

Over his choice of a continental breakfast that morning, Jon resolved to approach Eloise Parker-Hill directly, and ask her outright if she had written the letter. He had spent too much time already, and he knew it was true that had it not been for the idea of writing a new Inspector Johnson novel, he would have given up and gone home after speaking to Amelia.

The house was reasonably impressive. An in and out driveway, and a large double-fronted ninteen-thirties house in very good decorative order. The sign outside on the wall surprised him. Cliff House B&B. Ensuite single and double rooms available. Roderick had failed to mention that his sister owned a bed and breakfast establishment. Immediately, he wondered if he should employ some subterfuge. Ask to book a room there, transfer from his hotel, and then be able to observe the woman at first hand. It was tempting, but would waste more time.

So he drove the Volvo into the driveway, got out with his shoulder bag, and pressed the doorbell.

She was nothing like he had expected, given the mother and brother, Closer to fifty than forty, so probably an older sister, she was nonetheless strikingly beautiful. More like a film star, than a boarding house owner. If he had been attracted to women, he would most certainly been attracted to her. Her voice was husky too. As Alan, one of his straight friends in Brighton, would have said, “She’s the full package, Jonny boy”.

“Where you looking for a room? I do have a double available at ninety pounds, including breakfast”. Straight down to business. He explained that he had been directed to her by her brother, and wanted to ask her about a mysterious letter. Her smile was wide, and revealed delicious dimples in her cheeks. “Roddy sent you? A mysterious letter? Do come in and tell me all”.

Eloise showed him along a hallway to a large extended kitchen at the back of the house. There were four tables at the back, next to wide glass doors looking out over a lanscaped garden. She told him to sit at one, offering coffee. Bringing the sylish green Apilco cups and saucers to the table, she sat opposite, then tapped the table top with her hand. “Come on, don’t leave me in suspense”. He explained about his visit to Amelia, and then to Roderick. Sliding out the plastic sleeve, he showed her the front of the letter, and asked if she had sent it.

“Oh what fun! A real mystery indeed. What did it say inside, may I ask?” He hadn’t told anyone about the one word inside so far, but Eloise was rather charming, as well as being open and friendly. He told her that it just said HELP, and the flap was bloodstained.

She leaned forward, her eyelashes flapping slowly, and what seemed to be a yard of plump cleavage on display under a thin cerise blouse. “So you decided to be a hero, and investigate. Well done you. Perhaps you should base yourself here? I could do with the business, to be perfectly frank”. Leaning back, she crossed her legs slowly and deliberately, showing more thigh than was socially acceptable.

Jon thought to himself that she was the second member of that family who failed to realise he was gay.

“But to answer your question, I didn’t send it. Do I look as if I need help? More coffee?” He watched her walking away, trying to imagine what Inspector Johnson would think of her. His famous character was a straight man, and he had been seduced by more than one woman in the series of stories featuring him. One had been a barrister acting for the defence, and another the distraught wife of a murder victim who later turned out to be the killer. He would not have hesitated to have fallen for the charms of Eloise.

But with Sergeant Chen around, that might have proved tricky indeed.

Bringing the coffee refills, Eloise had a suggestion. “I think you should go to see my mother again. She has used that stationery for as long as I can remember, certainly all of my adult life. Roddy hated it, and I have no use for it. I have my own headed notepaper for the business, and I never send personal letters since they invented email and text messages. No point you booking in here, I think you have to go back to Aldenham and tackle the old dragon. Her bark is worse than her bite, don’t let her scare you off”.

After finishing the coffee, Jon thanked her for her hospitality, and her helpful suggestion. But the two coffees had gone through quickly, and he had to ask if he could use her lavatory.

“Of course. Top of the stairs, second door on the left. The rooms are all en-suite now, but at one time that was the only bathroom”. When he had finished and washed his hands, he walked back out onto the first floor landing. It was dominated by an impressive bookcase, in period walnut suiting the thirties style.

And it contained every book he had ever written.

The sight of his novels in Eloise’s bookcase stopped Jon in his tracks. He was vain enough to have a full-size photo of himself on the back cover of every book. It had been taken professionally at the Brighton house, showing him sitting on his writing desk offering what he felt was his best serious writer look. And he hadn’t changed that much since.

Eloise had either never read the books, or knew who he was and was pretending not to recognise him.

He decided to try something as he was taking his leave at the front door, and complimented her on the amount of hardback books in her bookcase. She should have been an actress, such was her composure. For all he knew she may well have had a career in acting, prior to opening a guest house on the coast. “Oh, the books? Yes, I like to have a good reading selection available for my guests. Makes me feel my humble house is rather classy. Not that I read any of them myself, I’m far too busy usually”. He thanked her again, and walked to the car.

Her door was closed before he reached it.

Driving back to the hotel, he was sure he didn’t believe a single thing she had said. It had all been an act on her part, delivered with aplomb. That family was undoubtedly giving him the runaround, and on a huge scale. But why? There had to be a motive. He had to think like Inspector Johnson, maybe even Sergeant Chen. They would work it out by the end of chapter twenty-one.

A huge grin spread across his face as he parked the car in the hotel car park. That was it! If he stopped going along with their wild goose chase and just wrote the book, he would also solve the mystery at the same time. It was time to check out, get packed, and drive home to York.

There had never been anyone needing help, he was sure of that. It was all some kind of perverse game.

He telephoned Alanah from the room, letting her know he would be back later that day. She sounded very happy to hear he was coming back. “Tutankhamun will be pleased to see you, and so will I of course. I will feed him at four this afternoon, and leave your key on the hallstand”. He thanked her and reminded himself that he really must let slip to her that he was gay. It wouldn’t be long before she wasn’t satisfied with innuendo, and flashing her underwear. He feared she would move to the next level, and just lunge.

It was going to take him at least five hours to drive the two hundred and eighty miles back to his house, maybe six. But he should be home in time for dinner, and would pick something up at his favourite deli in the city. The hire car could wait until tomorrow, when he would phone the company and ask them to collect it. This trip south had already involved considerable expense, and there was no need to keep paying for a car he wasn’t going to use.

On the long drive, his mind was racing as he plotted out the story in his head. Only stopping once for fuel and a coffee, he was hungry by the time he opened his front door. Alanah had piled his post onto the hallstand, and placed his doorkey on top of it. He had to hope she didn’t come round later, and stop him working. As for Tutankhamun, he was curled up asleep in his basket, not even bothering to wake to to greet his owner.

After dinner, Jon took the remaining wine through to his study, and started reading through his notes before beginning the next chapter.

Typing feverishly, he soon had Inspector Johnson briefing a team. They would raid all three houses at the same time, armed with search warrants. This would involve officers from Hertfordshire and Kent police forces, as well as himself, Sergeant Chen, and Detective Constable Fox. it would be at first light, and give them no time to warn each other. If there was anything to be found, that would be the time. Naturally, Inspector Johnson chose to lead the team in Broadstairs. He had obviously been researching Eloise Parker-Hill.

Happy with the chapter, Jon reflected that it was just a pity he couldn’t actually arrange that. If the family members were indeed playing him, he could at least cause them some unwelcome disruption. He closed the laptop at ten that night, feeling tired after a long day.

When Alanah rang his doorbell twenty minutes later, he didn’t answer the door.

Early the next morning, Jon walked to a local shop and bought chocolates and flowers for Alanah. When she came to her door, he presented the gifts, adding his thanks for looking after his cat. To forestall any offer to go inside, he told her he was going to be very busy with a new book, so she would be unlikely to see much of her for a while. Her disappointment at that news was eased by the sight of the largest available box of her favourite chocolate assortment.

Three weeks passed, and in the new manuscript, Inspector Johnson was making headway. Some interesting evidence had been found at the house of Roderick. Correspondence concerning a relative who had never been previously mentioned. He was an uncle, the older brother of Amelia. Checking all available records, it appeared this man had not been seen or heard of for some years. In fact, examination of more paperwork discovered at the Aldenham house showed that Amelia’s lawyer had arranged to have him declared legally dead, and as a result she had inherited his estate, including a substantial house in St Albans which had been sold the same year.

The Inspector would have liked to have arrested them all on suspicion of involvement in his death. But with no corpse, his case was shaky. At the suggestion of Sergeant Chen, he placed them all under observation instead, hoping that they might do something to incriminate themselves.

Jon was happy with the way it was going, and continued to make notes concerning the Inspector’s eventual seduction by Eloise, and how that would complicate the case later. Naturally, he had not used any actual names or exact locations, but to get back at the family for messing him around, he used names and locations that were so close to the real ones, anyone who knew them could definitely make a connection.

That evening as he waited for a pasta meal to cook in the oven, he wondered about contacting Claudia, and sending her the first few chapters as a teaser. After all, she had been the one to suggest he should write another book in the series, and it wouldn’t hurt to engage her as his agent once again. As he forked some of the chicken and penne into his mouth, he decided to sleep on it.

Not bothering with breakfast the next morning, he made a pot of coffee in his vintage percolator, ready to face the phone call to Claudia. Jon wasn’t good at eating humble pie, and he had no doubt she would serve him up a very large portion. He would just have to grin and bear it. After all, she was one of the leading agents in literary fiction, even though she managed to run her busy office on a shoesting, employing just one very put-upon assistant, and insisting on answering all the telephone calls herself.

Before he could dial the number, there was a sound from the door. His post dropping into the cage, and the letterbox snapping shut after.

The first two letters were in brown envelopes, one from the Inland Revenue, the other probably a circular. But the third was in an envelope that he recognised immediately, and bore the same clumsy address as the first one that had sent him on that search. Exactly like that one, it had a smeared bloodstain around the flap, and the stamp was a very old Raymond Briggs’ Father Christmas. The Aldenham postmark showed it had been posted five days earlier.

On the one sheet of paper inside, there were more words this time. PLEASE DON’T LET ME DOWN.

Shaking his head, he found another plastic sleeve to put the letter into. He wasn’t about to play that silly game again. This time, he would take both letters to the police, and let them deal with it. He no longer needed to solve the mystery anyway, as he was convinced there wasn’t one. As for the new book, he could make up the rest.

As soon as he was ready, he prepared his notes and both letters, placing them in his shoulder bag. Despite the light drizzle, he could easily walk to Acomb Police Station, where he would speak to someone about the silly practical joke being played on him, and show them the letters.

Enough was enough.

In the reception of the police station, Jon had to wait behind a scruffy-looking youth who was signing in under his bail conditions. Then he went and asked the middle-aged woman if he could see a detective. In a monotone, she made a short speech that she must have made thousands of times before.

“If you want to see an officer, you have to give me some idea of what it’s about. I can issue you with a crime number for minor offences like the theft of a phone, so there’s no need to see an officer for anything like that”.

Using his best authoratitive tone, he explained that it was serious, a possible kidnap or forced imprisonment, and that it was definitely necessary to see a detective, preferably someone senior.

She remained totally unimpressed. “Take a seat, and I’ll see what I can do”.

He sat on the perforated metal bench which was divided by the plastic armrests running along it. The woman picked up the phone, and was soon talking to someone, glancing across at him as she spoke. He couldn’t hear her, but his instincts told him that she was describing his appearance to whoever was on the other end of the line.

Forty-five minutes later, a side door opened, and man called his name. Jon approached a chubby man who had a moustache like something out of the early seventies, and was wearing a faded brown suit that was too tight to be able to button the jacket. “Hello, I am detective constable Terry Skinner, please come through”. He was taken into a small room hardly big enough for the desk and four chairs that were the only things in it. The policeman sat opposite, and smiled. “So you mentioned an abduction, I believe? Please tell me everything you know about it”.

Jon began to tell the story from the arrival of the first letter, sliding his evidence across the desk as he did so. He also consulted his notes, mentioning Amelia Bowes and her son Roderick. By the time he got to the part where he was about to travel to see Eloise in Broadstairs, he suddenly noticed that the man had no voice recorder operating, and was taking no notes in the classic police pocketbook. When he mentioned this, the cop waved away the comment.

“Don’t worry, it is all going in here”. He tapped the side of his head. “If I decide that there is something worth investigating, I assure you I will take a full statement.” Continuing to recount the events, Jon produced the second letter, and sat back. If he expected the detective to be amazed, he was sadly disappointed by the man’s response.

“Let me make sure I have got this right. You are, by your own description, a famous writer of crime thrillers, including the Inspector Johnson mysteries, which I have to tell you I have not read. You get a strange letter asking for help, with what you say is blood on the sealed flap. Yet you don’t bring it straight in so we can begin an investigation, oh no. Instead, you decide to play detective by driving down to Hertfordshire, and mounting surveiilance on a family based purely on the fact that they also own stationery of the same style? Am I correct so far?”

Jon nodded, and the man continued.

Then you travel all the way to Kent to follow up on what you believe is a lead, and when you see that this woman has your books in her bookcase, that seems to confirm your suspicions. You say you are a famous novelist. How many copies of those books have you sold in hardback?” Jon told him it would be in the tens of thousands, and the detective rubbed his face with both hands. “Then you just came home and forgot about it, using the whole thing as a storyline for your next book. Incredible”.

He slid his chair back with a noisy scraping sound, and placed both hands on the desk.

“Well, here is what I think. If you had really believed someone was in danger, you would have been here on day one, showing us that letter. Seems to me that you have a book in progress that one day you would like to promote and market. So you reckon you can come to us after the event, get us running around like headless chickens, and then use the press coverage of a wild goose chase to get your name and your book in the newspapers. You are very lucky I am not going to bother to charge you with wasting police time. Now, what I would like you to do is to pick up all that stuff on the desk, place it back into your very nice shoulder bag, and go home”. He stood up, indicating the interview was over.

Almost unable to believe the insolent attitude of Skinner, Jon was back at home before he thought that he should have demanded to see someone more senior than a detective constable.

That afternoon, Jon was raging. He began to compose a contact email to the Chief Constable, initiating a formal complaint about Detective Skinner. Halfway down, he stopped. It wouldn’t look too good that he hadn’t involved the police the day he received the first letter, he had to admit that. Weeks had gone by, and he hadn’t mentioned anything to a single police officer, whether in Yorkshire, Hertfordshire, or Kent.

He highlighted the text, and pressed Delete. Time for a rethink.

After an early dinner of Moussaka, and half a bottle of Othello to go with it, he decided that two could play at their game. Back in his study, he typed out a blank word document in upper case.

I KNOW WHAT YOU ARE DOING AND THE POLICE HAVE BEEN INFORMED. YOU ARE ALL BEING INVESTIGATED

He saved it, printed off three copies, and addressed plain white envelopes using block capitals with a pencil held in his left hand. Tomorrow, he would take a long train journey, and post them to Amelia, Roderick, and Eloise.

Then he would get back to writing his book and living his life, leaving the crazy family to stew in their own juice.

At York Station the next morning, he bought a ticket to Oxenholme Station. Just on the edge of the Lake District town of Kendal, it was a journey of less than three hours, but far enough west not to have any postmark connected to Yorkshire. The ticket was reasonably priced, and he added the cost of it to his running log of expenditure. It could count as research, for tax purposes. On the way, he wrote paper notes for the book.

Inspector Johnson’s investigation was in full swing. Surveillance of family members showed repeated visits to the Aldenham house by both Roderick and Eloise, and they all visited the church every time they were together. When an undercover officer went into the church pretending to be having a moment of silent prayer, he spotted all three accompanying the vicar into the Vestry, the same room where Jon had used the toilet that day.

Sergeant Chen had one of her moments of intuition, suggesting that the large garden at the Aldenham house should be dug up. By the time the Inspector was trying to convince his superiors to authorise that, the train was almost at Oxenholme.

In his opinion, Kendal was one of the least attractive towns in the Lake District. He had visited the area many times since moving north, and much preferred Keswick or Windermere. But Kendal would serve his purposes, offering many choices for lunch, and a couple of post offices to choose from too. As the letters were already stamped with first class stamps he had at home, he walked up to the first post office he saw, and posted them in the large box on the wall in the First Class and Abroad slot. The next collection was at four that afternoon, so the recipients would likely get the letters tomorrow morning.

Not far from there he noticed a smart Tapas Bar, and easily found a table in the almost empty establishment. He ordered a small Tortilla, accompanied by Gambas Pil-Pil, Calamares, and Bacalao. That would satsify him nicely until dinner, and a large glass of Rioja that was expensive but delicious.

He thought the waiter was also quite delicious. But he sadly failed to give Jon more than a glance.

Lingering over a coffee, he still had time for a leisurely stroll back to the station before catching the three fifty-two back to York. The train departed six minutes late, almost at the same time as the letters he had posted were being collected.

A taxi from York station was a treat, as even after sitting on the train for almost three hours, Jon felt tired. His plans to write up his notes were abandoned as a result, and he watched the ten o’clock news before considering an early night. But the second letter was playing on his mind. If all of this wasn’t a weird practical joke, then someone out there had asked him not to let them down. Who could that be?

In bed that night, he ran through the possibilities once again. His conclusion worried him, and left him unsettled. Although they had parted on bad terms, he began to be convinced that the sender was Lolly.

If it was Lolly, he was going to have to try to help him.

To find out what had happened to Lolly after they split up, he would probably have to travel down to Brighton. He had heard that Dennis Green had allowed Lolly to stay at his flat for a few nights, until he found somewhere to live. Dennis had once been a successful drag artist, using the stage name Dorothy Emerald. But outside of some northern coastal resorts like Blackpool, drag acts had dipped in popularity back then, and Dennis had been working on various concessions on Brighton Pier by the time Jon had left for York.

Meanwhile, he had a phone call to make. Time to contact Claudia and to sell her the concept of his book. He waited until he had eaten a bacon and brie panini for lunch, then poured a large glass of Chianti to take into his study to fortify his courage for the phone call. The best time to catch Claudia in a friendly mood would be after she had enjoyed her first large gin and tonic of the day, which was usually just after one in the afternoon.

The tone of her voice indicated that she had almost certainly enjoyed at least one drink.

“Daaarling, how lovely to hear from you. Are you still enjoying your retirement up there? Or have you sold so many science-fiction novels you are getting film offers from Steven Spielberg, and thinking of relocating to Los Angeles?” Ignoring what she thought passed for wit, he told her that he had six good chapters of a new Inspector Johnson novel down, and had done a lot of valuable research into the bargain. He assured her that the story was flowing well, and he should have it completed in less than three months.

That got her attention.

“Tell me more dear boy. Give me an outline at least. If I like the sound of it, we might well be able to capture the Christmas market with a rushed release in hardback”. Jon was ready, with a good length outline written up, which he read to her. Then he added some background about the letter he had telephoned her about previously, telling her how he would use the characters he had actually met, renaming and relocating them. He went into some detail, and she listened without interruption for a considerable time.

“Daaarling, that sounds wonderful. I really like this new detective, Sergeant Chen. She could generate a spin-off, perhaps transferring to the murder squad or something, then cracking cold cases with her Confucian ingenuity. Love it, daaarling”. There was a pause as he heard her light a cigarette, then the sound of ice cubes clinking in a glass signalled gin and tonic number two before she continued.

“So you should email what you have to me, and I can start thinking about a synopsis, and a suitable cover photo. Might get a couple of readers onto it as well, see what they make of the idea behind it. Okay with you, dear boy?” He agreed, knowing what was to come next. “Of course, that will mean you signing a new contract accepting me as your agent. I won’t read a single word before I get that. I will have it written up and sent by courier tomorrow. You should get it the next day, with a return wallet”.

Keen to get off the phone after such a long call, he exchanged a few pleasantries, and told her what she wanted to hear, that he was very happy to be working with her again. After all, she was the best in the genre, and could get publishing houses fighting each other for the writers she represented. She exhaled a lungful of smoke that sounded like a hippo blowing out water as it surfaced, and then her tone changed to something more serious.

“Tell me those names again. The real ones, the people in that crazy family who have been trolling you with this bloodstained letter nonsense.” Jon reeled them off from memory, and he could hear Claudia’s Mont Blanc fountain pen making a scratching sound as she wrote them down. As always, she was pressing too hard. “Okay, Jon. Give me ten minutes, and I will ring you back”.

Something had sobered her up, and she had dropped the facade. The call came in under five minutes, not the ten she had asked for.

“I thought as much. Eloise Parker-Hill is an unusual name. A couple of years ago, she sent me a manuscript for a private eye novel. She wanted it published under a pen name, Eloise Bowes. I just looked through my filing cabinet under B and there it was. It was rubbish, to be honest. I rejected it out of hand”.

The revelation from Claudia was very interesting. A woman who had a bookcase full of crime novels, including all of his, and now the news that she had written one herself, only to have it rejected. Jon allowed himself a second glass of wine as he assessed the situation. That was a motive to harass him perhaps, but there were many other successful novelists writing in the genre, including at least six who sold twice as many books as he had.

Could it be that it really was just a spiteful game by the family, and that nobody was in danger? But the fact remained that they had sent the letters to him in York. Even though they didn’t know the full address, his move north had never been publicised, and his current personal information online had not been changed from being resident in Brighton. That had to mean that someone had told them. If it wasn’t Claudia, then who?

As well as Lawrence, there was the removal company, and the next door neighbours the Andersens, who only lived in their house at weekends. The other side was a holiday let property, and he would never have told anyone staying there where he was moving to. Did the Andersens even still live there? They had often mentioned him being on a short contract, and that they planned to return to Denmark one day. It seemed unlikely that anyone would have asked them about him, or the removal company. Besides, the removal firm knew his actual address, even though they should have known never to give it to anyone. If they had broken that confidence, the sender would have had the full address from the start.

That left two main possibilities. Lolly, and Dennis. It was very likely that Lolly would have told Dennis when he stayed there, and he only knew it was York, not the street name or number. He wanted to go back to Brighton, find Dennis, and see if he knew anything. Not least Lolly’s whereabouts. The outside chance was someone in the Post Office in Brighton. Jon had his mail redirected for the first six months after the move, so whoever dealt with that paperwork would have known. But they would also have had the full address.

He now had a headache, and it wasn’t just because of two glasses of wine before dinner.

One thing he did know was where to stay in Brighton that had a car park. He rang and booked a hotel for two nights, hoping that was long enough to track down Dennis. While he was on the south coast, he might well drive around to Broadstairs and confront Eloise Parker-Hill with the new information. But that would depend on what Dennis had to say when he found him. On the plus side, he might well be living in the same small flat, and Jon knew where that was. His last job that afternoon was to ring the car hire company and arrange for a similar Mercedes to be delivered on the day after tomorrow.

Having to wait in for Claudia’s contract to arrive meant he had to delay by one full day.

Settling for a mixed platter of cold meats and cheese and biscuits that evening, he was soon back to work on the laptop, polishing the draft manuscript to the style he knew Claudia would expect and enjoy. He scrapped the part about digging up Amelia’s garden, and instead wrote in more interest surrounding Eloise. That would make any later sexual liaison between her and Inspector Johnson more credible, as he would be spending longer in Broadstairs.

The courier arrived on a motorbike, and said he had to wait for the return wallet. Jon signed the contract, kept his copy, and handed it back to the man standing outside. That saved him a trip to the Post Office, so he quickly popped along to see Alanah, to ask her to feed his cat for a few days, and hand over the spare key.

She wasn’t her usual self. Despite agreeing to do as he asked, she appeared to be distracted, and she didn’t ask him in. That was something she had never failed to do previously, but Jon was relieved not to have to make up an excuse to avoid her attempts at seduction. He spent the rest of the day going over his notes, and giving the final edit of his email to Claudia a good tidy up.

By the time he pressed the box to send her the email, it was already late afternoon. So he went upstairs to pack a bag with what he would need the next day.

A smart young woman dressed in a pinstripe suit arrived with the hired Mercedes the next morning. The car was in metallic grey, but otherwise identical to the one he had hired before. He wasted no time getting on the road, as he knew it would take at least five hours, and wanted some time that afternoon to try to locate Dennis.

With a brief stop for fuel and an indifferent sandwich later, he arrived in front of his hotel just after three. The receptionist arranged for his car to be collected by a valet and driven to the car park, then Jon left his things in the impressive seafront suite he had booked and walked quickly to the pier.

Although it was late in the season, there were still people on the beach, and the pier was surprisingly busy. He spotted Steff, a woman he knew from the old days. She was running the three balls stand, surrounded by tasteless soft toys that were given out as prizes. The skin of her face looked like crumpled crepe paper, ruined by a lifetime of chain smoking. And her voice betrayed that too, for anyone who might still be in doubt.

“Jonny, love. Long time no see. I wondered where you had disappeared to”. He hated being called Jonny, but smiled. He told her that he had moved away, but was in town for business, and hoping to look up some old friends.

When he mentioned Dennis, she got into a fit of coughing, taking a few moments to recover. “Dorothy Emerald? He’s not around on the pier much. He was working in Maurice’s seaside rock shop on the promenade, last I saw him. Do you wanna try your luck with three balls in the bucket, Jonny?” Jon thanked her for the information, declined the offer to win a soft toy, and headed the short distance back along the front to the rock shop.

A greasy-haired girl was leaning against the back wall of the small shop. She looked to be in her teens, and a spot between her eyes seemed ready to erupt into some kind of dermatological Vesuvius. Her faded black dress was so short, Jon averted his eyes as she moved, lest he see something he didn’t want to.

“Yes. I help you? He guessed at East European, as he glanced briefly at the sign in front of the multi-coloured sticks of rock. £1 Each Or 5 For £4. He told her he was looking for Dennis Green. Immediately losing interest, she slumped back against the wall, shouting so loudly, it startled him. “DENIZZ!”

The door behind her creaked as it opened, and Dennis appeared.

Looking much older than he was, and wearing a teal chiffon scarf that looked out of place above his grey cable-knit cardigan, Dennis managed a weak smile. “Hello Jon old love, great to see you”. Jon told him he was trying to trace Lawrence. “Lolly? Let’s have a little walk along the seafront old love, and I’ll tell you what I know”. Dennis wasn’t breathing that well, and it wasn’t long before he suggested sitting down on an empty bench. Fishing around in the pocket of the cardigan he produced a single cigarette, lighting it with a Zippo from the other pocket.

“He only stayed with me for a few nights, old love. No funny business, you understand. I was just helping him out. I told him what a stupid boy he had been. I think he really did love you, but he couldn’t stop himself when someone flirted with him. Anyway, he got a job, somewhere north of London. Working as the barman in a pizza place. I lent him the money for the train fare to go for the interview, but he never sent it back to me. Radlett it was. Yes I’m sure. Radlett.” That made Jon take a sharp intake of breath.

Radlett was only two miles from Aldenham.

Jon didn’t let on to Dennis about the Hertfordshire connection, but he did ask him if anyone had been around asking where he lived. Dennis seemed surprised. “No, old love. Nobody ever asked me. Lolly mentioned that you were going to live in Yorkshire, but not where up there. To be honest, I thought you were putting him off the scent. I was sure you might go to London, get a lovely flat on the river or something. Did you actually go to Yorkshire then?” Jon nodded, but didn’t elbaorate. Taking out his wallet, he gave Dennis fifty pounds. He looked like he needed it, and made no attempt to refuse it. Then they stood up and shook hands, and Jon walked back to the hotel.

As he was changing to go down to dinner that evening, Claudia rang his mobile. She came straight to the point, her voice rising and falling in volume as she spoke. “Daaarling, I love it! It’s old school, but still very much an Inspector Johnson mystery. You have given it that Cosy vibe that has become SO popular these days. I have already spoken to Brian at the production company, and he reckons it would be snapped up by ITV for a six-part series. We would do well to wait for that, then sell the book on the back of it, with a photo of whoever stars in it on the cover”.

Making the right noises about being very pleased, Jon slipped on his Italian loafers, then managed to get her off the phone as he headed out the door.

Before going through to his table in the hotel restaurant, he stopped off at reception and cancelled the second night. There was no point staying longer, as he had no intention of driving to Broadstairs to tackle Eloise. He would go back to Hertfordshire instead, and examine the Radlett connection. As it turned out, the receptionist was happy to cancel as she was turning people away because of something happening at Brighton Conference Centre.

The waiter tried to debate that Chateaubriand was for two people, but as long as Jon was prepared to pay the full price, he took the order. A bottle of Beaune was ordered from the sommelier to go with it, and after a delicious meal, he retired to his room to write up some more of the book.

It was obvious why the television drama guy was keen to have an option. The location filming was close to London, and in picturesque spots too. It was all very English, meaning that it would also sell in America, and probably do well on a dvd box set too. If Claudia negotiated in her usual merciless style, Jon reckoned his share would be approaching six figures, plus repeat fees.

While waiting for the valet to bring his car the next morning, Jon rang the Premier Inn in Watford and was able to get a room for that night, but not for a second night. He took that, hoping it would be long enough. Amelia Bowes had some questions to answer, and this time he would make sure to ask them. That vicar would be a good contact to use. He would be able to draw Amelia out of her house on some pretext, then she could be spoken to somewhere public.

With time to kill before check-in, Jon drove straight to Radlett, arriving just after eleven thirty.

Strolling along the main street, Jon saw three restarants that served pizza. One was Domino’s, which he ruled out as not having a bar. Pizza Express was a well-know chain that had a bar, but was unlikely to employ a barman as the waiters probably got the drinks. The third was an Italian restaurant that served all the usual food, as well as hand-made pizzas cooked in a wood-fired oven. It also had a smart bar that was fully stocked.

He walked into that one, deciding it was the most likely. It had not long been open for business, and he was offered a table in the window of the empty establishment. The middle-aged waitress left him with the huge fold out menu, and went to get the glass of San Pellegrino he had ordered while he looked at it.

When she brought the water, he ordered a pizza with porcini mushrooms, black olives, and asparagus, then casually asked her if she knew Lawrence Brooks. She folded her arms across an ample bosom and smiled. “He owe you money? He still owes me money. We let him live in the bedsit upstairs, and he was a good worker at first. But then he got in with that blonde woman and her mother. Regular customers, you know. They made a fuss of him, and I reckon he was under their spell, if you get what I mean. Anyway, he upped and left with no notice, and I had paid him two weeks in front. If you find him, tell me where he is, and my husband will pay him a visit”.

She walked off to check on his pizza as Jon realised that she was talking about Eloise and Amelia.

The pizza was delicious, but Jon ate it automatically, as if it was made of cardboard. Lolly must have told the Bowes family where he lived, but why would they go to such lengths just to pester him with silly letters, and send him on a pointless chase around southern England? And part of him was concerned for his former lover.

When the owner brought the bill, he asked if she had any idea where Lawrence might have gone. She shrugged hard, wobbling her large breasts up and down under her black T-shirt. “No idea, I’m sorry. We have had no request for a reference, not that I would have given him one, and his post was never redirected. We just threw it away. He left a few things behind, like a phone charger, and some dirty washing. We just threw them all away. Was everything alright for you sir?” Jon nodded, and added a generous tip.

As he stood up to leave, she called out to him. “Was he your son, by any chance?” That reminded Jon of the age difference, and he shook his head as he walked out, fighting back tears.

Once he had checked in to the hotel and sorted out his car park space, he decided that tomorrow would have to see some kind of showdown. All of this had gone on far too long. Even though he might get a book deal, and a television series, he now knew that it involved someone he still loved, and probably would always love.

After a restless night he had no appetite for breakfast, so settled for three cups of coffee to liven himself up. Changing into a reasonably smart suit, but leaving off a tie, he prepared all of his evidence so far, and placed it into his shoulder bag. The drive to Aldenham was fast and easy, and he parked on the street outside the church.

Surprisingly, the door was locked, so he waited in the car for someone to arrive and open up.

Just over an hour later, he saw the vicar walking along the street, then turning into the entrance to the churchyard. He was dressed in casual clothes, not his vicar’s suit. The bomber jacket and tight jeans made him look all the more like a basketball player. Jon was reminded of the Harlem Globetrotters, who he had watched on television when he was young.

He gave the man time to enter the church and do whatever vicars did, then got out of the car to go in to see him. He was sure he could trust the witty and honest man, and whatever the outcome, he was his best chance for resolving the mystery.

William seemed surprised to see him. “Hello again. It’s been a while. Did you come back to tell me you had written me and my church into your latest novel?” He was in his black suit, religious dog-collar in place. Jon spilled out the events of the past weeks, uncharacteristically babbling, and confirming all of his suspicions with what passed as evidence, including both letters.

The vicar listened attentively, and perused each document carefully before replying.

“I think I recall Eloise writing a novel. I didn’t know it had been rejected though. When she visits her mother, she often comes for Sunday service before going back to Kent and sometimes we chat briefly. But I cannot imagine that the two of them would concoct such a deception, just to have you running around the country trying to investigate it. What could possibly be their motive?”

Jon had to admit that he was struggling to discover a real motive, other than that they were being spiteful, and wasting his time. He asked William if he would be prepared to draw Amelia into the church, so that she could be confronted with the details of his investigation. The vicar pondered that for some time, then replied.

“I can see no harm in that. I will ask her to come and see me tomorrow, and make up some story about church business. Then you can ask her about the letters, and I will be there to witness what she has to say. Meanwhile, go back to your hotel and relax. I am sure it is all a lot of coincidence, a fuss about nothing, my friend. Come back here tomorrow at midday, and I am sure you will have an answer, and be reassured”.

Shaking his hand, Jon assured him he would be back the next day.

Checking out after breakfast, Jon drove the short distance to Aldenham. He would be there two hours too early, but there was nowhere else to go. He parked the Mercedes within sight of the church, and went through the notes and documents in his shoulder bag while he waited for the vicar to arrive. Not long after eleven, he saw William walking up the street and turning left into the path to the church. He grabbed the shoulder bag and car keys, arriving at the church door while the vicar was still standing just inside.

The tall man gave him a wide grin. “I thought you might be early. Come through and I will make us a cup of tea. There should be some cake left too. Some of my church ladies make delicious cakes”.

In the vestry was a small table with a kettle and mugs on it, and a mini-fridge underneath. William started to make the tea, but when he opened the big tin next to the kettle, there was no cake inside. He shook his head. “Apologies, I think I must have eaten the last piece yesterday. Go through and take a seat in the church, I will bring it through”.

Jon sat on the end of the front pew, feeling that cold air that always seemed to be found in any church. When he was handed the tea, he sipped it immediately, hoping it would warm him up. William stood his mug on the stone floor. “I have asked Amelia to call on me at twelve. I invented some church business. It turns out her daughter Eloise is staying with her at the moment, so I suggested she come too. You should have an answer to all of this by lunchtime”.

The tea was very milky, and the supermarket blend not to Jon’s taste at all. But he swallowed all of it as soon as it wasn’t too hot to do so. The church had given him a chill that he couldn’t seemed to shake.

He had no recollection of passing out, but as he came round, he was aware that he had been unconscious for some time. He was somewhere dimly lit, and he could hear people talking nearby, but could not make out what they were saying. There was a sharp pain in his mouth, and he thought he must have bitten his tongue, as he could taste blood. As he tried to sit up, he was stopped by something hard and metallic. Stretching out his legs, he hit something else with his feet.

It took a moment for him to realise he was in a cage. It was not that much larger than him, and there was a bucket and a toilet roll in the left hand corner, next to a large plastic bottle of still water. He shook the cage, but it was secure. Bolted to the stone floor, and the opening above secured by a substantial padlock. He heard a female voice clearly.

“He’s awake”.

Footsteps sounded on the floor, and suddenly Eloise’s face loomed into view just outside the bars. Standing behind her was Amelia, Roderick, and William. The vicar had such a wide grin, his teeth looked whiter than ever in the gloom. Jon asked them what they were playing at. Why was he in a cage. What was it all about. And finally, what had they done with Lolly. Eloise answered his last question first.

“We did nothing with your young friend, except to pay him handsomely for telling us where you lived, and allowing us to cut his tongue so he could lick some envelopes. Then he took his money and left, I assure you. By the way, your letters were very bad form, amateurish to be honest. As if we would believe the police would be interested in your fantasy”. Jon opened his mouth to speak, but she raised her hand to silence him.

“This is what you are going to do. I am going to put an envelope through the bars, and you are going to lick it. If you do that, we might give you something to eat. If not, we might just lock the door to the crypt and forget you are in here”.

She slid the envelope though. It was addressed in the same clumsy style. The recipent was Terence O’Connor, the American author of the best selling Mickey Mulligan private investigator novels. Jon licked the gummed flap and handed it back, asking Eloise again why they were doing this to him.

William the vicar stepped forward. “We had no luck with our detective novel. Your snotty agent rejected it. So we are changing genres. This time, it’s going to be a Horror novel, based on first-hand research. You are the subject of that research, and perhaps Terence O’Connor too, if he can work out how to get to Aldenham, as you did. So just stay calm, and who knows, you may be famous again. If only by default”.

All four of them started to laugh out loud, and Jon slumped back against the cage.

His one hope was that Claudia would put two and two together, and send the police searching for him. He had changed the names and locations in the story, but Claudia had written the real ones down when they spoke, and knew about Eloise and her rejected manuscript. But that could take a long time, and he had no idea how long he had left.

Meanwhile, he was wondering what Inspector Johnson would do now.

The End.

A Mancunian Nightmare

I woke up in something of a panic this morning, glad to find myself in bed in Beetley, and to realise it was all a dream.

Or to be more accurate, a nightmare.

During that long dream, I was living in a tiny council flat on a large estate in the city of Manchester. My neighbours all looked like various members of the band Oasis, and were standing on the long balconies of the block dealing crack and heroin to a neverending queue of eager customers.

When I tried to go out to the shops, they blocked my path, and mocked my London accent.

I just wanted to get back to Beetley, and couldn’t understand what I was doing in Manchester, or why I didn’t have Ollie with me.

Despite my relief at waking up from this dream, I am completely flummoxed as to why I would be dreaming about something like this in the first place.

Film Review: Venom (2018)

**No Spoilers**

I don’t usually watch any films associated with the Marvel franchise, but this one was on TV. Tom Hardy is in it, and so is Riz Ahmed, both excellent British actors. So I recorded it, and then forgot about it.

Then last night, Julie went out with a friend, so I flicked through the recordings on the PVR and decided to give it a go.

This will be a short review.

A wicked businessman is funding space explorations. He discovers aliens, and brings them back to carry out experiments using their tissue.
(Which looks a lot like fast-moving congealed spaghetti, in various colours)

Some of his test subjects die, but others get super powers.

Tom Hardy plays a hard-hitting investigative reporter who gets fired for an aggressive interview of Riz Ahmed’s wicked businessman, losing his girlfriend in the process.

At some point in the film, Tom becomes infected. He survives, and is now host to an alien that speaks to him in English, and is able to take over his body when it likes.

Cue a great deal of CGI and special effects, a lot of chasing around, and few bad people getting their heads bitten off by the alien.

You can guess the rest.

If you like this kind of thing more than I do, and don’t mind actors of great talent wasting their time to earn the big bucks, here’s a trailer.

Serial Review: The Bloodstained Letter

My latest serial concluded on Sunday with Part 24. One of my shorter serials, constricted by the need to have the ‘showdown’ that was necessary for the story.

I would like to thank Jon at https://wilfredbooks.wordpress.com/ for his first line suggestion that started it. This was the first time I have used a ‘first line’ outside of a short story, and I felt it needed a longer serial to do it justice.

Some readers will be aware that my inspirations for the style of this story came from various well established detective fiction, ‘Cosy’ mysteries, and some TV shows. I had in mind the Agatha Christie ‘Miss Marple’ stories, the old TV series ‘Tales Of The Unexpected’, and more modern detective television shows such as ‘Murder She Wrote’, and ‘Midsomer Murders’.

There were quite a few characters, as well as a second plot involving characters from a book being written by the main protagonist. Old-school detective stories always seemed to have a lot of characters, and most of them were suspects at one time or another. They also usually feature some kind of showdown, everyone assembled in a room as the hero explains how he solved the case.

This time, I tried to turn that around, with the suspects explaining to the hero how he ended up where he did. On the way, I gave few clues, and took readers on a tour of some nice parts of southern England as the main character was given the run around on a circular wild goose chase. I had a lot of fun writing this, and attempted to inject some humour too.

It was well-received, with views never dropping below 110 for each episode, and some parts exceeding 130 views. Total views so far, given a score of 120 per episode, come to 2,880. Different parts are still being viewed as I type this, so I am confident the whole serial will have reached 3,000 views soon. As well as that, comment engagement was very good. Some readers tried to guess the outcome too, which is always rewarding.

Extra thanks to everyone who shared any part on social media, which is always appreciated.

I have the first part of the next serial already written, but I will give everyone a chance to catch up before I start that one. This week, I will compile all 24 parts into one complete story, for those of you that like to read the whole thing at once.

Best wishes to everyone, Pete.

The Bloodstained Letter: Part Twenty Four

This is the final part of a fiction serial, in 928 words.

Checking out after breakfast, Jon drove the short distance to Aldenham. He would be there two hours too early, but there was nowhere else to go. He parked the Mercedes within sight of the church, and went through the notes and documents in his shoulder bag while he waited for the vicar to arrive. Not long after eleven, he saw William walking up the street and turning left into the path to the church. He grabbed the shoulder bag and car keys, arriving at the church door while the vicar was still standing just inside.

The tall man gave him a wide grin. “I thought you might be early. Come through and I will make us a cup of tea. There should be some cake left too. Some of my church ladies make delicious cakes”.

In the vestry was a small table with a kettle and mugs on it, and a mini-fridge underneath. William started to make the tea, but when he opened the big tin next to the kettle, there was no cake inside. He shook his head. “Apologies, I think I must have eaten the last piece yesterday. Go through and take a seat in the church, I will bring it through”.

Jon sat on the end of the front pew, feeling that cold air that always seemed to be found in any church. When he was handed the tea, he sipped it immediately, hoping it would warm him up. William stood his mug on the stone floor. “I have asked Amelia to call on me at twelve. I invented some church business. It turns out her daughter Eloise is staying with her at the moment, so I suggested she come too. You should have an answer to all of this by lunchtime”.

The tea was very milky, and the supermarket blend not to Jon’s taste at all. But he swallowed all of it as soon as it wasn’t too hot to do so. The church had given him a chill that he couldn’t seemed to shake.

He had no recollection of passing out, but as he came round, he was aware that he had been unconscious for some time. He was somewhere dimly lit, and he could hear people talking nearby, but could not make out what they were saying. There was a sharp pain in his mouth, and he thought he must have bitten his tongue, as he could taste blood. As he tried to sit up, he was stopped by something hard and metallic. Stretching out his legs, he hit something else with his feet.

It took a moment for him to realise he was in a cage. It was not that much larger than him, and there was a bucket and a toilet roll in the left hand corner, next to a large plastic bottle of still water. He shook the cage, but it was secure. Bolted to the stone floor, and the opening above secured by a substantial padlock. He heard a female voice clearly.

“He’s awake”.

Footsteps sounded on the floor, and suddenly Eloise’s face loomed into view just outside the bars. Standing behind her was Amelia, Roderick, and William. The vicar had such a wide grin, his teeth looked whiter than ever in the gloom. Jon asked them what they were playing at. Why was he in a cage. What was it all about. And finally, what had they done with Lolly. Eloise answered his last question first.

“We did nothing with your young friend, except to pay him handsomely for telling us where you lived, and allowing us to cut his tongue so he could lick some envelopes. Then he took his money and left, I assure you. By the way, your letters were very bad form, amateurish to be honest. As if we would believe the police would be interested in your fantasy”. Jon opened his mouth to speak, but she raised her hand to silence him.

“This is what you are going to do. I am going to put an envelope through the bars, and you are going to lick it. If you do that, we might give you something to eat. If not, we might just lock the door to the crypt and forget you are in here”.

She slid the envelope though. It was addressed in the same clumsy style. The recipent was Terence O’Connor, the American author of the best selling Mickey Mulligan private investigator novels. Jon licked the gummed flap and handed it back, asking Eloise again why they were doing this to him.

William the vicar stepped forward. “We had no luck with our detective novel. Your snotty agent rejected it. So we are changing genres. This time, it’s going to be a Horror novel, based on first-hand research. You are the subject of that research, and perhaps Terence O’Connor too, if he can work out how to get to Aldenham, as you did. So just stay calm, and who knows, you may be famous again. If only by default”.

All four of them started to laugh out loud, and Jon slumped back against the cage.

His one hope was that Claudia would put two and two together, and send the police searching for him. He had changed the names and locations in the story, but Claudia had written the real ones down when they spoke, and knew about Eloise and her rejected manuscript. But that could take a long time, and he had no idea how long he had left.

Meanwhile, he was wondering what Inspector Johnson would do now.

The End.

Sunday Musings From Beetley

The first **snow** of this winter is falling outside. Luckily, the ground is so wet after 24 hours of torrential rain, it is not settling.
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It is almost December, and another year will soon be over. I think this past year will be remembered by me for watching Ollie age, and combat constant infections. Also for second dose of C-19 vaccine, then getting the booster that made me feel ill. On the plus side, it has been unusually warm until this week, (Global Warming probably) and we had a great holiday in September.


I have managed to keep my shorts on since late March, and was hoping to still be wearing them into December. But I fear that yesterday will have to be the last time for 2021, as I returned from the dog-walk chilled to the bone. As today is only 3C so far, and snowing a little, the shorts will have to go back into the wardrobe.

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After my recent fall in the bath, it was Julie’s turn a few days ago. She had gone next door to talk to our neighbour, then missed a step as she stood back after ringing their doorbell. That resulted in her falling flat on her back, with a painful rebound head injury as her head hit the pavement. For a few days, she didn’t feel so good, but fortunately is much improved this morning.

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Ollie’s fur continues to fall out, caused by those Paintbrush Lesions that I mentioned. There doesn’t seem much we can do, except to wait for it to grow back in due course. It seems not to concern him, and he is still enjoying his walks, and occasionally chasing a deer.

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Government corruption and the buffoonery of our current Prime Minister continues unabated. When a party has such a huge majority in Parliament, it appears that makes them impervious to criticism, and immune from prosecution. The exploitation of foreign tax havens is blatant, and disgusting to behold.

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Black Friday came and went, as will Cyber Monday. I might sometimes be an old fool, but I am not fool enough to fall for that marketing hype and nonsense.

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Still too early for me to talk about Christmas. I haven’t even written any cards yet.

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The Bloodstained Letter: Part Twenty-Three

This is the twenty-third part of a fiction serial, in 755 words.

The pizza was delicious, but Jon ate it automatically, as if it was made of cardboard. Lolly must have told the Bowes family where he lived, but why would they go to such lengths just to pester him with silly letters, and send him on a pointless chase around southern England? And part of him was concerned for his former lover.

When the owner brought the bill, he asked if she had any idea where Lawrence might have gone. She shrugged hard, wobbling her large breasts up and down under her black T-shirt. “No idea, I’m sorry. We have had no request for a reference, not that I would have given him one, and his post was never redirected. We just threw it away. He left a few things behind, like a phone charger, and some dirty washing. We just threw them all away. Was everything alright for you sir?” Jon nodded, and added a generous tip.

As he stood up to leave, she called out to him. “Was he your son, by any chance?” That reminded Jon of the age difference, and he shook his head as he walked out, fighting back tears.

Once he had checked in to the hotel and sorted out his car park space, he decided that tomorrow would have to see some kind of showdown. All of this had gone on far too long. Even though he might get a book deal, and a television series, he now knew that it involved someone he still loved, and probably would always love.

After a restless night he had no appetite for breakfast, so settled for three cups of coffee to liven himself up. Changing into a reasonably smart suit, but leaving off a tie, he prepared all of his evidence so far, and placed it into his shoulder bag. The drive to Aldenham was fast and easy, and he parked on the street outside the church.

Surprisingly, the door was locked, so he waited in the car for someone to arrive and open up.

Just over an hour later, he saw the vicar walking along the street, then turning into the entrance to the churchyard. He was dressed in casual clothes, not his vicar’s suit. The bomber jacket and tight jeans made him look all the more like a basketball player. Jon was reminded of the Harlem Globetrotters, who he had watched on television when he was young.

He gave the man time to enter the church and do whatever vicars did, then got out of the car to go in to see him. He was sure he could trust the witty and honest man, and whatever the outcome, he was his best chance for resolving the mystery.

William seemed surprised to see him. “Hello again. It’s been a while. Did you come back to tell me you had written me and my church into your latest novel?” He was in his black suit, religious dog-collar in place. Jon spilled out the events of the past weeks, uncharacteristically babbling, and confirming all of his suspicions with what passed as evidence, including both letters.

The vicar listened attentively, and perused each document carefully before replying.

“I think I recall Eloise writing a novel. I didn’t know it had been rejected though. When she visits her mother, she often comes for Sunday service before going back to Kent and sometimes we chat briefly. But I cannot imagine that the two of them would concoct such a deception, just to have you running around the country trying to investigate it. What could possibly be their motive?”

Jon had to admit that he was struggling to discover a real motive, other than that they were being spiteful, and wasting his time. He asked William if he would be prepared to draw Amelia into the church, so that she could be confronted with the details of his investigation. The vicar pondered that for some time, then replied.

“I can see no harm in that. I will ask her to come and see me tomorrow, and make up some story about church business. Then you can ask her about the letters, and I will be there to witness what she has to say. Meanwhile, go back to your hotel and relax. I am sure it is all a lot of coincidence, a fuss about nothing, my friend. Come back here tomorrow at midday, and I am sure you will have an answer, and be reassured”.

Shaking his hand, Jon assured him he would be back the next day.

Worried About A Blogger

Some time ago, Kim Barker told us she was taking a break from blogging.

Kim is one of my original followers, and one of the first I followed back.

https://cadburypom.wordpress.com/

She posted that she was ‘taking a hiatus’ in August.

But now, her emails are being returned as ‘unknown’ and I am genuinely worried about her.

If anyone has heard from Kim, please let me know. And if you have a valid email address for her, or her husband Tom, please ask her to put our minds at rest.

The Bloodstained Letter: Part Twenty-Two

This is the twenty-second part of a fiction serial, in 863 words.

Jon didn’t let on to Dennis about the Hertfordshire connection, but he did ask him if anyone had been around asking where he lived. Dennis seemed surprised. “No, old love. Nobody ever asked me. Lolly mentioned that you were going to live in Yorkshire, but not where up there. To be honest, I thought you were putting him off the scent. I was sure you might go to London, get a lovely flat on the river or something. Did you actually go to Yorkshire then?” Jon nodded, but didn’t elbaorate. Taking out his wallet, he gave Dennis fifty pounds. He looked like he needed it, and made no attempt to refuse it. Then they stood up and shook hands, and Jon walked back to the hotel.

As he was changing to go down to dinner that evening, Claudia rang his mobile. She came straight to the point, her voice rising and falling in volume as she spoke. “Daaarling, I love it! It’s old school, but still very much an Inspector Johnson mystery. You have given it that Cosy vibe that has become SO popular these days. I have already spoken to Brian at the production company, and he reckons it would be snapped up by ITV for a six-part series. We would do well to wait for that, then sell the book on the back of it, with a photo of whoever stars in it on the cover”.

Making the right noises about being very pleased, Jon slipped on his Italian loafers, then managed to get her off the phone as he headed out the door.

Before going through to his table in the hotel restaurant, he stopped off at reception and cancelled the second night. There was no point staying longer, as he had no intention of driving to Broadstairs to tackle Eloise. He would go back to Hertfordshire instead, and examine the Radlett connection. As it turned out, the receptionist was happy to cancel as she was turning people away because of something happening at Brighton Conference Centre.

The waiter tried to debate that Chateaubriand was for two people, but as long as Jon was prepared to pay the full price, he took the order. A bottle of Beaune was ordered from the sommelier to go with it, and after a delicious meal, he retired to his room to write up some more of the book.

It was obvious why the television drama guy was keen to have an option. The location filming was close to London, and in picturesque spots too. It was all very English, meaning that it would also sell in America, and probably do well on a dvd box set too. If Claudia negotiated in her usual merciless style, Jon reckoned his share would be approaching six figures, plus repeat fees.

While waiting for the valet to bring his car the next morning, Jon rang the Premier Inn in Watford and was able to get a room for that night, but not for a second night. He took that, hoping it would be long enough. Amelia Bowes had some questions to answer, and this time he would make sure to ask them. That vicar would be a good contact to use. He would be able to draw Amelia out of her house on some pretext, then she could be spoken to somewhere public.

With time to kill before check-in, Jon drove straight to Radlett, arriving just after eleven thirty.

Strolling along the main street, Jon saw three restarants that served pizza. One was Domino’s, which he ruled out as not having a bar. Pizza Express was a well-know chain that had a bar, but was unlikely to employ a barman as the waiters probably got the drinks. The third was an Italian restaurant that served all the usual food, as well as hand-made pizzas cooked in a wood-fired oven. It also had a smart bar that was fully stocked.

He walked into that one, deciding it was the most likely. It had not long been open for business, and he was offered a table in the window of the empty establishment. The middle-aged waitress left him with the huge fold out menu, and went to get the glass of San Pellegrino he had ordered while he looked at it.

When she brought the water, he ordered a pizza with porcini mushrooms, black olives, and asparagus, then casually asked her if she knew Lawrence Brooks. She folded her arms across an ample bosom and smiled. “He owe you money? He still owes me money. We let him live in the bedsit upstairs, and he was a good worker at first. But then he got in with that blonde woman and her mother. Regular customers, you know. They made a fuss of him, and I reckon he was under their spell, if you get what I mean. Anyway, he upped and left with no notice, and I had paid him two weeks in front. If you find him, tell me where he is, and my husband will pay him a visit”.

She walked off to check on his pizza as Jon realised that she was talking about Eloise and Amelia.