This is the first part of a mystery serial.
This was going to be a flash fiction piece, but I got carried away, and now it's turning into a proper short story.
This is the first public outing for some characters I've been developing, and already, they're calling the shots.
Part two will be along as soon as I can write it. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy it, and please bear in mind that this is a first draft.
Freshly Roast Mystery – Part 1
Dan Corrigan stopped in the narrow street and took out his phone. According to the map, he was just a few minutes away from the coffee shop, but this wasn’t the first time today that it had promised such hopeful news. Indeed, at one point, the software had cheerfully announced that he’d reached his destination, but Dan, staring at the storefronts on offer (a tattoo parlour, a hairdresser, and some sort of retro videogame emporium) had been inclined to disagree.
See Exeter and die, he thought balefully, staring along the cobbled street. Die of thirst, die of boredom, die of confusion.
“Are you all right there?”
Dan turned on his heel. The middle-aged woman was studying him with polite concern. She was well-dressed, in a long black coat, and her hair, streaked with silver, had been expertly cut in a style that suited her extremely well. For a moment, it struck Dan as very odd that the woman should feel confident in approaching a strange man in a quiet backstreet, but it was the middle of the afternoon, and although the street was quiet, the main shopping drag was just a few yards away. Plus, this isn’t London, he reminded himself. They do things differently here.
He forced a smile. “Yes, fine thank you. Just checking my phone.” He waggled the device in the air unnecessarily. “You know how it is. Never switched off. Never a moment’s peace.”
“Oh dear.” There was sympathy in her pale blue eyes. “Only, you look a bit lost. And to be honest, if you carry on down here, you’ll be heading off the beaten track. I’m on my way to work, but most people don’t venture down this way.”
“Right. Okay.” Dan’s grin felt fixed to his lips. Go on, he told himself. Admit that you’re lost. Ask for directions. But it was no use; he couldn’t bring himself to do it. “Well, in that case, I’ll go back the way I came.”
The woman didn't say anything. She just watched him as if expecting more.
“Cheers,” Dan said, then he turned and walked away without looking back.
The main street was depressing. Yes, there were coffee shops here, but they were the franchises he could find on any street in the western hemisphere. And he didn't just want an indifferent mug of brown stuff, he wanted carefully selected organically grown beans, roasted in some obscure way over a wood fire by a fairly paid Ghanaian, ground to a tolerance of one hundredth of a millimetre, and brewed by a barista with theatrical facial hair and a deep knowledge of pressurised baskets. He wanted artisanal. He wanted COFFEE.
And he was damned if he was going to settle for anything less.
The painstaking search on his phone had shown him the top ten coffee shops in Exeter, and he would try once again to find the place holding the top spot: The Aquifer Café. And this time, he would succeed.
Walking faster now, he traced his path back to the place he’d left his…what was Alan, exactly? A neighbour, certainly. But a friend? I don't know, he decided. Is it worth my while making friends around here? Probably not. He’d been in Devon long enough. Soon, he’d feel like heading back to the city. London. The place where you couldn’t heave half a brick without hitting at least half a dozen baristas, and all of them masters in the art of the consistent crema. True, most of the baristas he knew had doctorates in Medieval Literature or some such, but at least they’d found gainful employment. They were the lucky ones.
Dan halted outside the secondhand bookshop and peered in through the window. Why was it so easy to see inside? Why wasn't the glass streaked with dust and grime? Different, he thought bitterly. Whoever said variety is the spice of life was an idiot. A movement caught his eye. There, inside, a man had raised his hand in acknowledgement. Alan.
Dan hurried into the shop, attracting stares from the surprisingly large number of customers. What? Am I wearing a sign? Perhaps it was his speed that attracted attention. No one around here was ever in a hurry. No one. And it was driving him crazy.
“What’s up?” Alan asked as Dan marched between the cramped rows of shelves. “Everything all right?”
“Don't you start,” Dan shot back.
Alan’s face fell, the hurt look in his eyes a silent rebuke.
“Sorry,” Dan mumbled. “Er, how are you doing? Found anything good?”
Alan wrinkled his nose. “Not really. Shelves full of bestsellers. No good to me.”
“But, surely, if they’re bestsellers, they ought to be worth reading, shouldn’t they?”
“You’d think.” Alan halfheartedly pulled a paperback from the shelf then pushed it straight back. “No. I don’t want bubble-gum for the mind. I’m looking for something a bit different. Something with a bit of weight.”
Dan pointed to a shelf labelled Fantasy. “Those are pretty thick.”
“No, no. I don’t mean physically heavy. I mean something a bit…” Alan circled his hand in the air.
“More challenging? More intellectual.”
“Just better,” Alan corrected him. “I’m looking for something better.”
Seeing an opportunity, Dan said, “Maybe we should try somewhere else. In fact, I’m sure I saw one or two bookshops just now, and on the way, we can stop for a cup of coffee.”
“Oh, I get it. You didn’t find your fabled coffee shop, and now you want to drag me along to help you.”
Is it that obvious? Dan managed a good-natured smile. “Something like that. I thought it would be…nice if we grabbed a coffee, but if you don’t want to, that’s fine. I can go ahead.” He took a step back. “I’ll see you later. Give me a call when you’re ready for a lift. I can meet you at the car park.”
“I’ve got a good mind just to let you go,” Alan said. “I can tell you’re bluffing, you know. I’m not a complete idiot.”
Dan held up his hand in a conciliatory gesture. “I’ll tell you what. Help me find the coffee shop and it’ll be my treat. Anything you want.”
Alan raised his eyebrows. “Why didn't you say that in the first place? Come on then. What are we waiting for?” Then without waiting for a response, he headed for the door.
Waiting? Dan thought. Me? Never. And he hurried after him.
Dan sat back, breathing in the coffee shop’s steamy aroma. “You smell that? That’s pure, mountain-grown Costa Rican.”
“Yes,” Alan said. “I love the smell of Arabica in the mornings. Smells to me like–”
“Victory,” Dan interrupted. “Very good. You didn't get the quote totally right, but near enough.”
“I was going to say warm chocolate,” Alan protested. “And by the way, it’s a bit rude to presume you know exactly what someone is about to say, especially if you’re going to criticise them at the same time.”
“But I often do know what people are about to say. And you’re not a very good liar. You were going to say victory. You know it, and so do I.”
Alan muttered something that sounded like, “Unbearable.” But at that moment, a waiter arrived with a tray of steaming drinks, and the young man had, Dan noted with some satisfaction, a full beard complete with waxed-tip mustachio.
“Here we are, gents. Two large americanos. Special blend. And you didn't want any milk, is that right?”
“Well,” Alan began, but Dan talked over him. “No thanks. We don’t want to spoil it.”
The waiter hovered, looking from Alan to Dan and back again, then he smiled. “Enjoy.”
As he sauntered away, Alan glared after him. “He thinks we’re a couple. I could tell.”
Dan laughed. “What? But neither of us is gay. At least I’m not. And I saw the way you smiled at the young lady behind the counter. Anyway, it’s ridiculous. We hardly know each other.”
“You don't have to tell me that, but it’s the way you insisted on me having the same drink as you, and…and…” Alan exhaled. “What’s the use?” He took a sip of his coffee, and his expression brightened. “Actually, that’s not half bad.”
“You see. Always insist on the best.”
“Even if you have to tramp around for half an hour to get it?”
“Even then.” Dan took a long drink then set his cup down with a smile. “I’ll buy some beans before we leave. Grind them back at the house.”
“Hello again,” someone said, and Dan turned in his seat to see the woman he’d encountered in the alley. “Did you find what you were looking for?”
“Yes,” Dan replied. “Actually, we were looking for this place.”
The woman laughed. She’d removed her coat, and she was dressed in an ivory cotton blouse over a pair of smart grey trousers. A single gold chain hung at her throat. “You should’ve said. This is my café.” She looked around proudly. “A small place but mine own.”
“But you said that there wasn’t much down here,” Dan replied. “The best coffee shop in the city, and you didn’t think to mention it?”
Her eyes twinkled. “Well, I don’t like to seem too pushy. People don't like it. And we’re doing okay. Lots of regulars. Enough anyway. And some people come for the well.”
“You have your own spring?” Alan asked. “Is that why the coffee's so good?”
The woman smiled. “No, we don't use the water. It’s an ancient well. Come and have a look if you like. It’s in the Roman room, at the back.”
Alan practically jumped to his feet. “Yes, we’d like to see that, wouldn’t we, Dan?”
Dan looked at his coffee. “In a minute, perhaps.”
“Nonsense. We won't turn down this kind offer.” Alan held out his hand to the woman. “I’m Alan, by the way, and this is Dan. He’s from London.”
“Ah, I won't hold it against him,” the woman said, shaking Alan’s hand. “I’m Deborah, but please, call me Deb.” She looked expectantly at Dan. “Did you want to see the well? It’s no problem if you don’t. I’ll leave you in peace.”
Dan was about to snatch at the chance of a reprieve, but he caught Alan’s glare and changed his mind. “Yes, thank you. It sounds…fascinating.”
Apparently satisfied, Deb led Alan away, and Dan gulped down the rest of his coffee as fast as he could, doing his best to savour the taste. But the magic of that first sip was already lost. I should just have said no, he thought. Why does everyone have to be so damned friendly all the time? He cast a glance at the laminated menu standing proud in its stand at the centre of the table. Maybe he could order another cup in a minute, after this business with the well was concluded. Who has a well in a cafe? It sounded like a health and safety nightmare. But he pushed his chair back and trailed after Alan and Deb, making his way through an archway into the back of the café.
The room was small and snug, and tastefully decorated in shades of cream and pale grey. There were a couple of worn leather sofas, but the rest of the space was taken up with tables and chairs. Except for the far-left corner. There, a set of low iron railings separated a quadrant of the cafe from something below floor level, though Dan couldn't quite make it out. Alan and Deb were standing at the railing, and he joined them, peering down. “Oh, it really is a well.” He turned to Deb, studying her with frank curiosity. “Why?”
“This is our claim to fame,” Deb replied. “Well, one of them, anyway. The ancient well of Saint Sidwell.”
Dan held back a wry chuckle. The well was modern: a contrived affair of artfully placed stones with a plastic lining. Only a few inches deep, a layer of coins lay on the bottom, presumably tossed there by young children or other simple-minded individuals. Did Deb really think this was an ancient artefact? Surely not. She’d seemed to be quite a rational person–until now. “I see,” he said carefully. “Not quite what I was expecting.”
“Oh, this isn’t the actual well,” Deb said smoothly. “The original well was discovered a while ago, while we were having the floor re-laid. But we couldn’t just leave a gaping hole in the corner, could we? We had to have it covered. But we built this to mark the spot.”
“It’s a legendary place,” Alan put in. “Saint Sidwell was either Anglo-Saxon or she may have lived here around the time that the Romans were leaving Britain. And this is the place where she was killed. Murdered.”
“You knew that already?” Dan asked Alan. “Is this a local legend that all Devonians know about, but no one else has ever heard of?”
“No, but I can read,” Alan said, pointing to a sign affixed to the rear wall. “It’s all there.”
“Ah, yes.” Dan pretended to read the notice, but his eyes soon wandered to the long shelves that ran around the room at head height. “Is that why you have all these…knick-knacks?”
“Ancient Roman relics,” Deb explained. “They’re reproduction, but the tourists like them. It gives the place a certain authenticity.”
“While they sip their genuine Roman cappuccinos,” Dan said with a smile. “I knew I should’ve worn my toga today, but it’s at home in a vat of urine.”
Deb laid her hand on her chest, and she stared at him in horror. “I’m sorry?”
“The Romans used it to bleach their clothes,” Alan put in. “But don’t worry about him. He’s just being awkward.”
“Right,” Deb said uncertainly. “To tell you the truth, the artefacts all belonged to my great grandfather. He was quite the collector, and this place was his domain. The property has been in the family for generations, but he was the first to turn it into a shop.”
“A real family business,” Dan mused. “You come from a long line of proprietors. I’d have thought that would be authenticity enough.”
“Maybe, but it wasn’t always a café. My great grandfather was Gordon Kenning; you might have heard of him. He ran a number of pharmacies, but when he died, his son wasn’t interested in taking over the business. The shop stood empty for a while. My father rented it out, but although lots of people tried to set up shop down here, they all failed. There isn’t the footfall. No passing trade to speak of.”
“But you’re doing well,” Alan said. “You must’ve turned it around.”
Deb nodded. “There are quite a few big offices around here, and people will always venture out for a decent cup of coffee.”
“Very true,” Dan said with feeling. He gave Alan a meaningful look, but it was roundly ignored.
“What does the inscription signify?” Alan asked. “On the slab. Is that modern too?”
“Ah, now that is our little mystery,” Deb said proudly. “That old slab of stone was hidden beneath the original floor, but it had been skimmed over with concrete. And when it was lifted, we found the well underneath. At the time, we had quite a bit of interest from historians and archaeologists, and they cleaned up the slab to reveal the carved message. It’s not particularly old. It’s probably Edwardian, but we’re not sure exactly when it was put there, and no one knows what it means. It’s all in code. It must be something to do with the well, so we mounted it there. It adds a bit of mystique, don’t you think?”
Dan nodded firmly, his eyes bright. “Definitely.” He licked his lips. “And you say no one has deciphered it, after all this time?”
“That’s right,” Deb replied, “though, to be fair, I’m not sure how interested the academics were. Once they found out that the stone wasn’t an ancient relic, they weren't so keen. They finished their dig, took lots of photos, but they didn’t find anything valuable. The next thing we knew, they’d all packed up and gone.” Deb chuckled. “I had hoped to get the Time Team involved–the publicity would’ve been great for us–but they’ve stopped making it. Shame. Still, we got our room back and a write up in the local press, so it all worked out in the end.”
“Tell me, Deb, would you mind if I took a crack at your cipher? Codes are kind of a hobby of mine.”
“Be my guest,” Deb said. “You’ll have to copy it down though. You can’t very well take the slab with you.”
Dan pulled his phone from his pocket, leaning over the railings as far as he dared. “I’ll take a photo. I should be able to zoom in from here.”
Deb glanced over her shoulder. “I dare say you can pop inside. There’s a gate I can open.” She bustled along the fence and fussed over a combination lock before swinging a small gate outwards. “There you are. Proceed at your own risk, as they say. The rocks get a bit slippery, so don’t go falling over and banging your head. My insurance people would go through the roof if they knew I was doing this.”
“I’ll only be a second,” Dan said as he hurried in through the gate. Squatting beside the artificial well, he took several photos, checking they were sharp enough to read the garbled text, then he stood, pocketing his phone. “Got it.”
Deb’s indulgent smile gave him a moment’s discomfort, and for a split second, he feared she might say, “Well done,” as if he were a small boy mastering a mundane task. But as he rejoined Alan, his embarrassment passed, replaced by a different impulse. “Have we got time for another coffee, do you think?”
“Sure, if that’s what you want,” Alan replied. “You’re driving today, so you’re the boss.”
“Right. Just a small one. An espresso perhaps.”
“I’ll put the order in for you,” Deb said. “On the house. And I’ll tell you what, if you can crack that code, I’ll throw in a slice of chocolate cake next time you come in. And our cakes are very good.”
“We’ll see,” Dan said modestly, and they headed back into the main room.
“I’d never have pegged you as a history buff,” Alan said as they retook their seats.
“I’m not. But I do like codes. I like the challenge.”
Alan nodded. “I can tell.”
“What do you mean?”
“Just that you seem…animated. Excited, even.”
Dan grunted. “It’s something to do. It’ll probably turn out to be nothing. Just random graffiti or something.”
“You’re probably right,” Alan agreed, “but you never know. Exeter is a very old city.”
“So I gather,” Dan said. And as the waiter appeared with a cup of espresso, Dan smiled. At last, a decent cup of coffee and a moment to enjoy it. The coded message was probably nothing. But this little cup with its perfect crema and its delicious aroma…this was something to get excited about.
“It’s funny,” Alan began as they headed back to the car, “but you’d think the old well would’ve been somewhere else entirely.”
“Why’s that?” Dan asked absently. “Originally, it must’ve been dug for a reason. There was probably a natural water source, a spring or something.”
“Yes, but if we cut down that alley on our right, we’ll be in the area that’s actually called Sidwell, and it’s nowhere near Deb’s café.”
Dan stopped walking. “What? That can’t be right.”
“I’m not making it up.” Alan halted, gesturing to the open mouth of an uninviting side street. “Walk through there, and you’ll find Sidwell Street, Saint Sidwell’s School, Saint Sidwell’s Church, Sidwell Health Centre. I could go on.”
“But please don’t.” Dan set off again, taking long strides, his gaze distant, and Alan hurried to catch up to him.
“So, that code…are you really interested in it?” Alan asked.
“Yes,” Dan replied. “And I’m interested in something else too. I have a feeling that Deborah lied to us, and I want to know why. I want to find out the truth. And cracking that cipher is the first step.”
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