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This is the fifth part of a mystery serial.

In case you missed it, Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here, Part 3 is here, Part 4 is here.

If you've been following along as I write this serial, it's worth noting that this has been the sharing of a work in progress. In a mystery, it is sometimes necessary to go back and prepare the way by carefully placing clues, and I also change my mind as I work. I have recently uploaded new versions of some of the earlier chapters, but that's a juggling act that's very hard to maintain. The finished book won't be published until it's been rewritten, edited and polished.

This is the last part of this work particular in progress that I'll be able to share, as I now have the story finished and I'm concentrating on getting it ready for publication. I hope that you understand that I put a lot of work into my books, and I can't give the whole thing away. I will be making sure that the book is available at a special price for fans when it goes on sale, and the best way to make sure that you don't miss that special offer is to keep an eye on our Awkward Squad newsletters. If you're not getting the newsletters already, here's a link: join the Awkward Squad and claim your starter library.

Freshly Roast Mystery – Part 5

Knightsbrook House

After lunch, they strolled into the grounds, following the meandering path between carefully tended flowerbeds.

“Admit it,” Dan said. “That pie was good.”

Alan nodded. “Chestnut mushrooms in red wine with a hint of thyme. Who knew?”

“The chef, it would seem. Ah well, if nothing else, we’ve had a good lunch.”

“More than that,” Alan replied. “We’ve had a useful trip. But we couldn’t really talk in the restaurant. The lady behind the counter was hanging on our every word.”

“Bored, I expect. The place was deserted.” Dan threw him a sidelong glance. “What did you want to talk about?”

“Cyril’s medal, of course. We must be able to work something out. There can’t have been too many Croix de Guerres handed out to British soldiers. And Arthur seemed very certain of the specifics, so the battle he mentioned might well be the right one. I’d guess that there must’ve been a citation of some kind, but whether the name was changed by accident or design, we, don’t know. All we have to do is look up the battle and we might get one step nearer to finding Cyril Kennings.”

“Possibly,” Dan conceded. “But it’s pretty thin. All kinds of mix-ups can happen in a war. Gordon might’ve been deployed at the last minute, or perhaps he was caught up in the action unexpectedly. I suspect that Arthur doesn’t know the truth, so he covered up his lack of knowledge with bluster. It happens.”

“I suppose so.” Alan halted, his hand pressed against his stomach. “Do you mind if I sit down for a minute. I wolfed that lunch down a bit too quickly.”

Dan eyed him suspiciously. “If you’re going to have a dig at vegan food, may I remind you that you could’ve chosen anything from the menu? Nobody asked you to come out in sympathy.”

“No, I’m being serious. I usually have a light lunch. You know, just a quick sandwich.” He pointed across the path. “There’s a bench over there. We could sit down and make a plan, decide where to go next.”

Dan raised an eyebrow. “You want to carry on? Do you think we’ll get anywhere?”

“Yes. Actually, I’m getting more intrigued as we go along. I really feel like there’s an interesting story behind all this. It might even be something I could write up.”

“I don’t think your readers will like it,” Dan said. “What’s the average age of your fans, nine or ten?”

Alan waved his objections aside. “No, no. This would be for adults. I could use a pen name. People do it all the time.”

“All right, let’s figure out what to do, but we’ll keep walking if you don’t mind. I think better when I’m moving. And anyway, we’d better stay on the path, or we might have Arthur chasing after us.”

They followed the path, strolling past pristine lawns and threading their way between rose beds laid out with geometrical precision and miniature hedgerows of neatly trimmed box. For a minute or two, Dan enjoyed the peace. He could actually smell the flowers, even though they were just beginning to burst out from their buds. Not the choking dust of diesel fumes, not the acrid tang of car exhaust, nor the lingering spicy aromas of Asian restaurants, but actual flowers: blooms that looked as though they’d been planted generations ago and tended carefully ever since. And he could hear birds singing from the trees up ahead. Not pigeons squabbling and cooing, but songbirds celebrating the arrival of summer. He strained his ears, but he couldn’t hear a single car. Not one. No aeroplanes either. He took a deep breath, filling his lungs. Even the air seemed sweet, and maybe, just maybe, this whole countryside thing wasn’t so bad after all.

“I don’t’ know why I’ve never been here before,” Alan said, breaking the silence. “I suppose you tend not to appreciate what’s on your own doorstep.”

“Very true. Back in London, there’s so much to see, but like most people, I hurry past most of it, on my way somewhere else.”

“That’s no way to live,” Alan said. “It’s no wonder everyone’s suddenly so keen on going to mindfulness classes.”

Dan nodded. “Somebody suggested that I should try it when I…when I felt unwell.” He risked a furtive glance at Alan. Had he said too much?

But Alan was looking around as they walked, his face turned upward to feel the sun’s warmth. “And did you? Try the mindfulness, I mean.”

“No. There was a three-month waiting list.” Dan smiled. “I don’t think I could’ve stood it anyway. Not my idea of fun.”

“Well, you know what they say about meditation,” Alan replied, “it’s better than sitting around doing nothing.”

Dan laughed. “I must remember that. Maybe I can have it printed on a mug.”

“I’m here all week. Don’t forget to tip your waitress.”

“Speaking of which,” Dan began, “maybe we should make another visit to a certain coffee shop.”

Alan looked doubtful. “We’re not exactly flavour of the month in The Aquifer Café. I don’t think Deborah will talk to us, and confronting her would be a mistake.”

“You’re probably right. We could look online for the battle Arthur mentioned. What was it again?”

“Bois de something,” Alan replied. “I remember the date though. May 1918. And we have the regiment. I’d take a look on my phone, but I’m hardly getting a signal out here. It’ll be easier at home.”

“Okay, but what can we do now? You mentioned graveyards before. Where’s the nearest church?”

Alan thought for a moment. “Bovey Tracey, probably, but it might not be the right one. Sometimes, wealthy families have a historical connection with a particular church.”

“A family plot. Maybe even a mausoleum.” Dan stopped walking. “Could it be here? On the estate?”

“Yes, I suppose so. It wasn’t mentioned on the website or in the brochure, but maybe they wanted to keep visitors away.”

Dan rummaged in his jacket pocket, pulling out a crumpled leaflet and unfolding it eagerly. “Yes. I’ll bet there’s something interesting here.” He held the leaflet out to Alan, jabbing his finger at the simplified map of the estate. “That whole area is marked as private. It has to be worth a look.”

“You really are intent on getting us into trouble, aren’t you,” Alan said. “Ah well, in for a penny, in for a pound. Which way is it from here?”

“That way.” Dan pointed across an area of open grassland. “If we go straight across, we’ll be visible from the house. We could run for it. It’s quiet here today, so if no one’s looking, we’ll probably get away with it.”

“I’m not twelve,” Alan protested. “I’m not going to go dashing hell for leather through the middle of the estate. It’ll look suspicious. Someone might call the police, and what will we say? It seemed like a good idea at the time, officer.”

“We could skirt around the grass, but it will take a lot longer,” Dan countered. “And since we’ll be breaking the rules anyway, the more time we spend off the marked path, the more chance there is that we’ll be spotted. We might run into a gardener or a gamekeeper. But if we sprint over there, we’ll be out of sight in seconds.”

“Seconds! When was the last time you ran anywhere?”

“About eight days ago,” Dan shot back. “Five K. I go three times a week, usually. I’ve missed it since I’ve been here. I need to get back into training.”

Alan’s face fell. “You never said you were a runner. I thought you hated sport.”

“No, it’s games I don’t like. I’ve been running for years. And I lift too. Free weights.” He looked Alan up and down. “I take it you’re stranger to the gym, but listen, it’s only a few hundred metres. You can manage it at a push, can’t you?”

“Of course, I can. I just…I don’t think it’s…” Alan looked out over the expanse of grass, his gaze flitting to the house and back again. “Oh, sod it! It’s no use arguing. Let’s do it.” And he set off at a brisk jog, his arms pumping stiffly, his elbows tucked tight against his body, and a determined set to his jaw.

Without hesitation, Dan hared after him, passing him easily, and he led the way to a clump of tall trees, weaving between the trunks until he came to a clearing. There, he turned around grinning and straightening his jacket, barely out of breath, watching Alan as he lumbered closer, his cheeks puffing out, and a sheen of sweat coating his brow.

“Bloody hell!” Alan grumbled, staggering to a halt and clutching his side. “I knew I wasn’t’ fit, but that…that was horrible.”

“We can stay here for a minute while you get your breath back. We can’t be seen from the house.”

“Thank God for that.” Alan threw back his head and gasped for fresh air, then he stared at Dan. “And you go running for fun? For a hobby? Unbelievable.”

“You get used to it. It takes a week or two before you start to enjoy it.” Dan hesitated. “You can jog along with me if you want. Just until you get the hang of it. I need to get started again, and I could take it easy, keep the pace low.”

Alan let out a long breath. “Not heading straight back to London, then?”

“I might stay. For a while.”

“Okay.” Alan stretched the word out, then he nodded to as if reaching a decision. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but you’re on. I’ve got an old pair of trainers kicking around somewhere. I suppose that’s’ all I’d need.”

“Plus a pair of shorts. And we’d have to find somewhere flat for your first time.”

“Well, that’s easier said than done when you live halfway up the side of a valley,” Alan replied. “There’s always Tottiford reservoir. There’s a nice path, and I’ve seen other people running up there. There’s only one problem…”

“What’s that?”

“No defibrillator for miles,” Alan said with a grin. “Do you know CPR?”

Dan chuckled. “Not really, but you’ll be fine. Running is great for your heart unless…” his smile faded. “You haven’t got a heart problem, have you? Hell’s teeth, I should’ve asked.”

“No.” Alan puffed out his chest. “I have the heart of a twenty-year-old. That’s what the doctor said when I had my last checkup.”

“In that case, we’ll start tomorrow. Eight O’clock?”

“In the morning?” Alan asked. “What about breakfast?”

“Skip it. Just have some water and a piece of toast or something. Otherwise, you’ll regret it.”

“Too late,” Alan moaned. “That ship has sailed.”

“You can’t back out now,” Dan said. “Shall we move on?” He pointed across the clearing to a wrought iron gate set into a low stone wall. “That looks like our way in. Are you ready?”

Alan nodded, then they made their way quietly through the clearing, scanning the trees as they went. The gate had no lock, but its hinges were thick with rust, and it groaned as Dan lifted the catch and pushed it open.

On the other side of the wall, the grass had been mown, the evergreen shrubs kept under control, but wildflowers had sprouted here and there, primroses scattered among the grass. Around the edges of the lawn, bluebells nodded in the breeze, and a rambling rose crept its way along the wall. The place exuded the genteel atmosphere of a forgotten cottage garden, as if it had always been there, and always would be.

“A secret garden,” Alan murmured. “Like something out of a child’s picture book.”

“I’ll take your word for it,” Dan said. “It doesn’t seem like the kind of place you’d find a gravestone though. Maybe we jumped to too many conclusions.”

“Perhaps, but we’re here now, so we may as well take a look around.” He gestured toward a barely visible gravel path that wound its way across the lawn before finally disappearing from view between a pair of tall shrubs. “Looks promising.”

Dan nodded doubtfully, and they set off, marching along the path, gravel crunching underfoot. Neither man spoke, and as they walked, a sense of calm settled on Dan’s mind. Alan was right, he thought. This place is like something from a fairy tale. Bees bumbled gently among the flowers or buzzed lazily through the warm air, small birds flitted from one shrub to the next, and the scent of freshly cut grass, pleasantly pungent, drifted on the breeze.

“It’s nice, isn’t it?” Alan said after a while. “Restful.”

“Yes. I wonder why they don’t open it to the public.”

“Hm. The expense, probably. They’d have to maintain it, put up signs and so on. And then there’s all the health and safety nonsense.” Alan tutted under his breath. “It’s a shame.”

“I think there’s more to it than that,” Dan said. “They clearly don’t want people walking around down here. There must be some significance to the place.”

“You could be right, but before we go any further, I’m going to sit down on that bench for a minute.” Without waiting for a reply, Alan struck out toward an ancient wooden bench, and Dan followed, dragging his feet.

“Ouch!” Alan winced as he sat down. “I think I might’ve pulled a muscle. I’m having second thoughts about your kind offer to take me for a run in the morning.”

Dan sat beside him. “Oh no. You can’t give up before you’ve even started. I expect you’ve just strained a ligament a bit. Nothing a stretch and a hot bath can’t cure. I’ll make sure you warm up properly, tomorrow. You’ll be…” His voice trailed away, and Alan cast him a questioning look.

“I’ll be what? Dead on my feet? Out for the count?”

But Dan stared over his shoulder, and simply said, “Look.”

Alan shifted in his seat to study the stone wall behind the bench. At first, he didn’t’ react, but then he saw what had grabbed Dan’s attention. “Oh.”

Dan pointed to the wall, his finger tracing an imaginary rectangle. “That recess. It’s exactly the same size and shape as the stone slab in Deborah’s café.”

“I can’t say I’m one hundred percent positive,” Alan said, “but you could easily be right. Check it against the photo.”

“Of course.” Dan grabbed his phone from his pocket, swiping the screen then holding it up to take an image of the wall before checking his photos. “Yes. That looks like a perfect match.” He turned his phone around to show the screen to Alan. “Look at the proportions.”

Alan nodded. “So if the carved message was a memorial stone for Cyril, this bench…”

“Could’ve been placed here in his memory,” Dan said, his eyes running along the seat’s back. “There’s no plaque, but then, they wouldn’t have needed one. They had the stone.”

“So long as you knew what the coded message meant.”

Dan ran his hands through his hair. “That’s what’s weird. Cyril was a war hero, so why hide his memorial away in this corner? Why not have it up at the house in pride of place? And why was there no mention of him in the museum?”

“Perhaps there was some cloud over him,” Alan offered. “A family’s reputation would’ve been important back then. There was something they wanted to hide.”

“Maybe, but it’s a funny way of going about it.” Dan sat back. “I suppose there’s a chance that the stone was cut but never actually fixed to the wall. Communication must’ve difficult in 1918, so maybe there was some confusion over what had happened to him.”

“This is just speculation. We need more information.” Alan cocked his head to one side. “Did you hear that?”

“What?” Straining his ears, Dan picked up the sound of a dog barking. “Yes. And I don’t’ know much about dogs, but it sounds…angry.”

“Definitely. And it’s getting closer.” Alan stood, looking around the garden. “I don’t think we’ll find out anything else. Time for us to go.”

Dan nodded, standing up and brushing down the seat of his trousers. “That bench was getting damp anyway. Ready for another run?”

“A brisk walk will be much better,” Alan replied. “We’ll attract less attention, and anyway, most dogs love a good chase.” He set off along the path, taking long strides, and after a brief glance at the place where the stone slab had once been laid, Dan followed him towards the gate.

I hope you enjoyed the fifth part of this story.

This episode will be included in my monthly anthology as an ebook along with this month's blog posts and flash fiction. The ebooks will only be available to my patrons on patreon where, for a few dollars a month, you can have instant access to all the ebooks as soon as I compile them. Also, the support of patrons will help me to keep writing and providing content for you all. Learn more when you head on over to patreon and check it out
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The complete story is now available for pre-order under its new title: A Study in Stone

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All the best and happy reading,

Mikey C

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