Another One Bites the Crust
Champagne and ball gowns, fairy lights and music… Oxford summer balls are one of the highlights of the calendar and tearoom sleuth Gemma Rose is looking forward to taking a break and slipping into something gorgeous for the evening. But when the night ends with a celebrity chef murdered by his own whisk, Gemma finds herself plunged into a new mystery—and the nosy Old Biddies keen to help with the investigation!
But trouble is also brewing at her quaint Cotswolds tearoom: between fighting claims that she's serving “fake” custard tarts and stopping her little tabby, Muesli, from being catnapped, Gemma has her hands full—and that’s before she has to fend off an amorous Italian. To top it all, her boyfriend Devlin’s mother is coming to visit and Gemma is anxious to make a good impression… although Mrs O’Connor isn’t quite what she expected!
With so much going on, it’s a recipe for disaster—but with a bit of help from her bossy mother, Gemma might just solve the case… and live to bake another day.
(** English custard tart recipe at the end of the story!)
This book follows British English spelling and usage.
Clean read: no graphic violence, sex, or strong language.
Genre: humorous culinary cozy mysteries, cat cozy mystery series / women amateur sleuth / British detective mystery
OXFORD TEAROOM MYSTERIES
A Scone To Die For (Book 1)
Tea with Milk and Murder (Book 2)
Two Down, Bun To Go (Book 3)
Till Death Do Us Tart (Book 4)
Muffins and Mourning Tea (Book 5)
Four Puddings and a Funeral (Book 6)
Another One Bites the Crust (Book 7)
Apple Strudel Alibi (Book 8)
Release date: October 19, 2017
Publisher: Wisheart Press
Print pages: 321
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Another One Bites the Crust
They say revenge is a dish best served cold… a good thing to remember when you’re planning to murder a chef.
Not that I was thinking about murder and revenge as I wriggled around a changing cubicle in one of Oxford’s top dress boutiques, struggling to get into a silk evening gown. I sucked my breath in and tugged vainly at the zip again… Had I really put on so much weight recently? I’d always had a slim, almost boyish figure, and now that I was on the brink of thirty, it seemed that I was finally getting some curves, like I’d always wanted. The only problem was, I seemed to be getting them in all the wrong places! There was a distinct bulge around my waist and a lot of surplus padding around my hips…
I thought guiltily of the rich, buttery Chelsea bun I’d eaten last night—stuffed with cinnamon, raisins, and soft brown sugar, and drizzled with sticky icing—and the delicious sticky toffee pudding, oozing with caramel sauce, not to mention the slice of Victoria sponge cake, slathered in homemade strawberry jam and fresh whipped cream! They were all “leftovers” from the menu at my business, the Little Stables Tearoom, and, as usual, had been too tempting to resist. That was one of the occupational hazards of running a traditional English tearoom, I was beginning to realise—especially when you prided yourself on serving the best in classic British baking…
“Gemma? What’s going on in there? Have you fallen asleep?” came my best friend Cassie’s voice.
She flung back the cubicle curtain and stepped inside, looking effortlessly gorgeous in a simple white T-shirt and jeans that hugged her body. Now, Cassie has curves in all the right places, I thought enviously as I looked at her. A classic pocket Venus, what she lacked in height, she more than made up for in voluptuous beauty. I’d always wished that I could be more like my best friend—not just in the looks department but in general too. As one of five in a warm, rowdy family of artists and creatives, Cassie was a free spirit with a fiery temper and an earthy, relaxed approach to life—the complete opposite of me and my anxious concern for peer approval and following the rules, courtesy of my “proper” upbringing in a typically repressed British upper-middle-class household.
Yet, despite our differences, Cassie and I had been best friends from the moment we met back in primary school. And we had stayed close, all the way through university (luckily we had both got into Oxford, although we had been at different colleges) and even during the eight years when I had been away from England. When I’d decided to give up my corporate career to return to Oxford and open a tearoom, Cassie had jumped to support me, giving up her various part-time jobs to come and work at the Little Stables.
Now Cassie looked me up and down and said, with a best friend’s blunt honesty, “You look like a stuffed sausage!”
I winced. “I could suck my stomach in,” I said, demonstrating.
“What—the whole night? Besides, then you’d just look like a slightly thinner stuffed sausage.”
I sighed. “Okay. I guess I’ll have to try a bigger size.”
“It’s not just that, Gemma—this dress doesn’t do anything for you. Makes you look all washed out.”
I turned to look at the full-length mirror at the side of the cubicle and had to admit that Cassie was right. The shimmering navy sheath, which had looked so elegant on the hanger, now hung limp and shapeless, the dark blue colour making me look pale and tired.
“It looked so gorgeous on the hanger,” I said wistfully, fingering the silky fabric.
“Your hair doesn’t suit this minimalist style either. You need something more feminine to go with this gown, to balance it out… more like my hair,” Cassie added, tossing her dark, wavy mane.
I looked back at my reflection. I’d cut my dark hair into a pixie crop just before returning to England last year and, much to my mother’s annoyance, had steadfastly refused to grow it out again. I liked the short, gamine style—I liked to think I might be channelling a bit of Audrey Hepburn—but now I wondered if it was too androgynous to suit any of the gowns on display.
I gave Cassie a despairing look. “What am I going to do? The ball is the day after tomorrow; we’ve looked in five places now and I still haven’t found anything suitable!”
“Well, I did tell you not to leave it till the last minute,” said Cassie. “You know what it’s like during the ball season. Everyone snaps up the good stuff early. There’s not a lot of selection left.”
I made a rueful face. The thing was, June might have been ball season in Oxford, but it was also the height of the tourist season, with people flocking to the university city and the surrounding Cotswolds countryside to enjoy the local attractions during the glorious but brief English summer. With its prime location in a little village on the outskirts of Oxford, business at my tearoom had been booming, and taking time off to go ballgown shopping had seemed the least important of my priorities. With only Monday off each week, I usually spent it catching up on sleep, chores, and emails… but I was grateful now that Cassie had dragged me out shopping today. Although it did look like I might have left it too late…
“I suppose I could just wear that black dress I usually wear for work do’s and cocktail functions?” I said, thinking of my LBD— “little black dress”—wardrobe staple.
Cassie looked aghast. “Gemma, this is an Oxford ball! Everyone will be dolled up and looking fabulous. The men will be in black tie… You can’t wear a bog-standard work dress. What a waste!”
She was right. Oxford was one of the few remaining places where you could really go to town and indulge in a Cinderella fantasy. The annual summer ball at the end of the academic year was a custom still followed by many of the Oxford colleges—as their grand quadrangles, elegant cloisters, and extensive gardens were transformed into a fairytale wonderland, whilst students and their guests enjoyed a night of music and dancing, games and entertainment. And dressing up in a ballgown—a real, floor-length, sweeping, romantic ballgown—was probably one of the best parts of the experience. Well, for the girls, anyway. Most of the male guests probably groaned at the obligatory dress code of “black tie” and I was sure many left it even later than me to rush around town and try to hire a black dinner jacket and matching bow tie for the evening.
I sighed as I looked at my reflection again. I hadn’t been to a ball since graduating over eight years ago and I had been looking forward to reliving the experience. It did seem a terrible shame to attend such a special event dressed in my staid old black number…
“Hang on a tick,” said Cassie suddenly. “There was a dress I saw on one of the racks…” She disappeared and returned a moment later with something pink and frothy draped over her arm.
“I’m not wearing that!” I said, recoiling as she held it out. “I’ll look like a meringue!”
“Just try it, Gemma,” Cassie begged. “Trust me.”
I heaved a sigh and took the dress. However, when I surveyed myself in the mirror a few minutes later, I was pleasantly surprised. The simple strapless bodice highlighted the slim lines of my neck and collarbones, and moulded itself to my body like a glove. From the nipped-in waist, the dress flared out into a full skirt which, despite the layers of tulle, looked graceful and elegant—and nothing like egg-white confectionery. In fact, for the first time, I really did feel like I was channelling Audrey Hepburn; this dress embodied all the 1950s glamour of vintage movies like Sabrina and Roman Holiday.
“It’s beautiful,” I breathed.
“Told you,” said Cassie with a smirk.
I grinned at my best friend. I should have trusted her artist’s instincts. Then I glanced at the tag attached to the skirt and my smile faded.
“Bloody hell, did you see the price?” I cried.
“Yeah, it’s a bit pricey… but it’s made in Italy, with silk tulle—the best—and that’s all hand embroidery,” said Cassie, pointing at the delicate pattern of silver threads on the bodice.
I shook my head. “Cassie, I can’t spend so much money on a dress that I’ll probably only wear for one night.”
Aw, come on, Gemma! The tearoom has been doing really well lately—you’ve even given me and Dora a raise—I’m sure you can afford it.”
“Yes, but I shouldn’t be spending money on something so frivolous. I should be investing in something for the tearoom instead.”
“You’ve spent tons on the tearoom already. When was the last time you bought something for yourself?” Cassie demanded. “Ever since you got back from Australia, all you’ve done is focus on the business. It’s high time you treated yourself a little. Yes, the dress is a bit expensive but it’s hardly going to break the bank. And you look absolutely gorgeous in it.”
I gazed at my reflection in the mirror, feeling myself waver. Cassie was right again—I did look wonderful in the ballgown. The soft pink shade seemed to bring out the warmth in my skin, making my complexion glow and my eyes look bigger and more luminous. I thought suddenly of my boyfriend, Devlin O’Connor, and imagined his blue eyes lighting up as he saw me in this dress…
“All right! I’ll take it,” I said suddenly with a smile.
“Great!” Cassie beamed. Then she glanced at her watch. “Hurry up and change—we need to get you some shoes to go with that gown, but first I’ve got a surprise booked for you.”
“For me? What do you mean?”
But Cassie refused to say anything further. A few minutes later, we left the store with my new ballgown carefully wrapped in tissue paper and tucked into a large carrier bag. We joined the bustling throng milling down Cornmarket Street, the pedestrianised thoroughfare that was the main shopping street in Oxford. Despite it being a weekday, the city was heaving with people—from groups of Japanese tourists, excitedly photographing every gargoyle and lamp post, to college students sailing past on their second-hand bicycles, and local residents walking briskly down the cobbled lanes, going about their business. And rising into the sky above us were the “dreaming spires” of Oxford—the Gothic towers, elegant turrets, and majestic battlements that made up the university city’s famous skyline. That was the thing about Oxford: even taking a casual walk to buy a tube of toothpaste from the pharmacy felt like stepping back in time.
“This way,” said Cassie, turning down a side lane and directing me towards a small shop tucked into the ground floor of an old Victorian building.
I was surprised to see that it was a modern nail salon, cleverly decorated to blend with its historic surroundings.
“I’ve booked you a manicure and a pedicure—my treat!” said Cassie with a smile.
“Oh, Cass! That’s so sweet of you!” I cried, giving my friend a hug.
“Well, I figured that with the amount of abuse your hands get at the tearoom, it would be nice to pamper them a bit before the ball.” Cassie gave me a wink. “It’s a good excuse for me to have a pedicure too. This place has just opened and they’re offering some fantastic deals at the moment.”
We entered the salon, a tinkling bell announcing our presence, and a young Asian woman hurried over to greet us. She led the way to a row of leather recliners, each one with a foot spa fitted in front, and settled us into our seats. I sighed with pleasure as I slipped my weary feet into the warm, bubbling water. The therapist added a few drops of fragrant aromatherapy oil to our foot spas, then excused herself and retreated to the back of the salon to collect her other supplies.
I leaned back in the recliner and looked around. The place wasn’t big but it had been cleverly decorated, with the use of pale wood, mirrors, and soft pastel colours to give a light and airy feel. Bamboo blinds shielded the front windows from the street and a water feature by the front door provided a soothing backdrop of trickling splashes.
The only thing that spoiled the peaceful ambience was the loud, brassy voice of the woman seated in the recliner next to us, talking on her iPhone. I glanced over curiously. She looked to be in her early thirties, with heavy make-up, dyed blonde hair, and gleaming red talons on her fingertips. Her legs were jutting out in front of her, propped on a cushioned bench, whilst a young Asian girl crouched in front of her and attempted to paint her toenails. It was no easy feat as the woman kept twitching while she spoke on the phone, jerking her toes in different directions.
“Oh!” cried the Asian girl as a sudden movement of one leg made her swipe nail polish across the top of the woman’s foot, leaving a bright red smear.
“Hey! Watch what you’re doing!” snapped the woman, breaking off to glare at the girl.
“I… I am sorry!” squeaked the Asian girl.
She soaked a cotton wool ball with some acetone and carefully began wiping the offending smear away as the woman turned back to the phone. But a second later, the woman twitched her leg again, jolting the girl’s elbow, which knocked against the bottle of acetone. It rolled over and spilled its contents onto the floor—and on the woman’s shoes nearby.
“AARGH!” snarled the woman. “You ham-fisted little cow!”
“I-I-I am… I am very s-sorry,” cried the girl, looking on the verge of tears as she dabbed frantically at the shoes with some tissue paper.
The woman smacked the girl’s hand violently away and snatched up the shoes. “These are a pair of Marc Jacobs! You’ve ruined them!” she yelled.
“Hey, it was an accident,” Cassie spoke up. “There’s no need to take your temper out on her like that. These things happen. If you hadn’t kept moving around, she probably wouldn’t have knocked the bottle over.”
The woman rounded on Cassie, her face ugly. “Who the hell are you?” she demanded. “Why don’t you mind your own sodding business?”
Cassie’s eyes flashed. “Because I hate to see bullies throwing their weight around.”
The woman sprang up from her recliner. “Who are you calling a bully?” she shouted, thrusting her face into Cassie’s and waving a fist.
Cassie erupted from her seat too, and I started to say something, but at that moment, the other therapist came hurrying out from the back of the salon, her expression horrified as she took in the scene. She rushed towards the woman and said in a placating tone:
“I am so sorry, madam! Please accept my apologies. Please—we would like to give you this pedicure free of charge—and also a gift voucher for another visit?”
The woman calmed down slightly. “Yeah, that’s more like it,” she said.
She let the senior therapist finish her toes, then walked over to the counter to receive her free gift voucher. I noticed that she had left a plastic shopping bag behind, wedged into the side of her recliner seat, and I leant over to retrieve it. My eyes widened as I saw the boxes and boxes of paracetamol, ibuprofen, and aspirin tablets jammed inside, alongside a box of strong laxatives and a bottle of cough syrup.
“Hey! Give me that!” The woman rushed up to me and snatched the bag out of my hands. “What are you looking at?” she snarled.
“Nothing,” I said, taken aback. “I was just picking it up so you wouldn’t forget it.”
“Yeah, right. You’re just like your friend—sticking your nose where it don’t belong!” She shot me a venomous look, then turned and flounced out of the salon, banging the door behind her.
There was an awkward pause, then the senior therapist gave us a strained smile and said:
“I am so sorry for any inconvenience! Please… excuse my little sister—this is her first day and she is still learning.” She gestured to the young girl who stood trembling behind her.
“Oh, don’t worry about us,” said Cassie cheerfully as she settled back into her recliner and slipped her feet into her foot spa again. “We totally understand.”
“I’d love your sister to do my toes for me,” I added, smiling encouragingly at the young Asian girl, who gave me a tremulous smile back and came hesitantly forwards.
She showed me a chart of nail colours and, after Cassie and I had made our selections, hurried off to find the corresponding bottles. Meanwhile, her elder sister offered us refreshments, then retreated to make our cups of tea. As she disappeared into the back of the salon, Cassie wiggled her toes in the bubbling water and said:
“Thank God that woman left. She was spoiling the ambience even before she started yelling.” She made a face. “Oxford’s a small place. I hope we don’t run into her again in the shops later.”
“I don’t think we will, not unless we’re planning to shop at the pharmacy,” I said with a wry chuckle.
“What do you mean?”
I told Cassie what I’d seen in the shopping bag. “She’s either planning to start her own chain of chemists or she’s planning to get a whopper of a headache.”
“Or… she’s planning to give someone an overdose.”
“What?” I gave an incredulous laugh. “Where did you get that idea from?”
“I read this article about how dangerous it is to mix over-the-counter drugs like ibuprofen and aspirin. Even if you don’t take any single one in a large dose, the combination can be lethal. So if you wanted to poison someone and didn’t want to draw suspicion with a large overdose of a single drug, an easy way would be to mix them.”
“Well… okay, but I don’t understand why you think that woman—”
“Didn’t you hear her on the phone?”
I shook my head. “I wasn’t really paying attention.”
“She was getting really nasty—complaining about her ex-boyfriend who’d dumped her or something.” Cassie rolled her eyes. “Don’t think I blame him.”
“So? That doesn’t mean she’s planning to kill him with an overdose,” I said, laughing.
Cassie’s face remained serious. “Maybe. But I can tell you what she said before she hung up. She said: ‘I’m going to murder him if it’s the last thing I do!’”
My nails were so beautiful after the manicure that I found myself handling everything very gingerly as I strapped the cat carrier with my little tabby, Muesli, into the front basket and climbed on my bicycle the next morning to set off for work. I had overslept slightly so I cycled fast, anxious that I might not have enough time to check over the tearoom before we opened for the day. But as I pulled up in front of the Little Stables and jumped off my bike, I saw that I needn’t have worried. Someone had already arrived. The drapes had been drawn back and the windows opened to let in the fresh air. Through the glass panes, I could see the Old Biddies toddling around in their sensible orthotics, straightening the chairs and rearranging napkins and cutlery on the tables.
I smiled as I watched them: Mabel Cooke, Glenda Bailey, Florence Doyle, and Ethel Webb—four nosy octogenarians who ruled the roost in the little Cotswolds village of Meadowford-on-Smythe, where my tearoom was situated. They might have looked the stereotype of sweet old grannies with their vintage handbags, woolly white hair, and tissues stuffed up the sleeves of their cardigans—but anyone who underestimated them did so at their peril. Meddling in other people’s business was their speciality, especially if they thought a mystery might be involved. The only problem was, with their over-active imaginations and their love of Agatha Christie novels, the Old Biddies always thought that a mystery was involved! And they didn’t hesitate to jump, sensible orthotics first, into any murder investigation… much to the frustration of the Oxfordshire police.
Still, on this lovely June morning, they seemed nothing more than sweet old ladies, fitting in perfectly with their quaint surroundings. Like many Cotswolds villages, Meadowford had the pretty thatched-roof cottages and winding cobbled lanes so beloved of tourists searching for authentic “Olde England”. And my little tearoom, housed in an old Tudor inn, completed the experience—serving up traditional English afternoon tea in vintage porcelain teapots, accompanied by our signature scones with jam and clotted cream, as well as dainty finger sandwiches, cakes, and buns.
When I’d first had the wild idea of abandoning my executive career to open a tearoom on the outskirts of Oxford, I had no inkling if my dream could ever be turned into reality. It had been a huge gamble, leaving my high-flying job and sinking all my savings into this place, and the first few months had been nerve-racking, especially when an American tourist was found murdered by one of my scones barely a month after we opened! But now, just eight months later, I couldn’t believe how well things were going. Not only was the tearoom beginning to make a name for itself as having the best scones in Oxfordshire, but we were starting to get catering orders too, particularly from the prestigious Oxford University colleges and institutions.
I secured my bike then hurried into the tearoom, feeling a flash of pride as I always did every time I stepped into my little kingdom. I paused just inside the front door to let Muesli out of her carrier, then straightened and started to make my way to the kitchen.
Then I stopped short and stared.
Every. Inch. Of. The. Place. Was. Covered. In. Lace. Doilies.
From the white crocheted circles swarming over each table to the lace discs adorning the windowsills, from the scalloped doily covers over every sugar bowl and jam jar to the enormous knitted cobweb draped over the mantelpiece above the fireplace… the whole room was a sea of frothy vintage lace.
“Ah, Gemma, dear—we’ve been waiting for you to arrive,” said Mabel in her booming voice. The most formidable of the Old Biddies, she had a bossy manner that belied her well-meaning intentions and kind heart. She waved an imperious hand around the room. “Glenda, Florence, Ethel, and I were chatting during bingo yesterday—very tedious game; that Mrs Curtis must have asked the caller to repeat every number four times! She really ought to take her hearing aid back for a refund—anyway, we all agreed that something seemed to be missing in the tearoom. And then we realised what this place desperately needed.” She looked at me triumphantly. “Doilies!”
“D…Doilies?” I said faintly.
Glenda beamed. “And wasn’t it lucky, dear, that we happened to have several spare doilies at home? Though, of course, we were concerned that we might not have enough for the whole tearoom, so we asked several of the other senior residents in Meadowford to donate their spare doilies.”
“Uh… that was very kind of you.”
“And Ethel even whipped up four extra doily coasters last night. She is such a whizz with the crochet needle,” added Florence, smiling at her friend.
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