Please enjoy this excerpt from Meddling With Murder by Ellie Campbell!
What the fudge?
The branch creaks alarmingly as I test my weight against it. For a second I think it might snap but then my foot slips and we part company anyway. Bark scrapes another layer off my grazed skin and to my horror I find myself tipping backwards, falling, falling…
Far beneath me my daughter Sophie gives an unwitting squeal, Henrietta’s twins shriek in unison and I hear son Josh call out ‘Mummeeee!’ when as much by luck as design my left arm catches a forked limb long enough for me to grasp it and come to a bone-jolting, shoulder-wrenching stop. Sweat drips down my body, my knees shake uncontrollably and something’s poking between my ribs like a sharpened spear, causing an actual hole through clothes into flesh.
Dangling, I somehow hook one leg round the main trunk and cling there like my life depends on it. Which, for the record, it does.
‘Hang on, Mum!’ Sophie yells for perhaps the fifteenth time. She’d wanted to climb up here but I’d told her it was too dangerous. When will I listen to my own advice?
I stop panting long enough to call down. ‘I’m OK, sweetheart. Perfectly safe.’ How long since I last clambered up a tree? Me, an overweight, unfit middle-aged, mother-of-two in not so skinny jeans. And what did I promise my family – that I’d avoid potentially risky situations? That any cases I took on would absolutely not involve capturing murderers or exposing criminals? Not that our patch of North London known as Crouch End is inundated with killings, just that I’ve somehow succeeded in entangling myself with two in the last eighteen months. And now the simplest of mundane jobs has turned an everyday school drop-off into what could possibly be my final farewell.
A terrified glance below shows Sophie clutching on to her younger brother’s arm, their long-standing feud forgotten as they contemplate their mother’s plight. Lauren, Henrietta’s eldest by two seconds, is hopping from foot to foot, pale with anxiety while her sister’s nervously studying her watch. I wonder what’s upsetting them most – the thought of Aunty Cathy’s untimely demise or being late for class. Yet again.
Three feet above me, inches from reach, a tortoiseshell cat stares down with baleful yellow eyes. I hold out a coaxing hand. ‘Here, Fluffy. C’mon, kitty. Pishhh whishh.’
Disregarding me entirely, he licks his paw before stalking further out, balancing on a twig, with the arrogant grace of a tightrope walker. Oh how I wish I’d ignored him when I saw that distinctive white-tipped tail swagger across the zebra crossing. But I’d spent weeks scouring backyards, crawling on hands and knees, peeking under parked cars, over hedges, listening to sweet old Mrs Thompson choke back sobs as I admitted failure.
I’m gathering my courage and strength to scale higher when my mobile rings. I wedge my bum into a crevice between branch and tree, tighten my hold and, with a few contortions worthy of the great Houdini, extract my phone from my pocket to peer at the screen.
Caller’s number withheld. Should I answer it?
Am I in any position to answer it?
Could be urgent.
‘Hello?’ I venture.
‘Is this…?’ A woman. Middle-aged at a guess, posh sounding. She drops to a muted whisper so low I have to crane to hear. ‘The HP…um…WS…um…thingy?’
Several months back I’d been donated this money, you see, ten thousand pounds, which was kind of hot, but gone cold. Semi-illegal – not to be returned. Brilliant timing as my husband, Declan, had recently re-evaluated what he wanted from life: Rhode Island Reds and a less pressurised career, I’d been suspended from work and my house cleaner, Pimple, was tired of domestic duties. I was thinking maybe it’s time I should do some soul-searching. So we, as in Pimple and myself, decided to start up a business.
‘That’s right,’ I say briskly, with enough softness to encourage conversation. ‘The H.P.W.W.O.C.S. Helping People Who Would Otherwise Commit Suicide. Or even H.P.W.M.O.C.S. – People Who Might Otherwise…but we’re called Crouch End Confidential now.’ Impromptu market research among friends had ended up with tongue-tied repetitions and lots of ‘You whats?’
We’d originally substituted the would for might, because after all, how can one predict who’ll kill themselves? Some people threaten it with no intention of going through with it and others, not a word and then boom – lives are devastated. Then there’s those who talk about it all the time and no one gives a hoot because they’re labelled attention-seekers and before you can say boom again – they carry out what they’d always said they’d carry out.
‘But you are that organisation? The ones who help with, uh difficult problems, like er…’
‘Lost pets?’ I finish for her, looking up again at Fluffy. ‘Yes, we do a fair amount of those.’ Far more than intended. ‘What kind do you have?’
‘Well, I-I…’ She seems at a loss. ‘Only—’
A strange wailing fills the morning air. At first I think it’s the cat, but it’s clearly a siren, volume increasing as it draws closer. Exceptionally loud now. Anyone would think it—
‘Is that the police?’ There’s a fearful edge to the woman’s voice. Or perhaps she’s merely anxious to be heard over the noise.
I glimpse through the branches, hearing cotton rip as I lean forward. A huge red vehicle’s speeding this way, lights blazing.
‘Fire engine,’ I report back. ‘Can’t see smoke but it must be nearby. They’re slowing down. They’re—’
Stopping right beside the kids…
What the blazes?
Sophie’s small face gazes up at me, expression distraught in the strobe lighting, finger pointing in my direction.
‘PERHAPS I’D…’ I find I’m screaming into the phone as the siren abruptly cuts out. I turn away from the cluster of grinning helmeted and booted firemen assembling at the foot of the tree as someone cranks up the ladder. Fluffy takes one look, turns tail and bolts down the other side. I modulate my voice to more professional tones. Perhaps I’d better ring you back I’m about to suggest politely, but too late. She’s gone.
Meddling With Murder
Crouch End Confidential, the agency started by housewife, Cathy O’Farrell, with ex-cleaner Pimple, is failing badly. Hardly surprising when their only clients are little old ladies seeking lost pets. Until the strange case of the missing dog…
Soon Cathy’s multiple problems include stolen bikes, a possible murder weapon, the sabotage of her friends’ new shop, drug-dealing yobbos targeting her children’s primary school and being forced to pose as the world’s most inept maths tutor. Worse, best friend Rosa hires her to investigate fiancé Alec and – horrors – Cathy’s husband Declan is intent on moving himself, Cathy and kids to the safer climes of rural Norfolk. Suddenly Cathy is endangering her marriage, friendships and her life to untangle these messes. But that’s what you get for meddling with murder…
Ellie Campbell is a pseudonym for sisters, Pam Burks and Lorraine Campbell, who write together from their respective homes in Surrey, England (Pam) and Colorado, USA (Lorraine). After years of selling short stories independently, they began their Ellie Campbell collaboration with a first novel, How To Survive Your Sisters, followed by When Good Friends Go Bad, Looking For La La, To Catch A Creeper and Million Dollar Question. They write contemporary women’s fiction laced with humour, romance, and mystery. Meddling With Murder is their 6th novel and follows Looking For La La and To Catch A Creeper in the funny, cozy ‘Crouch End Confidential’ mystery series.