Criss Cross: Friendship Can Be Murder – Book 1 (extract)

Sun 24 June

 To my darling Cressida

Happy Birthday, Sweetheart! Have fun writing down all your thoughts and plans and dreams, then when we’re old and grey we can sit together on that terrace in Capri and watch the sun go down, drink a glass of wine and you can read me the spicy bits from this journal and we will have a good laugh and talk about the old days!

With all my love forever and ever

Thomas xx

Same day: 10.35pm

She must die!! I hate her!! I refuse to put up with her a moment longer, she is an evil, conniving old bitch without a grain of family feeling and it’s time she was dead!!

Mon 25 June—2.35pm

Have you noticed how some people just never seem to realise they’ve gone too far?

I was going to start off my new journal with something terribly erudite and wise. Like a new school notebook, I particularly wanted the first page to look lovely. But I suppose it really doesn’t matter if the first page isn’t perfectly neat and everything: the whole purpose of a journal is to pour out one’s innermost thoughts and give vent to all the frustrations that, as a nicely brought-up person, one can’t give full reign to in ‘real’ life, and so obviously even the first page can get a bit messy. And now just look at it!

But I digress. I must explain from the beginning…

It was my birthday yesterday. 32 already. God, I’m old! I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror this morning and even in the flattering south-facing light and all steamy and fresh from the shower, I’m absolutely certain I could see the tiniest line down the left side of my face from my nose to the corner of my mouth—I’m convinced it wasn’t there yesterday. Wonder if I’ve left it too late for Botox?

Among a number of very extravagant birthday gifts, my Darling Thomas gave me this sweet little journal. I’d mentioned weeks ago that I used to keep a journal when I was a melodramatic teenager, and how nice it was just to write down everything that happened and to really get it out of my system and add in lots of ‘grrr’ faces and heavy underlining, and lo and behold, the dear man, he surprised me with this journal for my birthday. So here I am.

It’s an absolutely beautiful book. It has a hard cover with a weird kind of gothicky design in the most gorgeous shades of black and purple and gold, with a magneticky bit in the front flap to keep it closed, and the pages, somewhere between A5 and American letter-size, are edged in gold too, so it feels very glamorous to write in—In fact I was a bit afraid to begin the first page, hence all the fuss about it looking nice and neat, I almost got a kind of writer’s block!

But all my good intentions and deep thoughts and years of accumulated adult wisdom and the desire to create something really special went out the window when my cow of a mother-in-law turned up on a ‘surprise’ visit and now my first page—well second really, under that really sweet little message from Thomas—Is absolutely ruined! I only hope to God Thomas doesn’t read it!

Not that she’d remembered it was my birthday any more than my own mother had—oh no! One can’t expect her (or either of them in fact!) to keep track of trivial little details like that. No, she needed Thomas’s advice about some financial matters, and thought she’d pop over. After all what’s an hour and a half’s chauffeured drive here or there? Of course she didn’t bother to ring first, see if we were in or free or anything. Clarice is used to everyone falling in with her plans.

‘I knew you wouldn’t be doing anything important,’ she says as she breezes in, dropping her coat in the middle of the hall, frowning around at the décor before settling herself in the drawing room, demanding tea. Not just the drink! By ‘tea’ she means that Victorian/Edwardian meal between Luncheon, as she calls it, and Dinner. She expected crustless sandwiches, crumpets, cakes (large and small), scones, jam and cream, the works. And copious amounts, of course, of tea-the-drink. China, not Indian. With lemon slices in a dainty little crystal dish, not 2 litres of semi-skimmed in a huge plastic container.

Thomas reminded her that it was my birthday and that consequently we had plans for the evening. She waved a negligent hand. Her hair, a shade too brave, was salon-perfectly waved if somewhat stiff-looking, and her clothes were at least one generation too young for her, but hideously expensive as well as just—well, hideous. Did I mention I hate her?

‘Oh that can be set aside. You can easily go out some other evening. My financial affairs are of the first import.’

Thomas looked at me. He didn’t want to fight with his mother and I knew there would be no point in trying to push him to resist the onslaught, so for poor Thomas’s sake, I sighed and shrugged and he sat down next to the old dragon and asked what she wanted to know. Meanwhile I dashed off to ring Monica Pearson-Jones and a few others, to let them know that we would either be horribly late for the theatre party, or quite possibly not turn up at all. I have to admit I was feeling quite cross and rather sorry for myself. However, Huw and Monica’s machine had to take the terrible news, as they were out. I hoped to God they weren’t already on their way.

When I got back to the drawing room, Clarice was banging on about her bloody cats, and Thomas was all glazed over and away-with-the-fairies-looking. Clarice just looked up and taking in my flat tummy and slender waist (which take me hours to maintain, btw) glared at me and said ‘so, still not knocked up yet then?’ And before I could respond with a frosty, well-constructed rebuttal, she turned to Thomas and said, ‘I told you she wouldn’t be any good. Why you couldn’t marry that Filipino girl the Honourable Addison-Marksburys brought back with them, I’ll never understand. Very good child-bearing, the Filipinos. And it’s not as though she would have expected you to take her anywhere.’

Thomas said nothing helpful, of course, just sat there like a rabbit in the headlights. And then, before I could recover my breath enough to pick my jaw up off the floor, at that moment, Huw and Monica arrived. I raced out into the hall, thinking I might be able to head them off, but just as I was discreetly mumbling to them just inside the front door, Thomas dashed out looking frazzled and dragged them in for a cuppa. Huw, only too glad to wade into a fight, immediately went in with Thomas, whilst Monica exchanged a ‘families, what can you do!’ eye-roll with me and we followed on at a more sedate pace, I with the awful sense that things were about to go even more horribly wrongerer!

How right I was. I could see Clarice eyeing them up and down. I knew she wouldn’t like Huw, because he can seem a tad brash on first meeting. He might have the breeding she prefers, but he doesn’t always act like a gentleman. Plus he takes great delight in saying exactly the wrong thing. Loves to shake things up a bit, does our Huw. But Monica, well, she’s lovely! Clarice couldn’t possibly find anything objectionable in Monica, surely?

She found something.

After eyeing them very obtrusively for several full minutes and barely murmuring even the merest of pleasantries when Thomas made the introductions, Clarice said to me, quite loudly enough for them to hear, though it was supposed to be a whisper,

‘Married his secretary, did he? She looks that type. Coarse. Rather Cheap. Eye to the main chance, one would imagine.’

Monica turned to glare, but before she could say anything, and as Huw was about to stroll to her defence, Thomas got their attention by forcing cake on them, but to no avail as, inspired once more, Clarice leaned towards me with another little gem.

He’s obviously a drinker. And looks like a bit of a lech, too. Just like Millicent Huntingdon’s first husband. Thoroughgoing bastard, that one. No back-bone, morally speaking.’

Our friends left just seconds later, Huw saying something over his shoulder about a ‘vile old bag.’ In fact the duration between Clarice’s comment and their car careering off down the drive was less than thirty seconds. I think that’s probably a record. I say ‘our friends’ but after the insults from Clarice, we’ll probably never see them again. Then of course, on being reprimanded for her poor manners, Clarice sulked and kept going on about how she didn’t know what the younger generation were coming to and blaming Thomas for not executing better judgment.

‘In more ways than one,’ she said, and eyed me with malice once more.

So as I was saying to begin with, some people just never seem to realise they’ve gone too far!

I mean, the vast majority of normal people, people like you and I, we just instinctively know the correct way to behave. We apologise when someone else bumps into us, we begin every complaint with ‘terribly sorry to be a nuisance, but…’ We’re nice. Pleasant. We have a kind of in-built mechanism, straight as a line in damp sand, an invisible barrier which prevents us stepping beyond the realm of reasonable and acceptable behaviour.

Some people do not.

Some people never read the signs, they ignore all warnings and plough doggedly on, intent only on saying what they want to say and doing what they want to do. They don’t care about your feelings. They turn up unannounced and uninvited, they change your plans without considering your wishes. They don’t notice the look on your face, the halting of your phrase, they are oblivious to the cooling of the atmosphere around them. They never notice that infinitesimal pause before you continue to hand around the petit-fours, a fixed smile plastered on your face, inane pleasantries tripping off your tongue. Some people remain completely and utterly ignorant of all the signs.

Everyone else, metaphorically speaking, has grabbed their handbags and jackets, collected their madeleine-tins from your kitchen, tossed the keys to the Range Rover to their husbands, dashed out of the door leaving kisses still hanging in the air, and are already on the slip road to the motorway whilst That Person is still looking vaguely around as a few motes of dust drift gently down to the Axminster. They are wearing that idiotic expression that says, ‘who me? What could I have possibly said?’ or even worse, ‘well I only said what everyone else was thinking’.

And they are always, always, always completely unaware when they have outstayed their welcome.

There’s only one way to deal with people like that.

One way and only one way.

You have to kill them.

They never take the hint, you see. They fail to detect the slight frost in your demeanour as they witter on, insulting your loved ones, criticising your friends, your home, your life. Such people cannot be taught, changed or reasoned with. In the end, it’s just easier for all concerned if you get rid of them before they truly become a Nuisance and make everyone with whom they come into contact completely and utterly miserable.

And if that seems a little harsh, just think for a moment about what these people do to your self-esteem, to your inner calm, to your peace of mind. When the phone rings, these are the people whose voice one dreads to hear. One begins to dread all family occasions and holidays because of That Person. Frankly, it’s just not worth the emotional and psychological trauma of putting up with them. Life is quite challenging enough. And that is the stage I’ve now reached with Clarice.

So.

That said, it’s one thing to say to oneself, Monday, water plants, collect dry-cleaning, go to library, bake fairy cakes for the One-to-One drop-in day-centre fundraiser, and quite another thing to just sort of slip onto the bottom of your to-do list, ‘oh and kill mother-in-law and get everything tidied up because dinner will be on the table at seven o’clock sharp due to drinks at eight-thirty at the Pearson-Jones’.

Things—unfortunately—just aren’t quite that simple.

The Grandes Dames of the murder mystery genre, practising their art in the early and middle parts of the twentieth century—what one might term the ‘Golden Age’ of detective fiction—espoused the pleasures of poisoning. Fly-papers were meticulously soaked to extract their lethal properties, berries and toadstools were carefully gathered and sliced and diced and surreptitiously introduced into steaming casseroles and tempting omelettes. On every domestic shelf such things as sleeping draughts and rat poison and eye drops sat unnoticed and unremarked, and a home was not a home without at least a few jars of cyanide or arsenic sulking forgotten in garden sheds and garages.

But, sadly, these items are notoriously tricky to come by nowadays in our ‘Nanny state’.

Of course, one watches these TV programmes that explain all about the forensic process, so that one is pre-armed with useful information. Knives wielded by the left-handed protagonist cut quite differently to those employed by a right-handed person. Equally so the short protagonist and the weak slash feeble protagonist.

In addition the actual wound inflicted by a classic blunt weapon can yield so much information about not just the weapon itself but also the attacker—the approximate height, stance, and even weight and probable gender, for example, and the ferocity of attack is sometimes a gauge as to motive and psychology. Firing a gun leaves residue on one’s clothes, gloves, and skin, and, contrary to popular belief, it can be quite a job laying one’s hands on a firearm.

According to the Daily Tabloid, a gun may readily be obtained at certain pubs in our larger cities for as little as £30, usually from a gentleman going by the name of Baz or Tel, but the problem is, these tend to be the kind of establishments one would hesitate to enter in broad daylight, let alone late in the evening.

Remember, it’s very difficult to get a decent glass of Merlot in this kind of hostelry, and one can’t just go in and hang about without making a purchase of some kind. If you do just go into the bar and stand or sit in a corner, the other patrons are likely to stare and nudge one another. They may even whisper to one another, ‘wot jer fink er game is then?’ or possibly, ‘Oi Tel, woss up wiv er, she too good fer us or summink?’

This is especially the case when one gentleman approaches and states that he and his friend, Gaz or Stevo or even ‘Arrison would like to buy you a beverage of some description, usually a Mojito or similar, and you are forced to politely but firmly decline. They are apt to be offended.

And if you do order a nice glass of Merlot, there’s always a momentary look of confusion on the face of the Landlord as he tries to recollect whether he has a corkscrew within easy reach, or how long ago he opened the half-empty bottle on the back counter—was it recently enough to avoid the expense of opening a brand new bottle?

Then he’ll ask if you’d like ice and lemon. Might as well add a cherry-on-a-stick and a little umbrella! And there’s no point in trying to charge it to your Diamond Visa or Titanium Amex—they much prefer to deal with cash. It’s altogether a rather unpleasant experience.

In any case, Baz or Tel are always surprisingly suspicious when one asks them if it would be possible to purchase a small Eastern-European revolver, something with a fairly hefty slug but small enough to slip into a small Louis Vuitton clutch-purse, or at a pinch into a Mulberry shoulder bag, or even, and here I may be straying into the realms of fantasy or James Bond (same thing, I suppose), even into the top of one’s stocking.

The gentleman invariably looks a bit puzzled and says something along the lines of, ‘‘ere that sounds a bit dodgy Darlin’. I don’t do nuffin like that.’ Well, of course it’s a bit dodgy, one points out, one is illegally attempting to buy a gun in a corner of the car park of a fleabag pub at eleven o’clock at night, and paying cash into the bargain. How could one possibly see it in any other light than dodgy? It doesn’t matter if you offer them £100, £200 or even £500 at this point, they just walk away shaking their heads and saying, ‘screw that, I don’t wanna get cort up in nuffin dodgy.’

I ask you.

The criminal classes aren’t what they once were. But what other choices does one have?

A pillow over the face in the dead of night is liable to leave a filament of goose-down in the lungs of your chosen recipient. This will immediately be detected by any half-decent forensic examiner and blabbed all over the Car-Crash Telly channel in a late-night special called Toffs Who Kill or something or the kind.

A bit of a bump with the car in a quiet part of town on a wet Wednesday afternoon may lead to eyewitnesses or CCTV footage recording your number plate for posterity. For goodness sake, tiny fragments of paint from the wing of your vehicle may embed themselves in the depths of the wound you inflict, and these same may be delicately reclaimed by a steady-handed science-nerd in a lab coat wielding a pair of sterile tweezers.

Murder is a difficult road to travel. But one must bear in mind the old maxim that nothing worthwhile is ever attained without a struggle. Therefore it is imperative to be utterly committed, to be dedicated in one’s approach, to persevere in the face of adversity and to make copious notes so that one may learn from one’s mistakes. And of course, it goes almost without saying, each stage must be planned in intricate, even tedious, detail.

Today I went to my local stationer’s—It’s so vital, I feel, that one supports local businesses wherever possible—and bought two notebooks, a small index card box, a set of ruled index cards, and a rather nice fountain pen. My husband seems to be under the impression that I require these items to catalogue my shoe collection. Sweet! And not a bad idea…but first things first.

Now, I’ve worked out I have approximately six weeks in which to plan and carry out my little project, and still have time for a decent mourning period before we have to be in Scotland for the ‘glorious twelfth’, my Thomas’s cousin Jessica (lovely woman!) always has a house party. Actually this year it’s the glorious thirteenth as the twelfth falls on the Sabbath, and one never shoots in Scotland on the Sabbath. Der! Thomas loves his shooting, so although I’m not a lover of messy pastimes, I always like to encourage him to relax and have a bit of fun, stockbrokers work so hard don’t they, and such high stress levels, one obviously doesn’t want them to crack up under the pressure!

Not, of course, that we would need a mourning period as such, as Thomas hates his mother almost as much as I do, but one must maintain appearances, and I’d need a good week, I’m absolutely certain, to sort out the contents of Highgates—she has accumulated so much old tat, although most of it is stored in boxes in the disused bedrooms, and has been sitting there untouched for simply decades. But it will take me a full day just to sort through the Spode and other china and porcelain in case there are any little gems lurking amongst the dross.

There are also two rather elderly and smelly cats that will have to have put to sleep, and of course the whole legal side of things to sort out. Thomas will have to see to that.

Then there’ll be the funeral to arrange.

Now one thing I do think is really important, and that is to ensure a really beautiful casket is purchased. And of course, it’s no good skimping when it comes to fittings, not if you want to do the job properly. Brass, highly polished, is the only thing that will do. Not that horrid plated stuff that rubs off as soon as you touch it. That’s what happened to Thomas’s colleague Miranda Kettle (she’s got the biggest nose I have ever seen, and the smallest chin! Nothing grows in the shade, does it?). She skimped on her mother’s coffin. We all noticed the green stain on the pall-bearers’ gloves, of course. No one said anything obviously, and in any case, Miranda herself didn’t notice. She had her nose buried in an extra-large gentlemen’s handkerchief most of the time, she was so inconsolably upset. Poor woman. Absolutely distraught throughout the entire funeral. Thought the mortgage had been paid off years ago! Such a beastly shock.

Same day: 5.45pm

I’ve just had a bit of a break to think about this a little longer. So I went to sit out on the terrace with a cup of tea. Then it came to me, and I had to dash indoors and fetch this journal.

Of course, the very thing!

The scourge of society nowadays: the house-breaker. Or, more precisely, the drug addict, who, as the tabloids will no doubt report, desperate to gain some funds for another few grammes of white powder to snort, breaks into a nice house in an attractive part of Ely in the hope of some opportunistic gain. Then is surprised by a feisty, elderly lady with a bit of oomph about her, and during the course of a desperate struggle, the evil perp bludgeons the poor old dear and makes off with some loot.

Meanwhile, I could be enjoying a well-deserved break at a health spa in—ooh, let me think—Cambridgeshire, perhaps?

This might actually work! 

Things to do:

Purchase rubber gloves, not those cheap ones, they make me itch.

Ditto black woollen ski mask or balaclava

Goggles

Also some black shoe polish (for face, obviously, so must make sure I purchase a ‘gentle’ formula) as I believe we’re actually out of black shoe polish at the moment.

I think I already have a black (or navy would suffice at a push) pac-a-mac somewhere in the rear cloakroom from that ill-fated walking holiday of 2010—Thomas had wanted to try something different—suffice to say, we went straight back to Antigua after that.

Oh, and black slacks.

Next, book visit to health spa. Tell Thomas am going away for a couple of days to a nice, reputable place in Cambridgeshire. Must buy a copy of The Lady in case none of my pals can think of anything in that area.

Will need to purchase a cheap, disposable holdall for disguise. (Could use a plastic grocery bag, I suppose, but it’s not really me. Also, this might scream homicidal housewife slash amateur-hour and want to look like I know what I’m doing, right tools for the right job etc etc but can’t actually use one of my own in case it’s traced back to me).

No need to buy a bludgeoning implement, as plenty of scope at Thomas’ mother’s house. Lots of beastly vases and figurines—some really quite large and heavy and ghastly but without any actual value—and, as will obviously have gloves on, can leave figurine in situ once used, no need concern oneself about disposal of same. Actually leaving the weapon behind looks better from a not-going-equipped point of view. More impromptu.

You know, I’m so excited. I really think this might actually work. Must just go and fish my little filofax out of my bag to work out a timetable. Then I can start writing in the headings on my index cards. Ooh Goody!

***

Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoyed this extract from book 1 of the Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy: Criss Cross. 

Click here to return to the My Books: Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy page.