Off-the-Beaten-Track Detective Agency
Scotland Yard was having a bad time. Not only was the most notorious murder case of the year unsolved*, newspapers were hinting that Parliament was getting ready to decommission the Yard and outsource detective work. Heaven knew what sort of third-rate agency they would hire!
Then there was the Queen, who was miffed because the Yard had bungled the Crakkerjack Ripper case by unwittingly pinning the murders on Crakkerjack and Ripper, two horses who happened to be owned by the Queen's granddaughter.. "We had no idea they were horses" cut no ice at Buckingham palace, where the ever earthy Prince Philip compared the cream of the Yard's agents to an obvious part of a horse's anatomy.*
Better to suck it up and deal directly with agencies that owed Scotland Yard a few favors. If they solved the case, Scotland yard could at least share some credit.
Chief Inspector Dreyfus Lestrade seemed unable to make even that plan work, though. The best agencies, because of their success, had all the business they could handle, thank you very much! He was at the last name on his list now, an unorthodox agency called Off-the-Beaten Track Detective Agency.
"They aren't kidding about being off the beaten track," he exclaimed, noting that their home office was in Enfield, a tiny Massachusetts village that was ostensibly underwater in the middle of Quabbin Reservoir. "Do the staff go to work in scuba gear?" he wondered, dialing their number.
*A serial killer had been killing fat French women and high-church Unitarians. Yeah, I know, you'd think there wouldn't be any, but it's a big world, even for London. The only clues found at the scene were wrappers for oat bran cream puffs.
*The Crakkerjack Ripper killed young women in some particularly disgusting ways, then left a box of Crakkerjacks next to their bodies. The boxes contained neither Crakkerjacks nor toys, just a taunting note. One victim who refinished furniture got a note that said, "The Lady Varnishes." Another victim, who sold shirts for a sports memorabilia store in a shopping plaza got a note saying, "The Mall-Tees Falcons." So it went.
"OBT Detectives," warbled a plummy voice, "Jessica Fletch speaking. How may we help you?"
"Oh, good, you haven't drowned yet," Lestrade said. "I'm Dreyfus Lestrade of Scotland Yard, with an urgent request for assistance."
"Ah, yes, Dimity said you'd be calling," Ms Fletch said.
"Wait, who is Dimity, and how could she possibly have known that?" Lestrade exclaimed.
"I'll explain it all if you'll be calm and listen carefully," said a matronly voice behind him.
Lestrade dropped the phone and turned around in disbelief. There in his office, behind him, was a middle-aged woman with a tea trolly. She was pouring tea into two cups.
"No one can possibly get in here without my knowing!" Lestrade snapped.
"You're used to dealing with the living, Inspector," said the woman. "Milk? Lemon? sugar?"
"What is that supposed to mean?" Lestrade said, less sure of himself now.
"Which part? Tea is made from dried leaves grown in tropical places. Lemon is a citrus fruit...."
"No, no, that's not the mystery. You aren't supposed to be able to sneak in here like that.
Well, maybe some lemon and a lump of sugar...."
"I'm a ghost, Inspector," the woman said, handing him his tea. "My name is Dimity Marple Wibblescone. I was a great detective before I died, and I have no intention of letting the small detail of death force me to retire. I can pass through doors that the living don't even know exist."
"Is your assistant a ghost too?"
"Jessica? Oh, she's very much alive. I think you'd like her...."
"Try one of the scones, Inspector," Dimity said, handing Lestrade a cup of tea and a scone. "They are the wibblescones to which I gave my name."
"What's in this?"
"Whatever I had on hand," Dimity said cheerfully. "You say 'wibble' when you're at a loss for words, so a wibblescone is what you make when you're at a loss for a scone recipe. This has raisins and white chocolate bits, with the usual flour, etc. And I know you're wondering if it's real."
Lestrade took a bite and found that he liked the scone. Dimity continued: "Except for me, everything you see here is from the world of the living, same as you. What's different is the force field around us, which lets me, a ghost, bring a tea set here from Massachusetts and scones from my kitchen in Fuffex, without the usual transportation hassles."
Lestrade cocked one eye. "That sounds like science fiction mumbo jumbo. How could any of it work?"
"Sorry, it's against GCP to reveal the exact method."
"God's Cosmic Plan. Let's just say there are doors between dimensions if you know where to find them. Now, on to the mystery of the cream puff killer."
"How did you know?...."
"Even a dead detective can read about your travails in the newspaper."
"So you know about my humiliation at the hands of L'Union des Grosses Femmes Francaises?"
"The Association of Fat French Women is disappointed in you for not bringing their killer to justice. It was pure accident that they were having their annual convention in London rather than Paris. When they lost three of their members, they got emotional, and I can understand that. But at least they didn't throw pies at you or chase after you on the street."
"I assumed that was because throwing pies would be a waste of food."
"You haven't been attacked by the high-church Unitarians, have you?"
"I think the last one was one of the murder victims. There are none left to organize."
"Well, let's start with the one clue we do have: wrappers from oat-bran cream puffs were left at the scene of every murder. If you hire us to take the case, we will track down every bakery in the world that makes that kind of cream puff. There shouldn't be very many to visit. Once we can find a connection between one of their customers and the times and places of the murders, we'll be that much further along."
"Okay, you're hired. Just don't make me eat any of those cream puffs. They sound ghastly"
"Jessica tasted one an hour ago, and she would agree with you."
Dimity seemed to be listening to someone else, and abruptly told Inspector Lestrade that she needed to be off.
"How will I get in touch?" the Inspector exclaimed.
"Just call Jessica at OBT. I think she's actually found a promising lead." Dimity placed the cups and saucers back on the trolly, and wheeled it through an invisible doorway, vanishing from view. There was a little pop as the force field itself went away.
Lestrade gave a shrug and resumed the paperwork he had been doing.
Ten minutes later the phone rang.
"Inspector, this is Jessica" said the plummy voice he had heard before. "What a coincidence that a bakery in my home town of Cabbage Cove sells oat bran cream puffs. I'm on my way there, and Dimity will swing by and pick you up as well, so you can question the proprietor."
"What? How?" Lestrade sputtered.
"She has a little car which can travel between dimensions," Jessica said cheerfully. "The only stipulation is that you wear a blindfold. It's the GCP thing again, I'm afraid. Don't worry, the trip will be short and you won't hear too many strange things on the way. Ah, she says she's already in your office." Jessica hung up.
Lestrade sighed and looked behind him, where an Interdimensional Express car was waiting, with Dimity at the wheel. Lestrade got into the passenger seat, put on the blindfold, and a few minutes later heard the sound of the tide coming in on Cabbage Cove Beach.
"Blindfolds off," said Dimity cheerfully.
Lestrade looked around, blinking. "It's just an alley between two buildings," he exclaimed.
"Of course it is," Dimity said. "We can't let anyone else see us. You know, GCP and all that. Jessica is waiting in front with a local connection, her cousin I believe."
Lestrade got out of the car. With a poof it vanished. He walked out to the street, which was filled with quaint touristy type shops, with stores for the locals mixed in here and there.
Jessica stood in front of a coffee shop which was called Wee Deoch an' Donut. She was tall and blond, with a square jaw, dimpled cheeks, and sparkling eyes. "Inspector Lestrade?"
"I'm Jessica Fletch, and this is my cousin Jonathan Flyntch."
Jonathan was as tall as Jessica, but his hair was raven black. Otherwise, they looked so much alike that they could have been brother and sister.
"Is this where the oat bran cream puffs are sold?" Lestrade asked as they entered the Wee Deoch and Doris.
Jessica rolled her eyes. "I think they have to give them away most of the time," she said, ushering her companions to a little table next to the wall, where a poster on the local Scottish whaling industry was prominently displayed.
"Was the town settled by Scots?" Lestrade wondered.
Jonathan nodded. "You'd be surprised how much of a draw Scottish whalers are for the tourist industry," he explained.
"Sometimes without a shred of good taste, though," Jessica said with a sigh. "Jonathan and I grew up in the Plaid Whale Inn, which our grandparents ran."
"Are there actually any plaid whales?" Lestrade asked.
"Just oatmeal and cabbage," Jonathan said, "hence the town's name."
"Except it was intended as sarcasm," Jessica added, "cabbage being a synonym for money, as in tourist money. Anyway, while you're here you might asd well try Rumbledethumps, an authentic Scottish pie made of cabbage, potatoes, and cheese."
"With oat bran cream puffs for dessert?" Lestrade asked as the waiter arrived to take their order.
"We don't serve those any more," the waiter said. "Too many customers felt ill after eating them."
"Did you make them yourself?" Jonathan Flyntch asked.
"No, we had them shipped in from the Blue Violet Tea Shop in Chartreuse, South Carolina."
Numerous eyebrows went up at this revelation. The three detectives ordered coffee and Plaid Whale muffins – which contained raisins, cranberries, and white chocolate bits. The muffins arrived in wrappers that sported the image of a gray whale in a plaid suit. Lestrade had to admit that the whale looked remarkably dapper.
"I think I've met the proprietress of the Blue Violet Tea Shop," Jessica said as they were leaving the Wee Deoch and Donut.
As they passed the alley, they noticed that Dimity was waiting for them with a somewhat larger vehicle.
"How did you know we'd need to go somewhere?" Lestrade asked her.
"Inspector, I must remind you again that good detective skills don't go away when one dies," Dimity said.
Not only was the car larger, but Dimity had three sets of blindfolds for her passengers.
The Blue Violet Tea Shop was in the old section of Chartreuse. Elegant antebellum homes with beautiful gardens and magnolia trees lined a quiet street. A woman with bright red hair and intelligent eyes welcomed them into the shop, which had lavish displays of tea products, interspersed with vintage teapots.
"Hi, I'm Theda Ocher," the woman said. "Today's special is gunpowder green tea with
"Do you serve oat bran scones?" Jessica asked.
Theda frowned. "I can whip one up for you – there are plenty of shells left, and whipping cream takes no time at all. But may I ask why you would want one?"
"We're detectives looking for clues to the Cream Puff Killer murders in London," Jessica said.
"Oh, the wrappers," Theda exclaimed. "I read about them. We don't put them in wrappers. At least, the one-armed man who sold us the shells didn't give us any. But if you'd like the rest of our shells, take them with my blessing. Nobody likes the darn things."
"Well, while we're here, we might as well try the specials you just mentioned, "Jonathan said.
"Is it my imagination, or is everything named after a color here?" Lestrade wondered after Theda left. The others rolled their eyes.
"We need to find out more about the one-armed man," Jessica said.
"Here are the shells," Theda said, bringing them a box with the words "Loch Bun Bakers"
on the sides.
"It's a Scottish company," Lestrade said, peering at the box through a magnifying glass.
When Theda brought the tea and scones, Lestrade asked her about the one-armed man.
"His name was Fred Jackson, and he was trying to interest the American market in some delicious but healthy snacks," Theda said. "I don't know about healthy – oat bran is supposed to keep your cholesterol low – but delicious they were not!"
"Looks like a trip to Scotland," Lestrade as he left the tea shop with Jessica and Jonathan.
"You probably want to go alone," Jessica said. "Off the Beaten Track has other cases to solve, and I'm behind in most of them."
"Well, thanks for helping. We're making slow progress, at least I hope so."
"You seem disappointed, Inspector," Dimity said to Lestrade as the Interdimensional Express left South Carolina for the United Kingdom.
"I had hoped to have Jessica's help when we arrive in Scotland."
"She's pretty, isn't she," Dimity winked. "Technically, I'm the agent assigned to your case, and as you can see, I'm right here beside you. That won't change. What will change is our itinerary. We're not going straight to Scotland. Rather, I'm going to the tiny village of Bloody Starlings in the Cotswolds. I want you to see the house I lived in when I was alive."
"I'm sure it's lovely, but do we have time for a social call?"
"Not just social, Inspector. I bequeathed the house to my niece Lorelei, who happens to be an accomplished scientist. There's a lab in her house where she detects poisons and anomalies in material brought in from crime scenes. She will closely examine the oat bran and send her analysis to Scotland yard so the crime lab there can tell whether it's the same as the oat bran the Killer used. She has helped Scotland Yard many times, as you must surely know.
Lestrade hit his head with his fist. "Of course! Her code name is Starling Siren, isn't it?"
"And if you're nice to her, she could be valuable as an extra detective in Loch Bun."
Lestrade was going to say, "Why wouldn't I be nice?" but the Interdimensional Express chose that moment to stop. The blindfold came off and he looked out the window at a charming cottage with roses and ivy growing along the front. An attractive thirtyish woman was standing by the front walk to greet them.
"Hi, I'm Lorelei," she said, helping Lestrade out of the car. "My lab is set up. I will fax my results to the yard ASAP."
Lestrade handed her the box of oat bran shells. She carefully examined one. "I think something is off about these," she commented. "They're a bit heavier than they should be, and they don't smell quite right. Oh, and Inspector Lestrade, feel free to catch the sights in town, but don't stand under the bloody starlings. They make a terrible mess!"
Dimity nudged Lestrade in the ribs. "Admit it, you're thinking that my niece is one of the sights. But don't get carried away. Her husband is a lawyer, and her sons could try the patience of a saint. What you can hope for is a tasty meal. I've asked her to make her special beef stew for us. And there's no oat bran in it!"
"Lunch will be ready in about an hour," Lorelei told Lestrade. "You can make yourself at home here, or I could ask the Vicar's wife to show you around the town."
Iris Robins was the Vicar's wife. She was dressed in tweed. "Watch out for the puddles and the starling droppings," she cautioned Lestrade as she led him past the church, where an overgrown garden seemed to mock the building's dignified presence. There was a wishing well further along, and a charming bridge, and all sorts of townspeople walking around a pleasant Cotswold town square.
The general store hosted the local post office, where a bossy lady kept things in order. There seemed to be only two things missing: a town drunk, and a village idiot. Not that Lestrade was complaining. There was a cafe next to an enormous shade tree. he avoided that, as the branches were full of starlings.
Back at Lorelei's house, he enjoyed a hearty meal of beef stew. Unlike the other places he had gone lately, Aunt Dimity was in full view at the table.
"I'll send my findings along to Scotland Yard later today, Lorelei said. "It's a terrible case, and I would like to help bring the killer to justice."
"We're frankly stumped by that case," Lestrade admitted. "The victims were all dead before they were stabbed. There are no signs of strangulation or other physical violence. That leaves only poison as a cause, but the labs could find no evidence of it. No witnesses either. You'll be a miracle worker if you can sort this out."
"Me, work miracles? Well, I've not been all that successful at keeping the twins under control," Lorelei admitted. "It would take a real miracle to do that."
The next stop was Loch Bunthorne in northern Scotland. Lestrade hoped to find the bakery where the mysterious oat bran shells had been baked, but first he had to be introduced to yet another colorful local character. In this case, it was a charming woman named Beth MacHamlet, the first women to serve as a local constable. Beth asked Lestrade to stay for tea, which was accompanied by an oat scone from Loch Bun Bakery.
He accidentally dropped part of his scone on the floor, where Slugger, Beth's dog, ate it along with part of a caraway seed bun that had fallen earlier.
Suddenly, the dog was choking and writhing on the floor.
Inspector Lestrade and Beth MacHamlet rushed the dog to the local animal hospital.
While they were waiting for the veterinarian to find what was wrong, Lestrade's cell phone rang.
"Lestrade, it's Lorelei in Bloody Starlings" came the voice on the other end. "I have preliminary results for my analysis of the oat bran shells."
Lestrade walked to a corner of the waiting room so he could have some privacy. "What have you found?" he asked.
"There's a match between the oats in the shells and the oat content in the crumbs from the Cream Puff Killer's wrappers. Otherwise, only one thing differs between the two samples."
"Really? What is the difference?"
"There are traces of caraway seed in the wrappers, but not in the shells you gave me."
"That's really strange. How could caraway seeds be deadly?"
"In this case, the caraways seeds should not have been given to the dog. They're toxic for dogs."
"I should tell Beth and the doctor, then," Lestrade said.
With his stomach pumped out, Slugger responded well, and was soon on the mend. A happy conclusion for that crisis, and yet something nagged at Lestrade's mind.
Back at the station, Lestrade asked Beth to tell him what she knew about the Loch Bun bakery.
"Well, they've been here about ten years. They grow their own oats, in a field next to the bakery. Brilford Whimsley runs the operations, and his sister Sara does all the baking. Fred Jackson is an assistant of some sort. He seems to be on the road a lot as some kind of salesman."
Just then Beth's phone rang. Her eyebrows went up when she heard what the caller had to say.
"Speak of the Devil," she told Lestrade softly, covering up the receiver. "Sarah is on the line, but not with good news. She's filing a missing persons report on Brilford and Fred."
"Ask her if she'd like us to come down to the bakery and talk to her," Lestrade suggested.
Beth relayed this message, explaining that an Inspector had come all the way from Scotland Yard to speak with them, and would like to hear what she had to say.
Lestrade expected to ride in Beth's car, but the bakery was just across the street and down a few houses. They walked over.
Sarah Crocker was short and plump. In happier times she might have smiled a lot, but now there were worry lines across her brow. The bakery was clean and well-managed, a testament to her efficiency.
"Fred Jackson came here yesterday morning and asked Brilford to come with him," Sarah said. "Neither of them said a word to me, but I saw them leave with a third man."
"Could you describe him?" Lestrade asked.
"Big and burly, like a bodyguard or crime syndicate enforcer. I could see the bulge of a firearm in his jacket," she said. "They seemed upset, which I took to mean a forced abduction. They had never been known to leave in that way before. That's why I've come to you," she told Beth. "If Scotland Yard in interested in them, I'm even more worried," she added with a glance at Lestrade.
"Has your brother ever confided in you about the business side of the bakery?" Lestrade asked.
"I basically follow orders and bake and keep the customers happy," Sarah said. "Not many of them like the oat bran products, but we do a good business in oatmeal bread, rolled oats, and oat scones."
"How long have you been making oat bran cream puff shells?" Lestrade asked.
"Less than six months. When I told Brilford no one in their right mind would eat them, he laughed and said he intended to sell them worldwide. He thought there was a market for oat bran cream puffs."
"Have you seen reports on the news about the ladies who were killed by an assailant who left oat bran cream puff wrapper next to them?"
"Yes. I can't imagine why anyone would do that, or why those wrappers would be involved."
Could you show us one of the wrappers you use?"
When Sarah handed over a wrapper, Lestrade put it in an evidence bag.
"It would help us if we knew a little bit more about your brother and his assistant," Beth said softly.
"There's not much to tell," Sarah said. "We're from Paris originally. Loki Whimsley, our father, was always looking for the next business opportunity, so he dragged us around from country to country. When oats and oat bran became famous for reducing cholesterol levels, he brought us here and bought a bakery to cash in on the profits he expected to find. Mom got hooked on Scottish cuisine and gained a lot of weight – something that the Parisians would have frowned on. Dad pulled some strings and got Brilford a job touting oat products with the slogan 'It's the right way to eat.'"
"Does your family subscribe to any particular religion?" Lestrade asked.
"Not really, except for Mom, who was a high church Unitarian."
There was a knock at the door. "We're closed for the night," Sarah hollered.
"Surely you would be open to family, no?" came a cultivated voice.
"It's Lord Peter Whimsley," Sarah said, getting up and opening the door.
"I expected you to be older, somehow," Lestrade told Lord Peter, introducing himself.
"Oh, the person you were expecting was my grandfather," Lord Peter said, shaking hands all around. "He'd be at least 110 if he were still with us. I'm Lord Peter the Third. I see you have guests, Sarah. I just dropped in to see if there was any news about Brilford. He was always my favorite cousin – after you, of course, Sarah."
"Are you involved in murder investigations like your grandfather?" Lestrade asked.
"I learned a lot from him when I was much younger, but I'm more of a defense lawyer now," Lord Peter said. To Sarah he said, "Would you happen to have some tea and a scone?"
Sarah brought the tea tray. Lord Peter put a drop of caraway extract in his tea for his digestion. He took a sip. When he started eating the scone, however, he began to turn blue and passed out.
"Two emergency room visits in one day. This can't be a good omen," Beth muttered as she helped the medical technicians put Lord Peter into the ambulance for transport.
"Be careful not to get Lord Peter's coat dirty," Sarah cautioned them.
"Is Lord Peter particular about his clothing?" Lestrade asked as he sat beside Sarah.
"Oh, yes," she replied. "He has nine tailors."
Happily, Lord Peter lost neither his health nor his coat. Once his stomach was pumped out, he recovered fast. Lestrade asked him some questions about Brilford.
"Sarah might not ant to mention this, but something happened to Brilford after his father died," Lord Peter said.
"Watching your father get killed by a Quality Oats truck will make you think twice about the company you've been making commercials for."
"Did he seem to want vengeance against Quality Oats?"
"Well, he was still under contract to them, and he never reneged on that, but you could tell he was pretty angry. It was around that time that he became interested in genetically modified crops."
"It interests me that your train of thought would go in that direction," Lestrade observed.
"I guess I need to spell it out," Lord Peter said with a sigh. Before Loki's death, I came to the bakery often for oat scones, and I always put caraway extract in my tea. The combination never bothered me then. Why would I suddenly pass out now?"
A whispered "Psst" behind him led Lestrade to excuse himself and go to a corner so he could confer with Dimity without her having to show herself to the others.
"Let's keep the investigation on track, shall we?" Dimity said. "The burly man who went off with Brilford Whimsley and Fred Jackson should be visible on the shop's surveillance cameras. Identify him, and we should know more about the people involved in this."
"Good point," Lestrade said.
"Second point: obviously some substance in caraway products interacts badly with something that's in the oats now, but wasn't a year ago. It's probably not paracetamol, which is known to interact with caraway."
"Why is that?"
"Because that interaction is only seen in mice, not in humans."
"How did you know?" Lestrade exclaimed.
"I asked Jessica, who phoned Lorelei for confirmation."
"But that was absurdly quick!"
"Thank you. I told you, death has not diminished my sleuthing prowess."
"So, do you have a proposal as to where we go with this?"
"As a matter of fact, I do. The special oats that Brilford raises behind the bakery need to be thoroughly analyzed. Are they genetically modified to contain something that's innocent by itself, but lethal when mixed with caraway seeds?"
"That seems like a tall order, if no such interactions can be found in the scientific literature."
"I gathered that you'd say that, so I've taken the liberty to access my contacts in the spirit world."
"Semele Labs has done more research on oats than any other organization. Lars Avena, the founder, told me so. He has occasionally haunted his son, who runs the lab now. Just a minute ago, he contacted his son, who is willing to look into the caraway interactions. he has followed the oat bran murders with some horror, and is happy to be part of bringing the murderer to justice. And you're welcome, Inspector Lestrade."
All of this was rather a lot for Inspector Lestrade to process. He had been on a whirlwind tour of numerous sites worldwide for almost two days, and he could tell from the hundreds of unread emails and texts in his cell phone that his underlings at Scotland Yard
needed him for the other cases that the agency was trying to solve.
He needed to delegate the necessary tasks in this case to others, so he asked Beth MacHamlet to look for surveillance camera footage of the burly man. Dimity was going to pursue the provenance of Brilford's lethal oats whether he asked her to or not, so he made the request official. He told Jessica everything he knew so far, and tasked her with coordinating things and keeping him abreast of new developments.
Dimity dropped him off at Scotland Yard, where he was insanely busy for the next two days.
On the third day, though, Jessica forwarded the burly man's camera footage to Lestrade, with a note that his facial scans had matched up with one of the suspects in the Crakkerjack Killer case. There was also a match with the mystery of the three little Kittens who lost their mittens. This latter case seemed like a snafu at first, until Lestrade realized that the burly man was with his toddler son at a reading of a children's classic in a store called ReadingPower. This suddenly looked promising, until Lestrade called the store (which was in Australia, of all places!) and asked for the man's name. Something about the name – Joey Gdaymate – seemed fishy. It was probably an alias.
Lestrade turned his attention back to the footage that connected the burly man with the Krakkerjack murders. Here he seemed to be the boyfriend of one of the victims, a Miss Gwendolyn Chumsley. He turned to the casework on Miss Chumsley, only to find that the "boyfriend" was mistaken in his identification. He gave his name as George Windsor, another obviously fraudulent name. When Lestrade tried calling the telephone number the burly man gave, the peanut seller at the Fuffexshire Zoo answered the phone. Lestrade was about to tear out the little hair he had left, when he remembered that Dimity Marple Wibblescone hailed from Fuffex, and might be able to get the lowdown on this connection.
When he picked up the phone to call Jessica, Dimity was waiting patiently in front of his desk. "Oh, good, you've saved me time by averting a call to Off the Beaten Track," he said.
"Nice save, Inspector," Dimity said warmly. "You'll be a great detective yet!"
"Having said that," Dimity went on, "there's an obvious question you didn't ask when you were talking to the manager of that children's store in Australia."
"I don't follow you," Lestrade said.
"That's why there's a problem. You didn't ask for the name of the child, or find out if the mother was there. Turns out the mother is Amelia Avena. Does the name ring any bells?
"Avena as in the Semele Labs?"
"Bingo. I asked Jessica to track this information down, and then I had Lars pester his son again – don't worry, the son gets pestered so often that he's used to it by now. The Avena family is large and multinational, but a few genealogical societies were able to lend a hand. Amelia's husband, I'm afraid, is Mordecai Avena, Lars's third cousin once removed, and a major pain in the butt for the rest of the family."
"He's a brilliant psychopath who is suspected of using genetic manipulation to create all kinds of nasty things. You do not want to let him know you're even aware of his existence or capacity for doing harm."
"Which is why you've put the Cone of Silence around us as we speak," Lestrade said.
"Well, partly. The force field around us is masking the fact that we are currently in orbit around Saturn. From here on in, we need to be very secretive. His brilliance knows very few bounds. He could have found a way to track everything you have been saying in the last three days. Our playbook going forward will need to emphasize how stumped we are. In other words, your talent for seeming to be a clueless screwup is going to come in handy."
Lestrade didn't know whether to be flattered or insulted by this last sentence, but he figured that Dimity had the best shot at keeping secrets from this monstrous psychopath.
The next day, Jessica called with the results of some lab tests that had been done on the shells from the oat bran cream puffs. "It seems that a new poison has been created from the interaction of oat bran and caraway seeds," Jessica summarized.
"But only Brilford Whimsley's oat bran, I hope," Lestrade said.
"Correct. The lab technicians are proposing to honor you by naming the poison Lestradulism."
"It warms my heart to know my name will be known to future generations. Or not. Can you find a way to remove those deadly oats behind Whimsley's bakery?"
"Actually, that's a matter for the Scottish authorities. I've alerted them, by the way, but they're skeptical about the danger. I'm sure most of them enjoy oat bread with caraway seeds, and they've never suffered any harm."
"Imagine the horror if those evil oats got into the general food supply, and interacted with caraway...."
"Let me ask Beth MacHamlet to see if the bakery is still using the oats."
An hour later, Jessica was back with bad news.
"Sarah Crocker says that huge bags of the oats have disappeared, as well as a bag of caraway seeds," she told Lestrade."
"By any chance, would you happen to know where the headquarters of Quality Oats is located?" Lestrade asked.
"Health Mountain, Pennsylvania, according to Google."
"I hope their plant has good security."
"I hope so too, for the world's sake."
"I will have someone from Scotland Yard warn them. I just hope we're in time."
Lestrade had a busy schedule the next day, so he wasn't amused when, shortly after 3:00 p.m. a certain vague buzzing entered his head. He didn't need to look up to know Dimity was back in his life. "Good news or bad news?" he said, not looking up from the paperwork he was going through.
"Not much of the former, I'm afraid," Dimity said, "unless you count the fact that Jessica
didn't drown and our case files are kept in a secure force field."
Lestrade looked up. Jessica was wrapped in a blanket. She looked thoroughly drenched.
"Let me guess," Lestrade said. "Vandals punctured your watertight ceiling, letting Quabbin Reservoir inundate your office. Well, now you can relocate to a more sensible locale, one with fewer fish."
"Then there's the vandalism at the lab where Aneva Avena was working on an antidote for Lestradulism."
"With a name like that, he must not know whether he's coming or going," Lestrade cracked. Dimity groaned. "Come on, Dimity," Lestrade said. "You never knock. You never ask whether I'm in any condition to deal with your case, important though it may be. Plus, today is grueling so far, and you've just made it more so."
"Okay, fair enough," Dimity conceded. "Aneva had a backup disc with her findings, and we have her in a new facility in the Himalayas."
"Has anyone been poisoned by Lestradulism lately?"
"No. It's just a matter of time, but that time isn't here yet."
Lestrade sighed. "Maybe some tea would be a good idea right about now. Do you have any wibblescones?"
Dimity smiled. "For you, I can always come up with some."
Dimity got into her little car and disappeared through a hole in the force field. She was back three minutes later, but she had more than tea and wibblescones with her. She also had Lorelei, Jessica Fletch and Beth MacHamlet. "Since events are moving so fast, I thought we could field our ideas together while we have tea," Dimity said.
"I might as well start things rolling, then," Lestrade said. "What we know so far is that
our primary suspect, Brilford Whimsley, somehow seems to have come unglued after his father was killed by a Quality oats truck. Apparently he wishes to get revenge on them."
"How does that explain the murders of three innocent French women and a high church Unitarian?" Lorelei asked.
"He may already have felt vindictive toward his mother for moving him from cosmopolitan Paris to some backwater in Scotland," Lorelei suggested.
"Excuse me?" Beth exclaimed.
"So, apparently Whimsley is the key factor," Jessica said. " He was boiling with resentment against Quality Oats and his mother. There's your motive. But how did he get the means and the opportunity?"
"Mordecai Avena may have given him the means," Jessica said. "Now we need answers as to what Mordecai would have gotten out of the deal by supplying Whimsley with genetically modified oats."
The phone on Lestrade's desk rang. He stepped out of the force field to answer it. His face fell as he listened to his caller. Back in the force field, he told the others that the stock for Quality Oats was in freefall after media reports that a hundred thousand people had become sick from eating their instant oatmeal in the last two days.
"I imagine that you could make a lot of money by shorting Quality Oats stock if you knew in advance that the stock was going to take a nosedive," Jessica said.
"Money is always a strong motive," Lestrade said. "But this doesn't explain why none of the sick customers died, while four people died earlier."
"Perhaps the toxin is dose-dependent," Beth said. "Mixing a little bit of oats and powdered caraway seeds would make people sick but not kill them. And the targets weren't of equal importance to Whimsley. He really loathed those poor women for resembling his mother. He had nothing against the people who bought Quality Oats products; he just needed a way to pay for developing the toxic oats. Mordecai gets lots of money from shorting the stock. Whimsley gets his revenge, plus some of the money, if that interests him ."
"How about Fred Jackson?" Lorelei wondered.
"Maybe just a paycheck," Jessica surmised. "Let's be careful going forward, though. We don't know if there are others involved. Whoever they are, they have the means to get into Avena Labs and ruin an experiment, as well as – AHCHOO! – force me to swim for my life."
"Let's leave it this way, then," Dimity said, putting the cups and saucers back on the trolly. "We must assume that our adversaries are capable of hacking into our computers and tapping our phones. The only secure way to communicate with each is in this force field."
"We'll be seeing a lot of each other, then," Beth said. "I'll need a good cover story for my abrupt absences from the station."
"We all will," Lestrade said, getting up to go back to his desk.
The next morning, bright and early, they were back together discussing a host of new developments.
"It's amazing how a few hundred thousand sick people can make the powers that be take things seriously," Beth MacHamlet said. "I've just watched the authorities cut down all of Whimsley's oats and take them in for further inspection."
"That's partly my doing," Lestrade offered. "I called everybody I could think of. As soon as they heard about the oatmeal crisis in America, they decided to act."
Jessica was looking much more chipper this morning. "There's more bad news from Quality Oats." The others looked worried at this. "It's not what you think," she added. "There are massive recalls of Quality Oatmeal, so we'll probably not see many more sick customers. However, when the FBI went through the Quality Oats factory, they found that security cameras had been smashed."
"So, we won't have any footage showing us who the culprits were?" Lestrade asked.
"Oh, I know who they were," Dimity said. "But without camera footage we just can't prove it. I was there on a hunch the night the bad guys brought in barrels of bad oats and mixed them in with the good oats. Enough to make people somewhat sick, but not kill them. However, I did come away with an interesting souvenir." She held up a cell phone in an evidence bag.
"Does that phone belong to Mordecai Avena?" Lestrade asked.
"That's for you to find out," Dimity said, handing it to him. "Obviously you'll check it for fingerprints and hair."
At last! Something to tie things together and move forward.
"Don't break out the champagne just yet," Beth MacHamlet cautioned. "I think someone's trying to get into your office, Lestrade."
True enough, there was a loud knock on the door, followed by a jiggling of the knob. Lestrade stepped out of the force field and calmly sat at his desk while the others looked on. Through the door came someone from the Prime Minister's office. His name was Dylan Albion Fenwick-Thorne (known to his detractors as DAFT.)
"The Prime Minister is very displeased with you for wasting the public's money on a wild goose chase – or in this case sowing rumors of wild oats," Thorne said grimly.
"The Prime Minister is frequently displeased about a lot of things," Lestrade observed mildly, not registering any distress.
"Can Thorne see us?" Beth whispered.
"No," Dimity said. "The walls of this force field are one-way. We can hear and see Lestrade's office, but to anyone in the office we are invisible and silent.
"But could we film what Thorne is doing now?" Jessica asked.
"Actually, this whole scene is being filmed right now," said Dimity, pointing to a corner of the office where a hidden camera was located. "The office was bugged until yesterday, when I removed the previous hidden camera and had Lestrade trace it to what he and I believe is Mordecai's lair. I've been there myself, unseen of course, with a hidden camera of my own. We will see what comes of that. Anyway, we now have a camera that Lestrade can access."
Thorne left the office. Lestrade came back into the force field and was brought up to speed on what the others had said. "Without a search warrant or other permission, you won't be able to use it in court, Dimity," he said.
"I know all that," said Dimity cheerfully. "However, I took some of Mordecai's surveillance cameras and hid them in the FBI's offices where the FBI was sure to find them and trace them."
"Did you know how to connect them so they led back to Mordecai?" Jessica asked.
"Lars's grandson helped me with that."
"I hope you didn't get fingerprints on them," Beth said.
"Ghosts don't have fingerprints," Dimity said. "They, um, uh-oh!" Her eyes grew very wide. Suddenly the force field vanished along with everyone except Lestrade, who found himself suddenly alone in his office.
"That can't be a good thing," Lestrade exclaimed. He had never seen Dimity upset or even at a loss for words. Watching her vanish along with Lorelei, Jessica, and Beth was a major jolt. Whatever the Great Beyond was like, he hoped Dimity was up to the challenge of fending off any evil spirits that might lie in wait for her.
He suddenly noticed that the blank ledger on his desk was starting to fill with words. An invisible pen seemed to be writing a message for him in blue ink. "Inspector Lestrade," it began, "permit me to introduce myself. I am Lars Avena. Dimity has told you about me. Dimity may be in danger now, though I am confident she will prevail. I would show myself to you in a force field like the one Dimity used, but it would come to the attention of certain adverse forces here – call them evil spirits if you like, and you won't be far wrong. I don't want them to know I'm contacting you, hence this message. Those of us on Dimity's side greatly outnumber the bad eggs, but the psychopath you are tracking has aligned himself with some pretty powerful spirits. Again, I think Dimity can take care of herself. Just don't ask her what happened once she reappears. The powers that be here don't like their secrets known. Sincerely, Lars." The writing suddenly faded, leaving no trace.
The phone rang. It was Jessica. "Are you all right?" she said.
"I'm fine," Lestrade said, deciding to act as if it was just an ordinary day at the office. "We may be able to solve one of the forgery cases in Hyde Park, and we're getting further along in one or two others. How are you?"
There was a pause at the other end. "I see," Jessica said. "Will you still be needing our services?"
"I'll have to check with my other agents," Lestrade said, hanging up.
On a hunch, Lestrade checked his email. Sure enough, Lorelei had left a message asking if he was all right. There was a knock at the door. A messenger had a telegram for him from Beth MacHamlet. It seemed as though Lars was using different media for contacting each of the others about what was happening. Still, he considered Dimity to be the center of the team, and it was disquieting not to hear from her directly.
Maybe there were recent developments to catch up on. He brought up the web page where information pertinent to Scotland Yard cases was provided. It was the most secure of sites, so he needed to remember several passwords. He wracked his brain on the last one, but he finally got through.
The first news item jumped out at him: "Quality Oats' main office in Pennsylvania has been disrupted by poltergeists." The article went on to describe an episode of flying ledgers, tipped-over barrels of oats, and other malicious mischief.
Anything to slow down Quality Oats as it tries to recall its problematic boxes of oatmeal, he thought. And why did the news need to be on such a secure site? Wouldn't every newspaper and broadcast news outlet have it?
To prove his point, he tried accessing the Internet, which seemed to be down.
"This is a fine kettle of fish," Lestrade muttered, wondering when the disruptions would end.
Now he was aware of a rapping on his desk. Nothing visible seemed to be involved, so he
assumed it was something from the spirit world. After a few more raps, it dawned on him
that they were showing a pattern, namely Morse Code.
Sure enough, it was a message from Lars: DAFT IS A MOLE FOR MORDECAI. PROOF CONTAINED IN CREAM PUFF CRUMBS FROM SLAYINGS IN EVIDENCE ROOM. – LARS
Lestrade decided to visit the evidence room and see how the cream puffs could possibly implicate someone as powerful and well-protected as Dylan Albion Fenwick-Thorne.
The functionary at the entrance to Evidence was skeptical when he heard Lestrade's request to take another look at the crumbs, but shrugged as if to say, "You want to waste time by looking at those again? Be my guest."
The crumbs themselves turned out to be tiny and insignificant, but Lestrade found something shiny mixed in with them: a small J-drive. Hurrying back to his office, Lestrade pulled out a spare computer that was not hooked up to the main computer. If there were moles around, he didn't want them to know he was onto their game. Sure enough, the J drive had camera footage of Mordecai plotting with DAFT and Brimsley.
How the device got mixed in with the crumbs was anybody's guess, but Lestrade suspected Dimity of planting it there, as it was unlikely anyone would expect Lestrade to go back to the evidence from a presumably unsolvable case.
Now for the knotty problem of bringing action against one of the most powerful men in Her Majesty's government, as well as foiling a brilliant psychopath.
"Have you considered going public with your information?" came a voice in front of him.
It was Dimity, in a hologram. Or, since she was a ghost, perhaps it was an ectogram.
"Time and space on the other Side are different from what you are used to, Lestrade," she said wearily, "but loss of the freedom to move around is pretty much the same anywhere. I told Lars to let your team think I was being chased by bad spirits. I'm not. However, the powers that be are very strict about some things. I should not have let you know I had planted surveillance cameras in Mordecai's lair, or that I had witnessed the mixing of tainted oats with good oats at Quality Oats."
"So, are you in some sort of jail or cosmic equivalent?" Lestrade asked. Racking his brain, he was pretty sure his training and experience had not prepared him for this kind of eventuality.
"It's more like a time out," Dimity said. "But as long as the J drive you have had already been planted in the evidence room, there was nothing they could do to stop you from learning of its existence from a third party like Lars."
"Who will also be disciplined?"
"Oh, absolutely. But since we're already dead, at least they can't kill us." Dimity gave a rueful smile. "This hologram will soon be terminated once they find out I'm sending it. Just remember, Lestrade, that you are potentially one of the great detectives. You will
solve this case now that you have the clues you need. You always had this ability. I was just the little bit of a nudge that was needed to get you headed in the right track. My time out will end in 48 hours, so....."
The hologram abruptly ended. Busted again!
Lestrade pored over the footage in the J-drive. It was pretty incriminating by itself, but it might be inadmissible in court. Then he realized that one of the scenes involved Mordecai and DAFT working on the door to his office while he was away. It dawned on him that there were surveillance cameras in his own office, and that they were now secure. Eureka.
He accessed the last 48 hours' worth of footage from his office cameras and found a veritable gold mine of evidence there. DAFT and Mordecai had assumed that their bugs were still in place, but they assumed wrong. Thinking that Lestrade's office was the securest possible place to review their strategy, they went over everything they had done, implicating Whimsley and Fred Jackson and even the office boy who brought coffee every morning. Well, the office boy didn't seem to realize he was involved in something dastardly. He just told Mordecai what Lestrade was up to, so they could go wherever Lestrade wouldn't be.
Lestrade called selected agents and showed them the footage. In short order the Prime Minister and Her Majesty knew about it. Whimsley and Jackson were fairly easy to round up, but Mordecai had disappeared. Nevertheless, this got Parliament and her Majesty off Lestrade's back. Prince Philip probably still thought Lestrade was a horse's bleep , but at least he was silent about his thoughts this time.
Corroborating evidence was piling up, making the government's case against the miscreants stronger and stronger. Quality Oats was back on track. The Securities and Exchange Commission had even tracked down the account from which Mordecai had made millions of dollars by shorting Quality Oats stock. The dust had not yet settled from this, but there was a possibility that some of the money would go to heirs of the murder victims as reparations.
Freed from the stigma of her brother's bad oats, Sarah Crocker had been hired by Theda Ocher as a partner in the Blue Violet Tea Shop. "Authentic oat scones would be very popular here, Theda had told her. Let's not put any caraway seeds in them, though. That wouldn't go down at all well."
Dimity was back. Her little car arrived in Lestrade's office a few days after the arrest of Whimsley, Jackson, and DAFT. Jessica was with her.
"Lars helped me a lot," Lestrade told her. "I'd like to meet his ghost some time."
"He'll be free to come here in a few days," Dimity said. "In the meantime, let's discuss fees over some tea and Wibblescones."
"Um, I had forgotten about fees," Lestrade admitted. "Did I sign a contract at all? I can't recall."
"Well, Off the Beaten Track has bills to pay," Jessica said. "Granted, we've just completed some other cases for which we earned some money, but helping Scotland Yard was supposed to be the feather in our cap, the case that put us into the ranks of elite detective agencies."
"I do have some discretionary funds form which I could pay you," Lestrade said. When Dimity and Jessica heard the amount available, they looked uneasy.
"Could you throw in something intangible?" Jessica asked.
"Do you have an expense account for transportation to crime scenes?"
"Do you remember that we gave you free transportation to the coast of Maine, the southern city of Chartreuse, and a lovely village in Scotland?"
"All right, then, let's book a couple of days in a nice inn in one of those spots. You can tell the Yard that you're investigating possible new evidence," Dimity said.
"Well, I've always wanted to go on a whale-watching expedition," Lestrade said.
"Good, let's go to the Plaid Whale Inn for a couple days and enjoy ourselves," Jessica said. We'll make something up as an official reason for going."
"It's a good thing the camera on my wall can't see or hear what we're saying in this force field," Lestrade said. "Otherwise, we could be in trouble for conspiring to defraud the Yard out of a few pounds. "
"Shall I tell him, then?" Jessica said to Dimity. Dimity nodded.
"We actually do have a legitimate reason for going to Cabbage Cove," Jessica told Lestrade.
"What is it?" Lestrade wondered.
"I'll tell you when we get there."
Lestrade had to admit that Cabbage Cove was quaint, with water lapping against the piers, the seagulls crying overhead, and people visiting the charming shops. The Plaid Whale Inn was brimming with rustic charm, but it also had a lovely dining room with a first-rate buffet.
"I've bought us tickets on the deluxe whale-watching boat," Jessica said.
"How is it deluxe?" Lestrade asked.
"It stops for half an hour at Prince of Whales island, which is about a mile offshore. The island has a hill from which the view s spectacular."
"Will Dimity meet us there?"
"Yes. She's bringing someone to help us with Mordecai."
"Wait, Mordecai is there?"
"I told you there was a legitimate reason for our trip here."
"But shouldn't you have told me earlier, so I could bring my gun?"
"You have your gun anyway."
As promised, the view from the hill on Prince of Whales Island was spectacular. The only thing that spoiled it was Mordecai, who came out of a cave at the bottom of the hill with one of his stooges. Mordecai held Lestrade and Jessica at gunpoint while the stooge tied them to a rock by the water's edge. "When the tide comes up, you'll drown," Mordecai said, "but by then we'll be far away."
Just then, Dimity arrived with an agent of the FBI. Unfortunately, Mordecai and his associate overpowered the FBI agent as well.
"This is a pretty fix you've gotten me into," Lestrade told Jessica through grated teeth.
All was not lost, though. Lestrade and Jessica could see Dimity, but Mordecai and his stooge could not. Dimity quickly tied a rope around Mordecai's feet, and Lars pushed him over. Alarmed, Mordecai shot his gun in Dimity's direction, but the bullet hit the stooge.
Lars finished the process by tying Mordecai up and untying Lestrade and Jessica.
The FBI agent called for helicopter support, and soon the news media were swarming around the island as well.
The next day Lestrade and Jessica were featured on the front pages of newspapers around the world.
The day after that, they had an audience with the Queen, who broadly hinted that there might be a knighthood in Lestrade's future.
Because of the publicity, Off the Beaten Track soon had all the business it could desire. Offices in Paris and London were being planned, and Dimity was scouting for ghosts with sleuthing talent to help out.
Soon it was apparent that Mordecai's links to the Crakkerjack Ripper case would result in cracking that case as well.
Jessica talked Lestrade into visiting a tropical island with Dimity, Lorelei, and Beth.
Sipping tropical cocktails on the beach, lestrade wondered how it was that Brilford had tricked the fat French women into eating the lethal cream puffs. "Oat bran tastes awful no matter what you combine it with," he observed.
"There's the guilt factor, multiplied by cultural constraints," Beth replied. "You can be fat and relatively tranquil anywhere in the world except France. In France, you can say goodbye to a good job, especially if you deal with the public. So, they were doubly anxious to eat something healthful – oat bran – while enjoying something delicious – cream filling. Not that illogical after all."
"Plus, if they looked up oat bran cream pffs on the Internet, they would have found that reputable shops in Cabbage Cove and Chartreuse, South Carolina offered them. How were they to know that Brilford's twisted mind had the lethal version in mind for them?"
"I feel that there is still one more thing you can for Off the Beaten Track as part of your bill," Dimity said. When lestrade tried to react to this, Dimity added, "It won't cost you a cent. You may even make some bucks as a co-author."
"Surely you aren't thinking about asking me to write about the case," Lestrade sputtered. "I'm no writer."
"You can hire a ghostwriter," Dimity said.
"Where would I find one?" Lestrade sounded genuinely puzzled.
"Try asking a ghost. Ask me, for instance. Yes, I accept. The publicity you've gotten should translate into huge sails."
"Isn't the key to book sales a first-rate title?" Lestrade asked.
"Yes. I've got one. If you were in a bookstore, tell me you wouldn't jump at the chance to buy a book with the title 'The Cream Puff Killer: In Search of a Cereal Killer.'"