Samson O'Brien has been dismissed from the police force—quite unfairly, according to him. Now back in his home town of Bruncliffe in the Yorkshire Dales, Samson sets up the Dales Detective Agency while he fights to clear his name. However, the people of Bruncliffe aren't entirely welcoming to a man they see as trouble.
Delilah Metcalfe, meanwhile, is struggling to keep her business, the Dales Dating Agency, afloat. When Samson gets his first case, investigating the supposed suicide of a local man, things take an unexpected turn, and soon he discovers a trail of deaths that lead back to the door of Delilah's agency.
With suspicion hanging over someone they both care for, Delilah and Samson soon realize that they need to work together to solve the mystery of the dating deaths. But working together is easier said than done, and the couple must find a way to kiss and make up before more villagers wind up dead.
Julia Chapman's Date with Death is the newest installation in the delightful Samson and Delilah Mystery series.
About the Author
JULIA CHAPMAN is the pseudonym of Julia Stagg. Julia currently lives in the beautiful Yorkshire Dales in the north of England. When not writing, she spends her time out in the hills, running on the fells that provide the beautiful setting for the Dales Detective novels, or riding her bike through the small hamlets and villages that are a vital part of her books.
Read an Excerpt
Date With Death
By Julia Chapman
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2017 Julia Chapman
All rights reserved.
How was it possible to love somewhere and hate somewhere at the same time?
Not sure there was an answer, the motorcyclist pulled over at the top of Gunnerstang Brow, turned off his bike, took off his helmet and stared down at the slate roofs that cluttered the dale below. Mid-afternoon with the October sun hanging low, the sheer limestone cliff that formed the backdrop of the town was ablaze, casting its reflected light on the houses and streets of a place he hadn't been near in fourteen years.
A squat collection of dwellings, cut through by a river and a train line and hemmed in by the abrupt rise of the fells on three sides, it nestled confidently on the valley floor as it had done for centuries, bookended by the tall chimneys of long-disused mills. Despite its isolation, its inhabitants believed themselves to be at the centre of the universe. Arrogant. Forthright. Quick to highlight faults. A lot slower to praise. And wary of offcumdens – outsiders. Like him. Born and raised there, but never local.
He pulled his gaze away from the buildings, let it rove over the green hills, the distinctive stone walls marching up and down their steep sides, the swell and fall of land that stretched into the distance. The indignant squawk of a pheasant scratched at the silence, followed by the pleading bleat of a sheep.
It was a long way from London and the life he'd been leading. Which was why he'd returned.
Refocusing on the town, he followed the route the river took, cascading from the north; and there, off to the south and a white blur against the green, he saw Ellershaw Farm, the Metcalfes' place. Sheltered by the hills, yet with an open prospect, it had always been well maintained. Pristine. But then it hadn't been run by a drunkard.
Instinctively, his attention swung back up the dale, past the jumble of housing, out the back of the town to the cleft of two hills where the sun no longer lingered. And the wry smile that had settled on his bruised face dissolved into a frown.
Home. The only one he had right now. Otherwise he wouldn't be here, up on this hill, filled with this feeling of aversion and longing.
* * *
Elaine Bullock could do many things. She could name every flower that flourished in Hawber Woods. All the trees, too. She could identify a bird from the first few notes of its song. She could also talk for hours about the clints and grikes that patterned the limestone pavement which defined the local landscape. What she couldn't do, however, was waitress.
'Bugger!' she muttered as the stack of plates she was carrying back to the kitchen gave a sudden wobble, sending a knife clattering to the stone-flagged floor. It was closely followed by its sibling, a fork.
'Are you planning on dropping the lot, Elaine?' demanded the taller of the two elderly ladies standing by the counter, both of them dressed in black. She indicated her companion with her walking stick. 'It's just that my sister's heart's not what it was, and she might appreciate a bit of notice. Isn't that right, Clarissa?'
'Leave her be, Edith,' came a soft rebuke from her sister. 'She's learning, bless her.'
'I'm trying,' said Elaine, stooping to retrieve the wayward cutlery, finger-smudged glasses slipping down her nose and dark plaits swinging against her cheeks.
'You can say that again! Two days in and you're trying my patience.' Arms folded and stretching a white apron across an impressive paunch, shoulders almost touching the sides of the kitchen doorway, Titch Harrison glared down at her. 'When you've finished scrabbling around on the floor, there's two plates as need serving. And be quick about it.'
He stood to one side, letting her slip past with a despairing shake of his head. Seconds later the loud crash of shattering crockery hailed from the kitchen, followed by muffled curses. Titch rolled his eyes.
'Just as well we're quiet,' he grumbled, glancing over at the table by the window, the couple of tourists seated at it his only customers. 'All the folk down at that funeral don't know what they're missing. Knife-throwing! Plate-smashing! That Bullock lass will be eating fire next! And she'd be a damn sight better at it than waiting tables because, heaven knows, she couldn't be worse.'
'Give her a chance, Douglas,' admonished Edith Hird, former headmistress of Bruncliffe Primary School and the only person in town who insisted on using the chef's given name, her reluctance to adopt his ridiculous nickname stemming from both her memory of him in her classroom and the fact that she'd known him since he'd been in nappies. Sizeable nappies they'd been, too. 'She's young and she's a hard worker.'
'She'll bloody need to be, with the amount of extra work she creates,' he muttered, a faint flush spilling up his cheeks from his ginger beard. Thirty years on from primary school, and still Miss Hird's sharp tongue could return him to his mumbling youth. Then the severity of her attire reminded him of the occasion. 'How'd it go?' he asked gently.
'As you'd expect,' said Edith. 'A full house and not a dry eye.'
'Such a shame,' murmured Clarissa. 'Such a young man.'
'Aye, a right shame. He was a good lad.' Titch stared at the floor, not given to eloquence at the best of times. In the present circumstances he was particularly struggling. 'Hope they'll do, anyhow,' he said, gesturing at the two trays of sandwiches on the counter. 'Tell Barbara it's all I could put together at short notice.'
Edith nodded. 'She'll be glad of them. She's panicking she's not got enough to feed all those that turned out. What do I owe you?'
'Don't be daft,' said Edith bluntly, opening her purse. 'You might not have been top of the class in maths, but even you knew your times tables. Now, what do I really owe you?'
Titch was saved from further castigation by the disbelieving tone of Miss Hird's sister as she raised a bony hand towards a figure visible through the window.
'Edith, is that ...? It can't be ...'
Edith Hird turned to see what had captured Clarissa's attention, squinting across the road at the motorbike and the man sitting astride it. It should have been hard to tell, with the distance and her ageing eyesight. But she knew straight away, even with the mane of black hair that graced his shoulders. It was the defiant way he was staring down at the town, the familiar brooding intensity – which had grown into hostility as the years passed and he became branded as a renegade – accentuated by the livid bruising on his cheek. The motorbike was a giveaway, too. Everyone in Bruncliffe knew that bike.
As Titch and the two elderly sisters moved closer to the window to get a better view, Elaine Bullock was crossing the cafe to the only occupied table, her entire focus on the plates in her hands.
'Here you go. Home-made cottage pie and chips,' she announced cheerfully as she approached the waiting diners, relieved to have made it without any mishaps. Then she made the fatal mistake of glancing outside and her gaze was caught by the sight of the man on the motorbike. She only had time for a glimpse of his profile before he put his helmet on. It was enough.
'Oh my God!' she gasped, plates tilting in her hands to a precarious angle, everything sliding towards the edge. 'It's ... that's ...'
'Trouble,' said Titch, oblivious to the dripping plates. 'With a capital T.'
'I need to make a phone call,' said Elaine, hastily depositing the meals onto the now gravy-smeared table before hurrying over to the coat stand, grabbing her mobile from her jacket pocket and rushing towards the back door, leaving her customers bemused in her wake.
'Well,' said Edith, still transfixed by the man on the other side of the road, a smile growing on her face. 'Looks like life in Bruncliffe is about to get interesting.'
* * *
He slipped his helmet back on, turned the key in the ignition and, as the bike throbbed to life, cast a glance over his right shoulder to check the road. Instead he caught the hard stares of his audience.
He'd been so focused on the town below, he hadn't registered the building that sat atop the hill. Or, rather, he'd registered it, but hadn't taken in the changes. Gunnersthwaite, the Harrisons' farm. A ramshackle place when he was growing up, a dumping ground for old cars and broken machinery, windows rotting in their frames. Clearly it had been renovated and put to a different use.
'Hill Top Cafe', proclaimed the sign, a blackboard by the door promising home-cooked food and locally sourced produce.
And in the window on the right he could see three faces, all of them staring back at him. Old Miss Hird, a smile dancing on her lips; her sister, Clarissa Ralph, hand across her mouth; and behind them, the broad features and ginger beard of Titch Harrison himself.
'Damn!' he reiterated, flipping his visor down with an irritated flick. He should have known better. With all his training. All his years undercover. He should have been alert to the situation. To the presence of the enemy.
Now the whole town would know he was here before he'd even crossed the parish boundary.
He kicked the bike off its stand, revved the engine way more than was necessary and, in a roar of noise, tore down the hill towards his future. And his past.
* * *
At the bottom of the hill, near the heart of Bruncliffe, the throng that had been gathered in the sunlit churchyard was beginning to disperse. As it separated, some going to view the wreaths laid next to the newly dug grave, others approaching the bereaved family, a muted protest came from its midst.
'Can't even go to a funeral in peace!' muttered Delilah Metcalfe, trying to discreetly fish her vibrating mobile out of her trouser pocket. 'That's the third time in five minutes.'
'That's what you get for being a romance entrepreneur,' whispered the tall young man next to her.
He was rewarded with an elbow to his ribs, hard enough to make him wince and draw the attention of the elderly man standing the other side of him.
'Behave, Ash Metcalfe!' came a sharp hiss. 'And as for you, missy, don't even think of using that thing. Show some respect.' A gnarled finger pointed at the mobile now in Delilah's hand, and a pair of fierce eyes under bushy brows reproached her.
'I was just turning it off,' she murmured, face going pink as she slipped the phone back in her pocket. She did her best to ignore her brother, who was doing his best not to laugh.
Which was a nice change, as it hadn't been a laughter-filled day.
Delilah's morning had been spent dealing with a disgruntled client who, fresh from his farm, had stormed into the office of the Dales Dating Agency demanding his money back because he'd been on ten dates and still hadn't found a wife. As he'd stood there thumping her desk and ranting at her, making Tolpuddle growl quietly over in his basket on the floor, she'd found her diplomatic skills – and she wasn't blessed with an abundance – stretched until she could bite her lip no more.
'Have you ever thought, Mr Knowles,' she'd finally responded, when he started casting aspersions on her business and her ability to trade in romance, given her own hapless past, 'that your lack of success could be of your own making?'
'How do you mean?'
'I mean that your aversion to using a toothbrush and your insistence on wearing boots covered in cow-shit on a date are probably not helping your cause.'
He'd jerked back, glanced down at his offending boots, then his brows knitted together and a stern finger was thrust in her face. 'They'll take me as I am!' he'd declared. 'And be glad of it.'
Clearly, mused Delilah as she joined the long line of mourners beginning to walk towards the church gate, the women of the Dales felt differently. In the end, she'd offered the offended farmer a place on the next of the recently launched speed-dating nights – no charge, of course. The man had gone off with a broad smile, proud of his hard-driven bargain, leaving Delilah to only hope that he worked on his self-presentation skills before the next time she saw him.
That is, if she was still in business the next time she saw him. There was a stack of credit-card bills on her desk, her mortgage payments were due and her overdraft was already stretched beyond the agreed limits. Hardly surprising that the bank manager had called her in for a meeting. But she could have done without the funeral beforehand. Especially one which brought so many painful reminders.
She let her eyes steal across to the far corner of the churchyard where a granite headstone shone in the sunshine.
'You all right, sis?' Ash Metcalfe noted the direction of her gaze.
Delilah nodded, blinking rapidly. 'Fine. Just – you know – memories.'
'Humph!' came a sharp bark from beside her. 'Memories are highly overrated.' Seth Thistlethwaite, eyes fractionally less fierce than earlier, eyebrows just as bushy, took her elbow in a firm grip that belied his arthritis. Whether his hold was seeking support or offering it, Delilah didn't resist. 'I find the here and now to be far more enjoyable. But there's no denying this is a sad business. So young ...' He shook his head in bemusement.
'Sad indeed,' replied Ash. 'I still can't believe that things had got that bad and no one knew.'
'Is it official then? Was it definitely suicide?' asked Delilah as they paused at the church gate, the bright sunshine at odds with the melancholy topic of conversation.
Ash shrugged. 'The inquest won't take place for a while, but there seems to be no doubt.'
Mr Thistlethwaite gave another bark. 'Jumping in front of a train leaves little room for doubt.'
'But it still doesn't explain why, though,' said Delilah. 'I mean, he seemed to be finally getting his life back together after his divorce ...' She faltered, struck, as she had been repeatedly since she heard the awful news, by her last impression of Richard Hargreaves. Having called into the office to renew his subscription after a three-month trial with the dating agency, he'd been full of talk about the future. He'd been like the Richard of old; the Richard before his life had unravelled.
When he'd moved back to Bruncliffe three years before, his cosmopolitan wife – far from finding the rural idyll she'd fantasised about – had quickly become isolated, exasperated by the realities of country living where everyone knew her business, and uncomfortable with the forthright opinions of the people her husband had been raised amongst. A place where, rather than having the status of a university lecturer's wife, she was viewed as the woman who'd married the butcher's son. An offcumden, to boot.
Within six months she'd filed for divorce. Within another few she was gone, back to Manchester, taking their two young children with her and leaving Richard shell-shocked in her wake.
The man who'd sat across the desk from Delilah several weeks ago, happily rubbing Tolpuddle's head while catching up on local affairs, had been a different person. He'd reminded her of the young boy who'd spent many days at the Metcalfe farm, larking around with her brothers. There'd been no hint of depression. No sign of despair. And definitely no inkling that a week later he'd throw himself under a train.
Delilah shivered, her skin rippling cold as though the sun had dipped behind a cloud.
'Aye,' concluded Seth Thistlethwaite. 'A right sad state of affairs. There's something to be said for not letting things get on top of you, eh, Delilah?' He released her from his grip, eyes still holding her in place. 'There's more to life than business, you know.'
His words coaxed a laugh out of the young woman, lightening the atmosphere. 'Let's see if I agree with you once I've been to the bank.'
He nodded. 'You'll find me in the Fleece if you want to drown your sorrows. You joining me, Ash?' Delilah's brother shrugged. 'Why not? The best part of the day is over, and it would be only fitting to toast Richard. I've just got to speak to Rick. I'll catch you up.'
With a quick kiss on the cheek for Delilah, Ash passed through the crowd of mourners gathered on the footpath, heading towards a group of men standing to one side. Seth Thistlethwaite watched him go.
'Surprised he's not bawling with grief, yon Rick Procter,' he muttered, eyes on the well-built man Ash was now talking to.
'Rick? I don't think he knew Richard that well,' said
Delilah. 'Not since school, and even then, Rick was a few years older.'
Seth gave another curt laugh. 'No doubt you're right,' he said. 'But he's just lost a sale on a new house. And that's about the only thing as would make that man cry.'
'A sale ...?'
'Richard Hargreaves. He was talking about buying one of them blasted boxes Procter's built down on the flood plain. Won't be going through now, though. Can't say as I'm upset for Procter.'
Delilah smiled at the gruff verdict. 'Honestly, you and your gossip. I don't know how you find all this out. As for Rick, he's a good man. Look at all he does for the town.'
Excerpted from Date With Death by Julia Chapman. Copyright © 2017 Julia Chapman. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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