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Murder on the Levels


Forest Chocolates

The warm tang of yeast percolated through Brown’s, the Exham on Sea bakery.

‘This must be the quietest place on the planet.’Libby Forest didn’t mean to complain, but there hadn’t been much excitement here lately. Not since she’d found local celebrity, Susie Bennett, the rock singer, dead under the lighthouse on the beach. At least she’d finally tracked down Susie’s killer.

Frank Brown, owner of the business and master baker, dumped a pair of disposable gloves in the kitchen bin, hoisted a crate of fresh loaves onto his shoulder, grunted and shuffled backwards through the door to the car park. ‘Time to revamp the bakery. Make space for those Forest Chocolates of yours.’ Libby’s knife clattered to the table. Had she heard right?

‘Seriously? You’re not kidding?’

Mandy, Libby’s lodger and Exham on Sea’s resident teenage Goth, hooted. ‘When does Frank ever kid anyone?’ She pumped a tattooed arm in the air. ‘Our very first proper chocolate shop. Great stuff, Mrs F. The place will be famous in no time.’

A big fat grin forced its way across Libby’s face. It was weeks since she’d presented her business plan. Frank had sucked his teeth, scratched an ear and mumbled, ‘We’ll see,’ in the way people spoke to children when they asked for unlikely birthday presents. Libby had given up hope and spent several waking nights wondering how she could find another outlet for her home-made creations. She’d even pondered setting up her own website.

Maybe it was the constant supply of free samples that had worn Frank down.

His head bobbed back around the door. ‘Fancy a drive, Libby? Those cyclists left their sandwiches in the shop.’

He thrust packages into Libby’s arms. She’d made them to order not half an hour ago while the cycling club members boasted to each other about the miles they’d ridden. She’d packed them carefully into separate bags; cheese and pickle, egg and cress, and ham salad.

Mandy giggled. ‘Too busy stuffing themselves with free chocolates to care about lunch. Kevin Batty gobbled up at least three lemon meringue truffles, and some of his mates put them in their pockets. They’ll be growing out of their Lycra before they know it. Mind you,’ she added, ‘my clothes are getting a bit tight, too.’

Still in a happy daze, thrilled by Frank’s offer of space to sell her chocolates, Libby loaded the packets of sandwiches into her ancient purple Citroen, crunched the gears and drove out onto the Somerset Levels. She followed the cyclists’ route through corkscrew lanes beneath a broad blue spring sky filled with blackbird song, head whirling with plans for packaging, marketing, future outlets and exotic new chocolate flavours. Her second cookery book, unimaginatively called More Baking at the Beach was half written, and she spent at least one morning a week fending off phone calls from the elegant Christian Fortescue, her publisher, begging for updates.

‘Not that I’m pressuring you, but your readers are clamouring – clamouring, I tell you – for more of your perfectly scrumptious recipes.’

Mr Fortescue would have to wait.

Libby turned up the CD player and bellowed ‘We Are The Champions’ at the top of her voice. Why not? No one could hear it, in this peaceful corner of Somerset.

The car squealed round the final corner, narrowly avoiding a row of bicycles propped against a wooden fence. It lurched to a halt and Libby jumped out. Beyond an open gate, clumps of sedge and willow lined the placid waters of a stream. Moorhens ducked in and out of overhanging branches and a pair of geese honked in the distance.

Libby slithered on the grass. Patches of mud, still damp from a brief overnight rainstorm, squelched under her feet. Not quite a country girl yet, then. Just a year since she’d left London, and she still had plenty to learn. She’d keep a pair of wellies in the car in future.