Exclusive extract: A Dance With Murder
Be the first to get an EXCLUSIVE sneak peek at A Dance With Murder – the latest Ted Bristol cosy-crime mystery from Elizabeth Coleman. Don’t forget to catch up on the first book in the series, A Routine Infidelity.
Ted Bristol surreptitiously glanced at her watch. She was now thirty-seven minutes into her Tinder date with Jarrod Beasley, and he still hadn’t asked her a single question about herself. Not that she could tell him the truth if he did. She obliged him with a rapt smile as he rabbited on about how he’d made the courageous move from chartered accountant to life coach. According to Jarrod, he was a feminist with an excellent sense of humour, and even though he had washboard abs from his daily workouts, his true priority was his spiritual fitness.
Ted looked down at her miniature schnauzer, Miss Marple, who was sprawled at her feet, and she could’ve sworn she saw her eyes roll.
It was a crisp spring night, and all around them the joint was jumping. They were at Trax, a dog-friendly outdoor restaurant sandwiched between the murky Yarra River and Flinders Street Station, lit up golden against the night sky. Ted could see pedestrians crossing the nearby Princes Bridge and diners across the water at Southbank, as the tall spire of the Victorian Arts Centre jutted up behind them and disappeared into the dark clouds. The whole precinct was buzzing, but she forced her attention back to Jarrod, subtly studying his squarish freckled face and his small blue eyes for signs of malevolence.
Saturday night last week, an ethereal ballerina called Giselle had turned up at Edwina Bristol Investigations (EBI), desperate for Ted’s help. She’d recently been forced to deactivate her Insta account after an anonymous stalker had slid into her DMs with love messages from multiple untraceable accounts. But leaving Instagram hadn’t worked. Handwritten notes had started turning up in her letterbox and even under her back doormat, and earlier last Saturday night, things had escalated. When Giselle had returned to her car after Don Quixote rehearsals at the Australian Ballet, she’d found a bloody lamb’s heart on her bonnet. An archer’s arrow was plunged through the heart, with a handwritten note:
See what you’re doing to me?
The implicit menace in the blood-spattered note was chilling, and Ted wasn’t surprised that poor Giselle was terrified. After Ted had calmed her and helped her to focus, Giselle had pointed her finger at Jarrod Beasley. Apparently, they’d gone on a Tinder date about six weeks ago, and when Giselle declined a second date, Jarrod had bombarded her with passive-aggressive texts, like:
How can you claim to be a fully evolved human if you’re closed off to other humans?
‘The guy’s a narcissist,’ Ted had told her.
‘I suppose you’re right,’ Giselle had agreed. She was wearing a floaty dress in a smoky pink. A dark curl had escaped from her bun and was hanging atop her translucent face. ‘I called him to try and discuss it, but that just seemed to make things worse.’
Ted was astonished, although she was careful not to show it.
‘You called him? It’s never a good idea to engage with a stalker, Giselle.’
‘I know, it was stupid. I’m sorry.’
‘Don’t you apologise. There’s only one person who should be apologising.’
When Ted thought of the men who wanted to own women and chose to terrorise them if they couldn’t have them, and the men who tried to manipulate women into doubting themselves and took pleasure in making them feel violated in their daily life, it filled her with rage. Of course, women were capable of stalking too, but that wasn’t the case in most instances, and certainly not in this one. It was a guy who’d left the bloody lamb’s heart on Giselle’s windscreen; she’d seen photographic evidence. The stalker had used a wi-fi jammer to disable all the CCTV in the vicinity, but luckily a passer-by had spotted something suss, and he’d snapped some pics from behind a tree.
Now, at Trax a week later, Ted reminded herself to take a step back and not jump to conclusions about Jarrod – even though he’d just told her he was home alone last Saturday night, which equalled no alibi, and he was a perfect physical match.
The shots showed a guy who could unhelpfully be described as ‘of average height and build’. He was wearing a nondescript hoodie that obscured his face, and his jeans were equally nondescript. But in a stroke of good luck, his distinctive sneakers were captured in stark relief by a streetlight. Within twenty-four hours, Ted had identified the sneakers as Cariuma Gerry Lopez red canvas sneakers with a white ‘lightning’ stripe.
Did Jarrod own a pair? Once he let her get a word in, she was planning to ask. Not that a yes would be definitive, but hopefully it would be the first incriminating clue of many. She was hoping she could somehow get a sample of his handwriting, although she doubted that would prove conclusive. The writing in the notes slanted backwards, and the t’s had a flamboyant loop, both of which were no doubt designed to disguise the stalker’s regular writing.
Jarrod leaned across the table, and his eyes stared intensely into hers. He smiled, and his teeth were almost freakishly white.
‘Why don’t we skip the meaningless small talk?’
I’m not talking, Ted thought.
‘I’m all about getting to the true essence of a human,’ Jarrod said. ‘I’ve got three questions I like to ask my life-coaching clients, in no particular order. I call it my Three-Step Self- Discovery Test.’
‘Wow,’ Ted said, when she was really thinking, How much longer do I have to humour this guy before I can start my interrogations? Would another six seconds suffice? ‘Okay, I’m up for it. What are the questions?’
Jarrod paused, presumably to build the anticipation.
‘First question: What’s the most courageous thing you’ve ever done?’
That was easy, Ted thought. Emotionally, it was finally admitting to her dad that she blamed herself for her mum’s death. Physically, it was defending herself against a violent embezzler twice her size who’d been intent on killing her and Miss Marple.
Not that she’d share those things with Jarrod. And as it happened, she didn’t have to.
‘For me,’ said Jarrod, ‘it was making a difficult decision to do the right thing.’
Ted stifled a snort. Of course, she should have known Jarrod would only be interested in his answer.
‘It was before I became a life coach. I was head accountant for a celebrity chef, and the guy was a crook. He wanted me to cook the books while he was cooking the food.’ Jarrod paused so Ted could absorb his clever word play. She tried to look appropriately appreciative. ‘And I’m not talking peanuts, the guy wanted to hide big bucks. So, I dobbed him in to the cops, even though I was scared for my safety. I didn’t know if I’d end up in concrete shoes.’
No, Cariumas, Ted thought.
‘He never went to jail, so I don’t know what happened from the cops’ end, but at least I know I did the right thing. And I’m still here.’ He smiled at her as if to say, Lucky for you.
Ted wondered what the point of this story was. Was she supposed to applaud?
He took a swig of his wine. ‘He’s still a celebrity chef, and everyone thinks he’s Mr Nice Guy, but he’s bad news. You’ll know his name, but there’s no point asking. I’m not going to say.’
Ted couldn’t rouse any curiosity. She suspected Jarrod had fabricated the story and, besides, she had no interest in celebrity chefs. Every time you went online, some random was telling you how to sauté spinach.
Just then, a large alsatian passing their table bared its fangs, and Miss Marple emitted a low growl. Jarrod glanced down at her as if he’d forgotten she was there.
‘The little guy must be scared of that German shepherd.’
‘She’s female,’ Ted reminded him pleasantly, ‘and she’s not scared.’ This was the blackest mark against Jarrod yet. Since when would a dog called Miss Marple be male? And Miss Marple wasn’t scared of anything. ‘She’s just warning him to keep his distance.’
But Jarrod was nodding at a waitress who’d appeared with their meals.
‘Cheers,’ Jarrod said as she deposited a lump of lamb shanks in front of him.
The shocking sight of the bloody lamb’s heart on Giselle’s windscreen flashed into Ted’s mind, but she pushed the ugly image away. She braced herself for Jarrod’s second ‘self-discovery’ question, but he seemed to have shelved that subject for now.
‘You’re a beautiful lady.’
Ted attempted a flirtatious smile. ‘Thank you.’
Jarrod leaned across the table to look into her eyes. ‘I hope you let yourself own the power your beauty gives you.’
Was this guy for real? Ted didn’t derive power from her looks, she derived it from being a kickarse PI who’d recently solved her
first murder. Not that it served her to share that with Jarrod. ‘I try to,’ she lied.
‘And I love your dress.’
She’d bought this black silk halter-neck online from Zara especially for this covert job. She doubted she’d ever wear it again, but it was on sale, so that was a win. And at least it was tax deductible. Jarrod’s approval was vindicating her decision to ditch her usual outfit of jeans with a T-shirt and/or hoodie and sneakers. That would never have worked with a guy like him. He’d said in his Tinder profile that he was looking for a woman ‘who takes care of herself’, which everyone knew was code for ‘skinny and glamorous’. So, Ted had even applied some lipstick she’d bought from Chemist Warehouse and used a bit extra to rub into her cheeks. But that was as far as she was prepared to go.
‘You’re tiny,’ Jarrod said.
Typical. In spite of his BS about being a feminist, Jarrod clearly wanted a doll. No wonder he’d been attracted to a ballerina. He’d probably wanted to pop her on top of a jewellery box (and a few other things) and watch her daintily twirl around.
Letting this probable stalker set the agenda was driving Ted crazy. It was time to start the investigating. ‘So … Have you met many other women on Tinder?’
Jarrod laughed. ‘Are we going there already?’
‘I guess we are.’ Ted giggled.
Jarrod leaned back against his chair and revelled in her attention. His mousy-brown hair was shaved at the sides and floppy on top. Ted couldn’t help noticing that the floppy bit hadn’t budged, despite the stiff spring breeze. That must be some Trump-grade hairspray.
‘I’ve met a few. I was seeing a model for a while, not that her career was relevant. I was attracted to her self-actualisation.’
Ha! Ted thought. I’d be willing to bet her self-actualisation looked hot in a bikini.
‘And I dated a ballerina.’
Ted straightened. ‘A ballerina? Wow.’
‘She’s a pro, she’s in the Australian Ballet.’
‘Oh my God, really? What’s her name?’
‘Giselle? Beautiful name. And what happened with you guys?’
‘It didn’t work out. She wanted to take things to the next level, but she wasn’t evolved enough for me. So, I cut off contact. It was the kindest thing.’
Ted nodded. Why would Jarrod need to lie if he wasn’t Giselle’s stalker? The evidence seemed to be adding up. All her synapses were screaming, It’s him! She clutched at something else to say.
‘How are your lamb shanks?’
‘They’re excellent,’ Jarrod said. ‘And I know my meat, my old man’s a butcher.’
Ted watched him expertly dissect the lamb. ‘Your dad’s a butcher?’
‘Yeah, and I’m proud to own my humble origin story.’
So, Jarrod had lied about breaking up with Giselle, he had no alibi for last Saturday night, and he’d also been around offal his entire life – it made sense that he’d use a lamb’s heart to intimidate. For Ted the deal was now sealed, but she glanced down at Miss Marple for affirmation. Miss Marple’s acutely intelligent eyes narrowed, and she wagged her grey tail to the left in a classic canine expression of negativity. So they were on the same page, as always.
While Ted was contemplating what to do next, Jarrod reached over and took her hand. It happened so fast that it took her a second to react, and before she could do anything—
The voice was familiar, but out of context. Ted was still trying to place it when she turned to see Usma Ali, her warband leader from Swordcraft, the medieval battle game, where she usually spent her Saturday nights. Usma was at the tail end of a group leaving the packed restaurant. Ted hadn’t noticed her in the crowd.
‘Hey, Ted. Hey, Miss Marple. Why aren’t you at Swordcraft?’
‘Look who’s talking.’
‘My sister’s birthday,’ Usma said. She looked down at Ted and Jarrod’s clasped hands and grinned. ‘I’m guessing this isn’t your brother.’
Ted laughed weakly. What if Usma blew her cover and outed her as a PI? Jarrod thought she was a real estate agent. But luckily Jarrod maintained his tradition of only being interested in himself.
‘I’m definitely not her brother.’
He squeezed Ted’s hand and she wanted to puke. Usma knew her as a fierce warrior in their all-female Ice Elves warband, who left a trail of ‘dead’ combatants in her wake. She wasn’t the type who’d dump her warband for the sake of some guy, especially a guy like him.
‘This is Jarrod. Jarrod, this is my mate, Usma.’
Usma gave Ted a sly little smile. ‘Well, I’ll leave you to enjoy each other’s company.’
But I’m not enjoying it, Ted wanted to shout. This is strictly work. I’m trying to take a toxic stalker off the streets. But, instead, she was forced to say, ‘Awesome. See you at Swordcraft next week.’
‘Yeah, see ya then.’
Usma gave Ted another cheeky grin and sauntered off. Ted thought Jarrod would ask about Swordcraft, but it didn’t involve him, so why would he? She tried to disentangle her hand, but he was already squeezing it again.
‘Have I told you I’m developing a wellness app?’
Ted wanted to suffocate herself in her risotto. As she tried in vain to formulate an escape plan, Miss Marple trotted over to the water bowl that Trax left out for canine patrons. Ted watched distractedly as her dog lapped from the water. But when Miss Marple turned away from the bowl, she suddenly yelped. Ted felt a little kick of alarm.
Miss Marple limped back to the table, her fluffy tail hanging bleakly between her legs.
‘Miss Marple! What’s happened? Are you okay?’
Ted pulled her hand from Jarrod’s and crouched down beside her dog, who was now sitting with her front right paw lifted plaintively in the air. Ted gently took the paw in her hand, and Miss Marple yelped again.
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make it worse.’ Ted straightened and grabbed her handbag.
‘What’s wrong with him?’ Jarrod asked.
‘She’s a she, and I don’t know,’ Ted snapped. She could feel herself freaking out as she took in the mournful expression on Miss Marple’s fluffy little white face and the vulnerable way her injured paw was dangling in the air. ‘She must have twisted her leg or something. I hope she hasn’t done an ACL. I’ll have to take her to the emergency vet.’
‘What, now? Can’t you do it tomorrow?’
‘She’s in pain!’ Ted threw some cash down on the table. ‘Sorry about this—’
‘Are you serious? At least give me your number before you go.’
Ted paused for a millisecond, but she was too concerned about Miss Marple to argue the point, and it was smart to have the stalker’s contact details. They exchanged numbers, and then Ted scooped up Miss Marple and carried her out of the restaurant, weaving her way through the revellers and over the pedestrian bridge to Southbank.
Despite the circumstances, it felt lovely to cuddle her dog in her arms. Miss Marple was aloof by nature, and although she’d recently learned to accommodate occasional displays of affection, it wasn’t an easy transition for her. Ted knew the feeling.
The second they were over the pedestrian bridge, Miss Marple started trying to wriggle free of Ted’s embrace. Ted wasn’t surprised, she must have reached her PDA threshold.
‘You shouldn’t walk, you’ll make your leg worse.’
But Miss Marple wouldn’t take no for an answer, so Ted gently deposited her on the ground. To her amazement, Miss Marple started trotting along without the tiniest hint of a limp. Ted looked down at her, stunned, and Miss Marple looked back at her as if to say, You wanted to get out of there, didn’t you?
Ted laughed. Miss Marple was the best.