A Chapter by Elegsabiff

The first chapter, forming introduction to the book, a corpse, and some of the characters.


Who can say when a story starts?  You join this one on the second Thursday in December, not twenty miles north of Edinburgh …


The caller was very deaf �" after exhorting the duty officer to speak up twice she gave up and just repeated her message. 

“This is Elizabeth Campbell, from number one at Grasshopper Lawns.  There’s been a murder done.  My dear girl, I canna hear you.  Just send a polis man and I’ll tell him all about it.”  She hung up with a decisive click.

“If this is that Robin Alexander, I’ll have him on a charge, so I will.”  The duty officer muttered under her breath, but logged the call and passed it on.  It was hardly a cry for help �" the caller had sounded more annoyed than alarmed �" and for that matter wasn’t the first call from the retirement village.  The usual cry was of missing treasures, usually found in odd places, notably the diamond ring found in the frantic owner’s own fridge.  Any real cause for alarm would be phoned in by one of the Trust’s staff, so it was close on an hour before DI McLuskie and Sgt Cameron, who had just ended their surveillance of a store owner suspected of selling alcohol to minors, were free to call on the old lady.  

Iain McLuskie, new to the Onderness posting, asked the dispatcher to repeat the address and still didn’t look confident, but Kirsty touched his arm reassuringly. 

“I ken where it is, Iain �" got an aunt living there.  Just head towards Linlithgow and turn left after the motorway”

“Oh aye, that’s what she said.” McLuskie put the car into gear “You’re telling me they’re living on that campsite, then”

Kirsty giggled “Grasshopper Lawns is opposite.  In fact the campsite is for their visitors, but open to the public as well. “

“I didn’t know there was another retirement place in these parts �" that big place near Linlithgow, aye, but nothing local.  Keep themselves to themselves, do they?”

“The purple hatters” Kirsty shot him a mischievous glance “started as a joke, but they like it, you MUST have seen them on Thursdays in Onderness, that’s the day they come through here to shop and go to the library �"“

McLuskie started to laugh.  “I have, then.  One old fellow in a purple balaclava, just the other day. He was walking along the road with another old ‘un in a purple tweed cap and a woman in a kind of purple and red turban.  Very good!”






Grasshopper Lawns certainly didn’t flaunt its status.   The rural road off the A904 was flanked on either side by sturdy farm walls.  On the Grasshopper Lawns side there was a further screening of wintery ornamental hedge which had some rebel twigs poking above its well-pruned even six feet.  The first break in the wall had a closed five-bar gate with a small notice directing callers further down the road to the main house, but when McLuskie did pull into the main entrance and draw up with a brisk scattering of gravel he was impressed.  The building before them was built on classic lines, either of stone or stone-faced, and perfectly proportioned to its three levels, well furnished with windows, and fronted with a flourish of stone steps. In view of its purpose, curving sturdy hand-rails flanked the stairs and a discreet ramp inclined gently to one side.   To either side of the parking area at the front of the house a paved and well-maintained service road was tucked away against the original stone-built farm walls.   On the inner side of the service road there were long low blocks of bungalow units which surrounded a park-like attractive garden of generous proportions, to judge by the glimpse through the gap between the house and the first bungalow.  

The two police officers strode into the large entrance hall, greeted with raised brows by Megan, the front-of-house receptionist and watched with interest by three elderly people reading newspapers in the sofas scattered about the space, and two equally elderly Labradors in large dog beds.  Megan, an attractively rounded woman in her late forties, greeted Kirsty by name with a smile, then turned her attention fully back to McLuskie, who explained that they were wanting to see Mrs. Campbell.

“Miss Campbell.” Megan corrected gently.  “But I didn’t know Betsy needed the police?  If you’ll wait just a moment I’ll give her a ring �"“ her brows drew together as she held the house-phone to her ear.  “She’s not answering �" “

“The dispatcher did say she was very deaf” McLuskie offered, and Megan nodded at him.

“She is, but her phone has a flashing light system all round her apartment.  Oh dear �" Jamie, do you think �"“

“Oh aye, I’ll tek the polis to her” Jamie relinquished his newspaper with alacrity and heaved himself to his feet with the aid of a particularly fine silver-ornamented mahogany walking stick.  The December day was mild, and he contented himself with facing the elements in a tweed cap and a well-worn tweed jacket, leaving a scarf and greatcoat still draped over the back of the sofa.   He led the way briskly down the ramp and plunged through a gap in the winter-thin rhododendrons onto a covered walkway.

“You’ll be a regular visitor then, missus?” he asked Kirsty, who explained about her aunt.  

“Oh aye”  Jamie chuckled “Edge is a card, she is.  Actually, you look like her, now’s I’m looking.  It’s right here �"“   

The door of number one was shut but Jamie played a jaunty flourish on the bell, then cracked the door ajar, peered inside, and pushed it open.  They followed him into a spotlessly tidy kitchen, leading to a short passageway off which doors opened either side to a bathroom and walk-in closet, and the door ahead stood half open.  He knocked again, peered round the door, nodded over his shoulder to the police and mouthed ‘sleeping’ before turning back to roar in a voice unsuspected in one of his slender frame, “Betsy, hen, here’s the polis to see you”.

            McLuskie, peering past him, saw a large woman in a comfortable armchair, her head to one side and her mouth open as she slept on.  Or not �" gently putting Jamie to one side he entered the room and hunkered down next to the woman, touching her arm.  “Miz Campbell?”  He moved his hand to lay the length of his palm on her arm, then turned his head to Kirsty .  “Can ye get Jamie out of here?” he asked quietly but Jamie was having none of it. 

            “Is she deid?” he demanded and when McLuskie lifted his shoulders in a faint shrug that was nonetheless confirmation his old face flickered into new lines.  “Ach, puir old Betsy.  She made grand scones, she did”.






            “Normally we wouldn’t assume the worst” McLuskie told the administrator, who nodded in understanding.

            “Oh, I do agree.  She phoned you, she said she had a murder to report, and she herself was dead when you arrived.  I completely understand, of course.  I just hope it doesn’t get into the papers, that sort of thing is so bad for a place like this.”

            “Until we get the report back on how she died we’re not treating it as suspicious.  But in view of what she told the dispatcher, we would like to know who else has died lately?” McLuskie persisted and the administrator narrowed her eyes in thought, then pressed a button on her intercom.

            “Megan, dear, can you find me the termination files for the �" I think for the last year should do it?”

            “You don’t remember?  Are there so many deaths?” Kirsty was horrified but Harriet Blake smiled reassuringly.  She was a heavily-built woman, unflatteringly dressed in a stern pin-striped jacket and skirt, and her face, in repose, looked stern.  Her smile, however, was particularly charming and more in keeping with the soft silk tie of her spotless white blouse.

            “Oh no, my dear but I don’t like to rely on my memory �" I’m nearly retirement age myself, you know, I find it best to work with records.  I know of two, only one of them recent, but poor Betsy could be meaning someone further back. Oh, thank you Megan” as the other entered with a slim sheaf of three files and put them on the desk.  “Three?  Oh dear �" oh, that’ll be Angus, will it?”

            “Maybe you could join us?” McLuskie looked up at Megan, who looked uncertain.

            “I’ve left Josie on the desk �"“ she glanced at Harriet Blake, who explained, a bit apologetically.   

            “Josie gets a bit fidgety, she’s absolutely fine to cover Megan for a few minutes at a time but we’d normally get one of the others for Megan’s lunch break, for instance.”

            McLuskie conceded that Josie’s relief outweighed Megan’s participation and she left the room.  He looked at Harriet with his brows up.   “Any volunteers you can get, eh?”

            “Oh no.”  She separated the three files on her desk.   “Several of the residents take it in turns to work a standby shift, they get house credits for it which can be very useful.” She shot him a quick glance under her rather heavy brows “House credits can be spent on drinks at our little pub, or meals here, you know.  Most of them are on quite tight budgets, so it frees up cash.  Some of the residents work part-time in the kitchen, or helping out generally.  We couldn’t run this place to the standard we do without them, either �" it all works out very well.  Josie’s delightful, and very popular with callers, but she’s very easily distracted.  If there isn’t much going on she gets bored and if too much happens at once she gets flustered so �" we work to people’s strengths, but also to their limitations.  Now, the most recent first.  Moses McKenzie died just a week ago.  It was very sad �" he choked to death in his apartment, and although there are panic buttons all over the place he never reached one, so nobody went to his aid.  I don’t think that can be what Betsy meant, because choking �" well, you can’t murder someone that way, can you?  Nobody could force someone to choke.”  

            She selected the death certificate from the papers in the file and passed it over for inspection.     “Then there’s Betty Taylor, Elizabeth Taylor she liked to be called, but most people called her Betty.  She died in August of pneumonia, but she was in the hospital by then.  We have a frail care centre here in the house, with a fine matron, but you can’t take chances with pneumonia, you know.  They call it the old man’s friend, but Betty wasn’t really old, not yet seventy.  It was very sad but again, I can’t see it could have been murder?” 

             Another death certificate passed across the desk, exchanged for the first, which was carefully re-filed.   “And Angus Burns  �" “ she flicked swiftly through the bottom file, her heavy brows drawing together.  “Oh dear.  There was an inquest for Angus, because he took an overdose of his sleeping pills and his friends insisted it couldn’t have been deliberate.   The coroner eventually signed it off as misadventure rather than suicide.  Betsy could have meant Angus although she never even met him, she moved here after he died �" “ this time the returning death certificate was exchanged for the coroner’s report, which McLuskie flipped through before handing it to Kirsty   

            “What did you think at the time?” he asked Harriet, who lifted her heavy shoulders very slightly.

            “I don’t have as much to do with the residents as Megan does, she’s the best person to ask.  I did know Angus, because he was a rip-roaring old character, hugely popular, had some wonderful stories, but he was getting a little doddery, over eighty you know, and the life he’d had, so full of adventure, going on safari in Africa and sailing to Australia �" I did think he had wanted to escape the indignities of extreme old age, so I assumed it was suicide.  But as I say, I didn’t know him as well as his friends did, and they were very convincing at the inquest.  Back in the day being a suicide would have meant he couldn’t be buried in a churchyard �" that doesn’t matter nowadays but the stigma of suicide still matters to some.  I was glad when the coroner came up with a misadventure verdict.”   

            “And Miss Campbell �" how was her health?  If she hadn’t phoned us, would you have called us when she was found?”

            “Yes I would.” Harriet Blake said decisively.  “Betsy Campbell was, apart from her increasing deafness, a hale and hearty woman in her early sixties, one of our best bakers, and as fit as a flea.  She not only joined the aerobics class here every day, she was a great walker and hasn’t had so much as a sniffle all winter.  I am extremely surprised �" and disturbed - to hear of her death.” 

            “One last question” Kirsty leant forward.  “If you’ll permit �" you said you were near retirement age yourself.  Would you want to live here?”

            “I already do” Harriet smiled thinly.  “The Administrator position includes an apartment on the third floor of this house, but I know what you mean, would I want to stay on as a resident when I retire.  I certainly would if I could.  However, it isn’t cut-and-dried �" there’s a waiting list of nearly a hundred approved applicants, you know.”  She glanced from one to the other.  “This place is unique, we get hundreds of applications every year.  To be an approved applicant, you have to be without family �" “ she bent her index finger down “you have to have led an unusual life, or had unusual experiences” second finger down “and you have to be in good health, mobile and under seventy.  Most applicants are in their fifties.  Then you get interviewed by at least three members of the admissions board, and if they rubber-stamp your application you get added to the approved list.   Grasshopper Lawns was founded, and is still largely funded, by a Trust set up by a very wealthy businesswoman who, as she approached retirement age, was determined to spend her leisured years in the company of interesting people.  Having no surviving family herself, she didn’t want to be surrounded by grandparents who talked endlessly of their grandchildren or whatever was on the telly, and she was the first Administrator of this place before she retired to become a resident.   She was still alive when I became Administrator about eight years ago, and she insisted the admissions board included not only the Trust staff but five representatives from the residents.  Every application has to be signed off by at three people, at least one of whom has to be a resident.  Four years after coming here I applied for an eventual place and I am an approved applicant, but not even close to the top of the list.  So, yes, I would become a resident if I could, but I may end up having to go elsewhere.”



            “She was fibbing a bit there” Kirsty said quietly to McLuskie as they made their way back to the ground floor to see Megan, and he shot her a quick sidelong look.

            “Aye, I thought so too, couldn’t put my finger on it but if she knows, or suspects, someone is knocking residents off I reckon she’s not be so keen to live here, eh?” He gave a short laugh “What do you reckon her unusual experiences were?  She’s a dead ringer for my English teacher at school, couldn’t be more conventional.  Bet your aunt isn’t.”

            “Oh aye.” Kirsty grinned reminiscently “Aunt Edge is a corker, she is.  Travelled the world, had two husbands and buried ‘em both, made a packet writing TV dramas until she retired �" she’s not one who has to work for house credits, she’s absolutely rolling.  And a wicked sense of humour, too.  She’s top, my aunt.”

             “I was thinking �" “  McLuskie glanced across “we don’t know yet if it’s a case.  But if it is, mebbe your aunt could give us a bit of background on the place?   Or were you planning to play the whole thing down so as not to alarm her?”

            “Alarm Aunt Edge!”  Kirsty gave an involuntary hoot of laughter.   “She’d absolutely love it.  She’s in number twelve, we can stop by after we’ve talked to Megan  �" if she’s home, of course.  Her social life is ten times as hectic as mine �"“        


© 2013 Elegsabiff

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Added on February 15, 2013
Last Updated on February 15, 2013
Tags: murder, scottish, scotland, retirement



Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom

I'm on a learning curve of note, having epublished my first book this year. It's a bit like having a baby, producing the book is just the start and there's so much to learn! I write light-hearted w.. more..