A little snippet from Beginnings, the first Erica Murray Mystery novel and I thought I’d introduce you to Jess, her daughter Ruby, and Marshall.
Beginnings is out on 2 November and you can pre-order it directly from me right here.
Her mum was always telling her to be careful. Ruby sometimes listened. When she was climbing a tree or there were strange people around. But this was her garden. She didn’t need to be careful. She had big plans to bend this patch of green lawn and empty flowerbeds to her will. Her mum said she could have a swing and that they’d start a vegetable patch. Ruby’s plans involved slugs and snails more than anything else.
Without thinking, she headed straight to the broken fence panel at the back right of the garden. Next door lived a horrible old man and the urge to peer into his garden and at his creepy windows was often too much to bear.
Ruby stopped so suddenly that she nearly toppled forward from the leftover momentum. Through the broken fence panel was a large man with a shovel. Ruby eyed him and then glanced up towards the neighbour’s house.
‘Hello,’ she said. The man jumped and turned to look at her, bending a little to see her through the fence.
His voice was deep. Deeper than her dad’s. She liked it. It had a strange but soothing quality to it. Unfortunately, his height and size weren’t quite as soothing.
‘What are you doing?’
The big man looked down at his shovel. There was mud all around him where the neighbour’s nice lawn had been dug up.
‘I’m taking up the lawn.’
‘Because Mr Horton wants me to put gravel down instead.’
Ruby looked up at the man with large eyes.
The man shrugged his broad shoulders.
‘Some people think gravel is easier to maintain than a lawn.’
Ruby did an exaggerated eye roll. The man chuckled. ‘What was that?’
‘That’s what Mummy will do when she finds out.’ Ruby tutted and rolled her eyes again. The man grinned at her. Ruby looked down at the mud on the man’s shovel.
‘If you put gravel down instead of grass, where will the worms go?’
The man followed her gaze.
‘They live in the dirt underneath the gravel.’
‘They’ll still be able to come up and breathe?’
The man shifted his weight thoughtfully.
‘Well, I need to put a layer down between the dirt and the gravel, to stop the weeds coming up and the grass growing back.’
‘So the worms won’t be able to get out? They’ll be trapped?’ This was awful news. Ruby had to do something. Throwing handfuls of mud at Mr Horton’s window was the first thing that came to mind.
The man looked at her kindly, but not with the annoying patronising expression that most adults gave her.
‘They’ll find their way out,’ he told her. ‘They’ll dig under the fence to your garden, if they know what’s good for them.’
Ruby shook her head.
‘Worms usually don’t know what’s good for them.’
The man tilted his head at her.
‘I tell you what, kid. You go get me a bucket or something, something your mum won’t mind getting dirty, and any worms I find, I’ll put in the bucket. Then when I’m done, I’ll slide it back onto your side of the fence and the worms can live happily in your garden. What do you think?’
Ruby pursed her lips.
Jess stretched her arms above her head, turning to look out of the window and check on Ruby. She lowered her arms. What was that girl doing? She was talking to their horrible neighbour through the fence. Well, whatever Mr Horton was saying to her little Ruby, Jess wouldn’t be having it. She stormed out through the patio door.
‘Ruby!’ she boomed in her best motherly authoritative voice. Ruby snapped round to face her. Taking long strides, Jess reached her daughter’s side and towered protectively over her child. She faltered when she saw it was the big man from earlier and not Mr Horton on the other side of the fence.
He gave her a small smile.
‘Err, hello,’ said Jess. She looked down at Ruby. ‘What’s going on?’
‘He’s taking up the grass, Mummy. Mr Horrible told him to take up the lawn.’
‘Stop making up names for people,’ Jess muttered, peering through the broken fence slats to the garden beyond.
‘He’s replacing the lawn with gravel,’ the man confirmed.
Jess tutted and rolled her eyes without thinking. The man and Ruby exchanged a grin. She would have to question Ruby on that later.
‘I’m concerned about the worms,’ Ruby declared. Jess couldn’t help but smile.
‘Of course you are. How will they breathe under all those stones?’
‘Exactly.’ Ruby beamed up at her mother. The man on the other side of the fence watched with a bemused glint in his eye.
‘If she has a bucket, I’ve offered to save any worms I find. I’ll push the bucket through the fence when I’m done for the day and she can give them a new home.’
Jess stared at the man a little too long.
‘What a wonderful idea,’ she breathed. ‘Go get that disgusting – I mean – lovely pink bucket your dad bought for you last year. The one you’ve never used. Quickly.’ Jess gave Ruby a little pat on the back and the girl sprinted into the house. Jess glanced back to the man. ‘Thank you. For indulging her.’
The man’s broad shoulders heaved in a shrug.
‘It’s sweet.’ He looked over the broken fence. ‘I can get this fixed for you, if you like.’
‘Is that not part of the lawn arrangement?’ Jess frowned. ‘I offered to pay to get it fixed but Mr Horton said he’d do it.’
‘He hasn’t mentioned it to me. I’m Mr Horton’s handyman. Marshall.’
Jess’s lips twitched and she gave a small smile.
‘Jess.’ She straightened her thoughts. ‘A handyman. So you were doing his shopping earlier?’
‘And now I’m sorting out his garden.’ Marshall nodded. ‘I’ll ask him about the fence.’
‘Oh, thanks. Only, I don’t want to be a bother. I mean, I’ve found that he can be quite…’ Jess’s voice faded as she struggled to find a polite word.
‘Yes! Difficult. At times.’
Marshall gave her a lopsided smile and Jess bit her lip.
‘I’ll be diplomatic, don’t you worry.’
There was a pause between them. A heavy silence that dragged at Jess. Just as she opened her mouth to say things she really shouldn’t, Ruby came running back into the garden shouting that she’d found her pink bucket.
She passed the bucket through the fence slats to Marshall, who took it with that lopsided smile on his face.
‘Thanks, kid. I’ll collect all the worms and if you check out here later, say, maybe, at six? There’ll be a bucket of worms on your side of the fence. Okay?’
Ruby nodded. Marshall looked back up to Jess and she had to quickly tear her eyes up to meet his gaze. ‘And I’ll let you know about the fence.’
‘Great. Thank you. So much.’ Jess gave him a smile, her hands on Ruby’s shoulders. She opened her mouth to say more, anything to keep the conversation going, when a cheerful tune began playing in her pocket. ‘Oh. That’s me. Sorry.’ Jess pulled out the phone, expecting to see Erica’s name. She frowned. It wasn’t Erica.