Bethany had been up all night in the hatchery. There were rarely problems, but it never hurt to have a set of working fingers and opposable thumbs on hand for when there were, and all of Sojourn Bellatrix Verbena’s latest clutch were all spoken for. Her hatchlings always went for a premium price and it helped that this clutch’s sire, Blackstone Maarten Kenzi, was well known in the fancy as a sound stud, even if his owner wasn’t a breeder.
The lack of sleep meant that Bethany was hoping for an afternoon nap, but the discussion at lunch morphed into a planning session for the breeding visit they’d arranged for the Argukan champion stud, Holoware Liquorice Menthasala. Of course, if she didn’t argue her case and agree to trade-off in extra work around the stud, she wouldn’t get a breeding slot, so that kept her at the table. She wanted to breed one of her dams with him to, hopefully, get those beautiful wing colours into the breeding line she was trying to establish. Naturally just when she’d thought she’d almost talked her grandmother into a deal, the front door bell rang.
“You’d better go get that hadn’t you, Bethany?” Her grandmother had an evil grin on her face as she said that and Bethany knew she’d be back to square one in their negotiation when she got back to the table.
She opened the door then in a mood that was not automatically the best one in which to greet two policemen. She smiled anyway and said, “Good afternoon, officers. How can we help you?”
“We’re investigating a report of illegal substances being grown on these premises, Miss.” That policeman was a tall, sallow-skinned man with red hair. He and his shorter colleague both wore gorgets with engravings that marked them as members of the local area police command.
“Officer, we are a fully registered and licensed dragon lizard stud. That does include being licensed to grow several restricted plant species.” Bethany looked at them enquiringly and added, “What, in particular, has it been alleged that we’re growing?”
The sallow skinned officer looked opened his notepad and read out, “Merle weed, paspadeum, grinkle fruit, and kohlibear.”
“I know we have licences for the first three,” Bethany said slowly. “They’re essential for bringing dragon lizards into a mating cycle. In fact, I was with Grandmother when she renewed our licenses for those at the police station in Wetherbridge just last month, but what’s kohlibear?”
The two officers exchanged looks, and the one who hadn’t spoken yet answered in a serious tone, “A grade three psychotropic, Miss. Used in certain circles for enhanced experiences.”
“I’ve still never heard of it,” said Bethany. “I think you need to speak to my grandmother.”
“Speak to me about what?” Grandmother had come up behind her. “Why are these young men here?”
“Apparently we’ve been reported for growing restricted plants,” Bethany tossed over her shoulder, “and I know we’ve got licenses for three of the ones they’re talking about, but I’ve never heard of the fourth.”
“And just who made this report?” Her grandmother went on, arms akimbo, “It wouldn’t have been the new magistrate’s wife would it? I caught her and a friend of hers in my creekside paddock this morning, looking to gather my mushrooms. They’d already filled their baskets, so that horse had bolted, but I told them that if I found them on my land again, I’d call your lot and get them charged with trespassing.”
“Even so, madam,” said the red haired officer smoothly, “we do need to investigate. If we could sight the licenses that you do have and then we can look into the other?”
Grandma sighed and fetched the licences, telling Bethany’s aunts and cousins to get on with their afternoon work as she passed through the kitchen, “Because we’ll be a while.”
The police officers were satisfied with the licenses and, having put them carefully back in the offices, Grandma asked, “So, where’s this other stuff we’re supposedly growing?”
“We have a sketch map.” The red haired officer flipped over a page and orientated it to where he was. “The kohlibear should be over to the southwest. Apparently there’s some sort of gully?”
“I know where you mean,” said Grandma grimly. “It’s right up against my far boundary. If they’ve seen something over there, then they’ve been right across my property and almost back again before I caught them. The cheek of that woman! The quickest way down there is through the gates. This way.” Grandma stumped out the front door, past the two policemen who stepped aside to let her through, and down the verandah steps.
By the time the three of them, the policemen and Bethany, had fallen in behind her, the old woman was well on her way to the gate that led away from the stud buildings and towards the open paddocks. The shorter policeman was walking beside Bethany, while his red haired colleague tried to walk beside her grandmother. “So, why do you have all these open paddocks?” He looked around. “I mean, you’ve got cows but if you were running any sort of cattle operation, there’d be more of them.”
“Oh, the cows are mainly to keep the grass down in the orchards and in the paddocks we’re not using for the merle weed or paspadeum,” Bethany said offhandedly. “The brooding dams do better if the stud isn’t crowded in by too many people and too much noise. We could have let it all go back to forest, but it’s more convenient to have it like this. Unfortunately, we have some new neighbours who object to their ‘rural outlook’ actually including some real farms and who think they can treat our property like private parkland.” She added. “The new magistrate’s wife and my grandmother are really not getting on.”
“Unfortunate,” replied the policeman diplomatically. “Er, I couldn’t help but hear the lady magistrate’s wife saying something about a pleasaunce…? When she came in to complain about the plants this morning.”
“Apparently she’s laid hands on a copy of the district map from the census held in the twenty-fifth year of Galfridus IV when all of this was a private estate for the king’s pleasure. That was about two hundred years ago, and the estate’s been broken up by Royal Gift and Charter since, but she seems to have it in her head that this should be a park of some sort. One that she has access to.” Bethany shrugged. “I have no idea what we’re supposed to do about her.”
“Neither do I,” admitted the policeman. “She is the magistrate’s wife…”
“Exactly,” agreed Bethany and they walked the rest of the way in as companionable a silence as was possible under the circumstances.
With the opening and closing of gates, it took them about twenty minutes to reach their destination, a gully reaching up into the end of a spur of hills running off to the west. “According to the information laid, it should be up in here,” said the red haired policeman.
The gully was bisected by a near sheer wall of weathered rock, a grey height of almost eight feet that gave no foot or hand purchase. Above its lichen- marked face, the gully continued upwards between the fingers of oak and pine forest until it disappeared into the crown of trees at the top of the hill. Up there clumps of a tall herb with both spear-head shaped leaves and bud clusters veined in red grew along the tree line up both sides of the gully and the open grass dipping between the two ridges was dotted with white mushrooms tinged faintly green.
“Well,” said the red haired policeman tipping back his cap, “that’s definitely kohlibear. Quite a lot of it. I’m afraid you have a problem, madam.”
“That red stuff up there?” Bethany’s grandmother snorted. “That’s not my problem. My property ends at the rock wall. Up above that is Lord Korne’s hunting lodge. You’ll have to take your drug problem up with him – or his caretaker, more likely,” she added kindly. “Of course, the main gate and the caretaker’s house are over near Thistleton, about five leagues as the crow flies but it’s a little over ten going round by the road.”
“That would be the Lord Korne, wouldn’t it?” His tone made it clear that the red haired officer thought that this had just turned into one of those days.
“He’s the only one I know of,” said Bethany’s grandmother briskly, “and he may well have a license for that stuff, but that would be wizard’s business.”
“As you say, madam,” agreed the redhaired policeman soberly.
“Ah, Grandma?” Bethany had been looking around and thought it was time to raise an issue. “You said that the magistrate’s wife and her friend had been picking mushrooms?”
“Yes, they had them covered over in a basket.” Her grandmother laughed. “It looked like they were trying to fit in with some dream idea of what mushroom picking should be like.”
“Did you see any signs of mushrooms in any of the paddocks this morning or of where anyone had been picking mushrooms?” Bethany felt and was sounding quite worried.
“Well, no, but I wouldn’t have would I?” Her grandmother was puzzled and so were the policemen.
“Neither did I, in the paddocks,” agreed Bethany, “but in here someone has been, and doing a pretty messy job of it.” She pointed at a broken off stalk near her right foot. “I can’t help thinking that the mushrooms down here were probably the mushrooms that are up there,” she pointed to the upper half of the gully, “and I’m pretty certain those are death caps.”
“We can radio it in from the car,” said the shorter policeman.
“Bethany and I will close the gates behind you,” Grandma told them. “You’ll want to get in contact with people as fast as you can – I hope they didn’t have mushrooms for lunch!”