The Generalists and the Twelfth of Never

The Generalists and the Twelfth of Never
a Christmas mystery story

‘The most I could pay you is twenty pounds.’

The child who had uttered these words looked around ten years old. She wore a jumper featuring a Welsh Terrier in a Christmas hat. ‘Funny coincidence,’ was my thought at the time. My brother George and I have a Welshie; George had taken him out for his morning walk five minutes before this girl knocked on our door.

Her name was Lauryn Redgate. She turned out to be thirteen. She took three mince pies from the plate I offered her; her manner suggested no one was going to stop her, though no one had tried. She had made an appointment in the proper way and arrived on time; to some, this dual achievement might sound insignificant, yet it is a hurdle that fells more than half of George’s and my adult clients. I was rather sorry that I was about to have to inform this child that we weren’t able to take on under-eighteens as clients.

‘I know twenty pounds is almost nothing, but…well, this involves the attempted murder of a family member,’ the girl said solemnly. ‘Of mine and of yours, Mr Danes.’

‘We have a relative in common?’ I resisted the urge to offer my sympathies. George and I earned the strident disapproval of most of our family when we’d decided to set up as ‘The Generalists’ instead of going to university. They hated our description of our offering even more: ‘Do you have a problem too outlandish or complex for any normal category of professional? Then you need The Generalists! No challenge too big, small, embarrassing or weird.’

It is, of course, understandable to worry if one’s nearest and dearest choose an unconventional and untested path in life; less so, I would argue, once they are bringing in multiple six figures a year as the only operators in a ravenous market, the existence of which is denied by most. The Daneses are as stubborn as they are evidence-resistant, however.

I think we have a relative in common,’ said Lauryn, ‘though I’m not sure if you’d classify a dog as a family member.’

‘Of course.’

‘You have a Welsh Terrier, don’t you? Lannanta Man On The Moon?’

‘What?’ Those words sounded familiar. ‘Oh, right. Yes, that’s his Kennel Club name. Ridiculous mouthful! We call him Reezo, short for Reasonable Doubt.’

Lauryn looked puzzled.

‘It’s the most vital of legal principles,’ I explained.

‘Well, there’s no doubt in this case,’ she said. ‘There’s concrete proof. We’ve got a Welsh Terrier too — Wags. His Kennel Club name is Lannanta Rumble In The Jungle. He’s the grand-nephew of your Reezo, whose litter brother was Wags’s granddad: Lannanta Flat As A Pancake.’ She smiled, then looked suddenly sad. ‘There was another brother too —Lannanta Epiphany. He was our last dog, before Wags. To us, he was Bobble.’

‘Good name,’ said George. He and Reezo had returned from their walk.

‘My aunt Frannie killed him, and now she’s trying to murder Wags too,’  said matter-of-factly.

George and I exchanged a look of surprise.

‘I’m not sure I can save Wags’ life without your help. Frannie is coming to stay with us for Christmas — she always does. Mum and Dad refuse to uninvite her. According to them, even she wouldn’t go as far as killing a dog—’

Even she?’ I said.

Lauryn nodded. ‘They agree she can be bitchy — deliberately making digs she hopes will upset people. You know?’

I knew the type only too well.

‘But they don’t think she’d kill a living creature. They keep saying there must be another explanation for what I saw.’

I swallowed a chunk of mince pie, then said, ‘You’d better start at the beginning.’

She proved to be an efficient storyteller. Four years ago, Bobble, their six-year-old Welshie, escaped from the Redgates’ home onto the road, where he was hit by a car and killed. Two years later, Wags joined the Redgate family, and the next Christmas when she came to stay, Aunt Frannie, according to Lauryn, tried to poison Wags’s food:

‘She didn’t realise I’d be up early. It’s been a family tradition since forever: we all stay up extra-late on Christmas Day, and Boxing Day is Big Lie-In Day. I woke up stupidly early. When I went down to the kitchen, Frannie was hunched over Wags’s food bowl, whispering, “Breakfast time!”. His food was on the counter — she hadn’t opened the carton yet — and she quickly stuffed something into her dressing gown pocket. I just knew she’d been about to give him something poisonous. I’m certain I know what, too: insulin. She’s diabetic. Enough insulin in a dog’s food would kill him, wouldn’t it?’

‘Undoubtedly,’ I said.

‘When I saw her shove whatever it was in her pocket, all my suspicions from when Bobble died came rushing back. I’d always secretly been convinced she’d left the doors open deliberately so that Bobble would escape and get run over, but I hadn’t said anything to Mum and Dad. I couldn’t prove it, and I knew what they’d say: ‘Impossible, no way.’ And it should be impossible. It should be unthinkable that she’d do that to anyone, but especially to family. Frannie is not only my aunt, she’s also the breeder.’

‘What do you mean?’ I asked.

‘Lannanta Welsh Terriers — that’s Frannie. She’s bred dogs most of her adult life. She gave us both of ours, as presents. Then she killed Bobble and she’s now determined to kill Wags, even though they’re her sister’s family’s pets and the children of her own pet Welshies. It’s…dog infanticide.’

‘What makes you so sure Frannie killed Bobble?’ George asked.

Her face. We were taking down the Christmas tree and decorations and packing them away, so we were all in the lounge together when we heard the shouting on the road,’ Lauryn said. ‘I was sitting opposite Frannie. When we realised Bobble had been hit by a car, I saw her expression. There was no shock or horror. Her eyes narrowed, and she looked…satisfied. She didn’t know I’d seen it, and no one else was looking at her. Obviously that’s not proof.’

‘It’s not,’ I agreed.

‘I didn’t have proof of the insulin incident with Wags, either. Also, no one listens to you when you’re under ten.’ Lauryn sighed. ‘Anyway, last year I got the proof I needed, thanks to another family tradition. We always get a post-Christmas Indian takeaway, so that no one has to cook after the massive Christmas cooking rigmarole. Last year I was at a friend’s that afternoon — it was her birthday, I’d nipped round to give her her present. I was walking back to ours and I saw Frannie open the front door and sort of… hold it back to keep it in place, as wide open as possible. She didnt see me outside, watching. And she did the same with the other door — we have an inner front door that’s mainly glass, and I saw Frannie position it so that it was standing wide open too. Then the took her handbag from a coat peg and headed back towards the kitchen. Why would she do any of that?’

I could think of no innocent reason.

‘She didnt step one foot outside,’ Lauryn went on. ‘It makes no sense unless she was hoping Wags would escape and get hit by a car, like Bobble. Lauryn blinked back tears. ‘Luckily I was there, so I ran inside and closed both doors. Mum said later that Frannie had insisted she’d get the curry that year, on her Deliveroo. She was all: “Let me just go and get my phone from my bag in the car”. But she didn’t leave the house, and her bag was hanging up in our hall. Nobody knowingly leaves their phone and handbag in their car! She needed an excuse to open the doors so she could “forget”’ — Lauryn made quote marks in the air — ‘to shut them. So that Wags would espcape and get squashed by a car.’

I was inclined to believe Lauryn’s suspicions were justified. ‘Trouble is, one cannot prove intent.’

‘That’s what Mum and Dad say.’

‘Aunt Frannie could always say she’d thought her bag was in the car even though it wasn’t,’ said George. ‘She opened the door, then spotted the bag hanging up in the hall. That’s why she didn’t set foot outside.’

‘Opening a door is different from carefully positioning it so it stays fully open,’ said Lauryn.

I was about to offer to babysit Wags for the duration of the evil aunt’s visit when George asked Lauryn, ‘On what date does your family take down its Christmas decorations?’

I laughed. ‘How on earth is that relevant, George?’

‘6 January,’ said Lauryn. ‘Mum always moans about them being up so long, but Dad won’t give in — he witters on about proper Christian traditions.’

‘And your friend’s birthday,’ said George. ‘You said it was on Post-Christmas curry day? That’s 26 December, yes?’

Lauryn nodded.

‘Wait.’ I saw what George was driving at. ‘So Frannie has tried twice to kill Wags — the Insulin, and the open doors — and both times, it was Boxing Day?’

‘Yup.’ George looked smug. ‘One more question, Lauryn: was it Frannie who dreamed up the Kennel Club names for Wags and Bobble?’

‘Mm-hm. The breeder always chooses the official names.’

‘And Wags’s is Rumble in the Jungle?’

‘Yes.’  looked puzzled.

‘Blimey,’ I said. ‘The Rumble in the Jungle was a famous boxing match. Boxing match…Boxing Day.’

‘And Bobble’s Kennel Club name was Lannanta Epiphany,’ George said. ‘Epiphany is 6 January. The day Bobble died.’

‘I can’t believe this,’ Lauryn whispered. ‘She’s more evil than I thought.’

George turned to me. ‘Aunt Frannie appears to be naming the dogs she gives Lauryn’s family after the days on which she plans to try and kill them.’

‘Mum and Dad will still say we don’t have proof.’ Lauryn’s voice shook.

‘Then I shall point out to them that no one is trying to confine Evil Aunt Frannie to a dungeon for the rest of her life — you simply want them to uninvite her, so perhaps less stringent standards of evidence might be applied. Let’s talk to them.’


Sadly, Dr and Mrs Redgate stood their ground, insisting that ‘even Frannie’ was incapable of such wickedness. They did, however, for Lauryn’s sake, concede that Wags could spend the Christmas holidays with us. They don’t know that I’ve invited Frannie to Boxing Day lunch — a chance to catch up with Reezo, former Lannanta pup. (‘Wags will be there too,’ I added casually.) 

We shall have state-of-the-art surveillance equipment installed in our kitchen beforehand. In an open box on a high shelf, there will be a decent quantity of a harmless substance (probably Bella and Duke’s Magic Sprinkles — Tantalising Chicken flavour) that I shall tell Frannie is some sort of highly toxic dishwasher cleaner, hence the importance of keeping it out of the dogs’ reach. I shall be recorded on camera saying this, and next in our little film we will perhaps see a middle-aged woman dropping flakes from that box into Wags’s food bowl (I have ordered one with his name on it specially for the occasion).

Naturally, even if this ruse succeeds, Dr and Mrs Redgate will protest Frannie’s innocence. No amount of proof can induce a person to acknowledge a truth they are unwilling to believe. I suspect they shall simply ensure Wags’s safety by sending him to us whenever Aunt Frannie visits in future.

Meanwhile, one can always change a dog’s Kennel Club name and — again, purely to please Lauryn, her mum assured me — Wags’s official name will soon be Lannanta The Twelfth of Never. I am looking forward to telling Aunt Frannie this happy news myself, just as soon as the relevant paperwork has been processed.

Sophie’s first feature film — The Mystery of Mr. E, a murder mystery musical — is streaming now on Amazon Prime  and AppleTV+, starring the detective duo of twin brothers John and George Danes (aka ‘The Generalists’).

This story was first published in Country Life magazine, December 2023.