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After 10 years, Guy—a drifter with a taste for deception—has returned to Coniston in England's Lake District. A local journalist, Tony di Venuto, is campaigning to revive interest in the disappearance of Emma Bestwick, and Guy knows what happened to her.
When he tips off the newspaperman that Emma will not be coming home, DCI Hannah Scarlett, head of Cumbria's Cold Case Review Team, re-opens the old investigation. Her enquiries take her to the Museum of Myth and Legend and to the remote and eerie Arsenic Labyrinth—a series of stone tunnels used to remove arsenic from tin ore.
Meanwhile, historian Daniel Kind is immersing himself in the work of John Ruskin, whose neighbors created the Arsenic Labyrinth. A shocking discovery makes it clear to Hannah that there is not one mystery to solve, but two, and she turns to Daniel for help in untangling the secrets of the past. As Hannah and Daniel struggle to resist a growing but dangerous attraction, Guy's plan to make a quick buck runs into trouble, and he has to resort to desperate measures. Someone is determined to kill to keep their secrets safe.
Set against the stunning backdrop of the Lake District in winter, the novel depicts how passionate relationships can lead to obsession and murder.
" Edwards never lets the atmosphere outshine the stories. Fans of this increasingly popular series will be in line for this one, and it should be recommended to readers of such similar British authors as Peter Robinson and Sally Spencer." — Booklist
"Ambitious, nuanced and brimful of Lake Country atmosphere — Edwards always gives top value..." — Kirkus Reviews
"Martin Edward's third mystery set in the Lake District of England, The Arsenic Labyrinth, is at its best in the beautiful descriptions of the region and for creating a moody atmosphere for the characters." — Mystery Book Review
Guy smiled at the landlady as she proffered a ballpoint pen with a bitten top. Her hands were chapped, her pink nail varnish flaking. He reached inside his suede jacket.
'Thanks, but I always write with my own fountain pen.'
He liked to think of the black lacquer Waterman Expert as an heirloom, though he'd picked it up less than eighteen months previously in a grubby little shop in Camden Town. The landlady opened the register with as much reverence as if it were the Book of Kells. Guy paused; hadn't Megan described him as a regular Jekyll and Hyde?
Today, no question—Dr. Jekyll.
At Haverigg, he'd studied calligraphy, an agreeable means of passing the long days. No need for artistic skill, just patience and attention to detail. Before running out of both, he'd mastered the basics of an elegant script. Bending over the page, he wrote with a flourish.
R. L. Stevenson.
Perfectly safe, this flight of fancy. He'd once made the mistake of introducing himself as Guy Mannering to a woman who proved to be a closet Sir Walter Scott fan, but Mrs. Welsby didn't strike him as bookish. Bed and breakfast places further up Campbell Road rejoiced in names like Brideshead and Xanadu, but this house, squashed at the end of a three-storey Victorian terrace, was called Coniston Prospect. Not that the name lacked imagination. A tall man looking out of the attic window would need to stand on his toes to see beyond the trees and satellite dishes and catch a glimpse of Coniston Water.
Fanned out on the table were The Daily Express, opened at the gossip page, and a local tabloid. On a scuffed sideboard squatted a Pye transistor radio, so ancient it was probably fashionable retro chic. Through the interference, he discerned Lionel Richie's breathy enquiry. Is it me you're looking for?
'Welcome to Coniston Prospect, Mr. Stevenson.'
The smell of fried bread and burned bacon lingered in the air. Guy gave a contented sniff. He preferred four-star luxury, a boutique hotel by Grasmere or Ullswater would have been more his style, but he didn't mind roughing it until he sorted himself out. No bad thing to keep your feet on the ground. He found it so easy to get carried away. After leaving Llandudno in a hurry, he was short of cash. Lucky he was adaptable—Megan's word was chameleon.
'Please, Mrs. Welsby, the name's Robert.'
Her smile revealed teeth as crooked as the Hardknott Pass. Guy winced. Dentistry counted for a lot, in his opinion. In more affluent days, he'd spent a fortune on caps and straightening.
'My friends call me Rob.'
'I'm Sarah,' she said quickly. 'I do hope you'll be happy here.'
Her eagerness to please was unfeigned and he found himself warming to this solid woman in turquoise tracksuit and downat-heel trainers. Seizing her hand, he found her grip was weak, her flesh soft. Once she'd been pretty, but she'd put on too much weight and years of disappointment had faded her blue eyes. The fair hair was dyed, the roots greying. No rings on the fingers. She could use a little excitement in her life. He pitched his voice lower.
'I'm sure I will be.'
He meant it. A threadbare carpet wasn't the end of the world. All she needed was encouragement. There was more to life than wiping cobwebs from picture rails or scrubbing ketchup stains out of your pinafore.
'I suppose you'd like to unpack?'
He nodded. It wouldn't take five minutes. He travelled light, out of habit as well as need.
'I'll put the kettle on. A cup of tea is so refreshing after a journey. Have you travelled far?'
'I'm not long back in England, as it happens.'
No less than the truth. He'd spent too long in rain-sodden Llandudno, gazing out at wind-whipped waves. The tan came courtesy of a solarium in Deganwy. No matter; the sparkle of delight in Sarah Welsby's eyes told him that she was thinking South of France rather than the coast of North Wales. It would be unkind to disillusion her and Guy hated being unkind. He was about to murmur that the world was becoming smaller when his eye caught a headline in the local newspaper, above a blurry photograph of a face he would never forget.
What happened to Emma Bestwick?
* * *
'Detective Chief Inspector Scarlett!'
Hurrying towards the entrance of Divisional HQ, coat collar raised against the cold bite of February, Hannah heard pounding feet and someone shouting her name. She stopped in her tracks and swivelled.
A man was racing across the car park towards her. As he drew closer, his shoes skidded on the rain-greased tarmac and he lost his balance. With a stifled cry, he tumbled to the ground.
She walked over and helped him rise gingerly to his feet. He was about five feet seven, but lean and sinewy, with his clothes so slickly tailored that he did not seem small. She smelled cedarwood; he'd overdone the after-shave. He squinted at the streak of mud on his cream trousers with as much pain as if he'd broken his ankle.
'I'll live.' Scots accent, gritted-teeth smile. 'You know, this is the first time I've ever been picked up by a senior police officer.'
Early thirties, features as sharp as his suit. Gel glistening on coal-black hair. Despite his fall, not a strand out of place.
'Tony Di Venuto, I presume?'
'So you know who I am without being introduced. Proof positive you're a top detective!'
Di Venuto knew she'd recognised his voice from their phone conversation, but still treated her to a roguish smirk. Hannah groaned inwardly. A phrase of Les Bryant's echoed in her mind. If he were a chocolate pudding, he'd eat himself.
'What can I do for you?'
'When we spoke last Friday, you promised to consider reopening the Emma Bestwick file. You're in charge of Cold Cases. It's a perfect project for ...'
'As I said, the moment you provide any new information, we'll be glad to study it.'
'Hopefully my piece in the Post will jog a few memories.'
'Hopefully. Now if you'll excuse me ...'
'I realise you're very busy.'
'I believe she was murdered, Chief Inspector. Emma deserves justice. Her killer is still at large.'
He even talked in tabloid headlines. Hannah summoned the stonewall smile she reserved for press conferences when she had no tidbits to offer.
'We never found any evidence she was dead. People disappear from home every day of the week. Plenty of them are never seen again.'
'Ten years have passed. Nobody has heard from Emma in all that time. It's inconceivable that she's still alive.'
Hannah cast round for the right words. She didn't want a casual remark to finish up as a sensational quote in a newspaper article. The media relations people would send her off on another press training day for punishment.
'Stranger things have happened.'
'Won't you let me take you through the facts?'
'That won't be necessary.' Hannah stepped away. 'One thing you ought to know. I was a member of the team that investigated Emma Bestwick's disappearance.'
* * *
Guy's new quarters occupied the basement at Coniston Prospect. He'd mentally re-christened it Coniston Glimpse. Mrs. Welsby advertised en suite facilities, which meant he had exclusive benefit of a chilly toilet and separate bathroom on the other side of a short passageway. A yellowing spider plant drooped on the mantelpiece above the gas fire. The room reeked of damp, and as he lay on the stiff mattress, Guy noticed patches of rot around the window frame. The radiator and pipes kept cackling, as though Macbeth's witches were trapped inside.
His lips moved but no sound came as he read once again the opening paragraph from the article in the newspaper that he'd cadged from the landlady.
This week sees the tenth anniversary of one of Cumbria's strangest unsolved mysteries. Thirty year old Coniston reflexologist Emma Bestwick vanished from home and was never seen again. Police were unable to establish whether she left of her own accord or was the victim of suicide, accident or murder. Perhaps the time has come for the Cumbria Constabulary's Cold Case Review Team to take another look at whatever happened to Emma.
How bloody typical. Talk about media irresponsibility. With so much strife in the world, how could it make sense to scour through the past, looking for trouble? People disappeared all the time, what was so odd about that? Why make a front page story out of one woman who went missing long ago? Emma Bestwick was a troubled woman who might easily have given up her old life and gone in search of something new. It was perfectly plausible; he'd made a fresh start himself more than once. Why bully an over-worked police force into raking up old ashes?
A timid knock at the door.
'Only me! I brought your tea down.'
He tossed the newspaper to one side, scrambled off the bed and flung open the door. Mrs. Welsby's face was pink, as though she felt like an intruder in her own home. He took the hot mug, blenching as it scalded his fingers, yet managing to preserve a grin of thanks.
'I meant to come back upstairs but truth to tell, I needed forty winks. Travel can be exhausting, don't you find? It's wonderful to have the chance to put my feet up.'
'You do take milk?'
The mug bore a smiley face and he tried not to wince as he sipped. He loved leaf tea; his favourite was Assam, followed by Darjeeling, but this muddy mess was courtesy of two Co-op tea bags.
He saw her eyes flicker in the direction of the newspaper. He'd left it on the bedside table.
'Thanks for letting me have a glance. Good to catch up.'
'You know the Lakes?'
'My favourite place in the whole world!' As soon as he said it, he realised it was the truth. Keep your Costa del Sols and your Corfus. Even the glory that was Rome was of another day. If he belonged anywhere, it must be here. The Lake District felt like home, even in the rain. Especially in the rain. 'Mind you, this is my first time back in a decade. Too long.'
'Well, I mustn't interrupt.'
They swapped smiles, and as the door closed behind her, he climbed back on to the bed. The journalist was called Tony Di Venuto. What had caused him to light upon the disappearance of Emma Bestwick? News must be thin, there was no other explanation. The ten-year anniversary wasn't much of a peg to hang a story on.
Since he'd last walked the streets of Coniston village, Guy had stopped thinking about Emma. He had a gift for blocking out unpleasantness, found it as easy as closing a door on a draught. Yet memories lurked like invisible weeds beneath the surface of a tarn. After heading out of North Wales, he might have journeyed anywhere. But the Lakes pulled him back, he was a puppet on an invisible string. True, he'd given a promise never to return. But ten years was long enough. Nothing was forever.
* * *
Hannah switched off the tape recorder and yawned as Les Bryant lumbered into her room. She'd spent the past hour listening to interviews conducted by Maggie Eyre, a young DC in her team. Dip sampling of tapes was a tedious part of the job and some DCIs were quick to delegate it, but for her it was not a task to be skimped, however predictable the outcome. The idea was to check whether the interrogation techniques of junior officers were up to scratch and it was unwise to take much for granted. But it came as no surprise that Maggie's questioning of witnesses had been diligent, firm and courteous. Another tick in another box.
'Jobs they never tell you about at the student recruitment fairs,' she muttered.
Les shrugged and deposited his ample backside on a chair on the other side of her desk. 'Wouldn't know, I was never a student.'
She couldn't resist a grin. 'University of life, huh?'
'School of hard knocks, yeah.' He considered her. 'You look different today.'
'Thanks for noticing.'
He went through a pantomime of guesswork. 'Ummm.... your hair's not the same. More blonde than brown these days.'
'We'll make a detective out of you yet. And don't dare to say that you liked it the way it was. Now, have you squared things with Lauren?'
That morning the Assistant Chief Constable had scheduled a meeting with Les to review his conditions of service. He'd shambled out of retirement to lend his expertise to the Cumbria Constabulary's Cold Case Review Team. He was a dour Yorkshireman, a veteran of such fabled cases as the Whitby caravan shootings. The young DCs nicknamed him "In my day," a tribute to Les' favourite phrase. But Hannah liked his morose humour as well as his nose for crime. He'd forgotten more about detective work than most cops would ever know. Once Lauren Self sorted out a few niggles about expenses, they could talk about extending his contract.
'Her ladyship was too busy. Press conference announcing that the force merger has been put on hold. I heard on the grapevine that some reporter asked if she thought the Home Secretary should be charged with wasting police time. By all accounts, she nearly jumped off the podium and slapped him.'
'Christ, I'll keep out of her way, then.'
The Home Office had decided that big was beautiful. Small forces must be gobbled up by larger neighbours, supposedly because terrorism and organised crime didn't recognise local boundaries, more likely because some number-cruncher in Whitehall imagined it might save cash. Goodbye bobby on the beat, hello regional call centre. Now the politicians were wetting themselves because they'd got their sums wrong. Most of Hannah's colleagues were praying that soon mergers wouldn't merely be shelved, they'd be dead and buried. If forces amalgamated, people in the countryside would lose out, as per usual. If it came to a choice between throwing resources into some urban sink estate or cosy Keswick or Kendal, there would only be one winner.
'Reason I'm here, I wondered if you wanted me to have a quiet word with this reporter who's been stalking you.'
'I can fight my own battles. He turned up here as I was arriving, but I sent him off with a flea in his ear.'
'What do you reckon to him?'
'Looks a bit like the young Frank Sinatra.'
'Christ. Is that good?'
'Not really. I never was too keen on "My Way."'
'That's not what I heard,' he muttered. 'Any road, journalists are like pit bull terriers. Good idea to throw 'em a bone now and then.'
'Thanks, Les, but there's nothing you or I can do to satisfy Di Venuto. We don't have the resources to look into every case the force never managed to close. He's come up with nothing new. Emma was a mixed-up lady. In the end we had to go along with the SIO's gut instinct.'
'He reckoned she didn't want to be found.'
* * *
'Recharged the batteries, Mr. Stevenson?'
The landlady gave a shy glance of greeting and Guy wagged a finger in playful reprimand.
'Rob.' She tittered. 'Sorry.'
'Wonderful what a nap can do.' He stretched his arms. 'I feel at home already.'
'That's marvellous.' Regret made the corners of her mouth turn down. 'The Lakes are full of hotels with spas, Jacuzzis and gourmet cuisine. Foreign chefs, glowing write-ups in The Michelin Guide. How can a woman on her own compete?'
'Don't beat yourself up over it, Sarah. Give me traditional home comforts any day.' In time he'd accustom himself to the sinister rumble of the central heating. 'Here I feel like a house guest, not an entry on some computer system. As for food, I'm very much a full English breakfast man.'
She brightened. 'Fried egg, two sausages, baked beans, grilled tomato?'
'Perfect! I draw the line at black pudding, though.'
'Oh, me too.' A comical shiver. 'Blood frightens me.'
He drew breath. 'I'm looking forward to tomorrow morning already.'
'You move on in a week's time, then?'
'That was the plan.' So as to negotiate a discount on the daily rate. Always handy, even though Coniston Prospect must be the cheapest B&B south of Carlisle. 'But you never know. Seems like I've been on the road for years. Perhaps it's time to put down one or two roots.'
'Really? What do you do for a living?'
I live dangerously. The phrase trembled on his lips. It excited him, the glamour of adventuring into the unknown. But over the years he'd learned not to show too many cards too soon.
'Financial services. Internet-based stuff, mainly. Have laptop, will travel. That's me.'
Excerpted from The Arsenic Labyrinth by Martin Edwards Copyright © 2007 by Martin Edwards. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted May 3, 2010
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