An Inch of Time

An Inch of Time

by Peter Helton


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781780290317
Publisher: Severn House Publishers
Publication date: 12/01/2012
Pages: 240
Product dimensions: 5.70(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Born in Germany, Peter Helton now lives in Bath, Somerset. He has a Fine Art degree, and paints and exhibits regularly in London, Cornwall and Bath, writing in his spare time. As well as the Chris Honeysett mystery series, he is the author of the DI Liam McLusky series.

Read an Excerpt


'No, Chris, it's spring now,' Annis pronounced from inside the six layers of clothing she was wearing under her painting sweater. I had counted each one with regret as she put them on that morning.

'You're delirious with cold. It's winter. Deepest winter.'

'Well, officially it's spring now.'

'Officially, it's bloody freezing. Two paces away from this stove you'd perish in this perishing cold within minutes.'

'How would you know? You haven't moved away from that stove all morning.'

'It's only because I've been feeding it so diligently that your brush hasn't frozen to your canvas yet.'

'We'll get warmer weather soon; can't be long now.'

My own easel was empty since I was between paintings. Also between investigation jobs and between cheques from Simon Paris Fine Art, which was the reason for me trying to keep the wood burner in the studio going with any object that would burn. I fed another chair leg into the stove. We'd run out of logs days ago and I'd been burning oil rags, old paintings and broken furniture. Also furniture I had freshly declared broken that morning. 'Warmer weather soon is what you said last week. We've had snow showers since then. Actually, I'd prefer snow to this muck.' What had looked like morning mist had turned out to be a stubborn fog. Mill House and its ramshackle outbuildings lay at the bottom of the valley and it was often visited by lingering mists and miasmas, as though the place wasn't damp enough with the mill race hugging the house. Our studio – or rather the leaky, draughty barn we used for painting in – sat at the top end of the meadow, no more than sixty yards from the house, yet right then you wouldn't have known it. I walked across to the grimy windows we had bodged into the side of the barn to give us that Rembrandtish gloom Annis and I preferred for painting. Outbuildings and yard were hidden in mist except for a vague loom of dark in the damp greyness. 'It's like trying to paint inside a bottle of milk,' I complained. 'Semi-skimmed.' She ignored me and got on with her work – a large, complex canvas she had started the day before. From where she drew the inspiration for her mysteriously glowing canvases she never revealed, and over the years I had asked often.

It was five years ago now that Annis, then still a student, had somehow managed to squirrel her way first into my studio, then into the rest of my life. She helped with the private eye business if I asked nicely. She was good at it too, but much preferred to spend her time in the studio. Apart from studio, house and occasionally work, we also shared a bed, though this arrangement wasn't one to be taken for granted, since there was also Tim. Of whom more later.

For a while I stood and watched Annis watch paint dry. You'd probably need to be a painter to appreciate this pastime. For a painter, an unfinished canvas will always hold more fascination than a completed one. In fact, a finished painting is a bit like a good meal you had last week – a pleasant memory but offering no sustenance. Yet each time I finish a painting I slip into this limbo, like a man who is hungry but can't decide what he feels like eating.

Annis pulled her bobble hat deeper over her strawberry curls. 'Honeysett, I can hear you thinking; it's most distracting. Why don't you go and make soup or something?'

I brightened up instantly. 'Soup! Good idea. What colour?'

'Oh, any. Something big and cheerful that'll take you a long time to do.'

'I'll give it a go.'

Big I could do; I wasn't so sure about cheerful. The winter seemed to drag on for ever this time, and this wasn't the cold, clear and crisp season of the north but the dark, damp and dreary winter of the west of England. Outside, the air was saturated with moisture that settled in my hair. The rush of the mill race was muffled with mist, the vegetation sketched damp streaks across my jeans and the smell of wood smoke, normally so cheerful, filled my head with wintry darkness. More than anything, it was the lack of light that had finally got to me as it spread grey melancholy like botrytis across my life with months of low cloud and lingering mists. I could just about make out where the sun was trying to burn down through this murk, but reckoned it would be hours yet.

The postman had at last found his way down here. The cheque from the gallery I was waiting for wasn't among the pile of mail he had left on the hall table. Apart from a vet bill, it was all junk; I chucked it into the fireplace where it could do some good.

Right, then: soup, she'd said. I checked the larder, vegetable basket and fridge. Something big, she'd said. Well, you couldn't get much bigger than minestrone. What made a soup minestrone? Haricot beans, smoked bacon, tomatoes and tiny pasta shells. For the rest, you use whatever is around.

I shoved my biggest cauldron on the stove, glugged in enough overpriced extra virgin to turn the bottom green and set to. In went garlic, chopped onion and bacon. I yanked open a couple of tins of chopped tomatoes and tipped them in. Easy-peasy, this. A good squirt of tomato purée, a couple of pints of stock from the fridge and the phone rings. Far, far away in the attic office.

The fact that I had hidden my office up there gives some indication of just how committed and organized I was about running a serious business as a private investigator. And how successful it was in financial terms. Aqua Investigations was really a Yellow Pages listing, an answerphone in the attic and a grumpy painter who had forgotten what on earth made him start this detective lark in the first place. Too many black-and-white movies at too tender an age, I suspect.

Normally, I'd have ignored the call, let it go to the answerphone, then checked it later, but, in the hope of thus keeping the rest of my furniture out of the fireplace, I took the stairs three steps at a time and snatched up the phone at the fifth ring. Unfortunately, by then I didn't really have enough breath left to answer it.

'Aqua ... Investigations,' I panted.

'Good morning. Is that Chris Honeysett?'

'It is,' I wheezed.

He sounded doubtful. 'OK ... Is everything all right there? Is this a bad time for you?'

'No, everything's fine. I've been running ... bit out of breath, that's all. How can I help?'

'Keeping fit – important in your line of work, I expect. Now, my name is John Morton, and we would like to hire you to deal with a little matter for us.'

The royal 'we'? 'And who might "we" be, if you don't mind telling me?'

Here Mr Morton mentioned the name of a large British supermarket. Very large. Even I shopped there. Of course, if I'd had any sense, I'd have hung up immediately and gone and buried my loyalty card in the garden. And then built a garage on top of it just to make sure.

Instead, my stomach rumbled thinking of all that food. Perhaps they could pay me in smoked salmon and quince jam ... 'Don't you have store detectives for that kind of thing?' I asked, already distracted.

'This is different, Mr Honeysett; it's not an in-store matter. You do come highly recommended.'

Oh, really? That kind of talk usually meant they'd asked another agency and been told they wouldn't touch it. When pressed, they then mentioned my name in a sentence that also contained expressions like 'exorbitant rates', 'mad enough' and 'last resort'.

'I'd like to discuss this face to face,' he continued, 'but I'm told you don't keep an office in town. I'm staying at the Queensberry. Join me for lunch downstairs in the restaurant. It's eleven twenty now; let's say twelve thirty at the Olive Tree. You do know it?'

'I do indeed.' Only chronic shortage of funds meant I wasn't spending a lot of time eating there.

'Twelve thirty, then.' Morton hung up. Not that the man was at all pushy. At no point had I agreed to anything, but for some reason he seemed sure I'd be there. Perhaps he could hear my stomach rumble.

The kitchen had steamed up when I got back and already smelled promising. Close-quarter knife-work now. There were potatoes, carrots, a red pepper, some celery and cabbage; all were finely chopped and committed to the deep. Some parsley clinging to life in a pot on the window sill went in next (omitting the pot), together with some seriously depressed-looking thyme from our little herb garden outside the kitchen door. I shoved the cauldron to the back of the stove where it could bubble away for an hour or so. Annis would have to finish this off. I left pasta shapes and tins of beans in a prominent place and went to give her the good news.

'Perhaps they can pay you in Colombian coffee and croissants,' she suggested.

'Fresh turbot and asparagus.'

'Pinot Noir and Vacherin cheese.'

'Pilsner Urquell and Stilton.'

Painters hardly ever discuss art. They talk about money and the food they'd buy with it if they had any.

'And you have no idea what they want you for?'

'"A little matter", I think, was the expression he used.'

'I see.' Annis nodded sagely. 'Another one of those. And you're meeting at the Olive Tree? Who's a lucky Honeypot, then? But don't go there on the Norton; the goggles leave rings round your eyes. Take the Landy.'

'Ta, I will.'

Offering me the use of her fiercely loved 1960s Land Rover was a measure of just how much she wanted me to get the assignment and out of her hair. After the sad and sudden demise of my old Citroën DS 21, I had taken to two wheels. What had started as an emergency matter had turned into affectionate attachment to the ancient bike, despite its ludicrous credentials as a PI vehicle. Strictly speaking, the Norton too belonged to Annis, only she'd gone off riding bikes after crashing hers into a bridge over the canal due to a mysterious and complete absence of brakes. It's a long story.

Remembering that, unlike a motorcycle, you couldn't park a car just wherever you felt like it, I made sure I got into Bath with what I thought was plenty of time. I was wrong. It took so long to find a parking space within walking distance of the Queensberry Hotel that I only just made it in time and was once more out of breath when I was shown to a reserved table for two in a quiet corner.

From the outside, the Queensberry was Georgian, this being the predominant idiom in Bath; inside, however, the decor was contemporary simplicity. The restaurant was moderately busy. Large, cool abstract canvases punctuated the walls in the restaurant. Uncharitably, I concluded they had been chosen for their unobtrusive blandness so as not to distract the diners from the food.

John Morton didn't give me much time to contemplate the decor, however. He appeared at my table with a speed and energy that made the Olive Tree's first-class waiters look like sleepwalkers. He was about fifty, with close-cropped blue-black hair, and moved his six-foot-two and eighteen-stone body as though recently shot from a cannon. We shook hands and he took his seat opposite me. Immediately, a single menu arrived, together with bottles of mineral water and one of Pilsner Urquell. The glass that came with the lager was chilled.

'I have very little time since I have a plane to catch at Filton Airport, which is why I took the appalling liberty of ordering starters for both of us. I could have let someone else handle this but I prefer the personal touch; that way I'm spared many disappointments.' His big expensive voice ran over me irresistibly like the tide. The starters arrived after a further minute. 'I know you like fish, Mr Honeysett, so that is what I ordered; you are naturally free to order whatever you like as a main course. I myself can only join you for the first course. Regrettably, I'll have to complete my lunch over the Atlantic,' Morton said without any hint of regret. If he was flying from Filton Airport, then he'd most likely be using a private jet and I was pretty sure his food wouldn't arrive cut into squares or in a plastic tray. He took a sip of water, then tucked into his starter of pigeon breast and beetroot. His teeth were preternaturally white and his whole appearance so well groomed and slick that the few spare stone of gastronomic weight he carried were all but invisible. My own dish had been announced as pan-fried monkfish with lemon butter and I tried not to fall on it like a starved street urchin. 'So what's this little matter you would like me to look into?' I said foolishly, while thinking I wonder who told him to feed me fish?

My host had perfected the art of talking while eating delicately. And fast. 'I want you to find someone for us. An employee of ours went missing and you know what the police are like, overstretched trying to deal with crime. Naturally, we're concerned and want you to make discreet enquiries as to her present whereabouts.'

'Tell me what you know already.'

'Her name is Kyla Biggs, she's thirty-three years of age, a valued member of our British team and she's based in Bath. She disappeared on holiday. She was travelling by herself. Should have returned eight days ago but didn't.'

'Where did she holiday?'

'Greece. Corfu, to be exact, but that's all we know. Find out what happened to her. We got little help from the British police and no joy at all from their Greek counterparts. The Corfu police appeared to be suggesting that she did a "Shirley Valentine", as they put it.' His eyebrows lifted briefly in dismissal.

'Did a what?'

'A cinematic reference, I believe. "Run off with a Greek waiter" is what they were trying to imply.'

Corfu. They want me to go to Greece. Somewhere warm. 'You think that's out of the question? Is she single?'

Morton shook his head in exasperation. 'Kyla Biggs has a great future with our company and knows it. Even on her present salary, she could commute from Corfu if she'd fallen in love with someone there. She's also a highly responsible and considerate person. So, no, I don't believe she ran off with a local Adonis.'

'Do we know who she booked her holiday with?'

'Flight only.'

'So we don't know where she was staying?'

'I'm afraid not. The Greek police drew a blank.'

This could take some time. Especially if it was sunny. 'Corfu was a big island, last time I looked. But I do have a contact there who can assist me,' I exaggerated. Actually, I'd never been there, though an old college friend had made Corfu her home. I hadn't heard from her for years.

'Go and find Miss Biggs for us. We chose you because we're told you speak fluent Greek.'

I nodded. Turkish, actually, but I didn't feel this was the moment to split hairs. Why cloud the issue? This was a terrific starter and the lemon butter worked well with the monkfish, so I'd be fine. 'And whoever told you that also mentioned I liked fish?'

Morton had finished his starter, sipped water and smiled indulgently. 'They didn't have to; we knew that already. I know quite a bit about you. You do eat a lot of fish, drink Pilsner Urquell, live with a lady and ride a motorcycle. You're also broke.'

You can go off people so quickly sometimes. 'You don't need a detective, after all.'

'You shop at our store, remember? You pay with plastic, so we know about every item you've ever bought. Our computers work this up into a customer profile. You also buy petrol from us and the amounts suggest you ride a motorcycle. You buy items of female hygiene and the rest is self-explanatory. Lately, you have spent more money on special offers and less on luxuries, suggesting you are feeling the pinch. Many do right now.' He had reached into his pocket and extracted a thick business envelope bearing my name in typescript. 'You'll find a photograph of Miss Biggs and contact numbers inside, as well as a thousand pounds to speed you on your way.' He set it delicately next to my beer glass.

I parried his move by extricating a slightly crumpled sheet of densely printed A4 from my jacket pocket. 'Standard contract; sign at the bottom.'

'Of course.' He produced a Mont Blanc ballpoint pen and made a squiggle on the bottom without reading a line of it. 'I'm afraid I must leave you to your main course; I have a car waiting. Please contact us as soon as you know anything at all.' He stood up to leave.

I rose too but hesitated when he offered to shake hands. 'There's just one thing I should perhaps mention: I don't fly. I never use planes. Ever.'

Morton's expression changed from businesslike to mild amusement. He grabbed my hand and shook it. 'Then I suggest you don't linger over dessert. Goodbye, Mr Honeysett.'

Ten seconds later he had disappeared and been replaced by one waiter who cleared away the plates and another who asked if I was ready to order my main course. I fingered the sealed envelope by my beer glass. Could this be an elaborate hoax? If this was full of bits of newspaper, then I would get a chance to put my considerable experience as washer-upper to good use. I dismissed the thought. Morton had judged me correctly: I was the performing seal of the private eye world and he had thrown me a fish.


Excerpted from "An Inch of Time"
by .
Copyright © 2012 Peter Helton.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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