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When Jack Colby hears a rumour that Old Herne's, the club for aviation and classic car veterans, is closing, he is appalled, and attends its annual event with foreboding. His instinct is right. He has been commissioned to investigate the theft of the Porsche car belonging to its manager, the popular Mike Nelson, but now far worse problems threaten the club when brutal murder proves to be on the agenda.
Jack finds himself caught between two families: the Howells, headed by a US billionaire and veteran pilot, and the Nelsons, headed by Ray, widower of Miranda Pryde, singing star of the 1940s. Her legacy is kept alive by her enigmatic grandson Jason, star of a
Miranda Pryde tribute band. But what role does he play in the case, and what role do the missing Porsche and Arthur Howell's beloved Morgan play? In his quest for the truth behind the murder, Jack crosses the path of a notorious gang-leader, and soon murder strikes again . . .
About the Author
Amy Myers has written a wide range of novels, from crime to historical sagas to contemporary romance. She is married to the American-born car buff James Myers, who has collaborated with her in creating Jack Colby. Other crime novels by Amy Myers include the Auguste Didier series, the Tom Wasp, Victorian chimney sweep novels, and the Marsh and Daughter Mysteries.
Read an Excerpt
Classic in the Pits
By Amy Myers
Severn House Publishers Ltd.Copyright © 2013 Amy Myers
All rights reserved.
Trouble often comes in disguise, but I didn't expect it to arrive through a friendly chat with Liz Potter, former lover and ongoing friend. True, it was a Friday when the Frogs Hill farmhouse phone rang, but it wasn't the unlucky thirteenth, so I wasn't prepared for the disaster she blithely announced. It began quietly enough.
'Swoosh, Jack! Are you going?'
'Would I ever miss it?' I was amazed at her even asking me. Swoosh was the one event in the Kentish calendar that no car lover would miss.
'You have to be there. Heard the news?'
Even then I didn't get too alarmed. 'Good or bad?'
'Bad. It will be the last Swoosh. Old Herne's is closing down.'
Closing down? Old Herne's – more formally the Old Herne Club for Motoring and Flying Enthusiasts – couldn't close down. No more Swoosh? Not possible.
I had just been given a top priority mission to carry out at Swoosh this year, so this was even weirder. I work freelance for the Kent Police Car Crime Unit, and its head, Dave Jennings, had rung me earlier to tell me I was in on a case, if I wanted the job. If? I'd almost have done this one for free when he had explained what it was. (I say almost because I depend on my work for Dave to pay the mortgage on Frogs Hill.) This time, he had told me, the job was to hunt down the missing classic Porsche belonging to Mike Nelson, who ran Old Herne's. Amiable, a former racing driver, and generally beloved, Mike was over retirement age, but I heard he had recently taken on a deputy, which didn't indicate any immediate threat. Nevertheless, Liz isn't in the habit of getting things wrong.
Even so, I double-checked. 'You're sure, Liz?'
'Got it from Jason.'
This was beginning to sound ominous. Jason Pryde was Mike's son – he took his stage name from his famous grandmother Miranda Pryde, who had been a Vera Lynn singalike in the forties and fifties. Jason, even though he was estranged from his father, would surely not be mistaken about this news. I had never met him, but his reputation was worldwide. He was famous for having been the pop star to end all pop stars in the 1990s. Then his star had waned, and he hadn't reappeared on the scene until a few years ago when he'd reinvented himself with a tribute band to his grandmother – and fallen out with his father. Reason unknown, but that's families for you.
'Is he going to be there?' I asked. He'd been conspicuous by his absence at previous Swooshes.
'You bet. He's billed to give a concert.' A pause. 'His singing partner's gone down with a virus and, guess what, I'm standing in for her.'
'That's terrific, Liz.'
Liz has a great singing voice and a great stage presence but she's not a professional singer, so it was indeed a triumph for her to be singing with celeb Jason. Swoosh wasn't just a meeting place for classic car lovers but for devotees and veteran airmen of Second World War aircraft as well – hence the name Swoosh, which covers the thrills of both modes of transport. Swoosh puts on entertainment for veterans, fans and their families. A Jason Pryde concert was going to be an enormous plus.
Swoosh was always held on the first Sunday in June, and this year that was in two days' time. The last one? I still could not believe it. After all, I was supposed to be a car detective, and I'd heard nothing of it. I'd been away for a week or so, but surely this crisis could not have flared up in a week? First, that Porsche was stolen, and now this.
Dark clouds were gathering and I was heading right their way.
The theft of the Porsche was a high-profile case because of the car's pedigree. This curvy silver Porsche 356C coupé, with its Carrera 2 four-cam engine and its disc brakes, had been Mike's pride and joy during and since his racing days in the sixties and seventies. It was now kept permanently on display at Old Herne's and had become the club's icon, known to every Porsche lover in the world. For starters, I doubted whether there were even half a dozen 356 Carreras in the UK today. Its disappearance had to be taken very seriously indeed. Mike without his Porsche would be a sad and lonely figure, and if he had to add the possible closure of Swoosh to this blow I couldn't imagine what he must be going through.
First step: discuss it with Len. I was still reeling on the Saturday morning when Len Vickers and then Zoe Grant arrived for an emergency stint in the Pits – our name for the converted barn workshop where they form the crucial part of Frogs Hill Classic Car Restorations Ltd. I, Jack Colby, am merely the owner, although I'm permitted to pay their wages and even occasionally contribute a comment or helping hand. Both of them are welded to their jobs, Len being the engine and Zoe the spark plug. That makes for a great team although there's a forty-year age gap between them. And here was I about to prise them away from their work on a Lea-Francis to discuss the emergency over Swoosh.
I took a deep breath. I was about to ruin their day.
'There's a ridiculous rumour that tomorrow is the last Swoosh,' I ventured casually. 'Old Herne's is closing.'
I expected uproar. There was none. It was Len who for once replied. 'Looks like it.'
Len is taciturn by nature and not inclined to the bright side of life so even then I didn't take the threat too seriously. It was when Zoe put her grinder down and proclaimed: 'That's what Rob says too,' that I really got worried. Rob Lane is the layabout man in her life and comes from a background that gives him a passport into whichever circles he cares to stroll.
'It's just not possible,' I pleaded.
Len glared at me. 'Got the news from Tim Jarvis.'
Then it was serious indeed. Tim was one of the old-school volunteers at Old Herne's, having been on the scene since the year dot – or more precisely the year it opened, which was 1965. Tim oils so much of the everyday machinery that goes into its running that without him it would have ground to a halt long ago.
'I'll nobble Mike Nelson,' I said. 'I've got to have a word with him anyway.'
'About that Porsche?' Zoe enquired.
'The Porsche,' I confirmed. 'The Porsche to end all Porsches.' Although Mike had bought his a year or two after it had proudly left its makers in 1963, it still had the original Carrera engine in it. Quite something.
'Not having much luck, what with that and Old Herne's going,' she commented.
'Still seems weird,' I said, trying to make sense of this googly that fate was threatening to bowl at the car community. 'The place could do with a facelift but it's Mike's whole life – he can't seriously be thinking of closing, especially since he's taken on this deputy.'
Len had a face of doom however. 'Arthur Howell's flown over,' he said succinctly.
This was ominous indeed. Arthur Howell, US oil billionaire and former Second World War US Thunderbolt fighter pilot, was a delightful gentleman, but his arrival across the Pond at Old Herne's added weight to the story of its closure. He must be at least ninety now, and makes few appearances in Kent, leaving the running of Old Herne's to Mike. Arthur had founded Old Herne's way back in 1965, handing it over to Miranda Pryde and her husband Ray Nelson to run after their singing careers ended. Their son Mike had taken over when Miranda died in the early nineties and Ray retired. The whole caboodle still belonged to Arthur, however, although I gathered it was tied up in some kind of trust. I'd met him once and taken to him, even though his sharp eyes had summed me up quicker than Len can diagnose faulty engine timing, which is saying something.
Even though he was over here, however, I couldn't believe deep down in my heart that Old Herne's would close. I would surely drive in through those battered wooden gates and find that all was well. Mike would be his usual affable self, ambling around saying hello to everyone and everything. Tim would be fussing around marshalling cars and visitors. All would be well. But then I remembered the Porsche and its disappearance. Coincidence? Or not? Len and Zoe say I have a nose for trouble, and I had an uncomfortable feeling it was not only twitching but building up for an almighty sneeze.
I could hear the cars already as I turned my 1965 Gordon-Keeble off the A20 into the lane that would – eventually – lead me to the hamlet of Old Herne Green on the crest of the North Downs. Hearing the comforting sound of engines growling and purring on a June summer's day – which for once was sunny – put all thoughts of Old Herne's closing into the realms of fantasy. Swoosh was a solid tradition, an unalterable event that was the highlight of the summer season for classic car lovers and their families.
The club was on the site of a former RAF advance landing ground, used for refuelling and for aircraft in trouble returning from missions, and which had served not one but two world wars. The two old runways still existed although now they were linked in a graceful curve at the ends to form a complete track circuit for classic cars. No aeroplanes landed nowadays, but the old control tower was still there, with its ground floor converted into a spectacular reinforced glass-fronted garage for the silver Porsche and for Arthur Howell's 1965 Morgan 4/4 Series IV, which was as dear to him as the Porsche to Mike. Arthur gets to drive it round the track at least once on every visit, and Tim Jarvis ensures it's kept in tip-top condition.
Air veterans from all over the world gather at Old Herne's for reunions, although the Second World War airmen were few in number nowadays – all in their late eighties or nineties, and most of them with carers in the form of friends or family members. But their enthusiasm is infectious, both for aviation fans and for classic car owners, who drop in on track days to drive their beloved cars in company with fellow enthusiasts or hold get-togethers in the bar. This is a lively meeting place for chats of races long ago or dogfights and bomber missions, and at Swoosh the two mingle with the joyous thrill of adrenalin at full power.
I drove through the familiar gateway underneath huge banners proudly announcing that Swoosh was in progress, and then followed the stewards' directions to the area earmarked for classics entered for the 'best of show' competition. I fancied my chances with the Gordon-Keeble, and so I forgot the threat of danger (usually a mistake) and gave myself up to a day of sheer pleasure. I reminded myself that I had a job to do, but as that too involved chatting to classic car devotees, it could hardly be called heavy duty and I was getting paid for it. What's to worry about? I wondered.
I tracked Mike down to the clubhouse, where the first hint of unease returned to me. Looking at the paintwork and decor I realized that the facelift was more urgently needed than I had thought, which did not suggest the club was flush with money. Such was the animation all around me, however, that this qualm was quickly dismissed.
I saw Mike sitting by one of the windows in the large bar, wearing his beloved World War II bomber jacket with his cavalry twills. Glued to his side was his formidable wife Boadicea – sorry, I should say Anna Nelson. In classic car circles Boadicea is her generally accepted nickname except in her presence. Boudicca, the form of the name currently in use for the historic British queen of the Iceni tribe, doesn't do justice to the Amazonian fighting image that the name Boadicea conjures up. Today our lady was clad, in true aggressive style, in startling blue – the colour of woad that terrified (or so it is said) would-be invaders. She is Mike's second wife and bears heavily down on anyone she sees as a threat to her wishes. Occasionally, but not often, she can be as amiable as Mike himself, who murmurs defensively that she had a tough childhood as an orphan. Nevertheless, the consensus is that Jason Pryde, who was Mike's son by his long-divorced first wife Lily, made the right decision in his choice of birth mother. Mike usually lets all the hassle flow over him, but today his usual smile was absent and he looked his full age.
'Good to see you, Jack,' he said without conviction.
'Couldn't keep me away from Swoosh,' I said heartily. 'Fixture in the calendar,' I added experimentally.
He did not reply, but Boadicea weighed in on his behalf. 'Not for much longer,' she said grimly.
Time to plunge in. 'I've heard the rumours—'
'All nonsense,' Mike declared feebly.
Boadicea glared at him. 'We'll know soon enough.'
Mike hastily changed the subject. 'How's the Porsche hunt, Jack? The Car Crime Unit said you were looking into it now.'
'Sniffing around. Only got the message on Friday.' It had been missing for three weeks, which was a long time for such a memorable car to have disappeared without a whisper of its possible whereabouts. The news would have spread at top racing speed through the community of Porsche dealers and owners, so my pleasant task today would be to talk to the dozen or so Porsche 356 owners that were booked in and get their take on it. There are hundreds of 356s registered in the country, but as this one was from such a rare breed – only four-hundred-odd ever built – its engine, history and provenance would ensure that if there was any news of it to be gathered it would have reached those here today.
'The place isn't the same without it,' Mike said gloomily. His face without a smile was the nail in the coffin that convinced me that times were indeed bad. I wondered what Boadicea's 'know soon enough' meant. Something to do with Arthur Howell's visit obviously.
'It looks the same old dump to me,' Boadicea barked. 'What are the chances you'll find it, Jack?'
'Can't say,' I replied mildly. 'The police think it's still in the country.' Dave had confirmed that no Porsche 356 had turned up at any exit in the country without being scoured for false identity and so far without any result.
'I've had the insurance people on my back,' Mike grunted. 'Their chaps haven't turned up anything either; it's been three weeks already and after another three they have to fork out, so they're getting anxious.'
You bet they would be anxious, I thought. That Porsche's pedigree and condition would skyrocket its value. Maybe £250,000? More probably, perhaps £300,000. A sum, it occurred to me, that would come in very handy for sprucing Old Herne's up, but I dismissed the idea. It might occur to Boadicea, but not to Mike. That car meant too much to him personally for him to even think of an insurance scam. He had won practically every sports-car trophy going in it, and the car was the best tribute to his past career that he could have.
That sleeping beauty had been in its glass-fronted garage, coming out for occasional excursions round the track, as long as I could remember. That was a long way back, because I used to come as a kid with my father to Swoosh and the silver gleaming curvy car ('Not a straight line on it,' Dad used to say) had hooked me. If it wasn't on the track I would gravitate to its home and press my nose against the glass to admire it. The game I played with my father was to decide which of the two cars – as the Morgan lived side by side with the Porsche – was the finer car. I always got sucked into choosing first, and whichever I picked, Dad would convincingly argue the opposite.
I assured Mike I'd report back to him on anything I discovered during the day about the missing Porsche. I kept coming back to the word 'coincidence'. It could just be chance that the threat to Swoosh had materialized at the same time as the theft. Sorrows, as Hamlet's villainous uncle had pointed out, come not as 'single spies, but in battalions', so he might not have seen a link. But me? I keep my options open.
Before I left the clubhouse, I took one further step. 'I heard Arthur Howell was over from the States, Mike. Is he around?'
Mike's face grew even gloomier. 'We're all lunching together, but he's hopping mad about the Porsche. Sees its disappearance as a threat that his Morgan is next on the list.'
A good point. 'Is there a Thunderbolt flying in the display? That'll keep him happy.'
Second World War Thunderbolts are so rare that it's a pièce de résistance if one joins the fly-past that usually concludes the Swoosh festivities. Nor are there many British World War II fighters still flying, but somehow Swoosh always manages to produce something very special.
'Yes, and it's costing far too much,' put in Mike's personal thunderbolt, Boadicea.
Excerpted from Classic in the Pits by Amy Myers. Copyright © 2013 Amy Myers. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Ltd..
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