A call from Jack Colby’s fiery ex-wife Eva always means trouble. This time it’s a doozy. She’s been accused of murdering her husband, a Mexican band leader shot to death on the towpath of the River Medway. But Jack’s race to the rescue comes with a slight detour: his other client, the beguiling Daisy Croft. Someone’s stolen Daisy’s beloved Morris Minor classic and she needs Jack’s car-theft sleuthing skills to get it back.
To Jack’s surprise, the two cases begin to merge. It’s appears that Eva and Daisy’s disparate dilemmas have something in common: a murder committed at a local pub more than three decades ago. As a long-festering plan of vengeance endangers the lives of two innocent women, and a second murder occurs, Jack’s investigation heads down a very dangerous road.
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Some days begin with a nightmare and just get worse. This time a phone call was all it took. It came at a quarter to nine in the morning, a time when Frogs Hill Classic Car Restorations is normally peacefully engaged in its exciting tasks for the day – such as overhauling a Jensen's dynamo. Not for me, not this Tuesday.
'Ja ... a ... ck.' A wail that made my goose pimples leap into instant action. I knew that voice all too well, albeit I had not heard it for a blessedly long period of silence. It had been some years since my Spanish werewolf, otherwise known as my ex-wife Eva, had last tornadoed her way through my life.
Tread carefully, I warned myself. 'What's wrong?'
'Carlos, he is wrong.'
'He's left you?' My sympathies were with Carlos. I could guess what he had been through.
'He is dead. Shot. Murdered!'
That shook me. For a moment I thought I'd misunderstood, but fond of exaggeration though she was, it must be serious if she was telephoning from South America. Her husband Carlos was Mexican, and I had an immediate – and no doubt stereotyped – image of vengeance in seedy nightspots. That, of course, could be true of anywhere now, including England's once green and pleasant land, but somehow Carlos and crime seemed to be a natural fit.
'I'm sorry, Eva,' I said sincerely. 'Have you someone you can call on to help you?'
'Y ... o ... u, Jack.'
'Me?' Extreme caution needed now. 'I can't do much from here.' Frogs Hill is in the midst of the Kentish countryside and a long way from Carlos-land.
'To Mexico?' She had to be joking.
'Not Mexico. You come to Maidstone. We here. Carlos killed here.'
The receiver felt clammy in my hand. Some joker, somewhere, had shot a thunderbolt into my life and poisoned it for good measure. Mexico was safely across a very wide ocean. Maidstone, capital of Kent, England, was a mere fifteen miles or so from where I was standing. When, over twenty years ago and after only four years of marriage, Eva had run off with her Mexican bandleader lover, it would have been a matter for celebration if it hadn't been for the fact that she had snatched Cara, our then toddler daughter, to take with her. I returned to an empty house with no forwarding address provided. Cara reappeared in my life years later as a student and then settled in England. Thankfully, Eva had only disrupted this picture for one or two brief visits. So far ...
'Why was Carlos shot?' I asked Eva, perhaps a trifle tersely.
A pause. 'You detective, Jack. You find out.'
'That's the police's job,' I pointed out. 'Whatever you might have heard, I'm only a car detective, not from the Serious Crime Directorate.' It was true I'd been involved in one or two of its cases, but that was beside the point.
'Then I tell police about you, Jack.' The sweetness in her voice concealed the venom that I remembered all too well from past experience. What fairy-tale was she about to concoct now? That I was still a jealous husband bent on revenge? That I was a wife-beater? That I was a child molester? She was quite capable of accusing me of any of these, especially if, it occurred to me, she had shot Carlos herself. She was handy with a pistol, and in one memorable episode in our marriage I'd found myself facing it. Luckily, the ensuing shot missed.
I'd no choice. I had to find out what was happening – now. 'Where are you? Are the police there?'
'I go with policewoman to towpath. You come there.'
'Whereabouts? In the town itself? Halfway to Allington Lock? Or in the Teston direction?' The River Medway runs through Maidstone down to the sea; the upriver direction heads towards Tonbridge.
'Yes,' she said and switched off. It was a mobile, and when I rang back it was on voicemail.
Len Vickers and Zoe Grant, my two stalwart staff, were blithely working in the Pits when I stumbled in, shaken by the shock. The Pits is the name we give the converted barn where the restoration of classic cars takes place. It cares for Alvises to Zodiacs and from tune-ups to chassis-up rebuilds, and no classic goes uncherished. Len is nominally in charge, although Zoe tends not to see it that way. She's getting on for forty years younger than Len and has learned her skills from him so successfully that there's a tacit understanding between them as to how they work together. Who am I to probe into the mechanics of this? It works – I merely pay them and admire their handiwork.
They've only met Eva once, but that had been enough. Eva had blessed Frogs Hill with the warmth of her presence one afternoon when I was out. I returned to the farmhouse to find a white-faced Len even more bereft of words than usual while Eva gave him instructions on how to tune a Talbot's ignition, a subject about which she knows nothing. There had been no sign of Zoe. I discovered her later in the Glory Boot, the collection of automobilia stored in an extension to the farmhouse by my late father. Zoe had locked the door from the inside and was only persuaded to let me in when I promised on my word of honour that I was alone and that the gorgon had left Frogs Hill for ever.
Fortunately for my parents' sanity, Eva had rarely accompanied me to Frogs Hill during our brief marriage, which we'd spent either travelling for my job in the oil business or, after Cara's arrival, in an ultra-modern house near Chartham, a few miles from Canterbury – Eva's choice. 'You pay for house, I run it,' she'd pointed out. Unfortunately, she hadn't.
It was somewhere around that area that Eva had met Carlos. He'd been the leader of a locally formed Mexican mariachi band, which travelled around the south of England winning a precarious living from playing at weddings and other events, from pub evenings to football matches. Carlos must have been over fifty by now, I realized, although I still naturally thought of him as the thirtyish suave gigolo type he was at the time he'd run off with my wife and daughter.
This fateful Tuesday morning in May, Len and Zoe were admiring the subtle simplicity of a maroon Alvis TD21 before launching themselves into the glorious task of its restoration. I longed to be able to enter into an enjoyable discussion on what needed doing. Instead I had to break my appalling news.
Zoe's head popped up immediately for once. 'Louise?' she asked. One look at my face must have told her that I wasn't referring to my lost love, who was now capturing the headlines on the West End stage as well as international screen.
'No such luck. It's Eva, and it's bad,' I told them. 'She's in Maidstone. Her husband's been murdered.'
Len lay down his torque wrench, a sign of how serious this was not just for me but for all of us.
'By her?' Zoe wasn't being flippant.
'Not known. She wants me there, anyway. It happened on the towpath opposite Allington Lock.' After the call from Eva, I had rung my contact in Maidstone police to get what limited information he had as yet. Allington Lock is about two miles downriver from Maidstone and a lovely spot – usually. The Malta Inn is set on one side of the river and the lock on the other side. Shortly before one reaches either of them, the stunning Allington castle looks down upon the river. Originally built in the thirteenth century, the castle has been adapted over the centuries and seen poets, knights and rebels pass through it, notably in Tudor times.
'What about Cara? How's she's taking it?'
Zoe has a lot of time for my daughter – as do I and everyone else who meets her. True, she has a calm infuriating assurance that she knows best, but somehow in Cara that's not off-putting. It has a charm about it, probably because she really does care about you and wants you to have the best advice possible. I suspect that this assurance hides a vulnerability that so far has not manifested itself, hence my caution in this current emergency.
'I'll size the situation up first. No point calling her before I know what's happening.'
'Take care, Jack.' Len looked worried. 'This could mean trouble.'
There was no need to reply. I was all too aware of that. Life was not looking good.
As I jumped into my Alfa, I reflected on what had been to the best of my recollection the only occasion I had ever met Carlos Sergio Vicente Mendez (to give him his full and formal name). Eva had been out somewhere that evening, and I was babysitting a far from well three-year-old Cara under the impression that her mother was at a flamenco evening class. Life with me, Eva complained, was not exciting. She was entitled to excitement. I was watching anxiously for her return, when I saw an old but still flashy Mercedes Benz saloon draw up and its occupants dismount. Eva then engaged in a passionate embrace with its driver. I was still delivering my point of view even as Carlos bravely jumped into his car, slammed the door and reversed to get away from me. It was a week later that I came home to an empty house.
Now Carlos was dead and Eva was my problem. I parked by the incident vans in the side lane leading to the towpath opposite Allington Lock, intending to walk down to the river. It was hardly surprising to find my way barred by police cordon tape, and the PC guarding the entrance showed no inclination to let me in. Instead I was directed back to the vans where, sure enough, I could hear Eva's all too familiar voice in full throttle. Outside the van DCI Brandon was conferring with a couple of white-suited SOCOs. Brandon was stationed locally in Charing but was part of the Kent and Essex Serious Crime Directorate. He's a cool customer. He doesn't throw his weight around but makes his presence felt, and so it's easy to underestimate him. He's no great chum of mine, although we have reached a working arrangement for the times when our paths cross. This usually occurs through my freelance work for the Kent Car Crime Unit under Dave Jennings, during which, on occasion, I clash with the SCD.
Brandon glanced up briefly. 'I may need you later, Jack. Are you around at Frogs Hill all day?'
At least I was 'Jack' now. 'Yes.' No point in any other answer.
'I presume you're here to see your wife.'
'Ex wife,' I pointed out.
'Of course.' His expression was as impassive as police faces often are. Sometimes I think they're handed out with the uniform. At that moment the van door was flung open and Eva herself was framed dramatically in the doorway. I took a deep breath and walked over to her.
When I first met Eva she was twenty-one, very, very beautiful, passionate and sexy. She was still all of these, save for the twenty-one. The decades had filled her out, and matured but not lessened her startling looks. Her dark hair, her complexion, her figure all commanded attention, and even from where I was standing at the foot of the van steps she exuded a confidence that life had received special instructions to look after her.
It was at least five years since I had last seen her, and today, naturally enough, she was white and drawn. I felt contrite at my unloving thoughts about her. She still seemed in command of her formidable presence, however. She was clad in black, with a black shawl and coat over a long skirt. Fashion was irrelevant for Eva as whatever she wore suited her style. Even today that had not deserted her. I realized that Brandon had followed me over, and I was glad of his presence.
Me? Scared of Eva? Yes.
She came gracefully down the steps and threw herself into my arms, which somewhat surprised the young female PC behind her. No doubt she had just heard Eva give an entirely different account of our relationship.
'You have come, Jack,' she sobbed. 'I feared you would not – knowing how badly you still feel about my poor darling Carlos.'
So that was the game we were playing. Two could play this one, however. 'I met him once for five minutes,' I said mildly – and loudly, 'twenty years ago.'
'And yet –' throaty voice now employed – 'you have not forgotten. Not him, not me. It is growing always in your mind. I know that.'
Deflect the blows quickly. 'Have you called Cara? She's our daughter,' I added for Brandon's benefit, as he was taking a great interest in the proceedings.
My question took Eva aback, but she rallied. 'I could not bear to hurt her by telling her that her beloved stepfather lies dead. How could I sadden my precious child?'
'I'll do it,' I told her.
'It is a mother's job.'
OK. Play her game. 'You're in no state to do it, Eva,' I said gently. 'I'll call her from home.' I felt the body in my arms tense. I'd made a mistake, but it was too late. 'Where are you staying?' I asked warily.
'The Penenden Palace Hotel. But I know you will wish me to come to your home ...'
I froze. 'No, Eva. You would be sad there. You will want to be close to the investigation. To find out how this happened to your dear husband. You can help the police by staying here.'
This high-flown conversational style was hard to keep up, especially as for one insidious moment the sexual attraction that years ago had bound us as unlikely partners returned, even in these ghastly circumstances. I fought it away as she disentangled herself from my arms and shot a random arrow.
'But you will not desert me, Jack. Not like last time.'
Eh? When was that? I wondered. 'I'll help the police all I can. Though I doubt they will need it.' I was aware of Brandon's cynical eye upon me. I meant it though. I would help – anything to get this solved quickly. 'Tell me what happened. Why were you and Carlos here in Maidstone?'
She replied just a little too quickly. 'For business – for my darling Carlos. He work with his music in the north of England for six months but then he say we must come here. It is recession. He needs money.'
Don't we all, I thought, and I wondered just how Carlos had planned to get it.
'I say no, Carlos,' Eva continued. 'I do not like to be near where once we were so happy, Jack.'
'You walked out rather quickly, Eva.' Mistake, mistake. That's what she'd been waiting for.
'Love, Jack. Love. I loved my darling Carlos, and now he is dead. Who could have done this? Only someone who was envious of me, who loved me and wished to hurt me. Who, Jack?' A soulful look at Brandon. I thought I saw the glimmer of a grin on his usually deadpan face.
Keep cool, I told myself. 'When did the murder happen?' I asked Brandon, but it was Eva who replied.
'This gentleman –' a little coo for Brandon – 'says in the night.'
'Early days,' 'this gentleman' replied. 'But it looks like well before midnight. He was found early this morning by a dog-walker.'
'Were you there, Eva?'
'Me?' She looked shocked. 'It was a business matter, Jack. I was at the hotel waiting for poor Carlos to come back to me, but he did not.'
'Business on a towpath?' I queried. 'At night?'
'Or possibly on a boat,' Brandon said laconically. 'There are no signs that the body was moved, but we won't know that for sure until —'
He broke off, and I quickly said: 'When did you notice he was missing from your hotel room, Eva?'
That wide mouth gaped. 'Oh, Jack!' Tears now, and a glance at Brandon. 'I did – I didn't. I couldn't —' A furious look. 'We had separate rooms,' she said sulkily. 'For business, you understand. Carlos so kind, he not want to disturb me. Not until the police ring hotel did I find out this morning.'
Tears overcame her now, and the policewoman moved in to take her back to the van. I was alone with my favourite cop.
'How did Mendez get here?' I asked Brandon. 'Any car around?'
'Your wife – ex-wife – told us he went off from the hotel in their old Ford Granada estate and we found it parked just over there.' He pointed to the line of cars where I'd just left the Alfa. Odd that Carlos hadn't gone into the large pub car park, the entrance to which he must have passed.
'Had he been robbed?' I asked.
'No. Full identification on him, including the hotel welcome card. That's how we contacted Mrs Mendez.'
Not robbed – that was a bad sign. It removed casual theft as a motive for Carlos's death. 'Any witnesses?'
'Nothing so far.' Brandon paused. 'Want to see him? I'm just about to have him moved out.'
I'm not partial to corpses, but I steeled myself and followed him down the lane to the riverside, having been hastily kitted out with scene suit and shoes. Coming from Brandon, the invitation could be seen as a compliment, although I suspected a test here. I was uncomfortably close to having a motive for wanting Carlos dead, and my reactions would be noted.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Classic Mistake"
Copyright © 2013 Amy Myers.
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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