Death Warmed Up

Death Warmed Up

by John Paxton Sheriff

Paperback(Large Print)

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781444819328
Publisher: Ulverscroft Large Print Books, Ltd.
Publication date: 04/01/2014
Series: Ulverscroft
Edition description: Large Print
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 5.83(w) x 9.02(h) x (d)

About the Author

John Paxton Sheriff began writing during his 15 years in the British Army. His first successes came while living in New South Wales and Queensland in the 1960s and 1970s with his wife and three children. His short stories have been published in Adam, a now defunct Australian men's magazine, in Australian, UK, and Irish magazines such as Australian Women's Weekly, Woman & Home, and in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine in New York. He also wrote crime short stories for Scottish publishers D.C. Thomson. For many years John was a freelance feature writer for two North Wales newspaper groups. Since 1995 he has published four books on writing technique, 35 Western novels, and seven crime novels in two separate series. John is a tutor for Writers' News and on-line college WritersCollege.com, and is a member of the Society of Authors.

Read an Excerpt

Death Warmed Up


By John Paxton Sheriff

Robert Hale Limited

Copyright © 2013 John Paxton Sheriff
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7198-1213-2


CHAPTER 1

'If Eleanor hadn't fallen down the steps and broken her ankle we wouldn't be here,' I said reflectively. 'We'd be back in North Wales breathing that bracing mountain air. Listening to the waters of Afon Ogwen gurgling merrily over those shiny black rocks under the bridge —'

'Oh yes?' Sian cut in, 'And what about the wind howling across the high peaks of the Glyders, the cold rain lashing the windows? Your crisp mountain air probably reeks of dead sheep lying putrefying amid wet brown bracken. And we'd be holding mugs of hot chocolate to keep our blue hands warm, not tall glasses of ice-cold gin and tonic misted with condensation.'

I widened my eyes. 'Can this really be the same determined woman who wore me to a frazzle arguing that a return to the UK was the right thing to do?'

'It was, and still is. The difference is that the change of plan caused by your mother's inelegant stumble means we're now on holiday; we're enjoying ourselves.'

I sighed. 'Dammit, yes, it does make a change from working for a living. Or fighting crooks. And I must admit sleeping on board Tim's yacht in Marina Bay gives the old ego a bit of a boost.'

'Bloody right it does, because living on board any yacht in any location is an absolute first for both of us and puts us on a par – sort of – with all those millionaires in their floating gin palaces ... and anyway, getting back to what started this, your mother didn't deliberately put herself in hospital.'

'Her memory's not at all clear about what did happen. She told the doctors she tripped and fell, but she does vaguely recall somebody rushing up behind her from the vicinity of the American War Memorial.'

'But didn't mention it?'

'Not to the doctors. She told Reg, and he told me.'

'Yes, and we'll look into that. If she was pushed we'll sort it, but one thing leads to another and whatever the cause, we're now sitting in the Eliott Hotel's excellent bar in the centre of Gibraltar Town on a warm Mediterranean evening enjoying a postprandial drink and listening to a modern jazz trio that plays here every Thursday, and if you think that's so terrible —'

'Take a breath.'

'I did.'

'Which was probably painful. After our recent violent encounter with Ronnie Skaill and his son your cheekbone's still sore, I'm getting over nursing a broken nose —'

'How do you do that, I wonder?' Sian said. 'Nurse a nose, I mean? Anyway, stop moaning. There's a stunning brunette behind you. She's alone at a table over by the rail – balustrade? When she's not looking at her laptop she keeps casting surreptitious glances in your direction.'

We were leaning close across the table the better to hear each other above the scintillating solo being played by a young Chinese pianist. Freed from its customary ponytail, Sian's thick, sun-bleached blonde hair seemed to ripple with each turn of her head, brushing the low-necked, pale lemon blouse that her posture was causing to gape provocatively. Her blue eyes were watching me with amusement, and her Nordic beauty and the clear fresh scent of her warm skin – so close I was tempted to touch – made me think of sea and sand under a hot sun.

'I've noticed her,' I said softly, 'but with you this close do you really think I care?'

'Well, you should do,' Sian said, glancing across my shoulder and narrowing those beautiful blue eyes. 'You see, on second thoughts I don't think she's looking at you at all. For some reason, that young woman is scared stiff. She's pale beneath the beginnings of a tan, and those looks she's throwing this way are – I'm sure – a cry for help. I think she's weighing us up as a team.'

'Surreptitiously.'

'Stop it. This is serious.'

'What, you really think she wants to hire us? The nonpareil. A team battered but unbowed, bruised but still functioning.'

'Yes, and when you've quite finished trying to be clever, our drinks need refreshing. While doing that, make it obvious you've seen her. Nod in a friendly way, lift your eyebrows questioningly, give her a warm smile that manages to convey supreme confidence in your undoubted talents.'

'Do all that at once,' I said, 'and it'll be me falling down stairs.'

I pushed back my chair and with our empty glasses held low down between finger and thumb made my way casually over to the bar. I couldn't get close to the brunette's table, but did cast an encouraging smile in her direction while safely negotiating the three steps to the lower main floor. It was wasted. Her back was to the jazz trio playing on the other side of the ornamental wood and wrought-iron rail, and with dipped head she was concentrating on the Toshiba laptop standing open on the table. There was a camera close to the computer. It looked like an expensive, modern Nikon digital SLR.

There were a few suave characters with rich tans and colourful snoods tucked into the collars of open-necked shirts touched by their longish greying hair. They stood with their backs to the bar, squinting at the trio through the smoke curling from their cheroots. While the barman mixed fresh gin and tonics, I hoisted myself onto a stool. I was now much closer to the music, and the sound rolled over me in waves as the trumpeter pointed his instrument in my direction and embarked on a brassy solo he'd decided didn't call for a mute. It had been my intention to turn and study the intriguing brunette while looking casually about the room, but I was foiled. By the time I'd settled, she'd left her table and was standing right behind me.

I sensed the warmth of her presence. When I turned on the stool she was so close my knee brushed a thigh that had spent a lot of time on the track or in a gym. Tall and slim in faded jeans and a dusky pink cotton top, she wore the dark hair Sian had noticed cut in one of those modern styles that leaves it high at the nape of the neck and sweeping forward to finish in points below and in front of both ears. Her brown eyes were huge and liquid. The assumed boldness in them failed to hide uncertainty and, yes, unmistakable fear.

'Excuse me, but you are Jack Scott?'

I caught most of what she said; lost some in the noise as the drummer began earning his fee. I leaned forward, smiled, frowned.

'Sorry ...?'

She stepped very close, bringing with her more warmth and the scent of musk.

'I said, are you Jack Scott?'

'I am indeed.'

'I ... need to talk to you.'

'Surreptitiously?'

'Pardon?'

'It's all right, that was me being silly, trying to put you at ease.' I smiled. 'Are you in some kind of trouble?'

'I....' She hesitated, cast a nervous glance sideways at the men propping up the bar, looked back at me and pulled a face.

Her meaning was clear. Though she clearly knew where I'd been sitting, I stretched out an arm to point and said, 'Why don't you join Sian at our table? I'll bring you whatever it is you're drinking and we can talk there.'

'What you're having will be fine,' she said breathlessly.

I watched her walk away, her stiff shoulders screaming tension, then turned back to the bar to order the extra drink. The music finished. Applause rippled in the silence. Heels clicked on the floor as the brunette negotiated the three steps. I heard her laptop snap shut. The barman, following her every move, managed to pour most of the tonic into the glasses. Ice crackled. Lime juice oozed from fresh slices, began trickling deliciously. He touched his moustache, rolled his eyes. I nodded agreement, carried the drinks back to the table on a tray. When I sat down, Sian was watching me.

'This young woman —'

'Prudence,' the brunette said. 'Prudence Wise.'

'Prudence has got herself in a bit of a pickle,' Sian said.

'Inadvertently,' Prudence said. And she looked at me from under raised eyebrows, her lips curved in a brave attempt at a smile.

'If you can indulge in banter,' I said, 'it can't be all that bad.'

'Oh, but it is. Inside, I'm shaking like a leaf.'

'So why us? If it's that serious, why not the police?'

'The first reason is because, if I'm wrong, I don't want to end up looking foolish. The second is, you two have made quite a name for yourselves. My father told me how both of you helped DI Romero. You're real-life knight-errants – or should that be knights-errant? Paladins, anyway, both of you, risking life and limb fighting those crooks up the Rock in the middle of a raging summer storm. Well, this pickle I've got myself into may be serious in the same sort of way. I think there are crooks involved. One in particular, who for some reason doesn't want his face to be seen.'

'Not many of them do,' Sian said.

'I know, but ...' she hesitated, her lips pursed.

'Take your time, there's no hurry.'

'But that's just it, there is. I've taken photographs that other people seem desperate....' She trailed off again, sighed deeply. A degree of disconcerting turmoil was created under the pink cotton blouse. I struggled not to drown in her dark eyes.

'The thing is, I'm determined to become a successful freelance photographer,' Prudence said. 'I'm from Liverpool, as you've probably worked out from the accent, but Mum and Dad live here and Dad got me a wonderful commission. There's a bloke called Bernie Rickman. He's got a huge yacht called Sea Wind, so he must be mega rich. I think he's one of those crooked expats, and that makes him the usual poser: sun-washed jeans, rope-soled yachting shoes, all-over tan with gold chains clinking and bouffant greying hair, you know the type.'

'Only too well,' I said. 'Most of them have permanently stiff necks from looking nervously over their shoulders.'

'Right now you could say that of me too,' Prudence said, and proved it by twisting in a couple of directions to see what was going on behind her.

I thought that odd, but let it slide.

'Anyway,' she went on, 'Rickman wanted photographs taken on board this enormous boat of his. Dad phoned me, and I took the first available Monarch flight out of Manchester. When I got here, Dad drove me straight down to Marina Bay and did the introductions. Rickman was impressed with my professional manner and the expensive equipment, and we were off. The weather here is perfect, of course. On the day of the shoot we were protected from the sun by those droopy white awning things they drape over the smaller decks on huge yachts – the shade underneath it made photography a doddle. Natural light worked perfectly. Bernie Rickman was flashing his teeth and his glistening tan; blonde bimbos wearing bits of string were languidly twining their limbs about his person —'

'Caramba,' I said.

'— and I did the job and he gave me three thousand quid.'

'Goodness,' Sian said softly.

'Then, of course, he wanted to see the slideshow.'

'And it all went wrong.'

'Not all. I was very proud of the photographs I'd taken. But the mistake I made was in letting him view the full slideshow before I'd done any editing. I don't mean retouching or anything like that. It's just that, if I'd taken the time, I would have removed the pictures I didn't want him to see.'

'Which, until you ran that slideshow for Rickman,' I said, 'you didn't know you'd taken.'

'Exactly. Well, I knew I'd taken them, but not what I'd accidentally included in a couple of the frames.'

'And that's this particular person you mentioned – a crook, you say – who doesn't want his face to be seen?'

'Well, I don't know he's crooked, but.... He wasn't doing much at all, just sitting in the shadows looking completely out of place and ... darkly sinister. That's what makes the —' She bit her lip. 'That's what makes the threats,' she said faintly, 'so convincing and utterly terrifying.'

'Threats of any kind are rarely welcome,' I said. 'Can we see the offending pictures?'

Sian moved the drinks to make space. Prudence opened the laptop and switched it on. She'd been looking at the slideshow and gnawing at her lip when I went to the bar, so it came up on the screen straight away. She swung the computer towards us. I leaned close to Sian.

'There are just the two,' Prudence said. 'You can see what happened – or, at least, I can. We were all gathered under that awning, there was this wonderful reflected light with lots of flicker coming off the water and Rickman and the girls were doing exactly what I told them to do. Act daft, I said. Do some giggling and laughing, a bit of playful squealing to add some zest. I suggested they hold their drinks up in the air so the glasses created glistening rings of fire in the bright sunlight, do some smooching if that's what Rickman fancied. While that was going on I was snapping away, but changing my position to catch him from different angles. Which was fine while the background was mostly the open blue waters of the bay with just the smudge of Algeciras and the Spanish hills in the distance. But then I moved to the group's left. That meant my camera was pointing along the boat towards the bows, as it were. There was a bit of a cabin or whatever they call those things, and suddenly mystery man was in the frame.'

I had very little experience of luxury yachts, but the man she had inadvertently photographed was sitting in, well, let's call it a cabin. And I could see what Prudence meant by darkly sinister, because she'd described the whole situation beautifully.

Rickman was in washed-out denim shorts and a sleeveless white T-shirt, a tall man shaded by the sagging awning but with his oiled skin splashed with the reflected light from the sea. Prudence had made sure that everywhere in the photographs there were patches of white hull, with rails of gleaming brass and chrome sweeping gracefully towards the raking bow. Tanned, lissom girls dressed in scraps of coloured cloth were trailing crimson-tipped fingers across Rickman's pecs and sinewy thighs, and he looked for all the world like just another millionaire whooping it up aboard a yacht moored in any one of the harbours along the Mediterranean coast.

But it was all an illusion that didn't quite come off. The cheapness beneath the gloss was mercilessly exposed by the too-heavy gold chains at wrists and neck, the blue of tattoos on both forearms and a grin that was not upper-class insouciance but rich, expat cocky.

In such a world, illusory or real, the man in the cabin looked as out of place as an undertaker at a wedding reception. He was sweating copiously in a dark business suit, and with his pale hands and sleek, slicked-back hair he would have been more at home sitting at an all-night poker table in any cheap inner-city nightclub.

'Death warmed up,' Prudence said.

'I haven't heard that description for ages,' I said, turning away from the laptop. 'You said mystery man. So you don't know who he is?'

'Haven't a clue.' She looked straight at me, and shook her head.

'But you've definitely been threatened?'

'Mm. After about fifteen minutes of photographs I decided I'd got enough, and called time. The girls wiggled away to do some serious drinking and tanning on an upper deck. I copied everything from the camera's memory card to the laptop's hard drive, and by then Rickman was back carrying a cold drink for me and yet another stiff one for himself. And off we went with the slideshow, Rickman standing with his hand gently squeezing my shoulder. Bastard! Anyway, when those pictures appeared on the screen, suntanned Bernie did such a violent double-take he almost ended up flat on his back. He staggered a bit, glared and immediately afterwards there was a narrowing of those pale blue eyes. Then he cast a baleful look in my direction that was so cruel it made my knees weak.'

'And that's when he threatened you?'

'Gosh, no. He recovered quickly. We lounged about in the shade on seats with huge pink and lemon cushions like dimpled pillows and guzzled our drinks while wilting in the heat. Then he handed me a gin-soaked brown envelope containing all that cash in used notes and, very much richer, I tripped gaily down the gangway.'

'And then ...?'

'A white Mercedes overtook me and pulled up.'

'The door flew open and an evil-smelling thug with a scarred face dragged you inside and a pad soaked in chloroform was —'

'Cut it out, Jack,' Sian said.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Death Warmed Up by John Paxton Sheriff. Copyright © 2013 John Paxton Sheriff. Excerpted by permission of Robert Hale 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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