In Evan Blessed, award-winner Rhys Bowen has again delivered a charming and suspenseful cozy mystery set in Wales.
Constable Evan Evans is almost done planning his wedding. Just as he is ready to relax, he meets a hiker whose girlfriend has gone missing on Mt. Snowdon. A search for the girl yields no trace but instead turns up a bunker complete with chains and handcuffs. Are the two related? And if so, where is the girl being held?
A series of clues make Evan and the police realize that they are dealing with a clever but twisted mind. Then a second person vanishes and this time Evans knows the victim: his fiancé. Her disappearance makes Evans realize that the culprit's vendetta might be quite personal-and directed at Evans himself.
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By Rhys Bowen
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2005 Rhys Bowen
All rights reserved.
He knew he shouldn't play the piano but he couldn't help himself. That last doctor at the hospital had suggested that it probably wasn't wise when he was in this frame of mind and the old cow next door had made it clear that she didn't appreciate noise after nine o'clock. But it was calling to him, drawing him as certainly as if he was a hooked fish. He had to feel the cool ivory under his fingers and fill the room with enough music to drown out the blackness.
He pushed open the door and fumbled for a light switch. The grand piano took up almost the whole front parlor. It was a magnificent instrument and deserved a room to itself. Giving it up would have been unthinkable. So what if the other downstairs room was uncomfortably cramped — it wasn't as if he entertained.
He rummaged in the piano bench and extracted the first music book his fingers closed around. Chopin, Selected Pianoforte Works. He couldn't have chosen anything more technically challenging. He opened the book at a random page and began to play. It had fallen open at a piece he knew well and he breezed through it, lingering notes of longing and passion that hung in the air after the Étude was finished. Then he turned the page and winced as he saw what lay before him. The Nocturne in F sharp, written by a virtuoso to show off his own talent. He attacked it anyway. He had been able to cheat on the slow piece, by playing with incorrect fingering. Now he ordered his fingers to obey him and they flew up the keyboard in an effortless run until they came to the gap where his fourth finger should have been. A wrong note sounded. He slammed shut the keyboard and burst into tears.
"Is this the last of it, Evan bach?" Charlie Hopkins lowered the box to the flagstone path outside the cottage door and stood with his hand on his chest, breathing heavily. It took a lot to make Charlie Hopkins pant, even at the age of seventy-two, but the tenth trip up the mountainside had been too much on a hot afternoon.
"I think it is, Charlie," Evan Evans said, also breathing heavily even though he was half Charlie's age and in good shape. "I can't thank you enough for helping me out like this. I hadn't quite realized what a trek this would be."
"What else can you expect when you choose to go and live halfway up a bloody mountain?" Charlie demanded. He took out a large handkerchief and mopped his brow with it.
Evan smiled. "Bronwen wanted to call in a moving company."
Charlie snorted. "You'd never have got a moving van up here. I'd like to have seen her find movers willing to carry furniture like we did. You'd have had a strike on your hands."
"That's what I told her," Evan said. He hoisted a box with a grunt and kicked open the cottage door. Charlie followed with a second box.
"Where do you want me to put this then?" he asked. His gaze went around the small living room that was already piled with furniture and boxes.
"Anywhere on the floor will do, thanks," Evan said, dropping his own box beside several others. "How can one woman have so many things?"
"This all belongs to her, does it?"
"It does. She has to be out of the schoolhouse this week."
Charlie Hopkins sucked through his teeth. "Ah, so it's true then. They're definitely closing the school."
"They are. They've offered Bron a job at the new primary on the Caernarfon road. Five hundred children there will be at that school. All glass and modern looking. Quite a shock for our kids, I expect."
"I don't see why they had to change things," Charlie said. "This school was good enough for me and my boys."
"I'm sure it worked just fine with a teacher like Bronwen," Evan said. "But I can understand that she can't give a bright ten-year-old and a slow six-year-old all the individual attention they deserve."
Charlie nodded. "Maybe you're right. Education is different these days. When I was in school we got a cane across the knuckles for each word we got wrong on our spelling tests."
Evan laughed. "I bet you're a good speller."
"I am too." Charlie smiled, revealing a mouth with several gaps where teeth were missing. "So it's lucky for your Bronwen that you're getting married right now and moving into this place, or she'd have been hunting for digs."
"Don't make it sound as though she's only marrying me because she's losing the schoolhouse."
Charlie chuckled. "No, I suppose she could do worse for herself. So you'll be giving up that cottage that you're renting from Mrs. Howells?"
"Not until the wedding. Bronwen doesn't think it's right that I should move in with her. Not with my mother coming. She's rather old-fashioned about that kind of thing."
Charlie grinned again. "Quite right. No hanky-panky allowed. So the wedding's going to be a big shindig, is it? I heard you weren't getting married in chapel." He followed Evan out into the light afternoon breeze that had sprung up from the ocean.
Evan hoisted another box of kitchen equipment and staggered through into the cottage with it. "Bron and I wanted to, but her mother made a fuss. She'd been raised Church of Wales, you see, like all posh people. Her mother couldn't stand the thought of her daughter being married in a chapel." He balanced the box on top of a kitchen chair. "If it was up to me, I'd be all for running off to a registry office, but it seems that weddings are a big deal for women. And Bronwen didn't get a proper wedding last time, you see."
"She's been married before? I didn't know that."
"Well, she didn't exactly go around broadcasting it, did she? She got married right after leaving university."
"Just a minute — so how can the two of you get married in church then?"
"Because the first marriage was annulled. Her husband ... wasn't very satisfactory." He felt himself blushing.
Charlie grinned at his discomfort. "I don't suppose she'll have any complaints in that department this time around."
Evan looked away. "We'll have to wait and see about that," he said. "But as I was saying, it turns out that she wants a proper wedding with all the trimmings."
"Most women do."
Evan shook his head. "I hadn't realized. Suddenly I find myself involved in discussions about bouquets and what kind of champagne and how many tiers for the cake and what size marquee."
"Escob annwyl! Don't tell me you're having a marquee?" Charlie looked impressed.
"On the lawn beside the church. Her parents insist on paying so they're turning it into a big production. I rather wish now that we'd got married on the quiet and told them afterwards."
"Welcome to the wonderful world of in-laws, boyo. This is only the beginning."
"Luckily they live far enough away." Evan looked up with a grin. "So does my mother. I can't say I'm too thrilled about her arrival either."
"Will she be staying with you?"
"I've only got the one single bed, haven't I? So I'm putting her up with Mrs. Williams. They'll have a grand old time, comparing my faults and nattering to each other in Welsh. She doesn't have too many Welsh speakers where she lives in Swansea."
"Not many Welsh speakers? Fancy that. I'm glad I live up here then." He followed Evan into the cottage with the last box. "If that's all, then I'd better be heading down then, Evan bach. The wife will have my dinner waiting and she doesn't like it getting cold."
"Of course. Off you go then, Charlie, and thanks again for your help. I couldn't have done it alone."
"We don't want you knackered before the wedding, do we?" Charlie dug him in the side, giving a wheezing laugh. Then he came out of the cottage, blinking in the bright sunlight, and stood there for a moment, taking in the scene with sigh of satisfaction. It was one of those perfect summer days so rare in this part of Wales. The sky was like a clear blue glass dome over a landscape of mountains glowing with purple heather, sparkling streams, and deep valleys. The village of Llanfair below them basked in the afternoon sunshine, its row of neat whitewashed cottages looking like a doll's town. Seagulls wheeled overhead, sheep bleated on high meadows. The air was scented with heather and just a tang of the ocean.
"On the other hand," Charlie said slowly, "I can see why you'd want to live here. You couldn't buy a view like this for a million pounds, could you?"
Evan nodded. "That's what we think. Best view on earth, isn't it?"
"You may change your mind when the winter gales come," Charlie said. "I'll see you at the Red Dragon tonight then, eh, boyo? You can treat me to a pint for my services."
"I'll do that, Charlie," Evan said, "if we get back in time, that is. I'm joining Bronwen in Caernarfon this afternoon. Meeting with the bank manager to set up joint accounts, then on to an antiques shop. Bronwen's set her heart on furnishing the place with antiques and she's seen the perfect Welsh dresser for the kitchen." Evan made a face and Charlie laughed.
"Say goodbye to freedom and evenings at the pub, boy," he said.
"You go to the pub every evening," Evan pointed out.
"Ah, but then I've got her licked into shape after fifty years, haven't I?" he said. "If you want a word of advice, you have to start off on the right foot, so to speak. Show her who's boss and how it's going to be. None of this sensitive rubbish that you hear about on the telly these days. Men weren't born to decorate houses and choose curtains. We're the hunters, boy. They are supposed to be the bloody gatherers."
Evan laughed, pushing his dark curls from his face. "I'm afraid times have changed, Charlie. And if fixing up the place makes Bronwen happy, then I'm happy to help her with it."
Charlie shook his head. "You'll be wearing a pinny next. You mark my words, boy."
"No, I think we've agreed that Bron should do the cooking. I'm hopeless at it. Diolch yn fawr. Thanks again then, Charlie." He shook the old man's hand and stood watching as Charlie negotiated the steep track down to the village. Like all men born and bred in the mountains, he walked up and down them as if they were flat fields. In a few minutes he had disappeared among the first houses of the village. Evan turned and went back into the cottage.
It felt dark inside and he wondered if he should try to enlarge the windows. I'm getting into the do-it-yourself mode already, he thought, alarmed, and experienced a fleeting regret for the free, unencumbered life when he used to spend his weekends hiking and climbing and his evenings at the Red Dragon. He thought about carrying some of the boxes through to the bedroom, then decided that he had no idea where Bronwen wanted anything. Better to wait for her.
As he came out into the sunlight again he was startled by the figure of a man, right outside his front door.
"Oh-hello," Evan stammered. "Can I help you?"
"I hope so." He was a slim, angular young man with neatly parted dark hair and wire-rimmed spectacles. His boyish face was tense with concern. "You are the policeman, aren't you? They said in the village that I'd find you here."
"I'm Detective Constable Evans, but officially I'm off duty today. What do you need?"
"It's my girlfriend, she's lost." The young man sounded close to tears. He spoke with an accent that hinted at Manchester, or maybe even Liverpool. Certainly not Welsh.
"Somewhere up there." He pointed at the wall of mountains that rose on the other side of the valley, culminating in the great peak of Snowdon.
"On Snowdon, you mean?"
The young man nodded. "That's right. We took the trail up from the youth hostel where we're staying. Then we had lunch overlooking a little lake."
"The Pyg Track, and the lake would be Glaslyn." Evan nodded.
"On the way back we got separated, so I thought we'd meet up at the trailhead. But she didn't come and didn't come. I went back looking for her, then I went to the youth hostel to see if she'd maybe come down another way and got a lift back there, but she hadn't. I'm scared something has happened to her."
"How long ago was this?" Evan asked.
"We'd just had lunch," the young man said. "Finished our picnic and then started down. What time is it now?"
Evan glanced at his watch. "Quarter to four." He winced. He was supposed to be meeting with the bank manager at four-fifteen. He'd need to get down the hill and change out of his sweaty clothes right away. Then he reminded himself of what he'd told Bronwen so often — a police job is twenty-four hours, seven days a week.
"Then she's been missing for three hours."
"Does she have a mobile phone on her?" Evan asked.
"Yes, she does. That's why it's odd she hasn't called me if she's lost."
"Reception isn't always the greatest up here," Evan said. "Look, I can't really do anything yet unless it's a perceived dangerous situation. It may be that she's taken another path down and she'll have to find her way back."
"But what if she's fallen and broken a leg or something?" The young man sounded desperate.
"You said you went back along the path and looked, didn't you?"
"Yes, but you said she may have taken the wrong path by mistake."
Evan put his hand on the young man's shoulder. "What's your name?"
"Paul. Paul Upfield. My girlfriend's name is Shannon — Shannon Parkinson."
"All right, Paul," Evan said. "Come on. Let's go down to the village. I'll put in a call to HQ and alert them to the fact that we might have a potential problem. That way they can have the mountain rescue squad on alert. If it starts getting dark and she hasn't shown up, then they'll start a search."
The young man bit his lip. "Starts getting dark?" "We can't send out search parties every time someone is an hour or two late. We'd be spending half our lives on the mountain."
The young man nodded, trying to accept that this was reasonable.
Evan patted his shoulder. "It's fine weather. And there are plenty of other ramblers out there. Chances are she's already been found and someone's driving her back to the youth hostel."
"Oh, I hope so."
He fell into step beside Evan down the mountain. Evan's conscience was nagging at him to call Bronwen and go with Paul Upfield to look for his girlfriend right now. He knew how frantic he had felt the one time he lost Bronwen. But he had to remind himself it wasn't even his job anymore. He was in the plainclothes division. If the uniformed branch called him in, he'd respond. Otherwise he'd be stepping on toes again and he'd certainly done enough of that since he joined the force.
"How did you become separated?" Evan asked the question that had been troubling him. When you went out hiking with just one other person, it wasn't exactly easy to lose track of each other. Especially not on a bleak, exposed mountain like Snowdon.
The young man's face flushed bright crimson. "We had a bit of a row. She's not much of a hiker, see, and I told her she was going too slowly. She was scared going down, you see. I thought she was being too cautious. She said, 'Fine. Go on ahead then. Don't wait for me.' We said a few stupid things about being selfish to each other and I stumped off. Well, I cooled down pretty quickly and felt bad about the way I'd behaved, so I waited for her. Then I went back and there was no sign of her."
No wonder he was looking so upset, Evan thought. He was battling a guilty conscience in addition to the worry. He nodded with sympathy. "I'll see what I can do about getting someone out to look for her. I hope you've learned a lesson about sticking together when you're out in wild parts."
"Oh, I have," the young man said. "I feel terrible. I promised her mum I'd take good care of her. She was against letting us go on this holiday together in the first place."
"How old is Shannon?"
"Well, that's good news, isn't it?" Evan said. "She's still a minor. Makes it easier to send out a search party right away."
They reached the bottom of the hill and came out onto Llanfair's main street — actually Llanfair's only street.
"Where did you leave your car?" Evan asked.
"I don't have a car. We've been taking the little Sherpa bus to the youth hostel."
"You better come to my place," he said. "I'll put in the call to HQ for you and they'll send out a squad car."
"Your place?" Paul looked confused. "So you don't live up there?" His eyes scanned upward to the gray stone shape of the cottage, perched halfway up the mountain slope.
"Not yet. I'm getting married and we're moving up there."
"Rather you than me, mate," Paul Upfield said. "I like the outdoors, but I don't think I'd fancy that trek every time I came home from work."
This seemed to be the universal response to the former shepherd's cottage he and Bronwen had bought. It had seemed like such a romantic place to live, with its stunning view and solid stone walls. Now as he looked up at it Evan hoped he hadn't bitten off more than he could chew.
"Come on," he said, pushing that thought to the back of his mind. "Let's make that phone call, shall we?"
Excerpted from Evan Blessed by Rhys Bowen. Copyright © 2005 Rhys Bowen. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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