With the warmth, charm, and wry sense of humor that won readers' hearts in Evans Above, Rhys Bowen offers a delightful installment to an already cherished mystery series: Evan Help Us.
Evan Evans is settling into his role as Constable of Llanfair, a small town nestled in the mountains of North Wales. Here, he has been a mediator of the minor disputes of the locals, between competing ministers, country merchants, and seemingly every Welch eccentric throughout the region. But an unusual series of events brings unseen hostilities to light, and Evan realizes just how deep the townsfolk's passions and hostilities lie.
While the village of Llanfair has always been at odds with the neighboring town of Beddgelert, an intriguing archeological find in the nearby hills brings that rivalry to dangerous extremes, and creates a circus of local enthusiasm and gossip. The circus quickly turns deadly, however, when Llanfair's prodigal son, Ted Morgan, announces plans to erect an amusement park over the site's excavation. Soon Constable Evans is drawn into a whirl of cultural pride, deception, and greed, and while he's at it uncovers the town's undaunted ambition - to earn the right to the longest name in the world.
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Colonel Arbuthnot strode out over the springy turf, his cheeks puffed out as trombone-like sounds popped from his pursed lips. The music was just recognizable as "Men of Harlech." Sheep glanced up from their grazing and scattered, alarmed at the strange sounds coming from the colonel's lips, and at the rhythmic thwacking of his silver-tipped cane against clumps of gorse and bracken.
Although he was approaching eighty, the colonel was an imposing figure, with an upright bearing and a purposeful stride. He had been a handsome man in his day and still liked to think that the ladies found him attractive. He sported a neat little moustache, but heavy jowls now sagged on either side of it and his once fearsome eyebrows stuck out like prawns over faded watery eyes. Even though it was midsummer, the colonel wore his habitual tweed jacket with a canary yellow waistcoat beneath it, a checked shirt, and a silk paisley cravat around his neck. His only concession to the season was a faded panama straw hat which he wore whenever possible to keep the sun off his bald spot. The village children of Llanfair imitated the colonel's distinctive gait, but never to his face.
A stiff mountain breeze blew in Colonel Arbuthnot's face. He paused and breathed deeply.
"Ah," he said, thumping his chest. "That's more like it."
He felt alive for the first time in months. God, it was good to get away from that dreary London flat. All those interminable days of silence, broken only by brisk walks to the library to read newspapers he could no longer afford to buy, or, on fine days, a constitutional twice around the pond in the park. Fortunately he had bought a life membership to his club in his more affluent days, but he hardly ever went there any more. There seemed little point in it since old Chaterham had died last year. He was now the only one of his generation left and the young fellows weren't interested in what he had to say. They thought he was an old codger and made excuses to hurry off somewhere — always in a hurry, the younger generation seemed to be. Constantly at the mercy of those damned portable phones. No time to enjoy life. Colonel Arbuthnot pitied them. At least he'd known the good life once. He'd been on tiger shoots and dined with maharajahs and made love to pretty women in marble palaces. The young knew nothing about sport or conversation or romance. No manners and no time, the colonel decided, savagely decapitating a large thistle.
Clouds raced overhead, opening up brief tantalizing vistas of mountains, lakes and steep meadows dotted with sheep. He hadn't realized how high he had climbed. Not bad for a senior citizen, he told himself. He'd wager those young weaklings at the club couldn't keep up with him, for all the time they claimed to spend keeping fit at their health clubs.
Below him the village of Llanfair lay like a row of doll houses, bordering the road as it climbed the pass and skirted around Mount Snowdon. The colonel looked down at it fondly. With its plain, slate-roofed cottages, it could hardly compare in beauty to one of the quaint, cozy English villages with their thatched roofs and cottage gardens. But its setting, high on the pass with peaks soaring on either side, was spectacular.
At the far end of the village he picked out the larger shape of the Red Dragon pub, its painted sign swinging in front. Just how a pub should be, he told himself, as he nodded in satisfaction. Always enough chaps around with time for a chat, women usually confined to the lounge where they could be seen and not heard; just how he liked things to be. Lovely creatures, women, but inclined to babble on meaninglessly unless curbed — except for Joanie. She had never babbled. She'd listen to his stories with a gentle smile on her lips and always laughed at his jokes. God, he still missed her so much ...
At least they were polite enough to listen to his stories at the pub here in Llanfair. They even pretended to be interested. "So, did you ever shoot a tiger, colonel?" they'd ask and he'd be able to answer, "Shoot a tiger? I can tell you about the time I bagged three tigers in one day. We had to pretend that the maharajah had shot them, of course. Protocol demanded it. But it was really my bullet each time that finished them off. One was a great brute eight feet long. I've got a picture of it on my mantelpiece at home ..."
The colonel smiled in anticipation of being asked to tell that story again. They were good chaps here in Llanfair — simple Welsh villagers of course, but they made him feel welcome. He knew this was quite different from the way they treated most foreigners. He'd watched them switch into Welsh in midconversation when tourists walked in. But he supposed that his Welsh wife had made him somehow acceptable.
He remembered the first time Joanie had taken him to Wales when they were home on leave together. He hadn't realized until then that Wales was a foreign country. Hearing her chatting in a language he couldn't understand had amazed and impressed him — it was a side of her he had never suspected. Thinking of Joanie now brought back the leaden feeling to his heart. It was amazing that one could miss a person for so long. She had been dead for ten years and he still felt it as if it was yesterday.
He had come to Wales the summer after Joanie's death, trying to make sense of things, and had been healed and charmed by the silent, rugged beauty of the mountains of Snowdonia. By sheer luck he had seen an advertisement for summer accommodation at Owens' farm above Llanfair. His gaze moved beyond the village to the square whitewashed farmhouse, protected by a stand of windswept trees. Answering that advertisement had been one of the luckiest things he'd ever done, and he'd certainly had lucky moments in his life — like the time a charging rhino had run right past him or when Charlotte's husband had shot at him and missed as he leaped from the houseboat window into the lake at Kashmir.
Mrs. Owens spoiled him shamelessly, making his favorite meals and encouraging him to have seconds and thirds of everything his doctor had strictly forbidden. She did his washing and ironing and kept his room spotless without fussing over him. His days were free to be spent in the good fresh air, tramping over the hills, trying to identify wild flowers or birds, or pursuing his real passion, archaeology. He'd been a keen amateur archaeologist from the age of eight when he uncovered a Roman coin in a field near his home in Yorkshire. He had been awestruck that objects two thousand years old were lying at his feet, waiting to be rediscovered. If he'd come from a different family, he might have gone to Oxford or Cambridge to study ancient history, but the Arbuthnots always went into the army. He sighed.
His passion for archaeology was one of the reasons that drew him back to Wales. He wanted to be the one to prove, beyond a doubt, that King Arthur had actually existed. There were enough local legends to support it, of course. Up on Mount Snowdon there was the Bwlch y Saethau (the Pass of Arrows) where Arthur was mortally wounded while about to defeat Mordred. Excalibur was said to have appeared from Llyn Llydaw, the lake that nestled on the flanks of Snowdon. He could see it now, glistening in bright sunlight. Even the peak of Snowdon itself was called Yr Wyddfa, meaning burial site, by the locals. Only a great king would have been buried on the highest mountain peak in Wales. If only he could find something definitive to prove Arthur's existence. That was what kept him going these days.
He sat on an outcropping of rock and took out his binoculars. There had once been a Bronze Age fort guarding the pass. If he could find evidence of that, it would be a good start.
His gaze swept from the summit of Snowdon, across the other peaks whose names he had forgotten, and down to the village again. They were good binoculars, made in Germany back in the old days when things were built to last. He picked out a figure sitting on the humped stone bridge that spanned the noisy little mountain stream. It must be that idiot postman, he decided — the one they called Evans-the-Post. He always sat and read the mail before he delivered it. Funny how nobody seemed to mind ... His gaze moved up the street. He saw the young policeman making his afternoon rounds. He liked Constable Evans — good-looking young chap, sturdily built like a rugby player, not like some of the effeminate young men these days with their dreadful earrings. Colonel Arbuthnot had often consulted him about the best hiking trails or the identity of a certain bird or flower. Of course the young fellow had landed himself an easy job, running a police substation in a village like Llanfair. Hardly a hotbed of crime, the colonel decided, taking in the empty street and the children playing in the school yard.
He adjusted his focus, hoping to get a glimpse of the schoolteacher. A pretty young filly, slim and graceful. She reminded him of Joanie when they had first met at that garden party in Delhi. He heard the faint ringing of a bell and the children immediately formed two lines and began to file back into the building.
The colonel's gaze moved on. The last two buildings in the village were both chapels, one on either side of the street. He'd never been able to understand why a village the size of Llanfair needed two places of worship — but of course the Welsh did love their religion. They sat through interminable sermons and sang hymns on any excuse. Fine singing too, not the halfhearted muttering of the All Saints Church parishioners at home in Kensington.
The binoculars swept idly over the village again and then the colonel stiffened, blinking his eyes to bring one figure into focus. "Extraordinary!" the colonel said out loud. "It can't be." Someone was standing in the middle of the village street, looking around with interest. It almost seemed to the colonel that their eyes met, although he knew that was impossible. But he felt the keen gaze lingering in the direction of the rock where he now sat. Then the person turned and disappeared into the shadow between two cottages.
The colonel let out a sigh and shook his head. His eyesight must be failing him in his old age. He had just seen someone who couldn't possibly be here. It was absurd. His eyes were playing tricks on him.
He lowered the binoculars and sat staring out into space. Of course he was mistaken, he told himself. Everyone in the world had a double, hadn't they? He got up and brushed off his trousers. Dashed awkward if it really had been who he'd imagined, he told himself. Dashed awkward for both of them, he suspected.
Then something happened to drive everything else from his mind. He found himself staring at the rocks where he had just been sitting. They were covered in gorse and bracken, but there was a certain evenness and regularity about them. As he looked more closely, he could see that they formed a perfect rectangle enclosing a grassy area. Excitedly he pulled at the gorse, oblivious to scratches, and found himself staring at what was definitely an old wall. He scrambled over and started to clear away grass and weeds. Yes, here was the entrance, and just inside what looked like a smooth stone slab! The colonel dropped to his knees and began to pull away weeds, oblivious to anything and anyone around him ...
Constable Evan Evans of the North Wales police walked slowly up the main street of Llanfair. To be more accurate, it was the only street in Llanfair, apart from some muddy tracks that led to a couple of farmhouses. Like many Welsh villages it had been built in the heyday of the slate quarries. It was an unpretentious little place — two rows of stone cottages, a few shops, a petrol pump, and a couple of chapels lining the road that climbed the pass to the foot of Mount Snowdon. It could be bleak and windy at times, when cloud and snow blanketed the peaks above, but its spectacular setting made up for the lack of architectural wonders.
Constable Evans paused on the old stone bridge that spanned the rushing mountain stream and looked around him with satisfaction. Llanfair might not be the most beautiful nor the most exciting place on earth, but it was alright with him. He took in the clear water dancing over mossy rocks and traced it upward to the bright ribbon of water that fell from the sheer mountainside. On the breeze he caught the faint bleating of sheep. It was the only sound, apart from the splash and gurgle of the water and the sigh of wind through the alder trees along the stream.
Evan glanced up the street. There was no traffic, which was unusual for a sunny summer afternoon, although it was getting late. Most tourists would already be back at their hotels or bed-and-breakfasts, debating whether they'd be able to find Mexican food or pizza in a primitive place like Wales.
Even though it was almost six o'clock, the sun was still high in the sky. This far north it wouldn't set until after nine. The long light evenings were one of the bonuses of living in North Wales. He stood there, breathing deeply, at peace with the world.
He heard the sound of running feet on the road behind him and turned to watch a group of village boys, dressed in football uniforms, run past.
"'Ello, Mr. Efans! Sut yrch chi?" they called out in their high, musical voices, using the mixture of Welsh and English that they usually spoke.
"Hello, boys. Off to football practice are you then?" Evan called back.
They nodded, their faces alight with anticipation. "We're playing down in Beddgelert on Saturday — big match of the year!" one of them said.
"They beat us last year, but we're going to show them this time," another added.
"Are you coming to watch, Mr. Efans?" the first boy asked. "It's going to be good. We've got Ivor on our team now, and he's ever so fast. He won the hundred yards dash on sports day."
"I'll be there if I can," Evan called after them as they ran on up the street toward the school playground. He smiled as he watched them go, remembering himself at their age — undersized, skinny, all legs like them.
A village constable — or a community police presence as they called it now — was the best kind of policeman to be, he thought. It was amazing to be paid for what he liked doing most, walking around and talking to people.
A few years ago there had been a national movement to modernize and streamline the police force. They had closed all the substations and covered the area with car patrols from HQ. But they'd soon realized their mistake. A police presence in the villages, a local bobby who knew everyone and their business, was the biggest deterrent to crime. So local substations and community police teams were opening again all over the country.
Evan had read about this move just over a year ago, when he was recovering from the trauma of his father's death. They had been working the tough dockland beat in Swansea together when his father caught a bullet during a drug bust. Afterward he no longer wanted to be part of a force that threw away good lives so meaninglessly.
Now he was glad he had decided to take this job instead of quitting the police force. He had never regretted coming here. He liked the locals. They liked him. The pace was slow and the mountains were waiting to be climbed whenever he had free time.
He gazed up at the peaks. Snowdon was glowing with that pink light of early evening. Evan glanced at his watch ... maybe there would be time for a quick scramble up to Bwlch y Moch after he had closed up and changed out of his uniform — if he could slip in and out of the house without his landlady hearing.
He had been lodging with Mrs. Williams ever since he came to Llanfair and mostly he was content. She was a kind, motherly woman but she had two faults: She was determined to fatten him up like a prize turkey by feeding him three enormous meals a day, and she was equally determined to get him married off to her granddaughter Sharon, who was herself built with the girth of a prize turkey.
Evan sighed and walked on up the street, past a row of shops on the right. G. Evans, butcher, was next to R. Evans, dairy products. The monopoly was spoiled by T. Harris, general store and post office. As Evan passed, the door of the first shop was flung open and a big man in a blood-spattered apron leaped out, waving a murderous-looking meat cleaver.
"Nos da, good evening, Evans-the-Law," he called out. "Solved any juicy murders today then?" He laughed loudly at his own joke.
Excerpted from "Evan Help Us"
Copyright © 1998 Rhys Bowen.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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