The second in the exciting new mystery series featuring ex-police dog handler Daniel Whelan - When ex-police dog handler Daniel Whelan is asked by his former boss to help a friend who is struggling to run her husband’s haulage company while he is recovering from a vicious attack, he and his German shepherd, Taz, rapidly find themselves attracting the wrong sort of attention. Daniel investigates, and soon finds evidence of some very nasty business indeed – but after several violent warnings, he begins to wonder . . . has he bitten off more than he can chew?
|Publisher:||Severn House Publishers|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)|
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No Holds Barred
A Daniel Whelan Mystery
By Lyndon Stacey
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2012 Lyndon Stacey
All rights reserved.
They came out of nowhere, engines revving noisily and horns blaring.
Daniel Whelan glanced in his rear-view mirror and saw two vehicles crowding the tailgate of his ageing silver Mercedes estate, the foremost one swerving from side to side on the narrow country road to convey an obvious message: the driver wanted to get past, and quick.
He'd seen the blue pick-up with the banks of roof-mounted spotlights and oversized wheels before. Five minutes ago, to be exact, parked to one side of the petrol station in the village where he'd refuelled his car. As an ex-copper, he couldn't quite kick the habit of making a mental note of such things.
Daniel held the crown of the road. Whatever their problem, it wasn't safe to pass and the pick-up could wait until he was good and ready to pull over.
The blue truck accelerated to within inches of his rear bumper. Its radiator grill was heavily barred, and for a moment he thought he was going to be rammed, but the driver contented himself with leaning long and hard on the horn once again.
In the back of Daniel's car, his German shepherd dog, Taz, began to bark furiously at the vehicle following, hackles up and muzzle pressed against the metal grid of the tailgate dog-guard.
Rounding a corner, Daniel spotted a pull-in on the left, one of several makeshift passing places that had naturally evolved on what was not much more than a single-track road. He pulled over and slowed to a halt.
With a roar, the pick-up accelerated past, but instead of disappearing at top speed as Daniel had expected, it swung left in front of the Mercedes and screeched to a halt, tyres smoking. A glance in his mirror showed him that the second vehicle, a pimped- up 1970s Ford Escort, had done the same behind him.
Pulse rate rising a notch or two, Daniel pressed the button for central locking and awaited developments.
As soon as the pick-up stopped moving, a young man erupted from the far side, wearing oversized oily blue overalls, a baseball cap, wrap-around sunglasses and a truculent expression. He came round the back of the vehicle with a jaunty, swaggering step, carrying a monkey wrench. Daniel put him in his late teens or early twenties and identified him without surprise as the one who'd served him with fuel at the filling station in the village.
'How do I get to Maidstone Farm from here?' Daniel had asked as the diesel gurgled into the car's tank and the numbers on the out- of-date pump's display ticked over in maddening slow motion. The youth's manner had been confrontational, even then.
'Who wants to know?'
'You the new driver?'
'Why? Are you Jenny Summers?'
The young man sneered.
'Duh! Do I look like Jenny Summers?'
'I don't know. I've never met her,' Daniel had said reasonably. He wasn't spoiling for a fight but neither was he going to discuss his business with any Tom, Dick or Harry in the village.
The youth had given him a look of unmistakable dislike, replaced the pump nozzle in the machine and said rudely, 'Find it yourself,' before spoiling the gesture somewhat with the necessity of completing the fuel transaction.
Daniel paid him in cash and started the engine.
'Now, if you'd wanted to be really unhelpful,' he said, 'you could have given me the wrong directions.' And with a click of his tongue and a wink, he'd left the young man glowering as he drove away.
Now, freed of the constraints of his place of work, the youth came to a halt beside Daniel's car and rapped sharply on the window.
Daniel obliged by opening it three or four inches.
Having the whole of the back of the car to roam in, Taz had moved forward to just behind the front seats and was barking enthusiastically in his ear, nose pressed against the glass of the side window. Daniel had to raise his voice to be heard.
'Is there a problem?' he asked.
He could silence the dog with one sharp command, but just at the moment it suited him for Taz to make his presence known.
'Yeah, you're the problem, mister fucking smart arse!' Up close, Daniel could see a shaving rash and the remains of a nasty acne attack on the youth's chin and neck.
'And why's that? Is it a crime to ask the way around here?'
'Just shut up, OK?'
A movement on the periphery of Daniel's vision heralded the arrival of the driver of the Escort, a man perhaps a year or two older, thickset and with a somewhat bovine countenance. He came to a halt irresolutely in the region of the Merc's left wing mirror, regarding the dog warily, and looked to the spotty youth for guidance.
Heaven help us! Daniel thought.
'You,' Spotty reclaimed his attention, stabbing a dirt-grimed forefinger towards the window opening, 'need to turn round and go home. You're not needed here and you're not wanted. Got it?'
'Yeah. Got it?' came an echo from the other side.
Daniel didn't even waste a glance.
'That's enough, Taz. Quiet!' he said, and the German shepherd's barking became instead rapid, hoarse panting punctuated by the odd protesting whine. 'OK. What's this all about?'
'It's about you turning round and going back to wherever you come from.'
'But why the hell should I?'
Spotty hacked, spat and leaned closer, perhaps encouraged by Taz's quietness. He had an eyebrow stud and a small earring, Daniel noticed.
'You don't need to know why. Just do it!'
'Yeah. Just do it!' the echo said.
It was like a scene from a bad gangster movie. Daniel looked at the unhealthy skin and the thin-lipped, small mouth, vigorously chewing gum, and lost patience with the whole affair. When he'd been policing Bristol city centre on a typical Friday night, loud-mouthed troublemakers like Spotty and his friend had been two a penny.
'If you don't get back in that truck and move it in the next ten seconds, I'll open the door and let the dog out,' he told the youth.
Spotty took a step back, glancing nervously at Taz who, sensing his fear, began to rumble under his breath.
'I ain't scared of no dog.'
'Well, that's all right, then,' Daniel observed. 'You just stay there.'
'You wouldn't ...'
Spotty wavered, clearly unwilling to back down but just as clearly wishing he was back in the safety of his pick-up.
'Five ... Four ...'
The man on the left turned and bolted for his car.
'Three ... Two ...' Daniel moved his hand towards the button.
'All right! All right!' Spotty backed away so rapidly he stumbled and almost fell. When he reached the open driver's door, he raised his voice to shout, 'You're fucking dead, man!' before prudently slipping inside and pulling the door shut.
Moments later, both vehicles had gone back the way they had come, tyres squealing dramatically, and Daniel found himself alone in the lane.
With a small sigh and a shake of his head, he put the car in gear and continued on his way.
He'd known Jenny Summers was having some trouble – after all, that was why he'd come – but he hadn't expected his arrival to provoke such an immediate and violent response. For all anyone knew, he was just another driver turning up for a job. All at once, the proposition he'd accepted primarily as a favour for a friend began to assume a more interesting slant.
'I've known Jenny Summers – or Jenny Maidstone as she was then – since she was just a kid,' Daniel's employer, Fred Bowden, had told him over after-dinner coffee, just under a week ago. 'She's a lovely girl. Though saying that, she must be nearly forty now – it's hard to believe. She's had some bad luck in her life – more than her fair share, you know how some people do?' He stopped short, a little discomfited. 'Well, Christ – yes, of course you do.'
Daniel had shrugged. It was history, now.
'Anyway, Jenny married a local lad and they took over the family farm when her father retired, but six or seven years ago Colin rolled his tractor on a steep slope and killed himself. So, there was Jenny with upwards of six hundred acres to farm and two young kids to look after.'
'That must have been tough.'
Fred nodded. 'She really loves that farm and she gave it her best shot, but, as you know, these are hard times for farmers, and eventually things got the better of her. She sold off most of her stock and laid off all but a couple of workers. It was beginning to look like she was going to have to sell up after all, but then along comes this new guy, Gavin Summers, and within a month or two they're married and he's moved in. He's not a farmer – in fact, he's in haulage, like me, and he uses the farm as a base. Anyway, it's allowed Jenny to start up her own business renting out grazing and taking horses in for livery and training, so she's happy.' He paused, taking a sip of coffee. 'At least, she was until Gavin went out after poachers one night a couple of months ago and ended up in hospital.'
Daniel's attention sharpened.
'What happened? Someone take a shot at him?'
'No. Nobody knows, really. He turned up next morning, lying on the farm track with a fractured skull.'
'And he doesn't remember anything?'
'No. He's in a coma. He hasn't spoken at all. They can't say whether he'll ever wake up. It's awful for Jenny and the kids, not knowing, and if that wasn't stressful enough, she's got all kinds of problems with the business. She rang me the other night, in tears.'
'And you're telling me because ...?' Daniel was pretty sure he knew the answer.
'Well, obviously I can't just drop everything and head off to Wiltshire, but then I thought of you. I mean, it's right up your street. You can't tell me you're not bored silly driving a delivery round for me after being a copper for ten years.'
Daniel didn't try to deny it. He had been feeling a bit restless of late.
'But I'm not a businessman,' he pointed out.
'You've got a good head on your shoulders, and, anyway, I didn't get the impression that it was the bookkeeping side of things she was having problems with. What d'you say? Will you give it a go?'
Daniel remembered the conversation now with suspicion. How much more had Fred known that he wasn't telling?
To all outward appearances, Great Ditton was a quiet Wiltshire village, much like many others Daniel had passed on his way. If there had ever been anything great about it, it had clearly been way back in its history. Now it was a straggling collection of warm brick houses and pretty cottages, interspersed with square 1960s bungalows, wearing their tiny plots like straitjackets. In addition to these, the village boasted a squat-towered stone church with a clipped yew hedge, two pubs hung with bright baskets of flowers, a bakery, an estate agent, the garage where he'd first made Spotty's acquaintance, and that modern rarity, a village post office and stores.
Now that he'd left the village centre behind, the road began to climb quite steeply, the houses becoming fewer and further between. It was clearly prime farming country, and he passed the gateways to two such properties and the hexagonal roadside lodge to Great Ditton Manor before coming at last to an open five-bar gate that bore the name he'd been looking for: Maidstone Farm.
Glad that journey's end was in sight, Daniel swung the Merc into a tarmac driveway that climbed gently but steadily upward between dark banks of mixed woodland. After a couple of hundred yards, the way split, but a sign guided him to the right for the farm. A glance to the left revealed a narrow lane winding away out of sight through the woods, with a glimpse of a brick cottage off to one side.
After another hundred yards or so, the farm drive levelled out and burst from the gloom of the trees into the sunshine as it ran on between acres of grassland divided by overgrown hedgerows. Ahead of him, in a slight dip, lay the farmhouse and an untidy sprawl of barns and outbuildings including stables and a ménage.
Daniel slowed up and stopped, taking in the layout of the property. It seemed the fields of Maidstone Farm had escaped the modern trend of grubbing out hedges to create endless tracts of featureless but easily farmed land. The field on his left was grazed by a slow-moving herd of reddish-brown cattle, and, dredging the knowledge collected during his own rural upbringing, he decided they were probably Herefords. In line with what he'd learned about Jenny Summers' livery business, the fields nearer the farm buildings were smaller and supported a mixed selection of horses and ponies.
Beyond the pastureland to his left, the dark bank of woods he'd just passed through swept round in a curve that formed the horizon, effectively concealing any further Maidstone Farm land that might lie that way. On his right, the land dipped to where a willow-lined river wound its way across the flat valley bottom, beyond which a large Elizabethan house stood, partially clad in scaffolding, on a slightly raised plateau, its diamond-paned windows glinting in the sunlight.
Taking a pair of binoculars from the glove compartment, Daniel took a closer look. Evidence of building work abounded. Two new wings appeared to have been added to what was clearly a substantial house to begin with, and outside the formal gardens that surrounded the property, it looked as though extensive landscaping was underway to turn open fields into parkland, à la Capability Brown.
Daniel lowered the binoculars. It was reasonable to assume the house he was looking at was Great Ditton Manor and whoever lived there certainly had some grand ideas.
Driving on, the Merc swooped down into the valley, the lane bordered by straggling, bramble-infested blackthorn hedges before running at length between the horse paddocks and into the farmyard itself.
His arrival interrupted what appeared to be a slightly heated exchange between a well-built man in a navy-blue polo shirt and a fairly stocky woman with thick reddish-gold hair tied back off her face. They both paused to glance in Daniel's direction as he parked in front of the house next to a red and cream Land Rover and a navy blue Transit van with mirror-glass windows. He thought the woman looked stressed and unhappy.
'Hi. Daniel Whelan,' he said, getting out of the car and approaching the two of them.
For a moment, the woman looked puzzled, but then the penny dropped.
'Daniel, of course.' She mustered a smile. 'I'm Jenny. You're earlier than I expected.' She shook his hand, then gestured towards the other man. 'This is Taylor Boyd. You'll be working together. Taylor – our new driver, Daniel.'
Daniel shook hands with a man of about thirty, with an earring and dark hair made spiky with gel. His eyes were concealed behind mirrored sunglasses that hadn't come from any pound shop, and both his handclasp and expression were cool and unwelcoming. The blue shirt carried a gold logo spelling the words 'Summer Haulage'.
'Taylor, I'll speak to you later,' Jenny told him. 'But don't do anything until I've had time to think about it.'
The man accepted his dismissal with a perfunctory nod, but muttered, 'Don't take too long, then,' before turning away.
'Trouble?' Daniel asked quietly as the man moved out of range.
Jenny sighed and shook her head.
'Not really. It's OK.'
Daniel raised an eyebrow.
'Did Fred tell you why I was coming?'
She looked at him, pale blue eyes large in a freckle-dusted but rather plain face.
'Of course. I'm sorry, I was forgetting – it's just ...'
'I know. You don't know me from Adam.'
She nodded, relieved that he understood.
'You know, I could murder a cup of tea,' Daniel said.CHAPTER 2
The kitchen at Maidstone Farm was a genuine farmhouse kitchen. Not the designers' country kitchen of the glossy magazines but the sort that had evolved over several generations of use into a comfortable and practical space.
The room was dominated by a vast range cooker that sat in an even more vast arched brick fireplace. A big flat-bottomed kettle rested on one of the hotplates and a black cat on another. Free-standing cupboards and a huge pine dresser stood against the cream painted walls, and the floor was composed of uneven flagstones. Over the family-sized stripped-pine table, a vintage clothes airer suspended from the central beam was draped with tea-towels and hung with strings of onions and bunches of herbs. Children's pictures were pinned to the American-style fridge with magnets, and a small pair of red sandals lay where they had been kicked off, next to one of the chairs.
At the opposite end of the room stood a grandfather clock and the biggest sideboard Daniel had ever seen. In front of a smaller fireplace, on a rather threadbare square of carpet, stood three mismatched armchairs, a sofa and a coffee table weighed down with magazines.
Two windows looked out over the yard, one at the carpeted end of the room and the other over the old sink with its wooden draining board. The curtains were blue and white check, the china on display also blue and white, and the whole effect was effortlessly authentic.
Jenny filled an electric kettle and switched it on, taking two mugs from a shelf and a teapot from the dresser. Taz padded round sniffing interestedly, before lying down with a sigh on the cool flags under the table.
'So, this Taylor character. What does he do, exactly?' Daniel asked.
'He's one of the drivers.' She paused. 'Well, actually, having said that, he's kind of taken charge since Gavin's been in hospital.'
Excerpted from No Holds Barred by Lyndon Stacey. Copyright © 2012 Lyndon Stacey. 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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