I couldn't afford not to take the case. Harry Prince would soon come sniffing around if I missed a repayment date. I sometimes think he has a direct line to my bank and imagine him rubbing his fat little paws together in glee at the first hint I'm on the ropes. I had news for him this time. I was still in the ring, merely reeling from the shock and grieving over Polly's death. It seemed strange, even to me, that a woman I had only met on a couple of occasions could affect me so, but she had and did. I would find her murderer for my own sake, as well as for Bea's.
Then I realized I was missing a trick. I'd had the impression that Peter Winter had known them only as a couple, rather than having been close to Polly recently, but nevertheless it was odds-on that anything he thought would help find her killer he would want to share with me. Suddenly, the stolen Merc was the most interesting car in the world.
âYou want me in on this right away? I can ring Peter now.'
âYup. I take it you know him then?'
âI met him once.' But that was going to be quickly remedied. I had to bear in mind, however, that even if he could point me in the right direction where Polly was concerned, the police seemed already to have made up their minds who was guilty. Tomas was the obvious suspect, and who was I to say the police were wrong? I'd no evidence either way, and the fact that my nose was telling me something different was hardly going to weigh heavily on DI Brandon's mind.
And what was it that my nose was imparting to me? Almost with a sinking heart, I had a stupid feeling that somehow Polly's death was tied up with the Lagonda. How could that be? I argued. Apart from the fact that the Lagonda had been in the barn while Polly's body had lain outside, there seemed nothing to connect them, and it was probably pure coincidence that she had been there when she'd met her death.
Or was it? I remembered the way she had suddenly appeared on that first occasion when we had met â with Guy Williams suspiciously popping up shortly afterwards. I'd assumed they'd been together, perhaps walking from his farm back to hers, or perhaps it had been their rendezvous point for either business or pleasure. But that didn't add up. If the Lagonda caused her so much grief she'd have avoided the barn, not sought it out.
Had Polly perhaps been considering selling the Lagonda to him? I thought this over carefully, but although it coincided with my preference I had to rule it out. Polly had been white-hot with fury at my even looking at her precious car. That suggested a strong emotional attachment, which in turn suggested that she would not have sold it to anyone. After all, if Guy Williams had made an offer for it, she would not have been quite so vehement about my also being interested in it, as the mere
of selling would not have been repugnant to her. She could hardly have taken against me so strongly on personal grounds that selling it to me, as opposed to Guy, was ruled out. No, she hadn't wanted
touching that car. Her own daughter hadn't known she still had it.
Nevertheless, the idea that her murder had anything to do with that beauty of a Lagonda was a far cry from a tenable theory, or so I told my nose. My nose patiently pointed out again that that was where she had been killed. What had she been doing there? I came back to the only answer there seemed to be: to meet someone or to look for something. But what about her appointment with me? Had she forgotten it? Or had she been dead some time? I forced myself to think about that. I hadn't touched her body. Concentrate on the blood, I told myself. My forensic knowledge is limited to cars, but having seen her body my layman's guess was that the blood had clotted, but she hadn't been dead that long. That tallied with my eleven o'clock appointment with her: a time she'd suggested, not me. I'd seen that as a subtle indication that business might extend to lunch. Instead I'd seen her dead body in all its stark goriness. So for some reason she had gone to the barn earlier that morning. Why? On a whim or to meet someone? Either way, the Lagonda might have played its part.
So far so good. Next: the word had been going round, partly thanks to me, about this car. Andy Wells' interest had been keen enough, and even heart-throb Dan's. But if either of them had wanted to buy it, why hadn't she just delivered the same message to them? Push off, not for sale. Could Andy have had some hold over her where the Lagonda was concerned? I began to speculate. Suppose he'd had a contract to buy all Mike's classic cars and had only just found out he had been baulked of this Lagonda. That was a possibility. Or Dan? Or, it occurred to me, even Harry Prince. Had he become interested enough to follow up on the Lagonda himself?
I knew it was pointless to try to go further on these lines. I'd only had a couple of days to reconnoitre this problem, and I could well be seeing it from a completely lopsided angle. However, I did agree with my nose that I should see that Lagonda again. There did not seem much rhyme or reason to this, but I became fixed on the idea. After all, painters gaze at their models for inspiration. Perhaps the Lagonda would do the same for me, and Peter Winter might be persuaded to talk about this. Back to his missing Merc for openers.
The Mercedes S500 was just the sort of car I would have envisaged him driving: expensive but not too expensive; showy but not overdone, fast but not too fast. It was an
car, just right for an affable sort of chap like Peter, who was clearly making his pile. I gathered from Dave that he ran some antiques-brokering business near West Malling â successfully judging by the Merc and his pride and joy, the Lagonda he'd brought to the Wheatsheaf. Unfortunately for him, the Merc S500 can be attractive to the less scrupulous members of society, hence Peter's car disappearing to order â which was probably what had happened, and the chances, as Dave said, looked slim of his ever seeing it again.
âIt's not fair,' he told me plaintively when I arrived at his home, spot on the time he had designated on Saturday morning. He showed me the empty garage â well, empty of the Merc. There was an Audi convertible in there â his wife's, he explained â and the Lagonda. Together with a luxury Range Rover parked in the forecourt, it suggested he wouldn't be waiting for the daily bus to take him to work. He lived some way out of the village, in a red-brick Georgian house that, like Peter, was gracious and pleasant, rather than boastful of its heritage.
âNo, it's not fair,' I agreed. I didn't weep too much for him though, even though he told me the Range Rover was the Merc's temporary replacement, thanks to the insurance company. Dave had given me the background on the phone so there wasn't much for me to ask him about the Merc, except whether there were any special details to help identify it. He shook his head, and I was free to go ahead on what I most wanted to talk about: Polly. I was a bit surprised that Dave had even asked me to do a follow-up, as the Merc was such an open and shut case. I suppose he had to go the extra mile though, and I was the one to hoof along it.
I was just about to subtly switch to the Davises when he saved me the trouble. âYou found poor Polly's body, didn't you, Jack?'
âYes. Right by the Lagonda. Remember we talked about it at the Wheatsheaf?'
He nodded. âThat seems to be coincidence, though. I heard they'd arrested some Polish farmhand.'
âA bad time for you. The Davises were friends of yours, you said.'
âGood friends.' He hesitated. âI hadn't seen much of Polly since Mike's death though. Busy lady, that.'
I took the plunge. âAnd a lively one. I heard a few rumoursÂ .Â .Â .' This was a risky ploy, as Peter was hardly likely to open up on Polly's sex life, and it could well rebound on my head, with him telling me to go to hell.
Luckily, he took it in his stride. âThere always are, especially with someone of Polly's character and background. Don't believe them. She was a very attractive woman and had had a high-profile TV career. Rumours attach themselves automatically in such cases, just like leeches. Mike knew that. She knew it.'
âSorry, just the car crime detective in me,' I said. âIf I hear something, I feel bound to follow it up. Could there be any unfinished business left over from Mike's death that could have led to Polly's? That's if it wasn't this Polish chap. He sounds as if he could be a bad 'un.'
He considered this carefully. âPerhaps. Mike sailed near the wind on occasion. He used to tease me about being an old fuddy-duddy where business was concerned.'
âBy “sailing near the wind” you're implying some of his classics weren't exactly legit?'
âThere were rumours, especially when he died. But nothing came of them. There was even a rumour that Polly didn't seem to have inherited quite as much as Mike would have left, if you see what I mean.'
I did. âIllegit cash?'
âQuite. For months there were stories that he had it stashed away somewhere.'
âSwiss bank account?'
âPossibly, but knowing Mike I think it would have been more tangible than that.'
âPolly didn't seem to me to have an extravagant lifestyle. Indeed, the very fact she needed to start a picture framing business seemed odd to me.'
A pause, and I could see something weighing on his mind. âNow about my Merc, JackÂ .Â .Â .'
At that point his wife made her appearance and was introduced as Jill. From the Audi convertible, I'd set her down as perhaps a trophy second or maybe third wife, but no such thing. Whether wife number one, two or three, she was about the same age as Peter and had gardener written all over her â literally, as she was wearing one of those huge aprons doled out in the Christmas-present catalogues, emblazoned with âGardener at Work'.
All talk of Polly and Mike Davis stopped as we returned to the subject of the Merc. As I drove away, however, I kept coming back to the Lagonda. These rumours of Mike's money â could it be stashed inside some secret pocket? It was possible, I supposed, but unlikely. All the same, the niggle remained, and I became more and more determined to take another look at it.
At that point fate played into my hands. Once back at Frogs Hill, I had a call from Zoe as soon as I walked in the door of the farmhouse. âI've had Bea on the phone,' she said almost accusingly. âI came home yesterday because she said she could cope, but she's heard the bad news about Tomas being out on bail and wants me to go back for a few days. I'm going over there now to see how things are.'
âSure. Can I come?'
She considered this rather too long for politeness. âDon't see why not. She wants you as her private eye, after all. I'll get my stuff and see you there.' She rang off, and I thought I should give Bea a ring to ensure my welcome.
There was no doubt of that, however. Her first words on the phone were: âYou've heard the news then. I still can't believe he's guilty, but I can't stand the idea of his being out, wandering around.'
âDo you know what the evidence is against him?'
âThey won't tell me, but they seem to think he was at the barn sometime that morning.'
Footprints? I wondered. It had been dry, so that was unlikely. DNA? Too early for results on that, I'd have thought. Witnesses? Email evidence? No, why should he be on email terms with Polly?
âI'm not sure I can take this,' she added flatly. âHis row with Mum really turned me off him.'
âWas it that bad?'
âYes it was. It was on the Sunday afternoon after the art show opening. I was staying here, not in my Canterbury flat. I thought Mum was out all day, but she came home early. She found Tomas here â' a slight hesitation â âwell, in bed with me, actually. She raised the roof, and I couldn't blame her. She didn't like him, and this is her house. Was,' she corrected herself dolefully. âThey had a real set to, with him cursing and effing. He was saying â oh, awful things about her, which turned me off. He said he'd be back. And there was something else.'
A long pause now.
âHe said,' she began again, âhe'd make sure the Lagonda was done for too. I'd only just heard about it, of course, and I don't know why he should have picked on that. I should have told the police about it, shouldn't I, Jack?'
âYes. Any idea why he thought that was relevant?'
Bea had no answer to that, and I hung up, after saying I'd be right over and would see her in fifteen minutes or so.
Zoe's and my arrivals at the farm coincided, and we stepped gracefully out of our respective cars at the same moment. I'd had time to ponder Tomas's interest in the Lagonda, but had come to no conclusion, save that it could fit in with the spotter theory. On the other hand, it could also have been because he had heard about my interest in the car, and Polly's love of it, and had decided to attack her in a weak spot.
Yet that did not satisfy me. In fact, nothing did about Tomas. The motive of wanting to marry Bea just didn't add up to me as cause enough for murder. If he had taken a gun with him to the barn, it could hardly have been an unpremeditated crime on his part â or anyone else's. Or could it be that Polly herself had taken a gun, and her murderer had torn it away from her, killed her and then buried it to avoid the risk of trace evidence? No, that was nonsense. Polly was too calm to think of a gun as the way out of her problems.
Bea was at the door waiting for us and actually managed a giggle at our dramatic joint entrance. âI feel better now you're both here,' she told us. âIt's daft, but I keep feeling I'm being watched. It's creepy and all the worse now I know Tomas has got bail. I'm afraid if I go out for a minute or two he'll nip in and burn the house down.'
âNot while I'm here,' Zoe promised her.