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Authors: Shirley Wells

Presumed Dead

BOOK: Presumed Dead
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Dylan Scott has problems. Dismissed in disgrace from the police force for assaulting a suspect, he has no job, his wife has thrown him out and—worse luck—his mother has moved in. So when Holly Champion begs him to investigate the disappearance of her mother thirteen years ago, he can’t say no, even though it means taking up residence in the dreary Lancashire town of Dawson’s Clough for the duration.

Although the local police still believe Anita Champion took off for a better life, Dylan’s inquiries turn up plenty of potential suspects: the drug-dealing, muscle-bound bouncer at the club where Anita was last seen; the missing woman’s four girlfriends, out for revenge; the local landowner with rumored mob connections—the list goes on. But no one is telling Dylan all they know—and he soon finds that one sleepy Northern town can keep a lot of secrets.

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Presumed Dead
Shirley Wells

Acknowledgements

Many people have helped bring my story to life and I thank them all.

Everyone at Carina Press has worked exceptionally hard on
Presumed Dead
and for that I am extremely grateful. In particular my gratitude goes to my editor, Deb Nemeth, who has not only offered encouragement and sound advice but has also made the whole process great fun.

Living with a writer isn’t easy, and my heartfelt thanks go to Nick for making sure I don’t starve and for not minding that the word housework doesn’t figure in my personal dictionary.

It’s been a real team effort. Thank you.

Chapter One

“Dickhead!” Dylan yelled as the driver of a blue Ka changed lanes and almost took off his nearside wing.

A female driver—no surprise there—put up her hand by way of apology and tossed back long dark hair. If Dylan had his way, women would be banned from the bloody road until they could prove themselves less emotional and less hung up on life’s minutiae.

Bev was the same. She saw driving as a means of inspecting people’s curtains, or drapes as she’d taken to calling them. It never occurred to her to look where she was going. Added to that, she was too emotional to be allowed behind the wheel of a car.

She could be a real drama queen at times. A teacher, her subjects were English and drama, and she tended toward the theatrical.

“You’re nothing but a drunkard, Dylan Scott. A drunkard and a bloody loser!”

It had been a month, almost to the day, since she hurled those words at him, and he was still smarting. Still miffed, too. Damn it, if she must throw abuse at him, she could at least make it
accurate
abuse.

He was not a drunkard. He’d been a bit tipsy on the night in question, admittedly, but he was far from a drunkard.

The words
pots and kettles
sprang to mind and, if he hadn’t been the type to prefer a quiet life, he would have reminded her of the time she’d been out with her mates only to come home and pass out in the hedge by the front door. Or the night they’d celebrated their wedding anniversary and she’d thrown up in the back of that taxi.

During almost fourteen years of marriage, she’d been drunk far more often than he had.

He hated it when she had one of her moods on her, and this was her worst yet. She’d come round, she always did, but meanwhile, life was hell.

Just when they should have been decorating the house for Christmas, she’d thrown him out. Efficient to the core, she’d even found him alternative accommodation. He was now the penniless tenant of the smallest flat in the land.

“It’s got two bedrooms,” she’d said, “so Luke can come and stay.”

“That’s a bedroom? I thought it was where I was supposed to keep the Hoover.”

“You’re going to get a Hoover?” She’d laughed at that, the sarcastic, angry laugh he loathed. “My, wonders will never cease. And do you know what a Hoover does exactly?”

“Oh, very droll.”

He’d talked, cajoled, begged and pleaded, but he’d still spent Christmas and the New Year in the smallest flat in the land…

He felt as if he’d been sitting in his car for days rather than hours and, according to his sat nav, he still had forty miles to drive. The strong wind was increasing, buffeting his car.

The countryside was growing more picturesque and, if he’d been in the mood to enjoy it, it might have been a pleasant journey. He wasn’t in the mood to enjoy anything. He wanted to be at home, his own home. He didn’t want to be anywhere near Devon.

If Bev hadn’t thrown him out, he wouldn’t be. But she had. Ergo, he needed money. With the marital home
and
the smallest flat in the land to pay for, he needed to work.

The need for cash wasn’t his only reason for visiting Devon, however. On Thursday evening, he’d answered a ring at his door to find that his worst nightmare had become reality. Just when he thought things couldn’t get any worse, he’d seen his mother, suitcases at her feet, standing on his doorstep.

“Beverley’s thrown you out,” she’d said, as if this might be news to him, “so you’ll need me now.”

“Mum, I’m fine. Really, I can—”

“Nonsense. Take my cases through, Dylan. Beverley said you had a spare room going begging.”

“Of course it’s not going begging. It’s full of junk—stuff I haven’t unpacked yet.” He took a breath. “Really, Mum, I’m fine. And you’ll be very uncomfortable here. It’s too—small. Too—awful.”

“Nonsense. I’ve stayed in worse than this. Remember when we were out in Istanbul?”

Dylan hadn’t been born at the time so he couldn’t be expected to remember. That hadn’t stopped her going on—and on—about the year she’d spent in Istanbul with a bunch of her hippy friends…

As he slowed for a sharp bend, Dylan wondered if life could get any worse. He was thirty-eight years old, he had no job and little hope of getting one, his wife had thrown him out, his mother had moved in, and he’d had to hunt through a pile of laundry currently lying in front of his as-yet-unused washing machine for the shirt he was wearing.

Ever the optimist, though, at least he had escaped his mother for a couple of days and, at two hundred pounds a day plus expenses, looking into the disappearance of Holly Champion’s mother would pay rents, mortgages and every other damn thing for a few weeks.

In fact, given that Holly Champion had literally begged him to help her, insisted she wanted no one else, there was nothing to stop him charging two hundred and fifty a day plus expenses.

Better still, perhaps they could do a swap. Dylan would kill for a mother who did a thirteen-year vanishing act.

You’ll need me now
.

What nonsense was that? She wouldn’t do anything useful. She had cleaned that spare bedroom meticulously, but the rest of the flat had been deemed Dylan’s responsibility. As yet, she hadn’t so much as made him a sandwich. Feminism had a lot to answer for.

The roads were deserted, and narrower, as he neared the coast. According to his sat nav, he was less than a mile from Verdun House now.

“Destination in two hundred yards,” the computerised voice said.

“What? You have to be kidding.”

There was nothing visible. Tall hedges sided a narrow road that was little more than a rutted track.

“Destination,” the sat nav announced.

“Bollocks!” He scowled at the instrument. “And now I’m talking to a bloody computer!”

Dylan stopped the car. On his left, a tall hedge shielded the view. On his right was a small lane and a sign informing people that space was available on Blue Skies Caravan Park.

Perhaps he would be able to find someone who could give him directions for Verdun House.

He drove into the site and parked outside a mobile home that showed signs of life. At least, there were fresh flowers in the window. He got out of his car, strode up to the door, lifted his hand to knock and then spotted the small sign next to the step. Verdun House.

Verdun House, home of Holly Champion, was a blasted mobile home.

What in hell’s name was wrong with people? It wasn’t a house. It was barely a home. It was a caravan that was too idle to move.

A smiling woman in her mid-twenties dashed toward him from a neighbouring mobile home.

“Mr. Scott? You found me then. Come inside.”

“This is really—I mean—you’re Holly Champion?”

“Yes.” A tiny frown creased her brow. “Is something wrong?”

Everything was wrong. If one thing was horribly clear to Dylan, it was that someone who lived here, on this caravan park that would be a resting place for wrinklies and maybe hordes of holidaymakers in season, could not afford two hundred and fifty pounds a day plus expenses.

“I didn’t realise you were so far from the beaten track,” he said, and it sounded lame even to his ears.

“It’s not so far.” She stood, hands on hips, to look around her, then pointed in an easterly direction. “The village is only three miles away.”

“Ah.”

“Cute car, by the way.”

His car was not cute. It was a 1956 registered Morgan in Daytona Yellow with seventy-eight thousand miles on the clock. His pride and joy, yes. Cute, no.

“Thanks,” he murmured with a sigh.

“Come inside.” She led the way into the miniscule glorified portacabin.

“You’ll want a drink after the journey.” She got that right. “Tea or coffee? I’m sure I have coffee in.”

To Dylan, a drink came in a pint glass and was cold. However, he guessed the nearest pub was three miles away. Who the hell could live with no pub within walking distance?

“Coffee, please. Instant’s fine,” he said, as she reached for a grinder.

“I don’t have instant.”

As she dealt with the coffee, he studied her more closely. At first, he would have put her at five feet ten, the same height as himself, but then he’d spotted the shoes she was wearing. Bright red, they had killer heels of about five inches.

She saw him looking at them and grinned. “Shoes are a weakness of mine.”

“Ankles will be another, I imagine.”

Slim and attractive in a well-scrubbed, natural way, she had long fair hair hanging down her back, and she kept tossing it away from her face as she reached for the milk—skimmed, he noted with an inner grimace—or took a mug from a cupboard. Her legs were clad in worn but clean denim jeans, and a sweater in every colour of the rainbow almost touched her knees.

“Please, sit down.” She gestured to one of the two wooden stools at the small bar.

Amazingly, she’d managed to cram a fridge, washing machine, cooker and three cupboards into what would laughingly be described as the kitchen. The small patches of visible wall space were white, broken only by two framed pencil sketches of horses. Colour came from a bunch of flowers at the window and a bright red hand towel hanging near the fridge.

“Thanks.” Silently apologising to his aching body, he perched on a stool. She put a mug of coffee in front of him, then a small jug of milk and a sugar bowl, all in chunky pottery.

Dylan helped himself to three spoonfuls of sugar and added the milk. He loathed skimmed milk. “Aren’t you having one?”

“I rarely drink tea or coffee. I prefer water.” She smiled. “It’s better for you and it’s cheaper.”

Sod it. He’d escaped the ageing hippy he called Mother to spend time with another resident of Planet Zorg.

“Thank you for coming,” she said. “I appreciate it. I really do.”

The only reason he was there was because he needed to escape his mother. That and the cash, of course, and there was no way she could afford two hundred and fifty quid a day.

“I’ve only come to talk,” he said. “And first, I want to know two things—how you came to find me and why you think I can help.”

“Okay.” She sat, elbows on the narrow counter, her expression earnest. “I read about you on the internet. You found that missing schoolgirl, Carol Turner.”

“Carol Turner? But that was years ago.”

“Eight years.” She nodded. “I was seventeen.”

Only eight years? It seemed a lifetime ago.

“On the internet,” she said, “they quoted you as saying you would never have stopped looking for her. I wanted someone like that to discover the truth about my mother.”

“Since then—” He broke off, knowing there wasn’t an easy way to explain. “Well, let’s just say that a lot’s happened in my life.”

“I know. You spent five months in prison for assaulting Thomas Brookes and you were dismissed from the police force.”

The simplicity of her words brought a reluctant smile to his face.

“I was beaten up while trying to arrest a violent criminal,” he corrected her, “and then found myself on an assault charge. I was found guilty—if I’d known, I would have used far more force—and then spent the next five months being beaten up by scum in prison.”

He tried not to think of those days. From a detective sergeant with a bright future to an ex-con in double-quick time. “So how did you find me?”

“I searched the internet and there was a small piece from a newspaper. It was published about eighteen months ago. From Hero to Outcast, the headline ran. You’d been—”

“Kicked out of a pub. Drunk and disorderly.”

“Yes.”

“I paid the fine.”

She smiled. “That’s all right then.”

“So what makes you think I can find your mother?”

“Perhaps you can’t. All I know is that, for years now, I’ve been determined to learn the truth—determined to
try
and learn the truth. If anyone can help, you can.”

“But I’ve no real experience—”

“You found Carol Turner.”

“Yes, but I was a police officer then. I had all the resources at my disposal. Now, I’m definitely
persona non grata
.” That wasn’t strictly true, but he could count his friends in the force on one hand.

“You’re a private investigator now. It said so in that newspaper article.”

“I am registered, yes, but all I’ve done is a bit of insurance work.”

“Then this will make a pleasant change for you.”

The way his life was going, having his testicles removed without anaesthetic would make a pleasant change.

“Employing someone—anyone, not just me—is expensive,” he said. “No one can afford to work for nothing.”

“Please don’t imagine this is just a whim, Mr. Scott.” She stood and Dylan suspected she would have paced the floor if there had been any to pace. “I left school and put myself through university.” She held her head high. “While there, I did a paper round in the mornings and bar work at nights and weekends. Since then, I’ve worked five days a week as a primary school teacher, three nights a week in the village pub, and Sundays at the golf club. I don’t smoke or drink. I buy my clothes from charity shops. Except my shoes, of course.” She paused, her face pink. “What I’m saying is that, for years now, I’ve saved every penny possible so that I can employ someone to look into my mother’s disappearance. I’d like that someone to be you.”

Dylan hadn’t meant to insult her by mentioning money.

He supposed he should be flattered by her faith in him, but if—and it was a huge if—he took this job, how the hell would he feel taking money from someone who dressed in stuff from Oxfam?

“Tell me about your mother,” he said.

She peered out the window at the leaden January sky. “Let’s walk while we talk. It’ll be lovely on the beach.”

“Walk?” It wasn’t raining—yet—but the wind was strong enough to rock her home on occasion.

“Don’t you walk?” She sounded concerned for his health.

“It has been known,” he said, resigned to battling with the elements.

“Do you have a coat?”

Of course he had a coat. When you drove a 1956 Morgan with seventy-eight thousand miles on the clock, you accepted that you were likely to spend a large portion of time hanging around waiting for breakdown vehicles. “In the car.”

BOOK: Presumed Dead
9.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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