Authors: Peter Helton
Also by Peter Helton
Constable & Robinson Ltd
3 The Lanchesters
162 Fulham Palace Road
London W6 9ER
First published in the UK by Constable,
an imprint of Constable & Robinson, 2008
First US edition published by SohoConstable,
an imprint of Soho Press, 2008
Soho Press, Inc.
New York, NY 10003
Copyright © Peter Helton, 2008
The right of Peter Helton to be identified as the
author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance
with the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. This book is sold subject to the condition
that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold,
hired out or otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover
other than that in which it is published and without a similar
condition including this condition being imposed
on the subsequent purchaser.
A copy of the British Library Cataloguing in Publication
Data is available from the British Library
UK ISBN: 978-1-84529-•••-•
US ISBN: 978-1-56947-•••-•
US Library of Congress number: 20070•••••
Printed and bound in the EU
1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2
What we called a studio at Mill House was really a leaky old barn at the top of the meadow, with the rattly windows I’d botched into one side creating on all but the brightest days the kind of medieval gloom Caravaggio would have killed for. It was a stormy afternoon in October and I’d lit the pot-bellied stove for the first time that autumn. Despite rainwater dripping into old pots and buckets here and there it was quite cosy. My world smelled of freshly brewed coffee, of logs and wood smoke and Venice turpentine, and I should have known it was too good to last. The stove was temperamental at the best of times but in this kind of weather it tended to puff smoke at you like a startled dragon. There’d only be a few hours of thin light left today and I was impatient to get on with some work. Simon Paris Fine Art had offered me a show in February. It was the graveyard shift, of course, but since I had missed my usual autumn slot through a complete lack of new paintings I couldn’t really be choosy.
The wind-up radio, never the best of receivers down here in the valley, howled and crackled. I turned it off. The forecast had been for fifty m.p.h. winds with gusts of up to seventy but in here it sounded very much like they had got it wrong. It was a lot worse than that. The whole structure creaked and boomed. Rain hammered against the streaming windows.
The door slammed open and Annis flew in. ‘Blimey, it ripped the door right out of my hand.’ She pushed it shut against the rain and leaf-laden wind, pulled the hood back on her cagoule and the cordless phone out of a pocket. ‘Client for you,’ she announced, holding it out to me.
Annis is a painter, like me. Thankfully that’s where the similarities end since it is mainly the differences I appreciate: unlike me she is five foot eight, female, strawberry blonde, lithe and athletic, has a beautiful butterscotch voice and perfect poise. A few years ago when she was still an art student she simply appeared at Mill House unannounced, a bit like a cat really, and has been living and painting here ever since. What do you expect me to do about it? She works with me on the private eye side of things when she feels like it. And we do share a bed sometimes but it’s by no means an exclusive arrangement since there’s also Tim. Of whom more later.
‘Are you going to answer the phone or just stand there staring at me?’
‘I’m too busy to take on clients right now,’ I protested. I folded my arms in front of my chest like a stroppy kid and refused to touch it.
‘Okay.’ She tossed the phone high in the air and shrugged her shoulders. ‘You tell him that.’
I caught it just before it dashed itself to pieces on the floor, pressed the talk button and acknowledged my presence with what I hoped was a discouraging grunt.
‘Giles Haarbottle here, I trust you remember me, Mr Honeysett?’
Haarbottle worked at Griffin’s, the insurers, who often came to us to sort out the trickier cases, things they wouldn’t want their own staff to do but were happy enough to let a mug like me take on. I just wasn’t in the mood. And yes, I did remember him but hadn’t been pining for his company.
‘I’m not sure why I still call you,’ he complained. ‘You turned down the last two jobs we offered you recently and we had to find other agencies to fit us in. But we do appreciate the work you do for us, when you can be bothered.’
I walked over to the draughty windows and stared out at the house and the outbuildings through the rain and swirling leaves. All the trees I could see from here were waving at me like overexcited lunatics. Even though I should have known better by now a small part of me still believed that wind was caused by trees waving their branches about. The big oak at the top of the meadow had already dropped several that would eventually end up in the fireplace.
‘It’s a surveillance job that could run for a while, so we need to negotiate rates accordingly. We were judged to be liable for compensation in the case of . . .’
I wasn’t even listening. What kind of a moron would want to take a job standing at street corners in this kind of weather? Answer: the kind of moron who watched with disbelief a patch of tiles on the roof of his house come loose, slither and tumble, then pulverize as they hit the ground. Oh, no, please don’t do that, that looks expensive . . .
I must have spoken out loud because Haarbottle asked: ‘
?’ At the same time a fist of wind picked up the barn roof, gave it a good shake, then ripped off a selection of tiles and corrugated metal.
‘I’d be delighted to take the job,’ I shouted over the sudden noise as debris and rain clattered over everything, including me. Annis was already rushing around, rescuing canvases and covering our easels with sheets and rags.
‘Splendid.’ Haarbottle did sound surprised. ‘Let’s meet tomorrow lunchtime like civilized people,’ he suggested. ‘The Bathtub at one?’
By first light the storm had blown itself out and left behind a damp, bright and messy day to survey the damage in. Both the house and the studio had developed bald patches and debris lay everywhere. Broken tiles had landed on the roof of my black DS21, known alternatively as a ‘fine classic Citroën’ (by me) or ‘that Frog rust bucket’ (by the guy who does the welding on it). Of course if the whole roof had slithered on to Annis’s battered and equally ancient Land Rover you would hardly have noticed the difference. The willows by the mill pond had fared worst, shedding many limbs, several into the pond; that would need clearing now. A collection of branches and a plug of leaves and other debris had accumulated in the mill race too and the stream went noisily through, over and around it. The sagging outbuildings on the other side of the yard hadn’t fared too badly, I thought, or perhaps they were so dilapidated I just couldn’t tell the difference. I had called a firm of roofers first thing in the morning, along with everyone else in Bath, it appeared. Around noon three guys bounced down the potholed track to the house in a shabby lorry densely loaded with planks and ladders. They largely ignored me, spent half an hour fixing cobalt blue tarpaulin on both roofs and got back into the lorry. While the driver performed a twelve-point turn in the puddled yard they said they could only do emergency repairs right now and would be back one day, perhaps, if I promised to hand over my life savings. Which sharply reminded me: I didn’t have any.
I left Annis in the studio at her easel, muttering darkly about ‘blue light’ and ‘subaquatic conditions’ under the snapping tarp, then got into the car and followed the roofers up the track. Everywhere lay twigs and branches and I spotted two more blue tarpaulins on roofs in the valley before I’d even reached the London Road. While I joined the slow procession into town I lost count of the scaffolds adorning house fronts. Keeping two-hundred-year-old houses standing upright was quite a job in itself and high winds didn’t help. Many a decorative urn that in the eighteenth century was firmly anchored to the parapet was now secured by little more than a smudge of rust. And once a few tourists had been flattened by bits of the famous masonry . . .
Such cheerful thoughts helped to pass the time pleasantly until I got into the centre. It was too late to be creative about parking so I drove straight into the constipated bowels of the multi-storey affair next to Waitrose. I got lucky and shoehorned the DS into a space just vacated by a car half its size and thirty years its junior and walked out the back door on to Pulteney Bridge, which might look like the Ponte Vecchio from the back but presents a very English front. Then I took a left into little Grove Street.
The Bathtub Bistro was doing good business this lunchtime but I’d booked my usual table by the upstairs window. It was one o’clock and Haarbottle hadn’t arrived yet. I didn’t mind. I wasn’t really looking forward to the job and sitting in the Bathtub was no hardship. I liked the place. Even though geographically it was smack in the centre of Bath it had a slightly secretive atmosphere, as though you’d only just discovered it. I often met clients here, since I didn’t keep an office in town. Something was different though, quite apart from the fact that Clive, the owner, appeared to be ignoring me. I didn’t realize what it was until he eventually appeared at my table and stuck a fragrantly frothy cappuccino under my nose.
‘Don’t say I never do anything for you,’ he said meaningfully.
It took me a moment. ‘You bought an espresso machine! At long last!’
‘Anything for the Great Detective.’
‘Now my life is complete. I’m waiting for a client. In fact here he is and he wants . . .’
‘A double gin and tonic, if he may,’ Haarbottle intoned, stiffly as ever, setting down an imitation leather briefcase as gently and precisely as though it contained the meaning of the universe written on bone china. Every inch of his tall figure was precise; greying hair plastered down in a side parting, miraculously uncreased raincoat which he now hung up carefully, blue M&S suit, blindingly white shirt sparking with static and the palest of pink ties. He waited until his G&T arrived, then gulped half of it down in one. Then he snapped open his briefcase and extracted a fat lemon-yellow file adorned with the Griffin logo.
‘It’s quite straightforward, as I explained on the telephone yesterday . . .’ he began.
‘Yes, do you mind repeating what you told me then? I wasn’t really listening,’ I pleaded.
‘Wasn’t really . . .?’
‘Well, my roof was flying away at the time.’
‘That can be quite distracting, or so our clients tell us. Remind me, did you insure your residence with us?’
‘No. What’s more I have the sinking feeling my house insurance lapsed.’
‘Lapsed?’ Haarbottle shuddered theatrically at the thought and dispatched the other half of his gin and tonic. ‘It’s not like Catholicism, you know. There’s no such thing as “lapsed”. You’re either insured or you’re not.’
‘I was afraid you might say that. So what have you got for me?’
He flipped open the file and withdrew a six by eight photograph. ‘James Lane. NWNF-ed our client –’
‘N-what? Do speak English.’
‘No win, no fee, the latest craze imported from across the pond. Claimed he fell down the stairs due to a torn bit of carpet while visiting a friend who lived in rented accommodation. Hurt his back and head. Claims he’s permanently in pain, has problems balancing and now walks with a stick. A “nerve” thing. Utterly bogus.’
‘How d’you know?’
‘Five years ago he made a fraudulent insurance claim. Small stuff, pretended he had his camera nicked on holiday when actually he’d sold it.’
‘How did you get to know about that?’ I asked.
‘Insurance companies do talk to each other sometimes.
Anyway,’ he turned the picture round and slid it across, ‘that’s your man.’
The photo showed a round-faced bloke in his mid-thirties with straggly, untidy hair, wearing a suit. He was leaving a building which from much experience I recognized as the magistrates’ court. His smile was aimed at something outside the frame but definitely not the camera. Naturally, since the photo was a grainily enlarged black and white print, he looked guilty as hell, but then so would my Auntie Edith.
Haarbottle liberated a sheet of A4 from the file. ‘Thirty-four, divorced . . . lives by himself in a two-up-two-down in Larkhall.’ He handed it over. ‘It’s all there. What we need is good, intelligent surveillance, not expensive round-the-clock surveillance, okay? I don’t want to know if he snores but I do want to know if he is faking it. Correction: I know the bastard’s faking it. You just get me the proof. It’s costing us a fortune to finance his life of leisure.’
‘Did he have a job?’
‘He used to work in a garage fitting exhausts to motor cars. And can we have video footage if at all possible? Judges do like a bit of video footage. So do the defendants. Show them a video of themselves doing naughty stuff and they change their plea to guilty very quickly. Saves a lot of time and money. Nail this little toerag for us, will you?’
What ever happened to ‘innocent until proven guilty’, I wondered. We haggled over my rates for a bit in a long-established way in which surprise, affront, regret and final acceptance were satirized rather than faked. Once we’d agreed and Haarbottle had fastidiously signed a crumpled copy of my standard contract, amended in the relevant places in biro, he folded away his stuff, climbed back into his coat and stalked out into the rain without paying for his drink. I’d stick it on my expenses somehow.
. Detective work rarely got more tedious than that. And since all my gear was at home and there was little chance of me starting work this instant I turned my full attention to the lunch menu. Detective work has its perks.