Read Worthless Remains Online

Authors: Peter Helton

Worthless Remains (3 page)

‘That's OK. I'll make them last. What are you after? Nothing too dodgy, I did warn you.'

‘Not at all.' I simply relayed the whole story.

‘Three-quarters of a million? That's a nice nest egg. OK, if he's on the database I'll find him. Soon as I get a chance.'

We were interrupted by the chime of my mobile. It was Jake, calling from his car restoration workshop.

‘Honeysett . . .' There was a sound as though someone was grinding a cat in half. ‘Get yourself up here.'

‘Look, if it's about the van . . .' Opposite me Watt pulled a knowing face. He imagined my life to be a series of crises and wasn't far wrong.

‘Forget the van,' Jake shouted over the background of workshop noises. ‘I never expected to see much of it again. Wouldn't have lent it to you otherwise.'

‘What, then?'

‘It's a surprise. You'll like it. Some of it, anyways.' He hung up.

Watt widened his eyes expectantly. ‘Trouble?'

‘Apparently not. Which is most mysterious. I'd better go and see what it's about.'

Watt checked his watch. ‘I'm due to clock on anyway. Got to hide these in my locker first.' He lifted the bag and the bottles clinked their nostalgic promise.

I watched him walk guiltily towards Manvers Street while I started up the Norton. The noise of the thing always turned a few heads, which was another reason why it was pretty useless for a private detective. So Jake had a surprise for me. I didn't dare hope.

Jake lived up near Ford, on the way to Chippenham, on a rambling smallholding. Originally the plan had been to breed ponies there and when that venture failed he had turned his hobby, restoring vintage cars, into a thriving business. Jake looked after Annis's 1960s Land Rover and had for many years – and under protest – kept my equally ancient Citroën DS 21 alive. Jake specialized in British classics and professed to hate French motors. My last DS had literally rusted away beneath me and Jake had towed it to the scrapheap with many a told-you-so.

It was another fine day and once I had left the tortuous traffic of Bath behind I opened the Norton's throttle to an ear-splitting fifty miles per hour. The vibrations numbed my wrists, tickled the soles of my feet in their boots and it all helped to remind me that fifty years is a long time in motoring. Still fun, though. I turned into Jake's yard and found a space to leave the hot, ticking machine. The fawn and rust of the Norton blended in well with the rest of the scenery up here. The workshop and the outbuildings surrounding it looked nearly as dilapidated as my own place, only with the addition of automotive junk of every description; whole engines, part engines, wheels and axles, car doors and bonnets. Neatly parked were a few whole cars inside lockups and under tarpaulin. There was a brown Rover in mint condition, just arrived or ready to be collected. Not far away stood the – to my eyes at least – unpromising remains of a pale blue Wolseley. You didn't see many of those on the road.

I found Jake in his workshop underneath a black 1940s Riley in the company of one of his mechanics, a factotum with white, electrified hair. They were making an awful racket and were swearing a lot. There were tools and oil rags on the ground around them. The air smelled of hot metal and burnt rubber. Give me detective work any time.

‘You'll have to wait until we've got this bastard sorted,' Jake said to my legs.

‘It's probably the floggle-toggle,' I said helpfully.

The banging stopped long enough for Jake to growl, ‘Shut up, Chris, and put the kettle on.'

While the clanging and grinding and swearing resumed I filled the kettle. Barely audible, my phone chimed again. This time it was Annis. Something about another job. Something about digging something up? I was desperate for more work so didn't quibble. ‘I can hardly hear you!' I shouted down the phone. ‘Tell them I'll definitely do it!'

Anyone can make a mistake.

I made tea and had time to drink it in the sunshine outside. Thirty yards or so away, behind the farmhouse proper, Jake's wife Sally gave me a wave, then returned to taking colourful washing off the line; Jake's two mongrel dogs ran senselessly to and fro across the yard for the heck of it; a collared dove landed on a fencepost and took off again; bees buzzed. At last the workshop noise stopped and soon after that Jake emerged. His overalls looked like he had been in a fight and there was a new tear on his knee. The knuckles on his right hand were freshly grazed and his face was a mask of oil and sweat but he seemed happy enough.

‘Got the bugger sorted,' he said, wiping his hands on an oily rag, which made them dirtier.

Since I probably wouldn't understand the answer I didn't even pretend to be interested in his fight with the Riley. ‘So where's the surprise?' I asked instead, feeling like a kid.

‘I hid it round the back.'

‘Crafty.'

He walked off, signalling me to follow round the corner. ‘Not because of you, you nit, but to avoid embarrassment.' We rounded the next corner and there, on a bit of concrete hard standing next to the old milking parlour, stood the surprise. ‘
Et, voilà
. Don't say I never do anything for you. This is far beyond the call of duty, I'll have you know.'

‘It is. I'm speechless.' And there it was, Car of the Century (the last one, obviously), a Citroën DS 21, circa 1972. It was gleaming in the sunshine and my heart leapt. Tentatively.

‘Obviously I hid it back here because a) it's a bloody Frog chariot and b) it's bright pink.'

‘Yes, that could be a problem.'

‘Otherwise it's practically mint; wouldn't have accepted it otherwise. I took it in part-payment.'

I opened the driver door with reverence and slipped behind the wheel. Jake was right, the leather seats, the dash, even the carpeted floor looked exactly as they had the day the car had rolled off the assembly line forty years ago. Only some criminal had sprayed the bodywork raspberry ice-cream pink. The interior smelled of flowery perfume.

‘How much?' I asked.

‘Nothing you can't afford.'

‘That's very cheap then. It needs respraying.'

‘No shit, Sherlock. It's already booked in. Come back in a couple of days.'

THREE

A
recurring delusion of mine is that there is time to do it all: the painting and the private-eye work, looking after Mill House and the mill pond, having a meaningful relationship, cooking, cleaning and mowing the grass. I forget that most people who have multiple careers, a large house and three acres of land and yet look wide awake in the afternoons also tend to have a lot of help, hired or otherwise. My own help consisted of a largely undomesticated Annis, herself always busy in the studio, an increasingly part-time Tim and two lazy black-faced sheep who were supposed to keep the grass down. All of which meant that my own attempts at Renaissance Mannishness frequently ran into trouble. It never stopped me trying, though.

There had been no word yet from Constable Whatsisname about Dealey's address so I spent the rest of the day drawing the junk in the outbuildings from odd angles with a view to using them as the basis for a painting. A bit more abstract perhaps but still fundamentally figurative, though without the sheep. I was pretty sure I wouldn't get sheep past Simon Paris.

By next morning I still hadn't heard from Watt so I started transferring my drawings to the canvas. Since I would be sure to invoice Griffins insurance for this waiting time it felt doubly blissful – decent light, free warmth, a new painting, and I was practically getting paid by the hour. In the outbuildings, bright sunlight had been slanting through the gaps in the slatted walls, creating bright patches of light alternating with deep, mys-terious shadows. I would carve the lights out of the canvas by painting the shadows first. To this end I mixed a large amount of a deep, cardinal purple that for some reason was called
caput mortum
, which translates as ‘death head' or if you are an alchemist, ‘worthless remains'. In my case it was prophetic since it remained unused on my palette. My brush hesitated for a second over the canvas while I took another glance at the preparatory drawings I had arranged on the floor, which gave Annis time to burst through the door with the cordless phone in one hand and a piece of paper in the other.

‘I just took a call from Sergeant Whatsit, he gave me this address. And it's Jake on the phone for you.'

I quickly scanned the note, it was Dealey's address and it had a Bath postcode. Then I took the phone.

‘Your Frog carriage awaits, swivelling headlights and all. I got it back early.'

‘Brilliant,' I said. ‘How much?'

He told me. Annis could see from my face that I was listening to a hideous sound in my ear; she stood whistling tunelessly and rolled her eyes to the rafters. ‘Can I pay you in instalments?' I begged.

‘Certainly. In that case I can let you have the front seats and the off-side rear wheel.'

‘All right, I expect I'll scrape it together somehow.' I terminated the call.

‘The DS reborn,' said Annis. ‘Praise be, whatever the cost, as long as it gets you off the Norton. Just as well you got a second assignment then.'

‘What second assignment?'

‘The one I called you about yesterday? You said to accept. I left you a note on your office desk.'

‘I never look at notes on my office desk. I never go in my office.'

‘Perhaps now's a good time to try it: the job starts tomorrow.'

‘Tomorrow? Doing what?'

‘Babysitting Guy Middleton.' Annis was slipping out of the door already. The sun lit up her strawberry hair. She was beautiful and had a pencil behind her left ear. Perhaps the drawing bug had bit.

I ran after her through the overgrown meadow. ‘The TV guy with the hair and that?'

‘Yup.'

‘The one who presents the archaeology programme?
Time Tunnel
?'

‘
Time Lines
. Yes. It was the production company that called. The details are on your desk.'

‘And they want
me
?'

Time Lines
, according to people like Tim who didn't live at the bottom of a valley and had TV reception, was the upstart UK History satellite clone of an excellent Channel 4 programme with a similar name. A blatant copy of the format, it aimed to be glitzier, glossier and more idiot-friendly than the original. It was now in its sixth year and Guy Middleton, who previously had been the heart-throb doctor in an endless hospital series, was its hugely popular and populist presenter. To look the part he had sprouted a ponytail, cultivated an Indiana Jonesish dress sense and he delivered his lines with a seductive voice. Now, why would he need babysitting?

I tramped up the stairs into my office and called them.

‘At last! We'd almost given up hope,' said a male voice that sounded about eighteen years old but turned out to belong to Cy Shovlin, the producer of the show. ‘
Time Lines
is coming to Bath and we want to hire you as personal minder to Mr Middleton during the filming. The dig starts the day after tomorrow, but we'd be grateful if you could meet with Guy tonight for an informal chat. We'll call you and let you know where and when, so please keep your evening free.' I still hadn't said more than
hello
at this point and could easily have gone off to fry some eggs or something and the voice wouldn't have noticed; he simply went on pouring TV speak into my ear about locations and shoots and digs. Eventually he said something interesting. ‘We agreed your fees with your secretary. I must say they were higher than we'd been led to believe but Guy asked especially for you so there we are. I hope you're worth the money. We'll draw up a contract and I'll get you to sign it tonight, all being well. Have I got your mobile number? Oh yeah, it's here, I'll call you on that to let you know. See you tonight. Good to talk to you at last.' The line went dead. I imagined that by the time I put down the receiver he was already bending someone else's ear. So that's how they earned their money, by talking at twice the normal speed and not letting anyone ask you unnecessary questions. The question on my own mind right now was: just how unexpectedly high
were
my fees?

From below I heard Annis slam the front door. I leant out of the tiny window that overlooked the yard. ‘I talked to them. I'm meeting with Guy Middleton tonight!'

Annis looked up, one hand on the door handle of her Landy. ‘Aren't you the lucky one!'

‘That's what I'm wondering – how lucky am I? What kind of fee did you negotiate?'

‘Twice your normal, hon.'

‘Bloody hell. And they agreed?'

‘It's telly, that's chicken feed to them. But a new Citroën for you. When are you picking it up?'

‘It's ready now.'

‘Come down, I'll drive you.'

I clattered down the stairs like a Labrador puppy who'd heard rumours of walkies and even remembered to grab my credit cards on the way out.

Annis mumbled her usual incantation over the steering wheel – according to her the Landy wouldn't start without it – and turned the key. It coughed into life and we were off.

‘So you'll be on a
Time Lines
dig, you jammy bastard.'

‘Looks like it. Don't know how jammy until I get there. Could be dead boring.'

‘Rubbish. You like all that stuff. You would watch it too if we had telly. Admit it.'

‘Probably.'

‘You're meeting the man tonight? Lucky you have a stylish car again. I was afraid the goggles would leave permanent white rings round your eyes, like a reverse panda. What are they going to dig up? Did they say?'

‘I forgot to ask.'

This, apparently, was
just
typical
.

Insects buzzed in the afternoon sunlight when Annis turned the Land Rover into Jake's yard. The man came out to greet Annis. Or was it the Land Rover he was greeting? It was hard to tell with Jake. ‘She run all right?' Not,
how are you, how have you been
, you'll notice.

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