Joe is in Wales for a church choir festival. He's retained by two parties to uncover the identity of the young woman. Joe's not up to any more heroics, though his clients may be. But before a killer can be brought to justice, he may have to play hero one more timeto save his own skin.
About the Author
Reginald Hill (1936-2012) was an English crime writer best known for his Dalziel and Pascoe series. He began the series in 1970 with the book A Clubbable Woman; he would go on to write two dozen books in the series, which would later be adapted by the BBC. In 1995 he was awarded the Crime Writers' Association Cartier Diamond Dagger for Lifetime Achievement. The last book he published before his death was 2010's The Woodcutter.
Read an Excerpt
The Boyling Corner Chapel Choir sped across the heart of England like a nest of singing birds and as they crossed the Welsh border there was a spontaneous outburst of 'We'll Keep a Welcome in the Hillsides'. Not even when the coach ground to a halt an hour or so later in a puff of smoke dark enough to hide a demon king did their spirits sink.
Not at first anyway.
'No sweat,' assured their driver, Merv Golightly, whose broad smile and cheerful manner had been honed at the wheel of a Luton taxi. 'We're only half an hour away and I'll fix this in a jiffy.'
Several jiffies later, Joe Sixsmith got out and strolled round to join Merv at the open bonnet. The two of them had been workmates at Robco Engineering of Luton till the economic miracle workers of the sick eighties had told them to take up their P45s and walk. Joe's years of working at a lathe and on a much-loved, much-regretted Morris Oxford, had left him with a high degree of mechanical expertise, but Merv's years of driving a fork-lift truck had never taken him beyond the bang-it-with-a-spanner school of repair.
The spanner was in Merv's hand now, the same outsize length of metal nicknamed Percy which he kept beneath his taxi seat for those situations which neither his cheerful manner nor broad smile could defuse.
'Hang about, Merv,' said Joe, seeing the spanner poised menacingly. 'Let the dog see the rabbit.'
It didn't take long and it wasn't a rabbit but a dead donkey.
'Oil pump's gone,' he said. 'Merv, where'd youbuy this heap of junk? At a Transport Museum boot sale?'
'Hey, I've got all the safety certs and such, you seen them,' said Merv, hurt.
This was true. Joe had insisted on seeing them soon as he heard Merv had not only extended his personal transport service to include coach hire but had put in the lowest bid for the Boyling Corner expedition to Wales. It was Rev. Pot, pastor and choirmaster, who made the final choice, but many of the choristers, led by Joe's Aunt Mirabelle, were convinced Joe had put in a fix.
'Can you patch it up?' asked Merv hopefully.
His hope was mirrored on the faces of Rev. Pot and others who'd also congregated round the bonnet.
'No way,' said Joe dolefully. 'Needs a new pump. At least. Which means it needs a garage.'
All eyes turned to the empty road ahead. There were fewer signs of life there than in Westminster on a Friday, and they'd passed no human habitation for at least ten miles.
Then Joe, with a politician's timing, let a broad smile dawn on his face and said, 'So, no problem. I'll just call up help,' and produced his mobile phone.
The effect was slightly spoilt when he couldn't get it to work till Beryl Boddington took it gently out of his hand and switched it on.
Five minutes later he was able to announce that a mechanic was on the way with the necessary part.
Aunt Mirabelle gave him a don't-think-that's-going-to-change-my-mind glower. She still regarded his post-lathe career in private investigation as a symptom of stress-induced brain fever which marriage to a good woman, plus regular attendance at chapel and the job centre, would soon cure. She'd reacted to the news that Joe had bought a mobile like a Sally Army captain catching a reformed drunk coming out of an off-licence with a brown paper parcel.
'What you need that thing for?' she'd demanded.
'For my work,' Joe explained.
'For your work? For the devil's work, you mean!'
'No, Auntie,' Joe had retorted with a rare flash of open rebellion. 'So's I can keep in touch with my clients. Not everyone in our family's got such big ears they can hear other folks' private business twenty miles off just by flapping them!'
But now she confined herself to the glower, then set about distributing the sandwiches which she'd packed, on the grounds that when you visited a foreign country, there was no telling how long before you'd be able to find something a Christian soul could eat.
It was a mild late-spring afternoon and soon the choristers were sprawled out along the rock-strewn banks of the fast-flowing stream which ran parallel to the road. Joe lay next to Beryl Boddington, who was high among the runners in his aunt's nuptial stakes. But Joe had long since come to realize that Beryl ran under no colours but her own, and now it came into his mind how very much he was enjoying his present situation. Only way it could be improved was by beaming the rest of the choir out of sight somewhere. Or failing that, moving himself and Beryl somewhere a little more private.
He sat upright and said casually, 'Thought I might take a little stroll and stretch my legs. You fancy a bit of exercise?'
She didn't answer but lay there looking up at him and smiling broadly.
'What?' he said.
'Joe Sixsmith,' she said. 'I recall you telling me you were a through and through city boy, couldn't get on with country life. Now I see why.'
'It's all this fresh air, turns you into some kind of wild animal. Like a werewolf.'
'Shoot, all I said was, let's take a walk.'
'And that's all you want, Joe? A walk?'
She pouted as if disappointed and, emboldened, he said, 'That'll do for starters. So, what you say?'
'Well, I'm tempted, Joe. Only ...'
'Hadn't you better be around when the breakdown truck arrives to see Merv don't get ripped off?'
Joe followed her gaze. About a mile ahead along the road a van was approaching. Who'd have thought they'd be so quick out here in the sticks? Then he glanced at his watch and saw that more than an hour had passed since he rang. He'd never make a Don Juan. A real operator would have got to work at least forty-five minutes ago.
On the other hand, a real operator probably wouldn't have enjoyed simply lying alongside Beryl in the warm sunshine the way he did.
He smiled at her and she smiled back.
'We've got all this countryside for the next three days, Joe. Plenty of time to be stretching our muscles.'
That sounded like a promise. Jauntily he made his way back to the coach.
The van bore the single word BREAKDOWN like a command, and its engine coughed asthmatically as if eager to obey.
Merv scowled and said, 'Listen to that. And he's coming to mend my machine.'
'Not to worry,' said Joe. 'Best barbers always have the worst haircuts.'
'Oh yeah?' said Merv. 'Well, if he draws in his breath sharply when he sees my engine, I'm going to hit him with Percy.'
'You'll need to aim low,' said Joe as the van halted and the driver slid out.
He was square-shaped, about five by five, with no visible neck, so that his head sat on his shoulders like a traitor's displayed on a city wall. Joe was reminded of Starbright Jones, another Welshman he'd met on a recent case, who'd been carved out of the same rough granite. The memory made him smile he'd grown quite fond of Starbright and the smile won an indifferent nod, or maybe it was directed at Merv's scowl, and without other greeting the man went straight to the bonnet.
There was no sharp intake of breath but there was a note of incredulity as he said, 'Just the oil pump you want me to sort out, is it?' like the Good Samaritan told that half an aspirin and a Band-aid would do.
Percy twitched and Joe said quickly, 'What else you got in mind?'
The man said, 'In alphabetical order ...' and listed half a dozen areas of trouble or potential trouble. His alphabet was erratic but his diagnosis confirmed many of Joe's own fears.
'Better take a look then,' he said, interposing his body between Merv and the Welshman. 'Want a hand?'
He got a pro sneer in reply, which might have annoyed a more self-regarding man, but Joe took it in his stride and after ten minutes, when his assistance had demonstrated he was no know-it-all amateur, the man thawed a little and let it be known his name was Nye.
'Nye Garage they call me, from the job, see? Round here knowing what people do is important.'
This might have been a lure but Joe ignored it. Professionally he'd spent a lot of time experimenting with subtle techniques for getting people to talk and the sum total of his wisdom was, if a man wants to know something, best way usually is to ask.
Eventually Nye got round to it.
'Trippers, is it?' he said, glancing at the lounging choristers. 'Going to the seaside?'
'Look like trippers, do we?' said Joe grinning.
'Don't look like mountain climbers,' said Nye.
There was no gainsaying this, and Joe replied, 'We're singers. A choir. We're on our way to the Llanffugiol Choral Festival.'
He spoke with modest pride, confident of making some kind of impression. After all, this was the land of song where a good voice vied with the ability to run very fast with a pointed ball as the gift most desired from your fairy godmother.
He was disappointed. Nye looked at him blankly for a long moment. Perhaps he was deaf, thought Joe. Or tone deaf. Or maybe it was his own poor pronunciation.
'The Llanffugiol Choral Festival,' he said carefully, blowing out the double-L sound with a singer's breath.
'Never heard of it,' said the Welshman indifferently. 'Pass me that wrench, will you, boyo?'
Boyo, Joe had learned from Starbright, wasn't a racist put-down but a term of familiarity in Welsh-speak. He passed the wrench and would have liked to discover whether it was just the festival or Llanffugiol itself Nye hadn't heard of, which would be odd as Merv had assured them they were only half an hour's drive away. But Merv was lurking menacingly and an enquiry could have sounded like a vote of no confidence in his navigation, so Joe held his peace.
It took almost an hour for Nye to finish and another ten minutes to tot up his bill. Merv looked at it and indulged in an intake of breath so sharp that in another it would have merited a very severe whipping from Percy.
A full and frank discussion followed with Joe as arbiter. Finally forced to admit the justice of the claims, Merv produced his clincher.
'Don't carry that kind of cash,' he said, producing his wallet to demonstrate its leanness. 'Joe, we'll need a whip-round.'
Joe, imagining Aunt Mirabelle's reaction if he went to her with a collection plate, shook his head firmly.
'It's your coach, Merv,' he said.
'It's your choir,' retorted Merv.
For a moment, deadlock. Then Nye broke it by reaching forward to pluck a credit card from the open wallet.
'Plastic's fine,' he said.
On the passenger seat of his van was a credit-card machine and a camera. As Merv with ill grace signed the counterfoil, Nye snapped him, then again full face as he looked up, and finally he took a couple of the coach after cleaning the dust from the numberplate.
'Souvenirs,' he said. 'I like to remember my customers.'
'Hope that card's good, Merv,' said Joe, as they watched the van hiccup into the distance,
'Makes no matter,' said Merv evilly. "Cos I'm going to run that squat little bastard off the road when I overtake him. Everyone aboard! Let's get this wagon train a 'rolling.'
It was now early evening with the sun lipping the western hills and curls of mist patterning the surface of the stream.
'How far to go, Mr Golightly?' enquired Rev. Pot as he climbed aboard.
'Fifteen, twenty miles, maybe a little more,' said Merv vaguely.
The Reverend Percy Potemkin had not spent half a lifetime curing souls without developing a sharp ear for human vaguenesses. But he was not a man to rush to judgement. His gaze met Joe's and asked for confirmation that this lack of precision was merely a form of speech. Joe loyally gave an optimistic smile. But he knew that if his friend had a fault, it was his reluctance to admit the possibility of anything being wrong till the trout came belly up in the milk churn.
At least the engine had a sweeter sound now. Someone started a chorus of 'To Be a Pilgrim', but their hearts weren't in it and after a while most of the travellers settled down to inner contemplation or sleep.
Joe studied his information sheet. Llanffugiol, it told him, was a substantial village which in recent years had become the focal point of musical life in this area of rural Wales. This was its very first Choral Festival so there was no list of previous winners, but there was an impressive roll-call of top choirs which had been invited to take part. It was a bit less impressive if you studied the small print and worked out those which had actually accepted at the time the info sheet was sent out, but it still contained enough first-class opposition, like the German Guttenberg Singverein, to make this a tough competition. But Boyling Corner's triumph three years in a row at the Bed and Bucks Choriad had clearly given the chapel choir the beginnings of a national reputation which they were determined to live up to. As Rev. Pot said, 'We sing for the Lord not for glory, but if the Lord fancies a bit of glory thrown in, who are we to argue?'
Their accommodation was in the dormitories of Branddreth College, a boys' boarding school a couple of miles out of Llanffugiol. There was a sketch map showing the relation of the college to the village, but nothing to relate the area to the outside world. Written directions had been sent and these were now in Merv's possession, so all should have been straightforward, but Joe's heart misgave him when he recalled Merv's cavalier attitude to route-finding in his taxi. During daylight hours he used the sun, at night the stars, and when the weather was overcast, he fell back on instinct. 'Salmon and swallows do it every year,' he said. 'And if man's no better than fish or fowl, he's got no right to be organizing the World Cup.'
Well, it would be instinct tonight, thought Joe, glancing out of the window.
Darkness was falling fast, accelerated by the mist which had long since escaped from the river and was now printing its bloomy patterns on the outside of the glass.
Merv's threat to the wellbeing of Nye Garage had proved empty as, despite the apparent debility of his van, they hadn't overtaken it. Indeed, they hadn't seen anybody to overtake or be overtaken by for over an hour, which was just as well as the roads seemed to be getting narrower and narrower.
Suddenly the coach halted. In the headlights through the mist it was just possible to see a triple parting of the ways. There was a signpost, and Joe's heart, always a buoyant organ, rose sharply as he made out the letters Llan. Merv got out with his flashlight to take a closer look and Joe joined him. It was crash-dive time again. True, each of the three arms pointed to somewhere beginning with Llan but none of them was Llanffugiol.
'Merv, don't you think it's time to look at a map?'
'Been looking at a sodding map for the past half-hour,' said Merv, like an atheist admitting to prayer. 'Trouble is, none of the funny names on the sodding map match any of the funny names on these sodding signposts!'
'What you going to do then?'
'Take the middle one till we reach the place mentioned then consult the natives,' he said. Then, his irrepressible optimism returning, he added, 'Maybe there'll be a pub!'
He climbed back in the coach and called, 'Not long now, folks.'
'So he knows where we are?' said Beryl as Joe returned to his seat.
'Don't think so,' said Joe.
'Don't think so? Joe, isn't it time you got on that phone of yours and rang someone to ask for directions?'
'Yeah, maybe. Only you can't ask for directions less'n you know where you are. Soon as we reach this village we're heading for, I'll give it a go.'
But no village appeared. The coach was now full of anxious and mutinous muttering. Rev. Pot went up the aisle and started talking to Merv. Joe knew it was strictly none of his business, but an accusatory glance from Aunt Mirabelle sent him to join the debate, which was getting so heated that Merv brought the bus to a halt in order to bring both arms to the discussion.
'Well, whose fault is it, then?' Rev. Pot was demanding. 'You're the driver.'
'That's right, I'm the driver. I just follow directions. You know so much, why don't you tell me where to go, Reverend?'
'If I wasn't a man of the cloth, I might just do that, brother,' thundered Rev. Pot.
Out of the corner of his eye, Joe thought he glimpsed a light moving way to his left. He blinked. Yes, there it was. Looked like a single headlight. On a tractor maybe. Some farmer out working late. Maybe some crops were best gathered at night. Joe was a little vague on matters agricultural.
Joe turned to the disputants and said, 'Why don't we ask that guy?'
'That guy ... where's he gone?'
The light had vanished.
'You seeing things now, Joe?' said Merv sceptically.
'No, I'm not. I'll go talk to him.'
He grabbed the flashlight Merv carried under the dash and got out of the coach. It was so dark and alien out there, he felt like he'd just been beamed down from the Enterprise. Hastily he switched on his light. That was better. Still alien but not so dark. There was a gate into the field where he'd seen the light. He unlatched it and stepped into what felt like a bog. Did the Welsh grow rice? He shone the torch down and saw it was a pungent mixture of mud and cow dung.
'Oh shoot,' he said. But he wasn't going to retreat. He reasoned all the farmer had done was switch off his light and engine till the coach went on its way. Reason? Maybe he was shy.
He aimed the beam forward and squinted along it. Nothing but its light reflected from the drifting mist wraiths. Then his straining eyes glimpsed something more solid. A shape. A sort of vehicle shape. He'd been right.
He began to move forward. As he got nearer he saw that it wasn't a tractor after all, but one of those farm buggies with the big tyres. But before he could take in any detail, the headlight blossomed again, full in his face, dazzling.
'Hi there,' he called, shielding his eyes. 'Sorry to trouble you but we're a bit lost. Wondered if you could give us some directions.'
Silence. Then a muffled voice said, 'Where to?'
'Place called Llanffugiol,' said Joe. 'Where the Choir Festival is.'
'Never heard of it,' said the voice.
The buggy's engine burst into life and it started moving forward. For a second, Joe thought it was going to go straight over him, then it swung away in a semicircle and bounced off into the mist.
He raised his flashlight and for a second caught the driver's back full in its beam. Long narrow body in a black fleecy jacket. Matching narrow head, bald or close-shaven, could have passed for that guy who played the King of Siam in the old musical. Maybe I should've tried singing 'Getting to Know You', thought Joe.
Then the mist closed behind him.
Joe returned to the coach. He tried to dean his shoes on the grass verge, but the smell of the countryside came in with him and he didn't have any good news to compensate.
Merv rolled his eyes heavenwards as if the farmer's response was Joe's fault, engaged gear noisily and set the coach rolling forward along the narrow road once more.
Even Rev. Pot seemed to have forgotten his duty of Christian charity.
'Now that's real helpful, Joe,' he said sarcastically. 'So what's your guess? I mean, just how many miles away do you think we are if folk round here haven't even heard of the place?'
'Half a mile's a long way in the country,' said Joe, his anti-rural prejudices now in full cry. 'These natives probably never been out of their own village.'
Rev. Pot gave him a glance which had he been in the exorcism business would have cast Joe back into the outer darkness, no problem.
Then Merv said, 'Hang about. Look, that has to be civilization.'
He was looking ahead. The mist was of the ground-clinging variety which occasionally permitted glimpses of treetops while their bases were hidden at ten paces. Joe saw what had caught Merv's eye. There was a distinct glow in the sky, the kind of light which could only come from a substantial settlement.
The road ahead rose steeply and as the coach laboured up it, the mist began to fall away behind and the glow increased. Then they reached the crest and saw its source was much closer than they'd imagined.
Far from being a substantial settlement, it was a solitary house. And the reason it was casting such light was it was on fire.
Merv ran the coach through an open gate and came to a halt some thirty yards from the building. Joe got out. Even from this distance he could feel the heat.
The others crowded round him.
It wasn't his charisma that attracted them, it was his phone.
'Better ring for help,' said Beryl.
He pulled out the mobile. Someone said, 'You see that?' and pointed.
On the side of a small outbuilding someone had sprayed the words, ENGLISH GO HOME!
'This the welcome they keep in the hillside?' said Merv.
Joe stabbed 999.
'Shoot,' he said. 'Not getting anything.'
'Wouldn't say that,' said Merv. 'Best service I've ever seen.'
A car had come up behind the bus at speed and a uniformed police sergeant got out and came running to join them. Had a look of that Welsh movie actor who kept on getting married to Liz Taylor, thought Joe. The voice too.
'What the hell's going on here?' he demanded.
Merv, never one to miss the chance of sending up a copper, said, 'Could be a millennium bonfire, got the dates wrong.'
The cop ignored him. His face expressed a strange mixture of anger and bafflement. Might look like Richard Burton but he was far from word perfect in his role, which was to take charge of the situation, thought Joe. He punched 999 once more.
Beryl said, 'Joe, have you forgotten to switch on again?'
Now the cop found his lines.
'Leave this to me,' he snapped. 'And move back, will you? Now!'
He ran back to his car, presumably to call up help.
Joe examined his phone. Beryl was right. Again. He smiled sheepishly at her. He didn't mind being wrong. You got used to it. And it was nice that now he could relax and enjoy the fire without feeling he had to do anything about it.
Then Beryl screamed, 'Joe, there's someone in there!'
And looking up along the line indicated by her pointing finger, Joe saw the black outline of a human figure against the dark-red glow in one of the upstairs windows.
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