DYING ART


Chapter One

Dylan was a lot of things but, unfortunately, in demand wasn’t one of them. So when his office phone trilled out for the first time in three days, his list of possible callers was topped by salesman. Client didn’t even make the top ten.

He picked it up. “Hello?”

“You’ve got a customer.” Tracy’s words were punctuated by the clack of the gum she was constantly chewing. She always looked and sounded bored out of her skull. Magazines crammed with lies about celebrities littered the reception desk on the ground floor where she worked and, occasionally, she’d flick through them. One afternoon, Dylan had seen her polishing her nails. Usually, though, she was like a corpse. “She’s on her way up.”

“Does she have a name?”

“I didn’t ask.”

“Okay. Thanks, Tracy.”

“You’re welcome.” Another clack of gum and thephone was dead.

A client would be more than welcome, but he wasn’t raising his hopes. Even if this woman was here on business, she’d probably want him to snoop on her two- timing spouse. He wasn’t desperate enough to sink to surveillance work. Yet.

The click of heels on the stairs alerted him to her imminent arrival. He took a couple of files from his desk drawer to give the impression he was busy, left his desk and walked to the door.

He had it open when she reached it. There was something familiar about the short blond hair, the tall willowy figure dressed in a clinging black skirt and jacket—

“Dylan!” She lunged forward, threw her arms around his neck, nuzzled her face against his and croaked something he didn’t catch.

He let go of the door and it crashed against his elbow.Shit! That hurt.

He leaned back to look at her, so far back that he was in danger of losing his balance. “Maddie?”

Madeleine Murphy. The girl with the crazy name and the legs that went on forever. The most stunningly beautiful woman he’d ever had the pleasure of sleeping with. The euphemism mocked him. Sleep was about the only thing they hadn’t done together.

“I’m so glad I found you, Dylan.”

“Madeleine—” He guessed the last person to call her Madeleine had been the vicar who christened her. It sounded forced. Foolish. He cleared his throat and tried to inject a brisk businesslike tone to his voice. Why he needed to sound businesslike, he had no idea. He just did. “Well, Maddie, it’s good to see you.”

“You too. It’s been far too long.” She clung even tighter. Her perfume smelled of fruit—apple or lemon. Or maybe flowers. “I wondered if you’d remember me.”

No one who’d enjoyed a relationship with Maddie would forget her in a hurry. She’d changed, but who hadn’t? She’d always been reed-thin, probably too thin,but her face hadn’t been this pale. There was no sign of the vibrancy he remembered.

“Of course I remember you.” He pushed the memories away and tried to move out of her embrace.

“You look well,” she said, holding both his hands and running her appraising gaze from the top of his head to the tips of his shoes. Before he could comment, she put a hand against his midriff. “And you’ve still got the six-pack.”

A smile curved his lips and he was pleased he’d sucked in a breath. Even though her touch had been brief, he could still feel the warm imprint of her hand through his shirt.

He was a practising atheist but, that morning, he’d asked any superior beings who might be listening if he could, just for once, have a good day. Perhaps someone had been paying attention after all.

He eased his hands out of hers, removed his jacket and slung it over the back of his chair. He needed to put some distance between them before he spontaneously combusted. Or something similar. The office felt a good twenty degrees hotter than usual.

“So what brings you here, Maddie?” His head was a jumble of memories but he kept his voice and his smile casual.

“Prue.” She spoke as if the name should mean something to him. It didn’t. “You remember Prue, don’t you?” Before he could answer, she said, “Perhaps you don’t. You only met her a couple of times.”

Prue. The name seemed familiar, but Maddie had been popular and usually surrounded by a crowd of bright, beautiful friends. Popular wasn’t the right word perhaps. She’d been surrounded by people, yes,but many had been too in awe of her to be classed as friends.

“You must remember that Halloween party we went to,” she said. “Prue was there. She spent the entire evening with some nerd who was telling her his evolution theories. Everyone else had the good sense to avoid him but she said she didn’t want to be rude.”

“Prue—” A memory surfaced. Another blond head, this one belonging to a younger girl. “Your sister?”

“Yes.”

“She was the one dressed as a witch because you’d forgotten to tell her the fancy dress idea had been cancelled?” He could remember wondering for days if Maddie really had forgotten or if it had been her idea of a joke. It was funny how some memories stayed with you.

Maddie smiled. “Yes, that’s her. She insisted on leaving with us to get away from that awful man. We had to take her home.”

And they’d been desperate to get to bed. Or to the kitchen. Or anywhere they could indulge in hot sex without fear of being arrested.

Her gaze locked with his and he wondered if her thoughts had travelled the same path.

Maddie sat across the desk from him, long legs crossed elegantly. She was a year younger than him, which put her at thirty-nine.

The knowledge that he was forty hit him with its usual force. Forty. People said that’s when life began. They were wrong. But Maddie—yes, she had to be thirty-nine and, Christ, she looked nowhere near that. She’d sure as hell worn well. Prue, if memory served him correctly, was younger, probably about thirty-five.

“She’s dead. Prue’s dead.”

“Dead? But she was only—”

“Thirty-four.”

“How did she die?”

Maddie stared at her shoes for so long that Dylandidn’t think she was going to answer. Perhaps she needed a few moments.

“Start at the beginning,” he suggested. “How did you find me? Why are you here?”

Maddie took a breath. “Prue was living up north, in Dawson’s Clough to be precise.”

Dylan suppressed a sigh. The next time he conversed with superior beings, he’d remember to impress upon them that Dawson’s Clough, with its old mill chimneys set against a backdrop of bleak moors, didn’t figure in his idea of a good day. That bloody northern town would forever haunt him. “I know it.” Too well.

“So I gather. The police called me when she was—when she was killed.”

She hadn’t mentioned the killed part.

“I went up there and had to stay in a hotel because her house was—” Maddie took a long breath. “The police were still there and her house was a crime scene. I was reading through a local newspaper at the hotel, and there was an article about a woman who’d gone missing. People thought she’d taken off and abandoned her daughter—”

“Anita Champion?”

“Yes. That’s her. The article mentioned a private investigator called Dylan Scott and I wondered if it was you. It’s not a very common name, is it?”

“Not particularly.”

“I looked you up on the internet,” she said, “andfound this office. I was going to phone but I thought it would be quicker—easier—to call in.”

He wished she’d phoned. That way, he could have taken out his memories, dusted them off and enjoyed them, and packed them safely away again.

“You have to help me, Dylan. I won’t rest until I know what happened to Prue.”

“What do you mean? What did happen?”

“Three weeks ago, on the Friday night, she phoned me. She sounded—tense, nervous. She said she needed to talk to Tim and me. I told her to stop being such a drama queen, but she refused to say anything over the phone and said she’d come down to London the next morning on the early train.” Maddie brushed an imaginary speck from her skirt. “She never came. She was dead.”

“How?”

“The police—” Her lips tightened. “The police say she disturbed a burglar. They claim she fell or was pushed down the stairs, and they don’t know which. They do know that she hit her head on a table.”

“And you think the police have messed up?”

“Yes. I told them over and over about that phone call and how she had things on her mind, but they took no notice.”

“So what do you think happened?”

“I have no idea.” She ran her thumb along a perfectly painted fingernail. “I just know that it’s all—wrong. When she called me, she sounded nervous. Frightened too. I know there was something wrong, that’s all. She never wants—wanted to talk. We hadn’t had heart-to- hearts since I told her Santa didn’t exist. I was worriedabout her and the next thing I knew, she was dead. Murdered.”

Maddie left her seat and took the one opposite Dylan’s desk. She was so close that he could smell her perfume again. “God, it’s good to see you again,” she said.

“You too. How are you? Well, apart from—you know.”

“Oh, I’m okay.” She gave him another of those smiles. “After we broke up, my modelling career really took off. I’m still doing a bit. Of course, at my age, it’s nothing too exciting. I’ve done a couple of TV adverts recently for anti-ageing creams targeted at the fifty-plus woman.”

“Really? That’s great. And you—you look great.” She looked a million times better than great. If asked, Dylan would have said he preferred more curves on his women but there was something about Maddie. There always had been.

“All thanks to living on a treadmill.” Her smile faded and she ran her fingers through her hair as if she didn’t have time for these social niceties. “What about you?” She lifted his left hand and touched his wedding ring. “So there’s a Mrs. Scott?”

“Yes. I have a wife and two kids. A boy and a girl.”

“It looks as if life has treated you well.”

“I can’t complain.” He could, but there wasn’t anypoint. “I worked my way up to detective sergeant and found myself on an assault charge after some piece of scum claimed I used unreasonable force when I arrested him. I ended up in prison, got kicked off the force, and now—” He gestured to his new office. “Now I’m a private investigator of sorts.”

“Of sorts?”

“It’s okay. I was forced into it really, but yeah, it’s okay.”

“It looks lucrative.”

Lucrative was one way of describing it, albeit a totally inaccurate one, and boring was another. If he received one more call asking him to check on the fidelity or otherwise of a spouse, he’d get himself a job counting holes in the road. In comparison, it would be a thrill a minute.

There was no doubt though that his new office gave the impression that he was a high-flying, successful investigator that no one in their right mind could afford not to employ. The office had been Bev’s idea. “You’ve got the flashy website,” she’d said, “so you need the flashy office to match. I, for one, wouldn’t employ someone who didn’t even own a proper office. I’ll have a look round...”

This one had appealed to her because of the swanky address. The fact that it had rental fees to match hadn’t bothered her at all. On the contrary, she’d soon been out buying furniture. His black desk had a red leather covering. There was a chair behind his desk, one opposite and two for guests. All were red leather and chrome in a contemporary design. The carpet was a very pale smoky grey and the walls cream. The aroma of fresh gloss paint was coming from a small kitchen.

It was a good office. Convenient. All he had to do now was find enough work to pay for it.

“So what do you want me to do?” he asked, getting his head into work mode.

One thing was certain, he wasn’t going to Dawson’s Clough. He had nothing against the place, except that itwas up north and, consequently, always bloody freezing cold and wet, but he simply didn’t want to be driving that distance and living out of a suitcase.

“I want you to find out what happened to Prue.”

She made it sound so simple. Now he came to think of it, she’d always suffered from a touch of hero-worship. Way back then, she’d thought there was nothing he couldn’t do. Their relationship had been wonderful for his ego.

“But if she died in Dawson’s Clough, you’d do better to employ someone local to the area,” he said.

“You’ve worked up there before.” She pouted and gave him a winning smile. “I want you to do it, Dylan.”

“I’d love to help, but—” He should get rid of her now. It would be easy enough to claim pressure of work, too many other cases to deal with. “Tell me about Prue.”

“There’s not much to tell. She rented a small house in Dawson’s Clough. God knows why she chose to live there. She liked the idea of living by the moors, shesaid.”

Dylan knew those hills well, too bloody well. Onthe rare occasions the sun chose to shine, they could be stunningly beautiful. Most of the time they were bleak, lonely, forbidding places.

“She said properties to rent were cheaper and more plentiful.” Maddie’s expression called her sister all sorts of a fool. “She was always broke. She designed and made jewellery, and tried to sell it. I suppose she sold a few pieces, I don’t know. And now she’s dead.”

That told him nothing.

He stood to gaze out the window at the street below. A few hardy customers braved the tables outside the coffee shop opposite. They huddled deep inside theircoats and smoked. Other people strode along the street quickly to keep a gnawing March wind at bay. Above, the sky was clear and blue.

“Tell me from the beginning,” he said. “When I met her, she was still at school, wasn’t she?”

“I suppose she must have been.” Maddie seemed surprised by that. “When she left, she spent a year at college studying art and design and then took off to see Europe. She was—well, I always thought she was part gypsy. She couldn’t settle in one place. She thought it would be great to work her way round Spain and Italy. Perhaps it was. She always seemed happy enough. She’d pick grapes or wait on tables and spend her free time soaking up the culture. She did it for years and finally ended up in France.”

“How recently are we talking?”

“She left France a couple of months ago. No, more than that. It was November, so four months. I was surprised when she came back because she seemed settled there. We visited her once—she’d got this tiny flat in Paris that you had to climb about fourteen flights of stairs to get to.”

Dylan smiled inwardly. He’d forgotten Maddie’s penchant for exaggeration. “Who’s we?”

“Tim and me. Tim’s my husband. Second husband. I’m Maddie Chandler now.”

“Ah.”

“We only spent two nights there,” she said. “We’d been promising to visit for ages, but could never find time. You know how it is. But we went one weekend and she seemed happy enough. God knows why. Waiting on tables twenty-three hours a day isn’t fun, is it? Idon’t know how she stood it, but she did. That was last year. September.”

She stood, kicked off her shoes, which reduced her considerable height by around five inches, and paced a circle of the office. Then she walked to stand behind him and look out the window.

“I don’t know what happened. All I know is that she rang me in a right state, obviously bothered about something, and then she was killed. It’s all too coincidental.”

Coincidental. That word rang in Dylan’s ears. He hated coincidences. He’d go so far as to say they didn’t exist when it came to crime. “Who found her?”

“The police.” Every time she used the word police, her tone was scoffing. “I’d gone to meet her at the station and, when she didn’t turn up, I tried to call her. I tried landline and mobile, but I couldn’t get hold of her. I wasn’t worried because I assumed she’d calmed down, decided she didn’t need to talk as urgently as she had the night before, and would phone me to make alternative arrangements. I was bloody annoyed though. It was typical of her to make arrangements and not turn up.”

“Then what happened?”

“Thankfully, I could remember her neighbour’s name, Jane Cook, so I rang her. We visited Prue just before Christmas and Jane’s cat was in the house. He used to wander inside Prue’s house and make himself at home. Well, he would, wouldn’t he? Prue used to make a fuss of him. Anyway, I found Jane’s phone number and called her. She said she’d pass on my message when she saw Prue and tell her to call me back. All I wanted was to give Prue a piece of my mind. The way she makes arrangements—made arrangements,” she corrected herself, “only to let someone down was bloody infuriating. It was all right for her but some of us had other demands on our time.”

“Go on,” he said.

“Jane started to worry so she went round to ring the doorbell and saw that the house was in a mess. Furniture had been knocked over and there were papers everywhere. She was scared so she called the police. They found Prue lying at the bottom of the stairs. She was wearing a pair of pink pyjamas.” Her voice cracked on that last statement.

Still standing behind him, she put her hand on his shoulder. “You will help me, won’t you, Dylan?”

He couldn’t answer that. “What was stolen?” he asked instead.

“Nothing that we know of. It was a job to tell as everything was in such a mess. The TV and DVD player were still there. They’re worth nothing though. She probably bought them secondhand from eBay. Her computer hadn’t been touched, but again, it was old. There was a bit of cash lying on the kitchen table too.”

A thief who didn’t steal anything was a new one on Dylan. “Why are the police so sure it was a burglar?”

“They claim the same thing has happened at otherproperties. The way he broke in, I mean, and the mess he made. And because no one could give them a full inventory of Prue’s possessions, they said—quite rightly, I suppose—that anything could have been stolen.”

Dylan nodded at the truth of that.

She moved her hand from his shoulder, walked another circuit of the office and then sat opposite him again. She put her elbows on the desk and rested her chin on her fists. “Something’s wrong. I’m convinced of it.”

He could see that. He also believed that the police must have some facts of which she wasn’t aware. They wouldn’t pin this crime on an unfortunate burglar if they weren’t sure of their facts.

Yeah, right. Just like they wouldn’t throw a detective sergeant with a promising career ahead of him in a cell on the word of a piece of scum with a record as long as the M1.

“What’s the situation now?” he asked. “With the police, I mean. What are they doing?”

“Nothing. Well, they’re continuing their hunt for this burglar because he’s wanted in connection with several other cases, and they’ll let me know as soon as they find him. They’ve released Prue’s body, finally, and we’re burying her on Tuesday.”

She reached for her bag, hunted inside for a tissue and, instead of blowing her nose on it, seemed content to sit and shred it so that white flecks dropped to the new carpet.

“The funeral’s being held in Dawson’s Clough,” she said. “Of course, that’s wrong. Mum and Dad were upset so it was left to me to arrange. I thought that, as she’d chosen to live in Dawson’s Clough, she’d want to be buried there. Now that I’ve made all the arrangements, Mum’s decided she wanted her brought back to London.” She shrugged. “It’s too late now though and at least Tim agreed with me. He said it would be easier all round. Anyway, I don’t suppose it’s important. She’s gone, isn’t she? Her spirit’s gone. All we’re doing is burying skin and bones.” She looked at him, huge blue eyes seeking reassurance.

“It depends on which particular god you worship,” he said.

She grabbed his hand. “Will you come? Will you at least come to the funeral? Have a look round her house, talk to people and see what you think?”

He hesitated. It was time to say that there was no way until hell froze over that he would drive all the way to bloody Lancashire. Her sister was dead and he was sorry, but there was no point in his getting involved. Lancashire CID were on the case. They were perfectly capable of getting to the bottom of it.

“For me?” She squeezed his hand. “For old times’ sake? Please.”







Shirley Wells 2016