Work in Progress

Although I frequently decide to concentrate only on one book at a time, I inevitably find myself with more ideas than I need, so end up with several works in progress. At the moment, I’m busy with several new books, including book 5 in the Terry Bell Mysteries:

Obscured by a row of Scots pines along the edge of the property, I didn’t see the house itself until I hit the bend in the long driveway and the parallel rows of low hedges that ran along either side. Though I’ve learned not to leap to conclusions, West House wasn’t what I’d expected—I’d assumed from my telephone conversation with Karen Benton she’d live in a detached cottage that had probably seen better days. Her Geordie accent suggested that, like me, she’d grown up in the Bay and had no reason to put on airs.

This place, however, made Carol’s flat look like a garden shed. Converted from an old barn, it lay on the outskirts of Earsdon, reminding me of my last visit to Amita Kohli’s house a couple of months earlier. On that occasion I’d given an explanation for her husband’s death that left out several pertinent facts. I hoped this case wouldn’t turn out the same way.

Pulling up at what I guessed must be the front door, I’d barely climbed out of the car when Karen Benton appeared in the doorway. I recognised her because she looked completely different to what I’d imagined.

“Mr Bell?” She walked down the steps, right hand extended towards me.

“Ms Benton,” I said, wondering if the extra-firm handshake might be one of those phoney gestures intended to elicit a positive response in the recipient. Then again, maybe I’d been reading too many of Carol’s psychology books.

“Just Karen. Come on in.”

I followed her into an enormous hallway where several doors led off at each side. A floor-to-ceiling window showed a well-manicured rear garden that looked as if it might stretch right across to the Pennines.

We went through one of the doors on the right and she waved at me to take a seat.

While she went through the rigmarole of coffee/cake? etc, I took a closer look at her. The short dark hair, pre-faded Levi’s and Def Leppard T-Shirt suggested she’d made the effort to look ordinary amid opulent surroundings. I watched her pour the coffee and settle into the white-leather armchair opposite me. Clasping her hands in her lap, she gave me a tight smile.

“Ah’ve heard good things about you, Terry.” She inclined her head. “Okay if Ah call you that?”

“Of course. What can I do for you?”

She took a breath and looked at the floor. Her fingers clenched, making the knuckles glow white. “Thirty years ago, my little brother disappeared. Police thought he’d been abducted, but they never found any trace of him. Eventually we accepted that he must be dead.” She swallowed hard. “At least, me mam an dad did. Ah never really believed it.”

“Thirty years is a long time.”

She nodded. “Yes. Which is why Ah know this is going to sound a bit mad. Ah want you to find him.”

“Ye mean find out what happened to him?”

“No. Ah mean find him. He’s still alive.”

I found myself trying to come up with excuses to make a rapid exit before she got completely out of her tree.

“Ah know he’s alive…” Crossing to a small table by the window, she opened a small decorative box. Passing me the contents, she sat down and watched me carefully.

The note had been written on a page of notepaper, likely extracted from a notebook, maybe six inches by four. The page showed the remnants of the holes down one side where it had been ripped from the book’s wire-bound spine.

I looked at the short message. “I’m still here,” I muttered, half to myself. But that’s not what prompted my guts to do a double somersault. The roughly drawn skull and crossbones in the right-hand corner hit me like a steam train. I’d seen the same sketch a hundred times before but at some point over the years, must have erased all memory of it.

Karen leaned forwards. “Ah knew ye wouldn’t remember me, but, Ah didn’t randomly pick your name out of the phone book—Ah picked you because ye knew my brother. Because ye were his best mate.”

I blinked, recalling the dark-haired teenager with the gangly arms and lop-sided mouth. “You blame me for Barry going missing?”

“Ah did at the time. An to be honest, Ah still do. So Ah want ye to put things right. Ah want ye to find my little brother.”

I sat back, mouth open, throat like sandpaper. I coughed, trying to clear my airways. “Is this all you have?”

She shrugged. “According to the newspapers, ye’re very good at investigatin stuff—ye shouldn’t need anything else. But as it happens, no, that’s not all.” She retraced her steps to the wooden box and took out another slip of notepaper.

Like the first one, this also had three words scrawled across it: Find Terry Bell.

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