Christmas and New Year are behind us, Easter is three months away and the summer holidays are so distant, it doesn’t bear thinking about.
Or does it?
Here’s a little treat for you. The entire first chapter of the next Sanford 3rd Age Club Mystery, working title A Healthier Murder.
This thing is so new, even my editor hasn’t seen it yet so it comes complete with typos. And to dispel the murk and gloom of a wet Sunday in January, it’s set on the sunny island of Tenerife, in a Spa Hotel. I’m not going to tell you any more than that, so read on.
“Your neck muscles feel tight, señorita. Perhaps you need help to ease the tension.”
On hearing Pep Pischke’s mellifluous, persuasive voice Brenda Jump opened her eyes, raised her Ray Bans and turning her head slightly to the right, looked along the line of occupied sun loungers to where Pep, his tight-fitting, white T-shirt hugging the fine contours of his upper body, and his bared arms glistening in the sub-tropical sunlight, was already testing the muscles of the woman’s shoulders.
Brenda could not see who the woman was, but there were only three targets for Pep’s proactive attentions. According to the rules of the Aphrodite Spa Hotel, guests were supposed to approach staff for their various services, amongst which was Pep’s massage. But when it came to his three favourites, he was happy to break those rules and initiate proceedings.
“What time, Pep?”
Readily identifying the voice as that of Davina Trimble, Brenda nudged Sheila Riley, on the lounger to her left, and kept her voice to a low whisper. “Looks like Davina’s up for it… again
Raising her own Ray Bans, Sheila leaned her head forward to look past Brenda. Bringing her gaze back to her friend, she asked, “Jealous?”
“That’ll be the day when I need young bucks like him hitting on me.” Brenda turned her attention back to the Pep/Davina conversation.
“For you, señorita, it is any time. Now if you wish.”
Brenda watched Davina’s legs swing off the lounger, and the woman herself, a dumpy forty-something with a mop of untidy red hair, sat up, drawing a white, towelling robe around her pale blue swimsuit.
Brenda dipped into her bag, dug out her wristwatch and read 10:25. “Too early in the day for horizontal exercise.”
Sheila chuckled. “Really, Brenda, for all you know, it could be entirely innocent and in keeping with the hotel’s health and fitness services.”
“Yes, and I could find out I’ve won the lottery jackpot when I get home.”
They had arrived at the Aphrodite less than forty-eight hours ago, and with her usual skill at getting on with and getting to know people, Brenda had already learned a lot about their fellow guests. Although his English was perfect, Pep had an accent which was not Spanish, but which Sheila had insisted was more Russian. Davina, it turned out, was a novelist.
“I write erotica,” she had told them over drinks in the cocktail bar that first evening.
“Erotica? She must be working from memory,” Brenda had commented when Davina wandered off.
Situated on a rocky headland on the southernmost coast of Tenerife, on the boundary between Playa de Las Américas and Los Christianos, the Aphrodite Spa Hotel was one of the most exclusive on the island. As a consequence, it was also one of the most expensive as their friend and employer, Joe Murray, had pointed out when he first booked and paid for it.
A large, low-rise complex of apartments, with its own private beach, it offered peace and quiet, an air of seclusion from the boisterous streets of Las Américas. Guests were as pampered as they wanted, or left alone to enjoy the balmy, subtropical Canary Islands climate, as much as they demanded. Healthy eating and physical fitness were high on the hotel’s priorities, but never pressed upon the affluent guests. At the prices the Aphrodite charged, guest could be as active or indolent as they wished.
The place was a favourite with minor celebrities, and before she learned what Davina did for a living, Brenda had already notched up two TV actresses, a retired footballer, a lifestyle guru and a young woman who claimed to be a minor aristocrat and a millionaire drone.
“And that millionaire could drone to me for hours on end and I wouldn’t get bored,” Brenda had said to Sheila, who responded with her usual, good-hearted and humorous disapproval.
The idea of a week at the Aphrodite had come from Denise Latham, and insurance investigator and Joe’s current lady friend. Having been jailed on suspicion of murder, then having his flat burned down by the real culprit, Joe had been under severe strain throughout the summer, and Denise suggested the Aphrodite as a stressbuster. Joe eventually agreed, but insisted that Brenda and Sheila come along.
“They’re my oldest and most trusted friends. They’ve been through the mill just as much as I have, and they need a break, too.”
From Brenda’s point of view, it was an incredibly generous gesture, but Joe had taken time out to explain the full situation.
“When the cops walled me up, there was a bit of a downturn in business, but when they let me go, it really boosted The Lazy Luncheonette and we’ve been making good profits ever since. You two and Denise stood by me, so you deserve it.”
Two months later, the third week in September saw them fly out from Leeds Bradford airport in heavy rain, to land four and half hours later in glorious, afternoon sunshine. And two days later, Joe was doing as he had been advised. Even now, barely half past ten in the morning, after a hearty, unhealthy full English breakfast at a nearby café, he lay spark out on his sun lounger, the other side of Sheila and Denise, his Oakley sunglasses covering his eyes, sound asleep.
Watching the tall and muscular Pep amble away from the pool with the much shorter and chubbier Davina alongside him, Brenda noticed that the brief interlude caused Mags Godwin to raise her sunglasses, too, and watch the pair walk towards the hotel.
Mags, Brenda had learned, was a minor actress who had made brief appearances in a number of popular TV shows and soaps without making a serious dent on the national consciousness. In her late forties, with a head of blonde hair set perfectly and expensively into place, she ensured everyone knew she was due to audition for a major role in a new soap, and had come to the Aphrodite in order to ‘tone herself up’ in preparation for both the audition and the lengthy filming schedules when she landed the part. Brenda guessed that her confidence, bordering on arrogance, was a front prompted by her fiercest rival, Felicity Strum, who also happened to be staying at the Aphrodite.
A little older than Mags, Felicity was also blonde, also arrogant, but a little curvier and more alluring than her competitor, and while the two women greeted each other with civility and courtesy, they were out of earshot of each other, they made no bones about their intense and mutual dislike.
The two actresses formed the other corners of Pep’s favoured triangle, and it was interesting to Brenda to see the look of naked envy on Mags’ face when Pep led Davina from the poolside. Felicity was nowhere to be seen, but Brenda had no doubts that the same jealousy would burn through her if she noticed the couple.
“Stretching my legs,” Brenda said, and stood up.
With a glance at Joe and Denise, both sleeping, Sheila also rolled from the lounger. “I’ll come with you.”
They ambled around the smallest of three swimming pools, crossed a palm-shaded terrace and leaned on the low wall overlooking the beach and ocean beyond.
“Perfect peace,” Sheila murmured, and Brenda silently agreed.
Either side of the Aphrodite’s private beach, the sands were crowded with holidaymakers taking in the ultraviolet or playing in the gentle shallows, but there were few people in the fenced off area immediately below them, and those few were sleeping or sunbathing. A couple of hundred yards to their right, the ocean could be seen frothing against rocks, but here on this private stretch of sand, the waters of the Atlantic, glittering and sparkling in the morning sun, lapped softly against the shore. A soft, warm breeze whispered to them, the sunlight warmed their skin, and out on the ocean, they could see a cruise liner, and closer to them, the hydrofoil ferry, making its way to the island of La Gomera, twenty miles to the west. It was an idyll.
“A far cry from Sanford,” Brenda said, agreeing with her friend.
“Good morning, ladies. And a beautiful morning, what?”
The parody of Bertie Wooster caused them to turn and look upon the owner of the voice.
Between them, Sheila and Brenda had already decided there was much that was false about John St John. The plummy, upper class accent did not sound quite true, the potted history of his time at Eton was too vague to pin down with any accuracy when he attended one of the most famous school in Great Britain.
Over six feet tall, a head of dark, neatly combed hair over a boyish, permanently smiling and enthusiastic face, he was probably in his md-forties, and a self-confessed idler. “I toil not and neither do I spin. I simply travel the world having a deuced good time.”
And again, his clothing did not quite fit the claim to be the multi-millionaire son of a merchant banker. Brenda’s acute eye for fashion told her that his attires such as she had seen him wearing, came from High Street department stores. She was certain she had seen the same lavishly coloured beach shorts he wore in several mass-appeal shops in Sanford, and common sense told her that wealthy drones were unlikely to be found shopping in a Yorkshire mining town. Right down to his sand-covered flip-flops, everything about him looked, not exactly cheap, but certainly economical.
Everything except his camera. A bulky Canon DSLR for which he also owned a multiplicity of lenses, it looked a thoroughly expensive and professional model, but as Sheila had pointed out, Joe owed a Sony with the same accoutrements. The possession of such a camera was no evidence of great wealth.
For all his affected airs, graces and accents, she found him charming and engaging, and her earlier comment on his tendency to bore, was designed to underscore her attraction to him. In her opinion, his simple deceit, posing as something he clearly was not, masked a man who was basically shy with women.
“And we all know how good I am at overcoming shyness,” she had said to Sheila.
Sheila greeted him with a courteous but uninterested nod. Brenda was more sociable. “Good morning, Mr St John.”
“Please. Let’s not be so formal, Mrs Jump. Call me Jonno.”
“Jonno?” Sheila asked. The question came out a little too sharply, too bluntly.
“It’s what the chaps called me at school, and in the officer’s mess.” He chuckled. “On my insistence. Didn’t like them calling me Johnny. Too much of the barber’s shop and something for the weekend, what?” He tittered foppishly. Then, as if he were embarrassed by either his comment, or the silence which greeted it, he gazed up at the sky through the overheads palms. “Glorious weather, what?”
“Beautiful,” Brenda agreed. “But you’ll be used to it, I daresay.”
He frowned. “Used to it?”
“A well-travelled man such as you must be used to tropical heat and clear skies.”
“Oh. Yes. See what you mean. Well, I have to confess I did consider the Windies and the Bahamas when I was planning the hollier, but eventually I thought, why not go back to the Canary Islands? One can get here in four hours, and it’s just as beautiful and as hot and sunny as Nassau.” He leaned casually on the wall. “One used to come here years ago. Before the working classes got a hold of the place.”
His reference to ‘working classes’ niggled at Brenda, but it was nothing compared to the anger on Sheila’s face.
“Back then,” he wittered, apparently oblivious to the annoyance he was causing, “Los Christianos was barely a village, and I used to stay in the north of the island.”
“Puerto de la Cruz?” Sheila asked.
“Just one port of call, Mrs Riley. Santa Cruz, Oratavio, Corralejo, and… oh what was that other place. Los Gigantes.”
Brenda made an effort to rescue him. “You mean Puerto de Santiago.”
“Ah. Yes. Of course I do. Gigantes are the cliffs.” St John returned to his lecture. “Once the mass-market holiday operators got a hold of the islands, I decided to go elsewhere. Rhodes, Corfu, and the quieter areas of the Balearics.”
“Such as San Antonio,” Brenda suggested.
“Absolutely.” St John gazed around again. “Still, nice to come back to dear of Tenerife. And this place is absolutely spot on, what?”
“Absolutely,” Sheila said.
“Well, mustn’t keep you, things to do, you know. Perhaps I’ll see you in the bar later.”
“Highly likely,” Brenda agreed with a smile.
“Are you taking in the tour of Mount Teide later in the week?”
Brenda nodded. “It’s on the agenda, but we haven’t decided when.”
“Do let one know, won’t you. I know the area alike the back of my hand, and I can show you sights the guides never bother with.”
“I’ll look forward to it.”
He doffed his sun hat to them and ambled off towards the Eastern end of the terrace, his camera coming up to his eye.
They watched him take a series of shots, turning through ninety degrees so that his early shots were of the town across the bay, and his final ones were of the hotel and its swimming pools.
“What an appalling man,” Sheila said. “And a terrible liar.”
“You noticed,” Brenda replied.
“San Antonio is in Ibiza and can hardly be described as quiet. And Corralejo is on the northernmost tip of Fuerteventura, not Tenerife.”
“Trying very hard to be something he’s not,” Brenda said with a chuckle. “I think he’s a very lonely man and he’s not too sure of himself. Why else would he put on a front?”
As St John disappeared into the hotel, Brenda brought her gaze closer, and the other side of the pool where Joe and Denise still slept. “I wonder where they went last night.”
“Some British pub, so Joe told me before they left. The Mother’s Ruin, I think it’s called. It’s out of Las Américas towards Adeje.”
“Must be one of Denise’s haunts. I know they were late back last night. I was on our balcony having a cup of tea at half past one this morning when I heard them cone in.”
Sheila hastened to disagree. “No, no. It was Joe who wanted to go there.”
“How would Joe know about a pub out of town? It’s years since he was last here. He always objected to Tenerife because Alison lives here…” Brenda trailed off, the light dawning in her eyes. “Alison. Of course.” She laughed aloud. “The crafty old bugger. He’s been in touch with Alison, hasn’t he?”
Sheila shuffled uncomfortably, turning to face the sea again, resting her elbows on the wall. “I don’t think so, Brenda. They’ve been divorced ten years and it was pretty awful for both of them. A lot of fighting and arguing. And Joe never speaks of her other than in the most negative way. Besides, he’s with Denise, now. Why would he be interested in Alison?”
Also turning to lean on the wall once again, Brenda wagged a disapproving finger in the air. “I never said he was interested in her. I just said he’d been in touch. He probably wanted to show Denise off to Alison. Show her he was capable of getting into other relationships. Show her that she didn’t matter anymore. Alison, I mean, not Denise.”
Again Sheila disagreed. “I shouldn’t think so, Brenda. We know Joe’s a grumpy old sod, but he’s not like that. He really wouldn’t care what Alison thought of him or his new lady friend.”
They stared down at the beach where one of the hotel’s attendants was helping a woman out of the placid waters.
“Must have hurt herself,” Brenda muttered. “I wonder if they’ll tie the knot.”
Puzzled, Sheila asked, “Who? The beach attendant and the woman he’s helping?”
Brenda guffawed. “No. Joe and Denise.”
“It’s a bit early for wedding bells, dear. They’re only been together two months, and it’s only because Joe’s flat was burned down that they actually got together.” Sheila sighed. “She’s been good for him, Brenda. He’s a different man since they began, er, cohabiting.”
“I like Denise,” Brenda declared, watching the beach attendant drag the dormant woman from the sea. “But I have to say she’s very pushy.”
“Jealous?” Sheila asked for the second time in less than fifteen minutes.
“Naw. Crikey, how long have we all been friends? Half a century? All right, I know I had a bit of a fling with Joe when we were teenagers, and again a couple of years back, but it was never anything really serious. Well, not for me, anyway, and Joe didn’t look too broken-hearted when we let it fizzle out.” Brenda half turned to face her best friend. “If Joe and Denise are getting it together and it’s long-term, good luck to them. But she hard-faced when she likes, is Denise, and we all know what Joe can be like when he gets one of his moods on him.”
Sheila had stopped listening. She was concentrating on event on the beach. There were only a few people to be seen, but they had all crowded round the woman pulled from the sea, and the young attendant, who wore the red shirt of a socorrista, a lifeguard, appeared to be giving her mouth to mouth and CPR.
“What on earth is going on?” Sheila asked.
Brenda too turned her attention to the incident.
As she watched the lifeguard gave up, stood up, and turned his face up to them. “Socorro. Está muerta. ¡Ayúdame!”
The words chilled Brenda to the bone. She had heard them before. As the lifeguard spoke, she suffered a horrible sense of déjà vu as she was cast back to a hotel balcony in Torremolinos and Joe hurrying down to help with a drowned woman in the swimming pool.
The lifeguard translated his words into English. “Get help. She’s dead.”
Have I whetted your appetite? Do you want to know what happens next?
So do I, but it’s a month or three away yet, so keep your eyes open for the launch of A Healthier Murder, the 15th Sanford 3rd Age Club Mystery.
You could get ahead of the game by signing up for DW’s Newsletter. Not only will you get advance notification of the publication and launch, but right now I’m giving away four, yes FOUR free e-books in whatever format you choose.
You can learn more HERE.