On the road to a new town and a new life, William Banks is grateful to Alf, the somewhat seedy stranger who gives him a lift. In return, the unworldly young man is more than happy to deliver a package for his benefactor to a specific address in Braybourne.
He has no idea, however, that his driver has chosen him to serve as a patsy in a sinister plot to retrieve £250,000 stolen earlier from a Braybourne bank—and that, if the scheme succeeds, William Banks will be dead before sundown.
But with the help of Calli, a lass William encounters along the way, and a dose of blind luck, he is able to avoid a most unpleasant end. Now he and Calli will somehow have to steer clear of London gangsters, as well as the original thief and his vengeful entourage, while further derailing Alf’s insidious plot without getting shot, stabbed, strangled, or blown to smithereens in the process.
The Edgar, Agatha, and Gold Dagger Award–winning author delivers a funny, edgy stand-alone crime novel. “Charm is not usual in murder mysteries, but Ellis Peters’ stories are full of it.” —The Mail on Sunday
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About the Author
Ellis Peters is a pseudonym of Edith Mary Pargeter (1913–1995), a British author whose Chronicles of Brother Cadfael are credited with popularizing the historical mystery. Cadfael, a Welsh Benedictine monk living at Shrewsbury Abbey in the first half of the twelfth century, has been described as combining the curious mind of a scientist with the bravery of a knight-errant. The character has been adapted for television, and the books drew international attention to Shrewsbury and its history.
Pargeter won an Edgar Award in 1963 for Death and the Joyful Woman, and in 1993 she won the Cartier Diamond Dagger, an annual award given by the Crime Writers’ Association of Great Britain. She was appointed officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1994, and in 1999 the British Crime Writers’ Association established the Ellis Peters Historical Dagger award, later called the Ellis Peters Historical Award.
Read an Excerpt
Never Pick Up Hitch-Hikers!
By Ellis Peters, Karl Kotas
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1976 Ellis Peters
All rights reserved.
'Well, for Petesakes,' protested Alf afterwards in indignant self-justification, 'how was I supposed to know? There was I, more than an hour behind time already, and no sign of that cagey bastard Boycott, and with what I had on board, I wasn't aiming to hang around much longer, even if I'd still believed he intended showing up, and by then I was damned certain he didn't. Gawd knows what put him off, I reckon his thumbs had started pricking. I had to move off, didn't I? And then there was this kid, standing on the edge of the run-on, pointing his thumb down the motorway, solemn as an owl, with this suitcase in his other hand, and his feet at ten to two, so clean and green I'd swear he'd never even hitched a lift before. In a grey suit and collar and tie, short back and sides, the lot! I tell you, if there'd been two of him I should have taken him for a Mormon on his missionary year, nobody else goes around looking like a tailor's dummy these days — come to think of it, tailor's dummies don't look like that any more, either — only Mormons. But those boys hunt in pairs, and anyhow, they don't hitch lifts. So I thought well, if you need me, boy, maybe you're what I need, too. And I slid the old van up alongside, and I said: "How far you going, kid?" and he said: "As far as Braybourne, with luck, sir!" That did it! Anybody as polite and simple as he looked and sounded was my luck. I said hop in, so am I. And he hopped.
'Well, damn it, he looked like the answer to prayer, the spot I was in, and he came out with his life-story so pat on the way down, you wouldn't believe. He was a gift from heaven!
'How was I to know he had a nose like Sexton Blake's bloodhound, and a squad of guardian angels tougher'n a Rugby scrum?'
William Anthony Patrick Banks was twenty years old, the only son of his mother, and she was a widow.
She was, admittedly, a very active and well-heeled widow, full of good works and a prop of many committees, but she still had time to keep a close eye and a loving hand on Willie, whose life from infancy, through school and into his late father's partner's business, had been planned for him without overmuch consultation of his wishes. His trouble was that he was of a sunny, guileless and contented disposition, not at all given to raising objections, and by the time he realised that he was in danger of being stuck in that office for life, and ending up a solicitor and a partner in his turn, it was almost too late to break out of the shell. Moreover, he was so well-brought-up, so amiable and so genuinely fond of his mother that almost all the courses open to more ruthless young men were impossible to him. He couldn't just say that he'd discovered he didn't want to be a solicitor — she would have taken it as a wounding insult to his father's profession. He couldn't state tersely that he had to get away from her shadow and stand on his own feet — she would then have made it impossible for him to do any such thing by being heart-broken and forgiving. Forgiving, that is, with the implied suggestion that she was about to smile and wave him away bravely and with her blessing, and go into a mortal decline as soon as he was out of her sight, of course without a word of complaint. Nor could he simply vanish without trace — she would have had the entire police force of the county out looking for him.
So he went about it in his own fashion. Anything his father had done was admirable and worthy in his mother's eyes, and to quit his father's profession in order to pursue his father's hobby would not be an offence. She had several of William Moncrieff Banks's execrable water-colours and one very odd oil framed about the house, and rated them as the offspring of a great lost talent. Willie took to oils, and began to produce canvases certainly no more alarming than his father's, but a good deal more highly-coloured, and in an abstract style which allowed remarkable rapidity of execution, and sometimes achieved, as a result, fresh and clean colour effects. Occasionally he even liked the results, to his own astonishment, and that made it all the more convincing when he suddenly confided to her that painting was what he wanted, and must have if he was to be happy, and that with her permission he proposed to start learning his business properly, and wanted to enroll in a good School of Art.
He had London in mind, but she, once she had digested the idea of parting with him at all, quickly cut down on the distance. There was a palatial new art school in the next county, where one thriving market town and four or five outlying villages were halfway through the painful process of being transformed into a new town. Willie closed with the suggestion thankfully. Forty miles was a start. You can always add another forty to the first installment, after a cautious interval.
He wrote off, early in the year, for a prospectus of the courses offered by the New Braybourne School of Art, and his mother accepted this as evidence that he had actually enrolled. He hadn't. But he let her have a hand in finding him respectable lodgings in a house approved by the school itself, and that satisfied her. After Easter she saw him off by the bus, he having declined further fuss or a taxi, and for all her reluctance to let go of him at all, was able to reassure herself that she had merely let him out on a long leash, which could be wound in at any time she pleased. She thought, of course, that he had boarded the evening train south, and would go straight to his landlady's house and his chosen class.
Willie, on the other hand, foresaw that for a time he was going to need all his savings, and with railway fares as high as they were, and the service station on the motorway only a few hundred yards from the bus route, saw no reason to spend good money on a more formal method of travel.
Which is how he came to be standing on the edge of the run-on, pointing his thumb down the motorway, clean and green in his grey suit, with his feet at ten to two, when Alf Jarrett gave up waiting for his defecting passenger, and came driving along past the service buildings and the petrol pumps and the coach park, did a double-take at this improbable bourgeois apparition, and pulled up beside him.
'How far are you going, kid?' he said, leaning out.
He was not a big man, but compact and broad, with a weathered, froggy face under a peaked cap, and a bent nose that gave him a droll and slightly surprised look. He could have been an experienced groom, or a fairly prosperous scrap-dealer, or a small farmer. At any rate, he appeared friendly and well-disposed, which was the main thing. And since he was obviously Willie's elder by at least fifteen years, Willie addressed him according to custom: 'As far as Braybourne, with luck, sir!'
'Hop in,' said Alf, 'so am I.'
By the time they were halfway down the forty-mile run, cruising along steadily but fast in the centre lane, Willie had confided a good part of his life-story. He was not generally given to this exercise, but pick-ups like this, in common with train journeys, lend themselves to confidences which need never produce any echoes, since the parties are unlikely ever to meet again. And the large, misshapen brown ear cocked towards him seemed to attract conversation.
'So your Ma thinks you're going to this art school,' said Alf, shaking his head over the deception, but grinning without noticeable disapproval, 'and you ain't intending any such thing. Well, I won't say but what mothers can be a bit of a problem when they've only got one. And you won't be that far away. If you're going to stay in Braybourne?'
'Oh, yes,' said Willie. 'I couldn't just ditch her and go off into the blue. I'll be close by if she gets desperate. But art was just one way out. It isn't my forte.'
'What do you fancy, then?'
'Oh, I'll just get a job, practically any job, I haven't thought yet. Not in an office, if I can help it.'
'You've got nothing fixed up yet, then? Got to have a look round first, I suppose.'
'That's it exactly,' said Willie.
'You got somewhere to stay in town? It'll be past eleven, time we get in. But maybe you got friends there?'
Alf had round, earnest eyes that showed a gleam of white all round the iris when passing lights spilled into the van.
'No, I don't know the place at all, but I've got a room waiting for me. With a Mrs Dutton who takes in art school students. I thought I'd better let my mother in on that part of it. You know how they are about who's going to cook and manage for you, and what sort of household are you going into! Booking with an approved house seemed to be an insurance.'
'Yeah, keep her happy, eh? Where is this place? I'm on the late side, myself, and my missus will be waiting and worrying, but maybe we can see you right.'
'Do you know New Braybourne well?'
'Nobody knows New Braybourne well,' said Alf feelingly. 'Used to be a nice market town with a real centre and good shops, and a clutch of villages round it, not the best farm-land ever, but not bad, neither. Now it's halfway from somewhere to nowhere, with a whacking great new road system that uses up half the available ground, and umpteen schools, about as pricey as Buckingham Palace, only gimcrack, and two estates of rabbit-hutches and a couple of tower blocks, and a few oddball private blocks of flats in among the rest. But mostly traffic islands. At traffic islands those boys are real good! What's this address of yours? I might know it if it's an old 'un.'
'Dutton, 35, Rainbow Road, Norden Common,' said Willie obligingly.
Alf whistled. 'Norden, that's one of the old villages they've taken in. It's a good way out. I doubt the buses will be running, time we get in. She expecting you tonight?'
'It's sort of left open. She knows I'm coming down tonight, but I don't suppose she's going to sit up all night for me, or worry if I don't show up till morning,' said Willie easily. 'If I have to book into some hotel, I can always telephone her.'
'Oh, you've got a number for her?'
Willie had, and cheerfully shared it. Alf's rubbery lips moved, memorising. He had a very good memory.
'You won't make it tonight, that's sure. I know the buses, they pack it in after eleven. But I got an idea, and it does me a favour, as well as you, if you're on. My missus has been waiting an hour for me right now, and I don't aim to lose any more time than I need. I was supposed to run into the town, I mean the real old Braybourne, and drop off a parcel of stuff at my sister's place, in a block of flats there. I've got their spare key, and they're back from an Easter trip tomorrow. I can give you the key, and the address, and the parcel, and you can save me twenty minutes going out of my way, and sleep in the flat overnight. Why pay for a hotel, laddie, if you're starting out on your own with no job in hand? All you need to do is post the spare key back through the letter-box when you leave in the morning. How about it?'
'That's terribly kind,' said Willie, touched and impressed, 'but I couldn't possibly take advantage of your relatives, when they don't even know about it. I mean, they might not like it at all, if they knew.'
'Sure they would! You don't know my sister Jess. She'd say go ahead, and bless you! And it would save me going along there.'
'Well, of course, I'll be glad to take the parcel for you and leave the key, in any case.'
'Then you might just as well make yourself at home for the night,' pointed out Alf reasonably. 'You won't find it easy to get a room, anyhow, this time o' night. I'm surprised you left it so late starting.'
'It had to fit in with a train time,' Willie explained almost apologetically, 'and there aren't many on our line, it's about due for the axe. It was either this morning or tonight. You see, my mother thinks I've taken the train. She wouldn't approve of hitch-hiking.'
'Afraid you might get picked up and done for your wallet by some crook,' said Alf, and shook with bronchial laughter, shifting his crumpled, home-rolled fag to the other side of his mouth. 'They're like that, ain't they? My mum used to be just as bad, when I first started shifting around on my own and thumbing the occasional ride. Then I started driving heavies up to Scotland, and she switched to: Never pick up them no-good hitchhikers, Alfie, you don't know when you'll get knocked on the head and chucked out the cab. Ah, well, they can't help it, can they? Born to worry!'
Willie forbore from remarking that Alf's mother's advice seemed to have fallen on deaf ears, in view of his own very similar case. He pondered the advantages of a free night's lodgings, and was tempted.
'Well, if you're sure it would be all right ... Naturally I'd take care of the place as if it were my own home. It's very kind of you.'
'Think nothing of it! And you could switch on the heating and warm the place up for Jess and Tom to come home to, tomorrow,' said Alf, and went off into another paroxysm of wheezy laughter.
The fitful terrestrial stars that hover at intervals about motorways drew together ahead, and congealed into an intricate constellation. New Braybourne unfolded its attenuated garlands of street lights, blue of mercury and orange of sodium, over its vast, invisible site, a map of Alf's whacking great road system pinned together with traffic islands. 'Here we go!' said Alf thankfully, and slid into the left-hand lane ready for the run-off. 'I'll take you into the square, and show you how to find the block. It's one of the new three-storey lot, back of the church — Cromwell Court, number 24, top floor. Name of Smith. I've got a couple of miles to go in the opposite direction, or I'd take you all the way. But you'll find it, all right.'
New Braybourne by night was a strange vision, composed of long avenues of lavish city lighting, in places devoid of traffic, houses or apparent life, punctuated by sudden narrower stretches comfortably built-up with old dwellings, glimpses of former village greens, groups of shops, chapels, precincts and halls abruptly loud and cheerful with people, and dark and almost rural places where the changed order had not yet either healed old scars or left new ones. And everywhere Alf's islands, lit by soaring, modern lamps, where a few lonely cars swirled in elaborate round-dances and shot off in all directions like sparks from a Catherine-wheel.
'Here's where the old Braybourne starts,' said Alf, as the monstrous dual- track highway on which they ran, solitary under the tall lights, shrank gradually into a normal road, and began to be fringed with modest semidetached houses perhaps forty years old. Petrol stations marked the rim of the market town, suburban shops rose on either side. 'Not much changed here, not yet, just two new estates outside, and those flats down towards the river. More like a real place, this is.'
The buildings on either side drew further apart and grew taller and nobler, and they were in a short street of well-proportioned shop-fronts and pleasant Georgian houses. They came into a spacious square, with an unidentifiable monument in the centre, a garden of shrubs round it, and half an acre of cobbled parking space. Against the night sky a square tower showed over the roofs, and a lighted clock-face. A few people, headed homeward from various evening entertainments, strolled unhurriedly along the pavements. Alf pulled into the parking-ground.
'This is it. Don't forget, Cromwell Court, number 24, top floor. Now look, you take that little road down towards the river from the corner of the square, and that'll bring you into Marley Street. Turn left into that, and keep on till you come to Prince's Garage, on the right, then down the little alley just beyond it, and you'll see the three blocks ahead of you. Cromwell's the first block. Right?'
'Right!' said Willie. 'And many thanks! I say, I'd like you to have my card, in case you ever want to get in touch.' He presented it matter-of-factly, not noticing Alf's passive amusement and wonder. 'That's my home address, of course, but I've written in Mrs Dutton's as well. Could I telephone her from your brother-in-law's flat? I'd leave the money, of course.'
'No 'phone there,' said Alf promptly. 'I wouldn't worry about it, I'll call her when I get home, and tell her you'll be in in the morning. Here you are, then, here's Tom's key, and here's the parcel.'
Excerpted from Never Pick Up Hitch-Hikers! by Ellis Peters, Karl Kotas. Copyright © 1976 Ellis Peters. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
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