These are the opening chapters of Dishing the Dirt – the third book in the Lifting the Lid comedy thriller series – which will be available for pre-order from Sunday 18th April 2021.
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‘Kill the bloody thing before it gets one of us.’
‘Gets me, you mean,’ said Sandra. ‘I’m the one standing on the floor within a few feet of it while you’re perched up on the desk and well out of striking range. Or am I mistaken in believing that scorpions can’t actually jump that high?’
There wasn’t much that Trevor could say to that, so he switched his attention back to the orangey-brown scorpion on the tiled office floor and stared at it like he was using mind control to make it leave the room or – preferably – spontaneously combust. It was a couple of inches long, not counting the wickedly curved tail that it had used to spear a small black beetle a few minutes earlier.
‘It probably came in looking for water,’ said Sandra.
‘Oh really? Well, to be perfectly honest, I don’t give a monkey’s whether it was looking for water or the scorpion equivalent of the Holy Grail. I just want it gone. Out of my life forever.’
‘And I’m the one to kill it, am I?’
Trevor shrugged. ‘Unless you can coax it out with a trail of dead beetles or whatever.’
‘But why should I have to do it, though? If one of us is going to stomp the thing to death, I think your Doc Marten boots would be far more effective than my flip-flops. Or perhaps we should leave it be and wait for it to die of old age.’
Trevor fleetingly wondered what the life expectancy of the average scorpion might be before he registered the blatant sarcasm in Sandra’s tone. ‘Why don’t we get Grigoris in here? He’s Greek after all, and the Greeks must have to deal with this sort of thing all the time. He’ll know what to do.’
‘Don’t be daft. He’ll just stomp on it the same as we should and make us look a right pair of—’
Sandra was interrupted by a blur of black and tan that hurtled through the open door of the office, skidded on the tiled floor and crashed heavily into the base of a metal filing cabinet on the opposite side of the room. The scorpion – presumably startled by this sudden intrusion on the enjoyment of its meal – instantly scuttled towards the prone body of the dog, its stinger raised and ready to strike.
‘Jesus, Milly!’ Trevor yelled, then leapt from the safety of the desk, took two strides and brought the sole of his boot crunching down onto the scorpion less than half a second before it could reach its prey.
Sandra clapped her hands together in mock admiration. ‘Ooh, my hero.’
‘It was going to sting her,’ said Trevor, tentatively raising his foot to make certain that the flattened scorpion had indeed shuffled off its mortal coil.
‘So you’d do it for Milly and not for me, eh?’
‘She’s a defenceless creature… kind of. And you’re… not.’
‘Why, thank you, Trev. You really do say the nicest things.’
‘I didn’t mean it like that. All I meant was—’
This time, the interruption was human rather than canine as a short, stocky man with dark, thinning hair swept into the room as if his arse was on fire.
‘Some of these people they drive me crazy,’ he said, mopping the sweat from his brow with a slightly off-white tea towel.
‘What’s up, Grigoris?’ said Sandra.
‘English guy at Table Four. Face red like a lobster.’
‘What about him?’
‘He orders stifado, so I bring him stifado. Five minutes later, he call me back and he says it tastes like shit.’
‘In fact, he says this is worst shit he ever tasted in his whole life.’
‘Bit of a connoisseur, is he?’
‘Never mind. Did you offer him something else instead?’
‘Sure, but he said if the stifado taste like shit, probably everything else here taste like shit.’
‘So does it taste like shit?’ asked Trevor.
‘I dunno,’ said Grigoris. ‘I not tried it.’
‘What did Eleni say?’
Grigoris arched a thick, dark eyebrow and glanced over his shoulder as if making sure he couldn’t be overheard. ‘You think I gonna tell Eleni some guy say her cooking taste like shit?’ he said in a stage whisper and made the sign of the cross.
‘Very wise,’ said Sandra. ‘And what about the guy? He still here?’
‘The customer. The one who—’
‘Yeah. He says he gonna finish his beer and he ain’t gonna pay for that either.’
‘Oh, terrific,’ said Trevor. ‘As if we’re not in enough trouble already.’
Sandra shot him a look that told him in no uncertain terms that the taverna’s financial problems weren’t for public knowledge and certainly shouldn’t be aired in front of the staff.
‘Thank you, Grigoris,’ she said. ‘You’d better get back to work and leave this to us.’
Grigoris nodded and left the office rather more slowly than he’d entered it.
‘“Leave this to us”?’ Trevor repeated as soon as he’d gone. ‘You know you’re much better at this sort of thing than me. And besides, it’s your turn.’
‘Eh? How do you figure that out?’
‘Er, who was it that killed the scorpion?’
‘OK,’ said Sandra. ‘I’ll do a deal with you. I’ll go and do what I can to placate Mr Tastes-Like-Shit, and you do tomorrow’s surveillance.’
Trevor considered her proposition for several seconds. Sitting in a baking hot van for hours, waiting – usually fruitlessly – for something to happen wasn’t exactly his idea of fun, nor probably anyone else who had any kind of life to live. On the other hand, he hated even the most trivial of confrontations, and it was true that Sandra was infinitely more adept at dealing with bolshy customers than he was.
‘Deal,’ he said.
Sandra smiled and kissed him lightly on the cheek. ‘Excellent choice, darling.’
After staring at the house across the road for the best part of two hours, Trevor was fighting an uphill battle to keep his eyelids from drooping. When he’d first seen it, he’d been impressed by the sheer size of the long two-storey villa with its gleaming white walls, terracotta tiled roof and window shutters in the traditional Greek blue. There was even a tall circular tower attached at one end which blended tastefully with the rest of the building. But that had been a few days ago, and his initial admiration for the place had rapidly waned to the point where mind-numbing boredom had resulted in a deep revulsion at its grandiose opulence. At times, he almost wished someone would come along and decorate the damned house so he’d at least have something interesting to look at while the paint dried.
Trevor took another sip from his almost empty bottle of tepid water. It was getting on for midday, and even with all of the camper van’s windows open, the heat was stifling. Early August in Greece wasn’t ideal for carrying out this kind of surveillance operation, but money was tight, and he and Sandra had been in no position to turn down any job that was offered to them.
It was nearly a year since Marcus Ingleby had asked them to take over the running of his taverna – the Sto Lιmánι – in return for free accommodation and a small wage, and to make ends meet, they’d re-established the detective agency they’d previously run in England. Not that this had done much to help boost their finances. Cases had been few and far between and had been mainly fairly trivial, such as the recovery of two lost cats and even a missing pet tortoise. Most of their clients had been expats, although the local Greek Orthodox priest did recently hire them to solve the mystery of his stolen bicycle, which turned out to have been relocated after being inadvertently crushed by an inebriated bulldozer driver.
The current case, however, might prove to be their most lucrative so far, given that they had been commissioned by one of the wealthiest people in the area, who suspected his wife was having an affair with a person as yet unknown. Alexandros Barkas owned a string of hotels, all of which were located in the most desirable tourist hotspots on the mainland and islands of Greece, and was married to an ex fashion model called Anastasia, who was twenty years his junior.
‘Well, that was a disaster waiting to happen,’ Sandra had said after Barkas had filled them in on the details and left them to develop their strategy.
‘How’d you mean?’ Trevor had said.
‘Rich old men and their trophy wives? It’s classic.’
‘Early sixties hardly counts as “old”, does it?’
‘Old enough to know better.’
They both knew that to do the job properly, they should be watching Mrs Barkas round the clock, but they didn’t have the resources, and they still had a taverna to keep from going under. Mr Barkas suspected that his wife was carrying on her affair during the daytime while he was at work, so Trevor and Sandra had been taking it in turns to watch the Barkas residence for two or three hour shifts every morning or afternoon when the taverna wasn’t too busy.
But Mrs Barkas had hardly ventured out of the house since they’d begun their surveillance nearly a week ago. Twice, in fact, and both times while Trevor had been on duty. He’d fired up the engine of the van and waited while she’d backed a white Lexus out of the double garage and then kept behind her at a discreet distance as she headed towards the town. On the first occasion, she’d parked up near the town square and disappeared inside a hairdresser’s, which added an extra hour and a half to Trevor’s shift by the time she’d re-emerged and he’d followed her back to the house. Her second foray into the outside world had happened yesterday morning and appeared to be for the sole purpose of adding to what was no doubt an already extensive wardrobe of haute couture.
Trevor checked his watch.
‘Five more minutes and I’m out of here,’ he told himself and began counting out three hundred seconds in his head.
He’d got as far as a hundred and eighty-seven when the front door of the house swung open and out stepped Anastasia Barkas. Even from this distance, it was easy to see how she’d once been a top fashion model. Slim and with slightly bobbed, jet black hair, she wore a cream trouser suit over a pale blue blouse that was buttoned to the neck. With the super-sized dark glasses, she could have been a dead ringer for a young Jackie Onassis.
Trevor watched as she made her way along the gravel path that ran beside the front of the house towards the Lexus that was already out on the driveway. But there was something a little different about the way she was walking that he hadn’t seen before. Just a touch more jaunty perhaps? Almost as if she was having to restrain herself from actually skipping.
Well, well, thought Trevor. She’s in a good mood about something. Maybe today’s the day at last.
He turned the key in the van’s ignition and, as before, waited until she’d backed out of the driveway. This time, though, she turned left instead of towards the town.
‘Dammit,’ said Trevor, realising that he’d have to do a three point turn in the van, and he’d have to make it snappy or he’d run the risk of losing her.
He slammed the gear stick into first, took hold of the handbrake and glanced in the rear-view mirror to see a white car with flashing blue lights on its roof approaching at speed. At the same time, the Lexus was rapidly disappearing in the opposite direction.
Trevor revved the engine, mentally urging the cop car to hurry up and get past while he still stood a chance of catching up with Mrs Barkas. But that’s when he heard three short blasts of a siren, and the police car screeched to a halt diagonally in front of the van.
He let go of the handbrake and eased the gear stick back into neutral but kept the engine running.
The driver’s door of the police car opened, and a youngish-looking uniformed officer took his time stepping out onto the road. He took nearly as long to put on his cap and adjust it to his liking in the car’s wing mirror. Then, as he sauntered towards the van, Trevor recognised the slightly crooked nose, the thin black moustache and the almost permanent hint of a smirk.
‘Constable bloody Dimitris,’ Trevor said to himself. ‘That’s all I need.’
He and Sandra had only had a handful of dealings with this particular cop in the past, but none of them had been positive experiences. The guy was overzealous to the point of fanatical in his rigid application of the law – sometimes purely as he himself perceived it. He was also a bully with an utterly misplaced sense of superiority.
‘Par for the course,’ Sandra had always said of PC Dimitris. ‘Put an idiot in uniform and that’s what you get. Especially one that’s been passed over for promotion as many times as he has.’
Constable Dimitris stooped to peer in through Trevor’s open window.
‘Kalιméra,’ he said, the supercilious grin betraying that he couldn’t care less whether Trevor had a good day or not.
Trevor gave him the faintest of nods in response. Although he and Sandra had put quite a lot of effort into learning the Greek language, it had become a policy to feign ignorance whenever faced with belligerent officialdom. The hope was that the official they were dealing with wouldn’t speak English and, unable to communicate, would wave them away in frustration. From their previous encounters with PC Dimitris, he must have believed that they didn’t understand a word of Greek, but this didn’t stop him rattling on in his mother tongue for a good thirty seconds.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Trevor when he’d finished, ‘but I didn’t understand any of that. Would you mind saying it in English?’
PC Dimitris sighed heavily and closed his eyes. Then he opened them again and pushed the peak of his cap a little further back from his forehead.
‘I’m saying that there has been complaint of you sitting here in camping van for two hours and that you been doing the same for days. So you need to explain me why is it you are doing this.’
It was considerably shorter than the Greek version, so maybe Constable Dimitris had edited out the less pertinent remarks or didn’t know how to translate them into English.
‘Complaint?’ said Trevor. ‘Who from exactly?’
‘Is none of your business. Is confidential police business.’
‘So answer my question.’
‘Oh, I beg your pardon, officer. I didn’t realise you’d asked me one.’
PC Dimitris removed his cap completely, wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand and then replaced the cap firmly on his head.
‘I ask you why you keep parking here in same place every day.’
‘I like the scenery.’
‘Vista? Panorama? Basically, it means—’
‘Yes, I know what “scenery” means,’ Dimitris interrupted, ‘but there is nothing but houses all along both sides of road.’
‘Ah yes, but they’re very big houses and very expensive too, I imagine.’
‘So why you look at them all this time? You planning robbery?’
‘Certainly not. It’s the architecture. All the houses are fascinatingly different, and it’s a bit of a hobby of mine.’
Constable Dimitris briefly scanned the houses on either side of the street, then pushed his face further in through the open window. ‘You bullshit me?’
‘Of course not,’ said Trevor, recoiling from the stink of garlic on the cop’s breath.
Dimitris backed off with his face and wagged a finger at him. ‘This is final warning. If I hear any more complaint or I see you here again myself, I arrest you for littering.’
‘Actually, I think you mean loitering, but I get the message.’
The cop grunted. ‘So leave now before I change my mind.’
‘OK, but you might need to move out of the way first,’ said Trevor and pointed to the rear of the police car, which was little more than three feet from the van’s front bumper.
Another grunt, and PC Dimitris stomped off back to his car.
* * *
‘And you’ve no idea who it was that complained?’ said Sandra when Trevor had reported back to her at the taverna.
Trevor shook his head. ‘He wouldn’t say.’
‘’Cos if it was Mrs Barkas herself, that means she probably knows we’re watching her.’
‘The thought had occurred to me, which led me on to another thought.’
‘I do have them, you know.’
‘I never doubted it.’
‘It was the way you said “Oh yeah”.’
‘With that tone of voice like you’re not expecting my ideas to be any good.’
‘I didn’t mean it like that at all. Maybe it’s the heat getting to you. Maybe you’re being over-sensitive.’
Trevor had to admit – to himself – that he’d got seriously overheated sitting around in the van for all that time and was urgently in need of a cool shower and something to eat and drink.
‘We fix some kind of tracking device to her car,’ he said. ‘That way, we won’t have to keep on watching the house every day, which would be pretty pointless anyway if she really has twigged that we’re onto her. Plus we won’t have PC Dimitris breathing down our necks, and we’ll know whenever she goes out and, more importantly, where she goes to.’
‘Great idea,’ said Sandra, ‘but where do you suppose we’d get one round here?’
‘Didn’t you bring some of your detective kit with you from England?’
‘A few bits and pieces, yeah, but not a tracker.’
‘What about Vangelis?’
‘Ah yes. Our local Mr Fixit.’
‘He’ll know where we can get one if anybody does.’
‘I’ll ask him tonight. Presumably he’ll be in for his usual ouzo or three.’
‘There’s no note or anything?’ said Sandra and watched as Trevor peered inside the small Jiffy bag for the third time.
‘Just this,’ he said, holding up a tiny copper-coloured plastic gun between his forefinger and thumb.
‘Bit odd. Maybe it’s some kind of death threat.’
‘Oh yeah? So who’s likely to be sending us a death threat?’
‘I can think of two for starters. Donna Vincent and Frank Phelan. They’re both doing fairly hefty prison sentences – mostly because of us – and you remember what they said they’d do to us if they ever got the chance?’
Trevor remembered all too clearly, and the image of Donna Vincent screaming at them from behind the bars of a police cell still occasionally woke him in the middle of the night.
‘But they won’t get out for years,’ he said. ‘What can they do to us from inside prison?’
‘Well, I don’t know about Frank,’ said Sandra, ‘but Donna certainly has the contacts and the money.’
‘For what? Put a contract out on us, you mean?’
‘It has been known.’
‘Oh great,’ said Trevor, ‘and there was me been thinking we’d be in the clear for at least a few more years.’
As he spoke, he began to examine the tiny plastic gun more closely and discovered that there was a slight ridge at the base of the butt. Wondering if the pistol grip might contain a magazine of miniature bullets, he pulled at it and out slid the business end of a USB memory stick.
‘Well, there’s a novelty,’ he said. ‘Maybe it’s not a death threat after all.’
‘Better see what’s on it first before we go jumping to conclusions,’ said Sandra and held out her hand. ‘Give it here then and we’ll have a look.’
They were in the cramped back office of the taverna, and Sandra was sitting on a battered swivel chair at a small, heavily cluttered table that passed for a desk. She took the stick from Trevor and inserted it into the open laptop.
‘Make sure you virus check it first,’ he said.
‘Don’t I always?’
Sandra muttered something under her breath.
‘It’s clean,’ she said after she’d completed the virus check as instructed.
Trevor stood at her shoulder and watched as she clicked on File Explorer and then the F drive. A single icon appeared on the screen.
‘What’s that?’ said Trevor, leaning forward to get a better view.
‘Audio file by the look of it,’ said Sandra and double-clicked on the icon.
There was a couple of seconds of silence and then a woman’s voice: ‘What are we going to do? The whole place is a complete mess, and the kitchen is a total health hazard.’
Then a man’s voice: ‘Whatever we do, we just don’t seem able to get rid of all the rats and mice.’
‘Not to mention the cockroaches.’
‘Only yesterday, I found rat shit on top of the moussaka.’
‘Oh no. So what did you do?’
‘Scraped it off and hoped nobody would notice.’
‘Let’s just hope none of the customers get food poisoning.’
Sandra hit the Pause button and turned to Trevor. ‘That’s us, for Christ’s sake.’
‘You and me.’
About three weeks earlier, Trevor and Sandra had been contacted by a woman called Wendy Gifford, who was a friend of one of their regular customers. She ran an English language school in the town and was planning to put together some audio recordings for her students to practise their listening skills. She was looking for two native English speakers – preferably a man and a woman – to record various passages and pieces of dialogue during a couple of sessions in a nearby studio. The pay hadn’t been great, but Trevor and Sandra decided it might be fun, so they agreed, and a date and time were fixed.
When they arrived at the studio – which was actually a small converted back room in someone’s house – Wendy handed them each a sheaf of papers and sat them down in a soundproof booth with her and the recording engineer – the owner of the house – issuing instructions from the other side of a glass wall. It had certainly been fun to start with, but both Trevor and Sandra were amazed at how quickly they became tired and their voices began to get hoarse. Most of the passages were fairly banal, including brief descriptions of how to boil an egg and handy hints on how to clean an oven. The short pieces of dialogue were marginally more interesting, but Trevor and Sandra had expressed their serious reservations about recording the one between the co-owners of a taverna who were worried about being closed down by a health inspector. They hadn’t been convinced by Wendy’s ‘It’s just a bit of fun’ but had eventually agreed when she assured them that it was only her students that would be hearing any of the recordings.
‘Bloody Nora,’ said Trevor. ‘I knew it was weird, getting us to record that bit. What else did we say? I can’t remember it all now.’
Sandra clicked the Pause button again:
TREVOR: And what if we get a visit from the health inspector?
SANDRA: Close us down in two seconds flat, I’d imagine.
TREVOR: So what the hell do we do? There’s no way we could get this place up to hygiene standards without spending a small fortune.
SANDRA: I don’t know, Trevor, I really don’t.
TREVOR: We’ll just have to bribe them, I guess.
SANDRA: Bribe them?
TREVOR: The health inspector or whoever. It’s the only way out of this mess, Sandra. Believe me.
There was a faint clicking sound as the recording ended, and Trevor and Sandra simply stared at the laptop in silence for several seconds. Then Sandra picked up the Jiffy bag and checked the inside again. Nothing.
‘I think somebody’s trying to blackmail us,’ she said.
Trevor gulped. ‘Blackmail?’
‘Seems the most likely to me.’
‘So what do they want? Cash?’
‘Your guess is as good as mine, but if this recording ever got out, we’d be screwed, and so would Marcus Ingleby’s taverna. Hell, we even used our own names.’
‘Not when we recorded it, we didn’t. Our names were in the script, but if you remember, we left them out when we did the recording.’
‘Yeah, you’re right.’
‘We must have used our names somewhere else and someone’s tweaked the recording to add them in. Probably not that difficult if you know what you’re doing.’
‘Play that part again,’ said Trevor, and Sandra rewound the recording to the relevant section.
Listening intently and replaying it several times, they were certain they could hear a very faint background hum where their names were mentioned. A hum that wasn’t present in the rest of the recording.
Trevor took a deep breath and exhaled slowly through his teeth. ‘You think Wendy set the whole thing up so she could blackmail us?’
Sandra shook her head. ‘Don’t think so. She seemed fairly genuine to me. But maybe someone else got her to slip that bit of dialogue in amongst all the other stuff we recorded.’
‘Best guess? I’d say top of the list is Yannis Christopoulos.’
‘The very same.’
Yannis Christopoulos had been a thorn in Trevor and Sandra’s sides since almost the first day that they’d taken over the running of Marcus Ingleby’s taverna. He was the owner of a much larger taverna a little further along the quayside, but his business had suffered even more than theirs during Greece’s economic crisis. The busiest period for both tavernas was the summer, when tourists came flocking to the area, not quite in their droves as they had before the crisis but certainly in good enough numbers to keep the Sto Lιmánι afloat for the rest of the year. The big advantage that Trevor and Sandra had over Christopoulos was that most of these tourists were British, so it wasn’t a great surprise that they’d head for a taverna where they could guarantee that English was spoken. Not only that, but Trevor and Sandra had dangled another carrot to attract the less adventurous diners among them. Not literally a carrot, of course, but more traditional British fare such as eggs, beans and chips, shepherd’s pie and toad in the hole.
Christopoulos had tried all kinds of tricks and gimmicks in an attempt to lure their customers away – free wine with every meal, happy hours and even karaoke nights – but with minimal success. And this was when he’d begun to adopt a completely different approach, which was along the lines of “If you can’t beat them, sabotage them”. It had started relatively innocuously when Trevor and Sandra became aware of a sudden increase in the number of damning comments about their taverna on TripAdvisor and some of the other major review sites. They were all posted under different – and presumably fictitious – names, but although they had no proof, Christopoulos appeared to be the obvious suspect. They didn’t notice any significant drop-off in trade, however, and they assumed that Christopoulos hadn’t seen much improvement in his because the gloves finally came off and matters took a potentially far more damaging turn for the worse.
First, there were the unexplained power cuts, which only affected Ingleby’s taverna. Then there was the highly unusual plague of wasps smack in the middle of one of their busiest lunchtimes, forcing most of the customers to flee the scene. The snake in the kitchen that made Eleni the cook down tools for nearly two hours before someone could be fetched to remove it. The list of near disasters went on and on, but as with the spate of negative reviews, there was never any hard evidence against Christopoulos himself.
Sandra played the audio file again while she and Trevor listened in concentrated silence.
‘So now what do we do?’ said Trevor when the recording had finished.
‘Not much we can do,’ said Sandra, ‘except wait till whoever sent this gets in touch and tells us what they want.’
‘It might be worth having a word with Wendy Gifford in the meantime, though. If somebody did give her that script, maybe we can find out who it was.’
‘Well, aren’t you full of good ideas today.’
‘Is that supposed to be sarcasm?’
‘Not at all. We’ll pay her a visit soon as we can tomorrow.’
END OF FIRST THREE CHAPTERS
Dishing the Dirt is available soon as a Kindle e-book and paperback. Click here to buy.
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