My selection for Forgotten Books this week is the fourth book in a series of ten by Richard Jefferson. It features a pair of unusual crime solvers, a married couple, Lyon and Bea Wentworth. He’s a best selling children’s book author and she’s the Secretary of State of Connecticut who happens to be running for Congress in this one. THE DEATH IN THE WILLOWS appeared in 1979.
Lyon Wentworth is at a bus terminal in New York, armed with a new contract for the next Wobblies book, having a drink while waiting for departure time. Unknown to him, the other two men sitting at the bar, one on each end, are armed with handguns. And the two men aren’t aware of each other either.
As the bus departs, one of the men hijacks it, shooting several times a woman who won’t stop screaming and a young man who tries to jump him with a wound in the shoulder. The man forces the bus to stop at an angle blocking the Lincoln Tunnel and sends the wounded boy out with a message: A million dollars and a jet fueled and ready!
Lyon is sitting there quietly watching when he hears a harsh whisper from behind. “Hold your newspaper over at the seat break! I’m giving you something!” Into his hand he feels a pistol, a quick glance telling him it’s a .44 Magnum. Lyon has only a vague semblance of a bearded man.
The whispering and the movement attracts the hijacker’s attention and he starts toward them, demanding for Lyon to stand. He knows the man will see the gun if he stands. He’s only fired a weapon once in his life and wasn’t happy about that. Angrily, the hijacker screams at him to rise and our hero does the only thing he can, firing the pistol from under the paper. Close as he was, he couldn’t miss, the bullet blasting through his face, and Lyon drops the gun in horror.
When it’s all over, the police can’t find the weapon, wondering what Lyon did with it. And why was a children’s book author carrying a pistol? Did he have a permit? No one believed his story at first, until the head count came up wrong. Another person was missing from the bus passengers.
When the questioning was all over, it was late. The bus company puts the passengers up overnight, intending to let them leave on a fresh bus in the morning, complete with refreshments to help smooth over their ordeal. Lyon was bunked with an older man who introduced himself as Major Collins. The fellow recognized Lyon as he’d bought a Wobblies book for his grandson and asked for an autograph. he’d already inscribed a note to his grandson and added a curious drawing.
The next morning when the bus was getting ready to leave, Lyon wasn’t going. His wife was just arriving in a limousine to pick him up. After a few delays they start out, only to come upon a horrible accident. The bus had been rammed by a tanker truck, which had exploded, and everything was furiously burning, all the passengers and driver, both bus and tanker, dead!
Lyon was suspicious, even though police believed the driver had had a heart attack while entering the freeway. Nosing around, he found the station at the top of the ramp where the driver had fueled up with diesel and spent a few minutes talking to someone before stating down the ramp. Voicing his concerns to the police helped, as they might never have noticed the small bullet wound to the back of the driver’s burned out husk of a head. Then a trace of thermite is found in the wreckage.
What’s going on here? And another passenger is missing. The man he knew as Major Collins walked away that morning and didn’t take the bus. Who was the second shooter? Obviously not connected with the hijacker, why didn’t he take the shot himself? Who is this Major Collins?
An attempt is made on Lyon’s life later.
The police believe the hijacker was a terrorist. As the couple pursue their separate investigations, Bea checking out the hijacker, Lyon the mysterious Major Collins, they start to form a different picture. The hijacker was just a slacker, fired from every job he’d had. Major Collins was a false name. His address was fake. More deaths, torture.
And then Lyons starts getting the phone calls. From the same man. The first one says he understood taking out the hijacker, but why the passengers? He is offered a bonus for the recovery of the merchandise. The second phone call is less polite, referring to a message asking for even more money, and giving him only a few days to find the merchandise or he’d send someone after him.
That call made it obvious they thought he was the man with the .44 Magnum, a hitman. Was this major Collins his target? And what was this merchandise someone was so anxious to find.
I enjoyed this one, the first in the series for me. My only quibble, and it’s not a big one, is that the couple, she Secretary of State for Connecticut and he, a children’s book author involved in all that had gone on, as well as an attempt on his own life, seemed to slip away from their people all to easily to go on solo investigations. It doesn’t seem likely that could happen. Their security seems pretty slack.
But then that would spoil all the fun.