Where the Bodies are Buried – the complete book online - Friday, 21st January

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Friday, 21st January

A yellowing business envelope lay on the grey flagstone in the bright splash of sun just beneath the letter slot. Judging by the typography it could have been posted a century ago. It was from Segui & Cooper, the legal practice Charlie had inherited from his father. Cooper had slipped his moorings about the time the letterhead was designed, and Charlie was probably too mean to have had it changed.

He was also too mean to put a stamp on it. Someone had pushed it through the door. Charlie wanted to see me the next day at his office. I didn’t have a phone in the castle, so I didn’t bother to reply. He knew I would come. Firstly because I had nothing else to do and secondly because Angie would be there.

At the bottom of Fore Street where it runs into Sharp Creek two fishermen’s cottages had been knocked into one and painted robin’s egg blue. An aluminium shopfront had been installed in one corner. Above it a sign read ‘Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard’. In the shop window, together with a few dog-eared cardboard advertising signs bleached by sunlight was Charlie’s spoof flyer announcing the privatisation of the Royal Yacht Britannia. On the window ledge the stalks of last year’s geraniums bristled in a clay pot. Apart from that the cupboard was bare. Adjoining the shop window was a door painted in smart navy blue enamel with a bright brass knocker and a small brass plate engraved ‘Segui & Cooper’. A plump, grey-haired matron wearing pink and gold spectacles that might have been designed by Salvador Dali giggled “Hello” and bustled me into the ground floor back, Charlie’s meeting room. A huge partner’s desk and a tall filing cupboard took up half the space. Some straight-backed wooden chairs and an oval Formica table scarred with the burns of resting fag ends filled most of the rest. On the wall opposite the door was an ornate red safe with brass fittings. Above it hung a tall stained mirror in a mahogany frame which had a keyhole in it, the door of a Victorian wardrobe. It had probably been hung there to make the room look bigger, but our three reflections crowded it like the snug bar of The Sailor’s Return on August Bank Holiday. Charlie had to move a chair away from the door to let me sit next to Angie. Behind her was another door in the wall that partitioned off the reception area. On it was a blue-and-white ceramic sign with the image of a horse’s head and the word ‘Stallions’. Angie smiled, and I was pleased that her lips were not scarlet today.

“Thank you for coming,” she said.

There was a knock on the door I had entered. I had to get up and hold the chair over my head to permit it to open. With the solemn dignity of a pharaonic libation bearer, Charlie’s matronly secretary carried in a tray with a cargo of thick mugs bearing the Westowe Sailing Club coat of arms. She set it down on the red safe under the mirror. As her hips squeezed past again she fluttered a little smile at me on a wave of cheap scent. I repositioned the chair in front of the door and sat down again. Charlie began to summarise Angie’s financial position. It was bleak. He had applied for a court order to enable Angie to take over Bartholomew’s assets, but there was no cash. “I’ve asked Ted to check into the insurance situation,” he concluded.

I had done my homework huddling in the phone kiosk on the rainswept Jubilee (formerly Normandy) Quay, conveniently close to The Jubilee Inn (formerly Cromarty’s). I took my cue. “Insurers need death certificates. They could insist on waiting seven years until Bartholomew could be declared legally dead.”

Charlie interrupted. “You apply through a court order known as a deed of representation to have him officially sworn dead, and appoint trustees who can deal with his financial affairs as if he were dead.”

“Give a lawyer seven years and he’ll stretch it to fourteen,” I said. “And if it were a large estate the insurers would stick to the letter of the law. But I still have some friends in the City. I’m sure if I put a word in the right ear they’d loosen up.”

Charlie cleared his throat. “What Ted is trying to say — .”

“I thought I had said it.”

Angie smiled at me, “Thank you, Ted.”

Charlie glared at me. “Even so, it’s not enough to see her through comfortably.”

“What about the castle?” I asked.

“I was getting to that,” said Charlie without looking in my direction. “That’s your nest egg, Angie. A prime piece of shorefront property. It could fetch a pretty price.”

“I’m not selling it. You’ll have to find another way.” Charlie smiled at me sadly, and now I thought I knew why I’d been invited to this meeting. “I’ll sell the house first,” said Angie.

“Angie, it’s a big old Victorian house with an even bigger outstanding mortgage,” argued Charlie.

“With a spectacular view,” I put in.

Charlie frowned at me. “Even with the view, she wouldn’t clear more than twenty-five thousand out of it.”

“Let it out and move into the castle.” I smiled at Angie. “I’ll move out, of course.”

Charlie drummed his fingers on the table. “Eight weeks summer let. Ten thousand pounds. If you’re lucky.”

I was still musing on the idea of living with Angie. “Or I could move into the munitions blockhouse off the kitchen,” I added to make her smile. It had the opposite effect; a cloud passed briefly across her face.

Charlie suddenly changed tack. “What about his paintings? They’re bound to rise in value now.”

Angie bent her head and aimed her voice at the surface of the table. “He’s not painted seriously for twenty years.”

“You sure there’s nothing he put away . . . somewhere?”

“Nothing serious.”

“Why not let the art world make that judgement?” I put in.

Angie’s eyes flashed. “I know about art. And more about Bartholomew’s art than anyone. What he’s done recently is junk. There’s nothing else. Just a portrait of me. I couldn’t sell it. Anyway, it’s not his usual style, it wouldn’t fetch much.”

“Look, Angie,” I said, “this really isn’t my business, but just a thought. Charlie’s right. That shoreline property must be worth a bundle. You could build some holiday cottages on it — a small hotel even, or convert the castle into a smart restaurant. Or whatever.”

“Historic building. Planning permission.” Charlie was talking in document headings.

“What have we got Superbloke on the Town Council for?”

Charlie snapped at me. “That kind of thing takes a lot of investment.”

I bridled. “I’ve got a few bob coming to me. We might go into it together.”

This time Charlie positively barked. “And it takes good professional management.”

“And what the hell do you think I’ve been doing the last quarter-of-a-century while you’ve been sitting down here drinking instant tea out of chipped mugs?”

Charlie stared at the wall over my head. “I thought you were sacked,” he said.

“Downsized, Charlie. In a merger. You’re out of touch.”

“You must tell me the difference sometime.”

“About a quarter of a million pounds. And if I’m such a proper Charlie why did you ask me to this meeting?”

“I didn’t,” said Proper Charlie. “Angie wanted you here.” To Angie he said, “I’ve got some papers for you to sign in the other room.” He got out of his chair. I stood up to make way, but he waved me down again. There was another route out of this cubicle. Charlie sidled along the wall behind the table and slid open the door labelled ‘Stallions’. He stepped over a tiny marine toilet, slid open another door exactly opposite and disappeared through it.

“Take your time about it,” I said to Angie. “And if you decide to sell, I’ll clear out of the studio.”

“No. I want you there.”

“To keep the shrine dusted?”

The grey cloud passed over her face again. “What do you mean?”

“Keeping his memory alive. I’m sorry. That was ungracious.”

Angie’s face cleared. “How are you and Spider getting on?”

“Like two kids on one skateboard.”

“You used to be inseparable.”

“Until you started wearing bras.”

“Ted, all that means as much as — .” Her hand fluttered along the table and found Charlie’s ashtray. She picked up a handful of ashes and opening her fingers, let them spill over the table. She wiped her hands together, and then put them, gritty with ash and warm, on mine. “Do you think you and Spider can be good mates again?”

“We’ve just been rubbing antlers.”

“You were like twins. You both used to know just what the other one was thinking. Can you get back on his wave length?”

“You want me to pump Spider?”

“You’re shocked.”

“No. I’m never shocked at how women can shock you. I just wonder why.”

“Because Spider fitted out Bart’s boat for him. Spider helped him plan the trip. Bart was going to call him. Call him. Not me, his wife. But Spider. And when he went missing Spider went looking for him.”

“Some people would thank him for that.”

“I am grateful. But I don’t know what to think.” I had not been in an office in months, so when I got up that morning I had put on a jacket and trousers with a clean handkerchief in the pocket. I gave it to her and she blew her nose in it and then looked up at me. “Will you help me to think?”

“I’ll try.”

“I know when Spider’s being evasive. Find out what he’s up to.”

The sliding door was not sound-proof. “You’re not the only one who wants to know that,” said Charlie as he came out of the loo. He squeezed back to his place at the table and started to gather up his documents without noticing he was sooting them with the ash Angie had strewn. “You heard about that drug shipment they found near Fowey a few months ago?”

The story had been in the nationals and I remembered. “In the lobster pots.”

Charlie nodded and laid his finger against his nose. “A Customs and Excise officer came to see me yesterday. He asked a lot of questions about Spider.”

“What did you tell him?”

“He wanted to know where Spider had been when he was looking for Bartholomew.” Charlie chewed on the end of his pencil and then said what we all used to say as kids when we didn’t know what to do next. “We’d better talk to Spider.”

“Spider wouldn’t have anything to do with drugs,” Angie said.

“I haven’t got round to asking him if he’s a drug pusher yet,” said Charlie. He looked at his watch and then at me. “You can ask him, Ted. I’m meeting him at Formerly Cromarty’s.”

Angie had to sign some papers, so I went into the front room, where the dumpy, grey-haired secretary was pecking at a typewriter. On the sliding door behind her, the second one that Charlie had stepped through, was a pink-and-white ceramic sign bearing a picture of a horse wearing a bonnet, and captioned ‘Fillies’. She blinked her eyes, huge in the surrealistic spectacles. “You don’t remember me,” she scolded.

Somebody’s mother, I thought.

“I’m Veronica.”

I gaped. “Charlie’s sister. Rab — Ronny.”

Her lips pinched. “Mrs Harris to you, Teddy boy.”

“It’s been a long time.”

“I dropped Charlie’s note through your letterbox. I’m your next door neighbour, just up the hill.”

“The Harris place?”

“Johnny made his transition three years ago. It’s mine now.” The others came through just in time to prevent my accepting an invitation to tea at a pebbledash bungalow called Glochamorra. Before leaving us, Angie rewarded Charlie and me with one peck each on the cheek.

“There’s a woman who knows her mind,” I said.

“I wish I knew what was in it,” sighed Charlie.

We bundled out through the narrow door into the gathering mist. Mrs Harris stood by the filing cabinet, one hip dipped, and fluttered her fingers at me. At Formerly Cromarty’s Charlie bought the first round, but kept talking about World Cup Rugby until Spider joined us. Charlie told Spider about his interview with the Customs & Excise. “They wanted to know whether you went abroad much,” he said.

Spider gave a pained grin. “I used up all my holiday savings last year.”

“They seemed to be telling me to keep an eye on you,” Charlie told Spider. I didn’t tell him Angie had asked me to do the same.

“Customs and Excise don’t bother me,” said Spider. “I ain’t VAT-registered.” Charlie went to the gents. Spider winked at me. “He got the first round in, right?” I nodded. “’Cause there were only two of you. Now he’s gone off to avoid buying me one.” He signalled to the barman. “I reckon Charlie owes me a couple of hundred pints over the years.”

“Is he so skint?”

“We’re all skint down here. It’s government policy. We’re so far west of Whitehall, they think we’re part of Ireland. But Charlie is skint by nature.”

I told Spider that Charlie was pressing Angie to sell the castle. “I imagine he reckons that if the club bought it, his shares would be worth a few bob.”

Spider gave me a shrewd glance. “I’ve seen that move coming. And I’ve got it covered.”

“You mean the golden share?”

“Who’s been bending your ear?”

“Superbloke.”

“Mr Goodfellow doesn’t like being called that.”

“He used to love it.”

“His wife thinks it’s disrespectful for a man in his position. You know what his game is, don’t you?”

“He said he represents one of the big London auction houses.”

“Oh, aye, he does that. Pop into the kitchen to make him a cup of tea and he’ll have your Welsh dresser on the back of a lorry before the water’s boiled. And he’s a councillor and all. But his real calling is property maggot.”

“He says he spoke out against selling the club land.”

“Oh, aye. He’s got the courage of my convictions. But I bet you he’s got a JCB revving up in the garage just the same.”

“According to Charlie, if Bartholomew’s dead that golden share reverts to the club. So, there’s nothing to stop them selling out if the founder members vote it through.”

“I’ve got a fallback there nobody knows about.” His eyes twinkled, then the lids rose and dipped again to warn me Charlie was in the offing as he changed the subject. “Did you ever hear back from that squire who objected to Charlie’s Britannia hoax?”

Charlie picked up his fresh pint and glared at Spider. “That was your idea.”

Spider mumbled into foam. “Nothing to do with me.”

Charlie eyed me. “Which reminds me. You’re invited to tea at the club next Friday.”

“Can’t make it. Spider and I are fixing to run a drug shipment up to Normandy Quay.”

“You’ll have to put it off. This is a command performance.”

“HRH is coming to the club?”

“No. Colonel Meeker is.”

“You must be joking.”