Where the Bodies are Buried – the complete book online - Saturday, 29th January

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Saturday, 29th January

The next time I saw Pogie’s dinghy was just after the early shipping forecast the following morning. A deep low, 984, arriving Fastnet by noon. Force nine gale imminent in sea areas Portland and Plymouth. When I stepped outside to empty the tea leaves into the camellia bush, dark clouds were piling up in the west and a swell was building in the estuary. I heard the dinghy before I saw it, a hollow metallic thump. It was banging against the rocks, its nylon painter trailing out over the bow. I waded out and grabbed the painter and pulled the skiff in to shore. Its hull was dented and bright metal showed through where the green paint had been scraped away. The oars were shipped neatly inboard. The grease-smeared orange lifejacket was floating in six inches of water along with two dead mackerel. The red petrol can was still lodged under the bow thwart, but the anchor and its warp were missing and so were Colonel Meeker and his kit bag.

I rowed the boat around to the little cove on the harbour side of the castle and tied it next to my inflatable. Then I went up the path and around the patch of rhododendron to my nearest neighbour.

Rabbit had just come out of the bath. Her face was flushed and she was wearing a padded pink dressing gown with white frills on the hems. Her hair straggled down her shoulders like greying seaweed. When she saw me her mouth dropped open. She looked like a plump goldfish gasping for air. I asked to use her telephone and she led me into a room copied from a colour spread in a 1950s edition of Home & Garden magazine. Her perfume hovered about while I dialled Charlie Segui. He told me he thought the colonel was staying at Toby’s Shangri-la Guest House. When I rang him, Toby said the colonel hadn’t come back last night. Toby said he would ring Eddy Starr, Westowe’s solitary policeman. I called HM Coast Guard.

A worried Rabbit fussed about with a pot of tea and some home-made scones. We heard the two dull thuds of the cannon summoning the lifeboat crew. These days they all carry bleeps, but they let the cannon off anyway. Spider says it’s to let the wives know the crew might not be home for dinner, but it may have more to do with Spider’s respect for tradition. The first cannon boom drops like a lead weight into the life of the village. Every eye turns towards the harbour and every mind to the seas tossing out beyond Grise Head. No one speaks until the second thud drops.

I drained the flowered teacup and stood up to leave. On the doorstep Rabbit took my arm. “You didn’t do anything to him, did you?”

“Why me?”

“You know how people talk.”

“Let me guess. ‘Now that he’s got away with pushing his wife off a cliff, he’s taken to knocking off the grockles’.”

“It’s just that Charlie said you had your knife into him yesterday.”

“I tried to puncture his ego, but it broke my blade.”

She smiled, but her eyes were troubled. “Always the card, Teddy. Why are you frightened of feeling?”

She pressed against me and breathed a kiss on my cheek. It smelled like the sweets counter at Woolworth’s. The bilge water slopping in Pogie’s dented aluminium dinghy had a sharper odour. The colonel might still be alive, but his two mackerel were very dead. I tossed them to the gulls and lifted the dinghy on its side to drain out the water slopping in the bottom. I unscrewed the petrol cap of the Seagull. It was empty. The spare petrol can was still full. I filled the tank and motored around towards Pogie’s pontoon. The new double-glazed picture windows of the luxury flats in what had been the old Long Beach Hotel were flashing the sun straight back into my eyes, so I heard the rumble of the lifeboat’s engine before it appeared out of the glare like a gaudy orange-and-purple spaceship. Spider was at the helm, and as it surged past, he looked at me through the starboard window. I waved, but he was facing forward again. Before I reached the ferry landing the lifeboat had disappeared around Castle Point, and as I came up to Pogie’s pontoon and cut the engine the Coast Guard chopper roared across the sky following its wake. Charlie Segui and Eddy Starr were standing with Pogie on the pontoon. Eddy was wearing his policeman’s uniform. As I nosed in to the dock Pogie grabbed the painter and started creating about the state of his dinghy until Eddy placed a hand on his shoulder.

“The man is missing, maybe drowned, Pogie. You may have been the last person to see him alive.”

“No,” I said. “That’s was probably me. I saw him cross the bar around two-thirty.”

“Where was he headed?”

“Fairfoul Bay. Fishing for mullet, he said.”

“A little late starting out, wasn’t he?”

“He said he’d be back before dark,” said Charlie.

“He would have had to walk across the bar,” I said.

“It’s neaps,” said Charlie. He had a point. Neap tides are less severe than springs. There would be a few feet of water over the bar at low tide.

“Even so,” I said. “There was a swell.”

Charlie didn’t reply. Eddy took out his little notebook and biro. Pogie clambered into the skiff. “The bleeding anchor’s gone. Warp and all.”

“Could the warp have parted?” asked Eddy.

“Brand new nylon,” said Pogie.

“Something else is missing,” I said.

“The colonel,” said Charlie, quick on the uptake for once.

“A gallon of petrol. The tank was bone dry.”

“It was full when he left here,” said Pogie. “You want to know what I reckon?” Nobody ever wanted to know what Pogie reckoned, but we also knew there was no way to stop him, so we all looked at him. “I reckon he started up the engine and then realised the anchor was snagged. He untied the warp and then fell out somehow.” He looked down at the life-jacket he held in his other hand. “He was wearing this when he left here. Nowise I’d have let him go otherwise.”

“Could he swim?” asked Eddy. We looked at each other. None of us knew.

Pogie looped an imaginary rope around his leg. “Maybe the anchor warp caught around his leg and dragged him over.” He joined his hands together in a diving motion. “And then the dinghy just put-putted around until it ran dry.” Pogie spun one hand around with a downward-pointing index finger.

We all thought about that for a while. I had a vision of the colonel in his smart white oilies, arms hoisted over his head, his hood floating off his forehead, suspended by his ankle on Pogie’s new nylon anchor warp, rocking with the tide a few fathoms below the surface of the choppy waters in Fairfoul Bay.

And then Pogie said, “’Cept, of course, it’s a Seagull.” We all knew old Seagull outboards have no clutches. That meant you couldn’t start the engine and leave it idling in neutral while you hauled up the anchor. The boat would pull the anchor warp taut as soon as the engine caught.

“So?” said Charlie, playing advocate again.

I answered for the rest of us. “So you have to haul in the anchor before you start the engine.”

“Maybe he thought it would help free the anchor,” said Charlie.

“He was an odd cove,” said Pogie, who said that about anyone who wasn’t born within the sound of the bell on Black Rock buoy. “He could likely do anything.”

Eddy stopped writing in his notebook, swept his eyes across us and then out to Grise Head. “You don’t suppose he topped himself, do you?”

“Not until after he provided for his supper,” I said. They all looked at me. “I found two mackerel in the bilge.”

“Where are they?” asked Eddy.

“I threw them overboard.” Eddy frowned. He was about to say something like the hard cops say on ‘NYPD Blue’ about assholes destroying evidence. “I wasn’t hungry,” I added. And then I remembered why I threw them overboard. Because they stank. I was about to tell Eddy, but he wasn’t listening anymore. The radio was squawking in his patrol car parked in the lane. We all followed him. It was Spider on the lifeboat radio. They had found nothing. Eddy suggested they have a careful sweep in Fairfoul Bay and then turned back to us.

“Who is this colonel, anyway?”

“A flaming nuisance,” I said.

They all looked at me. “Don’t speak ill of the dead,” said Charlie.

“I don’t think the condition will improve his disposition,” I said. “Anyway, how do you know he’s dead?” Now everybody looked at Charlie.

Charlie thrust his lower lip forward and hooked his thumbs in the armholes of his padded gilet as if it were a barrister’s gown. “Pending further evidence, it seems a reasonable assumption.”

Eddy got into his patrol car to go to Jubilee Quay and meet the lifeboat. We walked over and, because he had to drive all around the village one-way system, by the time he arrived we had already joined the small cluster of locals looking south-west into the wind, the rainwater dripping from the brims of our hoods into our faces. The lifeboat cruised in on the long swell, its bow settling into the water as it throttled back to pick up its mooring. When its big inflatable tender growled up to the pontoon with the crew, there was no corpse in it. Spider clambered up the gangway carrying a kedge anchor and showed it to Eddy Starr. The new nylon warp was still attached. It would float.

“We found it close in, near the five metre depth line,” said Spider.

Disaster was good for business at Mary’s Normandy Quay Tea Room. Most of the lifeboat crew piled in there before going on to start their day’s work and the locals trooped in after them for the news. Superbloke was already there when Charlie and I went in, and we joined him at a small table. I remembered I hadn’t eaten yet, and ordered the full breakfast of bacon and eggs, sausages, tomatoes, beans and fried bread. We all had thick mugs of scalding coffee. After he talked to Eddy, Spider crowded in with us and had a cooked breakfast too.

“Eddy’s miffed because the lifeboat left without him,” said Spider. “He reckons if he’d been the Sparks on duty we’d have found him.” Otherwise, he had nothing to report. “Seven times out of ten we go out there and there’s nothing but gulls. Today was one of the seven.”

I told them about finding the skiff. They all listened carefully, even Charlie who had heard it all before.

“It sounds as though you didn’t like him much,” said Superbloke.

“Did you meet him?” I asked.

“No.”

I looked at Spider. “Did you?”

“No.”

“Well, take it from me, he was an awkward little cuss.”

Charlie went judicial, putting his elbows on the table and twining his fingers together under his chin. “He was pleasant enough, on balance, considering the situation.”

“Charlie,” I said, “he was totally unbalanced. That meeting was Alice-in-Wonderland. He was mad as a hatter. And mean as a dormouse.”

Charlie filched one of my sausages. “You could be the prime suspect. Last one to see him. Finding the dinghy. Bearing grudges.”

“You have a better motive.”

He spluttered through a mouthful of sausage. “What do you mean?”

“The club will do well out of it.”

Charlie stiffened in his chair and craned his neck as though his collar had just started to choke him or he was about to say something important. But all he could manage was, “How’s that?”

“No law suit.”

Charlie relaxed. “Oh, yes. Of course.”

“I don’t think that was really a serious complaint,” Superbloke put in.

“You should have been there yesterday,” I said. “Charlie was squirming like Rudolf Hess at the Nuremberg trials.”

We all left then. I started up the hill to the castle but then remembered I needed some new leather diaphragms for the brass fresh water pumps on the Amaryllis. I thought the shoemaker might be able to make some up for me and so I cut back through Little Lane and came out on Fore Street just behind Spider. He was dropping a creased white business envelope into the pillar box outside the post office. I recognised the yellow commemorative 36p stamp with the Lucie Rie pot. The Post Office must have stopped selling those months ago. And not even in his most profligate moments would Spider waste a 36p stamp when 26p was all that was required to deliver first class mail.