Where the Bodies are Buried – the complete book online - Wednesday, 2nd February

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Wednesday, 2nd February

I had a small screwdriver with a shaft I had filed down to a needle-sharp point, like an ice-pick. I pushed it gently with the heel of my hand and it slid in up to the hilt, as easily as puncturing a roast turkey. The mast would have to be replaced.

The Amaryllis was a decade older than I. She was a 33-foot Bermuda-rigged yawl, larch on oak, built in the thirties to a classic turn-of-the-century design by Joshua Soper. She had a deep keel, drawing five foot, but was as slim as an arrow — a seven-foot-six-inch beam at the widest point. Like Bartholomew’s sloop she had a low freeboard, just eighteen inches from the surface of the water to the gunwales, too low for a self-bailing cockpit. So any water that spilled in stayed in. Her log showed that the Amaryllis had been built by Bertie Wilby, a retired boatyard worker, in Ramsgate. One three-day cruise stood out: June 2nd to 4th, 1940. Bertie had sailed to Dunkerque single-handed and returned with twenty-five passengers. They must have been stacked on the coachroof like haddocks. Beneath decks the Amaryllis had only a two-berth cabin where no one over five foot tall could stand erect, a claustrophobic forepeak where two very friendly people could lay with their skulls against the anchor chain compartment and their noses six inches beneath the underside of the foredeck, and in-between, a tiny cubicle harbouring a small coal stove that vented through the deck and a marine toilet suitable for a contortionist. You could stand up there, if you opened the hatch over your head.

The foremast was towering, and I reckoned she carried too much mainsail. In spite of her trim figure she would probably wallow in anything over a force five. The mizzen was largely decorative, a small handkerchief to balance the tiller. Since Bertie Wilby’s day various DIY vandals had mucked about with her. The bowsprit had been knocked off, and fittings on the aft deck showed there had once been a bumpkin, too. The auxiliary petrol engine was a relic from an industrial museum. She wasn’t built to take an engine and so the transom had been hacked about to admit the prop shaft. The interior was cluttered with flimsy plywood partitions and the fine teak decks were sealed in fibreglass. But her hull was sound, most of the brass fittings were original and she was a very pretty sight lying in the water. At low tide, sitting on the black mud, leaning against the pilings in the little cove behind the castle, her yellowing paint cracked and peeling, she was like an aging ballerina squatting on the toilet before putting on her face.

“Ahoy, Skipper.” It was a London accent, glottal-stopped in heavy irony. Two young men stood on the foreshore. The big one wore shades and had gathered his hair into a pigtail; his mate was just a scrap, but he had the same hairdresser. They wore identical uniforms: skimpy black leather jackets and blue jeans, black shoes instead of wellies. The little one was smoking a Gitane. I could smell it from the foredeck.

I cupped my ear. “What’s that?”

“Hello, sailor.” It was the shrimp with the snout.

I shrugged and cupped both ears.

“Are you fucking deaf?” The big guy had the same accent. I went through the deaf pantomime again and beckoned them forward. The big guy stepped forward and sank both feet into the mud over his ankles.

“Fuck me,” he shouted.

“Hello, sailor,” I shouted.

“Can you row in or something?” The weedy one was minding his manners now, but he had only a sketchy grasp of physics. I pointed to the inflatable tender tied astern, sitting on the mud. “As soon as the tide comes in.”

They took off their police-issue black street shoes and their socks and rolled up their trouser legs and waded out through the mud, teetering like school girls. As they came up to the ladder I had set up by the bow, I drew it up on board.

“That’s not friendly,” said the titch.

“This fucking mud is fucking cold,” said his companion. His face was so pockmarked his scowl looked like a disfigurement.

“No leather shoes on deck,” I said. “First rule of the sea.”

“We ain’t wearing no fucking shoes,” roared Poxy.

“No mud, either,” I improvised. “Second rule.”

“Fuck your fucking rules. Do you live here?”

“Fuck me, live on a fucking boat in the fucking freezing winter? I should fuck,” I said.

“In that fucking ruin.” Poxy pointed at the castle.

I pulled the ice-pick out of the mast and started cleaning my nails with it. “If you say fuck to me once more,” I said, “I’m not going to fuck with you.”

“Shit,” said Poxy, drawing out the vowel into three syllables like a Harlem black.

“That’s better.”

“You Ted Golden?” asked the little one who didn’t say fuck all the time. I decided his name was Pixie.

“Depends who’s asking.” I was trying out a clotted cream accent, like Spider when he’s taking the mick out of tourists, but it came out sounding like John Wayne defending the Alamo. Pixie and Poxy didn’t seem to notice.

“You know Spider Meersman?” asked Pixie.

“Reckon everybody knows Spider.” My accent hopped back across the Atlantic. Now I sounded like Dinny Dinsmore after an elocution lesson. The trick was to use short words but slide as many syllables as you could into them.

“Spider said we should come and talk to you.” That was about as likely as finding a lobster in a chamber pot. Spider wasn’t into referrals. Pixie manufactured a smile. “You can put your nail file away. We’re not gonna kill you.”

Poxy was shivering now and taking only a marginal interest in the conversation. “Shit, man, I could kill for a cup of coffee.”

Pixie stopped smiling. “We’ve got some news for you from the Crown Prosecution Service, Mr Golden. About your former wife.”

I stopped smiling, too. I slid the ladder down and lowered a bucket of dishwater on a line. “Wash your feet before you come up,” I said, and went down into the cabin to make three cups of instant coffee. We sat in the cockpit drinking it while a squall moved across the horizon and the light began to drain from the sky.

“So who are you?”

“You can call us Smith and Jones.” said Pixie. He didn’t offer any identification.

“I’ve already decided what to call you.”

“Suit yourself.”

“So what about my ex-wife?”

“She left you a lot of money.”

“Some money. Not a lot.”

“Enough to buy a boat.”

Poxy spoke. “Some people get away with murder.”

“So what’s it to you?”

Pixie lit up another Gitane. “Some people are a bit upset. Donald Penny, for one. Your ex-partner.”

Poxy leered. “The bloke who was bonking your other ex-partner.”

“The Crown decided there was no case.”

“Penny reckons there’s grounds for a civil suit,” said Pixie. “You only have to prove a balance of probability in the civil courts.”

“You could lose your boat and your poxy castle,” put in Poxy.

Pixie turned his collar up against the wind. “Of course, he could just be trying to pressure you. Because of that legal action you’ve taken against him.”

“We sold the company. He’s blocked the payment of my share.”

Pixie clucked his tongue. “Musta costa-lotta in refreshers for my learned friends.”

“Ted’s rolling in it,” said Poxy. “His dead wife’s money. Like a pig in shit.”

Pixie cocked his head like a robin listening for worms. “That’s what worries me. The injunction.”

A chill swept up my spine, and it wasn’t from the wind. “What injunction?”

“The injunction the court would place on the distribution of your wife’s estate if Donald Penny launched a civil suit.” Pixie sounded sympathetic. “Which is why we’ve been asked to check you out.”

“By whom?”

“By our superiors. How well did you know Colonel Meeker?”

“I met him the day he died.”

“What makes you think he’s dead?”

“Isn’t he?”

“That’s up to the coroner.”

“Departed, then.”

Poxy leaned over me. “Unless you know something we don’t know.”

“Probably. I passed my O-levels.”

Pixie looked up from his coffee. “Colonel Meeker was a loads-a-money. Did you ever run into him in the City?”

I shook my head.

“Never saw his snout next to yours in the trough?” put in Poxy.

“I didn’t know him.”

“What brought you down to the West Country?” asked Pixie.

“I grew up here.”

“So you know Spider Meersman pretty well.”

“Everybody knows Spider.”

“Local fucking hero,” said Poxy.

“Spider went abroad for a couple of weeks last autumn,” said Pixie.

“He’s got a passport, I reckon.”

“He doesn’t look the package holiday type. Do you know where he went?”

“I was up in London then.”

Poxy grinned. “In chambers, explaining how your wife didn’t have a head for heights.”

I decided against sliding the ice-pick into his throat on the grounds that it would increase the odds on my spending the rest of my days slopping out instead of sailing.

Pixie spread his hands out in apology. “That’s right, we checked.”

“Why don’t you ask Spider?”

“We checked him out. He went to France and Spain. A number of different ports.”

“So why are you asking me.”

“More checking. What do you think he was doing?”

“Check with him.”

“We heard he was looking for the guy who went missing at sea. Whatsisname.” He snapped his fingers twice.

“Bartholomew Streb,” Poxy responded. “Some kind of fucking painter.”

“That’s what he told me,” I answered.

Poxy grinned. “Another chum of yours missing, presumed dead. Just like Colonel Meeker.”

“Did Spider tell you he went to Corsica?” Pixie asked.

“No.”

“Why would he go to Corsica?” Pixie pondered.

“Maybe he’s got friends there,” put in Poxy.

“Have you been to Corsica?” Pixie went on.

“Once.”

“When?”

“Years ago.”

“Why?”

“Benidorm was full of guys like you.”

Poxy leaned forward and breathed a stomach problem over me. “You got any friends there?”

I ignored him and looked at Pixie. “What’s all this got to do with Donald Penny and my wife?”

Pixie drew on his Gitane. “Not a lot. But if you scratch our backs — ”

I held up the ice-pick. “Can I choose my own weapon?”

Pixie looked at the horizon for the first time. “It’s very peaceful here, innit? That’s why people come here, innit? For peace and quiet.” He flicked his cigarette butt down into the puddling mud. “Penny needs the consent of the DPP to launch a private prosecution. If you’re friendly, we can maybe get him off your case.”

“The fuzz make a fuck of a lot of mess when they tramp about on your poop deck in their fucking size twelves,” Poxy elaborated.

“So what do you want?”

“You’ve got a good spot here. You can see everything that’s coming in and out of the harbour. We’d like to borrow the view once in a while.”

“The view’s free. Help yourself.”

“From inside your nest.” Pixie nodded in the direction of the castle.

“You scratch our backs,” said Poxy, “and we tell Donald Penny’s lawyers we don’t think he’s got a case.”

“What’s all this got to do with Spider?”

“We’d also like you to keep an eye on him, in case he does anything out of order.”

“He’s a friend of mine.”

Pixie lowered his shoulders and shook his head. “You should choose friends who’ve got some clout with the DPP.”

“What do you expect to see through my window?”

“Let’s just say unusual activity.”

“Now that you mention it, I saw something funny today.” A notebook and ballpoint appeared in Pixie’s hands. I waited for him to take the cap off the pen. “Two London geezers wading in the mud in their bare feet.”

Poxy scowled and pointed at my feet. “You’re wearing fucking boots. You could have fucking walked in to shore.”

Pixie slipped his pen and notebook back into his jacket pocket. “We’d just like to come and visit now and then. We’d rather knock first.”

“And we’ll take our fucking shoes off,” added Poxy.

“What do you say?” asked Pixie.

I looked at Poxy. “Would you take a bath first?”

“Fuck off,” said Poxy.

I nodded at him. “That’s just what I’d say, if I had the gift of gab.”

“He wants to do it the hard way,” said Poxy. He wrapped one large fist with the other.

Pixie sighed and stood up. “It may take us a couple of days to get around to informing the DPP of our views. If you change your mind in the meanwhile give Eddy Starr a ring.”

“If you’re Customs and Excise, why don’t you show me some identification?”

“Just contact the local plod, you know what I’m saying?”

They clambered down the ladder in the dusk carrying their shoes. The tide was beginning to flow in over the mud. There was a gust of wind and some raindrops splashed in my face. Before the two figures picked their way back to the shoreline I lost them against the dark line of the trees.

There was a splash. “Oh, fucking fuck it,” I heard carried on the wind.