Where the Bodies are Buried – the complete book online - Thursday, 3rd March

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Thursday, 3 rd March

“I know he’s alive,” said Angie.

We three men looked at each other and agreed that Charlie was in the chair. He was a different man from the wretch I had last seen stumbling down Love Lane on the day the body was discovered. In his tiny office, with the rows of thick dusty books on its shelves and Rabbit bustling in and out with coffee and digestive biscuits, he was as assured as any man can be who is wearing a shirt with cuffs spliced together with paper clips. “Why are you so certain?” he asked.

“He’s not finished yet.”

“Finished what?”

Spider had invited me to a meeting of the Sailing Club Executive Committee. Charlie was just finishing a consultation with Angie and she had asked us to both to join them.

Angie widened her eyes and regarded us — Charlie, Spider and me — as if we were a kindergarten class. “Finished life. What he came here to do.” I wondered what she thought that was, apart from messing about in boats with topsies young enough to be his daughter.

“In a way it’s a blessing,” said Charlie. “As Ted here knows only too well, there was always going to be a big la-dee-dah with the insurers as long as — I mean until — .”

Angie finished it for him. “His body surfaced.”

“Exactly. Now we can finally straighten out your affairs.”

Angie was gnawing her knuckles, and I remembered another time she had done that when she was upset. I had seen it by the light of a full moon filtering through a magnolia tree and she was filling a sleek blue-green dress with a long slit up the side of the skirt. Not her sort of thing, really; she was trying to look seductive. It was the night before I left Westowe for good.

She fastened her eyes on me. “I don’t think it’s Bartholomew. The coroner didn’t say so yesterday.”

“Angie, the coroner had no choice.” To display his exasperation Charlie stood up and began to pace, as hip lawyers do in television dramas, except he could only take half a step in each direction before coming to a wall. “There was no evidence. And the police are investigating. He could only adjourn the hearing.”

Deputy Coroner Rose had returned to Westowe village hall yesterday, less than a fortnight since his last visit. Even more people turned up than before, not all of them locals. They went away disappointed. The inquest lasted less than ten minutes. The post-mortem had concluded that the body had been in the water only a few days — certainly less than a week. Drowning was not the cause of death, as water had not been found in the lungs. There were severe burns on the arms and torso, but also evidence of a massive haemorrhage. The head had been severed, along with the hands, coincident with death, or very shortly thereafter. Apart from the name tag in the collar of the oilskin jacket, there was no evidence of the identity of the corpse.

“So what happens next?” I asked.

Charlie shrugged. “The county police will advise the Missing Persons Bureau at New Scotland Yard. See if they’ve got a match on the Police National Computer. And . . . generally carry on with their investigation.”

“Plod on,” I said.

“And when they’ve got something to report, there’ll be a full hearing.” Charlie put his hand on Angie’s shoulder. “You could short-circuit all this by identifying his body.”

“It’s just an obscene mound of flesh. How could anyone identify it?”

“Just look at it once. And say you think it’s your husband. Nobody would contradict you. It would carry weight with the insurers.”

“You mean lie?”

Charlie held up both hands, palms outward. “Of course not. It’s just sometimes you have to take a short-cut to the truth.”

Angie sighed. “Some day you’re going to cut one corner too many, Charlie.”

Charlie looked hurt. “Angie, I just want to help you so you can get on with your life.”

Spider stirred himself. I thought he was going to put the boot into Charlie, too, but he said “The body was the right age. The right height and weight.”

“With or without the head?” With Angie a cold cynicism came just before the storm flags unfurled.

“Approximately,” Spider retreated.

Charlie took up the baton. “He was wearing Bartholomew’s oilies.”

“Why did he have no head?” Angie asked.

“His chest was burned. Consistent with an explosion,” said Charlie.

Angie was steadfast. “And no hands?”

“Same thing. He must have been handling it.”

“Handling what?” Angie’s question hung in the air.

Spider broke the silence. “Always turn the gas off at the canister source, in case the galley stove is faulty. We were all taught that.”

“It was Bartholomew who taught us,” I said.

“Where’s the wreck?” asked Angie.

Spider spoke. “The Coast Guard reported a yacht missing south-west of Ile d’Ouessant a week ago. No trace of it. But it wasn’t the Swan Song.”

“That’s too far away,” said Charlie.

“If she exploded, there would have been some wreckage,” said Angie. Spider nodded.

“I’m only trying to help you, Angie,” Charlie said again.

We sat in silence for a little while. It was getting dark outside. Angie turned to Charlie. “What about a DNA test?” Charlie sighed. I thought of Matty’s obsession. A glimpse of the future opened up to me. Some day we will all have prophylactic DNA typing, so that we can find out who we ought to be.

“You’d need to match it to something,” I said.

“A blood sample, or hair,” said Charlie. “Have you got something like that?”

“I wasn’t in the habit of saving his toenail clippings.”

“A hairbrush? A toothbrush?” Charlie suggested.

“I threw it all out when he left.”

“You could match to someone else,” I put in.

“What do you mean?” Angie seemed defensive.

“His parents, siblings?”

The frown faded from her face. “His parents died in South Africa. There was no one else.”

Outside the window a streetlight turned on and at the same time the church bell began to toll the three-quarter hour. When it had finished Angie looked at me. “How old can it be?”

“What?”

“How — fresh does the DNA sample have to be?”

“They analyse insects trapped in amber forty thousand years old, don’t they?”

She swivelled her guns on to the other target. “Charlie, I want a DNA test.”

Charlie threw up his hands. “What’s the point? The insurers will probably pay up now. Why try to prove it’s not Bartholomew?”

“It’s the truth I want, Charlie. Not the money.”

Charlie wriggled. “I’m not sure it’s something I should be doing.”

“I understand it’s not the first time you’ve been asked to do this.”

Holed at the waterline, Charlie sank into his chair. “The body is a police matter. The Home Office Forensic Laboratory would have to do it.”

“The request of a grieving widow must carry some weight.”

“Your sample will have to be authenticated.”

“By the grieving widow.”

“I’ll make enquiries,” said Charlie.

Angie got up to leave. We all stood up, as cowed as Maggie Thatcher’s cabinet, as she glided past. With the chairs pushed back there was total gridlock and Charlie had to step in to the toilet to clear a passage. Angie was very close to me. I shrunk back. If Rabbit was keeping her abreast of my love life I was in for a touch of frost. Instead she gave me her mournful Lady of the Lake smile. “Ted, do you mind if I pop up to the castle now? I want to take some measurements.”

“No worries.”

Then she leaned close and whispered in my ear, unheedful of what emotions her warm breath stirred. “Thank you for keeping that slut out of there.”

I had found my tender at the Jubilee Quay yesterday morning, but Matty hadn’t turned up for work. Nor had she been at the inquest. “The slut has gone walkabout,” I whispered back into her spring-scented ear, not heedful either.

At the front door Angie’s progress was hindered by the bulk of Superbloke, who was filling up the ante-room and had to step back out into the lane to permit her exit. The four of us — Charlie, Spider, Superbloke and I — sat down, knocking knees under the scarred oval Formica table again and Rabbit refilled our cups from a pot. It was instant coffee, brewed in the cupboard kitchen under the stairs, and when she lent over my shoulder to pour, its thin aroma was overpowered by the faded pot-pourri of her lingerie drawer.

Charlie snorted. “She was more upset with the way Bartholomew went off than the way he came back.”

“If the body’s not his, whose is it?” Superbloke wondered. He got no answer.

Charlie announced that as Club Secretary he was bringing the meeting of the Westowe Sailing Club Executive Committee to order. He was also Acting Commodore in Bartholomew’s absence, Superbloke was Club Treasurer and Spider was in charge of Operations. Charlie introduced me to the others as if I had never met them before and he seemed to have forgotten everyone’s usual name.

“Mr Meersman has suggested that Mr Golden be co-opted as financial advisor. I am sure the Committee will benefit from his wide experience of high finance,” he said, looking down at the papers in front of him.

“Ted eats cut-purses like you for breakfast,” responded Spider.

The club had failed to keep pace with cultural change. The older members now spent little time on the water; they viewed the club as a cheap social environment, resisted any increase in subscriptions, and cavilled at a hike in the price of a gin-and-tonic. They balked at investment, too, so the club’s sailing fleet, like its members, was increasingly decrepit. Its core was still the traditional wooden Westowe smack, a design evolved by local fishermen two centuries ago; the flotilla of lightweight Lasers introduced in the seventies was now battered and out-of-date and the youthful craze for wind surfing was barely tolerated. The offspring of the generation which had founded the Westowe Sailing Club enjoyed things their parents never had as children: cars, computers, university and foreign holidays. They could keep a surfboard at home and they preferred to drink down in the noisy chaos of The Sailor’s Return on a disco night than in the sepulchral club bar under the reproachful, envying eyes of their parents.

The club was operating in the red, and it was solvent only because of the figure placed in the books for the valuation of the property and the tolerance of the local bank manager, who was a founder member of the club. However, the bank had now withdrawn authority for large business loans and overdrafts from the local branch to its south-west regional centre.

“They’ve given us three months to come up with a viable business plan or they’ll withdraw the overdraft facility and foreclose the loan,” said Superbloke.

“How much is the loan?” I asked.

Charlie examined his fingernails splayed on the surface of the table. “Ninety thousand.”

“Backed by a mortgage on the club premises?”

“Bartholomew wouldn’t hear of it,” said Charlie. “He said it was mortgaging the future of our youth.”

“Bloody right, too,” said Spider.

“Not personal guarantees?” I asked. They hung their heads like schoolboys.

Superbloke shifted his hams on his chair. “Joint and several. Bartholomew, Spider, Charlie and myself.”

“It’s not a lot of money,” I said.

“Pity you weren’t here, Mr Soros,” said Spider. “We’d have had you in and all.”

Superbloke sat up in his chair. “It’s a trifling sum as these things go. But at the moment it would inconvenience me.”

“Four thousand, five hundred pounds of crab meat,” said Spider. He sold plastic bags of white or brown meat from the crabs he caught at five pounds a pound.

“Twenty-two thousand, five-hundred pounds each,” Charlie explained.

“I can do the arithmetic,” I said.

“Or ninety thousand from any one of us, if the others belly-up,” Charlie went on.

“An unfortunate metaphor,” I said.

“Yes — well, the guarantee falls to his estate now. So you can see my concern about Angie.”

“How many club members are there?” I asked.

“Four hundred or so.”

“Two-hundred and twenty-five pounds each,” I said.

“Just try to winkle it out of them,” said Superbloke.

“Nobody’s going to pour money down a drain,” I agreed.

Charlie cleared his throat. “Maybe — it just might be that we might have to consider the inconceivable.” Superbloke raised his head from the legal pad he was doodling on. It could have been a nod.

“I’ll ignore that remark,” said Spider, “if you say five Hail Marys and make an Act of Contrition.”

“There is another way,” I said. “What you need is a sensible business plan to revive the club. One you can sell to the bank.”

Spider and I had rehearsed this. Spider had a plan to revive interest amongst the younger membership and he went through it, counting the ideas off bent fingers, as if he were just thinking them up on the spot. A new section of advanced racing dinghies for the youngsters, while resurrecting the moribund cruising yacht section to re-interest older members. Support could be generated from local businesses, from grant-making institutions, even the European Community. Yachts gathering seaweed in the marina could be loaned to the club in exchange for proper maintenance. I added a few thoughts: interest-free loans from affluent members, adventure-training sponsorship from major national companies. At the end of an hour, Charlie was scribbling notes furiously and even Superbloke was looking more cheerful.

Spider finished. “We’ve got six weeks to pull it all together before the AGM.”

“It’s a bit desperate. And definitely the last chance,” said Superbloke. “If the members don’t buy the plan, we’ll have to sell the premises.”

“That should concentrate their minds,” said Spider.

“You have left it a bit late,” I agreed.

“We left all that sort of thing to Bartholomew,” said Charlie.

“Suppose they vote to sell up?” I asked. “Can you block it with the golden share?”

“No,” said Charlie. “It’s personal to Bartholomew.”

“And with his death?”

“It reverts to the membership. So it’s not a stopper anymore.”

“Unless Angie’s right.”

“How do you mean?”

“That he isn’t dead.”

“Then he could block it.”

“So it’s in the interests of the club if that body is not identified as Bartholomew.”

Charlie stuck out his lower lip. “He’d still have to be around to vote.”

Spider took an interest. “What about a power of attorney?”

Charlie frowned. “The golden share was personal to Bartholomew. I doubt if it’s transferable.”

“That’s bloody silly,” said Spider, “it should go with the office.”

“I’d have to take advice,” said Charlie. Which meant he didn’t have a clue.

“That’s the way Bartholomew wanted it, if you remember. Personal to him. And we all agreed with him,” said Superbloke.

“Why?” I asked.

“Basically, we didn’t trust the membership. There was a lot of property speculation back then. People were talking telephone numbers and we thought members could be persuaded to sell out.”

“Everyone’s got his price,” said Spider. After a little silence he spoke again. “People will probably expect me to stand for Commodore at the AGM.”

We all looked at him. “Of course,” said Charlie. “It’s your turn again. Everybody wants you to be Commodore.”

“But I think the golden share should be transferable from Commodore to Commodore,” said Spider.

“It hardly matters now,” said Superbloke. “Bartholomew’s dead. He can’t pass it on retrospectively.”

“Still, it makes sense for the future,” said Spider.

“If there is a future,” said Superbloke.

“Put up a motion at the AGM,” said Charlie. “If the membership approve your plan, they ought to approve that, too.”

Spider fixed his gaze on Charlie. “Our plan.”

It was Superbloke who answered. “Of course, Spider. We’re right behind you on this.”

Charlie fussed with his papers and looked at his watch without really seeing it, like the white rabbit. “There’s a great deal of work to do,” he said, springing to his feet.

I was impressed. “Where are we going?”

Charlie blinked at me. “I’m going to lunch.”

As we trooped through the anteroom the pink Rabbit was putting on her coat. She gave Spider a friendly wave. I earned a tight-lipped smile. Outside, a brisk south-westerly was churning up the estuary. We left Charlie to lock up. He took the conventional Westowe security precaution of sliding the key under the clay flower pot on the window ledge.

Spider and I turned up the lane. Spider breathed in deeply. “It’s nice to have a breath of fresh air after all that crap.”

“How do you mean?”

“Can’t you see their game?”

“Tell me, while I take a pound of white crab meat off you. That will leave you just four thousand, four hundred and ninety-nine to sell to clear your debt.”

Spider still lived in his mother’s two-storey semi-detached pebble-dash house overlooking the Mud Creek fish quay and we walked down there.

“They’re going to sell us out,” he said.

“For twenty grand?”

“Charlie’s living on beans. He’s a Lloyds name. And if he goes bankrupt he can’t practice.”

“We’re a long way from that yet.”

“Maybe. But Malcolm’s the man to watch. He’s got a grand lifestyle, a pushy wife and a lot of nobby friends.”

“So, he’s not living on beans.”

“No. Credit. Another numbwit who got himself stitched up proper by those footpads from Lloyds.”

“They’ve only got two votes between them.”

“That’s why I wonder what they’re up to behind the scenes.”

“Your plan is good. We can sell it.”’

“Are you on board?”

“Beazer for ballast,” I said.

Spider grinned and put out his hand and I shook it. At the corner of his road a red post-box was set into the stone wall and I remembered the white business envelope in Spider’s hand with the yellow Lucie Rie commemorative stamp on it.

“That day Colonel Meeker disappeared, he had a letter to post,” I said.

“Who to?”

“I didn’t see.”

“Pity. That might have been interesting.”

“He didn’t ask you to post it?”

Spider gave me a long, hard look. “I never met the man.” The door to his shed was open. Live crabs were crawling in shallow water in an old cast-iron bathtub. Spider fished a bag of white crab meat out of the old fridge next to it. I put a fiver in his hand. He held it, turning his hands over to look at his nails.

“Angie’s got a point,” he said. “If you bumped someone off and wanted to conceal the identity what would you do?”

“Destroy the dental evidence,” I said. “Off with his head.”

“And the fingerprints. Cut off his hands.”

“If he’d ever been fingerprinted,” I said. “Otherwise they couldn’t tell anything.”

“Bartholomew’s hands, they could,” said Spider and he spread out the fingers of both his hands in front of me.

Looking at his hard, knurled knuckles, at first I thought he meant that artists’ hands were different somehow, and then I remembered. Bartholomew was a man of the sixties. On a drunken spree somewhere he had gone into a tattoo parlour and had LOVE inked into the knuckles of one hand and HATE on the other.

I stuffed the plastic bag of crab meat into the pocket of my oilies. “By the way have you seen Matty recently?”

“Aye.”

“When?”

“Just before I left for the meeting.”

“Where was she?”

Spider jerked his head upwards. “Upstairs. She was being interviewed by Mam.”

“What about?”

Spider looked me straight in the eye. “She wants to stay here for a while.”

“Mam will have her wearing dresses.”

Spider took me by the elbow. “Come on, it’s time you two kissed and made up.” I thought about Matty’s sweet tongue probing around my gums as we went up the stairs into the kitchen. But it was Mam he wanted me to kiss.

A wraith the shape of a Cornish pasty wrapped in a magenta dressing gown leaned over the sink washing out a teapot. A nimbus of wispy white hair stood out around her pink skull. Her legs had no ankles. She stood on elephant feet wrapped in yellowed gauze and stuffed into carpet slippers. It was the woman who had replaced my mother when I was seven years old and cared for me for the next fourteen. Not as a mother, exactly — more like a warden. Everything about her had shrunk except her great hooked nose and the fierce coals either side of it.

“Look who’s come to visit,” said Spider.

The moulting eagle gave me a sideways glance. “Another stray? We can’t put him up too.”

“It’s Ted, Mam.”

“That’s not Ted,” she said. She came forward and inspected me. “Ted has blonde hair. His is brown. What there is of it.”

“I came to say I’m sorry,” I said.

“What are you sorry for?”

“I’m sorry we had a row. I’m sorry I stayed away so long. I’m sorry I never wrote. I’m sorry I don’t have blonde hair any more.”

Mam came closer and sniffed at me like a spaniel. “He sounds like Ted.” She shuffled back to the washing up. “He was always saying he was sorry for something or other.”

Spider took the dish cloth from her hands. “I’ll do that, Mam.”

She raised her head and her voice. “If Ted Golden walks in this house, I’ll throw him down the stairs.”

Spider grinned at me. “Is that what you did with Matty, Mam?”

“Who?”

“The young lady who wants to stay.”

Mam smiled and touched Spider’s arm. “She’s a nice Catholic girl. She’s going to take me to Mass on Sunday. Like Angie used to.” Mam came back to me. “I put her in your room,” she said. “So there’s no place for you. Even if you are Ted.”

“I am Ted, Mam. Say you forgive me.”

Her face hardened. “Only God can forgive what you did to Angie.” She touched my face with her hand. It was like a dry leaf. “How many times did I tell you to wait until you were married, Ted?” Her eyes were runny and so were mine, but not for the same reason.

Spider came up and put his arm around her. “It’s all right now, Mam. Everything’s turned out all right.” He led her down the hall to the parlour door. She kept hold of my arm, so I went along with them. Her brass bed filled the parlour now. The room smelled of damp bedding and furniture polish. She stopped us, opened the top drawer of the chest, and pulled out a purse. She unfolded a five pound note and put it in Spider’s hand.

“What’s that for, Mam?”

“I want you to go in to Hamble’s in Kings Ferry and buy her a dress. For Sunday Mass. You and Ted can keep the change for the pictures.”

On the way home I realised everyone had more or less forgotten about Colonel Meeker. His body remained wherever it was. When I got to the castle the black thread across the door to the blockhouse was broken. Angie had called with her tape measure. Or whatever.