Where the Bodies are Buried – the complete book online - Saturday, 26th March

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Saturday, 26th March

One rainy day outside the chandler’s I ran into two figures in red oilies with the hoods pulled around their faces. Spider wore the newer one. Inside the faded one was Matty. The sleeves covered her fingertips. Her arm was linked into Spider’s. I wondered what she’d done with Bartholomew’s orange oilies.

“You didn’t leave a forwarding address,” I said.

“I’m staying with Spider.”

“Mind the crabs. In the bath.”

Another day I was coming down the outside wooden steps from the loft of Jack the Rigger. A large figure in yellow oilskins leaned against a pebbledash cottage like a builder’s flying buttress. Matty was looking up at him, shading her eyes against the sun. Lothar was big enough to make his own introductions, I thought.

She turned quickly and hurried up the road towards Spider’s house, head down, almost running. Lothar turned round and saw me watching him. I managed a quizzical smile and a thumbs-up sign. He gave me a thumbs-down and a laugh.

Spider was usually in the sailing club on Saturday nights, so after an early supper at the pub I went over there with Lothar. It was already crowded, but Spider and Matty weren’t there. Charlie Segui was alone behind the bar wearing an apron and a scowl. I ordered two pints of Bass from the wood.

“Where’s your likely lad, whatsisname?” I asked.

“Simon’s been arrested.”

“Hand in the till?”

“Up his nose, more likely. He was dealing in drugs.”

“Not in the club?”

“Your pals in the leather gear took him away.” Charlie looked up at Lothar before going to serve the other end of the bar. “Ask your mate, he fingered him.”

We went and sat in the overstuffed chairs at one of the little round tables. “What’s this all about then?”

Lothar sipped his bitter and made a face. “He was just small-time.”

I remembered that it was Eddy Starr who had introduced me to Lothar. The same day that Pixie and Poxy had been messing around in boats. “Are you with the drug squad?”

Lothar laughed. “With my accent and all the stamps in my passport?”

“Charlie says you fingered Simon.”

Lothar frowned. “Isn’t that what you do to a woman?”

“You told someone Simon was dealing.”

“I told Eddy. I don’t fancy drug dealers.”

“How did you know?”

“From the crew on the Tradescant. Did you read about that drug gang the French caught off Ile d’Ouessant? About six weeks ago?”

“That French fishing boat?”

“They were making drops along the south coast. Simon was an agent. Small fries. Even some of the kids on the Tradescant knew about it. And there are kids in this club. So as soon as I got on shore I asked where I could find a policeman.”

“And they nicked him, just like that?”

“We set a trap. And they took him away.”

“They ought to give you a medal.”

“Your friend, the Club Secretary, doesn’t think so.”

“Charlie’s narked because he can’t get anyone to work the bar off-season.”

“You English don’t like a foreigner to sort you out. I get funny looks instead of a medal.”

“They may be a little afraid of you.”

“I’ve seen too many young people kill themselves.”

“We shall order a medal to be struck immediately.” Superbloke was standing over us with a gin-and-tonic in his hand. But he hadn’t spoken. Next to him a man bulged out of a padded yellow skiing anorak, the sort that had been briefly fashionable a decade or two ago. He had an even larger girth than Superbloke but was a head shorter. The face was a pudgy blur, with no hair at all, except for enormous black eyebrows poised like shags about to flap away from his nose. “You’re Lothar Volkmann aren’t you?”

Lothar nodded. The man didn’t put out his hand to be shaken but just flapped it in the air. A wise procedure with Lothar. “On behalf of the club I’d like to thank you for what you’ve done.” Lothar beamed. “We’ve got to keep the little buggers from driving up the street price of a decent snort. Let me buy you a drink.” Then he looked at me. “You, too, Ted.” I recognised the little smirk. The last time I had seen this man his waist could have fit into one of the legs of the trousers he was now wearing and his sleek black hair had been as thick as his eyebrows. It was Lord Nicholas Farthing-Tattersall.

It turned out Nickers had a yacht for sale, a forty-five foot sloop lying in Plymouth. Lothar volunteered that he had some contacts in the Caribbean who might be interested. “Why don’t we go up to my place and talk about it?” Nickers included all of us in his gesture, but Superbloke had just come down from Tattersall Hall and cried off. I had a vision of the baronial fireside flickering through a large glass of coppery malt whisky, and tomorrow was Sunday — lie-in day on the Amaryllis — so I went along.

On the way out I glanced at the club notice board and saw a typed note signed by the Club Secretary. Charlie Segui had sailed his thirty-five foot catamaran, Grace of God down to the Helford River in the autumn, and by the grace of God had not been able to bring her back alone against the wind and weather. She was lying, expensively, at the boatyard in Gweek where the Helford River springs from a muddy patch of meadow. Charlie needed crew to bring her back, and was offering free transportation and victualling to anyone prepared to join him. I pointed the notice out to Lothar.

He grinned, “He’s a bit tight-handed, your Club Secretary.”

“Short-handed,” I corrected. Lothar shook his head and made one of his hands into a huge fist. Travelling at speed it could drive your nose through your cheekbone.

“Oh, right,” I twigged. “Tight-fisted.”

Only one potential crew member had signed beneath Charlie’s appeal. It was Simon, and under ‘Availability’ he had written: ‘Whenever’.

Lothar laughed. “Whenever he gets out of the jammer.”

“Slammer,” I corrected.

Tattersall Hall was dark and shrouded with shrubbery that had overgrown its tall windows. The iron-studded double doors weren’t locked. Nick pushed them open and Lothar and I followed him through into the flagstoned hall with its dark ancestral portraits and smell of linseed oil. Nick and I were born within a week of each other. So he had shared his 21st party with me, and we called it our 42nd, an age then impossible to conceive. I wove down through couples embracing on the staircase. Joss-sticks and joints and Eric Clapton mingled on the warm spring air. Angie and I had walked round and round the bare rose garden talking into the early morning. At the top of the garden, where you could see the beacon on The Elbow, magnolia blossoms drifted down onto her hair. And then she was gone. I wove down the stairs holding a bottle of champers. The double doors were open. Angie ran out through them, crying. She was wearing a tight-fitting sheath dress of bright peacock blue and green and silver in a Chinese pattern. With long slits which exposed her thighs. Outside, Spider wrapped his arms around Angie, and she put her head on his shoulder. They turned and he led her down the gravel drive. I wouldn’t see her again until a generation had passed by.

A bright glare clamped my eyelids together. It came from a trouble light, a bare bulb mounted in a holder with a protective grill and clipped to the top of a ladder. A black flex led up to the ceiling fixture where the chandelier had been. The ladder stood in the centre of the great entrance hall of Lord Farthing-Tattersall’s manor house. There was nothing else in the room except a battered leather suitcase lying open on the first step of the staircase where the pale track of an absent carpet runner curved up into the gloom. Where the framed portraits of Lord Nick’s ancestors had once stared down at interlopers a series of dim panels mounted the wall above the stairs. Our footsteps echoed across the bare floor to the oak panelled sitting room, where a couple of bare bulbs blazed from dangling wall fittings. A plump yellow leather sofa faced the fireplace. It was soiled and the arms had been clawed into strips by animals — or perhaps ladies with long fingernails. A battered black lacquered coffee table with a mirrored glass top stood in front of it. There was no other furniture in the room except a large television set in the corner with a pile of magazines on it. Nothing burned in the fireplace and the air in the big room was chill. Only the whisky Nick poured for us fulfilled the vision I had of his fireside.

“You doing a bunk, Nick?” I asked.

Lothar looked at me with a question. “A bunkrunner?”

“My dear fellow, I just blew in from Bequia. On a clear day you can see Mustique lying on the horizon.”

“Where’s the furniture?”

Nickers looked around the room as though seeing it for the first time. “I’ve had to part company with some of my ancestors. And their goods and chattels.”

“In hock?”

“In Christeby’s. This is terminal. Malcolm swooped in today for a house clearance. They leave it broom-clean, as they say. Except for the sofa and the coffee table, upon which I was reclining at the time, and he let me keep the telly for my dotage.”

“So that’s what tempted you back to Westowe.”

“Hastened by the baying of my creditors, and also let it be said to fulfil my obligations to the club at the AGM.”

“They’ll need all the help they can get to fend off that grasping property speculator.”

Nick snapped his heels together and brought his right hand up smartly to quiver over his eye. “I have heard the call.” He let his shoulders slump again and turned to Lothar. “That’s why the Snow Queen is for sale. Submerging in a sea of creditors.”

We sat down and he lit up a reefer. He offered it to me. I shook my head, “Lothar’s got a thing about drugs, remember?”

“My dear fellow, I am sorry,” said Nick, and held out the joint to Lothar. I expected the giant to pick him up by the scruff of the neck and cart him off to the slammer. Or the jammer. Instead, he just smiled and raised up both hands palm outwards. Nickers laughed. “Not while you’re on duty?”

“What kind of shape is she in?” asked Lothar.

“The Snow Queen? Completely refitted. Ready to sail, except for the small matter of a shipyard lien.”

Lothar reckoned she might be ideal for the charter business in the Caribbean, if the price were right. They talked figures for a while and Lothar agreed to take a look at her.

“Ted’s got a fine boat,” said Lothar. “The Amaryllis.”

“I hear it comes with hot and cold running crumpet,” said Nickers.

“Crumpet?” Lothar was the right generation, but his English-language was more American than British.

Nickers wasn’t helpful. “That bint who thinks I’m her old man. Bartholomew’s piece of fluff. Ted’s got her lying in irons in his foc’sle.”

Somehow understanding beamed on Lothar’s face. “Ted says she’s done a bunk.”

“She’s bunking with Spider now,” I said.

“Really? She seems to be a serial middle-aged man molester. I suppose as her reputed father I’m the only one who’s safe,” said Nickers. “Why is she picking on me, Ted?”

“Nothing personal,” I said. “It’s just that you’ve got the nicest house in town.”

“Wish I could afford it.” He drained his first glass and picked up the second one. “Charlie Segui is hassling me for a blood test.”

“Why not just give him one?”

“If I gave blood to every child who claimed I was its father I’d be lying on a slab now.” He leaned back on the chartreuse sofa and closed his eyes. The muscles in his pale face slackened. He looked like a corpse.

“How do you spell Segui?” Lothar had his notebook in his hand.

“C-R-E-E-P” said the corpse.

Lothar was looking bewildered again. “Why is he helping Maddy?”

“That’s good,” said the corpse. “Maddy. Mad as a hadder.”

Something narked me. Lothar spoke our foreign tongue with only a trace of accent and Nickers, who ignored the existence of any language but his own, was taking the mick. Or was it the interest Lothar was taking in Matty that annoyed me?

“Charlie Segui is acting for Matty,” I told Lothar. “Another hat he wears.”

“A bad hat,” said the corpse. “Raising his pikestaff against the noble house of Farthing-Tattersall to put Bartholomew’s bint on the escutcheon.” He raised his glass in the air. “A pair of legs rampant. Uncrossed.” Lord Nick rested his glass on his forehead and closed his eyes again.

“Charlie Segui was a good friend of Bartholomew’s?” asked Lothar.

“They ran the sailing club together.”

The corpse spoke again. “Charlie, Spider, Superbloke — all members of the Ancient Order of the Toilet.”

Lothar looked up puzzled. “Pardon?”

“The Toilet Club. I’m a member.” Without opening his eyes, Nick pointed a finger in my direction. “He’s a member.”

I explained. “There’s a spouthole in a mewstone just off shore before Grise Heel. At high spring tides, if there’s a strong swell, you can squat over it and it will wet your backside. But somebody has to hold your hands. It was a kid’s dare.”

Lothar grinned and wrote that down. “You have to trust your friends.”

Nickers recharged my whisky glass, but Lothar shook his head and got up to go.

Nick looked at his watch. “It’s not nine yet.”

“Day off tomorrow,” I reminded Lothar.

Lothar tapped his notebook. “A deadline to meet.” He always shook hands when he said hello or good-bye and I had to put my fingers into the vice again.

“Why don’t you build a fire, Ted, while I see Lothar out?,” said Nick. “It’s fucking freezing in here.”

“What do you use for wood?”

“Only the Victorian stuff.”

I wandered through the empty downstairs rooms. Apart from the wainscoting I saw no wood until I came across some empty tea chests and odd bits of shelving in a cupboard. Through the window I could see Nickers and Lothar talking in the driveway. I had the fire blazing before Nickers came back into the room.

“Splendid chap,” he said.

“Do you think he’s a narc?”

“Would I be smoking pot in front of a narc? Give us a break.” He opened a little silver box, and carefully laid a line of cocaine with a razor on the glass table. He held the box out to me, but not very far.

“I’ll pass. He turned in Simon.”

Nick sniffed up the line of white powder through the paper tube, tidied up the little silver box and flopped back on the sofa with a sigh. “You fail to see the complexities. You always were an innocent lad. Playing jacks with Angie while the rest of us were out shagging grockles in the meadow. Why don’t you two get together again?”

“She reckons Bartholomew’s still alive.”

“So she won’t let you into her knickers? Can’t say I blame her. What with you knocking off my daughter on your boat.”

“I’ve got a little problem there, too.”

“That’s no way for a daughter of mine to behave. Send her up here and I’ll sort her out for you.” He fixed me from his couch with one open eye. “Who do you suppose bagged that Meeker, then? I know grockles can be a bit of a nuisance, but after all they are out of season.”

“Who says he was killed?”

“Some people say you topped him.”

“Which people?”

“The entire local establishment, old man.” He ticked off his fingers. “Dinny, Millie the sub-postmistress, the bar staff at The Sailor’s Return, the checkout girl with the nice tits at Featherstone’s supermercado — .”

“You left out Eddy Starr.”

“Really? The Westowe constabulary is on your trail? Then you are in big trouble. Plod has revoked mooring permits for lesser offences. Still, you don’t look like a serial murderer to me.”

“What do they look like?”

“More like your chum, Wolfman, wouldn’t you say? Nice smile, but cold, hard, staring eyes.”

“Wolfman?”

“Hans, Ludwig, whatsisname — the Danish pastry.”

“Volkmann. Lothar. I thought you two hit it off.”

Nick laid a finger alongside his nose. “It always pays to be nice to the press, even if they look like serial murderers. We had a nice chat while you were breaking up my furniture.”

“What did you tell him?”

“Just local colour.”

“Like how I’m the number one suspect?”

“My dear fellow, I exonerate you completely. As any reader of P.D. James could tell you, you must have the three Ms. Motive, Method and . . .” I poured myself another glass of whisky and waited. “I can’t think of the other one.”

“Opportunity?”

“That’s it. Mother-fucking ‘Opportunity’. The ‘Method’ seems pretty simple. You push someone off a cliff, or out of a boat when he’s looking the other way.”

“Or cut off his hands and head.”

“Artistic embellishments. And ‘Opportunity’ comes to all of us by-and-by.”

“I have developed a habit of being in the right place at the wrong time.”

“So you’ve heard the gossip?”

“Everybody knows I found the colonel’s dinghy and wrote the letter that brought him here.”

“The gossip is about your wife.” Nickers held up three fingers and ticked them off with his other hand. “’Opportunity’, ‘Method’ — right on. And as you were married, ‘Motivation’ may be taken as read.”

“Guilty until proven innocent.”

“Very likely. But my point was you don’t look like a serial murderer. Where’s the ‘Motivation’? Why would you want to dispose of this eccentric colonel, not to say Bartholomew?”

“Why would anyone?”

“Anyone?” He spread out the fingers of one hand again, and ticked them off. “Charlie Segui might. Malcolm might. Spider might.”

“Why Spider?”

“Quiet. I haven’t finished.” He ticked his fourth finger. “And I might.”

“What’s the ‘Motivation’?”

“Money. It’s always money. Except when it’s women. And then it’s usually mixed up with money.”

“Superbloke lives off the fat of the land.”

“His wife is the fat of the land. And she’s divorcing him.”

“Charlie Segui’s got his practice.”

“Poor as a parson. And avaricious as a bishop.”

“If Spider came across any money, he’d put it in the poor box.”

“A shrewd investment, if that’s what you believe in. But Spider would do anything to save his precious club from bankruptcy. Or for Angie.”

“Kill Bartholomew?”

“Ah, but Angie reckons it wasn’t Bartholomew.”

“Where does the money come in?”

“The colonel was something in the City, wasn’t he? I imagine one would find his estate is worth a few bob.”

“He’s not likely to name Spider as beneficiary. Or Charlie Segui. Or Superbloke.”

“That’s the part I haven’t figured out yet.”

He was right. Everyone in Westowe was skint. According to Spider, Charlie and Superbloke were being hounded by Lloyds. Moreover, Superbloke, Charlie, Spider and Bartholomew had jointly and severally guaranteed the sailing club’s credit line, which meant that each of them was in the frame for up to £90,000 of debt if the club foundered. Was that enough to kill for — jointly or severally?

“And your ‘Motivation’?”

“Don’t be misled by cheap pop song sentiment.” Lord Nick tapped his little silver box. “Once you’re addicted to something, money can buy happiness.”

Into the further reaches of the night he told me about places he had been and women he had known in the 60s and 70s, when the world was young. As a point of principle, he claimed, he had kept his hands off the female servants, at least from the age of ten. He had, at one time, been in Australia, he believed, if that’s the next stop after Bangkok. So, depending on what the female population of the Antipodes is, there is a chance that he could, indeed, be Matty’s father. The 80s, he said, had passed in a blur, as did the rest of the evening. I remember stumbling down the hill homewards by the light of a waxed moon. When I rounded the rhododendrons leading to the castle I heard a familiar sound — like loose scree dislodged on a mountainside by a slipping foot — but before I could turn around the stony path rose up and hit me like a ground-shot camera zoom.