Where the Bodies are Buried – the complete book online - Sunday, 27th March

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Sunday, 27th March

The rapping continued. I ignored it and it stopped. A cold draught swept over my shoulders and a bright light flashed across my eyelids. I was lying in the chilled food cabinet at Featherstone’s Supermart. I reached for the blankets but couldn’t find them, so I crossed my hands over my shoulders and burrowed face-down into the pillows. I was being dragged up to the surface and I didn’t want to go. I smelled honeysuckle, but it was too early for honeysuckle. I opened my eyes to pain and Rabbit’s looming, worried face.

“Are you all right?”

“I think I committed suicide.”

Her mouth tightened. “It sounded like murder to me. Have you seen your face?”

“Why? Is it lost?”

“It looks like you’ve had a face-lift.” I touched my forehead. It was sore and there was dried blood on my fingers. “I’ll make some tea,” said Rabbit. I was lying on the settee, wearing all my clothes, including my boots and oilies. I stumbled into the bathroom for some urgent maintenance. When I came out, Rabbit was settling a tray of tea and toast on to the small table by the settee. She held Angie’s bottle of single malt up to me at arms length, wrinkling her nose. It was half-empty.

“This stuff smells terrible.”

“Just like my tongue.” But I couldn’t remember drinking anything from that bottle last night. I couldn’t remember crossing the threshold. She thrust down the corners of her mouth and walked to the end of the room and set the bottle on the window ledge.

I lowered myself on to the settee and Rabbit poured me a steaming mug of hot tea. I held it in both hands and inhaled it slowly. Through the haze, smiling at me, she looked like a vision of a middle-aged Florence Nightingale and I began to emerge from the valley of death.

“Why were you sleeping on the settee?” Matron demanded.

I looked at the undisturbed bed. “I suppose I couldn’t find the bed.”

“I was surprised to find you alone.”

“That surprises me every morning, too.” Her face softened. “How did you get in?” I asked.

“The door was open. I came down to see if you were all right. Because of all the goings-on last night.”

The back of my head began to throb. “I wasn’t here.”

“Did you fall down?”

“I don’t know. I passed out.”

“You’re touching the back of your head.” She came over and pressed her body against me, enveloping me in her scent, while she probed my skull with her fingers. It hurt. “No blood. But you’ve got a whopper.” While I was thinking exactly how to reply to that she pressed a cold, wet tea towel over the bump. “It’s not so easy to fall down and hit yourself on the back of the head.”

“It takes talent,” I said. “I heard something in the rhododendrons.”

“Did she hit you?”

“Who?”

“Who do you think?”

“Angie?”

“No, your constant companion.”

“Matty? She jumped ship weeks ago.”

“You let her in last night.”

“When was that?”

“Just before I turned on News at Ten.”

“I was up with Lord Nick. It must have been hours later that I left.”

“You don’t wear a watch.” She said it as if it were clear evidence of moral turpitude. “Lord Nick could tell you when you left.”

“He was dead to the world.” Rabbit’s eyes opened a little wider. “Metaphorically,” I added.

“Well, somebody let her in. Which was a bit odd.”

“Why?”

“Because there were no lights on. Before or after she went in the castle.” Ronny gave me a knowing look. “So I thought it was you, obviously.”

“It’s not obvious to me.”

“Angie would throw you out if she knew you had that tramp in here.”

“Where did you say you found my keys?”

“The door was open.” I felt in the pocket of my oil slicker and found the keys. “You didn’t give Matty a key?” she asked.

“Only to the Amaryllis.” Still holding the cold compress to my scalp, I went to the door and opened it. A northerly gale was streaming down the estuary. The tide was up and white horses were loose in the harbour. The Amaryllis stood wind-whipped on the hard. The tarpaulin over the cockpit had come loose and was cracking in the breeze.

On the table in the cabin of the Amaryllis we found two empty containers. One was a half-bottle of bourbon. The other was a packet of anti-seasickness tablets from the first aid kit. We found Matty in the forepeak, huddled up against the anchor chain. She was wearing Spider’s faded red oilies. Both her eyes were blacked and where you could see between the great purple patches on her face, it was streaked with the tracks of dried tears. I folded her into my arms. She was limp, but warm and breathing, and smelled of damp. I moved her neck gently, then ran my fingers over her limbs. She shuddered a couple of times, but nothing seemed to be broken. I had to drag her by her shoulders, heavy as a corpse, through the cabin and up the hatchway. Rabbit braced the ladder from beneath and I took her down in a fireman’s carry.

We laid her on my bed in the castle. Her hands were freezing to the touch. Rabbit tucked the blankets over her and wet some more tea towels, and applied them to Matty’s purple face while I lit the fire. There was a streak of mud on the throw rug in front of the fireplace and two smeared glasses on the floor. I sniffed them. They smelled of good whisky to me. Rabbit came over and said, “I’ll phone the surgery.”

“Make it a 999 call.”

She looked at me with scared eyes. “I should probably phone Eddy Starr, too.”

I went up to her and put both of my hands on her shoulders. “I didn’t do this.”

“I believe you.”

“There’s something else I want you to know about Matty.”

“Yes?”

“I have never made love to Matty. Or anyone else for that matter, since I’ve come to Westowe.”

Rabbit’s eyes crinkled. “Scout’s honour?”

“I haven’t tried the local troop yet.”

She covered my hands with hers. “I’ll go and phone Spider. He’ll know what to do.”

She hurried out the door. Matty moaned, but she was unconscious. Her swollen face was relaxed now, her hair spread out on my pillow, a battered, shop-worn, snub-nosed princess. I picked up the whisky glasses with another tea towel and put them on the kitchen counter. Down at the end of the hall the black thread I had re-rigged at the door of the blockhouse was still in place.

They all arrived in Eddy’s patrol car with its blue light flashing: Eddy, Spider, and an adolescent called Brenda with granny glasses and a crew-cut. She was the trainee at the surgery. She lifted Matty’s wrist and felt her pulse, then gently explored her face and the back of her skull as I had done. She spread Matty’s eyes open with her thumb and forefinger and shone the light of an ophthalmoscope into each in turn. She took her blood pressure. Then she pinched Matty’s finger hard. Matty stirred like someone having a bad dream. Brenda checked all four limbs, tapping the knees and elbows, and scraping the soles of her feet with a biro. Matty’s arm jerked when the doctor jabbed her with a needle. She squeezed a drop of blood on to a plastic stick with a strip of coloured rectangles on it.

“How is she?” I asked.

The juvenile doctor spoke in a schoolgirl’s lisping voice, but with the compassion of a Regimental Sergeant Major. “I’ll tell you in a minute.” She waited a minute, then wiped the blood off the stick with a tissue. Then she waited another minute. The rectangles on the strip had turned the colour of a pale morning sky. She compared the strip to a colour chart on the cylinder that held her supply of plastic sticks. Then she bent down and smelled Matty’s breath.

“She’s not a diabetic is she?”

“No,” I said.

“She’s hypoglycaemic. Too much booze. No lesions in the skull. No raised intracranial pressure. Concussed but nothing broken, I should imagine. She’s been beaten up by an expert. A rubber hose job.”

She started packing her bag. Eddy stopped writing in his notebook and regarded Brenda with professional respect. “She been doing drugs?”

“No opiate overdose reaction. No needle marks. She’s taken something. But not opiates. Tranquillisers, maybe.”

I showed her the empty packet of anti-seasickness tablets.

“Cinnarizine. That would do it,” she said. “How many were in there?”

“I don’t know. It came with the boat.”

“What’s happened to your face?” she asked.

“I fell down.”

Brenda sat me on the sofa, shone the ophthalmoscope into my eyes and examined the back of my head. “You were sandbagged,” she said. “But you don’t need sutures.”

“I gave him a cold compress,” said Rabbit.

“That should keep you alive for a while yet,” the little doctor said to me. “If you lay off the booze.”

“You can see that in my eyes?”

“You smell like Newham Hospital A and E on a Saturday night.”

Eddy turned to me. “So, what was the argument about?”

“Eddy, I haven’t seen her in weeks.”

“She was in your forepeak.”

“She still had a key.”

Eddy turned to Rabbit. “Did you see anything last night, Mrs Harris?”

“Somebody let her into the castle while Ted was out.”

“How do you know it wasn’t Ted?”

Rabbit darted a wary glance at me. “I was up at Lord Nick’s,” I said.

Eddy did not approve of Lord Nick. “I don’t suppose he was in a condition to vouch for that?”

“Certainly not,” I said.

“Who else has a key to the castle?”

“Nobody, except Angie.”

Spider spoke for the first time. “I can’t see Angie inviting Matty around for supper.”

“Brodericks,” put in Rabbit.

“The estate agents?” asked Eddy.

“They have a key,” said Rabbit. “But you couldn’t get Brodericks to do anything on a weekend.”

I pointed at the two glasses on the tea towel. “I found those on the floor. They’ve been used.”

“I’ll send them in for prints,” Eddy said.

“There are, of course, the usual suspects,” I said.

“Who’s that?”

“Pixie and Poxy?”

“Come again?”

“Those two villains from central casting — in the tight jeans and leather jackets.”

“What about them?”

“They were flexing their moustaches out in the cockpit the day you brought Lothar out here.” I found myself looking at Eddy’s moustache and dropped my eyes to his police-issue black shoes. Suddenly the two halves of my brain merged. What I’d heard in the bushes was a leather shoe slipping on gravel. “I bet it was that bastard Poxy who clouted me.”

Eddy smiled, which I thought was unkind. “You see anything?”

“No chance.”

“No case then.”

“Who are those spivs anyway? Mates of yours, they said.”

“Spivs. There’s a nice old-fashioned word,” said Eddy.

“Special branch? Anti-terrorist?”

“You know I won’t answer that.”

“Official, though?”

Eddy didn’t answer. A blue light was flashing through the window by the door. The ambulance men came in with a stretcher and were gone again within a minute. The precocious playschool doctor went with them.

Spider’s face was grim. His only words to me were “Not a pretty sight,” which he said as he left.

Eddy turned to me at the threshold, “You’d better be pretty sure you didn’t do this.” To Rabbit he said, “Mrs Harris, I may have to ask you to make a statement.”

Rabbit fumed. “So it’s Mrs Harris now, is it? Whatever happened to ‘Petal’?”

Eddy squirmed. “This is police business, Veronica.”

“I’m prepared to swear to what I saw,” she said. “Not what I think.” His ears glowing, Eddy got into the patrol car with Spider and drove off.

I put my arm around Rabbit. “Thanks. You’re a good egg.”

“Just a bit scrambled, that’s all.” She gave me a moist peck on the cheek. “If you want to talk about anything, come up for a cup of tea anytime you like,” she said before gathering her anorak around her and hurrying up the path.

The black thread was still in place across the door to the munitions room. So what did they want here? An observation post? The bottle of single malt stood on the window ledge and I realised I should have given it to Eddy. I held it by the neck with my last clean tea towel. Against the light of the sky the colour looked off-yellow. I unscrewed the cap, sniffed the bottle and gagged. My uninvited guests were ecologically correct; what they had drunk they had processed and replaced. There was no need to send the sample out for urine analysis; that was Poxy marking his territory.