Where the Bodies are Buried – the complete book online - Thursday, 28th April

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Thursday, 28th April

I didn’t hear the cannon go off that night. I was brain-dead until I smelled the coffee. The berserk chatter of the shrouds rattling on the masts in the car park scattered the anxious fragments of my dream, so I knew it was still blowing hard outside my snuggery. Then I heard the voice. “Morning.” It was Eddy Starr, and he was holding a steaming mug in front of my eyes. It was ringed with three equal blue stripes, with two broader equal white strips separating them and it had a white handle. A popular nautical design. Just like the Cornish Ware mugs I had on the Amaryllis. And it had a chip on the rim opposite the handle. Just like the one Matty had set out on the counter while we wrestled in the bunk waiting for the kettle to boil that day a long time ago. I pushed myself up on my elbows and cracked my head on a beam. I was on the Amaryllis, but the pain was in my head before it connected with the wood.

“Rough night?” Eddy was dressed in a baggy pair of blue jeans and a faded paint-spattered fisherman’s smock that had once been navy blue, just like every other man in Westowe that morning. But because he wasn’t wearing his uniform didn’t mean he wasn’t working. Eddy worked all the time, because by his reckoning everybody was guilty of something, and he had been put on the planet to find out what.

“I had a few.” Now I knew why I’d been shivering most of the night. I was under the sleeping bag, not in it, and I was lying in the wrong bunk, the one under the leaks in the planking. Rain was drumming on the deck. I brought my body carefully to a sitting position, trying to keep my head as level as possible. I found the first aid kit and popped a couple of paracetamol into my mouth. The coffee was scalding and had a strange sickly taste. I spat it out.

“Poisoning is a criminal offence,” I said.

Eddy raised his eyebrows. “You don’t take sugar?”

I gagged, and a pain shot up the back of my neck. Eddy took the cup back and looked around for the sink. “There isn’t one,” I said. He heaved himself up the steps into the cockpit, pushed open the tarpaulin and emptied the cup over the side. It was only when I heard the splash on the pavement that I realised why the boat wasn’t rocking. The Amaryllis was in the boat park. I could see a slice of the estuary under the tarpaulin. It was a nippy day, blowing a wet force four or five in the bay and the tide was running out. Eddy put another spoonful of instant coffee into the mug, emptied the remains of the hot water into it and stirred in some milk powder. I tried another mouthful and managed to hold it down.

“Mid-tide,” I reckoned. “I think I might live till the pubs open.”

“When are you hoping to get her back in the water?”

“Soon. Soon as I figure out whether it’s spring or autumn.”

“Summer parking regulations go into force next week.”

“Have you come here at the crack of dawn to arrest me for a parking offence?”

“It’s almost ten. Why are you sleeping on the boat?”

“Is this a social call or a police matter?”

“Social, mostly.”

“You’ve got your notebook out.”

Eddy seemed surprised to find it in his hands. “Force of habit. I’d heard that you were celebrating in Cromarty’s last night, and I wondered if you were all right.”

“That explains your change of uniform.” Eddy looked at me blankly. “You’re working for the Samaritans now.”

He grinned. “Well, the other part is police business. I came to ask you whether you’d seen anything out of the ordinary last night. But that would seem to be a fruitless line of enquiry, as they say.” He laughed, but I only chuckled because I was afraid my skull would separate into two halves, front and back.

I managed to speak. “Do you still think I roughed up Matty?”

“No.”

“Then you know who did?”

“Why don’t you ask her?”

“She won’t say.”

“Then you’ve got to ask yourself why she doesn’t say.”

“It was those urban sailors, Pixie and Poxy.”

Eddy raised his eyes to the ceiling of the cabin, which wasn’t very far, so he looked back at me. “Have you got anything to soak up this coffee?” I found some biscuits which were only slightly damp. The throbbing in my head was duller now. “Still, I’m not surprised they’ve taken an interest in you,” he added.

“Who?”

He looked into his coffee mug. “Officialdom,” he said finally. I didn’t answer, so he continued. “There we were, having our usual quiet Westowe winter. Then you turn up suddenly, after all these years, and things start to happen.” He started to count on his fingers, “First Colonel Meeker disappears without a trace. A couple of weeks later, Bartholomew Streb floats in, six months overdue.”

“Some people say it’s not Bartholomew.”

“Do they? Who?”

“The local peasants. Angie. Spider, maybe.”

Eddy frowned. “Well, if they’re right then we don’t know who it is. A stranger.” He made a note in his little book, and then unbent another finger. “Then this crazy Sheila turns up and slaps a paternity suit on Lord Nick and now . . .”

The sentence hung unfinished, a white breath in the clammy air of the cabin. I looked up at him. “What’s happened?”

He inspected the roof of the cabin again before meeting my eyes. “The girl was beaten up and found in there.” He pointed to the forepeak.

“While I was being punched out in the rhododendrons.”

“Maybe you just fell down.”

“And somebody put me to bed.”

Eddy tapped his head with his biro. “Drink robs the memory banks.”

“Did you make that up?”

His biro tapped the notebook. “It’s all written down here.”

“I mean about robbing memory banks. Listening to you sometimes is like reading T-shirts.”

Eddy looked baffled, then let it pass. “Anyway, you’re sort of a focal point. You were Bartholomew’s protégé, you might say. You had a close relationship with his missus once upon a time.”

“We were school kids.”

Eddy rubbed his nose with the butt of the biro. “I’m just playing devil’s advocate. You’re renting her property. And you’re pretty thick with this girl, Matty, who ran away with Angie’s husband. Matty works on the boat with you, doesn’t she?”

“She’s switched to a Youth Training Scheme in Spider’s workshop.”

Eddy jabbed the biro at me. “How long did you know Colonel Meeker?”

“Don’t change the subject so fast. It makes my head spin.”

“Sorry. They teach you that at plod school.”

“About three hours.”

Eddy’s biro traversed his right eyebrow. “You wrote him a letter.”

“Charlie asked me to.”

“That’s not what Charlie said at the inquest.”

I touched the sore spot on the crown of my head. “I was just trying to help him out. I’ve never seen Colonel Meeker before or since.”

Eddy’s biro jabbed. “You met him the day he came to Westowe.”

“Charlie asked me to.”

The biro jabbed again. “You took him down to Pogie’s boat hire.”

“Charlie asked me to.”

Again the point of the biro aimed at me. “And you were the last person to see him, that we know of.”

“I can’t blame that on Charlie. I just happened to look out the window at the right time. And saw his skiff slapping into the swell on the bar, heading for Fairfoul Bay. It was low water.”

“Why do you mention that?”

“Because the swell is like the stock market. It goes down as well as up. Half an hour later and he couldn’t have got across.”

Eddy’s biro was grooming his moustache. “Which meant he’d have to stay out there at least three hours. He’d be coming back in the dark.”

“I warned him about that.”

“What did he say?”

“Didn’t take any notice. He was a colonel, after all.”

“Was?”

“Was. Is. God knows.”

“And he ain’t telling,” mused Eddy. “Not yet anyway.”

“What do you reckon?”

“I’m the police officer. What do you reckon?”

“I reckon he topped himself.”

“Why?”

“Money,” I replied. “Most people do it because of money problems.”

“That’s only a symptom.”

“How do you mean?”

“In my experience people kill themselves for only one reason. Loss of self-respect.”

“We’d all be topping ourselves then, sooner or later.”

They must have had an hour or two of ‘Psychology for Dummies’ in plod school. Eddy chewed on a stale digestive biscuit before commenting. “True. Maybe we do, little by little. But it must depend how distorted the image is you have of yourself. If it’s really out of whack and one day something forces you to see yourself for what you really are. If you measure yourself by money, and then it goes . . .” He opened his palm and spread his fingers.

A vision of Colonel Meeker’s envelope with the Lucie Rie postage stamp in Spider’s hands leapt into my head. “Was there a suicide note?”

Eddy eyed me. “You brought the dinghy in. There was nothing in it. Not even the dead fish you said were in it.”

“He wouldn’t have put a suicide note inside a mackerel.” I looked up at Eddy as if I had just thought of it. “He could have sent a letter.”

Eddy smiled. “Interesting that you should mention a letter.”

“Was there one?”

“I can’t tell you anything official.”

“So tell me unofficial.”

“There’d be a postmark on a letter. It would tell you where it was sent from and when.”

“If you read it, it might tell you if you had a suicide or a murder on your hands.”

“Or an accident. I was sorry to hear about your wife,” he added.

“Is that your West Country way of telling me I’m under suspicion?”

“Just being neighbourly, Ted. Nothing official.”

“A court of law threw out the case. You can tell your chums, Pixie and Poxy to keep their slimy noses out of my past life. And if I’m mixed up with Bartholomew and Angie and Matty and Colonel Meeker, so is half of Westowe. Spider, for example.”

“Spider?”

“Why not Spider? Or Charlie Segui? Or Superbloke, even?”

“Who?”

“Goodfellow.”

Eddy thought it was worth writing ‘Superbloke’ down in his book. “Funny you should mention Spider,” he said.

“Why?”

“He has a notarised document in his possession signed by Bartholomew more than a month after he disappeared.”

“What does the Missing Persons Bureau make of that?” I asked.

“I’m keeping it in my file just now. Another piece of the jigsaw.” Eddy is the only person I’ve ever seen lick a biro. He put his tongue on it now before drawing a bullet point in his notebook. Until he could get it all on flip charts, Eddy was suppressing police evidence. “Another thing,” he resumed. “I’m sure Spider told me he never met Colonel Meeker. Do you know any different?”

I riffled through the cluttered pigeonholes of my memory banks. There was only that snapshot of Spider posting a letter with my stamp on it in a red pillar box. “No,” I said after a while, “I don’t know any different.”

“Well, I think I’ll be going before you offer me another stale biscuit.” Eddy put his notebook away and climbed up the gangway. I heard his voice say, “Bracing morning up here out of the fug.” Then his legs reappeared and he sat down on the lip of the doghouse. “We’ve been having such a good chat I almost forgot what I came for.” He pulled out his notebook again. “What time did you say you got here last night?”

“I don’t know. But the pubs had closed.”

“Eleven-thirty or so?”

“Around then.”

“See anyone on your way?”

“Charlie Segui. Up by the castle.”

“Where was he going?”

Had I really seen the yellow wellies going back up the path? “I’m not sure. He’d been to up to his sister’s for dinner.”

Eddy turned back a page in his notebook. “You never told me why you slept here last night.”

“I wanted to get an early start this morning.”

“Looks like you missed it.” He trawled his wet biro through his moustache, leaving a smear of blue ink under his left nostril. “So you walked down with Charlie.”

“No. I was on my way up to the castle.” Eddy raised his eyebrows. The first thing I thought of was the mug in my hand. “To fetch some tea for the morning.”

Eddy looked at the galley shelves. There wasn’t any tea. “If I’d known you had some I would have made that instead of coffee.”

“I couldn’t find any at the castle. By the time I came back down the path, Charlie was gone.”

“See anyone else?”

“Not until your early morning call.” My head was starting to hurt again, from the pain of thinking.

“So, as far as you and the world knows, from around eleven-thirty last night until about ten this morning you were lying out cold. Non compos mentis.”

“The perfect alibi.”

Eddy eyes opened slightly. “So you heard about it?”

“About what?” Eddy didn’t answer. “I was joking, Eddy.”

Eddy frowned. “Sometimes you joke too much.”

“Eddy, why did you come down here?”

“Didn’t I tell you?”

“You’re the police officer. You haven’t told me a damn thing.”

“We’ve had another disappearance.”

A slipknot tightened in my stomach. “Matty?”

Eddy lifted an ink-stained eyebrow. “Why Matty?”

“I worry about her, that’s all.”

Eddy’s biro leafed to a page in his notebook headed ‘Mathilda Ferguson’. “Spider said she went out last night and didn’t come home.”

“She does that all the time. She could be sleeping under a juniper bush somewhere.”

“I found her walking down from the castle when I went to look for you.”

My voice came out high-pitched. “Who’s missing? Not Angie?”

“You’re worried about her, too,” he said. “No. It’s Lord Nick. Seems he fell overboard.”

“From the Snow Queen?”

“No, Charlie’s boat.” Eddy put his hands together in prayer. “There but for the Grace of God.” That was the name of Charlie’s boat, but Eddy wasn’t kidding. Amongst his other hobbies — lifeboat radio operator, scuba diver, balloonist, sleuth and teetotaller — Eddy was a born-again Christian.

I remembered then. “He was bringing her up from the Helford. I was supposed to go with him.”

“He had someone with him.”

“Lothar?”

“No. That kid who works at the club. Simon. He’s all right, but he’s had a narrow escape.”

“From jail?”

“From the cabin. It’s a good thing he sleeps in his lifejacket.”

“What happened?”

Eddy eased himself up the gangway. “Come and have a look.”

We clambered up on deck. At the edge of the car park a gaggle of locals surrounded a long twin fuselage of torn blue-and-white fibreglass. It looked like two giant toothpaste tubes attached in the middle by the remains of some shrink-wrapped cardboard. The entire cabin had been ripped off; there was no trace of a mast or rudder. Spider was inspecting the red nylon netting behind the catamaran cockpit which still hung between the hulls.

“She pitchpoled over the bar,” said Eddy. “Around one a.m.”

“Low water wasn’t until around two a.m. With her draft she should have cleared easy.”

“Aye, but there was a big swell. And she was well out of the channel.”

“Where’s her life raft?”

“On Elbow Sands. Still secured to the cabin. No sign of the tender yet.”

I saw Spider holding up the red nylon netting. There was a great rent through the middle of it. Spider was looking grim, but not like a man nursing a hangover. “Who skippered the lifeboat?” I asked.

Eddy was surprised. “Spider, like always. Why?”

“He was a bit under the weather last time I saw him. Under the table, in fact.”

“You’re not the first one that’s told me that. Two blasts of the cannon must be a good pick-me-up.”

“He must have been sleeping on it,” I said. Eddy swung his legs over the gunwales and on to the ladder. He squinted up at the sky. “So why did you come looking for me?” I asked.

“Well, your boat is right here.”

“Hardly the scene of the crime.”

“It’s just another one of those coincidences.”

“I’m in the shit again?”

“You know there was a note posted on the club notice board about this cruise?”

“Eddy, it’s exceedingly tedious to go around asking people questions you already know the answer to.”

“Then you know only two people signed on for it.”

“I only saw Simon’s name, but that was weeks ago.”

“And just below it was your name.”

“I didn’t put it there.”

“No, someone else did.”

“Why?”

“You didn’t tell Charlie you were going?”

“He suggested it, but I never followed it up. He shouldn’t have put my name down.”

“He didn’t. Charlie says the handwriting is Lord Nick’s.”