Where the Bodies are Buried – the complete book online - Friday, 29th April

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Friday, 29th April

A cluster of strangers stood, backs to the wind, on the stone viewing platform below the sailing club. One figure detached from the group and wheeled slowly about in a tight circle. There was a black object on his shoulder. It blinked a flash of reflected sunlight at me. A camera crew. I gave the distant lens the traditional two-fingered salute of the English archer and started down the path. When I came up to the camera team they were manoeuvring a stiff figure in an off-white peaked officer’s cap and navy pea-jacket into position against the backdrop of the churning grey-green estuary and its low slate ceiling of bruised clouds. A girl wearing a multi-coloured skiing anorak tried to take Dinny’s brown bucket away from him, but he brushed her hand away. I joined two women who had arrested their shopping carts to gawk.

“This is a very close-knit community, isn’t it?” A blonde girl in a black trench coat pushed the microphone under Dinny’s beard.

“Some’s no better than they should be.”

“What would you say the prevailing mood is today? Have people got the wind up?”

“Generally east or north this time of year.”

“I mean, what’s the feeling now that this small fishing village has been devastated by the third seafaring tragedy in recent months?”

“There’s not fishing here like there was.”

“I understand it was you who recovered the body of the artist Bartholomew Streb.”

“They still not found the grockle.”

“Was that the boat he was sailing round the world?”

Dinny spat. “That were no more’n a dinghy.”

“He’d been missing some time, hadn’t he? How long could anyone last in those seas on a day like today?”

“About six months.”

“Six months?”

“Bartholomew cast off last August. I found him in February.”

“How did you come to discover the body?”

“The gulls told me.”

“Which girls?”

“They’s only come to the sewage outlet at tea time.”

“The body was in a sewer?”

“It was dawn.”

“Down the sewer?”

“Up over it.”

The interviewer checked her notes and tried again. “A mysterious chain of three disappearances. Are they connected somehow?”

“Oh aye.”

“What’s the connecting link?”

“They all fell into the water.”

“I mean, how would you explain this mysterious chain of disappearances?”

“It’s because these days they makes the yachts out of plastic and tinfoil,” Dinny explained.

The interviewer turned away and went into a huddle with the cameraman. The girl in the harlequin anorak bit her lip. She was holding a clipboard. “It not making a lot of sense to me,” she said into the wind.

Just over Dinny’s shoulder a plume of spray flew up from Black Rock and I remembered its silhouette rising behind him as he stood in the stern of his launch ferrying the tangle of warps and fishnets down the estuary like Charon in the moonlight. I had a question for Dinny: why was he heading out to sea rising midnight night before last? With a cargo of nets?

Dinny saw me studying him and scowled. “Spider wants to see you, teatime.”

The interviewer and her cameraman were shouting at each other now, but the harlequin girl heard and looked up from her clipboard. “You mean those girls at teatime, Mr Dinsmore?”

Dinny looked at her. “You’re not invited. Ted Golden is. It’s him you ought to be talking to.”

“Who’s Ted Golden?”

“It all started just after he come back to the village.”

I was off, trotting down towards the Jubilee Quay. A crowd of gawkers wearing mackintoshes and anoraks over track suits and trainers was drifting around Fore Street, button-holing each other to mutter questions. I didn’t see anyone I knew. The grockles streamed like iron filings in a magnetic arc stretching between the quayside and the entrance to The Jubilee Inn (formerly Cromarty’s). I carried on down to the boat park where Jack the Rigger was starting up his crane. He stepped the mast of the Amaryllis and we tightened the stays. I was sheltering from the dripping mizzle under the bow, nursing a cup of coffee and waiting for the tide to rise, when Matty appeared at my shoulder. Spider’s faded red oily jacket was double-wrapped across her thin chest.

“Spider wants to know, are you coming to tea.” I peered at her face. I could not see any resemblance to me or to Spider or to Nick.

“When were you born?” I asked.

“Not yesterday.”

“I’m serious.”

“In the summer. They didn’t know what day.”

“I mean, what year?”

“I’m twenty-seven.”

“But you were born in the summer.”

She nodded. “That’s what they told me. You never told me your star sign. When’s your birthday?”

“Today. I left Westowe the day after my twenty-first birthday, twenty-eight years ago tomorrow.”

“Shit, I haven’t got you a present.”

“I reckon you just gave me one.” She was the right age, but if she’d been born in the summer Angie was not her mother and I couldn’t be her father.

“I’ll get a cake for tea.”

“Why does Spider want to see me?”

“He needs a witness, he says.”

“Why not you?”

“Maybe he doesn’t trust me.”

“When?”

“Teatime. You know, after it gets too dark to work, but before it’s time to go to the pub and fall down drunk.” I nodded. She didn’t say good-bye, but just turned and walked away. With her shoulders squared, her sleeves jammed in her pockets and her head bowed, thinking, she could have been Angie striding across the car park. Except that she stamped her wellies in the puddles.

We dropped the Amaryllis into the water on the rising tide and towed her out to the deep-water pontoon, where I had rented ten linear metres of floating wood at an exorbitant rate from Buckler’s boatyard. I raised the floorboards to see if she was taking on water. During the first hour I sponged a bucketful out of her bilges, but the new garboards swelled and by teatime only a few drops were squeezing in. It was getting dark by the time I got to Spider’s place.

“Come into the parlour,” said Spider. His little joke which years of use had rubbed smooth of meaning. The parlour smelled of wet dog, or maybe it was Matty’s hair. She smiled at me over a glass of whisky. Charlie Segui was sipping from one of Spider’s mam’s teacups and helping himself to a plate of Eccles cakes from the bakery. I was tired and my joints were stiff, so I was glad to settle into one of the old sprung armchairs. Spider held out a teapot in one hand and a bottle of single malt in the other. “Earl Grey or Captain’s Courageous?” I nodded at his left hand and he poured me a generous glass of whisky. On the table was a document headed ‘Power of Attorney’.”

“Don’t put your glass down on it,” said Spider. “That’s the original.” I picked it up. It was dated October 25th of last year. Bartholomew’s signature was notarised by the British Consul in Corte, Corsica.

“Is it legal?” I asked.

Charlie looked tired, too. “It would cost a lot of money to contest it, and Spider would probably qualify for legal aid.”

Spider was topping up Charlie’s teacup. “You don’t expect a straight answer from a lawyer, do you?”

“You found Bartholomew in Corsica,” I said.

Spider nodded at Matty. “Both of them.”

I looked from her to Spider. “So that first day I met you with Spider in Cromarty’s — that story about leaving Bartholomew in Lézardrieu — total crap?”

Spider shrugged. “We had a little rehearsal.”

“We did have a row in Lézardrieu. And I did leave him,” she said. “But he came after me. And we sailed to Brest and La Coruña and then on to Majorca.”

“Have a nice sail?”

“Except for the rows. Then we set out for Corsica.”

Spider spoke. “He was holed up in a little village halfway down the west coast called Punta Palazzo. Just a beach tavern and a few houses. You can’t even get there by road. There was only one boat in the harbour, tied up at a little quay outside the tavern.”

Swan Song.”

“No. It was a 37-foot Moody. L’Aventure Doux she was called, and Bartholomew was sitting in the cockpit with an empty canvas on an easel and a half-empty bottle of mother’s ruin.”

“Where was Swan Song?”

Matty looked up at me. “On the bottom. About twenty miles west of Corsica.”

“A storm?”

“Pirates.”

“You’re joking.”

“Three evil-looking bastards in a fishing caique. They had a Kalashnikov. And handguns and machetes. We were drifting in light winds and they just roared up alongside. Bartholomew told me to go below and slip his wallet with our passports into the cockpit chart case. They boarded us as I came up again. He tried to argue with them, they knocked him down and took what they could find — money, credit cards, the booze, food, the liferaft, some navigational equipment.”

“Were you all right?”

“They felt me up a little, but mostly they just leered. Either they didn’t like the size of my tits or they were too stoned to get it up. Then they sank her. Just opened the watercock and down she went.”

“What about you?”

“They were going to kill us, I’m sure. But there was another guy shouting from inside their cabin. I couldn’t see him, but he probably saved our lives, because after a lot of arguing back and forth, they finally pushed us into the rubber dinghy.”

“With an outboard?”

“They held that out to me and dropped it in the sea. Big laughs all around. But they let me grab the oars and a bottle of water. They laughed again when I reached for the cockpit chart case, and just waved the Kalashnikov towards the east. But they let me take the chart case. Bartholomew was crying as the Swan Song went down. The last thing we saw was the Westowe Club burgee slipping beneath the waves.”

“Did you get picked up?”

She shook her head. “We could rig a little sail on the dinghy. It took us all night to find Corsica, and we stood off until we could see a landfall at dawn.” She gave a short laugh. “Trust Bartholomew to fly on a pig and land in shit. The guy who found us owned the local taverna.”

“What did the police say?”

“There are no police in Punta Palazzo. So we had a drink in the taverna. And a few more drinks. And met this dodgy pom called Blake who owned the Moody. William Blake, would you believe? He was chasing some woman in Paris and needed someone to look after the boat for a while. Or so he said. He’d even pay us. The catch was, if we took it on we couldn’t go to the police, because they’d take an interest in Blake. Who had an ongoing disagreement with the tax authorities. Or so he said. With all the shenanigans in Westowe, Bartholomew had let the insurance on Swan Song lapse, so there wasn’t really much reason to go the police. Blake left all the ship’s papers and when Bartholomew was going through them he found Blake had another passport. An Irish one. That’s when Bartholomew had his big idea.”

“Which was?”

“To disappear himself.”

“The last of the great romantics,” said Spider.

“So we stayed there. And met some more of Claude’s dodgy friends.”

“Claude?”

“The bloke who owned the taverna.”

“With Claude’s contacts, it was no problem to alter the Irish passport. So now he was two people. Bartholomew Streb when he drew on his Swiss bank account. William Blake to anyone else.”

“He finally made a name for himself,” I said.

“Yes, he fancied being William Blake. And after a while he got in touch with Spider,” said Matty.

“How?”

“He sent him a letter.”

Spider shuffled his feet. “He asked me to help.”

“So you came out and found them?”

Spider looked at Matty. “She wasn’t there.”

Matty looked at the floor. “Another row. The last one.”

“Where were you?” I asked, but she just bit her lips.

Spider answered. “She had taken off with a round-the-world sailor on a 50-footer. Bound for the Caribbean, according to Bartholomew. I blew my stack at him. He just hung his head and said he was sorry, but he couldn’t help himself. And kept pouring me drinks. We talked for a couple of days on and off. His ship was in irons. He couldn’t live with Matty and he couldn’t live without her. He missed Angie but he couldn’t face coming back to her. He had something inside his head that he wanted to paint but he couldn’t get it out. So he didn’t lift a brush. He was a man of thirty trapped inside a seventy-year-old body. And every day that passed he had more aches, a few less neurones and a little less money.”

“So?”

“So, I keelhauled him. It wasn’t just Angie. It was me he was letting down. And the club. And all of Westowe.” Spider tasted his tea, frowned and poured the tea back into the teapot. He refilled his cup from the whisky bottle and took a gulp. “He cried.”

“Bartholomew cried?”

“He blubbered.” Spider grimaced with distaste. He nodded at Matty. “And then one fine day herself turns up again. The 50-footer was laid up in Bonifacio. And they kissed and made up.”

“And lived happily ever after.”

“And so I was shifted out of my bunk to the taverna on the beach. And the next day we worked out a deal. Bartholomew would give me power of attorney for the golden share. I wouldn’t tell anyone I’d found him. We signed the papers at the British Consulate. Bartholomew was going to do a deal with Blake when he resurfaced and carry on for Australia. Or wherever.”

“What about money?”

“He reckoned when he was declared dead his insurance money would look after Angie. The two properties would go to her, too. And the value of his paintings would soar. He told me his latest work was stored in the castle. And he turned that over to a trust. Thirty per cent of it would go to the sailing club and the rest would be routed back to him. Charlie set it all up.”

“Through an offshore company,” said Charlie.

“Dodgy,” I said.

“Spider didn’t tell us about the power of attorney,” Charlie whined.

“Who’s us?”

“Me and Malcolm Goodfellow.”

“Christ, is Superbloke in on it, too?”

“We asked Malcolm to get Angie to agree to sell the paintings,” Spider explained. “But we didn’t tell him Bartholomew is alive.”

“Need-to-know basis,” Charlie added.

My voice was angry. “And Angie? Didn’t she need to know?”

“That’s how Bartholomew wanted it,” said Spider.

“She wouldn’t have got the insurance,” said Charlie.

I turned to Matty. “So, what happened in Punta whatsit — Romantica?”

She sniffed. “Broken record. We had a row. And this time I left for good.” She pulled a large red and white spotted handkerchief out of her pocket. It was one of Spider’s. “I didn’t see him again, until his body — .” Matty’s shoulders heaved and she began to sob.

“What about Colonel Meeker and Lord Nick?” I asked.

“That’s what we was wondering,” said Spider.

“So why are you telling me all this?”

Now it was Spider who looked tired. He looked at Charlie, who kept his head bent low over his teacup. “I reckon we’ve all got to the point where we don’t trust each other no more.”

“What did the police say?”

“Police?”

“Haven’t they interviewed you about this?”

“Only Eddy Starr.”

“What did you tell him about the power of attorney dated last October?”

“I told him it came in the post.”

I looked at Charlie. “Is that legal?” He nodded.

“Have you told Angie her husband’s alive?” I asked them.

Spider and Charlie looked at each other like naughty schoolboys. “Not yet,” said Spider.

Was alive,” said Matty.

“That body might not have been Bartholomew,” said Spider.

“Then who is it?” Charlie put in.

There was a sharp rap on the wall. Spider stood up and opened the door to the adjoining room and stuck his head in. “Yes Mam?”

Mam’s weak voice drifted in. “There’s the clubhouse on telly.”

“We’ll watch it out here,” said Spider.

“Is Ted out there?”

“Do you want to see him, Mam?”

“Tell him I never want to see him again as long as I live.”

“Okay, Mam. We’ll watch the telly out here.” He closed the door.

“How is she?” I asked.

Spider went to the telly. “Fading.”

“I should speak to her again.”

Spider’s back was to me. He shook his head slowly and clicked on the television set. “It would only upset her.”

A seascape appeared on screen and then a slow pan to the right showed a figure coming down a path beneath towering clouds. “The tragedy has aroused considerably hostility within this close-knit community,” said a woman’s voice-over. The camera zoomed in for a close-up of me raising two fingers to the camera.

Matty laughed. “The PR spokesman for the Westowe Tourist Board.”

Dinny came on screen then, and the interview had been spliced together in a way that almost made sense. Then they cut to Dinny standing at the helm of his launch.

“It was a full moon last night,” said the interviewer.

Dinny looked at the camera and said, “Near enough. Two days past full.”

The camera swivelled back to the interviewer. “And it was a full moon at the time of the last disappearance just eight weeks ago.”

The camera cut back to Dinny who said “Aye. Two days past full.”

The interviewer reappeared. “Do you think there’s a connection?”

Dinny’s face returned on screen. “Aye.” This time the camera stayed focused on him while the interviewer spoke voice-over: “And what might that be?”

“The tides. They bring it back every four weeks.”

The woman reappeared. “This is Kirsty Whelan, West Country Television in Westowe, South Devon, where the tides have once again brought the full moon, and a third tragedy in its wake.”

Spider stared back at her. “I always thought it was the curse that brought back the full moon, Kirsty.”

Ms Whelan squinted at us in a silent solemn coda before the studio cut away to some people throwing rocks at policemen, not in Westowe. The shot was held long enough for me to notice that on the seat behind the jumble of ropes and tarpaulins in Dinny’s launch was a black plastic tarantula perched on an orange woolly cap. Spider switched off the TV.

I broke the little silence that followed. “You’ve got to tell Angie.”