Where the Bodies are Buried – the complete book online - Sunday, 29th May

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Sunday, 29th May

She had been in the bath a long time. Under the circumstances. Or so it seemed. I haven’t worn a watch since I left London, and so I have developed a good sense of how much time has passed. It goes more slowly when you’re anticipating something. And it speeds by when you’re thinking hard. I had been lying in this soft bed, my organs waiting while my mind flew over mountains and valleys. So I had no idea how long she had been in the bathroom, trilling in her high-pitched voice. There was a hopeful pause. Then another soprano aria began. From Lakmé? It would be some time yet.

On the face of it, there had been three accidental deaths in Westowe in the past three months. Bartholomew. Colonel Meeker, whose only connection with Westowe was his complaint about the Britannia hoax. Which had been engineered by Spider — according to Charlie. Or by Charlie — according to Spider. Now Nickers.

Bartholomew had deliberately chosen to disappear. But then his body had surfaced. Or the body of someone remarkably like him. Dressed in his oilies. Similar enough to convince everyone. Except his widow. Who then proved, to herself if no one else, that it wasn’t his corpse, by coming forward with a tissue sample for a DNA comparison. Of unknown origin.

I had done some research into this, through a chum in London. Matty’s comparison with Lord Nick was presumably Standard DNA Profiling. It is highly accurate and requires a sample of blood, muscle tissue or bone marrow. It was unlikely that Bartholomew had left any of these bits lying around in the marital bathroom cupboard. So the comparison between the body thought to be Bartholomew’s and the sample provided by Angie — whatever it was — had probably relied on a new technique called Polymerase Chain Reaction analysis, which can work with almost any human tissue — a single hair or a fingernail clipping, even. But it’s less reliable.

Bartholomew — or virtual Bartholomew — had been the victim of an accidental death. Or murder. Or whatever. How?

The colonel was another enigma. He had been alone in Pogie’s dinghy. Although someone could have met him. Why?

If Lord Nick had been murdered, Simon Tate had the opportunity, but his cover-up strategy, if that’s what it was, was suicidal. And who would benefit from Nick’s death? According to Charlie, his estate was submerged in negative cash flow. But if there were something else — insurance maybe — Matty was his surviving heir. But she didn’t know that for certain at the time he disappeared. At least, she had not then yet proved it.

Colonel Meeker’s body was long overdue, and neither had Nick’s corpse surfaced yet. Bartholomew had staged his own disappearance. Perhaps Nickers and Meeker had done the same. But Bartholomew had Spider to help him. Who also involved Charlie. Nickers and Meeker would have needed help, too. Spider had mailed a letter that Colonel Meeker still had in his pocket when I left him on Pogie’s pontoon. But Spider could not have helped Lord Nick disappear, because he was dead drunk at the time. Yet sober enough a few hours later to helm a 26.5-tonne lifeboat cruising at eighteen knots.

What about Lothar? A relentless crusader against drugs. Who must have given a packet of coke to Matty to trade for Lord Nick’s blood test. Fulfilling the offer Pixie made to Matty that day when he and Poxy boarded the Amaryllis? Which would indicate that Lothar was in league with them. He had already helped them entrap Simon Tate. But if so, Lothar blew these confederates out of the water at the inquest. A conflicted character.

My brain was steaming. I refilled the saucer-sized hollow-stemmed glass, one of a pair which probably came packaged in a gift box with the sweetish, nose-tickling Spanish bubbly I was drinking. The gold foil on the neck of the bottle mirrored the gilt tracery on the white Louis-XIV-style bedside cabinet. Also non-vintage and available in pre-packs. The tiny bubbles numbed my tongue and a winey vapour seeped into my cranium.

There was a common thread. Bartholomew was exhausting his financial resources by trying to play games both home and away. Colonel Meeker had been exposed as a swindler and was facing retribution. Lord Nick, self-evidently, was skint. What was it Eddy had said? The usual cause was financial worries. But he had been talking about suicide. That was another possibility. But not Bartholomew, surely, with his raging lust for life. Nor Nick. He belonged to the Micawber school of enterprise — something would always turn up. Colonel Meeker, however, was clearly a man on the edge; his letter could have been a suicide note. His whole scenario was fishy. Which led me to a series of questions:

If Bartholomew were alive, who was the unfortunate dressed in his oilskins?

Why did Colonel Meeker go out fishing and catch two mackerel?

How did Spider get hold of the colonel’s letter, if he had never met him? Why would he lie about posting it? To whom was the letter sent and what was in it?

Why did Pixie and Poxy want me to keep an eye on Spider? Why did they want to gain access to the castle?

As I had not cooperated with them, wasn’t it about time that the Crown Prosecution Service turned up on my doorstep with leg irons?

And why isn’t Simon Tate in the slammer, instead of taking boat rides?

Who beat up Matty?

Why wouldn’t she tell?

Was it the same person who decked me that night? Or did I just fall down drunk?

Was it the same animal who pissed in that fine bottle of single malt which dear Angie gave me?

Did Angie really have an abortion? The first day I returned to Westowe that strangely reliable source, Dinny, said she had my child. Spider thought so, too. If so, what became of it?

What did she keep hidden in the munitions room at the castle?

If Matty’s father was Lord Nick, who was her mother?

Why did Lothar warn me off sailing into oblivion with Lord Nick? Was he setting up another drug bust?

Why did Matty push off in my dinghy that day Eddy and Lothar interrupted our pre-coital games?

What’s a nice girl like that doing with a wolf’s head tattooed on her pudenda?

Why did she go off with Lothar, if not for his company?

Was Lothar taming the wolf at this very moment?

“I don’t like anal sex.” I was engulfed by a flood of lavender, talc and, I found out later, patchouli and ylang ylang. It reeked of the front room of Dinsmore’s Funeral Home, crowded with white lilies, where two mahogany coffins with burnished brass handles lay side by side, probably closer than my parents had lain in a long time. The trilling had stopped. Rabbit stood by the side of the bed wearing a red kimono. She was pink-faced and her eyes glittered, her auburn hair had been shocked into a shimmering aureole. Was it a wig? Is that why she’d locked the door to the ensuite bathroom?

I propped myself up on an elbow. If she didn’t like anal sex, she must have tried it. Everything else she hadn’t mentioned she must like. Her flank loomed vast in close-up. I touched it. The scarlet kimono fell open and I saw the white bulk of her body, the large drooping breasts and mounded belly and the folds leading from her swollen thighs into the thicket between them. This was not auburn. A firm hand on the back of my head guided me into this soft grey pasture. It smelled of woodland in flower, like the path down from the Farthing-Tattersall estate, where I had walked with Angie amongst the bluebells, wild garlic and moist leaf rot.

Rabbit climbed into bed and took charge of my erection. Flesh heaved and the mauve sheets wrinkled with caresses and probings, perfumes, odours, grunts, exclamations and whispers, trickles of sweat, the flat slap of bellies, wet tongues and dripping hair and then, too soon, it was over. She moved up and over to suffocate me with her slippery thighs. I eased her off me and rolled over and reached for my glass of wine. It was flat and my elbows were sore. Rabbit seemed content. She lay back with her great breasts splayed on her chest like loose fried eggs. She turned her head and smiled at me, and put her fingers to her lips, kissed them, placed them on mine and asked the unanswerable question.

I replied, “It was worth waiting for.”

“When was the last time for you?”

I had not had a woman for more than a year, but I wasn’t going to spoil her illusions. “I meant waiting through the preliminaries.”

“Oh.” She leaned over and kissed me. “I won’t make you wait so long next time. But I like it to be clean, don’t you?” I had been instructed to shower in the guest bathroom and when I had wandered back into her bedroom I had found her dead husband’s white towelling dressing gown laid out over a small upholstered chair, next to the bottle of sparkling wine and two glasses on a tray on a bedside table. And heard the first aria emerging from the ensuite bathroom.

The fingers now coiling the hairs on my chest were soft and plump and clean. Her nails were perfect ovals, polished pink, with even white rims at the top. Matty’s hands were grimy, her nails were tiny slivers set deep in gnawed fingertips, she whiffed of garage grease and, if she had washed her hair that week, vinegar. And in the secret pit which the wolf guarded, there would be the salty tang of the sea bed. Where the bodies must lie.

“A penny for them.” Her hand moved down my body towards His Royal Limpness. I arrested her hand with my own. She pressed close against me.

“I was thinking about the sea.”

“What about it?”

“It keeps its secrets. The mackerel, for instance.”

“What mackerel?”

“After Colonel Meeker disappeared, there were two mackerel in Pogie’s dinghy.”

“Nobody mentioned that.”

“They were stinking. I threw them over the side.”

“I did wonder why he had bought mackerel, and then went out fishing.”

“He bought mackerel?” I sat up. That was a mistake. She burrowed her head into my lap. I set her upright again.

“Two mackerel. The day he disappeared. He was just in front of me at the fishmonger’s. He put them into a canvas holdall. I remember thinking that was daft.”

“Why?”

“Right in with his clothes?”

“You know why he bought those fish?” I mused. Her hand was probing and I entwined her fingers with mine. “To prove that he had gone fishing.”

“So?”

“To give him a reason for going out in the boat. So it wouldn’t look like suicide.” I had her interest now. Rabbit sat up, found her red kimono and pulled it around her shoulders while I continued to ruminate. “If he wasn’t fishing, and not committing suicide, why did he go out in the boat?”

Rabbit touched me — for a change not on my private parts. “Maybe to stage his own disappearance. That could tie in with the letter. He spent a couple of hours with Charlie that morning writing a letter. It was addressed to the colonel’s solicitors.”

“Did you type it?”

“Charlie wouldn’t let me. I had to fetch some paper in for him. And an envelope. I remember it because we didn’t have any stamps. Charlie got very cross, even though it was his fault because he’d cancelled the postage meter without telling me. I said I’d run up to the post office, but Colonel Meeker said not to worry, he’d post it himself.”

“What do you suppose was in the letter?”

She widened her eyes at me like a stage actress. “Do you think I’m some kind of bimbo? That’s a client confidence, young man.”

“I don’t think you’re a bimbo. And I’m not a young man.”

She ran her hand down my leg again. “You just proved how young you are.” She pulled her head back a little and looked me in the eye. “I don’t want you to think I’m just a good screw.”

“I think there’s a lot more to you than meets the eye.”

She took that as permission to cup The Limpness in her hand. “Or the penis?”

“I think you’re on to something.”

She gave it a squeeze. “I was on it. But I don’t recognise it now.”

“I mean Colonel Meeker. That’s the first hard evidence of what he was getting up to.”

“How can we make this hard? And get it up to something?”

“If you want an action replay, you’ll have to press the right button.”

She giggled. “I like playing with you.” She had HRL between her fingers now. I sent my fingers in search of her left nipple, found it drifting on her chest, and teased it. She responded. “It was the Last Will and Testament forms Charlie asked me to bring in.”

“Did you see the letter again? Think carefully.”

“No. The colonel took it with him.”

Rabbit released me suddenly and sat up. Her open kimono flapped across my face as she reached over to the bedside table. Beneath her armpit it smelled like the ground floor of Selfridges. When she put her spectacles on she looked like old Miss Lamb, who taught us both in infants school. She had probably been younger than Rabbit was now.

“I’m worried about Charlie,” she said. I sat up, too, and pulled Mr Harris’s James Bond-style dressing gown around my shoulders. Our reflections regarded us from the large gilt framed mirror above the white and gilt dressing table set against the white wall opposite the foot of the bed. “He’s not been himself since.”

“Since when?”

“Since Bartholomew went off. Or a little later. Around that time.”

“What’s the problem?”

““He’s jumpy. Like he was always looking over his shoulder. And moody. The day they found Bartholomew’s body he freaked out.”

“I remember that. Spider and I met him in the street. We were all upset, but he was taking it very hard, I thought. And the next time I saw him, he was joking about it.”

“I can tell you exactly when that mood changed.” I caught her eyes in the mirror. “But I probably shouldn’t.”

“Don’t we know each other well enough?”

“We’re getting to know each other.” Our mirror images together in the big bed acknowledged the truth of that. “It was when he checked his E-mail one morning. I thought he was going to jump up in the air and click his heels.”

“Charlie’s into E-mail? Is this the same geezer that uses thirty-year-old stationery with his Dad’s dead partner’s name on it?”

“That’s just for personal notes. Why throw good paper away? He got into E-mail about six months ago.”

“Who was the E-mail from?”

“He’s got some big property deal going overseas. Project Blue Horizon, he calls it. It’s his retirement plan, he says. Very hush-hush. I never use the computer. He’s got his own password.”

“Has Charlie got money worries?”

“That’s another thing. Mr Harris was well insured. And I got a good price for his stationery business. So he left me a nice little nest egg. Charlie wanted a loan to pay off some debts and to invest in his scheme. But he wouldn’t tell me anything about it. I had to take it on trust. He’s in difficulties since his trouble, so — .”

“What kind of trouble?”

“I really shouldn’t tell you this.” I said nothing. She was in full flow gossip mode now. She rewarded my silence by whispering in my ear, “Lloyds,” then filling it with her wet tongue, before she continued. “He was caught in that Lloyds disaster. He owes them ever so much money. And every time he pays, they come back with another demand. I gave him a little, but it’s a bottomless pit, really. Not a patch on what he wanted. He was very cross. We hardly speak outside the office anymore. And not much inside it.”

“If you give him the sort of dinner you made for me tonight, he’ll come round soon enough.”

She snuggled against me. “You can come again. But I haven’t had Charlie to dinner for months.”

“Wasn’t he here for dinner the night Lord Nick disappeared?”

“If he was, he flew down the chimney and raided the fridge. That was my bridge night and I was in Kings Ferry. Is that what he told you?”

“I must have misheard.”

“Do you play bridge?”

“I wasn’t in a proper state that night.”

She waggled a finger at me. “You know you drink too much. I’m going to have to ration you. The way I did poor Mr Harris.”

“Anyway, Charlie wouldn’t wear wellies to dinner, would he?” I mused.

She put her lips against my ear and her hand seized HRL again. “You’re too young to get Brewer’s Droop.”

“Charlie’s a puzzle.”

“Do you know what he’s on about now?”

“Tell me.”

“I tell you too much.”

“We’re pals.”

She poked me in the ribs, then leaned over and pressed her face against mine. “Lovers.”

“Lovers.”

She gave me some air. “You know Angie gave him that DNA sample to test against Bartholomew’s body?”

“It didn’t match.”

“You know that?”

“She told me. All of us. At the castle the other night.”

“Well, Charlie’s desperate to find out where she got that sample.”

“Desperate?”

“Not actually tearing his hair out. Puzzled, really. And Angie won’t say. I bet she’d tell you.”

“Why me?”

“You’re close.”

“Not like we were.”

Something fell on my face and scratched it. In the mirror I saw the auburn nimbus that surrounded her head was on my shoulder. “I’m glad of that,” she said.

“If he’s really puzzled that her sample didn’t match, it might mean he’s got some reason for believing the body really is Bartholomew,” I speculated.

“Who else could it be?”

“Spider’s not so sure about it.”

“Spider’s got his own web to weave.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know he’s always sniffing around Angie.”

“You mean after I left Westowe?”

She snorted into my shoulder. “Even the night you left Westowe. But it’s not for me to tell tales.”

“You’re doing pretty well so far.”

She rose up and tried to slap me. I grasped both her wrists but the steel wool she dragged across my face with her head did a lot of damage. She stopped struggling and stuck her tongue out at me. Then her lips pouted and she moved its pink tip in little circles between them. Her hand was around my tackle again, and it stirred.

“Not before you tell me about Spider,” I said.

“Him and Angie? That’s just ancient gossip. But he’s involved in all this somehow.”

“What makes you think so?”

“It’s obvious. What does Spider live for, apart from hoping that Angie will fall into his web some day?”

“The lifeboat.”

“That, too. Even more, the Westowe Sailing Club. And it was under threat from both of the people who have disappeared.”

“Colonel Meeker? That wasn’t serious.”

“Charlie seemed to think it was.”

“Lord Nick was supporting Spider.”

“Publicly. But behind the scenes they were lobbying club members to sell.”

“Who was?”

“Lord Nick, Charlie and Malcolm Goodfellow. Only Bartholomew’s golden share could have stopped it.”

“Spider’s got a power of attorney.”

“Charlie’s taken counsel’s advice. He thinks, under the circumstances, it could be challenged. So Spider needs Bartholomew to be alive.”

“Spider may have to resurrect him.”

“I could teach him how.” With her other hand she took off her spectacles and gave them to me and then slid the wire brush of her hair down over my stomach. “I’m sure I can breathe some life into little Lazarus.”

While she anointed me, and later when I awoke in the night and for the first time in a long time heard someone breathing next to me and put out my hand and felt her warm body, I thought that this could be a kind of life. To be clasped to the bosom of a middle-aged housewife and push a shopping cart around Tesco’s with her of a Saturday morning. It was, after all, the way most men of my age lived in Britain. The next morning she gave me a cooked breakfast. She found only three small eggs in her larder, so she scrambled them together. Standing at the cooker in her frilly apron with the ‘Rules of the House’ printed on it, she smiled up at me over her pink fairy-winged spectacles. “I’ll have to start buying them by the dozen at Tesco’s,” she said.