Where the Bodies are Buried – the complete book online - Saturday, 25th June

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Saturday, 25th June

The drowned river valley spread out below, the green folds of the hills rumpled like a counterpane. Behind lay its pillow, the moor, already shading into mauve in the distance. The River Dyn (Dinny’s surname, Dinsmore, is a corruption of Dynmoor; his ancestors have lived here for generations) rises near its centre from a peaty bog, the remains of aquatic plants which grew in the warm, moist climate of the vast swamps which covered Britain three hundred million years ago. When the tectonic plates which formed Europe grated together thirty million years ago, mountains thrust up here, carrying the swamp bed on their backs. The peat soaked up the deluge from the skies and from this height the water sought the level of the sea. Trickling down, it became a tumbling stream, then a river which chafed a gouge through the granite.

Later the land heaved again, the coastal areas submerged, and the sea flooded in to reclaim the estuary. Later still glaciers softened the mountains, grinding back and forth over the landscape four or five times over the next two million years. After the final retreat of the ice, about ten thousand years ago, the moor was covered in forest and the first nomadic people wandered here. The tiny stream of the Dyn supplied fresh water, the forest offered protection from the wind and provided firewood and branches to weave into hedges and fortifications. The wanderers pried the abundant stones out of the ground to build small domed huts and protective circles of walls. They learned to farm and so cut down the forests to plant grain and vegetables and pasture sheep and cattle. Today the moors are bare and windswept, and apart from a few remote villages the people are gone, their presence memorialised only by the irregular circles of stones sunk deep into the soft peat.

From our great height the water coursing down from the moors was milky white with sediment, spilling into murky blue like a spoilt water-colour where it met the wedge of cold salt water creeping up the river bed from the sea. Where the narrow strip of river broadened into the pool of the estuary it looked like a giant spermatozoan, its head outlined by a fringe of white beaches where tiny specks clustered. A phalanx of small bright diamonds, the Westowe Club fleet of competition sailing dinghies, crawled across the surface of the puddle. The toy village with its tiny church and quay clung to the west bank, and model cars inched along its roadways. I had seen this view before, but only in black-and-white, in the aerial photographs that hung in the club function room.

I pulled my woolly cap out of a pocket and put it on. The sun smiled down on this country, but up here, although the wind was slight, the air was chill. The coastline came into view, a replica of chart no. Y460, ‘Approaches to the River Dyn’. Our view was from near the centre of the chart, over Black Rock. The channel through the estuary was traced in deep blue. The tide was on the ebb and the bar, just a metre or so beneath the surface, showed as a white skein of wool stretching all the way across, shading into pale blue where the channel cut across it.

The white spot on Sentinel Point was the stone huer’s hut where I had first met Matty. The coastal path snaked past it, a ribbon of chalk stitching hills and valleys together into the blue distance. Sprinkled along it, a few tiny black dots were people walking around the perfect amphitheatre of Fairfoul Bay, where the anchor from Pogie’s dinghy was found after Colonel Meeker disappeared. At its south-western end Grise Head, yellow with gorse, jabbed the purple sea like a septic finger. Its nail was long and sharp, the foaming crescent of The Devil’s Coat-tails now emerging from the depths. The Devil’s Frying-pan came into view, a silver ring set with the opal stones of The Giant’s Playthings.

For a long time we were lost in wonder, hearing no sound but the squawk of the gulls, drifting up muted from below. A croak from Dinny broke into my thoughts: “You almost went down there like your Dad and Mum.” He pointed towards the Frying-pan, but he wouldn’t look. He was terrified.

“For the second time,” I said.

Eddy Starr spoke. “How’s that?”

“I was supposed to go sailing with my Mum and Dad that day. But I did something else instead.”

Dinny spluttered again. “Chasing after Angie.”

No. I didn’t talk to girls at that age. Something remarkable had happened that day. Snooty Malcolm Goodfellow — not yet christened Superbloke — who had always ignored me, had invited me round to play at his house that day. And because I hated sailing then Mum had let me go.

I took Eddy’s elbow with one hand and pointed with the other. “The false beacon must have been somewhere down there, by that sharp bend in the path. You can see how it would line up with the second beacon on High Tor if you were approaching from the west.” I’d already plotted that on a chart, but this view included the terror.

“We didn’t find anything,” said Eddy. “It would be pretty risky for someone to clamber down there on a dark and stormy night.”

“They could have done it by daylight. A kerosene lantern would do. Or a big battery-operated torch.”

Eddy nodded. “You wouldn’t notice it till it got dark. Or it could have been rigged with a clock timer.”

“High Tor disappeared suddenly. Just after we saw the Harestone.”

“You were so close in that the edge of the cliff blocked the beacon from view. You must have been right there.” Eddy took my arm and pointed it about a cable length off The Giant’s Playthings, which were seething with foam. “Somebody hung a brown bucket over the leading light on The Elbow. You’d never spot it in the daytime. If Spider and I had come back from our dive in the Frying-pan ten minutes sooner, we wouldn’t have noticed. But it was dusk. We saw the top leading light come on at High Tor, but not the bottom one on The Elbow.” It was Eddy who had cast us a line when the Westowe lifeboat suddenly roared up in a blaze of light abaft the Amaryllis, the most welcome sight I had seen in my life.

“Find anything on your dive?”

“A cave. Nothing in it.”

“Where did that orange flare go up?”

“The one that called the lifeboat out?” Eddy pointed eastwards across the estuary. “That was way over by Sheepshead Point.”

“We saw it.” I said. “Or at least, Angie did. But why did you come down this way?”

“Spider had scrambled the lifeboat before that flare went up. As soon as we got in we reported the inoperative beacon to the harbour­master. The Coast Guard put out a sécurité broadcast on channel 16.”

“And you came out on spec?”

“We knew you were here. The news about the inoperative beacon flashed round the village like wildfire, and a young couple with kids came looking for the harbourmaster. They said they’d seen a boat drifting off Sheepshead Point that afternoon without a motor or radio. They thought she might be in a spot of bother. They couldn’t remember the boat’s name. A flower, the lady thought.”

“Malcolm Goodfellow was trying to sell them a yacht.”

“Aye. He’d already driven off to Exeter, they said. You got a lot to thank that young couple for.”

“I probably put them off yachting forever. Malcolm won’t thank me.”

“Anyways, when we saw the first flare over Sheepshead Point it was off our stern. We were already halfway down the Coat-tails.”

“You could have turned around.”

“By the book, we should have. But Spider had calculated the tidal drift. He knew you’d be down here. And there had been no Mayday call. So we pressed on another five minutes. And when your flare went up we were right up your backside.”

“So what about the flare that went up off Sheepshead Point?”

“No trace of anything. No boat reported missing. It’s a mystery, except for one thing.”

“What?”

“The Coast Guard got lots of calls. All from folk living in Lower Sheepshead.”

“No call from a boat?”

“Nobody except you was daft enough to be out at sea that night. I reckon that flare was set off in the National Trust car park on Sheepshead Point. Some kids larking about, maybe.”

“Or somebody who wanted to make sure the lifeboat was three miles away when we fell into the Frying-pan.”

“There’s a lot of possibilities.”

“Are you working officially on this case?”

“Me? A country bumpkin from the Westowe sub-station of the Kings Ferry district of the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary? They’d put Inspector Clouseau on it first.”

“So, who is?”

“No one. There is no case. Just three people gone missing at sea. One body recovered. Some loony put a bucket over a leading light. Random events.”

“Is that what you think?”

“I think it’s more than coincidence.”

“A conspiracy theory?”

“You can laugh.”

“I’m not in a position to laugh. I’m one of your suspects.”

“You’ve moved down the list a bit since somebody tried to kill you.”

“Or Angie.”

“Or you and Angie. That bucket over the Elbow beacon. It’s the first piece of hard evidence we’ve had.” He looked at Dinny. “Where’s your bucket, Dinny?”

Dinny looked away and mumbled, and Eddy had to repeat the question. “I been looking for it,” he answered.

“Where did you see it last?”

“I keeps it in the ferry nights.”

“You didn’t go out and hang it over the leading light, did you?”

Dinny’s face darkened with anger. “I never. But once upon a time I knows someone as did.”

“Who’s that, Dinny?”

Dinny stared out at the horizon. “That’s as why I always carries me bucket.” Then he turned his face away from us.

“If you go round the harbourmaster, he’ll let you have it,” Eddy said to his back. To me, he said, “Anybody could have pinched it. Most of us know he leaves it on the ferry at night.”

“If it wasn’t Dinny, it was someone who wanted to implicate him.”

“More than likely. There’s plenty of other buckets about Westowe. And Dinny’s an easy mark.”

I looked over to the oval sapphire of Fairfoul Bay, flecked with flashes of white foam. It was fringed with tumbling cliffs; a steep path spiralled through a gash to the top. “Let’s start with Colonel Meeker,” I said. “Suppose he wanted it to appear that he was lost at sea. He drops the anchor overboard, rows ashore, gets out, and lets the dinghy drift off. Then hopscotch off to London, or wherever.”

“A possibility. What’s the evidence?”

“Those fish I found in the dory? They were stinking. He’d bought them in the fishmonger’s before he went out.” Eddy had his notebook out, the wind whipped the pages like a rattle before he managed to fix them under his thumb. “Rabbit saw him buying them.”

Eddy stopped writing and gave me a hard stare. “Rabbit?”

I remembered too late about him and Rabbit. “Ronny.”

“Why do you call her Rabbit?”

“Slip of the tongue. I was watching the rabbits in that field down there.” I pointed at random. Perhaps there is a God after all, because, lo, there was a rabbit.

“Mrs Harris,” he said as he wrote it down in his notebook. The tip of his tongue appeared in the corner of his mouth as he concentrated on this task, which gave me the courage to change the subject. “What’s your theory?”

“I can tell you this,” said Eddy. “Meeker was in a lot of trouble financially. And heavily insured.”

“So who benefits?”

“I made some enquiries. He put a lot of his assets into overseas trusts. His creditors can’t touch them.”

“Was Charlie Segui involved?”

“No, a legal firm in the home counties. Why?” I told him about the Last Will and Testament that had been posted from Charlie’s office. Eddy wrote it down. I didn’t tell him how I knew. Nor that I had seen Colonel Meeker put it into the inside pocket of his oilies before he stepped into the dinghy. Nor that I had seen Spider post it the next day. Because Charlie Segui had asked him to.

“You know Meeker was under investigation for a City fraud?” asked Eddy.

“A good reason to disappear.”

“He probably had a few bob stashed in a Swiss bank.”

Due south a stately procession of sails were beating up towards the estuary. The smallest triangle at the back of the parade could be passing over the spot where Lord Nick had stepped through the rotten netting of his catamaran. “Nickers was in financial difficulties, too,” I said.

“More than that. Customs and Excise reckon he was smuggling drugs.”

“I heard Simon was a grass.”

“Aye. Customs & Excise planted him on board the Grace of God.”

“He’s not C&E?”

“Simon’s just a kid who got into a bit of trouble with drugs. They rumbled him and promised not to prosecute if he played along with them. They set him up in the club like a fish-head in a crab trap. To nobble the suppliers. Mind you, they didn’t bother to let the local plod know.”

“How did you find out?’

“Your chum, Lothar, hates druggies. Apparently it was common knowledge on the sail training ship that Simon was a dealer. So, when Lothar fetched up here, he bowled into me wanting to know what I was going to do about it, what with the young kids coming ashore. So we set Simon up. Lothar arranged to meet Simon in the club loo for a score. I was hiding in the toilet.” Eddy laughed. “What I didn’t know was that the C and E blokes were hiding in the next toilets.”

“Pixie and Poxy?”

“Who?”

“Those two leather fetishists. They are C and E then?”

“I reckon. My governor just said to look after them. It’s all very hush-hush and you’re dreaming all this.”

“Agreed.”

“Anyways, they burst out of the toilets and tried to collar Lothar. He thought they were Simon’s mates, and knocked them about a bit before I could sort it out. And then, of course, it comes out that Simon’s their undercover agent. So, red faces all around.”

“Those bastards have got a lot to answer for.”

“Such as?”

“Pissing in my single malt. Knocking me out. Beating up Matty.”

“I don’t think they beat up Matty.”

“They were at the castle that night?”

“They had a tip off about a drug drop and wanted to keep an eye on the channel. I got the keys through Charlie and let them in. And stood guard in case you turned up.”

There was more to it than that. Someone had made sure I was out of the way that night at Tattersall Hall. Lord Nick? Not a likely conspirator with the Drug Squad. But Lothar had been working with them.

“So, what happened?” I asked.

“False alarm. Except Matty came along.”

“Why?”

Eddy shrugged. “Looking for you, I reckon.”

I couldn’t credit that either. Matty had curled up at Spider’s hearth by then. I recollected that day on the Amaryllis, when Pixie had offered to help Matty persuade Lord Nick to consent to a DNA test.

Eddy carried on. “Any road, they had a little chat with her and drank some of your whisky. Before anybody pissed in it.” He paused long enough to make his next words sound evasive. “They were still there when I left.”

“Was she doing drugs?”

“Let’s say she had been found in a compromising situation.”

It all clicked into place. Pixie and Poxy had been putting the screws on Matty. Later, they must have provided the drugs, through Lothar, for Matty to bargain with Nickers. And then accused her of dealing. “They must have been pressuring her. To spy on Spider.”

“They were interested in his trip to the Med last summer.”

“And me.”

“And Lord Nick, too of course. Who was a drug user after all. It’s probably not a good idea to sail single-handed when you’re zonked.”

“That netting could have been cut.”

“Could be. Or maybe, like Colonel Meeker, he wanted it to appear he had been lost at sea.”

“Any evidence?”

“Not evidence, exactly. A contradiction.”

“I’m not with you.”

“At the inquest, Charlie Segui said he went to the Plymouth marina to meet the Grace of God and take over from Simon. But he was late, because of the roadworks on the M5. And so they went on without him.”

“So, a lucky escape for Charlie.”

“Charlie made his own luck. I did a little free-lance investigation. There were no roadworks on the M5 that night.”

“What does that mean?”

“Only that Charlie probably wants people to think he was in Bristol when he was somewhere else that evening.”

“What does Charlie say about it?”

“I haven’t asked him yet. But I’ve written it down in my book.”

“When I saw him later that night, he said he’d been to dinner with Ronny. But she said he hadn’t.”

Eddy gave me a smile that failed to reach his eyes. “You see a lot of Mrs Harris?”

Eddy didn’t smile often. He was unlikely to murder me in front of a witness. Would Dinny notice? Would he care? A thousand feet over the South Devon coast was no place to be forthright. “She’s my neighbour,” I said, and then hurried on. “Charlie was wearing wellies.”

“So?”

“To dinner?” Eddy looked blank. Maybe in his circle everyone wore wellies to dinner. “On a dry night?” I added.

“What time was that?”

“Late. I don’t wear a watch. The moon was up. It was full.” I remembered the silhouette of Dinny’s launch gliding on the silvery waters of the estuary. “I saw Charlie just after I saw Dinny heading out for the bar in his launch.”

Dinny tore his gaze from the rippling sea, now golden in the slanting rays of the sun. I didn’t think he’d been listening, but it’s always unwise to underestimate Dinny. “I was going out to check me lobster pots,” he said to Eddy.

“What time was that?” asked Eddy.

“After the pubs closed,” I answered.

While Eddy wrote that down Dinny looked at me and blurted, “There weren’t no one else with me.”

Eddy counted on his fingers. “That would be about two hours before the Grace of God hit the bar.”

“We was back well afore midnight. We didn’t see nothing.”

“Who’s we?” asked Eddy.

“Spider and me go out every full moon if the weather’s right.”

“Was he drunk?” I asked.

Dinny slapped his hands together and laughed. “He be tosticated.” He stuck out his tongue and rolled his eyes and slumped his shoulders, doing a passable imitation of Spider sliding down the front of the bar at Formerly Cromarty’s.

“Spider’s party piece. His drunk-as-a-skunk routine,” said Eddy.

Dinny squared his shoulders and pointed eastwards. “We don’t go no further than the Coat-tails.” The entire coast was visible now, etched white with foam. We hung between Grise Head and Heel, poised almost exactly over the mewstone. The roiling waters ran white in the narrow channel separating it from the shoreline. The sinking sun caught the tip of the mewstone. I watched for several minutes but there was no spout of foam.

“Toilet’s not flushing today.” I said.

Dinny snorted. “Toilet don’t flush no more.”

“Not since the wreck,” said Eddy. “A coaster slammed into the cove and sank right by the mewstone about ten years ago. You can see the funnel at low water springs. The wreck has interfered with the plumbing.”

The late afternoon onshore breeze stirred on my face. Suspended between it and the thermal rising from the sunny pastures spread out baking beneath the moor, we were almost motionless. Eddy looked at his watch. “Time to head back.” He turned the burner on, a jet of hot air roared up, and the mewstone quickly dwindled beneath us. The balloon caught the onshore breeze and we flew back the way we had come, descending now on a steep downward slant. Soon we were low enough to pick out the white rumps of the rabbits pumping the air as they darted helter-skelter in and out of our great shadow sweeping over the pastures. Eddy gave the air bag another burst of heat from time to time and we notched a gradually descending graph across the sky.

I thought Dinny was pointing at a rabbit in the next field. But when we swooped across the hedge, I saw it was a couple rolling in the grass. They were both naked. The woman was on top, her white buttocks writhing under the wide blue gaze of God, and we three, as the shadow of the balloon swept swiftly past. There was an angry scar on her backside. I focused the binoculars on her cheeks. It was a red and blue tattoo: a circle with a diagonal slash through it. A no-entry sign. Matty? I’d never seen her backside. But this woman’s curves were rounder. And her hair was dark and short. We flew silently over them as she rose up on her hands and pushed her knees forward and started to pump on him, rising like the rabbits, and they never noticed us.