Authors: J.J. Campbell
Amateur detective Charles de Lacy is drawn into a case of gangland intrigue when he agrees to meet his old sparring partner, DS Susan McIntyre. McIntyre reveals the recent deathbed confession of a prominent former criminal, an associate of notorious North London family the Whadcoats. It seems there is a body buried in a field just outside LondonÂ âÂ the victim of a gang execution in the 1970sÂ âÂ but on examination the story seems impossible.
De Lacy investigatesÂ âÂ with dramatic unforeseen resultsÂ â¦
Charles Kingsman de Lacy tipped an exact measure of muscovado sugar into his coffee, stirred for a moment, added cream, and sat back to watch the spirals of pale and dark as they blended together. The coffee was beyond reproach, as was the morning, with beams of sunlight striking down through the window of his study to illuminate the sage green leather and deep brown mahogany of his desk, the various books he'd been consulting and the half- finished sketch he'd been attempting the previous evening.
He waited a moment before taking his first sip of coffee, always a blissful moment, then put the cup down and turned his attention to the volume of Beardsley drawings he'd been studying in order to improve his technique. The simple, elegant lines looked easy to imitate, but were not, and his fine patrician face had quickly set into a frown, which deepened at the chime of the doorbell. De Lacy glanced at the clock, irritated. Morning, he felt, should be a quiet, meditative period, and either solitary or spent in the company of those who understood the value of silence. It was barely nine o'clock, too early for the post, while he was still in the dressing gown of plum coloured silk and old black leather slippers he favoured in the mornings.
Moving to the window, he looked down six stories into Golden Square and the steps of his apartment building. His visitor was a woman, petite, blonde, and casually dressed in pale blue jeans and a cream coloured, roll neck sweater. Surprised, and puzzled, de Lacy moved to the long mirror in his hall, made a few carefully judged adjustments to his appearance, pressed the buzzer, and eased open the catch on his door. Returning to his study, he seated himself once more, the Beardsley open in one hand and his coffee cup in the other, positioned so that the sun caught the rising vapour, which he felt a nice touch to the overall impression of languid elegance he sought to achieve. Presently a knock sounded from the outer door.
âDo come in, Sergeant McIntyre. I trust that you're not here on official business?'
She had entered the room as he finished speaking and he raised one quizzical eyebrow, ready to adapt his response according to her reason for visiting him. The police sergeant was out of uniform and a hundred miles from where she was stationed in Solsbury, but their previous encounter had left several loose ends and at least the potential for ill will. To his surprise her voice was warm as she answered him.
âOf course not, and you can call me Susan.'
âCharles then,' he replied, relaxing a trifle, âbut what brings you up to London?'
âI wanted to see you, to ask your advice.'
âAsk away. Coffee? It's a Jamaican Blue Mountain, pea berry.'
De Lacy went to the kitchen to fetch another coffee cup, now rather pleased with himself. While the case in which both he and Sgt McIntyre had been involved had ended badly for the police, in that they'd failed to make an arrest, his own reasoning had been impeccable, which she clearly appreciated.
He returned to the room to find her seated on a straight backed chair, her hands folded in her lap, a choice of seat and position that suggested she was nervous, and perhaps conscious of her age. De Lacy made no comment, but settled himself back into his usual chair, facing her across the desk as if he were a headmaster and she a pupil.
âI hope we can start afresh?' she asked, glancing sideways as she took a sip of coffee.
âOf course,' he assured her, âso long as you're not planning to accuse me of poisoning anybody?'
âNo, of course not.'
âAnd did you catch up with the killer of Marco Styles?'
âNo,' she admitted, âbut you were right. I got my transfer to CID on the strength of the case, thanks to you.'
âCongratulations, so you are now a detective sergeant?'
De Lacy had thought of a quip about her no longer being in uniform, but decided it might offend her and simply nodded.
âHave you heard of the Whadcoats?' she asked.
âIf you're referring to the family of North London gangsters, then yes,' he told her. âGhastly people, but now dead if I recall correctly?'
âAlbert Whadcoat died last year,' she confirmed. âBill Whadcoat, the younger brother, is still alive and now out of prison. Another man from the same gang also died last year, John Fellowes.'
âThat name I do remember. He was known as the gentleman gangster, wasn't he, a cognomen I always felt was a contradiction in terms. Yes, I remember the funerals, very vulgar I thought. I can never understand why these people attract such adulation when on the face of it they seem to be the lowest of the low, but do go on.'
âJohn Fellowes had become a committed Christian shortly before he died. He made a confession on his deathbed to being involved with several murders, including Andy Sixsmith.'
âI've never heard of him.'
âAndy Sixsmith disappeared in January 1971. He'd been trying to set up as a rival to the Whadcoats, so everybody assumes they murdered him but no evidence was ever found, and no body, until now.'
âA-ha, so John Fellowes confessed to the killing and told you how the body had been disposed of, but where do I come in?'
âIt's not as simple as that. Let me explain.'
âOf course. Go on.'
âFellowes confessed to being there when Sixsmith was killed by the Whadcoats, and to getting rid of the body. He said he was helped by another member of the gang, Victor Hodges. Hodges is still alive and living in Solsbury, which is why I'm on the case.'
âI see. Is that ghastly man Morden involved as well?'
âInspector Morden is in charge of the case.'
De Lacy grimaced but she carried on with her explanation.
âAccording to Fellowes, they buried Sixsmith's body in woodland to the north of London, near a village called Hammondstreet. The area has been developed, but Fellowes was very exact about where the body was buried: alongside a much older lane. The Hertfordshire police dug up the whole area, a trench nearly two hundred yards long and about ten wide. They found a skeleton.'
âThen I fail to see the difficulty?'
âIt was the wrong skeleton.'
âSome other gangster?'
âNo. They were the bones of a man who'd been hanged, at least one hundred years ago.'
Two weeks later de Lacy made his initial report.
âI enjoy an exercise in pure logic,' he stated, âbut if you want me to solve this case for you I'm almost certainly going to need more data.'
âI have to be extremely careful,' Susan McIntyre insisted. âI certainly can't show you any of the paperwork, or the actual evidence.'
De Lacy didn't reply immediately, doing his best to fight down the irritation he felt with the situation and concentrate on the satisfaction to be had from working out the facts behind the case by logic alone. Nevertheless, he clearly needed as much information as Detective Sergeant McIntyre was willing to provide.
She was being exceptionally careful, and had insisted from the start that they do nothing which would leave an electronic or paper trail, which meant meeting in person. Intrigued by the case and with nothing better to do, de Lacy had not only accepted but driven down to the little market town of Solsbury, where she was based. Rather than stay in the town itself, he had selected The Bell, a pub in the village of High Elms which not only boasted comfortable rooms but a restaurant with a Michelin star. In the two days since his arrival he had thoroughly enjoyed not only the local countryside and the excellent cooking, but the pleasant thrill of engaging in clandestine activities with an attractive woman. It was only a shame, he felt, that her brisk, practical manner didn't seem to hint at the possibility of any more personal contact between them. Despite that, simply admiring her figure was a pleasure in itself, especially as he appreciated her taste in figure-hugging jeans and sweaters, which made the most of her gentle curves without being in any way brash.
âThat puts me in a difficult situation,' he finally remarked, âbut perhaps not an impossible one. Presumably I won't be able to examine the skeleton that was found?'
âNo, but that's with the Hertfordshire police anyway.'
âBut you've seen it?'
âThere's not a great deal to see, just some very old bones, and not a great deal to learn either. It's obviously not the remains of Andy Sixsmith.'
âBut it was found where Fellowes claimed to have buried the body. The probability of that being mere coincidence is extremely low.'
âNot all that low. Apparently it was common practise to bury murderers and so on away from consecrated ground.'
âWhich suggests to me the eighteenth century, or even earlier.'
âMaybe, but forensics are definite that the man died by hanging, and probably during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. The second and third cervical vertebrae are both fractured. Apparently that suggests a long drop, which would be unusual before the 1870s. Radio isotope dating suggests the same period or rather earlier.'
âYes, but irrelevant to the case. We need the skeleton of Andy Sixsmith.'
âAnd what does the bumptious Inspector Morden make of all this?'
âHe thinks Fellowes was deliberately misleading us, either to have a last dig at the police or for some more sinister reason.'
âWhich would mean the discovery of the older skeleton was pure chance? Was the grave near a crossroads?'
âAbout a quarter of a mile. The grave was deep too, about six feet, which is unusual with murder victims.'
âI see. And what does Victor Hodges have to say for himself?'
âHe denies having anything to do with it, not surprisingly.'
âSo it looks as if you're back to square one, but I take it you don't agree with Inspector Morden?'
âI think there's more to it than that. Why would Fellowes pick that particular spot? What are the chances of digging up an old grave, right out in the countryside?'
âLow, but not negligible, unless you happen to be near the site of an old church, or a crossroads, in which case they're quite high. Tell me more about Fellowes.'
âHe was an odd case. Wealthy background, good connections, a good brain too, the sort of man you'd expect to have a successful legitimate career.'
âAnd this would have been back in the fifties, when the old school tie really counted for something?'
âYes, and Fellowes did use his contacts. He was expelled from school at sixteen and just three years later he was setting his old mates up with strippers in Soho. We don't know how he got in with the Whadcoats, but by 'sixty-two he was running The Stag Lounge, a club in the Essex Road, just a bar on the face of it but apparently a centre for drugs, prostitution, and illegal gambling. He had the reputation as a safe man to know, making sure his wealthy, respectable friends could get their kicks without risk of exposure. Any trouble and the Whadcoats would look after it, but Fellowes wasn't above getting his hands dirty. He was a big man too, and had some pretty nasty habits, particularly with women.'
âA charming character, I think not, and yet at his funeral procession people were throwing flowers at the hearse. I even saw one wreath making out the word “respect”, when you'd have supposed he deserved nothing but contempt. Human nature never ceases to amaze me. So I take it his crimes caught up with him in the end?'
âOnly after nearly twenty years. He started to come unstuck when there was a big anti-corruption investigation in the seventies, but he was unusual because he wouldn't reveal the names of the officers who'd been taking bribes from him, even when faced with a long sentence. He did ten years and he was in and out of prison throughout the nineties for increasingly petty crimes. In 2003 he moved to Spain, but came back last year, by which time he must have known he was dying.'
âSo he repented only at the last moment?'
âYes, but that's often the way.'
âI suppose so, but he doesn't sound the sort to have a sudden change of heart.'
âThat's what Inspector Morden thinks.'
âSo he's presumably going to drop the case?'
âYes. It's certainly not something we can prioritise, but it would be a feather in my cap if I could solve itÂ â¦Â well, if we could solve it, but I remember you saying you had no interest in publicity.'
She was looking at de Lacy wide-eyed, almost pleading, or seemingly so, a piece of attempted manipulation he found himself unable to resent. Sitting back in his chair with his fingers steepled in thought, and in order to present what he hoped would be taken as an air of easy intelligence, he considered his options. It was certainly pleasant to work with Susan McIntyre, and also to imagine the discomfort of Inspector Morden if a junior officer succeeded in solving a case he'd abandoned. De Lacy also had a strong disgust for gangsters, especially those whose stock in trade was fear and violence.
âI'll take the case, certainly,' he assured her. âAnd what do we know about Victor Hodges?'
She relaxed back into her chair.
âVic Hodges has a much more typical profile. He's now seventy-nine, and was born in Playford Road, Islington, which was a dreadful slum. The Whadcoats came from the next street along, the notorious Campbell Bunk, known as the worst road in North London and a by-word for violence, drunkenness, prostitution and all the other problems associated with extreme poverty. Old man Whadcoat, the grandfather, owned property in Playford Road and The Bunk, which his son built up, so the two boys were brought up to using threats and intimidation to collect the rents. That was their power base, and Vic Hodges started out as a runner, delivering messages for them, when he was still a kid. He has a record going back to the late forties.'
âHow very sordid, although with a background like that I suppose he at least has more excuse than Fellowes. Not that anything excuses being a gangster, let along murder.'