Authors: J.J. Campbell
âHodges was never convicted of murder, or of very much else. He's done time, but only short stretches. Most of the time he was behind the bar, or running the poker games, that sort of thing. After the gang was broken up he seems to have worked as a legitimate barman, among other things. He's unruly, a joker rather than really malicious, but not the sort to hold a job down well. Over the years he's been all sorts of things, generally casual, but in the end he got a job as a porter at Solsbury University, which is how he got down here. Now he's retired and lives in sheltered accommodation off the Winchester Road.'
âI take it you were present at his interview?'
âYes. He comes across as cheerful, witty, irreverent, but there's a hard edge to him. He wasn't in the least bit bothered by being taken in for questioning and he gave nothing away. When Inspector Morden tried to push him into a confession he just laughed.'
âHaving been the subject of the Inspector's interview technique myself, I can't help but feel a touch of sympathy, however ghastly Hodges crimes may have been. So, not an especially tempting target, especially as he's nearly eighty, but Bill Whadcoat, now there is somebody who deserves to be in prison, permanently. I read up on him, along with his appalling family, and a nastier piece of work it is hard to imagine. Apparently his favourite instrument of persuasion was a sandblaster, which doesn't bear thinking about. He seems to have a particularly swollen and fragile ego too, not to mention a short temper.'
âYes, but he's in London. Hodges is our target, and with luck we can persuade Hodges to testify against Whadcoat.'
De Lacy nodded.
âI shall do my best. First, while I may not be able to examine the skeleton, I can at least see where it was buried.'
Hammondstreet proved to be on the very edge of the London greenbelt, with newly built houses giving way almost directly to ancient woodland of enormous oaks and old hornbeam coppices. Somewhat concerned by the appearance of the local housing estates, de Lacy parked his Jaguar at a nearby pub, spent a leisurely half-hour over a pint of real ale, then walked back the way he had come.
The whole area was a curious mixture of the old and the new, with what had obviously once been a crossroads between two country lanes now a T-junction. The main road and the one leading south were newly refurbished, but the northern spur was little more than a track leading between moss grown banks topped with mature beeches that might have started life as a hedge and apparently untouched for many decades. Only two features jarred with what might otherwise have been a sylvan idyll, the ragged ends of police tape fluttering in the breeze some way up the lane and a scattering of freshly dug earth.
As he drew closer it became apparent that the excavation equipment had been operating on the far side of the bank, where a narrow field of rough grass and weeds bordered the housing development, so new that the red and yellow brick still had a raw, harsh look. The trench had been filled in, but already a few tufts of grass and a little groundsel had taken hold on the turned earth. One small area showed more disturbance, presumably where the grave had been, slightly beyond where a cleft in the bank marked a lost tree.
De Lacy climbed to the top of the bank, first to look up at the towering beeches to either side, then stooping to pick up a handful of moss and soil, which he examined with care, his long, elegant fingers first moving over a tiny snail shell and then the brilliant green wing case of a beetle before putting it all carefully back in place and wiping his hands. Standing up once more, he made a slow turn, surveying the ancient woods into which the track disappeared after another hundred yards, then the field on the opposite side, which was rough pasture with a cluster of red and white horse jumps at the far side.
Satisfied by his appraisal of the area, he jumped down to the lane once more, now smiling. Looking back towards the road, he imagined how it would have been for Fellowes and Hodges on the night they'd buried Sixsmith's body. One, or both, had almost certainly known about the old lane, as it was hard to picture two such experienced criminals driving at random around the Hertfordshire countryside in the hope of finding a good place to bury a body. It would certainly have been dark, with the gnarled beech trees making twisted shapes in the beams from the car's headlights and the woods a black bulk against the sky. There would have been no houses nearby then, and perhaps no visible lights at all, which probably explained why they'd chosen to dig the grave where they had.
A slight bend in the lane hid the junction from view, so with the car parked and the lights off they'd have been well concealed. The wood might have seemed the obvious place for the burial, but roots would have made digging difficult, while it would have been much darker under the trees. With a moon in the sky it would have been possible to see what they were doing with very little risk of being spotted in turn, while on a cold, January night the chances of anybody passing by chance was minimal. It might well have been frosty, but it quite likely the field would have been ploughed, making it easier to dig and to hide the evidence of that digging. That also meant they'd have had to go deep to avoid the risk of accidental disinterment, which explained the depth of the grave. It also suggested both expertise and a callous detachment on the part of the two men, but that was perhaps no surprise. The job had been professional and thorough, while without Fellowes' confession the body might never have been discovered at all. In fact it hadn't been discovered, yet.
De Lacy was smiling as he approached The Bell. He had driven down early, booked in and then spent the morning walking on Solsbury Downs, leaving him with a keen appetite and allowing him to run over what he now thought of as the The Case of the Incriminatory Skeleton in his mind. Detective Sergeant McIntyre had allowed him to invite her to lunch, and it seemed to him that her attitude was becoming gradually less professional and her warmth more genuine. She also seemed more attractive with each succeeding visit, while he found her taste in clothes refreshingly understated. Never particularly forward with women, he felt it far too early to make any overt suggestion of intimacy, but he had no intention of bringing the case to a hasty conclusion and so spoiling his opportunities for meeting with her.
The bar was still quiet, with just two businessmen drinking pints at the bar and a scattering of couples and family parties taking a pre-prandial drink before going through to the restaurant. Sergeant McIntyre was nowhere to be seen, allowing him to order a bottle of Champagne and make himself comfortable in the last remaining window seat. With a good view of the car park, he was able to observe her when she arrived, and he had allowed one corner of his mouth to curve up into a slight smile as he saw the trouble she took to check her makeup before getting out. As before, she was in jeans and a light sweater, while her manner as she walked to the door was characteristically brisk. De Lacy poured a glass of Champagne, allowing him to offer it to her at the exact instant she saw him.
âCharles, hi. Thanks.'
âHow goes the case?' he asked, keen to sound professional and eager to reveal his own progress.
âIt doesn't,' she answered. âInspector Morden doesn't feel we can afford to allocate resources to something that's unlikely to have concrete results.'
âNo? I'd called locking Bill Whadcoat up fairly concrete.'
âMaybe, but that almost certainly won't happen, especially as we're at a dead end. The confession from John Fellowes isn't enough, apparently. So what do you have to tell me? Are you getting anywhere?'
âOh I've solved the case,' de Lacy answered with a casual gesture. âI just need to tidy up a few loose ends.'
âI hope you're going to tell me?' she asked, after he'd made a deliberate show of examining the bubbles rising through his wine and taken a long sip.
âOf course,' he assured her, âonce I have everything neatly in place.'
âI understand you might want to do that, MrÂ â¦Â Charles, but this is a serious case. A man has been murdered.'
âIn 1971,' de Lacy pointed out.
âYes, butÂ â¦'
âNo, that much you must allow me,' he insisted. âAnd besides, there is a small possibility that I might be wrong.'
âSo what do you have, more or less?' she demanded.
âI know what happened,' he assured her, âand in some detail, but I need proof. Shall we go through?'
As he rose, de Lacy caught a look of determination on Sergeant McIntyre's face but he took no notice, merely making a courteous gesture to offer her the option of preceding him into the dining room. Clearly she had not given up her intention of getting him to reveal what information he had, but as that knowledge relied almost entirely on logic he was equally determined to remain mysterious. However, for all her evident frustration, she didn't seem to be annoyed with him for arranging a meeting that was not strictly necessary, and she looked genuinely pleased as she scanned the menu.
âCould I have the lobster thermidor, if it's not too expensive?'
âNot at all. An excellent choice. I'll have the same myself, in which case we'll need a bottle of something rich but dry. Hmm, let me seeÂ â¦'
He had picked up the wine menu and scanned it thoughtfully. As he did so it occurred to him that she might be prepared to let the relationship between them grow more intimate in order to get more information out of him. He immediately dismissed the thought as unworthy, but was left conscious of a nagging frustration. Having spent his formative years at a series of all-male schools, he had never found it easy to move beyond the easy gentility that came naturally to him with women. Almost invariably it had been his partners who'd initiated sex, and even then he always found it hard to accept the evidence of their desire. Certainly it was impossible to imagine any way of inviting Susan McIntyre up to his room for the afternoon without seeming crass or crude, so he put the idea from his mind and turned his attention to a subject on which he had more confidence, the selection of a suitable wine for the lobster. One stood out from the rest.
âThe Pinot Gris Grand Cru Furstentum '09,' he told the waitress, âand the lobster, twice.'
The waitress responded with an appreciative nod and moved away, leaving de Lacy to cover a moment's awkward silence with his Champagne glass. Susan had picked up the wine list and after a moment spoke up in surprise.
âYou're certainly doing us well!'
âAnd why not?' de Lacy answered, keen to find a topic of conversation and to expound his personal philosophy. âAs I can afford a decent lunch I see it as my social responsibility to have one. That way, everybody benefits. The Bell takes their margin, which helps to support the owners and their staff, while we also help fishermen, farmers, and, by no means least, the Domaine Karl Barr in Alsace. They in turn are able to continue to produce their excellent products.'
âWhy not spend less and give the balance to charity?'
âBecause I'd rather see my money go to a hard-working waitress here at The Bell, or a casual labourer picking grapes in Alsace for that matter, than to highly paid executives in the charity and television industries. Besides, you're forgetting the substantial slice of tax I'll be paying, which not only helps to support the disadvantaged but keeps the likes of Bert and Bill Whadcoat in jail, thus allowing us to eat our meal in peace, and which pays your wages, of course.'
âI was going to offer to go halves.'
âIf you insist, butÂ â¦'
âNo, I don't, if you're sure that's OK?'
âAbsolutely. Call me old-fashioned, but if a gentleman invites a lady to lunch with him I'd say that should carry the implication that he is prepared to pay.'
âThank you. So you think we should all spend as much as we can?'
âYes. That's how the economy functions, and while the system is no doubt far from perfect, it will have to do until something better comes along. No, I have in my time been called a social parasite, but that's quite unfair. Both my investments and my expenditure help the system to keep going, although tiny in the great scheme of things, and if I happen to have a pleasant time while playing my little part, why not? I despise the attitude that work is somehow virtuous in its own right. That's another reason why I find the public adulation of the likes of the Whadcoats so exasperating. I go my own way, minding my own affairs and never harming a fly, and I get called a social parasite, while they make their money by violence, extortion and all sorts of unpleasant means and people look up to them! They believe their own propaganda too. In the Whadcoats' biography they're painted as champions of the people, fighting for the little man against the oppressive state and big business. Ha! Trying telling that to some poor girl who's been forced into prostitution to pay for their vulgar suits and enormous cars.'
âYou're very passionate about it. Maybe you should have joined the police?'
âYes, and no. Sorry if I'm getting a little carried away, but that biography had me grinding my teeth with rage. The author, Tupper, is the most appalling sycophant! But I could never be a policeman. I don't follow orders well.'
âIt's not all about following orders. So you've read about the Whadcoats?'
âYes, a most unpleasant subject but essential to the case.'
âSo you've worked out what happened from the biography?'
âIn part. Naturally they deny the murder of Andy Sixsmith, but there's a lot to be gained from what they do say, and what they don't.'
âBut hundredsÂ â¦Â thousands of people must have read it, including some real fanatics, and none of them have worked out what really happened!'
âThey,' he replied, âare not Charles Kingsman de Lacy.'
De Lacy slowed his pace as he turned into the Winchester Road. Lunch had gone well, and while he had quickly come to realise that he would not be spending the afternoon in bed with Susan McIntyre, they had parted on good terms. He had also drunk most of the bottle of wine, as she'd been on duty from late afternoon and had refused to accept more than a single glass, while he'd rounded off the meal with an Armagnac. Fortunately, being less than perfectly sober was in keeping with the persona he'd chosen to adopt for the next move in his carefully laid plans.