Authors: Malcolm Pryce
The Day Aberystwyth
just a Baal-worshipping Phoenician princess who got thrown out of a window by her eunuchs and eaten by dogs; could have happened to anyone. All they remember Jezebel for now is painting her face, and for that they call her a tramp. But the one thing they never tell you is the reason she did it: she knew she was about to die. The rouge was scorn thrown into the face of her assassin, whose name was Jehel. He’s not remembered for anything much apart from the events of that day. He didn’t sack towns, nor take into captivity all the virgin girls; he didn’t even hang the king from a tree outside the city gates. In the Old Testament you were nobody if you didn’t do that. As kings go, he was a peanut grifter. But thanks to him the flesh of Jezebel was as dung upon the face of the fields. In Aberystwyth they named a club after her, on the caravan park. A quiet place where you could sit late into the night holding the hand of a girl in a stovepipe hat and forget for a while the disenchantments of this world. I met a girl there once, and bought her a drink. It didn’t cost much. Just my heart.
was Ercwleff, which is Welsh for Hercules, and he was very big. He kept his trousers held up with packing string, tied in a knot just below his nipples, and wore a dung-stained tie that was never removed and had grown into the flesh of his neck the way wire sometimes cuts into the bark of trees. His head had two indentations where normal people have ears and this was the result, they said, of a clumsy forceps delivery sixty years ago when the doctor performed the operation with coal tongs while drunk. They said he was one of God’s children, but in contrast to most of God’s children he carried an axe down the front of his trousers, the bright, shiny blade hanging out over the packing-string belt. He also carried a toy rabbit. He was a gelder by trade, and castrated the lambs the old-fashioned way, using his teeth. The axe was for special occasions. He was very big and he was in my office, and, standing next to him, was Preseli Watkins, his brother and the current mayor of Aberystwyth. He wasn’t one of God’s children. He was about the same age as Ercwleff, early sixties, and wore a midnight-blue, chalk-stripe, hand-tailored mock Italian suit from Swansea, and he explained to me what Ercwleff was going to do.
‘He’s going to play the chopping game . . . with your desk.’
I nodded. ‘All for poking my nose into your affairs.’
‘That’s right. All for poking your nose in my affairs.’
‘Even though I haven’t.’
‘Even though you haven’t; yet. But you will. I’d move back if I were you, and take the rum out of the desk drawer.’
‘You know about the rum, huh?’
‘I make it my business to know about people who make the mistake of mistaking my business for their business.’
I did as I was told and put the bottle on the windowsill. ‘Does he really need to do this? Desks are expensive.’
The mayor gave a sort of apologetic half-grin that suggested the matter was beyond his control.
‘I don’t mean to cause any trouble,’ I said.
‘You’re a private detective, how could you avoid it?’
‘I need my desk.’
‘Buy a new one, this one’s crap.’ He nodded to Ercwleff who handed him the rabbit and pulled the axe out of his trousers. I slid my chair back and stood up. The mayor handed me the rabbit, and for some reason I held it.
Ercwleff swung the axe and brought it down with a crunch. The head sank deep into the cheap, stained wooden surface. A splinter of wood landed at my feet. He wrenched the axe out and lofted the head, then brought it down again in one fluid movement. It was the easy grace of a man who is more at home with an axe than he is with a knife and fork.
‘When do you think I will begin poking my nose in your business?’
‘How can you be so sure?’
‘My soothsayer told me. He seldom gets it wrong.’
‘Trouble is, if the prophecy is right, chopping up my desk won’t stop me. And if it isn’t, you’ve chopped it up for nothing.’
‘In that case send me the bill.’
Ercwleff kept chopping.
‘This won’t look good if your brother ever wants to stand for mayor.’
‘He is standing for mayor,’ said Preseli. ‘I step down at the end of summer.’
Crunch. The axe head came down again. Crunch, crunch, crunch.
‘We’ll be sorry to see you go.’
‘Thank you. It has been a privilege serving you. But it’s time now, I think, for a fresh perspective.’
Ercwleff began to sweat. It was still only May and quite cool and blustery outside, but Ercwleff was putting his back into his work. The desk itself had been reduced to a pile of wood no longer recognisable as an item of furniture, and now he was picking up the individual pieces and splitting them along the grain to make kindling. He didn’t say anything as he worked. He wasn’t a big talker.
‘What are you going to do with the wood?’ I asked.
‘Leave it for you. If you keep it dry over the summer it will be good for the fireplace in the winter.’
Ercwleff stopped chopping and straightened up; he placed the axe down by the side of his leg like a sentry with his rifle. He looked across to Preseli. The phone rang amid the bird’s nest of splintered timber and we all searched with our eyes. Preseli spotted it and pointed; without needing any further encouragement, Ercwleff kicked the phone free of the debris and smashed it with an axe blow. Glistening splinters of Bakelite skipped across the room. He put the axe back inside his trousers and stood to attention. I handed him the rabbit. They both walked to the door. In the doorway Preseli stopped and turned, as I knew he would; they always do.
‘My advice to you is replace the desk but retain the fragments of the old one as a reminder of the fate that awaits you if you don’t keep your nose clean.’
‘How would it be if I glued it back together?’
He let his gaze rest on me for a beat. As they left, Ercwleff said, ‘That was a good game.’
I went to the kitchenette for the dustpan and brush.
swept the wood into a neat pile I sat down on my chair and pondered. It’s hard to know what to do after a visit like that and for a while I cursed the mayor, but looking back I have to admit he was right; his soothsayer was good. Less than ten minutes later the client who would be responsible for the mess walked in.
He was short: less than five six, and dumpy, wearing a grey flannel suit. His head was bald and pointed, as if his shower-head had been replaced by a pencil sharpener. He walked slowly, breathing heavily and paused at the door to catch his breath. He surveyed the room.
‘I tried ringing, but the operator said there was a fault on the line.’
‘I had an accident with the phone.’
He looked at the shards of Bakelite and nodded. I invited him in and pointed to the client’s chair, which was set opposite me at the distance of a desk. He took a seat. The desk had always presented a barrier that I appreciated between me and the clients and I felt naked in its absence. The movement of air, displaced as he sat down, wafted the faint, cloying scent of Parma Violets. He took a packet from his pocket and removed a sweet from the wrapper with the same intensity that some people show for the ritual of lighting up a cigarette.
‘You are Louie Knight, Aberystwyth’s only private detective,’ he said. He took it for granted that I was and continued. ‘My name is Iolo Raspiwtin. I was born in a croft in the district of Pontwerwyd, overlooking the Nant-y-Moch River, in 1931. Nant-y-Moch, as you know, means “river of the pig” in English.’
‘How can I help you?’
‘I bring you a case, not just any case, but a special case, probably the toughest case you have ever had; possibly the toughest case any private detective has ever had.’
‘I’m a tough guy.’
‘You’ll need to be.’
I let that one ride, leant back in my chair and crossed my legs.
‘In view of the difficulties involved, I mean to be generous. I will pay you £200 now, and £200 in the unlikely event that you complete the task.’
I smiled and offered him a glass of rum, which he accepted. I fetched two glasses from the drainer in the kitchenette and poured two measures. We raised our glasses in a silent toast.
‘I seek a man. One who I have reason to suspect is either in Aberystwyth now or will arrive very shortly. This man can help me with a project that has preoccupied me most of my life and which is not relevant to your inquiry.’
‘In my experience such things are almost always relevant to the inquiry.’
‘Not this time.’
‘Tell me what makes him difficult to find. I assume he is difficult to find?’
‘Absolutely. Why else would I pay you £200? He is difficult to find because he is dead.’
‘Dead people are usually quite easy to find because they are kept in the ground.’
‘Conventionally, yes, the ground is the appointed storage for our mortal remains.’