Authors: J.J. Campbell
Victor Hodges lived in a small, gated close of yellow brick bungalows, each set behind a neat little garden bright with pansies and geraniums. It was hard to imagine a less likely spot as the retreat of a notorious gangster, but the elderly, white haired man outside No. 5 was presumably Hodges himself. De Lacy paused, taking the man in. Victor Hodges was small, almost petite, and somewhat stooped, but seemed alert and in good physical shape for his age, walking without the aid of a stick and using a half-gallon watering can with an impressively steady hand. He had also been quick to notice de Lacy's attention and his expression had instantly hostile. De Lacy responded with a bright smile and an extended hand as he approached.
âMr Hodges? Good morning, and no, I'm not a policeman, if that's what you were thinking.'
âWho are you then?' Hodges demanded.
âA writer,' de Lacy replied. âI have a commission to handle your biography.'
âYou want to write about me?' Hodges asked in genuine surprise.
âWhy not?' de Lacy answered. âYours has been a fascinating life, while I understand that you've met a great many interesting people?'
Hodges shrugged and de Lacy continued quickly, guessing that he'd successfully piqued the man's vanity.
âYou were chauffeur to Johnny Wilder, for instance?'
âI made Johnny Wilder. Ungrateful little bastard.'
âYou did? That's exactly the sort of thing I'd like to know, Mr Hodges, the inside story, what really happened.'
âWhat really happened is I got him his first booking, at a place called The Stag Lounge, where I did the bar. You remind me of the boss, you do. You speak like him.'
There was suspicion in Hodges' voice, but de Lacy ignored it, carrying on with open enthusiasm.
âAnother fascinating character, but sadly no longer with us. But tell me more about Johnny Wilder?'
âI could, I could tell you a lot, but what's in it for me?'
âFive thousand pounds,' de Lacy answered.
âIt's half my advance on the book,' de Lacy explained, âbut the book is about you, after all, so naturally you're entitled to your share.'
Hodges gave him a thoughtful glance before replying.
âAnd you've got all this on paper, yeah?'
âOf course,' de Lacy replied, taking the contract he'd run up the day before from the inside pocket of your jacket, âand of course you're welcome to contact my publishers if you doubt my
Hodges took the contract, scanning it doubtfully. De Lacy waited, confident that the contract would seem convincing but praying that his bluff would succeed. At length Hodges handed back the contract, his voice now more cheerful as he spoke again.
âYou'd better come in then, MrÂ â¦?'
âDe Lacy, but call me Charles.'
âThen make it Vic. You are like John. It's creepy listening to you, like he's talking. He was a big bastard too, but hard. You look soft, no offence.'
âNone taken. That's the life I live, I suppose. Yours must have been vastly more exciting? I believe you were born in the notorious Campbell Bunk?'
âPlayford Road,' Hodges corrected him, âand yeah, I suppose it was exciting, if you call having to fight every fucking day of your life exciting. But Playford Road wasn't the Bunk and you was likely to get your head broke if you said it was.'
âBut that's where you met Albert and William Whadcoat?'
âYeah. Make yourself comfortable. Tea?'
They'd entered the house, which was as small and neat as the garden, with a living room and kitchen opposite one another across the hall. Hodges had gone into the kitchen but indicated that de Lacy should go into the living room. He did so, seating himself on the sofa so as to leave what was evidently Hodge's favourite armchair free and glancing around. The furnishings and decoration were largely modern, new and rather impersonal, but a few details stood out. On the mantelpiece was an ancient carriage clock, nineteenth century and far from expensive when new, but now battered and stained but still working, perhaps a memento of Playford Road itself. Above it was a picture of Hodges taken some fifty years before, presumably at The Stag Lounge. It showed five men, with Hodges on the left, smaller than the others but looking dapper and confident in an expensive, fashionable suit with the collar open. Of the other men one was recognisable as a pop star of the time, another familiar and perhaps a less well-known musician, while the third and fourth were Albert and William Whadcoat. Evidently Hodges felt no remorse for the life he'd lived, although there was also evidence that he'd taken pride in his later, legitimate career. Another, smaller photograph showed him in porter's overalls outside what was presumably the rear of Solsbury University, while in a third he was with a group of people who seemed to be gardeners or park keepers. De Lacy nodded, content with his findings, then turned to accept a mug of tea from Hodges.
A slight frown creased de Lacy's features as he returned the papers to the leather notecase he'd set aside and labelled for The Case of the Incriminatory Skeleton. It had come together well, at least from the perspective of pure logic. His theory had proved correct and he now had all the evidence needed to provide Susan McIntyre with clear and conclusive proof, but it was impossible to feel satisfied for two reasons. The first was that his discoveries placed the blame squarely on Vic Hodges, a man he had found himself unable to dislike, and who seemed to have had little to do with the violence de Lacy so despised. Hodges was also clearly a product of his background, and had done little more than seek to claw himself up from the ghastly conditions of one of London's worst pre-war slums. At an intellectual level, de Lacy felt that this was no excuse for living a life supported by the proceeds of crime, but Hodges aroused none of the deep-seated emotional disgust he felt for John Fellowes and the Whadcoat brothers. Unfortunately Fellowes was dead, as was Albert Whadcoat, while the evidence against William Whadcoat was tenuous at best.
The second reason for his dissatisfaction was Susan McIntyre herself. Ever since leaving school he had relied on his looks, and later his wealth, to draw women to him, allowing them to make the choice. Never had he taken the trouble to exert himself, but in the case of the detective he felt he wanted to but had quickly come to realise he didn't know how to go about it. She was always friendly, occasionally flirtatious, but somehow managed to leave him with the feeling that an overt approach would be inappropriate, while it was impossible to shake off the suspicion that she only made herself pleasant to him in order to secure his assistance in the case. His last chance would come when he met her to hand over his findings, but the prospect of suggesting a date filled him with a sense of nervous apprehension he hadn't felt since he was in his teens.
âPull yourself together, de Lacy,' he remarked aloud as he tossed the notecase onto his desk. âA brisk walk and a bite of lunch is what you need.'
He went to the mirror in the hallway, made a few minor adjustments to his clothes and left the flat. The streets of Soho usually fascinated him, with their immense variety of people and ever changing sights, but after two weeks spent immersed in the world of the Whadcoats they seemed merely squalid. He turned towards Piccadilly instead, intent on looping around Green Park before turning towards St James and his club, where he could guarantee the quiet, refined atmosphere he felt he needed.
As he started down the street he was aware of a motion at his elbow and stepped aside to allow whoever it was to pass. A man drew level with him, but instead of hurrying on took a grip on de Lacy's elbow, firm enough to be just short of pain. De Lacy jerked himself free as the man spoke.
âMr de Lacy? I am Mark Whadcoat. We need to talk.'
De Lacy's response was an immediate stab of fear and before he could decide what to say in response Whadcoat carried on.
âYou're writing a biography for old Vic Hodges, I hear?'
It was as much a statement as a question and de Lacy responded with a cautious nod. How Whadcoat evidently knew who he was and where he lived wasn't clear, but Hodges had clearly passed on the entirely fictitious information about the book. What Whadcoat wanted was less clear, although de Lacy was sure it would be to his own disadvantage. From what he'd read Mark Whadcoat was a legitimate businessman but with a hard, uncompromising style and a reputation for ruthlessness not far short of his father's.
âSells well, that sort of thing,' Whadcoat carried on. âI expect you know Jeff Tupper?'
âNo,' de Lacy answered, surprised by the question and reasoning it was best to stick to the truth. âI erÂ â¦Â felt that talking to him might prejudice my own independence. But I've read his biography of your father and uncle, naturally.'
âYeah?' Whadcoat responded. âAnd do you know how many copies got sold?'
âIt did very well, I understand.'
âNearly a million copies, all in, and there's talk of film rights.'
âVery successful then.'
âYeah, and a good earner. I worked very closely with Jeff, and he was very generous. Half the royalties he paid over.'
âI see,' de Lacy answered, thinking quickly as he realised that Whadcoat's purpose in talking to him was simple extortion. âUnfortunately my publishers have been taken over by a bigger firm and they'd decided to drop the project, so I'm afraid I won't be doing as well as Mr Tupper.'
Whadcoat didn't answer immediately, but as they turned into Brewer Street he once again took hold of de Lacy's elbow, now pinching hard as he spoke again, his voice no longer calm and business-like but full of menace.
âYou'd better be telling the truth, de Lacy, because we can check up on this and if you're not you might find yourself in difficulty. We want three-quarters too, and I know how this stuff works. They paid you an advance, didn't they, ten grand, and you get to keep that, don't you?'
âWell, erÂ â¦Â yes, but I've already promised half of that to Victor Hodges.'
âNot my problem. That's my money, de Lacy you little ponce, every last fucking penny of it, and you're going to hand it over, aren't you?'
De Lacy responded with a nervous nod, wanting only to escape.
As de Lacy approached Solsbury University he weighed he weighed the advantages and disadvantages of reporting his encounter with Mark Whadcoat to Susan McIntyre. He had been threatened, but he had no proof, allowing Whadcoat and no doubt Hodges to deny everything. There was also the possibility that Whadcoat's researches might expose the fact that the book had never existed, but again there was nothing he could do about it, while the facts were sure to come out once Hodges had been arrested. That in turn brought up a number of alarming possibilities, and as he parked the Jaguar he was earnestly wishing he'd never approached Hodges in the first place. It had seemed a good idea at the time, and had certainly provided a shortcut in allowing him to prove his theory, but it not been strictly necessary and becoming involved with Mark Whadcoat was a high price to pay for what he now saw as little more than showing off to Susan McIntyre. Going to her for help would ruin that effect, while it was almost certainly pointless in any case.
He has asked her to meet him at a precise time and place, in the university car park, but he was a few minutes early and there was no sign of her. For a long moment he stood looking at the buildings of Solsbury University, a jumble of red brick and yellow stone structures in the Victorian style rising above newer, lower buildings to create an almost organic effect that seemed to creep towards the enormous car park rather than be bounded by it. The museum at least was pure unadulterated Victorian Gothic, and de Lacy allowed himself a smile as he considered what an appropriate setting it made for his revelation.
A blue Mini had pulled up nearby and Sergeant McIntyre stepped in, looking far from official in jeans and a baggy T-shirt with her fine blonde hair moving in time withÂ the breeze. De Lacy greeted her with an extended hand and a cheerful smile, to which she responded with a question.
âWhy the university?'
âAll will be revealed,' de Lacy assured her, âbut as we walk, I'm sure you'd appreciate a little background?'
âYes, I would.'
Ignoring her slightly impatient tone, de Lacy started toward the university buildings, talking as he walked.
âAs you may know, Solsbury University was originally founded as a medical college during the Napoleonic wars, although most of the older buildings date from the 1850s. These include the museum, which houses specimens going back to the late eighteenth century, including several from the original medical school.'
âI don't see what that has to do with anything?'
âIt is essential to the case, but moving forward a century and a half, more or less, we come to the night of January 21
and the murder of Andy Sixsmith. I don't pretend to know the exact details, but his neck was broken, presumably by the Whadcoat brothers, although sadly I have no proof of that. In any event, the job of disposing of the corpse was given to Victor Hodges and John Fellowes, both men who had little choice but to obey the Whadcoat's orders, although I can't imagine they relished the task. They drove north, to Hammond Street, a location one or other of them probably knew, and there, beside a lonely lane, they buried Mr Sixsmith.'
âWe know that much, but it wasn't Sixsmith we found.'
âNo, it was not.'
De Lacy paused to speak to the porter at the museum door, a man he'd made an effort to get to know and who nodded them in to an entrance hall with a high, arched roof supported by pillars of different marbles. The main room of the museum was larger still, a great vaulted chamber with an open central space and a balcony running beneath tall, diamond panelled windows to create a dim tunnel lined with rank upon rank of wooden drawers.