A web of lives, p.3
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       A Web of Lives, p.3

           David Medlycott
 
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‘Sunburn Danger say Met Men’, read the placard outside the newsagents. Another week had drifted by and it was Monday morning again. But this week he had delivered his copy to the office, a nice little piece on the cancelled school fair; budget cuts and industrial unrest were rearing their heads in this idyllic country community. The busy weekend, busy by his standards, and the return of summer, gave him a contented, self-satisfied feeling, as he wandered along with his shopping.

  The town was transformed in the sunshine. The town had emerged gleaming from the previous weeks washing by heavy rain, the flowers in their baskets and tubs had revived and lifted their heads to the sun, their cheerful colours and green foliage fresh and bright with the evaporating morning dew. The streets were once again full of townspeople and tourists either hurrying or ambling about their business.

  From the position he took, sitting on the sill of his open front room window, Tobin could closely inspect two hanging baskets on the lamppost outside, so close that they were nearly window boxes. The town was renowned for its floral displays with many awards to its credit. He was dreamily studying the flowers when a dustcart went by. He smiled at the memory of the letter that had been anonymously circulated round the office during the week; the sender’s name had been tactfully removed from the photocopy. The writer suggested, apparently quite seriously, that all the buses and municipal vehicles should be decked out in flower boxes and baskets to promote the town; particularly those vehicles that were going further afield, to places such as Alnwick and Newcastle! The book was still open as to which local worthy had written it. Needless to say the letter had not been published.

  He sat on the broad sill of the open window, with his foot resting against the opposite side and his chin on his knee. His side of the street was still in shade, the sun would be another hour in climbing round to shine in his window and he felt himself winding down already, and it wasn’t even ten-o-clock. He dragged his mind back to the present. Part of his self-satisfaction was due to another article that he had nearly completed; it was sitting on the desk awaiting its final revision. He resolved to work for another two hours and then find something to do out of doors. Looking at Mrs Davies’ house and taking some photos seemed a good idea. He went to his desk, made a note to phone her and switched on the computer.

  His keyboard was balanced on top of his accounts book and its associated papers, receipts and statements, and rocked annoyingly. He had spent a large part of the previous week sorting and getting them up to date and he did not want to disarrange them now. There was nowhere left to put them, all his filing stacks were full to falling over, so he levelled the little piles on the desk a bit to stop the worst of the wobbling, raised his seat slightly and carried on working.

  He was happily tapping away on his article about climate change, his weather encyclopaedia wedged between his knee and the underside of the desk and the first draft of his article on the ‘Weather, a bonus or a bane?’ clipped to the side of his monitor.

  The phone rang.

  ‘Yes?’ He said, impatiently into the mouthpiece.

  ‘If you spent more time in this office I wouldn’t have to waste time looking for you!’ snapped an angry female voice.

  ‘Good morning, Sandra.’ He said, with exaggerated tolerance; she wasn’t going to ruin his day. ‘You know that I work far better in the peace and quiet of my own home. And, I’m only a phonecall away.’

  ‘Well, you’re a phone call further away from whatever is happening at your friend Alan Harper’s. Ian Henderson’s on his way; there’s police and an ambulance there, so it must be something. Are you going to call Harper’s office, or shall I set Nicola on to it?’

  ‘No! No, it’s OK. I’ll see to it now!’ He hung up. Damn the woman! He hadn’t seen the Harper’s for some time, maybe even a month, he thought as he gathered his notebook and digital recorder together, and that was most unusual. In the space of one week he would normally bump into Alan two or three times and see Rosemary shopping at least once, maybe more often, if he was near the off license. Now that Rosemary’s daughter, Alan’s stepdaughter, Rebecca, had her own flat twenty-odd miles away in Newcastle he seemed to see them all less than he used to.

  Rebecca did phone ‘Uncle John’ occasionally; he had, in fact, just managed to break her of the ‘Uncle’ habit. She had grown into a fine looking woman and he found himself caught between loyalty to a friend and lust for his friend’s stepdaughter.

  His car was parked in its usual place at the top of the back lane. He unlocked it, opened the door and stood back to let out the heat and the damp smell. He didn’t use it enough and doing nothing to maintain it didn’t help, either. Consequently he wasn’t surprised when all he got when he turned the key in the ignition was a dull ‘click, click’, another flat battery. This was why the car was where it was, parked at the top of a slope. He released the handbrake and as the car rolled forward he slipped it into gear. He let the clutch in sharply as the car gained speed and arrived at the junction with the main road in a cloud of brown smoke, with the engine racing. The road was clear both ways and he was able to pull straight out without attracting too much attention. So often in the past, particularly when the weather was cold and damp or there had been a lot of traffic causing him to sit too long, he had pulled out into the road only to have the car cough, stall and strand him there for all to see.

  As he drove he tried to remember precisely when he had last seen Alan to talk to.

  They had been at the rugby club charity ‘do’, which Alan had organised. It had been quite a prestigious affair, by the standards of Longalnbury, and Alan had raised a lot of money from it. Tobin had been there in two capacities, first as a guest and secondly as a reporter. He had gone grudgingly in both guises. Sandra Hickman, the boss, had wheedled her way round him, as usual, when she discovered he had been invited and saved herself some money. He hated formal events and made a point of avoiding them whenever he could and had tried to make excuses, but this time to no avail. He had saved her even more money by taking his own camera, which had got him into some unwanted trouble with his friend. All in all, it had not been an enjoyable evening.

  One of the few occasions when he had really fallen out with Alan, his friend and mentor, was when one of the photos Tobin had taken had been published. It showed Alan and some of his friends giving a toast to an unseen third party.

  Alan had complained to Sandra and Sandra had hauled Tobin in and given him a particularly hard time. He had always known that Alan was camera shy, but had put it down, literally, to shyness and thought he was doing everyone a favour after all these years by highlighting Alan’s contribution to the event, together with the band of loyal supporters. He had obviously misunderstood.

  One of the reasons, the main reason, Tobin was a grudging guest and never very comfortable at that sort of event was that he had been too many different things to too many different people in Longalnbury. Driver, handyman, gardener, had all been regular odd jobs in his early days and his former employers could not seem to forget it. Although he was able to mix and converse quite happily with any of them, their discomfort was obvious; status was all important and they had difficulty accepting him as an equal after he had been willing to do their menial work. Well, it was their loss!

  It had been some years since he last did those kind of odd jobs; he had moved on quite successfully, he thought, but their memories were long, and their vision narrow, and they were unable to see him as anything other than the handyman.

  The change in his lifestyle had been sudden and surprising. Alan had discovered Tobin’s desire to write and had introduced him to Sandra Hickman, editor of the paper, and another of Alan Harper’s string of attractive female friends.

  A determined single lady, she had taken over a weekly rag and had turned it round into a successful local paper, with a colour magazine and regular supplements, which were the bits that provided Tobin with his regular work. She enjoyed her p
ower and Tobin had to work hard at resisting the added attraction that it gave her, she was the boss after all. The power also brought her enemies. There were the predatory males who couldn’t resist the attraction, even when she had not set out to attract them in the first place. Men who could not cope with women in positions of power; and then there were the suspicious wives who saw her as a threat. In some cases they may well have been right!

  And, worst of all, she kept employing the annoying Nicola. Tobin knew that it was politics that kept the girl there, but it still rankled with him. It wouldn’t be so bad if Sandra would just stop defending her when the argument was plainly indefensible.

  Still, when he thought about it, he shouldn’t complain; Nicola’s failings brought him work and it was better than working in the filling station or the shop, which had been his last two fill-in jobs.

  He arrived at the entrance of the cul-de-sac where the Harpers lived. The end of the road was sealed off with blue and white police tape; he drove past and parked behind a small police car. Henderson the photographer’s car was just in front. He ambled back to the small group of people who had gathered to look.

  Down at the far end of the road all that could be seen were a couple of police cars, some ordinary cars and an ambulance with its blue lights still flashing.

  Tobin showed a card to the young policeman at the barrier.

  ‘Ah. A reporter from the ‘Reporter’ then!’

  A fiver for every time that had been cracked! ‘So, what’s happening then, officer?’ He tried to make the ‘officer’ sound polite.

  ‘Sorry, sir, can’t tell you.’

  ‘Oh! Come on!’

  ‘Really, sir. I cannot tell you anything, because I don’t know myself. That’s my car you have just parked behind and this is as far as I got.’

  ‘Well, can I be through, then?’

  ‘In a minute, maybe. When my pal comes back I’ll find out. How’s that?’

  ‘OK. I suppose.’ Tobin turned to an onlooker. ‘Did anyone see what’s happened? Sir?’

  ‘Nuh!’ And the man backed away.

  ‘Thanks.’ He looked about for help.

  ‘Not surprising, is it?’ came a strident female voice from the far side of the group.

  ‘Isn’t it?’

  ‘’Course not. Filthy rich, the lot of them! Just look down there.’ A small wrinkled hand and extended finger pointed down the road. The woman was wearing a headscarf and a heavy coat, buttoned up to the neck, even though it was a bright summer day. ‘I bet he came home early and surprised them and got ‘it for his trouble. They bring it on themselves these people, you know.’ The ends of her thin colourless lips were permanently turned down, with deeply etched lines displaying a lifetime of bitterness.

  ‘OK. So you know the people involved, then?’

  ‘Me? Nah! Wouldn’t mix with them if you asked me, and that’s not likely, is it?’ She hurried away before she could be asked any more questions, her empty shopping trolley rattling along behind her. Tobin watched the sad little figure as she tottered away down the road.

  ‘Well, I know them, or her, anyway,’ said a man standing behind him. ‘And if anyone was surprised it shouldn’t have been her husband coming home early. Know what I mean?’

  ‘You tell me. What did you say your name was?’ Tobin flicked through his notebook for a clean page.

  ‘I didn’t. Never mind that. I went to school with her, Rosie Taylor she was then, and there was only two things in life that she liked. The other one was money! And if she could use the first to get the second all the better!’

  Tobin heard some sharp intakes of breath and tutting around them, the crowd’s attention, and disapproval, had certainly been gained.

  ‘Where was this then, Mr ….er….?’

  ‘In Morpeth, man. That was before she got her grand ideas and looked down on the likes of me!’

  ‘Didn’t do her much harm, did it?’ Observed another man nearby, indicating the expensive houses around them.

  ‘Well, I don’t know about that, there’s an ambulance, down there and a lot of excitement going on. So someone’s come to harm, I’d say!’ His Northumbrian accent was getting thicker as the discussion became livelier.

  ‘What’s your involvement here, then?’ asked Tobin trying to get back to the subject.

  ‘I was working in the garden of number six, there. And this young lass, she’s the daughter, turns up in that blue car there.’ He pointed toward the house drive that was the centre of attention. ‘Then about ten minutes later the police turn up and then the ambulance. I came out then, went to the shop, like. When I came back they wouldn’t let me in!’ He looked at the policeman and shouted, feeling brave surrounded by the small crowd, ‘Oi! I’m losing money stood out here, yuh knah!’

  He was ignored.

  Tobin turned back to the policeman. ‘Has Henderson the photographer gone in?’

  ‘I think he has, sir, just when I arrived. He went in with the sergeant.’

  ‘Well, I’m supposed to be in there with him.’

  ‘I’m sure you are, sir. As I said, as soon as I’m relieved from here I’ll sort it out.’

  As they watched, Tobin saw Henderson and a police officer appear at the front gate of the house and look up the road. Tobin began jumping up and down waving his arms wildly above his head. Henderson said something to the policeman who disappeared back into the house and moments later reappeared with a man in plain clothes. They exchanged a few words and the officer signalled to let him through. Tobin ducked under the tape held up for him by the constable and walked briskly down the road, Cheviot Close.

  It was an address that certainly said ‘money’. He had never actually walked through here before having always driven to the door, as everybody else did, in this road of three and four car garages.

  The numbering was sequential Tobin knew, beginning with one on his left and continuing round to number sixteen on the right, back at the junction. He had been to number eight often enough, and helped build more than half the houses when he first arrived in Longalnbury. He passed number six with the wheelbarrow and garden tools showing where the gardener had abandoned his labours at the arrival of the police. Tobin wondered what the man felt so guilty about.

  The seven dwellings on the left of the road were all large bungalows set below the level of the road, with large, open front gardens and even larger rear ones, all well-spaced from each other and of individual design. The houses on the right of the road were a little smaller and slightly closer together and set so much further back on higher ground that they were almost hidden by the shoulder of their front gardens. Tobin was heading for the left hand of the two two-storey houses that stood commandingly at the end of the road behind substantial fencing and hedges. The only activity on the street was at this house; the other residents were showing remarkable restraint in remaining behind their lace curtains. He knew the inside of most of the buildings here intimately. His first job on arriving in Longalnbury, fifteen years before, had been as a labourer on the first four bungalows. The designs for the other ten arrived shortly after and he could remember the wrangling over the planning consent for Alan’s house being two storeys. Consent being won only when it was agreed to build another, next door, to balance up the view. Alan had wangled it somehow. Having the landowner’s attractive daughter, who had inherited the land and was now selling it, and the equally attractive lady chair of the planning committee on his side must have been an advantage, Tobin recalled. Calling the house design a dormer bungalow had no doubt helped as well.

  Henderson was standing with the police constable by the hedge that Tobin had also planted fourteen years before; they were joined by the man in plain clothes, presumably a detective, as Tobin approached.

  ‘Good morning, John.’ Henderson’s tone was full of warmth. Tobin was on his guard immediately, he would normally expect to be greeted by some clever remark
, nothing too hurtful, but just sharp enough to remind him that he was the amateur among professionals. ‘This is D.S. McColl,’ Henderson indicated the man on his left. He turned to the P.C., ‘Sorry, don’t know your name.’

  ‘Symmonds, sir.’

  ‘Oh, yes, and P.C. Symmonds.’ He said in an exaggerated manner, nearly slipping into his more usual, mocking tone. ‘I’ll leave you with it, then. I’ll go and sort out all this gear I don’t need.’ He indicated the cameras slung around his neck and before Tobin could speak he had gone.

  ‘You’re a friend of the family I understand, sir.’

  ‘Umm, yes….’ Tobin took a further breath to speak, but McColl anticipated the question.

  ‘I don’t know exactly what’s happened, sir. It’s difficult to decide. The young lady will soon help, I hope.’ Tobin looked puzzled. ‘The daughter, Miss Shaw? She’s next door, being comforted by the neighbour. We really would like to speak to the husband, Mr Harper, but I understand that he’s away somewhere. You wouldn’t happen to know where, would you, sir?’

  ‘Me? No. I’ve no idea.’

  ‘Pity.’

  ‘She’s called Shaw because she’s Rosemary’s daughter from a previous marriage.’ Tobin said, helpfully. The policeman nodded; he had worked that out for himself. ‘I was just thinking on the way here that I hadn’t seen them lately.’

  ‘Really, sir?’ He reached across Tobin to restrain him as he moved toward the house. ‘Sorry, sir, you can’t go in at the moment till we’ve finished and cleared… everything away.’

  ‘Look. I presume we’re talking about…’

  ‘I’m sorry, sir. I thought you knew. Yes, we are talking about Mrs Harper, and she’s dead. But, that’s all I can tell you. Perhaps you would like to see the daughter?’ He indicated the way to next door and turned away.

  ‘Is he new here?’ Tobin asked PC Symmonds.

  ‘Just transferred out of Newcastle, sir.’ Everybody was being so polite he noticed. Symmonds had been a constable in Longalnbury for years. No one could remember a time without him. He knew the town better than anybody, the families, their troubles, their streets, their histories. Tobin had seen him in court quite often, since he had begun reporting, and had seen the regard in which he was held. The big grey-haired officer commanded respect, not just because of his age or his size, but for the practical common sense that he dispensed. The old fashioned style of ‘bobby on the beat’ was well suited to Longalnbury, a town that prided itself on its old style values. Tobin had heard that Symmonds was due for retirement soon and was about to comment on it, but was forestalled by a firm nod of the policeman’s head toward the next door neighbour’s driveway. He took the hint and walked around the dividing hedge and up the other drive.

  He had never met the neighbours and wasn’t even sure who they were. Despite all the time he had spent working there, and subsequently visiting, he couldn’t recall ever having seen another occupant of the Close. Lots of big cars came and went frequently enough, but no actual human forms were discernible within. So far as Tobin knew Alan Harper was the only resident who worked in the town, all the others travelled away, mostly to Newcastle. Alan travelled, as well, and widely, but had retained his base here and that made all the difference in the eyes of local people.

  He reached the front of the house. It was of a similar size to Alan’s but a slightly different design. The side gate was open and, squeezing past the big green Vauxhall car and looking through, Tobin could just see that the side door was open, too.

  Inside was a policewoman comforting a hunched figure that was turned away from the door. His shadow caused them both to look up.

  ‘John!’ cried Rebecca, weakly.

  ‘Yes?’ demanded an imperious voice from the far side of the kitchen. A woman appeared at the interior kitchen door. She must have seen him walking down the side of the house.

  ‘I’m a friend of the family.’ He said, reassuringly.

  Really?’ He was given a cursory inspection, up and down, she wasn’t reassured. ‘Well, as long as you’re not one of the press, that’s all!’

  Well, actually….’

  ‘It’s OK Mrs Mayhew, I know him.’ interrupted the policewoman, quickly.

  ‘Well, alright. If you need more tea, it’s over there.’ It was very obviously a tiresome intrusion. ‘I really must go out very soon, you know. But, I don’t know how, if you’re not letting any cars through. Can’t you use that radio of yours and let him up there know that I’m being picked up!’

  ‘I’m afraid it doesn’t work like that, Mrs Mayhew. The area has to remain sealed off. You can be collected from the barrier up there and returned. As a resident the officer will let you through. If you could let me know when you’re going and when you anticipate returning, it would help. We will, of course, have someone watch over the house while you are away. And, we might need to speak to you again.’

  ‘My God!’ She stormed from the room, slamming the door. They looked at each other and almost smiled; the officer shook her head in disbelief at the arrogance and turned back to her tearful charge.

  ‘John?’ Rebecca pleaded again. He sat down gently beside her and placed his arm around her shoulder.

  ‘Mr Tobin?’ The policewoman confirmed her memory of his name as she stood up. He nodded. She went to the kitchen sink and returned with a glass of water which she handed to Tobin. ‘The doctor’s on his way. If you would sit here for a few moments, I’ll see if the boss can get a better response from her.’ She nodded toward the door and the departed, over-dramatic Mrs Mayhew.

  ‘Certainly.’

  Once they were alone the girl threw her arms around him and finally let the tears flow, loudly onto his shoulder. The interior door opened again and Mrs Mayhew, attracted by the noise, looked in, cast her eyes heavenwards, ‘tutting’ and retreated back into the house. Tobin let the girl cry on. After a few minutes the sobbing eased and she looked up wiping her eyes with the back of her hand.

  ‘Sorry.’

  ‘It’s OK. It’s natural,’ said Tobin, awkwardly.

  Another shadow fell across them from the outer door; a very business-like young man walked directly in. He set a large black case down by the settee and studied them. ‘Doctor Bennett.’ He stated. ‘I think we had better get you somewhere more comfortable.’ He looked toward the kitchen door. Tobin began to say that he thought there might be a bit of resistance to this idea when the door opened again and a very different Mrs Mayhew appeared.

  ‘Doctor Bennett, how nice.’

  ‘Thank you, Mrs Mayhew. Could we make this young lady more comfortable, do you think?’

  ‘Of course! Come through here, my dear.’ She oozed concern, and glared at Tobin as if he had not thought of the poor girl’s welfare. ‘I’ll fetch you a blanket, shall I?’ She asked the doctor.

  ‘That would be very helpful.’

  As Tobin helped Rebecca to the door Mrs Mayhew pushed between them taking the girl’s shoulder and pushing Tobin back with her elbow. Rebecca was steered through the door and out of sight. With a haughty glance over her shoulder she dismissed Tobin with a, ‘Thank you.’ And the door closed again in his face.

  He wandered back outside and down the drive.

  Henderson was loitering by the gate. ‘Discover anything?’

  ‘No. Except, how objectionable the next door neighbour is. How about you?’

  ‘Not much yet. The door was still open when I arrived. I came down here with Symmonds and got a quick glance inside before they noticed me and shut the door. There’s a body at the foot of the stairs and a God-awful smell. I think it could have been there a while.

  ‘The girl was collapsed against a wheel of her car and PC Murdoch was braying hell out of next door’s door.’ He nodded toward the Mayhew’s. ‘She didn’t want to know, but Murdoch had seen her inside earlier, and nobody denies PC Murdoch!’ That was certainly true. Tobin ha
d seen her sorting out revellers at closing time on a Saturday night. She was a formidable sight in uniform, and quite impressive out of it, too. In full makeup and dressed for an occasion she was a head-turner.

  At that point the shapely PC strode past with the plain-clothes sergeant in tow. ‘Look out Mrs Mayhew.’ thought Tobin.

  ‘He can’t take his eyes off that rear view, look.’ observed Henderson, of the plainclothes man. She also made him look quite small. They disappeared up the drive. Henderson continued, ‘from what I can piece together, it appears that the daughter couldn’t get any reply and couldn’t get in with her key. So, she rings the force on the trusty mobile and Murdoch and Symmonds are here in a flash, but I think they took their time about breaking in. I think they’d guessed what had happened, 'cos they radioed for the ambulance first. I just chased it and phoned it in when I got here. They got you pretty quick, too, didn’t they?’

  ‘Hmm.’

  ‘Anyway, from something Murdoch said I think what they found was pretty awful, it made Symmonds throw up. She sent him off, tough cookie that woman, and I arrived in time to help him stretch the tape across the road up there, and he looked pretty ghastly I can tell you.’

  ‘I met some gardener up there, and a few envious people, too.’

  ‘That’ll be Willy Clark. He wouldn’t have been ‘working’, of course, just ‘helping out’,’ said Henderson with a knowing nod. ‘It’s amazing the number of people he just ‘helps out’. He should get an award, but it might puzzle the benefits agency! ‘But,’ he said with great emphasis, continuing, ‘the interesting bit is where Mr Alan Harper is? I overheard a discussion on their radios when they were trying to trace him. His office thinks he’s abroad, with the wife, and has been for a week. At least they originally thought he was just going for a long weekend on his own, but when they phoned here last week and got no reply they thought the whole family was away. Apparently, the drill is, if they are all away they turn off the answerphone and that’s what had happened. What do you make of that then?’

  Tobin didn’t know what to make of that then, it all seemed a bit confused.

  ‘Mind you, it’s probably all coincidence. You know what she was like,’ he made a tippling gesture with his right hand, ‘she probably got herself pissed as a rat and fell down the stairs and your pal will turn up tomorrow.’

  Tobin found it a bit distasteful standing so close to someone in these circumstances, even Rosemary Harper, and hearing them discussed in this manner. She had become a bit of a drinker, it was true, in fact she had always been a bit of a drinker, and she had become a bit reclusive lately; she only went out to shop when she had to and that was mostly to the off-licence. Invitations to the house had almost ceased and the few that Tobin had received had been from Alan alone. That was probably to do with Rebecca leaving home as much as anything. Rosemary had depended a lot on her daughter, although the casual observer would never have realised that.

  Henderson broke into his thoughts. ‘Well, I can’t hang around here all day! I’ll just get some shots of the house with the blue lights around and go, I think. She’ll want to flog some of these to Newcastle and anywhere else she can, I expect. Our revered lady editor will want her money back on our time!’ The cynicism again. ‘I’ve a feeling this won’t amount to much, you know. It’s an accident in circumstances that no-one can explain, at the moment. That’s all.

  ‘Ah. Here’s the coroner. He’ll not be in long, I’ll bet. They’ll whip her off to the mortuary, whip her open and find nowt. Bet ya!’ Tobin’s look of distaste brought Henderson’s attempts to lighten the atmosphere to an abrupt halt. ‘Ah. Well. Sorry. One thing though, has she got any relatives? ‘Cos, if not, that poor kid’s going to have to do the formal ID. Unless your pal does pop up.’

  ‘I think there’s a sister somewhere, I’m not too sure.’

  ‘Oh, well,’ he shrugged and wandered out into the Close as a silver Audi pulled up behind the ambulance. A man in a suit got out carrying a case.

  Murdoch reappeared, still towing sergeant McColl. She was carrying a mug of tea which she handed to a grateful Symmonds. The man in the suit ignored them all and walked haughtily into the house.

  McColl approached Tobin, ‘any other relatives?’

  ‘I think there’s a sister, somewhere,’ he repeated.

  ‘Name?’

  ‘I don’t know. I don’t know what her maiden name was. Rosemary was a Shaw before she became a Harper. Teri will tell you, I expect.’ He had a flash of memory. ‘Taylor! I think someone said she was called Taylor.’

  ‘Teri?’

  ‘Sorry. Rebecca. It’s her middle name, Theresa. Alan shortened it as a pet name and she liked it and took to using it. In fact, she hates ‘Rebecca’. Only, when Rosemary was around we didn’t use it… it avoided an upset, she hated ‘Teri’.’

  ‘Doesn’t matter much now. But, let’s just try and be consistent for the moment. Rebecca is the next of kin unless the husband reappears, is that right?’

  ‘As far as I know, except for this possible sister.’

  ‘Where could he have gone then, this Mr Harper? Mr Tobin?’

  ‘I don’t know. Ask his office. What’s going to happen now?’

  ‘I don’t know yet, probably not a lot.’

  ‘So you think it’s an accident?’

  ‘I said I don’t know, yet. Just wait and see!’ He was not going to be pressured. ‘Off the record it would be very useful to talk to the husband.’ He paused and studied Tobin for a moment. ‘Would you recognise his writing?’

  ‘Oh, yes. It was illegibly neat.’

  ‘Could this be it?’ McColl produced a white envelope, opened it and handed Tobin an A4 sheet of white paper with a big ring-mark staining the middle where a glass had been stood.

  ‘ROSEMARY,

  I’M FINALLY LEAVING. I’VE BOOSTED YOUR BANK BALANCE AND THE HOUSE

  IS PAID UP AND EVERYTHINGS IN YOUR NAME.

  GOOD LUCK AND GOODBYE.

  ALAN.’

  Tobin stared at the note for a moment and reread it.

  ‘Doesn’t beat about the bush, does he? Anyway, keep this to yourself. OK? Is it his writing?’

  ‘I think so. It’s printed rather than written, which I’ve not seen before, but I think so. Yes.’ There was something about the note that was nagging at the back of Tobin’s mind. Had he forgotten something? He looked at his watch, but the time meant nothing, he wasn’t missing an appointment. It was a strange feeling he had, as if he had forgotten to do something or go somewhere. He shook his head. McColl was talking.

  ‘The house is a bit of a mess, at the moment. Was she normally like that, or was everything in its place?’

  ‘Well, lately …’ He found it impossible to criticise, now.

  ‘You mean, when she’d had a few she couldn’t care less?’

  ‘Well…’ Tobin shrugged.

  ‘It’s not uncommon, you know. We’ll have to try and get the daughter to check the house over, none the less. There’re whisky bottles everywhere.’ He held up the paper and indicated the ring mark. ‘But only one glass that I can see. Someone’s had a real smashing time in the kitchen, too. Was she like that?’

  ‘Well ….. .’ Tobin wanted to change the subject. ‘How long has she been there?’

  ‘I would guess at around a week or so,’ he looked to Symmonds for confirmation. The big policeman grimaced and looked away; he needed no reminder of the grisly discovery. After all his years on the force he still could not come to terms with these kinds of events. Murdoch, who had been standing talking to him, gave him a comforting pat on the shoulder and went back into the house. McColl watched and continued. ‘Last Sunday’s papers are in the front room, but yesterdays and today's are jammed in the letter box and all last weeks are on the floor behind the door. So it’s a fairly straightforward guess.’

  ‘What about the milk?’ asked Tobin, thi
nking aloud.

  McColl looked at Symmonds enquiringly.

  ‘Davies is the milkman, sir. In the market square.’

  Without being asked, and without thinking, Tobin recited the phone number from memory.

  ‘Make a study of milkmen, do you, sir?’

  ‘Oh. No. I’ve been on the phone to his wife a lot lately.’

  ‘Really, sir?’

  ‘No! No! No. Nothing like that. Not if you’ve seen Mrs Davies!’ Out of the corner of his eye he saw Symmonds nodding his head in agreement. ‘I’m helping her research the history of their house, that’s all.’ Symmonds was writing down the number.

  They fell into silence and stood about awkwardly, waiting. Henderson reappeared, reviewing his shots on his camera. He eyed the silent group quizzically, one by one, and joined the end of the line.

  The coroner came out of the house, ignored them again, got in his car and drove off. The ambulance crew appeared and drove away. PC Murdoch was standing behind them waiting.

  ‘Well. Did he speak to anybody?’ demanded McColl.

  ‘He confirmed that she was dead, sir,’ said Murdoch, trying to keep a straight face.

  ‘Well. That’s reassuring!’

  ‘And, as soon as the photos are done we can move her to the mortuary. He can do her tonight.’ They all looked at her at the unfortunate expression. ‘I’m merely repeating what he said!’

  They all turned to look at McColl.

  ‘Right! I want scenes of crime to go through this place. So seal it off and put someone on the door till they’re finished. I want statements from the whole street. And I want the husband found! A.S.A.P.!’ They all turned to look at him, surprised.

  ‘So it wasn’t an accident?’ Enquired Henderson.

  ‘It’s unexplained.’ He began to number off the points on the fingers of his left hand. ‘The husband is missing; what I take to have been his office has been stripped; parts of the house look like they could have been ransacked while other parts, barring a week’s dust, are spotlessly clean and tidy. So, unless any of you know better, I’m playing safe!’

  The clientele of the Northumberland Arms was a fairly good cross section of the community of Longalnbury. The building was also a good guide to the history of the town, particularly if you listened to the current landlord recreating a vivid past for any tourists who were willing to listen.

  Like many buildings around the market square parts of it were extremely old and if they were not parts of the original tavern, as often claimed, they could not be much younger. The fine back door and adjacent windows looked out onto a narrow back lane which had once been the main road through the village. Some three centuries before, a farsighted parish council had altered the route of that thoroughfare to run to one side of the square rather than through the centre. Over a period of time the owners of the buildings along the old road had merely turned their houses round by building new fronts on what had been the old backyards.

  The Davies, who lived two doors up from the pub, had got very excited about this news when told to them by an eminent archaeologist who had been staying at the pub and had taken an interest in the area. More accurately, Mrs Davies had got excited, as theirs was the only wholly residential property left in the street.

  Ron Davies was standing at the bar when Tobin arrived for his lunchbreak.

  ‘The police are looking for you, Ron!’ He joked

  ‘Aye. But, I left them their milk every day, as usual, so they can’t do me for that.’

  ‘You mean at the Harper’s?’

  ‘Aye.’

  ‘Christ! They were quick.’

  ‘Aye. Young copper’s just left.’

  ‘So… someone’s been nicking the milk every day, then, and today?’

  ‘Aye. Looks like it.’

  The barman was hovering behind the counter in anticipation. ‘I’ll have an orange juice, please Eric. Ron?’

  ‘Aye.’ He considered his glass, ‘just a half, then.’ The barman got busy.

  ‘Do you deliver to anyone else in that street, Ron? What are they like?’

  ‘Bloody stuck-up bunch. ‘Part from him at number eight, he’s OK. But, she’s awful, mind.’ He added. ‘Why, man. Catching her sober’s a rarity. And, not nice, either!’

  ‘That’s the Harpers?’

  ‘Aye.’

  Tobin had to listen carefully to the quiet answers from the milkman, who never looked up, addressing all his replies to his drink.

  Ron Davies was a familiar sight around town. He had been a milkman there for forty years or more and, although he didn’t look it, was known to be well beyond retiring age. Life for Ron Davies was never hurried; he had married late in life, there were no children, all decisions were carefully weighed and deliberated, like changing from a horse drawn float to a motorised one. If it had not been for the threats of the vet’ in the nineteen seventies it was generally reckoned old Ron would probably still be tramping the streets with a horse. The old horse had been almost beyond help and Ron had been forced to retire it, so he bought a clapped out old electric float that was even slower and was forever running out of power half way through the round. That had not lasted long, and was still lying rusting in his yard, causing him to buy his current vehicle, a five year old cut down Bedford van that was now thirty five years old. Although by nature an introspective man, he made an effort to wave or nod to passers by. But Tobin had never tried to engage him in conversation before. He would be wary next time; he hadn’t realised just how monosyllabic the man was. Tobin wondered if he could get him to answer with anything other than ‘aye’. The drinks arrived and Tobin paid. The dairyman poured his new drink into his pint glass and took a swig.

  ‘Do you deliver to them all up there, Ron?’ He had phrased that wrongly and waited for the inevitable.

  ‘Nuh.’

  ‘Oh!’ Tobin couldn’t quite hide his surprised smile. ‘Who not?’

  ‘Number nine.’

  ‘Mrs Mayhew?’

  He shrugged, indifferently.

  ‘Who delivers her milk, then?’

  ‘Richie.’

  ‘He’s a long way off his patch, isn’t he?’ He shrugged again. Richie Hepple was the dairyman who covered the more rural area on the far side of town and the small council estate. Tobin was surprised that he bothered to go so far across town.

  ‘Family.’ Stated Ron.

  ‘Family relation?’ There was no further response. He tried a change of tack. ‘I suppose the police asked you if you had seen anything suspicious up there?’

  ‘No.’ He finished his drink and rose to go. ‘You’ll be round later, will you? ‘Bout the house?’

  ‘I don’t think so, Ron.’ He said, carefully. ‘Tell Mrs Davies that I’ll, er … I’ll be in touch when I have any news for her. I’m waiting for some information from the county archives. It takes quite a while, tell her.’ Especially when you haven’t sent for it yet, he thought. ‘I’ve also got quite a lot of work on at the moment, so I’m very busy, you know.’

  ‘Glad to hear it, lad. I’ll certain tell her. ‘Cos, you see,’ and, for the first time he looked Tobin directly in the eye, penetratingly, ‘when she gets a fancy to something … she can get sort of obsessive, you know?’

  ‘I know.’ The vision of Vivienne Davies passed vividly before him, dark and once vivacious, now over fifty, overweight and overpowering. ‘I know exactly what you mean.’ He had suspected all along that the house history was a pretext, now he knew.

  ‘Good! And if the police do ask me if I saw anything suspicious, I’ll tell them about the feller in the car that I’ve seen several mornings these past few weekends.’

  Tobin took him by the arm, holding him back. ‘What did he look like?’

  ‘Oldish. Well my age, anyway,’ he corrected himself, defensively, ‘short white hair; big man, you know, bulky in the car. But, he never let me see his face properly, always turne
d away.’

  ‘What about the car?’

  ‘Which one? They were different each time. That was the other strange thing. That’s why I noticed.’ He proffered the empty glass, ‘Thanks for the drink, anyway. Better go.’

  ‘Thanks, Ron.’

  ‘Sounds a bit like a bloke who was in here last week.’ Tobin hadn’t noticed the barman, Eric, return.

  ‘Really? When?’

  ‘Last Monday. You remember, hot, sunny day?’

  ‘Yes, I remember.’

  ‘Well, there was just me and the cleaner in. No-one else turned in, the weather was too nice, these kids are bloody unreliable, you know.’ He was all of twenty himself. ‘Anyhow, she was hoovering in the back there and I was sorting bottles down here,’ he indicated the empties skip and the crates beside it, ‘and there was this hell of a bang right here.’ He smacked the bar top, painfully, to demonstrate his frightening experience. ‘I nearly shit a brick!’ He said, rubbing his sore hand. ‘It was this guy you were talking about, I’m sure. Straight out the films, like a big old gangster, just like Ron described him, and he is big. It was his eyes, though, like he hadn’t slept for weeks, and really pale, he was. Mind you, he had a sort of familiar look, there was something about him, I’ve seen before, I’m sure. He growls at me for the phone book and then grabs the yellow pages and goes over there.’ He pointed at the window. ‘He rips a page out, flings the book at me and goes’

  ‘Which page?’

  ‘I don’t know.’

  ‘Let me see, please.’

  The barman reached under the counter and handed Tobin the vandalised book. He riffled back and forth through it until he found the gap. ‘Well. He was looking for something between flying schools and funeral directors.’ He returned the book to Eric, finished his drink and left.

  -----------------4---------------

 
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