A web of lives, p.5
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       A Web of Lives, p.5

           David Medlycott
 
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The ringing noise proved to be the telephone at his bedside. His eyes wouldn’t open; the lids clung to each other with great affection. Tobin was lying on his front, which was not normal for him; his arms were above his head and had absolutely no feeling in them. He tried to reach for the noise but felt nothing. He heard an almighty crash as everything on his bedside cabinet hit the floor, with a splashing sound. His eyes opened this time, very wide, and he had to concentrate very hard to make his nerveless arms and hands, that had just cleared the table top, rescue the clock, book and telephone from all the water that had been in the pint glass on the table, but was now spreading quickly across the floor.

  ‘’Lo?’ He mumbled into the phone. It almost hurt, his eyelids were not the only bits stuck together. Several bottles of strong continental lager followed by a mix of odd things he found in bottles left over from Christmas had seemed a nice idea at the time, last night.

  ‘What on earth’s going on there?’

  ‘Teri? Wha’s-e-time?’

  ‘It’s eight o clock, John.’ She said brightly.

  ‘Mmm. Had a late night.’

  ‘So did I. But there was no alcohol left in this house!’

  ‘Where are you?’

  ‘Home.’

  ‘Newcastle?’

  ‘No. Cheviot Close. That lovely policewoman agreed that I was OK to stay.’

  ‘Mmm. Murdoch.’ He mumbled, dreamily.

  ‘Pardon?’

  ‘Er. Nothing. Nothing. What’s all this about, then?’

  ‘What do you know about Nottingham?’

  ‘Nottingham? Same as everyone else I suppose. Robin Hood, Maid Murdoch…er Marion!’ He groaned and sat up. He took a deep, audible, breath and rubbed his eyes and face vigorously. His hand made a scraping sound on his stubble. Somebody had filled his mouth with some awful tasting paste.

  ‘You’re hung over!’ She accused.

  ‘No. No. No. I’m fine. Just give me a few moments to wake up, that’s all.’

  ‘You can have all morning, then. I’ve got to go to the inquest and give formal identification. Then, I’m told it’ll be adjourned. I’ve got some things to do after that, so I’ll see you at the house for lunch. OK?’

  ‘Yeah. OK.’ She had hung up. Damn! He had forgotten the inquest; he should have offered to go with her. But, she sounded bright enough. Or was that for his benefit?

  Tobin replaced the receiver on the phone and replaced the phone on the table. He shuffled, naked, into the kitchen, filled the kettle and switched it on, then stumbled back to the bathroom and stood under the shower turning the temperature up and down. He returned to make his coffee, this time clad in the bath towel and feeling a little fresher.

  A second and third coffee with some toast finally did the trick. He shaved, brushed his teeth and got dressed; then cleaned up the mess.

  The windows were flung wide and the radio turned up loud as he rearranged the untidiness of his flat. The last job was to empty the overflowing bins and put out the rubbish for the bin men. It was bin day, wasn’t it? It must be, everybody else’s bin was out in the back lane! He rarely met this deadline, all too often he had had to load up his car with smelly bags and take them to the tip himself.

  The post was on the doormat, there was nothing special so he left it on the table behind the door. He closed up the flat and set off for work.

  As he left the front door he was handed a copy of the local free paper. It was a pale imitation of the advertising papers seen in cities, six sides if they were lucky, more usually four, like today. It was all adverts with a little inconsequential news item or two to fill up the space. Today it was a piece he had written on school fairs. His name was nowhere to be seen, he noticed, annoyed. He scanned it quickly; it took seconds only. It had been edited with a blunt instrument and the item ended mid-sentence, and mid-column. Tobin opened the paper searching for the continuation; there was none! Just as well his name was missing, then. The free paper was a sub-contract job and he had often felt like offering to take it over himself, then common sense got the better of him.

  He made his way along the main street to the newspaper office, normally only a five-minute walk. It took him several times longer and he lost track of the number of people who stopped him. Some demanded to know what was going on and others seemed very well informed. According to those who had read it, the reports in the ‘Journal’, the regional morning paper, had been quite comprehensive. If that was so, it made him wonder if it was not being treated as an accident after all.

  He escaped from the last inquisition immediately outside the office and dashed inside, shutting the door behind him and leaning against it, as if to bar some imaginary horde following. He gave a long, deep sigh.

  ‘Are you OK?’

  ‘Yes, thanks, Linda. I couldn’t get along the street for people asking questions. But, do you know what I thought was really sad? No one seemed to care about Rosemary. Everyone asked about Alan and Teri. Oh! There was great concern for them, but nothing about poor Rosemary.’

  ‘Mmm. Yes. Well, Miss Hickman was looking for you earlier. She’s on the phone at the moment, and then you’d better go and see her.’ There was a warning in her voice. ‘There was hell on in here yesterday. We were run off our feet, AND, you didn’t have your phones on!’

  ‘Ah! Yes. I’m sorry about that.’ There was little conviction in his voice, he hesitated, about to add an excuse. A withering look stopped him. Linda had obviously borne the brunt of the day’s stress.

  He wandered across to the waiting area and picked up a copy of the previous night’s ‘Chronicle’ the regional evening paper. The front page was all football with a murder somewhere else tacked on the side; a reflection of today’s priorities. He found the report of Rosemary’s death on page five with a small reprint of one of Henderson’s photos and a bare report of the discovery beneath. It had been slow to hit the papers; the previous morning’s had contained only a couple of column inches tucked well away. This morning’s paper he had to prise from Linda’s grasp as she tried to read it between phonecalls. Today Rosemary had achieved front-page status. A larger print of the same photo, showing Tobin and McColl talking and a fuller report referred him to page five again.

  Here, in greater detail, was considerable speculation about the disappearance of Alan Harper. One sub-heading that caught Tobin’s eye said ’Client’s Money’ and made a great deal of the financial services business that was the ‘mainstay of Harper’s empire’. There was a ridiculous estimate of the amount of money handled by the business and the ‘wide range of services available’. What appeared to be quotes from an unnamed source went on to give the impression that Alan Harper handled all the money, personally. This, Tobin knew, could not have been further from the truth, as Alan had gone to great lengths to employ expert management and staff to run everything, mainly to free him of the tedium, as he had described it.

  An image of the previous night in the pub flashed across Tobin’s mind.

  Down the page, under ‘Missing Husband’, was a very poor photo of Alan and what purported to be a biography. It made dismal reading. Unattributed quotes told of the ‘the foreigner’ who arrived in town some years earlier, that presumably was a reference to the accent that Alan had had then, as Austin Tadworth in the pub had mentioned. The explanation for it had been completely ignored; the London orphan who had been brought up by French relatives was no secret in the town, to those who took an interest. As was the retention of British citizenship through further, English, relatives with whom he had stayed and gone to college when he returned to this country. Simple.

  Tobin read on, with increasing dismay and rising anger as one negative aspect of Alan’s life followed another. In reality there weren’t many when compared with all the positive aspects, but when taken out of context and listed in this manner, they cast Alan in a poor light. To Tobin it was blatantly obvious that this was the intention
. He noted how carefully it had been written, to avoid any comebacks on the paper, and that the ‘quotes’ were unattributed. There was no by-line to the biography, just several names that had collaborated on the whole article listed at the top of the page. Someone had worked hard at short notice to create this picture.

  He was not slow to point this out to Sandra Hickman as soon as he got in to see her. When he finally paused for breath, she very slowly and coldly pointed out to him, ‘If you had been available yesterday that might have been avoided!’ She strode round the desk glaring up at him. ‘I DID give them YOUR number as well as the chairman of the traders association, obviously they couldn’t get you! AND… while we’re on the subject, where were you yesterday? If you had been around that ‘rubbish’ that you’re belly-aching about would not be there. That page could have been yours, to our mutual benefit, and all this would have been avoided. I don’t think Alan Harper would be very impressed with these missed opportunities, do you?’

  She was right there. But it was Alan who had caused all this in the first place, and, Tobin reckoned, the last thing he would have wanted was to have his name all over the papers. Tobin remembered the note still tucked under the keyboard of his computer in the flat. He had been very tempted to destroy it, but, for some reason, hadn't. He hadn't decided what else to do with it, either. He knew what he should do with it, but that last line in it worried him.

  ‘Arnold Wiseman?’

  ‘What about him?’ She snapped. But he was not going to be browbeaten.

  ‘That was not a very good number to give out. He is probably one of the worst people to approach regarding Alan Harper. It explains why he wasn’t in the pub last night with Dale and his crowd. He was busy spewing out this rubbish.’ He threw the offending newspaper on the desk.

  She stepped in front of him again and looked straight up at him. ‘I am not in the business of defending people who are inconsiderate enough to dump on others!’ She strode back round the desk to her seat, leaving Tobin stunned at what he had just heard.

  ‘There are only two members of the board who haven’t been on the phone and that’s because they’re away. They’re all as jittery as hell over this, they are not keen all of a sudden to be associated with anything to do with Alan Harper. If they pull out their money goes with them and so does this paper, and so do our jobs! Alan Harper could well have done to think about all that before pulling a stunt like this. What does he think he’s doing?’

  Tobin refrained from commenting that Alan probably hadn't anticipated the death of his wife and the complications that attended it. Sandra Hickman was still in full flight, however.

  ‘These board members are only fair-weather friends. While we are no trouble to them they’re fine, but now that something like this has happened they want nothing more to do with it. AND…, what’s more, this isn’t the only company that’s suffering from his sudden departure. Some of these people are involved with Alan in other ventures and are extremely jumpy. No-one’s heard a word from him and that’s not a good sign.’

  Tobin slumped into the guest chair opposite her holding up his hand to fend off the onslaught. He rested his elbows on the desk and rubbed his eyes hard with the heels of his hands. He was lost for words. What had Alan, his friend, his mentor, done? The enormity of it all was taking shape. He could see the knock-on effect and didn’t know what to do about it.

  Sandra Hickman saw the look of dejection and took pity on him. The face that looked at her now had none of the cheeriness of previous days; the cheeky smile had vanished without trace. The ready wit and quick answers were silenced and a hunted look had crept into his eyes. She had never seen him like this in all the time that she had known him, and she had made a point of trying to know him. She hadn't succeeded, yet, but there was time. She sat back and studied him. At forty they were nearly the same age, give or take two years. She wondered if he would organize a surprise party for her fortieth, as she had for him. He certainly didn’t look his age, the only lines on his face were laugh lines, normally, until today. She had described his features to her friends as ‘interesting’; she talked about him a lot. His face was composed of features that, in theory, should never be seen together, but his character made them compatible. The boyish grin that was never far away helped combine the large features into a rugged, purposeful unity that did not go unnoticed by a lot of women. He was blissfully unaware of all this and was, in fact, a very shy individual. He had, however, a natural warmth and sincerity that most who met him, male or female, found attractive and made him an easy person to be with.

  Typically, he didn’t notice the softening of her expression as she watched him, he was too distracted with the problems at hand and the situation he found himself in. Sandra got up and poured two coffees from the machine in the corner and handed him one.

  ‘Thanks. We’ve got to do something about this!’

  ‘I quite agree.’ She said slowly, and added with great emphasis. ‘But, mud sticks. He is…was…or whatever…my friend, too, John. I knew him… very well.’ She turned away to hide the glimmer of a smile that was impossible to suppress. ‘Or thought I did! He did a lot for me, I was in a real corner before he got me in here, just like he’s done things for you and all these others.’ She made a wide, sweeping, inclusive gesture. ‘But, he’s not helped himself this time, has he?’ Tobin shook his head in silent agreement. ‘I don’t need to explain to you how people are only too willing to read and believe that kind of thing.’ She flipped her hand at the discarded paper. ‘It brings him down to their level. They feel more comfortable then!’

  Tobin noted the disdain in her voice and understood all right. Unfortunately, so had someone else, and they had got to the paper first.

  She stood behind him and put a hand on his shoulder. She gently drew his head back till it rested against her breast and massaged his tense brow. It appeared to go unnoticed. ‘I don’t know just what we can do at this moment. It's going to take a hundred times the effort to undo all that.’ She nodded at the paper. ‘We’ll have to try, though’. She gave him a firm pat on the shoulder and lifted his head, he wasn’t responding. Sandra frowned, puzzled, returned to her side of the desk and flopped into her seat with a deep sigh. ‘Meanwhile, there is still work to try and get on with. Take the coffee with you.’ She was dismissing him. ‘See you later?’

  ‘Erm, yes; perhaps. Thanks.’ He held up the cup to show his appreciation. She let out another, exasperated, sigh as he ambled out of the room.

  Tobin mooched about the office for the rest of the morning. He photocopied the clippings from the papers and puzzled over the photo of Alan. Not only was it very poor, it was an old one. It was a three quarter view of him taken as he was turning toward the unseen camera. Photos of Alan were extremely rare, he was notoriously camera shy. Someone must have found a snapshot with him in and had it blown up, hence the poor quality.

  He wandered about some more and returned the paper to Linda, open again at the page she had been reading. She looked at the photo of Alan and called Tobin back.

  ‘Did that awful man get in touch with you?’

  ‘What awful man?’ Tobin knew a few but not many.

  ‘Oh! You’d know alright. Awful! Shouting and bawling. Looking for him.’ She indicated the photo. ‘Only he had the magazine with the photo in. You know. The one that he,’ indicating Alan once more, ‘made so much fuss about.’

  ‘What was this man like?’

  ‘Big. Burly!’ She indicated a huge height from her chair. ‘White hair, thick but cut short, and a really pale face.’

  ‘With dark eyes?’

  ‘Yes! Well the eyes themselves were quite light, but, the skin around them was dark and like… umm… sort of elephant’s skin. Know what I mean?’

  ‘I know what you mean.’

  ‘Well, I told him I couldn’t give out private addresses, but he went on and on, really aggressi
ve, like it was my fault. He had me quite frightened.’ She nervously stretched her neck a little within her collar at the memory. ‘And she wouldn’t come down.’ She jerked her thumb upstairs in the direction of the offices.

  ‘Sandra?’

  ‘Uhuh. And he was really getting nasty. If it hadn't been for someone coming in… well. Anyway, I suggested he contact you. Through the office, of course! Hope you don’t mind.’ She gave him a coy little apologetic smile.

  ‘No. That’s OK. I expect he’ll be in touch, then. If it’s that important.’ He turned to go again.

  ‘Oh. Sorry.’ Said the receptionist to Tobin’s back. ‘The point of all that was…they did look ever so alike. Him and your friend here.’ She waved the photo of Alan.

  ‘Really?’

  ‘Oh. Very.’

  ‘Thanks.’ He said, thoughtfully, and ambled out and back upstairs. What on earth was going on?

  The last hour of the morning dragged by; a great lethargy crept over him. He sat staring into space; he stood staring into space; he ambled about staring. It wasn’t HIS problem. The real problem was that it had been MADE his. He wanted to feel the same as Sandra, “not there to defend people who dump on others”, and he certainly felt dumped on. But, this wasn’t just ‘other people’. It was Alan, to whom he owed just about everything. Bollocks to the man!

  He sat on a window sill and watched the street. He would much rather be somewhere else, doing something else. But, what? He put his hands behind his head, stretched his legs across the wide sill and watched the clouds in their leisurely passage across the sky.

  Mid-day finally arrived and he set off for the Harper house, still dreaming. He could get the car serviced and just drive off somewhere. He hadn't had a proper holiday in years; but where? His mind rambled across many ideas and for each one he could all too easily find a reason for not doing it. They were lame excuses, about as lame as the ideas, and he was getting annoyed with himself as he drove, muttering self-criticism, his mood blackening. He was having quite an animated argument with himself as he pulled up outside Teri’s house with no recollection of the drive he had just completed.

  He walked up the short drive, there was no sign of Teri’s car; she was late. The side gate was unlocked and he wandered through onto the enormous patio behind. A brick built barbecue stood to one side with a wooden table and chairs beside it, a lounger stood open by the lawn. He stood beside it, beneath the balcony that ran across the back of the house, and gazed at the view that he had never tired of seeing, from the time that he had helped build the house.

  Out of the corner of his eye he caught a movement. Alan had always encouraged the wildlife of the area, putting out food for the birds and hedgehogs and whatever else wandered in to the garden. Tobin turned slowly not wanting to frighten whatever was there. There was a bright reflection through the hedge, he walked slowly toward it, something must have passed in front of the light; a bird, maybe, or a small animal in the hedge? The reflection disappeared. He stopped and moved slightly to his right and then his left, the reflection reappeared. He took a step to his left and the reflection disappeared again. He stepped right and there it was once more. He continued slowly forward and the light blinked as something large moved across it, a cat, perhaps. Then he heard a patio door slide shut. He stepped straight to the hedge, puzzled. The light came from the mid-day sun reflecting off a tilting window in the conservatory next door. He could see clearly through the hedge now even though it appeared to be two or three feet thick. He pulled apart the layer of leaves on his side and six inches in found that the hedge had been hollowed out. A large volume of shrubbery had been trimmed away from the other side, below an overhanging tree, leaving a space large enough to easily accommodate a head and shoulders. It had been there for quite some time, the cut branches were dark at the ends, stained with tar, and some had been trained into place around the hole over a period of time. He was intrigued, why should the Mayhews want to spy on Alan and Rosemary?

  ‘What are you doing!?’

  He jumped back, nearly tripping over in the soft earth of the garden. He had been so absorbed he hadn't heard Teri arrive.

  ‘You’re standing in the middle of a flower bed!’

  ‘I’m sorry, I thought .. er .. there was a trapped bird in there, or something. Maybe a cat had got it.’ It sounded pathetic. ‘Aah!’ As he turned his shoe stuck in the soft soil of the garden and pulled off, filling with earth and making him hop out of the bed.

  ‘What a mess!’

  ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry!’ He retrieved his shoe, as he hopped about, tapping it against his other hand to empty it out. ‘Where are the tools? I’ll get a hoe and tidy up.’

  ‘Never mind that now. Come and have some lunch and I’ll tell you what I’ve found.’ She held up a carrier bag with a distinctive bottle shape in it as encouragement.

  Tobin was a bit uneasy entering the kitchen after what he had heard about it the day before, but it was all cleaned and shining.

  ‘Cleaning this place out helped me a lot yesterday. What a job, though.’ She pointed at a pile of full bin bags by the door.

  ‘I can imagine.’

  ‘Been reading the papers, have you?’

  ‘Have you?’ He asked, cautiously, in return.

  ‘Not really. Just enough to guess what’s going on.’

  ‘Really?’

  ‘Oh, yes. And Maureen told me a few things and I can guess enough to fill in the gaps. She said they’re not assuming it was an accident for ‘good reasons’, so the inquest was adjourned. If there is anything truly suspicious any enemies Alan has are going to make the most of it.’

  ‘Whose Maureen… and what good reasons?’

  ‘Murdoch! I thought you would have known that, being the leader of her fan club!’ She eyed him slyly.

  ‘Really? Go on.’

  ‘When they checked through this house for fingerprints and so on they found that some parts had been wiped clean. This kitchen, although it was an absolute tip, had been completely wiped over; and the living room and nearly all the doors and banisters, and the light switches and drawers. It gives them a clue as to where he searched.’

  ‘He?’

  ‘Probably. But, there was one he missed!’ She was becoming quite animated now. ‘In the back of the top tray of the dishwasher,’ she walked over and opened the appliance to demonstrate, ‘was a glass, the machine was empty otherwise.’ She did a mime of upturning a glass and placing it in the tray. ‘On the glass were three prints, two were my mother’s where she had put the glass in and one was a man’s thumbprint!’ She looked triumphant, as if the discovery had been hers. ‘Not another like it in the house!’ She dramatically waved her arm to encompass the whole of the building. ‘They’re checking the records now.’

  ‘I see.’

  ‘That’s a secret, mind.’

  ‘Of course. What about the photo albums?

  ‘Them, too.’

  ‘Wiped?’

  ‘Yes!’

  ‘If you don’t mind me saying, you’re not as upset by all this as one might expect.’

  ‘Am I not?’ She said, mockingly.

  He ignored it and continued. ‘It's pretty horrific finding a body at the best of times … if there ever could be a best time. But finding your own mother, and under those circumstances … unimaginable!’ He shuddered at the thought.

  ‘I know what you mean. Maureen said that old Symmonds actually threw up! And so did I, nearly, several times. Yes, it was terrible… at first. But, I got it out of my system pretty quick, I suppose. Look, one day … perhaps I’ll be able to explain to you about me and my mother. When I've worked it out for myself. Meanwhile I stride on, manfully!’ She forced him a smile and clattered the bag on to the table to cover her emotions and to change the subject.

  ‘Switch the kettle on, we’ll start with a coffee, it’s all there and I've got milk here. Christ!
I'm tired.’ She rubbed her eyes. ‘I didn’t get much sleep last night.’ She raised her hand to stall his criticism. ‘Because I didn’t go to bed after cleaning in here - I’m a qualified Mrs Mopp now, you know! And then by the time I’d finished going through so much stuff the birds were singing.’

  ‘And what was it you found?’ He asked as he assembled the coffee and found the corkscrew for later

  ‘Some correspondence. Between my mother and a … a private detective!’

  ‘In Nottingham?’

  ‘Yes! So your brain was working? You did sound awful on the phone this morning.’

  ‘Thanks. What was it about, this correspondence?’

  ‘I don’t know. What I found was quite recent stuff. There’s talk of money paid and a report. And an appointment … for last week!’

  ‘You’d better phone them and see what you can find out.’

  ‘I already have! We have an appointment for twelve tomorrow.’

  ‘WE … have an appointment?’

  ‘Of course. We!’

  ----------------6------------------

 
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