circumstances,” he asked Houlihan, as he watched the e-mail sending on his screen.
The undertaker led them through to his small, overly cozy and plush office, Grace dropping his gloves in a trash can on the way. There were more flowers on display, pictures of a smiling woman, presumably Houlihan’s wife and two small girls, also happy, and a stack of leather-bound books, which Grace presumed contained photographs of coffins, urns, and other funeral accoutrements. They sat in red leather armchairs in front of his desk, while Houlihan settled on the far side and glanced down at some notes.
“Her name is Sarah O’Hara, twenty-three, a waitress in Brighton, who was trying to become a fashion model. Tragically broke her neck when her boyfriend crashed his motorcycle.”
“What about the break-in during the night?” Glenn Branson asked.
“When I first got here to deal with the alarm, and everything, I thought it was vandals. Drunks. Kids. We do get a bit of trouble here in this area. I thought maybe they’d just been fooling around with the coffins.” He broke off for an instant. “How rude of me, I’ve not offered you gentlemen anything. Tea, coffee?”
“I’m fine, thanks,” Grace said.
Branson smiled at him. “I’m good.”
“But the thing is after finding this terrible thing, this dreadful desecration of this poor young lady’s body, I’ve begun to change my mind.” Houlihan cradled his head in his hands and fell silent for some moments. “How am I going to tell her family? What am I going to say? This will ruin my business. One hundred and forty-nine years my family has run this company, and we’ve never had a problem, ever. We were planning big celebrations for next year. Now will we even be in business?”
“I’m sure there’ll be ways through this for you. But if we could just focus for now on establishing the facts we need.”
Grace pulled out his notebook. “You don’t believe it was vandals, you said? What are your reasons for that?”
“I was called out because the alarm was ringing. But I’m not the first keyholder contact. That is my embalmer, Rodney Tidy. I have a deal with him. I pay him a little bit of cash to come out if the alarm goes off. It’s worth it not to have a disturbed night. Usually it’s something silly, mice chewing through the wire, or a spider’s web across a sensor that’s set it off—that sort of thing.”
“Mr. Tidy’s away, is he?” Branson asked.
“No, he is not. So this is the strange thing. I got telephoned by the alarm company because they said they could not get an answer from Rodney.”
“This was around 2 a.m.?” Grace asked.
“Late for someone to be out on a midweek night,” Branson commented.
“Extremely unusual behavior for him.”
“What do you know about him?” Grace asked.
“He’s a bit of an oddball. But then again, embalming isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, so to speak. He’s somewhat of a loner. Not married and he really does not have good social skills.”
“You haven’t been to check up on his address, to see if he’s ill or anything?” Ken Anakin asked.
“I did. About 4 a.m. I waited here just to ensure whoever had done this didn’t come back, but I was careful not to touch anything, as I was instructed by the officers who attended. Then I went to his address over in Portslade, but I couldn’t find his house.”
Grace carefully watched the man’s face and his body language. It wasn’t surprising he was in an agitated state, but it seemed there was something the undertaker was holding back.
“Couldn’t find it?”
“I thought I must have written it down wrong. But when I got back here and checked it, I had it down correctly.”
Grace let it go for a moment. “How many people do you employ here?”
“Just a few. We are a real family business. My wife, Gudrun, my son, Kevin, his wife, Gemma, my bookkeeper—her name’s Eleanor Walker—and Rodney Tidy.”
“This may be a difficult question for you to answer,” Grace said, continuing to watch him carefully. “Could this have been done by a member of your staff.”
Houlihan leaned forward, lowered his voice as if scared he might be overheard, and said, “There is only one person who could possibly have done this. Actually, there is something odd. When I was called here, because the alarm was ringing, the first thing I did was switch it off. Then I went around the entire premises with the two police officers and we couldn’t find any unlocked outside doors, or open or broken windows.”
“Meaning someone either had a door key or picked a lock?” Grace said.
“After the officers left, I checked the alarm. I know a bit about technology. On the control panel you can access the history of when it has been switched on and off.” He raised a finger in the air, conspiratorially. “Here’s the strange thing: The alarm was switched off at 1:10 a.m. this morning, a full fifty minutes before it was set off.”
“Someone came in, switched the alarm off, did the damage, perhaps including sawing off the feet, then activated the alarm and left. Is that what you’re saying?” Glenn Branson asked.
“Either activated the alarm accidentally, or perhaps deliberately to make it look like there had been a break-in.”
“What time is Rodney Tidy due in for work?” Grace asked.
Houlihan checked his ornate antique watch. “He should have been in over an hour ago. We start early here, because sometimes relatives or partners want to come in on the morning of a funeral to view their loved one just one more time before they are interred or cremated.”
“Did you ever check on Rodney Tidy’s address previously?” Grace asked.
“Never had any reason too. He had excellent references when he applied for the job. Like I said, he’s an oddball, but always a hard worker.”
Grace looked at Branson. “I think we should go and pay Rodney Tidy a visit.”
Houlihan provided them the address.
“I know roughly where that is,” Branson said.
“In the meantime, I’d appreciate you not touching anything in the room where the coffins and the bodies are,” Grace said. “We’re going to need to seal your premises.”
“I’m afraid so. This is potentially connected to a murder inquiry, so I’m declaring it a crime scene.”
“But I’ve got funerals today, Detective.”
“And I have a murdered young woman who may be connected to this.”
“At least let me ship the bodies out that I have here.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t allow anything to be moved. But what we’ll do is check those due for funerals today first, and see if we can get them released, although I can’t promise anything at this stage.”
“I can’t tell six families there’s going to be no funeral today.”
“I’m sorry, you’ll have to. I’m sure the dead bodies won’t mind waiting.”
Instantly he regretted making such an insensitive remark.
“This is outrageous. I want to speak to your superior, at once.”
“His name is Assistant Chief Constable Cassian Pewe. Good luck with him, sir.”
The three police officers left the building. Grace asked Anakin to remain until a scene guard was in place and to ensure Houlihan followed instructions.
Moments later Grace and Branson approached their car.
“You drive, Glenn,” he said. “I need to make some calls.”
“And no jokes about legging it?”
“Absolutely not. I’d hate to do what you just did and put my foot in it.”
CAROL LOOKED OVER TONY’S SHOULDER.
He’d logged into what seemed to be the most popular foot fetishist forum as Doctor Sole and was browsing the comments. There seemed to be three or four others online, swapping resources for podiatric porn.
“I’ve just had Roy Grace on from Brighton,” she said, filling him in on the raid at the
“Nobody uses their real names on here,” Tony said. “But an embalmer would fit the bill. He’d have access to bodies. Most funerals are closed-coffin affairs, so he could help himself to the best feet after the lid was screwed down and nobody would be any the wiser. He could have been doing this for years.”
“So why mess it up last night? Why set off the alarm and leave the coffin open so anyone could see what he’d done?” she asked.
“Maybe he didn’t,” Tony said. “Maybe it wasn’t down to him. Maybe Rodney did what half the world seems to do on the Internet these days.”
She frowned. “What do you mean?”
“Maybe he made a date online. He could have met someone in a chat room or a forum who shares his fetish. Not just lovely feet, but dead feet. Who knows? Maybe there’s a secret place on the darknet. A Grindr for fetishists. Footr. Archr.”
Carol groaned. “Make it stop. Okay, supposing you’re right, what do you think might have happened?”
“Tidy could have invited him back to the undertaker’s to show him round. Perhaps they’d made a pact to take a pair of feet together. Tidy insists they have to leave after they’ve done one. His new friend doesn’t agree and bursts back inside, setting off the alarm.” He shrugged one shoulder. “It does feel to me like somebody else’s presence precipitated a different set of behaviors from Tidy.” He raised his voice. “Stacey? That analysis you were doing of the chat rooms? Did you find anybody posting about embalmed feet?”
The sound of fingers whisking over keys could be heard. Then, from behind the bank of monitors, Stacey said, “About a dozen.”
“Can you find out if any of them is Rodney Tidy?” Carol asked.
Before Stacey could respond, Carol’s phone gave its text alert.
“Message from Roy Grace,” she muttered. “They can’t trace Rodney Tidy. The address he gave his employer doesn’t exist. He could be anywhere.”
“He uses the site you’re on right now,” Stacey said. “His handle is Cold Feet. He was last on two days ago, talking about a beautiful specimen who had walked into his world. He seems most friendly with Arch Lover, but I can’t track his ID. He comes on through a proxy server in Belarus.”
Carol paced back and forth across the incident room. “We know Leyton Gray goes to Brighton. And we know he’s been accused of behavior that amounts to foot fetishism. Am I reaching to think there might be a connection? Can we put them together? Do we know where Gray stays when he’s there?”
Stacey rolled her eyes. “We had him in here for three hours. What do you think?”
“I think you’ve already accessed his credit cards and his Internet history,” Tony said.
Stacey tutted. “You should know me better than that. A teenage boy could manage that. I’ve also mirrored his phone. So I can tell you there’s no record of credit card payments to any hotel or B&B in Brighton. But I can also tell you that three months ago he googled directions to an address in Kemptown. And he’s referenced it twice since.”
Carol’s phone pinged.
“There you go, boss. It might be worth Superintendent Grace getting his team round there.”
AN HOUR LATER, ROY GRACE and Glenn Branson drove their plain Ford Escape slowly past a row of four-story Regency terraced houses, with railed-off basements, just off the seafront, all of them badly in need of a lick of paint. In Victorian times each would have been a single dwelling, with servants quartered down in the basements and up on the attic floors. But now they’d been broken up into flats and bedsits.
“Number fourteen, boss,” Glenn Branson said, pointing through the side window.
Grace nodded and carried on a short distance, then pulled into an empty space behind a marked police car and climbed out in the blustery, salty wind.
Four uniformed officers in the marked car climbed out, also: the duty inspector at John Street police station, Ken “Panicking” Anakin, and three PCs, two male and one female.
One of the males was a man-mountain.
Anakin’s nickname was well deserved. He panicked about pretty much everything. He approached Roy and Glenn with a twitchy smile. “Good to see you both.”
“And you, Ken.”
Anakin unfolded a large-scale map of the area, struggling to hold it steady in the gusting wind, and the three of them peered at it.
“Roy, this is the street behind.” He ran a finger along. “Mews garages, but behind them are the rear gardens of these houses, so it could be an escape route. It’s the basement flat, right?”
“That’s the information I have; 14B sounds like a basement address,” Grace replied.
“I think we should cover the rear,” Anakin said.
Anakin dispatched two of the uniformed officers, then, accompanied by the man-mountain, followed the detectives up to the front and down the shabby basement steps, past the dustbins. In contrast to the rest of the building, the front door to the basement flat was well presented, recently painted a gloss white and with polished brass letters.
There was a modern Entryphone system with CCTV.
Grace pressed the bell.
They heard a buzz from the interior, but there was no response. After a brief pause, he tried again.
Still no response.
Ken Anakin radioed the officers he’d dispatched to the rear, asking if they could see into the flat. After a minute his radio crackled into life.
The woman PC spoke, “Sir, it’s hard to see in because there are no lights on and it’s dark. But it looks like there’s a man in an armchair. We’ve rapped on the window a couple of times, but he’s not reacted. I think he might be a G5.”
That was the police terminology in Brighton for a sudden death.
Anakin thanked her and relayed the information to Grace and Branson.
“Push the door in,” Grace said.
“I’ve got a bosher in the car,” the man-mountain said.
“May not need it.”
Branson braced himself, then kicked out hard with his size eleven boot, straight below the keyhole. With a splintering crack the door swung open, part of the frame going with it, the bottom of the door sweeping over a pile of mail that lay on the mat.
Grace breathed in a rank smell.
Not the smell of death that he’d been expecting; this was more a laboratory smell.
He entered first, followed by Glenn Branson, Anakin, and the man-mountain. They were in a narrow but smart hallway, with a red carpet, and recently painted cream walls, hung with professionally framed photographs of feet.
Extremely beautiful feet.
The toes of one were curled around a snake. A lighted cigarette was held between two toes of another. As they walked toward the far end of the hall, the rank smell grew stronger.
Grace walked through an open door at the far end, into a large, elegantly furnished living room, and froze.
Directly in front of him, seated in an armchair with his back to the window, sat a man, staring at him, a hand resting on each arm of the chair.
He was in his early fifties and had the air of a provincial bank manager. Short, neat, graying hair. A gray pin-striped suit, a pale gray shirt, and one of those rather naff matching tie and pocket handkerchiefs, both in purple. All that was missing were his shoes and there was a good reason for that.
His feet were missing too.
His legs ended just below the bottoms of his trousers, in two blackened, cauterized stumps. Darkened bloodstains lay on the carpet beneath them. In the man’s slowly blinking eyes, Grace could see a vision of hell.
MatchUp by Lee Child / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on40 votes