Detective Chief Superintendent Barry Wills was a short, stocky man with beady eyes, an unruly head of greying red hair and a permanent vile temper. He sat hunched on folded arms, nodded at the sheaf of paper on the plain, grey office table and said, in a grunty Northern voice, “Bloody mess, eh, Liddle. An’ it’s all on your front doorstep.”
There was something wrong with the station heating system. It had triggered, even though it was another scorching, airless day outside. Hot air was pumping out of the vents, turning the inside of the building into an oven. With the foresight of all 1960s architects, the creator of Ashford nick had, thoughtfully, ensured all the windows were sealed tight shut. So everyone was in a bad mood that day, looking for a dog to kick.
“Those lads that torched the old woman’s place are out of the way, sir. That’s good news, surely?”
Wills let out a tobacco-stained sigh. “I wasn’t talking about that, Liddle. I was talking about this place of yours. It’s a bloody mess.”
Justin shuffled uncomfortably in his seat. “I’m not sure I follow.”
“Sadly, I can believe that. Look. Last year this Blamire character goes missing, dead apparently. Some woman claims she’s run off the road deliberately. This year there’s some mysterious incident where a woman is found injured, apparently self-mutilation. Then murder, pure bloody murder…”
“I think that’s going to be hard to prove. More like manslaughter, sir. They were out of their heads. We don’t even think they knew Beulah.”
Wills exploded. “That’s not the point I’m trying to make.”
Justin didn’t reply. There was, he sensed, danger here.
“The point is: what the hell is going on? You’ve got this pretty little village patch. The worst thing you should be dealing with is a spot of petty vandalism and the odd cat up a tree. That’s why we sent you there, for God’s sake.”
“Thank you, sir,” he replied icily.
“Oh don’t get on your bloody high horse with me, son. No-one’s got any illusions about your future hereabouts, least of all, I trust, you. Village plod material, Liddle. Nowt else. And I’m not sure you’re up to that, frankly. Not with what you’ve given us so far.”
There was a flicker of righteous indignation in Justin’s head. “Sir, you assume these things are connected. There’s no evidence for that. You assume Beulah is my only responsibility. It isn’t. I’m there part time, and for most of that there’s nothing to do anyway.”
“I assume nothing, lad. Those yobbos aren’t connected, for sure. But something’s up there. If I believed in statistics — and I don’t by the way — I’d be pointing out to you that a little hamlet like that just doesn’t get that level of serious crime. Not unless some of it’s coming from within. But bugger statistics. It just feels bad. And if you don’t understand that, you’re in the wrong job entirely.”
“I thought,” he replied very deliberately, “we were supposed to rely on evidence, not hunches. At least, that’s what I was taught.”
“Don’t be smart with me, Liddle. You can catch joyriders like that. What’s going on here is something much more subtle, mark me. Don’t you get it?”
“Huh,” Wills grunted, and took a swig of lukewarm tea. He sifted through the papers in front of him then threw one across the table. It was a short report; attached was a snatched photograph of Alison. “You know this woman, Liddle?”
“Alison Fenway, sir,” Justin replied. “Wife of a local banker or something.”
“I asked: do you know her?”
“To speak to.”
“What’s she like?”
Wills was smart, he thought. It paid to be straight. “American. Pretty. A bit neurotic. But then you can hardly blame her. She went a bit crazy when she lost the baby. I think she had a stability problem once before. When she lived in America.”
Will pushed another photograph over to Justin.
“Sara Harrison,” Justin said, trying not to sweat. “Village hippie. Works from home. Just had a kid.”
“She and the Fenway woman friends?”
“I believe so. I think they run some kind of small business together.”
Wills’ ginger eyebrows rose up a wrinkled forehead. “Small, eh? They formed a legal partnership a few months back. Too early for any accounts, of course, but they have filed VAT returns. Looks to me like they’re going to turn over half a million quid or more this year. Small?”
Justin looked at the report from Customs and Excise. The figures were startling. “I don’t know anything about their business. Sorry.”
“Sorry,” Wills repeated. “Sounds like you should have that word tattooed on your forehead, doesn’t it, lad?”
“I don’t see what this has got to do with these events.”
“Me neither. But it’s interesting, isn’t it? Amazing where a bit of gossip gets you. Now,” he said, pushing a third photograph over the table, “this pair of oil paintings.”
John and Marjorie Tyler were pictured, from some distance, walking across the cricket pitch. They looked foul-tempered, as if they were arguing.
“Local GP. He works in the surgery in Wye. And his wife. She’s… a character.”
“A character, Liddle? Now tell me. How does this character get on with these other people here? With our Mrs Fenway, for example? And the late Jukes woman?”
There was too much to think about. All he could do was keep it plain and simple. “No love lost, I don’t think. Not unusual in a small village.”
Wills looked interested. “Any reason why?”
“Marjorie… Mrs Tyler is sort of head of the village committee or something. I think she suspects Mrs Fenway has eyes on the job, wrongly, from what I hear. But things sometimes get out of proportion?”
“And Miss Harrison?” Wills would not let this one go.
“I think she’s pretty sensible. Sits in the middle and tries to calm everyone down. Nice woman. Very bright.”
“Right.” Wills took the papers back, put them neatly into the manila envelope in front of him and folded his arms. “So do you have any questions for me, Liddle?”
“Jesus Christ, man! Aren’t you going to ask me why I’ve had people up on your patch photographing the locals? Or do you know already.”
“I…” There was an explanation here, he thought, and remembered Alison’s injunction: Occam’s Razor. Choose the simple one. “I did put in the book that I suspected Marjorie Tyler was growing waccy baccy for her own personal use. I discussed this with Superintendent Johnston and it was agreed we would take no action provided it never extended beyond her own home.”
“Ah yes,” Wills said, nodding. “A little smoke before bed. That’s where it begins, you know, Liddle. A little light relief. Before long, you’re into heroin and crack cocaine. Before long, you can feel the very pillars of society begin to quake under your feet.”
Justin stifled a sudden, nervous urge to laugh. “I don’t think there’s crack cocaine in Beulah. I would have noticed.”
“Would you now?” Wills replied dryly.
Wills turned up the ends of his mouth in what was meant to be an ironic smile. “We’re done, Liddle. Unless I’ve missed something here. Unless there’s something you would like to tell me?”
Justin inserted a deliberate pause before his reply. “Not that I can think of.”
“Good.” Wills kept smiling.
“So what, Liddle?”
“So what do you want me to do?”
“Be a good village plod, lad. Keep your eyes and ears open. Tell me anything that matters.”
“About what, sir?”
“Search me, Liddle. Search me.”
Wills watched him leave the room. The young copper was sweating by the end. The perspiration stood like translucent pearls on his forehead. Detective Chief Superintendent Barry Wills knew the signs of guilt when he saw them. Beulah could no longer be left to the attentions of Justin Liddle alone.
(c) David Hewson 2012