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Authors: J. M. Gregson

Malice Aforethought

BOOK: Malice Aforethought
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© J M Gregson 1999

 

J M Gregson has asserted his rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.

 

First published by Severn House Publishers Ltd in 1999

 

This edition published 2014 by Endeavour Press Ltd.

 

 

 

One

 

It was thoughtful of them to bring back an old man for this morning’s service. The Reverend Tom Dodds allowed them that. He was totally out of sympathy with the happy-clappy gatherings which passed for services in the old church nowadays, but at least they had remembered him for this. He had begun to think that he had been completely forgotten.

And this year the eleventh of November fell satisfyingly on a Sunday. They would be able to stand through the two minutes’ silence without the hum of traffic and the blare of horns from the centre of the old town. His words within the church went well, he thought. He savoured the cadences as he intoned those sonorous phrases: the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. You could hardly fail with such an opening. And he did not fail; studying the white, uplifted faces before him, he could see that he was holding their attention.

He told them how he had gone into the village school to talk about the war and found children who had thought that Desert Rat was a term of abuse, not a proud label. That was understandable, for that war was almost as far away from today’s children as the Crimean War had been for him as a boy. He found it less easy to forgive the forty-year-old mother of two who thought that Rommel was an old film star and had heard of Montgomery only as a golfer. He got little titters of appreciation and approval from his congregation: people were more prepared to be amused in church than when he had first spoken here half a century ago.

There were none there now to preserve the memory of that senseless bloodbath of 1914-18. Old Sam Burgess, who had gone through the Somme at eighteen and had brought his two sticks and his sightless eyes to support the Reverend Dodds for so many years, had died in 1994. And Tom, looking from the lectern to the thinly peopled benches in the cold church, knew that before too long there would be no men there who had fought in the 1939-45 war, which still seemed so vivid to him.

Well, at least his successor, with his open-necked shirts and his resolute social awareness, had thought to bring back an active service padre for this morning’s solemn moments of remembrance. Leading the procession out into the mist and cold of the Cotswold morning, Tom Dodds, MC, forgot his seventy-eight years and his dodgy hip and marched as proud and erect as he had on those bright early morning church parades before Alamein and Tobruk, when you could feel the mixture of resolution and fear in every breath of desert air. Not many people knew nowadays how to march with pride, but he would show them how. He owed it to the brave lads and true who had not survived, who had died so that those unthinking, ignorant lads, who revved their motor-bikes now in the car park of the Red Lion, might be free.

Well, you had to look forward, they said, and it was true enough; you couldn’t live in the past. All the same, there were some things that should be remembered. And some deaths: the Reverend Tom Dodds marched with stiff dignity to the church gate and the war memorial with its wreaths of blood-red poppies. He said the prayers of thanksgiving for civilisation’s survival with closed eyes, as fervently as he had mouthed them when a whole nation had rejoiced over the extinction of the tyrant Hitler in the forties, when the price in blood and death was still fresh in everyone’s mind. He finished with those ringing lines:

‘They shall not grow old, as we that are left

grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years

condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the

morning

We will remember them.’

There was a sporadic mutter of ‘Amens’ from his chilled audience at the end of the verse, as there had been with his earlier prayers. Then the circle of people relaxed and began to melt away. Most of them looked relieved that it was over, that a duty had been done. But a few came up and thanked him for the dignity and sincerity of his service, and that made it worthwhile. They were middle-aged and elderly people who had lost relatives in the wars, people for whom the dancing black-and-white images on their television screens were living history, not an incomplete documentary of events long dead.

When they had gone, old Tom Dodds went back into the church that had once been his church, the church which had stood here almost unchanged through five centuries, and thought of the laughing faces he could still remember from the desert days, of the terror of defeat and the exultation of victory which he could still conjure up at will. Those were the days when he had been most alive, when his youth and that of those around him thrilled to the single great task ahead. And soon now, very soon, his own time must come to join those lads from the yesterday which others found so long ago. In that quiet place, with its high stone pillars and its roof built to vault towards the simpler heaven of an earlier age, he thought of his death without rancour. He would wait for his time, as all good Christians must, but he hoped in that moment that it would not be too long before he was called.

He left the church with reluctance, re-entering a world outside with which he rarely felt in harmony. It was cold still, despite the appearance now of a pale sun. The chill had entered his very bones while he thought of times past; he must have sat in the empty church for longer than he realised. He stamped his feet and flapped his thin arms, hearing them crack, willing a reluctant circulation to course some warmth into his aged limbs.

He decided to walk once more round the familiar churchyard that had once been his domain. You never knew now which time would be the last. The angina was getting worse, and his next appearance here might be as the central figure in a funeral cortege; his plot had been reserved for forty years and more now. He looked at it briefly, a thin line of turf between the mounds which covered other former vicars of the parish; it seemed scarcely big enough to accommodate this latest entry. There would be room enough, he knew. And perhaps he would be the last incumbent so interred, for soon everyone would be cremated. It was the modern way, and for a crowded, disease-conscious planet it was no doubt the best way. But he would quite like to be the last of the old interments.

He walked on, past the gargoyles which leered at him as knowingly as ever from the cornices of the ancient stone, down to the humbler parts of the graveyard, where the town and village labourers of bygone eras had been in their narrow cells for ever laid. Old Tom Dodds had learned Gray’s
Elegy
by heart seventy years ago in his village school and its phrases came back to him whether he wished them to or not.

He had to admit that the churchyard was better kept now than in his day. A man cut the grass with a hover mower every week, and the worst of the litter which blew in from an uncaring public was removed by a rota of volunteers every two days. Only beneath the high oaks at the far end of the churchyard, where the grass grew longer and the wild daffodils and bluebells flowered in spring, was there the cheerful neglect of his day. The Reverend Dodds found himself moving automatically to that area which had not changed. By the time he regretted the move it was too late for him to avoid its consequences.

The body lay against the old stone wall which marked the boundary of the church’s ground. The man’s grey eyes stared un-seeingly at the steeple of the church and the low clouds beyond it. The thick crust of blood around the throat was almost black. The Reverend Dodds knew a dead man when he saw one, but he knew also the procedures for checking death. He felt gingerly for a carotid artery, registering as he had known he would the absence of any pulse. Then he turned and hurried as fast as his creaking limbs would carry him back towards that modern world he found so alien.

His hip was hurting suddenly, and the hunched shuffling he had cast off for the Remembrance Service was back with him. But the dead, his reason told him, were never in a hurry.

 

Two

 

By one o’clock the gloomy day was improving, as if the heavens recognised that due attention had now been given to the business of Remembrance. The sun was stronger, throwing clear shadows for the first time in the day, removing with its presence all traces of the thin drizzle which had dampened the earlier stages of that Sunday. There were even a few patches of blue sky over the distant Malverns.

Detective Sergeant Bert Hook noticed none of these improvements. For he was playing golf. And not just golf: as a new member of the Oldford Golf Club, he was playing in his first Monthly Medal Competition. Every stroke would be recorded on the card in his companion’s back pocket; every stroke would be accumulated, until the results were displayed for all to see on the clubhouse notice board. For honest Bert Hook, who had found as a young man that most sports came easily to him, that was a terrible prospect.

For golf had not come easily to Bert; it had come, indeed, exceeding hard. He had been a cricketer of distinction, a fearsome fast bowler whose fame spread beyond the confines of his native Herefordshire. Secretly, he had believed that any sport where you approached a dead ball in your own time must be easy: golf had cruelly shattered that illusion. Hook had been enticed into this ridiculous, infuriating sport by Superintendent John Lambert, and at this moment he blamed his superior officer for the full range of suffering the stupid game had brought to him. Amongst the greatest of these, he decided, was playing alongside this same bloody John Lambert, with his years of experience in the game, his steady competence, his encouragement to those new to golf, his infuriating calm.

Yes, above all, his infuriating calm. When you were itching to throw your clubs into the pond by the twelfth and yourself after them, the last thing you wanted was a man with his ball on the green and a broad smile as you approached yours in the bunker. ‘Head down and swing steady,’ said John Lambert cheerfully. ‘You can still break a hundred for the round if you keep your head.’

‘I thought you couldn’t advise me in a strokeplay competition,’ said Hook testily. ‘In any case, I’d rather you kept your bloody mouth shut.’

Any observer would have found it hard to believe that this warring duo enjoyed the most harmonious of working relationships. Within the workings of Oldford CID, Hook deferred to no one in his admiration of Detective Superintendent John Lambert. Woe betide the junior officer who offered the ritual rumblings of derision about high-ranking passengers if Bert Hook was around. Superintendent Lambert was considered a dinosaur among policemen by the new men of the detective force and even by some of his contemporaries, because of his refusal to sit behind a desk and organise the hunt from there. Chief Constables were sensible enough to tolerate Lambert’s eccentric determination to lead from the front, for the simple reason that he got results. Bert Hook had been at his side for a decade, supplementing the ‘guv’nor’s’ strengths with his own sturdy qualities, refusing the promotion to Inspector rank that would surely have been his due because he was happy in the niche he had built for himself under Lambert’s direction.

On the golf course, it was proving a different matter for the newly arrived Hook. The two now played the last few holes in a simmering silence, while Bert’s score and temper mounted in inexorable tandem. John Lambert watched his Sergeant’s broad, weatherbeaten features growing ever redder and marvelled that such an equable man should be so near to losing control of himself. Then, on the eighteenth, Lambert went into a bunker, took two to get out, and applied several epithets to his ball which did not appear in the police manual. To Bert Hook, who had long since abandoned hope for his own performance, it was a wholly satisfying episode.

After they had showered, life fell slowly back into perspective over pints of bitter and amidst hearty male badinage. There were tales of disasters worse than anything even the police duo had suffered. Bert Hook, who had heartily sworn his abandonment of the game in the ditch beside the sixteenth, agreed to play in a four-ball on the following Sunday as he left the golf club.

Eleanor Hook studied her husband’s face carefully as he negotiated the Mondeo carefully round the boys’ bikes on the driveway. She was hoping this new interest would give him the physical outlet he would need in the early retirement which was inevitable for policemen; Eleanor was a woman who believed in planning ahead, and most men were just big boys at heart. She let him come into the kitchen and boom out his ritual condemnation of the futility of golf and his derision for his own dismal performance before she gave him her information.

‘They’ve been on from the station for you. A body in the churchyard at Broughton’s Ash. Suspicious circumstances, they think.’

Bert Hook knew what that meant. Murder, almost certainly. Back to work, then, with a vengeance. Well, it was almost a relief: anything must be better than golf.

***

On Monday morning, the police machinery of a murder hunt was fully in train. As yet it had turned up little of significance. House-to-house enquiries had revealed no one who had seen or heard violence in the ancient churchyard where the corpse had been discovered by the retired vicar Thomas Dodds. There were irritatingly imprecise descriptions of three vehicles which had been seen in the church lane the night before the body had been found. If it proved that the body had been dumped at the site rather than killed in the churchyard, these would need to be followed up, but the sightings were so fleeting that to date there was little more than the colour of the vehicles to be recorded.

There was no evidence yet as to the time of death; that would come from the forensic services in the next few hours. Until then, there would be no certainty even that this was murder rather than suicide, though the Scene of Crime team combing the deep grass near the wall of the cemetery had little doubt of it. Most important of all, the police had no idea of who this man with the severed throat was. Murder hunts begin with the victim and spread outwards; until the victim was identified, this killing dwelt in a limbo of uncertainty.

Detective Inspector Christopher Rushton had been quietly confident that he would have the victim identified within the hour. But his computer scans of first the local and then the national registers of missing persons had revealed no one who provided an exact match with the statistics they had already registered before the corpse was removed in its plastic shell for the forensic scientists at Chepstow to begin their work. He had jotted down a few possibilities, but none of them was local, and he had no great confidence that their man was among them.

He confessed as much to John Lambert — reluctantly, for he always liked to show off the marvels of modern technology to a man who seemed to Rushton to prefer older and clumsier methods. ‘Nothing as yet from the MISPA files. SOCO have brought in a print from the body, but there’s no match so far. I’ll be certain within another hour, but it seems he didn’t have a record.’

Lambert nodded. Already this one looked like falling outside the routine statistics of suspicious deaths. Four-fifths were family killings, where you could expect to have an arrest within forty-eight hours. Of the other victims, two-thirds had a criminal record of some kind. If they proved to be habitual criminals, it didn’t necessarily make detection easy — gangland murders by hired killers were the hardest of all to bring to court, because of the difficulties of proof —but at least you knew where to look.

‘There was no identification in his pockets,’ said Bert Hook. ‘No money; no wallet; no credit cards; nothing but a stub of pencil and a soiled handkerchief.’ The three men stood in Lambert’s office, digesting the little they had, each too experienced a CID man to voice the obvious. This might be theft, a mugging that had got out of hand when the victim resisted and the attacker panicked. Deaths or serious injuries in such circumstances were becoming increasingly common. But they were still largely con-fined to urban areas, and not many muggers were well enough organised to remove the body when violence overspilled into death. Mugging was a cowardly but opportunist crime; when it went wrong, the perpetrators usually took to their heels and left their victims where they had fallen.

‘We’ve had three missing persons reported this morning, but they were all teenage girls,’ said Rushton. ‘I’ve put out a national alert for any men around forty who’ve gone missing in the last seventy-two hours. I’ll add a more accurate description later in the day.’

When forensic had been able to add some details, that meant, and all of them knew it. As if answering a cue, the phone on Lambert’s desk shrilled urgently. ‘This is Dr Saunders, Home Office Pathology Lab at Chepstow,’ said a thin, rather querulous voice. ‘Do I have Detective Superintendent John Lambert?’ Lambert affirmed his identity and motioned his companions to stay put. He could picture Dr Saunders, behind the desk where he had once clashed with him on a previous case, a thin man with a tightly trimmed beard, an academic more at home with things than people. Dr Saunders was a scientist who had chosen pathology because it was a more exact science than surgery, where you dealt with live flesh and pulsing blood.

‘I have your man on the table now, but I haven’t begun the investigation proper. You’ll have my full report by tomorrow morning, but I thought you might like a few preliminary facts,’ said the reedy voice. It sounded as if it was already regretting this voluntary stepping beyond the bounds of protocol.

Lambert hastily reassured him. ‘That is very thoughtful, Dr Saunders. It will also be most useful. We haven’t yet identified our victim, you see. Until we do, it’s difficult to begin a proper attempt to establish the facts of his death.’

‘I see.’ Saunders sounded encouraged. ‘Well, I can confirm what you already knew fairly certainly. Your man was murdered. People do cut their own throats still, and it’s not unknown for suicides to choose churchyards for the act, but this man didn’t. His throat wasn’t cut, in fact. He was garrotted, probably taken from behind with a thin wire.’

Lambert, scribbling furiously upon the pad in front of him, gave an involuntary sigh. ‘Any great strength involved?’

‘No. With the implement used, this could easily have been done by a woman — even a child, if the victim was taken by surprise.’ Saunders’ voice carried a curious satisfaction, as though the notion cheered him up. Then, as if to dispel any such impression, he moved hastily into routine facts. ‘Your man was five feet eleven inches tall and weighed sixty-seven kilograms — twelve stones and three pounds if you prefer it. I would compute his age as late thirties. He had fair hair, recently cut and styled, and the body was in good condition.’

‘Any evidence of a struggle?’

‘At first glance, no. There is no sign of skin or fibres under the fingernails, but that is as far as I can go. I haven’t examined the body skin in any detail yet.’

They knew what he meant. It was routine now to check the inner thighs and buttocks of men as well as women for any signs of sexual assault, any traces of semen.

Lambert said, ‘Thank you for taking the trouble to ring me, Dr Saunders. We look forward to your full report in due course.’

In truth, the pathologist’s early call hadn’t taken them much further forward. But there were a few more details to ink in on the picture of their mystery man. He was well nourished, and had thought enough of his appearance to have his hair expensively cut and shaped. Not a vagrant, then: no need at present to trawl the meths drinkers and other dropouts who lived precariously in the twilight world of the homeless.

***

Lambert hated this quiet period, with a murder team and its machinery in place, routine enquiries begun, and yet no clear focus for the work. It was like a phoney war, where everyone waited for the real battles to commence in a state of uneasy mental excitement. For John Lambert admitted that he was excited: he was too old a hand now to feel any guilt about the zest for the hunt which was a part of any CID man’s temperament.

Because there was nothing more to be done yet, he went home for lunch. Christine made him a sandwich with her usual speed and dexterity, but she looked grey with fatigue. She had to force the smile she gave him when she caught him studying her over the sports section of the paper. ‘I’ve been hoeing the front garden — last time before the winter, I expect,’ she said.

She had volunteered the explanation for her tiredness before he had voiced the question. It wasn’t like her even to admit to physical weakness. It meant that she must feel as exhausted as she looked, he reflected. He watched her knuckles whiten with the effort of raising herself from the armchair as she levered her frame into action. She taught part-time now in the local primary school a mile from their door, having volunteered to give up her full-time post when falling rolls in the schools determined that some teachers must go.

As he watched her reverse her small car carefully between the gateposts, he was glad again that she had agreed to cut down the work she had always loved to a part-time commitment. It was clearly enough for her now. Well, neither of them was getting any younger; he tried to console himself with the meaningless cliché he remembered his own parents voicing a generation ago. But even as he smiled sourly at that recollection, he knew that there was more to it than that.

He examined the heavy clay soil of the front garden as he went back to his car. The area of soil newly disturbed by hoeing was pitifully small.

***

PC Bryn Jones made a routine check on the school at two thirty, driving slowly past in his patrol car. A visible presence, they called it. As far as he was concerned, it was as important to be noticed by the old busybody who had reported the suspicious presence as by the man himself. There wasn’t much kudos to be gained by bringing in paedophiles, anyway. But of this one, real or imagined, there was no sign.

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