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Authors: S. T. Haymon

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BOOK: Stately Homicide
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‘Didn't I say so?' the little man demanded absent-mindedly. He did not seem quite his usual, cheery self. ‘Anne Boleyn. A queen! Who'd 'a' thought it?'

‘Henry VIII, for one. Not as bad as mother and son, father and daughter, I'll give you that. But all the same, a crime against nature.'

‘Who'd ' a' thought it?' Percy Toller repeated. He looked and sounded disconsolate. Then, with a shake of the head: ‘It's no use, Mr Jurnet. I know he did very wrong, but I just can't get het up about it. Not after all this time standing face to face – your face, Mr Jurnet! It'd be like turning your back on an old friend. There must've been some extenuating circumstances.'

‘Like what?'

‘Like love,' the little man said, with a simplicity that cut Jurnet to the core. ‘If Mollie'd been my sister I wouldn't 've let a little thing like that stop me.'

‘If Mollie'd been your sister you'd never have thought to fall in love with her in the first place. Mind you,' Jurnet finished, smiling, ‘if she
had
been your sister and turned out teas like the one she laid on for us at a moment's notice, that
would
have been extenuating circumstances!'

‘Mollie can do that with her eyes closed and one arm tied behind her back.' The retired burglar cheered up a little. ‘Know what she said after you left, Mr Jurnet? That you were as smashing as ever to look at, but a sight too skinny. What you needed was a wife to fatten you up a bit. Hope you don't think I'm speaking out of turn, Mr Jurnet.'

Jurnet said: ‘You tell Mollie the reason I'm not married, I'm still looking for a girl like her.'

‘I'll tell her! I'll tell her soon as she gets back.' In response to the detective's questioning look: ‘Her nephew in North Walsham – he come over for her yesterday. They all turn to Mollie when anything needs doing! His wife's due home from hospital today with the new baby, and could Auntie come over to help get them settled in comfortable? He's bringing her back tonight. I always kid her she fancies you, Mr Jurnet, and if I get run over by a bus I know who'll be standing in my shoes if she has any say in it. And you know what she says? If she was twenty years younger and she thought she had a chance, she'd 'a' pushed me under one years ago!'

‘Great little kidder, Mollie. Don't forget to learn your daily quotation while she's away. What's it today, Percy?'

The little man hesitated a moment, cleared his throat. Then he recited: ‘“Rob me, but bind me not, and let me go.” John Donne, 1571–1631.'

‘That all there is of it?'

‘Tha's all they give you. I just open the book anywhere, first thing after breakfast; and it's whatever happens to catch my eye.'

‘Must've reminded you of the bad old days. Not that I recollect you ever tying anyone up in the course of a job.'

Percy Toller looked horrified.

‘Frightening people out of their wits! You know I'd never do anything like that. Never went into a house without first making sure there was nobody at home.' Shoulders drooping: ‘I hate Mollie not to be home, and that's a fact. Even for a day. Especially when I –' The little man stopped, seemed to fumble with his words, and began again. ‘It's my night for my tutor, over in Angleby. I've got an essay to hand in, and Mollie always goes over it for spelling and grammar.' There was another pause before he finished: ‘”From
Pamela
to
Sense and Sensibility
– the Emergence of the English Novel, 1740–1811” – that's the title of it.'

‘Very interesting.' Jurnet, who had received a strong impression that this was not what Toller had originally intended to say, pounced, though still in a tone of dulcet concern: ‘To say nothing of the way you must worry when she's out somewhere, in case she comes down with another of her turns –'

‘That's right,' the other agreed, avoiding the detective's eye.

Jurnet regarded the retired burglar with a friendliness judiciously seasoned with a hint of threat.

‘Come off it, Percy! Don't you think it's time you let me into the secret of what you were really up to, the night of the party?'

‘No secret,' Percy Toller insisted doggedly. ‘I was home with Mollie, like I told you.' The little man moved his head, his whole body, in an ungovernable spasm of exasperation, surprising because it was so out of character. ‘How long does a bloke have to keep out of trouble before you coppers stop treating him like he was still a thief?'

Jurnet said: ‘It's not thieving we're talking about, Percy. The subject's murder.'

‘So I know all about Percy Toller,' Jurnet assured the glasses.

‘He's tremendously proud of being accepted as a Bullen Hall helper, and I'm sure you can rest assured, Mr Coryton, it wasn't him took the weight off your postal scale. Beside which,' the detective pointed out, for the second time that day, ‘we're not actually talking about thieving, are we? The subject's murder.'

‘That's what's so incredible!' the curator exclaimed. ‘I simply cannot imagine any of us here at Bullen Hall, myself included, when you come down to it, in the role of murderer.' Brightening up: ‘There's Ferenc and Jeno, of course. Splendid fellows, both of them – but after all, foreigners –'

Jurnet made it clear he was in no mood for further jokes.

‘I'm surprised, after what happened the other night, you didn't think to mention Mr Winter.'

Coryton stopped fooling and said: ‘In case you haven't found it out for yourself, Inspector, I want you to know that Charles Winter is the gentlest of souls. I suspect all potters are the same – that you can't spend a lifetime handling something as brittle as clay without developing a special feeling for the frangibility of flesh and bone.'

‘Oh ah,' Jurnet returned deflatingly. ‘Mr Winter also appears to have had a special feeling for the – frangibility, was it? – of Mr Mike Botley. Have you taken a look at that young man's face lately?'

‘I've been in the Coachyard.' Francis Coryton took off his glasses, as if, with them, he could remove the pained image trapped behind his eyes. ‘I can't understand it! It's so completely out of character. You saw for yourself that Charles had had too much to drink. But even so –' The nondescript face looked crumpled and upset. ‘Especially as you can take it from me, Inspector, that what happened at the party was nothing to some of the humiliations Charles has put up with from that depraved little punk. There've been times, I don't mind admitting, when I myself could have cheerfully strangled him, to shut him up once and for all. But Charles – he just stands there, his face grey like his clay, but still – the only way I can describe it – transfigured by love. Jane always says it's an example to us all of what love's really about.'

‘Letting someone tread all over you like a doormat?' Tormented by a sudden vision of Miriam, wanton on her Greek island, Jurnet's voice held disbelief and comprehension in equal parts.

The curator put his glasses on again.

‘Anyone who treads on your doormat,' he pointed out, ‘at least has come through your door.'

Chapter Twenty Four

Jurnet came up the stairs to the curator's flat, purposely seeking out the squeaks in the uncarpeted treads. The old oak obligingly cooperated, and the detective's features, dark and dissatisfied, relaxed into an expression that was almost paternal as, above, the clatter of teacups, the animated rattle of conversation ceased abruptly. A girlish giggle cut itself off in mid-hilarity. Footsteps lighter than those of a policeman receded down the hallway.

By the time, taking each stair with deliberation, he achieved the landing, the incident room was a hive of quiet industry, PC Hinchley busy at the filing cabinet, PC Bly on the phone to the Lord knew who, Sergeant Ellers at a typewriter which he attacked with one-fingered ferocity. Only the smallest noise of crockery came from the adjoining kitchen, whence Sergeant Bowles issued benign and unruffled to announce that, by a happy coincidence, he had just that second put the kettle on.

Jack Ellers declared an armistice with the typewriter, and came over to let his superior officer know that Mrs Coryton had been on the blower several times, asking for him.

‘Didn't you get out of her what it was about?'

‘All she said was, you'd know if I told you she was phoning from Mr Winter's, in the Coachyard.'

‘Ah! She's been gazing into young Mike Botley's beautiful black and blue eyes.'

‘She said she was there, and would stay there till you came. When I said I'd get you to call her back when you came in, she said it wasn't anything she could discuss on the phone. It was something you had to hear, and see, for yourself.'

Jurnet said: ‘We'd better get on down there, hadn't we?'

Even as he spoke, Sergeant Bowles, that kindly man, appeared, bearing tea and biscuits. Jurnet gulped down the scalding liquid, and took the Bourbons along ‘for afters'. A minute later, crossing the little footbridge over the moat, he broke the two biscuits into several pieces, and dropped them into the water. They floated on the surface for a little, before descending leisurely into the murk.

If the eels were waiting, they did not let on.

In the pottery, the dust hung heavy. It revolved sluggishly in the shaft of sunlight that sloped through the open half-door, kept aloft – or so it seemed – by nothing more affirmative than a listless disinclination to obey the laws of gravity. In the gloom that bounded the sunlight upon either side, the dust was something to sense rather than see; a weighing upon the spirits that had bowed the broad shoulders of Charles Winter and twisted Mike Botley's face into an expression of rigid petulance. The young man, arms flopped between his legs, sat slouched on a low stool. Between the first and second fingers of his right hand a lighted cigarette slowly reduced itself to ash and a wisp of ascending smoke.

As the two detectives came in, the potter, hollow-eyed and unshaven, ejaculated ‘Oh, Christ!' in a voice naked with suffering. He stood at his wheel, wearing the same canvas apron, slacks and dirty yellow sweater in which Jurnet had seen him earlier; his large hands resting on a damp cloth which covered a small mound of clay. Into Jurnet's mind came some half-remembered story about giants who renewed their strength by contact with the earth. He looked closely at the man, who returned his look with something between aversion and despair.

Even Jane Coryton, in her white cotton dress, seemed diminished by the prevailing greyness. Just the same, the voice with which she greeted the police officers' arrival held an undeniable note of triumph.

‘Oh, good!' she exclaimed. ‘You've brought somebody with you to take notes.' Wheeling round to where Mike Botley sat contemplating his cigarette as if mesmerised: ‘All right, then! Tell them! Tell them what really happened!'

The young man raised his head momentarily: long enough for Jurnet to note that his face, though plentifully scabbed, was halfway back to its normal coarse prettiness. The head and ears were still bandaged, but more lightly than before, and with a clean bandage.

‘Get stuffed!'

‘Charles!' Mrs Coryton appealed to the tall, anguished figure at the potter's wheel. ‘
You
tell them, if he won't.'

‘Darling Jane,' said the potter, in a gentle tone more piercing than swords, ‘this is
your
party. You laid it on. You invited the guests. So why don't
you
do the honours?'

‘But I can't do that!' the woman cried. The two detectives, waiting, watching, listening, said nothing. ‘It would only be at second hand.' Appealing to Jurnet: ‘That won't do, will it?'

Jurnet said: ‘It's quite true that if either, or both, of these gentlemen have anything to say as a matter of evidence, they must say it for themselves.'

‘Mike!'

Jane Coryton planted herself in front of Botley. The young man's face, behind the spiralling cigarette smoke, held a deliberate vacuity that was as much of an insult as a smack in the face. Mrs Coryton waited a moment longer. Then: ‘Well, don't say you didn't ask for it!'

With a characteristically efficient gesture that brought the overlapping windings of gauze away as one entity, still retaining the shape of the skull they had moulded, she whipped the bandage off the young man's head. The cigarette dropped to the floor and lay smoking in the dust.

‘Ow!' Botley jumped to his feet, knocking the stool over. ‘You lousy scrubber!' He raised a tenderly exploring hand to a wound on the left side of his forehead, just below the hairline. ‘If you've started it bleeding again I'll bleeding sue you!'

It was indeed a nasty gash; Jurnet could see that. It should have been stitched, especially for a young man whose face was his fortune. Judging by the look of the livid split, the skin on either side ridged and iridescent, Angleby CID could count itself lucky not to have ended up with another case of murder on its hands.

Just the same, Jurnet's gaze was concentrated elsewhere; upon the torn, swollen ear lobes, from each of which, it was only too evident, a vicious hand had wrenched an earring with none of the finesse required to disengage it without harm. From one of them, black with dried blood, a thin thread of flesh dangled as if it were itself some barbaric ornament.

Mike Botley demanded mockingly: ‘If women
will
leave their handbags about, what can they expect?'

‘You saw how we had to leave early on account of he was pissed to the eyebrows.' Mike Botley looked at the potter with a lively malice. The hurt incised deeply into Charles Winter's face seemed positively to stimulate the other to garrulity. ‘Well, no sooner are we out on the landing than his lordship wants to throw up.' Turning to Jane, strong young teeth bared in a caricature of a smile: ‘You got me to thank, Jane, for getting him to the lav on time. Sick all over yer carpets would 'a' been nice, wouldn't it?'

BOOK: Stately Homicide
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