Authors: Roderic Jeffries
‘Never known one of you chaps to say no.’ His complexion suggested that neither did he say no very often.
On the south side of the house there was a small patio, with overhead vine, on which were set out a table and four chairs, made from metal and showing signs of rust.
‘Grab a seat,’ said Barker. ‘Now, what’ll it be? There’s no whisky because I can’t afford it and gin’s a woman’s drink. So you can have brandy, rum, or beer, or some of that bloody awful sweet vermouth muck my wife has.’
‘I would like a coñac, please.’
‘You mean a brandy. Cognac comes from Cognac. Ice and soda?’
‘Just ice, please.’
Barker went inside the house and Alvarez tried to find an easier sitting position in a chair whose elaborate wrought-iron back seemed designed for discomfort.
Barker returned with two tumblers, each three-quarters filled, and handed one across before he sat. ‘The wife’s shopping. She’s always shopping. Women’s disease.’ He drank, put the glass down on the table, brushed his moustache with crooked forefinger. ‘So what d’you want to know about the fella, Short?’
‘You may not have heard, but sadly he died last night.’
‘You do not sound very distressed?’
‘I’m not a man to start addressing the angels the moment someone dies. He was a rotter. Always trying to suck up to the wife.’ He snorted. ‘She put him in his place and no mistake!’
‘What kind of rotter was he?’
‘There aren’t different kinds. One is or one isn’t.’
‘Was he wealthy?’
‘He paid eight million for the house and that was before prices soared. Bloody fool. Have you seen it?’
‘Only from the outside.’
‘Like a babu brothel.’
‘D’you know when he bought it?’
Barker thought for a moment. ‘Must be something like three years ago.’
‘Did he live there?’
‘No, thank God!, or we’d have had him around more often since he was too thick-skinned to understand. He came here on holiday.’
‘Then he lived in England?’
‘Somewhere on the Continent. Never said where and I’m damned if I ever cared. He’ll have been on the tax fiddle lark—his kind always are.’
‘Was he married?’
‘How the devil would I know that?’
‘He never had his wife here when he was on holiday?’
‘Never seen him with a woman. Not that he’ll have been able to keep away from the tarts.’
‘Does he employ a maid?’
‘There’s a woman who looks after the place all the year round: keeps it clean and aired, that sort of thing.’
‘Do you know her name?’
‘Don’t know anything about her except she moves around on one of those motorized bikes. Damned dangerous machines . . . Here, what’s the matter?’
‘Matter with what, señor?’
‘You’re not drinking. Damnit, it’s perfectly good brandy.’
‘Indeed, it is. It’s just that I was thinking.’
‘Leave that to other people. You’ll lead a happier life that way.’
On his return to the office, Alvarez telephoned home. ‘It’s me,’ he said, when Dolores answered. ‘Do you know who works for Sen or Short, an Englishman who lives in Ca Na Rostra, which is up the Laraix valley?’
She thought for a moment, then said: ‘I’m not certain, Enrique. I don’t think Ana goes there and Carolina hasn’t any work at the moment. Julia is in the port and so’s Rosalia . . .’
He interrupted her before she detailed every one of her friends. ‘Can you try and find out?’
‘Yes, all right. Why d’you want to know?’
‘The señor sadly died last night in an explosion aboard a boat at anchor in the bay.’
‘Mother of God!’ she exclaimed.
After he’d rung off, he leaned back in his chair and stared at the window, still shuttered so that the room was in half light. At this stage, any connection with the deaths of Clarke and Allen—and were they connected?—was obviously tenuous in the extreme. Short had been wealthy, he’d bought his house about three years previously, he’d lived outside England, and he’d died in what appeared to have been an accident. Yet what were the odds against even these few similarities occurring in three deaths over so relatively short a period? . . . Had Short known Clarke and Allen? What had his circumstances been back in England? Had he visited the island before he’d bought the house?
The new morgue had been built by the side of one of the two firms of undertakers in Llueso. Many of the villagers crossed themselves as they walked past it and even the children regarded it with a certain awe. Inside, there was a small reception area, an office, a cloakroom, and the main room with cold storage shelves.
The man who looked after the morgue was squat, hairy, and cheerful, and quite unperturbed by the fact that he was generally known as Marcelo the Dead.
‘He’s a bit messed up,’ he said.
‘I didn’t expect him to be covered in roses,’ replied Alvarez, who hated the morgue and everything to do with it.
Marcelo pulled out one of the refrigerated shelves which, despite its weight, rolled easily on runners set on ball-bearings. There was a light green rubber sheet and he drew this back.
The body had been so extensively burned that, ironically, the horror was less than if its appearance had been more normal. Due to the contraction of muscles from heat, the posture was the typical pugilistic attitude—clenched fists on bent arms.
‘Are there any special identifying physical features?’ Alvarez asked.
‘There’s been no call to check. But you’re not going to find out much this side of a PM, are you? . . . The only thing I’ve noticed is the ring on his right hand.’
Alvarez moved down the side of the shelf until he could examine the hand. The ring was blackened, but had not begun to melt. There was some form of signet, but it would be impossible to make out exactly what this was until the ring was cleaned. ‘I wonder if they’ll be able to get his prints?’
‘When he’s burned this hard?’
‘It’s amazing what they can do these days. They get the imprint from under the surface skin.’
‘What d’you want ‘em for?’
‘He’s not going to be positively identified any other way, is he?’
‘Don’t you know who he is, then?’
‘Sure. But my boss is one of those people who wants everything treble-checked.’
‘The world’s full of stupid bastards,’ said Marcelo philosophically.
The bush telegraph in Llueso operated with enviable efficiency. Although about ten thousand people lived in the village, by the time Alvarez returned home for lunch, Dolores had discovered the name of the woman who worked at Ca Na Rostra.
Juana Ortiz had been widowed over two years ago, but in the face of a rapidly changing custom, she still wore black. She was good-looking, though on the plump side, and might easily have married again had she not held to the traditional view that a widower might remarry, but a widow might not. She worked in order to support her daughter at Barcelona University: her son was doing his mihtary training.
Alvarez knew her, if not well, and for a while their conversation concerned her children, but then he said: ‘I expect you’ve heard about Sen or Short?’
‘Will it distress you to answer a few questions about him?’
She fidgeted with a button on her black cotton dress. ‘The Lord rest his soul, but he was not a very nice man,’ she said, by way of an oblique answer.
‘When did you last see him?’
‘It was only yesterday.’
‘How was he?’
‘It’s difficult to say. I mean, he didn’t know any Spanish and I know little English, so we couldn’t really talk to each other.’
‘How long had he been here this visit?’
She thought. ‘It must have been about ten days.’
‘D’you know where he’d come from?’
She shook her head. As for so many of the islanders, the world beyond was, despite TV, virtually unknown and she had very little interest in it.
‘Did he ever talk about England?’
‘But I’ve just said, we couldn’t really understand each other.’
‘I wondered if perhaps you’d picked up something?’
‘Was he married?’
‘I’ve never seen a woman in the house.’
‘How often did he come out to the island?’
‘Maybe two or three times a year.’
‘Did you know that yesterday he was meeting a friend who was coming over from England?’
‘He did say something about it.’
‘Any idea what his friend’s name was?’
‘No. I’m sorry, Enrique, but . . .’ She shrugged her shoulders.
‘Don’t worry, you’re doing fine. Is there anything you can tell me about his friend? When did he arrive?’
‘I know nothing except the señor told me he had to be at the airport by a quarter past six in the evening . . . At least, I think that’s what he was saying. He used to get so annoyed when I couldn’t understand him.’
‘The friend wasn’t staying at Ca Na Rostra?’
‘I don’t think he can have been. I mean, the señor didn’t ask me to get one of the spare bedrooms ready, which I could have done easily as the house was as clean as a new pin from top to bottom. Sweet Mary! he had me dusting, wiping down, and washing, as if the Queen were coming to stay.’
‘Did he keep his papers anywhere about the house—business files, that sort of thing?’
‘I’ve never seen any around, but there’s a safe in the wall of one of the downstairs rooms so perhaps there are some there.’
‘Where’s the key of the safe?’
‘How would I know a thing like that?’
‘But you’ll have a key to the house?’
‘Yes, of course.’
‘Will you let me have it, please?’
She left the room and when she returned she handed him two keys, one a Yale type and the other of regular pattern. ‘They’re both for the back door. You will take care of them, won’t you?’
‘Of course,’ he assured her.
‘What shall I do about cleaning the house tomorrow?’
‘I think that for the moment you’d better stay away. I’ll let you know what’s happening when I bring the keys back.’
She hesitated, then said: ‘Some French people who’ve come to live in the village asked me to work for them, but I said I didn’t have the time. But with the señor gone, perhaps the next people to live in the house won’t want me . . . ?’
‘If you want my advice, go back to the French people and say you’re free after all.’
He pocketed the keys. He had, he thought, learned nothing of any consequence—which was to say, nothing which connected Short’s death with those of Clarke and Allen.
Alvarez unlocked the back door of Ca Na Rostra and went inside. The kitchen, an extension built on to the north side of the house, was large and very well equipped: washing-up machine, microwave oven as well as a split-level gas oven, two kinds of mixers, an American refrigerator with a crushed ice dispenser, a cabinet deepfreeze, and a water-softener. Money, and plenty of it.
He passed through to the passage which gave access to a small room that was obviously a study, the dining-room and, beyond that, the sitting-room. He returned to the study. It was less than half the size of the kitchen and was made smaller by the large desk. To the right of the bookcase was a coloured print of a square-rigger under full sail and behind this was a safe. He checked the drawers of the desk but the key of the safe was not in any of them, then went over to the small glass-fronted cupboard, opposite the bookcase, but the key wasn’t in that. Yet so many people, ignoring all the canons of security, kept the key of a safe as close as possible to it, fondly believing that no intruder would ever think of searching for it. Under the carpet? He found it under the corner farthest from the door.
Inside the safe there were no papers, only a number of five-thousand-peseta notes. He counted them. Ninety-two. Four hundred and sixty thousand pesetas. A lot of money to have in cash, by most people’s standards.
He returned the money, locked the safe, and put the key back under the carpet. Then he sat on the corner of the desk. Was there more significance in what he hadn’t found than in what he had? No cheque-books, no travellers’ cheques, no passport. (They might have been on the boat.) No personal papers of any sort and in particular no copy of a will. Nothing, in fact, that would begin to lift up a corner of his life. So was he a man who had drawn an iron curtain between the past and himself, as Clarke and Allen had tried to do?
Alvarez left the study and went upstairs. There were four bedrooms, each with an en suite bathroom: one of these was slightly larger than the others and it was the only one in which either of the twin beds was made up. Built-in cupboards stretched the length of one wall and in one of these, taking up only a small part of the available space, were a lightweight suit, two pairs of trousers, underwear, four casual shirts and one formal one, socks, a lightweight sweater, and three pairs of shoes. In the pockets of the suit and trousers there was only money—four thousand pesetas in the suit, two thousand in the hip pocket of one pair of trousers, and three thousand in the right-hand pocket of the other pair.
He returned downstairs to the sitting-room. On one of the occasional tables was a silver tray on which were two bottles and two glasses. He went over to the settee and sat. How was he going to start uncovering the dead man’s background? Hopeless to get in touch with England and ask them for information concerning a Peter Short, address unknown but not in Britain, background not known . . .
He suddenly remembered. The friend Short had told Juana he was meeting at the airport. He’d had to be there by six-fifteen. Presumably that was roughly the time of arrival of the plane. Palma airport was one of the busiest in Europe in the summer, but with that information it might be possible to work out which plane he’d been meeting . . . And he’d shown his passport to the charterers of the boat who would have noted the number for their records . . .
‘Enrique,’ Tracey said, with careful restraint, ‘I know nothing in this country ever starts on time except a bullfight, but do you really have to be an hour and a half late?’
‘I’m sorry, but I’ve been so busy . . .’