Murder for Whittlestreet

Jim, Tom, Dick and Harry.  That’s us, a motley crew of mid-life blokes with ambitions bigger than our brains, no doubt about it.  What annoys me as much as anything is that we all enjoy talking and pretending to be writing seriously but none of us seem to get anywhere.  Except Jim, ex-editor of a local paper and now retired with one crime novel published and another well on the way.  Mind you he has had the practice of writing fiction over the years, but maybe I exaggerate, a little.

I suppose that leaves the three of us.  What was the Famous Four has slipped down to the Threatened Three, at least where the Whittlestreet Crime Writers’ Circle is concerned.  Maybe the problem is that we still think we live in the Nineties, maybe even the Eighties or earlier in Jim’s case.  It used to be said, or was it just Thomas Hardy said: “the best writers write of their parents and grandparents generation”.   I am not convinced by that for today, it all seems to be high-tech and forensics now.  We are the DNA and Twitter generation, at least the kids are.  That’s me caught out again.  ‘KIds’ means anyone twenty years younger than me which leaves an awful lot of legroom from when I was a ‘kid’.  I am in the grandfather stage, just, and in the usual policeman’s lot of being divorced and driven to renting a small flat.  And still a year away from retiring.  That is unless the ‘cuts’ get me first.  The DCI calls it ‘natural wastage’.  Sounds like something you flush down the toilet.  Mind you, the new coppers have a head start on the job compared to what we had, what with their degrees in police law or forensics or sociology or some such.

They need it, I suppose.

“Let’s get this over with.  Up the stairs.  “Jim! I’m coming in, ready or not!”

He said he would be out most of the night on a ‘recce’ so might stay in bed all day to recover.  Silly bugger, at his age!  Though mid-seventies is neither here nor there, I suppose. But  whats he got buzzin in his head now, to be out all night for?  Probably only insomnia!  Why he should live in a town-house I hate to think.  One flight of stairs is enough but this second one is doing my knees in rotten.  I was a fool to offer to dig him out of his pit if he was still in it.   I have collected him before as he can’t  drive these days but this is the first time I have actually needed to kick him out of bed.  S’pose he did warn me when he gave me his key.”

I used the hand-rail to push myself up the last stairs, pondered leaning on the landing wall for a rest while I registered which of the three doors he would be snoring behind.

“Wakey Wakey,!”   I called out as I pushed the door on the right. Billy Cotton still has his uses, I was about to say to him.  No, not Billy Connolly!, COTTON, he had a ‘Bandshow’ on Sunday’s if I remember rightly, ‘Billy Cotton’s Bandshow’ they called it.

Jim was still in bed.  Exactly as I say.  ‘Still’ in bed.  Me shouting at him caused not a stir.  He may have been pretty blind with his cataracts but never deaf.  He lay there, flat on his back, head slightly to one side. In his pyjamas, one arm on his chest, the hand holding the two sides of the unbuttoned jacket together and the other arm outstretched almost in line with his shoulder, with that hand almost gripping an open book.

I feel my heart sink, you know that sudden skipabeat  that gets down into your stomach somehow?  I hadn’t noticed the smell until I got closer to him.  His body, Jim’s, as was. ”

*******I looked around, everyone was sombre, even the two school kids were taking it all in.********

“I have seen a few bodies over the years, assorted shapes and sizes and conditions, but this was unexpected and a friend.   His head was half on one pillow and there was another beside that, all plumped and with no companionable dent.  I watched where I put me feet and put my fingers to his throat.  No pulse and the skin wrinkled, collapsed-like but not stony cold, nor warm though.  His head looked a bit ruddy coloured, always did mind.  Thank goodness his eyes were closed.

I always nosed what other people read and looked over to the book.  It was the one he had kept nagging me to read.  Maybe he was the only one to read it, I know I didn’t get passed the first few pages.  He was on page 76. One of those times when you see more than you expect.  When time seems to stand still. Like watching an accident happen, just before the car hits you.  He was seventy five, that’s what I thought, never got past page seventy-six.”

“Was it his own book?  Sounds like it was.”   Said the librarian.

“No.  It was ‘Murder Made Rich'”

She got up from the little group of us sitting round in armchairs.  We were in the library and she went to the computer and tapped away. The tension was broken now and a wave of movement and murmuring to neighbours filled the change of pace.  A biscuit was taken from the plate and snapped.  Another stirred their now cold coffee and drank thoughtfully.  I just sat there.  I was used to crime and talking about it but this felt odd, just explaining how I found Jim, our most regular and questioning member.  He should be there asking for details, making notes or just doodling.  We left his chair there, seemed cruel not to offer him a seat.  Like the man who didn’t come to dinner or whatever it was.

“Found it,” said Marie at the computer, you could see her click and scroll the mouse, “Oh,” not an exclamation more an undertone of surprise.  She walked back to the collection of people called the Whittlestreet Crime Writers Circle.

“It was a book he wrote.  He must have written it ages ago when he was a reporter.  It seems he used a pseudonym then but if he was reading the new edition they have put his real name inside the back cover with his photo. The jacket front has the name he used but the biog. clearly states who he really is”. Slight hesitation, “Was.”

Amy raised her eyes from the tablet she always took notes on.  Or so she said. I don’t know if you can doodle on computers. “Have you got a copy?” She looked at Marie just before she sat.

Marie said, “I’ll look shall I?” and tried not to stalk as she walked to the fiction shelves.

It was passing the time, I thought.  Normally we have discussions on plots or planning or picking holes in someone’s writing.  Once or twice we have all read a dagger-winner’s latest book and dissected it.  The clues are all so blindingly obvious when you get to the end.  My role as a detective is rubbish when it is my turn to lead the group in discussions. I suppose that’s why I have meandered along in the burglary and street-crime division, or subs-desk, at our nick for all these years.

At least Amy sat without her head buried over that computer and waited patiently.  Nice looking girl, sorry woman, which am I supposed to say? Probably neither.   Black hair in a bob with an orange slice across one side. Large black button earrings, two in each lobe and some sort of loop through her nostril.  A bit heavy on the white make-up for me though it sort of suits her tough attitude and leathery clothes.

“Yes, we have a copy”, Marie waved it over our heads and placed it on the table.  Pristine in its shiny library plastic cover. “We should have two but it’s the only one on the shelf.”

Amy stood up and leaned over to scoop up the book from the low tables we sat round.  I wish she hadn’t because she sat opposite me and I couldn’t help but watch the cleavage move closer and away and settle down under her low-necked t-shirt.

She lifted her eyes, met my gaze, “what number page?”  Raised the book to ruffle to the page after I said,  “Erm, seventy-six”.  A little smile and she fingered through to find the page.

Seeing the book in her hands reminded me of the book under Jim’s hand.  I had to wait until a doctor arrived to certify the death.  All I did was let the dog out of the living room where he had been whining and all he did was run to his bed under the kitchen table.   The on-call doc arrived and did the business.  Confirmed there would have to be an autopsy and inquest, that it looked like heart attack but would not assume.   I picked the book up and placed it on his bedside table.  I just saw the title and that it was a library copy by one of those plastic slips over the jacket and it looked new. You could tell it was new because the plastic was still unmarked.  Remembering this brought the image to the forefront.  Not only was the cover very clean but when I put the book, closed, on the table-top I had noticed that the line of the pages from cover to cover was unbroken, unblemished.

I stared intently at Amy.  She had found the page and was reading.  When she looked up I could see that light of excitement in her eyes as she stated “I bet it was murder.”

I kept my eyes on her.  She continued, keeping a finger on the page, almost on the exact line where Jim’s finger had pointed to the name in his book.

“There’s a name on this page.  Seventy-six.”  She lowered her head and I wished we were alone so I could stop her.  I knew she was about to read it out. Shout it out.  “He says here, ‘the police suspected who it was but could never prove it was murder. It remains unsolved.'”  She looked at me again, her white face glinting with excitement now.  I believed I could see the slow swing of the nose loop.  Everything seemed magnified to me at that moment.  That finger pressed on that line, she continued reading, I almost dared her not to:

“From here on I prove the guilt of Richard Hardy.”

I could feel sweat oozing down the sides of my temple as she said my name.  Heads turned and I felt their eyes weighing me.  I tried to remain impassive.  I did remain impassive except for that sweat.

Amy shut the book with a snap. “There,” she almost whispered. “We have a real murderer in our little circle, haven’t we, Richard?”  She raised her eyes as solemnly as a judge, appraising me.

There was no way out, I had to explain. These were my friends. We had explored a lot of plots together.  This one was just a bit colder.

“Yes, I am Richard Hardy, I admit it.   However, in my defence that book was first published thirty years ago and the murder was committed in 1904.  I am not a hundred and twenty years old or anywhere near it.  And I was never a butler.  As far as I know there never has been a butler in our family.”  It was always the butler!  I half snorted. “Anyway, the autopsy on Jim eventually confirmed a chest infection probably weakened him and that a heart attack killed him.”

You could feel the humour spread back into that large room. I had one more thing to say.

“Remember we meet at noon tomorrow for Jim’s funeral.  Until tomorrow.  End of meeting”

I didn’t regret lying about the butler.