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Monday 4th November 1985: 18.30 – 18.40
Ernie Bulstrode waited until the last of the strange assortment of bods had gone into the Foster bungalow, and the last scream had died away, then lifted his wrist and glared at his watch, daring it to jump back to 6.28 again. A minute went by, and he muttered, ‘That’s bloody better.’ This time, the minute had actually passed, and the watch read 6.31.
He stayed where he was. If anything else bloody weird was going to happen, he wanted to be where he could jump out on it and kick it in the bollocks before it realised he was around.
When, after a couple of minutes, nothing did, he emerged from the garden he’d been hiding in. On the pavement, he squared his shoulders. Right! Time to find out what the hell was going on!
He marched towards the Foster bungalow. On the road outside it, the Vauxhall was still in position. As he reached the car, he kicked one of its tyres. Even though it didn’t kick back, he decided to nick the car anyway; it was a bloody awful colour under the streetlights, so assault on the eyes if not the person would do as a charge.
‘Excuse me,’ a voice said from behind him.
He swung round. If this was that bloody no-body nobody-there again…
It wasn’t. It was some young bloke just stepping onto the pavement, his face wearing an expression that spoke of either extreme worry or raging constipation.
‘I don’t know if you can help…’ the young bloke began.
‘I don’t know if I can either, sir,’ Ernie snapped. ‘But the best advice I can offer is that you get the bloody hell lost before I nick you for obstructing a police officer in the course of his duty, or conspiracy to make the whole world turn bloody doolally, or – if this happens to be your car – for parking half an inch in the wrong place, or anything else I fancy once I’ve sorted out what the hell’s going on around here, I couldn’t give a stuff which!’
The man’s expression cleared, not the reaction the sergeant had expected. Maybe with Ernie’s revelation of his identity, his worry had lifted. Or maybe his constipation had; Ernie took a step backwards in case it was the latter.
‘Oh, you’re a police officer,’ the man said. He pointed at the bungalow. ‘I think something’s happened in there. I’ve just heard screaming.’
‘So have I, sir,’ Ernie said. He stared at the young bloke closely. ‘Can I take it you’ve got some connection with what’s going on here?’
‘Only in that I gave a lift to an – er. An – er -’ The man ground to a halt.
‘An er?’ Ernie said. ‘Is that some kind of animal?’
‘Oh.’ The man gave a shudder. ‘No, officer. It was – well – sort of an old woman.’
‘Sort of an old woman. What sort of sort of, sir?’
The man’s eyes closed and his face resumed its previous expression, as if he was remembering something he’d much rather not. ‘Not the sort I’d like to meet again,’ he muttered.
Ernie glanced round at the bungalow. ‘Look, sir, fascinated as I am with your life story, I need to go and find out what the hell’s going on. If you’d like to hang around here, I’ll…’
‘But she was in there,’ the man interrupted. ‘She was the one who did that to the door.’
‘What!’ Ernie whipped his head round again to survey the door’s wreckage.
‘Yes,’ the man insisted. ‘And then there were all sorts of other people went in as well.’
‘Yes, I know about them.’ Ernie glared at the bungalow, then round at the man again. ‘Right,’ he said. ‘You stay right where you are, and I’ll deal with you when I’ve sorted this out. You move – I’ve got your number plate, you’ll be under arrest before you can say “I’m entitled to a phone call”. Understand?’
‘Of course, officer.’
Ernie strode towards the garden gate. He hadn’t got the bloke’s number plate; but a slice of bluff in the right tone of voice had never failed him yet.
He didn’t get to open the gate. There was a hubbub from inside the bungalow, and people began spilling into the garden like Worthington E from a leaky beer pump.
He stopped dead and stared as they gawped at each other. Then they all began talking at once.
‘Oh my Lord, what on earth…?’
‘Bloimey O’roilly, what’s goin’ on?’
‘Dazza? You all right, son?’
‘Please help, something dreadful’s happened.’
‘Mrs Rawlings, what’s going on here?’
‘Oh – Miss Chowdhary.’
‘Dad! What’re you doin’ here?’
‘Please, please. Miss Foster’s been…’
‘Clarissa? Thank the Lord you’re safe.’
‘Mr Inspector, the lady in there is…’
‘Makumbo – you’re under arrest, you bastard.’
‘Why isn’t anybody listening? Miss Foster’s been…’
‘I said, you’re under arrest!’
The noise battered Ernie’s ears like a meeting of the local WI he’d once had the misfortune to give a talk to. Drawing as deep a breath as his lungs could manage to hold, he let it out with a roared, ‘Will you all shut up a minute and let me think!’
The hubbub ceased instantly. With one exception. ‘Makumbo, I said you’re under arrest, now stop hiding behind that woman’s tits and come here, you bastard!’
Ernie filled the ensuing faintly shocked silence with just the right amount of deference in his voice to hide the contempt that lay in thick globs behind it. ‘That request did include you, Inspector. And,’ he added, with slightly less deference, ‘that woman, by the way, is a vicar’s wife, so maybe a slight moderation of language would be appropriate, don’t you think?’
DI Hampshire glared at him, but at least he did shut up. ‘Right,’ Ernie said, ‘now I’ve got quiet, can somebody tell me what the blazes is going on here?’
End of Chapter 20
Monday 4th November 1985: 18.30 – 18.40
Lavinia Marple was in the middle of watching one of the new game shows being aired by ITV, Who Wants To Become Extremely Rich Without Doing Anything For It Except Answering A Few Questions?.
A nice blond young man was in the hot seat, as they called it on the programme, trying to win a holiday on the moon. She gathered that such trips weren’t actually available at present, but the host assured the young man he’d be able to take his holiday when they did become so, which would be in around forty years, give or take a decade.
She didn’t understand anyone wanting to go that far. What was wrong with Bognor Regis, she wondered?
The phone rang. She tutted, and tried to ignore it.
It carried on ringing. She carried on ignoring it until her tinnitus tuned into the precise pitch of its shrill warbling, which she knew from experience meant that the person on the other end wouldn’t be hanging up any time soon.
Turning the volume down on the television set (the young man’s selection of multiple-choice answers, and the real answer, would be shown at the bottom of the screen, so she wouldn’t miss anything), she shuffled to the phone.
There was a burst of loud crackle, and she jerked the instrument away from her ear with a wince of pain. Really, she must complain to that nice Mr Buzby about the dreadful reception in her bungalow – not to mention those dreadful adverts he was involved in.
The crackle subsided, and she heard a moan. She put the receiver back to her ear. ‘Hello?’
Whoever was at the other end moaned again. She drew her breath in with a gasp. Was this one of those dirty phone calls? She’d never had one before, even during the war when the Americans were over. (Although she’d been promised in 1943 by a muscular GI named Hank that one day, when least expected, he would definitely put in a call to the War Office and breathe heavily over the line at her, which he never did.)
The moaning cut off abruptly, and a sharp voice said, ‘Lavinia? Lavinia Marple?’
She recognised the voice instantly, having been at the cutting end of it more times than she cared to remember, and said, ‘Oh, Hettie, it’s you. I thought for one dreadful moment…’
‘Will you shut up and listen,’ Hettie Foster cut across her. ‘Lavinia – I’ve been – I’ve just been -’
She waited. It never did to interrupt Hettie at the best of times; and as soon as her – well, friend, for want of a better word – had started to speak, indignation had begun washing down the phone like a river at her.
Nothing else came except, ironically, heavy breathing. Perhaps the line had been crossed with another, and Hank had finally managed to get his call through, albeit several years too late?
On the television, the blond young man had made his choice of answer, and she shook her head at him. An aubergine was definitely not a prehistoric lizard with the head of a seagull and the body of a pickled onion.
‘I’ve just been killed!’ Hettie snapped.
There was a silence, which Lavinia tried to fill, and totally failed to.
‘Well?’ Hettie snapped again.
Lavinia stared down the phone, then put it back to her ear. ‘I’m sorry, Hettie?’ she said. ‘Can you say that again? I think there must have been somebody else on the line.’
‘Oh fiddle!’ Hettie snapped again. It struck Lavinia that Hettie was snapping so much in this conversation she was in danger of biting her own mouth off. ‘I said I’ve been killed, you silly besom! Done away with! Murdered!’
‘Erm…’ Lavinia was, as on so many occasions when being spoken to by Hettie Foster, lost for words; though this was usually more because she could never manage to fit in any between the ones coming at her.
‘Are you sure, dear?’ she finally managed to continue.
There was a loud snort from the other end of the phone. ‘Of course I’m sure, woman! I was there, so I’m bound to know, aren’t I? Someone’s just stabbed me through the eye; three times, if I’m not mistaken! Pierced right through to the brain, just like Sisera. Bloody painful too, I’ll have you know!’
That did it. Hettie Foster had never used a word like ‘bloody’ in all the years Lavinia had known her. If she wasn’t telling the truth, she’d suddenly gone so ga-ga the only recourse was to ring the funny farm.
‘Oh dear,’ Lavinia whispered. It was the only thing, albeit a rather inadequate one, she could think of saying.
‘Anyway,’ Hettie continued, ‘I haven’t got time to waste. Got to go floating off to my deserved reward in Paradise; so I want you to take down some instructions for the others. Got a pen?’
‘Oh. Erm – yes, Hettie.’ Lavinia reached for the notepad she always kept beside the phone. ‘Erm – go ahead, dear.’
The instructions were brief, but precise. Find my bloody killer (again that word!) and bring him, her or it to justice. Lavinia was particularly struck by the ‘or it’. ‘It’ encompassed so many forms of life. Did Hettie think she’d been murdered by an animal, or an item of furniture, or something?
At the end of the instructions the line went dead; not so much as a ‘goodbye’. Lavinia stared at the receiver again, then replaced it on its cradle.
She wandered back over to her television and turned the sound up. The host of Who Wants To Become Extremely Rich Without Doing Anything For It Except Answering A Few Questions? was explaining to the audience that, what with the unwieldy title and improbable prizes, he’d just received word through his earpiece that the show had been axed by its production company. With luck, though, he was told, it would return in fourteen or so years with a far better format, and called something much more sensible.
Lavinia turned off the set and went back to her telephone. When her call was answered, she said, ‘Lily? Listen, dear – something most peculiar has happened…’