As ever, click here to read the previous chapters.
Tuesday 5th November 1985: 08.00 – 08.45
‘What the hell were you thinking!’
DCI Meredith glared at the four officers standing in front of him, all of whom displayed various levels of sheepishness on their faces. In Chowdhary and Dawson’s cases, the sheep in question had wandered onto the M1 and were now encountering rush-hour traffic hurtling towards them at twice the speed limit; and Inspector Hampshire’s sheep appeared to have found a distillery growing in the middle of its field, which it had been imbibing from all night. Only Ernie Bulstrode, as was usual with him, had the serene expression of a sheep that had total control of the situation it found itself in, and was ready to explain all to the shepherd given the first opportunity.
‘Sir…’ Even Hampshire’s voice sounded like it had the daddy of a hangover. Meredith was almost impressed with the way the inspector was managing to stay on his feet while his body was so slumped over that anyone else would surely have toppled forward onto his nose by now.
He wasn’t, however, going to let the jackass (to mix his animal metaphors) nurse his headache quietly. ‘You! You’re the bloody worst of the lot! In your position, I’d expect a damn sight more common sense than you displayed last evening! What the hell you were doing there, God only knows!’
‘That’s what I was trying to tell you, sir.’ Hampshire’s voice changed from a mumbled slur to the whine of a teenage boy who’d been told that no, he wasn’t allowed to spend time alone in his bedroom with his favourite Kim Basinger poster. ‘They kidnapped me.’
Meredith stared at him. ‘What are you on about?’
‘The vicar. Rawlings. And that Makumbo bloke. They overpowered me. Trussed me up like a kipper and shoved me in the back of the car.’
Meredith’s stare widened to the point where he felt his eyeballs might pop out. ‘Are you telling me that a vicar – a vicar, for God’s sake – and a twenty-year-old boy overpowered you, tied you up, then drove you to a scene where a bloody murder was taking place?’
Hampshire’s face went scarlet, matching the parts of his eyes that weren’t currently dirty yellow. ‘Yeah,’ he switched back to a mumble. ‘They took me by surprise.’
Meredith snorted, and turned to the other three. ‘And what about you lot, then? What are your stories? Snatched by aliens and flown off to the scene in a bloody flying saucer?’
DC Chowdhary opened her mouth as if to begin explaining, but to Meredith’s complete lack of surprise Ernie Bulstrode got in first. ‘Just following routine enquiries, sir,’ he said with all the smoothness of the proverbial baby’s backside. ‘The old lady was a material witness to the events in the Cartwright murder. Between us, Constable Dawson, DC Chowdhary and I -’ Meredith noted a look of astonishment come over the young woman’s features, as if she couldn’t believe anybody would stand up for her rather than leave her to swim in the mire alone ‘- decided it would be neglectful not to find out what she might know. Seemed sensible at the time, sir.’
Meredith gave the desk sergeant the special glare he reserved especially for clever bastards. ‘Well, I’ll leave for now the fact that CID had taken over the case so it wasn’t your business to enquire about anything to do with it. And you, DC Chowdhary -’
The young detective started, and her face assumed the expression of a puppy used to being, and fully expecting to be, kicked for pooing on the carpet.
Meredith softened his voice. The poor kid had a tough enough time as it was. ‘Well, I’ll believe you acted within the best interests of the case. Though next time, for God’s sake get your superior officer’s say-so. Don’t just go renegade and follow your own line of enquiry; and don’t consult with non-CID colleagues, especially these two!’
Chowdhary’s eyes lowered. ‘Yes, sir.’
Meredith drew a deep breath. ‘Now get lost, the bloody lot of you. Except you, Bulstrode,’ he added, as the DC and the constable smartly about-turned as if to escape as quickly as possible, and DI Hampshire shuffled round with a barely suppressed groan. ‘I want to see you on another matter.’
‘Sir,’ Ernie said. Constable Dawson’s head whipped round and he shot the sergeant a nervous glance, as if suspecting the other matter might be him.
Meredith waited until the other three had gone, then flopped into his chair and waved Ernie into the visitor’s one.
‘Well handled, Charlie,’ the sergeant said. ‘Glad you weren’t hard on Chowdhary. The lass gets enough shit from that arsehole Hampshire as it is.’
Meredith fixed him with what for anyone else would be a quake-inducing glower. It had as much effect on Ernie Bulstrode as if delivered by a fluffy rabbit.
He tried to back the stare up with a snarl. ‘By rights, sergeant, I should be ripping all your heads off and pissing down your neck-holes. Especially you!’
The sergeant’s cheerful expression didn’t alter in the slightest. Meredith sighed, and dropped the angry stance as hopeless. ‘I thought you had more sense than to go anywhere near proper police work, Ernie. Care to explain what you were doing in the middle of all this?’
The sergeant grinned what Meredith knew to be his most annoying grin, obviously knowing he’d won this battle. ‘I was just following Dawson, keeping an eye on him. Knew the lad was up to something when he left. Wasn’t at all surprised when we ended up in Diamond Crescent.’
‘Why didn’t you try to stop him, then?’
The sergeant’s eyebrows shot into his hairline. ‘Why would I do that?’
‘Because,’ Meredith said with studied patience, ‘to repeat what I said just now, as you obviously weren’t listening, it’s CID’s case and nothing to do with Dawson – or you.’
‘Oh, that.’ Ernie gave a chuckle. ‘Well, I figured you might want somebody to do something about learning the truth. Rather than just trying to find the quickest way to bang the Makumbo lad up for life. Of course, I didn’t know Chowdhary was going to be there; smart lass, that, about due for a promotion, I reckon.’
‘Thank you for that advice, sergeant,’ Meredith said. ‘And now, if you’ve quite finished sorting out my junior officers’ prospects, would you like to help me make some sense of what the hell happened last night? What’s all this about the world and his wife turning up at the Foster woman’s place?’
‘Just that.’ Ernie leaned forward in his chair, rested an elbow on Meredith’s desk, and began to count off on his fingers. ‘That vicar’s wife was first, Dawson was following her down the road. Then the Makumbo lad and the vicar drove up, with Clouseau in the back; he wasn’t trussed up, by the way.’
‘I didn’t think he was.’
‘Then young Chowdhary arrived, followed by the Chaffords, father and son. I got the impression the son was stalking Chowdhary, by the way. Might have to keep an eye on that.’
‘And one by one,’ Ernie continued, ‘the whole lot disappeared into the Foster woman’s place.’
‘Then there was a scream?’
A strange expression came over Ernie’s face. Meredith stared at him closely. It almost looked as though the sergeant was in a state of confusion, something the DCI had never seen before in all the years they’d known each other.
‘Well – probably,’ Ernie said.
Meredith frowned. ‘What do you mean – probably?’
‘Well -’ Ernie hesitated, then continued, rather reluctantly, Meredith thought, ‘There’s a bloody odd story behind that…’
The DCI listened in growing astonishment of his own as Ernie related the bizarre happenings of the previous evening. At the end of the story, he stayed silent for a long moment, digesting it all. Then he said, ‘Are you sure you wouldn’t like a period’s sick leave, sergeant? Like the rest of your life?’
Ernie’s face registered a grimace. ‘And spend twenty-four/seven in Mrs Bulstrode’s company? I’d rather join the traffic goons and issue parking tickets for the next twenty years, thanks very much.’
‘Hmph. It can be arranged.’
‘It wasn’t a request.’
‘All right, Ernie. Where else would I find another lazy sod to drink up the station’s tea ration on his own? So, back to last night; notwithstanding all these screams you heard while your watch was playing up, according to this bloke – Proctor, was it? – everybody at the scene was inside the bungalow when Foster was being killed?’
‘Well -’ Meredith leaned back in his chair. ‘That does at least mean one of them should have seen who killed the old lady. Maybe one of our lot. I take it you questioned them all?’
‘Of course. Even Clouseau. He didn’t like it, of course, but I made sure the bugger knew he’d get what for from you if he didn’t co-operate.’
‘Quite right. And?’
‘And, Charlie, here’s where it gets even bloody weirder.’
Meredith raised his eyebrows. ‘Is that possible?’
Ernie gave a wry smile. ‘Well – they all reckon that when they got inside, nobody else was there at all. In every case, they were in the hallway alone, then every one of ’em heard the scream soon after. They each tried the door to the living room, and it was stuck for a good minute or so. Then, lo and behold, it suddenly unstuck itself; all except in Dawson’s case, he reckons he kicked the crap out of it to get it open. And the only person in the living room was the Foster woman, already dead.’
‘See what I mean about weirder? Every one of ’em claims to have discovered the body, and every one of ’em reckons they were on their own when they did so.’
The sergeant leaned back in his chair. ‘Still think I’m the one needs sick leave?’
Meredith closed his eyes, and wished to God he was still drinking; at least with a bottle inside him some of this might make sense. ‘So nobody has the first idea who did it. Or even what planet they’re on, by the sound of it.’
‘But if you notice, it does tie in with me hearing loads of screams rather than the one that Proctor heard.’
Meredith felt his brain beginning to give the conversation up as a bad job. ‘Look, Ernie, do we have any clues at all what the hell happened?’
Ernie laughed, and Meredith had the uncomfortable feeling it was at his own discomposure. ‘The only one making any kind of sense – and it is only a kind of sense – is this Proctor bloke. He reckons he gave a lift to an old lady – a particularly odd old lady, just to keep up the weird side of things – who, he says, kicked the front door down and stormed inside just before the other lot turned up.’
‘I’m sorry? An old lady kicked the door down?’
‘That’s what he says. And believe me, the door looked like a bunch of stormtroopers had had a right old go at it, so he’s another one with his head up his backside, I reckon. Anyway, he says the others trooped in after her, and then he heard the scream.’
‘God, what a bloody mess. So to sum up, leaving out the supernatural-sounding bollocks, Foster probably wasn’t killed until everybody was inside, nobody knows who did it, and nobody can prove it wasn’t them.’
‘That’s it in a nutshell, Charlie.’
The sergeant got to his feet. ‘If that’s all?’
Meredith waved a hand in dismissal. ‘Okay, Ernie, get back to your permanent tea-break. Thanks for the info; though God knows what I’m going to do with it now you’ve given it. I’ll get Hampshire to reinterview everybody and see what he can make of it.’
The sergeant didn’t move. ‘You haven’t thought this through, have you, Charlie?’ he said.
‘Well. Hampshire was there, wasn’t he? And Chowdhary, and Dawson. And they don’t have alibis, same as the rest of them.’
‘Oh, bloody hell, no!’
‘That’s right,’ the sergeant confirmed. ‘We have to treat them as suspects as well. Not one of ’em can be let off the hook until you can prove it wasn’t him or her killed the Foster woman.’