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Tuesday 12th November 1985: 12.30 – 13.45
‘Okay,’ Meredith said when they arrived back in CID. ‘Action plan. First — scene of crime report. Has it come in yet?’
Ernie was lowering himself gingerly into the chair behind what was usually Amita Chowdhary’s desk, looking for all the world as though he’d rather be anywhere else at the moment. The DCI couldn’t resist a grin. ‘No curry germs or anything there, if that’s what you’re concerned about, Ernie.’
The look the sergeant gave him back might well have had any other police officer hurled out of the station via the nearest exit; that being the window on the other side of the room. ‘That’s not something that worries me at all, as you bloody-well know, sir!’
Okay, Meredith conceded, that was a bit of a dumb remark. He’d only ever noticed three things in life Ernie took so seriously as to almost never joke about them: the advancement of his juniors as quickly as possible by the School of Hard Knocks route; the hunt (so far unfinished) for the elixir of life — to whit, the perfect mug of tea; and the smashing — literally, in some cases, for which the sergeant had a few times come within a gnat’s breath of losing his livelihood — of other people’s prejudices. He supposed he deserved that rebuke. However — he was still the senior officer here. ‘All right, sergeant, sarcasm ill becomes you. Anyway — scene of crime. Do we have it?’
Ernie began to root around a pile of papers that had mysteriously erupted onto the desk in the time they’d been out. ‘Oh, yeah. Here.’ He handed over a poly-folder, and Meredith began to scan the sheets it contained.
‘I wish I knew what it was that was bugging me,’ he muttered as various technical terms passed in front of his eyes.
‘Can’t help you there, Charlie,’ Ernie said. ‘What I couldn’t understand is why there were two lots of splatter in Foster’s front room.’
‘What?’ Meredith lifted his gaze from the paper to fix it on the sergeant.
‘Mm. There was blood where Foster’s body had been, right enough — you’d expect that. But there was some other goo nearer the door; as though somebody’d been dripping all over the place. Didn’t look like blood. In fact —’ Ernie’s face creased into a deep frown ‘— if I was a regular watcher of horror films, like the three that were on Channel 4 last night, I’d seriously be wondering if it was the stuff zombies are always shown havin’ leak out of ’em. Though not watching that sort of crap, I wouldn’t think that was likely, of course.’
‘That was it!’ Meredith snapped. He frowned back at the sergeant. ‘Why the hell didn’t you mention it at the time?’
Ernie shrugged. ‘Well — for one thing you were all keen on getting me knockin’ on doors from one side of town to the other. And for another, I assumed you’d notice. You being a superior officer and therefore a much bigger intellect, and all that.’
‘Oh, for Christ’s sake, Ernie!’ Meredith slung the folder onto the desk.
‘Look — if you’re to be an effective member of CID, even on a temporary basis —’
‘An effective detective, you mean?’
‘This is no joking matter!’
The sergeant’s eyebrows shot so high so quickly, they almost carried on going past his hairline to splatter against the ceiling. Meredith counted to a very drawn-out ten; then, when he was sure he could speak without shouting again, continued, ‘You’re not behind the counter bullying young Dawson now, Ernie. We work as a team in CID. You discover anything nobody else knows, you throw it into the mix, so we can all work on it. That was young Chowdhary’s mistake last week. And Hampshire’s, for that matter, though I admit I expect it from him. There’s no place for smart-arses. Understood?’
There was a very slight pause, then Ernie’s eyebrows left their lofty heights and his face relaxed into its usual state of equanimity; which was, if anything, Meredith reflected, the most annoying bloody thing about the desk sergeant — nothing fazed him for more than about three seconds. And that, he added, would be the top of a very, very long list of annoying things.
‘All right, chief inspector sir, message received and understood. Now — anything on this wodge of paper that isn’t comprised of gobbledygook and will actually tell us something we need to know?’
Meredith shook his head, sighing. One day, Ernie Bulstrode, he thought, you won’t be the only policeman in this station I know I can rely on not to bollocks things up ninety percent of the time.
Then he sighed once more. The chances of that happening were one in ten to the power of such a huge number it hurt his brain to think about it. And that was the second item in the very, very long list. He re-took the folder up and skipped past the technical terms.
Then he uttered an extremely rude word and dropped the folder again.
Ernie was staring at him with only slightly less surprise than when he’d been shouted at.
‘Read that, Ernie,’ Meredith said. He kept his voice on an even keel, but only just.
Ernie picked up the folder and read. Then he said an even ruder word, one he could only have learnt from the magazines he read. ‘Is this reliable?’ he asked.
Meredith scratched his head. If his wife had been there, she would have warned him about getting splinters in his fingers, but fortunately the sergeant didn’t seem to have read that joke in those magazines. ‘Apparently, it’s the new thing,’ he replied, shaking his head again in puzzlement. ‘The boffins reckon it’ll be the most effective way to catch criminals from now on. I went to a lecture on it a couple of months ago. Sounded pretty convincing to me.’
‘But — DNA? What kind of bloody name is that?’
‘Stands for something very long and very Latin, Ernie. But they insist it’s a hundred-percent reliable.’
‘Well, it can’t be in this bloody case, can it?’
Meredith sighed for a third time. ‘It seems not.’
He lifted the report from the desk and re-turned its pages to see if by any chance there was a note saying ‘This is an early April Fool’s joke’ in it. When it became evident that no such note existed, he asked, ‘Who was the first person at the scene again?’
‘The Proctor bloke. Dropped off the odd old lady. The odd old lady who he reckoned kicked the door down. The odd old lady who, if this is to be believed…’
‘Yes, well, never mind that for a minute. You got a description of the “odd old lady” from him?’
‘Yeah.’ Ernie told him the description that Kevin Proctor had given. Warts and eyes and smell and all.
‘And the worrying thing,’ he added, ‘is that it does sound very like the Cartwright woman I saw on the St Marmalade’s floor.’
‘Right,’ Meredith said. I’m going to ignore that last remark, he told himself. Because if I don’t, then I’ll be as fit for the funny farm as everybody else involved in this case. ‘And if we include only those who aren’t off their chump?’ he added, to make it quite, quite clear that he was in no way, shape or form said fit for said farm.
‘Ah.’ Ernie’s face took on the kind of look that Meredith had only ever seen on it when the latest edition of Busty had hit the newsstands.
‘Yes, ah. That’d be the vicar’s wife woman. You haven’t had the pleasure yet, have you?’
‘I take it from your expression that “pleasure” is the appropriate word?’
‘Oh, yes. Very much so.’ Ernie gave an amused-sounding throat clearance. ‘Especially on a cold day.’
Meredith forbore to throat-clear back at him. ‘Hmm. Well — I think we’d best have a word. We’ll drop by the vicarage; unannounced, I think. Take her by surprise.
‘Though,’ he added, ‘by the way you’re drooling, I’m not sure you should be coming with me.’
Ernie’s eyebrows rose again, though not so far and so fast this time. ‘I’m not droolin’, Charlie — just anticipating a pleasant business trip. And, by the way, I’m not sure if you realise the filthy pun you’ve just cracked, but if you were anybody other than you, I’d bet my pension on it being deliberate.’
Puzzled, Meredith replayed what he’d just said. ‘You’re a bastard, Ernie,’ he muttered as soon as he’d fallen in.
‘Present and correct, sir.’ The sergeant stood. ‘We off then?’
‘In a bit.’ Meredith stretched. ‘I feel the need for a pick-me-up first. Go get me a coffee, will you?’
The sergeant stared at him again. ‘You what? Aren’t there constables around here for that sort of thing?’
This time, Meredith did give a chuckle. ‘I can always demote you, Ernie. That way it might not be below your pay grade.
‘What was that comment?’ he added, as Ernie began to stalk away — presumably to his kitchenette and the beloved kettle it contained.
‘I said, sir, you’ll have to put up with tea, I don’t drink that muck you call a pick-me-up,’ the sergeant growled.
‘And I added,’ he added, ‘do you want one lump of arsenic or two?’