The Bones in the Attic (Charlie Peace Series #7)by Robert Barnard
But as Matt and his decorator
Matt Harper, a television and radio personality and a former professional soccer player, has just bought Elderholm, an old stone house in Leeds in the north of England. It's ideal for him, his partner Aileen, and her three children. Even the attic space seems just right -- the perfect place for a game room or a children's retreat.
But as Matt and his decorator tour the property, they find something that will put the attic off-limits for a long time to come: a tiny child's skeleton that has clearly been there for years. What happened to the child, and how did its skeleton get into the attic?
Detective Sergeant Charlie Peace and his forensic team think the child's remains have been in the attic for thirty years. Thirty years? Matt remembers that time. It was 1969 and he was seven years old. He was in the neighborhood, spending the summer with an aunt. That was the summer that Elderholm's owner left her house empty when she went to visit a daughter in Australia.
What happened that summer? What memories lie deep in Matt's consciousness? Where are the other children from that summer who now, of course, are adults? Who killed the little child and why was he or she never reported missing? And who has now written to Matt, assuring him that he had no part in what occurred, that he had gone home to London before it happened?
As Matt struggles to recover his memory of that strange summer, both he and Charlie Peace ponder what it means to love and lose a child and how one thoughtless decision can change a life forever.
Richly evocative and deeply poignant, The Bones in the Attic is crime writing at its best from one of the great contemporary masters of mystery.
"Once in a while you come across a perfect whodunit--and it's often the work of Robert Barnard...with the perfect pitch, exquisite pacing, and meticulous plotting of a genuine master at this game." --Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times
"As always, Barnard is absolutely compelling." --Booklist
Barnard quickly pulls his readers into the plot and holds them there right through the final pages, leaving them, along with his hero, pondering further possibilities. --Publisher's Weekly
Read an Excerpt
Chapter One: Remember You Must Die
"It's a good size for a dining room," said the builder and decorator, who had said to call him Tony. "But then, I don't suppose you have family meals anymore. No one does."
"Sunday," said Matt. "And anytime there's something on offer the children particularly like."
"How many you got?"
"Three. They're my partner's."
The man nodded. He was used to all kinds of permutations and variations. In fact, he often reckoned the decline of the stable family had been wonderful for his business.
Matt stood in the center of the big room, unconscious for the moment of Tony, or of anything else except the house. It struck him that he and the house were at a crucial moment in their existence: the house had nothing of him, or of Aileen, but it did have him there, considering, determining its future. And his own.
He loved it. Standing outside in the lane waiting for Tony he had felt his heart contract at the mere sight of the stone. Stone. Solid, thick, permanent stone. Outside he had heard a radio, loud, from next door through an open window. Inside he heard nothing. And here it was, waiting, with its wood-burning fireplace, its bell push to summon the long-gone servant, its tentative moves in the direction of Art Deco. Eighty years old or more. Waiting for what he, Aileen, and the children were going to make of it. A strange thought struck him. He wondered if a stone house like this might have kept his marriage together.
Thank God it hadn't.
"What color were you thinking of?" Tony asked.
"I thought blue -- not too strong. The windows aren't that large, and it's a long room, so we need something pleasant and airy."
"Blue. You're thinking of paint, then?"
"I'll have wallpaper if I find something that I know is right -- something that grabs me round the throat. Otherwise I'll have paint till I find something. Anyway, I like paint: clean colors and clean surfaces."
Tony nodded, and as they went into the hallway he said, "I wish I could say I'd seen you play."
"Why would you? You'd be a Leeds United man. There was no great reason seven or eight years ago to make the effort to see Bradford City play."
"Seven or eight years ago there was no great reason to go and see Leeds United play. Dullest football in the north was what they served up then." He thought, and then added, "Mind you, the new manager's making a world of difference."
"He's good with the media too," agreed Matt. "Does one of the best interviews of anyone in the Premier League."
Tony shot him a quick look, then slapped his thigh.
"Got you! You're on Radio Leeds. Matthew Harper. I was thrown by the 'Matt.'"
Matt smiled and nodded, used to the delayed reaction.
"That's right. I thought I'd take my full name, especially once they started using me for ordinary news-reading and chat shows."
"I don't hear it that often, I must admit. I go more for music, me. And I never connected the name with the footballer. But I have seen you now and then on 'Look North.'"
Matt noted that the man, who had shown since he had arrived the sort of casual deference usual to a customer, was now positively respectful. Matt knew from experience that anyone involved with the media, on however low a level, received the degree of deference formerly given to members of the professions. He had got beyond the phase of feeling flattered by unearned respect, so he said briskly, "Let's go upstairs, shall we?...I won't be getting the bedrooms done till we're well settled in. I may even try to do some of it myself, maybe get the children to help." They had gone round the bend in the staircase and were standing on the landing. Tony poked his head into the bedrooms, bathroom, and lavatory.
"Best leave the bathroom to professionals," he said. "Too fiddly by half. The bedrooms won't present too many problems. Stick to paint there, if you want my advice: then if the children keep wanting theirs changed it won't come too expensive."
"Yes, I'd already thought of that. Knowing my lot and their clothes and toys and reading matter and habits, they'll want them changed at least once a year."
"By 'eck, they have it made, the young 'uns these days," said Tony with feeling.
"Yes, I'd love to know who starts each new vogue. What infant genius suddenly decrees it's yellow this year, and Aussie soaps are out, and shoe soles are three inches high, and the whole childish world bows agreement and starts pestering parents."
"Probably some future Richard Branson," agreed Tony. "Anyway, you've got four very nice-sized rooms here. That's the advantage of these older houses: you're not squashed in like sardines. When was it built, did you say?"
"About 1920, the estate agent said, or maybe a bit earlier. Did you see the bells downstairs to summon the servants? I suppose the First World War or its aftermath did away with all that."
"Happen. Anyway, the kids who go into these new estates won't get bedrooms like these -- cubbyholes more like. And certainly not one each."
"Hmm. I was hoping to keep one of the bedrooms for my study. You might not think it to listen to, but a lot of the things I do on Radio Leeds need preparation. It would be good to have somewhere I can shut myself away in."
"So, two of the kids sharing a bedroom, and one having a bedroom to him- or herself. Sounds like a recipe for nonstop guerrilla warfare to me. And I speak from experience."
"I was hoping to bribe them by promising them the attic as a games room."
Tony still looked skeptical.
"Have you looked at it?"
"Just poked my head through the trapdoor."
"Attics are fine for games rooms if you are thinking of things like Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit -- things you can play on the floor. They're pretty useless for snooker tables, or anything you have to stand up for, even supposing you could get a table up there. Want me to have a look?"
"Would you?" Matt took the pole with the hook on the end, clicked open the trapdoor, then pulled down the metal stairs and tugged at the light cord. He led the way up.
"There's proper flooring down, but it's pretty old, and I don't know that I'd trust it."
He stood at the edge of the trapdoor, but Tony, coming up behind him, strode out onto the floor.
"Sound as a bell. They used good materials in them days. Hasn't been used much, by the look of it. You can see the problem with a games room, can't you? Put a snooker table in the middle and the kid might be all right potting the balls, but he'd hardly be able to straighten up."
Matt saw his point.
"It was just an idea. I've never heard our lot express a wish for a snooker table. I might be able to persuade one of them it would be exciting to have one of the bedrooms up here."
"You might. How old's the eldest?"
"You might have more luck with a boy. Still, teenagers like to get away from the others. The young ones may think it would be exciting, but when it comes to it, they get nervous. You might be able to block a small part of this attic off. In fact, it's practically been done for you."
Tony pointed back toward the trapdoor. Just beyond it was a low piece of brick walling, and when Matt's eyes penetrated the gloom, he could see another one beyond it. He hadn't noticed that section when he'd made a quick exploratory visit before.
"Roof supports," explained the builder, putting his hand on the rough piece of brick walling. "They've just continued up with the walls from either side of the landing below." He looked down across the roughly constructed brick wall and toward the far wall. "Hmm. They haven't bothered with flooring here. Plenty enough space in this half, I suppose." He climbed carefully over, and walked along one of the beams, Matthew following behind him. "You could make a real cozy little bedroom in this far bit, if you put a window in the roof." He and Matt came to a rest by the second brick wall. Matt looked to either side, where the wall was supporting the base of the roof. It and the other one they'd climbed over rose about eighteen inches for the whole breadth of the house.
"You could pull a few bricks out to make a door," said Tony. "Wouldn't affect it as a roof support, or cause any other structural problems...Hello! What's that?"
There was something against the far side of the wall, on the rough and dusty felting that had been laid over the ceiling below. It was dusty too, but a lighter color gleamed through, and as their eyes became accustomed to the gloom they thought that whatever it was, was assuming a definite shape -- a shape they were reluctant to acknowledge.
"It looks like...like a skeleton...a little skeleton," said Matt at last. "It can't be."
"Got a torch?"
"Sure. Downstairs. The electricity wasn't turned on until yesterday."
He made his way back along the beams, down the metal ladder, then fetched his powerful torch from the kitchen. By the time he got back to the attic he thought he had got his ideas in order.
"You know, it's got to be some kind of animal," he said. "Maybe a squirrel -- got in here and couldn't get out."
He turned the torch on the little pile.
"Big squirrel," said Tony disbelievingly. "The bones look human to me. Could be a child, quite a young one. But too large for any animal I could imagine finding its own way in here."
His matter-of-fact tone brought it home to Matt. He gripped one of the beams in the ceiling, and turned away from the sight. The pathos of the little tableau had seized his mind. A dead child, brought up here and laid out where no one would find it. Or worse...But here his mind refused to contemplate the more horrible possibility. He walked away, back to the floored area, back to the safety of proper lighting.
"You're right," he said to Tony, who had followed him. "It looks like a human skeleton. Playing football you get to know about the human body. So much of you gets bruised or broken that you spend half your time under the doc or the physio, looking at X rays of one part or other of yourself. It looks like a little body, laid out there and left."
"Not newly born, though," said Tony. "Not a secret, unwanted baby."
"No, not a baby."
"What are you going to do?"
Matthew thought. He came up against all sorts of odd eventualities vicariously, through reading the news and interviewing people for Radio Leeds.
"Doesn't seem to me I have any choice," he said. "If those are human bones the police have to be informed."
"Use my mobile if you like."
Matt took it, but then on impulse turned and climbed back down again and then down the stairs to the kitchen. He wanted to put as much space as possible between himself and that horrible memento mori in the darkness above. He dialed 999.
"Hello. I think I need the Leeds police...Well, I suppose I want to report a suspicious death."
Twenty minutes later Matt was standing at his back gate, indulging in a rare cigarette. Tony had gone off, saying the police could get in touch with him if that was necessary, and there wasn't much point in going further with the redecoration plans until the police had given the go-ahead. He talked as if he found skeletons in empty houses every other week.
Matt looked at the house, at Elderholm. He had loved these houses as soon as he saw them, and had begun to feel he belonged there even before he moved in. Now he just had to hope this was not going to cause a revulsion. His eyes traveled around his new home. There were two stone terraces in Houghton Avenue, four houses each -- solid, roomy houses, sitting square on earth and telling the world they were built to last, as a house should be. He had not met any of the neighbors yet, but he felt that he -- that they, he and Aileen and the children -- would fit in. Surely the houses weren't going to disappoint him? A figure loomed, standing back from the window, upstairs in the house next door. He was being watched.
On cue something was provided to make watching worthwhile. A police car nosed its way round the lane leading from Houghton Avenue, and on a sign from him drove forward and drew up beside him. A tall black man got out and extended his hand.
"I'm Detective Sergeant Peace."
"The footballer. I thought it might be you when they gave me the details. I've heard you often on Radio Leeds. It's nice to hear about things going on locally that aren't criminal. And is this the house where you made the discovery?"
"That's right. You'd better come in."
They went through the kitchen into the hall. Charlie looked around him appreciatively.
"Nice and spacious, even if it does need a lot doing to it. You've got children?"
"Not of my own. My partner's. Maybe we'll have another. I love children. That's why -- "
Sergeant Peace cut in.
"Yes. It must have been distressing. My wife's just had our first. But let's not jump the gun, shall we? Lead the way."
Matt started upstairs again, then up the retractable staircase to the attic. Advising care, he led the way across the beams, and then took up the torch he had left on the low brick wall. The two men, standing together, looked down at the collection of bones, somehow forlorn in the beam of light. Sergeant Peace suddenly turned away.
"Ugh. Brings it home to you. So you think it's a child, do you?"
"It's all I can think it could be."
"I'm pretty sure you're right. When you've got a baby to look after, you often think how fragile it is, how defenseless, but this..."
"Looks as if it's been here a long time," said Matt, eyeing the layers of encrusted dust.
"Yes. But that may be deceptive." Sergeant Peace paused, thinking. "I tell you, I'm used to bodies, but this is way outside my experience. We're going to have to wait for a full forensics report and not jump to any conclusions...I feel like getting out of here, don't you?"
When they were down again in the large old kitchen, complete with Aga stove and a greasy area on the wall behind the hot plates, Sergeant Peace got on to headquarters, reported the finding of what was apparently a child's skeleton, apparently a long-dead one, and requested a forensics team. When he had told them as much as he knew, he said he'd wait for backup and signed off. Then he turned back to Matt.
"Now, Mr. Harper -- "
"Matt. I'm Charlie. And we're both from London, I can hear, though we've both covered it up."
"I'm Brixton. Come up when you signed for Bradford, did you?"
"No. We moved to Colchester when I was a boy. But I've never wanted to go back."
"Me neither, though I'm not sure why. I thought London was the bee's knees when I was living there. Sheer ignorance, I suppose. Now, are you the owner of this house?"
"That's right. As of last Friday."
"Who was the seller?"
"Man called Carl Farson. Son of the actual owner, Cuthbert Farson, who's a man of nearly ninety."
"So the son's got power of attorney, has he?"
"Any idea how long the father lived here, if he did?"
"No idea, but he did live here. I met the son briefly at the estate agents'. He's a man of around sixty himself, and he said he didn't grow up in the house, though he visited his dad here often."
"I see. Who were the estate agents handling the sale?"
"Sewell and Greeley, in Pudsey."
"Right. So you were just looking around, were you?"
"Yes, with a decorator, name of Tony Tyler. We were planning what needed doing, and wondering whether the attic could be used as a bedroom or a games room. I'm beginning to think we'd better put any plans like that on hold for a bit."
"Yes. The kids are bound to find out."
"And children have very long memories," said Matthew thoughtfully. "About some things, anyway."
"They do. Looked to me, at a glance, as if the attic hadn't been much used."
"That was our impression. Maybe one end, near the trapdoor, had had a few tea chests there, or ordinary luggage, or just this and that. It was less dusty there. But anybody clearing them out wouldn't necessarily go to the far end, where there's no flooring, in fact, there'd be no reason for them to do that at all. We only went because we were wondering about this bedroom."
"I'm sure you're right. Now -- oh, that looks like the team." Outside two police cars were drawing up in the lane. "There's not much you can do here for the moment, Matt. Could I have a home and a work telephone number for you?"
"Sure. Home is 2574 945 and at Radio Leeds it's 2445 738."
"Right. I'll be in contact as soon as I know anything. If I get your partner, she'll know about it, will she?"
"Aileen's away at the moment. I plan to tell the children tonight if circumstances are right."
"Fine." Charlie opened the door to the forensics team and directed them up to the attic. He was silent until he was sure they were well out of earshot, then he turned to Matt.
"In confidence, Matt: if we're right that this was a child, but the bones have been up there a long while, this is not likely to be a high-priority investigation." A grimace passed over Matt's face at the thought of the child's brief life being considered of so little account, its death -- its murder, or whatever it turned out to be -- passed over so casually. "I know, I know," said Peace. "It's sad, and I know what I'd feel if I'd made the discovery. It's a question of priorities, of the likelihood of getting results, of police resources and budgets. You're into news gathering. You'll know all about the pressures on us. I'd be willing to bet the best we can hope for is putting a name to him or her. OK, I hope we can do better than that, but I'd be wrong to make any promises."
"Right," said Matt with a sigh. "I'll be off."
"Good to have met you," said Charlie, shaking hands. "I'll be in touch as soon as I have any concrete information. And of course I'll tell you the moment the forensics people have finished and the house is your own again."
Matt thanked him, but a flash through his brain asked the question whether the house would ever be his own. He put the thought from him. Of course it would. It would have to. He slipped out the back door, dodging another carload of policemen and -women clad in white overalls, and went out the little back gate and toward his car.
Matt turned round and looked down. A small man had come out from the house next door to his, and was standing beside him looking up. He was about five feet four, thin and weedy in appearance, with sparse hair and frown lines in his forehead. There was a sort of self-importance about him that was neither comic nor impressive.
"Yes?" The moment Matt said the word it sounded ridiculously cold, and, concealing a degree of reluctance, he held out his hand and said, "You must be one of my new neighbors. I'm the new owner of Elderholm. I'm Matt Harper."
"Ah...Edward Cazalet. I believe I should have heard of you. The estate agent has mentioned it to someone. You're some kind of footballer."
Matt, mischievously, decided to take him literally.
"Center half as a rule. My footballing days are over now. I work for Radio Leeds and 'Look North.'"
The man nodded. Those two things had swum within his ken.
"Ah...I -- I hope there's nothing wrong?"
He cast a limp hand in the direction of the police activity, as if he was nourishing the hope they were rehearsing for The Pirates of Penzance. Matt felt a strong disinclination to give him a reason for their presence in Elderholm.
"I hope not. That is what the police team is here to find out."
"My wife and I do hate any unpleasantness."
"No more than I do myself."
The little man shook his head, as if that was impossible, and to show he had dire forebodings.
"Such a bad way to begin."
"Very true. It was a great shock, finding what I found."
"Ah. This concerns something that you found, or say you found?"
"Something that I found. Not something I could conceivably have brought with me. I am not at liberty to say what it was, of course."
"N-no, of course not."
"But it is something that has been in the house for a long time."
"Oh. Oh, dear! Well -- I don't know what to say."
And he retreated back behind his little gate.
Getting into his car and driving away, Matt felt dissatisfaction with the encounter, and with himself. He had always thought of himself as good at reading signs, judging people by their outward appearance and behavior. This man he could hardly even guess the age of. He looked the sort of person who, even in his cradle, had seemed worried by the human condition, or perhaps the state of the property market. And as a consequence, now he could have been forty, sixty, or any stage in between. Querulous, pernickety, with an old-fashioned concern about keeping up appearances. He couldn't hide it from himself: he didn't like the man. And Cazalet in his turn had seemed determined from the start not to like him.
Then he shook himself. What did it matter? He was only one of seven sets of neighbors in the old stone houses. And he could well have a pleasanter side to him that did not show through on a first, casual encounter.
Still, there was no disguising the fact that this rated very low on the thermometer of warm welcomes.
Copyright © 2001 by Robert Barnard
Chapter Two: Broadcasting It
Matt didn't tell the children that night. For some reason they were off on a tangent about getting another animal "as company for Beckham," though since they had never even considered the possibility of a second dog, Matt regarded that as a bit of a smoke screen for acquiring something new, interesting, and different. As the various possibilities -- cat, rabbit, hamster, parrot -- were canvassed he kept out of the discussion, rather as he would in an exciting radio talk-in, expressing himself forcefully only when someone proposed a snake. "It's your mother who'll have the final say," he said, "so nothing will be done until she's back. Imagine her coming home and finding a cobra curled up in front of the fire." It was a topic, though, that he did not feel inclined to shatter by breaking the news of the skeleton. He postponed that without regret until they were in a more receptive mood.
He was scheduled to do the local news bulletins on television during the morning and afternoon of the next day. As he went through from the Woodhouse Lane entrance to his studio, he paused to listen to his current bête noire talking on the phone in her office.
"Well, get your fucking finger out," she was rasping. "I told you what I want, Terry. I want that fucking program broadcast. It's bloody brilliant, and it's going to be shown. What the fucking hell are you, a man or a mouse?"
Liza Pomfret belonged to one of the BBC dynasties. Not one of the visible ones, like the Magnussens or the Michelmores, but traceably a Corporation dynasty. Her grandmother had been one of the high-ups in charge of early-evening magazine programs on television in the early sixties, and her father had been one of John Birt's faceless apparatchiks in the nineties. As part of her grooming process Liza had been shunted up north into local broadcasting after a spell on one of the various holiday programs. One of the latter had been held up or canceled because a young reporter investigating an adventure holiday had been decapitated while emerging incautiously from a helicopter. Since she had arrived in Leeds, Liza had spent a great deal of her time on the phone pressuring her old colleagues to get it shown, behaving as if it were a combination of Hiroshima, Mon Amour, and Apocalypse Now and its loss would be a cultural tragedy.
"Approach the family again," she was yelling, her face an ugly puce shade. "Put more pressure on them. Tell them it's what Simon would have wanted."
Oh, yeah? thought Matt cynically. And the next thing we know, by a slip in the editing process, Simon's beheading will be on TV for the nation to gawp at, earning itself a "First on terrestrial television" tag and splashed all over the tabloids.
As he turned to continue his walk to the news studio, Vic Talbot, his producer, padded up behind him.
"Keeping your eye on the opposition?" he asked softly.
"The center forward of the other team."
"I don't get you."
"You're playing for the local-chap-makes-good team, and she's playing for the national highflyers team. With a bit of luck she'll either shove her foot in her mouth or be swiftly translated to greater things in the great wen. Leaving you with your foot firmly on the ladder going up."
Vic said it encouragingly, even admiringly. It was the first time Matt had realized he was regarded as a man with a bright future at BBC North.
Not long after the eleven o'clock news bulletin he was phoned by Sergeant Peace.
"I've got one piece of positive information," he said, "and the rest is very interim. The positive part -- "
"Is that the bones are human," said Matt with a heavy heart. "You wouldn't bother with anything further if they weren't."
"True enough. Right, beyond that: presumably a child, around eighteen months or two years old, but they're still cagey on the sex. And been there quite a time, though they won't be naming any figure for a while yet."
"I could have guessed they weren't put there yesterday," said Matt ungratefully.
"We don't much like guesses in this business," said Charlie. "I've been doing a bit of rummaging myself. Elderholm was bought in 1977 by Mr. Farson -- the elder one, that is -- from Hannah Beeston, who was moving to a bungalow in Armley Ridge Road. She died of cancer in 1985."
"I see. So the date the bones came there is going to be very important."
"It's likely to be. But it's worth noticing that both the owners were elderly. Mrs. Beeston was born with the century -- 1900. Farson was born in 1913. It sort of adds to the oddity, doesn't it?"
It certainly seemed to Matt, on thinking it over afterward, that it did.
He was abstracted for the rest of the morning, and in the twelve o'clock bulletin stumbled on the pronunciation of "Harewood." When they went down to the staff canteen for coffee and a sandwich at twelve-fifteen, Vic Talbot said, "Got something on your mind, Matt? Was that the police who rang you earlier?"
"Yes..." He thought for a moment, then said: "Funny thing happened to me yesterday. Rather nasty too. I went to see the new house in Bramley with the decorator I've got lined up."
"We went up into the attic and found a little skeleton. The police phoned me today to say that it was definitely human."
Vic was unusually slow taking it in.
"A child's, you mean?"
"Yes. Just laid out, covered with dust, in a place where no one would see it unless they were really inspecting the place. It was sort of touching as well as eerie."
Vic Talbot thought.
"So someone, at some time, has had a dead child on his or her hands -- maybe he's killed it -- and he just put the body up there and left it."
"Something like that," said Matt slowly. "Unless...but I don't want to think of other possibilities."
"But, Matt -- that's a marvelous story!" came a voice from behind the table. "And one of our people involved!"
Matt raised his head, looked first at Vic, then turned to confront Liza Pomfret with the sort of expression he might have put on for a circling vulture. "Our people" indeed! Liza was as much one of "us," he thought, as a fox in a chicken run.
"No-go, Liza. Not for the moment."
"Yes! This moment! Someone else might get onto it. They're pretty sure to if you're not making a secret of it. I've got a vacant slot in my program this afternoon."
"Play a Spice Girls record. Anything but me."
"Matt, I know you're not a newsperson by training -- "
Matthew breathed a "Thank God" and said: "There will be no media coverage of this by us or by anyone else until I've told the children. That is not negotiable."
"When are you telling them?"
"Tonight, if the circumstances are right."
"There you are, then," said Liza, putting her inadequately skirted leg on one of the chairs at their table and reassuming an air of good nature. "Let's do the interview now: you can tell the story quite simply, and I'll put it in tomorrow's show if you give me the go-ahead. Don't you want to find out who this poor kid was? You're not going to do that without publicity, I'd be willing to bet."
She nearly ruined her case by using the word "kid." Matt distrusted educated people who did that -- people like both the main political leaders in the country. They would never use it except to sound like men of the people. But her final remarks went home. They were surely not going to get anywhere without publicity.
"Look, Liza, I'm busy at the moment. When I've got a spare minute I'll get in touch with the police, see what their reaction is. If Sergeant Peace gives it the OK, I'll ring you -- say about half past three."
Liza Pomfret removed her leg from the chair, put her hands splayed downward on the table, and fixed Matt with her world-hardened teenage eyes.
"Matt, I want it done now, while it's hot."
"Sorry, Liza, I'm busy," said Matt, getting up. He fixed her with his equally determined eyes. "No way are you going to talk to me about it before three o'clock."
Liza's chat show on Radio Leeds ran from two to three. She got his point immediately, turned, and marched out of the canteen. Matt turned to his producer.
"Defeat of the infant commissar," he said. He was rather liking the idea of a war of attrition between him and Liza.
When he rang Charlie Peace soon after three, Charlie took a few moments to think it over, then said, "On the whole I think it's a good idea. This isn't any ordinary case. We're going to need all the assistance from the public we can get. If we take it that it was twenty, thirty years ago the body got there, then most or all of the people living in those houses then will be scattered around West Yorkshire now, or very likely out of the area entirely. People don't stay put the way they used to. This could be a way of getting in touch with them."
Very reluctantly Matthew rang Liza Pomfret and told her he'd be along to record an interview at quarter to four. Then he turned to Vic Talbot.
"If she tries to get any part of the interview on to one of the TV or radio news programs tonight, send her away with a flea in her ear. If you stand firm, I'll do an interview for the 'Look North' program tomorrow. If you cave in, that's the end of the subject as far as I'm concerned."
When he took himself along to the "Liza Pomfret Talk-In" studio at a quarter to four, she was very cool and businesslike, and said she'd just ask a wide-open question and let him tell the story in his own way. Wanna bet? Matt said to himself. He sat down while she fiddled and made Führer-like gestures to the technician on the other side of the glass panel.
"I've got Matthew Harper here," Liza began in her bright, hard voice. "Most of our listeners, and viewers too, will know him from our sports and news broadcasts. You played football for -- where was it?"
"Bradford City. For seven years."
"Right. Now, Matt, you had an experience yesterday that was way outside your football experience, didn't you? More Jane Eyre than..." But here she stopped. The idea of the attic had triggered Jane Eyre, but the football field didn't trigger the name of any work of fiction. "Well, just tell the listeners, will you, Matt?"
Matt shifted in his chair, still not entirely comfortable with what he was doing.
"Of course," he began. "Yesterday I went to look over a house I'd just bought in Bramley -- going over it with the decorator to see what needed to be done before we moved in. Eventually we went up to the attic to see what potential it had to be used, maybe as a games room, and while we were up there, in a far dark corner, we found, neatly laid out and hidden by a low wall, a small skeleton."
"But, Matt! How absolutely thrilling! I've never heard anything so spooky!"
"It is a dead child we're talking about, Liza."
"Yes, but I mean...!"
She faded into silence. Matt felt a bit sanctimonious, reminding himself of a nonconformist cleric he had once interviewed on the subject of Sunday shopping. But the whole rebuke had got home to her, and the fact that her reaction was a delayed one was attributable either to her insensitivity or to her stupidity, Matt was not greatly concerned which.
"The skeleton was not just a collection of bones, but a complete one and laid out -- as if a dead child had been put there. It was very dusty, like everything else, and we certainly got the impression that it had been there a long time, not just put there in the last few weeks while the house had been empty."
He had kept his voice even and unemotional, and Liza's reaction was now distinctly more subdued too.
"So what did you do?"
"I don't think there's much option in matters like this. You have to call the police. They've been to the house, sealed it off, and I've just had it confirmed that what we found is the skeleton of a child, maybe eighteen months or two years old."
"And how long do they think the skeleton has been there?"
"I think it will be a while before they are willing to give an opinion on that. It's a complicated matter."
"Of course. I see. So what do you want to say to our listeners?"
Matt considered a moment before replying.
"The houses are stone houses, fronting onto Houghton Avenue, in Bramley, with a dirt lane leading round to the back doors. The house is called Elderholm. The police would be interested to hear about any disappearance of a child, boy or girl, twenty, thirty years ago -- in fact, I'd say anything over ten years. Particularly any disappearance that for one reason or another didn't get reported to the police."
"Could you suggest some reason for that?"
"Perhaps a surprise move away from the district, with nothing being heard of the child later? Maybe a family of travelers? But I agree it's not easy to account for the disappearance of a child this young that doesn't get reported to someone."
"Well, Matt," said Liza, having regained something of her chirpy radio tone, "you really have frozen our blood today. If anyone out there thinks they may know something that's relevant, however small, they can call the police, or why not call us -- "
But Matt had pulled out his earphones and left the studio.
On thinking it over he wondered if he had been wise, recording the appeal so early on. If he could have put a more definite date for the death of the child, he could have pinpointed the people who were living in the Houghton Avenue houses at the time. As it was, the catchment period was too wide.
Then he remembered Charlie Peace's remark about people not staying put in the same houses the way they once did. True enough. But twenty or thirty years ago they did, so that, whenever the child was put there, many of the same people would have been around for quite a while before and after. Except, of course, for the children, who would have grown up and mostly set up home elsewhere.
Having recorded the piece for Liza, he had reduced his options, and he had no choice but to tell the children before it went out on air and people started talking about it. If Aileen were there she could probably have told him how they would take it, but he himself could only guess. That night he cooked supermarket pizza with lots of favorite toppings added. It was a way of ensuring that all the children would eat together. He let them go at their favorite food for a fair while, and it was when they were picking at the remains of the pastry edges that he broached the subject.
"I've got something I want to tell you all," he said. They all looked at him, including Beckham, who was waiting by the table for leftovers and gazed at him through the fronds of his Old English sheepdog mop. "I don't think we want to make a big deal of it, because it's something that happened a long time ago."
"What happened a long time ago?" asked Isabella, thinking rightly he was putting the cart before the horse.
"The death of a child," said Matt simply.
"It's the new house, isn't it?" asked Lewis. Matt nodded. They thought for some time, then two spoke at once.
"How old was the child?" asked Stephen, who was seven.
"Most houses would have had deaths in them, wouldn't they?" asked Isabella.
"The child was about two or under," said Matt. "And, yes, most old houses would have had deaths in them, including the deaths of children. A lot of children died in the past, when doctors didn't know as much as they do today."
"So why is this special?" asked Lewis.
"It's special because yesterday, when I was at Elderholm with the man who's going to do the place up, we found the child's skeleton in the attic."
"Oooh!" The children shivered exaggeratedly. Matt waited to let it sink in.
"Had it just died there all alone?" asked Isabella. "Got shut in or something, and nobody knew it was there?"
"We don't think so. We think it was probably taken there, laid out there, when it was already dead."
"Why didn't they bury it?" asked Lewis, age eleven. "Everybody gets buried or cre -- cre...don't they?"
"It's because it was murdered, isn't it?" asked Isabella. She was the brightest, as well as the most sensible, of the brood.
"It's possible," said Matt, unwilling to go down the hopeless slope of trying to deceive her. Even Aileen couldn't tell Isabella what to think. "But we shouldn't jump to conclusions. There may be some other reason we haven't even thought about."
"We don't have to go up into the attic, do we?" asked Stephen, which also struck Matt as sensible.
"No, of course we don't. We can just put boxes and cases and things up there, and shut them away."
"Still, you'd sort of look up and think, wouldn't you?" said Lewis. Matt could have hit him.
"Can we go round?" asked Isabella. Matt regretfully shook his head.
"No, we can't. I wish we could. You could have seen that there's nothing to be afraid of. But the police have sealed the place off till they're finished with their work."
"Who's afraid, anyway?" said Lewis, offended. "I just meant it was sort of...yucky." An idea occurred to Matt.
"We can't go into the house, but we could take Beckham for his evening walk there."
"First tiddle-tour in Bramley," said Lewis. "Yes!"
Beckham was notoriously unreliable at night if he didn't get a properly accompanied evening walk. By now it was eight, and the late-April sky was darkening. They piled into the car, Beckham taking his place between the two boys in the backseat, looking intelligently round him. It was a journey of three miles or so, and Matt noticed that the subject of the dead child was not mentioned the whole way. Were they avoiding it, or did it not mean so much to them as he had imagined it would?
Matt drew up on his parking space on the other side of the lane, and Beckham jumped out, barking. He had been there before, but just into the house and not often enough to dull the novelty. They put him on the long lead, because they would have been at a loss to look for him if he went off exploring as he liked to do. They all went over to the gate of Elderholm, which was wreathed in police tape, and looked over it to the back door, properly sealed up.
"Do they do that every time there's a murder?" asked Isabella.
"I don't know. Whenever there's an unexplained death, I suppose, or something involving a mystery. When that happens the forensics people need to go over the house carefully to get clues."
He kept his tone matter-of-fact, and the children nodded.
"Who are forensics people?" asked Lewis.
"People with a scientific training in solving crimes," answered Matt, thinking that was near enough.
"Thank you for telling us like this," said Stephen, and put his hand into Matt's.
And that seemed to be it. Isabella soon turned away, and they all began to walk. Matt drew up the rear, wondering if this really was all, or if they were still mulling over the death, and they would quite soon come to a decision about it and the house. They went along the lane, then turned down toward the road. Beckham was in an ecstasy of sniffing and leg raising, the two things intimately connected. Once down into Houghton Avenue proper, the messages came thicker and faster, and he was visibly committing every odor to memory when suddenly he froze. After a second or two he turned his head cautiously back. All four of them turned too.
Caught in the light of a streetlamp as it crossed from one of the gardens to the lawns of the church opposite a long, skinny creature with a bushy tail. It was part reddish gray, part dirty cream, and it looked toward them with alert, calculating eyes without a trace of fear.
"Is it a dog?" whispered Stephen.
"No, it's a fox," said Matt. "What they call an urban fox."
"One that lives in a town instead of the country. They scavenge from dustbins, live on anything they can get."
Beckham was transfixed. Something told him to run at it, but prudence held him back. The fox, having sized them up, thought for a minute, then proceeded, brisk but unhurried, on its way, hopping through the church gates and disappearing from sight.
The children seemed to have been holding their breath for minutes.
"That was wonderful!" said Isabella.
"I wish Mummy could have seen it," said Stephen.
"She will," said Matthew heartily. "There's probably a family of them."
Beckham now charged forward, hectically sniffing at the places the fox had been, whining operatically and implying that he would have chased it if only they had let him off. The magic moment was over. But Matt had a feeling that, whatever doubts there might have been about the new house in the children's minds, they had now been wiped away.
Copyright © 2001 by Robert Barnard
Meet the Author
Robert Barnard (1936-2013) was awarded the Malice Domestic Award for Lifetime Achievement and the Nero Wolfe Award, as well as the Agatha and Macavity awards. An eight-time Edgar nominee, he was a member of Britain's distinguished Detection Club, and, in May 2003, he received the Cartier Diamond Dagger Award for lifetime achievement in mystery writing. His most recent novel, Charitable Body, was published by Scribner in 2012.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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Matt Harper is a minor celebrity in England because of his past professional soccer playing and his present day work as a media sports commentator. While his significant other is in South Africa taking care of her ailing husband, Matt is nurturing and watching over her three children. In fact, the four of them plan to move into Elderholm and decorate much of it before Aileen returns. Before Matt sets a moving date, he and the decorator make a grisly discovery in the attic. They find the whole skeletal remains of a very young child lying in the corner of the room as if somebody put it there and forgot about it. Matt calls in the police but since the crime happened in 1969 it is not a high priority case. Since Matt knew most of the children in the area during that summer he begins investigating and discovers a conspiracy of gigantic proportions. The protagonists of THE BONES IN THE ATTIC is a good sensitive man eagerly taking care of three children not his own while their mother is away taking care of their father. Readers will get caught up in Matt¿s investigation of why the child died and was left up in the attic and hope he gets some answers quickly. The investigation is believable and the answers will more than satisfy the audience. Harriet Klausner
The storyline of this book is unbelievable. It centers around a radio personality, who purchases a home, and finds the remains of a baby in the attic. As the book progresses we find out, that he spent a summer in the neighborhood with the children suspected in the baby's death. The unbelievable part is the behavior of the parents of the dead baby and the eventual cover up of the death by the children involved, both as children and as adults.
I was enjoying this book until the last few chapters . Was very disappointed with the outcome . Expected better from this author .