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Marilyn StasioJust when you despair of ever finding one of those devious puzzle mysteries that no one seems to write anymore, along comes Robert Barnard with a crafty whodunit...
—New York Times Book Review
Time He plots a mystery as well as any writer alive.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette No two Barnard books fall into a pattern. Barnard's terse prose and deft character painting keep us engrossed to the very last line.
New York Newsday Barnard is the Jane Austen of mystery writers.
Chapter 1: The Body of an Unknown Man
The last diners pushed away their plates of lamb biryani or chicken tikka masala, downed the last of their Tiger beers or their fruit juices, and began scrabbling in purses and feeling in back pockets as they made their way to the till. It had been a table for four, and they had arrived only shortly before ten o'clock. They had been talking incessantly, and had been quite unconscious that they had been watched for the past twenty minutes, that all the other tables were cleared and all the washing up had been done. The Haworth Tandoori was ready, indeed anxious, to turn off its lights and bolt its doors, but the late diners were quite unaware of the fact.
It was half past eleven at night.
"You two can go," said Mr. Masud to his two waiters as he shut the door on the customers. The young men had been constantly on the go from six until business had slackened off to those last four diners about half past ten. "See you tomorrow. I'll shut up."
Taz and Bash nodded gratefully and slipped out through the back door and up to the car park behind the restaurant. Mr. Masud went to bolt the front door and the side door, switching off all the lights in the dining area before going back to the kitchen. He was just about to bend down and switch on the dishwasher for its last load of the evening when he was frightened out of his wits — Haworth on weekends was a rough, unpredictable place — by banging and shouting at the back door. A second later he was relieved to recognize Taz's voice.
"Mo! Mo! Open the door!"
When he pulled back the bolts and opened it, he was confronted by a frightened face.
"There's a body in my car!"
"What? What do you mean, a body?" demanded Mr. Masud. "Some drunk got into it by mistake?"
"I mean a body! A dead body! In the boot!"
Mr. Masud swallowed and went out into the dim area of the car park. With reluctance in his steps he went over to Taz's ancient Fiesta and cast his eye down to the open boot: he saw first a hand, then the back of a head, then in the depths of the boot a scrap of white clothing that could have been underpants. Seconds later he was back in the kitchen and, seizing the receiver from his phone there, he pressed nine three times.
"Police. Keighley Police....This is the Haworth Tandoori — you know it? Near the station. We've discovered a body. In the boot of a car. Yes, in the boot, left there. I think a man has been murdered."
By the time Detective Constable Peace had arrived at the little car park behind the Tandoori, the SOCO people were already beginning to assemble to collect the scene-of-the-crime evidence: there was, after all, little question of a dead man stuffed into the boot of a car having died from natural causes.
Lights were beginning to go up around the car. Not welcoming, warming lights, but a piercing, pitiless illumination of the scene. With less reluctance than when he had started in the force, but with a slight sense of shame underlying his curiosity, Charlie Peace went over to look at the body. It was a white man, young-looking; it was male, but the face was indistinct, tucked into the mass of limbs and trunk, so it would not be clearly seen until it could be removed from the boot. Charlie caught the same glimpse that Mr. Masud had seen and looked closer: yes, the body was naked except for a pair of white underpants. He stood back to look at the car: a very old, B-reg Ford Fiesta — one of only two cars in the car park. The other was an almost equally old Mini. From the little he had been told he suspected they both belonged to the waiters at the Tandoori. He conjectured that the proprietor must live close enough to walk to and from work.
Charlie walked away from the car and looked around him. The road he had driven down was the road to the station, which lay on the other side of the buildings he was looking at. The road then lay flat for a hundred yards to his left, though he couldn't see it, then began the steep climb up to what had once been the village proper — shops, church, parsonage on the edge of the sweep of moorlands, going southward to Hebden Bridge, westward to Burnley. Now the top of Haworth was taken up with cafés, shops selling tourist souvenirs, herbalists, and peddlers of the occult. Any real shops that sold things that people needed were at the bottom, around the station, and for anything except basics the people of Haworth had to hike up the hill to Crossroads or take the bus to Keighley. They had paid a heavy price for all the generations of their ancestors who had peddled tall stories about Branwell Brontë at the drop of a sixpenny piece.
Everywhere in Haworth, Charlie reflected, involved a stiff hike. He had a car, of course, but he wouldn't mind betting that this case would involve making door-to-door inquiries of shopkeepers and café proprietors up and down Main Street. He remembered a previous case at Micklewike, on the other side of the moors. That had involved fearsome climbs as well. One of the (few) good things that Charlie could think of to say about his native Brixton was that it was flat.
Two cars arrived, driving in from the road and parking behind the Tandoori. More SOCO people in one of them, his boss Mike Oddie in the other. Charlie recognized the car in the dim light, and walked over to it. Oddie put his window down and raised a hand in salute.
"What have we got?" he asked.
"I haven't got much more than I was told when I was called out," admitted Charlie. "Body stuffed in the boot of a car — but I expect you know that. Body in question is young, male, nearly naked. Caucasian, but I think the car belongs to one of the waiters here."
"I shouldn't think so. From what I heard when I was called out he found the body in the boot when he was going home, and went screaming to the proprietor of the place."
"Why his car, then?"
"It's an old bomb. The lock on the boot looked dodgy. Whoever dumped it may have thought it was abandoned."
"Well, let's get talking to him," said Oddie, climbing out of his car. "If you're right and the body was just dumped on him, we can let him go for the moment."
Taz had been waiting, with Bash his fellow waiter and his boss, in the kitchens of the Tandoori, compulsively drinking Cokes. His English was good, and his apprehension, which sometimes made him babble, seemed to spring mainly from his experience of finding the body and his reluctance to involve himself with the police rather than any irregularities in his status: he had been born in Bradford twenty-four years ago, he told Oddie, and he was a British citizen.
"So just go through what happened tonight," Oddie said.
"We finish 'ere — There's a party of four chatterin' away an' not carin' they're the last ones 'ere and everyone's waitin' to get 'ome. Anyway, they go — Arpast eleven it was. We'd cleared away, and Mr. Masud says we can go, Bash and me, and so we go out to Bash's car."
"Why Bash's car?"
"Mine's been out of order five or six days now."
"Why did you go to it, then?"
"To get me anorak. Some nights are nice an' warm still, but tonight's chilly. Bash drops me off on the Thornton Road, and I have ten minutes' walk from there."
"I see. Go on."
"Well, I opened the boot, in the dark, and I felt in and — oh, God! — felt this body. Couldn't believe it, but there was still a bit of light from the kitchens and — well, I knew that's what it were. I ran to the back door, shoutin', and Mr. Masud opened up and called the police."
"I suppose you got no look at the man's face?"
"No — didn't even know it was a man."
"You've got no quarrel with any young man? Anyone been making trouble here at the Tandoori? Any other reason why a body should be dumped in your car?"
"I got no quarrel with nobody, except my mother-in-law, who's a pain."
"Well, we'll have to ask you to look at him when he's been removed from the boot, maybe tomorrow." Taz nodded unenthusiastically. "Just one last question: did you talk about your car with Bash or Mr. Masud in front of people who were eating here? Maybe said it was broken down and so on?"
Taz thought hard.
"Bash knew it was broken down because he gave me a lift the night I couldn't start it and every night since. I probably told Mr. Masud the next day before we opened. I could have said somethin' to Bash in front of the punters — like maybe I was goin' to get someone from me garage at Thornton to 'ave a look at it on Saturday....I'll 'ave to put 'im off now, won' I?"
"You will. Could you have said this in English, or — "
"Urdu. Could be either. We go from one to the other, Bash and me — don' know what we been talking 'alf the time. With Mr. Masud we mostly talk Urdu."
That was all they could get out of him that evening. He went off to accept, finally, Bash's lift home with perceptible relief on his face. The next day they took all three from the Tandoori to the mortuary at Keighley Police headquarters. They watched Taz's reaction in particular when he saw the face, which was still a horrible sight. He shook his head, first with pity. But he looked as closely as he could bear, then when he had looked away he shook it again as a negation.
"I've never seen 'im. He's never eaten with us while I was on."
He had a sharp, waiter's eye for customers, Charlie guessed. Assuming he was not personally involved, he believed him when he said the dead boy hadn't been a customer. His negative was confirmed by the other two men from the restaurant.
When they had gone Charlie talked to the young pathologist who would be doing the autopsy.
"Strangled, without a doubt. A nasty, slow death, as you can see from the face. There are signs that the hands had been secured, perhaps behind his back. It would be difficult to do it any other way, unless he was drunk or sedated. Will you be wanting some kind of artist's impression made?"
"Yes, I will," said Oddie. "It's the best hope we have of getting a lead on him at the moment. We can hardly show people a photograph of his face like that."
Charlie turned away from the body. Once again he had the sinking feeling that sometime in the next few days he would be seeing a lot of the daunting gradient that was Haworth Main Street.
Charlie parked his car in the Old Hall car park and went out onto the road. He was at the crossroads halfway up the hill. He had chosen to park here rather than at the top because he was the sort of person who liked to get the slog over first — in food terms a vegetables-first person rather than a meat-first one. So it was uphill to start with, calling at all the little tourist-oriented shops and galleries and cafés, then maybe he could give Main Street a miss on the way down and take the gentler road back to the Old Hall, passing the school and the park. Coming down Main Street, he knew, with its cobbled steepness, would be almost as grueling as walking up it.
The artist had done his best, but over the next quarter of an hour Charlie began to get the idea that his best was not good enough. It was the tail end of summer, and tourist trapping was on the wane, but though the proprietors and assistants were polite and had time to give him, the picture aroused no memories in anyone.
"If he was here in the school holiday period, there's Buckley's chance of his being noticed, unless he did something to make himself conspicuous, like buying something," said one disillusioned man in an art shop stuffed full of representations of Top Withens and sheep-populated moorlands. "You must know how chock-full of gawpers this place is then."
"He could have been here in the last few days," Charlie said.
"Oh, well, in that case, no, I haven't seen him, and he didn't come in here. Now you've got time, you notice."
That was the burden of practically all the interviews he had, as he went methodically upward, calling at establishments on both sides of the street. He concluded that the boy could have gone up or down Main Street (practically everyone except the halt and the lame did that), but that he didn't stop anywhere, perhaps because he had no money to spend, perhaps because he was not the type the trappers were aiming to catch.
There was, though, one flicker that could have been of recognition. Charlie had decided early on that the cafés were a better bet than the shops, because the shops sold nothing that a human being could actually need, but the cafés did. It was in a café called Tabby's Kitchen that the proprietress blinked and considered long, before disappointingly shaking her head.
"No, it wouldn't be right to say I recognized him," she said, handing the picture back. "Just a vague memory that someone a bit like that was in here. But it would probably send you off on entirely the wrong track. After all, this picture's...well, not very individual, is it?"
"Not very," admitted Charlie. "We may be able to get a better one later on. What can you remember about this boy?"
"Not much. Not English, I seem to remember."
"No, I mean not English. Scottish, Welsh, Irish — I associate him with an accent."
"How long ago was this?"
"Oh, weeks. But I don't want you to think I'm talking about this boy here. That way you could go wrong. It's just a remote possibility."
"Will you think about it? Try to remember anything about him?"
"That never works with me. But if I don't try, things sometimes come to me. If anything does I'll be in touch."
Charlie had to be content with that.
It took him two and a half hours to get to the top of the hill, and do the clutch of establishments around the church. Not a café, shop, or pub admitted knowing him. He stood in thought: was it time to take the downward road and do the few businesses on the lower half of the hill, and then the station? The steam railway was a definite possibility: it was still running on weekends, and the boy could have come on it to Haworth from Keighley.
Then he remembered, with a guilty start, that there was still the parsonage. In the past the Brontës were what brought people to Haworth, though nowadays they often seemed to function merely as an excuse for purchasing a tea towel. But when he made his way along the path beside the church, then up the cobbles of Church Lane, he found the museum still presented in early autumn a busy enough front to the world — old people, young people, Japanese visitors, that cross section of the footloose and the driven that constitutes Britain's tourist trade.
A quick survey told him that the shop was the place to go. You came through the shop at the end of your tour of the Parsonage Museum, but you could also go into it without doing the tour at all. He saw souvenir hunters doing just that, emerging with postcards, mugs, and copies of Wuthering Heights with special stickers on them. He pulled open the door and went in.
The shop was moderately busy, and a dark woman with large eyes was taking money behind the counter. As he paused, watching, listening to the voice on the educational video that was playing, an older woman with fair hair and a worried expression on her face hurried past.
"I've just heard from Grasmere there's a French school party on the way," she whispered to her assistant. "What a pity we can't nail everything down!"
The light-fingeredness of French school parties was legendary in police circles as well. Charlie went forward to get his inquiries out of the way before they arrived. He flashed his ID at the younger woman, then reached into his inside pocket and pulled out the by now dog-eared artist's impression.
"I wondered if you'd seen this young man," he said. "Not necessarily recently, maybe sometime over the summer."
She took it hesitantly, with the familiar uncertainty of all the other people he'd talked to that day, people who saw a great deal, perhaps too much, of transient tourist trade. She frowned over it for a moment or two.
"Mary!" she called, and the other woman came over. "He wants to know if we've seen this man."
Mary looked at it, then they glanced at each other.
"It could be," she said. "But I wouldn't want to be certain or get him into trouble."
"You won't," said Charlie, refraining from adding that he'd already been in all the trouble he could ever get into. "You are both speaking of the same young man?"
"Oh, yes," said Mary confidently, and the two women gave glances at each other of perfect sympathy and understanding. "You're thinking of the singer, aren't you, Steph?"
"Singer?" Charlie asked.
"A young man who was singing for money, just outside here, at the top of the path that leads down to the car park. There's quite a lot of singers come to Haworth in the summer. This one had rather a nice voice, didn't he, Steph? A real tenor. He sang light stuff — folk songs, Gilbert and Sullivan, 'O Sole Mio,' that kind of thing. He had a guitar, but the accompaniments were a bit rudimentary."
"How long ago was this?"
They looked at each other again.
"It was the height of the season," said Stephanie. "There were lots of people milling around. But the height of the season is all the school holidays — "
"I'd say anything from four to eight weeks ago," said Mary. "But that's a guess, nothing more."
"Was he just here the once?"
"Oh, yes. Come to think of it, that's a bit unusual. They usually come back."
"And how long was he here?"
"About an hour," Mary said, surprisingly definite. "He was perfectly pleasant, as a singer, but some of the visitors inside the museum don't like it, find it distracting, so we generally ask them to move on after a time. Not that we've any right to do that, but they generally go."
"Did he say anything to you?"
"He didn't talk," Stephanie remembered. "Mary went out the door, and he'd obviously seen her behind the counter. He just raised a hand to her, grinned, and began packing away his guitar."
"So you had no idea, for example, what nationality he was?"
"No," said Mary, shaking her head. "But English-speaking, I would guess; wouldn't you, Steph?"
"Oh, yes. He put on an Irish accent for the Irish songs, and a Scottish one for the Scottish songs — not an awfully good one. He sang the Italian songs in Italian, but I'd say definitely English-speaking. His clothes weren't what you'd expect, sort of old-fashioned."
"Oh? What exactly was he wearing?"
"A tweed jacket, and flannels. He took off the jacket when it got hot. He had a white shirt on. It's not really what young people wear these days."
"No....Is there anything else you can tell me?"
They shook their heads.
"I don't think so, do you, Steph?"
"Did you notice where he went?"
"Oh, yes," said Mary. "He went through the car park and down the steps beside the Weavers' restaurant."
"So he'd then be close to the Old White Lion and the tourist office and the post office?"
"That's right. But I didn't see if he turned in that direction."
"They have cards advertising jobs in the post office," said Stephanie.
Copyright © 1998 by Robert Barnard
Chapter 2: The Road to Ashworth
As he passed the Old White Lion, with the King's Arms on his right and the Black Bull straight ahead, Charlie was very conscious that he could do with a pint. No such luck. He turned aside reluctantly from his plethora of choices. The window of the post office did indeed, down in one corner, have a board on which small advertisements and notices were pinned. He bent down to scan them. There were advertisements for bed-and-breakfast establishments ("Totally smoke-free zone"), for missing pets ("brindled and white, with damaged left ear and bleary right eye"), and, yes, jobs. Only one, though, and it looked as if it had been left up by mistake: one of the cafés, Tabby's Kitchen, was advertising for waitresses during the holiday period. Nothing more. Obviously late September was not the time when Haworth was recruiting casual staff.
Charlie straightened himself, changed focus, and gazed through the window. He had popped in with his picture while he was doing the top of the village, but neither of the women behind the counter had recognized it. There was a woman there now, but a new one: she was a large young woman, firm of manner, and, if Charlie judged aright, capable. He decided it was worth trying again. The afternoon was passing its peak, and there were only one or two loiterers around, gossiping after buying the odd stamp or collecting their pensions. He flashed his ID, and the little post office miraculously emptied itself.
When he showed the woman his picture she seemed, like most of the Haworth people he had shown it to, to be unimpressed.
"It's not very good, is it?" she said.
Charlie chanced his arm.
"As a pictu grinned cheekily.
"We don't look too closely. And we're not lawyers."
"And what would you have told him, when he asked you for directions, I mean?"
"Go through Stanbury, almost to the end, and you'll find there's a path off to your right with a fingerpost that just says 'Public Footpath.' If you take that, veer a bit to your right; you can't miss Ashworth."
"He'll have been walking, I suppose."
"I expect so. My memory is that he had a backpack. Or he could have waited for a bus, but I don't remember him, or whoever it was, asking about times. There's not a lot of visitors go to Stanbury. In fact ninety percent of them never go off Main Street and Church Lane, where the parsonage is. If he went for the job, I expect he walked."
Charlie thanked her and took his leave. Outside the sun still had some warmth in it. It was an hour before the shops would close and Haworth would start to regain some semblance of a typical Yorkshire village. Charlie, on the spur of the moment, made a very untypical policeman's decision: the boy -- if it was he -- had walked, so he, Charlie Peace, would walk, to Stanbury. He turned right, in the direction of Hebden Bridge and Lancashire, and began walking, passing with regret one last pub, the Old Sun, and then leaving Haworth by the road that led him down into the valley.
It was a beautiful descent, but uneasy, due to the occasional nature of the pavement. Cars with farmers in them, or retired people, or tourists sped past him in both directions, sometimes driving erratically. If he had known the footpaths in the area he would have chosen one of those. Low down in the valley there was a row of attractive cottages, off from the road, with flower gardens in fron t that bordered on the showy. From the corner of his eye he had spotted a man deadheading near his gate. Charlie slackened his pace, then stopped, took out his handkerchief, and wiped his forehead. He raised his hand to the gardener.
"Need to get my breath before I do the upward stretch," he called.
"Oh, aye?" said the man, pausing willingly. He was small, wiry, and had the look of an animated garden gnome. "Or 'appen you'd like to ask a few questions about a picture of a boy?"
"I stand out."
"You do. If you'd been Japanese I wouldn't ha' thought twice."
"Someone from Main Street has been talking."
"O' course they 'ave. We used to have a shop in Main Street, the missus and I, 'fore we retired. People still there, shopkeepers, get on the blower when it's quiet and tell us what's going on. Now, where's your picture, young man? Because we're old doesn't mean we don't notice things."
Charlie, seemingly for the hundredth time, dug in his pocket and handed it over. The little man out of early Walt Disney stood and considered it for a few seconds.
"Margaret! Come out here, girl!" A buxom woman twice his size came out, having probably been watching from the kitchen window. "Here's that black copper Arthur rang us about. Wants to know if we've seen this young chap. An' we 'ave, 'aven't us?"
She too considered the picture, frowning.
"Aye, we 'ave. I don't recall where, exactly -- "
"The Grange, girl, the Grange."
"Oh, aye, 'appen."
"The Grange? Where's that?" Charlie asked.
"Pub in Stanbury. You'll see it -- can't miss it. Stanbury's only got one street."
"And you saw him there when?"
"Over t'summer sometime. Mebbe July, mebbe August -- don't rightly remember ."
Charlie was curious.
"Why do you remember seeing him then? You get thousands of tourists around here in summer."
"Not so many in Stanbury, and not of an evening. But he wasn't just a tourist. I remember seeing him because he was wi' the Ashworth lot."
"Ah! Who exactly are you talking about?"
"Oh, Mrs. Birdsell, the Mates boy, Arnold Mellors...don't remember exactly because they're often in the Grange, different ones of them."
"And you remembered him because he was with them?" Charlie persisted.
"Aye," said the man, a glint in his sharp little eyes. "I thought, Poor, bloody lad, getting involved wi' that crowd. Because he were a nice-enough-looking chap."
"And the Ashworth crowd?"
"Don't like 'em. Don't trust 'em. Outsiders, every one of them. Wouldn't give them the price of a loaf of bread and expect them to come back wi' one."
"Creepy too," volunteered his wife.
"That's right -- creepy. Unnatural, like."
"I see." Charlie stored this information away, adding the mental proviso that he mustn't be biased before he even met the Ashworth people. The problem could just be that they were artistic, and therefore different. "And was that the only time that you saw him?"
"'Appen I saw him driving past in their old car. Or mebbe waiting for a bus. That were it, at a bus stop. But in the pub were the only time I saw him close to, for any length o' time."
"Did you get the impression that he was working at Ashworth?"
The man thought.
"Aye, I did. It were like he were part o' the group, or getting to be that way, poor bloody lad."
It was said in the same tone as earlier, not as if he knew that the boy was dead. Still, it must be suspected soon, Charlie realized, that hi s investigation signaled something more important than a mere missing young person. Charlie gave them his thanks, said he hoped he wouldn't have to trouble them again (while realizing that they very much hoped he would), and then began his walk up the hill toward Stanbury.
Stanbury, he already knew from driving through it, was a street and not much more. It was what Haworth was in people's imagination but had not in fact been for centuries -- a small Yorkshire village. It was sleepy, inward-looking, and liked basking in the twilight sun. The doorway of the Old Co-op stood open, and a woman who had the air of a sprightly bird sighting a particularly attractive worm watched his approach.
"Just past the little church and off to your right, where it says 'Public Footpath,'" she informed him. She felt no need to explain how she knew where he was going, so he accepted it as a matter of course as well, merely raising his hand in acknowledgment and proceeding on.
A little community where everyone knows everyone else, where every tiny item of news is transmitted by a constantly humming bush telegraph, and yet this boy could disappear and cause not a ripple of comment or query. It was eerie.
And yet when he thought about it, it was not so remarkable. The people of Ashworth, the boy's employers, presumably, had only to say "He's taken off" for that to be an end of it. Young people did take off these days. They had casual not regular jobs; they were at the expendable end of the labor market. Say that, for reasons unknown, this boy had come to seem expendable on a permanent basis in somebody's eye. The story could be put around that he'd just moved on, slung his hook, sought pastures new -- whatever phra se was most convincing to the listener -- and people would have accepted the story.
Past the church and then, here it was, a footpath, signposted, leading down into the valley. It was only a footpath but tire marks showed that it could be used in a pinch by vehicles, and had been fairly recently. Charlie turned in off the road, feeling as he left the shelter of houses that exposed sensation that townies feel in the open countryside: me in a landscape, not me in a peoplescape. He passed a lone farm, with chained, barking dogs. Farm dog, he thought, a different, more unsettling creature altogether than the fireside pet. Down, down he went, with the sound of cars becoming more and more distant, until he started to turn to his right and saw in the middle distance a collection of houses. This surely was the object of his search.
As the bend in the path began to get more pronounced he got a better view. A jumble of houses, like children's model houses scattered rather than arranged over the floor. One house decidedly bigger than the others, probably originally the farm. Built on to this was one of the small cottages. Around it, in no particular order, several other cottages -- Charlie thought he could discern five front doors, three in one terrace, two in another. There were little gardens, clotheslines, a car left in a field behind the largest house, near what had once been stables. The field needed mowing, and one or two of the gardens were unkempt, though others were almost indecently showy and one had a garden gnome and another had a ring enclosing a large chunk of coconut at which birds were pecking.
This then was Ashworth. And it was -- what? A colony of artists? A great artist with disciples? An artist who was something of a commercial concern, and who surrounded himself with a limited company -- market men, publicists, accountants? It was, at any rate, at least in the locals' eyes, a unit -- a colony, a community, a clan.
He went down farther, toward a gate that divided the little knot of dwellings from the path. The sun disappeared behind the hills, and seemed to alter the look of the place. The big house now looked forbidding, the gardens all slightly forlorn. Charlie's partner was doing a doctorate on Browning, and a line she often quoted came into his mind: "Childe Roland to the dark tower came."
Had the boy, Charlie wondered, had something of the same feeling when he'd come to Ashworth earlier in the summer?
Copyright © 1998 by Robert Barnard
Posted November 27, 2012
No text was provided for this review.