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In this C. D. Sloan Mystery by CWA Diamond Dagger winner Catherine Aird, a body is found in the river—but the victim didn’t drown
When local fisherman Horace Boller decided to row his boat out on the tidal backwash of the river one morning, he couldn’t have meant to land a catch like this. What he ended up with was a body floating on the river’s surface. And judging by the state of the corpse, the death was not a recent one.
The strange thing is, the coroner report indicates that drowning was not the cause of death. It’s up to the intrepid C. D. Sloan—and his markedly less intrepid assistant, Constable Crosby—to investigate.
Along the way, Calleshire’s most successful pair of puzzle-solving policemen will contend with a handful of additional strange deaths, befuddling municipal building codes, an antiquarian with interesting views on local history, and a fisherman who has his own motivation for helping (or perhaps hindering) the investigation. Can C. D. Sloan get to the bottom of this waterlogged killing?
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A C. D. Sloan Mystery
By Catherine Aird
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1982 Catherine Aird
All rights reserved.
Suspicion does not become a friend.
The man wasn't alive and well and living in Paris.
He wasn't living in the county of Calleshire, England, either.
And he certainly wasn't alive and well. Actually he wasn't living anywhere. He was dead. Obviously dead.
Horace Boller was so sure about that that he didn't hurry after he had seen him. Not that Horace Boller was the hurrying sort. In addition to which he was out fishing at the time and fishermen never hurry. It was a universal truth. You couldn't catch fish if you hurried. The fish didn't like it: they stopped feeding at once. Like primitive man, fish equated hurry with danger and either kept their heads down or made off. In Horace Boller's considered opinion civilised man had a lot to learn about hurrying.
As it happened Boller hadn't so much seen the dead man at first as just caught a quick glimpse of something out of the ordinary in the water. It took his brain a moment or two to sort out the message from his eye: that that which was floating beyond the bow of his boat and just out of range of easy vision could be a body. He wedged his fishing rod so that he had a spare hand and reached for one of the oars. He gave it a purposive poke and the rowing boat obediently came round so that he was a little nearer to what was in the water.
It was after that that he had ceased to be in any real doubt about what it was he was looking at. The body was floating just under the surface of the water in the way that bodies did, arms outstretched. It was apparently moving. Horace Boller was not deceived. It was, he knew at once, totally lifeless. The illusion of movement came from the water: not from the man. It was one of the tricks—the many tricks—that water played. The angle of refraction came into it, too. Boller didn't know anything about angles of refraction but he did know a lot about the tricks that water could play.
This man had been dead for quite a while. He knew that, too, at once. That conclusion was not reached as a result of a long acquaintance with dead bodies—although Horace Boller had seen some of those in his time too—but from something indefinable about the appearance of the body even at a distance.
If you were to ask him, his considered opinion would be that it had been in the water a fair old time.
There was, of course, no one about to ask him that—or anything else. It was precisely because there was no one about that Horace Boller had chosen to come out fishing today. You couldn't fish when the water wasn't quiet. He looked about him now. There wasn't even one other boat in sight let alone within hailing distance. That was because it was a Tuesday. Now if it had been a weekend he would hardly have been able to get his boat out into the main channel of the river for yachts and sailing dinghies.
It was this indefinable sense that this particular body had been in the water for more than a little while that made Horace Boller dismiss the idea of taking it in tow.
Well, that—and something else as well ...
The Boller family had been around in Calleshire for a long time. Not quite in the same well-documented way that His Grace the Duke of Calleshire had been at Calle Castle but for pretty nearly the same length of time. There had certainly been Bollers living in the little fishing village of Edsway on the estuary of the River Calle for as long as anyone had bothered to look. Those who looked didn't include the Bollers. They had better things to do than go searching through old parish records—things like building boats, running ferries, making sails, digging for bait at low tide.
The tide still mattered in Edsway. Once upon a time—in the dim past when all boats had had a shallow draught—Edsway had been the only port on the estuary. It was always something of a natural harbour, sheltered by a lip of headland from the worst of the storms coming in from the sea—the village of Marby-juxta-Mare took the brunt of those—but there had never been really deep water at Edsway and now—thanks to the sand—there was less.
Its commercial fate had been sealed in the nineteenth century when some distant railway baron had decreed that Mr Stephenson's new-fangled iron road should go from Calleford to the river mouth and thus to the sea on the other—the north—side of the river. That was when Kinnisport had come into prominence and Edsway fallen into desuetude. In the wake of the railway had come another entrepreneur who had caused a proper deep water harbour to be built at Kinnisport out of great blocks of granite shipped down by sea from Aberdeen—and Edsway had dropped out of the prosperity race altogether.
But only for the time being.
Every dog did have its day.
Now it was Kinnisport that was in decline while Edsway was enjoying a twentieth-century revival as a sailing centre. The firm sand that had choked its life as a commercial harbour provided an excellent basis for the hard standing that the little boats needed and some safe swimming for their owners' families.
The dead man hadn't been a bather.
You didn't go swimming in a shirt and trousers. Not voluntarily, that is.
Horace Boller took another look at the man floating in the water. He might have been a seaman: he might not. The Calleshire shore got its share of those drowned on the high seas and the village of Edsway got more than its quota of them. It was something to do with the configuration of the coast and the way in which the tide came up the estuary to meet the river Calle coming down to the sea.
Bodies usually fetched up on the spit of land known locally as Billy's Finger. This stretched out into the water and—so the experts said—each year got a little shallower on the seaward side and a little deeper on the river side. The river scoured away from behind what the sea laid up at its front. The ancients used to say that Billy's Finger moved: that it beckoned mariners to their doom. The moderns—the clever ones who knew everything because a computer had worked it out for them—had said, rather surprised, that the ancients were right after all. Billy's Finger did move. It moved about an inch every hundred years, a little more at the very tip.
Horace Boller took a bearing from the spire of St Peter's church and reckoned that this fellow, whoever he was, had for once somehow escaped the beckonings of Billy's Finger. And he had done that in spite of its being the time of neap tides. Boller wasn't too bothered about that. These days it didn't make any difference exactly whereabouts a dead body found landfall. He would still—unless claimed by sorrowing relatives—end up buried in St Peter's churchyard at Edsway. There he—whoever he was—would lie in the goodly company of all those other unknown men who had been washed up by the sea.
Some had unmarked graves and some had those that were dignified by tombstones. There was a melancholy row betokening a remote naval engagement far out to sea in 1917. All those memorials bore the same inscription 'A Sailor of the Great War—Known Unto God.' They hadn't ever heard the distant thunder of the guns in Edsway but the men had come ashore. In the end.
It hadn't always been like that.
Once upon a time when drowned men had been washed ashore on Billy's Finger the men of Edsway had seen to it that they weren't found and brought to land for burial in St Peter's churchyard. They had, in fact, taken very good care that they weren't. Some antiquarian who had taken an interest in the estuary's local history had once told Horace Boller all about it.
The villagers in those days had felt that they had had a big enough Poor Rate to cope with as it was without taking on the cost—as a charge upon it—of burying unknown seamen. What they used to do in olden times, this antiquarian had told an impassive Horace Boller, was to wait for nightfall and then drag the body over from the seaward aspect of the strand and lower it into the deep water the other side of Billy's Finger.
The combination of sea and river—tide and current—saw to it then that the next landfall of the dead body was in the neighbouring parish of Collerton. And thus it became a charge on their Poor Rate instead.
Horace Boller had listened unblinkingly to this recital, saying 'Well, I never!' at suitable intervals, as he knew you had to do with this manner of man. Privately he had considered it an excellent way of keeping the rates down and hadn't doubted that there would have been Bollers in the clandestine non-burial party.
'The Overseers of the Poor doubtless turned a blind eye,' said the antiquarian. He prided himself on having what he thought was a good knowledge of the seamy side of human nature. That went with a study of the past.
'I dare say,' said Horace Boller, whose own knowledge went a little deeper, 'that they were glad to have it done.'
'Well, yes, but the law was ...'
Horace Boller had only listened with half an ear at the time. The letter of the law wasn't one of his yardsticks. Besides, he himself had found the careful study of the official mind a more rewarding business than history.
'They'd be more at home in Collerton churchyard anyway,' he had said to the antiquarian, who by then was beginning to come between Horace and the job he happened to have on hand at the time.
'Pardon?' The antiquarian had known a lot but he hadn't known everything.
'The north-west corner of Collerton churchyard floods every time the river rises,' Horace had taken pleasure in informing him. 'Didn't you know that?'
What Horace Boller was thinking about now, out on the water and with an actual body in view, wasn't exactly the same as pushing a financial liability into the next parish but it came very near to it. What he was considering was the best move to make next—the best move from the point of view of Horace Boller, citizen and occasional tax-payer, that is.
He steadied the oars in the rowlocks and considered the state of the tide. He was always conscious of it but particularly when he was out on the water. It wasn't far off the turn and he certainly wasn't going to row a body back to Edsway against the tide. The reasoning sped glibly through his mind as he took enough bearings to mark the spot in the water where the body was floating. Already he heard himself saying 'I couldn't lift it aboard myself, of course, Mr Ridgeford. Not on my own, like. I couldn't tow it back either. Not against the tide ... not without help. I'm not as young as I used to be, you know ...'
Half an hour later he was using just those very words to Police Constable Ridgeford. Brian Ridgeford was young enough to be Horace Boller's son but Horace still deemed it politic to call him 'Mister'. This approach was one of the fruits of his study of the ways of the official mind.
'Dead, you said?' checked Constable Ridgeford, reaching for his telephone.
'Definitely dead,' said Horace. He'd taken off his cap when he stepped into the constable's little office and he stood there now with it dangling from his hand as if he were already a mourner.
'How did you know it was a man?' asked Ridgeford.
The question didn't trouble Horace Boller. 'Floating on its back,' he said.
'I'll have to report it to Headquarters,' said Ridgeford importantly, beginning to dial. A body made a change from dealing with old Miss Finch, who—difficult and dogmatic—insisted that there were Unidentified Flying Objects on the headland behind Marby.
'That's right,' said Horace.
Ridgeford frowned. 'There may be someone missing.'
'So there may.'
'Not that I've heard of anyone.' The constable pulled a pile of reports on his desk forward and started thumbing through them with one hand while he held the telephone in the other.
'Nor me,' said Horace at once. It had been one of the factors that had weighed with him when he decided not to bring the body in. It hadn't been someone local or he would have heard. 'But then ...'
Ridgeford's attitude suddenly changed. He stiffened and almost came to attention. 'Is that F Division Headquarters at Berebury? This is Constable Ridgeford from Edsway reporting ...'
Horace Boller waited patiently for the outcome.
A minute or two later he heard Ridgeford say 'Just a moment, sir, and I'll ask the fisherman who reported it. He'll know.' The young constable covered the mouthpiece of the telephone with his free hand and said to Horace, 'Where will that body fetch up if it's left in the water?'
Boller screwed up his face and thought quickly. 'Hard to say exactly, Mr Ridgeford. Most probably,' he improvised, 'under the cliffs over on the Kinnisport side of the estuary.' He waved an arm. 'You know, where the rocks stick out into the water. Not,' he added, 'for a couple of days, mind you.'
He stepped back, well pleased with himself. What he had just said to the policeman was a complete fabrication from start to finish. Left to itself the body of the dead man might continue on its course up river to Collerton for the length of a tide or two but then either the change in the tide or the river current would pick it up and bring it back downstream again. Then the timeless eddies of the sea would lay it up on Billy's Finger as they had always done since time began.
Constable Ridgeford, though, did not know this. He was young, he was new in Edsway and, most importantly of all, he was from the town. In towns water came in pipes.
'H'm,' he said. 'You're sure about that, are you?'
'Certain,' said Boller, although the rocks under the cliff near Cranberry Point were a long way from where he had last seen the dead man. They just happened to be the most inaccessible and inconvenient place on the coast from which to attempt to recover a body that Horace could think of on the spur of the moment.
'They'd have to take it up the cliff face on a cradle from there, wouldn't they?' said Ridgeford, frowning.
'Oh yes,' said Boller at once. 'You'd never get a recovery boat to land on those rocks. Too dangerous. Mind you,' he added craftily, 'the coastguards up top would probably spot it for you easily enough.'
'Er—yes, of course,' said Ridgeford.
Horace Boller said nothing but he knew he'd played a trump card. Another of the fruits of his study of the official mind was the sure and certain knowledge that owners of them did not relish cooperation with other official services. Over the years the playing off of one department against another had become a high art with the wily old fisherman.
Ridgeford turned back to the telephone and had further speech with his superior. That officer must have put another question to him because once again Ridgeford covered the mouthpiece. 'You marked the spot with a buoy, didn't you?'
'Sorry, Mr Ridgeford,' lied Horace fluently, 'I didn't happen to have one with me. I was just out to catch something for my tea, that's all.'
There were six orange marker buoys in the locker of Horace's rowing-boat. He would have to make quite sure that the constable didn't see them.
'I took proper bearings though, Mr Ridgeford,' said Boller.
'You mean you could take me out there?'
'If my son came too,' said Horace cunningly, 'I reckon we could get him aboard and back to dry land, whoever he is, in no time at all.'
'I'll meet you on the slipway in twenty minutes,' said the constable briskly.
'Right you are, Mr Ridgeford.' Horace replaced his cap and turned to go.
'And,' the policeman added drily, 'I'll bring my own rope just in case you were thinking we ought to get a new one from Hopton's.'
Hopton's was the ships' chandler's on Shore Street. It was the store where the myriad of small boat-owners bought the necessities of weekend sailing. Mrs Hopton had been a Boller before she married.
'Just as you say, Mr Ridgeford,' said Horace. He felt no rancour: on the contrary. Like Alexander Solzhenitsyn's hero, Ivan Denisovich, he was a great one for counting his blessings. As a little later he settled his oars comfortably in the rowlocks while his son pushed the boat off from the slipway, he even felt a certain amount of satisfaction. There would be a fee to come from Her Majesty's Coroner for the County of Calleshire for assisting in the recovery of the drowned man, and that fee would only have to be shared within the family.
Excerpted from Last Respects by Catherine Aird. Copyright © 1982 Catherine Aird. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Ocean treasure along with three murders, a good mystery