Chapter 5 - Rigging screws, size 1⅜, galvanised by A.J. Hall
Jagged sparks of agitation crackled along her nerves as each bend in the road brought them closer to the boatyard. After five miles of increasingly aggravating silence from her companion, Marjorie was, at last, moved to speak.
“We’re almost bound to run into someone who knows me there. How am I supposed to explain you away?”
For the umpteenth time, he raised a hand to brush the tangle of hair out of his eyes. For the umpteenth time, it blew back. He looked faintly aggrieved, as if he thought his hair entitled to a specific exemption from the laws of physics. Marjorie bit back the temptation to point out that it had been he who’d insisted on having the roof down in the first place. Ten excruciatingly embarrassing minutes (for her; the filter he used to weed out irony seemed to work equally well on embarrassment) struggling with it in the hotel car park, convinced every minute that someone she knew would walk past. About all that could be said for it was that it had – albeit briefly – distracted her from the fact that she was on a journey which could only end in one or another version of terribly.
“There wasn’t a lot of room in the boot of this car even before we folded the roof into it,” Sherlock observed, irrelevantly. “Inconsiderate of your husband to take the Landrover last night and not bring it back, when you needed to take gear down to your boat. I expect you were furious when you found out this morning.”
“Livid,” she agreed. “He could perfectly easily have driven this one; he almost always does. Phil and Rosemary loaded their boat yesterday afternoon; it’s not as if they had any luggage.” She paused. “Hang on, how did you - ?”
“Your having to get out the manual to see how the roof worked suggested you don’t normally drive this car. From your posture and the filthy looks you’ve been giving to drivers who come shooting round the bends towards you, you’re used to a much higher driving position, as in a 4x4. The tyre marks left in mud in the unmade part of the lane show two cars left your house some time before my arrival and after the first heavy rain shower yesterday evening. The heavier vehicle with the broader wheel base left a good bit earlier than this one. There are three or four vehicles it could have been, but a Landrover seemed by far the most likely.”
“So you put us through the hassle of getting that blasted roof down just to see which car Julian normally drives? You could, you know, have just asked.”
He smiled; a mischievous quirk of those full, mobile lips. “Well, yes. But I always enjoy convertibles. Despite the wind. They create a perfect illusion that one’s got nothing to hide.”
Marjorie suppressed a blunt retort. The boatyard was fast approaching and illusions weren’t going to cut the mustard if anyone she knew was hanging about there.
“Drop me round the corner. I’ll go in ahead of you. Wait at least ten minutes before following me.”
She pulled over into a field gateway. Sherlock shouldered the enormous gym bag he’d thrown into the back seat on emerging from the hotel’s staff entrance and strolled off down the lane, whistling.
And now what was she supposed to do? If sitting in a randomly parked car doing nothing in particular didn’t arouse suspicion, she wasn’t sure what would. Might rain, too; she didn’t at all like the look of that bank of dark clouds blowing in from the south-west.
The thought of rain gave her an inspiration. How to waste ten minutes? Bloody obvious. Despite the grimness of the situation, Marjorie felt a hint of a smile on her lips as she reached into the glove compartment for the manual and girded her loins for an epic battle with the folding roof.
Fortunately, the boatyard was practically deserted by the time she drove in. The paid workers had knocked off already – she noted, with a reflexive flicker of irritation, her own yacht suspended in the cradle of the travelling hoist; clearly the last job on the rota and abandoned when 5.30pm rolled round. A couple of men she knew by sight were adding a few final dabs of varnish to their folk-boat but, from long experience, Marjorie expected they’d be off to the Ring o’ Bells for an in-depth comparative analysis of marine-environment coatings technology any moment now.
Someone must have bought that Westerly GK which had been sitting, forlornly, in a corner of the yard since last September; a figure in blue overalls, protective mask and goggles was crouched beneath the hull, intent on the grim task of removing the yacht’s old anti-fouling with a powered sander. Toxic blue dust rose in clouds. Marjorie found her eyes and nasal passages itching in sympathy.
And then, as she drew level with the Westerly, the figure ducked out from under the hull, straightened up to full height, and said, in that unmistakeable voice, “My bag’s just over there. There’s a spare set of gear in it. Put it on.”
“But –” She looked up at the Westerly’s hull. “Whose yacht is this?”
He shrugged. “Does it matter? It was in the right place. It’s statistically unlikely the real owner will choose today to work on it, having neglected it for months.”
“You – you can’t do this. It’s breaking and entering – or something.” Even before the words were out of her mouth she felt their absurdity. Quite apart from anything else, Sherlock clearly had no qualms about either breaking or entering –the sander, now she gave it a good look, seemed horribly familiar. And it did seem unlikely he’d have brought his own.
“Certainly not.” Impossible to tell his expression, under that much blue grime, but there was a distinctly sardonic note in his voice. “The gates were open. The worst you can accuse me of is trespassing and anti-fouling.”
Marjorie snorted. “A crime which comes with its own built-in defence of insanity.”
“So I’ve been finding. But unparalleled as an excuse for an absolutely impenetrable disguise. I’ve never worn a full scene of the crime suit in broad daylight and had no-one bat an eyelid before.”
“Is that what that is?” She eyed the blue overalls in a new light.
“Yes. Courtesy of Scotland Yard. Not that they know it. Anyway, put one on. Goggles, cap, and mask, too. Then give me a guided tour of the yard. Especially any areas that can be locked up. Particularly if sailing committee officers have privileged access to them.”
“You mean the racing store,” Marjorie said, automatically.
“Get covered up. Then show me.”
Sherlock’s entire manner had changed since leaving the car. He fizzed with cold, focussed energy, like, she thought with a sick pang, a ferret in a rat-ridden barn. He cast tense looks up at the lowering sky (she’d been right; the first drops of rain were already spitting down) as if weighing how much daylight they had left.
Even his speech patterns had changed, snapped out instructions replacing the earlier flood of information.
“Keys,” he demanded, when they were standing outside the blue steel lock-up behind the main shed. Marjorie had them out of her handbag almost before she knew it, certainly before it occurred to her to ask how he knew she’d a key for the store on her ring.
He almost snatched them from her hands. He’d stripped off his heavy duty rubber gloves to reveal latex ones beneath; now he reached into his pockets and slid on fabric overshoes before unlocking the store.
“While I’ve been accused of contaminating a few crime scenes in my time, I’d prefer not to do it with a substance reputed to make molluscs change sex,” he observed, catching her watching him. Before she could retort – and, while modern anti-foulings were supposed to be more ecologically friendly, she wouldn’t like to go bail for whatever muck coated the Westerly’s hull – he pulled out a torch, switched it on and slid through the narrow entrance to the racing store. His torch beam played over deflated racing marks, a stack of upright markers with bright orange floats; racks of masts and rudders for the cadet section’s Toppers.
“Recognise anything here there shouldn’t be?” He turned to her out of the gloom, shadowy and looming behind the dazzle of his torch.
She wasn’t intimidated, though. Her hand went up to touch her arm again. One June day five years ago she’d walked into nightmare – the hot, waxy scent of lilies in the church stifling her breath as she’d walked down the aisle. Lost in a maze of flowers; expensive, hothouse flowers, needing constant effort and attention, not like the bluebells under the trees which just grew, season after season.
Lost in a maze, and over the years any energy she had once possessed to find her own way out had evaporated. Now, for the first time, she had a guide.
No flowers here. The racing store smelt of mildew and damp rubber, two-stroke oil and a whiff of something else, something faint, fugitive; something animal, something that had no place here.
“Over there.” Her voice sounded harsh, unnatural in her own ears. He turned, sweeping the torch round to reflect along the line of her outstretched, pointing finger.
“Sail bags. We don’t keep sails in here. Too damp.”
He turned, a swift, swooping movement, his back and shoulders – narrow as they were – blocking her view. She heard a long, satisfied exhale.
He dropped to his knees, gloved hands reaching to slacken the draw-string of the nearest bag and peer inside; stabs of light as he took photographs with his mobile phone.
He tightened the drawstring and stood up. “That should ensure the police can’t ignore this tip-off. We’d better be going.”
Marjorie didn’t move. Her brain sent commands to her legs and her legs mutinously refused to listen.
“Is that – them?”
“Well, if it isn’t, this case is about to become thoroughly interesting.” He must have caught her expression in the half-light by the store entrance because he added, “That is, it’s at least one male and one female body. You could try to identify them, but I’d prefer to leave the sacks as undisturbed as possible. ”
“Two bodies? But – there are five bags.” She realised the implications as she was speaking; a hot tide of bile rose at the back of her throat.
“Pruning saw. As I said. Come on, I’ve a message to send, before whoever put those bodies there comes back to retrieve them. ”
His hand clamped, hard, over her wrist, virtually pulling her to the car. He stood, visibly impatient, while she stripped off the overalls with trembling hands and threw them into the bag. She almost hit the gatepost on her way out of the yard and then had to brake, hard, to avoid a small hatchback that shot out of nowhere.
“Turn into the pub car park.” Sherlock waved an autocratic hand towards the Ring o’Bells almost, but not quite, too late for her to make the turn. She swore under her breath.
“Round the back.” There was plenty of space at the front, nevertheless she followed his direction, pulling up resentfully in the deserted overflow car park, near the pub’s back door.
“What is this about?” she demanded. “We’ve just found two dead bodies and you want to go to the pub?”
Though, if I weren’t driving, a stiff Scotch would be * exactly what I need right now.*
“Sorry,” he said, with absolute insincerity. “But I need hot water and soap to get rid of this dust. Otherwise I’ll be leaving a trail wherever I go. Also, this pub commands an excellent view of the approach to the boatyard. If your husband’s planning to collect the bodies and dump them this evening, he’s cutting it fine.”
Marjorie gulped. Something had pinged her internal alarms; she only now realised what. “Earlier, you said, ‘whoever put them there’.”
“I did, didn’t I?” Sherlock made no move to leave the car. “That’s how the police will phrase it. Two dismembered bodies concealed in a place to which several people have legitimate access. Including, by the way, you.”
She gulped. “You can’t think –”
“On the contrary. I do think. It’s the police who don’t. This isn’t a likely crime for a woman, but it isn’t an impossible one, either. Not with a powered pruning saw. And various hoists and tackles to assist with shifting heavy weights. You’ve no alibi for last night, either. The story of seeing your husband at Town Quay rests on your word alone. Even if the CCTV was switched on and looking in the right place – unlikely on both counts – all it could have picked up would be a blurred figure wearing oilskins. You could have betted on there being at least one of those on that ferry. Even if there weren’t, absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence.”
Solid ground turned to quicksand beneath her feet. “But why would I bring you in, if I’d done it?”
His voice was cold, implacable. “The compulsive tendency of the guilty to over-elaborate their innocence past the point of common sense. It’s happened a few times, now. On balance, more women than men try it, too. Perhaps they think I’m more likely to be susceptible.”
His pale eyes glittered in the reflected light from the dashboard; he seemed about as susceptible as a cobra. Marjorie took a deep breath and switched off the ignition.
“If you’ve got the brains I hope you have, you should be able to work out whether I’m telling the truth. But – bearing in mind what you said about the bank – I’d be a bloody fool to rely on my abilities to manipulate anyone’s susceptibility. I’m thirty years past the eyelash fluttering stage, and I’ve not reached silver-haired fragility yet. So while you’re trying to make up your mind whether to shop me or help me, I could do with a coffee.”
“Actually, you could do with a brandy.” He sounded amused. He was out of the car holding the driver’s door open for her before she could climb out of her seat. “Deserve it, too. But not at this precise moment. We’ve still got to catch your husband in the act of disposing of the bodies.”
“So you do believe me!”
They were almost on the threshold of the pub. He elbowed open the door to let her into the bar. The two varnishers from the yard were, as she’d expected, huddled in a corner, pints half-drunk before them. They continued to discuss coatings, oblivious of her presence.
He took her to a seat in the window, eying up the view from the window, the cover afforded by the curtains.
“Oh, that. Practical demonstration of why I’m not just planning to hand what we’ve got to the authorities and leave them to get on with it. Circumstantial evidence and the CPS – bad combination. I’ve known you didn’t do it since 16.55 this afternoon.”
“Took your time, didn’t you?” Marjorie snapped.
“As I said. People do try that sort of thing from time to time. And it would have been a much more elegant crime if you’d done it.” For a moment, blast him, his voice sounded almost regretful. “Though, on the whole, I do prefer not having homicidal clients. Except when I’m very bored. Coffee, wasn’t it? Keep your eye on the road, then. And, if you see the Landrover, wave.”
He moved across the bar with assured grace, apparently unconscious of the absurd panda-eyed appearance given by the blue grime streaks on his face and the contrasting pale skin round his eyes, where the goggles had protected them. He placed an order at the bar, gestured towards her and vanished in the direction of the loos. Marjorie turned her attention to the road outside, willing herself not to think too hard about sail bags. Or pruning saws.