Authors: J. M. Gregson
Copyright © J. M. Gregson 2014
The right of J. M Gregson to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.
First published by Magna Large Print in 2002.
This edition published in 2014 by Endeavour Press Ltd.
They were subdued, all of them. Cast down by the place and the darkness. And perhaps by the weather, too: thin drizzle drifted through icy mist, as if the elements signalled their condemnation of what was happening.
They spoke in whispers, glancing behind them into the thick blackness in fear of discovery, keeping their torches resolutely hooded upon the ground where they trod. When they reached the place, the darkness was so thick that they trod upon each other’s heels as they stopped; only the leaders of the uneven procession were aware that they had arrived.
While the two men with tools hammered in the poles and hung the arc lamps upon them, the others stood in uneasy silence, wondering what function they were to perform in the events to come. In was a relief when the lights were set up and connected to the batteries, so that the lower limbs of the bizarre tableau around the grave were suddenly and brilliantly illuminated. Instinctively, they moved a little closer to each other, as if the circle of amber light represented a protection against the spirits of the dead which lurked in the darkness around them.
As the two council workmen picked up their spades and set about their grisly assignment, the other four stood in pairs on either side of the grave, like parties opposing each other in this enterprise. Superintendent Lambert stood with the Coroner’s Officer, Sergeant Jackson, their black shoes already liberally splashed with mud in the short journey from the cars.
The vicar who stood opposite them with the Coroner and the undertaker wore galoshes as a badge of his experience in this place: their wet rubber gleamed bright in the light of the lamps. Above them, he was all in black. Whether he had donned the cassock as a signal of his disapproval of what they were about or as a mark of formal respect to the corpse they were to disturb was not clear. His blackness seemed absolute; with the wide brim of his hat obscuring his face, he loomed on the edge of the grave like some medieval visitant from a darker and more superstitious age.
He was flanked by two figures who stood still as statues as the spades rasped busily before them. The Coroner watched every move as closely and severely as a judge, conscious that he represented the law in this strange proceeding. The undertaker that the law required stood beside him, staring ahead with the outward calm his profession seemed to indicate, disguising the fact that this was the first exhumation he had ever been called upon to witness.
The workmen had been nervous at first, as if a consciousness of the irregularity of this business affected their physical movements. Their first diggings were jerky and puppet-like, so that small quantities of damp soil flew in unpredictable directions. Soon the rhythms of a familiar labour banished their nervousness; the pile of earth by the side of the grave grew steadily, the sounds of spades on soil and stone became more regular. Their silent audience watched and waited, each member trying to breathe evenly as the cavity grew in size and depth.
As the work went on, the first faint light crept into the scene: in this place, it had the effect at first of making the surroundings seem even more sinister. The mist drifted in thin, irregular swathes around them. The gravestones and monuments, gradually revealed in greater numbers and detail, stretched away like grim sentinels. A carved Victorian angel loomed suddenly unnaturally high from the greyness; for a moment, with the movement of the cloud, it seemed to bear down upon them like the figurehead of a ship. Slowly, the outline of the ancient church became visible, its tower appearing and disappearing with the density of the mist, as though in an early horror film. For everything in this dimness that passed for dawn was in shades of black and white.
Although it was what they had been waiting for, each participant in the macabre drama felt his blood chill with the sound of a spade scraping against the smoothness of polished oak. They glanced anew behind them to make sure they were not observed, as if they were modern Burkes and Hares instead of officials, sanctioned in their actions by the Home Secretary. With the noise, the two men digging began to work more cautiously, moving soil and gravel with a concern that was almost reverential as they gradually exposed the whole of the lid of the coffin.
Down there, five feet below the surface of the surrounding ground, Stygian darkness prevailed still over the grey December dawn. When the senior gravedigger stooped to brush the earth carefully from the chrome with his hand, the plate gleamed unnaturally bright in the gloom. Then the man shone a torch upon it, and Lambert read in letters that were still sharp EDMUND CRAVEN, AGED 73 YEARS. It was at least the right coffin: for an instant,
grotesqueries had flashed through his mind.
It took some time to lever the coffin from the grave. For here the expertise of the council diggers ceased; they had never before been called upon to retrieve a body they had committed to the earth. They struggled clumsily for a full ten minutes, their boots slipping on damp wood and mud, their tongues slipping into low obscenities of ecumenical frustration which the vicar sensibly left unheard. The Coroner’s Officer, Sergeant Jackson, and the undertaker had to lend reluctant assistance before the coffin was set precariously upon the level which it had left thirteen months earlier. To the secret relief of all of them, they smelt no odour save that of foetid earth.
The four men who had set down the coffin clustered round it, their breath snorting in long white funnels amid the universal greys. Then they coiled the ropes with which they had finally succeeded in extricating the coffin and gingerly took up their burden, trying hard to implement the directions of the undertaker, in deference to his expertise. Lambert, who had successfully counselled to himself the imperatives of age and rank against the impulse to leap Hamlet-like into the grave and offer his assistance, followed behind with the vicar and the Coroner. Perhaps it was the tardily increasing daylight and a growing familiarity with their charge that made the bearers of the coffin forget their initial reserve; it moved slowly towards the gates of the churchyard to an accompaniment of muttered oaths and increasingly secular comment.
The lamps and torches were put out now, acknowledging a dim natural light which could scarcely be called day. There was no frost, but with the mist swirling still across the sodden ground, the porters slipped and slid and their charge rocked precariously. The coffin, which had covered this ground on the shoulders of four professionally steady and stone-faced men a little over a year ago, was removed in erratic and undignified fashion, by men only too anxious now to have this bizarre task concluded.
In life, Edmund Craven had never entered a Black Maria. Now his decaying mortal remains were stowed swiftly and without ceremony upon the floor of the police van. Lambert watched the vehicle move swiftly and quietly away. His too vivid imagination provoked speculation he had no wish to entertain upon the condition of the coffin’s contents.
Even three hours later, there was not a lot more light. Lambert decided this was going to be one of those depressing days when autumn deepened into winter and the days were scarcely more than intervals between nights. The thought did not improve his humour.
In his modern office there was no problem of illumination. The new CID centre had eliminated most of the obvious discomforts of the old one. Beneath the hard white fluorescent glow, he tried hard not to long illogically for the cramped and untidy room which long usage had hung about with nostalgia for him. Nor to lecture his immediate subordinate; the youthful and confident Detective-Inspector Rushton was an irritant as usual with his breezy certainties. Rushton was in court that morning; he was going through
the motions of consulting his chief about a case he thought perfectly straightforward.
‘We’ll oppose bail, of course. Keep Charlie boy as uncomfortable as possible for as long as we can.’ Perhaps Rushton took his Superintendent’s silence for opposition, for he
went on at length about the young ruffian who had been apprehended in the middle of an untidy mugging. ‘Buggers should be birched, if you ask me—but no one will!’ he concluded.
Lambert suppressed the unkindly thought that this was just as well. He knew better than most, for his experience was longer, that the invective was no more than a safety-valve for police frustration. Frustration against the twin enemies of a law which did not always seem designed to protect the innocent and slick defence counsels whose unashamed function was to protect the guilty with every resource at their command. He looked down at his own handwritten query on Rushton’s typewritten report. ‘You’re still determined to go for GBH?’ he said. Even in his own ears, it sounded like the criticism he had been trying to avoid.
‘Should he open and shut, once we present the evidence,’ said Rushton. Lambert thought the black mark he mentally awarded the younger man for this was fully justified. DIs should be beyond indulging in bravado, but Rushton’s attitude represented little more than that. The woman had been dumped firmly on her backside in the shopping precinct and considerably shocked, but there was little evidence of damage on flesh that was plump enough to bruise quite readily. Lambert wanted this tearaway punished as harshly as the law permitted: for mugging the middle-aged and elderly was the most despicable of modern criminal developments. But if they went for too much, their quarry would slip through their fingers and they would get nothing.
But it wasn’t his case: if there did not seem much evidence of violence around, that should be a decision for Rushton. He said mildly, ‘The defence will say his father is in prison and the boy has been roaming the streets at night since he was twelve.’ They could be safely united in their resentment of that.
‘That won’t matter. Nothing can excuse the way this scum has behaved. Surely they’ll all see that.’ Rushton was one of the few officers who did not look like a policeman when he was in plain clothes. Picking a tiny piece of cotton from his sleeve, he looked now like a dynamic sales manager about to enthuse his staff.
‘One hopes so. No doubt our prosecuting counsel will express the sentiment to them in rather different words.’ Lambert wondered why he usually seemed to be lecturing Rushton when they had these little exchanges. The man always seemed to rub him up the wrong way. For the first time ever, he wondered if the reverse might also be true.
Rushton had copies of the photographs of the victim’s bruises, which would be presented as evidence in court. The two of them studied them carefully, each wishing that they showed that their villain had done more than grip the woman roughly by the upper arm as he seized her bag. Eventually Rushton said reluctantly, ‘We might have to be prepared to settle for robbery with the threat of violence. Should I have a word with our prosecutor beforehand?’ He spoke as if he were making a concession to Lambert, not deferring to the evidence.
The Superintendent said no more than, ‘I think it might be best. It would give him the chance to consult with his opposite number if he thinks it advisable.’
‘Very well.’ Rushton stood up. He had the air of a man giving way to a senior rank who has lost his nerve. When he went out, Lambert, who had tried to do no more than protect Rushton from himself, was left feeling irritated. He worked his way through the paperwork which normally bored him with an unusual gusto, glad to be free for a while of his subordinates and the problems they brought.
The phone call he had been waiting for came at just after eleven. ‘John? You’ve made an old man very happy once again.’ The pathologist relished dark deeds more than Dracula. Amid the hundreds of routine deaths the law required him to investigate, he looked to the CID, and Lambert in particular, to provide him with the drama he craved.
Lambert, who felt he knew what was coming, dropped into officialese to act as straight man for the bloodthirsty doctor. ‘You think there is evidence of suspicious circumstances?’
‘There is evidence, my dear Superintendent, of murder most foul.’ Dr Burgess rolled the phrase with the sonorous delight of Hamlet’s father coming from beyond the grave to announce such deeds. As, in a sense, he was, Lambert supposed.
‘Splendid evidence. Good enough to delight a policeman. Strong enough for me to swear to in a court of law. Get down here and I’ll show you.’ As usual, Burgess wanted to make the most of the revelations of science. And Lambert, watching twists of thin mist caress the roofs of the Sierras in the police car park, saw the November day brighten with a new interest.
‘I’ll be there in half an hour.’
When there is no wind in the Cotswolds, mist hangs all day in the winter valleys. Every rise of the road to the top of a slope seemed to take the car into real cloud, and Lambert drove the four miles with extreme caution. There was moisture everywhere. It covered his car, the hawthorn hedges on the lanes, the tiled roofs on the amber stone cottages. It weighed down the few dank roses which hung in the gardens as a remembrance of the departed summer. Yet Lambert sang, low and cheerful, relishing the privacy of the car. Not for the first time, he wondered about the psyche of a man who could be so cheered by the thought of a murder investigation. “Tis no sin for a man to labour in his vocation,’ he told himself firmly, as he invariably did on these occasions, ignoring the fact that the aging reprobate who had originated the phrase had been using the argument to justify armed robbery.
Burgess had acquired a new assistant since his last visit. He was a severe-looking young man, who wore his white coat like armour designed to keep an uninformed public at bay. He held a test-tube at arm’s length against the light to examine it; Lambert did not care to speculate upon the nature of the red-black contents. He began to announce himself, but was saved from enlargement by the arrival of Burgess from his inner sanctum, where he had obviously been listening for the sound of his visitor’s voice.
‘Come and view the remains, Superintendent. You will find them of surpassing interest, I promise you.’ He must have caught the disapproval of this unprofessional approach on his assistant’s face, for he stopped in full flight to make an introduction. ‘This is Mr Webster, my new assistant. With a name like that, you would think he would revel in the gorier aspects of our trade, but he does not appear to.’ To an uncomprehending Webster, who had scarcely heard of his Jacobean namesake, he intoned,
‘I know death hath ten thousand several doors
or men to take their exits.’
Then he swept Lambert from the scene, before he could even offer the ascetic Mr Webster the consolation of a sympathetic shrug.
Lambert had been bracing himself for a confrontation with decomposing flesh. He remembered vividly previous occasions when Burgess had enlarged upon the peculiarities of kidneys and livers, which had quivered before him on stainless steel while his stomach had threatened to reveal its all too normal functioning. Mercifully, Burgess passed straight through the laboratory, which looked like an operating theatre, and went into his small office beyond. Lambert, studiously avoiding any contemplation of organs which had left this life thirteen months earlier, was fearful nevertheless of the odours which might assail him. He need not have worried: he fancied the all-pervading smell of formaldehyde was stronger than ever, but that was all his apprehensive nostrils caught.
The tiny room was almost filled by a desk and two filing cabinets, but there was just room for two swivel armchairs. Burgess gestured expansively towards the larger of these and sat down himself behind the desk.
‘Murder, as you no doubt suspected. Do you know how?’
‘I haven’t even speculated on that.
Burgess was not at all deflated by this world-weary approach to his melodramatic announcements. ‘I can tell you. The late Edmund Craven was undoubtedly poisoned. Presumably by person or persons unknown. Or do you already have a culprit in mind?’
‘Ah, you will be starting from scratch.’ Cyril Burgess, grey eyes twinkling with mischief, seemed to find the idea wholly beguiling.
, I suppose, Superintendent?’
For a moment Lambert was at a loss; then he understood the train of thought. He felt like an avuncular WEA lecturer as he said, ‘The popular idea that poisoning is a woman’s crime is very much an over-simplification. There are more men than women among convicted poisoners.’
‘But the annals of crime also show that among female murderers, poisoners form the greatest proportion.’
Lambert realised that a man as interested in violent death as Burgess would have read up the subject. ‘I’ll bear that in mind, Cyril. Maybe I’ll have a confession within twenty-four hours.’
‘Oh, I do hope not, John. Not that I want to complicate your life, of course.’ The pathologist’s smile belied his words. Then he became suddenly brisk and professional. ‘You’ll want all the details for your file and the eventual court case, no doubt. Or will that sturdy English yeoman you trail behind you be collecting them later?’
‘Someone will be along to collect exhibits and reports later. Quite possibly the admirable Sergeant Hook to whom I presume you refer.’ Hook had made a good-humoured enemy of Burgess by confessing a contempt for golf, a game the doctor played erratically but enthusiastically. ‘In the meantime, I have no doubt you can tell me what poison was involved.’
‘Arsenic,’ said Burgess with relish. ‘None of your clever modern insecticides or ricin in this case. And in anticipation of your next question, no, there’s no possibility that it was ingested accidentally by the victim. This murder was deliberate and systematic.’
‘You can tell so much, even at this stage?’ Lambert was aware that a little flattery could scarcely come amiss, but his curiosity was genuine.
‘There is clear evidence of arsenic throughout what remains of the body.’ Burgess pursed his lips and stood up, so that for a moment Lambert thought he was to be taken after all to see the grisly evidence. He tried not to think what a stomach would look like after over a year in the grave. Instead, the pathologist took a small polythene bag from the top of the filing cabinet and placed it carefully on the desk between them. Lambert did not touch it, but he examined it as carefully as a man offered an exploding cigar. It appeared to contain rather dirty grey fibres from an old sock. He said so, and Burgess was immensely gratified.
He picked up the polythene and looked at it fondly. It was his turn to lecture. ‘That is human hair, John. Hair from the corpse of Edmund Craven. Hair is a tough and long-lasting material, being composed of keratin, the same protein that forms human fingernails. It is also a highly identifiable and highly revealing material.’
‘And what does it reveal in this case?’ Lambert was aware of playing the eager student to keep this exposition running, but he was also genuinely fascinated. In a long CID career, this was only his second poisoning.
‘The examination of the organs of the body showed us quickly enough that death had been promoted by arsenic. It is this hair which tells us much more about how that arsenic was administered. Arsenic is excreted from the body in the usual way, but also by means of the roots of the hair. As the hair lengthens, so arsenic grows out.’ Burgess leaned back and studied the long-dead hair indulgently, like a man studying a favourite cat in repose. With his white coat cast aside, he looked in his immaculate navy suit like the consultant surgeon he might have been. ‘What is in that bag is a kind of arsenic read-out. By applying a test called a Newton activation analysis, I can tell with certainty whether the poison was administered as a single large dose or in the form of several small doses over a period.’
‘And what does this analysis tell you in this case?’
‘Arsenic was administered in systematic small doses.’
‘Over how long a period?’
‘That is impossible to define with the precision that a court of law demands. But I would be prepared to swear to not less than six weeks and not more than twelve.’
For a few moments, Lambert found it difficult to take his eyes off the drab-looking package that had established the parameters of his murder investigation. He said slowly, ‘Then someone planned this death in advance and murdered Craven quite cold-bloodedly over a lengthy period.’
‘With malice aforethought,’ said Cyril Burgess. He beamed delightedly.