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Authors: Robert Barnard

Death of a Mystery Writer

BOOK: Death of a Mystery Writer
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Contents

I The Unpleasantness at the Prince Albert

II Oliver Fairleigh's Week

III Oliver Fairleigh's Week (Two)

IV Oliver Fairleigh's Saturday

V Suddenly at His Residence

VI Mourned by His Family . . .

VII Said the Piggy: I Will

VIII Strong Poison

IX Father and Son

X Master and Man

XI Barabbas

XII Something Unspoken

XIII
De Mortuis . . .

XIV Downstairs, Upstairs

XV Black Sheep

XVI Terminal

XVII Death Comes as the End

CHAPTER I
The Unpleasantness at the Prince Albert

It was Saturday night, and the saloon bar of the Prince Albert was nicely full: there was plump, jolly Mrs. Corbett from the new estate, whose laugh—gurgling with gin and tonic—periodically rang through the whole pub; there was her husband, her teenage daughter looking bored, and her old mother looking daggers—all on a family night out; at other tables there were would-be-smooth young men and their silly girlfriends, fat men with fishing stories and thin men with fishy handshakes, and in the corner there was the inevitable sandy-haired man on his own, with his whisky and his evening paper.

From the public bar came the dull, horrendous thud of the jukebox, concession to a civilization in decline; but on good nights the saloon bar could make enough noise to forget it, and tonight was a good night: Jim Turner, the publican, had early cottoned on to the fact that nobody cares anymore about the quality of beer in a pub, and that all they are interested in is pub food. Thus, on a Friday and Saturday night he did a roaring trade in pies, plates of beef and turkey, scotch eggs, and sizzling sausages—all washed down with a brew that looked like dandelion juice and tasted like poodle's urine.

“Here's a nice bit of breast for you, sir,” he would say, bustling up with a plate, “and I can't say fairer than that, can I?”

Around the bar stood little groups of men and their wives and ladies, telling stories and waiting to tell stories. But at the end of the bar, nearly squeezed into a corner, was one solitary young
man, his eyes concentrated on his pint mug. He was quite well dressed in his way: his dark suit was new, almost sharp, his shirt good quality, though not very clean. He was good-looking in his way, too, but it was not a very well-defined way: his lips were full, but self-indulgent, without line or determination; his cheeks were unfurrowed, almost hairless; and his eyes were large and liquid—so large and liquid that he seemed as he stood there to be near to tears of self-pity.

He was, in fact, rather drunk. This was his fourth pint of best bitter, and though it was not very good he had declined Jim Turner's suggestion that he go on to stronger stuff. His trips to the lavatory had become frequent, and last time he had nearly knocked over Mrs. Corbett's glass, and had been given a piece of that lady's tongue. He talked to no one, read no paper: he merely stood or sat on his stool, contemplating his glass as if it were his curriculum vitae. Now and then he smoked—nervously, carelessly, and always stubbing out the cigarette before he was halfway through it.

At the nearest table to him a local couple from Hadley had met up with “foreigners” from Bracken. Bracken was a new town, thirty-five miles away. It was full of Londoners and Northerners, all of whom could be treated with friendly contempt by locals when they motored out of their brick and glass Elysium and stopped for the evening at a real pub. Tonight Jack and Doris were doing the honors of the vicinity, and Ted and Vera from Bracken were being quiet and humble.

“'Course, a lot of the old places have been bought up for cottages,” said Doris, “places I knew when I was a girl, real rundown and awful—well, they've been bought up, by outsiders, you know, and you wouldn't believe the prices!”

“Lot of well-known people, too,” said Jack, “because we're still pretty convenient for London. There's that Penny Feather, for example, the actress—”

“I don't think I've—”

“'Course you have. You know: ‘Why is your hair so soft and shiny, Mummy?' She does the mummy.”

“Oh, yes, I—”

“'Course you have. Well, she's got a cottage just down the road. Comes down at weekends. Real smasher. Comes in here sometimes, with different men. You do see life here, I can tell you. Specially on a Saturday night.”

“Then there's Arnold Silver—
Sir
Arnold, I beg his pardon.”

“The financier.”

“That's it. Got it in one. Always bringing libel actions.
He
bought the Old Manor. Wife sometimes lives there weeks on end. He's just down here now and again, of course.”

“We don't see
them
—they're never in here. Pity, really. We could ask him for a good tip for the stock market.” Everyone laughed jollily and drank up.

“Then,” said Doris, “not in Hadley, but in Wycherley—that's twelve miles south on the London road—in Wycherley there's Oliver Fairleigh.”

She paused, and gazed complacently down at her navy two-piece, knowing that Ted and Vera would need no prompting over the significance of this name.

“Really?” said Ted, decidedly impressed. “I didn't know he lived around here.”

“Just outside Wycherley,” said Jack. “It was the old squire's house, but the family went to pieces after the war. He's lived there twenty-odd years now.”

“I like a good thriller,” said Ted.

“He's
ingenious
with it,” said Doris, not quite sure this was the right description.

“Yes, they're more detective stories, aren't they? People buy them, though, don't they?”

“He's top of the bestsellers every Christmas,” said Doris, now swelling with vicarious author's pride. She did not notice, by the bar, that Jim Turner was giving significant (and obsequious) grins at the drunk young man in the corner.

“I've heard he's a bit of a tartar,” said Ted. Jack and Doris were rather unsure whether it added more to the prestige of the neighborhood if he was or if he wasn't a tartar.

“Can't believe all you read in the papers,” said Jack.

“Well, he
is,
that's true,” said Doris. “But he
is
an author. It's different somehow, isn't it?”

“I suppose so,” said Vera, not quite convinced.

“And he's had his troubles,” said Jack, lowering his voice, but only by a fraction.

“Oh?”

“From his family,” said Doris, who had never set eyes on any of them. “You know how it is. They've not turned out well.” She shook her head enigmatically.

“Well, there's one boy,” said Jack, “plays with a pop group.”

“There's a lot of money to be made wi' them groups,” said Ted.

“It's not
that
good. And it doesn't go well with the image: his real name is Sir Oliver Fairleigh-Stubbs, you know, with the hyphen, and he's always been very country squire. The children had nannies and all that—everything the best and no expense spared. Anyway, it's not just him—the girl's very wild they say—”

“And the eldest boy, well, he really has been a case,” said Jack, quite unconscious of the fact that behind him Jim Turner's face was creased in anguish and he was trying to get one of his other customers to dig Jack in the ribs.

“Drifted from job to job,” said Doris, “never held one down more than six months.”

“Debts here, there, and everywhere,” said Jack, “and not a matter of five or ten pounds either, believe you me. His father had to foot them, of course.”

“Had the police up there once,” said Doris.

“It's the mother I feel sorry for.”

“He's a hopeless case, they say—a real ne'er-do-well. Still, it's often the way, isn't it?”

“It makes you think, though, doesn't it? A young chap like that, with everything going for him.”

They were interrupted by the crash of an overturning bar stool. The young man from the corner lunged in their direction, paused unsteadily in mid-lunge, and then came to rest with both hands on their table, gazing—red, blotchy, and bleary—into their eyes.

“He had everything going for him, did he? Well, he had his father going for him twenty-four hours a day, that's true enough.” He gulped, his speech became still more slurred, and the lakes that were his eyes at last overflowed. “You don't know what . . . You don't know what you're talking about. You never met my . . . my famous father. If you had you'd know he was a . . .
swine.
He's a bastard. He's the biggest goddamn bastard that ever walked this . . . bloody earth.” He turned to stand up and make a pronouncement to the whole bar, but he failed to make the perpendicular, and crashed back onto the table.

“My father ought to be shot,” he sobbed.

CHAPTER II
Oliver Fairleigh's Week

Sunday

Sir Oliver Fairleigh-Stubbs sat in the backseat of his Daimler, surveying the world through bulbous, piggy eyes. Over his knees, and over those of his wife, who sat beside him, was a rug, although it was June and the sun was shining. Sir Oliver, though still enough to the casual glance, was far from asleep. His eyes were noticing everything, and sometimes sparkling as if in anticipation. From time to time he pursed his mouth up, or blew out his cheeks; at others he let out little grunts, like a sow in ecstasy.

Lady Fairleigh-Stubbs knew the signs, and sighed. Oliver was intending to be difficult. Perhaps to make a scene. Against her better judgment (for she knew that nothing she said was likely to have any effect on her husband's behavior, except to make it worse) she said:

“Such a nice couple, the Woodstocks.”

“Who?” or rather an interrogatory grunt, was the reply.

“The Woodstocks. And charming of them to invite us to lunch.”

The grunt, this time, was just a grunt.

“They're poor as church mice,” said Lady Fairleigh-Stubbs.

“Must want something,” said her husband.

“So brave, to set out on a writing career at the moment, when things are so difficult.”

“Not brave, bloody ridiculous,” said Sir Oliver. “Deserves to land himself in the poorhouse, if by the grace of God we still had them.”

He puffed out his cheeks to give himself an expression of outrage. Lady Fairleigh-Stubbs sighed again.

“Drive slower!” barked Sir Oliver suddenly to Surtees, the chauffeur. “I want to look at the trees.” As the car slowed down, he let his great treble chin flop onto his chest, and closed his eyes.

“Oliver, we're here,” said his wife—a thing he knew perfectly well. He opened his eyes wide, and surveyed the landscape as if he had just got off an international flight.

“Not
that,”
he said, as the Daimler pulled up at a wicket. “Good God, I thought artists' cottages went out in my youth.”

“They've knocked two together and done them up,” said Lady Fairleigh-Stubbs, as if that excused the decidedly twee effect. “I think it's awfully pretty. I gather this is one of the few bits of property the Woodstocks have left.”

When Surtees came round to open the door, Oliver Fairleigh remained seated in the car for a full minute, his hands spanning his monstrous tummy, gazing with distaste at the orange-painted cottage, and knowing perfectly well he was being observed from inside. Then he climbed puffily out and stood by the gate. When the front door opened—the minimum acknowledgment that he was looked for—he condescended to open the gate himself.

BOOK: Death of a Mystery Writer
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