Authors: Edmund Crispin
With deliberation, so as to avoid punishing his muscles needlessly, Jack Jones elevated himself an inch or two against the pillows. He pointed out of the window. Clustering round the bedâhead, Fen and Padmore and the Major gazed intelligently in the direction indicated. There, sure enough, was the elmâtree, with the bench fixed round its bole. There too was the battered grey Morris 1000 which Padmore had hired in Glazebridge to take him round the neighbourhood. And there too was a much newer, larger shinier saloon, whimsically disfigured by the words Avgas Will Travel painted along its side. Hundreds of unidentifiable small birds sat in rows on the telephone wires, pecking sedulously at their armpits. A light breeze blew. In the centre of the lane beyond the carâpark a couched cat was having a choking fit, trying to bring up a furâball.
âBecause, look,' said Jack Jones. âFrom where I am' â and his inflection made it clear that where he was could be taken for all practical purposes as immutable â âfrom where I am you can see the tree. Bend closer.' They bent closer. âYou can see the
tree â only not, of course,' said Jack Jones, âif there's anything in front of it.'
The Major straightened up rather abruptly. âYes, quite so, my dear fellow,' he said. âOne very seldom can see anything if there's anything in front of it. Not properly, anyway. So there was something in front of it that evening, was there? A car, I suppose. But in that case, from up here, couldn't you even so have seen if â'
âNo, because it was a horseâbox,' Jack Jones said. âOne of Clarence Tully's. I've told him he can leave them here any time he wants, and that evening he did, and that's what cut off my view of the old elm.'
âSo actually, you couldn't even see Gobbo?'
âOh yes, I could see
Well, part of him.'
âWell then, couldn't you see if he was talking to anyone?'
âNo, I couldn't, I'm afraid. Anyone he was talking to would've been hidden completely by the horseâbox.'
âYes, quite, but what I mean is, you could see he was talking to
couldn't you? You could see his mouth move and so forth.'
âBut, my dear chap, why ever not?'
âBecause it was only Gobbo's back part I could see. I couldn't see his face at all.'
âWell,' said Fen, âbut what about when Gobbo left, to go on home?'
âI wasn't here, I'm afraid. I'd got up to go to the toilet. And then when I came back, Gobbo had left â¦ I'm sorry,' said Jack Jones sadly, âbut there it is.'
âAs a matter of interest, though,' said Fen, âwhen you came back, was there anyone in the carâpark at all?'
âNo, no one. Nothing except for the horseâbox. Mondays are always quiet. No, the only other â Wait, though!' said Jack Jones in sudden excitement. âWait! The Rector!'
âThe Rector, my dear fellow? What about him?'
âPassed? Where? When?'
âJust before I went to the toilet, it was,' said Jack Jones, gratified at having at last found something positive to tell them.
âComing up along the lane fast, the Rector was â you know, with that bandyâlegged stride of his â and he scowled up that path that leads back to Mrs Clotworthy's cottage, and then when he got opposite the old elm he scowled at Gobbo too.'
âScowled?' said Padmore in some surprise. He evidently had no idea that Burraford's Rector, a naturally splenic man, was apt to be irked by the mere sight of a parishioner, no matter how harmlessly occupied. âScowled. I see. Yes. And what did he do then?'
âWent on past.'
âBut if Hagberd had been there, talking to Gobbo, then he must have seen him, mustn't he?'
âNo. Not if Hagberd was round at the back of the old elm. Because look at how thick that trunk is.'
âYes, I see that, but â but â Look, let's put it this way. Was Gobbo facing right?'
âI'll try again. What I meant was, was Gobbo facing the right way to have been talking to Hagberd if Hagberd was at the back of the elm?'
âOh, that. Yes. Sure he was.'
âWe'll have to ask the Rector,' said the Major. âThere's nothing else for it.'
âBut if he'd seen Hagberd talking to Gobbo, he'd be bound to have told the police.'
âYes, my dear fellow, but as we were saying before, if Gobbo was seen talking to
that would verify his story at least to
extent. We've got to go on inquiring, it seems to me, so long as there's anything left to inquire about Jack, don't you agree?'
âGracious, yes, Major. It's all very interesting â quite an excitement I'm only sorry I can't help you more over it myself, but it was that rhubarb Isobel gave me for lunch that day.'
Though we write âparson' differently, yet 'tis but âperson' â¦ and 'tis in Latin
is a parsonage.
So they left Jack Jones and went back downstairs to the bar, which by now was beginning to fill up a bit. Gobbo was still asleep - bent forward at an alarming-looking angle, as though putting his head down to ward off a faint - and Padmore, who wanted to ask him more questions, said that it would be only humane to wake him, and set him upright again. But the Major disagreed. They had much better see the Rector first, he said, and then if necessary refer the matter back to Gobbo later. As to Gobbo's posture, he often slept that way, and it seemed if anything to do him good, possibly by easing the pressure of his heart on his diaphragm, or vice versa. This transferable-vote hypothesis having subdued Padmore temporarily, they retrieved the whippet Fred, and Fen's sack, and went out into Indian summer.
The small birds had all disappeared, no doubt on the first leg of a migration, and so had the cat. From the kennels of the Glazebridge and District Harriers, three quarters of a mile away, came a clamour of hounds, at this distance uncannily suggestive of the bawlings of football fans attending a match. Suddenly there was a muffled explosion, and the near-side rear tyre of Padmore's hired car subsided to a rubber pancake.
look what's happened,' said Padmore.
But the Major said that he was supposed to walk anyway, for the benefit of his arthritis, so after Padmore had stared fixedly at the car for several moments, the expedition to the Rector set off on foot. Waving good-bye to Jack Jones at his window, it turned left along the lane in the direction of Aller and Glazebridge - past the church with its tall tower (âPopish', was the
Rector's opinion of church towers) and ring of seven bells (âPopish'); past the Old Parsonage, where Mrs Leeper-Foxe had had her dreadful experience while eating breakfast; and so, after a couple of hundred yards, out of Burraford into what once, before the Central Electricity Generating Board got at it, had been open country.
Power-lines marched and countermarched, criss-crossing one another at all angles, like files of army motor-cyclists giving a display at a tattoo; it was to Burraford, for preference, that the Board brought distinguished foreign visitors when it wanted to exhibit its method of never using one pylon where three would do as well. Underneath the Board's jumble of ironmongery there were, however, fields, hedges, trees, brooks, footpaths and farm animals. To your right, on a reasonably clear day, you could see part of the south-eastern escarpment of the Moor. To your left you could see the eighteenth-century faÃ§ade of Aller House. Ahead - about a mile ahead where the lane sloped upwards to a series of narrow bends and the hedges changed to high stone walls and embankments - you could see Aller hamlet. Here the Rector lived, and here Fen had rented a cottage for the three months of his stay. If you carried on beyond Aller, for five miles or so, you arrived eventually at Glazebridge, the small but affluent market town which was the centre of the district.
Owing to the Major's hip, progress was slow; but Fen's sack weighed heavy enough to make him glad to amble, and Pad-more was clearly not athletic at the best of times. They met, and were greeted by, a steady trickle of people coming away from the preparations for the Church Fete. Pattering along a yard or two ahead of them, Fred frequently turned his head to make sure they were still there. He seemed to be afraid that if he relaxed his vigilance at all, a pub would spring up magically by the roadside, and suck the Major in.
Padmore gave an account of himself.
He was not, it appeared, properly speaking a crime reporter at all. In reality he was an expert on African affairs, and had returned from the dark continent three months previously with the cheerless distinction of having been expelled from more emergent black nations, more expeditiously, than any other
journalist of any nationality whatever. Even Ould Daddah and Dr Hastings Banda had expelled him, he said - the latter inadvertently, under the impression that he was a Chinese.
âUnderdeveloped countries with overdeveloped susceptibilities,' said Padmore sourly.
There had been no question, he went on, of his trying to knock African aspirations; on the contrary, he sympathized with them. Simply, he had had a run of exceptionally bad luck. He would send off a cable censuring some dissident General at the exact moment when the General's minions were successfully gunning down the palace guards, the Deputy Postmaster and the doorman at the television studios. Or he would praise the enlightened policies of a Minister already on his way to be sequestrated or hanged. Or he would commend the up-to-date safety precautions at an oil refinery which the next day would go up in flames, with fearsome loss of life. As a result of all this, eventually his paper, the
tiring of running indignant news items about their special correspondent's various expulsions, had called him back to London, a call he had answered as soon as he could get out of the Zambian prison where he had been put because of an article drawing the world's attention to how well President Kaunda was always dressed (this had been interpreted as imputing conspicuous waste in high places). The
people had been very nice about it, Padmore said. They hadn't at all blamed him. There had been no question of not keeping him on the strength. Nevertheless, no one had been able to find anything much for him to do until the night when Chief Detective Superintendent Mashman had given a party to celebrate his retirement after thirty years in the Force. All four of the
senior crime staff had gone to this, and on their way back from it had driven rapidly into the back of a Bird's Eye Frozen Foods lorry and been removed to hospital. So when the sensational news of Routh's murder had come in, the following morning, Padmore had been assigned to cover the story; not (as he admitted) because he had any special qualifications for doing so, but because his mooning about the office was beginning to get on everyone's nerves.
âI expect you'll find you've seen much worse things in Africa,' his Editor had said.
âSo I came down to Glazebridge and stayed for a week at The Seven Tuns,' said Padmore, âand that was when I got the idea of â¦ why are we speeding up all of a sudden?'
The Major explained that they were speeding up because they were about to pass the Pisser.
Padmore said, âI see.'
âListen,' said the Major. âIt's making its noise again.'
There certainly was a noise going on, Padmore realized, and a disquieting one at that. It was being produced by a large, old-fashioned pylon set close against the left-hand side of the lane; and it was owing to the basic character of this noise, the Major explained, that this pylon which issued it was known throughout the neighbourhood as the Pisser (even intensely respectable elderly ladies, the Major truthfully claimed, would ring one another up and say, âIt's such a lovely afternoon, why don't we meet at the gate by the Pisser and go for a walk over Worthington's Steep?'). Long familiarity with the Pisser had not, however, bred contempt for it. On the contrary, it was universally felt that one of these days the Pisser's noise would end in a detonation, so that it would release the cables it supported, and these would fall on, and electrocute, anyone who happened to be in the lane at the point over which they passed. Complaints about the menace of the Pisser had at first been pooh-poohed by the electricity people, the more so as its activity was intermittent, so that the first draft of investigating engineers had found it as quiet as an oyster, and had gone away full of indignation at having their valuable time taken up with false alarms. But then, months later, the Pisser had chanced to be overheard by a high official of the Board picnicking near by with his wife and children; the attitude of authority had consequently undergone an abrupt change, and the Pisser was now frequently visited by technicians in helicopters or vans, hoping to catch it making its noise and to decide what was causing it. In the second part of their programme they had so far been unsuccessful, since the Pisser's noise had not only survived two complete overhauls, but had actually intensified both in volume and in oftenness. For this reason everyone still stepped out smartly when in its vicinity, sometimes even breaking into an agitated trot.
By the time Padmore had been told about the Pisser's ways they were safely past it, but as the Major was out of breath from talking and hurrying at the same time, they stopped for a brief rest where a horse was peering at them over the hedge.
âYou awful animal, you,' the Major said to it.
âIs it in poor condition?' Padmore asked.
âNo, no, my dear fellow, it's just an ordinary healthy horse,' the Major assured him. The horse rolled its eyes at them, revolving its ears on its skull. âHorrible treacherous brutes,' the Major said. âNip you in two at the neck as soon as look at you.'