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Authors: Edmund Crispin

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Meanwhile, unfortunate Hagberd got madder and madder.

2

The grass grew and was cut (Hagberd previously grabbing up all discoverable hen-pheasants and transferring them with their broods, in Booth's Gin cartons borrowed from Isobel Jones, to safer places). The corn ripened, the cows mooed, a fresh line of pylons sprouted in the only combe hitherto unaffected, the Dickinsons started packing for Canada, and three miles from Routh's farm a puppy was found suffocated to death, after long and interesting struggles, in a sealed polythene bag. On Monday 22 August, the Bust girl went to a school-friend's home for tea, and overstayed her time.

This was bad, being certain to result in much energetic slapping of wrists, calves and bottom.

The Bust girl's parents offered the rare spectacle of a married couple neither complementary nor opposite, but identical -identical, that is, in everything except sex and appearance. In conversation they quite often actually chorused, without any sort of pre-arrangement, and in matters of discipline they were equally unanimous. The Bust children were pitied, however, less because of their parents' simultaneous walloping fits, which though frequent were short-lived, than because of their parents' joint sense of humour, which was almost unbelievably imbecile in character. In the Michael Innes phrase, the Busts were not people with whom a joke readily loses its first freshness. Fourteen years after the birth of their daughter Anna May, they could still reduce each other to tears of helpless laughter merely by mentioning her by her full name; and they thought it a masterstroke to have followed up their initial inanity by calling their son John Will.

‘Lucky for them they didn't come to me for the christenings,' said the Rector, ‘or I'd have held their silly heads down in the font till they drowned.'

But it was, of course, the punitive rather than the humorous aspect of Anna May's parents which chiefly occupied her mind as she hurried, towards 7.30 p.m. that Monday, along the little-used lane which flanked Bawdeys Meadow to the north. As she explained later to the police, she was quite sure about the time
because her watch was a good one and she had had plenty of reason (she dolefully added) to keep looking at it.

Most of Bawdeys Meadow is open pasture; at one corner of it, however, there survives an ancient, ugly copse, relic of one of the insanely finicking property deals which have been the recreation of farmers from time immemorial. The trees grow thickly there; though not in fact dead, they are dead-seeming. Litter strews the spongy ground - not picnickers' litter, but the litter of people who, with disagreeable things to get rid of, have found a conformably disagreeable spot in which to dispose of them - and light filters only sparsely through the tangle of crooked, mossy boughs. A high, neglected hedge hides the copse from the lane, except at one point where a sagging gate gives access.

That particular Monday evening was chilly and overcast: the weather had made a false dusk two hours in advance of the true one. Hurrying along towards home and retribution, the backs of her plump legs tingling in anticipation, Anna May was only very vaguely aware of the two voices muttering together somewhere on the other side of the hedge. She had other, more pressing things to think about.

But then, with terrifying suddenness, one of the voices skirled upwards to a mindless squawk of pure dread.

The sound of the blow was followed by a crashing in the underbrush, approaching rapidly. Still moving forward automatically, Anna May arrived at the copse gate just as Routh staggered into view out of the trees.

His caved-in right temple, as yet scarcely masked by bleeding, showed like a hollow punched in a ball of white plasticine. Groping mindlessly for support, he reeled and fell; Anna May heard the small detonation of his arm snapping under him. Abruptly the blood gushed, first from his mouth and then from his ruined brain. He twitched three times, very violently, before finally lying still.

Afterwards, Anna May remembered that there had been a sound of someone else moving, and that the sound ceased when she happened to scuff her shoe in the grit at the lane's edge. But at the time she was thinking in terms of accident, not of assault,
and in any case the spectacle of Routh had shocked her into temporary unawareness of everything else. With considerable courage she walked forward and stood over him. She had done well in school at First Aid, and after all, this sort of thing was what First Aid was
for
, so perhaps -

She bent to feel for his pulse: nothing. Watched for his breathing: and nothing. Wild thoughts of attempting the Kiss of Life flitted through her mind. But if there was bad brain damage, the Kiss of Life wouldn't do any good, would it? Besides, she didn't believe she could possibly force herself to try it. Not possibly. It would mean letting her hair fall on to that congealing horror, and pinching the squat white nose shut, and feeling inside the mouth to make sure the tongue didn't fall back and block the air passages. No, not
possibly.
Besides—

From behind the screen of crippled trees, someone who was looking on suddenly uncontrollably giggled.

As the new pattern slipped clear and complete into her understanding, like a replacement transparency in an epidiascope, Anna May turned and ran, heart racing, throat dry, rubber soles throwing up little spurts of white dust as they flip-flopped frantically on tarmac worn smooth and slippery with age. Nearest, as it happened, was her own home, and when it came in sight she slowed a little, looking back.

No one.

Puffing up the path and through the front door, Anna May found herself instantly in the middle of a whirlwind of flailing palms; her parents were particularly incensed with her that evening - her being so late having delayed the start of an outing of their own - and the few disjointed words she managed to blurt into the hubbub were interpreted by them as an ill-judged attempt to tell them about something she had been watching on television. Bawling in unison, they condemned her supperless to bed. And for the time being Anna May didn't persist. In her present confused state she obscurely felt that it might be safer to keep quiet. Mr Routh was dead all right - nothing anyone could do for him now. Also, he was good riddance to bad rubbish. Let him lie, while she latched her bedroom window and locked her bedroom door and sat down to think things out calmly.

By the following morning she had done this - and more importantly, by then her parents had become relatively approachable again. Expecting more slapping when she repeated her story, Anna May instead found herself fallen on with loud protestations of affectionate anxiety. She must see a doctor, see the police, eat another piece of toast and marmalade, be given a bicycle. The senior Busts then rushed off together to Bawdeys Meadow.

But the body had been found earlier on.

When they saw what had been done to it, both the Busts fainted.

3

The body had been found round about 6.30 a.m., eleven hours after death, by a farm labourer called Prance who was passing Bawdeys Meadow on his way to work. It had been moved from the copse to the meadow proper, and Prance, glimpsing it through a hole in the hedge, had climbed up on to the bank to get a better view of it.

Fortunately Prance was an extremely phlegmatic man.

The meadow here sloped down to the hedge quite steeply, so that the effect of what Prance saw was that of a five-piece infant's jigsaw puzzle assembled with the usual infant incompetence on a tilted green-baize table. In death, Routh was divided. Moreover, although in death, as in life, his trunk remained central to his anatomy, other parts of him had been re-dealt. Briefly, both his legs and both his arms had been first cut off, and then, in relation to the rest of him, swapped: his thighs now sprouted from his shoulders (the toes of his shoes pointing uphill), while his arms - neatly disposed in parallel, with the palms of the hands flat on the grass - appeared to be attached to either side of his groin.

Having examined this composition impassively for some seconds, Prance made a provisional identification from the clothes, and then went off to the nearest telephone box to ring Constable Luckraft's cottage in Burraford. The identification had to be provisional, since the head, though like the limbs it had been severed from the trunk, was nowhere visible.

Luckraft got out his motor-cycle and came at once. He stood
guard while Prance trudged once again to the telephone box, this time to notify the police station in Glazebridge. Luckraft dealt with the Busts, listened to their story, promised them that Anna May's evidence should be heard at an early opportunity, and shooed them off home. He wandered about a bit, and presently, a few yards inside the copse, came on what appeared to be - and indeed was - the weapon with which the murder had been done.

Detective-Inspector Widger and Detective-Constable Rankine arrived by car. They hadn't hurried themselves: Prance, in a fit of bucolic mischief-making, had given the Duty Sergeant at Glazebridge full details of the discovery, thereby ensuring that his call would be treated as an egregiously puerile hoax. Now Widger stared at the remains dazedly while questioning Luckraft, who in due course conducted the party into the copse to look at the heavy wrench which lay there, its business end slightly stained with what was presumably Routh's blood.

‘That's
not been lying there for weeks on end,' said Detective-Constable Rankine. ‘You can tell it hasn't, simply by looking at it.' No fact or inference, however obvious, really existed for Rankine until he had put it into words.

Widger said, ‘Let's hope we can trace the owner.'

‘And
it's heavy enough to have done the job. One good whack with that, just one, and
pfft,
you're dead.'

Luckraft said that he thought the owner of the wrench was probably him, Luckraft.

‘Yours, Luckraft?' said Widger, flustered. ‘What on earth makes you think that?'

‘It's missing, sir, from the tool-kit on my bike. I just looked.'

‘Good heavens, man, don't you keep your tool-kit locked?'

Luckraft pointed out that the tool-kits on police motor-cycles were not equipped with locks.

‘Well, but how long has it been missing?'

Luckraft said that the wrench could have been missing for as long as eight days; it was eight days, anyway, since he had had occasion to open the kit. He added that of course he was round and about the district quite a lot, and often had to leave the bike temporarily unattended, for instance when visiting people in their houses.

‘So that what we have here looks very much like a case of premeditation,' said Rankine. ‘Someone sees this bike - unattended, as has been remarked. He says to himself, “Now, this bike has a tool-kit, and in the tool-kit will be a stout wrench.” He glances around him to find out if he is observed.'

‘If it is mine, sir,' said Luckraft, ‘there'll be my initials scratched on the other side.'

‘I see. May I ask if you always scratch your initials on police property?'

‘Yes, sir. Always. Because otherwise it gets nicked. By my fellow-officers, I mean.'

‘I see. Well, we're not going to touch the wrench yet awhile. You yourself haven't touched it, I hope?'

‘Certainly not, sir.'

‘Bringing us back full circle,' said Rankine, ‘to the central puzzle in this affair: where is the deceased's head? Several possibilities suggest themselves. The head may be buried somewhere quite close by. Or it may have been taken away. Or it -'

‘Be quiet, Rankine,' said Widger. ‘Get to a telephone and ring County - urgent. And ring Dr Mason - urgent.' With obvious reluctance Rankine took himself off, on foot, while Widger climbed into the police car and drove away in the opposite direction, for a preliminary talk with Anna May. Luckraft remained on guard, keeping at bay the sightseers who now began to trickle along in response to the Bust parents' agitated gossiping. One enterprising middle-aged lady, a Mrs Jewell, climbed a near-by tree in order to get a proper look, but almost at once was taken dizzy and fell to the ground, fortunately suffering nothing worse than a few scratches and bruises in the process. After that, by bawling angrily from his post at the copse gateway, Luckraft managed to prevent all further tree-climbing, bank-clambering and hedge-peering, and since in default of these there was practically nothing to be seen other than the familiar blue-clad bulk of Luckraft himself, most people responded reasonably promptly to the demand that they keep moving.

Meanwhile, in Burraford, Routh's head was making the first of its three posthumous appearances.

*

A Routh-type female, so greedy for money and so lost to self-respect that she was prepared to work even for Mrs Leeper-Foxe, had agreed to cook the breakfasts at the Old Rectory, and was firm that on this particular morning there had been nothing amiss in the dining-room when she had put the food on the table. Two minutes later there was. Intent on bacon, sausages, kidneys, tomato and egg, Mrs Leeper-Foxe in her mauve housecoat at first failed to notice the last respects that were being paid her from the armchair in the corner by the open window. She had, indeed, actually sat down and served herself, and was lifting the first loaded forkful to her mouth, before she became aware of being stared at by a football-shaped object with no iris or pupil to its eyes, and with a nasty dent on one side. And even then, her reaction was not immediate. Her hand continued to move upwards, her mouth opened, and in went the food. She even started to chew.

Then realization dawned.

The food exploded all over the table, making way for a screaming fit like a steam engine with its whistle stuck. In a few seconds more there were two steam engines, the Routh-type breakfast cook soaring high in hysterical descant, Mrs Leeper-Foxe becoming intermittent from lack of breath, as if an engineer had climbed up on top of her and was wrestling with her valve. Their combined uproar rushed headlong from the house and up the lane past The Stanbury Arms - where Jack Jones was so taken aback by it that he half got out of bed - and eventually came to rest against a buffer of alarmed people who had emerged from the various cottages along its route. Some sort of coherence being at last established, two men were dispatched to the Old Rectory to investigate, neither of them, as it happened, having so far heard the news of the discovery in Bawdeys Meadow. They were consequently gratified, but not surprised, to find that Mrs Leeper-Foxe and the breakfast cook had apparently succumbed to a joint morbid hallucination: what the armchair contained was not Routh's severed head, or anybody else's, but a life-size eighteenth-century bust in white marble.

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