Ebooka przeczytasz w aplikacjach Legimi na:
Odsłuch ebooka (TTS) dostępny w abonamencie „ebooki+audiobooki bez limitu” w aplikacji Legimi na:
Get more of my books FREE!
Books in this Series
Exit Stage Left
The Westerlea House Mystery
Death Under the Sun
A note from the author
A Cry For Help
1.A Cry For Help
Get exclusive FREE books
The Thirteenth Room
The Thirteenth Room, Chapter 1
To say thank you for buying this book, I’d like to invite you to my exclusive VIP Club, and give you some of my books and short stories for FREE.
To join the club, head to adamcroft.net/vip-club and two free books will be sent to you straight away! And the best thing is it won’t cost you a penny — ever.
Click here to join the VIP Club
For more information, visit my website: adamcroft.net
Exit Stage Left, The Westerlea House Mystery and Death Under the Sun are the first three books in the Kempston Hardwick series.
To find out more about this series and others, please head to adamcroft.net/list.
The bell clattered as he closed the door behind him, shutting the cold winter air out of the Freemason's Arms. Loosening his tight woollen scarf, he approached the bar and signalled for the barmaid's attention. He seemed not to be interested in the vivacious curves of the young woman's slender body and placed his order without emotion.
He took a sip of the cool, bitter liquid and placed the glass back on the bar, watching the marbled effect of deep red mingling with orange. He took a drinking straw from the box on the bar and plunged it into his glass, stabbing at the ice cubes as the vibrant colours became one.
‘Excuse me,’ he said to the man who had now taken the place of the young woman behind the bar. ‘Is tonight's act still on?’ He was well-spoken, his voice verging on the baritone with an accent which was difficult to detect. As he spoke, he gestured towards the poster which was taped to the wall next to the bar. The poster advertised that night's entertainment, a stage routine by Charlie Sparks, former staple of Saturday night television and now another washed-up has-been.
‘I should hope so,’ the landlord replied. ‘Had to pay him in advance. Bloomin' cheek, if you ask me. Not even been on telly in years.’
‘I don't watch much television,’ the man said, matter-of-factly.
Before the landlord had a chance to reply, another man, dressed in limbo between smart and casual, threw his tuppence-worth into the ring. ‘Couldn't miss him twenty years ago! Hardly needed to pick up a magazine and he was in it. Oh, how the mighty have fallen…’
‘I don't read many magazines,’ the man said.
‘Blimey. Don't get out much, do you?’ the smart-casual, casual-smart man said.
‘On the contrary. I'm out too much to take notice of such things.’
The smart-casual, casual-smart man did not quite know how to respond. In his half-professional, half-social style, he thrust out a hand. ‘Ellis Flint.’
‘Pleasure to meet you.’
Ellis Flint, again unsure how to react, chose instead to speak to the landlord. ‘Is he back there already, then?’
‘Charlie Sparks! Is he already here?’
The landlord's tea-towelled grip on the pint glass tightened as his cleaning action got audibly squeakier. ‘Yes. Backstage as we speak, drinking copious amounts of free booze and knackering my profit margins.’
‘Surely he'll draw a big crowd though, eh?’ Ellis Flint remarked, glancing sideways to Kempston Hardwick as if seeking agreement or approval.
‘Not if ticket sales are anything to go by. Sold eighty so far. Sure, a few'll turn up and want tickets on the door, but there's no way it's even going to pay for his appearance fee, never mind the bleedin' brandy he's knocking back in there.’
‘Maybe you could make a little extra cash on the side, eh?’ Again, Ellis Flint looked at Kempston Hardwick for some sort of reassurance.
‘How do you mean?’
‘Well, there's a few people who'd still love to meet him, me for one. How about I add a tenner to your coffers and me and my new mate Kempston here can go backstage and meet him for a few minutes?’
Hardwick's eyebrow raised at Flint's casual bonding, but he said nothing.
‘Call it twenty and you can have all bloody night with him, for all I care,’ the landlord replied.
The deal done, Ellis Flint enthusiastically grabbed Hardwick by the arm and led him round towards the back room of the pub, via the kitchen door.
‘You seem to know the place well,’ Hardwick remarked, smoothing the sleeve of his winter coat.
‘Oh, yes. Come here quite a lot. Helps me to unwind. Helped Doug out in the kitchen a few times, actually.’
Hardwick noted the landlord's name for future reference.
As they reached the solid beech door with the tarnished brass “PRIVATE” plate on it, Hardwick cleared his throat as Ellis Flint knocked, waited barely a nanosecond for a reply which was not forthcoming quickly enough, then entered the room.
The man whom Hardwick assumed to be Charlie Sparks was tapping a cigarette out into an ashtray, a magazine containing images of scantily-clad women sprawled on the desk in front of him.
‘Ah, good timing. Another brandy, will you?’ Charlie Sparks said.
‘Oh, I'm afraid we're not members of staff,’ Ellis explained.
‘Well, bugger off out of my dressing room, then.’
‘Actually, we're quite big fans of yours. We just wondered if we might be able to say hello.’
Charlie Sparks's demeanour changed visibly, as did Hardwick's, although for entirely different reasons.
‘Ah, I see. Well, of course. Always a pleasure to meet my fans. Do you come to many of the live shows?’ Charlie Sparks spoke intermittently between licking envelopes and stuffing them with signed photographs of himself.
Ellis Flint shuffled awkwardly as he tried to think of a suitable yet inoffensive response. As much as he admired the man's fame, he wasn't one to pay good money to follow him around the country. Hardwick sensed Flint's discomfort and threw a curve-ball at Charlie Sparks, who wasn't really paying much attention anyway.
‘You must have quite a lot of fans. Do you get a lot of requests for photographs?’
‘Well, not many, no. I'm somewhat less in the public eye than I used to be, y'know what I mean?’
Hardwick murmured. He was never sure how to respond to this idiomatic turn, if it required a response at all.
‘My agent tends to sort out that sort of thing. Speaking of which, he should be here by now, the lazy bugger.’
Hardwick empathised with Charlie Sparks's disapproval of poor timekeeping, but this was overshadowed by his contempt for casual swearing. He tried to restrain the reflexive curling of his upper lip.
Ellis Flint nodded his understanding, not quite sure of what could be said in response.
‘Anyway, time waits for no man. Going to have to love you and leave you, lads. The show must go on.’ Charlie Sparks rose and ran a hand through his Grecian-2000-laden hair before he turned on the ball of his foot, his shoes scuffing on the concrete floor as he headed for the door. ‘Thanks for coming to see me, lads. Really appreciate it.’
Hardwick could tell that Charlie Sparks meant every word. For a man who had once enjoyed such fame and fortune and since fallen from grace, it was rather humbling that a simple visit from two strangers could brighten his evening. Not wanting to develop too much admiration for the man, Hardwick held the door open and followed Charlie Sparks and Ellis Flint back towards the main bar.
Hardwick ordered another large Campari and orange, straining to make his mellow voice heard above the noise of his fellow drinkers and the Alice Cooper song which had just come on the jukebox. Barely thirty seconds in, the music was cut as Doug, the landlord, began tapping the microphone and attempted to count beyond two. A shaven-headed youth at the back of the pub expressed his disapproval of having wasted ‘two soddin' quid’ on the jukebox barely seconds earlier. Doug responded with the sentiment that the eight o'clock start had been pretty darned-well advertised, if he might say so himself.
Still unable to get beyond the number two, Doug resorted to booming the word 'testing' into the microphone over and over at a volume and pitch much lower, and a distance much closer, than anyone was likely to speak into the microphone all night. The equipment supposedly adjusted, Doug addressed the crowd with a ‘GOOD E—’ before stopping to adjust the equipment again following the loud boom and ear-piercing screech which emanated from every speaker in the building.
The assembled crowd still rubbing their ears and mopping up their drinks, Doug tried the microphone a second time.
‘Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.’ Small screech. ‘Welcome to the Freemason's Arms.’ Another small screech made it sound as though he said 'Freemason's Arse'. ‘We have for you tonight a man who is known the world over. A man who is a household name throughout the country thanks to game shows such as Mind That Bell and Charlie's Going Ape. Many of you will be aware that he's also a legend on the stand-up circuit, so we're very pleased to have him here tonight. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Charlie Sparks!’
The crowd reacted with a mixture of spattered applause and the odd sarcastic whistle as Charlie Sparks took to the stage. It wasn't long before Kempston Hardwick's teeth started to itch at the blue “humour”.
‘Evening all. My wife's just started doing some exercise to lose some weight. She went out jogging the other day and stopped all of a sudden, thinking she'd had a heart attack as she had a sharp shooting pain under her left breast. Turns out she'd sprained her knee.’ The rotund jovial barflies nodded their ascent vigorously through hearty belly laughs. ‘I had the best dump of my life earlier today,’ the comedian went on. ‘It managed to touch the water before breaking off. I think you'll agree that's pretty damned impressive from the middle diving board.’
Hardwick was mildly disheartened at the sight of Ellis Flint chuckling to himself at the two opening jokes, but then he wasn't all that surprised.
‘Not your sort of humour, Kempston?’ Ellis Flint remarked, having caught Hardwick's eye.
‘I’m not really one for comedy,’ came the response. ‘Not of this type, anyway.’
‘More of a sit-com man, are you?’
‘Aristophanes and Menander, mainly.’
‘Not heard of them. BBC Three, are they?’
‘More 3 BC, actually.’
‘Not sure I've heard of that one. Get all sorts on digital these days.’
Hardwick murmured a non-committal noise and ordered another drink. As his eyes flitted from Ellis Flint towards the bar, they passed the focal point of Charlie Sparks, whereupon Hardwick noticed that he seemed to be perspiring profusely, his head and arms beginning to jerk.
‘I used to go out with a Welsh girl who had thirty-six double-Ds,’ the comedian began to slur. ‘All got such stupidly long names, the Welsh, haven't they?’ Charlie Sparks stood and held a smile as the audience lapped up his latest quip. Hardwick had barely noticed that the smile had been more than a little too drawn out when Charlie Sparks's feet started to buckle under him, the bulbous man's not-inconsiderable weight seeming to cause him some stability problems. A few moments of confusion reigned for the audience as he descended from the stage with an excruciated look on his face and headed towards his dressing room. Charlie Sparks was a man known for the occasional stage antics, but Hardwick was less than convinced.
‘Something's not right. Something's terribly wrong,’ he remarked to no-one in particular before following the comedian. His first thoughts turning towards preserving the scene, Hardwick cautioned the concerned bystanders to keep back.
‘Are you a doctor, mate?’ came the voice of a front-row audience member. ‘It's all right, I think he's a doctor.’
Ellis Flint joined Hardwick backstage, whereupon he found Hardwick knelt at the side of Charlie Sparks, who lay contorted on the concrete floor.
‘Is he breathing?’ Ellis asked.
‘No. He's dead.’ Hardwick's eyes didn't leave Charlie Sparks's sweaty, lifeless body.
‘It somehow seems unlikely,’ Hardwick remarked, his suspicions aroused. ‘Oh no, this was quite clever. Quite clever indeed. Faster acting than usual. I dare say the dose must have been substantial.’
‘Dose of what, Kempston? What's going on?’
‘Look, Ellis! Can’t you see? The man's face! Risus sardonicus, the maniacal grin of a man gripped by tetanus poisoning!’
‘Tetanus? Bloody hell. What happened, did he cut himself?’
‘Oh, I very much doubt it. Judging by the speed of the reaction, this was no small dose. Certainly nothing which could have been administered by accident. Ellis, we're looking at a crime scene.’
‘Crime scene? Right,’ Ellis Flint said, as he rose to his feet and addressed the crowd which had now assembled outside the dressing room. ‘I’m afraid we'll need everyone out of the building, ladies and gentlemen,’ he bellowed to the thronging crowds.
‘No!’ came the bark from Hardwick. ‘No-one is to leave the building!’
‘Are you a police officer, mate?’ came the familiar voice from the audience. ‘It's all right, I think he's a police officer.’
Hardwick slanted his head towards Ellis Flint. ‘Lock the doors. Let no-one escape.’
Ellis Flint, his excitement roused, nodded and left the room.
‘What happened, officer?’ Hardwick looked up at the pub landlord, not saying a word. ‘Doug Lilley, I'm the landlord here.’
‘We met earlier tonight.’
‘What's your name?’
‘PC Hardwick? DS Hardwick?’
‘Ooh, like one of those surgeons who's gone beyond Dr and reverts back to Mr, then.’
‘Something like that, yes.’
‘So what the hell happened?’
‘Charlie Sparks is dead, Mr Lilley.’
‘I can bloody well see that, officer. I mean how the hell did he die?’
‘If I knew that, I wouldn't be knelt here now. I'll need to speak to everyone here. Gather everyone together and get their names, please.’
‘What, all of them? We close in two hours.’
‘You're closed now, Mr Lilley. And we'll remain here for as long as it takes. Ellis, I'll need you to help me with the interview process,’ he said, as Doug Lilley stepped out of the room and began to usher the crowds to the far end of the Freemason's Arms.
‘You didn't mention you were a police officer, you dirty old dog, you,’ Flint said.
‘No. There's a reason for that.’
‘Undercover work, is it?’
‘Not a million miles from the truth. Unlike this man's death, it seems. I think it's about time we started interviewing people. No time like the present.’
‘What about the body?’
‘I’ve seen what I need to see. You can call the police now.’
‘The police? I thought you said you were the police.’
‘I can assure you I didn't, dear boy. First of all, I'll need to speak with Mr Lilley, the landlord.’
‘Are you sure it's a good idea to be interviewing people if you're not a police officer?’
‘I don't think you'll find it's against the law. With a bit of luck, we'll have this matter sewn up before the brakes are warm on the Panda car.’
Hardwick stood and straightened his coat before heading into the main bar, beckoning to Doug Lilley with a come-hither finger. Leading the landlord into the kitchen to behind the bar of the Freemason's Arms, Hardwick folded his arms and leant against the brushed metal work surface.
‘How long had you known Charlie Sparks, Mr Lilley?’
‘Known him? About an hour, since he first turned up here before the gig. If you mean how long had I known of him, then like most people in this pub I'd reckon a good twenty-five years or so. He was a massive star in his day.’
‘So I'm led to believe. What was the impetus behind Charlie Sparks playing here tonight?’
‘His manager, guy by the name of Don Preston, lives locally. Often gets some comedians and singers and what-not in here.’
‘What sort of comedians and singers?’ Hardwick asked.
‘All sorts, really. None as big a name as Charlie Sparks, though. Right coup, that one. He lives pretty locally himself, see. Over in Fettlesham, apparently.’ Hardwick noted the location of the village in his mind's eye. ‘There's not really much more I can tell you, officer. I'm afraid you'll need to speak to his manager if you want to find out more about him.’ Doug Lilley handed Hardwick a business card with Don Preston's details emblazoned on it.
‘Right. Well, thank you for your time, Mr Lilley. I'm sure the police will be along shortly and will probably want to speak to you as well.’
‘Police? Then who are you?’
‘Ellis, I'll need you to come with me. We need to go and speak to Charlie Sparks's manager, a Don Preston. Lives over at Little Markham.’
‘Right-o. What about speaking to all these people?’
‘I’m not sure any of them will be much use. The police will be along soon to speak to them.’
Ellis Flint stopped dead in his tracks. ‘Just who are you, exactly, Kempston? Are you a police officer?’
‘So what are you? Some kind of investigator?’
‘Just a civilian with a nose for suspicion and a hunger for the truth, Ellis. Now, we'd better hail a cab.’
‘Come on then,’ Ellis Flint asked once they were both settled inside the taxi. ‘Tell me about you.’
‘There's absolutely nothing to tell.’
‘Well that's clearly not true. You were in the Freemason's Arms tonight for a reason, and you seem to have some sort of nose for death.’
‘I’ve had worse things said about me,’ Hardwick replied nonchalantly.
‘Well, don't you want to know about me?’ Ellis asked.
‘Not especially. Besides, I already know most of the pertinent information.’
‘You're married — wedding ring. You're over the age of forty — the hair on your shins is thinning.’ As Hardwick spoke, Ellis Flint's eyes darted to his trousers, which he coyly pulled back over his cotton socks. ‘You're currently out of work — you jumped at the chance to carry out a murder investigation with a complete stranger and you were already half-cut by six o'clock on a Friday afternoon. Besides, I noticed you had a SaverMarket receipt in a rather expensive Italian leather wallet. Someone who can afford such luxury is only likely to shop at SaverMarket if he's currently out of work. Oh, and you had an upper-middle-class upbringing and you served some time in the Army.’
Hardwick was quite certain that the taxi driver had made the short journey to Little Markham far longer than it needed to be. Not ever having driven a car himself, he couldn't be totally sure, but he knew when he was being taken for a ride, as it were.
‘How on earth did you know about my upbringing and Army background?’ Ellis Flint asked.
‘You use some peculiar turns of phrase, for a start. I don't imagine you ever felt comfortable with your upbringing, and you certainly try to hide it but that makes it so much more discernible.’
‘And the Army thing?’
‘Well, you were a bit of a fan of Charlie Sparks. You said so yourself, yet you didn't seem at all fazed by his sudden death. Plus, you seem like a man fulfilled, Ellis,’ Hardwick said, raising a satisfied smile from Ellis Flint. ‘Besides which, you seem to show remarkable deference to any tall stranger in a brown suit.’
Little Markham was the archetypal chocolate-box village, with large stone walls seemingly made from marshmallows, Hansel and Gretel cottages lining the streets with their dew-dampened thatched roofs glistening in the moonlight. The taxi turned into Wood View and Hardwick and Flint alighted outside number three. The house looked remarkably modern in comparison to the surrounding cottages on the high street, but Hardwick supposed it must still be a good couple of hundred years old. The lead-lined windows gave an air of security and substance that no modern building could ever replicate.
Don Preston opened the door barely a few moments after the doorbell had chimed, to find the two men stood beneath the wisteria that framed the studded wooden door.
‘Good evening. Don Preston?’
‘Yes, can I help you, gentlemen?’
‘My name is D.I. Kempston Hardwick and this is Ellis Flint. We need to speak to you about Charlie Sparks. I believe you represent him.’
‘Oh right, yes. Come on in.’
Hardwick and Flint were led into Don Preston's living room. A collection of horse brasses decorated the black-beamed hearth that surrounded the fireplace, and a widescreen television was the only reminder of the current era.
‘Can I get you a cup of tea, chaps? Actually, it's a bit late, isn't it? Something a little stronger, perhaps?’
‘We'll be fine, thank you, Mr Preston,’ Hardwick answered. Ellis Flint raised his eyebrow momentarily at the thought of being spoken for with regards to a free drink.
‘So, what's the silly old bugger done now? Got himself in some sort of fight again? I mean, I'm presuming you're both police officers. Don't often get door-to-door calls around here at this time of night. Even Betterware have given up!’ Don Preston chuckled.
Hardwick ignored the assumption. ‘I presume you were aware that Charlie Sparks had been performing at the Freemason's Arms earlier tonight?’
‘Yes, absolutely. I arranged it for him, as I do with all of his gigs.’
‘I’m afraid there's been a bit of a mishap,’ Hardwick understated. ‘Charlie Sparks collapsed and died whilst on stage tonight, Mr Preston.’
Don Preston's previous smile slowly became more subdued as the reality of what had been said seemed to set in. ‘Died? Is this some sort of joke?’
About as tasteful as most of his, Hardwick thought to himself. ‘I’m afraid not. What's more, it seems as though he died in suspicious circumstances.’
‘Yes. Unfortunately, we believe he may have been murdered.’
‘Oh, Jesus Christ. Sorry, but this... this is just... oh my, I'm not quite sure what to say.’
‘There's probably not a whole lot more to say at this stage, Mr Preston. However, we'll need to speak to anyone who was close to Charlie Sparks. Just as a matter of course, you understand.’
‘Well yes, of course.’
‘You'll need some time to come to terms with what's happened,’ Ellis Flint spoke up, until now having remained uncharacteristically silent but beginning to get into his new role as a sleuth. ‘However, we'll need details of his family and close acquaintances in order to begin investigating what happened.’
‘I understand. It's just so shocking. I've known him since university. I really don't know what to say. I can only suggest that you should probably speak to his wife first of all. She deserves to be informed, if you haven't already.’
‘We were hoping that you would be able to put us in touch, Mr Preston,’ Hardwick stated.
‘Naturally. Marianne, her name is. They... she... lives at Manor Farm in Fettlesham.’
‘Thank you, Mr Preston. We'll be in touch in due course.’
‘Yes, of course. Please do call if I can be of any assistance. If I think of anything else that may help, I'll call the station and ask to speak with you.’
‘Probably not a good idea, Mr Preston. You can reach me on this number,’ Hardwick said, passing Don Preston his remarkably simple calling card:
When they were back outside, Ellis took Hardwick by the arm and glared at him with a look of anger.
‘Kempston! You can’t just go around impersonating a police officer! It’s illegal! You’ll have us banged up!’
‘Yes, I know. That’s why I didn’t impersonate a police officer, Ellis.’
‘What? “I’m D.I. Kempston Hardwick”? Sounded pretty conclusive to me.’
‘I didn’t lie, Ellis. My birth name is Dagwood Isambard Kempston Hardwick. I simply chose to include the first two initials of my name when introducing myself. If those were your three forenames, Ellis, which one would you use?’
Fettlesham seemed a million miles away from Little Markham, although geographically fewer than four miles separated them. Gone were the period cottages, but for a few; the majority destroyed by an overturned petrol-tanker in the 1970s, as was Hardwick's understanding. Manor Farm stood on the edge of the village, a tragically modern, if large, house, set deliriously distant from any nearby farm of the traditional naming convention. Having been deposited outside Manor Farm by the same taxi driver who had driven them to Little Markham, Hardwick and Flint made their way up the noisy gravel driveway to the front door. The large bay windows allowed a reasonable view of the living room, the tell-tale flicker and glow of a television set letting them know that Charlie Sparks's wife was likely still awake.
Hardwick raised not a smile at the inappropriate jovial bounce of the Benny Hill theme tune which played as he pressed the plastic doorbell. The woman who answered the door was an unexpectedly bouncy-looking lady, more accustomed to a Les Dawson character than anything ever dreamt up by Benny Hill.
‘Good evening, madam. Mrs Sparks, I presume?’
‘After a fashion, yes. Can I help you two at all?’
‘Yes, it's your husband we'd like to speak with you about. May we come in?’
‘Well, that depends. Are you police officers?’
Hardwick thought for a moment. ‘After a fashion.’
She seemed to deem this a suitable response, opening the door further to allow Hardwick and Flint to enter the house. She elaborated on entering the living room, having deigned to switch off the flickering television screen. ‘Charlie Sparks is just a stage name, you see. His real name is Dave Spencer and I'm Marianne.’
‘I see. Any reason behind the stage name?’
‘Well, Dave Spencer doesn't exactly set the world alight in the same way as Sparks, does it?’
Hardwick said nothing, assuming that Marianne Spencer's own unintentional pun was lost on her.
‘So, what's this all about, anyway?’ Marianne asked. ‘You mentioned something to do with Dave.’
‘Yes. I'm sorry to have to tell you that Ch... Dave, collapsed on stage earlier this evening. I'm sorry, Mrs Spencer, but he passed away.’
‘Oh my... I... oh dear... What happened?’ Marianne Spencer seemed shocked and surprised, yet not remarkably upset.
‘We're not quite sure yet. It's possible that something... might not have agreed with him.’
Hardwick looked at Flint. Flint looked at Hardwick. The thought was mutually agreed, but unspoken between the two men.
‘Wh... who have you told?’
‘Well, naturally we would have come to speak to you first, but we only found out your whereabouts after speaking with Don Preston, his manager,’ Hardwick replied.
‘Oh, poor Don!’
‘I presume he has some family to console him?’ Ellis Flint offered.
‘I… well, yes. He has a step-son.’
‘I realise you may need some more time to come to terms with what's happened, but when you're ready we'd like to speak to you a little more about your husband.’
‘Well, yes. It has come as a terrible shock. I really don't know what to say.’
‘Did your husband have any enemies, Mrs Spencer?’
Charlie Sparks's wife let out a half-cry, half-laugh at this, and began shaking her head. ‘Where should I begin? He was hardly a popular man in many circles, officer.’
‘Actually, we're…’ Hardwick placed a hand on Ellis Flint's arm, as if to stop him mid-sentence.
‘But what does that have to do with his death?’ Marianne Spencer asked.
‘We have reason to believe that your husband may have been murdered, Mrs Spencer.’
Marianne Spencer looked at the carpet and simply nodded, slowly. Another mutual glance was shared between the two men. ‘I’d like to tell you I'm shocked and surprised. The truth of the matter is, Dave had upset a great many people throughout his life. He was the archetypal failed has-been entertainer. If you want a list of people you should speak to, I'm afraid you'll need a rather large sheet of paper.’ The tears welled up in Marianne Spencer's eyes as she said this, yet not one drop dared to make the first leap of faith towards her not-inconsiderable cheeks.
‘Do you have any children, Mrs Spencer?’ Ellis Flint attempted to cut through the deepening and darkening atmosphere. Marianne Spencer simply laughed at this apparent affront.
‘Not bloody likely. He had what some might call Ascension Deficit Disorder.’
Ellis Flint cocked his head to the side.
‘Have you ever tried to turn the kitchen tap on when your pipes are frozen, officer? Well that's what my husband's d—‘
‘Yes! Well, that's a terrible shame, Mrs Spencer. How very unfortunate,’ Hardwick jumped in with a slight raise in pitch to his voice. ‘And may I ask how you both met?’
‘Noah's bloody ark, I think. Feels that long, anyway.’ Hardwick told himself off for trying to imagine which two animals the Spencers would have represented. ‘I used to be a dancer on his Saturday night show back in the seventies. Fact is, he used to be a bit of a playboy in his day. I took great delight in being the one who managed to rein him in and turn him into a family man. There's bloody irony for you.’
‘Were you married long?’
‘Too bloody long. Thirty years last August. It's not been without its ups and downs, though, I can assure you.’ Hardly the revelation of the century, Hardwick thought. ‘Dave Spencer was a failure as a husband, a failure as a father, and a failure as a businessman.’ Marianne Spencer seemed to speak with more than a slight air of contempt for her recently deceased husband.
‘What business interests did he have, exactly?’
‘Most recently he was a partner in a company called Wellington Pharmaceuticals with an old school friend of his, Patrick Allen. Another way for him to waste all of the money he'd earned in his hey-day.’
‘Would you say your husband was careless with money?’
‘Oh, God, yes. Look at the cars he's got out there. And the fact that for years he's been pumping money into that bloody company. We've got nothing left now. Nothing but a load of debt, anyway.’
‘And where were you earlier this evening, Mrs Spencer?’
‘I’ve been sat here all night. I'm sorry, gentlemen, but my husband was a liar, a cheat and a worm. Anyone will tell you that. The one thing I can tell you, though, is that I had nothing to do with his death.’
Having been shown out of the house by an amicable Marianne Spencer, Hardwick and Flint made their way up towards Fettlesham High Street.
‘Do you think she had anything to do with it, Kempston?’
‘I don't know. All I do know is that there's an awful lot that we still have to find out. I have a funny feeling that this is going to open up quite a can of worms for poor Charlie Sparks. It doesn't seem that he led the most pious of lives.’
‘Does anyone?’ Ellis Flint asked.
Hardwick said nothing, and slowed his pace momentarily as he extracted a Montecristo No. 2 and lit it delicately with a match.
‘What's the next move, then?’ Ellis Flint asked.
Hardwick looked at his watch. ‘It's five to eleven, so I think we've time for a night-cap at the Fox & Bugle on the high street. In the morning, however, I think we'd better pay a visit to Charlie Sparks's business partner, Patrick Allen.’
The solitary shaft of moonlight that peered between the long curtains played on Hardwick's glass as he swirled the liquid within it. He stared into nothingness, the sheer silence deafening his every thought, a thousand-and-one of which whirled around his head like the drink in his glass.
The occasional rumbling of the wind through the trees kept Hardwick just this side of reality, although the super-powered telescope of his mind's eye was still well-focused on other things. He had always tried not to let it shape him, but he felt his back teeth beginning to grind as his breathing got heavier.
It had given him his drive and determination. For that, he could be thankful. The indefatigable motivation to seek justice and retribution wherever it could be sought. The overriding compulsion that bad people could, and should, not get away with bad things.
He knew not if the passing time was that of seconds, minutes or hours. Even the mostly-unnoticed ticking of the grandfather clock gave no indication of time passed.
The thoughts came back to him every now and again. The train station. The hard, brown suitcase, its lacquer peeling back to reveal fraying board. The liquorice bonbons. The shrill, piercing screech of the steam whistle. All aboard. Mind the gap, please. The thought that something terrible was happening; had happened. Those same, breathtakingly painful thoughts which rearer their ugly heads at times like these. Terror and injustice. Bad people. Bad thoughts.
A solitary tear ran from his eye.
Shortly after morning broke, Hardwick and Flint found themselves heading back in the direction of Fettlesham, again having travelled by way of taxi at Hardwick's unexplained request.
‘You know, Kempston, I was thinking last night.’
Hardwick made a non-committal murmur.
‘The thing is, I realised that I don't actually know anything about you. I mean, it feels like I've known you for ages but at the same time I don't even know who you are.’
‘Who is anybody?’ Hardwick replied, not taking his eyes from that day's copy of The Times.
‘Well, that's a good point. Perhaps a tad too philosophical for a Saturday morning, but still. What do you actually do? I mean, do you do this detective stuff regularly?’
‘People don't tend to get murdered regularly,’ Hardwick said, forcing a raised eyebrow from Ellis Flint.
‘No, but I mean have you ever done this before?’
‘By definition, no. No two murders are ever the same. That's the beauty of life, Ellis. There's even beauty in murder, if you look closely enough.’ Hardwick's eyes didn't leave the newspaper, instead staring blankly at the same three words for a few moments before he lowered the paper and spoke again to Flint. ‘You're quite keen, aren't you?’
‘I mean, you had no need to get involved with this investigation, did you? You didn't know Charlie Sparks personally and you'd never met me until last night.’
‘Well, it's exciting stuff, isn't it? Truth is, it's always sort of appealed to me, this line of work. I used to love detective books when I was a kid. I remember one, it was clearly aimed at children: the cases involved stolen balloons and housekeepers pretending to be ghosts. All innocent stuff in the grand scheme of things, but that's what gave me my love of mystery stories.’
‘I see. And do you often manage to spot the villain before the end?’ Hardwick asked.
‘Never, if I'm honest. I hope that doesn't reflect badly.’
‘Not at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. The truth is, murders just don't happen the way they're written in books. The vast majority of murder cases are very simple and straightforward. No red herrings, no cases of mistaken identity, no switching of clocks or mirrors. Most of the time, instinct prevails.’
‘Is it not usually the spouse of the victim who committed the murder?’ Ellis asked.
‘Most of the time, yes,’ Hardwick replied. ‘But that would make life very boring indeed.’
Patrick Allen's house sat back from the road on White's Lane, a red-brick wall holding the iron gate shut as the mock-Tudor house poked out from the immaculate lawn behind. It was Ellis Flint who pressed the intercom button on the gate’s control panel.
‘Good morning. My name's Kempston Hardwick and this is Ellis Flint. We're here to speak to Mr Allen about Dave Spencer, also known as Charlie Sparks.’
No further words were said, but moments later the gates began to roll apart as the house exposed itself to the two men like a prize on a game-show. Passing the gleaming Range Rover Sport parked on the tarmacked driveway, Hardwick and Flint had barely travelled two thirds of the way down the front path before the door opened and a tall man who seemed to be greying before his time stepped out onto the doormat.
‘Hi, I'm Patrick Allen. Terrible news about Dave.’
‘Yes, his wife called me last night. Couldn't quite believe it myself. I only saw him yesterday afternoon before he went off for his gig. I'm afraid I'm not really sure what to say.’
‘Well, if you don't mind, Mr Allen, we'd like to come in and ask you a few questions.’
‘Oh yes, of course. Do come in.’
The interior of Patrick Allen's house was tastefully decorated, if a little too clinically clean. The contrast between the traditional cottages of Little Markham and the modern mansions of Fettlesham was yet again apparent to Kempston Hardwick as he glanced around the kitchen at the immaculate work surfaces and over-abundance of white. Hardwick abhorred white, seeing it as a soulless, unnecessary colour.
‘We understand that you were a business partner of Dave Spencer's, Mr Allen.’
‘You could say that, yes. We run — ran — a company called Wellington Pharmaceuticals. Known Dave since we were both at school together. That's why it's come as a bit of a shock, if I'm honest.’
‘And how has the company been performing?’
‘About as well as any company is these days, I suppose. It's had its ups and downs, but it's provided an income for the last good few years, so I can't really complain.’
‘Were there any other shareholders?’
‘No, just the two of us. Dave was more of a silent partner, just tended to provide the funding when it was needed and helped the business to get off the ground and expand. I mean, he had his own office and did the occasional few days, but I take care of the day-to-day running of the company.’
‘And how many staff do you have working for you, Mr Allen?’
‘Twenty at the moment. Mostly sales and office staff, as well as an IT and accounts guy who works from the basement. We don't tend to do much in the way of research. Just tends to be direct sales to the medical and research industries.’
Hardwick mulled this over for a few moments, trying to gauge the direction in which the conversation should go. On the face of it, it seemed that Patrick Allen had done very well for himself through his involvement with Wellington Pharmaceuticals. He had an expensive car sat on his driveway and the home was decorated lavishly with contemporary ornaments — perhaps a little too modern for Hardwick's tastes, but undeniably costly.
‘Do you live here alone, Mr Allen?’
‘Goodness, no. My wife, Anne-Marie, is at work.’
‘Not at home, no. We have two, but they both have their own families now.’
‘Rather a large house for the two of you, isn't it?’
‘Indeed, but we both love it to pieces. Anne-Marie, especially. I don't think either of us could imagine living anywhere else.’
Somewhere with a little less white gloss paint, Hardwick thought to himself.
Once the meeting had concluded and the pair had left Patrick Allen's sumptuous property, Hardwick was somewhat taken aback by the force with which Ellis Flint had grabbed him by the pleats of his coat and thrust him at a nearby bush. Still holding onto Hardwick's coat, Ellis Flint's face had an air of revelation.
‘Don't you see? My God, it's all coming together already, Kempston! Patrick Allen said he and Charlie Sparks were the sole owners of Wellington Pharmaceuticals. That means, if one of the pair were to die, the other would gain sole control of the company!’
‘That's hardly a motive for murder, though,’ Hardwick protested, squirming free of his grip and dusting off his coat.
‘Absolutely not. There's almost certainly something else. But I'd be willing to bet that the fortunes of Wellington Pharmaceuticals aren't quite as they seem.’
Ellis Flint sat in his study and tapped at his laptop's black-on-white keys furiously. His password entered, he selected his favoured internet browser and entered “poisons” into the search engine. He was met with a selection of encyclopaedia entries, medical journals and NHS links, most of which seemed far too daunting for the little information he needed, which was what poison could possibly have killed Charlie Sparks.
That any poison in the world was readily available to Patrick Allen by means of his company being one of the country's major stockists of chemicals was undeniable, but how on earth could it be proved? Naturally, the sheer range and number of chemicals and substances available on the premises of Wellington Pharmaceuticals should mean that any possible combination of poisons, explosives, potions and medicines could be easily created by someone with prior knowledge.
The subject matter was simply too vast to take in all at once. It was like looking for a needle in a haystack. What on Earth could be given internally which would cause tetanus poisoning? He decided he needed some expert advice. Without taking a moment to think, he dialled the number of the local police station and asked to speak to someone about methods of poisoning.
‘Can I ask what this is in relation to, sir?’ the understandably cautious desk sergeant asked.
‘It's to do with a murder case you're currently investigating.’
‘May I ask which one?’
‘Charlie Sparks, otherwise known as Dave Spencer.’
‘One moment please.’
After twenty or thirty seconds of being told that his call was important to them, Flint found himself talking to a deep-voiced man who introduced himself as Detective Inspector Rob Warner.
‘You say you have some information regarding a murder case, sir?’
‘Well, more questions, actually. It's about the Dave Spencer case.’
‘I see. I think it's probably best if we discuss this at your place.’
Ellis Flint beamed with excitement at the prospect of moving one step ahead of Hardwick and diligently provided DI Warner with his address. Following the conclusion of the call, he called Hardwick to tell him the good news.
‘You bloody fool!’ Hardwick spluttered. ‘What on earth did you do that for?’
‘What's the matter, Kempston? We're almost there! With the police's help, or them with our help, we can help find Charlie Sparks's murderer!’
‘Fool!’ Hardwick informed Flint that he would be at his place as quickly as possible and slammed down the telephone.
Arriving barely a minute before the police officers, Hardwick had little opportunity to explain his rage to Flint, leaving him with an uncomfortably small amount of space between Hardwick and the wall of the hallway.
‘What on earth possessed you to do such a thing?’ Hardwick asked.
‘Are you mad, man? We can help the police investigate Charlie Sparks's murder!’
‘As far as the police are concerned, there is no murder to investigate, you fool! All they have managed to garner is that Charlie Sparks died on stage and that no cause of death has yet been decided. If you go wading in with accusations of murder, all hell could break loose!’
‘But you told me you thought he'd been murdered!’
‘And I do! I know he was murdered! But as things stand, we're the only two souls who do, so where do you think that puts us in terms of suspects numbers one and two?’
‘Ah, I see. Well that's put us in a bit of a pickle.’
‘You fool, Flint. You absolute—’
Only the ringing of the doorbell could cut the atmosphere. As Ellis Flint eased himself from between Hardwick and the wall and opened the front door, he could hear Hardwick's footsteps retreating towards the living room, rhythmically accompanied by his whispered curses.
The man who introduced himself as Detective Inspector Rob Warner was a tall, portly man with a comical comb-over. He introduced his fellow officer as Detective Constable Sam Kerrigan. DC Kerrigan was a young officer, barely out of school, it seemed, but he carried with him an air of confidence and bravado which Hardwick immediately recognised as the folly of youth.
‘Mr Flint, we believe you wanted to speak to us about a potential murder case?’
‘Well, sort of,’ Ellis Flint started, glancing at Hardwick, who stood coyly in the doorway to the living room. ‘It's actually more of a question I had. A few questions, actually.’
‘Right. Are they the sort of questions you feel comfortable asking in front of your... friend?’ DI Warner looked at Hardwick and spoke the last word with an air of implication.
‘Oh, sorry. Yes, this is Kempston Hardwick. A good friend of mine.’ Ellis Flint led the two officers towards the living room.
‘Good friend, right. Very nice to meet you, Kempston.’ DI Warner moved to extend his hand but decided against it.
‘Hardwick,’ came the sole response.
‘Right. Mr Hardwick. Well, shall we go into the living room?’ DI Warner half-attempted to squeeze past Hardwick at the living-room door whilst gesturing for him to enter first, raising his eyebrows in unison with DC Kerrigan as he followed Hardwick into the room.
‘Tell us, Mr Flint, what questions did you have?’
‘Well, it's about poisons, really.’
‘Yes, poisons. I was wondering if there was a particular poison that might cause a person to get very ill and die quite suddenly.’
DI Warner laughed before answering. ‘Only a few hundred thousand. Why do you want to know, exactly? This could easily be considered to be a waste of police time.’
Hardwick thought he would be better off answering the question. ‘Well, it's quite simple. It's for a... Uh…’
‘School project,’ Flint interjected, with very little in the way of prior thought.
‘A school project?’ DI Warner asked.
‘Well, college course,’ Flint responded, noticing that Hardwick now had his head buried deep in his hands. ‘I’m doing a college course and wanted to get some extra background information.’
‘I see. What college course is it?’
‘Poisons. Well, chemistry. Chemicals and poisons. Actually, you know, it doesn't matter. I can probably find the information on the internet.’
‘Mr Flint, this is a very serious matter. Our police department is extremely understaffed at the present time and we can't simply start sending out officers every time someone wants to ask us some inane questions. We really are very busy.’
‘No, yes, I understand. I'm very sorry. Next time I'll carry out my own research.’
‘Very well. Now, on to the matter of Charlie Sparks.’ Hardwick and Flint glanced at each other, both hoping that the conversation wouldn't move on to this subject. ‘You mentioned on the phone that you wanted to speak to us about some information.’
‘Well, no. That was a mistake. It was just about the poisons, that's all.’
‘Mr Flint, you told our desk sergeant that you were calling about the murder of Charlie Sparks.’
‘I see. Yes, slip of the tongue, I'm afraid. Just the poisons.’
‘Mr Flint, we're not investigating any murder in relation to the death of Charlie Sparks,’ DI Warner said, standing and moving towards the door. ‘The reasons for his death are unknown, but he was an overweight man. A smoker and a drinker. Needless to say, we're not currently treating his death as suspicious. Of course, should that change, you'll be the first to know,’ he added with a thinly-veiled threat.
As DI Warner walked back down the steps from Ellis Flint's house, the up-until-now quiet DC Sam Kerrigan leant in and half-whispered to Flint: ‘I’d keep your nose out if I were you. Police business don't concern you.’
‘Doesn’t,’ Hardwick corrected, not taking his eyes from the ceiling.
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Police work doesn't concern us. Is a basic grasp of the English language not a requirement in the police force nowadays?’
DC Kerrigan stared at Hardwick for a few moments before raising a cocky smile and, thrusting his hands into his pockets, began to follow DI Warner down the steps, turning only to add: ‘We'll be seeing you again, gents.’
The door closed, Flint postulated, ‘So what do we do now?’
‘Nothing,’ Hardwick responded. ‘That is to say, nothing different. We just need to make sure we keep away from the noses of Detective Inspector Warner and Detective Constable Kerrigan while we continue our own investigations.’
‘Good idea. The fact that the police aren't even yet treating Charlie Sparks's death as suspicious says to me that we've something of a head-start,’ Flint added.
‘It's not a competition,’ Hardwick responded. ‘It's the pure and simple fact that somewhere out there, a killer is on the loose. And we're the only two people in the world who are looking for him.’
‘Or her,’ Flint remarked.
‘Indeed. Or her,’ Hardwick murmured pensively.
The late-afternoon sky had turned a mellow purple and the almost-faded light cast silhouettes all the way to the horizon. Hardwick's house was silent but for the rhythmic ticking of the grandfather clock in the hallway.
He sat looking at a notebook which he could barely see in the low light, yet he knew exactly what the words said. Exhaling and removing his reading glasses, Hardwick reached for the bakelite telephone and dialled the number.
‘Mr Allen, it's Kempston Hardwick here. We spoke at your house regarding the death of Charlie Sparks.’
‘Ah yes, good to hear from you. Have you caught the killer yet?’
‘No, but we do need to ask you for some more information if we may. Is it convenient to meet tomorrow morning?’
‘Yes, but not at home. Can we meet somewhere else?’
‘Absolutely. How does the Freemason's Arms sound?’ Hardwick suggested, listening for any hint of emotion in Patrick Allen's voice.
‘Well, that sounds fine to me. A little out of my way, but it's neutral ground, I guess. How does 11.30 sound?’
The air hung crisp in the air as the sunshine failed to break through the morning mist. The Freemason's Arms was the only pub in the area that opened before midday, releasing its door catches at 10 o’clock every morning. Many locals remarked that this was quite odd for a small village pub, but it surprised none that Doug Lilley should have little else to do with his mornings.
Rubbing his hands warm again, Hardwick entered the pub and awaited the arrival of Patrick Allen. He ordered a large Campari and took a seat at a nearby table, at which he extracted a copy of that day's Times from his inside coat pocket and turned to the crossword.
When Patrick Allen did arrive, ten minutes later, Hardwick moved on immediately to the points in hand.
‘Mr Allen, you told us the other day that you own Wellington Pharmaceuticals with Charlie Sparks, otherwise known as Dave Spencer,’ Hardwick stated.
‘Owned, yes,’ Patrick Allen corrected. ‘I’ve no idea what will happen to the company now.’
‘Quite. Would you say that the chemicals stocked by your company could be quite easily used to poison a human being?’
‘Well, I suppose it's always possible. Wait. Are you suggesting that I killed Dave Spencer?’
‘That's a very quick conclusion to jump to, Mr Allen,’ Hardwick said, his back hunching slightly as he studied the man before him. ‘Tell me. Do you know of anyone who might have reason to want him dead?’
‘Blimey, only a few hundred. How many names do you want?’
‘Perhaps we could start with one, Mr Allen. Would I be correct in assuming that you'd stand to benefit from the victim's death by inheriting his half of the company?’
‘I’m not entirely sure how the legal process would work, if I'm honest,’ Patrick Allen responded. ‘Besides, the company is worth bugger all nowadays.’
‘Oh, I'm more than aware of that,’ Hardwick said, plunging his hand deep into his inside coat pocket yet again, this time extracting a few sheets of folded A4 paper. ‘You see, I went to the lengths of obtaining your company accounts, dated just two months ago. It doesn't seem that Wellington Pharmaceuticals is doing too well at all.’
‘Wait, how did you get those?’
‘Wellington Pharmaceuticals is a limited company, Mr Allen. The accounts are publicly accessible.’
‘Well, I know, but—’
‘And do you know what else is accessible?’ Hardwick asked, turning to the rearmost of his sheets of paper. Patrick Allen shook his head. ‘The set of conditions by which each company is run. You see, in general company law, the remaining shares of a deceased partner would pass to the spouse of the deceased. Looking at the documents of Wellington Pharmaceuticals, it seems that a clause was added just over four months ago.’ Hardwick turned the sheet of paper to face Patrick Allen and pointed to the paragraph which was circled in deep blue fountain pen ink.
4.2 The shareholders agree that, upon the occasion of the death of any shareholder, the shares in the Company held by the deceased should be evenly distributed between the remaining shareholders.
‘That is to say, Mr Allen, that upon the death of Dave Spencer, you stood to gain the remaining fifty-percent of shares in Wellington Pharmaceuticals, becoming the sole shareholder.’
Patrick Allen simply laughed. ‘Let me ask you something, Mr Hardwick. What is double bugger all?’