Lazarus felt tired. He ran his hands over his face then rubbed his eyes to clear the mist that plagued his vision. He took another sip of coffee from his mug, rubbed his face again before focusing on the case in hand. A case that had started out just a little quirky had escalated into the realms of the weird. He had interviewed all the residents of Birchtickle now, apart from Harry Hertlasp who he was making wait in the hope this may make the man feel uncomfortable, a little under pressure. It was an old ploy but one that often-produced results. With Hertlasp though Lazarus was unsure. The man seemed very self-composed, highly disciplined but it was still worth a try.
Jean Grimstain, after the meeting with Leatherbarrow and Lazarus, had reverted to being all sweetness and light. That of course was to be expected. She didn’t want to give the police the slightest chance of thinking she had anything to do with Agatha Nosebag’s murder. Lazarus had asked her the obvious questions as to where she had been when Agatha’s murder had taken place but the alibi she had given was confirmed by her son whom Lazarus had finally got to meet.
Lazarus had not dismissed Jean Grimstain from his list of suspects but it was her son who proved to be the more informative. Apparently, his Mum had received regular visits from Agatha with the last one erupting into a full-blown row.
“What caused the argument?” Lazarus asked the boy.
“Dunno but old bag Nosebag didn’t half go mad.”
“Really? What did she say then?”
“That if Mum didn’t cough up she, that is old bag Nosebag, would let everyone know.”
Blackmail? It sounded very much like it. If that was the case, then there was a clear motivation.
Alice Tickpant had proved next to useless. Not that Lazarus had expected much but the only information he received was how unhappy the murder had made Alice. Martin Tickpant had grown heated when it became apparent that Lazarus intended to interview Alice without him being present.
“It is out of order!” stated Tickpant vehemently. “You know of my wife’s problems, I insist I sit in with her.”
“I am sorry sir but I cannot allow that but please rest assured that a female police officer will be present at all times.”
Tickpant had threatened Lazarus with his solicitor but Lazarus remained undeterred. The interview had uncovered very little apart from showing Alice to have more affection for Agatha Nosebag then any of her other neighbours. The only small sliver of a clue that gave Lazarus food for thought was that Alice had said she had overheard Agatha and Martin talking.
When Lazarus had asked what, it was they were talking about Alice had replied: “Money.”
“Who was asking for money?” enquired Lazarus.
“Agatha was. Martin owes Agatha for something.”
“Do you know what it might be.”
“You’ll have to ask him.”
When it came to interviewing Martin Tickpant himself, Lazarus regretted not having spoken with him before his wife. The attitude Tickpant displayed was truculent and unhelpful. It wasn’t until Lazarus pressed him over the money he apparently owed the dead woman that the farmer revealed himself.
“I borrowed some money from her. It was nothing. I wanted to get some new equipment but didn’t have the cash available so I loaned it from Nosebag.”
“You didn’t like her though did you, sir?”
“No one liked Agatha Nosebag.”
“Well, Alice is soft in the head and the heart. She doesn’t see any bad in anyone.”
There was no proof of course but a debt could be construed as blackmail if the method for getting it back involved threats.
“Did she threaten to expose you, sir?”
“No sir, Agatha Nosebag. Did she say she would tell the other residents you owed her money if you didn’t pay up?”
“She was spiteful, not stupid. Had she tried that on with me she would have got her comeuppance.”
“Which is precisely what happened, Mister Tickpant: someone gave her a comeuppance. Was it you?”
“Over a small bit of money? Don’t be so bloody daft. I could have borrowed it from Alice if I had wanted to.”
“Then why didn’t you, sir? It seems the easier option to me.”
Tickpant’s aggressiveness seemed to melt away following the question.
“Alice has given me more than I deserve. I don’t want to take any more from her.”
It was the first sign the police detective had seen signs of genuine emotion from the farmer. He had then let both Alice and Martin Tickpant go home but was not convinced that Agatha hadn’t been blackmailing him too.
The interviews with the cavorting couples of the Trimeot and Gosling clans had been split. He took the men whilst a female P.C had spoken with the ladies. Apart from a degree of embarrassment there was nothing much any of the four could add. The fact that others knew of their little get-togethers and the nature of what they did was well known that circumvented any possibility of blackmail. Of course, there was the other option which would need investigating and that was if any of the two couples owed money to the dead woman. A swift check of their bank balances should reveal any detail.
Now all that there was left to do was to speak again with Harry Hertlasp. The old feeling of still missing something returned to niggle at Lazarus. There was still something patently obvious he had not spotted. It was the vital link that would shed light on this peculiar case but what it was he couldn’t think.
Was the ‘Hand In Glove’ case connected to the murder of Agatha Nosebag?
He went to take another drink of his coffee but the mug was empty. DS Highlot and DC Farthing were working hard on that other case. The two men bearing tattoos, who had apparently died of accidental causes, appeared to be linked in some way. Vesper Highlot was still dismissive of the case, suggesting there was no link between the two men at all apart from them being members of the Brethren.
Lazarus felt that Highlot was being unprofessional in her approach and told her again that the tattoos found were nothing to do with the Brethren, at least not the racist group that had been active in Fekenham. In his opinion, and with his knowledge and experience, both men were linked to a far more powerful and potentially dangerous organisation. When Sergeant Highlot had asked who this mysterious group was Lazarus had refused to say.
“Let’s just say I have had experience of these people. Just do the job. Do it by the rule book and be careful. If I wasn’t embroiled in this bloody severed hand case I would be heading-up your investigation.”
Lazarus could see the pair now, working hard at their desks. He got up and walked over to them.
“Either of you girls fancy a coffee?”
“We’re very busy sir, sorry,” replied Penny Farthing, her eyes firmly on the paperwork in front of her.
“I wasn’t asking you to make it. I am offering. Now then, do either of you want a coffee?”
At that point, the phone on Lazarus’s desk rang and he went to answer it.
“Chief Inspector Lazarus.”
“Hi, it’s me, Hilary. The vital clue that’s been eluding us, I think I know what it is.”
“That twenty years we spoke of..”
Lazarus stood up to greet Doctor Leatherbarrow as she walked in.
“Thanks for coming over. I would have come to you but I have someone waiting to be interviewed and I can’t keep him locked up for much longer.”
“Harry Hertlasp?” asked Hilary, looking even lovelier than normal, thought Lazarus.
“Yes? What made you say that?”
“Getting to know the way you work, I guess.”
“I am just about to make the team coffee. Would you like one too?”
“Walk this way, then.”
“I might get arrested if I did.”
“Ha, bloody, ha.”
The police kitchen was less kitchen and more like a thin cupboard with a sink, a wall fixed cabinet, and an ailing plastic kettle. As the implement came to the boil it shook and vibrated.
“Not sure where we got that thing from but at least it still boils water. Now then, you said ‘twenty years’ as thought that means something. I know that Martin Tickpant first sold his land off twenty years ago, and that is when folks started moving into the area but what else is there?”
The kettle did a good impression of a miniature volcano about to erupt. It spluttered and spat droplets of water; it hissed then throbbed before finally making a hideous rattling noise. Lazarus wrapped a cloth around the plastic handle then poured the boiled water into the mug.
“After all that effort, I hope it was worth it,” smiled Hilary.
As she took the mug from the policeman their hands touched. This time neither pulled them away. Lazarus looked at her and her back at him.
“Twenty years?” said Lazarus after what seemed an age.
“Remember the hand having traces of hand lotion that finished production some twenty years ago?” said Hilary as she sipped at the mug.
“Yes, I do. You think this is significant?”
“Almost certainly, don’t you? It strikes me as being a little too convenient otherwise’”
“And that’s it, nothing more than that?”
“I am but a poor forensic specialist. You are the detective.”
Lazarus laughed. “Thanks. What are you suggesting?”
Hilary put the coffee down, then pulled a face.
“How do you drink that stuff? It is foul! The first thing I would have thought to do is look back twenty years to find what each of the residents was doing prior to moving into Birchtickle”
Lazarus moved to his desk, indicating Hilary to sit down. Both Vesper Highlot and Penny Farthing watched the doctor.
“Yes, I see where you’re coming from. I am trying to look into that. How’s the autopsy coming along?”
Hilary sat back in her chair, raising her hands behind her head as she did. A large smile crossed her face.
“There are two sets of finger prints on the handle of the shears. One is those of the deceased and the other those of Harry Hertlasp.”
“Bingo!” cried, Lazarus.
“Something to hit him with?”
“Very much so. There may be a rational explanation but nonetheless, it needs investigation. Had any more luck with the other case that my team is working on?”
Hilary pulled her hands away from her head and sat forward, her cheeks flushed.
“Hey! Hang on a minute. I think that I have done a great deal more than required here and besides, what more can I tell you about the two men? Identical tattoos - both apparently died of violent methods. One looked like suicide but wasn’t and the other a hit-and-run.”
Lazarus gave her a twinkle of his eye.
“But you think there is more to it than that. You have said so and I think you are right. I know you are busy but I would be grateful if you could discover more. Anything would help.”
“Are we talking dinner here?” asked Hilary flirtatiously.
“Okay then. You know all there is to tell about the Agatha Nosebag murder. I will look again at the two men but I doubt if there is anything more to find. How about you? What is your next move?”
Lazarus appeared not to have heard her, or if he had it was only vaguely. He sat back from his computer screen with a grim look on his face.
“Sorry, what did you say?”
“That I’ll do my best to help; you look as though something has got your attention and I can tell it’s not me. What have you found?”
The Chief Inspector gazed at the screen the turned from it to look at Hilary.
“Twenty years ago, Agatha Nosebag was in service. She worked for Sir Clement and Dame Fatleaf. She worked for them as their housemaid. Are you familiar with the case?”
Hilary shook her head.
“Twenty years ago, both Sir Clement and his lady wife both disappeared. It was as though they both had vanished. There were no signs of any violence. No bodies, no clues, nothing. They simply vanished into the ether. There was a huge investigation headed-up by my boss Chief Constable O’Law who then was a DCI like me. A nationwide search was conducted which ended having produced no evidence or facts. Whatever happened remains a mystery. But what is fascinating is that the Fatleafs had a butler, in fact they had a great many staff but then again, they were very wealthy people with Sir Clement about to be made a Lord. Do you know who their butler was?”
“Not being a detective, I may struggle here, so keep up with me as I am a bear of very little brain. At a guess, I would suggest Harry Hertlasp.”
“And you’d be dead right. Funny the way things fall into place when the clues start to mount up.”
Hilary stood up from her chair, zipping her leather jacket as she did.
“I think I know who you will be having words with in a moment or two then.”
Lazarus stood up as well.
“Harry Hertlasp. First, though, let me walk you to your car.”
The pair walked out past Vesper Highlot and Penny Farthing. Hilary smiled at the two female police officers.
“If I dig up any new evidence on the tattooed men I’ll give you a call. See you both soon. Bye”
As she walked away Vesper leaned in close to Penny.
“Blimey, she seems happy. The boss must be giving her one.”
Outside, by the car, Hilary turned to thank Lazarus.
“I think you mentioned dinner?” asked Lazarus.
“I did,” said Hilary.
“Tomorrow night at eight at the Duck in Fekenham?”
“You have a date.”
There was a moment, a brief pause when both of them said nothing to each other but just looked into the others eyes, then Lazarus moved closer, taking Hilary in his arms. He kissed her firmly on the mouth, a long lingering kiss that held the promise of more. Finally, they pulled apart.
“Let’s hope tomorrow’s meal tastes as good,” said Hilary as she climbed into her car..
Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.