The forensic team carried Penny’s corpse out in a plastic body bag. Hilary had done her routine investigation confirming cause of death as stabbing. Hilary’s professional facade looked in danger of crumbling; she seemed fraught and near to tears. Lazarus looked grim. He turned to Vesper Highlot.
“You were the first one here. Why?” His tone was brusque, an attempt to be perfunctory, business-like. Highlot looked a little startled by his question.
“I’d been off sick and thought about phoning Penny to let her know I was fine and that I would be back at work. I thought better of it and decided to come round here to see her myself. I thought we could drive or walk to work together.”
Lazarus seemed disinterested with her response. He was looking through the paper work that lay scattered across the floor.
“Hilary. Check these papers for any signs of fingerprints. Have you dusted the apartment yet?” He turned his attention back to his sergeant.
“Was the door open when you arrived? Had it been forced?”
“It was shut, sir; there were no signs of forced entry.”
Lazarus picked up a tiny fragment of cloth from the floor.
“Hilary, this seems odd. Would you please take a look at it for me? It might be nothing but then again…” The words trailed off as he stood up. “A killer simply walks in without having to jemmy the lock then stabs an off-duty police officer. That doesn’t make sense. And the fact that we have had six murders in such a short time beggars belief.”
Highlot looked mystified.
“Six murders sir?”
“Two at Birchtickle and then the two men with tattoos then the man shot through the head and now Penny; two separate investigations maybe or maybe not. We will have to see.”
Highlot bowed her head, then looked up at her boss.
“The two tattooed men are now a murder investigation are they, sir?”
“Damn right they are. They and the shot man along with Penny are somehow connected. We are going to find out how and why. First though I am going to need Hilary to check on that piece of cloth for me and dig up all she can here. Whilst she is doing that you and I are going to go back to Birchtickle.”
The drive to Birchtickle was undertaken mostly in silence. Lazarus drove whilst Vesper Highlot sat quietly beside him. It was still early morning when they arrived. Lazarus pulled the car into the same space he had parked previously. Before climbing out of the car he turned to his sergeant.
“Sorry if I seem abrupt. This latest murder, Penny’s death that is, has got to me. I didn’t mean to be sharp with you.”
Vesper Highlot had a curious way of bending her head as though in supplication when thinking. She did it again now then she raised her head and looked at her boss.
“I understand, guv. We all are going to miss Penny.”
Having finished she placed her hand onto Lazarus’s and squeezed it.
“Any time you need to talk, Adam, I am there for you.”
Lazarus quickly pulled his hand away, opened the car door and stepped out.
“Less of the Adam please; sir or guv will do nicely. Now then let’s do a walk around just to get our bearings. I want to get it into my head just how long it takes to walk from Tickpant’s farm to Old Widow Nosebag’s cottage. In fact I want to know how long it takes to do a full circuit of this area starting at Tickpant’s then right round and back again.”
They started off after Lazarus had looked at this watch. They walked at a steady pace but not to fast as Lazarus wanted to ascertain the time it would take as a mean average for either a man or woman to walk.
“Has Harry Hertlasp been charged, sir?”
“For the murder of Sir and Dame Fatleaf? Yes he has. I tend to believe him though when he says he didn’t kill either Agatha Nosebag or Jean Grimstain. The way the murders were committed is one thing that strikes me as odd. Even if he had motivation enough I don’t think the method used is his style at all. Both were very violent, brutal deaths; acts carried out with both passion and forethought. Hertlasp’s dismemberments may be cynical but they were carried out to cover up the act. The shears through the mouth killings were committed and then left for all to see, almost as though the killer struck then run. Do you see what I mean?”
“More like crimes of passion than a calculated cover-up.”
As they walked they saw, coming toward them, the rounded figure of Tracey Trimeot. She saw them, stopped briefly as if considering her options, then continued to walk on. As she drew near she kept her head down, choosing to mumble something inaudible as they passed each other. When she was some distance from them Vesper Highlot spoke out.
“Bit of an odd one that, sir.”
“Embarrassed by all the times we have caught her and her weird little gang practising their sexual deviances I wouldn’t wonder. I’d be a bit red faced too if I were her.”
“Where do you think she is off to?”
“Probably off to buy some kinky suit for her and hubby to dress up in; perhaps as Pandas or maybe Meerkats.”
“Or pigs!” laughed Vesper.
“A case of ‘been there, done that’ I would imagine,” replied Lazarus.
The morning sun was beginning to show, promising a warm day. The sky was virtually cloud-free. High above them an airship elegantly flew by, the advert on its underbelly unreadable. There came from the pond the sound of a splash of a Coot as it entered the waters, ruffling its feathers as it did.
As Highlot and Lazarus continued their walk, they saw before them two young boys sitting beneath a tree. One lad had his arm around the other, who was weeping. The boy crying was Jean Grimstain’s son, Sam. The boy comforting him was Todd Gosling. Seeing the two together tugged at Adam Lazarus’s heart. He had lost his mother at an early age and knew full well how the impact of losing a parent hurt.
“Shouldn’t you boys be at school?” admonished Vesper Highlot.
“Leave them alone. I’ll deal with them,” snapped Lazarus. “Stay here, I’ll be back in a minute or two.”
Hearing Vesper Highlot’s admonishment, Sam had run his sleeve across his nose then rubbed his eyes dry with the back of his hand. Todd looked at both Lazarus and Highlot with disdain, finding it hard to believe that someone could be so heartless. He said nothing though, but continued to stare fiercely at the woman.
Lazarus tucked his hands into his pocket and walked up to the boys.
“Sorry about that but my colleague doesn’t know who either of you are. She doesn’t know about your Mum, Sam. It’s my fault; I should have told her. I apologise. If it’s not too dumb a question, how are you feeling; like shit I would have thought?”
Sam didn’t look at Lazarus but stared hard at his knees.
“I don’t know what I am supposed to do, how I am meant to act. Everyone is being so kind but ...I got up every day and Mum had everything ready so that I either went to school or out to play. When I got home dinner was there. I can’t go back home, can’t go in the kitchen, scared to see... Who’s going to pay the bills? Where I am going to live? Why my Mum?”
Lazarus sat down beside Sam. Todd looked on, still staring at Vesper Highlot.
“I was lucky when my Mum died as my Dad was still about. I was fourteen. The neighbours used to keep an eye out for me and Dad always did his best to fill the gap Mum had left but there is no one quite like your Mum is there? It is going to be tough, Sam, very tough, but go with the flow for now. Let the community help but don’t be scared to either show your emotions or speak up if you need to. I kept my hurt bottled-up and it only made matters worse. I can’t promise you life will ever be the same again or that with time the pain will lessen – it won’t. I will promise you this though: I will catch whoever it was that killed your Mum. They will pay, they will be punished.”
“Won’t bring Mum back though will it?”
“No, it won’t.”
Todd was no longer looking at the female police officer; he was now looking directly at Lazarus.
“How will you do that? You don’t know who it was!”
“I do know who it wasn’t. It wasn’t Agatha Nosebag as she’s dead nor was it Harry Hertlasp. As the murders were almost certainly committed by someone in the local community, by a process of elimination, that leaves me with your Mum and Dad, the Trimeots or Martin Tickpant.”
Todd looked horrified at the suggestion that it was either of his parents.
“My Mum and Dad wouldn’t kill no one. Anyway, how do you know it wasn’t an outsider, someone from Fekenham or Muckleford?”
Lazarus chuckled. “I don’t, but I have to work to process and my instinct. Now then, if either of you, but especially you Sam, needs me then give me a call. It’s good to chat.”
Lazarus dusted the dirt from his coat as he stood up. He indicated to Vesper to follow him, then the pair walked on. To their left, and a little behind them, was the Trimeots’ cottage whilst ahead of them they could clearly see the now empty home of Harry Hertlasp, beyond which stood the larger property of the Tickpants’. Lazarus suddenly halted.
“We’re not going to be able to calculate how long it takes to do a circuit of the area, sir, not with that little stop you just took.”
Lazarus shook his head.
“Forget that. It doesn’t matter anymore. Let’s go and talk with Martin Tickpant.”
The farm house door was open as Lazarus and Highlot approached it. The pair could hear the sound of raised voices coming from within. Two men were arguing.
“I don’t give a damn how much you think you’re worth, I simply don’t have any spare cash to pay you!”
“I haven’t had an increase in wages for three bloody years. It’s alright for you, living like Lord Dunabunk up here in your big fancy house but us common folk have to mend and make do.”
“What ‘big fancy’ house?’ You mean the farm house? Are you stark raving mad? I am in debt, just like you; serious debt too so don’t tell me about ‘mend and make do,’ I’ve been doing that for bloody years.”
“I want more money or else!”
“Are you threatening me? ‘Cos if you are then you’d better be prepared for a fight. I could sack you now, you know and then what the hell would you do? Go and work for the Hamfists over in Fekenham? They wouldn’t have you. Nor would the Micklethewaites as they are strapped for cash too. I have half a mind to pick up my shotgun and pepper your arse!”
Lazarus entered the kitchen with his hand held up as though about to stop traffic.
“Hey! I wouldn’t want to arrest either of you for a breach of the peace now would I? Mister Tickpant, put down that bread knife and Mister Trimeot sit down and be quiet. What’s this all about?”
The question remained unanswered though as Tim Trimeot jabbed his finger aggressively at Martin Tickpant who had done as Adam Lazarus asked and placed the knife he had been holding down on the kitchen table.
“Point that thing at me again, Tickpant, and I’ll shove it so far up your rear end you’ll be able to use it as a toothpick.”
The threat was rhetorical. Martin Tickpant knew this but sneered anyway. It was then that Alice Tickpant flew into the kitchen like an express train on steroids. She was snarling so fiercely that the act distorted her face, turning it into something quite demonic. Tim Trimeot raised his arms as he attempted to hold her back but she simply pushed his arms aside as she grabbed his throat with one meaty hand. Neither Lazarus nor Vesper Highlot had seen anything quite like it before as the woman, looking every bit the deranged grizzly, lifted Tim Trimeot onto his tiptoes and then pushed him back as though he were a hat stand.
Seeing the poor man’s face turn a deep shade of red, Lazarus and Highlot.each took hold of one of Alice’s arms which they pulled down to her sides. Martin Tickpant moved in front of his wife with his hands raised in a placatory manner.
“Alice, Alice, listen to me, it’s alright. Me and Tim had a bit of a row but there’s no harm done. He isn’t going to hurt me so calm yourself down.”
Both Lazarus and Highlot were finding it difficult to hold on to Alice. She was a solid woman, robust and powerful. It felt as though she could, had she the mind to do so, do both police officers considerable damage. The pair breathed a sigh of relief as they felt her arms go limp as she relaxed. Alice’s features also grew calm as the rage that had gathered force within her abated.
“I’ll kill anyone who so much as hurts a hair of your head,” she said this to Martin as though oblivious to anyone else’s presence. Martin smiled at her as he gently stroked he face.
“I know, but no one is going to hurt me, silly girl.”
“Am I still your girl?”
“You know you are.”
The tension that had filled the room had dissipated now but before Tim Trimeot had the opportunity, out of shame as much as anger, to re-engage with Martin Tickpant, and before Adam Lazarus could instruct Sergeant Highlot to escort the aggrieved farm worker back to his cottage, the Detective Inspector’s Comwand buzzed.
“Adam Lazarus. Hello Hilary. Not now, no, I am sort of tied up at this second. Is it important? I see, okay then, let me finish up here then I’ll be right over.”
Then, turning to Vesper Highlot, Lazarus asked her to walk Tim Trimeot home.
“Everything alright, sir?” she asked.
“Hilary has news on the identity of Penny Farthing’s killer. She wants me to go over and see for myself.”
Vesper nodded then led Tim Trimeot away. Martin Tickpant was still caressing his wife’s face. Lazarus spoke to the farm owner.
“I need to talk you sir; sooner rather than later. Don’t go out of the area will you?”
The Comwand buzzed again.
“Lazarus. Well hello! How are you? Glad to hear it. Yes, thanks, I’m okay. What now? No, it isn’t a problem although I do have one or two things i need to get done. “Work things, yeah. Look, I’m in Birchtickle right now. Don’t ask. Then I have to go see the local pathologist. That’s right, Hilary Leatherbarrow. No, no, it’s not a problem. I’ll come to see you first, flying visit though, then I’ll go to the lab. Okay, see you in half an hour.”
Outside the Tickpants’ farm Lazarus collected his thoughts. He needed to speak with Martin Tickpant; needed to make clear one or two areas of concern. He also had to get to Hilary’s as soon as he could. He saw, out of the corner of his eye, Vesper Highlot making her way toward him.
“Has he calmed down?”
Vesper nodded. “A bit. I think that woman put the fear of God up him though. Is she Mrs Tickpant?”
“Yes, she is.”
“Not to be rude, but is she all the ticket?”
“She has learning problems if that’s what you mean.”
“So how come Martin Tickpant married her?”
“Good question, but the answer will have to wait as I have to get back. I guess you will need a lift? Get your skates on then as I need to be in several places at once.”
The drive back to Winchester was conducted largely in silence with both Lazarus and Highlot deep in the streams of their own thoughts. The roads from Birchtickle were little more than lanes, with thick hawthorn hedges and green elms overhanging either side, so that when you looked up all you could see was a thin strip of blue sky. Occasionally, an airship could be seen and once a cloud passed over, white and defiant, looking remarkably like a fist. It was Vesper who broke the hush.
“So Hilary has found a clue to Penny’s murder?”
“So she said. I am going over to the lab once I have sorted some personal stuff.”
“I thought you were going to question Martin Tickpant?”
“No need, not now.”
“I don’t understand?”
“Once Harry Hertlasp had been eliminated from our enquiries, and with none of the four pervs really in the frame, I thought I knew who the killer was. I was wrong but I am pretty sure I have figured out who it is now.”
“Your little secret, or can anyone know?”
“There is one final thing I need to do before I tell you. Make sure you are available early tomorrow. I expect to make my arrest then.”
A woman in a cart being pulled by a large pig slowed Lazarus’s car to a crawl. Vesper laughed at the sight.
“Look at her, she looks like Blodwyn Boudicca. Can you believe it, a pig-drawn chariot?”
Lazarus laughed. “I’ve met that woman before. Her name is Ethel Blowvalve. She lives in a village near here.”
“Are all the villagers as mad?”
“By and large, yes they are. You should go there one day so you can see for yourself.”
They remained behind the cart for about a mile then, as the vehicle turned into a lay-by, the police car roared by. Within twenty minutes, Lazarus had pulled up outside Vesper Highlot’s home. Lazarus left the engine running as he turned to his sergeant.
“Sorry again about earlier. Penny’s death must have hurt you too. Are you okay? If you need anything then just let me know.”
For an answer Vesper leaned in close and kissed her inspector on the mouth. Lazarus pulled away placing his hands palms outward.
“Whoa! If I gave you the wrong impression then I am sorry. I don’t feel like that about you. We are colleagues, friends even but no more than that.”
If Vesper was hurt by his reaction then she did a good job of disguising it. She nodded her understanding as she opened the car door.
“Just my luck I guess. Whenever I fancy a man he invariably fancies someone else. No harm done. Friends?”
“Good night, sir, see you bright and early tomorrow.”
She stood at her door as Adam drove away. She waited until he had driven off then she pulled her door shut before going for a walk.
Lazarus arrived outside the old, converted schoolhouse. He left the car’s engine running as he walked toward the front door. As he took out his key, the door flew open revealing a pretty dark-haired female. Upon sight of Adam she squealed, then threw her arms about his neck, pulling him close to her whereupon she planted a lingering kiss on his mouth. Adam didn’t seem to resist but enjoyed the moment. Then he pulled away before kissing her again on the cheek. Watching from her parked car in sheer disbelief was Hilary Leatherbarrow. Had she stayed a few minutes longer she would have seen Lazarus leave the house unaccompanied. Hilary didn’t wait though. With her eyes filling with tears, she drove off.
At first she had no idea where she was headed. She had gone to where Lazarus lived to share the information she had uncovered. Seeing him kissing someone he was obviously fond of had driven all rational thought out of her mind. Recovering her self somewhat she decided to return to her laboratory. Whatever she thought she had witnessed may still have a justifiable explanation. She should compose herself before leaping to conclusions. She turned the car around and drove directly to the lab.
Even before she got there she knew something was wrong. Two fire engines appeared behind her with their lights flashing and their sirens screaming, followed by an ambulance. Hilary pulled her car up onto the kerb to allow them to pass. Ahead she could see a dark plume of smoke rising above the rooftops. Driving into the street where her facility stood she could see flames thrusting out of the windows. The lower half of the building was engulfed by fire. There was an acrid smell of chemicals. She thought of the corpses still contained within; their dead flesh being burnt. Then her thoughts turned with mounting alarm to concern for Mrs MacCrumpet.
The firemen were clearly winning their battle with the flames. Although the lower half of the building appeared to be ruined the upper half seemed virtually untouched. As she moved in closer a senior member of the fire-fighters held his hand up to her.
“Best stay back miss, it isn’t safe.”
“Mrs MacCrumpet, is she okay?” asked Hilary
The man looked grave as he answered.
“There was one person caught inside. They managed to get out with only a few minor burns but they had inhaled a deal of smoke. The ambulance crew are looking after them over there.”
He pointed his finger in the direction of two paramedics who were carrying a body on a stretcher. Hilary rushed over to see for herself how her caretaker was.
Mrs MacCrumpet lay on her back with a blanket pulled up to her chin. She had on an oxygen mask. Her eyes were open and a glimmer of recognition flickered as she saw Hilary.
“How is she?” enquired Hilary of the first paramedic encountered.
“Minor burns to her right forearm and hand, nothing that won’t heal. She was trapped inside a steel cabinet which she had climbed into to escape the fire. Fortunately it was fire resistant. It wasn’t heat proof though and certainly not smoke-proof. She has inhaled a great deal of fumes from both the fire and the chemicals kept within. We need to get her to hospital ASAP.”
Another splash of colour flashed across the pavement. A police car pulled up, followed by Adam Lazarus in his Austin Healey. Adam ran straight to Hilary’s side.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“How’s Mrs MacCrumpet?”
“Pretty much untouched by the fire but she has breathed in a lot of toxic fumes.”
“Will she be alright?”
“I don’t know.”
“How come you are so unscathed?”
“I had driven over to your house to see you. You seemed otherwise occupied.”
For a fleeting second Lazarus looked perplexed, then understanding settled his features.
“It’s not what you think it is,” he said.
“It’s not my place to think anything Adam. It’s a free world after all.”
“That was Debbie Sundae, my old number two, my old sergeant. She is the sister of my housemate, Miles.”
“And it’s perfectly normal for ex-colleagues to throw themselves at you before kissing passionately?”
“She and I go back a long way and besides, she kissed me.”
“I didn’t see any signs of your resistance.”
“Give me a break, Hilary. Debbie and I used to be lovers. It’s over now. She just got carried away that’s all. Please don’t make a mountain out of a mole hill.”
Hilary looked at the building. Fire was raging still, but less so than when she first arrived.
“I had evidence in there that might have been useful to your investigation,” she stated, taking the conversation onto a professional footing.
“It’s a bugger but there is nothing to be gained by worrying over it now,” suggested Lazarus.
Hilary let out a sigh.
“That piece of cloth you discovered wasn’t cloth at all; it was latex. It came from a glove similar to those used by the medical profession, forensic pathologists and the police. I found evidence of hand soap but also traces of blood. Whoever stabbeded Penny Farthing washed their hands with Imperial Leather and has a nasty scratch on their left hand. I had managed to inspect Penny’s corpse and there was blood underneath the fingernails of her right hand suggesting that whoever attacked her has a scratch mark on them. The blood type was O.”
Lazarus looked intently at the doctor.
“Do you think this fire was arson?” he asked.
“Almost certainly,” replied Hilary.
A large cloud of smoke drifted toward them. Somewhere distant, a siren sounded. Lazarus gazed at Hilary who was staring at the ruined building.
“Let’s go get a coffee,” he said taking hold of Hilary’s arm. Whatever reserves the pathologist had had broke down now. She started to weep. Adam went to hug her but she shook him away.
“I’m fine, really. I just keep thinking how Mrs MacCrumpet could have died. What on earth is going on, Adam. Who is behind these attacks?”
Adam shook his head. “I think I know but I still need to find out a couple more things before I can make an arrest.”
The siren sound had grown closer as though it were making its way toward the scene of the fire but now it was fading. Glass shattered as a window collapsed upon itself, sending shards crashing to the ground,
“Can we skip the coffee? I really should go to the hospital and check on Mrs Mac.”
Lazarus nodded his understanding.
“I’ll drive you there. There’s nothing either you or I can do here. My officers will cordon off the place. First thing tomorrow I’ll need you and your team to inspect the area. You okay with that?”
“Yes, of course. Now though I need to make sure Mrs Mac is settled for the night.”
Lazarus led her to his parked car and opened the door to let her climb in.
Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.