The fire in the Frog and Radiator spat and hissed. A red glow sat beneath the logs recently placed there. It was not any one person’s job to maintain the fire. It was taken as given that should anyone in the pub see the flames growing dim they would add more fuel. Ethel Blowvalve, without her usual gang of friends, had thrown a couple of sawn limbs on, then given the embers a nudge with the poker. As she stood up she brushed her skirts down.
Looking about her, the place seemed unusually quiet. Rose and Violet had both gone out with their menfolk to the theatre in Muckleford. It was a rare treat as the men, firmly ensconced in their regular habits, much preferred to spend evenings swallowing pints of Widows’ Whiskers than hearing a group, even if it were Eliza Carthy and Band, perform. Not so the girls who had saved long and hard to see their favourite act.
Seeing the Sisters Merryfeather, Pippa and Tilly, drinking pale Sherries, Ethel decided, with little-considered thought, that she would sit with them.
“Evening girls, mind if I join you?”
Too polite by far to say no, the ladies, not sisters at all but lovers, smiled invitingly.
“Of course, my dear, take a pew!”
The Sisters Merryfeather had moved to Fekenham in 1968. Moving from London where the pair had run a detective agency. Pippa had been only twenty-three with Tilly twenty-four. Pippa was the taller of the two at five feet six. She was slim and awfully Gung Ho about all aspects of life. By no means anyone’s fool but of the two she was the one most likely to take risks. Pippa was shorter by some four inches. She was plump and rather matronly. It was hard to believe now that these two had been at the heart of swinging London during the sixties.
Ethel ordered a half of Widows then started to talk with her usual gusto.
“What a to-do all this severed hand business is, eh? I don’t recollect nothing quite likes it before, certainly not in my lifetime and I’ve spent all my years in Fekenham.” She drew a breath, took a swig at her half a pint, and then continued. ”I know Harry Hertlasp. I mean not as a mate or nothing but t’ say good day to. I used t’ see him regular like when we both used to visit Muckleford on market day but that was years ago now. ‘Course, he broke old Mavis’s heart but I guess that be the way of love. Have either of you two ever been to Birchtickle?”
“Yes we have,” said Tilly.
“It was the first place we saw when we moved here,” said Pippa.
“Of course we didn’t know then we were going to live here!” exclaimed Tilly.
“Indeed not, we were investigating a villain,” said Pippa.
“Robin Banks,” interjected Tilly.
“A notorious London criminal whose career had been spent…” said Pippa with a pause.
“Making withdrawals but without the need for an account,” finished Tilly.
Ethel smiled. She was as much interested in the tales as the manner in which they were being told. Both Pippa and Tilly had a natural empathy with each other so that one knew what the other was about to say. Conversations with them invariably had one completing the other's sentence. It was the same when they moved. One would gravitate to one side whilst the other would mirror the action. They moved with well-oiled synchronisation and yet it was not a practised way of behaving; it was all intuitive and by instinct.
Ethel asked the obvious question.
“You were both investigating the case?”
Tilly replied, “We had been hired by Robin’s wife to monitor and report back any and all of her husband’s activity.”
Pippa continued, “It didn’t matter what he got up to we had to make notes, take photographs if necessary but give as detailed an account as possible.”
Tilly interjected “It was relatively easy. All we had to do was watch, follow and record.”
“It was after the robbery in the blue that things started to warm up,” embellished Pippa.
“The Blue?” queried a puzzled Ethel.
“Part of South East London,” said Tilly.
“Near Rotherhithe,” quipped Pippa.
“Bermondsey to be precise,” finished Tilly.
“The raid had been well organised. It was a flawless, ingenious and highly organised robbery,” said Pippa.
“There were no guns involved,” added Tilly.
“No violence of any sort,” agreed, Pippa.
“Not even a raised voice,” smiled Tilly.
“It was all quite extraordinary. It made for one heck of a puzzle,” said Pippa stretching her arms.
“A regular conundrum,” tittered Tilly.
“You see,” said Pippa, “the gang got away Scot free without the police finding out for the best part of a day.”
“Twelve hours, to be precise before an alarm was raised and then only by the cleaner.” said Tilly, with admiration in her voice.
“Of course the police eventually arrived at the crime scene but again were stumped!” exclaimed Pippa.
“No fingerprints,” smiled Tilly knowingly.
“No marks of any kind in fact,” agreed Pippa.
“It was as if the money had simply vanished into thin air,” laughed Tilly, enjoying the look of bewilderment on Ethel’s face.
“How much did the bank robbers get away with?” asked an inquisitive Ethel.
“Five million pound,” said Pippa with added gravitas.
“Five million was a lot in ’68,” declared Tilly.
“Enough money to be set for life,” highlighted Pippa.
“Enough to have bought several mansions outright,” underlined Tilly.
“At first we were baffled. We had done precisely as asked but somehow had not the faintest idea of how this caper had been executed,” –Pippa.
“Was Robin Banks behind the crime then?” asked Ethel.
“Oh absolutely!” confirmed Tilly.
“He masterminded the whole heist,” said Pippa with no lack of admiration.“Trouble was we didn’t have a clue how he had done it let alone prove it,south west” said Tilly.
“So what did you do?” asked Ethel again.
“We kept up our vigil,” answered Pippa.
“Every hour of every day no matter the time,” said Tilly.
“All night and all day for a month,” said Pippa with conviction.
“We worked shifts so that when Pip was sleeping I would be watching.”
“And vice versa,” affirmed Tilly.
“Then one day he left his house in Wanstead and south-west,” said Pippa.
“To Wessex,” indicated Tilly
“Birchtickle,” endorsed Pippa.
“In 1968 Birchtickle was little more than a large pond. The homes that are there now didn’t exist then. In fact, the nearest cottage was half a mile away. The house you would recognise is the old farm. Back then it was called Roehill Farm after the man who had first owned it. All the land around the area, including the pond, formed part of what was, in reality, farmland.
“Martin Tickpant was just a teenager back then, one of many young hippies enamoured with free love and odd narcotics. He wore his hair long and his love beads strung loosely around his neck. I recall hearing him singing along to his favourite band of the day, Elephant Burnt Biscuit. It was an unholy noise but he seemed to think it good.
“With the robbery such a success but without any proofs of who they were or how they had committed such an audacious, flawless crime, it was down to us to dig around to find evidence.”
“Dig being the operative word,” interrupted Pippa.
“Don’t spoil the story,” admonished Tilly.
A log on the fire tumbled forward sending sparks flying. Lupini was passing. She had been carrying a tray of drinks to a couple of tourists. She bent, picked up a pair of tongs then replaced the log. Smiling at the three friends, she went on to deliver the drinks. Pippa sipped on her drink. Ethel nursed her glass as Tilly continued with the story.
“Finding clues to where Robin Banks had gone was easy to find. He had taken his car. We had the number plates and simply traced the car to a street in Winchester. Together we booked into a hotel. It wasn’t too far from where Banks was residing so it was no hardship for us to stake out the place. Again, we took it in shifts. Pippa worked from 5 am through to 2 pm then I took over working from 3 to midnight. We didn’t think a 24-hour pattern of observation necessary and besides, we weren’t being paid enough.”
Ethel wanted a question answered.
“Was it still Banks’ wife paying the bill?”
Pippa nodded. “Yes, she was very determined to find him. We didn’t understand why at first.”
Tilly continued the telling of the tale.
“Later on it all became crystal clear but for now let’s stay with us watching our prime suspect. It was after four days of monitoring the house that Banks made a move. It was during my shift so it fell to me to follow. This was before comwands so I couldn’t contact Pippa immediately and, when I arrived at the place Banks was heading for, there was not a single telephone box. But I am getting ahead of myself. I am parked outside a house in Winchester when Banks made his move.”
Ethel felt as though a veil was lifting before her eyes, a fog that had drifted down grey and thick was disappearing as the years were flowing back on themselves. She could see, or so it seemed to her, Tilly sitting in a red Mini with a Union Jack painted on the roof, her hair backcombed into a beehive, thick mascara lining her eyes; her lips coated with a pale gloss. As she sat there, waiting and observing, another car pulled out of a shingle drive.
Inside the other car, a man in his early thirties sat behind the wheel. It was hard to see how tall he was for he was seated but his face was visible. It was a handsome face. The man had dark brown eyes, a proud nose and firm chin. His hair was cut into something like a ‘Beatle Mop Top.’ If he saw Tilly he gave no indication he had but drove on past her.
“As he drove by I waited for a minute or two watching his car as it indicated left then I started my Mini and followed him. I wanted to keep well back so as not to alert him. I didn’t want to panic him in any way. It was imperative that he led me to wherever it was he was going for it was there, so I believed, that the money might be hidden and if it was then that would be all the proof I needed to report back to his wife but also to tell the police so they could make their arrest.”
In Ethel’s mind’s eye, she could see a dark blue Ford Cortina driving out of Winchester then onto the highway before heading down country lanes being followed at a distance by a red mini. It all sounded quite thrilling.
Tilly continued, “After about half an hour’s drive I saw the car in front of me slow down as it indicated right. I pulled over into the hedgerow to watch as the car driven by Robin Banks drove down a narrow lane. I didn’t know it then but this was the lane that led to the farm beyond which was the old ducking pond.
“I briefly waited then followed on behind. I decided not to drive all the way down the lane so when I saw a gate set back from the road I reversed the Mini in front of the gate, locked the car, and followed on foot.
“It was bit squelchy from the recent rain and I had to be careful not to step into puddles or get covered in mud so my progress was slow but eventually I came upon the empty Ford. There was no sight of Robin but there were some fresh footprints leading from where the car was parked that headed through a small copse.
“Being extra careful not to leave any marks of my own I skirted around about a bit trying until I managed to, in a very roundabout way, come to a point where I could clearly see Banks.
“He had a spade in his hand and was digging a large hole. Beside him were three large bags with what I presumed to be the money from the robbery. He must have dug for forty minutes or so. The excavation he made was neatly formed, which was how Robin Banks did everything – with precision. Once it was dug, it was about six feet deep; he lined it with a plastic sheet. Into this, he then placed the three bags, pulled the plastic sheet over them and then started to fill in the hole.
“Once I knew where the loot had been placed I left. Moving as silently as I could, I made my way back again, trying not to leave footprints that he might spot. It took a lot longer than if I had simply gone directly but it was important that he suspected nothing.
“The walk back to my parked car was uneventful apart from when he drove past me. I have to say that was pretty unnerving as I felt very exposed but I think it was just my own paranoia. I kept my head down so as not to show my face. I think he took me for a farm worker for he didn’t even slow down.
“When I got back to the car, a man was waiting beside my Mini. The gate was open with his tractor wanting to come out. My car was blocking his path. He looked furious so I apologised profusely saying I had been bursting to wee. He looked at me suspiciously but I think he accepted what I said. I drove off and came straight back to Pippa.”
The log that Lupini had replaced had burnt to an ember. The fire itself was humble now. There were no signs of flame, just a meek glow. Ethel got up from her chair and put three new logs on, then poked the cinders.
Pippa and Tilly’s Sherries had been drained as had Ethel’s half a pint.
“Before you continue would either of you like a top-up?” asked Ethel.
Both said they would. Ethel picked up the glasses, took them to the counter where Lupini put them into wash before producing three clean glasses which she soon filled.
Ethel took the two Sherries to the Merryweather's then went back to collect her beer. When she returned and had settled herself back near the fire, Pippa sipped on her sherry then took over from where Tilly had left off.
“When Tilly returned to the hotel she was in a very excited state. Her eyes were all a glitter and her face flushed.
‘Whatever is the matter?’ I asked, ‘have you found something juicy on Robin Banks?’
‘Not juicy as such,’ she replied, ‘but possibly the evidence we need to catch him.’
“Well, of course, this was enough for me to hear to gain my attention. I suggested we leave it an hour or two before we went along ourselves to dig these bags up and see what they contained. I then went off to run Tilly a bath.
“After she had bathed we ordered some food from room service which we ate as we made our plans.
“It was decided that we should return to the spot where the loot had been buried, dig it up, stuff it into the car then hightail it out of there before anyone saw us, and go directly to the police. As we didn’t know anyone at the Winchester police station, we thought it best to telephone an old London acquaintance of ours: Detective Inspector Semaphore.
“He is such a lovely man, or rather was, he passed away some years back. Anyway, we told him our plight of which he seemed intrigued, suggesting he phone an old chum who was based at Winchester CID. The man’s name was Detective Inspector Peter Windcliffe. I thanked Semaphore, hung up, then contacted the man the London detective had recommended.”
Pippa replaced her glass on the table. As she did so Tilly continued the story.
“I watched as Pippa spoke with the policeman. I could tell that Pip was less than enamoured of the man. She looked disappointed.”
“Indeed I was. Peter Windcliffe is nothing like the kindly Semaphore. Windcliffe was brusque, clipped at times, and gave me the impression of being slightly disinterested in what I had to say.”
“Distracted?” suggested Ethel.
“No, not as such. He just seemed to find it all a bit tiresome. Having to deal with a dotty female who really should be cleaning the house or washing something or other was really beneath him,” said Pippa.
“Pippa’s never been fond of men,” quipped Tilly.
“I don’t mind men; it’s rudeness I cannot abide,” corrected Pippa.
Ethel laughed lustily. “Oh, I like men but nude ones, not rude ones.”
Tilly made an odd sound that might have been a chesty wheeze or possibly a snigger. It was hard to tell. Pippa smiled, then continued with the story.
“Windcliffe had not been terribly helpful. I didn’t understand why not, so I thanked him for his time then, together with Tilly, went to the car. Before we left we spoke with the desk clerk. We had been expecting a parcel from London but were told it hadn’t arrived. We walked to the small car. I kept the spade with me, standing it between my legs. Tilly drove as she knew where we had to go.
“The drive was uneventful. The countryside between Winchester and Birchtickle is pretty enough but not even the prettiest of places makes a whit of difference when dusk comes down. Sundown arrived with a blaze of red that ignited the skyline. We turned down the lane that took us toward the copse and beyond that the pond.
“This time we didn’t stop short of the wood but drove right up to where Robin Banks had parked his car earlier. Although light was fading, the signs of Banks’ boot heels could be seen
“The mud was sticky, clinging to our shoes. We ignored the way it sucked at our feet. Passing through the light woodland we came to the place where Tilly indicated the bags lay hidden beneath the newly dug hollow.
“The thing that first struck me was that Tilly had obviously got the wrong spot. There wasn’t any evidence of recent digging. The area looked untouched. Clumps of leaves gathered about the copse floor, and there was a group of wild flowers, their blooms shrivelled, their heads bent earthward. Tilly assured me that this was the place. I took the spade and thrust it into the wet earth and began digging.”
The door to the Frog and Radiator opened letting in Vicar Linkthorpe and Susanne Beaufont. The couple smiled and nodded a greeting toward Ethel and the Sisters Merryfeather. The three of them smiled back, then Tilly continued with the tale.
“We took it in turns to shovel the earth. I dug and dug for what seemed ages shifting large clumps of earth, piling it to one side in a mound. Then Pippa returned to the task. Not being as strong as Banks, we took a lot longer to shift the mud but, after an hour and twenty minutes, the excavation was completed. There we could see below us a single bag wrapped in polyethene sheeting, just the one bag with no indication of where the other two were.”
Ethel looked mystified.
“What happened? There surely wasn’t time for anyone to dig up what Robin Banks had buried?”
Pippa raised a finger.
“If they did, then they would have had to have been very fast. The time between Tilly leaving and our returning was three hours so there was time but they would have had to dig up, remove the bags, return the earth exactly as it had been then cleared up again, ensuring there were no outward signs of anyone having been there. It would have been a tough task.”
“Unless,” said Tilly, “Banks never buried three in the first place.”
“I don’t understand,” confessed Ethel.
“He may have buried one bag then took the other two to another location to hide.” explained Tilly, looking toward Pippa for confirmation who nodded an affirmative before Tilly continued the tale.
“It really didn’t matter though for as soon as we called the police they arrived. DI Windcliffe was with them of course and this time in a far more pleasant frame of mind. He had the swag bag taken away then ordered his officers to arrest Robin banks which they did.” “What about the missing money? Where was that hidden?”
Tilly shook her head.
“No one knows. We suspect Banks hid it well then came back for it when he was released from prison.”
The bell behind the bar rang, announcing closing time.
Lupini called out, “Time gentlemen please.”
Before the three friends got up to leave Ethel had one final question.
“So are you suggesting that these here recent events, this amputated hand and all the killings are somehow connected?”
Pippa and Tilly laughed.
“Possibly,” said Pippa, “although we are not for one moment saying they are but Birchtickle does have some strange, arcane power that manifests itself from time to time in ways most odd. Who knows, maybe the money is still buried there?”
With this thought in her head Ethel, along with Pippa and Tilly gathered up their coats then made their respective ways home.
Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.