Tuesday, 11 October 2016

The Village Tales of Fekenham Swarberry - Book 4and a bit - Hand In Glove (Chapter 2)

The second chapter in my off-piste Fekenham story. After my ludicrous attempt at detective fiction in 'The Sordid Tale of the Enema Bandit of Winchester,' at best an absurdist twits take on a subject most grim and realistic given a distinctly Fekenham twist, comes this slightly less silly second attempt at writing in that genre. Only you can tell if it works or not.....

Adam Lazarus stepped out of the Austin Healey 27. As police cars go it wasn’t bad and being a bit of a ‘petrol head’ he felt rather chuffed with it. He ran his right hand over the bonnet, smiling as he did. The gravel of the road crunched beneath his shoes.
Lazarus was a tall man of thirty-five. He was blond, blue-eyed and cut a rather handsome figure. As a recently promoted Detective Chief Inspector, he was relatively young for such a rank but ambition burnt brightly within him.  This drive was fortunately matched by his ability.  His predecessor, the infamous Simian Simpering, was a hard act to follow but Lazarus was confident that he was more than up to the task.
The spring day was bright but a little chilly. The wind with teeth nipped at the detective’s face. He pulled the collar of his raincoat about his neck. Above him, a shy sun slipped in and out behind a flock of clouds that ranged the sky like sheep. As he crunched along the path he could see the pond that lay shadowed by two great willows that dipped their long, tapered fingers into the cool waters. Beside the pond a woman waited.
Lazarus had agreed to meet forensic pathologist, Doctor Hilary Leatherbarrow, at the crime scene so that together they could get a better feel of what happened. As he approached the doctor she lifted her head toward him and smiled. She was pretty; fleshy but not plump, standing about five feet five with blonde hair that was cut short. Her blue eyes were large and enquiring and sat above a generous nose that was broad but not large. Her mouth, unadorned by lipstick, was full and formed a perfect cupid’s bow. She was wearing a white blouse beneath a checked brown jacket. Faded blue denim jeans hung over her shapely hips, before folding onto a pair of white sneakers.  She extended her hand as Adam Lazarus approached.
“Detective Chief Inspector Lazarus I presume?”
The policeman gave a decidedly winning smile.
“Hello Doctor, I am very pleased to meet you.”
His handshake was firm and warm. She knew instantly that she would be able to work with him. As he released her hand he looked around at the pond. When he spoke it was with a well-educated voice but his tone was conversational.
“So this used to be where they ducked witches then?”
Hilary Leatherbarrow, her assessment of the detective over, followed his gaze before responding.
“Apparently so, it always did strike me as being a little obtuse that to establish someone’s innocence you had to drown them first.”
Lazarus smiled.
“It does seem rather daft doesn’t it?”
A moorhen, a dash of black and white, scuttled across the pond’s surface, Lazarus continued the conversation.
“It was over there wasn’t it that Mister Hertlasp found the severed hand?”
Leatherbarrow nodded.
“After the boys had thrown it back in again, yes.”
Lazarus ran his hand over his chin. The action made a sound as of sandpaper being dragged across a rough surface.
“It must have spooked the boys discovering a hand on the end of the line rather than a carp.”
“Yes, it must. I understand that Todd Gosling has been having nightmares about it.”
“You spoke to his parents?”
“They phoned me.”
“I see.”
The faraway sound of a lone cow mooing drifted over. Hilary indicated the far side of the pond where a paper bag was floating.
“Would you like to see where Mister Hertlasp found the severed hand?”
Lazarus nodded. Together with Doctor Leatherbarrow he began to walk to where one of the two willows lounged beside the pond’s edge. His easy gait, with his long stride effortlessly carrying him along, impressed Hilary. She found Lazarus to be very attractive even if he was three years younger than herself. She went to speak at precisely the same moment he did. They both laughed. She insisted he speak first.
“All I was going to say, or rather ask, was what your opinion of my predecessor is?”
“Simian Simpering?” asked Hilary.
“Yes, DCI Simpering,” replied Lazarus, “he has a formidable reputation.”
Lazarus was startled by the Doctor’s unexpected laughter.
“Apparently so but then again so does Robin Hood.”
Lazarus’s brow knitted into a frown,
“Robin Hood’s adventures are nothing but a myth,” said the policeman.
“Exactly so,” smiled Hilary Leatherbarrow.
Lazarus looked confused.
Hilary pointed to a cluster of reeds that stood proudly just out of the pond nearest the bank.
“That was where Mister Hertlasp said he found the hand.”
“Wrapped in a leather glove?”
“And quite an expensive item as I understand it.”
“It was purchased from Alfred Bunghill of London.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“The label inside the glove had the Bunghill name on it.”
“I know that but could it have been purchased anywhere else?”
“I suppose it could. Having a label only identifies who manufactured the item. There is nothing to prevent someone from buying branded leather goods from any of a dozen similar outlets.”
Adam Lazarus ran his hand through his hair. It was an action Hilary enjoyed watching.
“I take it there were no other distinguishing marks to identify the glove other than the manufactures name?”
Hilary shook her head and sighed.
Adam Lazarus hunkered down examining the ground around the reed outcrop looking for clues. He couldn’t see any. With eyes still firmly looking at the muddy bank he spoke again to the forensic specialist.
“No clear or distinguishing foot prints?”
“Only those of Mister Hertlasp.”
“What about the boys, did they not leave boot prints?”
“Todd and Sam?”
“No, they didn’t come over here. They were on the far bank, the one we were on moments ago. When they saw what it was they had caught they simply threw it back as far away as they could. It landed here.”
Lazarus nodded his understanding.
“Can’t say I blame them, it must have been quite a shock.”
Rising from the ground he had been scrutinising, Lazarus brushed his hands across his raincoat. Seeing Leatherbarrow wearing nothing more than a jacket he asked her if she wasn’t cold.
“I grew up on a farm and spent most of my childhood out in all weathers. You soon grow impervious, or at least toughened, to the cold. It is the heat I don’t like. As a family we spent our summer vacations in the Algarve. As much as I enjoyed being able to run along the beach splashing in the sea I always found the heat vaguely unpleasant.”
Lazarus rubbed his hands together then, once again, ran his fingers through his hair. He had a centre parting from which his hair was forever falling forward.
“I suppose the first person I should interview is Mister Hertlasp. What’s his first name?”
“And he’s retired right and aged about seventy?”
“Okay then, thanks for that. I know it’s not part of your remit but would you mind accompanying me? Come to interview Hertlasp with me? I thought before we visit the gentleman we might first take in some refreshment. There is a tearoom in Fekenham Swarberry that comes highly recommended.”
“Molly Sharptack’s.”
“You know it?”
“Around here everyone knows of Molly’s Tearooms.”
“In that case I’ll drive. We can come back later to pick your car up. It should be safe here I would have thought.”
They walked in silence back to his car. Lazarus opened the door for her as she climbed in.
“Give me your medical bag and I’ll put it into the boot.”
She thanked him, smiling gratefully. She watched from the vantage point of the wing mirror as he opened the boot placing the bag inside. He was tall, about five eleven, maybe six foot, slim but not weedy. He then took off his raincoat which he folded then placed beside the bag. Slamming the boot hatch shut, he slid into the driver’s seat. He was wearing a pale grey suit, a crisp white shirt which was unbuttoned at the collar.
“Right then,” he said, grinning at the Doctor. “Let’s go have some tea.”

Molly Sharptack’s Tea Room sat where it always had at one end of Fekenham’s inaptly named High Street and left of the village Post Office. As ever, the tea rooms were all hustle and bustle as waitresses dressed in traditional black frocks decorated with white pinafores and matching white lace head caps carried back and forth trays laden with teapots and crockery. The clinking of porcelain accompanied the hum of conversation as customers chatted about the various topics in the manner people do.
Adam Lazarus had been listening to Hilary Leatherbarrow as he sipped his tea from a steaming cup. He had just eaten a delicious coconut swirl cake and was feeling a sense of guilty pleasure. He watched the doctor as her face grew animated as she recounted her childhood to him.
“My parents were never well-to-do but they made enough money from Dad’s removal business to invest in my education. From an early age, and perhaps due to my being an only child, I demonstrated an enquiring mind. Having passed my eleven plus I went to Grammar School where I excelled at most subjects with the exception of sport. I hated sport then and still do. It was biology though that I did best and from my love of that subject sprang my desire to become a doctor.
“Mum and Dad of course were filled with pride as neither of them had ever had any great aspirations. It not only came as a shock to discover their daughter harbouring such ambitions but also a joy to think their offspring should have such dreams, such talent. I never thought of myself like that and still don’t. I simply knew what I wanted. I was too consumed with learning that all I saw was the subject I loved. It was never a case of ego with me, just a burning ambition. Even now I have little regard for myself in terms of how I look or who I am able to impress. I still have that desire to learn coupled with an enquiring nature.
“I was born in a small village in Dorset. I grew up on a farm, a small holding really, where Dad ran his business from. He had a small fleet of lorries, which bore our name, parked in a large barn. Every Sunday, after church (Mum and Dad were regular church goers.) the vehicles were washed down and waxed until they shone. Dad was a great believer that a quality service should look the part. After Grammar School I went to Winchester University where I finally got my degree. Armed with that I went to London where I further studied, under Professor Digweed, Medical Jurisprudence. Pathology and Forensics became my Holy Grail. When I returned to Wessex it was Winchester I yearned for. The city, along with London, York and Canterbury has such significance to the history of England and of course it felt like home. It was Winchester that I had in mind when I conceived of opening my independent forensic practise. That was thirteen years ago and I have not regretted a single day.”
Having finished her dialogue, Hilary bit into the last of her fruit cake. Then she took a sip of her tea. As she did this she looked at Adam Lazarus who was sitting with a large grin on his face.
“Are you laughing at me?” enquired Hilary hotly.
“You have a cherry attached to your nose,” said Lazarus.
“Oh!” laughed Hilary, wiping it off with a corner of her napkin, “for a moment I thought you were laughing at my tale, at me.”
“No, not at all, I was thinking what an amazing woman you are, so focused and so intense.”
At the word intense, Hilary’s expression changed.
“By intense you really mean boring.”
Lazarus laughed. It was a deep, sincere rumble that came from deep within him.
“Stop being so paranoid, you silly goose. You are not at all boring, quite the reverse in point of fact. I was captivated by your story. You worked on the ‘Enema Bandit’ case, didn’t you? Your name appeared in quite a few national newspaper articles even if you were overshadowed somewhat by Simian Simpering. You don’t like him do you?”
Hilary took a final mouthful of tea before returning the cup to its saucer. She dabbed her mouth with the napkin again to ensure there were no other crumbs attached.
“I didn’t say I didn’t like him,” countered Hilary.
“No you didn’t but what you did say was unflattering even if it was a little vague. It was the sort of answer a politician might give.”
Hilary laughed at the thought of herself being involved in politics.
“The one lesson I learnt having worked with D.C.I Simpering on that now legendary case is that a life of politics is not the life for me. Having foreign objects placed up my bottom is something I would rather not experience unless I know who it is doing the putting and what it is they are using. Now then, I think you want to interview Harry Hertlasp don’t you?”
“Indeed I do. Let me pay the bill and then we’ll be on our way.”
He raised his hand to the nearest bustling waitress who hurried over in a whisper of cotton. Moments later, with the receipt neatly tucked into his wallet, Lazarus and Leatherbarrow returned to the parked Austin Healey, as the pair climbed into the car so an Aston Martin pulled up beside them. From it a tall, well-built man of about six feet four stepped out who went around to the passenger side then opened the door to allow an elegant, if a little severe-looking, woman to step out.
Lazarus nodded at the woman who smiled back.
“The age of chivalry is not dead,” said Lazarus smiling back at Verity Lambush for it was she along with husband Ralph who had parked the Aston Martin next to the police officer’s car.
“Better take note,” replied Verity looking toward Hilary who smiled back.
Adam introduced Hilary to Verity and Ralph.
“How have you both been keeping?” asked Lazarus of the Fekenham couple.
“Doing good,” grinned Ralph, “I take it you are both about to take in the delights of Molly’s Tea Rooms?”
“Absolutely,” said Adam, “and you?”
“We are just about to visit Cybil Updike and see how she and her son are doing,” replied Verity. “It’s been good to see you again and good to meet your friend.”
Feeling as though they had been dismissed Hilary and Adam watched as Verity, with arm linked through Ralph’s walked away.
The short journey from Fekenham to Birchtickle was filled with conversation. Lazarus had confessed to being a jazz fan, particularly of Miles Davis. He had spoken in glowing terms of the high esteem in which he held the trumpeter but also of Theolonius Monk whom he also greatly admired. He had asked Hilary if she too enjoyed music to which she said she did. She said she knew little of jazz but loved Ralph Vaughan Williams, Saint Saens and Edward Elgar, especially the latter’s Cello Concerto. She said she had tried listening to Wagner but found the ‘Ring Cycle’ too daunting a prospect.
They arrived at Harry Hertlasp’s cottage a little before noon. The front door was open. Through it they could clearly see an elderly gentleman at work in the garden. They followed the path round from the front to the side where the garden lay then on to the back. Upon seeing the pair Harry looked up and greeted them.
“Good day to you both. How can I help?”
Lazarus smiled. Leatherbarrow stayed by his side.
“Hello sir, my name is Adam Lazarus, Detective Chief Inspector Lazarus. I am from the Winchester CID. This is my colleague Doctor Hilary Leatherbarrow. I take it you are Henry Hertlasp?”
The old man laughed a phlegmy cackle.
“Not since my mother died has anyone called me Henry and even then only if I had been misbehaving. I am Harry Hertlasp. You are here about that hand I found aren’t you?”
Lazarus nodded.
“Yes sir, we are. Can you spare a few moments? I would like to ask you some questions.”
Harry Hertlasp thrust the garden fork he had been using deep into the soil. Then he wiped his hands across his jacket as he indicated with his head for them to follow him into his home.
“Let’s go inside and put the kettle on. Questions and answers go down better with a nice hot cuppa.”
Lazarus and Leatherbarrow followed him into his kitchen. It was surprisingly neat and well-ordered, especially in light of his being a male pensioner living on his own. The oaken beams that held the roof in place gave the room a feeling of intimacy. The range, which was surrounded by shelves upon which sat a collection of china teapots in varying shapes, sizes, and colours, accepted the filled kettle with a hiss.
“It won’t take long,” said Harry. “What do you need to know?”
Lazarus looked at the old gentleman. He took in all the detail he could. Rarely, in his experience, were people as they first seemed. Harry Hertlasp appeared to be a man of warm rural charm; someone who seemed to be as one with the countryside he lived in but there was more to him than that. He stood, ramrod straight as though at some stage of his life he had been either in the military or possibly the police force. His accent, which presented as being middle class, didn’t manage to disguise his regular Dorset accent. There was something very precise about his manner, although he acted with all due humility. He also had a presence about him as if at some time in his life he had wielded authority. His kitchen mirrored his personality in its orderly style.
“Were you ever in the armed forces, sir?” asked Lazarus.
Harry seemed a little taken aback by this question. He had been expecting a series of queries concerning the hand he had discovered but not ones about himself.
“Yes, I served briefly in Korea. I was batman to Lord Bacon.”
“Bertie Bacon, the Field Marshall”
“The very same.”
“How long were you in the army?”
“Five years. Most of it was spent in Korea. At the time we all thought Korea might develop into another Great War. The press were constantly running stories about how the conflict would escalate into a Second World War. Fortunately, it didn’t. Now, of course, it is starting all over again with the Chinese Empire threatening Burma.”
Harry turned to his cupboard, revealing a formation of blue mugs. He took three out then laid them on the work surface. He then took out a jug of milk from his fridge which he placed beside the mugs. For the first time since being introduced to Harry, Hilary spoke.
“May I have coffee rather than tea?”
The pensioner looked at her studiously then replied.
“I am sorry my dear but I don’t have coffee. I am English so only drink tea.”
He turned away from her as the kettle started to whistle. Hilary raised her eyebrows but said nothing. Outside a pigeon called to its mate. Adam Lazarus asked another question.
“What did you think when you first saw the hand?”
Harry pulled a face. His mouth turned down at the corners.
“I suppose I was a little shocked. It isn’t often when out walking that you come across a dismembered hand.”
Lazarus took out a notepad, then a pen, before hastily scribbling down the word ‘dismembered.’
“Did it strike you as odd to find a hand in a place where the day before one hadn’t been?”
“I didn’t really give it much thought. The whole business seemed bizarre. I simply picked the hand up then took it home where I put it into a plastic bag. I then went straight to the police station to, forgive the pun, hand it in.”
Lazarus smiled.
“I once investigated a case where a headless corpse was found. The police officer who eventually found the head quipped as he held it aloft, ‘Look, I’ve got no body and no body’s got me.”
Harry Hertlasp poured the boiling water into a blue teapot. Steam billowed about his hands.
“There was the same gallows humour in the forces. I think it relieves tension,” he said.
Lazarus gratefully accepted the hot mug of tea then went to put it on the kitchen table.
“Please use the place mats as the table marks easily,” said Harry Hertlasp.
Hilary looked at Lazarus who winked at her then did as instructed whilst Hilary held her mug between her hands.
“How did you discover that Todd and Sam had first found the gloved hand?”
“Doreen Gosling, Todd’s Mum phoned me saying her son was in a bad way. She said he was deeply distressed and that he had found an object near the pond. I went round to their cottage, which only lies two minutes across the way, and he told me everything that had happened. I then went over to the reeds where I found the hand.”
Hilary spoke again.
“You mentioned Todd but not Sam Grimstain. Did you not go to see him?”
“After I had delivered the evidence and answered the sergeant’s questions I did. He seemed okay; not so disturbed as his friend.”
Lazarus wrote down a note and then asked another question.
“The police sergeant was Cyril Updike. He seemed to think you acted a little, how can I put it, dispassionately, about the whole affair, almost as though it wasn’t much of a shock at all to you.”
Harry pulled up a wooden chair then sat down in front of the detective and doctor. He took a sip of his tea before answering.
“I suppose I was still trying to be calm and collected about things. It wasn’t just Todd who was in a bit of a state, his mother was too, as was Jean Grimstain. Perhaps this stoicism gave Cyril the wrong impression.”
Lazarus drank the remains of his tea then looked toward Hilary Leatherbarrow.
“Thanks for the tea, sir. Most welcome. You mentioned Sam’s Mum, Jean Grimstain. She lives on her own with the boy, doesn’t she? Can you point us in their direction?”
Harry Hertlasp smiled as he rose from the table.
“She does and I can. See that cottage over there at approximately one o’clock?”
“The cottage with the swing in the front garden?”
“That’s the one. That’s where Jean and Sam live.”
The couple said their goodbyes then began the short walk around the pond to Jean Grimstain’s home. As they left they were watched by Harry Hertlasp. When they arrived at the garden gate Harry turned away and went to the bureaux in the living room where he pulled open a drawer from which he took an old photograph. He held the photo in his hand. It was a group picture that showed a set of people, many in uniform, standing outside what looked like an old stately mansion. In the foreground stood two well-dressed people, the couple appeared to be man and wife and obviously were the owners of the property. The people that surrounded them were their staff
Harry looked at the photograph for a time then slid it back in place before pushing the drawer shut.
The cottage garden of Jean Grimstain was an unkempt affair. Apart from the swing that stood rusting in the middle of what once had been lawn the remainder of the garden was filled with weeds that stood waist high. The outside of the cottage was equally run down even though the window frames had been recently painted in a range of violent prime colours. A fire was clearly burning as smoke was billowing from the chimney. As Leatherbarrow and Lazarus approached the front door they heard a curious warbling coming from the back garden. Jean Grimstain was working on a painting and singing as she did. Hilary called out to her.
“Hello, Mrs. Grimstain. Can you spare a few moments?”
Jean turned to see who had called out to her. She wasn’t an unattractive woman with her mess of auburn hair that spread across her head like a sunset over hills. Her green eyes twinkled and she looked to Adam Lazarus as though she were a trifle eccentric.
“Hello!” she returned waving her hand in joyful welcome. “You must be the Old Bill. Come about that hand business have you?”
Adam Lazarus gave his most charming smile.
“I am D.C.I Adam Lazarus and this is Doctor Hilary Leatherbarrow, Winchester C.I.D’s Forensic specialist. Can we have a chat with your son? Is he about?”
Jean wiped her paint-covered fingers down the badly-shaped dress she was wearing. It was already covered in several layers of dried paint so Hilary assumed it was some sort of working smock.
“I’m afraid he’s not here at the moment. He and Todd are out on their bikes. I thought it best to let them carry on with their lives. The pair of them were pretty well spooked by finding that hand. Any idea to whom it belongs?”
Lazarus pulled a face that indicated he didn’t.
“We are investigating that but at the moment we haven’t the foggiest notion. Doctor Leatherbarrow is working on that part of the investigation.”
Jean tugged the smock over her head, revealing her to be wearing an old T-shirt and a pair of large, cotton, baggy trousers.
“Would either of you like a cup of tea or coffee?” she enquired.
Both Leatherbarrow and Lazarus said they didn’t.
“Don’t mind if I have one, do you? It makes for thirsty work all this painting.”
“I have seen some of your work in Muckleford,” said Hilary. “I must say I like landscapes. I know they aren’t particularly fashionable these days but I am rather fed up with all the ‘new wave’ stuff.”
“I agree,” said Jean, “landscapes are pretty much overlooked but I fail to see how painting God’s creation can be anything other than amazing. I guess it depends on your results but I sell a fair few paintings, enough to get by on anyway.”
“I have one on my kitchen wall,” smiled Hilary.
“Well then, it is good to meet a woman with taste.”
The doctor and artist laughed. Jean then ushered Lazarus and Leatherbarrow into her kitchen.
“Please excuse the mess,” she said. “A messy house sort of comes with the bohemian turf I occupy. Well, that’s what I tell myself when trying to explain my shoddy ways.”
She gave a deep rumble of a laugh. It seemed to come from someone other than herself, someone larger. The kitchen was spectacularly untidy almost as if by design. Newspapers and magazines stood piled on chairs, work surface and floor space. The sink was filled with the detritus of several days’ crockery left there after meals. Pairs of unclean shoes lay scattered about the floor. A heap of recently laundered clothes lay on the kitchen table waiting to be ironed. Nestling against one wall were half-a-dozen paintings all signed by Jean Grimstain. Jean shoved the dirty crockery to one side then filled the kettle with water.
“You don’t mind your son playing out?” asked Lazarus.
“Not a bit. We are lucky to live where we do. I know all the neighbours and there is little chance of anyone unpleasant calling in and besides, we all watch out for each other here in Birchtickle. Christ, you can’t even fart without your next door neighbour hearing you.”
Both Hilary and Adam smiled at the unequivocal statement.
“And yet,” said Lazarus, “a severed hand was found by your son in the nearby pond.”
Jean lit the stove, or at least attempted to but the gas wouldn’t catch so she turned, with gas still flowing, to a nearby box of Bryant and May matches. Lighting one she thrust the burning end into the outpouring gas which ignited with a bloom of flame and a whoosh of sound.
“Shit!” she exclaimed, waving her hand about in pain, “I nearly set fire to myself.”
Hilary leapt from her chair, grabbing the first article of clothing near to hand, a pair of boy’s underpants, which she thrust beneath a tap before turning the faucet.
“Quickly, give me your hand.”
Hilary wrapped the sodden underpants around Jean’s hand, then removed the wet garment as she placed Jean’s hand under the running water.
“Let the water run over it for a good few minutes. Have you a first aid kit in the cottage?”
Jean said that she didn’t.
“Let me look at your hand again,” said Hilary.
After a brief examination, Hilary declared it not to be burnt.
“You are very lucky,” she said, “You could easily have set fire to your clothing. Had that escalated, and fires easily can, you would have been in real trouble. Never leave the gas on like that. Are you okay?”
Jean nodded she was then leant against the wall holding her hand gingerly with the other.
“That will teach me, won’t it? Thanks for that. I guess I won’t be painting for a while.”
Adam Lazarus looked on then spoke with that easy way he had.
“Living with a young teenage boy cannot be easy. I admire the way you manage to live. Having only one source of income must be hard going. How on earth do you cope?”
Jean looked visibly embarrassed.
“We do alright. As I said, my paintings sell. We get by and Sam doesn’t suffer.”
Lazarus moved over to the paintings that lay against the wall. They were well crafted, depicting rural scenes, mostly of Wessex.
“You said earlier that nothing escapes notice around here so what are the other inhabitants of Birchtickle like?”
Jean was still holding her hand, clenching and unclenching it.
“Just your average sort of people really, the sort that exist in a sleepy hamlet like this. Harry Hertlasp lives over the way. He’s a bit stiff if you know what I mean but a kindly soul. Next to him live Doreen and Charlie Gosling. They are Todd’s parents. Nice people and pretty uninteresting as it goes. Directly opposite them, on Harry’s right, live Tracey and Tim Trimeot. They have no children but are very much like Doreen and Charlie in that they are good neighbours but keep themselves pretty much to themselves. Then there is Agatha Nosebag. She’s a widower, must be in her sixties now and knows all there is to know about everyone else’s business. If I want Harry to know my affairs I tell Agatha first. Agatha lives, looking from my cottage, to my right. You can’t miss her place. It has a large pampas grass that takes up the whole front garden. That makes up the five homes that surround the pond. The only other resident of Birchtickle is Martin Tickpant who lives with his wife Alice on Tickpant Farm.”
Lazarus nodded smiling as he did.
“Where exactly is Tickpant Farm?”
“Directly behind Harry’s place, you can’t miss it. Is that where you are going next?”
“No, first we have to visit Mr. and Mrs. Gosling and their son Todd which reminds me that I would still like to have a chat with Sam. Will you let me know when is convenient. I can be here within the hour. Here’s my card with my number on it.”
Hilary said goodbye to Jean, saying she hoped her hand would soon be better. Adam Lazarus also wished her better as the pair left. No sooner had they began the walk over to the Gosling cottage than Jean picked up her phone and dialled a number.
“They’ve just left. No, I didn’t say anything at all. You remember though that my Sam still needs educating, he needs books and he needs to enjoy his life. Make sure you don’t forget your duties.”
She placed the telephone firmly back on the cradle then gazed after the policeman and his colleague.
As Lazarus and Leatherbarrow returned to the northern side of the pond, making their way toward the home of Doreen and Charlie Gosling, so Hilary finally found the courage to confess the information she should have mentioned previously.
“There is something I should have told you earlier,” she said.
She looked sheepish, slightly flushed.
“What is it?” asked Lazarus sounding slightly cross.
“When I examined the hand the core was frozen. The fingers were defrosted but the palm, front, and back was still in the process of thawing and was solid.”
Lazarus stopped dead in his tracks looking directly at the Hilary. She looked at him cagily.
“Why didn’t you say something before?” he asked his voice sharp, curt.
“Sorry. It is very unusual for me. I never normally forget such things especially with vital evidence.”
Lazarus’s face looked dark with anger. His voice was harsh when he spoke.
“You didn’t answer me. Why didn’t you say before?”
Hilary’s face turned crimson.
“I was so enjoying our conversation when we were at the tea rooms that I simply forgot. I really am sorry.”
Something about the way her face had changed from her normal focused, alert look to one of abject sadness made Lazarus smile.
“You really are a silly goose. Anything else you need to tell me?”
“Whomever the hand belonged to they used a very distinctive hand lotion: Clara du Loon. It is not a moisturiser normally associated with men though. Clara du Loon is, or I should say was, a very popular brand of hand cream that reached its zenith during the sixties and seventies. After that it fell into commercial decline. Production finished finally in nineteen ninety one. The hand showed signs of hypostasis. There was discolouration on the palm, the reverse and fingers. This normally occurs anything from twenty minutes to one hundred and twenty minutes after death so nothing remarkable or revealing about that. Rigor Mortis had set in. Rigor Mortis occurs three to four hours after death suggesting that the man to whom the hand belonged had died, or was killed, before amputation. The decomposition of the hand, having been frozen for goodness knows how long, is practically impossible to tell. You see decay ceases below 0° thereby making it hard to establish time of death, especially without a torso However, with the material of the glove and the way it had prevented water from compromising the evidence of the hand lotion I would suggest the hand was amputated approximately twenty or so years ago. There are still tests I need to run though so I may be able to add more detail after that. From all I have seen, taking into account the partial thawing, I would suggest that the hand was thrown into the pond no more than twenty four hours ago.”
Lazarus looked down at his boots then lifted his head to survey the area around him. The wind had settled down but the chill remained.
“Twenty years ago?”
“Give or take.”
Hilary watched as Lazarus shoved his hands into his raincoat, pulling the garment around him as he prowled up and down in front of her.
“How come no one saw this mystery person throw the hand into the pond? A little community like this surely someone would have seen or heard something?”
“Perhaps it was dark?” remarked Hilary.
The cottage in front of them was very different to that of Jean Grimstain. Neat borders were filled with the thrusting heads of spring flowers keen to parade their glorious colours to the waxing sun. Trellis hung either side of the front door waiting to greet climbing clematis. Lazarus looked at the cottage then turned to Hilary as she spoke to him
“It’s nothing like Jean Grimstain’s place is it?  Much less messy.”
Lazarus nodded his agreement.
“What did you make of Mrs. Grimstain?”
Hilary bent to examine a hydrangea.
“A little scatty maybe.”
“No, there was something else, something under that veneer, something hidden. She has a secret.”
“How could you tell? I didn’t notice anything”
The smile that crept over the detective’s face looked more grimace than a grin. He ran his hand through his hair again.
“A one parent family whose sole income comes from selling the odd painting; how many does she sell? How much do they fetch? Not a great deal I wager and yet here she is, along with her son living in a detached cottage. Even if she has no mortgage she still has bills to pay and selling one or two paintings won’t cover all that.”
“You think she has something to do with the gloved hand?” asked an unbelieving Hilary.
“All I am saying is there is more to Jean Grimstain than meets the eye.”
He pulled at the brazen brass door knocker letting it collide with a loud bang against the matching roundel. The knock resonated but did not get any response.
“Can you hear that noise?” asked the policeman.
“What that clucking sound?”
“Yes, it sounds like chickens.”
“Not like any I ever heard,” said Hilary.
Lazarus knocked again with little success. The clucking continued.
“Let’s go round the back,” suggested Hilary.
Together the couple moved from front cottage to back. The kitchen door was ajar and the clucking sound became more pronounced. Lazarus peered in then withdrew again with a slightly abashed look on his face.
“What’s wrong?” queried Hilary upon seeing Adam’s face.
Lazarus raised a finger to his lips then indicated that Hilary should have a look.
The sight that greeted the doctor was not one she expected to see. A man, dressed like a large cockerel with a red coombe attached to his head was bent over the kitchen table with his trousers around his ankles. Behind him, dressed like a female Orpington with golden brown plumage, was a woman who, clucking with all her might while brandishing a large sink plunger with which she was attacking the said gentleman’s bottom.
“Cluck, cluck, cluck,” said female Orpington Brown
“Cluck, cluck, cluck,” replied Red Rooster.
“Squelch, squelch, squelch,” went the sink plunger
Lazarus waved his hand at Leatherbarrow indicating for her to move away. Hilary complied but with her hand firmly over her mouth to muffle her giggles. The pair shuffled back to the front door.
“So this is what country life is like then,” grinned Adam.
“Beats living in the city,” giggled Hilary.
“Right,” said Lazarus desperately trying to pull himself together, “let’s try the front door again.”
This time, Lazarus beat hard at the door with the brass knocker; repeatedly hammering it until he could hear footsteps and a voice calling out.
“Alright, alright, I’m coming, hold yer horses!”
Clearly visible through the doors glass pane was a woman who was pulling a robe around herself.
“Who is it?” she demanded.
“Detective Chief Inspector Adam Lazarus and Doctor Hilary Leatherbarrow,” replied Adam Lazarus firmly. “May we please come in?”
The door opened a fraction. An eye peered out suspecting some prank. The eye grew larger upon seeing two official-looking individuals. The door opened fully revealing a pretty young woman wrapped in a purple bath robe. She was brown haired with hazel coloured eyes, a little dumpy perhaps with stumpy legs.
“Mrs Gosling?” asked Lazarus.
“Yes, sorry I was er, otherwise engaged, please come in.” She indicated with her hand that Leatherbarrow and Lazarus should go into the front room. They did. The front room was adequate in size containing both sofa and table. A television sat in an alcove with a large chair in front of it.
“Please make yer selves comfortable,” suggested Doreen as she shuffled uncomfortably in front of them. “Can I get you anything, a drink o’ tea perhaps?”
“Not for me, thanks,” replied Lazarus.
“Nor me.” confirmed Leatherbarrow.
Doreen shuffled some more. On her feet where what appeared to be carpet slippers fashioned like chickens feet.
“Unusual footwear,” remarked Hilary.
Doreen Gosling’s face turned a shade of pink.
“Yes,” she stuttered, “my hubby bought ‘em for me last Yuletide.”
“Mrs Gosling, “interjected Lazarus keen to move onto the reason for the visit,” you obviously know about the severed hand as your son was the boy who found it. I take it he’s not here?”
“He’s out playing with his friend Sam Grimstain. He won’t be back until teatime.”
“Never mind,” smiled Lazarus, “I imagine you all were a little shocked by the discovery?”
Doreen sat down on the large chair being mindful to tug the robe over her naked knees.
“I couldn’t believe it. We ain’t never had nothing like it happen before. Birchtickle is a peaceful place, a nice place. We don’t go around chopping folks’ hands off. I never heard the like afore.”
She bustled as she spoke. Hilary wanted to giggle as it reminded her of the scene she and Adam had witnessed only a short while ago and seemed very chicken-like. Just then a shape stealthily crept past the front room door. Lazarus stood up calling out as he did.
“Mister Gosling? Can you spare a moment please?”
A gingery, blond head appeared around the door frame accompanied by a multi-freckled face. A broad-shouldered man with a pot belly sidled into the room.
“Hello,” he said.
Adam Lazarus extended his hand toward the man.
Hello mister Gosling, I am Adam Lazarus of Winchester C.I.D. We are here regarding the discovery of the severed hand. I won’t take up much of your time. I just need to know if either you or your wife saw or heard anything strange over the past few days, any strangers in Birchtickle, anything out of the ordinary?”
The man looked down at his feet as if studying the carpet. Doreen rolled her bottom about on the chair. Both looked guilty of something but both responded that they hadn’t seen anything odd at all.
“I see,” said Lazarus dryly, “well if you do recall anything after we have left please contact me on this number.”
He pulled out a business card from his pocket and thrust it into Doreen Gosling’s hand.
“Thanks for your time,” said Hilary as she rose to follow Adam Lazarus out of the cottage. “You have a nice home.”
“Thank you,” smiled Doreen, her face flushed to crimson.
The detective and the doctor left the Goslings at the cottage as they walked down the garden path.
“They were odd weren’t they?” suggested Hilary.
“Odd? Bloody weird if you ask me and I am not referring to their sexual exploits but the highly suspicious way they behaved: they are guilty of something that’s for sure.”
Leatherbarrow and Lazarus left the Gosling’s cottage behind.
“Before we go to the Trimeots,” said Lazarus, “let’s first visit Agatha Nosebag.”
Agatha Nosebag sat with her face pressed against her living room window. She had been observing the policeman and his female companion for some while. She had watched as they had first visited Harry before tracking over to her friend Jean and after that to Doreen and Charlie’s. Agatha knew everything there was to know about her neighbours. If the police wanted information then she would gladly give it but it would cost them. She didn’t do anything for free. She certainly didn’t give information away for nothing. She was after all a widower and pensioner. One had to make a living somehow, had to make ends meet. The couple were deep in conversation and stopped once or twice as they circumnavigated the pond. The man was pointing toward the reed bed where the hand had been found. She had no idea what he was saying or what response he got from his pretty companion but she knew what it was they were after. And she had it, but only for a price.
Seeing them look up toward her home she leapt back from the window as the net curtains slipped back into place. She hoped they hadn’t seen her. Scuttling away to the kitchen she quickly filled the kettle, put it on the stove then filled a plate with sugar coated doughnuts. A knock at the door alerted her to the pair’s arrival. Carrying the plate into her living room she deposited it onto the coffee table calling out as she did.
“I’s a coming.”
From the other side of the door Lazarus smiled.
“I wonder if Charlie Gosling said the same thing when his wife was plunging his rear-end.”
Hilary collapsed into a fit of giggles just as Agatha Nosebag opened her front door. Seeing Hilary doubled up a look of concern swept across the nosey neighbours face.
“Are you alright my dear?” she asked.
Lazarus responded.
“Hay fever.”
“At this time of year?” replied a dubious Mrs. Nosebag.
“More of an allergy than hay fever,” he said.
Hilary pulled herself together and stood up to greet their next interviewee.
“Sorry,” she said, “it must be something from the pond that upset me.”
Agatha nodded her understanding.
“Not as upset as the bloke whose hand was found floating in it,” suggested the old lady as she waddled away.
Her bottom was incredibly well appointed with hips that could have borne a legion of children. Her waist had long ago dissolved and merged with her breasts. Her head, speckled with grey and brown and a rather mucky sort of blonde, waggled from side to side as she spoke.
“I’ve got the kettle on and have some nibbles for you to eat so don’t stand on ceremony just come right in a settle yer selves down. I won’t be a minute.”
Lazarus looked at Leatherbarrow who groaned silently. The thought of more tea was alarming enough but having to eat doughnuts was more than she could bear. The living room was dowdy with dowdy dun wallpaper, dowdy dun furniture and a dowdy stuffed cat that sat on the dark mantelpiece. The cat didn’t look awfully happy to be standing there but having been run over by a local tractor before being taken to a taxidermist it was hardly surprising.
“Sit down on the settee and don’t worry about damp patches. The cat’s been dead the past five years but I have a bit of a leak in me ceiling. I’ve asked Tim Trimeot to ‘ave a look at it as he’s a bit handy with things like that. We all sort of muck in around here if you know what I mean. I do a bit of this and that and me neighbours all do the same. It makes the world go round don’t it? ‘Course we ain’t like you posh city folk, we ain’t used to polite society but we ain’t stupid neither. In this life you need each other and I looks after them and they looks after me.
“Now then, I bet you want some information about this hand that was found; odd business that, a hand just appearing out of the blue as it were but life is full o’ surprises. You just never know where the next ones coming from do you? I bet you poll-ice people are forever coming up against surprises. I mean finding bloody bodies is a bit of a shock much like a surprise. Mind you I reckon you must get used to it after a while. Not commonplace as such but not unexpected like. I remember when my husband died, ages ago now it seems, we were in service, him a gardener and me the house maid. Well I didn’t know about his heart did I? Nor did he come to that. It came as a bit of shock when he pegged it like that. He just keeled over one day clutching at his chest and that was it, dead as doornail, one minute alive next dead. Who would ever have thought? Anyway, here’s a pot o’ tea and some cups and mugs. Milk is in the jug. Help yer selves to doughnuts. Now then, what do you need to know and how much is it worth?”
Lazarus looked from the tea tray to his companion then back to Agatha Nosebag.
“How much is what worth?” he asked with mild bemusement.
“Information,” the meddlesome madam said.
“When a policeman calls on official business you do not ask for payment. As a good-natured citizen you give it voluntarily,” smiled Lazarus.
“You want information and I have it. Everything costs in this world you know. Imagine my going into to a shop and saying I’d like a half pound o’ this, a dozen o’ that and some other bits ‘n bobs. When I walk up to the till they won’t be too happy if I said I wasn’t going t’ pay now would they?”
Lazarus looked flummoxed. Hilary hid her mirth behind a mug of tea.
“Mrs Nosebag. I am a Detective Chief Inspector. As such I, in the course of my duty, am obliged to ask members of the public to do their civic duty by answering all my questions as honestly as possible and without the need for payment. I am also able to, should an individual not be as forthcoming as they could, have them arrested, taken to the local police station, placed into a cell pending a formal interview and even, if I think the situation demands it, have them charged with obstructing the course of justice.. In light of this do you still insist of being paid first?”
Agatha Nosebag took a large bite out of a doughnut, chewed a bit then answered with mouth half full.
“Not if you put it like that,” she said as sugar left its mark on her nose and chin.
A sudden chirruping erupted coming from the kitchen.
“What’s that?” asked Hilary reluctantly, tucking into the doughnut.
“That’s my finch. I found him on the road one day all lifeless and bloody. I picked him up, fed him some milk and maggots. He was alright after that so I stuck him in my bread bin until I could get a cage. Right as rain he is now, makes that noise every once in a while when he sees his mates outside flying past. I reckon he is conversing with them.”
Lazarus was undeterred by this untimely interruption.
“What information do you have Mrs Nosebag? This is a police investigation after all.”
The interfering dame took hold of another doughnut which she bit into. She then took a slurp of her tea before replying.
“I saw this figure late at night, sort of furtive like, walking around the pond. Hard to tell what he looked like as it was so dark. I say he, but I ain’t sure what sex it was. It might have been female for all I could tell. I saw them bend close to the water then I heard a splash. Not a big splash mind but a little one. I watched them as they left. It was hard to tell in which direction they went but I reckons they came from Fekenham.”
“Fekenham, why do you say that?”
“There’s odd folk in Fekenham. I have a friend, who lives there, Millie Meade her name is. You wouldn’t believe the things she tells me.”
“Does any of what she tells you have any bearing on this case?” asked Adam Lazarus.
Agatha Nosebag licked her fingers one at a time as if the minuscule grains of sugar were the last thing she would ever eat.
“Not exactly, no.”
Lazarus stood up. Hilary followed suit.
“Thanks for your time Mrs Nosebag, you have been most helpful.”
“Don’t you want any doughnuts?” asked inquisitive woman.
“You seem to be doing alright without our help,” replied Lazarus.
They left then leaving the elderly lady alone with her doughnuts. She watched them go, then smiled to herself.
“Not so clever as you think are you mister smart-Alec?”
In the kitchen the bird fell silent.

Aware they were being watched, Adam and Hilary walked a safe distance away from Agatha Nosebag’s cottage. They felt her eyes penetrate their backs; they felt a sensation of malevolence emanate from the woman’s look. Lazarus shrugged of such feelings, taking hold of Hilary’s hand as they made their way toward Tracey and Tim Trimeot’s cottage.
“Adam, you are holding my hand.”
Lazarus looked down to where their hands were clasped together. He then he looked at Hilary.
“Sorry,” he said, releasing her from his grasp, “I thought perhaps you felt it too.”
Hilary looked perplexed.
“Felt what?”
“The sheer baleful, unpleasantness of the woman; she thinks she has got one over on me but she is sadly mistaken. She made all that stuff up about someone, some mysterious figure, lurking by the pond before throwing something in. I think she knows full well who threw the hand in but will not part with that information until she has received payment. She is playing with fire and by God she will get burnt. Come on, let’s go to the Trimeots’ and hope they are more forthcoming.”
To get to the Trimeots’ cottage Lazarus and Leatherbarrow had once more to pass that of of Jean Grimstain. The swing sat rusting in the front. The door to the artist’s home suddenly flew open as a man departed. As he left, Jean Grimstain’s voice could be clearly heard.
“If you don’t help us I will let the world know, you bastard!”
The words scratched the morning with rage and venom. The man, thick set with features to match, strode on with anger carved in rigid lines on his face. He saw Lazarus and Leatherbarrow but not knowing who they were paid little attention to them. He was of medium height, slightly receding with bushy brown hair that was swept back from his forehead. His eyes flashed at them, dark and menacing like an enraged bull. Detective and doctor stared after him as he went.
“I wonder who that was?” queried Hilary.
“An angry man by the looks of it,” replied Adam.
The home of the Trimeots lay to the left of Jean Grimstain’s cottage. It was much like the Gosling’s home but very unlike Jean’s, neat and trim. There were no orderly borders but instead a gravel front with a large birdbath at its centre. A path of large slabs ran toward the door. Creeping ivy threaded its way up the walls but had been trimmed short of the thatched roof to prevent the plant entering the gables. The windows were shut but the front door was open. There was no glass in the door as it was made of solid wood that had been painted blue.
Lazarus knocked loudly. A faint sound could be heard coming from within. It was the sound of crockery being moved. Moments later a female opened the door. Like Hilary she was blonde but far thinner, so thin in fact she looked almost emaciated. Her cheeks were hollow; her eyes green and large; her nose prominent but uncompromisingly neat; her mouth thin but not cruel. She was about five feet three in her bare feet.
“Hello,” she said, smiling doe-eyed at Lazarus.
“Mrs Trimenot, I am Adam Lazarus, a police detective from Winchester C.I.D. I am investigating the severed hand that was recently found in Birchtickle pond.”
“You’d better come in,” she said.
She led them down a short, narrow hallway passing two doors on the right and one on the left before going into a large expanse of kitchen. She indicated they sit at the ragged old table that took pride of place on the tiled floor.
“Would you like anything to eat or drink?” she asked in a very mousey voice.
Lazarus held his hands up as if deflecting something.
“No thanks, we are fine, we just want to ask you if you saw anything odd over the last couple of days or even at night; anything that you thought out of place.”
She gazed at him for a length of time then turned away to face the sink.
“Well, nothing much happens here at all really, nothing odd anyway. I haven’t seen much of late as I have been tied up here in the cottage.”
“Working hard,” suggested Hilary
“Yes, sort of. I haven’t seen or heard anyone go near the pond though.”
Lazarus sighed, running his fingers over the wooden surface of the table.
“Mrs Nosebag seems to think she saw a figure moving around the pond the other night. You didn’t see anything similar?”
Tracey Trimeot laughed. It was a surprisingly shrill laugh that seemed to be ejected from her mouth rather than come from the belly.
“Agatha Nosebag sees and hears things no one else does. I wonder sometimes if she ever does anything other than watch what we all do.”
“I take it you don’t like her?”
“She’s alright for a nosey old cow, I mean every community has one don’t they? No, I don’t dislike her I just wish she would mind her own business for once rather than minding everyone else’s.”
A clunk from the hallway made Lazarus start.
“Sounds like you are not alone,” he said.
“That’s just Tim, my husband. Tim! Come here love I have some guests in the kitchen.”
Much to Lazarus and Leatherbarrow’s surprise in walked the man whom they had met over at Doreen Gosling’s cottage: the man they had assumed was her husband. Lazarus said nothing but gave the man a filthy look.
“Hello, Mister Trimeot, I think we have met already?”
Tim Trimeot’s face coloured red. He scratched his head and did the same old shuffle with his feet again.
“Come and sit down love,” said Tracey, “you must be tired out after all your morning’s hard work. Can I get you a cuppa or something to eat; it’ll be lunch time soon.”
Lazarus looked at Hilary who turned her head away and stared out of the window.
“I won’t detain you any longer,” he said, “but if there is anything you recall later on the please don’t hesitate to call me on this number.”
As with Doreen Gosling, Lazarus handed Tracey his business card.
“Well then,” said Hilary, “it was nice to have met you both.”
She gave Tim Trimeot another filthy look; one that said more than any words she could think of could convey. She and Lazarus left the Trimeots’ cottage.
“I would never have thought a tiny hamlet like this could have such diverse, odd characters living in it. I think they all are bloody weird and not one of them would know the truth if it bit them. Right then, we have just one more call to make: Martin Tickpant’s farm which lies just over there behind Harry Hertlasp’s cottage. You ready?”
Martin Tickpant had inherited the farm from his father, Desmond. Not that his dad had been a farmer himself. He had bought the property following a successful career as a merchant banker in the City. He poured every last penny he had made into the venture only to see his petty fortune fade like a bad crop. He had purchased Roehill Farm from Melvin Roe in nineteen fifty the year of his first born, Martin’s, birth. The first born turned out be the only offspring and Martin grew up an only child. Eighteen years later the farm was a rickety, run-down, broken barn of a business. The aging Desmond was looking bankruptcy in the face. At a time when life could get no worse Desmond’s wife had a stroke that left her paralysed. Wheelchair bound and incontinent, Sandra Tickpant’s life became a travesty. Unable to do the one thing with her life she wanted to, namely end it, she had, instead, to rely upon someone else doing it for her: Desmond. Martin, then aged eighteen, found his parents in the garage sitting in the family car. A hose pipe trailed from the exhaust which was then fed back into the car’s side window. Martin was left totally on his own to run a farm that was sinking into ruin.
Alice Applecore was the daughter of wealthy land owner, Sir Margarve Applecore. She wasn’t like other girls as she not only had a stammer, a mild form of epilepsy, but also learning difficulties. By no means a simpleton, she nonetheless made an easy target for a desperate young man eager to find a solution to his financial problems. Time was not a luxury for Martin but being gifted with certain guile he allowed it to pass slowly as he courted the young heiress. Twenty months later Alice accepted his proposal of marriage and agreed to marry him early the following spring. But Alice’s father was not so easily fooled. Now in his eighties, he had married late in life and his wife had died some years before, Sir Margrave prepared a legally binding document that would shackle Alice to Martin for perpetuity. 
It was agreed and signed by Martin stating that he would remain married to Alice for the remainder of his life. For each decade Alice lived, a token sum would be granted to him annually that would ensure he had ample funds to live and to enjoy life. It was not a fortune and nothing like the money Sir Margrave had left his daughter but it was enough for Martin to lead a pleasant life. A further caveat was administered that acted as a failsafe to protect Alice from any form of harm. Were Alice to be injured, maimed or killed then the mortgage would cease to be paid and all benefits would instantly halt. This effectively meant that Martin really had to protect and care for Alice every hour of every working day for if harm ever befell her he would lose everything.
Alice proved to be, as best she was able, a good and loving wife. She couldn’t cook particularly well and she often mixed whites with coloureds leaving Martin with an odd assortment of strangely hued shirts. But she was, after a fashion, happy. Martin however was not. He had a string of love affairs with women from all over Dorset and Hampshire. He was always very discrete for as much as he felt tethered to a marriage of convenience he also had some affection for Alice. Of course there was the contract to remember which stipulated that neither physical nor mental harm should befall Sir Desmond’s daughter for fear of losing all financial support. In a nutshell, Martin’s hands were tied.
He had to look after Alice even if he would rather have left her for someone else. Forty years later with Martin now fast approaching sixty, life was as mundane and routine as you could possibly conceive. But Martin had his secrets. In fact he had a great many, but only one really bothered him and that was a secret he would prefer no one, especially Alice, ever discovered.
Tickpant Farm was some fourteen acres of arable land. On it Martin grew potatoes, beetroot, cabbage and a variable crop of other vegetables. He also had a fine herd of cattle which was something he had nurtured and developed on his own. He had his meals with Alice during which they discussed his working day, then he would go out for the evening, often to the Frog and Radiator in Fekenham but occasionally to the cinema in Winchester. He and Alice never made love and had not slept together in the biblical sense for nigh on fifteen years. It was something that suited them both even though Alice regretted the lack of romance in their marriage.
Now Adam Lazarus along with Hilary Leatherbarrow stood outside the bulky farmhouse, its white-washed wooden walls coated with dots of dirt. A Land Rover caked in mud was parked on the drive while a tractor with a flat tyre stood nearby.
“It’s all a bit dour isn’t it?” remarked Hilary.
Lazarus nodded.
“A bit run down,” he commented.
“What’s Martin Tickpant meant to be like then?” asked Hilary.
“I have no idea. I have never seen him before but then again I hadn’t met any of the residents of Birchtickle until today.”
A large dog began barking at them. It bounded forward but stopped short when within ten feet of the pair..
“I used to have a mate who was in the Royal Marines.” said Lazarus. “He told me once that killing a dog was easy. I wish he was here now. He could show me how.”
Hilary seemed unfazed by the canine. She lifted her hand so that her finger was pointing directly at the mutt whose attention was now firmly focused on her then, in perfection synchronisation. She barked out a command to sit as she pointed with her hand to the floor. The dog’s ears fell back and it sat as if it were puppet whose strings had been cut. It squatted in front of her with its tongue lolling stupidly from its mouth.
“Good girl, who’s a good girl then?”
The bitch wagged its tail accommodatingly.
“I’ll be damned,” said Adam Lazarus. “How on earth did you do that?”
Hilary grinned from ear to ear.
“That is something they don’t teach you in the Royal Marines. I learnt it as a child when I helped dad around the place. As he used to say, ‘there are no bad dogs just bad owners.’ I suppose I trusted to my luck that the dog had been properly trained.”
As she said that she pulled the remains of the uneaten doughnut she had shoved in her bag whilst at Agatha Nosebag’s. She then tossed the sugar coated treat at the dog who caught and swallowed it in one mouthful.
“Friend for life,” said Hilary.
“How did you know it a bitch?” asked Lazarus.
“I didn’t, at least not until it sat down and then it was patently obvious!”
Lazarus lifted the door knob and knocked loudly. A dull thump, thump, thump of feet was heard coming down the hall. The door was not so much opened as slung wide by an angular looking figure. The individual had a square head with hair that hung down like curtains on either side of the square face. The eyes were like windows that sat beneath a heavy brow that in turn were above a square block of a nose. The mouth was wide with thick lips, the chin like an unlit lantern.
“Hello,” said a deep voice.
“Hello Mister Tickpant. I am a police officer. My name is Adam Lazarus.”
The dull eyes of the square man flickered dimly.
“Mrs Tickpant.”
“Sorry?” said a baffled Lazarus.
“I am Mrs Tickpant. My name is Alice.”
Lazarus looked stunned.
“I beg your pardon,” he stammered. “I can see now, my mistake. The sun was in my eyes.”
The sun was behind Lazarus but the apology seemed accepted.
“Come in,” said Alice slowly. “Martin’s not here at the minute.”
She then turned sluggishly on her heel and plodded back down the hallway. Hilary looked at Lazarus who indicated with a movement of his head for her to follow. The house was far bigger than any of the cottages they had visited. On either side of the hall were closed doors which presumably led to other rooms. They followed Alice until she turned right into what must have been the study. Mrs Tickpant was a broad-backed woman with little shape. Her head was balanced upon a stout neck. Her body too was fashioned as though from granite. She had no waist to speak off. Her hips were large and the whole look of her seemed to suggest she was designed by an advocate of Brut concrete.
“Take a seat,” she suggested, meaning that they both should sit down on the chairs as indicated. Hilary and Lazarus did so then watched as she joined them. She offered no refreshment but sat with hands folded looking at them.
“Are you a real policeman?”
“I am indeed ma’am, a Detective Chief Inspector.”
“My name’s Alice,” said Alice.
“I am Adam and this is Hilary,” said Lazarus.
A large clock fixed to the wall that was set between two floor-to-ceiling book racks ticked a low tock. A desk with a great deal of paper work set upon it sat behind a pair of French doors that opened out onto a small garden. There was a large painting on the wall of a rather dignified man dressed in evening suit. Alice saw Lazarus looking at the painting.
“That’s my father, Margrave Applecore. Martin says he likes to have the painting in his study so that he knows my father is looking down on him.”
Lazarus smiled at Alice Tickpant.
“We are here investigating the mysterious appearance recently of a severed gloved hand in Birchtickle pond. Have you seen any visitors around here of late?”
Alice looked a little nonplussed.
“How can a hand be found in the pond? Wasn’t there a body with it?”
Lazarus shook his head.
“No, there wasn’t. As I said it was a severed hand.”
“That means cut off doesn’t it?”
Lazarus looked toward Hilary then back to Alice Tickpant.
“Mrs Tickpant, are you being deliberately obtuse?”
A loud booming voice suddenly burst forth.
“Alice, darling, be a love and put the kettle on would you please?”
It was the man they had seen earlier coming out of Jean Grimstain’s cottage. He smiled at Alice as she got out of her seat the he looked toward Lazarus and Leatherbarrow.
“If the tea is for us then please don’t bother on our behalf,” said Lazarus.
The man spoke to Lazarus for the first time while still smiling at Alice.
“The tea’s for me and for Alice if she wants any,” said the man’ who then turned his attention toward the policeman. “I am Martin Tickpant. How can I help you?”
Lazarus stood up, proffering his hand to the farmer who ignored the gesture and instead sat down behind his desk.
“What does the Winchester C.I.D want with me?” he asked gruffly.
“To refrain from dismissing someone when I am interviewing them for starters,” said Lazarus icily, “and then you can tell me what you know about this severed hand that was found the other day in Birchtickle pond.”
Martin Tickpant glared at the detective then bent his head to his desk before looking up.  He smiled stiffly then spoke again.
“Alice, my wife, has learning difficulties. Although she is able to hold a reasonably intelligent conversation she finds some concepts hard to follow. For example the idea of finding a gloved hand not attached to a wrist that is also attached to a person. I can vouch for her. She has seen nothing of any interest to your investigation.”
“And what about yourself, sir, have you seen anything that might help us?”
“No, nothing, sorry.”
“We saw you a short while ago coming out of Jean Grimstain’s cottage. You had been rowing with her. What was that about?”
Martin Tickpant again glared at the Winchester policeman but this time held his temper.
“She and I have a long running disagreement. The land she is on was mine. When I sold it to her she enlarged the grounds beyond the perimeter I had set. I believe she owes me money. She, naturally enough, doesn’t agree.”
“Do you or did you own all the properties around here then?” asked Lazarus.
The farmer nodded.
“At one point, yes.”
“And there is nothing you can add that might shed some light on the appearance of the gloved hand? You haven’t seen anyone lurking around the pond in the last few days?”
“Why would anyone do that?”
“Agatha Nosebag suggested she saw one.”
“That woman should learn to keep her mouth shut. She is far too gossipy by half.”
Alice appeared in the study door holding a large mug of tea and a plate of digestive biscuits. Martin Tickpant smiled at her.

“Come in love,” he said, “these people were just about to leave.”
Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.

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