Harry Hertlasp threw another log onto the pile. He had cut the limbs from the trees in his back garden last September leaving them there for him to tidy up until spring. It was unusually slapdash. He chided himself but continued to saw. He had, after all, had other things on his mind. The argument with Agatha Nosebag ran again though his head dashing over dusty cobblestones running slick with blood that poured from her open throat. He dismissed the notion as being his anger turned to wishful thinking. He hated the ruddy woman, hated her nosiness, but more than that her spiteful inclinations. Females like her should be sterilised. He had known her a long time, too long as far as he was concerned and was longing for the day that their association would end.
Harry selected another limb placing his left hand on one end whilst placing his right foot on the other to hold the large log in place whilst he sawed it into smaller pieces. The effort was taxing but he enjoyed the physical activity, feeling his muscles remonstrate as he continued sawing. A car door banged shut. He turned to see who it was then groaned inwardly.
“Good morning Inspector, Doctor. Beautiful day isn’t it? A bit early for you chaps to be making house calls isn’t it?”
There was the merest suggestion of displeasure, annoyance even at seeing them again but that, as far as Lazarus was concerned, was neither here nor there. If he upset people in the course his duty, especially when investigating a possible murder, then so be it.
“I wonder if we might have a few words with you, sir if you wouldn’t mind.”
Harry kept on sawing, not ignoring their presence as such but indicating his slight displeasure.
“Not at all, I hope you don’t mind if I keep on working?”
Hilary looked about her as Adam Lazarus began his questions. She was looking at the cottage Harry lived in. It was, much like his kitchen, neat and well kept. She imagined he worked hard to maintain the property’s appearance. Even the windows seemed to gleam. Hilary found that keeping glass clean was the hardest of household chores. As Lazarus fired the first question at Harry Hertlasp so Hilary wandered off to have a look round.
“You weren’t particularly honest with me were you, sir?”
Harry stopped sawing then wiped the back of his hand across his brow. He looked at Lazarus quizzically.
“In what way was I dishonest?”
“You said that when you first saw the hand you didn’t think finding a severed hand odd but then again you wouldn’t would you as you already knew?”
Hertlasp looked confused. His face flushed red. He gripped the handle of the saw so tightly that his knuckles turned white.
“What do you mean?”
“You said that you discovered the hand by chance but it wasn’t luck that took you there was it? It was the two boys who saw you out walking and called you over.”
Harry Hertlasp sighed long and deep, and then he pinched the skin between his nose and upper lip.
“I wasn’t trying to deceive or mislead you; I was merely protecting the lads from further upset.”
“Perhaps you were but then why did you make it seem that the phone call from Doreen Gosling was what alerted you to the presence of a hand?”
“I told you, I was making sure they were alright.”
Hertlasp started sawing again; this time, or so it seemed to Lazarus, with more energy.
“What do you know of Agatha Nosebag?”
“She’s a spiteful, nosey, busybody. I can’t stand the woman.”
“And what’s her relationship with you, have you known her long.”
“We both have lived here for twenty years. We moved in when Martin Tickpant sold off the properties and the land.”
Lazarus detected Hertlasp’s evasion in answering the question. The detective looked up to see where Hilary had got to. He could see her wandering around the side of the cottage. He spoke again to Harry Hertlasp.
“All this land was once Tickpant’s wasn’t it?”
“All of it including the pond then, twenty years ago, he sold the lot. I moved in at the same time as Agatha Nosebag.”
“Who was the first person to buy a property from Mister Tickpant after yourself and Mrs. Nosebag?”
Hertlasp put down the saw and started picking the logs up, piling them in a neat stack.
Hilary had now disappeared. Lazarus suspected she had gone inside Hertlasp’s cottage. He hoped the old man didn’t notice as neither Lazarus nor Leatherbarrow had warrants.
“So she fell pregnant after moving here then?”
Harry looked at Lazarus as though he were a simpleton.
“As Sam is still only twelve and since he is her only son then yes, she fell pregnant after moving here and no, it has nothing to do with me. I guess she has lived here about fourteen years”
No, thought Lazarus, I didn’t think it did but perhaps it has something to do with Tim Trimeot or Charlie Gosling or even Martin Tickpant.
“What do you know of the relationship between the Trimeots and Goslings?” asked Lazarus.
“What they get up to is none of my business,” stated Hertlasp as he started stacking another pile of logs. “We may be a close community here but we still, apart from Agatha Nosebag, keep out of folk’s private affairs.”
Lazarus gave Hertlasp a long, hard look.
“Unfortunately, when murder is involved, even if it is an old murder, people’s affairs become very much my business, sir. When was the last time you saw Agatha Nosebag?”
Harry dusted the dirt from his hands by wiping them together vigorously.
“A couple of days ago, maybe a week. She caught me out near the pond, then insisted on following me home”
“Did she go inside with you?”
“And what was the nature of her visit?”
“The same thing it always is; she gossiped about what the neighbours got up to.”
“Nothing more than that?”
At that point Hilary returned, smiling broadly. Hertlasp looked from the forensic scientist to the police detective.
“Have you finished with me? I have lots to get done and would like to get on with it.”
Lazarus looked away from Hilary who had returned from where ever it was she had been.
“That’ll be all for now, sir, but I may need to return with more questions when the need arises so please don’t take any vacations or leave Birchtickle whilst the investigation is underway.”
Hertlasp made a guttural sound deep in his throat. He went to turn away then stopped. He turned back to Lazarus.
“What do you mean ‘murder inquiry’? Surely, the hand has nothing to do with a murder around here?”
Lazarus smiled. It wasn’t a warm or engaging smile but more a smile of grim determination.
“Not round here sir, no but hands don’t generally go missing do they? There has to be a body somewhere and by golly, one way or another, I intend to find it. Just as surely as I intend to find the person who cut the hand off for when I do I shall have found the murderer.”
Lazarus walked away with Leatherbarrow back toward their parked car. Harry Hertlasp watched them go. He noticed that another car, a marked police vehicle, had also parked near to the Detective Inspector’s. From it a young uniformed policewoman got out. She smiled at Lazarus and Leatherbarrow. They spoke briefly and Lazarus indicated with his hand toward Agatha Nosebag’s cottage.
Harry Hertlasp returned to his home. He looked to be in a state of some concern. His face was pale and drawn.
Jean Grimstain stared at the police detective with a look of disapproval.
“But I already answered your questions. What more can there be to ask?”
Adam Lazarus stood outside the artist’s front door, behind him was Hilary Leatherbarrow. The police Inspector looked increasingly displeased.
“There is new evidence that has come to light concerning the land your property stands on. It was once owned by Martin Tickpant wasn’t it?”
Jean’s face turned red. Her response was both aggressive and defensive.
“It’s no big secret. All the property here was once owned by Mister Tickpant. He sold it off twenty years ago.”
Lazarus thrummed his fingers against the cottage doorframe.
“Were you the first person to buy land from Martin Tickpant?”
“After Harry and Agatha, yes, what of it?”
Lazarus banged his fist against the open door.
“Mrs Grimstain, you are being very uncooperative. I don’t understand why. You weren’t like it on my first visit. What is your problem; why won’t you let us in? Have you got something to hide? Is that the impression you are trying to give for if it is I can just as easily get a warrant.”
Jean Grimstain looked uncomfortable, cornered even. She looked down at her feet.
“It’s not like that,” she whispered “I have someone with me and I didn’t want to embarrass him. Please, come in.”
Lazarus stood to one side to allow Hilary to pass.
“Thank you,” he said.
They walked to the kitchen where the door was open. They could see a man’s figure disappearing out of the garden gate.
“Who was that?” asked Lazarus.
“It really has nothing to do with the hand,” suggested Jean Grimstain.
“I’ll be the judge of that,” said Lazarus. “Who was it?”
“Are you and he lovers?”
Hilary appeared embarrassed. She looked steadfastly away as Jean answered the policeman’s question.
Lazarus pulled out a wooden chair, indicating that Jean Grimstain should do the same.
“The hand we found was severed from a man’s arm. There is no evidence to suggest anything other about the strange circumstances surrounding this mysterious occurrence. Normally, when limbs are found separated from the torso, a body is soon after discovered. The suggestion here is, and at the moment investigations are still underway, that a body will be found. If that is the case then a murder almost certainly has been committed. It may not be obvious to you but you, just like everyone else her in Birchtickle are a suspect. No, then let’s start again, shall we? Are you and Tim Trimeot lovers and if not then what was he doing here?”
Jean Grimstain sighed heavily and then stood up.
“I need some coffee. Would either of you like some?”
“If I may,” said Hilary. Lazarus shook his head.
Jean put the kettle on then lit the stove. As the gas began its job she looked out of the window at her garden.
“This is a small community. Birchtickle has only got a handful of residents and although we don’t share each other’s business there are some things that go on that cannot be overlooked. For years now the Trimeot’s and the Gosling’s have had an arrangement. It is not the usual run-of-the-mill arrangements that friends make. It is not a case of one family looking after the other's property during holiday times. They don’t babysit the other's child. They do not share cars when they go to work. They do share other activities, though. Tim has been asking me to join their little club for some time now. I have repeatedly refused. He was here today asking me again. This time he left before hearing my answer. I think they, the Trimeot’s and Gozling’s, have a history.”
The kettle started to whistle. Jean picked up a tea towel which she then wrapped around the kettle’s handle. She poured the steaming liquid into the two mugs, stirring the coffee in as she did. She then passed one mug to Hilary.
“How long has this tryst been going on?” asked Lazarus. “And what do you mean about having had a history?”
“I couldn’t truthfully say, thirteen years maybe. Before the boys were born certainly. As for their shared history, well, I guess it is the way they are around each other. They are like a pack, a unit somehow. That makes me think they must have known each other for years.”
Hilary sipped at her drink. Lazarus stared at his hands.
“It gets lonely here sometimes,” continued Jean. “You’d be surprised what folks do to pass the time. Some of us garden, some of us paint while others dress in rubber and flagellate each other. Me? I prefer a good book.”
Lazarus looked satisfied.
“You were the first to move here weren’t you and that was what, fourteen years ago. Who came next?”
Jean sipped at her coffee wrapping her fingers around the mug.
“I have been here fifteen years. Tracey and Tim arrived after that. I think it would be about ten years ago now, maybe a little longer.”
“What’s your relationship with Agatha Nosebag like?”
Jean laughed loudly then put her coffee down on the kitchen table.
“I can’t stand the bloody woman but I don’t believe anyone in Birchtickle does. We tolerate her at best. She is not only nosey but spiteful with it. She has a cruel heart and a twisted mind.”
“In what way?” asked Lazarus.
“She never ceases to remind me that I am a single mother; that my son spends too much time playing out and that at the school he attends the other children call him names. She ridicules my work, calling it cottage industry art or worse. She has a vitriolic tongue. It’s her comments about Sam that really get to me though. I for one will not miss her when she dies.”
A loud knock at the front door interrupted the interview.
“Who the bloody hell is it this time?” said Jean hastily crossing the hall to the door.
“What do you make of what she said Hilary?” asked the police detective as Jean was answering the door.
“It was the truth even if she didn’t let us have all of it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Who is Sam’s father for one thing?” replied Hilary.
The conversation at the door sounded urgent. The young uniformed police constable followed Jean into the kitchen. A faraway sound of a siren could be heard. Jean’s face was drained of colour. She looked as if she had just met a ghost.
“Sir, I think you’d better come over to Mrs. Nosebag’s cottage as quick as you can.”
Lazarus rose from the kitchen seat, his raincoat rustling.
“She’s dead, sir, Mrs. Nosebag is dead.”
Agatha Nosebag had often been accused of having far too big a mouth and of not being able to keep it shut when she should. That was certainly the case now. The woman’s mouth was gaping open. A large pair of garden shears had been thrust into it. The shears had penetrated her throat and extended out the back of her neck. Agatha sat, her eyes wide in shock, on a kitchen chair. She had been pinned against the wall into which the shears were now embedded like a butterfly on a page. There were scuff marks where the chair had been forced back.
Hilary Leatherbarrow was bending over the deceased’s body examining it. Behind her stood Adam Lazarus while behind him a uniformed female police constable was ensuring that the other residents of Birchtickle stayed outside the cottage door. Oddly, no one was there. Hilary pointed to the floor.
“You can see the marks the chair left when it was pushed back. The violence of the action clearly indicates that whoever it was that stabbed the shears into Mrs Nosebag’s mouth physically moved body and chair by about a foot. That takes some doing, a degree of strength to achieve, especially when you consider that they then pinned both body and shears into the wall.”
Lazarus nodded then indicated with his forefinger the blood around the victim’s mouth.
“The blood appears to have dried.”
“It has,” confirmed Hilary. “The woman was killed between three to four hours ago. When death occurs whilst seated a body would normally slump forward as muscles become flaccid and joints relax. In this case, as the corpse has been figuratively nailed to the wall, this hasn’t happened. Another unfortunate occurrence in cases like these is the relaxation of the sphincter hence the unpleasant smell. Blood has congealed about the wound and rigor mortis has set in.”
Lazarus turned away, looking around the kitchen. All seemed in order.
“Apart from the scuff marks on the floor, there are no visible signs of a struggle. It seems as if the killer simply walked in and shoved the garden tool directly into her mouth. It must have been a man surely?” asked the policeman.
“Because of the apparent use of power? Not necessarily so. Adrenaline might afford a female unusual strength in such circumstances,” confirmed Doctor Leatherbarrow.
“There will, or should be, fingerprints on the shears. Can you check them for me?”
“Of course, I will bag the item up and get it along with the corpse to my unit so I can begin my examination. What will you do next?”
Lazarus looked out the window toward Harry Hertlasp’s cottage then over at Jean Grimstain.
“I think it time we started stirring things up a bit around here. Constable! Have all the locals rounded up and brought in for questioning starting with Mister Hertlasp not forgetting Martin Tickpant and his wife but make sure you also bring in Mrs Grimstain. I will take the Trimeots. Hilary, please be sure to call me once you have concluded doing whatever it is you do.”
Hilary smiled at him, noticing the way he returned her smile.
“I’ll make it a priority,” she said.
The Trimeot’s cottage remained a curiosity to Adam Lazarus as he approached it. He couldn’t hear the sound of hens clucking this time but he could hear what appeared to be chimpanzees. Unlike before, when a degree of polite reservation had prevented him from just walking in, this time he showed no such courteous diffidence. Opening the front door, he strode right in onto what appeared to be an apes’ orgy.
Tracey Trimeot was, with knuckles dragging low across the floor, dressed in a monkey suit. Her face was replicating that of a chimp at mating time. Her mouth revealed her teeth and she was making a high pitched screech. She was being pursued by what can only be described as an amorous Charlie Gosling who was dressed in the suit of an aroused Baboon whose sole intent was to mount the said monkey. His bottom was bare, having been daubed a vivid red, whilst his male member, also painted red, quivered with passionate intent. Unfortunately, whoever had been doing the daubing, hadn’t applied it very well using rather than rouge a garish nail varnish which, having dried had all the appearance of leprosy. It was peeling now. Tiny little scabs were flaking off before falling, rancid red, to the floor.
As Tracey and Charlie were playing hide the banana so Doreen and Tim were tangled up on top of the table. Quite why she felt the need to make such a din whist sitting on her playmate’s face was beyond the Winchester detective who, lost for what to say under such strange circumstances, dug deep into his raincoat pocket to produce the only thing he could find: his old police whistle, which he blew as loudly as he could.
The shrill sound broke the scene like a brick thrown through a glass window. Doreen leaped from Tim’s face and as she did fell off the table with a thud onto the floor. With too much weight on one end of the table, the wrong end as far as Tim was concerned, so the table overbalanced sending Tim crashing to the other side onto his head. He let out a yelp then cursed. Charlie, having finally caught the mischievous monkey he had been chasing had grabbed hold of Tracey’s hips and with a sudden rush of passion thrust himself at her just as she looked up to see who was blowing the infernal whistle. The slight change in Tracey’s position meant a sudden rear door entry that she had not been expecting. She too leaped away liked a scolded cat, or, in this case, primate, and bashed her head against the fireplace. Tim’s erection momentarily stayed aloft but began to wilt under the gaze of the police officer’s stony face.
“Sorry to interrupt your little soirée but I have to inform you of the murder of your neighbour, Agatha Nosebag. In light of this, if you little monkeys, chimps, apes and red-arsed baboons would care to come with me to the police station then I would be most grateful. Who knows, if you are all good perhaps I will let you out for feeding time.”
Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.