Lewes, Sussex, 1947
As he was fitting a new fly to his hook, Oswald Gibson looked up and saw two figures on the ridge above, both of them carrying what looked like fishing gear over their shoulders, long, cylindrical cases of the kind that you could fit two sections of a rod in.
They were coming over a saddle in the low green hills and, having spotted the grassy bank where Oswald was standing with his rod, were probably heading for that very spot. Upstream from a small pool where the trout paused, as though waiting for any tempting flies that might come their way, it was the best fishing site on the stream and one that Oswald had come to think of as his own.
And he knew what was going to happen next, almost as though it were fated. The men would turn up, they’d exchange polite greetings and then, after looking around and seeing that this was the place to be, they’d say, ‘Mind if we join you?’ and take out their rods, probably not even waiting for a reply.
And Oswald would say nothing. He’d make no complaint, not say that he did mind and would they kindly shove off and find somewhere else to do their angling. No, he’d stand there dumb and resentful, accepting – as he always had – his failure to stand up to others, unable to escape the vision he had of himself as one of life’s doormats.
‘For heaven’s sake, Oswald! For once in your life assert yourself.’ The words were inscribed in his memory as though on marble, which wasn’t surprising, given the number of times he had heard them. ‘Why do you let people walk all over you?’
He could hardly have replied that it was because he was a doormat (though he’d been tempted to, and more than once). Still, the whirligig of time brought in its revenges. (The saying was one of Oswald’s favourites.) Fresh in his mind still was the memory of the morning a year ago when he had come upstairs with Mildred’s breakfast tray and found her lying in bed, with her eyes staring and her mouth agape: stone-dead. ‘Stiff as a rod,’ he had murmured to himself in wonder as he’d touched his wife’s hand for the last time.
Meanwhile the men had crossed the saddle in the ridge and were coming down the hillside, close to where a flock of sheep were grazing, watched over by a dog. They were on a path that would join the one that ran along the valley floor, which in turn would bring them to his doorstep. Oswald braced himself for the encounter he was sure was about to take place. He could at least be cool with them, he thought: he would let them see they were not welcome. Perhaps they would take the hint and depart. As he stood there, already uncertain in his resolve, knowing in his heart that he was simply unable to deal with confrontation, he heard a piercing whistle and saw the sheepdog, a border collie, rise from the grass and begin to circle the flock it was guarding, coaxing them into movement. He scanned the hillside for their shepherd, a man he knew by sight, but it was some moments before he spotted him standing at the edge of a small copse near the crest of the ridge, his familiar figure blending with the shadow cast by the trees. For some minutes the sheep continued to move across the hillside, urged on by the dog, until a final whistle, different in pitch, brought it to a halt and the flock settled down again.
Distracted by the spectacle, Oswald had half-forgotten the approaching threat, but when he turned his gaze on the fishermen again it was to discover that he’d had a reprieve. During the minute or so that he had spent watching the shepherd, the pair had reached the intersection of the two paths, but instead of coming upstream to join him, as he had feared they would, they had gone in the other direction; in fact he could hear the sound of their voices growing fainter as they moved away. His solitude was preserved.
‘Well, thank heaven for that.’
With a sigh of satisfaction he turned back to face the stream and a moment later his line, with the fly attached, went soaring off in an arc to fall softly on the still surface of the pool. He felt better already.
Earlier that morning he had awoken from a fitful sleep still troubled by the memory of an uninvited visitor who had called on him the week before, a nosy intruder he’d never met or heard of, who had knocked on his front door and, without so much as a by-your-leave, had proceeded to question him, sharply at times, about some long-forgotten episode in his past. Names, dates, places – the questions had been fired at him like so many missiles, as if he could be expected to remember details of that kind after all this time; and when he had dared to object to the interrogation, he’d been assured that the enquiry had official backing – something he’d been unable to challenge, but suspected was true, as this new Labour government seemed to think it had the right to stick its nose into everything. Oswald had endured the ordeal sullenly. He had sensed the hostility of his questioner without being able to identify its source and for this reason had been as uncooperative as he dared.
In particular he’d neglected to mention the journals he had kept as a young man, when he had still thought his experiences might have some value – that his life might amount to something – and which were gathering dust in a desk drawer. When his inquisitor had left at last, and without a word of thanks, he had dug them out and quickly found the volume that dealt with the events in question. Yes, there it was, the whole business faithfully reported in his own unique style, a mode of expression clear to him, but not to prying eyes (Mildred’s, for example). And although Oswald had been surprised by the amount of information his tormentor possessed, at least he’d been given an avenue to pursue: one possible means of getting to the bottom of what had been an unusually disagreeable experience.
Among the names flung at him, most of which he had forgotten, was one that struck a special chord in Oswald’s memory: not because it had seemed important at the time (on the contrary, he hadn’t even bothered to record it in his journal), but because he remembered some remarks this individual had made that prompted him to wonder now if the fellow was still alive and whether he could track him down. He’d be just the chap to ask about this so-called investigation, Oswald told himself: he would know, if anyone did, what lay behind it all. Finding him had been the problem, however. The only way Oswald could think to do so was to write to the man’s former employers on the off-chance they were still in contact with him. But although he had begun to pen the necessary letter, he had quickly lost heart and put it aside. What was he getting himself into? he had wondered. The truth was that he hadn’t enjoyed having his past raked up – not that bit, anyway – and when he’d thought more about it, and about his strange and unsettling interview with his recent visitor, he’d been inclined to let the whole matter drop: to let sleeping dogs lie.
But for some reason the business had continued to bother him. When, a few days later, he had travelled to Hastings to spend a long weekend with an old friend of his who had retired to the seaside town, he had found himself still dogged by the memory of his impromptu interview and, even before he set out to return home, he had resolved to talk the matter over with his elder brother, Ned. Ned was the person he turned to most often for advice and, as luck would have it, Ned was coming down from London to spend the following weekend with him.
Oswald looked at his watch. It was after five. Mrs Gannet, his daily, was usually gone by half-past four and he would have to wait until tomorrow to have a word with her about his weekend guest and how to feed him. With rationing still in force – and that in spite of the war being over for two years now – food was perpetually in short supply; fortunately Edna Gannet was a resourceful woman (and a great relief to have about the house after thirty years of marriage to the relentless Mildred) and Oswald was sure that somehow she would make ends meet. For one thing, there were the trout, which continued to attach themselves obligingly to his hook and line, and which were at least beyond the ration man’s reach. Only that afternoon he’d caught a fine specimen – it was still flopping in its death-throes on the grass bank behind him – and by Saturday, which was four days off, he might have caught more. The thought brought a grin to his lips as he sent his line winging over the water for the last time. Though something of a novice as an angler – he’d never had the time for it when he’d been married, Mildred had seen to that – he’d found he had an unexpected talent for the sport and, now that he was retired (and a widower to boot) and able to devote more hours to his hobby, he was reaping the rewards of his determination to master its finer points.
Reeling in his line, he heard the shepherd’s whistle again, coming from the hillside behind him; this time he ignored it, continuing instead to gaze at the scene before him: at the willow trees on the far bank bending to touch the stream, and at the water itself, which still sparkled in the last of the sunlight. It had been a gem of an autumn day, with the October sun only now beginning to pale in the blue sky and the shadows starting to lengthen, and throughout the quiet afternoon Oswald had hummed contentedly to himself, as if in harmony with the chorus that came from a pair of ringdoves in the giant oak tree that overlooked the stream at that point, and whose spreading branches offered welcome shade. For many years he had been a member of the local choral society and for some weeks had been attending rehearsals for the concert of Gilbert and Sullivan favourites that the group planned to give at their annual autumn concert in a few weeks’ time.
Oswald had been picked to sing one of the solo numbers and had been practising hard.
‘A wandering minstrel I . . .’
As he bent down to collect his things from the grassy bank, stowing the trout in the old kitchen basket he used as a creel and gathering up the crumbs of his lunchtime sandwich to put in a piece of greaseproof paper, he broke into song.
‘A thing of shreds and patches . . .’
He searched about him for his tin of flies; he knew he’d put it down on the grass somewhere.
‘Of ballads, songs and snatches, And dreamy lullaby . . .’
Spying it some way up the bank, he began to move in that direction; but stopped when he saw a shadow fall across the tin.
Oswald looked up. Squinting against the setting sun, he saw the silhouette of a man on the bank above him. Dressed in hiking clothes – breeches of some kind – topped by a baggy sweater, he stood faceless in the shadow cast by his hat brim.
‘Yes . . . ?’
Uncertain as ever, Oswald hesitated – and in that moment recognition dawned on him and he stared, open-mouthed, as the figure moved, coming down the bank towards him with unhurried steps.
‘What in heaven’s name—?’
The question died on his lips. He had been gaping in wonder at the face beneath the hat brim. But then the glint of metal had caught his eye, and his heart had lurched.
The word was his last. Struck dumb in the last minutes of his life, in the grip not only of terror but of sheer disbelief, he could only stay where he was, planted like a tree on the bank, crouched over his knees, until he felt the cold touch of steel on his neck.
And then nothing more.
‘You keep thinking nothing will surprise you in this job. Then something like this comes along and all you can do is scratch your head.’
Vic Chivers took off his hat as if he was going to do just that, but mopped his brow instead. It was close to noon and the sun was high in the sky.
‘First, this Gibson fellow gets murdered in broad daylight, with no explanation. Then the bloke who shoots him vanishes into thin air.’
Glancing at him, Billy Styles thought Vic hadn’t changed all that much. Heavy-set, with a lantern jaw and dark, bushy eyebrows, he was pretty much the same chap he remembered from the days when they had learned their trade together as young detective-constables with the Metropolitan Police. Good-humoured, sharper than he looked and something of a wag, Vic had resigned from the Met in the late twenties after marrying a Brighton girl and had joined the Sussex county force. Now, like Billy, he was an inspector and the senior CID man stationed in the town of Lewes.
‘And to top it all, we get a call from your lot telling us the Yard wants to stick its nose in.’
Vic had been at the station to meet Billy when he’d stepped off the London train earlier that morning and had driven him to a village called Kingston, on the outskirts of Lewes, where they had left their car and set off on foot down a narrow lane that led from the hamlet into the surrounding countryside.
‘So get off your high horse, old chum, and tell me what’s going on?’
Billy chuckled. ‘Before we get to that, there’s something I need to know. I read in your report that Gibson was shot from close up. How close exactly?’
‘From no more than six inches away, according to the pathologist. There were powder burns on the collar of his shirt and on the back of his neck, too. And in case you’re wondering, the bullet was a nine-millimetre slug. We got the ballistics report this morning.’
‘Just one other question then.’ Billy kept pace with his colleague. ‘The report I read said that Gibson was on his knees when he was shot? Are you certain of that?’
‘As sure as I can be. I put it in the report, didn’t I?’ Vic winked at him. ‘But I’m still waiting to hear why the Yard is so interested.’
He apparently didn’t think it worth pointing out that normally Scotland Yard was only called in to cases outside the London area at the express request of a chief constable, and that in this case it was the Yard that had initiated the contact.
‘Come on, Billy – what do you know that we don’t?’
‘Not that much; only that there was a murder like this up in Scotland last month. A man was killed in the same way: shot in the back of the head, at the base of the skull, actually. It was very precise. There’s no obvious connection, but since the Scottish police haven’t any leads, it was thought I ought to come down here and take a look at this. Tell you what: let’s deal with your one first. Then I’ll fill you in on the other.’
Satisfied – for the moment at least – Vic strode on, with Billy at his heels now. They had left the village behind and the lane they’d been following had petered out into a dirt road, which in turn dwindled to a footpath that joined the course of a stream running through a valley. Lewes itself lay on the South Downs, and the green hillocks on either side of the town, gashed white with chalk, were part of the long chain of grassy uplands that stretched across much of southern England.
‘It’s downstream from here, the place where he was killed,’ Chivers announced, talking over his shoulder as he led the way. Ahead of them Billy could see the narrow waterway meandering down the valley, shaded here and there by the odd tree and flanked by a tangle of low bushes. On either side of it the land rose in steep, grass-covered slopes topped by rounded hillocks. He had passed through the South Downs often enough on his way to Brighton with Elsie and the kids for a day by the seaside. But this was the first time he had paused long enough to take in the rolling green countryside. ‘And, just to fill you in, Gibson was sixty-two: he was deputy manager of a bank in Lewes until he retired. He and his wife – late wife – both came from London originally, but they decided to settle here when he quit his job. She died a year ago, but he stayed on. And before you ask, he was a model citizen: no form, no questionable associates, no enemies. In fact, from all we’ve been able to learn, he seems to have spent his whole life trying not to offend people. But if that’s the case, it doesn’t seem to have worked.’ He shrugged.
‘As for his movements, we know that before he was shot he went away for a few days to stay with an old colleague of his from the bank, who retired to Hastings. The fellow rang us up when he heard about the shooting. The day after Gibson got back – that would be the Tuesday of this week – he went out fishing. It’s how he spent most of his time. He left his cottage around two o’clock. That’s confirmed by his daily; she says it was his usual routine. He always fished from the same place, and we know he was killed just after five because the shot was heard by a couple of fishermen who were a little way downstream from him.’
Vic paused. He seemed to be considering his next words. ‘What’s hard to stomach about this, Billy – what really gets my goat – is that the killer was seen. We’ve got a description of him. What’s more, he knew he’d been spotted. You must have read that in my report. But somehow he still managed to vanish.’
‘So I noticed. It’s something I want to talk to you about.’
‘Good.’ Vic spoke over his shoulder. ‘Because I’ve got plenty to tell you. But let’s wait till we get there. It’ll be easier to explain.’
He continued his steady plod, Billy following in his wake, and after a few minutes they came to an open, grassy area sloping down to the stream, free of bushes and overhung by a giant oak tree. The space had been cordoned off with tape tied to metal posts and hung with a pair of police signs, warning the public to keep off.
‘This is the place.’
As he spoke a uniformed constable stepped out of the shadow cast by the oak tree, touching his helmet as he did so. ‘Morning, Boon.’ Vic acknowledged his salute with a nod. ‘This is Inspector Styles, from London.’ To Billy he said, ‘Boon was the first officer at the scene. I thought you might have some questions for him.’
Billy nodded a greeting to the young man. ‘You can tell me where the body was, for a start,’ he said.
‘It was over here, sir.’
Boon moved down the slope closer to the water and pointed to the ground.
‘He was lying face-down, with his rod and an old basket that he used as a creel on the grass next to him.’
‘What made you think he was on his knees when he was shot?’ Billy put the question to Chivers.
‘Because our witness saw him kneeling. And that was just before he was killed.’
‘What about this witness? I read he was a shepherd?’ ‘That’s right: name of Hammond.’ Vic turned round. ‘He was up there by that copse, watching over his flock of sheep.’ He pointed to the slope behind them and Billy saw the clump of trees he was indicating near the top of the ridge. ‘He said he’d noticed Gibson fishing – he knew him by sight – and, shortly before he was killed, he saw a man walking up the path towards him.’
He pointed again, this time downstream from where they were standing.
‘Hammond had plenty of time to take in his appearance. He said it was hard to judge how tall the man was from where he was standing up on the hill, but he seemed to be of average size and looked young, judging by the way he strode up the path. He was wearing tan-coloured trousers and a cherry-red sweater and had a hat on, and a knapsack on his back.’ Chivers paused. ‘And now comes the strange part. Hammond had decided to start moving the sheep back to his farm – it’s some way down the valley – and he whistled to his dog. The man on the path, the killer, heard it. He looked up, Hammond said. He actually paused for a moment. But he didn’t stop. He went on. It made me wonder if he was all there.’
He waited for Billy’s reaction.
‘Was there anyone else around?’
Chivers shook his head. ‘Not according to Hammond. Earlier in the afternoon he’d seen some hikers go by on their way to the Downs. But they were in groups.’
‘He didn’t see anyone on his own?’
‘That’s correct, and certainly not this fellow. Hammond said he would have remembered the sweater. It was bright red. Later on he saw those two fishermen who heard the shot. They came over the ridge and he saw them disappear into the bushes. When I spoke to them the next day I realized they must have been about a hundred yards downstream from here.’
‘Then the man Hammond saw walking up the path must have gone by them?’
‘He must have. But they didn’t see him. The bushes are quite thick at that point and most likely he didn’t see them, either. Anyway, Hammond spotted this bloke, as I say, and watched as he walked up the path to where Gibson was fishing – here, in fact – and then stop and go down the bank to talk to him.’
‘He could see they were speaking?’ Billy interrupted. ‘I’m not sure about that, and neither is Hammond, but it looked like it.’ Chivers shrugged. ‘Gibson had been bending down, getting his stuff together. He seemed to be on the point of leaving. Then this man appeared and Hammond saw them facing each other, as close as you are to me, and he watched as Gibson went down on his knees in front of the man. But then he turned away . . .’
‘He turned away?’ Billy scowled. ‘Hammond did? Why?’ ‘Because of his sheep.’ Chivers shrugged. ‘They were starting to move, and for the next few minutes he was busy with them. When he finally glanced down at the stream again he saw there was someone lying on the bank.’
‘Hang on a minute,’ Billy cut in. ‘What about the shot? Didn’t he hear it?’
‘Yes and no.’ Vic shrugged. ‘He heard something, but didn’t realize it was a shot until later, when he found the body. He was some way away, remember, up on the hill, whistling to his dog; besides that, he’s an old boy and hard of hearing.’
‘But he saw the body. He must have known something was wrong.’
‘Well, he wasn’t sure it was a dead body, not at first: just somebody lying there. But then he spotted the man in the sweater walking back down the path in the direction he’d come from. And just walking, mind you; not running, not hurrying. Just striding along, as cool as you please.’
He shook his head.
‘By that time Hammond had decided he ought to do something and he went down to the stream. When he found Gibson lying there with a hole in the back of his head, he climbed back up to the path to see if he could spot the other chap. But he’d vanished. So Hammond did the next best thing and legged it as fast as he could into Kingston, which is where he ran into Boon.’
He turned to the young officer.
‘All right, Constable. It’s your turn now.’
‘I’d just come off duty, sir.’ He addressed himself to Billy. ‘I live with my mum and dad in Kingston and, as I reached our gate, I saw Mr Hammond coming up the road towards me, half-running. He was out of breath and could hardly get his words out. When he told me about Mr Gibson being dead and described the man he’d seen with him, I rang Mr Chivers at once, and he told me to go back to the stream with Mr Hammond and wait by the body. But just as we were setting off I saw some hikers coming back from the Downs. I knew they must have been on the same path and I asked them if they had seen the body. They told me they hadn’t, and when I got out to the stream I saw why. It was lying near the bottom of the bank; easy to miss. And, besides, it was getting dark.’
‘What about the shooter?’ Billy asked. ‘Surely he was on that same path.’
‘He was when Mr Hammond spotted him.’ Boon nodded. ‘But the hikers never saw him, so he must have got off it.
‘These hikers . . . Were they all together? Are you sure he wasn’t one of them? Couldn’t he have slipped past you that way?’
‘No, sir, he couldn’t have.’ Boon spoke firmly. ‘There were seven of them: two couples who’d been together, and three ladies who were walking on their own. As it happened, I recognized one of the couples by sight. They’re members of a ramblers’ club in Brighton and I’ve seen them up here before. The other couple were friends of theirs. Anyway, Mr Hammond said it wasn’t either of the men. The bloke he’d seen was younger and dressed differently—’
‘They’ve all been spoken to,’ Chivers interrupted. ‘The couples went back to Brighton as soon as they reached the station, but after Boon alerted me I arranged for them to be met and interviewed when they stepped off the train. The three women were staying in the same hotel in Lewes. I questioned them myself the next morning. They’d been on the Downs all afternoon, but none of them remembered seeing anyone like the man Hammond described.’
‘So what happened to him?’ Billy looked from one to the other.
‘That’s the question.’ Vic looked rueful. ‘And I wish I had an answer. It’s pretty certain he never came into Lewes. He was going in the opposite direction when Hammond saw him, heading for the South Downs Way, which links up with a track called Jugg’s Road that’ll take you to the outskirts of Brighton.’
‘Didn’t you say it was getting dark?’
‘Yes, but with a torch and an Ordnance Survey map he could have found his way easy enough. And he must have known he’d have to get off the Downs before daylight; that we’d have searchers out from early next morning, which we did. His description was circulated to every police station and village bobby in the area. If he’d still been out there, we’d have collared him, Billy. You can be sure of that.’
‘So you reckon it had to be Brighton he was heading for?’ ‘It was the only place that made sense. He could have walked down to Newhaven, I suppose, but that would have taken him all night, and we had it covered. Unless he lived locally – which seemed unlikely then, and even more so now, given the enquiries we’ve been making – he would have been looking to leave the area, and I had the police in Brighton checking the trains and buses that night and for the next few days. There was no sign of him.’
‘Could he have had a car?’ Billy wondered. ‘Could he have got out that way?’
‘From the Downs? Not a chance.’ Vic dismissed the idea. ‘There just aren’t the roads. Never mind petrol rationing.’
‘The truth is I can’t explain how he disappeared. For my money, he’s a blooming Houdini.’
‘And that’s only the half of it.’
Leaving the constable to continue his vigil, Billy and Vic had started back on the path to Kingston. But Vic wasn’t done yet.
‘It’s bad enough that he was able to slip through our fingers so easily. But what brought him here in the first place? Did he come looking for Gibson in particular, or was he out to pot anyone? Is he a loony?’
Vic let the question hang there in the air between them for some moments. Then he shrugged.
‘I think we can safely say Gibson wasn’t expecting trouble or he wouldn’t have gone wandering off on his own. But all that says is that he’d probably be just as surprised as the rest of us. If he wasn’t dead, that is.’
He shot a glance at Billy.
‘I don’t suppose you can shed any light on all that?’ ‘I’m afraid not, Vic.’
‘Then tell me what happened up in Scotland. Who was the lucky bloke there?’
‘A doctor called Wallace Drummond, a GP in Ballater. That’s in Aberdeenshire. It happened a month ago.’
They had reached the outskirts of the village and Billy paused beside a wooden bench placed conveniently under a chestnut tree at the edge of the lane.
‘Why not?’ Vic guessed his intention. ‘I could do with a breather myself.’ They sat down, but when Billy offered him a cigarette, Vic shook his head. ‘I gave up during the war. They were starting to taste like sawdust.’
‘They still do.’ Billy drew in a lungful of smoke. ‘As I said, this Drummond bloke was murdered in the same way as Gibson. A single bullet in the back of the head: nine-millimetre, same as yours. It happened in his surgery and he was made to kneel down, just like Gibson was.’
‘How did they know that?’
‘The poor chap wet himself before he was killed. He must have known what was coming. The urine ran down his thighs and his trousers were stained as far as his knees, but no further. So although he was found lying face-down, the police there reckoned he’d been kneeling when the bullet struck him.’
Billy shook his head. ‘Drummond’s rooms were above a shop: he lived out of town. It was late afternoon, but the shop was still open and the owner heard the sound of the shot from below. He didn’t know what it was, but he was concerned enough to go up to the floor above and try the door to Drummond’s rooms. It was locked, and after he had knocked on it and called out a couple of times, he concluded there was no one there and went back downstairs. It wasn’t until later that evening that the body was found. After her husband failed to return home, Mrs Drummond rang the local police station and they went round to his rooms.’
‘So the killer wasn’t seen at any point?’ Vic had been paying close attention.
‘Apparently not. The shot was heard at about a quarter-past five, and soon after that the shopkeeper closed up for the day and went home. The shooter must have waited for a while until the street below had emptied. That’s what the police thought, anyway.’
‘A cool customer, in other words. Just like our bloke.’ Chivers scowled.
‘So the coppers up there were stumped. There seemed no reason why anyone should have shot the chap. He had no enemies, as far as they could tell. Nothing had been stolen from his surgery. The investigation was handled by the Aberdeen police. They sent their report to Edinburgh, who forwarded it to the Yard. They weren’t asking us to do anything; they just thought they ought to bring it to our attention.’
‘Kind of them.’ Vic sniffed.
‘After we heard about the shooting down here, we asked them to send us their bullet. It’s on its way to London now. I’ll have to take yours back with me when I go. We’ve cleared it with Brighton.’
‘Fine by me.’ Chivers shrugged. ‘But it’s hard to see any connection – other than the two men being used for target practice. A Scottish medico and a deputy bank manager? You’re not going to tell me they were acquainted.’
‘Not as far as we know.’ Billy trod on his cigarette. ‘That’s all I’ve got to tell you. We’re going to have to wait on ballistics now. But I’ve got a few questions still. Is there anyone around we could talk to – someone who knew Gibson well?’ ‘There’s his brother, name of Edward. He lives in London, but he came down when he heard the news. And Gibson’s daily, a Mrs Gannet. I’ve spoken to both of them, but only briefly. Mrs Gannet was at Gibson’s cottage the day he was killed: she was there when he went off fishing, but he hadn’t returned by the time she left, so she didn’t find out what had happened to him until the next morning. His brother’s staying at the cottage. I told them both to expect us.’
‘Then let’s go and see them, shall we?’
‘I keep having to pinch myself. I can still hardly believe this happened – and to Oswald, of all people . . .’
Edward Gibson shook his head helplessly. Stout, with pink cheeks and a fringe of hair like a monk’s tonsure around his bald pate, he came across – admittedly on short acquaintance – as a cheerful type forced into a role that didn’t suit him: that of a grieving brother. Or so Billy thought, as he listened to Edward sigh and watched as he stared out of the window, seemingly at a loss for words. A solicitor by profession, he had greeted them in shirtsleeves at the door when they knocked, and explained that he’d been busy going through his brother’s papers.
‘I’ve already told you he had no enemies, but it was more than that. Poor Ozzie – he’d do anything to avoid trouble. I used to tell him, right back from the time when we were boys, that he shouldn’t let people push him around. But he was a timid soul.’
He had led the detectives into a small sitting room at the front of the cottage, where Billy’s eye had been drawn to a framed photograph of two men – one of them Edward Gibson, the other his brother – standing on a table near the window. It was Billy’s first glimpse of the man whose violent end they had been discussing and it came as no surprise, after what Vic had said, to discover that Oswald’s appearance was unremarkable. The snapshot, taken in a garden, showed the brothers standing beside a fishpond: Edward, smiling, with a straw hat pushed back on his head and seeming to enjoy the moment, stood with his arms akimbo, while Oswald, shorter by a few inches and pale of face, looked up at his elder sibling with a wistful expression.
‘He let people walk all over him – his wife in particular. It’s not for me to judge, but they had a rotten marriage. He wouldn’t stand up to her, and she despised him for it. When she died last year I think it came as a relief to poor Oswald. He was finally free of her. They were free of each other.’
He looked at them.
‘That sounds harsh, I know, but the point I’m making is that Ozzie was a happy man after that, happier than he’d ever been. He had already retired from the bank. He had enough to get by on, and he set about trying to enjoy his life for the first time. He had his fishing – he loved that – and his stamp collection, and enough friends that he wasn’t lonely. There was nothing in his life to distress him: if there had been, I’d have been the first to know about it. I’ve been going through his stuff all morning, hoping I could find something that might explain this – a clue even – but there’s nothing, absolutely nothing.’
He waited, hoping for a response perhaps, but Billy stayed silent. It was better to let the man talk, he thought.
‘There’s no denying Ozzie found life a struggle. He was always expecting the worst, waiting for the next blow to fall. But he was my brother, and I loved him. And this – what happened to him . . . It’s outrageous.’
His glance challenged them to deny the assertion. Billy acknowledged the word with a nod.
‘That’s just how it seems to us, sir. Outrageous. But we still have to look for an explanation, if there is one. It helps that you’re a solicitor: you know how police inquiries proceed. We need to know if anything unusual happened to your brother lately, anything out of the ordinary. It might not have seemed important at the time, but—’
He broke off. He’d noticed a slight change of expression in the other man’s face: a look not so much of puzzlement, as of indecision.
‘Look, I don’t know if this is significant . . .’ Gibson seemed to gather himself. ‘But there was something he wanted to discuss with me.’
‘I haven’t mentioned it, but I was due to come down this weekend anyway. On my own, as it happened – my wife had other plans – and Oswald was pleased at the thought that we’d have some time together. He was going to have another go at turning me into a fisherman, he said.’ Gibson smiled sadly. ‘Some chance of that! But the point is that he also said, when we spoke on the phone, there was something he wanted my advice on.’
‘Did he say what?’
Gibson shook his head. ‘I asked him the same question, but he said he’d tell me when I came down. It was too complicated to explain on the telephone.’
‘Complicated?’ Chivers spoke up.
‘That was the word he used.’ Gibson frowned. ‘But I could tell it wasn’t serious, or urgent.’ He looked at them both. ‘I knew my brother well, believe me. In fact I was the person he usually turned to. I knew when he was worried or upset, and that wasn’t the case. It was just something that he mentioned. I was struck by how cheerful he sounded – he was looking forward to our weekend together.’
He sat back. Billy waited until he was sure Gibson had finished.
‘Well, thank you for telling us that,’ he said. ‘We’ll keep it in mind.’
The solicitor turned his gaze on him. His eyes had narrowed slightly and his next words confirmed an impression Billy already had that his initial judgement of the man might have been wide of the mark: Gibson was a lot shrewder than he looked.
‘Before we part, there’s something I’d like to ask you, Inspector. How does Scotland Yard come to be involved in this? There must be a reason.’ When Billy failed to reply at once, he added, ‘As you said yourself, I’m a solicitor. I know the drill.’
Billy shrugged. ‘I wouldn’t say involved exactly. Not yet, at any rate. But we’ve had a report of a similar shooting in Ballater, in Scotland. It’s possible the two cases are linked, which is why I’m here.’
‘Ballater?’ Gibson looked bemused. ‘I think I can safely say Oswald had no connections north of the border, or any contacts that I was aware of. We were born in London, both of us, and he spent all of his working life in the south. He joined the bank when he was quite young, before the First World War, and stayed with them until he retired. I can give you a list of the places where he worked. They were all in the south.’
‘That could be useful.’
Gibson rubbed his chin. ‘Have you considered that this might be a tragic error? That Ozzie was mistaken for someone else?’
‘What do you mean exactly, sir?’
‘This man who shot him – the one who was seen walking off afterwards – doesn’t his behaviour strike you as odd, almost unbalanced?’ He looked at the two detectives. ‘I mean, there was poor Ozzie, busy with his fishing and, as far as I can gather, this man simply walked up to him and shot him. Might he not be deranged?’
‘Acting at random, you mean? Looking for anyone to shoot at?’ Billy caught Chivers’s eye. ‘It’s certainly a possibility. We’ve thought of that. Although it’s true people like that generally utter threats in advance and act in irrational ways, it’s not always the case. They don’t necessarily seem disturbed, at least not to the casual eye.’
Billy paused deliberately.
‘By the way, sir, I’d be grateful if you didn’t mention any of this to the press; or what I said about Scotland. We don’t want to stir them up.’
His words brought a tired smile to Edward Gibson’s lips. ‘They won’t hear it from me, rest assured. But I should warn you, some of the newspapers have been on to me already, asking questions. It’s not every day a man gets shot in broad daylight. It won’t take much to get them going. I’m surprised they haven’t picked up on that Scottish report yet.’ ‘They’re bound to – and soon. But I’d rather not do their work for them.’
‘Quite so.’ Gibson made as if to get up. ‘But fair’s fair. Can I count on you to keep me informed about the investigation? I don’t want to be left in the dark.’
‘We’ll stay in touch, I promise.’
‘Then I’d better get back to those papers.’ He heaved himself up. ‘You wanted a word with Mrs Gannet, is that right? She’s in the kitchen. I’ll send her through.’
‘What did I tell you, Billy? This is one of those cases. It’s going to give us both grey hairs, you mark my words.’
Tilting his chair back, Vic hoisted his feet up on his desk. They had returned from Kingston a short while before and he had sent out to the nearest pub for a couple of sandwiches, which they were washing down with cups of tea before Billy caught his train back to London. The CID offices were situated on the first floor of Lewes police station, and on their way in Vic had introduced him to a detective-sergeant and two constables, who were busy sorting through statements collected from parties of hikers and ramblers who had been out on the Downs on the day Gibson had been murdered.
‘We know the shooter didn’t escape this way, via Lewes,’ Vic said. ‘I’ve been hoping he might have been spotted walking cross-country towards Brighton. But no luck so far, I’m afraid.’
‘If Gibson was his target – if it wasn’t a random killing – then he must have known he’d be fishing there.’ Billy had been turning the problem over in his mind. ‘He must have had some idea of his habits; that suggests he made some earlier visits to Lewes.’
He been looking over the file compiled by the pathologist while he chewed on a cheese sandwich. The police photographs of Gibson’s body lying face-down on the bank had added little to what his colleague had already told him. Other pictures taken at the mortuary later showed the effects of the bullet, which struck him at the base of the skull and exited through his jaw, leaving an ugly wound.
‘The sawbones made an interesting point,’ Chivers had told him. ‘If you want to make a clean job of topping someone, that’s the best spot to shoot them: it breaks the spinal cord, severs the brainstem. Death’s instantaneous.’
‘So he knew what he was about?’
‘It looks that way.’
Billy put down the file. He took a sip from his tea. ‘What I’d like to know is who that visitor was who got Oswald so upset. And did the letter he was writing have anything to do with this business?’
These facts, both new, had emerged in the course of the interview they had had with Gibson’s daily, a spry old party named Edna Gannet, who had not only proved to be more observant than most, but could also put two and two together. As she’d been quick to point out.
‘As soon as I saw the chair, I knew. He didn’t have to say nothing. And I could tell he was put out. I’d heard him in the study going on about it, muttering to himself. “Some people,” he was saying. “Some people . . . !”’
Small in stature, and with a face as brown and wrinkled as a prune, Mrs Gannet had seated herself on the sofa at Chivers’s invitation and regarded them both with a steady, birdlike stare. Unprompted, she had given them a brief description of her late employer.
‘He was a nice gentleman, very quiet, very polite. But he couldn’t be doing with fuss. He hated being bothered. Fishing was what he liked best, I soon learned that. The first thing I’d do when I arrived was fix him his lunch – a sandwich, say, or a cold sausage with a piece of cheese – and he’d take it with him when he went off; and either I’d see him when he got back or I wouldn’t, depending on how late he stayed out.’
Asked whether there’d been any change in Gibson’s behaviour prior to his death, she had replied in the negative. But when Billy, remembering what Edward Gibson had told them, asked if she thought her employer had had something on his mind, she had surprised both detectives by giving the question what appeared to be long and serious thought.
‘He did have that visitor,’ she had ventured, finally. ‘What visitor?’ Chivers had been the quicker with his question.
‘Don’t know who it was.’ Edna Gannet had shrugged. ‘I never did see. But I heard the front door slam and Mr Gibson’s footsteps when he walked back from the hall to his study. He was going on about something, talking to himself. In a rare state, he was.’
Further questions had elicited a more coherent account of the episode, which, it turned out, had occurred the previous week – on the Tuesday, Mrs Gannet thought it was. She had arrived at the cottage at her usual hour, which was midday, but via the backyard and the kitchen door, having looked in on a friend who was ailing and whose own cottage lay on the other side of a small orchard at the back of Gibson’s house. As she had entered she had heard the front door slam and her employer returning to his study. Shortly afterwards, having also heard his subdued mutterings and overcome with curiosity, she had knocked on the door on the pretext of asking him what he wanted for his lunch and had found him sitting at his desk ‘with a look on his face that’d turn milk sour’.
Later, when she’d returned with the spam sandwich he’d requested wrapped in greaseproof paper, she had found him busy at the desk writing a letter. He had barely looked up, she said.
‘Yes, but how do you know he’d had a visitor?’ Billy had asked.
‘By the chair, of course.’ To Edna Gannet it had been obvious. ‘See, he had this stamp collection and he kept it on a table in the corner with a chair next to it, so he could sit down there when he wanted to. But the chair had been moved: it was standing in front of the desk, so he must have had a visitor.’ Her glance had been triumphant. ‘Anyway, how did the front door come to slam, and who else could he have been talking about, muttering that way? “Some people . . . some people . . .” ’
Before leaving, the two detectives had looked in at the study where Edward Gibson was at work, the desk in front of him awash with files and papers, to ask him if his brother had mentioned being upset by a visitor, when they had spoken on the phone.
‘It’s the first I’ve heard of it,’ he had told them. ‘Perhaps that was what he wanted to talk to me about.’
‘Mrs Gannet saw him writing a letter afterwards.’ Looking around, Billy had noted the position of the chair she had mentioned. It had been returned to its proper place beside a table in the corner, where a pile of stamp albums lay. On the wall above was a photograph of a young man in military uniform and it took Billy a moment or two before he recognized Oswald Gibson’s features in the youthful image. ‘We’re wondering if the two were connected – the caller and the letter.’
In response Gibson had turned his hands palm upwards, showing them to be empty. ‘I wish I could help,’ he had said. ‘But I’m as much at a loss as you are.’
The station clock at Waterloo was showing ten minutes past five when Billy got back to London. A journey that was supposed to have taken less than two hours had taken three instead. Along with the other passengers he had endured the delay philosophically, there being not much else one could do these days. The optimism felt in the country at large when the war had ended two years earlier had all but evaporated; the expectation that life would soon be back to normal now seemed a distant dream. Food was still rationed, clothing hard to come by, housing in short supply and petrol all but unobtainable. It seemed hardly reasonable in the circumstances to expect the trains to run on time; and they didn’t.
‘Grey hairs, Billy. Grey hairs . . .’
Vic Chivers’s parting words as he had waved his colleague off were still echoing in Billy’s mind as he left the station in a taxi. Although Gibson’s murder remained a Sussex case, the two detectives had agreed to keep in touch and Vic had promised to let Billy know if the possible leads they had uncovered earlier that day led anywhere.
‘We’re going to have to talk to everyone in the village,’ he had said. ‘Maybe one of them caught a glimpse of Gibson’s visitor. In a small place like that strangers are noticed. It’d be useful to get a description. And then there’s that letter. Just who was he writing to? I wonder. At least we know it wasn’t brother Edward.’
On the off-chance that the address on the envelope might have been noted, Vic had decided to return to Kingston to ask in the village shop, which also served as a post office. When Billy wondered aloud whether it was worth the trouble, his colleague had chuckled.
‘You city lads don’t know about village life. You wouldn’t believe how nosy people are. I’d lay odds they’ll be able to tell me whether or not Gibson posted a letter last week. The only question is: did someone take a peek at the address?’
But he’d been under no illusions.
‘Odds-on it’ll turn out to be a wild goose chase,’ he’d predicted, pessimistically, as they waited on the platform together. ‘Whatever the problem with this caller was – and just because it got Oswald in a state doesn’t mean it was serious – we’ve no reason to think it had anything to do with him getting topped a week later. Same goes for the letter. The inquest’s tomorrow and, as things stand, I’ve got sweet fanny to tell the coroner, and not much prospect of any improvement in that department. Grey hairs, Billy. Grey hairs . . .’
Given the hour, Billy would have liked to call it a day and go straight home to Clapham, where he lived. But he was carrying the bullet used to kill Oswald Gibson in an envelope in his pocket and he went instead to the Yard, so that he could leave it with the ballistics lab. The one recovered by the police in Scotland was on its way south and would arrive the following day. Before departing he looked in at his office and found a message on his desk to ring Detective-Inspector Chivers in Lewes.
‘You won’t believe what I’ve got to tell you . . .’ By the sound of it, Vic’s gloom had lifted at a stroke. ‘Ozzie never posted that letter, never finished it even. His brother found it among the stuff in his desk, dated last Tuesday. He’d started writing it on a pad and it was still there: he hadn’t torn the page out. He must have begun the letter, then changed his mind. But he didn’t destroy it.’
Billy listened as Vic recounted how he’d gone first to the post office, only to discover that Gibson hadn’t posted any letter there for some time, and had then called in at the cottage to see if Edward had found anything interesting among his brother’s papers.
‘He’d been trying to ring me at the station. He’d only just come across the pad.’
‘Well, what about it, Vic?’ Billy sensed that his old pal was enjoying drawing the story out. There’d better be a good punchline, he thought irritably. ‘Who was he writing to?’
‘The commissioner of Scotland Yard!’
There was a long pause.
‘Crikey!’ Billy breathed out the word. He was dumbstruck.
‘And that’s not all. He starts off by apologizing, saying how sorry he is to bother such a busy man, et cetera – this is Ozzie all over – but he’s trying to get in touch with someone who worked at the Yard a long time ago and he wonders whether they might have knowledge of his whereabouts . . .’
‘Yes, but who was it, for Christ’s sake?’ Billy’s patience had run out.
‘I thought you’d never ask. It turns out to be a bloke we both worked with. But you knew him a whole lot better than me.’
‘Does the name Madden ring a bell?’
Excerpted from The Reckoning by Rennie Airth. Copyright © 2014 by Rennie Airth.
First published in the UK 2014 by Mantle, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world http://www.panmacmillan.com.
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