A crime story for entry in a competition run by the tv company ‘alibi’. This is what came to me. I attempted to do something original but wonder if it’d ended up as a crime story at all. It was immensely fun, however, and I do wonder if there’s potential novel in here somewhere.
Hearth and Home
I pulled the car up behind the single police car that had responded to the call. Rain pelted on the roof and ran in rivulets down the windscreen. I wondered how I’d forgotten the rain. It seemed like it hadn’t stopped since the day I moved back. The nights drew in quicker too, and were darker than I remembered.
“Just…” I stammered. “Just try not to embarrass me too much, ok?”
Marlowe snorted. “Doesn’t work like that, Jean. I’ve agreed to help, against my better judgement I will add, and you can’t now tell me how to do it.”
I sighed. “Fine. But just remember this is my job, ok? Besides, what you get out of this depends on how well we do.”
“If you can pull that off.”
“Of course I can,” I snapped, telling myself I’d done the right thing for the uncounted time and opening the car door.
My heels clicked over the slick cobbles as the rain thudded on my umbrella. The sodden, frustrated constable at the glass doors of the single-story office building waved us in with a grim look. It was a small but very modern open-plan office with big prints in vibrant turquoise hung on the walls. There was a glass reception desk and then two more desks further back into the room, all with expensive computer monitors and desktop scanners. Sgt. Evans stood with a white-coated man I knew as the local pathologist. They were both bent over something out of sight behind one of the desks. I caught Evans’s eye and beckoned him over.
“Ah, you’re back,” the sergeant said, sounding somewhat relieved. I realised with a pang of guilt this was probably one of the sergeant’s few if not only murder call.
“Any progress?” I asked.
“We’ve got an ID. Robert Muncaster. He’s the owner.”
“Who identified him?”
“His receptionist, Miss Close,” Evans nodded towards a tearful woman sat with Morgan, another constable, in the far corner of the room. Her hair was very blonde, heels very high and she was in a dress rather too nice for work. “She arrived out of the blue about twenty minutes ago, just after we responded to the call,” Evans continued. “Said she’d come to catch up on some paperwork.”
I resisted making the obvious statement. “Get a statement from her, including her movements in the last few hours. Anything else?”
“Harry…that’s the pathologist…was wondering when he can move him.”
“Soon,” I said. “I’ve brought someone who I want to have a look at everything before we move further.”
Evans raised an eyebrow. “Who?”
“An…expert,” I fumbled.
“I wouldn’t say I was an expert.” Marlowe appeared at my shoulder, rain dripping from his uncombed hair and eyes blank as they roved the scene. “One strives for perfection of understanding, of course. But I’m beginning to doubt whether that’s possible.”
“This way,” I said quickly, leading Marlowe away. “Stand back, please.” The pathologist stood back from the body. Marlowe overlooked the scene, either oblivious or uncaring of the looks he was getting from the doctor. The dead man was sprawled face-down, his blood soaked into the expensive carpet in a large pool. His head was turned away at an awkward angle. I noticed again the strange way his arms were bent back on themselves. Marlowe’s eyes swept over everything, the nearby desks, the fire exit, even the pot plants, before coming to rest on the body. I could feel the people around me getting restless, fidgeting. Marlowe knelt, examining the body more closely. Morgan had come to join Evans and the pathologist to watch. They were all frowning at me or at Marlowe, who now appeared to be sniffing the man’s coat.
“Who is the person, Ma’am?” Constable Morgan muttered, not quite in an undertone.
“A specialist,” I stated simply. “What else have you found?”
Sgt. Evans smoothed his frown and rose his eyes to mine. “Kolours is a high-end graphics company. One office here, a bigger office in Manchester and headquarters in London. He was doing well, or so Miss Close says. Professionally, anyway.”
“Some personal issues, apparently. He was in divorce proceedings with his second wife. A messy business by all accounts.”
“Jealous fella, got to be,” Morgan muttered. “He dipped his nib in one ink jar too many.”
“It wasn’t a man that did this.” Marlowe appeared at my elbow again. “This is a woman’s killing.”
“Have you seen the state of him?” Morgan snorted. “A woman couldn’t have done that.”
“You mean you wish a woman couldn’t have done that,” Marlowe said. “There’s a passion there, but it’s not the passion of a cuckold. A controlled passion: deliberate and judgemental. Assured. Precise. Feminine. Plus, the first blow came from below, up into his mouth, so obviously from someone shorter than him, and he’s not a tall man.”
“Or someone sitting down,” the pathologist muttered.
“Have you ever tried to kill someone with a poker whilst sat down?” Marlowe mused. “Not easy.”
“A poker?” I asked, glancing back at the body.
Marlowe nodded. “There’s soot in the wound in his mouth. She brought it with her and took it away again, I’d say. You wont find it here.”
“Ok you lot, that’s enough,” I snapped, cutting off the angry mutter. “Marlowe, could you wait in the car please?”
Marlowe drifted out and my team descended on me, all talking loudly, angrily and at once.
I knew there’d be a lot of questions when I got into the office the next morning so I took my time getting in. The rain had stopped in the night and left the sky and the roads damp, grey and washed out.
I sat in the school-run traffic jam, gazing at the buildings, stained various shades of black by generations of exhaust fumes. I knew on a clear day the lonely, open hills would be visible in the distance, but today the thick, grey cloud hid them.
Geographically it was still the town I grew up in, but since coming back it was getting harder and harder to link the place to what I remembered. It was dark and grim, wet, windy, cold and the people didn’t smile and all seemed to be hiding things.
Morgan stood from his desk when I got in and I knew there would be another snide question about Marlowe, so I ignored him and went straight to my office, beckoning Sgt. Evans to follow.
“Right, what more have we got?”
“We have a partial report from Harry. He’s putting the time of death at a little after six thirty last night and a likely weapon something narrow and heavy, possibly a tool, tire iron or heavy spanner…but most likely a poker or hearth ornament, judging by the type of soot found in some of the wounds.”
I nodded. “Which doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know or narrow it down much given the amount stoves and open fires in these parts. Could the pathologist narrow it down to coal or wood?”
“They’re still waiting on tests. But we tracked down his wife and got his address and that of the rest of his family, a sister and mother.” He handed me the file of statements and reports.
“Right I want statements from all of them and a more detailed one from his wife. Find out if she benefits from his death. Also, get a full register of his employees and find out how the business was doing.”
“Morgan wants to go and see Miss Close again.”
“I bet he does,” I snorted, fishing out Marlowe’s report from my briefcase. “But tell him no chance. Judging from the size of this list of Mr. Muncaster’s affairs, whether she was meeting him for a quickie that night seems to be redundant. Tell Morgan he can go and speak to the mother. I want to know if they were close and what she thought of him, where he went to school, what he got her for Christmas last year, everything.”
Evans nodded. “The sister lives with her, he could get her statement too?”
“Good idea. And you go and dig more into Kolours.”
“Yes ma’am,” he said. Then, after a pause, “Is that your brother’s report?”
“What?” I looked up, sharply.
“Sorry,” he said, smiling disarmingly. “Is that Mr. Black‘s report?”
“How did you know he was my brother?” I asked, carefully controlling my words.
“I’m sorry ma’am,” he said again, surprised. “I’ve heard of him. He’s relatively well known around here. He’s given talks about death in history and literature at the university.”
“That doesn’t explain how you knew we were related.”
I saw him swallow, uncharacteristically embarrassed. “Well, I hope you won’t take it wrong, ma’am, but when you came to take over from Detective Brundett I did some research. We all did.”
“You did, did you? All of you?”
“Yes, ma’am. We already knew you by reputation, obviously, but I wanted to understand your motivations for, shall we say…downsizing?”
I nodded. “Delicately put.”
“I found out you were born here. That led me to Mr. Black.”
I weighed him up for a moment. He held himself steady and calm, eyes clear, but I still wasn’t sure whether I believed him. “That may be, Detective Sergeant, but I hope that is the end of your snooping into my private life.”
“Of course ma’am,” he said, ducking his head.
“Besides, he’s not my brother. Step brother, only. And yes, this is his report. Won’t stand up for a second in court, it’s just for my own professional curiosity. Now, why are you still here? There’s work to do. Go.”
A fortnight later and once again I found myself parked on a cobbled lane in the gloom of a gathering night, rain thudding on the car roof, trying to figure out how I’d ended up there. I saw by the lights that Marlowe was in his flat, but sat there unable to face the fact that I needed help. Again. I swallowed against the darkness rising inside me and was shocked and frightened to find myself blinking back tears.
My logic, which usually came so naturally, now only engaged itself with a frightening act of will. As far as I could see, even after a fortnight of investigation, there was nothing unusual about Robert Muncaster, certainly nothing worth killing him over, and in such a brutal way. He was ruthless in professional and private life, womanised and liked to drink at the weekends. He drove a fast car and lived in a nice house. General opinion of most people we’d asked was that he was an arrogant man, but not a bad one, close to his mother and his sister. I’d overheard Morgan extolling the attractiveness of Miss Muncaster. She’d done some modelling work using her brother’s connections but had given it up and moved back to the family home in Carnton when their mother’s health started to fail. Robert helped them out financially.
I’d spent a few fruitless days chasing up the partners of his conquests and the head of a rival company that had gone under but found nothing but solid alibis and brick walls. And, of course, every second person we spoke to had hearths, fireplaces and stoves, all with pokers present and correct, all sooty, none crusted with blood or even recently cleaned.
Marlowe buzzed me in without speaking over the intercom. I climbed the stairs in darkness, the bulb having gone long ago and never replaced. The smell of dust was heavy in the darkness and I was relieved to reach the door at the top and step through into the orange light of old lampshades. I made my way to the sitting room without looking around me. My nose and peripheral vision told me the only change in the flat since I’d last seen it was that there was…more. More books, more jars, more bones.
A fire blazed in the hearth and the air was close and hot. The must of old paper, old fabric and old ash was underlined by a thin needle of rot. Marlowe was hunched at a desk. “Have you managed to get it yet?”
“No,” he turned round, glasses on the end of his nose, hair wild where he’d been running his hands through it. “Publication rights. I’ve prepared a paper for an American psychology journal.”
“You know you can’t do that until the lawyers are finished wrangling.”
“I may never get it then.”
“For the wrangling to even start we need a killer.”
“You mean you haven’t worked it out yet?” he snorted, turning back to his desk and picking up his pen.
“No not yet…” I watched him for a moment, his pen scratching away in the silence. “You know who did it, don’t you?”
“Of course I do.”
“How?” I forced out.
“Come, come. That would be telling. Besides, you must know I know or you wouldn’t be here.”
“I’ve brought you your fee, actually,” I said, throwing an envelope on the nearest table.
“I told you I don’t want money. The only thing I want from you is the right to publish and you haven’t got me that yet.”
“I’ll get it for you. I will. But first we need a killer.”
He turned his chair to face me, crossed his legs and his arms and I suppressed a shiver at the familiar way his black eyes drank me in. “And you just want me to give you the answer?”
“Don’t patronise me, Marlowe,” I felt the heat rising up my spine and flush my cheeks. “I do whatever it takes to solve these cases. I do what works, have done for years. It’s not always a glamorous or smooth process, but it works.”
“Yes, I know,” he said, infuriatingly calm. “Apparently you couldn’t move in London for your drugs busts, gang arrests, apprehensions of killers. So why do you need my help now?”
I drew myself up to my full height, a half head taller than him when in heels, but then let out a breath and put my head in my hands, slumped onto the arm of a chair. I looked into the fire, watching my pride go up the chimney in ashes and smoke. “I thought it would be…easy…the work up here. But somehow I can’t do…can’t think. It’s not coming to me.”
The fire crackled.
“You can’t see the dark side of where you came from.” He said it quietly, but it sent a jolt through me. I couldn’t look at him. “Of course,” he continued, lightly. “When your passion and subject of study is death, where better than to get your teeth into it than somewhere you’ve known your whole life? And I’ve barely scratched the surface…”
“Don’t,” I said. “I don’t want to hear it.”
He signed, turned away again, resumed writing and I couldn’t figure out whether he actually cared if I left or stayed. I swallowed hard.
“You’re right.” I said. His pen went silent. “You’re right, Marlowe. This is where we were children. I can’t see people around here the way I saw them in London.”
He turned back, eyes animated. “Yes, it’s interesting isn’t it? Who would have thought when your profession, the very thing you get paid to study, is crime….your distance or closeness to the subject could have such a profound effect…” he broke off but I stopped him before he could turn back to his notepad.
“Marlowe,” I said, firmly, swallowing the helplessness again. “I need your help.”
His smile was a slow one, triumphant but not as smug as I expected. Amused, even. “Very well, Jean. For old time’s sake.”
He leaned back and regarded me. I took a breath and started to speak.
“His death really doesn’t leave anyone better off. The company remains in his family’s name but still in charge of the directors. It was successful but not big enough to have any fierce rivals. He was generous financially to his mother and sister who live nearby. He was something of a womaniser but all jealous partners or husbands have cast-iron alibis and…don’t seem the type. The pathologist’s full report didn’t reveal much more than the what you saw. He was killed with a single blow with a metal instrument, probably a poker, of which there are none at the scene so the killer must have brought it with them and taken it away, suggesting premeditation. The killing blow was delivered with extreme force. Oh, and all fire and hearth utensils of all his immediate circle have come up cleaner than whistles.”
“So, he was a successful man, a womaniser, but not evil. There is no obvious reason for someone to do this to him, and in such precise and brutal way.”
“Stands to reason then that there must be an un-obvious reason.”
“I assume you’re not going to give me your year’s wages, Jean, so I’m not going to do your job for you.”
An almost physical effort stopped me from snapping. He never responded to anger. He saw it as weakness. I breathed the anger away and surveyed him calmly, waiting. Eventually, he sighed, pushed his glasses up into the tangle of hair and rubbed his eyes, like he was dealing with a dense student.
“Ok, think on this: in London you don’t have to dig very far to get to the bottom. Someone will tell you something if you ask or threaten enough. It’s a different game up here. An older game. Old families, old blood, old values. Old silences.”
“We’ve already ruled out all his adulterous affairs.”
“I never mentioned adultery. He’s been doing that for years and no repercussions, hasn’t he? He had many women in his life but few who cared enough about him to care what he was. The killer knew where he would be and she didn’t try and hide the crime. She wanted him found, she wanted his punishment known. And the way he was lying…”
I felt understanding tickling at the edges of my comprehension but still couldn’t force the answer to come to me.
“The killer turned him over,” he murmured, eyes boring straight into mine. “Turned his face into the carpet. She didn’t want to see it. It shamed her. He obviously went too far, did something so terrible and so private that no one you’ve talked to knows about it, or would talk about it if they did.”
His eyes burned like the fire, but darker. We sat looking at each other for some time, the only noise the snapping of the flames. I didn’t want to ask but the whispered question came out all the same…
“How do you know?”
“How do I know something your team of detectives and you with your degrees, experience and training couldn’t figure out?”
He smiled and I could see all his teeth. “It’s all in the death. Death reveals all.”
I didn’t sleep that night. I knew the answer, I just didn’t want to know it. Marlowe grinned about it but I wasn’t sure how long it would be before I felt like smiling again.
I sent a bewildered Sgt. Evans to the Muncaster family home and pick up Robert’s sister, the part-time model, and her pleasant, soft-spoken mother, a retired history lecturer, the following morning. He was even more confused when I instructed him to take gloves and evidence bags to collect all the metal tools in the house for a closer examination.
They waited over an hour to be interviewed as I wanted a psychiatrist present and Mrs. Muncaster politely insisted on waiting for her lawyer. Both were travelling from Manchester. I interviewed the women separately. Lucy, his sister, was a bad liar without her mother there to prompt her. There were tears and she didn’t look up from the table. The psychiatrist confirmed my suspicions in private after.
Mrs. Muncaster was short, well-dressed, with a soft voice but stiffened as the questions progressed. She asked me if I knew what her family name meant in this community. I explained calmly that I had grown up here and understood perfectly.
“A long and proud family history,” she murmured, almost to herself, when we’d been going back and forth for almost two hours. “To end like that.”
My instincts buzzed. She’d left an opening. “Lucy’s pregnant.” I said simply, and she nodded, no tears but her eyes were distant and full of pain. “You killed him.” I said it calmly, with no trace of judgement and saw her respond to the tone in kind.
“I’d warned him. I’d reasoned with him. And with her. But she was always the weaker of the two. It was his sin, ultimately.”
“I would like to retire to confer with my client,” the lawyer said smoothly. His lack of response I found more disturbing than the revelations themselves.
I wrote to Marlowe once I was settled again in London. The Muncasters’ lawyer had written out terms for his publication. I got no reply but I didn’t expect one. I sipped strong coffee, staring out the window of my flat into the London rain, wetter but lighter than that of the North West. I was happy it was now at the other end of a motorway, where it could stay in a dream of rolling hills and yellow stone, history and hearth smoke mingled with it. It had taken a lot of string pulling to get my position back, but I knew now what Marlowe had been trying to tell me. He knew the dark side of humanity, studied it, revelled in it. Death was his obsession, but it was only my job. And I knew as a job I could deal with it, keep it separate.
I’d thought I could cope with dealing with the dark side of my home town. I give a sour laugh now to think I had actually wondered before I left how dark it could possibly be, compared to London. And now I knew. And I knew I couldn’t separate myself from it.
Marlowe was welcome to it.