The story so far:
Joseph Palliser has taken his friend Tom Peterkin into his confidence, so at last we know the strange circumstances and the drug-induced state affecting Marian Brubaeker at the time of her death. In his turn, Tom hints at his suspicion that his wife Emma (née Blanchland) still has feelings for Joe.
Joe remembers his first date with Emma Blanchland a decade before, recalling how the demise of her dog Rollo provided the occasion that deepened their relationship into love.
At the time Joe and Emma started dating, Tom Peterkin was so immersed in his love of cars and mechanics he had no space for a female relationship of his own. Perhaps he did not even suspect the cause of Joe’s burgeoning happiness. Devoid of jealousy, he was glad that his friend had a friend.
They had only a brief while in the sun, Emma and Joe, because no more than a couple of months later Joseph found himself involved in that final duel with Rodney Smith. By then Rollo lay in the Blanchland’s garden beneath a freshly-planted rose and a new puppy pranced and yapped above his sleeping head. Tender and soulful by nature, Emma had become more and more devoted to her quiet, introspective boyfriend, whose complications of mind she never suspected – or maybe chose to ignore, believing that her selfless love could overcome the reticence he sometimes failed to disguise; for deep in Joseph’s heart Sarah Halsey kept lit the tiniest glowing ember; and it was in his nature to dream that one day, somehow, her flame might re-ignite. The more his memory of the real Sarah dwindled, the more a romantic illusion took its place. He was no longer in love with Sarah the person, but an idealised Sarah – Sarah the angel. She soared above him: unattainable, yet never far from his thoughts.
This is not to say Joseph was anything less than a dutiful, attentive partner. Emma brought so much to his table: she was spiritual, a life force. She challenged him, probed at the roots of his ideas, his aims. She illuminated him, and if he learned nothing else in those selfish, oafish days, he learned that love could be fun.
Then Rodney died. When Emma saw Joseph’s distraught expression on the evening after the crash she knew the one thing she feared was destined to happen. By then there was no news to break. Her friend Pip had called just an hour after the Smith boy was pronounced dead. Thereafter snippets of information bombarded her throughout the day: the rumours began – they had always been enemies, hadn’t they? And because Rodney was always the socially acceptable one, the one destined for success, it was not hard to predict which way those rumours would turn. Joseph had hounded Rodney, he had run him off the road, he had deliberately this, coldly that…..rumours without foundation, but enough to hang Joe as far as the village was concerned.
Emma understood. Joe was hanging himself from the inside. He had seen death, and it was not just mourning he felt, or guilt, or even triumph. He was someone else; someone changed.
“Charker Smith’s looking for you.” She repeated the news she had heard. She might have reached out for him, comforted him, but she could not. A gulf existed: something she could not cross. “You’d best go away for a while, Joe.”
He had been thinking of it anyway, he said. There wasn’t any future for him here.
“I could come with…” her voice tailed away.
“I’ll get set up first, find somewhere to live. Then I’ll write….”
It was their last conversation together – unfinished sentences; unspoken thoughts; the gentle click of closing doors. She did not say the things she felt. They did not touch, or meet each other’s eyes. By morning Joe had gone.
“Joseph, dear chap!” A hand withered by years extended towards Joe, “Whatever have you been doing with yourself?”
Joe, who had been mildly surprised to find that Carnaby and Pollack were still in business, was even more surprised to find that though a much younger Desmond Pollack had long since shuffled off his earthly brief, old Mr Carnaby was still at the helm, looking and talking exactly as Joe remembered him when he served his notice to the kindly solicitor ten years before.
Age, though it had not been merciful to Alistair Carnaby, seemed to have rested content with a single devastating attack. Time could not diminish his stature because he was already small, or add lines to his countenance because there was simply no space. His hair could not become scarcer because he had none. He might have been older by as much as a decade, yet his bent little form was still as spry and agile as Joe remembered it, and his bright eyes still pierced the soul each time Joe met them.
“Come in, sit down!”
The office was the same, too. The same groaning oak shelves stuffed with books, the partner’s desk stacked high with papers, those two brown leather upholstered chairs, into one of which Joe sank, thoughtfully running his finger along the underside of the rail as he did so, and yes, it was still there: hard and immovable as a limpet, the little wad of chewing gum he had surreptitiously transferred from his mouth when he had been summoned by his employer unexpectedly, all those years before.
“Well now: I’ve managed to get a quick look at this:” Carnaby slapped a hand onto a sheaf of notes on the leather inlay before him. You know the substance, I suppose?”
Joseph replied in the negative. “I know very little. I got a letter from a Mr Gooch.” He reached into his jacket pocket, retrieving the letter he had concealed from Julia’s curious eyes, and passed it across the desk. “It simply says that he represents Marian Brubaeker, and advises me to appoint a solicitor. I thought of you, of course.”
“Kind of you, Joseph. Kind of you.” Carnaby murmured absently, glancing at the letter before placing it on top of the other notes on his desk where, for the rest of their conversation, he played with a corner of the paper, folding and unfolding it between his thumb and forefinger. “Since you telephoned me, I have contacted Mr Gooch, who I must say is very helpful and cooperative. He has advised me that Mrs Brubaeker is recently deceased, and you are heir to almost her entire estate.”
Joseph choked: “Sorry – what?”
“Yes, dear boy. At a stroke you could say that you may become one of my most valuable clients! My information is sketchy at present, but I can assure you the assets of the estate are considerable. A portfolio of property, a business which before Mrs Brubaeker’s death was on the verge of going public, and quite a few other things. There’s a villa in Alsace, for instance. I expect you know about that. What was the quote he gave me? Ah yes. ‘The villa where we stayed in the summer of ’62’.”
“Her entire estate?”
“Almost. There are some leased flats in Earls Court, the property of her husband, so they will revert. In all, in a realistic valuation, Mr Gooch estimates that you stand to inherit in the region of nine-and-a-half million pounds. Dear boy!” Carnaby cried, as the pallor drained from Joe’s face. “Would you like some water; or something stronger, perhaps?”
Joe managed to breathe. “No, I’ll be fine. Mr Carnaby…”
“Alistair, please! However,” Carnaby waved a finger in the air. “There is a fly in this particular honeypot, I fear, Joseph: Mr Brubaeker, Marian’s husband, is contesting the will.”
Morris Wayland Brubaeker. Joseph had seen the man rarely and then only in peeks from behind a window curtain, watching him arrive outside the Earls Court building in his silver and maroon Rolls-Royce. He had not been encouraged by what he saw – a rather fleshy dark, hair-creamed man in a mohair suit whose irritable frown made him look as if the whole world annoyed him.
“Apparently Mrs Brubaeker changed her will only days before she died, so you see why her husband might be displeased,” Carnaby continued. “I haven’t seen a copy of the actual will yet, nevertheless I understand it is all properly signed and witnessed, so he has few reasonable grounds to contest his wife’s wishes.” The old man shrugged. “I’ll be honest with you, estates of this size rarely pass without some form of challenge or other…”
Joseph nodded, striving to grasp the facts Carnaby had set before him. “What would be ‘reasonable grounds’?”
“Well now. Fulfilling a role as husband for fifteen years counts for very little, I’m afraid, and financial embarrassment resulting from the will won’t normally cut any ice either, especially as Mr Brubaeker possesses considerable wealth of his own: no, unless it can be proved that Mrs Brubaeker was of unsound mind when she wrote her will, or that she was under duress, he would seem to have little hope of succeeding. However, Mr Brubaeker is very determined, I’m told.” Alistair Carnaby glanced up at Joe, pinning him with one of his most incisive looks. “I take it you weren’t with Mrs Brubaeker when she died?”
“No, why?” Joe responded too quickly, his blood rising, because suddenly half a generation had melted away and he was that office boy again, squirming beneath the examination of those keen eyes.
Carnaby pursed his lips. “He has requested that the circumstances of Mrs Brubaeker’s death should be subject to a criminal investigation. Very odd, but there you are. The man has even asked for his wife’s body to be exhumed for an autopsy! What do you think of that?” Alistair Carnaby watched Joe minutely because Joe’s reaction would betray exactly what he thought of that. “What you have, at least by implication, is a cheated husband who believes you may be responsible for his wife’s death. You’ll have to forgive me for being so blunt, Joseph, but can he have any reason for such a suspicion?”
“No. No certainly not. I told you, I wasn’t with her when she died.”
Carnaby nodded. “He believes a police investigation is warranted. If you knew about this will you would undoubtedly have a motive, but still, personally, I think it’s despicable.”
‘Autopsy’. The word rattled around in Joseph’s brain. He was aware that the remainder of an interview was going ahead, that he was asking Alistair Carnaby to represent him, and that he would hear more in the next few days. The business concluded, as he rose to leave, Joseph asked: “Do we know what Mrs Brubaeker’s post mortem gave as the cause of death?”
“We don’t at this stage,” Alistair replied. “Would you like me to find out?”
After Joseph had left, Carnaby returned to his desk, taking from its right-hand top drawer a blackened hickory pipe that was almost as old and as chewed as he. Packing tobacco into its charred bowl, he leaned back in his chair, staring up at a brown patch on the faded white of the ceiling which testified to over thirty years of this habit.
“Well now, Carnaby;” He said aloud to himself: “I wonder where this may lead us?”
It took Joseph a while to collect his thoughts. The news that his relationship with Marian might have brought him wealth dwindled in significance beside his recollections of Marian’s death. That menacing word ‘autopsy’ chipped continually at his mind.
He wandered, meantime, through streets he had walked often in his youth. Succumbing finally to demands of appetite and courtesy of the Castle Snack Bar he regaled himself with a tasteless roast beef sandwich, forced down by milky fluid which hung somewhere in the hinterland between coffee and tea. Then back onto the street, restless, afraid to stop and let his conscience catch up with him. Time weighed heavily, so he was glad when the hour came for him to catch his ‘bus back to Hallbury. Happy to sit back in his seat, he was settling for the journey when the ‘bus, in the very act of pulling away from the ‘bus stand, jerked to a halt. The driver opened the doors.
They wheezed, they puffed, they levered themselves up the three steps onto the passenger deck. The driver knew them.
“Come on, Martin! Nearly missed ‘un this week!”
“’Tis ‘er!” The old man accused. “I can’t get her away from they penny bargain stalls no-how.”
. “He’m too slow, that’s ‘is trouble,” His elderly companion scoffed, “We had plenty o’ time, silly old fool!”
They ferreted for change, they paid their fares, they struggled down the aisle to their usual seats while the driver waited kindly. As they turned they saw Joe sitting five rows further back and the old woman’s eyes clouded. Joe heard them mutter between themselves. He knew them too, of course, just as he knew that on this day, exactly a week ago, Violet Parkin had died. Just as he knew this ‘bus would arrive at Abbots Friscombe railway station at three-thirty, and just as he knew these two old people were the only other passengers on the ‘bus he had caught there the previous week.
Ned Barker looked up as the doors swung open. He squinted into the light. “They told me you’d comed back, Joe Palliser.”
In the early evening, anxious to evade questions from his aunt and uncle, Joseph had made his way to the King’s Arms. He had told no-one of his good fortune, for fear the autopsy would bring reversal. He had calculated that, this being Friday night, Charker Smith and his cronies would be drinking elsewhere, probably in Braunston.
“How’re you, Ned. Good fishing?” He ordered a pint. The bar was deserted apart from Aaron Pace, propped up in the corner and apparently oblivious to his presence. “Pint, Aaron?”
Aaron grunted and pushed his pot a few inches down the bar top. “Ah.” He said.
Questions were brimming in Joseph’s head, but he knew better than to hurry. He leaned on the bar rail as he shared a desultory discussion about fish. The Ned Barker he remembered was the definitive landlord, a sounding board for complaint and a repository for local gossip – but tonight? Did a guarded reserve add an edge to his deep country brogue?
He had been there half an hour, and a second pint was waiting for him. It was time.
“Quiet tonight, Ned?”
Ned looked at him. “Ah. They all goes to town Fridays, see?”
Joe nodded thoughtfully. “I saw Michael the other day.”
Ned Barker strained his eyes at the ceiling, as though he were trying to recollect the name. Why, Joseph wondered? The old publican must remember Michael well. The onset of his illness had affected the whole village profoundly at the time. Wasn’t it Ned’s cousin who had been on the end of the billhook incident which led to Michael being committed?
“Your brother, isn’it?” Ned replied.
“We were talking about poor Violet, Ned. Michael said I should come and see you. Urgent, he said it was.”
Joseph was trying out Carnaby’s trick – watching Ned’s eyes fixedly: not something that would endear him to the old man, but he wanted an answer, and he got it.
“Well, the poor lad ain’t quite ‘isself, is he?” Ned murmured. “Sorry Joe, but I can’t help you. ‘Tis a shame, though, ‘bout Violet. That old bastard never was ‘owt but trouble.” Ned turned to Aaron, shifting the conversation.
“Good for the cricket this weekend, Aaron?”
They were still the only two in the bar, Aaron and Joe. Aaron, who had suggested that things around Violet were not as straightforward as they seemed; yet Joe was prepared to bide his time, so he drank slowly and solidly, making occasional conversation, waiting for a moment when he might get Aaron on his own. To have followed him out to the toilet would have been too obvious in this quiet atmosphere, and anyway, Aaron’s iron bladder showed no sign of relenting. Ned, however, was becoming restless.
Joe kept stoking the fire.
“One yourself, Ned?” He offered as his next round was delivered.
Eventually nature took its course. Ned disappeared through the communicating door which led back into the house. Joe knew he would have little time for subtlety. “Violet was a witch, wasn’t she, Aaron?”
Aaron grinned back at him: a row of blackened pegs. “Now I knowed you was dyin’ to ask me that.” He slurred.
“You know about it, though, don’t you?” Joe persisted, casting an anxious eye at the communicating door. “Did she tell you?”
“’Er didn’t have to tell me!” Aaron rejoined. “I seen ‘er! She were up there in Slater’s Copse, ‘er and ‘er covenses, an’ they was parncin’ around naked as you please!” He shook his head, chuckling richly into his pot of ale. “She were a big woman, that Violet, mind! That were a sight and no mistake: titties jigglin’ up and down! Bugger me!”
“Who else is in the coven, then?”
Aaron leered at him. “Wouldn’t you like to know, eh? There’s folks round here I could tell on, see? But I won’t, even though some of ‘em are arseholes as says they’m men an’ aren’t big enough to be. An’ some of ‘em as got titties, too. I likes they, mind!”
Approaching footsteps warned Joseph to pursue the subject no further. Ned Barker had hastened back to his trade so fast two of his fly-buttons were still open. His glance switched from Aaron to Joe, then back to Aaron again, so rapidly Joe feared he might detach a retina, but Aaron just grinned at him and Joe fixedly studied the wisps of sediment in his beer.
Shortly afterwards Mrs Higgs wandered through the door with her daughter in tow. Joe drank up the remainder of his final pint.
“Beer’s good as ever, Ned.” And he set himself to wander home.
© Frederick Anderson 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.