The story so far:
Joe’s experience at the hands of the ‘witches’ and the vandalism of the village church convince him that his brother Michael is involved. When he tries to see Michael he is told he has been removed from Maddockgate hospital. His aunt and uncle admit that Ian, his eldest brother, has been financing Michael’s care.
Emma visits Joe and it is clear that she is tormented by her feelings for him. It shocks her to learn how openly he has been questioning the village matrons and she urges him once more to move away from Hallbury.
After Emma’s departure Joe could not drive her from his thoughts. He saw her face, heard her voice, even imagined he still held the hand that had taken his. It needed the telephone’s blare to bring him into focus.
“Joseph?” His brother Ian’s voice was formal, “I need to talk to you.”
“And I to you.” Joe said. “So who goes first?”
“Neither of us, right now. Pay attention. I’m staying at The Bull in Braunston. There’s a car coming for you in half an hour. Be ready.”
The receiver was replaced before Joe could protest.
Precisely thirty minutes later a black Bentley drew up to the Masefield’s’ front gate. Alfred, Ian’s personal chauffeur, greeted Joe amiably and held the door for him to climb into the back, then wheezed himself into the driving seat. As the limousine glided into silent motion, Joe treated neighbour Bess Andrews to a regal wave. She made no attempt to disguise her curiosity.
“Is this supposed to be low profile, by any chance?” He asked Alf; “Because if it is, it’s failing dismally.”
Watching the miles slip by, Joe recounted to himself all he knew of Ian’s meteoric rise to prominence, concerning which there were many unanswered questions. How, for example, did Ian the graduate become successful in so short a time – little more than five years after leaving Oxford he was managing director of his own importing company, with a six-figure turnover and connections in the City. Ian maintained a story which left certain very fundamental details out. There were always questions about him, only ever answers to a select few. Of all the things Joe had learned about London he knew the City did not like ‘upstarts’; it was inherently suspicious of anyone who rose quickly in the system. Why was Ian so readily accepted? Yes, he had the gift; everything about him made you want to trust him, to invest in him, to buy from him: but Joe knew better. The Ian he had grown up with was far from trustworthy, and he could not believe that those whose perspicuity had brought them wealth would have the wool pulled so easily over their eyes.
One aspect of Ian’s nature could not be questioned – especially now Joseph had learned how generously he financed Michael’s care. Ian was supportive that night when Joe, suitcases in hand and with the memory of Marian’s dead body in his arms, had knocked upon his regal Hampstead door.
Caroline had answered. “Joseph. What do you want?” (As if that was not obvious).
Caroline was tall – a reed of womanhood who had come to Ian’s bed by a process of very careful selection. She was of good Home Counties stock, intelligent, and with the sort of fragile looks that transcend any social finesse. She was also as hard as nails, and, when she chose, devastatingly rude. That night, dressed carelessly in jeans and sloppy sweater, she still contrived to appear as though she had just completed a fashion shoot. She looked disparagingly at Joe’s suitcases.
“I suppose you had better bring those inside.”
Ian’s house was a nineteen twenty’s villa in the ‘Deco’ style, its central hallway surrounded by doors to living and dining rooms, a study, games room and kitchen. Stairs wound up to a mezzanine and bedrooms, then a further flight to a solarium, gymnasium, and roof.
Joe stood on the polished parquet, wondering if he was visibly shaking. “I’m sorry, I know I’m not observing the proprieties….”
Caroline cut him short. “Joseph, where proprieties are concerned, I don’t think you have a clue.” She opened the door of the study: “Ian, that disgusting brother of yours is here. What do you want to do with him?”
Ian had emerged, dark hair tightly brushed and looking as he always did – irritated. He saw the suitcases. “No.” He said abruptly.
“Ian, I wouldn’t ask, but…”
“You’ve been evicted again. Joe, I can’t just keep putting you up at a moment’s notice whenever you decide to stop paying your rent.”
“No, Ian, I haven’t been evicted. But there are reasons I’ve nowhere to stay tonight…”
Ian glared. “Oh, all right.” Caroline gasped as if wounded. “You can sleep in the solarium. But tomorrow….”
“I’ll look for somewhere else. I promise.” Joe said.
He had stayed for a month.
When his brother revealed he had reserved a room in The Bull, Joseph had been mildly surprised. The Mansion House Hotel was Braunston’s finest, and he might have expected the status-conscious Ian to have put up there. The Bull was a little old-fashioned, advertised as ‘homely and unpretentious’. Caroline would have been more scathing.
Alf conducted him directly to Ian’s room on the second floor.
In sampling from the Palliser gene pool Ian, it was often said, had taken more than his fair share of his mother’s genes and very few of his father’s. In looks, in manners, even in intellect, he was arguably superior to either of his siblings. This is not to say that he was perfect, far from it; he was prone to petty dishonesty, was certainly inclined towards arrogance, and from the age of thirteen had done all he could to disassociate himself from what he perceived to be the dysfunctional Palliser clan.
The Ian Joe expected to greet him was the Ian whose hospitality he had abused just a few weeks before, but there were subtle differences. He was as irascible as ever, yes – Ian had always been, in Joseph’s recollection, short-tempered; but he was tired, too; fractious, rather than strident.
“Drink?” He was seated at a desk overloaded with documents. He waved perfunctorily at the mini-bar.
“Yes, please. Scotch would be good.”
“Help yourself,” Ian grunted. He slapped his pen down onto the desk – he had been writing something as Joseph entered the room, “This is for you, Joe.”
He spun a cheque-book across the room so that as Joe sat on the edge of the bed it almost landed in his lap. Joe caught it before it fell to the floor. “Throwing your money around, Ian? That’s not like you.”
“Open and read.”
Joe did. The freshly-written scrawl stared up at him from the page: ‘Pay to the Order of Joseph Palliser the sum of Five Thousand Pounds’: “What’s this?”
“It is part of a package. A fairly minor part, actually: other elements include a first-class ticket on Brittany Ferries to France, a little villa near Dinan (you’ll like it there), and a hire car for as long as you want.”
Had Joe’s jaw dropped open? “My god, Ian, I know I deserve a holiday, but…..”
Ian gave a passable imitation of a smile: “Brittany in summer: very beautiful, I assure you.”
“And the catch is…?”
“No catch. Just remain silent. Telephone no-one; write to no-one for a couple of months. Then you can spill your heart out and you can come home, though I’d much prefer if you stayed away from London, for Caroline’s sake.”
In truth the penny had dropped two conversational exchanges ago, but Joe had wanted to run with it, see where it led. He got to his feet, crossing to a window which overlooked the hotel courtyard, which was just busying up for the evening trade.
This made Ian edgy: “Could you keep back from the window?”
“Someone’s onto you, aren’t they? Found out about those depraved orgies in Pimlico? You want me out of the way until the election is over.”
His brother sighed indulgently. “There are no orgies, Joe; of course you know that, don’t you? You always like to provoke me. But you are right in one respect: I do want you somewhere you can’t readily be found.”
“Why, what have I done?”
“What you always do, Joe. You stir up trouble: you are trouble! I seem to spend an inordinate proportion of my life covering your mistakes; first London and that nymphomaniac sugar-mummy of yours, and now a crusade to obstruct investigations around a murder at home. I don’t need a Poirot in the family right now, or a gigolo.”
Joseph winced at having this sobriquet attributed to him a second time. “Or a madman?” He suggested.
“Yes, well: I assume you refer to Michael, and that’s another issue.”
“It’s the issue I wanted to talk to you about. I take it you’ve spirited him away for similar reasons? We’re just closet skeletons to you, aren’t we?” He had stopped beside the desk, standing over his brother.
Ian chose his words. “If you hear from Michael, you’re to let me know as soon as you can. Okay?”
“So he’s not completely incommunicado, then? He can smuggle messages out through the bars?”
Ian shifted uncomfortably. “I made arrangements for him to transfer to a very nice, comfortable home in South Wales where he could be, shall we say, closely supervised? He never arrived.”
“Oh, my Lord!” Joe unwittingly borrowed Emma’s favourite exclamation. “Whatever will you do now, Ian? An election imminent and an insane brother on the loose, ready to tell all! I should say I’m the least of your troubles!”
Ian sighed. “I knew this wouldn’t be pleasant. See here, Joe; all I want is an easy ride into Parliament. This country is about to get itself a new leader, I think a great leader, and he’s specially requesting that I be by his side. He wants me for a very important job, Joe, and I want to do it!
“Now, Michael is something I will take care of: please, just take that cheque – your tickets are waiting at the ferry port, Alfred will give you an envelope with the other details on the way home. The boat sails tomorrow at ten.”
“Twenty-four hours, huh?”
“More like eighteen. Go home. Pack.”
Joe stared at the cheque. It was tempting: he could leave the torture of Emma, the suspicions of the village, and the dread result of that autopsy behind for a while. He could renew acquaintance with his beloved France. But was he simply running away again; failing to confront his problems? What would happen to Jack Parkin, if no-one was there to champion his cause?
A knock at the door of Ian’s room interrupted his thoughts.
“Mr Chapman?” Enquired a voice from outside; “There’s a message for you, sir. from your London office.”
Ian hustled to the door, opening it a crack, and the porter passed an envelope through. Ian glanced briefly at the note it contained.
“I must get back.” He said. Joe was regarding him with some amusement. “What is it, Joe?”
“Yes, an assumed name; something I often do. What of it?”
“Five thousand pounds! So much money, just to put your brother out of the way for a few weeks!” Joe tossed the cheque book back onto the desk. “No.”
Ian’s shoulders slumped. He sat down on the edge of his bed with a world-weary sigh: “Why ever not?”
“Because I’m your brother, Ian. Oh, I’m feeling guilty because you’ve been kind to me: you gave me shelter – if a little grudgingly – and I’m unable to repay you. But there’s a higher moral lesson here, because although you might be able to buy your way out of all kinds of problems, you should never try to buy off your own family! Sorry.”
Joe slumped too. He had just turned down a small fortune, something he did not know he was capable of doing.
Ian nodded, said at last: “Very well. I see that. I’ll get Alfred to drive you home.”
Perplexed, Joe said, “A couple of days? Let me think about it?”
“Afraid not. It has to be now, or…” Ian shrugged fatalistically. “All right, the truth. You’ll have to know, anyway. You were correct; someone is ‘onto me’. So far, the damage is limited to one reporter for one tabloid newspaper; unfortunately the one with the biggest circulation. Head office is very good at detecting this kind of thing, and to a limited extent they can deal with any problems, but Michael? I had to move him very quickly somewhere he couldn’t be found; otherwise who knows what he might have come up with? He’s still as mad as a hatter, isn’t he?”
“He’s unwell,” Joe had to agree. “And me?” He asked.
“You.” Ian got up, moving to the window, concealing himself by means of the curtain. “Apparently, Joe, the same newshound has been chasing you all over London.”
“So that’s why I’m a problem?”
“I should say so. Abysmal failure to make your own living, other than as a gi…”
“Don’t use that word again!”
“Alright, but how else do I describe someone who has spent the last several years being kept by a rich married woman? A woman who dies, incidentally, in what her husband is claiming are suspicious circumstances. In other words, he thinks you murdered her. You didn’t tell me about that, Joe, when you came asking for shelter that night.”
“I was desperate, Ian. If I had you wouldn’t have let me in. This reporter; why hasn’t he found me yet? It isn’t as if I’ve been hiding.”
“Oh, he will,” Ian assured him. “You moved from London, so you dropped off his radar for a few days. But he’s got your scent now, apparently. I’m told he’s in this area. Tomorrow, or the latest Wednesday, I should think.” He turned back to his desk. “He’s tied you to me, of course; hence the interest.”
“Hence twenty-four hours? Sorry, eighteen. So I’m escaping! But did you seriously think a little old ditch like the English Channel would put him off? Try Brazil!”
Joseph could not help but feel sympathy for his brother. Ian’s air of resignation was foreign to his nature; a precursor, perhaps, of greater burdens to come. This was a world-weary figure, tried by circumstances. There was a haunted – no, a hunted look in his eyes and he, Joseph, was its miscreant cause.
“Let’s get our stories straight…” He said.
Throughout his homeward journey Joseph had nothing to do but stare at Alf’s massive shoulders and dwell upon the matter of Michael’s whereabouts. Somewhere out there was Ian’s real loose cannon, someone with the firepower to sink them all. Over these last few days and against his will Joe’s suspicions had been forming. And the question that must follow was ‘Why?’
The day was not yet over. One more shot remained to be fired. At supper with his aunt and uncle he discovered why Dot Barker had not been among those gathered outside the church that morning. Her husband Ned Barker, landlord of The King’s Head, had died the preceding night.
“How?” Joe asked.
Owen raised an eyebrow: “No idea, I’m afraid. He was getting on a bit, wasn’t he?”
The King’s Head was closed until further notice. The village’s social hub and the axis of its rumour mill was stilled. Whatever secret Michael was so insistent Joe should elicit from Ned would go with the old publican to his grave.
On the following morning Joe kept an appointment to view the Lamb house.
He was unprepared for that house. Was it because he never had a roof of his own, but was always the cuckoo’s child, living where fortune next abandoned him, forever at risk from the night and the rain? As he wandered through those empty rooms he felt as though he were turning handles to unopened doors in his life. There was gladness, a warmth which reached out to embrace him. In each bare room he already saw furniture placed as he would have it, carpets, colours of his choosing. He saw a fire in the hearth and giving his fantasy wings, two people sitting before it. He saw a bedroom he imagined she would like, a familiar smile of greeting, a dog stretched before the hearth. It was a tour which might have stopped in the hallway, for in just that short acquaintance Joe knew he was born to be there. All his reservations, all the petty hostilities and fears were cast aside.
“How much?” He asked the agent. The specification sheet quoted a price of four thousand pounds.
“As you see it. Rather expensive, I’m afraid. However, it is in a superior state of repair – really just ready to move into and I do believe the owner is looking for a quick sale, so…”
“So I’ll let you have an offer by tomorrow.”
At a ‘bus stand by St. Andrews’ desecrated church, Joe awaited the ‘bus that would take him, by a series of changes, to Wilton Bishop and his recently acquired car. Aaron Pace was engrossed in the work of repairing the churchyard.
“Mind, I got some work to do ‘ere.” He called over, “Tidy this bugger up by tomorrow! What do ‘ee think o’ that?”
Joe made sympathetic noises: “Why tomorrow, Aaron?”
“Poor Violet! We’m puttin’ ‘er under at last. A’topsy, see?”
Joe wondered how appropriate it would be to lay Violet to rest in a Christian churchyard. He concluded that Owen was right; that neither she nor her companion witches took their heathenism too seriously. After all, hadn’t Violet customarily laundered ‘Vicar’s bliddy surplices’?
“Be you lookin’ at the Lamb’s ‘ouse?” Aaron asked, drawing a cynical smile from Joe. This village missed mothing. Aaron stared down at his spade. “See, you could be a brave man, or you could be a fool. Not sure which.”
“Nor am I,” Joe replied.
© 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.