The Skinny and the Mule

Pietro Valdez was having a bad morning.   Bad mornings usually found him leaning against Enzo’s doorpost, beneath the shade of his friend’s straw roof, and this morning was no exception.  Here he could rest, draw on a self-rolled cigarette, and contemplate the injustices that existed in the world.  Inevitably, he would reach the same conclusion as always; that every one of those injustices was stacked against him.

So, maybe he had been a little late setting his nets in the river that morning – just a little, tiny bit late.  What did it matter?  Pietro had a problem.  His whole village had a problem.  No matter how early he, or anyone else who fished the river should rise from their beds, Rodrigo – Bang-Sticks Rodrigo – would take all the best fish!  Pietro stared along the river bank towards Rodrigo’s moored boat with half-lowered eyes, his head full of vengeance. Of course, Rodrigo’s little dock was busy; Luca, Bang-Sticks’ son and his friend Raul were boxing Rodrigo’s catch, loading it into a dilapidated but durable truck that would take it to market.  In the warehouse behind the dock Luiza and Yasmin, Marco’s two girls, would be preparing more fish for drying.

Feeling a pat on his shoulder, Pietro turned to discover Enzo, his friend, had sidled out of his hut to lean against the other door post.  Pietro passed his cigarette to Enzo.

“Business is good.”  Enzo commented, sharing Pietro’s thoughts.

“Good!”  Pietro spat his ire into the dust.  “Good!  That bastardo was at the eddy pool this morning, blowing up half the fish in the river.  What is left?”     Pietro’s nets had come in empty, again.  So!  There was no money, there was no food.  Luana, his wife, could hurt him when she got this mad.  Again!  She had thrown a pot at him and today – he rubbed his shoulder ruefully – she had not missed.

“Matters,” He muttered; “Cannot rest.”

Enzo grunted.   “I do not see what you can do.  Rodrigo has a deal with Carlos Eduardo, Carlos Eduardo gets him his sticks of dynamite in return for thirty percent of the catch.  It is business.  Don’t say you wouldn’t have done the same deal if you’d thought of it first.”

Pietro shook his head.   “He dynamites the fish!   Soon there will be no fish at all in the river, then what does the village do?   What does Thales do?  What does Marco do?”

“Marco goes to work for Carlos Eduardo.  Already he is thinking about it.  I talked with him yesterday.”  Enzo answered.  “I am thinking of it myself.  Maybe you should.”

“I, Pietro Valdez, work for a gangster who grows fields of Marijuana?   What does that make me?”

“Rich?  It is very good Marijuana.”

“Or dead.  Carlos Eduardo is a very nasty man.  His henchmen are very fond of guns.”  Pietro muttered.  “No, I am a fisherman, not a grower of drugs.  I want to feed people, not send them crazy.”

Thoroughly subdued, Pietro fell silent, and together the two men shared their one cigarette, brushing flies away from their faces as they contemplated the vast waters of the river in the morning heat.   In such mood an hour might easily pass without either moving or speaking a word, but today Pietro’s attention was drawn to a small commotion behind Bang-Sticks dock, where Rodrigo’s son Luca was preparing for his trip to the market in Almeres, fifty kilometres away.

“What is that?”

“That?”   Enzo replied.  “That is trouble, my friend.”

A girl dressed minimally in shorts and a t-shirt was attempting to talk to Luca, with limited  success.  She might have been, as Pietro judged, no older than twenty-four or twenty-five years, and clearly her attempts at flirtation were falling on stony ground.  Luca was wiser than his years, and in Pietro’s closely guarded opinion, more interested in Raul than in female company.  This was an insult he was saving for that special argument with ‘Bang-Sticks’, when the opportunity eventually arrived.

“She is pretty girl.”  Pietro observed.

“She is a ‘Skinny Girl’.  Keep away!”  Enzo warned.

“That may be difficult.  She is coming towards us.”

The girl had abandoned her charm offensive on Luca, and was striding along the riverbank in their direction.  Pietro was familiar with the ‘Skinny Girl’ appellation, of course:  everyone knew it.   A very astute group of young women had banded together in the last three seasons with the sole purpose of taking over the drugs trade on the river.  Using their natural abilities to charm they were picking off owners of small to middle-sized fazendas one by one, trusting in the farmers’ deference towards women.  Once they found a way into that plain farmer’s bed, though, the women showed no such compunction, and shot them dead at the first opportunity.   So far, they had made no attempt to unseat any of the larger drug barons, bigger players unlikely to fall for their fatal game.  Knowing their depth, and in regions where police presence was rare, they were thriving happily on the proceeds of farms like the one owned by Carlos Eduardo.   Lecherous to a fault, Carlos Eduardo, Pietro thought as he watched the approaching girl’s fluid, hip-swinging gait, would be easy meat.  Nevertheless…

“You have a boat!”  Her voice was sweet, almost a song, and her teeth were many and incredibly white.  She flashed her dark, Hispanic eyes at Pietro.  “A boat with a big, big motor.   That man Luca says”…  She stopped directly in front of Pietro, so close he felt the warm whisper of her breath.  “You have a big, big motor, yes?”

Pietro was wrong-footed by the girl’s proximity.     “I suppose so.”  He muttered.  No matter that Enzo growled a warning, his friend was already in the web.  “You want my boat?”

“I need your boat, Pietro, you will help me, I know!   You are Pietro, yes?  You are a generous man, everybody knows Pietro.”

“You asked Luca.  What’s wrong with Luca’s boat?”

“Luca?  He has such small motor.”  The girl shook her head sadly, holding up a thumb and forefinger to reinforce her point.  “Once in a month only, down the river to Minacura!  That’s two days each way.  Just you and me,  two days on the river one way, two days back.  You and me, alone, eh, Pietro?”   Her voice lowered suggestively.  “Ah, but can I trust you?  I hope I can trust you!”

Enzo snorted.  Pietro was experiencing sensations incompatible with the early hour and his abiding sense of grievance.  Reason had to prevail.  “What’s in it for me?”  He demanded.

“What is in it?  What is in it??”  The girl’s eyes glittered.  “You want money too?”

“I have expenses.”

“It is alright, I tease you!  Of course there is money.  I have done a deal with Carlos Eduardo.  It is a very good deal.  He is very generous man.  Your boat, it will be loaded with the very best merchandise!  Each run, 150 Real!  Think what you can do with 150 Real!”

“Two hundred.”  Pietro wondered what this girl had done for Carlos Eduardo that could have aroused his generosity.  “I want two hundred.”

“Oh, Pietro; so greedy!  One-Seventy-five!”

“You buy the fuel.”

“Agreed!”  The girl reached up and stroked Pietro’s cheek with long, elegant fingers.  “There are police on the river so we travel by night.  We will be such good companions!  Tonight, eight o’clock, okay?”

“Tonight?”

“Of course!  Why not?”

Pietro was thinking of Luana and the necessity for explanations which accounted for a number of reasons why not.  But money was money, and a cash argument would weigh heavily with his wife, as long as he kept her away from his travelling companion.

Eight o’clock that evening found Pietro and his boat moored up on a stretch of river tributary that adjoined Carlos Eduardo’s ranch.   The girl, whose name had proved to be Adriana, materialised rapidly from the darkness where forest bordered the water, followed by Paolo, Carlos Eduardo’s ostler.   Both were laden with heavy bales wrapped in waterproof plastic, which they dumped unceremoniously into the boat.   Pietro could see that Paolo was ill at ease.  He kept looking up and down the river, and seemed anxious not to make a noise.  No sooner had the first lot of bales been loaded than the pair vanished again, leaving Pietro to distribute his unexpectedly heavy cargo as evenly as he might.  Satisfied, he rolled a cigarette, drawing contented smoke as he wondered how easily Carlos Eduardo had fallen for Adriana’s  ploys.  Eventually, he supposed, the whole village must learn to fear Adriana and her ‘Skinny Girls’ as much as they had feared Carlos Eduardo. If so, at least one advantage was his: he had a ‘big motor’.   

Had he noticed the raised voices in the distance?   What was the clamour about?

Paolo came bursting out of the trees, loaded with yet more bales.  Adriana, similarly burdened, was close behind him.

“Come!  We load this.”

The shouting was not so distant any more.  The voices were angry.

“All this?”  Pietro protested.  “It is too much!  We won’t get all this through the gorge!”  But the bales were already stacked, on top of those he had already distributed.  Adriana was specific.  “We leave now!   Don’t start the motor!”

Pietro recognised the ingredients of a disaster immediately, but his sense of self-preservation persuaded him this was the wrong place to ask questions, so he did as he was told.  He cast off his dangerously unstable boat swiftly, as Adriana slipped into the prow, and Paolo melted back into the trees.  As he turned into the current he could hear the crashing of angry feet in the undergrowth.  It occurred to him that maybe Carlos Eduardo was not so gullible, after all.

In the darkness Adriana’s ashen face was almost luminous.  “What do we do?”  She cried, clearly no longer in command.  “Tell me, what do we do?”

A gun discharged in a burst of venom from somewhere close by.  Bullets snicked off the water.  

“We start the motor!”   Pietro replied quietly.   “Stay down, and do not say my name!”

                                                                  #

“We have lost them, yes?”  Adriana hissed.

An hour had elapsed, in which time neither the owner of the boat nor his young companion had spoken.   Upon reaching the point where their tributary joined the main river, Pietro had turned upstream.  After a half kilometre battling the current he had tied off his boat at a place where the trees overhung the water, concealing them from view.

“Yes, for now.  We are fortunate they had no boats moored nearby.  They will be hunting for us downstream, thinking we are making for Minacura.”

Adriana sniffed.  “This is no use.  If we go to Minacura, we will be following them.  Sooner or later we must meet.”

“This boat wouldn’t make Minacura anyway, with so heavy a cargo;”   Pietro told her.  “Our best bet is to meet up with your gang somewhere further upstream.  Maybe you should ‘phone them now?”  His comment met with silence.  “That’s a good idea, yes?”

Adriana said:  “What ‘gang’?”

“Why, the ‘Skinny Girls’.  The Skinny Girls gang.”

“I am not skinny girl!  I have nice figure, don’t you think?”

A cold hand grasped Pietro’s heart.  “Wait a minute!  You are not a ‘Skinny Girl’?”

“No.  I am a student.”  Adriana answered proudly.  “I am at university in Brazilia – third year.”

“Then this was – what?   You were trying to steal from Carlos Eduardo on your own?  No gang to help you?”

“Paolo, he helped me.”  Adriana grinned.  “He was very helpful!   And when we get these bales to Minacura and we sell them I shall be very rich and I shall be able to pay for my last year’s tuition.  You help me, Pietro.  Then you can be rich, too!” Pietro put his head in his hands.  “You.  Brave man with big motor – what is wrong with you?”

“Wait a minute!  You made your deal with Paolo?  You said your deal was with Carlos Eduardo, Adriana!”

“So?  I tried, but Eduardo, he is fat man, and he is very drunk.  So Paolo, he does dealing for me.  I am very nice to Paolo, and he does me good deal.   What is wrong?”

“Just this.   My boat is filled with Eduardo’s property, not Paolo’s.  Paolo has no property.  My boat is overloaded, it will not pass the fast water in the gorge on the way to Minacura.  All right, maybe we throw some Marijuana in the river, then we have a chance; but drunk or sober Carlos Eduardo is no fool.  Right now he is on his cell phone to his buyer in Minacura to tell him what has happened.  He is on his cell phone to police in Minacura (who he pays) to tell them what has happened.  Adriana, you cannot just sell marijuana on this river, you need connections.  You need to make deals, you need time to build up trust!   Right now, we show ourselves even five kilometres down river with this stuff and we are dead.”

Adriana fell quiet for a moment before she said unsteadily.  “I have done things for this a respectable girl should not do.  I cannot fail – I cannot have done what I have done for nothing, for no reason.  We can do it.  We will do it.”

“No, Adriana.  You can’t, and we won’t.”

 “Then what can we do?”

                                                                  #

“Why are you out so early?”  Enzo was surprised to discover Pietro busy with his nets.  “Can’t you sleep, my friend?”

Pietro smirked.   “Some nights I feel I have not been to bed.”

Enzo glanced cunningly at him. “Ah, the girl.  But you did not make the trip with her, no?”

“Wiser counsels prevailed, Enzo.”   The fisherman’s eyes were fixed upon Rodrigo’s dock, further up the river bank.  “I am a married man.”

“But still…”  Enzo followed Pietro’s gaze.  “Bang-Sticks is not out yet.  If you hurry…”

“Exactly.”  Both men were now watching as Rodrigo, appearing by his behaviour to be unusually agitated, shouted and gesticulated at a defensive-looking Luca.  They were too far away to hear what was said, but far enough to see two jeeps approaching Rodrigo’s warehouse from the landward side.  Carlos Eduardo was being driven in one, in the other were two extremely large bodyguards, both armed with semi-automatic rifles.

Pietro had known they would come, and in his view the timing could not have been better.  A stranger girl could not be seen talking to anyone in a village as small as his without arousing suspicion, especially if that girl intended to steal part of the local drugs baron’s harvest.   Adriana had been talking to Luca just yesterday, so it was obvious where Carlos Eduardo would look. 

Naturally,  since Adriana had been seen with Pietro too, he had no doubt Carlos Eduardo would want to follow that up – he was not worried.  He had nothing to hide, as long as no-one saw the two bullet holes in his boat.  As for Adriana, she was well on her way back to her university by now, chastened by her experience and no richer than before, but unhurt.  And she was getting a good start on Carlos which would get better, the longer he was detained by the discovery of his marijuana, stashed as they had left it last night, in Rodrigo’s warehouse.   

Rodrigo?   Well, those bales of drugs were still intact, so he would count himself lucky if he survived with only a little roughing up, but Pietro was sure he would get no more dynamite. 

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  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.

A Place that was Ours.  Chapter Twenty – Exclusive:  The Hargreave Papers

“And here we are!”  I make an expansive ‘here we are’ gesture.

Matthew Poultney frowns.  “I’m sorry.  Exactly where are we?  So Crabtree cuckolded your father nearly thirty years ago.  If that’s your final clue, your story doesn’t amount to much.  It certainly doesn’t render Crabtree unfit for power.  In fact, having a famous footballer as his bastard son rather adds to his image, don’t you think?  Where’s the story, Chas?”

I grin at him.  “Did I say that was the last clue?  It was not.”   I cross to the bar and press the intercom button.  “Can you come up please, sweetheart?”

The voice at the other end sing-songs, “Just a minute!”

“You didn’t tell me you had a partner!”  Poultney exclaims.

“Matthew, you’re the newspaperman, you’re supposed to know these things!  We’d best wait; she gets annoyed if she is left out of the loop.  Another drink?”

As I refill his glass I draw my guest back to the window, which gives him a view of the river at twilight, one of my own favorite moods.  “You’ll be selling all this, then?”  He says.

I answer him reflectively:  “No – as I said, I like it here, my partner does too.  We’ll be in the States a while, but I’m still under contract to Torley.   The official version of my status is ‘on loan’ while I’m in LA.  The directors at Torley have identified a number of opportunities over there – they see the Millennium year as one for new ventures – so I may not return for a season, but I will come back.”

“Is that your boat?   How strange!  I expected something more of a statement.”

“Acres of white fiberglass and decks ripe for partying?  We prefer a boat to sail in.  We’ve an ambition to take her down to the Mediterranean; maybe next year, if we get more time.”

“You and your partner?   Where is she, by the way?”

“Behind you,” Nel says.

Matthew turns, a spontaneous word of apology on his lips, but his eyes take in Nel’s condition and it changes to a startled “Oh!”  which he quickly recovers.  “I’m sorry, I didn’t realise…”

“Nothing to be sorry for!”  Nel absolves him blithely.  “We two are soon to be three.  It’s quite natural, you know.  It happens all the time.  I’m Nel, by the way; he always forgets to introduce me.  I’m sorry I couldn’t join you earlier; I had some work to catch up on.”

“I’m neglectful of my manners but very protective,”  I tell Matthew.  “Now you see why I am so insistent that what we are about to tell you doesn’t get traced straight back to us.  Nel’s going to be here alone for a few weeks clearing up her caseload before she follows me to LA.  I don’t want her to be troubled by anyone; your colleagues in the press – or Mack’s friends from the local boxing academy, come to that.   So this is yours exclusively; we give you all the clues, now, and you follow them up, will you?”

Matthew nods.  “Let’s see what you have.”

A file has been sitting neatly on one corner of the coffee table all this time.  Nel opens it, spreading the contents, a photograph or two, sheets of A4 covered with Nel’s spidery scrawl, and one rather scruffy little notebook.

“The book belonged to John Hargreave,”  I explain, bringing John’s memory freshly to my mind as it has, time and again, in these last few years.  “John was my friend and a friend of Susan, Crabtree’s daughter.  It was found on his body.”

“What happened to him?”  Matthew asks.

“He was found lying beneath the old viaduct bridge in Casterley.  He had multiple injuries.  I ended up with the book because he had expressly wished his father should give it to me if anything happened to him.  It was almost as if he had a premonition.”

“It’s a diary,” Nel chips in, passing the book to Matthew, “most of it is filled with mundane stuff, apart from the last couple of pages; they’re crammed with sequences of dates, numbers and letters.”  She aligns the sheets of A4 paper neatly across the table.   “There are a lot of sequences covering four specific dates, and we have worked on most of them, but I’ll just take this one example.”  She lays out the letters and figures she picked out on our first weekend together.  “The whole sequence reads LBEWHT1727MB1812WE HCL19.”

Matthew frowns:  “That sounds like a registration code – for an operating system, or something.”

“Doesn’t it?  It isn’t.”   Nel gives him her bleakest lawyer’s smile.  “It took me a while to decipher, but it finally came together on one of our regular weekends. We were sailing out of Bedeport, then, and a chance sighting of a boat called the ‘Lizabet’ moored on the East Wharf provided the spark.  The Harbormaster’s records did the rest.  The date fitted, and so did the time.  LB, or, in Harbormaster’s longhand, a boat called the ‘Lizabet’, is recorded as mooring on the EW, the East Wharf, at HT (High Tide) which was at 17:27, or 5:27 pm that day.   With me so far?”

“Only just.”  Matthew mutters,  “So this is a log for something?  ‘MB’, what’s that?”

“Or ‘who’ if you prefer.  Martin Berry.”  Nel interprets for him.

“Ah.  The ex-chairman of Casterley Football Club, no less.”

“No Less.  And the owner of a mysterious company that operates lots of little white vans – unmarked little white vans that beetle about all over the place.” Nel enriches the image by making her index and middle fingers ‘run’ back and forth across the table top.

“So you are saying one of those little white vans picked up something from this boat, the ‘Lizabet’, and took it to Martin Berry’s warehouse, where it arrived at 18:12.   Then what?”

“Then WE.  It was taken from there to Wesfane Electronics, before finally being moved on to HCL at 19.00 hours, or 7 o’clock.”

“HCL being High Cheviot Lodge, Mack Crabtree’s place.” I cut in.  “John was clearly tracking a package along its journey from the ‘Lizabet’ to Mack’s home.”

“That could be anything!”  Matthew protests; “Something he asked Berry to obtain for him – they’re close friends, aren’t they?”

Nel’s hands sweep the air in an animated gesture of frustration.  “No, no!  This is on an industrial scale!  The delivery we’re describing took place on 12th of August in that year.   It’s just an example.  There were eight similar movements tracked by John that day, another ten the day after.  Some were reverse sequences.  The ‘Lizabet’ appears to have loaded six parcels from Wesfane via Berry before she sailed on 14th.   All-in-all there were 48 movements across the four days when John was on vacation from Uni and was able to record them.”

“And these photographs?”  The journalist waves at two pictures resting amongst the other paraphernalia on the table.

“These are of the Lizabet when she was last moored at Bedeport.”  I tell him.  “Nel and I took them.”

“But that’s a private yacht.”

“Exactly.  So this isn’t all above board, is it?  This is a smuggling operation, Matthew, and a big one!  Drugs, we suspect.”

“Not what is regularly thought of as drugs;”  Nel explains.  “Not class A amphetamines, heroin, cocaine… these are very specialist drugs, often travelling with their own teams of advisors, medical professionals, highly qualified chemists?  Where, in the context of a major sports event, do you find a covert organization to administer an instant blood transfusion, or calculate your maximum EPO tolerance from your personal body mass and energy profile?”

If Matthew had been a rabbit, his ears would have twitched.  “Organised doping?”

“Come on!”  I  implore him,  “We all know it happens! The Athletics World Championships took place in Stuttgart, Germany, on 21st of that month, by which time it would not have been difficult for an inconspicuous German registered boat (the ‘Lizabet’) to have navigated through the Rhine and Neckar Rivers to a little town called Bad Wimpfen, which happens to be about sixty-five kilometers from Stuttgart’s back door.  Or for a little white van to make Manchester in time for the World Triathlon Championships, which were also held in that month.   We’ve been investigating the biggest sponsors of sport, and their employment of performance-enhancing techniques, for a while now.”

“Innovating continuously to keep ahead of testing regimes imposed by the world’s sports authorities  is big business.”  Nel takes up the thread.  “There are enormous sums of money involved, with each sponsor seeking market advantage, and a famine of sufficiently talented specialists ready to compromise their careers.”

“A small backwater like Casterley is an ideal situation for a laboratory,”  I add.  “It needs a front, of course.  Industrial coolers seem as good a cover as any.”

Matthew grins.  “Casterley at the hub of all sport’s doping problems?  That’s a little hard to take.”

Nel snaps back: “No, not at the hub of it, just one outpost of a peripatetic network thriving throughout the European market.  But if one of the hands on its helm should become UK Minister for Sport?  I wonder what a difference that would make?”

I continue: “We believe Crabtree’s and Berry’s organization exists on the wealth the larger sponsors are prepared to pay to ensure their competitors win.  That makes Crabtree the last man you’d want to be in control of future sports strategy for the whole of these islands.  There’s a greater cause, though.  Wherever there’s big money in sport there are doping problems, and it’s getting more sophisticated with every year.”

Nel reassembles the contents of the file, selecting a single sheet of paper which she places on the top.  “Chas and I have done a lot of work on this, and this is the first time we think we might have evidence that could fuel a criminal investigation if you want to play it that way.  Personally, I would rather see Mackenzie Crabtree’s face decorating the front pages for reasons other than self-aggrandizement.”

Matthew clicks his tongue:  “What about Berry’s part in it?”

I nod.  “Both of them – we owe it to John Hargreave.”

“His material was a catalyst, for us.”  Nel passes Matthew the A4 sheet she has singled out.  “His last diary entry: WE1225MB1403.  It is sketchy, rather hurried.  He was following a consignment from Wesfane, which arrived with Martin Berry at 12:25.  He picked up its trail again when it left Berry’s for the docks at 3 minutes after two o’clock – that would have been to make the tide, presumably, although John was never able to verify it…”

We explain our belief that John was discovered by Berry’s security men.  “He was not exactly a stranger to them.  They had come upon him pursuing a more innocent mission on Berry’s land some years before.”

Only this time, perhaps because of the sensitivity of the package he was tracking, John paid the ultimate penalty.  His father had confirmed to us that he had seemed preoccupied when he left the house after an early lunch that day.  When he didn’t return in the evening, Mr Hargreave telephoned the police.  John’s body wasn’t discovered until the following morning.  The notebook was found on him because, presumably, Berry’s ‘security’ didn’t bother to search him before they threw him off The Bridge in the early hours.

“You’ve no evidence he was murdered?  No.”  Matthew strokes his chin, then sits quietly for a moment, riffling through the notebook’s ragged pages and staring at Nel’s tidily organized stack of notes.  “And this – this book – is the only link to those consignments?”

Nel and I exchange glances.  “The book stays with us,” I tell him coolly.

Nel taps on the top of her file.  “I’m passing this to you if you’re interested.  There are photocopies of the relevant pages and transcripts of all our workings.  It’s all there, but this…”  She takes the book firmly from Matthew’s hand, “We’ll reserve for the police investigation.   We provincial solicitors, you know, we have such suspicious minds.”

“Rightly so.”  Matthew grins.  “It so happens there is somebody at our ‘paper working on the ‘drugs in sport’ story.  I’ll need to liaise with him, but I think we’ll all end up in agreement.  The regulatory authority for athletics, the IAAF, is heavily engaged in the same battle as yourselves.”

“Mack gets fried, then?”  I am looking for his confirmation.

“We’ll certainly look at that angle…”

“Oh, Matthew, you know that won’t do!  We can’t let that man get where he wants to go!”

“You really resent him, don’t you?”

“Shouldn’t I?  Looking at this, shouldn’t you?”

“Looking at this, I don’t know what his connection is.  Nor do you.!”

I glance in Nel’s direction and she returns my enquiring expression with a nod.  “Yes, let’s do it.”

“One more clue, then,”  I say.  “And a story, about the day we thought we would move our boat from Bedeport to its present mooring.   Nel has moved in with me here, it’s summer and the weather has been good, so we elected to do the transfer by sea.”

“This was recent?”

“This was last week.  We needed to replace some equipment, and I knew there was a chandlers’ in Bedeport.  I didn’t know (although apparently you did) that it was owned by Dave Crabtree.”

“Mack’s son.”

“I’m unsure which of us was more shocked at the sight of the other.  For my part, I wondered if I had inadvertently walked right into the centre of the very organization I was investigating; for his, the reasons were quite different.  We managed to complete my purchases with a minimum of communication then, as I was paying the account, he suddenly asked if I wanted to go for a drink?  I said yes.

“Well, we sat in the corner of the lounge bar at ‘The Shippe’ for about ten minutes cuddling our pints and avoiding looking at each other.  Then he suddenly said:  “You deserve the truth.”

“I asked him what he had on his mind and he didn’t seem to know what to say.  When I suggested whatever it was would be better out than in, he just stared into his drink like he wished he could dive in and drown.  Then he blurted it out.  ‘You haven’t forgotten her, have you?’ I asked if he meant his sister and he said, ‘She would want you to know’.

“He needed to unburden himself so badly, I could see that, yet he couldn’t bring himself to betray his family.  So I dug the story out of him, pint by pint and piece by piece.

“The night before my court case, he told me, Susan discovered the real reason her father had split us up.  Since our break-up, she had been sullen and angry with everybody, and especially resentful of her father’s insistence that she accept Dave as a sort of chaperone, but that night, to quote Dave’s words exactly, she ‘went completely mad’.   She was going to tell the world all she knew about her family’s business affairs, she was going to come to court the next day and show her father for the liar he was.  She didn’t believe anything her father told her.  Susan stormed out, went to her room, declaring her intention to pack her things and leave.  Mack pursued her. He was enraged.  The row went on in her room.

“At that point, I asked Dave if he thought something had happened to Susan.  I felt if I could frame the question correctly he might let the whole truth slip out because we’d consumed a powerful amount of beer by then.  The only reply I could get was that there had been ‘a terrible row’ that wasn’t only centered on Susan’s relationship with me, but because ‘she knew a lot’.

“Do you think she was murdered?”  Matthew asks.

“I think Dave meant she knew a lot too much, more than Mack could let her divulge in open court.  I remember Angie telling me once that Susan was ‘dead good’ at chemistry.  Assuming our suspicions about her dad’s activities are correct, she must have had some awareness of what was going on around her.   Dave claims he left the house because he ‘couldn’t take it anymore’.  When he returned, two days later, after my court case, Susan’s room had been cleared and he was ‘heavily advised’ by his father to say she had left home that night.”

“So Dave will say he doesn’t know what happened as a result of the row between Susan and her father.”

“He doesn’t; I’m fairly convinced of that, and nor can I say for sure.  Could anyone kill their own daughter?  She would have to be found, wouldn’t she, if we wanted to prove that after so long.

“The other day I was looking at a map of the Casterley area, with the idea of rounding the evidence off, you might say – checking out any loose ends.  I came upon this loose end quite by chance, as I was tracing the road that passes the front of High Cheviot Lodge, Mack’s place, the one I used when I went to visit him and the one I was accused of using as a way of stalking him – it’s known as the Leverton road.   I saw that another road ran parallel to it – I’ve since learned it’s actually called ‘Old Leverton Lane’, and in more prosperous times it was a second route to the town.  That’s all in the past now, though, and it lost its purpose when the main South Road cut across it.

“Anyway, ‘Old Leverton Lane’ passes the rear of High Cheviot Lodge.  I’ve used the road a few times without realizing and you can’t see the house from that side because there are a stream and a heavily wooded bank hiding it from view; woodland where Angie and I once walked before the property owner, Mackenzie Crabtree, recently fenced it off. I believe he did that so no-one else would discover a place of rest we stumbled upon quite accidentally, a place beside the steps that lead up through the wood where someone lays flowers still.  Where someone, at least, remembers.”

I stop talking then because I know if I continue my voice will break and the tears I feel filling my eyes will overbrim.  I don’t want to reveal how I still carry the rose of Susan Crabtree’s life, sister or friend, in my heart.

Matthew Poultney is saying something I am required to hear.  “You think his daughter is buried there?”

“I do.”  I will not disclose too much.  If everything and everybody in my life has been a carnival of shadows since one moment of consummation  on a riverbank; if the days, the weeks, the years, have counted nothing since, and every road in my soul leads back to my remembrance of Susan, I would not make it known to those who I try to love – who have tried so hard for me, and from each one of whom I have striven ceaselessly down the years to seek an essence I discovered once, and never will again.

I turn to find Nel’s eyes upon me.   She knows because she has always known; and perhaps, although I can’t be certain, she accepts.

“So that’s it,”  I tell Matthew.  “You have all the clues now, and unless we are wildly wrong, they will provide you with enough nails to crucify the old demon.  It’s a strange feeling, really, because in a number of ways he’s protected me almost as if he has feelings for me, but there are some crimes you cannot forgive.”

“You’re off to America.  Tonight?”

“Tomorrow, I think.  I’m doing a bit of a tour, taking in Paris, first.  John Hargreave’s absolute favorite aircraft was the Concorde, and since they’ll be scrapping it soon, I thought I’d hitch a ride on one to New York from Charles De Gaulle.  It’s almost impossible to get bookings, so I’m going to try my luck with a travel company who’ve commissioned a flight; they usually find themselves with a seat or two to spare.  I’ll sort out the New York to LA link when I get there.  I have one or two friends I want to look up – experience the Big Apple for twenty-four hours or so.”

Nel smiles at me, quietly, and I am able now to return her smile.  We fall into silence.  Matthew Poultney stands by the window.  The sun has set out there, beyond the glass, beyond the river, beyond the hills.

Nel puts her hand in mine.

THE END

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.  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

 

 

 

 

 

23rd July in the millennium year 2000