Tuesday 2nd October
Fred Bradley, known to everyone as Brass, was one of a rota of cops who ran the local constabulary in Upper Grumpsfield. It was really only a room with a counter and IT equipment, a coat stand, a loo and a tiny kitchen, but it served the purpose admirably and was a welcome addition to village life, since many residents regarded it as a sanctuary where they could air their grievances.
Despite a current lack of spectacular crimes, Brass was busy most of the time since even small lost pets and trivial trespassing are important to those who suffer them. When Brass was not on duty, Nigel, Gary’s assistant at HQ, took his place, as did Greg, a detective colleague, Mia, a policewoman working in the vice squad until that was amalgamated with Gary’s homicide squad, and Barbara, a policewoman who was now living with Gary’s brother Joe and amenable about working all night if she had to. Even Gary had been known to help out. Cleo remarked that Brass’s offshore enterprise had a cosy quality. Gary was quick to retort that he hoped gangsters thought differently and would not add to HQs troubles by indulging in any gang warfare or other activities in the village that would challenge the homeliness of the little police station.
On the evening of the chorus auditions Brass was himself on duty - he later denied writing himself into the rota in order not to have to appear at the church hall - and spent the early evening writing reports. However trivial the enquiry, complaint or plea, it had to be recorded for posterity, a print-out being part of the routine, since paper does not disappear into thin air quite as easily as digital data. Nobody had ever asked if, for instance, someone’s missing cat was a suitable subject for detailed crime reporting. It had to be done, however trivial.
But what had been small fry was rapidly becoming a matter for concern. Lately, quite a lot of cats had been kidnapped. One respectable Chinese restaurant in Middlethumpton had been shut down by Health and Safety officers after feline carcasses had been found frozen in the freezer. As a cop, Brass would have preferred the challenge of finding missing children, but as a father he was glad it was only cats in that restaurant’s fridge.
It was after ten p.m. that Tuesday evening before Brass could go home and flop down fully dressed on his bed. His three teenage children were fast asleep. He had switched the office phone over to his bungalow in case of an emergency. His sleeping mind was full of skinned cats.
The phone call broke into his nightmare like a fire bell.
Just when Cleo and Gary were getting comfortable under their brand new double duvet, Brass felt obliged to ring the Hurleys. The call was not gratefully received.
“Oh. Sorry. Were you already asleep?” said Brass, always apologetic and conscious of his bad timing.
“Nearly,” said Gary, who had plucked the receiver from Cleo’s hand as Max had been woken by the ring and was complaining bitterly. Matilda, his twin sister, would presently join in the caterwauling and that would wake everyone else. Cleo jumped out of bed, flung herself into her kimono, and tended to the infant.
“It’s just that there’s been some squabbling behind the church hall, Gary.”
“When you say squabbling, do you mean assault and battery or bickering?”
Gary switched on the speaker so that Cleo could also communicate with Brass.
“Both, I would say,” said Brass. “Mrs Parsnip and the butcher were on their way home and saw something.”
“I expect Edith had visited Robert and he was her home,” Cleo explained loudly enough for Brass to hear. Her thoughts were racing. Had Robert managed to throw Edith out?
“Who phoned you, Brass?”
“Mr Jones. It was his mobile phone. He was escorting the lady home, he said. Mrs Parsnip had been to the rehearsal and had paid him a short visit. They were taking the short cut to the vicarage.”
Cleo rolled her eyes. Robert must have promised Edith something ‘nice’ when they got to the vicarage. Surely he had learnt his lesson by now and would not have wanted to spend the night with the woman.
“And they heard noises of people having a fight, did they?” Gary asked.
“They heard voices then shortly afterwards there was a scream. They waited until there was no more noise and then went in the direction it had come from.”
“And where was that, Brass?” Gary asked.
“Round the back of the church hall.”
“Did Mrs Parsnip have her clothes on, Brass?”
“I wasn’t there, Gary, but I can’t imagine that she would wander around in the company of Mr Jones without any clothes on. On the other hand, even if they were engaged in plein air you know what, that’s not the reason he rang me, is it? It#s a warm evening, but hardly warm enough for outside- you-know-what.”
“Did Mr Jones ask you for help?”
“Yes, because there is a person lying among the marigolds.”
“Are you sure they are marigolds, Brass?” said Gary.
Cleo took the handset from Gary and gave him Max to carry around.
“Don’t take any notice of Gary, Brass. He’s sending you up. What person, Brass?”
“Just tell the Chief Inspector that I can tell marigolds from sunflowers and they are definitely marigolds. I expect Mr Jones can also tell the difference. What’s more, the person lying among them was stone dead when Mr Jones rang. That’s about half an hour ago.”
“Why didn’t you call earlier?” said Gary.
“Because I was at home and had to get to the scene of crime, Gary.”
Brass was starting to sound exasperated.
“Can I just talk to Mr Jones, Brass?”
“He has taken Edith home and will be back any minute, he said.”
“I’ll bet he is glad he has an excuse to get away from the vicarage and that voracious woman,” commented Cleo.
Brass did not argue the point. He found Edith Parsnip rather nice and she was about the right age for him. What a pity she had latched on to Robert Jones.
“Sorry, Brass,” Gary said as he took the handset back from Cleo and handed her Max, who was enjoying being carried around. “I gather that you are with the corpse, aren’t you?”
“Yes. I’ve sent for forensics and the paramedics.”
“I’ll be along as soon as I can.”
“You don’t have to come, Gary. I just wanted to report the incident. I can deal with it.”
“I’ll come now, although you don’t have to report to me every time something happens.”
“Not even murder?” said Brass. “It looks like foul play.”
“In that case, don’t let the corpse be moved until forensics have taken photos, will you?” said Gary.
“You can rely on me, Gary. Mr Marlow was still in the lab and is on his way.”
“It was a good idea to call forensics, Brass.”
“Thank you Sir. I’m sorry to interrupt your …”
“We’ll survive, Brass,” said Cleo.
“You are too hard on that guy, Gary.”
“He’s too keen on cow-towing to me. I’m not the King of Siam.”
“Frint-on-Sea damage,” said Cleo. “He was never allowed to have a mind of his own with that sergeant.”
“I can’t have him getting us out of bed all the time.”
“Why don’t you put some clothes on and go to the rescue, Gary?”
“I wasn’t planning on this. It’s a damn nuisance.”
“I’ll still be here when you get back, and you should talk to Robert.”
“About Edith? Heaven forbid!”
“About what they heard, Gary, though it might be a good opportunity to warn Robert not to get himself so involved with Edith. I thought he’d learnt his lesson.”
“Some men never do, my love. Look at me.”
“I wonder if Brass would appreciate some of Edith’s TLC?”
“Are you trying to rescue that ex-husband of yours?”
“Brass needs a little cheering up, Gary, and she is about the right age.”
“Is cheering up the new name for seduction?”
By the time Gary arrived at the marigold bed, Robert was also there. Gary and Robert were friendly, but Robert still had the feeling that he was sharing Cleo, despite having walked out on her, so their greeting was a hand-shake. Cleo was right. Brass definitely needed cheering up. He would point him in Edith’s direction, he decided.
The corpse lying between the marigolds on sharp-edged rockery stones was female.
Gary took some photos of the scene with his mobile, explaining that they were for his personal records.
“Who is it?” he asked. “Do you know her, Robert?”
“I’ve never seen her before. I expect she came to the rehearsal.”
“Are there any documents in that handbag, Brass?”
“I haven’t looked yet.”
At that moment an ambulance and the A & E doctor turned up. The woman was definitely dead. Nothing more could be done for her. Robert’s estimate of the time it must have happened tallied with the doctor’s view.
“Not dead long,” he said. “Probably hit her head on one of those decorative stones. Accidental death or manslaughter. You decide!”
As the doctor walked back to his car, the forensics van drew up in the church forecourt. The doctor pointed to the back of the building and the forensic team made its way to the scene of the incident.
“I thought it was too good to be true,” said Chris Marlow, a dedicated forensic pathologist. “We haven’t had a murder in Upper Grumpsfield for at least six months.”
“This was probably accidental death, Chris, so don’t get too excited,” said Gary.
Official photos were taken and the body of the woman was lifted onto a stretcher and taken to the ambulance to be transported to HQ pathology. The round-the-clock security would let them in.
The forensic team looked around for evidence of a struggle or even a weapon, but could not see anything untoward except that there was blood on the stone nearest where the head of the woman had been. A sample was taken. A couple of cigarette ends found their way into a plastic bag.
“Clear cut, I would say,” said Chris. “X-rays and an examination of the head wound will tell us what happened. The daisies didn’t take much punishment.”
“Marigolds,” said Brass.
“Not sunflowers?” taunted Gary.
The area was cordoned off in the hope that no one would march across where the woman had flattened those marigolds.
“All we have to do now is find out who did it, Brass,” said Gary as Chris and his team left. “Did you see anyone, Robert?”
“No. You could ask Edith. She might have and not said anything.”
“That’s a good idea,” said Gary. “Brass, can you go to the vicarage and question Mrs Parsnip?”
“Yes, Brass. She might have forgotten by tomorrow.”
“Very well. I’ll get going then,” said Brass.
“I hope you know what you are letting the poor man in for,” said Robert when Brass had left.
“I think I do, Robert. I’m hoping those two will do more than talk about the incident.”
To Gary’s amazement, Robert did not protest. Had he got away from Edith after all?
“She’s up to her old tricks, Gary. She came to my flat for you know what and it was only my telling her that her bed was more comfortable that persuaded her to go home. Then the corpse released me from what would have been another …”
“Don’t tell me, Robert. You had a lucky escape.”
“Brass doesn’t stand a chance.”
“Then you should be thankful that I sent him into the lion’s den.”
“What if he’s not up to it?”
“We’ll have to wait and see, Robert. If you remember anything about this business here let me know in the morning. I’ll go home now and I recommend you to do the same. I shouldn’t think you’ll hear from Edith again tonight, and if you take my advice, don’t get involved with her again.”
“I’m trying not to, Gary. How’s my wife?”
“My wife, don’t you mean?”
Back at the cottage, Gary drank the latté Cleo put before him and noted that her guy was beaming a lot more than a corpse warranted.
“What’s amusing you, Sweetheart?”
“Your ex asked how his wife is.”
“Poor guy. I hope you put him straight.”
“I certainly did. He doesn’t seem to be able to shake you or Edith off,” said Gary, as he showed Cleo a photo of the dead woman.
“Margie, I think her first name was. She sang in Laura’s old chorus, Gary. A timid sort of person, I thought, but if she got into a brawl she can’t have been that timid.”
“Probably fighting over a man,” said Gary. “Women get surprisingly aggressive when they are defending what they see as their property.”
“Do they? I must try that one day.”
“I didn’t know you had a rival for my affections.”
“I would make short work of her,” said Cleo. “Of course, Margie just got a little accidental push and fell onto the nearest stone.”
“Someone dealt her an uppercut first,” said Gary. “I expect that sent her flying.”
“I wonder if the attacker was injured.”
“I expect Chris will have results quickly. He took the woman’s handbag with him so he might also know her identity by now, though some women put less relevant objects into their handbags.”
“You could ring him about her name,” said Cleo.
“I can’t be bothered,” said Gary. “I need my duvet.”
“Our duvet,” said Cleo. “What makes you think the contents of a woman’s handbag are irrelevant?”
“We’ll study yours, Cleo, and then I can probably answer that question.”
“Of course, the attacker could have been almost anyone. You’ll have to round up that chorus fast, Gary. It could be someone who was not there for auditions, but you’ll have to talk to anyone who was.”
“It’s a job for the Hartley Agency. Will you take it on or has the antique business already taken over?”
“I’ll get onto it first thing in the morning. Lisa made a list of names and Laura left a list of names and phone numbers. We can start there.”
“Dorothy and me, of course.”
“Before I forget, I sent Brass to the vicarage to question Edith.”
“I hope he gets out alive,” said Cleo.
“I thought you wanted to get them together.”
“But not necessarily in her utility room.”
“I expect he’ll report back,” said Gary. “He always does. We’d better jump into bed while the going’s good.”