It was eight in the morning when the call came. The voice on my police car radio sounded incredulous. "We've got a report of a body in Aldermede car park. A Mr John Henson rang, said he's the car park attendant."
"Probably somebody hasn't paid for parking," joked my constable, Lance. He fancies himself a joker but I don't always find him funny. Especially when he laughs about my partner, Suzie. I tell him I can live with another woman if I like, but he still laughs. He's taller than me but slim and I reckon I could throw him if I tried, because I'm a karate third dan.
There were plenty of cars on the road by that time in the morning, and commuters walking to Aldermede station, but the shops weren't open in the main street. The road to Aldermede car park runs behind the main shopping street, so many of the delivery lorries park down there. That was one of my ideas: perhaps the body was just a tailor's dummy that fell off a lorry. I turned into the car park, stopped and straightened my cap and uniform. I believe in being smart on duty.
I don't much care for car park attendants because I've had a few tickets but I felt sorry for Mr. Henson when I saw him. He was a stout man, but looked on the point of collapse, with his face as grey as ash, and leaning on the railings along the edge of the car park. Behind him was a row of three big rubbish bins.
Predictably, he spoke to Lance, assuming the man was in charge. "I'm glad you've come. I've never seen anything like it in my life.'
"I'm Sergeant Norman and this is Constable Green," I said. "Can you tell us what happened?"
"Well, I just came over here to check on the motorbikes," he said, gesturing at a corner set aside for motorbike parking. "And I almost stood in that blood."
I looked down and saw a pool of drying blood, at the base of the bin intended for general waste. "Did you look in the bin?"
"I did and I got the fright of my life. There was a big black sack in there with a foot poking out. That's when I rang you lot"
I took a few steps over to the bin, avoiding treading on the blood and opened the lid. Inside was a package wrapped in black bin liners, from which a foot protruded. Trainer covered in blood, grey sock ditto and a hairy ankle. Gently I laid my hand on the ankle. It was cold.
I tried to keep my voice steady as I spoke into my radio. It was my first suspicious death and I wanted to act professionally, although my hand was trembling. “I reckon we've got a murder here.'
I left Lance to take Mr Henson's contact details and looked more closely at the pool of blood. Was there more? It didn't take me long to find a trail of spots leading to a gap in the railings and across the pavement. It was more difficult to follow the traces on the road, because cars had driven over them but I found more spots on the pavement opposite. I followed the trail through a small private car park to the back door of a terraced building. Most of the buildings in this row are charity shops or small cafes but this one had a sign: 'For Aldermede Town Council please use the front entrance.'
Now I don't know much about town councils but I thought of them as little pettifogging bodies that went in for long, dreary meetings. Could there really have been a murder in a town council office? It seemed unlikely. But I knew I mustn't touch anything in case I contaminated evidence, so I returned to stand by the bins until reinforcements arrived. Police work can be like that - a lot of waiting around and occasional bursts of excitement.
The first person to arrive was Detective Inspector Smart. An old lag might know how to recognise a copper, but the ordinary citizen wouldn't have spotted him. He's a stocky middle- aged man with thinning hair and he wore an old leather jacket, a check shirt and jeans. If there is anything distinctive about him, it's the way he looks about him as he walks - keeping his eyes open.
When I told him what had happened, he opened the bin and looked for a while at the package containing the body. Next he followed the trail of blood across the street. By now there were other police cars arriving and officers climbing out - both uniformed and plain clothed.
"I want this whole area cordoned off. And no-one's to touch anything until Forensics arrive," he said. He turned to me. "Get hold of the Town Clerk. We want access to that building. Don't let him fob you off with any official nonsense. One thing you learn in this business isyou get villains in all walks of life."
I returned to my car, got the contact details from the office and made the call. " Mr Sterne? It's the Police here. I'm afraid we think there's been a serious crime in your Town Council offices."
" A serious crime?" came a languid voice. "You mean someone's been rifling the petty cash?"'
The drawl annoyed me. "A suspicious death actually."
"A suspicious death? Are you serious? Nothing ever happens in our offices."
"Can you come over and let us in please? " I said, trying to stay polite. "We can explain better when you're here."
There was a sigh. "Very well but this better be genuine."
As he rang off, I wondered if his disbelief was a real reaction to shock, or an attempt to cover his traces. After all, this man could be one of our suspects.
For a while, I was busy, shepherding confused shoppers and motorists away as we stretched blue and white tape across the road and the car park. Some of my colleagues put up a white tent over the bin. I was arguing with a shop assistant about a delivery they were expecting when a tall, stooping man approached me.
"I'm the Town Clerk- Steven Sterne. What the Hell's going on?"
"I rang you, Mr Sterne. A body was found here," I gestured at the tent. "We think there's been some kind of violent incident in your offices."
He sighed again. "Well, I better let you in but I shan't be pleased if this all turns out to be a false alarm."
I walked with him across the road and waited as he fiddled with the door lock. We stepped into a narrow hall with a little kitchen off to one side. The line of spots of blood continued across the hall and up the stairs, growing thicker and redder. We followed them up the stairs, until they stopped at a closed door.
"What's in there?" I asked.
"Council chamber." He opened the door."God!"
A large table surrounded by upholstered chairs occupied most of the room. However, at the far end of the room, two of the chairs lay toppled on the floor and, in the corner a large blood stain coloured the carpet red. The trail of blood led from this patch.
"We'll have to get our forensics people up here," I said. "So the offices will need to be closed until they've finished."
"And we've got a budgetting meeting this evening."
I looked at Mr Sterne with growing dislike. "A man's dead and you're worrying about your budgetting meeting?"?
He groaned. "I'm sorry. It gets you like that some times. These councillors think their work is so important, but really it's nothing."
"Perhaps we can go back downstairs and I'll ask the inspector if he wants to talk to you at this stage."
We walked back downstairs and Mr Sterne pointed at a door off the hall. "That's my office. Can I go and sit in there? ."
"Perhaps, but try not to move anything." I stood in the hallway and radioed Inspector Smart. "We definitely have a crime scene here Inspector. Do you want to interview the Town Clerk?
"They've fished the man out of the bin," said the Inspector. "Not more than about thirty I would say. And someone's smashed the back of his head in. Probably several hours ago. Can you ask the Town Clerk who was in his offices yesterday evening?"
I knocked on the door of the Town Clerk's office and walked in. He was sitting at a desk with his head in his hands, his fingers pushing his grey hair into ridges. The room was small, only allowing space for a desk, a spare chair and a row of filing cabinets. One thing I noticed, though, was a window that looked out over the road and the car park. If anybody had been a position to see our unknown victim being carried, or dragged across the road, it would have been Steven Sterne.
"Are you all right, Mr Sterne?" I asked.
He looked up at me. "You know, for years I've been wishing something exciting would happen. When it does, it's bad."
"Life's like that," I said, drawing up the spare chair. "Can you tell me if there was anybody in these offices yesterday evening?"
"There was a Planning Committee meeting. So there were four councillors and me."
I took out my notebook. "Can you tell me the names of the councillors?"
"Patricia Small, Jeremy Newland, Major Ferndown and young Lizzie Wilde." He groaned. "And I can just see the major's face when he hears about this. He thinks the country's going to the dogs as it is."
Having ushered the Town Clerk out of the Council's offices and persuaded him to hand me the key, I went to report back to the Inspector. I found him in the tent where they had laid out the body. The first sight of him covered with blood and laid on a stretcher made me reel. I didn't faint or vomit, but felt close to both. The way they'd laid him, I could clearly see the back of his head had been smashed by some heavy object. A Couple of forensic officers were carefully peeling off his clothes. They were ordinary working clothes - a dark red jersey, jeans and tough shoes.Turning away, I made my way past several forensic officers in white suits and found Inspector Smart.
"Doesn't make you think any better of the human race, does it?" he said.
I shook my head, then told him what I'd found out. "Do we know who he is, sir? Who he was?"
"Whoever killed him wasn't after money. They left his wallet with his credit cards and a business card. He was Sam Taylor, electrician. We need to know what he was doing in the Council offices yesterday evening. You can try that name out on your Town Clerk. In fact, I'll come and look at the place for myself."
I wasn't sorry to get out of that tent, with its smell of blood and chemicals. We crossed the road and walked back up the stairs to the Council chamber. The Inspector walked slowly round the room and stood near the pool of blood.
"No sign of a murder weapon?" he asked.
"I couldn't see anything sir."
"Does it occur to you there's something fishy about all this.?"
I thought for a moment, aware that Inspector Smart might be testing my perceptiveness and powers of deduction. " Well, the murderer, or murderers must have been pretty careless. Or in a terrible hurry. They didn't try very hard to hide the body. They dumped it in a public bin and they left a trail of blood."
He nodded. "They could have been in a hurry, as you say. Perhaps they were afraid of being found red handed. Literally. Or it could be an attempt to pin the blame on the Council. Or a Councillor."
"Why would anybody want to do that?"
"We're going to have to find out. We'll have to interview all the councillors, the Town Clerk and anyone else who might know anything."
We started interviewing the next day. Sam Taylor's body had been taken away, the tent removed and the forensic team had given the Town Clerk's office a check over. Since they found nothing of interest, we interviewed him there. Inspector Smart had recruited me to write a note and help out. Since it was raining, I was quite glad to be in the Town Clerk's office, rather than outside, combing the car park and the bushes at its entrance for a murder weapon. Some of my colleagues were going house to house, interviewing residents, or stopping cars on the road behind the Council offices.
I thought Sterne stooped more as he greeted us and drew up two chairs
Inspector Smart's manner was businesslike but not hostile. "I gather you knew the victim, Samuel Taylor?"
Sterne nodded. "He worked here occasionally, when we had problems with our wiring. It's a bit old and the Council don't want to pay out for a complete rewiring. I told them it would cost more in the end."
"We think he died about ten in the evening. Did he have any business to be here at that time?"
"No, He didn't. "Sterne stood up and took a book out of a cabinet. "We keep a signing in and out book. Fire precautions really. Sam Taylor was in the building most of the day but, according to the book, he left just after five."
I scribbled a couple of questions in my notebook. Why did Sam Taylor come back that evening? Was he meeting someone?
"We'll want that book, please," said the Inspector, stretching out his hand. Sterne hesitated for a moment before handing it over. The Inspector checked the entries. "This shows the councillors as leaving by nine forty five. Did they really all leave together?"
Sterne ran his long fingers through his grey hair. "To be honest, most people don't bother to sign out. I just signed them all out at the end of the meeting."
"But no-one stayed behind?"
Sterne shook his head
"And then what did you do?"
"I locked up and went home."
Inspector Smart's voice sharpened. "Have you any witnesses who can vouch for that?"
"You're not suggesting that I..."said Sterne, in a tone of protest.
"I'm not suggesting anything." inspector Smart stood up and walked across the room to a key box on the wall. "Are these the keys?"
"Do the Councillors have keys?"
"No, but they can always borrow one from me."
"Did anyone borrow a key that night?"
Inspector Smart walked round the Town Clerk's office and looked out of the window. The blue and white tapes still stretched across the car park and the road. A couple of officers were making a fingertip search of the area round the bins.
"You get a good view of the car park from here," he said."Did you see anything that evening?"
Sterne rose and walked stiffly to the window. "I don't take much notice. Nothing much happens. It would have been dark anyway."
Inspector Smart turned to him. "What were you doing before you were Town Clerk?"
"I worked in Whitehall for thirty five years." I thought I heard a certain pride in Sterne's voice.
"But you must have had a decent pension. Why did you bother to work here?"
"I suppose I thought being a small fish in a small pool was better than being a small fish in a big pool. I just forgot that small pools were dull."
"If you find the work dull, what about the councillors?" assked the Inspector. "Are they dull, too?"
"Oh they're always rowing,"said Sterne, with an edge of contempt in his tone."But they don't have any power, so it doesn't matter."
Inspector Smart spoke with a sudden anger."Somebody had enough power to kill a man. Doesn't that matter?"
For a moment, Sterne met his gaze, then looked away. "Of course it does."
The Inspector nodded. "I think that's all for today. Thank you Mr Sterne."
Sterne showed us out and I saw him watching as we walked across the car park.
As the Inspector and I reached our car, he turned to me."What do you think of Sterne? Has he something to hide?'
I shrugged. "I wondered why he sticks the job. You'd think he'd quit."
I got the job of talking to Mrs Taylor. I found her house in the down market end of Aldermede - an estate of ex-council houses. You can tell it not only from the identical red-brick semis, but also from the clutter in the gardens and on the patch of municipal grass. Broken down cars and scrapped fridges. Mrs Taylor's house had the curtains drawn. I'm glad I didn't have to break the news of her son's death but I was still asked to be gentle with her. There is a theory that women are better at these things than men but I didn't feel that confident.
Mrs Taylor opened the door red-eyed and wild-haired. As I walked in I could see unwashed dishes piled up in the kitchen. I wondered if she'd even bothered to eat. The living room had been recently decorated with a bold flower pattern wallpaper and I guessed Sam had done it. I sat on a comfortable, if battered sofa.
"Can I ask you a few questions about your son?" I asked.
She started crying, drew out a soaked handkerchief and wiped her eyes. "I'll never get over it."
"Would it help if his killers were brought to justice?"
"Prison's too good for them. I want them hung," she said with sudden vehemence.
I didn't want to get involved in an argument about capital punishment. "Can you tell me about Sam?"
"He was a good lad. He had a lot of friends and he was a good worker. I don't know anyone who had a bad word to say about him."
" What about the people at the Town Council? The councillors and the Town Clerk. Did he ever talk about them?"
Mrs Taylor thought for a while. "Didn't have much to do with the councillors. Except for Jeremy Newland. He'd had an argument with him."
"What about? Do you know?"
"Jess. That's Newland's daughter. Sam was seeing her for a while but Newland made a fuss about it. He didn't think our Sam was good enough for his daughter." Mrs Newland got up, picked up a packet of cigarettes from the dining table and lit one. Her hand trembled. "I'm dying for a fag. D'you mind?"
I shook my head and made a note to ask Councillor Newland about his daughter's relationship with Sam Taylor. I've heard of cases of angry fathers who killed unwanted boyfriends. Besides, I knew Sam Taylor wasn' t quite as clean as his mother made out. He'd had a conviction for shoplifting when he was a teenager and he'd hung out with a group of youngsters who'd been caught vandalising the shopping centre.
"What about his friends, Mrs Taylor?" I asked. "Do you know if any of them have a problem with the councillors, or the Town Clerk?"
She didn't reply straight away but sat drawing on her cigarette."I can't answer for his friends," she said at last."Some of them are a bit wild."
I noted that we might want to check on Sam Taylor's associates. I couldn't quite imagine a feud between a gang of young men and the Town Council but an attempt at blackmail or bribery was always possible. That finished the questions I'd meant to ask and I didn't want to trouble Mrs Taylor any longer.
I put away my notebook and stood up. "Thank you Mrs Taylor. You've been very helpful. And I promise we'll do everything we can to catch the people who killed your son."
Inspector Smart called a meeting in the police station. There were quite a few of us, plain clothes officers and detectives, in a room already full of desks and chairs. I sat on a desk, with Lance standing behind me and other officers standing and sitting wherever they could. The Inspector stood by a map of Aldermede on the wall, marked with a number of coloured pins.
"I thought it would be a good idea to review where we've got to with this case,"he said. "What we know and what we need to know. One success today - we think we've found the murder weapon. An iron bar with blood stains on it was found in Furze Lane. Most of us will know the place - it's only couple of miles away" He pointed out a road on the map.
I knew the place. It was a lane that came to a dead end near the by pass and was plagued by fly tippers. It's a pretty obvious place to throw something you want to dispose of. If I'd been trying to hide a murder weapon I'd have buried it, or thrown it in the sea.
"An iron bar's a pretty unsophisticated weapon," said the Inspector. "We're getting a picture of the murderer, or murderers. They're not professional killers."
"Do we think there was more than one person involved? " I asked.
"it's possible. Any of the councillors, or the Town Clerk could have let people into the building. The lab's looking for DNA traces but that'll be a few days yet." He turned back to the map. "We've got CCTV images from the shopping centre but not from the car park behind the Town Council offices. Sergeant Waring has found out some useful information." The Inspector nodded at a young detective with fair hair, who'd been leaning on a filing cabinet.
Sergeant Waring stood up straight and took out his note book. " We think the Town Clerk is a gambling man. We've seen pictures of him coming out of the Council offices and walking to the betting shop. We don't know if he leaves the council offices unattended."
The Inspector nodded. "We'll have to speak to Sterne again. If he's got gambling debts he might have been borrowing money from people. Even Sam Taylor. And some of Sam Taylor's friends have records for extortion."
It was becoming clear to me that the number of people who could have killed Sam Taylor was growing.
When Inspector Smart decided to interview Councillor Jeremy Newland, he asked me to go with him. He said he wanted to draw on my interview with Mrs Taylor. I also think he likes being driven by a presentable young woman. He knows I'm lesbian but he says I don't look butch and I' take that as a compliment. I'm slim and I keep my hair short but it's naturally curly and looks neat.
Jeremy Newland lived on a secluded lane, where all the houses are set in their own grounds, complete with trees and bushes. Most of the houses are old but his was recently built and doubtless architect designed. It was built of glass and wood, with windows that came right down to floor level. I wouldn't care to live in a place like that because it would have to be kept so tidy. We were met at the door by a blonde woman, who might have been fifty but was still slim and elegant. She showed us into a living room where there was an enormous flat screen TV and a smart, silver-grey three piece suite.
Jeremy Newland walked in with his hand outstretched and a smile on his lips but not his eyes, which were cold and grey behind metal rimmed glasses. "I hope this isn't going to take long, Inspector. I've got a business to run."
"I'll try to be quick," said the Inspector, and sat down on one of the armchairs.
I copied him and took out my notebook.
"Can you tell me what time you left the Town Council offices on the day of the murder?"
"Half past nine".
"And did you come straight home?"
"Yes. Eva here can vouch for that."
"Did you see anything unusual outside the Town Council offices or in the car park?"
Jeremy Newland shook his head. "It's pretty quiet at that time of night and I'm sure I would have noticed."
So far all the questions had been straightforward and Jeremy Newland had answered with a crisp certainty that discouraged doubt, but the Inspector was coming to more difficult matters. "Did you know Sam Taylor?"
"Did you have any disagreements with him?"
Newland shrugged "Nothing serious."
I knew it was a lie.
Inspector Smart turned to me. "Sergeant Norman here spoke to Mrs Taylor. Would you remind us what she said, Sergeant?"
It was with some satisfaction that I turned to my notebook. I wanted to prove this arrogant man a liar. "Mrs Taylor said Sam had been seeing your daughter Jess until you made a fuss about it."
Newland reddened, then recovered himself."Jess is only eighteen. Too young to be much of a judge of men. She saw him a few times but I discouraged her. Sam Taylor's not our class."
"So nothing serious?" asked the Inspector
"Can I ask you what your business is, Mr Newland?"
"We make trolleys for the airline industry."
"Presumably you'd have metal rods in your storerooms?"
I suddenly realised where the Inspector was heading.
"Because the murder weapon was a metal rod.," .
Jeremy Newland rose to his feet, his face bright red, his voice shaking. "Are you suggesting I bludgeoned a man to death with a metal rod.? How dare you! "
Inspector Smart rose and sighed. "I'm conducting a murder investigation. I have to ask awkward questions."
Next day, I returned to the Town Council Offices,equipped with a laptop from the station, to have another word with the Town Clerk. I found him working in his offices as if nothing had happened. I sat down opposite him and took out the laptop, as if I was about to sell him furniture.
"We'd like to ask you a few more questions,"I said.
He sighed. "I 'haven't got anything interesting to say, but if you must..."
"We've been looking at the CCTV pictures of the town centre. We haven't found any evidence of a crime but we did find something interesting. I switched on the laptop and brought up several pictures of him crossing the road to the betting office. They were grainy but recognisable.
He groaned. "I have to have some kind of excitement in life. Does it matter if I get it by putting some money on the horses?"
"Some money? Could it be a great deal of money? Is that why you haven't just retired? You owe money to bookmakers?"
He looked at me and brought his fingers together on the desk, as if he was praying."My finances are my affair Sergeant. And I don't have a problem with gambling."
Realising I wasn't going to get any further this way, I changed tack. "When you go out, do you always lock up?"
"I don't know," he admitted. "Perhaps not always. It doesn't usually matter. We don't keep much money in the place and Aldermede's hardly a crime hot spot. Well, it wasn't..."
I got up and walked round his desk to the key box on the wall, which was open. I was aware that he was watching me suspiciously but that wasn't going to stop me. "How many keys to the office are there, Mr Sterne?"
He pushed past me and seized two keys. His hands were trembling, as if he'd suddenly seen something that alarmed him. He searched through the keys in the box then, ignoring me, he opened the drawer to his desk and started taking out rulers, pens and boxes of paper clips. All the languid disinterest that had annoyed me had vanished, to be replaced by agitated action. When he'd almost emptied his desk drawer, he slumped down into his desk and sank his head into his hands.
"It's no good my looking any further Sergeant. There's a key missing."
It seemed to me that the missing key made a massive difference to the case. I said as much to the Inspector as I drove him to see Councillor Patricia Small.
"Doesn't it mean that just about anybody could have killed Sam Taylor?
The Inspector had a way of pulling his lips together while he thought. "Not necessarily," he said, after a while. To start with, they'd only be a limited number of people who knew where the keys were kept. Secondly, we think the murder was probably committed shortly after the Council meeting. Someone's got to know when everybody's left. There isn't anywhere he, or they could have hidden in the building. It still looks like the councillors, the town clerk, and some of the people who knew Sam Taylor."
We had reached the outskirts of Aldermede, where the houses give way to trees and fields, before we found Councillor Small's house. There was a gravel drive leading into a yard, a substantial farmhouse built of knapped flints, a big barn and a line of stables. Horses stood in their boxes, looking out at us, or grazed in a paddock beyond a white fence.
Inspector Small got out of the car and looked around. "Money."
I was surprised to be greeted at the door by Patricia Small herself. She was short and dumpy, with wispy grey hair and was wearing a green sweatshirt and brown trousers. Not at all pretentious.
"I was sorry to hear about poor Sam Taylor," she said. "I'll give you any help I can."
We followed her into a large living room, with oak beams, a real fireplace, and chairs covered in dark red leather. A red setter lay on a mat in front of the fire.
The Inspector asked her the obvious questions and went on "Did you often borrow a key, Mrs Smart?"
"Only when there's a Planning Committee coming up and I need to check documents when Steven isn't there."
"Did you know Mr Sterne was in the habit of popping out and leaving the offices unlocked?"
Mrs Small sighed. "I'm afraid Steven's a gambler, you know."
Inspector Smart nodded. "And he's lost one of the keys. Do you know who might have it?"
Mrs Small shook her head. " I can't imagine. I don't see eye to eye with some of the other councillors. Particularly Jeremy Newland. He wants to see a new business park and a lot more houses, while I want to see the green spaces preserved. I suspect he's always looking for a business opportunity but I don't think he's a murderer."
I noticed that, despite Mrs Small's pleasant manner, she'd managed to make damaging comments about two of her colleagues.
Inspector Smart looked at the oak beams and the fireplace. "This is a lovely place, but it must take a lot of maintenance. Did you employ Sam Taylor youself?"
"Oh yes," she said. "He was a good workman, though he had some dubious friends."
Another critical comment, I thought.
"Did you have any disputes with him?"
"Not really. Only minor things."
I noticed the way she kept her hands folded, as if she distrusted them.
"It must cost a lot of money though. May I ask how you afford to keep it up? The inspector was watching Mrs Small carefully
"Oh my husband works in the City," she said, as if this vague description was enough to indicate a generous salary.
The Inspector rose. "I think that's all for today.Thank you Mrs Small, you've been very helpful." However, when we reached the door he stopped and waved a hand in the direction of the barn. "What do you keep in the barn? It's not as if you're farming here, are you?"
For the first time, Mrs Small seemed taken offguard. She patted her hair as if to gain time. "Oh, just storage you know."
"What do you think, Sergeant?" asked the Inspector as we drove away.
"I think there's something in that barn."
The next day, I was drafted in for the job of stopping motorists entering the car park behind the Town Council building. We wanted any information about the night of the murder. The weather didn't help, as it was one of those days when it rains persistently and the sky never clears. I was there all afternoon, with the rain dripping off my cap and water sprayed by passing motorists soaking my feet.
Most motorists didn't mind being stopped and questioned. After all, they were about to park anyway, so they were already slowing down. Some people made predictable jokes like " Can't you find anything better to do on a beautiful day like this?", and others invited me to sit in their car while I asked questions - an invitation I declined.
I started off by asking "Were you here the night of the 31st October?" The fact that it was Halloween didn't help. Some young guys laughed and said "Why, did you see a ghost?, or "I can think of better places to haunt." If the answer was no, I waved the motorists on. If it was yes, I followed up with "Did you see anything unusual? Anything at all that you noticed?" Usually, the answer to this was no.
It was dark by 4 pm but we'd come equipped with powerful lights, so we kept on working . Lance was with me and talked about keeping goal for his football club, while I told him about my karate. All the same, I was growing bored and cold when a white Ford stopped and a middle aged man wound down the window. He wore a coat and a cap and had a cigarette between his teeth. I asked my usual questions.
He took out his cigarette and blew a cloud of smoke. "Come to think of it, there was something a bit odd. "
I was immediately paying full attention. "Go on."
"There was a white van over there," he gestured to the corner of the car park beyond the Town Council offices. "One of those builders' vans. And there were two big blokes standing there not doing anything much. Just hanging around like. I suppose I noticed it because I'd have expected them to be off down the pub or something."
I started writing in my notebook. "What time was that, about?"
He thought for a moment. "Well, I'd promised to meet a mate of mine at the Royal Oak by half nine. I got there on time like but he kept me waiting."
"Can you describe them?"
"Now you're asking." He took off his cap and scratched his head. "It was dark and I think they were wearing dark jackets. I didn't see them clearly like. "
"You said they were big."
"Yeah, bulky like, rather than tall. "
"Oh yeah, white and not old. Forties like. Can't say more than that. It's not much to go on, is it?"
"You've been very helpful," I assured him. I radioed headquarters straight away bcause the information felt significant.
The next day, Inspector Smart and I went to see Major Ferndown. After the apparent wealth of Jeremy Newland and Patricia Small, I suppose I expected to find Major Ferndown living in luxury. In fact, his was an ordinary modern house in one of those estates where most of the properties look the same. It was detached with a garage, white plastic windows and a neat garden. An extension was being added to the house opposite.
The Major came to the door as soon as we knocked. If I'd imagined a crusty old army man, I'd have been wrong. He was greying, but still slim and upright, and he wore a navy blue jersey with beige trousers. . I remembered Sterne saying the Major thought the country was going to the dogs and wondered if he was right.
The Major showed us into a living room which was full of books - shelves of them, mostly history and geography. On every available flat surface there were photographs of soldiers in uniform, some combat and others ceremonial. I sat in an armchair and took out my notebook.
Inspector Smart asked his usual questions and added "Did you know Sam Taylor at all?"
Rather to my surprise, the Major nodded. "I'd spoken to him a few times. He was one of those chaps who might have benefitted from a spell in the forces."
"In what way?",
"I got the impression he'd been a bit of a tearaway as a lad. Usual story - father missing, mother struggling, friends who'd been in trouble with the police. A bit of army discipline might have sorted him out. That's the trouble with a lot of youngsters - no discipline. He'd made an effort, got himself some training and a job as an electrician. But I'm not sure he'd broken with his dodgy friends."
"Do you know anyone who might have wanted him dead?"
"I've asked myself that," said the Major and scratched his chin. "My guess is he was involved in some dodgy deal that went wrong. But I don't know what that had to do with the Town Council. I know both Jeremy Newland and Patricia Small had got him to do jobs for them but that's all."
"Did he do any jobs for you?"asked the Inspector.
"Not for me personally, but I got him to do some work for a former sergeant of mine who was renovating a pub not far from here." The Major smiled, with a flash of white teeth. "Don't mind admitting I'm fond of a pint myself."
There was a sudden noise outside, a kind of rumbling crash and the Major jumped to his feet and rushed to the window. When he returned, shaking his head, his hands were trembling.
"It was just those idiot builders," he said. "Dropped a couple of scaffolding poles."
I had formed the impression the Major was the most pleasant of the people I'd met so far but a doubt formed in my mind. Had his army service affected his nerves?
The Inspector may have had the same thought, because he asked "Where did you serve, Major?"
"A number of places including Northern Ireland and Afghanistan. That was the last and the worst. Too many of my men were killed." A kind of farawy look formed in his eyes.
As we drove away the Inspector asked. "What do you think? "Could our Major have killed Sam Taylor?"
I'd asked myself the same question. "I don't know what his motive would have been. But I did wonder if he could have flipped for some reason."
All those involved in the hunt for Sam Taylor's killer arrived for a meeting at our incident room the next morning. It was only a portakabin in the local park but it was better than the cramped room at our police station. As Inspector Smart presided I realised how tired he looked, with big bags under his eyes. I wondered how many hours of sleep he'd got since the investigation started.
"We've had some news from the lab," he said."They've tested the DNA samples we collected from the councillors and the Town Clerk and none of them match the DNA found on Sam Taylor's clothes."
There was a murmur from the officers sitting in the room, as much disappointment as surprise. I think we were all hoping for a breakthrough in the investigation.. Someone asked "Do we have any new leads, Inspector?"
"We've got a sighting of two men acting suspiciously in the car park. It's a bit vague but it's something to go on. But I still think our murderer had a connection with the Town Council."
"Could someone have hired a hit man?'" I asked.
"That's one of the possibilities. But the hit men were probably local louts rather than professionals."
Sergeant Waring stood up. with his notebook open. "One of Sam Taylors friends, Gary Baker, said he reckoned Sam was involved in some kind of blackmail attempt, but he didn't know who the target was."
Inspector Smart nodded. "So, we've got two lines of inquiry." He walked up to the wall of the portakabin. Next to the map of the area, someone had pinned a list of Sam Taylor's contacts. It consisted of all the councillors, the Town Clerk, his mother and sister, girlfriend and several male friends. Beside the list was a flip chart.
The Inspector took up a pen and wrote "Identify the two men seen in the car park," and "Investigate the possible blackmail attempt." He sighed and rubbed his eyes. "I know we could all do with some rest but this inquiry has got a bit of a way to go yet."
In our interviews with the councillors, we'd left Lizzie Wilde last for a reason. She lived in a block of flats on a road almost parallel with the back of the Town Council offices. If anybody had seen odd goings on in the car park the night of the murder, it would have been Lizzie Wilde. We were hoping her information would fill in whatever gaps the others had left. I was intrigued to meet her anyway, because she sounded different from the typical councillor.
Her flat was in a modern block, four storeys high and brick built. It had a communal stairwell and plain wood-effect doors opening off a corridor. As Lizzie opened the door, she looked like the image of the girl next door:slim with long blonde hair. She was wearing a sparkly top and jeans. I couldn't help wondering why she'd stood for election to a council where all the other members were middle-aged or elderly.
She showed us into a living room which was plainly furnished, with a couple of beige armchairs, a dining table and four chairs and beige curtains. One could guess it was rented. However, she'd brightened the place up by hanging posters of the Arctic Monkeys on the wall. The inspector and I sat in the armchairs, while Lizzie threw a cushion on the floor for herself.
The Inspector asked the question that was bugging me. "Why did you decide to be a councillor, Lizzie?"
"It was my Dad's idea really," she said. "He said there aren't enough young people involved in local politics. And It's true. Most people my age think the Council's a waste of space but we can do quite a lot really. I've already got the old youth club in the park reopened."
As she spoke I wondered how strong her father's influence was on her and what kind of man he was.
"Did you have much to do with Sam Taylor?" asked Inspector Smart.
The look of bright enthusiasm faded from her eyes. "He tried to put his arm round me once. I told him I didn't like that sort of thing but he just laughed."
"Did your father know about that?"
She shook her head. "I can look after myself."
I guessed, however, that her life had been sheltered and hadn't involved meeting people like Sam Taylor's rougher friends.
"However, the inspector was moving on through his questions " Have you ever borrowed a key to the Council offices?"
She shook her head. "Don't need to really. Mr Sterne's usually there."
"Except when he pops over the road to the betting offices," said the Inspector. "Were you aware of anyone else borrowing it shortly before the murder?"
Lizzie looked thoughtful for a minute, twisting the ends of her long hair round her fingers. "I know Pat Smart borrows it occasionally. That's all."
"It's not very far to the Council offices from here is it? " said the Inspector. "How do you get there?"
"I walk" said Lizzie, then started to tremble. "I don't like to think there was a murderer about when I was walking home that night"
"Did you walk through the car park? That would have been the shortest way."
Lizzie nodded, then looked up at the Inspector. "You don't think I did it, do you?"
The Inspector shook his head. "Though it's possible someone you know did."
" I hope not " Lizzie twirled her hair round her fingers again.
I watched her with some sorrow, seeing her enthusiasm and idealism being tarnished by this brutal murder.
"When you walked through the car park that night, did you see two men with a white van?" asked the Inspector.
She thought for a moment, then nodded. "I walked past a couple of men who were standing by a white van in the corner of the car park. I didn't think it important."
"It might be important, Lizzie," said the inspector, leaning forward in his chair. " Can you describe them?"
"It was dark," she said, "and they were wearing dark clothes. Black anoraks I think, and one had a dark woolly hat. The other had a hood."
"What sort of height, and were they fat or thin?"
For a moment, she looked at the Inspector. "About your height. But fatter. Not exactly fat, more sturdy. One of them looked at me - the one with the hat and he was a bit unshaven, stubbly. The other lit a cigarette, so I saw his face better. A round face with little eyes."
The inspector smiled. "Thank you, Lizzie. You've been very helpful."
We spent the next few days trawling through pictures of known criminals to find men who met the description Lizzie had given us. The trouble was the description was still a bit vague. It could have fitted many of the men on our books, so we tried to screen out those who seemed unlikely - those who lived at the other end of the country and those who were known for very different crimes. Eventually we came up with a shortlist and decided to phone Lizzie Wilde. We wanted her to come to the station to look through the pictures.
I rang Lizzie's mobile and got no answer. That didn't trouble me much, as she could easily have been out of mobile range or engaged with activities she didn't want interrupted. But when we tried again in the evening, we got the same result. So Inspector Smart sent me to knock on her door.
I climbed up the stairs to Lizzie's flat and was about to knock on the door when I noticed an odd stain on the carpet under the door. I bent down and looked more closely. It was blood. I rang headquarters immediately and it didn't take long before a group of officers arrived with equipment to knock down the door. I was among the first to barge in through the battered door. There on the floor was the body of Lizze Wilde, flat on her back, with her pretty face smashed and her blonde hair covered in blood.
I don't mind admitting her death threw me. When we interviewed her, I'd got the impression of almost childlike idealisam and innocence. It seemed so wrong that she'd died as a result of some nasty conspiracy. And it was becoming more and more obvious that there was a conspiracy involved. What we were calling the Town Council Murder wasn't the work of one person.
When Inspector Smart arrived, he stood looking at the body and colour drained out his face. "I want the people who did this caught."
"So do I, " I said.
"They must have found out that Lizzie was the source of the information about the men we're looking for," said the Inspector. "Ok, we gave the press the descriptions but not where we got them from." He looked round the group of officers now gathered in Lizzie's small flat. "At least, I hope nobody disclosed that."
There was a murmur among the officers in the room. Everyone knew disclosing the source of information was a grievous offence.
"The addresses of the councillors are public, aren't they, Inspector?" I said. "Perhaps they thought like we did that Lizzie was the person most likely to have seen the men in the car park."
The Inspector nodded. "That almost certainly means they're local, or know the area pretty well. Ok, we want to know where all the known hoodlums in the area have been over the last few days. "
We worked through the list of local criminals with convictions for violence, particularly those who bore any resemblance to the men Lizzie had described. My attitude had changed. Before Lizzie's death, I'd just been doing my job. Now it was personal. I suppose I felt we'd failed Lizzie in some way; we'd exposed her to danger, although we hadn't realised this until too late.
I said this to the Inspector while we were working in the incident room, matching up descriptions and addresses. We were taking a rare break over a cup of coffee.
"I feel almost responsible for Lizzie's death," I said.
The Inspector stirred his coffee. "No. Try not to get too emotionally involved. I know it's hard, especially when it's a nice young woman like Lizzie that gets killed. But if you get too involved, it can mess you up. And stop you doing the job properly. When this is all over, I suggest you take a holiday. Fly off to the sun somewhere."
But before that, we had to try to find Mick Baker, who was on our list of suspects. The address given was that of a caravan park but, when we arrived, we found only a few caravans behind a farm. The drive into the site was deep in mud and most of the vans looked deserted. Only one had a line of washing hanging outside, desolate in the damp air. From the confidence with which the Inspector strode over to the van and knocked on the door, I guessed he'd been here before.
A woman opened the door. The first thing I noticed was a vivid black eye, which stood out against her pale, almost pasty skin. Her hair was scraped back in a pony tail, and she wore dark jogging trousers and a grey sweatshirt. As soon as she saw the Inspctor, she tried to shut the caravan door but he was too quick and wedged it open with his leg.
" You know me, Tina," said the Inspector. "When have I ever done you any harm?"
Tina opened the caravan door a little wider. "If you're after Mick, you're out of luck. He hasn't been here for months."
"Then who gave you that black eye?"
"I tripped over something in the van and banged my head on the cooker."
I knew she was lying because she was afraid of the missing Mick. That only increased my determination to find him.