Awarded 2nd place in Cambridge Writers short story competition of 2012
It was a quiet day at police headquarters. I hoped it would stay that way. If I could be bothered to haul my feet off my desk and stare out of my window at the busy street below I could maybe convince myself that all was well with the world. Some hope. Crime and corruption were everywhere; even this town had once been shaken by the news that the mayor had sold his wife.
I was trying to look busy, working on a seedy case against a local bookseller who’d been peddling indecent photographs of young girls, when the chief bustled into my office, wearing that stern expression that always meant bad news. He’d worn it when he’d told us about the drownings in Shadwater Weir on Egdon Heath and when that crazy old farmer had gone berserk and shot a cavalry sergeant at the Christmas party at Weatherbury Hall. He put his hands on my desk and said, “There’s been a murder, Chadwick.”
Constables Gifford and Dugdale were waiting for me at Sandbourne station. As they whisked me through the wide streets I looked out at the rash of new hotels that overlooked the bay. All those visitors with too much money and too much time on their hands – it was no surprise they were killing each other off. Eventually we drew up outside a nondescript villa set back from the road, with a view over the sea. The name on the creaking sign that needed repainting said ‘The Herons’. In the lobby a large, middle-aged lady was waiting for us.
“This is Inspector Chadwick, from Casterbridge H.Q.,” said Constable Gifford. “Sir, this is Mrs. Brooks, the proprietor.”
“Was it you who found the stiff?” I asked.
“No. I were worried ’bout what ‘ad ‘appened, so I popped over to the Excelsior and found old Charlie who were doin’ the gardens. He came over and barged the door open. That ‘ll need new hinges now, as sure as sure, and none o’ this pickle’ll good for business, will it?”
“Maybe lodging at a house where a murder was committed will lead to increased bookings,” I said and her wide mouth crinkled into an uneven smile. “You said you were worried? Why?”
She beckoned us into her parlour and stared up at the ceiling. I followed her gaze and saw a large crimson stain. “It’s blood, Inspector,” said young Constable Dugdale.
“You’ll go far, sonny,” I said.
“I was a-sittin’ here when I glanced up and saw the first drops,” said Mrs. Brooks in a theatrical whisper. All her guests would hear this story for years to come. “Then it just grew and grew, and I climbed up on the table and put my finger on it. Blood! It was that trollop, weren’t it. She did him in.”
“Mrs. D’Urberville, she calls herself, though I reckon she ain’t his wife. Just wants his money, if you ask me. I ‘eard ’em, arguin’ they were, then it all goes quiet, and next thing I sees her all dressed-up like some courtesan, calmly pulling on her gloves as she goes out o’that there door. She’ll be long gone now.”
“Any idea what the argument was about?” I asked. She struck me as the type to hang around listening at doors and peeping through keyholes. Her sort were a godsend to police work.
“Well, I reckon it were all to do with her visitor.”
“When was this?”
“Right early this mornin’ it were. A curious time for respectable folk to come a-callin’.”
“Did he give a name?”
“No, Angel were ‘is first name. He dint give no surname, but said ‘e were a relative. Anyway, right scruffy lookin’ he were, considerin’ he were callin’ on folk like the D’Urbervilles, and he dint look well. Wasted away, like a walkin’ skeleton, he were, and his skin all yellow.” Mrs. Brooks sat down and stared up at the bloodstain again. “Right shook me up, this has, Inspector. Anyway, this Angel and Mrs. D’Urberville chatted in the ‘all ‘ere. I ‘eard ‘er tell ‘im more than once that ‘e were too late. So, ‘e went off and she went upstairs and started rowing with her ‘usband. Nice man, he is. Was I mean. Charming. A real gentleman.”
“Well, thank you, Mrs. Brooks. Now, I’d better see the body.” I told Constable Dugdale to get a full statement and descriptions, while Gifford led the way up the curved staircase and into a large suite of rooms. On the dining table was an untouched breakfast, but the man in his early thirties who was flat on his back on a large bed in the bedroom with a carving-knife sticking out of his chest wouldn’t be eating it any time soon.
“Alec D’Urberville, sir,” said Gifford. “Originally from Trantridge Manor.”
“Find out all you can about him. And find the angle on this Angel. Sounds to me like he was maybe a blackmailer, or by the description the old biddy gave us, some sort of opium addict. Get men at the railway station – find out who got on the trains to London, Southampton, Portsmouth, Budmouth and Exonbury. Report back to me at four. Oh, and Gifford?”
“Anything strike you as odd about the bloodstain on the ceiling?”
“It’s odd. The victim looks like he’s just fallen onto the bed straight after the one fatal stab wound to the heart. The fact that he’s on his back, with the weapon still in place, limits the external blood loss. Most of it will just drain into the body, see? And also that thick mattress could probably absorb our full gallon of blood. Very strange.”
I spent the day at Sandbourne police station, gathering information. Several men fitting the description of Angel had been seen; one had left the railway station that morning on foot without boarding a train, and, as news of the felony spread around the town, a hotel manager came in to say that a man by the name of Angel Clare had checked out after staying just one night. He had gone out for a walk before breakfast and came back looking very depressed. Now we had a name it was easier and the next day I went northwards to Emminster.The Reverend James Clare confirmed that he had a son called Angel. He was a troubled young man who’d emigrated to Brazil after a short-lived marriage to a farm girl, but had recently returned and had set off to find his wife. Her name had been Teresa Durbeyfield.
“Bit of a coincidence, wouldn’t you say, sir?” said Gifford as we headed back to town. “Durbeyfield? D’Urberville?”
“Hmmm. Any sign of the suspect?”
“No sir, nothing at any of the ports.”
“We’d better follow the Durbeyfield leads. See if that gets us anywhere.”
Where it led us, three days later, was the steep streets of Shaston. My knock on the door of a tiny cottage was answered by a middle-aged woman in mourning, surrounded by a pack of children. The eldest girl was a real looker, tall and slim as a willow. Her face looked familiar. Her name was Eliza-Louise, Liza-Lu for short. She told her mother she was off to buy some bread and ushered us out of the cottage. As soon as we were around the corner she stopped and said, “Look, if it’s about those photographs I only did it cos I needed the money to help mother. Please don’t arrest me,” she begged, her long lashes fluttering softly. It was then I recognised her from the seized photographs. She was just as beautiful with her clothes on. “No, it’s not about that.”
“We’re trying to locate your sister Teresa. Has she been here recently?”
“Not in months. You should try in Sandbourne; she’s living there with her – er – husband.” Liza-Lu’s brown eyes widened. “Do you know her story, sir?” She went on to tell us how their drunken, penniless father had been told that he was the last of the noble D’Urbervilles and had sent Tess to claim kinship with Alec at Trantridge and maybe come home with a bit of cash. What she did come home with was a swollen belly after Alec had raped her. The baby died and Tess went away to work on a dairy farm at Talbothays.
“That’s over Blackmore Vale way, isn’t it, miss?” said Constable Gifford. Liza-Lu nodded and Gifford went back to scribbling in his notebook. He’d filled enough pages for a novel. The girl went on to tell us how Tess fell in love with a young gentleman called…
“Angel Clare?” I suggested.
“That’s right, sir,” she said, her big brown eyes widening. “How’d you know? Anyway, Tessie kept her past a secret, but when she did tell him, he just upped and left. Broke her heart it did. She kept hoping he’d come back, but he never did. Then Mr. D’Urberville came on the scene. He never knew he was the father of Tess’s child and he wanted to see her right – he offered to take care of all of us, he did.” The poor girl was close to tears. She looked even more beautiful when she was sad.
We chased leads to Talbothays Dairy and to the D’Urberville family vaults in Kingsbere church but we were going nowhere fast. The trail was as cold as a judge’s smile. A week after the murder I was back at my desk in Casterbridge, studying the form for Budmouth races. I don’t know why I bothered – whenever I went racing the bookmakers would greet me like a long-lost brother. The chief saved my money. He rushed into my office, his face flushed redder than the ace of hearts. “They’ve been spotted, Chadwick,” he beamed. “They’re heading north, but we’ll get them now.”
The station’s fastest horses were saddled and Gifford and I set off through the Great Forest to a deserted mansion called Bramshurst Court. The old lady who’d found them was waiting by the once-grand porch – house and housekeeper looked equally decrepit. “It’s my task to open up the shutters on fine days like this,” she said. “Course, it’s been so awful damp the last weekI hant been up ‘ere, so they mighta been ‘ere days. I saw ’em, in bed together. Naked they were, sir.”
“Did they see you?”
“No, they be sleepin’ like babies, but when I came back with my son to chuck ’em out, they’d gone. Reckon they saw the shutters open and knew someone had been.”
I gave the old crone a shilling for her troubles – it was less than I would have lost at Budmouth. “Onto Melchester, Gifford,” I said, “we’ll change horses there.”
It was the middle of the night when we got to the city. Gifford wanted to rest up but I insisted that we rounded up a few of the local bobbies. We set off across the Great Plain, reaching Stonehenge at daybreak. From some way off I could see a couple of figures by one of the great stones. We dismounted, spread out and approached the couple. The man started as he saw me approach and looked around for a way out.
“It’s no use, Angel,” I shouted. “You’re completely surrounded. Come out with your hands up!”
The man stood passively as I approached him. “Please, let her sleep,” he said, nodding over at the long, slim female figure asleep on one of the flat stones.
“Let her sleep? My men want to get back to Melchester. You any idea how much this is costing the taxpayers in overtime? Gifford, wake the girl.” The constable took a few steps towards her, but the rising sun had already cast its rays on her face.
“What is it, Angel? Have they come?” she murmured.
“Yes, dearest,” replied her lover.
I stepped forward and quickly checked her for weapons before I snapped the handcuffs on her slender wrists. “Teresa Clare, also known as D’Urberville, I am arresting you for the murder of Alec D’Urberville. You do not have to say anything, but anything you do say may be used in evidence against you. Do you understand?”
“I am ready,” she said simply.
“Where are you taking her?” said Angel. He looked more shocked than his wife.
“’Her’? I think you mean ‘us’, don’t you? Gifford, arrest this man.”
“Arrest me? Why?” he said, as the handcuffs were shackled around him.
“Do you think I was born yesterday? You plotted this together, right?”
“Look at that bloodstain on your wife’s dress. Where’d that come from? You must have known. So even if you didn’t plan it, you’re an accessory after the fact under section eight of the 1861 Accessories and Abettors Act.”
“Not to mention obstruction, perverting the course of justice and, of course, misprision of felony.”
“But you don’t understand,” he protested. “I’m needed for the last chapter. I’m to go off with Tess’s sister after the… the…you know,” he said, dropping his voice to a whisper and jerking his head sidewards with a grimace. “She’s told me to look after Liza-Lu, as she’s so pure and without her sin.”
“Look, I’m just doing my job. Pity your author doesn’t know as much about the criminal law code as he does about the geography of Wessex. Given us the right run around, he has. And I’d say he’s stitched you up like a kipper. Get yourself a good lawyer, cos you’re looking at a good long stretch. And another thing,” I said to him quietly. “Your Liza-Lu isn’t as pure as you think.” I showed him the photographs that just happened to be in my pocket and he winced. “Not her fault. She needed the money. But I can’t see your clergyman father wanting that sort of girl in the family, can you? Right, let’s go.” We marched them towards the police carriage and set off towards Melchester.
Another case closed. Justice would be done and the D’Urberville knights would continue sleeping the big sleep in their tombs. Maybe the Chief would give me a few days leave. I could go toBudmouth races or even pay a visit to Shaston. Liza-Lu would need informing of the change of plans.