The Body On The Beach: 20

The bell above the door sprang into life announcing her arrival as she entered the bookshop. Inside there was a comforting musty smell. Piccolo perused the shelves. Typical of this type of establishment there were many volumes by the likes of Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens. She lingered over a copy of ‘A Christmas Carol’. There were many other authors she had never heard of and subjects she had not encountered. This was, of course, the delight of any bookshop. There was a display of works on the Aztecs and the Incas including what she assumed were curios of the period. How strange to see them here, she thought. In one corner of the shop was a glass-fronted cabinet that on closer inspection was found to contain first editions. It was firmly locked. A man appeared. He was tall and slim and well dressed. He had a small neat beard, his swept back hair greying at the temples. His age was difficult to determine – he had an almost timeless quality about him. Piccolo thought him not unattractive.

‘Oh you startled me’ she said.

‘I am most sorry’ he said in a well educated, almost theatrical voice. ‘Miss Piccolo?’ he added.

‘Why yes’ she replied somewhat surprised.

‘Mortimer Catchpole’ he extended his hand which she took. ‘A great pleasure to meet you’.

‘How did you …?’.

‘Know who you were?’ he finished her sentence. ‘Arthur Morgan telephoned me – you met him at that turgid local History Society. I trust you weren’t too bored at their meeting? He said you might call on me, and here you are’.

‘Actually the meeting was very interesting’ she lied, being quite defensive.

‘I’ve been hoping to meet with you since I learned of your arrival at The Lynn’ he said. ‘Your reputation as an author proceeds you’.

‘I am flattered’ Piccolo said, unsure as to whether or not he was being truthful.

‘Sadly I don’t stock any of your novels. One has to go to a train station WH Smith to buy them I believe?’

Now she couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic, however frightfully politely. Nevertheless he was correct, that was the place to buy her books, and they sold in large numbers (was he aware of that?, she thought). Indeed she had a captive market of bored clerks and frustrated secretaries who flooded into the Metropolis daily via the great railway hubs in The City and the West End, all craving escapism. (She’d learned long ago that if you included the name of somewhere exotic, such as Mesopotamia, in the title it did wonders for sales).

‘Have you owned the shop for long’ Piccolo asked.

‘I inherited it from my Father some years ago, as he had inherited from his Father. It’s been in the family for a long time’.

‘You don’t appear very busy’ she said.

‘You don’t own a book shop to make money’ he explained ‘not unless you stock the more popular fiction, but we, as you see, don’t’.

‘Very much your own world then I imagine’ said Piccolo.

‘Precisely. I prefer it that way. The world out there is not of my liking. But talk of trade must be boring you, may I make you some tea?’

‘No. Thank you. I understand you have a collection of books on the Occult’.

‘You’ve been talking with the delightful Miss Veronica, haven’t you? Well yes I do, and no, I wasn’t involved with whatever occurred at the ruins – I haven’t even seen whatever markings have been left there, though I am curious – perhaps you and I should go and take a look’ Mortimer offered.

‘It’s a tad cold for my liking’ Piccolo said, expertly sidestepping the issue. ‘But I should very much like to see your collection’.

‘Why of course’ he said without hesitation. ‘It’s just through the back, if you’d care to follow me’. She did. They were eventually halted by a wide maroon heavy velvet curtain separating off a part of the shop. ‘Voila’ Mortimer said for effect drawing back the fabric partition. Behind was revealed a mini library of well kempt books arranged on dark wooden shelves (of a much higher quality than those in the front of the shop). There was a round table with a reading lamp and a richly upholstered chair. Quite a place for study, Piccolo thought. She entered the sanctum, walking around, running a leather gloved hand across some of the spines. There was no dust here, and the musty smell had been replaced by that of candle wax.

‘Quite impressive’ she said. ‘Obviously you have a particular interest’.

‘In the works, not in the beliefs. I don’t dabble. Those sorts of forces could be … problematic’.

‘So you acknowledge their existence?’

‘I acknowledge the existence of all sorts of things my dear lady. I’m also sure that there is far more to the universe than the primitive human mind understands’ expanded Mortimer.

‘I couldn’t possibly disagree with you’ Piccolo said, and she meant it. She appreciated how limiting even imagination was.

‘So what do you make of the Bessinghams?’ he asked. ‘I know you’ve met with them a number of times with your husband’.

‘I couldn’t claim to know them’ Piccolo said, almost flirtingly. ‘But they seem no different than I would have expected’ she added cryptically. ‘Do you know them?’.

‘Oh yes’ Mortimer answered. ‘Our paths have crossed. They are loathsome wasters who have inherited too much and worked too little’. The candour of this response surprised Piccolo somewhat. She wondered whatever else he had to say on the subject. Something that might be germane to investigations, perhaps? Time for her to do some digging.

‘Might I change my mind and have that cup of tea now?’ she asked.

The Body On The Beach: 19

Simmonds was summoned to Headquarters to give a briefing. The atrocity at Bessingham Hall was so removed from ordinary experience that an eye-witness account was required to dispel disbelief. Piccolo was therefore left to her own devices. She had seen a leaflet about the local History Society in the hotel lobby, and by chance they were meeting that very afternoon, so she decided to attend. A writer’s curiously was always alert to a potential avenue of inspiration. She’d actually long considered penning an historical novel.

A small community hall was the location and the subject was the Roman ruins that were situated just outside the town. They were a minor tourist attraction, but apparently of major academic archaeological importance. Unfortunately it was a dull presentation as such enthusiast events are prone to be – preaching to the converted seldom requiring great oratory. There was some socialising amongst the dozen or so attendees at the end, and Piccolo was quickly identified as a newcomer. Eyebrows were raised when they discovered she was the police Inspector’s wife, the murder and subsequent investigation being the talk of the town. Luckily the horror at the Hall had not yet been made public. Some of the members asked probing questions about the case but Piccolo deftly batted them aside saying she knew nothing and was simply keeping her husband company.

‘Are you particularly interested in the ruins?’ asked Arthur Morgan, the group’s Treasurer.

‘I have to admit that I had not heard of them until today’ said Piccolo adding: ‘Fascinating lecture’.

‘Well if you’d care to visit I’d be happy to facilitate’ offered Arthur ‘although you’d need to wait until we have cleaned up the site’.

‘Oh’ said Piccolo ‘are you in the middle of an excavation?’

‘Not quite dear lady. We have been vandalised. Some miscreants have daubed the walls with strange graphics’.

‘Did you tell her that they are satanic symbols?’ said a small voice that had ambled up behind them. ‘Veronica Bainbridge’ she introduced herself ‘Town Librarian’.

Now Piccolo was genuinely intrigued.

‘And Society stalwart’ added Arthur ‘and no I haven’t as I’ve not yet examined them closely enough to draw any such conclusion’.

‘Well I have’ said Veronica ‘and they are clearly satanic, I cross-checked with an encyclopaedia. Freshly painted too. Someone has been up there recently conducting some diabolic ceremony’. She was very earnest.

‘You can’t be sure of that’ said Arthur ‘and none of that devil worship stuff is real anyway’.

‘Sure as can be with what I can see with my own eyes. That Mortimer has a whole Occult section in his shop, I bet he’s involved, probably at the heart of it’ Veronica expounded.

‘Mortimer?’ asked Piccolo.

‘Mortimer Catchpole’ said Veronica ‘second-hand and antiquarian book dealer, has a shop in Market Street. Lives up at the Old Mill. Family has been here forever but he’s the last of his line. The most dangerous man in Bessingham!’

‘Please, Veronica’ said Arthur ‘such slander’.

‘Well he’s a strange one mind’ she continued ‘keeps himself to himself. There have been rumours’.

‘Rumours?’ asked Piccolo.

‘Rumours linking him to virtually everything bad that’s ever happened’ interjected Arthur ‘even the murder of poor Margaret Howard. Load of nonsense if you ask me. Places like this tend not to like people who don’t fit in. They become easy prey for all sorts of malicious gossip’.

The Body On The Beach: 18

Given Simmonds’ suspicion of a connection to a person or persons at the Hall (either as accomplices or intended audience), he had the names of the staff checked against police files. They came back ‘NOT KNOWN’ except for two – one who had failed to declare a conviction and prison term for theft (of a blanket when they were sleeping rough) before taking up their job; another for an assault (brawling in a public house), just a few weeks previous, who had said nothing of the encounter. They were both ex-soldiers who worked as general labourers on the estate. Otherwise the men appeared to be of good character. Simmonds discussed the matter with Lord Bessingham who decided to take no further action as their employer (colleagues vouching for them as ‘fine blokes’), despite the widely know fact that Lord B expected his workforce to report any trouble attached to them. By all accounts this was a genuinely caring stance and he had helped many to overcome misfortune. As there was no evidence to link either man to the night’s events (indeed they had conducted themselves admirably in the ensuing assemblage), the Inspector could not regard them with any great suspicion, but neither could he rule them out of the investigation, and so they were added to the list of ‘Persons of Interest’ alongside Henry Dalling, Charles Howard, and Eric and Agnes. As Margaret’s murder and the crucifixion had Bessingham links (though he knew not what beyond a family member and location), Simmonds decided to maintain a broad watch — hence the conglomeration of names. He had considered adding Miss Edith and George Whittle to this list, but knew he needed to speak with them again, preferably each on their own, before doing so. He had a feeling he was missing something in their regard.

The Body On The Beach: 17

A preliminary report was with Simmonds the next day. It stated that the victim’s body had been so badly burned at such a high temperature (it probably having being doused in an accelerant), that it was impossible to determine a cause of death. It was however possible to ascertain from what was left of the skeleton that the remains were most likely those of an adult male. Examination of the cross showed it to be well constructed of factory sawn timber. Given the estimated weight it would have required more than one man to move it manually. It had been sunk into the ground to a depth of approximately two feet, and had been braced either side to support it vertically. Obviously a great deal of thought and planning had been involved. There were a variety of marks on the ground but nothing discernible from the fevered activity of Simmonds and the other men that night. How the cross was placed there undetected was baffling.

Simmonds concluded that such effort would surely only be expended to communicate some meaning, to make some statement, to manifest some power. Someone who saw the spectacle that night must have understood it’s purpose, but as to what that purpose was Simmonds found himself completely in the dark.

The Body On The Beach: 16

That evening, in an attempt to clear their minds, Simmonds and Piccolo went to The Plaza Picture House. The biopic Nelson was being screened. They let the movie fill their senses, and when they finally emerged, blinking, into the night, for a short while the world seemed a different place. They held each other close as they walked back to the hotel. The fur collar of Piccolo’s coat kept out the chill, just as it had done that morning on the beach, which now seemed like an age ago and something that belonged to another lifetime. There were only two weeks left until Christmas. They had never felt less festive.

The Body On The Beach: 15

Simmonds and Piccolo drove back to The Lynn later that afternoon, the storm having abated and there being no other police work to be concluded in situ at the Hall. At the hotel they bathed and changed into clean clothes. They had a light tea sent up to their suite and tried to make sense of recent events. After discussing what little they could about the most recent atrocity — a sense of numbness and denial had descended to protect their sanities — they turned to the original conundrum.

‘So we can dismiss the incest accusation’ said Piccolo.

‘If we believe what appears to be true about Charles then yes’ said Simmonds.

‘Oh you’re not supposing the old double-bluff, are you? Do you think he’s that clever?’

‘Probably not’ said Simmonds. Although he had no proof that Eric and Agnes were lying, or what their motivation for such behaviour might be, he was prepared to accept Piccolo’s analysis and dismiss the accusation. However, it wasn’t something that could be ignored. He held his exhausted head in his hands. ‘Bit of a mess this one’ he concluded.

‘Sometimes when I’m writing’ said Piccolo ‘the plot runs away and I find myself boxed into a corner, and then I think ‘God, what a pickle!’, but it never is, there’s always a solution if you calm down and think things through rationally. So let’s think: Why would you choose to kill someone by means of an overdose? There are far more conventional and simpler ways of committing murder’.

‘To make it look like an accident’ replied Simmonds.

‘But that would only work if the victim was already an addict, or you made it look like they were. Neither applies in this case’.

‘Then to make it look like suicide’ proffered Simmonds.

‘Possibly, so where is the staging? Why no syringe left at the scene? No note?’ Piccolo was, of course, completely correct in her observation.

‘So if it is therefore neither a self-administered overdose nor a suicide then it has to be murder but we know that already, so where does all this lead?’ Simmonds asked.

‘It leaves us, Darling, missing the one thing that explains the whole mystery. Not the ‘how’ of Margaret’s death, or the ‘who did it’, but the ‘why’ of her murder’.

The Body On The Beach: 14

Dawson excused himself — he had to report in person to the Chief Constable. Simmonds was left in charge of yet another major case. Having assured himself that Piccolo was recovered from the initial shock (he need not have worried, she was very resilient), he then proceeded to survey the now crowded scene best as he was able.

Lady Bessingham was in great distress. She had witnessed the whole affair and Simmonds could not begin to imagine how the symbolism of a burning cross had interacted with her faith. The family physician was called and a sedative administered, she then being put to bed with Mary in bedside attendance.

From Simmonds’ reading of the layout it was almost as if Lady B was the intended audience for the atrocity, the cross having been erected (and how was that done undetected?) so as to be square on to her bedroom window (she sleeping downstairs, alone, her infirmity not permitting her to go upstairs). This observation had to be patent nonsense he concluded. He was under pressure and this was not the time to be muddle headed and fanciful. If only he’d had more confidence in his intuition.