The Body On The Beach: 66

Piccolo did not knock and enter, she simply entered (in retrospect she was unable to explain why) — her unannounced arrival catching the occupants unaware, and they stopped their argument and both turned to look at her inquisitively. Lady B was sat in her wheelchair; the other person present being a man, who appeared vaguely familiar to Piccolo but who she could not place. He was brandishing a large knife.  This, thought Piccolo, has to be the blackmailer.

‘Who the devil are you?’ he asked. Piccolo said nothing, she didn’t quite know what to say, feeling for a moment that she was in a scene from one of her own novels — it was at the same time a disturbing and a thrilling experience. Lady B broke the silence: ‘The trap was set and you fell for it’ she barked at the man. ‘Did you honestly believe you were here to collect your money?. What a fool you are!’. Piccolo was surprised by the vitriol in Lady B’s voice. The man stood motionless and silent, patently he had not considered this outcome. He had indeed sprung the trap, but he did not intend to be captured so easily.

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The Body On The Beach: 65

Piccolo was keen to explore the library at Bessingham Hall, especially after learning from Simmonds’ recount of Catchpole’s interview that the Antiquarian had found it to be of value. Piccolo would, of course, have sought out the place anyway given her literary interests, but this expert insight spurred on her curiosity. So that evening, as Simmonds was in Lord B’s office questioning him further, (Piccolo being frustrated at being excluded, but respecting police procedure), she decided to explore the library for herself. Inevitably it wasn’t long before some tome had grabbed her attention and she was eagerly devoured it. Piccolo readily lost track of time when reading, and so when the commotion started she found herself somewhat disoriented. As the disturbance grew more animated and consumed her attention more fully she felt obliged to seek it out.

The sounds emanated from Lady B’s bedroom which was directly adjoining the library. Having progressed to now be standing outside the closed door of that very room, Piccolo strained her ears but was unable to discern the content of the heated conversation taking place within, though from the tone it was clearly unpleasant in nature. Piccolo hesitated, not knowing what to do for the best — ignore; go for help; enter. She chose the latter, and it proved to be the worst option of the three.

The Body On The Beach: 64

At dinner that evening the cast assembled consisted of Lord and Lady B, their son Charles, cousin Edith (accompanied by George Whittle), Simmonds and Piccolo. There was also the Howard family Doctor (who had latterly examined the sprained wrist, concurred with the nurse’s diagnosis, and prescribed ‘rest’), and a business associate of Lord B who turned out to be a senior Stockbroker in The City — both men were partnered by, as Piccolo mentally noted, ‘their weak and insipid wives’. Conversation was confined to the trivial. There was no mention of crime. There was a noticeable coolness between Lord and Lady B. Simmonds helped Piccolo with her food (the cutting up of meat etc) as her wrist was somewhat immobile. Both looked around the table more than once wondering if the blackmailer was amongst them. Anyone seated could have been the miscreant. Both the Doctor and the Stockbroker ate too much; both their wives drank too much. Charles frequently laughed for no apparent reason. George and Edith exchanged glances of affection.

The ladies withdrew when the meal was finished (poor Piccolo, it wasn’t her scene but she obliged). The gentlemen remained to pass the port and puff on expensive cigars (Simmonds declined both; Charles excused himself). It was quite an unremarkable evening, and there had been no sight or sound of Lady B’s plan, nor an opportunity to quiz her on it. But it was to be of no consequence, for in the end matters would be resolved sooner than anyone expected.

The Body On The Beach: 63

Piccolo took a nap. She insisted she would be fine on her own, and Simmonds never disagreed when Piccolo insisted. So he went downstairs and was duly called into Lord B’s office. The door was firmly closed. ‘How is she, your wife?. Quite an ordeal’ said Lord B.

‘Sprained wrist but otherwise in good order’ replied Simmonds.

‘I hear she was the one driving’.

‘Oh Yes. She likes to drive. She’s very proficient’.

‘Modern women’ said Lord B. ‘I don’t think I will ever understand them’. He took a deep breath. ‘Look, I need to share something with you but I have to be assured of absolute confidentiality’ he added.

‘I’ll do my best, sir. Though of course if a crime has been committed …’. Lord B interrupted before Simmonds could finish. ‘It hasn’t’ he said. ‘At least I don’t think so … I received a telephone call the other evening, the caller didn’t say who they were, but they relayed something that was deeply distressing …’ his voice tailed off. Simmonds said nothing giving Lord B space to continue when ready. He did shortly: ‘They said that Margaret wasn’t my daughter, and what’s more they could prove it’.

*

To say that Simmonds had been caught off-guard by this revelation would have been a monumental understatement. He gleaned whatever detail he could from Lord B (which was precious little) and considered how this bombshell might put events in a different light. He diplomatically asked Lord B if he had questioned Lady B over any supposed affair, but he said he had not and furthermore had no intention of doing so.

Simmonds suspected the caller would be in touch again, though they had given no such indication. That they had not made any demands surely indicated the necessity for future contact. The thought on Simmonds’ mind now was could this allegation be distinguished from the blackmail of Lady B?. Wouldn’t it be the ideal blackmail material?. Was it plausible that there was no connection?. And if they were indeed one and the same subject, why blackmail Lady B to (presumably) keep something secret which had been freely disclosed to Lord B (who would be the most injured party if the illegitimacy were true)? There could only be one explanation, Simmonds concluded: the blackmailer and the caller were not the same person, and they were operating independently of each other. It was clear that Lord B was unaware of his wife’s predicament (she had told Piccolo that she had not spoken of it), and Simmonds intentionally did not enlighten His Lordship. By partitioning knowledge the Inspector hoped to retain some control over events. The last thing he needed was further conflict between protagonists.

Simmonds briefed Piccolo as soon as he returned to their room. She now appeared well rested and had regained her sense of calm. ‘The solution to the puzzle seems to be revealing itself’ Piccolo said excitedly, after listening to the latest development. ‘We must push Lady B to reveal the secret for which she is being blackmailed’ she said, continuing: ‘If it is regarding the circumstances of Miss Margaret’s parentage then I believe we have the link to her murder’. Simmonds knew she was correct, but dared not entertain the thought of how damaging such a scandal could be if it were made public. The national newspapers would be in a frenzy – in this day and age the appetite of the ordinary readership for such a story was insatiable.

The Body On The Beach: 62

Simmonds drove for the remainder of the journey. Now it was Piccolo’s turn to be the uncomfortable passenger, in more ways than one. The Inspector ground the gears a number of times en route, much to his wife’s consternation.

Upon arrival at the Hall Simmonds immediately telephoned the station with an account of the incident. Unfortunately he’d not caught sight of the car’s number-plate. It would be almost impossible to find without such detail – though he suspected it was stolen and would soon end up being dumped, its occupants making a hasty escape on foot. An alert was issued nonetheless. Lady B’s nurse, Mary, was told to take care of Piccolo who was by now showing some signs of shock. Hot sweet tea was called for. Luckily the right wrist was badly sprained and not broken and was bandaged accordingly. Lord B’s chauffeur, who doubled as a mechanic to His Lordship’s Rolls Royce, was asked to inspect the couple’s tourer and assess the damage, which turned out to be cosmetic rather than structural.

There was much animated discussion as to motive for the assault, but no conclusion was reached. Simmonds, naturally, pondered a link to the investigations. Piccolo was of the same mind. Were their lives in danger? The consequences could have been far worse, but still the injury to Piccolo was inconvenient enough for a right-handed writer used to taking copious notes at any opportunity. Nevertheless she remained commendably stoical in the face of such adversity. Hopefully it would be fully functional ‘in a day or two’. In other words she would have to endure a painful and creatively unproductive Christmas. It was not an auspicious beginning.

Piccolo was given some aspirin and she and Simmonds went up to their room. Thoughtfully their hosts had allocated them a different one to their previous stay so as not to remind them directly of that horrid night. Of course it was the sort of thing that was impossible to expunge from one’s mind irrespective of location. A member of staff carried up their bags which unusually, but fortuitously, had been placed on the back seats rather than strapped to the boot and so had escaped damage. The same could not be said of the bottles of fine and relatively expensive wines they had brought as gifts. That mess would require some deep cleaning. Simmonds unpacked and transferred clothes from cases to wardrobe and drawers as best as he could under Piccolo’s more expert direction. It was mid-afternoon on Christmas Eve, but not entirely spent as they had anticipated.

The Body On The Beach: 61

Piccolo drove on to Bessingham Hall. The country lanes were empty; it was a fine day. All was uneventful until half way, when a car approached from behind, seemingly from nowhere, switching on its large headlights as it neared – the intense beams blinding even during the day. Piccolo squinted as the reflection caught the dashboard mirror. The car came even closer, now at some speed, and rear-ended the couple’s tourer, producing the sickening crunch of metal upon metal. ‘Idiot!’ shouted Piccolo. The assailants rammed for a second time, but now with greater force – the whole car jerked. Piccolo put her foot hard down on the accelerator and pulled ahead, but the other car soon caught up and began barging side-on-side. The sound of the high-revving engines was deafening. Piccolo struggled to keep control. A deep ditch on the left beckoned disaster. Simmonds looked across as the two cars were in parallel, but the other vehicle had greased out windows so the occupants were only shadowy shapes. Both cars were now travelling at speed perilously close to each other. As the aggressors moved slightly ahead, no doubt positioning for some new tactic, Piccolo shouted ‘Hold on!’ and slammed the brakes. Luckily in that split second Simmonds had braced himself. The tyres screeched and the tourer nose-dived, finally skidding to a halt, having spun through ninety degrees. The chase car sped on until it was out of sight. Suddenly all was quiet and still. ‘Are you OK?’ Simmonds asked, franticly turning to his wife. ‘Yes. I think so’ replied Piccolo. ‘Maniac!’ she shouted, and then winced. ‘Damn’, she added. ‘I think I’ve broken my wrist’.

The Body On The Beach: 60

Piccolo had indeed elected to select all of their clothes and do all of the packing. She would not have wanted it any other way, and her husband was more than happy to concede. Although they would only be away for a couple of days, the formality of such elevated surroundings required careful consideration. There could be no excuse for not being properly dressed. As for further preparations Lady B had not revealed anything of her plan, so detailed anticipation was difficult if not impossible. It warranted repetition that neither the identity of the blackmailer or even the probability of their attendance was known to Simmonds or Piccolo. But, as so much of what had transpired over the past three weeks had been undefined, it seemed churlish in their minds to baulk at the addition of yet another opaque dimension.

*

It so transpired that the 23rd December was the anniversary of Simmonds’ and Piccolo’s first meeting, a date which they cherished. So as there was destined to be no private Christmas for them this year, they chose an early dual celebration. They went out for a meal and exchanged gifts – a French diamond pin for her, an American wristwatch for him. They laughed and smiled and reminisced, blissfully ignorant of the traumas that lay directly ahead.