OLD SINS CAST LONG SHADOW

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Mystery and Crime  |  House: THE JOHN HANDFUL MYSTERIES

Chapter 20 (v.1) - FOLLOWING UP A LEAD

Submitted: December 02, 2019

Reads: 14

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Submitted: December 02, 2019

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20

FOLLOWING UP A LEAD

In the daytime Oxmarket station was a seething mass of humanity. Everyone from every walk of life was shoulder to shoulder, in each other's faces, no personal space, no exceptions. But now at the end of the day, there was space between the people and somehow that made it all the more awkward. When it's crowded you take in no information about anyone, they were just things in your way. Moving, smelling, awkward, rude things. Now the faces of the locals were looking at me. Thinking about me. Judging this man that normally went unnoticed in the throng. And I looked at them, forming opinions, deciding on the safest place to stand, nearer to who, further from who. Then I realized my judgments were based on how well the person was dressed and I was ashamed. With a whine and a displacement of air, the train arrived, and I watched the platform empty and saw who I was looking for.

The station guard was walking down the platform, His blond hair was messed up, and he was whistling a low tune to himself.

Needless to say, the guard was tired. He had worked all day, though he knew that his shift was soon to be over.

His face lit up when he saw me, and he shook my hand vigorously.  I liked Jimmy Raistrick.  He had a cheerful disposition and was good company on a night out, as long as you kept him plied with lager. We stood there for about ten minutes deep in conversation talking about the idiosyncrasies of his job.  I prompted him in the direction I wanted to take the conversation by saying that I bet he saw some bizarre goings-on late at night.

“Funny you should say that John,” he said with gusto, “but only last night just before I finished my shift, a girly-looking man, if you catch my drift, went into the men’s with a medium-sized suitcase, and came out ten minutes later dressed as a woman.  Wearing make-up and a wig.  You ask Mary if you don’t believe me.”

“Mary?”

“The station cleaner,” he replied looking at his watch.  “She’s in the ladies’ now, cleaning up.”

On Jimmy’s say-so, I walked into the ladies’ where I was greeted rather gruffly, by a stern-looking woman.  The woman who had been on duty until ten had just gone home and Sylvia had replaced her.  She was suspicious of any man loitering around her conveniences late at night and attempting to draw her into any conversation.  After resisting my enquiries for about ten minutes, her patience with me started to falter.  The way her eyes squinted at me reminded me of a pit viper's slit-like pupils. I gulped nervously. A burning animosity was developing in her amber orbs, and I could tell I was likely the root cause of her anger.

“There has been enough trouble recently with homosexual men and their rent boys sneaking in and out in women’s clothing while my back is turned,” she said eventually.  “So, I suggest you piss off before I call the police.”

I apologized for upsetting her, thanked her for help, and promptly left.  I walked past pebble-dashed bungalows and stone cottages to a harbourfront, where a few dirty-hulled trawlers and fishing boats slumped at angles on the mud, waiting for the returning tide to give them grace and reason.  

I continued walking along the road beside the estuary, the tarmac eroded in places where the tide had overflowed the banks.  It had been another bad spring for flooding, but I hadn't paid much attention to the coastal storms.  Judging by the sea wrack stranded on the road and surrounding fields, they would be harder to ignore here.  Global warming was more than an academic debate here. 

 I followed the road out towards the mouth of the estuary.  With the tide out, all that was left was a muddy plain dappled with pools and runnels of water.I turned on to a cinder-covered parking area and walked up to my home, a converted boathouse. It was a stone building that jutted out from the bank of the estuary.  Its lower half stood in the water the walls stained with a line to show where the high tide came.  The top half was a single storey built on a level with the bank.  Two small windows sat on either side of a door, like a child's drawing of a house. 

I struggled to find the right key and finally, I nudged the door open.  There were no interior walls, just a single large room that I decked out like a studio apartment.  I'd painted the unplastered walls with white and installed a double-glazed arched window facing out on to the estuary.  A small kitchen area had been built at one side, while a sofa and armchair stood either side of a wood-burning stove at the other.  I had chosen sixties-style Scandinavian furniture, plain lines, and muted colours, with a deep-red rug I had bought online covering the varnished floorboards. 

 Small as it was, the place was bright and airy, the sort of thing that could be featured in the pages of a glossy travel magazine, and I was proud of it. 

Next morning, I woke early and made myself a cup of tea as the sky gradually lightened, I thought about the past twenty-four hours.  Normally I'd have turned on the radio to listen to the news or go online.  But instead, I sipped my scalding tea in the armchair beside the arched window, looking at ducks and swans paddling on the estuary outside. 

The morning chorus of birdsong reminded me of the owl.  Pulling on my coat and boots, I went outside.  The fog had lifted, although there was still an early haze, part drizzle, part mist.  It frosted the branches of the apple trees, beading the cobwebs with Quicksilver as I crossed the wet grass.

I walked across the uneven marshes, where everywhere I looked, the marshland moved its grass dipping and lurching in the wind and the light rain.  I followed a vague trail, trampled out of the bogs, that seemed to follow the lay of the land, but the further I went, the more disorientating it seemed to become.  It was like the whole place was mobile, changing and evolving, and even when the weather calmed in the lull between the gusts, it didn't settle completely. Rain flecked against my face; the ground squelched and shifted as if it were about to slide out from under me; the grass seemed to reach up – swiping at my hands, grabbing them.  

 The rain clung to the dark horizon like a gossamer sheet that had snared on something in the darkness and – beyond its limits – they were only shadows, traces of things, vague shapes that formed and dissolved, and it wasn't long before I felt even more discomfited. 

Something moved. 

It was right on the periphery of my vision, so far off to my left that I had to turn forty-five degrees.  I looked back to where I had come from, south of me.  Between me and the ring of misty rain, nothing had changed: it was just mounds, of tussock grass and streaks of peat, like puddles of oil sprayed across the earth. 

I watched …waited. 

Nothing.

I began moving again, glancing over my shoulder, then again, my heart starting to beat faster, a vibration that had nothing to do with the exertion of our escape.  I looked behind me again and then again, each time scanning the mist, watching it form and reform as if it were maturing and growing.  I picked up the pace like I was being pursued, but there was nothing behind me, just my uncertainties.

I met Allum-Edwards for lunch, in a small restaurant in a dark and dingy backstreet in Oxmarket.  There I had a delicious cheese omelette, while the detective inspector had a lemon sole, and I had sticky toffee pudding and cream while my companion went for a selection of cheese and biscuits.

Then, as we sipped our coffee, Allum-Edwards mentioned the case for the first time since we’d met.

“I hope you’ve got something for me, John?”

“I’m afraid not, detective inspector,” I admitted, ruefully.  “It all seemed like plain sailing at one stage, and above board, but there is something wrong, I’m telling you.  Somewhere or other, there is a fact that escapes me, and I don’t for the life of me see what it is.”

“Listen, John,” he said, sympathetically.  “Take a bit of advice.  Don’t look at something that may not have ever been there.  You have a peculiar way of looking at cases, I can’t deny that.  The assistant chief constable thinks you’re some sort of genius.  I wouldn’t go that far, but, you are good.  I will admit that.  You’re too fond of having things difficult.  A straightforward case is never good enough for you.  No, it’s got to be torturous.  Try not to play a game of your own and get too far away from real life.  It’s like my niece when she’s playing solitaire online.  If it doesn’t work out right, she’ll cancel the game and start again.  Well, it’s the other round with you.  If it’s coming out too easily, you cheat to make it more difficult.”

I slowly digested what he’d just said.  He was right but I couldn’t just leave it at that.

“Well, with this case I’ll tell you what has jumped up at me, shall I?”

“Please, do,” Allum-Edwards said, his expression hardening, slightly.

“The motive to these murders are not that obvious,” I announced.  “If they were – why, then, the risk would truly be too great!  No, the murderer – or murderers I should say – cannot be obvious.  And that, detective inspector, is why I cannot accept the first resolution that comes along.  I think I know who killed Lady Casterton, and if you just stopped to admit it, you do as well. But I am still not sure about who murdered Nicholas Casterton.  It would be too easy if it was Saskia, the prostitute.  He was paying her good money every week for sex.  Why should she kill him?  She gave him the sexually transmitted disease, not the other way round.  No. Whoever killed Nicholas Casterton took an enormous risk.”

“What about Lady Casterton’s murderer?”  Allum-Edwards said sharply.  “Are you going to share this information with me?”

“No,” I said, bluntly.  “It is just a little idea, which may or may or not is justified.  Which would solve the entire case?  If you would only open your eyes, detective inspector, you would have the same idea as me.”


© Copyright 2019 Andrew Hixson. All rights reserved.

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