At thirty-nine and single, Roger Preston was one of life’s drifters. Having left school without much in the way of qualifications he had wandered fairly aimlessly through a variety of professions before settling for a number of years into the role of a bouncer for the owner of a chain of nightclubs around the Thames Valley. This line of employment terminated as a result of a late night fracas with some out of town thugs, when he sustained severe head injuries causing unpredictable behaviour patterns. Mr Corrini, the night club owner, not wanting to appear ungrateful for Roger’s years of service, put him on to the lighter and less confrontational duties of Security Officer. All parties knew that this was only a glorified Night Watchman, but it suited everyone to conclude the matter in such a way. On days when Preston was ‘unwell’ due either to his recurring head condition or, as was more likely, an overindulgence in alcohol the night before, no-one questioned his absence from work and his wages were paid as normal. What he had not lost as a result of the injury, was a keen eye for detail and a good memory.
He rented the flat directly across from Miles Thomas, and was one of the first tenants in the building – he was there when the student first arrived, and therefore in a unique position to reveal details of his comings and goings. He was also the possessor of a short and fierce temper since his ‘accident’ and Marks knew that he would have to play the man very carefully if he were to obtain anything of value from him. These sketchy details had been elicited from Preston during the first fifteen minutes that the detectives had seen him, but now that his initial confrontational demeanour was beginning to ease, they began to push and probe, albeit gently, for more information.
“What was your relationship to Thomas, Mr Preston? I mean, were you on friendly terms with him?” Marks tested the water gingerly.
“Bloody student wasn’t he? They’re all the same, think they can change the world. No time for folks like me. Don’t know they’re born half of them.”
“Yes, but apart from that, did he ever speak to you?”
“Speak? Yeah, from time to time. Always on the go though. In and out like a fiddler’s elbow. Never stayed in one place for long enough to talk to though.”
“OK, what about friends? Did you see any strangers coming in and out with him?”
“Sometimes, mostly women though and I never saw many of them twice. There was a bloke who came regularly, three or four times a month but I didn’t get a clear look at him – he always had a hat on.”
“Do you remember hearing a name?”
“Just one last question for now, were there any regular times when Thomas was in or out of the flat?”
“Yeah, always going out around half past eight. I know that because it’s when I go for my paper and I always see him leaving the front door. Takes me about half an hour by the time I’ve had a cup of tea at the caf and I hear him come back in at around ten.”
Preston screwed up his face as if trying to concentrate and rested his forehead on his right hand. Marks waited patiently, knowing that there was more to come but reluctant to probe in case the man gave up on it.
“Never saw not heard anything then until the afternoon, around three, when he’d go out again and that would be until late at night, usually about midnight. Made so much noise coming in that you couldn’t miss it.”
“Alright Mr Preston, you can go about your business, we’ll come back if we need to see you again. Thanks.”
Outside the flat Peter Spencer, who had remained in the background during the entire interview, looked at the notes which he had made and shook his head. If anything came to court, Preston would not be the most reliable of witnesses despite his remarkable memory – any defence barrister would tear him to shreds in no time. Still it was a start and gave them the basis for a pattern of behaviour for the dead man. What neither of them had been aware of was the man listening on the other side of the kitchen door. He stepped out as soon as the detectives had departed.
“Very good Mr Preston.” The accent was not British “Keep that up and do just as I tell you, and we’ll get along just fine.”
Taking forty pounds from the pocket of his black leather coat, he dropped the two notes on to Preston’s table and slipped away as Marks and Spencer entered the flat of Jeremy and Alice Masterson across the landing. The ex-bouncer picked them up and pushed them into his trousers. He didn’t like lying. His dad had always warned him against it and he knew that you always got caught out in the end. Still it was easy money, and if it weren’t for Mr Corrini paying his rent life could be hard for a man like him. This man had promised more money for his silence and that would do very nicely for his evenings down at the Holly Bush, but he couldn’t help wondering what it was exactly that Miles Thomas had been up to.
Roger Preston would insist that he was not an alcoholic, but he did like his beer and it was a well-known fact in the neighbourhood that once he’d had a few, his tongue became very loose and his reputation at the Holly Bush as something of a story teller was well established. Today was no exception, and the locals were so eager for gossip about the police activity that the bank notes given to him earlier that day remained safe and sound in his pocket. Of course it took more than a couple of pints to loosen Roger’s tongue, he might have had a bash on the head but that didn’t make him stupid. He managed to string the sessions out very well until it looked as though his listeners were losing interest, and then he dropped his bomb shell. He had seen who was responsible for the body found on the roof, but the police wanted him to keep it quiet until they were ready to make an arrest. This earned him not a few extras and he knew that he could string them along for the rest of the week with a bit of luck. What he hadn’t seen in the thickening mist of inebriation was the man sitting quietly in the corner of the bar listening intently to every word that he said.
‘Colly’ Underwood was a snout. More specifically Peter Spencer’s snout, and had earned his nickname in a series of illegal bare knuckle fights in the East End of London some years earlier, where it was customary for cauliflower ears to be one of the traits of that ‘trade’. Having seen Roger Preston depart and wobble his way home, he finished off his pint and disappeared to make a call which should earn him enough for a few evenings to come. Spencer was at home with his wife and children when the call to his mobile came through from Underwood. He caught the usual knowing, but well rehearsed frown from his better half and went into the kitchen to take it.
“You’re certain of this Colly?” he said “Ok, I’ll see you at the usual spot in an hour, and don’t be late I’m in enough bother with the missus as it is.”
Making the usual excuses to his wife, Jenny, he put on his coat and left to walk the ten minutes to the station where he knew Marks would still be for the next hour or so. After comparing their recollections of the conversation with Preston from earlier that day, Spencer left the building for his meeting with his snout and Marks sat back down at his desk with a frown on his face. It was unusual to catch a break like this so early in a case, and he wondered if this was just Preston attempting to gain some local notoriety at their expense. Time would tell.
Underwood was at the meeting place when Spencer arrived, and briefly went over the events surrounding Preston’s revelations at the Holly Bush. He hadn’t intended being in that hostelry at all that day, but a short burst of heavy rain had forced him off the street and into a pint glass while it passed. From that point of view, Preston’s remarks were ill-advised and unfortunate, and after the exchange of the usual going rate for information both men returned whence they had come. Back at the station Marks decided, after hearing Underwood’s story, that nothing would be served by attempting to see Preston again before the morning – the beer would take care of that. An early call was scheduled for the following day and they left for their respective homes, completely unaware that the likelihood of Roger Preston making that meeting was reducing by the minute. Underwood was not the only person to overhear the conversations at the public house, and by the time the fading daylight gave way to early evening, the ex-bouncer had been lying in a blood-stained heap in the alley at the side of the flats for some hours. It was to have been his last session at the Holly Bush..............................
© Copyright 2016 Phil Neale 1952. All rights reserved.