Wednesday August 6
Rita Bailey had already raised the alarm at the local fire station, which was down Thumpton Hill and served all the surrounding villages as well as Middlethumpton. The fire brigade had arrived fast enough to stop the fire reaching out to the upper floor of the little house in Station Road, but it had almost gutted Rita’s hairdressing saloon and only a door between the saloon and the other rooms had prevented the fire from spreading more quickly.
It was not part of the wedded-bliss package to have to take a phone-call from anyone before breakfast. The twins had already needed a feed at 5 and Gary had remarked then that the nights were getting perilously short since he usually gave PeggySue her breakfast at 7. Phone-calls before 8 a.m. were at the very least inconsiderate.
“Were you in bed when it happened?” Cleo asked.
“No. I was elsewhere, visiting,” said Rita. “I came to open early because I have a regular customer at eight, and the flames were burning the net curtains and coming out of the window,” she said.
“Did you leave a window open?” said Cleo. “Isn’t that dangerous on the ground floor?”
“I forgot to check. I was in a hurry last night.”
“It might be the way the house was set on fire,” said Cleo.
“You mean someone did it deliberately. But why?”
“You may have an enemy, or a rival.”
“Do you mean that new hairdresser’s that’s now open at the Wellness Centre?”
“That’s been there for ages.”
“But not open to non-members until last week. I will lose most of my customers now.”
Cleo thought that might happen because Rita either imposed a pot cut or a perm on her customers, had given up on Cleo’s mass of curls, and did not cater for male clients, in contrast to the Wellness Hair Centre that had nicely manicured male barbers and was not sexist.
“Your insurance won’t be too pleased about the fire if you left a window open,” said Cleo.
“That’s another problem, Cleo. I’m not insured as a business.”
“That was very foolish. What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. Frank has gone to London so he can’t help me. He took all his things with him, so I don’t think he’s coming back,” said Rita.
Cleo did not want to comment on that. Frank Wetherby was a lone wolf and it was a wonder that he had even moved in with Rita.
“Have the fire fighters finished?”
“Have they said anything about what caused the fire?” Cleo asked.
“No, but someone will find out, they said.”
“Have the police arrived?” was Cleo’s next query.
“A patrol car came. I think they are going to send someone from Middlethumpton to investigate.”
“Investigate what, Rita?”
“Arson, I suppose. I think the police always have to go to fires.”
“You could be right, Rita.”
“Gary was listening in. At this point he drew his fingers through his hair, making it stand on edge.
“I’d come to support you, but I have no one for the children. I’ll send my husband before he goes to work.”
Gary winced, but Cleo had already made the offer and smiled sweetly.
“I’ll come along when my mother-in-law arrives. My husband is getting up soon.”
“Thank you. Weren’t you already up?” said Rita and rang off.
“Rita says thank you,” said Cleo.
“I heard all that. Why the hell should I go there?”
“I thought you might want to,” said Cleo. “At least she wasn’t in bed when it happened.”
“But I was fast asleep. A torch thrown through an open window is quite a trusted way of dealing with a rival,” said Gary. “And there’s always the almost infallible Molotov cocktail that comes in handy for such actions.”
“Frank left her to go to London.”
“I’m not surprised that he fled that nest. Where was she last night? In someone else’s bed?”
“She did not say that. She got to the shop early from somewhere else and the drapes were burning brightly. She might have been visiting her parents, Gary.”
“No corpses handy?”
“Not so as you’d notice. I suppose she would have told me if there had been. I got the impression that Frank Wetherby has left her for good. I know he wanted to go to London. He told me that much before he left the agency.”
“Don’t you think he’ll come back?”
“He took everything with him.”
“That says it all. I’d advise you to close the agency altogether if it wasn’t so damned useful,” said Gary.
“It’s summer. Business is slack. I’ll give it this year, Gary.”
“Having you at HQ even part-time and in an advisory capacity means that I can’t always consult the agency as I used to. The auditors would ask why I was paying you twice.”
“Which do you prefer, Gary? The agency with all its trials, tribulations and good ideas or me doing good deeds at your institution?”
“That’s a difficult question. I suppose that combining the two will get tougher but is better for both of us,” said Gary, who had been wondering how long it would take before they had this discussion and had, to be honest, been avoiding it. “You won’t have time for the agency next year.”
“We still have Grit,” said Cleo.
“For how long? She is going to marry my boss. I can feel it in my bones.”
“She’s free to do what she wants, but the kids need her and she knows it. And that is not just because I work. She needs the family.”
“She didn’t used to,” said Gary.
“Well she does now. Why don’t you get some clothes on and take a look at Rita’s bonfire?”
“I wanted to ask Roger about his intentions when he brought my mother back from that jazz club.”
“You’re not her guardian, Gary.”
“I feel responsible.”
“Then be thankful it’s Roger she likes, not some down and out like Kelly.”
“Talking of down and outs, I’ll have to talk to Robert without delay. I’ll get to the shop and ask him when.”
“Robert is not down and out.”
“He might be soon.”
“You don’t need to make an appointment with a suspect,” said Cleo. “Do you really think he shot Kelly?”
“I’ve no idea. It would make both your ex-husbands killers, wouldn’t it?”
“Let’s hope you aren’t part of the pattern then.”
“I hope you are joking.”
“I don’t think it could happen, however.”
“Thanks for that.”
“I’d trust you with my life, so I’d trust you not to take the law into your own hands,” said Cleo, and Gary had to be satisfied with that explanation.
“Anyway, Jay Salerno didn’t kill anyone,” said Cleo.
“He killed your unborn child, Cleo.”
“He got away with that, thanks to Gloria swearing that I’d fallen down some stairs.”
“No wonder she felt guilty later,” said Gary.
“But I don’t believe that Robert is a killer,” said Cleo, “though I’ve just remembered that butchers who go in and out of slaughterhouses probably have a different attitude to life and death. You’d better stay clear of Robert’s hatchet in case the guy still thinks he owns me. I’m not ready to be a widow, even in a good cause.”
“So you think that good and kindly man you were once foolishly married to could have killed Kelly, don’t you?”
Gary had been treated for burnout caused by the stress of a difficult job and the distress of not being able to persuade Cleo to drop Robert. In the end he walked out on her, which was truly fortuitous. Gary hoped it would not come to the ‘I told you so’ formula when he gave Robert any leeway at all. It was not a good idea to believe in the innocence of friends and family since prisons and police records were full of them. He did not want Robert to have killed Kelly, but he had to take that possibility into account. Of course, Robert’s attachment to Cleo was now past history, he hoped, but Robert was still furious that he had not realized what had been going on under his nose.
Robert, the placid Welsh guy who sang well, ran a butcher’s shop and according to Cleo would not hurt a fly, was for the moment the only suspect in the Kelly case. Gary could not find a way of getting round that other than by getting definite proof that the guy had been somewhere else at the critical time. However, his first port of call was Rita’s salon.
Rita met him on the forecourt of the house, which had now been given the all clear. The fire had not done any structural damage, fortunately, but the saloon was a mess, caused not least by the copious amounts of foam the firemen had sprayed everywhere to contain the blaze. Gary wondered if Chris and the forensic team would find any evidence of a break-in or arson.
“What about the back room, Rita?” said Gary.
“It’s locked from the inside, Mr Hurley. You can open it from the salon side but need a key to get out again.”
“Surely you could get out of a window.”
“No. As you see, there are wrought iron grilles in front of the side windows and you can’t even open them from the inside. It used be my father’s house and he was fanatical about safety.”
Rita explained that she kept the key to get out of the store-room on her key-ring because all the valuable hair-care products were stored there and it was open when she was working, but when Gary opened the door, he was not looking for the haircare products; to get to them he would have had to step over the prostrate body lying face down on the linoleum.
Rita gasped. Gary sighed. He was almost resigned to finding a victim. It was Frank Wetherby, but he was not dead. He had only passed out. Gary thought he might have been overcome by carbon monoxide fumes under the door, but what was he doing in the room? How did he get into the salon and why?
Gary told Rita to open the windows and phone for an ambulance. He turned the unconscious man on his side before phoning Cleo to tell her who he had found. Frank Wetherby had a bleeding wound on the back of his head. That must have knocked him out. There was no sign of an assailant.
“Grit has just arrived,” said Cleo. “I’ll be with you as soon as I’ve taken PeggySue to the nursery.”
“Don’t take too long,” said Gary.
“I don’t suppose you know why Frank came back, do you?” Gary asked Rita.
The colour was returning slowly to Frank Wetherby’s cheeks as he regained consciousness. Gary hoped that he could ask him a few questions.
“No,” said Rita. “How did he get in?”
“He must have a key of the main door.”
Frank was actually clutching a key that Rita identified as being the salon key. His visit had been clandestine. Had he been looking for something? There must have been an urgent reason for coming if he had travelled all the way from London.
The paramedics arrived soon with the local GP, Dr Mitchell. Cleo arrived as they were going into the salon.
“Your husband told me who they had found, Miss Hartley,” said Dr Mitchell. “He used to work for you, didn’t he?”
“He left. We thought he was in London.”
“Well, at least he’s still alive,” said Dr Mitchell as he bent down to examine Frank.
“Someone knocked him out from behind,” he diagnosed.
“How many keys are there of the salon, Rita?” said Cleo.
“I don’t know,” said Rita.
“It’s pointless asking anyway. Copies are easily made. Isn’t the key Wetherby used to get into the salon a copy?” said Gary.
Rite compared it with own original and said it was. Anyway, he had given the original back.”
“I’ve heard of that happening before,” said Gary. “You will have to change the lock and not hand out any more keys, Miss Bailey.”
“That is closing the stable door,” said Cleo. “What in heavens’ name did the guy want here? He left you to go to London, didn’t he, Rita?”
“I thought he had,” said Rita.
“We may be making a mountain out of a molehill,” said Gary. “Do you know what is stored here, Miss Bailey? Only hairdressing stuff?”
“The usual supply of shampoos, permanent lotions and so on. Frank kept a box of stuff on a shelf in the kitchen. That’s where the washing machine is and there piles of freshly washed towels on that shelf. I don’t know what is in the box, but Frank said it would be out of the way down here.”
“Is the box still here, Rita?” Cleo asked.
“It’s probably still on the shelf,” Rita said. “I’ll look, shall I?”
Moments later Rita came back carrying a banana box.
“This is it,” she said, putting it down on a table under the window.”
In the meanwhile, Frank was well on the way to recovery. He was nevertheless put on a stretcher ready to wheel to the ambulance when he noticed his box.
“What are you doing with my things?” he said, looking quite nervous. “Don’t touch them.”
“What’s in the box, Frank?” said Cleo.
“What are you doing here, Cleo?” Frank asked.
“That’s the question we should be asking you,” said Gary.
Mr Mitchell intervened.
“No more questions, if you don’t mind. You can see that the patient needs medical attention.”
The paramedics bandaged the wound temporarily and wheeled the stretcher out to the ambulance. Frank seemed to have gone back into unconsciousness. Gary thought he might be play-acting so that he did not have to answer any more questions. Falling into a coma was a lucky break for Gary even if it was only a ploy. Frank’s banana box was still on the table.
“Frank may not even know what’s inside that box,” Gary said.
“He was possessive about it and then left it to its fate. That is really peculiar,” said Cleo.
“We’ll have to open it,” said Gary.
“It’s private,” said Rita. “You can’t do that.”
“Either we open it here or I confiscate it and take it to HQ,” said Gary. “We’ll have to look inside, Rita.”
“All right, but I don’t think you should.”
As Cleo and Gary had suspected, the box contained plastic bags containing the white powdery substance that in most cases proved to be heroin.
“If that’s the genuine stuff, it’s worth a fortune,” said Cleo.
“It’s the old story,” said Gary. “Take your choice: Frank was on a case and was offered a deal, or he was a dealer himself and bothering other drug dealers around here. Judging from the blow on his head I would think he had broken some gangster rule or other and was to be obliterated.”
“I can’t believe it,” said Cleo. “We’ll have to talk about Frank’s cases when I have called up my data from his investigations. I wonder if the assassin actually looked for the box.”
“Let’s assume the fire was started by a third party chasing the second,” said Gary. “The door to the storeroom was fortunately still open. The assassin slammed that door and got out through the front door. He will have made a run for it and left Frank to his fate.
“That sounds logical,” said Cleo. ”It’s probably what I would have done.”
“I think we can safely assume that Frank was knocked down by whoever was in on some sort of deal and presumably it concerned drug-trafficking. We need to find out if Frank had arranged to meet someone there. One thing is clear, I think. The fire was not aimed at you, Rita.”
“I don’t know what to believe.”
“Why would Frank go to London and leave a fortune in drugs here?” said Cleo.
“He may have received the drugs for further distribution, Cleo. The box looks pretty full. Do you have proof that he went to London?”
“No. Do you, Rita?”
Rita shook her head.
“I’ve been very naïve,” she said. “I thought he was nice, but he just wanted a place to live for a while. Perhaps he was hiding out. Do you think he was being threatened, Mr Hurley?”
“I don’t know any answers yet, Miss Bailey, but I’ll find out. I’d advise you to go back to where you slept last night. It might be dangerous for you to stay here.”
Rita looked horrified.
“Just one more question, Rita,” said Gary. “Did Frank receive phone calls on your house phone while he was here?”
“I don’t think so.”
“We’ll have to check. Can you give me the phone number?”
Rita produced a business card showing all the phone numbers of the shop, home and her cell phone.
“I’ll be in touch, Miss Bailey,” he said. “Don’t hang around here. You should lock this storeroom since the salon is open at the front. I’ll get a squad car to take Frank’s box to HQ.”
The squad car came almost immediately. The officers were armed. They explained that they had escorted a bank delivery van to several branches, but that mission was finished for the morning. The cash was in the bank safes and the van was now empty and standing at HQ while the driver and his mate had lunch in the HQ canteen. The squad car would accompany the van back to Oxford at 2 p.m. which is why the guns had not been handed in. Gary commented that it was not a bad idea to be armed. There was a lot of heroin in that box.
“No problem,” said one of the officers. “We’ll look out for anyone following us and we’ll take it to the lab for analysis.”
“I’ll run you home,” said Gary o Cleo, who had walked from the nursery to Station Street.
“OK. I’m really shocked about Frank. I knew he was a bit of a dark horse, but I did not expect him to be criminal.”
“Another case of it not being possible to tell if someone is criminally minded by just looking at them,” said Gary.
“I didn’t know him at all. He was even secretive about where he was living, Gary.”
“He presumably had reason to be. At least you were not drawn by default into his dark deeds.”
“No, but he left quite suddenly, as if he had not planned to, but suddenly found this desire to go to London. Not having enough to do was just an excuse.”
“Do you know who his contact is in London?” Gary asked, “Always assuming there is one.”
“No. He never mentioned anyone. How did he get himself into such a mess?”
“We’ll have work on that, Cleo. Let’s have a coffee before I go to HQ. I’ll try to get more information on your ex-private eye. Someone may know something, even Brass. I’m starting to feel a sneaking sympathy for that Sergeant in Frint-on-Sea. Maybe he smelt a rat, or even knew about one.”
“You could ask him, Gary. I expect he’d like to be rehabilitated.”
“It’s a thought, isn’t it?”
“I think Brass would have said something to me, even warned me if he knew anything.”
“Are you sure? He wants to protect himself too, Cleo. Spilling the beans about drug barons is dangerous even if you are only a cop.”
“Like the ancient Egyptians. The messenger delivers his message and is then beheaded.”
“Aida. Act one,” said Gary.