Big Bernard Firth, captain of the team of bell-ringers at St. Peter and St. Paul’s, was last to arrive for their weekly practice session of the Exercise, as they called it. He unlocked the door to the ringing chamber with his personal key and they went in. One of the others switched on the spotlights that were fixed to the ceiling, bathing the floor of the room in a dramatic glow.
“Right,” said Bernard, ‘let’s not mess about, I’m thirsty already. You lot pull off and I’ll catch up.”
The other five began pulling on the ropes of the lighter bells, setting them swinging silently in the belfry. As they swung higher almost reaching the vertical, the clappers struck the sides, causing them to sound. Soon they fell into the familiar rhythm. Bernard grasped the brightly coloured sally at the end of his rope and watched and listened for his cue to commence.
They vicar’s body lay on the Union Jack, on the walkway that skirted the bells. The wind had teased and pulled at the flag until a large portion of it was enveloping the wheel and rope of the tenor bell.
Bernard Firth tightened his grip, recognised his opening, and pulled.
“Bloody ‘ell, it’s stiff,” he cried, as the big bell came over the centre and started to fall, but without its usual urgency.
“Spect it’s full of pigeon shit,” declared one of his colleagues.
“Ask Gerry to tell old Joe to oil the bearings,” suggested another.
“What’s happened to Gerry? Nobody’s seen him for two days,” stated a third.
At that moment the ceiling above them exploded. For the briefest second they all saw the vicar hurtling out of the floodlights, Union Jack trailing behind, like a victorious Olympic skydiver on his lap of honour. Then he thudded, leadenly, on to the stone-flagged floor. They stood in a circle, open-mouthed and horrified, gazing at the broken heap at their centre, oblivious to the bells above them saying:
Dong-ding-dong… dong-a-dong… ding-dong… dong… dong… dong.
The search for little Georgina was fruitless and depressing. We conferred with other forces who had missing kids on their books but it was a futile exercise. Usually there was a car or a stranger spotted near the scene of the disappearance, but we didn’t even have that. Most had occurred in rural areas or on quiet council estates, but this one had happened in the middle of town during the rush hour. Only the grief was the same. You can only put all your resources into a job like this for so long. The world doesn’t stand still while you look for a lost child. Slowly the urgency drains away as you run out of places to look, suspects to interview. Other crimes, some serious, demand attention, so you have to divert officers towards them. And every day that passes saps what little faith you had that you would find her alive.
Then the note came.
Dewhurst rang the office at eight in the morning to say that there was a ransom demand in his post. I told him not to touch it again and to wait. We were with him in ten minutes.
He’d opened the letter in the kitchen, standing at the work top It’s not the way I would have expected a businessman to conduct his affairs, but he said the envelope had caught his eye. Normally one glance tells him what’s inside, but he hadn’t recognised this one, so he’d opened it. It sounded reasonable. The address on the white self-sealing envelope was typed on a label. The note, lying alongside, had resumed its folded position. I smoothed it out, using my pen and a fingernail.
It was composed of letters cut from newspapers and glued to a sheet of white paper, like you see in TV thrillers, except that all the letters were of different sizes. It said:
RAISE HALF A MILLION IN NEXT 7 DAYS TO SEE HER AGAIN. CASH
Our tame forensic boffins are at Wetherton, about fifty miles away. I manoeuvred the letter and envelope into a plastic bag and labelled it CP4, with the date, while Sparky raised one of the Nigel Mansells in Traffic to rush it there. Then I rang Professor Van Rees and asked him to give it the full treatment.
Van Rees is a magician. Everywhere we go, everything we touch, we leave something behind and we take something with us. It’s called the Exchange Principle. A hair, a flake of skin or a bead of sweat; that’s all he needs. Eighty per cent of the human race are what’s known as secretors. They leak blood cells into their other body fluids. The letter was the first and only contact we’d had with Georgina’s kidnapper. With just a little piece of luck the Professor would be able to give us a genetic profile that would pick him out of a trillion zillion others. All we’d have to do was test them all.
“How much does a DNA analysis cost?” asked Sparky, as we drove back to the station.
“Not much these days,” I replied.
“Could be just a nutter, jumping on the bandwagon, you know.”
“Well, he’s still lowlife. He deserves to be behind bars.”
Sparky was silent for a while, except for the noise he makes when he clucks his tongue against the roof of his mouth. He does it when he’s deep in thought.
“What y’thinking?” I asked.
He pondered for a moment, then said: “The note.”
“What about it?”
“It was odd. I want to see the photos when Traffic gets back to us.”
“Yeah. I would have liked to have studied it more. What was odd about it?”
“I’m not sure. I’ve seen one or two similar ones, but that one frightened the willies out of me. I think it was meant to.”
“You mean it was done for theatrical effect? Melodrama?”
“Mmm, something like that.”
We were approaching a pub where we occasionally ate and imbibed. “Fancy an early lunch?” I asked.
“No thanks, Charlie. Wife’s packed me some sandwiches.”
“Sugar! Looks like it’s the canteen again.”
We’d asked the lab to rush us some copies of the ransom note. As soon as the Traffic officer brought them to me I distributed the prints to everyone concerned and sent the negative to our photographers to have some more made. Then I settled down to study it.
Sparky was right, and I could see why. A rational person wouldn’t normally communicate by cutting letters out of a newspaper and sticking them together again. But if he did, if he was just, say, halfway rational, then he’d probably use letters that were all approximately the same size. There are plenty to choose from in any paper. If he wanted a Q he might have to look for a little one somewhere in the text, but he should have no problems finding a decent-sized E or S. But our man wasn’t even halfway rational. The note was comprised of letters that covered the full range of sizes available. Some out of the headlines, some from the smallest text. Four words in, to, her and cash were complete, cut directly from the little print. The overall effect was a sinister look that went far beyond the meaning of the message.
Or maybe I underestimated the author: maybe he was rational; maybe he knew exactly what he was doing.
I propped my copy of the note against the telephone and stared at it for several minutes, pencil hovering over a blank foolscap pad. The biggest letters were unusual. I’d studied lettering at art college, in my Age of Innocence, and could see that the proportions were wrong.
They were in the style of the Roman, or Trajan, alphabet, but the vertical lines were much too broad when compared to the classical proportions of the original. It would be reasonably simple to find which newspaper used a typeface like that. I copied them on to the virgin pad:
E M O N Y
An anagram of MONEY. That wasn’t too difficult. Several other letters were in the same style, but slightly smaller. I wrote them down. They were:
The X should be a giveaway. I said it to myself over and over again: X … XX… X… How about EXPRESS? I wrote it on the pad.
It worked, but express had a surplus P. I carefully traced my pencil across the photo of the note. There was no P in it. The writer had no need for that letter. He’d obviously carved up the headings MONEY and EXPRESS before he’d set to work with the paste pot.
I looked through the window of my little room to see who was in the general office. Nigel was busy at his desk. I waved my arms above my head to attract his attention, but he stayed resolutely engrossed in whatever he was doing. Picking up the telephone to speak to someone fifteen feet away represented the triumph of technology over humanity, and I was damned if I was going to be a party to it. I hurled my pencil at the pane of glass that separated us and he looked up.
“You rang, boss?” he said as he came through the door.
“Yes. Does anyone in the office take the Daily Express, do you know?”
“Well, yes. Everyone, I expect.”
“Everyone?” I echoed.
“I’m not sure. Nearly everyone.”
“Jesus,” I sighed, sliding my notes and the photo across to him.
After he’d studied them for a few seconds, enlightenment flickered across his face. I said: “It looks as if he carved up those two words to make his note. If we put them back together and see what’s printed on the back, we should be able to pin down the edition he used.”
Nigel nodded his approval.
“Which information,” I continued, ‘will be about as illuminating as a cement lightbulb.” It wasn’t exactly a piece of the jigsaw; more like just one of the broken-off joining bits. Blue, out of the sky.
I rang Professor Van Rees and told him what we’d found. After he’d finished his other tests he would fax the back of the words to the Express and see what they came up with. He was pessimistic about his findings so far. The envelope and address label were self-adhesive; nobody had licked them. There were no fingerprints. It looked as if our man had worn a space suit when he made the note. I mentally moved astronauts further up the list of suspects.
Van Rees came back to me next day, which was quicker than I’d expected.
He hadn’t done any DNA analyses because there was nothing to analyse.
The note was healthier than a bridegroom’s armpit. The only good news was that the Express had identified the issue. The kidnapper had cut the letters from a Sunday Express dated early April, six weeks before the kidnapping. The self-sealing envelope and the glue came from Woolworth’s, and there was nothing distinctive about the scissors he’d used.
“I’m sorry I haven’t more to tell you, Mr. Priest,” Van Rees said.
“The man you’re looking for has been painstakingly careful. I wish I could be more helpful.”
“I’m sure you’ve done all you can, Professor,” I replied. “And maybe you’ve told us more than you realise.”
“I’m afraid I don’t follow.”
“Well, maybe he’s so cautious because he has to be. He might be known to us. Perhaps he’s right under our noses.”
Some evidence would have been useful, though.
We didn’t need the big conference room for our meetings any more. Four of us sat in the small incident room we had been allocated, together with the civilian computer operator. The first team consisted of myself, DS Newley, DC Mad Maggie Madison, Dave Sparkington and Luke, our wizard of the keyboard. His terminal was linked to HOLMES, the national major enquiry computer. He had at his fingertips just about everything we knew about anyone. Ask him for information about, say, thefts of ladies’ knickers from washing lines, in Dorset, in the last five years, and he’d have a print-out for you in minutes. We had a mountain of them to prove it.
“So he wrote the letter nearly three months before he posted it,” said Maggie.
“And two months before he did the kidnapping,” added Nigel.
“Yes. Unless he used an old newspaper from the pile under the sink. If you were making a note like this one, Dave, would you use any old paper or would you go out and buy one specially for the job.”
“He bought it specially, together with a packet of envelopes, some blank paper and a stick of glue. No doubt about it.”
“OK,” I said. “In that case, did he have anyone specific in mind when he wrote the note?”
“Yes,” replied Sparky. The other two nodded in agreement.
“Because of the her in the note?”
“And the half-million,” added Sparky. “I’d guess that’s about what Dewhurst could raise.”
“What’s happening about the money, boss?” asked Maggie.
“Barclay’s are holding it for us and it’s being marked. It should be ready in good time.”
We’d had one reconstruction of Georgina’s last walk across the bus station, and talked about the possibility of another. None of us was optimistic.
“C’mon, Luke,” I said, trying to inject some enthusiasm into the team.
“What does Sherlock say? Why not just ask it “Who did it?”
He grinned. He was about half my age, and light years from all of us in style. When he first came to us Sparky asked him if he bought his clothes from a Punch and Judy man. He was good with the computer, though, and had a pleasant personality.
“Did any of you see the late film last night?” he asked. None of us had. “It was brilliant,” he went on. “There was this FBI agent who was descended from Sioux Indians. When he had this difficult murder to solve he went out and listened to the wind, and the answer came to him.”
“Thank you for that contribution, Luke,” said Sparky. “It’s about as useful as anything else we’ve got so far.”
“That’s true, I’m afraid,” I agreed. “So what are we all doing for the rest of the day?” I looked at Nigel first.
He had some files from other forces that he wanted to look at again.
They were about kidnappings that had gone unsolved and kidnappers who were back on the streets. Not too many of them, though it’s not a British crime.
Maggie was our liaison with the family. Miles Dewhurst was burying himself in his work, but she tried to see him every day, or at least talk to him on the phone. She saw more of Mrs. Eaglin, Georgina’s grandma, and was giving her all the support she could. That was where she was going next.
DS Sparkington was doing some follow-up interviews — seeing people who hadn’t been in when we called, or who couldn’t remember where they were at the fateful time. Luke was putting Van Rees’s report on file.
That left me. I went upstairs to see the Super.
“The bottom line, Gilbert,” I told him, ‘is that he’s clever, he’s had it planned for a long time, and I’m confident that he’s known to us.”
Gilbert pondered on what I’d said. “So couldn’t Forensic come up with anything at all with the note?” he asked.
I shook my head. “Nope, nothing at all.”
“What about the typed address?”
“Done on a computer. Laser jet printer, impossible to trace. They’re not like your old Remingtons, I’m afraid.”.
“In that case, why didn’t he print the whole bloody note on it?”
“Good point. Maybe he didn’t know that it was untraceable. I wasn’t sure myself until I asked. Sparky thinks the note was designed for theatrical effect.”
“You mean it’s just someone making mischief?”
“Jesus Christ! Makes you wander just who’s out there. Do you need anybody else?”
“No, not at the moment, thanks.”
I was walking across to the door when Gilbert said: “So what’s your next move, Charlie?”
I paused with my hand on the handle. “I’m trying a new technique this afternoon,” I replied.
“Oh, what’s that?”
“I’m driving up on to the moors and I’m going to sit on a wall and listen to the wind.”
“Well, don’t try pissing into it,” he called after me.
The idea appealed to me. Wildernesses have a way of helping you put things in perspective. The moors I live on the edge of have seen it all, heard it all. I love walking across them, the wind lashing my hair and the shadows of the clouds racing across the hillsides. They speak to me, too, in their way. There are ghosts up there. They tell of hardship and cruelty; vast wealth for a few, and indescribable poverty and degradation for the rest. They don’t come up with names, unfortunately. For that I needed evidence. Van Rees’s newfangled DNA tests and Luke’s computer were more likely to produce the goods than any half-baked voodoo. About four o’clock I swung the Cavalier into the drive of The Firs, Edgely Lane, and switched off the engine.
Dewhurst’s big Nissan Patrol was standing on a paved area alongside his garage. That could mean he was using the Toyota. He’d told me that he saved it for ‘best’, such as when he was likely to be entertaining clients, or needed to cover large distances as swiftly as possible. The Nissan was his workhorse, handy for carrying samples or delivering rush orders. I did a rough calculation of their value. It came to about twice my annual salary.
The house looked quiet. It’s hard to put a finger on the reason, but you can usually tell when a house is empty. I gave the doorbell a perfunctory stab with a finger and turned to survey the garden. It was about a hundred yards long, but only as wide as the house. A paved area, with rusting barbecue, gave way to lawns which stretched down to an orchard.
For late June the weather was bloody awful. Black clouds were piling up and the tops of the big fir trees gave a sudden shudder as the beginnings of a cold front caught them. The leylandii reminded me of a Van Gogh painting, done when the black dog of depression was at its most rabid. I shivered and turned up my jacket collar.
His grass was short and neat. There were even parallel lines up and down the lawn, left by the mower. The ground was soft, so I walked flat-footed, trying not to leave too many prints behind. Dewhurst didn’t spend enough time at home to do it himself, so he must have a gardener. I couldn’t see any point in having it all dug up. Not yet.
At the front it was rose beds and an ornamental pool, with concrete cherub. Presumably, in more happy times, it peed into the pond. Then there was the Nissan. Dewhurst had used it on the Friday before Georgina disappeared, on the Sunday when they took Mrs. Eaglin home, and also on the Monday morning.
I wandered round it, looking in through the windows. It didn’t look anything special. There was a road atlas on the front seat and a pair of Ray-Bans above the dashboard. Otherwise it was neat and tidy. It was neat and tidy underneath, too. In fact, the whole thing was gleaming like a politician’s smile. I ran my hand inside the wheel arches, like a mother-in-law feeling the tops of the doors, and inspected my fingers. Spotless. I’d put some plastic bags in my boot, in case I collected a few specimens, but it looked as if I wouldn’t need them.
The spare wheel on a Nissan Patrol is carried underneath, at the back, exposed to all the spray from the road. This one was wrapped in black plastic to keep it clean. It was a sensible precaution. I knelt down and reached through to feel the top of the wheel. My hand came back grimy. The front of the spare was probably caked in mud. I needed a sample of that mud, just for the records.
But first I needed the help of a mechanic. A single nut held the wheel in position, but I had nothing that would undo it. I went over to my car and telephoned the station garage. Nobody was available. It was late and they’d all gone home. I rang Jimmy Hoyle.
Jimmy owns a little garage in Heckley. He services cars for a few regular customers and is an expert with a spray gun. My father left me an old Jaguar when he died and Jimmy helped me restore it. We’ve been pals since we played in the same football team. I’d just joined the force and I helped him steer his way out of some trouble. I took a risk, but he’s never forgotten it.
“Sheepshagger! What do you want?” he greeted me.
“Hiya, baboon features. How did you know I wanted something?”
“You always want something. I haven’t seen you since you hit the big time bustin’ that drugs gang.”
“Ah, the ABC gang, Mr. Cakebread and his pals. Those were the days.
You know where I live, Jimmy; you’re welcome to call in with a bottle any time. Bring a tin of salmon and I’ll make you a sandwich.”
“I’ll pass, if you don’t mind, Charlie. I don’t want to be around when someone puts a bomb under your car.”
“When I woke up this morning there was a horse’s head in my bed.”
“I’m not surprised.”
“It was a right bugger trying to get the milk float back down the stairs. Listen, I didn’t have to come to you. I’ve got other friends I haven’t used yet.” I told him what the problem was and he was with me in fifteen minutes. After casting an expert eye under the Nissan he declared: “It needs what we technicians call a twenty mil. socket.
Won’t be a mo.”
I collected a few plastic bags out of my boot and gave them to him.
“Put as much of the mud as you can in these, please. I’ll stand at the gate and watch for the owner coming back.”
Jimmy looked at me in alarm. “You mean he doesn’t know you’re doing this?”
“Chuffin’ ‘eck. “Ave you got a warrant?”
“No. Get on with it.”
“Chuffin’ ‘eck. Does this make me an accessory after the fact?”
“No, just an accessory.”
“What’s the difference?”
“It’s more serious.”
Jimmy sprawled on the ground at the back of the vehicle and I stood at the gate looking down towards the Penistone Road. A few big blobs of rain made dark spots on the pavement. Right on cue, the white shark-nose of the Toyota came into view, paused in the middle of the road for a moment while the traffic cleared, then swung into the lane.
“Jimmy! He’s here,” I called. “Pack up quick! Pretend you’ve been messing with my car.”
I walked into the road to stall Dewhurst. Fortunately Jimmy’s van was blocking the entrance to the drive, so he’d have to wait until it was moved before he could go in.
The Supra came to a silent halt and the near side window slid down. I squatted on my heels so that my face was level with it and Dewhurst leaned across.
“What’s happened? Has something happened?” he asked. He sounded agitated.
“No, Mr. Dewhurst, nothing’s happened. I’m sorry to startle you like this. I just called in to see you, but when I tried to start the car again it wouldn’t work. I sent for a mechanic and he’s just fixing it.
He won’t be long. Have you heard anything?”
He hadn’t. I asked him if Maggie had spoken to him today. I knew that she rang him early every morning and tried to see him in the evening.
He was full of praise for her and said he was grateful for the support she was giving Mrs. Eaglin. After a few minutes Jimmy joined us. He did well.
“It’s fixed, Mr. Priest. Will there be anything else?”
“Not for now, Jimmy. Thanks a lot. Will you send me a bill, please?”
“It’ll be in the post tomorrow. Will you, er, be needing a VAT receipt or will it beer cash?”
Cheeky sod. He moved his van and the Supra turned silently into the drive, as if driven by electricity. The garage door swung up and Dewhurst drove straight in. When he joined me again he was carrying a fat briefcase. After a few flashes and beeps the garage door closed itself and we went into the house.
Dewhurst hung his jacket on a hanger, filled the kettle and flopped into an easy chair, gesturing towards another for me.
I sat down and said: “I thought I’d come to tell you that Barclay’s bank are holding the money for us. As soon as you hear anything else we can have it over here.”
“The full half-million?” he asked.
“The real stuff. It’s being secretly marked, but otherwise it’s kosher.”
“Heavens. So if this money is handed over, who pays?”
“We do. The state.”
“But you’d expect to be able to follow it? You’d want to make the han dover yourselves?”
I shook my head. “Not because of the money. We’d want to handle it because we’d stand a better chance of getting Georgina back.” I stopped myself from saying ‘alive’.
He was quiet for a while, then he said: “I have to tell you, Inspector, that I’m making efforts myself to raise the money.”
I said: “That’s not necessary,” but he wasn’t listening.
He went on: “Six months ago I received an offer for Eagle. I turned it down, but I’ve just asked them if they’re still interested. I’m trying to sell the house, too.”
“We already have the money, Mr. Dewhurst. It’s imperative that as soon as you hear anything you let us know. We can handle it best.
You’ll be involved every inch of the way. Understand?”
He nodded. Beyond him, through the window, I could see the Nissan, its shape distorted by the rain running down the glass. I wondered if Jimmy had managed to obtain a sample for me. I was painfully aware that I was floundering with this one. All we had to go on was the fact that we had nothing to go on.
“There is one other thing,” I said. He looked at me. “The ransom note. The forensic people have found a spot of saliva or sweat on it.
They can tell a person’s blood group from something like that. Trouble is, it could be yours or mine. I’ve already given a sample. I wonder if you could make an appointment with Dr. Evans he’s near Heckley nick in the next couple of days. Just for elimination purposes. I’ll give you his number.”
In the kitchen the kettle clicked off as it came to the boil. I didn’t stay for a cup pa with him. I might be a bastard, but I’ve got my limits. I climbed straight into the car and drove home. If I hadn’t been in so much of a hurry I’d have heard the wind, soughing in the treetops.