cover

Contents

About the Book

About the Author

Also by Ruth Rendell

Title Page

Dedication

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Copyright

About the Book

I only know the Painter case was an open and shut affair,’ said Chief Inspector Wexford. ‘And nobody’s got a hope in hell of showing he didn’t do it.’

It’s impossible to forget the violent bludgeoning to death of an elderly lady in her home. Even more so when it’s your first murder case.

Wexford believed he’d solved Mrs Primero’s murder fifteen years ago. It was no real mystery. Everyone knew Painter, her odd-job man, had done it. There had never been any doubt in anyone’s mind. Until now…

Henry Archery’s son is engaged to Painter’s daughter. Only Archery can’t let the past remain buried. He wants to prove Wexford wrong, and in probing into the lives of the witnesses questioned all those years ago, he stirs up more than old ghosts.

A WEXFORD CASE

Chief Inspector Wexford is one of the most memorable detectives ever created.

Ruth Rendell’s timeless Wexford novels continue to intrigue, enthral and surprise readers time and time again.

About the Author

Ruth Rendell was an exceptional crime writer, and will be remembered as a legend in her own lifetime. Her ground-breaking debut novel, From Doon With Death, was first published in 1964 and introduced readers to her enduring and popular detective, Inspector Reginald Wexford.

With worldwide sales of approximately 20 million copies, Rendell was a regular Sunday Times bestseller. Her sixty bestselling novels include police procedurals, some of which have been successfully adapted for TV, stand-alone psychological mysteries, and a third strand of crime novels under the pseudonym Barbara Vine.

Rendell won numerous awards, including the Sunday Times Literary Award in 1990. In 2013 she was awarded the Crime Writers’ Association Cartier Diamond Dagger for sustained excellence in crime writing. In 1996 she was awarded the CBE, and in 1997 became a Life Peer.

Ruth Rendell died in May 2015.

Also by Ruth Rendell

OMNIBUSES:

COLLECTED SHORT STORIES

COLLECTED STORIES 2

WEXFORD: AN OMNIBUS

THE SECOND WEXFORD OMNIBUS

THE THIRD WEXFORD OMNIBUS

THE FOURTH WEXFORD OMNIBUS

THE FIFTH WEXFORD OMNIBUS

THREE CASES FOR CHIEF INSPECTOR WEXFORD

THE RUTH RENDELL OMNIBUS

THE SECOND RUTH RENDELL OMNIBUS

THE THIRD RUTH RENDELL OMNIBUS

CHIEF INSPECTOR WEXFORD NOVELS:

FROM DOON WITH DEATH

A NEW LEASE OF DEATH

WOLF TO THE SLAUGHTER

THE BEST MAN TO DIE

A GUILTY THING SURPRISED

NO MORE DYING THEN

MURDER BEING ONCE DONE

SOME LIE AND SOME DIE

SHAKE HANDS FOR EVER

A SLEEPING LIFE

PUT ON BY CUNNING

THE SPEAKER OF MANDARIN

AN UNKINDNESS OF RAVENS

THE VEILED ONE

KISSING THE GUNNER’S DAUGHTER

SIMISOLA

ROAD RAGE

HARM DONE

THE BABES IN THE WOOD

END IN TEARS

NOT IN THE FLESH

THE MONSTER IN THE BOX

SHORT STORIES:

THE FALLEN CURTAIN

MEANS OF EVIL

THE FEVER TREE

THE NEW GIRLFRIEND

THE COPPER PEACOCK

BLOOD LINES

PIRANHA TO SCURFY

NOVELLAS:

HEARTSTONES

THE THIEF

NON-FICTION:

RUTH RENDELL’S SUFFOLK

RUTH RENDELL’S ANTHOLOGY OF THE MURDEROUS MIND

NOVELS:

TO FEAR A PAINTED DEVIL

VANITY DIES HARD

THE SECRET HOUSE OF DEATH

ONE ACROSS, TWO DOWN

THE FACE OF TRESPASS

A DEMON IN MY VIEW

A JUDGEMENT IN STONE

MAKE DEATH LOVE ME

THE LAKE OF DARKNESS

MASTER OF THE MOOR

THE KILLING DOLL

THE TREE OF HANDS

LIVE FLESH

TALKING TO STRANGE MEN

THE BRIDESMAID

GOING WRONG

THE CROCODILE BIRD

THE KEYS TO THE STREET

A SIGHT FOR SORE EYES

ADAM AND EVE AND PINCH ME

THE ROTTWEILER

THIRTEEN STEPS DOWN

THE WATER’S LOVELY

PORTOBELLO

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My Father and Simon

All the chapter heading quotations are extracts from The Common Book of Prayer

1

The laws of the Realm may punish Christian men with death for heinous and grievous offences.

The Thirty-nine Articles

IT WAS FIVE in the morning. Inspector Burden had seen more dawns than most men, but he had never quite become jaundiced by them, especially summer dawns. He liked the stillness, the sight of the little country town in a depopulated state, the hard blue light that was of the same shade and intensity as the light at dusk but without dusk’s melancholy.

The two men they had been questioning about last night’s fight in one of Kingsmarkham’s cafés had confessed separately and almost simultaneously just a quarter of an hour before. Now they were locked into two stark white cells on the ground floor of his incongruously modern police station. Burden stood by the window in Wexford’s office, looking at the sky which had the peculiar greenish tint of aquamarine. A flock of birds flying in dense formation crossed it. They reminded Burden of his childhood when, as at dawn, everything had seemed bigger, clearer and of more significance than it did today. Tired and a little sickened, he opened the window to get rid of cigarette smoke and the sweaty smell of youths who wore leather jackets in the height of summer.

Outside in the corridor he could hear Wexford saying good night – or good morning – to Colonel Griswold, the Chief Constable. Burden wondered if Griswold had guessed when he arrived just before ten with a long spiel about stamping out hooliganism that he was in for an all-night session. That, he thought unfairly, was where meddling got you.

The heavy front door clanged and Griswold’s car started. Burden watched it move off the forecourt, past the great stone urns filled with pink geraniums and into Kingsmarkham High Street. The Chief Constable was driving himself. Burden saw with approval and grudging amusement that Griswold drove at just about twenty-eight miles per hour until he reached the black and white derestriction sign. Then the car gathered speed and flashed away out of sight along the empty country road that led to Pomfret.

He turned round when he heard Wexford come in. The Chief Inspector’s heavy grey face was a little greyer than usual, but he showed no other sign of tiredness and his eyes, dark and hard as basalt, showed a gleam of triumph. He was a big man with big features and a big intimidating voice. His grey suit–one of a series of low fastening, double-breasted affairs – appeared more shabby and wrinkled than ever today. But it suited Wexford, being not unlike an extension of his furrowed pachydermatous skin.

‘Another job jobbed,’ he said, ‘as the old woman said when she jobbed the old man’s eye out.’

Burden bore with such vulgarisms stoically. He knew that they were meant to horrify him; they always succeeded. He made his thin lips crease into a tight smile. Wexford handed him a blue envelope and he was glad of the diversion to hide his slight embarrassment.

‘Griswold’s just given me this,’ Wexford said. ‘At five in the morning. No sense of timing.’

Burden glanced at the Essex postmark.

‘Is that the man he was on about earlier, sir?’

‘Well, I don’t have fanmail from beautiful olde worlde Thringford as a general rule, do I, Mike? This is the Rev. Mr Archery all right, taking advantage of the Old Pals’ Act.’ He lowered himself into one of the rather flimsy chairs and it gave the usual protesting creak. Wexford had what his junior called a love-hate relationship with those chairs and indeed with all the aggressively modern furnishings of his office. The glossy block floor, the square of nylon carpet, the chairs with their sleek chrome legs, the primrose venetian blinds – all these in Wexford’s estimation were not ‘serviceable’, they were dust-traps and they were ‘chi-chi’. At the same time he took in them an enormous half-secret pride. They had their effect. They served to impress visiting strangers such as the writer of this letter Wexford was now taking from its envelope.

It too was written on rather thick blue paper. In a painfully authentic upper-class accent, the Chief Inspector said affectedly, ‘May as well get on to the Chief Constable of Mid-Sussex, my dear. We were up at Oxford together, don’t you know?’ He squeezed his face into a kind of snarling grin. ‘All among the bloody dreaming spires,’ he said. ‘I hate that sort of thing.’

‘Were they?’

‘Were they what?’

‘At Oxford together?’

‘I don’t know. Something like that. It may have been the playing fields of Eton. All Griswold said was, “Now we’ve got those villains wrapped up, I’d like you to have a look at a letter from a very good friend of mine called Archery. Excellent fellow, one of the best. This enclosure’s for you. I’d like you to give him all the help you can. I’ve a notion it’s got something to do with that scoundrel Painter.”’

‘Who’s Painter?’

‘Villain who got the chop about fifteen or sixteen years ago,’ said Wexford laconically.’ Let’s see what the parson has to say, shall we?’

Burden looked over his shoulder. The letter was headed St Columba’s Vicarage, Thringford, Essex. The Greek e’s awakened in him a small hostility. Wexford read it aloud.

‘“Dear sir, I hope you will forgive me for taking up your valuable time…” Don’t have much choice, do I? “… but I regard this matter as being of some urgency. Col. Griswold, the Chief Constable of blah blah and so on, has very kindly told me you are the gentleman who may be able to assist me in this problem so I am taking the liberty, having first consulted him, of writing to You.”’ He cleared his throat and loosened his crumpled grey tie. ‘Takes a hell of a time coming to the point, I must say. Ah, here we go. “You will remember the case of Herbert Arthur Painter …” I will. “I understand you were in charge of it. I therefore supposed I should come to you before pursuing certain enquiries which, much against my will, I am compelled to make.”’

‘Compelled?’

‘That’s what the man says. Doesn’t say why. The rest’s a load of compliments and can he come and see me tomorrow – no, today. He’s going to phone this morning, but he “anticipates my willingness to meet him.”’ He glanced at the window to where the sun was coming up over York Street and with one of his distorted quotations, said, ‘I suppose he’s sleeping in Elysium at this moment, crammed with distressful cold mutton or whatever parsons go to bed on.’

‘What’s it all about?’

‘Oh God, Mike, it’s obvious, isn’t it? You don’t want to take any notice of this “being compelled” and “against his will” stuff. I don’t suppose his stipend amounts to much. He probably writes true crime stories in between early Communion and the Mothers’ Meeting. He must be getting desperate if he reckons on titillating the mass appetite by resurrecting Painter.’

Burden said thoughtfully, ‘I seem to remember the case. I’d just left school …’

‘And it inspired your choice of a career, did it?’ Wexford mocked. ‘“What are you going to be, son?” “I’m going to be a detective, Dad.”’

In his five years as Wexford’s right-hand man, Burden had grown immune to his teasing. He knew he was a kind of safety valve, the stooge perhaps on whom Wexford could vent his violent and sometimes shocking sense of humour. The people of this little town, indiscriminately referred to by Wexford as ‘our customers’ had, unless suspected of felony, to be spared. Burden was there to take the overflow of his chief’s rage, ridicule and satire. Now he was cast as the sponge to soak up the scorn that was rightly the due of Griswold and Griswold’s friend.

He looked shrewdly at Wexford. After a trying, frustrating day and night, this letter was the last straw. Wexford was suddenly tense with irritation, his skin more deeply wrinkled than usual, his whole body flexed with the anger that would not suffer fools gladly. That tension must find release.

‘This Painter thing,’ Burden said slyly, slipping into his role of therapist, ‘a bit run of the mill, wasn’t it? I followed it in the papers because it was the big local sensation. I don’t remember it was remarkable in any other way.’

Wexford slipped the letter back into its envelope and put it in a drawer. His movements were precise and under a tight control. One wrong word, Burden thought, and he’d have torn it up, chucked the pieces on the floor and left them to the mercy of the cleaner. His words had apparently been as right as possible under the circumstances for Wexford said in a sharp cool voice, ‘It was remarkable to me.’

‘Because you handled it?’

‘Because it was the first murder case I ever handled on my own. It was remarkable to Painter because it hanged him and to his widow, I daresay. I suppose it shook her a bit as far as anything could shake that girl.’

Rather nervously Burden watched him observe the cigarette burn one of the men they had been interviewing had made in the lemon-coloured leather of a chair seat. He waited for the explosion. Instead Wexford said indifferently:

‘Haven’t you got a home to go to?’

‘Too late now,’ said Burden, stifling a yawn that threatened. ‘Besides, my wife’s away at the seaside.’

A strongly uxorious man, he found his bungalow like a morgue when Jean and the children were absent. This was a side of his character that afforded Wexford many opportunities for quips and snide remarks, this coupled with his comparative youth, his stolid stick-in-the-mud nature and a certain primness of outlook. But all Wexford said was, ‘I forgot.’

He was good at his job. The big ugly man respected him for that. Although he might deride, Wexford appreciated the advantage of having a deputy whose grave good looks were attractive to women. Seated opposite that ascetic face, warmed by a compassion Wexford called ‘softness’, they were more inclined to open their hearts than to a majestic fifty-five-year-old heavyweight. His personality, however, was not strong and his superior effaced him. Now, in order to channel off that sharp-edged vitality, he was going to have to risk a rebuke for stupidity.

He risked it. ‘If you’re going to have to argue the toss with this Archery, wouldn’t it be a good idea if we had a re-cap of the facts?’

‘We?’

‘Well, you then, sir. You must be a bit rusty yourself on the case after so long.’

The outburst came with an undercurrent of laughter. ‘God Almighty! D’you think I can’t see your brain working? When I want a psychiatrist I’ll hire a professional.’ He paused and the laughter became a wry grin. ‘O.K. it might help me. …’ But Burden had made the mistake of relaxing too soon. ‘To get the facts straight for Mr Bloody Archery, I mean,’ Wexford snapped. ‘But there’s no mystery, you know, no cunning little red herrings. Painter did it all right.’ He pointed eastwards out of the window. The broad Sussex sky was becoming suffused with rose and gold, bands of soft creamy pink like strokes from a water-colour brush. ‘That’s as sure as the sun’s rising now,’ he said. ‘There never was any doubt. Herbert Arthur Painter killed his ninety-year-old employer by hitting her over the head with an axe and he did it for two hundred pounds. He was a brutal savage moron. I read in the paper the other day that the Russians call anti-social people “unpersons” and that just about describes him. Funny sort of character for a parson to champion.’

‘If he’s championing him.’

‘We shall see,’ said Wexford.

They stood in front of the map that was attached to the yellow ‘cracked ice’ wallpaper.

‘She was killed in her own home, wasn’t she?’ Burden asked. ‘One of those big houses off the Stowerton road?’

The map showed the whole of this rather sleepy country district. Kingsmarkham, a market town of some twelve thousand inhabitants, lay in the centre, its streets coloured in brown and white, its pastoral environs green with the blotches of dark veridian that denoted woodland. Roads ran from it as from the meshy heart of a spider’s web, one leading to Pomfret in the South, another to Sewingbury in the North-east. The scattered villages, Flagford, Clusterwell and Forby, were tiny flies on this web.

‘The house is called Victor’s Piece,’ said Wexford. ‘Funny sort of name. Some general built it for himself after the Ashanti Wars.’

‘And it’s just about here.’ Burden put his finger on a vertical strand of the web that led from Kingsmarkham to Stowerton, lying due north. He pondered and light dawned. ‘I think I know it,’ he said. ‘Hideous dump with a lot of green woodwork all over it. It was an old people’s home up until last year. I suppose they’ll pull it down.’

‘I daresay. There are a couple of acres of land to it. If you’ve got the picture we may as well sit down.’

Burden had moved his chair to the window. There was something consoling and at the same time rejuvenating in watching the unfolding of what was going to be a lovely day. On the fields tree shadows lay long and densely blue and bright new light glinted on the slate roofs of ancient houses. Pity he hadn’t been able to get away with Jean. The sunlight and the fresh heady air turned his thoughts towards holidays and prevented him from recalling details of this case that had long ago shocked Kingsmarkham. He searched his memory and found to his shame that he could not even remember the murdered woman’s name.

‘What was she called?’ he asked Wexford. ‘A foreign name, wasn’t it? Porto or Primo something?’

‘Primero. Rose Isabel Primero. That was her married name. Far from being foreign, she’d been brought up at Forby Hall. Her people were by way of being squires of Forby.’

Burden knew Forby well. What tourists there were in this agricultural country with neither seaside nor downs, castles nor cathedrals, made a point of going to Forby. The guide books listed it absurdly as the fifth prettiest village in England. Every local newsagent’s contained postcards of its church. Burden himself regarded it with certain affection because its inhabitants had shown themselves almost totally devoid of criminal tendencies.

‘This Archery could be a relative,’ he suggested. ‘Maybe he wants some gen for his family archives.’

‘I doubt it,’ Wexford said, basking in the sun like a huge grey cat. ‘The only relatives she had were her three grandchildren. Roger Primero, the grandson, lives at Forby Hall now. Didn’t inherit it, had to buy it. I don’t know the details.’

‘There used to be a family called Kynaston at Forby Hall, or so Jean’s mother says. Mind you, that was years and years ago.’

‘That’s right,’ Wexford said with a hint of impatience in his rumbling bass voice. ‘Mrs Primero was born a Kynaston and she was going on for forty when she married Dr Ralph Primero. I imagine her people looked on it a bit askance – this was at the turn of the century, remember.’

‘What was he, a G.P.?’

‘Some sort of specialist, I think. It was when he retired that they came to live at Victor’s Piece. They weren’t all that well-off, you know. When the doctor died in the thirties Mrs Primero was left with about ten thousand pounds to live on. There was one child of the marriage, a son, but he’d died soon after his father.’

‘D’you mean she was living alone in that great place? At her age?’

Wexford pursed his lips, reminiscing. Burden knew his chief’s almost supernatural memory. When he was sufficiently interested he had the nearest thing to total recall. ‘She had one maid,’ Wexford said. ‘Her name was – is, she’s still alive – her name was Alice Flower. She was a good bit younger than her employer, seventy odd, and she’d been with Mrs Primero for about fifty years. A real ancient retainer of the old school. Living like that, you might think they’d have become friends rather than mistress and servant, but Alice kept to her place and they were “Madam” and “Alice” to each other till the day Mrs Primero died. I knew Alice by sight. She was quite a local character when she came into town to do their shopping, particularly when Painter started bringing her in Mrs Primero’s Daimler. D’you remember how nursemaids used to look? No, you wouldn’t. You’re too young. Well, Alice always wore a long navy coat and what’s called a “decent” navy felt hat. She and Painter were both servants, but Alice put herself miles above him. She’d pull her rank on him and give him his orders just like Mrs Primero herself. He was Bert to his wife and his cronies but Alice called him “Beast”. Not to his face, mind. She wouldn’t have quite dared that.’

‘You mean she was frightened of him?’

‘In a way. She hated him and resented his being there. I wonder if I’ve still got that cutting.’ Wexford opened the bottom drawer of his desk, the one where he kept personal, semi-official things, grotesqueries that had interested him. He hadn’t much hope of finding what he sought. At the time of Mrs Primero’s murder Kingsmarkham police had been housed in an old yellow brick building in the center of the town. That had been pulled down four or five years ago and replaced by this block of startling modernity in the outskirts. The cutting had very probably got lost in the move from the high pitch pine desk to this one of lacquered rosewood. He leafed through notes, letters, odd little souvenirs, finally surfacing with a grin of triumph.

‘There you are, the “unperson” himself. Good-looking if you like the type. Herbert Arthur Painter, late of the Fourteenth Army in Burma. Twenty-five years old, engaged by Mrs Primero as chauffeur, gardener and odd-job man.’

The cutting was from the Sunday Planet, several columns of type surrounding a double-column block. It was a clear photograph and Painter’s eyes were staring straight at the camera.

‘Funny, that,’ said Wexford. ‘He always looked you straight in the eye. Supposed to denote honesty, if you’ve ever heard such a load of rubbish.’

Burden must have seen the picture before, but he had entirely forgotten it. It was a large well-made face with a straight though fleshy nose, spread at the nostrils. Painter had the thick curved lips that on a man are a coarse parody of a woman’s mouth, a flat high brow and short tightly waving hair. The waves were so tightly crimped that they looked as if they must have pulled the skin and pained the scalp.

‘He was tall and well-built,’ Wexford went on. ‘Face like a handsome overgrown pug, don’t you think? He’d been in the Far East during the war, but if the heat and the privation had taken it out of him it didn’t show by then. He had a sort of glistening good health about him like a shire horse. Sorry to use all these animal metaphors, but Painter was like an animal.’

‘How did Mrs Primero come to take him on?’

Wexford took the cutting from him, looked at it for a moment and folded it up.

‘From the time the doctor died,’ he said, ‘until 1947 Mrs Primero and Alice Flower struggled to keep the place going, pulling up a few weeds here and there, getting a man in when they wanted a shelf fixed. You can imagine the kind of thing. They had a succession of women up from Kingsmarkham to help with the housework but sooner or later they all left to go into the factories. The place started going to rack and ruin. Not surprising when you think that by the end of the war Mrs Primero was in her middle eighties and Alice nearly seventy. Besides, leaving her age out of it, Mrs Primero never touched the place as far as housework went. She hadn’t been brought up to it and she wouldn’t have known a duster from an antimacassar.’

‘Bit of a tartar, was she?’

‘She was what God and her background had made her,’ Wexford said gravely but with the faintest suspicion of irony in his voice. ‘I never saw her till she was dead. She was stubborn, a bit mean, what nowadays is called “reactionary”, inclined to be an autocrat and very much monarch of all she surveyed. I’ll give you a couple of examples. When her son died he left his wife and kids very badly off. I don’t know the ins and outs of it, but Mrs Primero was quite willing to help financially provided it was on her terms. The family was to come and live with her and so on. Still, I daresay she couldn’t afford to keep up two establishments. The other thing was that she’d been a very keen churchwoman. When she got too old to go she insisted on Alice going in her place. Like a sort of whipping boy. But she had her affections. She adored the grandson, Roger, and she had one close friend. We’ll come to that later.

‘As you know, there was an acute housing shortage after the war and a hell of a servant problem too. Mrs Primero was an intelligent old woman and she got to thinking how she could use one to solve the other. In the grounds of Victor’s Piece was a coach house with a sort of loft over the top of it. The place for the coach was used to house the aforesaid Daimler. No one had driven it since the doctor died – Mrs Primero couldn’t drive and, needless to say, Alice couldn’t either. There was precious little petrol about but you could get your ration, enough to do the shopping and take a couple of old dears for a weekly jaunt around the lanes.’

‘So Alice was that much of a friend? Burden put in.

Wexford said solemnly, ‘A lady can be accompanied by her maid when she goes driving. Anyway, Mrs Primero put an advert in the Kingsmarkham Chronicle for a young able-bodied man, willing to do the garden, perform odd jobs, maintain and drive the car in exchange for a flat and three pounds a week.’

Three pounds?’ Burden was a non-smoker and no lover of extravagant living, but he knew from doing his wife’s weekend shopping what a little way three pounds went.

‘Well, it was worth a good bit more in those days, Mike,’ Wexford said almost apologetically. ‘Mrs Primero had the loft painted up, divided into three rooms and piped for water. It wasn’t Dolphin Square but, God, people were glad of one room back in 1947! She got a lot of answers but for some reason – God knows what reason – she picked Painter. At the trial Alice said she thought the fact that he had a wife and a baby daughter would keep him steady. Depends what you mean by steady, doesn’t it?’

Burden shifted his chair out of the sun. ‘Was the wife employed by Mrs Primero too?’

‘No, just Painter. She’d got this little kid, you see, she was only about two when they came. If she’d worked up at the house she’d have had to bring the child with her. Mrs Primero would never have stood for that. As far as she was concerned between her and the Painters there was a great gulf fixed. I gathered she’d hardly exchanged more than a couple of words with Mrs Painter all the time Painter was there and as for the little girl – her name was Theresa, I think – she barely knew of her existence.’

‘She doesn’t sound a very nice sort of woman,’ Burden said doubtfully.

‘She was typical of her age and class,’ Wexford said tolerantly. ‘Don’t forget she was a daughter of the lord of the manor when lords of the manor still counted for something. To her Mrs Painter was comparable to a tenant’s wife. I’ve no doubt that if Mrs Painter had been ill she’d have sent old Alice over with a bowl of soup and some blankets. Besides, Mrs Painter kept herself to herself. She was very pretty, very quiet and with a sort of deadly respectability about her. She was a bit scared of Painter which wasn’t hard to understand, she being so small and Painter such a great hulking brute. When I talked to her after the murder I noticed she’d got bruises on her arm, too many bruises for her just to have got them through the usual kitchen accidents, and I wouldn’t mind betting her husband used to knock her about.’

‘So, in fact,’ Burden said, ‘they were two completely separate units. Mrs Primero and her maid living alone at Victor’s Piece, the Painter family in their own home at the bottom of the garden.’

‘I don’t know about “bottom of the garden”. The coach house was about a hundred feet from the back door of the big house. Painter only went up there to carry in the coal and receive his instructions.’

‘Ah,’ said Burden, ‘there was some complicated business about coal, I seem to remember. Wasn’t it more or less the crux of the whole thing?’

‘Painter was supposed to chop wood and carry coal,’ Wexford continued. ‘Alice was past carrying coal and Painter was supposed to bring a scuttleful at mid-day – they never lit a fire before that – and another one at six-thirty. Now, he never objected to the gardening or the car maintenance, but for some reason he drew the line at the coal. He did it – apart from frequent lapses – but he was always grumbling about it. The mid-day duty cut across his dinner time, he said, and he didn’t like turning out on winter evenings. Couldn’t he bring two scuttles at eleven? But Mrs Primero wouldn’t have that. She said she wasn’t going to have her drawing room turned into a railway yard.’

Burden smiled. His tiredness had almost worn off. Given breakfast, a shave and a shower down, he would be a new man. He glanced at his watch, then across the High Street to where the blinds were going up on the Carousel Café.

‘I could do with a cup of coffee,’ he said.

‘Two minds with but a single thought. Root someone out and send them over.’

Wexford stood up and stretched, tightened his tie and smoothed back the hair that was too sparse to become untidy. The coffee arrived in wax cups with plastic spoons and little cubes of wrapped sugar.

‘That’s better,’ said Wexford. ‘D’you want me to go on?’ Burden nodded.

‘By September 1950 Painter had been working for Mrs Primero for three years. The arrangement appeared to work pretty well apart from the difficulties Painter made about the coal. He never brought it in without complaining and he was always asking for a rise.’

‘I suppose he thought she was rolling in money?’

‘Of course, he couldn’t have known what she’d got in the bank or in shares or whatever it was. On the other hand it was an open secret she kept money in the house.’

‘In a safe, d’you mean?’

‘Not on your life. You know these old girls. Some of it was in drawers stuffed into paper bags, some of it in old handbags.’

With a feat of memory Burden said suddenly, ‘And one of those handbags contained the two hundred pounds?’

‘It did,’ Wexford said grimly. ‘Whatever she might have been able to afford, Mrs Primero refused to raise Painter’s wages. If he didn’t like the set-up he could go, but that would mean giving up the flat.

‘Being a very old woman, Mrs Primero felt the cold and she liked to start fires in September. Painter thought this unnecessary and he made the usual fuss about it …’

He stopped as the telephone rang and he took the receiver himself. Burden had no idea from Wexford’s reiterated, ‘Yes, yes … all right,’ who it could be. He finished his coffee with some distaste. The rim of the wax cup had become soggy. Wexford dropped the phone.

‘My wife,’ he said. ‘Am I dead? Have I forgotten I’ve got a home of my own? She’s run out of housekeeping and she can’t find the cheque book.’ He chuckled, felt in his pocket and produced it. ‘No wonder. I’ll have to nip back.’ He added with sudden kindness, ‘Go home and have a bit of shuteye, why don’t you?’

‘I don’t like being left in the air,’ Burden grumbled. ‘Now I know how my kids feel when I break off in the middle of a bedtime story.’

Wexford began bundling things into his briefcase.

‘Leaving out all the circumstantial stuff,’ he said, ‘there isn’t much more. I told you it was straightforward. It was the evening of September 24th it happened, a cold wet Sunday. Mrs Primero had sent Alice off to church. She went at about a quarter past six, Painter being due to bring the coal at half past. He brought it all right and departed two hundred pounds to the good.’

‘I’d like to hear the circumstantial stuff,’ Burden said.

Wexford was at the door now.

‘To be continued in our next,’ he grinned. ‘You can’t say I’m leaving you in suspense.’ The grin faded and his face hardened. ‘Mrs Primero was found at seven. She was in the drawing room lying on the floor by the fireplace in a great pool of blood. There was blood on the walls and on her armchair, and in the hearth was a blood-stained wood chopper.’

2

When sentence is given upon him let him be condemned … let his children be fatherless and his wife a widow.

Psalm 109, appointed for the 22nd Day

THE NAP WEXFORD had prescribed for him would have been attractive on a dull day, but not this morning when the sky was blue and cloudless and the sun promised tropical heat by mid-day. Moreover, Burden remembered that he had not made his bed for three days. Better have that shower and that shave instead.

After a canteen breakfast of two eggs and a couple of rashers of the greenback he liked, he had made up his mind what he was going to do. An hour could easily be spared. He drove northwards along the High Street with all the car windows down, past the shops, over the Kingsbrook Bridge, past The Olive and Dove and out on the Stowerton road. Apart from a new house here and there, a supermarket on the site of the old police station, and aggressive road signs all over the place, things had not changed much in sixteen years. The meadows, the tall trees burdened with the heavy foliage of July, the little weatherboard cottages were much the same as when Alice Flower had seen them on her shopping trips in the Daimler. There would have been less traffic, then, he thought. He braked, pulled in and raised his eyebrows at the youth on a motorbike who, overtaking the oncoming stream, had missed him by inches.

The lane where Victor’s Piece was must be somewhere about here. Those circumstantial details Wexford had been so tantalizing about were coming back to him from his own memory. Surely he had read about a bus stop and a telephone box at the end of the lane? Would these be the meadows he remembered reading that Painter had crossed, desperate to conceal a bundle of blood-stained clothing?

Here was the phone box now. He indicated left and turned slowly into the lane. For a short way its surface was metalled, then it petered out into a track ending in a gate. There were only three houses: a white-plastered semi-detached pair and opposite them the late Victorian pile he had described as ‘a hideous dump’.

He had never been as near to it as this before, but he saw nothing to make him change his opinion. The roof of grey slates had been constructed – tortured almost – into a number of steep gables. Two of these dominated the front of the house, but there was a third on the right-hand side and out of it grew another smaller one that apparently overlooked the back. Each gable was criss-crossed with timbering, some of it inexpertly carved into chevrons and all painted a dull bottle green. In places the plaster between the wood had fallen away, exposing rough pinkish brickwork. Ivy, of the same shade of green, spread its flat leaves and its rope-like grey tendrils from the foot of the downstairs windows to the highest gable where a lattice flapped open. There it had crept and burrowed into the mealy wall, prising the window frame away from the bricks.

Burden observed the garden with a countryman’s eye. Never had he seen such a fine selection of weeds. The fertile black soil, cultivated and tended for many years, now nourished docks with leaves as thick and glossy as rubber plants, puce-headed thistles, nettles four feet tall. The gravel paths were choked with grass and mildewed groundsel. Only the clarity of the air and the soft brilliance of sunlight prevented the place from being actually sinister.

The front door was locked. No doubt this window beside it belonged to the drawing room. Burden could not help wondering with a certain wry humour what insensitive administrator had decreed that this scene of an old woman’s murder should be for years the home – indeed the last refuge – of other old women. But they were gone now. The place looked as if it had been empty for years.

Through the window he could see a large shadowy room. In the grate of the amber-coloured marble fireplace someone had prudently placed crumpled newspaper to catch the drifts of soot. Wexford had said there had been blood all over the fireplace. There, just in front of the copper kerb, was where the body must have lain.

He made his way round the side, pushing through a shrubbery where elders and strong little birches were threatening to oust the lilac. The panes in the kitchen casement were blurred with dirt and there was no kitchen door, only a back door that apparently opened off the end of the central passage. The Victorians, he reflected, were not too hot on design. Two doors with a straight passage between them! The draught would be appalling.

By now he was in the back garden but he literally could not see the wood for the trees. Nature had gone berserk at Victor’s Piece and the coach house itself was almost totally obscured by creeper. He strolled across the shady flagged yard, made cool by the jutting walls of the house, and found himself skirting a conservatory, attached apparently to a kind of morning or breakfast room. It housed a vine, long dead and quite leafless.

So that was Victor’s Piece. Pity he couldn’t get inside, but he would, in any case, have to get back. Out of long habit – and partly to set a good example – he had closed all the windows of his car and locked the doors. Inside it was like an oven. He drove out of the broken gateway, into the lane and joined the traffic stream on the Stowerton road.

A greater contrast between the building he had left and the building he entered could hardly have been found. Fine