Read The Beast Must Die Online

Authors: Nicholas Blake

The Beast Must Die (2 page)

Still, no harsh words about Felix Lane; he’s going to come in very useful in the near future. I should add that, when my neighbours inquire what I’m scribbling at all day, I tell them I’m working on a Life of Wordsworth. I do know quite a lot about him, but I’d as soon eat a hundredweight of solid glue as write his life.

My qualifications for murders are, to say the least, meagre. As Felix Lane I have acquired a smattering of forensic medicine, criminal law, and police procedure. I have never fired a gun or poisoned so much as a
rat
. My studies in criminology have suggested to me that only generals, Harley Street specialists and mine owners can get away with murder successfully. But here I may be doing the unprofessional murderer an injustice.

As to my character, it can best be deduced from this diary. I like to think that I think it a pretty inferior kind of character, but this is probably just the self-deception of the sophisticated …

Forgive all this pretentious garrulity, gentle reader who will never read it. A man has to talk to himself when he is alone on the drifting floe, in the dark alone, lost. Tomorrow I go home. I hope Mrs Teague has given all his toys away. I told her to.

23 June

THE COTTAGE LOOKS
just the same. Well, why not? Did I expect the walls to have been weeping? It’s typical of human impertinence – this pathetic fallacy of expecting the whole face of nature to be changed by one’s own squirming little agonies. Of course the cottage is the same. Except that the life has gone out of it. I see they’ve put up a danger sign at the corner. Too late, as usual.

Mrs Teague very subdued. She seems to have felt it; or maybe her funereal tones are just sick-room stuff for my benefit. Looking at that sentence again,
I
find it peculiarly nasty – jealousy at someone else’s having been fond of Martie, having had a share in his life. Good God, was I on the way to becoming one of those I-want-you-all-to-myself fathers? If so, murder is certainly all I’m fit for.

… Just as I was writing that, Mrs Teague came in – a sort of apologetic but determined expression on her huge red face, like a timid person who has screwed himself up to lodge a complaint, or a communicant returning from the altar. ‘I just couldn’t do it, sir,’ she said, ‘I hadn’t the heart’ – and to my horror started blubbering. ‘Do what?’ I asked. ‘Give them all away,’ she sobbed. She threw down a key on my table and rushed out of the room. It was the key of Martie’s toy-cupboard.

I went upstairs to the nursery and opened the cupboard. I had to do it at once, or I could never have done it. I stared at them for a long time, unable to think: the model garage, the Hornby engine, the old teddybear with only one eye; his three favourites. Coventry Patmore’s lines had come into my head –

He had put, within his reach,

A box of counters and a red-vein’d stone,

A piece of glass abraded by the beach

And six or seven shells

A bottle with bluebells

And two French copper coins, ranged there with careful art,

To comfort his sad heart.

Mrs Teague was quite right. It needed that. It needed something to keep the wound open. These toys are a better memorial than the tombstone in the village, they will not let me sleep, they are going to be the death of someone.

24 June

HAD A TALK
with Sergeant Elder this morning. Fourteen stone of bone and muscle, as ‘Sapper’ would say, and about one milligram of brain. The fishy, arrogant eyes of the stupid man invested with authority. Why is it that one is always infected with a kind of moral paralysis when one encounters a policeman, as though one were on board a pinnace about to be run down by the
Rodney
? Probably just a case of fear being catching; the bobby is always on the defensive – against the ‘upper classes’ because they can make things so darned uncomfortable for him if he takes a false step, against the lower classes because he is the representative of the ‘law and order’ which they have every reason to suspect of being their natural enemy. However.

Elder gave a display of the usual pompous, official reticence. Has a habit of scratching the lobe of his right ear and at the same time staring at the wall about six inches above one’s head, which I find insanely irritating. Investigations were still being pursued, he said, every channel would be explored; a mass of
information
had been sifted, but they had no lead as yet. That means, of course, that they’ve come to a dead end and don’t like to admit it. Which leaves the course clear for me. A straight fight. I’m glad.

I gave Elder a mug of beer, which unbuttoned him slightly. Managed to prise some of the details of the ‘investigations’ out of him. They’re certainly thorough enough, the police. Apart from the BBC appeals for witnesses of the accident to come forward, it seems that they visited pretty well every garage in the county and enquired about dented wings, bumpers, damaged radiators, etc., brought in for repair; all the car owners within a wide radius were investigated, more or less tactfully, to find out if they had alibis for their cars at the time of the accident. Then there were house-to-house enquiries along the chap’s presumed route in the vicinity of the village: proprietors of wayside petrol pumps and AA men were questioned, and so on. It seems that there was a reliability trial in progress that evening, and they thought the chap might have been one of the drivers who’d got off his route – he was certainly going the pace of someone trying to make up for lost time – but none of the cars was noticed to be damaged when they reached the next check. They also worked it out, on the basis of the times given by the officials at this check and the previous one, that none of the drivers could have made the detour needed to take him through our village. There may be a loophole here, but I should think the police would have found it if there was one.

I hope I extracted all this information without appearing too heartlessly inquisitive. Would the heart-broken father be expected to want to know all this? Well, I don’t suppose Elder is particularly hot on the nuances of morbid psychology. But it’s an appalling problem. Can I succeed where the whole police organisation has failed? Talk about looking for a needle in a haystack!

Wait a minute! If I wanted to hide a needle, I wouldn’t hide it in a haystack, I’d hide it in a heap of needles. Now then: Elder was pretty definite that the impact of the collision must have caused some damage to the front of the car, even though Martie was only a featherweight. The best way to conceal damage is to cause more damage in the same place. If I’d knocked a child down and dented a wing, say, and wanted to cover it up, I’d fake an accident – run the car into a gate or a tree or something. That would cover up all traces of the previous collision.

What we’ve got to do is find out whether any cars were piled up in this way that night. I’ll ring up Elder in the morning and ask him.

25 June

NBG. THE POLICE
had already thought of that one. Elder’s respect for the bereaved was severely tried, judging by his tone over the telephone. He made
it
politely plain that the police don’t need to be taught their job by any outsider. All accidents in the neighbourhood were investigated, to establish their ‘bona fides’, as he put it – the pompous oaf.

It’s bewildering, maddening. I don’t know where to start. How did I ever come to think that I’d only to stretch out my hand and lay it upon the man I want? Must have been the first stage of murderer’s megalomania. After my telephone conversation with Elder this morning, I felt irritable and disheartened. Nothing to do but potter about in the garden, everything reminding me of Martie, not least this silly business of the roses.

When Martie was a toddler, he used to follow me about the garden as I cut flowers for the table. One day I found he’d cut the heads off two dozen prize roses which I was keeping for the show – that superb dark red bloom, ‘Night’. I was furious with him, though I realised even at the time that he had thought he was helping me. A bestial performance on my part. He wouldn’t be comforted for hours afterwards. That is the way trust and innocence are destroyed. Now he’s dead, and it doesn’t much matter I suppose, but I wish I’d not lost my temper with him that day – it must have been like the end of the world for him. Oh hell, now I’m getting maudlin. I shall start making a catalogue of his babyish sayings next. Well, why not? Why not? Looking out on the lawn now, I remember how he saw two halves of a worm that had been cut in half by the lawnmower, trying to wriggle together,
and
he said, ‘Look, Daddy, there’s a worm shunting.’ I thought that was pretty bright. He might have made a poet, with that gift for metaphor.

But what started this sentimental train of thought was my walking out into the garden this morning and finding that the top of every single rose had been cut off. My heart stood still (as I phrase it in my thrillers). For a moment I thought all the last six months had been a nightmare, and Martie was alive still. Some kid in the village up to a silly bit of mischief, no doubt. But it got me down, made me feel as if everything was against me. A just and merciful Providence might at least have spared me a few roses. I suppose I ought to report this ‘act of vandalism’ to Elder, but I just can’t be bothered.

There’s something intolerably theatrical about the sound of one’s own sobbing. I hope Mrs Teague didn’t hear me.

I’ll do a pub crawl tomorrow evening, and see if there’s any information to be picked up. I can’t go on glooming around in the cottage for ever. Think I’ll drop in on Peters for a drink now, before I go to bed.

26 June

THERE’S A CERTAIN
unique thrill about dissembling, the sensation of that man in some story or other who
carried
an explosive in his breast pocket, and in his trouser pocket a bulb which he only had to press and blow himself and everything within twenty yards to glory. I felt it when I was secretly engaged to Tessa – the dangerous, lovely, dynamite secret in the breast, and I felt it again last night talking to Peters. He’s a good sort, but I don’t suppose he’s ever come up against anything more melodramatic than childbirth, arthritis and influenza. I kept on wondering what he’d say if he knew there was a prospective murderer sitting in the room with him, drinking his White Label. The compulsion to blurt it out became almost overwhelming at one point. I really will have to be very careful indeed. This isn’t a game. Not that he’d have believed me; but I don’t want him sending me back to that nursing home – or worse – for ‘observation’.

Was glad to hear from Peters, when I’d screwed myself up to ask him, that nothing was said at the inquest about my being responsible for Martie’s death. It still rankles in my mind a little, though. I look into the faces of the village people, and wonder what they’re really thinking about me. Mrs Anderson, for instance, our late organist’s widow – why did she deliberately cross the street to avoid me this morning? She always used to be so fond of Martie. Spoilt him, in fact, with her strawberries and cream and those queer gelatine lozenges and her furtive huggings of him when she thought I wasn’t looking – he disliked the latter as much as I did. Oh well, the poor thing never had a kid herself, and Anderson’s death broke
her
up for good. I’d much rather she cut me dead than came slobbering over me with sympathy.

Like many people who lead a rather isolated life – spiritually isolated, I mean – I’m abnormally sensitive to other people’s opinion of me. I hate the idea of being the popular, hail-fellow-well-met type, yet the idea of unpopularity gives me a feeling of deep uneasiness. Not a very sympathetic trait – wanting to eat one’s cake and have it, to be liked by my neighbours yet to remain essentially aloof from them. But then, as I said before, I don’t set up to be a very nice person.

I’ll go straight away to the Saddler’s Arms, and beard public opinion in its den. I might get a lead there, too, though I suppose Elder interviewed all the chaps.

Later

I’ve drunk about ten pints in the last two hours, but am still cold sober. There are some wounds too deep for local anaesthetics, it seems. Everyone very friendly. I’m not the villain of the piece, anyway.

‘A cruel shame,’ they said. ‘Hanging’s too good for the like of them sort.’

‘Us do miss the little lad – a regular peart ’un, he were’ – this from old Barnett, the shepherd. ‘These yurr automobiles are the curse of the countryside. If I’d my way, I’d pass a law against ’em.’

Bert Cozzens – the village wiseacre – said, ‘The toll of the roads. That’s what it is, see, the toll of the
roads
. Ar. Natural selection, if you take my meaning. The survival of the fittest – meaning no disrespect to you sir, who has all our sympathy in this shocking fatality.’ ‘Survival of the fittest?’ young Joe piped up. ‘What’re you doing here, then, Bert? Survival of the fattest, more like.’ This was considered a bit near the knuckle, and young Joe was suppressed.

They’re grand chaps – neither smug nor cynical nor sentimental about death; they’ve got the proper realist attitude towards it. Their own children have to sink or swim – they can’t afford nurses and vita-glass and fancy foods for them, so it would never occur to them to blame me for letting Martie live the independent, natural life their own children live. I might have known that. But they were no use to me otherwise, I’m afraid. As Ted Barnett summed it up, ‘Us’d give the fingers off our right hands to find the B— who done it. Us seen a car or two come through village after the accident, but us had no call to notice ’em special, see, not knowing anything’d happened; and they headlights maze ’ee so, ’ee can’t see number plates nor nothing. Reckon ’tes the job of the bloody police, only that Elder spends ’is time –’ here followed slanderous speculations about the spare-time activities, mainly erotic, it would appear, of our worthy sergeant.

Same at the Lion and Lamb and the Crown. Much goodwill but no information. I shan’t get anywhere on this tack. Must try an entirely different line. But what? Too tired to think any more tonight.

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