Read The Beast Must Die Online

Authors: Nicholas Blake

The Beast Must Die (3 page)

27 June

over towards Cirencester today. Passed the ridge from which Martie and I catapulted those toy gliders. He was quite crazy about them; would probably have smashed himself up in an aeroplane if the car hadn’t come first. I shall never forget the way he stood watching the gliders, his face ineffably solemn and tense, as though he could will them to keep soaring and flying for ever. The whole countryside is his memorial. As long as I stay on here, the wound will stay unhealed – which is what I want.

Someone seems to want me to clear out. All the madonna lilies and tobacco plants in the bed under my window were torn up last night and flung on to the path. Some time early this morning, rather; they were all right at midnight. No village kid would do a thing like that twice. There’s a malevolence about this that worries me a little. But I’m not going to be intimidated.

An extraordinary thought has just struck me. Have I got some deadly enemy who killed Martie deliberately and is now destroying everything else that I love? Fantastic. Just shows how easily anyone’s brain can be turned if he is too much alone. But if this goes on much longer, I shall be afraid to look out of the window in the morning.

I walked fast today, so that my brain couldn’t keep up with me and I was free of its constant nagging
a few hours. I feel refreshed now. So, with your permission, hypothetical reader, I’ll start thinking on paper. What is the new line that I must adopt? Better put it down as a series of propositions and deductions. Here goes:

(1) There’s no use my trying the methods of the police, which they have far better means to carry out, and in any case seem to have failed.
     The implication is that I must exploit my own strong point – presumably, as a detective writer, the capacity to imagine myself into the mind of the criminal.

(2) If I’d run down a child and damaged my car, my instinct would be to keep off main roads, where the damage might be spotted, and get as quickly as possible to a place where it could be repaired. But, according to the police, all garages have been investigated, and all damages repaired during the days after the accident were found to have had some innocent explanation. Of course, they may have been diddled about this, somehow or other but, if they were, I couldn’t possibly discover how.
     What follows from this? Either (a) the car was undamaged after all – but expert evidence suggests this is most unlikely. Or (b) the criminal drove his car straight into a private garage and has kept it locked up ever since; possible, but highly improbable. Or (c) the criminal secretly
the repairs himself. This is surely the likeliest explanation.

(3) Assume the chap did his own repairs. Does that tell me anything about him?
     Yes. He must be an expert, with the necessary tools at his disposal. But even a small dent in a mudguard has to be hammered out, and that kicks up enough din to wake the dead. ‘Wake’! Exactly. He’d have to do the repairs the same night, so that there should be no trace of the accident next morning. But a sound of hammering at night would be bound to wake people and rouse suspicion.

(4) He did not do any hammering that night.
     But, whether his car was in a private or a public garage, hammering the next morning would surely call attention to him, even if he could afford to put off the repairs till the morning.

(5) He did not do any hammering at all.
     But we have to assume that the repairs were effected somehow or other. What a fool I am! Even to hammer out a small dent,
one has to take the wing off
. Now if – as we are forced to conclude – the criminal could not afford to make a noise while repairing his car, the deduction is that he must have removed the damaged parts and replaced them with new spare parts.

(6) Assume that he fitted another wing – perhaps another bumper too, and/or a new headlight, and got rid of the damaged ones. What follows?
     That he must be at least a fairly expert mechanic, and have access to spare parts. In other words, surely, he must work in a public garage. More,
he must own it
because, only the owner of the garage could conceal the fact that certain spare parts had disappeared from stores and were not accounted for.

By God! I seem to have got somewhere at least. The man I’m after owns a public garage, and it must be an efficient one, otherwise they would not stock the requisite spare parts; but probably not a very big one, for in a big garage it would be presumably some clerk or manager, not the owner, who would check the spare parts in store. Or the criminal might be manager of a big garage, or a clerk in it. That widens the choice again, I’m afraid.

Can I deduce anything about the car and the nature of the damage? From its driver’s point of view, Martie was crossing the road from left to right. His body was flung into the ditch on the left-hand side of the road. This suggests that the damage would be on the left side of the car, particularly if it swerved out to the right a bit to avoid him. The left-hand wing, bumper or headlight. Headlight – that is trying to convey something to me. Think. Think …

I’ve got it! There was no broken glass on the road. What kind of headlight is least likely to be smashed by an impact? The kind covered with a wire grille, like you see on those low, fast sports cars. And it must
been a low-slung fast car (with an expert driver) to get round this corner at the pace it did, without going off the road.

Sum up. There’s reasonable hypothetical evidence to suppose that the criminal is an expert, reckless driver, is owner or manager of an efficient public garage, and owns a sports car with wire-protected headlamps. It is probably a pretty new car, or the difference between the original right-hand mudguard and the new left-hand one would have been noticed, though I suppose he might have faked the new one to look as though it had been worn a bit – scratches, dust, etc. Oh, and another thing: either his garage must be in rather a lonely place, or he must have some efficient sort of dark-lantern; otherwise he might have been spotted doing the repairs at night. Also, he must have gone out again that night to get rid of the damaged parts he’d removed from the car; and there must be some river or thicket fairly near into which he could throw them – he couldn’t afford just to put them on the garage dump.

Heavens – it’s long after midnight. I must go to bed. Now that I’ve made a beginning, I feel a new man.

28 June

it all looks in the morning light. Why, now that I come to think of it, I’m not even
whether any cars have wire screens over the headlamps; the radiators, yes, but the headlamps? Still, that’s easily enough verified. But even supposing my whole train of argument has by some miracle hit the truth, I am almost as far away from him as ever. There are probably thousands of garage proprietors who own sports cars. The accident occurred about six twenty in the evening. Assuming it took him a maximum of three hours to refit with new parts and get rid of the old ones, he would still have had ten hours of darkness to play about with, which means that his garage may be anywhere within a three-hundred-mile radius. A bit less, perhaps. He wouldn’t be likely to stop anywhere for petrol, with the mark of the beast on his car. But think of all the garages within even a hundred-mile radius. Am I going round to each of these, asking the proprietor if he owns a sports car? And what if he says, yes? The prospect is as sickening as the endless reaches of eternity. My hatred for this man must have swept my common sense right off its feet.

Perhaps this is not the chief reason for my depression. There was an anonymous letter this morning. Left by hand, before anyone was awake – presumably the same maniac or filthy joker who has been destroying my flowers. It’s getting on my nerves. Here is the letter – cheap paper, block capitals, all the usual.

. I
. C
? W
. M

Sounds like an educated person. Or people, if the ‘we’ means anything. Oh, Tessa, what am I to do?

29 June

comes before the dawn! The hunt is up! Let me salute the new day with a salvo of commonplace. This morning I took the car out. I was still in the depths of depression, so I thought I’d go over to Oxford and see Michael. I took a short cut from the Cirencester to the Oxford road – a narrow track over the hills I’d never been on before. Everything was alive and sparkling in the sunlight, after the recent rain. I was gazing out over the wolds to my right – there was an astonishing field of clover, the colour of crushed raspberries – when I ran slap into a watersplash.

The car crawled out to the other side and stopped dead. I don’t know anything about what goes on under the bonnet but, when my car stops, the thing to do is to leave it for a while to recover its temper, and then it usually starts up again. I was outside the car, shaking the water off my clothes – a great fan of water had gone up and descended on me when I
the splash – and a bloke leaning over a farm gate addressed me. We bandied a few wisecracks about shower-baths. Then the bloke remarked that just the same thing had happened here one night this winter. Idly, just to make conversation, I asked him what day that was. The question turned out to be an inspiration. He did some exceedingly complex calculations in his head, involving a visit of his mother-in-law, a sick sheep, and a wireless set that had broken down, and said, ‘January the third. Ar, that’s what it were, third of January. No mistake about it. After nightfall.’

At this point – you know the way idiotically irrelevant phrases come into one’s head – I found that my mind’s eye was staring at the words, ‘Washed in the Blood of the Lamb’ – I remember now I’d seen them on a poster outside a Methodist chapel on the way. The writing on the wall, in more senses than one. The next thing that happened was that the word ‘blood’ linked up with the anonymous letter I received yesterday – ‘Martie’s blood is on your head.’ And in that instant the fog rolled away, and I saw a vivid picture of Martie’s murderer driving fast into the watersplash, as I had done, but on purpose –
to wash Martie’s blood off his car

My mouth was quite dry when I asked the man, as nonchalantly as I could:

‘Do you remember by any chance exactly what time it was – when this other chap ran into the watersplash?’

He took his time about it. Everything trembled in the balance – how satisfactory these old clichés are – then he said:

‘’Tweren’t seven o’clock. Quarter or ten to, I reckon. Ar, that’d be it. Round about quarter to.’

My face must have been, as they say, a study. I saw him looking at me rather curiously, so I burst out with great enthusiasm:

‘Why, that must have been my friend, then! He told me he’d lost his way after leaving my house and run into a splash somewhere on the Cotswolds,’ etc., etc.

Behind this smokescreen my brain was doing some lightning calculation. It had taken me just over half an hour to get here. In a fast car, if he’d known the roads and not had to stop to consult a map, X could have done it between six twenty, when the accident occurred, and six forty-five. Seventeen odd miles in twenty-five minutes, average of forty m.p.h. Just possible for a sports car. I risked everything on another question.

‘A fast, low-slung sports car, was it? Did you notice what make? Or the registration number?’

‘She came into the ford fast enough, but I don’t rightly know about the make of cars. It were dark, see, and them headlights dazzled I. Saw ’em coming quite a way off. Don’t rightly remember the number, either. CAD something, it were.’

‘That’s it!’ I said. (CAD are the new Gloucestershire registration letters. It’s narrowing down.) I was
– with good headlights only a lunatic would drive fast into a watersplash, unless he wanted to push up a wave of water that would surge over the front of the car and wash off bloodstains. I only hit the splash so hard because I was looking at the scenery, which nobody does on a dark night. Why had I left the question of blood right out of my calculations before? Obviously, if X were to be stopped anywhere on his return journey, bloodstains on the car might be noticed and would be much more difficult to explain away than a crumpled wing. On the other hand, there would be a certain risk attached to stopping the car and wiping the blood off with a cloth – blood-stained clothes are not so easy to get rid of. Much the simplest thing would be to drive hard into a ford, and let the water do the rest. He’d presumably stopped his car to make sure it had been done thoroughly.

I became aware that the man was saying, with a suspicion of a wink on his brown-corduroy sort of face:

‘A rare pretty one, sir, isn’t she?’

For a moment I thought he was talking about X’s car. Then, to my horror, I realised he meant X himself – herself, rather. It had never occurred to me, for some reason, that the person I was after could be a woman.

‘I didn’t know my friend had a – er – a passenger with him,’ I stammered, trying to make the best of it.

‘Ooh-ar,’ he said. (Reprieved! Thank God for that!) So there had been a man and woman in the car. The swine had been showing off to her, just as I thought. I tried to get the man to describe ‘my friend’, but it wasn’t much use. ‘A tidy big chap, he were, very civil spoken. His ladyfriend was in a proper taking, being as she was scared running into the ford like that. Kept on saying, “Oh, do hurry up, George. We don’t want to be here all night.” But ’e warn’t in no hurry. Stood there, just like ’e might be you, leaning against the mudguard and talking affable like.’

‘Leaning against this mudguard? Just here?’ I asked, dazed with my good luck.

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