Read The Beast Must Die Online

Authors: Nicholas Blake

The Beast Must Die (7 page)

‘He owns a garage – in partnership – Rattery and Carfax. Rattery’s his name. He’s rather – it’s sweet of you to say you’ll come. I don’t know whether you’ll like him very much – he’s not exactly your saucer of milk.’

A garage. She doesn’t know whether I’ll like him very much. George Rattery.

31 July

SEVERNBRIDGE. I DROVE
Lena down here this afternoon. I’d traded my old car in part exchange for a new one; undesirable to turn up with a Gloucestershire registration number. So here I am, in the enemy’s citadel, my wits against his. I don’t think there’s any danger of recognition – Severnbridge is at the opposite end of the county from my village, and my beard alters me enormously. The difficulty is going to be to get a firm footing in the Ratterys’ house, and to maintain
it
when I’ve got it. At present Lena is there and I’m staying at the Angler’s Arms – she thought it best to break me gently to the Rattery household – for the moment I’m just a ‘friend’ who kindly brought her down in his car. I dumped her and her suitcase outside the house. She says she did not write to tell them she was coming. Is this because she was afraid George might refuse to have her here? Very likely. He might well be nervous, considering the secret they share together – nervous of her getting hysterical when she saw him again and was reminded of it.

When I’d unpacked, I asked the boots which was the most efficient garage here. ‘Rattery and Carfax,’ he said. ‘That’s the one near the river, is it?’ I asked. ‘Yes, sir, backs on to it; just this side of the bridge, going up the High Street.’ Two more facts in the case against George Rattery. I’d worked it out that his garage must be an efficient one or it would not have in stock the necessary spare parts for replacing those damaged in the accident. And it backs on to the river – that’s where the damaged parts disappeared, I knew he’d hidden them somewhere like that …

Just then, Lena rang me up. They wanted me to go round there for dinner. I feel desperately, miserably nervous. If I feel like this just because I’m going to meet him for the first time, what’ll I feel like when I’m going to kill him? Calm as a nun, probably, familiarity with one’s victim should breed contempt and I’m going to study George Rattery with the flaying eye of hatred. I shall take my time, I shall glut my hatred and
contempt
for him before he dies – feed on him like a parasite on its host. I hope Lena doesn’t start getting too affectionate towards me at dinner. Now for it.

1 August

AN OBNOXIOUS CREATURE
. A very, very objectionable man indeed. I’m glad. I had been more than a little afraid, I realise it now, that George might turn out to be a sympathetic character. But that’s all right; he’s not. I shall have no compunction at all about putting his light out.

I knew it the minute I went into the room, before he had said a word. He was standing by the fireplace, smoking a cigarette. He held it between first and second fingers, his elbow raised, his forearm horizontal – an unpleasingly self-important attitude – the attitude of a man who wants everyone to know that he is master in his own house. He stood there, a cock on a dunghill, eyeing me superciliously for a moment or two before he came forward.

After I’d been introduced to his wife and his mother, and given a peculiarly disagreeable cocktail, George went straight on with what he’d been saying before I came. Typical of his bullocking tactlessness, his innate bad manners. However, it gave me an opportunity to study him and I measured him like an executioner measures his man for the drop. He wouldn’t need a big
drop
, he’s so heavy: a big, fleshy man, his head recedes upward at the back, and the top of it slopes down to a low forehead. He has a pseudo-cavalry moustache, which does not succeed in hiding his arrogant, negroid lips. I should say he was in the middle forties.

I see the result looks like a caricature. I daresay some women – his wife, for instance – would think him a fine figure of a man. Admittedly, my eye is jaundiced. But there’s a crass, over-bearing quality about him which would turn any sensitive stomach.

After he’d finished his monologue, he looked at his watch in a marked manner.

‘Late again,’ he said.

No one made any comment.

‘Have you spoken to the servants, Vi? They’re getting later with the dinner every day.’

‘Yes, dear,’ his wife said. Violet Rattery is a washed-out, dispirited, pathetically eager-to-please version of Lena.

‘Huh,’ said George. ‘They don’t seem to pay much attention to you. I shall have to speak to them myself, I suppose.’

‘Please don’t do that, dear,’ his wife said, in a flustered voice: she blushed, smiling timidly. ‘We don’t want them to be giving notice.’ She caught my eye, and flushed again, painfully.

She just asks for it, of course. George is the sort of man whose nastiness thrives on that kind of submissiveness from the people around him. He’s an anachronism, really. His thick-skinned, brutal type
was
the natural thing in apeman days (Elizabethan days too; he’d have made a good sea captain or slave driver) but in a civilisation that gives no scope for those qualities, except an occasional war, his crude sort of power is confined to the bullying of his own household, and goes bad for lack of wider exercise.

It’s extraordinary how hatred sharpens the eye. I feel I know more about George already than about people I’ve known for years. I gazed at him politely. I was thinking, There’s the man who killed Martie, who ran him down and gave him no chance at all, who finished a life worth more than a dozen of his sort, the one thing left for me to love. Never mind, Martie. His time is coming too. Soon.

At dinner I sat next to Violet Rattery, with Lena opposite me and old Mrs Rattery on my left. George, I noticed, kept glancing from Lena to myself – trying to sum up the situation. I would not say he was jealous, he’s too self-satisfied to imagine that a woman could prefer anyone else to himself, but he was obviously puzzled as to what Lena wants with an odd fish like Felix Lane. He treats her in an offhand, slightly proprietorial way, as though he was an elder brother. ‘George used to try it on with me,’ Lena had said that night at my flat. I wonder, was that only half the truth? There is a suggestion of intimacy in the very offhandedness of his behaviour towards her.

At one point he said, ‘So you’ve taken to poodle-curls too, Lena?’ He leaned over and ruffled the curls at the back of her head, glancing at me in a challenging
sort
of way and saying, ‘They’re slaves to fashion, the ladies, aren’t they, Lane? If some pansy from Paris told them that bald heads were all the rage, they’d shave off their hair pronto, eh?’

Old Mrs Rattery, who sat beside me surrounded by a faint aura of censure and mothballs, said:

‘In my young days a woman’s hair was considered her crowning glory. I’m glad all this Eton-crop nonsense has gone out.’

‘You standing up for the younger generation, mater? What’s the world coming to?’ said George.

‘The younger generation can stand up for themselves, I fancy – some of them at any rate.’ Mrs Rattery was staring straight in front of her, but I got the impression that the second part of her remark was aimed at Violet, also that she conceives George to have married into a lower social stratum – which is true enough. She treats Violet and Lena with a kind of patient, grande dame tolerance. Not a very nice old lady.

After dinner the womenfolk (as no doubt George would call them) left him and me over the port. He was evidently ill at ease – didn’t know what to make of me at all.

He tried the usual gambit, ‘Heard the one about the Yorkshire woman and the organist?’ he asked, drawing his chair confidentially nearer. There were a good many more where that one came from. I listened to it and laughed as convincingly as possible. Having thus, in his sly, hippopotamus manner, broken the ice, he proceeded to pump me for details about myself.
I’ve
got the Felix Lane saga by heart now, so there was no difficulty about that.

‘Lena tells me you write books,’ he said.

‘Yes. Detective novels.’

He looked a bit relieved. ‘Oh, thrillers. That’s different. Don’t mind telling you, when Lena said she was bringing an author down here, I was a bit alarmed. Thought you’d be one of those highbrow Bloomsbury sort of fellows. Got no use for them myself. D’you make a good thing out of it – the writing game?’

‘Yes, I do pretty well. Of course, I’ve got some money of my own. But I suppose I make betwen £300 and £500 on each book.’

‘The devil you do!’ He looked at me almost with respect. ‘A bestseller, eh?’

‘Not quite that yet. Just a moderately successful hack.’

His eyes shyed away from me a little. He took a gulp of port and said, with over-deliberate insouciance, ‘Known Lena for long?’

‘No. Just a week or so. I’m thinking of writing something for the films.’

‘Nice girl. Plenty of spirit.’

‘Yes, she’s a fetching number.’ I said it quite unthinkingly. George’s face went all shocked and incredulous, as if he’d suddenly caught sight of a viper in his bosom. Dirty stories are one thing, it seems, and levity about his own ‘womenfolk’ another. He suggested, very stiffly, that we should join the ladies.

Can’t write more now. Just off for a drive with my prospective victim and his family.

2 August

AS WE WALKED
out of the front door yesterday afternoon – Lena, George, his son Phil, a schoolboy about twelve years old, and myself – I could have sworn that Lena stopped dead for an instant in a kind of panic. I’ve gone over the scene again and again, trying to visualise it clearly. It all happened so quickly that I had not time to realise its implications at the moment. On the surface, there was nothing in it at all. We came out on to the steps, in the sunlight. Lena paused for a fraction of a second, and said, ‘The same car?’ George who was a little behind her, said, ‘What d’you mean?’ Am I just imagining an undertone of fear, of menace in his voice? Lena replied, with a touch of confusion, I think, ‘You’ve still got the same old car?’ ‘Same old? – I like that! She’s not done ten thousand yet. What d’you think I am – a millionaire?’

The whole thing could be susceptible of a perfectly innocent interpretation, that’s the trouble. We got in; George and Lena in front, Phil at the back with me. Phil slammed the car door behind him, and George slewed round and exclaimed angrily, ‘How often do I have to tell you that these doors don’t need to be slammed? Can’t you shut the thing quietly?’ ‘Sorry,
Dad,’
Phil said, looking hurt and resentful. Of course, George
may
have been in a bad temper before we started, but I suspect that he was shaken up by what Lena had said – or not quite said, and took it out on Phil in consequence.

George is certainly a pushful driver. I can’t honestly say he drove recklessly yesterday afternoon, but he shouldered along through the Sunday traffic as though he had a sort of right of way, like a fire engine. There were numbers of cyclists three abreast. He didn’t abuse them, as I rather expected him to do, but shaved past very close and cut in sharply in front of them – obviously trying to panic them or force them to collide with each other. At one point he said to me, over his shoulder, ‘Know this part of the world, Lane?’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘I’ve always been meaning to come back here, though. I was born at Sawyers Cross, you know, the other end of the county.’ ‘Really? Pretty little place. Been through it once or twice myself.’

He had a nerve all right. I was watching the side of his face, the jaw muscle didn’t even tighten when I mentioned the name of the village where he had killed Martie. Shall I ever make him betray himself? Lena was staring straight in front of her, hands clasped over her knees, immobile. I risked a lot when I said, ‘Sawyers Cross’; suppose he were to become suspicious, or just out of idle curiosity make enquiries? He’d find that there had been no family called Lane in Sawyers Cross for fifty years. When we got out of the car, Lena seemed to avoid my eyes, she had been silent for the
last
quarter of an hour – since I mentioned Sawyers Cross – and that’s pretty unusual for her, but not incontrovertible evidence of anything.

We got out, and I asked George to show me the points of his car. This was just an excuse, of course, to have a good look at it. It’s got stone-guards all right, but there was no indication – to my novice eye, at any rate – that a wing or a bumper had been removed and a new one fitted. But after seven months, there wouldn’t be; the trail (as I hope I always avoid expressing it in my detective novels) is cold. The only clues left are inside the heads of George and Lena; or maybe Lena alone – George has probably forgotten all about the incident by now. I can’t believe that an odd killing here and there would rankle with him very long.

The question is, how am I to get at it? And, more important at the moment, what plausible reason can I give for staying on here? Lena will be going back to town tomorrow. Perhaps I’ll find an opening this afternoon; we’re all supposed to be playing tennis at the Ratterys’.

3 August

THAT’S SETTLED, ANYWAY
. I’m here for a month – on George’s invitation, more or less – which ought to be long enough. I’d better begin at the beginning.

When I got there, none of the people they’d invited had arrived yet, so George suggested he and I should have a knock-up with Lena and Phil. We waited on the court for a little and then George started to bawl out for Phil who was somewhere in the house. This brought Violet running out. She tried to draw George aside, and I heard her whisper something about ‘doesn’t want to play’.

‘What’s wrong with the boy?’ George exclaimed. ‘I don’t know what’s come over him lately. Doesn’t want to play? Go and tell him he’s damned well got to play. Sulking about upstairs! I never—’

‘He’s a bit upset, George dear. You know, you were rather unkind to him this morning over his report.’

‘My dear good girl, don’t talk nonsense. The boy’s been slacking this term. Carruthers says he’s got plenty of ability, but if he doesn’t pull up his socks he’ll stand no chance for Rugby next year. Don’t you want him to get a scholarship?’

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