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Authors: Catherine Aird

Last Respects

BOOK: Last Respects
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Last Respects

A C. D. Sloan Mystery

Catherine Aird

with acknowledgement to

Michael Burnham, ship scientist

The chapter headings are taken from
The Beggar's Opera

by John Gay.

Ma plume pour toutes mes tantes

CHAPTER 1

Suspicion does not become a friend
.

The man wasn't alive and well and living in Paris.

He wasn't living in the county of Calleshire, England, either.

And he certainly wasn't alive and well. Actually he wasn't living anywhere. He was dead. Obviously dead.

Horace Boller was so sure about that that he didn't hurry after he had seen him. Not that Horace Boller was the hurrying sort. In addition to which he was out fishing at the time and fishermen never hurry. It was a universal truth. You couldn't catch fish if you hurried. The fish didn't like it: they stopped feeding at once. Like primitive man, fish equated hurry with danger and either kept their heads down or made off. In Horace Boller's considered opinion civilised man had a lot to learn about hurrying.

As it happened Boller hadn't so much seen the dead man at first as just caught a quick glimpse of something out of the ordinary in the water. It took his brain a moment or two to sort out the message from his eye: that that which was floating beyond the bow of his boat and just out of range of easy vision could be a body. He wedged his fishing rod so that he had a spare hand and reached for one of the oars. He gave it a purposive poke and the rowing boat obediently came round so that he was a little nearer to what was in the water.

It was after that that he had ceased to be in any real doubt about what it was he was looking at. The body was floating just under the surface of the water in the way that bodies did, arms outstretched. It was apparently moving. Horace Boller was not deceived. It was, he knew at once, totally lifeless. The illusion of movement came from the water: not from the man. It was one of the tricks—the many tricks—that water played. The angle of refraction came into it, too. Boller didn't know anything about angles of refraction but he did know a lot about the tricks that water could play.

This man had been dead for quite a while. He knew that, too, at once. That conclusion was not reached as a result of a long acquaintance with dead bodies—although Horace Boller had seen some of those in his time too—but from something indefinable about the appearance of the body even at a distance.

If you were to ask him, his considered opinion would be that it had been in the water a fair old time.

There was, of course, no one about to ask him that—or anything else. It was precisely because there was no one about that Horace Boller had chosen to come out fishing today. You couldn't fish when the water wasn't quiet. He looked about him now. There wasn't even one other boat in sight let alone within hailing distance. That was because it was a Tuesday. Now if it had been a weekend he would hardly have been able to get his boat out into the main channel of the river for yachts and sailing dinghies.

It was this indefinable sense that this particular body had been in the water for more than a little while that made Horace Boller dismiss the idea of taking it in tow.

Well, that—and something else as well …

The Boller family had been around in Calleshire for a long time. Not quite in the same well-documented way that His Grace the Duke of Calleshire had been at Calle Castle but for pretty nearly the same length of time. There had certainly been Bollers living in the little fishing village of Edsway on the estuary of the River Calle for as long as anyone had bothered to look. Those who looked didn't include the Bollers. They had better things to do than go searching through old parish records—things like building boats, running ferries, making sails, digging for bait at low tide.

The tide still mattered in Edsway. Once upon a time—in the dim past when all boats had had a shallow draught—Edsway had been the only port on the estuary. It was always something of a natural harbour, sheltered by a lip of headland from the worst of the storms coming in from the sea—the village of Marby-juxta-Mare took the brunt of those—but there had never been really deep water at Edsway and now—thanks to the sand—there was less.

Its commercial fate had been sealed in the nineteenth century when some distant railway baron had decreed that Mr Stephenson's new-fangled iron road should go from Calleford to the river mouth and thus to the sea on the other—the north—side of the river. That was when Kinnisport had come into prominence and Edsway fallen into desuetude. In the wake of the railway had come another entrepreneur who had caused a proper deep water harbour to be built at Kinnisport out of great blocks of granite shipped down by sea from Aberdeen—and Edsway had dropped out of the prosperity race altogether.

But only for the time being.

Every dog did have its day.

Now it was Kinnisport that was in decline while Edsway was enjoying a twentieth-century revival as a sailing centre. The firm sand that had choked its life as a commercial harbour provided an excellent basis for the hard standing that the little boats needed and some safe swimming for their owners' families.

The dead man hadn't been a bather.

You didn't go swimming in a shirt and trousers. Not voluntarily, that is.

Horace Boller took another look at the man floating in the water. He might have been a seaman: he might not. The Calleshire shore got its share of those drowned on the high seas and the village of Edsway got more than its quota of them. It was something to do with the configuration of the coast and the way in which the tide came up the estuary to meet the river Calle coming down to the sea.

Bodies usually fetched up on the spit of land known locally as Billy's Finger. This stretched out into the water and—so the experts said—each year got a little shallower on the seaward side and a little deeper on the river side. The river scoured away from behind what the sea laid up at its front. The ancients used to say that Billy's Finger moved: that it beckoned mariners to their doom. The moderns—the clever ones who knew everything because a computer had worked it out for them—had said, rather surprised, that the ancients were right after all. Billy's Finger did move. It moved about an inch every hundred years, a little more at the very tip.

Horace Boller took a bearing from the spire of St Peter's church and reckoned that this fellow, whoever he was, had for once somehow escaped the beckonings of Billy's Finger. And he had done that in spite of its being the time of neap tides. Boller wasn't too bothered about that. These days it didn't make any difference exactly whereabouts a dead body found landfall. He would still—unless claimed by sorrowing relatives—end up buried in St Peter's churchyard at Edsway. There he—whoever he was—would lie in the goodly company of all those other unknown men who had been washed up by the sea.

Some had unmarked graves and some had those that were dignified by tombstones. There was a melancholy row betokening a remote naval engagement far out to sea in 1917. All those memorials bore the same inscription ‘A Sailor of the Great War—Known Unto God.' They hadn't ever heard the distant thunder of the guns in Edsway but the men had come ashore. In the end.

It hadn't always been like that.

Once upon a time when drowned men had been washed ashore on Billy's Finger the men of Edsway had seen to it that they weren't found and brought to land for burial in St Peter's churchyard. They had, in fact, taken very good care that they weren't. Some antiquarian who had taken an interest in the estuary's local history had once told Horace Boller all about it.

The villagers in those days had felt that they had had a big enough Poor Rate to cope with as it was without taking on the cost—as a charge upon it—of burying unknown seamen. What they used to do in olden times, this antiquarian had told an impassive Horace Boller, was to wait for nightfall and then drag the body over from the seaward aspect of the strand and lower it into the deep water the other side of Billy's Finger.

The combination of sea and river—tide and current—saw to it then that the next landfall of the dead body was in the neighbouring parish of Collerton. And thus it became a charge on their Poor Rate instead.

Horace Boller had listened unblinkingly to this recital, saying ‘Well, I never!' at suitable intervals, as he knew you had to do with this manner of man. Privately he had considered it an excellent way of keeping the rates down and hadn't doubted that there would have been Bollers in the clandestine non-burial party.

‘The Overseers of the Poor doubtless turned a blind eye,' said the antiquarian. He prided himself on having what he thought was a good knowledge of the seamy side of human nature. That went with a study of the past.

‘I dare say,' said Horace Boller, whose own knowledge went a little deeper, ‘that they were glad to have it done.'

‘Well, yes, but the law was …'

Horace Boller had only listened with half an ear at the time. The letter of the law wasn't one of his yardsticks. Besides, he himself had found the careful study of the official mind a more rewarding business than history.

‘They'd be more at home in Collerton churchyard anyway,' he had said to the antiquarian, who by then was beginning to come between Horace and the job he happened to have on hand at the time.

‘Pardon?' The antiquarian had known a lot but he hadn't known everything.

‘The north-west corner of Collerton churchyard floods every time the river rises,' Horace had taken pleasure in informing him. ‘Didn't you know that?'

What Horace Boller was thinking about now, out on the water and with an actual body in view, wasn't exactly the same as pushing a financial liability into the next parish but it came very near to it. What he was considering was the best move to make next—the best move from the point of view of Horace Boller, citizen and occasional tax-payer, that is.

BOOK: Last Respects
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