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Authors: Colin Dexter

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BOOK: Last Seen Wearing
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   At lunchtime on Monday the fifteenth, he was sitting with his permanent colleague on the site, a man with a miry face ingrained with dirt, in the wooden hut which formed the only semi-hygienic haven in this wilderness of waste. They were eating their sandwiches and swilling down the thick bread with a dirty brown brew of ugly-looking tea. Whilst his companion mused over the racing columns of the
George Taylor sat silent, a weary expression on his stolid face. The letter had brought the whole thing back to the forefront of his mind and he was thinking again of Valerie. Had he been right to persuade the wife to take it to the police? He didn't know. They would soon be round again; in fact he was surprised they hadn't been round already. It would upset the wife again—and she'd been nothing but a bag of nerves from the beginning. Funny that the letter had come just after Inspector Ainley was killed. Clever man, Ainley. He'd been round to see them only three weeks ago. Not official, like, but he was the sort of bloke who never let anything go. Like a dog with a bone.
   Valerie . . . He'd thought a lot of Valerie.
   A corporation vehicle lumbered to a halt outside the hut, and George Taylor poked his head through the door. 'On the top side, Jack. Shan't be a minute.' He pointed vaguely away to the far corner of the tip, swallowed the last few mouthfuls of his tea and prepared for the afternoon's work.
   At the far edge of the tip the hydraulic piston whirred into life and the back of the lorry tilted slowly down and its contents were deposited upon the sea of stinking refuse.
For Morse, this same Monday was the first day of a frustrating week. Another series of incendiary devices had been set off over the weekend in clubs and cinemas, and the whole of the top brass, including himself, had been summoned into urgent conclave. It was imperative that all available police personnel should be mobilized. All known suspects from Irish republicans to international anarchists were to be visited and questioned. The Chief Constable wanted quick results.
   On Friday morning a series of arrests was made in a dawn swoop, and later that day eight persons were charged with conspiracy to cause explosions in public places. Morse's own contribution to the successful outcome of the week's inquiries had been virtually nil.


She turned away, but with the autumn weather Compelled my imagination many days, Many days and many hours.
(T. S. Eliot,
La Figlia Che Piange)
on Sunday, 21 September, Morse was beset by the nagging feeling that there was so much to be done if only he could summon up the mental resolve to begin. It was like deferring a long-promised letter; the intention lay on the mind so heavily that the simple task seemed progressively to assume almost gigantic proportions. True, he had written to the headmaster of the Roger Bacon Comprehensive School—and had received an immediate and helpful reply. But that was all; and he felt reluctant to follow it up. Most of his fanciful notions about the Taylor girl had evaporated during the past week of sober, tedious routine, and he had begun to suspect that further investigation into Valerie's disappearance would involve little more than an unwelcome continuation of similar sober and tedious routine. But he was in charge now. It was up to him.
   Half-past nine already. His head ached and he resolved on a day of total abstinence. He turned over, buried his head in the pillow, and tried to think of nothing. But for Morse such a blessed state of nihilism was utterly impossible. He finally arose at ten, washed and shaved and set off briskly down the road for a Sunday morning newspaper. It was no more than twenty minutes' walk and Morse enjoyed the stroll. His head felt clearer already and he swung along almost merrily, mentally debating whether to buy the
News of the World
or the
Sunday Times.
It was the regular hebdomadal debate which paralleled the struggle in Morse's character between the Coarse and the Cultured. Sometimes he bought one; sometimes he bought the other. Today he bought both.
   At half-past eleven he switched on his portable to listen to Record Review on Radio Three, and sank back in his favourite armchair, a cup of hot, strong coffee at his elbow. Life was good sometimes. He picked up the
News of the World,
and for ten minutes wallowed in the Shocking Revelations and Startling Exposures which the researchers of that newspaper had somehow managed to rake together during the past seven days. There were several juicy articles and Morse started on the secret sex life of a glamorous Hollywood pussycat. But it began to pall after the first few paragraphs. Ill-written and (more to the point) not even mildly titillating; it was always the same. Morse firmly believed that there was nothing so unsatisfactory as this kind of halfway house pornography; he liked it hot or not at all. He wouldn't buy the wretched paper again. Yet he had made the same decision so many times before, and knew that next week again he would fall the same silly sucker for the same salacious front-page promises. But for this morning he'd had enough. So much so that he gave no more than a passing glance to a provocative photograph of a seductive starlet exposing one half of her million-dollar breasts.
   After relegating (as always) the Business News Section to the wastepaper basket, he graduated to the
Sunday Times.
He winced to see that Oxford United had been comprehensively trounced, read the leading articles and most of the literary reviews, tried unsuccessfully to solve the bridge problem, and finally turned to the Letters. Pensions, Pollution, Private Medicine—same old topics; but a good deal of sound common sense. And then his eye caught a letter which made him sit bolt upright. He read it and a puzzled look came to his face. August 24? He couldn't have bought the
Sunday Times
that week. He read the short letter again.
To the Editor. Dear Sir,
My wife and I wish to express our deep gratitude to your newspaper for the feature 'Girls who run away from Home' (Colour Suppt. August 24). As a direct result of reading the article, our only daughter, Christine, returned home last week after being away for over a year. We thank you most sincerely.
   Mr. and Mrs. J. Richardson (Kidderminster).
Morse got up and went to a large pile of newspapers neatly bundled in string, that lay in the hallway beside the front door. The Boy Scouts collected them once a month, and although Morse had never been a tenderfoot himself he gave the movement his qualified approval. Impatiently he tore at the string and delved into the pile. Thirty-first August. Fourteenth September. But no 24 August. It may have gone with the last pile. Blast. He looked through again, but it wasn't there. Now who might have a copy? He tried his next-door neighbour, but on reflection he might have saved himself the bother. What about Lewis? Unlikely, yet worth a try. He telephoned his number.
   'Lewis? Morse here.'
   'Ah. Morning, sir.'
   'Lewis, do you take the
Sunday Times?'
   ' 'Fraid not, sir. We have the
Sunday Mirror.'
He sounded somewhat apologetic about his Sabbath-day reading.
   'I could get you a copy, I suppose.'
   'I've got today's. I want the copy for August the twenty-fourth.'
   It was Sergeant Lewis's turn to say, 'Oh.'
   'I can't really understand an intelligent man like you, Lewis, not taking a decent Sunday newspaper.'
   'The sport's pretty good in the
Sunday Mirror,
   'Is it? You'd better bring it along with you in the morning, then.'
   Lewis brightened. 'I won't forget.'
   Morse thanked him and rang off. He had almost said he would swop it for his own copy of the
News of the World,
but considered it not improper to conceal from his subordinates certain aspects of his own depravity.
   He could always get a back copy from the Reference Library. It could wait, he told himself. And yet it couldn't wait. Again he read the letter from the parents of the prodigal daughter. They would be extra-pleased now, with a letter in the newspaper, to boot. Dad would probably cut it out and keep it in his wallet—now that the family unit was functioning once more. We were all so vain. Cuttings, clippings and that sort of thing. Morse still kept his batting averages somewhere . . .
   And suddenly it hit him. It all fitted. Four or five weeks ago Ainley had resurrected the Taylor case of his own accord and pursued it in his own spare time. Some reporter had been along to Thames Valley Police and got Ainley to spill the beans on the Taylor girl. Ainley had given him the facts (no fancies with Ainley!) and somehow, as a result of seeing the facts again, he had spotted something that he had missed before. It was just like doing a crossword puzzle. Get stuck. Leave it for ten minutes. Try again—and eureka! It happened to everyone like that. And, he repeated to himself,
Ainley had seen something new.
That must be it.
   As a corollary to this, it occurred to Morse that if Ainley had taken a hand in the article, not only would Valerie Taylor have been one of the missing girls featured, but Ainley himself would almost certainly have kept the printed article—just as surely as Mr. J. Richardson would be sticking his own printed letter into his Kidderminster wallet.
   He rang Mrs. Ainley. 'Eileen?' (Right this time.) 'Morse here. Look, do you happen to have kept that bit of the
Sunday Times
—you know, that bit about missing girls?'
   'You mean the one they saw Richard about?' He
been right.
   'That's the one.'
   'Yes. I kept it, of course. It mentioned Richard several times.'
   'Can I, er, can I come round and have a look at it?'
   'You can have it with pleasure. I don't want it any more.'
   Some half an hour later, forgetful of his earlier pledge, Morse was seated with a pint of flat beer and a soggy steak-and-mushroom pie. He read the article through with a feeling of anticlimax. Six girls were featured—after the preliminary sociological blurb about the problems of adolescence—with a couple of columns on each of them. But the central slant was on the parents the girls had left behind them. 'The light in the hall has been left on every night since she went,' as one of the anguished mothers was reported. It was pathetic and it was distressing. There were pictures, too. First, pictures of the girls, although (of necessity) none of the photographs was of a very recent vintage, and two or three (including that of Valerie herself) were of less than definitive clarity. And thus it was for the first time that Chief Inspector Morse looked down upon the face of Valerie Taylor. Of the six she would certainly be in the running for the beauty crown—though run close by a honey of a girl from Brighton. Attractive face, full mouth, come-hither eyes, nice eyebrows (plucked, thought Morse) and long dark-brown hair. Just the face—no figure to admire. And then, over the page, the pictures of the parents. Mr. and Mrs. Taylor seemed an unremarkable pair, seated unnaturally forward on the shabby sofa: Mr. wearing a cheap Woolworth tie, with his rolled-up sleeves revealing a large purple tattoo on his broad right forearm; Mrs. wearing a plain cotton dress with a cameo brooch somewhat ostentatiously pinned to the collar. And on a low table beside them, carefully brought into the focus of the photograph, a cohort of congratulatory cards for their eighteenth wedding anniversary. It was predictable and posed, and Morse felt that a few tears might well have been nearer the truth.
   He ordered another pint and sat down to read the commentary on Valerie's disappearance.
wo years ago, the month of the June enjoyed a long, unbroken spell of sunny weather, and Tuesday 10 June was a particularly sweltering day at the village of Kidlington in the county of Oxfordshire. At 12.30 p.m. Valerie Taylor left the Roger Bacon Comprehensive School to walk to her home in Hatfield Way on the council estate nearby, no more than six or seven hundred yards from the school. Like many of her friends Valerie disliked school dinners and for the previous year had returned home each lunch-time. On the day of her daughter's disappearance Valerie's mother, Mrs. Grace Taylor, had prepared a ham salad, with blackcurrant tart and custard for sweet, and together mother and daughter ate the meal at the kitchen table. Afternoon lessons began again at 1.45, and Valarie usually left the house at about 1.25. She did so on 10 June. Nothing seemed amiss that cloudless Tuesday afternoon. Valarie walked down the short front path, turned in the direction of the school, and waved a cheery farewell to her mother. She has never been seen again.
   Mr. George Taylor, an employee of the Oxford City Corporation, returned from work at 6.10 p.m. to find his wife in a state of considerable anxiety. It was quite unlike Valerie not to tell her mother if she was likely to be late, yet at that point there seemed little cause for immediate concern. The minutes ticked by; the quarters chimed on the Taylors' grandfather clock, and then the hours. At 8.00 p.m. Mr. Taylor got into his car and drove to the school. Only the caretaker was still on the premises and he could be of no help. Mr. Taylor then called at the homes of several of Valerie's friends, but they likewise could tell him nothing. None of them could remember seeing Valerie that afternoon, but it had been 'games' and it was nothing unusual for pupils to slip away quietly from the sports field.
   When Mr. Taylor returned home it was 9.00 p.m. 'There must be some simple explanation,' he told his wife; but if there was, it was not forthcoming, and the time pressed slowly on. 10.00 p.m. 11.00 p.m. Still nothing. George Taylor suggested they should notify the police, but his wife was terrified of taking such a step.
BOOK: Last Seen Wearing
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