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Authors: Colin Dexter

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   But Morse seemed far from impressed. In fact, he looked up from the report and smiled serenely. Reaching for the telephone directory, he looked up Phillipson, D. There was only one Phillipson: 'The Firs', Banbury Road, Oxford.

CHAPTER NINE

We hear, for instance, of a comprehensive school in Connecticut where teachers have three pads of coloured paper, pink, blue and green, which are handed out to pupils as authority to visit respectively the headmaster, the office or the lavatory.
(Robin Davis,
The Grammar School)
S
HEILA PHILLIPSON WAS
absolutely delighted with her Oxford home, a four-bedroomed detached house, just below the Banbury Road roundabout. Three fully grown fir trees screened the spacious front garden from the busy main road, and the back garden, with its two old apple trees and its goldfish pond, its beautifully conditioned lawn and its neatly tended borders, was an unfailing joy. With unimaginative predictability she had christened it 'The Firs'.
   Donald would be late home from school; he had a staff meeting. But it was only a cold salad, and the children had already eaten. She could relax. At a quarter to six she was sitting in a deck-chair in the back garden, her eyes closed contentedly. The evening air was warm and still . . . She felt so proud of Donald; and of the children, Andrew and Alison, now contentedly watching the television. They were both doing so well at their primary school. And, of course, if they didn't really get the chances they deserved, they could always go to private schools; and Donald would probably send them there—in spite of what he'd told the parents at the last speech day. The Dragon, New College School, Oxford High, Headington—one heard such good reports. But that was all in the future. For the moment everything in the garden was lovely. She lifted her face to catch the last rays of the sloping sun and breathed in the scent of thyme and honeysuckle. Lovely. Almost too lovely, perhaps. At half-past six she heard the crunch of Donald's Rover on the drive.
Later in the evening Sheila did not recognize the man at the door, a slimly built man with a clean, sensitive mouth and wide light-grey eyes. He had a nice voice, she thought, for a police inspector.
   In spite of Morse's protests that Tom and Jerry ranked as his very favourite TV programme, the children were immediately sent upstairs to bed. She was cross with herself for not having packed them off half an hour ago: toys littered the floor, and she fussily and apologetically gathered together the offending objects and took them out. On her return she found her visitor gazing with deep interest at a framed photograph of herself and her husband.
   'Press photograph, isn't it?'
   'Yes. We had a big party in Donald's, er, in my husband's first term here. All the staff, husbands and wives—you know the sort of thing. The
Oxford Mail
took that. Took a lot of photographs, in fact'
   'Have you got the other photographs?'
   'Yes. I think so. Would you like to look at them? My husband won't be long. He's just finishing his bath.'
   She rummaged about in a drawer of the bureau, and handed to Morse five glossy, black-and-white photographs. One of them, a group photograph, held his keen attention: the men in dinner jackets and black bow ties, the ladies in long dresses. Most of them looked happy enough.
   'Do you know some of the staff?' she asked.
   'Some of them.'
   He looked again at the group. 'Beautifully clear photograph.'
   'Very good, isn't it?'
   'Is Acum here?'
   'Acum? Oh yes, I think so. Mr. Acum left two years ago. But I remember him quite well—and his wife.' She pointed them out on the photograph; a young man with a lively, intelligent face and a small goatee beard; and, her arm linked through his, a slim, boyish-figured girl, with shoulder-length blonde hair, not unattractive perhaps, but with a face (at least on this evidence) a little severe and more than a little spotty.
   'You knew his wife, you say?' asked Morse.
   Sheila heard the gurgling death-rattle of the bath upstairs, and for some inexplicable reason felt a cold shudder creeping along her spine. She felt just as she did as a young girl when she had once answered the phone for her father. She recalled the strange, almost frightening questions . . .
   A shiningly-fresh Phillipson came in. He apologized for keeping Morse waiting, and in turn Morse apologized for his own unheralded intrusion. Sheila breathed an inward sigh of relief, and asked if they'd prefer tea or coffee. With livelier brews apparently out of the question, Morse opted for coffee and, like a good host, the headmaster concurred.
   'I've come to ask about Acum,' said Morse, with brisk honesty. 'What can you tell me about him?'
   'Acum? Not much really. He left at the end of my first year here. Taught French. Well-qualified chap. Exeter—took a second if I remember rightly.'
   'What about his wife?'
   'She had a degree in Modern Languages, too. They met at Exeter University, I think. In fact she taught with us for a term when one of the staff was ill. Not too successfully, I'm afraid.'
   'Why was that?'
   'Bit of a tough class—you know how it is. She wasn't really up to it.'
   'They gave her a rough ride, you mean?'
   'They nearly took her pants down, I'm afraid.'
   'You're speaking metaphorically, I hope?'
   'I hope so, too. I heard some hair-raising rumours, though. Still, it was my fault for taking her on. Too much of a blue-stocking for that sort of job.'
   'What did you do?'
   Phillipson shrugged. 'I had to get rid of her.'
   'What about Acum himself? Where did he go?'
   'One of the schools in Caernarfon.'
   'He got promotion, did he?'
   'Well no, not really. He'd only been teaching the one year, but they could promise him some sixth-form work. I couldn't.'
   'Is he still there?'
   'As far as I know.'
   'He taught Valerie Taylor—you know that?'
   'Inspector, wouldn't it be fairer if you told me why you're so interested in him? I might be able to help more if I knew what you were getting at.'
   Morse pondered the question. 'Trouble is, I don't really know myself.'
   Whether he believed him or not, Phillipson left it at that. 'Well, I know he taught Valerie, yes. Not one of his brightest pupils, I don't think.'
   'Did he ever talk to you about her?'
   'No. Never.'
   'No rumours? No gossip?'
   Phillipson took a deep breath, but managed to control his mounting irritation. 'No.'
   Morse changed his tack. 'Have you got a good memory, sir?'
  
'
Good enough, I suppose.'
   'Good enough to remember what you were doing on Tuesday 2nd September this year?'
   Phillipson cheated and consulted his diary. 'I was at a headmasters' conference in London.'
   'Whereabouts in London?'
   'It was at the Cafe Royal. And if you must know the conference started at . . .'
   'All right. All right.' Morse held up his right hand like a priest pronouncing the benediction, as a flush of anger rose in the headmaster's cheeks.
   'Why did you ask me that?'
   Morse smiled benignly. 'That was the day Valerie wrote to her parents.'
   'What the hell are you getting at, Inspector?'
   'I shall be asking a lot of people the same question before I've finished, sir. And some of them will get terribly cross, I know that. But I'd rather hoped that you would understand.'
   Phillipson calmed down. 'Yes, I see. You mean . . .'
   'I don't mean anything, sir. All I know is that I have to ask a lot of awkward questions; it's what they pay me for. I suppose it's the same in your job.'
   'I'm sorry. Go ahead and ask what you like. I shan't mind.'
   'I shouldn't be too sure of that, sir.' Phillipson looked at him sharply. 'You see,' continued Morse, 'I want you to tell me, if you can, exactly what you were doing on the afternoon that Valerie Taylor disappeared.'
   Mrs. Phillipson brought in the coffee, and after she had retired once more to the kitchen the answer was neatly wrapped and tied.
   'I had lunch at school that day, drove down into Oxford, and browsed around in Blackwells. Then I came home.'
   'Do you remember what time you got home?'
   'About three.'
   'You seem to remember that afternoon pretty well, sir?'
   'It
was
rather an important afternoon, wasn't it, Inspector?'
   'Did you buy any books?'
   'I don't remember that much, I'm afraid.'
   'Do you have an account with Blackwells?'
   Momentarily Phillipson hesitated. 'Yes. But . . . but if I'd just bought a paperback or something I would have paid in cash.'
   'But you might have bought something more expensive?' Morse looked along the impressive rows of historical works that covered two walls of the lounge from floor to ceiling, and thought of Johnny Maguire's pathetic little collection.
   'You could check up, I suppose,' said Phillipson curtly.
   'Yes. I suppose we shall.' Morse felt suddenly very tired.
At half-past midnight Sheila Phillipson tiptoed quietly down the stairs and found the codeine bottle. It kept coming back to her mind and she couldn't seem to push it away from her—that terrible night when Donald had been making love to her, and called her Valerie. She'd never mentioned it, of course. She just couldn't.
   Suddenly she jumped, a look of blind terror in her eyes, before subsiding with relief upon a kitchen stool.
   'Oh, it's only you, Donald. You frightened me.'
   'Couldn't you sleep either, darling?'

CHAPTER TEN

Not a line of her writing have I,
Not a thread of her hair.
(Thomas Hardy,
Thoughts of Phena)
M
ORSE SEEMED RELUCTANT
to begin any work when he arrived, late, in his office on Thursday morning. He handed Lewis the report on Valerie's letter and started on
The Times
crossword puzzle. He looked at his watch, marked the time exactly in the margin of the newspaper and was soon scribbling in letters at full speed. Ten minutes later he stopped. He allowed himself only ten minutes, and almost always completed it. But this morning one clue remained unsolved.
   'What's this, Lewis? Six letters. Blank A—Blank S—Blank N.
Eyes had I—and saw not?'
   Lewis jotted down the letters and pretended to think. He just hadn't a crossword mind. 'Could it be "parson", sir?'
   'Why on earth should it be "parson"?'
   'Well, it fits.'
   'So do a hundred and one other words.'
   'Such as?' Morse struggled hard before producing 'damson'. 'I'd rather have my parson, sir.'
   Morse put the paper aside. 'Well. What do you think?'
   'Seems to be her writing, doesn't it?'
   There was a knock on the door and a pretty young office girl deposited the morning post into the in-tray. Cursorily and distastefully Morse looked through the correspondence.
   'Nothing urgent here, Lewis. Let's go along to the lab. I think Old Peters must be getting senile.'
Now in his early sixties, Peters had previously worked for twenty years as a Home Office pathologist, and somewhere along the line the juices of human fallibility had been squeezed from his cerebral processes. His manner was clinical and dry, and his words seemed to be dictated by a minicomputer installed somewhere inside his brain. His answers were slow, mechanical, definitive. He had never been known to argue with anyone. He just read the information-tapes.
   'You think this is Valerie Taylor's writing, then?'
   He paused and answered. 'Yes.'
   'Can you ever be certain about things like handwriting, though?'
   He paused and answered. 'No.'
   'How certain are you?'
   He paused and answered. 'Ninety per cent.'
   'You'd be surprised then if it turned out that she didn't write it?'
   He paused and the computer considered its reaction to the improbability. 'Yes. Surprised.'
   'What makes you think she wrote it?'
   He paused and lectured briefly and quietly on the evidence of loops and quirks and whorls. Morse battled on against the odds. 'You can forge a letter, though, can't you?'
   He paused and answered. 'Of course.'
   'But you don't think this was forged?'
   He paused and answered. 'I think it was written by the girl.'
   'But a person's handwriting changes over the years, doesn't it? I mean the letter's written in almost exactly the same way as the exercise books.'
   He paused and answered. 'There's a basic built-in style about all our handwriting. Slopes change, certainly, and other minor things. But whatever changes, there is still the distinctive style, carrying with it the essential features of our personal characteristics.' He paused again, and Lewis had the impression he was reading it all out of a book. 'In Greek, the word "character" means handwriting, they tell me.'
   Lewis smiled. He was enjoying himself.
   Morse put a penultimate problem to the computer. 'You wouldn't go into the witness box and say it definitely
was
her writing, would you?'
   He paused and answered. 'I would tell a jury what I've told you—that the order of probability is somewhere in the region of ninety per cent.'
   Morse turned as he reached the door. 'Could
you
forge her handwriting convincingly?'
   The desiccated calculating-machine actually smiled and the hesitation this time was minimal. 'I've had a lot of experience in this field, you know.'
   'You
could
then?'
   He paused and answered, '
I
could, yes.'
Back in his office Morse brought Lewis up to date with his visit the previous evening to the Phillipson residence.
   'You don't like him much, do you, sir?'
   Morse looked aggrieved. 'Oh, I don't dislike him. It's just that I don't think he's completely above-board with me, that's all.'
   'We've all of us got things we'd like to hide, haven't we, sir?'
   'Mm.' Morse was staring through the window.
Eyes had I—and saw not.
Six letters. It still eluded him. Like the answer to this case. A whole orchestra of instruments and some of them playing just slightly out of tune.
   'Did you know that "orchestra" was an anagram of "carthorse", Lewis?'
   Lewis didn't. He idly wrote down the letters and checked. 'So it is. Perhaps the clue you can't get is an anagram, sir.'
   The light dawned in Morse's eyes. 'You're a genius. SAW NOT.' Sherlock Holmes picked up
The Times
again, wrote in the answer and beamed at his own Doctor Watson.
   'Now let's consider the case so far.' Lewis sat back and listened. Morse was away.
   'We can say, can we not, that the letter was either written by Valerie herself or by another person. Agreed?'
   'With odds of nine to one on Valerie.'
   'Yes, with strong odds on Valerie. Now if Valerie herself wrote the letter, we can reasonably assume that she is still alive, that she probably ran off to London, that she's still there, that she's quite happy where she is, doesn't want to come back to Kidlington—and that we're wasting our bloody time.'
   'Not if we find her.'
   'Of course we are. What do we do if we find her? Bring her back home to mummy and tell her what a naughty girl she's been? What's the point of that?'
   'It would clear up the case, though.'
   'If she wrote the letter, there
is no
case.'
   Something had been troubling Lewis sorely since the previous evening and he got it off his conscience.'Do you think what Mrs. Gibbs told me was important, sir—you know, about the girl in Maguire's flat?'
   'Doubt it,' said Morse.
   'You don't think it could have been Valerie?'
   'I keep telling you, Lewis.
She's dead
—whatever that pettifogging Peters says,
she couldn't have written that letter.'
   Lewis groaned inwardly. Once the chief got an idea stuck firmly in his brain, something cataclysmic was needed to dislodge it.
   'Let's just assume for a minute that the letter was not written by Valerie. In that case it was written by someone who copied her writing, and copied it with enormous care and skill. Yes?'
   'But why should anyone . . .'
   'I'm coming to that. Why should anyone want to make us believe that Valerie was still alive
if in fact she was dead?
Well, as I see it, there is one simple and overwhelmingly convincing answer to that question. Someone wants us to believe Valerie is still alive because he or she sees a very real danger that further police investigation in the Taylor girl affair is likely to uncover the truth, Lewis—which is that Valerie is dead and that someone murdered her. I think that for some reason this someone began to get very scared, and wrote that letter to put us off the scent. Or more specifically, perhaps, to put Ainley off the scent.'
   Lewis felt he could make no worthwhile contribution to such a weird hypothesis, and Morse continued.
   'There is another possibility, though, and we mustn't discount it. The letter could have been written by someone for
precisely the opposite reason
—to put the police back on the scent. And if you think about it, that's precisely what has happened. Ainley was still working on the case—but unofficially. And when he was killed, if it hadn't been for the letter, the case would have been left where it was—unsolved and gradually forgotten. But once the letter arrived, what happened? Strange called me in and told me to take over, to reinvestigate the case officially. Precisely what we're doing now. Now let's follow this line of reasoning a bit further. Who would want the police to reopen the case? Not the murderer—that's for sure. Who then? It could be the parents, of course. They might think that the police weren't really doing much about things . . .'
   Lewis looked stupefied. 'You don't honestly think the Taylors wrote the letter, do you?'
   'Had the possibility not occurred to you?' asked Morse quietly.
   'No.'
   'Well it should have done. After all, they're as likely as anyone to make a good job of forging a letter in their daughter's handwriting. But there's a much more interesting possibility, I think. The letter could have been sent by someone who knew that Valerie had been murdered, who had a jolly good idea of who murdered her, and who wanted the murderer brought to justice.'
   'But why . . .'
   'Just a minute. Let's assume that such a person knew that Ainley was getting perilously close to the truth, had perhaps even helped Ainley towards the truth. What happens then? Tragedy. Ainley is killed and everything is back at square one. Look at it this way. Let's assume that Ainley went to London on the Monday and actually found Valerie Taylor alive. You with me? All right—the cat's out of the bag; she's been found. The next day she writes to her parents. There's no point in covering up any longer. If she doesn't tell them, Ainley will.'
   'That seems to fit, sir.'
   'Ah. But there's another interpretation, isn't there? Let's now assume that Ainley
didn't
find Valerie—and I don't think he did. Let's suppose he found something rather more sinister than Valerie Taylor alive and well. Because remember, Lewis,
something
took Ainley to London that day. We shall perhaps never know what, but he was getting nearer and nearer the truth all the time. And when he was killed someone, Lewis,
someone
desperately wanted his work to be followed up. And so the day after Ainley's death, a letter is written. It was written precisely because
Valerie Taylor was dead
—not alive, and it had exactly the effect it was intended to have. The case was reopened.'
   The convolutions of Morse's theories were beginning to defeat Lewis's powers of logical analysis. 'I don't quite follow some of that, sir, but . . . you're still basing it all on the assumption that she didn't write the letter, aren't you? I mean if what Peters says is . . .'
   The pretty office girl came in again and handed to Morse a buff-coloured file.
   'Superintendent Strange says you may be interested in this, sir. It's been tested for fingerprints—no good, he says.'
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