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Authors: Geraldine Evans

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BOOK: The Hanging Tree
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CHAPTER
FIFTEEN

 

Christmas Eve dawned with a hard frost and when Rafferty went out to
start his car, he found he'd not only neglected to cover the screen, but had
also used the last of his de-icer. Cursing, he set to scraping the glass,
bruising his knuckles in the process. Few of his neighbours had stirred, he
noticed. Lucky devils had probably already started their holiday.

The thought made him realise that they probably wouldn't be the only
ones putting their feet up. The search for Frank Massey might as well go on
hold, he thought, for all the chance they'd have of finding him over the
Christmas period. Policemen, too, liked to put their feet up; somehow he
doubted his continental opposite numbers would stir out of their warm stations
in any numbers for anything less than a full-scale riot.

Anyway, he reminded himself, just because Frank Massey had lied to them
and then taken off, it didn't automatically make him guilty of murder;
stupidity yes, blind panic yes, murder — not necessarily.

Massey had not done his time at an open prison; his had not been a
white-collar crime and the cushy billets were mostly reserved for crooked
accountants, bent city whizz-kids and the like. Instead, cultured, sensitive
Frank Massey had spent his time with the violent criminals, rapists, murderers,
pimps and pushers.

Rafferty needed to do no more than recall the haunted look in Massey's
eyes when he'd introduced himself and revealed the reason for his visit to know
what he must have suffered. Even eight years had evidently not been long enough
to dim the memory. He'd have been picked out as a soft target practically on
his arrival; a natural victim.

Rafferty found it hard to believe that Massey would be willing to risk a
repeat of the experience. Earlier, he'd concluded that the only thing that
would make him take the risk would be if his daughter had pleaded for his help;
then, he might be prepared to sacrifice himself. But they were pretty sure now
that she had had nothing to do with Smith's murder.

When his car had finally slid its way to the office, he was dragged away
from his internal arguments by Llewellyn, who remarked that whether Massey was
a murderer or just a fool, they still had other suspects to keep them busy
while the hunt for Massey continued.

'True,' Rafferty admitted. 'And no leads for any of them.' He shoved his
hands deep in his trouser pockets. Something rustled in the left-hand side one,
and idly, he pulled out the piece of paper.

It was Mrs ffinch-Robinson's list of poachers, he discovered and a
guilty dart pricked his conscience. Like Llewellyn's unwanted and unasked-for
tickets for Shakespeare, he had appeased Mrs ffinch-Robinson by the simple
expedient of shoving her list in his pocket and forgetting about it.

 'What's that?' Llewellyn enquired. 'Your Christmas list?'

'Bit late for that, if so. No. It's a list of local poachers, courtesy
of Mrs ffinch-Robinson. She seemed to think it might be useful.'

Llewellyn reached for it. 'She could have a point.' He jabbed a bony
finger at the name and address at the top of the list. 'This chap, Fred Skeggs,
lives right by Dedman Wood.'

'He'll have already been checked out by the house-to-house teams,'
Rafferty reminded him. 'And, presumably, had nothing to tell them.' He
remembered, a lifetime ago it seemed now, reassuring Mrs ffinch-Robinson that
her poachers would be checked out. It hadn't been a lie, but they perhaps
hadn't been interviewed in depth, as she had undoubtedly expected.

'Still,' Llewellyn persisted, 'a personal visit might prove rewarding. And
a least we'll feel we're doing something.'

Rafferty shrugged. Most of his irritation at Mrs ffinch-Robinson's
high-handed ways had now faded. Although she still rang up regularly to enquire
into the progress of the case, Rafferty had left orders that she wasn't to be
put through to
him
: Llewellyn could do diplomacy and soul-soothing so
much better than he could. But, now that he had been reminded of the list, he
decided he might as well look into it, to appease his conscience, if nothing
else.

Fred Skeggs looked about a hundred, though he was probably no more than
seventy. Small and wizened, his eyes were as sharp and full of mischief as the
nanny goat who had chased them up the path to Skeggs' isolated cottage.

'So, Mr Policeman.' Fred fixed Rafferty with a gimlet eye. 'What makes
you think I can help you?' he asked, after Rafferty had explained why they had
called. 'Sit, sit.' He waved his hands at them. 'You're making my kitchen look
untidy.'

Rafferty couldn't imagine that their presence could make the tiny room
look any more like a rag and bone merchants than it did already, stuffed to the
rafters as it was with verminous looking clothing, rusting enamel basins, bait
boxes and discarded tobacco tins, but he looked around for a chair. There was
only one; a stout, wooden affair that was clearly the old man's. Glad he had
put on his oldest, darkest suit that morning, Rafferty sat on a pile of dusty
sacks and gestured Llewellyn to find a pew. There was nothing else but a pile
of dog-eared and grubby copies of the Farmers Weekly to sit on – an ancient job
lot that had been obtained at a sale by the look of them.

Llewellyn's face was a study as, with a cloud of dust wafting around
him, he perched his expensive, pale-grey suited posterior on this precariously
balanced edifice.

Rafferty wondered if Llewellyn’s puritan soul appreciated minimalism of
this extent. He choked back a chuckle, but Fred Skeggs, obviously less
inhibited, sniggered and flashed his toothless gums at them. 'You'll take a cup
of tea with me? Not often I entertain peelers. Usually, it's t'other way
about.'

'Tea would be very welcome,' Rafferty thanked him, ignoring Llewellyn's
quick shake of the head. 'We're trying to find anyone who might have been in
Dedman Wood last Thursday night between say eight and ten.'

Fred turned his head sharply away from the blackened stove. 'What would
I be doing in the woods at that time of night?' Rafferty went to break in but
the old man forestalled him. 'Given up the poachin', Mr Policeman, iffen that's
what you're gettin' at. Too old for such larks, now.'

Rafferty doubted this. For his age, Fred Skeggs seemed pretty sprightly.
Rafferty kept his eyes averted from the outhouse, where, even through the
begrimed windows, he could make out what looked suspiciously like the small
bodies of hare and pheasant hanging from the roof. Instead, he nodded at the
stringy mutt who hogged the opposite side of the hearth to that occupied by his
master's chair. 'I wasn't implying you might have been in the woods poaching,
Mr Skeggs.' Not much. 'No, I thought maybe you walked your dog there as it's
right on your doorstep.'

'Old Growler?' Fred scratched under his filthy cap as though considering
Rafferty's readily-provided excuse. But just then, Old Growler staggered to his
feet, wobbled his mangy body around on arthritic legs, then slumped again with
a weary old-age sigh to toast his other side at the fire and Fred abandoned the
idea.

'Takes himself for a walk iffen he wants one. Not that he bothers much now.
Goes no further than the back garden to do his business.' He turned back to the
stove and made the tea, handing them theirs before he hitched up his baggy
string-belted trousers and sat down.

The mugs were cracked, badly stained, handle-less; the tea dark brown
and scaldingly hot. Although he kept a nanny goat who had a kid suckling,
Skeggs evidently didn't believe in wasting the goat’s milk on policemen.

Rafferty quickly found a space on the cluttered table and put the hot mug
down before it stripped the skin off his palms. He noticed Fred seemed
impervious to the heat. His first proffered excuse being rejected, Rafferty
tried another. 'What about you, Mr Skeggs? You look as if you'd still enjoy a
stroll in the moonlight on a crisp night?'

Skeggs appeared startled at this suggestion. Rafferty had often noted
that most countrymen were unsentimental about nature's beauties. Skeggs was no
different and gave the impression that the only interest he had in nature was
for the bits of it that he could kill and eat. But he seemed prepared to
consider the idea that he was a closet nature lover and Rafferty nodded
encouragement. If Fred had seen or heard something on Thursday night, he wanted
to know about it. He was prepared to turn a blind eye to a little light
poaching.

'Thursday night, you say?'

Rafferty gave another encouraging nod and Fred rubbed his whiskery chin
thoughtfully. Rafferty half expected the desiccated skin to crumble away like
the dried up leaves it so resembled.

However, Fred's face stayed intact and suddenly he barked at Llewellyn,
who, unable to stretch across to place the mug on the table in case he tumbled
from his precariously balanced paper throne had been passing the piping hot
brew from hand to hand. 'Are you going to drink that tea or play with it, young
feller? Made it special, I did.'

Llewellyn, obliged to humour the old man if they wanted to get anything
out of him, screwed up his eyes in the manner of one taking a particularly
nasty medicine and obeyed, his Adam's apple shuddering with each swallow, as
though attempting to jump aside from the molten brown stream as it gushed past.
Scarlet and breathless, Llewellyn lowered the empty mug, only to have Fred leap
from his chair, his gums bared with a peculiarly malevolent humour, as he
snatched the mug. 'Can see you enjoyed that. I'll make you another.'

Llewellyn looked aghast and Rafferty frowned him to silence. It was too
late anyway, as Fred thrust another piping hot brew at him. Rafferty buried his
grin in his own mug. Fred's crockery must offend against every hygiene
regulation known to man, not to mention the extra ones that only ‘elf and
Safety’ and the hygiene-obsessed Llewellyns of this world knew about. Llewellyn
would have to comfort his Virgo-pure soul with the thought that the mug's
plentiful germs would be killed by the boiling water. Most of them, anyway. Rafferty
turned his attention back to Fred Skeggs.

'We were talking about last Thursday,' he reminded him. 'And whether you
might have enjoyed a stroll in the woods that night.'

 Fred nodded and confided artlessly, 'As it happens, I do like a bit of a
stroll.' He sat down again and sipped his tea, slapping his sunken lips
together in obvious enjoyment. 'And, as you say, the wood's right on me
doorstep. Shame not to make use of it.'

'That's what I thought.'

'Mind, as I told them other young fellers you sent, I'm not sayin' I was
there. Not for certain. Might not have been Thursday.' He studied Rafferty
through the steam rising from his mug. 'Might have been another night. Mebbe
you can jog me memory?'

Rafferty had anticipated that a bit of memory jogging might be required
and had brought the necessary. He pulled a £5 note from his pocket and placed
it on the table.

Faster than any professional conjuror, Fred made it disappear, before
taking another sip of tea and confiding, 'It
were
Thursday night, now I
think about it. Funny how it comes back to you. Mind,' he added, as though
reluctant to get Rafferty's hopes up, 'I can't tell you what the time were. A
light in the wood, it was, that drew me attention. Someone had a torch and I
could see a car parked right on the verge near the old Hanging Tree. Thought it
were that sneakin' old bugger, Jenkins at first, and though I were only
enjoyin' the moonlight, like you said, I were about to scarper.'

Jenkins was the official warden of the nature reserve. An unctuous,
humourless man, Rafferty had found him, and one who would, without doubt,
insist on prosecuting poachers, so he could understand Fred's concern.

'Then I 'ear this woman muttering under her breath. Pretty rum. Don't
get many wimmin in the woods at night, certainly not alone. Not nowadays, with
so many of these 'ere crim'nals about. Anyways, I creeps forward and takes a
look. She were just getting' in her car by the time I got close.'

'Would you recognise her again?' Rafferty asked quickly, eager for a
firm description.

Fred looked at him as if he were mad. 'She were just a woman,' he told
him, in tones that made Rafferty realise that, to a solitary man like Fred
Skeggs, women, like Chinamen to a Little Englander, were probably all alike. 'Mind,
she had a big arse.' He cackled, drawing his lips over his gums. 'I remember
thinking that fat rump'd make many a fine meal.'

'What about the car?' Llewellyn asked in a strangled voice as his
scalded throat recovered, determinedly wiping his hands and mouth with a
pristine white handkerchief as though he felt he would never feel clean again.

Rafferty bit his lip as he noticed that, this time, Llewellyn was careful
not to finish his tea, just in case Fred’s sadistic streak proved perverse
enough to insist on another refill.

'Were you able to make out what style of car it was or to get the
registration number?'

Fred spared the Welshman an even more scornful look; he seemed to have a
vast store of such expressions. 'Are ye daft, man? The moon had gone in and it
were black as my old dad's fingernails under the trees. Besides, I don't take
me reading glasses with me. Not when I'm strolling in the woods, enjoyin' the
moonlight. And cars is all the same to me.'

 Like wimmin, Rafferty muttered under his breath. Needless to say, Fred
hadn't noticed whether Smith's corpse had still been hanging from the tree
either. Rafferty was surprised that the old man hadn't simply supplied them
with a steady stream of made-up information in exchange for more fivers. But it
seemed Fred Skeggs had a moral code of sorts. He'd told them all he knew, which
was that one unidentifiable woman, in an unidentifiable car, had driven away
from Dedman Wood on Thursday night at an unidentifiable time. He was really
glad he'd come.

To Llewellyn's obvious relief, they successfully evaded any more of
Fred's determined hospitality, though on the way out, the goat proved to have
an even more mischievous character than her owner. Having missed making their
acquaintance on their arrival, she made sure she didn't miss the pleasure on
their departure. Llewellyn had a hell of a job to shake her off when she took a
fancy to his trouser leg. He was still complaining bitterly about the trouble
this case was causing his wardrobe as they got in the car and pulled away; it
was all Rafferty could do to keep them on the road for stifled laughter.

 

BOOK: The Hanging Tree
3.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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