by Julius Falconer
I hardly know where to begin with this story. One would naturally wish to begin at the beginning, but which beginning? Do you mean the very start of the affair, deep in the scheming villain’s heart, or the moment of my first involvement? The different starting-points would give you a different view of the case, and I am naturally anxious to present my best side. Let me, however, plunge medias in res without more ado, and we shall see where that leads us. By the way, my name is Wickfield, Stan Wickfield, of Worcestershire CID, and you may already be wondering why the egregious Mr Falconer is not talking to you as usual in my place. It is a melancholy fact to which I have become reconciled that Falconer does not trust me to tell a story effectively. His argument is that I am an inspector of police, not a literary sophisticate, and that my stories lack style. However, I am fortunate, because he is laid up with a bad attack of housemaid’s knee or tennis elbow or some such distemper – too much vigorous exercise, but he would not be warned - and you know the adage: While the cat’s away …(Actually, I nearly added to his problems by causing an apoplectic fit when I announced my intention to tell you the following story. He calmed down only when I promised faithfully to imitate, in so far as it was within my capabilities, his inimitable style. I am hoping you will not be able to tell the difference; and so, of course, is he.)
You will need to picture a wintry scene in rural Worcestershire in January of the year of grace 1963. I was not there, you understand, but this information came to me a few days later, and I can pass it on to you, with an imaginative surplus, as you snuggle up in your armchair at the close of a hard day’s work. The temperature hovered at freezing, and snow-flakes eddied round as the bitter wind tore and hurtled and surged round the bare trees and the broken walls and the frozen ponds. There was no life. Verdure had long disappeared under a pall of white. Birds and wee beasties hid snugly in their lairs and setts, nests and burrows – wherever they seek refuge in inhospitable times. Inanimate nature, however, was in turmoil as the blizzard raged on, sweeping over the marsh in unrelenting fury, piling snow into dangerous drifts and obscuring even the most prominent landmarks - of which, truth to tell, there were few, even in summer, on the flat acres of grass-land and field. The sky was out of sight as the evening light faded in the swirling storm. On the small road that leads out of Birtsmorton to the east and meanders towards the scarcely larger settlement of Longdon, an elderly man and his wife struggled in the teeth of the wind. They were wrapped in all the clothes their modest means allowed, but still they hunched and crouched and huddled in a bid to ward off the worst of the elements. They tottered on arm in arm, bent into the wind, slow step by slow step wrested painfully from the unforgiving weather. The impartial observer would have vigorously counselled them against venturing out on such a night, but the bitter truth is that they were anxious – mortally anxious.
Some short while before, they had received a disturbing telephone-call from some neighbours of their daughter Verena, who lived in Longdon. They apologised for disturbing them, but could they see their way to coming over as quickly as possible? A crisis had arisen with which they felt ill-equipped to cope. The neighbour said he hoped they could make it within the hour. They had tried in vain to hire a taxi: none would, even if it could, come out in such weather, and their own small car would not have coped with the weather. Their daughter had advised them more than once to move to a small town, or even a large village, where their needs could be more readily met as their age advanced, but they had been unwilling to take the plunge. They worshipped at the local fourteenth-century church, which was only a matter of fifty yards away; a neighbour ran them into Great Malvern or Tewksbury once a week for shopping; and the people at the Court were very generous with fruit and vegetables. All in all they survived in a quiet and unobtrusive way, as they had done for the previous eleven years since retirement. Any move would have confronted them with endless problems of adjustment, and they hoped, unrealistically perhaps, to continue as they were until the end.