The Straw Men : Exclusive Extended Extract

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The Straw Men by Tony R. Cox


Chapter 1

The lump of coal hurtled towards Simon Jardine car’s windscreen with the force of a missile. The impact shattered the glass into the pattern of a crazy star and he instinctively clamped his eyes tightly shut.

He’d been following the dirty old coal lorry since it had pulled out in front of him a mile back. It shouldn’t be allowed on the road, he muttered. It was piled high with sacks of coal. One, balanced on top and unstable, was rocking from side to side like a candle flame in the wind. His best bet was to overtake and get past, but this bloody Ford Fiesta seemed to be powered by a lawnmower engine.

The road to Burton-on-Trent dipped and Simon saw his chance. He drew closer, flicked the indicator arm down and began to pull out, gathering speed downhill. That’s when the sack on the top finally tipped; not to the side, but right towards him, opening like a whale’s mouth. A black lump rolled out, bounced on a neighbouring sack and arced through the air. He braked sharply. The lump hit the road, shattered, and a large fragment ricocheted upwards over the Fiesta’s stubby bonnet and smashed into the windscreen.

Simon opened his eyes. A dirty black smear was spreading across the windscreen. He could see nothing ahead. He braked hard, gripped the steering wheel and swung the little car to the left. It bounced over the kerb, mounted the narrow pavement and stopped. Half the bonnet was buried in a soot-blackened privet hedge.

Simon grabbed the door handle and pushed. The door creaked unnaturally as it swung out. He jumped on to the pavement, anger suffusing his face, and looked for the culprit, but the lorry had gone, it’s lights disappearing towards the wide river. The stupid driver either didn’t know what had happened or didn’t care. He’d be rushing to a delivery, oblivious to the wreckage he left behind.

Derby Evening Telegraph reporter Simon Jardine was wearing his only suit, a green-checked double-breasted, and his cleanest white shirt with an appropriate black tie. He was bloody angry: the image of his fellow reporters taking the piss when they heard about the crash sat like a small, dark cloud over his head. The door creaked again as he slammed it shut and locked the car. It was only then that he noticed the light drizzling rain, and he ran to the red telephone kiosk a hundred yards away.

Simon had borrowed the office car because he had a funeral to go to, which was why he was dressed up like a dog’s dinner. He’d wanted to get back from his early-morning stint in Burton-on-Trent looking decent, presentable, and on time. Now he was wet and dishevelled, and his polished black shoes were smeared with grey coal dust. Half an hour later he sat alone in the newspaper’s Burton branch office studying bus timetables.

From the bus’s top deck Simon watched as some of Derby’s landmarks came and went: the Gothic-style library, the old railway bridge, The Greyhound pub with its white-painted brick walls and small windows. His thoughts turned to why he was on the bus. He hated these farewells. This one was to be in the city’s modern brick-built cemetery, the antithesis of the respect and heritage that an old stone-built church offered, or even the cathedral. When my time comes I’ll demand a proper funeral service in an ancient church, he said to himself as houses, shops and a balloon factory gave way to parkland and trees. I’ll not be leaving any sort of will: that’s laughable. I’ve got bugger all to leave – well, nothing of any value, he mused.

The drizzle had stopped as he’d left Burton, and now it was a bright, late-summer day with a few light clouds immobile in the sky. They’d not had proper rain for ages, just light bursts, so people would welcome it, but not if it was the mucky, coal-infused rain of Burton.

Two severe-looking dark-suited men stood outside the tall double doors of the chapel. Obviously trying to be discreet, their heads moved backwards and forwards like poorly controlled puppets as they surveyed the few remaining mourners. Simon hid a smile as he sidled past them. Unlike undertakers, who exuded empathy and care, these two resembled club bouncers: tall, wiry, broad-shouldered and in suits that had once been shiny and were now showing the effects of long hours of resting elbows on bars. You can take coppers out of a police station but you’ll never change them, even out of uniform. He absent-mindedly wondered why they were there.

The large chapel was nearly full. Organ music wafted over the pews, but Simon could see no organist or pipes. He crept quietly to the back, his eyes cast down, hoping not to be noticed. The move failed: his entrance was heralded by an entire line of seated newspaper colleagues turning their heads. It was as if they were on some sort of pulley system. It was the last thing he wanted, and he coloured as he sheepishly sat down, those already on the pew shuffling politely to let him in. He looked up and saw the backs of heads all the way to the front, where a light-coloured wooden coffin, with a simple white wreath on top, lay on trestles under a large cross attached to the rear wall.

Simon stared at the wooden box and a mist of memories penetrated his mind. He was alone, but the man in the coffin was standing by his side; the man who’d taken him under his wing just seven years earlier when, as a young cub reporter he’d sat at a desk in the Telegraph’s newsroom. Simon felt an icy shudder travel slowly down his spine and settle uncomfortably in the small of his back. He looked around for the one person he wanted to share the moment with, the man who had always provided rock-hard sense to combat his youthful and sometimes hare-brained actions. But through glistening, watery eyes he knew he was alone, and his head dropped forward.

The low, quiet murmur of conversation faded away as a priest entered from a side room. The white-and-gold cassocked man with a Prince Charles bald spot and curling, lightly greying hair, welcomed the congregation. He had a slight lisp and a light, weak voice that Simon found discordant: this sort of occasion required a sonorous tone, not a light, effeminate one. There was a hymn, some prayers, and then Simon’s inward reveries were jolted away as Alistair MacMillan, the newspaper’s editor, walked slowly and magisterially towards the lectern. His tall frame had a military bearing, but there was a slight, pregnant mound of middle-aged spread over the top of his trousers, and his chest seemed to fall away and narrow into a bell shape. Simon stared. He realised that over the last seven years he’d never seen the man who controlled his professional present and future on his feet, only sitting behind a large desk. It was 1976, surely he must have seen some animation?

The editor shuffled two pieces of paper on to the slim lectern and looked over the heads of the congregation, his gaze fixed on something in the middle distance about a foot above Simon’s hairline. The entire chapel was silent; not even a cough or scuff of feet. Simon resisted the temptation to turn and see what the man was staring at.

“Dave Green was an exemplary, loyal and extremely talented reporter with the Derby Evening Telegraph for all the more than 15 years he worked at the newspaper.” Simon’s stomach contracted. He could feel a tear in his eyes and his cheeks suffused red. For days his thoughts had been with Dave, wherever he was now, but this was the first time anyone had said his name out loud. “Sorry about your loss” and “he was a great guy” were kind of okay, but to hear Dave’s name and to know he was in that box was like thrusting a knife into his gut. It stabbed deeply into his soul.

“Dave’s death at just forty-two years old is a tragedy. It is a life cut short when he had so much more to give. He was an exemplary and diligent court reporter whom we could rely on for accuracy and fair-handed reporting. He used these skills to become a much-admired chief crime reporter, a man whom we knew would always find the heart of the story, who would provide a memorable and eye-catching headline. Dave Green demonstrated just what it takes to be a top-class regional newspaper journalist.”

Simon leaned forward and his head dropped. He saw a damp patch appear on his trouser knee. A hand gripped his shoulder; it was a combination of strength and tenderness. Simon kept his head bowed as the editor’s voice droned majestically, the room’s natural acoustics making his speech almost Shakespearian.

The words rolled on. They were just noise; they ran into each other in a monologue, without the spark of life, of interest, or even cadence. Simon waited, longing to hear about the great friend that was the Dave he knew: the forged, then ruined, then cemented relationships with the police; his almost lifelong devotion to draught Bass and Worthington; his second “homes” – The Dolphin, The Greyhound, The Exeter Arms.

He looked around at the congregation. Where the hell was Tom Freeman?

About eight rows ahead, through a forest of statue-like heads and hairstyles and black and grey hats, he saw Moira Mahoney, the last woman he’d known Dave show any deep emotion for. Next to her was her daughter Mary. Both sat bolt upright, eyes locked on the editor as he continued his eulogy. Simon looked at the back of the women’s heads. Moira’s life hadn’t been easy, but she’d always tried to make the best of herself, he’d heard. A widow for many years, she had been Dave’s one true love but their affair, once all-consuming, had petered out. From some deep recess, Dave had summoned up a moral rectitude that had stopped him making an emotional commitment.

Dave Green had died alone in his small, terraced house off Ashbourne Road, just a ten- or fifteen-minute walk from this crematorium. He’d had the Monday off but hadn’t turned up for work in the Albert Street newspaper office the next day. That was unusual, but nobody had thought there was a more serious reason than, say, a particularly vicious hangover after a Monday evening binge. Dave had been a law unto himself for some time, but the newsdesk had turned a blind eye because of the respect he was held in and his ability to weave great crime stories.

Simon had been working at the Burton branch office. He hadn’t thought about Dave; he just expected him to be doing his job. The weekend had been fairly normal: Friday night up at the college for a gig by Hawkwind and then work on Saturday before spending the evening at The Cat, or Jaguar Nights, to give the club its full title. On Sunday he and Chris Saxon, close friend, now flatmate, and business editor on the Telegraph, had spent a long lunchtime in The Crown Club in Spondon. They’d walked back to their flat near the Children’s Hospital, put a Barclay James Harvest album on, and almost simultaneously fallen asleep on the threadbare twin armchairs.

Simon had stayed late at work on Monday, the end of his short stint in Burton to provide cover, and was back again early on Tuesday. The next day he’d taken a call from Tom Freeman, the DJ and part-time private detective with whom he’d formed a close friendship and investigative triumvirate with Dave almost since the day he’d started work. Tom himself had been called by Deirdre, Dave’s “evil sister” who’d pestered him about his drinking and cared for him when alcohol and his poor diet had made breathing and walking difficult. She’d found Dave lifeless in his armchair.

 “Heart attack,” the GP had told Deirdre. “Plain as day. Mr Green would have gone very quickly. We’ll have to send him for a post-mortem just to make sure, but I’ll bet my black bag here on it being a massive heart attack.”

Tom’s words on the phone had been stilted. Neither man could imagine life without Dave. So where the hell was Tom now? There was no way he’d miss this final farewell.

There was a scrape of feet. Simon, rudely woken from his reverie, saw the editor walk back down the aisle, his head bowed respectfully. The priest announced another hymn and after some half-hearted attempts to read the words and sing in tune, Simon watched as Dave’s coffin was placed on the black rubber of the conveyor and was surrounded by curtains.

Filing out of the chapel, Simon acknowledged Deirdre and her husband with a half smile; he’d never got to know them properly. The Christian service, he knew, had been her choice. In all the years he’d known Dave, his friend and mentor had never once mentioned being a believer in any religion.

Outside, the congregation gulped in the air. It was fresh with a crispness that followed a short shower and a welcome respite from the dry chapel. It was as if he hadn’t taken a breath during the twenty-five-minute service. Simon scanned all the faces, hoping to catch sight of Tom. He looked up and saw a puff of smoke from the chimney, and the sense of dread engulfed him again like a dark, cloying cloak. He felt himself shrink inside and could feel the sting of tears in his eyes. A hand appeared in front of him holding a small, delicate, silky square of cloth. He looked up. Julie Sanderson, the women’s editor, who’d been a motherly figure for the younger reporters, stood beside him. He forced a smile and shook his head. He reached into his trouser pocket and brought out a large, and thankfully clean and pressed, handkerchief. He wafted the creases out and wiped his eyes.

“Thanks, Julie,” he said. “Bloody typical. Here I am blubbing like a baby. Sorry.”

“You’re being normal for a change, Simon,” Julie replied. “Dave was an icon in the office and a mentor to many, but to you he was a good friend. He looked after you, you know. You’ve done some silly things, as we all have, but Dave always had your back.”

“Yeah,” Simon mumbled, and Julie swung away, leaving him on his own. He followed the stream of people towards the low wall at the rear of the chapel. It had been completely covered in flowers and cards. Hidden behind some tributes off to the right, Simon saw the card he’d bought and re-read the words inside: “If people didn’t die then we’d never be able to get to the bar – Dave Green 1973. Get one in for me when Heaven’s bar opens, please.”

At the time he’d thought it quite witty, and it had been a real quote from Dave a few years ago. Now it looked crass, out of place and unseemly. Simon turned the card over so that the simple In Sympathy message showed, not his inappropriate words.

He joined the shuffling queue as it carried on past the flowers, and a large hand appeared in front of him. It was clearly expecting to be shaken, and Simon instinctively took it. He looked up and saw the imposing, dress-uniformed figure of Detective Chief Inspector Adam Ludden, now a very senior officer in a shadowy anti-terrorist division.

“Awful day, Simon. How are you bearing up? It must be dreadful for you.”

Ludden had been a thorn in the side of Simon, Tom and Dave a few years ago. Latterly he had proved to be a sort of protector and official security service backstop, but it would never be true to call him a friend. He’d pretty much saved their lives in the past, so he was no enemy and deservedly had their respect, but he was never going to be a guy you’d meet up with for a laugh and a chat over a pint in a friendly bar.

“I’m OK, Mr Ludden. It just seems so final.”

“Aye, that’s the word,” a voice behind both men said. “It’s good to see you here, Mr Ludden. I know Dave would have appreciated it.” Tom Freeman sidled round the tall policeman and clapped his hand on to Simon’s upper arm.

“Where’ve you been?” Simon said, stifling the cry of anger that was on the tip of his tongue. “You weren’t in the chapel. Did you even go?”

“Not my kind of do,” Tom said flatly.

Ludden looked from one to the other. The tension was palpable. “I’ll leave you two to pay your respects,” he said and nodded towards a group of uniformed constables – two men and a woman. A plainclothes, broad-chested man, a stereotypical detective, stood with them. “I’d better see what John Smithson’s doing here.”

Tom gripped Simon’s upper arm again and walked him towards a clump of trees. “Look, I’m sorry, but I just can’t be doing with all this religious claptrap. I should’ve told you. I rang the Burton office but you’d already gone.”

“That’s no fuckin’ excuse. It was the last chance for the three of us to be together and you bottled it. What sort of fuckin’ mate are you?” Simon’s voice was low and shaking. Tom, a much bigger, stronger man, could have shut him up with a single word or two. He didn’t.

“We’ve done everything together. Dave was our rock. The man was brilliant.” Simon’s words tumbled out. Tom stood back but held on to Simon’s arm as the newspaperman rocked and tears flooded down his face. Tom’s grip hardened. He tried to transfer his physical strength to help Simon’s emotional outpouring.

“I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. If I’d known how much that funeral meant to you I’d have been there. I just didn’t think. I’m sorry.” Tom clasped Simon to his chest, smothering his wracking sobs. Simon calmed and pushed his friend back gently.

“No, mate, I’m sorry. That was the first time I’ve let it get to me and I’ve taken it out on you. That’s not fair. I know you’re not religious – neither was Dave. It’s just me being soft.”

“We both loved Dave, Simon,” Tom replied. “He was too young to die, but we’ve seen death before and it doesn’t ask questions, it just happens.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” Simon said, wiping the dampness from his face. He stopped, the handkerchief in his hand, and looked over Tom’s shoulder at the group of police officers Adam Ludden had joined. He was talking to the only one in a civilian suit, Detective Inspector John Smithson.

“What’s going on? Why’s Smithson emptied the bloody police station? I know a fair few coppers knew Dave, but they weren’t in the chapel.”

Tom swung round. “Curious. Maybe we should have another word with Ludden,” he said, and the pair walked towards the group.

Chapter 2

Simon and Tom decided not to interrupt Adam Ludden and John Smithson immediately. They were chalk and cheese personalities, but whatever they were saying was intense and mutual, and two civilians butting in would get a sharp rebuff. DCI Ludden was the vastly experienced senior officer who had been promoted out of normal CID duties to handle matters of national, and sometimes international, importance. DI Smithson, while he’d proved to be a good detective and a leader, was still a policeman with a total belief in doing things by the book. He’d been caught up in a corruption scandal a couple of years ago, but Ludden had seen something others had missed and, instead of dishonour, Smithson had been promoted. Ludden’s tactic had succeeded. Detective Inspector John Smithson worked harder in his new role than he ever did as a sergeant on the periphery of a scandal.

Tom nudged Simon’s arm and pointed towards a large Daimler slowly passing through the trees along the road. “Looks like your boss is heading back to the office.”

Most of the newspaper staff were still milling around; Norman Speller, the news editor, Simon could see, was with the editor in the car. “Yeah. They’ve nipped off early so they don’t have to give the hoi polloi a lift,” he said, and a laugh, the first of the day, escaped his lips.

A raised voice floated across the recently mowed grass. “Right then, John, you’ll be wanting to brief your team.” Ludden’s voice was raised almost theatrically after the low, private chat between the two.

“Yes, sir,” Smithson replied, in the same stagey voice. Tom and Simon took a step nearer. The real conversation was over; now the policemen could be interrupted. “I’ve got a couple of bright-eyed constables who are going to scan and note every one of the cards and the messages on the flowers,” Smithson said as they approached. “PC Collins, PC Earnshaw you know what to do.”

Simon and Tom stared at each other and at the uniformed policemen. Both looked fresh out of police college. One wore glasses and was tall and gangly; the other was round and about five feet six inches tall. “What the fuck’s going on?” Simon whispered, a frown of concern fixed to his face. Smithson strode towards them. A smile stretched across his mouth, but wrinkles of compassion or even amusement never reached his eyes. It wasn’t sinister, just insincere.

“Nothing to be alarmed about,” the inspector said as he drew near. “We aren’t impinging on anyone’s liberty. No one’s being arrested. It’s just that, as you well know, Dave cultivated some strange friends, present company excepted, and hung out in some pretty low dives. We want to be sure he’s not taking too many secrets to the grave, if you see what I mean.”

“No, I don’t see what you mean,” Simon said, the cold anger in his voice displaying his feelings. Tom butted in. “This is my friend’s funeral service. There’s family, friends and colleagues here. I don’t want dirty plods sniffing round as if Dave was some arch criminal. What secrets are you talking about?”

Smithson’s eyes narrowed and homed in on Tom, whose neck seemed to twitch. “Leave it, Tom. Just let them to get on with the job,” Simon said.

“No, mate. It’s not right.” Tom looked back into Smithson’s searing eyes. “If you lot want to investigate all those cards that’s up to you, but have some human dignity and wait. Nobody here, at least among the guests, is a crook.” His eyes swept meaningfully across the officers. Smithson bridled. Tom recognised that he might have crossed a line. “Just wait until everybody has gone, can’t you?” he said, his voice softening. “Can you even imagine what the force’s reputation will be like if you barge amongst guests who write about news in this town?”

Smithson’s head dropped marginally. “Yes, all right. We’ll wait until you lot have gone, but” – his expression changed – “I’d appreciate a quick word in private. I don’t want this overheard, but I hope I can trust you two to keep schtum.”

The three walked over the lawn away from the thinning group of mourners. “We had an anonymous tip-off that one of our most-wanted was going to be here paying his respects. He’s not, but we can’t turn down the chance of a good arrest. He’s not here, so we’ll have a quick look at the cards and go.”

“That’s still pretty sick,” Tom said. “Do you have any idea who tipped you off? Who are you talking about? They were obviously winding you up or trying to disrupt Dave’s funeral.”

“No, it was muffled but quite precise – the name, the lot,” Smithson replied.

“Who was it?” Simon asked. “Who’s this most-wanted?”

“You know I can’t tell you that. If I could I’d have made a press statement.”

“Is DCI Ludden involved?” Simon asked.

“No,” the inspector said. “I was just getting his advice about how we should do the job quickly. I can’t have these lads hanging around – they’ve got proper policing to do.”

Tom’s exasperation got the better of him. He looked up to the few clouds and exhaled loudly. “Come on, mate,” he said to Simon and took hold of his friend’s upper arm. “Let’s leave these plods to learn how to read.”

The pair walked away. Tom saw a small group of scruffily suited men standing in the shade of a tree. He raised an arm. “I’m just going to have a word,” he said. “Those guys knew Dave and me from the other side of the fence, if you see what I mean. They won’t be wanting to be too close to coppers, especially not Smithson.”

Tom left and Simon ambled towards a small crowd of his colleagues. He smelled a woman’s perfume.

“Hello, Simon,” Moira Mahoney said. “It’s been a long time.” She looked very different from when he was last with her. It must be six or seven years. Her husband Patrick and another man had died in a car crash. Dave Green had also been in the car but had survived by swimming to safety across the River Derwent. Moira seemed taller now. Her hair was coiffed stylishly and the sombre dress she was wearing had clearly not been bought from Derby market. Her face and smile were still attractive and welcoming but she had a more settled expression.

“Hello, Moira. I noticed you in the chapel. I was a bit late. It was the buses – they were all full even after nine o’clock.” Simon’s words tumbled out quickly, his nervousness showing. The memory of her husband’s death flooded back.

Moira smiled and gently took hold of Simon’s arm.

“You don’t have to make any excuses. We both loved Dave in our different ways. It’s a really sad day for so many people. My family have a lot to be grateful to him for.”

Simon’s lips pursed and his eyes blinked in agreement. Moira was right. Everybody had their own reasons to love or be friends with Dave. He’d proved to be an inherently good man, and, like all good men, he’d made mistakes. Perhaps not allowing his relationship with Moira to develop was one. Drinking himself to an early grave, or at least cremation, was certainly another.

 “I’m not sure Dave would have appreciated the pomp and ceremony, the hymns and prayers. It was his sister who organised all this. Dave never seemed to get on with her. Still, she’s done well,” he said, the words sounding hurried and nervous.

“I think Dave was a bit of a traditionalist in many ways,” Moira said. “He would have liked that so many came out to pay their respects. Maybe it was because we were both youngsters during the war – it made us realise how important simple ceremonies are. Are you going to the drinks and sandwiches in The Travellers Rest?”

 “I was hoping to get a lift with Tom,” Simon said, and looked around. There were only about twenty people left and even they looked as if they were on the point of leaving. Tom was nowhere to be seen. The group by the trees had vanished, along with the police.

“You can come with us if you like,” Moira said, registering Simon’s consternation. “Our David has brought his new car to pick us up. We won’t be stopping long, but you can have a lift.”

Simon shrugged. “That’d be great. Thank you.” He, Moira and Mary walked down the path and across to the Volkswagen van-like vehicle that had rolled to a stop near the main gate. The man in the driving seat leaned across and opened the passenger door for Moira to get in, bottom first, then legs, knees locked decorously together. Mary took hold of the side door and pulled it forward. The whole door glided almost soundlessly along the van to allow Simon to slide easily on to a bench seat.

They arrived at the mock-Tudor pub in less than five minutes, and as Mary and Simon got out, Moira leaned back in and spoke quietly to her son. David drove away.

Simon was okay with the Travellers: it wasn’t a favourite haunt and it always seemed full of lager-drinking students. Last year an ex-girlfriend, Janie Caton, was nearly killed by some IRA thugs, along with her new boyfriend, after he’d met them there. This would be only the second time he’d been back in, but the trauma of those days was history. Janie and her tall, good-looking and seemingly wealthy Nigerian boyfriend had split up and moved abroad. He still harboured hopes, and some quite crude thoughts, about Janie now the Adonis had gone.

Simon held one of the double doors open for Moira and Mary. The lounge was already packed with his colleagues, most gripping a pint or a glass of wine. He’d expected a respectful silence but there was instead a cauldron of chatter: reporters released from the confines of the newsroom rarely got together socially and they were making up for lost time. At the far end, two trestle tables had been covered with a large white cloth, and he could see that sandwiches, pastries and cakes were piled high beneath it. He ordered a pint for himself and two Babychams for Moira and Mary, made an excuse, and went to chat with the other reporters.

From his hiding place behind a square brick column, Tom Freeman watched Simon, Moira and Mary walk the short distance to the Volkswagen and drive away. He waited until the few others in the grounds had gone before walking into the chapel. He sat alone in an empty pew. It was his first time in the now empty building. Despite the large crucifix on the wall, the atmosphere wasn’t that of just a Christian church or chapel: people of every faith were accepted, even those, like him, who had no real religion. Tom had been brought up as a Jew but had lapsed many years ago.

He stared at the altar-style centrepiece of the chapel with the now open curtains. His muscular, solid body shook and he didn’t try to hide or wipe away the tears that flowed down his cheeks. This was his own, very personal, goodbye to a man he’d loved, possibly as much as his own father. Dave Green and Simon Jardine had proved to be the greatest friends a man could wish for. Dave, through his links to the crime families of Derby, had helped him set up as a private investigator. Simon, through his rock music reviews for the newspaper, had helped him forge a business as a club DJ. But it was their work together fighting criminals and crime, and bringing violent thugs and murderers to justice, that had cemented their relationship.

Tom slowly stopped trembling and his tears ceased. He was thankful to be alone; a privacy in which his raw emotions could erupt, almost in tribute to Dave. He got to his feet; the sluggishness he’d felt since arriving while the short service was taking place had evaporated. Now there was a spring in his step as he left the chapel and strode along the path. As he’d hoped, the car park was almost empty except for his beloved 1600E Ford Cortina, which was as much a part of his existence as Simon and Dave. The only other vehicle, standing in a corner, was a grey two-door Vauxhall Viva. It had a thin covering of leaves and twigs and looked abandoned.

Tom glanced at his watch. He was supposed to be at The Travellers Rest; he’d offered Simon a lift there but had abandoned him to spend time alone. The Viva sparked his curiosity. Had it been dumped? He walked across to it over the roughly pitted stone and tarmac surface.

Through the film of dirty grease on the driver’s window he saw that there was a man in the driver’s seat. He seemed to be asleep. His head was slumped forward on to his chest and a trilby-style hat obscured his face. Tom rapped loudly on the window and a few twigs bounced down the windscreen. The man didn’t move. Tom gripped the door handle and the door opened smoothly and silently. He reached in and shook the man gently by his shoulder, but immediately knew that he was touching a dead body. The coldness of expired life exuded through the man’s clothing, a buttoned-up coat that covered his whole torso. The smell of death, the almost metallic taste of spilt blood hitting his nostrils, told him that life had evaporated.

Tom looked down and saw a large pool of dark blood in the footwell. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed movement and stepped back hurriedly, shuffling his feet to maintain his balance. The dead man’s trilby, unsettled by Tom shaking his shoulder, had slipped. It revealed a face that was ashen and grey. The man’s eyes were closed, as if he’d fallen asleep and died naturally. Tom’s soldier-then-policeman training kicked in unconsciously. He touched the man’s neck but, as he’d expected, there was no pulse. He stood back, holding his arms straight out. Dead body, he said soundlessly. I’ve touched him, and the coppers bloody love me. He backed away.

Tom sighed once he was far enough away to feel separate and unconnected to the dead man. His options had gone. He couldn’t walk away, even if he wanted to. The police had to know, and the rest of his day was ruined. He’d not make it to The Travellers Rest and Simon wouldn’t be getting a lift from there either. As he walked back towards the chapel the rear doors opened and a crowd of mourners spilled out. There’d been another cremation following Dave’s. Tom ran round the building, followed by the accumulated frowns of more than a dozen slow, sombre mourners, and into the chapel through the front. He saw a be-robed figure about to disappear through a door.

“Vicar, I need to use your telephone,” he said to the priest, who stopped, a look of annoyance crossing his face briefly.

“I am not a vicar, young man, and I’m afraid that we do not have a telephone for public use.” he said, his words tripping out at high pitch with that slight lisp. He flapped his robed arms, shooing Tom away. Tom stood still and looked directly into the man’s eyes. “You might want to change your mind if I tell you there’s a dead man parked in your car park. You need the police here, sharpish.”


You can purchase The Straw Men and the 4 previous books in the series here...


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