Bats In The Belfry
For once I was there first, but I quickly turned away from the gruesome sight. Unlike Jack, the doctor of death, I've never appreciated the attraction of dead bodies. This one, with the thick rope still twisted around his neck, had a bloated, crimson face with a swollen tongue protruding from his bloodless lips, and staring, sightless eyes practically popping out of his head. The wisps of thinning grey hair carefully combed across the top of his skull were so incongruous that I nearly laughed out loud, but one look at the chalk-white visage of the young constable—surely no more than twenty years old—who had called it in and was standing by my side, restrained me. I glared at him instead.
“Where is that darned pathologist?” I barked. “Never here when you need him. Ring him again, Constable.”
“Er, ma'am, I only rang him five minutes ago. He said he'd be half an hour. Should I—oh, yes, ma'am. Right away.”
“And stay downstairs in the church,” I yelled at his rapidly retreating back. “Nobody is to come up here other than the scene of crime guys. Do you understand? Nobody.”
After a cursory glance around the belfry I averted my eyes. Nothing much to see, apart from the deceased, and I'd already seen quite enough of him, thank you.
I was still standing there thinking, when a bright voice greeted me. “Detective Chief Inspector, as I live and die! Fancy meeting you here. What delights are you offering me today?”
I hid my relief. No point in increasing his sense of superiority. “About time too! What kept you?”
“Well now,” he began to count off on his fingers. “There was the liver from number two—cirrhosis, I regret to say, so enlarged and yellow with plenty of necrotic nodules—then there was the breasts from that young teenager with the overdose. They were—”
“—yes, thank you, Doctor. That's more than sufficient detail. Just get on with the task in hand. When did this man die? Suicide or murder?”
Jack's face assumed that pseudo-serious expression I know so well. He only does it to annoy me. “Detective Chief Inspector! I couldn't possibly comment on whether or not it was murder. That's your field, not mine. Mere mortals like me simply report the facts.”
I ground my teeth. “And the facts in this case are?”
“I'm coming to that. No need to poop your panties, darling. Give me a chance. Let me see. He's been dead around four hours. At first sight I'd say he died of strangulation by bell rope, but look. Come here. See these bruises here on his upper arms? Almost certainly caused by someone gripping him—perhaps to heft him up into this crude noose? Oh! Look at this!” He pronounced with an air of delighted glee. “At the back of his head here, see? He's had a glancing blow. Probably not enough to kill him since it hasn't bled much, but more than likely it would have stunned him. You're the detective. You decide. In view of the bruises and the blow on the head, was it suicide or murder, sweetheart?”
“All right, no need for your juvenile jokes, Dr Death. Surely even you know that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit?”
“And the highest form of humour,” he rejoined. “Anyway, that's about it for now. As far as I'm concerned, you can cut him down and send him back to my lab any time you want. And I'll see you later, DCI, just in case there's anything else you want.”
“I shouldn't set your hopes too high on that score,” I growled, as he made his way back down the winding stone steps. I do like to get in the last word now and again.
The Reverend Montague Brighton, vicar of the parish, identified the deceased as the tower captain, the guy responsible for organising the bell ringers and the campanology.
“As far as you know, did Mr Benson have any enemies?”
The Reverend Montague hesitated for a little too long. “No—o, not really. No, of course not.”
“You must understand, Aidan Benson wasn't a church attender. Ringing was his passion, not God. So I didn't know him all that well.”
His shoulders slumped. “I hate to speak ill of the dead, but I have to say he wasn't entirely popular. Didn't encourage the youngsters, and was quite irascible at times. He was a perfectionist, so he used to get rather angry when the ringers failed to produce perfection which, if I'm honest, was most of the time.”
“You discovered the body, I understand?”
“That's right. The ringers either go home or across to another tower, at the start of the morning service. Aidan is always the last to leave, since he's responsible for the state of the belfry. He's very conscientious. Everything has to be exactly so before he leaves.”
“Who would have seen him leave?”
The vicar shrugged. “Probably no one. I see some of the ringers leave as I wait at the west end to begin the walk up the aisle at the start of the service, but I don't notice exactly who leaves or when. I don't even know who is here to ring. There are around a dozen in the team but only six bells, so you never know who is going to ring on any particular day. I expect Aidan kept a rota or something, but that was his territory. Nothing to do with me. And I'm the last person to walk up the aisle. The congregation is all seated before I begin my perambulation, so I doubt anyone even thought about the ringers.”
“Do you know of anyone who disliked Aidan Benson enough to murder him?”
I asked it brutally, and the vicar flinched. He replied with a touch of acerbity. “No I don't. I've told you all I know, so if you don't mind... It's been a long day.”
“Of course, Vicar. Thank you for your help. I'll call on Mrs Benson next. She may be able to furnish me with a list of ringers.”
I thought he stiffened slightly, but it may have been my imagination.
Amalie Benson was a revelation. I guess I'd been expecting a match to her ageing, discontented, recently deceased husband. Not a bit of it. Amalie Benson was tall, willowy, and very elegant. With long, slender legs which tapered into the neatest ankles I've ever seen, shown off to great advantage by red stilettos, she exuded quality. I put her age somewhere in the early forties, although Botox may have borne some responsibility for that. Goodness knows what had induced her to marry Aidan. I can't imagine he was ever particularly dashing.
She was perfectly poised and in full control of her emotions. Indeed, she made no attempt at pretence, and I admired her for her honesty.
“His manner of death is a terrible shock, of course it is,” she said quietly, “but we'd led separate lives for years. He's wedded to bell ringing, not to me.”
I must have raised my eyebrows, for she continued, “No need to look like that, Chief Inspector. I discovered soon after our marriage that Aidan's—er—interests lay in a different direction, and not only in ringing bells, if you get my meaning.”
“You mean he was gay?”
“I'm afraid so, although that word is something of a misnomer in Aidan's case. Gay he never was. Miserable, moody and morose, yes. Gay, no.”
“So did you—um—cast your eyes elsewhere?”
An ironic gleam crept into her sultry eyes. “Delicately put, Chief Inspector. I didn't remain a virgin for the whole of my married life, if that's what you mean.”
“Why not get divorced?”
She shrugged and spread her hands. “For what? I have a comfortable home here, and Aidan and I rubbed along together pretty well, as long as we kept out of each other's way. The arrangement suited both of us. Neither of us asked too many questions.”
“I'm afraid I must ask questions, though, since this is a murder enquiry. I need the names of all your lovers for, let's say, the last five years. And I need to know your own movements this morning.”
She smiled outright at that, but it was a mocking smile. “I've been here all day, with no witnesses. As for a list of my lovers, I don't think you can compel me to do that. No, Chief Inspector. You must find that out for yourself.”
She might have left me struggling, had not the telephone rung at that very moment. She turned her back on me to answer it, but not before I spotted her face light up.
When she came off the phone she said, “That was the vicar, in case you're wondering. Dear Monty. He's been such a support. He's coming round. Such a comfort.”
“I'll take my leave, then. Thank you for your help, Mrs Benson.”
She said, “I don't know that I've been much help to you.”
Now it was my turn to smile enigmatically.
When I reached home the best pathologist in the business was cooking liver and onions. I tried not to remember what he had told me earlier on about liver. Of course, he does it deliberately just to see my reaction. I try not to show it.
“How's the case coming along, my sweet?” he asked, in the sort of tone which suggested he expected me to have no idea whatsoever.
“Oh,” I said airily, “I shall be making two arrests first thing tomorrow. Case solved.”
Jack's eyes widened. “What? You can't!”
“Excuse me, but I think I can! It was the vicar and Amalie Benson. They've been having an affair for years, I'm sure of it. Amalie couldn't divorce Aidan because the scandal would finish Monty Brighton's career, so Monty slipped up to the belfry when all the ringers had gone, bashed Aidan on the head, dragged him over to the rope and hanged him. Simple, my dear Watson.”
Jack seemed duly impressed. “Are you absolutely certain, Sherlock?”
I nodded, trying hard not to smirk. “I am, Doctor.”
He grinned, a grin which spread right across his face. He took me in his arms and hugged me. Then he murmured against my hair, “I'm sorry to disappoint you, sweetie, but it was an accident, and I can prove it. There was no murder. Bats roost in that belfry. Bat droppings on Aidan's clothing show that they became active while he was there, and this can only have been after the bells had finished. I think a bat swooped, and startled Aidan. He slipped, hit his head on the wall, and caught his foot in the end of the rope which somehow got tangled round his neck. Remember, he was stunned at the time. In fighting to free himself, he simply managed to pull the rope tighter. I'm afraid it was nothing but a terrible accident, DCI.”
“Ha!” I said, twisting out of his arms. “Haven't you forgotten the bruises on Aidan's upper arms? You said they were the result of someone holding him.”
“Like this?” He grabbed me by the arms, and I found myself melting towards him. “Caused during love making, my sweet, but with no criminal intent.”
Then he licked his finger and drew a large one in the air. “I think that's one up to me, don't you, DCI?”
Somehow I didn't mind too much. I liked Amalie Benson and that old rogue, the Reverend Montague Brighton, and I wished them well. Besides, I had an idea my forfeit might perhaps be quite good fun.