Authors: Charles Todd
Tags: #Historical, #Mystery & Detective, #Traditional British, #Villages, #Ian (Fictitious character), #Rutledge, #1914-1918 - Veterans, #Mystery Fiction, #Police - England - Warwickshire, #Warwickshire (England), #Fiction, #World War, #General
A Test of Wills
The First Inspector Ian Rutledge Novel
In this quiet part of Warwickshire death came as frequently…
Misunderstanding the horrified expression on Rutledge’s face, Sergeant Davies nodded…
Mrs. Davenant lived in a Georgian brick house standing well…
You can see he’s half out of his head,” Davies…
Mavers, sprawled in the dust by the worn shaft of…
Satisfied after her conversation with Inspector Forrest, Catherine Tarrant rode…
Although Rutledge went out directly after breakfast in search of…
So he went to see Catherine Tarrant, and found her…
Dr. Warren had spent a harried morning in his surgery,…
It was an hour or more later that Rutledge walked…
The next morning just before the Inquest Rutledge had an…
To Rutledge’s surprise, Lettice Wood asked him to come up…
Rutledge sent the blacksmith to bring his car back to…
Rutledge watched Laurence Royston walk away down the busy street,…
That night Rutledge lay in his bed, listening to the…
The Inn was remarkably quiet, but Rutledge stopped Redfern in…
The rain was so intense that he stopped at the…
The rain had drifted away by morning, and a watery…
The sunset was a thin red line on the western…
It was after eight when Rutledge woke up the next…
In this quiet part of Warwickshire death came as frequently as it did anywhere else in England, no stranger to the inhabitants of towns, villages, or countryside. Sons and fathers had died in the Great War; the terrible influenza epidemic had scythed the county—man, woman, and child—just as it had cut down much of Europe; and murder was not unheard of even here in Upper Streetham.
But one fine June morning, as the early mists rose lazily in the warm sunlight like wraiths in no hurry to be gone, Colonel Harris was killed in cold blood in a meadow fringed with buttercups and cowslips, and his last coherent thought was anger. Savage, wild, black fury ripped through him in one stark instant of realization before oblivion swept it all away, and his body, rigid with it, survived the shotgun blast long enough to dig spurs into the mare’s flanks while his hands clenched the reins in a muscular spasm as strong as iron.
He died hard, unwilling, railing at God, and his ragged cry raised echoes in the quiet woods and sent the rooks flying even as the gun roared.
In London, where rain dripped from eaves and ran black in the gutters, a man named Bowles, who had never heard of Colonel Harris, came into possession of a piece of information that was the reward of very determined and quite secret probing into the history of a fellow policeman at Scotland Yard.
He sat at his desk in the grim old brick building and stared at the letter on his blotter. It was written on cheap stationery in heavy ink by a rounded, rather childish hand, but he was almost afraid to touch it. Its value to him was beyond price, and if he had begged whatever gods he believed in to give him the kind of weapon he craved, they couldn’t have managed anything sweeter than this.
He smiled, delight spreading slowly across his fair-skinned face and narrowing the hard, amber-colored eyes.
If this was true—and he had every reason to believe it was—he had been absolutely right about Ian Rutledge. He, Bowles, was vindicated by six lines of unwittingly damaging girlish scrawl.
Reading the letter for the last time, he refolded it carefully and replaced it in its envelope, locking it in his desk drawer.
Now the question was how best to make use of this bit of knowledge without burning himself in the fire he wanted to raise.
If only those same gods had thought to provide a way…
But it seemed, after all, that they had.
Twenty-four hours later, the request for assistance arrived from Warwickshire, and Superintendent Bowles happened, by the merest chance, to be in the right place at the right time to make a simple, apparently constructive suggestion. The gods had been very generous indeed. Bowles was immensely grateful.
The request for Scotland Yard’s help had arrived through the proper channels, couched in the usual terms. What lay behind the formal wording was sheer panic.
The local police force, stunned by Colonel Harris’s vicious murder, had done their best to conduct the investigation quickly and efficiently. But when the statement of one particular witness was taken down and Inspector Forrest understood just where it was going to lead him, the Upper Streetham Constabulary collectively got cold feet.
At a circumspect conference with higher county authority, it was prudently decided to let Scotland Yard handle this situation—and to stay out of the Yard’s way as much as humanly possible. Here was one occasion when metropolitan interference in local police affairs was heartily welcomed. With undisguised relief, Inspector Forrest forwarded his request to London.
The Yard in its turn faced a serious dilemma. Willy-nilly, they were saddled with a case where discretion, background, and experience were essential. At the same time, it was going to be a nasty one either way you looked at it, and someone’s head was bound to roll. Therefore the man sent to Warwickshire must be considered expendable, however good he might be at his job.
And that was when Bowles had made his timely comments.
Inspector Rutledge had just returned to the Yard after covering himself with mud and glory in the trenches of France. Surely choosing him would be popular in Warwickshire, under the circumstances—showed a certain sensitivity for county feelings, as it were…. As for experience, he’d handled a number of serious cases before the war, he’d left a brilliant record behind him, in fact. The word scapegoat wasn’t mentioned, but Bowles delicately pointed out that it might be less disruptive to morale to lose—if indeed it should come to that—a man who’d just rejoined the force. Please God, of course, such a sacrifice wouldn’t be required!
A half-hearted quibble was raised about Rutledge’s state of health. Bowles brushed that aside. The doctors had pronounced him fit to resume his duties, hadn’t they? And although he was still drawn and thin, he appeared to be much the same man who had left in 1914. Older and quieter naturally, but that was to be expected. A pity about the war. It had changed so many lives….
The recommendation was approved, and an elated Bowles was sent to brief Rutledge. After tracking the Inspector to the small, drafty cubicle where he was reading through a stack of reports on current cases, Bowles stood in the passage for several minutes, steadying his breathing, willing himself to composure. Then he opened the door and walked in. The man behind the desk looked up, a smile transforming his thin, pale face, bringing life to the tired eyes.
“The war hasn’t improved human nature, has it?” He flicked a finger across the open file on his blotter and added, “That’s the fifth knifing in a pub brawl I’ve read this morning. But it seems the Army did manage to teach us something—exactly where to place the blade in the ribs for best results. None of the five survived. If we’d done as well in France, bayoneting Germans, we’d have been home by 1916.”
His voice was pleasant, well modulated. It was one of the things that Bowles, with his high-pitched, North Country accent, disliked most about the man. And the fact that his father had been a barrister, not a poor miner. Schooling had come easily to Rutledge. He hadn’t had to plod, dragging each bit of knowledge into his brain by sheer effort of will, dreading examinations, knowing himself a mediocrity. It rubbed a man’s pride to the bone to struggle so hard where others soared on the worldly coattails of London-bred fathers and grandfathers. Blood told. It always had. Bowles passionately resented it. If there’d been any justice, a German bayonet would have finished this soldier along with the rest of them!
“Yes, well, you can put those away, Michaelson’s got something for you,” Bowles announced, busily framing sentences in his mind that would convey the bare facts and leave out the nuances that might put Rutledge on his guard, or give him an opening to refuse to go to Warwickshire. “First month back, and you’ve landed this one. You’ll have your picture in the bloody papers before it’s done, mark my words.” He sat down and began affably to outline the situation.
Rutledge left the outskirts of London behind and headed northwest. It was a dreary morning, rain sweeping in gusts across the windscreen from a morbidly gray sky draped like a dirty curtain from horizon to horizon, the tires throwing up rivers of water on either side of the car like black wings.
Hellish weather for June.
I should have taken the train, he thought as he settled down to a steady pace. But he knew he couldn’t face the train yet. It was one thing to be shut up in a motorcar that you could stop at will and another to be enclosed in a train over which you had no control at all. Jammed in with a half dozen other people. The doors closed for hours on end, the compartment airless and overheated. The press of bodies crowding him, driving him to the brink of panic, voices dinning in his ears, the roar of the wheels like the sound of his own blood pounding through his heart. Just thinking about it sent a wave of terror through him.
Claustrophobia, the doctors had called it, a natural fear in a man who’d been buried alive in a frontline trench, suffocated by the clinging, slippery, unspeakable mud and the stinking corpses pinning him there.
Too soon, his sister Frances had said. It was much too soon to go back to work! But he knew that if he didn’t, he’d lose what was left of his mind. Distraction was what he needed. And this murder in Warwickshire appeared to offer just that. He’d need his wits about him, he’d have to concentrate to recover the long forgotten skills he’d had to put behind him in 1914—and that would keep Hamish at bay.
“You’re to turn right here.”
The voice in his head was as clear as the patter of rain on the car’s roof, a deep voice, with soft Scottish inflections. He was used to hearing it now. The doctors had told him that would happen, that it was not uncommon for the mind to accept something which it had created itself in order to conceal what it couldn’t face any other way. Shell shock was an odd thing, it made its own rules, they’d said. Understand that and you could manage to keep your grip on reality. Fight it, and it would tear you apart. But he had fought it for a very long time—and they were right, it had nearly destroyed him.
He made the turn, glancing at the signs. Yes. The road to Banbury.
And Hamish, strangely enough, was a safer companion than Jean, who haunted him in another way. In God’s blessed name, how did you uproot love? How did you tear it out of your flesh and bone?
He’d learned, in France, to face dying. He could learn, in time, how to face living. It was just getting through the desolation in between that seemed to be beyond him. Frances had shrugged her slim shoulders and said, “Darling, there are other women, in a year you’ll wonder why you cared so much for one. Let go gracefully—after all, it isn’t as if she’s fallen in love with another man!”
He swerved to miss a dray pulling out into the road without warning from a muddy lane running between long, wet fields.
“Keep your mind on the driving, man, or we’ll both be dead!”
“Sometimes I believe we’d both be better off,” he answered aloud, not wanting to think about Jean, not able to think about anything else. Everywhere he turned, something brought her back to him, ten thousand memories waiting like enemies to ambush him. The car…the rain…She’d liked driving in the rain, the glass clouded with their warm breath, their laughter mingling with the swish of the tires, the car a private, intimate world of their own.
“Ah, but that’s the coward’s road, death is! You willna’ escape so easily as that. You’ve got a conscience, man. It won’t let you run out. And neither will I.”
Rutledge laughed harshly. “The day may come when you have no choice.” He kept his eyes pinned to the road, as always refusing to look over his shoulder, though the voice seemed to come from the rear seat, just behind him, almost near enough to touch him with its breath. The temptation to turn around was strong, nearly as strong as the desperate fear of what he might see if he did. He could, he had found, live with Hamish’s voice. What he dreaded—dreaded more than anything—was seeing Hamish’s face. And one day—one day he might. Hollow-eyed, empty of humanity in death. Or accusing, pleading in life—
Rutledge shuddered and forced his mind back to the road ahead. The day he saw Hamish, he’d end it. He had promised himself that….
It was very late when he reached Upper Streetham, the rain still blowing in gusty showers, the streets of the town empty and silent and shiny with puddles as he made his way to the Inn on the High Street.
“Highland towns are like this on Saturday nights,” Hamish said suddenly. “All the good Presbyterians asleep in their beds, mindful of the Sabbath on the morrow. And the Catholics back from Confession and feeling virtuous. Are you mindful of the state of your soul?”
“I haven’t got one,” Rutledge answered tiredly. “You tell me that often enough. I expect it’s true.” The black-and-white facade he was looking for loomed ahead, ghostly in another squall of rain, a rambling, ancient structure with a thatched roof that seemed to frown disparagingly over the faded inn sign swinging from its wrought-iron bar. The Shepherd’s Crook, it read.
He turned in through a wisteria-hung arch, drove past the building into the Inn yard, and pulled the motorcar into an empty space between a small, barred shed and the Inn’s rear door. Beyond the shed was what appeared in his headlamps to be a square lake with pagodas and islands just showing above the black water. No doubt the kitchen garden, with its early onions and cabbages.
Someone had heard him coming into the drive and was watching him from the back steps, a candle in his hand.
“Inspector Rutledge?” the man called.
“Yes, I’m Rutledge.”
“I’m Barton Redfern, the landlord’s nephew. He asked me to wait up for you.” Rain swept through the yard again as he spoke, and he hastily stepped back inside, waiting to hold the door open as Rutledge dashed through the puddles, his bag in one hand, the other holding on to his hat. A minor tempest followed him across the threshold.
“My uncle said you were to have the room over the parlor, where it’s quieter at night. It’s this way. Would you like a cup of tea or something from the bar? You look like you could use a drink!”
“No, thanks.” There was whiskey in his bag if he wanted it—if exhaustion wasn’t enough. “What I need is sleep. It rained all the way, heavy at times. I had to stop beyond Stratford for an hour until the worst had passed. Any messages?”
“Just that Inspector Forrest will see you at breakfast, if you like. At nine?”
“Better make it eight.”
They were climbing a flight of narrow, winding stairs, the back way to the second floor. Barton, who looked to be in his early twenties, was limping heavily. Turning to say something over his shoulder, he caught Rutledge’s glance at his left foot and said instead, “Ypres, a shell fragment. The doctors say it’ll be fine once the muscles have knit themselves back properly. But I don’t know. They aren’t always as smart as they think they are, doctors.”
“No,” Rutledge agreed bitterly. “They just do the best they can. And sometimes that isn’t much.”
Redfern led the way down a dark hall and opened the door to a wide, well-aired room under the eaves, with a lamp burning by the bed and brightly flowered curtains at the windows. Relieved not to find himself in a cramped, narrow chamber where sleep would be nearly impossible, Rutledge nodded his thanks and Redfern shut the door as he left, saying, “Eight it is, then. I’ll see that you’re called half an hour before.”