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Authors: Peter Tickler

Blood in Grandpont

BOOK: Blood in Grandpont
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Blood in
Grandpont

Peter Tickler

‘Damn it!’ Jack Smith’s shout echoed around the empty stairwell of number 19 Brook Street, one of a row of once very ordinary, but now very desirable Victorian terraced houses in that area of Oxford – just to the south of the river – known as Grandpont. Grand Pont means the Great Bridge – even Jack Smith’s schoolboy French stretched that far. But as far as he was concerned, what Grandpont really spelt was money, or so he hoped – an area in which to expand his business. However, at this precise moment in time none of this was on his mind, because the fact was that his thumb ruddy well hurt. He looked at the blood running down the side of his forefinger, and swore again, though this time less loudly, for what was the point when there was no one to hear and no one to commiserate with his pain. Finally, he wiped it on his overalls, and turned his attention back to the floorboards.

For the next five minutes, he worked silently and with increased care as he eased up boards one by one. Most of them resisted him stubbornly, but as he approached the corner, he encountered two shorter pieces which popped up with only the slightest pressure. He sat back on his haunches, and then looked at his watch. Time for a fag break. But the looseness of those last boards had registered somewhere inside his brain as being odd, and even as he felt inside his top pocket for his Silk Cut, he leant forward to take another look. He frowned at what he saw, removed his hand from the cigarette packet, and slipped it instead into the floor-space. When it
re-emerged some ten seconds later, its fingers were wrapped firmly round a dusty, hessian-wrapped object some 60 centimetres square. He paused, as if uncertain what to do with it, but then put it down on the floor and carefully began to untie the string which was holding the hessian in place. He did so with a sense of anticipation, for whatever it was, he was pretty sure it must have been put there deliberately, hidden in fact, by the previous owner presumably – not that he knew who that was. Jack Smith was a central heating engineer and South Oxford wasn’t his normal stamping ground. He lived off Headley Way, which links Marston to Headington, and it was around there that he had established a solid reputation for reliability and a willingness to turn out at all hours. Of course, he worked further afield, and had in the last few years found himself working more and more for clients in the Summertown area of North Oxford. And it was one of these – Geraldine Payne, a dentist with a surgery in Beaumont Street and a flat towards the northern end of the Banbury Road – who had brought him south of the river Isis to rip out and replace the archaic plumbing and heating system of a house she had purchased in Brook Street. All he knew of the previous owner was what he had been told by Mrs Thompson from next door, that she was a tight-fisted old git with a reputation for scraping a coin along the paintwork of any car left outside her house in ‘her’ parking space.

The string around the hessian had been tied with a double bow, and it took the fingers of Jack Smith some little time to worry it open. The radio had been on all morning, and what with him being so focused on what he was doing – and then on the painting that he discovered inside the hessian wrapping – he failed to hear the noise of the front door being opened, and then shortly afterwards clicking shut. It was only when Coldplay’s ‘Fix You’ began to fade that he heard the noise of leather soles on the uncarpeted boards and realized that someone was climbing up the stairs. He started guiltily, and quickly tossed the hessian over the painting.

‘God, I thought you were Geraldine,’ he said as a woman appeared.

‘She said I would find you here. Why is your mobile turned off, Jack?’ she demanded. ‘The shower you installed is leaking, and I’m not happy.’

Jack lifted his hand defensively. ‘I left it at home. Sorry. But I’ll come and take a look at the shower on my way home. I promise.’

‘You’d better do more that take a look,’ she said. He was still on one knee on the floor, and she now bent down so her face was close and intrusive. She glared and he flinched. If looks could kill, his brains would have been splattered all over the wall. ‘You’d better bloody fix it, Jack Smith.’

‘Sure, of course,’ he gulped. Despite his bulk, he was easily intimidated.

‘What’s that?’ she said. Her eyes had moved to the piece of hessian, which was partially, but not wholly, covering the painting.

‘Nothing,’ he said, unconvincingly.

‘In that case, you won’t mind me taking a look,’ she said, and she leant across, her hand out.

Reluctantly, he pulled the hessian to the side, picked the painting up, and passed it over to her. ‘I found it,’ he said. ‘Under the floorboards.’

She took it from him, and studied it for some time, appraising it. ‘I guess you’ll be giving this to Geraldine, then?’ she said eventually, her eyes still on the painting.

‘Finders keepers, I reckon,’ he said.

Her eyes looked across at him, and fixed themselves firmly on his face. ‘Fancy making a bit on the side, do you, Jack? Bit of an art expert, are you, in your spare time?’ Her voice was mocking and sarcastic. ‘You’ve been watching too much
Cash in the Attic
if you ask me.’

‘It looks quite old, I reckon,’ he said. ‘I was thinking I might take it to that auction house in Hythe Bridge Street and ask them what it was worth, and—’

‘And the first thing they are going to ask,’ she cut in sharply, ‘is where you got it from.’

‘Oh!’ he said uncertainly.

‘It’s nice, though, in a quaint sort of way,’ she continued, her tone softening. ‘I wouldn’t mind buying it off you.’

His eyes narrowed. ‘I wouldn’t mind buying it off you!’ he mimicked, and then laughed, pleased with himself. ‘You’ve as good as told me it’s worth some money.’

She put the painting down on the floor, and then opened the bag that hung by a long strap from her shoulder. ‘I took a hundred pounds out of the cash point earlier this morning, so why don’t I give you that and in return—’

‘Fifty-fifty,’ he said firmly. ‘You find a buyer and we split it
fifty-fifty
.’

She stared at him hard, and then down at the painting, which he had picked up and was holding on to protectively, as if afraid that she might try to grab it and do a runner. A smile broke suddenly across her face, and she clipped her handbag firmly shut. ‘OK, you’ve got a deal.’

‘And don’t even think of trying to cheat me,’ he said threateningly, ‘because if you do—’

‘Jackie boy!’ She spoke softly, her voice a mixture of cajoling and caressing, as if he was a big dog that needed gentle, yet firm handling. She was kneeling on the floor immediately opposite him. ‘In my book,’ she murmured, ‘a deal is a deal.’ Her face had drifted imperceptibly closer to his, and he was suddenly conscious of her perfume, so intense that it was unnerving. ‘So why don’t we shake on it … or something.’

He said nothing, taken off his guard by the turn of events. Her smile became a grin, and she moved even closer until her lips brushed against his cheek. ‘What do you say, Jackie boy?’ she whispered into his ear.

He grunted, still uncertain. He was way out of his comfort zone. ‘Suppose …’ he began, but he got no further, because her forefinger was on his lips and her face was opposite his, and just inches away. He flinched backwards and gulped.

She nodded towards the door beyond him, which was standing open. ‘It looks like there’s an old bed in there, Jackie boy. What do
you say? Shall we take a look?’

Ten minutes later she extricated herself from his sweaty grasp and began to dress. He lay stretched out across the bed, watching her through half-closed eyes. ‘Hey, what’s the rush?’ he said reproachfully. ‘Don’t go yet.’

The woman smiled bleakly back at him, but said nothing as she buttoned up her blouse, and then bent down to pull her black ankle boots on. Her bag was lying on the floor where she had dropped it, and from this she now retrieved her mobile phone.

‘Hey!’ he said, his eyes now fully open, ‘you’re not ringing up your friends to brag are you?’ And he laughed. But only very briefly. And then the expression on his face changed. ‘What the hell are you doing?’

What she was not doing was making a phone call. Rather, she was holding her mobile out in front of her and taking a photograph – of him, naked. ‘Just taking out insurance, Jackie boy.’

‘Insurance?’ he shouted, sitting up now. ‘What the fuck do you mean?’

‘Insurance against you causing trouble, Jackie.’ She clicked her mobile shut, put it back in her bag, and then took out a purse. ‘Because if you think I’m going to settle for a fifty-fifty split, when you can do nothing on your own, then you’re a bigger fool than you look. I’ve got the cards now, and this is the deal.’ She had removed some notes from her purse. ‘Five £20 notes. Hot from the cash point. That’s for you. And whatever I make, I keep. And if you so much as whisper “It’s not fair” then I’ll go round and pay your lovely wife a visit. Got it?’

With that she turned, went out of the open door, and clipped briskly down the stairs. Jack stared after her, his mouth open, until he heard the front door open and slam shut. Then he shivered, swore, and reached down for his pants.

 

‘’Bye, Mrs Russell!’ Lucy Tull called out cheerily. But if Sarah Russell heard the farewell of the dentist’s receptionist, she gave no apparent sign of having done so. Through the half-open door, Lucy watched
Monday’s final patient begin to descend the stairs, and then pulled a face after her. ‘Miserable cow!’ she said, not entirely silently.

‘Is there a problem, Lucy?’ Lucy turned in embarrassment at the sound of Geraldine Payne’s astringent question. Her employer was standing in the other doorway, the one which led into the inner sanctum of her dental surgery, and her face was a picture of disapproval.

‘No,’ she said hastily. ‘No problem at all.’

But there was no chance of her being let off easily. ‘We are a people business,’ her employer continued, ‘and a key part of your job is to be nice and polite to all our customers, and to be totally professional at all times. So, if you are finding that difficult to achieve, then despite your protestations I believe that we do indeed have a problem. A very serious problem. Do I make myself clear?’

‘Absolutely clear,’ Lucy replied.

‘Hm!’ Geraldine continued to glare at her assistant, even as she unbuttoned and pulled off her white work coat. She dropped it in the middle of the floor and picked up her handbag from the nearby chair. ‘That requires a wash,’ she said dismissively, before walking across the room, out of the far door, and off down the stairs. Lucy said nothing.

Downstairs, Geraldine Payne emerged from the front door which she shared with two other dentists, an osteopath, and a homeopath, and turned left. She walked a dozen paces, and then turned left again into St John’s Street. She walked north along its western pavement until she reached a side-street where she stopped and fell into conversation with – remarkably – the self-same Sarah Russell who had exited her dental surgery only two minutes prior to her. A casual observer would have seen them engage in an intense, and at times animated conversation, though quite what they were talking about would have been hard to divine as they spoke in low tones, conscious of the fact that other persons beside themselves used this highly priced street to pass from the city centre of Oxford to the environs of Wellington Square and Little Clarendon Street with its university offices and trendy shops and eating and drinking
establishments. However, while most of the passing pedestrians walked obliviously on, one slowed and then stopped. This not so casual observer did so because he knew them both.

Joseph Tull was an eighteen-year-old for whom the expression disconsolate youth might have been especially coined. His hair hung diagonally across his face as if it couldn’t be bothered to do anything else, his one mode of movement was a slow slouch, and even now he was running ten minutes late for his five o’clock tutorial at Cornforth College. Cornforth was not, as its name might have implied, a part of the university. Rather, it was one of a number of private educational establishments which had taken root in the city, trading on the kudos that an Oxford address gave them. Joseph Tull knew Sarah Russell via his parents, though he also knew her as an officious and unsympathetic administrator of Cornforth, and he knew Geraldine because she was his dentist too. And right now his dentist was hugging his college’s administrator. It might have been merely a hug of friendship or comfort, though Joseph’s suspicious nature doubted it. And then he smiled. For even from a distance he could see that Geraldine Payne’s hand, which had started high on Sarah Russell’s shoulder blade, was slipping gradually downwards, towards her waist, and then even further until it came to rest, albeit briefly, on her right buttock.

‘Glad to see you’re working hard!’ Joseph didn’t need to turn round. He knew Lucy Tull’s voice only too well.

‘Hi, Sis!’ he said, apparently unconcerned by her sarcastic greeting. ‘People watching is more fun,’ he continued, ‘especially when you know both parties.’

He nodded towards the two figures further up St John’s Street, who had now disengaged from their close encounter. Sarah Russell was resuming her walk north, towards Wellington Square, while Geraldine was retreating into the side alley, her mobile phone in her hand.

‘Don’t call me Sis,’ she snapped. ‘You know I hate it!’

‘I do,’ he agreed, as he moved off himself up St John’s Street. ‘See you, Sis!’

 

Dr Alan Tull left his surgery at 3.45 p.m. This was earlier than usual on a Wednesday, because although he never had an afternoon surgery on that day, he liked to use the time to catch up with his administrative tasks. And normally, as he cycled home, he did so with a sense of pleasure at another day over, for he was not a man for whom work was the only thing that mattered. He liked his job, even loved it at times, but he liked not being at work too. Today, however, he would have given anything to be working late rather than going home early to the meeting that he knew awaited him.

BOOK: Blood in Grandpont
8.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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