It had been raining for days. The sort of weather that only happens in Devon, where it is always supposed to be sunny. The wide river flowed fast overflowing its banks and carrying debris from its upper reaches on the moor.
Ben Ellacott ran breathlessly along the margins of the river. His shoes squelching in the thick, red mud. They had been polished bright by Brenda that morning but now were unrecognisable clumps of sodden leather that hindered his running. And run he must. Redbourne's men were gaining on him. True, the short stocky man had stopped to get his breath but the tall, lanky one called Steele, who ran on the higher drier ground of the pasture, was parallel now with him.
A twisted willow hung precariously over the swirling waters of the river. Ellacott held on to its trunk, as a sudden stitch caught at his side. Looking up towards Redbourne's man, Steele, he realised any escape via the road had been cut off. To outrun Steele would be impossible. He was trapped. Unless... he glanced at the river, at its further bank. At this point the river ran straight, but five yards ahead it bent into a looping meander. If, he entered the water at that point, he would be carried to the opposite bank and safety.
Steele seemed to read his mind and ran speedily down from the high ground directly towards him.
Ellacott pushed himself away from the trunk and stumbled to the point that he saw as giving him some hope of escape. "What the hell! Nothing to lose." He said softly to himself as he braced against the sudden shock of the cold water.
Steele yelled at the other man and waved him on, pointing at Ellacott.
Steele later said that Ben Ellacott gave no indication that he either heard or saw him coming towards him. He said that he made a grab for Ellacott but that he slipped from his grip and fell into the river. That's what he said ... Of course, his side-kick Davey confirmed everything - but then he would, wouldn't he?
Although neither Detective Inspector Temple nor Detective Sergeant Cantwell knew it at the time, that was how it all began. A 'missing' man - ‘missing’ because that's what the desk sergeant filed when Brenda Ellacott phoned in.
All this took place in Starmouth in South Devon in 1950. It was, and still is, a typical English seaside resort lying on the eastern edge of a wide estuary. The town's western edges front the meandering river; the southern aspects face the sea.
Starmouth is well served by buses to Exeter and it lays claim to a neat little railway station right in the middle of the town centre. In the town itself, entertainment in the 1950s came in two forms: the cinema and the pub. There were three cinemas each providing escape from the drab reality of post war Britain. Cantwell's wife, Debbie, practically lived in them. Three times a week at the local flicks and once a week in Exeter. The pubs came in many shapes and forms. There were the homely snugs and the more up-market lounge bars of the pretentious hotels. They all provided a means of dulling the senses. It came at a high price for many though and not just financial.
To follow this story you need to know about the Exeter and Plymouth Greyhound race tracks and the flapper track at the Halfway. This is where the poor old dodgy dogs were to be found. Not that it was the dogs’ fault that they were dodgy. It was the bloody bastards who were up to the dodgy business.
As for Detective Inspector James Temple. He was aged 35 when this case began and had been demobbed from his regiment for five years, though memories and nightmares of the war still haunted him. He was a large chap, about six feet three and had a mane of unruly blonde hair and deep blue eyes.
Theoretically, he was still married to Barbara and had an eight-year-old daughter called Sally. But he hadn't seen either of them for over a year. Barbara lasted precisely eighteen months in Devon. A Londoner born and as she said, "A Londoner I'll die!" So saying, she packed her bags and, together with Sally, went back to Camberwell to be with her mother and sister.
Did he miss them? Not Barbara, not one bit. She couldn't cook, couldn't sew and spent money like it was water. But he told Cantwell that he missed Sally. He had only met her when she was four. He'd been away in Italy, Sicily, Germany and France - too busy fighting during her first three years. When they first caught sight of each other, she fled behind her grandmother's settee. Not a good start. Still they grew on each other. So, yes he said, he did miss Sally.
That first morning of the investigation, Temple looked out of his office window, the rain was lashing down, he saw Cantwell running across the car park. Running is too extravagant a description of Cantwell's movements. Let's say he moved faster than usual. Since usual was sitting down and drinking coffee.
Anyway, his heavy footsteps soon thumped down the corridor. The door opened and a rather breathless Cantwell came in:
"Think we've had a break, Guv." He wheezed. "A chap called Fudge found this on the beach." He handed Temple a sodden leather wallet. "It's Ellacott's, Guv. His initials 'B C E' are embossed on the outside. Also, there are some business cards. See."
Sure enough, there was a wodge of cards: 'Ellacott's Pharmacy, 27 Rolle Street, Starmouth'.
"There's also a card from Redbourne's Turf Accountants. There isn't any money though." Cantwell sat down heavily on a chair looking pleased with himself.
"This Fudge chap have anything else to say?"
"No, Guv. I reckon he hoped there'd be some money in it. He says he read about Ellacott having gone missing and when he saw the cards, he rang the station."
Temple looked at the wallet: "Did Ellacott chuck it in? Did someone rob him, take the money and throw it away? It raises questions, Cantwell, but gives no answers."
Cantwell's face fell. Like a child, he was easily deflated. Temple thought for a minute then decided what they needed to do: "We're going around to see Mrs Ellacott. Show her the wallet and see how she reacts."
"Are we taking the car, Guv?"
"No, it's not worth it. The walk will do us good."
Temple glanced out of the window. The rain had dwindled to a drizzle. It would soon stop. From the corner of his eye, he could see the look on Cantwell's face. Something inside him made him force the issue. After all, to Temple's mind Cantwell had had it easy so far, he hadn't been in the Army for six bloody years - marching in all weathers. He'd had a little desk job somewhere in Exeter. War effort! Some effort that was Temple's view.
"Drizzle, Cantwell, just drizzle. It'll have stopped before we're halfway up Albion Hill."
Temple route marched Cantwell up the hill. The rain had not, as predicted, stopped. Cantwell swore that it was worse. He looked miserable and kept his hands firmly in his raincoat pockets.
"Little bit of water won't do you any harm, Cantwell. Anyway, aren't you Devonians used to water?"
"That's probably it, Guv. Seen too much bloody rain. You've heard the rhyme 'Come to Starmouth in sunny Devon where it rains 6 days out of 7'. That's why I hate rain."
Cantwell was right, it was raining harder, rivulets of water gushed over the gutter splashing onto the road. Ellacott's flat was halfway up the hill. It was the top floor of a converted Edwardian house. The wooden gate needed a lick of paint as did the front door. The landlord obviously paid little attention to the property.
Cantwell rang the doorbell but there was no response. After more ringing and knocking, Temple was beginning to get impatient. Then Cantwell tugged his sleeve and pointed to the upstairs window. A net curtain rippled slightly, though the window itself was closed.
Temple lifted the letterbox and called out. Still no response.
"Go around the back, see what's going on round there."
"There's no back door, Guv, it's..."
"Just do it!"
Cantwell slouched down the side path which was slippery with moss and lichen. Four stone steps led down to the rear garden. Just as he rounded the edge of the downstairs flat, he saw a man running fast to the far end of the garden. Realising he would never catch him, he hastened instead to the back of the building and looked up. The top bay window was open and a curtain hung limply over the sill caught on the pebble-dash beneath. Then, he trotted to the end of the garden to peer over the fence
Temple heard him calling out for Mrs Ellacott. Then, there was shouting: "Police! Stop!" Temple thought 'What the hell!', and set off to the back garden. When he arrived, he glimpsed Cantwell half over the garden fence.
As soon as he saw Temple, he rushed back: "Guv, I think some bloke's jumped from the upstairs window and run off down the back alley. He was away before I could reach him."
"Well let's stop pussy-footing about and break down the door." Which is exactly what they did. Cantwell's bulky frame sometimes served a purpose!
The flat looked as if a bomb had hit it. Broken crockery littered the kitchen floor, a frying pan had spilled its greasy contents over the green mottled lino. The long corridor leading past a small side room and to the rear reception had paper and books strewn its entire length.
At first, there was no sign of Mrs Brenda Ellacott in the large, bright sitting-room. Only the draught from the open window ruffled yet more papers in disarray on the carpet. A metal lampstand lay on its side; curtains were ripped from their poles.
"My God, Guv, there's been one helluva struggle here. Where is she?"
It was as Cantwell spoke, that Temple caught sight of a red high-heeled shoe poking out from behind the settee. Brenda Ellacott was lying on her back; a trickle of blood came from the back of her head. He reached down and felt her pulse, she was still alive but unconscious. Her face was puffy and red and her left eye was swollen.
"Go to the nearest phone-box.” Temple said, “I think we passed one at the base of the hill. Get an ambulance, then phone the station and get the forensic boys here asap."
To his credit, Cantwell moved fast, without a further word. When the chips were down, he usually did the right thing.
Temple rummaged round the bedroom and found a blanket to cover Mrs Ellacott. She was cold and her shallow breathing and pallor worried him. For what must have been only about twenty minutes but what seemed an eternity, Temple watched her shallow breathing before he heard Cantwell’s heavy steps on the stairs.
"Ambulance is on its way, Guv. Forensics will be here soon. Also, I gave a description of the bloke I saw getting over the fence. Though he's probably long gone by now."
They heard the ambulance before it arrived, the siren blaring. The neighbours would no doubt be out and the tongues wagging. In small town Starmouth, such events caused a stir.
There would be a few more events to get the tongues wagging even faster and not before too long either. The two district nurses from the bottom of the hill came to the front garden and watched as Brenda Ellacott was carried out on a stretcher to the waiting ambulance. They looked knowingly at each other then disappeared off down the hill. When they were alone, Temple told Cantwell to take a good look round.
“What are we looking for, Guv?”
“Before the forensics boys get here, I want to have a shufty. Someone’s been turning the place inside out for something. Hopefully, they were disturbed by our knock at the front door before finding whatever it was.”
Cantwell opened various drawers then closed them: "She's going to have a fit when she sees the place. Last week when I came here to take her statement about her husband having gone missing, the place was neat as a pin. Strange really."
Temple was surprised that he thought it strange and said so. "Well she looked a bit of a fast one, Guv, not a proper housewife."
"Oh really, so in your vast experience of 'fast' women, how did you put Brenda Ellacott into that category?"
"She had peroxided her hair, like those girls in Picture Post. Anyway, just look at her shoes and clothes." He pulled open the large dark oak wardrobe in the bedroom. He indicated several pairs of very high-heeled shoes in shades of red and blue. "Not what you'd call everyday shoes are they, Guv?"
Although, Temple had not yet met Debbie Cantwell, he never imagined she would wear red high-heels. Not even Barbara, with her London flare had so many shoes. So, what made Brenda Ellacott different? Where would she go that Debbie Cantwell wouldn't?
They rummaged through the clothes. These painted the same picture of the woman: elegant costumes, high quality dresses, silk scarves. These were not the run-of-the mill clothes of most Starmouth women. Nor did they fit in with being the wife of a provincial pharmacist.
Temple wondered whether Cantwell's assessment wasn't so foolish after all. What sort of places would Ben and Brenda Ellacott go for her to wear such items?
"How did they afford all this?" Cantwell asked. "He was only a pharmacist, after all. Though I've heard he was quite a gambler too. Bet on the dogs mainly and if he knew Redbourne, I guess there were bets on some pretty dodgy dogs."
"Whoever was rummaging through the flat and beating Mrs Ellacott senseless wasn't after the clothes, that's for sure. Keep looking, Cantwell."
"What for, Guv?"
Sometimes, Temple thought Cantwell's stupidity was so gross that he acted it out just to irritate him. At other times, he knew that his sergeant was just bloody daft.
However, after two hours they were both ready to call it a day. They had gone through every room and every drawer.
"Only the toilet left, Guv. So, we're all done."
"Cantwell, climb on top of the toilet seat and look into the cistern. I'll flush the water and you put your hand in."
Temple watched him climb gingerly onto the wooden toilet seat. He wobbled and grasped the toilet roll holder. Temple pulled the chain and prodded Cantwell to reach into the cistern. He put his hand in for a second then quickly jumped down.
"You didn't search around the edges. Here get out of the way, let me do it. Flush it again."
Temple felt the bottom of the tank first, then the sides. Bingo! The tape was pretty well solidly stuck against the sides of the ceramic cistern. He had to rip it off before the water filled it again. He waved the packet triumphantly at Cantwell.
"Nothing! What's this then?" Temple saw his look of surprise and genuine pleasure.
"Well done, Guv. Your Met training did you proud."
"Nothing to do with Met training, Cantwell. It's called persistence. Anyway, let's see what we've got here."
They went into the kitchen and put the package on the table. The covering was heavily waxed cloth tied with waxed cord. Cutting the cord, Temple discovered yet another wrapping inside the outer one. Inside this, there were two separate small bundles. The smaller one was given to Cantwell. He opened it carefully. It contained two brown glass bottles each full of tablets. The larger package held a wodge of fivers rolled up. They estimated there was about £200 in the roll.
"Go back and phone for a car. These will need to be sent off to the Path Lab.”
"Told you we should have taken the car, Guv."
By the time they got back to the station, the canteen had stopped serving lunch. Two stale cheese sandwiches remained, their hardened edges peeling back. The tea was stewed so strong that the teaspoon could almost stand up in it. Cantwell was dismayed but his hunger was so great he would eat and drink anything.
"I'm going to phone the hospital to find out about Brenda Ellacott's condition.” Temple said. “You take your time. You'll get the almightiest indigestion from the looks of that bread - so eating fast will just make it worse."
The hospital staff were unhelpful and answers to Temple's questions were sparse. Her injuries were not life-threatening; she had not regained consciousness; she could not answer his questions in the foreseeable future. 'Well, thank you, doc.' Temple muttered under his breath, as he put the phone down.
Never one for patience, especially whilst on a case, Temple pondered as to how he could push the investigation further. Remembering the contents of Ellacott's wallet and Redbourne's business cards gave him his next port of call.
Cantwell came into the office just as Temple was leaving: "Where are we off to, Guv?"
"We are not going anywhere. You stay and write up the report on today's events. Wait for a call back from the Path Lab on those pills. I'm going to Redbourne's place to check out Ellacott's dealings with him. I'll see you when I get back."
Cantwell's heart sank, he knew these 'see you when I get back' statements meant he would be late home yet again. Debbie would be livid, they were supposed to be going to the flicks tonight.
Meanwhile, Temple strolled through the town until he came to Redbourne's office. A gilt plaque proclaimed 'Mr R. Redbourne, Turf Accountant' outside a green door complete with brass knocker and letterbox. Without knocking, Temple walked in and climbed the flight of stairs to the first floor. A pretty blonde typist was sitting behind a large oak desk. She straightened her back and smiled.
"Can I help you, sir?" she asked rather too winsomely for Temple’s liking.
"I've come to speak to Mr Redbourne." He flashed his police card at her.
"He's in a meeting."
"No problem, I'm in no hurry." He strolled over to the window.
Loud voices, raised in argument, came suddenly from inside the office. Without further ado, Temple pushed past the reception desk and opened the door. Redbourne, a thickset man with a swarthy complexion, was behind the desk.
Two men were facing him, their hands placed firmly on the shoulders of a third man sitting in front of the desk.
"Trouble, Redbourne?" Temple asked sardonically.
"Who the hell let you in?"
"When there's trouble call a policeman, isn't that what they say? I heard trouble - so I came."
Redbourne nodded to his two men. The tall, leaner one stepped aside. The shorter one released his grip on the seated man's shoulder.
"What do you want?" Redbourne asked.
"From what little I could hear, I thought it was you who was asking the questions of this gentleman. Who is he, by the way?"
"This thieving bastard," he pointed, "goes by the name of Beaver or 'Eager' as his friends call him. But he ain't no friend of mine. He's the first in line to pick up his winnings but the last to pay his debts. He likes his little flutter on the dogs and the gee-gees does our ‘Eager’."
"I'm sure Mr Beaver will be paying his debts in due course, won't you, Mr Beaver?"
The seated man was sweating profusely. His straggly greasy grey hair curled over his jacket collar. He nodded vigorously in response to Temple's question. But it was Redbourne he addressed when he spoke: "You'll get your money, Mr Redbourne. Some of those dogs was dodgy, Mr Redbourne, you know that!" He saw the look on Redbourne's face and stopped jabbering. "I'll give you half your money next week and the rest the week after. God's honour, I will."
"With interest, Beaver." Redbourne leaned forward menacingly, "And you bloody better had!"
"Or what?" Temple asked. "What will you do? Same as you did to Ellacott?" He glanced at ‘Eager’ Beaver. "Get out now, Mr Beaver. Be more sensible in future. Don't punt with sharks, or there'll be blood in the water."
Beaver didn't need to be told twice. He left rapidly, nodding to Temple as he did so. Temple looked at the other two men. The tall, lanky one fitted the description that Cantwell had given of the man who jumped over Ellacott's back fence.
"Aren't you going to introduce me to your friends, Redbourne?"
Redbourne cracked each of his knuckles in turn: "This is Charlie Davey," he nodded towards the shorter, stockier man. "This is Ted Steele. They help me out in the office and on the racetracks. Invaluable they are."
"That's an unusual way to describe your henchmen’s activities. 'Helping you out'." Temple looked at the two men, then directed a question at Steele: "Where were you between 10:30 and 11:30 this morning?"
"He was here in the office." Redbourne responded before Steele had the chance."
"Of course he was! How stupid of me to think he could possibly have been beating up little Mrs Ellacott." Temple nodded to himself then turned towards the door. "I'll be leaving then." As he did, he heard an audible whistle of relief come from Charlie Davey. Temple went back to the desk and banged it hard with his fist. "If I find out differently, Redbourne, you're for the chop, this time. Understand?"
There was no response. Temple leaned forward and seized hold of Redbourne's tie, twisting it round his hand and pulling Redbourne out of his seat.
Ted Steele stepped towards Temple, but Redbourne held up his hand to stop him. "I understand,” he rasped.
Temple pushed him away, turned on his heels and left the office, slamming the door as he did so.
"I'd look for another job, if I were you. It's not too good for your health around here." The young blonde typist, eyes wide with shock, did not respond.