Avery Wells may have known where a lot of bodies were buried, but he lost his memory when somebody blew the side of his head off as he was sitting behind the wheel of his Citroen Picasso on the beach at Weston-super-Mare.
Avery wasn’t universally adored, but the ferocity of his demise puzzled all those who had cause to consider the business. He was a solicitor with a modicum of honesty and a mostly low rent client list. He was 52 years old and had operated out of the same small office for the best part of thirty years. Half a dozen personal brushes with the law during that time hadn’t darkened his horizon or diminished his doggedness. He hadn’t consumed many minutes puzzling over the difference between right and wrong during his lifetime, but he was smart enough to know which way was up.
I had met Avery on a couple of occasions, briefly, and had no relationship with him. So it was surprising when his sister, Alice, knocked on my office door.
“I apologise for calling un-announced,” she began. “I did not make an appointment because I feared you would not see me.”
Alice spoke dialogue without apostrophes. Received pronunciation with no trace of an accent. She was in her mid-40s, around five feet six, attractive in an un-studied, understated way, with light brown hair and dark green eyes. But she wasn’t at ease. She pulled the lapels of her jacket together as if the office was draughty.
“Why would I be so exclusive?” I asked.
“Not that, really,” she said. “But I know that you do not work on open police cases.” She breathed in and out sighed, bit her bottom lip, cleared her throat and looked into my eyes. “This is not just about Avery, it is about my late sister-in-law. She died three weeks ago.”
“Carbon monoxide poisoning. From the central heating boiler. Avery was away from home at the time. He found her body on his return. Eight hours later, the forensic pathologist diagnosed the cause of death. Before Avery became affected, fortunately.”
“And nobody investigated this?”
“Only the heating engineer. He found the leaking part and replaced it.”
“And that was it?”
“More or less. There was no suggestion that anyone had tampered with the boiler.”
“But there is now, since Avery’s death?”
“From me, yes.”
She looked down at her hands, locked together in her lap. As if finding words and sending them across the desk was beyond her capabilities. I waited for her to continue. It took a while.
“Can you look into this?” she asked.
“Both deaths, or just that of your sister-in-law?”
“The latter,” she said. “Might you take up the cudgel, as it were, on her behalf?”
I had little reason not to, as it were, because my bank balance needed a significant re-boot.
“Tell me everything you can,” I said.
“There is not much to tell. Avery was in Newcastle for three days, on business. Margaret was at home alone. When Avery returned, he discovered her dead body in the bedroom.”
Alice went on to describe the life of a mid-range income, middle class, middle aged couple. Avery was 52, Margaret a year younger. She had worked at a dispensing chemist in Bedminster – part time ‘to keep myself busy’ she said.
“Was the trip to Newcastle out of the ordinary?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“How did he collect a client on Tyneside?”
“I do not know’.
And that seemed to be it. I told Alice how much I charged for what I do. She said that £250 per day was acceptable and offered me a couple of days in advance as a retainer. I told her I could offer no guarantees. At worst, I might find out nothing; at best, the news might not be what she wanted to hear.
“I know people who speak very highly of you, Mr Shepherd,” Alice said. “I believe you to be that rare thing these days, a man of honour.”
I looked deep into her eyes. Neither of us blinked. We stood up. I offered her my right hand. She shook it.
* * *
Neil Jacobs was a malignant narcissist. Delighted with himself and his inglorious achievements. Bullying, brutal, callous, calculating, spiteful, remorseless, rancorous, and un-fettered by conscience. Qualities which defined him, at best, as anti-social, at worst, as sadistic or even homicidal. Unacceptable to all those who lead civilised and tolerant lives, he was a man who anticipated opposition and consistently prepared to exact punishment and revenge.
Jacobs was waiting for the lift to arrive when I moved to it after escorting Alice out of the building. He had recently taken one of the three office suites housed on the sixth floor. He nodded at me.
“Jacobs,” I said. We were never likely to be on first name terms.
“I see you’re helping out the lovely Alice Wells. Desperate shame about the death of her brother. I take it that you’re -”
“I shouldn’t take it any way,” I said.
He looked as if he was about to admonish me, when the lift doors sighed and opened. I waved Jacobs ahead of me and stepped into the lift after him.
“I believe you’re a floor below me,” he said.
He pressed five and six on the button panel. The doors sighed again and closed. We were alone in a four by six steel box. The lift shook slightly and began to rise. Neither of us said a word until the doors opened to reveal the fifth floor corridor. Jacobs placed his right thumb on the ‘hold doors’ button.
“I’m hosting a small reception upstairs at 11 o’clock. Light snacks, some champagne. I’d be pleased if you would attend.”
I looked at him, leaving the expression on my face to ask why. He decided to take my silence for considering the invitation, and went on as though he hadn’t noticed.
“We should have met socially long ago. So how about joining us?”
I resisted the temptation to ask who were the ‘us’, then thought ‘what the hell?’, said I’d be happy to and stepped into the corridor. The lift doors sighed behind me.
I wondered how Neil Jacobs knew Alice Wells.