"Who found him?"
"The postman, Guv. It wasn't fully light and he could see there was a light on in the hall, and for no reason he can think of he looked through the bull's eye and saw the body hanging there."
"Well, it's suicide, Sergeant. Yes, definitely. Get it wrapped up and get back to the station, with half the force tied up on this bloody party conference we've no time to piss about with this. It's suicide, plain and simple, there's the note, now let's have no more discussion, get the poor bugger cut down, and get back to work."
And with that D I Peter Belcher nodded to his sergeant and left.
Sergeant Bunn looked around. Probably, he thought, his governor was right. Certainly about the need to get back to work, he wasn't so sure about the suicide.
Mike loved snow, well, to begin with anyway, but after a few hours, he thought, it palls. The roads melt a bit and the slush turns brown, and then it freezes at night and the ruts are all lumpy and difficult to drive on. But that initial couple of hours was wonderful, especially if it had snowed during the night and the sun was shining in the morning. What he particularly liked was when you got that heavy fall of snow, four or six inches maybe, in late April or early May. It didn't happen often, but when it did the snow was there first thing in the morning, and the sun usually shone on it, and by afternoon it was pretty well gone. That's how it happened on this particular May morning.
He was awake early as usual, and once he saw the snow out of the window he got dressed and grabbed his camera, called the dog, and went out to see what he could find. Good photographs was what he had in mind, but what he found was rather different, rather more interesting, infinitely more useful, and made him love snow even more.
Melcombe Abbas was a fascinating village, and he'd had lived there for about eighteen months when the snow arrived. The village consisted of two rows of thatched cottages, each one apparently identical to the others. They ascended a fairly gentle hill in a wide sweeping curve. Each cottage looked just like a child's drawing, a rectangular façade with two windows either side of the front door, and three windows on the first floor all lined up over the door and windows below. Each house had a hipped, thatched roof with two chimneys, one at either end of the ridge. Looking more closely you began to see minor differences, particularly in the way that they had been extended to make more room. Originally, behind each front door was a lobby, with two front doors facing each other, because originally each cottage was semi-detached. Now, many of them were single dwellings, and many just weekend homes. In the centre of one row stood the church, and opposite the block of four almshouses.
But one of the unique things about the village was the way the houses were numbered. The usual way to do this would be even numbers one side of the road, and odd the other, but here standing at the bottom of the hill you started with number one on your left hand side, followed by number two, all the way up to number thirty. And then back down the right hand side, so that number sixty was opposite number one. The alms houses were numbered one to four.
It looked wonderfully picturesque with the sun shining on the snow, a rural idyll.
Underneath that idyllic picture there was something lurking, He thought he had worked out what it was, and the snow confirmed it. All he had to do now was work out what to do about it.
Mike Blanding had first found the village quite by accident, having taken a wrong turning off the main road, but having found it he just had to buy one of the cottages. There was just him and my his dog, a four year old border collie bitch called Mandy, but nevertheless he bought a house that had been converted into one, giving plenty of space for his library and studio. Mike's wife had left him some time before, and although he had had a number of women since they hadn't lasted long. He really didn't much time for women. Oh, good for cleaning, cooking and fucking, but beyond that they very quickly become tiresome, always wanting something, particularly his time. He was quite keen on the fucking bit of course, and his ideal would have been to have someone come in when he wanted that, and then bugger off.
That morning Mike was alone, apart from Mandy, and whilst loving, she wasn't what he was looking for in any other respect. Alone, with no one else about on a Sunday morning. But other people had been about because there were footprints, trails of footprints in the snow leading from one house to another. He went to the top of the street and started down, noting where each trail of footprints came from, and where they went, and whether they were male or female. Mainly male it turned out, although one set going to one of the almshouses was female. Well, well.
Mike jotted all this down in the sketchbook that he always carried just as numbers and an M or F, so that when he got home he would be able to transcribe this onto a plan of the village and add some names. He was now certain he knew what was lurking under the surface. When he had finished he returned home, stirred up the fire, made himself coffee, and sat down to think about how he could turn that knowledge to his advantage.
It was mid morning when Susie Brown called on her best friend Melissa Watts who was in her kitchen. Susie took a seat at the table.
"D'you have good time last night?" she asked her friend.
"God! That Jimmy Coward is insatiable!" Mel replied.
"Mmm, don't I know it. I had him last time. Makes me tingle to think of it. By the way, did you see that guy from number forty two this morning? I had to get up for a pee and he was walking down the street writing in his book. D'you think he knows anything?"
"I shouldn't think so," said Mel placing two cups of coffee on the table and sitting down. "Mike's an artist, they've always got their sketch books with them. Anyway, I'll see him Tuesday afternoon, I'll ask him about it. Discretely, of course"
"Why're you seeing him?" asked Susie.
"I'm modelling for him," said Mel, blushing.
"You never told me! What, in the altogether?" exclaimed Susie.
"Well, yes, it's all perfectly above board, it's just modelling, and the money's good too."
"I don't think I could do that," said Susie. "Not take all my clothes off in front of a total stranger."
"After what you were doing last night? What were you doing anyway? We were one man short because Ben was called away, so who did you end up with?"
It was Susie turn to blush.
"Carol Blake, from the almshouses," she said.
"She must be sixty if she's a day, but they reckon she's a bit of a go-er. Anyway it must have been a bit boring for you."
Susie's blush deepened and she said nothing.
"Oh! I think I see! You didn't really, did you?"
"Well, she didn't beat about the bush, came straight out with it. 'I'm bi' she told me, 'So if you're game to try, I think we could have some fun'"
"And did you?"
"Fan-bloody-tastic! You ought to try!"
The conversation continued until Susie leapt to her feet saying she'd better get back to get lunch going.
Sergeant Bunn told the undertaker's men to cut the body down and remove it whilst he had another look around. The house seemed very neat and tidy, there was the computer with the suicide note on the screen, and in the studio there was a canvas on the easel, but it hadn't been worked on for some time. They had questioned the neighbours and come up with a blank, no one had seen anything that could possibly be describe as out of the ordinary, let alone suspicious. The suicide victim, one Michael Blanding was, it seemed, well liked, but kept himself much to himself.
They had found some more rope in the garage, and it was apparent that Blanding had owned a boat, so that accounted for that. He had decided the governor was probably right. No need to waste any more time. There was no will, but they had found and notified an ex wife who told them that they had a daughter. She hadn't sounded very grief stricken, but that was the way with ex wives he thought. Anyway, that was all tied up.
He took one last look. The body had gone, and the rope was lying neatly on the stairs. He looked at the beam the rope had been tied around, let out a sigh and decided that his governor was probably right, after all, he knew the village much better than Bunn did. Something still niggled at the back of his brain, but there was a mountain of work to do back at the station and contemplating that, and getting home to his new wife, were what occupied his mind on the drive.
Mike went to his computer and switched it on. When it had gone through its starting routine, he started a graphic programme and a new file. On the blank piece of 'paper' he put two rows of thirty small rectangles in pairs, each separated near the centre by a bigger one. So, sixteen pairs of rectangles, a bigger one and then another fourteen pairs, each pair representing a pair of cottages, and then a mirror image. This gave a graphical representation on the village. He labelled one large rectangle 'Church' and divided the opposite one into four to represent the four almshouses. He then numbered each of the houses, one to thirty on one side, and thirty-one to sixty on the other. Then he typed in the names of the occupiers of each house. The problem here was that he didn't know all of them. First thing Monday morning, he thought, a trip to the county library was in order to look at the electoral role.
There was one thing further that he could do, and that was to draw in the lines connecting the relevant numbers, with an arrow to show direction, and an M or F to indicate sex. He sat back and contemplated what he had learned so far.
Shortly after he had first come to the village he had joined in with an event called a 'Rolling Feast'. This was a regular fund raising event. Everyone started off together at seven o'clock in one of the houses, having an aperitif and nibbles. From there, in groups of four to eight, people would go to various houses for starters at seven thirty. Next would be the main course, at eight fifteen, but in different houses and in different groups. And finally pudding would be at another house, with different people, and then everyone ended up at the same house - one that hadn't been used for anything else, and preferably with a good sized extension - for coffee.
Mike had had a hard time following this to start with, everyone had their printed agenda to follow, which was just as well, because by part way through the evening everyone was well under the influence of alcohol, the drink flowing freely. It was suggested that you carry your own, and most did, but all the hosts generously topped this up.
"No, you must try this with the venison," said one host. "I got it specially, and you cannot possibly drink a white with it. And we've got to finish both bottles."
The fund raising part of this was simple. Everyone, including the hosts, bought a ticket. If you hosted a course you also paid for the food. So it was a 'win win' for the organiser, but since the funds went to the church or village activities no one seemed to mind.
Over the months Mike had been to several of these feasts and everyone seemed to join in and enjoy themselves, but Mike had detected a 'clique', a group who had another agenda.
Monday morning saw him in Morchester at the main library. He was able to photocopy the relevant pages of the electoral role which gave him all the information he required.
Melissa stripped off her clothes, and spent a moment appraising her naked body in the cheval mirror. Not bad, she thought. Two kids and thirty two years old and still near enough in perfect condition, perhaps a pound or two too much fat, but nothing untoward, and no bones sticking out. She put on the dressing gown that lay on the bed, and shivered, despite the warmth from the central heating. Summoning a little more resolve, she walked from the little bedroom where she had changed, and into the studio.
Mike was standing behind an easel with a fresh canvas on it. He smiled and indicated the couch where he posed her as he wanted her. He returned to the easel and began to work.
"We'll break in an hour," he told her, "and have a cup of tea. I usually work in silence."
And silence there was for the next hour. At the end of the hour Mike went to make tea, and Mel covered up for a while. She had been contemplating how she would broach the subject of his notes on Sunday morning, but as yet had not come up with what she thought was a suitable angle.
Mike returned with two mugs of tea.
"The snow was a surprise," he said.
"Yes, it was." Now or never, she thought. "You were up early. Did you enjoy your walk?"
Mike smiled. "I'm usually up early. But there were people up earlier than me. Did you enjoy yourself Saturday night?" He stressed the 'night'.
The colour drained from Melissa's face. He knew!
"Um ... yes. We had a bit of a party ... um ... what did you think?"
"I'm quite sure you had a bit of a party, and then you had a bit more of a party didn't you? Except it was a series of parties for two, wasn't it?"
Melissa didn't know what to say.
Mike went on. "In fact I reckon there were just a dozen parties." He paused and went to a side table and picked up a piece of paper which he handed to Melissa.
"Yes, just twelve, and you can see at which houses from that, and who was there. One or two surprises too."
Melissa had to agree with that when she thought about Susie.
"What are you going to do with this," she asked in a whisper.
"That my dear, is up to you. What you are holding is dynamite," Mel nodded, "and if it got out, well, who knows what would happen? I'm sure you can figure that out for yourself, you're a bright girl."
"What do you want? To join our parties?"
"Oh no! I want you separately."
"Why me? I've probably got less to lose that anyone."
"Oh dear! I didn't make myself clear. I meant all of you, you can all come and provide me with what I want. One at a time, of course."
"Just the once?"
"No, no. I think this could go on for as long as I want. You can carry on with your parties, but one of you will come, say twice a week, we'll work out a rota, and give me whatever I want."
"And I suppose you want me to start now?"
"No. I want you to get back into your pose so that I can continue my work. No, I'll expect to hear from you by the end of the week."
"Us? What do you mean, us?"
"All of us, is what I mean. He wants all of us. One at a time. Twice a weekly, was what he said."
Melissa replied to the question from a shocked Penny MacDowell.
"Out of the question."
"I'm certainly not doing that."
"I'll see him in hell first. I'm not giving in to blackmail."
"Hm ... I think that might be rather fun." This last from the oldest member Carol Blake.
The occasion was a meeting in Melissa's house on Thursday afternoon. All the women from the group had gathered to hear what Melissa had to say.
"It's all right for you Carol," said another girl, Wendy Westham. "You don't have a husband or partner so you can do what you like. I've got three children to look after too."
"Yes, and can your husband weather the storm that would break if this got out. His career would be finished, and so would your life style." Replied Carol. "Look at it practically, he is reasonably good looking, not too old, and seems quite clean in his habits. You might even get to like it."
"You're right Carol," said Susie. "Scandal like this would finish us. I'd rather carry on and enjoy ourselves. As you say, it couldn't be too bad."
The discussion went on with most of the ladies having some input, until Melissa turned to a petite, gamine, dark haired girl and said. "Vanessa. We haven't heard anything from you yet. What do you think?"
"Well, at first I thought it was awful, and dreadfully immoral," there were one or two giggles. "Yes," she continued, "but when it comes down to it I don't suppose it is any more immoral than what we already do. So I vote we go with it, it'll work out to be once every six weeks, and we don't have to enjoy it do we?"
There was general agreement.
"Can I have a show of hands please," asked Mel. "It has to be unanimous, or it won't work."
All hands were raised. Mel counted.
"OK ladies, I'll go and see him tomorrow."
"What if he wants to start right away?" asked Kirsty Ellingham, a plump but well proportioned girl.
"What on earth difference does it make? We're all going to take part sooner or later. Sooner and the suspense is over."
Just after two o'clock on Friday afternoon Mel knocked on Mike's door. When he opened it he was on the telephone and waved her inside. He spoke to someone on the other end and then hung up.
"What have you all decided?"
"You don't mess about do you?"
"What's the point? Well?"
"Good, shall we start right away."
A couple of hours later she was sitting at her kitchen table, a contemplative expression on her face when Susie burst in.
"Mmm. Yes thankyou."
"No, how did it go, you know what I mean."
"Very good. Yes, it went very well indeed."
"So he's good?"
"Oh yes. Not as good as some, but better than most. I get the impression that sex is all he wants a woman for. Once he is satisfied then he wants to be alone. But he does make sure that you are satisfied too, so we shouldn't have too many complaints. I'll get a rota drawn up. Almost like doing the church flowers," she giggled.
"I was just thinking that everyone has their own window or whatever to do. I wondered what the equivalent might be."
Mike had had a good afternoon. Melissa turned out to be an enthusiastic partner and her reaction should smooth the way for the rest. This, he thought, was going to be a good arrangement.
He wondered if Mel had drawn up a rota yet. Who would turn up on Monday? Mel would be there to model on Tuesday, Wednesday was free, and then another on Thursday. A delicious feeling of anticipation spread over him.
Monday afternoon at precisely two o'clock Brenda Slocum rang the door bell. Mike opened it to find a cuddly blonde on his doorstep. He invited her in. She seemed rather nervous, but that was only to be expected. She required some coaxing to go upstairs, but once there stripped and got into bed. Mike found her uncommunicative and unenthusiastic too. I will have to have a word with Melissa, he thought, because this isn't good enough. After an hour of not particularly satisfying sex he sent her on her way.
"Mmmmm, that was sooo good," said Susie. "What do you think now?"
"Do I have to think right now?" groaned Melissa in a post orgasmic haze.
After lunching together on Wednesday Mel just seemed to float into Susie's arms and with many kisses they had ended up in Mel's bed.
"You were right though, it is good. I don't think it'll beat a good hard prick, but it is a great way to spend an afternoon."
"How was posing yesterday?" asked Susie.
"Straightforward business arrangement, no hanky panky. He did say, though, that Brenda's performance left a lot to be desired. If the others don't get into the proper spirit then all bets may be off. He wasn't happy."
"Well I see from the rota that Carol is scheduled for Thursday and I am pretty sure he'll get some action there."
"Hmm ... yes, well, you'd know!"
So it went on. After a pep talk from Mel, although she wasn't too sure why she had become the one in charge, all the ladies performed at least adequately, some enthusiastically, some straight vanilla sex and some with a remarkable tutti-frutti variety. But Mike wasn't completely satisfied. He had discovered one girl that he could dominate, and she had a daughter.
It was Vanessa, and Mike demanded that she attend whenever he wanted. But she was ordered not to tell the others. So he still had the full range, visiting twice a week, but also Vanessa whenever he wanted.
"How old is Chantelle?" he asked her one day.
"Bring her next time."
"No. No. I couldn't."
"You will or it'll be the worse for you."
Despite her protests Vanessa brought her daughter. Chantelle was a pretty girl, but far from the worldly wise teen that we often see. She was shy and somewhat introverted, but, with reluctant assistance from her mother Mike took her virginity. The two returned several times after that.
About two months after the first time when Mike had taken Chantelle's virginity Vanessa turned up on his doorstep. He invited her in and she immediately turned on him
"You bastard, Chantelle's pregnant. You told us you were safe, we all understood you'd had a vasectomy."
"No. I never said that. What do you expect to happen if you get screwed you stupid cow? You get pregnant. What about you? Aren't you up the spout yet?" and he laughed. "You silly bitches are all the same."
Vanessa fled in tears.
The ladies met once again in full session. Twelve very angry and upset women decided that something needed to be done.
Gregory Bunn, police detective sergeant, had worked hard and was shortly expecting to be promoted to detective inspector. He had also received a legacy which together with his anticipated salary increase enabled him to look around for a new house in which to settle with his wife Emma, who was expecting their first child. Emma had always loved thatched cottages and she decided that her favourite village was Melcombe Abbas. They couldn't afford one of the double cottages, but a single would be adequate for their needs for the immediate future.
They were lucky to find one, and one that didn't need much doing to it, so they were able to move in quite quickly.
The couple loved the village and found most of the villagers very nice. There were one or two who kept them, particularly Greg, at arm's length, but he put this down to his job, it generally went with the territory. He found his old governor DI Belcher still lived in the village, but they saw little of each other.