John Hinkley knocked twice on the door of the cottage at the end of the row, and took one step back. It was a slightly larger cottage than the rest, and on the white wall next to the door was a small sign in good lettering which announced “Station Commander” and underneath on another line it read “Lt. John Brunton R.N.”
The door was opened by a slim, middle-aged woman. Like Mary she wore a long crinoline dress and had her light brown hair tied back. “Hello, John,” she said with a smile.
John nodded and returned her smile. “Good morning, Mrs Brunton.”
“Come in, come in,” she said, opening the door wider and standing aside. John stepped over the threshold into the front room and saw the Lieutenant standing before a wall mirror with a cut-throat razor in his hand. He was in a loose white shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his forearms, navy braces with red piping at the edges, and gold clasps gripped his dark blue serge trousers. His face was half covered in soapy foam, and an enamel bowl of water was placed on a table next to him. John waited to be addressed.
“Morning, John,” said the Lieutenant.
“Good morning, Sir.”
“I heard about your body,” the Lieutenant said, lifting his chin to tighten his face as he carved a swathe through the foam with the razor, careful not to catch the shape of his moustache. He waggled the razor in the bowl to wash off the soap. “Fell in the ditch drunk and drowned himself, so I hear.”
“That’s what it looks like, Sir. We’ve put the body in the storeroom for now, but it can’t stay there long. Not at this time of year.”
“No John, it certainly can’t.” The Lieutenant drew another furrow through the soap with his razor. “You’ll want to find out who it might be and have it claimed and taken away.”
“I’ll ask around,” said John. “The thing is…..”
“We don’t want any delay. No need to involve the Constable, John. Have someone claim it and take it away and get rid of it.” The Lieutenant paused. “If it’s not claimed, I’m sure you can dispose of it. Take it out in one of the boats.”
“Yes, Sir. The thing is… Well, I’m no expert but I think the neck is broken.”
Brunton stopped in mid shave. “Neck broken?” He studied the matter for a moment while John stood and waited. He took a towel from the table and wiped his face. Then he put the towel back down and faced John. “That could have happened when he fell. If he was so drunk he couldn’t stand up, stumbling about and crashing into the ditch, that could easily have done it.”
John nodded. “Yes, I suppose it could. Maybe we should get the doctor down from Alnwick to look at him.”
Brunton shook his head. “No, John, see what you can do to find out who it is, then get rid of it. I don’t like this sort of thing around here. Dead bodies we can’t account for are liable to attract the attention of the Inspectors. Not what we want, is it, John?”
“No Sir.” The Coastguard Inspectors travelled around making a nuisance of themselves from time to time on the pretext of ensuring good order, but they pursued their Admiralty status with an irritating vigour and the Lieutenant was always anxious to avoid their attention and an unwelcome report. “I’ll make some enquiries this morning.”
“Good man. You were out last night. What about tonight’s patrol? You’ll need to get some rest.”
“I can let young Will or Arthur off this afternoon. They can take the patrol tonight. There’s not much to do in this weather and we’ve had no information. Being out there with our lights on is enough. And they could do with the experience.”
“Whatever you think, John. I’m due up in Alnwick this afternoon.”
“Yes, Sir.” John turned and stepped back out through the front door into the white light of the morning sun and walked a few yards down the track to the guardroom.
Both Will and Henry were sitting at a big, wooden table. John slumped into a chair opposite them, leaned back and stretched his legs out. They sat in silence for a moment or two, then Will said “What are we going to do, Mr Hinkley?”
John let out a long sigh and clasped his hands behind his head and stretched his back.
“You’ve got to be well drunk to fall in a ditch,” said Henry. “And,” he continued, “not to get out again.” Will nodded sagely.
John brought his hands from behind his head onto the table in front of him. “He might have hurt himself when he fell. Maybe that’s why he didn’t get out. The Lieutenant seems to think so.”
Henry shrugged. “More likely just too drunk. You saw the brandy bottle, nearly all finished. He’d have been falling over his own feet even if that’s all he’d had .”
John eased himself up straight in his chair. “Possibly Henry.” He leaned forward over the table. “I want you to get yourself down to Boulmer and fetch Mr. Watson here.”
“Boulmer?” Henry said. “It’s miles.”
“A couple of hours, maybe less. Take a decent horse. Take the coast path through Craster. You’ll be back by this afternoon. They’ll feed you at Boulmer station if you ask nicely.”
Henry made a face. “Now?”
“Yes, Henry. Now. Just tell Mr. Watson I need to see him today. Tell him what we found, that’ll bring him. Come to me as soon as you get back with him, then you can get some rest. I want you to take the boat tonight. Now, off you go.”
Henry left with a bit of a stomp in his stride, leaving John and Will sitting at the table facing each other. After a while Will shuffled in his chair. “What do you want Mr. Watson for?”
“He might be able to help us,” John said. “But now I think we should go and have a word with young George Miller.”
Will made a face. “George down the hill? Old Horace’s son? The fishermen? Why?”
“Horace is not old,” John said, slightly tersely. “He’s the same age as me.”
“Sorry, Mr Hinkley. But what for?”
“Well, whoever was walking that path last night and found the body probably wasn’t a lady, was it?”
Will gave a snort of amusement. “Hardly.”
“So, a gentleman, then.”
“Maybe,” said Will. “Maybe it was the gentlemen who pushed him into the ditch. Maybe there were two of them and they got to fighting over the last of the brandy.”
“If that was it then he wouldn’t be the one to report it, would he? He wouldn’t leave him for dead in a ditch and them come and leave us a note about it, do you think?”
“No, I suppose not.”
“So, whoever left the note wasn’t walking with him, not as a companion. Nor did he put him in the ditch. He was walking on the path on his own and came upon him. Yes?”
“I suppose so, Mr Hinkley, but it could have been anyone. Why do you want to see George Miller?”
“The path runs across the edge of the common from the fishermen’s cottages to the High Village.” Will nodded. “So the person who wrote the note was walking either up or down, towards the High Village or down to the cottages.”
“Yes, could have been either.”
“I don’t think so. Where we found the body the earth was all scuffed up with footmarks.” Will nodded again. “But beyond that point, towards the High Village, there was only one set of footprints, and they were walking towards the cottages, coming towards us.”
“I didn’t see those,” said Will.
“No, well you had your mind on other things. But I saw them. One set of footprints approached from the direction of the High Village. So whoever found the body was coming down this way. And so it must have been someone who lives here.” John opened his hands palms upwards on the table top. “Why else would they be on the path at that time of night. Coming home, probably from the inn. And the dead man hadn’t walked down from the High Village either, or there would have been his footprints too.”
“Unless the footprints coming from the High Village were the dead man’s, and whoever found him came the other way.”
John shook his head. “I don’t think so. I don’t know how he got there but he didn’t walk there from the High Village. Whoever left the note was not walking with him, nor did he put him in the ditch, dead already or not, and he was walking down this way to the cottages.
“I suppose so,” said Will with a furrow in his brow. “But why George? There must be three dozen folks or more down there. Is it just because he drinks at the inn?”
“George Miller had a schooling, Will, like you.” John paused. “Well, a sort of basic schooling you might say. He’s the only one whose father had any ambition for him, not that it’s come to much.” Will still had a blank look on his face. “Young George can read," said John.” He held up the tattered yellow note between his thumb and forefinger and raised his eyebrows. “And he can write.”