A Fatal Lie – Charles Todd

On his sixth birthday, Roddy MacNabb was given a fishing pole by his pa, with promises to teach him how to use it. That was late July 1914, before the Bloody Hun started the war, and his pa had left the village with four of his friends and enlisted. He’d promised to be back before the end of the year, but the war had dragged on, and in 1915, his father had been killed at Bloody Passiondell, wherever that was. The pole, long since put away, was in his granny’s attics, and Roddy had only just found it last week, when he’d gone up there to fetch a box for her. He’d brought it down with him, but his mum had told him to take the Bloody Pole out to the shed and leave it there. “There’s to be no fishing,” she’d told him. “Not while you’re in school.” He’d watched his granny’s mouth tighten at his mother’s words. She didn’t hold with cursing, but Mum had come from Liverpool, and he’d heard his Aunt May say that she’d been no better than she ought to be. Still, his father had somehow fallen in love with her and brought her home, and she’d stayed. He didn’t remember his real mum, she’d died when he was born. But his pa had told him this was his mum now, and he was to call her that. And so he had, because his pa was the best in the village, and he would have done anything to make him happy. On Saturday, with no school and the schoolmaster ill with a chest, Roddy slipped away while his mum was having her usual late breakfast, took the fishing pole from the shed, and went off to the river. The Dee here was within walking distance of the farm, and Roddy found himself thinking about his pa and fishing.

He’d gone with his father a few times and still had a vague memory of what to do with the pole, once the hook was affixed to the line and a worm was put on it. He’d surreptitiously dug some worms out of the kitchen garden last night and put them into a tin. Most had crawled out, but there were still three left. Whistling now, he could glimpse the river shining in the noon sun beyond the line of trees, and he told himself his father would be happy if he could see how tall his son had grown, and only twelve. And off to fish at last. The sun was warm, but under the trees—their bare branches crossing over his head like the bones of wood holding up the church roof—the air was cooler. Or perhaps it was the water—he could hear it and smell it now. He came out onto the bank, stiff with the dried grasses of winter, and stood looking down at the drifting current. Too steep here to fish, he thought, and moved downstream a little, beyond the Telford Aqueduct soaring high above the valley. Everyone knew the Aqueduct, but unlike the Roman ones he’d read about in school, which were intended to carry drinking water, it bridged the wide gap between two cliffs, and made it possible for the narrowboats traveling along the canal up there to float right across from one side to the other.

He’d heard the horses that pulled the narrowboats, the hollow sound their hooves made as they stepped out onto the path that ran beside the trough of water. It echoed, on a quiet day. He’d been afraid the first time he’d heard it, but his pa had told him about the horses, and once had even taken him up there to see the long boats and the ducks too. He barely remembered it now, that trip, but his father had bought him an ice and told him not to tell Mum. Ahead was a lower spot on the bank, and Roddy moved quickly toward it, eager to try out the pole and catch his fish. He didn’t notice what was in the water, not at first. He wasn’t interested in the river, only the pole. After two attempts he got the line on the pole, tied the hook to the end, then pushed the wriggling worm onto the hook. On his first try at casting, he caught the bush behind him, untangled the line finally, and tried again. This time he managed better, and the hook actually sailed out over the water and sank into the sunny depths.

Smiling, he wiggled the pole a little, felt it catch, and burst out laughing. He’d caught a fish, first thing! What would his pa think of that? But when he tried to pull the line in, it wouldn’t come, and as he pulled harder, he saw something move in the water, just below the surface. From where he stood, it appeared to be a rock or even a tangle of roots. Whatever it was, it bobbed a little as he went on pulling, harder now, desperate to save his only hook, then it suddenly came free from whatever was holding it down. And as it did, a face rose slowly out of the water. A face unlike any other he’d ever seen, white and torn and no longer human. Like something the water had taken and hadn’t ever wanted to give back. The lump of whatever was attached to it rolled a little again, making the head move as well, and for an instant Roddy thought it was coming directly out of the water at him. He screamed as he dropped the pole and ran. But no one on the narrowboat crossing high above his head heard him.

2 Chief Superintendent Markham was in a fine mood. He had been congratulated twice on the successful conclusion of a rather nasty murder inquiry in Norfolk—once by the Home Office, and again in an article in the Times. Inspector Carlton had brought in the killer, covering himself with glory as well as the Yard, and he was currently basking in the Chief Superintendent’s smile. Inspector Rutledge, on the other hand, was still in his office, buried in paperwork. His last inquiry had stirred up a mare’s nest, and Markham was apparently still smarting from that, because he’d seen to it for several weeks that Rutledge wasn’t given a new assignment. Rutledge had not complained—much to Markham’s annoyance, according to Sergeant Gibson. When the Chief Constable in a northern Welsh county asked the Yard to take charge of an inquiry into the death of a man found in the River Dee, Markham summoned Rutledge to his office, brusquely told him what was required of him, and said, “Sergeant Gibson will see that someone takes over the reports you were reviewing.” He passed the file across the desk, nodded, and began to read another report already open on the green blotter. The air was chill with Markham’s dislike. Rutledge extricated himself from the office as smoothly as he could, collected what he needed from his own room, and informed Sergeant Gibson of the status of the reports on his desk.

Gibson grimaced. “Does this mean you’re back in his lordship’s good graces?” “I doubt it. Northern Wales is rather like being sent to Coventry—out of sight and out of mind.” Gibson nodded. “There’s that.” It was a Monday morning, overcast, cold. As he walked out of the Yard to his motorcar, Rutledge could smell the Thames, fetid with the receding tide. At his flat, he packed a valise, left a note for the daily, and then headed west through dreary outskirts and a succession of small towns before he reached open countryside. By that time he was no longer able to ignore the voice coming from the rear seat. It wasn’t there, that voice.

He knew it as clearly as he could see the ruts in the road unwinding ahead of the motorcar’s bonnet. Corporal Hamish MacLeod was buried in the black mud of Flanders, and Rutledge had once stood by that grave and contemplated his own mortality. It was the manner of Hamish’s death that haunted him, and the guilt of that had turned into denial. By the end of the war he had brought Hamish home to England in the only way possible, knowing he was dead, but unable to free himself of the voice that had stayed with him in the trenches from the Battle of the Somme to the Armistice. It had followed him relentlessly, sometimes bitter, sometimes angry, and sometimes, for a mercy, even bearable. But always there. And with it, the memories of the war. What he, Rutledge, feared above all was one day seeing the owner of the voice—and knowing beyond doubt that he had finally run mad. The only answer to that was the service revolver locked in the chest under his bed at the flat. For it was he who had delivered the coup de grace that silenced Hamish forever.

Military necessity. But even as Hamish had broken during the Somme, he himself had been on the ragged edge of shell shock. England had needed every man that July. No one walked back to the forward aid station and asked for relief from the horror. They withstood it as best they could, week after unbearable week, and hoped for death when the agony was too much. Hamish was saying, “Ye ken, the Yard doubts ye. Else, they’d no’ send ye to Wales for a drowning.” Rutledge didn’t answer. “Aye, ye can try to ignore the signs. But ye’ve seen them for yersel’.

” Hamish was trying to goad him into a quarrel, but it was only a reflection of his own troubled mind. Setting his teeth, he concentrated on the road ahead. There was nothing Hamish could say that he hadn’t heard before, or thought, or dreamed of at night. Tried to ignore—but could never put completely out of his mind. It was there, had been since the trenches. A constant reminder of the war and what he’d done on that bloody nightmare of the Somme. Seemingly as real as if the living Hamish MacLeod traveled with him. Rutledge could feel that presence growing stronger as he made his way into the Cotswolds. Waiting for him as it always did at the end of a long day. He had wanted to drive another twenty or so miles, but as he found himself in a village of butter-yellow stone reflecting the last of the evening light, he knew that it wasn’t possible.

There was a small, charming inn near the village center—as good a place as any to face the night. He ate his dinner in a dining room that was only half full. The food was good, the whisky with his tea even better, and he found himself relaxing for the first time in a very long while. Hoping it would last and he would sleep after all. A woman across the room laughed. His back was to her, he couldn’t see her face, but the laugh was rather like Kate’s when she was truly amused. His whisky glass halfway to his lips, he paused, caught off guard. But Kate was in London . Setting his glass down, unfinished, he went up to the small room where Hamish was waiting in the shadows for him. It was a long night.

He’d been having nightmares more frequently of late, Hamish drawing him back into the war, filling him with guilt and despair and a longing for peace that always left him drained in the first light of dawn. As if in the blackness surrounding him the past came back more easily, slipping through the darkness in the room and in him until he couldn’t hold it back any longer. His last thought as the nightmare took its firm grip on his mind was, How could I ever do this to Kate? How could I ever let her see this part of me? Rutledge arrived at his destination, Cwmafon, on a Wednesday afternoon of soaking rain and lowering clouds that turned everything gray and dismal. Much like his own mood. In spite of a good sense of direction, as he’d driven deeper into northern Wales, he’d struggled with place-names he couldn’t pronounce and others that weren’t even on the English map he’d brought with him. He finally found the country lane that followed the River Dee into the village he was after, saw the tiny police station next to a general store, and splashed through the puddles to the door. The Constable behind the desk looked up as the door opened and a wet stranger stepped in. “Good afternoon, sir. Constable Holcomb. How may I be of service?” He rose to meet the newcomer.

“Inspector Rutledge, Scotland Yard,” he replied as he took off his hat and glanced down ruefully at the circle of rainwater expanding on the mat under his feet. Holcomb smiled. “You made good time, sir. Never mind the rain. It’s gone on for three days, but we are hoping for a bit of sun by tomorrow.” There was a soft Welsh lilt to his voice, but he was a fair man, broad-shouldered and stocky in build. “That’s good news.” Gesturing to the chair across from him, Holcomb sat down again. “Sorry to say, there’s no good news about the body the boy found. We haven’t identified him yet.

Dr. Evans says he’d been in the river a few days, which hasn’t helped. And from the look of him, we think he must have fallen from the Aqueduct. There was a lot of damage internally, consistent with such a fall. It’s a long way.” He’d seen the Aqueduct. A towering array of arches with the top only a faint outline in the low clouds. “That puts his death around Thursday of last week.” “Yes, sir. I’ve made inquiries,” the Constable went on.

“But no one is missing from up there. No narrowboat owner or passenger, no visitor to the site. No stranger wandering about. You can walk across the Aqueduct, along the horse path. Easy to lose one’s balance, looking down. If he fell at night, there might not have been anyone to see him start out—or go over.” “And no one missing down here?” “Nor here,” Holcomb agreed. “Then we’ve not got much to be going on with.” The Constable sighed. “Sadly so, I’m afraid.

” Frowning, he added, “There was another case very like this one, three years ago. A body found on Mount Snowdon, spotted in a hollow by a sharp-eyed young woman on the cog railway to the summit. The little train hadn’t run for several days—weather coming down—or likely he’d have been found earlier. A hiker, judging from his clothing, presumably caught in the storm. Took two months to prove it was a suicide. The Chief Constable has a long memory, sir. He’d like to see this inquiry concluded sooner rather than later.” Rutledge smiled grimly, thinking that the Chief Constable and Chief Superintendent Markham had much in common. He asked, “Any reason to believe our body was a suicide?” “Not yet, sir. For one thing, he wasn’t dressed for hiking.

Nor did he appear to be down on his luck, as far as we can tell. But then you never know, do you, sir?” Holcomb rose. “A cuppa tea wouldn’t go amiss just now, sir, given the day?” “Thank you, Constable.” Although the room was warm enough as it was, almost too warm. Holcomb moved the kettle on a shelf above the small stove to its top, then poured in water from a jug sitting on the floor. As he busied himself with the cups and saucers, he added, “Roddy MacNabb is a good lad. The one who found the man in the river. Gave him a nasty shock, that did. He’d taken out a fishing pole, hoping to give it a try, and found a corpse instead. His gran sent for Dr.

Evans, who had to give the lad something to calm him down a bit before they’d even got round to what he’d seen. Roddy was convinced the body was coming up out of the water after him. Which of course it never did. Dr. Evans discovered later that the hook from the pole had caught in the man’s clothes, and as the lad pulled at what he thought was a fish, the body moved.” “How is the boy now?” “Well enough. His gran wouldn’t let him go to school. The other lads would have swarmed him, asking questions, which would bring it all back again.” The kettle whistled and he set about making the tea. Bringing Rutledge a cup and then taking his own back to the desk, he sat down again.

“There is one other thing. Roddy’s stepmother. She’s not from around here. MacNabb met her in Liverpool or some such before the war, brought her home, and married her. Against all advice. Still, he was a good man. Killed in the war. I wasn’t all that surprised when Mrs. MacNabb wondered if the dead man might have something to do with her daughter-in-law.” Surprised, Rutledge said, “And does he, do you think?” Holcomb frowned.

“Begging your pardon, sir, but I don’t believe the dead man is her sort. There have been a few rumors over the years about Rosie MacNabb, none proved. She has a taste for trouble, you might say. Usually the sort that comes in trousers. But she’s been careful never to push her mother-in-law far enough to send her packing. The feeling is that there was nothing much in Liverpool to draw her back. She’d as soon stay.” “Then why is this man not her sort?” “He was short, sir. Just a bit over five feet.” He considered the man across from him.

“Rosie prefers them tall.”

.

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