“The Body in the Dunes”
by Caroline Benton
EQMM January 2010

I always wondered what it would be like to find a body. Whenever I was out walking the dog, up on the wild cliff-top path or in the endless expanse of dunes, sooner or later the thought would pop into my head: Suppose Alice suddenly rushes ahead barking, and when I go to see what the fuss is about I find human remains?
Not that I wanted to find one—I was just aware it could happen. You hear about it on the news, dog walkers and ramblers stumbling over bodies in isolated places, and it doesn’t get much more isolated than it is around here. Oh, not in summer, in summer it’s heaving, but in winter, when the tourists and second-homers are gone, it’s a virtual wasteland. I could think of a dozen places to dump a body where it might not be found for months—if at all.
My husband thought I was crazy, of course. “Oh, give it a rest!” he complained, one of the few times he accompanied me. “When was the last time a body was found around here?”
“Nineteen sixty-three,” I told him. “A woman’s battered body was found in the dunes.”
“Trust you to know that,” he muttered. “Anyway, that’s nearly fifty years ago. You’ve about as much chance of finding a body as you have of winning the lottery.”
He was probably right, though that didn’t stop me thinking about it.
“Trouble with you, you watch too much television,” he would say, and he was possibly right about that, too. Dalziel and Pascoe, Wire in the Blood, Inspector Lynley—you name it, I watch it. And Crimewatch, of course—mustn’t forget the real stuff. “Bet you wished you lived there!” he once sneered when I was glued to Midsomer Murders. “You’d be tripping over corpses every time you went out.”
With any luck, yours, I thought, though I didn’t dare say it. He wouldn’t have seen the funny side, and his temper was fearful when aroused.
But I wasn’t joking, not entirely. Our marriage had long been one of convenience only. I did all the washing, cleaning, and cooking, while Derek . . . well, let’s just say he found his pleasure elsewhere. His current dalliance was Donna, a leggy blond secretary twenty years his junior, the latest in a string of leggy blond women stretching back ten years. Possibly longer, but it was ten years since I first became suspicious.
Needless to say, Derek denied everything. He accused me of being neurotic, over-possessive, unnaturally suspicious, and a host of other things I prefer not to repeat. And sometimes it became more personal. “Would you blame me if I did?” he would yell. “Just look at yourself! What happened to the attractive woman I married?”
“She got older!” I would say. “Just as you have.”
“Yeah, well at least I’ve made an effort and looked after myself.”
Which was true—he had. He was still a dauntingly handsome man. Though it had come at a price. Oh, he liked nice things, did Derek—designer clothes, expensive cars, gold-card membership at the gym. . . . It was no wonder there was never anything left in the bank.
But it was unfair to imply I’d let myself go. My hair was nicely trimmed (the few white ones hidden by a blond rinse), and if I wasn’t quite as slim as when we met, I was by no means fat; the dog-walking saw to that. And I would have bought pretty clothes if I had anywhere to wear them.
In the early days, of course, I had no proof. He was far too careful covering his tracks. But as time went on he became more careless, and occasionally, when doing his washing, I’d notice a smear of makeup on a shirt or get a waft of alien perfume. (I could often tell when he changed models by the sudden change of scent.) But by then I’d given up confronting him. Instead I kept notes (sometimes names, often just perfumes), and my diaries were full of  cryptic entries, things like, Eternity (Ha!) July–Nov 2003. The motel receipt I found in his jacket pocket I stored carefully away in a box.
Over the years I built up quite a collection. Nothing that would stand up in court, perhaps, though I hoped it would make him think twice about asking for a divorce.
Oh, I thought about leaving, of course I did. But then I would think, Why should I? I wasn’t the one who was playing around. Besides, property in the area had gone through the roof and I knew if I left I would have to move elsewhere. So I decided to stay and make the most of what I had—my house and garden, walks with Alice, the television and books for escape. And, of course, my job, something else I would be forced to give up if I moved away.
Not that it’s anything glamorous. I look after other people’s holiday cottages—keeping an eye on them in winter, turning on heating and hot water before the owners arrive, buying in provisions, and cleaning before and after their stay. But it’s not demanding work (I’ve never minded housework), and I enjoy meeting the people when they come down. Also I can choose my own hours—except when the owners decide on a last-minute visit, as the Ricardos did in February last year.
“They’re forecasting a good weekend,” Mrs. Ricardo said when she phoned on the Friday lunchtime. “So we’re leaving after work and should arrive about ten. Think you can do the honours before then?”
“I’ll go straight round now,” I told her. “Get some heat into the place. Is there anything you’d like me to buy in?”
Milk and fresh bread, she said, the rest they’d bring with them, so I stopped off at the shops on my way there.
A few of my properties are within walking distance, but not the Ricardos’. It’s a couple of miles as the crow flies nearer the mouth of the estuary, but it’s at least six miles by road. Not far from the Sandybanks Motel, as it happens, whose receipt still lay in the box in my wardrobe. You could see part of it beyond the mud flats from the Ricardos’ bedroom window.
The cottage was like an icebox when I let myself in, but a couple of blow-heaters going full blast soon removed the chill. I switched on the wall heaters, turned on the hot water and fridge, and started on the cleaning. There wasn’t much to do, it was much as I had left it after their last visit, and within half an hour everything was spick and span, so I left my usual note saying have a good stay and let myself out again.
The Ricardos had been right about the weather. It was a glorious afternoon, pale winter sunshine shining from a clear blue sky, and the air was crystal clear. Perfect for bird-watching.
It was Mr. Ricardo who was keen on birds. Actually, he was a fanatic. His special interest was shorebirds, which is why they’d bought the cottage. “Does your husband like birds?” he asked the first time I met him. “Not particularly,” I said—at least not the kind he meant. But it made me think about how little I knew myself, and next day I rooted out an ancient pair of binoculars and started taking them on my walks.
When Mr. Ricardo found out what I was doing, he gave me a booklet, with pictures of all the birds I might see—things I’d never heard of, like greenshanks, and knots, and bar-tailed godwits. To this day I still can’t identify most of them, so many look alike, but I do enjoy watching them skimming over the water and poking around in the mud. I even bought a camera with a telephoto lens, and over the months managed some quite respectable shots. My photo of an avocet, Mr. Ricardo said, was worthy of a magazine.
Anyway, that’s how I came to be walking in that part of the dunes after finishing at the cottage, wrapped in my woolly hat and duffel coat, binoculars and camera strung round my neck.
I was on my way back, watching a flock of lapwings through the binoculars, when they suddenly took off and soared overhead. For a moment I lost sight of them and, panning around, I found myself staring straight at the motel. The car park was almost empty but at that moment a red car pulled in, and it flashed through my mind that it looked like Derek’s. Then the driver climbed out and I caught my breath.
He was too far away to see any detail, but I felt sure it was Derek—something about the shape and the way he moved. Even more so when the door of another car opened and a blond woman climbed out. The couple embraced for a moment then, arms entwined, headed towards the entrance.
My heart was racing. Was it my husband? All these years, I thought, and he still has the power to hurt. But within seconds the sadness turned to anger, and before I knew it I was hurrying back to my car.
I made it to the motel within half an hour and parked out of sight in a side lane. The dunes ran almost to the car park so it was easy to find a good vantage point, lying on the sand behind a clump of grass. During the journey I’d managed to calm down, and I felt more like a private eye than a vengeful wife as I adjusted the telephoto. I prayed they would come out before darkness fell.
When the sun disappeared I thought luck was against me, but a moment later the doors opened and the couple emerged. It was Derek, his arm around the woman I now know as Donna, and by the time they climbed into their respective cars I had a dozen compromising shots.
#
The photos came out perfectly—which was just as well, because a few weeks later Derek walked out. Donna had left her husband, he told me, and they would be temporarily renting a flat until we could sell the house.
“What house?” I asked.
“This one, of course,” he snapped. “You don’t think you’ll be staying on here, do you?”
Actually I did—and so did my solicitor when he saw my collection.
Derek went mental when he discovered what I’d been doing. He always had a foul temper and now I was seeing it full force. On the solicitor’s advice, I changed the locks, but he still kept coming round, standing outside and yelling abuse. When he turned up one night and kicked the door in I phoned the police, and the following day my solicitor applied for a restraining order.
A couple of days later there was a knock on my door. Not again, I thought. But it wasn’t Derek. It was a man I’d never seem before—mid thirties, average build, fair hair already receding. He introduced himself as Donna’s husband.
He was clearly distraught, so I invited him in, and he immediately began to speculate on ways to retrieve our partners.
“What makes you think I want mine back?” I asked bluntly, and his face fell. He knew straightaway there was no point hanging around.
“They’re talking of moving to London,” he said gloomily as I saw him back out.
“They can go to the moon, for all I care,” I said, and closed the door.
Afterwards I wondered if I’d been a little harsh . . . but at least I’d been honest. What was the point in giving him false hope?
#
We never went to court. The solicitors reached an agreement whereby I kept the house in lieu of maintenance, but as I neither wanted nor expected any, that was fine by me. All I wanted was Derek out of my life. And my decree nisi, of course. I couldn’t understand why it was taking so long.
I worried at first how I would cope without him, but financially I’ve managed extremely well. I took on a few more holiday homes to supplement my income. People are desperate for someone reliable to look after their second homes.
Other than that, life carried on as normal. I continued to watch crime dramas on television, sometimes watched birds on the estuary, and daily went on long walks with Alice, occasionally on the cliff path but mostly on the beach or dunes. Still on the alert in case I found a body, though I never really expected to find one.
But then, one bitterly cold Saturday in January, I did. And it was nothing like I’d imagined.
I’m not sure what I’d expected a body to look like. Dead, I suppose. Possibly decomposed. Certainly unpleasant. But the man in the leather jacket looked as if he was asleep. He was lying on his side, legs bent, one arm across his chest, the other thrown out to the side, and I might have been tempted to shake him had it not been for the weather. No one could survive such temperatures in so few clothes.
But it wasn’t his appearance that caused the greatest shock. Not once, in all the years, had I expected to recognise the victim. But I recognised this man—it was Donna’s husband.
#
I almost hadn’t gone for a walk that morning. It had been blowing a gale during the night, with temperatures well below freezing, and although the wind was lighter, it was still icy cold. But Alice kept scratching at the door and whining, and eventually I put on my warmest coat and set off.
We started off on the beach, but what wind there was still cut like a knife, and after a while I gave up and sought shelter in the dunes.
Alice loves days like that and was rushing around like a mad thing, but after we’d been walking for about half an hour she stopped abruptly on top of a ridge, sniffed the air, and took off down the other side.
I thought nothing of it and carried on, assuming she would come back when she was ready. But when she hadn’t appeared after several minutes I became worried and set off in pursuit.
I found her, tail wagging furiously, pawing at something behind a dune. Probably the remains of someone’s picnic, I thought, left over from summer—or a dead seabird, in which case I would drag her away quickly before she rolled in it and I had to bathe her when we got home. And then I saw the arm.
Yet even then I didn’t twig. After a lifetime of anticipating finding a body, when I finally found one I assumed it was a log. It wasn’t until I moved closer that I realised the log was made of leather, and the pale bit at the end was a hand.
I grabbed Alice’s collar and dragged her away, then returned to look more closely, and almost had a heart attack when I realised who it was. But what on earth had Donna’s husband been doing in the dunes?
He wasn’t dressed for walking, that was for sure. Beneath the leather jacket I could see a blue shirt and thin woollen jersey; on his lower half, fawn trousers and everyday tan leather shoes. I looked around for footprints, to see which way he might have come, but all I could see were mine and Alice’s. Any earlier ones had been obliterated by the previous night’s wind.
It was then I noticed the empty whisky bottle poking from under his jacket. Was that why he had come, to get drunk?
Slowly the likely truth dawned on me. He had come there to end his own life. He had chosen a place where he knew he wouldn’t be disturbed, and drunk himself into a stupor, knowing he wouldn’t wake up. Life without Donna must have been more than he could bear.
“Poor man,” I murmured, realising I didn’t even know his name. My dear husband had a lot to answer for.
I moved away from the body and groped in my pocket for my mobile, only to discover I’d left it at home. I would have to wait till I got back to call the police.
#
I arrived to find a strange car parked outside, but as I approached, Derek climbed out. He looked terrible, with dark shadows under his eyes, as if he hadn’t slept. Someone was in the passenger seat, though I couldn’t see who.
“What do you want?” I asked.
“My things,” he said sharply. “I’ve still got stuff here, in case you haven’t noticed. Stuff I hadn’t collected when you changed the locks.”
“They’re not here,” I said.
“No?” He turned towards the house.
“You’ve no longer any rights here,” I cried, coming between him and the door. “We reached an agreement, remember?”
“Oh, I remember. Thanks to that nerd of a local solicitor. Well, I’ve a different one now, a City one, and she’s advised me to go to court. With no children to provide a home for, she’s little doubt I can force a sale. Especially as I was the major breadwinner—”
“Get out!” I screamed. “Get away from here or I’ll call the police.”
“Not until I have my things!”
“They’re not here!” I cried. “I took everything of yours to the charity shop.”
His face turned thunderous. “There were three Ralph Lauren shirts in there!”
“Well, I hope they got a good price for them!”
I thought for a moment that he was going to hit me, but finally he swung round and marched back to the car. “And there’s me thinking I’d be lenient and let you have half,” he yelled over his shoulder. “Well, not anymore! I suggest you get some boxes next time you’re at the supermarket. You’ll need them for packing!”
I turned my back and struggled to unlock the door, but I was shaking too much to fit the key in the lock. Finally I managed it and slammed the door behind me, and leaned back against it until I heard them screech away. My heart was pounding: His anger seemed out of all proportion to what I’d done. For years he’d made my life a misery, and now he was worried about three pathetic shirts!
I went to the lounge and poured myself a brandy, his cruel words echoing in my head. No kids to provide a home for . . . well, whose fault was that? He was the one who never wanted children. Oh, he’d never come right out and said it, not in so many words; it just never happened to be the right time. “When we get a place of our own,” was his excuse when we were in the rented flat, and when we bought one, “Let’s wait till we get a house and garden.” But when we got the house he claimed the mortgage payments were too high and we couldn’t afford a family until he got promotion. And by the time he did . . .
I shivered. By the time he did he was having an affair (Opium, June 98–March 99), and it was I who shunned having children. I didn’t want to bring a baby into an unstable home.
Gulping back the brandy, it crossed my mind, I wonder if Donna wants children?
And suddenly I remembered the body. How could I have forgotten something so monumentally important?
As I dashed to the phone I wondered, Does Donna know her husband’s dead?
But of course she didn’t know! How could she? Nobody knew he was dead except me. . . .
And that’s when the idea came to me—an idea so fiendish it almost took my breath away. I had it in my power to set Derek up. With barely any effort on my part, I could make the suicide look like murder—and Derek the main suspect.
I felt myself shiver. Oh, it was fiendish all right. I knew the ruse wouldn’t last long, they’d soon discover Donna’s husband had taken his own life, but it might make Derek squirm for a few days. And why shouldn’t he, after all he’d done?
I ran through the plan again, searching for flaws. Surely it couldn’t be that easy . . .
But it was—frighteningly easy. It was all but foolproof provided I kept my head . . .
Minutes later, I was on my knees in the kitchen, dragging my cleaning kit from under the sink. I took a new pair of rubber gloves from the packet (the thin white kind they say surgeons use), pulled them on, and ran upstairs to the bedroom.
I hadn’t been lying about getting rid of Derek’s things. I’d got rid of every item bar one—the box in the bedroom where he’d thrown his loose change and any other odd bits and pieces he hadn’t known what to do with, or was too lazy to throw away. It was the one thing I’d never got round to sorting.
I found it in the back of a drawer and began to poke through. In it I found cufflinks (when had Derek last worn cufflinks?), old petrol receipts, a screwdriver, a half-used tube of insect repellent, a packet of mints . . . and the thing I’d been looking for, Derek’s expired credit card. I remembered him cutting it in half shortly before he left.
Taking care to hold them by the edges, I picked up the halves and carried them downstairs. The part with his name on I dropped into a polythene bag. The other I chopped into pieces, mixed with some old dog food, and chucked in the bin.
Alice leapt around like a maniac when I put my coat on for the second time. Another walk? I could see her thinking.
“It’s your lucky day,” I said as I let her out the door, and thought, let’s hope it’s mine, too.
#
Finding the body, I knew, would be like finding a needle in a haystack. One dune looks much like another, and when you’ve got a few miles of the things it’s not easy to retrace your steps. An hour later I was beginning to panic. But suddenly Alice did her sniffing thing again, let out a whine, and took off over the sand.
“Good girl,” I said, when I found her sniffing around the body. I made her sit, then climbed to the top of the dune. Far off along the beach two people were walking a dog, and a fitness-freak in shorts was jogging along the tideline. Other than that the place seemed deserted. I waited a minute just to make sure, then returned to the body and took the bag from my pocket.
“This gives a whole new meaning to credit-card fraud,” I told Donna’s husband as I shook out the piece of plastic, and hoped, wherever he was, he would approve.
The card landed beneath some marram grass a few feet above his head, and I tapped it into the sand so it didn’t get blown away. Only a small corner was left showing but I knew the forensic team would find it. In the next few hours they would be sifting the entire area in their search for clues.
I glanced around to make sure no one had seen me. I was shaking like a leaf, and not only from cold. But the next minute I was smiling. A piece of Derek’s credit card found next to the body of his ladyfriend’s husband. Yes, that should make life pretty intolerable for him for the next couple of days.
I pulled out my mobile phone—I’d remembered to bring it this time—took a deep breath, and tapped out 999.
#
It seemed like an eternity before the police arrived. I waved from the top of a dune to show them where to come. It was just two at first, in uniform, but as soon as they saw the body they radioed for assistance.
The older officer took my name and address. “Do you often walk the dog here?” he asked.
“Most days,” I said, my teeth chattering. “It was the dog who found him. If she hadn’t made a fuss I would have passed straight by.”
“Did you see anyone else on the walk?” he wanted to know, and I mentioned the people on the beach. He scribbled it all down, then nodded at the body. “Ever seen him before?”
I hesitated. I hadn’t expected to be asked that so soon. “Actually, I think I have,” I said. “I think he once came to my house.”
“Do you know his name?”
I shook my head. “He just said he was Donna’s husband.”
“Donna . . .” He wrote the name carefully. “She a friend of yours?”
“Hardly,” I said. “She’s the woman who ran off with my husband.”
The officer stopped writing and met my eyes. “Does she have a surname?”
“Chant,” I said. “Donna Chant. Soon to be Donna Lester.”
“Thank you, Mrs. Lester,” he said, and went off to radio in the good news.
Finally I was allowed to go, but I knew it wasn’t over. A couple of hours later two plainclothes officers arrived at my house. I suppose I’d been expecting a Chief Inspector Barnaby, accompanied by his good-looking sergeant, so was somewhat disappointed when I opened the door. Detective Inspector Conlan was short and overweight, with a face like a retired boxer, and Detective Constable Thorpe had a serious problem with spots. But at least the inspector had kindly eyes.
“I understand you knew the deceased,” he said, making himself comfortable on the settee. “Can you tell me how you met?”
“Is it Donna’s husband?” I asked.
“We believe so.”
“Poor man,” I sighed. “He turned up here shortly after his wife ran off with my husband. He wanted my help in finding a way to get them back. But he ­ didn’t stay long. I don’t think I gave the answer he was looking for.”
“You didn’t want your husband back?”
I shook my head. “His wife wasn’t the first by a long way.”
“I see.” He glanced at his constable, who was writing it all down. “And how did Mr. Chant seem?”
“Devastated. Like the bottom had fallen out of his world.”
“Angry?”
“Not then. I think he was still in shock.”
“And have you any idea why he was in the dunes?”
I shook my head. “I’ve been asking myself that ever since I found him.”
“Might he have been coming to see you?”
“Not from that direction.”
“Maybe he came, found you out, and went for a walk,” he suggested.
“It’s possible, I suppose. . . . It rather depends when he died.”
“We think during the night.”
“In which case, no. I was here from about four o’clock onwards. Besides, Alice always barks if someone comes to the door.”
“I noticed.” Inspector Conlan smiled. “So where are your husband and Mrs. Chant living?”
“London, I think.” I saw him raise his brows. “Our separation wasn’t exactly amicable, Inspector, and all correspondence is done through solicitors.” I turned to DC Thorpe. “Mine is John Wardle at Wardle and Stott. I’m sure he can give you an address.”
“And when did you last see your husband?” Conlan asked.
“Strangely enough, this morning. We’d been for a walk on the dunes—me and Alice, that is—and when I came back he was waiting outside. Or should I say they—there was someone else in the car, I assume Donna. But he was the only one I spoke to. It was quite a shock, seeing him again.”
“You hadn’t seen him for a while?”
“Not since the restraining order.”
The detectives exchanged glances. “Do I take it from that that your husband was violent, Mrs. Lester?”
I hesitated. It was beginning to dawn on me what a black picture I was painting. But nothing I was telling them wasn’t true.
“Not violent,” I said. “Though he could be abusive. One night he kicked the door in and—well,  it’s better to be safe than sorry.”
“Indeed. So did he say why he was calling?”
“To collect some things. I, er, told him I’d taken them to the charity shop.”
“How did he react to that?”
I gave a sarcastic laugh. “Not well. He told me I ought to start packing.”
“I’m sorry?”
I explained about the agreement and Derek’s threat of a court case to force a sale. “That’s why I went for another walk, Inspector. I don’t usually have two long walks in a day, but his visit upset me. It’s the best thing I know to calm me down.”
“Except this time you found a body.”
I nodded. “Quite a coincidence, really, considering who it was.”
“Indeed,” he said again.
“I don’t suppose your husband mentioned if he’d seen Edward Chant?” Thorpe suddenly asked.
“Edward?” So that was his name. “No, he didn’t.”
“Very well, Mrs. Lester, I think that’s all for now.” Conlan climbed to his feet. “Many thanks for your help.”
“Are you treating it as suicide?” I asked, as I showed them out.
“Why d’you ask that?”
“I noticed the empty whisky bottle. And I know what state he was in after Donna left.”
Conlan smiled. “I dare say we’ll know on Monday after the postmortem. Oh, one last thing . . . Assuming your husband’s still in the area, any idea where he might be staying?”
“None,” I said. “Although . . . It’s just a hunch, but you could try the Sandybanks Motel.”
“Old stomping ground?”
“Something like that,” I said, and closed the door. 
#
That evening I was on tenterhooks. There was nothing on television to distract me, not even an old rerun of Morse, though I doubt I’d have been able to concentrate even if there had been. I was too concerned with how things were progressing. Had the crime team found the credit card? Had the police found my husband? Might they even now be giving him the third degree?
I hoped so. Let him sweat for a bit, as they say. I knew it wouldn’t be for long, he was bound to have an alibi, Donna would vouch for him if no one else. Besides, for all I knew he was in London the night before, popping up all over the place on CCTV, though it might take awhile to trawl through the footage.
I listened to the late-night local news but it told me nothing I didn’t know, only that a man’s body had been found in the dunes, cause of death unknown. They gave the same account next morning, and it wasn’t until lunchtime that they revealed his name. Edward Chant, I discovered, had been thirty-six and a surveyor for the local council.
I half expected the police to get in touch again, or even Derek, and jumped every time the telephone rang. But the only calls were from reporters wanting to ask about the body, and eventually I took the phone off the hook and settled in front of the TV.
Last thing before bed I took out the rubbish, thanking my lucky stars it would be collected next day. Somewhere amongst it was the other half of the credit card, and I would feel a whole lot happier when it had been carted away.
#
First thing on Monday I called my solicitor to tell him about Derek’s threat. But he already knew. A letter had arrived that morning from the new firm in London.
“Can he really force a sale?” I asked.
“They’re a high-powered bunch,” John Wardle conceded. “Reckon he might have to sell to pay their fees.” He laughed at his own joke, though I didn’t find it funny. “Anyway, leave it with me. We won’t give up without a fight.”
Give up? I was beginning to see what Derek meant about local solicitors.
“Incidentally,” he added, “I had a visit from the police. They were asking about your agreement. You do know it was Mrs. Chant’s husband who was found in the dunes?”
“I should do,” I said. “I found the body.”
“Really? Oh dear, oh dear. You don’t think there’s anything suspicious, do you?”
“Probably just routine,” I said, and put down the phone.
#
I waited until after lunch to take Alice for her walk (up on the cliff, well away from the dunes), and hadn’t long been back when the detectives returned.
“You were right about the Sandybanks Motel,” Inspector Conlan said, when we were seated around the table. “Your husband and Mrs. Chant booked in Friday evening.”
“They did?” So they hadn’t been in London.
“We’ve also found Edward Chant’s car. It was in the motel car park.”
That made me sit up. “He must have known they were coming,” I said. “I suppose he went there to plead with Donna to come back. I take it she refused?”
Conlan nodded.
“Well, at least it explains why he chose the dunes.”
“To take his own life, you mean?” He pursed his lips. “That’s assuming it was suicide. Frankly I’m not convinced.”
“But the postmortem . . . ”
“Confirmed the victim had a lot of alcohol in his bloodstream. But also benzodiazepine—that’s antidepressant to you and me. Taken together, enough to make him pass out.”
“Sounds like he wanted to make sure,” I said, but he made no comment.
“Did you know the Chant house was still in joint names?” Constable Thorpe asked suddenly.
I shook my head. “Though it doesn’t surprise me.”
“Or that his wife was still his sole beneficiary?”
“He was obviously still hoping to get her back.”
“And what if I told you Edward Chant had recently inherited close on a million pounds?”
I almost choked. “A million? When?”
“A few weeks ago.”
I spun round to Conlan. “Did his wife know?”
“Oh, she knew all right!” He glanced towards the window as a refuse truck pulled up outside. “Chant would have been on the phone the minute he heard, dangling it like a carrot. Trouble is, I think Donna wanted to have her cake and eat it. His money, your husband.”
“I’m not sure what you mean . . . ?”
“I mean, Mrs. Lester, that we’re treating the death as suspicious. And your husband is helping us with our enquiries.”
Something cold ran down my spine. The implications were obvious. Donna stood to inherit, she and Derek arrive on the scene, Chant winds up dead—the perfect motive. And inadvertently I had provided the evidence to make it stick. But surely I couldn’t be married to a murderer?
Suddenly I remembered Derek’s face when he’d come to the house. The unexplained anger, the shadows under his eyes . . .
My shock must have shown because next minute Conlan was sending Thorpe to fetch a glass of water. “I’m very sorry, Mrs. Lester,” I heard him say.
“But it must have been suicide,” I said. “My husband couldn’t carry a body that far into the dunes.”
“He could if he had help.” Conlan shot another look at the window as the truck began to guzzle the contents of my wheely-bin.
“Have you spoken to him?” I asked quickly.
He nodded. “He claims they came down to collect some things, from here and from Chant’s place, and Chant turned up later at the motel, half drunk, begging her to come back. When she refused he stormed out, and that was the last they saw of him.”
“So what makes you think he’s lying?”
He gave an odd little smile. “The money, Mrs. Lester. Donna Chant doesn’t seem the sort of woman to turn her back on a million quid. No, if you ask me, collecting stuff was just a cover. I think Donna led Chant to believe she was here on her own and was considering a reconciliation, and arranged to meet him later at the motel. Your husband stays out of the way, they get all cosy, and somewhere along the line she spikes his drink. When he’s unconscious . . . well, I’m sure you can imagine the rest.”
“But surely someone would have seen them?”
“At the motel?” Conlan shook his head. “Guy was in the back watching television, only comes out if you ring. And the only surveillance cameras are in the car park and they were vandalised a week ago.” He paused. “Besides, we have evidence that puts your husband at the scene of the crime. Part of his credit card was found near the body, covered in his fingerprints. So unless you can think how else it might have got there . . . ”
I closed my eyes. It was now or never. Either I kept quiet and let Derek be charged with murder, or I owned up, risked being convicted myself, and watched him and Donna swan off with a million pounds.
Outside, a man shouted and banged the side of the truck and slowly it began to move away.
“Well, Mrs. Lester?”
I took a deep breath. “I wish I could, Inspector,” I said, as Derek’s one hope of reprieve was carted off to the local landfill. “But I really can’t imagine.”
At that moment Conlan’s mobile rang. “Excuse me,” he said, and went briefly into the hall. He came back looking smug and sat down opposite me.
“So you really don’t know how the credit card got there,” he said, leaning forward across the table.
I frowned. “How could I?”
“Your husband suggested you might have put it there.”
“Me?” I laughed. “How on earth would I get his credit card?”
“It was an old one, ran out some time ago. While he was still living here.”
“Then I assure you it would have long gone,” I said. “Along with everything else. Though you’re welcome to look around . . . ” I went to stand up.
“I don’t think that will be necessary, Mrs. Lester.” Conlan smiled. He turned to Thorpe. “That was HQ. It seems our Mrs. Chant wants to make a deal.”
“Deal?” I asked, though I knew full well what he meant.
“It means she’s willing to spill the beans in the hope of a more lenient sentence. It’s as good as a confession.” He climbed to his feet. “I’m very sorry, Mrs. Lester. I know what a shock this must be.”
You don’t know half, I thought, as I followed them into the hall.
At the front door Conlan paused. “It’s funny,” he said, “I doubt your husband even knew that card was in his pocket. But that’s often how it goes. One little mistake, one moment of carelessness . . . Unlucky for him, of course. Without that they might have got away with it.” He stepped outside, glanced up at the house. “Still, at least you don’t need to worry about this place anymore. I don’t think your husband will be in a position to force a sale for quite a long time.”
“There is that, I suppose,” I said, and closed the door before they could see me smiling.