The third book in the Sal Kilkenny series, 1998
It never rains but it pours. Tell me about it. Everything had been quiet for weeks. So quiet I’d been reduced to serving injunctions and other papers for a solicitor – Rebecca Henderson of Platt, Henderson & Cockfoot. Yes, Cockfoot. Not exactly a drought of work but no more than a drizzle. Certainly not enough to top up the reservoirs of cash that I needed to keep myself and my daughter Maddie.
I hate delivering injunctions. It’s a thankless task. The people you’re finding don’t want to be found. And they definitely don’t want to receive the papers. I usually scarper as soon as they’ve got hold of the documents, before realisation dawns, but some of them cotton on quick and are all for shooting the messenger.
I’m a fully paid-up coward when it comes to physical or even verbal aggression. Not only does it hurt like hell and do nasty things to your body, but it messes up your soul too. Scars on the inside as well as the outside. I’ve had my share of assaults and I’ll do anything to reduce the risks of it happening again.
But despite my best intentions I’ve never been able to stick with regular self-defence classes. Life interrupts too often. My fallback position is to practise three simple moves whenever I remember – the knee to the balls, the fingers in the eyeballs, and the one to use when they’ve got you from behind: elbow in the ribs at the same time as you stamp hard on their feet. The follow-up to all of these is to run like mad.
Sometimes I take Digger, the house dog, with me for show. He’s the sort of dog who would lie patiently waiting for me while I was being ripped limb from limb, but I bank on the fact that you can’t tell that by looking. I have toyed with the idea of getting him one of those studded collars to beef up his image but I couldn’t do it. I mean, I wouldn’t be seen dead with a dog dressed like that. Undercover’s all very well but I’ve got to draw the line somewhere.
The night that the monsoon began, so to speak, Digger and I were after Mr Kearsal in Belle Vue. There’s not much of the old Belle Vue left, what with the East Manchester redevelopment. The dog track’s still there – people are still going to the dogs in Manchester – but as far as housing goes there’s just fragments left here and there, cut off from everything by the new wider roads and the barren industrial estates. Bleak places, shops and pubs long gone, they reek of neglect and isolation. Maybe they too are due for demolition, to be replaced by yet more superstores and petrol stations.
Number 53 was in the middle of the redbrick terrace. I parked a little way past it, checked I’d got the right envelope and reined in Digger. I left the car door open for a fast getaway.
The downstairs window was partly boarded up with wood on which someone had scrawled
I knocked on the door. There was no answer. It was a muggy June evening, the sky a sullen blank holding onto its rain. I could hear the television from a neighbouring house and a child crying. I knocked again. Where was he? Evenings and early mornings were usually the best time to catch people in, though if they were unemployed they weren’t best pleased to be woken up early by someone at the door. It was nearly seven; I’d timed it so if Mr Kearsal had any plans for going out that night, I’d be likely to get him before he left. I knocked again.
The door of the adjoining house opened and a woman stepped out. She’d short grey hair and glasses and wore a pinafore and mules straight out of the 1950s.
‘Can I help, love?’
‘I’m looking for Mr Kearsal,’ I explained.
She shook her head. ‘Not seen him about. Mind you, I don’t- these days. Not since, let’s think, last week sometime. You from the social work?’
‘No.’ I didn’t want to tell her what I was doing there.
‘Only they said they’d send someone, you see,’ she pressed on, ‘Victim Support or something, after the burglary. Shook him up, that did. I used to take him a bit of dinner now and then, if Harry and I were having a hot pot and that, or a nice bit of chicken – but he doesn’t like to answer the door now. I mean, the stories you hear.’
I nodded, wondering where we were headed and whether to interrupt.
‘Now he sometimes goes to his sister’s in Ashton but he usually tells me, and he knows if he needs anything he can just bang on the wall – but he’s not been himself since. It’s aged him. You can see it. They took his wallet and then they duffed him up. Now what did they have to do that for?’
I murmured in sympathy.
‘I could try calling for you if you like,’ she offered. ‘He might be in there but not wanting to open the door.’
‘Who shall I say?’
‘He doesn’t know me.’ I began to feel uncomfortable. If this good neighbour knew I was serving debt-collection papers on him she wouldn’t be so keen to help. ‘I’ve some important papers for him.’
She nodded. She pushed the letter box back and put her mouth to the gap then stepped sharply back and turned away as if she’d been bitten.
‘Are you all right?’
She shook her head emphatically, her eyes wild.
I shoved the papers in my pocket and dropped Digger’s lead. I moved towards the door and pushed the metal flap up. The stench made me recoil as quickly as she had. As a child I’d once kept a bucketful of dead crabs in the shed, unknown to my parents. After a week they smelt like this.
I pulled my sweatshirt up to cover my nose and mouth and opening the flap again, peered in. I couldn’t see anything but the dismal hallway. But when I turned my ear to the door and listened I heard the buzzing and humming of flies and, as I realised what they were doing there, my stomach finally rebelled and I turned to the road and threw up.
We rang the police from Mrs Grady’s. I waited with her. I’d no desire to see what was left of Mr Kearsal, though I was curious about the manner of his death. It was hours before I could finally go, after countless cups of tea and Hob-Nobs.
The police arrived with vans and fancy tape and ambulances and men in suits. One of the suits came and talked to us, establishing who we were and our relationship to the deceased before noting the facts of our gruesome discovery. Mrs Grady was out in the kitchen busy making fresh tea when I was asked my name and the nature of my business in the area. I was glad she didn’t have to learn that I was trying to serve papers on Mr Kearsal.
Outside, what neighbours there were had formed a little audience and Mrs Grady filled them in. The press arrived en masse from all the local free papers, plus the Manchester Evening News, the local television and radio. I explained quickly to Mrs Grady that I didn’t want to be interviewed or photographed. She looked at me as if I’d gone barmy but agreed and dutifully posed with another neighbour next to the police cordon.
One of the policemen made a brief statement to the effect that Mr Kearsal had been found hanging, and that at this stage there was no suspicion of foul play. A journalist asked if there’d been a note. Yes, a note had been recovered from the scene.
At long last I got Digger and myself into the car and home. I wondered on the way what the score was with Platt & Co. if I’d failed to serve the paper because the intended recipient was dead. Surely they’d pay me? Flipping heck, I deserved overtime and a bonus, given how long it had taken.
At home I had a shower to try and wash it all away. The sickly smell wouldn’t go. I sprinkled lavender and rose oils round my room to try and disguise it, but I felt dirty still. I’d never known Mr Kearsal, never met him, but the fact that he had taken his own life was a chastening thought. And it was disturbing to think of him hanging there day after day, alone and unmourned.
I’d recently acquired a new answerphone which would let me ring it up and access my messages. This saved me having to traipse into the office just to check the machine. It’s not that the office is far, it’s only round the corner from the house, but some days I don’t need to go in there at all. I called my new machine and it played me a message from Rebecca Henderson. She had a new job for me. How was I getting on with the last one?
I rang and got her, just as she was about to leave for court. I explained quickly about finding Mr Kearsal’s corpse and mentioned how long I’d had to stay over in Belle Vue. I didn’t have the gall to ask if I’d get paid – I was feeling guilty in an obscure sort of way. Perhaps if I hadn’t tried to deliver the papers I wouldn’t have stumbled on a suicide victim. If I’m not there it hasn’t happened. Illogical yes, but sincerely felt.
Thankfully Rebecca is always direct; she comes out with what the rest of us are busy summoning up courage to mention. ‘Sal, you poor thing, how awful. Look, we’ll pay you for a day then. Send back the papers. Now, about th ...